This Song Is About Your Sister (What Happens At The Villa, Stays At The Villa)

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
illustrated by lihsa

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/208302.html)

The suspicion grew sort of gradually, a nagging doubt at the back of her mind, like thinking you’d left the oven on. First just a vague sense of something out of place, and then bit by bit the specifics began to fill in; and then it was a growing, solider certainty.

“Are we — ” Zoe started, and then she stopped playing entirely, resting her bass against her chest and pulling off one cup of her headset. “…Are we playing in the wrong key?”

Andy looked at her for a second, frowning, his fingers starting to falter as his concentration broke. “No. What? No.”

“I think we are, though.”

“No.” But then he looked down at the fretboard, and his frown deepened. “Yes. …Fuck.”

“Wait, what happened?” And that was George too, at last, pulling off her own headset with her violin squeezed to her shoulder under her cheek. “…Is it not in F-sharp major, then? Because it has been the last three times we’ve gone through.”

“No, it’s not in bloody fucking…” Andy said, and the rest trailed off into a stormy inaudible mutter that seemed to go directly down to his guitar strings, as he grabbed up his capo and started tuning furiously. Zoe put a hand over her mouth to muffle her laugh; outside the soundproof glass, she could see Jack doing the same thing at the mixing console, and Bill standing over him just howling openly, in big inaudible whoops. Jack composed himself admirably, though, before pushing the intercom button.

“No worries, you guys, take your time,” he said, his pleasant, flat Canadian accent ringing tinnily in Zoe’s still-covered ear. “From the top, whenever you’re ready.”

“I just want to make it clear at this point that we are a brilliant, signed, and most of all extremely professional band,” Bill’s voice came right afterward, on a slight overlap, a little further away; Zoe looked up through the glass to see him addressing the Flip, holding it up to his face. “Extremely, very professional. We essentially could not be more professional, were we to try. I have tried, in fact. Daily. To no avail.”

“Put my camera down, wanker,” Zoe said, and laughed again when Bill looked at her with hurt, betrayed eyes and pressed the camera to his cheek, like they were dancing the tango. Andy rolled his eyes, but at least now he looked like he was fighting not to smile, too, instead of like a volcano about to go off. Jack took a breath to say something — and then something made both him and Bill turn and look toward the door, and then he leaned in to the mic and turned on the intercom again.

“Actually, never mind, let’s take five for now, okay? It sounds like Bran’s back with Shelley.”

They all stood up in a scuffle (except George, who’d been standing all along), setting aside and racking instruments, pulling off headsets. Once Andy opened the live room door, they could hear the distant babble of noise that must have tipped Jack off: mingled laughter from down the hall, a sweet high female voice rising over top of all the male ones. Andy led them in a line down around the corner to the kitchen, the rest falling in behind and Jack lingering to shut down some equipment, and then they were coming in on Shelley leaning on the countertop and laughing, all thick ginger hair and freckled shoulders in a strapless summer dress, Bran hovering behind her with her suitcase in hand and smirking, Kenny and Lucas on about some stupid thing as usual. Andy interrupted the scene with a loud crow of “Shel!” and then they were a line of hugs instead, coming to her one after another, filing into the room. When Zoe was next, Shelley never hesitated, just folded her in too like they were old friends. The back of her dress was warm and thin under Zoe’s hands, hair ticklish against the side of her neck.

Zoe had met Shelley a handful of times before she’d joined the band: mostly here and there at one of their gigs or over at Bran’s, hovering quiet around the edges with a beer and a hopeful sort of smile. All she’d really thought of Shel for a long time was that their genes had been a lot kinder to her than they had to Bran. Shelley wasn’t gorgeous exactly, but she was pretty, made a bit better job of the ginger and the pasty freckled face and the big pale eyes. …Of course, Zoe supposed it might actually be “not having got hit in the nose with a football so much” that was what had been kinder to Shelley, but never mind. She seemed nice, and she was quiet mainly, and she was easy to miss, especially next to her brother.

Most of the times she’d actually spent any real time with Shelley had been since Shel had started playing with them, anyway — including the incident this past winter. Zoe’d been on her way home from about four hours’ worth of coffee and vegan biscotti at Tic with Edgar (laying out the next issue of Bloody Well and tossing ideas around for the webcomic they’d been meaning to do together for months now), when finally the increasingly incoherent tweets Bran had been putting out all afternoon had started to genuinely worry her, and she’d switched bus lines to stop by his place. Cardiff in February was mild but a soggy, windy mess; her hair had plastered wet to her cheeks by the time she’d got under the overhang of Bran’s walk-up, in spite of her umbrella. And then when she’d buzzed, it hadn’t even been Bran who’d opened the building door — but Shelley, her hair back in sparkly little-girl barrettes that showed how she shaved it up the sides, wearing a pastel jumper and an uncertain, apologetic smile. “Hello.”

“Er,” Zoe said, when she opened the door, and then “Hi,” because that didn’t seem sufficient. Shel pulled the door wide to let her in, though, and she went gratefully enough. “…Is Bran not in? I thought he was.”

Shel glanced over her shoulder, and then back at Zoe, looking more anxious than ever. Zoe had always sort of assumed confidence in Shelley because of her prettiness, and their having met mostly at bars when Shel was already slightly drunk and excited; but one-on-one in ordinary circumstances she actually seemed outright gawky, like a little deer. “Um, he is, he’s just…” She seemed to debate with herself how to finish that, and then sighed, pushing hair out of her eyes. “He’s really drunk. And John and Stephen from Xerox Lali came round to watch the football, only now he’s not letting them leave til X Factor’s done, and they’ve got a gig at the Buffalo Bar tonight and all, so…”

She trailed off, which more or less just left Zoe staring at her for a few moments. “Good lord,” she said at last, and sidled past Shelley in the narrow hall, heading for the stairs in the lead with Shel’s footsteps trailing behind. “Is there some sort of reason for this, apart from his having suddenly suffered a total mental collapse?”

“He keeps moaning about how lonely he is,” Shelley’s voice drifted to her over her shoulder, sounding timid. “That’s all I know. He… well, you know he and Daphne broke up last week, yeah?”

That at least gave Zoe pause, and she turned back under the landing, struggling her bag back up on her arm. Actually, she hadn’t known that, which was cause for slightly more concern. “Did they?”

“Yeah. …Well, they’d been sort of on the rocks for a while. That was just — you know, the end of it.” All news to her, worse yet. Although she supposed she had thought it strange that Bran hadn’t been hijacking the band’s Twitter to hawk Turtle Society’s new record like a snake oil salesman on amphetamines, like he had with the EP last year. “That’s actually why I’m here, I said I was gonna stay at his place for a while, so I could keep an eye on him, like.”

“That seems wise in theory,” Zoe said, although it was already falling off to an absent murmur as she climbed the last few steps to Bran’s door. It was slightly ajar from Shelley’s exit, and she pushed it in on tented fingertips, calling through the gap. “Bran?”

“Izzat Zo?” a rather blurry and very cheerful voice called from the round the corner of the kitchen. “Zo! Come in here, you have got to see this. Kitty’s on and I swear to Jesus, she’s wearing a fucking sequined turd.”

“Hello, Zoe,” John said, at a more modest volume, after she’d arrived at what passed for Bran’s sitting room in the midst of all this. Stephen lifted an amiable hand, as well. They were sitting at either end of the tan leather sofa with Bran in the middle, like two uncomfortable slices of bread on either side of a lolling and pink-faced stack of ham. There was a small forest of empty bottles sprawling out across the floorboards away from their feet. Zoe glanced over them all, and then the television, and then back, pulling wet hair out of the collar of her coat to dry.

“I understand there’s a hostage situation in progress here,” she said, eventually — her eyes settling on Bran, who kept his stubbornly fixed. Behind her in the kitchen, she could hear Shel coming in too, closing the door. “Have you got any demands?”

Bran glanced at her at that, finally, then sprouted a lopsided bleary half-grin. “Get your top off?”

“Oh, extremely incorrect answer, I’m afraid.” She patted John on the shoulder, then nodded toward the door when he looked up. “You two can go, if you need to. I’ll handle this.”

What?” Bran demanded, outraged, even as both John and Stephen were getting hurriedly up, giving him bracing shoulder-slaps and mumbling apologies. Stephen paused on their way by her to lean in close, eyes solemn behind his thick-rimmed glasses.

“Thanks very much,” he said, low and confidential under his soft Scottish burr. “Wasn’t sure what we should do.”

“Between the two of you, I think you could actually haul him out the window,” Zoe pointed out. Stephen looked slightly abashed.

“Well, he kept threatening to kill himself…” He paused, considering. “Although that might have been ‘cos Leeds won.”

Zoe rolled her eyes, and grabbed at both their shoulders, turning and pushing them. “Out. Out with you. Have a good gig. I’ll text if we find your spines lying about.”

“Traitors!” Bran wailed from the sofa, on which he was now horizontal, but to her relief nobody paid him any mind. “Bloody girls, taking even me mates away from me…”

“Mates don’t make mates watch X Factor,” Zoe informed him, and dumped her bag off on the sofa next to his head, as the door closed behind half of the illustrious Xerox Lali. “God, look at you. You’re a disaster, aren’t you?”

“‘m always a disaster,” Bran said, hiccuping, then sniffed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “Did you just come up to chase my mates away and tell me I’m awful? ‘Cos I can do that without you no problem.”

She sat on the arm of the sofa next to him, leaning her elbow up on its back. “I came up because you’ve been really alarming on Twitter all day and I was worried about you, dickhead. Freeing the band you’d kidnapped was just an extra.” She watched him for a moment, then added, carefully: “Your sister told me you and Daphne split up.”

Bran made a thick, noncommittal noise with the side of his mouth that was buried in leather. Zoe decided, ultimately, that she shouldn’t rush to interpret that.

“So is this all you’ve been doing?” she said, instead, after a moment. “Getting drunk and looking at terrible people on television, and making fun of them on the internet?”

“Crap telly comforts my sorrow,” Bran said, mushed into the sofa. Zoe sighed.

“Crap telly feeds on your sorrow. Your sadness gives crap telly strength. Crap telly is, basically, a dementor.” No response. She yanked gently at the curls at the top of his head, which by now were a truly astonishing fright, making him grunt and swat at her hand. “Well, this isn’t going to make you feel any better, you know.”

Nothing’s going to make me feel better.” He rolled his head down entirely into the cushion, wrapping his arms around it. “Maybe if I just lie here long enough I’ll die.”

Zoe looked at him for a long moment longer, and then her jaw set. She got to her feet again, and grabbed both Bran’s wrists up from the sofa, hauling on them for all she was worth; he wasn’t much taller than her but had to be some three stone up the scale, and all of it muscle, but she had determination on her side. “All right, that’ll do. Up. You are going to get up and get dressed in something that’s not got stains all over and drink some water and then get out of this disgusting fucking flat. We’re gonna go to the Xerox gig, all right?”

Bran moaned, still with his head buried, much more insistently this time. “Don’t want to. Want to die.”

“No you don’t. Half your fucking songs are about how much you don’t want to die. Up, donkey.” She pulled harder, at least managing to get his head and upper chest hanging off the sofa. Bran consented to roll onto his back, squinting truculently up at her with his arms splayed in her hands and his hair hanging down from his forehead. Zoe considered that progress enough for the time being, and let his wrists go, raising her voice to call back to the back bedroom. “Shelley? We’re going to the Xerox gig at Buffalo in a bit, d’you want to come?”

“I am not,” Bran said under her, and she glared down at him; but he had started pulling himself up to a sitting position now, which she felt was a minor victory.

“If you just made them listen to who you would and wouldn’t shag on that awful show for a half-hour, the very least you can do is — ”

“Oh!” Shelley’s voice drifted back then, though, cutting her off — sounding so pleased and surprised she was a bit guiltily glad she’d asked. “Yeah, all right — ” Distant clankings and the sound of a door. “Just let me get something on that looks decent.”

“You look fine,” Zoe called back, although she assumed it was a lost cause. Bran had stopped moving, though, and she turned her attention back to him, grabbing a fistful of his t-shirt and hauling on him again. “All right, get a move on. Water first.”

Once at the bar, Shelley had bought her a drink without comment, Bran had sobered up a bit at a time, and the three of them had ended up having a pretty good discussion about the upcoming Oscars at one point, popping back out into the fresh air between sets. And it’d been maybe a month later that Bran and Andy had really started talking in earnest, not just idly, about the new album.

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
At @xeroxlali ‘s gig at BB in Cardiff. Fuckin amazing show. Lads are AFIRE as always.

