Pyrrhic Victory Song

Pyrrhic Victory Song

Stark described the room well. Bland mud comforters tucked into side by side full beds. Light stained wood night stand held ancient handset phone and clock radio. Tight knit carpet crunched as the first girl entered, dragging her bow bedecked rolling case. Thin curtains sharing the 3rd story view fluttered as other girl slinked in behind her, forlorn. “A cave has a better color pallet,” she mumbled as she fell backwards onto the bed.

Squeals reverberated as the first girl danced around, her USASF worlds badge spinning like a scythe. Her jet cheerleader’s backpack landed cockeyed on to one of the side chairs as she shucked it off while flipping onto the bed backwards. She glanced over at her roommate and best friend’s gloomy expression and sighed.

“We’re at Worlds, Gwen. We made it! What could possibly be wrong?”

“I miss her, Aria. She told me about it and wanted me there too. This would have been the first time we both would have made it. That will never happen now. He stole it from her and everyone at ‘Ghost town’.” Bitterness dulled the sea blue eyes as she pulled her pack off onto the floor below.

“Lorelei would have been so proud of you.” Aria rolled over and off the bed, embracing her friend in a tight squeeze. “We’ll do it for her. I’ll let everyone know in the morning.” She turned back to the uninspired room. “We can’t stay here, we’re in Disney World! You need serious cheering up and I know exactly who can do that!”

Gwen whipped her amber tresses around, a smirk on her thin lips. “We were told not to leave the hotel until tomorrow.”

Aria ran over to the door. “So? Does either of us really need chaperons considering who we are? Really?” She folded her arms under her petite bust, haughtiness flowing. Jerking open the door, a thick, brawny guy with a square jaw and caramel cotton candy hair stood just about to knock. Surprised wide hazel eyes connected with Aria’s chocolate ones as she gave him the one over with a sexy smile. “Rick? Still with Tsunami I see.”

He tugged the black Tsunami with a ‘T’ in the wave t-shirt, grinning.

“Still a Wolverine I see.”

He poked her in the chest, her glitter manicured hand brushed just beneath the gold crown bedecked Star and paw emblazoned on the T-shirt she wore.

Gwen paused behind her, face hard. “Not interested.” Her gaze connected directly with him. All mirth fled. “I didn’t hook up with Mandy. It was a rumor nothing more.” He held his hands out pleading. “Come on, we can have fun before we have to compete. It’s a beautiful day outside. There are several pools nearby. I know how much you love water.”

Aria turned, looking up at her friend, a full head taller than her. “No, Rick.” Suddenly, soft piano music wrapped around her. “No I can’t take one more step towards you; all that’s waiting is regret. Don’t you know I’m not your ghost? You lost what I loved the most.”

Aria turned to Rick who stood silently, emotionless, entranced. She softly shook her head, releasing a small sigh. The music arose from Gwen, following around them organically as if they were in a piano bar. Yet she didn’t stop singing. “I learned to live half alive, and now you want me back in your life?” She inhaled deeply, waving her hand in front of him. Continuing to sing, she finished with “Don’t come back for me. Who do you think you are?” Piano notes faded into silence. Aria looked at her in silent yet concerned amusement.

“You will never bother me again. Go fail like the heart theft you are!” Gwen commanded softly, arms akimbo. Watching awareness flicker back in his eyes, fury swirled in her own. “I have no time for cheaters and players.”

He shook his head, confused then frowned. “I’m sorry you don’t want to go, Gwen. Guess, I thought we could have fun?”

“You lied. It’s all over Twitter® and Tumblr®. Go to Mandy and the rest of your squad. They love you more. You will never have my heart.” She said, flatly. Looking past him, she stared at the sky blue railing and the blue Florida sky beyond.

Aria looked sympathetic, shrugging her shoulders.

“Aria you want to go? One last night of fun to take our mind of the competition tomorrow?” He smiled, a little more agitated than earlier. Gwen stood silently, glaring at him and his black jeans. “Go, if you want. I will just tweet and stretch.”

Aria stared at her, displeased. With a sigh, she asked, “Can you wait fifteen minutes then meet me in the lobby?”

He grinned again, like a heavy burden lifted. “Yes. See you there.” He sprinted off down the concrete walk while Gwen watched, shaking his head all the time he ran. A vicious smile cracked her lips. “That ends that. I hope he catches a cold from the ice in his soul.” She shut the door softly, the scent of laurel elm and drake oak no longer intruding on the ever present muddiness.

Aria stood placid, arms akimbo. “Did you really need to go all siren on him?”

“It bubbled up. You know how I am. Heavy stress will pull appropriate music down. How was it? It’s new, I know that much.”

“Beautiful. I want to use it for our next Saturday concert.” Aria smiled, rocking on her tar suede booties. “Teach me?”

Gwen hesitated. “I don’t know. It’s a golden ticket. If it gets out it will block all the rest of her music. She’s a waitress before this song.”

“Low born?” She smirked. “We are high borne members of the Assembly. You know me.”

“Promise? No singing it in the Forest Hill atrium?” She asked cautiously.

“I promise,” she repeated, then added under her breath when Gwen turned her back, “no such thing.” A devious grin parted her lips. “Ready when you are.”

As Aria left the room, another Wolverine Gold cheerleader stood by the door all smiles and bubbliness. Sauntering in, she glanced around the unperturbed room more surprised than anything. “They gave you an ugly room!” She rested thick hands on wide black skirted hips. The red lipped smirk bubbled into a hug as she pulled Gwen in.

“Amber, Oh my God, you’re dark!” A soft push bumped her away as wide eyes scanned the buxom 16yr olds body.

Pulling briefly on her ‘Wolverines, queens of the world’ t-shirt, complete with a star & paw on a globe logo, a flash of black sports bra appeared. Adjusting it, she wheeled around, flashing the back which read ‘Snap for us! You know you want to.’

“Aria said you choked up today. I agree. We should honor her. She’s one of us now and forever, right?”

Gwen hugged her again. “Glad, you agree. Still…”

“I know we talked on the plane. We’re going to do it this year.” Amber’s poker straight maroon locks shook as she nodded.

“Seriously? Everyone agrees?” Gwen grinned.

“Everyone I talked too. Coach Grace and Harton think we are. I want us to surprise him.”

Just then, a chirp followed by a kerplunk echoed. Both ladies withdrew their phones checking texts. Gwen showed Amber hers. “Looks like fun time is beginning now. Previews in an hour. Where is Kevin?”

Amber nodded then covered her mouth hiding a broad grin. “He’s in with Pey and Nicole. Coaches don’t know because he’s not a Wolverine. Apparently he convinced someone he needed to room with them.”

Shaking her head softly, she chuckled. “It’s the VIP pass he has. He’s part of the gym because of me so–” she looked at the mirror, azure eyes red and is her nose, “Am I red?”

“Look like you cried. How is he with the gym because of you?” Amber asked as Gwen ran into the bathroom. She flew out to grab her purse out of her pack, dodging the question again. Groaning, she threw her hands up. “Kelly Clarkson.”

Gwen stuck her head out the doorway, her golden tanned face suddenly free of all makeup. “He told you?”

“No, I did.” The deep man voice accompanied a smarmy smile. Firmly affixed to a square faced, ebony stubbled young man, he trotted in, collapsing onto the bed.

Horror widened eyes furrowed to fierceness as she sprung at him, her body crashing where he just lay. “Gwen! I have a reason to be here.”

Pulling up herself into a cross-legged sitting position, she caught his serious gaze. Beside his black jeans was a refrigerated tote hanging from hands. Bows ran the length of the strap, various colors and logos from CA’s claw to F5’s simple ‘F5’ to her own gym’s claw embedded star and ‘G1F2GC3AO’ beneath it. The dirty smile returned. “Forget something?”

Reaching for it, she fell into him arms, him squeezing her into a tight hug. “You play dirty. Give it to me.”

“Amber’s watching!” He whispered.

Blush flooded her face as she shoved him jokingly away. “Seriously. I have the preview in an hour.”

Amber uttered an audible sigh. “Kelly Clarkson.”

“What about her? Didn’t Kevin convince her people to do the song for us?”

“He said someone when he mumbled through the noise.” Amber shook her head, irritated. Plucking at the ‘World Cup Shooting Stars’ button attached to her golden star and claw Worlds 2009 t-shirt, she stared at him. He leaned against her causally dragging a finger across her sea-foam skirt draped thigh.

“Probably the bit about the full ride. She was just here on tour last month so if she and band come back it will be on you. Also they have a gig on the 29th. Last Smash Platinum Bash in the Arizona center in Tucson.” He rolled off the bed. “I covered for him when he choked. Said it would all be covered. That’s the other thing in the bag.”

Gwen shook her head. “It’s not a cashier’s check is it?” She glanced over his straight leg medium blue jeans and white oxford shirt, a soft grin at his discomfort. “Tell me there is a cashier’s check in there.”

He looked at Amber who seemed frozen in mid text. Her IPhone sent it then rang. “You act like I killed someone.”

She snapped back. “No, but where…” She waved her hand. “I don’t want to know.”

Zipping open the bag, Gwen grimaced. Four thick stacks of blue banded 100s surrounded six anchored vials of milky white fluid spiraling gray bands occasionally. “Cash, how in Buckley’s–,” she growled, “–boiling water did you get cash?” Her Australian accent slipped out briefly, causing her to bite her lip.

Amber repeated a phrase into the phone. “Yes, he has it. Tell them he’ll be down in–” Gwen shouted, “Twenty minutes.” Amber looked at her. “He’s doing my poof as punishment.”

Tom face-palmed. “Seriously?”

She nodded and he just sighed, shaking his head.

Aria stood in the garish lobby glancing around for Rick or anyone else from Tsunami. Various people milled about. Camera bedecked tourists stood gawking, their luggage beside them; their children with mouse ears firmly ensconced their heads. Older, flabby employees with worn expressions stood helping their manner the opposite of the sky blue uniforms they wore. Sighing, she weaved around the rope maze blocking access to ketchup and mustard toned lorry counter. A youthful concierge caught her grimace and badge waving her up.

“Miss Darri, what can I do for you?” He smiled, his eyes drifting down toward her chest briefly before reconnecting.

“I’m looking for someone. Tall, muscular, square jaw, blue eyes, brown hair?”

As he went to open his mouth an older gentlemen in a solid black suit shouted, “I don’t really care. Call the room then. I just want to solve this. We wasted a lot of time and money if we’re being jerked around. Fuck it up and that’s the end of us using your resort.” The young woman bristled, tugging at her red gold pony as she typed into the computer. “His name, Mr. Blackstock?”

“Kevin Jalbert.” Only he pronounced it, Jal-bert rather than Jal-bare.

“Calling the room now,” she replied quickly, hiding her shaking not as well as she thought.

Aria looked back over as the guy helping her repeated, “His name?”

“Rick Sutter, He’s on Maryland Tide Tsunami.”

“Thanks,” he replied almost sarcastically.

Look back at Blackstock, she frowned, her brow furrowed.

“Narvel Blackstock. He manages Kelly Clarkson.” The guy said with a touch of annoyance. “Rick’s room isn’t answering. Anything else I can do?”

“Yea, try being nicer. I don’t appreciate being checked out.” The guy pasted on a flat smile. “My apologies, Miss Darri.”

Shaking her head, she staring texting Gwen, when a message appeared. ‘Tom has the money. I don’t. Oh fuck, I am so dead. FML.’

‘He’s here?’ She texted back while keeping an eye on Mr. Blackstock standing impatiently at the counter. He occasionally looked around at the blood read lamps hanging above or the gray tile below before resuming staring at the dark blue wall beyond with its football and basketball players.

“Ms. Darri, others need assistance.” He asked her politely.

“So help them,” she quipped, texting to Gwen, ‘Where is Tom?’

“I can’t, if you are standing in front of me.” He sighed, struggling to hide the irritation.

Focused chocolate eyes connected with his scowl. “Then call my room. When Gwen picks up tell her to get the money to Kevin. Okay?!” She glared, annunciating every word. Shock registered on him as she ducked fabric bar stepping into the aisle with Mr. Blackstock. “Your money will be here. We wouldn’t waste your time, Mr. Blackstock.”

He turned, appraising her, surprise morphing curiosity. “Kevin mentioned cheerleaders. You are?”

She looked him over as well. Tall, broad chested man with a round face covered in a clipped salt and pepper beard and mustache. Muddy eyes stared dispassionately. “The squad she is playing for.” Aria grinned.

He didn’t. “Nice. Perhaps we can continue this when the money arrives. I do have other things to do today other than wait.”

Blowing out a breath, Aria stooped under the fabric ropes until she was near the doors. A mechanical hiss shump sound filled the air masking everything save the breeze. In the distance, she saw him, weaving, throwing himself forward, and bobbing back. Rigid dusky black titanium columns ending in foot shaped pads stamped the concrete as Kevin hurried a tan makeup case in one fist.

A brief sprint and she stood before his rectangular face and lithe body. His badge hung behind him, its lanyard wrapped twice around his neck. “You ok?”

He shook his head, as he pulled the blue straps back around. Reaching for the makeup case, she unzipped it, gasped and then glanced around rapidly zipping it up. “Tom?

“Yes. He’s doing her makeup for the preview on the faux field.” He shook his head, amused. Aria chuckled. “He’s actually good too.” Then she stopped. “When’s the preview?”

“45 minutes,” He said as he walked off. She sighed. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Pressing her eyes closed briefly, she trotted back into the lobby. Mr. Blackstock stood silently, stoic. “You have it now?”

“I do.” She grinned brightly, handing him the makeup bag. Taking it gingerly, he at her glanced askance. A quick unzip, shock washed across his face, as fingers fluttered in the bag itself. Concern filled his gaze followed by a relieved sigh. “I’ll call him when they arrive. He said they were needed tomorrow.” He turned, walking away.

“If they are here now, could she help us now?”  She pleaded showing her best sad, desperate face.

Shaking his head before he turned around, he mumbled ‘teenagers’ under his breath. “Ask her yourself. Room 3516” He stepped swiftly out to a waiting black vehicle, its windows tinted as dark as the body.

Squeeing again, she ran to the resort map hanging on the lobby wall and analyzed it before sprinting off.

Gwen sat before the bathroom vanity, staring at Tom’s lean yet thickly muscled reflection. He bore a thin toothed comb in one hand and a can of Aussie® mega hold hairspray in the other. “Are you OK?”

Staring as his stubble, she frowned. “Not really. It’s so hard. She should be here with me laughing that finally I am at her level.”

Teasing her forearm length honey bangs, he grinned, eyes sparkling. “She would too. ‘About time, Gwen.’ With her buddy hug she always gave when she was excited.” Rolling the bangs forward on her head, he heard a sniff. Tears streamed from her eyes as she tried to blink them away. Spraying the poofed hair, he bound it with a golden fish encrusted elastic band. “I’m so sorry, Gwen. I miss her too.”

“No. It’s just—how do you know her? She barely spoke to you.” Curiousness stemmed the tears.

“Around you maybe. Did I not go with you to meet the people at Fraunces Tavern? We went through the gate together. Didn’t you find that odd if I didn’t know her well consider how protective she is the truth?” He cocked his head, a smug smile reflecting back.

Her soft sigh matched the wide eyed stare. “She told you…everything?”

“You forget too easily. Lean forward unless you want a low pony.”

Staring at the patchy tan carpet, suddenly thing gelled. “Why?”

“She needed help from my uncle so I became her bridge. When she realized I could be trusted, she shared.” He gently pushed her head so she righted herself. Stroking her ponytail, she grinned. “You never cease to amaze me.” Suddenly the joy seeped out as she remembered her comment about ponytails. Tears fell again, as she shook.

“I can’t do your makeup like that.” He frowned grabbing a hand towel with mouse ears all about it. “You’re getting red and puffy.”

A playful punch struck his shoulder as he squeezed her tight. “I miss her too. This day especially. She was so proud of World Cup and her teammates. She always spoke about how much they taught her. How Chelsey was her away home little sis. The work was worth it even if she had to use a gate, walk through a tavern, across three blocks of lower Manhattan to a ferry then drive 20 miles to the gym.”

Gwen grinned again, chuckling. “Mom never did understand why her car was in a ferry parking lot in upper New Jersey.” Then it vanished again, her face morose. “I don’t know why she had to go see Coach Sylvan.”

“I think it has to do with honor.  Coach Sylvan was many things, none good but she was aware of Lorelei’s skills being wasted with her. What bow?” He brought the case over, trying to get her mind on something happy.

“Gold.” She sighed, inhaled and faced him. His nose brushed hers as she smelt the coffee on his breath. He pecked her lips before she could turn away.

Holding her hands, she fidgeted with her nails trying to catch her breath.

“Aria, does she know?”

“About what? We broke up.” Distance clouded his gaze along with furrowed brows. “She’s not who I thought she was either. She revealed herself to me on an island with a gate. She wanted to bond with me and present me to her grandfather as her token guy. I left her in the moon pool wanting me to kiss her. She never loved me. I’m a means to an end with her.”

Gwen beheld his face as he tied on the bow to her pony. “You’re angry with her.”

“Disgusted. The look on her face when I said no and walked across the sand was priceless. I only wish I could have seen the one when I activated the gate.”

“She had to have known. If she didn’t when you left, she did. The gates aren’t accessible to surface people. You have to be a member of the assembly or been touched to operate one. Even someone turned can’t do it.” A pleased smile washed the tension away. “Have you talked since?”

