Once in a Blue Moon

Chapter One: The World Spins Madly On

"I woke up and wished that I was dead
with an aching in my head.
I lay motionless in bed.
I thought of you and where you'd gone,
let the world spin madly on.

"And everything that I said I'd do
like make the world brand new
and take the time for you
just got lost and sucked right through the dark.
And the world spins madly on.

"I let the days go by.
I always say goodbye.
I watch the stars from my windowsill,
the whole world is moving, and I'm standing still.
I woke up and wished that I was dead
with an aching in my head.
I lay motionless in bed.
The night is here. The day is gone.
And the world spins madly on.

"I thought of you and where you'd gone,
and the world spins madly on."

--The Weepies

"Oh, fuck!" Connor cursed and flipped the bird as the fifth car swerved out of its way to hit the puddles on the side of the road, and once again he had to jump back suddenly to avoid getting downright splashed with mud. Still, though, he got wet, and he was beginning to look more and more like a hobo. His brown hair, which was now too long to spike, hung dirtily into his bright blue eyes. Decorating the legs of his loose, dark blue jeans were several mud stains that went all the way up to his dark grey T-shirt. Desperately wondering how much dirtier he could get, and if anyone would pick him up at this rate, Connor stuck out his thumb and stared blearily at the oncoming traffic.

He was, quite literally, in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, so it was a surprise when a blue sedan pulled over and a tinted window was slowly rolled down. Connor approached the car warily, even though this was what he'd been hoping to happen for two hours. His instinct kicked in to not trust strangers, so he stayed as far away from the car as he could while still within talking range, forgetting that he was planning on getting into the car with a stranger.

"Hello," said a dark-haired, hispanic teen, who looked to be around Connor's age - maybe almost seventeen or so - when the window was finally rolled down. His face was friendly and bright, one point in his favor when it came to not being a scary criminal. "Need a ride?"

Connor shrugged helplessly. "Yeah," he said, hating himself for having to depend on strangers.

"Hop in. I'm Alejandro, by the way," the guy said. Connor nodded and smiled gratefully, grabbing his suitcase to throw it into the trunk, which the driver had so graciously popped for him.

"Connor," he introduced himself as he got into the car. The guy nodded, and rolled up his window, so Connor pulled his seatbelt over his shoulder. He realized, as the driver started pulling away, that for all he knew this guy could be a serial murderer.

That's what you get for pissing off your uncle, he thought, remembering why he didn't have a ride in the first place.

"So where are you headed to?" the guy - Alejandro - asked, with a slightly west coast accent. Connor noticed, distractedly, that his hair was long, almost to his shoulders, and a shiny black that would put a girl's hair to shame.

"Austin, but anywhere you can take me is fine."

The teen flashed an amused grin that lit up his eyes, and Connor was uncomfortably reminded that what he just said might be construed.

"Just your luck - I'm heading to Austin too, so we're going the same way. Though in the future," he added, his hazel eyes dancing as he glanced over at Connor, "you might not want to say that to a stranger. You're already taking chances with me."

"Ah," Connor said, blanching somewhat and fidgeting with his seatbelt. "Well, the young foolishly believe they're immortal, and all that shit." Connor winced as, once again, he opened his words and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"Yeah, tell me about it."

A small, uncomfortable silence passed until Alejandro reached out and turned on the radio, much to Connor's relief. Rock music came on, and Connor sunk slightly in his seat, his eyelids drooping. He didn't know why, but rock - The Clash especially - made him incredibly sleepy. At first he fought the sleep, because for all he knew Alejandro could kill him in a ditch somewhere, but he'd already gotten in the car with him anyway so he thought it couldn't hurt. Besides, Nickelback suddenly came on and he just couldn't resist the cool embrace of the air-conditioned car. As he drifted off into sleep among the lyrics to "Photograph," Connor reflected that at least he hadn't been picked up by a country music fan.

.ooO.oOo.Ooo.

Connor blinked when he woke up, not sure what he was hearing. "The Artic Monkeys?" he mumbled incoherently when he recognized the sound that was blasting - quite literally - into his ear. He jumped up, scowling and rubbing his head. Sometime in his sleep his head had fallen onto the speaker in the car, and not only had it left marks on his face, but his right ear was ringing terribly.

The car... he thought, remembering whose it was. A sudden burst of hearty laughter to his left made him almost jump - except for the seatbelt - and he turned to see Alejandro's shoulders shaking as he tried to stay on the road.

"My God," he gasped, tearing his eyes away from his passenger and back to the road. "That was so fucking hilarious."

Connor scowled, but it was without much anger behind it and the scowl soon went away as he sank back into his seat. "Yeah, well, it wasn't very hilarious when I woke up."

"Sorry," the driver said again, but Connor didn't really believe him, since he was wiping tears from his face from laughing too hard.

"How far away are we?"

"Not far," Alejandro replied, his mirth subsided into a slight curving on his lips. "Though by 'not far' I mean from where I'm staying, since I don't know about you."

"Don't worry, wherever you drop me off, I'll know where I am," Connor said, waving his hand vaguely at the familiar scenery outside his window. "I've been here many times."

"Ah," Alejandro replied, not probing any further as Connor had feared he would. The talking subsided, and the two teens returned to the slightly uncomfortable silence of strangers who didn't really want to be much more.

Connor spent the rest of the ride towards Austin staring at the window, listening to the radio with half an ear and thinking about the things that had led him, once again, to his brother Jake's apartment in Austin.

The first few times he had been to Austin had been touristy trips, or seeing his older brother - older by ten years - at boarding school. Then, at the age of seven, both his parents had died and for a while Connor stayed with Jake in Austin, because that's where his parents had been buried.

The next few times - more and more frequently, as he grew older - had been when he'd run away from his aunt and uncle's house on the outskirts of Austin, to stay with his brother in his apartment. Then, at age thirteen, they had moved away from Austin - moved out of Texas, in fact, away from all his mom's relatives - to a house in Oklahoma.

This time, Connor was coming to Austin for his brother's wedding. His Uncle Greg hadn't been able to say no when he requested to go, since he had to be his brother's best man, and Aunt Kara had been willing enough to stay home and watch the house - as in, she refused to go to her nephew's wedding. Aunt Kara and his mom never got along properly; even Uncle Greg, Connor's mom's brother, hadn't jumped at the thought of going to Jake's wedding.

That was all fine with Connor; all he wanted was to see his older brother, even if it wasn't for long. Again, the hope rose in Connor that now that he was seventeen, almost eighteen, he could move in with Jake, but he pushed it down. If his brother hadn't wanted him when he was single, he certainly wouldn't agree to it now that he was getting married and moving into a house. Connor felt a bit of resentment towards his brother, who never had to put up with his aunt and uncle, but it wasn't exactly Jake's fault that no judge would give a seventeen-year-old custody of his younger brother.

As Connor reflected, the scenery rolled by, and soon he had to come out of his daydreaming stupor because Alejandro had stopped the car.

"We're - or I guess I'm - here." He smiled at Connor, who gave a friendly smile back.

"Thanks for the ride," he said, unbuckling his seatbelt and putting his hand to the door. "I really appreciate it... especially since you didn't turn out to be a serial killer," he said jokingly. "I wish there was some way to repay you."

And, because that last statement was more of a formality than anything else, Connor started getting out of the car - only to be stopped by a firm grip on his elbow.

"There is," Alejandro said, and Connor turned in his seat to see the boy smirking.

"Um...?" Connor asked intelligently, because now he was thinking that maybe Alejandro was a serial killer after all.

Connor opened his mouth to ask what he could possibly give Alejandro, hoping it was something small - and not one of his body parts or his life - when suddenly he was cut off. By Alejandro's mouth.

The kiss was intense and full of nothing but raw attraction and startled surprise. It lasted a few open-mouthed moments, and as the other boy pulled away, Connor was left with a spicy taste in his mouth and an incredible amount of surprise.

"There," Alejandro said, his eyes bright with amusement. Connor's cheeks turned red, the reddest they'd turned since he had fallen on top of his grandma's birthday cake - and that had been years ago.

Stunned, Connor could only make fish faces and unintelligible noises as Alejandro let go of him and lightly shoved him out of the car. Connor responded, getting up and taking his bag out of the trunk. He could only manage half a smile at the still-amused hispanic boy before he half stumbled, half ran down the sidewalk. He was a block away before he remembered to look around and figure out where, exactly, he was.

Even after he'd gone five blocks down the street and was nearing his brother's neighborhood, which was surprisingly close, Connor's cheeks were still flaming red.

.ooO.oOo.Ooo.

Connor was greeted at the door with a grinning Jake, and soon his bag had been lifted from his shoulder as effortlessly as if it were nothing at all - which, to the six-foot-four Jake, it probably wasn't.

Connor ducked as his big brother swiped a hand at his brown hair, trying to muss it up, and followed him into the third floor apartment Jake and his fiancee occupied.

The apartment wasn't too small, but it wasn't exactly space to make a family, which was why Jake and Jessica were going to move into a house once they got married. There was a living room connected to a small kitchen, which Jake sauntered into. He put his brother's bag down on the couch, then turned and sat down at the round table that basically served as a dining room and motioned for Connor to join him at the seat across. Connor hesitated only slightly, then turned the chair around and reluctantly sat down.

"Uncle Greg called me and told me what happened," Jake said in a serious tone. Connor nodded, wondering if his brother had suddenly decided to become serious right before the day he tied the knot. He wouldn't be surprised if even Jake was mad; Connor had really pissed off his uncle when he took his car out for a late night ride and ended up driving it into a ditch. Connor had been fine, but the car hadn't - and the ensuing argument had brought out resentments and angers years old. Proof of his uncle's anger was that he'd had to hitch a ride down to Texas, as far as he could go, with his friend Izzy. It was only after she had to reluctantly drop him off that he'd started hitchhiking, and that had almost proven disastrous, as Connor was starting to wonder if he hadn't come close to being molested.

Pausing in his thoughts, Connor met Jake's serious eyes, and swallowed roughly. If his brother didn't let him in, he didn't know what to do.

"So," Jake said, and his face suddenly split into a grin, much to Connor's relief, "did you give the fucker what he deserved?"

Connor smiled reluctantly. "Unfortunately."

Jake cocked an eyebrow.

"Well," Connor explained, "I'm afraid I may not have a place to go back to. That," he motioned to the suitcase on the couch, which looked only big enough to fit a guy's week worth of clothes and a toothbrush, "currently contains everything in my possession that I can't possibly part with."

Jake frowned. "That," he declared, "is possibly the lamest thing I've ever heard."

Connor shrugged. "We can't all be prima donnas." It was an old argument between them; when it came to getting ready, Jake always took the longest. When he packed, it was usually two bags, and he was known to have one hour or longer conversations on the phone.

"Wait a minute," Jake said, realizing something. "Where's your guitar?"

Connor sighed, an unexplainable sadness coming over him. "Greg pawned it," he spat out, still angry at the thought.

"The fucker!" Jake burst out, scowling. "I'll try to get you a new one, but-" He shrugged, helplessly.

"It won't be the same," Connor said, meeting his brother's eyes. They shared a moment of sadness, one that only they could understand. The guitar had been Connor's father's, so now all he had left was a faded photo. There came a lull in the conversation as both brothers wallowed in memory, until Connor broke it was a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Get some rest," Jake said, smiling at his brother. "You'll need it - Jessica is coming home soon, with all her friends, to make last minute makeup decisions."

Connor groaned and got up. He loved Jess, with all her energy, sarcasm and quips, but her friends could sometimes be too much. Stopping on his way to the couch, Connor turned towards his brother.

"Is she gonna make you take out your piercings on the big day?"

Jake grimaced, touching two fingertips to his eyebrow piercing. He also had one on his nose, one on his lips, two on his left ear, three on his right ear and one on his tongue. They clashed with the Irish freckles on his face and the friendly smile that exuded "good-boy" waves to people he'd just met, but Connor knew all the piercings were practically a part of his brother's skin.

"I hope not," he said, sounding dejected, "though she's been trying to get me to for months now. I'm beginning to think she'll sneak up on me the night before and take them all out while I'm sleeping, just for the heck of it."

Connor laughed at his brother's downtrodden face and the inevitable image of a conniving Jess that came into his mind.

"She would," he said, as he settled onto the couch. "So you should be prepared for anything she can throw at you."

"I am, bro," Jake said softly as he turned out the light. "Now and forever."

.ooO.oOo.Ooo.

Connor woke to the sound of laughing women coming into the apartment. Sighing, he got up, dragging his suitcase with him, and ducked out of view before Jess could see him. As he surveyed his ragged appearance, Connor decided that a shower would be a very good idea.

He locked the bathroom door just in case, and turned the shower on as hot it would go. As the room filled with sweet, hot steam, Connor hurriedly undressed and threw his clothes on the floor. Staring at his muddy jeans for a few minutes, he relented and folded them - but as he was doing so, a small scrap of paper fell out of the back pocket. Frowning, he bent over and picked it up. Three lines of black ink were scrawled onto it in messy handwriting.

Alejandro's cell:

832 456 8890

Call me, babe.

Connor stared at it for a few seconds, his eyes hitching over the word "babe." Never in their drive to Austin had Alejandro hinted that he might be interested in Connor - in fact, other than the kiss, he had been only minimally polite. Connor wondered if it was some kind of joke.

Frowning, he crumpled the piece of paper up and threw it into the wastebasket - only to pick it back up and smooth the wrinkles out of it. Laying it carefully on the slightly damp counter by the sink, Connor could only wonder why he'd taken it out of the trash - except that he'd always known, in the back of his mind, that he found some guys just as attractive as girls, and he'd never been adverse to homosexuality. It was just that, at the moment, he couldn't imagine a relationship with anyone - not after what happened. Sighing, he stumbled into the shower and let his thoughts churn under the hot spray of water.

.ooO.oOo.Ooo.

Dozens of hungry eyes - or so that's how it seemed - swung towards Connor the instant he stepped out of the shower. Jess was home, complete with her friends. Connor blinked, looking at the several women - all of them in their early twenties, ranging from mildly attractive to drop-dead gorgeous - and his eyes scanned around for an escape. There was none. His shoulders drooping slightly, Connor, smiled at Jess when she saw him and returned her fierce hug.

"How're you?" she asked, stepping back and surveying him critically. His brown hair had become almost black from the water, and was hanging straggly in his eyes; it dripped down his faded black "Less Than Jake" shirt. He'd changed into a relatively fresh pair of jeans, transferred Alejandro's number in the back pocket for some unfathomable reason, and stuck the faded photo he always had in there with it.

"I'm fine. And you?"

Jess grinned, her eyes lighting up with an internal light that she seemed to always carry with her. "I'm great! We were just going to plan our makeup for the wedding, so that we all coordinate with each other and our dresses."

"Ah - okay," Connor said, a bit of question in his voice.

Jess winked. "Don't worry, they don't bite." She said it quietly enough so that her friends wouldn't hear, and Connor had the sneaking suspicion that it wasn't true.

Jess introduced him to her friends, and Connor smiled boyishly. "Hello, ladies."

He didn't miss a few of the flirtatious smiles they sent his way, and wondered if they knew his age, that he was still a senior in high school, just visiting for spring break - unless he really was kicked out. Jess sat him in the armchair, thankfully, so he wasn't thrown in with the women on the couches. Still, though, he felt a lot like David in the den of lions, only there was no angel to lock the lion's jaw.

While the women talked about nonsensical things and pretended not to notice him, Connor studied them slightly. He knew Kelly, the small, pretty and shy blonde girl who was Jess's maid of honor, but the others were strangers. He especially noticed the women who sat across from him, with long legs and a slight Latin America heritage around her. She was the most blatant about thinking him attractive, and Connor couldn't help but notice that she was attractive - in a faint, small part of his mind, though, he couldn't help but compare her to Alejandro and find her lacking.

She wore a pair of slim, long-legged jeans with decorative holes in them that had probably added thirty dollars to the price. Her shirt was low-cut, in respect for Texas heat, and she had a slim leather jacket thrown on the back of her chair, probably in preparation for the blue northerners that often came in a Texas february, suddenly and thus that much colder. Her hair was long and wavy, dark and slick as if wet from something.

As if noticing his eyes studying her, the woman looked up and gave Connor a piercing stare, parting her lips slightly and tilting her head. Connor raised one eyebrow in response, trying to appear aloof and not at all embarrassed to be caught staring.

Thankfully, Jake saved him from further embarrassment by almost swaggering into the room, his appearance letting Connor break the odd staring contest and transfer his attention to his brother.

"Hey Jess," Jake said, giving his fiancee a kiss on the cheek that made a few of the girls in the room sigh and swoon appropriately. "Me and Connie are gonna go do something manly to get away from all you girls, right Conn?"

He transferred his attention to Connor, winking slightly, and Connor grinned appropriately.

"Right. Sorry ladies," he said, giving the woman an apologetic nod as he rose out of the chair.

"Just lemme get my shoes," he told Jake, slipping thankfully into the hallway across the room. He heard one of the women ask where the bathroom was, inquiringly, and Connor almost groaned when he realized that the directions would lead her straight to him. He hoped that whoever it was would go straight to the bathroom, and not be trying to flirt with him. He simply didn't have the stomach or tact to deal with it, and hoped that any female admirers would be driven away by his age. He wasn't sure, though, since there was always the fact that he'd be eighteen soon - thankfully - and since Jess was only twenty-one, and her friends possibly younger than her.

The woman wasn't going into the restroom, and as Connor rummaged through his bag, which he'd put into Jake's study / guest room, he heard her move almost noiselessly into the doorway and he had to turn around.

It was the woman who had caught him staring. She smiled slightly, almost seductively, while he waited for her to start the conversation.

"My brother has a very cute polaroid picture of you," she said, and it was so far from what Connor expected to hear that when he opened his mouth to create some sort of reply, his jaw hung uselessly open.

"Huh?" he asked, blinking, not sure what he'd heard. The woman grinned.

"I'm Stephanie. My brother - step-brother, actually - is Alejandro."

Realization dawned in Connor, and he had the paranoid feeling that he was suddenly being stalked. No one normal ever picks up a hitchhiker, he thought despairingly.

"Oh God," he breathed out, and the woman laughed a little.

"Don't worry, don't worry, it's just a coincidence that I saw you and recognized you. He only took the photo because - I don't know, he's weird, he likes taking candid photos of people, and I guess he thought a sleeping hitchhiker would be one more to add to the collection." The woman, Stephanie, was grinning a bit, but her mirth had subsided some.

"Oh," Connor replied, still nervous and paranoid. After all, now it was possible that the boy knew where he lived, since his sister did - and that meant extra creepy points.

Stephanie looked amused, as if sensing his reluctance. "Anyway, I should be done with the bathroom by now, but I know Alejandro gave you his number..." She said it as if waiting for confirmation, and he nodded a little.

"Well, if you don't swing that way - which Alejandro has assured me he can make any boy swing, though I don't believe him - call his number, and you can ask for me." She winked flirtatiously, and gave him a kiss on the cheek that only reminded Connor that earlier the same day, her brother had been less polite about where he kissed strangers.

"Stephanie," she whispered into his ear, tickling his skin and making him a bit more shocked. He was never able to do much when surprised or, even, aroused a bit, so he could only stare at her dumbly when she drew back from him. "Remember it."

She walked out of the room then, her hips swaying in her tight jeans with their thirty dollar holes.

.ooO.oOo.Ooo.

Connor's neck itched; a trickle of sweat was running down his neck, while other beads of sweat made his brown hair hang damply on his neck. He wished there was better air flow in the restroom, but there wasn't, so he had to content himself with that.

There was no place to sit down, and Jake was pacing back and forth so fast in the confined space that Connor had to press himself against the wall just to avoid being run into. He watched his brother with wary eyes, since he'd long since given up trying to speak to him. Jake was like a caged lion, silent and full of pent up energy.

Suddenly he stopped. Connor watched him, the headache in his temples intensifying from a dull throb to a hammering, so that it was hard to concentrate on Jake when he started talking in a rushed, panicked voice.

"What the fuck am I going to do, Connor?! I don't know what to do!"

Connor focused on his panicked face, tried to communicate a sense of peace through the pounding pain. "You're going to marry Jess, be happy and have tons of babies."

Jake seemed to calm down, snap back into himself a bit. Then he looked at Connor and frowned. "What about you? I can't just turn you out. You have to finish school. Something's gotta be done."

Connor shrugged, as if the same thoughts hadn't plagued his mind the night before. What the hell would he do, once Jake and Jessica were properly tied together, and he couldn't crash at his brother's bachelor pad anymore? Jake would leave for the honeymoon the next afternoon, and maybe Connor could stay at his apartment for a while, but what then? He was still enrolled at school back in Oklahoma City, where his uncle lived. He was still, legally, his uncle's charge.

"We need to fix your single status, too. You don't have enough fun." The words were strange, coming out of Jake's mouth; Connor wondered if he was delirious from the heat. Usually his brother didn't care much for messing with other people's business, even Connor's. The last time he and his brother had needed to be close emotionally, besides their parents' death, was behind Connor - or so he hoped. He'd grieved so hard for her, and Jake had been there, panicky and comforting and full of love, for three weeks before he had to leave Connor to fend with his guardians. Snapping out of the trance of memory, Connor remembered where he was.

"I don't have time for a girlfriend right now," Connor explained patiently, not mentioning that he was afraid any girlfriend he got would blow her brains out like the last one had almost a year ago; didn't mention that he was beginning to believe death followed him like a stray puppy wanting a home.

"A boyfriend, maybe?" Jake suggested, the corners of his mouth going up.

"Definitely not," Connor said, realizing he was turning red from embarrassment, hoping Jake would think it was from the heat. Jake didn't know about Alejandro. Didn't know about the scribbled number and note in his back pocket even now, as if it was fucking seared into him.

"If you say so," Jake said absentmindedly, and he stared out the grimey slit of an excuse for a window. "We should go back," he suddenly said, turning towards the door.

"You go. I'm gonna check on Jess."

"Okay," was all Connor heard as Jake strode down the corridor, filled suddenly with a strange purpose. Shaking his head, Connor went down the hall the opposite way, and knocked on a blue door as loud as he could.

"Who is it?" a rushed-sounding voice called from inside.

"Connor."

There was a pause, then Jess's voice came through. "Come in, Connie!"

Connor obeyed, though he hated the girly nickname. He opened the door and strode through, and was greeted by a mass of chaos.

Jess, it seemed, was the center of it; there was a flurry around her as two women, one with pens in her mouth and a needle in her hand, went around her. The other girls were already in their dresses, which were a tasteful pale yellow that managed to look good without overshadowing Jess's beautiful dress.

"It got ripped," Jess said as way of explanation for the woman with the needle who had started sewing on the dress. "Close the door, Connie, it's bad luck for-"

"The groom to see the bride before the wedding, I know." Connie grinned at her after he closed the door. "What about the best man?"

Jess smiled. "Nope, so now we have you in here to soak up some of the estrogen."

Seeing the flurry of shoes and makeup, strange hair devices and a few suddenly half-naked women, Connor wondered what help his hormones could be. The smell of different perfumes and hairsprays tickled his nose, but there was at least a large amount of cool air in the room, a big difference from Jake's choice of a place to prepare.

"You gonna have to take this off," said the Vietnamese woman attempting to fix Jessica's dress, shaking her head. "Will take a while."

"Oh damn," Jess breathed, and the two women helped her get out of the dress, after she ordered Connor to turn around. After a few minutes of rustling and a few Jess-style curses, he was allowed to turn back around and see his future sister-in-law in jeans and a T-shirt, the two women holding the dress.

"How long do we have?" Jess asked.

One of the bridesmaids answered. "One hour." Connor wondered why the women were in such a rush if they still had an hour, but then again preparation was lost on him. His tie was half-skewed, and the tuxedo he'd rented was a bit loose on his shoulders and covered in lint. He made a mental note to get a lint roller and brush it off, but he figured that would take 2-3 minutes, so he wasn't really worried.

Jess, however, frowned when she heard how much time she had. "Is that long enough?" she asked one of the dressmakers.

The woman pursed her lips. "Maybe. It'll be rushed, though. We'll just tell everyone to expect you to be late. It'll take maybe half an hour to get the dress repaired."

Jess nodded her head, and the dressmakers went through a door in the back of the room, leaving a strangely subdued feeling behind them. Most of the women appeared to have realized they'd have extra time now, so they settled down to talking and occasionally primping each other. A few of them almost gleefully went after Jess, but she waved them off with her hand, explaining that she needed to talk with her future brother. Connor smiled at her when she casually hugged him, her arms loose around his neck, then stepped back and did her usual once-over with her eyes, which brimmed with amusement at his appearance.

"Did you get dressed in the dark, half-drunk, with your feet?"

Connor blinked, then grinned. "Um, no."

"Too bad - it would've been funny if you did." She smiled at him then, and grabbed his arm. "C'mon, let's ditch this place."

Connor looked around - the women were all preoccupied with each other, giving Jess her privacy. He didn't see the girl from yesterday, so he decided to ask Jess about her as he was half-dragged out the door.

"Where's that girl who came yesterday - um," Connor tried to remember her name, "Stephanie something-or-other."

Jess looked up at him, eyebrows knitted, one hand paused on the doorknob. "Who?"

Connor blinked. "She was at your party?" He added a lilt to the end, making it a question.

Jess shook her head. "Don't know her," she said, opening the door, her hand leaving Connor's arm. She obviously trusted him to follow her, which he did.

"Maybe she, uh, lied about her name or... something."

"Or you're going crazy," Jess said jokingly, leading him out of the White House Inn, where the wedding was being held.

"Or that," Connor replied faintly, not sure if it was true or not. If Jess didn't know this girl, if she wasn't really at the wedding, then how come he'd seen her? They'd talked, she had seemed at ease with the girls-

Only she hadn't talked to anybody, that he'd seen, except for him. That seemed odd. Why would she have lied about her name, anyway? Who was she? She had claimed to have been Alejandro's stepsister, but...

Connor shook his head, trying to get the problem out of his mind. He blinked at the afternoon sun, getting his eyes used to it because he didn't have any sunglasses. Jess, instead of leading him to her green jeep like he expected, started walking towards the road.

"Where are we going, anyway?" Connor asked, catching up to her after he could open his eyes without tearing up again. He hated the sun.

"You'll see," Jess replied. She went to the sidewalk, turning to the right. Connor walked beside her, comfortable in the silence - until Jessica broke it.

"When are you gonna settle down? And what are you going to do about getting kicked out?" She grinned and interrupted him before he could speak. "First question first, kiddo. I know you're still mourning, but it's high time you left the memories of that bitch behind and got yourself a good girl."

Connor averted his eyes to the street, where a few cars passed the relatively unbusy strips across from the hotel. Jess had never liked Caroline, and it was something Connor was used to. He felt that vague, numb and vacant place in his chest where she'd resided, and he decided to answer Jessica's question - just to get over the pain.

"I'm too busy to have a girlfriend, and besides, any girl I had in Oklahoma would just have to give me up. Plus I'm graduating in a few months."

"Good points," Jess said, nodding her head. "But I never said it had to be something steady. Just some fun, a few dates, so you stop looking so lonely."

Connor looked surprised. "Lonely?"

Jess smiled sadly. "You don't fool me, kid, you've got that kicked puppy dog look in your eyes."

"Since both you and Jake are ganging up on me - and I suspect you told him to give me that lecture this morning - I'll let you set me up," he held a pointed finger up, to stop Jessica mid-squeal, "if it's only once."

Jess nodded. "Once, right," she said, and Connor knew with a sinking heart that he'd dealed with the devil. "Just tell me one thing - boy or girl?"

Jess, playing innocent to his extreme embarrassment, cocked her head and looked at Connor. They had reached an intersection, and apparently Jess wanted to cross, because she pressed the crossing button. Connor took that moment to collect some courage, so when Jess turned back to him he was ready.

"A guy," he said, his throat full of lumps.

"Knew it!" Jess yelled triumphantly. "Jake kinda knew too, though I don't think he was sure." She grinned an almost feral grin. "Should I expect this to be a regular choice?"

Connor averted his eyes, knowing he was red from his neck to the tips of his ears. Even his arms were tinged with pink, underneath the freckles. "I dunno," he mumbled, embarrassed. He was glad when the "NO WALK" sign changed to "WALK" and they crossed, Connor trailing behind Jessica.

When they reached the other side, which was just a small parking lot with a decrepit restaurant behind it that was clearly closed, Connor gave Jessica a questioning look.

"Just wait," she said, and with a bounce in her step she led Connor to the restaurant - and around it.

Behind, in an empty parking lot and the field behind it, masses of colors rose from the ground - or so it seemed. Dozens of people, in different garb, from different walks of life - some of them looked buddhist or bohemian, others were hard core rock fans, a few had enough black on to rival the night - manned stalls full of different wares. Throngs of various people crowded between the stalls, of all ages and types. Jess smiled brilliantly up at Connor, who smiled back down.

"Where do you wanna go to first?" he asked, though his eyes were immediately attracted to the section that was clearly for hard core rock fans. A stall selling different instruments caught his eye, and he got a hitch in his throat when he saw the electric guitars.

No, Connor, he told himself sternly. You have no money for that sort of thing - food comes first, and that kind of guitar will cost you all your current savings.

So he tore his eyes away and followed Jessica around. He smiled at her when she put on a pair of wacky sunglasses, was indulgent when she put some on him. He even let her grab a big, fluffy pink scarf and wrap it around his neck.

"Um, Jess, shouldn't we go back soon?" he asked, as she tried on jewelry.

She gave him a weird look. "It's only been ten minutes, Connie," she said, and went back to a necklace she was trying on.

