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Fireworks
Features: Undertaker (Mark Calaway)
Rating: NC17 for language and sexual situations Usual disclaimer - own nothing but my original characters, all the other people own themselves, WWE owns the trademark names, I'm doing this to exercise my creativity and for the sheer pleasure of writing. Ask my therapist!

Thanks so much for the feedback so far - so glad to know people are enjoying the story!  

In this chapter, could it be that Harley is actually buying a clue?  -snickers-  Guess you'll just have to read and find out!

 

###

It took a long while after the match for Harley to leave the arena. She remained where she was, her headset around her neck, leaning against the wall. She honestly didn't know how to react to what she had seen. Sinking down to the floor, she sat against the wall, her arms on her updrawn knees, resting her head against them.

Burchill was being fired, made to leave the country. That should have been enough for her. He was never going to threaten her again. So why had she reacted with such pleasure, watching Mark and Jeff and Glenn beat him up? Perhaps because it showed her how much they cared about her, she realized slowly.

That thought made her shiver even more. She knew how much Jeff cared for her - his sleepover the night before had obviously been planned because he thought she might need him, and she smiled, thinking about that. But it hadn't just been Jeff in that ring.

She and Glenn had become friends, travelling together as they did so often now. And Mark . . . well, she had to admit, they were trying to get along, and it was mostly working. She enjoyed the poker games with him and the others, but it wasn't like they were friends. Not really. Still, he always seemed to be looking out for her. And he'd been so kind to her these last few days, checking up on her.

Perhaps the match had been Jeff's idea, and he'd just asked Mark and Glenn to be involved to help him out? But that wasn't Jeff's style. She dropped her head into her hands, shaking it.

Bob approached her cautiously, leaning down to lay a hand on her shoulder.

"Everything okay, Harley?"

She looked up at him and nodded, then got to her feet.

"Yeah, Bob. Just trying to work out how I feel about all that," she waved a hand in the direction of the ring.

As well she might. He thought he might put a spin on it for her, one he was sure was being given to the bosses in the locker room at that very moment.

###

Vince McMahon was furious. Beyond furious. His face was almost purple as he burst into the locker room. Wisely, anyone not involved in the final match on the card took the opportunity to leave at that point.

Mark was sitting on the bench in front of the lockers, unwrapping his wrist straps. Glenn sat not far from him, unlacing his boots. Jeff's locker was on the other side of the room, and he had stripped his shirt off and was stretching his back. All three of them stopped what they were doing when the boss entered the locker room. This had been part of the match plan too.

"Would one of you like to tell me what the hell that was all about?" Vince grated.

Although the question was addressed to all of them, he was looking straight at Mark. Understandable, really - it was Mark who'd pitched the idea of the match in the first place. Mark just shrugged.

"Hey, we looked for Burchill to plan the match and we couldn't find him. So we had to ad lib a bit."

Vince rolled his eyes. "Don't give me that, Mark. You were off script almost from the moment you hit the ring."

Okay, so he wasn't in the mood to hear the standard excuses. Mark shrugged again - not like this was the first time he'd been carpeted over a match.

"We weren't off our script, Vince. The match went exactly how we planned it."

"You planned to almost put a man in hospital?"

Mark rose to his feet. "Like how he planned to almost rape one of your employees? Only he wasn't going to stop at almost - we did." He took a deep breath - he didn't want to lose his temper now.

"And we're taking action on that, damn it!"

"Good for you. But this wasn't just about what he did to Harley. This was for any other woman in the company that he's harassed and who has been afraid to come forward."

Vince frowned. "Afraid to come forward? What are you talking about?"

Glenn spoke up. "Vince, this company makes a very big deal out of its talent. Hell, I'd be the last person to complain about that, because it's earning me a very nice living. But to the crew, well, sometimes it sends a message that the talent comes first."

Jeff came over then. "It's true, Vince. There's a perception in some parts of the crew that if you speak out against the talent, you won't be heard."

Mark shook his head. "Vince, this was about sending a message - not just to Burchill, but the whole locker room. There are some things that we won't tolerate - mistreating a woman is one of them. Folks need to know that if it happens, there will be repercussions. Not the kind of repercussions that get you an unpaid vacation, or lighten your paycheck a time or two either. One that pays you back in kind for what you did."

And that was true. Every word of it. But it was part of a much larger truth - and that was that Burchill had to pay for what he did to Harley. Glenn and Jeff both felt the same way, but had it been left only in Mark's hands, Burchill would have ended up in the hospital for sure. Nevermind the need to put him on a plane the next day - Mark would honestly just as soon see him go home in a body bag.

It startled him, how badly he wanted to hurt Burchill. He had suggested the match, and included Glenn and Jeff in it, because he knew that would force him to keep his temper in check. The discipline of a match plan would override the desire he had to really put some pain on Burchill. And it had worked - Burchill was going to be hurting for days, but there wasn't anything seriously wrong with him. Well, maybe some cracked ribs, but hell, most of them had wrestled with cracked ribs, so that was no big deal.

Vince shook his head. Mark watched him carefully. Now it was about Vince's willingness to believe the story. Cynically, Mark knew they were unlikely to be suspended, because they were big drawcards. And yeah, they'd gone off script in a shoot match, but it had been an entertaining one at least. Not to mention tame - Burchill hadn't shed a drop of blood. At least, not where anyone could see it.

"Okay, here's what's going to happen. Tomorrow, there'll be an announcement about Burchill's future with the company. There will also be a public reprimand for your behaviour tonight, and you'll each be fined," Vince thought for a moment, then continued, "ten thousand dollars."

Mark looked at Glenn and Jeff, and all three of them nodded. Mark had guessed they could end up fined up to fifty grand a piece, and they had all agreed that, while that would hurt, it was still worth it.

"And I'll get Human Resources working on this issue of the talent being . . . above the rules. Deal?"

Jeff smiled. "On behalf of my friends in the crew, yes, deal."

