"We're not even close to running late!" Jhondie insisted to her mother.

"I want to get good seats!" Mrs. Harris, no, Ashley, if I'm going to be her son-in-law I should call her by her first name, she insists, yelled back at her daughter from downstairs. "If we end up behind that woman with the poofy hair, you're not going to be a happy girl tonight!"

Jhondie glared at me when I started laughing. "Quit it!" she said, trying to be firm, but not able to prevent the smile. "You're only encouraging her."

"It's Kay's first big recital and she's the star," I said with a grin. "Remember Dad at my graduation?"

If Jhondie thought her mother was bad with a camera, it was nothing compared to Dad when I graduated from college a couple of weeks ago. It was one of the proudest moments in my life, and all I could see was one blue flash after the next. I think Dad was grabbing strangers off of the street to take a picture with me and my diploma, showing that I had achieved a bachelor's degree in journalism (with a minor in communications, thank you very much). But still, it was an awesome moment even if the cap and gown thing was a little silly. But Dad was so proud of me that I didn't try to weasel out of any of the festivities, especially once I found out that the twins had gone through a lot of effort to plan the graduation party. Sweet. A little corny, but sweet. My grandparents had surprised me and flown in from Mexico. And my to-be family was there as well with Jhondie and her mother and sister.

I even had two job offers, one from the Times and another as a junior reporter with a national magazine. I had seriously considered the one here, but I decided to go freelance. It wasn't like I needed the steady paycheck. I wanted to be free to work on the stories that I was interested in and there was still Eyes Only. In all honesty, I would have taken the national one though had it not been for Jhondie. She wanted to finish school here and liked the medical school at our university. She probably would have moved to another city for me, but I would still have to do a lot of traveling and I would much rather spend the time with her. Besides, she promised me another year of partnership working for the boss. That was worth sticking around for.

I would also like to add that the boss was very, very pleased with us. We found out more about what had happened. Apparently he had been having a hell of a time with this guy he was after. Little wonder. Not only was Gerhardt Bronck behind a huge amount of the crime in Seattle, but he had been the puppet master for some of the major crime syndicates in LA as well. He had been the big boss that guys like Brent Lake answered too. But Bronck was down now and not coming back. He had kidnapped a cop and lost their protection. I had to say one thing about cops and no matter how corrupt they were, or how much you paid them; you did not mess with the ranks. Bronck was toast. Eyes Only was very happy that the girls on the plane here had been returned to their families. He was revealing a little more at a time to us and I had a feeling that one day I would get to meet him face to face. One day.

Tonight was all about Kayla though. Her dance school was putting on a show and the girls had to try out for the parts. Kayla beat out girls with much more training and experience and gotten the starring role. She was practically floating when they had taken her early to the auditorium. Now Ashley was determined to get there before the chick with the big hair and I think Jhondie was going slow just to torment her. Ashley had sent me up here to hurry Jhondie up, but if I had tried tickling then her hair would have gotten messed up or something and she would have had to start over.

Finally she turned around. "What do you think?"

I smiled. "I think if you don't get out of here quick, we really are going to be late." She was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on. She was wearing this pretty black velvet sleeveless dress that was, well, hot to say the least. And lately these wide choker things had come into fashion. Or at least that's what she said. I don't know. What I did know was that she could wear her hair up in a pretty French twist (don't ask me what's French about it, that's what she called it) and the velvet around her neck covered the barcode perfectly. In any case, the whole effect was quite stunning.

I smirked. "I could fly us," I teased. She stuck her tongue at me. Okay, that wasn't all that fair since she was taking summer classes and I was free to work on flying. But still, facts were facts. Despite the fact that she had better vision and reflexes, I was getting through the piloting course faster than she was. My instructor said I was just a natural at it. He had no idea. Jhondie wasn't far behind me, but for once it was nice to tease her about me being superior at something. She just smirked and told me to wait until we went on instrument training. She could glance at a control panel and soak up all of the information shown in a second. I had to think. Oh well. Gloat while I still could.

