Rating: PG. Cussing and descriptions of domestic violence.

AN: I wrote this for my creative writing class. This came after Reading People, but it's not necessary to read RP to understand this story. Basically, only the three characters with all the dialogue are shared between the two stories. I'm not sure if the title is going to stick, but I can't think of another one so I'm sticking with it. Constructive criticism is welcome.

"It's a dusty little hole-in-the-wall, Ari," Remy sighs distractedly, voice crackling over the phone line. "When will you get here?"

"Soon," Ari winces, turning away from her cell to cough into her shoulder. She'll never get used to this, always getting a sore throat after even the tiniest bit of crying.

"Well, it's not our order," Remy barks in her ear. "We don't sell overpriced prissy shit like that here. Send it back."

Ari shifts the phone to her other ear. "What?" she asks, confused.

"Not you, I was talking to RJ."

"Oh," Ari murmurs meekly. "Ok. I'll see you in a little while, then?"

"Yeah, sure," Remy replies. A crash sounds in the background. "Shit," Remy yells, "I have to go."

Ari opens her mouth to say goodbye but the dial tone buzzes first.

'Hole-in-the-wall' was right… Ari thinks to herself, nose automatically wrinkling in disgust at the worn wooden door and grime-covered window, the name of the bar almost obscured by the dirt: Snake's Watering Hole.

She hesitates before stretching a sleeve down over her hand to pull the door open, thinking, this is an old sweater, anyway. Inside is dark, and she stops to let her eyes adjust, fighting the urge to gag at the smell of stale cigarette smoke and beer.

"Hey," a gruff voice calls from behind the bar. Ari stiffens, preparing to fight off any number of crude remarks. Instead he says "Remy's in the back," jutting his chin toward a dark corner of the bar.

Shadows move and Remy steps into the light, sympathy etched on her face. The hug is instinctive, a tradition of sorts between them.

"That bad, eh?" Remy murmurs in Ari's ear.

A nod is all she can muster, face buried in the other woman's neck.

"Alright," Remy says in her Take Charge voice, "spill." With that, Ari is guided into a chair while Remy takes her seat.

The sudden bang of Remy's hand hitting the table makes Ari jump. Remy doesn't notice. Instead she calls to the barkeep, "Oi, Surf Shop!"

"What is it Remy?" the bartender sighs, exasperated. He doesn't even bother to look up from wiping down the counter.

"Whatever Ron Jon. How 'bout something sharp and peppy over here, eh?" Turning back to Ari, she continues "You want your usual from that frau-frau veggie place I hate? We finally got in the first order of those vegetarian chicken things you like."

Ari blinks in surprise. I thought she was kidding when she said she'd buy those just to get me here… "Uh –" she stops to clear her throat before continuing. "Yeah – yes. That sounds good."

Remy smiles, a patronizing hint of sarcasm twisting her lips. Ari is reminded of the times when they first met when turning 'yeah' into 'yes' garnered comments like Drop the prim and proper shit, Ari. This is a bar, 'yeah' is a perfectly acceptable word here.

"So," Remy asks, leaning back in her chair. "What did you want to talk about?"

Ari squirms under her gaze, uncomfortable. "I-I need to uhm…" she fidgets with a napkin, clearly preparing to make confetti, when Remy's hand covers her own.

"Stop, ok?" Remy leans close over the table, peering into her friend's eyes. "I know I'm hard on you most of the time but I still care, you know?"

Ari nods, not trusting her voice. "I…I want to break up with Brian," she whispers, voice breaking on the last word, a name she's come to dread. "I need to break up with Brian." Her voice is stronger the second time, as though each time she says it, it gets easier.

Remy's hand jerks up, away from the slender blonde's as though burned. That statement was obviously the least expected. "Wow," she murmurs, "I mean– just, wow."

The smile that comes next is barely more than a twitch of Ari's lips but, for the topic, and for her, it might as well have been a guffaw. "Yeah, I know- I'm actually willing to break up with him. It's unprecedented," she murmurs bitterly.

"Yeah…" Remy agrees, lost in thought. She starts at the tinkling of the bell over the door, a few of the Happy Hour regulars wandering in. "Do you want to move this into my office?"

"That would be good," Ari whispers, watching the newcomers out of the corner of her eye. One of them, tall and built like a lumberjack on steroids, winks at her, laughing out loud when Ari flinches.

"Pig!" Remy yells, standing up hard enough to shove her chair back against the wall. "Read the sign over the bar," she growls over the loud patrons and jukebox music. "Deal with it, or deal with him," she orders the man, pointing to RJ standing behind the bar, his arms bulging with muscles. "Don't make me tell you again. I'll report you for lewd conduct and you know it."

Pig follows her finger to the sign between mirrors behind the bar, reading it with a snort before sitting down:

Respect ALL patrons of this feminist woman-owned

and operated business


get your ass kicked by

the pro-feminist bartender.

"Alright, come on," she says, standing. "Hey, RJ," she calls across the room. "We're heading back to my office."

