I'll wait, I'll wait to be the one,
To catch you when you're falling.
Always, always, I'll be the one,
To answer when you're calling.
She makes the profile because Sandra insists. It happens after Vanya has sort of a breakdown. The two of them are closing up the diner at the end of the night, and when Vanya counts her tips, she can't quite hide her despair at how paltry they are.
Sandra asks what's the matter.
"Nothing," Vanya says. "It's nothing."
Sandra looks expectantly at her. "Come on," she coaxes. She isn't much older than Vanya, but she's taken Vanya under her wing in the months that Vanya's been at the diner.
"I just . . . I can't pay my rent with this," Vanya says.
And, before she can think better of it, she is telling her coworker about her efforts to make it all on her own, and the stipend from her dad that she refused to take, about her dream of being a violinist, and her inability to find a job that's steadier than the occasional, pit orchestra gig, about the threats her landlady has made to boot her from the apartment if she's late with her rent again, and how there aren't enough hours in the day to make the money she needs.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," she finishes.
"You know what you need?" Sandra says, matter-of-fact. "You need a sugar daddy."
"You need some nice, older guy with money to burn. There's a website, you know. You make a profile, and they get in touch with you."
"Is that . . . ?" Vanya's cheeks burn. "Do you mean, like, prostitution?"
"It isn't prostitution. It's an arrangement. It's you providing your youthful, gorgeous company for some old fart, and he shows his gratitude with gifts."
It sounds like prostitution.
"You'd do well," Sandra says. "You're pretty. And you've got this timid, damsel-in-distress thing going on. They eat that up." She snaps her gum. "You'd have lots of offers."
"Oh, um." Vanya tucks her hair behind her ear. "Thanks?"
"And you don't have to have sex with you guy. Some of them want sex. But you can pick a fellow who doesn't."
She frowns. "Why would they give me money if it isn't for sex?"
"Some of them just want some pretty thing to have on their arm when they're around town. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? You get some nice older guy who gives you money and gifts and takes you to fancy, expensive restaurants, and you've just got to show up."
"I guess," Vanya says.
Sandra is fearless, flirting for tips, and rolling her eyes at customers who yell at her, taking smoke breaks whenever she wants.
Vanya's a little in awe of her.
"I can help you make your profile if you want," Sandra says.
"You don't have to."
"I want to. It'll be fun! We can do it as soon as finish up here. I haven't got plans. We can get a pack of Miller, and make a night of it."
She doesn't know how to say no.
They close up, they buy beer at the CVS, and they go to Vanya's.
Sandra is a woman on a mission.
To start, they need a picture.
Sandra digs in Vanya's closet until she finds an old, flouncy purple blouse that she says is passable, puts her lipstick on Vanya, and takes Vanya's hair from her ponytail, combing it with her fingers.
"You don't look half bad," she says.
She makes Vanya pose for a lot of pictures, and picks her favorite for the profile.
Vanya has to come up with interests for Sandra to list.
There's a place to list your preferences, too, and when Sandra gives Vanya examples of various sexual activities, Vanya is horrified, and Sandra says they'll simply write traditional.
Vanya is able to choose a quote on her own.
She thinks for a couple of minutes while Sandra tosses a lot of short, cliché suggestions at her. The moment it occurs to her, she feels a burst of excitement. She goes to get the book off her shelf to make certain that she gets it word-for-word.
She reads the quote to Sandra.
"Sweetheart," Sandra says, unimpressed.
"I like it."
"You need something that's fun." She looks at Vanya for a moment, and sighs. "Fine."
Vanya has to type the quote while Sandra opens another beer for herself.
The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.
She wonders how many people will know it.
"What's that quote got to do with anything anyway?" Sandra asks.
"It's . . . this might sound strange, but he's the kind of man I want," Vanya says.
"This isn't going to find the love of your life, you know. We're finding you a man to pay your bills. You need to lower your expectations if you're looking for Mr. Darcy."
"I know," Vanya says.
It's midnight by the time they complete the profile.
Sandra stays the night.
In the morning, she makes Vanya promise to keep her up to date on her adventures in fishing for a daddy.
There's a part of her that doesn't really believe she'll have anyone who's interested in her.
In a matter of hours, she's proved very, very wrong.
Some of the messages are long, complimentary, and poetic. Some are plain old weird. Some of the messages are disgusting, and they make her want to take her profile down immediately.
None of them is able to entice her.
She knows she told Sandra she'd try it, but there's no way she can. Now that she's faced with messages from real, actual men, she's certain this isn't for her. She isn't as brave as Sandra.
