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Post last updated: Sep 15, 2012 6:24 PM
it's not that there's nothing to do, it's that all of those things are boring
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Bella rolls over onto her back. She's been doing leg lifts. Now her legs hurt. She's going to lie there for a while, and then she's going to drive home, and then she's going to write about a paragraph of Government essay before expiring from boredom. Jessica is sick. Angela is babysitting. They're still doing stuff she's covered in Bio and books she's read in English; it would take better teachers than she has to make Spanish and Trig interesting. A trip to Port Angeles to do something is the work of an entire day, not a school afternoon. She really needs to save up and buy more books. Or take up - quilting, or something.

Sigh.
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"You look bored to fucking tears," observes Alice.

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"I'm not crying, and even if I were, I've never produced tears that talented," deadpans Bella. "Hello."

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He snickers.

"So what's up?"
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"If anything were up, would I be bored?" she says quizzically.

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"I'll give you that," he concedes. "Whatcha gonna do about it?"

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"Plan a weekend book-shopping trip in unreasonable detail, I think. I may be able to wrangle an invitation to come do my homework at Angela's house, and her brothers could be entertaining little critters, I won't know until I meet them. Why?"

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"Well, I was gonna start thinking up suggestions, but I guess you're covered."

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"If you have suggestions, by all means supply them. Expending limited social capital and slowly developing an obsessive personality disorder aren't exactly my entertainments of choice," says Bella, sitting up.

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"Um... you could take a tour of my stupidly huge house, that'd probably burn a few hours," he says. "I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you're not a fan of climbing trees... pun not intended but totally hilarious and I don't regret it for a second."

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"I am indeed not a fan of treeclimbing - your house, huh." Bella considers this. She reaches into her pocket for her notebook, and flips through it. She looks between it and Alice a few times. Then she opens up her phone and dials Charlie's number without completing the call yet. "I'm going to try an experiment," she says.

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"...O...kaaay," says Alice, clearly lost.

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Bella poises her thumb over the send button, looks Alice in the eye, and carefully pronounces the word, "Freak."

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His mouth drops open in shock.

He blinks several times.

"Holy shit," he says in stunned tones, "I think you might actually be the perfect woman. Marry me."
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Bella blinks, rereads her notes, draws a question mark next to the plus sign, puts the notebook away, and says, "Okay, I think it's probably safe for me to go to your house, but no on the marrying you."

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He laughs.

"It's cool," he says, "I just haven't gone from zero to crush that fast since the first time I heard Freddie Mercury's voice. So, wanna come over?"
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This conversation has acquired a different tone.

"Well," she says. "Will anyone else be home?"
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"Dad will," he says, "I guarantee you. Probably Mom and Hilary, too."

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"Then all right, I'll come over," she says, getting to her feet now that her legs are not so uncomfortably leaden. "Is it a long drive?"

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"Not hugely," he says. "You might end up driving me or following me there, depending if Theo's on his way yet. Hang on, I'll check."

He pulls a phone out of his pocket and dials.

"Hi, Mom! I'm fine!" is how he opens the conversation.

Shortly afterward, "No, I swear. Cross my heart." A slight pause. "Uh-huh. Listen, is Theo out the door yet?" Another, longer pause. "Yeah, no, you got it. I've got a friend coming over who has a car, so—" He cuts himself off, cocks his head, and glances at Bella. "Mind if I tell my mom your name?"
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"Go ahead."

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"It's Bella," he says.

Another pause.

"Mother, I swear before God she is not my girlfriend," he says, half-laughing. "Trust me on this. No. Don't even—no. Okay?" A beat. "Okay. Good. Thank you. See you in a bit." ...He rolls his eyes. "Yes, I will call you if I forget the directions to my own house. Goodbye, Mother."

After one last pause presumably containing a corresponding farewell, he hangs up.
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"You have interesting conversations with your mother," Bella says. "I take it I'm driving you there?"

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"Yep," he says. "That okay? We could also walk, but that might take a while, and y'know. Your car."

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"Yes, my car." Bella heads for the door. "I'm sort of curious why you had to so vehemently deny girlfriendhood. If I'd said 'by all means let us elope' a moment ago what would you have told her?"

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"That you were my fiancee," cheerfully.

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"You do know how to get to your house, right?" Bella asks, heading towards the parking lot. "I imagine if you're generally driven to and fro it might not sink in." She trips on an uneven paver in the sidewalk and catches herself before splatting on the sidewalk.

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Alice is halfway to catching her when she does it herself; he shrugs and retracts his hand.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I've got it down. Not like there's so much to look at on the drive. Trees, grass, trees, oh look another road."
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"Okay." They reach her parking spot; Bella unlocks the car. "Which way do I turn when I pull out, then?"

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"Left," he says after glancing toward the parking lot's exit.

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Bella starts up the car. She buckles her seatbelt, and watches him expectantly.

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He looks at her.

He looks at his seatbelt.

He shrugs and puts it on.
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"You're really very casual with your safety," she mutters, and she pulls out and turns left.

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"Yep," he confirms, unruffled.

