DISCLAIMER: the characters don't belong to me, but to Katherine Brooks. I'm just borrowing them for a while. After I'm done toying with them, I'll give them back in one piece, I promise *evil laugh* Please don't sue, all I have left in my wallet is a couple of Euros. Really not worth the hassle.
WARNING: 1: English isn't my mother tongue, so you'll probably encounter a lot of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes along the way. It's my way of annoying the hell out of everyone lol. 2: I haven't seen the movie yet, I'm anxiously counting the days for the DVD to come out. Anyway, this means that I had to rely on other people's detailed plot spoilers to get this thing written. So erm…Sorry for plot mistakes you might encounter. 3: I've added things to scenes, just because I can mwuhahahaha. Nah, did it because I wanted to explain things and so forth…..
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
THANKS: to my Beta for all the help.

All Over Me
By Piranha


Part Seven

Yawning widely, Annabelle rubbed her still sleep clogged eyes and stumbled her way through the living room, a black silk kimono, a present from her mother last week, tied loosely around her. The house was eerily quiet, save for the soft ticking of the grandfather's clock in the corner and the heavy breathing, even bordering on a loud snore, coming from her mother's bedroom. Not that she'd ever tell her mother that she snored like a freight train, she still quite valued her life. Chuckling softly as she remembered her father mention it once – the righteous indignance passing over her mother's flushed face had been too much to bear, both dissolving into fits of laughter as the senator just huffed and walked away, mumbling under her breath – Annabelle was lost in daydreams for a while, the memories of her father warming her heart. She was so lost in thought she actually jumped when the grandfather clock cuckooed the hour.

Opening the sliding door to the terraced balcony, she closed her eyes for just a moment, taking a deep breath. The deep and rich, earthy aromas bombarding her senses, the lavender almost overpowering, she slowly opened her eyes again, a small smile tugging at her lips. Leaning against the wrought iron banister, she took a moment to simply be. As she breathed in the invigorating and crispy early morning air, birds chirping and cheeping in the nearby olive trees, crickets singing their early morning lament, the sun kissing her skin with soft and golden rays as she slowly climbed up to the sky. Annabelle looked over the grounds beneath her, totally awestruck by the breathtaking scenery. On the left lavender fields were softly swaying in the wind, interspersed with softly sloped vineyards and poppy flowered meadows while on the right desolate dark brown rocks hid the most beautiful gorges, carved out by the passing of time by the Ardèche river, through wild, white foamed rapids, sensational torrents and slow passages meandering its way to the Rhône.

Watching a buzzard circle the deep blue morning sky before swooping down, its unsuspecting and helpless prey in sight, Annabelle thought it was nature at its best. As the buzzard flew away over to the mountains, an innocent little rabbit clutched tightly in between its claws, she watched the region slowly come to life. A dog barked giddily as he ran through a poppy field, his head only occasionally seen as he ran around his owners in circles, encouraging them to walk faster. Recognising them as their next door neighbours, their animated chattering only a distant murmur, she gave them a tiny wave before sinking down on a nearby easy chair, her feet firmly planted on the banister. Digging out her cigarettes from her kimono pocket, she inhaled deeply, nicotine rushing through her veins, bluish grey smoke rings slowly meandering their way up as she thought about her vacation in France so far.

After a rather rushed week in Paris, her mother wanting to show her everything the French capitol had to offer – 'culture sniffing' her mother had called it, to Annabelle the week was one big blur of museums, churches and wild shopping trips – they had come to the Ardèche for rest and relaxation, to get to know each other again. Her mother had wisely left her bodyguard behind, something he was none too pleased about. Martin's objections too emotional and illogical to concern merely her mother's safety – after all, who would want to assassinate an abroad ill-known American senator on holiday in the South of France? – they made Annabelle suspect that there was something more going on between the two of them. Shrugging at the thought of her mother having a fling with a toyboy, it was her life after all and even Annabelle had to admit that Martin was quite handsome …. For a man. She was still pleased that it was just the two of them right now. It wasn't that she disliked the man, far from it; he was funny, polite, really good company, but …. She wanted some time alone with her mother.

With Martin not around to diffuse a potential row with a joke and a smile or to ruin an emotional heart to heart by walking in at the wrong moment, they'd be forced to really talk to each other, something they had been avoiding all week in Paris. All week conversation had been stilted, both too afraid to open up, to admit what was really in their hearts and on their minds. Quickly Annabelle had realised that her mother was, to her big surprise, nervous around her, tongue tied even. As confident as her mother was when she related amusing anecdotes or little blurbs of history about the places they'd visit, she'd always fall quiet when confronted with day to day conversation. As soon as conversation drifted away from her comfort zone, topics she was knowledgeable about or felt confident about, the senator felt ill at ease, nervously twiddling her wedding ring, her eyes darting everywhere except in Annabelle's direction.

Annabelle recognised the nervous reaction for what it was, her mother's fight or flight pattern. Her mother felt out of depth, she'd probably never been confronted with a situation that she didn't know how to handle, but to her credit, the senator persevered, even going as far as dismissing her would be lover, though he'd served as an icebreaker and go between for the first week. Her mother was trying, she was reaching out to Annabelle and for Annabelle that was enough for now, she'd slowly chip away at the wall around her mother's heart in the week to come. Somehow she thought it wouldn't take all that much to get her mother to open up to her. Little things told her that her mother loved her; their visit to Père Lachaise though the senator hadn't set foot on a cemetery ever since her husband had died, all because she knew that Annabelle would want to visit the graves of some famous people; the hours of browsing in the little music and book stores though the bohemian atmosphere definitely wasn't her mother's scene (it allowed Annabelle to buy some rare poetry books she knew Simone would appreciate however), leaving the choice of rental car for the drive down to the Ardèche up to Annabelle, even allowing her to drive, though she was a speed devil, just like her father.

Though the senator had frowned a bit at the convertible RAV 4 Annabelle had chosen, thinking it would ruin her immaculate haircut – and indeed it had- she had gone along with it, smiling indulgently at Annabelle's simple pleasure of having the wind in her hair, even singing along with a couple of the oldies on their drive southwards, though it was clear that Annabelle hadn't inherited her mother's vocal cords. Away from the prim and proper, austere, heavily regulated and scrutinised world of politics, where she had to watch her every move, where motives had to be second guessed all the time, where the walls had ears and where a reporter could be lurking behind every corner, the senator realised that she could just be herself, warts and all, and was finally loosening up.

Annabelle had just lit another cigarette when her mother walked onto the balcony, silently handing Annabelle a mug of coffee before sinking down on the chair next to Annabelle, her own mug in hand. Knowing that her mother wasn't really a morning person, she'd only get grunts and groans for the first half hour, she just thanked her mother with a nod and a tiny smile. In companiable silence they just sat there, watching the sun climb even higher, occasionally taking a sip of coffee and in Annabelle's case also taking a drag of her smoke. Turning her face slightly sideways, Annabelle looked at her mother's profile, the tiny strands of grey peppering her hair, the necklace her dad had given as an anniversary present that her mother refused to take off, the little laughter crows lines underneath her eyes, and she felt a surge of love and emotion well up in her. This woman sitting beside her was her mother, the woman who had nursed her through childhood fevers, who had taught her how to read and write, who had her first baby shoe laminated and proudly displayed it on her desk, who had given her her first guitar for her birthday, …

As all the good childhood memories washed over her, Annabelle realised that there was an unbreakable bond between them. No matter how far they drifted apart, there would always be something pulling them back in. As she watched her mother's profile in the early morning sun, her nervous habit of sticking hair behind her ear, the wedding ring her mom still hadn't taken off, though her dad had passed away over ten years ago, Annabelle realised that, despite everything that had happened, she still loved her mother. There were so many things she wanted to ask her, so many things she still wanted to do or say, if she only knew how to begin. Perhaps Simone was right, perhaps this holiday was a chance to get to know each other again, to mend some bridges. She was so lost in thought; she didn't see her mother lean over and grab her cigarettes before it was too late. Thinking that she was going to get reprimanded, she already opened her mouth, only for her protests to die on her lips when her mother simply lit up before handing her her pack again. Staring at her mother in bewilderment, she stammered: "I didn't know that you smoked."

"I don't," her mother said, lying back down, "well….. Not anymore. I used to though, before you were born." Staring in front of her, she added, rather wistfully: "I used to do a lot of things I don't do anymore." Before Annabelle could ask what she meant, the senator just shrugged as if the thought had never occurred to her before. Taking another drag, she then said: "god these French cigarettes taste awful, I had forgotten how bad they were. When your dad and I were here all those years ago, we ran out of cigarettes once. We were in the middle of nowhere, so we had to go to the nearest village. It was nothing more than a couple of houses and farms. Anyway, when we found what looked like the village store, a little old lady came in and asked us what we wanted; at least that's what I think she asked…. She was looking at us rather oddly, which wasn't really a surprise I suppose as it had been raining all day, so we were pretty soaked and we spoke with rather funny accents. So we tried to tell her we were out of cigarettes, dug up our best school French, but to no avail. In the end we had to play charades to tell her what we were after. When she finally caught on, all she could give us was a French brand, 'Michel'" Turning to face Annabelle, she added: "whatever you do, don't buy a pack of Green Michel… they're lethal, you'd probably grow hair on your chest or something."

Her mother's face crunched in distaste at the memory, Annabelle had to laugh. "Okay, I won't," she said. Turning to face her mother, she added: "I didn't know dad took you to France?"

"Yes, we came over the summer I graduated from high school. My parents only agreed because they thought there was a whole group of us going, but your dad and I pretty much went our own way from the start. We drank cheap wine and ate some really horrible food, but …. I had the best time. We landed in Amsterdam and then slowly made our way to France through the Netherlands and Belgium. To save up money, youth hostels were still too expensive for our budget; we decided to sleep in a tent. When I think back the whole summer was an endless stream of catastrophes … We were chased by an irate farmer in the Netherlands for setting up the tent in the middle of his prized tulip field, we were chased by a mad cow in Belgium for hogging her spot, and in France our tent sprung a leak in the middle of a ferocious thunderstorm, leaving us drenched and seeking shelter in an abandoned shepherd's hut. But there were good times too, like walking through lavender fields at sunset, playing 'balls' with old guys in a tiny French village and having them shout us pastis, playing soccer with some kids and having them laugh at our strange accents in French. We were living out of a backpack, we had trouble getting ourselves understood, we always seemed to run out of clean clothes, we did all kinds of odd jobs to keep our budget afloat like work in vineyards or harvest cauliflowers, but … we had fun. Your dad always made me laugh, when I was down because we were running out of money again, he always cheered me up, even with the simplest things, like a bouquet of wild flowers he stole from someone's garden. It seemed like the summer was endless, we had forever then."

The senator seemed lost in memories for a moment, a sad smile on her face. Then she turned to face Annabelle again and said: "you look so much like your dad, you know. You have his nose, his ears, his hair colour, you even have his eyes. Everybody always says you have my eyes, but they're wrong, they're just like his… that magnificent, deep cerulean blue. God, I melted every time I looked into his eyes, it was like he could see right through me, right into my heart and soul. But it's more than that, more than just a physical likeness, you hold your cigarette the same way, you have the same love for music, you even drive the same way. It's like being transported twenty years in time."

A fragile edge to her voice, Annabelle asked: "is that why you backed away from me after dad died? Is that why we never mention him anymore? Because I'm so like him? Because I remind you of him? Our similarities keep luring you in, reminding you of the past, of the good times you had together, but then as soon as you spend time with me, you realise that I'm only a surrogate? Do I bring back all the pain and hurt of losing dad that you push me away again and again?"

With a quick snap of the head, the senator looked at Annabelle, the recrimination she was about to spit out dying on her lips when she noticed the state Annabelle was in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes brimming with tears, hugging her knees close. The realisation that Annabelle had thought for all those years that she considered her nothing more than an unworthy surrogate making her heart break, she went to sit on her knees beside Annabelle, pulling her near. Hugging her close, she whispered emotionally as tears ran down her cheeks: "oh God no, I don't think of you like that. You're my daughter and I love you, I'm proud of who you are, you're so very much your own person. I know that I've made mistakes, I know we hardly spent any time together these last couple of years, but never think that's because of you Annabelle, never. I love you. You mean the world to me, please believe that. "

"Then why don't you want to be with me? Why do you never have any time for me?" Annabelle asked, her voice breaking, a mere whisper as thick fat tears still rolled down her cheeks.

As she looked into Annabelle's eyes, all puffed up from crying, the senator's heart constricted, a searing pain passing through her as if she had been kicked. She shook her head as if she couldn't believe what she was hearing, Annabelle's anguished words repeating themselves over and over again in her mind, haunting her, mocking her. She felt bile rise as she just stared at Annabelle for countless seconds, frozen with shock, a hollow and empty feeling of dread filling her stomach. She felt so helpless at Annabelle's anguish, so unbelievably guilty at being the cause. As Annabelle's strangled sobs shook her to action, she tenderly wiped away the tears with her thumbs, not even realising that tears were brimming in her own eyes. Closing her eyes for just a second, a tear slowly rolling down her cheek, she gently caressed Annabelle's cheek with the back of her hand before pulling her near again.

Softly caressing Annabelle's hair as she cradled her near, she whispered softly: "oh God, I'm so sorry, this is all my fault …. I've made so many mistakes Annabelle and if I could turn back time, I would. There are so many things I'd do differently …. I know you probably don't believe me and I guess you have every reason not to, but I love you Annabelle, I always will. You're my little girl, my most precious gift, you mean everything to me." Taking a shuddering breath, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, the senator continued: "when your dad died, my whole world crumbled. I felt so lost and alone, my whole reason for living had disappeared and for a long time I wanted to disappear too. In one big swoop, I lost my husband, my partner and my best friend. Your dad was the only one I could really confide in, who I could admit my fears and insecurities to… I knew he would never laugh at them or call them petty.

He was always there for me, he made me feel loved and cherished. He put up with my odd quirks and eccentricities, just like I put up with his and he always knew, almost instinctively, what to say or do when I was feeling sad or down. He knew when to stand by the sidelines and just let me rant and rave at the unfairness of the world and when to comfort me when I thought the world was going to swallow me alive. He was my anchor… I wanted so much for him, for the three of us; I wanted to colour our days golden with sunlight, the nights silver with joy and wonder. I wanted to fill our world with laughter and love… I wanted a lifetime with him and all I got was fifteen years. I had lost him, I would never see him again and that truth was just too hard for me to accept. I kept thinking that it was all a mistake that any moment now he could walk through the door with a stupid grin on his face and a bouquet of flowers in his hands.

Those first couple of days, there was so much to do. I had to organise the funeral, send out letters, make sure I invited all our friends. I was surrounded by people all of the time, who kept me busy… I had no time to really think about it. Then came the funeral. When they put his urn in the ground and covered it with earth, I don't know … I can't really explain how I felt, but it finally hit me that I'd never see him again, that he was gone forever and I just fell apart. For a long time I wanted to join him, but I knew I couldn't, I still had you to think about and I knew it wasn't what your dad would have wanted. I sleepwalked through the days, I didn't want to change the bed linen because it still smelled like him, and I wore his old shirts just to feel close to him, I was crying all of the time.

Pretty soon I realised that I couldn't go on like this, I was destroying myself and I still had you to think about, you were pretty freaked out about me locking myself in the bedroom all of the time. I knew I had to find something to keep myself occupied and then the party approached me about taking his place. I don't know, I just knew I had to do it, I had to finish what your dad had started. I started making long hours and though I knew deep down that it wasn't fair on you, I rationalised my choices by telling myself that it was for your dad, that you'd understand, that by doing this I was able to provide for you like your dad did. Then I got elected to the Senate and had to work even longer hours, I wasn't home for weeks on end. I just told myself that your dad would have wanted me to do my best. We grew apart, but I just thought that I'd make it up to you the next day, that I'd go and see your next recital, that I'd just give you a bigger present for missing your birthday and before I knew it, it was too late …. You were so angry towards me, we were like two strangers and I realised that I had lost you too, so I did the only thing I knew, I sought refuge in the only security I had, my job, working even harder.

I've been such a fool Annabelle and a coward. When your dad just died, you were so young. I didn't want you to see my tears, I didn't want to cause you any more pain, so I closed myself off, locking myself in the bedroom for hours on end, not even thinking about your pain. Then when the anger came, when I was ranting and raving, spitting fire at your dad for leaving us, for allowing himself to get killed, I didn't want you to see that, I didn't want you to think badly about your dad, so I closed myself off even more. When I was working so hard to achieve your dad's dream, I knew we were drifting apart, but I didn't do anything about it and before I knew it, it was too late. I had lost you; you were so angry and hostile …. I didn't know how to talk to you anymore, anything I said or did, you just tossed back in my face. I didn't know how to reach you anymore and I was so afraid to make it even worse, so I did an unforgivable thing… I did nothing; I just hid myself even more in work. And now it's too late, I've lost you and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

As her mother shook with tears, Annabelle broke loose out of their embrace. Touching her mother's face, wet with tears, she forced the senator to look at her and then whispered: "you haven't lost me… you might have temporarily misplace me for a while, but you haven't lost me. I'm still here." Hugging her tightly as they both cried, she added: "I love you mom."

California was in the grip of a heat wave, feeling a bead of sweat slowly trickle down her back, Simone pulled at the collar of her jacket as she deftly tried to open the door with her other hand. God, she hated wearing suits on days like this. Closing the door behind her with a decided thud, she threw her keys on a nearby table, walking straight to the bathroom. She needed to get out of these stuffy clothes. She'd had interviews at two different schools in Los Angeles and the long drive back had tired her out. All she wanted to do right now, was having a nice long, refreshing and relaxing soak in the bath. Opening the faucet for the bathtub to fill, squirting down a good amount of foam, she walked to the bedroom. Carefully hanging up her suit and jacket, she had another interview in the morning; she quickly grabbed a pair of shorts and a shirt before walking back to the bathroom. Surrounded by foam, the squawking of seagulls and the crashing of waves onto the beach a soft background murmur, she felt herself relax, nervous tension she didn't even know she had, slowly melting away. As she closed her eyes, she thought about the past week.

