Part 13

"Joining me tonight is Jem and the Holograms as they're promoting the release of their new video and album," Lindsay Pierce grinned as the studio audience went wild, holding up her hand for silence as she looked into the video camera. "A lot of our viewers have been sending in questions for Jem ever since she made reappearance and are eager to know what her plans are and why, after months of silence, she's jumped back into the main stream."

She paused for a moment as the clips of Jem began to play, many of them including Rio.

"General speculation is that Jem and the head of Starlight Music, Jerrica Benton, had a falling out over Jem's Manager, Rio Pacheco; a man well known to be Jerrica Benton's longtime boyfriend. Hopefully tonight we'll be able to clear the air."

The video clips cut, going back to Lindsay's image and she smiled for the camera. "Now, the act you've all been waiting for, please welcome to the studio Jem and the Holograms!"

Screams and cheers went up as Kimber stepped out first, waving to the audience who began chanting her name. She blew them a kiss and walked over to shake Lindsay's hand before giving the newscaster a hug. Leaning in she said something to the anchor that wasn't caught on camera but that made both women grin. She took her seat before Aja appeared.

The guitarist grinned and waved, greeting the crowd as she headed towards Lindsay and then, much like Kimber, hugged her before taking her seat. More screams as Shana emerged, stopping to show off the new outfit she'd made specifically for the interview with a twirl. The applause increased, appreciative of the Hologram's flair for style, before she approached Lindsay and hugged her much as the pair before her.

All of the Holograms were seated before Jem appeared. The audience surged to their feet as she stepped through the curtain, sporting her new Glitter and Gold look. Chants and screams deafened those on stage as Jem held up both hands and waved. Like Kimber, she winked and blew kisses, stepping over to the crowd. The noise got impossibly louder as she stretched out her hands to the children near the front and bent down to embrace a couple of the younger ones.

Tears, blown kisses and cries of more were left in her wake as she moved back to the stage and went to greet Lindsay. Lindsay was grinning wildly; her studio hadn't been this packed since the last Jem appearance. She lifted her hands for silence after hugging Jem and letting her get seated.

It took quite a long time in television minutes before the screaming dropped to a 'normal' level and then down further as Lindsay, grinning, lifted her finger to her lips and made another motion for silence. It took another minute before it died to murmurs and whispers with the occasional cry that drew laughter.

Lindsay, unable to kill her smile, turned to the camera. "As you can see, Jem and the Holograms," another shriek and more laughter that quickly died, "are in the studio. Jem; welcome back – it's been awhile."

Smiling, Jem leaned forward. "I know and for that I apologize. I needed some time to regroup and relax… but now I'm back and we," she indicated the Holograms, "have a new album out."

"Not just a new album," Lindsay tugged on her collar, "a new look and a new sound, or so it seems. I've heard the new track folks, seen the video, and it's like nothing you've seen before!" Her attention turned back to the stars in her studio as another wave enthusiastic shrieks and cries washed through it. "What's the reason for such huge changes?"

Jem motioned to Kimber who waved and earned a shriek of her own. "We needed something new and edgy and totally outrageous for our comeback, Lindsay; we couldn't just do the same old thing, you know?"

"Is the rest of the album as exciting and upbeat as the title track?"

"Of course!" Her enthusiasm drew a laugh from the crowd. "While Jem was away, I had tons of time to pen down lyrics, enough for a dozen albums really… of course," she winked at Lindsay, "I also took some time for me so I didn't spend it all writing."

Good natured laughter followed the announcement and Lindsay, not to be caught off guard, fired back with an immediate question. "Lots of down time spent with your longtime boyfriend, Jeff Wright, is that right?"

Unabashedly, Kimber tossed her head. "Not as much as you'd think. He does spoil me rotten though," she winked at the camera and blew a kiss. "For you sweetie!"

Laughing, Lindsay turned back to the members on the couch. "Not to be outdone, your outfits look fabulous. Shana, how much time did it take to create these exquisite showpieces?"

"I only wish it was as long as you think, Lindsay." Shana teased. "With Jem away, I admit to taking a few guilty pleasures. I relaxed, much like she did I'm sure, but I admit I didn't really have any idea we would be going to a new look until Jem returned with the idea of recording a new album for the Glitter and Gold contest."

"Really? Wasn't it difficult to come up with this look in such a short time?"

Laughing, Shana shook her head. "Hardly! Once I heard Kimber's new lyrics and the melodies started running through our fingers, the images just sprang to life. It wasn't so much as hard to come up with them as it was to get the ideas down on paper before they disappeared."

"As always, a dedicated artist," Lindsay assured her. "And Aja, word has it you've had quite the impact on this album; your finger work on the guitar is heard above and beyond what we've heard before."

