.Chapter 14_

Home hadn't changed much since she'd left, Noelle realised as they drove through the neighbourhood. The same cars sat in the same driveways. The same graffiti tattooed the walls of the same milk bars. Houses that had been under renovation years ago still bore the same telltale bright blue tarps that showed the result of believing builders' empty promises. It was almost as though the entire town was stuck in its own personal Groundhog Day.

The house Adrian's car was approaching, however, was not draped in tarps. It never had been, to her clear memory—which was not an unimpressive frame of recollection, going on more than eighteen years now. And it had also never—again, as far as she knew—been an object of graffiti, since the age group most likely to commit this offence had, in her time, usually felt either a shameful sense of adoration or an even more shame-worthy sense of fear for its inhabitants. It was, however, undoubtedly, a house that had seen its fair share of giggling stalkers, a contender for some sort of house-who's-phone-has-been-on-the-receiving-end-of-the-most-call-up-and-then-hang-ups commendation medal.

Noelle, thank goodness, had never stalked this house. She had, however, always known whose house it was. Just like she knew it now.

"While I'm not huge fan of practical jokes," Noelle began when they stopped in front of the house, "I can appreciate the irony in this one."

Adrian twisted the keys out of the ignition and turned to her, brows up. "What are you talking about?"

Noelle's mouth opened wide, "See, okay, now I'm a little worried, because you've turned off the car and there's a slight possibility you aren't kidding."

"I'm not kidding."

Noelle gave a weak little laugh, spitting out her last hope. "Comedic timing, Adrian. Don't drag it out to much or else the audience won't be receptive."

He grinned, shaking his head a little in a clear what-am-I-gonna-do-with-you signal before he unbuckled his seatbelt. "If that got you, then you're going to love this." And then he opened his door and got out.

"Adrian!" Noelle hissed, diving across the car's console in a belated attempt to snag the man in question before he escaped. She cursed and scrambled out of her seat. Now nursing a rapidly-bruising elbow, she approached him. "Please," she said. "Let's just go."

Adrian locked the car and turned to her, expression puzzled. "Why?"

"Why?" Noelle echoed, incredulous, a notch below 'wildly hysterical'. "Because, Adrian, I'm a mess! Right now, I need sleep and greasy food and chick flicks, and not…this. If I actually manage to control my automatic up-chuck reflex to situations like this, then I'll at least make a bumbling fool of myself. "

"No, you won't."

Noelle tossed him a dirty look. "But look at me. I'm dressed—"

"Like a nun, I know. They won't care."

"Yeah, well, I do," Noelle replied. She knew, somewhere in her mostly-dormant-as-of-late rational mind, that she was being overly-dramatic, but it could not be helped, so why show off her inner drama queen unnecessarily in front of more people? And she wasn't kidding either; she did feel sick and she did feel emotional and in her experience, neither vomiting nor crying made for a great first impression.

Adrian caught her elbows between his fingers, turning her to face him. Blue-grey eyes—wide and unblinking—lifted her gaze from the nature strip under her feet that she'd been begging to fall through. "Look, I'm not doing this to torture you or to be a dick. I'm doing this because…well, I don't exactly know why. Maybe I think you need this. Maybe I'm the one who needs this now. I'm not sure. My gut-instinct led me here, and I trust that completely. Can't you trust it too?"

Noelle breathed in deeply and exhaled over his neck, hoping that her inner thoughts and feelings could be absorbed through his pores rather than her having to actually say the words. And then she tilted her head and stared at Adrian, looking for cracks and uncertainties in his expression. She found none.

She sighed. "That's not fair. You can't use that whole 'trust' thing. You don't get to use that again for the rest of the month."

Adrian grinned.

His reply—whatever it may have been—was drowned out by the slam of a flywire screen door and the sound of a joyous shriek, as a short woman who was gave new definition to the term 'curvy'—all breasts, hips, butt and curly dark hair—ran barefoot down the porch steps and over to where they were standing. "Adrian!" she exclaimed, arms flung around the man in question, while her mane of thick, wild hair attempted to smother him. She pulled back with a look that was reproving, but filled with such love that it defeated its own purpose. "I'd almost forgotten I'd had an eldest son."

Adrian smiled and slung his arm over the woman's—his mother's—shoulder, tucking her neatly into his side. Their height difference was so great that they had to crane their respective necks to the opposite extremes that their spines would allow. "Like you could forget me," Adrian said.

Adrian's mum had her lips pursed tightly, but the expression did little to hide her excitement. She shook her head and a chuckle escaped. "I should be so lucky," she murmured, but again, her affectionate tone contradicted the words it was producing.

She turned to look at Noelle, and Noelle saw immediately—startlingly—where Adrian's smile was inherited from. It was that special smile that she could admit only within the confides of her mind that she loved, the smile that she was rewarded with late at night when they were in bed and she was being studied like his eyes could never get enough of her, the sort of smile that warmed you from the inside out, that made you feel like you'd done something right to deserve such a gesture. And there it was—on an older, more feminine, but no less comforting, face; Noelle didn't realise it at first, but she was smiling back.

"Forgive our rudeness," Adrian's mother said to her, bumping hips with Adrian and untangling from him. She took a step towards Noelle, and he did the same. "It appears that as well as forgetting to call, my son has also forgotten his manners. I promise I raised him better," she added, grin unfurling further.

Adrian crossed to Noelle's side. His arm fell around her waist, and Noelle saw his mother's eyes catch the movement—not critically, just as an observation. "Mum, this is Noelle."

"It's lovely to meet you," the older woman said. "And despite my introduction, I should tell you my birth name is not actually 'Mum'—it's Gail—but feel free to call me such if it makes you more comfortable, Noelle."

Noelle returned Gail's beam, albeit hesitantly. Despite the fact that Gail had already been more maternal to Noelle in twenty seconds than Cheri had in twenty years, when she didn't call her own mother 'Mum', in what universe would she find comfort in giving someone else's mum the label? She had to remind herself that most parents made jokes without malicious intent behind them. It didn't help that she was a bundle of nerves and wasn't entirely sure she'd be able to keep down the ten kilos of forest she'd binged on early.

"Uh, it's nice to meet you, too," she said softly.

Adrian's hand moved down to her hip, a touch of reassurance, a touch of comfort; Noelle leaned into it—a compromise, since she actually felt like hiding behind it. He smelled fantastic, of the shower gel he'd probably scrubbed furiously deep into his pores that morning while she'd yelled at him through the door to stop taking so long in the shower. Her 'To Apologize For' list was getting awful-long.

A voice came booming from inside. "Gail, why the bleedin' hell are you standing bare foot outside the house in the middle of winter?"

Had she not heard the woman's earlier blissful screech, Noelle may have been surprised at the sheer volume of voice produced from such a little woman, as Gail shouted back, "Adrian's here."

"Righto," the first voice returned. Noelle presumed the voice belonged to Gail's husband, to Adrian's father, and that presumption was confirmed when the voice continued, "He doesn't happen to have a six-pack in his hand, does he? 'Cause we're fresh out, and it's the least he owes his father after all those years I put up with him nicking my beers."

Gail blew out a short sigh that was barely audible. Noelle, feeling as though she was missing something, watched as Adrian turned his head so to hide the smirk hovering on his lips. "Ah, honey," she tried again, her singsong tone not quite masking her irritation, "why don't you, uh, come out here and see your son?" She offered a reassuring smile to a confused Noelle.

"Nah, it's okay. I've seen him before—tall kid, dark hair, an apparent inability to shave?"

Adrian, now not bothering to hide his amusement, broke into a wide grin. His mother's glare made it dim slightly but not vanish completely. Gail's brow furrowed and dropped all pretences, shouting out, now visibly agitated, "Gary! He's brought a girl!"

