A.N.: Please review!


All Quiet on the East Coast

05


"Ruby."

Ruby grumbled, blissful in the decadent cocoon of deep sleep; she'd had the most wonderful dream about Stacy and Garrett last night. Shortly followed by her favourite dream, of flying. Not technically flying, but racing down the highway, the wind pushing tears from her eyes, her hair flying, the roar of an engine tuned up tight music to her ears as the rumble reverberated right through her entire body, heat drenching her from a blistering sun in a limitless sky.

"Ruby." She nestled deep into the cocoon that was her warm duvet and several of her handmade blankets. Ruby was a glut for comfort and heat.

Something poked her face rather sharply, and Ruby's head jerked up; in the sunshine streaming through the now-uncovered bay window, she could see a golden halo, and something black. She blinked her eyes several times, before Anise came into focus.

Last night she'd gone to bed with a flyaway ponytail, in Sleeping Beauty pyjamas. Now she was fresh-faced, her hair shining, combed and arranged in a neat bun, pinned into place; she was also wearing a tiny little black leotard and pale-pink tights.

"Hi," Ruby grumbled. She'd dreamt of her future Kerouac-esque Harley ride through Monument Valley again; this time, she'd had peach pie at the end of it. Last time, she'd tried key-lime, and the times before those, she'd tried chocolate, cherry and blueberry. Each pie was delicious, in her dream. Now she wanted pie.

"I made you Lucky Charms," Anise said excitedly. "Before I have to go to ballet. Mommy says it might be too early for me to bug you. But we have to talk about my t-ball practice."

"I'm up," Ruby murmured. She sighed deeply, still in the clutches of decadent sleep. She licked her lips, and opened her eyes again, squinting at Anise. She managed to haul herself out of bed, Anise dimpling with a little smirk at Ruby undoubtedly flashing her floral cotton-covered bottom before her t-shirt fell into place around the tops of her thighs; she wasn't shy about her body, and usually, because she most of the time had a boy with her, slept in the nude; they were just lucky she'd put on a t-shirt, instead of slipping into bed in only her cute little thong. She grabbed her jeans from the rocking-chair, and rubbed her face as she followed Anise, who bounded downstairs.

The island was set with two pink Ikea bowls and cups; Lucky Charms marshmallow-cereal floated colourfully in the bowls, and chocolate milk frothed in the cups. Ruby couldn't help a smile, even as tired as she was; she had gone to bed at one a.m., and looking at the clock, it was now only eight. Anise had obviously set out breakfast for them.

"Thank you for getting me up early, Anise," Ruby said, waking up a tiny bit after slinging back half her chocolate-milk.

"You're welcome," Anise smiled, as she clambered onto the bar-stool next to Ruby.

"Where's everyone else?" Ruby asked, glancing at Anise.

"It's Saturday, so Daddy's gone for a bike-ride with his club," Anise smiled, sipping her chocolate-milk. "And Mommy's just gone into her workshop for a little while before she has to take me to ballet."

"Thank you for my breakfast," Ruby smiled, as she munched on Lucky Charms. Not her usual choice of breakfast, but a delicious treat.

"Do you like it?"

"I do."

"What do you normally have for breakfast?" Anise asked curiously. "I like Lucky Charms and Raisin Bran, and toast with Mommy's jam."

"I like yoghurt and honey," Ruby said, glancing at Anise with a smile. "Or cinnamon rolls. Or French toast, a BLT or brioche, or pie."

"You have pie for breakfast?" Anise dimpled, her eyes sparkling.

"When I can get it," Ruby smiled.

"Can you make pie?" Anise asked.

"I can make quite a few things," Ruby said.

"I can make fairy-cakes, with Mommy," Anise said. "And Aunt Regina lets me stir the mac-and-cheese sometimes."

"That's nice, that you help," Ruby smiled.

"Yup," Anise yawned. "Are you going to come to my game today?"

"Yes," Ruby smiled. "What time is it?"

"I have to ask Mommy," Anise frowned subtly, fidgeting in her seat as she finished her Lucky Charms and chocolate-milk. Breakfast of ballerinas, Ruby thought, eyeing the little girl's leotard and tights.

"Are you going to show me your footwork?" she asked, and when Anise had finished her cereal, she climbed down from her seat—putting her cup and bowl neatly in the top drawer of the dishwasher—and while Ruby finished her own breakfast, she chuckled and watched Anise show her what she was learning at her ballet lessons.

It wasn't long before Tami appeared; she smelled faintly of paint, her flowery perfume tainted by it, but she was smiling, and again dressed in jeans, today in a pretty top, her flip-flops thwacking. She came bearing a little pink bag, in which the daintiest pair of elastic ballet slippers was kept. She smiled at Ruby, chiding Anise softly for waking her, but at Anise's adamant urges, Tami chuckled and asked whether Ruby had a cell-phone.

"I do, it's—" Ruby frowned, digging into her front-pockets. She shifted, smiled as her eyebrows rose, and she dug her sleek little touch-screen, keypad Blackberry from her back-pocket. "Right here!"

"We forgot to exchange numbers last night," Tami smiled. "Your dad has his cell with him, and I'll leave a note on the fridge in the garage saying you're going over to the McGowans—right?—but just in case…" She pulled out her own silver cell and they plugged each others' numbers in, along with Ruby's dads, and Anise stood, looking a little wistfully at the phones.