"Oh, so a couple things—no Alice in front of the parents, they wouldn't get it. No jokes about me getting beat up, please, my dad's kinda low on sense of humour and it would be really awkward. I would also appreciate it if you didn't mention my crush on Freddie Mercury or the fact that I offered to blow a guy for fifty bucks."
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"So I call you Delaney in front of them?" Bella says, amenable. "Okay. What about non-jokes about you getting beat up?"

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"...Non-jokes like what?" he says. "I mean, almost certainly no, but like what?"

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"Well, 'He keeps provoking guys who are bigger than him into repeatedly punching him in the face' isn't very funny," Bella says. "Unless I was doing an impression of a cartoon character and the context was exactly right in some unfathomable way."

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"Yeah, trust me, they know that," he says. "They don't need to hear it again. You will get kicked out of the house and I will get to listen to Dad tell me I have shitty taste in friends."

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"Okay. No jokes or non-jokes on that topic," Bella agrees.

So they're friends now.

Well, that was pretty much guaranteed roughly when he invited her to his house and she did not instantly decline.
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"Thank you."

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They drive the rest of the way to the house, and Bella comes to a halt in front of a truly enormous residence.

"Yeah," Bella says. "This could kill a couple hours."
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"I did say it was stupidly huge," he reminds her. Cheerfully.

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"I don't suppose you have six brothers and sisters to justify the size of the place?"

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"Nope. Only child. I mean, if you had a kid like me would you ever want another one?"

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"That's no guarantee. Perhaps you were a perfectly charming two-year-old, or you're the youngest among several very dissimilar offspring."

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"I have been a total shit all my life," he says with some amount of pride.

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"How impressive. Personally, I have no memories before age four, and any information about the time before that is contaminated by my parents wanting to assure me that I had nothing to do with the divorce," says Bella, getting out of the car. "I notice you didn't explicitly deny older siblings, though."

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"Well, my parents are still together," he says, following, "although if they split they'd probably both take great joy in blaming me, don't tell them I said that. And nope, like I said, only child."

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"It's just that I already have reason to believe you're willing to lie to me," shrugs Bella, starting towards the house. "As long as that persists I'll make you give me some information in several pieces, to make that more difficult. Do we just walk in or does having a guest mean knocking?"

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"I like you," Alice concludes. "You're twisty. And me not having a key means knocking," he says as he reaches for the doorbell.

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"You haven't got a key? Why not?"

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"Feel free to ask my dad. I'm kidding, don't ask my dad."

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"I'm asking you."

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"And I," he says, "am not the one who didn't give me one."

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"Yeah, my dad gave me a key, but you wouldn't have to ask him to find out his motivations."

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The door opens.

"Junior," says a smiling woman with long, curly brown hair. "And Junior's new friend Bella." She steps back to usher them both inside. "Come in, come in."

It's clear that Alice got his looks from his mother, but not his dress sense; he appears at school almost exclusively in jeans and old T-shirts for 70s rock bands, today being no exception, and his mother is wearing a tastefully gorgeous long gown in a pale cream that coordinates subtly with her pearl earrings. Her hair is pinned up impeccably, not a single strand out of place. She looks like she belongs in a different universe, possibly one containing no dirt and definitely one containing no 70s rock bands.
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Bella touches her sleeve to remind herself what she's wearing. T-shirt, cardigan, coat, jeans. Ordinary clothes. Who wears gowns for hanging around at home receiving visitors in their teens?

Well, Alice's mother, apparently. "Hello, Mrs. Hammond. It's nice to meet you." She steps inside and offers her hand for shaking.
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"It's nice to meet you too," Mrs. Hammond says warmly. "I was beginning to think he wasn't going to make friends at this ridiculous little school."

"It's not like I made friends in New York either, Mom," Alice puts in. His mother smiles and pats him on the shoulder, which he grudgingly tolerates.
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"Well," says Bella, with a shrug and a smile. "I just moved here, days ago, so it didn't take long once someone he clicks with better came along. It is a very small school." She decides the current avenue of conversation might lead to awkward tiptoeing around how she met Alice. "You have a beautiful home," she says instead.

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"Yes we do," Mrs. Hammond agrees. "Did you want to show her around, Junior?"

"That was the plan," he confirms.

"And will she be staying for dinner?"

Alice looks to Bella to answer that one.
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"That hadn't come up yet," Bella says. "I can call and ask if my dad's up for fending for himself, but when it's not an emergency that can take a couple tries during the day." She produces her phone.

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"You're welcome to stay as long as you like," Mrs. Hammond says encouragingly. Alice gives her a quizzical look, like he can't figure out what is going on in her head.

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Bella dials the phone. The police station secretary-type-person picks up, but is able to relay a conversation between her and her paperwork-laden father. Bella's side of the conversation sounds like this: "Hi, Mr. Jenkins. Yeah, it's me - is my dad in? It's not an emergency, no, I know the number for that. Just a quick question. At a friend's house, they've invited me to stay for dinner. Yeah, I can hold. ... Great, tell him I'll see him sometime tonight after dinner, then."

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"Lovely," says Mrs. Hammond. "You don't have any dietary restrictions, do you? I think it's lobster tonight."

Alice continues to regard his mother with vague suspicion.
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"I can eat most anything that a typical member of my culture can," Bella says agreeably. "Lobster's one of those things. I'd be fumbling for excuses if it was snails."