“No, it was yesterday.” He shook his head.

“That explains the song.” She grinned but it drained out. A bitter breeze chilled her as she sat suddenly shivering. Looking at Tom in wide eyed horror, he zipped open the bag, pulled out an ampule gun and vial. “Hold on. I got you.”

“It’s not that. This is different.” She chattered, hugging herself.

With the vial inserted like a battery, he pressed the gun against her neck, squeezing the trigger gently.

“Something changed. I feel it.” Grimacing, she blew out a breath. Seeing him pull away the gun, she stood, heading for the door still in a gold wolverine sports bra and thong.

“Gwen?!” He shouted, grabbing her hand. She shook him off, glaring at him. “She stole her song. Somehow, Aria managed to steal ‘Jar of hearts’ and it’s my fault. I sang it to her. That bitch.” She stepped forward and he had her hand again. This time she couldn’t. “Let go.”

“No. You aren’t decent. You know better. This is neither the time nor the place to handle this. Let it go for the moment. We can handle this when we get back.”

“We?” She matched his gaze. “There’s no ‘we’.” Arms folded akimbo.

Ebony locks shuffled as his head shook. “Really?” He gestured towards the mirror. Her poof was perfect, the star and claw bow straight. “I never did this for Aria.” He blew out a breath, as she pulled her hand away. Shivers ran down her spine as she stared at him.

Another song bubbled up. Obvious to her distance stare, he grabbed her shoulder. Warmth and presence washed over, dragging him under. The room faded away replaced with a silver stage in the midst of a darkened arena. Cheers and screams echoed as he stood in semi-darkness. Hands reached up, not quite reaching his knees. A simple guitar riff and a toe-tapping mid-tempo drum beat began. Gwen sang out in a voice crisp and clearer than any he had ever heard. Then the spotlights switched to him. Yet he wasn’t singing. He looked at himself, it wasn’t him. It wasn’t his voice. It was Blake Shelton. As he walked over to Gwen, he noticed a ghostly image of another surrounding her in a silvery gown as she floating across the stage. The ghost seemed to be an older Christina Aguilera. Still Gwen sang to him, not the crowd. Her gossamer white shift flowing around her. Stopping beside her, they sing the chorus together in perfect harmony. Emotions tumble out. “I’m just a fool for you,” continued briefly before he turned and viewed beyond the stage into the audience of thousands on what appears to be a concert or awards show.

Applause rose and faded restoring everything back to the drab room they were standing in. Except pain radiating from his cheek. Gwen glared, rage rippling off her. “You had no right.” She turned away, digging through her pack for her cheer shorts.

“You act as if I did that deliberately.” He stood, rubbing his cheek.

“I’m a siren! You said she told you. That wasn’t even the right song. I have no clue but the moment you touched me we jumped to ‘Just a Fool’.”

Catching her hand again, she pivoted around him, swinging her fist. “Calm. I’m not the enemy nor am I your scratching post,” he spoke soothingly as he ducked. That’s when he noticed her still shivering. Releasing her hands, he stepped back. Immediately, she pulled free the shorts. Intricate paw prints with the iconic four claw tip ran along the sides delicately constructed from black and yellow mystique against a black mesh backdrop. Against the gold front and back panels, center waist logo slash faux belt buckle stood out as the clear Swarovski elements that composed it winked in the light.

“Why?” She turned, frowning but no longer shaking. “I know what you want. You know my answer. Yet you still return.”

“You are lying to yourself. You have since that night and you know it. I know it. I want to be here when you quit.”

A heavy groan erupted as she tore through her pack for her half top. It flew through the air, landing on the opposing bed in a rumpled clump. He spread the Gold DryTech® fabric out, its elegant off the shoulder design with golden mesh underlay weaved into the sleeves sublimating into onyx at the cuffs. Onyx crisscross neck straps glowed with Swarovski elements. Flipping it over, the Steel Mystique claw on the back wrapped around to the front of the cheer top terminating in a Gold Mystique star with onyx bear paw overlaid. Dispersed amongst the long sleeves more Swarovski elements. Scattered in a delicate pattern throughout the entire half top was the gym logo itself, a silver GC inside an clear enneagram.

Folding her arms under her petite bust again she stood, staring coldly. “Are you done analyzing my top? It’s not like you haven’t seen it before.”

Glancing at his watch, he lobbed it at her, a disarming grin in place. “I haven’t up close.” Stepping forward, she stepped back, her hands clenched around it. “One more step and its out. Seriously, it’s bad enough she has to break my trust but you?”

Dropping to the bed, he turned to the wall, letting her delicately change. “I need to do your make up or do you want to do that yourself too.” The edge in ‘you’ spoke volumes as a heavy sigh collapsed on him. “Turn around,” she spoke tugging on his shoulder.  “You are my best friend. She isn’t. I let her believe that because I know less of the assembly and my house than I should. I’m a Cetus. She’s a Natal. The bad blood is there.”

He stared at the wall still, rubbing his face and inhaling. “She told me the night before. She told me about us.”

She stepped back, glancing at the clock radio’s time. “We have 30 minutes. Where is she?”

Frowning, he pointed to her open pack. “Amber took her uni to her. I’m guessing she’s in her room.”

Gwen shook her head, the bow wiggling slightly. “She’s further away. She must be with the band.” She ground her teeth.

He dove off the bed, scooping her into his arms. A squeak tumbled from her as she stared at him confused and concerned. Placing her gently back into the chair he used earlier again; he turned it to face him. “I care about you. I know she spoke to you about us.”

Rolling her eyes, she took his hand. “Why can’t we leave it as friends? I don’t want you to get hurt. You are far too involved with my family as it is being a surface person.”

Hurt crinkled his eyes as he reached for her makeup case. “We always end up here. I want more. You–”

“Don’t want you hurt.” She finished earnestly. Closing her eyes as he brushed Urban Decay® ‘Half Baked’ gently, he smiled softly. “You never relent.”

“You never give up either. Other guys would have left long ago. None would ever do makeup. It’s an extremely feminine thing. Don’t say ‘I love you’ either.”

“Why not? It’s true. For both of us. Even if I had bonded with Aria, you think she would have let me do her makeup?”

“No, because she never trusted you. I’m different?” Hesitance resounded as she asked the question.

“You know how hard it was to learn to do this properly? I went to Gin and Tonic to find someone who could teach me. I did it for this reason. You shut people out.”

“No I don’t.” Azure eyes snapped open, judging. “People cross me too much. Besides I have friends.”

Tom put the Good Karma shadow brush back into the palette. “Name one other than Amber, me or Aria.”

“Kevin.” Smug grin held as he grinned wickedly.

“He isn’t either. You blackmailed him because he discovered you.”

Chuckling accompanied the shocked o her lips made before she closed them. “How? I told him if he ever spilled I’ll sing him into the sea.”

Rising, he doubled over laughing. Breathing heavy and wiping his eyes, he shook his head. “So that’s how he got under Aria’s thumb. She knows and keeps using it against him.”

Hands rested on hips as her lips curved in displeasure. He rested a finger against them grinning like a fool. “I laugh because I know it’s an idle threat. You wouldn’t kill him. You hate death. She would. Come on, she’s called him a peasant several times. She doesn’t care about his feelings. She’s a self-absorbed princess who demands her own way, pushing hard if she can’t.”

Gwen glanced over to the door, noticed Aria standing there with it open. Distraught, she walked to her pack, lifted it and returned to the doorway while he continued to brush rouge on her cheeks. “Didn’t you love her?” she asked while staring at her.

Tom paused. “She’s a friend. I don’t think anyone can love her right now.”

Aria grimaced, shook her head and left. Suddenly, Tom turned around, connecting the dots. Cursing, he stared into Gwen’s sad eyes. “Why don’t you trust me? How much did she hear?”

“Everything. And I do. Still I have to stunt with her in 20 minutes. It has to hit. Drama pollutes everything. We both need to focus.” She hugged him, hanging her head over his shoulder. “Even with all this talk, I can still focus with you. What is wrong with right here?”

“I believe your sister’s gift spoke for itself. I just wish she had the chance to tell you.” His eyes sparkled even as he frowned.

“So do I.” She pivoted, staring at herself in the mirror. Snapping a pic for Twitter® she flashed the v sign to the mirror, then kissed his forehead. “Come watch. Then you need to check in. Otherwise, Jeremy will throw a fit.”

“Always.” He got up and followed her out of the room into the warm Florida air. Gazing out at the faux basketball court and the massive megaphones hiding the stairwells, he beheld her in all her cheerleading glory.

“So needless to say, I’m odds and ends. But that’s me stumbling away. Slowly learning that life is OK. Say after me. It’s no better to be safe than sorry.” He grinned, wicked grin.

“That will be stuck in my head now,” she giggled as she walked off.

Amber stood on the faux football field, the hotel room windows looming above her when Aria ran over. Tears pooled her eyes but her face betrayed nothing.

“What’s wrong?”

“Rick never showed and Tom hates me.” Sniffing raggedly, she leaded over and hugged her. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She pointed to the stage being rapidly built by staff members over at the other end, off to one side. Men and women zip back and forth, carrying speakers and other gear. Techs suddenly running along the second floor hallways, stringing black cable behind them. Heavy footfalls echo on the concrete as they pause to attach speakers along the white grid bannister fence.

Amber turned from them, her thick ruby lips still parted. “I knew they were playing but I thought it was going to be just one song not a mini-concert.”

She smiled. “I think I impressed them with my new song. Her crew has gear that can make a quick and dirty demo. They want me to sing it here. If I’m willing then they are willing to make it a concert like all the others.”

“Now?” Amber wide eyes gazed at Coach Grace walking over, a mixture of horror and genuine wonder in her coal eyes. As tall as Aria, her gaze never left her even as she stormed over, one ear glued to a IPhone. Odango ponies swung as she flowed, slapping her neck as motion halted. “ARIA!”

“Yes, Coach Grace?” She responded humbly.

“This happens tomorrow not now so why am I seeing it?” Her freckled caramel arm gestured toward Kelly doing basic sound checks. Security stood before the stage glaring at anyone assembling. Another pointed towards them.

“I wanted them too. I figured it would be better if we did it live now rather than tomorrow.” She glanced around, realizing that more people were watching the setup than them. So not good. “I didn’t expect it would be like this.”

Shaking her head while face-palming, Coach Grace sighed. “You have no idea, do you? Unless you somehow convinced them to let you sing afterwards.”

Aria’s megawatt smile vanished when Coach Grace grimaced. “I figured it would the perfect time. I have a new song. They have the gear. They agreed. It’s ‘win win’.”

“No it’s not,” Gwen hissed arms akimbo. “I can’t believe you did this. The contract we all signed said they would play live for us during Worlds. They agreed to it. They received payment.” Calming herself, she breathed out. Pasting on a smile, she smoothed her skirt. “This supposed to be about Lorelei. Not your future career.”

“I remember.” Coach Grace said softly, catching Gwen radiating pain. “Coach Antico reminds me every year about how thankful she is I didn’t accept her. They believe she’s watching them and helping them win. If they win this year, it’s a three-peat. Something no gym has ever done. The girls still have her name on their shoes again. Even their uni half-tops still have the silver wings on the back.”

Gwen inhaled raggedly, yet smiling. “I saw.”

“This is the last year for their Uni anyway. So they are motivated to honor her.” Glancing to Aria with disappointment, “Which is why this distraction shows we care about the wrong things. So I will solve that. You want to sing Aria? Sing, just not as a Wolverine. There are other opportunities.”

Darkness flickered as Aria’s gaze locked into Gwen. “Defiler,” she whispered in Assembly, the siren language. Sighing, Gwen looked to Amber. “Come with me. I want to see if we can get this back on track. This supposed to be about us. Not them.”

“No.” Coach Grace shifted to block her. “Let it go.” Staring at Aria, “Aria needs to decide who she is. If she wants to sing, then she can sing. As Aria Darri.” Looking over everyone who was stretching and kibitzing, she shouted with giddy smile. “It’s go time, ladies and guys. And can someone find me Emily Balor?”

Tom stood on the balcony watching alone when Emily walked up. Lanky in her loose half-top and skirt, she slid up, rubbing her back against him. Playfully purred in his ear, a deep, robust voice intoned “Hey, Ems,” without looking back.

“Why do care about them? You know they are both self-righteous bitches out for themselves.” Her smug smile greeted his almost nose to nose when he turned. “Spoken by the head one, herself. Tell me you don’t love them?” He whispered before extracting himself.

With a thick lipped pout, she braced well-manicured hands against razor toned hips. “They’re my sisters. I’d do any for them. That doesn’t change the truth. Me and Kaylie’s last year must be special. That’s not special,” she waved at Kelly and her band making noises while a crowd of girls and guys, some cheer shirt bedecked while others not, gathered. “That’s Aria’s transparent self-interest. Why did you even consider hooking with her?”

Tom stepped up to her, resting hands on the sides of her square face, thumbs on her sharp cheekbones. Her frown sat as she stared into his brown pools while hope glimmered into hers. “I share something unique with them. As I do with you. You know me.”

“So kiss me,” she whispered.

“No. My heart has another home.” He rubbed her scruffy pile of tight sandy curls each tipped ruddy before stepping back. “Besides neither of my wishes came through.”

Two blinks and she caught herself before tears ruined the sparkly gold eye shadow under jade eyes. “You are as bad as Shooting Stars.” She clutched him to her busty form, rubbing his thick coal hair. “Even with them she remained a beacon of joy. They claim she’s part of the reason for the streak,”

He chuckled. “It’s their work ethic that’s why they’re on year three of victory. Still Gwen wants this year to be one for her too. It’s her first year here. They missed their full bid last year so they didn’t go.”

“I know.” Disgust fell from her lips. “A particular unnamed bitch’s floor touch cost just enough points to miss.” Emily released him, hearing her name shouted in her own voice. Down below stood a mirror image of her wearing a ruby and cream bow. Sighing, she waved back, nodding. “Your place is with us, you know. I know you paid for her.” A quick nod toward Kelly matched with a grimace said it all.

“You make it sound dirty.” Smarmy smile glistened.

“You wish. I do too if you’ll get your head out of them.”

“Can’t. I love Gwen,” he glanced over at her stretching with stunt group.

“She doesn’t love you.” She said as she pecked him on the cheek. “Next time you do my makeup and hair, put in a Grace bow. I saw what you did.” She chuckled running off.

Leaning back onto the cream bannister fence bedecked in multicolored pendants, he sighed. She loves me in her own way. That’s why I put a Fallen Stars bow in.

Finished stretching, Gwen focused inward. Mind’s eye chronometer spoke five minutes before the hour, which meant she had five minutes to stop Aria from singing ‘Jar of Hearts’. I so hope I was wrong. In siren training they told me it would be a cold feeling like someone driving a dagger into your flesh. Memories of salty water and freedom arose, buoyed by the scent of the over chlorinated pool beyond. A cloying beautiful death trap. One taste of it with my gills and I’m sick for days. Minutes under and I am in Antarctica for sure.

Rubbing her exposed collarbone instinctively, she sprinted toward the stage. Halting just before a thick hewn security guard with flattened head, she caught sight of Kelly in black skinny jeans and a grey blouse. The guys of her band flanked her discussing something with waved hands and rapid tones. One turned to point towards the assembled cheerleaders, saw her and sighed, angrily.

“That’s my point, right there.” He gestured to Gwen, turning back around without so much as a ‘hello’ or ‘Can I help you?’  Pursing her lips, she gazed around at all the equipment, people and buildings. “Why can’t this be easy?” she whispered to herself. Taking a quick glance behind, before inhaling she almost missed Kelly approach, smiling.

“Hi.”

“Hi.” Touching the stage to quell waves of nervousness, Gwen smiled. “I…Can I…” Closing her mouth, she stared at the ground, flustered. “Aria asked if she could sing, didn’t she?”

Several of the other band members walked to the stage edge upon hearing her name. One spoke to the security guard who moved behind her. “Come on up. We were just discussing this.”

The same one, who spoke earlier, tipped his sunglasses down, analyzed her like chuck roast. “I believe she can pull herself up.”

Kelly and the other guy stared at her, shock and disgust, He shrugged walking towards the back of the stage. “Ignore Miles; he didn’t want to be here,” she said as the guy, his short milk chocolate hair fluttering in a brief gust, extended a hand.

“Thanks,” she beamed, taking his hand. With the other she pulled herself up. “Wow, nice view.”

“Thanks. What about your teammate?” He asked as Kelly stood silently, watching. “Don’t let her. It’s my fault that you’re here–”

“Really?” Kelly remarked. “She paid.”

“In cash given from a good friend of mine.” Turning to find him, noticed Tom sprinting for her position now.

“We humored her. Honestly we don’t have time for any of this. It was supposed to be a rest period before our next fair date.” Kelly chuckled.

“The money was green.” He responded.

Gwen watched as Tom stopped before the guards, pacing softly. “Sorry, I thought it would be better live. Thanks.” She turned to jump of the stage, her timer saying now.

“Wait.” Kelly barked, catching a couple of lanyards with badges and bags. “Here. It’s the least I can do. One question though. When did you want the mini concert?”

“Or did you really pay 40 gee just to have us play ‘My life would suck without you’ live three times?”

Wide eyed shock struck her. “Um, 7ish?”

