A/N: Forgive this shameful slacker for the short fluff chapter after such a long wait. The next one is where things really start to pick up. Again, forgive me. ::bows::

If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough.
- Mario Andretti, race car driver

Chapter Ten

Having dropped her kids off at school with slightly more fan fair than normal, Celeste had just walked through the front door and tossed her car keys on the counter when she noticed the neon blue glare leveled at her from the other side of the kitchen.

Brian's eyebrow quirked, adding to the overt display of annoyance. "Uncle Brian?"

She grimaced; she'd thought he was still asleep in the guest bedroom when she'd told her girls that's what they should call him from now on, should they ever see him again. Plus she had tried to keep her voice down in case he was awake. Which apparently he had been after all, not to mention eavesdropping. Then again they had been in the thick of school morning preparations, which never went on without some bluster.

Damn it, now she couldn't blame him for listening in on her. "How else was I supposed to explain why I let a strange man spend the night at our house?" she asked, trying not to sound defensive and falling short. "Besides, all non-family familiars are called Aunt or Uncle So-and-So. That's how we distinguish the ones we trust from ones we don't."

"So I should feel special now." He sounded anything but pleased.

Celeste ignored it. "Exactly. I don't let just anyone sleep over."

His frown slackened into a smirk. "Even though I don't really wanna know, I'll ask anyway. How many other men have you had over for the night?"

For a moment she played with the idea of refusing to answer just to see how Brian liked being goaded for a change. Her better judgment won. Plus he was standing in her house in rumpled blue jeans and no shirt. That alone muddled her head too much for her to participate in a proper "Give 'em hell!" exchange.

"None," she said instead, "even when the kids weren't here." He tried halfheartedly to look skeptical, which made her feel a little better. "See? You really should feel special." She let him chew on that one for a few more minutes while she cleared the first-round breakfast dishes, poured herself a fresh cup of coffee, and cranked up the stove again to cook something for herself and her - it suddenly felt like her brain tripped - guest.

She was about to offer to cook Brian breakfast. She wondered how long it would be before the Jabberwock appeared; she'd obviously fallen through the looking glass on her way to the shower.

Although she felt no inclination to show out as she would have in years passed, she still retained enough pride to squash the schoolgirlish flutter in her stomach. They were both adults, and she needed to eat something before taking her morning meds. After asking if he wanted anything and a lengthy pause, he grinned and mentioned not having had a decent homemade omelet in years. A taunting smile nearly split his face in two when she asked him what he wanted in it without missing a beat. Celeste bit back her own grin. No doubt Brian thought she'd do her best to impress him and, in turn, give him a bit of ammo with which to tease her in the future.

He'd find something about his meal to criticize. She knew that already. It would not, however, be because she didn't know how to make a phenomenal three-egg omelet. She just thanked God he had passed on something simple like scrambled eggs. After years of trying, she still couldn't scramble an egg without screwing it up in ways scientists and scholars probably considered chemically infeasible.

But Brian didn't needed to know that.

To his credit, if he had any negative commentary about his breakfast, he kept it to himself as they ate. Instead they talked about Heather's wedding and their plans for the trip. Or her plans as it turned out, since he had yet to make any for himself.

"Michelle and I are riding together, surprise surprise. But we're actually going up for the whole weekend so we can get ready up there," Celeste said between bites.

"Get ready?" he asked.

"You know, girl-stuff. So we're leaving Friday morning right after I take the girls to school and coming back Sunday night. But if you can do that," she heard herself say before the words actually registered in her mind, "you're welcome to come with us."

He blinked a few times, looking just as startled by her offer as Celeste felt having said it. "Where are you staying while you're up there?"

Too late to back out now. "The same hotel where they're having the wedding. You can reserve your own room if you want, but you don't have to." - What the hell am I doing? - "Our suite's supposed to sleep eight or something." - Shut up, shut up, shut up! - "There'll be plenty of room."

"Sounds like you girls were planning to live it up." Brian took another bite, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. His expression became guarded. "You sure you don't mind me crashing the party?"