It's a week after she makes the profile that she gets a message from a man by the name of Peter.
There's no preamble. He doesn't bother complimenting her picture, or giving her information about himself. It's a single, simple question.
Would you be interested in going to see Soyoung Yoon in concert?
Yes. Oh, God, yes. She's more than interested. Yoon is one of her favorite modern violinists. She would pay every last penny she has to see the woman in concert. She can't say yes, though. Right? She can't.
After she paces the apartment for half an hour, she replies. It can't hurt just to reply. She can always back out if need be, delete her profile, and never hear from him again. I'd love to, she writes. Once it's sent, she stares at the message like that will make something happen.
He responds in a matter of minutes. I have two tickets for this Sunday at eight. I would greatly appreciate the company. I will treat you to dinner beforehand if you would like, and I can pick you up from whatever address you are most comfortable giving me. He doesn't give any more details about himself.
She likes that he's straightforward, and it seems like he's thoughtful, too.
He's a stranger, of course.
She is crazy if she goes through with this.
She goes to his profile, but there isn't a picture, and he doesn't have information about his age, or his job, or his background. Sandra told Vanya that guys with nothing on there were suspicious, and she should steer clear of them. She frowns when she realizes there is something under "details."
There's a quote.
He didn't bother posting silly facts like his age, but he took the time to add a quote.
It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.
She recognizes it immediately, though he didn't bother adding an attribution. It's from Frankenstein. She loves that book, and has for years. It was her first favorite book. She could quote passages when she was ten years old.
It makes up her mind.
You can pick me up from the Argyle Public Library at whenever is best for dinner, she writes.
She doesn't know who he is, why he's interested in her, or what she's doing, but it's the most brazen thing she's ever done, and that's got to count for something.
"His name is Peter," she says, "and I don't know a lot about him, but he doesn't seem creepy, or anything, and he likes Frankenstein, the book, I mean, which I love, too and we're going to see a violinist in concert."
"Wow," Sandra says. "I'm impressed."
"Sounds like you hooked a classy, sophisticated fellow."
"Is it okay that I'm nervous?"
"You can be nervous. But, trust me, you've got nothing to worry about. You turn those big, beautiful Bambi eyes on him, and you'll have him wrapped around your finger."
She wears a brown, silky dress that Sandra says she'll be able to return to the store after the date.
She isn't working that day, so she has plenty of time to dress up, to fix her hair in a twist, and apply her makeup with more painstaking effort than she's ever bothered with before.
She's outside the library by 5:55 pm, because he said he would come at six.
The car that pulls to the curb is vintage. Her heart skips a beat at the sight. She doesn't know much about cars, but she'd wager that car cost a lot of money, and this is her date.
He steps from the car, and his eyes find her immediately.
She was expecting a much older man, but he can't be older than forty, and he is clean-shaven, and tall, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a thin, angular face, dressed in a three-piece suit that probably costs more than her rent.
He stares at her until she feels the heat of a blush in her cheeks.
"Hi," she says.
"I'm Peter." He offers his hand. "It's nice to meet you."
He gives her hand a brief, businesslike shake.
"Where, um." She clears her throat. "Where are we going to dinner?"
"L'Auberge Chez Francois." He leads her around the car, and opens the door for her. "I've never been there, but I've heard good things."
She slides in, and feels suddenly like she's forgotten how to sit. He closes the door for her, circles the car, and gets in, starting the car, and pulling into the road. She crosses her ankles, and adjusts at the skirt of her dress needlessly.
"So, um." She looks at him. "What do you do?"
"I'm a fixer."
"Should I know what that is?"
"If there's a problem," he says, "I fix it."
"What about you?"
"Where do you work?"
"Um." She blinks. "The Spoon? It's a diner on Mayberry. I'm a waitress."
"Never been there," he says.
"It isn't exactly on par with L'Auberge Chez Francois."
"Do you like it?"
She shrugs. "I like the donuts." She fiddles with her watch.
"I used to love donuts when I was a kid. Do you know I don't think I've had one since I was kid? I used to be able to eat a dozen in a night."
"If you don't love donuts, there is something the matter with you."
"I used to go to this shop with my siblings," she says, feeling slightly bolder, "and we'd order donut holes, and have a competition to see who could fit the most in their mouth at once."
There's a hint of a smile on his face.
"It was fun."
"I'm sure," he says.
They drop the car off with a valet soon after that.
The restaurant is more expensive than any she's been to in her life, and as soon as the walk in, she realizes she's underdressed, but at least she's been taught impeccable table manners, so she won't embarrass herself in that respect.
They are attended to immediately.
