/Author's Note: Alright, here we are, then. As promised, the absolute finale of Season 2! I won't keep you for long. It's hard to believe Season 2 started back in 2007, and yet we're finally at its close! It's kind of unfortunate that chapters have taken longer and longer to come out, but I've still had a lot of fun writing this high-school epic. Even if I was 15 then and 21 now (yikes!), the enjoyment I get out of writing this fic hasn't changed, so expect to see it through to the end! Thank you to everyone who's been reading thus far, and special thanks to those who've been here since the first season. Season 3's ahead, and it'll be the shortest one – we really are entering HH!'s final stretch now.
That being said, thank you for sticking by me for this long, and for offering your thoughts, support, and feedback! I truly do love hearing from you all; it makes writing this that much more rewarding. As always, enjoy, and I'll see you all in Season 3! End Author's Note/
Chapter 56 - As Long As We Try: Part 3
"Man!" Kai let out a drawn-out groan, then squatted on the ground to save his feet the hardship of standing, "When's this chick gonna get on with the encore?!"
"Patience, baby," cooed Popuri, her voluminous pink hair frazzled and teased by the humidity of the hall, "Genius takes time, y'know." She leaned over her boyfriend and wrapped her arms around his neck, her endless curls falling over his head like a wig.
Karen, Eve, and Lloyd were still chatting enthusiastically about all the highlights of the show, and Ray had undone his ponytail and was stretching his arms. Joe, meanwhile, craned his neck to try and catch a glimpse of where Sacchun and Carl had run off to. He had this nagging feeling that Carl's need for water – and his insistence that Joe not come along – was all a ruse for more privacy. And with privacy, came making out. An image Joe had never quite grown accustomed to.
"Sacchun and Carl have been gone a while, eh?" he broke up the chatter between the fangirls and boy.
"Not really," Lloyd said dismissively.
"They might've gotten held up somewhere. This crowd is monstrous!" Popuri said.
Kai scoffed, "You think this crowd is bad? Babe, maybe I'll take you to a real concert one day; it'll be a learning experience." He laughed, inhaling wisps of pink and sputtering.
"Eh, to be fair, some of these fangirls could probably gnaw your arm off if you got too close. Or at least puncture your eardrums."
"Oh noes! Someone save Sacchun's arms and ears! She's in grave daaanger!" laughed Karen. Eve couldn't stop a giggle from bubbling out of her mouth.
"She has Carl with her, I think she'll be fine, kitten."
"I think Carl's the one who should be thankful to have Sacchun with him." Lloyd pointed out, and Joe laughed – though uneasily. "Either that, or…" Lloyd took a moment to find Joe's buttons and prepared to press them: "They got lost and wound up in make-out central?"
Karen coughed out "Lame!", but the damage had been done. Joe's eyebrows arched downwards and he crossed his arms, but said nothing. Lloyd could only grin at his best friend's reaction.
"Oh, now that's just too cute…" Eve tittered, but said no more.
"I don't want her to miss the encore!" Joe said defensively, "She'd be crushed!"
Karen decided the time was right to join in on the fun. "…If she isn't already crushed under Carl's manly body, as he presses down on her, hands firmly on her shoulders, moving in for the kiss…"
"Why so flustered, Joe?" asked Eve, batting her eyelashes innocently.
"It's just… weird! There are – There're certain people you just don't want to imagine getting' all… makey-outy. Like Lloyd for instance! Dude's like a brother to me! I don't need that mental image!"
Karen shot up and pulled Lloyd into an embrace in record time. "You suuure? Cause I'd be happy to help you get used to it!"
Kai, Popuri, Ray and Eve were hooting with laughter and Lloyd gave an uneasy chuckle – Karen really was, if anything, absolutely unpredictable.
Joe blanched and stuck out his tongue in digust, and In another instant, she was back to her position of squatting on the ground by Kai. "Aw, well, too late now. Sorry Lloydie, maybe next time. You can blame Joe." Lost for words, as he often was, Lloyd just chuckled again. The red in his face had luckily gone unnoticed by nearly everyone – all but Eve.
At first, she had been hesitant to spend time with Karen – school politics had dictated that they were on very, very opposing ends of the social spectrum – but slowly, somehow, she had found herself warming up to the charismatic blonde. It seemed to be a trend, she realized – hadn't Gwen and Karen gotten along swimmingly after a few drinks back at the New Years party? She had an infectious personality, that Karen Lucine – even Eve could admit that.
But now, as she saw the explicit affection written all over Lloyd's face, and the better-hidden but still discernible affection hidden in Karen's glances and words, she felt a subtle creep of disloyalty. This was Lloyd, the boy Gwen had expressed interest in time and time again to her best friend – and who was on the verge of being stolen away by Karen, the girl she had been chummy with the entire night. Politics bearing over her, Eve made the conscious decision to maintain distance – it was the least she could do, for Gwen.
She walked around Lloyd and Joe and over to Ray, falling into his arms and feigning sudden tiredness. Karen watched her as she did so.
"Angelface," Eve said affectionately, rubbing her cheek against Ray's chest.
"Tired, huh? You were pretty much spazzing out for the past hour and a half."
"Fangirling takes a lot out of a girl."
"And Lloyd can attest to that." Joe fired back. He managed to get a bark of laughter out of Karen, but Lloyd himself only rolled his eyes.
"Hey, I wouldn't mind skippin' out on the encore." Kai looked up, the top of his head accidentally bumping Popuri's chin.
"Oh?" she rubbed her chin and lifted herself off of him, "Have somewhere you'd rather be?"
"Well, there was that other thing going down tonight. Y'know…"
Popuri frowned and crossed her arms. "Ew. No."
"If we left now we could make it! Then you'll have done something you wanted to do, and I can do something I want to do! Everybody wins, babe!" Kai gestured wildly to accompany his plea."What's that crap called? You know – compromising?"
"We're not going to that icky girl's house. Now shush."
The others listened with intent curiosity, but it only took Karen a few moments (plus a few more moments, given her slight inebriation) to realize what they were talking about. Lucy's party – it was tonight.
"Icky girl?" Eve enquired, wrapped up in Ray's arms.
Kai rolled his eyes. "That's Kindergartner for Lucy. That is… Lucy Clifford." His eyes flickered over Karen, trying to read her reaction in the split second he had before his eyes snapped back. "She's throwing one of her trademark trashy spring bashes."
"Sounds… charming." Eve made little effort to hide her disdain – the kind of disdain enjoyed only by those of the high school upper-crust.
The name 'Lucy Clifford' had brought Karen temporarily out of her state of euphoria. For an instant, she found herself back on the staircase to Lucy's basement, after having her request rebuffed. Karen's head was suddenly swimming with thoughts. Among them, two voices echoed loudly from the near past:
"School is overrated, as I'm sure you've realized by now." Said the familiar one, tinged with venom.
"It really is. Heh, I never thought I'd find myself agreeing to that so easily. At least, not a few months ago." Said the other voice.
Her voice. The voice of the forgotten girl. She was there – hidden away in that ivy-covered castle, guarded by the purple-haired witch.
Karen looked up, first at Lloyd, then at Joe. It hadn't felt like her business to divulge the information before, and everything that had followed had driven the vital information she learned that morning right out of her memory. But now, being faced with the opportunity – and knowing just how 'trashy' Lucy's parties always got…
"Guys..." She shakily got up to her feet, "There's something I need to tell you. Something I… probably should have told you a while ago."
She had their attention. She closed her eyes and thought of Meg.
# # #
"I'm sorry, May?" Dia's eyebrows shot up her forehead, "Did… Did you just say that you had a… talking cat? Did I hear that right? Because… I dunno if your 'gramps' ever taught you this but… that's not really possible. Toys can't talk." Dia was hoping that the youth would not be perceptive enough to take note of how quickly she had regurgitated that rebuff. "Not possible at all."
"You old people are all the same."
Dia cringed – but there would be time to defend her youth later. "Have you… ever encountered a talking cat?"
"May." The teenager injected as much firmness as she could in her voice. It wasn't very hard for her, either.
"What?" replied May indignantly, "Why should I tell ya? It's not like you're gonna believe me."
'I do believe you! More than you think!' Dia thought, fighting to hold the words back. She needed to find out what May meant, and if she was simply inventing some childish fantasy or if she had been another witness to this bizarre phenomenon. She glanced down at Jinx, who was back on his place on the counter, limp as a ragdoll; eyes lifeless. He could be so convincing that there had been more than one occasion where Dia had completely forgotten she was housing a supernaturally sentient stuffed animal – that it might have all been a dream. She was consistently proven wrong, of course.
A customer came in and yanked Dia out of her thoughts. She greeted him, then found herself drumming her fingers on the countertop as he loitered around. May went back to flipping through old music magazines, amusing herself with the pictures of the scantily-clad rock musicians of the decades past.
Right as Dia's – admittedly limited – patience was reaching its boundaries, the man left without buying anything. She immediately stalked over to May, pulled the magazine out of her hands mid-page-turn, and squatted down next to her. "Talk."
May decided, this time, she probably shouldn't argue.
"It was back when I was –"
As if the Harvest Goddess had craftily scripted the night like a bad sitcom, May was cut off by the sudden sound of a clatter and something falling. Dia's phone had vibrated right off the countertop and continued its agitated twitching. In the midst of deciding whether to roll her eyes or glare at the device, she got to her feet again.
Dia hurried back to the counter and snapped up her phone before it could stop buzzing. "Hello?"
She hadn't had time to check the Caller ID, but she recognized who it was as soon as she heard the familiar breathing on the other end. "What do you want, Kurt?"
"Listen," came his voice on the other end, sounding many times wearier since their last conversation, "Karen just called me. She had some pretty interesting things to say."
# # #
The 'Why?' Sacchun had uttered echoed around her, filling her ears and leaving no room for the explosive voice of Lanna Royce that had made its re-emergence in time for the encore. She didn't even turn around to look at the starlet, her eyes fixed on the golden-haired boy in front of her.
" 'Why'?" Carl repeated, and the echoes stopped. He still wouldn't quite look at her, but didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular either. "Sacchun, I've been…" he started, and she saw his composure begin to slip. He salvaged it in record time and continued, "I've been so lucky to be with you these past few months. I really have. I… I don't…"
"I'm the lucky one." She spoke in a voice so low, and was sure her words were drowned out by the music, but at the same time something assured her that he had heard.
"You… You're amazing. You're full of life, you seize the day, you refuse to let a moment of your youth pass you by and…" he was quickly running out of breath, each word taking a toll on him, "And I just can't. I can't be with someone like you."
The words – now that they had been explicitly spoken - hit her hard, sending chills down the bare of her skin, but he wasn't done yet.
"And it's not because I don't like you – because… Sacchun… I honestly love you. But I can't live up to your… to you. I'm not … good enough. And it was stupid to ever think I was."
