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Violet is for Charm

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The nightclub was pounding loud, flashing with pink and green lights. Miriam rubbed her thumb over her wallet in her pocket as she slipped through crowds of men in crop tops, women with buzzcuts. She kept her eyes glued firmly to the ground, hoping the purple cardigan thick on her chest and the long, smooth wig itching on her scalp were enough to signal disinterest. She wiped a drop of sweat off her forehead as she sat at the bar, ordered a water.

Despite her efforts, she was only a couple seats away from a group of girls— maybe three? One of them was banging her glass on the table. She sipped her water warily.

One of them met her eye— shit. She ducked her head.

Too late. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see a short, thin girl with light brown skin smiling at her and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear with the rest of her short ponytail.

"Hey," the girl said. "Are you alone tonight?"

Miriam bit her lip. "I'm here with a friend."

The girl quirked her brows. One of her bare arms propped her against the bar with a sort of strong, easy grace. "Would this friend mind if I bought you a drink?"

"Probably," Miriam laughed breathlessly. Get it together. "I'm her designated driver. I'm straight," she added, vaguely wondering, as she always did, how an actual straight girl would say it.

"Oh." Something in the other girl's face changed, darkened. "Thought you were like, just femme or something— never mind." She scooted back one seat.

Miriam considered splashing herself in the face with her water and making her getaway, Tamara be damned.

“Even for Meg?” The girl grabbed the friend who was banging her glass— who, wow, okay, she had really buff arms, all right— “Like, every girl I know is at least a little gay for Meg. She has a six-pack.”

Meg pushed her off, smiling warmly.

Miriam worked up a laugh. “Sorry, no.”

“Bummer.” The girl tilted her head back and took a shot of some dark liquor in one go. Miriam had the chance to discreetly look her over now— knee-length camo pants, legs unshaven, some sort of tattoo peeking over her Converse in place of socks. Her wife beater was spotted with something bluish-black… ink?

She was talking again. “What’s your name, hetero? I won’t ask where you’re from ‘cause I know how sore the subject can be, and I also don’t care.”

“Oh… Miriam. Burr. I go to…” Her cheeks heated up.

“I’m Alex. Alex Hamilton. Don’t call me Alexandra. And that’s Meg—“ The muscled girl gave a two-fingered wave from her patterned top-knot— “just Meg. One name. Our buddy Yves is singing the karaoke right now—“

“— ain’t they beautiful?”

“But they go by their surname Lafayette. And this is Jane Laurens.” Alex nudged the last of their group, who was slumped in her seat and draped over the bar, her bushy, brown ponytail the only evident part of her head. She was clad in copious denim, her right hand’s second and third fingers sporting the two longest, pinkest fake nails Miriam had ever seen.

“No… variation on the name?” she attempted to joke.

“Obviously not.” Alex peered at the collapsed figure. “Is she asleep again?

“Afraid so,” Meg replied.

Alex gave a hard smack to the back of Jane’s head. “Jane, you useless lesbian.”

Jane lifted up her hand to make the “ok” symbol, nails and all, then let it flop back down.

Miriam licked her lips, unsure of how she was supposed to interact with these women. She felt the barrier between them like the Berlin Wall, felt cold in her heart— yearning at the same time. “Your friend up there.” She pointed. “They have a nice voice.”

“Oh, yeah?” Alex took another shot. Miriam wondered where she was keeping the alcohol. “You should hear them rap when they’re having a manic episode.”

“They always put in a line about horses ‘cause they know I love horses,” Meg said, eyes evidently dreamy.

“Okay so, Lafayette’s literally the only girl I know who doesn’t have a crush on Meg. But they’re a nonbinary girl, so maybe…?” Alex leaned her cheek on her chin, squinting at the ceiling. Miriam noticed a thick, shiny white scar traveling from the crook of Alex’s elbow to her palm. She looked away.

“Think it has more to do with the fact that they already have a girlfriend,” Meg said.

“But Adrienne is still in Senegal—“

“And that’s still cheating.”

Alex waved her hand in the air, like this was somehow up for debate. “Hey Burr, pass me the water? I wanna dump it on Jane’s head. Don’t give me that look, I know it was free. C’mon, c’mon. All right!” She splashed it on her prone friend’s head. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

Jane Laurens hazily lifted her head halfway up, ponytail now significantly less bushy. Her high, carved cheekbones were covered in freckles. “Heeey, Alex.” She picked up a piece of ice and crunched it in her teeth. “Who’s this chick? Should I guard your door?”

“Her name is Miriam, and she’s straight, apparently.”

Jane gave a heavy sigh and plunked her head back on the table.

Alex yanked it up again by the hair and pushed the glass toward her. “You need more water— waiter? Waiter, waiter! Agua.”

Jane sunk into Meg’s shoulder, and Meg nodded and rubbed her back in smooth circles.

Miriam wondered if Alex had only talked to her to steal her water, then realized that was ridiculous. Still, Alex seemed like one of those short people who overcompensated for it by being as loud and in-motion as possible. Miriam trained her focus on Meg, noticed white ink circling her bicep.

“Do you like it?” Meg noticed, and flexed a little, prompting Jane to pat her arm. Miriam liked her voice: rich, deep, settling. “It’s a snake. Here, you can look.”

Miriam hesitated toward her and squinted. It looked vaguely Celtic. “Ahh. Nice craftsmanship.”

“Yeah? We all have matching ones.”

“Yeah!” Alex plunked her foot on the bar and half-kicked off one of her sneakers. Indeed, there was a serpent, this one in dark ink, winding its way around her thin ankle.

Jane turned her hand to reveal one on her wrist.

“And Lafayette has one on their neck,” Alex said. “For their speech. Also because we were seventeen and kinda high maybe and they were feeling rebellious.”

Jane perked up. “Speaking of which…”

Alex rolled her eyes. “You wanna go out back?”

Jane nodded like a puppy who was falling asleep.

Alex sighed and took one last shot, then shook her head like she just got out of the pool. “C’mon, then, c’mon.” She glanced at Miriam. “How ‘bout you, hetero? You comin’?”

Miriam reached for her phone in her pocket. “Um…”

Alex rolled her eyes again. “Right.”

“No, wait, let me just call my friend….” Miriam dialed Tamara’s number, holding up a finger, then covering her free ear.

She was met with loud sobs on the other end. She couldn’t bring herself to be surprised. “Mi- Miriam?”

“Are you okay? Are you safe?” Miriam tried to give Meg and Alex a look, but they appeared to be arm-wrestling, with Alex clearly failing.

“I’m in the bathroom.”

“Okay. Some people I met want to chill outside for a bit. Is it okay if I join them?”

“Oh sure, just—“ A hiccup. “Just leave me like everyone else that’s—“

Miriam massaged her forehead. “Do you have a backup driver, just in case you forget I exist?”

“I can call Jem….” She seemed somewhat happier already through her despondency, as Miriam knew she would be.

“Sounds good to me.” She hung up and pocketed her phone before Tamara could respond again. “All right, I’m kosher.”

Meg and Alex were already dragging Jane up and towards the back, the middle girl gazing at both of them adoringly. “Meet you there!”

Navigating the club was a tricky business, but at least no guys were hitting on her here. Miriam kept her eyes low, doing her best to block all the girls out of her field of vision, and told herself her exit was because she craved the quiet. The person singing karaoke— still Lafayette, Miriam guessed— was halfway-lying down, their big, dark curls radiant around them.

Once outside, she gasped in the fresh air. She could never really get away from the noise in New York City, and neon lights spun all around her in the dark, but the music was muffled, and the sky was familiar.

The trio pushed out soon afterword, and slumped to the ground. Miriam joined them cautiously, mindful of the grimy brick.

Jane held a joint between those two long-nailed fingers, which Alex lit for her, and took a rather impressive drag. She blew it out slowly. “Haha, Alex, it kinda looks like a cloud.”

“That’s because it is a cloud. That’s the literal definition of a cloud.”

Jane looked over at Miriam. “You want any?”

Miriam shook her head. “Designated driver, remember?”

“Laaame,” Jane laughed while Meg took a hit. She evidently caught Miriam staring at her nails, because she made a peace sign and deadpanned, “asexual.”

“I wasn’t…”

“Everyone asks.”

“I didn’t ask!” Alex interjected, still too loud for outside. “’Cause I met her before she got them,” she said proudly to Miriam. Like this was her greatest accomplishment.

Jane clicked her nails together. “If I do this, I feel like a praying mantis.” She reached again for the blunt, but Alex smacked her hand away. Miriam wondered if she was this violent with all her friends.

“No way, amiga. We gotta get you home before you die.”

“I’m not gonna—“

“Not yet! Let’s go, let’s go.” Alex stood, stumbling a little, and pulled on Jane’s arm.

Miriam looked between the three of them. “Do you have a driver? How are you getting home?”

“We’ll walk.” Alex waved her hands, dropping Jane’s. “It’s just a few blocks.”

“Yeah, just a few blocks,” Jane echoed.

Miriam frowned. “It’s dangerous here at night.”

“We’ve done it a million times before. Come on.” Alex finally got Jane up, who promptly slumped against her shoulder.

“No.” Miriam fiercely shook her head. “I’ll drive you home.”

“You really don’t gotta—“

“It’s just a few blocks, right? You said.”

“Is this straight ally guilt? ‘Cause—“

Meg stood and crushed the blunt under her combat boot, then lay a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s a good idea.”

Alex’s eyes flitted between the two of them. “I hate your ass,” she told Meg plainly.

“That’s not what you were saying when—“

“Okay! Okay, let’s go.” Miriam patted down her wig, swearing internally that if any of them made her car smell like weed, they were dead to her.

She let the three of them squabble for attention in the speaker in the back as they called their friend Lafayette. She popped down her mirror and concentrated hard on fixing her appearance instead of the hollow ache or fluttering anxiety in her chest. She stroked her eyebrows, fiddled with her wig, smoothed her mascara. It hadn’t run, praise be.

Lafayette knocked on the car window before climbing through the door, falling over Jane and Meg’s laps. “Oh, my loves!” they proclaimed, accent thick. “Who is this? This person? Oh, what a beautiful car.” They really did have a snake tattooed around their neck. When they talked, it wriggled.

“I call shotgun!” Alex shouted, and clambered between the seats before shoving her feet up on the dashboard, seatbelt unbuckled. She stretched her arms above her head while Miriam started driving and the other three laughed and tangled together in the back. She didn’t shave her armpits, either. Miriam focused on her lights on the road. Alex smelled like sweat, and tequila, and cinnamon, and… cologne, maybe? Get it together.

“’S our building,” Alex finally said, and kicked the passenger door open.

“Are you sure you don’t need help getting up there?” Miriam asked.

