"Hey Renee. What do you think of this?" I asked, holding a button down, long–sleeved, dark purple and black blouse just under my chin.

The brunette gave me a thoughtful expression before she grinned and said, "I like it. It goes well with your hair and contrasts nicely with your eyes."

I added it to the growing pile of clothes hanging over my arm. We were out shopping for new school clothes since the first day of our return to that venerable institution was just over a week away. "The Incident" as it was sometimes called, but only very rarely spoken about, and its aftermath had taken up most of the second half of our summer vacation. The family trip to Disney had been quickly cancelled as had the weekend at the beach and the weekend at the lake although that last trip had only been postponed rather than cancelled. Since the lake house was ours and we didn't need to worry about reservations it was a simple task to move the trip from mid-August to the first weekend in September. We'd picked up a couple of new swimsuits at PacSun before making the trek down the crowded mall to Hot Topic.

It was my favorite store. I may not have mentioned this before but I'm kind of a drama geek although I usually only work backstage. Being relatively tall helps when trying to hang lights from the fly rail and getting to the taller portions of the sets without having to use a ladder. I also keep my hair in kind of ragged pixie cut so that it stays out of my face. Whether behind the stage or in my classes my normal attire usually consists of blue or black skinny jeans with my favorite black motorcycle boots or black Converse. On top you'll usually find me in a dark, short or long-sleeved t-shirt or button-down blouse and either a black or grey hoodie or my black leather bomber jacket. Even my underwear is mostly dark and monochromatic.

Now contrast that with the short-ish, curvy brunette looking over heavy metal t-shirts for me while wearing white capris, a pale yellow button-down shirt and her absolute favorite white and pink adidas trainers. And yes, since I saw her in them this morning as she was running around getting dressed, she loves her white cotton panties with the smiley face on the butt and matching bra. She's also everybody's friend while I may have a few acquaintances but only one real friend. We are so freaking different it's not funny and there has been more than one person that simply shook their head when they saw us together.

Did I tell you how lucky I am to have her as my best friend?

There was another, ulterior motive for this sudden shopping trip. Renee's father was doing his allocution this afternoon and no one – her father, my mom and dad, or Dr. Thompson – thought that she needed to hear the gruesome details on what her father had walked in on that night and how her brother had died. The prosecutor and his own defense counsel, with the assistance of my mom, had finally talked some sense into the man and gotten him to accept a plea agreement. He'd still be going away for ten to twenty years in the county jail with an opportunity for parole, but it was a lot less time than he could have received. Renee had already had this explained to her and she'd spent some time with her father yesterday so that they could say their goodbyes. They promised to write to each other and call whenever they could, and then they'd hugged for about fifteen minutes straight until the bailiff finally decided that he really needed to take Mr. Baker back to his cell. One last squeeze and a kiss on the cheek and they'd parted for probably the next six to eight years.

Needless to say Renee had ended up in my bed again last night, but it was becoming almost a regular occurrence anyway considering her nightmares. In the two weeks since she'd come home she'd spent all but two nights in my bed and we'd spent one of those night in hers when we fell asleep watching Shrek.

So instead of sitting and balling our eyes out in a crowded courtroom filled with members of the press we were at the mall shopping. It may sound callous but I swear it was the best thing for both of them.

I grabbed one more navy blue shirt from the rack and turned back to her. "Ready for the fashion show?" I asked with a grin.

With her excited reply of "yippee" ringing in my ears I spent the next half hour bouncing in and out of the dressing cubicle showing her one outfit after another. Since I only had three pairs of pants to try on – black jeans, washed denim blue jeans and a pair of black leather pants – it was mostly the blouses and t-shirts that got changed. By the end of the show I had two pairs of pants (the black leather looked and felt good but would be too hot until later in the season) and five shirts to ring up at the cash register.

Then it was Renee's turn. We actually found a couple of really cute dresses and skirts for her there but decided to head back to Macy's for the rest of the outing. By the end of the day my parents were down a couple of hundred bucks and I was exhausted and ready to head home for a nap. I knew that Renee was still raring to go but she took pity on me and agreed to head back to the old homestead.

I never did get that nap. As soon as we walked through the door my mother decided she needed a fashion show of her own. By the time that was accomplished dinner was essentially ready and we all sat down to eat.

"I'm not surprised Hot Topic has some cute things in addition to the grunge you usually wear, Marie," my mother grinned. "Honey," she said turning to my father, "do you remember that gown I wore, oh, about sixteen years ago when we went out dancing? Do you remember where I got it?" she smirked.

My father grinned widely and leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head, chuckling. "How could I forget? You looked so great and even though it didn't show a whole lot of skin it clung to you so nicely," he smirked.

"Where did it come from?" Renee asked innocently, walking right into their trap.