"Got it, Bosco," he yells back. "I'll bring the sandwich back in a few. Drinks?"

"Oh," Ari says, startled. "Water is fine."

"Just a water and cola, RJ," Remy calls over her shoulder, not seeing RJ's curt nod. She ushers Ari into the back hall, away from the prying eyes of the younger Happy Hour drunks who still cruise for women.

Remy walks into the cramped and cluttered office ahead of Ari, not bothering to turn the light on before walking across the room to a large terrarium. "You still have Snake?" Ari asks, surprised.

She doesn't need a reply: the light mounted on the wall over the terrarium gives off enough light to see the slender shadowy body moving through the plants in the cage, curling around Remy's arm up toward her shoulder. "Do you want to hold her?" She asks, turning slowly. "Careful, she's gotten a lot bigger since the last time you saw her."

"Yeah," Ari nods. "I can see that." Taking a step forward, she reaches out slowly, letting Snake wind around her arm before lifting the last couple feet of slithering reptile from Remy's waist. "She's really gotten big," Ari grunts under the weight, sinking onto the couch against the wall, careful not to jostle the reptile wrapped around her too much.

"So," Remy says, sitting in the chair she cleared before. "You want to keep talking about Brian?"

Ari's mouth runs dry, her heart beats faster and her palms get sweaty. "Uhm," she murmurs before breaking out in a coughing fit. She can't catch her breath, and poor Snake is all she can think through the convulsions Remy hands her a water bottle and Ari downs half of it in one gulp. "Thanks," she rasps, clearing her throat. "Anyway, you remember how he bought me that kitten last time?"

Remy nods, "It was about a month ago, and you said it had to be the smallest kitten you'd ever seen. What happened?"

"Well– I think he killed her. I came home from work one day, and she didn't meet me at the door like she had been, so I asked him, you know? I said, 'where's Stella?' and he's just like 'She died. I buried her out back so you wouldn't have to see the body.' And when I asked how she died…he blew up at me, and I just…there's no other reason why he'd blow up like that…he wouldn't have done that if she'd just gotten outside by accident and hit by a car, or something," she sniffles, snatching a tissue from the box on the end table.

Remy exhales in one sharp breath, anger flashing in her eyes. "Christ, but he's an asshole," she mutters under her breath. She shakes her head, slumping low in her chair. "What happened then?"

"I dunno, it was suddenly like we'd never had Stella at all," Ari replies, ignoring her friend's comment. I already know what he is…finally. Isn't that why I'm here? "I didn't mention her at all because of what he might do," she continues quietly. "He didn't mention her either. I think he went through the whole house and picked up all her toys and stuff so there weren't any reminders or anything…it was like every sign of her suddenly evaporated." You're rambling. Slow down. She inhales deeply, trying to slow her pulse.

"Her bowls were gone," Ari continues. "Even the toys that always wound up under the couch." She shakes her head, lost in thought. "The crazy thing is, he seems like a really nice guy sometimes, you know? Like that, with Stella, if she'd gotten outside and attacked by a dog or something, it'd be really sweet, all the stuff he did, if he wasn't so…you know. What happened next, though…" Ari trails off, shaking her head. "I got home from work yesterday and he was all excited about something and led me downstairs. There was another kitten sitting there in the middle of the floor, playing with this feather toy he'd rigged up off the edge of the bar. She looked exactly like Stella, except for this little streak of white up her chest. It just…I couldn't do that, not again, and it just…occurred to me that, maybe that's the way everybody was feeling about me being with him…I couldn't think of anything to say so I asked if she'd had her shots and he said I could do that…mostly 'cause he doesn't have a job, probably," Ari stops in a huff, shifting Snake so she can stretch out on the couch.

"Did you name her yet?" Remy asks quietly, slowly rubbing her hands together as though to warm them…or as though anxious to exact revenge.

"No," Ari shakes her head, staring up at the ceiling. "He suggested naming her after Stella, but I said their personalities are too different, or something…"

"Where is she now?" Remy asks, concern threading into her voice

"She's over at Rabbit's. I figured it'd give me a good excuse to hang out over here."

"Rabbit? As in Johnny O'Hare?" Remy asks, surprised. "I didn't even know he was still in town."

"What," Ari says, "you mean he hasn't been down here to ask you out again?"

"Gods, no!" Remy shrieks, laughing, "I think he got enough of an earful the last time he tried that."

"What was it you said again?" Ari asks, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

"Oh, I think it was something like…'O'Hare, this is the last time I'm going to be nice about this….No, I will not go out with you. As for why: I am a lesbian. I date womenonly women.' And then, I started to leave for whatever, class or something, and he starts to open his mouth, and I'm just like 'And no, you cannot watch.' Ugh, those were the good ol' days, you know?"

"Yeah," Ari sighs, lost in thought. "I look back on it, everything with Brian and all now," she continues as though she didn't hear Remy. "It's just like…'What the hell was I thinking?' I mean, I stayed. I stayed, even…" She trails off, unwilling to say it out loud. "Well, you know the things he did."

