A/N: Thanks to a helpful reviewer (The Lightning Flash) I now realise this is slightly AU.

She stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray with graceful, birdlike movements as she continues to talk. The smoke swirls around both of them, and Heather can almost taste its acrid stench; normally, she would forbid anyone from smoking this close to her, but for some reason when it's Sam she can forget about how much she hates cigarette smoke.

"...I think I'm in love, Heather. He's wonderful." She sighs dreamily.

Heather doesn't point out that she said that six months ago, about that asshole George. But since she was a teenager with a crush on that jerk Hollander, hasn't it always been the same?

"I'm not going to preach at you. But if he hurts you I'll go down to his place and break an arm. Or two." She would, too; she'd kept up the martial arts training. It kept her fit and healthy, and it was a great way to work off some of the stress she felt due to her cretinous colleagues.

Sam laughs. "You won't need to, Heather. Phil's a great guy. Do you want me to introduce you two?"

"Sure," Heather says. She's always liked to have the opportunity to approve of Sam's boyfriends, and she prides herself on her judge of character. Too bad she was out of town when Sam had fallen for the last one. "Considering the last guy you said was wonderful had a wife and four kids in Milwaukee, it's just as well you're getting me to approve this one."

"It wasn't George's fault, not really," Sam says. "He just didn't tell me about it..."

"Yeah, because he knew if he'd told you, you'd have dropped him like one of Mrs Kutcher's mystery meat stews. As you did." The phrase brought Heather back to middle school for a second, back before Sam had gone to boarding school and they had been the most popular girls in the school, an unbreakable team.

Sam grins. "I know, I know. Let's change the subject. I think Mark was the only one of my boyfriends you actually approved of, and that was because you liked him."

"I did not." He'd been a total jerk, a jerk who had followed and constantly irritated Heather all the way through high school, stood her up more than once, make Brett break up with her, spread gossip about her being bossy, and got her pig-slimed at the old carnival. Sure, she'd once dated him, but that had probably only been to make sure he was good enough for Sam, Heather decided.

Sam shrugs. "Yeah, okay. Speaking of which, are you dating anyone now?"

"No. I'm spending a lot of time at work at the moment, we're just about to introduce a new line so I'm on doubletime." Heather felt suddenly enthusiastic; in many ways, her work was her life, and she was determined to be a success in the business world. "We're hoping to get a decent overseas market, spike up the production line and enforce RS-O52 standards in the global industry, reach critical mass in the June quarter and proceed to get a corner of the white space opportunity…" She trails off, noticing Sam's expression.

"I don't have a clue what you're saying," Sam says, "but it sounds good."

"Oh." She makes a lot of effort to learn all the corporate buzzwords and jargon--talk the talk, walk the walk--and it disappoints Heather to learn that her best friend can't even understand her. "You're the lawyer. You're supposed to be able to understand this sort of stuff."

"We're not that bad. Mostly," Sam adds. "For me, it's a lot less legalese and more listening to people. There are so many people who really need help, and there's so little we can do. Marilene came again this morning, the fifth time this month she's wanted a restraining order against her ex. She has three children, and I don't think any of them are older than five, and what makes it sadder is that she just keeps going back to him. She's not the only one, and we get druggies and homeless and single mothers and people who can't afford anything better…and we do what we can, because we have to."

"You don't have to. Why do you do it to yourself?" Sam's parents had paid her way through one of the better Pennsylvania law schools, hoping their beautiful, talented daughter would become some high-powered corporate lawyer, break the glass ceiling and not even need affirmative action, and then she'd chosen to go and work for Legal Aid.

"I have to help, Heather." Sam made a rather helpless gesture into the air. "I like working with people, and I need to do the right thing rather than what'll make the most money and give me the most stress. We win sometimes, too. Got a kid out of juvenile detention last week, and negotiated community service for him working with other underprivileged children's sports teams…"

"You could have just done a bit of pro bono on the side." Heather continues the old disagreement. "I could get you a job with VisiCorp any time. We actually pay money, not peanuts."

Sam's career choice has always annoyed her; Heather supposes it's because she doesn't want her best friend wasting her life when she could be making it big. Heather herself is on the fast track to success; snappy business suits, corporatespeak and sixty-hour weeks are what she's doing with her life, and she's already the local CEO's executive assistant only two years out of college, on the fast track to success. Sure, she doesn't have much time to go out with friends or date or anything, but she's still got Sam, and that's enough.