Vince looked at them seriously. "And this is the last time any of you decide to take the law into your own hands, or send a message, or teach someone a lesson."

Mark resisted the urge to laugh. He'd heard that from Vince in the past, more than once. And sure, he'd watched his step for a bit, played nicely with others and made it look like he'd listened. But when the time came that a lesson was needed, or a message, then he did what had to be done. Vince was a businessman, and a damned successful one. But he was running a business populated with men who were sometimes only a step away from using their fists outside of a wrestling ring. Men like that didn't listen to fines, or suspensions, or Wellness Policies. They did, however, listen to a set of soupbones like the ones he carried. And that was just how it was.

###

Harley was back at the hotel, showered and in her pajamas. She'd listened to Bob's explanation that the match against Burchill had been meant to send a message about what was acceptable behaviour, and while there was a ring of truth to it, she still felt deep down that what had happened was more directly about her.

And she still didn't know how she felt about that. She was curled up on the bed, trying to sort through her feelings, when a knock came at the door. Looking through the spyhole, she saw Jeff, and she opened the door to him, giving him a small smile. He looked at her with a serious expression.

"Can I come in, Harley?"

She opened the door further and nodded, and then closed it behind him. He was carrying his backpack again, she noticed. He took it off and put it on a chair, and then turned to her.

"Are we okay? After tonight, I mean," he asked.

The best answer she could give was to step closer to him and hug him. His arms went around her, and he rested his cheek on her head as he returned her hug. As she let go, he stepped back a little, smiling for the first time.

"I'm staying again tonight, just in case. You okay with that?"

She nodded. "I'd like it, actually. You know he's being deported tomorrow?"

Jeff nodded. "Yeah. We knew going into the match. But, well, he's still in the country tonight. And better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to you."

"Thanks, Jeff."

"Besides, I think we need to talk." He ran a hand over her hair. "Right?"

It was her turn to nod. A knock at the door made her frown, but Jeff seemed to be expecting it. He headed over to answer it, and to Harley's surprise, a room service waiter brought in a tray and left it on the table before leaving. Jeff closed the door again and came back to her, smiling.

"Hot chocolate and talk, followed by a good night's sleep. Sound okay to you?"

"Jeff, you know me far too well," she smiled.

He snagged his backpack and took out the sweats and t-shirt he'd worn to bed the night before.

"I'm going to change, then we can talk."

He went into the bathroom, and Harley sat on the end of the bed to wait for him. On his return, they sat together on the bed, sipping their hot chocolate, and Jeff gave her a smile.

"I'm guessing that when you found out about the match, you were kinda pissed."

She rolled her eyes. "Ya think?"

He laughed. "Yep, figured as much. Which was why I didn't say anything beforehand."

"Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission, huh?"

"Something like that. Did you actually see any of the match?" She had been gone from the arena by the time he got out of the locker room.

"I got there just after Mark and Glenn came to the ring."

"Okay. So, tell me what you think."

She stared down at her mug, choosing her words carefully. She was still so confused about how she felt, and she didn't want to say the wrong thing.

"I had my headset on, so I know you guys went off script. And that the bosses didn't think there was a way to stop you, so they told the referee to let you run with it."

"Go on."

"The crowd seemed to love the match - you guys made it look like you were having fun together."

"We had to, Harley," Jeff said gently. "They wouldn't let us make it a dark match, and none of us wanted a brutal beating to be televised. We figured if we made it look like a scripted match, then the crowd wouldn't be any the wiser about what was really happening."

She nodded, and then was silent for a long moment. Finally, she spoke, her voice low.

"It felt good, seeing you guys beating up Burchill."

Jeff wasn't really sure he'd heard that right.

"It did?"

She nodded again. "That's what's got me so damn confused! I was brought up to believe violence solved nothing. And yet, seeing the three of you hand Burchill's ass to him . . . I knew he was going to be fired, made to leave the country, and I was happy about that. It meant he wouldn't be able to threaten me again. And yet, knowing that you were beating him for what he did to me - I liked it!"

He set down his cup and took hers from her, and then pulled her into a hug. She clung to him, and he could feel her shaking. He stroked a hand over her hair.

"Harley, I think it's only natural, what you're feeling. Yeah, maybe it isn't politically correct, but I think we want to see people punished when they've wronged us. The worst part of what Burchill did to you was take away your feeling of being safe. And even with him out of the country, it's going to take time before you get that back. Sure, he's lost his job over it, but he can get over that pretty easy. On the other hand, what we did to him is going to stay with him for weeks - every time he hurts, he's going to know it's because he hurt you. Sometimes, rough justice is the best justice."

She nodded against his chest, her voice a little muffled.

"That makes sense. I liked that it was you and Glenn that did it too. And Mark - even if we aren't really friends."

Jeff was a little surprised at that. The whole thing had been Mark's idea - he and Glenn had been enthusiastic participants, true, but neither of them would have thought of it. That wasn't how either of them operated. But any further thoughts were halted as he felt Harley relax more against him, and realized that she was falling asleep.

Very carefully, he eased her down to the pillow, drawing the covers up over her before turning out the lights and settling down beside her. Even though he didn't think he was sleepy, before long, his eyes slipped closed too.

###

In the end, it was almost anti-climactic. Roster and crew were called to a meeting at the arena the following day, where Vince announced that the Burchills had been released and were currently in the custody of Citizenship and Immigration Services, awaiting a flight to England. No mention was made of Harley by name, though a number of heads turned to look at her when the announcement was made.

Vince then made the point that behaviour like Burchill's would not be tolerated in the company, and that no one, no matter what their position, was above the rules. He alluded to forthcoming instructions from Human Resources on new reporting procedures to ensure that this remained the case.

And it was all over. As the crew and roster broke up to return to their preparation for that night's Smackdown taping, Jeff remained at Harley's side. She had slept much better than the previous night, and Jeff felt better for knowing that. They were pretty much alone when she turned to him.

"Thanks, Jeff." She smiled at him.

