Author's Note: I know I have two stories waiting at present, but I committed to NaNoWriMo this year, so here's my work-in-progress. Of course, because that means I'm simply trying to punch out 50K words, no matter how bad they may be in combination - this story may very well suck, especially compared to my others. You've been warned.

Also, I have to give a big round of thanks to my old crew from high school, who gave me most of my base material for these characters. Let's face it; you just can't make up people like these guys. And extra special thanks to my personal blacksmith acquaintance, from whom I stole Brian's physical attributes and a couple lines - the harem by age 30, the kingdoms comment, etc. In the unlikely event that guy ever reads this story on here, to him I say this:

If I ever make money off this story, I'll make sure you get your fair share. You're an inspiration powerhouse, babe. ;-)

Chapter One

Curled up against the corner of the couch, Celeste stared at the digital display on the phone which still glowed even though the receiver was back on its cradle. The name and number of the previous caller finally disappeared as the small screen went dark.

Celeste suddenly wished she had ignored the call, even though her best friend had been the one on the line. She loved Michelle, but Michelle had a knack for running into other people Celeste loved a lot less. Michelle also tended to drag Celeste into whatever might be going on with said people. The phone call was a perfect example.

Michelle said Heather was getting married in a month. Although Celeste hung out with Heather less than others back in the day, Celeste had always liked Heather's no fuss, no bullshit attitude. And unlike some of the others - Celeste herself included - Heather had apparently been smart enough to wait awhile after graduation before tying herself down. News of an upcoming wedding was the good part.

The not-so good came when Michelle reported that Heather planned to invite everyone. The whole crew from yester-year, or at least those Heather could track down. Celeste suspected Heather would find just about all of them too. Each person from the old crowd knew where at least one or two other people lived and had phone numbers or email addresses to pass along. Continued connectivity was one of the traits which marked their already unusual group of friends from Hernando High.

Inside Celeste's head, Michelle's voice rattled off the list of expected attendees once again. Celeste had recognized every name. Each one had sparked a different reaction in various parts of her mind and body; each invoked a different set of memories, most of which Celeste preferred to forget. God knew high school had not been Celeste's finest life segment. So naturally her crew would be the folks who'd promise to stay in touch with one another after graduation and actually mean it.

Lately Celeste had felt like even more as though they were all part of a perpetual high school reunion, despite knowing she was one of the least involved in the group as a whole. While many gathered together each year around Christmas, Celeste had pulled just far enough out of the circle to cause alienation and omission from regular meet-ups. In fact, her most recent face-to-face contact with a portion of "the group" had been three years earlier, at the last wedding.

Or was it two weddings back? Mark had gotten married too and had a baby now. Celeste had found out about that one well after the fact, though she had gotten various - not to mention contradictory - accounts of how that was going. And hadn't Heather told Michelle that Tracy picked up husband number two at some point over the past year or so?

Celeste tried to rub the sandy feeling out of her eyes without fudging her contacts. Spacing out to take a mental inventory of items on the gossip wheel accomplished nothing, and she got irritated with herself for bothering with it in the first place. Celeste's own childhood belonged in the past. She glanced over her shoulder, refocusing on more relevant childhood. She stood, stretched, and padded to her daughters' cracked bedroom door to take a peek. She could see her older daughter cocooned on the bed against the far wall; silence proved the younger girl was also asleep. She'd gotten her money out of the new trampoline ten times over in the past two weeks.

Rather than risk another moment of weakness, Celeste chose to detour Memory Lane and head for Sleep Street instead, hoping things would feel less dismal in the morning.

Unfortunately her plan failed. By the time Michelle showed up the next afternoon, Celeste's hyperactive mind had turned into a throbbing headache behind her eyes. Michelle leaned against the kitchen counter, frowning at Celeste as she played with the cap of her Mountain Dew bottle. "You okay?"

Celeste poured a coffee refill and nodded. "Yeah. I just didn't sleep much last night." She turned, resting against the refrigerator, and prepared for a verbal onslaught. "So what's up?"

Michelle took the offer seriously, and she began a litany on everything which she had done in the past twenty-four hours. Soon her report shifted from herself to her boyfriend, then to work and her coworkers - those Celeste knew personally and didn't, it never mattered - and finally to her parents and sister. Once she finished the first round, Michelle skipped from person to person and topic to topic, guided by little more than whatever popped into her head. Or so Celeste assumed, consistently impressed with Michelle's ability to keep up with light speed jumps in her trains of thought when Celeste herself hardly retained half of what her best friend said at any given time.

