Work Header

Ready or not

Work Text:

Getting ready to leave home again felt strange, but it was a good strange.

Over the summer, college had receded into memory. Sure, she'd emailed with Reagan a bunch, and talked on the phone with Levi. She'd even seen Levi a few times, because he insisted he didn't mind the long drives to and from Omaha. And that was great. But she and Wren were living back home again, with Dad. Cath slipped back into her old patterns of keeping an eye on him, Wren slipped back into her old patterns of staying up too late and sleeping in, and it was almost as though they'd never left.

Cath didn't realize she was losing what it had felt like to be on her own. Until Levi showed up at the end of August and knocked on the door, looking elated and bashful as he said "Hi, Mr. Avery, I'm here for Cath," because it was time for him to drive her back to school.

She'd asked Wren, nervously, whether Wren minded her driving back with Levi. This year the two of them were going to be sharing a car, a sensible used blue Camry with good snow tires. She knew Wren had probably been picturing the two of them driving back together. But Wren had said it was okay. ("Really, Cath. I mean it. Stop asking.") So she took her sister's words at face value and let herself trust that it really was okay.

"Call me when you get to campus," Dad said, hugging her tight.

"Don't forget to eat," she said, hugging him back equally hard.

"I'm not quite packed yet but I'll be there by dinnertime," Wren said. "Promise."

As she ran out to Levi's truck, Cath felt like she was flying.

As they pulled onto campus she could see anxious parents and bewildered freshmen everywhere. Had she looked that lost, last year? She must have.

Levi took her straight to pick up her room key, and then to Pound, where he helped her carry her boxes into the two-room suite she and Reagan had chosen in the housing lottery last May. Reagan had the inner room; Cath had the one adjoining the hall. Reagan's had a bigger closet, but Cath's had better windows. Also, Wren's room was only three doors down. It would be like living together at home, only better.

After they piled the last of her boxes on the carpeted floor, Levi flung himself down on the naked mattress of her twin bed, heaving a sigh.

"You didn't have to carry all that stuff," Cath pointed out.

"I wanted to," Levi said. "I don't mind. Besides, making you do it all by yourself seemed kind of obnoxious. What was I going to do, pile your boxes on the sidewalk?"

"Fair point," she conceded. She sat on the edge of the bed and their fingers intertwined.

In that moment it seemed amazing to her that she didn't have to say anything, or try to be clever, or pretend not to be clever. Levi didn't want her to be anyone other than who she was. They could just sit there, holding hands and grinning at each other.

Eventually Levi clenched her hand quickly and then withdrew his. "I've got some errands to run," he said regretfully. "See you at dinner?"

"Definitely," Cath promised. "I'll text you once I know which dining hall we're going to." Their kiss was brief but sweet. Butterflies danced the tango in her ribcage as they pulled apart.

As Levi closed the door behind him, Cath sat on her bed and looked at the boxes piled on the floor.

Two-room suite meant she had her own room. Which meant Levi could stay over, if she wanted. She wasn't sure she felt ready for that, but it was an option now in a way it hadn't been before.

This was nothing like arriving for freshman year had been, at all.

Wednesday afternoon, after the second meeting of her poli sci class, Cath was approached by a tall African-American girl wearing a grey dress and purple tights and wire-rim glasses.

"Hey -- you're Cath, right?"

Cath nodded.

"I'm Denise," the girl said.

"Nice to meet you," Cath replied on autopilot.

"I noticed your t-shirt," Denise said. Cath was wearing a Simon Snow shirt from two years ago. "I have one just like it."

And just like that, her last remnants of anxiety about striking up a conversation with a stranger vanished. Because if Denise had a Simon Snow t-shirt, then they already had things in common. "Awesome."

"What'd you think of the Eighth Dance?" Denise asked.

"I loved it," Cath said. "But I wasn't ready for the whole thing to be over, you know?"

"Me neither."

"I'm not sure I've really processed the fact that we're not getting another book." Cath felt wistful every time she thought about it.

"Hey, listen -- I don't know if this would be your kind of thing, but -- some of my friends and I are doing a Buffy re-watch on Sundays in the common room on the second floor of Harper."

"You know, I never saw Buffy," Cath admitted.

Denise grinned. "It's awesome. My suitemate has the boxed set, all seven seasons. If you're a Simon Snow fan -- okay, I mean, Buffy handles vampires a little bit differently than Gemma T. Leslie does, but there are definitely similarities. Anyway, we're starting this Sunday, 8 o'clock."

"Thanks." Cath felt warmed by the invitation. But she couldn't help asking, "Just because I'm wearing a Simon Snow shirt?"

Denise shrugged. "If you up and bought that shirt, you're probably a fan. A real fan, I mean, not just someone who read some of the books."

You have no idea, Cath thought, but she just nodded.

"And hey, geek girls gotta stick together, right?" As soon as she said the words, Denise seemed to think better of them. "I don't mean geek in a bad way," she hastened to add.

"No, no, I get it," Cath assured her. "Geek is a badge of pride."

"Cool," Denise said, obviously relieved. "Okay, gotta dash. See you Sunday, maybe."

"You're going to what?" Reagan asked at dinner on Sunday night.

"They're going to start watching Buffy," Cath said again.

"Didn't that air, like, a million years ago?"

"One, okay, yes, it did, and two, I really don't care."

"And you'd really rather do that than come with me to the kegger in Abel?"

Abel was Abel Hall, where a lot of the pre-law guys lived. "I'm sorry, have you met me?"

Reagan laughed. "Okay, fine. Don't yell at me if I wake you up when I come in tipsy at 1am."

On her way to Harper, Cath stopped to pick up Wren. Because even if this were a geek gathering, it was still a room full of strangers. Wren was never intimidated by strangers. Cath always was. She would have brought Levi, too, but his schedule at the Starbucks had him on shift from 8-10 on Sunday nights.

About ten people were lounging on the faded couches in the second-floor common room. A bag of Smartfood was open on the coffee table, alongside a couple of sixpacks of hard cider and two 3-liter bottles of Diet Coke.

"You came!" Denise smiled at her from the couch. "Hey, scoot over, you guys. Everybody, this is Cath; she's in my poli sci class."

"Hi," Cath said, and held out a big bag of blue corn chips. "I brought food."

"Excellent," said a curvy girl who was sitting on the floor.

"And this is my sister Wren," Cath forged on. She had to make a conscious effort not to squirm, because everyone was looking at them.

"Hey; I'm Lena," said the girl on the floor.

"And neither of you have ever seen Buffy before?" asked a tall thin guy with dark hair who was kneeling in front of the dvd player. Cath and Wren both shook their heads no. "Oh, you are in for a treat."

"Season one is kind of terrible," Lena objected.

"It's so not!" said the guy. He sounded appalled. Melodramatically so.

"You have to watch it to get a sense for who the characters are," Denise interjected, "but there's a lot of monster-of-the-week. They were still kind of figuring out what the show was going to be."

"It gets seriously good, though," another woman promised. "If you like Simon Snow, you will totally love this."

"I guess Denise told you about that," Cath said.

"We're all Simon Snow fans," Lena assured her.

"Let's get rolling," said the guy in front of the dvd player, and Cath and Wren wedged themselves onto the couch.

After the third week, Wren stopped going, but Cath didn't. The show was a mixed bag so far, but she liked the people who hung out in the Harper common room.

Reagan rolled her eyes every time she saw Cath heading out on a Sunday evening. "Whatever," she said. "You realize this makes you approximately a hundred times less date-able."

"Levi seems to be okay with that," Cath pointed out, and Reagan laughed and called, "Bring me a coffee!" as Cath left the suite. Levi always picked her up after Buffy night, and he usually had a few fancy lattes in a cup holder in his truck. She could have driven herself -- Wren wouldn't have minded letting her use the car, now that nights were getting really cold -- but she liked letting Levi drive her back at the end of the night, either to Pound, or to the house he shared with his ag school friends. More often to his house, truth be told. She felt freer there.

The first night that Wren didn't join her was the night she found out that Lena wrote Buffy fic. They'd watched their allotted episodes for the night and were just hanging out. Cath was talking to Joe, the tall guy who usually worked the dvd player who she was starting to suspect was probably gay.