Alex tugged at her friends. “I think we’ll manage,” she slurred, somehow bitingly sarcastic while clearly off-balance. “Laf, did you bum Kahlua again? Ugh, you are gonna have such a hangover.” She smacked Jane’s ass and told her, “I better not see you complaining tomorrow.” Miriam blushed, again. Dammit.

“Speak for yourself, you smell like the whole bar,” Lafayette muttered.

“Just don’t blame me when we get arrested for possession of illegal substances!” Alex yelled, and then yawned.

Meg dragged her towards the building. “Maybe, uh, don’t say that so loud when we’re outside.”

“Right, right….”

Miriam watched them go, foot hovering over the gas. The noise of the city felt eerily quiet once they were gone.

She drove back to the dorm feeling disoriented, shaky, scolding herself under her breath. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t have any slip-ups here— and she hadn’t but— G-d.

Jem was gone when she slipped into the dark dorm room after fighting an intense battle with the lock. She flopped onto the bed, deciding to trust that Tamara had called her. She pulled her blanket tight around herself and stared into blackness.

She thought of the snake around Alex’s ankle. She knew it was pointless, because they’d never take her to get one, and she was scared of needles anyway. But she still thought it. She’d get one on her scalp, so that when her hair grew out, no one could see it. The serpent would be invisible while it chewed itself to death.

"Aren't they beautiful?"

Theodosia's laugh is brighter than the sunlight. She's pulling you by your wrist. You're breathless.

"You're beautiful," you say. Want to say. You forget whether you really said it.

The hill is covered in daffodils. Theodosia's dreadlocks twirl. The sky is so blue over miles and miles of green.

"We can be together here," she says, smile like sweet sugar. She's all you can see. "Just you and me, Miriam."

The sun is blinding. Her hair is a whirlwind.

"Just you and me."

"I feel like the zombie apocalypse just happened in my mouth."

Miriam woke up to the vision of Tamara Jefferson splayed on her respective bed, arm flung over her eyes and groaning.

"You'll live," deadpanned Jem Madison, who had a book in front of her nose while she rummaged through the fridge, still draped in her blanket.

"Janie Reeee," Tamara moaned, "I can't go to class today."

"Hm, you bet your sweet ass you can. Especially since you made the new girl go. Think of her first impression."

Tamara sighed again, mumbling something about migraines.

Miriam sat up, rubbing her eyes. She put the thoughts of last night and the dream out of her mind. As far as she could be concerned, she'd never met Alex Hamilton and her gang or ever set foot in the Revolution Club.

Jem plunked a glass of sweet tea on Tamara's bedside. "Please shut up now."

"You're a goddess," Tamara replied, stars in her eyes while she sipped her tea, spilling a little.

"I know."

"I love youuu."

"I know."

Miriam carried her clothes and wig materials down the hall into the nearby bathroom. She slumped against the sink in the early morning light, rubbing her blurry eyes. She could still hear Tamara’s whines as she showered and rubbed scar cream into her legs.

She had opted for the three-person dorm with students a year older not just because it was cheaper, but because she could blend in. The deal she'd cut out with Columbia had some scholarships involved, but not even those could cover all the expenses, especially after such an abrupt transfer.

So she'd been roomed with Tamara Jefferson, a tall, curvy junior with an enormous afro and penchants for hooking her thumbs in her belt loops and wearing crop tops that showed off her navel piercing (which probably would have driven her crazy if she were Miriam's type), and Jem Madison, a soft-voiced, five-foot-two fellow pre-law student who had black everything: black sweaters, black skin, black bob wig, black pants. Miriam wondered whether the air she breathed was black. They were glued together at the hip, and fit together, too, finishing each other like parentheses— childhood friends from wherever they were from, Virginia or something. Miriam felt distinctly like a half-mute third wheel, but she decided she could deal with that. It was better than nothing.

Tamara was still there drinking tea when she slipped back in, fully dressed. Jem talked to her while she read. "You fuck anyone last night?"

"Just my own ass. With a pitchfork."

"Hmm."

“She was too busy crying to me from the bathroom,” Miriam said as she rubbed unscented lotion on her hands.

“Sounds about right.” Jem bopped Tamara gently on the head with her book, which Miriam could now see contained the Constitutional Convention debates. “You gonna be okay while we go to class?”

“Mmmf.”

“I better not see you here when we get back, or I’m flushing Monroe down the toilet.” Monroe was the name of the Venus flytrap that held a lauded position on Tamara’s nightstand. Jem hefted herself and backpack up, grabbed some more school supplies, and turned to Miriam still wrapped in her blanket. “Ready?”

Miriam nodded. Blessedly, Jem did not try to engage her in conversation as they walked down the stairs and joined the early morning crowd for Civics. She instead observed Jem’s Oxfords, how she hitched up her corduroys to expose nothing but long, black socks between her shoes and her pants.

Miriam thought she had dressed rather well for her first week at a new college: flowing blouse, tight-fitted jeans, some practical flats. She’d been quite the charmer, in her day. Kept a steady pattern of boyfriends, real and then imagined, safe then distant then discarded. Good for company and not-very-enjoyable-but-still-not-terrible sex. And then she vanished out of their lives like so much mist. That way of life was easier. She wondered, briefly, when it had slipped away from her.

She tried to put the train of thought out of her mind but was nevertheless still spaced out when she got to class. She sat herself heavily in a corner, folded the edge of one of her notebooks. She started chewing on her pen cap. If she made a comment three-quarters through the third class later that week….

“Well, well, well. Look who we have here.”

Miriam startled up to see Alex (don’t call me Alexandra) Hamilton’s grin above her. She slowly felt her neck heating up.

“If it isn’t Miriam Burr.”

“I didn’t know you went to school here,” Miriam weakly managed.

Alex threw up a peace sign. “Since freshman year, baby.” She was wearing some sort of bomber jacket today (thank goodness; that scar made Miriam nervous), but she was still decked out in camo. Her shirt said, Though she be but little, she is fierce. Owning it, apparently. “The whole crew goes here.”

Well. Miriam’s life was definitely screwed.

She glanced at Alex’s damp ponytail. “How aren’t you ten kinds of hung-over?”

“Oh, I am! Everything is so loud and colorful, wow, what a beautiful world. But I drank, like, four cups of espresso so I think I’m good.”

Miriam was getting a headache from watching her hands as she talked.

Jem looked between the two of them. “You know each other?”

You know each other?” Miriam whispered.

“So to speak,” Jem said.

“We’re exes,” Alex said.

Fuck.

Jem seemed relatively unbothered, flipping open her notebook and writing down the date. “I suppose you two met last night when Tamara dragged her along. Revolution is such a seedy place….”

“Wait, your friend is Tamara?” Alex cocked her hip, one hand on Miriam’s desk, expression sheer disgust.

Miriam was ready to die. “We’re roommates this year.”

“Oh, hell no.”

Jem rolled her eyes.

“You… also know Tamara, then.”

“We’re also exes.”

Miriam wanted to ask Alex weakly how many exes she had, but then thought better of it. She ducked her head and took a deep breath. “Well, I know we may have had a… tumultuous start, and I’m not in your favorite company….”

“Not in my favorite company!”

“But this doesn’t have to be a big deal. We can just go our separate ways.” Separate ways, G-d, please, separate ways.

The prayer flew right over Alex’s head. “To say that Tamara Jefferson is not my favorite company is a GROSS understatement of the animosity I—“

Jem massaged her temples.

“And she is not as great at oral as she thinks she is, not matter what she tells you.” Alex directed that one at Jem, who continued reading as if Alex wasn’t there. “She and her little crony— that means you, Jane Madison— have put a slander to my name—“

“My name is Jane Marie,” Jem finally replied.

“I don’t give a damn about your Southern bullshit.”

“You just want an excuse to get angry because I reviewed last year’s thesis with her instead of you.”

“Should I move seats?” Miriam asked.

“Oh no, you stay right where you are,” Alex said. “You need to get filled in on all the sophomore year drama.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does! Right there in the core curriculum.”

A couple more students were filing in now for the early morning crowd. One guy caught Alex’s eye, walked over. “Alex Hamilton?”

She rolled her eyes. “Hey, Adams. This is Miriam. Miriam— John. But don’t call him that. Too weird. We worked together, like, once.”

Miriam slowly nodded.

“Still pursuing a career of law, I see?” Adams adjusted his backpack.

Alex held up her head, squared her jaw. “I don’t see why I wouldn’t be. You know how I plan to graduate.” Jesus.

“And, ah, Miriam, you’re new here?” He held out a hand to shake. It was firm and clammy. “I’d be happy to show you around. I know all the best—“

“Can it, Adams, she’s with me,” Alex spat.

“With you?” Adams looked between the two of them.

Hands as panicky as her heartrate, Miriam stammered, “It’s not— no, it’s not like that, I—“

Adams had his eyes on Alex. “You don’t mean to tell me you’re a… that you’re…”

Alex gave him a deadpan stare.

“A homosexual?”

Before she could think, there were hands on her face and— Wow. Alex’s mouth was hot and open on Miriam’s, and her own mouth fell open in shock. Everything was warm, everything so— Alex’s thumbs rubbed circles on her jaw while her tongue flicked into Miriam’s mouth, and her hands were so soft, and then, oh—

Her mouth was empty. Alex had pulled away as quickly as she’d kissed her. The room spun; Miriam lifted a hand to her mouth.

“Does that answer your question?” Alex asked.

Miriam hid behind her hands, face so hot she was going to incinerate. She was going to spontaneously combust, trembling, and it was all Alex Hamilton’s fault, dear G-d, what was that—

Thankfully, there were still only a few students in the room, none of whom looked particularly surprised. Miriam let her head sink onto the table, wrapping herself in her arms to shield herself in cool darkness. As Alex walked away from her towards the front of the room, Miriam’s head buzzed and swirled.

She left unexplained halfway through the class, determined to never underestimate how screwed she could be ever again.

”Sweet name.”

She’s wearing green. Looks good, like she’s a breath of life. Brings sunlight into the room.

“Miriam.” “Sweet name.”

Sweet—

She’s a Lit major. Carefree. Jacket tied on her waist. Wearing about a million rings on her fingers.

Glittering. Like she brings sunlight to the room, all on her own.

“You can switch if you get sick of me after three weeks,” Theodosia says while unpacking, and you laugh lightly. (Sunlight) You don’t think that will be an issue.

Her hair is long, her fingers— You’re reading Paine.

WHAT WE OBTAIN TOO CHEAP, WE ESTEEM TOO LIGHTLY: IT IS DEARNESS ONLY THAT GIVES EVERY THING ITS VALUE.

Sunlight comes so precious, disappears so soon.

“Let me explain.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Look, I know you must be pissed at me, but I at least deserve the right to defend myself in—“

Miriam pinched the bridge of her nose. Alex kept rambling at her through Tamara’s phone, which she’d refused to cut off until they could talk. “This is ridiculous.”