"I've been practicing," she admitted with a half-smile. "But I think we've all got parts on this album that are better, that are more than what we've done before. I wouldn't say I've made more of an impact than anyone else; this was definitely a team effort."

"Gracious as always," turning back to the camera, Lindsay caught sight of the cut sign. "We'll be right back, folks, after these messages."

The light cut out on the camera, showing that they were off the air, and the audience erupted in chants for Jem. Leaving the couches, Jem and her band headed for the audience and began to circulate, signing autographs, shaking hands and mingling with the children in particular. The crowd loved it, delighting in a chance to meet the band and their singer.

Jem and the Holograms stayed in the crowd for the duration of the commercial break before returning.

Settling themselves back on the stage as the camera men indicated it was just seconds before they would go live, Jem leaned over to speak with Kimber, shielding her lips from the camera; Kimber nodded just as they were given the five second signal.

"Welcome back, folks; as you know, my guests today as Jem and the Holograms-" Lindsay told the camera as she was given her cue, her grin returning as the crowd went wild, "-who have a new album out; Glitter and Gold. Jem, what made you decide to change your look for this album?"

"It wasn't a conscious choice," Jem returned easily, leaning back on the couch. "In fact, I don't think the decision was made until we all got together again to write the music."

"Then the new look has nothing to do with the tension between you and your long time Manager, Rio Pacheco? A way to, perhaps, take the group another direction?"

There was a moment's hesitation before Jem shook her head, seemingly at ease despite the awkward question. "Rio didn't have anything to do with the decision to modify our look for this album, Lindsay. He's been behind us all the way though; we'd never be able to do what we do without him."

"Then the rumors aren't true about the falling out between you and he? He's not planning to leave at the end of the year?"

"I'm afraid I don't know Rio's plans," offered Jem tightly. "But I do know if he were to leave, he'd be sorely missed. He's been invaluable."

"And the rumor that you're the reason he and Jerrica Benton are no longer an item?"

A hush crowd seemed to hush, eagerly awaiting her response. Jem, however, appeared to take it in stride, giving it serious thought. She finally lifted one shoulder in a seemingly careless shrug. "I can't speak for Rio's relationship Jerrica, but I know my relationship with Rio has been misconstrued. His appearance in my, in our videos, has given rise to the fiction that there was something between us. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Rio and Jerrica and, if they are having trouble, I certainly hope it's not because of me."

"Do you-"

"Lindsay," Jem cut in before she could continue the line of questioning. "I realize that everyone likes to speculate on my love life, or lack there-of," she flashed a smile that held an edge, "but we're here to speak of the new album and promote the video. Everyone here's come to see it; we wouldn't want to disappoint them, now would we?"

Taking the hint, Lindsay graciously changed the line of questioning back to the video and album release.

Jem settled back in her chair as the Holograms jumped in to offer commentary and answer questions. What everyone failed to notice, despite the keen eyes on Jem through the interview, was that the fingers of one hand dug tightly into the sofa. Underneath the Jem hologram, that hand was white knuckled and bloodless as Jerrica fought to retain the insouciance that Jem was portraying.

The encounter the night before had shaken her in a lot of ways, and not just badly. Rio had shown he could support her, despite what she'd done to him, and it had given her hope. Hope that had been quickly dashed when they'd finished with the police and he'd withdrawn with their departure. After delivering the much depleted record stock to Discovery Records, they'd gone their separate ways, Rio shadowing her until she'd turned in at the Starlight Mansion, but not stopping.

With the emotional highs and lows of that morning, Jerrica knew she'd completely lost her perspective and posing as Jem was dangerous, even if it was unavoidable. So distracted, there was a better chance of a slip up.

Somehow she made it through the interview, returning to the audience after the showing of the video to sign more autographs and greet the fans. It was followed by more of the same outside the studio before the Holograms pulled her away, heading for the Starlight Mansion.

Keeping up appearances, Jem waved to enthusiastic fans for miles as they crossed the city, smiling so much that Jerrica's face, under the hologram, began to hurt. They were half way home before Jem was able to sit back. "Kimber, can you drop me at Starlight Music?"

Her sister frowned. "You've not seriously thinking about working after all that, are you? You didn't get hardly any sleep last night!"

"And Lindsay didn't exactly pull her punches," added Aja.

"I can't afford not to if we want to be able to beat the Misfits. Now that the record is on the charts, we've got to keep the momentum going."

"The record will sell, Jem," Shana offered with a smile. "As much because of our new look as because of the sound. You working through the day isn't going to make people want to buy it any more than they already do."