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"Well, that's convenient," Mrs. Hammond says with a smile. "I am happy to welcome you into our home." She turns her smile on Alice for a moment. "Show her the piano, Junior, that's always good for a laugh."

"I play the piano," Alice confesses. "Badly." The subject nevertheless seems to put him at his ease. "Where's Dad?"

"I'm sure I can whisk him away to preserve his delicate ears if your friend would like a demonstration of how badly," laughs Mrs. Hammond.
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"I think I learned Chopsticks and some churchbell-related song before I lost interest in walking four blocks to piano lessons," Bella says. "What's the difference between playing the piano, badly, and not playing the piano?"

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"I think it has something to do with the number of lessons you sit through before your case is declared hopeless," says Mrs. Hammond. "Sit through or run away from, as the case may be." Alice laughs.

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"Well," Bella says. "This I may have to hear."

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"I'll just go and distract my husband," Mrs. Hammond says with a wink, and turns to head up the unnecessarily pretty stairs. Alice leads Bella through an unnecessarily pretty archway to an unnecessarily pretty sitting room, where there sits a piano whose beauty is wholly justifiable.

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Bella touches the piano. "This is gorgeous. How did it get through the door?"

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"You know, I don't have a clue," he says thoughtfully. "By the time I got here, it was there already."

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"Someone else moved ahead of time to prep the place?" Bella asks. "Or it came with the house?"

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"First one," he says. "It's the same piano from back home, I'm pretty sure. And this place needed a lot of prep, the way I hear it. For all I know, they dragged it in through a wall."

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"Ooh, giant fixer-upper. How will you get it out if you move again? I suppose you could remove the enormous window." She pauses. "Why'd you move here to begin with?"

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"Tell you later," he promises, easily. "Wanna hear me totally fuck up some Mozart?"

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Bella looks at him.

She pulls out her notebook and writes down the deferred question.

"Sure," she says, putting the notebook away.
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Alice sits down at the piano.

He is not, actually, that bad. If you'd never heard the piece before, and had no idea what it was supposed to sound like, and ignored the way he hesitates so obviously or laughs at himself whenever he misses a note, he'd probably sound reasonably competent.
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Bella listens critically. "It's possible you'd be better suited to jazz piano," she opines. "You're allowed to pretend you missed notes on purpose there."

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"Now that sounds more my style," he says, cheerfully.

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Bella reaches over and picks her way choppily through "Chopsticks", making mistakes on half the notes and correcting by ear. "There," she says. "That's what I know."

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Laughing, Alice applauds.

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"What else is there in this house?" Bella inquires. "Rooms. I bet you have rooms here. And," she adds, "an underground lair, and secret passages."

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"We have tons of rooms!" he vouchsafes. "I'll show you all of 'em except, like, my parents' bedrooms. I'll even show you the underground lair."

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Bella is amused.

"Yes, do let's see the lair. I'm very behind in my lairing."
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"Cool," he says, hauls himself up off the piano bench, and beckons her away.

The route to the underground lair, if such a lair indeed exists, is apparently quite circuitous and takes them through a number of other unreasonably pretty rooms.
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Bella keeps to a leisurely pace, looking at pretty things. She likes pretty things. She also doesn't think there's really a lair. "Who does the decorating? Is that one of your parents or a staff thing?"

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"Mom's in charge," he says, "but she makes other people do the boring stuff. Ooh, here we go."

He leads her through another archway and down a short corridor to a door, which he opens with a flourish.

On the other side is a set of stairs, going down. The space into which they descend is just as unreasonably pretty as the rest of the house.
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"Hm, this is a basement. I don't yet know if it's a lair," Bella says, going down the stairs and trailing her fingertips over the pretty wall. "You know, if you asked the part of my brain that generates stereotypes where you ought to live, it would have proposed next door to a gang hideout and across the street from someplace severely rent-controlled, but in its own way this works too."

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"Yeah, I don't act rich-kid, I know," Alice agrees, following her down and shutting the door behind them. "But I am, in fact, a rich kid."

The space is also quite large, once they reach the bottom of the stairs and step out into it properly. The ceiling is supported by a network of pillars and arches, some of which may be decorative, many of which probably aren't; the room is ballroom height at least, and quite possibly ballroom length and width as well.
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"You don't have a key," murmurs Bella. "Are you a rich kid or the kid of rich parents?"

She looks around appreciatively at the lair. "If there were some indoor sport which involved the strategic use of pillars, this place would be perfect for it."
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"We could make one up," he suggests brightly, apparently deciding the question was rhetorical.

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"No. No we could not. I'm rightly banned from all forms of moving around short of walking, and only may walk because I'd probably do more damage in a wheelchair."

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"I didn't say we could play it," he points out. "—Do you swim?"

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"I can dog-paddle well enough to not drown while I wait to be rescued," Bella says. "It turns out you cannot breathe water safely. General human failing." She looks around at the pillars. "I don't think I've ever invented a sport before."

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"Neither have I," says Alice. "Betcha it won't be boring, though."

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"Alrighty." She looks around again. "Two teams is standard. Who wants to be standard, I ask you. Three? Four? Five's probably unwieldy."