"I like my job. And you sound like my parents." She sighs. "They never stop nagging you no matter how old you get. I guess it's because they want the best for me, but I'm happy where I am."

"And I want the best for you too, you know. Speaking of which, when are you going to give up on the cancer sticks?" Heather takes a sip of her coffee—a dark espresso--noticing that the smoke has given it a more acrid taste, and it's hard to get it down.

"Everyone needs some vice. Yours is coffee." Sam points at her own flat white in contrast.

Her sensei had warned her against excessive coffee back when she was in high school, and Heather had aimed to rely entirely on her own energy rather than stimulants, but these days she just couldn't get through the day without drinking an alarming (to her) amount of the substance. "Cigarettes cause cancer. And they smell."

"I'm more likely to get hit by a car. And you don't seem to mind."

This is true as far as Sam is concerned, though Heather has once threatened to fire a secretary for smoking in the office. She doesn't say so, though. "I know. It's just fun to tease you." It isn't the truth; Heather looks back on their conversation and realises it's mostly been nagging and argument, and she doesn't like that, not with her best friend.

"Then do I get to return the favour?" Sam leans across the table. "I ran into Mark and Kat the other day. You're coming with me, Chuck, and Brett for a mini-reunion next week." The smoke changes Sam's voice, Heather notices; it's lower, thick and seductive with a slight burr added to it.

"Hollander? No."

"Yes." A small smile quirks across Sam's face, and Heather knows the issue is decided.

"Save me!" the beautiful princess cries, perched on the dinner table with a paper crown on her head.

"Fear not, fair maiden! For I, Sir Heather of the Round Table, shall slay the dragon!" Heather raises her sword, which rather resembles rolled-up newspapers tied together with string, and begins a vigorous mock-battle with the air.

"Put the fire out with your girdle, Princess Sam! My arm is on fire!" she calls. Heather doesn't know exactly what a girdle is, but she knows that you're supposed to put fire out by wrapping a blanket around someone, just like they said on television. A girdle would probably do.

"I can't. I'm trapped in a tower." Sam holds her hands to her chest like the elf-princess in the cartoon they'd just finished watching. "Oh, my brave knight!"

Heather drops to the ground and rolled across the floor. "It's okay, I can stop, drop and roll," she says, standing up. "Now, where did the dragon go?"

"Behind you!" Sam giggles at Heather's immediate reaction, watching her turn and flail at the empty air. "Don't worry, I think you got him that time."

Heather raises her sword high in the air and then slams it down on the floor, point first. "Die, evil dragon!" She turns to Sam. "Are you going to let down your hair? Or do you want me to climb up too so I can finish rescuing you?"

"My hair's not long enough," Sam says, fingering her cropped dark curls. "My mother said it looked good now, when I had a haircut yesterday. I liked it longer."

Heather steps on top of one of the chairs. "I'm climbing the tower now," she says, and sits herself down on the table next to Sam. "Here I am, after a...after a long and perilous journey." She is rather proud of herself for quoting that, and thinks she said it just like in the television show.

"Stay up here. It's fun," Sam says, swinging her legs in the air.

"It's just the kitchen table. I'd rather slay dragons. Or climb trees."

"My mother says I can't climb trees. It's not safe."

"I don't like being safe," Heather says thoughtfully. "I think Mom'd think slaying a dragon wasn't safe. But when I grow up I'm going to be a knight like King Arthur."

"You're a girl. They don't have girl knights."

"So are you." Heather pokes her in the arm. "You can be my sidekick. We can be...Sir Heather and Robin Sam."

"I'll be the princess," Sam says firmly. "I want a pretty dress."

"You can't walk in dresses," Heather says. "I'd rather slay the dragon or save the world."

"Okay," Sam says. "You can save me, then. If the Joker or the dragon doesn't win." She giggles, though Heather's expression is more serious and contemplative.

"I'll do that, then. I never lose."

It had been good to have that fortnightly coffee with Sam, and somehow she just couldn't get quite into the mood for work at the moment. Heather yawned, and changed the channels with a quick flick of the button, hoping something decent was on. She vaguely recalled reading in the paper that Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury was showing sometime in the week.

A soap opera. An infomercial. The latest American Idol. Then something bright flickered across the screen, and a loud roar…

A dragon, Heather realized. Kids' cartoon.

And then she recognized it.

The Dragonsword, she remembered. Her favourite cartoon when she was about five. About one of King Arthur's knights, who'd inherited a legendary sword and went around slaying evil creatures and rescuing princesses.