Her hand slipped into mine and we headed downstairs where her poor mother was pacing. I should have felt worse for my Dad since he was downstairs having to deal with her. He was coming with us since it was a family function and the star of the show was his son's future sister in law. I loved it. I ragged on Dad mercilessly that he was taking Ashley on a date. The more Dad protested, the more I pushed. It had taken two years, but I finally got revenge for how much he teased me about hanging out with Jhondie before we started dating for real.

Jhondie was a little surprised when she saw the roses on the coffee table. She looked up at me with one eyebrow raised. I grinned. "Don't get excited," I teased. "They happen to be for the star of the show." Jhondie smiled. It was tradition to throw roses or give them to the star or something like that and I would be just tragic if Kay didn't get the full treatment tonight.

The four of us swept out the front door and left in plenty of time to get good seats. Miss Poofy-Hair was at least four rows behind us and the people who sat in front were a family of short people. They must have drugged the two young children with them because I had never seen young kids that well behaved. Of course most of my experience with children came from the twins and those two were a living advertisement for birth control.

I took Jhondie's hand as we sat down, still not used to feeling a ring on her hand. I moved it from where it had spun around and was now spearing my palm and she smiled at me. I'd get used to it. We only had the next lifetime together to learn.


I couldn't believe that Justin remembered the roses. Kayla had mentioned it once a couple of weeks ago about a ballet dancer who had hundreds of roses thrown at her and had sighed and said one day she would be up on stage and it would be covered with roses for her. She had also started hanging out with this one girl in her dance class that was taking vocal lessons as well. The new friend got Kay to a sing a little and the teacher told her that if she couldn't be a professional dancer, she really should think about singing. Pop Princess Kayla. I think I would have rather seen her as an NFL cheerleader.

Still, it was so sweet of him to bring them. I knew she was going to be in seventh heaven after tonight. She was hoping for one of the important secondary roles, but the lead just amazed her. It was going to be the first time I ever really saw her dance myself and I was looking forward to it too. She was so happy and her whole attitude had improved a million times over.

I think she was becoming friends with Kat again too which would have worried me, but Kat seemed to have gone through a bit of a life-change. The attitude was still there and she told me the offer was still there if Justin and I ever wanted a little something to spice up the marital bliss, but she was different. For one, she dropped the boyfriend and hooked up with this guy Josh. Of course she did that after Scott gave her a new car to fix up, but like I said, the attitude was still there.

Josh was a pretty decent guy I think. He even went to church, which made me wonder why he was with Kat. Kat said that he liked the tongue piercing and they had bonded over their love of cars and motorcycles. Her new car- to-be was a Viper. She had tricked out the engine and I had seen her plans for the interior. The lights were going to be switched to black lights that would illuminate the black leather interior that had metallic red swirls stitched all over it. The outside was going to be metallic red that slowly shifted to a gloss black from the front to the rear of the car. Pretty cool design. Kat said that she had decided that dealing drugs had led to her falling out of a plane. This, she felt, was not the way she wanted to end her life. So she wanted to go with her second love and restore old cars and build high-powered custom motorcycles and sell them with no drugs inside at all. She even apologized to Kayla for what happened at the party and swore she would never do it again since doing it had led to her falling out of a plane and getting her car torched. Kayla accepted the apology.

Of course, I had a suspicion that wasn't the only reason on why Kayla's attitude was so great and I didn't like that one bit. Well, I had to admit that it was kind of funny. A week after the anniversary that I still wasn't sure was from Heaven or Hell, Mom and I went out to start doing some wedding planning things. Justin and I had decided on next summer as a good time to get married. With the course load that I had taken over the past couple of years, I was going to be able to graduate in three years instead of four. Justin didn't think that was fair, but I was the one taking classes all summer long while he was taking off all summer for a three week internship. He couldn't take the first summer term either because he had to prep for the internship. There was a reason I was getting out of there early. Anyways, I was going to take the summer off and hopefully that fall, enter into medical school. That was such a scary thought, but I had talked to the dean of admissions already and he said that with my grades and recommendations from the paramedics training that as long as the MCAT was good, I could count myself as being in.

Anyways, we had lots of time to plan, but I knew that next year was going to be crazy for me so I had better make some of the big decisions now and that way I wouldn't be scrambling later. Mom said that the colors and the dress were the two most important parts so we had gone out to a couple of wedding places and looked around. It was kind of fun to have a mother- daughter afternoon. We hadn't done that in a long while. And what was really nice was that Kayla had been so well behaved lately, she had been left at home alone and neither of us was worried about her. I should have been. That child can get into trouble even when she's trying to behave.

That was proven when we got home. We walked through the door, both of us freezing at the sight. Kayla was sitting on the arm of the couch sobbing hysterically, her shirt ripped. Frankie was unconscious on the floor and in the middle was Zack. Kayla suddenly flung herself at Zack saying something that boiled down to "my hero - you saved me". What was priceless was the look of utter horror on Zack's face. Zack was not the touchy-feely type. He didn't hug. And he had no idea how to handle a hysterical teenager. Later, when I told Justin, both of us laughed so hard we couldn't breath. My one regret was that I didn't have a camera. That expression needed to be captured for all posterity. It was just...priceless is the only way to describe it.

What had happened was that Frankie came over to tell Kayla that he wasn't done with her yet. If she didn't stop telling people that she had dumped him, there was going to be hell to pay. I would like to add that the big brave hoodlum had been watching the house and waited until I left. Anyways, she told him that he could kiss her butt because she knew what he had been encouraging Kat to do at the party and it was over now. She never wanted to see him again. He had gotten pissed and told her he hadn't wasted all of that time on her for nothing and then shoved her onto the couch.

He was twice Kay's size and she didn't have a chance against him except to let out a few screams and if there's one thing about Kayla that cannot be overlooked it's the amazing volume level she can achieve. Frankie slapped his hand over her mouth and ripped her shirt and then all of a sudden he was off of her. Kayla sat up in time to see Frankie take a swing at Zack. Zack showed how much he didn't appreciate that little gesture by promptly beating the crap out of his until a solid kick knocked Frankie out cold. That's when Kayla went into hysterics. That's when Mom and I came home.

Zack and I threw Frankie in the car and took him way out. Zack told me later that normally he wouldn't have interfered, but he knew me and that I would have gone over the line on the kid had Kayla been hurt for real. True. I wasn't angry with Zack for saying he wouldn't have gotten involved. Zack didn't get involved unless it was going to directly affect one of us. This would have. Because if Frankie had really hurt Kayla, it would have taken an act of God to keep me to keep me from exposing myself when I killed him very slowly. We did take him pretty far out and I used a lighter to get a very clear message drilled into his head. Kayla was off- limits. He agreed completely with my suggestion that he find another girlfriend. At least that's what I thought he said. The howls of pain were kind of in the forefront of his words, but I think we came to a good understanding. Zack made me stop and we left him out there. Zack also made me leave Frankie his pants. Sometimes he was just no fun.

Zack had shown up just passing through like always. Yeah right. I knew him better than that. I knew what you looked like after a nasty bout of seizures. He needed a place to rest for a few days. When we got back, I told Kayla not to worry about Frankie anymore. She hugged me and said that I was the best big sister ever. It had been a while since I heard that. Mom thanked Zack and asked him to stay and I pushed and told him that he needed to stay a few days actually. It would be weird for me to have a friend come in from out of town and then disappear the next day. I knew Zack was really coming in off of a bad time when that flimsy pretext let him stay for a few days.

Those few days might have driven Zack away forever though. Kayla developed a huge monster crush on him. I mean the star-struck eyes following his every move kind of crush. She sighed dreamily and floated around the house. He was her knight in shining armor and the really funny part was that he had absolutely no clue. I made a joke to him that he better not break her heart and he had no idea what I was talking about. I thought about explaining it, but then he really might do something to scare her off. And this puppy love thing was just too cute to let go of.