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Somewhere around 'I ask you', Alice grins.

"I like the way you think," he says, sitting down on the floor and leaning back against the very attractively-papered wall. "Three. Let's go with three."
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"And we can make them all the same size. Or not, but let's anyway, as if we deviate from all the standards no one will ever play and I will lose my opportunity to make a million dollars in speaking engagements as the inventor. Five to a team should be manageable. And the object is to get a ball, or two or three, to make a specific number of bounces off of pillars? Like pinball."

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"Brilliant," Alice pronounces. "Three teams, three balls, have to use another team's ball to score? And maybe you only get points for the number of bounces past what your team's already got, so it starts out easy and gets ridiculous."

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"In what sense does a team own a ball if they can't use 'their' ball to score?" inquires Bella. "And if I understand you right, it gets too ridiculous - I don't think I know anyone who could except by astonishing fluke get a ball to bounce off three pillars in a single throw, so this would hold down everyone to two points and they'd spend the entire rest of the game on defense thereafter." She tilts her head. "Unless there are other ways to score, too."

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"The same way a team owns a goal in, like, anything else?" he says. "And maybe you count up separately per ball, so that gives everybody four points with no ridiculous throws, I meant that word when I said it, but they'll be tough to get because now everybody's fighting like cats over everybody else's balls, and wow that got dirty fast."

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"I suppose we can say the blue team owns the blue ball if they start in possession of it and have to defend it. Making it per ball is good too. There should be some rule equivalent to traveling in basketball to make it harder for someone on the blue team to wrap themselves around the blue ball like it's a grenade and just lie there, though."

She ignores the remark about dirtiness with a genteel smile.
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"Yeah, good plan. And the first team to four points wins. Or five if we wanna force everybody to be ridiculous at least once a game."

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"Five points or - two hours followed by sudden death in case of tie? Will people generally tolerate playing a sport for that length of time?"

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"Sure they will. You can make it an hour and a half, that's about how long a game of soccer takes, I think."

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"So if someone gets five points, game ends, they win - if no one does, then whoever has the most points at an hour and a half wins - if two or three teams are tied at that time, whoever scores the next point wins." She chews her lip a little. "But if two or three are tied at four points, then they have to be ridiculous in sudden death mode. So if the tie is at four, they only have to make a two-bounce?"

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"Well, if you wanna make it easy on 'em, sure," he says generously.

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"I just have some compassion for the people in the stands, sitting there for six hours waiting for someone to pull off a triple," she shrugs.

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"Aren't you nice. Okay, I'll give it to ya," he says, making a gesture as though handing her an invisible object - perhaps the rulebook for this mythical game.

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"I'm going to start writing this down," she announces, and pulls out her notebook. She starts writing down a summary of the rules they've worked out so far. "So," she adds, glancing at an earlier note to self. "Why'd you move here?"

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Alice actually gets to his feet and peers back up the stairs to confirm that the door at the top is still closed.

Then he sits down again, rubbing absently at the scar on his neck.

"So you didn't hear this from me," he says, "in fact you didn't hear it from anybody, because if it gets out that anybody in Forks knows this Dad will blow his top and we'll move somewhere I'll hate even more. Got it?"
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"It came to me in a dream," Bella says agreeably. "An extremely secret dream."

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He grins. "Exactly," he says, leaning back against the wall.

"So. To make a really long story really short?" He ticks off three words on his fingers, at a natural speaking pace. "Got caught hooking."
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Bella reacts to this with a long, slow blink, first.

"Why were you doing that?" she inquires.
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"The parents don't let me touch actual money. I wanted some. Plus it was fun." His hand drops away from the scar; he shrugs. "Mostly, anyway."

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"I suppose if there's a clientele at all here it would be smaller," Bella says. "If I'd had to guess what you'd do if itching for income I would have guessed something like "steal any of several hundred knicknacks in the house and hock it", but perhaps that's not even mostly fun? Or substantially more hazardous?"

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"One, there are way, way more guys in New York who want to get their dicks wet and don't really care how than there are valuable little goodies in even my stupidly huge house," he says. "Two, it is way, way easier to get caught stealing from my own house than it is to get caught being fucked in an alley. And yeah, three, it's not as much fun."

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"So if that fellow from the cafeteria brawl the other day had discreetly taken you up on your offer and indiscreetly informed anyone afterwards, you'd be moving to - I don't even know what's next down on the ladder from Forks. Siberia?"

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"Probably," he agrees. "Or I would've bitten it off and then I'd have a whole different set of problems."

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Bella crosses her eyes trying to erase the mental image. "Rather." She brushes her hair back from her face. "What do you do with money, when you have it, that they don't want you to do?"

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"Buy stuff I actually want."

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"Such as?"

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"Well, I was saving up for a sewing machine," he offers as an example.

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That seems utterly harmless. "Your parents wouldn't let you have a sewing machine?"

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"Nope."

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"And yet," Bella continues, "you formed the expectation that if you acquired one, they wouldn't instantly assume bad things about how - and would let you keep it?"

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"I was kinda hoping they wouldn't find out," he says. "For a while. Long enough to be worth it."