She'd wanted to be just like him, once.

When was the last time she'd wanted to slay dragons?
When she was five, she hadn't been able to decide whether she liked karate better than swimming or vice versa, though she'd hated ballet. She had been the only one without an ugly pink leotard, and had found it hard to follow the music.

Her mother had taken her to a lot of activities just before she started school. Gymnastics, callisthenics, painting, softball, music, ballet and swimming and karate—anything she could find in the Conestoga Hills area.

None of them had been as exciting as the karate lesson with the man in the white pyjamas and the black belt who had told her it wasn't like television but a serious study that would help her all her life, but the swimming teacher had said she had a lot of talent already, from her parents taking her to the pool all the time.

"Your daughter's very good," the tall woman in the blue bathers had said. "Do you take her to the pool a lot?"

"All the books say it's very important for child development and safety to get comfortable near the water, and we think she's a very good swimmer for her age. She loves going to the pool—don't you, Heather?"

"Yeah. When it's hot my dad takes me every weekend!"

"I'm putting new students in for a new school year—I can fit her right into our Mermaids beginner classes, on Fridays or Saturdays every week. And maybe move her up into Dolphins after she's had enough water experience—her father's clearly a great teacher."

"He was a swimmer himself when he was younger—now, of course, it's different. But that sounds good. Heather, would you like to have lessons with Amelia in the pool every week?"

She had said yes, because the water had been lovely and the woman had said she was very good at swimming, but Heather had been even more impressed by the conversation she had had with the Sensei.

"Is it like the movies? Will I get to go hi-YAH and attack bad guys?"

"You've been watching too much television, Miss Hoffs. You know it only makes your brain go soft?" He pointed to his head with a grave expression. "You will not understand karate until your mind is on track."

"This is better than TV," Heather said firmly. "Mom, can I do karate?"

She laughed. "Thanks for that, you know kids and television. Maybe, Heather," she added. "I'd like you to take swimming lessons."

"I can do both. And I'm not going to watch TV any more." Heather crossed her arms over her chest. "I want to get to learn how to fight, like the Dra…like the knight in the stories." She had been about to say, like the Dragon Knight, but had remembered that it was only on television.

"I'll talk to your father…Thank you," she added to the Sensei. "We're just seeing what extracurricular activities best suit Heather. She's profoundly gifted, according to my books on child development, and they're slotting her right into first grade when she starts school next year."

"It appears Miss Hoffs may also have talent for karate. I was very impressed with her participation today. The benefits of martial arts are numerous; physical fitness, discipline, meditation, self-defence…"

"Mom! Please can I do it?"

"Don't interrupt, Heather," her mother said, but every week after that Heather was driven twice to her karate lesson.

Her decision not to watch television lasted for six years after she started school. Television rotted your brain and she was too smart for baby shows, she was smart enough to skip a grade so she could be with Sam, and she wasn't going to waste time any more. Karate lessons were much more fun and they were real besides, and she was good at swimming too. Like a human mermaid, only not, because she'd left that beginner class after only a month.

Stupid cartoon shows. Actually, television was stupid itself; it took away time from reality and meant you didn't do as well, she had decided.

She still read adventure stories and fairy tales, though, when she had time, and thought she rather would like to slay a dragon someday, or at any rate fight some bad guys, somewhere, with her karate skills.

When Sam had read her an issue of Cosmo when Heather was ten and Sam was eleven, fashion had replaced fairy tales in Heather's mind.

They were sitting on Sam's bed, which still had the pink frilled doona and the white walls that had never changed even though they'd been repainted and repostered more than once.

They'd laughed about makeup and pretty dresses, argued over which model was the prettiest, and resolved to nag their mothers into getting them lip gloss and a star necklace for their birthdays (only two days apart, just like sisters).

"This stuff is for grown-up girls," Sam said knowledgeably, striking a pose which she had to struggle to hold in order to keep from giggling. "It's all about glamour."

Heather laughed and agreed. "I want a top like that," she said. "And look at those pants, they'd go really well with your blue shirt…"

Dragons and knights and exciting things didn't happen while you were going clothes shopping.

When she was eleven and recovering from the flu that had stopped her from most of her regular activities Heather discovered Jackie Chan, and she changed her mind about all television being bad.

Sam never understood.

"It's just not my sort of thing," she'd say. "You go see the marital arts…"

"Martial arts," Heather corrected her.

