Victoire didn’t look up from the Witch Weekly issue. I grabbed the newest bottle of pumpkin juice and opened it, directly pouring it into my mouth.
“He left to give Lisette her stuff back about an hour ago,” she crinkled her nose. “You’d know that if you woke up earlier. And enough with the pumpkin juice - that’s a disgusting habit, Nicky.”
At this, she rolled her eyes and went back to reading. From over her shoulder, I could see her reading a page titled Wondrous Weddings. I stifled a laugh and began reading through the Sunday Prophet.
Victoire was much more desperate than she let on. She caught my eye and tossed the magazine aside, sighing. “I know what you’re thinking.”
That was Victoire. It’d be downright frightening if I wasn’t so used to it.
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I said lightly, flipping another page. “Oh look, they’re doing a bit on Aunt Angie – her Quidditch team’s been doing well – it says that she’s the only manager not to ever have bought a player from another team - ”
“Stop playing around,” said Victoire, surveying her toast dully. “I know what you’re going to say, Nicky.”
“Just say it.”
“Alright – why – ”
She broke me off, exclaiming shrilly. “It’s about why Teddy hasn’t proposed to me, isn’t it?! I mean, we’ve only been dating for about six years! It’s perfectly normal for him to take his time! It’s not like we’re in a hurry, because we’re so obviously not!”
I was going to ask her about Aunt Angelina.
My sister, honestly, can be insensibly and incredibly dramatic when it comes to Teddy Lupin. It used to be even worse before they were dating – that horribly murky period when she fancied him and didn’t quite know if he felt the same way. It involved everything from painstakingly analyzing every glance to comparing horoscopes. Whether him calling her “Vic” meant she was only a friend, whether him complimenting her robes meant something, and so on.
I thought those days would be behind us.
Clearly, I was wrong.
“Um, Vic – ”
She burrowed her head into her arms and groaned. “I’m desperate, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” I said, patting her arm.
“I blame Maman. I mean, I’ve been wondering a while, but Friday’s dinner just made me feel worse.”
“Six years isn’t that long, is it?”
She gave me a murderous stare. “Matthew Derwent proposed to Lucy after a year and a half!”
“Well - ”
“Keira got married after only six months with Alexander!” Keira Kensington was Victoire’s best-friend and fellow headache inducer. “It’s been a few years, and they’re still together!”
“You know how Keira is. That’s another issue entirely.”
She flared her nostrils. “And Roxy told me that Lucas’s going to propose to Lily soon! D’you know how humiliating that is? Knowing that my youngest cousin is going to get married before me?”
Normally, Victoire was temperate, if not slightly controlling. Throw Ted into the mix and nearly all logic flew out the window.
“Vic, you’re going to be alright. I’m sure it’ll be coming any day now. Ted adores you.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she said, though she looked slightly pacified. “Anyway, enough about him. It’ll just give me another headache. Keira wrote me a few days ago about having dinner tonight. You want to come along?”
“Maybe if I can,” I said, grabbing my now empty glass and her empty plate and taking them over to the sink. Sunshine bubbled in through the window, darkened by small patches of grime.
“You should come. Keira’s bringing Val and Claire along. It’ll be like the old days.”
Claire Doucet was my best friend in Hogwarts. We’d spent hours together in the Ravenclaw dormitories, discussing what our futures would be like. It’d been ages since I’d seen her – it really was very tempting. After Hogwarts, Claire and I had blended seamlessly in with Victoire’s friends. Ironic how things had turned out, since Claire had never much cared for Keira or Vic while in Hogwarts.
Valentina Thomas was Victoire’s other best friend. “I’m meeting someone today.”
“Freddy’s to-be girlfriend, isn’t it? The future Mrs. Fred Weasley?”
“It doesn’t seem that way. She turned him down.”
“Did she?” Victoire’s tone of surprise didn’t escape me. “That would explain why Roxy said Freddy got drunk yesterday. Merlin, it’s been ages since anyone’s turned down a Weasley or a Potter.”
“She wants to meet with me. I’m not sure about what, but I probably ought to go for Freddy’s sake.” I sighed. “Hopefully, it won’t be too bad.”
“Why would it be bad?”
