Disclaimers: Nope. The characters are mine. I don't really want them, so perhaps I'll just let them have each other. That way everyone's happy. If you haven't read Alix and Valerie then you'll probably be lost. If you're lost anyway.. then... you'll have to see Bertha about that. I'm not responsible for anything I write. Unless.. of course... you like it :)

 

Sex/Violence/Naughty language: Yes/No/Maybe so.

 

Special Thanks: to my best friend Christy, who makes me appear far more creative than I am. And as always, to Cindy, for everything. 

 

Feedback: Feel free to direct all comments, questions, rantings, ravings, roommate stories, bad hair days, radioactive rock information, UFO sightings, and amusing anecdotes to amazonkiwi@aol.com


 

Chapter Nine āā Alix & Valerie

 

"Everything's set," I assured Jessica. "Alix doesn't suspect a thing. I told her we were going trick-or-treating in Miami."

 

Jessica laughed. "Good one."

 

I'd thought so too. Grinning proudly, I stepped in front of my closet to see what I could pull off as a costume at the last minute. I kept the phone to my ear as I rummaged through the articles of clothing.

 

"What time is she coming by?"

 

I glanced at my watch. "Soon probably," I answered. "I totally forgot to pick out a costume though."

 

"Smooth."

 

A knock at the door kept me from responding. "I think she's here," I told Jessica, stepping out of the room.

 

"Okay, you know where to be and what time, right?"

 

"Got it."

 

"See you there."

 

"Bye." I hung up the phone as I reached the door. In the hallway stood Alix, dressed as a pink fuzzy bunny, complete with an apron that read, 'Pet me, I'm cute.'  I cleared my throat to keep from laughing. "Uh. Roger Rabbit lives two doors down."

 

Alix was not amused. "I have a little problem," she informed me as she stepped into the apartment.

 

Please God, I begged. Don't let me start laughing. She'll dump me on the spot. I closed the door and regarded her seriously. "Go on."

 

"Right," she began. "So I was in the girl's bathroom at my dorm, about to try on my very cool new costume." She held up an empty bag with a pictures of a weird gothic outfit clearly displayed. "Except that inside, I found this." She motioned to herself. "And I thought, 'Okay, I need to go return it.' Clearly." She looked down at the floor and hesitated a moment, blushing a deep red. "But um, I thought I'd try it on anyway. Just ÷ because."

 

"Right÷" I said, not sure where she was going with this. I smiled. She looked quite adorable in the bunny ears and pink furry body.

 

"Stop smiling," she said. "This isn't funny."

 

I covered my mouth with one hand and leaned back against the door.

 

She sighed. "Okay," she continued, "so I got into the costume. But the um .. the zipper got stuck. So I figured I'd get Nicole to help me. But when I got back to my room, the door was locked. And I didn't have the key."

 

"So you came directly here?" I asked. I could only imagine her walking down the street to the apartment dressed that way.

 

"Yes," she answered.

 

"How'd you get here without your keys?" I wondered.

 

"I had my car keys with me," she responded. She sighed again and dropped down on the couch. "I have two sets of keys. My car keys and my house keys. I generally lock them together into one but today I didn't feel like carrying around a lot of keys so I separated them. I wasn't expecting Nicole to lock me out of the room."

 

I grinned and walked over to her, leaning down to kiss her nose. "Happy Birthday."

 

This at least brought a smile to her face. "Thank you," she said. "Now will you help me out of this thing?"

 

"Sure," I responded, offering her my hand. "I think I have a pair of pliers in my room." I took her fuzzy paw in my hand and led her to the room. "I kind of like the costume, Alix. It's very becoming."

 

"Shut up."

 

I grinned. "Okay turn around," I instructed once we were inside the room. I reached up to grab the zipper. It reminded me of the first time we'd gone out and my grin turned into a smile. "I don't think you have much luck with zippers."

 

"I find myself in this position a lot with you, it seems," she agreed.

 

I laughed. "Maybe it's a sign." I tried the zipper but it wouldn't budge. "It's stuck."

 

"No duh. Did you think I made that whole story up?"

 

"Hey, you never know."

 

She turned to face me, looking defeated. "So what do we do?"

 

"I think you should keep it on."

 

"Valerie," she whined. "I really have to pee. Come on."

 

I laughed, looking her up and down. "We can cut it."

 

"Yes! Get the scissors and rip the sucker!"

 

"Are you sure?" I asked, wondering if there was another way. Maybe if I pushed down really hard ÷  But one look at her face let me know that if I didn't get her out of the costume and soon, there was going to be massive bloodshed. "I'll get the scissors."

 

* * *

 

Valerie finally got me out of the dreaded costume from Hell. Its evil grasp had sucked me in. It was a satanic being, capable of destruction. It had to be stopped.

