"So, what do you want to do tonight?" Laurel asked as Nicole sat on the loveseat across from her.

"Well, you are my guest. The choice is yours. We can do the dinner then the club thing, order in, attempt to cook, or we can forego it all and run back home screaming into the night."

"Let’s do the dinner thing and then see if we feel like doing the club thing. Since you’re the local, I’ll let you pick the restaurant even." Laurel ignored Nicole’s weak attempt at humor. Though she did believe that the photographer would have loved to be able to escape that easily.

"Well, we aren’t dressed nice enough for most of the non-touristy places," Nicole leaned her head back in thought. "We need good food and a casual atmosphere. I know the perfect place. Are you ready?"

"When you are."

"Great, lets take Mozart down with us and let him guard the courtyard for a while. He likes it down there."

Nicole did not bother with his leash. The three of them rode the elevator down to the bottom floor without incident. Laurel noticed with some envy that the photographer had no problem with getting the elevator to move. They let Mozart run free within the confines of the courtyard, and then made their way out on to the street.

Laurel let Nicole take the lead as they walked down the narrow streets in the French Quarter. The sun was setting in front of them, but the buildings obscured the sunset’s glory. Shadows were creeping along the way, and the tourists were wandering around in a daze. All in all, it was a beautiful night to be in New Orleans.

Laurel almost missed the building when Nicole stopped in front of it. It was just a nondescript building that looked as if it were falling apart. The wooden sign hanging from the chain in front of the door called it the Napoleon House. It certainly looked as if Napoleon could have lived there in his youth.

"Here we go. One of the best places to eat in the Quarter." Nicole opened the door and allowed Laurel to precede her.

"Two?" At Laurel’s nod, the hostess pulled two menus from the stand in front of her. "Do you want the courtyard or the bar?"

"Courtyard please," Laurel may not have been to this restaurant before, but she knew enough about New Orleans to always take the courtyard seating when it was offered.

They followed the hostess through the dark bar area and out the old, wooden French doors. The courtyard was filled with tables, customers, plants and florescent lights. The hostess led them to a wrought iron table near the back of the cobble stone area. They sat down opposite one another and watched as a young man quickly lit the candle on their table for them. The hostess laid their menus on the table, wished them a pleasant evening and then disappeared back inside.

"I’m Jim and I’ll be your server tonight. Can I get you something from the bar to start with or an appetizer?"

"I’ll just have a sweet tea, thanks. And of course, a fruit and cheese board to start."

"I’ll take a sweet tea as well please," Laurel examined her menu and quickly made her choice.

"Alright ladies, I’ll have that right out to you."

Nicole had not opened her menu but laid it aside. Laurel followed suit shortly thereafter.

"Have you decided what you want?"

"Yeah, the jambalaya sounds good. What about you? I noticed you didn’t need to look at your menu long."

"I just want a po-boy. The cheese board is really excellent, and will probably fill us up anyway." She grinned. "So, when are you going to ask all those questions I know you are longing to?"

"Shouldn’t we at least wait until after we’ve had a few drinks before we get into all of that?" Laurel laughed.

"Only if you want to. I know there are things I should explain."

"You don’t owe me any explanations," The waiter setting a glass of tea in front of her interrupted Laurel’s train of thought.

"What can I get you ladies?"

"Oh, I’ll have a cup of gumbo and a small order of jambalaya please," Laurel surrendered her menu.

"I’ll just take a ham and cheese po-boy, no tomatoes but with lettuce, mayo and mustard. Oh, and an order of fries."

"Ok. I’ll have everything right out to you," The waiter retreated back to place their orders.

"Come on, fair is fair. I’ll answer anything you ask in return for you doing the same." Nicole did not know why she was pressing the point, but she felt as if she were on the brink of an emotional storm. She just wanted it over with.

"Alright, but really I don’t know what to ask. Why don’t you start telling me why you haven’t seen your brother and why your sister is well…?"

"F.I.N.E.? Fucked up, insecure, neurotic and emotional?"