"What was it that 'happened next'?" Remy asks quietly.

"It was like that saying, 'out of sight, out of mind', you know? Stella wasn't there anymore, so I just forgot she ever was…" Ari pauses for a second, hand shaking as she wipes at her eyes. "It's a lot harder to forget with an almost exact replica sitting in front of you. I mean, I'll look at the kitten he got after Stella, and I'll see the white on her chest and think 'Stella doesn't have white there, it should be grey' or something and I'll remember. I'll remember it was Brian who-…it broke the cycle. I couldn't deny the fact that he was doing all these things he shouldn't because Stella was suddenly back but not…" she sniffles, a strangled sob following close behind. "Remy – take her, I can't-I need to-" Ari wheezes, unable to move Snake off her chest to sit up.

Remy jumps forward, lifting the tangle of python onto the floor, Ari shooting upright, feet swinging over the edge of the battered sofa. Remy sits next to her, one hand at the nape of the woman's neck, applying gentle pressure. "Push against my hand, ok?" Remy asks quietly, lightly stroking her friend's hair.

Several minutes pass before Ari's breathing returns to normal, and she relaxes, doubled over on the couch, head on her knees. "Where do I go from here?" Ari asks, her voice flat.

"You need a plan," a familiar voice rumbles gently from the doorway. Remy raises her eyebrows, surprised. Ari looks up cautiously. "Money," he sighs, dropping into Remy's desk chair, elbows on his knees, before continuing, "Cash, preferably, though a debit account could work - especially if it was under someone else's name. A place to stay he won't know to look for you – or a relative or a friend to stay with who won't give you up if he does come looking there." At the astonished looks on their faces, he merely shrugs before explaining, "My sister was in a bit of a tight spot not unlike yours not long ago. I went with her to a counselor at Safe House, read through a pamphlet they had there, advice on how to get out of an abusive relationship. I guess it stuck," he says with another shrug.

Remy opens her mouth to speak, but he shakes his head, holding up a hand to silence her. "Here," he hands Ari a slim envelope, "My sister and some friends of ours have started saving up for just such an occasion…we each carry a bit of what we've saved up on normal days, just in case."

"RJ…" Remy murmurs, speechless, staring in shock from the burly bartender to the thick wad of hundred dollar bills Ari pulled from the envelope.

"Yeah, I know…you never would've suspected," he smirks, standing. "Good luck to you," he says, nodding to Ari before heading for the door. "Oh, and Remy? I'll be expecting a raise on Monday," he calls back before leaving.

"Oh my god…" Ari whispers, counting the money with shaking fingers. "How…? There's over three thousand dollars here, Remy!" she whisper-shrieks in astonishment.

Remy doesn't seem to hear her; instead, she gazes silently at the wad of bills in Ari's hands. "What do you want to do now?" she asks quietly, her eyes gentle when she meets her friend's gaze.

Staring off into space, Ari drags the fan of hundred-dollar bills across the back of her hand. "I want out," she declares, "now."

"When?" Remy asks, methodically cracking the knuckles on both hands.

Straightening the stack of hundred dollar bills in her hands, Ari folds them in half and slides the wad into her pocket before replying, "Yesterday."

The key slides into the lock easily, surprising Ari; she had suspected it to be harder. Pushing the door open cautiously, as though she expected Brian to be waiting on the other side, Ari hesitates before stepping over the threshold, Remy and RJ not far behind.

The small house is unremarkable, yesterday's newspaper strewn across the coffee table, a condensation ring dried through the middle of a photo of President bush, a beer can resting on it's side as though just tipped over; it's obvious where the smell of stale beer comes from. That's one thing we always had in common, a dislike for George Dubya. Ari brushes the thought aside at the gentle touch on her arm and turns to find Remy looking at her questioningly. "Come on," she sighs wearily. "My stuff's all upstairs," she says, leading them up the stairs. I wouldn't want anything down here, anyway.

Upstairs is quiet, as though no one is home. Really? Ari wonders. Could he really be gone, in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon? A loud snore from behind a closed door answers the question for her...no such luck.

"Come on," Remy whispers, gently ushering her toward the door at the end of the hall. "Let RJ wake him up."

"No need," Ari whispers back. She pushes the door open to reveal a second bedroom-office. "I keep all my clothes in here."

"Well that certainly makes things easier," RJ mutters, standing in the doorway. "Let's get started." They each set down the cardboard boxes rolls of packaging tape and set to work.

Brian didn't wake up as they carried the boxes of clothes, books and keepsakes downstairs and out to Remy's van. He didn't hear when Ari collected the cat toys from the living room, even the ones with bells and crinkling paper, the eleven pound bag of cat food from the kitchen. The cat's food and water bowls from the kitchen's tile floor, Ari's great grandmother's 'nice' silverware set from the creaky cabinet drawer, the music box she got for her twelfth birthday from the glass shelf in "their" bedroom.

It all went out the door, and he didn't even roll over.