Author Notes: Thank you to emerald_dragon8 and miss_morland for the beta! Originally written for thelittlebang on LJ.

-***-

Elizabeth really wasn't having a good day. That morning, at Hyacinth's, she'd managed to drop yet another beaker. It was her sixth one of the month and it was only the third day of the February! Hyacinth had given her one of her Looks and Elizabeth could have sworn she'd had almost died. She always wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground whenever Hyacinth gave her a Look.

Generally Hyacinth only gave her a Grade Three Look when she broke one of her beakers. This time, Elizabeth was surprised to realise that it was a Grade Five Look. It was as if she had broken one of Hyacinth's Royal Doulton teacups with the hand-painted blue periwinkles.

In fact, Elizabeth mused as she headed home afterwards, Hyacinth had seemed unusually tense that day. She put the thought out of her mind as she got to her front door. As she entered, she breathed a sigh of relief. She could always feel her shoulder muscles relaxing whenever she came home from a visit next door.

Walking into the living room, Elizabeth discovered Emmet sitting there holding a letter, looking morose. She resisted the urge to walk over and do the big-sisterly thing of smoothing out his forehead. Elizabeth always hated whenever Emmet frowned. It added five years to his age and made him look terribly grumpy.

"What's the matter?" she asked, concerned.

Wordlessly, he handed her the letter. She took it and unconsciously smoothed it out as she read it.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Jenny's coming to stay for a weekend?" She knew that Emmet didn't like to mention his marriage and his daughter. He visited Jenny once every few months, but the girl had never expressed an inclination to see her father more often.

"Patricia's going over to Paris this weekend. She can't take Jenny," Emmet explained.

Elizabeth wasn't sure what to say. She carefully refolded the letter and for good measure folded the paper again. She liked Jenny, but she wasn't sure what she would do with a teenage girl around the house. Of course, she conceded to herself, it would be a good excuse for her not to go over to Hyacinth's. Assuming that Hyacinth ever managed to listen to her, that is.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," she ventured. "I'm going to go and make another cup of coffee. Would you like one?"

Emmet raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you just come back from coffee at Hyacinth's?"

"I didn't manage to drink any," Elizabeth admitted sheepishly. "Most of it ended up on the kitchen floor. Again."

Emmet laughed and she glared at him. "It's your mysterious shaking hands whenever you go over there. You know, Liz, sooner or later, you're going to end up having a nervous breakdown because of that woman."

Elizabeth lifted an eyebrow. "If I do, then you will as well."

Emmet shrugged. "We can keep each other company in the mental asylum."

-***-

They were both sitting comfortably on their respective couches, finishing the remnants of the coffee Elizabeth had made, when suddenly, their doorbell rang.

Elizabeth gave a small jump. She could feel herself turning pale. "Oh no," she whispered. "Did I leave something over at Hyacinth's?"

Emmet glared at her. "How could you do that?"

"Well if I did, I didn't mean it!" she defended herself as she walked to the door. Peering through the mesh curtains, she realised with astonishment that it was Richard standing out there. "It's Richard!" she called.

"Well," Emmet said, coming up behind her, "let him in, the poor man. I wonder what he wants?"

As Elizabeth opened the door, she noticed Richard's expression. It was even glummer than usual. "Come on in," she said.

It was then that she noticed his suitcase.

"Can I stay for a few days?" Richard asked.

-***-

"About time, man," Emmet said cheerfully as they all sat around on the living room settee. Elizabeth was drinking a cup of tea – with perfectly steady hands, she was proud to note. Emmet and Richard were drinking scotch. Upon hearing the news, Emmet had declared that it was a celebration and immediately had gone to the wine cabinet and pulled out his oldest scotch.

Elizabeth studied Richard's expression intently. It didn't look like the man was celebrating. In fact, he looked almost exactly the same as Emmet had years ago, when he had first decided to leave Patricia.

"I just couldn't stand it any more," Richard mumbled and took another swig of his scotch.

"You were brave to stay for so many years," Emmet declared as he poured another generous scotch for both of them. "I could never figure it out. I kept on asking Liz. Why doesn't Richard just leave? I had almost given up hope!" He slapped Richard on the back. "And here you go and prove me wrong."

