/

Summary: Axl is afraid that Sue will humiliate him when she enters the town's beauty pageant, but he might be cheering for her before it's all over. (An Orson, Indiana Incest RomCom) Please note: Yes, he will definitely be cheering for her before it's all over. Axl/Sue. Heckcest. HMS Lumberjack Lawyers.

Disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me. I had great fun stealing them, but no money was made.

Author's Notes:

Don't ship it? Why are you reading this story?

Do ship it? Check out my shipper's goggles analysis of the show on my blog.

My knowledge of beauty pageants comes from watching Miss Congeniality about ten years ago, and one lazy Google search.

This takes place while Sue is still dating Matt – it was written in late January of 2012, when that storyline was current.

When Brick whispers to himself, I put it in parentheses. I hope it's clear.

Charlie McDermott makes Axl – these words are lifeless without imagining him saying them.

Thanks to Beast of the Sea for inspiration and ideas. She gets a co-writing credit for the movie scene.

This story is complete. No plans for a sequel.

More notes at the end.

/

THE FORMULA, or THE LONG ROAD TO NEPAL

/

Chapter 1: Four Weeks To Go

/

In the middle they like their beauty pageants, and Orson was no exception. Miss Orson, Miss Harvest Festival, Miss Founder's Day Festival, Miss…

"Miss Teen Glitz?" Frankie asked, poorly masking her disbelief.

Sue made no move to hide her excitement; she nodded, screamed, and then jumped up and down no less than three times.

"Lame," Axl muttered, his eyes on the television.

Next to hi on the couch, Mike blinked. "You're a-a contestant?"

Sue grinned. "Yes, Daddy."

Axl tore his eyes away from the TV and turned them on his sister. "I think what they'd like to know is 'how?'," he stated ruthlessly and impatiently, lifting his hands as if to hold the word.

Sue narrowed her eyes at him while both parents scolded him with his name.

He shrugged. "Oh come on. Sue? In a beauty pageant?"

She crossed her arms. "As it happens, Janie Clark and Sara Dempsey had to drop out because they're pregnant. Dad's quarry is a sponsor, so my name shot straight to the top of the waiting list." She was already smiling again. "Miss Teen Glitz!" she cried ecstatically, before sighing.

"Uh," Mike began, eager to temper her hopes and dreams with reality, but not quite sure what to say.

Axl took care of it: "You know you're not going to win, right?"

"Axl!" Frankie growled.

"What? You want me to say it and then I get in trouble for doing just what you want."

"It's true I don't have much experience…" Sue conceded.

"You don't have much beauty," Axl corrected.

Most of Axl's hurtful comments slid right off her like rain off a slicker, but her spirit had clearly dampened in this case. She swallowed and looked away.

Mike reached over and flicked his son's ear. "No one tells my daughter she isn't beautiful."

"Ow."

"Apologize."

"I'm sorry, Sue…but no one with the face of a squirrel is going to win Miss Teen Glitz."

Sue's eyes grew large. "Dad!"

"Axl!"

"That woman at the model told me I have what it takes to be a model."

Frankie rose to her feet and walked over to Sue, putting her arm around her daughter. "I think what Axl means is that the same girls always win these things, Sweetie. It's like you said – about experience. We just don't want you to be too disappointed."

Sue nodded, slightly comforted.

"Mom, you can't let her do it!" Axl protested. "The whole town is going to be there. It won't be just some random girl falling down in the hallway at school or making a fool of herself at wrestling matches that no one goes to anyway. They're going to say her name. Ladies and Gentlemen: Sue Heck. Sue. Heck. Heck! How many Hecks do you think there are in Orson? Why can't she go by the last name of her alien birth parents?"

"Axl, go to your room," Frankie ordered wearily.

"The show isn't-"

"Go!" Mike and Frankie replied in unison.

"It's going to be so fun, there's even a dance afterwards," Sue droned on as he left the room.

Axl shut the door in frustration, rousing Brick from his book. He dropped down on the bed, reached for his guitar, and strummed quietly.

"Did you break another lamp with your nunchucks?" Brick asked, sitting up.

"No," Axl grunted. "Well, yes, but I fixed it. Don't tell Mom. As long as she doesn't dust it the super glue should hold. And it's not like she's gonna dust it, right?" Both boys laughed.

"Did you use her nail polish to touch up your car again?" was Brick's next guess.

"Not this time. I was just telling the truth. You know, facts, and getting punished for it, as usual. Did you hear? Sue got into a beauty pageant. Yeah, our sister Sue. "

"I've read about beauty pageants. They're quite competitive. (Competitive)."

"Yeah, exactly. Did a girl like Sue ever win a beauty pageant like Miss Teen Glitz in what you read? I don't think so. Has Sue ever won any competition ever?"

"Sue's pretty," Brick offered thoughtfully.

"Sue's not-" Axl began. He paused. Bit his lip thoughtfully. Shook his head. "What do you know about it? You're eight."

"I'm ten!" Brick declared, insulted. "I'm almost eleven."

"Whatever. Still stands."

Axl ran his pick aggressively across the strings, forming an angry, discordant sound, and then set down his guitar. "I've got to do something."

/

Sue didn't speak to Axl at dinner: "Mom, will you please tell Axl to pass the biscuits."

And normally that would be just fine with him, but every once in a while he liked to beat her at her own game: "You look very pretty today, Sue," he complimented, his tone the definition of sincerity.

She turned to him with a smiling gasp. "Really? Thank you!"

Then he laughed.

She glared and cursed herself for her slip-up.

"Where's your stupid boyfriend Mark?"

"It's Matt," she corrected. "Shoot!"

He laughed as she kicked herself for slipping up again.

"Brick, will you please tell Axl to pass the butter." Her youngest brother sat between them on the couch. He scowled.

"Are you sure you want to eat butter, Sue? You are trying to win a beauty pageant, aren't you?" Axl replied to her directly. He held out the butter to her, and then retracted it just as she extended her hand. He set it down on the opposite side of the coffee table in front of their parents, far out of her reach.

"Brick, will you please tell Axl to shut up."

"Brick, will you please tell Sue to kindly do the same."

"Brick, will you please tell Axl that he clearly doesn't know how to shut up."

"Brick, tell Sue I'd be pleased to never speak to her again if she would return the favor." That did not, however, seem to be the case.

The youngest Heck did not relay a single message, and was stuck with his own thoughts while his parents conversed loudly with each other. The bored and discontented look on his face was wasted on his family.

"Brick, will you please tell Axl that as long as he only has mean things to say to me I would be happy to never speak to him again."

"Brick, will you ask Sue why she insists on publicly humiliating herself and all of us on a regular basis?"

Sue didn't respond immediately. "You think that's what I do?" she stammered, her eyes wide and wounded. "Publicly humiliate myself?" In her injury she had forgotten about her intermediary.

"Only all day every day," Axl returned smugly.

He knew he had gone too far when she jumped up from the couch and flurried to her room; too sad to storm there, too unhappy to flit. He sighed heavily and then looked over to see the furious expressions on his parents' faces. He lifted his hand to stop whatever they were going to say: "I know, I know. I'll go apologize, I promise. After dinner. Can't we just enjoy her absence?

/

Sue's door was usually only closed when she was changing.

The rarity worked for him. "Uh, Sue?" He knocked once, which he hoped would get her attention without sounding like he insisted on coming in. "Listen: I'm sorry. OK? Good. See you later." He heard the door slide open as he was walking away. He told himself not to turn around, but he found himself doing it anyway.

"Do you mean that?" she inquired, leaning against the jamb. "Cause it didn't sound like you did."

Her eyes were a little red. She could have just been tired, but she might have been crying. He was glad she wasn't crying anymore.

He sighed and glanced away embarrassedly. "I meant it."

"Oh, Axl!" A smile sprouted quickly on her face, and before he knew it she had her arms around him in a tight hug. He tried to force her off of him, but he was smiling to himself while he did it.

If only it was easy to apologize to everyone as it was to apologize to Sue. She always forgave him right away, no matter what. No matter how half-assed his apology was. He wasn't very good at them. It wasn't that he didn't mean it, because he did: the thought of her in her bedroom crying because of something he said made him feel a little sick. Sure, he enjoyed making her angry. But not making her sad. And given how hard it was to make Sue sad, the fact that he so frequently accomplished it was not something he was proud of.

Well, maybe just a little proud.

/

Axl had been flirting with Jenny Pelham for weeks in class, but this was the first day she let him drive her home. She joked that she was afraid he would chop her into little pieces and stick her in his trunk, but he worried she was ashamed of his patchy car, which was, he could admit, a bit of a fixer-upper. Well, with some work done on it, it might hope to be called a fixer-upper. But she had finally given in.

He opened the door for her, and she curtsied to him with a laugh.

Once he had walked around to the other side and climbed in, he found her glancing unsurely around the interior.

"I'm taking it to get cleaned this weekend," he explained, hoping that would appease her. But she wasn't looking at the crumbs or the mud or the mysterious light green handprint on the ceiling or the equally mysterious brown foam that blew out of the vents when he tried to use the heat. Her eyes bounced from a pink thermos in the cup holder to a pink, flowered scarf wrapped around the head rest. Then to the ornate filigree mirror sticking out the console, and the strawberries and cream-flavored lip gloss lying next to it.

"I get the feeling I'm not the only girl you drive home, Axl," Jenny deduced in an accusatory tone. "All this looks pretty serious." She gestured at the items that clearly did not belong to him. Actually, the lip gloss was his but he didn't tell her that. "You don't have a girlfriend, do you?"

"What? Oh no. No no no no no. All of that belongs to my sister."

"I thought you had your own car."

"I do. She comes with me in the morning."

"Your sister goes here?" Jenny inquired, interested; all suspicion gone. "What's her name?"

Shit, Axl thought. "Uh, Rose."

Jenny blinked. "Axl and Rose? Your mom named you two Axl and Rose?"

"And my brother's name is Brick. My mom insists it was the anesthetic, but I'm pretty sure she knew exactly what she doing." He coughed.

Jenny laughed. "It's so sweet that you drive her. And let her leave all this crap in here."

"Yeah…" Axl responded non-committally, starting up the car.

"I see. Not your choice. I know how it is: I hate my sister. She's such a little bitch. She's always taking my clothes without asking and dating my ex-boyfriends."

Axl laughed. "Yeah, I'm always telling S-Rose not date my exes or borrow my clothes." Once he had lent Sue his jacket, and it was forever before she gave it back. She kept saying it was in the laundry but he saw it hanging on her desk chair.

But Jenny was still talking. "And she's always blaming everything on me. And taking my phone and using up my minutes. And she never gives me my messages. God. And then she wants me to help her with her homework. Like I'm gonna help her after she scratched up my CD – probably on purpose." She sighed frustratedly. "Turn right here."

Sue didn't do any of those things. But Jenny's sister probably hadn't done The Robot at a square-dancing competition.

Jenny wasn't done yet. "I know she stole that 50 from me. I didn't spend it. I would remember. And then she told Gran that I totaled our car. It wasn't totaled. And it wasn't even my fault – that guy ran a red light. I was going to tell Gran, I don't know why she felt the need to do it. She said she didn't want to lie. Bullshit. She lies better than she tells the truth and don't I fucking know it. Oh, left at the stoplight."