"Yeah, but you can say that," Laurel had to laugh. She had never really heard Nicole use profanity before.

"Another day or two and you’ll be saying that about my whole family, myself included."

"No, I’d never say that about you, even it were true," Laurel reached out and caressed Nicole’s hand. "Now your family on the other hand," She took a sip of tea. "Nah, Jay, Phil, and Jessica are nice."

"Yeah, they tend to be more supportive of anything unusual. Unlike my grandmother and my sister." She groaned.

"Here, you go ladies; one fruit and cheese board. Your dinner will be out soon." The waiter placed a carving board on the table between them. The board was covered with five different types of cheese, pepperoni, ham, salami, apple quarters and seedless grapes. On the handle of the board there was a loaf of French bread with a knife slicing it in half.

"Thank you," Laurel said as the waiter retreated. "Now, you were saying?" She began helping herself to the food in front of her.

"Well, my parents died when I was four. Margot was eight and Michael was not even two. Any memories I have of them are vague at best," Nicole spread bleu cheese over a slice of bread and put part of an apple on top of it. "My aunt Linda and my cousin Martin petitioned for custody of Michael and won. You see, my parents’ will designated my grandmother as guardian for myself and Margie, but they had not updated it after Michael was born."

"That was unfortunate," Laurel said around a bite of apple. She slowed down her consumption of the appetizer so that Nicole would have a chance to eat more.

"Yes it was. Anyway, Margie was old enough to know what happened. Her parents went for a weekend to the Coast and never came home. All I knew was that mom and dad had gone away and as my grandmother told me, if I were really good I would see them again someday. I didn’t know at the time she was talking about in heaven. That part did not hit me until I was ten."

"How did they die?"

"A truck driver lost control of his eighteen wheeler and jackknifed on the interstate. The reports said it was a fourteen-car pile up and nine people lost their lives. My parents were among those nine." She cut a piece of cheese with the knife and laid it on a slice of pepperoni. "Anyway, I was raised by people who cared about me. Uncle Phil is only thirty, grandma had him when she was thirty-six, so I grew up with an older brother who protected me and cared for me. Not to mention all the aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles and my grandfather. In short, it took a village to raise this child."

"Sounds like your upbringing was a lot different then mine. Ok, so that’s a little background in to the Herbert dynasty. Guess it’s my turn."

"Yeah, but I’ll give you a reprieve. You can wait until after you finish your food. If I’m not mistaken, there’s our waiter."

Nicole was right. The waiter came over and placed her po-boy and a separate plate of fries before her. Then he placed a bowl of gumbo and a plate of jambalaya in front of Laurel. He motioned for a bus boy to refill their glasses of ice tea. After inquiring if everything was fine, he retreated again.

"Mmmm, this is good," Laurel took a taste of her gumbo. "Not too heavy on okra either. That’s always a good sign. How’s your po-boy?"

"It’s good. You ought to try Jay’s gumbo. Now it is good."

"That’s something I was wondering about. Jay looks older than your uncle. How long have they been together?"

"Jay is seven years older than Phil. They met when Phil went to college. Jay was a graduate student who was assisting Phil’s biology professor teach a class of 300. Anyway, Phil thought Jay was cute and found a way to introduce himself. They did not start actually dating until Phil was a junior though. Jay wanted to make sure that Phil was old enough to make that type of life decision," Nicole laughed and ended up spilling mustard on her fries as she tried to put it on her sandwich. "Oops, little did Jay know that despite Phil’s younger years, he was anything but innocent. It’s kina hard to stay innocent growing up around here."

"It must be. Oh wow this stuff is hot," Laurel drained her glass of tea and looked for something else. Nicole pushed over her unused glass of water. "Thanks. So they’ve been together for what? Ten years? That is incredible."

"Yeah they definitely are that," Nicole smiled fondly. Some of her friends had had a problem accepting the relationship as matter of fact. Then again, those same friends are ones she was still in the closet to. She was starting to put the pieces together and come up with a pleasing answer to the questions she had about Laurel.

"This was a good idea. The food is excellent," Laurel sat aside her now empty bowl of gumbo and started on her jambalaya.

