A/N: Insanity continues to reign on the real life home front, so it looks like updates may stay a little slow for the time being. I'll try to keep it less than a month though. (I know that's not great, but I don't dare promise better at the moment.) Thanks for sticking with it despite the delays.
The friendship that can cease has never been real.
- Saint Jerome, Letter
As Brian zipped the garment bag around his suit and hung it over the closet door, he felt like a skydiver who knew before he ever pulled the chord that his chute wouldn't open. He tried to pin down the source of his unease and why, without any provocation, he felt it only a couple hours before he was supposed to head to Celeste's place. The more he considered it, the less sense it made. Celeste had offered him a ride and a room upstate for Heather's wedding, and they had gotten along fine the night before she extended the invitation. If he changed his mind once they got there and shacked up with someone else, or if he focused on Michelle or any of their other mutual friends the whole time, he doubted she'd care.
In fact, he was willing to bet Celeste not only expected him to do his own thing. She may even encourage it.
Brian scowled. Without a clear goal for the weekend, he still knew accomplishing anything would be a hell of a lot harder with Michelle mixed into the equation. Celeste had turned Michelle into her foxhole by Spring Break of eleventh grade. At the time Michelle had been clueless that her new "best friend" had repeatedly used her presence as a social partition. No doubt Celeste had perfected the technique since then considering her knack at going incommunicado at will, and nary a peep would be heard until she chose to reappear. Hell, Celeste had kept her growing notoriety as an author from the old crew. That took talent.
But he expected nothing less from a manipulator extraordinnaire. Of course she still directed - or misdirected, as he suspected in this case - everyone around her. Not that it bothered him; most people who adopted a pack mentality, his old crew included, made it too easy. He, however, prided himself on independent thought. And he always won when he took on Celeste and her brand of psychosomatic entertainment.
What was the game this time? Aside from Michelle, how many tools did she have at her disposal to avoid him, especially if he stuck it out and bunked with her and Michelle the entire weekend? He speculated on her other options but came up blank. Then Brian allowed himself one minute to consider that she may not try to keep him in a safe zone at all. Inconceivable. One way or another, she'd work from behind some type of emotionally defensible position. He doubted she knew how to operate any other way. Now he just had to make sure the wall she tried to build between them had a crack in it somewhere.
Michelle waved and hopped down from the porch as soon as Brian parked his truck. He left his bag in the passenger seat for the moment so he could hug the incoming blonde.
"Oh my God, look at you." Michelle let go and stepped back, then laughed. "Still trying to be a mountain man? I thought you'd at least shave for the wedding."
Brian ran a hand over his goatee and sent her a mock scowl. "Woman, I'll have you know I just trimmed it this morning." He gave Michelle a thorough once-over. Unlike Celeste and him both, Michelle had hardly changed at all since graduation. Michelle was still short, skinny, looked younger than him even though she was a full year older, and she still fiddled with her glasses when she felt excited. Judging by the expression on her face, she remained unchanged internally as well. "You look good, baby. So how've you been?"
Twenty minutes later he remembered why everyone used to wait until she was on the telephone to ask Michelle such general questions. At least then he could've put the receiver down and done other stuff while she talked and talked and talked. Rather than try to keep up with her soliloquy, Brian kept half his attention on any opening in which he could cut while he walked back to his truck, grabbed his bags, and placed them on the porch before sitting down on the top step beside them.
It felt like ten more minutes passed before Michelle paused, giving him an opening. He took it before she could start up again. "So where's Tweedle Dum hiding?" He jerked his thumb toward the front door. "She in there?"
"Yeah, she's double-checking everything. Oh, I almost forgot." Michelle pointed to the garage. "She said if you got here while she was on the phone, you can go ahead and put your stuff in the back. We'll be leaving pretty soon."
Brian noticed the back hatch of a black Lincoln Navigator was already open, and two bags sat side by side on the floorboard and a garment bag hung from a hook above the left back window. A few toiletry bags and cosmetic cases sat in racks mounted on each wall behind the windows. In fact the SUV's back compartment looked as though it had been customized specifically to be an oft used traveling vehicle in which maximizing storage space proved mandatory. Brian chortled. Either Celeste did a lot of shuttling for her kids and their friends, or the woman was way too anal about organizing her grocery bags to go to all this trouble.
Michelle began another monologue as Brian transferred his duffel bag to the floor and hung his suit next to the other plastic garment bag. He blinked. Only two bags? And guessing by the dress he could see through it, that one didn't belong to Celeste.
