Author's Note: They're still not mine, which is a tragic shame ;-))) Maybe if I write enough of these, one day they will be! The addiction is growing day by day ... Tony, Jason, Oliver: you colour my world :-)))

For anyone who ever sat in the dark of the Palace with a feather boa round their neck

and a great big grin on their face!

:Theilian:

Coming Home

"If you gave up smoking," says Felicia, not even bothering to look up from filing her nails, "that would never have happened."

Tick, sitting in a puddle of water that's rapidly turning to mud, glares up from under a sopping fringe that seconds before had been neatly-spiked hair. Felicia's reclining in a deckchair and somehow managing to make that look like an impossibly elegant thing to do - even in the middle of the bloody desert - and has a butter-wouldn't-melt expression on her perfectly-made-up face, which means only one thing in Tick's book.

She's guilty as hell.

"If I - if - what?!" splutters Tick, shaking his head like a dog, flinging drops of water in all directions. "What the hell does smoking have to do with anything?!"

The vision in lime-green (with feathers) raises a languid hand and pulls her sunglasses down a fraction, in order to be able to shoot a withering look over the top of them. "If you hadn't been in the middle of lighting that thing, Mitzi m'daaarlin', then you would've been looking where you were going … "

"I was looking where I was going!"

"Then why are you all wet?"

"Because you put a bucket of bloody water on the top of the bloody door!" explodes Tick. At which point Felicia's composure cracks spectacularly, and she quite literally falls about laughing. "Don't look at me-eeee!" she sings, mid-giggle, in an uncanny impersonation of Bernadette.

"Enjoy your shower, Dad?" chimes a voice from above, and Tick scrambles to his feet and looks up. Benji, wreathed in smiles, is lying on his stomach on Priscilla's roof, taking sneaky photographs like a mini private investigator and looking like the Cheshire Cat's evil little brother. While Tick tries to think of something to say that won't involve furious swearing, Felicia climbs to her feet, sashays over and brushes past, just too-close enough to make Tick's skin prickle; stepping carefully over the new mud puddle like a fastidious duchess trying not to ruin her skirts.

"Told you," she smirks, and vanishes into the cool darkness of the bus.

Tick sighs.

A hyperactive and mischievous child on a bus in the middle of the desert, he thinks. And no Bernice to keep him in check. It was only ever going to be trouble.

And now there's Benji to worry about as well ...

: : : : :

A week ago, when they were only two days out from Alice, already missing Bernadette like crazy - and Bob too, steady reliable Bob - Tick had been pathetically grateful that Adam and Benji were getting on so well. They had the same sense of humour despite the fact that Benj was too young to actually understand two-thirds of Adam's jokes; and Adam, in his own weird way, was beginning to show genuine signs of caring about someone other than himself.

Tick had started to relax a bit.

Which was, of course, when the trouble began.

It started fairly innocuously - anyone could mistake salt for sugar, grainy white stuff is grainy white stuff is grainy white stuff - and it had been written off as an honest mistake.

But now, dripping wet and pretty damn sure that words like "honest" and "mistake" don't even begin to come into it this time, Tick is starting to have second thoughts.

Not about Benji. God, no. The kid is ... well, just plain bloody amazing. Something the proud (and not at all biased) father had realised from the start, of course: about seven seconds after meeting his son, Tick had been struck speechless by the awesomeness of him.

But it just keeps getting better.

Benji isn't like anyone Tick has ever known before. Growing up in the casino, with an extended family of adults and hardly any other children, Benj is, in many ways, extremely mature for his age. All his life, people - led by Marion, bless her - have listened to him as they would to another grown-up; they've valued his opinions and encouraged him to form them independently, and as a result he has a confidence in himself that Tick envies and marvels at, all at the same time.