"Thought you’d like it," Nicole picked up the rest of her sandwich and started on it.

They finished their meal in silence. Each was enjoying her choice of entrée and did not want to diminish the experience. Not that they considered their talk would diminish the meal, but sometimes a good meal is best tasted in silence rather than with soulful confessions and endless back-story.

Finally, Nicole finished the last of the French fries, and Laurel put down her fork. The bassist leaned back in her chair and pulled her cigarettes from her pocket. She lit two at the same time and handed one across to Nicole. The photographer took it with a smile of thanks.

"Ok, wanna hear part of my back-story now?"

"Sure, if you feel up to it."

"How was everything?" Jim asked as he took some of the plates away. Both women complimented the meal. "Good, can I get you anything else?"

"Yes, I’d love a glass of your house red," Nicole said.

"I’ll take a glass of the house white please," Laurel was astounded when the young man did not ask to see her driver’s license. He simply added the two glasses to their ticket and went in search of the wine.

"Ok, I guess you know how Jon died. About how he was shot at a gas station late one night while he was living on campus. What you may not know was that he was on his way to see Mandy at the time. The two of them had been dating since high school, but my parents did not approve of her. I covered for them when he would sneak out in high school to go see her. When they found out they held me responsible." Laurel paused to claim her glass of wine when the waiter returned with both glasses.

"They ended up making Jon chose between them and Mandy. Since he was on a full scholarship and already owned his own car, he chose her. He told me once that he hoped mom and dad would come around and see that he was serious. They never had a chance to. The night he died, Mandy had called to talk to him. She had just found out she was pregnant. She lost the baby shortly after the funeral when my parents filed papers to sue for custody. I was the one that rushed her to the hospital. It was horrible."

"I can imagine. It must have been hard on you to be the rock during that period of time," Nicole was impressed by Laurel’s strength.

"Well, yes and no. It was easy to ignore my own pain while Mandy needed me. My parents kicked me out of the house the day after the funeral. They had always compared me to him, and the loss of their son was more than they could bear, especially since I was suddenly the only heir left. Plus, they had never agreed with my life style. Well, I moved in with Mandy and commuted to and from school for about three weeks until I graduated. I was awarded the same scholarship he had, so I didn’t need any money from mom and dad. I took a job over the summer for a while to make some spending money and that’s when the really bad stuff happened."

"Are you going to end it there?" Nicole asked when the silence has stretched on past the point of a conversational pause.

"For the time being," She gave the photographer a wicked grin. "After all, isn’t that how you keep your audience wanting more?"

"I would love to see you in a few of my old journalism classes," Nicole laughed.

"That brings me to another question. Why aren’t you working at the paper?"

"I was right after I graduated. I had an internship, but the publisher cut the budget and a few of us never made it to the end of our internships. Sheryl managed to because the old man that originally had her position retired. Greg did not make it either. He was going for a position in the sports department."

"Have you thought about reapplying?" Laurel thought that would be a logical choice for employment since the music store was closing. She had meant to ask when Nicole had told her that news a couple of weeks ago.

"Actually, I have a meeting with the head of the photography department on Tuesday."

"Really? That’s great. Good luck."

"Thank you. You want to go somewhere else?" Nicole finished her wine and waved the waiter back over.

"Sure, you want to go out to a club, a bar or get a bottle and head back to the apartment?"

"Any of the above," Nicole left the decision to her friend. "Can we have the check please? On second thought, here," She pulled her check card out and handed it to him. "Just bring back the receipt and my card please."

"Yes ma’am," He took the card and went to go authorize it.

"Whatever. Its your town, your choice."

"Alright. I think I remember a nice, quiet bar. Sound good?"

"Yes it does."

"Good," Nicole took her card back from the waiter when he rematerialized at her side. She signed the receipt and added the tip. She handed the restaurant’s copy to him and watched as he bowed and left.

"Did he just bow?" Laurel stood up and had her usual look of faint amusement back in place.

"Yeah, I think he just did. Let’s go."