The real reason was that Nubia reminded me rather strongly of Victoire and there was only so much I could take of the pair. Theatrics tired me out quickly, but I said no such thing. “I mean – I’m just scared she’ll take too long and I won’t get to see Claire.”
Victoire smiled. “Alright then. You should get along now or you’ll be late.”
“And these are my sisters.” Nubia pointed to three girls who resembled her strongly in complexion and features. Their golden skin flashed in the sunlight. I could feel my self-consciousness rising by the second. “Nabirye, Dendera, and Nathifa.”
We were standing in the shade of Flourish and Blotts, the sunshine at a tempestuous crescendo. I covered my eyes, cursing myself for not having dressed up more. Victoire and I were both part-Veelas, but I looked somewhere below average standing next to her sisters. They were all attired in silk robes, albeit in different colors.
I was wearing my old cotton robes – the ones I usually put on when I went down to pick up lunch for myself.
It wasn’t doing good things for my ego.
Nubia then gestured to two milky skinned brunette girls behind them. “And these are my half-sisters –Emilie and Odette.” Emilie smiled brightly at me, her teeth flashing in the same way that Nubia’s did.
I gave a quiet hello, wondering where all of this was leading to. Nubia looked down the alley, before giving her sisters a dismissive wave.
“You may go on now,” she said. “Just remember to get home before it becomes too dark.”
They all made sounds of agreement.
As soon as they left, Nubia turned to me. “I am sorry about that. My sisters always like coming to Diagon Alley, so every time I leave for work, they try to accompany me.”
“That’s okay. Are there not that many big stores in Egypt or something?”
Nubia cocked her eyebrow slightly. “Oh, no, not at all. We have much larger markets there; we are well known, I think, for the floating markets that levitate from place to place.” She turned to face the retreating backs of her sisters. Odette turned around and giggled at a black-haired wizard who walked past, batting her eyelashes slowly. “No, you’ll find that the real reason is something different.”
And with that, we set off down the Alley. I didn’t know what she’d invited me for, but I trusted that the reason would show itself eventually. She didn’t seem the type who’d rush to explanations.
Much of our afternoon consisted of entering and leaving stores arbitrarily. I bought very little – save for a few new quills, while Nubia bought something at nearly every location we entered. She exited Madame Malkin’s with three new robes – all in different shades of peach.
Then came Twilfit and Tattings, where I bought nothing and Nubia came out with four new pairs of pumps. She held out her bags, looking satisfied.
We passed the Apothecary and we both came out quickly, our robes stinking of the smell of rotten eggs.
We had no destination in particular. Nubia simply talked and I waited, knowing that she was going to mention Freddy eventually.
She spoke with a light, casual ease, as though quietly dismissing the crinkles of her past.
She’d first been born in Egypt, she said, as we stood in line at the Leaky Cauldron, to an Egyptian wizard and a French witch who’d been working abroad at the time. The sunshine had calmed down slightly, though it was reflecting off of every window, making the inside of the place rather stifling.
“My father was an idiotic man,” she said bluntly, taking a large sip of her firewhiskey. “He met another woman. He had three daughters already and another on the way then and he walked out. I was six years old.”
I couldn’t imagine spending my life disliking my dad. “Wow, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. My mother moved us back to France where she met my stepfather. He is a better man – they are a good match. That was when my other two sisters came into the picture.” She looked up and smiled. “And what about you?”
“I’ve got one younger brother and one older sister. Nothing particularly interesting’s happened to me.” I shrugged. “My mum’s part-Veela and my dad’s got a bit of werewolf in him.”
She quirked her eyebrows. “And you said your family is uninteresting.”
“It is, though. It really is.”
“I have been to very many places around the world, but I do not think I have ever even heard of a family like yours.” She was smiling.
“No, but it’s true. My dad’s a banker and that’s pretty uninteresting. My mum owns and manages her own clothing store - Mademoiselle. My brother works in the Department of Magical Transportation.”
“And your sister?”
“She works for Enchantress Monthly.”
“Perhaps your family is not that interesting, perhaps.”
“I told you,” I said, and we both laughed. We passed a few moments eating in silence, before Nubia sighed.
She gave a distant gaze at the afternoon sun and at the alleyway crowded with people. “You must, of course, know why I asked you to come here.”
“Yes,” I admitted, “it’s about Freddy isn’t it? I already heard about that. What happened?”
She sighed again, this time sounding tipsy from the firewhiskey. Her speech came out even more stilted than usual. “I have told you about my previous husband, yes?”
“A bit,” I said, wondering where she was going with this.
“I am telling you this in the hopes that you will tell Freddy. I – I cannot tell such things to him myself.” She stared at her hands. “His name was Felipe. I first met him when I was 18 years old. He was Portuguese and he worked as a merchant around pier I liked to visit. He was almost 32 at the time. My mother warned me that it would not work out – I was too young and he was too old. I didn’t listen to her.”
I stared. Nubia almost never talked about her ex-husband. She went on, looking gloomy.
“We were married only five months after we met – it was a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday. His work made him travel a lot – I only saw him twice a week in a whole month, but it was so perfect in the beginning. I thought we would be together forever.”
Her voice broke slightly. “My sisters began suspecting things when he stopped by less and less often, but I did not want to doubt him. My sister Dendera – she has always been good at this kind of thing – began researching him. She found out – that – ”
My voice came out in a soft hush. “What?”
“He – he was already married. To someone else in Portugal.”
“What?! How could he – how can he – ”
“He had been already married for seven years.” Nubia stared off into the distance, her firewhiskey glass entirely drained. “He had one daughter already. I – I didn’t want to believe it – he was already married – and he came to me like – like I was – ”
I said nothing.
“His Portuguese wife found out eventually,” she said grimly. “She threw him out a few days after I did. But the worst part of it was imagining that I had done to his little daughter what my father and his other woman did to me.”
And suddenly, it made sense why she had refused Freddy. Nubia had always struck me to be as perfect and infallible as a statue. She was bold and daring and walked with the natural air of one who had spent her life leading others.
But, she was scared.
She stared down at her glass, then at her hands, and then at the window. The sky was a hazy blue, scattered with clouds lazing about.
Half the sky seemed empty today.
When I finally parted with Nubia and made a beeline for home, the sky was slowly tingeing into twilight. I shuffled up the stairs to the flat in my room, marveling that the afternoon heat had been so quickly replaced by such unforeseen rain.
Raindrops hit the earth in a reassuring patter of what it was to have spring.
I wobbled the doorknob and it gave way to the sitting room, still shielded in shadows. I could hear the vague sound of voices.
“Yeah, and what is it that you used to do?”
“Ah – I used to be an Obliviator – ”
“And why’d you quit? Or were you fired?”
“It was my mum’s health actually.”
“Right.” A curt, suspicious reply.
I narrowed my eyes. From the late evening light, I could make out the faint shadows. “Louis?”
Louis rose from the sofa, looking as unruffled as ever. “Hey, Nicky.”
It was that calm, smooth voice, which sounded like water and glass.
“Scorpius?” I could feel myself growing more mortified by the second. My robes were plastered to my skin from the rain. “What – what’re you doing here?”
“I came to talk to you. Is this a bad time?” He gave Louis a backwards glance.
“No, um, of course not.”
Louis was staring between the both of us, arms folded, looking clearly unimpressed. He turned back to Scorpius, his eyebrows rising. “So what’re your intentions for coming here?”
“Er – I wanted to discuss it with…”
“What’re you going to discuss? When will you be done?”
“Lou,” I said, glaring at him. “That’s none of your business. Scorpius, my room’s this way.”
I grabbed his arm and began tugging him along. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Louis standing there, looking annoyed.
“Keep it quick, will you?”
“Don’t mind him,” I said, as I opened the door to my room. A flutter of fresh air blew in from the open window, sending the white curtains into an excited twitter. There was a circle of wind that seemed to radiate from the walls.
I sat down on my bed and he lingered awkwardly over me, his eyes drinking in the room.
I looked up. “What is it?”
He smiled. “It’s so neat in here.”
“I don’t like too much messiness. That’s more my brother’s habit, I’m afraid.”
At the mention of Louis, he gave a furtive backwards glance. “Er – sorry about – ”
“No, it’s his fault.”
“Is he usually like that?”
“Not really. Only when Vic or I have someone over. It was a lot worse at first with Teddy, believe me.”
There was a pause. I could hear the drum of the raindrops, falling in a quiet symphony. He seemed to realize that I was waiting for him to say something. “Ah – actually, I’m here because – ” he reddened slightly.
“My – my mum wants to meet you.”
Wasn’t it too early for this type of thing? Meeting his mum? From what he’d mentioned of her, she seemed nice enough, but it was…an intimidating thought…meeting Astoria Malfoy…
“I know,” he said, groaning, “and I’m sorry. She’s – she’s being stubborn about it. She wants to know if – if you’d like to come over to visit sometime. Dinner, maybe?”
Again, the silence. I could feel it stretching out in front of us. He was staring at me with an indiscernible expression and I was playing with my fingers.
“Uh - but if you’d rather not – I can just tell her – ” I didn’t miss the disappointment in his voice.
“Why didn’t you just write me this?”
“She’s stubborn,” he said again, rolling his eyes. He took a seat next to me on the bed and peered somewhere between me and the wall. “She made me come to tell you.”
He was smiling slightly as he said all this, his eyes tracking the slow rainfall. Eyes as blue as rainwater…that was the best part of rainwater…how it seemed to make all the flowers even more beautiful…
“Okay, I’ll come.” It came out as a bit of a lament.
He grinned appreciatively, but I broke him off. “When, though?”
“Sometime soon, she’s hoping. Maybe tomorrow for dinner?”
“Can’t - I’ve got a late shift. Marlene’s taking the day off.” I could feel the room growing warmer by the second. He seemed to understand the insinuation, and smiled even more.
“O – okay.” My voice was as cautious as it could be without being offensive.
“It won’t be that bad, I promise. My mum’s lovely and my dad – ” He broke off. At the sight of my frightened expression, he coughed and hastily amended, “ – he’ll be fine, I swear.”
I put my face in my hands, before looking back up at him. “I wish I didn’t have to do this.”
“I – yeah,” he said helplessly.
“If I have to meet your parents, then you have to meet mine.”
He began coughing. “What?!”
I began grinning. “Well, it doesn’t really seem fair otherwise.”
“Meet your family? D’you know who your family is?”
I laughed. “I should hope I do.”
“But – ”
“Besides, Victoire’s already met you and you just saw Louis, so it’ll just be my mum and dad.”
Maybe it was slightly sadistic of me to want him to meet my family as well. Knowing Dad, an impromptu announcement wouldn’t be good news, but it was incredibly tempting. At his lost look, I smiled a little.
Suddenly, his expression cleared like sunshine clears clouds. “Alright.”
That was too quick, wasn’t it? Where was the self-doubt and the urgent need to run that I’d felt only a minute ago?
“I don’t mind. If it’s your family, they can’t be that bad, can they?”
That small pronouncement made us both lean together again. He brushed his head in and I looked up and once again, we seemed to press inward. He closed his eyes and pulled my face forward.
It was small and soft – the collision of rain and rose petals, which quickly became something more. The clock swam and moments passed in a blissful soiree of only us.
We broke apart, both panting slightly. I could feel an enormous grin on my face.
Louis’s voice broke through, “Oi! I don’t hear any talking! Does that mean – ”
Scorpius reddened and I blushed slightly. He snaked an arm to where I was sitting, but the moment had passed. I let him hold on to my hand, and we walked into the living room, where we sank into the sofa.
He smiled softly at me. “Well, I’m done with what I came here for. I should go.”
With that, he began walking towards the door.
After he left, the flat retained a sense of quietness. The walls seemed to sing in their own white tunes and I sat among them, reading an old favorite novel, but absorbing very little. Louis dropped in to give me a cross look a few minutes later.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes,” I said, rolling my eyes at him. “Honestly, Lou, do you have to be like that around him?”
Louis shrugged. “Just testing him, you know.”
“Just like you and Freddy tested Lucy’s first boyfriend until they broke up, right?”
He snorted derisively. “Nah, that guy was an idiot. It would’ve happened anyway.”
“How’d everything go with Lisette?”
For a few seconds, he said nothing, but simply stared at his hands. “Fine,” he said, very quietly. “I – I’ll tell you later. I’ve got things to finish up.”
With that, he went back into the solitude of his room. The steady beat of paintbrush against canvas resumed, and the symphonies of rainfall fell into tune alongside it.
I read quietly for a few minutes. Suddenly, there was a large pop! outside the door. The knob began twisting frantically.
“Oh my god!” Someone was squeaking, “Oh my god!”
“I know, I know!”
