First, to Sara, since I cannot physically respond to anonymous reviews... "Time to Be Your 21" always had the "way too young" line. Even when she was writing it about Shay... As in, when Jude was writing it, she was too young to be feeling that way, so intensely and all that. So, as in "you're way too young". So Jude changed the song around when she heard the 21 line and that whole mess with Tommy happened, but that line was originally there.

Also, to JennyWooWoo... See, the word really sounded most like "come" to be quite honest, but that didn't really make too much sense either. So I picked "thumb" since they didn't have the lyrics and it made the most sense, and, well, I do wanna keep this T-rating. No, it most certainly would not. :) Actually, I'm hardly done with the story, but whatever. If I was done, it'd say completed. I mean, it has some problems, I guess, but less than most, and less than the show itself. Or so I like to think. ;) It's really hard to keep continuity in something so large. Like, the Jude throwing up before a performance is actually canon 'cause she did that in the first episode. But if I had to explain that seeming contradiction... Jude's nervous in the time before going up on stage. Once she's there, she's totally into it; it's what she was born to do. So it's the anticipation and her anxiousness before performing that's really making her nervous, since she has time to think about it before performing.

As for the drunkenness, with that I was really trying to show how drunkenness ebbs and flows. Like, okay, sometimes it hits a person right away, and they're goofy for a while, and then they sober up pretty quick. And, other times, it hits them a while later, and then like, they don't remember anything. So I wouldn't say largely that they're buzzed, really, excepting around Christmas time when they're all drinking champagne. 'Cause in the story, they're generally on the way to being drunk, on the way to wasted, more that sort of thing... Also, Tommy (and, for that matter, Patsy) particularly is a bit of a heavy drinker, and so he and Travis have fairly high tolerances. Plus characters, like, they can have been drinking before Jude got there, so you don't really know how many drinks they've actually had or about the alcohol content of those drinks. You just know how many drinks they've had in Jude's presence or while she was watching. And Jude herself... well, there are other factors, like her degree of sleepiness (which can further enhance a drunken state or at least simulate inebriation), the type of alcohol consumed, and her emotional state and that sort of thing... that also influence how she comes off. Alcohol affects different people different ways, so it's difficult to standardize a reaction. Also, remember that alcohol affects perception and memory, particularly depth perception.

There's a lot of altered states of mind in this story. *shrugs* Sleep deprivation, intoxication, mentions of past drug use, emotional duress, insanity, frustration, psychosis... And, I do write most of these chapters late at night, so my mind occasionally slips and functions in its own way to overlook some of these things 'cause sometimes I do look at the bigger picture, I guess, or prioritize certain things so they can account for the characters' state of mind, amplify drama and confusion, get the emotions across, and accomplish what I want to do with the plot. 'Cause there's a lot of things (word choice, grammar, themes and recurring motifs, syntax, where the plot's going, tone and mood, how it needs to be written, visualization, action vs. dialogue, personal goals for the chapter, and the overall direction you want to take the story in, and the statement and feelings you want people to gather from it) you have to think about as a writer when it goes from your head, through your hands, down to the page you're reading it on, and some of them fall by the wayside, depending.

Anyway, this one's a long one. I didn't think it'd be quite this long. Oopsies. Also, some of this dialogue may seem familiar to you, and that is probably 'cause it is since obviously the show has an episode with the exact same plot and obviously I borrowed from it, but, of course, I had to make a few... adaptations... because my Jude is in an entirely different position than that whiny Third Season melodrama queen. One being that she's not eighteen yet and has more of a reason to act like a kid about it, but also because Tommy did completely different things to them and so on, and the studio dynamics/situations are also totally different. Like with Darius, for instance, if he even shows up in here (incidentally, Darius was originally supposed to show up to cause a bit of trouble and confusion. You'll probably see where it would've gone, but by that point it was taking up too much time, and then, bam, Travis reared his ugly head in and demanded to be included). Anyways, I hope you enjoy, and sorry 'bout the wait.

Also, I do not own the Backstreet Boys or their songs "Just Want You to Know", "Everybody", "I Want It That Way", and all that... But the Backstreet Boys really did do a version of "There's Us." Lol, and it was a Walmart exclusive. I also do not own any major brands, songs, or television shows that are mentioned in this chapter. Nor do I own Instant Star or the characters contained within. I do, however, own Travis, and I think we can all agree that that most certainly is something. ;)

So, the last time you saw me, I'd just inadvertently gotten myself into an awkward situation. What else is new? Chaz had been kind of in love with me, I'd wound up getting in a pointless fight with Tommy over it, and then wound up declaring that I was a virgin to all the paparazzi and then almost jumped Travis, who then proceeded to tell me twice that, and I quote, he "was falling in love" with me. You would think that, from that point, it could only get less awkward, and that things would be getting better, right? WRONG. It's my life, so of course it can't be that simple.

Needless to say, I've been avoiding Travis like the plague because, well, what the hell exactly can I say to that? I'm sorry, but I'm still in love with your brother? Like, honestly, I don't even think I need to say that, because it's pretty damn obvious. I mean, really, what did he expect me to say or do? I'm only seventeen here. Honestly, I've just got so much going on in my head, so many different people and events in my life, that I'm really confused and... I have a lot of feelings, okay? Doesn't mean I have to sort through 'em all, and figuring out how I feel about Travis is an endeavor I am certainly not up to at this particular juncture in my life. I mean, God, I'm still dealing with how I KNOW I feel about his brother here. And I'm having enough trouble with that. I don't want to get into knowing things I don't know.

I've even gone back to skipping, like, half of his classes. It's just awkward, so now any time he calls or tries to get me to stay after class, I just grab anyone I can and jet, practically throwing said person down as a human shield between us. I do not want to talk about "feelings" with Travis. No thank you. I know it's not like me to run from my problems... but what else can I do? Why do I have to deal with so many things, you know? I mean, I'm only seventeen, and all of this... it's a lot to put on one girl, okay? Things with Tommy have, unbelievably, deteriorated even further, but more on that later.

This lovely morning, I was awakened by my father knocking on the door and telling me that E.J. and a large group of strange individuals were at my front door. I knew I had to go to the studio, that I had a session with Tommy, but I'd been loathe to get out of bed and figured that Tom likely wouldn't even show for the session, so why should I bother to be there early, on time, or, much less, at all? Nonetheless, this had me vaguely worried and intrigued, so I wiped some of the crusties from my eyes and headed downstairs. Sure enough, there was E.J. with a bunch of strange people wearing black and gray behind her. I gave her a quizzical look, leaning on the doorframe. "Hey, E.J... what's up?" I asked warily, glancing at the strangers pointedly.

E.J. frowned at my attire but affected a bright smile a moment later. Sometimes I envied her ability to be so artificial and perky at this time in the morning. She was a flight attendant once, don't you know. "Hey Jude, you ready to share your utter fabulousness with the world?" she exclaimed cheerily. I scowled at the familiar yet annoying greeting and threw her an odd look.

"What are you talking about?" I asked skeptically, becoming increasingly more suspicious as I got a better look at the curious individuals surrounding her, who seemed to potentially be some sort of film crew. A sort of panicky feeling fluttered up in me. I no longer associated cameras with anything pleasant, and I was afraid she'd set up some sort of interview for me to fix the um... virginity fiasco/scandal I'd caused last week. E.J. had, incidentally, been mostly thrilled about that, since it had brought me a lot of (unwanted) publicity and managed to cause somewhat of a mild scandal that was all over the news for five days. It was a slow news week, you see. Georgia, however, was not so pleased, especially since my rift with Tommy had been publicly exposed and had brought her and the label under undue scrutiny.

My parents, while very happy to know I was still a virgin and, I suppose, that I wanted better things for myself (and, probably, on some level, unbelieving that I hadn't slept with Tommy), were outraged at the paparazzi and the news channels for making such a big deal out of something so private and, ultimately, something that is legally none of their business. "A Day in the Life with Jude Harrison, remember? They're only following you around all day," E.J. explained casually, peppily, as if this was common knowledge. A Day in the Life is a popular MTV reality TV show that follows a celebrity around for a day and sees what they do.

It was the first I'd heard of my participation in the show, however, so I was mildly alarmed and annoyed. I was also extremely conscious of the fact that I looked wretched and ridiculous in my pajamas, purple flannel pajama bottoms and one of my dad's old concert t-shirts. "What? No one told me about that!" I exclaimed loudly, vaguely in disbelief. I was just expecting a quiet, probably awkward Saturday at the studio. I was not prepared for being televised, much less playing a role for a reality TV crew. Because nothing about reality TV is actually real. It's just laziness on the part of studios because screenwriters cost more and require all kinds of other more complicated things.

E.J. looked embarrassed, glancing around at the people behind her. She laughed nervously. "Um, they didn't? What?" she gasped, feigning surprise. Her voice was too high, and she didn't sound even half as angry as a surprise like that would've usually made her, so I knew she was mixed up in it and that she'd undoubtedly known and hadn't told me about it for whatever reason. Probably so my reactions would be more genuine and I wouldn't have time to prepare or say no. She started mumbling things, too, but I was ignoring her.

A tall man with a camera slung over his shoulder stepped forward, clearing his throat and glancing between me and E.J. "Excuse me, does that mean you don't wanna do it? 'Cause we can't do it without the artist's consent," he reminded her cautiously, fingers twitching on his camera to slip the cover back on it.

E.J. paled and shook her head frantically, shooting me a rather desperate panicked glance before turning back to him and forcing a smile. "We're just going to, um, sort this little misunderstanding out right now... Feel free to get some shots of the exterior," she said authoritatively, grabbing my arm tight and leading me away a little, backing me up further into my living room. She was practically breathing down my neck. Her whole body was tense and wound up, her grip so hard it would undoubtedly leave bruises. Tough as nails and sharp as knives, this one. "C'mon, Jude, please? The label could really use this kind of publicity," she pleaded in a voice that was strangely desperate. I sensed that this probably had something to do with Darius' plan to buy the label, and that this plea was to ensure her own career and survival just as well as my own.

I sighed. Truthfully, I was kind of pissed at her for lying to me and deliberately concealing this from me. Time to prepare would've been nice. But, in the larger scope of things, I'd do anything for the label, Georgia, and E.J. They're like aunts to me, and I certainly don't want Darius to take over the label any more than they do and have him control yet another facet of my life. This independence I've been able to maintain is tenuous at best and largely a result of luck rather than my own efforts. "E.J., I really don't mind doing things. It's mostly the fact that no one asked me. And I think you kept this from me on purpose. I think you deliberately hid it from me so I'd be genuinely surprised when they showed up," I said accusingly, hoping I'd managed to convey my loyalty and acquiescence while simultaneously enumerating my complaints and suspicions.

She looked vaguely offended by my undoubtedly correct assertion, face frozen in a gasp. "I did not-" she began, just a moment too late and not quite indignantly enough.

"Don't even bother trying to deny it, E.J.," I interrupted, mildly annoyed, placing my free hand on my hip and throwing her a look that said I knew better. She knew I wasn't stupid, after all.

"Okay, you caught me." E.J. sighed and conceded, though she hated to do it. It's embarrassing for someone of her caliber and lying ability to be caught in a lie by one as young and supposedly trusting as me. Probably made her feel like she was losing her touch. But, really, I'm not your normal seventeen-year-old, and, predictably, thanks to the men in my life, I find it rather hard to trust anyone. "So maybe I didn't want to burden you with-"

I interrupted again, seeing her emotional and caring excuse for the fraud it was. Yes, E.J. cared about me, but in a distant, quiet sort of way, like a benevolent aunt. But not like Georgia did. Not enough to try and shield me from something like this. She had her motives, all right, but they had nothing to do with my feelings or saving me trouble. "Save it, E.J. What's the real reason?" I cut in. A year, and I already know her well enough to see through her business lies. It's 'cause she went on tour with me. I know all her tricks.

E.J. frowned. "Well, you've kind of been walking around in a funk lately, off in your own world. Sad and crap." She stated this as if being a moody teenager was a crime. Though, to be fair, I suppose she doesn't know about my break-up with Tommy, and thank God she doesn't. But, like, obviously she knows that whether Tommy and I are getting along has a big effect on the studio dynamic, everyone in it, and me and Tommy's moods. Her lips turned down further, as she crossed an arm over her chest. "And, frankly, it's depressing. So maybe I took matters into my own hands, but people are curious about your life, and MTV jumpedto do it!" she exclaimed seriously, getting a bit caught up in the idea.

I threw her a deservedly dirty look and shook myself free of her grip, glancing around to see if the cameras had followed. They hadn't. "All the more reason for you not to set this up in the first place! It's pretty damn hard for me to be pretty little happy-go-lucky lala popstar Jude here!" I shouted, throwing my hands up in the air. Realizing the large mike I'd seen might be able to pick up my outburst, I lowered my voice and moved closer to E.J. "And, besides, you know the way things are in the studio lately... with me and Tommy. He's not even speaking to me. Hasn't in days. Kwest has to play messenger... Do you really want people to see that kind of studio environment? It won't exactly raise G. Major's stocks," I muttered conspiratorially, almost threateningly. I didn't mean it that way, though. It was actually the truth.

Now, I know you thought it was bad last week, when Tommy and I weren't really speaking. This, however, is different and worse. Not that I particularly feel that way about it entirely. Basically, what happened is that Tom and I had a kind of momentary truce, since I guess he felt sorry for me after I humiliated myself on national TV by talking about my virginity. Or maybe he was trying to prove a point to himself. Whatever, point is I dunno, but I'd come to accept it anyways. So we worked awkwardly on a couple of songs together, like really awkwardly and with very crappy results because of that whole break-up pink elephant we weren't talking about and all those trust issues with each other and ourselves. One such song was "There's Us," a song which I'd written the bulk of myself in some of the interim after the break-up.

And, like, whatever, it wasn't a particularly intense or good song, but like, I felt like I was coming to a better point in the process, like despite the thing with Travis, I was getting somewhere in my getting over Tom. Ha ha ha. Silly me, always just a little too hopeful. Anyway, so on Tuesday Tom and I had polished it up a bit and recorded the basics. Tom hadn't contributed much and even refused songwriting credits, which I thought odd, since he could've made some profits off of the royalties, I suppose. But whatever, I wasn't going to question it. So, anyway, we recorded it really quickly on Wednesday, and Tom sent me off to go feed myself while he did his thing, since it was about dinnertime anyway, and he figured my family would be less worried if I showed up for dinner, even if I would've rather had Subway.

I came back early because it turned out that none of my family was home to eat with, so it was just me and Ruby, and since neither of us can really cook, we went out to Subway anyways. And I hurried back to the studio because I figured Tom would need me for a couple extra vocals and just wanted to get them out of the way as soon as possible so I could do something fun and, you know, not awkwardly hang around my ex-boyfriend. So, naturally, I head back to the studio, like usual, and guess what I walk in on?

Tommy and Angie up against the soundboard, in flagrante delicto. In the middle of the act, sexing it up. I would describe, only it happens to be rather unpleasantly burned into my memory as it is and the thought makes me rather ill. I mean, fortunately they had most of their clothes firmly in place so I wasn't really seeing much, but it was still disgusting, not to mention stupid and damn hypocritical! I stared for, admittedly, way too long, both transfixed and horrified by the sight of them having sex. My ex-boyfriend, the love of my life, having sex with the love of his life. That thought was what made it really hurt. The fact that he was screwing her, much less in my domain, was even more of an insult. That was the knife in my side, honestly speaking, because it was rubbing salt in the wound, a reminder of things I hadn't been able to do with Tommy and on my home turf, the place where I'd fallen for him and spent so much time with him, at that! And the longer I watched them, the more furious I became, and a plan formed itself in my head.

Admittedly, a passive-aggressive one, but I would've looked quite stupid barging in or whatever. And it would just've raised needless questions, and I didn't need to get myself into more of a fix here. So I turned on my heel, silently shut the door, and headed off to my sanctuary, i.e. the Crapper. That did not, however, prevent me from borrowing Tom's laptop. I typed in a few search terms and found the website of the record label I was looking for, and on that website, I found a number to call. I picked up my phone and dialed the number, even though it was long distance, and waited on hold a while. "Hi, this is Jude Harrison from G. Major Records, and I'm a songwriter and I think I have a song that one of your acts would like. Who would I need to talk to about that?"

After telling the receptionist that the act I wanted to get in touch with was the Backstreet Boys, she said I sounded like a teenager and didn't believe that I was a songwriter and asked for my credentials. I told her rather sternly that I wanted to do things directly and repeated that I was signed to G. Major Records and added that I had a platinum debut album and added, a touch spitefully, that the Backstreet Boys would know who I was. This was a bit of a bluff, but I figured they'd know if Justin Timberlake knew who I was. She didn't believe me but transferred me to A&R. I told them it was pointless to speak with them, since I was in the music business and knew that nowadays all they really did was scout new talent, rather than work out relationships between singers and songwriters like they used to, and then I told them who I was and informed them to look me up on Google if they didn't already know who I was. Then they embarrassingly asked me to sing over the phone to them, so I sang "24 Hours" to prove my identity and answered a few annoying questions before they gave me the number of the Backstreet Boys' manager or producer.

This whole process took, like, two hours, but it was all worth it because I got the Backstreet Boys on the line. They actually did know who I was and were both proud and surprised to hear from me, since they knew I was their rival's protégée. I told them that I had a song I thought they might like that was going on my next album and said how fond I was of them and how awesome it was that they were doing a new album. They were happy and grateful and asked me if the song was clean of Tommy's influence. I hesitated for just a minute before telling them yes. I told them it would mean a lot to me if they considered my song and got a little emotional talking about what their music meant to me. I guess this surprised them because, well, I don't seem like the type of girl to look for reassurance in pop music. But Tommy's taught me different, you know, and Backstreet Boys' songs are a lot deeper than you think they are.

I told them that a lot of their songs had gotten me through a tough time, especially "Just Want You to Know," and I think they really liked to hear that. I mean, all artists do, right? Me included. Then they asked me to sing the song for them, which I did gladly, putting them on speakerphone and fetching my guitar. Turns out they really liked the song and thought it would go really well with their next album, so I asked for their email and said I'd send them the demo version, lyrics, and my backing vocals. Just as I'd done this and was concluding my conversation with them, Tommy of course came in, looking for me, and I lied to him like you wouldn't believe. I mean, yeah, ultimately I knew he'd find out, but I wanted it to be later.

He came to me pissed the next day, literally red with fury. And I knew he knew. Didn't particularly care, though. I mean, it wasn't like our working relationship was really solid enough to be something valuable, let alone something effective. What it was was limping along and barely functioning, so the loss of even this little truce wasn't going to break me up. The previous evening had been eerily harmonious and peaceful, really, the calm before the storm. Something was bound to come and disrupt it. In my case, double-dealing with the Backstreet Boys. Eh, so it goes. "You gave the song we w-" he barked.

I didn't let him finish but corrected him. "I wrote it, Tom. You barely contributed at all. Remember? "Don't even put my name on this one, Harrison?"" I quoted pointedly, emphasizing the fact that he had no reason to be mad. At least, legally. It was his choice to deny credit. And, really, who'll believe Tom? Besides, the guys like it, and they'll have the song, and Tommy gets nothing from it. Win-win.

Tom was seething, tense and almost shaking with rage. "You gave a song that you wrote about me, about us, about our relationship-" he continued, near the point of launching a full-on tirade against me speaking to the Backstreet Boys. I was trying to decide whether it was the subject, how personal it was, or the fact that I'd given it to the Backstreet Boys that bothered him the most.

I stiffened and once again interrupted, this time not without a trace of bitterness, "Excuse me, Tom, but what relationship are you speaking of? We're barely on speaking terms, and that's only for work reasons, which you've made as clear as shattered glass, remember?" Our tenuous truce had been exclusively for work-related business, so that things would go smoother in the studio. Between us, things were still as personally awkward as ever, but we were learning to dissociate the two relationships, slowly.

This argument was, however, putting a bit of a wrench in that.

Tom flinched a little at the harshness of my words, a surprising display of some emotion I didn't want to consider. "Not the point, Harrison. You gave a song that you wrote about me, a song that, might I add, is going to be on your next album, to the freaking Backsteet Boys for their new album with your well-wishes, support, and love!" He growled moodily, disgusted, looking for all the world like he was intending to throw something in the air. Fortunately there was nothing within reach that wasn't bolted down or attached to something. That was actually a direct quote, too, which meant he'd spoken to someone. They probably called to check if the song was Tommy-free. Which, according to the people I filed the song with, it is. Legal and everything.

I shrugged nonchalantly, as if this was just something I'd done for fun, not to deliberately piss him off. "I don't really see the problem here, Producer Man. It's not like you have any claim over the song, and we all know that one's not headed for the radio... Or is this about the personal stuff? Because, I mean, you, of all people, should know of my fondness for boy bands and their relics," I replied with a studied casualness, watching him carefully for a reaction, knowing such a response would piss him off further. I was debating whether he'd explode or scold. One of which was obviously lamer and more unsatisfying than the other, but that response was also much less likely to lead to a screaming match of horrid insults.

"Jude..." He said sharply, in a warning tone. His voice was saying "don't go there." His eyes were similarly, predictably forbidding, and flashed at the mere mention of his (our) past. I rolled my eyes at him. So predictable, Tom. I was rather disappointed at the lack of intensity, to tell you the truth. It made screwing with him less amusing.

I threw him a hard look. "What, Tom? I actually happen to like the Backstreet Boys. "I Want It That Way" is quite possibly the best pop song ever written, and "Everybody" never fails to get the party started, okay? I figure I owe it to them because "Just Want You to Know" helped me through a very tough time in my life," I affirmed boldly. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have said all that in an argument to anyone other than Tommy, and I probably shouldn't have said that, but my filter is kind of weak in this sort of situation. What can I say? My judgment just suffers when Tom's involved.

I'd discovered that song in particular when I'd gotten on the computer when I was pathetically listening to old Boyz Attack! songs on YouTube one night because I really wanted to hear Tommy's voice and clicked on a related video, and, damn if it didn't perfectly sum up everything I was feeling. How I fell in love with Tommy ("you gave me a smile that I could never forget, and nothing I could do could protect me from you that night"). Our relationship ("wrapped around your finger" and so on). The process of trying to get over him ("I've been fighting to let you go. Some days I make it through..."). My breakdown ("since I lost you, I lost myself"). And, finally, the feelings I had about it ("But, still, I have to say... I would do it all again"). It was all true, so I'd gotten in touch with them through one of the songwriters I worked with sometimes.

They'd been really thrilled, actually, to hear that I had a song I thought they would like. And I could tell it amused them all that Tommy Q's prodigy was willing to give them a hand and leg up. "Plus I've heard some of their new stuff, and I think "There's Us" would go really well with the rest of the album. I'm fully supportive of their comeback. Besides, who knows? Their return might jumpstart a flagging genre. Might even burst some of our friends' catalog sales," I continued cheerily, proud of my newfound friends. Actually, the Backstreet Boys had always been a bit of a sore point between us, since one of the first things I'd ever said to Tommy had been that I thought the Backstreet Boys were much better than Boyz Attack! ever was or could be. At the time it was said mostly as an insult, but I later realized that I largely thought it was true until I'd become reacquainted with Boyz Attack!'s music and met the rest of the guys.

Still, there's no comparison, really, to be honest. And I say this after getting to know all of Boyz Attack!, two of them particularly well.

Tommy had this look on his face that said, "oh, no, you didn't." I did, though. Since I'd used one of those we-words... Our friends meaning his former bandmates and including himself. I kind of vaguely hoped he'd be impressed back into joining the band and shipped away from me for eternity because it'd be a damn relief not to have to see his handsome, stupid, assface. He was numb and dumb in silence and disbelief for a moment, amazed at the capriciousness of a seventeen-year-old-girl who has been wronged, scorned, and pissed off. You'd think he'd know better after all this time. "I'm talking about the fact that you took something personal and gave it to the Backstreet Boys! It goes against what you believe, for one..." He continued sternly.

I scoffed at that. Slick attempt, Tom, but it's not gonna work. Like he even knows what I believe anymore? He's turned everything all upside-down! I'm not the same girl I was when I met him. I'm just not. And what does that mean coming from him? He has no artistic integrity. I cocked my head and regarded him curiously for a moment before smiling like a shark and setting in on him with relish. "And yet corporate exploitation of my music is kind of the basis of your career, isn't it? I mean, forgive me, but weren't you hired to smooth out my rough edges and show me the ropes, make me marketable like only a popstar can? Besides, you never cared about my artistic integrity before, let alone your own..." I quipped pointedly, raising a brow.

Here he faltered because I was obviously right, realizing pretty quickly that he had no leg to stand on. He stiffened and straightened a little. God, when did he get such a rod up his ass? It's practically made him into someone upstanding. "My point is that you did that... deliberately... to spite me," He said slowly, with a great effort. He spoke through his teeth, clearly irritated both at the fact that I'd bested him and that I was basically completely winning this argument. Logically, legally, and in the fact that I was getting to him and really pissing him off a great deal.

I bared my teeth at him and practically hissed. His statement was truer than I was willing to acknowledge, but I was wholly aware of this. But, like, I can't just say, "hey, Tommy, I'm screwing with you because you're a hypocrite who dumped me and I'm really still pissed about that." Or something to that effect. "First off, Quincy, check your ego at the door. I don't do things to affect you anymore," I snapped blisteringly. Yeah, I was lying through my teeth there. And rhyming unintentionally.

