“Magic is real!” Emily blurted out, awkwardly trying to hold the bed’s comforter around herself while also attempting to pull on her pair of panties. “Magic is real, and we have it, somehow.”
“Emily—” A naked and rather buxom girl with bright red hair hissed out a warning and a meaningful look.
Rebecca pretended not to notice, instead withdrawing a small bra from the bag of Emily’s clothes she’d brought and holding it up for her friend to put on next. As someone who’d always believed in magic, Rebecca was excited but not shocked. She was of course intensely interested in how Emily had managed to get herself mixed up in magical shenanigans, and knew that it wasn’t something Emily would ever be able to keep from her.
“Magic,” Megan repeated.
“You’re… Steph’s friend, right?” Emily shot Megan a guilty look. “The one from the other hotel?”
“I’m Stephanie’s best friend,” Megan asserted, putting her hands on her hips.
Across the room, the nude girl with red hair slightly narrowed her eyes, though it seemed like no one but Rebecca noticed that particular little reaction.
“Right, okay,” Emily dropped the comforter in favor of trying to wrap one arm protectively around her breasts while accepting the offered bra with the other. “We can probably tell you, then. Just—hey you won’t tell anyone else this, right?”
“Umm well, no one would believe me?” Megan remarked, sounding more than a little skeptical herself. “Hah. I mean, everyone already thinks I’m like, the big dumb otaku doofus.”
“You’re not dumb, and you’re not a doofus,” Rebecca corrected the girl in a patient voice. “You’re a good friend to Stephanie, and a good friend to me, so please don’t speak about yourself like that.”
Taking Emily by the shoulders and gently pivoting her friend away from the others, Rebecca began to assist the much shorter girl in correctly wearing her undergarments. Putting on a bra with one hand while distracted and the other hand was still in the way seemed to be more than Emily could manage at once, and Rebecca didn’t know if she should be amused or exasperated.
“Okay, so yeah,” Emily chattered away. “There’s this magic charm—it’s a harem charm, and it makes you hot for Brian. An-and maybe each other, I dunno? Uh, like you got zapped by the charm, and now you’re part of the magic stuff, and it’ll like, get stronger if you kiss Brian? Your hair changes colors first, and then—”
“Wait, what anime is this from?” Megan asked, looking from girl to girl but trying not to stare at Kelly, who didn’t seem to feel any compunction to cover up or get dressed.
“No I mean like, it’s real, it’s this real magic sort of thing and we’ll maybe get powers!” Emily exclaimed. “Like, you see how my hair’s blue? Kelly’s red, Stephanie’s pink, it’s totally this sentai team sort of motif and—”
“Emily,” Rebecca carefully clasped the back of the brassiere closed. “How long has this been going on? Was this why you always had a crush on—”
“No, no!” Emily haphazardly twisted to see behind her. “Uhh, go one tighter. Use the next notch.”
“That’s too tight,” Rebecca frowned. “This bra isn’t the right size for that, it pinches at your skin when—”
“It doesn’t feel right when it’s this loose,” Emily protested, fumbling her arms behind her to adjust it herself.
“It’s not even loose at all!” Rebecca swatted Emily’s hands. “It’s fitting perfectly.”
“Will you—will you just—no, this wasn’t why I had feelings for Brian,” Emily growled, unhooking her bra and then exhaling so that she could pull the straps as tight as they could go.
“She’s right—your bra’s too small,” the red-haired girl commented. “Maybe if you’d give them some room to grow, they’d—”
“Not funny, Kelly,” Emily shot the naked girl a dark look. “Don’t… ever joke about them. Please.”
“...Sorry,” Kelly nodded, actually looking chastised. “Didn’t mean anything by it, it was just a joke. Sorry.”
Rebecca looked about in surprise as the interplay, unable to figure out their relationship. Emily’s temper didn’t completely fly off the handle at this Kelly girl treading into the big no-no zone of mentioning her smaller-than-average breasts. That would normally have made anyone instantly an enemy for life, because Emily knew how to nurse grudges like none other. For her part, Kelly seemed like the type to live large and sass whoever they pleased, so something about the heartfelt apology came off as… uncharacteristic. Rebecca felt sure that Emily and Kelly were new acquaintances, but apparently they were already close. Something about Emily immediately warming up to a girl like this seemed just as strange and outlandish as Emily suddenly discovering magic.