And yet, despite his maturity, Benj is undeniably and delightfully still very much a child. He's full of a fearless, insatiable curiosity; he wants to know everything, to see everything, to do everything - and perhaps most wonderfully of all, he has an extraordinary, honest way of accepting everyone he meets. No judgement, no question; just that's who this person is, and that's fine. He hadn't even batted an eyelid when faced for the first time with a fully dragged-up (and excessively drunk) Felicia - and if anything could earn Tick's undying respect, that was it.

No, the second thoughts aren't about Benji.

They're about the lethal combination which began as Benji and Adam, back at the casino (bad enough), and which has now, bizarrely, become Benji and Felicia (infinitely worse).

He's even started to think of the two of them as one; started to run their names together in his mind: Benjandfelicia - and that really can't be good. They've taken to ganging up on him like kids in a schoolyard; and if it's not pranks, it's something else. Yesterday they started on his face. His forehead, to be precise.

"Look, see? Right … there," Felicia had said (it may have been a shorts-and-hardly-any-shirt kind of day, but the tone of voice was definitely not Adam's), leaning over Tick's shoulder, mussing his hair with one hand whilst pointing something out to Benji in the mirror with the other. "See?"

"Oh, yeah!" Benji had exclaimed, fascinated. He leaned in over Tick's other shoulder and pointed too: "Dad, look, your head's getting wrinkly. Felicia says you worry too much."

"Felicia says a lot of stuff. Most of it isn't worth listening to," Tick had said irritably, hoping not to make it obvious that he was desperately trying to un-wrinkle his forehead even as he spoke. Clearly it didn't work, as Felicia sniggered and placed both hands on Tick's shoulders. "Want a massage, Mitz? I'm pretty good with my hands … "

"Get lost," growled Tick, slapping one of the hands away. Felicia had pouted, tugged at Tick's hair a couple more times just for the hell of it, and flounced off down to the back of the bus, followed by a still-giggling Benji.

Tick has tried to forget about the whole wrinkle issue. But now he has trouble even looking in the rear-view mirror without wanting to check his forehead for signs of stress. He's begun to get paranoid. He already has a little checklist:

1 - every time you go to bed the sheets and sleeping bags need to be searched very thoroughly for fake spiders (and also, after one horribly memorable occasion, for real ones).

2 - don't trust any food or drink you haven't made yourself (which is especially annoying when it's Adam's turn to cook).

3 - every time you take a piss you need to allow extra time to double-check that there's no cling film stretched across the toilet bowl.

4 - make damn sure that what you think is hair gel really IS hair gel.

And now there's a new one:

5 - every door needs to be inspected for potential hazards balanced precariously on top.

For fuck's sake, Tick thinks, this is ridiculous.

And yet, he has to admit that sometimes at night, just about to fall asleep, listening to Benji's small snuffling snores from the other side of Priscilla, listening to Adam talking in his sleep (which is an education in itself, and often comes under the heading of Too Much Information), Tick thinks back to the latest prank and can't help but smile. And the smile stays plastered across his face as he drifts into unconsciousness, colouring his dream-world a beautiful, joyous sunshine yellow.

And he wakes happier than he's ever been.

: : : : :

Another week and they're back in Sydney. It's overcast and chilly, and as they take the scenic route in so that Benji can get his first look at the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Tick imagines that he can feel the city itself, settling around his shoulders like a mantle of old stress.

He shivers, though he's not really cold.

But Benj is ecstatic, practically falling out of the window in excitement. He's bouncing up and down on his seat, which proves to be highly contagious; it doesn't take long for Adam to start bouncing, too. And then to start singing.

"When you're alone and life is making you lonely," Adam belts out, "you can always go - "

"DOWNTOWN!" bellows Benji, right on cue.

"When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know - "

"DOWNTOWN!" Benji hollers, almost but not quite in tune, and the pair of them start laughing so hard they can't sing any more.

Tick feels one corner of his mouth quirk up in a reluctant smile. It's not that he's sorry to be back; not that he hasn't missed Sydney, it's just …

just that you can't stand that it's almost over, whispers an insidious little voice in his mind.

