A/N: So almost two months later, here we are. A nice, long, fluffy chapter for all of you to enjoy. Reviews would be nice, and you can find the usual lengthy author's note posted over on the LiveJournal. However, don't get used to this fluffy sweet stuff; Chapter 24 will mark the return of the angsty drama you all love so much. But for now, I humbly present you with Chapter 23. Enjoy.
It was a long flight—a very long flight—that took Alex to Chicago, and from there she took another plane to Boston. She slept a lot, which was probably not advisable, but she didn't care all that much. She knew that she wouldn't want to sleep a wink once she had reached her destination, and so catching up on the sleep she had lost over Seto was the best way she could find to distract herself.
Once she landed in Boston she sought refuge in the nearest bathroom. Her hair was a mess from all of the tossing and turning she'd done during the flight, her clothes just as wrinkled and unsettled. She brushed her hair out with her fingers and splashed water on her face to try to wake herself from the coma-like state she had slipped into. For a moment she pondered changing clothes in one of the stalls, but eventually determined it was too much trouble to go through.
After several long minutes of self-grooming she emerged from the restroom, wheeling her luggage cart to the main terminal. Moriah had told her that this was where her father would be waiting for her, and so it was Sam that she searched for amidst the moving and bustling crowd of the airport. Before long a sound caught her ear, rising above the din of the crowd and catching the brunette's attention. However, it was not the voice she had been expecting to hear.
"Al! Hey, ALEX!"
The teen glanced around quickly, in search of a middle-aged man with balding hair and a warm smile, but instead found someone quite different. It had not been Sam calling her, but a boy only a few years older than she with black hair and green eyes that mirrored her own. For a moment she hesitated, simply staring at the boy. But in the blink of an eye she had left her bags behind, running towards him as fast as her feet would carry her and flinging herself into his open arms. The boy's name was Angelo Win.
Angelo was Alex's half-brother, the product of a brief fling Sam had had with a woman named Claire Diago during one of his many high school break ups with Moriah. Through out most of his marriage to Moriah he had kept Angelo's existence a secret—which was not too difficult as he lived with his birth mother—but when she finally did learn of the boy it only fueled the first of their divorce. Alex, however, had met her brother at a very young age. They attended the same day care and elementary school (both Sam's doing, of course) and became fast friends (something Sam had also encouraged). The children's' relationship allowed them to spend ample time together. Moriah, meanwhile, seemed to tolerate Angelo's presence in her family's life at first, but as time wore on and her relationship with Sam worsened her hatred towards the child became more and more evident. Eventually it came to the point where Sam refused to bring Angelo around his home anymore for fear of the way Moriah might treat him.
Eventually, though, Sam and Moriah divorced. Alex went with Moriah (the woman felt this was only fair since Sam had his own lovechild to take care of), and from then on saw very little of either Sam or Angelo. It had been over a year since she'd last seen her father and even longer since she'd seen her brother. But she had kept in contact every way she knew how, and now here she stood with Angelo's arms hugged tight around her.
"Angelo, what are you doing here?" Alex squealed as the boy in question spun her around before placing her on the ground once more, smiling broadly.
"Dad told me you were headed home, so I thought I'd join the welcoming committee."
"But I thought you were at school in New York!"
I took some time off to come down and see my baby sister. Is that a crime?"
"Of course not! I just didn't even think I'd get to see you!" She shook her head, smiling up at her brother. "But where's dad?"
"He's right behind you," a warm voice said, and as Alex turned she saw a smiling man leaning against her abandoned luggage cart. Though he had crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and the posture of a tired man, the smile that grew on his lips as his daughter approached him was as bright as any youth's. When Alex stopped before him he removed his hat only to place it on her head and smirk down at her as though her height amused him.
"You've grown," he mused, and Alex's head tilted to the side so that she could peer up at him from under the bill of his hat.
"Actually, I think you've shrunk."
"Think I've shrunk, huh?" Sam chuckled before pulling Alex into a rib-crushing hug.
"Dad, I can't breathe!"
"Alex goes off to fancy old Japan and now she thinks she's so smart," Angelo teased as Sam loosened his hold on his daughter.
"What're you talking about? Alex has always been a smarty!" The man removed his hat from Alex's head before ruffling her hair. "She got it from my side of the family, y'know."
"Yeah, 'cause God knows she couldn't get any intelligence from that harpy woman she calls 'mother.'"
"Hey, now, watch it," Sam warned, though with little conviction, releasing the girl from his hold as he grabbed hold of her luggage cart. "She's still Al's mom."
"Maybe so, but Ange is right," Alex sighed. "Mom's lost it."
"She did sound a little funny on the phone," Sam said before shrugging his shoulders and nodding his head towards the main door. "We'll talk about it later. Let's just head out, huh?"
Both siblings nodded and advanced towards the door with their father following close behind. Once outside Angelo led the way to the car and while Sam loaded Alex's luggage into the trunk the brunette planted herself in the passenger's seat—much to her brother's dismay. The two of them launched into a war of words over who should have the honor of riding shotgun, and when the oldest saw he was losing he dove at his sister, tickling her while trying to hoist her up over his shoulder to move her. Alex shrieked with laughter while breathlessly begging her brother to stop, but he seemed void of remorse and smiled wickedly as he continued his attack. It was only when Sam settled into the driver's seat and—through his laughter—ordered his son to "cut it out and get in the back seat already" Angelo grudgingly did as he was told, finally settling into the back seat.
With everyone buckled in and the commotion down to a minimum, Sam began the drive from the airport to his apartment. It was a long drive but never dull as the small family spent the time catching up on time lost between them. All the while Alex did her best not to mention Seto for two reasons. One reason was that she didn't want to seem too anxious to discuss the matter or too eager for Sam to put Moriah in her place—she was worried that if she came on too strong her dad, courteous though he may have been, would turn reluctant. The other reason was that she was still worried about Seto and, in truth, she wasn't quite ready to discuss him with her father as she didn't think herself quite ready to craft a good lie.
When they reached Sam's apartment Alex was pleasantly surprised. It was far bigger than her father's last apartment, with two bedrooms and a kitchenette. With Alex's arrival Angelo was moved out of the guest bedroom he had been inhabiting and relocated to the living room sofa while his sister took his place. She spent the next hour or so idly unpacking while chatting with the two men, their conversation carefully steered away from her and focused on her father and brother. In the meantime Sam lingered in the doorway, eyes following his daughter as she flitted around the room, and Angelo lounged on the bed. After the brunette had put her things away the three settled into the living room, Sam collapsing into an arm chair while Angelo lay down on the couch with Alex stretched out beside him, her head resting on her brother's chest.
"So enough talk about us," Sam said with a smile. "What've you been up to all this time, Alex?"
"Yeah," Angelo quipped, "tell us about all the fun you've been having."
"No fun at all, really," she answered with a sigh, faking the best smile she could manage.
"That's not what Moriah's been telling dad," Angelo prodded with a laugh, and Sam shot him a reproachful look.
"C'mon now, she just got here. Why d'you have to bug her about stuff right off the bat?"
"It's okay, dad. We have to talk about stuff sometime, right?"
"See, dad? Alex doesn't mind! So what's this I hear about you scuzzing around with the heir of KaibaCorp?"
"Angelo!" Sam growled, sitting up a bit straighter.
"What? I'm just asking!"
"Really, it's fine," Alex assured her father before shrugging her shoulders. "What have you heard, Ange?"
"Like I said, that you've been schmoozing around with some of the corporate men in Japan. Some kid named Seto Kaiba?"
"Yeah, I know Seto," Alex answered, meeting her father's now less-than-warm stare. "We're pretty close..."
"Didn't some stuff come out about that Kaiba kid a couple of weeks ago? Some kinda shady stuff, right?"
"Some tabloids accused him of trading sexual favors for business deals among some company men," Sam interjected, his eyes never leaving his daughter's face. "No respectable sources took the story, though, so there wasn't any real proof to it."
"None of it was true," Alex muttered bitterly. "That's why there's no proof."
"How do you know?" Angelo asked with narrowed eyes. "Maybe he's lying, or maybe—"
"I just know, Ange," the brunette said shortly. "I know that everyone thinks that because Seto's some rich kid he must be... I dunno... void of morals or something. But he's actually a good kid, and a really nice guy when he wants to be."
"'When he wants to be,'" Angelo repeated with a chuckle before shaking his head. "Jeez, Al, I believe you. I was only asking..."
"Sounds like Alex has been asked enough about Seto these past few weeks, huh?" Sam asked after a moment of silence, to which Alex nodded.
"Yeah, you could say that. Everything was going fine until mom jumped on the bandwagon with everyone else."
"Actually, that sounds about right."
"Angelo, cut it out," Sam said darkly, and Alex shook her head as though neither of the two had spoken.
"Before these stories came out it was like she wanted us to get married or something! But as soon as Seto got into a fight at school she acted like she couldn't stand the sound of his name."