"That's not true!" she felt like yelling, but the voice came out in nothing but a croak.
"When I see Kurt and Dia… When I see the way they look at each other, when I see how passionate Kurt is whenever she's hurt, when I see the way he's tuned his heart to beat with her's… It scares me. Because I don't know… I don't know if I'll ever be capable of that. Do I have what it takes to ever really know and love a person to the point where I can be perfectly in tune with their emotions like that?" For the first time in this exchange, he spared Sacchun a glance, and immediately regretted it. The hurt in her eyes was piercing beyond relief.
"You deserve so much more… Someone who's n-not meek and mild and clumsy and immature. You're the first girl I'd ever kissed, did you know?"
She had known, of course.
"I'm… I'm still a child in so many ways."
"But so am I." her words came out battered and beaten, barely having the strength to leave the confines of her lips.
"You're… going places in life. I'm going to inherit a café and stick around Flowerbud forever. I –"
"I'm not that great, Carl! I'm really not!" she found her voice again, but it was shrill and damaged, "I'm – I'm plenty childish too, in case you haven't noticed! Everyone treats me like a kid, and I just go with it, because I don't know how to be anything but a kid! Contrary to popular belief, I know I'm crazy, I know I'm dumb, I know I'm whiny and annoying and immature and I know how Goddess-damn irritating it must be to everyone around me but… I know. How could you even call yourself childish when I'm… such a textbook case of arrested development! I –" her breath caught in her throat, and she coughed, dryly and painfully, "I don't even know what the hell you're going on about anymore. I'm the kid. You're… You –"
She was cut off as a rogue body rammed into her, sending her shaking body to the ground in a crumpled heap. The elderly man apologized hastily through his thick moustache, without checking to see the damage he may have caused, then returned to dancing. Lanna's voice sang on overhead.
"Sacchun!" Carl darted towards her and knelt to lift her up. Her body did not cooperate with his hands and for a horrifying moment he thought she had been knocked unconscious. "Sacchun!"
It soon became clear that her refusal to rise to her feet was voluntary. Head bent low, arms tucked underneath her chest, Sacchun felt every bit of the weight of what had just happened, and it was bearing down on her and pinning her to the ground with all of its might.
Carl pressed his head against hers, ignoring the familiar texture and the familiar smell of her hair, and began speaking to the ground. Sacchun could still understand every word, and wished she couldn't.
"I guess we're just a pair of kids trying to play as grown-ups." He chuckled humorlessly, took a breath, and continued.
"I tried. I really did. I thought that by getting myself into this relationship I'd grow up and… and get better at dealing with things. Dealing with people. But even now… I can't make you feel better. I hate that this has to be tonight but… After you kissed me, it's just… Sacchun. I'll never… I'll never know you, Sacchun, the real you, well enough to not let you down – to not hurt you."
"But Baby…" Sacchun heard her own muffled voice shake with her body, "That's just – just part of being in a relationship! Hurting each other, letting each other down, all that jazz! It happens! W-We don't have to be perfect! Nothing's perfect!"
"I know, I know…" he said languidly, "But if I could even be a fraction of what Kurt is to Dia, I'd –"
"Forget them! They're them, we're us, stop measuring yourself up to someone that isn't you! Kurt's far from perfect, you know – he's screwed up more than you'd believe! He –"
"Fine, then," the first hint of exasperation crept into Carl's voice – possibly for the first time ever, "Let's take another example. You and Joe – "
"We are not like that! Holy Harvest Goddess, we could never be like that!"
"I know, muffin, I know… But… Don't you see? Joe's still your best friend. Joe's the one who can read you at a glance. Joe's the one who knows exactly what to do, what to say, to make things better. And I don't begrudge him for that! He's… He's your best friend. Just like Eve is Gwen's best friend, and Popuri is Karen's best friend and… just like Kurt is Dia's best friend." Carl finished quietly. "I love you, and I'll continue to love you for… for Goddess knows how long, but… You deserve the kind of love that goes beyond what I… what I've given you."
Sacchun's back shuddered and she felt the scene around her coming back to her senses. Lanna's voice began to creep into her ears again, she began to feel the sensation of all the bodies moving around them, and she knew she was losing it. She wanted to scream, wanted to block out the singing and the dancing and the hot air around them – if she could just hold on to this moment, just for a little longer, she and Carl could still be together. But it continued relentlessly; the night was winning, time was marching forward.
"I'm sorry." He said, and finally dislodged his head from her's, the flaxen curls parting with the ebony pigtails. The warmth he left lingered for only an instant, and then the barrier between Sacchun and the rest of the world was broken: nothing stopped the night from crashing in on her.
Time passed immeasurably.
"Sacchun?" a voice broke through the cacophony of sound. "…Sacchun?"
Sacchun realized she was still on the ground. Hot tears were spilling uncontrollably from her eyes, down her nose, and splashing onto her fingers as they gripped the pavement. She choked back a sob as the voice drew nearer.
"What happened? Is everything alright? Sacch-"
"What happened?" repeated another voice, and more followed.
"Sacchun!" cried a female one. Soon they surrounded her, but she still couldn't bring herself to raise her head. One of them knelt down, but she shuddered at the foreign touch while Carl's still lingered on her. Her body was rejecting anyone's touch but his.
"Are you alright?" asked Joe, his voice much closer to her ears. She shook her head, feeling dizzy.
"Where's Carl?" asked a voice, farther away, that she identified as Karen's.
"Help her up, man!" commanded Kai's voice, and Joe tried to help her to her feet. She obliged, but with difficulty. Sacchun was surprised for a moment that her legs still knew how to hold up the rest of her – it felt as if she had just slid out from under a boulder. She made no effort to hide her tear-streaked face, or her fingers, black with gravel.
"What happened?" Joe repeated, hands firmly on her shoulders. She wiggled free and took a step back.
"Where's Carl?" she croaked.
"That's what… we were gonna ask you." Lloyd said carefully, exchanging a worried look with Joe.
"He… didn't…" her voice failed her again, and she couldn't bring herself to speak in anything above a whisper.
Karen stepped forward, "Look, can we move along? There's no point getting any talking done here." She jabbed a finger over her shoulder, in the direction of the stage, as if the voice she had been revering ten minutes ago was now nothing more than a distraction.
"She has a point," Lloyd conceded, and they made for the exit. Sacchun's vision welled with tears as quickly as she blinked them away, and her dizziness kept her from walking unaided. Joe firmly put his hands on the back of her shoulders and steered her in the direction of the exit; Sacchun didn't have to look behind her to sense the worry stricken on his face.
They left the venue and the sound of Lanna's voice began to dwindle behind them. Popuri looked particularly sorry to go, and Lloyd sympathized with her but knew there were greater things at stake. Kai seemed unsure about why they had all suddenly decided to head to Lucy's party, but didn't question it – it worked in his favour, anyway. Karen stalked ahead of all of them, fists clenched, eyes alight with their new mission in mind. Sacchun made up the rear, assisted by Joe.
Karen stopped once they were outside the hall, and turned to them, arms akimbo. "Sacchun. Tell us what happened."
Sacchun opened her mouth, but couldn't get the words out; she just did not have the energy.
"Where's Carl?" Joe demanded, more roughly than he had intended to.
"What did he do? Did you lose each other?" Popuri asked with a slight tilt of the head, thoroughly lost in the night's events.
"I don't think she's okay," Lloyd crossed his arms and frowned, "Sacchun, do you want us to take you home?"
Sacchun took a deep breath and attempted to focus her vision, at least to be able to discern everyone from the blobs of colour they had become. She felt the sharp warmth of Joe's hands on her shoulders.
"I'm… alright. I, uh…" She swallowed, "I guess was just caught by surprise when Carl… Well, when Carl broke up with me."
She had said it. There was no going back, now. She and Carl were officially done.
The expressions ranged from the sympathy in Lloyd's eyes to the disbelief in Popuri's to the anger in Joe's.
"He broke up with you? Why in the HELL would he do a thing like that?!" Joe exploded, moving in front of Sacchun, "What for?! What shitty reasons did he have for dumping you?! Hell, if it was gonna happen, it should've been the other way around –"
"Dude," Lloyd stretched out his hand and placed it on Joe's shoulder to stymie the anger.
"…I just don't get it, Sacchun. What did he say?"
"Look, there were a bunch of things…" Sacchun slowly found her voice coming back to her, and her blood boiling much like Joe's, "A bunch of... really stupid things." She felt her vision lose focus again for a moment, but regained it quickly. "A bunch of really stupid things that I just… don't want to dwell on right now."
"Did he hurt you?" Kai asked, his mouth twitching. Popuri gave him a reproachful look. "What?"
"Obviously he did!" she squeaked, then muttered, "Stay out of it, Kai, jeez…"
Sacchun shook her head, then made her best attempt at smiling. "No, no he didn't… I mean, beside the typical melodramatic break-up pains that every girl goes through. I'll be fine though."
Just as Kai and Popuri's expressions relaxed, Lloyd's and Joe's strained: before them was a girl who had just been shattered to pieces, and had just clumsily picked them up again in an attempt to hold herself together – and it wouldn't last long.
"We can head back to the dorms." Lloyd said, then, with more conviction, "Let's head back to the dorms."
"What were you guys doing out here anyway?" Sacchun felt refreshed to breach another subject; it came as a surprising relief that anything else still existed to be talked about. "The… The concert…"
"We've got a job to do," Said Karen, the fire from her eyes still dancing, "I'm sorry to hear about you and Carl – but I think this might interest you."
The group stood out in the dry evening air as Karen told them everything: the relationship she had with Lucy, both toxic yet edifying; She told them about the morning she had visited her house, tried to convince her to come back to school, and then unintentionally overheard her conversation with a houseguest – one Meg Winslow.
Sacchun felt a chill run down her spine at the sound of her best friend's name. It was strange how her ears had become unaccustomed to hearing it. "Meg's… been there the whole time? With… with her?"
"Yep." Karen crossed her arms and nodded gravely, reveling in the drama and her part in it. "That's what Lucy's great for: as soon as you feel like you've hit rock bottom, she slithers along and makes it all seem alright. She's the best friend you could have in that moment – and at the same time, the worst. The very worst."
No one doubted that Karen was talking from experience. "She's made so many of her little friends that way. As soon as she finds you feeling particularly horrible about something, she takes it as a cue to come and share her… unique brand of comfort. She's like a toxin for the conscience – stick around her too much, and she'll make you feel right about anything you do. And before you know it – Bam. Conscience? What conscience?"
"Meg did go through a pretty bad rough patch after the whole… Starry Night thing." Lloyd pointed out gingerly.
"That idiot brother of mine…" Joe gritted his teeth, a sudden darkness coming over his features.