"The thing about Wittgenstein," he was saying, and then her ears stopped focusing on his voice and homed in instead on the word "fanfiction" from across the room.

"Hang on, excuse me," she said to Joe, and turned toward Lena. "Did you say fanfiction?"

"I write Buffy fic," Lena said, as though it were a completely ordinary thing to do. Which maybe for her it was; Cath just wasn't used to hearing people talk about it out loud. "It's -- well, it's for a pairing that isn't going to make sense to you yet, not at this point in the series--"

"You might want to explain 'pairing,'" Denise pointed out.

"No, no, I know what that means," Cath said quickly. "I --" She hesitated for an instant; she hadn't told anyone about her fic since Professor Piper had slammed her for it last semester. But this was a room full of geeks, at least one of whom wrote fic too. This had to be a safe place to admit her pastime, didn't it? "I write Simon Snow fic. I mean, I used to; I haven't written a ton since the last book came out."

"I knew it!" Denise beamed. "I had that feeling about you. I don't write, but I read a ton of fic."

"What pairing do you write?" Lena looked delighted too.

"Simon/Baz," Cath said.

"Oh, that is so awesome," Lena said. "Hey, do you--"

Then Cath caught sight of Levi in the door. "Hi," she said, and when he smiled at her she knew they looked like dorky lovebirds but she couldn't really bring herself to mind.

"...never mind," Lena said dryly.

"I've got to go," Cath apologized.

"Hi, Cath's boyfriend," Denise said to Levi. And then, turning to Cath, "Hey Cath, your boyfriend's hot."

"Denise!" Cath felt her cheeks turning pink.

"Hi Denise, I'm Levi," he said, without missing a beat, and reached over to shake her hand.

"Nice to meet you." Denise looked approving. Maybe she'd expected him to balk at being teased by a complete stranger? But nothing fazed Levi.

"Send me some of your fic," Lena called as she was leaving.

As they walked out to his truck, Levi put his arm around her shoulders, and Cath put hers around his waist. It felt sweet. Real.

"Seems like you've found some birds of a feather," he said.

"Is that a chicken joke? Because if it is, I am totally annoyed."

He laughed. "Nah, just an observation." They had made it to the truck by then. "Want to come to East for a bit, or do you have too much homework?"

"I have some," she admitted, "but I have my laptop in my backpack -- can I hang out and do it at your place for a while?"

His grin illuminated the cab of the truck. "Sure."

Staying late at his place usually meant curling up with him when she couldn't handle any more homework. Necking a little, and then just holding each other, and eventually falling asleep.

It started out the way it always did. Levi went into the bathroom and came back in plaid flannel pajama pants and a waffle shirt. Cath kicked off her jeans and shrugged out of her bra and got into bed wearing just her long-sleeved shirt. She always shivered with delight when their bodies first fit together. The kissing was always sweet.

But this time they were rubbing against each other and it felt so good that Cath didn't want to stop. So she didn't. They broke the kiss and Levi shifted as though to roll over and she didn't let him. She pressed her face into his neck and his thigh slipped between hers and oh, she liked that. She rocked against him.

Levi was clearly on board with this new program, but he let her set the pace. It wasn't long before she was frantic, chasing her orgasm which was just barely out of reach. And then she shifted slightly to one side and her thigh brushed his erection and he bit back a gasp.

That was pretty heady, especially for a girl who'd been writing smut since she was fourteen but had never felt desirable. Not like this.

She wasn't sure what possessed her, but she pushed him onto his back and climbed on top of him. Levi groaned, as though he couldn't help himself, and the sound made her toes curl. Or maybe that was the feeling of him, through the soft worn flannel of his pajama pants, pressing against her. His hands went to her hips, steadying her, and she bent down to kiss him, and the shift in position slid her against his cock.

This was so much better than touching herself. How had she not known that?

When she came she clung to him like a liferaft. Levi held her close, her head on his chest.

After a while he shifted beneath her. "I'm gonna get new pajama pants," he murmured into her hair, and she rolled to one side. Oh, she thought, and felt strangely, fiercely proud.

