Three weeks had passed since Percy had last spoken to her friends in person. Almost as soon as they'd gotten back in town, Evan had been swept up in the Smith's Christmas traditions, and hadn't had time for hanging out with his friends. Demi had been sick that week, and on Christmas Eve finally went to the ER. She was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia in her right lung, and Persephone had abruptly found out exactly what kind of housewife she would turn out to be, as John struggled to keep the nursery afloat. It had been a stressful two weeks, with her mother sick in bed, doing all the household tasks herself and caring for her sick parent, her stepfather absent from almost before dawn to well after dusk. Percy herself had had to cut off all outside communication, regretfully telling Cissy she was too busy to chat, and had resolutely signed herself out of her email.

Now, her mother was feeling better, enough to be cranky and demanding, and Percy herself was mentally and physically exhausted. Both her parents were in their room now, though, and she suspected both were asleep, as tired as she was herself. Seeing as it was after twelve-thirty in the morning, she herself should probably also be asleep, but late at night was the only time she could have to herself, and she was in desperate need of a pick-me-up. Against her better judgement, she woke Blondie out of Standby, (as she stubbornly still called it – XP was just better,) plugged in her earbuds, and pulled up the Miracles playlist. She really needed to convince her parents to let her start saving up for an iTunes giftcard, she thought wistfully. She felt bad about listening to music on YouTube, especially when it had been released for sale, but they barely had enough money for necessities, music was a luxury and definitely not on the to-buy list if only one member of the family liked it. So until such time as an unexpected windfall allowed her to listen to her favorite albums on the up-and-up, she listened to it online – she did take comfort from the fact that the artists had released it there, too, so surely it wasn't dishonest?

Fighting a headache, she signed into her email, mentally berating herself for doing so even as it loaded her inbox. Doubtless, there would be a message from Cissy sitting waiting, and while Percy desperately missed her best friend, she did not want to hop back onto the carousel of "I'd love to talk but I have to go," plus she wasn't in the best of moods and didn't want to lose her temper at her well-intentioned but sometimes gratingly chirpy friend. Well, she could always clear out her spam box – more Canadian Pharmaceuticals, Meet Women in Your Area, You're A Winner, Hey Babe It's The Hot Girl From The Party Last Night, and other assorted inanities that no one could possibly fall for taking up valuable storage space and bandwidth. She noted in annoyance that for once the spam filters had failed her, the very top message in her inbox titled You've Won...Nothing! But, You've Won It Spectacularly!

She paused a moment, arrested by the unusual subject, a spark of interest filtering through the weariness clouding her soul, and moused over the sender column – a trick she'd picked up not too long after getting her email address. It was not an address she recognized, but neither did it sound like an address a scammer or virus-carrier would use (she'd certainly seen enough of those, using her mouse-over trick.) Percy vacillated a moment, weighing the risks of opening a whimsically titled email from an unfamiliar but legitimate (if imaginative) sounding email. "Ah, what the heck," she murmured to herself, pressing Ctrl + Shift + P with the ease of long practice, her fingers skittering over the keyboard as though How To Use A Computer Keyboard was programmed into her. Entering her email in the Private Browsing window, she took a deep breath, her cursor hovering over the innocuous email for a second more before she resolutely clicked on it.

Persephone, the opening line read, I am deeply ashamed of you – I thought you had better sense than to open emails from strange addresses. But since you're reading this, how are you doing? I was just talking to Cissy and Catherine last night, and they said they hadn't heard from you in weeks. We're all worried about you, everything okay?

And another thing – don't go opening strange emails anymore, especially ones that claim you're a winner. Basic internet safety, silly girl.

One side of Percy's mouth quirked upwards in wry amusement. She knew exactly who her unidentified correspondent had to be, who else would be talking to the Willis girls? She had to assume Cissy had passed along her email address, since as far as she was aware, she hadn't given it to him. Normally this unauthorized transferal of information would tick her off, but she didn't mind Evan having her email. If she were to be brutally honest with herself (which was incredibly rare, especially when it came to her feelings, but she was hardly unique in that, was she?) she'd been missing him as much as the girls, and it bothered her he had no way to contact her.

Pulling up her compose box, she flopped onto her stomach and perked up a little as I Love You Forever started playing – this was her nighttime-settle down-go to sleep-lullaby playlist, but there were a few songs on it that had the effect of simultaneously soothing and re-energizing her, and this was one of them. Still, it was hard to suppress a yawn as she typed in the email address she'd gathered from the message she'd just read, the late hour and tiredness getting to her, as well as the quiet music. Tabbing into the subject input box, she rolled onto her side and lay her head on her arm, debating how she would title it. She wanted to match his whimsy with her own, but at this time of night, her wit wasn't at its sharpest, and she finally settled on Collecting My Winnings. Smiling a little, she tabbed down into the main body of the message and started typing.

Hello, Evan, and no, I'm not that stupid – I've had enough spam to know the types of email addresses to avoid. While we're on the subject, I really like yours, and wouldn't mind it in a necklace. Might need some other kind of metal plating the mercury, though – I don't relish the idea of going mad as a hatter. And while we're on that subject, did you know that hatters always went mad from the mercury in the hats they made? That's actually where the phrase came from, not Alice in Wonderland, as some people think.

I'm doing okay – getting practice at being a housewife. Mother's been sick in bed for two weeks, pneumonia, which explains why she was so grouchy the week before Christmas. Also why I haven't been at the nursery. We got an antibiotic for her on the twenty-seventh, though, so she's on the mend now. I feel terrible for her, of course, but it's actually been quite a character-building experience for me. And I also found out I'm not as hopeless at managing my life without my parents' guidance as I'd feared, which is a comfort.

But I've already rambled too much, I know you didn't want to hear all that. Next time you talk to Cissy, would you please tell her I'm very sorry for cutting communications with her, but simply don't yet have time to chat? I'll email her as soon as I've got more than two free minutes consecutively. I could do it myself, but I'm afraid that once I reopen correspondence I'll get sucked into that vortex and won't be able to handle it all. I should be back in communicado in another week, tops.