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"What would you sew?" she asks, leaning against the nearest column and sliding to sit on the floor.

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Alice grins.

"Pretty dresses."
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"Is that why they wouldn't want you to have a sewing machine, I wonder," says Bella dryly.

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"Kind of icing on the cake as far as things Delaney Hammond Junior is not supposed to wanna do," he says with a shrug.

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"What's your plan?" she asks. "Do you have the grades to get into college without being financially dependent on them, when I'm told you don't even show up to class? Have you considered getting a non-hooking job? How old are you now, for that matter?" She looks at the ceiling. "Or is it your life's ambition to do something just scandalous enough that you can't be bought out of jail, and you're on a long hunt for where that line is so you can poke a toe over?"

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"If I wanted to be in jail, I'd walk into school and kill somebody," he says, like it's so obvious he doesn't have to think about it. "I don't wanna be in jail. I don't wanna be dead, either. Killing yourself's easier than killing somebody else; you're guaranteed one less person trying to stop you." He shrugs again. "Shit, if I had a plan, I'd be out of here by now."

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"Oh, come on," Bella says. "If that's the best way you can think of to go to jail, I'm very disappointed in you. Somebody else would have to die in that plan. That's hardly necessary, even if we start from the assumption that you wouldn't care much about others' lives compared to what you'd get out of ending them. You could pull a fire alarm or call in a bomb threat or make obvious attempts to distribute large amounts of marijuana. You could vandalize the police station in broad daylight or knock over a convenience store or loudly claim to have explosives in an airport security line. There are so many relatively harmless illegal things."

She sighs. "I'm glad you don't wish to be in jail."

And pauses. And says, "You need a plan."
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"Well, it looks like you're better at those than I am," Alice observes.

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"I'm good at that. But it's a simple process. I just ask myself my favorite three questions," Bella says. "What do I want? What do I have? And how do I use the latter to get the former?"

She glances up the stairs, makes sure the door is closed. "So," she says. "What do you want, Alice?"
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He spreads his hands.

"Out."
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She shakes her head. "Not specific enough. What does out mean? What outcomes qualify?"

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"Okay," he says. "If, like, my fairy godmother showed up and whacked me in the face with her magic wand, my three wishes would be: never see my dad again, live by myself until I don't want to, and get to spend all my time making clothes or cooking or, you know, doing fun things."

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Bella taps her chin. "You never told me how old you are, did you?"

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"Eighteen."

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"Age of majority makes a difference," explains Bella, "for some possibilities. If those are really your three wishes: what would happen if you told my dad how your ribs got broken - and suffered through the mess that a trial would admittedly be?"

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He closes his eyes and, moderately gently, whacks the back of his head against the wall behind him.

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"Was that a demonstration of what you think would happen, or an expression of some manner of emotion?"

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"...Little from column A, little from column B... look," he says flatly, "what I think would happen is, it would turn out I'd told your dad a really bad joke. Ha ha. Isn't that funny. Kids these days. 'Cause what you think happened, well, that doesn't happen. Not in families like mine. Not to kids like me. So it didn't. You get what I'm sayin', here?"

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Bella rubs her forehead with her thumb. "Well," she says. "You have less reason than I to think highly of my dad's professional capabilities, and perhaps I'm biased anyway. But look, there are other options. You're eighteen. If you want to buy a bus ticket to Nevada and get a job at a brothel, he cannot actually stop you. I'd loan you bus ticket money, if you don't have even that much socked away. Does that count as 'fun'?"

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"I tried the running away thing," he says. "It's pretty easy to run away in New York. Not so easy to stay gone."

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"It's not running away, when you are eighteen, although you could separately get in trouble for vagrancy or similar and you might be dumped at your parents' house if no one has a better idea of what to do with you. If he is hiring private goons to kidnap you, that is also a matter for the police."

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"Look," says Alice. "Illegal stuff isn't magically impossible just because it's illegal. And you know what really, really helps people do illegal stuff and get away with it? Huge. Piles. Of. Money."

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"So," Bella says. "What does the scenario in your head look like? Step one, you borrow some cash from me and you buy a bus ticket to Nevada and board a bus that is traveling to Nevada. We don't tell anyone where you're going and because it is January in the Pacific Northwest you can use my ugly knitted face mask that I made when I was nine without arousing particular suspicion. Step two?" she inquires. "Does your dad hire a private investigator and learn your location and hire someone to kidnap you? Does he let out that you're fleeing across state lines after having committed some horrible crime for which there will pretty much be no evidence? Does he bribe all of the brothel operators in the state of Nevada to turn you away, and then all the restaurants in case you look for work as a short-order cook? If you would be specific about the failure mode it is not impossible that it could be patched, but you've already given up."

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"Last time, it was the oh no, missing kid deal," says Alice. "He might try that gig again. Or maybe it'll be private investigators. Or I don't fucking know, he'll think of something," he says, "and I don't think you are really thinking about what happens after that, but trust me, I am. And you know, fuck my three wishes, the absolute minimum I want out of my life is that if somebody's gonna beat me to death it'll be somebody else."

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Bella sighs deeply.

"Never mind," she says. "Perhaps I'm only good at plans for me."