"Frederick's of Hollywood," they both replied in unison, earning a wide-eyed, drop jawed look from Renee. "Not everything they carry is risqué," my mother smiled shyly.

"Wasn't that the night that Marie was conceived?" my dad asked with a sly grin.

"It could have been," mother replied in such an uncharacteristically demure and innocent voice that I nearly choked on my water which got all three of them laughing at me.

Dinner was a relatively happy affair. I did, however, give my mother "the look" to let her know that I needed to speak with her. When my father offered to do the dishes Renee quickly offered to help out. I knew then that my father had caught "the look" and was doing his part to give my mom and me some time alone.

"How was the mall?" she asked as soon as we got out onto the deck off the kitchen and the door closed behind us.

"It was fun," I replied. You'd think that would make me smile, but it didn't. "I saw Sarah MacCallum. She was standing over by the food court while Renee and I were waiting for our drinks at Auntie Anne's. She got this big smile on her face when she saw me and started to wave, but then she saw Renee. Her hand dropped down slowly and the smile left her face real quick. I could see the pity in her eyes. She just turned and walked away," I sighed unhappily.

"Try not to take it too hard, dear," my mom said quietly as she reached up to wrap her arm around my shoulders and pull me into a hug. "She probably wasn't the first and I'm sure she won't be the last. People are going to have a lot of trouble figuring out how to approach Renee. It's really not their fault. We did everything we could to keep the news out of the media. George even spoke to the head of broadcasting at one of the local stations and in turn he made a few calls. Not one word regarding Renee, her brother, or even her father made it into the mainstream media. But…" she sighed, "tongues wag. There were enough witnesses to see Robert in cuffs and Renee on the stretcher that I'm sure the word got around the neighborhood. And if it did you can be sure that most of the students at school know about it by now. It's one of the negatives of Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social media sites. Privacy has pretty much gone to hell.

"All you can do is to be there for her, dear," she hugged me tighter. "People will eventually start to try to break down the barrier that's been built up around her."

"It's going to hurt her," I sniffed. "She's used to being everyone's friend. When everyone seems to be shunning her it's going to hurt like hell."

"I know sweetie. That's why you need to be there for her. You'll be the rock she can lean on and the bridge others can use to try to span the gulf that's been opened between them. Don't get mad at them for not knowing what to say, and don't try to push it too fast. It'll happen when it happens."

"I want to protect her," I said in a whisper as I laid my head on her shoulder.

She glanced over at me with a look that I hadn't seen before. It had a little bit of surprise, maybe a bit of concern, but also a lot of love mixed in. "You do that sweetie," she smiled and kissed me on the forehead.

By the time we'd finished our talk dad and Renee had already completed washing and drying the dishes and putting them away. Yes we had a dishwasher, but my parents had always felt that cleaning up after meals was an important part of family time just like the meal itself.

"She's up in her room putting her new clothes away," my father said with a grin and a nod of his head in the direction of the stairs. "Why don't you go keep her company and then the two of you can put your new clothes away?" he suggested. I was half way up the stairs before he finished speaking. I heard some light mumbles from that direction and knew my mom was giving him a brief on our own discussion. That was fine with me. I didn't really have any secrets from them. I would have been just as happy with him there at the time, but he was better suited to being with Renee and giving me and my mother time to talk.

Renee's door was cracked open so I simply pushed it a bit further and slipped in before closing it behind me. If the door had been shut I would have had to knock to be polite. Renee was big on politeness. It had been that way for as long as I could remember. Despite how much time we spent together and at each other's houses we respected the other person's privacy. I know it had saved me an embarrassing moment or two in recent years.

My friend was crouched down in front of her dresser putting her new t-shirts away. She'd changed into a pair of short-shorts and a tank top and I couldn't help but notice that the shorts slid down her backside to reveal a touch of a plumber's crack just above the hem of her white panties. The back of her shirt had also ridden up a bit to reveal an enticing expanse of the smooth, pale skin of her back. For some reason I couldn't take my eyes from the sight and I felt a bit of a fluttery feeling in the pit of my stomach. When she turned her head to look over her shoulder at me with that smile of hers I ended up sliding down the closed door to sit on the floor.

"Are you okay?" she asked with a slightly concerned look on her face. I couldn't help but grin.

"Yeah."

"You sure? You look kind of…I don't know, drunk maybe? Did you and your mom have some wine or something?"

"Nah," I said with a wave of my hand. "I'm just…slaphappy, tired, you know?" I chuckled. Renee smiled at me again and I could have sworn my stomach did a little flip of joy! Renee went back to putting her clothes away and my eyes went back to admiring the sight. I'd worry about the "why" of it later. It was when I noticed her shoulders slump a bit and a tightness enter her muscles that I knew something was wrong. I didn't bother standing up, I just crawled over to her and put my arms around her and sat back, pulling her so that she sat between my legs with her back against me.