"Dad?" Benji, breathless but almost recovered from his giggles, flops down on his knees on the giant banana-skin seat behind the driver's and wraps both arms around Tick, resting his chin on his father's shoulder. The soft spikes of his hair tickle Tick's ear like feathers.

"Mm-hmm?"

"What's going to happen to Priscilla when we get home? I mean - " he elaborates, and Tick's heart starts leaping around like a crazy thing because Benj called it home without ever having seen it " - you're not going to get rid of her, are you?"

"Well … to be honest, Benj, I haven't really - "

"Wash your mouth out with soap, Benjamin Belrose!" interrupts a scandalised Adam from behind, "We are doing no such thing! Anyway, Mitzi can't sell her even if she wants to, which she doesn't, because she loves her even though she pretends not to, but she can't sell her because technically, Priscilla's mine."

"I thought your mum gave you that money?"

"Yes, and?"

"And, so, technically, she's not yours, she's your mum's. So what do you suggest - that we go park her in your mum's backyard? I'm sure she'd love that."

"She wouldn't mind."

"Adam," Tick sighs, "I believe she might, in fact, mind just a little bit if we park a bloody great pink bus in her garden."

"She wouldn't say anything - "

"And that means the same thing, does it?"

"Bog off, Mitz. And for the last fucking time, it is NOT PINK!! It's - now what is it, kiddo?"

"SALMON SURPRISE!!" yells Benji delightedly, at the top of his voice, and goes off into a higher-pitched version of Adam's manic cackle.

"Christ on a bicycle, there's two of them," Tick groans, before giving in and doing a pretty good cackle himself. If you can't beat them

Laughing and singing and generally behaving like loons, they don't notice the rest of the journey at all; but suddenly Tick's swinging the wheel around one last time, and they look out of the windows to see grey, and people, and concrete; and Priscilla rumbles and creaks to a halt; and they're home.

: : : : :

It takes a lot longer to unload all the clutter than they thought it would, to separate Tick's stuff from Adam's stuff from Benji's stuff (the Lego house has turned into a sort of Lego suburb; it's grown so large it no longer fits in its suitcase and has to be carried very carefully upstairs by Tick and Adam, the latter complaining loudly the whole time) and dump all of it in the living room. The whole flat has that sort of musty, shut-up smell that comes of not having been lived in for a while; Tick flings open as many windows as he can and hopes Benji isn't put off.

They hunt around for cleaning stuff, give the tiny kitchen and bathroom a quick once-over, find clean(ish) sheets and things - Tick says Benj can have the bed for tonight; he'll be fine on the couch. Benji says he wants a bunk bed; Tick says that will be Number One on the Great Big List Of Things To Do Tomorrow.

By the time everything's sorted, it's getting dark, they've had to answer the door six times ("Yes, we are aware that there's a great pink bus parked out there. Yes, it's ours. Yes, we're going to move it.") and Benj is yawning hugely, practically asleep on his feet.

"Come on, kiddo, bedtime," Tick says, picking the child up and carrying him towards the bedroom. "Before you fall over."

"Night, F'licia," Benji mutters, "See ya in the morning."

"Sweet dreams, babe," comes the lazy reply, along with a blown kiss which Benj snatches from mid-air and hugs to his chest.

By the time Tick comes back, Adam is sitting all scrunched up on the chair nearest the window, gazing out at the fiery remains of the sunset over the city, and humming "Downtown" very softly to himself.

Tick watches him a moment. It's not often he gets a chance to see Adam just being Adam, to see what he's like without an audience. He looks … sort of sad. Lost, maybe.

"You okay?"

Adam jumps a little; turns round and switches on a smile like a searchlight, just a fraction of a second too late. "Course!" he says brightly. "Just thinking … "

"Careful, you might strain something."

