Chapter Two: The Way She Looked That Night

It was the last song of the night and Piper was at her most tired; her throat was sore and her little knees were quivering from standing upright so long. While Piper wasn't the type to often whine, she had a lot to whine about tonight. For one thing, like Ashley, she'd been forced to wear one of those absolutely ridiculous `wine party' dresses. It was a strapless faint lavender gown swirling about her ankles and three-inch heels, similar to what the bridesmaids were wearing. To be perfectly honest Piper hated wearing dresses. It wasn't one of those 1980's dyke pride things, none of that, they just made her feel uncomfortable. The fan on the far left of the stage was blowing pretty hard and oscillating pretty slowly, thus visions of a horrific Marilyn Monroe "up-skirt" moment plagued her all night (of course the dress was too damn long for that but, as is well known, rationality wasn't always Piper's strong suit). The killer heels she'd been forced to wear weren't helping either. Thankfully they weren't open-toed -- so no one could see her curling and crunching her toes in agony.

Most of all, what bugged Piper about the whole thing was the backup. Zack said that the gig would be a solo flight, just Piper with her vocals and Ashley at the piano, just like they'd always advertised themselves; but at the last minute the wedding planners brought in a supplementary cellist and sax-player. Apparently the blushing bride and groom couldn't afford the hotel's own band for the reception (not part of the pay packet, go figure) so they'd hired Piper and Ashley on the cheap, just $150, but according to the powers that be, a singer and a pianist weren't enough for an entire wedding reception, so in came the two guys currently flanking her on stage.

To their credit though they facilitated the role of backups and didn't take over. The black guy on the saxophone had been in tune with Ashley all night but always followed her lead, and the cellist's effects worked well with Piper's vocals without overpowering them. It was pretty impressive since conventional wisdom would've a more impressive light on those two guys. They were adults, Piper and Ashley were kids; they were professionals, Piper and Ashley were noobs; but in spite of that these men had the decency to know that this was their shot at really making a larger name for themselves (even if their limelight had been stolen a little bit).

That was the only thing making this night more endurable for Piper, the notion that its real profit wasn't a $50 cut but more visibility for their group. It consisted simply of herself and Ashley at the moment, a singer and a pianist, and they hadn't even settled on a moniker (for now the duo went by their second names: McCullough and Pfannenstiel) but with Zack as a kind of agent/manager for them things just felt right. They didn't have any lofty delusions of getting a record deal or any shit like that, they just wanted to perform and earn a little money doing so. Starting this little lounge band with her two best friends wasn't why Piper was so invested in things though.

She liked to perform. She liked to sing. Growing up, while other girls were listening to like, Eminem and Blink 182, Piper dreamed of becoming the next Stevie Nicks. Then puberty hit and provided her with a deep, ashy voice that proved more soulful than was rockin`. Her Dad was the first person to notice it, her flair, another thing she was utterly grateful to him for. All that made tonight worthwhile. Ultimately this was their biggest gig since she and Ashley had forged "McCullough and Pfannenstiel" thirteen months ago.

During a brief two minute break where they all took for a sip of water, Piper fingered through the song sheets. She and Ashley wrote their own songs but the groom had very specific requests, so they'd been performing cover songs all night and the last one was a Frank Sinatra mix. It was The Way You Look Tonight, honestly Piper thought it sucked, but what she was singing was pretty irrelevant, she just needed to do it well.

By the time Piper took to the mic again dessert and coffees were already being circulated around the tables. The cellist signalled her with a tap of his broad nose "should we begin?" and Piper's reply was a nod. He then nodded to the black saxophone-player and Piper did the same to Ashley, so they could all start. Once she started striking keys in the fluid and effortless way she always did, Piper joined her;

"Someday, when I awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel aglow just thinking of you..." she crooned. "And the way you look... tonight..."

Somewhere out there, in the midst of all those expensively lavished tables and guests, was Kristen. Piper knew where her table was, in the far corner, where she sat with Zack and patiently watched the performance whilst everyone else chatted, ate and sipped wine. Purposefully she avoided looking in that direction.

"Yes, you're lovely," sang the teen, rolling her eyes. "with your smile so warm, and your cheeks so soft; there is nothing for me but to love you -- and the way you look tonight..."

It was such an ass-less song, all squishy and pretentious, but Piper knew how Kristen would take it if they made eye-contact while she sung it. "Oh baby, I feel this way about you -- it's all about you". Then something weird happened. Looking away she saw a wine glass -- half-empty, uncollected by any of the hotel's maître ds -- smudged with lipstick. It stood silent and erect. Unassuming. It didn't have to be anything, let alone a symbol. But there it was. Just like the one Piper had on her nightstand. Just like the one she shared with Meredith the night they made love.

Without warning Piper's heart found its way into her music and into the atmosphere around them; indulgent yes, but loving. A celebration. Two people falling in love and sharing a special night that clarified it all... and all of a sudden Piper was at loss to think of anyone or anything -- beside Meredith.

"With each word, your tenderness grows... tearing my fear apart!" Her voice swelled, rising above the chatter and glass clinking, literally taking the ballroom with her as the delirious Piper pictured her secret love in her mind's eye, "And that laugh... wrinkles your nose...! Touches my foolish heart...!"

Though Ashley gave her a started smile across the stage, Piper was too far gone to notice it. Everything she could perceived was limited to Meredith and her glimmering smile...

"Lovely...! And never, never change...!"

Her sweet little laugh...

"Keep... that breathless charm, won't you please arrange it, `cause I love you...! And just the way you look tonight...!"

Her pouting peach lips...

"And that laugh... wrinkles your nose... touches my foolish heart...! Lovely...! And don't you ever change...!"

Her heartbreaking silvery eyes...

"Keep... that breathless charm, won't you please arrange it, `cause I love you...! Just the way you look tonight...!"

Her beautiful Merry...

"...Just the way you look tonight..."

She didn't really notice the brief ovation until Zack whistled and yelled out her name, like the goofball he was. That snapped Piper out of it making her peer through the throng of claps toward his table, and there was Kristen, smiling timidly as if trying to hold back her tears.

As though Piper sung that way for her.

Just the thing the McCullough girl didn't want Kristen to think.

The cellist came up behind her whispered, "Nice job, kid. Go have a rest" then took the microphone from her and declared to the assemblage, "How about it for our young talent here, huh?"

Their ovation peaked then. Ashley climbed off the stool she'd been sitting on and Piper pulled herself together, plucking at her bangs and wiping the sweat from her cheeks. As the cellist went on to explain what would be happening next (the instruments being moved from the luncheon hall to the dance floor next door where the newlyweds would have their first dance) Piper descended the stage with Ashley, cringing and hobbling on her "bitch heels", to their corner table where their friends waited. A sigh of relief was had when she finally sat down, but before Piper could even as much as blink she felt a hand grip her own underneath the table. Kristen's hand. The blonde devoted herself stroking it lovingly, back and forth, with her thumb.

"Baby, you were amazing. Thank you so much for that." She whispered. Though Kristen was relaxed around Zack and Ashley, who knew they were in relationship, she remained ever cautious not to be overheard by any of the nearby tables.

Piper sighed. "Sure."

"The hell got into you, girl?" Chuckled Ashley.

"I just made it worth the buck is all," the brunette poured herself a chilled drink from the table pitcher; then nearly spat it out when she tasted apple juice. "What the hell is this? This isn't wine!"

Zack smirked at her. "Hello? We're still minors, remember?"

Strangely enough she`d almost forgotten about that. It was to be expected. She and Merry shared a bottle of wine over almost every evening meal. Other people didn`t do that. "...Right."

"Sorry, Baby," Said Kristen. "Maybe we should all come back to my place after this. I've got a little liquor hidden away that my Daddy doesn't know about."

Ashley's smile perked. "You don't mind me and Zack tagging along?"

"Well we have to celebrate, don't we? Your first big gig?" then she rose. "Anyway you guys, I aught to go powder my nose before we go. Wait up for me?"

"Sure." Assured Zack.

Piper gave her a brief, lukewarm `I'll miss you' smile to see her off as Kristen gaited from the table to the ladies room. An according sigh of relief followed. If anything the teen songstress was relieved to see her go -- and she wasn't the only one to be conscious of it. Ashley's eyes sharpened to a glint at the visible signs.

"What's with you?" she asked. "A second ago it was like, names to be taken; asses to be kicked. Now it's like..."

Piper's face slumped into her palm. "...I have to break up with her."

By that Ashley and Zack were so stunned that actually fell silent for a moment, just until Zack caught enough of himself to lean back and ask, "What the hell are you talking about? Break up with Kristen? Why?"

"I don't feel anything for her anymore."

"So you sing like that for every girl you bang then?"

Despite the lame way it was asked it was a fair question -- but how could she even begin to answer it? Her instinct was to tell Zack straight out that she wasn't singing for Kristen at all, no matter what she thought, but that might lead to him asking her what it was all about -- and it was all about Meredith. She wasn't ready to tell anyone about her and Merry yet... if ever.

Ashley leaned forward. "What brought this on?"

"It's nothing big, I just..." Another sigh. "God, Ash, she's just... we're just too damn different, okay? We don't have anything in common, we never see eye-to-eye, and honestly she doesn't do anything for me any more. The spark just isn't there."

Zack's eyes darted upward. "Oh this is just typical, isn't it?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"C'mon, Piper. You're gay and you've had more girlfriends than me. It never goes anywhere and I always have to pick up the slack when you freeze them out. Now you've got Kristen. She's cute, she's rich, we all like her -- and what? You still think she's not good enough for you?"

Piper's eyes narrowed. "Zack, sometimes you're full of shit, you know that?"

"Okay so why are you dumping her then?"

She couldn't tell him about Meredith just yet. There was still so much to work through and honestly Piper hadn't really gotten her head around all of it herself. So instead, knowing full well that Zack wasn't going to be very supportive, she turned to Ashley. "Ash?"

There was clear ambiguity on her face. So clear in fact it made Piper wonder if Ashley saw this the same way Zack did, that she was acting like some kind of narcissistic commitment-phobe. Fortunately she got a more balanced reply.

"You don't feel anything for her?" Asked Ashley.

Piper shook her head, `no'.

"Well how long have you felt this way?"

Piper took a moment to think. "...About a month or so, I guess."

"A month?" Zack blinked. "You've been stringing her along for a month?"

"Would it kill you to try and be supportive right now, Zack? Okay? I feel shitty enough about it already, I don't need you making me feel any worse."

He, being the kind of loud and argumentative man he was, tried to defend himself on that one, but before he could Ashley scooped up a wedge of lemon meringue pie from his plate, then thrust it into his mouth. "Just be quiet for a minute, okay?"

He grumbled between chews.

"Look," began Ashley. "Piper, we all know you have this weird thing about not being able to commit to anyone and you know what? It's not a big deal. We're still in high school, right? But Kristen really likes you, girl. You're gonna hurt her no matter what you do... so at least just be honest, okay? Just let her down gently."

Piper shrugged at the notion. "I've tried. I can't find the words."

"It's never stopped you before." Chipped in Zack.

Ashley glared at him again, this time seriously. "Zachary, shut up and eat your pie."

Then not-so-strangely enough, he did. To an outsider it might've seemed weird but nobody ever called him `Zachary' unless they were mad (or slowly getting there). So his mouth closed up shop for the night and hired itself out to some more lemon meringue while `his girls' went about discussing things.

"What do you think I should do?" Asked Piper.

Ashley pulled the bangs out of her eyes. "You're asking me? You never ask me."

"Ash, I really don't know what to do. Remember when she came back from that trip with her Dad a couple of days ago? I tried to break up with her, I did, but then she gave me this..." Piper brandished the gaudy diamond bracelet that Kristen bought for her. "...and I chickened out."

"There isn't gonna be an easy way out of this, Piper. Just be fair to her and-"

"Heads up," mumbled Zack with a cheek-full.

Piper and Ashley glance where he was pointing. Kristen, freshly refreshed, reappeared from the swinging door to the ladies' room, her designer purse swaying with every stride of her hips at her side.

"Hey guys," said the blonde, sitting herself down. "What are we talking about?"



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