And in case you're wondering about my education, yes, I am aware the word is 'incommunicado' and that it means to be out of communication (surprise.) I think 'in communicado' is a nice ironic antonym to that, don't you?

Anyway, it's late here – jeepers, I hadn't realized how late, and I've even got a clock down on the right-hand side of my screen – I'd best be going and trying to sleep. I'll talk to you in awhile, promise. =)

She tabbed down to send the message, ignoring as her inbox returned. Fumbling to pause the music, she stood up, swaying a little, to sneak across the hall to the bathroom to brush her teeth and finish up preparations for going to bed. Being a bit of a germaphobe (did people not realize the communicable diseases floating around out there? When was the last time someone besides herself had wiped off the keypad of a cardswipe at Walmart? Whenever she used it, she always used one of the sanitary wipes provided for buggy handles, and it always came away black with grime – disgusting,) she always made sure that washing her hands was the second-from-last thing she did before going to bed (putting on lotion being the last – don't judge, it was cold and dry outside!)

Returning to her room, she settled down to finish out her playlist, and on a sudden impulse hit the little refresh button on her inbox link. To her surprise, Evan had sent her a reply, about three minutes previously. Ignoring a little nagging guilt about opening his mail and leaving Cissy's still, she went ahead and pulled up the message, trying to ignore the second argument her conscience was using – it was late, and she needed to go to bed. Practical common sense chipped in with a reminder that she had also already told him she was getting off, but she squelched it as ruthlessly as her conscience and scanned the lines of text. Really, she hadn't heard from him as recently as Cissy, wasn't she entitled to a short midnight chat?

Which would be all well and good, if it wasn't over an hour past midnight. Her conscience was really putting up a fight tonight, and she irritably relegated it to 'pacify later,' refusing to wrestle with it further. Shaking her head in annoyance to dismiss unwanted thoughts, she growled mentally as her earbud fell out. Diving for it, she spaztically clicked her mouse around, trying to pause the music, and ended up opening several new tabs and accidentally going to before managing to pause her playlist and retrieve her earbud. Grumbling to herself, she restarted the video, noticing it was the last one and hit the replay button for the playlist. Sleep was for losers, anyway.

Managing to settle back down into some semblance of order and calm, Percy re-read Evan's message in order to reply properly. I'm very sorry to hear about your mother. We've only been by the nursery a couple of times recently, and your father didn't mention it. I did wonder why he was there alone, though. And no, I don't object to hearing about how it's affecting you – I don't know if you've noticed, but it's you I'm emailing, not your mother. I feel badly for her, but I know she's not the only one being affected by this. I can only imagine how tired you must be.

I don't know when you'll see this, but I would appreciate if you'd reply. We all miss you very much, myself no less than the girls.

Having successfully beaten her conscience and common sense into submission, Percy tapped reply and started typing. Actually, I haven't made it to bed yet, even though that's where I should be. I miss you all terribly too, but sometimes I just can't pull off cheerful and perky, especially if the closest analogy to my current state is 'wrung sponge abandoned in slightly mildewy corner.' I hope to be back to "normal" soon, though.

How about you? How are you doing?

A yawn split apart her jaws again as she checked Blondie's clock— stars above, it was 1:17 AM. Staying awake was probably just about the worst thing she could do at this point in time, but her loneliness and emotional weariness were making their presences known with a vengeance and she couldn't help suspecting that catching up with her friend would do her just as much good as catching up with her least mentally. Then too, Lost In Las Vegas was not putting her in a particularly sleep-prone mood.

On the other hand, her body was in the middle of waging a relatively successful rebellion, and it was not inconceivable that she would fall asleep on her laptop in the process of composing a message. She refreshed her inbox again, sending a silent thank-you to whoever came up with the idea of building in a refresh button for the inbox instead of the entire webpage, and opened Evan's latest message. The short, pithy mail made her grin wryly – even if she wasn't looking out for her own health, he was. Bed, lady. Now.

"Alright," she whispered, closing her open windows – huh, forgot she was in Private – and putting Blondie to sleep before sliding under her covers, throwing her hair out on the pillow behind her and whispering into the darkness. "Good night, Evan."

Evan continued staring at his computer screen for another five minutes, but when at the end of that time, she still hadn't replied, he took it to mean she had obeyed his order. Powering down his computer, he stood and slipped across the room, peering out the window at the moon-flooded lawn before slithering into bed. "Good night, Persephone," he whispered, staring out the thin slit between his curtains at the bright white light outside.

Demi still wasn't completely recovered, but she'd recuperated enough to be up and about. Unfortunately, the crankiness lingered on and she criticized almost every single thing Percy had done in her mother's absence. Percy, recognizing why her mother was still so grouchy, hung onto her temper as best she could and slipped away whenever she wasn't directly needed. On the plus side, she now had time to resume contact with her friends and, as suspected, Catherine had loved Two Steps. Evan had also decided he enjoyed the music, being a fan of the Archangel album more than the Miracles one preferred by his more demure feminine friend.

Percy was on Blondie now, listening to the Amaria album and chatting with everyone in an open email that went to her, Cissy, Catherine, and Evan. Music was the topic under discussion, and the three eldest had ganged up on Cissy to try and find something by Two Steps she would like, whilst discussing their own experiences with it. Percy was currently commenting that she had been sadly disillusioned by Illusions, having expected something more along the lines of Miracles, and had only liked a small handful of the songs from Illusions. Catherine was grumbling about how many songs Nero shared with other albums, a point of view both Evan and Percy found mystifying.

Once Percy and Evan discovered they were both listening to Amaria, though, the two of them entered an enthusiastic discussion of that album, the other two mainly observing. At the current moment Percy held the floor, remarking that Amaria was seemed to have 'tones of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and am I the only one who thinks The Adventures of Gillock is basically the How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack,' a comparison Evan seemed to have found startlingly funny.

Am I the only one in present company to not have watched that movie? Cissy asked despairingly.

It's not so great, Catherine replied easily.

You take that back! Percy demanded indignantly. It's fabulous! And stop snickering, Evan.

He smirked, typing back his reply. Who, me? Snickering? I have no idea what you're talking about.