He orders a bottle of wine for them, tastes it, and approves.
"Can I be honest with you?" Vanya says.
"I don't . . . I've never actually done this before. Gone on a date this way, I mean. I've never—my friend set up my profile for me. And once it was set up, I was kind of intimidated by everything, and I . . ." She bites her lip. "This isn't what you want to hear, is it?"
"It does make me curious why you accepted this date."
"I—" She blushes. "I really, really wanted to go to the concert."
"Does that make me terrible?"
"It makes you a person with very good taste," he says.
She ducks her head.
He has this way of looking at her that's somehow almost studious. It makes her self-conscious. She's never had anyone look at her this closely.
"I, um." She takes a sip of her wine. "I liked the quote in your profile."
"You're familiar with the book?"
"I love it. I have since I was a kid. I cried when I found out Mary Shelley was dead, and couldn't be my friend."
"I can imagine that," he says, something like a smile in his voice.
"Do you like science fiction?"
"My interests are varied. I had a great deal of time on my hands at one point in my life, and reading was how I chose to spend it. It's a challenge to find a book I haven't read."
"So . . . what genre is your favorite?"
He leans in like he's going to tell her a secret. "I like a mystery. It's a challenge. I like to guess the killer." He's got a knowing, playful look in his eye that's somehow strangely familiar.
"How often do you get it right?"
"If I don't guess it correctly, it's because it's unrealistic, and I could have written it better."
She has to smother a smile at that.
Conversation about books carries them through the rest of the dinner.
She ends up doing the majority of the talking, in fact, because he asks her to choose a single favorite author, and she has to debate the merits of Mary Shelley, Octavia Butler, and Margaret Atwood.
It's easy to talk about books.
She's feeling more relaxed when they head to the show. Peter is nice. She's never actually been on a date with anyone, so she has no idea how a date is meant to feel, but this simply feels like a night with a friend.
The show is spectacular, of course.
That's what she wants.
She wants to become a violinist of that caliber. She wants to captivate a crowd of hundreds. She wants to make the kind of music that steals your breath.
He takes her to the library.
"Thank you," she says, when he opens the door for her. "Tonight was wonderful."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it."
"If you aren't opposed, I'd like to do it again."
"I—" She smiles. "I'm not opposed."
He stares at her in that way of his. "I'll be in touch," he says.
"You have a way home from here?"
He frowns. "It's late, and you're a beautiful young woman."
"I've done it before." She takes her keys from her purse. "I'll be okay. I do this thing. I read it in a magazine once. If you put the key between your fingers like this, you can kind of jab at a mugger. I've never actually had to try it before, but it seems like it would work."
"You're going to fight off attackers with a key between your fingers?"
"You don't think it would work?"
He sighs. "Get in the car." He opens the door for her again.
"I'm taking you to your apartment."
"You don't have to."
"I live in a not very nice part of town," she says. "I don't think you want to drive your beautiful, old car there."
"But you're going to walk there?"
She bites her lip.
"Vanya," he says, gritting his teeth, "would you just get in the car?"
She gets in the car.
It occurs to her when they're driving to her apartment that this could be some evil, elaborate scheme to drag her into her home, rape her, and murder her.
She's got her key between her fingers at least.
He drops her off with the promise to wait at the curb until he sees she's safely in the building.
In her apartment, she takes off her dress with care, folds it neatly, and sprawls on the bed in her underwear.
She went on a date.
It wasn't exactly what she pictured for her very first date, but she can't help but think it went pretty well.
Three days later, she is making herself dinner, and she has to sign for a package.
She almost doesn't believe what's inside. It's a beautiful, first edition copy of Frankenstein. She touches the cover with reverence, and opens it inside to discover a note from Peter. I thought you'd like this. That's it. That's the note. That's his explanation for sending her a book that must have cost thousands of dollars.
She hurries to the computer with the book in her hand.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, she writes.
She is trying to think of something more articulate to say when he responds with a quote from the book.
If I see but one smile on your lips when we meet, occasioned by this or any other exertion of mine, I shall need no other happiness.
She hugs the book to her chest and doesn't bother hiding her smile from her quiet, empty apartment.
He invites her on a date to the observatory that's an hour outside the city. She's excited. He can't know this, but she has always been fascinated by astronomy.
She used to like to create her own, imaginary constellations from the map of stars in the sky, and she would invent stories about them to regale Five with. She learned the actual, recognized constellations when she was older, of course. She likes to look at the stars, sometimes, and wonder where Five is, and what constellations shine over his head, and if he remembers her constellations.
He picks her up at her apartment this time.
"I brought you something," she says, holding up the white paper bag in her hand.