"For what, Harley?" he asked.

"Oh, staying with me, making sure I was okay, kicking Burchill's ass. You know, being an all-round knight in shining armour," she chuckled softly.

"Hey, I wish I could take all the credit. But kicking Burchill's ass was Mark's idea," Jeff smiled.

Harley's eyebrows raised, but before she could say anything further, Matt called Jeff over to discuss something for the show that night, and he kissed her cheek quickly before he left. She stood up and went back to work herself, pondering what he had said. However, soon she was immersed in the set build and forgot all about the fact that Burchill's punishment had been at Mark's instigation.

Human Resources had arranged for a traumatic incident counsellor to visit Harley that afternoon, and she met with the woman in between last minute tasks for the show. It wasn't an ideal counselling situation, but Harley wasn't much for talking over her problems at the best of times. She assured the woman that she was coping fine, and promised to get in touch if she had any further problems.

And then she put it completely out of her mind. Objectively, she was pretty much the same as she had always been. Perhaps a little more cautious and wary of her surroundings, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The bad dreams had gone away completely within a week. The whole thing was just an unpleasant memory, and Harley had more than her share of those from years on the road.

The first time she'd gone home afterwards had been rocky, she'd be the first to admit. Her isolated cabin, once her haven of solitude, had seemed frighteningly remote, and she'd spent the first night huddled in an armchair in front of the fireplace with her shotgun over her knees, even as she cursed herself for being so witless.

The following day, she'd made a trip into town and bought what she needed to install a security system in her cabin - something she'd never thought she would ever need. But the motion sensors on the windows and doors gave her the illusion of security, and she managed to get a halfway decent night's sleep. As time went on, things improved, and she truly felt as if she'd put it all behind her.

###

This week, the company was in Kansas, starting with house shows in Wichita before moving on for Raw in Topeka and Smackdown a day later in Kansas City. Harley had travelled from Wichita to Topeka with Jeff, Matt and Amy on Sunday, and on Monday morning, she was in the lobby of the hotel waiting for the shuttle that would take her and other members of the crew and roster over to the arena to continue work on the set build.

She was a little early, and she perched on the back of one of the couches dotted around the lobby, looking out at the water feature in front of the hotel. Dressed in long cargo pants, with a hoodie over her crew t-shirt, she stretched her legs out in front of her, her workbooted feet crossed at the ankles. Her ID dangled from around her neck, and she was lost in thought.

"Yo, Quinn!" Chuck Palumbo called as he came into the lobby.

She turned to look at him with a grin. "What?"

"You on for poker tonight?"

"Sure. Always happy to take your money, Chuck, you know that." She winked at him, and he laughed, nodding as he headed for the parking garage and his rental car.

Harley nodded to herself - at least now she had plans for the evening after the show. She was returning her attention to the fountains when a female voice spoke from behind her.

"Kathie? Is that you?"

'Kathie'? She hadn't been called that particular diminutive since high school. She turned around, curious to see who had spoken, and saw a neatly dressed woman in jeans and a sweater, her blonde hair pulled up into a ponytail. There was something vaguely familiar about that ponytail, she thought. The woman spoke again, her face lighting up when she saw Harley's features.

"Oh my God, it is you! Well, fancy meeting you here of all places!"

Harley heard the familiar accent, and saw the smile, and blinked in surprise. "Dee Dee? Dee Dee Bouvier?"

The woman chuckled. "It hasn't been Bouvier since high school - it's Johnston."

Harley shook her head, still stunned to have run across an old classmate so far from home. "Johnston? You mean Bobby?"

"Well, he prefers to be called Bob now, but yes. We got married right after high school - we invited you to the wedding," Dee Dee explained.

"I guess I was away at college by then," Harley smiled.

"Oh yes, you were always much smarter than the rest of us! You've hardly changed at all, Kathie! Well, except for your hair."

Dee Dee's expression had that same mildly disapproving cast that she usually saw on her mother's face when the subject of her hair came up. Dee Dee's own hair had that faint yellowish undertone that spoke of a dye job, but it was pretty close to the colour it had been in high school. Her cheerleader's body was no longer much in evidence though - the years had added a number of extra pounds.

Harley chuckled. "I couldn't stay mousy brown forever. So, you and Bobby, huh? Wow. What brings you to Topeka?"

Dee Dee's chin came up proudly. "Bob is salesman of the year for the Chevrolet dealership in Greensboro, and he's here for an important conference. The boys and I came along for a vacation while he's here."

"Boys?" Harley had to ask.

Dee Dee beamed. "Bobby Junior, he just graduated from college, he's just turned 23. Then there's Dwayne, he'll be going to college next fall, and Jay, he's just starting high school, and my baby, Tommy."

Harley was speechless, but was saved from having to say anything when a boy of about ten ran up to Dee Dee, his face showing breathless excitement.

"Mom!! I just saw John Cena - here, in the hotel!"

"Tommy, I'm talking here," she admonished him gently, tousling his sandy hair.

Harley could see echoes of the boy's father in his face. She had dated Bobby briefly, before he'd shot up four inches and packed on muscle one summer. He went out for the football team then and Dee Dee caught his eye. She smiled - this must be Dee Dee's 'baby'.

"Hey, it's okay. I'm used to being passed over for John Cena." She winked at the boy, who grinned back at her.

The name obviously held little significance to Dee Dee. "So what are you doing here, Kathie?"

Boy, that was getting old, Harley thought, but she reminded herself to be polite. "I work with a touring company, doing lighting and pyrotechnics."

Tommy was one step ahead of her, having seen her crew ID around her neck. "Mom, she works for the WWE!!"

Dee Dee shushed her son again, and then turned back to Harley. "Goodness, do you really? Bob and the boys are such fans of those shows. I had no idea we knew someone who worked for them!"

Harley shrugged, giving Dee Dee a smile. "Guilty." She looked at Tommy. "So, you're a John Cena fan, huh?"

