TPD: *sniffs* So apparently I REALLY suck at melodrama since out

Loki: Told ya, you were better off doing angsty blood and guts with me-self and the Avengers.

TPD: True, out of almost four thousand hits I only got FIVE reviews *goes off into corner to mope*. Originally I had intended for Poppy to be listening to the song but it just didn't seem to fit, tell me if you think I should go back and change it.

Lucky for you all I hate melodrama and am a firm believer in moving things along so I now give you the next chapter.

Chapter XXI: You Order the Cavalry Special Ma'm?

For the rest of the week Poppy remained in what amounted to social Siberia. None of her friends would deign to look at, much less speak to, her for more than was absolutely required, if even that long.

Sensing a definite change in the social infrastructure and buckling under Harriet's snipes about the American, the other students studiously avoided Poppy, reinforcing her position of complete alienation.

Why did you even bother coming back? All you got was this!

Once again she mentally pushed aside that annoying voice in her head. Maybe if Headmistress saw Poppy wasn't fitting back in as well as originally perceived she would allow the girl an excuse to return to America. After all, it wasn't much of a leap to assume Mrs. Kingsley had been informed about the fight with Freddy.

A girl who had broken her son's heart twice wouldn't stand a chance of staying on for much more than the first week or so unless they made up with lots of groveling. Obviously that would be out of the question for several years, if not ever, to come. It simply was not going to happen.

Poppy and Freddy had broken up and this time there was no 'friendship superglue' to stick the broken pieces back together.

He was gone.

Forever.

Curled up under the blankets Poppy bit the corner of her pillow to block off the sob building in her throat. Just two hours earlier she had gone to brush her teeth when she collided with Josie coming out of the bathroom. The girl had instinctively reached down to help up the fallen person before she saw who it was. Yanking back her hand like she'd accidentally stuck it in on an electric line, the girl turned and ran back to their room, leaving Poppy to stare miserably after her.

A sudden flash of red broke into her self-pitying thoughts.

Pulling down the covers a tad to see who could be the source, Poppy was perturbed to see four motionless forms still tucked snuggly in their beds.

Huh? But no other thought could form before a sudden burst of red blinded her. Just as quickly it was gone.

The hell? Poppy gasped. Her answer was a soft taping on the window.

Images from every horror movie she ever watched flashing through her head, Poppy slipped from under the covers and tiptoed to the window. Squinting through the glass she could just make out the shadows of the other side of the roof, the moonlight revealing an empty night. Whatever, if ever, had caused the lights was nowhere to be found.

Putting down this small episode to emotional overload and lack of sleep, Poppy turned to head back to bed when something flicked in the corner of her eye. On the windowsill a small firefly perched, glowing brilliant crimson in the dark as it danced erratically in an effort to get out the window. But then it did go out the window…right through the glass.

"Wha….?" Poppy mumbled, wondering if her snooze deprived brain was fully awake or hallucinating as a way of protest. But no, the light was back, and this time Poppy realized it was anything but natural, her stomach dropping through the floor panels. It was a red laser point.

Sudden images of hired killers aiming their rifles with the aid of laser guides thudded sickeningly in her head. Surely Harriet wasn't insane enough to try having her murdered, or had aliens finally sucked out what was left of the nutcase's brain.

She stood not daring to breath as the small point of light continued zipping around between the widow and the other side of the roof. After about half a minute of this the laser changed course to fall across her hand where it took up alternating flicks in the direction of the window. Almost like whoever it is wants me to open the window.

Since her last confrontation with Harriet Poppy had grown to be even more wary of anything that breached the normality barrier. But oddly this didn't seem to fit Harriet's profile. Midnight visits with laser pointers? Surely not.

Resigning herself to the fact that whatever was out there couldn't be worse than what she had put up with recently, Poppy carefully slid open the latch quietly as she could and pushed open the window. Sticking her head out, she looked in all directions but could see nothing.

Abruptly the laser was back, dancing over her left eye before bouncing around randomly. Following the barely perceptible beam she followed it to the source, a small red pinpoint in the middle of a patch of black just a bit darker than the night.

Fine! What the heck. Poppy squirmed out the window and cautiously approached the shadow.

Seeing that she had finally picked up on its intentions the figure slid around the side of the roof away from the still open window. Poppy followed, curiosity finally overcoming her good sense. Being half asleep was probably helping. She followed the shadow that crept from corner to corner until it stopped and turned.

"So how's it swingin' Popsicle?"

"Astrid?"