"Martial. Sorry. And I'll go see Pocahontas. Actually, Brett asked me to come with him…"

And that was the end of that. It wasn't that Sam and Brett were inseparable or forever in love or anything; if Sam hadn't been, well, Sam, Heather would have thought that the only reason why they had dated each other was due to their popularity levels, and the bonus that came from the combination.

School was a game, and Heather knew the rules. Learn to fit in the crowd. (Well, 'stand out', in Heather's case. Sam was better at being part of a group without having to take charge.) Wear the right clothes. (That was fun, and she developed a fashion sense she thought of as unerring, though it was always Sam who everyone said was the prettiest.) Talk to everyone. (Sam was the most popular girl in school, but she wouldn't be without Heather's help.) Collect all the latest gossip. (Heather did that. Sam seemed to absorb it by osmosis, and listening to Heather.) Let the losers know who they are. (Heather did most of that. Sam always was far too nice, even to losers like Chuck and Wayne.) Do homework without looking like a geek. (They were both good at schoolwork except in Mr Chesebrough's class, though Heather worked harder and Sam was more creative.) Make sure you know what's hot and what's not. (Heather made detailed studies of the magazines and advertisments. Sam just went for what she thought looked nice.) Don't waste time dreaming about things. (Only losers spent time in their own little world. Heather wasn't a loser and had enough to occupy her time anyway, and Sam liked talking to people even if she did daydream sometimes.) Be a cheerleader, if you happened to be a girl. (Everyone knew cheerleaders were cool, even if Heather would have preferred to be on the field competing herself and the skirt was a little too short for Sam's preferences.) It took a certain aggressive practicality. (You had to think about it in order to do well. Sam acted as though she always played by instinct. But Heather knew that in order for her to win she had to memorize the rules and make sure she knew how to play the game.)

When she was twelve and Sam thirteen, the Ace Lightning video game was released. It barely registered in Heather's world. It was just another reason for that loser Chuck to carry on in that nerd kind of way. Mind you, Brett said it was good.

And that Hollander kid, the new one?

Obsessive wasn't the word.

Nobody got to ditch the most popular girl in school to go play some stupid video game.

Except for Mark Hollander.

He was…okay, he was sort of cute, Heather thought, at the time. And the accent was pretty cool, and you had to wonder why he rushed off all the time. And even when he broke up with Sam she still didn't get a clue about him, because she'd already decided she wanted him for herself.

Heather Hoffs always gets her man, thank you very much. Except, of course, when she doesn't want him.

It was she who dumped him, and she made sure to remember that. He'd stood her up for the last time—Mark Hollander, super-jerk—and she wasn't going to put up with it.

Even if Sam was delusional.

Even if Sam spent all her time talking about him.

Even if, Jeremy or no Jeremy, Sam was STILL concerned for the loser.

Even if he wouldn't just leave her alone and insisted on hanging around with her and fellow editor Kat and suitably cute boyfriend Brett.

She was never able to run him out of her social group entirely.

Maybe it was the mystery about him that got him so many girls and so much tolerance for his strange behaviour. But it was probably nothing more than a combination of near-terminal stupidity and some family thing or other, right? It wasn't like he had the brains to try to make himself look cool.

She'd sort of liked him once too, hadn't she? Actually liked the weirdo and loser. Dated him, until she'd finally gotten a bit of sense and dumped his sorry ass they way she should have done as soon as the whole thing started. It was after Sam had been interested, she remembered—it was Sam who had pointed out that he was kind of cute, wasn't it? So had she been dating him to see what she'd seen in him, and to keep an eye on him? As good an explanation as any, Heather decided. Too bad Sam's taste in guys wasn't as wonderful as most of her other traits.

Such a weirdo. And getting her pig slimed, too…she'd never learned exactly what had happened that night at the carnival. That place had always been known as a strange one. Chesebrough caused a riot, she knew that; that man should never have been allowed to teach in the first place.

Anyway, conclusion was—whatever was going on that made Hollander so strange, it wasn't anything to do with her, right? Couldn't be that relevant.

Wasn't relevant, to her.

When she was fourteen, she lost her best friend.

In high school, Heather had once said, her life had gone completely downhill. At least at the start of it.

Her best friend, since ever--their mothers had gone to college together, their parents lived two doors down from each other, they were born exactly one year and two days apart, they'd played together since Sam was three and Heather was two--had moved away to boarding school.

It wasn't fair. Together, they had been the queens of the middle school--Sam was the most popular girl, hands down, but it had been Heather who had always given her fashion advice and gossip and told her who was cool and who wasn't--star students in every class but Chesebrough's, ahead of any new rumour or piece of information sweeping the school, the first ones to check out the latest trends, an unbreakable pair of best friends.