I rolled my eyes at him and crossed my hands over my chest, standing tall and looking at him with disdain. "Secondly, I think this little grudge you still have against them is immature and pointless because it's not like you want that life anymore anyways. You wouldn't rejoin Boyz Attack! if they gave you a trillion dollars and your own private island, and you know it. And, frankly, the grudge is not only childish but yet another remnant of your boyband past, and I thought you were trying to dissociate yourself from that musically and..." I argued, finding it all too easy to paint him as a child. It's very easy when you know someone entirely too well. I paused a moment, deliberately, before making a rather ill-advised comment in what I hoped was a casual, uncaring voice, "-Oh, wait, nope, you're still dating the chick you almost broke up Boyz Attack! for. Apparently you aren't moving on."

Mentioning Angie was a mistake. Because mentioning her means that I think about her, that I feel this is in some way significant, which I shouldn't have let Tommy know. Sensing this, Tom countered swiftly, "And apparently neither are you. You're the one who keeps bringing up the near past." He let this statement hang in the air for a moment, coolly, before continuing in a much more angry vein. It kind of annoyed me how Tom referenced that whole relationship we had in such unsatisfying and unspecific vagaries. He moved closer to me, not that he noticed, and his eyes blazed like the heart of a flame. "And you did this on purpose... You didn't even ask me before giving it to them! No, I had to find out from Nick Freaking Carter, who called me personally to tell me just how great my "girl" was and assumed I already knew about this," Tom growled accusingly. He spat Nick Carter's name as if it was something unpleasant, mimicked his voice with a pinched, quietly furious expression. I could sense that, inside, Tommy was boiling like a teapot.

Hehe, Tommy the Teapot. Well, that's a new one. Both of them seem like a lot of hot steam.

I placed a finger on my lip. He'd practically handed me my next all-too-familiar card. Jealousy and rivalry all rolled into one. "Wonder why he didn't call me... you know, I gave him my number..." I remarked idly, pretending as if I was thinking aloud. I was sure to pout just a little bit, as if I was actually disappointed. Psh, as if I didn't know he was dating someone? Besides, I don't really go for blonds. Much less an ex-boybander. I like to think I'm not that stupid anymore. Tommy actually bought that, judging by the redness of his face.

The fact that he had, that he looked even more angry, made me very much want to laugh, but I suppressed the urge to drag out his torment. I kind of wanted to see how far I could push him to the precipice. He had to snap at some point, after all. Lord knows Tom's never had a firm control over his anger. "Jude..." His patience with me was wearing rather thin, I must say.

Not that that stopped me. Nothing stops me when I'm on a roll, when I want to see how things play out. That may be a bad thing, my relentlessness, and maybe it causes me undue trouble, but where would I be without it? There are worse things than not knowing when to stop. I allowed the smile to spread across my face slowly, showing my amusement, and held up my hands in a sort of pacifying gesture. Tom's face turned even redder, although whether it was from surplus rage or embarrassment I couldn't quite figure out. "Relax, Quincy, I've learned from my mistakes. Besides, minus your brother, blonds aren't my type... A Harrison will never again date a boyb... oh, wait, except for Chaz, 'cause Sadie's dating him. But, hey, if Justin Timberlake calls, I just can't be held responsible for my actions... It'll be another case of "Oops!...I Did It Again,"" I drawled jestingly.

Sadly, most of that was actually true. That one was also good because I tied Britney in there too, making another parallel of Tommy's ex hooking up with Justin and then having Tommy pick up the pieces. Only maybe this time it would be in reverse, you know. It was fun to plant that little idea in his head. Plus he gets so touchy when you bring Justin up, given that he has the solo career Tommy so desperately envies. I suppose, if I really wanted, I could've quoted "SexyBack" or "Cry Me a River" or something to that effect to piss him off even more, but that felt like a little too much. I don't want to lay it on too thick, after all. "Stop trying to distract me, Jude, because it's not working. I know you did this to spite me," Tom insisted irritably, dead certain and unwilling to back down. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides, and he surely looked as dangerous as I knew him to be.

Once again, I entreated him to calm down, knowing he wasn't going to, and managing to, of course, further irritate him. "Chillax, Toto. That album won't be out for ages, and it's going to be a bonus track. A Walmart exclusive," I told him calmly, as if this was utterly blasé information. I shrugged. "And it's not like anyone ever goes to Walmart, let alone buys cheap CDs there..." I continued faux-naively, sarcastically, pausing a moment and then smacking a head to my forehead. "Oh, wait..." I trailed off ominously.

Tommy turned away from me, so thunderous was his fury. He let out some kind of loud noise, rather like a bellow or howl. He looked like he wanted to throttle something, maybe even me, but I wasn't afraid because Georgia had made it plain that I was off-limits, and any more messing with me would not be tolerated.

"A Walmart exclusive? Our song is going to be a Walmart exclusive? You sold our song to the Backstreet Boys for a Walmart bonus feature! Way to sell-out, Jude!" He shouted disbelievingly. It struck me that he sounded more offended than anything, as if the truly offensive thing in all this was that he'd been connected to a Walmart exclusive, as if his connection to this, to mass pop culture was somehow beneath him.

Him! Of all people!

I nodded enthusiastically, but the sell-out comment had actually gotten to me. I've admittedly never really understood how one becomes a sell-out, and it's just... so hard in this business to keep your integrity intact, so who can blame you for selling out for some success? It seems to me that the only people who whine about sell-outs are those who aren't successful or talented and are jealous. "Oh, you're one to talk. I mean, this from a guy with his face on a bobble-head, really? Not to mention one who was featured in a Taco Bell commercial singing with the Taco Bell Chihuahua? You invented selling out when you started shaking it like a stripper but on MTV and fo' free..." I rejoined immediately, reminding him of what he'd done for fame, of how his dignity had suffered, of being subject to a higher being's will... it came with the territory, the commercialism and rampant exploitation. Tommy knew that better than I ever would.

As usual, he bristled at this reminder of that unpleasant and humiliating (and embarrassing) time in his life. As I suppose he was right to do. I mean, bobble-heads, chihuahuas, fast food, their ridiculous outfits, the colognes he'd sold, the TV guest star appearances on sitcoms, the cross-promotions, the cheesy song lyrics, the constant personal appearances, the signings, the shampoo ads, having their single as part of a McDonald's promotion in Happy Meals? "Don't be so temperamental, Tommykins. It boosts both of our careers, and I don't regret it," I told him cheerfully, knocking his chin half-fondly and half-painfully.

I shrugged. "Besides, *NSYNC and Natural don't look like they're going to reform any time soon, so I couldn't very well give it to them. And before you say that was just part of an elaborate plan to insult and spite you, that just so happens to be an added bonus," I continued brightly. Tommy gaped at me. I would've given it to *NSYNC first, actually, were they back together, because Tommy had a particularly strong hatred of them, but, alas, they seemed to be no more. Quite unfortunate, that. "And you can't undo it because I already sent them an mp3 of my backing vocals, so ha!" I proclaimed triumphantly, grinning at him victoriously. I'd also done it from his computer, which was the best part of all.

After that, I believe there was some shouting and a lot of swearing on Tom's part. I wisely hightailed it out of there and let him explode like the explosive device I knew him to be. And it was rather satisfying, winding him up and just watching him go all over the place like that. I also think he might've thrown a chair into one of the windows separating artist and producer, given that there was a large vaguely chair-shaped shattered dent thingie in it. This is kind of impressive, given the force with which Tommy threw and the chair's velocity, that it didn't break the window, I mean. Fortunately, it was safety glass, so it hadn't broken and remained there, looking ridiculous and proving to be an eyesore to both Georgia, the studio, and the various producers and performers occupying that particular studio (Studio B). And, hey, no one was hurt either. Though, I think it might've also bounced back and hit Tommy in the face or head, because he was definitely sporting a cut on his forehead and a rather unsightly lump. As you can see, all of this is highly amusing to me.

Anyway, as a result of all of this, Tommy silently seethed every time he was in my presence, and this experience had apparently taught him that it was better and less frustrating to not speak to me at all. This basically resulted in him blowing me off. He'd been still so furious or recovering from his little injury and the wounds to his pride the rest of that day and the day after that he hadn't showed up for our sessions and, at least on Thursday, hadn't come to the studio at all. He showed up on Friday, i.e. yesterday, but for a short, tense time, dragging Kwest in to supervise (which was, actually, a bit of a new idea of Georgia's, having someone else there with us... though Kwest was dragged away from his work by Tommy to accomplish this end... and possibly also to make sure he didn't, like, kill me or strangle me or something). He refused to speak to me, so I refused to speak to him, and poor Kwest was reduced to ferrying messages between us until he got sick of repeating things we said to us (and Tom and I could clearly hear what the other was telling Kwest, since there was maybe four or five feet between us the pointless half of the time when we were trying to work on a song) and realized the utter ridiculousness of the situation. He apologized to both of us, rather irritably, though, and said he had better things to do with his time than play our messenger, that we needed to work this out ourselves because "look, this is between the two of you, not me" and stormed out.

Tom and I remained there in silence for an incredibly tense and awkward ten-minute standoff before Tom stalked out of the room, leaving me alone in the studio, feeling as if my time had been wasted yet again. I heard his tires squeal on the pavement approximately two minutes afterward. Somebody sure was eager to get away from me. Big shocker there.

But, anyway, back to reality. E.J.'s eyes widened and sort of started sparkling with a barely-concealed glee. I swear, the woman was about to clap her hands together like a seal. "Are you kidding me? People looove that kind of drama, especially with you and Quincy! And I bet they're dying to see what you two are really like when you're all alone!" She exclaimed excitedly, her voice rising an octave due to enthusiasm. She drew out the word love and threw me a look, like perhaps she wanted to know herself what we were like when we were alone. Mostly silent nowadays, quite honestly, and she should know that. She eyed me slyly. "Now, if you could possibly pick a fight with Tommy, that would be just great. Ratings would shoot through the roof!" She speculated, hinting at me to throw the TV show.

I gaped at her in silence and sheer disbelief for a minute. It was mind-boggling to realize that somehow she had no idea that things with me and Tommy were as bad as they actually were. Like, she's there. She has eyes. She ought to know by now. Lord knows I don't need to be picking another fight with the man. I mean, God, I've had how many fights with him since the break up? The one about Chaz, the one about the Backstreet Boys, the whole period of painful days when I first got back, the break-up itself... I didn't need a new one, and, good Lord, what could it even be over anymore? There weren't any subjects left except Angie and the old arguments.

Then I came back to my senses, dread overtaking me, and shook my head no stubbornly. "E.J., I am not picking a fight with Tommy. Period," I told her firmly, staring her down unflinchingly. She frowned a little, and I glanced away thoughtfully, pausing for a moment. "He already has enough reasons to hate me without me giving him new ones," I muttered half under my breath, thinking about the horrible arguments we'd had since. None of the usual venom, I suppose, but there was a lack of feeling, a certain emptiness rather than the protective cushion of emotion I was used to, and it still managed to take me off-guard.

She heard, and I hadn't thought she would. So of course she started asking questions. She leaned in towards me, forward, and placed a hand on her hip, raising her eyebrows. "And what's that about, by the way?" E.J. demanded suddenly. "No one seems to know, and I haven't heard a single believable explanation for your sudden feud," she continued suspiciously, something almost malicious flickering in her dark eyes. What she was really saying by her look was that Tom, Georgia, and I probably knew more than we were telling, of course. She was clearly waiting for an explanation, but I hadn't explained to Georgia and I wasn't about to tell the second-biggest gossip at G. Major.

Then I smirked, getting an idea, and actually wound up telling her a version of the truth. I dropped the smile from my face and told her, quite calmly, in a deadpan, "We got into a fight over the Backstreet Boys." I held up three fingers in a Girl Scout salute. "Honest to God." E.J. rolled her eyes and snorted at me, not believing me for a second (even though I was actually telling the truth), but kept staring and tapping her foot, waiting even more impatiently for an answer. I straightened, taking the hard, mostly evasive line. "I don't want to talk about it, and it's really none of your business anyways. And he probably won't even be an issue because he'll probably just bail on me again," I told her sharply, a bit bitterly there towards the end, surprising her with the vehemence in my voice. I shrugged carelessly. "And, you know, one of these days I'm going to have to produce on my own, what with Kwest being so busy with Patsy and Paegan..."

Little did I know how soon that day would come. By that point, E.J. was kind of breathing fire. Just a little bit. She exhaled like an angry dragon or me when I've eaten so much spicy food I feel like I can breathe fire. "I am your publicist. Everything about your life is my business. And the way you two are lately affects your working relationship, which affects your career and the studio environment. Which, again, effects my job. And when it effects my job, that makes it my business," She stated shortly, the statements deliberately quick and to the point.

I forced a smile. "And when I say it's private, I mean that it's private. And personal. Between Tommy and me, no one else..." I countered equally pointedly, refusing to tell her more. I'd learned the steeliness from Tommy, from everyone who was always trying to tell me that something wasn't my business before I broke them down. I sighed, reflecting on E.J.'s request. Ultimately, the label really could use this kind of free PR. And, unfortunately, saving G. Major (at least financially) seemed to fall entirely on my shoulders. After all, it was hardly in my interest to have Darius control both my career and my music. I didn't want him to take over G. Major any more than Georgia did. Understanding what I needed to do, I conceded. "But, like I said, I'll do it. I don't mind, but honestly..." E.J. perked up a bit when I said this and practically screamed. I interrupted a moment later, rubbing my forehead. "I'm just not entirely sure I can do this," I muttered honestly. With the cameras on me and Tommy, there's no telling what could happen... And I just had this gut feeling that whatever happened was going to be incredibly messy.

E.J. gave me a queer look and shook her head quickly and abruptly, pulling me towards her. "That sounds like quitter talk. Where's that can-do spirit, Harrison?" She insisted, attempting to prod me into being a perky individual. I frowned at her. A very business-like look set in over her features. "You have a session with Tommy in a couple hours. You do know that, right?" She continued briskly, as if I'd forgotten in the first place that this camera crew was coming. Which was, of course, ridiculous, since I only found out this morning.

I fought the urge to groan. How could I forget, I asked myself a bit morosely. Externally, however, I was defiant. "Yeah. Well, we'll just see if he shows up!" I proclaimed a bit irritably, for understandable reasons. Being in the studio with him, with all the heat on, under everyone's scrutiny... I was sure it was going to be torture. And incredibly awkward for everyone involved, assuming, of course, that Tommy decided to show. That, well, I wasn't exactly counting on it. Then, before E.J. could say something inane that would undoubtedly upset or unnerve me more, I broke free, walked past her, and threw the door open, heading out into the crowd.

It was really, really bright out, so I kept blinking. The camera trained itself on me almost immediately, and I remembered that I was very much in my pajamas outside and needed to get presentable if, after all, millions of people would see me. So I forced a smile and began speaking. "Hey, so I've agreed to do it, but can you guys um, just... give me a second? I'm not really... presentable. You know, jammin' in my pjs like I am," I requested, gesturing down to my clothing.

The cameraguy nodded enthusiastically, glad, I'm sure, that he didn't come here for nothing. He looked quite relieved, really, and threw E.J. a grateful glance. He smiled at me, and I noticed that he was sort of cute, the main cameraman. Youngish. But I have enough men in my life, so why am I even bothering to look. "Ready to rock when you are, Jude," he proclaimed, practically saluting me. He'd already hoisted the camera back up and was beginning to focus and aim it at me, no doubt. I tried not to balk at this sudden intrusion, remembering just how uncomfortable it was to have cameras on me all the time, to attempt going about the normal things in life with this built-in audience. Instant Star had been great for my career, yeah, but hell on my nerves... and I'd always known when they were watching, had always known where and what they would be filming, and what they wanted to see. I didn't know that here, and I felt that they expected something more from me.

They didn't just want a singer. They didn't want to hear my story or my voice or see who I was. They wanted drama and entertainment. They wanted to know what I was really like as a person, how I was to other people, what a day in my life was like, on average. And it was kind of an artificial thing, since it was a weekend and I wasn't at school or any of that. They'd caught me at a bad, confusing time, and I didn't know exactly how I was going to salvage this. Honestly, with Tommy, I didn't even know what to expect lately, but the thought frightened me a little. "Great, thanks," I muttered thanklessly, knowing I was by no means ready to rock. But, you know, I'm a musician. And I know that no matter what, the show must go on... and sometimes you just have to face the music. And, as corny as speaking in clichés is, today I had to do all that and more.

I invited them in with a sweeping hand gesture and started to go back inside. "Come in, take a load off... I bet that camera is heavy... make yourself at home. I'll just be a minute. I was, um, just gonna head to the studio anyways." I kept smiling, stifled a yawn, and smoothed my hair while heading upstairs. Fortunately, the cameras did not follow me to my bedroom. Small wonders.

At that point, I scrambled to the shower for five frantic minutes, threw my hair up, and hunted around the room for clothing. I found this pinstriped black button-up shirt-dress on the floor, threw it on, wrapped a matching belt around my waist to give me some kind of figure, pulled on some black leggings and brown boots. I glanced in the mirror and noticed that the shirt was pretty huge on me still, so I rolled the sleeves up to my elbows, popped the collar, unbuttoned another button, and adjusted the belt a bit more. The shirt had been buried somewhere on my floor, but it was remarkably uncrumpled. I hunted for some jewelry to accessorize and found some feather earrings, that ring Travis had given me that had somehow NOT gone into the box with all the Tommy-things, even though I'd chucked it in there, and my Joe Strummer guitar pick necklace. Then I dragged a brush through my hair and headed downstairs, jumping down from stair to stair until my feet hit the landing.

I turned straight to the camera and offered it an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, guys, but I think you'll find out that my life isn't that glamorous. At least eighty percent of the time, if not ninety percent. I'm a teenage girl. I go to school, home, food, the bathroom, and the studio. That's about it. I'm actually dressing up for you a little here, because I generally don't give a crap how I look when I go to the studio on Saturdays, but this time, I put in a little effort," I said matter-of-factly, gesturing to my rather unimpressive outfit. But, really, what did they expect? I got ready in eleven minutes, give or take. My hair was still wet!

Something occurred to me then, and I threw the cameramen another apologetic look. "Hey, sorry 'bout that. I'm Jude Harrison, and this is A Day in the Life. Welcome to my world!" I exclaimed brightly, flashing (ostensibly) the viewers a smile before heading to the kitchen to fetch myself some breakfast. The cameras followed, which meant I was obliged to give a house tour.

"But anyway, welcome to La Maison de Harrison! Since we're here, we might as well take a spin around the floor. So this is my living room. Pretty standard," I said, gesturing to the living room. The camera did a panoramic, and one of the cameramen asked about seeing my bedroom. I swallowed, thinking of both how messy my room was and the fact that my mother would be ashamed for me to show it to them in its present state (and would then proceed to bitch me out later when there weren't cameras around)... and the fact that a bunch of strange men traipsing around my bedroom is just so not something I'm cool with. "Um, you won't be seeing the upstairs, since my bedroom is a total mess, so I guess you'll just have to see that in your dreams... but, um, yeah, the kitchen!" I continued awkwardly before properly heading off into the kitchen.

My parents were sitting at the counter. Dad was reading the paper and having some coffee, and Mom was pulling Eggo waffles out of the microwave. She was all dressed up for work because she had some big stupid weekend meeting thing today. When she turned around, putting one of the waffles on another plate for Dad, he in turn poured her a cup of coffee. She threw him a grateful smile, and then I cleared my throat so they would notice my existence and stop being disgustingly domestic. "Okay, so these are my parents. I love them very much," I began simply and truthfully. I know this story might make it seem like I don't, or like my parents don't care and whatnot, but that's not true. I mean, they're my parents, and they've got their own lives and their own problems, same as I do. And who can really blame them? My life is out of my control; I can't even keep up with it all sometimes! And it's in my nature as a kid to try to um, hide the rather... unpleasant things from them, things they would disapprove of. Such as my romantic entanglements with unavailable older men, math grade, paparazzi, and so forth.

I mean, you think my parents would let me be a rockstar, would let me work with Tommy and all that if they knew that we hooked up at his house, then he dumped me after ALMOST sleeping with me God only knows how many times, causing me to have a minor nervous breakdown that almost killed me? Or that I'm fooling around with my engaged high school music teacher partially because he happens to look like my ex-boyfriend? Or that said music teacher attempted to rape me and has a thing for one of my friends and had sex with another one, both at school? Or that Ruby's staying with us because Tommy kicked her out of his house after Chaz found out they were having sex? C'mon, if I told my parents everything, I wouldn't have any story to tell you, because I'd be locked away in my room all the time, studying. I wouldn't have a life, period.

I walked around to my dad, smiling for real, and put my hands on his shoulders. "This is my dad and number one fan, Stuart." My dad, goof that he is, waved at the camera goodnaturedly. I kissed him on the cheek warmly, ruffling his hair. This made my dad frown. The hair ruffling. He had some sort of early emergency tax meeting today. "He's an accountant, and a pretty rockin' one in my opinion. He taught me everything I know... except math..." I continued, patting my dad on the back and offering the camera a shrug (obviously in regards to the math comment, which made my dad frown slightly, though he was smiling from the earlier comment. Not to play favorites, although we both know which of them is clearly my favorite, I turned to my mother. "And this lovely woman here is my mother, Victoria," I elaborated, wrapping my arms lovingly around her neck, turning to look at her properly. I faltered in explaining what she did for a living, which I sort of knew but wasn't very good at explaining. It was a complicated job. "She's uh... um, what do you do again, Mom?"

Mom frowned a little and said something that, as per usual, I didn't understand. So I just shrugged and pretended like I understood. It's gotten me through more scrapes than you know. Half of life, I think, is pretending to understand when you really have no idea what's going on. There's a certain art to convincing people you know things you don't, really. "Um, right," I pronounced shortly before changing the subject with a quick smile. "She also happens to make the best pancakes in the world... Anyways, we have to get to the studio," I told her, pulling away with a bit of a frown. My mother also frowned, though for different reasons. Someone is still a little mistrustful of my label (and Tommy in particular), which was reinforced by the way my mother was glaring at E.J. like she was Satan.

Naturally, I found myself rather wishing that my mom had made the aforementioned pancakes today, but, alas, there wasn't time. In order to distract the future viewers from my mom's glaring, I glanced between my parents and adopted a mostly false cheer. "Just wanted to be a dork and come in, grab a Poptart or two, and you know... tell you guys that I love you," I announced, turning to hug each of my parents in turn before forcing them into a group hug in front of the camera. "Because, as crazy as I am, these two made me, and they put up with me and love me for who I am. And you can't say that about many people..." I mumbled, grateful for the strength of my parents' embrace. I pulled away from them somewhat reluctantly and snatched up a Poptart from the toaster, which one of my parents had kindly heated for me, muttering how I lived off of these things. I snatched my coat and bag up from by the door, and the camera crew started to follow me out our back door. I turned to them smiling slightly, and said, almost under my breath, while leaving, "And, hey, I think I've turned out way less screwed up than a lot of people! Like Tommy, for instance."

E.J. raised a brow at this early and pointed reference to Tommy that had come to me automatically. He's my ex. What do you expect? At that point, I was at the door, so I was surprised to hear my parents shout after me. "We heard that!"

I giggled and popped back into the doorway, smiling at them goodnaturedly. They looked bemused and smiled back. I blew them kisses, hanging on the doorframe. "C'mon, you know I love you guys! Anyways, have a nice day, and I'll see you at dinner! Bye!" I shouted back, waving at them before closing the door. I was in good spirits after that brief interlude, Poptart in hand, ready to conquer the studio world and convinced that I would get the film crew to stop at Starbucks for some quality cappuccino to really get this morning started.

But, of course, all good fairytales have to end. And most fairytales have a happily-ever-after kind of ending, marked by the return of the gallant prince. But in my fairytale... there's no glass slipper, no godmother, no mice... just me, wishing I could turn into a pumpkin. And frequently I do turn into a pumpkin... only I wind up squashed (flat). But I suppose you'll see what I mean later.

We arrived at the studio, and it fell to me to give the grand tour while E.J. observed with her eagle eyes for anything she could correct or take advantage of. I smiled nervously, standing in the lobby and looking around rather paranoidly for any sign of Tommy to ruin what seemed like a good if not slightly bumpy day. I saw nothing, which meant nothing, 'cause I didn't know if he was there or not, which meant that, once again, I had no clue what the hell I was in for. "Okay, um, this is G. Major, my label," I began hesitantly, walking backwards and, naturally, half bumping-into-half-falling-into an exceedingly cute brown-haired guy with coffee. He was, by the way, NOT Tommy. Just wanted to clear that up. He caught me with one arm and the coffee sloshed over the rim of the mug unpleasantly. He offered me an awkward, rather strained smile, righted me, and then set off briskly and carefully in the direction of the studios like a man on a mission.

"Oh, um," I shouted after him, "Sorry, cute guy whose name I don't know!" I think he might've turned back and smiled at that, but I'm not certain. The cameramen certainly chuckled, and I forced a bit of a smile. "He's a really wicked guy," I pronounced, remembering a few interactions and conversations I'd had with the guy around the studio, though, for the life of me, I couldn't remember his name or anything that important. "Wish I knew what he did here..." I added a bit regretfully, feeling suddenly guilty for this. I sometimes hated that there was a distinction between the artists and the actual business-people employees here.

Since I was pouting, E.J. threw me a rather scolding look and, without stopping to think, I continued a bit more energetically, a bit more like myself, really. "I also wish I knew what he did here because I did not know we had guys that cute here just stashed around. Hmm, maybe he's an intern," I mused a bit lasciviously, staring after him. He had a nice ass, too. Then, of course, I kind of gasped a little bit, remembering the camera, and I'm sure I flushed the color of my hair. "Oops. Forgot about you there," I muttered, not amused at the fact that the cameramen were trying to suppress laughter.