 

"Um, Alix," Valerie said carefully. "I'm pretty sure it's dead."

 

I kept on cutting through the pink material like there was no tomorrow. "Yeah but this is fun." I held up a strip to her. "Try it."

 

"No thanks."  Valerie turned her attention to the closet. "So what do you think we should go as? I've got a few old shirts we can tear up and spread blood on."

 

"Sure," I said. "Do you have blood?"

 

"Yeah. I picked up some make-up too."

 

"Cool. So what exactly are we going to be?"

 

"Bloody people with ripped shirts?"

 

"Oh right," I said, as she handed me a plain white tee shirt. "You sure you don't need these?"

 

"Yep."

 

Valerie left the room and I sat down on the bed. I started making holes in the shirt and then ripping them open with my fingers. A few moments later, Valerie came back and dropped a plastic bag on the bed next to me. Inside, I found a few tubes of fake blood and a pack of zombie make-up. I never knew zombies wore make-up. But who was I to judge?

 

It took us about half-an hour to complete our desired looks. We looked equally hideous by the end of it all.

 

"Nice work," Valerie said as we stood together in front of her mirror. "We are getting lots of candy tonight."

 

I smiled. It had been a while since I'd celebrated my birthday the old fashioned way and I was looking forward to the free candy. For some reason, anything with Valerie seemed fun.  "Hey, do you mind if we stop at my mom's house before we go? I'm sure she'd want to see me."

 

Valerie glanced at her watch. She'd been doing that a lot and it was starting to annoy me. "Yeah sure. No problem."

 

"Hey, is there somewhere else you need to be?" I asked. "We don't have to do this."

 

"Huh? Oh." She appeared to realize what she'd been doing. "I'm sorry. I just like to keep track of the time. I donŪt want to waste half of your day."

 

Not quite as bad a liar as Jessica, but she was still pretty bad. "Uh-huh," I said. Something was up. "Let's go then."

 

Valerie looked relieved. "Okay."

 

I let her drive. For some reason she enjoyed driving my crappy car and I wasn't going to complain.

 

When we arrived at my mom's house, I was surprised to see that her car wasn't in the driveway and the lights were off inside. "Where the hell?" I asked, slamming the passenger door. I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. The keys were in my dorm room, of course.  I rang the bell a few times to no avail.

 

I turned to Valerie who was waiting by the car. I shrugged and went back. "I guess she's not home," I said, trying to hide my disappointment. "She probably went to the store to get something."

 

"Do you want to wait here?" Valerie asked.

 

"No," I replied, getting back inside the car. "Let's go."

 

We drove in silence for a while. I was staring out of the window, trying to look on the bright side of things. I was grateful that at least I got to spend my birthday with Valerie. It wouldn't have been a very happy one otherwise.

 

"Are you okay?" Valerie asked.

 

I smiled at her. "Yes," I replied. "I'm happy you're here."

 

"I'm happy I'm here too," she replied.

 

I settled back in the seat, watching the scenery pass by. After a while, I knew we'd arrived in Miami. I wasnŪt sure where exactly we were going but Valerie seemed to know, so I just let her lead the way.

 

A short while later, she pulled the car off to the side of the road. I glanced at her in confusion. "Are we here?" I asked, glancing around. There didn't seem to be much going on. In fact, it looked more like the entrance to a parking lot.

 

"Put this on," Valerie answered, handing me a black bandana.

 

"Is my hair bothering you?"

 

She laughed. "No, I mean, as a blindfold."

 

I arched an eyebrow. "I don't know how they go trick-or-treating where you come from, but we do things a little differently here."

 

"Are you going to be difficult?"

 

"Aren't I always?" I asked, glancing down at the piece of cloth in my hands. Was she serious about this?

 

"C'mon, it's a surprise," she insisted. "Put it on."

 

I was a little hesitant. After all, how well did I really know this woman? "Are you planning on kidnapping me and selling me to Columbian drug lords? Or the mafia?"

 

"Please. One day with you and they'd send you right back."

 

She had a point there. I put on the blindfold. Now I was completely at her mercy. Not that I hadn't been before.

 

The car was back in motion, even though I had no idea where we were headed now. A surprise she'd said. Well it had better be a good one. I didn't appreciate this blindfolding business.

 

We drove for another five minutes before I felt the car roll to a stop.

 

"We're here," Valerie announced, killing the ignition.

 

Perhaps killing was a wrong choice of words. There would be no killing tonight. Of engines or anything else. "Can I take the blindfold off now?"

 

Valerie laughed. "You sure are impatient. No. Not yet."

 

"How about now?"

 

"Hold on a sec," Valerie said.

 

I heard her leave the car, shut the door. Now I was alone. A few seconds later, the passenger door opened and I felt Valerie at my side. She unbuckled my seatbelt and gently helped me out of the car.