Zoe @zoespooky
@brannjonn See, didn’t I tell you it’d be better than sitting home?

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
@zoespooky Pff, if you like GOING OUT and having a SOCIAL LIFE and shite 😉 ach ye harpy

See Shel @seeshelrun
@brannjonn @zoespooky who tweets when they’re standing right next to each other?! <3

Zoe @zoespooky
@seeshelrun You, apparently?

They managed to put in a couple more hours’ recording that day, in the end, before finally Jack had to go catch the ferry back to Santorini, where the friends he was staying with lived — in spite, as usual, of their offers of dinner and the fold-out couch. Bill and George took over the kitchen, and together managed to make a very passable traditional moussaka (which Bill insisted on calling by name loudly, repeatedly, and as exaggeratedly Manchester-ly as possible), as well as an untopped vegan edition that was ultimately labeled, via Post-it, ‘BRAN’S SHITTY MOOSAKA :)’. They’d been mostly eating just sprawled out over the kitchen table and the stools at the counter and the couches in the sitting room, but in honour of Shelley’s arrival Kenny and Lucas went out on the patio and moved the tables back together, picnic-fashion, so they could all fit. Bran stood by with a beer, and supervised and harangued them until finally Lucas let out a primal scream and chased him, laughing wildly, into the pool area and out of view.

Shelley’s — first — record!” Andy intoned with his water glass lifted, once they were all seated and Shelley was pink-faced and giggling at the head of the table, wearing a lopsided tiara George had made her out of tinfoil. They all followed his example, raising an odd assortment of beverages, which turned into a chaos of people reaching across each other and clinking. “We’ll get the keyboards set up tomorrow, if you’re ready to get started.”

“Boo, record talk at the supper table, hiss,” Zoe said, and threw a potato wedge at him. It landed neatly in the middle of his plate, and he turned wide eyes up to her and patted soft somber applause with his fingers on his palm.

“I can start whenever you want!” Shelley said, after she’d recovered a bit, and when Zoe turned back to her she looked all in nervous earnest, in spite of her smile. “…It’s so pretty here, though, I wouldn’t say no to just mucking about for a day or so.”

“Take your time,” George said, soothing; she was further up the table, at Shel’s elbow. “Kenny and Bill have still got to do their bits on this batch, and Jack was saying he’d like Bran to lay down the lead vocals before we do any backing. You can settle in a bit.” Shelley gave her a small grateful smile, and Zoe was pleased to see that although Andy looked slightly put out, he kept quiet, too. In between, Lucas brightened, too, looking round.

“We ought to go to the beach tomorrow, Shel,” he said, grinning at her around Bran. “It’s great, it’s still not really in season so if you go at the right time, it’s dead quiet.”

“Ah, that sounds good,” Kenny said, and Zoe elbowed him.

“Yeah, except you’ve still got recording to do.” He gave her an injured look and then elbowed back, and they kept that up for a moment even as she kept talking. “I might go along, though, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve not got out much since we’ve been here.”

“That’d be great,” Shelley said, and when Zoe looked back at her she did look genuinely pleased.

They went out early the next morning, before Jack had even arrived, first to the beach and then for a walk along footpaths that led far up the cliff walls above the water, much further up than they actualy went. George ended up coming along with them, and she and Zoe sat on the sand and talked while Lucas and Shelley messed about in the water, then followed behind while they led the way on the hike. Zoe kept the Flip out almost the whole time, panning over the water, the trails, the cliffs, the distant buildings. And sometimes, as they made their way up the path, just on Shelley’s back ahead of her: the freckles and beginnings of sunburn on her shoulders above her terry cover-up, the flip-flops dangling from her hand above her bare feet, the star tattoo on the back of her ankle and the rose one peeking around the edge of her bicep. The tendrils of wet hair dangling down from the clip she’d knotted it all up into, sticking to her neck and glistening in the clear Mediterranean sun.

When Kater had left the band, year before last, all the reasons why that she’d told them had been pretty mundane: she wanted to go back to uni; she wanted to finish her degree in physics and maybe go on to graduate school; she’d never planned on just being in a band her whole life, not even from the start. Zoe had supposed all of that made sense, but a part of her had also wondered if that was all there was to it. Kater had always been a gentle, sort of soft-spoken girl once off the stage, once she was out from behind the keyboards and not plastered sweat-sticky in shitty bar lighting, wailing into a microphone cheek-to-cheek with Bran. She was thick-thighed and curvy, quite a bit heavier than even Zoe, let alone George, and maybe there were only so many YouTube comments and foul message-board postings calling you “the fat one” or “biggun” that a person could reasonably be expected to take.

It wasn’t just Kater, of course; there was more than enough to go around. “when did zoe start getting so hot” on their videos, “What’d you do to your hair? I liked it better red,” at the merch table, “Rather fuck the blonde than the skinny one” on an old one of their Last.fm photos. “If nobody actually gives a shit what I do in the band, I’d like to know about it now,” she had said, backstage at a dive bar in Edinburgh, smiling through all her teeth. “Like, if I could just leave my bass at home, I wish somebody’d just tell me. It’s a really heavy thing to be lugging around for no fucking reason.”

“Ah, they’re just idiots, Zo,” Andy had told her, looking uncomfortable in the extreme, “don’t pay ’em any mind, it’s not worth it,” but the problem was that to her it seemed like, demographically speaking, the idiots were too much of a majority to be so summarily dismissed. But that was all any of the boys wanted to do, of course, was dismiss them. Wave them off, like it was stupid of her not to be able to just ignore all that shit that they could so easily ignore, just because it didn’t actually affect them at all and did her. They all knew it was shit, but somehow they seemed to think that should be the end of it, just knowing. They all poked fun at the creepy and the stupid, making tweets and posting pictures of parodic laddishness, but in the back of her mind she couldn’t help thinking that imitation was a pretty piss-poor form of censure. They all meant well, and they weren’t idiots, and she loved them every last one, but even all of that couldn’t always erase the gulf between meaning and doing.

It was a lads’ band, after all; you couldn’t really escape that. Bran wrote the words, on and on about football and death and falling in and out of love with girls, and Andy was the master of where they went and what they sounded like musically, and they made disparaging cracks behind each others’ backs about the contributions of “that handsome fuck” and “that ugly fuck” respectively. “A bit like Lennon and McCartney, if they’d both said ‘fuck’ a lot more,” Zoe had confided to Bill, as they’d sat sharing a joint out back of a club in Munich not long after he’d started touring with them, around when Kater had left. Bill had frowned, thoughtfully, cocking his head.

“…Vladimir?” he’d said, after a pregnant pause, on account of being an arse. She’d trod on his foot.

And now George was leaving, too; none of them had been talking about it much, but this record would be her last with them. Going back to university, up top, and maybe getting away from all this shit underneath. It would be just her and Shelley now, for girls in the band, and maybe only that until Shelley got fed up, too. Or maybe until Zoe did, although she couldn’t say for certain which one would come first. Kater had moved back to London after finishing her last year of school, but on a visit to Cardiff she had met up with Zoe for lunch one day; she’d looked vibrant and happy, and grown-up, out of their twenty-something Never-Never-Land of bars and zines and parties and gigs and on to the real world that adults with jobs inhabited. It had left Zoe wondering what exactly was wrong with her, that she didn’t want to go back to school, had in fact hated it while she was there and was just as happy to be out; that she couldn’t even picture herself falling neatly into that kind of a life, the kind that seemed to have made Kater find an inward glow instead of just reflected stage-light. She wrote paid magazine articles and alternative press pieces, put out indie pubs and could sometimes sell a short story, picked up the occasional part-time hours as a barista or a bookshop clerk, and that plus the band and indulgent parents back home had always been more or less enough to keep her afloat. She supposed one day she would need more, but more and more these days she found herself troubled that so far, this had always been all she’d wanted. Particularly when it meant that this could get away with treating her some of the ways it did.

At a gig in Detroit, on their last U.S. tour, a balding man who had to be ten years older than her had pushed to the front of the crowd between songs just to yell up at her, “Too many tattoos!” For a second she hadn’t believed she could have heard him right; and then her mouth had gone sour, hot pissed-off bile churning around in her stomach. “Too little hair,” she’d snapped back at him, beyond the stage footlights, but it’d been no good, honestly. The gig had been spoiled, the fun drained out of the rest of the set. She’d slumped off the stage at the end in a mood, written a pissed-off tweet about it backstage, then written a pissed-off blog entry about it later in the van, lit up in the glow of her laptop screen from where it balanced on her knees. She didn’t care what he or anybody thought about the spread of ink downward from her shoulder, growing into something closer to a full sleeve, but it was the tone of it that rankled and dug under the skin. The casual ownership that it implied; the assumption that she existed to please, a visual feast that had been bought and paid for. …And, of course, possibly the fact that everyone else in the band — even Shelley and George, it seemed, or even if not they at least were keeping quiet — seemed to think she was overreacting, trying to make their nervous joking way around it instead of getting angry about it themselves. Like they couldn’t even understand what she was upset about.

“Doesn’t it get to you?” she’d asked Jenny when she’d come over to Birmingham for the afternoon one time, playing Left 4 Dead on Jenny’s XBox and drinking gallons of the unbelievable rooibos tea lattes Jenny’d made in a saucepan over her ancient stove. Jenny played bass in Yellow Peril, who they’d all made friends with at a festival a few years back, and who’d opened for them loads of times since; she and Zoe hung round a lot, and had snogged a few times, although not much had ever really come of it. “I mean, you lot are always saying how rough the crowds were around here, starting out. Didn’t they give you a hard time?”

Jenny’d shrugged, lining up a pipe bomb shot on a tank from a safe distance. “Sometimes, a bit. But I find what helps a lot is to go round everywhere with a rabid little punk and a really tall Black fella.” She’d paused a moment, concentrating. “I mean, all right, Trip’d actually rather write you a sonnet about how you’ve done harm to your neighbour and should feel ashamed of yourself than ever get in a punch-up, but just on a glance he spooks yer racists good and proper.”

Zoe’s startled look had managed to get her character killed, although she wasn’t too concerned. “…They stick up for you, you mean?”

“Oh, yeah. One time I had on a skirt and some dickhead in the front wouldn’t shut up about how I ought to get my knees apart, and finally he got in too close and Nik kicked him right in the face. I heard he wound up in hospital getting his jaw wired.” She’d shot a kind, slightly abashed little smile sidelong at Zoe then — perhaps sensing a bit of her growing twinge of envy. “But you know… that’s not just about my lads. We’re not big like you lot, we can still get away with that stuff.”

“We’re not big,” Zoe had said, blinking, half a skeptical grin trying to pull at her mouth. Jenny’d shrugged again.

“You can afford to do a U.S. tour every year,” she’d said. “You’re signed. You’ve got a song on an advert. …I dunno, maybe it just looks big from down where we are.”

Zoe’d had to sit and chew on that for a bit. It had been hard to put her finger, back then, on exactly what it was about that that had bothered her. “…Is that good, then? I’ve sort of lost track.”

“Depends on whether you think it’s good.” There was a short choral burst and the growing sound of sobbing from the television, and Jenny cursed blisteringly under her breath, distracted for several minutes before returning to her thread. “It’s meant to be what we’re in it for, I s’pose, but I wouldn’t think you were mental if you wanted out of it, either. It is rough, it’s rough all over, not just in the shitty little pubs. And if you’ve got a label and a big name in the mix to worry about, it seems like that’d just mean there’s less you can do about it, yeah?”

“I don’t know,” Zoe said, and sighed, setting down her controller; there was no need for it until she respawned anyway. “I don’t even know if I do want out of it. Sometimes I’m sick of all the shit, but… ergh. I couldn’t just walk out on them, anyway.”

“You could, if you had to.” She glanced at Jenny, found her eyes still on the screen. “They’re your band. They’re not your family. If you’ve got other things you need to do — then you do what you’ve got to.”

Which was all true, Zoe supposed. But somehow, now matter how she turned it all over in her mind later, none of it quite felt like it touched on the point, exactly. At least, not for her.

“Could we possibly, at some point,” George said, sounding weary, from behind Zoe’s shoulder, “have the guitars back in the studio, so that people might actually use the shower if they’d like to?”

Kenny responded by furrowing his brow, and arching his back to thrust his guitar forward in her direction, playing several more especially pointed licks. Or rather, clicks, since there wasn’t an outlet anywhere near the bathtub he was standing in, and the best his guitar would produce was the faint tinny twangs of an unplugged electric. There was a burst of masculine snickering also from behind Zoe, and she had to bite her own lip even as she was zooming out. Unlike the remodeled loo downstairs, the tub in here was a charming free-standing claw-foot, which she thought really heightened the effect.

“Hang on just a moment, this could be important,” she said. “I can’t be sure, but… I think he may be trying to communicate with us, in his strange, primitive language.”

Kenny twanged another chord, with a triumphant enthusiasm the sound really failed to match. “Don’t be absurd,” Bill said from out in the hallway this time, loudly scoffing. “Everyone knows guitar players don’t have souls!” There was even louder laughter after a pause, and Zoe swiveled the Flip around to find Andy regarding Bill deadpan with folded arms, Bill gesturing at him as the camera found them. “Oh, no, and he’s standing right here…”

“So what I’m hearing you say is that you won’t be needing those three guitars you brought in your luggage,” Andy said, albeit the last part ended up a bit muffled as Bill moved in with arms wide and then crushed Andy’s head in to his chest. You forgot sometimes how ludicrously tall Bill was, until he did things like that. He was making shushing noises now, stroking Andy’s hair, looking far-off and saintly.

“Don’t fight my love, Andrew.” He bent in to press a solemn kiss into the top of Andy’s head, eyes misty. “Give in to my love.”

Zoe was about to say something to that, having just barely won the battle for her composure again, but then Shelley and Bran emerged from the other end of the hall, passing by the cluster of them all to the stairs. Zoe followed them with the camera now, coming back out of the loo’s doorway and into the hall. “Are you two headed to the studio, then?”

“Yeah, Jack’s a proper slavedriver,” Bran said over his shoulder, rolling his eyes. Shelley nodded, at least pausing to half-turn.

“Yeah, he said he wanted to try a session with both of us together…” She peered round Zoe’s shoulder, trailing off, then back at all of them with an incredulous smile. “…Is there a reason Kenny’s got his guitar in the tub?”

“I like the optimism of that,” Bill said, as Andy gave in and hugged him round the middle, then let go slapping his back. “That there might actually be a reason why that was happening. I envy that very much.”

“Is it all right if I come listen in?” Zoe said, ignoring him, following them down the top of the stairs. Shelley glanced back, starting to speak and then interrupting herself with an uncertain little laugh.

“Yeah, it’s all r– oh God, can we not have the camera, please? I’ve not even got makeup on.”

“You look fine,” Zoe said, but she thumbed the recording button anyway, dropping the Flip back to her side. “Are you nervous? Your first big day of recording and all…”

“I — dunno, should I be?” She looked more uncomfortable than ever, when Zoe caught a glimpse of her face in profile as they rounded the bottom of the stairs, although she was laughing. “It’s fine. It’s no big deal, it’s fine.”

Zoe had been opening her mouth to press the question — but the fine edge on Shelley’s voice caught her up short, blinking. She ended up just following them to the studio, without another word.

Jack went over notes with them for a few minutes in the control room, and then Bran went in the isolation booth, Shel setting up instead at her keyboards in the live room. It was only during the notes process that Zoe actually realised what track they were working on today. She’d played on it already, of course, but sitting around and listening to the words was really another thing… But even though her jaw set a bit, she guessed she’d signed on for it herself, and just stayed in her chair when the two of them went into the trenches. It wasn’t like she’d ever said anything about the stupid song, and if she got up and left again when she’d said she was going to sit in, Shelley might take it the wrong way. And it wasn’t such a big deal, anyway, really. Nothing to get fussed about, at least.

So she sat in the chair behind Jack’s at the console, and listened as he brought up the instrumentals he’d put together from what they’d done so far, counted off the beats in her head and noted the places where something sounded a bit funny, to maybe bring up later. You could never really enjoy listening to your own band. She watched the side of Bran’s face in the booth, and then the back of Shelley’s head in the room, through the glass, as Bran picked up the vocals and then Shel backed him up. Both of them all breath and effort and mouths moving apparently soundlessly, their voices only brought to her by a whole third room’s worth of electrical equipment.

…And in her rental car —
Or did she borrow yours? —
Along with the door chime
She screamed in 3/4 time,
She could have danced all night, we waltzed until she said she was sore
I drove her home at quarter to four
Whereupon she let me in her back door
But when she saw my face in the cold blue dawn light, I could see in her eyes she wished I’d stayed behind

This song is about your sister
And all the places that I’ve kissed her
When you see her don’t tell her I’ve missed her
You know I wouldn’t want to be out of line…

It wasn’t Bran’s best work, she supposed — nor his worst, definitely, but… well, never mind. It didn’t matter. She focused on Shelley’s voice, instead of the lyrics; it was interesting to have it isolated at all, for really the first time ever, not drowned out by the rest of the band like in rehearsals and at gigs. Strange as it seemed, Shel’s speaking voice was higher than her singing voice, which was around the same pitch as Kater’s had been — which had worked out well for them, all things considered, at least in terms of doing their old stuff live with a new singer. Shel’s was sweeter, though, not as brassy, and blended with Bran’s far better than Kater’s ever had, which was why they had always split the vocals rather than trying for the harmonies that Bran and Shel could pull off. The sound was pleasant, if very different from where they’d been on their last record: more sophisticated, Zoe thought. Andy had taken best advantage of all the band’s changes and upheavals over the past few years, moving them forward to a kind of maturity.

“That’s really nice, isn’t it?” Jack murmured to her, swiveling in his chair, keeping his voice just loud enough for her to hear but low enough not to cover the playback. “That’s why I wanted to hear them together, I wanted to get the feel of it. It’s great, though, they just resonate so beautifully.”

Zoe nodded, turning her dormant camera over in her hands. “Blood harmony, don’t they call that?” He nodded back, smiling. “Shelley’s doing really well, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yeah. Like an old pro. You’d never know she hadn’t done it before.” They arrived at the second bridge, and Jack leaned forward and pressed the intercom, making both of them falter and look up. “That sounds incredible, you guys. Really incredible. Could you give me the first verse one more time, and — Bran, really punch it out. Make sure you’re really getting all your consonants, really get your teeth into them. Having the hi-hat in there just tangles things up a little, is all. Okay?”

“Was that all right on my end?” Shelley asked — twisting her head back so she could look through the glass and talk into the microphone at the same time. Her eyes somehow looked even bigger than ever. Jack gave a thumbs-up, holding his arm up above the mixing board, and she offered a tentative smile.

“Fantastic, Shelley. Good strong breath support, keep it up.” He leaned forward again, tapping away at adjustments. “All right, back to the top, ready? Here we go.”

After a while, Zoe picked back up her camera, and quietly turned it back on. It couldn’t be so bad, she reasoned with herself; Shelley’s face was what she’d been concerned about, and it was turned away.

They all went in the pool in the evening, taking turns while the boys messed about with trying to barbecue, and mostly made a big silly botch of it like only a bunch of city lads strutting and puffing and trying to prove their manliness could. Zoe treaded water halfway between the deep and shallow ends, and laughed so hard she almost sank when, after a rousing game of pirate fencing with pool noodles, Shelley managed to knock Kenny off the diving board and into the water hard enough to make him yowl about his stinging belly. Lucas took her up and carried her in triumph on his tattooed shoulders around the shallow side, while Kenny hauled himself out to collapse on the deck and moan, and Zoe watched them, grinning. Lucas and Shelley had always got on well; not only had they both joined up around the same time, as the thing with Archie had happened not long after Kater had left — although Zoe and most everyone else liked to think about it much less — but they were also the two youngest. Which set them apart from Bill, even though he’d also joined them that same year, since he was older than the band’s average: almost thirty. And Kenny hung round with them a lot, too, of course — but Kenny’d always felt young to Zoe, in spite of being her age.

She’d got back up on the deck herself, and was drying on a towel against the wall of the villa a bit apart from the barbecuing mayhem, when the sound of wet feet slapping on the concrete made her squint up into the low-hanging sun. Shelley was standing over her, damp and with her own towel tied like a sarong over the bottoms of her vintage-style two-piece. Bare, her belly curved out in a slight, plump pot that her choice of tops usually disguised, and another tattoo could be seen with it bare: an ornate map compass just inside the curve of one hip, disappearing under the fabric.

“Can I join you?” she said, and Zoe smiled and shifted over on the towel, making room for her to sit down. Shelley’s bare upper arm grazed hers as she settled in, cool to the touch and light enough to tickle. She pulled up her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, and seemed to think for long moments before looking over at Zoe again. “I, um…” Shel bit her lip, smiled, leaned her cheek on her towel-covered knee. “I sort of wanted to apologise.”

Zoe blinked, then frowned. “For what?”

“I, er…” Shelley hesitated a moment, and then turned her head on her knees, resting her chin between them instead and staring out at the pool. “I sort of snapped at you, a bit, this morning? Or… maybe I didn’t exactly, I dunno.” Another anxious laugh. “I was just — I was really nervous. And it put me a bit on edge, and I just… yeah.” She tweezed with two fingers at her hair, where it clung wet to the side of her cheek. “I just felt bad about it.”

“It’s all right,” Zoe said, watching the side of her face. Shelley glanced over at her again, then dropped her gaze, still smiling. “It’s strange, though — I was thinking, once you got in the studio, you really didn’t seem nervous at all. You seemed really comfortable. Jack was even saying to me how you’re a natural.”

Shelley pinkened a little at that; the colour turned up easily on her pale skin, as much as it did on Bran’s when he was drunk or angry. “Oh, I dunno — I mean — I mean, when it’s in the studio, yeah, then it’s fine. When I’m actually doing it, it’s like I can stop thinking about it, yeah? I don’t get so worried.” She laced her fingers together on her shins, restlessly, first one way and then another. “That bit’s fine, the — actually playing bit, it’s fine.”

“So what are you nervous about, then?” Zoe caught her eye again, and smiled, wringing a little more water out of the ends of her hair. “Isn’t that the hardest part, actually playing?”

“No, no — ” She laughed, leaning back against her hands. “No, it’s the easiest. I mean, I’ve been doing that, on tour and all. It’s… all the other bits, leading up to it, that’s what I get nervous about.” Zoe frowned at that again, and Shelley looked down and bit her lip a moment before squinting back up, shy and smiling. “It’s stupid, but… when me and Bran were kids, he’d hang round with me when it was just the two of us. But if he ever had his friends over, it was — you know, in his room with the door shut, no little sisters allowed. So now — this is so stupid.” She laughed again, ducking her head momentarily down into the circle of her arms. “But being in the band, it’s still like… you know. Like he finally let me come in, yeah?”

It took Zoe a long time to be able to think of an answer for that.

“It’s not stupid,” she said, finally. Looking out at Bran and Andy arguing in front of the barbecue pit, Bill standing just beyond them, alternately drinking a glass of red wine and tooting serenely on a kazoo he had out for God only knew what reason; George sitting with her feet in the pool, laughing and holding up a hand to protect from splashes as Lucas and Kenny apparently tried to drown each other. “…It has to come as a fairly disappointing reward for that much patience, though, I must say.”

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Shelley said. Her voice was quiet, but so full of feeling Zoe looked round at her again, surprised; and found herself caught wrong-footed, and even a little guilty.

illustrated by lihsa

The band had formed at university, starting in Zoe’s first year: in its very earliest stage, with just her on bass, Kenny on guitar, and Archie on drums. It hadn’t even had a name at that point, much less anything resembling “gigs” or a rehearsal “schedule” or, in fact, much in the way of “music,” if she were to be honest. They’d mainly just been three friends who’d vaguely learnt instruments at school, occupying a practice room in the music building on weekend nights to drink too much vodka and make a lot of noise. Anyone could have told you there’d been a number of problems with their sound, but probably first among them was the fact that among the three of them, they’d had neither anyone who could write lyrics nor, indeed, anyone who could sing them. Then Kenny had met Andy in a bar near campus (to hear Andy tell it, he’d overheard Kenny viciously slagging off The Postal Service to some mates and formed an instant admiration), and he’d wound up joining them and eventually sort of taking over them, which had really come as something of a relief. Andy had come with a lot of ideas; his first had been that they were going to do sort of prog-rock ambient soundscapes, and he’d written a lot of pretentious and baffling lyrics that consisted of maybe three unrelated sentences per song that he sang very slowly and over and over. And they’d all more or less gone along with that, if only for lack of anything better to do.

