by A.j.



Disclaimer: Ain't mine, ain't makin' money. Well, I guess Josh is mine... but I'm more'n willing to share. :)

Archiving: Dayspring and Alternate Timelines definitely. Everyone else can take it too, I'd just appreciate a note so I can go read everything *else* on your page. ;) And of course, this corrected draft will eventually be up at my site: 

Summary: In a brighter future, a nice young man named Joshua Baker goes to pick up his prom date. Unfortunately he must deal with her parents: Nathan Summers and Domino.

Dedications: Wow, are there a lot. To Lynxie and BJ Carlson who originally inspired the idea and Josh's date's name. To Pebbsie who beta'd this in the early stages and occasionally badgered me to get it done. To Ali McKenzie for general inspiration and for giving me back my love of these characters. To Pet and M. Lei for putting up with my constant badgering for 'one more beta!' And finally, to Lisa. You won't be reading this but you are my closest friend, best Beta, and the funniest person I'll ever know. We scare me too, hon.

Notes: This story started a long time ago. It was more a vague conception than an actual idea, in the beginning. Well, for the most part of it’s writing.

I’ve never really been a story teller. Oh, I love them. Stories and memory are what make the world. They create what we know and shape our lives. The idea, the inspiration, the words... all of them are beautiful and unique.

As I was saying, I’ve never really been a teller. I’ve been a listener who takes what she hears and projects it back. In another life, I think I would have been a bard. Ah, but there’s the rub, you say. Not so true. Bards didn’t *create*. What they did was, often, record. Gather tales and give them to others, shining gifts of knowledge created by ink and parchment. That life appeals to me. Giving back another’s words, their soul.

Maybe that’s why fanfiction is so appealing to me.

Someone once said that fanfiction is the people’s way of taking back their folktales. I think this is truer than we know. So, by archiving, I’ve collected things. Put them away for others to see when they wish.

But these notes aren’t about an archive. No, they’re about a story. A story of my own.

Being a listener doesn’t mean that I don’t *want* to tell. It just means that I don’t think that the way I tell my own tales could ever compare to better tellers. Language, although vast and amazing, can be so limiting.

Every sentence I type seems.. forced. Not right or complete. That doesn’t stop me from wanting, needing, to tell my own stories. Flawed as they may be, they are a part of me. Something of mine, and mine alone.

That is rare for me. Everything I have has been part of someone or something. Although this story has elements that are not mine, most obviously the characters, the situations and feelings: they are. This is MY tale. These are MY words.

And if they are not beautiful, or right... they are still mine. And in being so... they are amazing.

So, friends, I welcome you to something unique.

It wasn't raining.

For the first time in nearly three days, the Northern California sun had been allowed to stretch itself over the San Francisco Bay, and was making up for lost time. During the past week, an abnormal bout of stormy weather had terrorized the coast, canceling early tourist activity and generally making a nuisance of itself. Today, things had gotten even weirder. Not only was the sky clear, but temperatures were climbing into the mid-eighties; a phenomenon almost completely unheard of in a Northern California spring.

Whistling quietly, Joshua Baker adjusted the climate control on his dashboard. While he normally enjoyed cruising with the windows down, the late afternoon sun was happily extracting any and all moisture from the ground and pulling it back up into the air. Air conditioning was most certainly called for. 'Better to have dry sinuses than poofy hair.' Absently, Joshua passed a hand over his moussed coif. ‘Not that anything short of an anti-aircraft shell could move this sucker.’

Thanks to his great-grandmother's Sicilian genes, he'd spent the better part of his eighteen years battling with his hair in one way or another. Normally, he just gave up and let it do its own thing. Tonight though... Tonight was different. Earlier this evening, the tight curls had been maniacally whipped into a style more reminiscent of an anime flick than any occurring in nature. Joshua had no idea where his sister had found the gel, but he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it wasn't shellac.

With a slight touch of anxiety, Joshua glanced down at the small white map resting on his knee. The paper was a brilliant contrast to the summer-weight black wool. Nearly four months of pleading and this was his only reward. 'Well worth it too.' Joy, anticipation, and an odd sense of doom fluttered merrily down Joshua's spine. He was on his way and, come hell or high water, tonight was going to be perfect.

He knew *he* wasn't perfect. Heck, the guys on the football team brought that particular truth home nearly every day. But when Maddy smiled at him... Well, it was everyone else's loss they didn't get to see those smiles. Hopefully, tonight, she’d be smiling a lot.

Joshua knew, with every fiber of his being, there was no way in hell he deserved more than a second glance from Maddy. The fact she'd not only looked twice, but a third, fourth, and seventh time... Well, he was damn sure he was going to cherish every second she kept looking. It'd give him something to remember when she stopped.

Shifting nervously behind the wheel of his old 2002 Saturn, Joshua glanced down at the map again. It was pretty clear, which was a rarity for the average direction-impaired Californian. The address was in an upper class area near the outskirts of the city. That had surprised him. When Maddy had, tentatively, handed him the map, he'd questioned how she'd ended up going to Midvale, all the way across town. In response, she'd offered him nothing but a nervous chuckle and a vague explanation involving her parents' office. Something about them being in the warehouse district more than home. Joshua had no idea cleaning services operated out of the warehouse district. Oh, well. Probably cheaper rent or something.

The explanation hadn't seemed all *that* odd. It made sense for her parents to want her near them. Even though Maddy'd danced around introducing him to her parents for nearly three months, he'd sensed she harbored a deep love and respect for them. That reason alone had, ultimately, been why he'd forced the issue. Even though he and Maddy were still in high school, just kids really, he was pretty sure he loved her. Deep down he knew she'd, more likely than not, meet some fantastic guy in college, leaving him in the dust. Until then... He wanted to know more about her life. What’s more he wanted the people in that other part to know his intentions were honest. Clutching his map a little tighter, he checked his location.

Up ahead, a dark blue and white sign indicated his street. Slowing to check for oncoming cars, he executed a neat turn and started down the long, tree-dappled road. He'd never actually been in this district before. The houses were old looking. Their towering grandeur happily mimicked the glory of days past, only this time, with plumbing. Fences lined the quiet street while large maples and oaks mingled leaves overhead. A strange enough foliage combination for California, but these were rich people. Rich people could afford the extra water.

The late afternoon sun flitted merrily through the dense canopy, creating twirling patterns on the neat sidewalks. Along the right side of the road, high-end Toyotas and older Mercedes sat, waiting for their owners in quiet dignity. Joshua, carefully counting house numbers, feeling more than a little conspicuous in his tan, seventeen-year-old car.

Finally, Joshua’s vehicle pulled up beside a house clearly marked with the number on the map. ‘47 Oleander. I guess this is the place.’ He maneuvered his sedan into a space behind a new-ish Ford Expedition, and, with care he switched off the air, the radio, and the ignition and put on that most important of things in San Francisco: the parking brake. His nerves were finally bearing down full-force.

How had he gotten in this situation again? ‘Oh, yeah... I asked.'

Taking a deep breath, Joshua reached over to the passenger seat and retrieved the white-rose corsage and bouquet of lilies resting on the well-used leather. The lilies had been a last minute purchase from the florist around the corner from his home.

Maddy had mentioned once, in passing, how much her mother adored the flower. The bouquet, now nervously clutched in his hand, had been in the shop window when he'd stopped to pick up Maddy's rose. Inspiration, vicious pickpocket bitch that she was, had struck. He hadn't even noticed purchasing them until he'd been walking to his car. Heck, considering the way Maddy had fought against him picking her up, he knew he was in for some opposition. He figured he could handle some parental disapproval, if it meant spending the evening with her. So, the lilies were a sort of bribe. He figured it was a good idea to have at least a *small* chip in his favor.

What was it his father had said? "To get to the father, flatter the mother." Something like that. All Joshua knew was that he was grateful his parents had given him the credit card tonight. He had no idea how he was going to pay back all the money he'd spent on the tux, the tickets, or the flowers, let alone dinner. 'Oh, well. I guess Mr. Floyd will be keeping his faithful box-boy this summer.' After all, there weren't many days as important as the Senior Prom.

'Senior Prom. Senior Prom with Madeline Kathleen Summers.' The realization it was REALLY going to happen calmed his tap-dancing stomach and soothed his oddly skittish legs. It was with a bright face he exited the car and made his way up the fenced walk.

As he came closer, Joshua noted the subtle differences of Maddy's home from those around it. The brickwork, though similar to the neighbor's, seemed newer. While the stately Tudor brick next door had ivy down the entirety of it's far side, the one drawing increasingly closer hadn't a speck of leafy green. Slightly puzzled, but not really interested, Joshua decided the Summers probably just didn't want the crawling, if pretty, plant destroying their brickwork.

Filing the observation in the back of his head under the heading 'Unimportant', Joshua mounted the solid stone steps leading to the bottle-green door smiling. Life was good, and about to get better.

Carefully patting his rented tux down, checking for stray parts, Joshua gave himself a last once-over. Hair combed back? Check. Breath good? Spritz of breath spray and Check. Cummerbund in place? Check.

'Looks like you're as ready as you're going to get, boy.'

Pulling himself up to his full six-foot height, Joshua nestled the lilies in the crook of his arm and reached for the bell. Before his hand could depress the white button, however, the door slowly swung open to reveal...

A neck. A very, very, very *big* neck.

Muscle and skin were bunched sinuously over bone, giving the overall effect of a balloon about to pop. A cold sweat burst enthusiastically onto Joshua's brow. Hoping and praying things didn't get worse, he carefully lifted his eyes. As they went up, things definitely didn't get better. The strong cords of the person's trapezium lead to a square, hard jaw. Above said jaw, chiseled cheekbones slashed downward, emphasizing the deep frown gracing a mouth, most likely, formed of granite. The worst though, was yet to come. Over the hard, sloping nose were two fierce eyes. One, a normal deep, smoky blue-grey was surrounded by an odd set of scars. The other, a piercing silver, seemed to almost glow. Overall, the man in front of him gave the impression of Mt. Fuji majestically preparing to level Japan.

Maybe this whole 'meeting the parents' thing wasn't such a good idea.

Joshua developed a sudden sympathy for deer around the country. 'So this is what standing in front of a speeding truck feels like.'

Somehow, some way, the tiny part of Joshua's mind that wasn't screaming for him to turn and run, the part of him that really loved Maddy, pushed its way up past the panic. Slowly, Joshua's jaw unhinged and *somehow* his speech center activated.

“Erm... I’m Joshua Baker... I'm- I'm here to pick u-u-up Maddy?"

His slightly hysterical tone shocked the teen out of his paralysis. Wildly, Joshua pulled the lilies from the crook of his arm and waved them under the uncompromising chin, offering testament to his presence. A single, silver brow arched.

"Oh. Are you?"

It was all Joshua could do not to turn and bolt.

The man had to be, at the very least, over six and a half feet. Joshua was not used to actually looking *up* at people anymore. Not only did the man dwarf Joshua vertically, but he had horizontally covered too. 'They could fit two of me in him.' Slowly, the realization he was still waving the lilies dawned. Dropping his arm, he desperately tried to answer the huge man's question. When the man had spoken, Joshua's surge of courage had left a dust-trail on its way to the hidden valleys of his mind. If Terry Pratchett ever pushed another Disc World script through an animation studio, Joshua would have happily volunteered the mountain in front of him for the voice of Death. 'Wind through a graveyard in January? Mr. Pratchett must have met this guy.'

“Um... yes, sir. Uh... this *is* the Summers' residence, isn't it?" 'Please say no, please say no, please say no...'

The tectonic plates comprising the man's face moved upward, forming an even more fearsome smile. 'Men have died with that smile as their last earthly memory, haven't they?' The question shot bright and cold in what was left of Joshua's rational thought.


The word twanged over Joshua's tight nerves. That cold sweat which had started on his brow took this opportunity to move lower to his hands, back, and legs. The terrified young man had no idea which question the man was answering. Although, even though he knew it was impossible, Joshua would have laid money on the second one.

"Th-this is the Summers' residence?"

The smooth lilting voice of the man-mountain's armpit confirmed, "Oh, yeah. Welcome to the house of fear!"

For nearly four seconds, Joshua was completely and utterly sure he had been in an accident on the way to pick up Maddy, and was now dead and standing in some kind of insane purgatory. That, or he’d survived and was ensconced in a hospital bed on some *really* stellar drugs. Then he realized the armpit voice belonged to an actual person.

"Hello, Joshua!" The woman, now peeking from around a massive shoulder, chirped. "Maddy's told me so much about you! Nathan. Back. Now."

The last few words caused a minor miracle. 'Nathan' took a slight step back, barely missing the tiny person behind him. Suddenly, the doorway seemed a lot bigger, and Joshua's pulse a little slower.

'Scratch that "tiny" thought.' The woman standing in front of the slowly un-tensing teen was anything but small. She appeared nearly his height with black hair, deathly pale skin, and the most amazing pair of eyes Joshua had encountered on a woman. One violet iris was surrounded by a black, circular, tattoo. This caused a momentary pause in Joshua's scan, but he shrugged it off. It *was* San Francisco after all. As visions of the pier's tattooed lady danced in his mind, Joshua decided the oval was pretty classy.

She looked to be in her early to mid-forties with a compact, athletic frame. Scanning quickly down her body, as he'd done with the immensely tall man, he took in the dark purple peasant shirt and lightweight black pants. Poking out of the boot-cut legs were dainty, bare feet. Not surprisingly, considering the theme, her toenails were a bright shade of lavender.

"See anything you like, kiddo?"

Joshua blushed brightly and shot a nervous glance to the man, now scowling even more deeply, over the woman's shoulder. "Erm.. no.. I was just.. eh.. Um, is this Maddy's house?"

A throaty chuckle rebounded off the stoop and into the street. Smiling brightly, the woman started backing up and motioning him inside.

"You bet. Maddy's upstairs with her sister and... um... aunt. They’re putting on the last touches. She's gorgeous."

Without even bothering to turn around, the older woman jammed her elbow into a space below the mountain's ribs. Visibly, the man gave no reaction, but he did back up and move towards the center of the room, finally allowing enough space for Joshua to enter the house.

"She's always gorgeous, ma'am."

A brilliant smile lit the woman's already lovely face, transforming it into something ethereal. Realization hit Joshua over the head like a bat. Maddy had inherited her mother's smile. Right down to the slight dimple on her left cheek.

"I'm Maddy's mother and the glowering lout over there," Mrs. Summers smiled and waved at the tall man, "is her doting father. Don't mind him. He's just refusing to admit his little girl is growing up."

Joshua wasn't sure, but he thought, just maybe, the dark scowl gracing the scary man's face got a little darker.

"Um. Okay."

Glancing over her shoulder, Mrs. Summers caught her husband's gaze and snorted. "Nathan. Go tell Maddy her date's here. I'm sure she already knows. The way you're projecting, everyone in the *neighborhood* knows he's here. I want to talk to this young man, alone."

For nearly a minute, Joshua watched as a horrendous battle was fought inside Mr. Summers. For a second, right near the end, he could have *sworn* the man's silver eye really *did* glow. 'That can't be right.'

It ended with a slight nod and the view of a massive, thankfully retreating, back.

"You can breathe now, kid." Purple eyes danced merrily. "I know he comes on a bit strong, but he's a real lamb when he wants to be."

"I'll have to take your word for that Mrs. --"

A neatly manicured hand quickly shot out and a conspicuously bare third finger was waggled under his nose. "Don't call me 'Mrs. Summers'. It's not only inaccurate it makes me feel old. Of course, the *real* Mrs. Summers is younger than I am, but we won't go there. After all, this is your first encounter with this family. Might as well let you walk out of here with *one* unmuddled synapse."

The hand was lowered and Joshua's green-gray eyes were again in contact with Mrs. Summ- er..

"Um, ma'am? What *should* I call you?"

Maddy's mother grinned again. "You're a nice kid. Direct. I like that. Plus, you didn't wet yourself when Nate opened the door. First one who hasn't. Tell you what. If I can call you Josh, you can call me Dom, okay?"

"Okay, ma'am, uh Dom."

Another chuckle filled the foyer as Dom turned. "You know, I do believe you remind me of someone I know. C'mon, Joshua. You can shuffle nervously just as well in the study as you can in the front hall. Besides, my camera's in there, and no ‘meeting of the date’ is complete without blackmail photos."

Docilely trailing behind the beautiful woman, Joshua followed Dom down the passageway, looking from side to side as he went. Traveling from the entry to the main hall was something of a learning experience. The wood paneled walls were covered with family photos and tasteful prints. Cheerfully polished tables unobtrusively took up floor space, while to his left, louvered doors were shut tightly against prying eyes.

The end of the passageway opened into a high open room where, in the far right corner, a wooden staircase rose gracefully, its banister twinkling from a recent polishing. Again, as in the corridor behind him, the off-white walls were covered with photographs. Aside from the stairs and hall behind him, the room boasted five other doorways. The only one open was to the immediate left of the stairway. A refrigerator and sink were clearly visible. However, considering the size of the room, Joshua was willing to bet the doors led into even larger rooms.

Massive as the house was, it really didn't seem intimidating. 'Unlike its owner.' All of the furniture was new, but the careless stacking of magazines and the not-so-straight arrangements of flowers gave it an informal air. The photos on the walls helped a lot. 'It feels like a home, not just a house.'

Curious to get a better look at the framed pictures, Joshua moved closer to the walls. More specifically, he leaned in to scan the photographs. All of them were professional grade, and deeply personal. Even with his inexperienced eye, Joshua could see the posed and candid photographs were excellently balanced and, obviously, taken by someone who knew what they were doing. Possibly sensing his straying, Dom turned mid-step catching Joshua scanning the pictures nearest him. She stopped, still smiling. He jumped slightly and moved to continue following her, but she shook her head.

"No, go ahead and look. Janna, our youngest, is quite the shutterbug. Ever since she was old enough to hold a camera, she's made it her personal mission to record every important moment of our extended family's history. On film."

"Yeah, she told me." Joshua stepped closer to a photo. The picture was a bright, airy photo of a laughing Maddy holding a beautiful, if unfamiliar baby. The olive-skinned child looked remarkably similar to the tall, white-haired woman behind his date. From the lines on her face, Joshua guessed the older woman didn't smile much. Frown and tension lines marred her otherwise smooth skin. However, the camerawoman --Janna-- had caught Maddy, the woman, and child in an unguarded moment. The stately woman's face was softened with a small, genuine smile.

"Janna said she's been accepted at both the Chicago Art Institute and New York's School of Fine Arts. I knew she must be good, but these are great. You must be very proud." Taking in Dom's brief nod, Joshua shot a curious gaze around the room again, scanning the nearly endless collection of framed photos. "I didn't realize Maddy had such a large family."

"You're just lucky a convenient fog bank moved over upstate New York stranding everyone. Otherwise, you wouldn't just have grumpy Nate scowling at you." The woman shook her head, causing her waist-length ponytail to sway. "You'd have had her godfathers and about twelve uncles pulling the same routine."

Joshua squirmed slightly as his shirt and jacket suddenly felt three sizes too small.

Dom pointed a graceful finger at a photograph behind Joshua. He turned. Next to the picture he'd been admiring was a photo of, what appeared to be a baseball team. The only reason Joshua knew they were supposed to be a baseball team --and not the first-pick drafts for the new pro-football season-- was because most of them were holding bats. Big ones. Of the nearly twenty men, there wasn't a single ounce of fat. Even the smallest man, a wiry blond, outweighed Joshua by at LEAST twenty pounds, all of it in muscle mass. 'Oh, this isn't good.'


"You poor thing. Is Mom scaring you?"

The bright, clear tones of Maddy's sister, Janna, came from directly behind his left shoulder. Joshua automatically froze. Although he knew Janna’s voice, things hadn’t been going well for him tonight. The deer-in-the-headlights reflex hadn’t shut down yet. Joshua took a moment to relax before he turned to face the diminutive girl.

Janna stood behind him, one hand cocked high on a slim hip, the other dangling an expensive camera. A quick visual scan gave Joshua a slight feeling of reassurance. She hadn’t changed at all in the last three days, so the world couldn’t be ending, upside-down, or even vaguely skewed. Janna was still short. Her hair was still black, her eyes were still blue, and her chest was still larger than any sixteen-year-old’s should be.

While Maddy had been hesitant about introducing him to Dom and Mr. Summers, she'd been more than happy to introduce him to her younger sister. In fact, he, Janna, and Maddy had spent several enjoyable afternoons wandering around Golden Gate Park and the Wharf district. Janna was everything he'd ever wanted in a younger sister; ergo, she was nothing like his *actual* sister.

During one of those enjoyable afternoons, Janna had gone into quite a rant on how she thanked God, the Bright Lady, and every gene in her possession that she had quote: “Finally bucked that damn Summers tradition of birthing overly-tall, overly-developed psychos!” At the time, Joshua still hadn’t quite gotten over his tendency to go a bit fuzzy whilst surveying some Maddy’s over-development so he hadn't really taken Janna's use of the word 'psycho' very seriously. The statement hadn’t really registered past making him blush. ‘Too bad...’

Shaking his thoughts back to the present, Joshua couldn’t help but let one final observation push through. All of the Summers women shared several traits, not the least of which seemed to be bust size.

Completely oblivious of his rather shadowed mental wanderings, Janna hitched the camera over her shoulder and caught him in a reassuring hug.

"Don't worry, Josh. Daddy's a pushover once you get to know him." She stepped back to stand nearer to her mother and giggled brightly at his panicked expression. "I *swear* everyone overreacts to the lunk-head. He's just Daddy."

"You only think that because you don't see three hundred pounds of enraged father when you look at him." Dom, purple eyes twinkling, absently tucked a lock of Janna's raven hair behind her ear. Another trait the Summers girls seemed to have inherited from their mother was their hair. Both Maddy and Janna sported nearly blue-black manes. While Dom’s was lightly sprinkled with gray, the overall color was still very striking. "All you can remember is him passing back the imaginary teapot during your 'high teas' with the Queen."

"I guess you're right, Mom. Really though, the most memorable thing about those teas was, afterward, having to explain to Grandma how those ‘sweet little chairs’ suddenly got bent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her laugh so hard since," Janna chuckled. Glancing down, she noticed the neglected lily bouquet. "Wow, Josh! You got me flowers?"

Merriment and relief danced in Joshua's hazel eyes as the girl reached for his slightly bruised bunch of flowers. Dealing with hugely tall men did nothing for a boy's nerves. Teasing someone darn close to a younger sibling seemed a good tension reliever. Smiling evilly, he raised the blooms over his head and waved them down at the diminutive girl. "Nuh-uh, short-stuff. These are for your mom."

"Awww! Come on! No one ever gets me flowers!" Adopting a bright pout, Janna danced around Joshua, occasionally poking a finger into his side. Three minutes later, the skirmish ended with a wildly giggling Dom cradling the, by then, broken flower stems. Dom was also staring down at the completely adorable puppy-pile consisting of Janna and Joshua. Both kids were laughing nearly as hard as the adult so neither noticed the svelte figure gracefully descending the stairs until she was nearly on top of them.

"This is certainly an... interesting tableaux."


From his position, under the business end of Janna's knee, all Joshua could make out of the speaker was an impression of green. Lots and lots of fuzzy green.

"Hello. I'm guessing you're Joshua." The immediate sarcastic quirk to her lips marked her as a foe. While, even from his somewhat disadvantageous position on the floor, he could see she wasn’t in the same scary-league as Mr. Summers, it was still unnerving.

"Um. Yes." At his hesitant grunt, Janna removed her knee from his throat and helped the teen to his feet. Standing on more equal footing with the woman, Joshua was able to upgrade the ‘lots of fuzzy green’ to a more accurate description.

While, from the floor, she had appeared somewhat intimidating, standing face to face, Joshua found he had several inches on her. That wasn't to say she was *short*, exactly. The woman -no, *girl*- appeared about chin height, and younger than he'd originally guessed. From this vantage point, she looked about fifteen. If the girl hadn't been so tall, Joshua would have sworn she was an elf. Burning red hair framed a sharp, delicate face that stared out at the world from two emerald eyes. The angora sweater and fleecy leggings adorning her athletic frame were a slightly lighter shade of green, but served well to heighten the effect of being stared at by a set of jewels. Recognizably high, strong cheekbones tapered downwards and ended in a pert, slightly upturned nose. The soft bow of her mouth was a pale, natural peach.

A graceful hand presented itself to his chest, interrupting his assessment.

"My name is Rachael. I'm Maddy and Janna's aunt from New York." A slight snicker could be heard from the latter's direction. Ignoring it politely, Rachael continued. "Maddy's told me quite a bit about you. It was really a very lucky thing for me to be in town for this. Conveniently, my dance troupe was in the area this week."

"Very. Convenient, that is." The weak reply tumbled past dry lips as Joshua belatedly gripped her small palm. It was warm, smooth, and soft; everything a young girl's palm should be. And yet... There was something... different about Rachael. Yeah, there'd been a *lot* different about the entire family, but this... it was disturbing.

Joshua couldn't put his finger on it, but Rachael was too young a girl to possess such cool grace and demeanor. Being a dancer could explain some of it, but there was just something... else. "Is that how you avoided the fog bank?"

"Mmmm. The fog bank." Mirth flashed in the girl's fairy eyes, quickly to be replaced by cat-like interest. The girl was really creeping him out. "Yes. If it hadn't floated in at that exact right moment," there was another snort from Janna. "A few other cousins would be right here with me." She shot an arch look at Janna. "So, I do believe, would The Uncles..."

The tone of Rachael's statement told Joshua everything he needed to know about Rachael Summers. Sarcastic and smug all at once, it oozed fake charm and real pleasure at his awkward situation. He didn't like it all that much. She was the type of girl who pushed people to their breaking point just to see how far they'd go. Well, Joshua Cain Baker was smack in the middle of an endurance test and there were some hurdles he just didn't need to deal with. Straightening his spine, Joshua wiped the slightly dazed look off his face and put on a painfully polite smile. 'Time to get some dignity back...'

"That is a shame, Rachael." The earlier horror had still not been flushed from his system. This turned into a good thing as he utilized that raw emotion to coat and mask. His tone was cool and formal. "I would have liked to meet the men in Madeline's life. Maddy is a special girl."

Rachael seemed to get the message as she backed immediately off. That strange composure melted under the heat of a million-watt smile. Instantly, that pixie face was transformed. "That, she is Joshua." She tilted her head slightly and considered him and for a moment, the cat returned. "You'd do well to remember that..."

Joshua got the distinct impression something... else was going on. Those huge eyes were dilated; the pupils narrowed to the size of a pinprick and seemed to bore straight through the back of his head and out the other side. Unsettling was the understatement of the century.

Just as soon as it started, the feeling was gone. Rachael was again smiling brightly at him and looking, all the world, like she wanted him as her new best friend. Joshua wasn't sure how, but that unsettled him even more.

"That's enough, Rachael." Somehow, during his and Rachael's conversation, Dom had retrieved the camera from Janna. When he looked over at the older woman, it was dangling from her wrist, swaying slightly. While her face was neutral, her tone was chilly. The ‘back off now’ message was clear even to Joshua. "I asked Josh to the study so I could get a few pictures and give him the requisite speech."

Rachael and Janna got the hint. Their suddenly sober faces clued him in that Mr. Summers probably wasn't the only scary parent in the house. The arm Dom wrapped around his shoulder to steer him towards one of the doors in the far wall of the room did very little to settle his twanging nerves.

The study was actually very nice. He wasn't surprised, considering what he had seen of the rest of the house. Hell, the neighborhood itself was a pretty good indication Maddy's parents weren't in any danger of walking the welfare line. But the study...

The room was decorated in an interesting combination of dark wood and mauve. It was strange, but not unpleasant. There was a set of thick wooden doors on the left; they were closed, so Joshua had no idea where they lead. The walls were lined with books and knick-knack shelves, all of which were completely crammed. The far wall also had a door. It was slightly open and Joshua could see the kitchen beyond.

A quiet click indicated the door behind him had been firmly shut. About midway across the room, Dom released his shoulders and pointed towards one of the massive wingbacks in the far-left corner. Obediently, he trotted to the shorter of the two. Before moving to sit in the other chair, Dom strode over to the door leading to the kitchen and clicked that shut too.

Joshua's felt his tie tighten.

Still smiling reassuringly, Dom moved to the other chair and sat. The movement exuded a sort of possessed grace Joshua found very familiar. Maddy was, by far, the most graceful girl he'd ever known, but he knew she worked at it; she was, after all, barely 18. This was completely different. The woman across from him seemed almost unconscious of the way she moved. It was just something she did. Any mental speculation on his date's subconscious effort to be more like her parents was quickly put to rest, however, when he looked back into Dom's face.

It wasn't as if she'd moved. Well she *had*, but it was more of a slumping than a tensing. Fact was, Dom looked *more* relaxed. Somehow, this had his still-fluttery survival instincts jumping like beans on a hot tin roof. Mixed metaphor or not, the woman was suddenly *scary* in a way that... wasn't. The night was turning out to be a proving ground for the existence of the oxymoron. And he hadn't even overpaid for dinner yet.

"As you know, Madeline is our oldest daughter. As a result, the men of the family tend to be a bit... protective towards her. While this is a natural response from the pack of alpha males I call extended family, I thought I would take a moment to calmly, clearly explain the situation and ground rules." A crooked, vaguely smug smile crossed the woman's lips. She crossed her arms and leaned further back into the plush wing chair.

"First of all, Maddy will be through your friend Ananda Bartlett's door by exactly one a.m. This gives you time for a post-dance make out session of less than thirty minutes." The smile deepened at the spectacular crimson of his face. "Do not try and fudge the time. Ananda's mother will be watching for you two, and if Maddy is not present by one o'clock, I'm letting Nate out. Clear?"

Joshua was fairly sure he nodded. Dom seemed to sense that he was in agreement because she smiled and moved on. Whether or not it was through any physical indication on his part, he was unsure. Communication between his nervous system and conscious mind seemed to have shut down again.

Thankfully, he was saved from making, or being subjected to any further conversation. Several flashes, followed by clicks and whirrs interrupted the moment. Janna dropped the camera from her eye and stuck a tongue out at her mother's disapproving look. Her next sentence all but pulled Joshua out of his chair.

"Dad says Maddy's on her way down and that the 'situation is handled'. Whatever that means." Blowing raven bangs from her forehead, Janna skipped over and dropped onto the wing of Joshua's chair. She put an arm around his shoulder, and smiled down at him. "Mom's not too far into the speech yet, eh? I mean, you're still kind of smiling."

Joshua ran his tongue over suddenly dry lips.

"Yes, Janna, I am." Dom raised an eyebrow indicating that the conversation, such as it was, had not quite concluded. Janna was clearly not impressed.

"Oh, whatever. You were just trying to make sure you put the fear of God into him so Daddy wouldn't have to. I swear! You two have enough adrenaline pumping through your systems as it is!”

Whatever this argument was about, Joshua was quick enough to figure it had very little to do with him, no matter its content. Sensing it wasn't the best time to call attention to himself, the young man slunk lower into his wingback and watched the Discussion. It wasn't really a *fight*, per se, but the slowly elevating volume was enough to enforce the capital letter.

Happily, he was saved from any physical action. In the middle of a close shriek from Janna on how her parents were 'completely old-fashioned' and how she could 'take care of herself, thank you very much', a large clatter from out in the hall sounded. Both participants stopped and turned towards the sound. Not three seconds later, the fuzzy green apparition that was Rachael dashed into the room, stocking-clad feet causing her to skid slightly.

Before Dom or Janna could open their mouths, Rachael's face broke into a brilliant, sunny grin. For the first time, Rachael’s voice made Joshua smile. In fact, it warmed him to the very tips of his toes. "She's ready."

How he actually made it back into the foyer and to the bottom of the stairs was something of a blur. All he knew was that one moment he was resting in the giant brown wingback, watching mother and daughter bicker, the next he was staring at the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.

At the top of the stairs was his date. His Madeline.

She was beautiful. Black hair, piled high, set off her clear, creamy skin. Joshua had never seen fresh milk. He was a city boy born and raised, but he got the distinct feeling fresh milk had nothing on Maddy's skin. Eyes glowing a deep, sapphire blue were heightened perfectly by the flowing silver dress. To Joshua’s shell-shocked brain, Maddy looked like a princess. A beautiful, amazing, perfect princess.

His face must have read like an open book because Maddy broke into a huge grin. It was a special smile. One of the ones she saved for when he said something unexpectedly sweet. Or when he tried to protect her against the strange looks she weathered, kissing him in public. His heart stopped when she smiled like that.

"You are so beautiful, Madeline." The whisper was out of his mouth before he could stop it. Not that he wanted to take it back, of course. He just wished it hadn't been so involuntary.

"And you are the most handsome man in the world, Joshua Baker." Suddenly, the distance between himself and Maddy was absent. Standing not six inches away, brilliant eyes slightly misty, Madeline Kathleen Summers reached out a hand to brush his cheek. "Never doubt that."

"Nothing could ever hold a candle to you, Maddy."

He really didn't want to cry. There were some things a man didn't do in mixed company and crying was one of them. Even if it was at the sight of a beautiful woman. At least that's what his rational mind was saying; what was left of it anyway. If his tear ducts were paying any attention to the demands of his manly pride, they didn't give any sign. If something didn't give in the next few seconds, the light mist coating his corneas was going to group and fall, embarrassing him immeasurably.

Thankfully, or not so --depending on your position-- the hulking figure of Mr. Summers re-asserted itself by way of a slight growl. The ever-ready terror-induced sweat decided, rather enthusiastically, that it was a good time to make a reappearance.

"Joshua." The man had to chew gravel for breakfast to get that tone. He really did. "Maddy and I have... talked." How Mr. Summers went from icy glare to slightly fuzzy smile was yet another mystery to add to Joshua’s growing list of Summers family mysteries. It was that slightly unfocused grin that made Joshua realize just how much Mr. Summers loved his daughter. Not that threatening him with death didn't leave an impression, but actually seeing this... joy... It was different. It made Joshua feel slightly better to know that he wasn't the only one who stopped breathing when Maddy smiled at him.

Of course, Mr. Summers didn't feel that way about *him*. The glower he shot Joshua could have weathered paint. "We have talked and I have been persuaded that you are an honorable young man. DO NOT let me down."

Joshua nodded convulsively. The next part though... That one just about knocked him on his ass.

"You take care of my little girl."

Joshua nearly swallowed his teeth. Mr. Summers, the man who probably wanted him dead for coming within forty feet of his daughter, wanted him to TAKE CARE OF HER. Not that she needed it, of course, but this... This was the Holy Grail of all Father-Daughter's Date moments. This meant... ‘Ye ghads!’ This meant TRUST. All thoughts of condoms, groping, and physical contact died a quick, painful death.

The poignant male bonding moment was completely shattered by four female hands, simultaneously, making contact with Mr. Summers' body. All four women wore matching expressions of devout annoyance and righteous indignation. The co-ordination involved in their swarm-and-swat was astonishing. He hadn't even seen them move.

Mr. Summers fear-inspiring persona cracked, slightly, as he shot an aggrieved glance at Dom. While Joshua was still in too much shock and mortal fear of the man to laugh *out loud*, he was male and that outweighed the fear. Leaving a fellow guy to face four displeased women was just... wrong. No matter *what* the situation. So, gathering the flagging tatters of decimated nerves, Joshua drew the attention back to himself.

"I'll certainly try my best to take care of her, sir."

Later, after several years of therapy, Joshua would wonder just *why* he'd done such a bloody stupid thing. While facing Mr. Summers on the stairs had been the most harrowing experience of his young life, it paled to the point of transparency at being the focus of four pairs of icily questioning female eyes. The only physical explanation for Joshua *not* ruining the rental tux in a very damp way was that he was just too scared.

Behind those scary, scary eyes there was something frightening. It was a power. Pure, primal, *FEMALE* power.

Joshua could handle Mr. Summers. Maybe not without a lot of pain, but that would be all it was. Pain. Nice, simple pain. Male pain. The world revolved around it. Hell, the Midvale football team had used him as their testing area for the last four years. Pain was easy.

What he saw before him was... Well, it was just as complicated as a Celtic knot tied by a drunk on speed.

"Oh?" Joshua had no idea how they'd sync'd their response.

Back-pedaling seemed the only option.

"Er... well- What I mean- Um-" It was then Joshua’s speech center finally gave up the ghost. His vision started to get fuzzy, and a dull roar filled his ears. As he darted nervous glances between Rachael, Dom, Janna, and Maddy, large colorful spots appeared and started to dance and flit through the air. It made him seasick.

Anger, fear, and nerves fought a loosing battle for the control of his quickly vanishing mental faculties. There were some things that tested a man's mettle and there were some things that just drove him insane. As his body tried, once more, to nullify any and all deodorant, Joshua decided he'd faced most of the things on that list. In the last twenty minutes. Life just wasn't fair.

A bright flash interrupted his train of thought.

Carefully, Joshua blinked, trying to dislodge the new, brilliant, blue spot now battling the other spots for dominance. When his vision cleared, somewhat, he found all four women smiling at him. Janna was holding her camera at chest level, finger poised to take another.

"We know what you mean, Josh." Maddy took his hand and gazed up at him happily.

Joshua had no idea what was going on, but considering the consequences, it was probably best just to play along. The image of Maddy, Rachael, Janna, and Dom glaring at him was still burned brightly into his conscious mind. Even if it was foolhardy to let your guard down in this type of situation, there was very little else he could do. He had no guard left.

"Oh. Okay." Eyes dazed and voice skating the edge of hysteria, he offered his arm to Maddy. "I think your sister and mother want some pictures?"

The next ten minutes passed in something of a fuzzy daze. In fact, they turned out to be almost pleasant. He lost count of the number of camera clicks by the time the third roll was shot. Mr. Summers stayed quietly in the background, looking contemplative. That was the main reason the time seemed pleasant. Oddly enough, Mr. Summers seemed, of his own volition, to want to stay out of the way. Rachael lost interest after a few minutes, and wandered out towards the kitchen; Dom took a few pictures with her camera, then crossed her arms and let Janna go to town.

Being the budding professional she was, Janna begged, pushed, and bullied them into countless positions all over the main foyer. An entire role was spent with he and Maddy in various poses on the stairs. A second role was shot on the devon near the entrance to the den, and the very last roll was taken by the bay window down the dining room corridor. Through the entirety of the session, Joshua became more and more suspicious of what Maddy had told him about her parent's jobs. The house was just too damn big to be within the budget of two janitors.

Maddy had told him, not too long after they'd met, that her parents ran a 'cleaning service'. Joshua's mind had processed that and come up with 'relatively successful janitorial service owners.' He'd never heard of Summers Clean, Summers Cleaning, or any cute variation on that theme. But then, he wasn't the San Francisco Cleaning Services director. Now... Now, he was pretty sure there was Family Money involved too. All of the furnishings and the house itself reeked of money, and everything looked brand new.

Of course, they could just have someone from their company come over and do up the boss' house as an example to new clients. Owners entertained at their house, right?

While having his hand placed 'just so' by Janna, Joshua eyed a glossy picture frame. Their help was pretty darn good to get that kind of dust-free cleanliness.

Well, it wasn't really important, he decided. ‘I *am* dating Maddy, not her family.’ Joshua shot a concerned glance in Mr. Summers' direction and amended his thought. He was hoping to *continue* to date Maddy. Either way, she was still Maddy.

The impromptu photo session ended when Janna set her camera on the nearest table, propped a hand on a hip, and grinned. That also ended Joshua's idle speculations on the Summers family finances. There were more important things to do.

"Well, I'd say that that just about does it. I can't think of anywhere else to pose you two. Besides, the window there gives off the best light. Josh, you can haggle with me next week over copies." Janna threw him a saucy wink before he could protest. "Hey, I'm a professional, I don't come cheap!"

"Yes you do." Maddy curled a hand protectively around his waist and stuck her tongue out at her sister. Joshua caught Mr. Summers' impassive eye and squirmed.

"Oh, as if you're one to talk, little Ms. "Hi, Uncle WARREN. How are YOU?" "


"Cut it out. Maddy, isn't it about time for you and Josh to head out?" Quiet as a whisper, Dom placed herself between her arguing children and gave Joshua a pointed look.

Nervously he glanced at his watch and thanked every deity listening that it was time to go. He didn't relish the thought of spending any more time here than necessary, and the way Maddy's face had clouded over, he knew she was looking for a nice, long fight. He'd seen that face enough times to know when something bad was gonna go down. Apparently, Dom had too. Besides, he had reservations in half an hour, and if they left now, they'd make it in time for a decent table. Besides, one did *not* let reservations at Chez Joel go if one wanted to ever get a reservation there again. And there *was* still freshman year homecoming to look forward to, right?

"Yes! Yes, we do have to- Mr. Summers, Mrs. Su-I mean Dom, Janna, we kind of have to go..."

"...if you want to make your reservations. Don't worry, we understand." Dom smiled brightly at him and shot Janna a withering glare. Janna promptly stuck her tongue out at her mother, but turned to offer a goodbye just the same.

"Bye, Josh. Have fun, Maddy!" With that, Janna turned and flounced off towards the kitchen. Joshua waved his own goodbye at her retreating back as Dom motioned he and Maddy towards the door.

The short walk towards the wide front door seemed endless. He could sense Dom and Mr. Summers moving behind him; it helped that Janna was chattering happily about DJ's and flowers. Joshua wasn't sure, but he had the sinking suspicion his young friend was taking great amusement in the whole situation.

"Now remember kids. You have fun." Just before his fingers latched onto the large, brass knob, an iron strong, if feminine, hand caught his shoulder. A daze of movement and he was suddenly facing both Dom and Mr. Summers again, back resting none-to-comfortably against the door frame. Dom was still smiling, but her husband's- partner's? lover's? boyfriend's? - face hadn't changed an iota. Although... Joshua knew it was probably the stress of the evening doing another fallout dance in his mind, but he could have sworn that the man's eye glowed. Again. Was that even physically possible?

At that point, Joshua would have happily signed up for the nearest long term care center if that meant getting him and Maddy out the door any faster.

"And, if you need any help, don't hesitate to give us a call." For some reason, that statement had been directed specifically at his date. In return, Maddy rolled her eyes and hugged her mother.

"We *WILL*, Mom." Smiling brightly, she pulled away from the embrace and moved over to her father. It was really quite amazing how tall the man was. No fading violet was Maddy, but even she only reached to his shoulder. With grace and speed speaking of long practice, she bounced up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.

"Bye, Daddy! I love you!"

Flashing both parents a huge grin, Maddy turned, threw open the door, grabbed his hand, and pulled him onto the stoop. With one final wave over her shoulder, she hauled him out towards the sidewalk and car beyond. He never did find out how she could move so fast in heels.

As Maddy led him down the cemented path, Joshua experienced the most intense feeling of freedom in his young life. His old tan Saturn had NEVER looked so good. It was going to be okay. There had been a few rough spots, but overall it had gone... horridly. But it was over. He was outside. He could LEAVE!

Smiling slightly to himself, Joshua opened the door for his date and helped her inside. The smile gracing her lips was enough, he realized. It was worth the fires of Hell. Most of which he'd just gone through. Moving around the car, he took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. 'It's over.'

It was only as he ducked his oversized frame into the car that he realized that he would probably have to come back. It was all he could do not to cry.


continued in That Which Is

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