Richard was silent except for the sound of him gulping down another scotch. A single drop of golden liquid slid down his chin, and both he and Emmet ignored it.

"What happened?" Elizabeth finally asked after it was obvious neither of the men were up for starting up the conversation again.

"Thirty-five years happened," Richard muttered. "I don't know. All I knew was that I needed to get out of there." He turned forlorn looking eyes towards her. "Did I do the right thing? Do you think I should go back? Liz, you're her friend. Tell me what to do."

Elizabeth opened her mouth but Emmet beat to her to it. "You did the right thing, Richard, old boy," he said firmly.

Elizabeth cleared her throat. She somewhat thought that she ought to go over and check on Hyacinth. She didn't want to check on Hyacinth but she supposed it was her duty as a friend. "I'll be back soon," she said.

-***-

The doorbell to the Bucket residence sounded musically as always. After a few seconds, the door opened.

Elizabeth wasn't sure what she was expecting. She didn't really expect Hyacinth have red-rimmed eyes and to be wearing sweatpants like Patricia had been when she'd had to comfort her. But she was expecting somewhat of a change. Instead Hyacinth was standing before her, expansive as always, in a loud rose patterned dress, with a smile pasted on her face.

"Hi there," Elizabeth said. She felt horribly uncomfortable. If Hyacinth had looked different then she would have had no trouble bringing up the Richard issue. But now, with Hyacinth looking the same as always…. She suddenly had a horrible thought. What if Hyacinth hadn't figured it out yet? Hyacinth could be a little dense at times. What if she hadn't realised that Richard had left her?

And then there it was. A tiny flicker in Hyacinth's eyes that was immediately masked by a bright (overly bright, Elizabeth thought) smile. "You must have come over for afternoon tea!" Hyacinth said and held open the door. "Do come in." And then, as almost an afterthought, with none of the venom it was usually added with: "Don't forget to take off your shoes."

Elizabeth felt her heart go out to the other woman.

-***-

Elizabeth found her thoughts drifting as she listened to Hyacinth chatter on aimlessly. She could tell that the other woman was trying to cover up her emotions by pretending that everything was okay. She suspected that nobody but her would be able to tell. Hyacinth was doing a fantastically good job of being normal.

"That dress," Hyacinth was saying as she scrutinised the dress Elizabeth was wearing.

Elizabeth looked down self-consciously. Her dress was green. A little bit more revealing than her usual get-up but she didn't think it was anything to be horrified over. And horrified definitely described Hyacinth's expression.

"You could never wear something like that to one of my candlelight suppers!" Hyacinth declared.

Elizabeth couldn't help but feel hurt. Hyacinth was generally hurtful in many of her remarks, but she at least tried to do it subtly. She never succeeded, but Elizabeth was mollified by the fact she tried. Right now, Hyacinth didn't seem to even be trying. "Well I think it's fine," she said rather tartly before she remembered that she was supposed to be here trying to make her friend feel better.

Hyacinth's face took on a slightly frozen-looking expression.

There was an awkward silence and Elizabeth was immensely grateful when the phone rang.

"I'll get that!" Hyacinth said immediately. "It's probably R… it's probably somebody important! Possibly my sister Violet, you know the one with…" she trailed off.

Elizabeth bit her lip. It was as if Hyacinth barely had the energy to finish her usual spiel. She wanted to comfort the other woman, but wasn't sure how. Hugging Hyacinth would be akin to hugging a prickly rose bush. She was bound to step back because of the discomfort. Fortunately, before she was forced to make a decision, Hyacinth hurried from the room and closed the door behind her, a bit more forcefully than was necessary.

From behind the closed door, Elizabeth could hear muffled voices. She concentrated and thought she could hear Hyacinth's sharp voice say "Rose" a few times. Obviously Rose was having another one of her man problems.

"I don't have time to talk right now." Hyacinth's voice floated through the closed door clearly. The phone slammed down and Hyacinth came back into the room.

Hurriedly, Elizabeth grabbed her beaker and started sipping the too-hot tea. She choked slightly as she swallowed the liquid and her hands shook. She hastily put the beaker back on the table. She waited for Hyacinth to chastise her about almost spilling her tea again but the other woman just sat there silently. Elizabeth studied her friend through half closed eyelids and noticed how Hyacinth's hands were shaking just slightly and how she lifted up her teacup but didn't drink.