“Like I was saying, I’ve always liked Brian,” Emily explained. “Since like, day one. I liked Brian before it was cool. The whole harem magic thing is a, uh, a recent development? I think I got zapped when I gave him the charm, like, last week.”
“The charm got me when Brian offered me his spare convention badge,” Kelly admitted with reluctance. “Felt like it stung me.”
She didn’t want to tell us about this, Rebecca observed. She’s speaking up to help support Emily’s story, to help give it more weight. Emily’s important to her.
“Do… we need to figure out how to free both of you from this?” Rebecca asked, looking from Emily to Kelly with a weak smile.
““No,”” Emily and Kelly replied in unison.
“Are you sure?” Rebecca tapped her lip, holding up the lanyard so that the harem charm next to the battered convention pass was clearly visible to everyone in the room. “It sounds as if—”
“Rebecca, no. Just, no,” Emily said firmly. “I’ve always wanted this, always fantasized about this sort of… thing. It’s Brian, it’s Brian and for real, actual magic sorta stuff.”
“Wait, this is—” Megan spoke up. “This is for real?”
“Definite no from me, as well,” Kelly said. “Brian, Stephanie, even Emily—I need all three of them in my life like this. To unfuck my life from what it was, from where it was going.”
Their dialogue seemed to be happening on multiple levels, and Rebecca found herself getting distracted by the spiritual side of things, where Emily was symbolically a flowing body of water and Kelly seemed to be a burning red flame nervously peeking over the edge of a crater at her. This wasn’t happening visually, not exactly, but something about their magical forms left strong impressions to that order.
After all, if Emily’s a river—if EMILY RIVERA is a river—then she’s a pretty confused one, Rebecca thought to herself with a wry smile.
The path of the blue water was impossibly convoluted, snaking in every which direction and even seeming to stubbornly struggle uphill sometimes rather than follow the natural laws of flowing water. It somehow seemed like a very Emily representation. Kelly, on the other hand, featured a marked difference between her affected nonchalance as she stood there naked and the incredible wariness she displayed from the lip of the crater she hid within. Something about the scorching red entity seemed very out of her element and skittish of making a connection to Rebecca.
“Are you… a volcano?” Rebecca asked, quirking her head at Kelly.
“Starfall, actually,” Kelly answered with an uneasy expression. “Fallen star… sorta thing.”
“Oh! Of course,” Rebecca nodded to herself. “That’d explain it. That makes sense.”
“That explains… what?” Megan mumbled in confusion, unable to keep up.
“Wait, what are you?” Emily asked, fighting her way into a small T-shirt. “You feel like a naturey sort of… wilderness sort of thing?”
“Trees?” Rebecca guessed. “Dark forest?”
“Wait, did you get black for your color?!” Emily demanded angrily, glaring out the neck of the shirt she hadn’t quite pulled on right yet. “Because, if you got the coolest color, we’re trading. I’ve had dibs on black since like, forever.”
“No, I think it’s maybe… brown?” Rebecca pondered. “Brownish? Burnished? Russet, or chestnut maybe? Just saying brown doesn’t sound quite right.”
“Okay,” Emily conceded. “I guess that fits. It’s not too different from your actual hair color, though, so—wait, is that why you got your powers right away? Because of your natural hair color?!”
“Powers?!” Megan looked from face to face with helpless envy. “You guys…!”
“I think… it’s just something I was already in tune with?” Rebecca tried to assuage Emily’s wild suspicions. “These feelings, anyways. I was always ready to believe in things, and then all of the sudden… they started believing in me back?”
And the first thing I commune with on a higher level is EMILY?! Rebecca tried not to laugh at the thought. Of course it is! I’d rather be a part of this with Emily than get a response from an angel, or a demon, or an ancient spirit. She’s my little Emily!
“That… makes some weird sorta sense,” Emily righted her shirt and then smoothed out the folds. “I mean, I knew you were always… special.”
“Thank you!” Rebecca beamed at the compliment. “But! What are we doing about all of this crazy magic stuff?!”
“Uhhh, well I don’t know, but don’t tell Brian about it,” Emily pleaded. “Please. We think he’d, uh, like freak out if he thought there was this unnatural force affecting us, and—”
“That seems fair, though,” Rebecca countered. “He’s—”
“Only affecting us in a totally good way, though!” Emily said quickly. “I swear. Completely swear. You’ll probably be able to see the moment he gets back. Soon as you look at him, the magic’ll like, dazzle you.”
That sounded concerning. With a small frown, Rebecca opened herself fully to the dreamwalk again and swept her attention around for Brian. It was almost unnecessary—he was close. Not in a physical sense that implied his distance from her or approximate location, but in a destined to arrive way, like they were about to meet. Brian was power, Brian was the hidden canvas that their dreamworld was painted upon, and associating his presence with something on that sort of scale inspired a little awe. Moreover, he would be here soon, and with him came a swirling halo of pink fire that seemed to wave in her direction.
Stephanie? Rebecca’s frown began to disappear.
If Brian was a font of ethereal power, Stephanie was a hungry flame drawing fuel directly from the source. The girl’s happiness blazed bright and rich with color, and as the two drew near, the conflagration began to spread, licking at the burnt sienna of Rebecca’s ancient branches and lighting them up. Closer examination revealed that Stephanie’s fiery cheer wasn’t actually burning Rebecca’s dry wooden representation up, or even following any principles of actual combustion. It was simply there, dancing merrily atop the branches and leaping about, warm and pleasant in a giddy, excited way.
“They’re almost here,” Rebecca informed the rest of the group. “Brian and Stephanie.”
“Please please please don’t say anything about this to Brian?” Emily begged, clapping her hands together. “Not asking you to lie—just, can you not say anything about it right away? Can you just watch for a bit and see before you decide to do anything drastic like—”
A polite knock sounded on the door of the hotel room.
“Please? You promise Rebecca? You promise, right, you promise?” Emily pleaded, rushing over to the door. The petite girl’s body language implied she was going to stand firm at the threshold and let no one enter until Rebecca agreed to remain silent about her discoveries. “You can talk about how he’s got this harem now, because he totally does. Just don’t say anything about magic just yet? Please please please?”
“I can wait and see how it’s affecting everyone?” Rebecca gave her a reluctant nod. “But… I’m not going to lie to Brian.”
“Wait—what if this charm thing affects you, once you lay eyes on—” Megan started to say.
“Nahahaha! It’s too late for you, my pretty!” As if worried that Megan would finish her sentence, Emily dramatically yanked the door handle and then threw the door open, revealing Brian and Stephanie.
“Oh—hey!” Brian greeted.
“Megan!” Stephanie chirped in surprise. “Rebecca!”
“Hi-hi!” Megan waved.
“Hello, and—good morning!” Rebecca smiled, struggling to not stagger back as she was nearly overwhelmed.
The pair entering the room seemed a rather ordinary sight; a guy and a girl in rather plain and unassuming workout clothes, one carrying a small stack of takeout cartons and the other with a cup holder filled with drinks. To Rebecca’s dreamsense, however, it was like she was suddenly standing inches away from a fifteen-foot-tall bonfire. Their force of presence was such that everything nearby was caught up in a blazing conflagration of hot pink fire.
...That’s all STEPHANIE, Rebecca realized, just barely managing to keep from raising a hand to shield her vision from the imagined light.
Brian was cloaked in Stephanie’s flames, wreathed in them—the fire of her emotions rolled and roiled off of him and seemed to fill the hotel. Stephanie’s fire was burning directly from the source, and the brilliance of her great mood lit up the room with pure unbridled happiness like daybreak. Brian was fueling her feelings, feeding them, and it was plain as day that Stephanie was completely, totally head-over-heels in love with him.
“Rebecca—it’s you!” Stephanie exclaimed, pointing a smile at her that was so bright it had Rebecca feeling giddy. “I was wondering who it was—I’m really happy that it was you!”
“Yes! Um, thank you, I think?” Rebecca herself was a naturally cheery person, but engaging with Stephanie right now felt like she was exposing herself to dangerous levels of dopamine. “I was... so surprised, by all of this!”
“Really sorry you had to see, um, all that, last night, Rebecca,” Brian apologized with a sheepish smile. “The door was locked, but I didn’t know that Kelly’d given Emily one of the keycards...”
Oh goodness. OHHH MY GOODNESS. The ancient forest filling Rebecca’s mind seemed to come alive the moment she reexamined Brian. Dry old tree hulks pulsed with new color and vibrancy, shifting and groaning with rich russet hues. They creaked and stretched their limbs, hungry for more as Rebecca found herself experiencing being dazzled by Brian, as Emily had put it.
It was strange and nice, refreshing, because it felt like all of her previous impressions of the guy were ever so slightly rearranged. Like Brian was a three-dimensional puzzle that was only now turning over to display new perspectives in her mind. The dense thicket of trees that filled her mindscape—viewed now from a new angle—revealed a path that she hadn’t been able to see before.
But… but, what? No? Rebecca blinked in confusion. That isn’t how that works! Brian isn’t even my type!
“I’m kind of… responsible for the way Chloe flipped out and lost it there,” Brian continued, “and I’m really sorry you had to deal with all the fallout of that.”
“No no no!” Rebecca quickly shushed him in a fluster, trying to ignore the way her loins lit up with warmth when he addressed her so intimately. I mean, no no no not INTIMATELY, he’s just, um um um he’s just talking to me! Directly! This is completely normal!
“You were just… you were doing your own thing, and that was just an accident!” Rebecca said with an embarrassed smile, trying and failing not to remember the sight of Brian’s prodigious member rising up from his lap. “Chloe was upset last night, but I’m sure she’ll be feeling better and come apologize sometime today. She’s a tough cookie!”
“Chloe, apologize?” Emily’s face screwed up with disgust and bewilderment. “Rebecca, are you on drugs? Because you shouldn’t be doing drugs, drugs are bad, Rebecca!”
“Drugs are bad, Emily!” Rebecca shot back, relieved to be able to lean on the familiar phrase they used every time they joked about doing drugs. She felt strangely self-conscious and tongue-tied around Brian now, like his attention carried far, far more weight than she ever remembered. Goodness…
“Well, anyways. Breakfast, anyone?” Brian asked, giving the girls an amused glance as he set down the breakfast containers on the dresser. “S’nice to meet you for real this time, Megan.”
“Uhhh, yeah!” Megan replied with a nervous laugh. “Sorry for, uh, kinda shovin’ Steph on top of you back then.”
How does this charm effect thing make me go from thinking of Brian as this total non-combatant in my life to suddenly seeming… mm-mmm, yummy in my tummy? Rebecca wondered to herself as she let her gaze wander up and down Brian’s figure. Rich brown swathes of new health climbed up the bark of long-silent timbers. He doesn’t ACTUALLY appear different than normal, but now for some reason it’s like, WOW. His eyes are so pretty, and his whole everything is just this dreamboat HUNKSAUCE with cherries on top? How did he go from mentally being set aside for Emily… to suddenly being like okay yes I’ll have a helping of that pretty-please?
“Rebecca? Rebecca?” Emily snapped her fingers in an attempt to get her friend’s attention. “Okay. Okay, phew. We definitely got her—she’s with us for sure, now.”
“No way,” Megan squeaked. “Like, the thing? She’s like, mind-controlled? Am I the only one super scare-ified by that?!”
“...Scare-ified?” Stephanie echoed with a curious look. “Do you mean terri—”
“Rebecca—are you okay?” Megan asked in a teasing loud whisper. “Did they, um, did they get you? With the thing?!”
“No, not... quite?” Rebecca slowly shook her head with a sly smile. “I do think I see what they meant, though. I can feel the… potential? Where before, I didn’t feel much of anything at all? It’s weirdly compelling, but I don’t think—”
“What?!” Emily pouted, gesturing insistently at Brian. “Just look at him! Look at him, he’s perfect! Boyfriend material! Prime, grade-A boyfriend man-meat! Nutritious and filling! He’s Brian—he’s, he’s my boyfriend, and he’s perfect in every way!”
“Our boyfriend,” Kelly corrected in a playful tone.
“OooOoooh,” Megan tittered.
“I mean, well I did bring food for everyone,” Brian chuckled, beginning to spread out the containers and open them up. “Thought maybe I ordered too much, but with Rebecca and Megan here, it seems like it all works out perfectly.”
“Do I… have to be part of the harem?” Rebecca asked, not entirely sure if she was joking or not.
“You don’t have to be if you don’t want to be,” Kelly mediated, stepping closer and tugging a wrapped plastic fork free of its plastic.
Although the subtext of her words could easily be misread as hostility, Rebecca could sense Kelly’s ambivalent neutrality—the girl seemed to be genuinely indifferent right now and okay with whatever Rebecca ended up choosing. The girl seemed to be treading carefully and maintaining a bit of distance, unused to being the odd one out within a group.
Also, why on Earth are you still naked?! Rebecca tried not to stare at Kelly. And, no one’s bringing it up, either?!
“No way!” Emily disagreed, pulling drinks free of Stephanie’s drink carrier one by one and passing them out to everyone. “Rebecca’s totally in. Right? Tell ‘em, Steph! Wait a minute—Bri, what are these two?”
“I got some hot cocoa,” Brian explained.
“Wha for?” Emily gave him a puzzled look.
“In case... anyone wanted hot cocoa?” Brian shrugged. “Forgot to pick up drinks at all yesterday, so I figured I might as well cover all my bases today.”
“But… hey, how did you know there would be five of us?!” Emily asked, quirking her adorable features into a suspicious pout.
“I… didn’t?” Brian laughed. “And, there’s six of us, here? Megan, Rebecca, you can have the hot cocoas, if you want. I’m actually feeling more like water after a morning run like that.”
“Oh!” Megan seemed taken aback. “Thank you! You totally didn’t have to—”
“It was such a great run!” Stephanie sighed in a breathy voice. “We went all the way across—”
“No, five of us—I mean five of us in the harem!” Emily rolled her eyes. Her first swig of her coffee seemed to placate her, however, and in no time at all she let out a sigh of contentment and continued to nurse from the styrofoam cup in sip after tiny sip. “We have Rebecca!”
“I would… love if Rebecca was a part of the harem,” Stephanie admitted in a shy voice. “But, it is up to her. I’m not sure that she needs this like we do.”
“I don’t have a harem,” Brian laughed, shaking his head. “This isn’t a harem. Kind of an awkward thing to joke about now that we really do have this... unconventional relationship thing going on, now. No offense, Rebecca—you’re a great friend, I just think it’d be real inappropriate to—”
“Brian, it’s too late—Rebecca’s already in,” Emily argued. “We totally decided for you, while you were gone.”
“I... do really like Rebecca,” Stephanie chimed in. “She saved me!”
“I barely did anything at all,” Rebecca said. “Don’t you two make things difficult for Brian, please!”
“It’s not difficult!” Emily sputtered. “Right? I’m just sayin’—”
“Oh hey, almost forgot to show you guys the big news,” Brian remembered, pulling out a pair of folded newspapers that had been momentarily forgotten beneath one of the breakfast cartons. “You won’t believe who made front page of the Gazette, this morning...”
“Wait, is that—” Rebecca turned a look of astonishment towards Stephanie.
“—Oh my God! STEPHANIE! I can’t believe you—”
“—From that time when we went up the escalators, yeah—”
“—Wow, Steph, they really got your good side, huh?”
“—Right?! Look at that ass. Dat! Ass! Did you realize—”
“—Perfect moment to capture. You can tell she really won over—”
Everyone was excitedly talking at once as Brian proudly held up one copy of the Gazette and passed the other over for Emily and Megan to take a closer look at. This was great— exactly the friendship and camaraderie that Rebecca loved about AnimeCon, and she was incredibly excited that Stephanie’s picture had made the front page. At the same time however, there was a lot more going on here, and Rebecca’s deeper involvement and commitment felt like it was up in the air.
Maintaining a sleepy smile on her face and withdrawing slightly, Rebecca found herself slipping into an introspective fugue.