He laughed, shaking his head. Kelly grinned. “7 is good. Good luck. I gather your jobs as hard as mine.”

Exhaling, she looked back at Tom, hand stroking his head. “I think so.”

“Boyfriend looks stressed,” she quipped.

Gwen flipped off the stage, sticking the landing with an oofph. “Not my boyfriend.

Kelly nodded, her look saying ‘I don’t believe you.’ “Ok. Good luck.”

Gwen pivoted on the balls of her feet, beaming. “Same to you. I don’t if Aria said it but Thank you for taking the time to come back and do this for us. I’ve always been a fan, yet this means so much more.”

Kelly grinned brightly tossing her hair back. Digging around in her pocket, she mumbled something, extracted the card and flipped it. It fluttered down landing beside Gwen’s dingy, worn Nfinity® evolution shoes.

“Room 3218, come by tonight. We can talk more.” She looked over at the bald guy who nodded.

“OK.” Pivoting back around, she almost crashed into Tom waiting beside the security guard. Shoving everything into his chest, she sprinted back to her waiting stunt group.

He shrugged at Coach Grace staring at him and walked towards the rooms.

After all the hard work, practice and struggle, it took two and one half minutes to showcase Wolverine gold. Tom watched from the second floor hallway as Gwen and Aria did perfect repeated sequences of arabesques and scorpions amongst other stunts. Kevin halted beside him in the middle, more confused that curious.

“You have no clue what’s going on do you?” Tom remarked without taking an eye off the action.

“You do? You’re a swimmer.”

“See Amber. Her tumbling pass is roundoff double roundoff backhandspring double front punch roundoff backhandspring arabian roundoff backhandspring double front punch roundoff backhandspring double.” She finished the series of flips and tumbles as he spoke them.

“Wow. How did you get caught in this?” Incredulity coated his shock.

“I could ask you the same question. Only I know the answer. I seem to remember you spying on Aria and discovering something you shouldn’t have.”

Kevin turned just as the full out ended, the revved out single verse and chorus version of ‘My life would suck without you’ fading to cheers. Horror etched his face. “And that is?”

“She’s a mermaid.” Laughter fell as he slapped him on the back. Looking around the area as Wolverine Black moved into position, he faced Kevin, seriousness tightened his gaze. “More correct, she’s a member of the assembly from a regal house. A lady of the coral, I believe she mentioned.”

“She’s blackmailing you too.” He stuttered, leaning against the white mesh railing.

Tom slapped him on the back again, laughing so hard, tears pooled his eyes. “Absolutely not. Although powerful, she can’t attack me without hurting Gwen.” Breeze jingled the lanyards against each other, reminding Tom he still held them. He handed one to Kevin. “There’s a real concert tonight after the showcases. This will let you meet her and the band. Considering she stole your opportunity I think this will solve that.” A smarmy smile flashed as he walked away.

Hours later, Gwen reclined against all bed pillows, laptop across her lap, IPhone 3 on the bed beside her. Tweets ran along the phone while she uploaded pics of her and Kelly singing, being silly and making a mess of her room. Aria sat silently in the one of the room’s leather chairs, her phone in her hand staring out the window, scowling. “Why does he hate me?”

“Huh?” Gwen glanced over at her reclined form swallowed by the chair.

“Tom. You went to talk to her before the preview showcase. Of course he appears out of nowhere, ready to take the goodies away. I get nahjun again.”

A single eyebrow rose. “You paid her, that’s not nothing.”

“I paid her manager; a surly, overbearing old man who looked at me as if I was a salmon filet. Yes, he suggested I go chat with her. I got five minutes once I said I could sing.”
Intense gaze chilled Aria. Inhaling, she thumbed the phone, letting Gwen stare. “I didn’t sing that.”

“You know sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle motion.” Shaking her head softly, she committed on a twitter post, a pleased grin appearing. “I just crested 40,000 followers. Awesome.”

Aria’s head jerked her direction. “How? I have 5000.”

“You are also locked. I’m not. Besides Tom doesn’t hate you. He’s disgusted with you. You emotionally blackmailed him. I warned you not to do that; that it wouldn’t end well.”

“How in boiling salt can he use a gate?” She hissed.

Laughter tinkled like wind chimes. “Lorelei touched him. How do you think she got in World Cup to start?”

“He was 12!” Fury lit her cheeks fiery rouge.

“He looked 18 and had the appropriate fake documents.” She shook her head. Another picture appeared on her timeline followed by one from Aria of Gwen in a golden G1F2G3AO sports bra and practice shorts.

A soft shake of the head followed the retweet of the image. “That won’t get you more followers.”

“I have others.” Gwen running from the showers to her locker, arms over her bust filled her phones’ screen.

‘You wouldn’t.” She leaned over, reaching for the phone. Aria pulled away, dirty smile planted as she ran towards the bathroom. Gwen bounded after her, tackling her just as she entered the doorway. “Let go! You are not sexting me onto the internet.” Aria clutched Gwen’s wrist as she twisted around blocking her from gripping the phone. Other arm slipped underneath to free the phone, tossing it up into the air. Tom caught it as he stepped through the open door, amused by the pic.

Gwen extracted herself immediately, snatching the phone and deleting the phone. Then she punched him in the shoulder. “That’s for looking.”

Eyes rolled as he stared at Aria crossed legged on the carpet. “Rick wants you to meet him at room 3075.”

Giddy delight splashed across her face as she sprang up and out the door. Seconds later she burst back in, insistent. “Phone!”

“Condom.” Gwen said flatly.

Brown eyes connected, a frustrated growl emanating from her as she stormed past to her coral Linea Pelle® Dylan tote. “In here, remember?” She extracted a gold foil square, shoving it back in after Tom raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t you dare!” Honeyed words slapped his face as he revealed a smarmy smile. “We are still discussing the incident. You broke your word so you have NO room to judge my actions.” She poked him in the chest, shook her head, standing at chest height to him, desperately trying to stare him down.

Instead, he sucked her into himself holding her in a tight hug. Looking down at her sable crown, he rubbed her head, while she squeezed him unsure,

Feeling Gwen’s piercing glare, he raised a dark sandy tube minty green at both ends, a small white star embedded red double tailed flag hung from a twisted gold and minty copper chain. Wax covered the ends accept the top which also has a red sideways ES seal atop the minty cap. Staring fell to grimacing as she shook her head.

Aria looked up, eyes puddled with tears. “I accept your apology. I still want to know why.”

“You already do. She’s beside you.”

Breaking the embrace with a rough shove, she shook her head as she ran out. Gwen shut the door behind them, collapsing against him.

He mussed her hair a bit, raw pain pushing out a haggard breath. “You two drive me insane at times. Lorelei…”

“Lit the room. I remember. ‘You need to quit wearing your heart on your sleeve. It will harden too much.” She blew out a breath. “Where?” she gestured to the tube.

“I went to see Chelsey. We talked about old times and new. How much has changed. This is the last year for the wing uni. She showed me the new black and gold they are debuting tomorrow. We talked about Lorelei and how much she would have enjoyed the last years. She said Coach Antico has a gift for you. One they didn’t want to trust to the mail system, unlike this.” He held out the tube, his other hand clenching and releasing.

Stroking her own hair briefly, she took it, inhaling the cap. Small smile bloomed. “It’s still wet inside so it’s recent.”

Chelsey said the man seemed frustrated almost demanding she take it. He approached her after their preview. She said he smelt of sea and pungent fish, so much that he yelled Lorelei’s name when she turned from him.

Face palming, she groaned. “Must be a House Oannes banner. Some messengers don’t understand that smell works above. He’s lucky he wasn’t arrested as homeless. I would have never got the message.” Swirling the tube, subtle splashing brightened her cheeks. “What did you say?”

“I answered her question. He foolishly told her Lorelei’s house name. So I explained what that meant.”

“Rich Grandfather?” Irritation choked her words.

“Bilderberg Grandfather. It amuses me that he insists on being someone else.” Gwen stared, hard shell over her face. “While I don’t know him, his choice of name ‘Wolfensohn’ is normal. You know that.”

Deep sigh echoed from him. “I’m not mocking him or your culture, Gwen. What would have me say?”

“Sorry.” Staring at the foot long tube, a song bubbled up. Recognizing it, he stepped beside her.

‘I’ve lost all my earthly optimism; That it’s all going to be alright,
That the good will win this fight;

Somewhere between youth and disappointment;

The dream became despair, the love became a lie,

Just now, I’ve reached the end of my line;
Just now, I’m too tired to keep on trying,

Hope is rising, it’s a sunrise, for the end,
Hope is rising, and it’s breathing for me again;

Hope is rising again.

Soon beneath the roses I will lie;
All the memories of my days, gathered to the sky,
Soon every work will find it’s worth,
And all my strength returned, to the water and the earth,

Just when I reach the end of my life;

Just when my eyes dim out the last light,

Hope is rising, it’s a sunrise, for me again,
Hope is rising, and it’s breathing  for me again;

Hope is rising again.
From the sorrow, from the fear

From the loss and from the tears

From the darkness, from the pain

From the fall and from the grave.’

The piano and soft guitar that surrounded it faded into silence as she wept softly, collapsing into him. Wrapping his thickly muscled arms around her, he sat on the floor. Muffled sobs cloaked the air as he stared at the blank wall remembering Lorelei’s last words to him.

“If you ever see Chelsey again, tell her I’m sorry. Her or Jessa. I love them and the rest of my team but I’m done.” Blinking away tears, she sat in the car waiting for the ferry to take them to NYC. She hugged herself, the crisp white World Cup jacket crinkling as she squeezed.

“Why didn’t you tell them?” Words soaking in confusion and angst tumbled out as he flexed his left hand.

Horror reflected in her eyes. “What? That I’ll die tomorrow from the Titans Football coach’s murderous rampage? I’m a politico, Tom, just like Gwen’s a siren. I can see the future. I’m supposed to fix it. Every scenario leads to my cold body slumped on the tile leaking blood from either a chest or forehead wound. So I’m not. I’m not stopping him. I won’t let Coach Sylvan die though. She did too much for me.” Rusty tan strands of hair fluttered before her face as she stepped out.

“I–”

“NO!” Her tinkling shout stiffened him. Softening her jade gaze, she flashed a half smile. “Your place is with Gwen. I saw you bonding with her. I saw her coronation ceremony and the Sword himself addressing you as Lord Istan.”

Placing a well-manicured hand bearing a single NCA ring in his, she pointed with the other at the ferry. “Promise me. No matter what, you will always be with Gwen. Never let her go. Promise?”

“I promise.” He said, repeating it several times as Gwen continued to sob.

“You need to get some sleep; otherwise I’ll have to mask bags as well as puffiness.”

A slap of his chest as she looked and beheld his half grin. “Why her?”

“I ask myself that question. On another topic, I saw you talking with Kelly before you too broke out into song.”

“They won’t use it. I think she might find her an agent. She wants to find me one too. Told me she’s going to put me in contact with Dr. Luke. I don’t have time for that. I have one transfiguration left. I have to use it for this.” Shaking the tube, she rolled to the floor, looking up at him, morose. “Honestly, why did you reject her? It would have got you all the way in. Not half way with me.”

He shook his head, staring down at her, honey pony splayed out. “You’re so tan, you bleed into the carpet.” He laughed yet she blinked, frowning.

“Please?”

“I told you. She isn’t you. She was trouble when she walked in.”

Suddenly, that song burst forth. Leaning back, he watched her sing it prone, seeing the ghostly video swarm her, hearing the synth and autotune. Guitar and other elements washed over until she finished.

Blinking, she pushed herself upright. He drew himself up, observing the elements of the room.

“That wasn’t meant for you. I can’t help it if a Taylor song about a bad boy came out.” She went for his hand but he slid away.

“Why won’t you be honest with yourself?” Deep savage tone echoed as he looked away. “You want the truth. I rejected her because I don’t want anyone but you. We both know this.” He sunk down on Aria’s bed to avoid all the electronics still chirping on Gwen’s.

Sitting beside her gear, she held up her phone and tweeted a picture. ‘My best friend, confidant and occasional cry pillow.’  Showing the image of him skulking, she sighed. “You are my best friend. Everyone attacks me about having a male bestie. That’s how I got into this with Aria. Please don’t make this more difficult than it is.” Sadness clutched her wan smile as she turned back to her social media array.

“Are you going to open the message? It’s why I sent her out to begin with.” He lounged, watching her type.

Facing him, she shrugged. “I should. I’m just drained. You’ll never know how much future songs take from me. At least the other never charted.” She motioned toward the untouched tan plastic Ice tub and plastic cups.

He tossed her one of them and the tray. “I’ll get some ice and we can celebrate. It’s never bad news.”

After the door shut behind him, a heavy sigh fell from her. “Not true.” Breaking the seal and pulling the cap off, she poured the salty clear water into the cup. Inhaling the fragrance of salt and minerals, she dumped the sapphire coated lotus scroll onto the tray. The scroll bore the royal seal as well as flag embossed into a second seal. Nice, it’s a royal summons from the King himself.

Falling back onto the pillows, she grabbed another, screaming into it.

Soft breeze and oranges filled the air as Tom strolled along the concrete walkway. Turning by the megaphone stairwell, he saw the shiny ice cube maker whirring happily beside a Coke Bottle machine. A young girl in an emerald green sports bra and shorts poked the machine, singing a chant about marshmallows. Her high pony swooshed when she pivoted almost into to Tom. Swift roll on her heels, a massive grin crossed cheery lips. “Tom! You made it.”

“Reags?! General Mills still sponsoring “Lucky Charms Large Coed Marbits.”

She tapped her chest, the matching logo splayed across in the same colors as the box. “Yes, we made it again. You’re small coed this year.”

“Wolverine Gold is. Black is large. It’s been a tough year. They pulled through when it counted.” Suave smile reflected in the machines shine. “Are you…” He glanced around the fluorescent light area. Nothing but snack machine.

She looked up at the ceiling video cameras and around herself as well. Wiping the left side of her neck, she nodded once. “Can’t be too cautious.”

Tom’s brow furrowed. “Aria said that something about Bauer and the red shield control.”

She chuckled as she reached for the Sprite®. “I am still of the Assembly. We still control that family. Being in Golden Valley changes nothing.”

“Good to hear. Aria stole a ‘golden ticket’.”

The unopened bottle thunked on the ground. “She’s a regenerist like me. Why?”

He grimaced. “Why else? She wants to be an artist, work on Broadway. She’s always denied her gifts.”

Delight lit her soft brown eyes accompanying a petite smile. “For someone surface you sound like us too much.”

“Blame Lorelei,” he quipped, then immediately frowned.

She nodded. “Lorelei was the best. Dad was shocked when I agreed to move without complaint. That’s why they exist.” She tapped her chest. “He felt guilty I gave up Shooting Stars without a peep. He doesn’t know the real reason.” She held her ring bedecked hand. “Is Gwen Ok?”

Tom fidgeted with his badge, staring at the coaching staff label on it. “No.” He gaze caught trees in the distance, the sound of birds echoing as the sun set. “This is making worse. Can you help?”

“Yes. You know there is a pond just beyond those trees you are staring at. I think it’s time we went swimming.”

Tom shook his head, still downcast. “She has can’t transfigure anymore and has a summons. That’s how sick she has gotten.” He looked up as she punched him in the shoulder. “Why didn’t you say so? That is the ONLY thing more important than getting ring number two.”

He drew her tall, willowy from into him, her broad shoulders and small bust bumping him in the same area. She squeezed back, chuckling, “Kinda hard when I’m as tall as you, eh?”

“Emily and Kaylie are as tall as me.” He flashed that suave smile.

“She’s vicious online.” Tom cocked an eyebrow.

“She likes you and Gwen right now. Give her reason not to.”

He gestured towards the correct walkway, and ran. She scooped up the sprite® and followed. Pausing outside just short of the door, he noticed the group of people frozen along the bannisters, listening. Eyes glazed over, the cluster of girls from various squad stood peaceably weaving.

“Sleep well everyone. Dream dreams of victory. Love your friends and team. Don’t complain regardless of your place. Snap to your queen, Gwen. Tweet her adoration and hope.”

Reagan punched him in the shoulder again. “And these are the times I’m glad you aren’t. There are 12 people here you just hammered a command into.”

Tom shrugged. “She’s upset. You rather I cheat them out of their work or worse?” He raised an eyebrow, a suggestive smile creasing his lips.

“You are such a guy sometimes.” Shaking her head, she mumbled. “Now people are going to wonder what all the snapping is about.”

Opening the door, He noticed her exhausted, wan visage as she belted out ‘Is anybody out there’ by K’NAAN.

“What’s the song?” she asked rushing over yet not touching her.

He answered, concerned. “She’s sang it numerous times. The stress must be getting to her.” He noticed Reagan standing still. “Grab her; we need to get her to the bed.”

“No, I’ll be sucked into the image. You know that, right? A bond mate or touched be pulled into the song itself if they touch a siren. It’s an intimate thing they are doing.”

“I know.” Mumbling a prayer, he scooped Gwen up, finishing the song as he carried her to the bed. Once he released her, he about collapsed.

“And that is the reasons why I swear you are one of us.” Reagan stood over her, checking her pulse.

“Nice to see you too, Reagan.” Gwen bit off, waving her hands away.

“Tom’s worried about you.”

“Tom’s always worried about me.” She flashed a furious gaze at him. “So did you get one too or is it pity?”