That, of course, had changed.

It took Heather some time to stop regarding it as a betrayal.

"You let your parents decide where you're going to school?"

"They're my parents. And it's not that I'm going to hate it, it's just that I'm going to miss you all…" Sam's voice caught on the last word.

"Of course I'm going to miss you! How come you're only just telling me now? We promised we'd never keep secrets between us."

"They didn't think it was likely to happen. The opening just came up. You're the first person I told. And I didn't think you'd get so angry." Sam's lips set in a stubborn line as she stared at Heather across the latter's bed.

Heather wasn't prepared to give up the attitude just yet. "Can't you just tell them you want to go to normal high school with the rest of us? Not some freaky boarding school?"

"It's…very prestigious. I'd be missing out on opportunities, and you know my parents want me to do well..." She folded her arms defensively

"A 4.0's a 4.0 no matter where you go." Heather folded her own arms, a gesture that looked far more menacing than Sam's posture.

"And you're going to get a 4.0? You're not Chuck. And neither am I, and I've got to do well."

"So do I. And I don't see my parents sending me to boarding school." They couldn't afford it, she thought, not some snobby place like Westleafe; Heimlich Hoffs made a good enough salary as the manager of the local Wal-Mart, and Margaret Hoffs did copy-editing from home, but they wouldn't be able to afford boarding school for her, and her extracurricular activities cost enough as it was.

"They don't think I'm achieving my full potential here," Sam said. "And I think they're right. Mr Chesebrough wouldn't be able to get a job in any boarding school."

"He won't be in the high school either," Heather said firmly.

"You know what I mean, Heather. And you're losing your temper again."

"I've got a right to lose my temper!" The words came out louder than Heather would have liked, but she couldn't take them back. "You're my best friend, you're leaving to boarding school, and you never even bothered to tell me! You…"

"I'll write, Heather. Promise." By the end of the sentence Sam had appeared on Heather's side of the bed and hugged her friend fiercely. "I won't forget you. I mean it."

"If you do I'll steal my parents' car, drive over there and crash it into the walls to remind you," Heather said. "So I won't have to never forgive you."

Heather felt something wet on her shoulder as Sam's lips moved against it in a kind of combination of snort and cry.

When she was fifteen, she was slimed by a freaky pig at the old carnival, and her insane science teacher talked about aliens being responsible.

The carnival, now, that was…an interesting place. Decent enough place for a bit of fun, and one of her better ideas as a locale in which to throw Sam a welcome-home (for now) party. To be truthful, she thought some parts of it were a bit juvenile, and the owner was kind of a loser, and she didn't really have much time to waste going after some stupid carnival, and sweets were unhealthy anyway. She couldn't play mini-golf well, either. But, to face facts—which was something Heather did rather a lot—where else did you go when you wanted something to do in Conestoga Hills?

She didn't investigate after that…that thing had slimed her. She didn't want to bring up the fact that Brett and Mark had laughed at her, and even said she deserved it. And it wasn't like she was stupid enough to believe all those weird stories about the carnival. It was probably just a publicity stunt (but would Duff Kent alias Mister Huckleberry have had the intelligence to do it?). Or more of Hollander's stories (but would he jeopardize his friendships and relationships for a pack of lies?). Or part of the alien insanity (Chuck being able to fake a video wasn't hard to believe, even if unlike his friend he wasn't known as a liar, and everyone had always known Chesebrough wasn't right in the head). Or…something.

Nothing interesting ever happened to Heather. No quest, no grand adventure.

She said she didn't mind. She preferred to deal—and excel—in reality.

When she was sixteen, she got dumped, or did the dumping, for the second time.

"Your problem, Heather, is you're just too aggressive," Tom said, leaning nonchalantly against the locker wall. Even now, she had to admit he was a good-looking guy, locks of sandy-brown hair falling across his freckled face and partly blocking the clear blue eyes that were fixed on her.

"I'm assertive. And if they can't takes the pace, they can leave." Heather glared at him. "And you're not so far from crossing the line."

"Hey, hear me out." He held up his hands. "This is just a bit of friendly advice. I liked you for a reason, Heather. I thought you were intelligent enough to listen. So listen."

"Fine," Heather growled, folding her hands over her chest. "Is this going to take long? I've got actual work to do. You know, that thing teachers give you overnight?"