“Isn’t that amazing?”
“Move over, Keira, you’re - ”
“Will you three shove off? I’m trying to open the damn door!”
The door knob spastically turned and the door opened to reveal my sister and our friends, all drenched in rain. The sky outside was turning into a familiar shade of blue-black, the rain on the pavement reveling in the coming moonlight. The city had reached a soft standstill.
It was, as I remembered them to be almost exactly, as if the last three years had done nothing at all to them.
Keira Kensington, now twenty-six years old, still a brunette, still at a towering height, her arms now wrapped around Victoire, entered. She was a fun girl – bossy and sweet in turns, who spends more time partying than she should.
Valentina Thomas emerged behind Victoire and Keira, carrying two bags and looking entirely fed up with the affair. She was clothed completely in her characteristic skin-tight black leather, but her flame-red hair was now streaked with bright orange and she was wearing colorful bracelets up to her elbow. Valentina was like an abstract sketch – incomprehensible and beautiful all in one. Loud and bold and bright – she was all that I could have been.
I felt eighteen years old, spearing my fork into a piece of cake, laughing in the afternoon sunshine.
“Move it, Vic, it’s bloody pouring! These boots are genuine dragon hide, they don’t do well in water!” Victoire pushed past Valentina, still walking in an airy way, beaming at everything from the walls to the sofa.
Finally, behind the pack emerged –
I rose up and ran to Claire, who dropped the bags she was carrying and embraced me back. Claire Nouvelle Doucet was my best friend in ways that others could not be. She was an artist of my mind, who understood me as clearly as water. She was a sensible girl in a world of dramatics. My laughter was made to sing alongside hers.
She pushed the fringe of black hair out of her eyes and adjusted her rectangular glasses. She had gained a little weight, but it had done nothing to reduce her naturally thin look.
“Merlin, I haven’t talked to you in so long!” She hugged me again and she smelled like honeysuckle in rain and pumpkin pie. “How’ve you been? God, you look the same!”
“Your hair’s black now! And you cut it!”
“Yeah, d’you like it?” She put one hand through her pixie-like hair and smiled. “How was France? Why didn’t you visit me when you got back?”
“France was lovely! And I’ve been busy.”
Victoire flopped onto the sofa and plopped her legs up. Valentina threw Victoire a very dirty look as she struggled with the shopping bags, before finally unloading them on the ground, but Victoire was ignoring her, still beaming radiantly.
“Anyway,” said Victoire, “I’ve got something important to say to Nicky!”
“What?” I turned to the other girls. “Just me?”
“They found out a bit ago. But shut it and just listen.”
There was a still silence, before she burst out gushing, “Teddy proposed!”
My sister was getting married? It was insane to imagine – Victoire was getting married?
Victoire grinned, before I broke her off. “Wait, when did he propose?”
“It was these three idiots! Teddy told them to pretend to invite me out to dinner. When I got there, none of them were there. I turned around and there he was, trying to sneak up on me!” She said all of this extremely fast, blushing furiously the whole while. “He took me out to Madam Meadowes’s Café. You know where there is, right?”
“Where you had your first date with him?”
“Oooh, yes!” She was back to glowing. “It was so perfect, Nicky! The stars were out and the entire place was empty. He brought roses and we were sitting in the middle of the meadow – you know what the place is like.”
Of course I did. Madame Meadowes’ was situated in the middle of a meadow, with a gigantic magical waterfall centered in between. It was invisible to Muggles. I could nearly see the evening light peaking across the vacant spring skies. Roses and twilight. “How’d he ask?”
“Sometime after dinner. We were just sitting there talking. He did seem…awfully nervous for some reason.”
“Yes, I wonder why,” said Val, rolling her eyes.
“Why would you say that?”
“Victoire, you’re lovely and all, but you’re a bit beastly when it comes down to the specifics of things.”
“I am not!”
At this, Keira laughed. “Are you joking? Every time we try and throw you a birthday party, it’s like hell. We’ve got to get everything perfect.”
“Ooh, you should have an autumn evening wedding!” said Claire. “Those are always the most gorgeous.”
“Vic, when can we start expecting little Lupin babies?” Val’s bluntness clearly hadn’t lost its edge over time. “Knowing your family, it’ll probably be Victoire the eight and then Teddy the fifth and all that.”
