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They get caught, of course. In a bridge club, of all places.

Britney knows it's a game for old people, but that doesn't much lessen her desire to learn. Kevin and the other Boys were originally taught by force, Denise bullying them all into it when she'd been on a small bus with five entirely too young men for too long. Britney is perfectly aware she isn't that good at it, the math usually being overwhelming. Still, she loves the bidding, speaking to Kevin in a secret language, having him answer back.

They play on Wednesday nights and as with their ballroom dancing on Friday nights, the place is pretty safe. Them, and a bunch of people over sixty, who stopped listening to the radio either in reaction to The Beatles or in protest of them breaking up.

The "pretty" part of pretty safe comes into focus when the gossip columnist for the LA Times comes in one evening to play a hand of cards with her hubby. Said columnist is also around sixty, and neither Britney nor Kevin gives her a second glance. They just go on speaking their language of hearts and clubs, kings and queens.


Britney has the paper delivered to her house, mostly so she can read the headlines, feel like she's in the loop. She goes from front to back, skipping the sports section unless it's basketball season, when she might be expected to know something if found in a conversation with Justin.

The States are squabbling with North Korea, scientists are looking at a new drug to help Alzheimer's, a girl from a local high school won the regional spelling bee, Mattel is marketing a new toy for Christmas, oh, and Britney Spears was sighted with Kevin Richardson, who, nudge nudge wink wink, is ten years her senior. "Shit."

Kevin saunters downstairs as she's reading the article, kissing her atop the head. "Anything interesting?"

The article isn't really detail-packed, but there's enough nasty innuendo to make up for it. "I suppose that depends on your definition of 'interesting.'"

She pushes the paper a little ways away from her. He sidles up to read over her shoulder. "Huh."


His hand falls to her shoulder. "They were gonna find out, hon."

"I still have the dream of being allowed to tell others things about my own life." Britney tries making it humorous, but she can hear her own bitterness and knows he can as well.

"You've told your momma, right?"

"Jesus, Kev. Of course I told my mom." She takes the Sports section, still rolled, and whacks him on the arm. "Told JayLynn and Brian, too."

"And I've told my momma and my brothers, and the four other Musketeers. So who are we worried about finding out?"

Britney squeezes at the base of her neck. "They'll be looking for us now. No more quiet dates."

"Sweetie," Kevin sits down in the chair closest to her, "it was a miracle nobody noticed for this long."

She puts her feet up in his lap, biting her lip when he cups his hands over them and begins to rub. "I'm just tired of my life always being somebody else's property."

"Did you read the same article I did? They don't know anything about us beyond our ages and the fact that we play cards together. We still belong to us."

Britney curls and flexes her feet in reaction to his ministrations. "Let's keep it that way, okay?"


Despite the drawbacks, Britney is remembering why she loves the freedom of an unkempt secret. Now, when she plucks the grocery list that has been steadily growing, from one pages to two, and finally three, off the refrigerator door, she can ask, "Wanna run errands with me?"

If somebody sees them, well, then they've been seen. Hide and go seek, you're it.

She's in the middle of the canned vegetable aisle, hunting for the pureed tomatoes, which are always hidden, when she spills another secret, just loud enough for Kevin to hear. "I'm not gonna try to negotiate for a new contract."

Britney's original contract with Jive was finished up with her previous album.

Kevin reaches behind two cans of stewed tomatoes on the top shelf, just out of Britney's reach, and pulls out a prized puree. "What's the label saying?"

Britney loads the can into the shopping cart and continues on down the aisle. "There's not much they can say. I mean, they're trying to convince me otherwise. The whole thing is a bit half-assed if you ask me, but it wouldn't matter, I'm done."

"You talked with your lawyer, first, right?"

"You're being neurotic, baby." She swerves into the next lane over to pick up a bag of Kenyan coffee beans. Kevin likes to grind them up and roast them in the mornings. The smell of it has redefined Britney's sense of what it feels like to enjoy waking up.

"Overprotective, really. Can't help it. I don't trust the fuckers."

Britney can't blame him. "I covered my ass, Kev. The first time around, actually. I'm untouchable."

"You have something in mind, something you wanna do?" Kevin snags a bag of Sun Chips and does his best imitation of a puppy begging for scraps. She grabs the bag from him, scanning the nutrition information.

She drops it in the cart, even as she protests, "You're gonna be the death of me."


It's their biggest issue of contention, her figure-oriented neuroses. "Sorry."

Kevin lets it go, probably because they're strolling down the cereal aisle, and more than a few kids are peering curiously at the two of them. "So, plans?"

Britney stores up on the Total, picking up the family size. "Something where nobody gets to judge me but me. I dunno, I haven't really…all I could think about was getting out. One step at a time, kinda."

"Would you think about not doing anything for a while?"

She stops, holding the cart out in front of her. "What've you got in mind?"

"Alaskan cruise, nine days, ten nights, Fairbanks straight down to Victoria."

The cruise part is unquestionably appealing. It's one of the things on Britney's to-do list, something she just never got around to in the hubbub of everything that has happened up until this moment. However, "It’s the middle of winter. I'm from Louisiana," she drawls the last for maximum effect.

Kevin counters her with two words. "Aurora Borealis."

Britney frowns at him. "English."

"The northern lights. You can only see them during the winter. It's something I've wanted to see my whole life."