"She's just looking out for you, Al," her father said in a gentle tone. "This kid's got a hectic life and with all these rumors coming out about him and with him getting suspended... I mean, can you blame her for being a little nervous?"
"No... I mean, I get why she's worried. And I might be a bit more understanding if she would just give Seto a chance to explain. Or me! I'm her daughter for God's sake! You'd think I'd gain a little credibility for having known her almost sixteen years."
"Al, you've got a snowball's chance in Hell of getting that woman to hear you out." Angelo brushed the hair back from the brunette's forehead and smiled down at her. "You're asking for a miracle, sister."
"No, I'm asking for her to be reasonable."
"I say again: you're asking for a miracle."
"Alright guys, let's lay off Moriah for a little bit, huh? I know she can be a little hard to deal with sometimes, but really... She's probably doing the best she can."
"Well..." Alex glanced up at her father, an almost pleading look in her eyes. "D'you think you could ask her to do a little better?"
"I saw that coming," Angelo chuckled, though a single look from Sam silenced in him.
"What did you have in mind?" the man asked as his gaze swiveled back to his daughter.
"I was kinda hoping you could just tell her to chill. I mean, I don't mind her worrying about me or telling me to be careful or anything like that. But she's gone out of control. The only reason she let me come out here was to make sure I'd be away from Seto."
"That's a little drastic..." Angelo said with an arched eyebrow.
"Yeah, and she doesn't want me to see him anymore, either. Like, at all. Even though we have to work together on a project at school for a grade. And then there's Tom..."
"Whaddyou mean?" Sam asked, as though the mere mention of the "other father's" name had peaked his interest. "What about Tom?"
"Well at first he acted like he was on our side—like he understood that Seto hadn't done anything, that there wasn't anything wrong with him. But then the night before I left he said... he said stuff about me staying away from Seto to put less pressure on him."
"That's what he said?" her father asked as his brow furrowed.
"Yeah. I'd thought he was going to get mom to come off this overprotective trip she's on, but now I've got no idea what he's gonna do."
"So you thought I might be able to talk some sense into her?"
"You do know that she divorced me, right?"
"It was a mutual separation," Alex said with a confident smile, already sensing that her father was leaning in favor of her request. "Besides, she still listens to you. Otherwise she probably wouldn't have let me come to see you. She thought that I was the one who needed some sense talked into, and she seemed to think you were the perfect man to do it."
"Sounds like you're doin' a great job of it so far," Angelo said with a smirk, and Sam shook his head with a sigh.
"Look, I'll think about it, alright? We can talk about it later. For now... whaddyou say we get something to eat? I'm starving."
"Betcha Al's hungry, too," Angelo said with a smirk. "Airplane food sucks."
Sam nodded before rising to his feet, making his way to the kitchenette. In an instant Angelo was on his heels, staring into the contents of the fridge over his father's shoulder. From her place on the couch Alex could hear the pair bickering about what may or may not be considered edible, and all the while Alex sat with a smile on her lips. Everything was gonna work out. She was sure of it.
. . . . . . . . . .
As the next day or so passed, the small family seemed to fall perfectly into place. It was as though they had never been apart—as though Alex had never been taken to Japan with her mother, or Angelo had never gone off to tempt his hand at entrepreneurship and art dealing in New York.
Seto, however, was not mentioned again. In fact, it wasn't until the night before Alex was supposed to leave that Sam even hinted he had been giving the KaibaCorp heir any consideration at all. It was when Alex was packing her suitcases for the plane ride home that her father poked his head into the room, a warm smile on his lips.
"How's it goin', kiddo?" he asked, his smile widening as he lingered in the doorway, leaning against the frame. "Gettin' everything settled for the long journey home?"
"Yeah," Alex breathed, collapsing on to the bed with a heavy sigh. "I don't even know why mom had me come if I was only going to stay for three days."
"Not worth the trip, huh?" Sam teased, planting himself on the mattress beside his daughter and nudging her shoulder playfully. In his hand was a thin, square object wrapped up in newspaper that Alex was almost certain she knew the identity of. But her father set it to the side as though the parcel did not exist. "Don't tell Angelo; it'd break his heart if he heard it."
"And you've got a heart of stone?" the brunette asked with a smile.
"Don't get me wrong, dad," Alex explained once she'd finished giggling at her father's remark. "I love getting to see you guys. But I'd rather have stayed here for the entire break. It's like double punishment to send me away and then force me home so quick."