Me, in a magic harem with them? Me, with Brian? I mean... Brian’s really not my type, at all! Rebecca insisted to herself. He’s just BRIAN, just this friend—this friendly sort of guy to me! Right? He has good looks and yeah he’s great and I can see why EMILY loves him, but he’s not FOR ME! Attraction aside, Brian’s this—this normal, ordinary, well-adjusted guy!
Though the drowsy-seeming Rebecca always remained silent about certain private aspects of her own life, allowing her friend Emily to foster certain assumptions and misunderstandings about her—Rebecca was actually not a virgin. The Mara side of her in fact had a rather bold outlook on sexuality, and she’d shared her tent with several SCE and Daegonhir acquaintances in the past. The traits she normally preferred in a guy just didn’t seem present in Brian at all—Rebecca was drawn to damaged kinds of guys.
Those kind of guys with deep-rooted traumas they compensated for with aggression and bluster. Ones violent with masculine passion, who after sex became brooding, vulnerable young men who needed to be held and comforted. The experience wasn’t complete for Rebecca without that contrasting juxtaposition, without being able to explore both disparate sides of her own dual nature.
Half of her needed sex to be frenzied, vigorous coupling to sate her appetite for that, while the other part of her wanted nothing more than to comfort and nurture poor wounded souls in the aftermath. Rebecca loved rough, intense sex, followed by that contented glow where she’d cradle her partner’s face to her breasts and gently stroke his back, whispering sweet reassurances to him.
None of those late-night camping rendezvous had ever become anything more, and Rebecca wasn’t particularly interested in turning any of them into relationships. She was well aware of—and even pragmatic about—her own peculiar needs. Besides the Mara in her sometimes simply feeling the itch, Rebecca had a certain need to provide affection and intimacy to damaged guys. She harbored no designs to fix these poor, troubled souls—they needed to learn to fix themselves, or they would always rely on someone else—she was just helping them through some of their difficult times. As well as satisfying her own compulsion to help, of course.
What DO I really know about Brian’s personal issues, besides things I’ve heard from Emily? The greedy roots of Rebecca dark forest now seemed eager to sink deeper into exploring the matter. What if... Brian IS my type, and he just buries EVERYTHING deep down? Both his secret inner turmoil AND his masculine desires—and he’s just aching with need for an outlet to vent out both? Wouldn’t unearthing all of THAT be just the most incredible angsty anime sort of—
“Hey,” Kelly asked in a low voice, jolting Rebecca out of her reverie. “You okay?”
“Oh! Yes, I’m fine,” Rebecca put on a weak smile, taking stock of her surroundings again after her slight lapse in attention. Brian seemed to be reading the Gazette’s article about AnimeCon out loud to everyone while Emily and Megan continuously interjected with their own excited comments.
“Sorry, I was… I spaced out of it for a bit! It’s just, there’s so much to consider…” Rebecca murmured softly. “This is… a real life anime harem.”
“Yeah, what is goin’ on with the whole harem thing?!” Megan blurted out. “Omigosh, you totally all are, too—with all of the different body types and hair colors!”
“Wait, what about different personalities?” Brian arched an eyebrow.
“The—the what?” Megan’s face went blank for a moment. “Oh, you mean archetypes! Like, tsundere childhood friend, shy glasses girl, and—”
“Yeah, this is Kelly,” Emily made a voila gesture in Kelly’s direction. “Her anime personality type is big tiddy.”
“Uhhh, yeah I was gonna ask,” Megan snorted. “Is there a reason she’s not wearing any clothes?!”
“I didn’t get dressed yet,” Kelly said with an innocent smile.
“What is actually going on, exactly, Brian?” Rebecca asked. “I’m very curious.”
“Uhh, well I was gonna say it’s a… polyamorous relationship kind of thing? Maybe?” Brian hesitated. “Steph asked me out first, but was also like, we should talk to Kelly about this too, and then well, Rebecca you know how Emily is, she always has to tag along with every little—”
“Say that again!” Emily growled, swiping a plastic fork off of the dresser and wielding it in his direction. “I dare you—just say that again, punk!”
“It’s simple,” Kelly explained. “Emily saw that Brian was open to an unconventional relationship, and decided to put her chips on the table. There were a few kinks to work out, but I feel like things’ve gone pretty well, so far.”
“Oh man, don’t even get me started on the kinks!” Emily squirmed, clapping her hands against her cheeks.
“That all sounds very… brave,” Rebecca said finally, giving Emily her most supportive smile. “I’m really happy for you all!”
“Um… yeah,” Emily paused, actually looking serious for a moment. “Thank you. Really. Rebecca, if you hadn’t helped get me out here to the con…”
Stephanie had been fidgeting in silence all the while as if gathering her courage to speak up, and Rebecca couldn’t help but notice the pink-haired girl creep over to stand beside Kelly in her peripheral vision. When Steph turned slightly and leaned in close to whisper to her friend, it was all Rebecca could do to resist turning her head in that direction for a better look.
“You’d have just stolen a car to get here,” Rebecca chuckled. “Or walked the whole way!”
“Well yeah, but then I’d’ve gotten arrested!” Emily grinned. “Or, even worse—I might’ve been late!”
“Are you sure?” Rebecca heard Kelly ask Stephanie in a low voice.
Seeming to take a moment to steel her nerves, Stephanie finally gave her a decisive nod in reply.
“Okay,” Kelly gave Stephanie a quick hug and then a kiss on the forehead. “I do owe you big from last night. You’ll be fine, it’s gonna go great, and—Steph, I’m proud of you. Sunshine.”
“Kelly Baby,” Stephanie shot back with a shy smile.
This time Rebecca’s curiosity did get the better of her, and she couldn’t help but turn in their direction with a quizzical look. Stephanie blushed furiously and stared down at the floor.
“Hey, everyone—it’s actually kind of stuffy in here,” Kelly spoke up, crossing the room to scoop up a dark pair of crumpled skinny jeans from the floor and start working her way into them. “Why don’t we all go out and eat on the outside patio, by the pool? Get some fresh air, you know—while Brian and Steph shower and get changed.”
Ohhhh. My goodness, Rebecca felt her own face flush with color. Even if I WASN’T basking in a big pink furnace of everything Stephie’s feeling right now, I’d still see what’s going on…
“What?” Emily paused with a piece of bacon partway into her mouth. “I wanna stay with Brian!”
Kelly’s eyebrows rose and she’d just opened her mouth to try again when Rebecca decided to jump in with an assist.
“Oh, well we are running short on time, though, aren’t we?” Rebecca added. “I’m sure checkout’s at noon, or maybe even eleven in most hotels, isn’t it? We need to get a move on! We’re distracting Brian and Stephanie from getting ready when we’re all just milling about chatting, here!”
She was careful to only put a subtle emphasis on the Brian and Stephanie, but the Mara glare she shot at Emily was as unsubtle a hint as she could throw, and Emily’s eyes went wide with sudden realization.
“Oh. Ohhh okay yeah, you’re right!” Emily said quickly, jumping up and closing the breakfast platter cartons so that she could hurriedly stack them up. “Sorry, Bri. Sorry Stephie. We’ll get out of your hair. Eating out by the pool sounds fun!”
“Uhh, yeah!” Megan agreed, throwing Stephanie a bewildered look. “That sounds cool, I guess, so long as you’re really...”
“She’s fine,” Kelly interrupted, tugging on a wide-necked Rolling Phones shirt over her head. “Let’s just give them some space.”
“There’s really no rush,” Brian protested, apparently ignorant to the meaningful glances the girls had been sharing with each other. “We can all eat together, there’s—”
Still blushing intensely, Stephanie sidled over beside Brian and took his hand in hers.
“—Oh,” Brian finished, looking at Stephanie in surprise as he caught on. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh,” Kelly remarked, moving around the room collecting items with a purpose. “Okay, Rebecca, could you grab that big cardboard box? Emily, Megan—get all the food and stuff. Let’s throw everything else in the box, clear out all of everyone’s junk in the room, and let’s get going.”
Are they… really going to…? Rebecca tried not to let her imagination run wild as she hurried to toss Emily’s clothing bag and scattered costume pieces into the large cardboard box—but Rebecca’s imagination was a lot stronger than her resolve.