The bar was exactly where Nicole remembered it. It was a quiet, hole in the wall place mainly frequented by locals. There was a jukebox that was turned on with the music playing low. The lights were on, but it was still dark inside. The smoke in the air hung heavily around the exposed lighting, and the few people inside were either huddled over their drinks or around their friends.

The two found a table in the back corner away from the small crowd and sat down. Laurel went back to the bar and got two drinks, rum and coke and a screwdriver. She liked both and wanted to pay for at least a round, so she had not asked the photographer what her drink of choice would have been.

"Here you go, your choice." Nicole took the rum and coke and Laurel took a sip of the screwdriver.

"Ok, where were we?" Nicole asked.

"Well, we had just gone over the dissolution of your family due to custody battles and the death of my brother and the miscarriage of my niece or nephew. Where do you want to start now?" Laurel took another sip of her drink and lit another cigarette.

"Well, I guess it’s my turn again isn’t it?" Nicole finished her drink in one swallow.

"Only if you want it to be. Do you want another?" Laurel started to stand.

"Yes, but I’ll go get it. Be right back."

Laurel finished her cigarette waiting on Nicole to return. She debated with her self over what she should say to Nicole this evening. After consideration, she decided to explain her parole first. The rest would come in time. If Nicole were still speaking to her after hearing about it that is.

"Ok, two drinks and a pack of cigarettes. It’s probably a good thing we ate such a big dinner." Nicole smiled as she managed to sit down without spilling any of either drink. She handed the screwdriver to Laurel and kept the other.

"What is that?"

"A mudslide. I wanted to get a shot of Jagermiester, but that makes me horny, tequila does nothing to me though."

"I haven’t had a mudslide, but I think I’ll keep my screwdrivers thanks." Laurel finished her first drink. "So, it was your turn." Mental note: get lots of Jagermiester.

"Oh, yeah. Let’s see, my brother is out in California. I think he’s going to Berkley, so he is probably either a hippie or a freak. Margie is the reason why I’m poor." At Laurel’s inquisitive look, she expounded. "If you haven’t been able to tell, the family is well off, but I’m not. After Margie flunked out of college, the family lawyer decided that due to her problems he and my grandmother should push the date of the trust fund maturity back. Its convenient that Margie turns thirty in a month, shows up now and the date she comes into her inheritance is her thirtieth birthday."

"That is convenient. Does yours mature at your thirtieth birthday? I think I was written out of my parents’ will, so I will inherit nothing but I’m not sure," Laurel wanted to clarify her question quickly so Nicole would not think the bassist was attracted to her money.

"As of now, it does. No big deal, I have everything I need and want. The house, the car, and the better apartment."

"How did you get the better apartment anyway?" Laurel grinned at Nicole’s slightly superior look.

"Sheer luck mostly. Margie tried to sell it off and got caught, so Grandfather gave it to me instead. That’s how I got the car too. The house though, that was where Phil lived when he went to college. My grandfather had bought it decades ago, his younger brother, my great uncle lived there, and now I do. It’s kind of like a family heirloom. Better than a pocket watch."

"I’ll say. More valuable too."

"Yes, it is. Anyway, I have no clear idea as to what happened to Margie. She barely made it into college, and then got kicked out despite the university’s reputation for being a party school. She surprised us all one day by just disappearing. She didn’t leave a note or anything. She sold or hocked everything she owned from her piano to her car and took off. She hadn’t been seen for almost four years when she turned up two years ago. She pretended to have seen the error of her ways, and then took off again after stealing almost three thousand dollars from my grandmother. She didn’t even come to my graduation while she was back." Nicole’s voice took on a bitter edge.

"She didn’t care for anyone or anything. Several times she would call or write home asking for money. My grandmother sent it, but she never did buy the ticket back she claimed she wanted. Even when my grandmother sent plane tickets instead, Margie just cashed them in or managed to sell them somehow. All she has ever wanted was money. It’s a shame too, because she is a very talented pianist."

"And you are the violinist? How come I’ve never heard you play?"