"Mommy, can we bring Ruby to the game?" Anise asked.

"You know your game's right after practice," Tami said.

"Yeah." Anise blinked.

"So Ruby won't want to sit for an hour watching you practice, will she," Tami said gently. Anise frowned thoughtfully.

"Where's her game?" Ruby asked quietly, as Anise took Ruby's empty cup and bowl and set them in the dishwasher.

"It's at baseball-diamond three at the Sports Park," Tami said. "You know…you don't have to come watch. Soon as she's with those boys, she won't notice anything else." Ruby laughed.

"No, it's cool," she smiled earnestly. "I'm excellent at heckling the opposing pitcher. Although…t-ball doesn't have a pitcher…"

"Matthew told me you plan to throw snow-cones at him if he strikes out Anise," Tami chuckled.

"I have been known…" Ruby said, raising her chin.

"Well, nothing with purple food-colouring, please," she chuckled.

"Blue?"

"Acceptable."

"What time does the game start?"

"Two o'clock," Tami smiled. She nodded at her daughter. "I'll be taking Anise to get groceries after ballet's over, so we probably won't be back for lunch, just in case you decide to come back. But help yourself to anything. Not that there's much. We were too excited yesterday afternoon to go grocery-shopping—weren't we, Nisey?"

"Yep," Anise smiled, unabashed. She glanced up at Ruby, as her mother collected her car-keys. "I'll try to win for you today, Ruby. But I'm not very good at catching."

"Oh, we'll work on that," Ruby smiled. "I'm an excellent pitcher. We'll make you the best catcher in the whole league." Anise giggled softly, and she hopped after her mother when Tami called her from the front-door.

"I'm sorry, we haven't had a key cut for you, yet," Tami said, frowning at Anise as she tugged on a pair of her tiny glittery jelly-sandals (these ones pink, where yesterday's had been translucent-silver). "The back door's unlocked, so if you get back and your dad's not home, you can still get in."

"Okay," Ruby smiled, thinking to herself that with that balcony to her room, she wouldn't be sneaking through the back-door much.

"Bye!" Anise chirped, before diving out of the house; Tami shot Ruby a smile before following after her daughter. Then Ruby was left alone again. But it was different this time. She didn't feel the undeniable urge to shower and rush off now that she was awake. She wanted to linger.

She explored, for ten minutes, wandering around the house. She found the den; her father's study, where the walls truly were groaning with books and records; she found a large, open space devoted to what looked like catering, interior-decorating, party-planning, invitation-designing things, Tami's workshop; the spare bedrooms; the in-home gym; the conservatory/greenhouse; and she located her dad's and Tami's room, for future reference should she need to gauge how much noise she could make when sneaking in and out of the house. Their room was on the opposite side of the house, a floor below, and she couldn't see any of her windows, or even that part of the house, from her dad's rear-facing windows.

She wasn't planning on sneaking out or anything; but it was always best to know as many routes in and out of a house. In case boys had to be snuck out. They hadn't broached the subject of dating and boyfriends last night, beyond Ruby telling her dad about Stacy in Pearl, and they hadn't discussed curfews or weekday limitations on going out. Anyway, it was the end of the summer. The best parties in this town had already been had; she had summer memories with Garrett, and she was happy. She just thought that, you know, just in case…she'd know she could get away with sneaking in after curfew, or sneaking a boy out.

Not that she was planning on either, of course. If Ruby had ever had a parent with good judgment and…well, the perception that she didn't actually live alone, actually had a teenaged daughter, Ruby probably would have been a well-behaved daughter. But she hadn't, and Ruby was a good girl, she just had no rules, and made them up for herself. The biggest? No unprotected sex. Ever. No hard drugs; pot was acceptable, in company she trusted. Like Stacy. No riding in cars with drunk boys. She'd learned to drive ages ago—truck and bike—not through getting her permit or anything, but out of necessity. She had come to realise that she did her best work while suffering paralysing terror, and now she travelled as surely on two wheels as she did on two legs. Or four; little or small. She collected her skateboard from the hall as she made her way back upstairs, deciding to shower and get ready.

Her hair half blow-dried after a shower—but not combed; she had soft, luxurious thick hair that curled beautifully to her bottom—she pulled on a short white circle-crocheted mini-skirt, and a threadbare cocoa t-shirt with a logo so faded it was no longer discernable, if it ever had been. She clasped a sinuous gold necklace with a tiny circle around her throat; it had come, as most of jewellery had, from Dogeared, and she loved that the circle represented karma. She tugged on a battered pair of Converse sneakers, and frowned between the sand-beige and the black mini Danike Go-Go bag she used when she was going out for the day; she decided on the beige, and put into it her cell; her digital camera, and her small, old film one; Gramity's 'Pinktober' fuchsia aluminum bottle filled with mango iced-tea from the refrigerator; her iPod Nano; her incredibly soft, battered baseball mitt; her purse, and, after she had put on her sparse makeup selection for the day, she added her little hand-sewn makeup bag (in which she also kept a few condoms and sachets of lubricant—she was a Boy Scout after all; "Always be prepared" and all that shit), zipped it all up, remembered to put sun-cream on her arms and legs, before covering the smell with a few dabs of her very expensive Serge Lutens 'El Attarine' perfume.