But, like, I'm a teenage girl, and I have needs... which include checking out hotties. Us teenage girls are sexual beings too, you know. I turned my back on the camera, feeling rather vexed, and promptly spotted Speed, also, coincidentally, heading in the direction of the studios. He was uncharacteristically subdued, wearing dark colors and making a deliberate attempt to blend in. Naturally, I walked up to him, deciding to get some of the heat off of myself and introduce them to my guitarist and good friend in one fell swoop. I grabbed Speed's shoulder and whirled him around, and he jumped in the air, looking kind of freaked out. Frankly, I was kind of surprised to see him, since he wasn't scheduled to be here until the afternoon.

"All right... Now I know what this guy does. He rocks. Hard. Harder than anybody I know," I proclaimed, waggling my eyebrows at Speed, who didn't laugh as he normally would. Normally he would've risen to the double entendre as well, but not today. He was actually kind of trying to get away from me and hide from the camera, which was completely not like him, so I had to wrap my arm around his shoulder to get him to stay there. I smiled at Speed, who did not have a ready smile waiting for me, and wound up frowning. "This is my guitarist and dear friend, Speed."

Speed pulled away from me a little and eyed the camera nervously. I wondered what he suddenly had to hide. Much less from me! I mean, this is the guy who streaked Homecoming last year. He has no secrets! He's like a big, transparent puppy, so what's up with the cloak-and-dagger-routine here? "Uh, yeah, Jude, I'm really not supposed to be here right now," he muttered, attempting to block the camera with his hand. When the deft movements of the intrigued cameraman prevented that, Speed pulled his jacket up over his head, trying and failing to both cover up and sneak off. He then unsuccessfully but amusingly pretended not to speak English, since the cameraman tried to get him to talk about me.

However, I pulled him back to me, fixing him with a look that he refused to answer. Huffing out a bit of a sigh, I made a face at him and planted a big, wet kiss on his cheek. "Okay then, off with you on your secret mission! Remember, though, you and the guys are in the studio with me and Frowny after this," I reminded him, officially releasing him with an ass-grab that made him jump and squirm a little. I wondered idly where the other guys were. Didn't they have some sort of meat-eating ritual before Saturday Studio Time anyway? As soon as he got over the ass-grab, which was a second or two of hilarity, Speed shot off like a rocket or that little fake rabbit at the dogtrack.

I gazed after him, rather bemused, shaking my head at his antics. "He's certifiable. Great riffs, though," I pronounced fondly. I started to move on, but the cameraman suddenly decided to ask me a question.

"You and your friend over there... Is he just a friend or is he something more?" he drawled, saying the word "friend" as if it was dubious and untrustworthy. There was something a bit condescending about the question, to be honest, about the fishing. I mean, I'm not going to say I hadn't given him reasons to ask, but still. He smiled at me widely but kind of looked like a shark, rather than a charming man. "Our viewers are very curious about that sort of thing... whether you're single or not." He gave me a mildly sleazy look that suggested it was really him who was interested, and I barely managed to not roll my eyes at him.

E.J. caught my eye-roll, which was rightly directed at her, and frowned, motioning for me to turn back and answer the question eagerly. I fought the urge to sigh and turned back to the camera, feeling mildly awkward about having to describe my relationship with Speed on national TV, which he would undoubtedly see. This could be bad. "Speed's a really good friend of mine, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that," I began calmly, probably too calmly, given that I am hardly known for my reserve. Then I allowed myself a smirk and decided I should pretend like I was letting them know some big secret. "But, you know, we did have one really wild date a while ago. He tackled me, then we wrestled in the mud, and at the end of it, he planted a big wet one on me," I told them nonchalantly.

I noticed, rather unfortunately, that even my dear publicist seemed excited and vaguely scandalized by this story. The cameramen took sudden interest in me of course, so naturally I had to shoot them down. "Ah, sixth grade! Such fun times!" I quipped brightly. I think I saw the cameramen droop, and I definitely heard one of them mutter about how lame I was turning out to be. Silly man. He hasn't even seen a proper hour in the life yet! Tom's not even in the picture! I turned my back on them, smirking, and decided to continue with my time-killing tour of G. Major.

Naturally, I wanted to postpone any Tommy-related disaster as much as I possibly could. "And this is the kitchen..." I said, gesturing to our lovely, open, and very empty little kitchen. I walked past the kitchen and gestured to an open and vaguely hidden side-door. I peered inside, finding it odd that the door was open when Tommy wasn't inside. Was that just carelessness? "And um, this is Tommy's office, rarely seen by artists and employees alike, I assure you." I stood there, poised on the threshold for a moment, and then it occurred to me that it would be all too easy to embarrass Tommy by giving a proper tour of his office, so I smiled at them invitingly and motioned for them to come inside.

I gestured to the bar that largely dominated the room. I think it was pretty obvious what it was. "Tom has a... shall we say healthy... supply of alcohol in his office. Only producer I know with a fully-stocked bar in his office." Tom's office was mostly how I remembered it, from the few times I'd been in it. It was neat and orderly, kind of impersonal, and all of it looked rather unused. I remembered fondly how the bottom drawers of Tom's desk had once housed all kinds of treasures and things for every contingency: band-aids, antiseptic, water, blankets, first-aid kits, condoms, dental floss, tweezers, extra cans of hair gel, spare clothes, shot glasses, and so on and so forth. Now these items had been stored in the wooden cabinets behind his desk. There was a fine layer of dust on most of the surfaces in the room, the old records displayed proudly on the wall in his office, some of them mine, even. "Feel free to help yourselves. 'S not like Tom will notice."

Then, of course, I walked over to the expansive desk and sat on the very edge of it, placing my hand on it warmly. "And this is Tommy's desk. It used to be mahogany, much more comfortable, really... but, well, let's just say Tommy was entertaining one too many female guests in here when he was supposed to be having meetings. So our boss figured a transparent desk would discourage the, uh... Tomfoolery," I quipped cheerily. E.J. looked patently horrified that I'd just said that, but the cameramen cackled at my pun and gaped. I heard one whisper that I was giving them good stuff after all. "Oh, E.J., I wasn't supposed to tell them that? But it's common knowledge here," I said faux-innocently. That same mouthy cameraman muttered how I knew exactly what I was doing, and, duh, of course I did.

Then, grinning smugly, I turned on my heel and headed triumphantly back into the kitchen area, gesturing down the hallway. "Those are the stu-" I began, gesturing towards the studios. However, I stopped speaking entirely when, half-glancing around the studio, I caught something strange in the corner of my vision. I turned my head abruptly and, apparently, my eyes were not deceiving me. I held up a finger, keeping my eyes locked on the out-of-place figure. "And, um, excuse me, but I think I'm seeing a ghost. Because she cannot possibly be here," I muttered to myself, heading towards the entrance, where a bored-looking Victoria LaFramboise-Ruelle stood, glancing at the studio.

I had kind of forgotten that me and the camera were a package deal today, so I walked up close to Victoria, frowning a little. What was she doing here? It had to be big, right, if the Queen Mother herself had bothered to show up. Much less in the flesh. Why couldn't she have called? I mean, the woman has her own law firm... doesn't she have lackeys for this sort of thing? Which means, gulp, this must be personal. Oy vey. "V, um, what the heck are you doing here? Am I in some kind of legal trouble?" I asked, feeling mildly alarmed and understandably so.

Damn camera-parasites perked up when they heard the words "legal trouble", clearly mistaking me for another redhead popstar-type. Victoria let a slow, rather self-satisfied smile spread across her face and pecked me on the cheek. It was businesslike, but still more affection than I was used to. She greeted me dryly, a bit sarcastically, as is her way, "Hello, Jude. Lovely to see you too." Artificial smile, of course, fading at the sight of the cameras. She actually gestured to the cameras a moment later, not quite frowning but expressing her displeasure in waves that radiated off of her. "The cameras, not so much. I rather do like to keep myself out of the news," She replied, throwing them a short glance.

She raised herself up to her full, supermodelesque height, as if the cameras were beneath her. She was certainly no stranger to them, though, being a pretty female entertainment lawyer. As she'd just served to remind me of them, I too glanced back at the cameras, rather worried. There were, after all, many things I wanted and needed to say to her but couldn't with the eyes of millions on me. So I attempted to pull her aside and sort of succeeded. "Vic, mind telling me what exactly warranted this personal visit?" I asked pointedly.

She opened her mouth to speak, but, all of a sudden, that cameraman popped up and interrupted rather loudly, "Hey Jude-" I whirled around to glower at him, but his speech didn't even falter. Nor did he apologize or try to make nice with me. He just didn't care enough. Apparently he was used to worse divas than annoyed and upset seventeen-year-olds. Go figure. He jerked his head towards Tory. "Mind introducing us?"

I was a bit peeved by that point and barely suppressed some sort of noise and/or senseless fit before I turned to face him, holding up my index finger. "Seriously, dude, one second," I pronounced shortly. But he didn't move back, so I kind of shoved him a bit and then turned expectantly back to a rather amused and surprised (and maybe even slightly worried?) Victoria. "So?"

She frowned a little, eyes glinting with something I knew meant no good. "What, Jude, a mother can't just stop in every now and again?" She asked rhetorically, rather wickedly, actually, so that she sounded like Maleficent. That's the witch from Snow White, right? The "fairest of them all?" Then she shook her head cautiously. "But don't worry, you're not in any legal trouble... that I know of." She gave me a look as if waiting for some calamity to fall upon her head. "Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

What a big, fat loaded question she asked so casually with her arms crossed over her chest! I huffed out a sigh. "No, Vic," I muttered like a small kid lying to a teacher, repeating whatever she said. I turned back to the camera, motioning to Tory with a sweeping gesture. "Everyone, this charming woman is Victoria LaFramboise-Ruelle..." I fake-dimpled and then whipped my head to face her, a bit uncertain. "I did say your name right, didn't I?" Surprisingly, Victoria nodded, and I felt myself really smile for once, returning my gaze to the relatively unintimidating and dead black stare of the glossy camera lens. "In addition to being a generous and intelligent woman, she is actually this gorgeous in real life, looks like a million bucks every day, and I know a bunch of you out there hate her for that already, and she looks out and fights for her clients as if they were her own..."

I refrained from saying children here because she didn't always treat her children well. And comparing her to a Mama Lioness would probably be inappropriate. Plus she's kinda the type to eat her own young. Thinking all of this, I continued, "And she's my lawyer-"

Victoria's eyes flashed coolly, with relish, kind of like a bird of prey before swooping in for the kill. But I didn't have time to process this because she was interrupting in a syrupy sweet voice, "And Tommy's mother." I put two and two together pretty quickly: the predatory look, the mention of her son (I'd managed very admirably not to flinch at this first, highly unexpected mention). Because, really, what was the point in mentioning that little fact if she didn't have some kind of agenda? Some kind of agenda here that involved her wayward son.

My eyes widened with the revelation, as, unfortunately, did those of the unprepared cameramen, who were not expecting such a coup from my mysterious, darkly attractive visitor. They looked at each other, surprised and unable to conceal their glee. "As in Tommy Quincy's mother?" they chorused hopefully.

Victoria's ruby-red lips turned up faintly at the corners in that condescending, faintly amused smile I'd seen on Travis' lips many a time. "Why, yes, that very one," she replied coyly, in a ponderously sweet tone. I threw her a wary look out of the corner of my eye, wondering just what the hell her angle was.

I swear, they were about to high-five each other. Instead, however, they stopped just short of this and chose to address me, awed, "Wow, you really do pull out all the stops." As if I'd had this planned or something! I smiled grimly because I had no other choice and gritted out that I knew. My mood was quickly deteriorating before I'd seen either hide or hair of T-Jaq.

Silly me, though. Of course Victoria wasn't done. She held a hand out to the cameramen rather like a queen or empress expecting them to kiss it. Queen Victoria, what can I say, the name suits her! The smile on her lips became more poised as she perked up a bit. "I see you've heard of my son," she pronounced almost proudly, pausing for an almost infinitesimal second before continuing casually, "Of course Tommy's only one of my sons... Maybe you've heard of the other one-"

If we weren't on TV, I might've shoved her out of the way or tackled her to the ground. A flood of irrational rage at the allusion (which was, undoubtedly, from the look she'd just shot me, to Travis, meddlesome rogue that he is) washed over me. I almost covered her mouth, clapping my hand over it, because I was afraid she was going to say something incriminating about the two of us. Travis did not need to be brought up. Not now, not here. Instead, however, I interrupted swiftly and stiffly, in a warning tone, "Victoria..."

She frowned and fixed me with a rather stern look. It was, I realized, the second time I'd ever said her first name to her face. I usually tended to avoid calling her things, since I still had no idea exactly how to refer to her. Then she continued speaking calmly, as if nothing had happened, "...Taylor. He's an actor, you know... and Jude's boyfriend, of course." She looked at me with wide, innocent eyes for confirmation. I had only a second to force a smile as the camera zoomed in and swiveled over to me.

Naturally, I was wholly unprepared for her to say that, frozen, and with nothing to say about it, about Taylor... as per usual. "Yeah, um, Taylor's great," I muttered awkwardly, tightly, nodding slightly, hating Victoria more by the moment. I said it without any enthusiasm, hardly even passing for a decent sentence, let alone actual interest. I didn't like feeling trapped in a corner.

The other guy, the one who wasn't actually holding a camera, glanced around the room, searching for my almost famous boyfriend. "Why isn't he here? Can we see him? I mean, it'd be great if we could get some shots of the two brothers interacting..." the pushy, rather annoying director-type of the cameramen nearly demanded, getting more excited by the moment. I, on the other hand, wanted to sink into the floor. Yeah, that would go real well. Taylor and Tommy are both hardly civil to me now. I can't imagine what they'd be like to each other.

"Actually, um, Taylor's working on a musical right now, and because of the singing and dancing, they have lots of rehearsals and really long days... So he doesn't have a lot of free time," I told them very, very quickly so they wouldn't realize how nervous that prospect made me. I turned back to Victoria, more than a little pissed off and determined, putting a hand on her arm, and moving between her and the camera. She's not the only one who can be resourceful here. "Seriously, what are you doing here, Vic?"

She shrugged disinterestedly. "I just wanted to see my son's work, since it's so important to him." I did not buy that for a second and gave her an accordingly disbelieving, wide-eyed look. Seeing that I'd seen right through her, she made a face the camera didn't see and said, "I wanted to see the two of you in action and witness first-hand how well you two work together." I barely managed to avoid snorting because obviously, obviously she knew something about us not working well together, or she wouldn't have said that. She's a lawyer, and I know when someone's attempting to manipulate me, thank you. Then, finally dropping the pretense and turning toward me instead of the camera, she dropped her voice an octave and said, in an serious yet diplomatic undertone, "I've heard some conflicting reports about your working relationship lately, and Georgia's expressed some concerns about it. So I had to come to see for myself. I am your lawyer, and it's my job to look out for your interest and... make sure there's no... impropriety in the current situation." Then she put her hand on my shoulder, patting it familiarly (but somewhat uncomfortably for us both). "Jude, dear, I just had to make sure Thomas has been treating you right."

The words "impropriety" plus "treating you right" kind of clued me in. Now, maybe Georgia just went to Victoria as independent legal counsel, whatever, in case my parents wised up and started wondering (not that I'd ever tell them the real reason for this!), or maybe she went to Victoria because she's Tommy's mother and Georgia has the bizarre idea that he'll listen to her; I don't know. Point is he won't.

I turned suddenly to the cameramen, and asked, too sweetly, too politely, "Can you excuse us for a minute?" As I was already moving the two of us away quickly, he didn't really have a choice. I lowered my voice and covered the mike they'd outfitted me with with my hand and moved a little further away, just in case. "So you came here to straighten him out, then?"

Victoria crossed her arms over her chest, standing with her legs akimbo. She looked, frankly, a bit bored by the whole ordeal. "If need be, yes," she stated boldly, perfectly matching my bluntness. A moment later, kind of sniffing, she continued quietly, a bit disapprovingly, really, "Georgia told me how he's been going on with that Angie girl lately, and I think that it's disgraceful. I always thought that she was trash." The worst part of it was the sympathetic look she was giving me (while, simultaneously, having a repulsed look on her face while even talking about Angie).

I may have had a rather slight involuntary reaction of shout-grunt-screaming. "AHHHH!" I groaned-shouted in frustation, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. Of course everyone looked at me, but I was seeing red, so I didn't notice. "Oh. My. God! This has nothing to do with Angie! I am not twelve! It's not like I can't work just because he's got a new girlfriend!" I exclaimed irritably, gesticulating madly. Victoria raised a brow, silently challenging that statement, and I forced myself to calm down a bit. I huffed out a breath, glowering at nothing, and managed, rather tersely, to get out, "That is not my problem."

She continued to regard me calmly, silently disagreeing with my rather... passionate statement. "And I also heard that he's being unsociable in general and barely civil with you... and, frankly, I raised him better than that," she elaborated rather patiently. Her face took on a comical sort-of offended look, as if she was suddenly surprised by Tommy's manners after twenty-three years of knowing him.

Naturally, I gaped at her and very narrowly avoided snorting. Because Tom was raised to be a contrary little bastard, and she knows it better than I do. "Last I checked, Tory, that is exactly how you raised him!"

Victoria, for her part, gave me an extremely sharp look that conveyed warning. The woman has eyes like a damn hawk, I swear. "Jude..." she said in a voice that belied the thinness of her patience.

I raised my hands up in a surrendering gesture, backing down a little, but kept talking. Because I'm me, of course. "Look, Victoria, it's not that I don't appreciate the thought, because I do, but it's none of your business!" I interjected a bit sharper than I intended. I paused for just a second, marveling at the fact that she hadn't begun to peck out any of my squishy parts, and then continued. "If you talk to Tommy about it, he's not going to listen to you because, well, when has he ever done what his mother tells him to do? Worse still, he'll think I asked you to do it, and then he'll be pissed at me!" I found myself rambling, getting a bit flustered, caught up in it. I forced myself to slow down and catch my breath, reminding myself that cooler heads always prevail. Travis is rubbing off on me a bit, you see.

After a rather long pause, during which I was perhaps even more astonished that Tory hadn't started to claw at my internal organs, I started up again a bit wearily. "Tommy and me, that's something we have to work out ourselves, okay?" My thoughts at that period were outpacing my tongue and sticking together in my head, so I had to pause for a moment to untangle them and make myself a bit more diplomatic. The last thing I wanted to do was get on the wrong side of another Quincy. "And, while I appreciate your help, and, believe me, I know you've got a lifetime of dealing with an uncooperative Tommy Q here, and I'll ask for your advice when and if I need it... but I really need to do this on my own, okay? I can't just win the argument with his mommy's help, you know. That'd be playing dirty," I told her assertively.

While his mom is a lawyer, winning an argument with her help just seems... kind of unfair, especially given Tom's conflicted feelings towards his mother. She frowned but sighed. "I suppose I can understand that," she proclaimed magnanimously. However, before I could think I'd won the argument, she spoke again, as suddenly as a viper. There was iron in her eyes and steel in her voice. "But make no mistakes, Jude, I didn't come here to not sit in on one of your sessions. I fully intend to sit in on your session. It's been a while since I've been in the studio, and as hard as it is to believe, I do actually want to see my son in action, since this is his life's work."

This surprised me, her sudden determination to see Tom in action, but I thought it would be wise not to comment on mother-son issues. So I merely sighed, running a hand over my eyes. "Well, I guess I can't really argue with that." I silently grimaced, thinking of the situation that would no doubt greet her, awkward to an additional power of ten because of her presence. A moment later, I peeked out from between her fingers, biting my lip, and tempered my acquiescence with a hesitant request. "But don't interrupt anything, okay?"

Victoria rolled her eyes as if this question was beneath her. "As if."

A silence fell over both of us then, and it gave me my first proper opportunity to look her over and take in the full picture. Victoria was, as per usual, completely put-together. Her hair was pulled away from her face in a rather severe French twist, revealing diamond stud earrings. Uncharacteristically, she happened to be wearing a little black velvet dress, form-fitting and tight but still demure and a bit conservatively cut, with black pantyhose, expensive spike heels, and a large black leather purse. However, looking at her, I realized that there was something different about her, some kind of anxiety now in the way she held herself. I couldn't put my finger on it, of course, but I knew that something wasn't quite right with her. "It's more than that, though, isn't it, Tory?"

The suspicion in my voice definitely had her on edge because she looked a bit jolted at the question. Which meant I was onto something. "What are you talking about, Jude?" she retorted a bit harshly, shifting barely perceptively, as if she wasn't quite so certain in her high-heels.

This time I put my hands on my hips and walked towards her, continuing to pull on the thread I'd been given. "Well, no matter what you heard, I find it extremely hard to believe that those rumors alone induced you to come all the way to Toronto. There's more to it than that, isn't there?" I continued prodding, growing more suspicious by the moment.

Her eyes flitted about somewhat nervously, looking rather like a girl's for a change. I hadn't realized her eyelashes were that long, actually. It was sort of beautiful. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you're getting at, Jude," she said coolly.

I could sense, however, that I was getting to her more and more, since she didn't look wholly at ease and hadn't exactly risen to the challenge like I'd expected. I rolled my eyes at her. "Don't play dumb, Victoria... There's something different about you," I proclaimed, continuing to look over her and realizing something further. Whatever it was, it was serious, and it had to be something big to have the unruffled, unshakable Victoria ice-in-her-veins LaFramboise-Ruelle-Quincy rattled. "Something's wrong. What is it?"

She confirmed my statement by paling just a little bit, giving her a vaguely nauseous look, but her hard, blank facial expression didn't change at all. This, I thought, was rather impressive, maintaining face so wholly when I clearly had her on the run. "I'm perfectly fine, Jude," she replied placidly, too placidly.

Fine never really means fine, and I should know. And Victoria LaFramboise-Ruelle being placid and unopinionated only made me more suspicious. "No! Something is definitely up with you!" I insisted firmly, crossing my arms over my chest, moving closer to her, and going on the offensive. "Tell me what it is, or I'll go straight up to Tom and tell him something's wrong with his mother. And being the concerned son that he is, I'm sure he won't let you alone until he drags it out of you."

Threatening her, much less with such weak ammo that I wasn't sure I intended to fully follow through on, was a tactical mistake there, and Victoria knew it immediately. I forgot who I was dealing with. She didn't look perturbed in the least. Instead, she shrugged nonchalantly, allowing a little smirk to form on her lips. "For an attempt at blackmail, that was rather pitiful, and, yet, at the same time, impressive for a seventeen-year-old," she remarked admirably, sounding every bit like herself. I flinched at the mention of her age, having forgotten how quickly Victoria could turn things back on you. "While I don't doubt you'd dare, I doubt Tom would believe you, given the deterioration of your relationship." Then, a moment later, she added icily, "Besides, Tom isn't really the kind to care for his elderly mother."

Hearing her refer to herself as "elderly" was just a bit too much for me. Victoria has this bizarre self-deprecating streak, rather like her two eldest. "You're what, forty, Vic?" I blurted stupidly. Victoria just gave me a blank look, so I pressed on. "Well, if you don't care about what Tom thinks, then why did you come here, Victoria?" She had no answer for that, so I waved it off and then played my trump card. "And, also, I don't need to tell Tommy." I smirked and whipped out my phone, waving it jauntily in the air. "I've got someone even better. After all, why bother telling him in person when I can just call Travis and let him know that his precious mommy's out of sorts? I'm sure he'd come running," I taunted, scrolling down to Travis' number in my phone and holding it up to Victoria's face so she could see I was serious.

Her eyes widened in surprise, evidently not aware that me and her eldest were on such good terms. That relieved me a little bit, because a part of me thought she'd showed up here so suddenly because she'd found out that Travis had feelings for me and that we were kind of a thing, and she obviously didn't approve and had come to confront me about that. And yeah, I know it really doesn't make sense when you put it like that, but that's what I was thinking. I'm a teenage girl, you know, not a computer. "Well, would you look at that? His number's on my speed-dial and everything. There's one son who wouldn't rest until he found out what was wrong with you," I continued threateningly, selecting the number and playing around with it a bit. I jerked my phone away, fingers poised on the dial button, just as Victoria reached for it in a strange show of desperation. I didn't let her know I was mostly bluffing or that we weren't exactly speaking, but I suppose I'd have called him if I had to. His mother's health is more important than our issues, after all. Then I threw her an expectant (and vaguely triumphant) look.

She looked genuinely panicked and distinctly paler, but I was still surprised when she sighed and started to give in. Victoria had never struck me as the kind to give in on anything, although I suppose she must've, or she and Theo wouldn't be divorced and Tommy would be sitting in prison for assault or attempted murder right now. "Bien jouée, Harrison," she muttered with a grudging admiration, disappointed in herself for being out-maneuvered by a seventeen-year-old, no doubt. She began primly, holding her head high so she didn't feel as if she were a loser, "I feel I should say that it's not in my nature to give in, much less confide in teenagers, but apparently this is what my life has come to... and I can't help but feel that this is some sort of divine comedy or... terrible joke..." Surprisingly and disturbingly, Tory was getting more emotional, almost even a bit hysterical, shaking her head and laughing in a way that made it clear it was either that or tears. "Since you must know..." She grabbed my wrist lightly, probably to take me aside, and I found myself strangely excited.

Tory had, of course, confided in me before, but she'd never told me something that was especially secret, as whatever it was she was about to reveal to me. And then, of course, just as she was about to tell me, I heard this impatient voice in my ear. "Are you done? 'Cause we wanted to get some shots in the stu-" The nosy cameramen were back and looked rather annoyed, but, as I sensed this moment of honesty was close to being ruined, they were nothing compared to me.