The pieces fell together. Oh, God. It was her, Noelle realised, and could have kicked herself for being so dense. Of course that painfully-obvious set of hints had been about her, a girl, being brought by Adrian, a boy, to Adrian's parents' house—a big deal.

Now she wanted to kick Adrian, and would definitely take advantage of her heels by doing so the moment Gail turned away. Was this some sort of ritual? Had so many duds gone through the meet-and-greet process with Adrian's parents that snapshot-judgements had to be made on their front lawn? Did Adrian's father have to physically remove the girls who didn't pass such first impressions from the premises?

Noelle looked down at her outfit with disgust and then up at Adrian with a similar expression; if she managed to get through this, she'd tear them both to pieces. Either not seeing the look that plainly told him to shrivel up and die or ignoring it completely, his arm lifted to settle across her shoulders.

The screen door slammed shut again, and a massive man, who looked like he was approaching the intersection of 'middle-aged' quickly, shot down the lawn to them. He was grinning, though, so contented that she wasn't about to be pitched across the road, Noelle relaxed.

"I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met," the man said, hand outstretched, and Noelle thought it was to her, until she saw where his eyes were fixed.

Adrian gripped his father's hand, and both males' knuckles whitened as they squeezed. "My father, the comedian," he said. "And it has not been that long."

They released each other, and Gail wound her arm around her husband's. "Honey, this is Noelle," she said, using the same intonation she'd used earlier for the word 'girl' as she introduced Noelle.

Adrian's father—"Gary, love," he'd insisted, nearly crushing her fingers with his handshake, "none of this 'Sir' and 'Mr' bull's wool—I'm not the prime minister."—was obviously where Adrian had gotten his hard-muscled, broad-shouldered physique; however, in Gary's case, age, laziness, and possibly a long beer-drinking career had transformed the fortunate build into something that closely resembled the shape of a fridge. He was a big, heavy-eyebrowed man with Adrian's eyes and Pinocchio's nose post-lying spree.

"Well," Gail said, after all the pleasantries were taken care of, "no use standing out here like fools; come inside!"

She and her husband led the way into the house; they walked hand-in-hand, her tiny frame folded against his as they whispered not-so covertly to each other. If the glances Gail kept throwing over her shoulder—before Gary would say something to her that had her head snapping back—were any indication, Noelle suspected that their son's appearance wasn't the one they were discussing

Adrian twined an arm around Noelle again and leant down, lips by her ear. "Still feeling murderous?"

Noelle kept an eye on his parents. "I'm not sure. I wouldn't turn your back on me."

They entered the house, and Noelle made quick work of drinking in the environment. The off-white coloured walls—marked with the type of wear most places housing more than one teenager would bear—sat above floorboards that led off to carpeted rooms with wide open doors. A kitchen was visible at the end of the path, it's flooring white tiles, its countertops full of half-cooked meals and half-cleaned dishes.

The hallway at the entrance lay home to a series of mounted photographs—Adrian's parents on their wedding day, both significantly thinner, both extremely radiant, both equally happy; a chubby toddler in a ballerina tutu, teetering unsteadily on tippy-toes, her mouth in a surprised 'O'; two dark-haired boys sitting next to each other, one much smaller and much younger and attempting to bite the end off a metal spanner, one gangly and grinning a smile a few teeth short of the perfect beam Noelle knew it was now, in front of a car whose guts were being investigated by a pair of legs she guessed belonged to Gary Hastings; a boy with a mop of sweaty and matted hair holding a soccer trophy above his head, his blue and black uniform stained thick with mud; Adrian on graduation day, a parent by each arm; a family portrait at least ten years old; and finishing the montage was a three-photo frame in which three toothless babies beamed from their respective pictures. All in all, the display made true to the saying 'a picture's worth a thousand words', two of which could have been 'happy family'.

Three or so hooks hung on the wall just to the left of the entrance—or at least that's what Noelle presumed kept the massive pile of coats and scarves suspended in the air. Beneath the mountain of clothes sat a shoe rack, surrounded by a heap of mismatched shoes that had been haphazardly thrown down but had not quite made it to the ideal destination.

"Did you want me to take my shoes off?" she asked, turning to Gail in question.

Gail waved it off with a dismissive hand. "Oh, don't bother, Noelle. Chances are if you put your shoes amongst that bundle, you'll never see them again." As if to demonstrate her point, she toed a pair of red sandals, which came tumbling down to reveal another three pairs of shoes. "If I've told them once, I've told them a million times…"—and here she raised her voice, talking, apparently, to unseen ears, "—how hard is it to remove your shoes in an orderly fashion?"

"A lot harder than you'd think," Adrian replied, removing his jacket and throwing it on top of the shoe rack.

"Oh, very funny. Pick that up right now!" Gail reprimanded, hands on hips. She removed one of those hands and relocated it to rest gently on Noelle's arm, turning her kind eyes onto the owner of the arm she was holding. "I hope you don't think we live like complete pigs."

Noelle laughed quietly. "Of course not," she said, and meant it. Because, sure, while Cheri's house was spotlessly clean, it had also been scrubbed completely free of any homely charm. The Hastings home, with all its clutter and unbelievably tantalizing smells wafting from the kitchen, was just that—a home. And it had charm in bucket loads.

"Your home is wonderful," Noelle said softly, before she could stop herself.

Gail looked taken back. "Oh—well, thank you, Noelle," she said, appearing flustered, and Noelle, red-faced herself, hoped to God it was from flattery, not because Gail was struggling to grasp how strange the girl blurting out random compliments in her house was, "that's very sweet of you to say."

"You're welcome," Noelle muttered, embarrassed.

Adrian let her squirm for a moment longer before he decided to interfere. "So, any chance we're in time for lunch?" Adrian asked.

Noelle felt an elbow nudge her side and looked to see Gail smiling at her, as though the two of them were sharing a private joke. "Look at that, would you? Here five minutes and already eating me out of house and home."

"We don't want to inconvenience you…" Noelle hedged.

"Oh, no, not at all, Noelle! You are no inconvenience whatsoever. In fact, I insist you stay. I hope you like roast."

Noelle answered in the affirmative and offered her assistance. Of course, having her in the kitchen would be more of a hazard than a help, but, hey, it was the thought that counted, right?

Gail, apparently not standing for it, waved her off dismissively. "You're a guest in this house, so just sitting down and relaxing is help enough. You, however," she went on, pointing a finger at her son, "have yet to earn your keep. That window you broke while attempting to take a different route to the backyard when you were fifteen has yet to be paid off with hard labour. I require your help in the kitchen."

Even Noelle wasn't thick enough to miss that one. What Gail really required was an appropriate time to quiz him on Noelle and why she was here and what her relationship was with her son and perhaps why she was dressed like a widow who'd not only lost her husband but all mirrors and shiny surfaces too.

And so, with a briefly apologetic look to her, Adrian gave Noelle's elbow a squeeze, pointed her in the direction of the living room and walked down the hallway with his mother. "I'll be back real soon," he said, and Noelle fought the urge to snarl in response.

She wondered exactly when her great trust in Adrian's 'gut-instinct' was going to be rewarded, because frankly, his gut instinct was only smirking and enjoying the show with a bowl of popcorn as awkward scoop after awkward scoop was added to the sundae—or Saturday, as it was, ha-ha—that was this awful day. She watched Adrian catch up to his mother and began trekking down the hallway, and briefly considered running outside and waiting in the car. She entertained the thought of even switching on the engine and wasting his petrol, but that was quickly stricken from her revenge list when she realised it would further prolong the time spent here.

"I don't see why you need my help," he told his mother as he caught up with her. "I mean, you do everything so well, I wouldn't want to mess up your system."

"Nice try," Noelle heard Gail's voice dim as they walked further away, "Some respect, boy, otherwise I may rethink making your favourite gravy."

"You don't have to do that," Adrian said lightly. "You know I'll love anything you cook."

And the last chatter Noelle could make out was Gail's reply: "I know I don't have to do anything. I want to. Now, shut up."