Tommy nodded eagerly, opening his jacket to reveal one of John's t-shirts underneath it. "He's the best!"

Glancing behind her, she could see John waiting with some of the rest of the roster, and she turned back to Dee Dee. "Is it okay if I take Tommy over to meet John?"

Tommy was almost breathless as he waited for his mother's response. Dee Dee looked concerned. "Won't that be an intrusion?"

"Nah. The guys are used to it. And we won't be long. You should come with us, though - I'm sure Tommy would like a photo with John, as a souvenir."

Dee Dee finally nodded, and followed Harley and Tommy across the lobby, where John greeted his young fan with a big smile, and happily posed for a photo with him. The shuttle to the arena arrived then, and Harley turned to Dee Dee with a helpless gesture.

"That's my ride to work, I'm afraid. But hey, it was incredible to catch up with you, Dee Dee."

"I'm glad we did too!" Dee Dee handed her camera to Tommy. "Quick, Tommy, take a picture of us together - your daddy will be so surprised to see who I found here."

Harley stood with Dee Dee, smiling for the camera, wondering just what Bobby would say on seeing the photo, and then at Tommy's insistence, she posed for one with him, even stripping off her hoodie so her crew t-shirt could be seen. Seeing the look on Tommy's face as the wrestlers headed out to the shuttle, she gave Dee Dee a quick smile.

"How would you like some tickets to tonight's show? My treat."

Tommy's eyes widened. "Mom, could we?"

Dee Dee looked hesitant. "I don't know, Kathie."

Harley waved a hand at her. "It's no trouble, Dee Dee, honestly. How many tickets do you need, six?"

Dee Dee shook her head. "Oh, I won't go, this is something more for the boys and Bob."

Harley nodded. "I'll leave five tickets at the box office then. Tell Bob he just has to ask for them. You sure you won't come though?"

She chuckled. "Oh no! I'll enjoy the night by myself in the hotel. Maybe take a bubble bath without someone pounding on the bathroom door."

Harley smiled, and then glanced over her shoulder at the shuttle.

"Then I hope you enjoy the evening, and that Bob and the boys like the show. I hate to just run like this, but I've really got to get going."

Dee Dee surprised her then, pulling her into a sudden tight hug.

"It was so good to see you, Kathie. You take care now."

"You too, Dee Dee," Harley said, hugging right back.

There was a shout from the shuttle.

"Harley! You coming?"

With another quick hug for Dee Dee, Harley grinned at Tommy and then rushed across the lobby, pulling on her hoodie as she sprinted for the shuttle, jumping onto it just as it started to pull away.

###

Harley checked on her crew when she arrived at the arena, satisfying herself that the set build was on schedule, and then headed for the loading docks. She wanted to get the pyros for the following night's show assembled early, and she hauled out her toolbox and her iPod and set to work.

Her hands moved almost automatically as she worked, while she mused over meeting Dee Dee and her son at the hotel that morning. There had been any number of wedding invitations that had come her way when she was in college, and she'd refused them all. It was easy enough to do - she used her studies as an excuse, even when they wouldn't really have prevented her from attending.

The truth was that she had thought her classmates fools for rushing into marriage so young. That whole idea was so far from her plans and dreams that she had found it almost impossible to contemplate. And so she'd followed her own path.

Funny, though, how her mind didn't seem to want to let go of the morning's events. As she sat in Catering around mid-morning, sipping coffee, she could see Cody Rhodes and Ted Dibiase talking with one of the bookers. It didn't seem possible that Dee Dee could have a son Cody's age, but with a pang, she realized that there had indeed been that many years, and more, since high school. Where had they gone, she wondered, as she went back to work.

She threw herself into her work, using the activity to distract her from her thoughts. She was in Catering, picking at her dinner, when her headset beeped and she was given the message that her guests were at the box office. She excused herself quietly from the conversation and headed out to the arena's public area, towards the box office.

Tommy saw her coming, and pulled on his father's sleeve, pointing towards her.

"Here she comes, dad!"

Harley gave Tommy a smile and then turned her attention to the man standing beside him. Bob, formerly Bobby, Johnston looked like a typical former football player just starting to run to fat. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there in high school, and his sandy hair was starting to recede, but even with his extra padding, she could see the boy she had known in high school. She smiled at him.

"Hi Bob."

"Kathie Quinn, as I live and breathe! I didn't believe it when Dee told me she'd run into you," Bob smiled at her.

Harley didn't miss how his eyes travelled over her, though.

"I was pretty surprised to see her, too. It feels like it's been forever since I saw either of you."

"We did invite you to the wedding," Bob said. "But I guess bein' off at college and all, you were a might busy for that kind of thing."

For the first time, she felt a pang of guilt at having brushed off the invitation so cavalierly back then.

"Yeah, I was pretty busy."

"Wouldn't know myself, but Bobby Junior here, he's just graduated. Bobby, this is Kathie Quinn - she was at school with your momma and me."

Bob gestured to the tall young man beside him, who reminded her even more strongly of his father as she remembered him from high school. And Bobby's eyes did the same slow sweep over her that his father's had, but his smile was polite.

"It's real nice to meet you, Miz Quinn. Tommy's been yammerin' about you all day, and Mom just can't quit sayin' how surprised she was to see it was you."

'Miz Quinn' - those words were like a lead weight. To this boy, she had been relegated to "old person" status, and how that stung! She forced a smile in return.

"Thank you Bobby. So, just graduated. What are you planning to do now?"

She was so not having this conversation with a boy young enough, factually, to be her son.

Bob answered for his son. "Bobby's going to be a teacher - Dee and I are so proud of him."

Dear God, this boy, this child - a teacher? Harley felt her head spinning.

"As you should be, Bob. Congratulations, Bobby."

Her headset picked that moment to beep, and she excused herself for a moment to slip it on, nodding at the station checks. She felt sure God would forgive her for the little white lie she was about to tell.

