Chapter 2

6:30 the next morning, and Maria was still asleep in the spot that Nell had been curled up on. Nell was just happy that her sister hadn't actually kicked her out of bed. She'd been up at 6:00, using the quiet and peace to get a little more work done on her paper before everyone else woke up and she had to busy herself with moving her mother's clothes and room décor. She got an extra paragraph worth of notes before she had to take a shower.

When she'd gotten her notes in order, Nell shook Maria awake. It would take Maria five minutes to pick out her outfit for the day and by then, Nell would be finished with her shower and she could dry her hair while Maria showered.

True to expectations, Nell was brushing her teeth when Maria stepped into the shower. Nell looked back over her shoulder, enough to see Maria's perfectly coordinated outfit hung up and on the back of the bathroom door. Instead of a matching, flirty set like she'd had yesterday, this was a pair of dark, bootcut jeans, a T-shirt, and a denim blouse with pockets on the sleeves and front bust to match the jeans.

"...More conservative than I would have expected from you, today." Nell commented, spitting her toothpaste into the sink. She could hear Maria humming something under the spray of the water.

"This brother of Fanny's is here because they need help moving furniture." Maria answered, with a little more venom in her voice than Nell would have expected for such an inane statement, "But we still live here, and I'm not about to be pushed aside like a wuss just because I'm a girl." The water shut off, "Could you..."

Nell had a towel extended to Maria's groping hand before she even finished the question, then moved on to brushing her hair. She'd been seeing a lot more split ends and gray hairs, lately, but had put off plucking or dying them.

"Anyway..." Maria continued, "I figured it would be smarter to wear something that was easier to move in, something that I could get dirty, that way I could show off that I'm stronger than I look." She poked her head out as Nell finished with pulling her hair back and up into the usual up-twist and securing it with a clip. It was the simplest, the lowest maintenance, and the easiest to do.

"Is that so?" Nell asked, managing to sound non-chalant. Actually, it did sound practical – the sooner the moving was finished, the sooner everything would settle down. And, as far as Nell could see, helping Fanny and John move in might make them a little less unpleasant.

It would, also, Nell realized, be very awkward for Maria and Fanny's brother and knowing Maria, she'd take any kind of awkwardness personally, and who knew what Fanny's brother was like and how he'd interpret anything Maria said or did – John and Fanny had obviously not taken Maria's greeting and dinner yesterday as the compliment it was.

"Um... Maria, I should probably help them move the furniture." She suggested, picking up her pajamas and Maria's and heading for the door, "You can stay inside and help Mama with her things."

Maria stuck her head out from behind the shower curtain.


"Besides, I'm stronger. It'd make sense."

Maria's eyes rolled back and she slumped, smiling.

"...THANK you."

Nell shot a grin back at Maria, knowing full well it would be at least another twenty minutes until her sister had finished her hair and makeup.

"Hurry up and get dressed – I'll get breakfast started."

She barely had the door closed before she heard Maria call through it,

"Start the coffee – whenever you make breakfast, it's always bran muffins or some crap."

By the time Maria had finished with her makeup and hair, she could already hear rustling from upstairs. It was probably Mama and Mags, since she knew they loved it when she made breakfast. She took care to tiptoe up the stairs and creep around John and Fanny, where they were still spread out on the living room floor, like a target just inviting her to step on them.

The smell of coffee from the kitchen was what eventually woke them up, just as Maria had pulled a tray of freshly baked bagels from the oven. Well, okay, she would admit, not really fresh – just from a bag of frozen bagels that Maria had put into the oven and pulled out a tub of cream cheese and a couple jars of jelly to put on them. Nobody could find that offensive.

By 7:30, she, Mama, John, and Fanny had all had at least two cups of coffee, and Maria had come to several more conclusions about John's new wife – namely, that she was a snobby, picky, princess. Maria had plenty of cream and sugar in hers and Mama's coffee, and John had taken his black with a few ice cubes so he could chug it without burning his mouth. Fanny, instead, had asked if there was any skim milk – or, if she couldn't find that, at least fat-free creamer – and had pouted when Maria told her that she had no idea what "Splenda" was. Maria was ready to slap Fanny as she pulled open every cabinet looking for something other than sugar by the time Nell interjected.

"We've got honey, if that helps." True to form, Nell had just stuck a mug of water into the microwave and dropped in a bag of tea. She even extended the jar of honey towards Fanny.

