She’s here again, the second time in as many days. She’s not here because of you Victoria thinks to herself furiously, repressively, in the face of Z’s clear, black-rimmed gaze, still fixed on her from across the room. Victoria reaches blindly for the cloth to wipe down the countertop without breaking eye contact. See? Not looking at you, she shouts back with her gaze.
Z raises a delicate blond eyebrow, and Victoria is considering raising one right back, upping the ante in this bizarre game of who’s-more-chill chicken she and Z seem to have ended up in, but it’s then that Pete bounds in from the back room, and asks Victoria, “Vicky-T! Okay, protégée, ready to get cooking?”
Finishing inventory always puts Pete in a great mood, not so much because there is anything about it he doesn’t loathe as because that means it’s done and he has done it, and isn't that great?
It’s usually more endearing, but then, he usually isn’t trying to channel that energy into teaching Victoria to make latte art. The most frustrating part is that she’s got only herself to blame. This is what happens when your boss and your roommate are besties. Your off-hand, joking comment gets blown totally out of proportion, and before you know it, you’re signed up for a latte art competition.
Still, it’s better than continuing this weird stand-off with Z Berg of all people, so she smiles a little when she turns to Pete. “Now?”
He peers around the room and says, “Yeah, I think now’s good, while it’s still pretty dead.” Victoria’s eyes cut across the room to the three tables pushed together that Z and her friends and taken over, but Pete follows her gaze and says, “Nah, they’re set for now, and most of them are only here for the meeting place anyway.”
It’s true, even if one of them in particular keeps looking over at Victoria in a way that implies that she’s not as totally committed to whatever cause they’re championing this week as she should be. Victoria isn’t thinking about it, it’s too awkward and too probably at least half in her head for Victoria to justify spending any more attention on it. She asks Pete, “So, training, huh? What does that actually entail?”
So far, all it’s entailed has been Pete calling her ‘padawan’ and picking her first for his team when they played pictionary—it’s a game they take very seriously in Victoria’s apartment with Gabe and Nate. Now that she’s about to start actually learning this skill she’s never particularly wanted to cultivate for the sake of a competition and she only entered as a bitter, late quarter-life crisis joke with herself, Victorica has a feeling this mentorship is about to take a turn for the—well, not the worst, probable. A turn for the annoying, anyway.
She’s got a feeling Pete hasn’t exactly thought through the mechanics of this little partnership either, particularly when he answers her, “Well, why don't you do one to warm up, show me what you know.”
“I work here, I’ve been warming up all morning,” Victoria points out. She knows she’s lucky Pete’s a friend, addressing her boss in that kind of unimpressed tone probably wouldn’t fly in most work environments. Pete only laughs.
Z Berg stands up from her table. The rest of her friends stay seated, talk-shouting suggestions to the one with the clipboard. Victoria thinks she hears one of them mention paint. They don’t take any notice as Z makes her way towards the counter, but she stops a few feet away and looks up at the specials board.
Victoria turns away from her, back to Pete, and says, “Let’s get cracking then. These lattes aren’t going to art themselves, are they?”
Pete doesn’t comment on either her distraction or her sudden enthusiasm, Victoria is going to have to remember to offer to babysit for him some time or something, he’s putting up with quite a bit from her today. “Yeah, okay, and you’ve been doing this a while, you know the basics,” he says, waiting for her nod of confirmation before going on. “Why don’t you just start with something simple then, and I’ll watch so I can know where you are with it? Maybe a heart?”
Z is still staring up at the specials board like they’re likely to have something new, instead of the same three drinks cycled through over and over again with increasingly long and improbable names each week. Victoria’s not sure what Z is playing at, so she opts to ignore it, and heads over to pull her shots instead.
She’s mid-pour when she hears Z’s familiar, low voice much nearer to her ear than the last time Victoria looked up, asking, “Who are you making that for?”
It’s enough to make Victoria’s hand jerk, ruining the pattern, which, in turn, is enough to make her face feel warm—she doesn’t know if she’s actually blushing. Gabe says she doesn’t actually visibly flush, but he also says that she’s stone-cold-calm in a crisis, and also his hero, and Gabe does the hyperbole thing like it’s his job, so she’s not sure how much credence to give him. “What?” she asks.