And, frankly, why should they be? I am a master of studio intrigue and prying information from people and telling them off. I have one hard-won year of experience in this. And, I mean, I'm alive; my album's doing well; Darius doesn't own me, and I survived a break-up with Tom Quincy. If I can do all that, well, what can't I do? I am woman, hear me roar!

This sudden interruption startled my quarry, causing her to drop my wrist. She turned away immediately, not wanting them to see her look so discomposed. She even tried to flee, but, unlike her sons, she wasn't so good at it. I reached out for her hand abruptly. Lord knows I was hardly ready to go in the studio myself. They'd managed to catch me off-guard. "No!" I cried suddenly, trying to cover up the fact that I was flustered. "Can't you see we're having a heart-to-heart here?" I snapped a bit angrily.

Silly men. They looked amongst themselves, confused and not knowing what to say to this. They exchanged glances, as if shifting blame, trying to decide among them which of them ought to address me. Teenage-girls aren't exactly their typical territory. "Now, if you'll excuse us for a couple minutes, we have to go powder our noses!" I interjected equally suddenly, not giving them much room to protest.

Realizing that I was about to lose them for the third time this morning, the director started to go after us, protesting, "Ladies, you look fine, really!"

I stopped dead in my tracks and whirled around to face them, giving them a deathglare that hopefully translated well to film. "No, we most certainly do not! There is just no way I am going into the studio looking like this!" I proclaimed indignantly, as if outraged, pulling/leading Victoria, who was stock-still, slow, and unwilling to move, towards the bathroom, shoving her inside, and then turning around at the last second to stop the cameramen, flinging my hands around dramatically. "What are you doing? You can't come into the bathroom with us! We need our privacy!" I waved them off and muttered hurriedly, rather uncaringly, "Just... go... talk to Georgia or E.J. or Tommy or somebody, okay? Help him set up, get him to say crap about me, catch him screwing around with someone... whatever. I'll meet you in the studio." With that, I entered the bathroom and slammed the door in their faces none-too-ceremoniously.

My first act upon entering was locking the door. I then proceeded to open and check all of the stalls for spies or, who knows, even potential cameras. Finally, when this was done, I turned around to face Tory and resume our former discussion. "Obviously neither of us want any cameras poking around here... because you don't want anybody knowing your secret-"

V interrupted wryly, but a bit sourly, "And you don't want the whole world to know you're in love with Tommy." A moment later, she added, a bit nastily, "Well, it's a bit too late for that, isn't it?"

I might have stiffened a little at that statement, since it was a bit of a sore spot, but I've become practiced at not giving myself away too much in matters concerning that love. So I settled for glowering at her, joining her at the mirror, and then grabbing her purse. Victoria snatched her purse back, looking affronted, with all the viciousness of a crotchety old babushka twice her age. "What the hell are you doing? Did you pull me in the bathroom so you could assault me and then steal my belongings, or is it the other way around?" she barked, sounding a bit unhinged, really.

I totally gaped at her like a monkey. She had a really tenacious grip, not that that particularly surprises me. "Well, I'm gonna assume now that you're obviously hiding something in that big, fancy purse of yours now... and, wow, way to go completely nutso on me, V," I quipped, still sort of in a state of awe and disbelief. I wondered what exactly she had in her purse that was so special."Whatever this is, it sure has you wound up." A moment later, I shook my head and continued on bluntly, if not a bit sarcastically, as is my way, "But no, unbelievably, I do not want the contents of your purse. I actually want your make-up, since I told those idiots I'd be freshening up, and so I kinda need to look different when I come out of here. And since I'm a multitasker, I figured I'd do make-up and grill you at the same time, so fork it over, Missus." I held out a hand expectantly, keeping my gaze on Tory all the time.

Victoria exhaled a long, drawn-out sigh and opened her purse slowly, looking through it carefully. "You just want to look prettier for Thomas," she muttered accusingly, not even bothering to meet my gaze.

It was a rather low barb, not at all up to her usual standards, but I turned my full body to face her, as the statement was so far off the mark that it had offended me. "Woman, what the hell are you smoking? I am clearly just stalling for time since I don't really want to see your son at all, much less with cameras recording it! So no, sorry to disappoint, I just want to find out about you and avoid Tom. I couldn't give a flying fart about that looking pretty for Quincy BS! If I wanted to look pretty for anyone, it'd be those damn cameras and the thousands of TV viewers who will see this!" I shouted. I hadn't really given Tommy too much thought up to that point, but it occurred to me that that was maybe one of the reasons why I didn't want to go into the studio. But, really, I just didn't want to deal with him and all his drama. It's tiring, you know?

Tory, in the strange inconsistency of character that seemed to be possessing her today, took this all in stride. She handed me mascara, and, scanning and eying my outfit dismissively, handed me several choices of eye shadow. "Oh, please. You're afraid of what you're going to do when all the pressure's on because you don't exactly have a great track record when it comes to making impulsive decisions involving Tommy and a camera," She scoffed knowingly. I blushed shamefully because she realizes that, to my horror, Tory was completely right. She placed a hand on her hip and motioned to my outfit before starting in on me. "And what are you wearing? You look like you slept in one of your father's dress-shirts and then put on some tights, your mother's belt, and your sister's boots to salvage the outfit!"

I pouted and flushed a little, crossing my arms over my chest uncomfortably, not appreciating the criticism. Especially because she was wrong about the outfit. All of it was mine, and what was so wrong with it? Her son, the one that I'm dating, met me in a shirt very much like this one! "Here," came Victoria's rather sharp voice. She practically shoved the gray eyeshadow at me and reached in the purse and dug out a compact, before thrusting it at me. "And, for the love of God, put some blush on! You're on camera, and you about as look as pale as a polar bear's ass!" She snarled with an out-of-place savagery.

As I could not believe that had just happened, or that such words had just escaped her mouth, I blinked at her incredulously, uncharacteristically silent for a moment. "Whoa." V, for her part, turns to look at me and practically bared her teeth. It was so animal of her, really, that I couldn't even believe it. So, for the longest time, I just stared before starting the eyeshadow, one eye at a time. "You've gone completely mental. I mean, Victoria LaFramboise-Ruelle, Ice Queen and Cold, Analytical Mind, who lets absolutely nothing ruffle her feathers and places a premium on etiquette... just said I look as pale as a polar bear's ass. It's like an alien has taken over your body, I swear!" I started in on the mascara but stopped quickly 'cause I had started laughing hysterically at the surrealism of what had just elapsed.

Victoria was not at all happy. She found nothing amusing in this uncharacteristic outburst of hers and shot me a mean look, which I was able to cheerfully ignore, since it was half the force of one of her ordinary stares. I very plainly had the upper-hand here. does not look happy. "And, Mrs. Q, you could use some blush yourself," I added brightly. Then I turned to her, schooling my face into a more serious expression. "So, Tory, want to just tell me what's going on? I guarantee you'll feel better after unburdening yourself to someone." I set the mascara down and placed a hand on her shoulder carefully before asking, "So, V, what's the deal?"

To the horror and confusion of us both, at this unexpected gesture that I'd barely given half a thought, Victoria just broke down and started crying. I was flummoxed because this was never the way I'd imagined this little conversation going, and I had no idea how to comfort this strange woman I barely knew who was the mother of so many important men in my life. Even in tears, though, Victoria could manage to be a great stoic, because she merely stared ahead and then admitted, quite miserably, "I think I'm pregnant."

This was a possibility I had never considered. Because, duh, she was like, forty and had three fairly grown sons, and there was no evident man in her life, at least that I knew of. My eyes widened immeasurably, and I barely managed to silence a gasp. I blinked, absorbing this statement in silence for a few moments, before starting to rub Tory's back and turning her to face me. It was kind of a reflex, you know, because what else could I do? I found myself pulling her into an unsure and impromptu hug without a second thought. It was at that point that I kind of realized that this was way too big for her, me, or the both of us, and that maybe she shouldn't have pushed. And that I was definitely not grown-up enough to deal with this. Feeling conflicted, I apologized, "Oh, Vee, I'm sorry for pushing so hard."

Victoria pulled back a little, allowing a watery smile. "Don't. I would've too." I blinked at her once more in confusion, but Victoria shrugged, wiping away her tears and regaining some of her traditional impassive expression. "Never apologize, Jude," She stated sagely, rather mercilessly for a woman who'd just been crying.

I frowned at her, unprepared for this sudden change of mood and trying to decide how best to broach the subject of her potentially being knocked-up. Awkward, but such is my life. "Er, okay..." There was a long especially pregnant pause as I tried to think of a not-so-awkward way to ask. I failed, of course. "So, um, how do you feel about... it?" I mumbled, clearing my throat uncomfortably.

She pulled away from my embrace, running her hand through her hair anxiously. Then, bluntly, with a look of panic in her eyes, she began spelling it out for me, enunciating carefully the facts as they were. "I'm forty-two years old, Jude. I'm two months late, and I just figured I was going into menopause, but then I wasn't sure and... I didn't plan on having any more children. I never thought I would ever be in this position again... Almost all of my children are grown, and I wasn't even a good mother to those children!" This time she was actually getting more or less hysterical, starting to hyperventilate and taking up crying again. An angry look passed over her face. "And I don't have a husband or... or anyone I can talk to or ask to help out, and I don't even know what I'm going to do or..." she trailed off, catching onto an idea, "if I'm even pregnant." This seemed to calm her some, so she repeated herself, a bit more relieved, straightening a little, "I might not even be pregnant."

I nodded encouragingly and reviewed the facts in my head. It certainly didn't mean she was pregnant, though the strange emotionality and mood swings alone were more than enough to make me wonder. I had a sudden need, though, to get someone who could actually help her. I mean, I'm only seventeen. Teens are not good with pregnancy things in general. The fact that I have not managed to get myself knocked up, is, I think, more of a testimony to the men I've been involved with than my own will.

I thought it over some more and wrapped my arm around her. I had to say just the right thing, wouldn't want to upset her further. "Victoria, you're not a bad mother. You obviously love your children very much, and maybe you don't always know how to... express that love, and maybe you make mistakes, but you've done the best you can. Those three would be a handful for any mother and any parent... We both know you want what's best for them and that you would do anything for them. And they know that too, sweetie, and that's what's important," I told her soothingly in a soft and warm voice that, to be quite honest, really freaked me out. I sounded disturbingly maternal, and I was being unusually delicate about her, um, situation.

Victoria shook her head, tears falling fast and furious. "No, Jude, you don't understand. I screwed up Tommy. I'm the reason he's the screw-up he is, okay? I'm the reason why he can't love anyone..." Her voice was wavering something horrible. She sniffled, looking down, eyes glassy and filled with tears. Of course Victoria would look beautiful even crying her eyes out. The tears gave her a delicacy and fragility she never quite attained in reality. The look she gave me made me start because it was like she saw right through me, and there was such pity in her gaze, almost like she thought she was the reason for my misfortune. "Why he can't love you... why he hates himself. Because I didn't love him enough. And I never made him feel like he was good enough," she continued haltingly a moment later, confirming my suspicions.

That time I flinched. I couldn't help it. Her voice was so soft and full of pity that it struck at a very fragile part of me, hard. Stuttering a little, she added, "And... and I'm the reason why they don't get along. And even Travis is messed up, and Taylor... I don't even know him anymore. He's not my little boy anymore." She was getting even more choked up as she went on. She didn't even bother wiping at her eyes. It was a struggle just to get the words out, I think. Victoria's not exactly a person who operates on truth. "The judge saw how I'd raised my eldest sons, and he didn't even give me custody. He said they clearly grew up in a toxic environment and that Theo was the better parent, and he didn't even want me to have unsupervised visits... The only reason I get to see Taylor at all is because of his father, because Theo understands..." After admitting this, she dissolved even more completely into sobs, shouting, "I'm a terrible mother! I'm no better than my own father!"

As I wasn't expecting this sudden flow of emotion from Tory, it was a lot to wrap my head around. In some respects she was right. She was right about Travis, and she was right about Taylor. And Tommy had as much as said she was right about him, but, in a way, I didn't think so. Because blaming her takes Tommy's culpability out of it entirely. I'd thought it was strange that Taylor lived with Theo, but clearly Theo himself was hardly a perfect father. I mean, did Tommy and Travis really have significant relationships with him, after all? It was more of a benign neglect, especially now when he had the new family. Theo raised them too, you know. He just looks better because he's a nice guy and Tory's, well... not.

So she wasn't a terrible mother. Because a terrible mother wouldn't care. I found myself pulling her into a full-on embrace, letting her cry on my shoulder, and rubbing her back in circles the way my mom used to when I was sick. Sometimes you just have to let someone cry, you know? I do. When she was mostly spent, I pulled her back by the shoulders and made her look at me. "Look at me, Victoria. Your father screwed you up, okay? He deprived you of music, of your language and culture, and never supported you, and he tried to raise you to hate your mother, but you couldn't, and you felt guilty for that. Everything had to be his way or the high way, and he had to control your life, make you do things you didn't want to do. And some part of him consciously hates you for being like your mother and looking like her and reminding him of her every time he saw you. He didn't talk to you, didn't pay attention to you... he shut you out and rejected you, and he punished you and your siblings for his own mistakes. Laurent is a bitter, cold, emotionally dead shell of a man, and you're not him, okay?"

I think my point was clear enough. As you can see, all this time spent around Travis and alone with my own thoughts has made me a master of the psychoanalytical diagnoses. Sensing she was about to protest, I pulled her back into the hug. "And you are not a terrible mother," I continued pointedly.

Victoria shook her head stubbornly, still crying a little but not quite as heavily. "Yes, I am," she lamented miserably. She sniffled a little and attempted to push her hair out of her eyes. "For so many years, I said so many awful things about Tommy... and I ignored him... and I didn't think he needed me or wanted me and-"

She was starting to wring her hands. I interrupted quickly, smoothing her hair, and countered equally stubbornly and frankly, "Victoria LaFramboise, Tommy loves you. Period, end of story. You're his mother, and he's your baby, and nothing will ever change that. That's... forever." I paused for a moment, seeing the disbelief in her eyes. "No matter what he says about you or to you, that boy still adores and idolizes you. And he'd hang on your every word if you just opened up to him a little," I told her with an astonishing certainty (particularly given I was speaking of Tommy Quincy's feelings). But I knew it was true because I did still know Tommy, or know enough of him to know that. "There are a lot of misunderstandings between you and Tommy, and I think you've both tried to sabotage that relationship... but the truth is, you two need each other," I said seriously.

Victoria sniffed loudly and looked up through her lashes at me skeptically, peering at me curiously. Then she shrugged out of my grip, moving away from me slowly. "And how do you know that?" she muttered through her sobs almost accusingly, sounding exactly like the lawyer she was. Her voice was wet like her face. I couldn't tell if she wanted to believe it or not.

I threw her a look, cocking a hand on my hip. "I'm not blind, Vick, and I like to think I still know a little about Tommy. He likes to talk a big game, but ultimately it means nothing... Because, you know as well as I do that Tom's unreliable and a liar!" It came out a lot bitterer than I meant it, really. She was being kind of evasive, not looking at me. I grabbed her hands then, pulling her towards me, forcing her to listen and look at me. "And, hey, listen to me here! Despite what he said, you're the only woman Tommy has ever really loved, okay? He cares more than he can say. He takes after you in that way," I added, softening up towards the end a little, allowing myself a fond smile.

Sometimes, you know, I forget myself a little, and I'm still that same weak fool who was still utterly and blindly in love with him. Can't help it, I guess. Such was that moment. Hey, not all the memories I have connected with Tommy are bad ones... This little speech, though, was apparently enough for Victoria the Perpetually Unsatisfied. She calmed down a little, bit by bit, and slowly stopped crying. I broke the silence carefully, still looking at her askance. "Now that we can think a little clearer, the first thing you need to do is find out whether or not you're pregnant," I proposed logically.

She tensed but met my gaze unflinchingly for a moment before reaching into her purse for something. "You're right," came her somewhat muffled voice. Then she pulled a box out of her purse and looked back up at me. There was yet another awkward moment of silence between us, a very pregnant pause (punny of me), before she abruptly thrust the box into my hands, rather as if it were diseased or dirty. I stared down at it and was only mildly surprised to discover that it was a pregnancy test. First Response. I remembered seeing commercials for it during the summer when I was sitting around on my couch watching soap operas, talk shows, and other fine and classy forms of daytime television. Something about being "even a little bit pregnant," I think, that had confused me immensely. Because it's one of those things you either are or aren't, you know, like a virgin or a magician. There really isn't a halfway, you know?

I stared at the test in my hands somewhat disbelievingly for a moment, partially because this situation was just so entirely unbelievable in the first place and surreal enough that I kind of thought I was on something, and partially because I hadn't exactly expected to have a pregnancy test in my hand for a very, very long time. Then I tore my eyes away from it to meet Tory's rather nervous gaze. "I-I've been carrying this around with me for a week, too scared to take it on my own," she admitted, biting her lip. I had trouble imagining Victoria to be scared of anything, much less a test.

She wiped her eyes self-consciously with the back of her hand, but they still watered a little as she sucked in a breath. The breath became a chuckle, a frustrated, exasperated self-deprecating sort of laugh, because of course she didn't expect herself to be in this position either. "And this is ridiculous because I'm over forty, and there's a very, very slim chance I'm even pregnant at all... and I'm acting like some nervous teenager-" Her speech sped up like a runaway train until she looked back at me, no doubt realizing what she was about to say. She looked back down, a bit embarrassed, and said almost demurely, "No offense."

I shrugged. Nervous teenager... she could've said much worse, and she'd certainly said more insulting things to me anyway. "None taken." Tory leaned her head back and attempted to smile. She was so unused to smiling that it came off as a pained grimace. So I just smiled in return and patted her on the shoulder awkwardly. "And, hey, better you than me," I proclaimed probably insensitively but with enough gusto to make up for it.

Tory snorted and humored me with a weak smile. "Yeah, I'm way too young to be a grandmother!" she cackled. She wisely did not make a comment about which of her sons would've been said theoretical baby's daddy. What she did was take a deep breath and let it out through her teeth, bracing herself against the sink. "Like someone who's never done this before, and... I mean, I've had three kids. I'm a grown-ass woman. I've been on birth control before. I've done this," she gritted out. I couldn't decide whether it was a statement of her determination or if she actually needed this reassurance.

Nonetheless, I decided some additional reassurance couldn't hurt and rubbed her shoulder warmly, looking at the test. "It's okay, honey." I hesitated before holding it out towards her and suggesting kindly, "Tell you what, Tory, why don't you go in the stall and pee on the stick? Then you come back, and we'll time it, and then we'll look at it together." I was using my best "mommy" voice, but Tory still looked at me uncertainly, glancing at the test uncomfortably. So, a moment later, I offered, "And if you can't look at it, I'll tell you, all right?" Her silence was making me uneasy, and it occurred to me that maybe I'd read the situation entirely wrong and she didn't need anyone here, much less me, someone who was so out of her ken here.

I bit the inside of my cheek, racing to think of other people who could help better than I could. It was a long list, and I found myself rambling soon enough. "Unless, like, you don't want me here. 'Cause, I mean, I can go get Georgia if you want... or E.J., or, um... someone more experienced... or, wow, um, maybe even Tommy, if you want some family support... plus he's like totally the pro at reading pregnancy tests, I'm sure, and-" I was speaking as I was thinking it, so naturally I sounded completely idiotic. I totally did have a point about Tommy and pregnancy tests, though, judging by the look of distaste on his mother's face.

She stopped me by clamping her hands down on my shoulders, stilling my perpetual motion. "Jude, I want you here. Please," she breathed. There was a kind of naked desperation in her eyes, as if she had no other options, and I couldn't have refused her even if I'd wanted to. The sight of Victoria LaFramboise-Ruelle begging... much less me... was highly unnerving. Besides, she, like her sons, had that persuasive, suggestive ability to charm you into doing something you didn't necessarily want to do.

Victoria paused a mere moment before sucking in a hitching breath like a drowning woman. The tension and emotional expression became unbearable for her, so she broke eye contact and looked down. "It's just... no one else knows, and you're not really my friend, so I want someone who'll be... impartial about all of this." She looked weaker, a little drained, maybe even a bit ill as she mumbled, "And I, uh, don't really want to tell anyone else just yet. Until I know for sure."

I was a bit startled but kind of moved, honored that she'd chosen me over so many better qualified candidates. I nodded slowly. "Um, okay. I'll be here for you and you know, hold your hand and all that."I attempted a weak smile just then, practically wiggling the test towards her. God only knew how this was all gonna turn out. I could only imagine how scared she was to find out. Hell, I was scared to know!

She did something then and squeezed my hand wordlessly, expressing her immense gratitude through that solitary gesture. She was silent for a long time, staring at me, and I stored the moment away because that was respect in her eyes. "Thanks, Jude. I, uh..." She struggled for words, meeting my gaze in a way that reminded me so much of her son that I wanted to scream. The look she gave me just then, of pure, unadulterated gratitude, was all the thanks I needed. "This means a lot to me. Thanks for doing this for me." I smiled back at her slowly to let her know I meant it. Then she took the test slowly and just looked at it for a minute before letting out a strangled sigh.

"I haven't taken a pregnancy test in... God... five-six years?" she mused, reading the box, tracing the words on it. She looked a little wistful as she turned the box around absently in her fingers, staring into space with a far-off gaze. "Theo and I were trying again, but it wasn't going so well, and that put a strain on our marriage and then the fight happened and then... we stopped trying," she said quietly, blinking furiously at the undoubtedly painful reminder. She shook it off a moment later, like a wet cat, and looked even sadder. But she squared her shoulders and set her jaw, steeling herself, before walking grimly to the stall.

The wide-eyed, almost fearful look on her face haunted me as I waited. I was trying to absorb all that she'd told me and piece together what it meant while simultaneously finishing my blush in the mirror, (uncomfortably) listening to V pee, and feeling like I'd invaded her precious privacy. A few minutes later, I heard the toilet flush and the stall door creak open. I turned and watched as Victoria came out, faintly flushed and holding the test stick between two fingers with a look of distaste on her face. The sight was mildly comical but I managed to suppress laughter, as the moment was far too serious for such frivolity. She set the stick down on the counter daintily and washed her hands before turning away from it, unable to look.

I set my watch's timer accordingly for five minutes as Victoria dried her hands. We attempted to pass the time idly by exchanging small talk, but it was stilted at best. I can't recall what we talked about; nothing was really a safe topic with Victoria. Everything was a landmine. As the timer started to beep, Tory suddenly grabbed my hand, clutching it in a death-grip, and she slowly turned us around to look at the test. The word "yes" was staring right back at us, so there could be no doubt. I was very surprised, eyes wide, jaw dropped, but I was nothing compared to Victoria.

To say that Tory completely lost her composure would, perhaps, be an inaccurate statement, but it was pretty damn close. She paled like a pillar of salt and gasped slightly, as if wounded, leaning heavily against the sink, as if her legs had given out or something. Tory ripped her hand from mine violently, roughly raking a shaking hand through her hair. And then she started to pace anxiously. "I can't do this!" she shouted, clearly at her wits' end. Breathlessly, she continued, "I'm too old to be a mother... and I didn't even want another child and..." She was starting to hyperventilate and wring her hands, weak gestures that seemed entirely unlike the Tory I knew. "It was a mistake and an accident, and I'm really not prepared for this, Jude!" she burst out suddenly. There was pure, naked panic in her eyes, and she bit her lip then, as if there was something she wanted to say but couldn't.

By this point, I was slightly alarmed but trying to keep it to myself, lest I alarm her further. "Do you know what you're gonna do about it?" I asked calmly. Victoria had stopped pacing, but there was a very long pause before she shook her head no. Since she obviously wasn't going to say anything, it fell to me to be the voice of reason. Yeah, I know, scares me too! "I mean, I know it's your choice, but I really think you should take some time and think it over..." Tory's not impulsive like I am sometimes, so I probably didn't need to stress that, but whatever. Victoria looked at me and seemed to think this over, and I reached out for her in an attempt to calm her further. "I mean, honey, I know you're upset... and that you weren't really expecting this at all... but, I mean, this could be a good thing too, right? It could be like, a miracle of sorts. Another chance." I smiled a little, and then my mouth ran away from me. "And I'm sure Taylor always wanted a little brother or sister, right? And you know Tommy and Travis would both spoil the kid rotten, right, and teach him or her all sorts of things... and if they had a sister, they'd both be so overprotective that boys would be afraid to even look at her!"

I said that all very quickly and kind of exuberantly, and naturally that led to thoughts of all three of them as fathers. And yeah, I know I'm a little young to think about stuff like that, but a girl has to know. And everybody has a dealbreaker, and mine is someone who doesn't want kids. One of my dealbreakers, at least. A little sibling really might help tie them all together again, you know? Tory still looked overwhelmed, of course. "I only have boys, but that sounds kind of... nice," she murmured, smiling a little like she was kind of getting used to the idea, unconsciously placing an appreciative hand on her stomach.

And I saw that she was really starting to think this over, like, beginning to get kind of attached to the idea maybe. But there was one big factor that influenced her decision that we hadn't mentioned at all. I cleared my throat, biting my lip, debating for a long while whether or not I ought to ask the next question, but I couldn't help myself and gave into my impulses. "If you don't mind me asking, what about the father?" I blurted. "Is he, um... in the picture?"

Now, I was shifting my feet like I was the pregnant one. Or a kid who really needed to pee. Victoria frowned and looked suddenly forlorn, leading me to suspect that the subject was as touchy as I'd suspected. She had said she'd had no husband or anyone to help, which I kinda figured meant the guy wasn't in the picture. She absently stroked her now-flat stomach and pronounced quietly, after a while, "Oh, he's always been in the picture... but now things are different and there are certain... circumstances that make this... difficult."

I blinked at her, confused, unsure how to proceed, and V sighed, finally noticing the hand on her stomach and removing it. She looked resigned and turned back to face the mirror, placing the test back in the box and throwing it into the trash. She started pulling out her make-up and reapplying it, putting herself back together again. "It's Theo's," she said emotionlessly.

"OMFG!" I shouted, excited and surprised and kind of blindsighted, really. Victoria gave me a scathing look and went back to her make-up. "Are you sure?"

She gave me a predictably dirty look, offended by this insinuation. Apparently she isn't as promiscuous as the rest of her family. Go figure. "I don't quite have what you call a particularly active sex life, and the last time I had sex was Christmas," she said matter-of-factly, reapplying eyeliner.

"How?" I wondered. I know it was dumb of me to ask, but... I guess I forgot who I was talking to. "I mean, Theo's married..."

Turns out the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree after all. She threw me a look and rolled her eyes. "Obviously, I didn't care about that. Not that the rest of my family seems to, either, for that matter," she replied haughtily, laughing a little. As if sensing a potential moral judgment (should've known better, though, since she IS a defense attorney after all), she continued justifying her position. "Well, he was mine first, and I meant my marriage vows to last forever. You don't stop being someone's just because they find somebody else... You give a little piece of yourself to everyone you ever love, Jude. And you never get that piece back..." she murmured distantly. Her haunting ice-blue stare pierced right through me like she saw everything. Tommy had looked at me like that before, but it hadn't stuck with me the way it did then. "You never do when you've given them your whole heart," she replied knowingly.

I knew the feeling, and I couldn't help but take this strangely emotional advice to heart. But, at the same time, it was kind of disheartening because, well, it meant that Tommy had a piece of me forever and that that love for him was forever, you know, and forever doesn't just go away overnight. She shrugged and then added a bit more casually, "And, when the wife's away, the husband will play..." I think I've mentioned that I don't like Other Women, so this statement made me bristle a little. "We both got fairly intoxicated, Theo a little moreso than myself... and I took your advice about going after what I want, obviously. We wound up in bed together. Again," she explained a bit wryly, looking as good as new, almost as if she'd never been crying. "And it was the best sex I've had since the divorce," she murmured dreamily, eyes faintly glazed at the memory.

Yeah, I kinda wanted to vomit then, not gonna lie. "Um, okay, awkward. You are still my boyfriend's mother, and I kinda don't want to hear about your sex life," I found myself saying. She gave me kind of a weird look, I guess because of the way I phrased it, and then I got paranoid and thought she knew about that brief period where I was dating her middle son and kind of freaked out and jostled her out of the bathroom.

"Wow, Tommy really shorted out your circuits," a rather bemused Tory retorted, discreetly chucking the pregnancy test in the trash and hustling out after me. Later, of course, someone found that test and came to confront me with unpleasant questions. Or, shall I say, E.J. asked me if it was mine and if I was knocked up and said, that, if I was, it was totally cool because teenage pregnancy was "totally in and cool and socially-acceptable" nowadays. I responded with my characteristic bluntness that it'd be pretty damn hard unless Jesus himself knocked me up or the Holy Ghost paid me a little visit and Gabriel wasn't around to inform me of this holy insemination. And, as I pointed out last week, I still happen to very much be a virgin. Right now. Not defiled by any man and all that jazz. I was beginning to get sick of having to tell people about my nonexistent sex-life and how said nonexistent sex-life was suddenly everyone's business. I mean, that's pretty sad, right, given that I'm only seventeen and, I like to think, not THAT much of a total whore.

I mean, I cover all my lady bits. I wear underwear. My songs aren't about how much the men want me. I like to think I'm a bit of a class act sometimes. Anyway, as Tory says this, Tommy cuts a path through the lobby with Angie at his side, the both of them looking like mother-effing Greek Gods or something, Ares and Aphrodite, Zeus and Hera or Zeus and one of his many whores. And then the cameramen swoop back into the picture and that cocky head guy behind the camera comments slyly, "Oh, speak of the devil. Are we heading to his studio now?"

My only thought at that moment was HELLLL to the no. 'Cause I got all jumpy and panicked at the thought and all that not-ready nonsense came over me, so I looked for an excuse. "Yeah. Um. Soon," I stammered, following Tommy with my gaze. He didn't notice me or even glance at me once to acknowledge my presence, but it would've been hard for him not to notice given I'm surrounded by this mafia of men in black with camera equipment. I forced a smile. "But no tour of G. Major-" I paused for a moment, turning back to gaze at Tommy's retreating form. "-is complete without a visit to the, uh, the seat of power. So, shall we?"

I led them to Georgia's office, figuring she'd be in and I could ditch the crew to prepare for Tommy Time while they talked with her about me. I was not expecting to open the door and find her rather indisposed. And by indisposed, I mean that she was pretty intensely making out with a dark-haired man. She was sort of sitting on the edge of her desk, halfway bent over it with the guy kind of collapsing against her. Hands were everywhere, and it was kind of on the verge of getting graphic. They turned around when they realized our presence, separating to reveal that Georgia was macking on Paegan. I gaped at her openly but with a kind of knowing look.

Georgia straightened immediately in a failed attempt to look professional, and I noticed that not only were her clothes predictably rumpled, but also her shirt was unbuttoned (at least the first four buttons). She looked down, flushed with embarrassment and very likely mortified, and attempted to pull her clothing straight and smooth out the wrinkles. They both had lipstick smeared around their reddened mouths, like a guilty ring. Paegan ran a hand through his hair, waved at the camera, and flashing us all a charming but somewhat sheepish smile. He was a rockstar, of course, so having half of his shirt unbuttoned and being caught making out with a woman in the studio was really the normal state of things and par for the course.

The cameramen were whispering about Paegan Smith and who was that woman he was with and all that. So I kinda had to step in. "Hi, Georgia! I was just, um, telling the camera crew how we should see where all the decisions about my career were made... By the way, viewers, this uh, great lady is Georgia Bevans, the owner of this fabulous label and the woman who saw something in me and gave me a chance. She's one hell of a businesswoman, honestly," I exclaimed, babbling hopelessly while Georgia fixed her hair and forced a smile.

She wiped her lipstick off with the back of her hand, still very embarrassed. "Hello and welcome to G. Major Records," she proclaimed magnanimously, now in a proper standing position. Then she turned to Paegan, who was just sort of standing there awkwardly, offering him a slightly strained smile. "Paegan, why don't you go find Kwest and start working on that song you were just telling me about? I think it would make a good first single," she told him authoritatively. Paegan looked confused but slowly walked out of the room, and I gave Georgia a look. 'Cause, really, she expected anyone to buy that excuse?

"This is great! We're getting so much more out of this than they ever thought we would!" the younger cameraman, the annoying one, not the hot one, exclaimed to his brethren.

I turned to glower at them, a hand on my hip. "Thanks for having that kind of faith in my availability to attract watchers?" I remarked, mildly offended. Like, what, my life isn't interesting enough already? I mean, aren't you here for me and not them?

That same cameraman shrugged, nonplussed. Obnoxious bastard. "Hey, we're only here because everyone swore up and down we'd get some hot action on tape," he quipped cheekily.

I scowled and gave him a nasty look. "Yeah, um, sorry, but unlike Tommy, I don't have sex with people on camera. Especially not Tommy Quincy," I rejoined pointedly. Because obviously that was the kind of action they were talking about, that they expected still, even though our feud was kind of starting to be whispered about.

The hot cameraman, the smartass leader one with longish hair (not girlishly so but with bangs), countered a bit smugly, "There is one famous music video that disproves that claim." And then he proceeded to give me a piercing look. His eyes, I noticed, were brown and very pretty. But that wasn't enough to distract me from the fact that he'd just accused me of having sex with Tommy on camera. I mean, I thought a cameraman, of all people, would know just how easy it was to fake something like that.

My eye was probably twitching at that point. "Okay, just for the record, you do know that wasn't real, right?" I asked, feeling a panic starting to rise up in me. He gave me a skeptical look. Some of the other cameramen, like that mouthy one, looked like they didn't believe it at all. "I'm serious." The looks stayed the same, and I kind of felt like I was about to explode. Because I realized that they actually thought there was some kind of tape out there with me and Tommy... indisposed. And, okay, I get that he has a sex tape, but that doesn't mean that I'd have one too! "Oh my God. You don't believe me? I know he's hot and everything, but you honestly think I would allow myself to have sex on camera?" I interjected disbelievingly.

Silence was my answer to that question. Needless to say I was not pleased. I may have been moving forward to strangle him, and I think Georgia reached out to stop me. Either from hitting them or humiliating myself further. She grabbed my wrist and may have tried to say something, but I just ignored her and shook my hand free of her grip. I shook my head no and continued bluntly, "No, G. If that's what everyone thinks, despite my repeated attempts to clear this up, I want this on camera. I'm going to clear this up right now." The cameraman quirked an eyebrow, evidently amused, and motioned for me to go on. "No sex was had. Except like, dry humping. I've never had sex with the guy. Tom and I are not now nor have we ever been an item," I stated clearly, using numerous hand gestures to make myself even clearer.

Lies! Lies! Liar Liar Pants on Fire! That was what my head was screaming because it knew better. Especially about that item bit. I got in the cameraman's face for an extreme close-up, though, for all I know, he might've been focusing on my boobs, which are hardly that spectacular. "And I'm not a slut, just for the record, but I'm not gonna make any more statements regarding that because I really think I've covered it and said all I had to say about the subject." The fact that I had had to make another statement notwithstanding. "Of course, I'm sure you'll probably edit it out to sound like I did, and I'm gonna have to explain this later, but whatever. Point is, I didn't screw him. As much as I wish I had."

I could've smacked myself the minute after I said that because all of their faces went wide with astonishment. The cameraman smirked at me. But I had to maintain a calm facade like I'd meant to say that because of course it'd just be a bigger think if I freaked. "What? He'd be good," I snapped rather blandly at the cameraman. It had just hit me that of course that would wind up in the episode and that millions of people would prolly hear that little clip because we're all about soundbites nowadays... and I'd kind of admitted that at some point I'd had an opportunity to screw the guy. Whoopsies. I sighed, putting a hand on the cameraman's shoulder. "Look, can you just do me a favor and edit that last bit out?"

"No." He was still smirking. "Some things are just too good to pass up," he replied with a wink, tossing his stupid hot flippy hair.

I rolled my eyes at him, annoyed at my own stupidity and INABILITY to close my mouth. "Douche. Whatever," I muttered, throwing him a look. "I'm seventeen. I think they'll forgive me for having a crush."

Georgia gave me a wide-eyed look, practically pleading with me to stop. Cameraguy snorted. "Is that really all it is, Jude?" he questioned. I really didn't like the insinuating tone in his voice.

"Fishing much?" I rejoined sassily. I just barely bit back a more biting comment asking him whether he wanted to date me. "I don't really think asking me questions is part of your job description."

He backed down, holding his hands up in a surrendering position, but quirked a smile at my response, mumbling some comment about me being feisty. I thought to myself that he really had no idea. I'm capable of a lot. His eyes kind of glinted in a mischievous taunting way that said I was in for trouble... and that he was, no doubt, gonna suck something extremely personal from me.

The cameraman motioned to the door, looking downright excited because, as he proclaimed, we were finally going to head to the studio. Which was what they'd all been looking forward to because who the hell knows what's gonna happen when Tom and I get in there? I stepped outside and promptly started panicking internally because I was thinking about the fact that Tommy and I were gonna be alone with cameras and the pressure on. I smiled nervously and attempted NOT to bolt like a rabbit. "First, uh... I have to, I have to do something really important. It's, like, it's really, really important, so..." I jerked my thumb away in this vague general sort of direction and then, after an apologetic smile, more or less ran away.

I had already started thinking of crazy things to do to take the heat off, and how I would undoubtedly have to do something insane to misdirect their attention away from my lack of a relationship with Tommy. I kind of wandered without thinking because I really needed to get my head on straight before facing Tommy. I wound up standing right in front of Portia, who was going over some designs and outfits. She gave me a quizzical look, and that was enough to make me snap.

"I can't do this. I can't go in there and pretend like nothing's happened between me and Tommy." I plopped down next to her at the table, running a hand through my hair. I hadn't been this jittery and nervous since that god-awful first week back. My leg and fingers were shaking, made me feel like a drug addict. And as much as I reminded myself that I'd faced Tommy before and there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of (plus I could totally take him on any day and win), the cameras were really amping up the uncertainty I was already feeling. The problem was I had no idea where I stood with Tommy anymore... and it was hard enough just trying to hide my feelings from Tommy, who already knew, for my own sanity, let alone trying to conceal them from millions of TV viewers. And I had loads of secrets, juicy ones like that secret relationship we had and the fact that I told him I loved him and the affair I was kind of having with his brother-slash-my-music-teacher and so on and so forth. I was kinda almost starting to hyperventilate and totally felt a meltdown coming on.

I know that's what he wants. Me to pretend like nothing happened. And maybe that's what I should do and would do if I was some responsible adult-type who can easily get over stuff like that. I know that's the story, and he's sticking to it, but I can't pretend like things are normal. They are so not normal. Besides, I tried that once, and look how that turned out. I was a hot mess. Do we need to do a flashback sequence? 'Cause, I mean, that'd be ugly, and I don't wanna repeat it or rehash my rock-bottom period, but it'd prove my point. "Not after what he did," I muttered bitterly, shaking my head.

I'm not gonna say I'm over what Tommy did. What he's done, all of it. It's a lot. But it's something I've gotten used to. And something I'm trying to move past. So that wasn't the real problem at all, and I knew that. But it was an easy, ready excuse to explain how I felt. Even if it wasn't the real reason.

Portia looked me over shrewdly and immediately read the problem for what it was. After all, she, of all people, knows the signs of a Tommy-meltdown-in-the-making. And thank God she knows better than to ask. Portia's a good friend and a good ally, and she gets it, you know? I get what Tommy meant about her being real. She gave me kind of a pitying look. "Huh. So Tom Quincy broke your heart. Welcome to the club, sister." It was a little less sympathetic than I expected, since I'd come to think of Portia as my big sister. "That-" She pointed down at the camera crew currently taking shots of the studio below us, turning me to face them. "-is your camera crew down there. Waiting for your music. You gonna let Tommy destroy that too?" she asked bluntly. She paused for a moment, leaning across the table to pat my hand. "Take it from me, when it comes to Tommy Q, sometimes... you gotta do what's right for you. And take control... 'kay?" Portia advised candidly.

Listening to what Portia said, I realized she was right. I hadn't thought of it that way. I actually think it was Tommy who said that people only have power over you if you let them, and they'll have as much control over you as you let them have. So don't let them, he said. Letting someone have power over you's the first defeat, and Tom always had such a power over me. And it was time for me to fully take control back and get what I needed from Tom. I was not gonna let this be one more experience that Tom ruined for me. No more. I shook my head. "No, you're right. Completely right. Quincy and I need to have a little chat. And, to be honest, we've needed to have an honest conversation about some things for quite some time now," I admitted, staring darkly into space, ordering my thoughts. "I've just been too... scared... to ask," I murmured, glancing at her. "But that's gonna change starting now. We're gonna get a few things straight, Pretty Boy and I," I proclaimed intently, grin spreading across my face as I pushed myself up from the table.

Portia smiled at me. "Good for you, Jude." The hint of sadness in her eyes said that it took her much longer to achieve the same control. I gave her a grateful smile in return and started to walk away, but then I heard her mutter to herself, "Uh oh. Better watch out, 'cause, knowing Tommy, this is gonna get messy." I wanted to look back but forced myself not to because now I was a woman with a mission. And that mission would inevitably bring me into direct conflict with Tommy Quincy.

Speaking of whom, I'd noticed that the camera crew had wandered into the studio where Tom and I were supposedly working, so I headed down to join the party. I walked in all stealthy-like and caught Tommy in the middle of a sentence. He shrugged. "What else can I say? She's come a long way, and I have nothing but respect for her. Jude is a real..." he replied passionlessly. It sounded kind of clinical and boring and NOT PERSONAL AT ALL for a description, given all we'd been through together. Maybe there was fondness in his features that I didn't see; I didn't really look and I caught just the tail end, mostly words of that, not his face or expression. He looked mildly frustrated (or constipated) as well, probably by the fact that I wasn't there and he was still mad at me. He faltered for a word to finish his description. "...Professional," he finished, turning just in time to see me standing there. He looked relieved he didn't have to talk about me anymore.

I crossed my arms over my chest, in the mood for a confrontation, and damn it, it was that same studio where I'd seen him screwing Angie! And there he was, leaning against the soundboard like it was nothing. "Sorry, am I interrupting something?" I asked a bit sharply, walking towards them, remembering what else I'd walked in on here. I paused and took a deep breath. "I seem to be doing that a lot lately... Can we just get to work?" I continued a bit grouchily, blowing my bangs out of my eyes and moving towards the booth impatiently. I just wanted to get it done before Tory showed up or some catastrophe happened.

Tom looked positively uneasy around me, like he was worried about saying the wrong thing in front of the cameras. I suppose it was the first good look the man had had of me all day, but I was pleased to notice the double-take he did upon seeing me, like he was afraid or something. His jaw was a little slack, eyes a little disbelieving, and I didn't get it. He gestured to my shirt discreetly, and I looked down, wondering if it had some schmutz on it. I didn't. "Hey, is that my...?" Tom murmured, eying the shirt beadily. I looked down again and ran my hands over the fabric. A cameraman whooed, with the foolish thought that our encounter would soon turn a little more soft-core and naked. Tommy's reputation is that established.

I made a face at the cameraman. Looking down at the shirt, I really looked at it. It was too large and familiar, and, I realized with a sinking sensation, it was Tommy's shirt. I'd had the thing for months, and I'd completely forgotten about it because it had gotten buried under my bed. Honestly, I was surprised Victoria hadn't recognized it as Tommy's shirt! While I was slightly horrified, I did also want to gloat a little, so I turned to stare back smugly at Quincy, leaning back, hands on my hips. I nodded slightly, smirking. "Um... okay. I guess you can keep it," he muttered awkwardly, biting his lip and avoiding eye contact. It was weird seeing him be not totally comfortable with this. He couldn't say much with the camera on him like that. I smoothed the shirt, pulling it down a little to show more cleavage. With a shrug, back to the camera, thumbs in my belt, pushing my hips out. I mouthed, "'Sides, Quincy, I wear it better."

The vaguely appreciative once-over he gave me showed he agreed, even if he wouldn't admit it. He gave me kind of dirty looks too because he didn't get why I was kind of annoyed. Nonetheless, he nodded and almost half-smiled, and he flashed the camera a mega-watt charm smile to win them over and convince them that everything was fine here, when really everything was wrong, wrong, wrong. "Uh, sure, I already have, uh, the board set-up," he practically stuttered. The worst thing was that he was pretending to be completely comfortable around me for the cameras, but I knew better!

I may have thrown him a particularly nasty look at that comment. Yeah, you also set-up Angie against it three days ago, you asshat! UGH! My disgust was slowly building, so I distanced myself from him a little. I've had a lot of bad experiences with soundboards. Like walking in on those two and Kwest and Portia on it, making out with the wrong guy against one, being rejected by Tommy, falling over when he knocked my feet off of it, and then Travis assaulting me against one and so on and so forth. "Oh, really, it's clean and everything... when you don't even know what song we're doing?" I was starting to get a bit bitchy, picking a fight and all that.

Hey, greater forces than me were at work there. Tommy frowned at me, glancing back anxiously at the camera. He was a bit touchy. My words had thrown him off-guard. "Um, of course it's clean... I always keep the soundboard clean. You know that," he said, sounding very puzzled by the whole thing. He placed his hand on the soundboard in a sort of loving gesture that made me want to vomit. He opened his mouth and attempted to ask what song we were doing, trying to humor me, no doubt, in an attempt to smooth over my mood.

But a charm offensive wouldn't work today. I threw him a nonplussed look and leaned back against the soundboard. Tom made a face but was forced to allow me to plant my grimy hands all over it. The fact that I was touching it left me mildly nauseated and full of unpleasant memories, so I was raring to go.

But I interrupted him with a scoff, "Not lately, unless you polish it with your ass." Tommy's eyebrows shot up in the air, and I could feel the cameramen start to get jazzed. They sensed what was coming; Tommy didn't. He was starting to perhaps get a bit worried, though. To be fair, I didn't intend for the whole mess to happen, but seeing him and that soundboard was just dredging up loads of unpleasant memories and making me a bit... emotional. And irrational. And hell, I'm only seventeen, and he broke my heart and moved on that fast!

"What are you talking about, Jude?" His tone was slightly strained, a bit menacing, kind of a warning tone. And still very confused, but he was forcing a smile like the pro liar he was. But what was he gonna do to me in front of the cameras? Nothin'.

I shrugged nonchalantly, giving them a sweet, misleading smile. My hands found my hips on their own. "Nothin' much, Tom. Just the fact that you and your girlfriend were having sex in here on Wednesday when you were supposed to be oh, I dunno, producing my album? Instead of re-producing!" I retorted with a blistering sarcasm that made the cameramen gasp and cat-call. I hadn't disappointed them after all.

Fortunately Tom didn't have shame, right? That didn't change the fact that he looked like he wanted to murder me. He was unable to speak out of this urge for a moment, but he managed to control himself, as usual. He barely suppressed the rage. But his tone was pretty strained. "Uh, Jude, let's just be... professional, like we always are," he prompted, giving me a look to go along with it. There was that word again. Makes me wanna choke. Professional. When has either of us ever been that? Much less when I just said you were screwing your girlfriend in the studio, for God's sake! I wasn't going to do that, to lie for him about this, to pretend our relationship was anything other than what it was now, this degenerated bastardized perverted broken severed connection.

He was nervously glancing back and forth from me to the camera, smiling strained and awkwardly, more conscious of the way this was going to make the both of us and the studio look on television and trying to salvage it. He had a hand out in my direction, entreating me to help him sweep it under the rug and follow his example and all that. But a gulf was separating us, and not just physically. See, he cared about what they thought of him. I didn't. I didn't even really care what them or the viewers thought about me, just as long as they didn't think I was a giant whore or heaven forbid, Tommy's girlfriend!

I gave him this wtf look, like who was he kidding here? Who did he think he was talking to? 'Cause even the cameras didn't buy that crap. And I couldn't take his goddamned hypocrisy anymore. Always are, my ass! He (we were) was so far from professional, it was laughable! I kind of did chuckle a little, stifled it.

It stopped being professional, Tom, in Montreal. If, indeed, you could ever call us that. I mean, for God's sake, you're a twenty-three-year-old former teen-heartthrob ex-boybander-turned-producer-and-solo-act, and I'm a seventeen-year-old punk rock chick who won a reality TV show contest. None of that screams "pro" to me, unless we're talking about Tommy's sexual prowess or fondness for hookers!

I didn't realize I was moving closer to him, but I was. Instinctive gesture in our fights. I was magically drawn to the bastard. Something in me needed to get close to him, close enough to leave marks and burn and see how my words affected him. "Since when were we professional, Quincy? At the height of our studio time, I remember you giving me piggy-back rides and tickling me and screaming and making me pancakes and helping me do a headstand. The only way that's professional is if you're a manny, kindergarten teacher, daycare provider, or father! None of which fit you, last I checked," I scoffed at him. The cameramen hooted and made approving noises that infuriated Tom, unfortunately who couldn't punch them. I very narrowly avoided making a comment about the possibility of him having a kid stashed somewhere he didn't know about.

Then I kind of realized what I was doing. And it just hit me like a gong, all at once. It really wasn't working, and it wasn't going to work. It wasn't like I had a switch I could just turn off... and I couldn't say what I really wanted to say to him in front of these cameras. Can't be here, can't talk it out, rock and hard place, Catch-22. "This was a bad idea," I whispered, tugging on the edges of my hair and letting out a deep breath. "I can't work like this." I turned away from Tom, turning my back on him, crossing my arms over my chest defensively. I needed to get out of the studio like I needed to breathe because I couldn't breathe with him in here, couldn't concentrate or do anything! He was sucking all the air out of the room. And I just wanted to breathe! So I was restless and kind of pacing aimlessly because there were so many people blocking my way.

Tom was silent for a moment, and he frowned a little. He touched his lips like the liar he is, head coming down as if in a silent, frustrated sigh. He didn't understand my sudden change of mood, but he knew that he had to try and fix it and get me to work. He moved towards me, came close to me voluntarily for the first time in ages, trying to deal with this without causing a scene. Eyes always on the camera, eh, Tommy? I hated how he cared more about what they thought than fixing this. He rolled his eyes like I was being a diva. Thought I didn't see, the dumbass. "Okay, um... Do you need to take a break?" he asked, tensing and edgy already, in his "generous and understanding" voice. "Even though we haven't started yet?" he added pointedly a moment later, beginning to get mildly irritated with all of this.

"No!" I burst out, shaking my head slightly. And it was like the birds were singing, and the hills were alive, my friend. A sudden blast of clarity came over me, and the enlightenment of this epiphany showed on my face. There it was: my answer, my way of getting out of this, of ending the cycle. "You do. Permanently," I pronounced resolutely, just as I realized it myself. It felt good to say and get it out there, to know it wasn't an empty threat this time. There it was, my Hallelujah!

I can't quite describe the look on Tom's face. It was an odd mixture of many emotions I'm not even quite sure he possesses. He turned at least three shades paler than normal and kind of froze at first, like a statue or the Ice Man he is. His eyes were wide with surprise, but I was impressed that his jaw didn't drop and his mouth didn't gape open. His jaw was firm and tightly held shut; I watched the muscles clench as he swallowed, saw the veins and arteries jump in warning. A warning I ignored, by the way. Tom knew I was serious, all right.