"Oh, I hate honey." Was her casual dismissal.

Maria popped one of her knuckles. Nell shot her a look.

"How about cocoa powder? No sugar added... it tastes just like normal chocolate..."

"I'm not in the mood for a mocha."


"Oh, nevermind – I'll just have it black."

Maria considered herself very gracious by only sending Fanny's back a dirty look. When she glanced towards John, he turned his back and stared out the window, as though looking for his keys or something else equally important.

"Where's this coffee from?" Fanny finally asked, pasting that wrinkle-free, fake smile on her face, "Brazil? Columbia? Guatemala?"

This time, Maria sent the dirty look directly in Fanny's face. Mama kept her head bent over her mug, pretending she didn't understand the names of all the countries Fanny was listing off. Fanny turned to Nell.

"Really – it smells wonderful. It's got to be AT LEAST from Costa Rica."

Nell set down her mug of tea.

"...I don't know – we just get it from Safeway."

The smile Maria saw Fanny shoot back made her want to throw the whole pot of hot coffee right in Fanny's skinny, plastic face.

They were interrupted by the stupid little dog that had been in Fanny's purse jumping onto the back of the couch and barking out the window.

"Oh, that must be Ed." Maria was glad to see Fanny leave the breakfast counter and go over to the window. She was less glad to see Nell stand up and follow her – Nell hadn't done herself much justice with the jeans and T-shirt she'd pulled on, and Maria could already just hear Fanny making snide remarks to her stuck-up brother about how ghetto they must both look, and she wasn't about to sit and listen to it.

It also didn't help when Mama stood up and followed Nell to the window. Maria stood back for a moment and looked at the three of them – first, Fanny with no fanny at all, in a prissy white skirt and blouse, like she was scared she'd get dirty if she wore anything darker than pastel colors, standing right in the middle of the window and somehow took up all the standing room even though she could have probably fit into one of the window FRAMES. Nell, in her old, patched corduroys and clay brown T-shirt with the Chicago band logo on it, had taken the farthest corner of the window and was doing a better job of being unobtrusive than anyone had any business being. If it had been Maria, she would have shoved Fanny out of the way – or at least stood right next to her, just to show her that they weren't going to be pushed around in their own home.

Which was almost what Mama was doing – even if she wasn't doing a very good job of it, being easily a foot shorter than Fanny and looking tiny and fragile in her black slacks and turtleneck. After a moment of considering, Maria pulled herself away from the counter and went over to stand behind Mama, subtly nudging Fanny with a hip and silently wishing that the blonde bimbo would just take the hint and move over.

Through the window, the four of them could see a strange car – an old, black Cadillac sedan – slowly edging forward, then backwards, then forward again in the gutter off the side of the driveway. It was like the driver was either too claustrophobic to park in the driveway alongside John and Fanny's car, or was trying to put off getting out of the car and come to the house, or both.

When the car finally stopped and the driver's door popped open, Nell put a hand on Maria's shoulder.

"Vamanos." She jerked her head back towards the kitchen, "We should put the milk and stuff away before they go bad."

Well, fine. Nevermind that Maria had wanted to get a good look at this Ed before he came barging in and started pushing them around like Fanny did. She reluctantly slumped after Nell back to the kitchen.

"What're you thinking for lunch?" Nell continued, still in Spanish, "It'll be easier if we've got a plan than if we have to stop and spend an hour arguing, right?"

"I dunno. Grilled cheese, maybe?"

"That sounds good – with salad or something. I want Margret to get at least some fruits or vegetables with this meal."

"Hey! I can make grilled cheese with veggies. Y'just gotta slice up the tomatoes before I start them up."

"Still..." Nell shook her head and put the plates into the dishwasher, "Speaking of which, while you and M'ma are moving everything, keep your eyes open for Maggie. She wasn't at dinner, yesterday and M'ma said she didn't go to bed last night – I'm starting to get worried about her."

Maria huffed.

"She probably doesn't want to have to stay in the same room or talk to people who won't even treat her like they're family. Let her hide – I know I would if I could!"

"What are you two talking about, over there?" Fanny finally butted in. Maria looked up from the fridge, where she'd been rearranging the cream cheese and jelly, and almost blurted out that it was none of Fanny's stupid business. She stopped herself by remembering just in time her solemn vow to never speak to Fanny.