“No, it’s not! There are plenty of adjectives you could use to describe it, sure, whatever, but it’s not pointless to want to preserve one’s reputation, especially in light of a new acquaintance with whom a first impression may not have been well made!”

Miriam wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to the way Alex talked when pressured. “What do you want?” What would make her shut up?

“I don’t know, half an hour? Coffee? I’ll pay.”

“That’s it?”

“Sure. Unless you want a Danish or something, I know a great donut place—“

“Coffee is fine.” Miriam took a deep breath. “We’re both tired, so this shouldn’t take too long.”

“Of course, right.”

Miriam followed the haphazard directions to the on-campus coffee shop Alex had suggested. She kept one fist clenched on her purse strap, surrounded by the noises of construction work even here. She hoped that she didn’t look suspicious, convinced, somehow, that they could all be monitoring her phone. Knew were she had gone, was going. Was meeting—

She took a deep breath when she entered, the rich scent of coffee calming her slightly. Alex waved conspicuously at her from the corner, and… Lafayette offered a finger-wave from the counter. Naturally.

Miriam shifted into the seat across from Alex as smoothly as possible. She kept her eyes on her purse. “You wanted to explain?”

Alex was jiggling her leg while she took off the lip of her large cup. “Do you want anything? Coffee? Brownie?”

“I’m not very hungry.”

Alex paused. “I made you sick, is that what you’re saying?”

How this girl could misconstrue the most innocuous sentence. “I’m watching my figure.”

“Okay. Wouldn’t be the first. I’m just saying.” Miriam glanced for a second to see a slight tension between Alex’s brows. She swallowed. Alex was dumping instant coffee into her cup of hot water. When she noticed Miriam staring, she smiled again. “I always bring my own coffee. It sucks, but it makes Lafayette so mad. Totally worth it.”

Miriam almost smiled in spite of herself, it was so nonsensical. Alex took a swig of her coffee and she remembered, vividly, how the same mouth had felt on hers that morning. Her neck was smooth, long. She felt like choking.

“Okay, okay, so…” Alex sighed. “Look, I’ve kind of had a grudge towards Adams for a while now.”

“You don't say.”

“He’s gotten preferential treatment in class, and he knows it, and he flaunts it in my face. He knows that— But that’s not the point.” She took a swallow of coffee. “I swear, every single time I tell anyone I’m a law student, they ask if I’m a lesbian.”

“That’s when they ask?”

Alex raised her eyebrows.

Miriam resisted hiding her face again.

“I’m actually bisexual, but it’s not like the people asking actually care, you know? And they never believe me, anyway. I don’t know why. They just want to get a rise out of me. So halfway through freshman year, when anybody asked, instead of taking fifteen minutes out of my time to explain to them why their baiting and stereotyping is harmful, I just… started kissing whatever girl was nearest me.”

“… I see.”

“Okay, it’s not as weird as you think!”

Miriam chuckled in spite of herself.

“It’s not! I’m with Jane or Meg or Laf like, almost all of the time, so it’s always been one of them or someone else who I knew loved to piss off straight people. Almost always Jane, though.” If there was an aggressive way to drink instant coffee out of an ‘eco-friendly’ cup, Alex was doing it. “So I was… a little out of line, not asking, but it was an impulse.”

“Ahhh.”

Alex eyed her, bit her lip. Sighed. “Sorry.”

Miriam nodded. The question of forgiveness didn’t so much enter her mind as the question of ease. “It’s okay. Just, um… don’t do it again?”

“Right.” Alex ran a hand through her hair. She really looked the picture.

Miriam picked at a nail. “Does it bother you? When people think you’re gay instead of bi?”

“Honestly?” Alex raised her eyebrows. “As a poor, first-gen, Latina, mentally ill, bisexual woman in the inner city? Somehow, it’s not my biggest worry.”

Miriam had to laugh. “Okay, I see your point.”

“But yeah, it does bother me.”

Miriam dissolved into giggles then. She wasn’t sure what did it to her. She snorted. Brushed down her wig. “Jesus.”

Alex half-smiled, warm. “Can I actually ask you a favor?”

Miriam squeezed her hands together. “Depends on the favor.”

Alex laughed awkwardly, then drank from her coffee again. “I haven’t really had a very steady relationship in a while.”

Her chest prickled.

“Could you, like…” Alex rubbed the back of her neck. “Pretend to date me?”

Miriam burst again into silent laughter, clutched her chest. Her incredulity had to show in her mirth. “You have got to be joking.”

Alex glared, but it looked more like a pout. “Just for the first semester. I just want people to know I can hold down a date for more than a week.”

“A fake date!”

“If you don’t want to help me out, that’s fine,” she grumbled.

Miriam looked to the ceiling for guidance. “You couldn’t ask one of your friends?”

“Meg and Jane are both my exes, and Lafayette has a long-term girlfriend. It’s just not convincing.”

“Couldn’t be any less convincing than dating a straight girl.”

“They don’t know you’re straight.”

Miriam looked at her. Alex’s eyes were wide, mouth a flat line, eyebrows drawn together. Shit, she was actually serious. Miriam licked her lips. “This is…”

“Just one semester.”

“They’re going to think I’m gay.”

“And that’s so bad?”

Alex’s eyes were such a deep brown, imploring. She was biting her lip again. And she had kissed her. And, well, Miriam hadn’t disliked it. Maybe if people thought she had a girlfriend, guys wouldn’t hit on her as much….

She laughed it off. She knew that wasn’t true.

She looked at Alex again, felt her mouth open. “There would have to be conditions.” Damn, did she have a weakness for big, brown eyes.

Alex smiled. “Of course!”

“Only on campus.” Miriam couldn’t believe herself.

“Absolutely.”

“And, um… please keep the kissing to a minimum.”

“Will do, hetero.” Alex slouched and did a two-finger salute. Fuck. “Want me to pull up a contract?”

Miriam laughed. “That’s fine, thanks.” She could shoot herself. She was shooting herself. Shooting herself in the foot. She swallowed. “Just a semester.”

“Just a semester.”

“You won’t tell anyone unless you have to.”

“No, I won’t.”

She took a deep breath. “Damn, all right. But if this gets me in any kind of trouble, it’s over.”

“Excellent!” Alex held out her hand. Miriam shook it. She felt a little dizzy. “It’s a done deal.”

Miriam nodded weakly.

“So.” Alex grinned. “You sure you don’t want any coffee?”

Miriam breathed. “Fuck it. Fine.”

“I’ll buy.” Alex flashed her a wink and a ten-dollar bill as she stood.

What Miriam meant to say was, Don’t buy me anything. She meant to say I don’t even like you. Don’t speak to me. She meant to say, thought she’d say, This plan is terrible and I won’t buy into it for a second.

What she said was, “I take it black.”

Miriam Burr officially had a problem.

Chapter Text

“Have any wishes for our first date?”

“Fake date, you mean.”

“Obviously. Implied clauses.”

Miriam squished her phone to her ear with her shoulder while she shoved rice milk and carrots in the minifridge. Tamara and Jem apparently liked to live on a diet of wine, chocolate pudding, and microwavable miso soup, but Miriam was going to get herself a salad if her life fucking depended on it. “Not in particular. You?”

“Yes! Can you meet me in front of the gym in ten minutes?”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see, you’ll see. Patience, young jedi.”

“Your Yoda voice is terrible.”

“Say it to my face next time.”

“Maybe I will in ten minutes.”

When Miriam reached the stairs to the gym, Alex was already waiting for her, two coffees in hand. “I got you yours. Black.”

She smiled ruefully. “Thanks.”

“Still gonna criticize my Yoda voice?”

“I said ‘maybe.’”

“Coward’s way out. Come on, let’s go down.” Alex grabbed her hand and led her into the building, into one of the club rooms. Miriam found herself very grateful that the windows were half-blocked by shelves.

They were greeted by Jane and two other girls sitting on cushions on the floor. The middle one stood up, flower-patterned dress flowing below her knees, arms covered in intricately woven rope bracelets, a radiant smile on her face. The golden cross dangling from her neck made Miriam’s skin prickle; the bi pride pin on her sweater assuaged some of it. “Alex, hey!” She gripped her hand.

“Hey, ‘Liza.” Alex rubbed the back of her neck. “How are you?”

“I’m good, you?”

“Haha, I’m good.”

Alex was gathered in a slow, warm hug. “It feels so good to be back.”

“Agreed. Eliza…” Alex pulled back, gestured to Miriam. “This is my girlfriend, Miriam. Miriam, this is Eliza. She runs the GSA.”

Miriam smiled politely, ignoring the painful heat in her cheeks. “Nice to meet you.”

“Alex, you didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend!”

“Yeah, for like, a month now.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Eliza hugged her again. “I am so proud of you.”

Miriam almost felt like she was intruding on something private, like she should leave. She looked to see Jane with her eyebrows halfway to her hairline, but she blessedly had the tact not to say anything. Or maybe she was just used to Alex having fake girlfriends whom she had just met; one could never know.

They all sat down, Eliza tucking her long, black hair behind her ears. “So how did you two meet? Tell me everything.”

Alex laughed nervously. “Funny story, actually! She, ah…”

“I work for the archives at the public library. She came to check out a book— left her jacket,” Miriam lied. Maybe she really should get a job at the archives. Maybe she should stop re-watching Carol at odd hours of the morning. Either way, it was a pretty good lie to come up with on the spot.

“You are such a nerd,” Eliza accused and ruffled Alex’s hair.

Miriam almost expected Alex to slap her hand away, but she just giggled— actually giggled— grinned, and muttered, “Cut it out.”

“Do you like your job?” the other girl sitting next to Eliza asked. She had dark skin and a short poof of hair, hoop earrings sparkling over leather-clad shoulders. The kind of girl Miriam might like to flirt with if she could.

She just nodded. “You learn so much just being around people who really know what they’re doing.”

Alex squeezed her hand. “This is Angelica.”

“Is she treating you well?” Angelica asked, eyebrows raised.

“Um. Yeah.” Miriam’s blush was not going anywhere.

“If you ever need anything, you can let me know.” Her dark eyes were bright and earnest.

“I will.”

Alex glared at the floor and held Miriam’s hand tighter. “I’m not going to do anything.”

“You better not.” Angelica broke into a grin then, lightly shoved Alex’s shoulder. “I’m happy for you.”

“Nice way of showing it.”

“Did I break your arm?”

“I’m bleeding. You just can’t see my pain.”

Jane was covering her mouth, visibly hiding silent snickers.

Eliza poked Jane’s knee and chirped happily, “Wanna go shoot up?”

Jane beamed. “Hell, yeah!” Miriam watched them leave the room with wide eyes, Jane leaning in to bump Eliza’s shoulder, making her giggle.

Alex noticed her expression, leaned in. “Estrogen,” she explained. “Girls who transition together, mess with people together.”

It clicked. “Oh.”