"There's interviews to arrange beyond Lindsay Pierce and Jerrica needs to make an appearance in a couple of board meetings," shaking her head, Jem was insistent. "Starlight Music doesn't run itself; I can't afford to skip out today."

"You can't afford to let yourself sleep you mean," Kimber shot a glare at her sister behind the Jem disguise. "Sometimes I wish you'd listen to me."

"Kimber is right, Jem," Synergy's voice came through the earrings, catching all of their attention. "After the events of last evening, working without rest will solve nothing and raises the possibility of endangering your charade. I would advise against returning to work before you have had an ample opportunity to recover."

"Events of last night?"


"Jem - what does she mean?"

"Nothing," Jem stressed, hoping Synergy would get the hint; she wasn't ready to talk about the night before with anyone, especially her sisters, "important happened and I'm not changing my mind. Drop me at Starlight Music, Kimber; please."

The girls exchanged looks - she didn't need to see them to know it, before Kimber sighed and changed lanes, just barely catching the exit that would take them to the music headquarters. The rest of the trip, quick those it was, passed in an awkward kind of silence that was as unfamiliar as it was new and Jem, despite the knowledge that she was the cause, did nothing to try and break it.

Knowing Jerrica and the girls were doing the interview on the Lindsay Pierce show and were likely to be gone for most of the day, Rio had stayed home from work. It gave him a chance to fix the small issues he'd been putting off for weeks and, when those were finished, chop some fire wood. The good old fashioned manual labor was a way to work off the energy that seemed to have hit him non-stop since the night before. Ever since he'd held Jerrica in his arms once more, felt her trembling; ever since been terrified he was about to lose her to a petty gang of thugs up to no good.

In his mind's eye he could still see the rough hands of the cretin who'd been holding her, dragging obscenely across her body and every primitive, primal instinct he had, had rebelled. Everything within him had screamed mine, the feeling having fueled his attacks and pushed him into the situation far sooner than was wise. It had made him reckless but powerful, taking chances that would have made him hesitate had his thoughts been any clearer.

He was lucky they both hadn't come away with serious injuries.

Still… he was brutally honest with himself and knew he'd do it again even if he had time to think about it. He couldn't stand the thought of Jerrica having been in the ruffian's arms with his hands on her body - of her being in danger; Jerrica was his to protect. She always had been. She would, he was finally starting to realize as he swung his axe at the log before him and splitting it in half, always be.

The realization was as uplifting as it was despairing, leaving him no further ahead or behind than where he'd started.

Jerrica had still lied to him; she'd kept him in the dark about the most important part of her life; she'd actively gone out of her way to deceive him. She'd exhibited the behaviors he'd come to resent and despise most in people - and knew it! - all the while pretending to be above them. He felt as if she'd made a mockery of him, played him for a fool despite the good she'd done with the charade and yet...

And yet, in the face of losing her, it had all ceased to matter.

All that had mattered was getting her free; even his own safety hadn't mattered beyond the context of getting her away from the thug. The police had taken the men's descriptions - how many in the city could possibly have skulls tattooed on their heads - and bid them good night after ascertaining they were physically unharmed.

Rio had withdrawn, self preservation making it necessary. Everything he'd thought was important had shifted the night before, leaving his reaction to Jerrica's lies a mockery of what really mattered.

For all it had ceased to matter at the time, nothing had really changed between them.

Rio set up another log, getting into a rhythm - set, swing, chop, set, swing, chop - as he considered what had happened before she'd stormed off, determined to deliver the records before the deadline. Jerrica's accusation had stung; not because it was inaccurate, but because Rio knew he deserved it. Jerrica was Jem, but hearing it from her lips that he'd been unable to spend time with Jerrica without bringing Jem into the mix was kind of like being back handed with the bat he'd been wielding the night before.

Set, swing, chop.

While her own deception didn't trump his, Rio knew she had every right and more to be angry with him for his lack of sensitivity. He'd honestly believed at the time that she'd been just as excited to talk about her new headliner as he was after she'd insisted he stay on as Jem's manager. Yet, after that initial excitement… Rio winced. The obsession should have waned and it hadn't. His behavior towards his long time girlfriend had been appalling; how had he ever thought she'd want to hear about another girl when they were alone together?

Set, swing, chop.

A mess.

His life was a mess.

He'd been hurt by the one person he'd implicitly trusted only to have it thrown in his face that he'd been doing the same thing to her for months. Only she'd been unable to say anything because of the deception that had caused his pain. Living that double life, trying to keep all the details, of which identity had seen or said what, straight was mind boggling.

Set, swing, chop.

How does she do it?

Rio shook his head, knowing he'd never understand just how Jerrica had coped with it. Even as he thought it, he remembered his own checkered past; the beatings, the gangs, the danger. He didn't know how he'd coped in his broken family, only that he'd done it because he had no other choice; he'd done it because he had to. Just like Jerrica who continued to do it because she had no other option open to her. If she failed to be Jem, Starlight Music failed and so did its charity.

Something she would never allow to happen; the reason she'd undoubtedly resurrected Jem.

There has to be a middle ground here, he found himself thinking unbidden as he swung the axe into the chopping block and began to collect the piles he'd made to stack near the house. Middle ground.

It was a novel concept when he'd been unable to see beyond her inability to trust him before. Was he compromising his principles now that she'd basically thrown her duplicity back in his face with a charge of the same? He was a man and fallible; prone to weakness, but Rio had never considered himself weak. Jem had been a weakness; like some kind of a forbidden drug that was more alluring for the reason it was forbidden.

Only it hadn't been and that weakness, one his… one Jerrica had been privy to on both sides, shamed him.

It was a surprising revelation in the wake of the last week's ups and downs; surprising he could still feel guilty for how he'd treated her before he'd known of her deception. Jerrica had repeatedly and profusely made her apologies about not including him in her charade from the start. While he understood now that Jem was needed, Jerrica's lack of faith in him still stung but no more than his treatment of her over the last while had hurt her.

Completed with his chores, Rio took a moment to wipe down his face and chest with an old shirt before going to his kitchen to find something to drink. Water from the tap in a tall glass was drained absently as he stared out across his back yard.

Two wrongs don't make a right, he found himself thinking with a shake of his head. No matter how he'd hurt Jerrica, no matter how she'd hurt him and where they were presently, escalating the situation wasn't the solution. But what was? Rio absently refilled his glass, an ache in his chest that had nothing to do with his prior physical activities, and sipped it, one hand on the counter top.

For all he felt like the victim here, it had been over a week and a half since Jerrica's revelation and he'd come out from under the cloud that had initially settled upon him to realize that he wasn't blameless. He'd not made it easy for Jerrica to confide in him, hadn't even realized she needed to, and by fixating on her alter ego, he'd actually been making things more difficult for her when he should have been doing the opposite. Of course, he hadn't known he was making things worse because he'd been in the dark about her alter ego.

Round and round, the thoughts chased one another in his mind.

His actions; hers.

His omissions; her lies.

His hang ups; her responsibilities.

Sadly, as he stared out the window, the answer didn't magically appear. All he had were the facts of what he knew to be true. He knew that she'd consciously hurt him, wiling or unwilling wasn't the point; it was the fact that it had happened at all and getting past the lies she'd been telling since her father's death. The knowledge that she couldn't give him one good reason why he hadn't been trusted with her secret from the start probably hit him harder, in retrospect, than the secret itself.

Jerrica was Jem.

Jem did so much good, he couldn't really fault her for becoming the kind of role model that children, girls like the Starlight girls in particular, needed. How could he be angry about the repercussions and implications of her lies when he wasn't angry about the lie itself anymore? Rio wasn't exactly sure how it was possible, just that it was.

It was his shared history with Jerrica and his revelations over the last few days of his own feelings that tipped the scales. He loved her; he would probably always love her despite what she'd done. Rio wondered if there was a way to reconcile the deep, abiding feel of betrayal with the nearly crippling fear seeing Jerrica in danger the previous evening had uncovered.

Not that the thought of her in danger putting him into cold sweats was anything new, but the reminder had been timely. His heart wanted his girl back, but his head wasn't able to trust her after she'd so blatantly misused it. Pride goeth before the fall, he shook his head at the rueful thought. Was it his pride standing in the way of being able to forgive Jerrica? Or was it something else? His unwillingness to compromise the ethics he valued so highly because they'd always been compromised by those closest to him?

The thought made him shudder; Jerrica and her family had always been above the petty games and nonsense… except the one time she'd tried to make him jealous with Eric. His experiences had made him older than her in so many ways that he'd been unwilling to tolerate the game. Jerrica and he had discussed it after the fact when she'd given him her apology, and he'd made it very clear at the time he couldn't abide that kind of lie; worse, she'd agreed with him, promising to never do so again.

Which made this all the harder.

She'd promised not to lie to him, to try and play him for the fool, and yet - when it came right down to it - she'd done exactly that.

Rio placed his glass in the sink and headed for the stairs, exhaustion suddenly settling about his shoulders like a heavy, wet blanket. He couldn't see a way out of this beyond compromising his principles but if he did that, where did that leave him personally?

Falling into bed and throwing one arm across his eyes, he heaved a sigh. He didn't know. All he knew was that being at odds with Jerrica was slowly killing him and he needed to come to some kind of a decision. He just wasn't sure what that would be.