Celeste could always tell when the normal chit-chat started to shift to more substantive conversation. Michelle rarely paused otherwise.

True to form, Michelle's words slowed just before she asked, "So what do you think about Heather getting married?"

"I think it's cool." Celeste shrugged, knowing Michelle was really fishing for a reaction to seeing everyone again rather than Heather's nuptials. "She's one of the last men standing on that count."

"Not really. There's still Greg."

Celeste nodded after a pause. "You're right, unless we just haven't heard about it yet."

Michelle shook her head, her face serious. "I would've heard about it from someone."

Celeste thought about it and agreed a moment later. Considering how long Michelle and Greg dated in high school, they'd become synonymous with one another to most who knew them. Even though Greg had moved away from their rural hometown years earlier to make his entrepreneurial mark upstate, enough people who went to school with them had stayed behind to play liaison. And, like in most small towns, everyone seemed to know a little bit of everyone else's business. Had Greg tied the knot, word would've gotten to Michelle.

"My sister's still single," Celeste added.

"Yeah, but Elizabeth got a late start. Plus she's just a baby. She hardly even counts," Michelle said.

Celeste snickered. "Elizabeth's only a year and some change younger than me, and remember, I'm almost two years younger than you. You're the old maid here."

Michelle's nose wrinkled behind her glasses, and she pretended to fuss under her breath before raising her voice back to normal volume. "Yeah, well, you know what Chris says about getting married..."

Yes, Celeste knew, and she signaled her resignation. "Hey, over the last ten years you two have outlasted a boyfriend and a husband of mine. I can't say a word."

Michelle sighed and waved the comment away. Celeste let it go, knowing the topic grew more unpleasant by the day for Michelle. Plus Michelle's eyebrows had gone up and her corners of her mouth twitched, both clear signs she was ready to slip in the final name which Celeste had purposely avoided.

"And Brian's still single, isn't he?" Michelle's glanced out of the corner of her eye.

Celeste kept her expression blank. "As far as I know."

"Oh, if he wasn't, you'd have definitely heard about it."

Michelle sounded equally confident about that as she had about the likelihood she would be told if Greg got hitched. Celeste brushed it aside. "Not necessarily."

Michelle looked unsatisfied. "Speaking of Brian, when was the last time you talked to him?"

"About a year ago."

"That long?" Michelle asked, unable to mask her surprise. Michelle lacked any talent for deception in any form, including in her tone of voice. "Why, what was going on with him?"

Celeste defied Michelle's information search for only a second before conceding with another sigh. "I assume he's doing the same thing he's been doing the past couple years. Giving demonstrations, teaching blacksmithing basics as continuing ed courses at the college, and he's still got his shop as far as I know." Another sip of coffee and a nod to herself as Celeste continued running through the list she grudgingly knew by heart. "Plus he did that TV show thing he was talking about. The last time I caught him online, he told me what channel and the time and all, but I didn't watch it."

This time Michelle accepted the rundown, though the mischievous glint was back in her eyes. "So he didn't mention a girlfriend."

"Just that he plans on having his harem together by the time he's thirty."

Michelle snickered and rolled her eyes. "The blacksmith and his harem. That sounds like him."

"It sounds like the title of an Avon paperback," Celeste muttered into her cup.

The reference earned a through-the-nose shout from Michelle. "Speaking of seedy romance novels," she said as she hopped onto the kitchen counter, "how's the revision going?"

Celeste ignored the half-hearted insult and, grateful for the opening, began explaining what she had done and what was left of her current manuscript before her test readers, Michelle among them, would get a new draft. They bounced a few ideas back and forth before the topic drifted back toward old territory again. Knowing the conversation had come full-circle and would soon encourage a new barrage of Brian-related questions, Celeste jumped in with her own inquiry about a newer mutual friend with whom Michelle worked. The diversion worked. Michelle immediately began a new summation of events from her office, and Celeste relaxed shortly thereafter.

As long as Michelle talked about someone other than Brian, Celeste knew she wouldn't have to do so either. Having him stuck in the forefront of her mind, at least until her kids returned from school and demanded her full attention, was an unpleasant probability already.

With dinner, homework, baths and bedtime stories all out of the way, Celeste enjoyed a millisecond of peace once she left her daughters' room. As soon as she sat down and closed her eyes, however, the decade-old memories invaded her mind once again. It started as a trickle: cruising the town's main thoroughfare in Heather's new car while they made up witty things to say over CB and waved "Class of '95 4Ever!" signs at passers-by through the sunroof; huddling with fifteen other people and holding on for dear life in the back of a truck as it tore through their favorite mudbogging path behind Putt-Putt; senior prom and the hotel room debacle with Michelle and their boyfriends afterward; the homecoming dance, to which she herself snuck in a number of her friends from a different school, while Brian showed up with (and showed off) his female companions - all three of them.

Just thinking his name was all it took. The trickle turned into a deluge against which Celeste stopped fighting. And there were good memories mixed in with the bad, although it was hard to distinguish the two sometimes. Both kinds hurt like hell, especially on nights like this one.

How long has it been since I actually saw Brian?

The reels of footage rolling inside Celeste's mind slowed and began to untangle. Finally she singled out one thread and let it play. She was in Michelle's backyard, surrounded by the other few friends of theirs who'd showed up for Christy's wedding three-and-a-half year ago. After having a few drinks, Mark had recounted Brian's adventures to that point, namely the on-again, off-again girlfriend whom Brian had followed to Rhode Island just two weeks prior. Somewhere along the way - Celeste forget when or who said it - someone stated Brian's email address.

Has it really been three years already? I wonder how he's doing...

Once she had gotten home from the impromptu reunion, let the buzz die down, and endured the wrath of her then-husband for going anywhere in the first place, Celeste continued to roll Brian's email address around in her head. Every time she sat down at her computer the following week, she would zone out for a moment before dismissing the idea of contacting him.

Why she changed her mind, she no longer remembered specifically. She could recall a growing ache as old feelings born of their non-resolution bloomed anew. Years had passed and she knew, logically at least, that initiating contact would accomplish nothing. But her relationship with Brian had always been unusual in so many ways. When it came to him, her brain had always been what got her into trouble as a girl; her intuition had saved their friendship until she'd stopped trusting her feelings on their own. Thinking tended to be her worst enemy as a child, so as an adult years later, she let herself fall back into illogical emotionalism, just long enough to compose and send the email which would mark their first direct communication in nearly six years.

There's no telling what he's been up to lately, really...

The message she sent had been short. Three, maybe four lines, just to say hello and wish him well. Celeste had told herself afterward she'd probably made a mistake, but at least she felt some semblance of closure from letting him know, or at least implying, that she held onto no hard feelings by that point.

Of course she'd never expected to receive a response from him. Had she gone so far as to guess what a reply from him would say, she imagined he would come back with words edged like a filet knife.

When Brian answered in less than a day, Celeste hardly believed it. More astonishing were both the content and character of his answer. He sent back a long response in comparison, asking her what kingdoms she had conquered over the years. After providing a few details of his own, he ended with news he would be back in town within days, and he wanted to see her once he settled back in.

Despite her better judgment and some second-guessing about the ramifications should her husband find out, she ended up meeting Brian for lunch a month later.

Does he look the same as he did, or has he changed even more?

Had he not been standing outside the restaurant waiting for her, she would never have recognized him. Genetics had finally kicked in according to him, and she agreed wholeheartedly as she tried to process his transformation. She understood part of her shock was a matter of perception, comparing her memory to the reality which stood before her. At graduation Brian was two inches taller than her own five-foot-eight frame; six years had added several more to his height. He'd also grown stockier, though he had never been a skinny kid. Still, his passion-turned-profession was evident in his expansive shoulders and calloused hands. His clothes and hair - both facial and on his head, though a baseball cap covered the worst of it - were untrimmed and scruffy. His sunglasses topped it off; Celeste thought he looked like he was on his way to wash his car rather than meet someone for a lunch date.

The image had been far removed from the guy she'd known. In high school Brian's idea of dressing down was pairing new blue jeans with his dress shirt or skipping the tie, and his sandy hair never touched his collar. Celeste assumed his attention to aesthetic detail must've dulled during college or sometime thereafter.

She had felt awkward as they hugged and then followed him inside, but the unease vanished once he sat and took off the sunglasses. His eyes, laser beam blue and just as penetrating once fixed on a target, were exactly like she remembered them. The cocky half-smile and air of unshakable self-confidence remained unchanged as well, she'd noted a millisecond later, comforted to know - Celeste suspected she was one of only a few who would - that Brian had apparently had doubts about meeting with her too.

I doubt he's wasted his time thinking about all this shit since then.

She had gotten the conversation started by asking him outright why he'd traveled a thousand miles just to turn around and come back. The following three-plus hours had been filled with stories about his various romantic misadventures, a few interesting tidbits about mutual friends whom he'd kept up with much better than she, and a vague mention of plans to start a business which would allow him to be a blacksmith full-time rather than just doing it on the side.

Unbeknownst to Brian, when her chance to speak had come, Celeste had internally choked on everything she wanted to say, so many things she'd wished more than anything she had the guts to tell him, even if most were too long after the fact to make any difference. If nothing else, Celeste had wanted to apologize even though it was stupid and probably would mean nothing to him.

But her desire for closure also stirred insecurities old and new which decimated her resolve. She succumbed to the knee-jerk reaction she'd developed during the summer before their junior year, right after Brian unintentionally stole and subsequently - and justifiably, she had to admit - broke her conflicted fifteen-year-old heart instead.

She stated basic facts - married, kids, administrative assistant - and remained elliptical about everything else regarding her own life. Pride demanded she not admit her marriage was a disaster, that she'd escaped an abusive childhood home just to become a statistic by marrying into a new one, and especially not just how much and for how long she had missed her former best friend and first love when they parted ways, how drastically that one event had effected every relationship she'd been in since then.

The conversation had waned after that. He'd stood up; she followed suit. She led the way out once he paid the bill. With a strained goodbye and a wave, she'd let him leave her without saying one single word she desperately needed to all over again. Sure, they had talked over email and ICQ a few times since, but Celeste had suspected her opportunity was forever gone.

Celeste shook head, forcing her mind to come back to the present, to Heather's upcoming wedding and yet another reunion which would organize as a result. But did a reunion mean another chance to resolve things, this time to her satisfaction, with Brian?

No, it's not, so get over yourself already. What the hell is there to resolve?

She wanted to believe that. She really did. But something more abstract than brain power told her otherwise, and hadn't her gut been right before?

Stop being stupid. He probably hasn't thought about you even once since you spoke last time.

Unfortunately she knew that wasn't true, although what she'd heard he would say about her was less than flattering, as usual. The art of slinging demeaning comments and insulting jokes behind one another's backs was alive and well, according to many, including her sister. Not surprising since he tended to fall into old habits and patterns much the same way Celeste herself had for years. She had worked on breaking that habit for a while and succeeded for the most part, but as recently as the previous Christmas she had credible sources which led her to believe he had yet to do the same. Unlikely that would've changed in only ten months.

Exactly, so stop acting like an emotional masochist. There's no reason to contact him.

Celeste groaned. Yes, she knew there was no reason to initiate contact again. She'd changed email addresses and phone numbers since speaking with him the last time and had chosen not to send him updated info. She knew it was unfair to bother him when he obviously still held a grudge against her, despite his friendly act during the few times they'd spoken directly. Plus, the last time she'd sent him an email, she heard nothing back. Then again, that had been a brief note just to wish him a happy birthday.

She paused, her mind jumping tracks and running through her mental calendar of events. It took a minute for things to click; Brian's birthday was little more than a week away.

Don't do it.

But she prided herself on never forgetting people's birthdays once she knew them.

You'll regret it if you write him now.

Probably so, but if she got no reply, then she could tell herself that he may have never even opened it. And she was a stickler for tradition.

Okay, but what if he writes you back?

He wouldn't. Why would he now, after so much time had passed?

But what if he does?

Celeste hesitated and considered the possibility. Sending a supposedly unwanted and therefore unread note was one thing. Disrupting his peace by reopening the lines of communication, as well as her peace of mind because she never had the strength to do a proper shutdown when necessary, was another.

But he wouldn't write her back. He never did anymore, and it wasn't as though he couldn't either send her a note back and tell her to go to hell or put her on his email's block list. He had every option in the world this way, none of which included hitting "reply."

Her inner voice of reason offered no more resistance, so she headed to her room and turned on her laptop. Once in her email program, Celeste considered what to write. Short and non-threatening as usual, or something a little less impersonal? Finally she forced herself to stop thinking and just do it. Only after she finished and sent the email irretrievably along did she finally verbalize her inner voice's new sentiment.

"God, I'm such a fuckin idiot."

Drawing her legs up into the computer chair, Celeste folded them against her chest and buried her face between her kneecaps.