Making sure the front-door was locked behind her, Ruby set out, her little backpack nestled in the small of her back comfortably, and she threw her skateboard down and leapt atop it.

Within minutes—how delightful was that! She was minutes away from her favourite people in the whole world now!—she had entered the McGowans' neighbourhood, shooting into midair as she took the humpback redbrick bridge, and crouching down as the wheels hit tarmac once more; so early in the morning, as she directed her board up the street, and around the next corner, pushing off quickly toward the familiar entrance to the McGowans' enormous corner property, the first on the street to the left, she noticed that the McGowan house seemed quiet. Not silent, as it would be at four in the morning, but quiet; the teenagers, at least, she highly doubted would be awake already.

Her chest ached, in a really good way: the house that was so familiar, haunted her dreams so unremittingly—the Cathy to her Heathcliff, if inanimate objects could hold the same fascination and obsessive love—that to see it again… She had missed this place. Any time she allowed herself introspection and wallowing, her thoughts returned here. Without fail.

Could Ruby have chosen her home, growing up, she would always have said "the McGowans' house". Always. She had hated the Lieutenant Commander for taking her from it. From them; the McGowans.

She grabbed her skateboard from the ground, and made her way around the house, peeking into the garage through the glass panel in the scuffed back-door: the climbing-tree still sprawled beautifully, up to the window of the bedroom Ruby and Finn had once shared; that window was so easy to jimmy and climb up to, it was ridiculous, and her ease at climbing had grown the second summer she had spent here, when she had neared thirteen; there was the colossally strong, gnarled limb ten feet up, from where she had fallen and broken her leg—she had been screaming for an hour before Sean had finally come to see why she was yelling.

The patio featured a large, sun-bleached table and chairs, as well as a very large barbecue; the ground was scattered with boys' toys and sporting equipment; a good handful of colourful water-guns; a coiled hose; buckets and sodden towels the boys obviously hadn't bothered to bring in after a water-fight: the ramshackle shed she and Finn had used as their 'hideout'—inside which they had gotten up to such nefarious deeds as trying their first cigarette, tasting their first beers (stolen from Sean) andhaving their first kisses—was overgrown with ivy, and the entire yard had that careful negligence that made it so wonderfully natural; the grass was cut haphazardly, trampled where the boys ran around: a makeshift baseball-diamond was marked out; a badminton-net strung up; and attached to the back of the garage was the basketball hoop Finn and Evan had butted heads jumping for, splitting Finn's lip and cutting Evan's forehead when Evan had head-butted Finn's mouth accidentally; they'd both needed stitches. Miller had cuddled with her for two hours when Sean had accidentally shut his finger in the back-door leading right into the kitchen: there was the place where Doug had crashed his bike, chipping a tooth. The lawn was where they had, both summers Ruby had lived here, camped out under the stars as a family—except Regina and Caleb, the latter being only a baby at the time. But they no longer had the brick-trimmed pit over which they used to toast marshmallows for S'mores, listening to John tell spooky stories, Sean and Regina creeping up on them to scream and scare the life out of them.

She crept up to the back-door, one of two that led into the main house (another being the back garage-door, which squeaked badly, or had, the last time she was here), and peeked through the glass panels before grinning; two figures sat at the kitchen-table, both in pyjamas, sipping steaming mugs of coffee, going over newspapers or magazines. One, dark-haired and still beautiful, the other, an aging-rock-star kind of godlike handsomeness of blonde hair, strong jaw and broad shoulders. Ruby found the door unlocked, and grinned as she soundlessly turned the knob and peeked her head around.

"Boo," she said, and John and Regina glanced up as she grinned. For a split-second, they gaped in subtle incredulity—perhaps a lack of instant recognition; it had been four years, after all—but John grinned, and Regina gasped, her entire face lighting up with utter, unabashed delight, and Ruby slipped into the house, leaning her skateboard against the counter, closing the door behind her.

"Oh my god!" Regina laughed, darting out of her seat in a whirl of pink robe, slippers and long dark hair; she looked just the same to Ruby, who grinned as she hugged back the woman she was alarmed to find was actually shorter than her. In her mind, she'd believed Regina would always be taller, that larger-than-life goddess of motherhood. Regardless of the height difference, when Regina hugged Ruby it was with that same strength and warmth Ruby remembered; she clung back, grinning like an idiot, closing her eyes briefly as the familiar scent of rose with an almost leathery warmth enveloped her, the way her soft hair smelled faintly of coconut, the way it used to during the summer months when they'd head to the beach and live off of fish and chips, lemonade and popsicles.

"How did you get over the border?" John chuckled, as he opened his arms for a huge hug as soon as Regina had relinquished her; Ruby grinned and darted into his arms, chuckling, and he hugged her fiercely; it was nice to hug someone and not have to stoop: John McGowan was still taller than her; he'd once played ball against Michael Jordan.

"Stowed away," Ruby grinned.

"When'd you get tall, Ruby?" John asked, as he set her at arm's length, grinning handsomely. "I should've put you in basketball not baseball." Ruby laughed.