Sue was starting to sound pretty good, actually.

"And she's always bringing guys back to the house and dry humping on the couch. Can't they go to her fucking room? And they eat all the Cheetos. Maybe I want some Cheetos? Huh, you think? I get home, I'm hungry too. And these guys…Even she can do better. I mean, yeah, they're usually ripped, but total trash." And then she comes into my room while I'm doing homework to borrow a condom. She's having sex and I'm doing homework. Like I'm gonna give her a condom." Jenny shook her head. "The one with the blue mailbox."

He loved Sue. Sue was wonderful. Sue was perfect.

"Oh, it felt good to get that off my chest." Jenny flashed him a smile as she climbed out of the car. "See you tomorrow, Axl."

/

"I just need to decide what to do for the talent competition," Sue informed as soon their mother muted Wheel of Fortune for the commercial break. "Carly thought that maybe I should do a wrestlerette cheer, but I think it wouldn't be as impressive if it was just me by myself."

Too easy, he thought at first, but then he couldn't resist: "That would be a shame (!) They're normally so impressive," Axl offered sarcastically. "Oh, do you know what you should do?" he posed.

Sue leaned towards him excitedly. "What? What?"

"Fail at something. You're really good at that. In fact, you won't even have to try."

Sue ignored him and turned her head away. "So, what about a song? I could sing."

Everyone winced.

Sue frowned. "OK. Then I could dance, maybe?"

"Sue, I'm not sure I could, in good conscience, let you go up there and dance," her father said, not quite gently enough.

"Let her," Axl argued. "She might fall off the stage and break her leg and have to quit, putting everyone out of their misery. The talent competition comes first, right?"

"That would never do, Axl," Frankie responded. "She might hurt someone in the front row." She reached over and gave her daughter's shoulder a comforting rub. "Maybe, Axl, you could teach Sue how to use your nunchucks?"

Axl stared back at his mother blankly. "You want me to put a deadly weapon in Sue's hands? You want me to teach her a beautiful and ancient art just so she can butcher it in front of everyone we know? You want me to let her touch my most prized possession?"

Frankie rolled her eyes.

"What if you wrote a poem, Sue," Brick suggested.

"Don't encourage her," Axl whispered angrily to his younger brother. "I'm trying to break her spirit."

Sue's eyes lit up. "A poem!"

Axl groaned. "I've heard your poetry, Sue. News flash: it's not that good." He thought of the poem she had written for Sean Donahue and shuddered. He wasn't just being mean to be mean: these were facts.

"I could totally write a poem!" Sue obliviously reiterated

/

Over the next few days Sue worked studiously on her poem. From what Axl heard, he was concerned at how many rhymes she was trying to stretch – flowers didn't rhyme with drawers and why was she talking drawers anyway? – and he was concerned that she would insist on reading it with a British accent like she had done every time so far with her drafts.

"It doesn't make you more interesting!" he shouted at her from his bedroom after her latest read-through. She didn't say anything back but he knew she'd heard.

Miss Teen Glitz was only a couple of weeks away. Most of the contestants had months to prepare, but her upgrade from the waitlist had given Sue just one.

Axl's relentless campaign of insults and put downs had not cured Sue of her determination, so he knew it was time for a different tack. He was on the verge of just not caring anymore, but then he glimpsed Sue catwalking in front of the mirror in her bedroom and his horror could only be translated into desperate action.

He called Jenny, and asked for her help. Jenny was beautiful. Jenny was graceful. Jenny dressed well. She could help. And he seemed to remember her mentioning something…

Sue was working out a new rhyme: "Beyonce. Be-yonce. Tons…il? Darn it; so close. Fonse…Fonzi? That's something, right? That could work," she mumbled to herself.

Axl knocked on her door frame, and she lifted her head from her notebook. "Oh, hi, Axl. Hey, do you know what a fonzi is?"

"Sue, I want you to meet Jenny. She's a friend. I think she can help you." He stepped back so that Jenny and her black bag could fit in the door frame.

When Jenny saw Sue, she stared in disbelief for a moment, and then turned to Axl. "Really?"

Axl shrugged sheepishly.

"I thought her name was Rose," Jenny questioned, eyebrows furrowed.

"No, that's just something we call her."

"Rose? No it isn't," Sue replied. "Sometimes Puke Face."

"Well, it's something I call her. Sometimes."

"It is?" Sue studied Axl's face. Then she smiled. "Really? Rose?"

Axl took a deep breath. "Yeah, sure." He turned to Jenny. "What I meant, about my mother, is that she was going to name her Rose."

Jenny still looked a little puzzled, but she seemed to buy it.

"So, do you like poetry?" Sue asked her.

"I detest it."

"She's going to help with the other stuff," Axl redressed. "Not so much the poetry. 'Beyonce'? Sounds like a winner (!)."

Jenny stepped inside. "I don't have a lot of time, so let's get to it." She gestured for Sue to stand up.

Sue stepped towards her unsurely.

"Are those braces?"

"I have an overbite crossbite."

"Take off that hideous sweatshirt. Why do you wear that?"

"I'm a wrestlerette," Sue explained as she pulled the light blue Orson High Wrestling sweatshirt over head and threw it onto the bed. "And my boyfriend is on the wrestling team."

Jenny tilted her head and looked Sue over. "It could be worse." She reached over and grabbed Sue's breasts.

Sue screamed.

Axl's eyes grew wide and he turned his head away. "I can't handle this. I'll be watching TV."

Jenny waved permission at him to leave. "This is good. We could probably get away with a halter or a one-shoulder. You won't need too much support. Some of the girls think cleavage is going to win it, but it's no good if the ladies don't look perky, you know what I mean?" Axl heard Jenny say as he exited earshot.

/

Jenny gave him a kiss before she left.

"Who was that?" Mike asked, lifting his eyebrows.

"Uh, Jenny."

"That was Jenny?" He whistled. "But I thought you said she had too much emotional baggage."

"Well, it turns out Jenny's aunt was Miss Indiana a few years back, and never shuts up about her life's only accomplishment, so Jenny is quite knowledgeable about the pageant circuit. And I just thought…"

"You just thought you'd help out your little sister. Axl, I may not say this to you ever again, but I am pleasantly surprised."

"Yeah, yeah."

Mike ruffled Axl's curly, charcoal hair.

Sue appeared from the dark of the hallway, resembling a clown. "We were trying out colors," she explained. As she came closer, the streaks of blush, foundation, eyeshadow, eyeliner, lip pencil and lipstick became clearer. "Jenny said we wouldn't know for sure until we saw it in some better light, but she thinks she knows what'll look best." Sue squealed. "She's amazing, Axl. Thank you! Thank you!"

Sue dashed at him for a hug, but he pushed her away with superhero-like reflexes. "This isn't for you. This is for me. And future generations of our family."

Brick came out of his bedroom when he heard the conversation, hoping there was food. He took one look at Sue. "You might want to consider hiring a professional," he suggested kindly. "(Professional)."

Sue laughed and tried to make clear that they were just tests, but Brick had already looked around, saw nothing that interested him, and returned to his bedroom and his book.

/

It seemed impossible that he had napped for three solid hours, but the clock didn't lie. Axl rolled out of bed, rubbing his eyes, and tried to orient himself to the fact that it was now 4:00 PM. Books were piled on his desk, barely discernible amongst the mountains of other junk there; he had a paper due Monday. But it was only Saturday. It could wait. Until Monday morning.

His stomach rumbled. "Soon," he whispered gently and lovingly, making for the kitchen.

He didn't notice much until his parched throat had been soothed by a glass of milk (without the glass, of course – drinking out of glasses was for losers) and his starvation muted by a chocolate bar. Just Sue on the couch in front of the TV, some show about migratory birds on.

Only it wasn't just Sue on the couch; it was Sue and her boyfriend Matt. The mistake had been understandable – they were plastered together. Axl had taken the recliner before he had noticed and now he was sort of stuck. Who was that quiet while they made out? Ninja make out session.

"Um…" he muttered unsurely. Then he coughed. But they didn't budge an inch from each other. "Sue!" he shouted.

She jumped and scooted back to her own cushion.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

Sue laughed. "We were just…"

"Yeah, I know. What are you doing out here?"

"Dad said we couldn't go into my room," she explained innocently. "He's out in the garage, working on the lawn mower. Brick and Mom are shopping."

"That doesn't mean you get to do out here what you would have done in your room!" Axl incredulously replied with a groan. "Now I'm going to be sick."

Matt, on the end of the couch closest to Axl, jumped to his feet and stuck his hand out to him. "It's good to see you, Axl. I just want to tell you what a pleasure it is to date your sister. I hope we can be friends, and-"

Axl glared back at him. "Fuck off."

Matt nodded, putting up his hands defensively. "Ok, then." He backed up cautiously and sat down once more.

"Axl!" Sue cried angrily, outraged. "Matt is my boyfriend. We're in love. You can't treat him like that."

"Think of how I treat you, and I actually love you. I don't even know this dude."

Sue was taken aback. She didn't know what to say.

Axl pointed at the TV. "Mind changing the channel? Something less educational."

Sue tossed him the remote control and then pulled Matt back into her arms. Her surprised boyfriend mumbled an "Oh" before his lips were pressed against hers.

Axl watched them for a moment, a morbid curiosity. The technique was lacking, but the passion was there.

How old was this Matt kid?

But then Sue, facing him, opened her eyes and, lifting them, her gaze found his.

Axl quickly turned his head back to the TV. He looked down at the remote, but it was the one for the television and not the one for the cable box. He took a deep breath and rose. He approached the once again oblivious couple slowly, and then made a rapid grab of the other remote so as to be close to them for as little time as possible.

He plopped back down into the chair with a sigh. Scrolling through the listings, he found nothing to interest him. Agitated and restless, he stood again and decided to return to his bedroom. But first: "Shouldn't you be working on the pageant, Sue?" he demanded.

Sue extricated her mouth from Matt's. "Jenny said she had plans with you."

"Oh shit."

/

"The one I bought you two summers ago will be just fine. You've only worn it a couple of times."

"But, Mom,"

"Not buts."

Axl was walking in on an argument between Sue and their mother; it seemed to be about bathing suits.

"Axl, don't you think I should get a new bathing suit for the bathing suit competition? I mean, it's called a "bathing suit competition", isn't it?"

Axl raised his hands in protest – he wasn't going to be drawn in. Sue and Frankie didn't often have disagreements, but when they did you did not want to get in the middle of it.

Frankie walked out of the room to end the conversation.

Sue sighed. "Well, what do you think? Is the one I have right now OK?"

Axl racked his brain – he didn't know what it looked like. He told her that.

"But I used to wear it to the pool all the time. You were the lifeguard! Of course you saw it."

Axl shrugged. "I guess I was looking at…other things."

Sue rolled her eyes. "Well I suppose I don't have much choice." She took a deep breath and smiled. "This could be a good thing. I'll be comfortable in it. It's familiar."

"Whatever." Axl grabbed a bag of Doritos from the cupboard.

