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once, twice, three times a lady

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Tennessee takes a breath, steels her nerves and washes her hands for the third time. She’ll go out and join the others any minute now.

She’d promised, she can’t not do it, not after all the planning she’s been a part of. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in it, it’s just that paint-throwing is so confrontational. Tennessee’s not much of a ‘fight fire with fire’ kind of girl. She admires people who are, but it’s never quite been her scene.

Still, there’s something so wrong about having a fur-trimmed collection at a green fashion show, and it’s not something where just protesting the whole event is going to work—it’s a great event, for the most part, so showing disapproval for one specific part of it requires a more pointed statement, Tennessee gets that.

It’s just harder than she thought it would be to get it together to actually do it.

She will, though. Tennessee wipes her hands dry on her skirt, nods once to herself in the mirror, opens the door, walks out of the bathroom she’s been strategically retreated to, out of the coffee shop, and across the street to the environmental group she’s been working with on and off for the last few months. When she reaches the edge of the group, she grabs a paint can, locks eyes on the nearest person wearing fur, and charges.

Tennessee is determined, she is single-minded, she will not back out, she will not back down, she will not be swayed from her mission, and so it’s only as she’s swinging the paint bucket back, only as inertia takes away the choice, that she hears Annie yell, “Tenn, stop! That’s Alex’s friend, she’s on our side!”

It feels like the paint is splattering in slow motion as Tennessee looks up and takes a closer look at the apparently-not-fur-wearing model. Alex’s friend. Tennessee looks her in the eye as the paint hits, and she knows her.

It’s Z Berg. The girl Tennessee and Charlotte didn't start a band with.

Of course, technically there is a whole world full of girls she and Charlotte never started a band with, but Z Berg is definitely the one who came the closest, so she’s the one who has the dubious honor of sticking in Tennessee’s memory.

Fifteen years old, then, but Tennessee can remember the stuttery, shy feeling in her chest and in her tone like it happened last week. They’d played together a couple of times, Z and Tennessee and Charlotte, and the music part, at least, had gone pretty well.

Z and Charlotte had circled each other like sharks the first time, but settled into what Tennessee had thought of as a kind of wary admiration, so after Z had left after jamming with them for the third time, when Charlotte looked at Tennessee and said they should probably talk about it, Tennessee had been prepared to hear her say they should probably call Z up and start brainstorming names so they could make it official. She’d had a thrumming, nervous feeling in her gut when she thought about it, but she’d mostly been excited.

She’d been surprised, then, when Charlotte had passed her the carton of rocky road, licked her own spoon clean, looked up at Tennessee and said, “We can’t have a band with her, of course.”

“What?” Tennessee had asked, hating the way her voice had gone a little squeaky at the end of the question.

“Well, we can’t,” Charlotte had said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You’ve obviously got a thing for her, and she looks at you like she wants to eat you alive. I’m not being in a band that’s doomed to implode because of predictable romantic clusterfucks I’m not even a part of, I just won’t do it.”

“I do not have a thing for her,” Tennessee had protested, careful to keep any hint of squeakiness out of her inflection.

“You do, and that’s fine!” Charlotte had said, smiling encouragingly. “And this way, you won’t have to worry about breaking up the band when you ask her out!”

“When I what now?” Tennessee knew she had a tendency to let Charlotte take the lead on a lot of things because Charlotte has always had all these great big opinions, but whether Tennessee did or didn’t ask someone out was not going to be something Charlotte got to play ‘follow the leader’ with.

(Even the thought had felt mortifying, pinked her cheeks and left knots in her stomach and did people even do that? Tennessee hadn’t known, ‘going out’ at her high school had mostly seemed to consist of giggly group dates and pre-gaming before school dances, but she hadn’t thought Z, with her lacy vintage blouses and her teeny tiny skirts, would go for that.)

“Well,” Charlotte had said, “If we’re going to take ourselves seriously as musicians, you can’t do both, and I’ve never seen you like this with a person we actually know. If we don’t start a band with her, you can ask her out without worrying about what it will do to the band.”