Reagan caught sight of the rolled up lotus paper still sealed with dual seals. The sea still sat in the glass. “At least it smells of home in here.”

Tears swept across Gwen’s face as she melted onto the other bed. Tom pulled himself up, letting her lead on him. “Why do you think I asked her here?”

Puffy azure eyes connected with concerned brown. “Can you at least get me another transfiguration?”

“How about two?” She grinned, resting her hands on Gwen’s shoulders.

“I owe you, Reagan Dawn.” Tom smiled, hope shining out.

“I aim to collect soon. You are helping me teach the girls the new chant at the end since we lost the old one. You think I didn’t notice the word staff on your badge.” Tinkling laughter fell as a golden glow surrounded Gwen making her visage blurry. “Can you even base?”

“Yes. I can actually do a standing full myself. Do I? No. I swim. My friends think it’s too feminine to be cheerleader. So it doesn’t come up.”

More laughter. “Very political answer.”

“Ok, flyer girl. I believe the Milkhouse opens at six for athletes and staff. You’re on. Anything you want.” He watched as Gwen gained a peaceful, soft expression.

“Anything? OK. You are so on.”

“Be careful what you ask for.” Gwen mumbled. “He really can base.”

Reagan snorted. “Of course he can. I want to see it.”

Tom rolled his eyes. “We are swimming tonight, right. Since there is a pond behind the hotel?”

“Absolutely.” She stared at him, challenging.

Gwen grunted. “I want to.”

“You will.” She still stared at Tom, amusement on her lips. “First we eat. I know an awesome restaurant here but it’s in Epcot so we will have to get over there.”

“How?” Gwen asked, relaxed and calm. “We don’t have cars and no one will take us.”

Tom laughed, remembering something. “I think I solved our problem.”

Reaching over for the room phone, he dialed Kelly’s room number. A male voice answered. “Tell her I’ll do what she asked if one of you can get us to the…” He stared at Reagan waiting.

“Coral Reef restaurant in Epcot.”

Gwen’s groan could be heard as he agreed. “It’s done. We leave in fifteen minutes.”

“What did you agree too?” Reagan asked, her curious eyes watching Gwen chuckling as Tom fidgeted.

“I do Gwen’s cheer poof when I can. So Kelly asked if I could one for her. I turned her down originally.”

She laughed, fist on her lips. “Wow. Can you do me next?”

“No.” He shook his head. Locking eyes with Gwen he whispered, “The things I do for you.”

Setting at the table an hour later, Gwen picked at the remaints of the seared crab cakes. A cobalt plate which once held grilled Mahi Mahi, hearts of palm, large shrimp and jasmine rice set empty. Water in a light cobalt glass remained. Fresh water, filled with ice. Grimacing, she glanced around disbelieving it could be so wrong. Tans and azure everywhere in garish combinations. The tank beside her held what to the surface people is coral. Yet she knew better. Dead husks; the shells they actually lived in. Coral is a tiny animal, symbiotic with the assembly, cleansing the water. They direct the plankton to us and the dolphins.

“Gwen, smile. Yes, it’s barbarous. However, they are the only ones to sell seafood and do it well.” Reagan grinned sympathetically. She waved her hand around. “I don’t even have this.”

“I feel for you,” Tom remarked, squeezing her hand. “You are not getting out of your promise.” She turned back to Gwen. “So who is ‘warren of the north’? I can’t get any good information. My Dad refuses to admit anything about the assembly and Mom just tsks me saying that if the Apzu need us they will call.”

“Nothing has changed.” Gwen smiled a plastic smile. Tom elbowed her receiving a death stare in thanks.

“Lee Natal, who is still Sword according to Aria,” Tom remarked. Gwen’s wide eyes shock connected with him. “How?”

“I pay attention to what is around me. I don’t let it overwhelm me.” She responded to his goad with an ice cube to his chest. “And I don’t?”

That suave smile appeared. “You’ve been staring at this place disgusted ever since you sat down. If you thought you could get away with it you’d trance everyone into doing it right. This, by the way, is impossible. Real coral don’t live in tanks.  So, Ms. Breton whose ‘warren of the south’? Hmmm?” The grin turned smarmy glancing back to either of them. The waiter walked up, placing the check on the table. Tom waved him back having two hundreds attached to the bill now. “Keep the change and thanks.”

The guy’s eyes lit up, nodding. He scurried off. The remainder of the place emptied out as they feasted. Silent emptiness surrounded them as night took hold.

Gwen sighed and rose. “My grandfather is, not that he would discuss it with us. My mother is exiled for not marrying who he wanted so she lies to my dad about her wealth and him. Tom has gotten away with a lot because of this. It’s how he got here.”

Reagan’s eyes lit at this. “Really?”

“No. I got here because Coach Grace let me do my conditioning with you.” He waved a hand, disgruntled. “I paid my own way here. I had to accept being an alternate just to get a badge.” He flipped over his badge to show another that says Athlete instead of staff. “Just because I don’t wear a uniform doesn’t mean I can’t be you.” He caught Gwen’s gaze, diving home the seriousness of it.

“You can go full out? Base me flawlessly?” Incredulousness in Gwen’s voice almost masked Reagan’s coughing from laughing so hard.

“Oh yee of little faith. Aria convinced herself I’m it so she trained me. I spent extra hours the last month learning everything so she could feel good about herself. So yes, I know your routine.”

Gwen shook her head. “I know Aria. I don’t believe you.”

“No you don’t.” He glanced at Reagan gulping down salted water, tears streaking her cheeks. “You want to be involved. Lord Shah Apzu is ‘warren of the east’. Talk to him.”

Gwen shook her head, stunned. “We are so doing this tomorrow.”

He rose, tossing a crumpled napkin down. “No, Gwendolyn, we are doing this as soon as we get back.”

Furrowed brows locked with his. “You are so on.”

Thirty minutes later, two things happened. Gwen group texted Gold to help. Almost everyone responded. Most agreed that Tom had been there. So the entire squad was out there again. All save Aria.  That led to the second thing; audience. Others who were bored came to watch. Gwen held a smug face as she told her stunt group she wanted Tom to be her base. Doug nodded, moving to Aria’s stunt group. This allowed Amanda, a back spot, her chance to fly.

Square jawed Chris looked around then whispered to Tom as he got into position. “You have nothing to prove.”

Tom shook his head. Looking past Gwen’s crouched form, her feet in his hands, he replied. “I do to her.”

“You drop me and I will hurt you after I wake up.” She stared straight at him.

“Never.”

Perfection could not describe how everything flowed as the music began. Reagan stood in awe with her teammates on the sidelines. “Coaches say train not to until you get it right but until you can’t get it wrong.” Her fellow blond compatriot in similar attire nodded.

For Tom everything slowed down just like in swimming. Only this time it was a sequence of executed maneuvers, some dance and some strength, that executed impeccably. Just like a swim meet he made himself win. Yet every time he lifted and held Gwen, he remembered another thing Lorelei said.

“I had an odd vision yesterday that involves you. Do you like Cheerleading?” He followed her out to the pier, waiting for the ferry to dock.

“Of course. I hang out with you all the time.” He grinned.

“No. I mean involved in ‘like’. I saw you at worlds basing for Gwen. Yet you aren’t even enrolled with Grace Cheer. You’re a swimmer.” Her lips drew in as she registered the blank face Tom held.

“Maybe there’s a reason.” Words of comfort failed as she grabbed her ticket to get on board.  Ocean scents, salt and breeze whipped her hair causing her to tug her stark white jacket, with massive W left of the zipper and C on the right. “I want to believe it’s a false vision so I don’t die tomorrow.”

“You won’t. I know it.” He said confidently.

“Thanks, but faith doesn’t change truth.”

“In that you are wrong, Lorelei. It very much can.”

Motion halted as guitar faded to crickets and frogs. All the squad hugged, slapped hands and rears, pleased. Voices commented about practicing outside at worlds. ‘One more full out is always better.’

‘What else were we doing?’

‘Isn’t Gwen amazing, suggesting this?’

‘I was wondering when we would practice. Everyone else did.’

‘I don’t want this to ever end.’

Yet Gwen stood motionless. Spectacle swirled around. Hugs and congratulations flowed. Reciprocation became automatic. Yet her gaze fixed on Tom. How could I be so wrong? He spent weeks with Aria learning all this, not because he had to. He did it, not for Aria but for me. I figured he wanted me as friend with benefits. That wouldn’t happen because I won’t share that. It’s for one person. Love? Maybe he is telling the truth. He brings me my medicine, he’s always there and now this? I’ll deal with Winston when we get back.

Inhaling his sweet musky scent, she fiercely ran for him, diving onto his chest. “I was wrong.” Ignoring Reagan mumbling comment, she leaned on his shoulder, basking in his scent and warmth. Feeling his shrug, she looked over. Reagan laughing.

I’ll show her. Deep breaths filled with sweet, ragged air. Cold as a freezer yet so inviting. Wrapping her arms tighter around his neck, she squeezed him as much as she could without cutting off air supply. He hugged her back, his firm, hard body pressed against her, arms across her lower back.

“I never realized how much fun that was. Deceptively addictive.” He glanced to Reagan. “You lied to me.”

“I did no such thing. You never believed me. We are all obsessed with it. Why do you think we are here, pursuing this?” She held up her hand, her world championship ring sparkling in the resort’s halogen lights.

Turning back to Gwen still giddy, “Believe me now?”

“Yes. Here’s proof.” Suddenly her lips meet his, melting away any response into dandelions caught in a breeze.  He tasted of peppermint and crab and mocha Frappuccino. He tasted better than Winston or any other guy. He tasted like victory. One of his hands cupped her jaw as he sucked air through his noise. Shocked gasps flickered around them. Finally, gasping for air, she broke away and hopped down.

He stared at her, electricity in his gaze. “Unexpected.”

Reagan and Amber stood still shocked. “I’ll say. What’s Aria make of it?”

“We aren’t dating. Besides she probably got a couple of holes filled at the moment anyway.” Amber’s mouth dropped open again. Reagan sighed, a disgusted look crossing her face until she saw Gwen kick his leg. Laughing, she shook her head. “You know how to break a mood.”
“What? She took condoms to Rick’s room.” Amber shook her head, now disgusted as Reagan stood stunned. “Which one?”

Gwen’s sharp gaze silenced him. “Rick Sutter of Tsunami.”

“He’s a–”

She elbowed him, staring at Reagan, frowning. “How about you show us where that pond is?”

“Okay.” She shrugged staring at Tom. He flashed a dirty grin before it washed away realizing something. “How about you get bikinis first?”

“Meet you at the Coke machine in 5,” she replied running off.

Beholding Gwen, he wiped his forehead while still tasting her lipstick. “You Ok? You were shivering earlier.”

“I’m fine. I was wrong but I don’t want to talk about it here. Let’s just go swim.” Sprinting off toward the room, she saw him behind her then vanish. Shrugging, she continued on, still all smiles.

At the coke machine, Reagan paced, worried. Small orange triangle top dotted with red felt scratchy while her bottoms kept riding up. “Why do I bother with swimwear?”

“Because swimming naked attracts attention. Brittany loves doing that when we meet,” Gwen commented frowning. “I figured he’d be here.”

“I am.” Tom stepped around the corner. Pausing, he whistled at Reagan’s suit. “Nice.”

“Please. It’s ugly, loud orange that doesn’t want to stay put.” Tugging the bottom over her buttocks, she groaned.

His warm gaze slid up and down Gwen as she pirouetted in diaphanous salmon-colored wraparound elastane top connected to a golden collar inscribed with a mixture of sideways ES and house symbols. Slight, tight bottoms covered everything yet contrasted with her tan.

“The only reason I know you are wearing anything is your tan. OMG where did you get that?” Reagan wiped her lips. “It’s gorg.”

“One of a kind. Ayca Sadikoglu made it special because I stumbled into her sister Zeynep in New York while dress shopping weeks ago. I guess I suggested things and…I wanted a unique dress. She asked about the picture I had drawn. So we talked over lunch. She asked about swimsuits. I loved this idea, so I drew it on the back of a tray liner. This arrived last week with thanks. It won’t be available for years because they have this years and next year’s already set, Turns out they are the designers of OYE®.”

Reagan stroked the fabric. “So soft.”

Tom’s gaze bounced between them silent until he slumped, eyes glazing over. Softly shoving him, Gwen shook her head. “How were you friends with Lorelei? She loved to talk clothes.”

“I have no opinions on your swimsuit other than its beautiful. Staggeringly beautiful.”

Reagan rolled her eyes at him. “Again this is why I think you don’t know us as well as you think. Fish tail?!” She tapped her thigh, then started walking away, shaking her head and muttering.

Soft, pink nailed hand slid into his. “I think we need to follow her. Otherwise people will think we’re going to the death trap.” A shiver said everything needed about chlorine pools.

Moving slowing, he whispered. “I’m worried about Aria. She should have been out there.”

“I think she got caught up in my trancing Rick. He came back after me without mentioning that he dated a teammate expecting me to be welcoming. You know how I hate that level of disingenuousness.” Small frown held as they halted beside a pensive Reagan.

“Closest I’ll get to an ocean. I so miss transfiguring in the sea. Just floating in the vastness, azure tides caressing me…” She sighed. “I am not going to sing my modified version of the Firefly song.”

Tom exhaled. “It got stuck in my head for a week last time.”

Yet Gwen stood, mouthing the words. “How?”

Ignoring vigorous head shaking, she hummed. “Take my love, take my land. Take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sea from me….”

Running down the megaphone stairwell, he stopped just outside the final step. One direction was solid mint wall fitfully lighted. Trees shadowed the other in a thick tangle except right next to the megaphone. Shaking his head, he whistled. Turning around, the ladies stood there, both hands on hips. “I was behind you.”

Pecking Gwen on the lips, he nodded. “Of course. Follow me.”

“See?” Reagan pointed at him as he vanished. “You wonder why I stay single.”

Slipping around rough perforated metal, the pungent scent of swamp water slapped their faces. “A real pond!” Running to the edge, Gwen loosed her bikini bottom ties and dove in head first. Jade water droplets splashed Tom and Reagan who kept turning to Tom, growing deeper red. “I…I can’t with you standing there.”

“Can’t what?”

She glared at him, annoyed. Tapping her thigh again, she sighed. “I’m big down there. You’re a guy and…”

“I’ll turn around. Strip and transfigure. I won’t watch.” He stepped into the trees waiting with his back turned. Listening to the rustle of the grass, he looked over his shoulder and grinned.
Orange cloth fell away revealing a rounded, thick yet hairless backside. A burst of rippling, glassy luster flowed around her, creating a translucent sheen. From her waist to her feet, the bronze skin transfigured into matching bronze scales arrayed in a diamond pattern. Her heels vanished within massive down –folded caudal fin. Memories of Lorelei’s transfiguration and her chiding him that it was called a fluke because it functioned like that not like a fish’s caudal fin. Dual dorsal and adipose fins bearing sharp barbs winked in the ambient light. A mild poison within incapacitates all who attack.

“You going to wait until I jump in?” Reagan pivoted around delicately, grimacing. Her arms made an x over her bust.

“Didn’t want to violate your space.” Tom held the blank yet appreciative expression.

She glanced down at Gwen, still holding a disapproving stare. Looking back at him, she dropped her arms to her sides. Scaled over spots covered her areolas. Tā moko tattoos ran along the sides of her neck from the base of her ears to her gills just beneath her clavicle, the gill cover slightly open.

Walking to her, she stood motionless. “All that flying allows you to do that without falling,” suave smile showed no sympathy. “I’m supposed to have a better body image. I’m a member of the assembly. I’m beautiful.”

“You’re a teen girl who is unsure like all others. I’m a guy wearing boxers.” Her eyes fell to his LSU boxers, snickering at the obvious lump.

“You like me.” She grinned.

“I like Gwen more.” He said as he dove in, followed by her, whose tail separated into its bifurcated limbs briefly as her muscles relaxed. Gwen shook her head, breathing heavy.

Tom bobbed up beside her, stroking her wet, straw toned hair. “Sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“That fear could offend someone. We all know better. We should at least.” She pushed her hair out of his hands, turning to face him. “We can’t kiss here.”

“Why?” He asked, stroking her arm. Catching her breath, she stared into his eyes. “What did Aria tell you?”

“Someone about bonding. Souls linked and us able to feel each other’s emotions. I would know that she really does love me.” A soft head shake at his speech.

Reagan splashed up, blinking. “I so miss this.” Blowing out a breath, she swam around them again. “We need to be careful; part of this is visible from the parking lot.”

“It’s almost 10pm.” He held up his watch bedecked wrist. “Use the personal chrono in my swims.”

Gwen leaned against him. “It’s true. She didn’t tell you it’s forever, did she? Doesn’t sound like love to me. Sounds like typical Aria only out for herself. She could be so much more if she wasn’t so needy.” She sighed. “She’s my friend and fellow assembly sister, yet I hate her sometimes. You’re wonderful you know.”

“You are ignoring the obvious.” He stroked her neck, feeling tense muscles stiffen.

“What’s that?”

“If I love her?”

“Do you?” Reagan asked, curious. “Bonding is serious. It’s our version of marriage. I wish I had a guy like you. I do. I wouldn’t hesitate. If she really loves you then it would have worked.”

Tom beheld her bobbing in the jade water, algae and leaves drifting on the surface. “I don’t. Never have. You know she even offered sex.”