"Most guys—most people, really—think you just come on too strong. You're the girl they always get to do something important. Like editing the school paper or being the student rep. But everyone's afraid of you."

"Afraid of me?" Sure, people usually did what she told them, but that was because she was right, wasn't it?

"You're a scary woman." He smiled faintly and shook his head. "Most boys get turned off by that."

"So why did you date me, then?"

"I wasn't insecure enough to feel threatened by a girl just because she was somewhat smarter than I am and could probably beat me in a fight." His hand went reflexively to the bruise on his chest which Heather had inflicted during their martial arts class last week. "Only, now? This is the first time in ages you've let me get a word in and that's probably only because we've broken up."

"Don't try to make this my fault." Heather's lips tightened.

"Okay, no offence intended. But if you ask Brett I'm sure he'd agree with me…"

"You went to Brett behind my back, on top of everything else you've done." Heather didn't bother to so much as try to hide the anger in her voice. "It's more than over, Tom."

"Nah, I didn't. Just listened and learned, 'cause I think you were too controlling of him, too…" He stopped.

"I'm not controlling, I'm right," Heather said. "And if people are too stupid to listen to me, or they don't want what I want out of a relationship, that's their problem, not mine."

"What do you want out of a relationship? Someone who'll be your willing slave? I'm so over that, you know."

Heather could have killed him at that moment.

"No, Tom, I don't want a slave," she said through gritted teeth. "I'd like someone who knows what they're talking about. Someone who has a vague understanding of the concept of not acting like either a Neanderthal or football player in public—actually, never mind, they mean the same thing. Someone with the basic decency to at least try to understand other people and what they want. Someone who isn't totally like me, but with enough in common to be compatible and enough different to be a complement. Someone not like you."

"It doesn't sound like any guy I know," Tom said. "We all act like Neanderthals sometimes."

"Congratulations, Tom. You got that part entirely right. Especially as applied to you. Now, if you don't mind, I've got far better things to do."

She slammed the door behind her. She'd just showed him who was boss. Teach him to try to break up with her. There were other guys in the world, anyway; and if she couldn't find any guys good enough she'd just be single, because she wasn't going to let herself be dragged down by any losers.

When she was seventeen, she graduated as valedictorian of Conestoga Hills High School. Perfect 4.0. Sure, the classes she took—English and History and Spanish and Physical Education and IT and Business Studies—weren't the really hard ones, like Chuck's Advanced Mathematics and Software Engineering and Physics, but she knew how to play to her strengths, and how to work hard (wasting time at videogames wasn't her idea of a good time; extracurrics got you so many more credit points). Chuck was salutatorian, and to her surprise he didn't seem to mind at all that she'd beaten him, and made some speech at graduation about friendship and following your emotions after she'd talked about aiming for goals and achieving them.

When was eighteen and in her first year at college, Sam went to law school.

"Dyke," someone muttered, after she'd just given him a good lecture on why women should be more fairly represented in trade unions and her ideas for improving the system. Sure, she'd referred to males as pathetic, devolved apes—and at the moment, her reasons for appreciating men weren't that numerous—but she hadn't been expecting the insult.

"Excuse me?" she said.

"Dyke," he repeated. "'All males are pigs.'" He made quotation-mark signs in the air with his hands. "Can we switch the topic? I know it's very trendy to be all 'oh, women are abused and guys are evil', but is it necessary to insult half the class?"

"Don't use language like that," the professor said. "In this class, we don't discriminate against gender or sexual orientation, and Heather has raised some very valid points."

"I'm not," Heather said blankly.

"We don't discriminate here," the professor repeated, and directed the discussion back on-topic.

It didn't help that a girl wearing rainbow earrings invited her to the campus women's representation society, either. It clashed with Heather's extracurricular leadership seminars, and she politely declined.

She told Sam about it all, on the phone in a conversation that cost her five dollars and thirty-three cents.

"There's nothing wrong with it, Heather," she said.

"Yeah? Well, it's not true," Heather responded fiercely. "I don't see why I should have to put up with that."

"You shouldn't. Nobody should," Sam said. "You shouldn't have to even if you were."

"So what?" Heather said. "What matters is that he's scum."

And I'm normal, not interested in women. I can get along without men, too.

Sam laughed across the line. "Yeah. I guess he is. I'm learning about the anti-discrimination laws next semester, I think. Let's sue him for some impossibly large amount of money."

"I think I'll settle for kicking his ass when assessment time comes around. Save sueing him for later. Speaking of which, how is law school?"