"Bob, I'm real sorry, but they need me backstage. I hope you and your boys enjoy the show, though."

"I'm sure we will, Kathie. Just think, we been watching all these years and I never knew you worked here!"

She gave him a quick smile. "I pop up in the most unexpected places, you know? You say hi to Dee Dee for me, and tell her I hope she enjoyed her night to herself. Take care of yourselves, now."

She waved, ruffling Tommy's hair before walking off, not daring to look back at them. When she reached the backstage area, she tore off the headset and went looking for Bob, pleading a headache, and he assured her they had it under control and sent her back to the hotel.

It wasn't quite a lie - her head did ache, abominably, but only because she couldn't shut down her thoughts. She slumped in the shuttle going back to the hotel, feeling miserable. Once she got to her room, she stripped out of her clothes and got into the shower, turning her face into the water. Even then, she couldn't help but think of Dee Dee - pretty Dee Dee, who'd been such a head turner in high school. Enjoying her night off from husband and sons.

When was the last time she'd needed time off from anyone? She could just close her hotel door and refuse to answer the phone. And at home - well, really, could she call it home, considering how little time she spent there? It was a place, like the generic hotel rooms, that she spent time in between being in transit. And it was as devoid of other people as her hotel rooms.

Out of the shower, she was no better. Everything she owned, that she couldn't live without, fitted into a suitcase. She knew that because she carried it with her. Sure, there were some things in her cabin she'd hate to lose, but could she live without them? Absolutely.

And what precisely did she have to show for the years at college that she was so superior about? That she pursued instead of "settling" for marriage and a family? An iPod full of music from bands she'd toured with - big deal. A few articles in the PGI, her diplomas, which, if she recalled, were in the wallsafe in her cabin. What was the point of framing them, after all? She didn't need to see them to remember she had them, and it wasn't like she had anyone to show them off to.

Her work, her whole life, was an instant of brightly coloured light that was faded and gone in a moment. Sure, it made people happy for a moment, maybe even caused a gasp of pleasure once in a while, but other than that?

And this was the life's work that she felt was far more "important" than what Dee Dee and Bob had pursued? Dee Dee and Bob, who were raising four sons who were still happy to go on a family vacation together. How astonishing was that? A son about to become a teacher - now that was an achievement you could look back on and be proud of. "My son, the teacher." Who knew what the other boys would accomplish?

Suddenly, Harley had to get out of her hotel room, or go mad. She dragged on some clothes and grabbed her wallet and keycard, and was in the elevator before she'd even had time to think about where she was going. She'd left her jacket behind, so unless she wanted to go back and get it, she was stuck in the hotel. She punched the button for the floor where the bars were.

She dismissed the first one she came to - it was a meat market, and that was the last thing she needed. The one at the end of the hall was a better choice - it was quiet, and dark. She headed for the bar, and boosted herself up onto one of the padded stools. The bartender came down to where she sat, smiling at her.

"Evenin'. What can I getcha?"

Ah, she liked that. Right to the point. She took a deep breath and pulled out her wallet, taking out a hundred dollar bill and dropping it on the bar.

"Tell you what. You set me up with four shot glasses right along here, and then you fill 'em up with Jack Daniels. And you keep fillin' 'em up until I can't tell you to stop."

The bartender looked at her levelly. Then he shook his head.

"I can't do that."

A second hundred dollar bill joined the first one, and Harley took out her room keycard and waved it at him.

"I'm stayin' right upstairs, so it ain't like I'm gonna drink drive and kill someone later."

There was a moment of hesitation, and then the bills disappeared. The bartender turned away and then faced her again, holding the bottle of Jack Daniels.

"Lady, don't make me regret this, okay?"

"Wouldn't dream of it," Harley said, resting her elbows on the bar. "Fill 'em up."

###

Jeff scratched his head. Harley had barely said a word to anyone all day, and then she'd disappeared while they were having dinner, and he couldn't find her anywhere. Finally, he'd asked Bob Threadgood, who told him that she'd gone back to the hotel with a headache.

That worried him a little, but he had a match coming up later and a promo spot in the first half of the show. He resolved to drop by her room after the show, make sure she was okay.

Except that it was anything but okay - he'd been knocking on her door for ages, and there was no answer. He'd even tried calling her room, and her cell phone. He could hear the cell phone ringing inside the room, but there was no other sound of movement from within. He was pacing outside her door when the elevator doors opened, and Mark stepped out.

He frowned, seeing Jeff in the corridor.

"What's wrong?"

"It's Harley," Jeff gestured to the door. "Bob said she'd come back here before the show with a headache, but she won't answer the door."

"She was supposed to play poker with us, and she never showed. I guess that's why. You sure she's in there?"

Jeff shrugged. "There's no sounds, but who knows?"

Mark frowned more deeply - perhaps it was time to call the hotel manager and get someone to open the door, just to make sure. At that moment, the door next to Harley's opened and Trish Stratus stepped out, giving them both a thousand watt smile that faded a little as she saw their expressions.

"What's wrong?"

Jeff gestured to Harley's room. "Harley won't come to the door - we're worried about her."

Trish looked surprised. "She's not in there - I saw her down in one of the bars when I came back from my dinner date a little while ago."

Mark's eyebrows rose. "Was she with someone?"

Trish shook her head. "Not that I saw."

Jeff thanked Trish for the information, looking at Mark as she walked away.

"That can't be right. Harley doesn't drink - not like that, anyway."

It was obvious that Harley hadn't shared everything with Jeff, despite how close they were. Mark recalled their conversation at Enzo's that night, and Harley's admission that she'd had problems with booze in the past. Heading to a bar alone? That was not a good sign. Something had happened, something that had sent her straight for the bottle. He thought of the the kind of things that might send him out looking for a coke dealer and suppressed a shudder. Sometimes, it took someone with demons of their own to understand you in moments like that.

He looked at Jeff. He doubted Jeff's demons, whatever form they took, were the kind that he and Harley knew only too well.