"It's not just that," Sacchun shook her head, "She's never been all that… strong. She had loads of problems before – her parents, her self-esteem, her luck with boys… I think it all took a toll on her. The incident with your 'idiot brother' was just the…"
"The straw that broke the camel's back." Lloyd finished for her. She nodded.
"Bingo," Karen punched her open palm, "Sounds just like the kind of gal who would get along with Lucy."
"I can't imagine her…"
"Trust me, those are exactly the kind of conditions Lucy would use to her advantage. It's not hard to drag someone down into the gutter when they've tumbled half-way there themselves – no offense."
"Well," Joe let out a low whistle, "That explains where she's been hiding all this time."
"What… What kind of things do you think she's done to her?" Sacchun wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer, even after posing the question.
Karen faltered. "… Well. She really hasn't been looking her rosiest lately, has she? If I had to guess… Copious amounts of partying, alcohol, maybe drugs?"
"Yo, that… that doesn't sound like that Meg girl at all," Kai remarked, "Straight A's, star violinist, member of the debate team…"
"That's exactly what Meg couldn't stand," Sacchun suddenly remembered, "She hated when people… well, decided who she was for her, just based on her achievements."
Kai looked taken aback, then quirked an eyebrow in thought. The rest of the group joined him in a moment of thought. The muffled sound of Lanna thanking the audience could be heard, but no one was really listening.
"…I guess we're all a little guilty of that," Joe said, breaking the silence. There was wordless agreement.
Karen took a step forward, her fists clenched again. "Well, here's our chance to make up for that. Lucy's spring bashes are always her raunchiest parties. Let's head on over there, beat 'er up or something, and talk some sense into that big blonde… blondie!" She fist-pumped the air. The group gave her a collectively perturbed look, to which she replied: "…Look, I'm still kinda drunk."
"I'm kinda with Karen. I wouldn't mind seeing what one of Lucy's parties is like myself." Lloyd said in support.
"I'm down. I… I kind of feel the need to do something right now." Sacchun added, "Anything."
Kai heaved a sigh and swung his arms behind his head, "Well, if we're gonna party crash, at least we can do it with a good reason, right? It sounds like this chica needs a good intervention."
"Let's do it." Joe said simply.
"There's a bike rental kiosk nearby. Karen, if you know the way from here, we can head head down on bike – is everyone cool with that?" Lloyd asked, and they nodded.
"And… since it's kinda on the way… If we're finally gonna do this, I think it's only fair we drag my bro along for the ride." Joe was glowering.
"Yes." Sacchun said, "Good idea."
"Let me give him a call first," Karen insisted, pulling out her phone and looking for her band-mate's number.
They all nodded, and began towards the street, but Popuri hesitated. Her cotton candy curls bounced as she caught up with Karen and entwined her arm in her best friend's. "Are you really gonna try and steal her back from Lucy? Is… is that a good idea, Karen?"
Karen gave her a hearty wink. "As long as we try, right, Popo?"
As if on cue, the song of the same name came pouring out of Riversong Hall, as Lanna began the final song of the evening.
The party smiled at the impeccable timing, and Sacchun in particular felt the fire within her – the one that had almost been put out entirely this evening – rekindle. Karen's – and Lanna's – words echoed in her head: 'As Long as we try.'
# # #
"Bob!" Gwen's first instinct was to slap him. He walked over to her and Blue, drunk on both alcohol and the affections of a certain blonde. "You're such a pig! Like, an actual pig! You looked like a literal pig, literally gobbling up food from its trough!"
"Man, Gwen, jus' calm yerself down. S'not like we're together anymore, yeh know."
"That doesn't make what you did any less disgusting!" She closed her eyes, only to find that the image of Bob preying on Meg on the couch on the other side of the room had been burned into her imagination. "Seriously, I'm leaving. This – this entire party is just an excuse for disgusting boys to have disgusting make-out sessions while drinking disgusting things."
"Wha – She wanted it, Gwen. Jeez!" he crossed his arms defensively, glancing over his shoulder. Meg had cut their 'disgusting make-out session' short by her sudden need for water, and had yet to return. "Loosen up, fer Goddess' sake. Rememb'r when people thought y'were actually cool? She started it, dammit, an' who'm I to say no to that?"
That had come as a surprise to Gwen. Bob sleazing it up was, while deplorable, at least well within expectations. But Meg actually wanting it? She didn't know the girl well, but had been certain she had higher standards. 'Then again,' Gwen remembered, 'Everyone at this party is either drunk off their ass or high as a kite, so nothing's really a surprise at this point.'
Her desire to leave grew stronger. 'I never should have let Bob talk me into coming to this thing. Anything hosted by Lucy always leaves me feeling… slimy.'
As if to prove her point, Lucy herself made an appearance, taking a stand on one of the couches and announcing that she was now bringing out snacks. Meg stood by her, looking dazed. The music was muted for her as she spoke, and Gwen realized that her ears were ringing.
"… so feel free, help yourself, and remember just how much fun a party at the Cliffords can be!" Cheers and hoots went up all around her, and she flashed a winning grin, "Come back next time, got it?"
There was more cheering, but Gwen could see Meg beckoning to her purple-haired friend, whispering something to her, and Lucy cleared her throat again.
"Oh! Andbefore I forget, no one better leave without trying one of my famous, er… special brownies!" She gave an all-too unnecessary wink and added as a gibe, "A Clifford family recipe, of course."
Lucy reached for the table and held the shining platter above their heads before removing one of the brownies from its neat pyramid and handing it to the blonde at her side. Meg looked pleased to receive the honour, and stuffed the brownie in her mouth.
Gwen couldn't bear to watch; she felt foolish for thinking the girl had any standards at all.
# # #
The warm night air felt cool and cutting against their skin as the group pedaled furiously down the empty street. Their shadows danced erratically around them, bent by the whims of the trees and street lights overhead. Karen and Sacchun lead the pack, Joe and Lloyd following close behind, and Kai, though slowed down by the added weight of Popuri on his bike, managed to trundle along not too far behind.
The streets were largely devoid of people – even for a Friday night, Flowerbud's nightlife was largely made up of students, and only a small number of which could actually drive. Few words were exchanged, as everyone put their efforts into propelling the bicycles forward, a sense of duty and spirit driving them onwards. Sacchun, especially, had taken all the emotions she had been left with after Carl had broken up with her and channeled them into pure energy; she sped down the street with an untamed ferocity in her eyes. Karen saw this as a challenge to go even faster, the strain on her muscles going unnoticed thanks to her slight buzz.
They biked up and over a bridge, and Lloyd couldn't help but inhale as much of the night air as he could. As the moon caught his eyes and its sparkles on the water danced merrily, he was reminded of just how invigorating it was to fly through a summer night like this.
Fifteen minutes of intense biking later and there were doubts as to whether they were still in town: they had ridden onto Blue Mist Drive, a neighborhood of the most opulent houses in Flowerbud. The ground rose above them and the street they were biking on became something of a valley, surrounded by tall hills with even taller houses nestled on their faces.
"It's not much further," Karen assured them from ahead.
It certainly wasn't, for after turning a corner there was an unmistakable din that could only have come from a festivity. Even in the dark, Karen could recognize the three-storey party central as soon as she approached it.
"Damn, look at this place," Lloyd said in a low voice, as if not to wake the behemoth of a house.
Kai was visibly excited. "Some of the best parties in the town have happened here."
"Too bad it's got what sounds like a huge rat problem…" Sacchun added, her nose wrinkling.
Karen wobbled off her bike and clutched her stomach, "I really don't feel so good anymore…"
Popuri hopped off Kai's bike and walked over to her best friend, proceeding to give her a sympathetic back rub.
"What about my bro?" Joe asked Karen as she crooned over Popuri's touch, "Is he coming?"
"He said something about having a test or whatever. He was being…" she searched for the word, "Flaky? Non-comittal? Y'know, being the usual Kurt? Forget it, dude, we're already here."
Joe opened his mouth to argue further, but the group dismounted and closed in on the premises.
They leaned the bikes against the cobbled wall surrounding the premises, and Karen lead the way in through the iron gate. As they advanced through the Cliffords' property, the music blaring became more apparent, and seemed to be coming out of the ground itself. The heavy bass of the song could almost be felt around their feat as they tread through the grounds.
"The basement," Kai explained, "It's where all the good stuff happens."
Popuri rolled her eyes and pushed him ahead before he could say any more. "We're not here to party. Don't forget that!" She was still a little lost as to what they were here to do, but she was certain Karen had it under control.
They approached the front door, passing a drunken couple making out behind a shrub as they did. No one was particularly surprised.
"We can't just waltz in through the front door!" Sacchun insisted, gesturing emphatically to the redwood door in question, "We gotta be stealthy! And like… infiltrate it 'n stuff!"
"Sacchun," Karen put a hand on her shoulder and bowed her head solemnly, "I think it's about time you heard this from someone: you play way too many video games."
The shorter girl gave a pout and asked, "Well, what's the plan then?"
"We, uh, ring the door bell."
"…It kind of lacks the zing of Sacchun's plan." Joe admitted.
"I know how these things work, guys," Karen responded matter-of-factly, "I don't think Lucy has ever once answered the door at one of her own parties. She'll always send someone else up to do it. Trust me."
"Ah, of course, Karen would know." With a hand on his chin, Kai said, "You were totally Lucy's little bit—"
"Finish that sentence, Kai, and I'll have your nipple in such a vice grip it'll be as purple as your bandana." She shot daggers from her eyes to accompany her threat. Kai folded his arms – wisely – over his chest, and remained quiet.
"Her drunken purple-nurples are deadly." Popuri whispered dramatically.
True to Karen's prediction, the doors swung open at the behest of somebody else; in this case, and to the surprise of everyone – especially Karen and Lloyd – Gwen had answered.
"What are you doing here?" asked the blondes simultaneously as they came face to face.
"There's no time for your comically-timed banter! Let us in, we'll explain then!" Sacchun insisted, hovering on her tippy-toes behind Karen.
Gwen conceded and lead them into the dimly-lit vestibule, the pounding of the music beneath them even more pronounced. Closing the door behind them, Sacchun attempted to stealthily corral them into the living room off to the side.
Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but Sacchun beat her to it: "We ditched the Lanna concert because we found out that Meg – y'know, one of our best friends, blonde, smart, accomplished, bitchin' violinist, etcetera – was frequenting this filthy little fiesta, and was keeping company with the loathsome Lucy Clifford, and thought we'd swoop in and… Do something." She forced the words out in a voice only slightly above a whisper. "Now you go."
"I… had nothing to do tonight…" Gwen crossed her arms but made a conscious effort not to look at or anywhere near Lloyd, "So I stupidly let Bob talk me into attending this thing, and have regretted it for about ninety-five percent of my time here." Sacchun gave her a distressed motion to keep it down, but Gwen only rolled her eyes and continued, "And… Yes, I've seen your friend. Quite a bit of her, actually. Not as much as Bob's seen,though," she examined her nails with non-chalance, letting the statement sink in.
Lloyd and Joe raised their eyebrows simultaneously and gave each other significant looks. Sacchun frowned and opened her mouth slightly.
"But tell me… What exactly do you plan to do? I'm sorry, but she's looked like she's been having a ball the whole night. She's been right at the center of all the… activity."
"That's not true! She's not like that!" moaned Sacchun, giving Joe a pleading look. He only looked down, his eyes unreadable.
"Girl, I'm not claiming to know her better than you do, but… people do change. I don't think the girl you're looking for is going to be here tonight." She re-crossed her arms, "You can see for yourself, if you'd like."
Karen took a step forward, a familiar challenge to this battle field. "Oh, shut up! What do you know? We came all the way and we're not leaving unless she's with us!"
"Please, Karen," drawled the taller blonde, with no lack of exasperation, "Just what were you going to do? Burst into the basement, jump around, yell about love and friendship, grab the blondie, hop into your coach made out of a pumpkin, and ride off into the night?"
"Well, basically, yeah!" Karen barked drunkenly, then paused to reconsider her retort. "Look… what's the harm in letting her best friends talk to her for a bit? What's it to you anyway, you giant… tomboy… giraffe!"
A quirked eyebrow was the only reply she could give to the insult slung at her, and then Gwen told them, at large, "I just don't want you guys to be… disappointed. I've been down there all night, and it's not pretty." Looking around and seeing that her words were having little effect, Gwen inhaled and trucked on:
"Meg's come out of her shell a lot, and not in a good way. Drinking, consuming, sleazing it up – you know, all that fun stuff." She gave Joe a nod and added, "I'm not gonna blame him when the girl's so obviously messed up, but, it really seems like Kurt did quite a number on her." Joe's nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. "Please, before you do anything, just consider the fact that not everyone sits around, waiting to be rescued by a knight – or knights, in this case – in shining armor."
There was an exchange of uncomfortable glances as Gwen's words fell like rain over a bonfire. Joe's fists clenched and he locked his gaze on the floor, avoiding eye contact all together. Karen fought to preserve the determination in her eyes, and Gwen avoided looking at her and maintained her conviction. Lloyd smiled grimly to himself: there were many points on which the girls differed, and idealism versus rationality seemed to be another one. He took a step forward.
"You might be right, Gwen," he said, and Joe broke his reverie to emit a strangled protest, but Lloyd overrode him: "There might be nothing we can do, but… well, so sayeth Lanna: as long as we try, right?"
"Amen, brother," Karen put a hand to her chest and nodded fiercely. "Praise be to Godna."
Gwen flung her hands up and said, "Look, I'm not gonna stop you."
"Damn straight you aren't!" Karen strode towards the living room's exit confidently, "Let's go, guys!"
Lloyd and Sacchun nodded at each other and advanced with her, Gwen watched with her bottom lip caught under her teeth, and Joe made another attempt at speaking: "Hold it."
"What is it?" Lloyd turned to his friend.
His posture was rigid, his fists balled at his side, his feet poised and ready to bolt. Through gritted teeth, he enunciated: "I. Don't. Give. A. Crap. About his lame excuses. I'm going to get my brother. And he is going to deal with this. Right. Now."
Without leaving time to protest, Joe flew out of the room and swung the great redwood door open. An evening's worth of frustration and several months worth of resentment exploded and propelled him forward, leaving nothing but a stunned silence in his wake.
# # #
Fifteen minutes of intense biking later and the scenery around them became familiar to everyone. Joe pulled into the lead and turned the corner into the courtyard of the student dorms. Jumping off his bike and letting it clatter to the pavement unceremoniously, he gave a curt nod to the others, then headed inside the building, leaving them to wait.
"I don't feel so good anymore…" Karen groaned, hunching over the handlebars of her bike, her golden hair blanketing her face.
Popuri hopped off Kai's bike and walked over to Karen, proceeding to give her a sympathetic back rub. Sacchun was tapping her feet and pulling on her brakes impatiently. They kept their eyes on the glass panel doors of the building, and watched Joe punch a code into the building's intercom, and from the silent movements of his mouth a few seconds later, they assumed he had gotten through to Kurt.
"Hurry up…" Sacchun grumbled, fanning herself with her hand as perspiration glistened down her face.
The student dormitories were not very far from Blue Mist Drive; on bike, and at the furious pace he had set for himself, it took Joe only minutes to skid into the parking lot, drop his bike, and stomp into the building. Sacchun, Karen, Kai and Popuri, similarly, arrived minutes later and gave Joe's discarded bike a significant look.
"I see someone coming down…" Sacchun remarked, turning her gaze to the glass doors of the building. Seconds later, the glass doors swung open and Joe was pulling his brother down the steps and towards the group. Kurt looked disheveled, wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of camouflage boxers. His matching bandana was missing, and his chestnut hair fell limply over his face, prompting the group to take a few moments to recognize him.
"What's going on? And can someone tell me why my idiotic brother is—"
Karen and Sacchun gasped and Popuri let out a sharp yelp. Joe had cut his brother's query short with the swing of his fist, directly into Kurt's face.
"Joe!" Kai yelled, abandoning his own bike.
"Not now, man." Joe let hot air out of his nostrils and made for his brother again.
Attempting to stop him, Karen approached and cried, "Stop!"
"Not now!" he spat, and aimed a kick for the perturbed Kurt, who nimbly rolled out of the way and got to his feet.
"What the hell is your problem?!" the unkempt boy demanded, his eyes wide with incredulity and his cheek swelling, "Seriously, what the hell?"
Popuri had run over to Kai in a tizzy just as Sacchun had gotten off her bike. "What are you doing, Joe?!"
The voice of his best friend prompted Joe into at least explaining himself.
"This is his fault!" he yelled, his voice reverberating in the empty courtyard, "This wouldn't have happened to Meg if this jackass hadn't screwed with her so much."
Kurt took a step forward, eyes narrowed and fists clenched, "Late reaction, much? What the hell brought this on? Haven't I apologized enough?"
The younger brother turned back to the older, the look in his eyes purely feral. He threw another punch in his direction, but Kurt, expecting it this time, dodged with enough time to close in on Joe and grab him by the collar of his shirt.
"Put me down! You did this! You were the one who screwed everything up! Everything!" He drove his knee into Kurt's stomach, causing him to double over and lose his grip on Joe's shirt. "You don't even know the half of the shit you've caused. But who gives a damn, right? What does it matter, when you have your pretty little Goth on your arm? Must feel good to be just the two of you, in your own damn little bubble, ignoring the rest of the worl—" In a move of surprising agility, Kurt sprung back to his feet and caught his brother's jaw on his fist.
"Stop being ridiculous!" he shot another jab in the direction of his chest, "How is it my fault? Obviously I'm not freakin' proud of what I've done, but I apologized, Joe. I made my peace with M- with her!"
Joe fell back, spluttering and cursing, and couldn't recover in time to avoid the next punch that Kurt aimed right for the side of his head. One of the girls was screaming, but neither had any idea who it was.
"Or could it be, baby brother, that you're just projecting? That maybe you realize that you're the one who could have done more?" He strode towards his attacker, veins bulging visibly, unbothered by the gravel underneath his bare feet, "After all, wasn't she one of your best friends? Weren't you guys supposed to be there for each other no matter what? Or did that only count when it was convenient, so you could run away with your tail between your legs when things got too real for you? Huh?"
For a moment, Joe was still, and there was a glimmer of hope that he might have come to his senses. Then, Joe's ears filled with the sound of rushing blood and he felt a roar erupt from his throat. Lunging at his brother, he tackled him to the ground and unleashed a flurry of punches, erratically aimed and making just as much contact with the ground as with Kurt's face.
"Don't you ever –"
"Joe! Joe! For Goddess' sake, stop!"
" – Should've beaten you to a pulp months ago, you –"
"Somebody call someone! Get these two back to their senses!
" – You have no idea what you've caused, do you, you Goddess damned –"
"Get off him, Joe! JOE!"
Joe ceased his assault and stood over his brother, who had raised his arms over his face in an attempt to defend it from the barrage of fists. Chest heaving, eyes wide, star-spangled bandana undone, he fixed his stare on Kurt, fists still raised.
Amazingly, Kurt lowered his arms and revealed a smirk in place on his battered face. He looked his brother straight in the eye, and taunted: "Time to grow up, little brother."
It took Joe a second to process the audacity of Kurt's remark. Momentarily stunned, he nearly lowered his fist – and then the moment passed and anger shot through his body like a venom. He raised his fist and brought it down with all his might.
'Everyone tells me my drinking's getting out of hand,' thought Karen, her sluggish mind slowing down the events in front of her to a crawl, 'But no one seems to remember that the best part of being drunk is this little thing called liquid courage.'
It was with this credo in mind that the blonde stripped herself of all inhibitions and broke into a sprint, colliding with a mass of flesh and tackling Joe to the ground before he managed to deal the blow.
"Gentlemen," she grunted, hitting the pavement with Joe wrapped in her arms, "Did no one ever teach you that it was rude to fight when there are ladies present?"
"Karen!" Kai called out. Popuri had her hands clamped over her mouth, yet still managed to let out an audible squeak.
Joe struggled, as she had expected him to, but she kept her arms locked around him. "Nuh-uh, bandana boy."
"Let me go!"
"Not until you behave yourself. Do you want to help Meg?"
Joe spasmed at the utterance of her name, and Karen swung him over with all her might so that he lay on his stomach. She sat on the small of his back, holding his arms back, and gave them a painful-looking tug. "Do you want to help Meg?"
He submitted, but not without a few last-ditch attempts at struggling. "Good. Then what we're going to do, is stop with the fisticuffs, get on our bikes, and get our asses down to Lucy's. Any objections?"
"Kurt's… coming. Make him come." Joe grunted, straining his neck to get a look at his brother.
Kurt got to his feet shakily, his breath ragged and inconsistent. Trying to give shape to his bedraggled hair with one hand, and using the other to palm his discoloured cheek, he said, "Look, I wanted to help, I did. When Karen called me and told me, it – it shook me. But you guys are friggin' crazy – I have a huge test tomorrow to study for, and then this happens, I just… What do you want from me?!"
Joe's pupils dilated and he opened his mouth to yell again, but Karen stopped him before he could: "Kurt, I know that coming from me, this doesn't hold much water, but I do think that there are times when school can be put on the back burner… and I sincerely think this is one of those times. "
The battered boy bit his lip and looked away. "I have been worried about her…"
A few moments passed in suffocating silence; even the crickets seemed to be listening intently, having abandoned their song.
It was Joe who spoke first. "You were right," he said, in a voice calm enough that Karen decided he could behave himself. She got off him, and he rose to his feet. "We… I… could have done more. It's so easy to let time get away from you, and before I knew it, things had become… well, like this."
"We're all a little guilty of that, I think." Sacchun walked forward and fixed the lopsided bandana on Joe's head, "Worst best friends ever, am I right?" The muscles around her mouth tensed, as if about to smile, but stopped there.
Kurt turned back to them, his face looking disproportional from the swelling. "I know what you mean… I've just pushed it to the back of my mind and tried to pretend everything was alright…"
Everyone nodded; it was a habit familiar to all of them.
"Sometimes I just… feel so guilty even being with Dia. I just wish I could…"
Joe walked over and clapped his older brother on the back. Kurt flinched involuntarily, then cracked the smallest of smiles. "Well… what do we do, then?"
Karen beamed at the two of them, arms akimbo. "First, we put on some pants, second, we head back over there."
"I don't think that'll be necessary!" called a voice from behind them. "Well… The pants part might be."
The group turned around to see that they were no longer alone in the courtyard. Lloyd, Gwen, and Ann all made their way over, waving and smiling. And, as they moved closer to them, a fourth person slowly became visible. Appearing like the moon behind a veil of clouds, Meg stood behind them.
# # #
Earlier that Night…
"He's going to do something crazy…" Lloyd muttered, closing the door after Sacchun, Karen, Popuri and Kai had sped off after his best friend. "They better talk some sense into him."
"Are you sure you chose the right people for that job?" Gwen asked, arms folded over her chest, "Sacchun? Karen? Not exactly the poster-children of 'sense'."
Lloyd conceded the point with a nod, but added, "We'll just have to see."
"And why are you staying behind again?" Gwen asked, hoping the glimmer of hope in her voice was well-enough concealed. Lloyd gave her a look that suggested it probably hadn't been, but neither acknowledged it. He strode past her and out of the vestibule.
"C'mon, I wanna see how bad this party really is."
Wrinkling her nose at the thought, but following regardless, Gwen said, "Do you really think you can bring her back, Lloyd? She's just… so far down the rabbit-hole at this point…"
"Maybe, Gwen, I don't know. But it's obvious enough that we wouldn't be able to live with ourselves if we didn't –"
"- Try. I know."
They reached the basement door, the last barrier holding back the explosive music behind it. It seemed to be shuddering on its hinges as it endured the sonic onslaught. Gwen spoke just as Lloyd had stretched his hand out to grasp the doorknob.
"High school… really does change people, doesn't it? It's never who you expect, either… They really weren't kidding about that part."
Lloyd couldn't think of anything to say in response. His breaths quickened and he decided to let Gwen assume that he hadn't heard her over the music; and she did. Turning the doorknob, the sound hit them with almost physical force, and step by step, tip-toeing over red cups filled to varying extents with alcohol, they made their way into Lucy's party.
Late into the night as it was, very few people in the extensive basement were still sober. They had entered a living jungle, and bodies were everywhere – dancing, jumping, entangled with one another. The lights were dimmed and everything around them changed colour every few seconds thanks to the strobe lights and blinking holiday lights strung up around the room. Gwen was bored with the flashiness, but Lloyd had a hard time navigating more than a few feet into the chaos.
"Do you see her anywhere?" he asked, realizing at the same time that there was no way his voice could rise above the din, "Do you see her anywhere?!" he repeated, loudly.
"Last I saw her she was by the snacks – having some… er, brownies. You know. Brownies."
Lloyd felt his stomach knot - he was in the same room as Meg Winslow for the first time in what felt like years. Any second now, her pale figure could emerge from the throng of people, and – and what would he do? How would he react? No one had planned quite this far ahead, the entire scenario seeming like a lofty fantasy up until now. Now, in the heart of Lucy's pulsating jungle of bodies and lights and sound, everything was much more real.
The pair were so focused on wading through the sea of people to find Meg that they hadn't noticed another body forcing its way over to them. Out of seemingly nowhere, Ann appeared and threw herself into Gwen's arms, cheeks flushed and copper-coloured hair disheveled.
Lloyd swung around, "Ann! Are you alright?"
Ann turned her face upwards, revealing her clumsily-applied make up streaked with tears as it ran down her face. Raucous laughter seemed to have followed her, and a group of both girls and boys – who seemed entirely in their element – showed up, mouths open in coarse laughter and camera phones in outstretched hands.
It took less than a second for the camera phone closest to Gwen to go flying out of a young boy's hand and skid onto the floor. Gwen brandished her fist, still supporting Ann with her other arm, and threatened to knock back any other electronics waved in her face. The boy dove to the ground and began scuttling around for his expensive piece of gadgetry before it got trampled under the many feet.
The laughter subsided, but Gwen shouted out a few more threats and curses, just to be safe. Soon enough, Ann's tormenters had assimilated themselves back into the crowd, and Lloyd noted that Gwen had a particularly smug look about her.
"What happened?" she gripped Ann by the shoulders and forced her to her feet. Lloyd would not have been able to guess that this was Ann at first, but beyond the makeup, the straightened hair, and the ill-fitting dress, was the freckled tomboy they all knew.
Opening up her mouth to speak resulted in only a loud hiccup coming out. "Long story." Ann replied wearily. "I – hic – I just want to go home. Please tell me you guys are going home. Take me. Take me home."
Lloyd and Gwen exchanged sympathetic looks, then tried to explain what they were here for. Ann didn't seem to hear any of it, her lips incessantly moving in a mantra of 'take me home'. Her attention was only breached when Gwen tried to rub her back and move a few strands of her hair behind her ears in a gesture of sympathy. Her eyes snapped up, right into Gwen's, and widened considerably.
Rejecting Gwen's touch, she backed away, looking suddenly scared.
"Are you –"
Ann cut her off. "I'm – You guys do what – hic – what you need to. I'll wait outside. Need air. Fresh. Fresh air. I need it. Come get me on your way out – please." With that, she backed away from the pair of them and zig-zagged her way through the crowd, back to the stairs.
"That was… odd?" Lloyd strained his neck to see if she had made it through the crowd.
"A little…" Gwen gave her own hand a significant look, wondering what about it had made Ann recoil. "Then again, she's drunk. Everyone's drunk. Everyone's bound to be a little odd." She reasoned.
In support for Gwen's claim, there was a sudden chanting of, "Chug! Chug! Chug!" that came from somewhere ahead of them, growing steadily louder as more people turned to see what was going on.
"Ugh, C'mon Lloyd, let's check over by the couches before this gets out of hand," Gwen moved to grab Lloyd's arm, only to find that he was already wading over to the source of the cheering. "Lloyd!"
"Wait, Gwen, I think…"
Whatever came after that was swallowed by the uproarious, monosyllabic chanting.
"Is that –"
"I think so."
Pushing people apart and squeezing between innumerable amounts of bodies, the duo managed to reach the center of everyone's attention. And sure enough, hoisted up on Bob's broad shoulders, sat Meg – downing an entire bottle of alcohol to the great pleasure and exaltation of the crowd.
"And there's your princess." Gwen muttered in Lloyd's ear.
She finished the bottle and brandished it above their heads victoriously, Bob bucking with laughter. There was a burst of cheer and applause from the surrounding crowd, and Meg took a wobbly, dizzying bow over Bob's head.
"Seen enough? Still want to talk to her?" Gwen hissed, her tone venomous as she eyed Bob with distaste.
"I need to get her attention." Lloyd said resolutely.
"Well hey, grab a bottle, get on my shoulders, then challenge her to a duel! Maybe that'll do it!" The blonde was having a hard time hiding her exasperation, and her thoughts were still on Ann.
"Look, as soon as she, well, gets down from there, I'll go over and –"
It happened sooner than Lloyd had banked on: Bob swung around wildly, forgetting, in his drunken stupor, the girl up on his shoulders. Inevitably, Meg jerked backwards, her legs sliding up and off Bob's shoulders, and she went tumbling straight to the ground – or would have, if not for the lightning-quick reflexes of a certain blonde tomboy.
"Huh? Gwen?" Bob uttered as his ex-girlfriend appeared just in time to catch the falling Meg.
"Shut it, square head." She grunted.
Meg let out a delayed yelp of surprise, her curtain of hair falling over her face gracelessly. "Who –"
Gwen propped her up on her feet and held her till she could regain her balance, then Lloyd stepped forward. With a sweep of her hand, she displaced the thick strands of hair and was granted sight once again. She let out another gasp.
Lloyd could only nod, now completely at a loss for words.
Meg was convinced for a moment that it was only a trick of her drunken state; it wouldn't be the first time familiar faces had swum into her vision while under the influence of alcohol. Earlier that very night, this same boy had been on her mind for the first time in weeks – and now, they were face to face.
Meg shook her head and felt her thoughts slosh around like the contents of a snowglobe. Her vision blurred and refused to revert to normal, so she held her head, which had suddenly grown to be three times its normal weight. "Lloyd…" The name felt foreign on her tongue.
"I wanted to talk to you… if that's alright. If you're not too busy." He mumbled the last part.
"I'm – Oh goddess," Meg tried to take a step but the combined effects of dizziness and inebriation intervened. "I'm not – not busy, Lloyd." She had to say his name again, just to hear it in her voice – it may have come out as a raspy, throaty warble, but it still almost sounded like her former self when she said it. This new magic seemed to entrance her – she wanted to try it out on other names. "Sacchun…" she experimented, saying it loudly and slowly. "Joe… Sacchun…"
Lloyd was befuddled. "Uh…? I'm – I'm Lloyd, yes. Sacchun and Joe… aren't here right now. Are you alright, Meg?" It pained him to already have the answer to that question.
"I'm a little… out of sorts."
'Out of sorts, right,' Gwen thought, withholding a scoff, 'Or a little high. And drunk. Or very high and very drunk! Imagine that!' She had to look away from Lloyd as she held one of his former best friends in her arms. It was bearing down on him, finally, that Meg was a very different individual from the Meg who had entered the Lunch Dome on the Starry Night Festival, hair in a bun and lavender dress so delicately pressed against her person.
"Can I get you anything? Er, this won't take long, I just… It's been a while – and you're…" Lloyd fought to avoid averting his eyes. For a fleeting moment he wished he had run after Joe with Sacchun and the others. He wasn't as equipped to handle this as he thought.
"… Are you sure you want to talk to me?" Meg's eyes were now downcast, and her voice even more gravelly than moments before.
"Of course!" he exclaimed, the knot in his stomach claiming otherwise, "Maybe we should go somewhere where there's less noise."
"I don't think this is a good idea…" Meg said, slowly dislodging herself from Gwen's hold. "Look, you shouldn't have come here –"
"Yeah, this party is big boys only," Bob barked with laughter, crossing his beefy arms over his chest and nodding to Gwen, "This your new boyfriend, Gwen?"
"I said, shut it." Gwen paralyzed him with a bitter glare.