"...Meal plans for the day." Nell answered, when it was obvious that Maria wouldn't, "It'll make things go smoother, that way."

"Oh." Fanny smiled, "That's very sweet of you."

Maria was starting to get the feeling that when Fanny said 'That's sweet of you' she really meant something very different. It made her wonder what Fanny said when she really meant that she thought someone was sweet, or if she was just incapable of feeling appreciative.

The door opened and prevented any further discussion on the topic. The little dog started to yap, it's entire lower body wiggling with the velocity of its wagging tail.

The young man who shut the door behind him, Maria couldn't see clearly from her vantage point back in the kitchen. All she could see was that he had dark hair – closer to a dark, chocolatey brown than a black.

"Ed! About time you got here – we've got bagels and coffee. C'mon in. And don't forget to take off your shoes!"

That was supposed to be Mama's line. It made Maria's blood boil to hear Fanny say it – especially the way she did, like it was a demand rather than a request. What happened to hospitality – had nobody taught this woman what it meant to be a hostess?

Ed didn't say anything in response – all Maria heard was the clump of someone's shoes being kicked off and stacked on the floor.

"Oh, don't worry about that – just leave them whereever. And hurry up!"

Maria would've slammed the refrigerator door shut if it weren't for the automatic spring cushion attached to the hinge. Nell shot her another look, this time like she was telling her to watch it. Maria shot another look back, as though telling Nell to watch herself. Silently fuming, Maria strode out of the kitchen and out to meet this Ed Ferrars, personally.

By the time Ed had climbed the stairs, Maria had gotten a good look at him. He wasn't skinny – at least, not as skinny as Fanny was – but he wasn't chubby, either. Most of his body was solid, except for his skinny shoulders and arms. His wide, thin cheeks and flat chin were exactly like Fanny's, and his nose looked like it might have been the same as Fanny's – especially the bridge that connected to the forehead – except Fanny's had obviously been altered and Ed's looked as though someone had smashed a fist into it, once or twice. It was enough that Maria was almost distracted from all the other things about Ed that were so radically different from Fanny – his posture was neither straight and commanding nor casual and relaxed, but those boney, broad shoulders were collapsed as though he were trying to shield himself and his chin was tucked as though the whole of his neck was trying to edge away from the collar that was chafing at him.

Actually, if Maria was reading him correctly, Ed's whole body seemed to be trying to edge away from his clothes, like those fancy Michael Korr's jeans or that prissy shirt with the Ralph Lauren logo on the collar were lined with needle tips or sandpaper.

Or maybe the reason he was cringing was because everyone was staring at him. Not just Maria, but Mama, Nell, John, of course Fanny, even the stupid dog. None of them could see what his eye color was, because those were fixed firmly on the floor, even though Maria could tell he wasn't nearly interested in the color or design of the carpet.

"Hi, Ed!" John extended a hand and broke the silence, "Haven't seen you since the wedding – how've you been?"

Ed lifted his eyes briefly and extended a limp hand, only barely gripping John's fingers.

" uh... I... uh... um..." Ed started to speak, his voice rough and quiet, "...g-g-guh... um... i'm... uh... g-g-g... tha-... um... ha-ha-... Hi, J-John..."

Maria caught a brief glimpse of Ed's eyes as he scanned over her, Nell, and Mama before quickly going back to the floor – they were a thin, watery green, like whoever had mixed the colors for them was too timid to make them either a bright or dark green or a bright or dark blue and had just given up at the watercolor sketch.

"Uh..." The broad forehead and it's mop of loose, curly hair bobbed in their direction, "...Uh... an-... um... h-h-h... ha-hi... um..."

For whatever reason, Maria had the distinct impression that Ed was having trouble looking any of them in the eye or saying hello because he didn't know how to address them, rather than the elitism behind Fanny's brand of silence.

"Oh, yeah – um, this's Ms. Rodriguez and my half-sisters, Elleanor and Maria Anne and... well, Maggie isn't here, but I told you 'bout her on the phone, remember?" John nodded in each of their directions, while Ed kept glancing up and down. Actually, now that Maria looked, Ed was shifting from foot to foot, like he really wanted to beat it out of there.

"...Y-y-y... uh, yeah..." Ed glanced up, found their mother and waved, almost imperceptibly.

"Buenos dias." Mama offered, her voice strained with cheeriness.