 

Since I couldn't see a thing, I attempted to figure out my surroundings by using my other senses. But my sense of touch was busy enjoying the feel of Valerie's hand on my arm. And my sense of smell had just discovered it really liked Valerie's shampoo. What else did I have available? Hearing. I listened intently. I heard water lapping against something.

 

"Are you going to make me walk the plank and feed me to the sharks?" I asked.

 

"Yes," Valerie answered. "How'd you know?"

 

"Lucky guess," I replied. 

 

Valerie finished locking up the car, and took my hand. "We're almost there."

 

"I thought you said we were there already?" I asked. Oh no she was lying to me. She really was going to throw me to the sharks. I was too young to die. I hadn't even bought my first legal alcoholic beverage yet. She had to at least give me a chance to do that. Okay, I didn't really believe she was going to kill me. But it was the only logical explanation I could come up with in such a spur of the moment situation. What had happened to trick-or-treating?

 

She started leading me somewhere.

 

"There's a ramp," Valerie announced. "Careful."

 

And suddenly we were going up. The water was beneath us. I could hear it clearly now. Finally, we stepped off the ramp. We were inside someplace. Where the hell was she taking me?

 

"Surprise," Valerie whispered my ear, and removed the bandana from my eyes in one swift motion.

 

I blinked a few times as my eyes adjusted to the sudden light.

 

We appeared to be in the entrance to a grand hotel, but that couldn't be right. I looked all around. Behind me was the ramp we'd walked up on, and below that was the water I'd heard.

 

There were people with suitcases wandering about the place. Some were wearing uniforms, others were dressed casually in shorts and tee shirts. If I hadn't known any better, I would've guessed we were in a ÷ cruise ship?

 

"What do you think?" Valerie asked.

 

"I'm not sure I understand," I said, glancing at my girlfriend with what I hoped was a look that illustrated my sheer confusion.

 

"We're taking a cruise to the Bahamas," she informed me, grinning like a little kid.

 

"You're kidding," I said, now certain this was a dream. I was overjoyed for a moment. It meant that the bunny incident had never happened.  I turned back to the surroundings. It all looked so real though. So detailed. Down to the intricate patterns on the black and teal carpet.

 

"Happy birthday," she said.

 

It occurred to me that perhaps this wasn't a dream. I couldn't believe it. I threw my arms around Valerie's neck and hugged her tightly. "I love you. This is wonderful."

 

"I love you too, and I'm glad you like it. Wanna go check out our room?"

 

Our room. I found I liked the sound of  that. A lot.

 

I allowed her to take my hand since it appeared like she knew the way. It seemed like a dream. But I didn't think it was. I used my free hand to pinch my arm. "Ouch," I muttered, and started rubbing the sore spot.

 

"Something wrong?" Valerie asked with concern.

 

"I was just checking something," I answered. "Where are we going?"

 

"Our suite's on deck 9," she replied. "I'm looking for the stairs."

 

"Ah."

 

A moment later we found them. Why couldn't I have landed myself a better phobia? Like feathers. Unless you were a farmer, you didn't really have to face feathers on a daily basis. And that's only if you housed chickens. But what were you doing raising chickens if you had a fear of feathers?

 

Eventually, we made it to deck 9. Valerie started down the hall in search of the room number. I was wondering how we were going to make it to the Bahamas with no luggage. I was also wondering how Valerie had managed to pay for all of this. Unless there was something else she hadn't told me, which was very likely.

 

But hey I wasn't complaining. So far this had been a very welcomed surprise. I'd never been on a cruise before.

 

"Here it is," Valerie announced, standing in front of a door. "Ready?"

 

"Yup."

 

Valerie opened the door, and allowed me in first.

 

My first thought was that we'd gotten the wrong room, cause I noticed there were people already in there. But then ÷

 

"SURPRISE!" a grand chorus of voices yelled.

 

My jaw dropped as I realized that the people were all of my friends; Jessica, Mathew, Jade. Even my mom was there. Roxanne and Alisha were holding a big sign that read 'Happy Birthday, Alix'.

 

"Wow," I breathed, totally overwhelmed. I'd definitely not been expecting this.

 

Jessica and Mathew stepped forward, grinning like little kids. "You like?" asked Mathew.

 

So far this had been the best birthday ever. I hugged them both, because I had no words to express how much this meant to me. "Thank you," I said.

 

They laughed and hugged me back.

 

"It was really Valerie's idea," Jessica informed me.

 

I turned to Valerie and kissed her, forgetting completely that my mom was in the group. Oh well, she'd get over it.

 

Valerie hugged me tightly. "Glad you like it. But you should really be thanking Jessica. She made all the arrangements."

 

I took turns hugging everyone, unable to stop smiling. When I got to my mom,  I was suddenly embarrassed. "I went by your house but you weren't in."