"Don't snack!" Frankie called out from the other room. "We're eating dinner soon."

Axl put the chips back and grabbed the stealthier boxed crackers. "Shh," he whispered to Sue, his finger over his lips, as he left the kitchen.

Sue followed him. "You really don't think I can win, do you?"

"No, Sue, I totally think you're going to get first place (!)"

"Axl, be serious."

Stopping in his tracks, he sighed, and then turned around to face her. "No, Sue. I don't think you can win." I don't think you can place.

She looked down for a second, and then raised her sad and sobered eyes to his, nodding.

He bit his lip, feeling an unwelcome rush of compassion. "It's not," he began haltingly. "It's not that I don't think you should win."

She furrowed her eyebrows and waited for him to say more.

"But, well, you're different, Sue. And not everybody can appreciate different."

"Did you just say something nice to me, Axl?" she asked, getting teary-eyed. A part of her still wasn't quite sure it had been complimentary, but she hoped for the best.

Axl turned his back on her again and strolled out of the room, telling her not to get sappy on him.

/

Chapter 2: Two Weeks To Go

/

Jenny and Sue were spending most evenings together, working on Sue's posture and modeling and her answers to the questions that would be put to her in the final stage of the competition. But Axl was still flabbergasted to see the two of them together at school. Walking down the hallway, he noticed the regular group of popular kids in his grade gathered together by Jenny's locker, but when he looked closer he noticed that Sue was with them.

She looked…different.

She hadn't looked like that in the car that morning.

He waited until the group disbanded after the warning bell, and fell in beside his sister as she headed to her next class. "Where did you get those clothes?"

"Oh, hi, Axl. Jenny gave me these. Her old clothes. Aren't they nice?" They were certainly the nicest hand-me-downs that Sue had ever had, much better than what she got from the cousins. The black pleather jacket and short skirt matched, and the lacy green blouse was a good color on her. "I'm just borrowing the shoes," she added, indicating the high-quality black heels. "Jenny thinks I need the practice."

Jenny was right, Axl thought, as he heard Sue clacking indelicately beside him; her classy side ponytail bouncing. Jenny must have done her hair during the break after first period. Sue took a gander down at her watch and picked up her pace into a confident sashay. Axl sped up to her just in time for her to fall against his shoulder. She'd heard a snap, and peering down in horror, expected to see that the heel had broken, but it had only been her knee cracking.

Axl put an arm around her waist and helped her upright once more. The lacy shirt was softer than he had expected. The extra two and half inches of height threw him off. It felt like he was standing next to a different person. Not Sue. "You should take those off: you're going to hurt yourself."

"I need the practice, Axl. Besides, they make my legs look good. Jenny told me so."

Axl glanced down involuntarily; he couldn't argue with that. "You're going to fall down the stairs and break your neck."

"It's OK, my class is right here." She gestured at a room a few feet further down the hallway. "No stairs."

His eyes lingered on her unsurely as she disappeared through the door.

/

Axl sat with the basketball team during the pep assembly that afternoon. He perused the bleachers in the large gym with his eyes, searching for Sue and wondering if she was still wearing that ridiculous outfit. He was surprised to find her next to Jenny again, nestled in with the other juniors - Sue's best friend Carly yet again no where to be found. They were giggling back and forth.

What the hell would Sue and Jenny have to talk about?

The principal read off the name of the starters for that night's game, and Axl stood when he was called. Jenny and Sue were cheering loudly. Normally Axl would have been embarrassed at Sue's enthusiasm, but now that he was actually looking at her face – seeing the pride on it – he was glad she was there.

Afterwards, the Key Club gave out a humanitarian and service award to Cassie Bolton, and Axl was puzzled to see Sue giving her the evil eye. He didn't know Cassie, but from the list of community service she had done, it sounded like she was possibly the nicest person the planet.

Then he followed her fluctuating gaze to where the wrestling team had congregated, and noticed her little boyfriend Matt paying rapt attention to the stage.

So that's how it was.

So much for "We love each other".

He was impressed they had been together for as long as they had. Almost a full month. He didn't know how Sue could stand that loser windbag (that wrestling mat), and God only knows what he saw in her.

Sue had made, perhaps, a better girlfriend than Axl would have guessed. But Axl knew just how clingy she could be. Hell, he could write a book about all the times and ways he'd had to ditch her back at the beginning of the school year. Frosh Sue and her "Hi, Axl" and her "Hey, Axl" and her questions about this and her questions about that.

She hardly ever asked him questions now…

He found them as the masses funneled out of the gym after the bell rang. Sue frowned in surprise, but she was distracted and didn't speak. Jenny took his hand, which made him a little uncomfortable, but he didn't pull it away. She smelled nice – her mature perfume was wafting pleasantly at him and she looked gorgeous in black leggings and a tight red tank top.

"I have to go find Matt," Sue said anxiously, twisting around, ready to dive into oncoming traffic.

Axl dropped Jenny's hand and grabbed Sue around the elbow, restraining her. "Are you coming to the game tonight?" he shouted over the clamor of the exiting student body. He didn't know why he asked, why he cared. He just wondered.

"Oh, I was gonna go watch Jenny. The choir is performing at the retirement village." She stepped closer so that she didn't have to yell, and to form a stronger huddle against the onslaught of fleeing students.

"You'd rather go to that?" Axl asked, rudely incredulous. It had not been intentional; he made an apologetic smile at Jenny and then turned back to his sister.

Jenny put her arm around Sue's: "She's coming to support me."

Sue's face said it all: she would clearly rather go to the basketball game, but it was only a small sacrifice. "And then Jenny is going to take me driving," she added.

Axl turned to Jenny. "Really? You're going to teach her how to drive."

Jenny smiled at Sue. "Of course."

Ever since Sue had gotten her permit on her birthday, her enthusiasm for driving knew no bounds.

"You've never asked me to take you driving," Axl pointed out to his sister.

"I asked you on Monday. You said if you wanted to die, you find a less painful way."

"Well I changed my mind. God. Can't a guy change his mind? Jenny doesn't even have her own car," he whispered in her ear. "I could-I could take you driving some time."

"I've got to go, Axl."

He let go of Sue. She had disappeared into the crowd in a matter of seconds.

Jenny transferred her arm to Axl, throwing it and her other around his neck. "We could do something," she suggested, with a suggestive smile.

"Yeah…"

/

Sue was uncharacteristically silent in the car on the way to school the next day.

Her outfit of a purple dress and gray sweater could only have been another gift from Jenny; he knew he'd never seen Sue wear anything like it before. Her hair was down, straight as a ruler. It looked nice like that, when it wasn't cascading awkwardly over the hood of her sweatshirt.

Axl looked sideways at his sister several times, waiting for her to say something.

She was looking out the window thoughtfully. She didn't even seem to notice he was there.

He loved it. He loved that it was quiet.

He loved it.

Really, he did.

"We won," he said.

"Hmm?"

"The game last night. We won."

"Oh," she murmured lifelessly.

Axl rolled his eyes. That little shit Matt. He was going to pay for making Axl have to be around his sister while she was sad.

God, cheering her up wasn't his job.

"Where's your sweatshirt?" he asked knowingly.

She pursed her lips. "I don't need it. I've got a sweater."

"You always wear it."

"Jenny said it was ugly. She said it was stupid to wear a sweatshirt for wrestling. She's right."

He sighed. "You don't have to do everything Jenny tells you to do."

They were nearing the school. Sue unbuckled her seat belt and began sliding down into the foot space of the passenger seat.

Axl groaned – what was happening to him? He put his hand out to stop her. "It's OK. You don't have to."

Sue's eyes lit up. "Really?"

"Just today," he gruffly informed her. He couldn't make her hide herself when she was all depressed about breaking up with her boyfriend. Besides, without that sweatshirt no one was going to recognize her anyway.

/

Axl was late to lunch because he, Sean, and Darrin had gone to get Chinese food off campus. As they entered the cafeteria, he saw half the wrestling team up on stage. Matt had the microphone, and he was making some announcements about their meet that evening. He could have made those announcements at a Colts game – that didn't mean anyone was going to show up.

Axl began walking towards their table, when he felt Sean nudge his shoulder. "Isn't that your sister?" Axl looked to where he was pointing, and saw Sue, in the back of the room, standing up on a table beneath a giant banner that professed her love for Matt. She was reaching down to a boombox on the table.

Oh, God.

Most of the lunchroom still was oblivious to her and to the gesture she was commencing. Axl looked up at the stage. Matt had already seen Sue, and the look on his face expressed pretty clearly that he was already fed up. He began lifting the microphone back up to his mouth, and Axl knew that what he was going to say wasn't going to be pretty, even if only because it would draw attention her.

Fuck.

The plan formed rather quickly in his mind. He peered down at his orange chicken and lo mein and sighed at the sacrifice. Then he opened the Styrofoam container, grabbed a handful, ducked down, and launched it at Matt.

He had never played baseball, but he was a damn good pitcher.

An outraged Matt was pulling noodles off of his face, whatever he had been about to say now lost.

A relieved Axl then turned back to check out Sue's reaction. She was gaping. From her vantage point, she had easily seen it was Axl who had done it.

"Axman, what are you doing?" Sean whispered nervously.

Sean was too nice to help, so Axl held the rest of his lunch out to Darrin, who followed suit.

It wasn't too long before other students were throwing their lunches at Matt.

And then it turned into a full-scale food fight.

That wasn't exactly what Axl had intended, but it was a useful distraction.

Up on the table, Sue made for an easy target. She and her now-illegible banner were covered from top to bottom. Trying to sit down on the table, she slipped on food and fell on her rear.

Axl took a face full of pudding as he was jogging over to her. He swept it out of his eyes. "Are you OK?" he asked, concerned, circling around the table until he had her face.

She stretched out onto her back on the table, laughter wracking her body. "I'm-I'm-I'm…" She was laughing so hard she couldn't finish the sentence. "I'm-I'm fine."

Axl helped her off the table, then hopped up on it himself and ripped the banner down. He stuffed it in the nearest trash can.

"How does anyone have any food left?" he demanded as he and Sue continued to be barraged with pretzels, sliced carrots, and graham crackers. "Mine was gone in two throws!"

"Ow!" Sue cried. The sliced carrots hurt.

"Hey! This is a food fight, not a stoning!" he shouted. "Lame!"

But he was laughing. Seeing his sister hit right between her eyes with a baby carrot would probably never get old.

Axl guided her over to the wall, and then stepped protectively in front of her, his back to the action.

"Why did you do that, Axl?" she asked.

"I didn't want you using your best material on him. He's not worth it."

She smiled weakly. "That's not why."

She was picking now to be smart? When he was trying to make her feel better?

"There'll be other guys, Sue."

She leaned back against the wall disconsolately. "I loved him. He dumped me."

"You didn't love him, Sue. What you felt – it wears off. It's not love. It's just…hormones and vanity. Trust me, OK? I've got some experience in this."

Sue smiled unwillingly, remembering him crying in their mother's arms after Morgan had broken up with him.

"I'm glad my pain is amusing (!)" Axl reached up and wiped some mashed potatoes off of her cheek, his other hand on the wall beside her. "He's an asshole. I thought he was way too nice. Turns out he just hides his douchebaggery better than everyone else."