"Nah, it'll be fine," she said without hesitation, a far cry from how she felt. She knew she needed to hesitate and give her mind time to catch up with her traitorous mouth. That would be good. Despite her inner battle to reclaim her common sense, she went on. "Michelle wouldn't know what to do with herself if I told her you were coming with us, she'd be so excited."

His eyes moved heavenward, although he kept his tone pleasant as he muttered "Oh goody." Then he rested his gaze back on her. "What about you?"

She felt like he'd shot a laparoscopic camera out of his eyes and into her soul to search out the truth on his own. Unfortunately she lacked a comprehensive answer, even though she wanted it herself. For the time being she met his stare head-on and went with the one tangible thought among the miasmic mess inside her head. "We haven't really hung out for awhile. I figured it might be fun."

Celeste lost track of how many seconds passed before Brian relaxed. Once he did, he slouched in his chair and clucked his tongue. "You and me, together again, making everybody else at the wedding wonder what the hell's going on and when we started getting along again?" He snickered. "It might distract folks from the main event."

"No wonder you seem to like the idea," she said. Her left eyebrow rose in silent inquiry. Right?

He mirrored her expression for a moment, tried to look innocent a second later, then simply smiled again and left the obvious answer unspoken as well.

Michelle flip-flopped between disbelief and elation upon hearing their traveling duo had upgraded to a trio and that the third party was Brian of all people. Unfortunately it put Celeste in an awkward position. She had no choice but to tell Michelle that Brian had shown up at her house, but she had to do it without revealing his sole motivation for doing so since Michelle, like everyone else, knew nothing about Brian's family.

It proved difficult; Michelle began speculating about the "real reason" Brian had reappeared before Celeste finished relaying the change of plan. Every time Michelle mentioned a revival of the romance that had never actually existed between Brian and Celeste, Celeste cursed Brian and herself. At the same time she wanted to grab Michelle and rattle some reality into her best friend's head or scream until the message got through.

"No, Brian's not attracted to me. Brian doesn't want me. Brian's never wanted me. It just so happens he's the only other human being as neurotic about opening up to people as I am. Right now he'd rather deal with the devil he knows, so quit trying to turn this into a fucking Days of Our Lives episode!"

Instead Celeste clamped her jaw shut and allowed herself to speak only when repeating the same ten-words-or-less monotone denials to which she always reverted. It's not like that; it's just one weekend, no big deal; there's not much to it; he only agreed because it's cheaper this way; yadda yadda yadda.

Michelle hardly acted convinced, but eventually she moved on to other topics about other people, then onto what they still planned to do that weekend and what might have to be adjusted due to Brian's accompaniment.

"So you told him?"

Celeste flinched. "No, but Elizabeth made me realize how unlikely it is he hasn't found out about my work on his own already. He's probably just keeping it to himself until I bring it up on my own. That way he doesn't look like an opportunist."

Scowling, Michelle asked, "You don't think that's why he's coming with us, do you?"

Although Celeste appreciated Michelle's apparent disdain, and even though she suspected it was definitely something Brian considered before agreeing, Celeste shrugged. "Nah, Brian's just being Brian."

But Brian "just being Brian" was disconcerting enough. However, the current Brian never should have showed up at her house, shared a litany of otherwise lockbox thoughts and feeling from the comfort of her lap, or crashed in the bedroom next door to her own. No matter how Celeste tried to rationalize it, Brian was definitely not acting like his old self, post-friendship meltdown. Instead she felt stuck in a production, their cast of two playing out "What Could've Been, If Only..."

She pushed her musings aside. She just needed to set some ground rules for the weekend, and for the remaining time Brian wanted access to her. And she knew, no matter what, that nothing had, or could ever, change between them. She still pondered what they were, but she understood well what they were not.

She had to remember that, and she had to keep the emotional distance between them accordingly. God knew she'd never had him when they were kids, and it still nearly killed her to lose what little he'd given of himself to her the first time.

Never again.