"Ha bloody ha. I was thinking maybe I should take Priscilla round to Mum's before your neighbours come back with pitchforks and torches, actually."

"There's no rush, she'll be fine 'til morning," Tick shrugs. And then realises what he's said. He feels himself going red, tries to find something to cover his embarrassment; watches an extraordinary range of emotions flicker across Adam's face in the space of half a second, like speeded-up clips from a movie: shock, scepticism, amusement, calculation, (hope?) …

But then those bright brown eyes turn suddenly hard; and although the smile remains, it becomes a strange, brittle thing.

Terrified of saying the wrong thing and seeing it shatter, Tick backtracks furiously. "But then again, we don't really want to risk it. It'd be a shame if she made it all the way back from the Alice only to die horribly in some sort of King's Cross bus-murdering incident - "

The whatever-it-was begins to melt back into normality. "Right, then," Adam says, unscrunching himself and stretching a bit. "So, er … "

"So, see you tomorrow? There's definite shopping on the agenda … Benj can't go shopping for the first time in the big city without his Auntie Felicia for guidance."

"Aren't you shopping for beds?"

"Er … well, yeah, but - "

"Don't really know a lot about beds, Mitz. Know a lot of stuff to do in beds, but … " Adam shrugs, the ghost of a pout beginning to form on his lips. "Can't we shop for shoes instead?"

"Benj doesn't need - " Tick begins, exasperated, but stops almost before he's started. "How about we shop for shoes after we shop for beds?"

Adam beams like a spoilt brat who knows he's got his way yet again. "Deal!" he chirps, and suddenly enfolds Tick in a tight embrace. Like he never wants to let go. Tick, caught completely off guard, finds his throat aching with the effort of holding back tears. Don't be so bloody ridiculous, he tells himself furiously, and just about manages to hold it together until after Adam, with a final affectionate tug at Tick's hair, silently places a soft kiss on his cheek and disappears out into the night.

: : : : :

Benji is hanging upside-down from the edge of his new bunk bed, making monkey noises. Tick is torn between roaring with laughter at his son's face, bright red and growing ever redder, and worrying that he'll fall.

Worry wins.

"Careful, mate. No broken bones your first week here, okay? Your mum would kill me. And hospital food is deeeesgusting."

"What about the second week?"

"I'd rather you didn't. She'd just kill me slower. Anyway, speaking of food, I was just thinking about ordering pizza … what d'you think?"

Benj swings his legs down over his head and does an almost-somersault to the ground, where his face begins to fade immediately back to a more normal little-kid pink. "I think cool," he says happily. "Can we have pizza at the party, too?"

"Sure we - " Tick replays Benji's last words back again " - party? What party?"

Benji's expression becomes one of exaggerated innocence - a move Tick immediately recognises as having been picked up from Adam. Big eyes open wide, long lashes batting beguilingly.

"Party?" says the mini-Felicia, "I didn't say anything about a party … "

"Oh yes you did, kiddo," Tick replies grimly, "and stop making that face. It's bad enough when Adam does it."

"You like it when Adam does it," Benji says, smirking, and Tick is so stunned he can't think of a thing to say, except (after an embarrassingly long pause), "So, uh … pepperoni or Hawaiian?"

: : : : :

The party-that-isn't turns out to have been Benji's idea, according to Adam, when he turns up with strawberries and limes two nights later - way past Benji's bedtime and almost past Tick's - and sets about making assorted daiquiris. Sort of a welcome-home thing for Mitzi and Felicia, he explains, plus a welcome-to-Sydney thing for Benj himself.

The fact that it's going to be held at the Imperial and that ninety-nine percent of the guests are going to be in drag … "Well," Adam confesses unrepentantly, brandishing a cocktail umbrella and handing Tick his drink with a flourish, "that part's sort of my fault."

"Sort of?"