You should have gone to college with me.

"It's good, I'm making friends." She paused. "So when are you coming up to see me?"

"I've got a midterm in two weeks, a leadership seminar to prepare, a group discussion exercise, assessable tutorials... So, can I drive up on Saturday?"

Wish we'd got to be at the same school again. But I can spare the time, when it's you.

"Sure. I'll meet you at the campus coffee shop, 'kay?"

"You got it."

When she was nineteen, she gave up her membership in her college swim club.

It was an issue of not enough time to do it, and not enough worth in continuing it.

So much for me being good at it, she thought, after making her final decision. She'd won local meets in her time, even competed in the county games twice and the state championships, won prizes for her school and college; but in the end, she hadn't turned out to be a swimming champion, and there were more important things for her to be getting on with. She was going to be a strong businesswoman, not anything else.

Mermaid to winner to loser, she thought, remembering how enthusiastic she'd been when her mother had first taken her to swim classes.

Mermaid? No. She grimaced at the fanciful thought. Had she ever been that dreamy?

Maybe, she decided. She remembered writing a story for school about a mermaid with golden hair who had explored all the seven seas and by some miraculous process been able to wield a sword underwater.

But that had all happened a long time ago, and Heather Hoffs had far, far, better things to do than dream about mermaids.

When she was twenty-two, six months after a summa cum laude graduation, she thought she was unstoppable in her new job.

Her high heels clicked across the pavement, casting pointed shadows in the light of the setting sun; walking in the combination of heels and stylish-though-restrictive skirt-and-blouse ensemble had not been her idea of practical clothing when she had first started, but she had learned to stick with the standards and impress with her dress.

She'd spent more time than she had expected in her cubicle, finishing a report and not even being aware of the hours passing. Mr. Steadman would be impressed to have it on his desk the next morning, a full week early, and if she kept up the standard of efficiency she'd be sure to get the promotion over that total sleaze who called himself Greg.

Heather shivered slightly; it was starting to get dark, and she hadn't brought a jacket. The street was disgustingly dirty, too; it was only a short walk from here to her flat, though the difference in the standard of living between the two areas was far greater. She stepped up the pace of her walk in an attempt to get warm.

There was a sound behind her, running feet on the pavement; she did not turn in time to see the man before he slammed into her, pushing her down on the ground and grabbing her briefcase.

Not like the action movies, was her first thought. Time seemed to have slowed for her; I'm being mugged, this is not right… She gripped her case more tightly; no mugger was going to get away with this.


She felt a heavy fist slamming into her face, and recoiled, her grip loosening on her briefcase. She tried to hit back at him, open-handed strike because her shoes twisted under her wouldn't let her kick, but it didn't land and he was already sprinting away down the alleyway to her left.

Heather tried to struggle to her feet, but her high heels wouldn't allow her to get up, and when she finally staggered up into something resembling a standing position, he was gone.

God, I'm a mess, was her first thought. Her knees were bruised and torn, her stockings were laddered, and she felt blood dripping from her nose.

Nobody seemed to have heard any of the struggle; she hadn't even screamed, she realized. Hadn't even tried to summon help.

I lost…the duplicates I was taking home, copies of Ren's financial report, David's handwritten memos, the specs of Bec's design, my stationery, my wallet

Heather yelled then, primal and angry, though nobody seemed to hear.

I do marital arts! I should have been able to handle myself!

Should have been…stronger. Shouldn't have been mugged in a dark alleyway at eight at night. Shouldn't have…

She half-stumbled, half-ran the way back to her home—the streets were dark, she might get attacked again, how could this have happened to herand dialled nine-one-one.

She is twenty-three and on the fast track to success, and well beyond any old dreams.

"Now ordinarily, Hollander, Sam and I wouldn't have been seen with losers. But since we're out of high school, I'm prepared to put our past differences aside. For Sam's sake."

Mark rolls his eyes. "It's nice to see you too, Heather."

"What are you doing with yourself?" Kat asks. Her hair is dyed a paler blonde than it was in high school, Heather notice. Her eyebrows are plucked and she wears far more makeup than she used to; in Heather's opinion, it's a bad fashion decision, but she supposes that if you're the county weathergirl that sort of look is what you need for the camera. Apparently Kat wants to get into investigative reporting, but Heather half-jealously hopes that it isn't likely. "Sam said you were someone's secretary, didn't she, Mark?"

"Executive assistant," Heather corrects with a glare. Who probably earns more than either of you, and who's going to be the CEO someday.