By mid-October it was starting to feel as though Cath had two lives. She saw Reagan and Wren and Levi in Pound, and saw Levi at his house on East Campus; and she saw her Buffy-watching fic-writing friends in Harper. The two lives never collided, except for when Levi picked her up after Sunday night tv.

She wasn't sure why she never wanted to stick around with Levi in Harper once he showed up. Some of it was selfish; she didn't want to share him with her new friends, she wanted to spend time just with him. And -- okay, if she were honest with herself, she was a little bit nervous that he wouldn't fit in with this new circle of friends. No one in the Buffy-watching gang attended the Ag school. What if it got weird? And both the friendships and the relationship still felt new enough that she didn't want to jeopardize either one.

A lot of the Buffy-watching gang were gamers -- members of NURPA, the Nebraska University Role Playing Association. ("It should have been UNRPA," Joe explained, "but no one could pronounce that, and NURPA is kind of fun to say.") Midway through October, they talked Cath into trying her first one-shot campaign. Six of them gathered in the common room where they usually watched Buffy; there was a sign on the door saying "Reserved 1-5pm."

Denise was the GM. "I know you don't have any experience with D&D," she said to Cath, "so I chose a system with really simple mechanics. We're not even going to have standard character sheets. I have an idea of your basic character types and how your stats play out."

"Okay," Cath said. She had a vague sense of what character sheets were; probably it was a good thing that she wasn't going to have to fill one out.

"Here are abbreviated character descriptions," Denise said, and passed out half sheets of paper. Cath's said:


You are Professor Laura Adofo. Your area of expertise is artificial intelligence, and you were responsible for some of the decade's greatest leaps forward in sentient technology -- until your work was plagiarized and you were discredited. Still, there are those across the galaxy who persist in believing that you were wronged and that your research was sound. You are married but have no children. Your wife Luana works for the civil service and is currently stationed on Mercury, a spaceport six hours' travel from your planetary home. You usually see each other every weekend, but you've just gotten word that she's being kept on Mercury until the current crisis passes.

Once Cath had read her sheet she looked up and saw everyone else finishing theirs and then looking around the table, too.

When it was clear that everyone was done reading, Denise said, "Welcome to the 24th century," and grinned. "Humanity has long since left Earth-Prime behind. Our game is going to begin on one of the smaller moons of a class-M planet in an unnamed star system. Unnamed because it's not relevant," she added, to Lena, and Lena laughed.

"Busted," Lena said, and then murmured to Cath, sotto voce, "I'm always asking questions about things that totally aren't significant."

"You've all been visiting this moon for different reasons. There are three major cities here, and a monorail between them. The problem is, there are reports of a plague, planetside, and the bloggers are all going nuts -- it's impossible to tell what's going on or whether it's safe to return. Each of you is likely to have a different theory on where you go from here in order to find out what's what. You've all just met for the first time, in a coffee shop at the station where you were each expecting to catch a shuttle home -- but shuttles aren't returning to the planet's surface. What do you do?"

About ten seconds after they got started, Cath felt herself slipping into the kind of creative fugue state she sometimes found when she ws writing fic. "I think we should head for the spaceport," she said, turning toward Elizabeth. "My wife works there, and she'll have access to data we can use to find out what's really happening down there."

"Are you sure?" Elizabeth asked. "We might want to stay on this moon; I have some connections in Bukhari Town who might be able to smuggle us down to the surface."

"I'd like to hear more about those," Lena said. "Officer Jackson Reed, LibraCorp security."

And just like that, they were off.

She should have known it would feel comfortable. It was collaborative storytelling -- the same thing she and Wren had been doing for years. It was just storytelling out loud, in realtime.

Cath loved it.

"What's amazing," she said to Levi that night, "is feeling like I've found my tribe." They were lying on his bed; he was leaning against a pair of pillows pushed up against the wall, and she was leaning on him.

As soon as she said it she realized she shouldn't have. Because what if it sounded to him as though she were saying that he wasn't important?

"I mean, people who are weird in some of the same ways that I am. But that doesn't mean you're not in my tribe--"

"I get it," he assured her. She liked the way she could feel his chest rumbling when he spoke. "Hanging out with these friends is good for you."

"Yeah," Cath agreed, "I think it is."

"Also you're writing fic again, which means I get side benefits."