He takes the bag from her.
"Dessert," she says.
"You brought me donuts," he says, looking in the bag.
She hopes that isn't weird. "I didn't know what kind you liked, so I brought a variety." She bites her lip.
He takes a strawberry frosted doughnut that's doused in pink, red, and white sprinkles.
"You don't have to eat it now," she says, amused.
"I don't have to do anything." He circles the car to open the door for her. "Come on." He stuffs about half the donut in his mouth at once, and glances at her. "This is good."
"Good," she says.
The observatory is closed when they arrive, but, apparently, that's on purpose.
They are welcomed by a balding, middle-aged man who leads them to where a table it set for dinner beside a cart that's loaded with various covered dishes, and after he opens a bottle of wine for them, he leaves.
They have the place to themselves.
It's something Vanya would have read in Allison's old, paperback romance novels.
"This is amazing," she says.
"I thought you might like it," he says, the suggestion of a smile on his face.
There's a feast for dinner.
He uncovers plate after plate, and it's every single food she loves. There's shrimp and duck and ratatouille, beets and potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts. He is smug, and he's right to be.
She can't keep from gorging herself.
"I hope you saved room for dessert," he says.
"What's for dessert?"
"Cinnamon candied yams with marshmallows."
"That's my favorite!"
It makes her heart beat faster.
He opens the dome for her after they finished with dinner at last.
She looks through the telescope. "It's beautiful." She's never seen the sky with anything but her own, unaided eyes.
She glances at him to tell him that he needs to take a look, and finds him slumped in his chair with the bag of donuts in his lap, and he looks so little like the wealthy, proper man he's meant to be, it makes her smile.
"You have to see this," she says.
He shoves the last of a donut in his mouth, wipes at the flaky donut glaze on his chin, and rises to his feet.
"I don't know how you can eat donuts on top of everything we already ate."
"Willpower," he says.
She moves to allow him to look through the telescope.
"Nice?" She looks at him in amusement. "That's what you have to say?"
He straightens. "I've never cared much about the stars. There's plenty on Earth to occupy my attention. I like to look at them well enough, I suppose." He shrugs.
"If you don't like astronomy, why are we at an observatory?"
"You like it," he says.
She blinks. "I—I do." She breathes a smile, and looks away from him, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"I did plan something else for the evening."
He crosses the room to where he's apparently stashed something by the wall. She didn't really look around when they came in. He turns with the case in his hand.
"That's a violin," she says, surprised.
"I wanted to hear you play."
"You're a violinist, aren't you?"
"I . . . I mean, yes, but I'm nowhere as good as someone like Yoon."
"I'm sure you play very well." He offers the case to her. "I'd like to hear you."
She takes it.
He returns to his seat, and she opens the case. The violin he's brought is beautiful. She lifts it from the case, and takes a moment to tune it.
"What do you want me to play?"
She tugs off her heels, because they're killing her. She considers, and decides on a medley of songs from Phantom of the Opera, because she's known it for years, and she likes to think she's mastered it. She breathes in deeply, and plays.
He watches her.
She plays it perfectly.
There's an approval in his gaze that encourages her.
She gives a bow when she's finished.
"I was right," he says.
"You do play very well."
She drops her gaze. He has a way of disarming her. She doesn't know what to do with the compliments he offers like facts, with the certainty of his gaze, and the honest, effortless way he likes her.
"You can't play in heels?"
"They were pinching my toes," she says, sheepish. "These are actually the most uncomfortable shoes I own."
"If they're uncomfortable, why are you wearing them?"
"They're also the only nice pair I own."
He tilts his head to the side in acknowledgement.
She returns the violin to the case, and crosses the distance to the table with stockings on her feet, because she really doesn't want to put on her heels again, and he doesn't seemed bothered by her lack of shoes.
He takes another donut from the bag.
"You know," she says, "you remind me a little of my brother."
He glances to the side for a split-second. "I remind you of your brother?" He raises his eyebrows at her.
"Oh. Oh! No, I didn't mean it like that!" She can't believe she just told the man she's dating that he reminds her of her brother. "I meant—when I was a kid, my best friend was my brother, and you're a lot like him, you're blunt like he was, and you—I'm sorry, I didn't—I wasn't saying that I—"
"Vanya," he says.
She bites her lip.
"You, um." He clears his throat. "You haven't told me about your family."
"There isn't much to tell."
"What about this brother you thought so highly of?"
"Is that his name?"
"Sort of." She sighs. "It's complicated. My dad is . . . eccentric, to put it kindly, and he adopted a bunch of children he thought were special, and gave us numbers, and . . . It's a whole long, weird story."