"Executive assistant, secretary…all these business terms. You never know what the difference is," Chuck says. "It's hard enough to fill in tax forms without all the corporatespeak. Well, actually Jessica does all the forms…but you know what I mean."

"There's a difference," Heather says frostily. "Sam says you're running Chuckie's Computer Shack. I haven't been back in Conestoga Hills for a while. How is that going?"

"Business is booming. Never been better," Chuck says. "It was like there was this niche on the market, you know? Since Rick left town. Boy, was that guy nasty." He shudders slightly. "And now me and Jessica are making a great family business of it. It's like the town can't get enough of us."

"Congratulations, Chuck. Guess you're not a loser any more?"

To Heather's surprise, his hands curl into fists at that remark. "I was never a loser, Heather, and if you can't understand that concept, I'll…"

"You'll what?" Heather arches an eyebrow.

"I'll…show you that there are more important things in life than who earns the most money, or gets the best marks, or makes the most snappy remarks! There are more important things!"

"Like what?" She folds her arms across her chest in an impatient gesture. She hadn't really meant to insult Chuck with her comment; it was just what she thought of as being…herself. Heather Hoffs, go-getting assertive ball-busting bitch. "Sensitivity and emotionality? I got enough of that in Feminism 101."

"Yes, Heather, that's exactly right. Empathy, friendship, sensitivity to others' feelings. Even the imagination to believe that things that aren't real might just be real, the courage to try to change worlds, and…" He stops with a cry as Mark's sandshoe hits him in the ankle.

"Still need Hollander to help control your conversations, Chuck?" Heather says. "Some things never change, for geeks."

"Hey, guys," Sam interrupts. "Calm down. You're starting to scare me."

Heather shrugs. "If he can't take a bit of friendly banter, that's his problem."

"And your problem is you're just not friendly." Chuck flings her another glare.

Sam stands between them and raises her hands in the air. "Truce. Truce, right, guys? Think of something neutral to say."

The tall dark-haired man standing in the corner raises a hand. "What about popular culture in our year?"

He's as good-looking as ever, Heather decides—curly dark hair and deep brown eyes—and also just as bad at standing up for himself, it seems from his near-silence so far. Apparently he's still a student, getting a master's degree in Literature of all things. She's entirely over him, though, she decides; he might be attractive, but Sam had more of a personality and carried off the whole exotic-beauty thing much better…

"Britney Spears. Was she popular when we went through middle school?" Kat asks.

"No clue, I never was into that, dude," Chuck says. "Hey, anyone remember the Blood Cycle games that came out in '96? Really sweet platforming."

"No. But remember the Ace Lightning game?" Brett says. "Everyone played that, remember?"

"Yeah." Chuck looks a little uncomfortable.

"You and Hollander were totally obsessed with that game, weren't you?" Heather uses the opportunity to jump back into the conversation. "I think that was the reason why Sam and I both had to ditch him."

"Uh...yeah," Mark says. "Hard to beat, that one."

Kat laughs. "Totally. You shouldn't have tried to keep it a secret from me, though." From the smile on her face and the glance exchanged with her fiancé it's clear that there's some longstanding joke between the two of them on that subject.

"Ace Lightning and the Carnival of Doom," Heather says, for the sake of displaying her own knowledge. "We were so jealous of that game, right Sam?"

"Right." Sam backs her up, and Heather is grateful for it.

The game itself had been a rather clichéd story, Heather remembers; something about a—what was it?—Lightning Knight having to defeat evil. The usual fare.

Adventure. Excitement. Something interesting.

No wonder they'd been ditched for it, in this real world of jealousy and work that never stopped and crime in dark alleyways.

The conversation had passed on to the Spice Girls and Brett's secret crush on Posh Spice. Everyday stuff, and a nice, ordinary chat with old classmates.

Did she mind that nothing interesting had happened to her, in the end?

She wasn't the knightly slayer of dragons she had once imagined, and she had not been able to carry Sam away from the boarding school and then the law school that had taken her on her parents' wishes. Somewhere, most of that…that ambition fallen by the wayside. Yeah, sure, she still did martial arts and watched the movies when she could, but it was all about reality for her, now.

Reality wasn't nice, but it was what she had.

She still had Sam, and the prospect of success.

Which was all she needed, right? It wasn't heroic, but it was something.

Heather took another sip of coffee, and smelt cigarette smoke in the air.

A/N: Feedback? Oh yes. Concrit appreciated.