Chapter Twelve: Not a Mere Beauty

"Ooh, berries!" Meredith said as Hayley started taking out the frozen fruits from the bag. She hoisted herself up onto one of the bar chairs and pulled out a mirror with the lip gloss from her bag.

Hayley took one and ran it under the tap to soften it, and handed it to her. She watched Meredith chew and then swallow.

"Harper's coming over," she said when Meredith began tracing her lips with the gloss wand. She had deliberately chosen a moment when Meredith would be unable to respond, but now the silence was mercilessly suffocating her.

"That's good."

"Our performance is in a week, so…" Hayley explained with a shrug.

"I'll let him in. Don't be an idiot, all right?" Meredith said gently.

Hayley continued to transfer the berries to the bowl as she waited for Harper to make his inevitable entry. She could hear Meredith say goodbye to him. Her chest hummed with dreaded anticipation. She pushed the bag of fruit aside and reached for the tap to wash the juice off her hands.

"Jesus! What did you do?"

Hayley's eyes snapped to his face. The concern for her that she saw there warmed her heart and bolstered her confidence. Even though she didn't know what he was on about, at least he cared for her. So maybe, like Meredith said, he does like her enough to overlook her stupidity and paranoia.

"I was just taking out some raspberries," she said slowly, glancing down at her hands to see something out of the ordinary. Nothing was, except her hands were freezing and covered in raspberry juice.

Harper walked around the counter took her hands in his, palms up. Hayley watched him intently. He raised his head and their gaze locked.

"I thought… This looks a lot like… blood." Harper cleared his throat, embarrassed by his overreaction.

Hayley swallowed the boulder in her throat. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her throat suddenly voiceless.

She smiled tentatively. He smiled back.

Without a word, it was clear that whatever their issues were, they would sort them out. Harper bent his head and touched his lips to her right palm and she could feel his tongue licking and stroking and tickling the sensitive flesh. Unable to take the teasing anymore, Hayley took a step forward and looped her arms around his neck. His mouth met hers with an equally passionate need.

Neither of them knew how long they celebrated the resumption of their relationship, but Harper's neck and cheek was sticky with sweet nectar when they finally breathed fresh air again.

Hayley darted out her tongue and licked at the stickiness.

"Well, if you're not going to stop, then I certainly won't."

"What are you thinking?" Hayley said later as she lay on her side, her hand idly tracing patterns on Harper's chest.

Harper gave her a sideways glance. "That you're looking delicious right about now."

"I meant with your head."

His lips formed a smile, but it quickly wilted. "I'm thinking… we should talk."

"Me too."

Harper waited for her to continue, to tell him what was troubling her. After a long silence in which it became abundantly clear she wasn't going to be the one to bring the problem up, Harper said, "You don't have to be jealous of anyone.

Hayley's mouth opened in surprise. "How did you know I was jealous?"

"Because I'm not an idiot. And up till now I didn't think you were one either," Harper said. Her look of amazement that he knew what was bothering her amused him so much that he had to tease her a little.

"It's just that you guys have known each other for years…"

She didn't have to mention Meredith by name for him to know who she was talking about. "Exactly. You think I would wait all these years to make my move?"

"But she's perfect," she insisted.

"No, she's not," Harper said firmly.

Hayley didn't say anything, but she was clearly waiting for him to list even one of Meredith's so called faults.

"She cries too much, she's super high maintenance, she wears a crapload of makeup and she's just a little bit like Mother Theresa. Sure, it's great that she cares about other people, but frankly, I don't want to date a saint. It makes me feel… inadequate. Besides, she hates men."

"No, she doesn't."

"I'm not saying she's a lesbian or anything, although that would be hot." He gave her a sly grin. "But she treats men like they're disposable."

"Maybe she's just waiting for the right man to show up."

"Right." Harper cleared his head. "Why are we talking about Meredith anyway? I know you think just talking about beautiful women is sufficient foreplay… And you'd be right—"

"Ha. Ha."

"Are we good? Or…" But he saw that she was still hesitant.

"I don't understand why you like me when you could have someone more beautiful or intelligent or… I don't know, someone more."

They sank into thoughtful silence.

"I like liquorice, did you know that?" Harper said.

Hayley furrowed her brow at the abrupt change of topic.

"Most people don't like the taste. I don't know why I do, but isn't it enough that I do?"

"I'm sure you intended for that to be flattering."

"I could list all the qualities I love about you. But I could also find many of the same qualities in other women I know and it's still you I want. I can't seem to get enough of you."

"If this is the way you go around professing your love, I'm not surprised I'm the only one left who'll have you." Exactly one nanosecond after the words came out, she realised how stupid it was for her to use the word 'love.' "I mean…" She clamped her mouth shut. Maybe he wouldn't realised what she had said, why make it into a big thing?

"Most girls don't dowse my passionate words with cold water while I'm professing my feelings either."

"Passionate words? You started off by comparing me to one of the most disgusting things I've ever tasted."

"Ah… metaphor: the tool of poets."

"You're unbelievable." Hayley pretended to roll her eyes with disgust, but the way she snuggled closer to him completely undermined her words.

"And you're unbelievably…" His finger trailed down between the trough between her breasts.

"Are you going to say something disgusting again?" Hayley interrupted him.

"The word you're grasping for is 'salacious.'"

"Only in your twisted little mind."

"I don't know… you seemed to like what my twisted mind came up with a little while ago."

"You told me that was normal!" Hayley hit him hard on the chest as she scrambled to sit up on her legs, forgetting that she was naked under the covers.

Taking in an eyeful of her gloriously naked form before she hastily covered her breasts with her arms, Harper said with a new surge of desire, "Sweetheart, that was just to get you ready and willing."

Meredith was happy that Hayley and Harper had made up. One depressed female in the house was plenty.

She hadn't had any contact with Arden for over a month now. It is now a week since their results were announced. She had gotten her usual high marks and she didn't think for a moment that it had anything to do with her relationship with Arden. She was glad for it, but she was much more excited for Hayley, who was overjoyed that her piano performance marks were finally in the same league as her other marks.

On Tuesday she decided to go visit the kids at the hospital. She had been so busy, first studying and preparing for her exams and then with job interviews and helping the dean put together the course outlines for summer school that she had neglected her usual weekly visits.

"Hey, Clara," Meredith greeted the nurse that was writing something on the whiteboard by the door. "Where is everyone?" she asked, glancing around the room. The room was empty save for the two of them, a peculiar sight under any circumstance.

"They're in the music room. Would you mind telling them that lunch is in half an hour?" Clara asked with a grin. She didn't add anything, but her eyes seemed to shine with excitement before she turned back to work.

Meredith mentally shrugged and headed for the music room. The room was at the end of the hall and she said hello to several familiar faces as she walked towards it.

"Sandy!" Meredith cried in happy surprise as she spotted a young nurse coming out of a room. "I didn't know you were back! How are you? How's the baby?"

"We're both doing really well!" Sandy beamed at the thought of her son. "Come find me at the nurses' station and I'll show you a photo. He's so cute."

"I'm headed for the music room, but I'll definitely drop by later."

"Oh." The word was loaded with meaning. "Listen, don't worry about it if you can't make it today." Then she patted Meredith on the back and sent her on her way.

Meredith bit her lip, feeling more and more confused.

The music room door was slightly ajar and a series of singular notes greeted her ears as she walked closer. Her fingers barely touched the door when she recognised the melody with a gasp. Her arm dropped to her side and she took a step back. She filled her lungs slowly, deeply, but the drumming of her heart continued unabated.

It was her exam piece. Arden had reduced it to its purest melody so that the children could play it without too much difficulty, but it was still recognisable. He was teaching them the only bright section of the composition. Did that mean anything other than the fact that angry, depressed tunes didn't impress young children? Surely it must. There were a million and one pieces he could have chosen, but he had picked hers. But what did it mean?

She had so many questions and all of it started with her opening that door. She didn't know if she had the courage to take that step. Her heart and soul were already battered to the extreme. It hadn't healed yet and she feared that if she saw him again, it would be beyond repair.

As she was contemplating what to do, the decision was taken out of her hands when the door was flung open. There was a round of hugs and kisses when the children saw Meredith. Clara came by then to see why it was taking the kids so long to come back for lunch. She rounded them up and left, leaving Meredith alone with Arden.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, looking at his chin.

"Some of the children already knew how to play instruments and others wanted to learn. I thought it'd be nice to teach them something that's been written by someone they knew." He said. "I was waiting for you."

"Why?"

"I didn't know where you lived and I didn't have your phone number." he said. His brow drew together uncertainly, as if he had answered her question with the wrong pre-prepared answer. "I think the two of us… might have something special." Arden swallowed painfully, mortified by what had come out of his mouth. He had rehearsed what he would say to her and now he couldn't remember any of it.

"That's really convincing, with the stutter and the terror and, of course—" Meredith laughed humourlessly, "the way you've ignored me. Do I look blind or stupid? You obviously think I am. "

"Everything I did—"

"Caused me nothing but pain and grief. I'm not a toy you can play with when you're bored and then set aside, quietly awaiting your next bout of interest. Perhaps you didn't deliberately set out to hurt me, but… Why didn't you talk to me about it? Did you think that I lacked so much self control that I couldn't keep my hands off you if you'd asked?"

"I thought I was doing the right thing."

"The right thing to do was to tear my heart apart to protect your precious career?" Her arms gestured in the air like an extension of her anger. "You could have at least told me 'Thanks for the interest, but I'm going to pass.' You didn't have to treat me like dirt. I would have gotten the message jut the same."

"No, that's not— God!" He reached a hand for Meredith's wrist. With his iron grip in place, he pulled her forward, towards him. She tottered on her high heels and half fell against his chest. She struggled to break free, but his arms was iron tight

"What are you doing?" Meredith cried and struggled to free herself.

"I'm sorry," he said, tucking her against his chest. "That should have been the first thing I said." He felt her relax a little and took it as a good sign, but he didn't dare rest his vigilance. "I wanted you so much I wasn't thinking straight."

"You don't mean it," she said, her voice muffled. Here she was in his arms, as she had dreamt for so long and all she was wishing was to be free. "I can never compare to your memories of her." She shouldn't have said it; she didn't want to know his answer.

One moment more, she thought as she prepared herself to leave. One moment more before she could still walk away with any semblance of dignity.

"When I saw you with the ring, it was as if the connection between Jasmine and I have been tainted because it had never been handled by anyone other than the two of us. But as you left me that day, I understood why I had reacted so violently. I was terrified that I might possibly love someone else with the same intensity as I had loved Jasmine. If I could replace her so easily then what did that say about our relationship? I didn't want to replace her, especially not with you. You're not merely beautiful on the outside, you're absolutely breathtaking on the inside as well. It felt like a deeper betrayal because you were so much easier to love. It wasn't only that I was replacing Jasmine, it was that I was replacing her with… a better model."

"Choose your words carefully, Arden," Meredith said, her voice catching with emotion. "You're not out of the shark infested waters yet." She wasn't going to cry, especially not over such a happy occasion, but composure was so very, very hard to maintain at a time like this.

Arden smiled cautiously, hoping her ability to joke again, if she was joking, meant that she no longer wanted his head on a spike.

"For the past month, you're the only one that's been in my mind. Not Jasmine or anyone else. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, the only time I didn't feel antsy was when I was…"

"When you were… what?" Meredith shifted her head to see his expression. Seeing his embarrassment, she automatically tried to ease his discomfort with a joke. "Entertaining yourself?"

Without saying a word, he led her to the piano and sat down.

"I… composed something for you, unoriginal and corny as the idea is."

Meredith was expecting a traditional classical piece, what she got was much closer to something found in the latest popular charts. She smile as she listened, thinking that the tune was going to be stuck in her head for the rest of the day. As Arden continued playing, she heard the underlying darker tones that transformed the melody from a piece of pure fluff to something with character and soul.

"Do you understand? This is how I see you. You're infectious and cheerful and sweet, but underneath it all, hiding a woman with all the same problems and emotions as any other." Arden finished the last note and turned on the bench to face her. "Every morning this past week I wake up and I'm giddy with the possibility of seeing you again and then the depression at the end of another day without seeing you. Meredith, you don't know what I was going through."

Meredith pressed a hand to her mouth as tears came out uncontrollably. "At least you had hope, you bastard." She held onto Arden and sobbed out all her hurt and anguish for the past few months. She was crying over him again, she had promised she wouldn't not five minutes ago, but she didn't mind the trigger that had brought it on this time. When she finally calmed down, Meredith took out a packet of tissues from her bag and discreetly blew her nose and wiped away her tears.

"You know what would make your point more… pointed?" she said between sniffs. "Lyrics."

"Excuse me?"

"Lyrics for your composition," she said, while Arden's continued to look baffled. "To serenade me."

Arden raised an eyebrows, "I'll pass, thanks."

"So all your talk was just that? Talk?"

Arden muttered under his breath.

"Not even for me?" Meredith cajoled further and peered up at him like a wounded puppy-dog. "Not even if you're not getting any tonight if you don't do it?" Her lips quivered in amusement. She could act like a sad, pathetic creature, but she couldn't think like one.

Arden leaned back and considered her words. Then he smiled and said lazily, "I've waited for two months, a couple more days is nothing."

Meredith rummaged in her bag and shoved a pad and pen at him. "Well, I can't wait any longer, so hurry up."

Arden shook his head and grudgingly took the pad and pen. "Come here then, I need some inspiration."

He drew her lips in a long, satisfying kiss. The long months of torture were worth it because her entire being was bursting with happiness. But still, the thought of torturing him a little more made her stand up and say, "Do you want something else for inspiration? Tea, coffee, grape juice?"

"Anything, I don't care."

Meredith kissed him once more before she left. She walked past the nurses' station and seeing that Sandy was there, had her show her the baby pictures.

"What's so funny?" Sandy asked as she tucked the picture back into her wallet.

Meredith smoothed her mouth into a neutral line, "Nothing." She wanted to keep Arden all to herself for today. And anyway, the whole thing still felt like something out of a dream that she didn't want her excitement to pinch her awake.

She chatted with the Sandy for a few more minutes, then took one of the kids-sized juice cartons that were lying around. She took her time going back to the music room, wondering if he would still be there when she opened the door. She tried to reassure herself that she did not just imagine everything that had been said between them, but it didn't do much good.

She pushed open the door and immediately spotted him hunched over the closed piano lid, frowning at the piece of paper as he scratched out a few words. Her stomach felt the squawks and wings of seagulls as they fought for pieces of bread.

"Hey," she said as she sat down next to him. She felt physically incapable of keeping the joy within her off her face.

He handed the paper to her with a grave expression.

Meredith began to read. A smile crept in.

"I wrote it in ten minutes and it rhymes," Arden said defensively.

Meredith looked up from the piece of paper and without a word, expressed her feelings with the deepest, most soul shattering kiss she had ever given him.

"So… you like it."

"I love it." Her face was a picture of pure pleasure. "And you haven't even begun singing it."

"Oh God…" he groaned, though they both knew that he would have done anything for her at this point.

Never thought it could be you
Who shook me from my mournful view

I love your look, I love your style
And you can always make me smile

From hate to love; despair to joy
The doubts and questions fled this boy

I've been waiting here so long
Just so you could hear my song

You're my sun and moon and all the clichés
I'll take all the nights and heartaches
If I could only be with you again

Yay!! Finished! Please excuse the lyrics.

I wrote the bulk of it in 10 minutes and tweaked it a little bit, but it's mostly the same as the draft. I wanted to retain the spontaneity and unpolished nature of something that was finished in an extremely short amount of time. (The other theory is I'm lazy and couldn't be bothered.)

Also, anyone notice the chapter title? I'm ridiculously proud of it.

I've been alternatively liking and disliking the plot twists in this story while I was writing it, but at this moment in time I'm not too unhappy with the whole thing.

The last thing I need to do is to pimp my new favourite TV miniseries, North & South (BBC, 2005). I am in love with this. Not just for the storyline or characters, but because every single thing about it is perfect. The music and cinematography is absolutely stunning and the acting is superb. It's gotten extremely high reviews at imdb and even my friend, (a girl,) who doesn't think Richard Armitage is good looking at all and who doesn't like Pride & Prejudice, thinks this is a good show.

The plot is a little like Pride and Prejudice (Point!) in that the heroine starts off disliking the hero, while he harbours feelings for her. It's a lot more exciting than P&P because the plot doesn't revolve solely around people talking. Another point in its favour is that the hero is played by Richard Armitage, who plays Guy of Gisborne in the new Robin Hood TV series. He was hot and evil, a combination I really can't resist. Those two points were what a poster at the forum was highlighting, which made me practically salivate with eagerness.

It's only four hours and, I think, actually improves upon repeated viewings. At first it's all about the two main characters, but then you discover that the secondary characters are just as engrossing. OK, that's the end of my unpaid promotion for a brilliant show. I had never heard of it until a week ago and I think most people (outside of the UK, if that) have also never heard of it.