"I'm scared," she murmured quietly as she grasped my hands resting on her belly and squeezed. I didn't say anything, just held her a little tighter knowing that she'd say what she needed to when she needed to. "Things are going to be different now at school. People are going to be looking at me and thinking about…the incident. They're going to be gossiping about the girl that was incestuously raped by her own brother and the father that killed his own son. It's not that big of a school. Everyone's going to know."

I sighed. "All of that's true," I told her softly. I felt her stiffen in my arms but I didn't want to lie to her. We'd never lied to each other in all the years we'd been together and I wasn't about to start now. "But that doesn't need to reflect on you or who you are. It's not that they won't like you any less than they did. They're just going to have a hard time working up the courage to talk to you. They won't know what to say." I felt her relax again and I laid my chin on her shoulder. I could see the glistening of tears on her cheek. "It's like when Justin's little brother died. Everyone wanted to support him but didn't know how to go about it. Saying, 'I'm sorry that happened' just sounds so hollow sometimes. They forget that usually you don't have to say a word. Just a kind look or a hug is all it takes to get your point across. They'll eventually figure it out and things will go back to normal."

"But…what if they now think I'm some kind of slut? What if some guy starts coming on to me thinking I'd be an easy lay?"

"Then they'll find themselves on the ground with a fat lip and a bloody nose," I said quietly but fiercely. "I won't let anything like that happen to you."

"But you won't be around me all the time. We'll probably be in different classes most of the time. You won't be able to…"

"Then you'll handle it yourself," I interrupted her to stop her round of 'what if's.' "Or one of your other friends will help you out. You're strong, Renee. I know you are. And everyone loves you."

"I'm just afraid I'm going to be left alone," she whimpered.

I raised my hand and used the pad of my thumb to wipe away the tears on her cheek but they just kept coming. "I'll always be there for you love," I whispered and then leaned forward to place a soft kiss on her cheek, tasting the saltiness of her pain and fear and wishing I could take those feelings away from her.

She nodded and turned a bit so that she could put her arms around me and laid her head on my chest. We stayed that way, just holding each other until the tears slowed and eventually stopped. She sighed and then sat back. My arms didn't want to relinquish their hold but I forced myself to give her up and let her sit on her own. I realized I missed the warmth of her arms around my waist. Then she looked up into my eyes with this sad little look and I just wanted to gather her up again and tell her everything would be all right for as long as it took for it to actually happen. I realized my mind and emotions were going to places that they hadn't been before but I wasn't ready to take the time to analyze them in depth. Renee needed me. That's all that mattered at the moment.

"Thanks Marie," she said softly. "I love you, you know."

My heart did its little flip again at those soft-spoken words but I told it to cool its jets. This wasn't the time.

"Love you too sweetie," I smiled gently, reaching out and brushing my hand down her hair. She leaned into my palm briefly before taking a deep breath and sitting up straighter. She turned around, put the last shirt in the bottom drawer and then turned to look at me.

"Let's get your new clothes put away as well," she said with a small smile.

I nodded and stood, reaching down to give her a hand up. Her smaller hand in mine felt so fragile but I knew that the last thing she wanted from me was my pity so I grinned again and walked over to open the door. I had my hand on the knob when her arms snuck around my waist and her head was pressed against my back. I didn't say another word, just put my hands over hers where they lay on my stomach until she stood back up, taking back her hands and her dignity. I opened the door and we headed across the hall to my room.

-oo-

Have I told you how much I've come to hate hospital waiting rooms? Maybe it's different for those people that can go home at the end of their shift, but having spent three weeks here I've pretty much given up any thoughts of following in my father's footsteps.

While Renee was in the hospital her rape counselor, Dr. Jessica Thompson – she insisted on being called Jessie – would go to Renee's room to have their talks. Since she'd been released they were scheduled to meet every Thursday afternoon at the office she kept in the medical wing of the large facility. We took advantage of the local bus service since both of my parents worked and neither of us had our license yet. It's the same way we'd gone to and from the mall when we'd gone shopping.

Since it was still a hospital it had that same "aroma" that I had come to associate only with buildings filled with sick people trying desperately to get well or simply waiting for the inevitable. It was the smell of disinfectant, illness, ammonia resistant germs, and death. It was the absolute last place I wanted to be, but it was also where Renee needed to be for at least an hour a week so I swallowed my revulsion along with a eucalyptus breath mint and waited patiently for her session to end.

Jessie and I had spoken frequently after her sessions with Renee, mostly with her telling me how much my friend counted on my strength and how important it was that I be there for her. As if I had any intentions of ever leaving her side. She hadn't said anything to me after the first session once Renee had been discharged. She'd simply given me a smile and a nod, her eyes reinforcing what we had already talked about. For some reason today was different.

"Renee, why don't you take a seat for a few minutes. I'd like to speak to Marie for a bit," the short-haired blonde said with a warm smile for her patient.