A rustle in the tree line alerted them. Both ladies dropped immediately below the surface leaving Tom to swim to the edge. Pulling himself out, she saw chestnut hair streaming as a girl ran away clad in a jade bikini.

Aria stood silently as they spoke. The delight of the pond vanishing into a sea of hurt as they tore into her. The last knife, the one embedded in her chest, echoed in her mind. ‘I don’t. Never have,’ Tears flowed as she pounded up the steps back towards Rick’s room. Him and the guys were playing poker, and she didn’t hear the phone ring or the flurry of texts until it was too late. Everyone seemed furious with her. So I missed a practice? We’re here aren’t we? We will win! Arriving, she pounded on the door. When it opened, she stumbled in. Rick looked at her, his heart melting. His buddy shut the door.

Gwen surfaced, with Tom nowhere in sight. Shaking her head, a ball of rage and frustration welled up inside. “Why?”

“Why what?” Reagan asked as she burst forth.

“Why can’t she leave him alone?”

“You think it was her spying on us?” Curious words as she shifted to face her.

“Yes. Now he’s off to make peace. I’m so tired of her getting like this. Dozens of other guys and she steals him.”

Reagan’s eyes widened then a soft smirk creased her pink lips. “You love him. Really love him. Enough that if you kissed now, you would have bonded.”

Gwen closed her eyes, sighing. “Yes. I do love him so much it hurts. I love Winston too. He’s a jock and fun surface guy to hang around. He likes me too. He just doesn’t want to do the things Tom does. We are all friends. Well we were until this.”

Reagan sighed softly. “Wish I had that, Most I get is the creepy old janitor hitting on me. I string him along so I can swim in the pool at night. He’s seen too much already. He turned the pool salt water though.”

“Does he know?” Gwen asked seriously.

“Don’t think so. Although we had close calls.”

“He makes me glow.” Just then, a song flowed out.  Reagan leaned back listening. In the distance, several judges stepped out of their cars and froze. Electropop surrounded them locking them as lyrics about falling in love clutched their ears. One judge having parked out of earshot walked up and around them, confused and bewildered.

Pausing by one, he listened to what sounded like crickets, frogs and halogen buzz. Shrugging, he announced he’d meet them in the conference room when they were done. They never heard anything, so caught up in a monster electropop track with some impressive Kelly Clarkson-esque wailing, a little drum-and-bass-inspired instrumentation on the chorus and a catchy guitar loop.

Gwen sighed as she finished. Reagan clapped. “So…”

“Demi Lovato, ‘Heart attack’. Early 2013, February I think.” She groaned, shaking her head. “It’s true. That why I can’t. I don’t trust him. What happens if we do and he wants to play with her some more. I have too much pain as it is.” Growling, she shouted. “Wolverine Gold wins worlds!”

Reagan chuckled. “Feel better.”

“No. I want him but I can’t let it show. How bad am I?”

“Bad. Be honest.”

She shook her head. “I can’t. I need to be held.”

Tom shook his head. As he walked around through the open path, he heard Gwen singing Natalie Grant’s ‘Held’. As he approached her, she finished, falling into his arms. “You can’t yell like that. People will hear you.”

“Don’t care.” Staring into his eyes, she kissed his nose. Sparks flew and she sighed, cursing softly in Assembly.

“It was Aria. She’s furious at me mostly likely.” He stroked her hair again, felt her shivering. “Smile for me.” He dropped down, bumping nose with her. “I will be OK. You will win. At everything.” He pulled her into him, feeling the hardness of her against his soft skin. “You always have me. No matter what.”

She nodded. “We need to go. Reagan?”

She groaned, a playful splash sent their way. “I still don’t want him to see my down there.”

Tom snickered. “I peeked. You’re beautiful. Don’t ever forget that.”

She flushed deeply. “You are as bad as Jim. I swear if he asks to sniff me one more time, I’m cutting his off.” Pulling herself out, her normal bronze butt showed. Sprinting to her bottoms, she slipped them on and waved. “Until tomorrow. Good luck.”

“You need it more than we will. We have skill.” Waving back, she leaned against him again. “I need you to promise me something.”

“What?” Curious eyes peered into her hazel pools, filled with worry.

“You’ll perform with us if Aria screws up.”

“Yes.” Only because I love you. I know one of these days you will love me too.

Sunny rays drifted through the bay window lighting the room in drab mud tones. Groaning and mumbling, Gwen rolled into Tom still tangled in her and the covers. Looking at the light, she rubbed her eyes, watching the door open. Aria stood in her gold world’s shirt and pink Nike® pro compression shorts, stunned.

“How could you?” She screeched, stopping just short of her bed. “You know how important this is. So you sleep with him last night?”

“I am not dealing with this, Aria. We need to focus. Personal pride later.”

Tom pushed off the covers, revealing that Gwen wore bikini bottoms still. He, however, had nothing on. Grabbing his clothes, he ran into the bathroom.

“Personal pride?” She hissed. “Fine. I am sorry. I am so self-centered. I’m not the one who slept with a guy.”

Tom marched out disgusted. “No you just…” He shoved his phone in her face. Horror gripped her, tears streaming down her face. Bolting for the bathroom, she slammed the door.

Gwen glared at him. “What did you show her?”

“This.” Holding the phone up, Gwen frowned at the image of Aria bookended by guys. “Who sent it?”

“John did. Apparently, rattling her is enough revenge from Rick.”

Gwen turned wooden. “Who did he sent it too?”

“Me only. Good thing too.” He shook his head. “I need to get changed and I will be back. I’ll even do her hair and makeup, if she’ll let me.” He picked her cheek. She pulled him in for a longer kiss, melting into him as her lips pressed against his.

Breaking away, he saw Aria standing in the doorway, wounded and vulnerable. Shying away as he approached, he paused. “I don’t hate you.”

“You don’t love me. You said so.”

So that’s what you heard. “You knew this. I have always loved Gwen.”

“Not until recently. Back off.” She folded her arms but hate wasn’t there.

“You don’t want a hug?”

Hungry eyes devoured him. “I wanted you in that picture. Now go before I do something we will both regret.

He stepped back. “I’ll do your hair and makeup.”

She laughed bitterly. “Of course you will. You got what you want.”

Gwen stormed over. “We didn’t have sex. We fell asleep together.”

She shook her head violently. “The way you look at him when he isn’t looking says you lied.”

Tom sighed, hugged Gwen and left. Gwen sighed. “Aria sometimes, you are utterly clueless about the surface.”

“I’m not the one who won’t admit I’m in love with a guy while stringing along another.” She shook her head.

“Do not bring Winn into this. We are not having this conversation.” She hissed, storming into the bathroom. “If you do anything on my account, I will upload that image anonymously to 4Chan.”

“You won’t dare. I told you never to give the gawkers something to feast on. I will be a Broadway legend.”

Gwen stepped out, wiping her face with a towel. “Do you want to win?”

“Of course. Why else would we be here?” a soft snort erupted.

“Then act like it.” She scowled as the bathroom door shut.

Coach Grace strolled around the quiet warm up room, pondering the paths before her. Never had it like anywhere but the Olympics. It was always locker rooms and tiny spaces to warm up. Even when we competed as a team we were individuals. How blessed they are.

She snorted, as images of the girls and guys rippled by. “Is this the year?” she asked aloud while reviewing the massive blue mat. Bouncing on it once, she paused, sat down the clip board and did a standing full. Blowing out the breath, she pushed her hands back into her gold hoodie streaked with black claw marks. On the back rested the star and claw logo, while on the front right breast, a cursive CG embedded in a star announced its presence.

Silence continued its reign as she took stock of the massive room mat bedecked room, signs at locations for each squad. Towels and coolers of water bottles at the ready. All that way to Seoul and nothing to show for it. So their dream is my dream, as long as my premiere ladies don’t ruin it.

Glancing at the note on the clipboard in official USASF letterhead, the type reminded her about music rules. ‘Clarkson couldn’t be seen only heard. Only the music could be played. One song, two minutes thirty seconds. Shoutouts and taunts allowed.’ One at the end, only one done by her. Shaking her head as she pushed through the doors she sighed. “There will be no next time if this fails.”

Tom scowled as he entered Gwen and Aria’s hotel room. Aria sat in the makeup chair waiting patiently alone. Throwing the already crumpled piece of paper into a mouse ears bedecked plastic trash can. “Aria, where is she?”

“I’m not her keeper.” She batted her eyes at him, rose lips in kissy face.

“You really want me to do this?” He walked past, scoping out the bathroom. Her makeup remained its usual scattered mess. Her backpack sat on the floor and her uni on her bed. “Tell me she’s not out swimming.”

“She’s not out swimming.” Smirk betrayed the lie. “I don’t control her.”

Tom stared irritated. Dropping to the bed, he waited arms at his side. “You didn’t answer the first question.”

“You didn’t ask. You offered.” A scowl crossed her lips diminishing the sparkle in her eyes.

“And so I did. Your response: ‘You got what you want.’ One time offer. Take it now.” He glanced toward the door when it creaked.

“Yes!” She groaned, still trying to be delighted. “I want you to do it all.”

Tom rolled his eyes as he searched for Gwen’s makeup case. Aria growled, rose and storming over to her own backpack, tugged out her own.

“Seriously, Tom?!” She shoved it into him. The bag contained various small bottles of M·A·C® products from paint pots to glitter. Lip palette also came out along with concealers, foundation and a plethora of brushes. He snorted.

“What?” She glanced over at his arrayment as she brushed her hair. He looked up and snatched the brush from her. “If I’m doing it; I’m doing it. Trust me.”

Long sigh. “That’s the problem. You left me behind. So why should I? I promised Granddad. Even showed him pictures of you. Do you know how embarrassed I was?” She settled into the chair waiting.

Sighing rumbled from Tom as he rotated her to face the mirror. “You never answered my question. Where is Gwen?”

“With Reagan, of course. I doubt they are stupid enough to swim now but who knows.” She glared at him. “Quit dodging.”

Teasing her long chocolaty strands, he held her gaze. “You don’t listen.” Biting his tongue, he lessened his tone. “You never told me it would be forever.”

Sad smile curled her lips as tears pooled beneath luminous sable eyes. “You never gave me the chance. How many hours did we spend together? You could have told me. You didn’t have to be so boiling cuddly and then just abandon me in the pool.” Raking her face, a ragged sniff shifted the clump of hair in his hands.”

Blowing out a breath, furious hair teasing filled silent minutes. “I love Gwen more.”

“I offered that too.” She sighed heavily, shaking the just finished but unsprayed poof. Grabbing her can of Paul Mitchell® he doused her head with mist.

“We did nothing other than fall asleep.”

“You were naked. Those bikini bottoms could have been moved among other things. I’m not stupid. I see the longing in her face.” She sucked in a ragged breath. “I know you love her. I hate you for it.” Chewing on her lip, Tom rotated the chair to stare at her. Hands on her shoulders, he rested his nose on hers. “I don’t. You are luminous right now, especially the soft glow of olive that shines on you. I can’t have you. I can’t love your both. I choose her. That means no more plus games.” Running a finger behind her ear, she shivered at his touch, shifting in her chair. Lacy mint lingerie held a cloying scent of sea salt, strawberries and lotus.

“Then why are we touching noses? And why do I smell her on you still?”

He stroked her obliques with fingertips, listening to her breath heavy. “Why do you want to bond with me so much?”

“I need you.” She brushed her lips against his nose sliding down to press his lips. Pulling away, he felt the heat of arousal on her. “No you don’t. You want me. Say it.”

“Fine.” She remarked breathy. “I want you. Now.”

Pulling completely away, he smirked. “I know. That’s why I left you there. You will give yourself to anyone who touches your buttons.”

Fierceness clouded her eyes as she bolted up. Shoving him once, she folded her arms under her heaving bust. “I’m a slut? That’s it? It makes you a manwhore. Considering the amount of ladies you’ve worked through?!”

He shook his head. “Other than you who else have I been with this last year? No one! It’s been you and tending to Gwen.  That disease she has is getting worse. Instead of healing her, we kept—” He blew out a breath, shaking his head. “There’s a purity about her; a joy I see seeping out beneath the pain. So no, I don’t need sex. Being around her is enough. Thanks for all you did. It worked yesterday.”

Looking away from him, she stormed to the seat, spinning herself to face the mirror. “Finish!”

“Pick your bow.” He held a suave smile.

“Gold black trim” She bit the words. “I love you, you stupid fool. That’s why I wanted to bond. I know what it means. We could have so much fun together. She doesn’t love you. I do and I was honest. I never transfigured once to trap you. I could have.”

He patted her shoulders in lieu of her bowed head. “Thank you. I know she loves me. We will get our chance.”

Rolling her eyes, she went silent for the remainder of the makeup application. Once the golden glitter dusting finished, she rose, pointing at the door. He turned to see Gwen walk in, glistening. Her pink ‘IFly’ sports bra and Nike Pro® compression shorts clung tightly yet betrayed nothing. She smiled peacefully. “I never expected that.”

Aria stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door. Reagan in full uni paused behind her. She shook her head. “She always that petulant?”

Tom shook his head. “We had our talk.”

Her gaze fell towards the glass of water with scroll in it. Reagan followed her gaze, marveling. “That’s an actual summons? Why haven’t you opened it?”

She gestured silently towards the door. Yet Reagan already held the sapphire coated lotus scroll, sniffing it as if it were a cigar. “Wow, that’s what the royal seal looks like.”

Gwen groaned, extracting it back to its glass. “I can’t deal with it now and be focused. If you break the seal, I have to tend to it within 48 hours. Without me we all lose.”

Horror etched on Reagan’s face. “That’s why Dad keeps a standing ticket to LaGuardia.”

Tom snorted, amused. “You need to hang out with us more. I know more than you.”

She punched his shoulder playfully. “You’re right. Dad won’t allow it. The other reason Lucky Charms exist.”

Pulling a folded note from her waistband, Gwen smoothed it out on her abs. “We failed. They won’t allow it.”

“What?” Ruffled, upset and embarrassed held her face in a dark stare. Pushing the paper towards him without looking, she walked to the bathroom door. “I need to take a shower!”

Scanning the document with its crisp USASF/IASF letterhead, he blew off a pent up breath. “So Kelly singing live is a distraction and they won’t allow her to set up anywhere?”

“Yes. Stupid dingo almost put me off the boil.” She growled. Tom cocked his head toward Reagan who stared dumbfounded.

“I never heard your accent before. It’s cute.”

“Australian, McKay, Queensland if I am correct,” Tom replied as Gwen rubbed her forehead. Her fists smashed into the cheap wooden door, creaking under the blows, shaking violently. Aria opened it, sighing. “Really?!”

Marching out, she glared at Tom while pulling out her uni. “This is all your fault.” She dressed in front of him, deliberately advertising herself. “Our music set kicked ass this year. You convinced everyone doing it live would change the game.”

Perusing the letter again, a cunning smile appeared. So their physical presence is a problem. “We will find them a new place to play.”

Bathroom door flung open with Gwen, wrapped in a mickey bedecked towel tied quickly around her chest, scowling.  “Tried it. Tried everything short of them playing in the Milkhouse lobby. They don’t want it and swore they weren’t notified.”

Catching the time on his watch, he also caught her frustrated disappointment. “It will work out. Did you talk to Kevin?”

She nodded. “He’s been talking with the techs since the letter was given to them, Coach Grace and him.”

Shaking his head, Tom covered his face, listening to the silence. A small prayer whispered out when Aria and Reagan said something at the same time. Aria glared at Reagan who actually glared back.

“What about the Hess Gazebo or the soccer fields,” Aria asked sliding on her skirt over her peach thong.

Gwen shook her head, glancing askance. “They need power and hook ups inside. All those buildings and not one is connected to each other.” She struck door again. “I got fifteen minutes before the rest pack up to go to the next place.” Hopelessness etched her face.

“Why isn’t the baseball field next door connected?” Curiosity bubbled from Reagan as she noticed the time. She sighed, “I have to meet my squad now. They’ll wonder what happened. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”

Aria glared at her as Reagan shut the door. “What the boiling hell?”

Tom, texting to Kevin on his phone, glanced over at her. “Relax, she’s concerned too.”

“Like this is any of your deal.” She chunked a pillow his way. Ducking, it tagged Gwen in the leg as she stared at the doorway. “Well, so much for that idea.”

Tom shook his head as he repeated the words on his screen. “Kevin convinced Narvel to contact Disney. He did and they will let Kelly play. They were unaware that they stayed and seem to be pleased. They acknowledged she still has a right to a venue. USASF has no right to interfere with Kelly or Disney because Disney owns the facilities. USASF is simply a renter like Kelly is.”

Gwen stared at him. Aria ran over, hugging him tightly. Peeling her off, she plopped onto the bed. A brilliant smile cast off her gloom.

“So what venue? Are they going to force USASF to allow her to play? They could disqualify us.”

“No. He said Narvel received a list of open venues. One of them is Champions Field. The Braves are done with it for the season and they have it linked to the Milkhouse for non-specified reasons.”

“Any idea?” Gwen looked at Tom concerned yet curious.

He shrugged. “Kevin said it’s a name change for the complex and park. That’s what Narvel learned.”

“SO?”

He displayed his suave smile. Staring at Aria, it grew brighter. “You owe him big time. He came through.”
Gwen walked over, her hands gripping his forearms. “I swear I will sing Evanescence, GPKISM or Paramore if you don’t explain.”