"...b-buh... uh... b-b-bue-buenos d-di-dias..." Ed muttered, drooping, again. At least, this time, he was staring at their feet instead of his own.

"Right. Ed, where're your bags? I can show you which room you'll be staying in." Fanny said. She had to have seen the scowl Maria sent her way, and likewise was blatantly ignoring it.

From the quick glance – very, very quick – that Ed sent Maria's way, he obviously saw it, too.

"Um... th-that's uh... i-i-I'd... um... uh... I was... was... was, uh, th-thinking... um... j-just... uh... muh-maybe i-I'd g-get, um... jus'get a... uh... ho-ho-hot-t-tel room and, um..." Ed's voice grew steadily quieter the further he went into his sentence. If his voice had been higher or less rough, it might have grated on Maria's ears to hear someone stutter so much and speak so haltingly. Finally, Fanny cut him off.

"Ed, you can stay here – remember, you're here to help us move, and it wouldn't make sense for you to stay in a hotel and wake up so early to get here, then have to drive back late at night. Didn't John mention that when you talked last night?"

Maria definitely saw Ed's eyes travel across the shins of herself, Nell, and Mama.

"...w-well... y-y-yeah, but... um..." Fanny opened her mouth to cut him off, again.

"So? C'mon, let's get your stuff out of the car and then we can start with mine and John's stuff." She tugged on his arm, only mildly resisted.

"...Uh... i-I... w-well... um... I, uh... th-the c-c-c-couch..." Ed stammered.

"Ed, don't mumble – you're not a kid, anymore." Fanny snapped, letting go of his arm and crossing her arms. Somehow, Maria could just see Fanny as a kid – she probably HAD been one of those passive-aggressive bully girls, too.

Ed's ears turned red and Maria could hardly understand the next words that he finally stammered out,

"I-I-It'd, uh... icansleeponthecouch..." When Maria worked out what he'd said, even then, she didn't believe it. Fanny blinked, apparently just as uncomprehending, and then baffled, "...Uh... J-J-Juh-John t-told me... um... th-th-there're alrea-... already uh... suh-six people and... and... and uh... w-well... I'd just, um... I c-could... y'know... just suh-um-... s-sleep..." Ed gave up and gestured, vaguely, towards the long couch propped up against the wall under the window.

The room lapsed back into silence, especially when it became clear that Ed had no intention of getting his bags out of the car. Not yet, at any rate. Maria glanced in Nell's direction, unsure of what to think of Ed at this point and only hoping that her older sister would have some sort of idea or at least give her a clue.

Nell did nothing of the sort – she had a glazed look in her eyes as she outright stared at Ed. So much for Nell being the dependable one around here.

"Coffee?" Maria jumped to hear Mama's voice, and no longer strained in it's cheer. Ed glanced up, again, and blinked at their mother, "You want?"

Ed was very quiet for a moment, still blinking at their mother.

"Oh... uh... c-c-coffee... um... guh-gracias? N-nuh-no... problemo? Um..." Ed glanced towards Maria and Nell, as though asking for help.

Maria didn't know about Nell, but she still didn't know what to think.

"So." John said, brightly, "Let's get to unloading."

"Y-yeah." Ed said with a smile. Somehow, Maria had a feeling that it was identical to the smile she'd worn when Nell said that she would unload the trucks with Ed. The two of them were down the stairs and out the door before Fanny could make any further remarks or anything.

"Maria." Mama tugged on Maria's elbow as John and Fanny trooped out to the cars to unload more suitcases. Maria followed her mother towards the master suite, "You saw it, right?"

Maria blinked. Mama was honestly smiling.

"The look on your sister's face. You saw that."

Maria thought about it for a moment. She certainly had seen the look on Nell's face, but why that would matter, she couldn't think.

One of the first rules of the courtroom, Nell had recited to herself just prior to Ed Ferrars' arrival, was to know your judge. It was a standard that all law students learned – if you could avoid it, don't bring a drunk driver before a teetotaler judge, or a messy divorce before a Catholic judge. Therefore, it was the most practical course of action to observe and get a measure of someone before deciding how you acted around them, and just act as inoffensive as possible until it was possible to understand how they would interpret your behavior.

With this in mind, she had been prepared for anything from Ed to be almost exactly like John – after all, Fanny had married John, and it was said that women preferred to marry men who were most like other men in their families, so it was a logical conjecture that Fanny's father and brothers were like John – to an Ed Ferrars that was the spitting image of Fanny, herself – after all, they were family.

So, when she found herself alone with a stammering, sheepish, subdued Ed, Nell had to resist the urge to reach over and pluck off some hairs to send in for DNA testing. No way this could be Fanny's BROTHER – he had to be at least adopted or something.

The two of them stood, alone, at the foot of the porch steps for several minutes. Ed kept shifting from foot to foot – if Nell didn't know better, she would have thought he was standing on a bed of coals or something – and she see him glancing at her out of the corners of his eyes every so often.

Not that she was staring at him – no, that would be rude – but she did keep sending him looks, waiting for him to start moving. After all, she was just out here to lend some muscle to moving John and Fanny's furniture. It's not like she was directing the project or anything.

Finally, Ed stood up, straighter. When he stopped slouching – or hunching, really, that was a better word for his posture – he was almost the exact same height as Nell. Maybe an inch taller or shorter – maybe their shoes were throwing things off, a little. It didn't matter in a moment, because Ed offered his right hand while somehow keeping his elbow tight against his side.

"Um... h-hi..." He mumbled, still not looking fully at her, but at least not looking at the ground or their shoes, "...h-h-hi... um... h-h-how sh-shuh... uh... how sh-sh-sh-should, uh..." A pause as Ed cleared his throat, "...Should I c-c-c-call..."

Mentally, Nell was trying to remember what she'd learned from her speech class about dealing with people with speech impediments – remain patient, refrain from interrupting, pay attention to what they were saying, maintain a relaxed and open body stance...

"...c-call... uh... wha-what... um..." His ears were turning the same red as they had when Fanny had badgered him. Nell could see dark freckles on the rims of his ears, "...Uh, Muh-Miss... Miss R-R-Rod-Rodriguez?"

Ed finally made eye contact with her, long enough for Nell to blink and put on her best, politely confused face.

"...N-no? M-Miss... M-M-Ms? Ms. R-Rodrig-g-guez?" Ed's tone sounded like a game-show contestant during the final round when all they could do was guess until the timer ran out, hoping they at least hit close to the right answer, "...Ms. D-D-Dashw-w-wood? Muh-Ms. D-Dashwood-R-Rodriguez? Ms. Rod-Rodriguez-Da-Dashwood?"

Without realizing it, Nell felt her eyebrows crease together, then relax as the rest of her brain kicked into gear. Was he asking for her name? Had Fanny and John seriously not told him?

She thought back to his behavior inside – he'd had the same trouble in greeting them, had responded to Mama's greeting in Spanish, had resisted Fanny trying to push him into staying Maria's room, and at least made an attempt to communicate with Mama in her native tongue instead of just talking to Nell or Maria the way most people did. Maybe it was just a hunch, but Nell figured that Ed was probably asking for a very different reason.

"Nell's fine." She said, taking his hand and giving it a quick squeeze. The best, half-way compromise she'd been able to come up with to the traditional handshake. Not too firm, not to limp, not liable to break someone's wrist, but not about to let them break HERS.

Ed blinked, as though shocked that she'd answered him so succinctly. Or maybe he was surprised that she'd just understood what he meant to ask. Then, his hand squeezed hers right back, not too firm and not too limp. For as sweaty as his hand was, it didn't feel oily or clammy. When he let go, Nell made no attempt wipe her hand off.

Apparently, Ed noticed and seemed to appreciate it, because he fished a packet of Kleenex out of his pocket and offered her one with a twitching smile.

"From Elleanor." Nell confirmed, a little relieved to take the tissue, "But you already know that. What should I call you? Mister Ferrars?"

Ed's smile twitched a little more. His ears were reddening, again. Nell had the feeling that if she'd used a different voice – like Maria's overly friendly voice or Margret's cheerful, childishly innocent greeting – it might have actually made him start to cry.

"Um... n-n-no... eh-eh-... Ed's f-f-f-... guh-guh-goo-... juh-just... jus'Ed..."

Nell offered a smile right back and resisted the urge to pull the usual 'Just Ed' joke. Besides, Maria would probably do that later, anyway.

Ed cleared his throat, again and spoke up with false bravado.

"So!" He straightened up, turning completely away and speaking to the stretch of open lawn that was in the furthest direction from the driveway, "Let's um... let-let-let's get unloa-unloading."