Noelle felt a pang of something in her chest—not quite jealousy, but perhaps something close to it. She'd never known a family who were so comfortable joking around with each other. Poppy's parents had always been too wary of their daughter's mental state to even attempt light teasing. And Cheri…well, Cheri was more than comfortable picking on her daughter—oh, sorry; 'just kidding around' with her daughter—but there was little love beneath her taunts.

But Adrian and his mother and his father did it all so easily. It seemed to Noelle—after only a few a minutes of observation—that to them, well, they'd just never considered it strange or unusual to speak such a comforting mixture of cheeky sarcasm and true fondness to one another. It was careless, almost natural for them, and Noelle found it unsettling. Nice, enviable, but unsettling, almost like she was imposing on something that she belonged nowhere near.

She'd never been great at meeting new people. She'd always been too wary, perhaps a little too nervous, always too eager for that person's approval all the while being too paranoid of leaving her back open for knives, that she'd never given a good first impression. She never knew how much of herself to offer this person, and how much she'd get back in return, so she often found herself in shallow relationships built only on face-value.

Of course, Adrian didn't know this—and really, why would he even consider it? He didn't know that throwing her in the deep end to swim with his family—after hours of attempt to tread angry seas with her mother—felt, well, like a slap of cold water in the face, if she was going to stick with the analogy. An ironic metaphor for someone who didn't know how to swim.

"Put the bloody footy back on!" a voice burst out, startling Noelle from her thoughts. Although she hadn't even noticed him slip by—and really, he was an almost impossible size to miss—it was Gary's distinctive voice that came booming through the house. Loud, but not particularly grouchy; Noelle instinctively moved towards the source of the sound.

In the living room, the furniture consisted of a long, L-shaped couch—on which she guessed usually lay the cushions that had been tossed to all corners of the rooms—as well as two matching armchairs, a coffee table, and a TV. On the TV, there was rapid flickering that showed evidence of a channel-related disagreement. On one of the armchairs, there was Gary. And on the floor, there were two teenagers rolling around, wrestling for the remote.

The girl, managing to escape the boy's headlock, swung a leg over her opponent and manoeuvred herself to sit on him, shoving his nose into the carpet. Her face scrunched up, showcasing the extra effort needed to pry the remote from the boy's death-grip, which remained determined despite the girl's best attempt to smother him against the floor. Finally yanking it free, she grinned and gave a chuckling, almost pitying, sigh. "Tsk, tsk," she said, leaning down so the boy—Noelle took an educated guess and said it was her brother—could hear her smug tone more clearly. "When will you ever learn? Older, smarter, and hell, stronger too, apparently."

Her brother gave a vicious, flailing kick that made the girl's expression waver for a second. "Get off," he growled. "And why are you such a bitch? We wanna watch the rest of the game."

"Oi!" Gary's voice cut through the air. "Jeremiah, watch your mouth. Kelsey, if you must tackle your brother, don't do it in front of the TV. Both of you sit down, shut up, and give me the remote. Let's try to act civilised while we have company."

At the mention of company, both teenagers' heads snapped towards the company in question; Noelle felt like a deer in headlights, caught loitering in the doorway, and pasted her best attempt at a friendly smile on her face. Excellent, she thought, another swell first impression—the poorly dressed creeper watching silently.

The girl—Kelsey—removed herself off her brother, threw the remote to her father, and straightened. "Company?" she repeated, gaze landing quickly on Noelle. "Hello, company."

Kelsey was short and somewhat frumpy, somehow managing to miss out on both Gary's naturally fit body-type and Gail's curves. Her hair sat closer to blonde than black, and her nose turned pointy at the end. But when her face folded into a smile, a dimple winked, and Noelle saw a wicked smile that could cause some havoc.

Jeremiah, on the other hand—who'd gotten to his feet, red-faced and trying to recompose himself from embarrassment to nonchalance—was his older brother's exact replica, minus approximately a decade. He was light-eyed and dark-haired and, from his stance, probably far enough into puberty to know he was good-looking.

Gary dragged his eyes from the screen. They found Noelle. "Sorry, love," he apologized. "Too preoccupied watching my poorly-placed money going down the drain on this game to think about introductions. Kids, this is Noelle." He paused, but his lips didn't, struggling to find the right words. "She's a, uh…uh, friend of Adrian's." His gaze searched her face for some indication that this was the right definition; when Noelle gave him a half-nod, Gary, satisfied, turned back to the telly.

Kelsey rolled her eyes. "Seriously, Dad, be more obvious."

Gary, now in control of the remote and seemingly placated, gave a half-hearted grumbled. "Compared to your mother's subtlety, I might as well be in covert ops."

"I wouldn't quit your day job," she shot back quickly, and Gary's mouth quirked at the barb. She worked her way over to Noelle and grinned her dangerous little smile. "Noelle, hi. I'm Kelsey."

"Hi. How's it going?" Noelle asked.

"Good." Kelsey's eyes appeared to be sparkling. "Very good."

Noelle squeezed out a smile, while internally she was seething at Adrian. She'd kill him. She really would. She'd do it in his own house if she had to. She'd do it with her bare hands if need be. She specifically recalled him promising that this was not meant to be some form of torture. And sure, while she had feared retribution for Hurricane Cheri Preston, him abandoning her with his family while he had a good old chat with his mother about her? What a strange and unusual punishment.

As if sensing her thoughts, Adrian materialised by her side. He at least has the courtesy to look apologetic when her heel jabbed him in the ankle.

"Hello, little sister," Adrian acknowledged with a nod. "Are we playing nice?"

Kelsey's gaze lifted off Noelle for the first time since she'd spotted her. "I'm always nice, bro," she said, punching him in the arm by way of greeting. She peered at him curiously, frowning a little, and gave his cheek a light slap. "You're looking significantly less homeless than usual. You get one of them Queer-Eye make-overs?"

Adrian tucked his sister under his arm, half-hug, half-headlock. "Hello to you too, Kels," he deadpanned, grinning, "it's nice to see you too, Kels. You look great too, Kels."

Kelsey wriggled from his hold. "You do look good, though. I almost didn't recognize you without your standard set of face pubes. Oh, my God; did you iron your shirt?"

Jeremiah scoffed and joined his sister. "More like he carried it around on a hanger since the day he bought it. Adrian wouldn't know what an iron was if it hit him square in the face."

"Well, I, personally," Kelsey added, "am amazed that we don't get fortnightly dirty-clothing drop-offs. Imagine Adrian's surprise when he moved out and his clothes didn't miraculously wash, dry, fold and put away themselves!"

Jeremiah pulled a shocked face. "Surely, sister dear, you aren't implying that he's figured out how to use a washing machine?"

It was much like watching a tennis match, Noelle decided, biting back her grin. Only both players seemed to be working together, pelting ball after ball against the chair umpire, who wanted desperately to call a fault only he couldn't seem to get a word in.

"Oh, Jeremiah, you sweet, naïve boy!" Kelsey put a hand on her younger brother's arm with a deeply piteous expression on her face—and then cast a sidelong and very cheeky look to her older brother. "There's been no reports of flying pigs in the paper, has there? And as long as its still largely accepted that hell is more sauna then ski resort, I'm sure we can agree that's a ridiculous idea. He must just not wash his dirty clothes and buy new ones."

Jeremiah smirked. "Maybe you're being a tad generous with the credit there, Kels. He'd still have to deal with dirty clothes lying around then. I'm thinkin' he just gets a new apartment every month or so."

"Ah. Some gasoline, a match, 'bye-bye, old apartment', and never looks back?"

"The whole shebang."

"Sounds about right."

"No wonder he's always too broke to visit."

Noelle used the slight lull in conversation to nudge Adrian. "I'm beginning to get the impression that you had a sloth-like past existence."