Sure you don't. Even transmitted electronically, her sarcasm was heavy enough to feel like a physical burden, and his smirk broadened.

Cissy jumped back into the conversation, feeling left out. What's it like?

Evan took it upon himself to explain, since Percy was still fuming. About mediocre in plot line, not insufferable like most teen's movies these days, but not quite a classic. Soundtrack is most excellent, a bit of a fluffy feel-good plot that's more than a bit on the everybody's-equal-be-friends-with-everyone side, but the characters are fairly strong, and pretty entertaining. The lead male is intelligent, witty, and determined, as opposed to the usual now. Plus he doesn't sparkle.

Except that wretched Astrid, Percy interjected. Can I get a motion to shove her over a cliff?

She's not as bad in the second movie, Evan pointed out mildly.

I can't forgive her for the first one, Percy replied sourly.

So is it worth watching or not? Cissy asked, confused.

Her inbox was flooded with replies from three quarters. No, Catherine said, Definitely, Percy responded positively, Sure, was Evan's opinion. I'll let you off the hook for Star Wars if you watch it, Percy added in a blend of coaxing and threatening while mentally planning revenge on Catherine.

Done, Cissy responded instantaneously.

Percy's next reply made no sense to her whatever. I could totally see Wes Janson rocking out to this song.

Catherine got her inquiry in before Cissy. Beg pardon?

Machine Dreams, Percy explained. The third third sounds like the jukebox in a cantina got hacked.

You must be listening to that album on repeat, Evan noted.

I am, Percy confessed. It wasn't what I expected from the album art, but it's become one of my favorites.

Don't tell anyone, but me too. :) he replied secretively.

Not that we just saw that or anything, Catherine interpolated dryly.

Good to know, their mischievous male friend replied cheerfully. So, Persephone, whose song is the next one – from the Original Trilogy, of course.

There was a long pause before she replied. Luke's, I think. Maybe Leia's, although I'm definitely leaning for Luke here.

Well, so much for anything other than nerdy Star Wars talk, now, Cissy typed plaintively to all of them in general.

Trust me, Golden Girl, you have not begun to see the extent of my nerdy Star Wars talk, Percy promised wryly. In fact I have a book beside me now, the Complete Star Wars Vehicles. Some of us really love the technical side.

Is that 'technical' or 'technological'? Evan asked slyly.

Both, Percy said firmly.

You are a strange girl, Persephone Walker, Catherine observed.

Because I like boys' stories? Percy asked dryly.

And fictional physics and metaphysics, Catherine added.

I have not even gotten started, Percy promised, grinning wickedly to herself.

Roughly two weeks later, the Walkers received a call. Demi and her daughter were in the kitchen, Demi was fixing a pasta salad while Percy, Blondie resting on the marble-topped island, did some of her schoolwork. Demi moved across to the phone, picking up the handset. "Walker residence, Demi speaking," she said, then smiled, her voice losing its professional tone and warming. "Hello, Evan, it's good to hear from you." Percy looked up, openly eavesdropping, as her mother listened for several minutes. "I'm not sure, I'd have to discuss it with John first," she said finally. "He might have plans for the nursery this weekend. Is it alright if we call you back later?" There was a pause, then she spoke again. "Alright, we'll talk to you in a few hours. Thank you for the invitation." Pause. "Bye." She hung up and looked at her daughter. "The Smiths are inviting us to come watch a movie with them tomorrow, Evan said the Willis sisters would be there."

"Oh, what movie? Are we going to go?" Percy asked eagerly, shoving her computer to the side resting her chin on her hands.

"How To Train Your Dragon," Demi replied, replacing the phone in the cradle. "Haven't you seen that one? Did you like it?"

"Loved it," Percy replied dreamily, her eyes sparkling. "It has a talking fishbone and a toothless dragon," she added delightedly.

Demi shook her head, moving back to her pasta salad. "Lovely," she replied, sounding resigned.

John had agreed – with some amusement, his stepdaughter thought – to the invitation. Demi was less than thrilled about going to watch some cartoon about a scrawny teenage Viking, but Percy was over the moon at the opportunity to see her friends again and be there when Cissy watched it for the first time. And so that Saturday at three o'clock, the three of them piled into the Ford and drove to the Smiths' lavish house, doing their best to ignore how out-of-place their beat up old pickup was in this wealthy neighborhood. Percy seemed to be least self-conscious, being comfortable enough with her friends not to be worried about the impression she might be making. She tumbled out of the truck like an eager puppy out for a walk, playing tug-of-war with her purse strap. It had hooked onto the seat belt, which was putting up a game fight. Percy's determination won out and she tugged her purse free, by which time her parent had also alighted from their battered old vehicle. The three of them started up the sidewalk, Percy dancing impatiently around behind her parents, who were walking abreast and, at least in her opinion, way too slowly.

Evan opened the door for them as they mounted the steps, his dark eyes glittering in contented anticipation. He grinned when he saw Persephone, bopping about behind her parents, and opened the door wider for them as they reached the frame. "Do come in," he said cordially, then addressed Percy. "You've not been in the sun enough, you're too pale."

"Says the boy who's ghost-white," she retorted as he took her purse and set on a bench next to two others – a gold with fringe, and a sensible large black leather similar to Percy's own. "The girls here?" she added eagerly.

"Sun doesn't agree with me like it does you," he replied amiably. "And yes, they're in here already." He waved for the three of them to follow him, passing the living room to go to the den. "They're here," he announced once he hit the doorway.

"Goody!" A pink and yellow blur sprang up from the couch, brandishing a remote, and dove on Percy, squeezing her ruthlessly in a hug. "We haven't seen each other in forever," Cissy squealed, then stepped back and studied her friend critically. "You're too pale."

"That seems to be the consensus," Percy agreed dryly, glancing at Evan, who wasn't at all trying to hide his smirk.

"Cissy, that is incredibly rude," Catherine scolded, mortified, and turned to the Walker adults. "I'm Catherine," she introduced herself.

John smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Yes, I believe we met at the Christmas party," he replied, shaking her proffered hand. "It's nice to see you again."