Then it was a sort of look of horror I saw, a kind of darkness settling in his eyes, a deadness, a dread. But the look that stuck was the stricken one, the one where he looked disappointed and indignant and like a puppy someone had smacked with the newspaper, like I'd punched him in the face or something with substantial traces of caution, frustration, and immense confusion, like he couldn't possibly understand why I was doing this. "What are you saying?" he asked needlessly, sinking a little, practically into the soundboard, looking away.

Oh, Tommy, honey, you knew exactly what I was saying. Don't make me repeat it. I'm not gonna say anything different. I shrugged callously, head cocked slightly to the side. "I don't want you producing me anymore, okay?" My voice was sort of quiet because it was this intense, personal moment between the two of us and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers. There, I said it. I finally said it and meant it this time. I didn't pause to take a breath, looked him straight dead on, and continued on more assertively, "You're fired." Fired, that was the harsh word, the one that made him recoil.

His face was devoid of an expression, but I could tell he was angry. His lips were tight like a thin white line, making him look like a little boy who'd just been publicly scolded. It occurred to me that I might've embarrassed him in front of all these people, and I kind of relished it, enjoyed him having nothing to say and so not seeing that coming. He turned away from me, jaw tightening, and I figured he was just going to leave again because that's what he does, like me saying that was some kind of blow. But he wasn't done. He whipped back around to face me, pissed and not afraid to let it show. "That's not your job, now is it?" he hissed, moving closer.

I raised a brow, taking a step closer. "That's not what Georgia said," I countered smugly. "And I might not be able to really fire you, but I can request that you don't work on my album, not that you want to anyways, when it's clear you'd rather be anywhere other than here," I continued bitterly, just managing not to poke him in the chest. I enjoyed the vindication for a minute, the pure satisfaction of making that comment to him. I turned and then saw the camera, which grounded the moment in the public eye. I think I looked like someone hit me, that I couldn't hide that pain, so I looked away from both Tom and the camera. "Besides, I can't even look at you, and you can't stand the sight of me. I can't work with someone who disgusts me."

Maybe it was a bit melodramatic, but it was how I felt. Tommy grabbed my arm, turning me around abruptly. I was unsteady on my feet from all the turning. "Come on, Jude, think about what you're saying here!" he demanded, sounding and looking a bit emotional. His eyes were glistening a bit more than usual, but that didn't necessarily mean he cared. His hand was still on my arm, and I was all too aware of it. But I wasn't about to give into it.

"Don't "come on" me, Tom." I grabbed his wrist firmly, hands touching bare skin for a sizzling moment that left the both of us a little breathless, and pried his hand away from my arm, casting it aside roughly. The cameramen interpreted that comment in a dirty way and got kind of excited. But I was so not in the mood for any of it. "I've tried, and I've tried... but there's just a point where you've gotta ask yourself if this is all worth it... and when you come to that point, and you have to ask yourself... then it isn't really worth it anymore, is it?" I said wearily.

Tom's eyes widened, realizing for the first time that maybe this was something bigger than the two of us. He looked ready to argue with this, but I wasn't finished. I looked him in the eyes, head cocked, seeing right through him. "You know we've been working together horribly lately, and you're obviously way too busy to produce me... We don't talk or hang out like we used to. We don't think alike anymore..." I took a breath, looking down. It was hard, saying all of that, admitting these things I hadn't even said to myself. "I don't even know what you want from me, Tom!" I exclaimed, throwing a hand in the air, daring him to answer me.

He didn't know what to say, I suppose, so he didn't answer. He just stood there.

I was getting more and more upset, working myself up into a frenzy. I'd started pacing, and my thoughts were running at a million miles a minute. I didn't know where I was going with this, what I was working towards. But I wasn't really thinking so hot or deeply. "We're barely civil to each other, and we're both angry all the time. We don't even really work on songs together anymore... so why keep pretending, Tom? This isn't benefiting either of us." My eyes were starting to sting that way they do when you're really tired or about to cry, and it was draining. I pushed back my bangs, regaining a bit of my composure. "This isn't working out. You know it, and I know it, and it's about damn time one of us admitted it," I forced out bluntly, gesturing between the two of us, then to him, then to me.

Tommy looked shell-shocked. He was mostly trying to wrap his mind around everything I'd just said because it had been quite a lot and all of it quite emotional. But he knew I was right, deep down. I stared him down unflinchingly, waiting for him to say something, anything to that. I'd confronted him with the truth, and I wanted to see how he'd take it. We engaged in this eerily intense stare-down, this silent stalemate, for a painful minute-and-a-half that seemed to drag on for eternity and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I blinked in surprise when Tom voluntarily moved closer to me and made like he was going to touch my arm.

I jerked away reflexively, as if he'd hit me. Tom let his hand fall but didn't move away. "Jude, what's wrong here? Have I done something?" he asked in that infuriatingly soft, concerned voice of his. The cameras could barely pick up on it, I'm sure. The look in his eyes, too, kind of wide, like he wasn't furious at me like I knew he still had to be. Because Tom holds grudges.

As much as I wanted to move back, I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. My eyes hardened, and I let my entire face shut down on him. "Oh, believe me, you've done a lot of things, Tom, but the problem is what you haven't done lately. Which is anything." And, really, what had Tom done for me lately? And was any of it good? Nothing and no. It annoyed me how he acted like he had no idea what he did. I mean, Tom, you broke up with me! Don't pretend like you don't remember just 'cause it supposedly didn't happen! Don't stand there and ask me that question when we both know you know the answer!

He snorted, about to say something, maybe something good and bitter, but I cut him off. I gave him the fiercest look I could muster, hoping he didn't see through me or realize how close I was to tears (I was closer still to exploding violently in rage and murdering him, however). "What are you still doing here, Tom? You're fired, remember, and you have no more business being here in my studio. So leave. You're free!" I snapped, throwing my hands up in the air, shooing him out. Tom gave me a long, pensive look, a look that was more of a glower, really, and then he turned around and stalked out, clenching his jaw, as silent as death.

I think I caught a vaguely exasperated look in his eyes, but I can't be sure of that. Either way, I stared after him, long after he was gone, mostly because I couldn't believe he'd just left like that. Without a fight. Without even a single word. Tom and me, we don't go out with a whimper. We go out with a scream, and the way he left was just... not like him. Then I turned around and saw the camera. I'd forgotten it was there, and the sight of it startled me. There was no way I was able to keep the vulnerable look off my face, like I was Bambi or something. My heart was totally out there and out on my sleeve, and my eyes were, God, so wet it was a wonder I wasn't already crying.

Because I hadn't expected him to actually do what I asked. I didn't think he'd just leave like that, turn his back on me, and just... give up. And I didn't know what to do, and I didn't like that damned uncertain feeling. And I was disappointed, okay? Disappointed that Tom didn't care more. Disappointed that he didn't even really try to talk me out of it. I was used to meeting so much resistance from him, and the one time it might've been a good thing, Tom suddenly thought I was right and knew everything and what was best. And I didn't.

The camera and I had a silent standoff too. My nerves were shaky, just like my hands. That feeling hadn't gone away. But I was better at hiding it this time around. No one was gonna be around to see me shatter. "What? What are you looking at?" I growled, using my best pissed-off city-dweller voice on them. "There's nothing to see here," I muttered irritably, flying out of the studio before they could stop me. I needed a moment to myself to catch my breath, to hide and recoup, and they weren't going to catch me this time.

Somehow I wound up outside, right next to that alley, and I managed to run right into Jamie. Literally. He smiled at me, but his smile fell when he saw my face. His hands were on my shoulders, partially bracing me and also protecting himself, and allowing himself to get a decent look at me. I think he asked me what was wrong, but I was too shellshocked to hear it. It was just starting to sink in, what I'd just done. The fact that it was irreversible. I'd just broken the cycle all right. "I don't know what I just did, Jamie," I mumbled, dumbfounded, gazing up at him. I was so lost and trying-needing to hold on to something solid. So my fingers found his upper arms and held on tight.

I don't know how Jamie found out. Maybe he saw. Maybe he heard. Tom's not good at keeping that sort of thing in. Either way, I gathered very quickly that he'd followed me out here and knew all right. He backed me up against the wall for some well-needed support, glancing down every now and then at my hands on his arms (which I didn't even notice), and looked me in the eyes. "Really? 'Cause I do." My eyes shot up at this, questioning. His bangs were kind of flopping down in his face, and I felt him smiling before I saw the grin. Something in me was sinking. "Can I say it out loud, Jude?" he asked gleefully, sounding like an antsy little boy, practically jumping up and down.

He'd released me, and I knew he was trying to suppress his joy at seeing Tom put in his place (apparently he had actually witnessed this) for my sake, but I couldn't blame him for feeling that way. A part of me had, after all, and Jamie and Tom was never something I was ever gonna understand. I clutched my head, tempted to bang it against the wall as I became increasingly aware of how I'd just screwed things up. A part of me said it was necessary, and maybe that was true, but it didn't change the fact that I'd just botched something very important. And my album and reputation were on the line. Not Tom's. "Please don't," I pleaded, looking up at him miserably.

Jamie, God bless him, was too excited to stop himself. Like a damn puppy, all yippy and jumpy and enthusiastic about it in such a way that you can't even really be mad because you feel bad for trying to crush that. He was even rocking forward on his heels, practically clapping his hands. "You just fired Little Tommy Q. On Camera. Which millions of people will now watch." I swear, I thought he was gonna wet himself. He glanced around self-consciously. "Am I the only one completely psyched to see this? Like, I wanna TiVo it already," he whispered, positively giddy with the images of Tom's humiliation spreading across the nation like a wildfire.

I grimaced. He'd served to remind me that it was an international broadcast, meaning that millions of people not just in Canada would be watching it. The mere thought alone, let alone the inevitable consequences of Georgia murdering me, was just about enough to make me hyperventilate. I tugged on the ends of my hair and ran my fingers through it, fluffing needlessly. "So not helping, Jamers." I diverted my attention to my feet in shame because it had just occurred to me that there were probably paparazzi out here. And I have a very distinctive hair color.

"I feel like it's my birthday!"

I didn't need to look at his face because I could vividly picture the expression in my head, especially given the tone of his voice. I'm also really glad I didn't punch him in the face like I wanted to. His glee was very much not helping. I pushed off from the wall and started pacing, translating my agitation into nonviolent action. "Huh, well, I didn't have a choice! Okay, not after what he did," I argued, not really intending for Jamie to hear that. I just needed to get a little of my frustration out before I had a nervous breakdown or shot someone or something.

"And what did he do?" Jamie cut in, all of a sudden very interested. He put his hand on my arm to still me, but I took a swing at him, and he backed up a little. I gave him a half-hearted glare and refused to elaborate. Nice try, Jamers, but you can't keep a secret to save your life, and... If I told Jamie everything, not that I ever, ever would, it would just hurt him and cause him to start a campaign to get Tommy arrested. And, after the fiasco with Travis, that is most definitely not what I want to do. There are some things I'm just not comfortable sharing, and some things best friends just should not know about each other.

Like their sex lives, for instance. I do not want to hear about him and Kat from him. I don't really even wanna hear from Kat, to be honest. It's just... awkward.

Anyway, I continued as if he hadn't spoken, running a hand through my hair. Ignoring an issue sometimes did the job. Or it caused the issue to blow up spectacularly in your face. As often happens. "And I'm sick of pretending," I pronounced a bit more decidedly. Then I heard this familiar mechanical noise and turned in its direction... only to find myself staring into the black hole of a camera lens manned by an unfriendly cameraman. Guess this is what happens when you ditch them three times? I perked up a little and forced a smile."Oh, hey! You found me!" Unexpected. There was a long awkward pause where I could think of nothing to say and was forced to retain this equally uncomfortable smile. "Um, hey, this is... this is my best friend, Jamie," I said, gesturing to the man-boy standing next to me, straightening a little so I looked better.

I glanced over at Jamie, who merely looked amused. I suppose he had to since I was kind of a wreck with messy hair and uncomfortable clothes, eyes still filled with tears, and uncertain, shaky limbs I didn't know what to do with. "Hello," he responded, waving in a way that was both friendly and ironic, that familiar crooked smile on his mouth.

The corner of my mouth perked up a little bit as I looked at him. He'd made a funny face, and Jamie was always really good at cheering me up and putting me at ease. "Who's always there for me..." I continued with a smile, trailing off uncomfortably as I tried to think of a way to classify this moment in my life. "-In times of crisis. Like now. 911." I laughed nervously, waiting for Jamie to pick up the opening I'd given him and turn it into some sort of joke.

Jamie tended to think that stuff like this was a bit of a novelty, so he was simultaneously amused and uncomfortable being under the spotlight. That awkward charm made him doubly entertaining and useful for distracting industry types. "Ma'am, there's a vehicle on the way," Jamie deadpanned, adopting the radio-voice of a dispatcher or EMT. Without prompting, he then proceeded to mime driving an ambulance and made amusing siren noises that actually made him sound like a dolphin.

The laughter that followed was genuine on my part, but almost a bit hysterical because I was kind of overcompensating. "Mm hmm," I said, placing my hand on his shoulder warmly, gratefully. My lips twitched and I took a deep breath. The pervy cameramen got all excited when they saw my chest rise, making my breasts stick out more, and surely focused the camera to better capture that image. "Okay, so I'm gonna go back in the studio now and produce a single by myself. All by myself. For the first time ever. With cameras watching. No pressure. Ha ha," I muttered, motioning to the studio with my thumb. I wasn't exactly in a hurry to get back in there, though.

Jamie, reading me correctly, wrapped an arm around me. "And I know Jude Harrison. She will do stellar," he stated clearly, looking straight into the camera. He knew I needed the boost and the support, and believe me, I was glad to have it. I smiled at him gratefully, a bit timidly, maybe. His grip around my shoulders was tight like a boa constrictor, but I didn't shake it off. I needed it.

I patted him on the chest affectionately. "Aw, thank you, Jamie. Good thing it's not a math quiz, or else I wouldn't have a chance in hell. And fortunately I learned how to work the soundboard on various occasions, but in some depth over Christmas Break. Among several things I learned how to do in depth over Christmas Break..." I rambled, stopping dead when I realized where my mind was heading. I blushed because, to my dismay, I was once again thinking of Tommy. Only this time I was thinking about him naked. And what I'd done with him when I was naked. Jamie gave me a questioning look, and I looked away, ashamed. "Um, and we are officially not thinking about that, so here's hoping I know what I'm doing!" I proclaimed, index finger in the air, charging towards the studio.

Jamie clapped, following me in, smiling fondly. I was still trying not to think about my ex. Naked. How good he looked. How good it had felt. How much I'd learned. About him, about me, about pl-Not thinking about it, Jude. So not thinking about it. No sexy times. Right before I reached the studio where I was gonna be working, I turned around abruptly in the doorway, looking straight into the camera. Then, in a lowered voice, as if I were confessing a secret, I began, "On the downlow, that whole firing Tommy thing? Completely wasn't planned. I kinda just got, you know, caught up in the moment and didn't think things through, and I mean, I guess you could say Tommy has that effect on me..." I laughed nervously, shrugging helplessly, trying my best to smile.

The rush of power had gone to my head a bit, and it was a heady feeling. Control. Ironically, by losing control of myself, I'd somehow managed to gain it. "But, yeah, so that's the first time I've ever actually followed through on that threat. And I'm not gonna lie... it feels kinda... good," I reflected after a brief pause. As much as I was freaking out, it did feel good. I ran a palm across my collarbone absently. My smile started falling. "But yeah, I am just a tiny bit screwed because I kinda do need him for this whole producing thing. So you get the good fortune of watching me, um, work on figuring that out. This is much more of an adventure than I think any of us bargained for, gentlemen!" I exclaimed, clapping my hands together and clenching them, white-knuckled, for a moment. Then I knocked the door open with my hip, and they followed me in like a flood.

I could've used a moment to catch my breath, maybe. To splash cold water on my face. To gather my wits about me. Because, despite that conversation with Jamie, I wasn't entirely reassured. A few moments later, I found myself in charge of a song, a studio, and a band. It was harder than I'd realized, of course. "Can I get some help here, guys, or are you just gonna watch while I'm swallowed whole?" I complained to Kyle, Wally, and the cameramen, holding up some of the seemingly endless cords I needed to hook up. I'd been a roadie before, but that didn't mean I knew how to hook up all the cords.

They were goofing off and of course didn't pay attention. I sighed. Sometimes working with them was like babysitting small children. Only, unfortunately, they understood sarcasm. I raised my voice. "Okay, boys, can we just focus? This is my one chance to make a good first impression as a producer. All right? So let's just..." I happened to glance through the glass and over my shoulder, and there, through the open door, I saw a flash of Tom and Angie. I froze, forgetting what I was saying, and stared, watching as Tommy pulled something out of his pocket. "Let's just be professional," I said distractedly.

It was some form of jewelry, and I watched as Tom dropped the chain in Angie's palm, folding her hand and closing his hands over hers. Angie said something to him, and Tom looked sad and said something back. Then Angie said his name and threw her arms around him tightly. It looked like she was crying.

"Since when are you professional?" Kyle asked pointedly, skeptically, flitting in and out of my vision, momentarily blocking my view. I paid him no mind, already preoccupied. I was unable to take my eyes off the sight of them. Angie pressed her face against his neck, and then she pulled back. She turned slowly, handing Tom the necklace, and he fastened it around her neck carefully. I wanted to vomit after seeing him.

Speed's voice interrupted my watching, loud and vaguely obnoxious. "Uh, Ground Control to Major Jude? Ready to rock out," he exclaimed. I turned to look at him, and he'd adopted some sort of ridiculous pose, rocking back on his heels, hips thrust forwards. I rolled my eyes at him and resumed staring at the couple in the lobby. They were now making out. Naturally.

But I still couldn't look away. "Hold on," I told him, holding up a finger.

"Hey, Jude!" Speed shouted at the top of his voice. I knew what a cry like that meant. It meant he was about to tackle me. I whirled around to glare at him, but Speed stared me down, completely unperturbed. "What song did Squinty set up for before you gave him his walking papers?" he asked cheerily. Speed being so perky, especially after being so weird this morning, was getting on my damn nerves. I glowered at him, silently reminding him that I could just as easily fire him. "Um, Jude, what song are we doing?" he repeated a bit more meekly.

I thought it over for a moment. I hadn't exactly come in here with a plan. Not even when I thought I was just gonna be working with Tom. I wanted a song that perfectly expressed what I felt at that moment, a song I'd written about... whatever I was feeling. After the break-up. Lyrics filtered through my head, one after the other, as I analyzed my choices. One day at a time, my world is shattering... Maybe the answer's to never ask why... As I watch my life unraveling! And there, I had my answer.

The music ran through my head, and I turned to Speed, suddenly ready to go. What other choice did I have? It's like Portia said. I can either freak out about this, go into it kicking and screaming and bitching... and just let Tom win, admit I can't do this without him. Or I can just do it on my own, and figure things out as I go. "We're going to do a different song today, guys. Not the one Tommy wanted." Not that I knew what Tom wanted. When had I ever known? "We're gonna do this my way for a change. Because it's all on me now," I said unnecessarily. "I... I wrote this song a month or so ago, and it seems really fitting right now, so we're uh... we're gonna sing that one." That time I was addressing the camera.

My fingers found the song in my journal. "And what song would that be, Dude?" Speed asked a bit impatiently. He was looking at me kind of like he thought I was insane. And obviously I am a bit unhinged at this point. And didn't say the song name. But I was just so excited about it! Me, producing on my own! Me, not needing Tommy!

This is what I wanted. I smiled at Speed, who was still giving me that you-are-clearly-insane-look. He shook his head though and laughed. Crazy like a fox, maybe. "Unraveling... Don't worry, boys. I'll walk you through it," I told them, grabbing my guitar and sitting down on the couch. I started playing and humming the melody. "I've been walking through the ruins... of my life and times. Seems like everything is sinking right in front of my eyes..." I began, nodding along for them to follow along. An impressively successful and on-task recording session followed. I was kind of in disbelief it had all worked out so well, really.

Which brings me to here, where I stand, glancing around the lobby like a hawk. There was still one thing I needed to do, and I'd put it off long enough. I needed to know. My eyes finally stopped their frantic search when they landed on Tom, who was, fortunately, Angie-free this time. Tom was in the kitchenette, making himself some tea, off in the corner all by himself, and Angie was nowhere in my immediate line of sight. That was my cue. I walked up to him and swiftly positioned myself between him and the counter. Tom turned around just in time to slosh tea on me. Yes, Tom, I'm just used to having hot liquids fall on my chest. "Hey!" Douchebucket. His face contorted into a glare, a naked expression of the way he felt about me, the first naked microexpression I'd seen on him all day. So I started to talk, motioning rapidly between us, "Look, Quincy, as much as I hate it... You and me, we need to talk."

Tom's face became a decidedly blank mask, but he allowed himself to scowl at me. "Funny, I thought you said all you had to say earlier. You know, when you fired me," he countered bitterly. He chose that moment to use his index finger to wipe up the tea that had dripped down the side of his glass, quickly bringing his slightly burned tea-sodden finger to his lips and sucking it with a faint grimace. It was a vaguely ridiculous sight, of course, but alluring, I thought, remembering the suction power of those lips, how they felt on my throat. A delicious shiver ran through me at the pleasant memory.

It's really hard to get mad him when I'm still so hot for him. I just stared at him for a moment before looking down. Must stop looking. Must. "I... I'm not gonna say I didn't mean it, because I did, but... it doesn't mean what you think it means. I don't even know what it means," I told him honestly, walking past him a little, lest he think that I was attempting to come on to him again. I gestured between the two of us. "What it does mean is that this, us not-talking... It's not working... Tommy... It's time for an honest conversation, for once. We've put this off long enough," I told him wearily.

Tom raised a brow, attempting to move past me. "You know how to have honest conversations? I thought you just lied about anything serious and important..." he replied sarcastically. His eyes were hard and stern. He was obviously eager to get back to Angie. And whatever, he could do that. After I was done with him. "And it seems like every conversation we have lately, you just end up attacking me." He shrugged, as if asking what he was supposed to do about that.

"Well, it isn't like you don't deserve it," I retorted immediately, unable to stop myself. Tom stopped in his tracks and just stared at me, surprised. I sighed and let my weight sag against the counter. I hadn't meant to say that. "Look, I'm sorry, Tommy, but would it kill you to be nice to me, just once? 'Cause we need to have this conversation, and I need you to be the Tommy you were before for me. I need you to remember that you were once a decent human being where I was involved and tell me what I need to know so I can get this out of the way and move on with my life. And hopefully forget about it as soon as possible," I pleaded, turning serious. "It'll just take a minute."

Tom just stared me down for a long moment, processing my request. It hurt my pride to have to beg my ex for this small thing. He probably thought it was some sort of trap or ambush, but I really meant it, though. "I shouldn't be doing this. Lord knows I don't want to be doing this... But I guess I owe it to you," Tommy admitted, letting a breath out through his teeth. His jaw was still tight, as if it had been set in stone. He took a sip of his tea, frowning slightly. He leaned in a little closer to me than he had in a while. I could practically feel his breath on my face, could smell the faint aroma of anise on his breath from the mouthful of tea. "But if you're leading me into a trap here, Jude, I will make you pay for it, one way or another, you hear me?" he muttered menacingly, eyes dark when they locked with mine. Amazingly, the threat was conveyed more strongly without physical contact.

That comment seemed so out-of-place that it shook me. He really didn't trust me at all anymore. But I guess I'd given him plenty of reasons. I think maybe I jumped a little, but I put on a brave enough front, rolling my eyes at him like I was as annoyed as I wanted to be that he'd suggested that. I mean, at this point, what can I do to him, you know? Hold a press conference about our secret relationship, press charges against him, tell A Day in the Life everything about our past, or jump him in front of Angie and the cameras? Sure, I could do all that, if I was petty and desperate and had no self-respect or dignity, but I like to think I've moved past that sort of blind striking-out. Especially when it would hurt me just as much, if not more, than it would hurt him. "Relax, Quincy. What can happen in a minute?" I asked him pointedly, raising a brow.

A lot can happen in a minute, and I know that better than most. Tommy threw me a pointed look, glancing around the lobby watchfully. Paranoid, he is. I made a face at him and reached out and pushed him a little, drawing his attention back to me. Sure enough, Tommy's eyes snapped up to mine, anger, annoyance, and a trace of some other unpleasant emotion swirling in their depths. I leaned in a little closer to him. "What? You don't trust the both of us to control ourselves alone for a few minutes?" I questioned, frowning a little. That was actually very sad if it was true. I rolled my eyes at him again. "All I'm asking you do to is talk and listen. Now, come on, Tom, let's make this one a quickie," I added impatiently, noticing that the cameras were rounding a corner and about to spot us.

Tom's face turned several shades at that last word, first white then red then green and then a sort of mottled ill-looking color. Grey maybe. Then he sighed, gritting his teeth and silently conceding, though he still looked a bit perturbed. "Is there someplace... private... we can go?" he asked in an undertone, taking another swig of his tea and already starting to move away.

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding and nodded discreetly, glancing around the lobby and scoping everyone out. I'd somehow managed to ditch the cameras for the time being. Some kind of meal break, but it wasn't bound to last, and I did not want to have this very important conversation with Tom in the middle of everything. I knew people would be suspicious if we left at the same time, so I jerked my head in the direction I wanted and mumbled, "You know exactly where. The fire escape."