"Expecting someone else now are we?" The night shadows melted back under the bright glare of an LCD camping torch, illuminating the smirk that carried in the other girl's voice. "Naughty, naughty. But at this height?" Astrid grinned wickedly. "How exactly would they plan on getting up? Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down thine luscious locks that I may carry thee hence from this fortress most depressing… OUCH!"

"That's not funny!" Poppy seethed.

"Ok, Ok…jeez, just having a little fun." The older girl grumbled and rubbed ruefully at her shin.

Poppy breathed heavily, trying to get her temper under control. She hadn't meant to kick Astrid, but the insinuations picked away at the festering sore in her chest with heated skewers and she lost control.

Astrid noticed the instability on her cousin's face and immediately forgot about continuing exaggerating the extent of her injury. "Hey I'm sorry, I didn't mean… Poppy?"

"Did you just come here to make fun of me?" Poppy demanded in what she obviously thought was a steady voice. Astrid wasn't fooled.

"Poppy?" Astrid asked in that careful tone one seems to use when regarding someone like a bomb about to go off or turn into a werewolf.

Unaware of her cousin's change of tone Poppy carried on. "I don't need you anymore so just go back home. I can take care of it myself…"

Whatever she had been planning to say was sliced off as her chin was grasped by firm fingers and tilted up into a set of dangerously narrowed eyes.

"Care to explain what's been happening since you called me?" Poppy gulped. Darn she'd forgotten how scary her cousin was when aggravated. Two items sat prominently on Astrid's list of temper triggers, A: bullies, B: her overprotective complex for her family and friends. Both were the only symptoms that justified sudden, unrestrained violence in her eyes.

And she had seen right through the melodrama.

Releasing the smaller girl, Astrid leaned back casually against a corner of the roof. "I'm not going anywhere so you had better cough up."

Tell her, she can help. How Poppy wished that were true, but it was already too late. Not even Astrid could fix this now.

"It's really Ok, I've handled it. Sorry for being a bother." Even on her ears the words sounded flat and unconvincing. "Goodnight."

Strong hands arrested her move to return to the dorm window, and spun her roughly around to face an increasingly ticked off Astrid.

"You. Are. A. Terrible. Liar." She hissed each syllable. The tears had been obvious in Poppy's eyes the moment she mentioned secret rendezvous. At this close proximity she now saw what the shadows had masked.

Pale, wane skin stretched over a too thin face, unkempt hair, and dark circles under eye shimmering liquid in the glare of the light. The only time her cousin had looked this bad was after her mother's death.

The pure anger radiating of Astrid was finally too much for her mentally exhausted cousin. Finally, after a week of pressure, the cracks fractured.

Throwing her arms around the taller girl's waist, Poppy didn't care what Astrid must think as she muffled her sobs in a warm shoulder. At least here was someone who wasn't going to take everything at face value just because she said so.

Astrid stiffened sharply at the sudden invasion of her personal space, but then recognizing the need here relaxed and wrapped her own arms around her distraught cousin.

Interesting thing sadness, it had been over ten years since Poppy used Astrid as a cry-time cuddle toy during the grieving period after her mother's death and four since either had really talked; yet here they were, like nothing had passed between them.

"Ok, it's gonna be Ok," Astrid soothed, muttering whatever consolation lines came to mind. Growing up with a military father had taught her emotional control. Past the age of ten crying was something you did in private if at all since it really didn't serve anything except to make you feel better, no reason to stick others in the awkward position of feeling compelled to commiserate with you.

But that didn't mean she was a stone cold bitch. She could sympathize well enough and it was obvious Poppy was under a quite a bit of a rain cloud, emotionally speaking. It provided initiative to eradicate whatever self-inflating hoe was the cause. And hey, at least they were talking civilly, sort of.

Finally Poppy ran out of tears to realize the jacket she'd been using as a hanky was now thoroughly soaked. "T'awwy." She sniffed and tried using her shirt sleeve to dry her running nose to little avail.

"No biggy," Astrid shrugged but still kept Poppy in a hug since she still hadn't calmed down, "looks like you really needed it and I'm gonna have to dump these clothes at the cleaners in the morning anyway. I love rain and all but this weather is downright evil." The comment got chuckles from both girls.

"No seriously, you'd better tell me what's happening or am I gonna have to kick down the door in the morning demanding answers of the first poor shmuck to get in my way?"

Having calmed down and feeling better to be able to finally let loose with a listening ear Poppy sat on the side of a roof slope and let the story of the last few days pour out, holding back no detail. When she was done she glanced up at Astrid who hadn't moved from her slouched position opposite her since she started talking.

"I know," Poppy sighed, imagining what must be running through her somewhat emotionally stunted cousin's head, "I should have waited or called you. You must think I'm a complete idiot."