He smirked. “They will be ready when you are. When you walk onto the mat, they will know because Kevin will have a camera pointed there. All sound will transfer automatically for the required time then switch back. After which there will be another jam session because they don’t know if anyone will figure out they are there.”

She squeed, jumping on him. “You are amazing.”

He held her, inhaling sweet scent of sea and lavender floating off her.  “I did nothing but offer Reagan’s suggestion. I don’t know this place. You do.”

Aria coughed. Tom looked over at her as Gwen jumped down but still held his hand. “I know you do too.”

“Thanks.” She rolled her eyes again, trying to catch her breath. “We aren’t done.”

“We aren’t?” He shook his head. To Gwen, “Hurry. I need time to do your hair and makeup.”

She brushed her lips with his for a few seconds. “I can’t be stinky.”

“I know.”

Another series of coughs as Gwen closed the bathroom door. “We aren’t done.”

“Yes we are, Aria. I want you as a friend. Not with benefits, just friend.”

“I see,” she caught her breath, her voice cracking. Tears pooled her eyes as she turned away. “What happened?”

Grabbing a blotter, he ran up to her and starting drying her eyes. A wan smile curled her lips. “You are impossible some times, princess. Still you made a choice. As do I. Why can’t you be happy about that?”

Frustrated groan and shove thrust him back. “Was it wrong to want you beside me as I am crowded queen? You would be my consort. Please?”

Grabbing the empty ice bucket, he turned back at the door. “Tell her I’ll be back in five.” As the door shut he could hear items hit.

Scrubby green turf sprung back as Coach Grace turned to face the seating. What have I got myself into? This is what happens when you let the two wealthiest girls in the entire gym convince their squad a live band will do their music.  Shaking her head, Narvel frowned. “You don’t like it?” He seemed genuine, just perturbed at the situation.

“It’s fine, Mr. Blackstock. I don’t feel I’m qualified to make the decision.” She looked at him in his navy blue suit coat and slacks. Open collar white dress shirt sans tie was his old compromise to the morning sun.

“They are playing for you. While I do have suggestions it depends on what you want everyone to hear. I’m not concerned because ESPN won’t carry your performance. They told me privately that they will focus on Cali All-stars, World Cup and Cheer Athletics.” He gave an uneasy smile.

Heavy sigh fell from her, odango braids slithering like aggravated snakes. “What would produce the best sound?”

He grinned, “Out here.”

Spinning back around, the entirely of the small 9500 seat field came into view. Nothing but open air, dirt diamond and grass until you hit the teal back wall. She shifted again, avoiding the large painted Brave’s ‘A’ on the grass. “Will this affect what you have planned?” Old Spanish architecture evoking St. Augustine consumed her view. Its bright yellow adobe shining in the sunlight.

“We have nothing planned. This would be just a jam session for their gig in Tucson. She paid; she and your squad are invited. She’s a nice girl. Typical teenager.” He rubbed his chestnut beard, his eyes calm.

“Here’s fine then.” She exhaled. “I hope this works.”

“It will. They’ve been in worse locations. At least Disney is setting up Champions club for us.” He handed her three key cards. “One for you, One for Gwen and her guy friend and one for the guy with the metal leg.”

Pursing her lips, she wrinkled her nose. “Kevin will be excited.”

Another bright smile. “He’s got an excellent future ahead of him. Most would have given up when they lost a leg like that. He didn’t.” Narvel looked off in the distance. “Aside, I know what it’s like to work for years to get somewhere and come back empty handed.” Out of one of his coat pockets came out a wrinkled white ticket with a multicolored pastel band along the edges. In left center stood the Seoul Olympic games symbol; a spiral. Korean ideograms ran beneath and to the side. The side ideograms carried ‘Olympics Gymnastics Arena.” He slid the laminated ticket back in his pocket quickly. “I needed a vacation that year. You should have won the bronze.”

Misty eyed, Coach Grace rubbed her ruddy lips. “My lanyard rests in that case.” She suddenly grinned. “You’re married to Reba! I love her music.”

“Guilty as charged. Anyway, if you need more help just let me know.”

She nodded. “It’s going to be an excellent day.”

“Indeed. Best of luck.”

Yellow walls in the warm up room beckoned as Gwen stretched, trying to remain calm enough not to sing. Tom stretched besides her wearing the men’s uniform. Iconic four claw tip ran along the sides delicately constructed from black and yellow mystique against a black mesh backdrop in amongst paw prints. Against the gold front and back panels, center waist logo slash faux belt buckle stood out as the clear Swarovski elements that composed it winked in the light. A full top with golden mesh underlay weaved into the sleeves sublimating into onyx at the cuffs. The Steel Mystique claw on the back wrapped around to the front of the cheer top terminating in a Gold Mystique star with onyx bear paw overlaid. However the Swarovski elements remained subdued as well as the GC logo.

Tugging the top again, he sighed. “I don’t belong here.”

“You worked as hard as we did. Harder still you continued your swim practices and meets. You are a part of us as much as anyone else.” Catching his forlorn gaze, a soft smile radiated.

“Thanks. How are you holding up?” He asked loudly as the burgeoning sounds coalesced around them.

“Fine.” Shivering stiffened her arm briefly causing a soft curse.

“You didn’t take your shot, did you?” Alarm rippled in his voice. “You need to now. I brought it with me just in case.”

Shock blossomed. “Why?”

“I’m not basing Aria so it’s you or nothing.” Suave smile sparkled in the fluorescence.

Shaking her head, she rose with him walking to their medic on staff. Giving her the injection, she chided her for postponing it. As they sunk back into the mat, Tom continued to snicker.

“You are enjoying that way too much.”

“She said what I thought. Let go of everything, including the ticket. We can fix that tonight. As long as we keep her locked out of loop with Kelly we are good. Coach has a surprise for us after anyway.” He patted her shoulder.

Suddenly, the room volume raised an octave. Everyone rose to their feet lining up to go out. Clutching her hand one last time, he pulled her into a hug. “You will be victorious. Agree with me in Jesus’s name.”
Glancing around rapidly, she whispered back the prayer. “Remember our promise. She held out her pinky.

Grinning foolishly, he held out his too. “I’ll be out there.”  Following behind her to the staging area, darkness surrounded them like a shroud. Hugs, ‘you got this’, ‘time to shine’ and ‘claws out,’ impacted him. Pulling away, he listened to the crowd roaring and the reverberating cheer music pounding.  Nothing like swim meets. You can taste the energy. I wish I could run out there. I hope Kevin pulls this off.

 

In the press section, Kevin sat with a camera focused on Maryland Tide Tsunami finishing their decent routine. Around him, members of the press, ESPN2 and various others shifted and jostled for better position although no one really moved from their position to the far right of the thick blue mat with its orange border. Tsunami finished with a flourish then flowed off the floor. Glancing at his paper order list, he knew everything had to be spot on. “Why did I ever volunteer to do this?”

“Because of the magic, that’s why.” A cameraman from Dallas remarked without looking away. “Same as me. Grace Wolverine Gold is up next,”

Heaving a relieved sigh, he texted the signal and did the cue mark. Announcer beckoned, “Next to the floor, Grace Wolverine Gold.”

Without missing a beat, the rapid guitar beat flowed out into the Milkhouse. Delight washed over everyone as a flawless routine began.

Aria held a bright fake smile as the squad was announced. Not breathing would cause her gills to be visible so she focused on the soft blue mat hiding the springboard floor. Buzzing crowd of thousands whistling, clapping and buzzing about as she took first position. Seconds crept by. Guitar burst forth bringing loud waves of raucous joy. Then she flew. Time slowed as stunts flowed into each other like a bubbling brook. Everything worked until she shifted going into her arabesque. Bases compensated quickly, then caught her when she finished. Yet that bobble cost focus. It broke the flow. Another misstep in dance. A missed beat, just a second. Kevin’s voice overs echoing in the instrumental parts of the song rattled her concentration. Now done in final position, she sighed, her fake smile even tighter.

Still, hugs all around, and back pats as everyone sped off the mat. Tom stood in the wings, a smarmy smile pasted on. Pulling her in for a hug, he whispered, “You bobbled and missed a step. Still, you did excellent. I am proud of you.”

“I’ll let go of the song if you promise to go with me.” She whispered back, honey dripped. Releasing her, his gaze flashed disapproval. “If you want it bad enough, nothing stands in your way.”

Everyone nodded in agreement. ESPN2 anchor stood interviewing Gwen about her following and rumors the music went live. “Yes. They did just play that live. Bold moves demand a response.”

Tom grinned, eyes filled with delight. Aria groaned, her smile shattered into a dark frown. Storming off, she paused in an empty part of the hall, slumped to the floor and sobbed.

Emily walked up and knelt down beside her. “We’ll be fine. You were excellent. They didn’t even see it. I think everyone got caught up in our live music.”

“Guys suck you know, Em.” She shuddered, letting the tears fall.

“I do. Envy makes it worse. Let it go. We have 15 minutes before they announce placement for day 2. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Deep yawns kept erupting from Gwen as she stood beside her teammates holding hands. Tom stood beside Andrea, Pey and Nicole, praying softly. Nicole seemed to repeat his words.

“In third place is Grace Wolverine Gold.” Groans and sighs abounded followed by bright smiles. Razor margins separated the top three teams.

Everyone knew what happened yet no one talked. They simply agreed it would be better tomorrow. Aria remained solemn. Hugs and squeezes abounded. No one blamed anyone, at least in front of the others. Yet on their faces they knew. Aria cost them first place.

Giant shrimp rested on a platted laden with ice. Split Maine lobster tail, steamed Alaskan snow crab legs, deep fried calamari with its tan crumble crust flaking as servers arrayed it in the white button down chef jackets and plastic gloved hands stretched on silver platters beneath a rosewood and Plexiglas® sneeze guard. Roasted littleneck clams followed by gulf snapper. On the next table was a carver standing behind a caramelized beef roast slicing off pieces on to bone white china. Mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli waited beside five or six baked yams.

Opposite rested a cold table overflowing with fresh greens, various organic veggies and dressings for salad. Heaping steel tins of sour cream and butter rested there as well. Amstel light®, Bud light® and Miller light® longnecks rested in an Atlanta braves logoed bucket of ice.

Finally racks of plates waited along with plastic tubs of silverware and steak knives. Tom remained silent, eyes feasting. “How,” he whispered to Coach Grace who stood beside him with Gwen and Kevin.

She shook her head, looking up at him. “You were invited. Also, we need to talk without any of the squad over hearing except Gwen.”

“What?” She halted her run towards a plate.

“Eat. We’ll talk later.”

Gwen stopped in front of the plates and pivoted around. Kelly and her band talk amongst themselves as they grabbed food of the buffet tables. All around her warm, rich dark woods calm as dozens of monitors display the USASF Live stream and ESPN 2 stream. Leather chairs sat before glass top tables arrayed with cloth napkins and other Atlanta Braves memorabilia. So unlike anything she encountered with the squad. This seemed more Assembly.

“Eat.” Tom whispered as he grabbed a plate, pushing at her hand. She took it, glaring at him.

“What’s going on?”

He shrugged. “I would say that the live music succeeded. This is the reward.”

Gwen shook her head. “There is more?” She turned back to the smells of all the seafood displayed. Stomach growled loudly. Still she stood wan.

“I will embarrass you in front of everyone by feeding you if you don’t start getting food.” He held a smarmy grin, staring into her fierce blue eyes.

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Did it before, remember.” Grin grew brighter. “You know my ways.”

Heavy sigh as she pushed shrimp, kelp shreds and other various arrayed foods onto the plate. “Where is Aria? This was her idea.”

Tom paused, stunned. “You want her here? Socializing with Kelly, bullying Kevin and trying to convince everyone to use the Golden Ticket?”

Fierce glare cut off the smile briefly. “She’s not all bad.”

“Yet, what I said is true. And she wasn’t invited. You me and Kevin were specifically.”

Quick glance back at everyone. “That’s what worries me.”

Tom groaned, setting down his plate of meats and veggies. “You belong here. This is your destiny. As a siren you sing. Kelly sings. How else are you going to get in? Now is the perfect time.”

Rolling her eyes as she looked away. “No it isn’t. I’m not ready.”

He shook his head. “Don’t let the opportunity pass. At the very least use it against Aria.”

Deep sigh rumbled from her as they both wandered off to a far table.

“They always like that?” One of the band members asked Coach Grace as she finished her plate. “Joined at the hip?”

“Yeah. It’s cute. Boyfriend girlfriend cheerleaders.”

Amused smile crease Coach Grace’s lips. “They say they aren’t. Just best friends.”

“OK.” Yet his tone said he believed none of it.

Leaning back in buttery leather, Tom beheld Gwen with her poof still perfect, fallen stars bow slightly cocked and tense look. “It’s not fair,” she said for the fifth time.

“I don’t know how else to explain it. You are more of a leader than her. You inspire them more than her. She cost the squad first. She wants you to make the choice.”

“She wants me to bury the knife in Aria’s back. So does the King.” She pushed the opened scroll towards him. He had brought it with them, knowing Aria would open it if left alone. Never expected her to open it here.

“Tell me you don’t want to.” Tom said as she continued to scratch out lyrics on cocktail napkins.

“I can get her to act decent.” Sharp, determined gaze as she glanced up.

“No you can’t. The ticket is gone if you don’t act now.”

Growling, she stared at him. ‘Clarity’ by Zedd tumbled out in a haunting acoustic rendition. Waiting a minute in silence, she blankly stated in her Australian accent. “My feelings at the moment.”

Tom felt eyes on his neck, turned and everyone still stared stunned at them. Awe, almost worshipful, reflected in everyone’s eyes. “That’s why I wanted you all to sing.”

Kelly said something to Narvel who nodded, shock just now washing off his face. She strolled over. “That was beautiful.”

“Sorry. I’m emotional right now. It comes out.”

“Don’t ever apologize for showing emotion. You want to hang out with us, talk some shop?” Earnest glance bounced between them. Tom shoved her shoulder. “Go. You need it.”

Ice chilled his smile before she looked back at Kelly. “I don’t want to impose. This is your gig.”

“You paid for it. It’s as much yours as mine besides—” She noticed the lyrics but said nothing. “We can sing again. You are an excellent songwriter.”

Gwen shook her head, staring at Tom pleadingly.  He looked up at Coach Grace and everyone else all shock and smiles. Another tall, dapper, bearded man walked into the room. His coal and tan hair seemed scruffy as was his unshaven face yet even with that and a tan leather jacket and jet black shirt and jeans, hugs connected with him. Kelly lit up, flagging him over.

“Luke, this is Gwen Breton. Gwen this is Luke Gottwald, or Dr. Luke.” He shook her hand after she rose then shot an odd look at Narvel who nodded.

“Pleased to meet you. You’re a competitive Cheerleader?”

She nodded. “Wolverine Gold.” He noticed the lyrics penned on the napkins. Reading it, his eyebrow arched. “And a good lyricist as well. Yours?”

“It’s for Kelly.” Blush flooded her face as she handed them to him.

She looked at Gwen. “Will you at least sing it?” She waved at the bald guy. “He can score unless you can write musical notes.”

“Yes. I can play piano and guitar too. It’s a gift.”

“I bet.” Luke said slyly. Gwen glanced over at Tom again, pleading. “As much as she would love to share her talents we have some cheer business first.”

Luke mumbled cheer business unsure yet intrigued. Kelly nodded. “This food goes away in two hours.”

“It won’t take that long. I want her sing the song too.”

Horror leapt from her eyes when stood away from them. “If I sing that, I’ll get a contract for sure. Luke does that. It’s his job,” she whispered to Tom.

“You are a siren. So is Kelly. Well, an artist.” He paused when she frowned. “This is what you do. Quit avoiding it. How are you going to stop Aria if you won’t embrace who you are?”

Coach Grace walked over while they were arguing. “Problem?”

“Usual discussion of my life and my future. He wants me to sing again and I…don’t know.”

She nodded. “I needed to talk to you privately because I am pulling out Aria and using Tom as the substitute.”

Eyes widened to the size of plates, he beheld Coach Grace open mouthed. Gwen grimaced, tapping his stubbly chin.

“Thanks. I don’t deserve the honor. I’m not a member.”

Coach Grace sat down beside them. “When Coach Anders asked if you could do you strength training with us. I told him that we condition for our meets. It is far different than what anyone else did. Closer to Coach Lachoix’s runs and scrimmages. Neither you nor he minded. Remember what I told you then.”

Tom snickered. ”I might be required to give back. This wasn’t free. I said I was a swimmer so what would I give back: a backstroke?” A tug at the uniform he wore reminded him that what happened.

“Don’t think I didn’t know Aria sneaking in teaching you all the dance steps and stunts.” Gwen rolled her eyes, and began scratching down lyrics on napkins again.  Coach Grace rested her well-manicured star-tipped hand on top of the napkin stack. “Gwen, this affects you too.”

“Aria isn’t in my stunt group.” She stared off, wrinkling her nose as she watched Luke and Kelly chat as he ate.

“No, but I saw the full out last night. I believe it’s best for all of us if that arraignment competes tomorrow.”

Locking eyes with Tom, she stared, watching for anything untoward. “I have no choice?” The words held a distinct Queensland accent.

Coach Grace frowned. “If you didn’t, everyone would be told tomorrow.  You two have a relationship. He can do this. How much do you want that ring?”