After finally hitting a practice session where Zoe and Kenny hadn’t been able to do anything but laugh hysterically every time Andy opened his mouth, though, he’d first had a minor tantrum, and then, gradually, begun to see reason; and the band had gained more members, until they were making jokes about being really more of an orchestra. First George, as a friend of Archie’s, then Kater, introduced by Andy, and then only a few days later Bran, whom Zoe had known from her poetry writing class. He’d asked her out in the second week of classes, actually, and she’d turned him down, citing her then-boyfriend — but somehow that hadn’t turned out to be as awkward as she might have expected in the long term, at least not for her. She’d made indifferent marks in the course and been mostly indifferent to it in general, and Bran had also been fairly unmemorable at the time, quiet and plain and a bit truculent — but he had impressed her with his writing, when they’d workshopped together. He’d been not amazing but good, good enough at least to have you remembering bits of his phrasing days later, and his lyrics turned out to be even better: sharp and clever and droll, self-involved and self-deprecating at once, despairing over the pointlessly miniscule and amused by the devastatingly tragic. He’d given them a voice that Andy had helped them develop the perfect sound to match, urging them to a sort of manic, joyful clamor with a fine edge of desperation on it. A Pitchfork writer, amid other uncharacteristically lavish praise, had described their first album as sounding “like laughing your head off while jumping off a cliff,” and Zoe had loved that, had bookmarked that review to read it over and over again.

Bran’s singing, on the other hand, might not have been much impressive, comparatively speaking — but even so, and even the lyrics apart, nobody who’d seen them play had ever really questioned why Bran had ended up the frontman. Put on stage with a band behind him, he’d discovered in himself a potent and rather startling charisma, a natural showmanship that had been striking even in its rawest form, even before years of practice and conscious effort had refined it. It was hard to even put your finger on why, but when Bran was on stage, you couldn’t really look at anyone else. For all Kater’s voice had been about ten times more pleasant to listen to, she’d always sort of faded into the background behind him, when they’d been singing together. …On the other hand, despite Shelley’s meekness in person, Zoe thought in recent years that some of the effect might be genetic; that Shel, by contrast, might have the potential to be able to hold her own. Just like Bran, when you put her up front and under the lights, Shelley seemed like she could change into someone new.

They’d started getting gigs bare months after they’d all started practicing together, first just at parties around the university and then spreading out into the pubs around the city, and further beyond. Friends with more enthusiasm than talent had produced a few makeshift singles for them, which had spread quickly online; then they’d landed a record deal with an independent label, and that’d really been the end of the beginning of the whole thing.

“You reckon we’ve sold out?” Archie had asked her, grinning, as they’d waited on the curb to split a cab home from their first day of real, in-a-studio-and-everything recording ever. She’d snorted, breath steaming in the cold and wet, hands shoved in her coat pockets and bouncing on her toes.

“I don’t think you can have sold out if you’ve not actually made any money.”

“Maybe we’re the first ever to have pulled it off,” he’d said, and she’d laughed, grabbing his arm for extra warmth. It was a day she’d once looked back on fondly, could now only regard with sad suspicion. Once you knew, you had to start remembering all of your past conversations that way: wondering if he’d been using even then, wondering if he’d even been high that day, that afternoon, that moment. Everything passed through the fine-toothed comb; nothing was spared, no matter how you hated yourself for it. It was like the coke itself got spread across the lens of your memory, ground in there until it dulled the picture in every scene, turned it a different colour than before.

The bottom line of it was, Archie had never wanted to be famous. Nor had she. Nor had any of them, really; except maybe Bran and Andy, and even they sort of wincingly and self-loathingly, walking a fine tightrope of too-cool irony between their arrogance and the insecurities it covered over. And honestly, they weren’t famous, not really — not even now.

But she could admit to herself that, at the very least, maybe Jenny had been right. Maybe even if they weren’t famous, they might, at least relatively speaking, be starting to be big. And really, wasn’t big more than enough to be going on with?

“Oh, I dunno,” Shelley said, looking alarmed at the very idea. “Is it, d’you think?”

Zoe shrugged a bit, sipping her coffee. It always sort of bothered her when people talked about it like that — like it was something that was just set in stone one way or another, like it had an on-off switch, and had to be arbited by someone. …Although somehow when it came from Shelley, it didn’t as much. “That’s what I’m asking you. …It doesn’t bother you?”

“It — hasn’t so far, I s’pose.” She leaned back on the counter, and then pushed herself up to sit on it, her bare feet dangling in mid-air. She had tiny and very white feet, their toenails currently painted a spangly purple. “Well, if it is, I really don’t think it’s on purpose. Bran’s really good about that sort of thing, I think he knows more than I do.”

“Well — I don’t know, really. I guess ‘sexist’ wasn’t quite what I meant to say, but…” Zoe sighed, and turned to prop her bottom against the kitchen counter as well. They were the only two down in the kitchen and sitting room area today; Lucas was laying down drums for the next set of tracks, Andy and Bill listening in, Bran shut up in his and Kenny’s room finishing up some tweaks to the lyrics, George and Kenny gone into the town for some sight-seeing. “It’s the tone of it, you know? I mean, I expect that’s what he was aiming for, but even so, that doesn’t make it good. It’s just so…” She grasped, but couldn’t quite reach it: the shit the song conjured up, the balding dickhead at the Detroit show, that one vile ‘lads’ shop’ putting out flippant t-shirts about rape, the whole complex of foul expectations and entitlements that went with that sort of sense of possession, even when it was all joshing and winking-and-nudging. It wouldn’t seem to come into words. Shelley, though, she found had come to peer down at her while she was thinking it over, biting her lip and hesitating.

“If you really don’t like it — have you said anything to Bran?” she asked, at last. Zoe blew out another breath that ruffled up her bangs, scrunching one hand back around her hair.

“No… You’re right, I suppose I should, but — I don’t know. If nobody else has a problem with it… and I don’t even know if I have a real problem with it, honestly, or if I’m just making one out of nothing sometimes. …I just don’t want to get him into a temper for nothing, you know?”

She half-expected Shelley to give her the rebuke she really deserved for that — to find her scowling or hands-on-hips when she looked back — but instead Shel was nodding, vigorously enough to make her hair flap on her shoulders. “No, yeah, I do.” She glanced around, at the stairs, and then leaned in a little and lowered her voice. “He’s been a bit off even since we’ve been here, don’t you think? Sort of moody? …I’d thought he might cheer up, working on the record.”

Zoe nodded, tilting her coffee cup slightly to watch the surface of the liquid shift. “He was even before you got here. Hasn’t changed much.” She shrugged, her mouth quirking. “And I’m afraid it hasn’t escaped my notice all the songs on the whole record are about miserable breakups and/or girls being awful.”

“Well, he’s never been a one for bottling it up,” Shelley said, in a tone so matter-of-fact it made Zoe huff laughter out into her cup, blowing back coffee-scented air. “…I don’t think it’s just that, though, either.”

That dried the laughter from Zoe’s throat. Gradually she lowered the cup again, staring down into it. “No,” she said, at length. “I know. …Has he ever — seen a psychiatrist, or anything? Got help about it?”

“…I really can’t even picture Bran going to a psychiatrist,” Shelley said, after a long, thoughtful pause. Another helpless little laugh burst its way out of Zoe, and she nodded, head hung forward.

“No, now that you’ve said it, nor can I.” She wiped at her face with the back of her hand. “He’d have one jumping out the window in a couple months, anyway.”

Shelley laughed, but quieted and went thoughtful again before long, taking another moment to speak again. “Actually, I dunno if it’s even really that bad. Most of the time, anyway? He’s… good and then he’s not, that’s all I know. He’s always been that way.” She shrugged, tugging at the hem of her skirt where it fell across her knees. “Sometimes I think it’s just, like — he’s really clever, and he’s too clever, yeah? …He thinks too much, maybe. He’s so clever he makes himself miserable.”

…Well, and it wasn’t exactly like Zoe couldn’t relate to that.

They stood and sat in silence for a moment, Zoe contemplating her coffee, Shel twisting her fingers round her knees. Finally, Zoe turned so that she could lean her elbow on the counter instead; she wasn’t as tall as Shelley, she couldn’t even have got up there if she’d tried, she didn’t think. “Do you know,” she said, after another second’s pause, “that in all the time we’ve known each other, I don’t think you and I have had a single conversation longer than, ‘Can you play me an E, please’ that hasn’t wound up being about Bran?”

Shelley blinked at her, wide-eyed, and then tried a timid smile. “I… really? …That can’t be right, can it?”

“I think it is.” She sipped her coffee again, looking off to one side while she thought, then back at Shel. “…I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but for years there was this American comic called Dykes To Watch Out For,” and she wasn’t looking closely but she thought Shelley’s eyes might have widened a bit at that, “that put out the idea of a test for films, to work out how they did on gender bias. There had to be, er — ” Ticking off on her fingers, sticking them out as she went along. “Two female characters — who have a conversation — about something other than a man. People call it the Bechdel Test, after the author.” She paused, and then met Shelley’s eyes again, smiling with a slight edge. “In the over a year that we’ve known each other, I actually don’t believe you and I have quite passed the Bechdel Test, in real life. So that’s — really depressing, isn’t it?”

“I… guess so.” Shelley kicked her feet a moment, crossing them over each other. “What’d you rather talk about, then?”

Zoe considered that a moment — then set down her coffee cup, and turned to fully face Shel. “You,” she said, smiling. “I want to know all about Shelley Platt — not Shelley Platt Bran Platt’s little sister, not Shelley Platt who does keyboards and vocals in Los Gauchos, just… the standard-issue one.”

“I, er — ” Shel looked deeply alarmed for a moment, and then laughed, ducking down her head to push at her hair. “Oh God, you’re not going to get out that camera, are you?”

“No. No, no. This is just for me. Me personally.” Grinning now, both of them laughing a little. “It’s not hard, what are you being shy about? What are you interested in? What do you like?”

“Oh, I dunno… I mean, I know, I’m just on the spot all of a sudden, so I can’t think of anything — ” Shel put a hand over her mouth, covering her giggles. “All right. Erm. What do I like. Well… my dog!” She brightened suddenly, straightening up a bit on the counter and looking at Zoe in a more animated sort of way. “Oh, my dog, I love her. Her name’s Angela, she’s a miniature dachshund, she’s so sweet. Hold on, I’ve got pictures — ” She propped up on one hand and lifted her bottom off the counter, digging in the back pocket of her jean shorts for her mobile phone, and then lifted it up to thumb through. “There — ” Holding the phone out to Zoe. “That’s her last time we got home from tour, she was so excited. She pissed on the rug, she was so excited, actually, but I couldn’t even get cross with her. I think the next few are from then as well — ”

“Oh, my God,” Zoe broke in, free hand pressed over her mouth as she took the phone and flipped through — laughing a little at herself, in spite of herself. “Oh my God, look at her, that little face!”

“I know!” They caught each other’s eyes and just laughed for a moment, and then Zoe handed Shelley’s phone back, shaking her head. “So… yeah, my dog. And… well, music’s no good, I basically just like the same stuff as Bran, we’ve got the same taste and he’s always playing me new things — But, well. I like… Being Human. …I mean, the show, not like, just in general.” Which startled Zoe into laughing, hard, and Shel grinned sheepishly. “…And the Vampire Diaries. And I really liked The Hunger Games. And… The Notebook, I loved it, and don’t make fun of me, all right.”

“I’m not, I won’t — ” Although she might have undermined that somewhat by snorting laughter in the middle of it. Shelley made a wide-eyed, indignant face at her that didn’t help much.

“You are, now you’re laughing at me!”

“No, that’s not it, I just — ” Collecting herself, calming, wiping at her eyes a little. “You’re just… really sweet.”

“I am not,” Shelley said, folding her arms, but her smile was still lingering. Zoe just laughed again, shaking her head.

“You are so. You are so very much. …But no, it’s fine, I’ve got no room to judge you.”

Shelley smiled a little broader, tilting her head on one side so her hair made a long straight fall. “Why? What do you like?”

“Oh, loads of completely stupid things.” Shelley raised her eyebrows, and Zoe snickered a bit more into her hand, before letting it fall away. “Well, I love horror films. Especially really cheesy old slasher ones, from the seventies and eighties? A friend of mine and I have got a horror fiction zine that we do, actually, I could show you an issue sometime if you like. And… I love comics — I’ve been trying to write one with the same friend for a while, he draws as well, but it hasn’t worked out yet — and… I know, oh, trying to do indie comics, I should be into all really intelligent artistic independent ones, and I do like a lot of those, but… what I really love is superhero comics.”

“Really?” Shelley asked, sounding as much amused as incredulous, and Zoe sighed through her smile, nodding. “Who’s your favourite superhero, then?”

“Oh, God, I don’t know, erm…” She laughed a bit, then thought about it for a moment. “I think… probably Jean Grey? …She’s one of the X-Men, she’s Phoenix, or Dark Phoenix, depending, these days. They, you know — ”

“I know a little bit about it,” Shelley broke in, grinning a bit. “I’ve seen the films…” But she just started laughing again when that made Zoe groan, slapping her palm down in a soft pound on the counter.

“Noooo, you can’t just see the films! Look, when we get back to Cardiff you should come over and I’ll sit you down with my collection, you should at least read over some of the stuff since the reboot…” She caught herself there, and laughed for a moment before waving it off. “Anyway, though, yeah, stupid stuff. I’m also really obsessed with the X-Files, and that wasn’t always good enough to deserve it either, so there you go.”

“So now we’re getting to know each other,” Shelley said, after a moment’s pause; and her smile, when Zoe looked back at her, was softer now. More honest — and far bolder now, far less shy, as well. Zoe met her eyes for a long moment, and then met it: slow and spreading, across her lips.

“Yeah,” she said. “Now we’re starting to.”

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
A MOMENT OF SILENCE PLZ FOR MY BEST FRIEND DEMETRIOS THE CRAB, TRAGICALLY EATEN BEFORE HIS TIME BY MY OTHER FRIEND @hemlockvolt PLEASE RT

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
THIS IS THE LAST PICTURE EVER TAKEN OF DEMETRIOS yfrog.com/alksdnr TURNING DOWN THE VOLUME ON THE TELLY AS U CAN SEE HE WAS V. CONSIDERATE

Bill Halliwell @hemlockvolt
@brannjonn He will be as fondly remembered as he was delicious. #ripdemetrios

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
@hemlockvolt YOU MONSTER

Bran Jonathan @brannjonn
Wait nm, Bill has now plied me with a large quantity of weird liquoricey Greek booze. All forgiven. Sorry Demetrios #ripdemetrios

Bill Stewart @hemlockvolt
WARM…………OUZO

See Shel @seeshelrun
just want it known @hemlockvolt and @brannjonn are off their FACES and shouldnt be listened to fyi…….

Warm ouzo,” Bill intoned, into the webcam, in his sternest and most serious tones, “is the beverage of the gods. The Greek gods, specifically. ‘Twas poured from the highest peaks of Mount Olympus, down into the waiting open mouths of mortal man.”

“And woman,” George called over her shoulder from the kitchen, where to be entirely fair she was actually making a cup of tea. Bill never missed a beat, though.

“And woman. Man possibly first, though, as he does tend to be slightly taller.”

“Might I ask, Mr. Volt, sir, what it is that warm ouzo is made of, compo– compositionally speaking?” Bran asked, from Bill’s elbow. They were both sitting at the end of the table, side-by-side, the better to get the correct angle on the camera on Bill’s laptop; the latest nearly-empty bottle of ouzo sat on the table between them, in the foreground to the camera’s eye. Bill nodded gravely.

“Indeed, Mr. Platt. Warm ouzo consists, primarily, of the — still-steaming urine of Zeus himself, rarified in the fires of Hephaestus’s forge, and mingled also with the waters of the Phoenician well in which the Phoenix once bathed.” He stopped and considered a moment. “Also some liquoricey bits.”

Bran nodded solemnly throughout, both of them still staring into the camera like newscasters. “Now, I’ve also noticed that drinking warm ouzo causes me to become… I would say seventy-five to eighty percent more sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex. Would you say that effect is typical, of the impact of warm ouzo?”

“I would. I would, in fact.” Bill hesitated, frowning. “Actually I would say that an increase of over one hundred percent is more common, generally closer to around one hundred and fifteen. But in your case, I would imagine that your natural state of being extremely, potently attractive to the opposite sex — ”

“Oh, yeah, my natural sexiness, that’s true — ”

” — to people of all sexes, actually, yes, I think that might skew the results slightly in your case.”

“That’s a good point. That’s a very good point.” Bran was quiet a moment, then added in the same thoughtful murmur, “Plus my huge willy.”

“Yes, there’s the matter of your tremendous willy,” Bill said — or started to say, and then dissolved into a near-spit-take of laughter in the middle. Bran remained composed, still gazing into the camera with his hands folded, although as Bill collapsed on the table a smile did start to yank at the corners of Bran’s mouth. Bran was the only person Zoe had ever seen be able to get Bill to crack first.

“Can we please just have a rule,” Shelley said, leaning her arm up on the back of the sofa to crane around, “that as long as I’m around, nobody is allowed to talk about Bran’s willy?” She’d had a reasonable amount to drink herself — although of beer, not ouzo — and was quite a bit louder than normal, although in her case that more or less only brought her up to a standard volume. She was also, however, sitting sideways on the couch with her legs stretched across Zoe’s lap. Zoe herself, to be honest, might also have had more than a bit to drink, and had at some point looped her arm round Shelley’s waist when she’d not been paying attention.

“You’d have to take it up with him first, I think,” Kenny said, cheerfully enough, from his reclining chair on the other side of the coffee table. “He’s the one always bringing it up.” Bran blew Shel a kiss, and she flipped him off.

“Your go,” Lucas said, nudging Kenny’s knee from the floor beside his feet, and Kenny blinked round and then leaned forward to examine the board. They’d found Monopoly stuffed in the back of a closet, and initiated a truly interminable game of it — although one to which a bit of excitement was added by the fact that the game board was in Greek, given the fact that none of them could read it. The television muttered to itself in the background, unheeded by any of them; Bran had managed in spite of his inebriation to locate BBC World News on the satellite earlier, and said that he wanted to wait for Sport Today to come on. For right now, though, it was just depressing headlines: arrests by Syrian security forces, weird serial murders in Japan, flooding in the States.

Kenny rolled and moved his piece, then shuffled at his play money. “Yeah, all right, I’ll buy… whatever this one is. This one I’m on, the green one.”

“Bag End,” Andy suggested; he’d claimed the other chair and had a glass of whiskey dangling from his hand. Kenny snorted laughter.

“Yeah, Bag End. I’m buying Bag End. Gonna toss them hobbits out, raise the property values, eh?”

“So now Kenny’s a Middle Earth slumlord,” Zoe said, Shelley convulsing in giggles on her shoulder. “Well, that’s very reassuring. We have certainly learnt and grown from our experiences abroad.”

“Do you have enough still?” Lucas asked him, peering around Kenny’s elbow at the money. Kenny turned it outward to show it to him, for all the good it did either of them.

“I have… literally no idea.” All of them laughed this time, Shelley’s head falling on Zoe’s shoulder in the process. Whatever she washed her hair with smelled faintly like apples. At last Kenny plucked a wad of bills from the stack and tossed it at the box, fumbling for the matching property card. “There we are, it’s that much now. Your go, Andy.”

“All right, then — ” He set his glass aside and shifted forward out of his chair, onto his knees where he could reach, and moved. “Ah! Chance. …Or is that one Community Chest?”

“No, it’s Chance, Chance is orange,” Lucas put in. Andy drew a card, made a show of frowning at it, then knee-walked forward so he could show it to Zoe. She craned her neck back and squinted.

“Oh, do you know what that one is? It’s the ‘Be A Love And Get Zoe Another Drink’ card! They’ve just added that one, I’m quite in favour of it.”

Andy narrowed his eyes at her in deep betrayal, and she beamed at him while Shelley and the other boys laughed. George saved the day in the end, though — stepping in and plucking the card from Andy’s fingers, then setting her tea on the end-table at the other side of the sofa. “Oh, I’ll do that one,” she said; “I’m a believer in community service.”

“I love yoooou, Geooooorge,” Zoe said, more or less, lolling her head to the side on the couch. George waved a dismissing hand behind her, on her way back to the kitchen, and Zoe laughed.

The game kept up until well into the night, when players started dropping out: first George, who had been playing only nominally for some time (Lucas had been moving for her) excused herself, and then Andy fell asleep slumped over the arm of his chair and was urged up to bed. Bill followed not long after, and not long after that Bran and Kenny and Lucas went out for a midnight swim. Zoe objected at first on the basis that they were all blind drunk and would probably die, but finally relented when they all swore multiple times that they’d hang onto pool floats and stay in the shallow end.

And then the sliding doors had clapped shut again, and it was just her and Shelley left, still curled up together on the couch; neither of them had got up all night except to go for a pee, and even then they’d come back to the same position each time. She’d thought Shelley was dozing a bit, but after the boys left Shel lifted her head to meet Zoe’s eyes with a sleepy smile.

“Just us, I s’pose,” she said. Zoe smiled, and lowered her gaze, not quite meeting Shel’s anymore. Somehow, there was something awkward about sitting here like this when it was only the two of them, when everyone else had gone — something that stretched out taut.

“Yeah.” She pushed at Shelley’s hair, brushing it out of her eyes with her fingertips. “Are you all right? Hanging in?”

Shelley laughed a little, ducking her head a bit, although not exactly away from Zoe’s hand. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m pretty much sober by now, I get through it fast. Just a bit sleepy.”

“Yeah, me too.” Zoe shifted their shared weight a little to the side away from Shelley, so she could stretch out her free arm; she bumped the touchpad of her sleeping laptop on the end of the sofa, bringing it back to life and squinting at its clock. “…Good lord, no wonder. It’s almost three in the morning.”

“D’you want to go to bed?” Shelley asked. Zoe considered, leaning her head on the back of the couch, her fingers toying with the pocket of Shel’s shorts.

“No, I’m probably going to stay awake a while, wait until I clear up a bit.” She hesitated, and turned her head back in Shelley’s direction — and then started to retrieve her arm, shifting her weight out from under Shel’s. “If you want to go on to sleep, though, I can — ”

Shel didn’t let her get that far, though. Just leaned forward, into the circle of her arm instead of away, and kissed her.

It was slow and wet, slick and messy. Shelley’s mouth tasted like chapstick, like beer, like nothing much. Her hand closed lightly over Zoe’s shoulder, her hair tickling Zoe’s bare upper arm. Her body suddenly felt much warmer, heavier, more real across Zoe’s lap and leaned against her shoulder.

When they parted Shel only went away by a distance of centimeters; her eyes were downcast and half-lidded, and she licked her lips once and smiled. “That’s maybe not quite what I meant,” she said.

There were a total of five bedrooms in the villa; Bran and Kenny had doubled up, as had George and Shelley, and Lucas had for some reason been setting up a tent in the rear yard and sleeping there, but the rest of them each had their own. They crept upstairs to Zoe’s giggling and shushing each other, holding hands, Shel pulling Zoe back in once to kiss her again on the stairs, so thoroughly and at such length they nearly fell and ended up laughing in stifled whispers some more. Then finally they were in and the door shut behind them, not even bothering to turn on a light but only moving by the rippling glow of the ones around the pool, from outside. They kissed for a while longer, careening into the room on a long curve with arms locked round each other and bumping into things and giggling, and then Zoe started to tug at the hem of Shelley’s top, pulling it up. Shel lifted her arms over her head, letting it be stripped off her and away. The dim light picked out the planes and curves of her in a kind of glow, made pools of shadow in the indentations of collarbones and inner arms and hips and navel. Her bra had lace over the white cups, her shoulders and breasts and back dappled in freckles. There was a dark smudge of bruise on her upper belly, where she’d slipped trying to get out of the pool the other day, and racked it against the side.

Zoe undid her bra, and she shrugged out of it, letting it fall forward and away; then Shel shucked down her shorts and stepped out of them, forward, to where she could push the flannel shirt off Zoe’s shoulders. Zoe pulled the dress under it off herself, it was tight and there was no really graceful way to get out of it; she had to squirm around like an eel, working it up one side and then the other and making a puffed disaster of her hair, and she ended up snickering into the last of the fabric as she pulled it free. Shelley caught it from her after a moment, and they leaned back together in their pants and mussed hair, pressing mouths into skin and muffling laughter. They were drunk, certainly, but not too drunk for this. Her head felt fogged and warm, but steady as long as she didn’t close her eyes.

They made it to the bed somehow, sat and then lay down on it sideways. Zoe propped up on her elbow, Shelley lying out on her back, looking up at her with her face barely-lit in pale blue. She was wide-eyed, smiling, maybe flushed; it was hard to see. She reached up as Zoe was looking, stroked hair back out of her eyes.

“I had a crush on you for ages,” Shel said, solemn — and then suddenly burst out in a tiny giggle, and put her hand over her mouth, as though to trap it back in. “Oh God, sorry. I’m acting so stupid. …This is a bit weird, isn’t it? This is weird.”