"Okay, it's entirely my fault. But, Mitz, Benj doesn't know anyone here yet, and I know lots of people, and your flat isn't big enough for a party, and mine definitely isn't, and we can't have it at Mum's because … " He breaks off and takes a deliberately long pull on his cocktail straw, downcast eyes hidden by his ridiculously long dark lashes.

Tick squints across the semi-dark living room. It's hard to be certain but it looks as though Adam is actually blushing. "Because?" Tick teases, raising an eyebrow.

It's definitely a blush. "Because … uh, because it turns out she wasn't all that thrilled with me for parking Priscilla in the garden … "

"Ha. Told you."

"Yeah yeah yeah. Anyway, so, I was talking to Farrah and she said you have to go and see them all at the Imperial really soon because they're all absolutely dying to meet Benj - "

"They know about Benj?" Tick spits out a mouthful of drink; Adam pulls a face and says, "Uggghh," but quietly. Tick puts down his glass, exaggeratedly careful, and advances slowly across the room. "And just how, exactly, do they know about Benj when I haven't said anything to anyone who isn't you, Bernadette or Bob?"

"What about Marion?"

"Marion's his mother, Adam, I think there's a chance she might already know he exists. And stop trying to change the subject. How exactly does Farrah know about Benj?"

"Ah. Well. Yes. Now I think about it, I might've … mentioned something … "

"Felicia!"

"Shhh, Mitz, you don't want to wake Benj up, do you?"

"I don't care if I wake up the whole of bloody Sydney. I'm going to kill you!"

"Gaaah. Sorry, sorry, sorry … " Adam tries to hide behind his daiquiri; he's pretending to cringe but clearly finding the whole thing hysterically funny, judging by the way the corners of his lips are turning upwards.

"You and your big mouth, Felicia, Jesus - !"

"Most people like my big mouth," Adam pouts. Tick glares at him for a second or two before suddenly seeing the funny side and reluctantly letting his own mouth twitch into a smile. Perhaps Adam has actually done him a favour; this way, he doesn't have to worry about how he's going to tell them all. He just gets to show off his son. "Okay," he says, returning to his chair and sitting back down again, "never mind. So, you were talking to Farrah … "

"Right, and she said something about how Miss Understanding was saying that she thinks it'd be a great idea to have a welcome-home party, and so I said why not make it a joint thing for us and Benj as well, because he did say he'd like a party, but we didn't know where to have it because of your place and my place being far too fucking small for it, plus I want to invite the boys from the club, so anyway, I said what can we do, and she said why not have the party at the hotel, so … "

"So … ?" Tick wonders how Adam can talk so much without seeming to take a breath. No wonder Bernadette was always telling him to shut up.

"So, wear your best frock. It's going to be fabulous!" Adam claps his hands together in delight.

Tick groans, shaking his head in mock despair. "Oh, I'm going to regret this … "

: : : : :

It looks like the opening line of one of Felicia's dreadful jokes, Tick muses. He can practically hear that drawling voice in his mind: "How many draaaag queens does it take … "

He's leaning against the wall in a shady corner of the deck around the pool. Wearing the now-infamous thong dress (but loving it this time), sipping a cocktail - the first and only one he intends to drink, now that he has the whole responsible-parent thing going on - and watching the crowd.

Specifically, he's trying to watch Benji, who's spent the evening so far running around like a whirlwind from guest to guest, shaking hands and demanding to know everyone's names (both real and stage, which has led to some interesting revelations). Every now and again he comes racing back to Tick to deliver all the gossip in an eager whisper. But there are so many multicoloured feathers and huge dresses and gigantic wigs that it's hard to keep track of one small, skinny kid; Tick worries for a second about the pool and what if he falls in? but then he remembers the very first thing Benj ever said to him, a proud boast about being able to hold his breath underwater for a whole lap; and he relaxes a little.

"My Gawwwhhdd!" Farrah, managing as usual to add a whole alphabet to the simplest of words, squeezes through a tiny gap in the crowd and comes to lean against the wall at Tick's side. "Look at that frock. Ought to come with a health warning, your Felicia!"

"She's not my Felicia," Tick says automatically, and then, trying to follow Farrah's gaze, adds, "Where?"

"Over by the pool. And speaking of frocks, Mitzi, sweetie, you look like a new woman. Love that outfit, daaaahhling, love it. And that boy of yours is an angel. Your little desert holiday must've agreed with you!"

"Oh, it did, babes, you have no idea," Tick grins happily. "And he is an angel, isn't he? I still can't believe he's my kid … "

"Neither can we!" chortles Farrah, batting beaded lashes so huge Tick swears he can feel the draught. "I'll never be surprised by anything you do, after this … " Farrah fixes Tick with a Meaningful Look that Tick, who hasn't eaten all day, and who is beginning to suspect that whoever made his drink put in six times the number of shots they should have, is slightly too drunk to interpret. He takes another slurp of cocktail instead, and turns away to gaze back out at the partygoers in all their finery.

The reason for Farrah's 'health warning' comment becomes immediately apparent as the crowd around the pool thins for a second, and Tick gets his first glimpse of Felicia. Even though he's seen that frock before, it still takes his breath a little. It's the King's Canyon showgirl outfit, although for some reason there seems to be even less of it than Tick remembers. He tries to stop staring, as Felicia throws her head back and roars with laughter at some pretty boy's jokes, moving her hips in a slow-motion figure eight to make the feathers sway hypnotically; but he feels like his eyes got stuck on 'open'. He shakes his head a little, as if trying to rid himself of an unwelcome hallucination.

"Dad, Dad - " Benji arrives like a breath of fresh air, tugging on one of the thongs hanging from Mitzi's dress. "Guess what! I just met Bea, and - "

"Who?"

"Bea." Benj rolls his eyes and tugs harder on the dress, forcing Tick to slide down the wall and sit beside his son on the floor. "Miss Bea Haviour. You know, Dad, from Felicia's club?"

Tick stares at him. "And exactly what do you know about Felicia's club?"

"Nothing, really," Benj admits with a giggle. "She just told me people's names, 'cause they're funny. Miss Bea Haviour!" he snorts. "That's so cool!"

Tick finds it's impossible not to start giggling as well. "So, you were talking to Bea, and - ?"

"And," Benj says, with the delighted air of one about to impart valuable information, "you will NEVER guess what her real name is!"

"Uh … Michael?" Tick suggests with a grin.

"Nope!"

"Steve?"

"Not even close."

"Leonard?"

Benj laughs so hard he falls right into Tick, who immediately wraps one arm around him. "Dad, you are SO bad at this! Not Leonard, no!"

"Okay, I give up. Bea's real name is … ?"

"Maurice!!" shrieks Benj, and collapses in hysterics.

When they both finally calm down enough to be able to speak again, Tick, reluctantly, decides it's probably about time they were going.

"Awwwww," Benj whines, but follows it up with a huge yawn he can't possibly hide. "Dad, do we have to leave? This is, like, the best party ever!"

Tick ruffles his hair. "Yeah … sorry, kiddo, but it's getting really late, and you need your sleep."

"What if I promise to sleep all day tomorrow … ?"

"No deal, Benj. Your old man needs his sleep even more than you do."

"Well … " Benji shrugs, unwilling to give in too easily but clearly exhausted, " … okay, if I have to. Can I just go say goodnight to Felicia before we go?"

"Course you can," Tick drains the dregs of his cocktail and stands up, somewhat unsteadily. Over by the pool, Felicia is still holding court amongst her hordes of admirers, and Tick feels a sudden and unwelcome rush of annoyance and - just possibly? - jealousy. She hasn't spoken to him all evening. Not even so much as a hello. "Wait … just a sec, kiddo," he says, and Benj skips back to his side. "Remember … hey, do you remember all those pranks you and Felicia played on me on the way back here?"