Victoire was blushing furiously. “I’m not thinking about all that. I called Maman on the way back and I heard enough from her, believe me. It was so embarrassing!”
There was a small, comfortable silence. Victoire was still in jitters. She rose up excitedly, and excused herself. “I better go tell Louis.” She left the room and my eyes trailed my sister, wondering when she had grown up so quickly.
I stared after her, feeling a bubble of excitement begin. She was getting married. My sister was getting married! To Teddy Lupin! That was amazing! My sister! Married!
It seemed just yesterday that she and I were arguing over something trivial or the other. It was her turn to take out the trash, not mine. I’d borrowed her clothes without permission again. She’d fancied Ted Lupin, when I fancied him beforehand. It was all so serious at the time, but it had all blended away in the end, and all that was left the essence of my sister. She and I and our laughter-filled memories together.
Things were about to change. That…meant Vic would move out and have her own life away from me and Louis. Ted would now take the place that her siblings held. They would have more memories together. There would be the wedding, then all the nuances and joys of living together. And then, I supposed, Val was right – the children.
I turned to Claire blankly and as always, she seemed to understand perfectly. She gave me a smile, crossed somewhere between the happiness I knew my sister would have and the small sadness I felt that she would not have them all with me. She patted my hand.
I shook my head.
I was being selfish.
Valentina seemed to see the small tension that passed between us and shrugged. “You look the same as ever, Nicky,” she said, winking.
“Steal yourself a fit boy, yet?”
“No, not…quite.” At this, Claire and I shared a look. I mouthed back, I’ll tell you later, to her as soon as Val turned around. “Anything happen with you?”
“Not too much. Store’s going well. My brother’s got a new job in a dragon reserve. Nothing much’s changed.”
From the other room, we could hear Louis’s exclamation. Claire rolled her eyes. “And clearly,” she said, “not much’s changed with Louis either.”
At this, Keira piped up, “A fair few things’ve happened around to me, though. Alexander got a promotion. And my mum got a new manor in Scotland.”
“You always get all the excitement,” said Val, pouting. “You got a boyfriend first, got married first, got a house first. And you’ve still got time to go clubbing.”
“All I’ve got is a leaky flat and an old stove,” said Claire, “and a nasty old bat two floors up who keeps raging at me in the middle of the night to shut my dog up.”
“You don’t have a dog,” I said.
“I know! If only she’d listen to me and get her head checked, honestly!”
At this, we all laughed. It went on like that for a little while. Victoire came back and Valentina thoroughly enjoyed tormenting her with baby name ideas. Keira began planning for the wedding, knowingly comparing dress colors over the general clamor. Rain came in sheets and I remembered the sweet scent of friendship again. It smelled like wet honeysuckle and pumpkin pie and tasted like laughter yet to come.
Claire teased Louis about Lisette over the chime of the clock stroking nine and they bickered among themselves like elephants at a water-hole. “Looks like you struck out with my cousin, after all, eh, Lou? So much for a Doucet-Weasley union. This rate, the only union our families’ll be having is when I beat your arse at Quidditch.”
“It wasn’t as bad as you trying to chat up Terry Higgs. I recall he locked himself in the loo to get away from you.”
“He did not! You know he didn’t! How can you say that?”
“Right. I suppose people normally take two hours in there, then!”
Claire was blushing and Louis was laughing and from the window, I could see the vast landscape of the sky – now an ink-black - patched and swathed in turns where stars pierced the sheen of the water. The ground was specked with puddles, and I could almost feel my boots sinking into the soft mud at the sight of them. Our reflections played in long slants of color on the windowpane, and I breathed in time with the rain.
Things were going to change.
Author's Note: Yes, I am alive, I swear! I apologize for the long wait in between chapters! School's horrid. X__X But hopefully, this monstrously large chapter made up for it!
Now we know why Nubia said no. Do any of you guys like her more/less because of it? And Teddy proposed to Victoire! :D How're Vic's friends coming off? (They - Claire in particular - are going to play larger parts as the story goes on.)
More Nicky/Scorpius moments came and will continue to come with the next chapter, along with the introduction (finally!) of Lisette Doucet.
As always, I adore and appreciate all reviews. School's delaying my responses a fair bit, but I do read all of them, so I ask you to please review! I really appreciate it!