Watching the Tillman limo slowly disappear out of sight, a dull ache already settling in her heart at the thought of spending three weeks without Annabelle, she had hugged herself tight, just staring in front of her for the longest time. Shaken from her daydream by a honking car, she had sighed, knowing it was time. Taking one more good look around, the school had been her home for so many years after all, she had walked back into the building, immediately heading to her aunt's office. Relieved the nun was nowhere in sight, no doubt still schmoozing with parents, only bothering with the rich and influential parents of course, trying to get some more donations for Saint Theresa's, she'd left her letter of resignation on the desk and closed the school doors behind her, for good. She hadn't even taken anything from her room, except some books she couldn't live without. Closing the heavy oak door behind her, had felt good. It was to be a fresh start for her; she was done with the past.

The first few days at the beach house had been hell. She was missing Annabelle terribly and hadn't known what to do with herself. It was strange, in the past whenever she came to the beach house, to get away from Michael, to get away from Emaculata, the solitude had comforted her but now it just reinforced how empty she felt without Annabelle by her side. The silence once soothing, was now obtrusive; even music hadn't helped, the songs only reminding her of Annabelle. She had felt like she was slowly losing her mind, even going as far as camping on the sofa as the bed held too many memories. She wasn't sleeping, she wasn't eating, though her poor cooking qualities could have something to do with the latter. She was sleepwalking through the days and then Annabelle's first mail had come, telling her how much she loved her, how much she missed her. Telling her odd little things that had happened throughout her day, her suspicions about the senator and one of her bodyguards, just her thoughts and musings, had helped Simone through.

Realising that they'd have a life together once Annabelle was back, that pining away in Annabelle's absence wasn't helping anyone, she'd begun looking for a job, sending out her resume and setting up interviews. No matter how idyllic it might sound, they couldn't live on love alone, after all one of them had to be practical. Besides …. No matter how much she tried to shake it, no matter how much she tried to adopt Annabelle's easy going, laissez faire attitude, she still needed some certainties, like knowing they'd be okay financially. Sure, she had some savings tucked away for a rainy day and she was pretty certain that Annabelle wouldn't be penniless either, but she'd still feel better knowing that they'd have money coming in. So within days of leaving her old one, the hunt for a new job had begun.

Absentmindedly making ripples in the cooling water with her hands, Simone thought about apartments. As the long, exhausting drive to and from Los Angeles had proven, they needed to find a new place, a place not too far away from uni, but also quite close to her new school, wherever that would be. She was feeling quietly confident about the second interview, but still…. She shouldn't get ahead of herself. Knowing full well that she couldn't decide on an apartment on her own anyway, that she needed Annabelle's input for that, she made a mental note to start browsing the real estate pages later. Perhaps she could already make a selection of apartments? Anything was better than sitting around twiddling her thumbs, moping. It would give her something to do.

Sipping from her tea, Simone was reading about Annabelle's Parisian adventures, laughing at the high speed cultural tour the senator put her through, marvelling at the beautiful photographs - especially the black and white photograph of one of the many bridges over the Seine, seen from Ile Saint Louis – and wiping away a stray tear at the heartfelt words of love, when there was a knock on the door. Thinking she should have the photograph blown up and framed for Annabelle, she closed her laptop and gingerly got up, wondering who it could be. It wasn't like she was expecting anyone, it seemed all her friends had taken Michael's side after the break up and she wasn't really close to any of the teachers at Saint Theresa's. Not that she really minded their friends' impartiality; they were a bit too conventional and superficial for her liking. Besides, they had been Michael's friends to begin with. Thinking that if it turned out to be a Jehovah's witness, she'd gladly give him a piece of her mind, how dare he disturb her while reading one of Annabelle's mails, she yanked the door open, a rather angry expression on her face, only to squeak out in shock "aunt Emaculata."

"Simone," the nun said, impatiently tapping her foot, a sour look marring her face. When Simone seemed rooted to the floor, gaping at her in astonishment, she bristled: "I thought that I had taught you better manners than that. It isn't polite to stare, especially not with your mouth hanging open. Can I at least come in?"

Quickly looking behind her - somehow Emaculata always made her nervous about her housekeeping habits – her eye falling on Annabelle's pictures up on the far wall, she said: "sure, let's sit out on the patio. It's such a nice day." Leading the way to the patio, deftly bypassing the far wall, she wasn't quite ready to tell her aunt about Annabelle yet, she still wasn't eighteen yet after all, she made sure her aunt was settled before saying: "I was just having some tea. Let me just bring you a cup." Disappearing into the house again, she went into the kitchen, her hand shaking as she reached for a cup. Placing it on a tray along with a plate of cookies and the teapot, she walked back outside, pouring her aunt some tea before saying: "well, aunt Em, this certainly is a surprise. I don't think you've ever visited me here. What brings you by?"

"This," the nun spat out, throwing her letter of resignation on the table. "Don't you think I deserve an explanation? Why did you do it? Why did you resign? Why didn't you come to me to talk about it?"

Her eyes not daring to meet her aunt's, too ashamed about the coward's way out she had taken, staring at her hands instead, Simone replied: "I just felt it was time to move on."

"Does this have to do with Michael?" Emaculata asked. "Has he put you up to this?"

Looking up, Simone replied: "God no, it has nothing to do with Michael. We broke up a couple of weeks ago and no, I'm not doing this to avoid him. It's just something I felt I needed to do. I've been unhappy at Saint Theresa's for some time now. I can't really explain… I felt stuck in a rut, like my life wasn't going anywhere, like there was something missing. I need a change. I've been in Saint Theresa's for so long; I was becoming set in my ways."

"And that's bad?" Emaculata asked, scrunching her eyebrows in confusion.

"Yes," Simone replied, "I need a new challenge, I need to broaden my horizons, and I need to be someone else than just the headmistress' niece, than just the Literature teacher…. and I can't do that if I stay at Saint Theresa's. I need to start living my own life, make my own decisions, make my own mistakes and I couldn't do that there. I felt like Saint Theresa's was stifling me. I need more in my life than just Saint Theresa's."