Because when my brain is so kind as to tell me what I want, I am so kind as to get it, she thinks but doesn't say.
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"Maybe." He rubs his face with both hands. "As an alternate theory, I propose that I'm just a fuckup."

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"Well, that would have been an unguestly thing to say," she mutters.

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He grins at her, with some of his usual cheer.

"Look me in the eye and tell me I care," he challenges.
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She looks him in the eye.

"I don't care if you care. I'll make myself how I want."
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He grins wider.

"And that is another reason why I love you."
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Bella rolls her eyes.

"You're very quick to make up your mind about all the wrong things," she says.
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"The hell does that mean?"

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"You've known me a handful of days, we are not even dating, and you're announcing you love me. You don't think for two minutes about whether to commit battery in the cafeteria. You give up before you even begin to come up with ways to get three wishes that do not, strictly speaking, require magic."

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"It's not like announcing I love you is really deciding something," he says. "It's just something I noticed. Would you rather I shut up about it?"

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"On inspection, it doesn't actually bother me," she shrugs. "But perhaps don't make me explain it to my father by saying it in front of him, should the two of you ever meet." She pauses thoughtfully. "If my mother visits - it's not very likely, but not impossible - then I don't care what she hears. She'd think it was precious."

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"Deal."

He grins.

"Precious, huh? If your mom meets my mom are they gonna start planning grandchildren?"
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"If that's the sort of thing yours would do, mine might humor her, but that's not her personal hobby, and she'd actually believe me if I explained that we are only friends and not intending to be future co-parents. Renée'd be more likely to demand your astrological information, or corresponding nonsense for whatever spiritual belief has captured her attention that month."

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"Pretty sure Mom's just thinking if I get a steady girlfriend she might finally get rid of me," he says, with no particularly intense emotion attached. "Who knows, might even work. Although Dad probably already thinks we're fucking down here, so he might decide I'm never allowed to see you again. Or congratulate me on a job well done. Sometimes I just don't know which way he's gonna jump."

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"Do we need to go upstairs to forestall potential disaster?" Bella inquires. "Also, there's a route to consider: marry a rich foreign national who needs a green card and has lots of money."

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"Might be a good idea," he acknowledges of the first thing. Of the second: "Why, you know any of those?"

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"No, not personally, but I bet you there's a website for that." She gets up. "Let's see the rest of the house."

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"Sure," he says agreeably, and precedes her up the stairs.

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Bella follows after, shaking her head once to herself.

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He doesn't happen to look back and see it.

When they reach the top, he leads her back through the maze of beautiful rooms. Just as they enter the one with the piano, a new voice comes floating down the stairs, audible through the archway.

"...so indulgent, Judith," says a stern-sounding older man. Alice stops in his tracks.

"I don't see that it does any harm," Mrs. Hammond answers.

"Really? You don't see it doing any harm that my son is fornicating in the basement with the police chief's daughter?"

"We didn't hear that," murmurs Alice.
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"He thinks we're fornicating?" she whispers back. "Also, how did we avoid hearing it? Did we leave the basement one minute in the future and slam the door doing so?"

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"Nah," he says softly. "Slamming doors is too obvious. One sec."

It's almost like he has practice not hearing things he isn't meant to have heard. A lot of practice.

"Bella is a perfectly nice girl, darling," Mrs. Hammond is saying. "I'm sure she wouldn't do anything like that."

"I'm sure that boy has his ways," Mr. Hammond asserts. Alice makes a face.

"That's enough of that," Mrs. Hammond says firmly. She continues too quietly to be heard, and Mr. Hammond responds; after one more such exchange, Alice crosses the room and gently shuts the cover on the piano keys with a quiet but audible clunk.
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Bella mimes clapping, silently, and goes to stand near the piano herself.

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He flashes a quick grin in her direction; then his parents come through the archway, Mr. Hammond first, Mrs. Hammond trailing behind.

"You should keep that thing closed when you're not mauling it," is how Delaney Sr. greets his son.

"I know," he says, ducking his head. "I came back up the minute I remembered. So, Dad, this is my new friend, Bella Swan."

"I've heard," says Mr. Hammond, inspecting her.
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"Hello, Mr. Hammond," Bella says with her best fake grin.

She'll lie to him if she has to, but "pleased to meet you" is purely optional.
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"Junior assures me they're not dating," Mrs. Hammond adds brightly.

"Junior has a tendency to lie like a rug, in case you haven't noticed," says Mr. Hammond. (Alice assumes a generally contrite expression.) "Well, girl? Doth the delinquent protest too much?"
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"We aren't dating," Bella confirms. "As a general habit I don't date at all, in fact."

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"Respectable," Mr. Hammond says grudgingly. "All right, boy, you can keep her. But we're going to have a talk tonight about respectable behaviour in this house."

"Yessir," says Alice.
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Bella cocks her head and looks politely, inquisitively, and above all with an innocent bemusedness, at Mr. Hammond.

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"Can't have you two disappearing off together," he explains shortly. "Who knows what he'd take it into his head to do with you."

Alice looks very slightly pained, but doesn't protest this assessment of his behaviour patterns.
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Bella doesn't really know what to say here. So many possible replies are off-limits.