"I think you better leave this to me, Jeff."

Jeff was about to protest, but he saw something in Mark's eyes. And he remembered how it had been Mark who'd orchestrated Burchill's punishment after what he did to Harley. For whatever reason, Mark seemed to have elected himself Harley's protector, and Jeff wasn't about to fight him on it. So long as someone was looking after her, he would be happy.

He had to admit - with his own issues with substance abuse, he probably wasn't the best person to try to drag her out of a bar. He blew out a sigh and nodded.

"Let me know if there's anything I can do?"

Mark nodded and then headed for the elevators.

###

The first bar Mark came to was filled with pulsing dance music and people. He doubted he'd find Harley in there - if you were looking to dive down the neck of a bottle, the last thing you needed was to be surrounded by happy people. The quieter bar at the end of the hall, though - he'd had a beer in there the night before. As he came to the door, he could see her, sitting at the far end of the bar.

He approached her, wondering just what kind of mood she'd be in.

Harley was leaning on the bar, propped on one elbow, idly turning the shot glass in front of her. A movement in the mirror back of the bar caught her eye, and she turned her head, eyebrows raising when she saw who was standing beside her.

"Chief."

"Kate," he responded quietly, sitting down on the stool beside her.

She turned her attention back to the glass in front of her, lifting it to her lips and draining it before setting it down with the kind of exaggerated care that only someone who's been drinking steadily can manage. There were four of the damned things lined up in front of her, he noticed.

The bartender approached, holding a bottle, but he hesitated when he saw Mark sitting beside her. Harley looked at him with a little frown, wondering what the problem was, and then followed his gaze to Mark, shaking her head as she turned back to the bartender.

"Don' worry 'bout him, he won' cause no trouble."

The bartender still looked uncertain, and Harley reached for her wallet again, pulling out a third hundred dollar bill and dropping it on the bar with a pointed glance at him. He just shook his head, taking the bill and refilling the shot glasses before walking away again.

After the second try to return her wallet to the hip pocket of her jeans failed, Harley left it on the bar, picking up the first glass. Mark shook his head.

"How many of those have you had, Kate?"

She looked at him, and then back at the shot glasses.

"Just these four."

He sighed. "And how many times have they been refilled?"

She shrugged. "Dunno."

Harley brought the glass to her lips and tilted her head back, draining it. She licked her lips as she set the empty glass down. She was reaching for the next one when his hand came down gently on hers.

"Is that a good idea?"

She looked at him, her blue gray eyes focused clearly on him.

"Hell yes."

She shook his hand off and reached for the glass again, swallowing the second shot as quickly as she had the first. She reached for the third glass, sipping the whiskey this time at least.

"Did you forget you agreed to a poker game tonight?"

"I got a better offer from Jack, here," she said, not looking at him.

"You blew off work with a headache to go drinking? What the hell were you thinking, Kate?"

"I dunno," she shrugged. "Means the evenin's been a success."

"And how do you figure that?"

" 'Cause I do know I started drinkin' so I would stop thinkin'."

Mark scrubbed one big hand over his face. Harley looked at him and shook her head, then tossed off the rest of her shot, reaching for the last filled glass almost before she had set the empty one down.

"Don't you think maybe you've had enough?"

She snorted. "Like I'm gonna let good Kentucky sippin' whiskey go to waste!"

The bartender approached again, and Mark shot him a venomous look. Wisely, the man retreated. Harley was staring at the last shot glass, fortunately, and missed seeing it. She lifted it suddenly and tossed the shot back, upending the empty glass on the bar with a grin.

"Damn, that was fine!"

She reached for her wallet again, her hand going to her hip pocket, a frown creasing her forehead before she realized her wallet was sitting on the bar in front of her. She opened it and took out a fifty dollar bill, dropping it on the bar, giving the bartender a grin.

"You, barkeep, have been a gentleman, and I thank you kindly for your hospitality." She spoke slowly, slurring her words just a little.

"Are you sure you're going to be okay to get back to your room, miss?" the bartender asked, shooting Mark a nervous glance. "I could call the concierge and get someone to escort you."

She giggled, shaking her head as she went to get off her stool.

"I already got an escort," she grinned, patting Mark's arm carelessly. "Th' chief here's real big on seein' a lady home. He's a gentleman too." She was slurring a little more now.

Mark shook his head.

"Kate, you're wasted."

She glared at him. "That's a damn dirty lie!"

As she slipped down from the stool, her legs buckled under her and she grabbed for the bar. "Whups!"

Mark was quicker, catching her elbow before she could fall, and she grinned up at him, giggling again.

"Hey, you're right. I am wasted!"

At least she was a happy drunk, he thought, as he reached over to rescue her wallet from the bar. She wrapped her arm around his waist, leaning heavily on him, still giggling.

"Come on, Kate."

"Right with ya, chief." She paused a moment, looking up at him owlishly. "Where we goin'?"

"I think it's time we called it a night, Kate," he said, leading her towards the door of the bar.

She ambled along beside him, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulder to hold her up more. Her arm stayed around his waist, and she was almost cuddling into his side. The dance music from the bar nearest the elevators pulsed out of its open doors, and she grinned up at him.

"Oh! We should go dancin', chief!"

Before he could grab her, she had slithered around in front of him, her hips swaying as she tried to grab his hands and lead him into the bar. He held his hands up out of her reach, which just made her change her tactics. Her hands now rested on his chest, caressing him through his shirt as her hips swayed and she moved in closer to him, looking up at him through her eyelashes.

Their eyes locked for a long moment.

Then she slumped forward against his chest, giggling. Her arm went around his waist again as she staggered a little, the whiskey now catching up with her in a big way.

"Whups! P'rhaps we should save the dancin' for another night. I'm wasted."

He laughed in spite of himself, his arm going around her shoulder, moving her back to his side again.

"Kate, you're so far beyond wasted."