“Too much. Just don’t tell her until tomorrow. I…” she looked over at Luke and Kelly again. A black Gibson® guitar functioned as an extension his body as he played it softly. “I’m shirty enough. She can’t add to it.”

Coach paused, brows furrowed.

Tom grinned. “She’s upset. Aria would make it worse. Her Grandfather wants to see her in a couple of days.”

“Oh, I thought it had to do with this. Sorry. Is everything alright?” Coach Grace adjusted herself, the frown deepening. Gwen returned to scribing lyrics.

Tom reached over to grab the scroll. The moment his hand rested on it, she gripped his wrist hard enough to make it white. Fierce implacable stare held her to him.

“Whatever that is, it looks beautiful. Smells salty. You don’t have to be specific Gwen. You can trust me. G1F2GC3AO.”

Releasing his hand, she closed her eyes momentarily. “It’s nothing you can do. I have another decision to make. One that affects the rest of my life.” The words came out soft, slow and in her normal accentless tone as she watched Tom shake the blood back into his hand. “Thank you.”

“Ok then, see you all tomorrow. Victory?”

Gwen smiled. “G1F2GC3AO. Thanks for the chance.”
“Thanks for rising to the challenge.”  Shoving the chair back, she rose. Watching Gwen return to writing lyrics then annotating them with music above, she shrugged. After a few more moments of silence, she waved to Luke, Kelly and Navel. “My thanks for everything.”

“You’re welcome.” Narvel called out as she pushed out the door. Muggy steam rushed in, warring with the cool chill of the Champions Club.

Gwen glanced over at the door when it shut. At the final click, she grabbed at Tom’s uniform top, hauling it inches from her face. “How dare you think you could just show her the scroll?” Fury roared in her eyes as her words took the Australian slant again. “It would be meaningless to her. Can she read Assembly?”

Catching the stares from everyone else, he leaned in. Lips pressed against hers in a deep emotional release. Shock drowned fury in a torrent of need. Pressing back, she fell onto him, releasing the clenched grip. Stroking her face, he broke away. “I did it knowing full well what she would think and what you would do. You didn’t need to break my wrist to stop me.”
A snort and sigh tumbled out. In the background, Teri Westmore’s name rose above the babble catching Tom’s attention. “Don’t you watch her movies?”

“Changing the subject won’t help.” She snarked.

“But it never hurts,” Luke said suddenly beside them, carrying the Gibson. “Still want to sing some? We have plenty of time before the jam session.”

“Yes.” Rising, her hand stroked the Gibson accidently. He looked down at it concerned then thoughtful. “Can you play? I mean really, not the ‘yes, I can’ and then empty the room of rats.”

Brilliant grin accompanied her rapid nod. “Of course. Can I?”

Holding it out, she paused, waiting for a song to cue. On the door, thunderous pounding echoed. Luke pulled it open, staring disapprovingly at Aria. She bounced back and forth trying to see anything. “Is Gwen inside?”

“That’s any business of yours? Also how would she get in? This is a closed club. Scoot along.” Luke shoved the door closed but Aria pushed harder, holding it open.

Handing the Gibson to Tom, Gwen stormed over. The door sprung forward as he released it causing Aria to tumble forward into Gwen who shoved her back out. “You think I forgot you stole the golden ticket, didn’t you?”

“What?” Soft unpainted hands rose in defense. “They want me to perform it.”

“Why does it matter?” Gwen staggered with another shove as she shouted in Assembly.

“It doesn’t. Speaking in our language does.” Stretching her full height, she leaned forward, flashing her bow again. IT wasn’t the same. Jerking the bow off her head, Gwen shoved into her face. “You dare?!”

With a hand on the sore spot, she glared. “It’s our bow.”

“My sister died, Aria! This is my first chance to honor her memory. You wazz on it like ‘oh, no big deal. Let Shooting Stars memorialize her. She was on their team.’ She was your friend too.”

“No, she wasn’t. She always treated me with contempt. I tried to be kind. I wanted to be your friend. Of course protocol says I had to go through her. I couldn’t. Yes, it sucks that she got caught in that school shooting. I never took advantage of it.”

“No excuses!” Gwen squealed. “Everyone else wore a fallen stars bow save you. You, like always, have to stand out. That’s how they saw all your mistakes.” Seething, she glanced behind. Tom stood beside Luke talking. He kept nodding, his gaze sad.

“You bone the shark, you suffer the bite. Tom’s taking your place tomorrow. So thanks for training him so well. He will lead us to victory. You WILL HAVE nothing to do with it. Enjoy the ring you didn’t earn.”

“YOU’RE LYING!” Everyone looked at the doorway, silent and disapproving.

“Ask them.” She moved out of the way, allowing Aria to see the gorgeous spread and elegant appointments for the first time. Stomach growling, she stormed to Luke. “Was my Coach here?”

He shrugged, unsure but backing away. Narvel announced from the back. “Yes. Your Coach was here. She had to talk to them privately. Now please leave. We have business to conduct. The jam session isn’t for several more hours.”

“You bitch. Lee was right. I should have never trusted you,” she whispered as she walked by. Stepping back outside, she paused, briefly looking lost before wiping it away with dark resolve. Tom appeared behind Gwen holding a plastic container filled with food.

Stepping around and out, he placed it into her hands. “I never said I didn’t love you. I said I couldn’t bond with you.”

Shrimp, crab and roast beef aroma swarmed around as floods of tears fell. Silence echoed as she stared at him. “We are teammates. Pull yourself together. We can sort all this back at home.”

“Is it true?”

“Yes. Coach wants that banner and trophy as much as both of you want those rings. You know you are distracted. Do you trust me?”

Blinking away tears, heavy breaths filled seconds. “I always believed you could do if you wanted to. Didn’t we have fun?”

“Of course. Even when you kept kicking me or crashing on me. I can’t count the number of times I had to explain to Coach Anders about the bruises. How many times I got jokes about secretly playing football.”

“Why not me? Why her? Why is it always her?”

“Can’t it be both?” He stoked her cheek as well, catching a tear. Gwen coughed in the background.

“That’s why. I’ll never understand what she did to grab your heart tighter than mine.” Sniffing the beautiful food, lips formed a wan smile briefly. “I am the princess.”

Leaning into her ear, he whispered. “Lorelei said I would bond with her. She was sadly 100% accurate.”

Aria broke away sobbing again, shaking her head. Tom watched her run across the field, around the stage built at home plate then vanish. Shambling back inside, Gwen asked, “What did you tell her?”

“The truth. You could have let her eat.” He starred at the array of food, shaking his head.

Biting her tongue, she exhaled heavily. “’K’NAAN – Is Anybody Out There’. Ok?”

Scrubbing his head, he nodded. “Ok.”

She flicked the bow at him, crushed under the weight of her rage. Yet it still smelt of kelp and berries as he dropped it on the table.

Garish sporting images and quotes consumed the wall beside Aria. The ESPN grill busboy winked at her as he placed the frozen lemonade down. “Thanks for waiting. Sorry the self-service machine broke.”

“It’s Ok, really.” She pushed a 10 into his hand with her Twitter® name on the bill. Leaning forward, tan wood chair creaked, darkening her mood.

What happened? Everything sat up perfectly. Now where am I?  She dung into the seafood assortment before her, a smile appearing when it tasted as good as it smelt. I am not letting her steal my joy. Pain is now but victory is eternal.

“I didn’t expect to find you alone,” a tall man spoke from the other side of her table. His stocky, stout frame filled with sharp edges carried a kind peace about it.

“I didn’t expect to be alone. Gwen threw me under the bus.” A throwing motion accompanied her words. “Now she gets to enjoy the fruit of my labor.”

Popping another shrimp in her mouth, she looked up at him rubbing his flaxen breaded chin. “May I sit?”

“Why not?” She shrugged, focusing on the remaints of the scallops.

“You texted me you got a song then nothing. So what happened?” Concern filled hazel eyes waited as she chewed. “She won’t let me talk to them and now they hate me. So I lost again.” Lemonade burped onto the table when she squeezed it too hard. “I wish Mom talked to you more, Brad.”

“I do too,” he said wistfully. Rising to get napkins, she noticed him visually accessing the bland wood furnishings and self service area. Handing her a stack when he returned, he smiled confidently. “I have a solution. Give me the copy. I know some people. You want this recognized as yours right.”

Aria looked up at him, eyes wide, nodding. “She’ll block it though.”

He humphed, slid into to a chair across from her and withdrew page sized shiny tablet which lit up when he tapped it. Aria stared at it, riveted.

“Do not tell anyone you saw this.” He said as the apple logo appeared on the screen. “This is a beta model of their new product K48 coming out next year. I am testing it for a bold friend who wanted to see how well it works in a normal environment.” Shaking his head, he held out his other hand. “I know you have your phone.”

Nodding, she slid it out from behind her waistband. “What do you need it for?”

Brad smiled. “You didn’t record the song onto your phone?”

She sighed. “You know me too well.”

“K48 will synchronize with the IPhone and I’ll email to someone I trust at Interscope Geffen®.”

Staring at the tablet again, she glanced at him. “Who?”

“The people who signed Eddie Durant.” He shook his head. Tapping the screen a few times, he entered contacts, drew the song from the iPhone and then mailed it to him.  “Relax. I’ll tell you tomorrow after the meet what they think of it.” He grinned again. “And quit letting Gwen get to you. You know she will especially if suits her.”

“Kind of hard when she turns your boyfriend against you.” She moped, digging through the last of the plastic container of food.

“Tom is forever hers. You should know that.” He shook his head, sliding the now off tablet back into its sleeve. “He’s been doting on her since before Lorelei died. Even as Vice principal I could see them a couple.” He shrugged.

Aria rose as he did. “You never asked where my bow is.”

He chuckled. “You never asked what the tablet’s name is.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Shoving the plastic into the trash, she followed him out into the waning sunlight.

“Not really. Good luck tomorrow.” He walked toward a parked rental.

Strolling down the sidewalk, she sighed. I won’t need it. I’ll be watching them win.

 

Gwen held her breath as she walked across the stage. Subconsciously tugging at her uniform shorts, she looked out across the stands, eyes wide. I don’t belong up here. I’m not an artist. I’m a siren. I’m not even singing my own song. I told Lorelei if she left, I never would. Her last words: ‘The time will come when you will.’ It’s not here. Blowing out a heavy breath, she looked at the band all smiles. Sandy brown hair guy sitting at the piano, another guy on the guitar. Someone else on the drums. I’m so good with names. Why can’t I remember them?

Luke stood just before the seats in the infield. He grinned brightly, his confidence brimming. ‘Gwen, at this point, it’s not about if you get a contract, it’s how soon can we? I’m talking to an agent friend of mine when I get back and also my people. So relax, you don’t need to impress anymore.’

Pacing, she sighed, clenching one hand. I’m not impressing anyone. This is me, I sing under stress. If I can’t then I write. At least Tom explained away ‘Worn’ by Tenth Avenue North as me mourning Lorelei. So much deeper. What’s worse, how do I tell him I am dating Winn?

Turning back to pacing the other direction, she stopped short of Kelly, poised and focused. Compassion filled her eyes. “There will be no one here but us. Relax. You have a beautiful voice.”

Stopping her head from shaking, she pasted on a smile. You know this because I’m singing your future music. You can’t get tranced by that. “Tom?”

“Down there with Luke. He’s as hard to impress as Simon Cowell. ‘Worn’ blew his socks off.

“And your song?” A gulp slid down her throat.

“It’s yours. I will take it. I’ll honor our agreement and say it’s mine. Still, we know the truth.”

Genuine humor flooded her cheeks. Truth beyond anything you can imagine. “Thanks.”

“Let’s do this!” Kelly shouts as she motions to the band to start ‘Already Gone’. She smiles at Gwen who realizes almost immediately what the song means. Soft rock ballad surrounded her as a pounding heartbeat, twinkly piano and swooping strings gripped Luke and Tom. Piano and string arrangements roll mournfully over the percussion as Kelly belted out the first part.

Drawing an inward reserve, Gwen saw its moderately slow tempo in her mind’s eye, tasting the key arraignment. As the chorus began, she added her voice in. Luke’s grin brightened, elbowing Tom.

“She can internally mix. Wow.”

“Voice of an angel?” Tom added, giving thumbs up.

Luke glanced at him and nodded.

As the song faded, so did Gwen’s angst. Serenity flooded in. Rolling through “All I Ever Wanted”, “Miss Independent”,  and “I Do Not Hook Up” she kept pace with Kelly almost like they were twins. During the break, she sat on the stage edge reflective drinking Throat Coat® tea.

“You sure you want to continue?” Tom asked as the sun slowly sat. “I thought you wanted to watch World Cup compete? They are up in 30.”

“I do. I need this more. We are singing ‘People like us’ next.” A playful grin slipped out.

Tom scanned the stands behind them, his face blank. “This is OK?”

She rested her arm on his shoulder, turning him gently back to her. “I’m sorry I dragged you through all of this. It’s not fair to you.” Another sip of the tea and she squeezed his hand. “I need the strength to do what is required of me. As much as I love this,” she tugged on her half top gently, “it’s a vision quest. Born a siren of House Cetus, I’m responsible to my call as well as my sister.”

Deep sign emanated from Tom. “Lorelei would be proud of that answer.” Turning her face towards him, fingers grazed her cheek. “I will always be by your side. I chose you. Tell me.”

Sad eyes blinked back tears. “King Natal wants to know if I’m willing to become Princess ascendant. Aria’s time runs short. Both requirements remain unfulfilled. I’m the other choice.”

“The other major houses?”

“Empty. The destruction of the previous capital ensured that.”

Wrapping his arms around her, he slid inward. She rested her head on his shoulders. “Trust me?” Whispered words rested in his left ear.

“I do. I’m going with you, regardless. I can float above.”

“No you can’t. It’s a four mile round trip swim to the Coral Sea. You would attract attention. While I would take you to the Vault of Memories–”

“Then I will leave from there.” He kissed on the forehead. “Time to sing. They are ready.”

He watched her hand the cup to a roadie as she grabbed the microphone again. She grinned at him, a plastic one. I will be fine. It’s only as complicated as I make it.

 

          Aria kept looking, scanning the crowds every time a squad would exit the mat. Her squad sat around watching the competition, evaluating and resting. Once the final squad bounced across thick blue mats arrayed for them, time for full outs would begin. Still Gwen absent. “Have you seen her?” she shouted over the screams at the Wildcats departure.

Andrea sighed. “She’ll be here. If she’s not it, then she’s not. Focus, Aria.” Sighing herself, she did just that. Nothing but surface people around me. Off in the warm up room, Reagan Dawn joked about how LC is as good as any other squad. Shaking her head, Aria sighed again. Nothing at the edges. Then it hit. Joy bubbled within her as she heard Gwen signing something in Assembly as she ran through the entranceway. People froze as if dripped in liquid Nitrogen then awoke refreshed.

“Do you see her?” Andrea nudged as she spoke.

“I do.”

“Good. I’m getting a hotdog. Want one?”

Wrinkling her nose, she hid the frown, “Fish taco?”

Andrea laughed. “I’ll see.”

As Gwen came into viewing distance she waved at everyone until her gaze connected with Aria. Flat plastic smile didn’t match the busy seamless wave. Aria’s smile crimped and she realized that fact. “I’m not saying ‘sorry’, Aria.”

Looking up with hope, she cast a plastic grin. “I didn’t expect you would. I’ll let it go if you will. For now.

“Deal.” She leaned over, hugging her. “You are my friend. Can we not let guys or things get between that?”

“OK.” She nodded. “Later.”

“Tomorrow night.” Gwen replied over the World Cup Shooting star music.

“Of course,” By that point, I’ll have my song. We’ll have our ring and everything with finally be on course.

Tom stood along the walkway again watching squad do full-outs. Shaking his head, he pivoted, paused and waited as Reagan approached. Trotting behind her were two girls of similar stature. One, shorter with golden blond ringlets, bedecked in a World Cup Shoot Stars uniform, waved recognizing Tom. The other, dusky copper, straight coal hair bound in a high pony seemed excited. Cheer Athletics Wildcats logos announced her in the contrasting white uni.

“Reags?”

“I actually expected you down there considering the rumor. Up here makes things easier.” Hands on hips, she hand rolled to the Wildcat cheerleader. “I have a solution to the problem. Fawn, show him.”

A spiral notebook appeared from behind her covered in handwritten lyrics. “Take it.”

“Why?” Sharp frown contrasted her delight. A glance towards the practice hinted nothing.

“It’s a solution.” Reagan insisted, pushing the spiral into his chest.

A snort exited through his suave smile. “It might work. However…I don’t know.” He sighed, glancing back at them.

Ringlets girl stepped forward, annoyed. “Trust me it will. I’m Chelsey.” She leaned over, whispering into his ear. “Make your choice and quit acting so damn noble. Lorelei would have punched you by now.”

Tom pulled back enough, really looking at her. “Sorry, Chelsey. I didn’t recognize you. It’s just that I’m not a cheerleader. I am swimmer. As much as Aria irritates me, I can’t steal her dream.”

All the ladies held this soft wistfulness. Fawn whispered into Reagan’s ear while Chelsey stared at him, unimpressed. She held up her hand with two world champion rings on it. “I thought the rumor was true. You want Gwen to have a ring? It costs. If you really feel Lorelei spoke truth then I know you know what to do. Do it.”