"Prepare yourself—Noelle, was it?"—Noelle temporarily steeled herself, but Adrian's sister breezed on, any malicious angle she may have had with that comment not held on to—, "that inner slob that we all know and—begrudgingly, only through family obligations, I promise—love will not take long to rear its head."

Adrian rolled his eyes and reached out, using his hands to knock his two siblings' heads together softly. He revealed to Noelle, "I swear to God the last time I was here, they hated each other."

Kelsey was quick. "Ever heard of uniting against a common enemy?" she asked, rubbing her head.

"Unfortunately, yes," Adrian said. "You two brats invented the term."

Jeremiah began to laugh, while Kelsey turned her sparkling, mischievous eyes onto Noelle. "Ah yes," she said. "A long list of successes—a personal favourite of mine would have to be calling the cops on drunk, darling big brother attempting to break into the house at 3am—but, of course, what possible victory could beat the condom story?"

"Christ," Adrian interjected weakly.

"—I would have been twelve, Jeremiah not much older than nine," Kelsey continued, as though not interrupted, "but we found great fun in breaking into Adrian's room, stealing his condoms, and taking the time to blow every last one up and redecorate the entire house with them. It was the perfect crime; who would suspect our angelic pre-pubescent faces when Adrian's face and his moronic friends' faces were just asking to be blamed?" The girl, who with every passing second was further supporting Noelle's earlier thought that she was more trouble than she seemed, recalled the memory with a fond smile. "Mum started screaming—something about young, impressionable siblings—and Dad started in on the heavily-quoted-since 'neither money nor condoms grow on trees, so don't waste either, ya schmuck' and then Adrian, at the height of his smartarsery, argued that technically money did grow on trees—nice move, by the way, you bright spark," she drawled sarcastically to Adrian, before going on, "—so of course Mum goes postal, hits him over the head, orders him to clean every last inch of the house that had been, um, spruced up, and made him listen to the revamped Sex Talk, Version 2.0."

"Great times," Jeremiah concluded, and as the younger Hastings children dissolved into laughter, Noelle turned to the remaining sibling with a smirk of her own.

"I may be wrong…" she began, and Adrian eyed her, his expression one of come-on-then-hit-me-with-your-best-shot expectancy, and Noelle, never one to disappoint, obliged, "but I'm pretty sure you just got your arse kicked by your younger brother and sister—for not nearly the first time either, it seems."

Adrian gave the type of smile people wore when they were well aware they were being laughed at. His arm swept around her once again and he drew her close against his side to murmur to her, "Don't count on that," before addressing a still-cackling Kelsey and Jeremiah. "That's very funny. I'll tell you what else is funny? Kelsey, that pregnancy test that mysteriously wound up in your room when Mum just happened to be cleaning out everyone's rubbish bins? Yeah, well, Jeremiah put it there after you spilled the beans on him going to a party and getting drunk. And Jere, you should probably know that broken china tea set that I think you're still getting a deducted allowance for apparently breaking with a Frisbee was actually broken when Kelsey was using her skipping rope in the house, an activity we all remember her being told a countless amount of times not to do, so she just placed your Frisbee there as a decoy."

The reaction was almost comical. It took less than thirty seconds for Kelsey and Jeremiah's faces to flash three or four times between guilt and anger, before both deciding on anger and proceeding to yell obscenities at each other.

"Do you want to rethink that last comment?" Adrian asked her, to which Noelle could only respond by raising her eyebrows. He grinned. "I have been playing this game a lot longer than either of them."

Although they were squabbling quite loudly and obliviously, Noelle still lowered her voice so to not seem patronising. "You're the adult. Aren't you meant to…I dunno, take the high road or something?"

Adrian's arm was still around her, his fingers drawing soft circles onto her skin. "I would, had those two little jerks not been plotting against me since they discovered they toddler-talk and baby-talk were quite similar languages."

Gail appeared behind them, brandishing a pair of oven mitts, one of which was used to swat Adrian. "Oh, he's lying. He was a spoilt little brat who hid in the closet until we promised we wouldn't bring home any more babies."

"Insert closet joke here," Kelsey took a break from calling Jeremiah something unmentionable to add.

Adrian borrowed his mother's oven mitt to hit his sister in the face with it.

Gail yanked it back off him and sighed impatiently. "Don't get me started on you two. Gary, just how many f-bombs to you have to hear from our underage children until you decide to interfere?"

"Just trying to gather some cash for the swear jar, love," Gary replied without lifting his gaze from the TV. He moved his gaze just once, to flutter his eyelashes like a beauty queen at his wife. "And plus, no one can parent as well as you can, dear."

Gail rolled her eyes. "Oh, you kissarse. Lunch is ready, all."

"Arse? That's a dollar in the swear jar, Mum," Jeremiah said cheekily.

The Hastings family's conduct of mealtime was an alien affair to Noelle. At her childhood house, all meals were eaten in a tense and uneasy silence, only ever interrupted by a smugly sneering reminder of one's calorie intake versus their calorie export, blah, blah, blah. The table was always set with a white table cloth, and family members were seated as far away from each other as possible, perhaps to give someone enough warning to prepare a defence in the likely event that they were attacked by rogue object or rogue relative.

The Hastings, however, were all cramped around their little dining room table—Noelle's elbows constantly duelling with Adrian's for arm room, as her legs simultaneously tried to stop their knees from hitting Gary's already cramped legs from his spot to the right of her at the head of the table, while also trying to not drive her heeled foot into Kelsey's very bare and very close toes opposite her—which was filled with so much roasted and delicious and seemingly never-ending food that Noelle wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't eating at Hogwarts that day.

Their chatter was animated and light-hearted, and despite the family's best attempts to ease Noelle into the conversation—and by that, of course, she meant Gail and Adrian's best attempts, Gary and Jeremiah's complete obliviousness to the situation being remotely uncomfortable, and Kelsey's contentment to just sit back and observe—Noelle was too preoccupied being amazed at the going-ons to offer an impression other than polite awkwardness.

Noelle couldn't help but note that the Hastings had a food-serving system. Gail served up first, initially onto her own plate and then piling up what she deemed a suitable amount of food onto another plate. This plate was passed clockwise until it reached Gary's hands. Then the other family members dished up; in the case of a roast, Adrian delved out meat onto his siblings' awaiting plates until they were satisfied with their heap—this was conveyed through a series of head movements and facial expressions—and then tongs were passed along to Kelsey, in charge of vegetable allocation—again, more nods and shakes and mouth twisting controlled the amount—and then finally Jeremiah, who had clearly completed this practise so many times he didn't even Adrian and Kelsey's non-verbal instructions, poured the gravy on each plate, raising his eyes only once, to monitor how much gravy she, Noelle, who was not privy to the Hastings' method of communication and had to respond verbally, wanted.

Second-helpings were another routine altogether. Without a word, each member just knew what every other member would want at that precise moment; for example, round two of beans and peas went from Gail to Adrian, paused momentarily to give the newbie an offer of seconds, and then continued play, skipping Gary and Kelsey—Kelsey instinctively leaning back to dodge blocking the serving plate as it passed across her—before landing in front of Jeremiah.

It was all so masterful and intriguing that Noelle had to remind herself to actually listen.

"So, Jere," Adrian said, pausing to offer potatoes to Noelle, and, when she declined, he automatically passed the plate off to his sister; Kelsey's waiting hands expertly served up two more potatoes without her eyes moving from her plate, before sliding the dish to her younger brother, "how's soccer going, kid?"

Jeremiah's face darkened at the use of word 'kid' and he lifted his middle finger to his face, flipping his brother off under the cover of scratching his nose. "S'good," he replied with a shrug.

"Good?" Kelsey echoed, finally lifting her gaze only to roll her eyes. "Mr. Ego-tastic is being modest? Let me get the camera." She directed her next statement to Adrian. "He got captain this season, you know. The senior team coach is looking to recruit him next year."

Jeremiah grinned into his food a little. "They wanted me to play with the seniors this year, actually, but…" His eyes leapt up accusingly to his mother.

"My fourteen-year-old baby will not be playing rough sport with eighteen-year-old men, thank you very much," Gail answered promptly.

Noelle watched Jeremiah struggle with the urge to reply to the term 'baby' similar to how he did the term 'kid'.

Adrian scoffed. "Seriously, Mum?" He looked amused. "They'd have to catch him to hurt him. You still making good track time?"

Jeremiah smirked, and the family resemblance was alarming. "Could run circles around you any day, bro."

Gary's face was full of gruff pride. "Boy's got a point." He pointed his fork in Adrian's direction. "Turns out all those years chasing you around to give you a clip behind the ears was just a warm up for dealing with Jere. I'm older and the little bastard's faster. You kids are gonna kill me."

One side of Adrian's mouth twisted up. "Just keepin' you young, Pops."

"And leave me out of it." Kelsey gave an exaggerated eye flutter. "I'm an angel, Daddy."

Gary patted his daughter's head. "Yes, you are, baby girl," he said, inciting the girl in question to shoot Adrian the biggest shit-eating smirk Noelle had ever seen, which in turn made Adrian's grin widen substantially. Big brother obviously approved of such behaviour, Noelle mused, continuing to watch and not being able to shake the feeling that she was watching a TV sitcom.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, was looking smugly at his mother. "See? I'm fast and I'm good. I'm really good. And Jesus, soccer isn't even a contact sport!"

Gail looked as discomfited as Noelle felt. She shut her eyes for a moment, gaining composure. "Be that as it may—" her eyes drifted over to Noelle and she broke off. Looking distinctly brighter, she continued, "Gosh, Noelle, forgive us, will you? We are being terribly rude." She shot Adrian a look that implied the aforemtioned rudeness—and from the severity of her glare, a shit-tonne of other, more horrendous things—was entirely his fault. "What about you, honey? Do you play much sport?"

Noelle swallowed. "Uh…not…really," she replied, putting a quick and concerned effort into accurately remembering the last time she'd actually played a sport. Perhaps the awful dodgeball fiasco of the compulsory tenth grade girls' P.E.? It turned out that social invisibility had no bearing of physical visibility when the girls' softball team were choosing peers as target practise. But because the woman was busting her gut, Noelle offered, "I don't mind watching it. I'm just not the most coordinated person."

Gail chuckled. "Oh, well, I can relate to that."

"Didn't you play netball for the state?" Kelsey supplied helpfully, continuing to confirm Noelle's suspicion that she was being tested by the teenage girl. Perhaps this was round two, Noelle considered with a sinking feeling in her stomach. If she'd survived the parents' round without being thrown out on her arse, did Kelsey try to create an environment of discomfort to test the thickness of Adrian's guests' skin? Was she involved in some sort of survival of the fittest gameshow that picked out the weak organisms?

Gail, however, did not seem to be in on the joke. She shot her daughter a quick look. "I meant after I had you kids, of course. So, Noelle, what do you like to do in your spare time then?"

Noelle swallowed a too-large piece of pumpkin and winced as it lodged uncomfortably in her throat. She took a large sip of water and a painful gulp later fixed the problem, but after all that found her mind still completely and embarrassingly blank. What did she like to do in her spare time?

Nothing came to mind. She felt her cheeks heat up. She couldn't even muster up a stammer or a stutter to fill the dragging-out silence that filled the room, as everyone unlucky enough to witness it tried to adjust to the very awkward lack of response from her. It continued on excruciatingly, the Hastings adopting the deer-in-headlights-position, while Noelle willed the previously-homicidal piece of pumpkin to crawl back up her oesophagus and do the job properly this time.

It was awful. Even Jeremiah and Gary couldn't stay oblivious to the tension. Even Kelsey seemed to take pity on her.

"I like to dance," she said, shrugging a little. "I used to do a lot of ballet and tap and jazz, but I quit a couple years ago. It's still something I like though."

Noelle regained some footing. "Uh, yeah. I don't really get a lot of spare time with work and everything."

"Oh, yeah? Where do ya work, love?" Gary asked, trying to be helpful, Noelle was sure, but not aware that actually he was not only pushing her into her self-dug grave, he was also kicking a nice pile of dirt into her face.

She didn't work particularly long or stressful hours. She worked as a personal assistant—although, she believed Go-For-Bitch was a more accurate title—in a going-nowhere job for roughly the same pay as a McDonald's worker. She also apparently had no hobbies. And right now she was about to cry.

She couldn't blame the Hastings. She couldn't even blame Adrian. They were trying to include her, they weren't being invasive or prying; they were just being politely interested in the girl their son had brought home with him, the girl they were giving benefit of the doubt to, despite best judgement, because Adrian had brought her here, and they were nice, good people in a nice, good family who supported each other and each other's houseguests.

Adrian's hand slid onto her knee, perhaps intended as a touch of reassurance, but in reality made Noelle' currently fragile heart just about burst out of her chest in shock. Her leg flew up instinctively, and Adrian got the unfortunate experience of having his hand wedged between her knee cap and the underside of the wooden tabletop.

"Fuck!" flew automatically out of his mouth, and while usually the sound of Adrian yelping—and yelp, he most certainly did—would have been cause for a round of hearty laughter and a monologue or two questioning the presence of a Y chromosome in his DNA, in this situation, Noelle's hands leapt to her mouth in order to smother her horrified expression, not her mirth.

"Shit! I'm so sorry!" she cried, gripping onto Adrian's

"Alright, troops," Gail announced, dragging her serviette across her mouth before dumping it on her plate. "You'll all have to entertain yourselves for about half an hour while I prepare dessert. Noelle, honey, do you want to help me cut up some fruit?"

"Mum—" Adrian interjected, sounding disapproving.

Noelle nearly sobbed in relief. "Yes, I'd love to," she managed out, and scrambled out of her chair to join Gail in the kitchen.

The kitchen was a chaotic sort of place. Plates, pots and pans in various states of cleanliness were stacked by the sink, leaning against the microwave, in an unstable leaning tower on the island counter that Noelle, personally, found more impressive than anything Paris was pimping out, even balanced precariously on the window sill above the drying rack—which was, ironically, the only bare space in the kitchen. The fruit bowl was filled with bills, party invitations, keys, jewellery and a sock, almost a Hastings Family Lost and Found. To the left of the aforementioned bowl there was a jar half-filled with coins, rather humourlessly labelled with a bright pink post-it that read, "The Fucking Swear Jar".

Noelle's attention was brought back to Gail as the woman headed to the fridge—covered top to bottom in papers and photos all held up with dozens and dozens of those promotional magnets that companies sent out to you, as though the split second you read them while searching for something to eat would encourage you to enlist the help of their company—and when she shut the door closed, she was carrying a pyramid of fruit containers, secured down the bottom by her hands while her chin kept things balanced at the tip.

She pushed a large packet of flour to the side and spread the containers out in the vacated space. She wiped down a nearby chopping board and put that down too. She smiled invitingly at Noelle, handed her a knife handle-first and said, "Thanks so much for your help, Noelle," which Noelle figured that was her cue

She stared down at the assorted fruit in front of her—bananas, oranges, kiwi fruit, strawberries, blueberries, boysenberries, never-seen-or-heard-of-'em-before-berries—with roughly the same comprehension she'd offer a paper on organic chemistry. Martha Stewart, she was not.

Gail chuckled quietly. "I promise you I'm not some sort of Kitchen-Nazi. Cut them up in whichever manner appeals to you."

Noelle set about cutting strawberries into bite-shaped pieces, concentrating on not chopping off her fingers, glad to have something to do other than wince over what an absolute moron she managed to be. She felt eyes on her and lifted her head, stilling her cutting for a moment and offering an apologetic smile.