She giggled at his side as they stood at the elevators. And now he faced a dilemma. He didn't know if she had her keycard with her. He could ask, but she really was soused. Short of patting her down, how the hell did he find it? Even if he did, what was he going to do - open the door to her room, plant a boot on her ass and give her a push to get her inside, then close the door after her? It was within the letter of the "see the lady home safely" code, but hardly in keeping with its spirit.

The trouble was, she was just at that point where she was unpredictable. God forbid she should get it into her head to sneak out and go dancing five minutes after he left. There was nothing for it, he thought, as the elevator doors opened. He was going to have to take her to his room and make sure she stayed put. It was about her safety, he told himself - it had nothing to do with the way she was now hanging on around his waist with both arms, her head resting on his chest.

They were outside his door, and there was just one problem - he couldn't get to his pocket to get out his keycard. Harley's hands were locked together around his waist, covering the pocket . . . and slipping lower as she leaned more against him. Any lower, and she was going to be groping him. He tried to prise her hands apart, but she stubbornly refused to let go.

"Damn it, Kate," he muttered, his arm around her shoulders, trying to move her away from him.

Her response was to move around more in front of him, her body pressed tightly to his as she looked up at him.

"Mmmm, you smell good, chief," she slurred, burying her face in his chest.

He could feel her breath against his skin through his shirt, and his arm tightened around her for a moment, before he realized that he could now at least get his hand in his pocket for his keycard, fishing it out and opening the door.

"Come on, Kate," he coaxed, "Let's get out of the damn hallway." Before either of us do something we're going to regret in the morning, he thought.

She looked up at him, drawing away from him very slowly and turning to go into the room behind her. He followed her, closing and locking the door behind him quickly. When he turned around, she was looking around the room, her head cocked to one side.

"Hey. This isn' my room."

"No Kate, this is my room." He tossed the keycard onto the table, then thought better of it, picking it up and sliding it back into his pocket.

She looked up at him. "Tha's a bit rude."

"What is?"

"You jus' assumin' that I'm gonna sleep with you cos I'm drunk," she said. Then she frowned. "Wait - did I say I'd sleep with you? I can' r'member."

Mark shook his head. "Relax Kate. That's not why I brought you here. I just want to make sure you're okay."

Harley stepped closer to him, her hands going back to his chest, looking up at him. "I'm fine. Really."

He took her hands from his chest. "Kate, you're wasted. Or you wouldn't be doing that." Or any of the other things you've tried so far, he thought.

Harley pouted at him. "You're no fun. Hey! What about a nightcap?" She peered around the room, looking for the minibar.

"You don't need a nightcap, Kate."

"Aw, c'mon, chief, jus' one?"

"Stay away from the damn minibar, Kate!"

"Well, what are we gonna do if we ain't havin' a drink?" she demanded.

"How about we try sleeping?"

"I ain't tired!" she protested, swaying on her feet.

"For God's sake, Kate, sit down before you fall down," Mark said, backing her towards the side of the bed.

As the edge of the mattress hit her behind the knees, she dropped down onto it, looking up at him.

"You're a bully."

He rolled his eyes. "And you're a goddamned mule. Come on, you can have the bed - I'll sleep on the couch."

She peered up at him, a crafty expression on her face. "Nah, I c'n sleep onna couch."

"I don't think so, Kate."

"Fine!" she snapped, flopping back onto the bed and rolling over, fully clothed.

He sighed, kneeling on the bed and reaching over to tug off her boots, while she looked up at him through eyes that were growing more hazy by the minute. He dropped the boots on the floor and then saw the wide leather belt, with its polished silver buckle, around her waist. He reached for it, and her eyes widened, her hands coming up to his.

"Hey! Whaddya think you're doin'?"

He brushed her hands away and unfastened the belt, tugging it from around her waist, which lifted her from the bed and made her giggle as she fell back down once the belt slipped free of its loops.

"You'll thank me in the morning when you don't wake up with that damn thing imprinted in your belly."

The belt joined her boots on the floor, and Mark reached under her to pull the covers down, while she shook her head.

"What's wrong?"

"I don' need the covers. I'm hot." Her hands went to the blouse she wore, and Mark looked away in a hurry.

"You'll be cold before morning comes, trust me."

"I'm hot now," she whined, and he stalked over to his case, digging out a t-shirt and tossing it onto her lap.

"Then put that on."

He sat down on the end of the bed, his back to her, bending down to take off his shoes. He could hear rustling behind him, and he kept his back turned until it stopped.

"You decent now?" he asked.

There was a sound that might be construed as assent, and he risked a glance at her. She was laying back on the pillows, wearing his t-shirt, the covers pulled up to her waist. He stood up and removed his own belt, draping it over the back of a chair, and he moved over to the other side of the bed from her. It was a king size, and he could stay plenty far away from her at least.

Just as he was about to sit down and get under the covers himself, a thought hit him.

"Are you gonna throw up, Kate?"

"Hell no! I ain't a messy drunk!"

That sounded pretty definite - he could only hope it was true. He climbed into the bed, laying back against the pillows, taking off his wristwatch and laying it on the bedside table. He wasn't going to be all that comfortable sleeping in his clothes, but he'd cope. He reached out and turned out the lights.

"Goodnight, Kate."

She made some sound at his side, and he blew out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. So far, so good. His eyes were just closing when he heard a movement. Perhaps she was just getting comfortable? Except at the next moment he felt the covers of the bed thrown back and heard a muffled giggle from his side. and rustling sounds.

"Kate, what the hell are you doing?"

"Nothing," came the sulky reply. But moments later the sounds started again.

He growled, turning over and reaching out, grabbing her wrist and hauling her back into the bed. "Nothing. Right. I told you to stay away from the damn minibar!"

"I wasn't . . . " came the half-hearted protest.

"Yeah, sure you weren't. Stay put!"

He released her arm. The moment he did, she began to edge her way across the bed again. His arm shot back out again, this time grabbing her around the waist. She squirmed immediately.

"Lemme go!"