Even though Ed didn't see it, Nell responded with a smile.

Thankfully, there wasn't much speaking during the process of unloading a couch, table, and set of chairs from the back of the first moving van. It took some maneuvering to reach the living room and set them down, especially since Mama's couch and the dining room set from Papa was also set up, which left very little room for very much. Still, it was possible, and that was what counted.

The next words they exchanged came when it came time to move a large, completely assembled – and very, very heavy – entertainment set out of the van. The piece was easy enough to pull out of the van, and just a little harder to get up the steps to the porch. Getting it through the front door took a good ten minutes, with both of their grips occasionally slipping and the door being just barely big enough to accommodate the huge stand, and only at just the right angle.

It was on the stairs leading up from the foyer that Ed's stamina – or, at least, his grip – failed and he dropped his end. Nell braced herself against the floor and slid for only a minute before she regained her footing, adjusted to the extra weight, and shifted so that the wall next to the stairs took some of the weight. If she'd been on the stairs – or, for that matter, if the floor in the foyer had been anything but carpet and Nell had been wearing less tractable shoes – she probably would have been seriously hurt, but as was, her reflexes and extra muscle were enough.

Something that Ed had not known.

"MISS NELL!" The otherwise quiet and low voice of Edward Ferrars climbed in pitch so quickly that Nell didn't recognize it for a moment until she felt the stairs thump as he clambered down and threw his thin hands under the shelves, pushing the shelf into the wall.

"Nell?" Maria's voice joined Ed's as her sister quickly appeared over the railing and stared, anxiously, "What happened?"

Nell caught her breath, then calmed down as she carefully shifted her body to properly support the shelf on her own.

"...I'm fine." She said, more to Ed than to Maria. It was clearly the best choice – Maria knew how strong Nell was, and was really more interested in what had happened, "Just a slip."

Ed's eyes looked wide enough that his eyeballs seemed to be popping out of his sockets.

"...Ah-ah-ah-ah-are y-y-y-y-y-y-y-you... sh-sh-sh-sh-sh... yuh-you're... s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s..." In addition to that, his voice sounded like his vocal chords – maybe his lungs, for that matter – were attempting to jump out of his throat, what with the way his breath kept hitching and the sound kept jumping.

"¡Aguarde!" Maria shouted, interrupting Ed and seeming not to care that she was talking over him and that he wouldn't be able to understand her, "Nell, what happened – did he drop this thing on you or something?"

"Claro que no." She actually felt offended on Ed's behalf that Maria would think so poorly of him, "His grip slipped – trust me, I know how slippery his hands are. I'm fine."


Nell shot her sister a dirty look.

"Would you just get down here and grab the other end – we could use the extra hands with this stupid thing."

Ed's expression had gone from concern – or panic, really, if Nell was going to be honest – to utter bafflement as he looked between Nell and Maria. It didn't matter, because Maria more than willingly came down the stairs and firmly lifted the other end of the shelf. Even with the three of them, it was slow going up the stairs and took them an extra fifteen minutes to maneuver the stupid thing up against the wall.

It was at that moment that Maria decided to crawl under the dining room table and get to the kitchen to start lunch – because, Nell reasoned, if Maria waited any later, it might be impossible for her to get to the kitchen at all with all the furniture that she and Ed were pulling into the house and just stashing in the living room. Of course, as Nell and Maria were talking about that, Ed disappeared.

Nell found him standing on the porch, leaning on the railing and staring at the tulip beds along the edge of the house. For a moment, she thought he'd come out for a cigarette, but when she looked closer, he was really gasping for air. When she stepped up, next to him, she could smell something that was definitely not the tulips, and Ed's gasping made her suddenly feel very, very sorry for him.

"...Ed, are YOU okay?" She finally asked. Ed pulled another Kleenex from the packet in his pocket and wiped his mouth. Because of that, she didn't believe him at all when he nodded, "Right. So... this throwing up is... exercising your stomach muscles or something?"

There were a few moments when Ed breathed, slowly and deeply, before he finally stood up from where he'd been hunched over the railing.

"...S-s-s-so..." Ed stumbled over his words. His lips were suddenly a bright pink against his face that had gone almost gray, "Yuh-yuh-yuh-... you... you..." He cleared his throat and his head shivered with it, "...R-right... uh... s-s-s-s-s-s-s-so... uh... tha-tha-that... in there... I c-c-caught, uh, claro and, um, mal-something... buh-but..."