"Are you…" Elizabeth started and trailed off. She really wasn't sure how her sympathy would be received by Hyacinth. As the seconds dragged on, she realised she was sitting on the edge of her seat. She was expecting Hyacinth to tell her to leave any second. That was usually what happened whenever Hyacinth received a phone call.

But it seemed that Hyacinth didn't want her to leave any time soon.

-***-

"So how was the Bucket woman?" Emmet asked immediately when Elizabeth let herself back into her house.

Elizabeth hesitated. "Sad," she finally said.

Emmet raised an eyebrow and stared at her.

"Where's Richard?" Elizabeth said quickly, not wanting to get into another conversation about how much her brother hated Hyacinth. She had to admit that most of the time, she wasn't terribly fond of her neighbour either, but right now Hyacinth needed her. And Hyacinth wasn't nearly as annoying this afternoon.

Emmet shrugged. "He changed his mind about staying here. He left about ten minutes ago and said he'd check into a motel in town. I think he feels a bit uncomfortable with Hyacinth just next door. Poor man."

"What about Hyacinth?" Elizabeth objected. She felt almost obligated to defend her friend. After all, Hyacinth was almost her only friend. Her other friends had seen how much time she spent with Hyacinth and had all slowly come up with excuses why they couldn't see her.

"What about her?" Emmet demanded. "She deserved it."

Elizabeth glared at him. Sometimes her brother could be really insensitive. Hyacinth had just gotten abandoned. Just like he had done to Patricia. Surely he could summon up a shred of sympathy or empathy?

But it was obvious that Emmet was almost gleeful. "I'm going to go over and see Richard tonight," he said. "We're going out on the town. Going to the pub. All those things Hyacinth told him he was too good for. Don't wait up, Liz."

"Don't worry, I won't," she snapped, but he obviously didn't get her tone of voice because Emmet simply beamed at her.

-***-

It was five days before Elizabeth realised that Hyacinth hadn't invited her over for morning or afternoon tea ever since the day Richard left. She bit her lip. What if Hyacinth had had an awful accident? What if she had tripped over that day in her grief and had been lying on her kitchen floor for five days? What if… what if she was dead?

The rational part of Elizabeth's mind knew she was being overly dramatic. Still, it was an unusual occurrence for five days to pass without Hyacinth inviting her over. Sure, the woman's husband had just left her, but she didn't think that Hyacinth had had a single visitor since that day. It made sense that she would want to stay indoors and not see anybody, but still.

Elizabeth strummed her fingers along her kitchen bench. She thought that she should go over and see Hyacinth, but she wasn't sure what she was going to say. Hyacinth didn't seem to want her sympathy.

But, Elizabeth thought, in all fairness, she wasn't terribly good at being sympathetic.

From Emmet, she knew that Richard was faring reasonably well. Emmet had introduced him to the Laundromat in town, and Richard was washing his own shirts for the first time in more than thirty years. Emmet said that there were still times when Richard had that faraway look in his eyes, but he was starting to look stronger and more sure of himself. Emmet said that Richard was positive that it was the right decision, as much as it hurt.

Elizabeth wasn't so sure. She still remembered the flash in Hyacinth's eyes. It was the flash of a lost and lonely woman who wasn't sure what to do with herself. How could creating that woman out of the always-confident Hyacinth Bucket be a good thing?

Elizabeth steeled herself and lifted up her chin. She was going to go over and see how Hyacinth was doing.

-***-

Hyacinth looked the same when she opened the door. Or least that's what Elizabeth thought at first. Her dress had printed violets on it. Elizabeth frowned. Hyacinth seemed to be wearing a hat. "Oh!" she said. "Are you going out?"

"No, no," Hyacinth said, with a smile that looked just the tiniest bit forced. "Do come in. I have been neglecting my hostess duties. Doubtless you have been missing my teas." She looked like she was about to hold the door open for Elizabeth when her expression froze. "Unfortunately, I can't let you in at the moment," she said. "I have matters to attend to. Washing to do. I must iron Richard's shirts. Goodbye!"

The door was shut firmly in Elizabeth's face. She gaped at it. Ironing Richard's shirts?

There was a slight queasy feeling in her stomach that told her that Hyacinth was in just a little bit of denial.