She settles on just retaining her careful facial expression.

Perhaps Mr. Hammond will think she's slightly dim.
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"...Never mind," he says at last, and turns his attention to Alice. "Don't you make any trouble," he says warningly.

"Nossir."

Mr. Hammond snorts disbelievingly. "Keep an eye on them, Judith," he instructs, and turns to walk out of the room.
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Bella turns a bright smile on Mrs. Hammond. "Does this mean you'll be finishing up the tour of the house for me?" she asks.

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"I'd love to," says Mrs. Hammond with an answering smile. "Have you finished with the ground floor?"

"Yep," Alice puts in.

"Then why don't I take you upstairs?"
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"Makes sense to me," agrees Bella.

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"Perfect. Come along," she says, and leads the way to the stairs. Alice falls in behind her, duckling-fashion.

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Bella too channels a duckling. She may as well carry on playing "slightly dim"; Alice will not be fooled, and it's possible that Mrs. Hammond is less oblivious than she appears and talks to her husband about things.

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Probably a good plan.

Contrary to Alice, who tends to let the pretty things speak for themselves, his mother has a story for everything from the carpets to the chandeliers. (Well, there's only one chandelier, hanging from the ceiling at the top of the stairs and spraying fragments of light onto the walls. She has a story for it, nevertheless, regarding its purchase back in New York and brief sojourn in the room downstairs before she decided that the pillars were prohibitive in a good ballroom and had it moved up here.)

Alice mostly just lets her talk. He seems much more relaxed with her than he was when his father was present.
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Bella listens attentively. There's nothing else to do, and useful information can crop up pretty much anywhere. She even asks questions about the more interesting objects, and the less complete stories.

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Apparently the peculiar shape of the wall in one of the spacious upstairs guest rooms is because it conceals the chimney of a recently demolished fireplace— "it just wasn't modern enough," Mrs. Hammond flutters, and goes on to describe the origin of the wallpaper. Alice seems more amused than the situation really warrants.

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Bella begins to wonder just how many rooms this place has. And why she thought exploring it would be fun.

Probably she thought exploring it would be fun because she didn't expect to turn off her personality for much of the excursion.
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Alice observes Bella's boredom after a little while; they have moved on from that guest room to its slightly more well-appointed neighbour, and Mrs. Hammond is extolling the virtues of down pillows.

"Hey, Mom," he interrupts, to no obvious censure. "When's dinner?"

"That is an excellent question," says Mrs. Hammond. "Why don't you go find out?"

He blinks, considers, then shrugs. "Okay, I guess. Back in a bit. Don't get lost."

Mrs. Hammond laughs.
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"Make sure they didn't swap the lobster for snails," says Bella with a faint smile.

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"You got it," he says, and salutes her on his way out.

Mrs. Hammond sits down on the edge of the bed, smoothing out her skirts.

"...Are you sure you aren't dating him?" she asks, somewhere between plaintive and wistful.
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"I'm not dating him," Bella says. "If you think he likes me, perhaps you're right, but I really don't generally date, and he hasn't asked me on anything more datelike than this visit." She tilts her head. "Why?"

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Mrs. Hammond sighs. "I just think it would really do him some good to get out of this house once in a while." Wryly, "And somehow I just don't see him going to a friend's house to study."

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"Maybe not to study," Bella shrugs. "I could have him over just to hang out."

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"I would be very grateful," says Mrs. Hammond. She looks... forlorn. Forlorn is a good word. "I had such hopes for him, once upon a time."

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"Oh?" Bella asks softly.

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Her hands twist in the folds of her skirt.

"I thought he would be... different," she says. "Manageable. But that is the one thing he isn't." She looks away. "And I don't think it's good for him, to spend so much time being - managed."
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"He's a little old to be managed now, anyway," Bella says. She pauses, and takes a risk - "I'm a little surprised he still lives at home. Some parents would have sent him to boarding school or something."

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"My husband doesn't believe in foisting his problems off on other people," Mrs. Hammond murmurs, very neutrally.

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Bella nods slowly. "Some parents would have kicked him out of the house on his eighteenth birthday," she says.

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"Some parents, yes," she says, looking down at her skirt and smoothing it out again with exquisite care. "Not these ones."

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Bella nods.

Anything else she might say would probably be too dangerous to say aloud, in this house.

She does say, "I wonder what it's like to be Delaney, though." Pause. "I don't think I'd like it."
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"He seems to," Mrs. Hammond observes. "Sometimes, I have to say, I really wonder how."

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"Well. As long as he's happy and safe. Those seem like reasonable goals."

Bella tries not to sound too knowing. The "vaguely dim" persona helps.
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Mrs. Hammond lets the silence stand a little too long after that one.



Alice's footsteps are audible coming down the hall; shortly, he pokes his head into the room.

"Good news, guys," he says. "Dinner's on the table and not a snail in sight."
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"Excellent," says Bella. "Not-snails are my favorite thing."

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"Then you're gonna love dinner! C'mon."

He turns to head back down the hall. Mrs. Hammond waits a moment, then gets up and follows.
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Bella trots after Alice. She is rather hungry.

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Dinner is indeed on the table, it turns out. The extremely formal dining table with the spotless white tablecloth and the obviously antique chairs.