"Hello, Demi," Irelda greeted, gliding forward and hugging her friend, rather less aggressively than Cissy had hugged hers.

"John," Mortimer boomed, clapping the other man on the shoulder and winking conspiratorially. "Come to watch cartoons with us?"

John grinned back happily as Demi and Irelda gossiped at roughly half the speed of light, their voices rising in pitch as they and the youngsters unintentionally vied to be heard. "I think there's enough kid left in me to enjoy a rollicking cartoon. Plus I've heard good reviews about it from my daughter," he added with a slight laugh.

"I've got a weakness for cartoons," Mortimer admitted cheerfully, motioning to one of the cushy, overstuffed armchairs. "Please, come sit down. Evan, you got the snacks yet?"

"We're just going," Evan called back to his father, and turned to the girls. "Wanna come help?"

"Of course," Catherine replied.

"Lead the way, Speedy Gonzalez," Cissy added impudently, tying an aqua, cerulean, and grass green friendship bracelet on Percy's arm, the two of them doing some sort of strange skitter down the hallway in the wake of the elder two.

Evan winked at Catherine. "Speedy Gonzalez, is it?" he replied tauntingly. "Well then, keep up, slowpoke!" Abruptly he took off down the hall, skidding into the kitchen, one hand on the door frame to keep him from overshooting or toppling.

"No fair!" Percy wailed, she and Cissy abandoning the bracelet to run after him. Catherine sniggered, well aware of what he was planning and hanging back, not wanting to get caught in the cross-fire.

"Gotcha!" Evan pelted the two younger girls with popcorn balls as they skidded through the door into the kitchen. There were twin shrieks, then Cissy scooped up one from the floor and hurled back as Percy fumbled with the latest one he'd flung in her direction. Catherine unobtrusively slid in the door, picking up a large bowl of mini pretzels in one hand and another bowl of pub mix in the other, returning to the den as the foodfight raged unabated behind her.

"How did you get roped into playing messenger?" Irelda asked Catherine in wry amusement as the younger woman entered, carrying the snacks.

"Evan decided to throw things at the other two, and they retaliated," Catherine said cheerfully, setting the bowls onto a side table. "I'll go round them up," she added reassuringly.

"Tell him he'll get a whupping if he doesn't behave himself," Irelda called after her, and Catherine flapped a hand in acknowledgment as she headed back out into the hallway.

"Evan, you're in trouble," she announced, entering the kitchen.

"Snitch," he said indignantly from his prone position on the floor, where Cissy and Percy were sitting on him and trying very hard to fit his fingers through pretzels without breaking the fragile stick. Catherine raised an eyebrow at the strange scene, then beckoned impatiently.

"You two, let him up and stop decorating him with the edibles," she ordered, and picked up a stack of red disposable cups. "Help me with this, the sooner we get all this in there, the sooner we can get this movie started...and over," she added to herself in a mumble as she exited the kitchen.

"True," Percy said brightly, having heard only the first part of Catherine's comment, and leapt up off of Evan. Cissy scrambled eagerly after her, and the two girls haphazardly grabbed drinks and the last bowl – peanuts – before scampering out into the hall. Evan grinned to himself, retrieved a peanut from where it had made its peanutty way down his shirt, and picked up the platter of popcorn balls, following at a more leisurely pace.

Mortimer drew the curtains and turned off all the lights, trying to make the room resemble a theater as closely as possible. The women had taken the loveseat farthest to the right (as well as the popcorn balls, although no one commented,) the girls were piled on the couch in the middle with the peanuts and pretzels, and the men had comfortably ensconced themselves in overstuffed armchairs to the left, the pub mix on a table between them. "I'll take this, mizzy," Mortimer said sportily, confiscating the remote from Cissy.

"That's okay, your TV, your remote," she replied blithely, surrendering it without a fight and flopping carelessly back into the middle of the couch. "Men and their remotes," she murmured sotto voce to Percy, who was sitting to her left. "My dad fits into the stereotype as though he were the one the coiner had in mind."

"I resent that stereotype," Evan said mildly, plopping down on the floor between Percy's feet and Cissy and leaning back against the couch. He looked to either side of himself, noting in approval that Percy was wearing tennis shoes, and Cissy had on lace-up ankle boots. (That girl's fashion sense...) "I've very rarely had possession of the remote, and I'm not territorial about it when I do," he added by way of explanation, untying the laces on Percy's right foot, and Cissy's left, and then tying the two girls together before moving over in between Cissy and Catherine.

None of them replied, as Mortimer had started the movie at this point, and all were watching it. Still, Evan noticed out of the corner of his eye as Percy leaned down and untied their shoes before sitting back up. There was an ominous stillness for a few seconds, and he couldn't help wondering what the two of them were up to behind him where he couldn't see. Catherine sighed and shifted over towards her end of the couch a little more, doing her best to both tolerate and ignore the other two occupants of the seat as they squirmed, mimed, and whispered behind their hands to each other for about thirty seconds. Evan shifted apprehensively, wondering what the two were cooking up together.

There was more suppressed movement behind him, before both girls went ominously still. Evan crossed his eyes and looked upwards at a gentle tugging sensation on his scalp, then grinned to himself as he realized they were tying something into his hair. Leaning back against the plush leg-rest of the couch, he tolerated the interference, keeping his attention on the movie.

"Well," Cissy sighed at the end, as Irelda reached over to turn on a lamp.

"Well?" Percy echoed, her tone rather hyper as she twisted to face her friend. "What did you think?!"

"I want a talking fishbone," Cissy sighed dreamily.

Percy squealed and bounced on her legs where they were bent beneath her, her shoes abandoned on the floor. "I know! Isn't he cute?!"

"Great," Catherine muttered glumly, and Evan glanced up at her with a sympathetic, amused grin. A movement to his right caused him to glance towards his mother, who was watching him with a strange expression.

"Evan, you look like a Kewpie doll," she pointed out. Cissy had provided a pink ribbon to Percy, who had tied it around a little bundle of Evan's hair.