Tom blinked, glancing back. “Did you write those lyrics?”

She grinned.  “And if I did? What would change?” She lifted her hair to show a jade-azure sea wave birthmark. Two waves with three black dots floating above. Pure born from a minor house. “Quit trying to figure out my house name and go down there.” Fierce glare accompanied the pointed finger.

Tom flashed a smarmy smile. “No one else knows. I would embarrass her in front of everyone.” He shook his head, staring at Reagan. “Rumors travel fast?” She shrugged. Yet Chelsey stood silently, breathing deeply. Drawing an infinity symbol in front of her, she stepped to the bannister.

“Chelsey, don’t!” Reagan shouted, wide eyed fear reflected back.

“I made a promise. I don’t break those.” Then she started tapping the bannister like a piano.  A loop of dreamy synthetic digital blips, floating high and low coursed from her fingertips. Electric piano intermixed with dance music vibe as soft, breathy vocals swallowed everyone into the moment.

“Close your tired eyes and count to ten…” she sang without looking towards him only touching his hand with her thigh.

Downtown Los Angeles burst around him as he stood beside her still in her Shooting Stars uniform. A broad amused grinned remained affixed as he stared. Raising her arms up, she stepped behind him. Night enveloped them as the man he recognized as Adam Young played on a tiny piano. Only the synthetic sound continued from him. Synthpop swelled as drum beat the chorus out. People rushed and flipped and sprinted beside them, a torrent of glowing happiness.

Around them city lights blinked in time with the music. Stars twinkled with the beat. Finally as the song flowed to an ethereal end, Adam rose, sprinting off as well. Joining them, freedom coursed through his veins unlike anything he’d felt in a while. Street after street flew by until they approached the entrance of the Bonaventure hotel. Stopping before the doors, the city fell away revealing grassy field between the hotel buildings holding wolverines like flies in amber.

Shaking his head, the look of wonder on Gwen’s face made him reach down and hug her. Only when he pulled her into him, Aria rose and dusted herself off. Fury travelled in her gaze as she held her ground. Bursts of melody filled the air as Chelsey glared back before walking away.

“What happened?” he asked over Aria screaming in Assembly.

“She knew immediately when everyone froze that another siren commanded the scene. I never expected it would be Chelsey Regere. That is Lorelei’s best friend up there. What did you do to possess her to create that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. She took me inside, so I didn’t see anything.”

Her mouth fell open. “She touched you?”

“Yes. I happen to be very charismatic.” He flashed a suave grin yet his gaze spoke fear. A string of assembly curses fell from Aria’s lips as her eyes raked across Tom. “Why aren’t you in uniform?”

“Look again.” Tom glanced around concerned. Everyone awake, stretching out and talking. Andrea stood out of earshot talking to Coach Grace. “Why didn’t you get me?”

“I didn’t tell anyone.” Deep frown on rosy pink lips nearly broke his heart. She gripped his side. “I would rather not.”

Gwen groaned. “Owl City.”

Snapped back, Tom sighed. “Yes. So how are we going to play this?”

Another groan. “Honestly?”

Pulling himself so close that the salty sweat mixed with jasmine perfume filled the space between them, he whispered. “We have to give her this one. That’s what the song was about; being a light together.”

Gwen pushed back gently but swiftly. Waving Emily and Kaylie over, she closed her eyes and inhaled before asking. “Coach wants Tom to base me.”

Emily nodded then realized the statement, brows furrowed. “You aren’t telling anyone the real reason.”

“No. We all want the ring, right? If I have to look bad, so be it.”

Kaylie shook her head. “You don’t. You look like her friend.”

Loud slamming jolted Tom out of bed just before dawn. Glancing at the clock, he shook off sleep and rose. Shuffling to the door with only Nike® pro Combat compression shorts, he leaned on the cream door still in a reverie of sorts before throwing it open. Darkness suffused with fluorescent lights, a metal lined concrete walkway and massive football helmets he expected to greet him as they wont every day since he checked in. Instead, Coach Sylvan’s office stared back. The Stairmaster®, the metal desk with name placard and cranberry stationary covering it. The west wall trophy case, burnished rich sepia, standing proud and packed to the gills. Old analog TV in the corner still warm from recent use. Soft cranberry leather chairs with the 4 initials of the school on their back. Dented file cabinets covered in trophies, and ribbons. The overflowing billboard of notes and pictures of a highly successful sideline cheerleading coach decorated the walls. Tiny banners hung from the ceiling. Everything cranberry and cream suffused with morning’s golden light.

Rich brown leather chair faced the back wall, a tall thick necked woman with a tightly cropped mane of ruddy maize barely masking a tattoo of the marine shield with ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body’ resting in it. She leaned forward exposing the tattoo more as Tom stepped in.

Silent minutes after, Lorelei still in her Shooting Stars uniform and jacket ran in. “Coach?”

Sylvan looked out, her worn expression brightened. “What can I do for you, Lorelei?”

“I came to–” fell out before a hogshead barrel sized imp, pig faced with thick jowls stormed in. Brandishing a Glock®17, he cast blank stares around, focusing on Sylvan. “Be gone!”

His arm jerked as a thunderclap shook the room. Blood splattered across the trophy case behind as her lifeless head cracked against the glass, rouge and grey oozing from the wound along her hair line.

Lorelei stood frozen as the man turned, aimed and fired. Tom dove at him, the bullet gouging the flesh above his right obliques. Turning away, the man felt Tom’s thick muscular fist slam the back of his head causing a stumble. Tom rolled the imp up banging the shooting arm just enough that when he fired the bullet entered his mouth rather that over his shoulder like he intended. Sticky gore spattered everything, drenching the floor and bulletin board. Lorelei stood shaking, barely breathing as gray chunks, and viscous bloody fluids dripped and fell from her strawberry blonde hair, masking her band of copious nose freckles. Tears ran from her eyes.

Shoving the now dead and partially decapitated man off him, he shoved the gun into the corpse’s mouth before rising.

Lorelei exhaled, pivoting and stepping from the pooling blood. “Why are you here?”

“I couldn’t let you die. Not like this. I would never forgive myself.” He pulled a hanky out of the dead man’s pocket, wiping her face and hair gently. Stinging radiated across his torso, like a bad sunburn. She pointed at the growing stain on his Forest Hills Beavers swim team t-shirt. “You were hit.”

“I’m fine.” He smiled beneath the grimace, continuing to wipe the blood and other fluids from her with a towel from the chair. Pink specks had settled, staining the jacket even after several wipes. Her white Nfinity® shoes were half crimson now. “I’m here and I won’t let you go, no matter what.”

“That wasn’t supposed to happen. You aren’t supposed to be here. I…” More tears flooded down as she crumpled into his arms. “She needs you far more than I do. I…” Heavy weeping crushed the remaining words as he cradled her.

“Don’t go. I need you. Your House needs you. World Cup needs you. The assembly needs you.” Small strokes along her cheeks stifled the sobs as the aroma of death began to saturate their air. Coughing, Tom inhaled deep.

Before him, a cold concrete walkway illuminated by a fitful dawn and buzzy fluorescent lights. The other hotel building stood proudly across the faux football field, goal posts at each end. “Why did you let go?” he mumbled as he sat from his crouched position; a splat from pooled tears beneath. Rubbing the scar, he sighed. “I’m doing this for you, Lorelei. I can’t let her suffer like you did. I can’t see the heartbreak and utter horror like that night. We all love you so much. We miss you so terribly.”

Reagan paused before him, kneeling down. She wore the same bikini as before, only damp. Aroma of fish and wet algae rose, wrinkling his nose. He glanced up, rose in his cheeks.

“I’m fine,” he snapped before realizing how she was.

“I doubt it. Still, I understand.” She stared at the scalloped scar, its wrinkles different from the cut abs and obliques. “Did you tell her?”

“Tell her what? I went to save her sister and failed. You know hard it was to convince the police he committed suicide. It’s like they knew I shot him even though he held the gun.” He grimaced, tears pooling again. “Regardless of that, she died that night. Her body lived five more days. Gwen thought I was being a good friend. Such good friend I was.” He wiped his eyes with his arm, sighing heavily.

“Then a week later she gets sick. It was almost too much her family to take. I had to intervene. Now I am here. Never expected to don a cheerleading uniform and in a few hours perform a routine that will potentially win them first place in their division.”

“You are, though.” Reagan knelt beside him. “You love her even though you never say it. She loves you too even though she acts like she doesn’t. It’s in her eyes and the way she treats you. You didn’t fail, you just didn’t win.”

“I needed to.”

She shook her head. “No. Things are set for a reason. You will know soon enough.” Leaning to give him a hug, she noticed a roundel tattoo peeking out his waistband: a white Maltese cross on red. “What’s that?”

“It’s my father’s crest. He always had one with him. Google says it’s the symbol of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. I think he was a part of that at one time. I have it to remember him. My uncle got it for me after her shooting.”

Reagan’s eyes blazed with delight and amusement as she hugged him. “Sometimes, I swear you are so much a part of us, I want to bond with you myself.” Stepping back, she turned into the dawning sun. “Time to head back. Be confident. You won’t fail. Wear your ring. You earned it.”

Pulling himself up, he marveled at her. “Sometimes I wish I was free of this too. Life would be easier.”
Aria paced along the mat as Wolverine gold warmed up. Ten minutes left and either they would have a ring, banner, trophy and medals around their necks or not. Still, she frowned, arms akimbo around her half top. Her Paw and star bow matched everyone else’s. Still she would wait in the wings like Tom did yesterday. I should have never convinced them last year to allow him to do backup. ‘He would be great for the alternate configuration.’ Now look!´  She sighed, hissing when Tom walked over, tense.

“Are you ok?” He smiled suave, eyes shining.

She stared, implacable. Long silent pause gripped them both. Finally, he leaned down, kissed her forehead. “Thanks.”

“For what?” she whispered, the fierceness broken.

“For letting me in. I know you don’t want this. Neither do I. Trust me?”

“I have no choice,” Bitter hissing filled her voice as she looked away.

“Yes, you do. In your heart you made it. Maybe we can come back after all this is over.” He grinned, then walked away following the team as it walked out. Following them fitfully, she hummed ‘Jar of Hearts’, her fist clenched.

From the wings, beauty unfolded on that blue mat. Every stunt, every pyramid, every dance, spot on. Perfection stalked them today, deepening her scowl. ‘Of course I taught him the exact way to hold, lift and catch.’  She rubbed the back of her head from that one hit he apologized repeatedly about.

Music swarmed around her as the two minute thirty second performance wound down. “Being with you is so dysfunctional. I really shouldn’t miss you but I can’t let you go,” she whispered as she ran out in the midst of hugs and cheers. All seemed forgiven. Now everything hung on whether the judges loved them, the other teams flawless performances’ rose higher and luck. ‘Not that I believe in that.’

Gwen ran off the side with the rest of the team as the ESPN® reporter waved them over. Tom stood beside her, arm around her waist as she stood poised and animated.

“Any thoughts on how well you did?” The reporter asked, seemingly bored yet smiling.

“We hit. You never know.”  Worry reflected back. Does she know something we don’t?

“We won. No doubt about it. Everything gelled perfectly.” Tom said, charm oozing out.

Her eyes swam across him. “It looked spectacular.” Then the director off camera make a cut motion and everyone flowed out to the waiting area to watch and wonder. She flowed over to a small place away from the rest, staring at Tom. “What was that?”

“You froze. I bailed you out.” He dragged a finger along her cheek. “We won. I know some of them freaked at Aria not being in. The excuse worked. You have no blood on your hands.”

She shook her head. “She hates me for this. Didn’t you see her look? Where is she? Over with Andrea, Gabi and Mara. We are alone.”

“You won’t be for long. Enjoy the moment.” A voice said from behind her. Recognizing it, she spun around to Kelly standing with three large men in well-tailored suits. “I wanted to give you my info because we are leaving.” Handing an embossed business card with scrawled numbers on the back, she leaned over and hugged her. “They showed us your performance after we were finished. I know nothing about Cheerleading. Still it looked fabulous.”

“It is.” She grinned, sliding the card in her waistband. “Thank you for everything. We couldn’t done it without you.”

Tom snickered, shaking his head. “Forever united here somehow?” She elbowed him in the ribs.

Kelly laughed as well. “Yeah. I was so unsure but both of you intrigued us. You do have a piece of me now.” She nodded, still smiling. A bodyguard leaned over as she turned. Grim frown replaced the delight. “I almost forgot. That song you didn’t want out there. The one your teammate stole. Someone else heard it. They won’t let it go. Sorry.”

Gwen frowned deeply, fists clenching. Tom grasped her arm and she suddenly smiled all plastic. “Thank you for trying.”

“Make a demo. OK?” Kelly said before walking away. Tom rubbed Gwen’s arm as she shook. “Calm down. You have to look happy for the results.”

Pivoting, she pushed him against the cold concrete wall. “Her career is gone. All her music goes with it.” Tears ran down her face. “I didn’t stop it. Now what?” She leaned her head into his chest. Tom stroked her hair gently.

“It will be alright.” Looking up, he saw Coach Grace approach, her odango ponytails flowing behind her. Her face held determined sadness.

“You were magical. Nevertheless I want to apologize.” She said as Gwen looked up wiping her eyes. “Why?”

“I forced this on you. You too, Tom. It wasn’t fair that I made do this without any acclimation.” She cocked her head to one side waiting for the awards announcement.

“So we didn’t win?” Hesitation enunciated his words.

“It’s close. The margin is under a point. We hit but the substitution cost me.” She noticed Gwen’s tears. “You OK.”

“Fine. Kelly said goodbye but gave me info about a career that died. I’ll be fine.” Tom stroked her hair again. In the background the call for the awards ceremony began. “We will win. I feel it.”

Coach Grace looked at Tom. “I hope so.”

Kevin remained in the press corps area, his camera recording everything again. Never in a million years will they believe this. He smiled at the cashier’s check in his pocket. $1000 for the song ‘jar of hearts’. Aria gave it when the email appear saying they accepted her demo. Don’t know who they are and it didn’t matter. Money is money. Money to do more video work. Shaking his head, he heard the call for the awards to start. A quick pan of the assembled wood pyramid trophies with crystal globes at the apex resting on a black cloth table for effect then he focused on the team.

“Amazing, all of this for rings, banners and metals?” The guy beside wearing a North Carolina shirt with call letters on it commented curiously.

“It’s like Olympics for them.” Another voice hissed before Kevin could speak. What did Aria always say? ‘Time to shine.’

“Here we go, the Bronze champ senior small coed 2009…Ice Lightning!”

He noticed Gwen and Tom clench their hands tighter. Everyone on Wolverine Gold bowed their head, all holding hands.

“Silver champion in our senior small coed limited division…Tribe Cheer Chiefs!”

A collective gasp rose from the team and as everyone realized what was happening. “Our World champions for 2009 senior small coed… Grace Cheer Wolverine Gold!”

The team bolted up, hugging and crying and bouncing around. Coach Grace hugged her other coach as everyone slapped hands, squeezing each other tightly.

“Hey dude, you crying?” The north Carolina guy asked.

“Yeah. They won. I didn’t think it would happen.”

“Neither did we. One tenth of a point. ESPN is so pissed right now.”

“Let them be. It’s their loss.” Kevin waved at Tom who gave a huge thumbs up.

“I will say this. That live music was bold. Shame it will never happen again.” Kevin nodded. “Yeah. Completely. Boldness means risks.”

“Risks mean failure sometimes. Not today.”

Kevin nodded. Not today.

As the silver charger carrying the gold metals moved around the mat, Tom looked over at Chelsey and Reagan approaching. Reagan wore silver and Chelsey gold. “Told you. Gold looks gold on you,” Reagan grinned.

“Thanks for this morning,” a sheepish grin tightened his cheeks.

“You needed hope and you helped me so I returned the favor. Where’s Gwen?

Tom reached behind him and Gwen appeared confused at first then delighted. “Hey. Ladies. I finally won.” She pulled Reagan into a tight hug. “Its amazing.”

“I have something for you.” Chelsey smiled yet a sadness gripped her gaze.

Gwen went to embrace her then noticed the small felt box in her hand. “What’s that for.”

“It’s yours.”  She pushed the box into Gwen’s open hand. “It’s time you cared for it.”

Opening the box revealed a sparking 2008 world championship ring. “It’s Lorelei’s. We are ordering her this years too. I had really hoped you would make it this year so I could give it to you.” She leaned in an whispered. “I haven’t the heart to go to Antarctica myself.”

Gwen froze, eyes shining. “Thanks so very much.”

“No thank you. She has been a guiding light all these years. Times and uniforms change. We move on.” Chelsey’s eyes shined too.

“I wish we could sing,” Gwen whispered in assembly as she hugged her tightly.

‘Me too. Perhaps when we get to NYC.” She winked and walked up. Reagan shrugged. Tom raised an eyebrow.

“She wants you to come with her. You are going that way anyway. You said you have to meet the King.”

Gwen nodded. “I have to go take the picture.”

Reagan smiled shaking her head. Tom caught the frown that formed as she ran up there. “Don’t frown. You won’t be alone for long. Trust me.”

“Some things don’t change, Tom. No matter how hard you force them.”

“I am living proof that is a lie. You know that. I will see you soon.” He squeezed her hand and ran up there as well. She exhaled heavily. “That’s what scares me.”

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