Tom stifled a snort, rolling his eyes. "As always." He, however, planted himself firmly in place and attempted to shoo me off. I didn't move, and Tom's lips tilted even farther down. "You go first, Jude. I want to finish my tea," he muttered, almost gripping my arms to show me the direction. But Tom the Toddler didn't trust himself to touch me, so his hand lingered awkwardly in the air for a moment, touching nothing, before he drew it back to his side.

I let out an irritated sigh, rolling my eyes at him, but turned squarely on my heel nonetheless, briskly heading for the fire escape. Who knew if he'd even show? Tom's been running from this a lot longer than I have. And there I was AGAIN, waiting for him! Like it's my damn job! Well, I comforted myself, he had said he owed me this much, at least. And he did. More than that, maybe. Besides, if he doesn't show, I know where he lives and works and all of his hang-outs. I can always make him talk to me. It's less honest, but I need this bad enough for it not to matter.

It was cold in the alleyway. It had snowed recently, and no one ever thought to clear the fire escape, so there was maybe a foot or so of snow there. My footprints were the only ones that besmirched the snow's purity. Apparently even Tommy hadn't been out here for a while. I guess it had too many memories. Or maybe Ange didn't like him smoking. I should've had the presence of mind to grab a jacket, but I didn't think it'd be a long conversation. There was only one question I had for him. I shivered, leaning my elbows on the railing and closed my eyes to gather warmth about me. It didn't work, but it did help me gain some of the courage I needed for this.

My eyes flew open when I heard the heavy door groan. I straightened automatically, pushing myself up, and turned to face the opening door. Sure enough, there was Tommy slipping through the door, leather jacket on and a vaguely apprehensive look on his face. "Good. You actually showed," I commented, crossing my arms over my chest. With the body language and cold, it came out shorter and more combative than I'd intended.

Tom's eyes narrowed as he let go of the door. He put his hands in his pockets for warmth, and I envied him. The door slammed shut behind him, and we both flinched at the sound. Tom came towards me slowly, ignoring the mild barb of my statement. "Jude... What's this about?" he asked intently.

I rolled my eyes at him irritably. The cold was getting to me. Unlike Tommy, all I was wearing was a thin shirt and tights. He should know what this is about by now. What's it always about? "What do you think it's about, Tom?" I retorted sharply.

Tom's frown deepened into a scowl, jaw tightening. He flexed his fingers. "Look, I don't have to take this. If this is the way you're going to be, I'll just leave..." At first I thought he was bluffing, but after a tense moment of staring, he turned on his heel, moving towards the exit. And I was not about to just let him walk away this time.

I dashed after him and grabbed his wrist. My fingers slipped off the cold leather and found purchase on skin. He was warm. I think one of us gasped at the contact, but I couldn't tell you who. "No, don't!" Tom turned around just enough to meet my gaze. I looked down at my feet. My ankles were shaking. "I... I'm sorry, Tom," I muttered, feeling a little of that strength leave me. I glanced back up at him, and Tom's eyes dropped from mine. He pointedly directed his gaze to my hand, which remained on his wrist. I didn't drop it, however. Our eyes locked, blue on blue. "I just... I need this, Tommy."

I felt him stiffen, saw in his eyes that he'd taken it the wrong way, like I was trying to force myself on him or something. He started to pull his wrist back, but I hung on. I let out a breath and saw it hang in the air, white and heavy. I could feel my lips tremble, my teeth try to chatter, but I tightened my jaw too, unwilling to show even a sign of weakness. "Tommy, look, I just need to know one thing. One thing and then I swear I won't take up any more of your time, won't ever bother you again..." I began bravely, taking a breath, forcing myself to look at him. I released his wrist. We were practically up against the wall.

Deep breath. Here goes nothing.

"I'm gonna ask you, Tommy, and I'm just gonna ask you flat out. Do or do you not love me?"

Tom hadn't been expecting this, and he turned to stare at me so abruptly, shock etched into the features of his white classical face. Like some kind of Greco-Roman sculpture. He was predictably silent and... frozen. I was as plain and loud as I could be about the question, so there was no way he could misunderstand me. I didn't expect the deafening silence that followed. I didn't hear any animals or cars or even the wind. Tom turned away just as fast, walked past me to the catwalk. I turned and watched as he grabbed the railing, leaning against it, allowing his eyes to close. He leaned over it and a grimace passed over his face.

Some might've taken this for a no. It might've been. Some ingenious little cop-out way for him to get off without hurting my feelings too much. But I didn't take it as such because it wasn't an answer. What it was was a failure to answer.

And it made me incredibly furious. 'Cause I more than deserved to hear it, the truth. It was all I wanted. I knew the answer to my question, but I needed to hear him say it. I pounded down the steel to him, heard my footsteps echoing on the grooved metal, the only sound in the whole alleyway. "God, Tommy, why can't you just say it?" I asked desperately, grabbing him by his lapels. Then I pushed him and knocked him back a few steps. Only Tommy, it figured, would have trouble saying he didn't love me. Ha, and most guys have trouble saying it when they do. Why had it been so easy for him to say it in front of Chaz a little over a month ago, but he's having so much trouble saying it to my face now when I'm asking him directly?

Tom just stood there, hands out, like we were playing freeze tag. His face was completely blank; I couldn't read a damn thing from those familiar lines. He moved backwards slowly, away from me, hands still in the air, like he was surrendering to the police or something.

I decided to try a different approach. I started to walk towards him slowly, step by step. I didn't stop until I was a little less than a foot from him. We were halfway out on the catwalk. My feet sent snow over the edges. I hooked my thumbs under my belt for a bit of warmth, jutting my arms and elbows out in a tight, uncomfortable way. I blinked at him, tilting my head and regarding him levelly. "I love you, you know that, right?" I said suddenly. My words hung in the air like a curse.

I shuddered at my own words; I hadn't intended to say that, to start with that. I'd been unsure of how to start, and my stupid mouth had gotten the best of me yet again. Tom winced at my opening. His whole face tightened up like he didn't like the memory, and he turned away from me and my direct gaze, reaching out for the railing, as if bracing himself. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He took one cigarette out of the pack and lit it. I noticed his fingers were shaking.

He takes a long drag of his cigarette and takes his time savoring every bit of it, eyes closed, before he says anything. "Yes... I know. Believe me, I know," He replies wearily. His voice is low and raspy. It sounds like some sort of chant, the way he says it. He looks tired and so much older than he really is. "And I'd prefer if you didn't mention it," He mutters tightly.

Ouch. I feel the sting of his words like I feel the wind on my face or the cold creeping into my heart. I come to stand to him and lean on the banister as I'd done before. The metal is frosty under my sleeves. I look down on the alleyway, on the trash, and suddenly, I want to cry. "A part of me is always going to love you, Tommy, but I can't do this anymore. It's killing me."

I'd completely ignored his little command there, and I felt a surge of pleasure at that. Tom turns, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth like it's a lollipop or something. His eyes are blazing. His face is closer to mine than I realized. "How the hell do you think I feel? I don't like the position you put me in either, Jude. It's not like I enjoy being the reason for your unhappiness," He spits bitterly. The cigarette's still in his fingers, and I want to take it, to feel just a little bit of warmth.

Instead, I look away from his too-intense stare, and I turn my gaze back down to the alleyway below us. "You know, you never really answered my question... when I asked you flat-out how you felt about me. You never give any kind of answer," I remark dimly. Then I turn to look at him. "And, I don't know if you've noticed, but everyone around you seems to think you're in love with me... your mother, your brothers, your best friends, Ruby, my sister... So I can't help but wonder sometimes." All the time. None of the time because it's too painful to think about. Then I turn back to looking at the alleyway, which is black and wet, a little steamy from the heat of the nearby buildings, not frozen like it is up here.

Truthfully, I'm not sure if I expect him to answer. I don't, but I want him to. If Tom reacts to my statement, he doesn't show it. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him puff on his cigarette, squinting out into the alleyway like me, a far-off look on his face. "Maybe I was trying to make a point by not answering it directly," he replies obliquely, through the smoke.

I turn robotically, abruptly. "Like what, Quincy? It's not like you to be diplomatic about feelings," I interject a bit nastily, unable to help myself. He just sets himself up for stuff like this. All the time. Lyrics filtered through my head. I've been asking all the questions, but nothing's coming back... Now I'm trying to keep myself... from slipping through the cracks.

Tom turns to look at me properly then shrugs. "I can't say I don't deserve that." He says it so apathetically, though, that I don't know if he means it or not. Then he takes another drag, and his breath kind of rattles when he breathes in. "I was confused, Jude," He begins quietly. "I don't know how I feel about you... I can't properly sort it out like you can. It's not black and white for me, and I've tried to repress it, but I can't. It doesn't make sense," He says tightly, sucking in a breath. I see the smoke go out his nostrils.

Then he gets real quiet. "All I know is you meant every-a lot to me." He was going to say "everything," wasn't he? It's all I can do to keep looking at him. He smiles a little and looks down, tries to hide it. But I know. "You made me so happy, and God knows I probably shouldn't be telling you any of this... not that it matters now," He mutters almost under his breath, shaking his head. He knows this isn't making it easier, but I appreciate him being honest all the same. He sucks on that cigarette and meets my eyes for a minute before looking away again. He's uncomfortable and tripping all over himself in a way. "But what I told you was what I felt, what I could put into words. I'm not very good with words. It was the only way I knew how to describe it. Because you're bad for me." He breathes it, the next sentence. "Like I'm bad for you."

It's the closest to an apology I'm probably ever going to get. Poison. I close my eyes, asking, "Just tell me, Quincy. I already know you don't love me... You've said as much. You don't call the woman you love poison." I sigh to myself, tired, and then look at him, elbow on the railing, head on my palm. "I'm not sure you could ever love anybody. A guy like you can never belong to any woman..." I muse sadly. Of course I'm not thinking of Angie as I say it. Then I turn to face him with a determined look on my face. I'm going to get this from him, even if it's like pulling teeth, even if I have to drag it out of him. "But I need to hear it straight from your mouth before I can really believe it. I need it to sink in, Tommy. I'm sick of this stupid hope. I want it to die. I want you to kill it for good," I plead desperately. Maybe I was asking too much of him.

This demand apparently takes him by surprise, because his eyes widen and he blinks several times, cigarette in his fingers. I didn't notice it before, but his eyes glisten, lighter than before. Like he isn't mad at me anymore. His hand's shaking. I can't feel mine. "I... I don't want to hurt you, Jude. I'm not gonna make this worse than it already is," He barely manages. His eyes plead with me a little, as if it pained him to see me in pain or to know that he'd be inflicting it on me. But I knew better.

I cock my head at him, but not before I look down briefly and see how close our hands are. I need to be hard now because soft isn't working. It gets easier because I'm getting more desperate. If I have to push him, so help me, I will. "Really, Quincy? 'Cause it's more than a little late for that consideration. What, you wanted to soften the blow? Well, all you're doing is making it worse for the both of us by dragging it out like this. There is no ambiguity here, Quincy. Either you love me or you don't. Yes or no. I'd say the answer's pretty damn simple. Just say it already and stop toying with me and my feelings," I snap. I don't fizzle.

I force a bitter little smile then, steeling myself, bracing myself for the blow I knew was going to come. Call me a masochist (I know I am), but I wanted, needed to feel that pain, and I was ready and willing to welcome it with open arms because it represented relief and catharsis and an end to my endless miserable wondering. There is nothing worse in this life than uncertainty. "...Don't worry, Q. I'm a big girl. I can take it." I'm confident, egging him on, pretending I'm something I'm not. I wasn't quite sure if I was telling the truth or not, only that it would feel so good to finally know.

Tom lets out one shuddering breath and then sags against the railing, collapses almost. The cigarette burns his fingers, and he drops it over the edge. I see the little flash of red-hot ashes for flash moment, then nothing. He closes his eyes and grits his teeth. I see his jaw flex, and he exhales again, one more time. Then, in a flash, Tom straightens, pushes himself off the railing, and turns to face me directly. "Fine... if you really think it'll make things better... I don't love you, Jude!" He half-shouts. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one's around to hear it... does it make a sound? Did it really fall? And does it matter? If no one's around to hear the creaking and groaning and breaking and splintering and falling, then who cares?

That's a small slice of what it felt like. Where is my faith? How did I get this far? Who do I blame when it all falls apart?

Paradoxical statement, n'est-ce pas? It felt like a slap to the face, a sharp stinging one, like pulling out hair. He said it with more passion and ardor than I'd expected, as if he really felt it with that violence of emotion, as if he was that sure. He wasn't, though, and we both knew it. There was a force behind his words. His voice weakened and softened as if he could sense the hurt he'd put me through, and his eyes bathed me in empathy that didn't soothe.

"And I can't, you know that. And you know why. I couldn't, even if I was able to... I don't know what love is, but I know I can't give it to you. And even if I could, Jude, you deserve so much better!" He continues needlessly, bitterly, turning away from me, unable to face me or look at me. I sigh, closing my eyes. We'd been over all of that before. There was a quietly restrained passion in his voice, and a bare bones honesty that felt new and naked, like there was nothing between me and Tommy anymore, no more secrets because everything was now out on the table. It was finished.

I let out a shaky, trembling breath, the kind that rattles out of you when you're cold and shivering and coughing in a Canadian winter. I hadn't realized I'd been holding it in, quite honestly. "Well, it's about time you gave me an answer," I said frankly. I turned towards him and added quietly, "Thanks for the honesty. I know that must not have been easy." I opened my eyes, seeing the question written in his, poised on his lips. He looked nervous and was sort of swaying like he wanted to reach out for me in some pitiful attempt to comfort me but was afraid he'd make things worse if he did. I appreciated the gesture, the feelings I could see on his face. Because it meant he did still care, and that this whole thing hadn't been in my head. And it was better to know now how he really felt as far as he knew.

That was really all I wanted.

I made sure to look him in the eyes, to lock my gaze with his. I was grateful to finally know, and the pain wasn't so bad. Not after the first of it. It was just another drop in the pail. He wanted to know how I felt, if I was okay. "Relief... I feel... relief. Now I don't have to wonder any longer or guess or hope because I've heard it, straight from the horse's mouth, and I know you're not lying..." I said quickly, shakily. I was so cold. It was hard to control the spasms. My skin was so pale, almost translucent. Just a little longer, Jude.

I felt peace, too, finally, but it was at Tommy's expense, because there was a haunted, guilty look in his eyes. I felt bad for putting that look there, so I gave him a small, weak smile. To show I was gonna be okay. At least I knew now. Closure comes at a high price. "And, Tommy, you might not be what I deserve, but you..." I was going to say "are" but decided against it. "-Were... what I wanted. Love doesn't operate on the basis of merit, and it doesn't see reason." I guess maybe I thought that would explain things or make it better. I don't think it did. But I did still love him, despite everything.

There was something, on the tip of my tongue, that I kind of wanted to say, but I didn't know whether or not I ought to tell him. What did any of it matter now? I wondered for a few moments before it occurred to me that I had a captive audience, and that I was never going to get a chance like this again. Everything about this moment felt final. I decided that I had nothing left to lose, and I liked being being able to tell him anything, so why bother keeping it from him? I might as well say all I can now before this moment ends and we go our separate ways. I licked my lips, moving closer to him. Tom looked at me askance. "And, before we forget about this forever and... stop talking... you should know that you made me really happy, Tommy," I whispered, smiling faintly. I could feel tears burning in the corners of my eyes.

I don't remember the look on his face, but he looked surprised and maybe tried to back away a little. My hand hovered in the air for a moment. I wanted to touch his hand, but I couldn't quite muster the nerve yet. "I'm not saying it to make you feel guilty or anything. I just thought you deserved to know... that someone was happy just being with you, knowing who you are, and not wanting anything more than that. You're a better man than you or I give you credit for, Tommy," I said sincerely, finally able to put my hand on top of his. It felt just the tiniest bit better, to feel something, you know?

Tommy's eyes were watery, and they gleamed like the sea, like calm waves. My nose had been running for a while, so I sniffled a little, more from cold than the tears in my eyes. It really wasn't about making him feel bad for what he'd done for me. Not anymore. So I tried to perk it up a little for him, forced myself to smile a little brighter. "And... if I was that happy with you, then I can be happy with someone else too. Someone who loves me. And I guess that maybe I wanted to... thank you for that opportunity 'cause it meant a lot to me. To have someone like you," I told him quietly, brightly, suppressing my tears, squeezing his hand with my numb, frozen fingers. His hands were almost as cold as mine.

For one long moment, Tommy just looked at me, stunned. I watched the gratitude suffuse his features slowly, grandly, like a sunrise. That was enough for me. To know that I could still make him feel good, could still do nice things for him. But then Tommy turned to face me, took his hand off mine. I thought he was going to leave. He didn't, though. He lurched forward, like it was kind of uncomfortable and awkward for him, and I was astonished when he wrapped his arms around me in a hesitant hug. He looked so grateful and moved by what I said that I couldn't fend him off. At first I was just so stunned that I was stock-still. Then he wrapped his arms around me more tightly, embracing me for real. He rested his head against mine, buried his nose in my hair, and he squeezed me tight, inhaling deeply.

I smelled him too: cigarette smoke, a whiff of perfume, leather, licorice, tea, those many smells I associated with Tommy. It was comforting and warm to be pressed up against him. It felt good in a purely heat-sharing kind of way. Then Tommy slowly pulled away, still holding onto me lightly. "Thank you," he breathed. The way he was looking at me, the old way, it was like I was the only girl in the world. He pressed a kiss to my forehead, and it took my breath away. Then we were back to staring at each other in one of the most potent silences of my life.

And I knew what that look meant, all right. That heated, liquid, furtive look in his eyes, the hints of a smile in the crinkles of his eyes. His fingers were in my hair. My hands were around him, on his back, underneath his jacket, which I'd somehow managed to unzip. He was so warm. My fingers tingled, and not just from the return of circulation in my fingers. Tommy hinged forward ever so slightly. His eyes were clouded, darker, and still sort of glistening. They dropped from my eyes to my lips. I moved forward too, intent on taking it. I knew what he wanted, what we both wanted.

But I turned away, pulled myself out of his arms, and grabbed on to the railing, and I shook it with all my force. I was angry at myself, at being so weak again. It was just the worst possible timing, you know? The catwalk rattled beneath us slightly, and snow fell off either side. Tom raised a brow at me and came up to me, putting his arm around me, unsolicited. He nodded slightly, looking out over the deserted alleyway. "But, you know," He said with a bit of a sly smile, turning to face me, "If it was anyone, it would be you."

It was no exaggeration to say, that, at that very moment, I wanted to punch that sly smile right off of his mother-effing face (I would have attempted it, but Tommy's jaw is like steel).

My jaw just about dropped to the floor in outrage. He can't just go around and say one thing and then bust out with that! Not while I'm still trying to catch my breath here and regain my bearings! He can't do these things to me, wage emotional warfare when I've ended it, when I've said the game is done and stopped playing. Asshole! "What about Angie, Tommy? What the hell about her?" I interjected, throwing his arm off my shoulder and shoving him away from me.

He gave me a patronizing look, carefully taking another cigarette out of his pocket, rolling it between his fingers. "Don't talk to me about Angie, okay? She's none of your business, and you don't know the first thing about any of it," he countered a bit sharply, rolling his eyes and then pulling out his lighter. He put the cigarette to his lips and lit it cautiously, hand in front of the tip, protecting the tiny flame. His eyes rose from his cigarette to mine, a flicker of interest glinting in them. "I thought you didn't care anymore what I did, Jude."

I stared at him for a second in sheer disbelief, ignoring his second statement pointedly. "Cool your jets, Timberfake. I don't. What I care about is the fact that I have to see the two of you everywhere, and it's unprofessional and disgusting, Producer Man..." I replied immediately. Some of that was a bit defensive, but I really wasn't playing the jealousy card this time. I was so pissed about the first comment that I couldn't stop myself from firing off, "But, seriously, you hooking up with my back-up singer, and it's none of my business? She's a part of your life, same as I am, and I think that makes her my business. And, you know what, if I was ever a real friend to you, you would've told me about Angie yourself."

Honestly, I kinda wanted to slap him. Tom shrugged, inhaling a drag easily. "Angie was my past at the time. You were the present, the future. I didn't see why I needed to tell you. I thought it was all behind me," He said coolly. I gaped at him yet again, surprised by his admission of feelings, of thinking about the future, but Tom didn't notice. Obviously it wasn't all behind him, though. But, you know, just a typical man, thinking I didn't need to know about his past. That I didn't deserve that kind of knowledge about him, that I didn't want to hear it from his lips. Sometimes he's just so unbelievable.

For a moment, I debated asking him whether we'd still be together if he hadn't found out that I'd lied. I wondered what would've happened if Tom and I were together when Angie had showed up. It would've been hard for him to refuse her, and he would've had to explain the whole thing to me himself. And then make a choice, and Tom's never been great at that. I almost asked, but I decided quickly that I was better off not knowing or wondering the answer to that question. I need to come out of this with some sanity intact.

I held my hand out, palm up. He didn't understand, so I reached out and swiftly snatched the cigarette from his mouth. Tom stared at me, dumbfounded, lips puckered, for a moment. He watched silently as I brought his cigarette to my lips and took a deep drag so hard my whole body rattled. I felt a measure better, though. I'd calmed my fraying nerves some and inhaled heat. Maybe my heart wasn't freezing after all. The taste was familiar, comforting, even, and I tried very hard not to think about the fact that though I'd managed to avoid kissing Tommy, I'd still wound up swapping spit with him anyway. And I would've got a lot more enjoyment out of kissing him.

Before Tom could say anything, I thought up one last thing to say to him. I blew out the smoke I'd just inhaled, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind my ear haphazardly. "One last request, Tommy," I rasped. God, it sounded as final as it was. Tom snapped to attention immediately, and I met his sideways glance archly. Then I relented. I was cold to the bone and so tired of all this stuff with us. I was tired of fighting. All I wanted was peace. He gave me an expectant look. "Forgive me," I sighed.

Tom's eyes widened. I don't suppose that was what he was expecting, but I'm not exactly sure he realized how final it all was. Either way, he didn't look prepared for such an inquiry, let alone prepared enough to follow through and do what I said. God knows the man owed me, though. He blinked like a startled animal, mouth opening and closing nonsensically. He looked foolish, but I couldn't even enjoy it. I figured I wasn't going to get that forgiveness anytime soon. Why'd I even bother asking?

I mean, when was the last time Tom gave me what I wanted? Excepting that sentence he just forced out of his mouth. I sucked on the cigarette instead, trying to absorb its warmth, which, unfortunately, did not spread to my freezing legs. I felt something settle over my shoulders, and I felt the phantom warmth of Tommy's body all too near mine, felt his hands linger over my shoulders. I glanced back to see him scurrying back to my side, sans jacket. I looked down, and, sure enough, he'd wrapped his prized possession around me. I appreciated the warmth, of course, but I threw him a questioning look nonetheless.

Tommy merely shrugged, putting his hands in his pockets and offering me a casual smile. He was wearing a sweater and a shirt underneath, so he was evidently better-equipped for the weather than I was. "You're obviously freezing," he said, giving me a look back. "You think I didn't notice?" Something flashed in his eyes, something gritty and a little annoyed. "Even I'm not that selfish, Jude... You need it more than I do," He pressed gruffly, casting glances at me occasionally. He obviously didn't approve of me smoking, but he couldn't say anything about it because he knew he didn't have the right.

I appreciated the jacket and intended to give it back to him soon, but I was annoyed that he'd completely ignored my request. Like the fool I am, I decided to push. I slipped my arms into the sleeves of his jacket, zipping it up with fumbling features. Tommy's fingers itched to help me, but I made sure they would've gotten stuck in the zipper if he did. I took a last puff on the cigarette and squashed it under my heel. "Why can't you forgive me?" I asked plaintively. I meant to shout it, to be pissed, but I couldn't muster up any emotion that intense that wasn't despondence. The day had been draining and emotional enough without constantly having to put on a show for the cameras.

Tommy, who apparently had some set quota of times he could surprise me today, grabbed the railing and pivoted, swinging right into my line of sight. His face was less than four inches from mine. "You really wanna know?" He said through his teeth in a way that all but said he didn't want to answer the question. I gave a slow nod, wary of accidentally knocking heads or bumping into his nose with the motion. I felt Tom's shallow breath on my face, and then he was gripping my shoulders tightly, very nearly pressing his forehead against mine. He murmured something, and, just, he was so close that I was tempted.

Then I heard the door creak (when had it opened?) and stepped back from Tommy just in time. I felt panic flood my senses, perking me up, even as half-frozen as I was. "Jude, how 'bout a couple more candid shots?" called the sexy cameraman. I turned to face him abruptly, not sparing Tom a look. It was all I could do to nod. They came closer. And I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to say something about Tommy, to reconcile all the things they'd heard about him with the way I'd acted earlier with them finding us here and now, however much they'd seen. They wanted to hear what I really thought about him.

I had all kinds of things I could've said about Tommy. I know the man, well, as well as anybody can know the man, just about. As much as I can. I know his flaws like I know my own. I could've said, "Tom's in his terrible twenties" all flip like I wanted to. I could've called him Toto, said he was like a dog. I could've said all kinds of things, and they would've been true. No one would've blamed me for saying any of it. But that wasn't the impression of me and Tom I wanted out there. I guess I wanted to show that it wasn't all bad, that it wasn't always like this. That we weren't always at each other's throats. And, sue me, maybe I was tapped fresh out of any more nasty.