Nell blinked, considering this.

"Oh... uh, maldito?" Ed nodded, "Stupid – I was talking about the entertainment system. This stupid shelf – that's what I was saying. I just asked her to help us move it and..." Nell trailed off. Ed was still breathing very heavily.

"...Oh..." He mumbled, "...C-c-cool."

They were both quiet for a long moment. Nell kept looking Ed over, wondering why he'd thrown up, after all. Inside the house, they could both hear a radio blaring some very generic sounding pop, and over that, Maria's voice belting out a completely different tune. When Ed had finally stopped gasping for air and color had returned to his cheeks, he straightened up and met Nell's gaze. And then, quickly looked away. Nell wondered what he was looking at.

"...Chicago..." Ed finally mumbled. Nell said nothing until Ed gestured to her shirt. She pulled on the corners to fully display the band's name.

"Oh. Papa took me to a concert when I started high school."

Ed nodded, one foot tapping a little. It wasn't until Nell heard him humming that she got it.

"...You like them?"

Ed shrugged. His ears were turning red, again.

"...'ve b-been t'concert..." He confirmed. Then, he looked back up at her – Ed's eyes were still watering, as though he was close to a hysterical crying jag from the embarrassment, but his gaze was steady. Clearly, complete and utter humiliation wasn't nearly enough to scare him off from whatever he had to say, "...Yuh-yuh-you... you're s-s-s-s-... cer-cert-cer-... y'sh-sh-sure... I mean..." A deep breath, and then, "Y'surey'rokay?"

...He really just couldn't – in any, possible, human way – be related to Fanny.

In response, Nell rolled up the sleeve on her T-shirt and flexed her arm – sure, she was a little flabby, but if Ed wasn't going to let the embarrassment of his stutter hinder him, she saw no reason why she shouldn't at least be willing to stick her neck out, a little. Besides, if the low whistle Ed let out was any indicator, he was clearly paying more attention the muscle on her arm than the fat.

"...Uh... Muh-Miss N-N-N-Nell... um... I... y-y-y-... yuh-your, uh..." Ed's stammer seemed even worse, now. And, if Nell's eyes weren't fooling her, his ears were getting even redder. Not to mention that his eyes were also getting watery, again. He stopped, the red flush spreading to his cheeks.

"Take your time." Nell offered. She used the same tone she'd used with Margret when she'd been learning how to speak, and that she used with Mama when trying to coax her through learning a little English, and that she'd used only once with a classmate who'd gotten stage-fright during the reenactment of a mock trial, "Just relax, and breathe naturally."

From the way Ed's eyes widened and how he outright stared at her, this advice had apparently never been offered to him, before.

"...About y-your... uh... your mother... how should... I... w-w-w-well... wh-what I m-muh-mean..." Ed paused, then breathed again, "...When I talk... t-talk to her... should... should I... uh... y-y-y'know... in a la-language... SHE speaks? ...O-or... uh... nev-nev-nev'mind."

Ed started back down the steps, ears red all over again.

"Wait, Ed!" Nell started after him, "...You don't need to push yourself – M'ma's put up with a lot worse than people who talk to her in English, even when she can't understand them. Most of the time, Maria and I just act as translators..."

"But THAT'S...!" Ed's cheeks were now definitely starting to get red, "...W-Well... If I... If I were in... your mother's place... I'd... I'd at least... I'd PREFER... y'know..."

But Nell didn't know, nor did she ever find out after Ed trailed into silence.

"Why don't we go back in and move some of that furniture around – at least, enough that we can get from the living room to the kitchen?" She suggested, "The table and the chairs, at any rate, we can fit downstairs – there's room in the basement's living room and the kitchen. After that, we can rearrange the furniture in the upstairs dining room... or, at least, Fanny can arrange it the way she wants."

Ed was still chewing on his lower lip, but nodded.

The both of them tromped back inside, greeted by the smell of Maria's deluxe grilled cheese sandwiches, the cacophony of John's pop radio, and the rush of the breeze coming through the windows. For just the moment, Nell could forget – forget that her father was dead, forget that her half-brother and his snobby wife had just moved in and essentially taken over the house, forget that her mother and Maria were a few snide remarks away from a hysterical breakdown, forget that there was anything wrong – if only because she was able to relax in the moment.