Emma set out her entire collection of teacups on the table. They were mixed and matched, one blue willow, a pair of rosebud cups, three with delicate stripes, and few more that she had managed to collect along the way. If you were looking for a common thread you wouldn’t find it. These cups had managed to survive the years, thanks to luck more than careful planning.
Quickly counting the sets in her head she knew she had enough for everyone to have a cup and everyone would have a place in the room if not at the table.
She smiled. It had certainly been some time since she’d had a gathering in her little parlor. The furniture crowded the floor, sprawled over the faded rug, hiding the scratches in the wooden planks.
A sharp cracking sound announced that the fire in her stove was in full bloom, the heat rising up through the cast iron like the summer heat on the dry earth. Rousting herself from her reverie, Emma strode into the kitchen to fetch her teapot from the cabinet.
It took a few determined brushes of her apron corner before the lid was cleared of dust. She laughed to herself, “Admit it, Emma… you need this as much as she does.”

Lou cupped her hand into the bathtub wincing as a sharp hiss of breath escaped her lips. The water wasn’t quite scalding hot, but it was so much nicer than the lukewarm shower that Teaspoon had rigged out behind the bunkhouse that she didn’t dare complain or even waste a single moment of time to let it cool off.
She grabbed a soft square of towel and stepped into the water before she could decide against it, flexing her toes in the hot water, she finally got enough feeling back in her foot to put weight on it. The other leg followed and then a long moment before her bottom touched the surface of the water and she had a good laugh over the little squeal that popped from her throat.
That would have given her away for sure if one of the boys had heard her. There wasn’t any way to think a man could sound like that.

In the kitchen, Emma was having a time of it. The counter was littered with little tin boxes, square, oval, round… tall, short, even narrow. With each one she slid her finger under the lip of the cover and pulled it free. Bringing the box up just underneath her nose, she took a long thoughtful breath of each flavor trying to decide what to do. Earl Grey was a bit too austere for the occasion. Mint seemed a little too trivial. There didn’t seem to be a flavor that really matched the moment, which could do their little party justice, so she kept searching for that elusive tin.

Up to her chin in the soothing bath, Lou took a moment to look around as her skin warmed to the water surrounding her. Emma’s mudroom was clean from the top shelf of the pantry to the floor. There was an ample supply of soap stacked up on one shelf and a mountainous pile of laundry in the corner.
Lou looked away from the site. The heat of the water… the smell of strong soap… men’s shirts and other things in the pile brought back too many memories.
Somewhere outside the window one of the boys gave a yell and Lou crossed her legs over her chest, shrinking in the tub. She knew she was safe here in Emma’s house, knew her past was just that… past, and still she could fall into her memories so easily, even after all this time.
She plunged the little towel into the water for a moment and scrubbed her face as if the memories would wash away with the dirt, but there they were in her mind, playing over and over again. Lou leaned her head back against the rim of the tub and felt the water course down her face in little rivers and if she didn’t think about it too hard, she could almost believe that there weren’t tears mixed in with the bath water.

Emma felt like a little girl again hosting her dolls to tea at her mother’s fine mahogany table. She could still remember Ike’s strange expression when she’d told him to let the boys know she expected them to come calling at the appointed time and dressed in clean attire. He had given her a curious little look as if he was trying to see right through her skull.
*is this a joke* he’d asked her, worry in his eyes.
She’d given him an affectionate pat on his cheek and sent him on his way. She didn’t like keeping him in the dark. She knew he’d enjoy the moment as much as she would, but this was a secret between the girls and that’s what she’d been looking forward to the most. There would be ample time to explain later, but now, the lid of the teapot was starting to dance in the kitchen. Setting out a stuttering cling*clang rhythm was just a little signal to ‘get ready’.
Taking up her preciously perfect tin, Emma set it down right beside the stove, her fingers gently stroking the scroll work carved into the lid as she moved away.

Her free hand closed around the sweet scented bar of soap that Emma had left for her and brought it up to her nose, drawing in its scent in one long breath after another. The scent was different, roses instead of lye. The feel of it was refined, not the rough texture of ash that would get stuck beneath her nails.
There was no insistent pounding at the door, no hands dragging her from the water back to her duties, no worry on Charlotte’s face as she was pulled down the hall. How long had she held onto the memories of fear and terror? How long had she been keeping this all inside? How much longer was she going to allow it to keep her locked up in the dark?
Her eyes squeezed shut on the memory of his hands on her, dragging her closer in the dark.
Lou slid down the wall of the tub, her body numb and slack as her mind raged on.