“It’s just, I didn't see anyone come up to order anything,” Z says, and when Victoria looks up, Z is smiling. There’s something about her face that makes her look like she’s up to something when she smiles. Or maybe she actually is up to something, Victoria doesn’t know her well enough to be able to tell, really. Sure they went to high school together, but even then they didn't know each other that well, and that was years ago. One conversation three nights ago doesn’t erase that kind of distance, no matter how much saliva was exchanged by the end of it.
Which is a disgusting way to put it, even in her own head. Victoria has definitely been spending too much time with the guys. And Pete’s kid, he’s got a potty-mouth on him, too, there have been far too many discussions of bodily functions in Victoria’s vicinity lately.
“No one,” Victoria admits, because Z is still there, and she looks expectant. “This latte is officially not spoken for. Do you want it?”
That, at least, seems to throw Z off a little. “I, uh, yes please,” she says, and when Victoria hands it to her, she looks down at the ruined heart with a strange look on her face, kind of pleased and blank all at once. “What do I owe you?” she asks, but Victoria waves her away and then excuses herself to head in back to restock the milk, and, not incidentally, lean against a wall for a second and regroup.
While she’s there, she runs into Pete, which is weird because she thought he was supposed to be watching her and coaching, or whatever. It’s not that she minds but this whole thing was basically his idea. “Hey, where’d you go?” she asks him.
“You looked like you were having a moment,” he says and waggles his eyebrows at her, and Nate said that Pete was turning matchmaker now that he was basically married again, but Gabe had said that was bullshit, and she’d believed him because of the three of them, he definitely knows Pete best. She now realizes that her error was in believing the person who would have to least reason to know anything about it because he, too, is already in a committed relationship. She owes Nate an apology and also probably a beer.
“It was a pretty awkward moment,” she tells Pete, though she’s not totally sure why it was—it’s not as if either of them said they’d call and then didn’t, not like they had some kind of deep connection that night that feels too intimate to have shared in the light of day. Victoria has had encounters like that before, she knows how they feel. This had been a different kind of tension. She’s almost willing to attribute it to the fact that, even when they were in school, Z has always been kind of an awkward kid—not nerdy or anything, but far too intense all the time to make too much sense in a high school setting, even a performing arts high school like theirs had been. Z had seemed so poised the other night, though, laughing all restrained and smoky, tone dripping with disdain when she talked about the attitudes people got with her sometimes when they heard she’d been doing some modeling—she’d been smooth, smooth enough to be surprising, slick and low and seductive, and Victoria had been gone enough that leaning over to kiss her had not only sounded like a great idea, but hadn’t felt like a big deal at all.
She’s about ready to reassess the bigness of the deal, though, when she walks back into the café from the stockroom, and sees Z still waiting.
Waiting she thinks, with a reason, with a purpose, because Z’s crowd of friends have gone, and taken their banners and fabric paint with them, and so it’s just Z, sitting at the center of those three still-shoved-together tables her friends have vacated, eyes on the stockroom door as Victoria exits.
The weight of Z’s eyes feels familiar, but not in a way where she’s used to seeing it directed at her so much as in a way where she’s pretty sure she’s used this exact strategy herself, on numerous occasions. Make your interest semi-obvious, look pretty, and wait for someone else to make a move. It generally works pretty well, in all honesty, but Victoria is beginning to see that its fatal flaw comes up when the two people involved both try to make the same play.
And that’s an interesting thought. She could be misreading, Victoria thinks as she heads behind the counter to buy herself some time. Z could really just be here by chance, and could be hanging around after her friends left just to order another coffee, or something.
Or, it occurs to her, as Z makes her way back up to the counter, she could be misreading the situation with her assumption that Z isn’t about to make any first moves. Z leans her elbows on the counter and smirks up at Victoria like this is a photo shoot, and says, “So Tennessee says I’ve just got to grit my teeth and do it, because we can’t keep having meetings here, there isn’t really enough space for us, and she thinks your boss is glaring daggers when he sees us.”
“Pete really doesn’t mind,” Victoria offers, because that seems like the easiest part of that statement to deal with.
“Not going to make this easy for me, are you?” Z asks, and she’s still smiling, but it’s starting to look a little strained.
“I just don’t want to assume,” Victoria offers, and she doesn’t expect that to be the thing that brightens up Z’s expression again, but somehow it does.
“You’re shy,” Z exclaims in a wondering tone, like she’s made some amazing discovery and not like she’s uncovered Victoria’s dirty little secret.
“I guess,” she answers. She thinks she probably sounds pretty defensive, but there’s no taking it back now.
“So hey,” Z says, lips curled up in a bright red smile, and it occurs to Victoria that is she were to kiss Z now, really kissed her, that bright red lipstick would smear and blend with Victoria’s own pink gloss, “Do you want to go to a show or something some time?”
So they’re dating now, sort of. Gabe has stopped teasing Victoria for buying soymilk so Z can have cereal in the morning, and Z has seen Victoria in her coke-bottle glasses and not even laughed, though she did snatch them off her face and try them on, then make Victoria take a picture of her wearing them so she could see what she looked like, because you can't see anything in these things, I don't know how you deal.
So they’re kind of together, but Victoria still feels like maybe they haven’t quite reached the level of intimacy or—or whatever it is they need to reach a certain level of before Victoria doesn’t feel intimidated when she walks off the stage with the band she’s been playing with and towards Z’s table to find her sitting in the middle of a group of friends she happens to know are all, every one of them, Z’s exes.
Victoria is used to hanging out with Tennessee, and, as Z had been quick to point out, Tennessee is only barely an ex because they only barely tried to date before backing away from that idea quickly in favor of returning to a friendship too close to really leave room for a romantic relationship to grow.
She doesn’t mind Ryan being there either—to be perfectly honest, she probably invited him on facebook herself. They’ve never been close or anything, but they get along well enough in a friend-of-a-friend sort of way, and they actually had a really good conversation over breakfast the morning after that very weird New Years when he and Gabe hooked up, because Victoria and Z’s social circle is absurdly incestuous, it was probably only a matter of time and probability before they got together, honestly.
Even Greenwald isn't a problem—he and Victoria don't really know each other except in a passing way, but that goes both ways, and she may not be excited to see him, but she’s also not disappointed—the more people to come to the show, the better, really.
No, the problem isn’t any of the individuals involved, so much as it is a strange thing to walk off stage and up to—the girl she has been kind-of sort-of dating and three people who have already played the role Victoria is currently playing in the previous productions of the piece of theater she and Z are currently playing out.
Still, Victoria is a performer, and there is not actually a problem here, so she puts her game-face back on and lets Z buy her a drink, and when they’re walking back to Z’s place later that night, she asks her, “So, did you set out to collect your conquests into a matched set, or what?”
Z throws her head back and laughs, one of those things Victoria didn't think people actually did in the real world, but Z’s always good for proving that kind of assumption wrong. “I think you’re giving me a lot more credit for masterminding than I really deserve,” she says. “I do like the way ‘my conquests’ sounds, though.”
It’s not exactly what Victoria was looking for, but she’s not totally sure what getting the response she wanted would have looked like, though, so she thinks it’s probably best to let it go. Maybe her non-response is response enough, though, because Z tucks an arm through Victoria’s own, looks straight in front of them, and says, “If something’s bothering you, you should probably say it.”
Put directly like that, Victoria is even less sure of what to say. “It’s just, you know, a completely different way of dealing with exes than I do, that’s all. It kind of throws me off-guard, a bit.”
Z squints over at her. “They’re people I care about,” she says. “I don’t stop caring about them just because we break up.”
“Sure, okay,” Victoria agrees, holding tighter to the arm threaded around her own. “It’s just not something I could do, I don't think.”
“What, so you just never talk to them again?”
Z says it like it’s some kind of blasphemy and not, like, a fairly common practice. It’s not like Victoria has rules about it, or anything, but the way thing have ended up going for her so far, “Yeah, uh, pretty much.”
Z sighs, leans her head against Victoria’s shoulder for a moment, and says, “We should probably try to not break up any time soon, then. Sounds like we’d have conflicting ways of dealing with it.”
The thought should freak Victoria out—with everything else in her life up in the air, now doesn't really feel like the time to get all committed to a relationship—but she finds she actually likes how that sounds.
“Okay,” she agrees. “Deal. I’ll try if you will.”
Victoria has always thought that cheek kissing was something that held some if you were someone’s grandmother, but doesn't really do much for the rest of the population. Now, though, Z is pressed in close, and she’s dimpling in Victoria’s direction, near enough that Victoria notices the delicate, pasty-flowery scent of her makeup, and she and Victoria have decided not to break up. Right now, turning her head just a bit, leaning in just a touch, and brushing her lips against Z’s face really feels like the only possible option.