Benji's face screws up as he tries to work out whether or not he's in trouble. "Um … yes?" he says, a little uncertainly.

"I think it might be time for a little payback. What d'you reckon?"

"Are you mad at me?"

"You?" Tick laughs. "God, no, Benj! I'm not mad at you, not even a little bit, okay? But Felicia over there is a very different matter … "

A delicious, wicked grin spreads over Benji's face. "What are you gonna do?"

Tick leans forward and begins to whisper in his son's ear.

: : : : :

The dance boys are all seriously mesmerised. Felicia's feathers haven't stopped swaying since she began telling them all one of her outrageous outback stories; not one of them thinks to look down. And so none of them notice one small boy as he slips through the crowd, reaches his goal and then, mission accomplished, worms his way back to his father.

"Go for it, Dad," he hisses, and then adds, experimentally, "Mitzi." He gives a double thumbs-up. "Showtime!"

Tick smiles his best, glitzy Mitzi smile, straightens his wig, gives a little wriggle to make sure the dress is hanging right, and walks as steadily as he can towards the pool.

" … no, honestly, she did! Seriously! Right there in a heap on the floor, oh, I wish I'd seen it, but I was busy unpacking our gorgeous Priscilla at the time … " Apparently Felicia is regaling her boys with the story of "When Bernadette Met Benji".

"You were not," Tick says, loudly, and they all turn as one to stare at him. "I believe what you were actually doing at the time was handing out your phone number to anything in pants … "

Felicia looks unrepentant. If anything, her grin gets wider. "Trust you to remember every little detail, Mitz. So I like to make new friends. So what?"

"So," Tick says, sliding through the press of bodies until he's standing right beside Felicia, on the very edge of the pool, "there's a difference between making new friends and acting like a tart. And what's wrong with your old friends, anyway?"

Felicia's too close to focus on properly. Or maybe Tick's just too drunk on that one super-powerful cocktail. Those big brown eyes appear to be ever-so-slightly crossed. They widen slightly; registering, perhaps, the many unintentional meanings behind what Tick's just said. The smile changes from something brash and brazen to something less familiar but more real, and Tick feels his own smile slide right off his face.

"Nothing," Felicia says quietly.

"What?"

"There's nothing wrong with my old friends," the young queen repeats, and places a hand on Tick's chest. Beneath the suit of armour that is his drag persona, beneath the alter ego, Tick feels his heartbeat start to pound a crazy, out-of-control rhythm. "My best friend," Felicia adds, in a whisper, and takes a step closer -

- and can't. The shoelaces - the ones Benj tied together on his 'secret mission' - pull suddenly taut, and Felicia loses her balance completely. With a tremendous shriek, a wild waving of feathers and a tidal wave of a splash she lands in the water, emerging after a few seconds with no headdress, makeup running in multicoloured rivers down her cheeks, and an expression on her face that Tick swears he will remember until his dying day.

Benji is doubled over with laughter; within seconds, every single one of the other guests has joined him. Even Felicia, once she's recovered from the shock of the cold water, seems to be taking it in good humour.

"Guess I asked for it," she shrugs, as much as one can shrug whilst treading water in a sodden showgirl tits-and-feathers frock. "Story of my life, right, Mitz?" She pushes her hair out of her face and holds a hand out towards Tick, still holding his sides and sniggering helplessly at the side of the pool. "Come on, you evil bitch, help me out, okay?"

"'Kay," Tick manages, through another wave of laughter. He leans down and reaches out; Felicia's grip on his wrist is surprisingly strong. He glances up, and for a split second their eyes meet; and too late, Tick realises what's about to happen.

"Ha. Got you now," Felicia says, triumphant, and pulls as hard as she can; and just before he lands with a resounding splat in the pool, Tick has time to think, Oh, Felicia, you have no idea.

And there's nothing he can do, in the end, but close his eyes and fall.

: : : : :