She'd been toying with some Buffy fic. It felt strange to be writing in a fandom other than Simon Snow, but there was also something liberating about it.

She knew what Levi meant, but she couldn't resist teasing him a little bit. "Benefits?" she asked innocently.

"It gets you in the mood," he clarified. She could hear the grin in his voice.

She had absolutely no choice but to turn around, yank a pillow out from behind him and whap him with it. And then kiss him. Just because she could.

"I want to try something," Levi murmured. They were in his bed, in their usual nighttime wear, and the room was dark. Cath could hear faint strains of Smashing Pumpkins coming from one of his housemates' rooms down the hall.

"Okay," Cath whispered back. Tendrils of excitement and nervous anticipation bloomed in her chest.

"Tell me if you don't like it," Levi said softly, and then shimmied under the covers and climbed over her, settling between her legs which opened wider to make room.

She barely had time to panic before she felt his warm breath right at the apex of her spread thighs. It was hot and tantalizing and she shifted, straining mutely toward the sensation. She felt his lips through the cotton of her underwear, just resting there. And then he kissed her through the cloth and she felt his tongue dampening the fabric.

"Oh my God," Cath gasped, and brought one arm up to cover her eyes because even in the dark of his room she suddenly felt exposed. Her whole body was a giant tingling nerve.

And then his fingers tugged the fabric out of the way.

It was all Cath could do not to wail. She was intimately acquainted with everything her own fingers could achieve, but this was different. She felt as though Levi's tongue were taking her apart into component atoms and each one was exploding with pleasure. After she shuddered through her orgasm he pulled back, gently let her panties slip back into place, and rested his head on her stomach.

His breathing tickled a little bit. She petted his head because it was what she could reach.

When he came up from under the covers his hair was standing up in all directions and he looked goofily happy.

"Your turn," Cath murmured. "What do you want?"

"Anything," Levi said, rolling onto his back and kicking the covers away. She could see his erection tenting his pajama pants. She wondered whether that would ever stop making her feel a frisson of startling pride that she had been the one to make his body respond that way.

She tucked her fingers into the waistband of his pajama pants. "Can I?" she asked.

In wordless response he lifted his hips and she tugged the pants partway down his legs. He made a little sound when his cock sprang free.

Even in the dim light she could see that it was flushed dark. "Does it hurt?" she asked, because it looked as though it might.

"It's good," Levi assured her.

She wanted to make him feel amazing. And she wasn't exactly sure how. But she curled her fingers and reached over and stroked and he thrust up into her hand. The skin was soft and hot and she thought, inanely, that next time she wrote fic she was going to have all kinds of new details to incorporate. Like how it felt to touch someone's cock for the first time. And the desperate little sounds Levi made when she found a rhythm and kept going.

Emboldened by the way he pushed into her hand, she murmured "Show me how you do it?" Levi's hand came down over hers. He pressed her fingers harder against the base of his cock, closed them tighter around him. Cath loved the feeling of her hand being pressed between his hand and his cock. And it wasn't long before he gasped and she felt the pulse of him jerking beneath her fingers.

After, when they spooned together for sleep, Cath lay awake for a long time, replaying the whole thing in her mind. She wanted to inscribe it there, a memory she didn't ever want to forget.

She knocked on Wren's door.

"Come in," Wren called, and Cath pushed the door open.

Wren's dorm room was every bit as messy as her room back home. Cath pushed two books and a folder of papers aside and sat on the foot of her bed.

"I'm going to health services," she said, "and I was wondering if you would come with me."

Wren looked concerned. "What's up? Do you think you have mono or something?"

Cath couldn't help smiling, remembering what everyone had called it in high school -- 'the kissing disease.' "Not exactly," she said. And then she took a deep breath and forged on. "I want to get a prescription for the pill."

There; she'd said it.

Wren squealed and leapt up from her desk, flinging herself onto the bed next to Cath. "Are you guys...?"

Cath felt her face turning pink. "Not yet," she said. "Well. I mean. Nothing that could get me pregnant."

"Oh my God, I can't believe you're going on the pill."

"It seems like the smart thing to do," Cath said defensively.

"No, no, it totally is! Okay," Wren said suddenly, "Let's go. This paper can wait."

As they made their way out of the dorm Cath asked, "What about you and Jandro? Have you..?"

She glanced at her sister, who was looking down but smiling a mysterious, secret smile.

"You have! And you didn't tell me!" Cath accused.

"It's only been a few times," Wren protested. "We've been using condoms."

"Are they hard to put on?"

"I don't know, he does it himself," Wren said. "I can't believe I'm telling you this."

"Oh, come on, we're on the way to get me birth control pills," Cath said, feeling reckless and free.

"I'm glad you asked me to come with you."

Cath shrugged. "Seems like the kind of thing sisters should do together."

Wren linked her arm with Cath's and they walked together down the sidewalk, fallen leaves crunching under their feet.

"It's going to be totally fun," Lena said.

"Yeah, come on, you should come," Denise agreed. She pushed the flyer into Cath's hands. It was fluorescent orange. She folded it into quarters and tucked it into her jacket pocket.

"I'll think about it," she said. "Thanks, you guys, I have to get to English class." She started walking across the quad.

"Bring Levi," Lena shouted as she walked away.

NURPA was throwing a Halloween party, but Cath was not convinced that she wanted to go. Buffy-watching parties were one thing. Even the occasional RPG was one thing. But Lena was right -- a party sounded like the kind of thing to which she should bring her boyfriend. And Cath was certain that Levi wouldn't be interested in the least. She probably wouldn't even mention it to him.

But the flyer fell out of her pocket while he was hanging up her jacket in his closet. They were settling in for an evening of curling up and doing homework together in his bedroom.

"Hey, it's a Halloween party," Levi said, handing her the paper.

Cath was careful to sound as offhand as possible. "Whatever, it's a nice invitation, but I don't think it's our thing." She folded it up and tucked it into her book and kept reading

Ten minutes later, Levi startled her by bringing up the party again. "We should go as Baz and Simon," Levi suggested.

Cath looked up from her poli sci textbook. "Seriously?"

"Yeah, why not?"

"I don't know, because you don't usually dress up for Halloween?"

"Neither do you," Levi pointed out. "C'mon, I liked the books too."

"When I read them to you."

"I like everything when you read it to me."

The shy smile on his face when he said that made Cath want to melt. "You really want to go to the party."

"I do," he confirmed.

"Okay," Cath said, doing her best to quell her nerves. "Fine. We'll go."

"You don't have to sound like you're being sentenced to jail time," Levi pointed out.

"I'd be happy just staying in," Cath offered. "You and me and a good cheesy Halloween flick?"

"I want to meet your friends. I know," he said, forestalling her objection, "I know your sister and your suitemate, and I've met your other friends, several times, for about five seconds apiece. But it'd be nice to have an actual conversation. Unless..."

His voice trailed off, and now his smile looked forced.

"Unless what," Cath prompted, her heart catching in her throat. What was wrong?

"Do you not want them to meet me?" Levi asked. She could see hurt blooming in his eyes.

"What? No!" Cath exclaimed, horrified. "I mean, yes! I mean, I want them to meet you."

"Yeah?" Levi still sounded uncertain.

"Yeah," she said firmly. "You're awesome. They're going to love you." As she said the words, she knew they were true.

The NURPA Halloween party was at Joe's apartment. He lived off-campus in an old house which had been subdivided into college apartments; he shared a third-floor walk-up with his boyfriend Tom and another senior who Cath had never met.

When they arrived, the party was already in full swing. The whole apartment was decorated with pumpkin-shaped Christmas lights and tufts of fake spiderweb. In the kitchen there were two ice chests full of beer and cider and soda. The living room was full of people in costume, talking loudly over the music playing from the stereo in the corner.

"Hey," Denise called. "You made it!" She was dressed as Zoe from Firefly, wearing a leather vest and jeans and a thong necklace with her hair pulled back. "Oh my God, you guys are mages. Wait, are you --"

"Simon and Baz," Levi said, and Cath gripped his hand. They were wearing black robes that Wren had borrowed for them from the theatre department's costume shop, with the sigils of their different school houses affixed on the left-hand side. Levi had slicked down his hair and Cath was wearing a wig.

"They are so totally doing it," Lena agreed, joining them. "Hey Cath, hey Levi."

Cath blushed, even though she knew Lena was talking about the fictional characters, not about the two of them. Lena was dressed all in green. "Peter Pan?" Cath hazarded a guess.

Lena laughed and reached for a green cloth cube which was sitting on the floor next to the coffee table. She inverted it and put it on her head, and Cath saw the eyeholes and the blocky black facial features. "Creeper," Lena said from inside the box. "From Minecraft?"

"That's a computer game, right?" Levi asked, and Lena nodded, then took the box off

"Kind of hard to drink my beer with that thing on," she said, by way of explanation.

"So tell me what's cool about Minecraft," Levi asked. He smiled at Lena as though drawing her into conversation weren't difficult at all. Which, for Levi, it probably wasn't. Cath envied him that.

"Okay, so here's what you need to know," Lena began...

Carrying her third hard cider of the night, Cath plopped back onto the overstuffed couch. Joe sat down on her left. He was dressed like Woody from Toy Story -- not exactly a difficult costume, since everybody and his brother owned a pair of cowboy boots, and a hat wasn't hard to come by. The cow-print vest was cute, though.

"How're you doing?" he asked.

"Great," Cath said, and meant it.

"Seems like Levi's doing fine," Joe said, gesturing with his beer toward the corner where Levi was engrossed in telling three freshmen all about range management.

"I should have known he would," Cath admitted. "He's an extrovert."

"And also, we don't bite," Joe pointed out. She looked at him. "What, you think there's anyone at this party who hasn't felt out of place in a social setting?"

" a good point," Cath agreed.

Joe bumped her shoulder with his. "C'mon, Cath, give us some credit."

"Okay, fine, you guys are awesome," Cath said.

"You're pretty cool yourself."

Just then Levi glanced up and caught her eye. He tilted his head slightly, wordlessly asking if she were okay. Cath smiled at him and raised her cider in a toast. Or maybe a salute. Whatever. A happy gesture.

Levi said something to the girls he was chatting with and then stood up and made his way across the room to sit right next to Cath. His thigh pressed against hers. "How're you doing?" he asked.

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?"

"I'm great." His smile was easy, open, untroubled. "Your friends are cool."

"That we are," Joe agreed, and rose. "I'll leave you two lovebirds to it."

Cath felt herself blushing, but she leaned into Levi a little bit. He pressed a kiss to her wig.

"Eww," he said, making a face. "I think I just got fake hair in my mouth."

"Gross," Cath agreed, and yanked the wig off. "It was getting hot anyway."

"And here I thought the hot one was you," Levi murmured.

"Oh my God, did you really just say that?" She was grinning like a loon, she knew it, but she couldn't bring herself to care. The rest of the party receded.

"I did," Levi said. His eyes flicked to her lips and then back to her eyes. "Too corny?"

"Kind of cute," she admitted. "Coming from you."

"Let me know when you want to head out," Levi said.

"Is that a hint?"

"Nah, I can wait, I'm having fun. But when you're ready, I can take you home."

"I might be ready."

"Yeah?" He stood and offered her a hand to pull her up out of the couch.

They said their goodbyes and made their way down the stairs and out the door. As they walked down the block to his truck, Cath asked, "Will you stay?" Stay over, she meant. She'd stayed the night at his place several times -- more times than she could count, now -- but she hadn't invited him to stay in her dorm room yet.

Maybe because Reagan was in the other half of the suite, and she couldn't help remembering that the two of them had dated. Would it be weird if his ex-girlfriend walked through the room on her way to the bathroom down the hall?

Or maybe just because inviting him to stay overnight had felt like a different kind of leap. But it was a leap she wanted to make, and all of a sudden she couldn't remember why she'd waited so long.

His face lit up as bright and sweet as the October full moon. "You know I will," he said. It felt like more than just an agreement to sleep over; it felt like a promise.

They climbed into his truck. As he started the engine she looked at his hand on the gearshift, thought about his fingers, felt a happy little shiver. Her tall sweet farm boy who had dressed as a gay mage to meet her friends, who liked her fanfiction, who was funny and charming and real.

"Okay," Cath said. "Take me home."