"I’m really not that good at it. When I was five my grandmother started me on dance, the violin, piano and gymnastics. She started Margie on all of that too. Margie had already been taking dance and piano, but my grandmother insisted on the others. I played both all the way through high school. My freshman year, I made the symphony, but had to quit during my junior year because I needed to devote more time to my studies. I still practice the violin, but I don’t the piano. I don’t have easy access to one or I might would still play."

"That’s like me. I used to play the guitar, took lessons and everything, but Jon was so much better at it that I switched to bass. I do play the stand-up bass and the drums. I was in band in high school and junior high and played the snare drums. Anyway, I quit playing the guitar after Jon died, hocked all three of mine and kept the bass. I did not start playing again until you asked for lessons. Fortunately, I could never bring myself to get rid of my brother’s guitar."

"Why did you have to hock your guitars? And why did you offer to teach me guitar if you did not play anymore?" Nicole packed the cigarettes, opened them, and then pulled out two. She handed one to Laurel and watched as the bassist followed her usual habit of lighting them both.

"Well," Out of reflex Laurel looked at her watch. It was still early by all standards. "Let me get a refill and I’ll tell you. Do you want something else?"

"Yeah, just a beer this time, we really should slow down some, or we will be staggering on our way home."

"One beer coming right up," Laurel got up and went to the bar. The barkeep was pleasant and quickly handed her two beers in exchange for four dollars. The crowd was thickening, and Laurel had to wind her way back to the table. She handed Nicole her beer and sat back down.

"Ok, my turn again," Laurel drained the last of her screwdriver, snubbed out her cigarette after a long exhale and paused for a moment. "I had to hock my guitars, my car and just about everything I owned two years ago to pay my bail and other things. I was under house arrest for a year and probation for another year. I just got off of probation matter of fact. I quit playing guitar because it was too painful. I started back when you asked because you asked."

"Ok, that only brings up more questions," Nicole was curious about all of it.

"Well, first I’ll answer the "why were you arrested" question. I went to a party one night, got incredibly stoned and intoxicated and attempted to drive a friend home. We ran off the road and up a tree. Fortunately neither of us got hurt. However, I was brought up on charges of possession, driving under the influence and being a minor. I had a joint on me. I was on the Coast, and all the papers loved that. Jon Kendrick’s little sister arrested for possession. The family was scandalized and I was further ostracized. But, I was saved from jail time because the judge knew my dad and went soft on me, despite the publicity and the pressure to crack down on drugs and DUI’s. The funny thing was it was my second and last time ever doing drugs."

"Pretty intense way of teaching you not to do it again. I learned not to do it by watching Margie. Now, I will admit that I’ve tried pot, and I’ve inhaled but it didn’t do anything to me so I quit trying it after the third time."

"So does this mean you aren’t going to quit talking to me?" Laurel was relieved beyond words.

"Of course I’m still going to talk to you. Why wouldn’t I?" Nicole was confused.

"Because of all the crap that Margie pulled I guess."

"My sister is an example of what can happen to you if you let drugs rule your life. You are an example of someone overcoming a tragedy and getting yourself free of the consequences one bad decision can make, and I’m an example of someone who tried it, didn’t like it and moved on. There’s no reason I would hold that against you. I’m sure it was a pretty tough time when Jon died, and if that’s all you did, was crack after everything caught up to you, then you should be commended."

"Thank you," Laurel was glad the bar was dark. She could feel her eyes getting moist, and did not want Nicole to see it.

"It’s getting kind of crowded in here, want to get these to go and move on somewhere else?" Nicole indicated her half finished beer.

"Can’t we just take the bottles?"

"Nope, law says that you must have your drinks in a cup while on the streets," Nicole stood and began walking to the bar. She was proud of herself when she did not stumble.

Laurel followed easily. Her tolerance was rapidly coming back in force. She handed her beer to a woman sitting at the end of the bar and watched as she carefully poured it into a clear plastic cup. They both took their cups and walked out onto the street.