"You felt like I was suffocating you? Holding you back? Trying to control you?" Emaculata said, her voice uncharacteristically weak.

"Well, perhaps not you particularly, not all the time anyway and perhaps unintentionally, but yes," Simone said. "You had started to groom me as your successor and you never once asked me if that was something I wanted to do, you just assumed. You see aunt Emaculata, I'm not you, I'll never be you… I have to be true to myself, I've tried to be the person you wanted for such a long time, but I … I can't do it anymore. I have to be my own person and as long as I'm at Saint Theresa's, I can't do that. Do you remember when I came into your office and asked you to transfer Annabelle as I couldn't control her? You replied that it shouldn't be too hard as you managed to control me. Don't you see? If I stay at Saint Theresa's, I'd always try to be the person you want me to be, I'd never be myself. Though I'll always be grateful for what you did for me, you took me in and gave me a home; you've been my only family for as long as I can remember… this is something I have to do."

"I didn't know you felt that way," Emaculata said, "why didn't you ever say anything?"

"I don't know," Simone shrugged, "I didn't really know how to tell you. It's not something you say so easily, is it? I'm sorry about the rather cowardly way I resigned, but I thought that if I talked to you about it, you'd try and talk me out of it and … it's just something I need to do."

"You're really sure about this, aren't you?" Emaculata said. When Simone just nodded, she continued: "I won't say that I'm very pleased about it and I'm sad to see you go, I loved having you around and you were a wonderful teacher, but you're right. It's not my place to run your life; you need to make your own decisions. So… have you any idea what you'll be doing now?"

"Well, I'll definitely continue teaching, but probably only on a part time basis… I've been thinking about going back to university, perhaps follow a couple of photography courses," Simone said. "I'm not sure yet, I guess I'll see."

"Well, if you need a reference, be sure to call me," Emaculata said, drinking the last of her tea.

"Thanks aunt Em," Simone replied, getting up when her aunt did.

"Guess I'd better go now before Sister Claire breaks down the school, I really can't leave her on her own for too long," Emaculata murmured. Giving Simone an awkward hug, she added: "Call me sometimes, okay? I'd like to know how you're doing."

Sitting on a terrace in the nearby village, soft French chattering in the background, drinking in the unrelenting afternoon sun, adding to her already deep tan, her mother sitting in the shade, occasionally nipping from her wine as she silently read her book, Annabelle felt a deep sense of peace and serenity fall over her. After their emotional catharsis earlier in the week, she felt closer to her mother than ever before. All was not forgiven yet, but they had taken that all important first step. She had looked at the past through her mother's eyes and though she couldn't condone some of her mother's actions and would never understand what had driven her away, she now realised that they were both to blame. Annabelle remembered her mother trying to become closer again, only to be shot down in flames by her as she was too embittered and angry to believe that her mother's motives were genuine. Though her reluctance was perfectly understandable at the time, she was only trying to protect herself after all, she couldn't really blame her mother for giving up after a while and losing herself in work, the only constant, the only emotional refuge the senator had known since her husband's death.

Remembering how she had absolutely refused to speak to her mother on the phone on her last birthday when her plane had been delayed, preferring to go out on the town with her mates, getting drunk to dull the pain, making newspaper headlines again and nearly getting arrested, Annabelle thought it odd how selective memory could be, so willing to glance over one's own mistakes or even push them to the back of the mind while someone else's mistakes remained so prominent on the forefront. Now that she had come to accept her own responsibility in their estrangement, she had certainly hadn't made it any easier on her mother, she was able to look at the past in a different light.

They had both made mistakes and she could either keep blaming her mother, hold her bad decisions against her until they were both old and grey or accept that and move on. The choice between estrangement because of the mistakes or a strong bond despite of the mistakes was easily made and she didn't regret forgiving her mother. It might be early days yet, but she could already feel them becoming closer. Her mother hadn't even flinched when she had announced her decision to study at UCLA. She had simply nodded, asked some questions about where she saw herself professionally in ten years time and then applauded her choice, not only saying that she'd be perfect for the job, but also mentioning that her dad had minored in psychology, something she hadn't known. All in all, they had made some real progress in the few days they'd been together here in the Ardèche.

As the sun appeared from behind the church steeple, showering Annabelle with abundant golden rays, she donned her shades and slid a bit deeper in her chair. Signalling the waiter, she asked 'puis-je avoir un autre, s'il vous plait?' before turning her attention to the tiny market square with its rather odd looking fountain, spouting sparkling, crystal clear spring water from four ghastly gargoyles. Having read in the tourist brochure that in the Middle Ages the well was believed to have medicinal purposes, she watched two elderly widows, completely dressed in black, slowly approach the fountain with a smile on her face. As her mother turned yet another page, the two old biddies hikes up their dresses and carefully stepped into the water, filling up plastic containers from the gargoyle's snout before gingerly sitting down on the fountain's stone rim, splashing their legs about as they gossiped in their regional twang.

Following the haphazard flight of a multicoloured butterfly, she looked at the cute, little old houses on the square, their light brown and yellow bricks and wooden shutters painted in the town's colours so quaint and inviting. The soft breeze making the French flag on top of the little town hall swing lightly, she shielded the flame of her lighter with her hand as she lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply before letting it all out with a satisfied sigh. Thanking the waiter as he placed another cappuccino in front of her, she returned her attention to the square, where some young men rounded the corner, smiling widely as they carried their musical instruments. They stopped in front of the little café, giving Annabelle an unblocked view. As they began playing typically French musette music, she watched the old couple next to her slowly get up and walk a bit further away, only to start dancing, smiling brightly as they looked into each other's eyes.

As the applause slowly died away, the buskers began another song, seemingly well know as a collective 'aaaaagggghhhh' accompanied with wide smiles rippled over the terrace. When the soft, melodic intro was played, the waiter came to stand in the café opening and softly began to sing along "Douce France[1], cher pays de mon enfance, bercée de tendre insouciance, je t'ai gardée dans mon cœur! Mon village au clocher aux maisons sages, où les enfants de mon âge ont partagé mon bonheur. Oui je t'aime et je te donne ce poème. Oui je t'aime, dans la joie ou la douleur. Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance, bercée de tendre insouciance. Je t'ai gardée dans mon cœur." From the corner of her eyes watching a tractor with lavender harvest cross the square, she took a quick sip of her cappuccino before saying: "did you know that during Roman times, lavender flowers were sold for a hundred denarii per pound, which was roughly the equivalent of a month's wages of a labourer? Or that during the height of the Plague glove makers would scent their leathers with lavender oil to ward off Black Death, which could have actually helped ward the disease off as lavender is known to fend off fleas?" When her mother looked up from her book and just stared at her with an odd, seemingly amused expression on her face, she said: "what?"

"You have a cappuccino moustache," the senator said, biting her lip to hold up her laughter, especially when Annabelle first tried to get rid off the excess foam with her tongue before wiping it away with the back of her hand, totally missing the little tuff on her nose. "You still have some here,' she said, pointing to her nose before taking another sip of wine. "Anyway, how did you know?"

"Oh, when you took so long getting changed after your little mishap in the river during our descent of the Ardèche," Annabelle said, laughing again at the memory of her mother, coughing and spluttering as she hung on to a rock before realising that her canoe was drifting away without her, "I started talking to this old guy. He was quite talkative when he realised I was genuinely interested. He told me all sorts of interesting bits of information about the region."

"You'd even get a nun with a vow of silence to talk," her mother said with a smile before returning her attention to her book.

Frowning a bit at the odd statement, but then taking it as the compliment as it was clearly meant to be, Annabelle looked at the little church when she heard the church bells toll. Smiling when she saw the bride and groom run down the steps, shielding themselves against the downpour of confetti, she looked at her mother again and asked: ""can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," the senator said, putting a page marker in her book before looking at Annabelle.

"Are you in love with Martin?" Annabelle asked.

Turning an interesting shade of red, the senator fidgeted in her chair for a while before looking up again. "I like Martin, I'm very fond of him, but I'm not in love with him," she said. "We just … you know as a senator, I have to be very careful and Martin… I was just feeling lonely and Martin was there, one thing just lead to another and …"

"You don't have to explain, I understand. It's not like I expected you to take a vow of chastity or anything," Annabelle said. "I was just curious. I mean, I always knew there was a good chance you'd get remarried one day and …"

"Married?" the senator squeaked out, "Martin and I are not that serious. I mean, I'm very fond of him, but … I'm never getting married again."

"Why not?" Annabelle asked, "I mean, I wouldn't mind."

"No, it's not that," the senator said, "this may sound absurd, but I feel that by getting married again, I'd be unfaithful to your dad. Besides … it wouldn't be fair on Martin, I'd never love him the way I loved your dad. Your dad and I, we were destined to be together, he was the other part of my soul and now he's gone … martin might be able to give me love, passion, tenderness and companionship, but he'll never be able to give me that little bit extra, only your dad could. I know it sounds absurd, but …"

""No, it doesn't. I understand what you mean," Annabelle said, "dad was your soul mate."

"Yes," the senator said, taking another sip of wine. Then she looked at Annabelle and said: "so… how about you? Do you have a boyfriend?" When Annabelle just looked at her like a deer caught in headlights, she continued: "oh come on, turnabout is fair play. You can't tell me an attractive young woman like you doesn't have at least a couple of boys wound around her little finger?"

"It's not that," Annabelle said, refusing to look up, "you probably won't like it."

"Oh come on, it can't be that bad. I mean, I know I didn't tell my mother about all my boyfriends, but we're both adults here. There isn't much you can say that will shock me …. I mean, ever since you were fifteen and boys started flitting around you, I began to prepare myself. Looking at some of your friends, I thought about you bringing home a blonde surfer with more teeth than brain cells, an Italian biker with greasy hair and a mafia adoration, a bearded hippy with a sandal complex, …"

Seizing all her courage, Annabelle looked into the senator's eyes and said: "I'm gay, mom." When she just stared at Annabelle, not speaking, Annabelle added: "say something."

"It just never occurred to me to picture you bringing home a woman," the senator said, gulping down the last of her wine before signalling the waiter to bring her another glass. "Are you sure?" she asked. When Annabelle just nodded, she fell silent, just staring at Annabelle.

Annabelle asked: "are you okay with this?"

Letting out a small laugh, the senator said: "you sure like springing surprises on me." Sobering up, she continued: "I won't lie to you and tell you that I'm ecstatic with happiness over this. " When she noticed that Annabelle was about to interrupt, she said: "please, let me finish. This is a very strange situation to be in. I've got nothing against gay people, but at the same time I'd never thought I'd be in this situation. You can be very liberal minded about things, until it affects you personally, then it's totally different. That might sound bigoted and prejudiced, but it's not meant to be. I don't understand what you see in women and I guess I don't really have to, that it doesn't really matter if I do or don't… It's just that… no matter how liberal minded people say they are or society claims to be, there are still a lot of bigoted bastards out there that can make your life a misery. Sure things are improving, but still… I'm explaining this all wrong, what I mean to say is that though it might take me some time to get my head wrapped around the idea, I'll be okay with it. My main concern isn't the fact that you're gay, though it might take some time getting use to, but more the problems you'll encounter. So though I might not march in the gay parade with a P Flag proud button pinned to my vest, well … not yet anyway, given time, I'll be okay with it."

"Thanks mom," Annabelle said the relief plainly visible on her face.

"So…. do you have … do you have a girlfriend?" the senator asked curiously, still unsure how to handle this. When Annabelle just nodded again, she asked: "is it serious? Can I meet her?"

"I love her," Annabelle replied. "You once told me that you fell in love with dad when you were seventeen and from the first moment you saw him that you immediately knew he was the one for you. I feel the same way about her. I'd rather have one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand than live an eternity without it[2]. I love her, she's my world." Shrugging apologetically, she continued: "I want you to meet her; I really do, but… not yet. We haven't been together that long, we still have a lot of figuring out to do. We still need to learn to know each other a little better. What matters most to me is to be with her together, without any interference from the outside world. We haven't quite reached the stage of 'meeting the parents' yet." When her mother just nodded in acceptance, saying she understood, Annabelle then asked, in a rather small voice: "do you think… do you think dad would have been okay with this?"

"Oh Button," the senator said, reaching over the table to grab Annabelle's hand and give it a loving squeeze, "you know your dad loved you no matter what, of course he would have been okay with this." When Annabelle smiled again, she then asked: "so… anymore surprises to spring on me?"

"No, none that I can think of," Annabelle said, deciding she might wait a while before telling her mother she's in love with her Literature teacher, fourteen years her senior.

"So I'm guessing that you'll be spending a lot of time with your girlfriend this summer?" the senator asked. "What about when you're at uni, what will you do then?"

"Yeah, I'll be with her most of the summer I think," Annabelle replied. "I don't know what we'll do about uni yet… that's some of the stuff we still need to figure out."

"I'm sure you'll work it out," the senator replied. "I mean, I guess she can always get a transfer to UCLA. Anyway, I guess we'd better get going now."

Wiping the sweat away with her hand, not even noticing the paint stripes now adorning her forehead, Simone carefully placed her brush on the paint can before walking to the kitchen. Careful not to get any paint on the fridge, she grabbed a can of coke and thirstily drank it all in one go. Suddenly doubting her own sanity, only a fool would start painting the walls in this heat, she quickly washed her hands before sinking down on the couch. Bored of staring at the same four walls all of the time, she had decided a couple of days ago that perhaps they could use a lick of paint. Immediately enthusiastic about her own idea, she'd gone to the local hardware store. Aghast at the zillions of colours available, she had been stumped for a while. How was she to choose? Hearing Annabelle's voice in her head to just go with the flow, she had closed her eyes and just picked a can at random, whispering an old nursery rhyme. Her finger had landed on sunshine yellow, for which she was grateful as the can next to it had been black and she didn't particularly fancy living in a grotto. She had immediately set to work, thinking that the new colour was symbolic for her fresh start at life. Besides …. It gave her something to do.

Taking a break from painting, Simone reread Annabelle's last e-mail, infinitely pleased that Annabelle was getting along better with her mother. Though Annabelle would probably vehemently deny it, she needed her mother. Somehow Simone had known that the senator's glacier attitude was nothing but a front. They just needed some time together, away from it all. They just needed to talk to each other. Sighing wistfully, she wished she could have a strong relationship with her own parents, but she had long since accepted that would never happen. The closest thing she had to family was aunt Emaculata and though she knew the nun had done her best, it had left her slightly embittered. But everything was about to change, she had Annabelle now.

Laughing at the senator falling in the river - the way Annabelle described the scene, Simone could just picture it - she quickly scrolled down to the pictures. Though Annabelle was perhaps only an amateur photographer, she always seemed to capture the atmosphere of the moment. Smirking at the photograph of the senator holding on for dear life to a rock in the middle of a foaming river, she really did look like a drowned rat, she pictured Annabelle sitting there, in her own canoe, calmly getting out her camera and snapping the picture, all the while laughing her head off at her mother's plight. Just then the jingle of a received e-mail sounded and Simone quickly opened it.

As the last guests finally trickled out, still talking about the amazing firework display as she handed them their coats, Annabelle sighed deeply, thinking her facial muscles hurt from all the forced smiling she'd had to do these past few hours. If one more old biddy squeezed her cheek, saying she was just an adorable little girl, if one more old horn dog said the same, though trying to pinch her, she'd scream. Closing the door behind her with a decided thud, she leaned against it for a while, closing her eyes as fatigue washed over her. Opening them again when she heard the tinkle of breaking glass, she watched waiters scurrying around, whisking away laden trays with empty glasses. As another hired hand magically appeared dustpan in hand, she pushed herself off and slowly made her way back to the living room. Shooting a passing waiter a venomous look – the obnoxious little twerp had tried to chat her up all evening, not taking no for an answer until she had kneed him in the groin, much to the kitchen staff's hilarity – she sank down on the leather couch.

Leaning back, she closed her eyes again; she was completely exhausted. They'd slaved away all day, trying to get the party organised, making sure every little detail was taken care of. Though her mother hadn't said anything, Annabelle knew she had a lot riding on this; her election campaign largely depended on contributions and a big fancy party, especially on Independence Day when patriotism ran even higher, was the best way to schmooze with the rich and influential hoi polloi. From the smirk on Harvey's face and the twinkle in his beady little eyes earlier, Annabelle surmised that donations were floating in. She just hoped that all this aggravation would be worth it in the end, that her mother would be re-elected again.

Once the obligatory photo shoot in the garden had been over, Harvey's over the top commands and nervous pacing not only driving Annabelle and the senator, but also the photographer round the bend – Harvey had been banished to the kitchen in the end, much to the chef's dismay as he had immediately begun criticising the menu – Annabelle had gone upstairs to pack her bags. She had known she'd be too tired to do it after the party, these things always seemed to go on forever and at least that way she'd be able to set off early in the morning. She couldn't wait to be in Simone's arms again. The long emails they'd sent each other while she was in France or their long talks on the phone since she was back just weren't enough. She craved Simone's touch, passion and love with intensity unseen. She simply needed to be with her. When Simone called her earlier in the morning to wish her a happy birthday, it had taken all her strength and reservation to resist the urge to drop everything and just drive over. She still had a promise to her mother to fulfil after all.

Opening her eyes when she felt someone sink down on the couch beside her, she watched her mother kick off her high heels with a satisfied sigh, saying: "thank God that's over. If Harvey would have dragged me off to one more sleazy bastard who can't keep his hands to himself, I'd have … I wouldn't have been responsible for the consequences. Just because they donate money to the campaign they think they have the right to slide their filthy hands all over me and all Harvey has to say about that is that I have to grin and bear it. Ooooo, I could kill that obnoxious little twerp sometimes." The senator interrupted her rant to start rummaging through her handbag. Retrieving a small gift wrapped present, she handed it to Annabelle with a smile and continued: "anyway, I've wanted to give you this all day, but there never seemed to be a right time. Happy birthday Annabelle." When Annabelle tore the wrapping open and just stared at the car keys in her hand, totally astonished, the senator said: "I know you love your car, that it's your pride and joy as you had to pay for it yourself, but I think you deserve a much better car than that piece of junk on the driveway."

Looking at her mother, Annabelle teasingly replied: "just admit that you were ashamed to have that piece of junk standing next to your own car on the driveway."

"Well, there is that," the senator laughed.

"Thanks mom," Annabelle said, giving the senator a hug. Breaking out of their embrace, she then asked, unable to contain her excitement: "so… where is she?"

"On the driveway, where else?" the senator replied. "Hey, what are you doing?" she then squeaked out when Annabelle grabbed her by the hand and started pulling her off the couch.

"Oh come on, we have to take her out for a spin," Annabelle gushed, practically shoving her mother out the door.

Annabelle was sitting at the kitchen table, having breakfast, when her mother stumbled in, yawning widely as she rubbed her eyes. Nearly tripping over Annabelle's bags, she sank down on a chair with a self pitying groan, burying her head in her hands. Peering at Annabelle through her fingers, she grumbled: "I don't know how you can look so fresh and perky after only a few hours' sleep." Annabelle just smiled at her mother, handing her a cup of coffee before settling back in her own chair. She knew better than to tangle with her mother first thing in the morning. Taking another bite of her buttered croissant, she simply turned her attention back to the newspaper and waited for her mother's grumpy mood to pass. It usually only took two cups of coffee. Not even reacting when the senator reached over to steal the business section, nearly making her spill her coffee with the force of her yank, she just continued reading.

The business section read, her second cup of coffee downed, the senator finally felt ready to face the world again. Sighing satisfactorily, she looked up, only to frown when she noticed that Annabelle was already dressed. Her glance slowly gliding from Annabelle to the packed bags at the kitchen door, she said, her voice croaking a bit: "so you're really serious about spending most of the summer with your girlfriend, aren't you?"

"Yes," Annabelle simply said. Suddenly feeling that her mother deserved more than that, perhaps an explanation or a justification, she quickly added: "it's not like we could have spent an awful lot of time together anyway… I mean, you'll either be in Washington or on the road for your electoral campaign."

"I know," the senator sighed, "I just … I just didn't want this to end. I loved spending time with you these past three weeks. I feel like we've got to know each other again, that we've become close again and now you're going away."

"I had to fly the nest one day," Annabelle said, "but I know what you mean. I feel like that too. But … it's not like we won't see each other anymore and we can still call and e-mail each other."

"I know, but it's not the same. I mean …. I won't even know where you are most of the time. You're expecting me to let you spend the entire summer with your girlfriend whom I've never met and though I realise that I did the same thing when I spent a summer with your dad in Europe, it's still hard. Only now I understand what my mother must have gone through," the senator said. When she noticed the sad look on Annabelle's face, she continued: "but I also understand that this is something you need to do. Like you said, you have to fly the nest sometime. Just promise me that you'll call often, so that I know you're all right, that you have enough money."

"I will," Annabelle promised, slowly getting up and walking to her bags.

"Wait," the senator said, jumping off her chair. "There's something I still have to give you" Getting a small box out of her bathrobe pocket, she continued: "your dad wanted me to give you this when you turned eighteen. It used to belong to your grandmother; it's been in the family for generations." Opening the box, she took out a silver necklace and helped Annabelle put it on.

"Thanks mom," Annabelle said, hugging the senator tight, "not only for the car and the necklace, but for everything. I love you." Squeezing her extra tight for a moment, she broke out of the embrace and with tears brimming in her eyes, she said: "I guess this is it. Bye and I promise I'll call you."

Waking up hours before her alarm was supposed to go off; Simone sat up, yawning widely. She'd hardly slept at all, tossing and turning all night, thinking about Annabelle's arrival. Knowing she wouldn't be able to fall asleep again anyway, she was far too nervous, her stomach a jumbled knot, and she walked into the kitchen. A thermos of coffee in hand, she grabbed a pillow and blanket from the couch and settled down on the patio. The sun slowly rising over the ocean, creating an unbelievable tapestry of colours in the sky and over the ocean as mist in the distance created an almost ethereal scene, she slowly sipped her coffee, huddling closely under the blanket as she listened to the rolling of the waves. The soft ripple of the water always managed to calm her shattered nerves. Unable to keep her eyes open, she dozed off.

When she opened her eyes again, the sun was standing proudly at the sky, warming her with her golden rays. Shrugging the blanket away, she walked back inside, stretching as she went. Placing her mug on the kitchen counter, not even bothering to rinse it out, she decided to check the mail before getting dressed, it just wouldn't do meeting Annabelle in her pj's. Opening the door, almost tripping over the little ledge, she quickly grabbed the banister and embarrassedly looked around to see if anyone had seen her cock up. Relieved to see there wasn't a soul on the beach, she grabbed her mail, turning around a final time and then she saw her, slowly walking down the stairs to the beach. Her breath hitching, she dropped the mail to the ground and just continued watching, her heart hammering in her chest.

Finally looking up, Annabelle saw Simone standing on top of the stairs. A surge of love and adrenaline spurring her on, she started running, ploughing through the sand. Her heart racing, her breathing shallow, she paused to stare at her for a moment. Never taking her eyes off her, she slowly climbed the stairs to the beach house, the grin on her face mirroring Simone's. A moment later she was engulfed in her arms, melting into her with a groan of pleasure. "Hi" she whispered, burying her face in Simone's hair.

"I'm so glad you're here," Simone said, tightening their embrace. "I missed you."

"I missed you too," Annabelle husked, snuggling even closer. "But I'm here now, I'm home at last." They just stood there for a while, gently rocking back and forth, engulfed in each others arms, drowning in the feel of their bodies against each other. Breaking out of their embrace, keeping one hand draped over Simone's hip, Annabelle gave her a quick once over before murmuring "sexy pj's." Both laughing, they walked inside, ready to start the rest of their lives.

The End

    [1]excerpt from “Douce France” by Charles Trenet, a very old song that always makes me think of France.
    [2] Parafrasing City of Angels

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