"Oh well," he said cheerfully, running his fingers through his dark mop and pulling the ribbon out. "Better than looking like a Troll ™ doll."

"Ooh," Percy said mischievously. "That's an idea..."

"I would not advise that," Evan warned, as Mortimer changed the DVD in the player. "I tolerated the nail polish because it was easily removed. Do not even consider dying my hair pink."

"I have pink dye for streaks that washes out after a couple of times," Cissy suggested wickedly.

Evan scowled, twisting to look up at Catherine. "Don't let them do this," he pleaded.

"No worries," she replied lazily, reaching for the last popcorn ball.

"Don't even think about pouring all my dye down the drain again," Cissy said to her sister, her expression sour.

It was at this moment that, by accident or design, Irelda interrupted, diffusing the tension. "Hey, you young whippersnappers, why don't you come refill the snacks? We older folk need our rest," she added jokingly.

"You're not old, Mother," Evan replied fondly, bounding to his feet and picking up two of the bowls.

"Only when it's convenient," she answered cheekily, balancing another bowl on top of his head.

"By that logic, I'm old too," Catherine decided, and used her legs to shove the other girls off the couch before lying down. "Go on, shrimps, go help."

"You're not forgetting this one," Cissy threatened darkly, gathering up empty cups as Percy retrieved the bowl from beside the men. Her stepfather winked at her as she picked it up, and she smiled back, their eyes glinting in shared amusement.

Evan broached two different types of trail mix – traditional and white chocolate macadamia nut (to the shared delight of Percy and Cissy, who promptly absconded with the bowl and refused to give it back,) and several different boxes of small organic crackers, which all got mixed together in the pretzel bowl. Cissy entrusted the bowl of overly sweet trail mix to Percy's competent supervision, fetching fresh bottles of various drinks from the refrigerator. Evan carried the Gorp and crackers, plus the vegetable platter on top of his head like some elaborate flat hat, Percy clutched the dessert trail mix, and Cissy bore the drinks patiently.

When they returned to the den, the others had already gotten to the opening scene and had the movie paused, waiting for the servers to return. Hastily depositing the snacks around, the three of them resumed their former seats, the girls ruthlessly shoving Catherine off so they could sit down again. Mortimer turned off the lamp beside him and started the movie again.

In Percy's opinion, the second was nowhere near as good as the first, and she hated Hiccup's "sorry excuse for a mother" with a passion, but she valiantly kept her comments to herself throughout the movie – a phenomenal effort, seeing as usually when she watched a movie by herself, she kept up a running commentary the whole time. Evan appeared faintly bored through the whole thing, fiddling with a piece of string he'd pulled from his pocket the whole time.

"Pfft, Perthephone," Cissy whispered behind her hand to her friend. "Do you want your peanuth?"

Percy shook her head and handed her handful of peanuts to Cissy. Truth be told, she was far more interested in the raisins, cranberries, white chocolate, and macadamia nuts mixed in than the rather bland, everyday peanuts. Cissy carefully settled a napkin between them and Percy continued placing her rejected peanuts on it, and Cissy kept taking them.

"I can't honestly say I'm impressed with any of the women in this series," Demi remarked when the movie finished, the curtains had been opened, and lamps turned on. "That woman...what kind of mother abandons her child like that?!"

"A bad one," Irelda said sourly. "The father was one of the best ones. And the dragons. I did like the dragons."

"Yes, I'd have to say the dragons are the best ones," Evan agreed, standing. "Although Ruffnut was a lot better in the TV series."

Everyone stared at him, but it was Irelda who asked the question. "Evan, why do you suddenly have a paunch?"

He looked down at his bulging shirt, which was tucked into his waistband. "Because Cissy and Catherine were dropping their peanuts down my shirt," he replied casually.

"Moi?!" Catherine declaimed, looking shocked and wounded, and placed a hand to her chest for dramatic effect. "Never!" Evan looked at the adults and winked knowingly.

Percy turned to face Evan deliberately. "TV show?" she demanded.

"Yes," he replied amiably. "Mark Hamill voices one of the main villains, too," he added blithely.

She stared at him, flabbergasted. "What have I been doing with my life thus far?" she asked faintly.

"Sithspit!" Evan swore, staring at the checkered board.

"Evan!" Percy squawked, staring at him across the small table. Irelda and Cissy looked up from where they were playing Pretty Pretty Princess, not far away, and Catherine looked up from her solo Jenga game on the floor. "You just mind your language!" Percy scolded. "What have you been reading, anyway?" When he merely looked sheepishly at her and didn't answer, she sighed and gave him a long-suffering look. "Fan fictions or EU?"

"The fan fictions you recommended," he replied, a little shamefacedly. "I tried some others on my own but..." He swallowed, suppressing his gag reflex.

"Yeah," Percy agreed, sliding her rook forward two spaces. "That's why I mainly stick to links I find in the favorites of my favorite authors, less likely to run into stuff that's...not up my alley...that way." Evan considered the chessboard for a moment before moving one his bishops as she continued. "And I'm really only into fan fictions at this point because I'm out of decent books. Just re-read the whole Wrinkle in Time series over the past four days," she added glumly. Evan mentally added the series to his To-Read list, watching as she shifted her remaining knight before moving with assured ease himself.

Persephone stared at the board as he stared smugly across at her. "Sithspit."

"How would you feel about becoming an apprentice florist?" Demi asked her daughter once they were all in their Ford and trundling back home.

"Is that what Mr. Smith was talking to y'all about when you went out the room?" Percy asked, leaning forward against the annoyance of the seat belt to be able to speak to her parents better.

"Yes," John answered, eyes glued on the road. "Apparently the florist their mortuaries have always used just changed hands, and they're looking for somewhere else to take their business. He said his wife had noticed and appreciated the way we've laid out the greenhouses, and thought perhaps your mother would make a good flower arranger."

"And since the nursery has been struggling, we could certainly use the custom," Demi added. "Of course, I'd need you to help me, which would mean cutting back drastically on your free time."

"Of course, I'll do it," Percy said, faintly offended that her mother would think her so lazy or defiant as to refuse. "But won't we need...I don't know...some kind of education on it?"

"I intend to look it up online," Demi replied. "You and I will have time to learn all about flower arrangements while the facilities are being installed."

"Will it be at the nursery?" Percy asked, turning her head to glance at her stepfather, who nodded laconically. Percy sat back against the threadbare seat to consider this new twist her life had taken.

Two busy, hectic months later, the florist shop – Cerin Amroth – was in full swing. Not only did they serve the Smith Funeral Home chain, but many of Irelda's friends had taken to frequenting the pleasant flowery shop. The Walkers catered to parties, funerals, restaurants, and private individuals, and had even discussed hiring someone to help out. Once spring had hit, the nursery had seen a boom, and Mortimer had cleverly enacted a policy where the mortuaries sent home a small potter plant with all their surviving customers – a win-win, in his opinion. Flowers were supposed to calm and uplift, which grieving families needed, and it helped dig the Walkers out of a hole, plus it enhanced his chain's reputation for caring about their customers. Make that a win-win-win.

Percy, once assured that the newly-installed plumbing could do her watering job as efficiently and much more quickly, had taken to arranging flowers like a duck to water. Demi, for her part, preferred the bookkeeping aspect, surprised at how her daughter's people-skills had morphed. It didn't hurt, she reflected, that charming, vivacious Cissy Willis was constantly dropping in, drawing the introverted Persephone out and making her laugh. Catherine came by a little less often, although the discussions were usually quieter, more serious, and generally included Demi. Her visits petered out, though, when she began college courses, about which Persephone bit her tongue and smiled. Cissy, on the other hand, had apparently decided schooling simply wasn't important, and appeared to spend most her time gossiping madly with her friends and hosting receptions and parties for various charities – most of which were later thoroughly rehashed with Percy.

Irelda was another constant face, sometimes with several friends in tow, other times just to chat with Demi. Percy rarely entered these conversations, busying herself with the next arrangement, not generally interested in the adults' colloquy. Occasionally, Evan would come with his mother, at which times Percy would drop whatever else she was doing to talk to him – their own palavers had become few and far between. At his parents' gentle urging, Evan had taken up his education again, this time studying theology, philosophy and literature. Percy was secretly overjoyed to see how much his Biblical reading had influenced his worldview, though she hid it for fear of annoying him or driving him away from Jehovah.

Ironically, his studies of the literary giants did little to fuel their conversations – Percy had little to no interest in what were generally considered 'the greats.' She enjoyed the movie Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but had found the book a bit dry, disliked Anderson and Dickens, was bored with the brothers Grimm, and heartily despised Fitzgerald and most other American authors. The two could spend hours debating politics and philosophy, however, and often did. More than once the two of them emerged from an intense discourse to find their mothers regarding them with broad smirks, having been kept waiting quite awhile.

Not that Percy's new responsibilities at the florist precluded her duties at home, making her schedule busier than ever. Having grown very despondent at her apparent inability to grasp the middle difficulty levels of programming, she dropped it from her pastimes with mixed feelings. Most her time was spent now helping to run the florist and taking care of the house (most of which involved vacuuming, which she disliked, dusting, which she hated, and cleaning the tubs, which she contrarily enjoyed, plus the occasional foray in the kitchen.) All in all, growing up was not quite as hard as she'd always anticipated, but almost as onerous, and more than once she found herself wishing she had not become an adult quite so quickly. The clock and calender, perversely, refused to listen to her silent pleas and moved along at what seemed to be an increasing rate, dragging the unwilling Persephone with them.

"Gaaaah!" Percy threw her Bible across the room in frustration, twitching the arm draped across her eyes to peek over towards her doorway a moment later when there was no sound of it landing. Evan stood in the doorway, holding the Bible and looking faintly shell-shocked. With another groan, Percy shifted her arm back again to block her view.

Evan carefully smoothed the pages and shut the book, laying it tenderly on the small table right inside the door. "That's not a very respectful way to treat the Word," he observed, coming into the room and sitting on the end of her bed. "What's wrong?"

She had the grace to show her face again, straightening her legs out behind him so they could see each other. "Nowhere, nowhere, in there can I find condoning not getting married, having kids, and being a housewife. I don't want to!" she explained petulantly.

Evan nodded. "And is it the marrying part or the cleaning part to which you object?" he asked seriously, then grinned as she hit him with her pillow, dodging and fending it off. "No, I actually mean it," he added, purloining the pillow and holding against his chest and stomach.

"You've been listening to Mother," Percy grumbled, then relented at the look of genuine concern he was giving her. "Both, actually," she admitted. "I don't relish the idea of either. Paul had a very sour outlook on marriage, but he was reluctantly firm about how it's His institution, and...well..." She trailed off, looking rather discouraged.

Evan set aside the pillow, leaning it against the foot of the bed and turning towards her. "I know why you'd be scared of entering marriage, Flower," he said soberly, catching her eye and holding it. "But you know, not all men are worthless pigs."

"I know," she said with a sigh. "Mother got it right the second time around, but it just seems like there are none left my age that are decent."

"Ouch," Evan said dryly.

"Not you, of course," she said hastily, and pulled herself upright, smiling at him. "You're beyond decent, well beyond, but we're friends."

He smiled back, not letting her see how his heart had filled with lead and consequently plummeted at her casual dismissal. "Well, don't give up hope," he advised. "I'm living proof that not all young men are the same."

"True," she replied, a little chastised.

"And don't throw your Bible," he added sternly, pointing a finger at her for emphasis. "That's terribly disrespectful."

"Yes, Professor," she sighed, and leaned over his lap to retrieve her pillow, hugging it as she sat back up and looked at him expectantly. "But I'm assuming you didn't come here to discuss a woman's role in life?"

"Oh, no, I didn't," he replied, perking up slightly. "I actually came to tell you I decided to accept Jesus-"

He got no further, as she gave a shrill scream of delight and threw herself on him in a wildly abandoned hug, forgotten pillow flung to the floor as the two young persons toppled sideways on the bed. "Evan! That's wonderful!" she cried in ecstasy, and hugged him again. He patted her gingerly on the back, rather amused by her reaction but wishing she'd let go so he could breathe again. "We should have a party," she announced, finally sitting up off of him.