"Too nice for wanting to date me, you mean."

Axl rolled his eyes. Would this whole comforting thing never fucking end? "No. That's not what I mean."

A glob of red Jello struck his back, and splattered onto the wall outlining Sue in a perfect pattern.

"Come on, let's go home." Axl began walking towards the door.

Sue loitered unsurely. "But I have three classes left."

Axl wrapped his fingers around her wrist. "Mom'll give you a note for tomorrow. We've got to get out of here before security gets here. And what are you gonna do? Go to class like that?"

Sue gave in and let him usher her out to his car.

She opened the passenger side door and began to climb inside.

"Uh-uh."

She halted: "What?"

Axl was shaking his finger at her. "I am not cleaning this out later."

He popped the trunk and began to strip down, throwing his soiled clothes inside. He used his undershirt like a towel on his hair. Finally he was down to only his boxers.

"Well, that's easy for you: you're used to going around in only your underwear. I don't even like to take my cover up off at the pool." She sighed, and then began to remove the gray sweater.

"No one wants to see that, Sue," he told her. "You're riding in the trunk."

"WHAT?"

"You'll be fine. It's not very far." He was going to pick her up and shove her in there, but he didn't want to touch her while she was so dirty. He pointed.

Sue glared as she climbed inside. "I'm telling Mom."

/

Sue was not OK with waiting for a note from their mother. "If we hurry we can make it for the last two periods," she cried, running for the front door after he had opened the trunk. Apparently her thinking time in the dark had yielded panic.

"You want to go back to school?" he choked, following behind more slowly.

"I want to win the perfect attendance award, just like I did for middle school."

"There are better things than attendance awards. Like, I don't know…everything. Everything is better, Sue."

"We have to go back anyway, we left our backpacks, our books. I have homework." Sue speedily unlocked the door using the hidden key

"Get them when you're there for your wrestlerette thing tonight."

Sue froze. "Matt will be there."

Axl pushed her inside and shut the door behind them. "Whatever. I'm getting in the shower." He pointed at his temple. "This is tuna. Tuna! I could see the bread coming apart in my peripheral vision as it flew at my head." He dropped his pile of dirty clothes near the washer – though, not as near as it could have been – and began walking towards the bathroom.

"No, I'm getting in the shower." She ran ahead of him and blocked the door. "I'm the one who has to get ready for school. You don't have to come, too – just drop me off."

"Go take a bath in Mom's bathroom."

"I don't have time for a bath! And all my stuff's in there." Sue protested. "Why don't you take a bath?"

"I'm a guy. I don't take baths. Anyway, you know there's not enough hot water for that. Just go out back and use the hose." He tried to push past her, but she put up her arms in the door frame and bent her knees to secure her position.

"Use the-use the hose? Axl! It's 20 degrees out there! This lemonade in my hair froze while I was in the trunk. It's frozen." She tapped the icicle – it really was frozen. "You wait; I'll shower first."

"I can't wait." He looked away, a little embarrassed. "I'm too cold. You know the heat in my car doesn't work, Sue. And as you pointed out, it's well below freezing out there." He lifted up his bare arm and looked at it in the light, every hair on edge. Then he crossed his arms to cover up his erect nipples and began to shiver. "And, you know, tuna." He sighed: "Just go put on your swimsuit; we'll shower together."

Sue frowned. "Really?"

Axl uncrossed his arms and tickled Sue's sides. She erupted immediately in giggles, bringing her arms down to protect herself. He easily pushed her aside, and shut the door on her. "No," he answered through the door.

Sue stripped down to her underwear by the washing room, and then ran to her bedroom and threw on her bikini. She took a second to look in the mirror, thinking about the pageant, but then she dashed back to the bathroom. She turned the handle cautiously; Axl hadn't locked the door. "Axl?" she announced uncertainly, entering slowly.

"Ugh." He groaned. "Yeah, it's fine. Get in." He was still wearing his boxers; he'd assumed she would come along anyway. He could have locked her out, he supposed…

She clapped, excited she wouldn't have wait. Axl could take very, very long showers, and usually when he was done the hot water heater was just a cold water container.

Sue parted the curtain and the steam poured out, blinding her. "It's so hot," she coughed.

"Either get in or don't, Sue." Axl's head was under the stream of water, his words muffled. He swept his hair back out of his face. "You're letting the cold air in."

She hopped in behind him, sliding the curtains shut behind her.

He glanced back at her and frowned. "Actually, I want it open," he ordered.

"What about the cold air?"

"It's weird if it's closed." He shuddered.

"It's weird if it's open," she retorted. "Water is getting all over the floor."

"OK, fine. Leave it."

"You're hogging the water," she complained, relegated to the back half the tub, far from the cleansing warmth of the shower head. She reached out for the stream, but Axl put his palm just below her neck on her chest – a careful placement - and pushed her back.

"I can still smell the tuna," Axl shouted, a little maniacally.

"I can't smell it."

"It's there, Sue. It's still there." He did another course of shampoo, stepping aside with an annoyed eyeroll so that she could get under the water. She quickly shampooed and soaped up her arms and chest.

A minute later he was slamming her against the wall suddenly with his arm to get her out of the way, rushing his face under the water to get the shampoo foam off his forehead before it slid into his eyes.

"Geez, Axl!"

"Emergency," he clarified without apology. He unbarred her, rinsed out the rest of the soap, and then slipped into the back again.

He looked her over while lathering on some body wash. "So this is the suit?"

Pink and white polka dots didn't exactly scream maturity, but they would probably do for Miss Teen Glitz. The bikini didn't look expensive, but it did fit her just right. If she really had worn that to the pool, he was surprised he hadn't noticed her. It.

"So what do you think? Will it do?" She posed.

"I don't think you need to get a new one," he answered conveniently. If his parents wouldn't even help him pay to get his car painted, they sure shouldn't be buying Sue a new swimsuit.

"Good," she replied while she rubbed on a facial cleanser, "because none of Jenny's fit." Sue was a cup size too big, but she didn't spell that out to Axl. "All of the contestants wear bikinis anyway."

Axl came up behind her and reached out for the conditioner.

She jumped when he touched her, startled, and bumped the showerhead. "Ow," she whined, putting her hand up the wound on her hairline. Unable to open her eyes because of the face wash and disoriented by the injury, she began walking in the wrong direction in order to rinse it off. She took an unsure step forward, but the ground was further away than her foot expected and she stumbled slightly.

She wouldn't have fallen, but Axl caught her anyway, exasperated. "You're accident prone today. Even more than usual." Could someone really have that little coordination?

"And you might have taken those speed bumps a little slower while I was in the trunk," she added, trying to look angry but, covered in bubbles, only looking silly.

He put one hand on each of her shoulders and turned her around. He kept them there to hold her steady while she walked towards the water, then let go.

"This sharing a shower thing is too complicated," Sue babbled while she got the bits of apricot scrub out of her ears and hair. "There's not enough room and just one faucet. I mean, I suppose if you had a bigger shower. If you were like rich, and had like this giant shower. Then maybe. You know, I mean not that I want to go around sharing showers with everyone just because my shower was big enough to do it. You know, but like, a husband and wife. If they were showering together, like in the movies sometimes. I mean, I just don't understand it. It's just too complicated. Unless, like I said, you have a really big shower. But, like, well, it's not fun, you know. You're just in the way." Sue peeped back at him and then away again.

He applied the conditioner – a man with hair like his had to take care of it. This time he handed the bottle to her to put back in its place. She used some herself before setting it back onto the shelf.

"That's because we're not doing the fun things," he explained dryly. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back in pleasure while he massaged the product into his scalp.

Sue's mouth hung open in surprise. Then she had a mind to be offended: she put her hands on her hips. "I know."

"Do you?" He was smiling skeptically up at the ceiling.

"I know what two people might…do in the shower."

"I don't think you know what one person might do in the shower, Sue."

Sue furrowed her eyebrows and began to doubt herself.

"Did Mom give you the birds and the bees talk?" he continued.

"N-no."

"Be glad you didn't get it from Dad." Axl laughed as he remembered it. "Everyone learns from their friends anyway. I bet Carly knows what's up. I wouldn't count on Brad."

"I'm telling you, Axl: I know what's up."

"Really? Well, Brick won't need the talk. After that menopause book he read on the plane, I bet he knows more about it all than either of us."

Sue laughed. "Brick and his books."

"So, where's Carly been?" he fished. "Not that I care, or anything."

Sue shrugged. "I've been busy with Jenny." Sue tipped her hair back into the stream and let the water flush out the conditioner.

"Yeah," he replied ambiguously. "What have you and Jenny been doing?"

"Just working on the pageant. And shopping. She shops at the Westlake Mall! Can you believe it? Oh, and last night we made a dance routine to 'Moves Like Jagger', and then worked on her scrapbook from her trip to New York."

Axl blinked. "You and Jenny did that? Jenny wanted to do those things?" He began to worry that maybe all girls were a bit Sue-ish on their own in their own houses. It was a troubling thought.

He gestured forward and she knew intuitively to trade places with him.

"And she invited me to a party next week."

He looked back at her while he rinsed his hair. "What party?"

"I don't know. But it's going to be very A-table. You know, but high school. Whatever you call A-table kids in high school. What do you call A-table kids in high school?"

"My friends?" he teased smugly. Axl didn't like the sound of this party; Sue wouldn't have fun. Jenny was dragging her around like some toy poodle with no respect for who Sue was or what she liked.

"You've got something…" Axl reached up and scraped some mashed potato off from behind her ear. He lifted it up for her to see with a laugh, and then propelled it at the drain.

"Oh." She swallowed.

She lifted her hand and gently touched the spot where he had touched. It felt clean now.

"Am I good?" He stepped back as much as he could and twisted around so that she could get a 360-degree view.

"I don't-I don't see anything."

"I can still smell the tuna."

Sue laughed. "The tuna's gone." Her arms were a little too slick – they still had some soap on them. "I need some water," she requested, extending her arms towards the source.

"OK." Axl put his hands together and filled them with water, then heaved it at her.

"Axl!" she cried, giggling, wiping the water out of her eyes. She couldn't stretch to the ammunition: he held her back with a single hand. "You're going to push me out of the tub!" she tried to warn seriously, but unable to keep a straight face. He relaxed his arm a little, giving her enough reach to fill her hands with spray. She flung her meager collections at him, but he couldn't even feel it. She nearly doubled over in laughter as she failed miserably.

Axl picked up her fluffy pink loofah-on-a-string. "I've always wondered what this is for. I think I know now." He bounced it at her head repeatedly, retaining the string.

"Ah! Axl!" She blinked against the onslaught. When she raised her hands to protect her face, he whipped it at the rest of her until she was dancing around to avoid him. She grabbed a random bottle and began beating him with it.

"Ow."

"Ooh, so tough!" she taunted.

He backed away to avoid her blows, giving her full access to the water. She filled up her mouth and then spat it out at him.

"You're dead now. Dead." He mercilessly beat her with the loofah, but it didn't even sting a little and she was crying she was laughing so hard.

This went on for some time.

/

When the water grew cold they found their towels and made their way to their rooms.

After Sue had dressed and combed out her hair, she found Axl on the couch watching TV. "7th period has already started."

"It's halfway over." He tossed a few chips in his mouth.

She sighed and sat down next to him. "Well, Mom'll give me a note, right?"

"Mmhmm."

"I guess showering together took longer…" she pondered aloud. "But I still don't see what you spend so long doing in there by yourself."

Axl scratched his head. "Yeah…" He handed her the remote. "You pick, slacker."

"Slacker? I didn't have enough time to get ready," she protested vehemently.

Axl raised his eyebrows skeptically at his sister. "You had plenty of time."

Sue frowned. "Well, I didn't mean to be late. I just…forgot that I was in a hurry."

Axl grabbed the remote back from her. "I changed my mind. Let's watch a movie. He pulled up the on-demand listings.

"Watch a movie? But we're supposed to be in school. We can't watch a movie. We should clean, or do homework, something."

Axl's jaw dropped. "I don't even know where to start, Sue. Clean? You do something fun while you skip. That's how it's done." He scrolled down, looking at the selection. "Oh, how about this one?"

"Re-Revenge of the Pod Zombies?" Sue asked, her eyes wide.

Axl furrowed his eyebrows and turned to look at her. "What, too scary?" he taunted.

Sue made a non-committal utterance.

"I thought you'd seen it."

Sue held up two fingers.

"You've seen it twice and you're still scared?"

"It's scary! Just ask Brick!" she cried.

"Well too bad: it's what I want to watch. Why don't you go clean?"

Sue glared at him and wrapped herself up in a blanket, cold from her wet hair.

/

The film started out with a grisly death, and Axl was less than surprised to find Sue clutching to him for dear life before the scene was over.

He patiently unwrapped her arms and shoved her away, handing her a throw pillow to satisfy her needs.

Things calmed as the characters and story were introduced, but it was only another 15 minutes before someone else died and Sue was clinging to him once more.

"My God, Axl! Did you see that? It just tore her head off!"

"Yeah, I saw it. You saw it three times." He disengaged her once more. "Gee, you're right, Sue: this IS a scary movie – how cheap are those special effects!"

Sue smacked him on the shoulder and then nestled herself back in against him while he nonchalantly ate his chips. "God, Sue, get off," he complained hollowly; he made no move to break off from her this time.

Another twenty minutes found Sue shaking her head sadly. "I hate this part." The camera panned to reveal the blood-soaked remains of the heroine's sister.

"Those monsters! Look at all that wasted ketchup. Where's a French fry when you need one?"

Sue smacked him again, harder this time. "She's dead, Axl. Have some respect!"

He smirked: "A dead sister? Not such a bad thing."

This time when she reached up to hit him, he caught her fist.

He got up once to get a Coke. When he sat back down, Sue quickly grabbed his arm and hugged it – all forgiven - while a pod zombie chased a little girl around her house. "You already know what happens!" he exclaimed in disbelief at her anxiety.

Sue didn't take her eyes from the screen. "Exactly, Axl. Exactly."

"I take it the little girl's a goner then?"

His suspicions were confirmed quickly, and Sue had snaked her arms around his chest just in time for the blood to fly at the screen. She buried her head against his shoulder during the most graphic part, shielding her eyes, and hummed so she couldn't hear the crunching of bones.

Axl rolled his eyes. "Why did you watch this again with me? You hate it."

"I don't hate it," Sue amended, raising her eyes. "And, I don't know, we were having fun. Playing hooker, right?" She smiled widely.

"It's 'hooky'." Axl corrected with narrowed eyes, hardly believing even Sue could make such a mistake. He shrugged: "OK. Whatever."

The scene cut to the girl's father in his lab, side by side with the heroine. "What are the symptoms, doctor?" she breathlessly asked, her bosom ostentatiously heaving underneath her torn shirt, having barely escaped the confrontation that killed her sister.

Enticed, Axl gave the movie, perhaps for the first time, his undivided attention.

"I wanna fastforward," Sue whined, anticipating the gore to come.

Axl shushed her.

"The physical imitation is almost flawless – it is nearly impossible to tell from mere visible signs – but they have never truly learned to duplicate a human," the doctor detailed. He paused dramatically and stepped in front of the heroine.

"He's one of them, I'm calling it," Axl whispered in Sue's ear. "Just look at that ridiculous acting – twitching all the time…"

"A near-total disregard for the feelings of others," the doctor continued. "Utter hatred for those of us who walk upon this earth." He raised his hand and stroked the heroine's face.

The building tension between the two characters erupted, and as the doctor began to rip off her shirt, Sue nearly threw Axl off the couch in her haste to shuffle as far away from him as possible.

"What the hell, Sue?" Axl grumbled, standing up and looking down at his pants. "You made me spill my Coke! What's your problem?" He stripped his pants off and tossed them into the corner. "You're such a spaz! I've had enough food on me for one day, I think." He sat back down in a huff.

"Oh…S-s-sorry." Sue had forgotten about what came right before the heroine's discovery and subsequent slaying of the imposter doctor. She glanced back at the television unsurely; there was a lot of skin flying about and some very heavy breathing. She ran to the hallway and grabbed a towel from the closet to mop up the spilled soda, eager to get out of the room until the part was over.

"Told ya," Axl said proudly, gesturing at the TV as Sue came back in. The heroine had taken the doctor's scalpel and driven it through his eye. "Pod zombie. I totally called it."

/

The movie had provided a good distraction, but it wore off, and Sue was in tears by the time their parents came home from work. Frankie took Sue out for ice cream after encouraging her to cancel wrestlerettes for that night's meet, and Axl, in less of a selfless act than one imposed by his parents – went back to school and retrieved their necessary things from their lockers.

Sue had a picture of Matt up on the door her locker. Axl took it down and threw it in the garbage.

She had a picture of their family up as well. He looked at it for a minute, and then left.

His parents didn't punish him for skipping after Sue had told them what he had done for her.

"Did you get away with it?" Mike asked.

"I think so."

"Atta boy."

Frankie shot a look at her husband. "You understand, Axl, that we absolutely don't encourage this kind of behavior." Behind her, Mike was undermining her message by looking quite proud of his son. "Although what you did for your sister…Oh, my little boy." Frankie wiped a tear from her eye. She extended her arms to hug him, but he batted them away.

"I had to stop her – the banner said 'Sue Heck loves Matt.' Sue Heck. And don't worry, Mom: I was punished already. I got tuna in my hair, and then had to spend the afternoon with Sue."

Axl got up and headed for his bedroom, only to see Sue standing there.

She was upset – again.

He groaned and followed her to her room. "What?"

"It was so bad, spending a few hours with me?" She sat on her bed and crossed her arms.

He rolled his eyes. "When did you become so high maintenance?" Since when was it the case that every time she made that kicked puppy look at him he had to go and say something nice to her? "God, Sue. It was fun, or whatever." He reconsidered with a sigh: "You know it was."

Sue beamed.

"Night."

/

Chapter 3: One Week To Go

/

Jenny's solution to Sue's heartbreak was a little retail therapy, and she convinced Frankie and Axl to come evening-gown shopping with them on Saturday. Frankie was needed for her wallet, and Axl tried to opt out, but Jenny invoked some sort of unspoken not-really-a-boyfriend clause and insisted that he come along. He couldn't exactly commit fake suicide while spending time with his not-really-a-girlfriend, so he kept his mouth shut and his mimicry still and followed them by no closer than five feet, playing games on his phone.

Jenny picked out most of the dresses that Sue tried on, ignoring Sue's suggestions. Though it was probably for the best. Even Frankie encouraged Sue to follow Jenny's demanding lead, though she was starting to get a headache from the prices.

"This stuff is so nice I'm afraid I'll ruin it just by looking at it," she commented to her son, peering around the store. "Don't you dare touch anything, Axl Heck."

Most of the dresses were non-starters, and Jenny and Sue never came out of the dressing room. But just when Axl was about to contemplate actual suicide and not just miming it, they found a winner.

Frankie and Axl were seated just outside the stall, feeling awkward on the white chairs. "Why is everything white?" Frankie whispered to him, panicked. "There's a reason we don't have any white things! Well some of them used to be white, not that you'd ever know."

"This it totally the one, guys!" Jenny gushed. She stepped aside, and Sue floated out from behind her in a gossamer, layered emerald-green gown.

She twirled ecstatically and then jumped up and down screaming. "Isn't it beautiful?"

Frankie touched her hand to her chest. "Oh, Sweetheart."

Full length, it swept along the ground with the two extra inches of the heels Sue wasn't currently wearing. The slit was modest, as was the neckline, but both were complimentary. One shoulder was bare, the other covered by a thick but elegant semi-sleeve. Compared to some of the other dresses they had seen that day, the back was high, but relative to Sue's wardrobe it was revelatory. She flexed her shoulder blades, amused at the sensation of their exposure.

"So, what do you think?" Sue asked shyly, twirling again.

"It's gorgeous," Frankie cried, rising to her feet and walking over to her daughter. "I never thought…that's not what I mean." She finally settled on: "It's your color, dear," They hugged.

When Frankie pulled away, she turned to Axl, who had yet to speak. "Well, Axl," she forcefully encouraged through her teeth, her expression telling him to hurry up and say something and it had better be nice or else.

Sue's face was similarly expectant, the confidence the dress had given her slowly draining as his silence endured.

Everyone was staring at him, waiting for him to speak. He didn't know what to say. None of the words seemed right.

"Axl Heck, speechless?" Jenny exclaimed. "The end times are here!" She nudged Sue and winked. "He likes it."

Axl darted her a glare.

"Don't you want to tell your sister she looks beautiful?" his mother demanded, a note of pleading in her eyes.

"Beautiful" seemed inadequate. Impersonal. Common.

"You look like a princess, Sue," he finally admitted.

Sue gasped. "Oh, Axl!"

Frankie began pushing her daughter towards the dressing room. "You'd better get that off before you do something to it."

"Did you hear what Axl said to me?"

"Yes, sweetie. Go on now."

"Thank you, Axl," Frankie said, sitting back down next to him.

"You should-you should buy her the dress." He nodded. "It's-uh-it's good." He pulled his phone back out and scrambled to get a new game going.

A few minutes later they were all headed over to the checkout counter. Frankie pulled Sue back. "You know the drill: don't take off the tag. This dress is coming right back here the day after the pageant."

Sue nodded solemnly. Then she returned to smiling idiotically at Axl.

"A dress fit for a beauty queen," Jenny congratulated as they laid it out for the cashier.

"You have to win to be a beauty queen," Axl reminded them, still clicking away at the buttons on his keypad.

"Maybe just a princess then," Sue conceded. "Eh?"

Axl rolled his eyes. He had potentially made a huge mistake.

/

Sue couldn't wait to show the dress to Mike and Brick. Frankie didn't want her to remove it from the plastic covering, but she insisted.

"Wow, honey," Mike said, nodding. Then he looked at Frankie, and mouthed, "How much?"

Frankie waved him off.

"Axl told me I looked like a princess!"

"Really?" Mike asked. "Axl said that?"

Axl growled. "Sue! Stop telling people that! You're like a dog with a bone."

She might have mentioned it to the cashier, the middle-aged woman they had shared the parking-garage elevator with, and the drive-up window attendant when they stopped to get burgers.

Axl drove Jenny home later that evening. Even though the day's mission had been successful, and Jenny's pageant help was indispensable, her interactions with Sue still left a bad taste in his mouth.

"I know what you're doing," he began, once he had pulled into her driveway.

"What do you mean?"

"With Sue. You don't like your own little sister, so you're trying to take mine."

"Don't be ridiculous, Axl."

"But why would you want Sue for a little sister? She's…she's…"

He couldn't think of anything bad to say.

Nothing bad enough, anyway.

Yeah, she was a dork. Clumsy. Naïve. Gullible. Annoyingly persistent. Hopelessly awkward. She thought her curlers had feelings. She listened to too much Taylor Swift.

But none of those things were really so bad, were they?

"I don't know what you're talking about, Axl. See you at the party." Jenny slammed the door behind.

Axl had hoped his confrontation might produce a break-up of sorts, but he settled for the fact that he and Jenny weren't going to the party together. He had already turned his wandering eye to Alison Landes in his Spanish class, and had been very happy to hear her say: "Voy a verte a la fiesta!" (Well he had been happy once he asked her what it meant. It meant 'I'll see you at the party!') He knew he couldn't make sure Sue didn't get into any trouble if he was busy with Alison. He needed someone else to do it.

/

"He what?" Sue did a spit take.

"He invited me to the party," Carly repeated calmly, sitting next to her at the lunch table.

"Axl invited you to the party? You? But-but…"

Carly nodded. "I was just as surprised as you are. He kept talking about keeping an eye on you, but, I don't know, what if that's just an excuse? What if he likes me?" She smiled, her pretty eyes sparkling behind her glasses.

Sue was considerably more sober. "Well, do you like him?"

"Who wouldn't like Axl?" Carly glazed over dreamily.

Sue pondered that for a moment. Yes, she could understand that point of view.

Especially from someone he hadn't tried to sacrifice to a bear.

"Axl told me I looked like a princess in my pageant gown," she informed her.

Carly furrowed her eyebrows. "Yeah, you mentioned that. More than once."

"You should come over and see it."

"But what about Axl? Do you think he likes me?"

She remembered what Axl had said in the shower. He'd been particularly curious about Carly.

Sue chewed on the edge of her lip unhappily. Of course Axl liked Carly. Why wouldn't he? Carly was perfect. Her best friend. Funny and smart and pretty.

But…

"I don't know, Carly," Sue began. "Axl's sort of with someone right now." As thick as Sue was, even she could tell he wasn't very into Jenny. But he wasn't unentangled, technically.

"Then why didn't he ask her? I don't think there is anyone else. I think you just don't want me going out with Axl. You're being weird. I thought you would be happy for us."

Carly grabbed her lunch and stormed away.

Sue was very confused.

/

The party was…complicated. Carly spent most of it on look-out, warning Axl if Jenny started heading his way while he flirted with Alison, because he didn't want a public scene. Once he and Alison started making out, Carly was pretty clear that he did not, in fact, like her.

Sue spent most of the party trying to spy on Axl and Carly, to Jenny's annoyance.

"Sue!"

"Hmm…"

"Sue!"

"What?"

"I asked you to go get me a drink."

Sue was too preoccupied to be horrified that she had just gone to procure alcohol.

She stopped by Carly on the way.

"Who's that?" Sue questioned, looking at the writhing mass that was Axl and Alison.

She felt blood rush to her face after watching them for a second. She turned away sharply, back to face Carly.

Carly shook her head sadly. "Isn't that whoever you were talking about earlier? You were right, Sue." She sighed. "Axl doesn't like me. He's not even available."

"Awwww." Sue put her arm around her friend. "I'm sorry, Carly. I know what it is like to have your heart broken," she said in the comforting but slightly condescending tone of a sadder but wiser girl. "It has only been a little over a week since Matt broke up with me, and I must confess, I am not yet quite healed." She rubbed Carly's back supportively.

Then she ran over to Axl and kicked his shin. "What's wrong with you?"

"Ow. Sue!" Axl unhooked hastily from Alison. He leaned over so he could see Carly. "Carly! You're supposed to be look-out. Remind me not to take you on my next bank job."

"But-" Carly defended.

"What is going on here?" Alison demanded, interrupting.

Jenny arrived undetected while Carly was distracted, and had an earful to give Axl, most of which was colorful name-calling.

Alison jumped to her feet. "You tried to juggle four girls at one party, Axl? How do you put your pants on?" She shook her head and began to leave. "No es bueno."

"No! It's not-it's not like that," he protested futilely, losing volume as he watched her walk away. "They're not…" He turned to Sue: "Thanks for ruining my life, Sue."

"Me?"

Jenny grabbed Sue's arm: "Come on, Sue. We're leaving."

Sue looked sadly back at Carly with a helpless shrug.

Axl stood up and broke Jenny's grasp on Sue. "She's not your sister, Jenny. She's mine." He pulled Sue towards him and away from the other girl. "I'm not going to let you walk all over her anymore."

Jenny gasped in outrage. "We are so over, Axl."

"We've been over," he informed her harshly.

"You're just like all of my other exes, preferring my sister over me!" she hissed.

"She's not your sister," Axl repeated, exasperated and shouting.

Sue turned from staring at Axl in surprise to pan the rest of the room. All attention was on them. Someone had even turned down the music.

"Axl, you said I was your sister in front of everyone!" she exclaimed, touched. "All of your friends, all of the popular kids from school! You've never admitted I was your sister in public, ever."

"Don't over think it," he told her, pointing his finger at her in warning. "Come on, we're leaving. This party is lame."

Sue grabbed Carly's hand as Axl dragged her out of the house.

/

Sue felt bad the next day, and went to make amends with Jenny, hoping her mentor would be coming to the pageant.

Jenny was able to admit that she had been a little controlling, and might maybe possibly have been taking out some of her own family issues on Sue.

They parted smiling.

/

Chapter 4: The Pageant

/

"Axl, why aren't you dressed?" Frankie bellowed, seeing him on the couch in his boxers. "We're running late. Come on, your Dad's in the car already."

She pushed Brick out the door, and then called Sue's name for the third time.

"I'm not going," Axl declared, picking up the remote and changing the channel to fortify his message.

"Oh, no, mister. No, sir. You are going to be there to support your sister like a good big brother. You are going to sit in that chair, and you are going to smile, and you are going to clap, and you are going to like it."

"I'm being a good big brother by staying home. This way she'll have someone she can look in the eye tomorrow."

Frankie glared at him. "..now."

Axl sat his ground. "I'm not going."

"Why not?"

"Because beauty pageants are lame. What's the point in a bunch of pretty girls competing against each other? They're already winning at life."

"Somehow I don't think your reason for staying home has anything to do with not wanting to see pretty girls, in competition or otherwise," his mother challenged, her arms crossed.

"OK, I think I'm ready," Sue puffed, appearing from her room. Her arms were full of bags and clothes. "I think I have everything."

"Your shirt's on inside out," Frankie pointed out. "It doesn't matter: you can change it in the car. Come on."

Sue glanced at Axl, and then ran back to her room, saying, "I'll just fix it now."

"Get up, Axl!" Frankie shouted.

"I just…" he sighed. "She's not going to win, Mom. No matter how hot she looks in that dress. And all those people judging her – they don't know her. I just…I don't want to be there for that. I can't."

Did he just say she looks hot in the dress?

Frankie seemed to be wavering.

Sue reappeared, her shirt adjusted. She took a look at Axl, who had not stirred. "You're not coming?"

That kicked-puppy look.

"Just go," he told them, giving in. "I'll be there before it starts."

Relieved, Sue sighed, and then jogged out the door. Frankie nodded at her son before following.

/

He was as good as his word. He found his family, and sat down next to Brick in the auditorium. The seating wasn't great – much to his disappointment. He spotted Jenny closer to the front; she looked back and waved civilly. He was glad she had been there to help Sue with her make-up and hair.

The girls were paraded through introductorily, their names read while they crossed the stage. Sue seemed to be skipping rather than gliding the way the others were, but she didn't fall and that was good enough.

He cheered her name loudly. Her real name – because they had announced her as Sally Heck. He whistled and hollered until Sue looked over and knew he was there.

The next round was similar, only they were all strutting and wearing bathing suits. The juvenility of the print stood out, as Axl had considered, but most of the girls weren't wearing bikinis and as far as Axl was concerned, that gave Sue something of an edge.

"Not very many of them are wearing bikinis," Brick commented to Axl, echoing his observation. "It's considered a cheap move."

"That's not what Sue said in the shower," Axl argued back defensively.

Brick gave him a weird look.

Axl thought over what he had just said: "Oh no. We were wearing clothes. Well, sort of," he amended.

Brick's expression didn't change.

"Well where were you when Mom was telling Sue she couldn't buy a new suit?" Axl snapped.

Sue tried to wave surreptitiously at her family, but it was not as subtle as she seemed to think it was, even with 20 other girls up there. The smile on her face was so big it looked like it was going to rip her apart.

The evening gown section was next. Axl despaired at how beautiful they all looked – if Sue was going to do well at any round he knew it would be this one – but they all were gorgeous. If only Sue could have pulled off something red – she would have made more of an impression.

When it was her turn, she catwalked to the front of the stage, posed, and then returned to her spot. Perfectly. No tripping, no stumbling.

"Wow," Brick murmured beside him, awed.

Axl nodded.

Frankie was crying.

Axl didn't know how her reading of the poem went – he strategically took a trip to the bathroom. But by the expressions on his family's faces when he got back, he assumed it had been better than unmitigated disaster, but worse than disappointing.

Brick shook his head, which was all Axl really needed to know.

"She's no Emily Dickinson," he said.

Axl didn't know who that was, but was the message was received.

Sue was eliminated before the interview round, which only 10 contestants passed on to.

"This is bullshit!" Axl complained loudly to his mother, garnering bothered looks from the people around them. "How can they know she shouldn't win just from some stupid poem and seeing her walk around in different outfits? What the hell does that tell them? They didn't even listen to her talk. She would have blown them away. This is why I didn't want to come. This whole thing is bullshit."

Frankie smiled softly at her son.

/

Sue met them out at the car when it was over.

Axl studied her face, searching for disappointment, but she was upbeat. "I didn't fall once!" she cried excitedly.

Everyone hugged her; Axl went last. He raised his lips to her ear to whisper something, and then thought better of it.

"Where's everyone going?" Brick asked, pointing out a group of contestants headed through the breezeway to another building.

"Oh, that's just the dance," Sue replied, downcast. "I was going to go with Matt…But it's OK. I don't want to go."

Mike was begging his wife with his eyes to say no; he'd had just about enough for one day. Frankie was torn.

"Stop looking at me. Fine! I'll take her. God," Axl fussed, though no one had expected him to do any such thing.

Sue's eyes ignited joyfully, and he really wished she wouldn't look so damn happy and grateful every time he did something for her because it made him feel good and it was getting addictive.

/

Sue looped her arm through his as they were walking through the door, but he shook her off: "Not unless we've just almost been killed."

She nodded, eager to please, and put her arm down her side. "Why did you do this for me? Why are you being so nice?"

"I'm not being nice," he replied, checking out the room. "I just figured that a bunch of depressed non-beauty-pageant-winners are going to want to eat, so the food would be decent."

They went to the snack table first, and Axl was not wrong. He gorged himself on wings and meatballs while Sue ate no less than five chocolate éclairs.

"You really don't mind not winning?" he asked her, wiping his mouth clean. With his sleeve.

"I never thought I was going to win," she clarified with a wise look. "I just wanted to have fun. And I did. I got to be up on that stage, and wear that pretty dress in front of everyone. Be in the booklet. Sally Heck: beauty pageant contestant."

Axl took her lead and laughed.

She turned from the table to look at the dance floor.

"This music is lame," he remarked. "Is this disco? Excuse me, I thought we were done with the 1800's."

"It's kind of fun," Sue ventured. She pointed her index finger and waved it back in forth in a poor imitation of disco dancing.

"Don't do that," Axl ordered.

Sue dropped her arm to her side, again.

As a family-friendly event, the 60's and 70's music selection for the dance was not surprising. Most of the audience seemed to be there – the floor was well-occupied though not full enough for anonymity.

"I want to dance, Axl," Sue asserted. She began moving out towards the center.

He clasped her wrist. "Fine. I've got an idea."

One of the backdoors was ajar, opening into a dark, vacant hallway. He slid the stopper a little further, and he drew Sue into the hallway. The music was still plenty loud, and the privacy welcome.

"Dance away."

"I'm not a bad dancer, Axl," she protested. "I was in a square-dancing competition."

"Didn't you get last place?"

She scowled. Then she shrugged: "Dance like no one's watching." She shook her shoulders to loosen up and resumed the signature disco move.

"No one is watching, which is just how I want it."

Sue grapevined over towards him, and then bumped his hip. "Come on, Axl! No one's watching, like you said."

He stepped away. "That's not happening."

She sighed, and moved into The Swim.

It took three more songs, but Sue finally got her brother dancing. He passed up the "YMCA", "I Will Survive", and "Stayin' Alive", but, like many, couldn't resist "The Funky Chicken", and then she had him.

It was late when they left, breathless and laughing. The drive home in Axl's heatless dump of a car was chilly. He pulled a blanket out of the backseat and handed it to her.

"Another fun activity with Sue," she teased, curling up inside the blanket. "Admit it and I'll never bring it up again."

"And if I don't admit it?"

"Then I'm gonna tell everyone that we did the Electric Slide. And that I did it better than you did."

"You were not better."

"I was."

He inhaled slowly, regarding her sideways. "Fine. It was…fun."

She punched his shoulder playfully. "Yeah it was."

"Sorta really fun, I guess" he confessed.

/

It had seemed late, but everyone was still awake when they arrived at home.

"Wow, you guys," Frankie remarked from the kitchen when Axl and Sue, still wrapped in the blanket, walked through the front door. In her light purple bathrobe, holding a cup of tea, she looked about ready to retire.

Next to her, Mike tapped his watch.

Sue shrieked excitedly. "Oh my gosh, were we out past curfew? I've never been out past curfew before!"

"It's only 11:00," Axl protested.

"My curfew is 11," Sue informed him.

"You don't even need a curfew," he argued. "Your idea of a good time is doing homework."

"Oh?" Sue raised her eyebrows, and then began to do the Electric Slide.

"Hey!" he barked. "Promises were made!"

She began sliding towards the hallway.

"Huh," Frankie remarked thoughtfully to her husband. "Sue should go out more often – she keeps bringing Axl back with her. I'm out of ideas for how to punish him the next time he breaks curfew."

"I've got some ideas," Mike replied.

Sue hovered in the doorway to her bedroom. Axl paused in front of her. He reached out for the blanket: "I should probably put that back in my car. You know, before I forget."

"Oh. Right." She nodded quickly, and began to pull it off her shoulders.

They didn't notice Brick coming out of his and Axl's room. Axl was blocking the hallway, so Brick waited patiently while Sue handed over the blanket, expecting his brother to move.

But Axl didn't move.

"Are you going to sleep now?" he asked.

"I don't know…I'm pretty tired. I didn't sleep much last night. Too nervous."

"Right. Yeah."

Brick began tapping the book in his hand.

Still they didn't notice.

"It was pretty great," he told her.

"It was," she replied softly.

"I thought for sure you'd trip. No offense."

No offense? Since when?

"Oh, the pageant," Sue murmured, frowning. She'd thought he meant the dance.

"Yeah, you were amazing."

"No…" she denied modestly, scrunching up her nose, but beaming.

"No, you were."

"No," she giggled, squirming shyly.

"No, really."

Brick rolled his eyes. "You're supposed to kiss her. (Kiss her)." He lifted his downturned head, held up his book and pointed at it. "I know about these things."

Axl and Sue both took abrupt steps away from each other, and then turned to look at Brick in surprise and horror.

Axl feigned a bout of laughter, then grabbed the book and smacked Brick's head with it. He shifted it to see the title. "Venti, Dark, And Handsome?" he read. "Where did you get this? Mom's nightstand?" It was clearly a romance of questionable quality; on the cover a muscular man was embracing a scantily-clad woman in an empty coffee shop.

"It was on her shelf," Brick corrected. "(Shelf)."

Axl gave him another slap with the book, and then handed it back to him. "Yeah, sure, I'll kiss Sue." He bent over and pretended to vomit, clutching his stomach.

Sue scowled at Axl. Then she turned, confused, to her little brother: "Why would you say that?"

Her elder brother darted her a glare; he wasn't interested in hearing any more.

Brick shook the book. "It's all in here. At first you argue and fight and are mean and hate each other. Then you find some common ground and kind of start to get along. And then you go on a date with each other and have a surprisingly good time. And then you kiss." He nodded confidently. "But I don't know what happens after that, I'm still reading it." He indicated his book mark, about 2/3 through the pages.

"We weren't on a date!" Axl pointed out incredulously. He glanced back towards the family room to see if his parents had heard, but they were still in the kitchen.

"Yeah, Brick, it wasn't a date," Sue confirmed more calmly.

"It never is," Brick pressed. "Not technically."

"How many books like this have you read?" Axl inquired, pulling Venti, Dark, and Handsome back out of his hands.

"Enough," Brick answered. "There's a whole formula."

Axl propelled the book against the family room wall, without looking.

"Axl," Sue chided with a roll of her eyes.

"Hey!" cried Brick. "The binding was already in poor shape. Mom clearly didn't buy it new. (New)."

"What does Mom ever buy new?" Axl joked. "Better go get your book, Brick." Putting his hand on Brick's back, he pushed him in that direction. "We don't need your input."

"OK. But you guys seem to be moving pretty slowly."

Axl's eyes shot at Sue for a split second. "We're not moving at all." He flicked Brick's forehead punitively. "We're brother and sister; the formula does not apply."

Brick swiveled towards his sister. "Sorry."

A look of terror and perplexity filled Sue's eyes. "What do you mean?" she cried.

"You did say that Axl was hunky."

Her eyes doubled in size. "I never."

"You did," Brick assured her. "I said that I didn't understand why any girl would go out with Axl. And you said, 'Well, he is pretty hunky'. And then you said, 'Don't tell him I said that.'"

Axl raised his eyebrows and turned expectantly to Sue.

"Brick!" she screamed, aghast. "And then you said, 'I'll take it to my grave', you little liar!" Sue whispered to Brick furiously, though Axl could easily hear her. "This is not your grave!" She grabbed his shirt and began pulling at it. "Yet!"

Brick broke away from her grip, and adjusted his shirt, before lifting his hands up in an act of resignation. "I just thought you guys could use some help. Sorry."

He began to walk away. Axl grabbed his collar. "Look, Brick, let me explain something to you. If I'm mean to Sue, it's because I hate her. And if she thinks I'm 'hunky', it's because I'm one damn fine looking man."

"Brick misheard me," Sue scrambled anxiously to say. "I said you were chunky. I didn't want him to tell you because I didn't want your feelings to be hurt."

"Right, Sue. Sure," Axl responded.

Horrified, Sue shut her door on them both.

/

Chapter 5: The Car

/

The next morning at church, Axl and Sue's effort to keep their distance from each other was apparent. Instead of scooting into the pew after Brick to be followed by Sue, Axl walked to the front and around, to enter the pew from the center aisle. Six people had to stand for him to pass before he reached his seat next to his father on the outside of his family's section.

Mike gave him a weird look, which Axl excused with an I-do-what-I-want shrug.

"Oh, Brick, look what you've done," Sue whispered.

"What?"

"Axl! He's being weird."

"Axl's always weird."

"Weirder, then."

"And how is that my fault? (My fault)."

Frankie shushed them.

Sue leaned in and whispered more quietly: "What you said last night."

"About the book?"

"All of it, Brick!"

"Why would that make Axl act weird?"

"You don't understand anything!"

Sitting up angrily, she turned her attention to the scripture reading.

/

Axl went out with friends for the day, which gave Sue the perfect opportunity to do something she had been thinking of for awhile, and which, with her mother's approval after Axl's impeccable (well, for him) recent behavior, she had the permission and financial assistance to do.

/

Monday was President's Day, so there was no school. Axl stayed out late with Sean and Darrin, and it was well-past nightfall when he got home. He did not notice until the light of the next day that every inch of his car had been sanded.

Sue had been waiting patiently (eventually impatiently) for Axl to wake and see it, even sending her mother off to return the gown without her so that she would not miss his reaction.

He stood, stunned, on the porch.

Sue came up behind him, squealing, and carrying an extremely heavy pail of black paint. She lifted it up to him excitedly as he turned his head. "We're going to paint your car!"

"You did this?"

"Well, Mom bought the paint. It's not the most expensive kind, and only enough for two coats."

He was speechless.

"The Donahues' garage is heated, and they said we could leave it in there to dry for a couple of days. Mom said she would take us to school tomorrow."

He took the paint from her, set it down on the ground, and then yanked her into a tight hug.

"But no one's dying," she teased.

It only made him squeeze tighter.

"I can't breathe…" she choked

He released her, and then reached up furtively to wipe under his eye.

"Are you crying?" she exclaimed.

He put his hand over her mouth. "Shut up! No. Of course not. It's the-the wind."

"Right, Axl. Sure," she responded, muffled by his hand.

He lifted it and ruffled her hair.

"I wanted to find some way to thank you for supporting me in the pageant, and finding Jenny to help," she explained. "You even came dress shopping! And well, I wouldn't mind arriving at school in style. You know, if you ever let me sit up in the seat again."

Smiling, Mike joined them. He was holding an array of brushes. "Ready to get started?"

"Actually," Axl began, grinning at Sue, "I'm going to give Sue here a driving lesson first."

"Really?" Sue exclaimed.

Axl had been about to go get some food, he handed her the keys he had already been holding.

"Sue has to be in the car with someone older than 25. You would know that if you had actually read the manual," Mike informed him.

Sue's face fell.

"Come on, Dad, just around the block. She already did it in the Donahues' car."

Mike hesitated for a moment. "Fine. But don't tell your mother."

Sue hugged her dad, then bounced down to Axl's car. "You don't mind being seen in it like this?" she asked, pointing at the sanding job.

"I think it might already be an improvement," he joked, getting into the passenger seat.

After her meticulous run through of the preparation steps, they were backing down the driveway.

"Oh my God!" she cried. "I'm driving. Oh my God!"

He laughed unsurely. "Maybe calm down a little."

"Oh sure. Oh my God!"

The streets were empty, fortunately for the inexperienced Sue. It was far too cold to play outside, and it was early yet. When they reached the first stop sign she asked if she should turn, but Axl encouraged her to keep going.

There was a preschool two more blocks down. It was vacant because of the holiday, so Axl told her to go into the parking lot and practice reverse.

She did not look secure in the idea, but she took a deep breath, shifted the gear, and let the car gently roll backwards. Axl was too busy laughing at how nervous she was to notice her clinging white-knuckled to the steering wheel and thereby angling the car to the left.

There was a bump.

"Ahhhhhhh!" Sue screamed. "I've killed someone!" She grabbed his jacket desperately and shook him. "Call 911! Call 911!"

He blinked at first, in disbelief. Seriously?

"Sue!" he shouted over her, trying to get her panicked attention. "Sue! It's the curb." He looked her in the eyes to make sure she had heard and understood him. "It's just the curb."

The front tires couldn't back over the curb without gas, but he took the gearshift from her anyway and put it in park.

"The curb?"

"No, I was kidding. It's a kid. Guess he didn't know there was no school today. He's actually lucky – he'll never have to go to school again."

"What?" Sue jumped up and struggled against her seatbelt.

Axl put his hand on her shoulder and held her down. "It was the curb."

"Axl!" She pounded on his chest once with her fist. Then she turned to him fully, and burst out laughing. "Well, I'm glad I didn't kill anyone. Ha! I'd never get my license then. I'd probably be the first person to have killed someone with a car before they even had their permit! Wouldn't that be just like me? The curb!"

"Sue?"

"What is it?" She puzzled at his once mocking expression now turned heavy and contemplative.

"Um…" he uttered uselessly, indecisively, tapping the dashboard.

Then in a single swift motion he slid one arm over her shoulder, placing his hand behind her neck, and used the other hand to lightly grasp her waist.

And then he leaned over and gently but resolutely kissed her.

Her mouth was soft and yielding even as he felt her body tense and erect in his embrace. She kept completely still except for her head which reacted passively to his active lips. He was used to more of a response, but she made no move to detach herself. He pressed his forehead to hers before withdrawing, a perhaps even more intimate gesture.

He couldn't quite face her directly, so he sort of stared down at her feet and then raised his eyes after a few seconds once he had gathered the courage.

Her reddened lips were slightly parted and her cheeks flushed. She swallowed and met his eyes. And then, after studying him for a moment, she cried out in distress, flailed wildly to get out of her seatbelt, fumbling with the button a few times before getting it, and then flew out of the car, running back towards there house.

"Wh-wh-Sue! Sue!" He got out of the car as quickly as he could, but she was long gone.

He rushed over to the driver's seat, finally got the car back over the curb, and drove back to the house.

"What was that?" Frankie demanded, standing in the driveway having just returned from the mall.

Axl scratched his head and ground his teeth. "Uh, what did she say?"

"She said that you were evil, and the worst brother ever."

"And that she hated you," Mike added, coming out of the garage.

"Oh, and that she wanted you to die," Frankie completed.

"That's all?" Axl asked, sucking in his breath anxiously.

"Seems like a lot," Mike remarked.

"I don't know what you did, but you had better make up with her," Frankie told him. "You and your father need her help with the car."

"It was just a misunderstanding," Axl explained, heading into the house.

Sue's door was closed. He knocked. There was no answer.

"Sue!"

"What did you do?" Brick asked from the dining room table. "She was very upset."

"Why does everyone assume I did something?"

"Maybe because she screamed 'I hate Axl!' before she slammed her door."

Axl knocked again, and again got no response.

"Hey Brick, in any of your books, after the guy and girl kissed, did she run away crying and want him dead?"

Brick pondered this. "No."

"Right."

"Wait! Yes, actually, in one. She killed him in the last chapter – with a mace! She was a witch assassin, and he was a dragon lord in an enemy kingdom. It was a different kind of book," he admitted.

"Very helpful, thank you, Brick (!)" Axl returned sarcastically.

"There's a sequel. It's not coming out until next year, though. (Next year)."

Axl ignored him and knocked again. "Ugh! Sue!" He pounded on the door.

He'd had enough, and entered without her permission. She was sitting on her bed, crying, but she jumped up and ran for the corner when he came in.

He shut the door behind him. "Uh, Sue, you're kinda hurting my feelings here. Sara Harington slapped me after I kissed her, but I think this is worse."

She shook her head at him in loathing and reprehension. "I can't believe you would do that to me. Be that mean."

"Mean?"

"Make fun of me like that!"

"Make fun of you? I wasn't making fun of you, Sue."

"Why else would you do it? Kiss me? Huh? Why else?"

"It was just…you know…it was nothing." He ran his hands through his hair and then dragged them down his face exasperatedly. Fine fucking situation he'd gotten himself into. Idiot!

It had been nothing. Just…just making fun of Brick. Yeah, if he was making fun of anyone, it was Brick and his stupid books and his stupid formula. Stupid Brick! This was his fault.

And Sue's fault. Her stupid cute face and stupid cute laughter and stupid soft lips.

"Nothing?" she asked quietly. "What? It's not funny anymore?"

"It wasn't supposed to be funny. I didn't think it was funny!" he maintained.

"Then why did you kiss me?"

Axl turned and banged his head on the back of door. Three times. "Because I wanted to, OK? God!"

"What?" she whispered.

"I know you haven't kissed much – just that pencil guy and that asshole who dumped you – but you still should have been able to tell I was into it. I even did that weird forehead thing. Ugh." He smashed his head against the door again.

"But…"

He reached for the door handle. "We're good now, right? Cause I gotta get out of here." He turned it.

"Wait!" She ran over to him and seized his hand. "You kissed me because you wanted to? Really? That's why?"

Leaning against the door, he turned around slowly to face her - ashamed, contrite, and apprehensive. He swallowed nervously, unsure of what was about to happen.

"Well, I-I liked it. You know, before I ran away screaming and crying," she told him.

"Oh?" He stood up straight. "Well of course you did: I'm the Axman."

She was not amused.

He bit his lip. "No? OK. No Axman."

"You could kiss me again, though. If you wanted." Her eyes were hopeful and timid. She tried to run her fingers through her hair, nonchalant and graceful, but they got caught in a tangle which she struggled with for a second before aborting the maneuver.

That was really all he needed to see. He encircled her with his arms and placed his smiling lips on hers.

She began giggling uncontrollably almost immediately and he had to pull away.

He shook his head at her, chuckling to himself. "Sue! This is serious business!"

She collapsed to the floor. "I'm s-I'm s-I'm sor-" She couldn't get the sentence out.

He dropped down beside her just as she rose onto her hands and knees. She crawled forward to kiss him, but was overwhelmed with giggles once again just before their lips met. She fell onto her back, laugher rippling through her.

"Stop teasing, Sue," he ordered. "I want that kiss."

He crawled on top of her, which sobered her immediately. One knee on each side of her legs, one hand on each side of shoulders.

"What if someone finds out?" she wondered fearfully, staring up at him.

"We'd move to another country. I'd make sure of it. The whole family."

"I'm serious, Axl."

"So am I. How do you like Australia? Or Russia maybe? Nepal?"

"Mexico?" she suggested.

"Not far enough. You're terrible at keeping secrets, you know that," he reminded her. "Worse at lying."

"I've never had a good enough reason to lie, or to keep a secret. I do now."

He brushed her hair aside affectionately.

"I won't tell," she reasserted.

"You understand that it needs to be secret, right?"

"I'm not stupid."

"Jury's still out on that one." He tried to deadpan it, to sound like he meant it like he always used to, like he was the same mean old big brother, but a smile quickly formed against his will, and he laughed, and brought his face down closer to hers. "What I mean is, it might get harder."

"Well I know something about adversity," she acknowledged proudly.

He considered that for a moment, and then laughed. "Yeah, you do."

"I did five laps around the track on crutches in the pouring rain. I think I can make out with you and not tell anyone about it."

He nodded, accepting. "Well put."

"Are you guys OK in there? Sue?" Frankie knocked on the door.

Sue screamed bloody murder.

Axl cursed and rolled away from her. They both jumped to their feet.

Frankie rushed in. "What? What is it? Spider?"

"Smooth," Axl mouthed to Sue disapprovingly. He turned to his mother: "Yeah. A spider. I got it. It's dead."

"Oh, OK. Well, did you guys make up?"

Sue giggled.

Axl shot her another disapproving glare. "We're good."

"Your dad wants to get started on the car."

Axl ushered her out of the room. "We'll be there in a minute."

Once he had shut the door on her, he turned to Sue in reproach. She backed up a few steps in alarm, and then vaulted over her bed.

"So I'm chasing you, is that it?" he checked, moving forward.

She shrugged playfully, and began to slink away from him.

Her bedroom being small and crowded with furniture, his athleticism didn't give him too much of an advantage, but it was still only two or three laps later that he captured the squealing mass as she moved to cross the bed.

They looked at each other breathlessly for a split second, and then he swept her against him and finally got that kiss.

She responded this time; her chest against his, her hands on his back, her lips parted.

In fact, he tried to pull away more than once, and she wouldn't let him.

/

THE END

/

Author's Notes:

I apologize that this is the fluffiest fluff that ever fluffed.

I didn't want to turn Matt into a bad guy, but it was just the easiest way to get rid of him. (Sorry, Matt!) I really wanted that scene of Axl watching Sue and Matt make-out, but he just got in the way after that. I don't like his pizza-stealing ways, but he is a nice guy.

I flirted with the idea of ending it with: And then they painted the car. And then they lived happily ever after. So, you might take comfort in that if the ending was too open for your tastes.

Do you think the Jenny story needed more closure? I'd throw in something about her reaching out to her own sister, but there actually is such a thing as too much sap for me.

My original plan was for Sue to present Axl with his already painted car. But then I looked it up, and it takes days! (The wiki-how article was very helpful: someone had edited it to say that part of the preparatory step was jerking off three times. It has since been fixed. Sadly.)

I watched a lot of Spartacus: Blood and Sand while writing this, so I might have worded some things strangely under its influence.

I feel like Axl didn't call enough things lame. Just know that he thought many things were lame. And he was often in only his boxers.

Ha ha! Yes. I got them into the shower. It was one of my only specific goals. I didn't know how I was ever going to do it at first. I'm not sure if Mike and Frankie have a shower in their bathroom – they have a shower curtain and a knob of unknown function – but it looks like more of a tub-only situation. Maybe the shower is broken. I have personal experience with the feasibility of that explanation.