“I don’t care,” Zoe said, and found herself grinning — then dropping her head forward and laughing when Shelley looked back at her, dimly relieved when it made Shel laugh too. “I like weird. Weird is the best.” She paused, and then leaned in and kissed Shelley again, slower this time and a little neater. Shelley made a muffled, eager little noise and lifted her head a bit up off the mattress, into it, wrapping a hand around behind Zoe’s head that lingered even after Zoe let go, her lips and nose brushing Shelley’s while she spoke. “…I like you.’

“Kiss me,” Shel said: grinning, shy. And she did. And did. And did.

Her fingers slid eventually down the planes of Shelley’s upper chest, from the line of one collarbone down the scatter of freckles over creamy skin. They tapered off gradually around the V between her breasts, off to either side and into where her shirts and swimsuit tops would have protected from the sun; it was hard to see, but when she pulled back to look Zoe thought there were even a couple freckles around the edges of Shel’s nipples, which she found charming for no good reason. She bent in and kissed one, her hair trailing on skin off to the side, and Shelley shivered under her and inhaled a wet breath. Zoe settled in, tonguing at it in earnest, playing with the other between her fingers. When she shifted the angle of her head to look up at Shelley’s face, she found Shel’s head turned to one side, eyes closed, biting her lip. She was squeezing a pinch of the bedclothes in a strangling-tight fist, up beside her cheek.

Zoe shifted her weight, freeing her smarter hand; still flicking her tonguetip against Shelley’s nipple, she ran the flat of her palm down over Shel’s stomach, onto the lace edging of her boyshorts’ waistband. Shel twitched at first, with a giggly whimper that sounded suspiciously ticklish, but by the time Zoe’s hand was on her knickers she was sighing out a shaky breath that sounded like she’d been holding it, trembling in her hand on the back of Zoe’s neck, spreading out her thighs and canting up her hips. It was an invitation that had Zoe even wetter in a sudden hot flush at once, one she didn’t even try to resist. She slid her fingers down to trace a line down the center of the shorts’ crotch — finding the fabric soaked slick-wet to the touch — and Shelley made a whispered, all-breath sound that cracked in the middle. After a moment she opened her eyes, just to a narrow sliver, to look up at Zoe — and then smiled around her parted lips and heavy breath, and slid her hand down from Zoe’s neck to her shoulder and then to cup one of her breasts, rolling a gentle thumb over and around on its nipple. Zoe let her eyes half-close, smiling back a bit, and then moved in to kiss Shelley again: tasting her through her lips, teasing her through her pants, little jolts running from the ball of Shel’s thumb into her chest and down through her to gather right between her thighs.

Finally she disengaged, one bit at a time — lips first, then hands, then drawing herself up on the bed — and slid her fingers of both hands under the waistband of Shelley’s knickers, tugging them down. Shelley pressed her legs back together and lifted her hips up, helping, and kicked them off the rest of the way when Zoe couldn’t reach anymore; and then shifted around obligingly when nudged, to lie out on the bed the right way. And then Zoe leaned off the bed to the side table, felt around for a hairband and pulled her hair back into a messy tail with it, and then shifted herself over and settled between Shelley’s spread legs.

“You’re so pretty,” she said in a murmur, just gliding her fingers for now down through soft short ginger hair and then up the lines of Shelley’s lips, back down again through slick open wet; she couldn’t even really see, in all the shadows, only feel. Shelley shuddered, though, pushing her legs even wider, the tremor pronounced in the lines of her thighs. “Gorgeous. …I ought to write songs about you.”

It took Shelley a moment, an audible swallow, to answer. “Now?” her voice finally came, though — dry and quavery, but with a bit of a giggle in it, too. Zoe drew herself up a bit to grin at her.

“Dirty ones. …Maybe I’ll write one on your clit — ” stroking Shel, Shel twitching, gasping too hard and too loud, pressing a hand over her mouth — “see if you can guess the words — ”

The sound Shelley made at the first touch of her tongue burst even around the edges of her hand, high and thin and muffled. She sealed her palm tighter, and Zoe set to work: done teasing, meaning every bit of it now. Pushing her arms up under Shelley’s thighs, curling them round her hips, holding her in; nudging with the tip of her tongue on Shel’s clit, rubbing with its flat. Still rubbing her lips, lower down, with fingertips, dipping lightly between them, spreading and just caressing. Feeling every shudder, working to tease out every sound buried in Shelley’s hand. There was something curiously intimate about the sound of them: made tiny and strangled, buried there. Their range reduced, so they only belonged in this room, to the two of them.

It took so little time for Shel to come that at first Zoe almost thought something was wrong, instead, almost pulled back; but then the fast, chokey puffs of her breathing were joined by shaking tension all through her muscles, and then her hips were surging, a hard plosive breath muffling against her hand, and there was a sudden tautness and then slick fluttering against Zoe’s tongue and around her fingertips, making it hard work to keep in place for a moment. She did it anyway, though — working out the last in a frantic crescendo of her tongue, rubbing firm with her fingers — until finally the shaking in Shelley’s hips and thighs built to its peak and then collapsed, her body going limp in Zoe’s arms and on the bed. She teased for a second or two longer still, drawing out an extra shiver here and twitch there and gasp there, and then left one kiss behind on her way to sitting back up. Rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth and chin, and then stretched out over Shelley, where she lay naked and spent and panting, and even so shaky-weak arms wrapped around her at once, pulling her down and in, for more kissing.

After a second or two, though, Shelley’s chest began to shake against hers, her breath to stutter into Zoe’s mouth; Zoe pulled back for a quizzical look to find her giggling, looking sheepish. “I think I caught a ‘Y’ and an ‘O’ and then I lost track,” she said, when she could get herself back under control again. It took Zoe a second to understand — and then she started laughing too, pressing her head in beside Shelley’s.

“I think I lost track before you did,” she admitted, “I wouldn’t read too much into it;” and then they were both laughing, hugging, burying the sound in each other.

Shelley seemed disinclined to move much of anywhere, even as their giggles tapered off into occasional unpredictable bursts, but her enthusiasm came back in good time, all the same. Her hands made their way back to Zoe’s breasts, fondling and playing, and then sliding down her sides to push down her own pants. Zoe pushed her knees back under her to one side, the better to lift up her hips, and helped finish the job, and meanwhile Shelley struggled to sit up with her back propped on the pillows, so that when she tugged Zoe back it was to straddle Shel’s lap. Her hand slipped between Zoe’s thighs without hesitation, far less shy than Zoe had ever known any part of Shelley to be, and a startled little breath huffed out of her, ruffling Shelley’s hair with their heads leaned against each other.

She pushed herself up on her knees a little, leaning on Shelley and the wall behind, to give better access. Shel’s fingers slicked themselves between her lips, then pressed onto her clit with deliberate precision and rubbed tight fast circles, perfect and yet still not quite enough. She put her lips up to Shelley’s ear, whispering, “Put ’em in,” and Shel inhaled a small shivery breath — but she slid her hand down, also, and pressed her first and middle fingers forward from the others, between Zoe’s lips and then deeper and then all the way deep. Zoe dropped her forehead onto Shelley’s shoulder and made a thick, low sound, adjusting her hips, seating them better. Pushed a bit, and then Shelley took the hint, and started to work them, squirming the knuckle of her thumb against Zoe’s clit without having to be asked.

It built up: the fingers working inside, the pressure against her clitoris, plus the other hand that eventually began teasing at her nipple again. Shelley craned her head down at the same time, leaving lazy kisses up the side of Zoe’s throat, and it was Zoe’s turn to shudder against her, her breathing coming hard and ragged. Closing in, hot pressure building inside the bowl of her hips, dripping around Shelley’s fingers down onto Shel’s thighs, her legs shaking and knees throbbing with the exertion but none of it anything she really noticed, anything to care about, news from someplace else and nothing that mattered but fingers and thumb and mouth —

— and she came, wobbling on her knees and clinging to Shel’s shoulders maybe bruise-tight, burying her moaning cry against soft freckled skin and every muscle shaking —

And then they had collapsed together, her arms around Shelley, Shelley’s hands trapped but her mouth a moving swarm of kisses. It reached Zoe’s mouth and stayed there, lingered there, making a meal of it even as Zoe was still panting and gasping and hard-pressed to answer. And then Shel pulled back and leaned her forehead against Zoe’s; and they just stayed that way a moment, Zoe sprawled on Shel, breath and heartbeats relaxing again.

At some point they parted; at some point Shelley eased her fingers out, and retrieved her hands, and held on, and they kissed again. At some point they shifted themselves around enough to get the covers out from under them, and then to get them over top of them instead. The faint sounds of the boys splashing about in the pool were still reaching them from outside, so they probably hadn’t all drowned themselves, and Zoe supposed that was good too.

Shelley curled up in her arms, pressed against her chest, the skin of her cheek and shoulders and arms and Zoe’s all sticking slightly with their cooling sweat. Her hair made a pretty drift across Zoe’s pillow. Zoe looked at it until somehow her eyes had got closed when she hadn’t been paying attention, and when she tried to open them again and look some more, in the end she wound up falling asleep instead.

“Could I ask you a rhetorical question?” Zoe asked Kenny some two days later — when Shelley had been creeping into her room at night, and out again the next morning, ever since. George at least was surely the wiser by now, Zoe thought with some sheepishness, although if so she was keeping a perfect and typically well-bred silence about it. Kenny glanced up at her from his guitar, which he was tuning in his favourite chair in the sitting room.

“Yeah, all right,” he said, looking a bit nonplussed and a bit pleased. “What is it?”

She came round to sit on a hassock across from him, leaning her elbows on her knees. “…Would you ever fuck somebody in the band?”

Kenny’s eyes widened — and then he sat straight up in the chair, guitar forgotten under his pinning arms. “Oh God. Who did you fuck in the band?

“I haven’t — ” She spluttered. “I said it was a rhetorical question!”

“Yeah, but whenever girls say that, what they mean is ‘what do you think of this thing I did so I know if I should actually tell you?’!” …Which, actually, was pretty well exactly spot-on for this situation, although that just made her resentful. “Is it Bill? You like Bill.”

“No, it’s not anyone. I didn’t — ”

“Oh, please tell me you didn’t finally give Bran a pity fuck.”

No.” She glowered a bit, but it did little to quell Kenny’s look of skeptical horror, and finally she sighed . “…I wouldn’t pity fuck Bran anyway. He does all right.”

Kenny snorted. “In general, maybe. Not with you.” He considered that a moment, then added, “Actually maybe not even in general.”

“Well, the whole idea of pity fucking is pretty shitty anyway. I’m fairly pitiless.” Zoe sighed again, brushing at her bangs. “Look, I’m just saying — would you? If it came up.”

“I… dunno.” He appeared to finally give that some real thought, settling back in the chair again after a moment. “I guess I might, if it did. But it’d be a bit weird, eh? I mean, I’d be sort of nervous about it, that’s true. Like… ‘oh no, we’ve still got to work and stuff, is this gonna make things weird, am I gonna fuck everybody up?'”

Zoe nodded, looking down — trying not to show too much in her eyes. “Yeah. Doing an office romance is a bit worse when sometimes your office involves living together for months, I suppose.”

“Yeah.” Kenny twanged a bit at his low E, chewing his lip, and then looked up again. “But you know, the other side of that is… with doing shit like this, and touring and all — sometimes it doesn’t really leave too much time to shag anybody else. I mean, like you said that one time, it’s dead hard to get laid on tour.” Zoe smiled at that, nodding. “So I guess I can see that side of it too. Like, it might be a bit easier in some ways, too. …I really dunno. I just wouldn’t want to mess anything up for the band. That’s what counts the most, I think.”

She tilted her head on one side, meeting his eyes, still smiling — a bit touched in spite of herself. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

They sat quiet for a moment, after that. Finally Zoe said, into the silence, “I guess maybe that answers this question, but… do you ever wish we could go back to the beginning again? I mean… we’ve been in this the longest, out of everybody now. Do you ever miss when it was just you and — Archie and me, just messing around at uni? Before all this stuff started happening to us, and things got this — complicated?”

“No.” He said it immediately — laughing a little, even, scoffing, like it was a ridiculous question. “I mean, we couldn’t play worth shit, for one thing.” Zoe couldn’t help laughing at that, and when she looked up again she found Kenny with a bit of a sheepish, shy grin. “But, I mean, also… I love doing it. It’s different, but that doesn’t matter, all the bits that I like are still the same. It’s like…” He paused, thinking. “It’s not even like it’s more complicated, to me, it’s more like — it’s not like we’re bigger. For me it’s just like… I liked playing with my friends, yeah? And I’m still playing with my friends. I’ve just… got more friends.” He shrugged, jostling the guitar slightly. “I liked what we were doing back at university. But I like what we’re doing now, too. I don’t just want to trade out one for the other.”