-***-

Elizabeth stared at the broken gate lying in the middle of the pathway. She had been here with Hyacinth before, but it had never looked so decrepit to her. She supposed that previous times she had spent most of it focusing on Hyacinth. It was difficult to focus on anything else when that woman was in the vicinity.

But now, Elizabeth couldn't help but notice that the hedge was untrimmed and there was a broken old car in the front yard. The door had a huge crack in it that was held together by what looked like tape. She squared her shoulders and walked up the path, careful to avoid the gate. To her right, she noticed the dog in the car nosing at the window, but it didn't bark at her.

Elizabeth gathered her courage. She was here on a mission of mercy for Hyacinth. She was almost positive that given Hyacinth's pride, she wouldn't have told her family anything about her situation with Richard. They needed to know. Perhaps they would be able to cheer her up. A tiny traitorous voice inside her head muttered that she was simply delegating responsibility to Hyacinth's family.

She knocked on the door.

A skimpy skirt answered.

Elizabeth blinked and looked up to see Rose smiling at her in puzzlement. "Elizabeth, isn't it?" she asked.

"Please," Elizabeth said, tearing her eyes away from the skirt. She had no idea how a skirt that short could stay on! "Call me Liz."

"Okay," Rose said, "Liz then. What are you doing here?" Her voice was friendly.

"Can I come in?" Elizabeth asked. She was starting to feel really uncomfortable on the front porch. She got the distinct feeling she didn't belong in this neighbourhood. She was too … middle-class, too comfortable in her beige coat and sensible shoes.

"Sure." Rose held the door open.

After a moment of hesitation, Elizabeth ducked and walked underneath Rose's outstretched arm into the living room where Hyacinth's other sister Daisy was stretched out on the couch. Onslow was on the armchair watching the footy.

"Hi Elizabeth," Daisy said cheerfully. Much to Elizabeth's bewilderment, Daisy always seemed so utterly cheerful.

Elizabeth wasn't sure she could have been so happy in Daisy's situation. As she looked around, she noticed that the house was an absolute mess. There were dirty dishes everywhere and dust on everything. She wrinkled her nose. Even on the couch Daisy was sitting on.

"I'm sorry about the mess," Daisy said, smiling up at her.

To Elizabeth, Daisy didn't really sound that sorry at all. She sounded as though she was comfortable with her house and the mess. Elizabeth couldn't understand it, but she supposed that all that mattered was that Daisy and Rose were happy.

"Now," Rose said, leaning over the couch, "did you have something to tell us?"

Elizabeth winced as she saw the skirt ride up Rose's bottom as she leaned forward. "Yes, I do," she said quickly, turning towards Daisy. At least Daisy was always G-rated in her comfortable cardigans and girlish hairclips. "I need to tell you something about Hyacinth."

Daisy sighed. "What's our Hyacinth done this time?" Her tone was good-natured.

Elizabeth picked at her nails. "She hasn't done anything…"

"Well, then what?" Rose said, expectantly. "What'd you need to tell us?"

"It's Richard…" Elizabeth trailed off again. She wasn't sure how to tell them. It was their sister, after all.

In the end, it was Onslow who saved her. "Bloody hell," he said, turning away from the television at last. "He's finally gone and done it, hasn't he? The ruddy bastard!"

"Done what?" Rose demanded.

Elizabeth nodded, feeling relieved. Onslow had obviously figured it out.

"He's left Hyacinth!" Onslow half-shouted. "He's gone and left her."

Both Rose and Daisy turned towards her with stricken expressions. "Is that true?" Rose demanded, folding her arms across her chest.

"I'm afraid so," Elizabeth said, biting her lip. "He left five days ago. I thought… I thought I should tell you since you're her family. Hyacinth doesn't seem like herself. I'm… worried."

Onslow snorted, but Daisy shot him a dirty look. "Our poor Hyacinth," she cried. "Oooh what must she be going through? I would be heartbroken if you left." She stared soulfully at Onslow, who looked pointedly in the other direction. "No wonder she sounded so distracted on the phone yesterday."

"So I was right?" Elizabeth couldn't help asking. "She didn't tell any of you."

Daisy shook her head. "Our poor Hyacinth," she repeated.