"Lloyd," Meg said darkly, "Really. Leave. There's nothing – nothing to talk about."
"N-No." Lloyd plucked up his courage, "No. Meg, if you'll just… listen, for a bit. I'm – We're worried. Very worried."
The phrase struck Meg to her very core, and her bloodshot eyes widened as if she had just been smacked in the face. "Worried…?"
"I know we haven't been the best of friends lately, and I know we were slow to pick up on the signs, and there're about a hundred other things we need to apologize for, but please –"
Meg moved suddenly, silencing him. She took a wobbly step, and then another one, until eventually she closed the distance between herself and Lloyd, with small, painfully slow footsteps that wouldn't disorient her too much. "Lloyd. Leave. There's nothing to talk about." She repeated, a quaver in her voice.
Lloyd stood his ground and swallowed the fear and anxiety eating at his throat. He looked her straight in the eyes and took in everything about her appearance and lifestyle that he, and the others, had spent so long turning a blind eye too: Here was Meghan Winslow. Known as 'Meg' to most people. She is five feet, four inches. She played violin and kept her grades up meticulously. She has blonde hair and pale skin and eyes as blue as the midday sky. Those eyes are now streaked with forks of red. She is currently high off marijuana, and inebriated off a ludicrous amount of alcohol and liquor. This is, most likely, not the first time this has happened. She's been absent from school for the good part of the last three months. And now, she is telling one of her best friends, Lloyd, that they have nothing to talk about.
"Meg, there is so much to talk about." Lloyd whispered, eyes narrowed as they bore into her eyes, "And I get it. I get that you've changed, I get that you've been hurting – for a lot longer than we know, probably! I get that we screwed up and I get that this –" he gestured to the basement walls surrounding them "- is your life now. Fine. I get it. But we will talk. Even if it's not tonight… I'll be back. We'll be back." He backed away from her, and finally allowed his eyes to focus on something – anything else. Lloyd paused to breathe, to avoid allowing emotion to coil around his throat as it threatened to at that moment, "Just give us a chance, when that day comes, alright?"
Lloyd turned away and stalked back into the legion of teenagers, Gwen shooting Bob a final glare of utmost distaste before following after him.
# # #
The relative silence of the night washed over them as they closed the door to Lucy's house. The music, though still audible, was fainter now, and Lloyd and Gwen's ears were grateful. The boy's heart beat uncontrollably, mind still swimming.
"I'm sorry," Gwen offered as they strolled through the unnaturally large front garden, "I mean… I can't say I didn't expect that… but I wish it hadn't gone like that. Really… I do."
The brunette smiled, though didn't have the energy to send it in Gwen's direction, instead keeping his eyes on the pavement below him. "I don't know what I would have said anyway. Truth be told, I was kind of banking on Joe and Sacchun to be here for this; they're the talkers."
"I dunno," Gwen put a long finger to her cheek, "You held up pretty well there, towards the end. And like you said, this isn't the end. If you need help with anything, Lloyd…"
She trailed off, but Lloyd nodded anyway. "Thanks, Gwen."
"Leaving so soon?" asked a sneering voice. "But, my, what fun we were all having!"
Lucy Clifford stood before them, barring their exit. Her violently purple hair and the dark green and black of her tube top and shorts respectively gave her the air of a coiled, poisonous snake. She was not alone, however – just behind her, arm locked in a vicegrip with Lucy's fingers, was Ann. Her face was still flushed and her eyes darted everywhere, and rather than vocalize her fear, she only sent panicked looks in the direction of Lloyd and Gwen.
"Your party's a freakshow." Gwen said without hesitation, "Thanks for an evening well-wasted!"
"Can you not muster up some gratefulness for your hostess? Surely you were taught that as a child, mm?"
"Let go of Ann," Lloyd ventured, taking a step forward. The blood pumping through his heart at the speed of a leopard felt hot. "We're taking her with us."
"Oh, Ann?" Lucy jerked her forward without relenting her grip on her wrist, "Ann doesn't want to go, do you Ann? She's having the time of her life!"
Ann got, at most, half a word out before Lucy swept in and devoured any sound coming out of her mouth with a kiss. Breaking apart with a loud smacking sound, she grinned devilishly at the other two. "See? And there's so much more fun waiting for her downstairs."
Lloyd and Gwen only gaped – the conversation had taken a turn neither had expected.
"Oh? Did you guys not know?" Lucy faked a look of sympathy, noticing their sudden stupefaction. "That's the kind of fun little ol' Ann likes to have. You know, the girl-on-girl kind. Or did you really not know? Goodness, sorry for blowing your cover like that, Ann!"
Ann's face flooded with colour and she bucked against Lucy's hold, trying to attack her with her free hand. Sputtered sounds fell from her mouth before they could fully form into words.
"Let go of her!" Lloyd repeated.
Lucy's laugh was not far off from becoming a cackle. "Come on, come on, let's go back down and find you some more friends! Ooh, maybe Katie's still here – she was fun, wasn't she? You seemed to really like her!"
The redhead's frustration spilled out of her eyes in the form of tears. Words like 'hate' and 'bitch' and 'kill you' tumbled similarly from her mouth.
"Come on, Annie! It's not like other people couldn't tell! There were like, signs, y'know? I'm doing you a favour! I'm a friend, and that's what friends do!"
Gwen had had enough – the night had provided her with enough pent-up rage that she would not, at this moment, be above punching the lights out of their hostess. Punching was something Gwen had proven to be quite good at it, recently.
The rush of adrenaline surged through her and was suddenly stymied as a new voice emerged on the scene.
Rough as sandpaper and grating on the ears, Meg's voice called out, "Lloyd! W-Wait!"
Everyone spun around on the spot to see Meg stumbling down the front steps and towards them, blonde hair tumbling down behind her. She lost her footing on the last step and emitted a tiny gasp before orienting herself and continuing down the path. Straight and narrow though it was, Meg's clumsy feet traveled it as if it was a path winding through a jungle.
Before Lloyd or Gwen could react, Lucy slithered her way into the scenario without missing a beat. "Meg! Perfect timing!"
"Wh…What?" Lucy's presence hadn't registered in Meg's mind until she heard her speak. "Oh, Luce. What's… going on?" Working through the sluggishness of her mind was, unfortunately, not much easier even out in the cool night air.
Lucy pushed Ann forward, towards her blonde friend. "Look! You remember Ann, right? She was the one ho'ing it up downstairs, making out with all those girls and stuff."
"That's not true!" Ann cried, trying to drown out Lucy's words only for her voice to choke in a violent sob.
"What?" Meg was only confused, her head pounded as it tried to absorb new pieces of information. She didn't have time for Lucy; she had come to talk to Lloyd. "Look, that's not important right now!" She yelled unnecessarily; yhe volume of her voice was apparently out of her control.
"Aw, is someone having a bad trip?" Lucy let go of Ann only to coil herself around Meg next, weaving her way between them so that she rested behind the girl, one arm resting around her waist and another on her forehead. Ann immediately grappled for Gwen's arm and tried to hide herself behind the towering blonde.
"You know what would make you feel better? A little kissie to stop your booboos from hurting!"
"Stop it!" Gwen snarled dangerously, "Just shut up!" Lucy's venomous personality was sickening to be in the presence of. She held Ann closer.
"And who would be the perfect candidate but our resident lesbo?" Lucy drawled, and began maneuvering Meg like a doll. She steered her in Ann's direction.
"What…?" Meg tried to make sense of what was going on, and her addled state made that no easy task. "She's a… what? And you want me to… Lucy, what?" The confusion quickly boiled into frustration, then anger. "Look, I don't have time for this! I came out here to talk to Lloyd!"
Lloyd's heart skipped a beat, but he dared not feel optimistic after how well their last conversation had gone. Of course, it was hard not to.
Lucy's voice dropped all pretenses of sweetness and friendship. She leaned her head closer to Meg's ear and said through gritted teeth, "Whatever, Meg, that can wait! Let's just have a little fun, especially when such a good opportunity –" she looked pointedly at Ann "- has presented itself!"
"Or," Gwen growled, her own teeth clamped together in unmitigated rage, "You can go back to your disgusting party and stop trying to ruin peoples' lives just because it's fun."
Anyone else might have looked offended at the accusation, but Lucy only rolled her eyes. "I'm not ruining anyone's life. She's doing a bang-up job of ruining it all on her own, being what she is."
Ann looked down silently; her eyes looked like they had been turned to glass.
Meg's frustration peaked and she shook off the violet-haired temptress. She didn't have time for whatever was going on, wasn't in the mood to play Lucy's games, and really wanted to talk to Lloyd.
"Leave her the hell alone, Luce! Goddess, you can be so… so imbecilic!"
Amazingly, for the first time that night, Lloyd saw something of the old Meg shine through – not only was 'imbecilic' one of her favourite words to use, especially when reprimanding Joe – but there was a streak of fury in her voice that sounded like the girl who once believed in justice, who had no patience for the unrighteous.
Free of Lucy's constriction, she wobbled over to Lloyd and placed her hands on his shoulders, steadying herself. "I'm ready to talk, Lloyd." Meg breathed.
"Great," was all Lloyd could say. "Shall we talk… elsewhere?" he suggested, eyes traveling to the fuming Lucy Clifford behind her.
"Let's walk. I need it, anyway." Meg decided.
"We can do that." A weight had been lifted from Lloyd's chest, and he felt a sudden boundless energy within him, "Come on. I know just where we can go to talk."
# # #
The familiar courtyard, distorted though it was through Meg's glassy eyes, instilled her with a peace of mind – this did not, however, slow the beating of her heart as she walked forward, approaching the group of people she once called friends.
The silence out in front of the student dormitories was stifling; even the wind itself had been muted.
Kurt and Joe stood side by side, eyes wide, and in Joe's case, mouth hanging open, discretion forgotten. Karen, Sacchun, and Popuri stood nearby with similar expressions of shock, and Kai stood with arms akimbo and an eyebrow cocked, not sure what to make of the moment.
The walk had not sobered Meg as much as she had hoped; the ability to translate thoughts into words was still as daunting as ever – if not more. "H-Hello!" Her voice came out in an odd-sounding squeak. She had been trying for 'enthusiasm'. What she got was 'deranged'.
Karen gave a cheery wave, and a "Hello, stranger!", in a lost attempt to lighten the mood.
Meg's breath caught in her throat. This wasn't going to be as easy as she thought.
Joe and Lloyd made eye contact; Lloyd looked triumphant at first, that he had managed the seemingly impossible – but now that they were in the thick of the situation, his face had frozen along with the rest of him. Just as before, he had no idea what to do now that they were all here. No one did. The collective of teenagers stood in the courtyard, frozen in place, like chess places locked in a stalemate.
The wind blew again, sending ripples through the fabric of Meg's clothing and playing with her hair, picking up strands and dropping them on a whim.
The reverie was then broken: "I'm so sorry," Kurt croaked, his knees feeling unbearably weak in front of her. He could squint his eyes and almost see her in the lavender dress from that night that felt like it belonged to another lifetime. Then, when he opened them again, everything came into focus: the red of her eyes, the unfocused pupils, the beginnings of lines forming around her face, the boniness of her bare ankles and arms.
"No… I'm sorry." Joe moved forward. "I… I didn't…"
"Can it, brother. I'm the one who… I couldn't be more sorry if I tried…"
"I'm sorrier," Lloyd said from behind her, "This shouldn't have taken this long. We lost so much time…"
"Shut up!" Sacchun cried, then sniffed loudly, and everyone saw that she had a steady flow of tears streaming down her face silently, "I'm sorriest! I was an idiot! Such an idiot!"
"Not as much of an idiot as me!" Kurt exclaimed, and his eyes too were now sparkling.
"Shut up! Everyone knows no one's a bigger idiot than me!" Joe declared.
"Sorry, Joe," Lloyd was holding back tears, "Hate to steal your thunder, buddy, but that'd be me this time."
"No, me!" Sacchun was yelling now, "A huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, jumbo, gigantic, humongous idiot!"
Meg felt assaulted as the voices flew over her like bullets fired overhead. She put all her mental power into trying to understand and process what everyone was saying, and could feel something akin to a migraine coming on. So, to alleviate the strain on her mind, she issued a command in the most assertive voice she could muster: "Everyone…" She inhaled, "Shut up!"
The silence returned in instant, Meg's words freezing them in place once again.
"You're all idiots." She said, and cringed when her words came out icy and belligerent. Talking to them, she suddenly remembered, was very different from talking to Lucy.
Sacchun flinched, tears still pouring out by the liter.
Meg took the time to gather all her thoughts before speaking again, and they gave her that time; no one was about to speak again until she had said her part.
"You really are all idiots," she repeated, and was relieved to find that she could still soften the edge in her voice, that it wouldn't forever be used as a weapon. "Especially for thinking that you… did this… to me."
All movement, all sniffling, all breathing came to an end right there.
"This…" she said, imagining herself as she appeared to them, "Isn't your fault." It was the first time she had truly acknowledged what she had become; acknowledged that what she had done had been a mistake. "And it's imbecilic to even think that. I know what you're thinking – that I've thrown my life away and ruined myself, all over a boy," Her eyes instinctively moved to Kurt, and his to his own feet. Meg's eyes snapped back and she promptly shut them. If she closed her eyes, they wouldn't be there, she could pretend she was dreaming and talking to figments of her mind; the alcohol and the weed helped make this an easy task. She kept her eyes shut and continued speaking:
"And I guess you'd be half-right. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Almost every girl in existence goes through a heartbreak – many go through things many times more severe, not watching their highschool crush kiss some other girl."
Kurt was trying to apologize again, but she squeezed her eyes shut even tighter, as if this would keep her from hearing.
"So why did she do it?" she asked aloud, giving voice to the question on everyone's mind, "Isn't it a little egomaniacal to assume any one of you were the singular reason for what I did? Then again," she chuckled in a horrible, raspy way, "We are high school students. We're not used to the world not revolving around us."
"It's true," Meg continued, "That what happened that night tipped me over the edge. But that's all it did, I promise you. What brought me to that edge is much more significant. I can't even put it into words… Goddess, I really can't. Pressure? Expectations? Self-Esteem? Love?" She interrupted herself with a cough, "Being a girl? Being a teenager? Being a person?"
"Who the hell knows, right? I didn't have – I mean… There's… There's more to me than maybe I let on. Isn't that the same for everybody, though? Everyone has something to them, some secrets, some experiences… No one's on this ride without some carry-on baggage, am I right?"
Meg took a long break then, remaining rooted to her spot and breathing raspily for the next few minutes. No one said a word, even if their minds were racing:
Sacchun thought of her mother, of her life being treated like an open book, of her decision to hide her own daughter away in a different city. Joe cringed at the resurfacing memories of his days with Katie, of his inexperience, of his unquenchable need for companionship and yet his complete inability to handle it. Karen's mind was at home, with her parents, with her stony-faced mother and meek, underappreciated father, and the impending alcoholism that seemed to consume her. Popuri thought of her mother's loneliness, and then the joy that followed when Michael entered the picture, and the irrational jealousy she had felt when her mother's affections had been split further, and then the subsequent guilt that followed that. Ann, desperate though she was to wipe her mind blank, couldn't quell the thoughts of a certain girl, a librarian, and her desire to stamp out any and all feelings that bubbled up in the pit of her stomach when she saw that cerulean hair. Gwen crossed her arms, and her brow furrowed at the thought of her own flaws, her superficial confidence, her secret fear that she may not be as grand as she thinks she is, that the "real" world was waiting, teeth apart, salivating at the chance to eat her alive. And Lloyd's thoughts were on his friends, and just how much they went through, just how much they struggled every day, just how much of a battlefield high school was, and just how significant a role they played in each other's lives: friendship permeated everything – nothing was left untouched by its all-consuming flames, whether for better or for worse.
"See? It's not just me," said Meg to the darkness before her, as if she had just read everyone's mind. " I'm just phenomenally bad at carrying it all. I'd rather drop it all and run like hell, even – even if I end up running straight down the slope into the… the Bog of Bitterness," she echoed Katie's words, and though no one was aware of her unique terminology, they got the gist of it.
"So," she inhaled more of the night air and transformed it into words: "I'm sorry. And I'm an idiot."
Meg's eyes opened, and in a flash the real world returned to her. She was caught off-guard, having done such a good job at convincing herself she was in a dream.
Everyone let the words of their friend sink in, but no one was willing to accept the apology. And Meg hadn't expected anything else.
"So… Now what?" came the warbly voice of her petite best friend, "Are you… coming back…?"
"I don't know, Sa—" the name still got stuck in her throat, and she had no choice but to either choke or swallow it again, "I don't know. I don't even know where I am, or where I was, or what exactly there is for me to come back to. I need time to… think. Goddess, I haven't thought in so long."
"Then… do that." Lloyd said, "Take all the time you want, M-Meg. Just… know that our thoughts are with you. Like… always. They always were, and they always will be."
It happened for the first time that night, and was such a momentous occasion that Sacchun's knees finally gave out and sent her tumbling to the ground, laughing and crying and breathing laboriously: Meg smiled.
"I suppose that's something to think about."
# # #
She parted her lips to release the cigarette into her fingers and blew out wisps of smoke. The nicotine spread through her body, like a cooling spring rain after a forest fire.
Meg crossed her legs and adjusted herself on the metal bench she was seated on, Lloyd at her side, Karen on her other side, and Gwen – naturally – taking up the spot furthest away from her adversary, next to Lloyd. Ann sat on the arm of the bench nearest to Gwen, staring spicily out into the sky that was freckled with stars.
Lloyd opened his mouth just as Meg went for another puff, but she cut him off: "If you don't bug me about this," she wiggled the cigarette between her fingers, "I won't ask why you're dressed like a preteen girl.", she stared pointedly at his Lanna Royce attire. He promptly closed his mouth and conceded the deal.
"What a night," Gwen remarked, stretching her limbs in front of her.
"Yep," Karen agreed uncharacteristically, "… I was waiting 'til this'd be appropriate to say this, but Holy Goddess, I can't believe we skipped out on the end of the Lanna concert."
"This was your idea!" Lloyd spluttered.
"Uh, yeah! And I was drunk! Who listens to a drunkie?!" she gave Lloyd a playful punch to the head, "Duh! Good going, man! I guess I'll have to get the recap from Eve later on…"
The name of her best friend incited Gwen to join the conversation. Eyebrow raised in thinly-veiled irritation, she asked, "Oh, getting buddy-buddy with my friends now, huh?"
Karen's mouth was agape for a few seconds. "…Hrm. Right. I've been fraternizing with the enemy all night, haven't I? Whatever, I'll say this: for a psycho blonde giant, you have adequate taste in friends."
Gwen rolled her eyes and fell back into the bench, harrumph -ing. "To think, the barriers that are broken down thanks to bubblegum pop music…"
"You'd be amazed at what it can do." Meg mused, taking another drag from her cigarette, then peering through the smoke at the pigtailed brunette standing further down the parking lot, felt a Lanna Royce song emerging into her head. Our favourite…
The four of them sat at one of the many benches surrounding the courtyard's sparsely used parking lot, in the center of which stood Sacchun, Joe, Kurt, and the newly-arrived Dia and May. Dia was so busy fretting over the state Kurt was in as a result of his scuffle with Joe that she didn't even notice her ex-rival seated just over yonder. As Meg watched Kurt's girlfriend fret over him, she was briefly awed by just how much the goth had changed. She then eyed May, and for a brief moment of distress assumed that she was the result of some hormonal romp in the student dormitories – but then reminded herself that the girl was clearly about eight or nine, and Kurt had only just met Dia this year.
Even if it felt like a lifetime ago.
Dia had then, apparently, made the decision to go have him washed up and tended to, for she shooed May away to Sacchun's side and dragged Kurt by the collar of his shirt up towards his building. Joe followed sheepishly, giving Sacchun a brief goodbye and one last concerned look over his shoulder.
Sacchun returned to the party at the bench, May in tow, and announced that she'd walk her back to Barley's. "Dia was going to do it, but she's in crazy-neurotic-girlfriend-nurse mode right now. And I'm not coming between her and a tube of polysporin."
"That Dia girl was fun," May declared, "Way better than bein' stuck with two smelly boys. I'ma tell gramps to hire her next time."
Lloyd was too tired to argue with the pint-sized brunette. "See you later, May." He said tiredly.
Sacchun let May skip ahead to the gates of the courtyard, but lolled behind, breathing in the smoke of Meg's cigarette.
"…Is everything alright?" Meg ventured.
Sacchun couldn't look at her when she spoke next. "… I'm still sorry. And I'm still an idiot. And I'll do anything and everything to make up for it. Just… don't shut me out… Meg. Please." She sounded like she had more to say, but the oncoming wave of tears cut whatever it was short. "Please."
"…Sacchun," the name finally came out, clear and crisp and musical. "What do the last two letters of 'BFFL' stand for, again?"
And the girls locked gazes properly for the first time that night, and neither of them had to answer, nor could they, for both sets of eyes were blinded by tears and both throats constricted with months worth of emotion.
Ann hopped off her end of the bench, thanked Lloyd and Gwen and Meg for what they did in a meek, spiritless tone, and claimed that she would walk home with Sacchun, as both May and herself lived on Azure Street.
"Ann…" Gwen started, crossing her arms and giving the girl a very serious look that was beyond her years, "Call me tomorrow, 'kay? I don't care what time it is. Call me."