We were so strong when we started... Something went wrong, and all the things that mattered... somehow got away, away, floated through my head. I just didn't have it in me to make things hard for him anymore. I needed to move on. And being honest about Tom's role in my life, about the fact that he mattered (I can just hear my voice saying that to Kat last year, during the Telethon, "but it mattered. It so mattered."), was the first step to me really doing that. And, maybe someday it'd actually get better.

Hey, I can only hope, right?

I could feel Tommy's nervous glance on me, wondering what I was going to say. Then I opened my mouth, and the words started pouring out. "Okay, uh, here's something candid for ya. Despite what you saw back there, um, Tommy Quincy changed my life." I looked down, shuffling my feet, very aware of the fact that his jacket was now keeping my upper half and my fingers warm. "Uh... When I met him, I was just a kid who won a talent contest, and he helped open my soul..." I continued nervously. I could feel Tom's eyes on me. He'd been attempting to slink away, looking down darkly, but then he slowly started to look over at me. "...And let the real music come out." I turned to look at him too, and for a long (too long) moment, we just stared at each other in dead silence before I turned back to the camera, remembering my audience. It wouldn't do to be caught staring into Tommy's eyes. Much less giving him goo-goo eyes at work.

I smiled faintly and pushed on, anxiously toeing the ground like a horse with one of my boots. "And even though we might not be working together anymore, no one will ever replace him," I said finally, honestly, turning to look at him once again. Something passed between us in that intense stare, something powerful, and I found myself blinking back tears when I tore myself away from those watery eyes. Like he was as broken-up about this as I was. God, that was too intense... My heart was going crazy with the beating and skipping, and I couldn't breathe properly. Much less for a guy who just told me he didn't love me.

Well, duh, 'cause he's my first love. 'Chello? You can't replace that unless you're some kind of sorcerer witch doctor. Honestly, I don't think I'd want anyone to replace him. Both for my sanity and because, well, that'd spoil it all, wouldn't it? Trying to distract myself with those sorts of thoughts was clearly not working and at the very least not positive, so I shook my head and tried not to shed tears on camera. I didn't need them getting the right idea about this moment.

"That's great," the cameraman pronounced enthusiastically, causing me to suddenly look at them. He was smiling lazily, so I smiled back. "A couple more insert shots inside, and we're done," he told me authoritatively, motioning for the other guys to open the door and go back in. They were obviously pretty cold. I thought it was sweet that they were going to actually give me a moment of privacy, that I didn't have to trick them or steal this final goodbye moment away from them.

"All right," I said with a nod, waving at them as they turned to leave. But then I thought up something, how I needed to distract them and myself, and the little idea I'd come up with for how to do it. "Hey, wait a sec... There's, uh, one more thing..." I called after them. The head cameraman, my favorite, turned around, bangs falling in his eyes. I saw his lips form the question, and then I was walking up to him rather briskly. He looked adorably confused for about one second before I got to him. I think he tried to say something else, but I'd wisely shut my brain off in preparation for what I was about to do. I put both hands on either side of his face and pulled him to me, crashing my lips into his, more or less attacking him.

He rocked forward, leaning down to me. I let one of my hands fall to his neck, tangling in the short hairs at the base of it. I dug my nails in a little, and he opened his mouth wider in a faint cry. I'd closed my eyes and was sort of counting in my head to see how long I could drag it out. Don't get me wrong, he was a good kisser and everything... a hell of a lot better than my boyfriend, actually, not that that's saying much. My other hand slipped down and found a belt loop, slipping through it and pulling him even more flush up against me. I was satisfied to hear him groan and bit his bottom lip lightly to hear him make that sound again. Men are so easy.

After I was just beginning to get breathless, I pulled away, removing my hands and stepping back as if I hadn't just been making out with him. He would've responded a bit more, I think, if he hadn't had that camera in hand, which had actually been what I was counting on. I didn't mind. It had been satisfactory, pleasant too, I thought, as I licked my lips afterwards. Wicked of me, eh? And, hell, a much better way of warming up, since I was on the verge of hypothermia out here. I smiled at him shyly, running a hand through my hair. "Just, uh, had to get that out of my system," I replied with a tiny smirk and an amused smile.

I took in his appearance: the mussed hair, red lips, slack arm, and even slacker jaw. He still looked dazed and breathless, the poor thing, so I waved at him cheerfully. His friends, who had, of course, been hooting and hollering while I made out with him for approximately two and a half minutes, now grinned at me lecherously and started to drag him to the door. He was unmoving. And he thought he was so smooth! I really didn't care if that made it into the episode; the amusement of the moment right now was enough for me. I laughed and turned around to face Tommy as the door shut, knowing, of course, that he would manage to ruin everything with a single sentence.

He was frowning at me, predictably. I would've left then, but I'd undoubtedly have run into the guy I just made out with and his losery, annoying friends in the hallway. I decided to wait a minute or two until it was clear. I owed Tom a proper goodbye. "What was that?" he hissed disbelievingly. For a moment, I actually thought he was jealous, but then I realized he was probably just mad that his brother's girlfriend had made out with another guy. That was probably kind of bad form. Oh well. It had to be done.

"What'd it look like, Quincy? That was me distracting him," I said a bit abruptly, rolling my eyes at him. It was quite obvious, after all. He gave me a confused look but stopped, probably upon remembering how much these lips had distracted him.

I bit my lip, realizing it was just the two of us. All alone. I felt uncomfortable already. Had it been two minutes yet? "Um... see ya 'round," I offered lamely, heading towards the door and trying not to look at him.

I was halfway to the door when the sound of his voice stopped me dead in my tracks. "What, we're not gonna talk about what you said?" He asked, sounding like a small, needy child. For a moment I wracked my brain, trying to think of which thing I'd said he was referring to, but I figured he was probably talking about what I'd said to the film crew. Which I entirely did not want to talk about.

At that point, quite honestly, all I really wanted to do was sleep. For potentially a thousand years. I pivoted on my heel to face him, hands on my hips in a challenging position. My very cold hips. "Um, no... why would we? We've had more than our allotted speaking time for the week today. Besides, we don't do the talking thing, Quincy, and when we do... it kinda never goes well," I pointed out bluntly. I offered him a sardonic smile; it was the best I could do. I'm running out of reasons...for putting up a fight. Then I shrugged half-heartedly, weariness showing. "I've told you everything I've ever had to say to you, and I... can have nothing more to say to you. Ever. And anything you say just manages to confuse me more... so what's the point? What do we have to talk about anymore?" I continued in the same vein, exhausted and drained and using the last of my legendary strength on him.

So, please, just leave, and let me get out of your way... There's nothing left now we need to say... Stay away! I frowned; those lyrics that had randomly intruded weren't from "Unraveling." I paused for a moment before answering my own question with a sad smile, "Nothing." Remembering I was still wearing his jacket, I unzipped it quickly, nearly tore it off, and threw it back at him with a bit more force than necessary. The cold flooded in and overwhelmed me immediately, but I didn't care. I'd be inside and warm and away from him and this toxic chain soon enough. "See ya in the funny papers, Quince," I said casually, offering him a half-hearted wave that turned into a mock-salute as I turned on my heel, turning my back on him.

It was a lame attempt at saying goodbye, and I know that... but I'm just not good at final goodbyes, and I don't really think I should be. "Jude... Don't say that," Tommy cried urgently, saying my name in that particular way that made my insides turn to wet mulch. I froze against my will. Trying to drag another lost soul back into the light. It repeated in my head like a broken record, like a warning, over and over with every second of anxiety-ridden contact. Then he ran after me and pulled my back by my upper arm, forcibly turning me towards him with a simple twist. I felt like a doll, like some wind-up toy, a ballerina. My arm burned where he touched it, clear through the fabric, electric and hot.

My eyes were steely as they regarded his. I was not about to get sucked in for a third time and actually wind up doing something I'd regret. I'd made so much progress today, and I wasn't about to jeopardize it now! "Don't," I said firmly, pulling my arm back. Don't do this now when I've come so far and so close to the end of this madness! He held on equally firmly. "Don't do this, Tommy... It's really over, and I can finally admit that. And it's time for you to finally face up to that too, Tom. This is no more. This sick cycle is finished. For good. For ever," I murmured intently. Then I shook my head at him sadly, jerked my arm away painfully, and slowly walked away, leaving Tommy behind. I didn't look back, and I moved fast this time, lest he try to stop me again.

I realized I was shaking a little as I left. The door slammed behind me, emphasizing the finality of the moment. 'Cause, on the one hand, it had hurt. It was a blunt, dull sort of ache, the familiar kind I'd felt for weeks now. Nothing had changed, no big deal there. But, I also realized, as I inhaled a deep breath of heated studio air, that I felt lighter, relieved. Relieved to finally know, to finally hear it from him. And that felt good, having aired everything. I felt clean, as close to peace as I'd get. I'd conquered Tommy and some measure of my affection for him.

And I was stronger, oh, yeah, so much stronger.

I walked further and further into the studio, arms wrapped around myself, and headed for the bathroom. The heat and bright lights hit me at the same time, and I was wholly unprepared for either of them. My hands were tinged a purplish sort of color, as, I'm sure, was the skin under my tights. I reached the faucet and turned the water on warm, putting my hands under it. I gazed at myself in the mirror, hardly recognizing the ghastly pale creature with hollow eyes, a red, runny nose, and chapped, reddened lips who stared back at me. I closed my eyes and splashed the warm water on my face. It stung and tingled at the same time. A few stray, hot drops slipped out and ran down my cheeks, and I knew they weren't from the sink. I allowed myself to enjoy the feeling of warm water for some time before I dried off and decided to head for the Crapper, which was specially equipped with supplies for this very occasion.

Well, I suppose I could've gone to Tom's office, but I suspected he was in there brooding (a fifty percent chance, at least). What I needed now was a moment of privacy. To warm up and cry my eyes out. And I did, for maybe fifteen minutes under a blanket, and then I just... couldn't... anymore. I wiped my eyes and more or less figured I'd gotten it all out. I got up, deciding to maybe work on the song a bit now that I had collected myself, but my legs were shaky, and I crashed back to the ground painfully. The song taunted me: How can I heal so many broken hearts? And who's there for me... When it all falls apart?

And then it clicked, what I had to do. My fumbling fingers (so unwieldy they felt like sausages) pulled my phone out of my clothes and with a few awkward motions, dialed the number I was looking for. I closed my eyes, pressing the phone to my ear, hoping he'd pick up. I counted the rings, one, two, three, and then, finally, a pick-up? A tired voice murmured a hello, and my breath kind of caught in my throat a little. "Look, Travis, it's me. Can you talk?" I blurted nervously. If there was a cord, I'd be twirling it.

I heard a bitter laugh. "Well, I'm in the middle of grading papers, Miss Harrison, but I've been meaning to talk to you about your truancy and general disregard for my class this past week. I suppose I can make time for you," he said coldly. I blinked, confused, wondering why he went all teachery on me. It wasn't even his "teacher" voice, it was his uptight-scolding-librarian voice. "Well, you've called me this time, so that must mean..." He paused a moment before asking sharply, "What'd Tommy do this time, Jude?" He sighed afterwards, and I imagined him pinching the bridge of his nose.

He was clearly annoyed with me, but I'd sort of expected that. Travis is, after all, a bit like a snake when he's mad; poisonous and vindictive and venomous. And he'd said, cringe, that he was falling for me, and I basically ran away. "Why do you always ask me that?" I retorted irritably. I mean, really, he had to go straight to Tommy? I couldn't just want to talk to him?

Travis sighed and then explained faux-patiently, "Because, Jude, nowadays whenever you call me... assuming you're not blowing me off or screening your calls like you have been for the past week... It's. Always. About. Him." He said this last part tightly and with poorly-concealed venom. I felt a pang of guilt because he was right about me blowing him off and ignoring his calls and throwing human shields between us so we couldn't ever be alone or talk properly. And, yeah, now I wanted to talk. I get he's mad, really. "And he's my brother, and I know him, so he's obviously done something to make you call." He paused a moment before continuing shortly, "So, what is it this time?"

His abrupt questions and harsh voice chafed at me. But I owed him an explanation. He'd been there for me when I fell apart, after all. And I'm not gonna intentionally play around with someone's feelings. "I'm sorry, Travis... I forgot... Did I ever call you before He dumped me? I don't think I need to remind you why I never called you before he dumped me," I said pointedly, trying to suppress my annoyance with him and failing rather spectacularly. "And this has actually nothing to do with him," I added a bit more calmly a moment later.

He snorted. "Yeah, right," he said sarcastically, "You're so predictable, Jude." He paused for a moment, paused a little too long. I kind of bristled at that because, well, I am anything but predictable! "You might as well tell me. You've managed to pique my interest here," he insisted. I heard that edge in his voice that indicated taunting was about to commence, and I didn't appreciate it. "What could Tom possibly do to top what he's already done?" Travis mused, making that one word pop on his tongue. There was a mocking bitterness in his tone now, and it conjured up unpleasant memories.

Tom could probably do a few things, actually, maybe. If he really tried, though he's not that creative. I cut in then, annoyed and not about to let him get another word in. It bothered me that he'd gotten me all wrong and was making this all about Tom just when I was trying and getting some success at not thinking about him. "I'm not calling you to talk about your brother, Travis," I said bluntly, "I'm calling you to talk about you and me."

If that surprised Travis, he didn't show it in his voice. In fact, he continued speaking in that same semi-bitter tone, as if he hadn't even heard what I'd said. "No, seriously, what'd Tommy do?" he continued mockingly, forcing a laugh, as if it was really that incredulous that I could be calling for any other reason.

Just one more thing that felt like a slap in the face. "Nothing!" I snapped, frustrated. I'd more than reached my breaking point today and had little patience for dealing with his crap. "I may have fired him," I said quickly, since he wasn't going to shut up until I said something about Tommy. I damn near spat out the next phrases because I heard Travis trying to speak and make some stupid comment about the firing in the brief interval where I'd paused to lick my lips. "But that is not the point. The point is that I'm sorry. I'm sorry I ran away. I'm sorry I've been dodging your calls and avoiding you at school. It was immature of me, and you didn't deserve it..."

I paused a moment, chewing on my lip. Travis was quiet for once, waiting for me to finish. "But I was just a little... freaked, you know? I mean, there are a lot of guys in my life, circling, and this is all just really, really weird for me. And a little overwhelming. And I just couldn't handle it. And I... I..." I stuttered, trying so hard to find the right words. Ultimately, though, I was just blurting it out, vomiting my guts up, "I don't know how I feel about you, okay?" It came out a lot louder than I intended and sort of echoed in the dark, empty room. I clutched the blanket around my shoulders, feeling cold and hot at the same time.

Travis was silent for some time, a long time, presumably absorbing all of this. "I'm sorry..." he said finally. He sounded like he was underwater. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind around all that. You just went from "I fired Tommy" to "I don't know how I feel about you, Travis." It's a bit of a one-eighty," he managed, still sounding strained and distant. He paused and awkwardly cleared his throat. I found myself wishing I'd done this in person, since I wanted to see his reactions, but I didn't think I'd have the energy or wherewithal to put up with Very Emotional Conversations with both of them today. "You don't think you could maybe figure out how you feel about me?" he suggested a bit tightly, clearly wanting some kind of answer.

And of course he hadn't heard anything else I'd said, the assbagel, or if he had, he didn't see fit to comment!

What he'd just said was quite possibly the last or second-to-last thing I wanted to think about at that moment. "Even if I could, I don't want to know how I feel about you!" I burst out suddenly, surprising the both of us with the force of my declaration.

"And why is that, Harrison?" a confused Travis asked, voice thick and heavy with suspicion.

I sighed, tugging on the edges of my hair. If I thought I could walk properly, I would've started to pace. "Because I don't want to think about it! Because it'll ruin everything," I whispered, closing my eyes and trying not to think about it. I've had enough feelings for a lifetime. I don't need more.

"What are you afraid of, Jude?" he asked quietly. His voice was smooth and deceptively calm, rather like velvet. It made me hate him just a little, of course. It isn't obvious?

You, I thought. I wanted to scream, I really did. There were so many things wrong with the idea of him and me that I didn't even know where to start. I just knew things with me and Travis couldn't really end well if we waded into the deep end. Like, I mean, even if... the guy has a fiancée. He's in love with one of my friends. I've actually dated both of his brothers. Please, I dare you to try and tell me that there's any chance this could work out. 'Cause I'm just not seeing it. And, coming from the girl who's been chasing after Tom Quincy for the better part of our entire acquaintance, me not being able to have any hope or faith in a potential relationship, that's saying something! We're too damn different, and I know that. That's why I haven't pushed for this, like it's something I want.

Because it's not something I want. It's something to be avoided at all costs.

Travis could drive me completely freaking nuts. On purpose and out of spite, unlike Tommy. I mean, he could really seriously screw up my head. Like mental asylum screw-me-up. I mean, hell, just think about how much the man screwed me up and over before I even liked him... I don't want to think about the potential consequences of me letting him worm his way into my heart. And I need to safeguard what little sanity I've actually managed to have left over from this whole affair. The Tommy one, I mean.

I sighed, curling my hair absently, coiling it around my finger tightly. "I just got out of a relationship that was waay beyond my depth, Travis. I don't even need to begin to contemplate what I'm feeling right now."

It was an honest answer, which I thought he deserved. "I know what you're afraid of," he pronounced smugly, a bit knowingly. I knew what he was going to say because obviously I know my own mind, but it didn't mean I wanted to hear it from him. He paused and continued taunting, "You're afraid you'll figure out you have feelings for me." He was so sure of himself that I wanted to smack something.

Because of course he was right. And I didn't want to have feelings for anyone anymore! I faltered a bit too long before I burst out, "Well... maybe I am! It's not like I want to have feelings for another one of you! Not after what the last one did!" I was a bit breathless, kinda hysterical almost, and I forced myself to slow down and breathe out. I'd been way too defensive there, showing too many cards. Keep it together, girl. "And I know you're not Him or whatever, but Travis... I am not going to do this again. I can't. I learned my damn lesson this time, Teach. There's only so much a girl can take, and I don't need you pushing me over my limit," I said sternly, firmly. The determination in my voice was so strong and thick my throat almost closed up because of it.

But I meant it, I really did, and I needed it to be true because I needed time to recover and rebuild slowly without... complications. This is hard when my life is composed of numerous complications, Travis chief among them. But, you know, maybe somewhere deep down, despite everything. I'm still just this girl who wants to believe that love can last and that good things happen, and in rainbows and fairytales and leprechauns and unicorns and soulmates and happy endings and all that. "Why are you calling, Jude? To tell me you can't?" Travis asked quietly, intruding on my thoughts. I froze.

There they were, those damn mocking words taunting me yet again. Only this time I was the one saying them. I really forgot how much can'ting sucks. And I never thought it sucked as much for the person doing the can'ting, but it really does. It's worse because I know how he feels too, because I've been on the receiving end. I shook my head, running my fingers through my hair. I think they were trembling a little. "No, Trav. Just to tell you that I..." I fumbled to find the words, lost in what I had wanted to say. It had somehow slipped away from me. I took a deep breath. "I wasn't ready... and you deserved better than the way I reacted. You've been there for me a lot over the past month, and I don't want you to think I don't appreciate that, that I don't appreciate you. Because I do."

Honestly, I don't know if I'm ever gonna be ready. If I'll be ready again, because God knows it was hard enough the first time around. But I have to try, don't I? Travis was dead quiet, and I wondered if he expected me to say more for the longest time. But what could I say? I sighed and found something to say, as much as I didn't want to dredge Tom up. "But you have to understand something, Travis... I was never gonna get over Tommy in a month. Never. I mean, you've broken up with people, and you know it's a process. Kate broke your heart five years ago, Travis, and you still haven't gotten over that! You're the one who chose to be here, so you can't... you can't rush me like this. It's not fair. I..."

I paused, feeling uncomfortable, like maybe I'd just made things worse by mentioning Tommy and those hard-to-die feelings. "I... don't know what else I can really say, Travis. You know how I feel. You know everything," I said finally, wearily. Everyone knows everything, I thought. It felt cathartic but empty at the same time, having so few secrets.

Didn't think he could still surprise me. "For the record, Jude, I think you might have feelings for me," he interjected a bit smugly. And then, you know, I'd heard everything. It was like he wasn't even listening to what I'd just said! It then became aware to me that I only thought we were having a conversation. What was really happening was that I was telling Travis stuff and it was just like a... vacuum, you know? Stuff went in, but nothing came out.

"You thought that even before I liked you, Travis," I countered vaguely exasperatedly, remembering the nerve of him to suggest that I had feelings for him when I barely knew him. And any feelings I might've had then were purely lust. And, I mean, I'm not gonna say it isn't a little more than that now, but it's just a little... 'cause, like, we're friends and stuff. Don't look at me like that! "And even if I did, I told you I don't wanna know!" I continued bluntly, a bit shrilly. He's so full of himself sometimes, and so wrong!

Travis snorted, sounding amused by it. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." I stared at the phone in disbelief. Are we seriously arguing lightheartedly over this now? "Couldn't help but notice you avoided the question there, Mrs. Quincy," he drawled pointedly, probably wiggling his eyebrows or doing something smug I couldn't see on the other side of the line.

The nickname brought the anger to the surface. "You know I don't like that name. I never did. Makes me feel like your mom." Or like you're rubbing salt in a wound. Travis scoffed, about to say something mean and mocking, but I cut him off with a question. "And, seriously, Travis, when you call me that, whose wife am I supposed to be exactly? Taylor's? Tommy's? Yours?" I continued irritably. "Your dad's?" I added a bit spitefully a moment later.

"Still not answering the question, Miss Harrison," Travis scolded, in a voice a bit more playful than his "teacher" voice. Naturally, he completely bypassed my question, the hypocrite. And, I mean, he was technically right. Technically.

"I don't know if you remember, Travis, but the first time you said I had feelings for you, I gave you a black eye. And probably said you were out of your mind. And... now it's not even that. It's just... ridiculous. You have, like, the worst timing in the whole world," I muttered, running a hand through my hair. Travis sighed. Believe me, I know, he said wearily, suddenly serious. But I still don't think he gets where I'm coming from. That right now "feelings" is a dirty word to me. "I'm not messing with your head here, Travis, or trying to be coy or anything. I just... I really can't," I sighed, letting my hair flop down in front of my eyes. Not when I don't have anything to give anyone.

All I've got is the truth, and who really wants to hear that? I glanced down at my watch by chance and noticed that I only had a few hours to get home, get ready, and then meet Tim for a coffee. I didn't especially want to go, but I'd promised, and being with Tim was therapeutic and comfortable in a way that being with Travis wasn't. Being with Travis was always a little uncomfortable because he was a bristly sort of guy and just, well, kind of insensitive... but still so like his brother that it kind of hurt to be around him. Tim only knew what I told him; he could see my baggage as it was from more of a distance. And I liked that.

"Look, Travis, this conversation is important to me, really, and someday I think we should really sit down and hash it all out properly... but I kinda don't have time for this right now. So, um, I'm gonna have to call you back," I continued, trying my best to say calm and avoid saying something wrong. "And I know I'm the one who called you and everything... you can be mad at me if you want." I don't care. "I'm not trying to blow you off here or only talk to you when it's convenient, I swear." Why am I apologizing? It's not like we're a couple or anything. He's just a friend who I make out with sometimes, and I don't have to justify myself to him at all. Especially when he has a fiancée!

"But, uh, I'll see you later, okay?" I groped for a date. Tomorrow felt too soon, and I just really need some time to get my head together and wrap my mind around everything, you know? This whole Thomas conundrum. "Monday, okay? I'll call you," I told him.

I swear I could feel him roll his eyes on the other side of the phone. "Sure you will," he muttered sarcastically, practically scoffing at me and my promise. I fully intended to see him, though. And not just in class. This jealous crap is really annoying me. Like, I was this close to...

"Look, Travis, you knew what you signed on for here, and it wasn't the girlfriend package, so don't give me that attitude, Mr. Engaged. I get that it isn't fair for you. I get that. But I've told you where I am and where I stand, and you can either accept that... or walk away." It's all you're good for anyways. "I wouldn't blame you if you did... And I think you're great and all, really, but I need to get my life together a bit more before I can start to think about what you want from me. And you can be here for that if you want, but you don't have to be," I told him honestly. I release you, I just about said.

Admittedly, I expected more of a reaction than the one I got. Travis was dead silent, and I thought he'd dropped the phone or left or hung up or something, so I went to hang up and leave, but then he scared the hell out of me. "Can't get rid of me that easily, Harrison," he said in this infuriatingly smug tone, and you know, maybe he was a little right about me trying to get rid of him... but better now, right? I'm in a really weird place right now. "See you Monday, babe. And try not to have too much fun with the loser you're going out with tonight," he said with a bit of an edge. There was this thing in his voice like he wanted me to be thinking about him the whole time on the date, and like, imagining all the things he could do to me.

So I just hung up on him. I don't have time for any more of his mind games. As I collected my things and ducked out of the studio, via the fire escape, of course, I glanced up at the half-full moon in the sky pensively for a moment. Maybe the moon's just a hole in the sky... A hole that'll suck me in, that's already sucking me in slowly. Then I shook my head, freeing it of the depressing thoughts I didn't need, and headed for the bus stop. Maybe the answer's to never ask why, as I watch my life unraveling...

Unraveling can be a good thing, you know. You get to start over, weave something new. And... I'm only sixteen. So what if he doesn't love me? I've got my whole life ahead of me. My whole future ahead of me. And he will only be a very small part of that future life. I mean, did I ever really think I was gonna marry him or anything? No. And it might sting now, and burn just a little, but I already knew he didn't love me. So I can either cry about it or move on. And I know now, so I can finally move on and re-ravel my life.

And it's real good to know I can do that.

Loren ;*

Your thoughts, my lovelies?