 

"Now you know why," she told me, and pulled me in for a hug. "Happy birthday, baby."

 

Ah, I thought, hugging her back. Now this is what I called a birthday.

 

* * *

 

Eventually, the crowd dispersed to their own rooms and Alix and I were left alone. I was beyond thrilled that we'd managed to pull this off. Alix looked so happy and it made me feel so good to know that I was in part responsible for the huge smile on her face. After all I'd put her through the past few weeks, she deserved to be happy.

 

Jessica had gone all out and gotten everyone suites. I didn't want to know how much everything had cost her. Just looking around the room gave me a fairly good idea that it hadn't been a cheap investment. But I also knew that when it came to Alix, Jessica had no reservations.

 

There were two twin beds that folded together to form a queen. I sat at the edge of one and watched Alix. She was out on the balcony, looking out at the ocean. She'd changed out of her costume and wiped the make-up off her face. I'd talked to Nicole about preparing a suitcase with Alix's clothes. Somehow we'd pulled that off too without Alix noticing. So far, everything had gone perfectly.

 

Alix turned around, as if she could feel me watching her. She walked back into the room and sat down next to me. "I'm still in dream mode," she told me. "This feels totally unreal."

 

I smiled. "It's real," I assured her. "Nothing has ever been more real." I wasn't sure I was still talking about the cruise.

 

She was about to say something, but the knock on the door interrupted.

 

"Come in!" I yelled.

 

A young man, dressed in a uniform pertaining to the cruise line's staff, stood in the doorway. He held a clipboard in his hand. "I trust everything is to your liking."

 

"Definitely," Alix answered him.

 

He nodded and stepped inside. He opened a door I hadn't noticed was there. It looked like a small storage closet. "Life vests are in here. Please put them on and meet up on the side deck."

 

"Is the ship sinking already?" Alix asked.

 

"Just a safety precaution," he answered, not particularly amused. He nodded slightly and turned around to knock on someone else's door.

 

Alix and I followed directions to the letter. We ran into Jessica and Mathew outside. Soon after, Jade, Roxanne, Alisha and Alix's mom joined us.

 

"What is this all about?" Roxanne asked.

 

"They're just going to check that everyone on the ship knows where the life vests are and know where to meet," Jessica informed us. "It takes forever, because they have to call every single room, but it's for our own safety. They always do it."

 

"Fun," Jade commented dryly.

 

Someone from the crew called everyone's attention and then began to explain what was going on. She basically said everything that Jessica had told us, except with a lot more boring details. I listened anyway. One never knew when an emergency would arise. I'd seen Titanic. And though there wouldn't be any icebergs between Florida and the Bahamas, it didn't hurt to be prepared.

 

"Bring Alix by my room after dinner," Jessica whispered in my ear. "Presents."

 

I nodded my understanding. I'd given my present to Jessica earlier in the day, along with Alix's suitcase. It wasn't a very personal gift, but I knew she'd like it. I had something else I wanted to give her, but I wanted us to be alone for that. And I still wasn't all that sure I had the guts to do it. I let out a shaky breath. Fine time to be a coward.

 

All the rooms were called and after what seemed like an interminably long time, we were allowed back inside. There was to be a Halloween party after dinner on the Sun Deck and I thought that sounded like fun.

 

Back in the room, we put away the life vests and regarded each other.

 

"Hungry?" I asked.

 

"Of course," she answered. "What time's dinner again?"

 

"In half an hour," I answered, sitting down.

 

"I think I'll jump in the shower then," she answered.

 

I almost asked if she wanted company but I was scared to. We hadn't slept together since before the entire ordeal of her finding out about everything, and I was too afraid of crossing the line. I figured that once she was ready, she'd let me know.  "I'll take one after you," I said instead.

 

"I'll make it quick," she said with a smile, then disappeared into the bathroom.

 

When I heard the water start, I dug into my pocket and took out the black velvet box I'd been hiding for days. I'd been saving to buy an art studio someday ÷ but some things were more important. I didn't figure Alix to be the gold type of gal, so I'd opted for a Platinum band. The jeweler had explained that Platinum was more expensive than Gold because it was an extremely rare Precious Metal. He also informed me that it was harder to mine and that it weighed more than Gold. But he also assured me that in the end it was more durable. I'd taken his word for it. I didn't know the first thing about jewelry.

 

The diamond was 4 carats, surrounded by small opal stones. Opal was Alix's birthstone. Well, one of them anyway. The jeweler had informed me that it was a "beautiful and mysterious" stone. Beautiful and mysterious indeed. He'd called it the gem with a rainbow inside.  This had caused me to laugh.  How appropriate, I'd thought.