Emma watched the boys through the window. Ike’s earnest expression in the face of a barrage of questions from the others was precious. She’d thank him later with some special dessert to make the effort worth it.
She wondered what their reactions would be. They knew that Lou was a girl, but had the thought really sunk in? “I don’t think so.” Emma started at the sound of her own voice. Had she really said that aloud?
Ever since they’d gone after Lou’s brother and sister the boys had been more at ease around Lou, their unspoken questions put to rest, but still, they didn’t treat her like a girl. Now they didn’t think twice about throwing a pillow at her in play or cuffing her on the shoulder like they would with each other, but Emma felt there was something lacking.
Every woman, somewhere deep down inside, wanted to have those treasured moment of being special, enjoying a moment where they were the center of attention. A chair held out, the tip of a hat, a gentle smile that told her she was the only woman in the room. She wanted to give Lou her moments, even if they had to hide it from Mr. Spoon.
The kettle sounded a cavalry call, the lid rattling like drums in a marching formation. Shaking her head to clear her mind of her own silly hopes, Emma took the edge of her apron in hand and lifted the handle of the teapot with care.

Lou slipped beneath the surface of the water, her body going limp. Her hands floated up a little felt her muscles relax in the heated bath, the sounds of the world lost for the moment. It was tempting to stay there, the bottom of the tub reassuringly at her back, her memories held at bay.
She knew it wouldn’t last, knew even without a glance at the clock that Emma would be coming up soon to tell her to get dressed. This gift had been such a welcomed treasure that Lou didn’t really begrudge Emma the tea party she was throwing. It seemed to mean a great deal to her… and because of Emma’s kindness, a great deal to Lou as well.
Lou came up the surface, shaking the water droplets off her face, worrying slightly that the drops would pepper the floor. Worrying until she sat up in the tub and caught sight of her reflection in a mirror.
Her face was rounder now, just slightly as if her cheeks were a little fuller. The ends of her hair were still short enough to pass for a boy, but like this… slightly damp… she ran her fingers through from temples to nape and smiled. There was a little curl to the ends, just enough to soften the look.
She grabbed the larger towel in one hand and stood up, brushing the water off as she rose and noting the changes in her figure, the ones she fought so hard to hide around the boys. Lou stole a glance in the mirror again, holding the towel to her front only revealing enough to see exactly what she had been ignoring out of fear.
There, staring back from the mirror was a young woman… a woman that had friends that knew who she was… what she was, and they were going to keep her secret. They were the reason she could go through with Emma’s little party.
Lou remembered the feel of Emma’s arms around her, secure and caring, her first honest touch in a long time. It had triggered something inside of her a long-buried yearning for the unconditional love of a mother. She didn’t say it in front of Emma... she doubted she ever would, but she was already sure that coming here to Sweetwater had been the change she needed. This new life was the second chance she’d been looking for, the chance to float for once instead of sinking back into the fear she’d been living with for so long. With Emma’s gentle embrace she had opened herself up to a possibility. The possibility that she could really have folks that care about her, a family to belong to.

Emma couldn’t give let go of the smile she’d been brewing the whole day. Just a moment before little Lou… Louise had run up the stairs, towel wrapped tight around her body, eyes wide with anticipation and the sense of urgency that only comes from the distinct chance that you might be caught in the all-together.
She could hear heavy footsteps on the porch and there was a little hitch in her chest, her heart taking a turn at the giddy effects of anticipation. Lifting the teapot she breathed in the warm aroma of green tea, purchased from a traveling merchant from San Francisco. The scent was light, gently flavoring the water, but there was a certain ‘flair’ to the flavor, as if the leaves held a little taste of the life in a port city… a place teeming with new and exciting people making a life for themselves. She wanted to instill a little of that into each of her new-found family.
Create for them a solid circle of affection and love where they had nothing and hopefully enjoy a little bit of that herself.
Calling to the boys to come in, Emma gave herself a final appreciative nod at the table and stood back to watch the room fill up with friendship and camaraderie. She doubted that the boys found anything amiss as she began to pour out cup after cup of tea, but as her joy finally bubbled over she quickly swiped the back of her hand. She didn’t even want her tears of joy to mar the moment; after all it was a coming out party.
“Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce…

*inspired by the song ‘Holy Water’ sung by Big & Rich*

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