"Hm?" Astrid jerked up. "Oh, sorry, I was thinking. No, I wouldn't say you were an idiot. Rather commendable control on your emotions to pull off something like that I must say. Though on the one hand, yes, you should have talked to me first.

"I was basically ready to go the evening you called. Just waiting for a few goodies I ordered from a friend, but I would have told him to send them after me if I'd known the situation."

Poppy drooped and nudged around a bit of loose tile with a bare toe, the last bit reminding her how cold it was out here. "So basically I'm screwed?"

"Naw, I wouldn't put it quite that way. Here," Poppy was surprised as a bundle of fabric fell around her ears, "put that on before you catch a cold."

The fabric turned out to be Astrid's jacket which was nowhere nearly as bad as she'd made it out to be, excepting one patch on the left shoulder of-course. Cheeks warming at the memory of losing her self-control, Poppy was still grateful for the added shield against the elements when she paused, "Aren't you going to get cold without it?"

"You're forgetting my loving affinity for the cold." Astrid reached down and finished stuffing Poppy's arms into the sleeves of the hoody. " 'Sides, Skully here is fine for this kind of weather. The jacket was for the hood cuz I forgot to pack a beanie."

Poppy's blush returned at needing help like a little kid but she couldn't help smirking. In the dark the large, manga style skull wearing a Goofy Jolly Rogers bandanna shone out clearly on her cousin's favorite black sweater. Trust Astrid to go for a recon trip dressed like she belonged on the livingroom couch singing Voltaire with Jack Skullington and Cap'n Sparrow.

Deciding to ignore the apparel eccentricities, she instead focused on the previous conversation thread. "What did you mean 'I wouldn't put it that way'? What about this situation is not completely in Hell's dustbin?"

Astrid heaved a half exasperated sigh as she plopped down next to Poppy. "Well for one Harriet now thinks it's only a matter of time before you crack so she will be lowering her guard. Second, this provides perfect cover to your friends for what happens next.

"Actually screw that!" Astrid jumped to her feet. "This is all sending my evil bunny ears spinning thirty new ways to the Black Gate. I have to go!"

"Where?" Poppy's head swung like a pendulum as she tried to follow the other girls exited pacing.

"Where else?" In the shadowy light Astrid's smile took on a decidedly disturbing gleefulness. "To plot many and sundry nastily distressing, distressingly nasty things of course."

Before Poppy could even wrap her hearing process around this last line Astrid was putting away the light and bundling her confused cousin back in the direction of the room window. "Now off to bed with you. I have evil scheming to accomplish before the night is over."

"Wait!" Poppy protested, suddenly scared at the idea of being left alone again in the hostile environment. "What do I do?"

Astrid paused at the corner of the last roof slope before Poppy's. "Get your beauty sleep and try not to let Dracula's Frankenstein attempt of a daughter notice something's changed in your game status.

"Oh here," she fished something out of her back pocket, "when you get a chance you may want to read this."

"What is it?" Poppy squinted at the small cube. It was a plastic case containing a computer chip.

"Everything you want to know." Astrid purred venomously. "While it may not come as news for you, this case goes waaaaaay back before you. Just thought you might take comfort in the fact you're losing only because you're new to this game.

"Well goodnight, hope they don't have bedbugs or I'll have to add the dorms to my list of things to blow up before the end of this job." With a backwards wave, Astrid disappeared into the maze of night cloaked roofs.

Feeling surprisingly better after the somewhat strange reunion, Poppy slipped quietly back into the room and closed the window. Climbing under the covers she suddenly realized she'd failed to return Astrid's jacket. Strangely she didn't feel like taking it off.

The semi-thick material was blissfully warm and soft in stark contrast to her cold, stiff sheets. A light remnant scent of Axe: Instinct and the CK One Shock Astrid seemed to have upgraded to from One (she always had hated using perfume except for formal occasions), permeated the air, creating an unexpectedly warming little cocoon of comfort.

Poppy wasn't sure why, maybe she was just happy to see some things still the same and (relatively) sane after all the recent upheavals her life had taken, but the cold iron claw in her gut was now gone and she could even breathe easy again.

Snuggling deeper in the bed, she was presently surprised how quickly she became drowsy without mass mental agonizing. For the first time since her break-up with Freddy she was able to drift off to a refreshing sleep, lulled by the rhythmic snores of Drippy one bed over.


Nya-ah, no shooting me. Loki finally listened when I told him I would be dancing in his area of expertise after this chapter so he finally (after stealing his cloak and leaving Mjolnir on his head for the weekend) agreed to help.

But only if you all review.

So go on and press that happy little blue button at the bottom of the page if you want more. 8P