-***-

They made a strange procession as they all piled into Elizabeth's car to go over to Hyacinth's place. Rose wriggled for almost a full minute until she seemed to be comfortable in the car seat, whereas both Onslow and Daisy seemed to just fit into the backseat that was designed for three people.

As Elizabeth parked in her own driveway, she hoped that she'd done the right thing. She suspected that it was possible that Hyacinth would never speak to her again after this. Just a week ago, Elizabeth would have thought that Hyacinth never speaking to her would be the best present in the world, but now she wasn't sure. Hyacinth had looked so vulnerable. Well, she amended, vulnerable in a trying not to face the problem way. She would be a horrible friend – nay, a horrible person – if she abandoned Hyacinth now.

Rose marched purposefully up to Hyacinth's door and knocked sharply. She turned around and shrugged. "I always hated that doorbell."

The door opened after a few seconds. Elizabeth noticed a brief flare of hope in Hyacinth's eyes before it was doused and replaced with resignation. It seemed that Hyacinth was still holding out hope that Richard would return.

"What are you doing here?" she said sharply, opening the door fully. "Come in, come in, before the neighbours see you." She shot a look at Elizabeth, who flushed.

"I'm sorry…" Elizabeth started, but Hyacinth pushed her into her house.

-***-

It was an awkward scene around the kitchen table. Hyacinth had insisted on bringing out tea and biscuits. She had absentmindedly taken out her Royal Doulton and had given them all a cup and saucer. Elizabeth sensibly left hers on the table whereas Onslow just stared at his as if he had never seen fine china before.

"Don't break it," Elizabeth hissed at him when Hyacinth had gotten up to get more water.

Onslow stared at her, but didn't touch his cup and saucer again.

Finally it seemed that the silence had gotten to Rose, because she burst out, "Richard's a bastard. Haven't I always said that all men are bastards?"

"Not my Onslow," Daisy said loyally, but Rose waved a hand at her.

"Mark my word, Hyacinth," Rose said seriously, "Richard'll get what's coming to him. All men like him do. I mean, look at it, you've stayed with him for so long, you've cooked for him, you've done his laundry, you've kept a beautiful house. His shirts were always ironed and his socks always darned. And what does he do now? He up and leaves you on a whim! He probably has a younger hussy in town and is shacking up with her."

Elizabeth noticed how Hyacinth's hands shook and the china teacup in her hand clattered.

"I'll get that," Elizabeth said firmly and took the Royal Doulton out of Hyacinth's hands and placed it carefully back on the table. It wasn't until she'd sat back down again that she realised what a reversal of roles it was. And her hands hadn't even shaken when handling the Doulton!

"Are you okay?" Daisy asked gently, placing her hand on Hyacinth's arm. "I know this must be hard for you."

"I'm fine," Hyacinth said, her voice sounding frozen. "This is a completely inappropriate conversation for afternoon tea."

Daisy hesitated before continuing. "I'm worried. We're all worried. That's why we're here."

"Oh yes," Hyacinth said. There was a note of bitterness in her voice that Elizabeth had never heard before. "All of you. My two sisters. Onslow who doesn't want to be here and my neighbour who just feels sorry for me."

Elizabeth's mouth fell open. During all these years she had never heard Hyacinth say anything so self-pitying. She realised suddenly that she preferred the supremely arrogant Hyacinth. Self-pity and vitriol coming out of Hyacinth's mouth wasn't pretty. In fact, it wasn't pretty coming out of anybody's mouth.

"We care about you," Daisy said firmly. "We're worried." She looked at Elizabeth, a question in her eyes.

After a brief second, Elizabeth nodded.

"You're going to stay over with Liz for a few days," Daisy said.

Hyacinth turned to her. "Don't be ridiculous," she said, her voice sounding almost normal. "Elizabeth doesn't have a white slimline telephone. How will I make my calls?"

"You'll have to make do with whatever phone she has," Daisy said, her voice sounding like it was wearing thin of patience. "You don't have a choice on this."

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Elizabeth realised that Emmet was going to have a heart attack at this news.

-***-

"No, no, no, absolutely not!" Emmet burst out, a horrified expression on his face. He had just returned from an afternoon of golf with Richard and was smiling and cheerful when he walked in the door. Elizabeth had loathed breaking the news to him, but it had been necessary.

"Daisy and Rose are worried about her," she explained.

She didn't think it was possible, but Emmet looked even more horrified. "They're not staying over too, are they?"

"No, of course not," Elizabeth said patiently. "I thought you liked Daisy."

He looked slightly mollified. "I like Daisy. It's that Rose I have a problem with."

"It'll only be for a week or so." Elizabeth crossed her fingers behind her back and hoped that would be the case. She hesitated. "They're worried she could be depressed. And suicidal."

Sympathy flitted briefly over Emmet's face. "Well, okay then," he said grudgingly. "I suppose I can just spend more time at work and with Richard."

"That's fine," Elizabeth said. "Just don't tell Hyacinth where you're going. We don't want to worry her."

-***-

There was a look of distaste on Hyacinth's face as she watched Elizabeth and Emmet carry her many bags into one of Elizabeth's spare rooms.

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth apologised. "Emmet's daughter will be with us tomorrow and the next day. The other spare room is hers." From the look on Emmet's face she could tell that he had forgotten that Jenny was staying over. Elizabeth had a feeling that it was going to be a long weekend.

"This will be … fine," Hyacinth said stiffly as she stared around the spare bedroom.

Even Elizabeth had to admit that it was a rather small room. She and her husband had never had the finances to decorate it properly, and it only had a single bed rather than a double.

"It will be sufficient," Hyacinth said.

"Okay, then," Elizabeth said uncomfortably, looking around. "Is there anything else you need? Towels?"

"I have my own towels."

"Of course," Elizabeth said. She had been flustered, otherwise she would have never asked. Of course Hyacinth had her own towels. She didn't think that Hyacinth would ever deign to use Elizabeth's towels. Hyacinth's towels probably were thick and luscious and lapped the waist three times. Compared to Hyacinth's towels, her own towels must be thin as a damp pancake. "I'll just leave you... ah... to settle in."

Blushing, Elizabeth backed out of the room. She had no idea how she was going to survive the next few days with Hyacinth here. Her home had always been her sanctuary from Hyacinth. Now that Hyacinth was here, she didn't know what to do.

As she walked back into the living room, Emmet glared at her. "I could hear her complaining from here," he grumbled.

"Shh," Elizabeth snapped, in a much harsher tone than she normally used. "You know what she's going through. Try not to make it harder for her!"

Emmet looked at her in surprise. There was a short pause. "I'm going to see Richard," he finally said. He hesitated. "Do you want me to tell him that she's here?"

"No!" Elizabeth burst out. She frowned. "Maybe. I'm not sure. Do you think it would be a good thing?"

Emmet shrugged. "I won't mention it unless he asks then." He stood up and walked to the front door. There, he hesitated. "Tell her I'm sorry."

Elizabeth nodded. She didn't think Richard would come over anyway. In any case, even if he did, she wasn't sure she was feeling particularly warm towards the man. Yes, over the years, she had thought that Richard and Hyacinth should have had a divorce a long time ago, but she couldn't condone a man leaving his wife like that. Hyacinth hadn't had a job for years, in fact, ever since she was a waitress at the small restaurant where she met Richard. How would she make ends meet?

Elizabeth felt that it was her job as Hyacinth's friend to ask her whether she had enough money. But she didn't want to. Talking about money with Hyacinth was always uncomfortable. Elizabeth knew that Hyacinth spent all of her time pretending that she was far more wealthy than she actually was. God knows she had spent enough time with Hyacinth trying to impress Mrs Councillor Nugent. She was positive that the entire town knew now how much that china ballerina cost.

She couldn't offer Hyacinth a loan. Well, she could, it wasn't as though she normally used even half of the money her husband sent her, but Elizabeth knew that Hyacinth would never accept the loan.

She suspected that Hyacinth would rather starve than be seen poor.

With a sigh, Elizabeth stood up and walked to the kitchen. She needed to start preparing dinner. Doubtless with Hyacinth here, she would need to prepare a five course meal. She suspected that even if she did cook a five course meal, Hyacinth would still criticise it.

Frowning, Elizabeth bent over and began searching for her candles. She needed to decorate her dinner table, which was currently looking very plain.