"Sure," Marie grinned, taking a seat and picking up one of the many magazines lying around, "I'll check up on the latest doings from Miley and Serena."

I followed the doctor back into her office and she closed the door behind us. If I had been expecting the typical dark paneled room with a chair sitting next to a couch I would have been gravely disappointed. The walls were painted in a warm white with just a hint of a yellow tinge. The furniture, from the desk and chair in the corner to the comfortable looking sitting area with a sofa backed against the wall facing two matching chairs with a coffee table between them, were all in blond woods and bright but durable fabrics. The doctor's various diplomas and certificates were on the wall behind her desk, but the rest of the walls held paintings that depicted scenes of sunshine and happiness. The entire ambiance was welcoming and relaxing. Dr. Thompson took one of the two chairs so I decided to sit in the other. What that said about me, not wanting to sit on the sofa, I would let the good doctor decide.

"How long have you and Renee known each other?" Jessie asked, as she crossed her shapely legs beneath the powder blue skirt she was wearing that day.

"We've been best friends since we were four or five years old," I replied, noting that she'd picked up her voice recorder and turned it on. I wondered if she transcribed her own notes or had someone do it for her. Both my mom and dad used transcription services for that kind of work. I didn't envy the poor people having to try to figure out my mom's handwriting. My father's, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of what you'd usually expect from a doctor. His handwriting had always been neat and crisp, easily legible.

"So you're close?" she asked with a small grin.

"Like I said. She's my best friend," I shrugged. "I don't have all that many friends, but Renee's always been there for me and I've always been there for her. We became even closer when her mother died, more like sisters than friends, but even better. We never had the sibling rivalries that some kids go through."

"So you never argue?"

I laughed. "Sure we argue, but never about anything important. We're different from each other, but in a good way. We have different likes and dislikes, but that only means that we can learn from each other. We respect each other."

Jessie smiled at me. "That sounds like me and my sister," she chuckled, "except that we sometimes fought like cats and dogs. Usually about boys," she winked at me.

"We've never done anything like that," I smiled back. "Neither of us has ever been much into the whole 'oh, isn't he so cute' or 'I wish he'd ask me out' kind of things. Renee's the more outgoing of the two of us," I said and then the smile I'd been wearing sort of slipped away, "at least she was. She was always everyone's friend while I've been more of a loner except for her. It frightens me how everything might change once we get back to school."

"You think things will change?" she asked with a concerned look on her face so I told her about Sarah MacCallum and what had happened at the mall. I also told her what my mom had told me.

"You've got a pretty smart mother," she nodded. "I agree with everything she said. It's not that her old friends won't want to talk to her. They just won't know exactly how. I also agree that they may try to use you as sort of a go-between. It's important that you encourage them to talk to her and let them know that she's still the same sweet girl she's always been. But…" she paused.

I waited a moment to see if she'd continue but she seemed to be trying to formulate the words she wanted to use. "'But'," I softly prompted her when she didn't speak after a minute. Jessie sighed.

"I guess what I want to say is…don't let her become so dependent on you that she doesn't make her own efforts in reaching out to others. It's obvious to me how much she cares about you…and how much you care about her in return. She mentioned that you've started calling her 'love'."

"Yeah," I grinned a bit shyly. "It just sort of slipped out once and, I don't know, it just felt right."

"Yes, well," the blonde doctor nodded, "just remember what I said. Don't let her be too dependent on you. Push her to try to interact with her other friends as well. It's important that she try to at least get her school life back to some form of normalcy even if her home life is now totally different from what it was. No," she shook her head, "not just different," she smiled at me, "better."

"I'll do what I can, Doc," I grinned at her, knowing she hated to be called that. She was kind enough to laugh at my attempt to lighten the mood.

We both stood and she walked me to the door.

"Have your mother call me when she gets a chance. I'd like to discuss some things with her as well."

"Sure Jessie," I replied as we walked back into the waiting room. Renee looked up from her magazine.

"Ah, you were too quick. I didn't get a chance to read about Johnny Depp's new movie," she pouted cutely. I just rolled my eyes at her and grabbed her hand to pull her out of the chair. "See you next week Jessie," she waved to the doctor that was trying hard not to laugh behind her hand.

We quietly talked about our discussions on the bus ride home. I didn't ask too many questions and neither did she, but the basic gist was covered. It was nice to compare notes with each other. As I've said, we've never had any secrets or lied to each other and we didn't want to start now. But we also respect the other person's privacy and so only spoke of what we felt comfortable talking about. That pretty much meant I told her most of what Jessie and I'd discussed and Renee promised to try not to use me as a way to put up walls between her and her other friends and I promised to kick her in the keister if I thought she was holding back too much.

By the time we got home we may not have had a formal plan about how to handle things at school, but we did at least have an understanding between the two of us.