“Is that a problem?” Alex and Angelica asked at the same time.

“No.” Miriam waved her hands. “Just unexpected.”

“Eliza will be happy to hear that.” Angelica picked at her nail polish.

“So…” Miriam laughed nervously. “Is this the whole GSA, or…?”

“No way!” Alex said. “This room will probably be packed in a couple weeks.”

“We could really use some help setting up for the club fair,” Angelica said. “Maybe you could help?”

Miriam licked her lips, shook her head. “I’d love to, but I don’t think I’ll have time.”

“Bummer.” Angelica wrinkled her nose, turned to Alex. “Is Yves coming?”

“I’m certain.”

“Tell them to stop bringing crushed-up incense and telling the kids it’s drugs.”

Alex sighed. “I’ll do my best.”

Angelica frowned at the door. “I’m gonna go check on the gal pals. Make yourselves comfortable.” She flashed them a wink before leaving.

Miriam folded her hands in her lap, biting her lip. The room was quiet for a couple moments.

“Do you like Eliza’s bracelets?” Alex finally asked.

“Oh— yes, they’re pretty.”

“How much do you like them on a scale of one to ten?”

Miriam eyed her, decided to play along. “Eight-point-five.”

“Hm, not so bad!” Alex kicked her feet out. “I made them.”

“Oh!” Miriam exclaimed. “They show a lot of skill. I didn’t know you could make patterns like that.”

She smiled. “Yeah, I did them in my second round of inpatient. They made me do a million crafts instead of writing, it was insufferable. But I was never really a jewelry person— shocker, I know— so when I got out, I just gave them all to Betsey.”

Miriam tucked her hair behind her ear. “That’s really sweet of you.”

“I thought so too!” she laughed.

The room was sunny, warm. Miriam felt her chest loosen. “Second round?”

Alex quirked an eyebrow. “A well-adjusted woman is one who makes the same mistake twice without getting nervous.”

Miriam laughed, hid her face. “Words to live by.” She pressed her palms to her thighs. “You seem to really like Eliza.”

“Everyone likes Eliza.”

“You didn’t ask me to do this just to make her proud of you, did you?”

“Hey.” Alex sat up a little straighter. “If you knew how it felt to have Eliza Schuyler be proud of you, you’d want a straight girlfriend, too.”

“That… doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s true, though.” Alex deflated, crossing her legs. “Plus, I kinda owe her. I really…” She picked at her nails. “I really screwed her over, when we were together.”

“You dated her?” Miriam felt strange, tingling around her eyes.

“It was a long time ago, and I was young and awful. But yeah, I… kinda put the moves on her sister? And that did not go over well. Neither of them talked to me for a whole semester, so I—“ She took a deep breath. “It’s my job to prove to them that I’m better than I was in freshman year. That I’m a person, I can grow. You understand?”

“More or less.” She personally thought that a real girlfriend would work better for the purpose, but she decided not to question Alex’s train of thought. “So the end goal is… getting back with Eliza? Just so we’re clear.”

Alex gave her a look. “What? Christ, no. I’m not risking that again. I just want to be her friend.”

“Oh.” Miriam nodded, some unnoticed tension leaving her shoulders. She couldn’t place why her breath had gone shallow.

It’s fun at first. The lying.

And you’re good at it, too.

You and Theodosia morph into a thousand things, retreating and re-emerging from the same chrysalis every night.

Best friends. Cousins. Sisters.

(You have to laugh at that. Like you’d be caught dead going outside the way Theo looked, that nose ring and her bra straps showing and her hiking boots always spattered with mud, good G-d—)

It was funny. It was a joke. Shared kisses in the dead of night, small flicks on each other’s noses in public, like it’s all a game, a test of how much you can get away with, the whispers in your ear, the under-the-table texting, the meaningful glances.

You were so young. So naïve.

You’ve tried to blame her in a thousand different ways. But the guilt remains on your hands, as it should, and the weight drips from your shoulders. You know, you know, you know it’s all on you.

So young.

It wasn’t as terrible as Miriam thought it would be. In fact, it was terrifyingly easy.

Alex picked her up once a week and took her to some on-campus café or restaurant. Stroked her cheek a few times, but other than that, there was barely any physical contact between them but for when passing students gave Alex’s legs a strange look, and then Alex would link her hands behind Miriam’s neck, kiss her like it was the end of the world. And Miriam supposed it was.

Sometimes, she’d call her names. Darling, sugarplum. They grew more and more ridiculous, and Miriam couldn’t help but feel like Alex was just trying to make her laugh. (The worst part was that it worked.) She started keeping a document of the names— just so she wouldn’t forget. So she could rub it Alex’s face if she used the same one twice.

Off-campus, it was different. They parted ways at the gates. Alex never once looked back at her, once she had left. Miriam found herself feeling colder with the wind.

On the rare days that she followed Alex to her apartment, their hands stayed strictly apart. Alex rarely met her in the eyes. It wasn’t real. Of course it wasn’t real, it wasn’t—

Not when she pressed a small talisman into Miriam’s hand and closed her fist around it. Still didn’t look at her face. “This is a chamsa.”

“I know.”

“It keeps the evil eye away.”

“That’s useful.”

“It was my mom’s.”

“Oh.” Miriam traced her finger over the edge of the hand, tapped the eye delicately. “It’s beautiful.”

“You can have it.”

“What? No.”

“It’s for you.” She did meet her eyes then, wide and blinking. Fire-like in their earnesty. Miriam felt her breath leave her chest for a moment. “You might need it.” Alex patted her hand then, went back to her notes. Miriam parroted Supreme Court rulings to her, her thumb running over the chamsa all the while.

She put it under her pillow. Perhaps it would keep the dreams out. Perhaps she’d forget the taste of Alex’s mouth on her own, sweet and sickening and coating the insides of her cheeks at night like thick syrup.

She’d stopped wearing a cross long ago, after all.

“Is there normally this much memorization in Psych?”

“Ask someone who’s taken Psych,” Jem told Tamara.

“Miriam, have you taken Psych?”

“Mm, afraid not. Is it hard?”

“Hard! Pssshht. For me?”

Miriam had to resist rolling her eyes. Luckily, Jem did it for her, and perched on the air of Tamara’s chair like a small crow. “I would be worried if this former Geology student struggled with memorization.”

“I do not ‘struggle’ with ‘memorization.’”

Jem took her gesturing hands and guided them back to the page. Tamara’s face promptly went red. This time, Miriam indulged herself, giving the ceiling a cursory glance and returning to her reading. “You’ll concentrate better with tactile input,” Jem was saying.

“Uhh. Thanks.” A moment of silence. “Hey, Alex is in here!”

Miriam looked up at that.

Tamara.

“What, isn’t that what she said? Jesus, she made such a big deal out of it.”

“Are you sure you want to discuss it with this tone in company?” Jem widened her eyes.

Miriam looked out of the window. “It’s not like I don’t know.

“Well yeah, everyone kinda knows, the way she struts around. Or did she tell you already? Jesus, that’s fast. It took her like, five weeks with me until she spelled out BPD.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Miriam said loudly, then winced. It had been, well, six weeks since they’d met. Not that she was counting. Her teachers had always said she had a head for numbers—

“It was four weeks for me,” Jem said nonchalantly and slid off the armchair, curling up on her bed and hunching over her laptop once more.

“What…” Miriam coughed. “What does it say?”

“Says she’d be manipulative.” Tamara scowled, slouched. “No surprises there.”

Miriam frowned. She looked down at her hands, her mind completely gone from schoolwork now. “I don’t think that Alex is manipulative.”

“Oh yeah? Have you seen the way she treats people she doesn’t like? Like they’re scum. It took her five minutes to go from saying she’d kill for me to saying she hated me.”

“To be fair,” Jem said, “you did call her a sleezy bastard.”

“She is a sleezy bastard! What? Am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong!”

“Alex is a nice person,” Miriam snapped in a much more deliberate tone than she’d meant to. “She might get angry, but she gets angry over the right things.”

Tamara and Jem both stared at her in silence. Miriam realized, slowly, that that was probably the strongest statement she’d made in front of either of them. Half-indignant, half-embarrassed for her own spine, she looked back down at her computer and dug her phone out of her pocket. “Or whatever.”

“Yeah. Whatever,” Tamara grumbled.

Miriam left soon after, retreated to the library. The harsh air conditioning wasn’t so vital now, fall in full bloom just outside the window. She made her way up the stairs, a twinge of disappointment when she couldn’t find Alex in her usual chair. She looked around. Students on their phones, in their books, eyes down. All eyes down.

Miriam settled into the chair herself and rocked. It was… comfortable. She closed her eyes. Maybe if she rocked far back enough, she could smell—

She pinched herself and pulled out her phone. any awkward questions lately?

Alex replied almost immediately. More awkward than usual? ;)

Miriam smiled to herself. you know, im a little hungry

Oh, is this bribery?

bribery!! is it unusual to want to spend time with a— She backspaced over the word “friend.” companion?

I’m only joking! Pizza? I can pay!

don’t be stupid it was my suggestion

ill pay

Oh. Well, now, this level of chivalry is simply suspicious.

if you want to pay be my guest

THAT’S FINE

- That is, if its really fine with you? Don’t worry about my pocket money, I’m serious. I’m not suffering.

hey. i owe you one.

The feeling of familiarity and warmth in Miriam’s chest and the soles of her feet when she met Alex her eased into her bones. As Alex took her arm, she only found herself protesting once or twice, mumbling under her breath. It wasn’t exactly like she was coming from polite company, and….

She felt good. Like this was easy, like she was good at being a person. Eating the crusts, laughing at Alex mixing three different types of soda together. Like it was almost normal.

Then she asked about Thanksgiving.

Miriam’s hands froze. Her head swam a little, the deli suddenly too fast, too loud, everything blurry.

“Thought you could come.”

“Right.”

“It’s um, fine if you don’t— hah, I guess you have family that actually wants to do it, it’s not you forcing it all the time, this was—“

That made it worse. “Right.”

“Oh. You’re offended. I’m sorry, Miriam, forget I said—“

“I’m going to the bathroom.” Miriam slapped some unidentified cash on the table, hoped it would be enough, and tried to keep her steps even as she went.

Thanksgiving. She’d been ignoring it. Of course.

She focused on washing her hands. Thanksgiving.

She had assumed she would stay in her dorm.

Fuck. She wiped her eyes. This was far too much of a fuss to make over—

She flinched. She couldn’t go back out, not like this. She left through a back door, trailing through a line of dirt and piss.

Christ, why did it always have to be Thanksgiving.

The phone rings.

"Did you call him?"

Her arms around your stomach, lips brushing at your ear. You close your eyes for a moment, precious moment....

(Your mother used to make sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes)

"What did you say?"

"I'm bringing a friend." You want to tell him in person.

"A friend, huh?"

Sweet potatoes.

The phone rings.

You turn in her arms like a clock turns its hands, her face so close. She tastes like

Sweet potatoes, glass crashing, you write THANKSGIVING in cranberry blood, can't write it in in anything but capital letters, write THANKSGIVING—

The phone rings. Theo puts her hand over yours, and you're not three, you're not eleven, you're eighteen. (Eighteen?) (Old enough to live on your own, then) (Sweet potatoes)

Like family.

She turns your lips to hers and the small of her back is a sweet curve but all you can taste in her mouth is

brimstone.

You’re scrubbing sweet potatoes in the sink now you’re scrubbing your hands now you’re scrubbing your blood oh why can’t the dinner be clean clean clean Theodosia please understand I never meant to make a mess and there is only so much we can say in the breaths that escape our mouths in the seconds between us before our words’ meaning communicates across these breaths, these seconds oh why can’t the hands of the clock just slow down for a minute sit down dammit dammit clean clean clean THANKSGIVING

Theodosia

The phone rings.

“Hi, Alex.”

“Mir, whassa— ‘s four in the damn— you okay?”

“I’ll come for Thanksgiving. If you still want me.”

“Of course I do.”

“All right.”

“Thanks.”

“Thank you.”

When Miriam got there, Alex was studying flopped upside down on the floor, camo-clad legs hooked over Jane’s, who sat on a sofa, staring down at a textbook. Miriam’s hands fiddled anxiously at her bag’ strap. At the sound of the door opening, Jane gave a two-nailed salute and Alex scrambled to get up. “Hey, Miriam, hi! Happy Thanksgiving!”

She nodded, smiled. “You too.” She dared a glance— oh, just a shirt. Thin. Okay. Okay—

“I was waiting for you to get here to start. Meg’s still in the shower after gym.” She jutted her thumb at a side door.

“Ah, cool.”

Alex pulled her into a tiny kitchenette. “C’mon, we have a lot of work to do before 7.”

He hand was awfully warm. Miriam resisted the urge to wipe it on her pants.

Alex grabbed a baby blue university sweatshirt from the counter and tugged it over her head. She held her tongue between her teeth while she shook out her hair, fluffing it with her fingers. It looked soft. She tied it up in a high bun and stuck a pencil in it in one fluid motion. Miriam leaned against the counter.

Alex rolled up her sleeves to wash her hands, chatting as she did. “So do you have any favorites? Opinions on liberal or moderate marshmallow usage?”

She had a matching long, thick scar on her left arm— figured. Miriam bit her nail. “Uh, no.”

“There must be something.” Alex looked up at her, all wide brown eyes and half-smile.

“Hey, as long as there’s pumpkin pie, I can swing it,” Miriam said.

“Pumpkin pie we can do!” She dried her hands. “Afraid it’s gonna have to be store-bought though.” She threw open the fridge door and sniffed dramatically. Indeed, there were five pumpkin pies inside. Miriam’s eyes widened. “Yep, lookie there! Pie.” Alex slammed the door shut again. “Okay, Jane, you want mashed potatoes? Gravy? Okay with the vegetarian gravy for Laf?”

Jane made a non-committal grunt from her curled-up position on the couch, eyes still on her book.

“It’s Biology,” Alex explained in a stage whisper as she clattered out bowls and spoons. Miriam eyed the potato peeler. “She used to take law, but that was just ‘cause her dad wanted her to. I got her to change her major finally.”

Miriam smiled slightly. The shower water stopped. A silence she didn’t know was necessary. “Like that song.”

Alex frowned. “What song.”

“’Changing My Major.’ From Fun Home.” Miriam cleared her throat, sang quietly. “I’m changing my major to Joan—

Meg burst through the bathroom door, a towel on her hair. “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan!

With a minor in kissing Joan,” Jane chimed in in the last moment, her voice surprisingly deep and husky, but somehow more fitting that way. Meg just had a sports bra on top; she really did have a six-pack.

Alex half-frowned, half-smiled. “You sure you’re straight?”

Miriam flushed. “Uh, my friend really liked the musical. Back home.”

“Your friend.”

Miriam nodded. Theodosia had gotten really excited, showed it to her lying on her bed, their hands on each other’s stomachs. One earbud in Theo’s left ear, one in Miriam’s right. Like parentheses—

The potato peeler glinted in Alex’s hands.

Miriam worried at her lip, reached out. “Hey, if you want—“

“I can do it. I can do it,” Alex insisted, shaking her hand off. She proceeded to peel two potatoes faster together than Miriam had ever seen a single one done.

Meg pulled on the most disgusting green-and-brown sweater Miriam had ever seen, but she somehow pulled it off. She leaned over Jane’s book and asked, “Exciting?”

Jane gave a small smile. “Extremely.”

Meg pulled out her own textbook and a tiny, neon notebook that was frankly pretty cute.

“Oh, Martha texted me yesterday,” Jane mentioned.

Alex glared. “Mrs. Washington?”

“Manning.”

Alex glared more fiercely, chopping the potatoes with intense vigor. “I hate Martha.”

Jane rolled her eyes. “Don’t hate Martha.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“What did she say?” Meg asked.

“Just wished me happy holidays. I said the same. Seems like her mom has gotten way more chill.”

Miriam glanced around the room. “Uh, no need to answer if it’s a sore subject, but who is Martha?”

Alex whacked her knife on the cutting board. “I hate Martha!”

“She’s Jane’s ex-girlfriend,” Meg said at the same time that Jane stated frankly, “I knocked her up.”

Miriam nodded. “I see.”

Alex opened her mouth again, but Jane widened her eyes at her and said, “We were sixteen.

“She’s still a piece of shit,” Alex grumbled, sweeping the potatoes into a pot and started peeling another batch.

“She’s pretty nice, actually,” Jane replied, apparently used to Alex’s extremities. “Once she got over the whole if-you’re-trans-does-that-make-me-a-lesbian thing. And I get lashing out ‘cause your parents are shitty. Besides, some good came out of it, remember? If she hadn’t gotten the abortion, I never would’ve gone to Planned Parenthood, and I never would’ve—”

— gotten hormones, I know, I know,” Alex sighed, but she seemed a little calmer.

“And you drove me there and held my hand.”

Alex smiled. “That’s true.”

“Anyway, it seems like it’s going good. And it turns out she really is gay. So all the panic was pretty futile.”

Alex sighed loudly.

“It’s just funny how things turn out.”

“Miriam, can you help me out here? That garlic isn’t gonna mince itself.”

She took the smaller knife Alex held out to her, grateful for the task. She cooked carefully, salt in a death grip. She somehow felt as if her grading on this performance could spell the end of the whole arrangement.

There was no need for her to worry. By the time Lafayette got back, the four were all crammed in front of one laptop, watching a Ken Burns documentary. Jane was eating pie with her fingers while Alex taking quick, measured bites and scraping her plate. Lafayette grabbed a mug and filled it with mashed potatoes, flopped on Meg (who promptly started gulping water), and complained that they weren’t watching Prohibition.

Alex had opted to sit right next to Miriam, and her warm shoulder pressed into her chest as she talked and laughed and loudly pointed out her favorite details of the documentary. Miriam found it especially difficult to eat, an odd headiness in her brain. She smelled the same as on the night she had met her— but softer. Clean as fresh snow. Painfully alive. Miriam didn’t know where to put her hands, how to focus.

She trailed to help clean up, an odd emptiness filling her at the sight of the dark sky and loss of contact. She felt hyper-aware of where Alex was at all times, alone with her in the kitchen, her bare feet squeaking on the linoleum floor. Clean, clean.

“You have a good time?”

“Yeah.” Miriam shouldered her bag at the door, leaned against it.

Alex rose on her toes. Her lips briefly ghosted Miriam’s cheek. “Stay safe.” Then she shoved her out the door by the bag, Miriam left with her hands loose on the strap; a feeling in her chest like a warm candle, a fluttering light.

Chapter Text

The ground is cold, comforting. You have a map in your hands. You know where you’re going.

Your backpack, emptied of its books, is heavy on your shoulders as you crouch towards the frost. Your harsh breath crystallizes, serene—

A twig snaps. You flinch. He can’t find you here. Still, you click your flashlight off.

You’re eleven, which is old enough to sneak out. Old enough, smart enough, to know the consequences.

You close your eyes. The cold, the frost, reminds you of—

You touch the stone.

You can find it in the dark, and that surety guides you. You let your heart slip down into grey nothingness before you open your eyes, and there they are together. Crosses.

You sit down. The cold ground numbs you, numbs you

So you don’t have to flinch

Your parents are together, deep in the ground. Your body shivers, and you hug your knees to your chest. Your jeans are too short. “I don’t want to go to Hell,” you whisper. It’s the first thing you’ve said all week, and your voice hurts you.

Light glares in your eyes— dammit

“There she is.” Grabs your shoulder—There he is, your uncle. You trace your fingertip over the frosty stone. You don’t feel it. “She always hides in the same place.”

You concentrate on the unyielding cold, cold like death.

Miriam jolted awake at the sound of a knock on the door. Sunlight filtered through the pale windows of the empty dorm room. “Shit.” She rubbed her bleary eyes, checked the time. 11:02. “Shit.

“Miriam, yo!”

That was Meg’s voice. “Uh-huh, just lemme get my—“ She didn’t have time to fix her hair. She sighed, scraped her fingers over her scalp, kept her blanket wrapped around her as she answered the door. She must look like Jem— but a mess. “Hey.”

Meg beamed. “Hey. You got a personal stylist, or do you just wake up immaculate?”

“Oh, shut up,” Miriam muttered, suppressing a yawn. She felt tiny in comparison to Meg’s high stature and good posture, thick arms enveloped in fleece-lined denim. “What, are you one of these crazy morning people who doesn’t sleep in over Christmas break?”

“First off, yes, I’m a crazy morning person. Second, Muslim, so I’ve got a few months to go before worrying about real holidays.”

“Lucky you.” Miriam yawned for real, then slunk back inside to pour herself the dregs of the coffee Tamara and Jem had left her out of the goodness of their hearts. “What about Alex and Laf? What are they up to?”

“They went back upstate so Alex can chill with her foster family— Schuylers are even farther north— then I assume they’re doing their Chinese food and beer tradition.”

“Is that a Jewish thing?”

“Totally.”

“So what’s the Muslim December 25th deal,” Miriam asked, “waking people up?”

Meg’s grin only widened. “Well, my folks used to get us all pizza. But I like to drag my remaining friends to Maria’s apartment and trash the place until she kicks us out.”

“Maria.” Miriam frowned. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“Alex almost fucked her once?”

“That explains it.”

“Hey, almost. Anyway, are you coming or not? Jane’s already camped out, I said I gotta introduce Lewis to this cool new girl.”

Miriam rolled her eyes, but smiled in spite of herself. “Okay, give me a few minutes.”

She took fifteen, still rubbing her hands together to warm them up as she stepped outside. Her snowboots crunched against the icy sidewalk. Someone had hung wreaths on the lampposts.

“You ready?” Meg was straddling an enormous motorcycle with a pastel green cover. “You’ll need this.”

Miriam missed the helmet Meg tossed, and it clattered on the sidewalk. She picked it up with a warm face despite the cold. “You’re taking me in that?”

“She’s my baby.” Meg revved and made a comically pouty face.

Miriam sighed in what she hoped sounded like resignation and clambered on behind her. “I bet Alex loves this thing.”

“Oh yeah, she asks me if she can drive it at least three times a week.”

“Pssht.” Miriam couldn’t find anything more intelligent to say before Meg sped off and she was flung against her broad back, arms wrapped around her firm waist. Cold air whipped around her— she hid her face on Meg’s back, breath harsh, so no one would recognize her and assume— well, assume. (She was only a little disappointed when they got to the apartment, and only dropped the helmet twice before fumbling it over to Meg again while Meg said, “you’re a natural.”)

Meg only had to knock once before the door of the apartment flew open and they were greeted by a curvy woman with a multitude of thick, brown curls that spilled over her face and shoulders and her painted red smirk. “Took you long enough.”

“Love you too, Maria.”

“We have cookies,” Maria called as she sauntered back into the apartment and flopped on a worn couch that gave a creak of protest. “Brandy’s next to the eggnog if you want some.”

“You’re the fucking best!” Meg grabbed three large frosted cookies from the counter and pulled two mugs out of the cupboard. “Miriam, you want brandy in yours?”

“Ah, no thanks.” Miriam’s voice had gone quiet and raspy. She waded inside and leaned on the fridge, trying to be subtle about glancing at Maria’s midriff, where her sweatshirt had rucked up as she fell. Like a Renaissance painting on her day off. This was too much in one day. She was kind of afraid to get closer.

“Suit yourself.” Meg sat on the mattress shoved in the corner, which Miriam only now noticed was also occupied by Jane. Meg grabbed the latter in a faux-chokehold and gave her a noogie. “Laurens!”

“Meg!” Jane cried back.

“You’re both nerds,” Maria said. “Did you bring me a Christmas present or what?”

Meg made the same pouty face she had given Miriam.

Maria sighed heavily and held the back of her hand to her forehead. “Yet again, I am problematic.”

“I’m kidding!” Meg grinned and pulled what looked like a kitten-patterned sewing kit from the depths of her jacket, then threw it at Maria. “You know I always share the love.”

Maria caught it with one hand. “Awww! You know just the way to a girl’s heart.”

“It’s a kit kit!”

“You’re absolutely precious.” Maria shoved it down her shirt and fluffed her hair over the side of the couch so it made a curtain.

Miriam finally snagged a cookie and some eggnog and slowly sat down on the edge of the mattress a couple feet away from Meg. She took a bite and let the frosting melt against her tongue. She watched Maria’s hair sway and settle.

“Pretty sure I’m the only one of my friends who was raised Christian, come to think of it,” Jane said.

Maria fake-pouted and threw half a cookie at Jane’s head. Jane popped her head up and caught it in her mouth, said, “right, sorry,” while she chewed.

“Gross. And Eliza’s Christian, too,” Maria said.

Jane stared at the ceiling. “Fuck, I forgot.”

“Honey!” Maria laughed. “Remember when she gave me that check then told me that Jesus has a special plan just for girls like us? And I was like, sister… thanks for the cash, but I have places to be.”

“People to see,” Jane mused.

“She’s such a sweetheart.”

Miriam raised her hand by her chest.

Jane groaned. “Ugh, you too?”

“Raised, yeah.”

“That’s wild. You should go to church with Eliza.”

“I don’t exactly go to church anymore.”

“Don’t exactly?” Maria took a sip from her mug, eyebrows raised over it. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Miriam mirrored her light laugh as she sipped her own drink, wishing a little that she’d taken up on the brandy offer.

“How is Eliza, by the way?” Maria eyed Jane now.

Jane put her face in her hands and groaned.

Meg gently flicked Maria’s head. “Hey now, don’t embarrass the baby.”

Jane emitted a muffled, “You’re awful!”

“She still hasn’t asked her out,” Meg stage-whispered.

“Girl! You don’t meet an Eliza Schuyler every week!”

“That’s the problem!” Jane insisted, removing her hands from her face to take a hard swig. “Every time I try to talk to her, I end up saying something dumb.”

“I think it’s cute!” Meg said, and Maria nodded.

“Hey, it’s not like you’re any better with Laf.” Jane smirked.

Meg suddenly became very interested in the ceiling. “Shut up, Laurens,” she muttered.

“How about you, Burr?” Maria’s sharp eyes were back on her. “Got anyone in your life?”

It was a relief, actually. She was so used to playing this game. Light smile, disappointed body language, half-apologetic eyebrows. “I haven’t really got the time. I’m kind of working my ass off, here.”

“Also busy being Alex’s fake girlfriend,” Jane said.

Maria choked on her drink. “What?!”

Miriam’s face heated.

“Holy fuck. You are not going to believe this,” Jane said, leaning forward.

“It’s not important,” Miriam tried to say.

“Bullshit! So she found her at Revolution on your off night, designated driver for you won’t guess who, Tamara Jefferson! And she totally hits on her, but Miriam’s like, ‘uh, no thanks,’ so Alex is like? Okay, fuck? But then she shows up at Eliza’s group all smooth like ‘yeah, this is my hot new piece of ass,’ and Eliza buys it, and I thought I was about to die.”

“I’m about to die right now,” Miriam muttered.

“And she takes her out and shit but then— yeah?”

“Fascinating,” Maria deadpanned. “Dude, why don’t you just date her for real?”

“Uh…” Miriam took a moment to remember where she was. “I’m straight.”

“Oh.” Something in Maria’s body language changed, the same way Alex’s had changed when they’d first met.

“She’s also kind of crazy, right?” Miriam laughed nervously. “Like, even if she was a guy— I mean, she’s great and all, don’t get me wrong. Like, she’s really smart and funny and she has all this energy but—“ Christ, what was she saying? “I mean, you know.”

“Uh-huh.” Maria’s air of guarded caution didn’t let up. Miriam had to wonder if she looked like that all the time herself. She put it out of her mind. She stared at her knees, suddenly wishing that Alex could’ve been there. She could have diffused the tension with some dumb joke or inane fact or controversial statement. Anything she said sort of made conversation, made things a little… brighter, Miriam guessed. Easier to swallow. She felt cold, the cookie unappetizing.

“So, how’s your job at Revolution going?” Meg asked, her voice a bit softer than before, offering. Miriam mentally thanked her.

“Oh, you know. It pays. At least I don’t get guys groping me.”

“Amen, sister.”

“Oh, you work at Revolution?” Miriam said.

“Uh-huh, about seven months now.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Community college down the street.” Maria looked at her nails, started cleaning them.

“Hey, yeah, how’s that going?” Jane asked.

“Weird. Not bad weird, just… weird. At least I’m not the only twenty-one-year-old freshman there, you know? I think some girls there have the same sort of background. And if I watch my back and don’t get clocked, it’s not too unsafe, either.”

“Do they have groups there and shit?”

“Eh, yeah, I’ve gone a couple times. It was so funny though, they all thought I was a cis girl like uh, sweetie, no one’s boobs are this naturally immaculate. But thanks!”

Meg snorted, some egg nog flying out her nose. Miriam’s face felt violently hot. She was starting to curse her own biology.

Jane snickered, “I love you so much.”

“I know, I know. Can you prove it, though?”

“I brought the good shit.”

“Your love is reciprocated.” Maria sat up and blew a noisy kiss towards Jane before sliding off the back of the couch and kicking open the window to the fire escape.

Miriam’s phone buzzed in her pocket. A message from Alex. Her shoulders relaxed as she swiped it open.

It’s lit!!!!!!!! She was grinning close to the camera, a menorah on the windowsill far behind her. Lafayette was there, one leg propped on the stove and making a peace sign.

Before she could respond, she got another message. Mrs. and Mr. Washington tell me to say hi from them!! Martha says she’d mail you a latke if she could. George said he won’t give you money just ‘cause we’re friends. Can’t knock a gal for trying. Anyway, how are things over there? Happy Jesus day!!!!

Miriam smiled and shook her head. festive

- meg took me to a friend of yours

Ooohh, are you at Maria’s??

yeah. shes something

Has she told you the foreskin nightmare stories?

excuse me ??

OHHH MY G-D YOU HAVE TO ASK HER

- Don’t let me down now, we’re all trusting in you.

are you sure that’s the best course of action

“Who is it?” Miriam looked over to see Meg waggling her eyebrows.

“Just Alex.”

“Oh, how’s she doing? Is Laf there?”

“Uh-huh.”

She got another text. I’m sure you all miss me horribly!

oh yeah

- whats that scene in the great gatsby? nick says they all painted their hubcaps black or something? pretend im saying that

Mm yes talk dirty jazz age lit to me

Miriam scoffed and rubbed her forehead, which was still mysteriously warm. She pushed down the wave of guilt over trash-talking her. aren’t you desecrating a sacred day by sending me this profanity

That’s like, not how Hanukkah works at all

- Yom Kippur is only day I keep my dirty mouth to myself!!

- Rabbi Eliezer would back me up personally on this.

ill just have to take your word for it

Meg nudged her shoulder. “Dude, do you want to sit with Maria and Jane or…?”

She waved her hand. “I’ll be out there in a second.” the people want me, alex

Well I can’t imagine why

- KIDDING ily

Miriam licked her lips. There was a warm thud in her chest, like the beating of a drum before a verse. yeah

- say hi to your folks for me ok

Will do! <3

And Miriam?

yeah?

Idk

- Merry Christmas.

happy hanukkah :)

Miriam allowed herself one more small smile before putting her phone back in her pocket and heading towards the window. She promptly hit her head on the frame trying to climb out, but decided to hope that no one noticed.

Jane sat on the thin railing with a joint between her fingers, chuckling soft and low while Maria held onto her ankles, repeatedly stage-whispering, “You’ll fall! You’ll fall!” Meg seemed to be scrutinizing the sky for a hidden message.

“Stop, stop,” Maria said while Miriam sat hunched on the edge of the frigid sill, “Look what I can do.” She unzipped her hoodie, and Jane handed her the joint. She stuck the unlit end between her breasts and pushed her elbows together to stare at the fire on the end with crossed eyes.

“Amazing,” Meg said.

“Iconic,” Jane agreed.

Miriam offered a small round of applause while staring at the sky with Meg.

They alternated between the fire escape and Maria’s couch. Miriam felt almost caught up in their laughter and antics, content to watch them make fools of themselves. When Meg picked up Jane bridal-style and called a cab at midnight, Miriam listed her forehead against the frosty glass and gazed out. As she watched the colors whiz by, she felt that she could begin to understand how people fell in love with the city lights. There was something to be said for their relentless brilliance.

She pulled her knees to her chest and looked again at Alex’s picture, her ecstatic smile. There was something to be said for the lights.

“Don’t you love this time of year?”

“The coldest time?”

“You know what I mean!” Alex took a sip of her coffee. Her legs swung underneath the table as her bright eyes took in everything— the roof, the buildings outside, the mess of customers at the coffee shop. “You know, this is my favorite secular holiday.”

“Really?” Miriam scoffed.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I never took you to be a particularly romantic person.”

“Why not?” Those dark, brilliant eyes became fixed on Miriam’s. She found herself still unused to their particular intensity.

Miriam raised her eyebrows and stirred her own coffee.

“I’m perfectly romantic!”

“Looks like it to me.”

Alex pouted. Her hair was damp from melted snow, about a thousand layers covering her skinny arms. “You’re no fun.”

Miriam looked around at the Pepto-pink trinkets cluttering the shelf space. Little boys and girls holding hands. “You must have some plans for tonight or something.”

“No.”

“You’re not going out?”

“No. Why?”

Miriam shrugged. “I just thought… I mean, you said this was your favorite holiday, so….”

Alex leaned in conspiratorially, like a spy in a movie. “Well, this is my first Valentine’s Day without a real girlfriend, I’ll give you that. But maybe it’s better this way.” She leaned back, balanced her ankle on her knee so her legs made a 4. “This way, I get to spend it with my friend.”

Miriam looked down at her coffee to hide her half-smile, shaking her wig over her face. “Don’t get mushy on me.”

“Aww c’mon, I can see you smiling.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Without thinking, Miriam reached across the table and pushed her shoulder. “You’re such a dork.”

She threw her hands up and closed her eyes. “You can’t prove anything. I plead the fifth.”

Miriam snorted. “So why is it your favorite holiday?”

“What?”

“Don’t antagonize me, Hamilton.”

“All right, all right already.” She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward again, but this time looked at her nails, picking at them with concentration. “Well, I don’t know. It was warmer back home. And I always liked the idea of romance, you know? Finding your one true love, being together for eternity.”

“Eternity is a pretty large investment.”

“Well, that wouldn’t matter if they were your one true love, right?”

Miriam’s throat felt strange. “I don’t think it wise to subscribe to ideas like that.”

“Right.” Alex rolled her eyes. “I’m just saying. It’s not a bad thing to dream.”

“All right. I’m biting. What’s your dream person like?”

“Oh, you know.” Alex counted her fingers. “Beautiful, smart, practical, sensitive. Courageous, but wise. Gentle, but strong. I wouldn’t mind if they were rich, too.”

Miriam rolled her eyes. “This is what I’m saying about your romantic sensibilities.”

“Money is the key to happiness in this world, you can’t deny it! But that’s not all that’s important, of course.” Alex sipped her coffee. She looked out the window, her profile framed in tentative light. “I don’t believe in fate in like, this intangible, distant thing that we can’t control. Fate is something you have to create. Do you get what I’m saying? People don’t just get thrown together. You have to do the throwing.”

“This sounds better by the second.”

“You know what I mean.

“You make your own destiny.”

Alex snapped her fingers. “Exactly! And if you have to break a few eggs on the way, well…” She shrugged. “It’s all part of a bigger picture. I’m not asking for perfection, just… someone to go after that destiny with.”

“That’s sweet.”

She scowled. “I told you to not make fun of me.”

“I’m not, I’m not making fun.”

“Then why are you using that tone of voice?!” Alex sighed. “I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid. You deserve that kind of happiness, I just…”

“What?”

“I’m just not the type of person who believes in that, is all.”

“What is your opinion, then?”

“Just because I disagree with one thing doesn’t mean I have to agree with another.”

“Oh, c’mon.” Alex grabbed her hand. “Be fun.”

Miriam looked at their intertwined fingers. Hers were just a bit longer than Alex’s. She licked her lips. “I don’t think love is always a good thing. Sometimes it just hurts you. It’s all luck, and it takes and takes and it doesn’t give back. It’s something to live through, whether you deserve it or not.” She shrugged. “That’s what I think.”

“You don’t think love’s worth fighting for?”

“That’s not what I said either.” Miriam huffed and took her hand away, hid it underneath her knees. “I’m just saying it isn’t always good. That’s all.”

“You must have had one hell of a bad experience.” Alex sipped her drink wisely. “You sound like a war veteran.”

“You wanted something pretentious out of me, and I gave it to you. Now are we getting out of here or do you want to keep philosophizing?”

“Oh, fine.” Alex grabbed up her things and took Miriam’s hand again. “But only if I get a kiss at the door.”

Alex’s lips felt like they’d stolen something and gotten away with it in plain daylight. Her hands felt like that, too, when they slipped away from Miriam’s and back into the flurry of cold.

It’s your first Valentine’s Day without her, and you are drowning.

You are drowning drowning drowning and you can’t stomach the words but you write them anyway, on paper that you burn later, flush the ashes.

I love you more than anything my darling if we could only be together I swear I’d make it right we could have had a family somewhere by the sea

a sea of words that chokes you

and you don’t know where you’ll live over the summer but your love letters turn into nothingness turn into applications for the next fall semester. You have to make it out of New Jersey you have to make it out you’re suffocating because love is not easy and love is not gentle and love is not patient and love is not kind and they were all right because Hell is in these streets and you sure have made it there.

Hope lies in the books that you read and the achievements you earn. Hope lies in New York. Nothing more.

The snow melts to rain, your heart hardens to ice.

Heavy March rain spattered the dark windows. Miriam pulled her blanket around her shoulders, leaning her forehead against the cool window. She had decided to stay up late to get this kind of quiet; she felt as if she were in a cave, a personal bubble. The warm light from her reading lamp illuminated her textbook, her excuse to stay up to watch for lightning. Even Jem was asleep.

Her phone buzzed beside her, and she smiled while picking it up. "Hey. Some weather, huh?"

"Miriam?" Alex's voice was uncharacteristically quiet and shaky.

The smile melted from her face. "Alex, are you all right?"

"Can you come over?"

"Sure." She scrambled to get up. "Of course, let me just get my umbrella—"

"Damn, right. It's okay, you don't have to—" Alex's sentence was punctuated by some rapid breathing. "I don't need for you to—"

"It's okay. I'll be there in ten minutes, all right? You just stay put."

Alex whispered, "All right," then hung up before Miriam could offer any further words of comfort.

She grabbed her keys and fought a violent battle with her umbrella before remembering to snatch her coat. She hurried out of the dorm, sighing exasperatedly with her security card, and drove to Alex's apartment squinting fiercely at the rain-melted mess of darkness and brightly colored lights.

When she stepped into the apartment, the first thing she noticed was the furniture. The high-backed couch was propped upside-down against the kitchen counter, and surrounded by pillows and blankets. She approached the makeshift fort and peered in to see Alex Hamilton curled up with her knees to her chest and her hands gripping her shoulders, shivering quite a lot and staring at nothing.

Miriam crouched down and took off her coat. "Hey."

Alex just nodded.

"Do you want some tea?"

"No, I— I'm fine, I—" Alex slowly crawled out and shook her head. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay." Miriam reached out and rubbed her shoulder without thinking. "Why are you still up?"

Alex licked her lips, eyes darting. "I did what I was supposed to, I swear. Took two melatonin, two pills. Just two. I am still rendered incapable of falling asleep at the current, at the current juncture. Juncture, juncture." She hid her face. "Ugh, I'm stupid."

"You aren't." Meeting no flinch or objection, Miriam stroked her hair. She seemed to slow her shaking a bit. "You’re the smartest person I know. Do you want any water?"

"No. I want Scotch." Alex lurched to a standing position, and Miriam followed suit to make sure she didn't fall and break something. "I need Scotch."

"Alex, that's not safe."

She groaned.

"I'm going to make you some tea, and then we can talk. Okay?" Miriam examined her coat and, finding it mostly dry, wrapped it around Alex's shoulders. "You'll be fine." She made sure Alex was safe back in her fortress before riffling through Meg's tea cabinet. She found herself sure that Meg wouldn't mind. Sifted past black, raspberry-green, picked out lemon-chamomile. When the cup was ready, she kept it gingerly even and crawled into the fort with Alex, making sure her hands were steady before handing her the mug.

Alex didn't drink, holding it in both hands, staring blankly again. Her features were just visible in the single yellow light from the stove.

Miriam leaned back with her knees to her chest, the top of her head brushing the couch cushions. "It's pretty cramped in here."

Alex whispered, "I hate storms."

"That's okay. It will pass."

Alex blinked rapidly. "I hate storms."

"Do you want to talk about why?"

Alex swallowed. "Usually Jane's here. I'm sorry I made you come."

"You didn't make me do anything," Miriam murmured, laying a soft hand on her shoulder again. "I came because you're my friend."

Alex took a deep breath. That was good. "Huh." She finally sipped her tea, then leaned into Miriam's shoulder. Her body was warm as ever, light.

Miriam gulped and pet her hair. They stayed that way for a few moments, nothing but rain noises. Then, "Jane wasn't— wasn't with me in the hospital. She couldn't be there."

Miriam kept her hand movements steady. "Was there a storm there?"

"Uh-huh." Alex took a sip. "Second time I was in. Seventeen, just turned seventeen. Always hated storms."

"That sounds difficult."

"I couldn't even write about it 'til three weeks later, 'cause my pen pri- privileges got stolen." She took a deep breath. "Wrote a whole letter."

"Did you write it to Jane?"

"No, no." Alex shook her head. "My dad."

"Where was he?"

"Uh. Um, I'm not sure but I know his address. He gave me an address, I can still write to him. Maybe he was traveling, or... I think it got lost in the mail. My letter got lost in the mail." Alex nodded a little too firmly. "I know it got lost."

Miriam steadied the cup in her hands, watched her take another sip.

"He's gonna come back for me, you know." Alex's voice was quiet, soft. "He's just doing a lot of important things. I know he'll come back."

Miriam said nothing.

"You believe me, right?"

"Of course I do." She resumed stroking her hair.

"Yes." Alex huddled a little closer to her. "Can I keep talking? I hate the rain sound. I fucking hate storms."

"Sure."

Alex took a deep breath. Her words started coming faster, pushed out. "I wasn't allowed to talk to Jane. After that attempt, I mean. You know. I don't know, it was probably for the better. But I missed her. She was already in for... well, for the same thing. I always hated her dad, always knew that fucking Republican idea of raising kids up around guns was a bad idea." She took a larger swallow. "Call me paranoid, but like— ugh, he disgusts me. Anyway, I'm glad it just... I'm glad it didn't work. I don't know why she shot herself where she did, I don't know. At least it's hidden until she takes her shirt off. Me—" Alex let out a strangled-sounding laugh. "Wow. Yeah."

Miriam's chest felt funny, aching. "I think you still look nice."

"Thank you." Alex looked down at her tea. "It freaked me out bad, like, real bad. I kinda had this suicide pact thing going on in my head for a while— That's not her fault. I didn't tell her. It's my fault. I was a shitty girlfriend besides, don't know why she put up with it for two whole years but— anyway." Her breathing was ragged, but at least slow. "I was such a piece of shit."

"I wouldn't say that."

"No, I was." Alex bit her lip and rubbed her eyes. "At least when I was fourteen, I had real problems. Dead mom, dead cousin problems. Second time just made Jane feel bad. I never wanted to make her feel bad."

"I'm sure you didn't. Alex... that's still a real problem. There was probably a lot of stuff going on." She felt danger in the words, inexplicably. Danger in her care.

"I… guess so. I was a difficult patient, and a difficult friend. I'm still...." She rubbed her thumbs along the rim of her mug. "I hate storms."

"I know you do."

"Sorry for talking so much." Alex laughed, then hiccuped. "'Swat I do best, I suppose."

"You don't have to apologize." Miriam traced a circle on her scalp. Her hair was incredibly soft. "Even when you aren't proud of it. You’re not… look, you’re not insignificant." Her nose was awfully close to Alex’s hair. She smelled like cinnamon and— not sweet, not like women’s shampoo, but something deeper, subtler, like she’d spent her day in a hardware store. Miriam knew she was supposed to find it funny. She didn’t.

"Can I maybe hear about you?" Alex sipped her tea. Her voice was more even now. "I feel like I barely know you, even though I see you all the time."

Miriam's heart froze up. "That's okay, you don't need to worry." She forced a laugh. "I'm afraid my life isn't quite as exciting as yours."

"You think I'm exciting?" Alex's shoulder leaned into her. She smelled—

"More exciting than average."

"Hell yeah," Alex whispered. "Above average."

"You're almost done with your tea," Miriam noted. "Want me to make you another one?"

"No, that's fine, thank you." Alex took the last swallow and set the cup down. Her body went oddly still, propped against Miriam's.

"Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah." Alex's hand fumbled, touched Miriam's knee. "Hey. Do you want to kiss?"

Miriam's hand stilled.

Alex's voice still sounded so soft, vulnerable. "I'm a good kisser."

She was sure she was.

"We don't have to." Alex's hand fiddled with Miriam's wig, traced over her collarbone. She found herself trying to find her breath. "It doesn't have to be weird. Friends kiss all the time."

"I'm... not sure that...."

"You can close your eyes and pretend I'm a boy if you want."

There was a lump in Miriam's throat. She swallowed. "Would it make you feel better?"

"I think so."

She took a deep breath. Turned on her side, closed her eyes. Alex's hip was burning and small under her hand. Her hair was soft. Her lips were soft, too.

She kissed so differently in the dark than the way she did in public. Chaste, gentle, almost inquisitive. Settled back and reaching up, like she was sighing over and over and over.

Over and over. It was intoxicating. Miriam's heart felt shamefully delicate, like it was ready to be torn apart at any moment. She didn't want to pretend, but she couldn't quite look at her— decided not to think. Put thinking off for another time, sunk into liminality. What mattered was the little movements of Alex's tongue, her intoxicating smell, how her cheek was satin under Miriam's hand.

Eventually, Alex dozed off, the rain a drizzle, head tucked under Miriam's chin. Miriam was starting to cramp, but she didn't move, and couldn't sleep. She stared at the corner of the window until it faded into pale, diluted pink.

She removed herself from Alex's arms as gently as possible. That girl deserved her sleep. Outside of the couch fort, the cold felt ruthless. Miriam eyed the cupboard, carefully poured herself a shot of the Scotch Alex had craved. Poured another.

She left with bare arms, a cold burning in her throat, and the question circling her mind of what the hell was really wrong with her.

"Hey Miriam, wanna go out tonight? Nothing fancy."

"Oh, I'd love to, but..." She focused on her notes, laid out for the study session they’d had. Alex was mysteriously absent. She would love to. Of course, that was why she couldn't.

Meg laughed. "All right, I get it. Jane and I can kick it solo."

"We could ask Eliza," Jane murmured, far too casually.

"What about Alex?" Miriam frowned.

"Oh, she never goes out whenever she hooks up with someone new."

Miriam felt her heart stop. "What?"

Jane raised an eyebrow. "Didn't she tell you about her new boytoy?"

Miriam licked her lips. Her face felt cold. "No."

Jane shrugged, but Meg frowned at the counter. "She'll probably dump him this month," Jane said. "I just avoid going in there any time before 3 AM."

Miriam felt sick to her stomach. She rubbed her palm over her forehead and swallowed. "I really have some homework to get done."

Jane stared at the ceiling, said "same," and ate a chip contemplatively.

"I'll see you guys later." Miriam managed a smile on her way out.

She didn't know why it would bother her so much. It shouldn't bother her. She clung to the strap of her backpack. It didn't bother her.

Didn't she tell you? Miriam didn't feel like eating dinner.

"I thought I told you."

"You didn't."

"Well, no need to look at me that way."

"What way?"

"Ugh, never mind.” Alex took another swig of her coffee and flipped a page in her book. She was wearing a white tank, her black hair let down, soft as feathers on her thin shoulders. The pajama bottoms she was wearing were slung low on her hips, far too long and baggy to be hers. Her hipbone was visible, a long strip of skin.

Miriam sighed. "Did you eat any breakfast?"

"I ate plenty."

She bristled. "Fine."

"Oh my G-d, are you serious? Don't 'fine' me. If you have a problem with my sleeping around a bit, you can just say so."

"I don't have a problem with it."

"Then what the hell are you doing here?"

Miriam frowned at her shoes. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Yeah, yeah. Protection and all that." Alex made a note in her book. "Maybe you should try it some time. Maybe you'd loosen up."

How she found the energy to be so insufferable at 7 in the morning, Miriam would never know. "Don't know why you assume I've never had sex."

Alex raised a brow, smirked. "Yeah, what could possibly make me think that? I hear tight asses are supposed to feel great."

"Do you even know this guy?"

Alex made a noncommittal noise and waved her hand. "He's in my Econ seminar."

"So it's that easy for you." Miriam's eyes burned. It was that easy for her. That easy.

"What? He's hung."

"Alex."

Alex met her eyes, a challenge in the set of her jaw. "I'm good with my mouth. Everyone says so."

"Everyone."

Alex lifted her chin. "I'm good with my mouth."

"All right, all right."

"Do you have a problem with that?"

"I..."

"It's my body and I can do what I want with it."

"I know that."

"Good. Then let me finish my reading in peace." She turned back to her book. "I didn't have time for my late-night studying."

Miriam stood there for a few seconds longer, hands itching for something— something. When Alex remained silent, she finally turned and left.

It had meant nothing, then. It should be a relief. Just kissing for release, a body in the dark. Nameless, faceless. It should be a relief.

She desperately tried to pull herself together as she strode across the cramped campus to class. She hadn't gotten much sleep. Maybe her yogurt was messed up, that was why she felt so nauseous. Just a bit dizzy.

And Jane was hooking up with the Schuyler girl, and Alex and her—

Good with my mouth.

Miriam closed her eyes, took a deep breath. She couldn't be seen like this. As she settled in her chair and sighed again, she took out her compact, focused on getting her lipgloss even.

Alex had scars and could still get dick. Was that why she felt so strange? Because she'd made herself unfuckable with her slashed-up thighs but Alex could walk around like the cocky bastard she was with her arms bared for the whole damn world to see and could still—

Theodosia hadn't thought she was ugly. Theodosia hadn't thought she was unlovable.

She clenched her fists. She couldn't think of that here.

(Theodosia had kissed her forehead and called her lovely and said to text her the rainbow emoji if she was ever in trouble and wasn't that so cute wasn't that so sweet wasn't that so and then she had kissed her mouth kissed her moutmouthdown—)

Good with her mouth.

Miriam let the jargon of tort law comfort her. Something about damage to an old woman's car. Something about the right to search.

It meant as little as she did, in the grand scheme of things. That's why they got along so well, Miriam and details. Ridiculous, unnoticeable things. Shallow and opaque, and that's how she liked herself best. Fractured, sliced up into pieces to please.

Why she thought she could please Alex, or why she'd want to, she wouldn't think of. It hadn't meant a thing. It was better that way.

When she got back to the flat, she found Tamara slouching at the desk, a book in front of her face but her eyes unmoving. Miriam raised her eyebrows, but settled on her bed, pulling out her laptop. She had an essay to finish. Maybe she could ask Alex for feedback— wait.

“Uh…” Tamara said. Miriam paused in her quick typing. “So, uh. Miriam? How are you doing.”

Miriam looked at her, raised one eyebrow. “Well. How about you?”

“Good, good.” Tamara fluffed her hair, breathed out with big cheeks. “So, uh… Did you know I actually have a bunch of extra tip money? So I was thinking I could buy you ice cream or something? My treat.”

“You don’t have a job.”

“Fuck, I forgot you knew that.”

“Do you want something?”

“I don’t necessarily want something, can’t a girl be nice once in a while?”

“What do you want?”

She huffed. “Jesus, okay.” She proceeded to not say anything.

“Well, what—“

“I want to make Jane Marie jealous.”

Well, that was something different from what she’d expected, but she couldn’t find it altogether surprising. “Are you expecting me to be involved in this somehow?”

“Ugh, well, I thought we could go to the library or something while she’s working? Just, like, pretend that we’re there on a date.”

“A date… to the library.”

“Do you not go on dates to the library?”

“You’re asking me to pretend to date you.”

Maybe?

Miriam saw her life flash before her eyes. She took a deep breath. She muttered to herself, “Sometimes Christ tests us.”

“What?”

“What do I get out of this?”

“I can actually give you money.”

“So you intend to make an escort out of me.” At least Alex had bought her coffee, like a normal person.

Shh, for fuck’s sake. It’s not like that. Besides, I know how much work it took for you to get here.”

That made her blood run cold. “Do you.”

Mmm-hmm.” Tamara smirked. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a little help with expenses in the years to come.”

Miriam licked her lips. “Is this blackmail? Because plenty of students are here on scholarship.”

“I wouldn’t call it blackmail.” Tamara reached into a bag of bean chips next to the desk and munched. “It’s just a little encouragement.”

Miriam massaged her temples. “How much aid are we talking about?”

“I don’t know. A quarter of it, maybe?”

Miriam’s eyes bugged. She quickly schooled her expression. “I suppose that’s satisfactory.”

“Fabulous!” Tamara sat up and grinned. “So we have a date this Thursday?”

“Yep.”

She wondered how Alex would react to that.