"Cold," Britney emphasizes.

Kevin tips her chin up with one finger. "I'll keep you warm."

It should be lascivious, or at the very least, clichéd. Instead it's tender and significant and Britney gives into the inevitable. "How much are the tickets?"

"They're my Christmas present to you."

Britney snorts. They argue quietly about it as she tests the brown sugar for adequate softness, and verifies the expiration date on the half-gallon of milk.


Britney is hiding out on the balcony when he finds her. She's bundled in two layers of shirts and a parka, large woolen mittens, and a knit cap tugged firmly over her head. She can't feel her nose. He wraps his arms around her, solid and warm against her back. "So?"

"This ship is the size of Louisiana. I'm afraid to leave the room. I might get lost."

"Nah, I already did that for both of us while I was out exploring. It's like spilling wine at the dinner table, once it's done, it's done."

Britney twists in his arms, burrowing her nose in his chest. "It's pretty out here."

"You're gonna catch frostbite, Miss Brit. Inside," he orders.

She follows him in, allowing him to do the work of closing up the cabin. When everything is airtight, he sets to work making sure she's still inside all her layers of clothing. When he's gotten her stripped of everything but her jeans and sweatshirt he takes off the cap, pretending to be afraid to touch her. "You're practically a live wire there, babe."

She runs her hands haphazardly through her static-electrified hair, which only makes it worse, and laughs. "Good thing nobody's around to see."

"Nobody, huh?"

"Maybe everybody," Britney amends.

He rubs the tip of his nose to hers. "That's one hell of an Eskimo kiss. How long where you out there?"

"Um," the warmth of his nose against hers burns, but it isn't unpleasant, "I dunno."

"Brit, it's cold out there. I don't want you losing limbs." He underscores the sentiment with a nip to her still somewhat stiff lips.

"The white's…calming. It's like the nothingness they tell you to envision in yoga. I lost track of time."

"Wanna lose track of some more time with me?" The heat of his breath is hypnotizing.

"What'd you have in mind?" She mumbles.

"Taking a nap."

Like earlier, with her clothes, she allows him to position her on the bed, tucking her into the curl of his body, his arms. It doesn't feel controlling. It feels warm.


Britney outdoes herself as only she can for the first evening's dinner. She read all the information Carnival sent to them with their tickets, read where it specified the dress code as formal. Britney knows how to do formal.

Kevin doesn't whistle at her, or grin slyly, or do any of the cute Southern-bred boy things she expects. He stares. Stares and says, "I can't take you down there dressed like that."

Britney looks down at herself. The dress is midnight blue, the type of blue only appropriate after Labor Day and only swank when worn at night. It's simple, silken and draped over her shoulders, clinging to her curves all the way down to where it nearly sweeps the floor. As far as Britney can tell, there's nothing indecent about it. "I've worn worse in much more public places."

"I meant," he reaches out a hand, stopping himself short of touching one of the pearls Britney's strewn about her up-do, "that someone'll steal you away from me."

Kevin's nothing to pass up in his forest-green vested tuxedo. Britney doesn’t think that's what he needs to hear. "Why'd you take me home that night? The night at Justin's party?"

Kevin's hand drops. "Because you looked the same way I felt."

Britney purses her lips in obvious inquiry.

"Old and lonely."

Britney raises an eyebrow in sarcastic thanks but doesn't make an issue of it. "Why'd you come to see me again? Bring me flowers?"

"Because you didn’t ask me for anything. Didn't expect anything."

Britney urges, "Ask me."

Kevin chances, "Why'd you leave with me that night?"

"Because you looked like I felt, frightened and too-polished."

"Why'd you let me in again?"

"Because you saw me." Britney's known that answer for a while. "See me. You see me. They don't. They see a blue dress, and a pretty hair do, and maybe a pair of tits. They don’t have anything to steal me with."

Kevin takes her hand, kissing the side. "Then I can show you off without fear."

They make the walk to the dining rooms with their hands still together, not letting go until their appetizers appear and trying to eat one-handed proves too large an obstacle. Britney can feel other diners staring, some in recognition, some in jealousy, some in mockery. She feels invisible to everyone but the man across from her.


They steal up to the enclosed observation deck as soon as they regain the ability to move in the aftermath of their dining experience. The lounge is pretty full already but they locate a small table, order spirited hot chocolates, and gaze through the windows surrounding them.

Above them Aurora's greens and blues are streaked across pure black. It's been dark nearly all day with the exception of about four hours, but Britney can tell this is the night sky. There's something pristine about it.

She's captivated by the stars. The brochure says they're clearer the further up north one goes, and this is the furthest north they'll be. Britney's afraid to look away, as though with each passing wave, the colors might fade.

They don't.

It's not lost on her that Kevin has given her this. He hasn't created it -- those stars have been there since before either of them -- but Britney knows she would never have come here on her own. Never even thought about it, really. So this is Kevin's gift. "Did you know?"

Somehow Kevin understands the fragmented thought. "Not really. I thought I did. I'd seen pictures."

"It doesn't seem like it should be real. It's too…too much," she finishes. It feels lame, but Britney knows that sometimes human forms of expression aren't adequate.

"Yes," Kevin agrees, and he's still staring at the stars, but he's sidled up nearly behind her and wrapped her in his arms.

"Yes," Britney echoes, feeling more significant than she ever has.

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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile