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Vanessa really wishes she had decided to go abroad this semester, in the fall of her junior year, like all her friends. Instead she had gone last spring, and now all her friends are away, and she missed the housing lottery so she got stuck with suitemates that she can’t stand. And she now understands, sadly, why the fire alarm sometimes goes off at two o’clock in the morning. It’s not possessed. It’s that she lives with idiots.

She stands outside DeBussy, shivering in her sleep pants and hastily grabbed fleece and flip-flops. The red lights from the fire engine peek over the hill, and hey, if this was a real fire they would all be burning alive right now. She watches as her cellphone switches from 1:59 to 2:00am, and wonders when, exactly, this became her life.

---

The thing is, Vanessa muses, is that Connecticut has winter. It doesn’t have the fucking arctic.  Also. It has winter when it is actually winter. It’s October. It shouldn’t be below freezing.

“It’s not fucking freezing. It’s like forty degrees outside.” Her suitemate rolls over in her bed, pillow firmly attached her head.

That, thinks Vanessa, isn’t the point.

She wraps a scarf around her neck just for good measure.

---

There is a free trade coffeehouse on main street, about a fifteen minute walk downhill from campus. Megara had opened the summer before Vanessa’s sophomore year. She hadn’t spent that much time there. There were always too many papers to write, too many places to be, and too many classes to attend.

Still, it is as good a place as any to go for an escape.

She walks in and is hit with blessedly warm air and the smell of fresh ground coffee. And the thing is, Vanessa doesn’t actually like coffee. She knows that her older sister practically lives on the stuff, but it has never really been something she enjoys.

That does not mean she isn’t a coffee snob, though. You can tell a lot about a place by the type of coffee they serve. Like whether or not their hot chocolate will be good, for instance.

She walks up to the counter, unwrapping a red and purple woven scarf from around her neck. The barista behind the counter is lanky, with dark hair falling in front of his eyes, and looks bored as hell. She almost, but not really, recognizes him as that guy she once took a summer class with for a few weeks in high school. Tom, was that it?  Yes, that’s what his name tag says. Last name Cates?

She orders a hot chocolate, with whipped cream, to go.

She is half way up the hill, holding her steaming cup of incredibly tasty chocolate, when her mind fits the pieces together. Tom Cates. Divorced parents; absent mother. Lived with his father who owns the mystery bookstore on Burnt Hill Road, heading out of town. The triplets despised his very existence for no apparent reason.

Really, Vanessa doesn’t know how she forgot. It doesn't matter, though. She is pretty sure he didn’t recognize her.

---

She goes back to Megara because the hot chocolate is excellent. Tom is always there; and when he isn’t there is Ned, who has an unfortunate faux-hawk. Sometimes there is a girl with bleached blonde hair, blue tips, and a name tag that says, “Bite Me.” Vanessa recognizes her from Intro to Historical Methods, and knows her name is Angie.

It becomes a thing. A daily, money-draining thing. A ‘someplace to study so that she doesn’t kill her suitmates’ thing.

One day she walks in carrying Jane Austen and Shelley and Friedan. She orders her usual,  and Tom breaks pattern. He inclines his head toward the Austen novel tilting precariously at the top of the stack, saying, "She really wasn't a feminist."

Vanessa is taken aback, but bounces back quickly. She hands him a twenty, glares, and says, "What was she then?"

Tom rings up the order. "She was single woman doing her damnedest to find a husband so she wouldn't be stuck with her drug addicted mother and all the bills."  

There is a line forming behind Vanessa, so she is pushed out of the way before she has a chance to respond. The next day she shows up when the coffee shop is fairly empty, pushes a copy of Pride and Prejudice across the counter and says, "Explain."

Tom says, "You do realize that we are an actual establishment, right? You order something, and we provide a service?"

She says, "One small hot chocolate, and an explanation, please."

He gets her the hot chocolate, then leans across the counter and starts to talk. Tom has opinions on this; he totally took Professor Stein's “Austen’s World” when he was a sophomore.

It takes him about twenty minutes of conversation before he realizes who she is. Vanessa can tell when it clicks, because he stills, squints, and then says, "Oh, you're one of them," in a voice of disdain.

She can read the look on his face, as plainly as she can read the book in front of her. It figures that the only person he runs into this far from Stoneybrook, in a small upstate New York town, is a Pike.

She wrinkles her nose back. "Oh, you're him," she says. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they don't talk about high school.

---

It kinda becomes a thing that they do. Tom's break coincides with Vanessa's mid-afternoon coffee run, which coincides with their bi-weekly literature discussions. Ned always gives him a less than subtle wink whenever the door chimes ting, and Vanessa walks in. Tom always scowls, because it isn't like that. At all.

Vanessa pretends not to notice. Also, Tom had once told her that she was the least annoying of her siblings. She counts that as a win--especially since Tom and Byron were friends for a day in fifth grade. Apparently, that was more than enough time for Tom and the triplets to declare themselves mortal enemies.

“Don’t you ever have classes?” Vanessa asks, placing a few pennies into the tip jar. Tom is always here, it seems. Vanessa was supposed to have class, but it was canceled, thank fuck, because she really didn’t feel like discussing the merits of existentialism versus nihilism today.  There is depressing; and then there is depressing.

“I graduated,” Tom says over the whirl of the machine.

Vanessa thinks back furiously. Mallory had accused her of being oblivious before, but, “Aren’t you supposed to be a senior?” she asks.

“It’s called a three year program.” He hands her the cup. She looks at him blankly. “It was explained in one of those brochures we received when we were first accepted? Red border? Picture of the campus in the spring showing flowers we never fucking see?”

“I know what a three year program is,” she huffs, taking the drink. “I just didn’t realize you had done it.”

“Finish school faster, so you can be just another unemployment statistic,” he says.

Tom, she learns, is completely disillusioned with the whole academic experience. He rents a small apartment in one of the old Victorian houses on main street that has been turned into an upstairs-downstairs duplex. He shares the top apartment with one other guy, an education major named  Frank. In the apartment below them live four girls whose lives are apparently like a soap opera, if the shouting matches indicate anything. Tom says he is taking a year off before grad school, if he even goes at all, because universities reek of bureaucracy, and breed jerks, and sometimes academia shouldn’t be your whole life.

In return, Vanessa tells him that she is doing the honors track and newspaper which Tom critiques because, "It publishes a series that doesn't make any sense. It's not even-- there is no punctuation.  There are no verbs. It's not creative writing or free-verse; it is just a mess of words. Any reputable paper would be ashamed of itself."

Secretly, Vanessa agrees.

---

Vanessa is in a horrible mood. One of her overly fashion frenzied suitemates had borrowed the shirt she had planned to wear,  the cafeteria was out of bagels, they were assigned double amounts of reading Stats--she didn't even know there was that much to read in math-- and the weather, per usual, is horrible.

Tom tells her she needs to get out more. Vanessa, insulted, says, "I get out a lot. It's not like I ever see you at any parties or open mics."

Tom rolls his eyes, pulls a pen out of Vanessa's pencil case. He scribbles the name of a place and time on a napkin.

"What is that?" Vanessa asks.

Tom raises an eyebrow. "Vertical Witch is playing tonight over at The Engine Room."

Vanessa just stares at him because that means absolutely nothing to her.

He adds, “From Albany?”

It still means nothing, but somehow Vanessa finds herself standing outside a brick building, shivering and stamping her feet together as the line moves forward. It's not like she didn't know about this scene. She just. Doesn’t do this scene, and her purple scarf and lack of eye make-up kinda makes her stand out in this crowd.

Anyway, she brought one of her suitemates along, because she's not an idiot. She doesn't go to strange concerts alone.

Also, if something were to accidentally happen to Amy, Vanessa wouldn’t be crushed. She would also have plausible deniability.

They push and shove their way inside, because the building is surprisingly full. She can't see Tom anywhere and she stands on tip-toe looking for him. She wants him to see that she is here. She wants to rub it in his face that she does get out and have fun.

When the opening band comes on she totally forgets about Tom. Vanessa is used to concerts, the polished sound and the carefully constructed realism. This isn't that. This is raw and stripped. The lead singer is wearing a red lace dress, with brown work boots, and she keeps a glass of red wine near her feet, drinking between songs. It’s rock, but it is something more; a rough growl and a melodic twang. It's amazing, and there are blisters on Vanessa’s feet when she gets home, and her legs ache with bruises, but that night she sleeps soundly.

"You weren't there," she accuses Tom the next time she sees him. She hasn't even ordered her hot chocolate yet. He rings it up anyway.

"Sure I was," he says. "You just didn't see me."

She looks at him carefully because she can't tell if he is being serious or lying.

He rolls his eyes. "I am telling the truth."

After that sometimes Vanessa goes out and does stuff, and Tom will be there. It's not like a date or anything, they are just. In the same place at the same time. Like at Megara or at The Engine Room, or they one time they ran into each other at the library.

It's not a thing, and Vanessa doesn't think Amy is in any place to talk or offer opinions because Amy sleeps with anything that moves and then some. (It is half-way through the semester and Vanessa is starting to get a little testy about being locked out of her room, okay?)

---

Usually Vanessa appreciates how much Professor McDermott, “call me M.D.,” talks. His two hour lectures usually fly by in a frenzy of anecdotes and stories and impersonations, with clever wit and impersonations. It also helps that he isn’t bad to look at either. However, class had ended five minutes ago, and he is still talking, oblivious to the students talking and packing up in their seats.

“Okay, okay, I can take a hint,” he says finally, when one of the basketball players in the front row stands, books in hand. There is a mad scuffle as everyone dashes for the door.

Vanessa is one of the last to leave. It has less to do with staying behind, and more to do with wanting to keep her feet and head intact. The basketball players can be ruthless with their elbows.

She opens the classroom and runs into a soft black wool padding. “Hey,” Tom’s voice sounds amused, and his hands close over her shoulders as he pushes her back. “McDermott still here?”

Vanessa nods, blinking up at him. “I thought you graduated?”

Tom smirks, and looks amused. Well, fuck him, Vanessa thinks. That’s what he had told her. It isn’t her fault she is confused.

“I’m McDermott’s research assistant this semester,” he says. “You do know what that is, right?”

Vanessa seriously considers shoving her notebook in his chest, spine facing inward.

“Cute,” she says, but secretly she is impressed. Despite his easy way in the classroom, McDermott’s classes are among the most informative, as well as the hardest in the department. He has four books, and eight articles published. Had once taught at UPenn and reportedly declined an offer from Cornell.

“So you should be able to put in a good word for me, right?”

Tom snorts, and carefully moves her out of the way. “Keep thinking that,” he tells her.

She mock glares at his back. “Oh, I am.”

---

Halloween falls on a Friday which basically means like it is a regular Friday and St. Patrick’s Day combined, only instead of people sneaking green beer into class, it is orange flavored vodka or something equally disgusting.

Her suitemates are throwing a party, but Vanessa has a policy to never get drunk around people she hates. She has a fear of spilling her guts. Or waking up with gum in her hair. Also, if she’s not around then she doesn’t have to clean up the vomit tomorrow morning.

It totally works in her favor.

She ends up at The Engine Room. She’s been there enough recently that it no longer feels uncomfortable. There is liquid eyeliner on her dresser, a recent purchase that she has adapted as part of herself.

Vanessa is wearing the same costume as last year: a beaded, fringed dress she had found at a vintage store, and an art deco inspired hair comb. Last year she had said she was Rosalind Connage. This year she is thinking Eleanor Savage. Unusual enough to be trendy, but not so obscure as to seem like she was trying too hard. Also, taking on the disguise as all of Amory Blaine’s false-loves amuses Vanessa more than she wants to admit. She admits that maybe she is a little pretentious, and very much a literature snob.

The Engine Room is packed, and everyone is in costume. That’s the excuse Vanessa thinks of when she realizes that it isn’t an unknown band on stage this week. It isn’t even a known band. It isn’t even a band, at all. It is Tom. Vanessa almost drops her drink.

She confronts him later, pressing through the crowd. “I didn’t know you could sing. Or play guitar. Or, you know, perform.”

 He raises an eyebrow, and wipes the sweat off his forehead. He looks hugely unimpressed. He also looks like he is in mourning.

Vanessa squints and tilts her head to the side. “Edgar Allen Poe?” she purses her lips in a line, trying not laugh, but a giggle leaks out anyway.

Tom’s eyes narrow, and he pulls at his ascot. “It’s not funny,” he mutters.

“Actually, it is fucking hilarious,” someone says, throwing an arm around Tom’s shoulders. Vanessa recognizes Ned, the other barista at Megara. “When we found out that his father runs a Poe-inspired mystery bookstore, well, there really wasn’t any alternative.”

Vanessa’s giggles bubble up, and Tom glares at them. “I hate you both,” he sulks.

“No, you don’t,” someone else says, and Vanessa realizes with a start that there is a small group surrounding them.

Tom takes the distraction and runs with it, introducing her to everyone. She recognizes Ned from the coffee shop. There is Frank, brunette with messy hair and Buddy Holly glasses. ( “Seriously don’t take them. I can’t fucking see without them. They aren’t a prop. Hey--!” )  Joey, and it takes a minute, but she places him as the drummer for Vertical Witch. Caroline and Meg who are dressed as a vampire and a werewolf, respectively, and holding hands. Vanessa thinks it is supposed to be ironic. There is also Luke and Kaley, dressed as a pirate and a cat.

“Hey, is this your girl?” Luke asks, then winces when Kaley punches him in the shoulder. “I didn’t mean it in the possessive sense, fuck. I meant it in the ‘there are a couple million Vanessa’s in the world, is this the one you keep talking about’ sense.”

Kaley punches him again.

“Okay. Okay. Fuck. I’m subtle. Okay? I’m shutting up.”

They go back to Ned’s place, and she lays on the floor. Tom sits in a chair, shoe next to her head. They drink wine, and chain smoke. A cracked window lets a frigid breeze in. It is, Vanessa thinks, lazily looking at the ceiling while they discussed the merits of Hemingway over her head, a bit like being in a mid-century lit circle with the man himself.

 

---

November is a hellish month.

Jeff Schafer is at the top of her contact list, by virtue of being surgically attached to his iphone. It isn’t even that they are the best of friends, it is just that his phone is always on, and a response is never far away. Adam is second on the list, and that is only because he is her favorite brother and sends her pictures of lost dolphins and baby manatees.

Whenever Vanessa longs for lengthened days, warmer air, and a life outside of textbooks and papers, Jeff annoys her by sending snapshots of the Californian beaches, and brightly colored buildings against a blue sky. Somehow, Adam became involved. Sometimes Vanessa swears the only reason he is studying Marine Science is so that he can send her pictures of volleyballs and dolphins and palm trees.

She wants to kill them.

She retaliates by sending them snippets of Chekov, and Tolstoy and  Pushkin. There is nothing more depressing than nineteenth century Russian writers, and they could obviously use some dreariness in their lives.

---

She's pulled an all-nighter, and managed to slip in a pile of snow while walking to class, and debating literature with Tom is literally the last thing Vanessa wants to do. But she has been politely kicked out of her room, and her late afternoon class is canceled because of the weather, so she ends up in the coffeehouse anyway.

Tom looks at her and his lips twist into a smirk.

"Don't even ask," she snaps.

He raises his hands in a placating gesture and brings her a hot chocolate and an apple strudel muffin. She appreciates the thought even though she is still wet. They are part-way through a discussion when Tom's manager comes over.

"The weather is getting worse," he says. "Think we're going to close up."

Which is just great because now Vanessa really has no place to go. She sticks around as Tom closes up, and leaves with him. She is about to take a left off of main street, intent on walking back to campus even though the wind is somewhat brutal and the snowflakes keep sticking to her eyelashes.

Tom grabs her arm. "Where are you going?"

"Back to campus."

He snorts. "What are you going to do? Stand in the middle of the hall and sulk?"

She doesn't answer because she totally had other plans, okay? Ones that included pounding on her door until she was let in. Or screaming bloody murder in the hall. Or setting up camp in the lounge complete with a sign saying, ‘help the weary and roomless’.

He sighs, like he can't believe she has managed to live this long, and says, "Come on."

She follows on instinct. It isn't until they have walked several steps that she realizes she has no clue where she is headed. "Where are we going?" she asks.

"My place." Tom doesn't stop walking. “At least I am. You can come too, if you want. Or you can freeze out here and become Frosty incarnate. Your choice, but I don't think you would look dashing in a top hat." Vanessa huffs and catches up with him mainly out of annoyance. Later, she will think back and realize that Tom was probably purposely goading her. Maybe.

Vanessa slips a little as Tom leads her up the steps to the second story, and she grabs onto the handrail just in time. He doesn't ask if she is okay, just mutters something about "not being able to take her anywhere." She is too busy trying to regain her footing to respond.

The inside of the apartment is dark, the grey light coming in through the windows does little to add light. Tom toes off his shoes near the door, and pads towards an open door, calling “Wait there” over his shoulder.

Vanessa takes off her own boots, slowly, one hand against the wall for balance. The apartment smells of cumin, and cinnamon and tobacco, and the faint scent of Tom Ford cologne.  It's not what she expected. She's been to her brothers’ places before; the smelled of old pizza and beer and Clorox and Fabreeze. They were also messier. Tom's apartment is surprisingly neat for two guys. A ratty sofa and an old oak coffee table. Books overflow from bookcases and are arranged in stacks on the floor. There's a record player in one corner perched on top of a milk crate.

Tom returns and he throws a bundle of fabric at her. "Bathroom is down the hall," he points. "Want some tea?"

The bathroom has the old black and white octagon tile that Vanessa adores. She shakes out the pile of clothing. A towel, a pair of sweatpants, socks, and a flannel red plaid button-up. She has to roll the pants over several times, but the shirt fits, even if it is long.

Vanessa hangs her wet clothing on the shower rod and pads out into the kitchen, feeling silly in the large, loose clothing. Tom looks up from when she enters, and Vanessa braces for some scathing comment. It doesn’t come.

Instead, Tom just hands her an old metal tin and says, “Pick your tea. We have white, green, black, chai, herbal, medicinal. Practically everything.”

She picks a green loose-leaf tea, and watches as Tom scoops it out.

They sit at the kitchen table, sipping tea and watching the snow fall outside. Vanessa has all these questions she wants to ask. Prying thoughts that would require acknowledging a relationship before college. Things like: ‘do you still have that pet raven?’ Or, ‘is your sister liking her freshman year of college?’ And, ‘my brothers would have a heart attack if they could see us now.’

In her mind Tom is like one of the brooding, but delicate gothic heros; they have to be treated with the right amount of care.  And she should totally use that as an example in her next literature paper.

By the time Frank comes home, they have migrated to the couch and are in the middle of a Criminal Minds marathon.

(Because Tom had said, “No, really, it will make you feel better about your roommates.”

“Why?” Vanessa had asked, “Because I now know how to exterminate them?”

Tom scooted away from her. “I was actually thinking of how your life could be a whole lot worse, but that works too.”)

“Sweet,” Frank exclaims, shedding his coat and shoes at the door. He vaults over the back of the couch, sliding into place between Tom and Vanessa.

Vanessa shoots Tom a look as she ducks a flying elbow. He smirks. “Apparently, he has this thing about vintage glasses solidarity with Spencer Reid.”

“Quiet,” Frank hushes them. “They are about to deliver the profile on the unsub. This is the most important part. No, Tom, the meaningful quote and morals at the end don’t count. This is where action meets mind.”

Tom drives her back home, car carefully inching its way up the hill and to DeBussy.

 

---

After that she sometimes tags along with Tom after his shift finishes. Other times she will see him on campus and will be invited back.

Vanessa starts to feel comfortable in their apartment. She knows that you have to manually adjust the volume for the television because the remote is broken, and that the cds and dvds are sorted in alphabetical order. She discovers that there is a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream hidden away on top of the refrigerator, and that Frank hates wearing socks. There is always a package of cigarettes next to the window, and the lighter resides in the aloe vera plant. She realizes that part of the reason Frank and Tom work as roommates is that neither of them can stand a mess.

One day, she is on the couch reading for class. She looks up, and notices that a snapshot of girl had been pinned to the dartboard. It’s an old kodak instant film. The white space underneath has been marked out with black sharpie. A red dart is sticking out of her nose with various other ones scattered around.

Vanessa really doesn’t want to ask. She opens her mouth anyway.

“Frank’s ex-girlfriend,” Tom drops a textbook on the cushion next to her.

Right. She really shouldn’t have wondered.

---

They have game night. Or something. It’s a tradition Vanessa doesn’t understand, but what she can see is that it involves a different apartment each week, music, wine, and board games.

Scrabble seems to be a favorite. Scrabble with themes. 1920s slang. Song titles. Architectural terms. Terms prefaced with ‘New’.

“New York City,” Caroline crows, after a long debate about the allowances for York and York City. “That’s where Meg and I want to move someday,” she adds, moving her pieces into place.

Tom looks up from where he is gazing at his tiles. “I thought it was Catskill?”

“Oh, it is,” Caroline assures him. “I mean, they are practically the same place six months out of the year.”

Luke laughs. Tom raises an eyebrow, and looks at Meg who shakes her head. “Don’t look at me. I just follow her.”

Vanessa lines up A-M-S-T-E-R-D-A-M. On the other side of the board Frank blinks and groans.

“Fucking Dutch,” he mutters. “I just had to write a whole lesson plan on New York State history.”

“Frank’s an education major,” Kaely explain to Vanessa. “We have to make sure he is properly educated.”

---

He comes back from Thanksgiving meaner. He doesn't say why; he stops talking to  her for three whole days when she asks.

---

Vanessa knows she shouldn’t, but that doesn’t stop her from answering Tom’s cellphone She tries to justify it in her mind. It’s ringing and Tom isn’t here. What if it is important? What if the person doesn’t leave a voicemail. What if---

“Hello?” she says into the receiver.

“Tom?” A woman’s voice crackles back at her.

“No, sorry, he’s not here right now. I just--”  What had she done?  “I just answered his phone by mistake.”

Great. Now she was being noisy and lying.  

“Are you his girlfriend?”

“No,” Vanessa says. She can only tell so many lies at one time. “Can I take a message?”

“It’s his mother,” the voice sounds sad, and oh.That explains things. “Can you please tell him to call me? I really want to talk to him.”

“Of course,” Vanessa says, even though she knows she will never pass the message along.

By the time Tom returns, Vanessa has ended the conversation and deleted the record. The next time she visits, she brings a case of beer and a bottle of gin as penance. It does nothing to lessen the guilt.

---

It is midnight. All the study corrals, and desks, and tables, and sofas in the library are taken. Hell, even all the nooks and lounges are filled. And now really is not a good time. Vanessa gets kicked out of her dorm because her suitemates think a party the Monday before finals week is a good idea, and she really needs to study okay? She’s still not exactly sure who was killing who in the French Revolution, and she needs to re-read all of Hardy because apparently the mummers play was an important part of the novel. Vanessa doesn’t remember it at all. And if she doesn’t remember that, then who knows what else she could be missing?

Somehow she finds herself walking down the hill from campus. Tom’s not answering his cell, but he usually doesn’t. A cold wind blasts her sides, and she shivers, pulling her coat tighter around her and watching out for patches of black-ice. Or white-ice. Or any ice, really. She doesn’t want to slide down the hill.

She almost loses her nerve when she finally reaches the apartment. She really has to talk to Tom about installing an outside light, too. Those stairs are treacherous.

Frank answers the door. He stares at her a moment, glasses askew. There is a pencil tucked behind one ear, and he is holding a bowl of cereal. The spoon dangles from his mouth. He removes it to call, “Tom. Vanessa is here,”  before shuffling back to the couch, which is overflowing with a mess of papers, books, and lesson plans. At least, Vanessa is pretty sure there is still a couch somewhere underneath there.

Tom ushers her into his room, closing the door behind him. Vanessa curls up on his bed and reads. He is messing around with staff paper and something on his laptop. There are earbuds in his ears, and Vanessa thinks he is trying to write a song or something equally musical.

At one point she becomes aware of Tom trying to pry a highlighter out of her hands and the novel from under her head.

“Blarh-oo,” she says. If she were more awake she would be mortified, but at present it is the best she can do. Also, Tom’s bed is very comfortable, and large, and it doesn’t have wiry springs.

“Jesus fuck, Vanessa.” Tom succeeds in taking the novel away. “It’s just school; not the end of the world. All you have to remember is that god doesn’t exist and fate is just a tragedy.”

She’s barely conscious as he slips a pillow under her head and puts a blanket on top of her.

---

The first thing Vanessa is aware of is that the air smells of tobacco and oranges and cologne and it shouldn’t smell nice, but it does. She buries her nose deeper into the flannel pillowcase.

The third thing she realizes is that her cell alarm is going off. Because, shit, it’s eight-forty-five, and, double-shit, she has class in half-an hour.

Next to her, Tom blinks awake. “Fucking turn it off,” he says, rubbing a hand over his eyes. Vanessa stares at him, feels something turn over in her chest, and thinks, oh. She fumbles with her phone. Rolls out of bed. Runs a hand through her hair and starts gathering her things.

She tries not to look at him. It feels like a morning after, without the nakedness and sex.

“Do you need a ride?” Tom asks. Vanessa weighs the pros-and-cons of walking up the hill, versus awkward car conversation.

“Yes,” she says. “Please.”

She flees the room before he can get out of bed.

---

It happens two more times that week, and once the following week, because Vanessa has inconsiderate suitemates and she really feels that requiring a transcript before rooming with someone should be a requirement.

It should be a Big Deal, Vanessa feels. The capital letters are necessary. Tom acts like nothing ever happened--and nothing did happen, except. Except Vanessa doesn’t usually sleep with boys. It’s a new thing, but she kinda likes it. There is not a lot of time of deep introspection; there are still finals, and Christmas shopping and the last minute rush of packing.

---

Every once in a while Vanessa has a Great Idea. Her mother says that Great Ideas run in the family, something which Vanessa severely doubts. She has grown up with the triplets, after all. They don’t have Great Ideas, just Annoying Thoughts, or Bad Ideas.

“I was thinking,” she begins.

Tom barely raises his eyes from the worn book in front of him, its binding creased and pages yellowed. “Do you do that a lot?”

She wrinkles her nose at him even though he isn’t paying attention. “I was thinking,” she says again. “Are you going back to Stoneybrook for Winter Break?”

Tom’s eyes raise a fraction of an inch off the page. “I was planning on it.”

Vanessa is the middle of eight children; it has been years since she felt self-consciousness asking for rides. “I was thinking that if you were driving back to Stoneybrook you could give me a ride. If you have room? It would be good for the environment. You know, reducing your carbon footprint and everything.”

She also learned how to spin things just right.

“I could,” Tom says speculatively, marking his page with his thumb and looking at her. It is like he had never even thought of it, even though they are one grade  and a set of childhood rivalry apart. His lips have a sardonic twist, considering the idea.

“Will you?” Vanessa huffs. She sticks a booted foot out, and kicks at the leg of his chair.

“Sure,” he says easily, stretching his legs and kicking her back.

---

They are on I-90 somewhere in western Massachusetts. It is grey outside because there is some sort of law somewhere stating that it has to be overcast or a blizzard when leaving or entering upstate New York. No snow this time, but the clouds hold promise, and the sky is same bleak grey that coats everything around it. Even the bright red truck that passed them earlier on the on ramp had a dulled hue.

The past hour had been spent arguing over Christmas music. Vanessa hadn’t even realize she had opinions about beyond, No, Nicky. Little Drummer Boy sucks as a song, but apparently she does when she is stuck in the car with a Grinch. An honest-to-goodness Grinch in the form of Tom who, after throwing her suitcase in the trunk, declared the car a Christmas-free music zone.

“I’ve had to listen to that crap for the past five weeks at the coffee shop,” he says.

“You chose that crap,” Vanessa says, because she distinctly remembers “Christmas in Jail, Ain’t that a Pain” and there are only so many people who would find obscure 1920s holiday songs. Then there was “Santa Stole My Lady,” and, well, only Tom and Ned would choose something like that.

Tom doesn’t deny the accusation.

They finally settle on a hastily composed itunes mix labeled “Winter-esque mix” and Vanessa purposefully starts talking about Christmas traditions of Christmas’ past. They are driving home for Christmas and there is a thin layer of snow on the ground. This drive is going to be seasonally appropriate.

“Tell me  a story,” Vanessa coaxes. Tom can be a grinch all he wants, but he must have some holiday stories. Unless. ”Wait. Were you that kid who stopped believing in Santa Claus when they were six, and then proceeded to terrorize every other child and parent?”

Tom smirks, and looks in his rearview mirror, moving over into the passing lane.

“You were!” Vanessa says. She can’t decide whether to be horrified or amused. She is expecting Tom to spout the same lines about, “The holiday  season is just a consumer society's wet dream” and “There is no reason to buy into the commercialization of Christmas.”

She isn’t expecting an honest answer.

Tom says, “Santa Claus wasn’t really a big deal at our house.”

Tom says,“When Annabel Lee was around--”

It takes a moment for Vanessa to comprehend, but when it does, her breath catches. Because Annabel Lee is Tom’s mother, and Tom-- Tom willingly talking about her is a big deal. She tries not to show it, tries to act disinterested.

“--She used to decorate the entire house with diya lamps. It’s amazing the place didn’t simply burst into flames. I don’t remember any string lights, just those lamps. When Gillian and I were younger we used to hand-make presents for each other. It was just simple things: clay pots, paper cut outs, things like that. We made gingerbread on Christmas Eve, then ate it while exchanging our gifts. When we were done, Annabel Lee would tell us this story about Brother Death visiting his sister. He could only call on her once a year at Christmas Eve, and every year they ate and talked and exchanged gifts. Acts meant to reinforce the bond between the two of them, strengthening their love and commitment to each other. There was always an ending phrase describing the difficulties of having siblings, and warning that although appropriate behavior can sometimes be difficult, those who act without false pretense and love each other unconditionally will be rewarded.”

He taps his fingers on the steering wheel. “Of course, it was a bastardization of Christmas, Diwali and a sura from the Qu’ran, but we didn’t know that then.”

Vanessa thinks she understands some of his pretentiousness. Then immediately feels like privileged, ignorant elitist because that isn’t pretension. It’s just different from what she is used to.

“What happened?” Vanessa asks softly.

Tom snorts, “Then I grew up and realized it was lie. Or, you know, not a lie. Just a mechanism in place so that Gillian and I wouldn’t be lost when she finally up and left. Of course, she never said anything in her stories about welcoming the mother back. It was probably a rude awakening when she came back at Thanksgiving and we turned her away.”

Vanessa doesn’t mean to say anything, but she’s taken that whole Christmas elf do-gooding thing to heart and she blurts out, “I don’t think your mother is that bad.”

Silence. Tom turns down the radio. Vienna Teng sings, it's the season of grace coming out of the void.

“How would you know?” he says voice measured and calm. “You’ve never met her.”

Vanessa squirms a little, burrowing in the seat.

“It’s kinda a funny story,” she says with a forced laugh. Tom’s lips thin. He is only half paying attention to the road at this point, and while Vanessa is thankful that traffic is light and that they aren’t in any danger of rear-ending someone, she really wishes there were a just a few more cars so that Tom would be looking at the road, and not at her.

“It is never a funny story,” Tom says darkly.

“Um.” Vanessa does the squirming thing again. Pushes some hair off the side of her face. Stretches her legs. She wonders if she stalls enough, if Tom will just give up.

She reaches for the music dial. Tom’s hand slaps down on her wrist, holding it tight between his thumb and index finger.

“Vanessa,” he warns.

“Fine,” she shakes her hand free, and sits back in her seat, stomach rolling. “I answered your cellphone once.”

The car sharply swerves in into the passing lane, and Vanessa renews her thanks that nobody is on the road. She glances up from her gloved hands to Tom’s face. He’s expressionless.

He’s just blank. There is nothing there and that scares her more than she likes.

“It’s not like I meant to talk to her,” she finds herself rambling. “It’s just that you came back from Thanksgiving in such a bad mood, and then your phone kept ringing, and you kept ignoring it--”

“Maybe because I didn’t want to talk to her--” Tom cuts in.

“I just wanted to find out what had happened, and then I was going to tell the person to leave you alone!” Vanessa says defensively.

“And you couldn’t have just asked me?” Tom’s voice rises.

“I did,” Vanessa shot back. “You stopped talking to me, remember? Did you ever think that maybe you could solve a whole lot of your problems if you just--just talked to people?”

Almost before she could comprehend what was happening, Tom has his hazard lights on, and is pulling over into the breakdown lane. Please don’t leave me stranded on the highway Vanessa thinks. Tom is mad enough. It could happen. She watches wide-eyed as he unbuckles his seat-belt, and gets out of the car. She feels the car jolt as he kicks a tire. Once. Then twice.  

From where she huddles in the passengers seat, Vanessa observes Tom digging into his jacket and lighting a cigarette, hand cupped as the wind whips his hair around.

She stays inside. Safe. Trying not to feel as though she has just horribly ruined a friendship.

When Tom finally gets back inside he smells of nicotine and car exhaust. Habit makes Vanessa desperately, desperately want to say something, but it isn’t the time or place and for once she doesn’t have the inclination.

It is not until they are back on the highway, passing the first speed limit sign, that Tom speaks, words carefully measured, controlling his rage.  “Don’t you ever presume to know anything about me.”

Then he reaches over and raises the volume. It's the season of scars and of wounds in the heart. Of feeling the full weight of our burdens.

They don’t speak for the rest of the drive. Tom keeps a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, eyes only focused on the road. Vanessa looks out the window.

---

They don’t say goodbye. Tom pulls up in front of the Pike house, and pops the trunk. Vanessa goes to say something, but he turns his head away.

And fine. It’s not like she can talk to him when he is like this, anyway.

She stomps out of the car, slamming the door. When Jordan answers the front door, she nearly growls in his face.

“Hey--” he says, stepping aside, hands raised. “I guess it is true that the only English majors are the mad ones.”

This time Vanessa does growl, and shoves her suitcase at him.

Jordan stumbles back a step, turning his head and calling over his shoulder. “Hey guys, Vanessa’s home, and she’s foaming at the mouth!”

---

Vanessa knows she is reaching a new low when she goes to Claire for information. To be fair, though, Claire knows everything about everyone who has ever set foot in Stoneybrook High School-- and then some. It is awesome, and frightening. And very useful.

Claire is in her room, on her bed, painting her toenails red. Vanessa steps inside and closes the door behind her. The last thing she wants is for the triplets to hear this conversation.

“Do you know Tom Cates? Or Gillian Cates?” she asks. Then adds, “Mom will freak if you get nail polish on the comforter.”

Claire looks up from carefully tapping the brush against the bottle. “Good. I’ve been trying to get rid of this thing for years. Mallory’s taste sucks. Brown plaid is never a good choice.” She paints a small portion of a nail. “Yeah, I know them. Why? What do you want to know?”

“How much will it cost me?” Vanessa asks warily. Once, junior year of high school, she had gotten information on Scott Danby without asking first. It had cost her ten dollars and two weeks of chores.

Claire contemplates for a second, then grins, quick and deadly. “Taylor is having a birthday party this weekend. I get to go, and I get to wear your white cardigan. You know, the belted one that you found at the vintage shop last year?”

“Done,” Vanessa says after a moment. She really loves that sweater, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made. She ventures to add, “And for you not to breathe a word of this to anybody?”

Claire’s eyes assess her, but all her sister says is, “I get your car privileges for the next week.”

“Deal.” It isn’t like Vanessa has any place to go, anyway.

The information probably isn’t worth the sweater, or the lingering guilt in Vanessa’s stomach as she hears all about the Cates family from secondhand gossip rather than from him. Still, it confirms everything he told her was truth.

It tells her that she knew him better than she thought.

---

Vanessa isn't sure why she is here. She didn't do parties when she was in high school, she rarely does them in college; and no matter what Adam said, she really could go all of winter break without seeing her old high school classmates.

But somehow she is at Simon Beal’s house, holding a soda and trying to blend into the crowd. Or find somebody to talk to.

It's easier just blending in.

She makes a mental note to tell Adam that parties are more entertaining when she is at college, because the people there are more interesting. Seriously, how is she supposed to talk to people who have no clue who Edith Wharton was. And maybe it is a weird thing to say, but she would much rather be at an Edith Wharton dinner party. Everyone would be infinitely more amusing and better dressed.

---

She is coming back from an aborted attempt to find the bathroom when she spots Tom. A beer can by his left foot, guitar across his lap. He looks bored to death, too. She hovers in the doorway of the living room and waits for him to notice her.

When he does, he scowls. It is not a promising sign, but Vanessa won’t give up. She jerks her head towards the front door, and mouths “please?”

She is across the room, but she can still see how his jaw ticks as he hands off the guitar to the person sitting next to him. He’s not happy, but he is coming.

---

There isn’t any snow on the ground, but the frost causes the grass to crush under their feet.

It is seriously cold outside and all Vanessa has on is her sweater. She crosses her arms, hugs herself, and tries to stop her teeth from chattering.

She stomps around in placing, waiting, hating how nonchalantly Tom lights a cigarette. She’d say something, but she needs to learn how to pick her battles. The last thing they need is something else to fight about. The last thing he needs is another reason to hate her.

“I’m sorry, okay?” she says, when he finally pockets his lighter. He’s not really giving her his attention; he’s looking past her and off into the distance. “You didn’t give me a chance to say it before. I am sorry. I should have--I should have at least told you.”

He continues to look of her shoulder. Exhales.

“Damn it, will you look at me,” Vanessa says. His eyes cut to her then, sharp and sudden, and unreadable.

“What do you want me to say?” He says it like it’s the end of a chapter. The end of a huge damn novel. Vanessa would find it poetic if it wasn’t so damn annoying.

“I--” She wants him to forgive her. “You can’t keep shutting me out.” Her voices raises, a direct counter to his. “If you had just told me what the fuck was going on, I wouldn’t have answered the phone.”

“That’s not the point,” he says. He flicks the rest of his cigarette to the ground. “The point is I fucking trusted you. And. I can’t even. You know what? I don’t even want to talk to you.”

“Wait--” She reaches out, grabbing his arm.

“There is nothing left to say,” he growls. “Let me go.”

“No, we need to talk about this.”

The porch light flickers on. Noise from the party heightens, spilling out of the house then subsides as the front door opens and closes.

“Is he bothering you?” Adam’s disembodied voice asks. He is a dark silhouette on the front stoop.

Vanessa realizes how it must look. Tom’s hand clutching her shoulder, pushing her away; her hand reaching up to shove him back, while simultaneously trying to keep him from leaving.

Tom is bothering her, just not in the way Adam thinks.

“We’re fine,” she calls. “Just go back inside.”

“What’s going on out here?” somebody else says, and suddenly there are two more shadows on the front stoop. Vanessa really does not appreciate the interruption.

“Nothing is going on,” she huffs. “Seriously. You guys are annoying. Go back inside.”

“Wait--is that Cates?” Jordan asks. Vanessa would really love to know how Jordan, who sometimes has difficulty differentiating between his ex-girlfriends, can pick-out his high school rival in the dark.

“Yeah, it is,” Adam says, as they make their way down the steps.

“What part of go back inside don’t you understand?” Vanessa asks, hands on her hips. She really just wants everybody to separate. Tom looks defensive as hell right now, and Jordan seems to be looking for a fight.

“All of it, apparently,” Tom answers under his breath.

Jordan sneers. “Cute. What are you doing here?”

Tom raises one shoulder. “It’s a party,” he says, condescension dripping from his words. “I was invited.”

He sounds so hateful, and Vanessa flashes back to high school and observing a hallway altercation between Tom and the triplets. Apparently, some rivalries never die.

“We meant out here,” Byron clarifies. Adam takes it even further: “With Vanessa.”

“Oh, are you still speaking for each other?” Tom goads. “How absolutely middle-school of you.”

Jordan takes a few steps closer, but Tom doesn’t seem intimidated.

“Come on you guys,” Vanessa says, pulling on Adam’s hand. “Cut it out. We were just talking. High school was years ago. I can take of myself. You can go back inside. Seriously. Leave.”

“Wait. How do you guys know each other anyway?” Byron interjects.

And that was what Vanessa had been counting on. The triplets rarely pay attention to what happens outside their own little world, and she had been hoping to keep her new friendship with Tom off their radar.

A sharp bark of laughter leaves Tom’s mouth. “Nice to see that you are just as perceptive as always.”

“We--” Vanessa starts, but Tom cuts in over her, voice smooth and cool.

“I’m surprised you don’t know. We got to the same university. We are very well acquainted.” The words break off with a leer, giving them a double meaning.

Vanessa isn’t sure who throws the first punch. She suspects Jordan, but it could have just as likely been Byron or Adam. It doesn’t matter because they all surround Tom, while Vanessa tries to pull them away. Her cries attracting attention from inside the house.

“Stop it,” she shouts, trying to push people away. There is a crush of bodies as people swarm around the scuffle, trying to breaking it up.

When they finally separate Jordan is shaking out his hand, and Tom is holding the side of his face. After living in a house with the triplets for twenty-one years, she knows that they can hold their own in a fight. But it is Tom, and three against one is never a fair fight. Vanessa takes a step forward. Tom glares, stilling her in place.

“Don’t,” he says. He turns and breaks through the small crowd gathered around them. Vanessa loses sight of him as he stalks off into the night, presumably to his car.  Adam’s tight grasp on her sleeve means she can’t venture off after him. Tom is gone and Vanessa jerks away from Adam. She knows people are staring, and she doesn’t care. She shivers, stamping her feet on the ground. She is cold, and tired, and wracked with guilt.

“Take me home right now,” she demands.

---

“Oh, fuck off,” Vanessa snaps, popping the top button off her coat and stomping up the stairs. The entire car ride back had been a question and answer game and, frankly, Vanessa is starting to hate being the car. All her car rides recently have been cursed. She slams her bedroom door in Byron’s face when he tries to follow her.

She doesn’t talk to the triplets for three days; partly out of embarrassment and partly from anger. The standoff ends more out of necessity than actual forgiveness. It is very difficult trying to trim the Christmas tree when you can’t just say, “That ornament looks stupid there.”

---

“Do you really like Cates?” Adam asks one night. She is washing the dishes from dinner and he is drying them. They had flipped a coin for the jobs and she is positively certain that he cheated.

Vanessa washes a plate while she contemplates her answer. Tom was annoying at best, but he understood when she talked literature and she had thought they were friends, at least. Maybe even something more.

“Yes,” she says, “I do.” It feels good to finally admit it.

Adam wipes at a plate with unusual ferocity. “But why? He’s an arrogant ass. In high school he always used to--”

“We aren’t in high school anymore,” Vanessa interrupts. “And if you want to call names: You are a violent brute. You guys hit him first. He hadn’t even threatened you with anything.”

Adam, at least, looks ashamed at that.

---

The thing about the grocery store is that it is not a great place to have a scene. Toddlers can get away with it, but a twenty-something chasing someone down in the refrigerated section probably isn’t the thing to do.

Vanessa couldn’t care less.

“I’m sorry the triplets jumped you,” she says, running to catch up with him, skidding to stop in front of the yogurt. Tom turns around. The hat pulled over his face does nothing to hide his black eye.

“Stay away from me,” he spits, pulling away.

She watches as he stalks out of sight, shopping basket in hand. There’s a rattling of wheels and squeaks behind her.

“You okay?” Nicky asks. Nicky always knew how to ask pointless questions with obvious answers.

“Fuck off,” she tells him, grabbing a yogurt from the shelf and throwing it into the cart.  He backs away, raising his hands. “Just asking. You didn’t have to cause the yogurt unnecessary distress.”’

---

Vanessa is not looking forward to New Years Eve. The triplets must still be feeling extremely guilty because they invite her to a New Year’s party without making any smart remarks. Vanessa doesn’t really want to go, and she tells them so.

“Sure you do,” Byron says. “Jeff is going to be there.” If this is some attempt to set her up with someone better then she really doesn’t want any part of it.

Still. The choice is between going or carefully not watching as Claire sneaks out of the house. It’s depressing when her baby sister has a more active social life than her.

Which is how she finds herself at Jerry Haney’s house. It is a fairly small party, and surprisingly tame. Well, tame for the triplets and their friends. Nobody has locked themselves in the bathroom yet, or overturned the bowl of chips, and the neighbors haven’t issued a noise complaint. Vanessa is tempted to ask if Adam or Byron vetoed half the party guests based on if they were friends with Tom.

Vanessa escapes to the kitchen once the video games and drinking begin in earnest. She grabs a Pepsi from the fridge. The drink options are limited to Corona or fruit flavored vodka, and Vanessa likes to think she has taste.

She is sitting at the kitchen table, wondering how pathetic it would be to text Tom, when Jeff walks in.

“Hey, V,” he says, grabbing a beer from the fridge. She raises her own cup and salutes him with it. There is always a momentary flash of weirdness seeing Jeff in person, and not a just as a name and number on the screen of her cell.

“Having a good break?” she asks.

He laughs, leans against the counter and twists the bottle cap. “Yeah, it’s been real. I’m about ready to leave though. I love you guys and everything, but, man, Richard just doesn’t let up.”

It is a common, and totally justified, complaint. After having two fairly laid back parents, Richard must seem like the step-parent from hell. Vanessa finds herself smiling back. “Are you going to get into trouble for being out?”

Jeff shrugs. “I’m legal and mom knows where I am. If he has a problem, he can suck it.” Vanessa tries to imagine Jeff saying that to his step-father’s face. Actually, she wouldn’t mind seeing that. It would be hilarious.

“I hear your break has been pretty dramatic, V,” Jeff points his bottle in her direction and a slow lazy smile. It’s the type of smile you give to kittens who are adorable, but also have sharp claws. She wishes, not for the first time, that she could love Jeff. But he is blonde, and lively, and even though Vanessa finds him hilarious, she can’t imagine them being anything more. She would slap the grin off his face, because while it might be a cliché, she likes dark, and brooding, and serious. Everything about Jeff is just too easy. He is literally an open-book, and it would be like dating a childrens’ novella. Easy to read, comfortable and fun. Vanessa prefers adult literary classics and challenges.

She shrugs, “It has been boring.” Because it has been mostly. Claire has car privileges, and Vanessa has been moping around the house.

Jeff makes a clucking sound, tongue between his teeth. “But I haven’t been in any fights.”

Vanessa stills. She can’t tell if he is fishing or not. Probably not. Jeff is usually pretty direct.

He opens his mouth and Vanessa thinks, Oh, please, not a joke.

It isn’t. He just says, “Tell me about it.”

“I think I fucked something good up,” she says. “I didn’t mean to. It just--” For an English major she has a rather limited vocabulary and a tentative grasp on words. Tom would find it hilarious, she thinks.

“Maybe you just need to uncomplicate it,” Jeff suggests.

Vanessa downs the last of her drink. “But how?” she asks. He smiles.

“Don’t give up.”

Jeff kisses her at midnight; a faint innocent brush of the lips, the same way it has been since they were thirteen and fourteen.

It still feels like absolutely nothing.  

---

“He’s busy,” she says when her parents ask her why she is taking the bus back. It isn’t a lie, exactly. She is sure Tom is busy with other things. Things that include not taking her back to school.

---

Everything on campus is grey. The forecast for the past three weeks has been cloudy with a sixty percent chance of snow, highs around freezing. The campus is quiet with January classes in a lull, and most students off chasing the last remnants of adventure before the spring semester begins in earnest.

Vanessa’s only adventure is trying to pass her geology lab and earn the last of her earth science credits.

She starts occupying one of the sofas in the lounge. It isn’t as comfortable as Tom’s bed, and she actually misses his pretentious indie music while she is studying.

She tells herself that the reason she is downloading music isn’t because she misses him, it is because it blocks out all the noise.

---

She goes to one of his shows. She cajoles one of her classmates into going with her and they stand in the shadows near the back. They try to blend into the background, leaving before they are seen. Vanessa can’t shake the wrongness of it, the twist in her stomach when she sees Tom on stage. It feels like she is stalking an ex-boyfriend, except her and Tom were never together.

---

Vanessa sees Frank in Walgreens. He lifts a tentative hand, like he isn’t sure if he should or not.

She isn’t sure either. She offers him a half-smile, and shoves her hands further into the pockets of her peacoat.

---

Vanessa prefers her heroines strong and confrontational. Still, it takes her three weeks to gather the courage to set foot in the coffee shop. She’s been getting her hot chocolate at the Dunkin Donuts at the intersection, and it comes from one of those powder packets. Sweet enough to cause cavities just by breathing it in, while still managing a hint of herbicide.

Vanessa doesn’t think it is fair that Tom managed to get the coffee shop in this divorce. Thing. Divorce-thing.

The sign outside the coffee shop reads, “President’s Day Special: Cherry Macchiato, the drink too good for Washington to cut down.” Warm air and aroma of expresso and chocolate hit as she opens the door.

There is nobody in line, which is good because she might lose courage if she had to wait around. Instead, she marches straight up to the counter where Tom is standing. He looks right through her.

“Did you know,” she says without greeting, “that chocolate has been a standard part of military rations since 1937?”

“I’m not going to apologize,” he says.

Vanessa is determined to be the better person. “Well, I am. I’m going to sit over there and read my book for class. If you want to come sit with me during your break, feel free.”

She turns and walks away, choosing a table in the corner, underneath the string lights. She has read four chapters when the chair across from her is pulled out. She looks up, and Tom pushes a steaming cup of hot chocolate in her direction.  Vanessa reaches for it hesitantly, carefully making sure her fingertips don’t touch Tom’s. Tom stares into his own frothy mix. It takes a lot if self-control, but Vanessa doesn’t say anything. She just waits, counting the costumers as they enter and leave.

“I’m not going to apologize,” Tom finally says, and Vanessa’s stomach takes a dive as she counts customer number five walking out the door, drink in hand. Tom continues, “I shouldn’t have to. Maybe I said somethings that I shouldn’t have, but you shouldn’t have answered my phone. It is that simple. I don’t know how you expect me to ever trust you again.”

Vanessa knew that. She expected that, but it still hurts. The hot chocolate feels like a molten lump sliding down her throat and into her stomach.

“What do you want me to do?” she asks desperately. “I’ll do anything. Please. Just give me another chance.”

“It’s not that easy,” Tom points out. “Damn it. You already fucked up once. Why should I trust you again?”

Vanessa is not going to cry. She’s not. She is twenty-one years old, has eight siblings, and has survived high school. This is nothing. “Please.”

Tom doesn’t say anything. Vanessa watches as a group of students walk past the window, their hair blowing in the wind, and cheeks pink from the cold. Please, she thinks. Please.

“You get one chance,” he says finally. He sounds tired. When she looks over, his eyes are fix on a point somewhere above her left shoulder. The register, maybe. “Don’t fuck it up. This still doesn’t mean I trust you. It doesn’t mean things are like they were.”

“Thank-you,” she murmurs. “I know.”

They sit there until his break is over. They don’t say a word.

He doesn’t say anything when she leaves.

---

Tom doesn’t say anything when she comes in the next day. But he has a hot chocolate ready for her by the time she reaches the counter.

She thanks him, and smiles. He doesn’t smile back, just turns away.

Still. It is a start.

---

Valentine’s Day happens, and while Vanessa can totally get behind a holiday that supports lovesick poetry on the inside of cards, she would rather not be privileged to text messages from Margo asking about sex and lingerie.

After the eighth one, Vanessa sends back:


My virgin ears don’t care
if you lose your V-Card on
V-Day
just please don’t contract VD.

Margo stops texting her, a brief reprieve, and apparently forwards the message to everyone on her contact list. Vanessa receives an ‘LOL I <3 YOU’ from Claire. A ‘THIS IS ONE OF THOSE THINGS I DON’T NEED TO KNOW’ from Byron, and ‘AHAHA YOUR VIRGIN EARS’ from Jordan. And Jeff-- who the hell had sent it to Jeff?--writes, ‘LOVE YA, V : P

Vanessa goes to The Engine Room for Valentine’s. Tom didn’t invite her anywhere. Their relationship is still mending, careful, ugly stitches over a deep wound. They are never alone which means no awkward silences, but it also means they never have a chance to talk. Whenever they are at the apartment Frank is always around, or sometimes Meg or Caroline or Luke. Whenever they go out it is always in a crowd. Tom plans it that way, he must.

Being at The Engine Room feels like she is trespassing on his ground, but Vanessa reasons that it is public space, and besides, she isn’t staying in her room. There is being an accidental voyeur, and then there is just setting yourself up.

Tom is on stage, singing suitable ironic songs about love gained and lost.

She spots him after his set. He’s dancing with a brunette. Vanessa recognizes her as the lead singer of Vertical Witch. What was her name? Eve? Leigh? Neeve? She is wearing the same red lace dress that she had worn the first time Vanessa had seen her on stage, her upswept hair shows up a new tattoo on her collarbone. Vanessa can’t make it out, but she thinks it is a quote by Camus. It’s probably a quote by Camus. Tom likes Camus.

She thinks, “oh”. She thinks, “It wasn’t supposed to be like that.” She thinks, “Maybe it is better this way.”

She leaves before anyone can spot her, and spends the rest of the night in the third floor study lounge reading a trashy romance novel that she took off the freecycle shelf in the library.

---

Vanessa skips the coffeehouse the next day, settling for the cafeteria sludge. If she adds in enough milk and cinnamon, the hot chocolate almost tastes bearable.

Tom is in the college library that afternoon, sitting in front of a microfilm machine and glaring at the enlarged words in concentration. Vanessa is a mature adult which is why she sneaks behind a bookcase and crouches down as she walks past the circulation desk, instead of running in the opposite direction.

---

She has a text message waiting for her once class ends. She doesn’t read it until she has claimed a booth in the cafeteria. She is glad she doesn’t have to take geology for the entire semester, but the four hour long class is killing her. Which is why she has to blink when she reads her screen. She doesn’t recognize the number. It isn’t anyone she knows. 'don’t give up on my brother. he is trying to figure things out, too. --gillian (sister)' it reads

Vanessa bites her lip.

“Why are you smiling? We just sat through five different scenarios on how the earth has ended, could end, and probably will end,” one of her classmates grumps, throwing her stuff in the other booth. Vanessa hadn’t realized that she was.

---

Tom isn’t there the next time Vanessa goes in, but Ned is.  

“It’s on the house,” he says when she tries to pay. She looks at him, and he raises his hands.

“Hey, that’s what I was told.” It’s fairly obvious who told him, and she takes the drink with asking. It has a peppermint twist, and she remembers telling Tom before the holidays that it was her favorite.

“I wonder if this is a guilty apology or a peace gesture,” she muses, taking the first sip.

Ned looks up from the register. Then, “Hey, so, Luke said he saw you at The Engine Room the other night.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa nods, cup clutched between her hands. “I thought about going over and saying, ‘hi,’ but you guys seemed pretty busy.”

It is a lie. There was no way she would have gone over after seeing Tom and that singer.

Judging by the look on Ned’s face, he knows that too.

---

“M-E-U-R-S-A-L-T,” Vanessa spells out, sliding tiles in place. It is game night again, and this time it is Scrabble with literary character names.

She looks over to see if Tom recognizes the reference.

“Camus,” he says, and toasts her with his wineglass. “Nice.”

Something warm rolls over in her chest. In the low light and smoke Tom’s eyes look impossibly dark.

“Right. So. Philip Marlowe,” Frank says, bending over the board and effectively ending the moment between her and Tom. They had a moment. An actual moment. Maybe Vanessa didn’t ruin everything, and maybe Tom could like her again. Vanessa bites her lip and wrenches her gaze away, but not before she notices Meg smugly grinning at them.

---

Vanessa leans back and stares at the snowflakes and holly painted on the plate glass window of Megara. She blinks. Snowflakes? Holly?

“It’s March,” she says. “Why is there holly is painted on the window?”

Tom carefully places the hot drinks he was carrying on the table, and raises an unimpressed eyebrow.

“Are you offering to clean it?” He takes a half-step back and turns, “I can go get a towel from the closet. And Windex.”

Vanessa rolls her eyes. “Just sit down.”

He shrugs, and slides into place with an ease Vanessa envies. “You mentioned it.”

She sighs, wrinkles her nose at him, lifting her cup of hot chocolate to her lips. “Vertical Witch is playing this weekend. Are you going?” She is not sure when she became the person who knew bands, and schedules and venues, but she kinda likes it. It makes her feel like somebody.

Even if thinking about the lead singer from Vertical Witch dancing with Tom makes her want to hit something. Hard. Repeatedly.

Tom taps his fingers against the handle of his mug. He’s look at her consideringly, almost like--almost like-- and something in Vanessa’s stomach twists up.

He says, “I was thinking of not going.” Which is strange because Vertical Witch is one of the best bands, and even if they weren’t, Tom usually spends his Fridays at The Engine Room with his friends. “Forced Social Relaxation,” Meg had called it once.

“I mean,” Tom continues with a wry smile, not quite looking at her. “I was wondering if you wanted to go see a movie that night. There is a French film about Cold War espionage playing.”

Oh. Vanessa forgets how to breath. “Just us?” she clarifies; and at his quick nod adds, “Like a date?”

The face Tom makes encapsulates, Yes, I guess, but do we have to call it that? We aren’t in high school anymore.

“It could be. If you wanted. We could do it properly?” The worlds are a jumbled mess as they leave Vanessa’s mouth, and the look Tom shoots her makes her feel equally silly. Her ability to construct sentences is horrific.

“Is that a yes for Friday?” He tries to play it cool, but Vanessa notices things; like the way his fingers are tightly wrapped around the handle of his cup, and the line of tension in his back.

She reaches over and pries his fingers loose. “Yes,” she says softly, hand slipping around his. “It’s a yes.” She is trying not to smile or grin, or laugh manically because Tom is giving her a second chance. He is finally giving her a second chance, and she is so damn thankful for that.

They stare at each other stupidly for a few minutes. It would probably be sappy and romantic if it had been anyone else but Vanessa and Tom.

“I’m not kissing you in a coffee shop,” Tom warns. “There’s a song about that. It is too cliche.”

Vanessa bites her lip, the edges turning up into a smirk. Pulling her cellphone out, she waves it in the air. “Even when it includes a picture being sent to various siblings?”

“Even the triplets?” he asks.

Vanessa nods, and Tom smirks.

They meet half-way.