"Ah, c'mon now, why would you want to hang around here for two weeks? You've got plenty to keep you busy at home—like that boyfriend of yours."
"I guess..." she said with a shrug. "But what's the point in being there because of him if I can't even see him?"
"I'd heard it was the thought that counted," Sam said with the air of one trying to lighten the mood. It seemed his efforts were in vain, though, for Alex sighed and her father frowned. He leaned back on his hands, watching her. "Tell me about this Kaiba kid. His name's Seto, right?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"Okay, so Seto Kaiba. What's he like?"
"He's... quiet. And a little stand off-ish. But... he's nice. He can be funny when he wants to..."
"Your mom says he's cold, stiff, antisocial and cruel."
"She only says that because of what happened at school. If you'd asked her about Seto a couple of weeks ago she'd have told you he was the nicest young man with the most beautiful blue eyes and that he and I just made the cutest couple anyone had ever seen."
"Laying it on a little thick, aren't you, Al?"
"The first time he came to the house mom actually said that he would be, quote, 'perfect for our Alex,' end quote."
"She really said that?" Sam said with a chuckle, shaking his head. Though, in all honesty, he wasn't too surprised. It did sound like something Moriah would say...
"We weren't even together yet," Alex said as she pushed on with the air of someone trying to mask embarrassment. "In fact, that was back when Seto was dead set against the two of us becoming an 'us' at all."
"A few reasons. He's not exactly comfortable with people, for one. But... even more than that, it was because his stepfather was encouraging him to make us an item, and he didn't want things to go that way. He said that... that if we were to be more than friends, that it should be because it was what we wanted, not because Gozaburo wanted it."
"Sounds about right."
"Well, whether he was right or not isn't the point. His stepfather gave him a lot of flack for not obeying a 'direct order.' He's taken a lot of heat for me... for us." She paused for a moment as her gaze fell to her hands, clasped tightly together in her lap. "He's a good person, dad. He's nothing like those tabloid reporters make him out to be."
"You'd know better than I would, Al. I'm just asking questions." The man thought for a moment before relaxing farther back on the bed, smiling at his daughter warmly. "So what about the fight at school? I only got your mom's half of it—which I'd assume is the watered down version."
"I wouldn't be surprised," Alex said with a snort. "This guy, Greg Johnson, has been out to get Seto ever since those rumors started. Greg's parents were getting a divorce because his mom caught his dad cheating on her and—"
"And Greg somehow got it in his head that Seto was involved because of those articles, huh?"
"Exactly. So he started giving Seto a hard time. Finally, Greg cornered him into a fight, and it was just the wrong day. Seto's stepfather had been running him into the ground with his... training that week. He makes Seto do all these extra drills and exercises on... on economic theory and business strategy and stuff."
"I see," Sam mused with a nod and a furrowed brow before his daughter pushed on.
"He was already tired and at the end of his rope. And Greg pushed just the right buttons."
"What kind of buttons?"
"He said some stuff about me and about Seto's little brother, Mokuba. It just set him off."
"Alright then," Sam said with a small smile, as though the thought of this Kaiba kid standing up for his daughter appealed to him. "So what happened?"
"Seto handed Greg's ass to him is what happened."
"Language," Alex's father warned, though the chuckle that shook his voice betrayed any real criticism he had intended to convey.
"Well that's what happened!" the brunette laughed, leaning back into the bed's headboard. "Seto turned Greg's face into a bloody mess. He was so upset... But the worst part wasn't the fight, really. It was what happened afterwards. He was suspended for a week, and as far as I know he didn't even make it to school on the last day of term for exams. If he did I never saw him..."
"And you haven't heard from him since the fight?"
"Not since that night, no."
"Have you tried to call him?"
"No. I figure he's in enough trouble with his stepfather without me calling and adding to it."
"I thought his stepfather was trying to get the two of you together. Does he not like you?"
"I don't really know. I don't think he cares about me one way or the other, really. But to be honest, whether or not he likes me doesn't make much of a difference. Not when it comes to Seto..."
Sam watched his daughter for a moment, a smile on his lips. It was the same old Alex. She just wanted everyone to be okay, and if they weren't she wanted to help them be okay. This Kaiba kid was no exception. He could see that look in his daughter's eye, could hear it in her voice when she talked about the boy. He knew it wouldn't matter who told her not to see Seto or how many times they told her. She cared about the kid and no one could change that. But that didn't mean that Sam was finished.
"Well, what about Tom? I know how Moriah feels about all of this, but what about the 'other dad'?"