"Hey, I’ve got an idea, how bout we find a place that sells six packs, buy one and go get trashed in your courtyard?" Laurel was pretty sure that they would not find another quiet spot, and she was not in the mood for clubs.

"That sounds good. There’s a grocery store a couple of blocks ahead." Once again, Nicole led the way down the darkened street.

They made it to the grocery store and had to fight their way in through the street rats on the corner. They looked enough like poor college students that the young runaways and homeless teenagers let them pass without more than licentious looks. They went inside the small grocery store and followed the faded green and white tile to the refrigerated drink section. They chose the same beer they had in the bar and brought the six-pack up front to the cashier. She did not look twice as she expedited their transaction with the two packs of cigarettes added to it.


No one was in the courtyard when they arrived. Nicole fumbled for the outside lights until Laurel told her not to bother. The moon was almost full and provided enough light for them to get drunk by. Mozart was happy to see them and made sure both of them petted him. Someone had brought him down a bowl of water, but had not taken him back upstairs. Nicole guessed that Stan had done it.

They sat at the patio table and used one of the now almost empty cups for an ashtray. Laurel took a bottle and opened it, handing to the photographer. She opened herself one and leaned back staring at what little sky she could see between the surrounding buildings.

"Why is it that we always end up drinking beer outside watching the sky?" Nicole asked. The walk back to the courtyard had sobered her up enough to kill the buzzing in her ears.

"We’re just lucky I guess." Laurel took a large sip of her beer. "So, what do you want to talk about now?"

"I have no idea," Nicole got up and started pacing. "Sorry, I just feel the need to move some."

"No problem. So, why did Mozart almost take off Stan’s arm?" Laurel returned to their question and answer series. This time she hoped she had picked a light topic.

"Oh, he thought he’d be cute and try to take Mozart’s bone from him. Mo growled, but Stan didn’t pay it any attention. My brilliant cousin actually managed to get a handhold on the bone, and Mozart let go of the bone. Unfortunately for Stan, Mozart grabbed his hand instead. He didn’t really bite him, but Stan got the point." Nicole laughed. Mozart sat on the patio beside Laurel and looked smug.

"Your dog looks proud of himself still."

"Yeah, I’ve often thought that he understands more than people give dogs credit for." Nicole decided to throw caution to the wind and ask a question she had wanted to ask since Laurel had mentioned it. "Why did you take the guitar up again after I asked you for lessons?"

"Why do you think?" Laurel stood up and started walking behind the photographer. It’s now or never Lakky, there’s not going to be a better time.

"I have no idea really. That’s why I was asking." Nicole turned and found Laurel standing two feet in front of her. The bassist closed the distance easily before she could protest.

"I’m sure you have some idea," Laurel said softly. She reached up and touched Nicole’s cheek with the back of her right hand. "But I can make it clearer if you’d like" She saw the photographer’s barely perceptible nod and moved her hand around behind her neck. She leaned up and brushed her lips against Nicole’s then pulled back. "Does that answer your question?"

"I think you may need to tell me again."

This time Nicole leaned down as Laurel stretched toward her. Their lips touched and Laurel left it like that for a long minute. She pulled Nicole closer to her and kissed her again, deepening the contact. Nicole put her arms around the bassist’s waist and tried not to think about anything but the kiss. The amount of passion she felt between them convinced the photographer that Laurel was not under the affects of alcohol so greatly that she did not know what she was doing.

"Suddenly, I am not in the mood to get drunk. You?" Laurel asked.

"No, for some reason I’m not."

"Good, now what were we talking about again?" Laurel grinned as she reached for the photographer again.

The outside lights flickered on and interrupted their kiss. The two broke apart quickly, stepped back from one another and turned toward the door. Jessie grinned evilly as she entered the courtyard.

"Gee, am I interrupting anything?" She did not wait for more than angered looks. "Hey, be glad it was me and no one else in the family. I think Grandmere' would have a heart attack on the spot. On second thought, do that again and I’ll go call her."

"That’s not a nice thing to do to a harmless old lady," Nicole kept standing as Laurel sat back down at the patio table.