"Oh," Connor replied weakly. He couldn't stop thinking about what he'd said at the intersection - the specific words going through he head were oh, fuck. Why in the world was he letting Jess set him up? Was he really that lonely? He could try to take it back, except he knew Jess and she was stubborn and unyielding when it came to these sort of things. Connor supposed he would just have to endure it, even if "it" was a date with a boy.

Oh God, what would Jake think? Connor knew his brother had no problem with homosexuals - but what if it were Connor? Not that Connor thought he was gay - idly, he checked out a guy walking behind Jess's butt, and almost smacked himself in the head.

Connor was beginning to realize that his attraction to guys was something more than just an aesthetic appreciation for the human body. He knew he liked girls, too, though, so did that make him bisexual?

Connor's musings were interrupted by Jessica, who had wandered off to a clothing rack and was holding a red dress against her, smiling.

"We have some time still, so I'm going to try this on. Wait for me?"

Connor nodded, and followed Jess to the makeshift dressing "rooms." They were in fact metal poles with curtains running around them, screening everything but the feet from view; Jess got in one and closed the curtain, leaving Connor to amuse himself.

He spent his time trying to decide how to get out of Jess's blind date. He'd just agreed to it - basically, though he knew that didn't matter to Jess - and already he was trying to weasel out of the deal. A few minutes passed by, and he realized that Jessica should've come out already.

"Jessica?" he called, stepping forward; he had to stop and back up, almost tripping, when a screeching woman run in front of him. Perplexed, Connor followed her with his eyes; she was running at a huge black mutt at the edge of the bazar, waving a broom in front of her. Connor looked at the dog, and was disturbed by the intensity of its yellow eyes; when it seemed like the woman was just about to swipe at the dog, it ran off faster than Connor could blink, no doubt to hide in some alley somewhere. The woman came back, red-faced and angry, and Connor returned his attention to the dressing room.

"Jess?" he called, stepping closer and swiping the curtain. No answer. "Jess, I'm coming in, okay?"

When there was still no answer, Connor grew worried and pushed the curtain aside. There was nothing in the dressing room; stunned, because he'd expected a laughing Jess behind the curtain, Connor stalled for a bit. Jess's old clothes were on the ground, the dress nowhere in sight; going to the back of the stall, Connor discovered that the other side was stretched taught. Certainly she could've slipped out, so Connor searched for her behind the curtains - futile, because she was nowhere in sight.

Slowly growing worried, Connor searched the crowd and stalls for any signs of his favorite brunette, but there were none. He walked increasingly faster, realizing that his panic was unreasonable, but he was unable to stop it.

He searched behind every clothing rack, yelled in front of every dressing room - to many peoples' annoyances - asked every stall owner if they'd seen a girl of his description. There was nothing definite, and Connor wondered if she'd maybe slipped back to the hotel - but no, she'd left her clothes behind (which he had messily folded and was carrying with him) and she wouldn't have stolen the red dress or left without him. Beginning to believe that his panic was reasonable, Connor called his brother, and after a few hours of fruitless searching of the entire area of the bazar, the hotel, the blocks around the hotel, there were no signs.

It was eight at night, and no Jessica. Connor tried to comfort his panicking brother, but he himself was so worried - and guilty - that he could do little. They had by then called off the wedding, and all the guests were helping in the search. Jake was furious that the police couldn't help - at least, not until she was missing for longer than a few hours - and that a few people whispered about a runaway bride. They checked the rooms again, with the compliance of the hotel's manager - reluctantly given, after much time and arguing. No signs. Jake had a picture; they photocopied it at Kinko's, handed it out.

It was three at night, or Connor supposed, the morning, by the time the two brothers had to wearily return home.

"You two can't get anything more done tonight," Kelly told them, smiling wearily, as if it were more of a muscle spasm. "You need sleep. Tomorrow, we'll be fresh. We'll find her, no worries."

No one mentioned that wherever Jess had gotten to, it certainly wasn't by her own will. And no one, except Connor, blamed him for what happened - at least, out-loud. But he felt it was his responsibility, and he and Jake had to be dragged back - or more accurately, driven back - to the apartment.

Bone weary, too tired to say goodnight to his brother, Connor went to the guest room and lay down as more of a habit than a necessity. He stayed up all night, eyes peeled open and staring straight ahead at the ceiling. Outside, a stray dog howled in some deserted alleyway, its voice alone with no others to join it. Connor listened to its sad song deep into the night, the ghosts of his past whispering blame in his mind.

Everyone you love will die, because of you.