Mr. Hammond sits at the head of the table, of course, with his wife on his right and his son on his left. There's a place set for Bella on the other side of Alice.

No one seems inclined to start a conversation.
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Bella's willing to eat in silence, especially if the food's tasty.

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The food is exquisite, actually. Alice and his mother both utter non-verbal expressions of delight; Mr. Hammond just looks inscrutable.

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Oooh. Bella joins in the delighted expressions. She wonders if Hilary cooks or if there is a separate cook. If Hilary cooks, perhaps she can convince Charlie to marry her.

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"Good, isn't it?" Alice murmurs after a few minutes. "Our housekeeper is the best."

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So it is Hilary.

"It's marvelous," agrees Bella. "Much better than anything I've ever made."
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"I'm so very glad we found her when we did," Mrs. Hammond agrees, beaming. "The cooks we had before her simply do not compare."

Mr. Hammond contributes nothing to the conversation and, astonishingly, Alice seems disinclined to talk with his mouth full.
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"She's called Hilary, is that right?" Bella says. "I think she's made friends with my dad."

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"That's heartening," says Mrs. Hammond with a smile. "I think it's very nice how we're starting to become part of the community. Don't you, dear?"

Mr. Hammond nods with apparent reluctance.
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"It's a pretty friendly town. I've been coming for summers all my life, but only started to make friends my own age when I came during a school year," Bella says chattily. Slightly dim, slightly dim. "My dad's friends don't have kids, except for some much younger than I am."

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"I think it's charming," says Mrs. Hammond. "Oh, have you been living with your mother all this time?"

Mr. Hammond chews his next bite of lobster with unnecessary force. Mrs. Hammond doesn't seem to notice, but Alice hunches a little lower in his seat, an ineffective move since he is the second tallest person in the room.
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Bella glances at Alice, and at Mr. Hammond, and slowly relates things that anyone in the room could learn by asking anyone who has heard that Bella even exists. "My parents split up when I was very young. Until recently, I lived with my mom most of the time, and my dad during summers. Now I live here, because my mom is going to be traveling a lot with my new stepdad."

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"That must be hard for you," Mrs. Hammond says sympathetically. "I'm glad you're settling in and making friends."

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"Thank you," Bella says, because a slightly dim person wouldn't announce it was actually completely up to me and I'm having a pretty easy time of it all things considered.

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Alice relaxes a little; apparently the danger has passed. Mrs. Hammond smiles vaguely and returns to her dinner.

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Bella privately wonders whether Mrs. Hammond is self-medicating somehow.

She returns her attention to the Charlie-should-marry-Hilary-to-regularly-eat-like-this food.
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Being on drugs and being a tremendously awkward person can look so similar!

Unless a glass of wine with dinner counts—a comfort not provided to the two teenagers at the table—there is no visible evidence of the former.
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Bella did not expect Mrs. Hammond to pull out a bottle of tranquilizers-or-whatever right there at the table. She's more absorbed in the lobster than in evidence-collection anyway.

She is going to get so full, if there is any dessert.
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There is, as it happens! Four identical slices from a tiny, alarmingly rich chocolate cake. Alice grins when he sees it.

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Mm. Cake.

"Death by chocolate?" murmurs Bella innocently.
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"If only," Alice murmurs back.

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Bella says nothing. Her mouth is now full of cake.

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The cake is even better than the lobster.

"Hilary is the best," Alice concludes when he finally puts down his fork. "I know I say that every time, but damn."

"Language," Mr. Hammond says mildly.

His smile evaporates. "Sorry, sir."
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Bella holds still. She doesn't know what things make this worse and what things do not.

But she privately agrees that Hilary is the best.
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"Personally, I think this cake deserves a damn or two," Mrs. Hammond contributes. Alice looks up at her and half-smiles.

"Be that as it may," says Mr. Hammond, with a hint of a smile of his own, "rules are rules."

"May I be excused?" Alice asks meekly.

His father shakes his head. "The meal's almost over, Junior. You can hold it two more minutes."
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Bella holds quite still. She's never had to be excused before getting up from a table in her life.

She tries to remember how wide the angle on the cake was. Was it a small cake cut into quarters, or a large cake, of which there might be leftovers?
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A small cake, cut into eighths. Any more than that would be too much.

Mr. Hammond takes his time finishing his own slice. At last he puts down his napkin and says, "I think we're done here," and his wife and son push back their chairs nearly in unison.
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Bella gets up too, and watches Alice for cues. She was invited to stay for dinner; is it now time for her to go home?

And let whatever happens when this household is unsupervised... happen?
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It's not Alice but Mrs. Hammond who says, "I think it might be best if you went home now, Bella. Before it gets any later."

Alice glances at Bella and shrugs.
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"Of course," says Bella. "It's already dark."

She turns to Alice and says, "I'll see you in gym class tomorrow."

It's a perfectly innocuous thing to say. And if he's not in condition to attend gym tomorrow, she'll notice, and Mr. Hammond knows it.

"Bye!" And she heads for the door. "Please tell Hilary for me that everything was exquisite."
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"Will do," Mrs. Hammond calls after her. Alice waves.