"Nice? Nicole, this is our grandmother we are talking about. She can be described by many adjectives, but nice is not one of them. For that matter, neither is harmless," Jessica pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out and lit it. "Come on and sit down. Spare me a beer and let’s chat."

"Chat about what?" Nicole sat down and took the lit cigarette Laurel offered.

"Oh, I don’t know. How about life, liberty and the pursuit of sex?"

"Now those are some vague topics," Laurel laughed and put her feet up on the bar supporting the table. "Wanna do life first?"

"Sure, it’s dark and late, we can be honest with one another. I’ll start with the basics. As you can see, I’m twenty, I go to college in New York, I don’t approve of my grandmother’s ways, I’m gay and I’m a brunette," She took a long drink from her beer. "I also dabble in theatre design, I plan on designing costumes for movies, I’m 5 foot eight with two inch heels, and my turn offs are beauty queens who name their turn offs," She got a laugh with that statement. "Now, we can skip Nicky cause she’s pretty boring. So, Laurel tell me about yourself."

"Well, I’m twenty one, I don’t think Nicole is boring," She grinned and Nicole reached over and took her hand. "I’m a sophomore at Nicole’s alma mater, and I’m majoring in History with a view of Law school sometime in the future. I’m the same height as you are, gay and as you can see I’m blonde. I also play the drums, the guitar and the bass. Your turn Nicole," Laurel passed the conversation over to the photographer.

"I think you both know everything important about me already though. But," She took a long drag off her cigarette. "If you insist. I’m 5’9", twenty-five, have a degree in photojournalism, currently unemployed and a brunette. That’s the highlights. Oh, and obviously…" She held up her right hand, which was joined with Laurel’s left.

"Ok, that covers the life part. Liberty gets too complicated since it mainly deals with ideologies. So lets move on to the pursuit of sex. After all, it is the most interesting."

"Now that is a conversation I’m pretty sure I don’t want to hear sober," A young man about Nicole’s age walked outside. Mozart growled, and the young man backed up.

"Mo, down boy. Come on out Stan. You haven’t met Laurel yet have you?" Nicole let go of the bassist’s hand and waved her cousin over. "Laurel Kendrick, Stan Herbert."

"Pleased to meet you," Laurel stood and shook Stan’s hand. He sat down another six- pack of beer and joined them at the table.

"As I am you. I figured ya’ll would be out here, so I thought I’d come join the conversation. So, did I miss any good girl talk?" Stan was used to the conversations between his cousin and his sister. He often found them enlightening and only slightly disturbing.

"We were just moving to the pursuit of sex. We’ll let you go first, brother."

"Oh, um, is there another category to chose from? Sports maybe?" Stan looked slightly flustered.

"Don’t worry, I know you. As soon as you catch up with us you’ll be bragging about your latest conquest," Nicole grinned at him.

"Well, you have a point and there’s no time like the present," Stan grabbed a beer and opened it. "I guess I missed the tell me about your life inquisition my sister laid on you didn’t I, Laurel?"

"Yeah, you did. I’m sure she’ll fill you in later though," Laurel had no desire to repeat a brief history of her life. In fact, all she wanted to do was go back upstairs and get to know Nicole better. However, it seemed as if she were trapped in the conversation. Little did she know that Nicole was having the same thoughts running through her head.

"So, Grandmother storms in like a green beret and stops stock still at what she sees. I think maybe she was expecting some sort of wild party orgy type thing, but the look on her face as she saw the five of us putting together a giant puzzle was hilarious. Of course, we had heard her come in, and had enough time to hide the alcohol. Sheryl had challenged us to a game. Every time one of us failed to find a place for the piece we were allotted, we had to take a shot. We weren’t all that sober by the time she came in." The group laughed at Stan’s story.

At least two hours had passed since he joined them. The beer was lukewarm at best, and the conversations had turned to memories of the cousins’ childhood. Laurel was enjoying herself immensely. Stan and Jessie told great stories that often featured Nicole and the stunts they had pulled as youths. No few of those stories were embarrassing for the photographer. She on the other hand had as many embarrassing stories about them on hand. They made it into a contest of sorts, a challenge to relate the most outrageous stories they had.