"A party?" he echoed uncertainly, also sitting back up.

"There is more rejoicing in Heaven over one repented sinner than ninety and nine just persons," she replied matter-of-factly, hopping up and bending to retrieve her pillow before tossing it onto the quilt.

"That's paraphrased," he observed, not moving from his lounged position.

"I know, but close enough," she returned, and grabbed his hand, forcefully dragging him off the bed. "Come on, let's go tell my parents!" He permitted her to drag him from her room out to the living room, where her parents sat engaged quietly in their own activities. He stood by passively as she broke the good news and struggled to convince them that a party was a good idea, faintly amused by the whole situation but quite willing to indulge her. She was even begging for balloons, and at this he began to actually take an interest in proceedings.

Demi and John glanced at each other, less than enthused by the idea. "I don't know, Percy," her mother said gently.

Evan interposed. "I like balloons, and this is as good an excuse as any. There's a party outlet not far from here, we could run down and get a few." The look of adoring gratitude Percy gave him made tolerating inflated plastic bags completely worth it.

John was the first to relent. "Oh, if you've got your heart set on it," he said, smiling a little. "But don't spend too much," he cautioned.

"We won't!" Percy promised, already scampering back to her room for her purse.

"And take the cellphone, just in case!" Demi called as her daughter vanished momentarily. Percy reappeared only seconds later, tucking the phone into her purse.

"Got it," she replied brightly, jamming her feet into a pair of flip-flop style sandals. "Coming?" she added to Evan.

"Just a sec," he replied with a grin, and looked to her parents. "It's a nice day out, is it alright if we walk? It shouldn't take more than half an hour," he added.

"That's fine, as long as Percy wears better shoes," Demi said, staring pointedly at her daughter's feet. Sighing at the on-going battle about the relative comfort and durability of her favorite pair of summer shoes, Percy meekly went back to dig through her closet for several minutes before coming up with a different pair of sandals. Coming back out to the door, she put them on and then stared at her mother, waiting for the all-clear. "Fine," Demi said after giving her daughter's outfit a once-over. "And don't give me that look, young lady."

"We'll be back in awhile," was Percy's answer as she and a valiantly straight-faced Evan exited the residence.

"Doth I detect a trace of tension?" Evan asked curiously as he ambled down the sidewalk beside the purposefully striding Percy.

"Ah, yes," she replied a bit ruefully. "My only real dressing criteria is modesty, but Mother has a fit if I go out looking, in her words, dowdy. Personally I prefer it, fends away anyone interested in possibly striking up a conversation, but she always vets me before I go out," she added glumly. Glancing down at herself, she took stock of what she was wearing that day – a slightly too small tee, (too bad, it was one of her favorites,) and a pair of men's board shorts that could almost be mistaken as generic shorts (curse the uncommon figure that doomed her to cross-dressing! Why did all manufacturers make their clothes for short dumpy women with no waists to speak of? As a child, she'd hoped to grow into women's clothes and leave behind boys' and menswear for good. Alas, it was not to be, although she had convinced her mother to opt mostly for skirts and dresses as she grew older.)

"You don't look too bad to me," Evan said encouragingly, glancing at her current attire.

"No, well, this shirt is a little tighter than I like, but it's old and comfy and I thought I was only wearing it around inside today," she admitted.

"And you like the color," Evan added. Percy stopped short and stared at him.

"How – did I say that?" she asked, trying to recall their conversation at the cabin about favorite colors.

"Yes." He nodded, smiling a little as he watched her intently, noting her deep frown as she tried to remember. "It was the first one you listed," he added helpfully.

"Well." She shrugged and began walking again. "Yes. It has been my steady favorite for a long time, even when it shared with other colors."

Evan nodded, keeping pace with her and a wary eye on the curb, not wanting to fall off into the dangerous street. "I remember," he replied simply, and she winced.

"This was a lengthy discussion, wasn't it," she said wryly, the memory beginning to filter back to her.

"Relatively," he replied lightly, wondering rather disconsolately if she remembered his favorite color.

"And you like sapphire blue and deep ruby red," she added, as though reading his thoughts.

"And one more," he added teasingly.

Percy faked a look of deep concentration. "I don't know," she said slowly. "It couldn't be black, could it?" she asked anxiously, playing stupid.

He smirked at her ridiculous performance. "Close enough," he replied laughingly.

They walked along in silence for a minute, neither knowing quite what to say to the other. Percy thought longingly back to that walk in the woods, nearly four months ago. Then, the silence hadn't been awkward, they had been perfectly comfortable without need for words. It broke her heart, terrifying her, that she was drifting away from all her friends. She knew if she lost them now, the empty spaces they'd leave would be irreparable, leaving her far more bitter and lonely than before they'd waltzed into her life. Having experienced freedom, she didn't want to go back to her emotional solitary existence.

Her internal tension reached a critical point, if she did not do something to alleviate it, she was going to completely lose her composure. Her usual method of catharsis was mischief, and Evan's tolerance levels had already presented her hundreds of golden opportunities – most of which she had valiantly passed up, she was pleased to note – but there were times she was either in desperate need of a distraction or he presented absolutely irresistible chances. This was one of the former instances.

Percy tapped his arm lightly, grinning playfully. "Catch me if you can!" she cried, voice merry, and took off down the sidewalk. Evan blinked at her retreating figure in shock a moment – he had been completely immersed in thought, and it took him a moment to collect himself. When he had, a feral grin spread across his face and he sped after her, putting his lanky all into it. Percy was woefully out of shape from too much sitting, whilst Evan had, in his boredom and self-imposed discipline, taken to exercising for several hours each day. With such a deplorable difference in their fitness, the result of the chase was a foregone conclusion, and a rapid one at that. He let her stay a few steps ahead of him, though, surprised that her stamina had held up this long – not that it would have to hold up much longer, the store was mere yards ahead. She drew an extra reserve of strength from somewhere and put on a burst of speed to enter the parking lot – just as a car turned across three lanes, daring the swiftly approaching traffic to enter the property of the store.