He seemed to run out of things to say there, and they both just fell quiet again. Zoe just turning that over and over in her mind; storing it away, for future reference.

“All right,” she said, finally, straightening up again. “Just curious, I guess. …Thanks.”

“Sure,” Kenny said. And then, just before she could get up: “…It’s not Andy, is it? ‘Cos you know Bran would actually, literally go mental.”

Zoe stopped in mid-motion to stare at him, with deep incredulity. “No, I did not fuck Andy. Good lord.” She considered that a moment, then snorted. “…God, how does anyone ever fuck Andy? You have to imagine he’d just be… going on the whole time about leitmotifs, and thematic elements, you’d never get anything done.”

Kenny was already hiccuping laughter, and then lifted his guitar a bit off his lap to start pumping his hips up off the chair in fast obscene jerks, mimicking heavy groaning breathing. “‘Yeah, pay attention to this bit,'” he said, pitching his voice a bit higher and putting on a passable imitation of Andy’s posher accent; “I think this bit’s going to pull the whole thing together — give it a bit more depth — ‘”

At which point, though, he couldn’t even continue, because they’d both collapsed into howls of laughter: Zoe so hard she flopped down on her back on the hassock, clutching her stomach, tears squeezing out of her eyes.

Greece, and the villa, had been Jack’s idea, since he knew people on the islands. What nobody in the band had really expected, though, was how easily Jack had talked the label into funding the trip. Jack had produced their previous two records, and it’d been agreed when they’d signed that he was one of their most valuable components in himself; but getting the okay to go fuck off on an island vacation in a sort of little mansion with a recording studio attached just on the basis of his suggesting it was still… an eerie experience, a bit, spooky and maybe even sort of alarming. It felt like a glimpse at the writing on the wall, and the paint of the giant letters BIG there was still dripping. Hanging round in a posh villa on the continent for a month recording the new album certainly felt like something rock stars would do, at least, not a bunch of silly pretentious foul-mouthed university kids.

“Do you ever feel a bit like we’ve kidnapped you?” Zoe asked Bill, teasing, one evening as they checked and packed things up in the live room, after Jack had already left for the ferry. “You know… you thought you were just going to give us some extra backup and vocals for a couple shows, and then oh no, we’ve absorbed you into our hive mind, and all of a sudden you’re in Greece.” He’d considered that, leaning on the wall as he checked the tuning on Andy’s guitar.

“I think winding up in a Greek island villa is about the most positive effect one could hope for, from being absorbed into a hive mind,” he said, and she laughed. “But overall…” He paused to consider, his hand stilling on the guitar’s neck. “It’s been something of a surprise, I’ll give you that. But not a bad one.”

“So you don’t miss, you know, doing your solo stuff?” Zoe asked, watching his face — for as little as it changed. Not certain what had turned her mind to being concerned about this, or indeed whether she’d even known that she was concerned about it at all. Bill made a thoughtful sound, but strummed again, if idly.

“Well, I don’t know that I’d say that. …Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. I do miss it, it’s something I’d like to return to.” He thought for another moment. “But I wouldn’t say I’m in a rush, either. I do enjoy being Hemlock Volt, but… he’s always gonna be there, if I want, because that’s my thing that I do. This is — a thing that I do with others, and apart from being something more social, I find that’s also something that tends to be a bit more fragile.” He glanced over at her, met her eyes, smiled briefly. He had sort of drowsy, half-lidded eyes by nature, and that always made them hard to read even on the rare occasions when he was being serious. “I suppose… yes, I’d like to get back to it, eventually. But for right now, I’m doing something else, something I feel is really valuable, and — gonna change a lot of the things that I do when I’m on my own again, whenever that happens. And that’s fine. Make sense?”

“Yeah,” she said. By now just standing in the middle of the room, crowded between instruments, whatever she’d been doing forgotten. “Of course.”

Bill held up a finger, teacherly and grave. “Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people,'” he said, and Zoe nodded, rolling her eyes a bit, and he leaned in slightly intent, recapturing her attention. “But, on the other hand, Halliwell said: ‘Well, heaven sounds boring as shit.'”

“I don’t think I’m familiar with the famous philosopher Halliwell,” Zoe said — through her grin, laughing a bit in spite of herself. Bill raised his eyebrows, glancing down to fiddle a bit more with Andy’s guitar.

“Oh, you should be. He’s brilliant. A key thinker of our age.” He paused, looking up again thoughtfully. “A bit obsessed with warm ouzo, though, I’m not sure what that’s about.”

“None of us are,” Zoe said, and patted his shoulder on her way past him to her bass.

Zoe had always liked George, sort of especially; not just as another girl, but as the particular other girl she happened to be — who was, Zoe sometimes thought privately and pointedly did not say, sort of like your maiden great-aunt in miniature. She loved tea and cats and the crossword, knitted and volunteered at a library, didn’t drink and seemed always to tolerate all the rest of their behaviour with a sort of fond, patient exasperation. That was, possibly, why it had stung more than it should have, when she’d said she was leaving: in a way, it had felt less like losing a band-mate, and more like being given up for adoption.

“Are you looking forward to going back to uni?” Zoe asked — breaking both the silence and, for possibly the first time this entire trip, the unwritten taboo on mentioning how George was leaving. George glanced over at her, pushing windblown strands of hair away from her eyes, frowning and still a little out of breath; they’d stopped to sit down and rest on a grassy bit of hillside, in front of the rocky outcropping full of beautiful old churches they’d come hiking up to see. Zoe had left the Flip behind this time and been taking still pictures at a breakneck speed instead, deluging Instagram up until her phone had lost its signal.

“I guess so,” George said. Her toes, bare, dug and twined into the short grass; her sensible trainers, with which she’d replaced her sensible brown flats for the day, sat primly to one side with her short socks stuffed in their tops. “…It’s a bit peculiar to think about, honestly. Sort of Rip-van-Winkle-ish.” She glanced over at Zoe, smiled when she caught her eye and looked out again at the view back down to the village and the distant, sparkling water. “It’s like my whole life’s just — been on hold, for the last five years. And now I’ve got to try to find my place again.”

“So this isn’t your whole life, I suppose?” Zoe asked — after a moment’s pause to try not to be hurt, and not even for any good reason. George looked at her longer this time, curious, until she dropped her gaze.

“Well… not the whole thing, no.” She laughed a little, self-conscious. “It’s been wonderful. Of course, it always has. But… there’s a lot more I want to do, and I think I’d rather get back to it, at this point. …That’s how it works, isn’t it? You do stuff like this while you’re young, and then when you’re done, you can get on with it. No harm done.”

Zoe looked down at her own feet, her hands laced around the front of her shins. Chewing her lip for long moments. “…And what if I don’t want to get on with it, even if I’m not that young anymore? What if — this is all I still want to do?”

“Then I’d have to say there’s a good chance we’re two different people with our own choices to make,” George said, after another lengthy pause. Zoe didn’t look, but she sounded careful, and gentle. “What’s the matter, Zo? You’ve seemed worried for a while now.”

She sighed, trying to fuss her own hair out of where the wind had blown it in her eyes, still not looking at George. “Nothing. It’s just…” She thought about that, and then rolled her head back on her shoulders, looking up at the sky. “I don’t know. Do you think it’s stupid of me, not to want to go back to school?”

“Of course not. I hope you didn’t think I meant that.” She shook her head, starting to answer, but George went on before she could. “It’s the right thing to do for me. And the right time. If it’s not for the rest of you, I couldn’t be happier for you about that. Really, it’s brilliant that so much is changing for the band, and so much is happening. It’s really exciting. And I’m glad if you want to be a part of it, I just… don’t, myself, right now.”

“I don’t even know if I do,” Zoe said, and then sighed again when George frowned at her. “I just… sort of want to do anything else even less, I guess? But it’s hard to know, sometimes. I…” She picked up her phone again, rolled it over meditatively in one hand. “…Did you ever feel like it was really hard, being a girl in this band?”

George was quiet for another moment. “This band particularly, or any band?”

“Both? …Does it make a difference?”

“It might, I think.” She considered, while Zoe watched her, rocking back on her hips. “In this band… not all that much, I suppose. A little, but not much. We are a bit outnumbered, but I really think that’s all. In general, though — hmm. I’m not sure.”

“Not even being in a band so much, maybe, just… ugh.” Zoe scrubbed at her forehead, trying to think. “We’re outnumbered everywhere, but that’s not the issue. It’s like… it’s the default expectation, everywhere, that this is a boys’ thing, this entire scene. You’re expected to be a boy if you show up, and if you do and you’re not, then it’s all about you being sexy — so that’s for the boys, too. You never get to be a part of it, you’re just — either you’re in, or you’re a set piece.”

George gestured down at herself, her cardigan jumper and corduroy trousers, a bit of an ironic twist on her lips. “I’ve never been most people’s idea of ‘sexy,’ I’m afraid,” she said, and Zoe smiled, though turning her eyes down again. “…I’m not arguing, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But that’s… never really been the biggest thing for me, I suppose. I try not to mind too much about everyone else; and I don’t think that’s so much of a problem with our lot, anyway.”

“But it is though — ” It burst out of her before she could seem to bite it back, making George look round at her in surprise. Zoe dug her hands up into her hair, as though she were trying to hold all the thoughts in her head. “Or, it’s not, I dunno, but — that doesn’t mean they don’t go in for it at all, sometimes, just they don’t always realise, and — I don’t know if that’s better or worse, exactly. It’s just everywhere, it’s everyone. And, it’s like… the whole thing about wanting to stay on, and not go back to school, is… am I doing something wrong, am I messing up by just — putting up with it? Should I be putting my foot down about it much more, or I’m doing it the wrong way? And if I do, is it that I ought to be staying here and changing everyone, or I ought to just walk out and forget about it? Even beyond whether I want to stay or not — am I even doing the right thing, if I do or don’t?”

There was a long, windy pause then, where neither of them said anything at all.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing,” George said, quietly. “And I don’t think it matters what anyone would say you should or shouldn’t be doing, either. It’s still all just a matter of whether you want to stay in the band or not. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that ought to be making that decision.” She paused, and then pushed on, turning a little more to face Zoe. “And come to that, even if you did decide to leave — that wouldn’t necessarily mean just walking out on the band and forgetting about it, either. I mean, that’s not what I — ”

“No, I know,” Zoe broke across her, desperate, “I didn’t mean to say you were — ”

But George laid a cool, bony hand across her wrist there, quelling her. “No, listen. I’m telling you something.” She ducked down her head, seeking out Zoe’s eyes. “I don’t know how it is for everyone else, but — it’s not all professional, the way things are with us. It’s not all a matter of figures. If you do want things to change, that’s not just about telling your band the working conditions you want; that’s telling your friends how you want them to treat you. And if you do decide to leave, I’d certainly hope that’s not about just — cutting ties.” Her voice began to waver very slightly over the next few sentences, at first so little that Zoe could almost hope she was just imagining it, and then gradually more. “Because I definitely don’t mean to just — walk out and have it done with. I’ll be around — if you all ever want me to be on a record again, or if any of you ever just want to go out and talk, anytime. I’m not going anywhere, not really. I still want to feel like a part of this — I still want to belong.” Swallowing, a faint bright shine in her eyes. “Because you are all my friends, no matter what else. And that I don’t want to change.”

“I don’t either,” Zoe said — again almost over top of the end of that. Her own voice hitching, a small wet trail coursing its way from under her eye. “I’d never mean it that way even for a second, I hope you know that, I’d never even think it. Of course you’re still a part of it. You’re still a part of us, you’re always gonna be.” She scrubbed at her eye with the backs of her knuckles, then hiccuped a sudden laugh. “…Oh, God, why are we crying?!”

“Oh, no, we must be girls,” George said, laughing, crying herself now at the same time, tears rolling down her face and lips trembling. “That does it, they’re never going to let us into their club now.”

“Sod their club, it’s full of idiots,” Zoe almost choked saying, and then they were both fumbling forward and hugging each other, leaning together laughing and crying and shaking with both, the wind off the sea tangling together their hair.

She should have known. As soon as Bran came into the studio particularly stormy and morose that afternoon, as soon as he started making cracks and jabs at things over Jack’s shoulder until Andy looked about to spit fire; as soon as Shelley began shooting dismayed, significant looks, helpless and miserable, at Zoe as soon as Bran turned his back on the other side of the glass. At least by the time he snapped at Lucas for drumming on the kitchen counter while they were all getting things ready for dinner, and then turned and went right out the sliding doors as soon as Lucas looked back at him, startled and affronted. And yet, somehow, even by the time she came out after him some fifteen minutes later, jaw set, it still hadn’t occurred to her — even by the time she had come up beside where he was sitting alone by the edge of the pool, in waning dusk, and stood over him and waited with her arms folded.

“You’re shagging my sister,” Bran said then, though. Calmly, and with no real inflection at all.

It was every possible evidence of how Bran had continued to be her friend, how he had continued to be her band-mate, how he had continued to be in her life at all, that what followed that wasn’t: And you won’t shag me. That it didn’t even hang, particularly, in the air, without ever having been spoken. It was present, certainly — buried somewhere between them like a hatchet, a subtext with a quiet brooding life of its own — but he never would have said it, or even meant it. It was why she still loved him, all the same; why she could even bring herself, in spite of everything, to feel a little sorry.

He didn’t say anything else, either, though. Eventually, she sat down next to him, the concrete cool through the thin of her skirt. The setting sun was obscured behind the villa, on its far side, and the sky ahead of them was a growing expanse of dark and blue.

“Yes,” Zoe said, finally. There didn’t seem to be much else to say. “…She told you?”

“Caught her coming out this morning, and I could sort out the rest. She never could lie even when we were kids.” He sat quiet a moment, then at last looked over at her: his eyes a bit squinted and cool, his mouth twisting a bit at the corner and fooling no one. “…I care about her a fucking lot, you know.”

“Good,” Zoe said. Measuring her voice. “So do I.” She paused, and let that sit; but Bran didn’t rise, and after a few more moments, she looked front again, taking a deep breath. “You do realise it’s none of your business, don’t you? I mean, that she’s a consenting adult, and we both are, and it’s really nothing to do with you?”

“Nothing to do with the band, either?” he muttered, picking at a thread at the cuff of his jeans. She blew out another breath, ruffling her bangs up off her forehead.

“That’s also nothing I haven’t considered, actually, thank you. But we are adults. All of us.” A long inhale — hesitating on the precipice — and then: “And if you’re that worried about fucking up the band… you might want to start at home.”

He narrowed his eyes at her harder than ever. “What’s that mean?”

She made herself take a long pause, shutting her eyes and calming down, before she said anything else. “…Maybe not exactly what I said. But — it has been really difficult being around you, the entire time we’ve been here. ” She looked over at him, found him staring thundery-faced down at his knees with his mouth set against itself, looked away again. “I know you’ve had a bad year. And I’m sorry, I really, really am. It’s been shitty, and I understand that. But… it keeps going on and on, and now we’re just all having a hard time knowing what to do. Having to go round on eggshells. It makes things strained. Not just as a band, as us.” She hesitated, looking back at him again, and then pushed forward. “And I know we’ve all got problems, and our own things going on that are fucking us up, sometimes. But, the thing is… yours are the only ones we all end up singing about.”

Nothing. Just the quiet of the rear yard, the occasional faint sounds of thumping and movement and the television from inside.

“I love you, dickhead,” Zoe said, and sighed, leaning back on her hands. “I don’t want you to be miserable all the time because I don’t want you to be miserable all the time. I want you to get your shit together because I think having your shit together would be a really nice thing for you. …But I also want it because it changes everything for the rest of us, when you don’t. And it makes a lot of things that aren’t great most of the time a lot worse.” She paused for a moment, chewing on her lip. Looking up at the sky; everything feeling caught in her throat. When it finally burst out of her, it came hard, like a cough:

“I hate that fucking Sister song.”

She was aware of that actually startling him into looking over at her; of some fragments of the expression on his face, although she didn’t want to look close enough to know the rest. “Not really because of how you wrote it — although I think it’s a lot of the ugliest parts of you showing up, and I’m not exactly thrilled with that either. But because of how it’s gonna get listened to. ‘Cause of what all the dickheads and idiots are going to hear when they hear it, and say when they hear it, and do when they hear it. I know, and we know, what’s really going on, we get the joke — you’re bluffing, fine, you’re putting on like you’re brilliant and amazing because you actually think you’re shit and you’re unhappy, and you’re taking the piss out of all this chest-out lads-ladding bullshit that you’re putting on. But not everyone who listens to it is gonna get it. They’re gonna hear it like it’s what you mean — ‘hur-hur, all right, he fucked the man’s sister in the arse, dead clever’ — because that’s what happens when a lot more people are paying attention to you suddenly, there’s more idiots in the mix, it’s just the law of proportions. And that means that many more idiots acting like shitheads at our gigs, and on the internet, and wherever the hell else they can find us, because they think that’s what we’re about, they think that’s who we are.” She took a hard, unsteady breath, trying to collect back her voice from shaking, and get going again before Bran’s plain growing outrage could form into the argument he wanted to make. “And all right, they’re not your responsibility, I know that. And the song by itself isn’t going to make everything a mess. But it’s damn well not going to help, either. And it’s shitty, it’s a shitty, horrible feeling, having to put up with you parroting back that same shit like it’s funny, when I’m getting it from people who mean it every other time we play.”

She drew another breath, let it out in a loud sigh. “…And when I think it’s what’s driven off Kater, and now I think it’s some of what’s driven off George, and now it’s what your sister has to put up with as well — at least until whenever she gets driven off too. And you know, I’m really worried about that in particular, because I do care about her too, and she hasn’t been doing this that long and she’s so desperate for you and your mates to all think she’s cool and all right that I think she might just try to do that thing where you go along with it, yeah, no matter who’s doing it and how miserable it makes you, because you don’t want to be the angry feminist bitch shutting down everyone’s fun, you want everyone to like you and think you’re a laugh and you’ll swallow fucking anything to get it.

“And I know you lot think it’s stupid, the way these dicks act to us, and it’s not how you’d ever want to behave. But I’m sick and fucking tired of you all acting like the people who don’t see a problem with it — and I don’t even care anymore if it’s a joke or not.”

Silence again. She breathed, steady, in and out, pulling herself back into rein again now that all of that had spilled out of her guts. Bran didn’t look like he wanted to make some argument back at her now, at least; now he was just sitting folded around himself, staring down at his knees. There was nothing on his face that she could read.

Finally, Zoe got up, on the force of the adrenaline she was still vibrating with; dusting off the back of her skirt, and looking down at him with slow growing weariness. “And for God’s sake, tell Shelley she’s amazing in the band,” she said — and was at least relieved to hear that the heat had gone out of her voice, even if she wasn’t sure that what had replaced it was any better. “Because she is, and for some fucking reason your opinion matters more to her than anyone else’s in the entire world. And you at least owe her that much.”

She waited, watching the top of Bran’s head; but there was never any answer from him, no matter how long she did. And finally, she just sighed, and took a breath, about to say something else… and then found she couldn’t actually think of anything, and let it out again.

And then left him there, to go back inside the villa. A squat, folded shadow-shape in the growing dusk, at the edge of the still glinting surface of the water; and just outside the reach of all the light and noise and life from inside, where it was still waiting.

The knock on the door of her room, the next morning, took her by surprise. It was still early, and soon enough after Shelley had left that at first Zoe thought Shel had realised she’d left something behind, and come back. But when she opened the door, it was Andy, instead: looking wide awake, nervous, and determined.

“Morning, Zo,” he said, and she blinked, staring at him nonplussed.

“…Good morning.”

He nodded — seemed to hesitate a moment — and then pushed on. “Erm… so, we just wanted to let you know… Bran came and got me first thing this morning, and he told me some of what you talked to him about, last night. …About Sister.” Zoe blinked at him harder than ever, and he jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, gesturing vaguely toward the other end of the hall and downstairs. “We’ve been down in the studio since seven or so, doing some work on it. Because, I mean — ” Scratching at his head, looking more flustered and on edge than ever. His sentences coming in fits and starts. “I mean, obviously we can’t just — scrap the song, or write a new one, we’re in the middle of recording and we’ve got half the song laid down — but — or, well, we could still leave it off the actual album, if it comes to that, but we thought we’d try, first… you know, try to — tart it up a bit. Do some work with the music, and the vocals, to give it more of a funny, sarcastic sort of tone. So it doesn’t read as being sincere, or anything. Because, I agree, maybe we hadn’t done as much of that as we could, and it was maybe a bit awkward, and…”

Andy paused, folded his arms across his chest, seemed to take a deep breath. “We just, you know… we talked it over, and we both agreed that — the important thing isn’t the song, but that something happens with the song that satisfies everyone. Because, he and I, we both feel that… we’re a band, we’re not just — Bran And Andy And Some Other Fellows. If one member of the band doesn’t feel comfortable with what we’re doing, then none of us should. And if something that’s happening is — making someone uncomfortable, then, you know, then, that’s, that’s not just their problem, or anything like that, that’s everyone’s problem. And we really want to commit ourselves to fixing it.” He took another pause to breathe, and then just sighed, dropping his head forward before looking up to finally really meet her eyes. “And, for me personally, can I just say that — I do think it’s completely shitty of Bran not to come tell you all of this in person, but… I also want you to know that it’s not that he’s — sulking, or — making me play Telephone for you two, or anything like that. He’s just… really, really afraid that you’re still angry at him, I think, and that’s really terrifying for him, because I think you’re basically the person he looks up to the most in the entire world. And… so, you know, I can sort of understand.”

He looked a bit lost by then, though, and took a moment or two casting about to find his thread again. “So, er… yeah, we’re down in the studio working on that. And — if, you know, you’d like to join us, we were thinking we’re maybe gonna do sort of a bare-bones run-through of the new version for Jack when he gets in, and if you want to come in and give it a listen and maybe give us some bass on that… we’d just really, really appreciate that, and we’d be really glad to have you there.”

And at that point, finally, Andy seemed to run out of things to say; and just stood looking at Zoe, folded in and almost fearful. And for a minute or two, she just stood there and stared back at him: still holding on to the edge of the door, and still sort of absorbing all that into her mind.

“Yeah,” she said, at last; and when it came, so, with it, did a small, growing smile she hadn’t entirely been expecting. “Yeah, I’d like that very much. Thanks. …Just give me fifteen or so, and I’ll be right down?”

“Yeah, sure.” Nodding so hard she thought he’d roll his head off, and palpably relieved. “Sure, yeah, of course, take your time. I’ll just be, er, you know.” He started to turn away, out of the doorway and back down the hall… and then stopped, and turned back, something seeming to occur to him. “Oh, and — I’m really happy for you and Shelley, as well. And, you know, I think we’re all fine with it, and everything, so — I wouldn’t worry about that.”

And then he really had gone — before she could voice any sort of protest or question about that, or even do anything besides look completely taken aback.

…Well, that cat was probably more or less out at this point, anyway. On a certain amount of consideration, she supposed it might be just as well.

She closed the door behind him, going back into her room, to dig through her suitcase and the stuff she’d scattered by the bedside table; and even by the time she’d got on a non-pajama top and started to brush her hair, her smile still lingered. And when, some ten minutes later, she came into the studio downstairs to find Andy sitting and noodling at his guitar, Bran leaned up against the wall of the live room playing with a stray metronome, Bran glanced up at her and then smiled with veiled eyes, looking quickly back down at the floor again. And when she went over to him, stood in front of him until he looked up, and then, wordlessly, hugged him, he hugged back — with a depth of feeling she didn’t know if she’d ever felt from him before, or might again.

So that was all right.

They’d all been giggling on and off throughout their handclaps-and-final-percussion recording session, because they always did; it was the silliest and sort of the best part of the entire recording process, and carried the added bonus that few of them besides Lucas and Zoe were very good at it. When Zoe lost it for the third time that day, though, Bill turned on her with all mock affrontedness, hands fisted on his hips and nostrils flaring. “I beg your pardon! Need I remind you that clapping your hands is a very serious business, young lady!”

“Sorry,” Zoe said, wheezing and giggling a bit more as she pushed her headset down around her neck, wiping her eyes, “sorry, it’s not that, it’s just…” She glanced around at them, as she settled — finishing on Shelley, who met her eyes for only a few seconds and then turned a bit pink, and looked away. Which was always sort of a nice feeling, if a bit perversely. “I was just thinking… maybe we all really are a bit more like a family than a band, sometimes.”

The slightly bemused looks all the rest cast at each other came as no real surprise; she hadn’t exactly expected them to understand, after all. Bran, though, did take her by surprise — and never missed a beat.

“Yeah?” he said, and glanced round at the rest before looking back at her, with a broad, cheeky grin. “Does that mean you’re shagging your sister, then?”

Zoe threw an egg shaker at his head; but as he ducked and came back up laughing, she thought that all of that really just served to prove her point.

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