-***-

Three hours later, after slaving in the kitchen and finding her best embroidered tablecloth to put over her old table, Elizabeth was reasonably pleased with the results. She normally didn't cook anything fancier than lasagne but tonight, she tried to make several different dishes. She wasn't sure if Hyacinth had ever enjoyed Indian food, but she knew Emmet loved it, so she made a curry along with several other more English dishes.

She knocked briskly on Hyacinth's door. "May I come in?" she asked, trying to sound cheerful.

Hyacinth opened the door and Elizabeth almost winced at what the other woman was wearing. It was as though Hyacinth was hosting one of her candlelight suppers instead of just having dinner at a friend's house. She even had a sparkling clip in her hair.

When Hyacinth made no move to walk, but instead stood there, looking imperiously at her, Elizabeth took a step backwards. "Ah, follow me?" she said hesitantly.

Elizabeth started walking towards the kitchen. After a few steps, she looked backwards and noticed Hyacinth was just standing there. "Perhaps," she said, as an afterthought, "you should wait in the dining room. I'll serve dinner." She watched as Hyacinth walked towards the dining room. Elizabeth suppressed a grin. Emmet was going to be furious.

-***-

"I thought you were a patriot," Hyacinth commented as she lifted a spoonful of curry and rice, staring at it.

Elizabeth blinked. "I am," she protested.

Hyacinth sniffed the curry. "Why then, are you serving foreign food?" She glanced around the table, an eyebrow raised as she saw Emmet shovelling down the curry. "It may be palatable, however, it is not British! And this household, for as long as I'm here, will be British!"

Elizabeth suppressed a sigh of exasperation. "I'll try to make something British for you tomorrow. But right now, try the beef stroganoff."

Hyacinth wrinkled her nose. "I should have brought my Royal Doulton serving dish with the hand painted violets," she commented. "I'm positive it would have brought a certain element of class to this table."

Emmet choked on his food.

Elizabeth kicked him underneath the table and he glared at her.

"See?" Hyacinth pointed out. "That is what awaits people who eat foreign cuisine at a British table."

Elizabeth stared. Surely Hyacinth wasn't implying that people who ate Indian food deserved to choke to death on their dinner. She kicked Emmet again when she saw him opening his mouth. "Don't argue," she hissed at Emmet when Hyacinth had turned away to spoon more potatoes onto her plate.

Dinner was a rather strained affair. Hyacinth kept pointing out flaws in Elizabeth's cooking and suggesting how her buffet might be better organised. "I could bring out my delicate china ballerina," she offered. "It is in my room right now, but I believe it would bring a certain element to this room that it's lacking."

"Okay, Hyacinth," Elizabeth said with a sigh. Sometimes it was just easier to agree with her. "I apologise in advance if there is any undue noise or mess over the weekend. Sometimes Jenny can be... unruly."

Hyacinth had a frown on her face. "I didn't know you had a child," she said to Emmet. "Is she anywhere near as accomplished as my Sheridan? Sheridan is currently working on a lovely patchwork quilt for his Mummy. He sent me a picture of it on the computer. Did you know that we..." her voice wavered slightly, "have one of those computer things? That is connected to the web. A rather unpleasant name for such a wonderful device. It allows me to talk to Sheridan even if he's halfway around the world!"

"Oh yes," Emmet said, with a smile. Elizabeth looked at him suspiciously. "My work has been connected to the Internet for over half a year now."

Hyacinth shot him a look. Grade Three by the looks of it, Elizabeth thought. "I believe," she said stiffly, "that it is called the World Wide Web."

"Or the Internet," Emmet said cheerfully. He was obviously enjoying it. "Do you have an email account? Webcam?"

Elizabeth could tell that Hyacinth was lost, but obviously not wanting to admit it. "I never can keep up with technology," she admitted, wanting to help her friend out. "There's nothing wrong with being a beginner."

Hyacinth shot her a dirty look. "My Sheridan has always kept up with the new technologies. I would hardly call myself or Richard a beginner!"

"Well, Richard isn't here, is he?"

Elizabeth could tell that Emmet regretted his hasty words as soon as they came out of his mouth, but it was too late. Hyacinth stood up, her features frozen. "I am tired," she said. "I will retire now."

-***-

"Why did you say that?" Elizabeth hissed when Hyacinth was out of earshot. "That was unbelievably rude!"