"Sorry, I'm a bit slower than you probably are," she said to Gail, attempting—perhaps unwisely—multi-tasking by resuming her slicing. "Truth is—" she paused, narrowly avoiding the unintentional inclusion of her pointer finger in the fruit mix, "—I'm not the most, uh, domestic person."

Gail laughed. "Oh, honey, that's more than fine. Before I got married, my culinary skills consisted mostly of being able to recite every take-out restaurant's number in the area off-by-heart."

Noelle smiled, knowing Adrian's mother was exaggerating to make her feel better, but appreciating it all the same. "I've pushed that one step closer—speed dial."

"Ah, modern technology."

Noelle laughed weakly, and it obviously made Gail drop the pretence. She cleaned her fingers on a tea towel and then dropped that too. "Alright, honey," she said, eyebrows raised, "why don't you tell me what's got you all nervous?"

Noelle's eyes stayed for a moment on the collection of odd-shaped fruit morsels she'd chopped. "You didn't ask me in here to chop fruit, did you?" she said, a hint of an accusation sneaking into her tone.

"No, I'm afraid not," Gail said, amongst a hearty but not unkind laugh. "You were looking a little…lost at the table."

Noelle kept cutting up her apples, more as a distraction from her own words, as a reason not to look at Adrian's mother as she said them. "I'm—I'm not quite used to a family like yours." Gail seemed to struggle over whether to be offended or complimented by that so Noelle elaborated, "That is sincerely the nicest thing I could possibly tell you. We just had brunch at my mother's house. I'm—I don't—my family isn't anything like yours, and it's just been a while since I've remembered how much I hate that."

Gail frowned. "I'm very sad to hear that. And I'm also very sorry that my bone-headed son dragged you here so soon. He means well, but let's face it, it's lucky the boy's got a decent face on him, 'cause he's a bit thick sometimes."

Such a comment managed to draw a loud, unexpected, yet very sincere bark of mirth from Noelle. She was contemplating moving onto the mangoes next, but Gail gently removed the knife from her hand and caught her eye with her own gaze.

Gail's smile was casual, her body language relaxed, but her continued threading of the tea towel through her fingers had Noelle believing the other woman was not as comfortable as she seemed. It perplexed Noelle slightly; what reason did this woman have to be walking on egg shells? Why on earth would this woman be nervous speaking to her?

"Noelle," Gail stated quietly, "I'm not sure if you know this—well, that's ridiculous, I'm about ninety percent certain you don't—but anyway, I don't think you know this, but Jeremiah has a girlfriend as well." She paused, unwrapped the towel from her left pointer finger and thumb and then re-bandaged them, this time including two more fingers. "She's a real ambitious girl—a gorgeous girl—and she's always made it clear how her life is and how it will be. She's going to be a doctor, so she's top in her class. She's a state-ranked horse rider, she plays soccer and basketball, and in her spare time, she volunteers at the retirement hostel down on Burke."

Noelle nodded in response to that, because she didn't quite know the correct manner in which to reply to someone who was listing the numerous superior qualities a girl who had to be ten years her juniors had over herself. However, Gail was apparently not done, still twisting her tea towel around her hands absently.

"But, you see, I know—in that special way that all mothers know—that when Jere comes home crabby, slamming doors and smart-arsing his father, that she's the reason why. I know who's calling when he silences his phone and shoves it back into his pocket without answering it. I know that they are young and its new and they are meant to be feeling these things for the first time and feeling them so passionately, but I don't care. It's not in a mother's irrational brain to care.

"Here's what I do care about: that Jeremiah's never given me a warning look before I ask his girlfriend for help in the kitchen; that Jeremiah's girlfriend has never faltered at all, has never once stumbled over any comment to lead me to believe she cares what I think of her; I care that never, not once, have I been jealous of Jeremiah's girlfriend for having my son's arm around her, for making me think that maybe, just maybe, he might care more about her than he does me. And I can tell you for sure that Jeremiah wouldn't be in the other room just now, kicking Kelsey in the leg and telling her off for being rude to his girlfriend. And Kelsey's never been so on edge, because she's never thought Jeremiah's girlfriend might be capable of breaking his heart.

"I care, Noelle," Gail concluded, and for one, horrifying moment Noelle feared the woman might cry, "that Adrian's here, in the house, around us, laughing and joking, for the first time in a while. With an ironed shirt—" she broke off with a laugh, "which I assure you is rarity that hasn't been witnessed since he moved out. And that he's helping me in the kitchen and opening jars open for me and catching my arm and saying, 'How's things, Mum?' like he honestly, truly wants to know how things are. So, no, I don't care if you aren't making a six-figure salary, or if you aren't a culinary maestro, or if you don't have seventeen thousand mundane hobbies that show how versatile you are—all that matters to me is that Adrian's here and he's happy, and that in that odd, maternal, and yes, somewhat envious, part of me, I know that its you, that you're the reason why he's smiling."

It shocked Noelle to realise that if she didn't do some fast blinking to ease the sting in her eyes and some heavy swallowing over the lump in her throat that she, too, might cry. Which was stupid and so, so ridiculous, because they were just words, and she'd learnt long ago that words were just words and that they couldn't physically hurt you, they couldn't affect you if you determinedly refused to let them, that mere letters couldn't determine your state of your mind. But then again, these were different words. And maybe she wanted to keep these different words. Maybe it was okay, just this once, to let herself be impacted by words, even slightly overdramatised words from an emotional mother who was trying to comfort her—and maybe ever herself, as a mother—because that was the instinct.

So she smiled at Gail, and the woman smiled back, and they shared a moment together, smiling, oddly teary and touched, before Noelle went back to chopping fruit. They served ice-cream with fruit salad and syrup, and Noelle sat back down and allowed herself to be nervous and blush, and to answer questions with dumb, unimpressive answers, and to sit up a little straighter, a little more confidentially, when her and Gary managed to have a substantial conversation about who was the best James Bond and who might be the next, or when Jeremiah thanked her for being the only person at the table who realised that he had little use for piles of fruit and as such it made sense that his ratio of ice-cream be significantly larger in his bowl, or when Kelsey said—albeit slightly unwittingly, and shooting her older brother a thundery look for it—that she liked her bracelet. And when Adrian reached under the table to hold her thumb between his fingers, she allowed that too.

It was after dessert that she got the grand tour—of the dining room that Adrian said was only ever used for Hastings disciplinary hearings rather than actual dining, or the laundry room that Adrian swore, with three kids, a dirty man and a compulsive mother, had never not had the washing machine whirring, of the backyard where two old German Shepherds, the aptly-named Warne and Waugh, were sunbaking in what little sun the day was providing against the brick wall of the house that was decorated by a faded chalk outline of a wicket and stumps—and her and Adrian, by pure luck of having travelled anticlockwise around the house, ended up in his room very last.

During her angst-filled teen years, when some of her more spiteful and vicious moments had coincided with some of Adrian's most heartless ones, Noelle had often thought about Adrian's bedroom—and probably not in the same lust-fuelled context she presumed the majority of Huntingdale High girls had—and all of it's going-ons. She'd fantasized, cattily, of him failing to get it up whilst rolling around with pretty, confident Amy Burke. She'd imagined him drawing blinds closed and giving into his hidden desire to whack off to gay prison porn. Maybe, she'd hoped gleefully, he even cried himself to sleep each night.

In not one of these nasty scenarios, however, had Noelle actually considered the backdrop of the bedroom itself. She'd never pictured Adrian's bedroom to have any life or eccentricity to it. And, really, why would she? She'd fancied Adrian a desperate, closeted-homosexual who deflected his hidden sexuality by uncaringly contributing to the constant shitstorm that was Poppy's life; it would be inconvenient for him to have a personality.

But now, with a belly full of food, a face full of smile and a heart full of something unmentionable, she saw the room for what it really was.

And that was the Adrian Hastings she'd never actually known.

The room was standard in set-up; hard-wood floorboards, a bed—a single bed, Noelle smirked internally—covered with simple navy sheets folded with hospital corners Noelle would bet good money on Adrian having nothing to do with, a bookcase stack haphazardly with school-designated texts, old exercise books with loose-leaf pages stick out at all angles, some heavy uni-standard textbooks page-marked heavily with post-its and other materials that from a first glance could only be grouped together under the category 'other crap'. Boxes also lay about the room, filled to the brim with mostly odds-and-ends that—again, working on a presumption—while hadn't been necessities to pack when he'd moved to the city, held a sentimental value that had prevented both Adrian and Gail from chucking them; photos and high-marked essays and trophies and signed sports memorabilia spilled from them. The walls held markings which told the story of posters stuck up only to be ripped down later on.

But, in essence, the room showed more than a post-high school boy who'd yet to completely abandon the nest; it continued with the running theme that lay about the house, a sighing sort of contentment, a gentle Somebody will always think of here fondly as home.

"Huh," was the word Noelle settled for, and it sat deep in her throat.

A chuckle hit the back of her neck. "That's exactly the reaction I was shooting for."

Noelle grinned and wandered over to the bed—surely Adrian himself couldn't lay comfortably on it, let alone any company that he may have entertained. She sat down and even bounced up on it a little bit, feeling like a little kid, but not particularly caring. Adrian watched from the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, looking as amused as she felt.

"Having fun?" he asked, walking into the room.

She flopped back onto her back, spreading herself out so her limbs dangled over the edges. And then she propped herself up on elbows and settled against the pillows, noticing that Adrian had knelt down to inspect the contents of a few boxes near his feet. As she surveyed him, she realised they were purposely keeping conversation light so not to dwell on how obvious their past was in this room, as though it were laying in just another box in front of them.

"So…" Noelle drew the word out slowly. "This is where the all the magic happened, huh?"

Adrian halted his box-raiding and stood up. "I think that's meant to be my line," he said.

"Whoops." Noelle allowed herself to smirk. "But, seriously, here I am, a girl, in your bedroom—isn't there some tally you need to add a mark to?"

Adrian's smile spread across his face. "While I hate to shatter the very flattering illusion you have of me," he said, squeezing her kneecap between his thumb and forefinger as he crossed the room, "you might be interested to know that you are the first notch on this particular bedpost."

Noelle's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

He stopped flicking through an old book from his shelf to briefly meet her gaze, lips still slightly quirked. "I mean you're the first girl I've brought home."

Noelle shot up into a sitting position. Adrian, still roaming the room and reacquainting himself with his possessions, didn't notice her sudden movement, or her shocked expression as her mind pushed puzzle pieces together. "Seriously? Is that what all of…that—" she waved her hand in the general direction of the kitchen, from where she could hear the clinking sounds of dessert preparations being made, "—was about? Because, rather than being just another girl, I'm actually, in fact, the only girl?"

"I would say that's an accurate summation."

Noelle's brain struggled with that. "But—but—and I mean this in the least insulting way possible—how is that possible?"

Adrian walked over to her and sat at the opposite end of the bed. "Well," he drew the word out slowly, as thought testing how it felt on his tongue, "by never bringing home a girl before, I thus made it possible to have never brought home a girl before."

She tossed him a half-heartedly annoyed look. "Not even Amy Burke?"

"Amy was…worried how she'd be accepted into this house." A corner of his mouth lifted. "Without the sugar-coating, she was convinced my mother would think she was a whore and chase her out of the house with a broom. It didn't exactly devastate me that she didn't meet my family."

"So no girls?"

"No girls."

"No girls at all?"

That grin twitched in its struggle to break through. "Would it be easier if I wrote it down? No girls at all."

Noelle leant back against the head of his bed, her skull landing with a soft thump on the wall behind it. "Huh. So no girls at all."

"Ye gods. A breakthrough." Adrian must have sensed her continued inability to fully grasp the situation, so he elaborated, "Come on. Think about it, Noelle. Other than maybe Amy, and even that's a bit of a stretch, I wasn't serious about anyone back then. All that bringing them home would have accomplished is giving them the wrong idea and giving my mum the wrong idea. Kelsey and Jeremiah were pretty young back then too. My parents wouldn't have tolerated me fooling around with random girls with my 'impressionable young siblings' in the next room. It just wouldn't have been right."

Noelle let those words marinate. So, did that mean that Adrian was serious enough about her to give his mother—and her, Noelle—the wrong impression? Or, in that case, would that willingness mean that it was actually the right impression he was giving?

Perhaps, had she been needy or insecure or extremely vulnerable at that time, she'd had caught his eye and let the words tumble out—so, why me then? Why bring me when you've obviously been holding out for someone wonderful? Why let your family think that, after so many years, the best you can come up with is someone with ugly clothing and bad posture?

Oh, hell, she was needy and insecure and extremely vulnerable, as well as being beaten-down and so unbelievably desperate for some sign of affection that fishing for compliments seemed to be the next logical action. But something stopped her; something had her swallowing the words and searching for some fresh ones. Maybe it was a fear of hearing a knock-you-on-your-ass response of "Whoa, dude, I was just trying to cheer you up."?

Except it wasn't—it was common sense, a concept she'd neglected chronically in the past. Adrian wasn't an idiot. He wasn't about to haphazardly throw around words that she could oh-so easily read further into without meaning them, particularly at a stage where she was so yearning for emotional comfort. He wasn't so cruel or insensitive or just plain thick-headed as to bring her into the walls of this home for the wrong reasons if it didn't actually mean something.

So, instead, she just said, for the third time that day, "Huh."

Adrian smiled then—that soft smile that would have made her feel like she was the only person in the room even if she'd been standing in the middle of the MCG on grand final day. "C'mere," he said quietly, and she obliged, crawling over to him with as much as grace as an already uncoordinated person could manage on a mattress. And as she settled against him, fitting into that place where her body hummed in satisfaction, his fingers chased up her face and around to the sides of her cheekbones and he said, "You really need to stop saying 'huh'."

Noelle kissed the side of his neck, her lips finding his pulse. "Then you're going to have to stop rendering me speechless with your conversation."

Adrian tossed aside bobby pins until he could successfully release her hair. He smiled a That's-Much-Better smile when his hands could fight their way deep into her hair. "I bet I can find some other ways to render you speechless," he murmured, and his tongue found hers and Noelle thought, hell, maybe he could.

Their rendezvous was cut short only ten minutes into it in a manner more humiliating than Noelle could have imagined—Gail walking into the room to ask if they wanted tea, only to break off with a startled "Oh, gosh!" at having caught them tangled around each other on her son's childhood bed.

Noelle tried to subtly unhook her legs from Adrian's hips and failed miserably, ending up in a heap of awkwardness against the wall.

Adrian was smirking. "Tea sounds good, thanks Mum—Noelle?"

"Yes, thanks," she murmured, smiling timidly at Gail.

Gail loitered by the door. "We'll be out in a sec," Adrian assured her, and it was with the wish to crawl into her quite-frequently desired hole in the ground that Noelle realised that assurance had a more important unsaid promise attached to the end of it. Yes, we'll be out in a sec—and no, we won't be stripping off our clothes and bumping uglies in the meantime.

"Oh, take your time!" Gail said innocently, and left, pausing to add, with the door just ajar enough to fit her head through it, "Let's just keep this open a bit, okay?"

Adrian laughed out loud this time and even when Noelle scrambled off the bed, re-arranged her clothes, combed a few fingers through her hair and encouraged him to do the same, he was still chuckling to himself.

"Why are you still laughing? Aren't you just a touch embarrassed?" Noelle asked him.

"Nah," he said easily. "I've denied her that privilledge for years. Trust me when I say she enjoyed it. The only tension out there is going to be between my parents, because Dad probably wanted to do it himself."

It was several hours and cups of tea later when Adrian and Noelle realised they would want to head off soon if they wanted to get home before it got too dark. Gail got a bit teary again when this announcement was made, but Noelle suspected she was the only one who noticed, and when they met gazes, Gail hurried off to the kitchen to load them up with more leftovers than was practical.

They huddled by the screen door to say goodbye—although Jeremiah answered his mobile and disappeared, his farewells consisting of slapping his brother on the chest and giving Noelle a little half-wave, half-salute with two fingers—and Gail was first.

She hugged her son close to her—or as close as she could, when he had three oven trays of left over roast in his arms. "Don't you dare be a stranger," she said as she pulled back, the expression on her face so intimate that Noelle shifted a little, feeling like she was intruding on a highly personal moment.

Adrian's mouth quirked. "I won't. I'd forgotten how good the food was here. Cheap, too."

Seeing that answer for what lay beneath the joke and seemingly satisfied with it, Gail nodded once and then moved onto Noelle, enveloping the girl into her own hug. She leant back, gave Noelle one of the special, Hastings-produced smiles that had something like elation bubbling in Noelle's chest, and said, "You neither. You're welcome back here anytime you wish. And I mean that—you're a damn-sight more refined then these apes I seem to have brought up."

Kelsey, leaning against the doorframe of the living room, smirked. "Any other Hastings' children feeling overcome with love?"

"I love you, dear," Gail said with a shrug. "You just aren't that polished, I'm afraid."

Kelsey scoffed. "Don't compare me with him please," she said, and headed over to the him in question, armed with a Little Sister Smile that made Adrian respond with a Big Brother Grin, and again, Noelle felt like she was interfering. She kissed him on the cheek, ruffled his hair, and then punched him on the arm, as though the two displays of affection had to be contradicted by violence. "Catchya, bro."

Kelsey nodded politely at Noelle and then commented, "Nice to meet you, Noelle. I like the grooming work you've done on Sir Slovenly here," which while not exactly being a warm hug, at least showed some positive progress from the teenager.

Adrian saved her from having to respond awkwardly to that goodbye. "Would y'all lay off please?" he asked. "You've been making it seem like I usually wander around in a potato sack, communicating in caveman grunts."

The Hastings' family all exchanged looks. "Well…" Kelsey started.

Even Adrian had a grin. "Unbelievable."

Gary gave a large chuckle and clasped his son on the shoulder with one hand, landing the other massive paw more lightly against Noelle's back. "Thanks for stopping by. Adrian, don't turn up empty-handed again, you lousy moocher. Noelle, lovely to meet you, darl. Drive safe, kids."

They headed off to Adrian's car a lot happier than they'd arrived, and Adrian had to nudge her with his shoulder three times before it managed to break through her reverie.

"So," Adrian posed to Noelle as she loaded the plates of food into the backseat of his car. "Was that better than sleep, greasy food and chick flicks?"

Noelle, face still hidden tucked away in his car, allowed a grin to expand over the majority of her face. "Hmm," she said in mock-thought. "Definitely better than sleep and greasy food. On a par with chick flicks—but only those containing Hugh Grant."

Adrian pulled her back by the hips and turned her to face him. "Well, that's good. I'm choosing to take it as a compliment being put on the same level as Hugh Grant."

"You should." Noelle smiled and looked past him into his house. "They're amazing. I hope you realise how lucky you are." There was no need to clarify she'd jumped from the subject of Hugh Grant.

Adrian's thumbs dipped into the crevasses by her hipbones. "I know I'm lucky. I'll admit I haven't always realised, but I do now."

She couldn't take her gaze from the outlines in the window. "Do you think they'd adopt me?" she asked, finally looking back at Adrian, mouth curved upward.

He rolled his eyes light-heartedly. "Silly girl," he commented briefly, backing her into his car again, hands slipping onto some less innocent places. Her bottom hit the seat and she gripped Adrian's shirt to steady herself. "You realise," Adrian went on, even as he was moving into a horizontal position, "that, technically, that would make us brother and sister?"

"Oh. Thus making all this very wrong?"

"Very wrong," Adrian confirmed with a nod. He moved so he half-covered her, knocking a plate of roast vegetables to the floor. Before she could reach down to retrieve the left-overs she had the full intention of having for lunch tomorrow, he caught her eye. "And yes, they'd adopt you in a second."

"So, they liked me?" Noelle asked.

"They liked you. Mum was two seconds away from discussing china patterns," he said, and despite the content of the sentence, he did not dwell on it; his head bent down to her collarbone, locating some skin he must have thought looked nice enough to nibble on. "A hell of a lot more than your mother liked me, I'm sure."

She pondered that with a grin. "Hm. Crazy day, huh?"

"Crazy fucking day," Adrian agreed.

And then their lips met and it was almost funny how they were making out like horny kids—first in his cramped bedroom, and now in his shitbox car—back in their hometown, trying to desperately grope each other before a parent busted them. And no, it actually was funny and it was cliché and Noelle broke away, trying to explain through giggles why she was laughing to Adrian, who seemed more preoccupied trying to get his hands under her skirt. And then he hit the right spot and Noelle thought that maybe his idea was more fun than hers.

"You're spilling food everywhere," she protested, however weakly.

"I don't mind."

"Door's still open," she managed to remind him.

"Don't care."

"Your mum might come out and tell us to leave the door open a little bit. Or offer us more tea."

That did it. Adrian sighed and wiggled down her. He stood up and pulled her out of the car. He shut the door behind her and pressed her against it with his body. He was smiling gently, his fingers weaving through her hair.

She caught his hand in her own. "What?"

His eyes snapped back to her, almost startled, and if he hadn't been touching her, she might had believed he'd forgotten she was there. "I don't know. You just look nice… with some colour in your cheeks and a smile on you face…and, well…"

"Some sanity in my brain?" Noelle suggested, using their gripped hands to give her head a little tap.

His answer was tentative. "It has been a little while."

She smirked and gave him a little kiss, because she couldn't not at that moment, with his hips against hers and their fingers together and something amazingly heavy and lovely deep in her chest. He pushed into her and extended her little kiss into something definitely not little.

"This has been a little while too, huh," Noelle commented when she broke apart from his mouth, and Adrian gave a little scoff that when translated from caveman to English probably would have read something like no fucking kidding.

The flywire screen door banged open suddenly, jerking them apart, and then they were treated to a long and loud set of coordinated wolf-whistles, catcalls and hoots from the occupants of the house.

And for the first time that day—and really, it was about time—Noelle chose to be amused rather than mortified. "I think you're being cockblocked by your own family."

Adrian's head fell onto her shoulder again. "This isn't fair," he murmured weakly against her skin.

Noelle blew a raspberry. "Fair-schmair. Unless you've got any other adventures planned for the night, I suggest we head off home so I can't start planning the most interesting way to apologize to you."

"Actually," Adrian said, his eyes on her but his mind somewhere else. "I think there's one more place we should go."

And so Noelle found herself, for the second time the day, in the passenger's seat of Adrian's car with no clue where she might end up. This time, though, Noelle chose to settle back and relax, trusting Adrian's gut instinct without argument.

A/N:Wow. So, for anyone who over the past year and a half has not given up on me/forgotten completely who the characters and therefore not bothering to catch up/considered me dead over the past year and a half, and for some odd reason is still here caring, I am forever grateful.

I'm not even going to bother with excuses. Instead, I think we'll arrange a time in a nice, well-lit street, arm you all with sticks and let you all hit me with them until the satisfactory apologizes spill at out me. Like a piñata.

Also, since in has been over a year, and a highly doubt any newborns have such amazing motor skills as to work their way onto fictionpress, I can accurately say this: HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALL! I hope you all had a lovely day, and I'm sorry for missing it .

If anyone would like to review, even if only to call me nasty names, it would be greatly appreciated :)