 

The water stopped, so I quickly tucked the ring away for later. I made a grab for the TV clicker. Information about the cruise was on. I pretended I was very interested in what the Captain had to say when Alix walked out.

 

"All yours," she told me. "I think I left you a little hot water."

 

I smiled. "Thanks, you're too kind." I grabbed a change of clothes from my still packed suitcase and walked into the bathroom. I hoped that a nice shower and some fresh clothes would prepare me for the night ahead.

 

But I knew I'd need a lot more help than that.

 

 

* * *

 

Dinner was wonderful. Our waiter, GastonůDaston?ůwas quite nice. Every time he came by the table, he wished me a happy birthday. He even brought a cake at dessert time so that all of my friends could embarrass me in front of the entire dining room by singing Happy Birthday. Some of the staff joined in, just to top off my utter humiliation.

 

I was enjoying myself, though. When the day had begun, I'd never thought to imagine that it would end like this. I was so touched that they'd all pulled together for the occasion. Even Jessica and Valerie appeared to have bonded, or something to that effect. They at least looked at each other and once in a while, went as far as exchanging a word or two. It was more than I'd hoped for, considering.

 

Some people from the crew were dressed up in random costumes as they walked around making sure that everyone was enjoying themselves. Looking around, I couldn't see anyone who didn't look like they were having a good time. Personally, I was ready to make camp and move into the ship. I could live like this.

 

After dinner, I felt Valerie take my hand. "Do you want to check out the party later?" she whispered in my ear.

 

I felt goosebumps pop out all over my skin at the sensation of her breath on my skin. What had she just asked me? Oh÷ right. "Sure," I replied, though I'd been secretly hoping for some alone time with her. It had been so long ÷ Well, a few weeks. But it felt like an eternity.

 

"Can we make a quick stop?" she asked.

 

"Of course."

 

I thought we were going back to our room, but we passed our door and I saw that she was leading me toward Jessica's room. I wondered what on Earth was going on now.

 

She knocked lightly on the door.

 

From somewhere on the other side of the door, we heard, "Come in."

 

Everyone was standing around a table overflowing with presents. Did these people know no bounds?  I smiled. "What's this?" I asked, needlessly.

 

"They're called gifts," Jade informed me.

 

"Oh, right."

 

Jessica held out a chair. "Come and sit, birthday girl."

 

I complied with her request and stared at the pile of wrapped boxes in front of me. I had no idea where to begin. "Didn't you guys think the cruise was enough?" I asked. "I'm really not that materialistic." I picked up one present and shook it. "Unless Aerosmith is in here somewhere."

 

"You wish," Roxanne told me.

 

I laughed. "Who is this from?" I referred to the mysterious offering in my hands.

 

"Alisha," Roxanne responded. "She picked it out herself."

 

I smiled at the little girl. "Well thank you, Alisha."  I ripped through the paper. Inside I found a Winnie the Pooh coloring book, complete with crayons.

 

Everyone started laughing.

 

"Can I borrow it?" asked the four-year-old.

 

"It's all yours," I told her, handing it over. "Enjoy."

 

She gave me a hug and ran off to the corner to color.

 

"Well then," I said, grabbing another gift.

 

"That's from me," Jade announced.

 

I glanced at her in surprise. "I thought you gave me yours already?"

 

She chuckled. "That was just to throw you off." She winked. "I'm guessing you'll still get some good use out of it."

 

I'm sure I blushed. I cleared my throat and turned to the present. Unwrapping it, I blushed even more. "Oh÷my÷"  It was a vibrator.

 

"For when Valerie's not around," Jade explained.

 

Everyone cracked up. High fives were exchanged. I wanted to crawl under a rock and die of embarrassment.

 

My mom coughed from her spot on the couch, making everyone aware of her presence.

 

I closed my eyes. Please God, kill me now.

 

"Sorry, mum," Jade mumbled, and hid behind Jessica. At least she had the decency to look embarrassed.

 

I opened my eyes and grabbed another present. This time I was fearful.

 

"It's from me," said Mathew. "It's rated PG."

 

I was grateful. Inside was a brand new chain wallet. "Nice!" I said, holding it up.

 

There was a chorus of oooh's and aaah's from the smartasses.

 

"Thank you very much, Mr. Collins," I told him.

 

"You're very welcome," he replied.

 

I opened the next couple of presents. I got a new watch from my mom. And a gift certificate to Camelot Music from Roxanne.

 

Last but not least, was Valerie's present. I'd been wondering all day what she was going to get me. I saved the best for last.

 

I couldn't tell what it was just from looking at it. But whatever it was, appeared to be framed. Maybe it was a painting of some sort. Probably something she'd drawn. I smiled in anticipation.

 

But it wasn't anything she'd made. Instead, a framed poster of Steven Tyler stared back at me. Autographed.  I shrieked with delight and stood up to hug her. "Where did you get that?"

 

She laughed and hugged me back. "Umm, eBay?"

 

"You rock," I informed her.

 

"Pretty much."

 

 

* * *

 

I stood on the Sun Deck, a short while later, staring out at the invisible night beyond. The Halloween party was in full swing, and I'd left Alix with her friends. For some reason, I felt like I needed to contemplate my existence.

 

It wasn't long before another figure joined me against the railing. But it wasn't one I'd been expecting. I turned and offered my most polite smile. "Good evening, Mrs. Morris," I greeted.

 

Alix's mom smiled over at me, green eyes sparkling in the moonlight. Her long blond hair was tucked behind her ears. She could've passed for a twenty-year-old if she wanted.  "What are you doing by yourself?" she asked.

 

"Just thinking," I replied honestly, feeling extremely self-conscious. I'd never really talked to any parents before. I barely spoke to mine, save my father who'd just recently rediscovered his humanity.

 

She nodded as though understanding. "You make her happy," she told me, not quite looking at me.

 

I was surprised by her admission. I didn't know what to say, so I remained silent, hoping she'd proceed.

 

"She hasn't been happy in a long time," Mrs. Morris continued, to my relief. "Her father's death ÷ Jessica÷"

 

I was surprised she knew about that.

 

It must've shown because she smiled. "I know my daughter, Valerie. More than she realizes." She looked at me silently for a moment. "Have your parents met her?"

 

"My father's in Boston," I answered.

 

"And your mother?"

 

I gazed down at the floor. "I'm not sure," I replied truthfully.

 

"I'm sorry."

 

"It's okay," I said, not wishing her to feel sorry for me. I'd done quite well for myself without my mother's help. Sometimes, I even managed to convince myself that I didn't miss her.

 

"I'm glad you two found each other," Mrs. Morris told me. "It seems you need each other."

 

I looked at her, surprised by the comment. I'd never thought of it that way.

 

"Well, I'll leave you to your thinking," she told me. "Good night, Valerie."

 

"Good night," I replied.

 

She patted my shoulder and walked off, leaving me to my thoughts.

 

* * *

 

I was attempting to hold a conversation with Jessica, while keeping an eye on Valerie. I was very distracted by the fact that my mother was speaking to her. What on Earth could my mom be telling her?

 

"÷ and you're not listening to a word I'm saying," Jessica stated.

 

"Sorry," I told her. "I was sort of listening."

 

Jessica turned her head, in search of the root of my distraction. She found it immediately. "Ooh, what'd she do?"

 

"I can't imagine what Mom could be talking to her about," I said.

 

"Oh, probably the usual," Jessica said, casually. "Say no to drugs, don't drink and drive, use dental dams when  having oral sex÷"

 

I glared at Jessica sharply. "Like my mom even knows what dental dams are."

 

"What? You think she was born yesterday?"

 

"On the contrary," I informed her. "She was born way before sex was invented."

 

"Really? And pray tell, just how did you come into being?"

 

"The stork brought me," I replied, matter-of-factly. "And then he cloned my sister, because I was so perfect, there just had to be two of me."

 

Jessica laughed at my insane explanation.

 

I watched my mom pat Valerie's shoulder and walk away, towards me. "She's coming over," I told Jessica.

 

"Which one?"

 

"Good evening, girls," my mother greeted, before I had a chance to answer Jessica.

 

"Hi, Mom," I said.

 

"Hi, Mom," Jessica echoed.

 

I smiled as did my mother. Jessica had been calling her 'Mom' for years now. My mother found it endearing. "Can I have a moment alone with the birthday girl?" she asked.

 

"All yours," Jessica told her. "I'll go mingle with the masses."

 

I watched Jessica walk away, then turned expectantly to my mother. What did she want to talk about? The vibrator? Please God, no. Anything but that.

 

"How does it feeling being twenty-one?"

 

I considered. "It feels a lot like being twenty," I replied. "Only now I can toss the fake ID."

 

She didn't find this as funny as I did.

 

I gave her a crooked grin. "Kidding." I looked over to where Valerie had been standing. She was no longer there. I frowned.

 

"You like her a lot?" my mom asked, knowing where my gaze was directed.

 

"A lot."

 

"I like her," she told me. "She seems like a good kid."

 

I thought it best to keep Valerie's past from my mother. And everything else too. There were just some things parents didn't need to know. "She is," I agreed, knowing it wasn't a lie. Whatever Valerie's past mistakes, they didn't make her any less of a wonderful person.

 

"Are you having a good birthday?"

 

"The best," I answered at once.

 

"I'm glad that Jessica invited me. It was quite the surprise."

 

I smiled. "How was Rachel's day?"

 

"Jonathan took her out to dinner." She sighed. "Jessica invited her too but Jonathan didn't want any part of it, so she refused the offer."

 

"Oh," I said, not particularly surprised. My sister and I weren't particularly best friends, which is odd for twins, I know. But I still loved her, and would've liked to celebrate our birthdays together. Jonathan just sucked.

 

"Don't let that ruin your night, honey," my mom told me, smiling. "You have a lot to be grateful for."

 

"I do," I granted, nodding my head. A lot, indeed.

 

Mom nodded, as if satisfied with the mother-daughter conversation. "Well, I'm off to bed. You kids have fun."

 

"We will."

 

She gave me a hug. "Happy birthday."

 

"It is," I assured her. The happiest ever.

 

* * *

 

"Getting lectures already?"

 

I turned to find Jessica walking toward me, carrying a can of Coke in one hand. I'd retreated from the railing, preferring to sit down at one of the abandoned lounge chairs on the side. "She told me I made Alix happy," I told her, still amazed.

 

Jessica nodded and took the liberty of sitting beside me. "You do," she admitted.

 

"Does that bother you?" I asked seriously.

 

Jessica smiled, and sat back. "Perhaps," she said, looking out thoughtfully at the distance beyond the ship. "Probably not for the reasons you think."

 

"Enlighten me, then."

 

She took a sip from her drink. "I regret being the cause of her pain for so long. It was frustrating to know that it was all in my hands. Her happiness and unhappiness. All up to me. What bothers me isn't that you make her happy, it's the knowledge that I could've and didn't."

 

"And why didn't you?" I asked her. I felt a pang of envy at the thought of them together. It could've happened so easily, I realized. And Alix and I would've never been.

 

"I don't love her that way," Jessica told me. "I love her more than anything and anyone. But not that way. She's like a sister to me." She glanced at me as she said the words.

 

What an ironic situation. I would've laughed had it not been so sad. "Strange how things turn out."

 

She chuckled. "Indeed it is."

 

"You are not what I expected," I found myself admitting.

 

Jessica arched an eyebrow. "What did you expect?"

 

I hesitated, knowing I was on dangerous ground. I was willing to give Jessica a chance, but this was starting to get a little too personal and I wasn't sure I was prepared for that. But÷ what the hell? "When I was little," I began, "and Mom and Dad first explained to me about you, I thought it was the greatest thing. I would see you on TV and I'd brag to my friends that you were my sister. And none of them would believe me, of course, but I knew it was true." I felt embarrassed by my confession, but I'd already opened my big fat mouth, so I might as well keep on. "And one day, I was watching you on one of those interviews you used to do, and they asked you if you had any brothers and sisters and you said no. You said, 'I'm glad I don't, cause that way I get all the nice stuff.'"

 

Jessica cringed. "I really said that?" She shook her head.

 

I shrugged. "Well, from that moment on, I stopped telling anyone you were my sister. I didn't want to talk about it anymore. If Mom and Dad brought up the subject, I changed it. I was ashamed of you ÷ and I was hurt." I shrugged again, feeling stupid. "I was young."

 

"So was I," Jessica said sadly. "I'm really sorry."

 

"It was a long time ago," I replied. "I guess I just expected you to be that way still. That's why, in a way, I didn't feel so bad for what wanting to take your money." I sighed. "But then Alix ÷" I let the rest hang in the air. "You know the rest."

 

Jessica nodded. "I thought you were different too. When everything happened."

 

"Well, I didn't make a very good first impression," I agreed, feeling ashamed. "I handled all of that terribly."

 

"Not that many ways to handle it," Jessica said. "I wasn't angry about the money. I was angry about you using Alix to get it. The last thing she needed was someone else hurting her."

 

I nodded, my heart aching for what I'd done. "I was desperate," I said. "My brother's life or Alix's feelings÷"

 

"Seems like a pretty easy answer," Jessica replied.

 

"It was killing me," I told her. "I was angry at Aaron. I was angry at the world. I finally find a girl that I can ÷" I hesitated for a moment, the continued. "÷love ÷ and I had to risk throwing it all away."

 

"Do you really love her?" Jessica asked, her tone revealing nothing about her feelings on the subject.

 

"More than anything," I answered at once.

 

Jessica considered this, taking another sip of her drink. Finally, she nodded. "I think the two of you compliment each other well," she told me. "And you make her happy. If nothing else, that's good enough for me."

 

I don't know why, but her words made me feel a whole lot better. Perhaps I was no longer that little girl who was in awe at seeing her older sister on television, but Jessica's approval meant more to me than I cared to admit.

 

"Strange how fate brought us together," Jessica remarked. "Through Alix ÷ because of Alix."

 

"Maybe she's the center of the universe," I suggested, grinning slightly.

 

"Don't tell her that, she'll believe it," Jessica joked.

 

I laughed.

 

Jessica cleared her throat. "So, Valerie," she started, a bit shyly, "tell me about our family."

 

I blinked at her words, surprised but not at all upset. I smiled. "Um, what would you like to know?"

 

"Everything," she said.

 

*  *  *

 

A couple of hours later, I was bored out of my mind. Jade, Roxanne and Mathew had done a swell job of entertaining me, but I really missed my girlfriend. I knew she and Jessica were talking, though, and that was one conversation I wasn't going to interrupt. I just hoped it was a civil one.

 

I turned to Jade. Roxanne had left to check on Alisha and Mathew had retired to bed. So the two of  us were alone, watching drunk people in costumes stumble over themselves.

 

"I really am sorry about the vibrator," Jade insisted. "I totally forgot your mum was there."

 

"Yeah, yeah," I said, not wanting to talk about it. It had been embarrassing enough living through it, I didn't want to have to remember it.

 

"Oh look," Jade said, looking over my shoulder. "Jessica's on her way over here. I'm gonna go flirt with some guys."

 

"The one dressed as Leonardo DiCaprio's definitely a keeper," I told her.

 

"Oh sod off," she said, shaking her head. She walked off.

 

I smiled to myself, then regarded Jessica. "Have a good time?"

 

"A promise kept," she said with a smile. "Here's your other birthday present." She handed me a small gift.

 

I stared down at the object in my hands. "What's this?"

 

"Well open it and see."

 

I tore the wrapper off and started laughing. It was a pack of BubbleYum. "Watermelon," I said nodding in approval. "Thank you."

 

"Happy birthday," she said with a wink.

 

I looked all around, my gaze settling back on her. "So how did it go?"

 

"Well. You can't change the stars in one night but there's definitely progress."

 

I nodded, knowing it was going to take time. "I'm glad you talked to her."

 

Jessica smiled. "So am I."

 

I smiled back. "Your husband went to bed," I informed her.

 

"Your girlfriend's waiting for you in your room," she told me.

 

"Are you coming up?"

 

Jessica nodded thoughtfully. "In a few minutes. I want to stare at the ocean for a little while."

 

I smiled. Some things never changed. I'd never asked her what she thought about when she stared out there. Perhaps she thought the answers to life were hidden in the great beyond. Maybe she just envied its freedom. Or perhaps she just found comfort in its consistency. But I would never ask, and she would never tell. Some things were better left unsaid. "I love you," I told her, in a way that made it feel final. Like the last period of the last sentence in a chapter of my life.

 

She smiled, if a bit sadly. "I love you too."

 

I smiled my good bye and headed down to my room. I was dying to see Valerie. It felt like ages since I'd last looked at her. And it had only been a few hours. Jesus, I was in trouble.

 

"Valerie," I called, stepping into the room.

 

"Out here."

 

I saw her out on the balcony and joined her a few moments later. "Something interesting out there?" I asked, looking over the railing at the darkness below.

 

"Not anymore," she said, looking at me.

 

I smiled and hugged her, if only to feel the closeness of her body. I'd missed her. I'd missed feeling like we were connected. "I love you," I whispered.

 

Her arms tightened around my waist. "I love you too."

 

When we pulled away, I noticed Valerie was holding something. "What's that?" I asked.

 

"Your real present," she responded. "But before I give it to you, I have to say a few things."

 

"Okay." I waited patiently for her to continue.

 

"Okay, I'm gonna do my best not to sound corny, cause I know you hate that," she began. "But I may fail miserably. Just a warning."

 

I laughed. "Alright. I'll consider myself warned. Proceed."

 

Valerie took a deep breath. "Okay, here it goes," she said, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she looked right into mine. "I've never felt like I belonged anywhere before, but when I'm with you even the oddest places feel like home. I don't want to lose you again, Alix. I know you just recently forgave me and everything, but I am completely in love with you and that's not something that's going to change with time. So whether I tell you this now or five years from now, it doesn't matter. I want to be with you. Only you. Forever."

 

In spite of my usual hate for cornyness, I was touched.

 

She handed me the present. "Please don't freak out. But. Happy birthday."

 

I took the box, my heart suddenly hammering in my chest. I opened it slowly and nearly passed out when I saw what was inside. I stared at her. "What does this mean?"

 

"Whatever you want it to mean," she said simply.

 

I took the ring out of its resting place and looked at it. It was beautiful. I wondered if she knew that opal was my birthstone? "I .. um÷" I had no idea what to say. "What does it mean to you?" I asked finally.

 

"That I'm yours forever."

 

I smiled, too happy to speak. Instead, I kissed her deeply, every doubt in my mind suddenly melting away into nothingness until there was just us and no one else.

 

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt the pages of a new chapter start to open.

 

This was, is, and will forever be ÷ the story of our life ÷

 

 

 

The End

 


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