Percy screamed, unable to stop herself in time, staring death right in the face. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she screeched to a halt and overbalanced, falling right into the path of the dismayed driver, who was currently standing on his brakes. The car was inches away, though, and even if he didn't plow right over her, nothing could stop him from plowing into her.

Two strong arms snapped around her waist, yanking her back hard enough to tumble both she and Evan back onto the ground. He held her close to him with one arm, using the other to break their fall, adrenaline surging through both of them. The driver abruptly accelerated to avoid oncoming traffic, rolling his window down to yell profanities at them and give them a very rude gesture before zooming into a handicapped space and almost sideswiping the car in the space beside it.

Percy took a deep breath, pulling herself together. "Well."

"Let's get inside," Evan suggested, noting how she was still trembling despite her matter-of-fact tone.

She nodded in agreement and stood, looking up at him. "Evan-"

"Don't," he forestalled her. "It'll just make things awkward."

She stared blankly at him a moment before giving a ghost of an incredulous laugh. "Let's get inside," she echoed.

As the twosome passed through the door, the same man who Percy had almost run in front of came up. He glared at the two of them and repeated his hand gesture from earlier before shoving past them. Evan grabbed Percy's preventatively, not wanting to get into any kind of a rumble. "Let's not go after him," he suggested in a low tone.

She sent him a reassuring smile over her shoulder. "No worries – we're here for balloons, to celebrate your second birth. Not fights. Come on!" she added eagerly, catching sight of the bins of yet-to-be-inflated balloons lined up across the far wall and apparently completely forgetting she'd almost been turned into Persephone Preserves less than five minutes ago. Shaking his head and wondering just how she'd managed to turn into such a good actress – no longer was he going to be fooled by any carefree façade of hers – Evan followed along behind, switching his mindset to that of balloons.

"How about this one?" she asked, sparkling with fun as she held up a pale blue balloon with white writing. Evan glanced past her to the label on the bin, the picture plainly depicted and showing a baby-themed balloon with the text It's A Boy! painted on it in an appallingly frenetic font. Percy wiggled the bit of rubber in her hands coaxingly. "It is for a second birth..." she said slyly. The stern look he cut her dealt a swift death to that little idea. "Well, no dark colors," she grumbled. "This is a joyous occasion."

"How about two white and two gold?" he suggested diplomatically.

She perked up at the idea of actually having balloons, not really having processed it up to this point, and the color ceased to matter. "That sounds fine," she replied cheerfully, and picked out the gold while he examined the whites. A chirpy college-age girl wearing the bright yellow vest of the employees came over to inflate their purchases, asking repeatedly if there were anything else she could do until Percy was nearly wild with irritation.

The two headed out the door, balloons bobbing gaily overhead, and returned to the sidewalk. Percy was frowning a little, taking mental stock of their pantry back home as the two walked. "I wish I'd thought to tell Mother we'd get some juice while we were out," she said out of the blue. "I think Walmart might still have Sparkling juice on the regular aisle..."

"You have the phone, don't you?" Evan pointed out.

"Oh." She looked surprised. "I forgot about it." She glanced up at him, hand halfway to the pocket flap on the side of her shorts. "Would you mind a side trip?" she asked shyly.

"Not at all," he replied, and she promptly dug into her pocket for the phone. The conversation with her mother was short and to the point, and less than ten minutes later the two young persons did an about-face and headed down towards the Walmart a few miles away. To her own surprise, Percy was not flagging, the easy pace and brief rest in the party store doing little to tax her surprisingly accommodating muscles. Evan himself seemed more than happy with the slower locomotion, ambling along with his hands behind his back. Despite the hair-raising events of earlier, the silence between them was more companionable than it had been half an hour ago.

It was not until they received strange looks from the greeter in Walmart that Evan remembered the balloons tied to Percy's wrist, and looked up at them in consternation. She followed his glance towards the ceiling and promptly broke out in a bad case of the giggles. "Want me to stay here with the balloons?" she asked through her laughter, not wanting to go parading through the store like a two-year-old and mortify him.

He smiled, putting an arm around her shoulders. "No, we're going together," he said firmly. "And with any luck, someone will say something about a party and I can segue into the Good News from there."

"Good idea," Percy approved, and headed for the drinks aisle, Evan easily keeping pace beside her. They sensibly bought a single bottle of the Sparkling grape juice, before paying and starting back to the Walker residence. All in all, by the time they walked in the door, it had taken them an hour and a half to make all their purchases and return. After all the walking they had done – most of it in eighty-something degrees – neither of the young people had much energy left for any kind of a party. After a restrained toast to Evan's entry to the born-again family, and forty minutes' worth of chitchat, young Mister Smith needed to head home, and Percy was beginning to think longingly of a shower and an hour with Blondie – perhaps Cissy had sent her another silly video (Percy was still recovering from Nyan Cat.)

"It was wonderful having you over," Demi said cordially to Evan at the door. Percy wiggled between her parents to hug him tightly. Feeling faintly uncomfortable being so close right in front of her parents, he hugged her back but released her fairly quickly.

"I'll probably see you all again fairly soon," he said warmly, then with a polite nod to Demi, took his leave.

Irelda and Mortimer looked up as their son entered the house. "Well?" Irelda asked eagerly. "How did it go?"

Evan leaned against the door briefly, his face inscrutable as it always was when he was miserable. "Friend zoned," he stated laconically, and took the stairs two at a time. His parents looked at each other worriedly.

Percy's head was full of the events of the day as she showered and readied for bed, and her replies to Cissy's eager correspondence were somewhat absent-minded. Evan getting saved – Hallelujah! she need not fear losing him now – nearly getting hit, walking several miles and almost wearing a hole in the soles of her sandals, a party, and of course her earlier wrestling with her lot in life. Her last thought before she fell asleep, though, was an awe-struck and humble wondering. Evan Smith saved my life today.

There, that was nice and fast, wasn't it? :) Now, on a more serious note - I'm going to be changing the title soon. I don't know yet what the new one will be - everyone hates my only idea - but the current one is simply no longer applicable. I'm also open to ideas.