Ann looked alarmed, the nodded, giving Gwen her word. The three of them departed.
Entering the courtyard, however, were Kai and Popuri, who had left momentarily to make a call.
"The bike rental guy says that he can send someone to pick up the bikes," Kai explained, snapping his phone shut and pocketing it, "For a lil' extra fee of course. I don't mind covering it, but I 'spect y'all to pay up at some point." He rubbed his fingers together for emphasis.
"And he told us that we didn't actually miss much of the end of the Lanna concert!" Popuri said, happier than she should have been, "Apparently half-way into the first song of the encore, Lanna slogged a guy in the audience with her microphone – by mistake, I'm sure – and there were 'technical difficulties.'"
Karen whooped with glee, but a second later expressed her regret in missing that. "I could have been the one hit in the face with Lanna Royce's microphone! That could have been me, Popo! Meeeee!"
"C'mon, princess, let's go," Kai said with a bemused grin, pulling Karen up off the bench, "We'll take off from here. See you guys!"
"Wait! I didn't get to thank Lloyd for the kick-ass date!"
"It wasn't a date, you were just in the right place at the right time with the right tickets –" Gwen snarled through gritted teeth.
"The date was absolutely awesomsauce,"
"It wasn't a –"
"And y'know, Lloydo, it's customary to end a dream date with a kiss!"
"Not a date! Dream or otherwise!"
"So c'meeere, I'm waiting!"
"You two were not on a date! Not! On! A! Date!"
Kai dragged away a cackling Karen before she could torment Gwen further.
When it was just the three of them left on the silvery bench, silence fell, and the events of the night washed over each of them.
"I… kind of missed all this," Meg said softly, a small smile playing on her lips, and then the silence stretched on for what felt like hours.
Next, it was Lloyd's turn to break it. "You know…Meg…"
She lit another cigarette.
"In all this time… There was a part of me that was envious of you."
Removing the white stick from her mouth, Meg scoffed. "Oh boy. Elaborate? Please?"
Lloyd stretched and placed his arms behind his head. Meg surveyed him skeptically, but he chose to talk to the stars.
"I know no one likes being typecast – whether as the overachieving bookworm, the hopeless goof-off, the hyperactive ditz, or whatever – but it's even harder to break out of those once you're holed into them, you know? High school does such a crazy good job of pushing each of us down these predetermined paths and… I know – and I've always felt this was especially true for me – we all really just go with the flow sometimes, because it's the easiest thing to do."
She held her cigarette limply in her hand, not wanting to distract herself from what he was saying.
"I know people are going to admonish you, and be angry with you, or be ashamed of you for running away from it all - and for the sake of honesty, I'll admit that I've gone through all those emotions in the past few months – but, Hell, at least you did something. At least you went against the flow. It's something I could never do, no matter how much I fantasize about it. No matter how you look at it, you… broke free, you took charge, and you didn't look back. Whatever the consequences were… I think, in the long-run, you just did what everyone else wishes they could do."
In an action that surprised even herself, Meg threw herself around Lloyd's neck and pulled him into a hug that lasted only a few seconds before she withdrew herself. The sensation washed over Lloyd in an instant but stayed with Meg for far longer – it had been a long time since she had last done something like that, and meant it. There were no tears – no visible emotion at all, really – in Meg's eyes, but Lloyd's words had resonated in her. Whether they were simply validating the excuses she had been telling herself for months, or because she had underestimated just how much her friends understood her, she couldn't say. "Thank you… Thank you, Lloyd."
Lloyd smiled at her, then turned his gaze back to the stars, that were twinkling with all their might.
Gwen yawned and Meg latched on to the opportunity. "You guys should head to bed. I don't even know what time it must be by now."
The boy looked alarmed. "What about you? Do you want us to walk you back to – to the party?"
"I'm fine," she said, refusing the offer, "I just want to sit back here for a bit. Do some of that fabled 'thinking' people are always talking about." Meg offered one last secretive smile, and Lloyd relished it, deeply hoping that it would not be a long time before he saw her next one.
"Well, Lloyd, y'wanna take that offer instead?"
"What, to walk me home? To my building that's, uh, right there?"
Gwen grinned, "Yep! It's a scary walk, man! Especially for you – you apparently have rabid drunk girls lobbing themselves at you left, right, and center!"
He rolled his eyes in response. "To say nothing of the rabid sober girls who attack me for no good reason." He opened his black eye as wide as he could in an accusing stare. But Gwen laughed cheekily and instead headed for the courtyard gate.
"We'll talk tomorrow, alright? You know I'm always available if y'need me!", and with a wink, Gwen turned to Meg, "That applies to you too, of course. And hey, even if it's just to trash-talk Kurt, I've got plenty of juicy stories that might make you feel better!" The tomboy laughed, gave them a quick salute, and she too took her leave.
"Don't, er, don't actually give Kurt a hard time about this stuff, 'kay?" she said tentatively after Gwen was safely out of sight, "I don't think what he did was right, and it never will be – but I don't want him beating himself up over me. I don't want anyone else beating him up over me either," she added, and Lloyd chuckled uncomfortably.
"He does feel really badly about it, Meg. It might help if you were the one who told him that."
"I suppose it is time we had another one of our chats…" dispelling a husky breath and flicking the butt of her cigarette onto the pavement. She pulled her cardigan around her, though for the first time that night, didn't feel the cold.
Lloyd contemplated giving Meg another, hug, but it seemed almost unnecessarily extravagant for the two of them.
"Are you sure you're gonna be alright? Getting back by yourself, I mean?"
"Hush, Lloyd," she put a finger to her lips, "I'm a big girl, aren't I?"
Hands in his pockets and a sheepish grin forming on his face, Lloyd bid his friend good night. "Keep in touch, you."
"You got it."
She watched him make steady paces towards the boys' building and, predictably, he turned around and gave her one last wave before disappearing within it.
Meg was truly alone now, and the silence was the most absolute it had been all night. The frail girl spread her arms out on either side of her, and tilted her head back. Somehow, with the return of the quiet, her head began pounding again. She closed her eyes and, her inebriation still with her, felt the bench slip out from beneath her, out of reality, sending her plummeting. She allowed herself to fall freely for a long time, dropping through the darkness silently. It was a most peaceful departure from reality, and she had no intention of landing anytime soon. It was too tiring to move, anyway. The thought of going back to Lucy's tonight… of sleeping on one of her dozen couches in the basement, probably alongside countless other bodies, too impaired to even know where they were…
Meg let her head rise slowly, as if a manipulator was tugging the strings attached to her temple. Slowly, she opened her eyes, and in a sensational rush of colour and sight, the scene of the courtyard returned to her. She had landed safely.
The blonde wasn't sure how long she had been asleep for, but it had been just long enough for Sacchun to return. She approached her cautiously, tentatively.
"Did everyone go up to sleep?"
Meg nodded, her tongue drying up uselessly in a matter of seconds.
"And are you going back to.. that, um, that girl's place?"
She shrugged, and sat up.
"…Were you just planning to sleep on the bench or somethin'?" the faintest sound of amusement creeped into Sacchun's voice. It was all Meg needed to find her voice again.
"You know, I was going to walk back to… to my friend's place…" Somehow, it was now Lucy's name that she could not bring herself to utter, "But that honestly doesn't sound like such a bad idea. It's more comfortable than it looks."
A tiny smile flickered across Sacchun's features. She kicked around a loose piece of gravel, and the added percussion somehow made it easier for both of them to speak. "You do have a room right up there, you know. It's… it's still yours. Just the way you left it."
I can't. Meg thought immediately, a lump forming in her throat as if Sacchun had kicked the gravel right down her esophagus. "I…"
"I kinda… I mean… I don't really wanna sleep… alone. Not tonight."
"Sacchun…" She spoke her name and it hung between them, drawing both their gazes upwards and right into each others'. Meg spoke clearly and sincerely, pushing the words out regardless of how much they resisted:
"Sacchun, I … I can't come back just yet. There's still so much more I need to do for myself. And… and that girl I'm staying with – " she swallowed hard and forced it out, "- Lucy. Regardless of… who she is… She's done so much for me, I owe her so much, I can't just… You understand… It's not as easy as it…"
"Just tonight?" Sacchun whispered, letting her eyes feed on Meg's while she still had the chance, before her best friend slipped away from her again.
"Then wait. Just wait here." She took off at a run, running backwards half the time, keeping her eyes on Meg, as if she was likely to disappear like the moon behind a passing cloud. "Wait one second!" She called once she was at the glass doors to their dormitory. Finally committing herself, she tore her gaze away from Meg and sprinted in, up the stairs, and momentarily out of sight.
Then, Sacchun appeared again, trailing something behind her, looking like a phantom of purest white stalking through the night towards the bench. She was clutching something bundled in a ball in her arms, and had something else wrapped around her shoulders like a long, flowing cape.
She reached the bench, dropped her tired body down next to Meg's, and shook out the blanket in front of her. It was from Meg's bedspread – dusty, untouched, and cold. The blanket around her shoulders was Sacchun's very own.
Meg was laughing now. It was a laugh rusted over by roughness and raspiness, but it was still her laughter, and it rang out, bridging the gap between the two girls and bridging the past with the present. "Alright. Just for tonight then."
Sacchun was laughing too, now, a laughter punctuated with small hiccups, and eventually, crystalline tears that caught on her shaking lips, moistening them with the taste of salt.
The wind whistled through the trees in the courtyard, shaking the newly budded leaves off the branches. It blew audibly, hushing the girls with its whispering tones. Sacchun hiked up the blanket around them, and undid her pigtails – a ritual, thus far, that only Meg had ever been present for. Heeding the silencing wind, they fell quiet, and cast tired eyes up into the sea of stars above them. They took in what they could, for between the two of them, they knew they couldn't keep them open for much longer.
"Goddess," Meg whispered, then paused, filling the reprieve with heavy, ponderous breaths. "What are we doing?"
"We're doing…" Sacchun mumbled, already succumbing to the warmth of the body next to her and the sea of material around her, "…We're doing what we can. Whatever we can."
And the girls inched closer to one another, hands linking unconsciously under the blanket, and closed their eyes to the moonlight.
- END OF SEASON 2 –
/Post-Script: And that's that :). The final season of Harvest High! awaits. Thank you for reading.
Unlike Season 2's premier, I won't be doing a Q&A or anything like that this time – but if you do have any questions, either leave them in a review or send them to HH!'s official Tumblr (the URL is on my profile) – you do not need a Tumblr account to do this. Any updates between now and Season 3's premier will be posted there as well, so follow or bookmark it for the latest on HH!.
Whatever you got out of this chapter, I'd love to hear it, so leave a review! Reactions, cheers, complaints, whatever you have to say – positive or negative - I'm excited to hear it.
Thank you all, very, very much. I'll see you again at the start of Harvest High!'s final season. End Post-Script/