"Oh, wow, it is late," Jessica looked at her watch. "I have had a massively long day. I think its bed time for me at least," She gave a sly wink to Nicole and Laurel.

"Yeah, I agree," Stan seconded the motion around a yawn.

"Alright, then I guess we’ll see you two in the morning. Want to take one car to the hospital? That is if our presence is required there," Nicole stood up and offered her hand to Laurel. The bassist took it and stood up as well.

"Hate to break it to you, Nicky, but it is the morning," Stan looked at his watch. "You all go on up. I’ll clean this mess up and lock everything. Goodnight."

"Goodnight. Thanks Stan," Laurel led the way to the door.

Jessica and Mozart joined the pair in the elevator. It gave them no problems at all. Laurel became convinced that it just hated her. Jessica left them alone at the third floor, and Nicole and Laurel finished the journey feeling slightly awkward. They stood apart with Mozart between them. The elevator stopped at the fifth floor, and Laurel held the gate back for Nicole and the dog.

"So," Laurel walked behind the photographer and wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist. "I guess this means I don’t have to sleep on the couch tonight."

"No, you don’t. I have a cot in the closet," Nicole turned around and embraced the bassist. "You don’t have to sleep on that either." She leaned down for a kiss. Laurel tasted of beer and smoke. Nicole was pretty sure she did as well.

"Let me brush my teeth," Laurel yawned. "Then I think we should get some sleep."

"Sounds like a plan," Nicole used Laurel’s favorite phrase, making the bassist grin.

They separated and Laurel dug her toothbrush out from her backpack again. Nicole waited until her companion had gone inside the bathroom before changing into her pajamas. She had brought conservative sleepwear with her, not counting on this sudden change of sleeping arrangements. She was not complaining, but would have packed something a little less butch than the jogging pants and concert tour shirt she was wearing.

She made sure Mozart had food and water, and turned the sheets on the bed down. For some odd reason, she was hit by a wave of self-doubt. Something seemed too good to be true. She was worried about many little things. All of her doubts pointed back to her faults as a human being, and her imagined lack of attractiveness as a mate. She sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for her turn in the bathroom.

Laurel came out of the bathroom in a tank top and green plaid boxers. Both of them did nothing more than look at the other for a long moment. Finally Nicole got off the bed and grabbed her bag of toiletries.

"My turn. I’ll be right out."

"Take your time," Laurel stopped to appreciate the view as Nicole entered the bathroom. She was not prone to such self-doubts about her skill abed. She was a little nervous though. She had never been with someone she truly cared for before. It was her feelings for the photographer that made her more nervous than anything else.

Nicole came out of the bathroom and stood a little awkwardly outside the door. Laurel noticed that the photographer seemed unsure of herself. She was quite sure that Nicole was not a virgin, but that did not mean that she had confidence in her appearance or in herself.

"Hey," Laurel stayed where she was, she was going to have to carefully put Nicole at ease. "Do we need to set an alarm or something?"

"No, I’m sure that Grandma will call when she wants us to be somewhere." Nicole walked slowly over to the bed and sat down. She could feel herself shaking and wondered whether or not the bassist had noticed.

"Well, I guess we should get some sleep then," Laurel climbed into bed and crawled under the covers.

"Do you want the lights on?" Nicole laid her hand on the lamp by the bed.

"Nope, I got over my fear of the dark a long time ago," Laurel chuckled softly.

"Ok," She turned off the light and got under the covers. She lay down on her back and stared at the ceiling.

"You ok?" Laurel slid up beside her. She traced Nicole’s cheek with her hand and brushed the hair off her forehead. Nicole closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

"Yeah," She opened her eyes and turned towards Laurel. "I’m fine."

"Goodnight Nicole," Laurel leaned down and kissed her. She rolled back over and closed her eyes. Before she fell asleep, Nicole rolled over and rested her head on the bassist’s shoulder.

"Goodnight Laurel."

part 6

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