Rather than wait for her to fall silent, Brian cut Michelle off in mid-sentence. "Should we remind her to get her dress, or is it in her suitcase?" He doubted that though; he had yet to meet a woman who stuffed a semi-formal anything into a bag to iron later unless she had no alternative.
Michelle confirmed it with a shake of her head. "She's gonna get her outfit once we get there."
Ah, that explained it. It made sense too; their small town offered little in the way of shopping. Even his sister had regularly driven fifty miles or more to find a store she considered worth a damn. "So shopping's on the agenda, or is there more stuff planned I should know about?"
Michelle shrugged, but her mischievous giggling spoke volumes. "Yeah, there's other stuff." She started ticking off each item with her fingers. "She'll get her dress and everything she needs to match this afternoon. Plus we've got appointments for manicures, pedicures, and facials tomorrow. Then we'll have to get dressed and get our hair done and stuff like that." She grabbed a handful of her shoulder length locks. "I'm thinking of getting mine highlighted again. Maybe I'll get some layers too. It's been awhile since I've had my hair cut. Well, other than a trim I got a few months ago when my mom took me and..."
Brian tuned Michelle's voice out and focused on pertinent information only. So Celeste's plate for the entire weekend was full. And that meant Celeste's claim that she'd offered him a slot because she'd thought it might be fun for them to hang out again had been total bullshit; it didn't sound like there'd be much time for anything like that to him. He conquered the scowl creeping onto his face, sliding an indifferent expression into its place. He reminded himself he need not feel surprised nor disappointed that she'd lied to him. It just meant things would follow status quo. Knowing that would make handling Celeste that much simpler.
He glanced over his shoulder again and gave in to the urge to frown for a split second. Still no sign of Celeste. He knew he'd arrived early, but - a watch check confirmed it - they only had five minutes before the trio's agreed-upon departure time. If memory served, Michelle had been the one who couldn't be on time even if it meant her tardiness would bring on the end of humanity. Celeste had always been the anal one when it came to punctuality, whether it was hers or everyone else's. Maybe parenthood had forced her to loosen those standards.
Nope. In fact Celeste appeared with two minutes to spare, toting a leather case with one hand and a set of keys with the other.
"Sorry. I didn't think I was ever gonna get off that damn phone. Hey, Brian." She nodded at him, walked to the front passenger side door, and tossed the case into the seat. Then she stepped back and looked at him. "So, everyone ready to ride?" She rocked back on her heel as her eyes shifted to Michelle. "Or take a nap, maybe?"
Michelle groaned. "I'm going for the nap."
Brian blinked. Nap? Celeste however seemed to expect the answer, and she pointed to the backseat.
"Go for it; it's all yours, hun." While Michelle climbed in, Celeste rolled her eyes before looking his way again. "Michelle was up all night, as usual, so she'll start dragging any time now." Then Celeste cocked her head to the side. "You know, I never asked you whether you're the gotta-always-be-the-driver type or not."
His eyebrows rose, but he otherwise kept his expression neutral. "What do you think?"
She didn't hesitate. "Definitely."
Her eyes went wide. "Really?"
"Really. I don't always have to be the one driving." He shrugged. "It's more like a strong preference than an actual requisite."
Celeste smirked. "Right. In that case," - he barely caught the keys tossed at his chest - "you drive, I'll DJ."
He looked at the keys in his hand before returning his gaze to her, turning his apprehension into a display. "Is it too late to change my mind about who gets to do what?"
"Sorry, but you've doomed yourself to three hours of boy bands and bubble gum pop." Celeste let out a peal of laughter at his mutinous reaction. "I was kidding, Brian, don't worry." She held up one hand as though taking an oath. "I swear I won't play anything too tortuous." She paused, her brow furrowed. "Unless you really deserve it."
As he watched Celeste turn on her heel and slip into the passenger seat, he let out a long breath. Perhaps she wouldn't totally avoid him after all. Not like she could, no matter how hard she tried, while they sat side by side in a car driving a couple hundred miles. And he'd figure out how to handle their other time constraints during the weekend as they came.
Brian snuck another peek at the passenger seat. Even though Celeste continued to speak whenever prompted, she had yet to put down the laptop computer she'd opened as they had pulled out of her driveway. She had not typed a word; her cell phone stayed in one hand while the other hovered over the computer's touchpad. In the thirty minutes since they left, Celeste had received three calls already. One had definitely been from her older daughter. He wasn't sure about the other two. She'd deliberately kept her side of both of those conversations short and vague.
Enough enigmatic crap. Brian cleared his throat and turned the music down as a prelude. "So what're you looking at over there?"
Celeste jerked her head up. Depending on peripheral vision only, he still noticed several conflicting emotions flash behind her eyes. Why did Celeste continue with the secrecy charade? A computer with an open Word document on the screen? Not much mystery there.
After a long hesitation, she lifted her eyes. Her discerning stare hit him as head-on as possible while he still watched the road. "I'm trying to decide if I need to write an epilogue or not."
Brian hummed under his breath. Guess she's tired of the runaround too. "Does it need one?"
When he looked over again, he expected her to show some sign of surprise, even if it was just for show. Instead she repositioned herself sideways in the seat. "My editor thinks so, and my agent says I should probably go with what he says."
For a split second he realized they had to be the only two people alive who would carry on as though they'd already discussed her profession at length, when in reality not a word had been spoken until now. Not that he'd let that stop an interesting conversation. "What do you think?"
She frowned. "I guess my take is if I thought it needed one, I'd have written it from the get-go."
"That makes sense." Brian peeked into the back seat via the rear view mirror; Michelle still lay sound asleep across the seat. "Maybe it's not that you need it, but your editor might've expected one since the other two books had prologues and epilogues."
He waited for any reaction to the all-but-outright admission that he not only knew about her work, but had read it too. Celeste showed no reaction either way. Instead she nodded, her expression contemplative.
"The third one does too actually, so maybe it is more about expectations than necessity." She groaned. "Which brings me back to whether or not I should add an epilogue. And a prologue for that matter."
"How long is it?"
She blinked and pointed to the screen. "You mean this?" He nodded, and she blinked again. "Um..." She went to the touchpad and clicked a few times. "One hundred forty thousand words, give or take."
"I don't see why you'd need to add anything." He shook his head slowly, trying to comprehend what it must take to put that many words together and make them coherent. "Jesus, woman, how the hell do you come up with all that?"
"Well, I always was the storyteller of the group. At least this way I get paid for making shit up, and I don't have to self-destruct or fuck with anyone else's head all the time to do it."
He forced himself to regroup once her blunt explanation sunk in. Both took more than a minute to do. Once Brian collected himself, he opened his mouth, unsure of what to say in response yet wanting to say something nevertheless. "You weren't that bad," he heard himself reply, as though the words came from someone else who only borrowed his voice. He waited, gathered his thoughts again, and continued once he felt more in control of his speech. "And it wasn't 'all the time.' You had your good days."
Regret marred her grateful smile. "Maybe, but I honestly don't remember any good days from back then."
She stiffened. Her face revealed a lot of skepticism and a hint of hope. "Do you?"
"Sure I do. You don't think we'd still be here if it had been all bad, do you?" He leaned back in the seat and switched hands on the steering wheel. "We were all young and stupid, plus things were all fucked up back then. Everybody had their little gremlins, although I admit yours were more...extroverted than most."
"Or maybe you just brought out the worst in me."
He snickered. "There's no 'maybe' to that one, but it went both ways."
She sighed. "Probably."
"Definitely," he said.
Brian grimaced. She knew all of this already; she'd been there too. He and Celeste had always saved the worst they could dish out exclusively for one another. No one else could have handled what they had put each other through. Even though they'd both allowed their banter to become a pathos, it had been a way to vent. A stupid, pointless way to release all the twisted shit rolling around in each of their heads.
When he thought about the past now, all he had to do was subtract Celeste's pathological tendency to warp, manipulate and deceive everyone she knew. Aside from the emotional shape-shifting, everything else about Celeste had been pretty good, and visa versa, he assumed. God knew he'd given at least as good as he'd gotten. Probably better, although his methodology had differed from hers. But they had been, in essence, the same type of beast.
Brian snuck another glance at Celeste. Her exterior had changed since the first time they met. It had matured to match the improvements she'd done within as well. Still she was Celeste at her core. That would never change.
They'd made an instantaneous connection back then, an intrinsic recognition at a time when they had both believed themselves to be a singular anomaly. That connection still existed; that too would remain consistent.
No matter what specifics, good or bad, she'd forgotten over the years, she was still Celeste. Of all the people he knew, he expected her to understand all of this. She had to.