"Not until you promise me you're going to stay put," he growled again.

She tried to push his arm away, but subsided after a few moments. A moment later, there was a sulky whisper.

"Bully."

"Kate, I swear . . . look, you don't need any more to drink, trust me. Just go to sleep, will you?"

They lay in silence. After maybe five minutes, Mark felt her body relaxing under his arm, and cautiously let go of her. Her breathing was deep and even, and he realized with a sigh of relief that she'd either fallen asleep or passed out. Now, maybe he could relax himself.

He closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep soon after.

 ###

Something was tickling his nose. He wrinkled it in his sleep, but the tickling continued, and his eyes snapped open in the dim light of early morning.

In the split second before he reached out to swat at Harley and cuss her out for messing with him, he came to a startling realization that froze him to the core.

Harley wasn't on the other side of the bed, teasing him. Harley was on this side of the bed. What was tickling his nose was her hair, because she had her head pillowed on his chest.

And that arm he'd been about to reach out to swat her with? It was currently wrapped around her, holding her close to him.

Oh shit!

###

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
faithinfire
Aug. 25th, 2008 12:45 pm (UTC)
Oh gods... poor Harley! Not least because she's presumably going to wake up with far too bad of a hangover to even slightly appreciate her current position. *g*

I do feel bad for her, though. I'm one of those people myself who's always scorned the settled-with-kids route. I want to grow old with a bunch of good memories, good stories and ticket stubs from all the exciting stuff I did, I don't feel like I need anything more - and I feel awful for poor Harley having done the same all her life and then suddenly wondering if it was the right choice. I'm impressed at your writing skills with that part, since you've managed to make a character have doubts that I myself completely disagree with, but still make me sympathise anyway!

PS And can I just say I'm glad you're one of those people who updates fast? Cos I can't wait for the next part! :)
nephthys_abode
Aug. 26th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC)
First off - Ghost Rider icon luuuuuurve!! :-D

Thank you again for your praise - knowing I've created a character that people can sympathise with in some respect, even if they don't exactly empathise, is about the sweetest thing I can hear!

And can I just say I'm glad you're one of those people who updates fast? Cos I can't wait for the next part! :)

Oh jeez, no pressure there! :-p

Actually, I usually "cheat" and make sure I have about half the next chapter if not written then at least well planned out and with extensive notes before I post the previous one. Keeps me honest . . . and with the illusion being a speedy updater!
faithinfire
Aug. 26th, 2008 08:38 am (UTC)
^_^ You like Ghost Rider? Oh man! We have something else in common then... awesome!

Oh jeez, no pressure there! :-p

Oops, I'm sorry! >.> Didn't mean to sound like one of those entitlement bitches that everyone complains about on fanficrants. Read what I said more as a gesture of appreciation/respect from someone whose average time for finishing even a oneshot can be anything up to about two years... *headdesk*
nephthys_abode
Aug. 26th, 2008 10:13 am (UTC)
You like Ghost Rider? Oh man! We have something else in common then... awesome!

That movie rocked!! I'm not a big fan of comic book heroes, but I can dig the movies. Nic Cage was hot, and that bike was smokin'!! -gigglefits-

Hey, I wasn't yankin' your chain about the updating thing - this particular story happens to be flowing fairly quickly, which is a bit of a blessing. I can be long winded . . . okay, no, I am long winded, and I've never written a one-shot, or a "short" story!!

Ask me how long I've been working on It's Not Over, for example. Or how long it took me to finish the latest story in the "Adventures with the Circus" series!! I'm glad there aren't people hanging out for updates on those!
faithinfire
Aug. 26th, 2008 10:43 am (UTC)
Heh - I was into the comics long before the movie came out. It was one of those awful "I don't wanna see it, what if they've ruined it, but I gotta!" type situations, and the utter relief of finding out that it was amazing... yeah, awesome. ^_^ And Nic Cage was badass. Did you know he's actually a huge Ghost Rider fan himself? He had to have his GR tattoo covered up with makeup for the role, which made me grin so much when I heard about it.

We're opposites, I guess - I can't plot the big stuff out to save my life, my talent lies strictly in the short story (not usually above 10,000 words) bracket. And usually I come in only around three or four thousand. I really envy people who can write long stuff at anything resembling a good speed!

(And FWIW, I'm not really hanging, but if you do update any of your other fics? I'm there. ^_~ )
nephthys_abode
Aug. 26th, 2008 11:01 am (UTC)
-snerks- Yeah, I heard the story about Nic having to cover up his Ghost Rider tattoo - that's too funny! Oh, and the movie was made down under . . . no wonder those Texan bluebonnets looked so damn purple!

Now see, if Mark and Harley would just cooperate with me here a little bit, I could wrap this story up and go back to some of the other ones.

Who the hell am I kidding? I'm still gonna be writing them when I'm a little old lady I think! You better be in it for the long haul - just sayin' is all! ;-)
kaotic_princez
Aug. 25th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
Harley is such a lucky girl to have Jeff in her bed one night and then to end up in bed with Mark the next. Even though sex wasn't a factor she still got it made.

Mark has it so bad for Harley it ain't even funny so why are those two not getting busy yet?!? The wait of those two hooking up finally is absolute torture but in a good way :-P

Can't wait to read more of this.
nephthys_abode
Aug. 26th, 2008 04:22 am (UTC)
-laughs- And yet, she's off trying to drown her troubles in a bar - as the Hurricane might once have said, "What's up wid dat?"

Mark has it so bad for Harley it ain't even funny so why are those two not getting busy yet?!? The wait of those two hooking up finally is absolute torture but in a good way :-P

Well, contrary to popular opinion, I'm not dragging it out to torture people! The truth is that Harley really is utterly clueless about men, except her Lost Boys, and she can't see what's staring her in the face.

Mark, bless him, has seen the light, but while she's still stumbling around in the dark, there ain't much he can do about it.

Or is there? Guess you'll just have to wait and find out! ;-)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )