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07 November 2004 @ 13:15
How Stormer Got Her Groove Back 2/3 PG-13  
How Stormer Got Her Groove Back
by LJC

Part II

Riot's office was next to Eric Raymond's, on the top floor of Stinger's Sound. Unlike Eric's, which had bare walls except for a few art prints and matted and framed features from the trades, Riot's was decorated with giant mounted posters of the Stingers first two album covers, and tour posters from around the globe. Sitting behind an enormous glass desk, Riot was dressed per usual in black and yellow. He had foregone his usual frock coat and ruffled poet shirt for a skin-tight black lycra shirt and a yellow and black leather motorcycle jacket. The mid-morning sunlight streaming in the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him turned his blond hair white. Kimber squinted at the brilliance, and wondered suddenly if that was why his blinds were always open—to create just such an effect.

"Kimber Benton. What an unexpected surprise," Riot's tone was deceptively warm, and Kimber couldn't help but feel a tiny thrill that he actually seemed happy to see her. The thrill died, however, when he gazed past her. "Is Jem with you?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, Riot. I'm on my own."

"What brings you to my domain? You're not leaving Starlight, surely..." His features sharpened slightly, all business. Kimber realised that while in the past she may have assumed Riot was a partner in name only, Jerrica had assured her that Riot took the business of running Stinger Sound very seriously. He was as likely to attend board meetings, and work with the licensing arm as he was launch parties and gala charity events. Blessedly, his two band-mates were nowhere to be found. The last thing Kimber wanted was for that leech Rapture to overhear and butt in. Rapture on her own had proven to be more of a nuisance than all the Misfits put together, and Kimber was amazed she hadn't been busted by the bunko squad yet. Riot's fleet of publicists probably had their hands full, keeping all of her schemes out of the papers.

"I'm actually here on behalf of... a friend," Kimber said coyly, reaching into her purse to pull out the script pages and a cassette tape. Stormer had dubbed off a recording of the DAT file of the song—her synthesiser mimicking Rapture and Minx's playing as best she could with what equipment she had in her basement studio. It was rough, but still powerful. "This friend is a songwriter who's written a song for the Stingers."

"A song for us?" He made no move to pick up the pages of script.

"It's really something I think you'll want to—"

Riot pushed the sheaf of papers back across the desk. "I'm afraid you've come on a fool's errand. We produce all our own material."

"I know—I know. It's just, I really think this song would be perfect for you—"

"Why would I seek perfection, when we've already achieved it on our own?" Riot asked, and Kimber had the sudden desire to shove the pages down his throat. But, thinking of Stormer, she clamped down hard of her anger.

"But won't you even listen—"

"This meeting is concluded, Miss Benton," Riot said coolly, and Kimber knew there was no point in continuing. He may be a perfect gentleman with Jem, but to him, Kimber was nothing but an underling. An annoyance to be dismissed.

"Thanks," she said sourly, and stalked out of the office.




"Conceited, arrogant, jerk," Kimber muttered as she stabbed the elevator button, disappointment souring her mood. "'Why seek perfection?'" she mimicked loftily, and then growled. "I'll show him perfect..."

"Kimber!" Stormer's voice interrupted her rant, and she turned to see the other girl coming down the hallway. Her smile faltered when she caught Kimber's expression.

"Oh no. You talked to Riot, didn't you," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, in case they were overheard. When the elevator doors slid open, they rushed inside, hitting the "close" button for privacy. A Muzak version of the Stingers latest hit was piped in through the tinny speakers, and it made Kimber even angrier as the elevator headed for the lobby.

"He wouldn't even listen to it," Kimber admitted, and Stormer sighed.

"Well, we tried—" Stormer began, shoulders slumped in defeat.

"I am not giving up!"

"What else can we do? It's over, Kimber. We tried our best—it just wasn't good enough."

"I'm not giving up, and you can't either, Stormer. I'll make Riot listen to the song."

"But how?" Stormer asked, mystified.

Tapping her foot absently in time to the beat of the Muzak, a slow smile spread over Kimber's face. "I have an idea. You just leave it up to me."




"Synergy, I need a favour." Kimber stood in front of the giant supercomputer her father Emmett Benton had created with her proverbial hat in her hand.

Synergy's holographic form shimmered into existence, floating a few inches off the carpet. "What manner of favour, Kimber?"

Now that she knew the modulated tones of the computer's voice were based on her mother Jacqui's, Kimber couldn't help but feel comforted, hearing it.

"You have all of the Stinger's songs in your database, right?"

"I have stored them at your request, yes."

"If I input a new song, can you synthesise it? Create their performances and vocals, based on the other recordings?"

"Of course. It is a relatively simply algorithm."

"Synergy, my dad built you to be the ultimate in audio visual experience." Kimber slipped the disc with the DAT file Stormer had recorded in her studio into the data port, and the lights on Synergy's displays immediately started cycling as she read the data. "I know you can create the perfect Stinger song, based on what Stormer's written."

The hologram regarded her with frank curiosity. "Why is this so important to you?"

"She's my friend, and she needs someone to stand up for her."

"Then I will do what you ask."

"Thank you, Synergy." She suddenly wished she could give the hologram a hug—but she knew that her arms would pass though thin air if she tried.

"But Kimber... what will you do with the song, once it is finished?"

"Well, that's where the second part of my plan comes in."




"No."

They sat in Jerrica's bedroom, which for the moment was more like an office, as Jerrica had taken of late to bringing work home with her, rather than staying at Starlight Music until midnight. She had spreadsheets and invoices spread in neat and tidy piles on her bedspread, and Kimber had to carefully move three piles to the floor before there was even room for her to sit down.

"But Jerrica, Synergy's signal isn't strong enough to project it from here—"

"Kimber, this is insane!" Jerrica's voice rose, and she calmed herself by closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. As always, when faced with a thorny problem, she began to pace. Kimber wondered if her sister even realised it was an ingrained habit she'd picked up from their father.

"I know Stormer's your friend, and I'm sympathetic to her problem, but I can't believe you'd risk exposing Synergy like this..."

"Riot will never know. How would he even suspect? All you have to do is shadow Riot for the night," Kimber pleaded. "He'd never even know we were there."

Jerrica frowned, and Kimber took that as a sign that she was getting through to her.

"What if it was me?" Kimber countered swiftly, stopping her older sister in her tracks. "What if Eric had stolen my songs? The guy burned mom's tapes. He deserves the worst we can come up with, but this isn't half so bad as what he did to us. What he's doing to Stormer."

Jerrica looked down into her kid sister's face, her expression softening.

"How do I let you talk me into these things?"

"Then you'll do it?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Kimber threw her arms around Jerrica, laughing. "Nope."




Los Angeles glittered and sparkled like a jewel, neon and streetlights reduced to blotches of colour by the height of Stinger Sound. Riot clicked off his desk lamp, plunging his office into shadows, and basked in the reflected glow of his kingdom beyond the glass.

It had been a long day. The Stingers Saturday morning cartoon had been cancelled after only one season, and the toy company which had funded it was panicking, but Riot had no fears. Their albums were selling better than ever, and market research had shown that the children who made up the backbone of the industry's pop music sales were only a portion of Stinger's sales. Their core fan base skewed older—trendy club-goers, college students, and yuppies with more disposable income. They were more likely to forego analogue cassettes in favour of more expensive digital compact discs which produced a cleaner, truer sound. He'd already entered into talks with Sony about marketing a special Stingers CD single to be sold with the new Pocket Discman devices in key markets.

The band he had created and shepherded through four seasons on the streets of Europe, playing any venue that would book them no matter how dingy or far from the tourist's eyes was now literally on top of the world. They would play Wembley Stadium in September, walking the same boards as Johnny Deacon, Luna Dark, and the top acts of the day. Over 85,000 Stingers fans would attend—something that seemed unthinkable, remembering their first tour in London, where they were lucky to make enough to pay for petrol and one meal a day, and slept in the van as often as they could get a room at a hostel.

They were a phenomenon in Japan, where the Stingers were outselling Jem two-to-one, something that would have been unheard of a year ago. There would be something called a live on-line chat in France next week sponsored by France Telecom, which had five million subscribers to their Minicom system. Minx had explained to him at length how these computers connected to other computers in people's homes would change the entertainment industry forever, and trusting her instincts, he'd agreed, wanting the Stingers to be at the forefront of whatever new technology could increase their fame. And in a month they were being flown to London to host "Top of the Pops", which to him was the most tangible sign of their global success, even more so than the Grammy Awards for Best New Group which adorned the shelves in his office.

Rory Llewellyn had made something of himself. Even his own father had admitted it, and that knowledge had changed everything.

He thought back to Kimber Benton's surprise visit that morning, and frowned. While he respected the younger Benton's accomplishments as a songwriter, he wondered what had possessed her to presume that the Stingers needed outside talent. The three of them—either separately or as a group—had written every song on their first two albums, polishing them through five years of touring and live performances. How could a stranger possibly capture the magic that was theirs alone? It was simply not possible.

Rochelle was still at her desk in the reception area when Riot left, tapping her multi-coloured lacquered nails on the reception desk absently. She slipped her headphones off her ears as he approached, sitting up straighter and flipping her brown hair back self-consciously. When Eric had first hired her, no doubt she had been a great beauty. But her unnatural pallor and thinness now he suspected had less to do with her exercise habits than her penchant for partying with record industry execs, and their habits.

"Are you leaving for the night, Mr Llewellyn?"

"Yes, Rochelle," Riot purred, allowing her to bask in his reflected glory. "You should too—it's late."

"I'm just waiting for Eric—for Mr Raymond," she covered quickly. "I'll see you in the morning, sir!"

Riot smirked as he headed to his private elevator which would take him straight to the underground parking garage. If Eric thought there was anything original about sleeping with his secretary, the man obviously needed to get out more.

As he entered the elevator, he leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. He was looking forward to a quiet evening. Perhaps he would have the chef at his favourite restaurant prepare him some dinner, and deliver it to his penthouse. He couldn't decide if he was craving sushi or steaks when the piped-in music invaded his thoughts.

Ephemeral's new single had been the order of the day ever since Eric had signed them, but this wasn't it. It wasn't even the bland orchestrated Muzak version of any of the bands signed to the label, but seemed to be a fully orchestrated track waiting for the voice tracks to be laid in. The energy of it was infectious and he tapped his foot unconsciously along with the driving rhythm. There was something hauntingly familiar about the melody, but Riot couldn't place it.

As the doors opened onto the darkened parking garage, Riot saw that his Porche was one of only four vehicles remaining. As he slid into the custom leather interior, he tried to banish the tune from his mind. He pulled out of the parking garage, flipping on the radio as he did so.

He almost blew through a red light when the tune blared through the sound system. He listened expectedly, waiting to see if the DJ at KMAX would identify the recording. It was passing strange that a song with no vocals would be playing on a strictly Top 40 station, and he had to admit, his curiosity had been piqued. But when the final notes faded, there was no voice announcing the artist. The song simply started again, as if on a loop.

Riot flicked the radio off, switching to the second Stingers CD already in the player. He expected to hear Rapture's guitar open the first track, but he was confused when the same tune began to play. He forwarded through all the tracks, but each was the same.

Popping the disc out when he reached a stop light, he glanced down at it, wondering if it had somehow been replaced by a copy. But his face still adorned the cover, beneath the band's name.

"What on Earth...?" he mused aloud. Two girls in a convertible across from him giggled and waved, but he ignored them. Tossing the disc into the backseat, Riot turned the stereo off, and opened the driver's side window. He allowed the warm, dry Los Angeles air to tug at his long hair, with no regard for how it tangled and blew into his eyes.

He was in no mood for a mystery tonight.




"We're losing him!"

Hidden beneath one of Synergy's holograms, Jerrica, Kimber, and the Starlight House van had been transformed into a plane white delivery van. Any passers-by who happened to glance their way would see two dark-haired young men in the driver and passenger seat, not the Benton Sisters. If Riot even glanced in his rear-view mirror to see the van following a discreet three car lengths behind him, there was nothing that might give them away.

It didn't make Jerrica any less nervous.

As they'd sat across the street from Stinger Sound, waiting for the lights to go off in Riot's office, she'd grown increasingly agitated. As much of an egotistical maniac as Riot could be—and she'd seen first hand how much damage he could do, if he perceived himself slighted in any way—she had developed something of a relationship with him over the last year. Well, Jem had, she automatically corrected herself. And she was wary of losing any of the progress she felt she'd made with him, ever since his mother had been hospitalised.

Since he'd reconnected with his estranged parents, Riot seemed to have changed for the better. Now, his comments to her about being her "perfect mate" were less threatening, and almost more of a shared joke between them. He no longer went out of his way to make her relationship with Rio difficult. In fact, he'd been downright civil, the last two times she and Rio had run into the Stingers socially. And he'd been such a huge help in locating Ba Nee's father.

Jerrica couldn't tell if he was simply on his best behaviour while she was around, or if he'd truly changed. And she was chagrined to admit that she was flattered by his attention—more so than she'd perhaps let on to her friends and sister. It was nice, having a relationship that wasn't threatened by her dual identity, free from the emotional minefield that her long history with Rio had become. She didn't want to lose that.

"Kimber—he's going home. I know where he lives." Jerrica favoured her sister with an indulgent smile.. "We're not going to lose him."

Kimber continued to wring her hands. "But Synergy said we have to stay within 100 feet for her jamming signal—"

"Riot has turned off his car stereo," Synergy's voice, projected through the Jemstar earrings, assured them.

Kimber's face fell. "Oh no—"

"Don't worry, Sis. This isn't over yet."




The elevators in his building did not have piped-in music, so Riot was granted a brief reprieve the long journey to his lavish penthouse suite. As he entered his home, however, he clapped his hands over his ears.

The song was playing from every speaker in his state-of-the-art sound system. It sounded even fuller and richer than it had at either Stinger Sound or in his car. He could feel the floors thrumming with the bass, and the whine of the guitar crawled up his spine like an electric shock.

The guitar sounded familiar still, the little flourishes resonating within him, but he swore before this night he had never heard the song before. No lyrics came unbidden to his mind, no melodies or harmonies, as often did when he listened to the instrumental tracks of his own music before they laid and mixed the final vocal tracks.

He opened the CD player, but no discs were inside. He tried switching back and forth between the tape deck, roundtable, and CD player, but to no avail. The music continued to pour through the speakers unfettered. He would have simply unplugged the system, cutting off its power, but the outlet was behind the heavy steel and glass cabinet which housed it, and shutting off the power button had had no effect. He was almost afraid that physically unplugging the unit would similarly be a waste of time.

It was as if he was being haunted. By a song, instead of a ghost.

Finally, he gave up, and retreated into the silence of the hallway. The tune thrummed inside his mind, and he knew the only way to banish it was to replace it with something else. A new target in mind, he headed back down to the lobby.

"Evening, Mr Llewellyn." Carl, the doorman, tipped his hat as Riot stormed through the brightly lit lobby of his condo complex. "Can I get you a taxi?"

"Yes. Yes, a taxi would be perfect."

The doorman in his red wool coat despite the warm Los Angeles night whistled sharply, and a yellow and white cab pulled up the kerb.

"The Beyond, in Santa Clara," Riot barked, handing the driver a hundred dollar bill. "Turn off the radio and keep it off."

"Whatever you say, mister," the cabbie said as he pocketed the bill.




The Beyond was packed, and one of the large skin-head bouncers nodded curtly to Riot as he approached. The kids in line merely watched as he was waved beyond the red velvet ropes. The all-ages club was filled to capacity—almost 1000 young people dancing to the pounding beat pumped out over what was admittedly not the best sound system in the world. The cavernous main room was sweltering, and Riot felt sweat begin to trickle down his back beneath his leather jacket. Stripping it off, he commandeered a booth and ordered several over-priced drinks, drowning in the Depeche Mode song blaring through the speakers directly overhead.

Suddenly, the song segued into a familiar tune, and Riot's head snapped up. Standing so he could see over the heads of the dancers, he saw the DJ talking animatedly to one of the sound techs. The dancers, however, continued on oblivious. Riot began fighting his way towards the DJ's raised dais when, for the first time, he heard his own voice chime in over the music.

I see your face in every place
And I hear your voice on every dial
I call your name, but you don't hear me
What about the promise you made me?


Riot froze in his tracks, the sea of dancers pulsing around him, utterly ignoring him as they continued to move to the driving beat which filled the club.

I gave you all I had and more
Tears and blood, but you kept the score
Nothing counts, no words that I say
What about the promise you made me?


It was his voice—there was no mistaking it.

It was also a song he had never recorded, or even heard before today.

"Dude, it's a new Stingers song!" one of the dancers shouted to her friend.

"Dude, I love them."

Meanwhile, the DJ had thrown his hands up in the air in frustration. Riot was jostled by the dancers who, while they recognised his music as quickly as he did, were completely oblivious to his presence among them.

And you take, and you take, and you take, and you take
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
Why
Why
Why...


He pushed past the dancers, and fled the club.




As Riot exited The Beyond, Jerrica resisted the urge to duck as he walked right past the van, arm uplifted to hail a taxi. But Synergy's hologram was holding—he couldn't seem them if he wanted to.

As a taxi pulled up to the kerb, Kimber gripped her sister's arm.

"I can't believe I'm about to say this—but follow that cab!"

Jerrica couldn't help but laugh.




Seven clubs later, Riot had given up. The sun was coming up, the sky in the East lightening to a dingy blue-grey, when he finally arrived home exhausted more than just physically.

He'd called Eric Raymond's work and home phone, but there was no answer. It was a Friday night—no telling where Raymond was. But Riot was too weary to hunt the fox to ground tonight. He waved to Marcus, the day shift doorman, as he came inside and leaned heavily against the wall next to the elevator bank which would take him to the top floor and his home.

For the second time that night, he exited the elevators and approached his front door. However, this time something was different. Bending down, Riot picked up an envelope leaning against his door. Pulling out the pages of music inside, a yellow Post-It note stuck to the first page caught his eye.

It bore the name "Phillip Ericson" and an address.




For the second Saturday in a row, Stormer woke to someone leaning on her doorbell. The incessant buzzing followed her as she tugged on her robe. Her clock read 6:47am, and she vowed that best friend or not, she was going to kill Kimber Benton.

"Kimber, what part of 'I don't get up before noon on Saturday' was hard for you to—'" Stormer grumbled as she threw the deadbolt and yanked open her front door.

However, it wasn't Kimber Benton on her front porch, but Riot of the Stingers.




Riot hadn't known what to expect when he pulled up outside the bungalow. The neighbourhood was quiet. He saw a few bicycles in driveways, and carefully tended flowerbeds. Not exactly his usual environs. It was early yet, but he saw a few people walking their dogs, and with young children in strollers, taking advantage of a Saturday morning. One little girl who couldn't have been more than seven stared at him openly from the relative safety of her front garden as he climbed the stairs down to the house which corresponded to the address on the Post-It. He glanced down at his ensemble, and then gave her a rakish grin. He imagined black leather pants weren't quite the look the child was used to.

Riot would have peered in the windows of the house, but the curtains were drawn. All he could see was blue damask. He leaned on the bell, and waited. After a few minutes, he heard footsteps, and a woman's raised voice.

"Kimber, what part of 'I don't get up before noon on Saturday' was hard for you to—'"

She stopped dead when she opened the door, and it took him a moment to recognise the keyboardist from the Misfits.

She was wearing a robe loosely belted, and through the gap in the robe he could see a faded and worn Blue Bloods tee-shirt, and bare legs ending in pink socks. Her thick wavy blue hair was pulled into a messy braid, strands slipping to curl towards her jaw and across her forehead. Without her outlandish make-up, she was much younger than he'd pegged her for, the few times he'd seen her in the past.

"You. You're Phillip Ericson?" he asked, incredulous, and she pulled her robe tighter around her.

"Mary Phillips, actually." She stepped aside, and he followed her inside. "If you'll give me a minute..."

She was blushing, which he found strangely charming. His fury at being led all over town by the phantom recording was subsiding, as he began to see why the Benton girl had been so cagey when she'd visited him in his office the day before.

He remembered the girl now—she was the least rowdy member of her band, least likely to trash a hotel room or smash a musical instrument on stage. He recalled now that she wrote all the music for her band, and whatever he may think of Pizzazz's silly infatuation with him, he could not deny that the Misfits music had power. It was raw, and strong, and it was hard to believe that power came from the timid little girl practically cowering before him.

Any time they'd been at any kind of social function together, she had steadfastly avoided him. Rapture had told him, after he'd returned from his enforced vacation, that Stormer apparently bore him considerable ill-will for his treatment of that fool Pizzazz. Yet she had never shown even a hint of contempt to his face—only cool indifference.

Something was going on—something he was only party to a part of, and he hated being reduced to the role of pawn, when he knew he was the only true king on the board.




Stormer tugged on a pair of jeans, and ran into the bathroom. She gasped when she saw what state she was in, and re-plaited her hair and splashed cold water on her face, which was still puffy from sleep. She brushed her teeth quickly, wondering where she'd left her shoes. Deciding it was her house, and she could go around in her stocking feet if she wanted to when company came unannounced this early on a week-end morning, she took a deep breath and padded back into the living room.

Riot had draped his jacket over the back of a chair and was lounging on her sofa, looking like he owned the place. He practically radiated control and calm, and she bit her lip to quell her sudden case of nerves.

"I can make coffee—" she began, and he waved her concern away.

"No need. I'm not staying long."

"Oh."

"Why the charade?" he asked, arms crossed.

"It's not—I mean, it wasn't supposed to be." Stormer sank onto the opposite end of the couch. "Eric's been selling my music without telling me. Do know what it's like, to hear one of your songs being sung by some other band? A part of you that's just been stolen, taken without anyone ever asking?"

"I have some idea," he said softly, and she waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. "Where does Kimber Benton fit into all this?"

"Kimber was the one who found out what Eric was doing," Stormer explained. "She thought that since you owned half of Stinger Sound, maybe... maybe you could help me."

"Help you," Riot parroted. "Help you what, exactly?"

"Eric has me under contract. He says he can do whatever he wants with my music. But you own half of Stinger Sound. You could make him amend my contract."

"So it was her idea that you write a song for the Stingers?"

Stormer nodded, suddenly feeling foolish. "She thought, if I could write something that you couldn't resist, then you'd go to Eric and... It seemed to make so much more sense when she said it."

"Why not come to me yourself?"

"We've never said more than two words to each other, and I know you don't much like my band, so..." Stormer trailed off.

"So you assumed I would have no time for you."

Stormer played with a loose thread on the hem of her tee-shirt, finding it easier to stare down at the carpet than to meet his eyes. "Yeah."

Riot moved closer to her, tilting her chin up gently so she was forced to look at him. "Do you always let everyone else fight your battles for you?"

She jerked away from his touch. "That's not—I don't!"

"You're young. Talented. Beautiful. And yet you let a man like Eric Raymond take advantage of you."

"Eric's a hard man to fight," she stammered. "He's always holding all the cards..."

"You make yourself easy prey for men like Raymond. Men like me, who take what they want."

She was too shocked by the seductive purr in his voice, the sudden lack of space between them, to think of a suitable comeback. She could only blink as he leaned forward, dark eyes threatening to swallow her.

"I'm not going to sleep with you to get what I want," she said quietly.

He stopped so close she could feel his breath warm on her cheek, that annoying half-smile still playing about his lips.

"I'm hardly asking you to. I don't trade sex for favours. I don't bargain. I don't need to. I only take what's freely given."

"I didn't exactly see Rio giving Jem away like a party favour," Stormer muttered, annoyed at the blush that had risen in her cheeks at his proximity.

"She's hardly his to give," Rio countered with a laugh. "Haven't Mr Pacheco and Jerrica Benton been betrothed practically from birth?"

"Well, yeah, but..."

"I never took a single thing that wasn't offered to me. She may lie to him, and she may lie to herself. But she wanted me."

"You wanted her," Stormer said, shocked at his editing of reality. "You're just as bad as Pizzazz, chasing after her no matter how many times she rejects you!"

"The forbidden does have a certain allure, and I bore so easily. I relish a challenge. I must say, you're proving a surprising one."

He leaned towards her again, and Stormer got up from the couch, putting as much distance as she could between them. Part of her knew that she ought to be nice to him, to try and get him to help her. But she didn't feel like being nice. Right now, all she could think about was how angry he was making her.

"I'd take Eric Raymond to court before I'd let you lay a single slimy digit on me, you... you... you creepy, egomaniacal, self-absorbed lothario."

Riot seemed amused by her fury. "Ah, flattery will get you everywhere."

"You're insufferable!" Stormer snarled, completely abandoning any attempt at flattering his ego.

"And you love to suffer. What a pair we would make."

Stormer sputtered for a moment in shock, before she found her tongue. "I do not love to suffer."

"Really? Is that why you've stayed Pizzazz's loyal little lapdog, when it's your hard work that has made her a star? Is that why you allow Raymond to treat you like hired help?"

"Stop it! Stop talking about me like I'm nothing, like I don't have a single thought of my own, like I'm some spineless—"

"Then grow a spine." He stood, and she resisted the sudden urge to step backwards as he advanced on her. "Why are you craving the approval of people who should be on their knees before your talent? You shouldn't have to dupe someone in order to get simply what is your due."

Stormer mirrored his posture, crossing her arms and standing her ground. "There are a lot of things nobody should have to do. But you do them, to survive."

"Is that all you're willing to settle for? Mere survival?" He quirked an eyebrow, smugly superior. "And what about you? Tell me what Mary Phillips shouldn't have to do."

"I shouldn't have to stand here and listen to you—you, of all people! Pass judgement on me. Like you know me. Like you know the first thing about me."

"You've just told me more than I needed to know. You're nothing but a fraud. All your prancing around, your tough girl façade. That's all it is. A façade. You're like a child playing dress-up."

"This coming from a guy who dresses like the Vampire Lestat on- and off-stage," Stormer said derisively.

"Am I supposed to fear the kitten's claws?" He matched her petulance with amusement.

"Could you be a human being for five seconds?" Stormer hissed, disgusted.

His mocking smile faded. "I am always exactly who I am, every second of every day. No one will ever force me to be who they want me to be ever again. Because I won't let them. And the person who wrote this song?" He held up the envelope containing the song she'd written for his band. "Wouldn't either."

"You want to know what I shouldn't have to do?" she said quietly. "I shouldn't have to settle for scraps, for everything, when everyone else lives some charmed life where men fall at their feet, and daddy pays all their bills, and some asshole in a suit gets rich off of my songs. I shouldn't have to beg."

"Are you begging me for my help?"

"No," she snarled. "This was a mistake."

"Yes. It was. From beginning to end. You let Raymond dupe you, you let Jerrica Benton's little sister turn you into a cause, and you let everyone walk all over you. Including me."

"I am not a—a—"

"A doormat? A pushover? Soft? But you are." He reached out and stroked her cheek. "Soft. You only give the illusion of hard edges. And it's not an act you're particularly skilled at maintaining for any length of time. I'm amazed you've made it this far."

Stormer batted away his hand angrily. "I'm amazed no one's knocked your teeth out by now."

"Music is freedom. And you've let yours become a cage."

"I didn't 'let' anything happen!"

"Poor little Stormer. Nothing is ever her fault."

"Oh, just get out." She pointed towards he door, no longer caring that she might be throwing her future out along with him. "Get out of my house."

Nonchalant to the last, he slipped on his motorcycle jacket, as if he'd made the choice to go and she wasn't standing there, ready to grab the nearest heavy object and smash his fat head in.

"Hiss. Spit. Claw. Show me that there's some spirit inside the cowering girl hiding behind her artfully ripped costumes and carefully affected snarl."

"You want me to throw a tantrum?" Stormer asked, utterly confused.

"Tantrums are for children like Pizzazz," he said from the doorway. "I want you to fight for something. I want you to see that you're something worth fighting for."

"I already have a big brother, thanks," Stormer said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I don't need another one."

"I assure you," he purred, his eyes tracing every one of her curves lasciviously, "there's nothing brotherly about it."

He closed the door, and Stormer grabbed a vase off a side table. With a growl of frustration she hurled it against the closed door, just to hear the sound it would make as it shattered.




Stormer tried to keep from fidgeting as she waited on the front steps of the Starlight Mansion. When the door opened and she saw Aja, her heart sank. However, the Hologram for once didn't seem angry to see her. Just faintly puzzled to find the Misfit on their doorstep.

"Um, is Kimber around?"

"I think she's still sleeping." Aja stepped aside so Stormer could come inside. "Mrs Bailey said she and Jerrica got in early this morning. She's been crashed out ever since."

Stormer followed Aja up the stairs, trying not to feel like she was intruding. It had seemed natural enough to visit the mansion while she was working on packaging "Back to Back" with Jerrica and the Holograms. But after the album was packaged and distributed, she'd only come once—for Ba Nee's going away party. Ever since London, Stormer had felt incredibly awkward around Aja in particular.

Kimber had told her a dozen times that Stormer was hardly to blame for Craig's choosing to stay in London. But she still felt responsible for her brother having to keep part of his identity a secret from the woman he loved. Kimber may have been convinced that Aja didn't blame Stormer, but that did little to ease Stormer's conscience.

"Hey, slugabed!" Aja knocked loudly on Kimber's bedroom door. "You've got a visitor!"

Stormer heard Kimber moan through the door, and stifled a giggle.

"Go ahead—it's time she was up anyway."

Aja headed back down the stairs, and Stormer opened the door to Kimber's room cautiously. The pink curtains were drawn, casting the room in a rosy glow, and Kimber was curled up under the lavender bedspread, her head buried under a stack of frilly pillows. Stormer lifted the pillow directly over her friend's head, and poked her in the shoulder.

"Kimber?"

"Hey, Stormer," Kimber said sleepily as Stormer perched on the end of the bed.

"So, Riot showed up at my place this morning."

Kimber threw back the blankets, coming fully awake in seconds. "Ohmygod! How did it go? Did he love the song?"

"How did you even get him to listen to it?"

"The Great Kimberdini never reveals her secrets," Kimber said with a giggle. "C'mon, spill. Is he going to amend your contract?"

"I... I doubt it," Stormer said hesitantly, and Kimber's face fell.

"Oh, Stormer, I'm so sorry. I was so sure, once he heard the song..."

"Hey—hey, it's not your fault," Stormer said quickly. "You did your best—more than anyone else has ever done for me. And that means a lot. It really does."

"Hey, what are friends for?" Kimber said with a grin, and gave Stormer a quick hug. "So what are you going to do now? About Eric?"

"I think..." Stormer took a deep breath, and sighed. "I think it's time I started fighting my own battles."
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