“Because there won’t be one?” Tennessee had asked, wry. “I don’t think that rejecting her professionally so we can get closer personally is really the way to go.”

Still, she hadn’t argued much, the knots in her stomach had kept her from arguing much. Charlotte had made that phone call, and then a week later, Tennessee had tried to make her own—she’d left a message, but Z had never called back.

Tennessee hasn’t thought of that in years.

“I am so sorry, oh wow, I don’t even—I’m so sorry!” Then, a little hesitantly, “It’s not fur?”

Tennessee isn’t sure where to go with this situation from here—it’s nothing she’s ever prepared herself for, and Z is blinking at her like she’s not sure what to do either—spots of paint have splattered up to dot her face and her eyes are wide, but Tennessee’s not sure if that’s with recognition or just with horror.

After a pause, Z says, “Just a fake. Pretty good fake, I guess. And it’s not even mine, one of your friends brought it, I’m just the living coat hanger, so have at it.”

Tennessee isn’t sure how to respond to that. Laena doesn’t let her stay silent long, though—she comes up and throws a companionable arm around Tennessee’s shoulder, looks at Z and tells her, “Tenn here was a little gun-shy about the paint thing, so she missed all the action and came charging into the aftermath.”

It doesn’t make Tennessee sound great, but it is a pretty accurate description, so she lets it pass, opting instead to make herself look Z in the eye (because she can be brave, she’s proved it in maybe one of the stupider ways she could have imagined it just now, but somewhere deep under the horror and embarrassment, she’s still a little proud of herself) and say, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me—”

“Yeah, sure,” Z replies, tone cool, and her voice is a bit lower than it was when they were kids, scratchy, musical, it’s a voice with character, Tennessee can’t help but ask, “Do you still sing?”

“Sometimes,” Z stretches the word out like it has two extra syllables, like she’s confused why Tennessee is asking. “I got my first gig modeling for a photographer a couple days after you guys rejected me, I’ve been doing more of that kind of thing, but I sing sometimes.”

She says it so matter-of-fact, so casual, like that’s the kind of thing people even say out loud, it leaves Tennessee blinking in surprise.

Laena asks, “So you know each other?”

“We’ve met,” Z drawls, flipping a long, elegant hand over her head and behind her to snag Alex’s cigarette as he walks over to join them. He hands it over willingly enough, then looks at Laena and says, “I thought we were going to script the performance art a little more? And time it better?”

“Thomas went off-script,” Laena says, and she doesn’t sound nearly as upset about it as Tennessee thinks she probably should be. Z blows a smoke ring. Alex claps his hands. “Okay, kids, let’s make this work!”

After, Tennessee stays to help clean up, because paint-slinging is all well and good, but once you’ve made your displeasure known, there’s no reason to leave someone else to clean up your mess (unless the mess is part of the statement, but Tennessee’s not mad at everyone--that would be exhausting. She’s mad at specific people at a time, she makes sure of it, otherwise she’s afraid her head would explode).

She’s surprised to see Z stick around for cleanup, too, even more surprised when Z follows along with Tennessee and the rest of the stragglers to grab a drink later.

Somewhere along the way, Z has shed not just the paint-soaked faux-fur, but also the fashion plate getup that was underneath—she’s perched on a bar-stool in cutoffs and a ragged t-shirt, paint-ey hair scraped back into a messy, red-streaked pony-tail. Tennessee hasn’t even almost-known Z for years, she doesn’t really know what Z’s habits are, but this seems unlike her.

Be brave Tennessee reminds herself as she breathes out for the second time that day. She leans over the counter, orders two drinks instead of one, and then makes her way down the bar to where Z is sitting at the end.

Tennessee grabs an empty seat next to her, slides the second drink over to her, and says, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. Erm, at least twice, now. Can I try one more time?”

Z turns towards her and smiles, lips still a bright as the dot of paint in her eyebrow, and says, “alright. Let’s give it a shot.”