Kayla thought it was funnier that I wouldn't tell him that Justin and I were getting married. My ring was a little too big so I had to have it sized down and because of it's age and styling, it had to be done carefully which was going to take several days. I wanted to tell Zack, but I already knew what his reaction was going to be. He wouldn't have been happy for me. He would have gotten pissed. And that wasn't needed. I thought I might just invite him to the wedding next year and not bother him until then. He wasn't going to change my mind. Justin and I were getting married and that was that.

But one day I got home from class and Kayla was moping. Zack was gone without a word. She was terribly upset that he didn't say goodbye. I just shrugged. That was Zack. He'd be around again when he was in town. Such tragedy. I don't know who took it harder, her or Cody. No wonder Kayla's dancing was so good right now. She was throwing all of her unrequited love into it. The next time I saw Zack I was going to have to let him have a little warning before she confessed and got a reaction that did not need to come to light. I love Zack to death but I was under no illusions about him.

But Zack was gone for now and I had my family with me now. Mom was sitting on one side with my future father in law to her right and to my left was the man that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I had nothing to complain about. I knew for absolute certain that this was where I belonged. My Manticore siblings would always hold a place in my heart, but these were the ones that made my heart.

The lights dimmed and the first sweet strains of music began to fill the room as the curtain rose. I had never seen anything like this ballet before and I would have sworn that Kayla was really some fairy princess as she glided across the stage. Every move was perfectly graceful and lovely and even when some of the supporting cast made obvious errors, nothing could touch her. She was in a world alone from the rest. Beautiful and free and wild. After everything that had happened to her, they hadn't managed to break the wonderful spirit that she was. She was stronger than that and I had no doubt she would rise high and lovely in this world.

And then it was over and they were taking their curtain calls, beaming happily at the family and friends there to watch. Kayla was exhausted but jubilant and when Justin gave her those roses, you would have sworn she had just been crowned Miss America. It was a great night for her and I don't think anything could have spoiled it at all. Aliens could have invaded and she would have smiled and said they were such a nice shade of green before doing a pirouette and wandering off.

I guess she was too keyed up to even try sleeping once we finally got home. Kay put her roses in a vase and fussed with them for a while and then practically danced around the house, reliving the best moments of the ballet. I had a lot to do that night myself to get ready for my summer classes but for a while I needed to rest too. There was a shy knock on my bedroom door and Kayla peeped in, spotting me sitting on the roof outside my window, petty Cody who was purring happily in my lap. She came over and climbed out, sitting beside me.

"No fair," she teased. "You got the room easy to sneak out of."

"I was older," I replied. "They figured I would do the sneaking out first and by the time I was gone, then you would be ready to sneak." She laughed.

"Guess I'm just an overachiever, huh?"

I rolled my eyes. "That's not the way I would have put it lately."

She looked down, a little embarrassed. "Definitely not in the boyfriend picking department, I know." She sighed. "You're so lucky to have someone like Justin. He really, really loves you. That's what I want one day."

I smiled at her. "You don't get what we have in a day. It takes time. We've had two years to grow together and we took the time to be friends before anything else. And keep in mind I went through a lot of boyfriends before I found Justin. You're still really young. There's nothing wrong with having fun with guys and not worrying about falling in love and intimate relationships." I sighed. "Life gets really serious sometimes so it's good to just enjoy being young and able to have fun when you can."

"I know," she replied, resigned. "I'm way young and I know I'm like not even going to be thinking about settling down for a way long time. I still kind of envy you. You were only seventeen when you met Justin. You were still a kid when you hooked up. And now you're getting married. That's like a...it should be set to music and turned into a ballet, you know?"

"I do know," I answered. I looked at her dead on. "But I would like to point out that I was an adult when Justin and I...um, when we really hooked up."