"Wouldn't have done you much good," she chuckled. "Me, organised sports; girls can't play Major League Basketball."

"Oh, yeah; sports sexism," John chuckled, and Ruby shot him an amused smirk.

"Come on, you know I'd have athletes straightened out and stopping whining if I was allowed to terrorise their locker-rooms," she grinned, and John chuckled.

"Given the way the boys have slipped up the last few years, we can honestly say you do keep things running tight," John chuckled, and Regina smiled indulgently.

"Slipped up?" Ruby quirked an eyebrow.

"Yes, I think it's about time they had a mandatory re-education at Ruby Thorne's Boot-Camp," Regina grinned.

"Where are the boys, anyway?" Ruby asked, glancing around; evidence of them was everywhere, but she could neither see nor hear movement anywhere in the house. "I know it's early, but Caleb's five, right? Shouldn't he've been racing around driving you nuts for hours already?"

"God bless PlayStation," John chuckled.

"The boys went to a party last night," Regina smiled, as she refilled John's coffee-mug and offered Ruby some.

"No, thanks," Ruby smiled, smiling mischievously. "So…they were at a party, hmm…" She glanced at John. "Do you have that old bullhorn, by any chance?" John laughed.

"I don't want to provoke a mutiny of hungover teenaged boys," he chuckled, and Regina smiled as she offered Ruby juice or a doughnut; knowing the way this house worked, Ruby beamed and took a fresh glazed doughnut from the box, before the boys could come down and get their grubby little hands all over them. "It would not be pretty."

"Thank you. Are you sure?" Ruby asked, as she sipped the juice Regina had poured for her; she climbed into a chair at the table, where John was going through the sports section; she grabbed a pencil left on the deep ledge of the window soaking the table with light, on which were stacked books two-deep, at least six-high, and took the Sudoku puzzles and difficult crossword. "'Cause I'm betting I'm still bigger than Doug at least."

"Yeah, but he'll fight you back now if you try and sit on his head," John chuckled.

"Try? I always managed it," Ruby smiled. "It's me smacking his head into the wall you have to worry about."

"That was warranted," Regina smiled softly.

"Does he still peep?" Ruby asked thoughtfully; John glanced up from the sports-section, eyebrows raised in mild alarm. Regina chuckled softly.

"Not now that he's found Sean's old collection of magazines," she said carefully, with a shiver of distaste; Ruby grimaced.

"So… So! Tell me all about the happenings in the life and times of the McGowan clan," Ruby smiled eagerly, glancing from John to Regina. "I haven't heard anything for four years! Do you finally have that little daughter you've always wanted?" John chuckled softly.

"After you?" he asked, grinning. "Why mess with perfection?"

"Isn't that the truth," Ruby grinned, winking back; he chuckled. She glanced at Regina. "So Caleb was the last, huh?"

"Yes," Regina smiled warmly, sipping her coffee.

"Well, I have been hearing all about him from Anise," Ruby said, and Regina and John exchanged a quick glance.

"So…you've met Tami and Anise, then?" Regina prompted carefully. Ruby smiled.

"Yep. Unexpected, to say the least—but then, I didn't give Daddy much of a chance to get a word in edgeways on the drive from the airport, so…" Ruby chuckled, and Regina. "Tami seems nice. And I cannot for the life of me put my finger on who Anise reminds me of…" John laughed outright at that, and Regina's warm eyes danced.

"She's just as precocious as you were at the same age," Regina smiled.

"She told me she's going to marry Finn," Ruby said thoughtfully. She'd once believed she would marry Finn also. "Do you still have that, um, sapphire-turquoise dress? You should wear it to the wedding—oh! And Anise says that you're—" she nudged John's leg under the table, catching his attention as he smiled, "a babe. That's an exact quote." John laughed again, giving a little shrug as if to say, Yeah. This is news?

"Do you know, I think you used to say things in the same vein, Ruby," Regina laughed softly, sipping her coffee. "Between you and, um, Megan—Megan Meade, d'you remember her? It was a while ago since you saw her—you two were infatuated with John." John's chuckle was deep and good-natured; Ruby grinned.

"Well, yeah," Ruby smiled. "That's 'cause we thought John looked like Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty. Except, without the tights, of course." She frowned into the distance. "Although, having watched Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, during Will and Kate's wedding, I've gone off princes named Philip."

"Oh, did you watch the royal wedding?" Regina smiled. "The boys actually let me have the TV that day."

"Wasn't she stunning?" Ruby breathed, beaming. "Everyone was going on and on the next day about how Pippa looked so fabulous, even with her great big fat arse in that little white dress—I mean, the dress was pretty, but it was Kate's day! She looked absolutely beautiful!"

"I loved it when she walked out onto the balcony and saw just how many people were gathered outside Buckingham Palace," Regina smiled warmly. "And how Will turned to her and said she looked beautiful. And her dress was lovely. So elegant."

"It was very unassuming. I liked that," Ruby smiled. "Very old-world, Grace Kelly elegant. And the tiny little bouquet of lily-of-the-valley! Have you seen pictures of their cake? I've got a copy of a photograph of it on my corkboard. I'd happily sell my soul for a reason to have a wedding-cake like that!" Regina's smile was so broad, it touched every part of her body; she leaned over to envelope Ruby in another hug, kissing her cheek this time as well.

"It is so good to have you here again, Ruby," Regina hummed softly, nuzzling her cheek affectionately before brushing a lock of Ruby's long, curling hair away from her face. "We've missed you around here."

"I've missed you, too," Ruby said, smiling lazily, as she hugged Regina back with one arm, nestling her head against Regina's shoulder.

"So, I think the last time we heard from your mother…you were in D.C.?" John said, folding his paper and setting it aside on the table, where everything, Ruby noticed, was arranged in height-order, just as everything on the island and counters were; the work of Miller, she recalled.

"That's the last time the Lieutenant Commander bothered to call you?" Ruby blurted, wide-eyed and appalled.

"Well, your dad told us you were coming up from South Carolina," Regina said, a soft frown playing at her pretty features. Ruby exhaled heavily.

"Okay, well, you asked for it; the Ruby Saga," she said, her shoulders feeling suddenly heavy as she fidgeted in her seat for a more comfortable position, and picked apart her doughnut. "Okay, so… After I was dragged from here, we spent four months in Rammstein. Came back to the States—San Diego for three months; D.C. for five. Then there was…" She counted on her fingers, "six months in Israel; five in Japan… The Lieutenant Commander went on another T.O.D., so I went to live with Gramity in Florida. That only lasted five months. Next to living here, it was my favourite time in my whole life. Then we had six months in Italy; moved to Pearl Harbour for seven months… Then there was three months in Greece, and then back Stateside to Charleston, for four months. And now I'm here."

"That's…" John frowned, an odd expression on his face as he tried to quickly calculate and absorb what she'd said to the fullest implications.

"Forty-eight months, ten moves," Ruby said, sighing. "Averages out to about a hundred and forty-nine days in any one place. Or four months. I did the math."

"How did you manage at school with all that upheaval?" Regina gasped, looking horrified and a little upset. Ruby blurted a laugh. School? When she saw Regina was serious, she cleared her throat, whistled and reached for the first book she found on the windowsill.

"Hey, who's reading The Little Prince?" she asked, genuinely curious. One of the McGowan boys had read Antoine de Saint-Exupery? The last time she had been here, it was all Tony Hawk, Grand Theft Auto and the Red Sox. Who did all these books belong to?

"Ruby," Regina said, in that warning tone Ruby's own Jiminy Cricket conscience had come to emulate: Ruby was a firm believer in following her own code of conduct, and she believed in karma more than anything. She glanced up in time to see the darkly significant look John and Regina exchanged. She fidgeted uncomfortably; few things made her uncomfortable, per se; but now she was sat before John and Regina McGowan, who had always noticed even the tiniest things about her life. She knew, as she had known since the Lieutenant Commander had hauled her away to Rammstein at the beginning of seventh-grade, that she would never have gotten away with what she'd done the last four years if she'd been living under the McGowans' roof. They would have noticed. They would have cared. And they would have grounded her until she was thirty-eight for not going to school for three months.

"I tried," Ruby said softly, her voice catching slightly, and she blinked several times as she glanced away from Regina, not wanting her to know… Well, that by all accounts, Ruby should still be completing seventh-grade. "But I didn't speak German. So that was four months down the drain, September to December. I was in San Diego only between Winter and Spring Break, then we moved to D.C., the last two and a half months of the school-year. Then we went to Israel. I did okay there; I got my Hebrew and Arabic back up to scratch, at least… Three months of my time in Japan, I was at school. But I didn't speak a word of Japanese until the end; all the lessons were given in Japanese. That…frustrated me to tears. The best I did was with Gramity in Florida. Italy…I didn't do much; went travelling on weekends, mostly. Then nobody cared that I didn't show up, so I made them long weekends… I got to loving surfing too much in Pearl during the summer when fell in with Stacy, and he was dyslexic so he hated school and loved ditching class to go to the beach… I didn't even bother going to school in Greece, those three months I was there. What was the point, you know? I got to Charleston at the end of May…just around the time everyone was doing their finals. So there was no point… Then it was three months tuning up bikes and Garrett's truck, and just…" She trailed off with a sigh. She hated that she had to tell John and Regina these things; because they would never have let her get away with it, and she had numerous times overheard them talking very angrily about the way the Lieutenant Commander treated her—as if she didn't exist.

For a moment, Regina and John sat in stunned silence. No other girl in the world could get away with what she'd done—or not done—the last four years. But then, no other girl moved on average every four months; who was going to notice if she didn't show up to school, when they'd barely learned her name anyway? And who cared about her transcript when she was there one month, gone after the next two? Sometimes she'd hand in a homework assignment, and be the other side of the world before the teacher had had time to grade it.

"So the last time you went to school, was…?" John frowned. Ruby fidgeted, feeling flushed and uncomfortable, and suddenly unhappy. Damn it, do not introspect.

"I went sometimes, in Pearl," Ruby said, flushing unhappily. Yeah, just enough to avoid expulsion. When you weren't already suspended for ditching. "And…sometimes, in Italy. Gramity made sure I went every day, and we sat together at the table doing my homework while Gramity did her scrapbooks." But those five consecutive months of unbroken school attendance two years ago had been the pinnacle achievement in her educational career since sixth-grade.

"Didn't your mother ever…?" John frowned.

"Notice that I wasn't going to school?" Ruby half-laughed. She smiled sadly at him, sighing. "Been a long while since we've seen each other, huh?" She sighed, chewed on a bit of doughnut, and laughed suddenly. "Hell, the Lieutenant Commander didn't even think I'd be sexually-active 'til she caught me with Garrett the other day." She laughed again, happily, slapping her palm once on the table. "Shocked the hell out of her!" She laughed to herself, replaying the scene over in her head, as she had several times since the Lieutenant Commander had come back way too early from the base, and found Ruby and Garrett having sex on the sofa. She sighed, yawning subtly. In her periphery vision, she saw John and Regina exchange almost horrified glances. "Anyway, it's not like I've let myself get stupid or anything. I consume books; I always take a handful with me whenever I travel—which is a lot. I've got a collection of library-cards from where I've spent days reading. I haven't let a lack of schooling affect my education. Isn't that the Twain quote, or something like it?"

Anyone else, with a parent so utterly self-absorbed and clueless as the Lieutenant Commander, would have taken the opportunity to just spend their days doing absolutely fuck-all, playing video-games and goofing off. Sometimes, yes, Ruby did indulge in that; but since she would gain no education from going to school, she put her energies into borrowing books from libraries and memorising their contents, just so that nobody could call her stupid, even if her school-grades would support that statement. She frowned. "Although, there is that quote about the self-taught man." She glanced at John and Regina, who were communicating silently. "How do you think I should go about explaining all this to Daddy?" she asked, grimacing softly. She looked at Regina for a response.

"Your mother's got a lot to answer for," Regina said softly, with just the right amount of undercurrent anger. Ruby laughed suddenly, softly.

"Yeah. Good thing she's going into a war-zone," she said, popping the last of her doughnut into her mouth. "D'you think Daddy might kill her?"

"Well, I'm very close to flying out to beat the hell out of your mother," Regina frowned.

"Mom, did you just say 'hell'?" a young voice cooed tauntingly, and a little boy with blonde hair and a cat-and-cream grin came dashing into the kitchen. Regina caught Ruby's eye and rolled her own briefly before she smiled at the little boy. Glad for the change of subject, Ruby smiled at the boy as he reached the table and climbed into his dad's lap; John tucked his long arms around the little boy, nestling him comfortably in his lap.

"Well, well, this must be the infamous Caleb I've been hearing so much about," Ruby grinned. Ian would be about eleven now; but Caleb had been a baby when she'd been dragged, tooth-and-nail, from this house those years ago. "They're so cute before the forked-tail and horns grow in." Regina chuckled, the tension from their previous topic of conversation breaking, if not forgotten; Caleb peeked shyly at Ruby from his dad's lap. The last time she had seen Caleb, they had spent the week at the beach, and he had toddled to her at her every coo, following her around, picking shells and sand-dollars from the sand, giggling when she'd dumped buckets of water over his head, dressed in his tiny little board-shorts, clinging to her fingers and focused entirely on licking his melting frozen custard. There were photographs somewhere. He'd always been her favourite of the younger McGowan boys: Miller had been quiet and sweet, living with Asperger's, but had definitely liked her; Doug had been an irritating shit whose skull must bear at least a hundred healed contusions from all the times Ruby had knocked his head into the wall or thrown him down onto the ground to sit on his head. Ian had been a little older than Caleb was now, and irritating.

Getting down and dirty was the only way to deal with these boys. The U.N. held no sway in this neck of the woods. Regina's and John's word was law: As Regina's superintendent, Ruby's word had been too. And she had dealt with dissent with Roman brutality. Those memories made her smile, and Caleb gazed at her.

"Caleb, say hello," Regina smiled softly.

"Hi," Caleb said shyly.

"Hi," Ruby grinned. "Your girlfriend Anise has told me all about you."

"You know Nisey?" Caleb smiled.

"She's going to be my stepsister," Ruby said, smiling, and Regina caught her eye; Ruby smiled, then turned back to Caleb. "She's cute, huh?"

"She has pretty hair," Caleb said, fiddling with the neck of his dad's pyjama t-shirt (a Red Sox t-shirt).

"You like her hair?" Ruby grinned. "Well, I tell you what, you are one lucky man, because I saw her this morning in her little black leotard—she has one cute little tush!" Regina laughed, and John chuckled; Caleb grinned and fidgeted in his dad's lap.

"Mom!" a young voice called—and this time, a slightly older boy clattered into the kitchen, yawning; he looked about ten or eleven, just beginning to show signs of starting that transition to leave behind that intrinsic chubbiness of youth. Like his father and little-brother, he wore a Red Sox t-shirt, but he had already pulled on a pair of grass-stained jeans.

"And who are you?" Ruby asked, as he approached the table, dragging the box of Trix toward him.

"I'll tell you for a dollar," the boy said, and Regina frowned as John turned a laugh into a tut.

"Well, I don't have a dollar on me," Ruby said, frowning at the boy. Ten or eleven meant Ian. "But how about a quarter shoved up your nose?" He blinked, then his features morphed into one of remembered terror.

"You're Ruby!" he blurted, horrified, and darted away from her. John laughed, as his second-youngest son scrambled away from a girl. Ruby grinned at Regina.

"It's so nice to see my legacy is still intact around here," she said, and Regina laughed. While Ian stared at her, careful to keep out of arm's reach—she had taken delight in stuffing Ian into the laundry-hamper and sitting on the lid, deaf to his cries, until either Sean or Evan paid her a few dollars to release him. "So, uh, John, where did we land on that whole bullhorn idea? Because," she checked her plain silver watch, "I think it's about time I go and give Finn his wake-up call."

"No dice," John chuckled.

"Why not?" Ruby blurted indignantly. "You're gonna have to cough it up later, anyways, otherwise how will I orchestrate the dirty cheers at Anise and Caleb's t-ball game?"

"You're coming to my t-ball game?" Caleb smiled shyly.

"You bet I am!" Ruby grinned. "Anise made me promise." She frowned, smiled, then chuckled, "I'm surprised she didn't try to coerce me into a tutu and attend her ballet lesson with her."

"Are you still dancing?" Regina asked, sipping her coffee, as she looked through a magazine that had to be the only feminine thing in this entire house. Ruby quirked an eyebrow.

"After Sean's minor disagreement with my tibia?" she said, and John chuckled. "Alas, your firstborn has deprived the world of their finest prima ballerina." She sighed, shaking her head, as footsteps echoed on the kitchen stairs. She frowned, wondering… "What's Super-Dope up to these days?" Ruby asked, and squawked as someone grabbed her around the neck in a headlock, thick, tanned muscles bulging beautifully.

"Super what?" someone grunted dangerously, and Ruby grinned, choking as she tried to free herself. It was the expression in the voice, not the voice itself, that Ruby recognised; she had always teased Sean, building on what she heard his parents saying about him squandering his brains tinkering away on bikes. But she had always been somewhat enamoured with him, hero-worshipping him for his love of bikes even as she taunted him for letting people think he was willingly letting himself be seen as stupid.

"Sean!" she gurgled a laugh, and when he released her, she grinned once again as her eyes rested Sean McGowan, even as her insides disappeared entirely, replaced with something rapturous and molten.

If ever there was a boy mothers everywhere warned their daughters against dating, it would be Sean McGowan, Ruby suspected. Gorgeous dark hair, his warm eyes were fringed with beautiful lashes, almost delicate; he had a handsome, straight nose, very beautiful lips, and his beautifully masculine jaw was dusted with stubble; he stood two inches or so taller than Ruby, shirtless, gorgeously tanned and muscled. When he released her, Ruby laughed, grinning, even as she noted the Orange County Choppers logo tattooed on Sean's right bicep.

Boy could rival Garrett Hedlund in that Jeff Bridges movie, Ruby thought; Sean took The Little Prince from her, and Ruby stared curiously as he meandered in low-slung jeans to the counter, where he picked up the coffee-pot and poured himself a steaming mug. Her insides slipped, as she gazed at his broad, broad shoulders, the narrow dip of his trim waist, and all the sculpted, tanned muscles in between; his jeans were those relaxed-fit kind, just dark enough, worn in the right places, and showed off the two subtle dimples at the base of his slim waist where he wasn't wearing a shirt. He was also barefoot, and shuffled around the kitchen idly.

"I thought your first tat was gonna be 'I (heart) Mom'," Ruby said, quickly thinking something to cover up her staring at him in blatant appreciation while Regina watched her carefully from the corner of her eye.

"That's on my ass," Sean grumbled softly; he hadn't had such a gorgeously deep voice the last time Ruby had been here, but the expression in it was still the same; soft, warm, and now bearing an odd mixture of decadence and subtle menace. As Ruby laughed, Regina chided her eldest softly, frowning, Ruby supposed, at Sean's language. As Sean sipped his coffee, he kept his gaze on Ruby. Lowering his mug, he said softly, "Should've known you'd be comin' round when I saw all the neighbourhood pets running in circles yesterday." Ruby burst out laughing as John chuckled, and Regina rolled her eyes, standing to make Caleb some cereal.

"If they were, it's only because they live on this street, with you and your brothers in such close proximity," Ruby pointed out earnestly. Sean smirked subtly, sipping his coffee. Those warm eyes were strangely unsettling as they rested on her. She felt her cheeks warming—something that hadn't happened since the days of Jake.

"Well, I'm going to head upstairs," Ruby said lightly, grinning at the thought of surprising Finn. She clambered up from the table, Sean's eyes widening as he took in how tall she was. "Is Finn still in our old room?"

"No, he's in Sean's old room," Regina smiled. Ruby glanced from Regina to Sean, then grimaced as she turned back to Regina.

"You did sprinkle the bed with Holy water first, right?" she asked under her breath, and Regina smirked subtly as Sean quirked an eyebrow, setting his coffee-mug down, and clapped a large, strong hand on her bottom as she passed to the stairs. With a little yelp, half-skipping her next step, she whirled around, foot on the first step.

"That's not fun, Stanley!" she cooed, eyebrows raised as she pointed a threatening finger; but she was smiling.

"When'd you start reading Tennessee Williams?" Sean frowned disconcertedly.

"When'd you start reading?" Ruby retorted, pointing to The Little Prince on the counter by his coffee-mug. He didn't respond, just gave her a typical Sean look, and Ruby laughed as she hopped upstairs, her bottom stinging a little bit where Sean's hand had connected with it. The staircase seemed shorter than the last time she'd been here. Upstairs, the hallway was just as cluttered with boys' things as the kitchen; but up here, it was worse, and the bedroom doors were all decorated to show who lived where, while piles of clothing mingled with toys, sporting equipment, magazines and cases for video-games and Ruby almost broke her neck tripping over a Hot Wheel car camouflaged with the worn rug.

Sean's bedroom had once been almost taboo when Ruby had last lived here: at fourteen, he had started growing up early, and after one brief but scarring incident, Ruby and Finn had learned to knock before bursting into the room. The last time Ruby had seen Finn, he had been nearly thirteen, and as incorrigible as he was artistic; the shed had been their hideout, where they experimented with cigarettes, beer and different mediums of art; the walls had been papered with posters, and cut-outs from magazines, newspapers and comic-books; Ruby wondered whether the map on which she and Finn had plotted out their cross-country adventure was still pinned up in on the wall.

She couldn't believe Finn had moved out of their room, though; the twin-over-double bunk-bed they had shared had been their fort: their haven; the meeting-place for their secret publication The Pickwick Portfolio; the shadowy corner in which they had plotted their nefarious Halloween pranks. The bedroom walls had been covered, just as the shed was, with their drawings, their projects and their sketches, doodles, and murals made up of their favourite images. They had shared everything when they had shared that room—Regina had wanted Ruby to have her own, but she'd insisted that she was always alone; she didn't want to sleep in a room by herself when there were seven boy friends to choose from—and they had become all the closer because of it. It was a remarkable thing, and an incredibly lonely revelation, that Finn was Ruby's best friend in the entire world. And all because they had shared that room.

She crept over to what had once been Sean's You Shall Not Pass bedroom-door: Like all the other doors, this one was decorated so heavily that the wood was no longer visible; posters, pictures, doodles and notes were taped, pinned and pasted to the door, with a jaunty sign painted "Huck-Finn's Room". Ruby smiled: her old nickname for Finn had been "Huckleberry"; she had been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the time when she had moved in with the boys, and had been enamoured of the titular character. Silently turning the knob, Ruby peeked into the bedroom beyond. It was entirely black; blackout curtains shielded Sleeping Beasty from the harmful, insulting light of morning. She crept over to the window, inching the curtains open a fraction, and went to stand at the foot of Finn's bed, canting her head to one side, before climbing like a monkey onto the sturdy wood footboard, squatting there on her toes, her elbows draped over her knees as she balanced.

The last time Ruby had seen Finn, he'd left behind the chubbiness of youth that Ian was now trying to shed: he'd also just gotten his first set of braces, and he used to love it when Ruby would peel an apple for him in one long strip, cutting off pieces for him to eat because he couldn't take a bite out of apples like he liked to. Red Sox memorabilia had dominated his wardrobe, and grass-stains had been a permanent feature of his self-styled jeans, as well as splotches of paint and the odd smudge of charcoal Regina had forbidden him from using in the house because Ian had grabbed hold of a stick and made pretty pictures all over her favourite cream blouse.

Ruby cracked a grin as she observed Finn; he was sprawled on his front, the bedding twisted around his legs. Always loved boxer-briefs, she thought, smiling, her mind unaccountably going to Sean for some reason. And those two dimples just above the band of his relaxed jeans. For a moment, she just perched, taking in the changes in Finn's appearance. He had grown a lot taller, of course. He had Sean's broad shoulders, the same narrow waist; but his hair was a darker blonde now than when he had been a kid, more like Demerara sugar than honey-gold, and the floppy curls were sticking up at odd angles as he slept on. He still had the same sweet nose, the same lovely lips—just like…Sean's—and for some reason, he had a smear of dried cornflower-blue paint on the back of his left shoulder-blade.

That's enough gawking. Start squawking.

Taking a deep breath, Ruby leapt, screaming, "Oh my god! Six-foot olive goblins are storming the kitchen and are stealing all the Cap'n Crunch!" She landed straddling Finn's waist, as he yelled and jerked, half-twisting before she landed, and in the crack of sunlight she had allowed in through the curtains, his bleary expression turned even more dazed and confused as he tried to get a look at her.

"No, Finn—you're not still dreaming! I really am here!"

"Ruby?"

"The one and only!" Ruby cooed, grinning. Finn groaned, and managed somehow to shift onto his back; Ruby smirked, fidgeting in his lap, and he groaned again, his expression turning pained. "Well hello! I'm excited to see you too!" Even half-asleep, he flushed deeply, and Ruby chuckled. He grabbed her by the waist, and with surprising strength for someone with little blood to his brain to coordinate thought, flung her from the bed. She toppled with a loud bang! and a fleshy thwack! and swore loudly, "Fuck!" She hauled herself off the floor. "Get up, you lazy arse! I wanna play!" Finn groaned, but grumbling, he dragged himself out of bed.

"I'll be down in a minute," he mumbled sleepily, eyes closed, and Ruby grinned as she darted out of the room again.


A.N.: AGAIN, PLEASE REVIEW!