Chapter One: One More Kissing (Mis)Adventure
Anyone who saw the two halves of their respective dorm rooms would never have believed that the people within those rooms had grown up side by side.
One was piled with books and papers and half-built projects abandoned hastily as something else had caught the maker’s eye. The bed was made neat as a pin with a stack of yellowed novels sitting on the bedside table without a bookmark in sight. A clock ticked happily atop a shelf, more books stacked around that in turn and with a stuffed hare sitting proudly right up where she could look down at what her boy had become. Not a single belonging had strayed to his roommate’s side of the room, a controlled kind of chaos reigning supreme.
The other room, in stark comparison, had nothing controlled about its chaos. Posters hung from every possible wall, peeling at the corners and stuck with stickers on the vivid faces emblazoned across them. Teased hair and thickly made up faces stared back at whoever stepped into the room, cocky smiles daring them to try and judge the inhabitant. The personality of that inhabitant wasn’t at all contained by the invisible line denoting where her space ended and her roommate’s began, with piles of forgotten clothes sprawled around the floor and books tossed to the other desk in order to make room for a dangerously leaning tower of CD jewel cases piled beside their player. Over the bed, suspended from a hook in the ceiling that she’d almost certainly get written up for when it was spotted, a toy raven hung with his wings out gleefully, dancing in the breeze from the open window.
There was only one thing both rooms had in common. A single photo displayed prominently twice over: two small children, perhaps seven years old if they were a day, arms around each other on their first day of school together, uniforms impeccable and smiles frozen forevermore. In both rooms, this photo was framed and set aside the bed; after all, they might have grown up, but they still had each other. That hadn’t changed, and they doubted it ever really would.
Even if one of them kind of wished otherwise.
Emily loved living in the dorms. She loved having her own space and the ability to screen her mother’s phone calls. Sure, it turned out that her rampant spending wasn’t exactly great when she also had to buy her own food and toiletries, but Spencer was just across campus and he was always good for a loan. Suddenly, she had friends her own age—even if they were freshmen to her junior—and the agency to live how she wanted to, no hiding how she wanted to be anymore. For better or worse, the care of Emily Prentiss was now left solely to one Emily Prentiss, and she was sure she never ever wanted that to change, ever. Never again would she sit below her mother’s boot. In fact, she was pretty sure that life right now, the week before Spencer’s eighteenth birthday, was as good as it would ever get: she was happy, only sometimes hungry, free, and most importantly living. There was only one downside, and that downside was currently sprawled on her bed trying to knit her a scarf.
“I’m sure I had this figured out yesterday,” Spencer mused, staring at the odd angle his scarf was beginning to take and wondering how this had happened when he was sure he’d mathed it out perfectly. Eyes narrowed, he began to pick it apart, completely failing to notice the way Emily was looking at him from her backwards seat in her desk chair, legs folded below her and chin on the backrest. He was completely focused on his task, determined to have it done before the weather turned cold since Emily was utterly hopeless at dressing appropriately and always ended up stealing his clothes when she inevitably got cold.
Emily, on the other hand, was smitten. That was a word that she found detestably trite and therefore it was completely appropriate to how she was feeling right now, all mixed up and angry at herself while also being completely unable to look away from his fingers working quickly with the needles. Ever since the stupid date that she’d hated, thank you very much, she hadn’t been able to push out of her mind all kinds of new realisations about him, things she’d never quite noticed before.
At first, she’d worried that maybe she was coming down with something, feeling hot and strange the first time he’d hugged her following that day. That had never happened before, so she must be sick. Perhaps she’d even die of it, she hoped, since that would be better than admitting that she almost wanted her best friend to kiss her again, just to see if he was as good as she remembered or if it had just been a by-product of that wonderful night.
Later, she’d admit to herself that maybe she was being a bit of a dumbass about him, but was also adamant that it was a kind of dumbass that would pass quickly. It had to. She refused to be something as gross as ‘smitten’ about her best friend for long, especially not when he was lying on her bed with his hair all ruffled and scowling at a scarf he was trying to make for her. Because he cared about her. About her health, that was, because they were friends—and that was all. Not for any other reasons.
Emily swallowed, hard, and swung the chair around feeling uncomfortable and warm again.
“Stuffy in here,” she announced, standing and wincing as pins and needles attacked her legs. “Just gonna open a window.” But the window, when she opened it, sent in a gust of freezing fall air, sending Blackavar the raven spinning wildly around above Spencer’s head and earning a protest from him; he’d always hated the cold. She closed it again, pressing her cheek against the glass and wishing her brain sucked a little less.
Emily Prentiss was free to make all her own decisions, except, apparently, about who she was having an entirely inappropriate crush on; but she was sure that it would pass by soon.
“Emily’s acting weird,” was the first thing Spencer said to Ethan when the man arrived on the weekend of his birthday, grabbing Ethan’s bag with one hand and reaching out to brush their fingers together in a subtle greeting with the other. “She keeps staring at me.”
“That’s just because you have a bizarre face,” Ethan informed him cheerfully. “I’d stare at it all day too if I could. There’s just so much I could learn from it.”
Spencer scowled at him, much like he’d scowled at the now severely right-angled scarf. “I don’t know why I thought you’d be any help. You’re such a comedian.”
“Oh, come on. That was funny. Staring doesn’t seem weird for Emily. Didn’t you guys once booby trap her bedroom with explosives? Now that’s weird—she’s set a high bar here.”
“She also dropped a cup on my head.” Spencer rubbed the afflicted spot wryly, thinking of the strange look she’d given him right before fumbling her drink. It had been equal parts panicked and flustered and he wasn’t even sure what he’d said to make her look so confused: something about the poem he’d been trying to write out for Ethan, copying from one of his mother’s old books. “And then told me it was my fault for looking at her.”
“Ah, yes. You definitely deserved that, I can see her reasoning there—I’ve brought a whole range of cups with me to discipline you with, of every possible size and shape.”
Ethan, much to Spencer’s chagrin, was trying to stifle laughter.
“I don’t even know why I like any of you people,” Spencer declared, throwing Ethan’s bag at him and stalking off out of the train station with Ethan chasing after him. “You’re both horrible to me.”
“But we love you,” Ethan cried out, earning stares from all the other passengers and not even caring a whit. “Spence, wait! Wait for me! I’m not even holding a cup!”
Emily was indeed acting weird, even she could tell. It was infuriating to her that she was suddenly mixing up everything in her life that had been normal and stable before—which had never been her love life—and making it feel dangerously uncertain. And, apparently, much like she’d always responded to her mother when she was being infuriating, her solution to being frustrated by this was snark.
“Ethan’s here!” Spencer declared, knocking twice before bursting into her room, practically bouncing with how happy he was to have them all here together again. “Em, Ethan’s here!”
“Oh boy,” said Emily, lowering her magazine and moodily staring at them both. Ethan was Ethan as he’d always been Ethan, tall and stupid and handsome with his dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and his expression unbearably smug. And he had facial hair now, which she smirked at because she knew Spencer would pout over his inability, and then attempt to grow his out. Which would be fantastic for her and her current need to tease him instead of being nice to him. “Who dragged you in?”
“I dragged myself in, thank you very much, I’m a grown man and I do my own dragging.” Ethan didn’t even hesitate, just flung his bag aside and sprawled onto the bed with her, using his hip to shove her over. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cup within reach, would you? Spencer’s been doing an awful lot of looking and, quite frankly, I’m sick of it. The nerve of him.”
Emily turned her head slowly to stare at Spencer, who suddenly felt like he was in terrible, terrible peril and tried to find something to do with his hands to hide how they were sweating.
“Spencer says you’ve been acting weird,” Ethan continued, apparently unaware that he was in serious danger of being defenestrated out of the third-floor dorm. “Do you want to talk about your feelings, little blackbird?”
Emily narrowed her eyes at Spencer, who backed away.
“Spencer regrets saying anything,” he muttered, now trying to avoid eye-contact with her, his cheeks flushing red. That was unfortunate for him, because Emily saw the blush and remembered how he’d blushed that night, her scowl turning fiercer.
“Spencer needs to shut up and not talk about things he’s not involved in.” Emily shrunk down further into the bed, feeling her own cheeks beginning to burn. This was nightmarish. She wished they’d never gone on that stupid date, and then she paused. Maybe she could just… fake it. Compartmentalise, right? Like her mom was always telling her, fragment the bits of her brain that were obsessing over that night and tuck them away behind the part of her that wanted to be normal for Spencer’s birthday. What would normal Emily do?
“Fine, I’ll tell you,” she declared, sitting bolt upright and sighing for effect. “But you need to not be assholes about it, like you’re always assholes about it. That means no betting.”
“Oh,” said Spencer, who’d realised what was bothering her with a rush of relief. And he’d been beginning to think she was sick or something; instead, he realised she was just—
“I’m in love again,” Emily sighed, quickly conjuring up a man in her mind with lovely hands and a dark smile and hair that was definitely blonde, the kind of man she liked to fall in love with. Kind of arrogant and a little mean, but sweet enough when he wanted to be, and maybe he liked magic…
“Okay, nope,” Ethan said quickly, launching out of the bed like she’d shot him. “It’s your turn, Spence. I cleaned up last time.”
“But—” Spencer stopped, wincing when Emily raised an eyebrow at him in a very ‘I knew you’d be like this’ look. “I mean, oh… that’s… exciting. And definitely not going to end in disaster. What’s his name?”
Emily went blank.
She was saved by her roommate arriving home, eyes flickering appreciatively over Ethan before turning to Emily and tossing two small cards at her: Emily’s birthday present to Spencer. “There,” she said. “Picked them up this afternoon. You owe me, gal.”
“I absolutely do,” Emily said with relish, holding the cards up for Spencer to examine. “And you owe me, Spence. Happy eighteenth birthday, you’re now legal in Australia and we’re getting you plastered.”
“Oh no,” said Spencer, taking his new fake-ID with resignation visible on every inch of his face.
“No,” said Spencer.
Emily and Ethan both gave him identical, longing looks, standing on either side of the doorway like they were guarding the entrance to hell and he had a one-way ticket through. It was nine hours until his eighteenth birthday officially rolled around, and they were making good on their plans to drag him out of his dorm for the night. He wondered if either of them knew how terrifyingly alike they could be with a mission.
“It won’t hurt,” said Emily.
“Much,” added Ethan.
“Come on.” Emily again, and she smiled at him like she’d used to, before all the weirdness of the last month and a half had seeped into their daily interactions. Spencer loved life in the dorms, he really did, but his favourite bit about living in the dorms was that he still had Emily. She was a short walk away and barely a day went past where they weren’t together for at least a little bit of it: he’d missed how easy that was with how snappy she’d been just recently. “Me and Eth are going to do it, aren’t we, Ethan?”
“Commemorate having survived this long.” Ethan winked, reaching out to take Spencer’s hand and pull him closer. Spencer flushed nervously, looking around to see if anyone was watching this public show of affection before letting himself be pulled, the three of them gathered close on the stoop of the shop. “You jumped off a pier, how hard can this be?”
“I fell off the pier and, since you seem to have forgotten this bit, I broke my leg while doing so. That doesn’t really sound like something that’s not going to hurt, does it?”
But Ethan hummed their song gently, tipped back on his heels and smiling at him with the shy, soft smile that was just for them, and Spencer melted a little. Thought about saying yes.
Looked at Emily and saw her staring strangely at Ethan, almost worried.
“I’ll go inside,” Spencer finally conceded, ignoring their excited whoops. “But no promises beyond that!”
And, hand in hand with Ethan and with Emily leading the way, he followed them into the tattoo parlour with a distinct feeling that tonight was going to be a long night of conceding his wishes in the wake of his much more confident companions.
Emily had known exactly what she’d wanted as soon as she’d walked in there, the rough sketch in her pocket immediately landing on the ink-stained front counter. Ethan had been more changeable, flitting from book to book and fretting quietly before finally ushering Spencer over. While Emily stoically sat through the application of her new tattoo, wincing every time it stung, her eyes lingered on the two boys leaned together talking in soft voices, Spencer drawing something out on a scrap of paper as Ethan guided him. She wondered what they were talking about, anxiety building that they were planning something grand, some romantic gesture that would tie them together at the age of eighteen and twenty-one… and then she remembered that she was supposed to be locking that part of her brain away and wrestled with it for a moment, almost getting it under control. Almost.
“A name?” she heard the tattooist ask, glancing at the scrap of paper as they showed it to him and asked for advice on the lines. “Not a girlfriend, I hope. You’ll regret that.”
“Not a girlfriend,” Ethan replied in a strange voice, full of feeling, and Emily flinched.
“You alright?” asked her artist, pausing with the needle gun resting on her hip.
“Fine,” she squeezed out through gritted teeth. “Keep going. And don’t tell them I winced.”
He smiled, murmuring, “Mum’s the word,” and keeping on working without that smile slipping.
Ethan kept staring at his wrist as they walked down the street after, the sun finally falling and the night growing dim around them. Spencer was wearing his purple scarf, Emily the right-angled disaster he’d knitted her, and she kept having to stop to edge the waistband of her pants down so it didn’t touch where the bandage sat over her new tattoo. The boys didn’t know what it was yet; she didn’t plan to show them until later.
Ethan’s, however, he kept peeling the bandage back and peeking, ignoring Spencer’s scolding. Emily caught a glimpse: it was a heavy line of what looked like the Greek alphabet.
“Whose name?” she asked finally, almost bursting with curiosity. “Tell me it’s not Spencer’s. Imagine having him on your wrist forever.” She teased, but her heart hammered.
“It’s not Spencer’s,” Ethan said with a snort, tugging the bandage back again, this time to show her, revealing the word:
“Philomene,” Spencer said quietly.
“Loved,” Ethan added, covering it back over. “Never tell her, or I swear no one will ever find your bodies when I’m done.”
Emily didn’t say anything, stunned completely by this show of utter love from a boy to his sister. Did she love anyone like that? Truly and completely, without the mess of sex or the complicated feelings she had for her family getting in the way?
She didn’t think she did. Maybe two months ago she’d have said Spencer… but now she knew that wasn’t right, her brain was just as broken about him as it had been about John. And maybe she loved her mom, but she didn’t like her, not like Ethan both liked and loved his sister.
It was with a heavy feeling in her heart and her stomach that she resigned herself to knowing that there was no-one she loved quite like that, walking onwards and feeling very alone on this night despite the boys beside her.
Spencer, on the other hand, smiled because he was absolute in the knowledge that he had people as special to him as Phil was to Ethan. Ethan and Emily and his mom and Elizabeth: he was turning eighteen feeling sure that his life was filled with the most wonderful people, and maybe this surety was why he didn’t notice how lonely Emily looked beside them.
Midnight ticked closer and they were all drunk and rowdy, having been tossed from a bar after an unfortunate incident with an ice machine. Stumbling down the street together, they were warm despite the cold, silly despite their ages, and vividly alive in this singular moment.
“A park!” Ethan hollered, vanishing from their sides and sprinting away into the dark. “Playground! Swings!”
“Don’t hurt yourself!” Spencer called after him, a distant “Ow!” floating back following the distinct sound of a very tall person misjudging the height of said swings, chains rattling sadly. Spencer just sighed and turned back to his slowly trudging companion, holding his hand out to her. “Come on. If we don’t catch up, he’s going to fall in the pond trying to pet a duck.”
“Does he do that a lot?” Emily asked, focusing carefully on that offered hand before reaching out to take it. His fingers in hers were warm and narrow, folding comfortably around her. They walked along together like that, arms swinging absently between them with Spencer humming—Emily didn’t know this, but it was the refrain Ethan had composed for them—in and out of the circles of lamplight set along the bike path they walked upon. Spencer was watching the moon drift overhead, waiting for the beep of Emily’s digital watch to announce his birthday’s arrival. Emily was watching Spencer, wondering what he saw in the stars above.
“More than you’d expect,” Spencer answered finally, long after Emily had stopped expecting an answer. They slowed under one of those circles of light and he turned to her, hand slipping from hers. “So, are you going to show me what you got?”
She swallowed, heart hammering. Her hip burned, the skin both oddly numb while also aching like a bruise. Almost like she was dizzy—which she was, as the alcohol she’d drunk hit again and made her waver and regret the last three shots—she reached to her waistband and slipped her pants down lower, suddenly cold and clammy in a way she’d never been around him.
“Need help?” he asked, her brain stammering to a stop as his fingers came to her hip, easing the band down a little more. She too drunk for this and Spencer entirely unaware of her focus on him, they both eased the bandage away so he could examine the curled black lines of the design in the yellow light above.
“Oh,” he said, stunned.
She said nothing, just closed her eyes to stop from wondering if he’d kiss her again if she asked. She didn’t feel like herself in this moment: she hadn’t felt like herself since he’d held her to the sky and told her to reach.
She wanted to feel like herself again. And, long ago, Fiona had told her that the best way to find if you loved someone was to kiss them: that had been long after the day she’d first kissed him while they were young and looking for adventure, trying to save him from a terrible poison—it was also long before John had entered her life and, almost without her knowing, rearranged her understanding of what ‘love’ was. Love, to Emily, was sex and hurting and being dangerously vulnerable.
She didn’t want to love Spencer, not like that, and she never considered that there were other options.
“Fiver and Blackbird,” Spencer finally said, reaching as though to touch the sore, swollen skin before thinking better of it. Under the inch of space he left between his fingers and her hip was the drawing they’d put on his bedroom wall one lonely Christmas, the hare with his blackbird’s wing sheltering him. “You got Fiver and Blackbird, permanently …”
“They’re a part of me,” she admitted miserably. A part she was ruining, with her messy, fucked-up brain. “You’re always going to be a part of me.”
And that was true, absolutely.
Her watch beeped, breaking the moment, and she forced a smile as she stuck the bandage back and dropped her shirt over it. “Happy Birthday,” she said, reaching up to hug him like she’d hugged him so many times before, despite how much taller he was now and how much more broken she was.
He didn’t see the broken parts of her, all he saw was his best friend in the world, beaming at her and hugging her tight as he breathed in this night and knew things were going to keep on being like this, this comfortable groove in his life that he’d searched for for so long and finally found.
But, when he pulled back from her hug a little, still stooped lower than usual as he used her to prop himself up—also regretting the alcohol that wasn’t fading as fast as he’d like it to fade—he found her staring at him strangely.
“What?” he asked.
Asked later, she’d have no idea why she did it. Not right now, right here, in this park on his birthday when it should have been about him and only him, but she did.
She kissed him.
It wasn’t at all like before. He went stiff and surprised against her, mouth open only because he was startled and hand coming up between her. But he didn’t jerk away and she misconstrued that, freezing in place, unsure whether to push forward or pull back as they stood there in that ring of light, drunk and out of their depth.
It was her who broke the kiss, stepping back with her hands flicking up to her mouth and her eyes wide, the alcohol lurching dangerously in her gut and threatening to send her heaving. She felt hot and scared and horrified, realising with a burn of tears that she’d given away the game she’d been so frantic to hide, seeing nothing but recrimination in the look he was giving her.
“Emily,” Spencer breathed quietly, not sure what he was feeling but recognising somehow that they were on dangerous ground suddenly. “What—”
And maybe she could have talked her way out of it, blamed the alcohol and her excitement and the rush of the night, if she hadn’t done what she did next: whispered, “I’m sorry,” and began to cry.
“Oh,” said a soft voice beside them, Ethan standing just outside that ring of light with his eyes locked on Emily and nothing familiar in them. “Well, that’s… expected.”
“Eth,” Spencer said, voice shrill and worried. “Don’t—”
But he was already walking away. Emily stood there, saying nothing. Spencer froze, torn between his best friend’s tears and his boyfriend’s hurt as the watch’s beeping finally died out.
It hadn’t even been a minute.
She had to go, Emily realised. If she didn’t go, Spencer would stand there frozen instead of chasing after Ethan—she had to go. And so, without a word, she turned and left, waiting until her feet hit the grass before beginning to run, from Spencer’s shock and Ethan’s hurt and her own messy brain, wondering if this was the part when she burned it all down.
Spencer, after a minute of staring after her and wondering what the hell had just happened and what exactly was so obvious about it—because he really had no clue—turned and ran after Ethan, recognising at least that there was somewhere he was needed.
There was very little Spencer felt comfortable with in Ethan’s expression when he hurtled after him and grabbed his boyfriend’s arm, yanking him around to face him properly.
“What on earth is going on?” Spencer yelled—actually yelled, because he was upset and confused and it was his birthday. “I have no idea what just happened!”
“Don’t you?” Ethan snapped. But he wasn’t angry—Spencer, incorrectly, read his profile as anger and stepped warily away from it, but Ethan wasn’t mad. Not with Spencer, and not with Emily.
Instead, he was terrified.
“No,” Spencer said quietly. Around them, the night was silent. None of them felt drunk any more, just tired and sad. “I don’t. It’s not fair that you’re angry with me when I didn’t do anything wrong, and there’s no point being mad at Emily if we don’t know why she—”
“I know why she kissed you,” Ethan replied. He brought his fingers to his wrist, touching at the bandage there with a wistful kind of misery. “Of course you don’t know, but I do.”
Spencer waited expectantly.
But Ethan just folded forward, wrapping his arms tight around Spencer with his fingers threaded tight into Spencer’s hair, mouth buried above them and muscles trembling like he was holding some dreadful tension back. Spencer, rigid in the sudden encompassing grasp, made a soft noise of confusion—something cold dripping into his gut.
“She kissed you like that because you’re remarkable,” Ethan said finally. “And it was only a matter of time before someone better for you than me realised that.”
“What, no, Ethan…”
Spencer trailed off. Nothing had prepared him for this: nothing. He didn’t know how to unpack everything that was wound into that statement, all the new grief and the uncertain sadness. It wasn’t a side of Ethan he recognised; he didn’t think it was a side of Ethan that had even existed three years ago when they’d first held hands. This was new.
“Is this why you told me to go on the date with her?” he realised out loud, a car sweeping by and catching them for a moment in the spotlight of its passing. Just two static figures in an onlooker’s life, the people within that car driving past with no idea of just how momentously destructive this night had suddenly become. “And all that stuff you came up with about me sleeping with other people? Has someone been telling you there’s something between me and Emily? Because there’s not—I don’t know what that was back there, but it wasn’t anything other than me and Em being drunk and Emily being silly, like she always is. She’s reckless and thoughtless and weird, we know this about her—I doubt she even thought about what she was doing before she did it. It doesn’t mean anything. And if you’re trying to push me away, you can stop it. I’m not going anywhere but right where I am, stuck in love with a jazzy idiot who needs to kiss me right now and stop drowning himself in his over-imaginative brain. And I don’t understand why it’s so different tonight when you were fine with me kissing her—”
“When I wasn’t watching. I was specific that I didn’t want to see or know or think or, fuck, Spencer, I don’t know, okay! I… I don’t know.” Ethan stepped back, rubbing his eyes before trying to shove his hair out of his way. Spencer watched him fight with it for a second, the wind whipping up around them making it impossible to wrangle it all at once, before reaching into his pocket for a hair elastic that he held out. They both stared at the elastic, Ethan blinking and Spencer sheepish. Some of the tension of the moment faded along with a soft, tired smile appearing on Ethan’s face.
“Emily always breaks hers and then gets angry at her hair,” Spencer explained. “So, I started carrying one. They’re surprisingly versatile.”
“Remarkable,” Ethan said again, shaking his head. “Can we go home? And talk later? I don’t want to ruin your birthday.”
“Only if you kiss me and promise not to ruminate yourself into a dumb decision,” Spencer said firmly. Ethan, with that same tired smile, complied and they trudged home together, neither having any idea of the changes that that new wind was bringing with it.