Kayla snickered. She got it. Then she looked up at me seriously. I had a feeling I knew what was coming and I was starting to regret us getting close again. No, I wasn't, but she was growing up and was going to come to her big sister about this stuff. And I was going to start taking up drinking as a hobby. "Was he your first?" she asked.

I took a deep breath. I had to be honest with her or she wasn't ever going to trust me again. "No," I said, quickly adding, "But I wish he had been."

She looked at me curiously. "So when was it?"

I cringed. I had explained to her already about some of my weird traits. She knew about the heat deal. She said it explained a lot about why I got really crabby sometimes. But I didn't think she had put it with other things. "Almost sixteen," I finally said. "And that was way, way too young. Had it not been a bad time for me cycle-wise, it would have never ever happened." I wrinkled my nose. "And it wasn't very good either."

Kayla started giggling. "I thought the first time was supposed to be all special and wonderful."

"It is supposed to be," I insisted. "It's not supposed to be in the backseat of a car, which is very awkward and unpleasant I should add, when your hormones are driving you to do something that the brain is saying is dumb and you know you don't really want to be doing. It's supposed to be with someone that loves and respects you. That's the important part. A horny teenage boy usually can't provide those. Trust me on that. I looked. Couldn't find one all during high school."

"So was it different when you were with Justin?"

"Much," I answered with a soft smile, remembering that wonderful holiday weekend when we finally admitted to how we really felt for each other and ended up making love for the first time. "We had been together for a while and he was my best friend. He was the only person that I didn't have to hide anything from and I knew that I could trust him. And I knew that afterwards he would still respect me and love me and be my friend. That's the difference and that's what made it so special. It was the first time that I had no doubts about the afterwards."

I shrugged. "It means something, Kay. Even if your friends tell you that it feels good and it's not a big deal, they're wrong. Because it really does mean something. And that's part of why I was so worried about you. I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did and feel that horrible about yourself."

Kayla was smiling. "Learn from your mistakes?"

I let out a little laugh. "Please do. Then I can at least feel a little noble and say I did it for you."

Now Kayla really laughed. "I wouldn't say that to too many people. Really comes out kind of twisted."

Both of us laughed at that. We were still laughing when Mom spoke up from inside. "You girls aren't trying to sneak out on me, are you?" She seemed a little confused when that made us laugh even harder, but just shook her head and climbed out my window too, sitting on the sill between us.

"It's good to see my girls getting along again," she finally said softly.

Kayla smiled at her. "I know, I'm the brat," she said. "But you know, it really is all cool now. Nothing wrong with a little weird, right?"

"Or a lot weird, I know," I said, rolling my eyes. "But it could be worse. We could be living in Atlanta near Irene." All of us shuddered at that thought. Then Kayla looked back at Mom.

"I'm glad you and Dad decided to keep Jhondie with us," she said softly. "I think I needed a big sister." Mom couldn't speak, tears stealing her voice.

"I know I certainly needed a baby sister to take care of," I said, taking her hand. Mom caught each of our free hands and we sat like that for a while.

The circle of our family had diminished but it hadn't broken. That was the important part. It would change as all families did and grow and become different, but it would always be there. That's what mattered. No matter how hard things had been or how tight the bond had stretched it had not broken. We could still make the completed circle. Complete the parts that were missing in each other. That was family. And this was home.


A/N: Well, we finished yet another J & J. Whew. This one just wouldn't stop, but I guess that's what happens when two major storylines get combined. Oh well. Anyways, thank you to everyone that faithfully kept checking up and reading and reviewing. It's knowing that people really do enjoy my work that keeps me going at it. Also, special thanks to Jasmine for just being there to listen and hash out problems when I was banging my head in frustration and to the real Katrina who let me make an evil alter- ego for her and use it in my story. Kat wouldn't have been so deliciously wicked without you!

J & J are going on a bit of a hiatus while I get some other things finished (and a few surprises started) but never fear. #8 will be here before you know it, so hang on 'cause the ride's going to get interesting!