"I dunno. It's like I said the other night: one minute he says that he understands, and the next he seems to think that distance between Seto and I is the only option."
"Huh. Well, maybe he's just playing both sides. You know, trying to keep both you and your mom happy. You wouldn't happen to know if Tom does a lot of face-to-face work with Gozaburo Kaiba, would you?"
"I don't know. I know he goes to KaibaCorp a few times a week, but I'm not sure how often he actually sees Gozaburo." The brunette was quiet for a moment, remembering the brief conversation she and Seto had had about Tom. Seto had assured her that her stepfather had never done anything to be ashamed of, and she believed him. "Why do you want to know about Tom's work with Gozaburo?"
"No reason," Sam said with another shrug of his shoulders. "I'm just nosy—which is a trait you clearly did not inherit, because otherwise you would have already asked me what this is."
It was then that Sam lifted the thin, news wrapped square he had had in hand when he first entered the room. Alex smiled up at her father, watching as he twirled the parcel in quick circles with his fingers.
"Oh, gee, dad, I wonder what it could be," the brunette mused sarcastically, though a bright smile had stolen over her face.
"Well, I dunno. You'll have to open it and find out." And with that he handed the gift to his daughter, his own smile widening as she slipped the paper away. Tearing away the newspaper revealed a cardboard sheaf decorated with a multitude of monks clad in brown and blue robes standing beneath a blue sky. Alex was quiet at first before running her fingers across the white letter printed across the top of the cardboard: B. Ö. C.
"Blue Öyster Cult's 'Fire of Unknown Origin,'" Sam said in a soft tone that seemed to make the record sacred. "If memory serves it's an album you don't have."
"No..." she answered quietly, looking up at her father. "I mean, I've had the CD for ages, but I never did get the vinyl. Dad... this is awesome!"
"I thought you might like it. Just a little early Christmas present for my baby girl."
For a moment the pair sat in silence, reveling in the rare father-daughter moment that their long-term separation had prevented them from sharing. But soon their eyes roamed to the things left unpacked that lay scattered around the room, and in that moment they were reminded of Alex's plane departure set less than twelve hours away. And it was then that the warm feeling that had filled the room seemed to decay and wane away until it was nothing but a cold reminder of the thousands of miles that would soon lie between them.
"Well, I should probably let you finish up," Sam said with a heavy sigh, rising to his feet and crossing to the door. "I'm sure you're gonna wanna hit the hay soon, anyway."
"Yeah, probably so..."
"Alrighty then. I'll leave you to it." He turned to do just that, a certain sadness in his smile that hadn't been there before, when his daughter's voice stopped him.
"Yeah?" he answered, glancing back over his shoulder.
"Thanks for... all this. I mean, I haven't really been able to talk to anyone about what's going on—not anyone who would hear me out anyway. And... it helps. So, thanks."
"Anything for my baby girl," Sam said warmly, patting the doorframe before shooting his daughter a smile. "Besides, you're a smart kid, and you're a pretty good judge of character when it comes right down to it. It sounds to me like ditching that Johnson kid and his crew like you did was a smart move."
"You're telling me," Alex muttered, and her father chuckled.
"I tell you what. I'll give your mom a call tomorrow once you get on your plane. I'll let her know you're on your way, and then I'll have a chat with her about Kaiba—y'know, see what I can do. It might take a few weeks for her to come around, but I'm sure she'll give a little. She may be tough about this stuff, but it's only 'cause she cares."
"I know, dad. I know she cares... I just think she's wrong on this one, that's all."
"Yeah, kinda sounds like she's got her head in the sand this time around. But I'll take care of it."
"Good old, reliable dad," the brunette teased.
"Hey, I may be good and reliable but there's no reason to start tossing insults around about me being old. I'm doin' you a favor, after all."
"My bad," Alex said with a laugh, which only seemed to brighten her father's smile.
"You bet it's your bad." The father crossed the room once more, pausing at the side of the bed to kiss his daughter's forehead before turning to leave once more. "Sleep tight, kiddo."
Sam closed the door as he left, leaving a smiling teenager behind him. Everything was going to be okay; she was sure of it this time. Her dad was going to take care of things, and then everything would be back to normal. Or at least as normal as things could get.
. . . . . . . . . .
Once Alex had finished packing away all of her things she had changed into a tank top and pajama bottoms before burrowing her way under the blankets of her bed. She was exhausted from the last hour or so of rushed packing, and for the first time in a long time her mind was at ease about the fate of her relationship with Seto. She would never have to tell him of the small disruption that nearly tore them apart. He would never have to know.
As soon as the brunette's head hit the pillow and her eyes had closed she had drifted away into sleep. It was a peaceful sleep, one void of tossing and turning. So when a soft knock on her door at some time around three in the morning tore her from her slumber, it was no surprise that she groaned loudly and pulled her blankets high over her head. This didn't seem to deter her visitor, however, as she could hear the door opening and closing, soon followed by footsteps crossing through the darkness and the feeling of the edge of the mattress sinking as a figure sat down beside her.
"Move over," the voice said quietly.
"Ange, I'm too tired for this," Alex moaned, though she did as she was told and inched sideways, making room for her brother. She felt him lay down beside her, his back pressed against his hers, and then heard him sigh.
"Just like when we were kids, huh?" he asked, a small smile on his lips.
"I remember when you'd come to stay at dad's and you'd get all nervous about being alone. You'd come running into my room in the middle of the night, begging me to let you sleep with me. I never did know why you didn't just ask dad."
"I didn't want dad to think I was scared..."
"Yeah? Well, I didn't mind." His smiled widened a bit as his gaze drifted over to the bedroom's sole window. "You used to hate thunder and lightning, too."
"Yeah, and when I'd go back home and there'd be no big brother's room to run to, I'd—"
"Call my house in the middle of the night," Angelo chuckled. "And my mom would get so mad..."
"Didn't she get used to it after a while, though?"
"Yeah. On nights when the weatherman said it was going to storm she would stick the phone on my bedside table, just in case..."
Both siblings laughed and soon Alex had rolled over to face her brother, her forehead resting against his back. The two were quiet for a moment before Angelo spoke up once more.
"This Kaiba kid's okay, right Alex? I mean, you're not in any kinda trouble are you?"
"Whaddyou mean? What kind of trouble?"
"You know, getting mixed up with some kid whose no good and not being able to find a way out of it. That sorta trouble."
"It's nothing like that, Ange."
"'Cause if it was, you know I'd fly all the way over there and kick this guy's ass. You do know that, right?"
"I know, Ange. I know you and dad are looking out for me. And I know mom is looking out for me, too. You've all got my best interests at heart and all that."
"Well, I dunno about that, but—"
"But Seto's looking out for me, too. That's how he got into this mess—by sticking up for me." Her hands curled gently into her brother's shirt, a small smile on her lips. "Really, Ange, Seto's okay."
"Alright then," Angelo murmured, rolling over to face the brunette. "So he's protective. Is he too protective?"
"Maybe," the brunette said with a shrug and a soft laugh. "But not in a bad way."
"What're his grades like?"
"He's a genius set to take over a multi-billion dollar company. His grades are pristine."
"Yeah? And what's he like in bed?"
"Why would you even ask that?" Alex said indignantly, sitting up straight to glare at her brother properly.
"You can tell a lot about a guy by how he treats a girl—and you can tell even more about who he really is by what kind of messed up kinks and fetishes he's in to. So what's your CEO-to-be like?"
"It isn't like that," she answered, shaking her head.
"No, I mean, it isn't like that. We aren't sleeping together."
"Oh, c'mon, Al, I'm not dad. You can tell me."
"I'm not lying to you. It's true."
"Really?" Angelo frowned, his brow slightly creased in confusion. "You'd think some ritzy kid would only be in it for the sex... Hell, that's what most poor kids his age are in it for, anyway."
"I keep telling you guys that Seto isn't like that," Alex sighed, crawling to the edge of the bed away from Angelo and staring down at the floor. "His parents died when he was a kid and he's spent his whole life looking out of his little brother. His stepfather runs him into the ground with... with all his training and extra work, and before this year Seto hadn't even been enrolled in a public school."
"Huh... That's no fun."
"No, it's not. And on top of everything else, all the kids at school hate him because they think he's some kind of spoiled brat."
"Well, is he?"
"No! Dammit, Ange, are you even listening to me?"
"Alex—" her brother murmured, realizing he'd upset her, but she simply talked on over him.
"He's a good guy! He puts up with shit from everyone: his stepfather, Gozaburo's businessmen, the kids at school, and now mom. And all he wants is for people to leave him alone. All he wants is to be normal."
"Alex, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it..."
"I know you didn't, I just... I'm tired of people trying to convince me that there's something wrong with him—that he's no good. Even he's convinced of it now."
"Alex..." Angelo frowned, moving across the bed to sit beside her and to rest his hand on her shoulder. "I'm your big brother; I'm supposed to give you a hard time about the guys you're seeing. I'm supposed to look out for you. It's my job!"
"I know, Ange, I know..." She shook her head, surprised at the anger that had swelled within her. It wasn't Angelo she was upset with, though that was a part of it. "I'm just sick of people who think they know Seto or know what's best for us. He gets into one little fight and suddenly everyone thinks they know him—like they know some dark secret about him or something. All they know is what a few tabloid reporters thought would make for a money-making story. And the worst part of it was that those scum sucking reporters were right. People love a scandal. Even if it's about a sixteen-year-old kid."
Angelo sighed, wrapping his arm around his sister's shoulder and hugging her close. Being almost five years her senior, he'd had far more experience in relationships than she. And as a mediocre high school student who had gone on to attend art school, he had been considered a "questionable prospect" by the parents of many of his former girlfriends. He knew what it felt like to be in a relationship that nobody wanted to see succeed. It felt like hell.
"Look, Alex, I get you. I get where you're coming from. You two... you'll be okay. You aren't the first kids to have parents going against you, or to get looked down on at school. It happens all the time. You're just getting a little more publicity over it is all. I bet all this junk will blow over, and everything will be fine."
"Yeah...?" she asked with a sigh of her own, shaking her head once more. "Well, I'll believe that when I see it."
"Besides, who cares what all those other jerks think? They can think what they like, so long as you two are good, right?"
"Yeah... But Seto cares a lot about what other people think. It's been bred into him to be constantly aware of what the public thinks of him, to be worried about his image. He can't help it."
"So screw him. Screw all of 'em." Angelo shook his head, leaning back and extending his hands to balance himself on the bed. "Honestly, Al, it isn't worth putting yourself through hell. If you feel like shit, then he's not worth it. No guy is."
The brunette nodded, laying down once more and turning so that she was facing away from her brother once more. She buried herself beneath her bed covers, hitching them up high on her shoulder before curling up into a tight ball. All the while she bit her lip, fighting the all too romantic and naive words that had first popped into her head the moment Angelo had spoken: but he is worth it.
It sounded ignorant and childish, but she couldn't help but feel that it was true—for the moment, anyway. Sure, it might not be true forever, or even a year from now. But that wasn't what was important. It was true at that moment, and it made her feel incredibly homesick. Homesick for their small nook tucked away in the library, for their stupid baby project, for those moments spent on late afternoons when they sat close enough that their shoulders touched but not a word need be spoken between them.
It wasn't all that stupid, was it? Being Seto's friend—whether she was dating him or not was beside the point, but being his friend—was worth more to her than all the fake friends she could have possibly accumulated at Domino High. And feeling that that friendship was worth all the gossip and the teasing and taunts in the world was a feeling that she really didn't want to lose. It meant something to her; Seto meant something to her. And, despite how much she loved her father and her brother and the time she had spent with them, for the first time during her short vacation she couldn't wait to be home.
"But what do I know, huh?" Angelo asked, her silence making him think he had said something else wrong. He stretched back out beside his sister, wrapping an arm around her to hug her close before resting his chin on her shoulder. Then he lifted a hand over her head to brush a lock of hair behind her ear, smiling tenderly at her. "I'm just the big bro."
"You know plenty, Ange," Alex said with a soft laugh, relaxing back into Angelo's chest and smiling. She tried to put the longing to see Seto out of her mind and simply enjoy the moment with her brother. She didn't know when she might have another, after all. "And you're the best 'big bro' a girl could ask for."
"Yeah? Well, sweet of you to say, but seems like I haven't really had the chance to show off my brotherly skills lately." He paused, a look of mock concentration creasing his features before he smiled at the brunette once more. "And that being the case, those 'big brother kicks ass' vouchers don't exactly have an expiration date. So if any of those twerps at school start giving you too rough of a time, I can still hop a plane and come over there to beat some sense into some tweenage kiddies."
"You're the salt of the earth, Ange," Alex laughed, and Angelo laughed too. The two settled into the bed, just as they had done when they were children and, for the first time since she had been seven years old and he had been eleven, the pair fell asleep talking to each other through the darkness, laughing drowsily over one thing and mumbling agreements over another.
. . . . . . . . . .
"You're sure you've got everything?" Sam asked in a breath, one of Alex's bags still slung over his shoulder. Despite the fact that everyone had woken up early in order to ensure an equally early arrival to the airport, something had seemed to thrown the curve off drastically between the time everyone had finally risen and the time they had all made it into Sam's car. Once at the airport Sam had loaded the few bag's Alex had onto a luggage cart, and shortly thereafter the family went thundering down the terminal to Alex's boarding gate: Sam pushing the cart along while Angelo carried his sister on his back, the siblings laughing as they went.
"Dad, I'm sure," Alex answered confidently as Angelo set her down on her feet. She was now two bags lighter, both having been abandoned at one check point or another to baggage claim, and the third hung lightly on her father's shoulder.
"Just chill, pops," Angelo interjected, slinging his arm around his sister's shoulder. "Besides, if she forgot anything you can just ship it to her. No big deal. Or, hell, you could make the trip to Japan yourself! It'd give you a chance to meet the new stud!"
"Ange—" the brunette warned quietly, but she did so with a smile. She had made her feelings pretty well known to her brother by now. She knew that anything he said at this point was harmless teasing and nothing more, and harmless teasing was something she could deal with.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Angelo replied, shaking his head. "'Shut up, you ass.' Saw it coming from a mile away."
It was then that the last people in line for the plane Alex was to board filed through the door and hallway, leaving the brunette and her send off committee as the only remaining occupants of the terminal. Sam glanced around for a moment before sighing heavily, turning to face his daughter once more.
"Guess this is it, huh?"
"You say it so miserably," Alex chuckled, "like you're never going to see me again or something!"
"Hey," her brother warned in mock seriousness. "Don't say stuff like that before getting on a plane. It's all kinds of bad luck."
"Angelo, hush," Sam ordered, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder as though telling the boy to hit the road. Angelo's brow furrowed and he frowned as though his father had truly dealt him a low blow.
"Fine then!" he muttered indignantly, though he hugged his sister's neck one final time and as he did so she heard him laugh under his breath, which only made her smile. Alex watched as he took a few steps behind their father, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets and striking a casual and almost aloof pose.
Which left the hardest goodbye for last. The father and daughter stared at each other for a long moment, a sheepish smile on her lips and a warm smile on his. Neither said anything at first, but at risk of making Alex miss her flight on account of latent desires to make her do just that, it was Sam who finally broke the silence.
"Hey there, kiddo."
"Hey there, yourself," she returned with a smile that seemed to grow with every passing second. Again the pair stood in silence before Sam finally stepped forward, pulling his daughter into a gentle yet unmistakably loving hug.
"You're gonna have to come back out here sometime soon," he said quietly. "Maybe summer break or something. Whaddya say?"
"Sounds good," Alex answered, hugging close to her father's chest. And despite the well intended words, they both knew that the odds of Moriah letting her daughter venture out to Boston again any time soon were slim to none.
Sam nodded, releasing her from his hold after another long silence only to take her head in his hands and press his lips to her hair.
"I love you, kiddo," he breathed, his eyes closing tight for a brief moment.
"I love you, too, dad," the brunette said softly, her own eyes closing in an effort to fight off the tears that threatened to cloud her vision. They stood together for a minute or two more, and then it was as though reason returned to them. The man released his daughter, brushing out the wrinkles his hugs had no doubt caused in the sleeves and shoulders of her jacket and then handing off her bag to her. She had to go, and they both knew it. She had to go.
"Now, you gimme a call when you hit the transfer flight in Chicago, and once you do I'll give your mom a call and let her know you're headed home."
"Sure, dad," Alex murmured, shouldering her bag with a nod.
"Okie doke." Sam nodded again, and after a moment more of staring into his daughter's eyes he motioned her off to the boarding gate, a smile on his lips. "Go on. I'll see ya when I see ya."
And with that, she turned away and walked to stewardess who stood guard to check tickets. Alex extended the small sheaf of paper, letting the woman check that everything was accounted for, and in that moment she glanced back at her father and brother who stood together, both watching her go with sad smiles on their faces.
In that moment she was seized by some overwhelming urge to tear the ticket up into pieces, to run back to her father, to have him call her mother and tell the woman that she wasn't going back and that she would just have to live with that. It didn't matter who was waiting for her back in Japan or what some stupid judge had said in some ancient custody battle, because she didn't want to go home. But as the stewardess handed her the ticket back the moment passed. Instead she forced a smile, gave a little wave of her hand, and called in a choked and almost hoarse voice, "Love you guys!" And then she turned and boarded the plane that would take her home.
And once his daughter's back was turned to him, a frown darkened the features of Sam Win. It wasn't because his daughter was gone, but because he didn't know when he would see her again.