"I didn't mean to, honestly!" Emmet said. "But it's the truth isn't it? And she really doesn't know a jot about computers. It's just her way of bragging again. It's just like the time when she pretended she knew about art."

Elizabeth drew in a deep breath. She loved her brother. She truly did. Most of the time, Emmet was understanding of other people's faults and a very kind-hearted person. He just had a blind spot when it came to Hyacinth. Understandably so. Hyacinth was one of the most frustratingly annoying people she had ever met. Yet, a part of Elizabeth admired her friend. Hyacinth was never at a loss of what to say. She never got nervous, or scared or dropped things. Sometimes, Elizabeth wished that she was more like Hyacinth.

Emmet had shot her a horrified look the first time she mentioned that. These days, Elizabeth didn't like to mention her friendship with Hyacinth to her brother. They had a history together and Emmet didn't understand that. Hyacinth had always been overbearing, but she didn't deserve to have Richard leave her.

Elizabeth understood why Richard had left, but she still thought it was wrong. He shouldn't have left like that. Not in this day and age.

Her friendship with Hyacinth had lasted many years. Elizabeth had thought of ending the friendship many times, but she knew that she wouldn't. Emmet seemed to believe that she stayed friends with Hyacinth out of fear, but she knew that it was more. Hyacinth was interesting. Entertaining. She tended to over-act around people she wanted to impress, but at least she was memorable.

Elizabeth knew that everybody tended to think of her as the drab woman who tagged around with Hyacinth. She had gotten used to it.

She thought back to when she first met Hyacinth.

-***-

Elizabeth was having yet another fight with her husband when the doorbell rang. She was glad of the interruption. Her husband tended to get overly angry at times and she didn't want yet another one of her vases broken. They weren't expensive vases, by any means, but it still broke her heart every time she knelt down to pick pieces of china out of the rug.

"Aren't you going to get it?" he demanded.

She nodded and smoothed down her dress. It had become wrinkled in the fight. Walking over to the door, Elizabeth opened it. She stared.

Standing on her front porch was a woman dressed in what was best described as a very loud outfit. She wore a red dress that clashed dramatically with her hair. "Hello!" the woman said brightly. "My name's Hyacinth Bouquet."

Elizabeth raised a mental eyebrow at the final name. It was quite an unusual name, she thought. "Pleased to meet you," she said, extending her hand for the woman to shake. Her husband came up behind her. "My name's Elizabeth and this is my husband John."

Hyacinth shook her hand firmly. "My husband Richard's just unpacking the car. He's on the local council, you know. He's definitely going places. I wouldn't be surprised if we soon have the money to buy a much bigger house in a better neighbourhood! Not that there's anything wrong with this neighbourhood, of course. It's a lovely place to live and to bring up my son."

Elizabeth had felt quite dizzy at the end of the tirade. She could see her husband frowning. He hated women who had opinions of their own and definitely disliked strong women. She suspected that he really hated this Hyacinth woman already.

"Nice to meet you," her husband said firmly, taking hold of the door. "We're busy."

Hyacinth glared at him and turned to Elizabeth. "Are you busy?"

Elizabeth's eyes widened. She wasn't used to having people stand up to her husband. She gave Hyacinth a tremulous smile. "Not at all."

-***-

That was the beginning of their friendship. Hyacinth was the only woman she had known who had stood up to her husband. In fact, most of the men she knew had difficulty standing up to John.

Elizabeth sometimes wondered why she had married John. They had met when they were in school and had gone steady for several years before John proposed. Elizabeth always suspected that her mother didn't like John much. Her mother had always encouraged her to play the field more, saying that Elizabeth was far too young to be going steady.

But back then, Elizabeth had loved her husband very much. She had loved him even more during the first few years of marriage.

Over the years, however, so slowly that Elizabeth had barely noticed, John had changed from a caring, sweet man, to an angry, overly-controlling man who was bitter over his lack of career prospects. Elizabeth had been so thankful when he got the job in America.

Nowadays, she barely missed him. For one thing, her days tended to be taken up by Hyacinth.

Elizabeth sighed as she stood in front of Hyacinth's door. She lifted up her hand to knock, but hesitated. Maybe she should leave her friend alone. Maybe Hyacinth wanted to be alone.

She walked slowly away.