"I'm not close with my family now. I never fit in with them. There's nothing special about me, so I wasn't really worth their time. I don't even talk to my siblings now. I was close with one of them, but he disappeared when we were kids."
"I assume that's Five?"
"I'm sorry you lost him," he says.
"You want to know a secret? There's a part of me that believes he'll be back again someday. He was incredible. If he wanted to come back again, I can't believe he wouldn't be able to find a way. Does that sound totally pathetic?"
"No," he says.
She knows it does, but he's nice to pretend it doesn't.
"And I might not know your brother, but I know you, and I can imagine very easily that he would do anything he could to return to you."
She can't hold his gaze.
They stay at the observatory for a little while longer.
She looks through the telescope, and she has him look through it again, too, and she tells him the stories of the some of the constellations.
On the return to the city, she falls to sleep in his car.
She's embarrassed when he shakes her gently to inform her that they're at her apartment, and she realizes what's happened. "Sorry." She wipes at her mouth in fear she's drooled.
She doesn't know what to say.
"I'll call you."
He opens the door for her, and he leans on the side of the car, his hands in his pockets, and watches her fish her keys from her purse, open the door of the building, and disappear safely inside.
She can't help but tell Sandra the details of her date. She doesn't mean to gush, but it happens. She's been playing the date over in her head, and it seems more perfect every time she remembers it.
"You know what it sounds like?" Sandra says.
"He wants to get in your pants."
"He—" Vanya is startled. "No, um. No, he hasn't said anything about—"
"He took you on a big, fancy private date. He wasn't showing you off. He was romancing you, because he wants in your pants."
She opens her mouth to argue, and closes it.
"You really didn't know?"
"I—" She flushes. She isn't versed in stuff like this.
"Oh, honey, it isn't the end of the world. He's a looker, isn't he? And if you don't like it, you can always drop him, and find someone better."
"Yeah," Vanya says.
She's grateful when the bell over the door rings cheerfully with the arrival of a customer.
Is that really why he's nice to her?
She shouldn't be surprised. What other reason would there be? She can't imagine why he'd waste that energy to have sex with a small, plain person like her, but it makes more sense than the idea that he'd spend that energy on her simply for the pleasure of her company.
Could she have sex with him?
Sandra has a way of making it sound so simple.
She doesn't know how Vanya grew up. She doesn't know how sheltered Vanya was. She doesn't know that Vanya has never as much as kissed a person.
She works the rest of her shift in a funk.
She doesn't get home until late, and is dead on her feet, and desperate for a shower to wash the day off her skin.
She has to pay her rent, though.
She can't believe her landlady hasn't already come knocking at her door for it, but she won't look that gift horse in the mouth, and she can only hope she doesn't get reamed when she goes to pay it now.
Mrs. Kaminski lives on the floor right above her. She is steeled for a lecture when she knocks on the door with an envelope of cash. Mrs. Kaminski is older, a widow, and mean.
The door swings open almost violently.
"Hi, Mrs. Kaminski," Vanya says.
"I have my rent. I'm sorry it's late. I promise I'll have it for you on time for June."
"That's your rent?" Mrs. Kaminski looks skeptically at her. "You don't talk much to your boyfriend, do you?"
She frowns. "My—"
"He paid your rent for you already. Came in yesterday. He had nice, clean bills, too."
"Older, good-looking man in a suit?"
"That's the one. I assumed he was your boyfriend. He paid your rent for the rest of the year."
"For the . . . " She gapes. "He paid my rent for the rest of the year?"
"You really didn't know?"
"No, I . . ."
"You aren't getting yourself into trouble, are you?" Mrs. Kaminski takes a step towards Vanya like she means to threaten her. "I won't have shady dealings going on under my nose, you hear me?"
"I know," Vanya says. "I—there's nothing shady about him. I promise."
"He's a friend."
"I really don't care. He paid. Now can I go back to my show, or are you going to stand there gaping at me like a fish for the rest of the night?"
"Right. Sorry. Goodnight, Mrs. Kaminski."
The door is shut in her face.
She is stunned.
He paid her rent for her for the rest of the year.
Who does that?
Her mind starts racing at the thought of the money that'll add up when everything she earns isn't going to rent, of the things she can buy, and the possibility of building some savings for an emergency.
She can't believe he did this for her.
That isn't the last of the surprises for the day.
Outside the door of her apartment, there's a stack of packages. Paying her rent for months to come was insufficient, apparently. Each of the packages, she discovers, contains a pair of shoes. There are a couple of heels, and a lot of flats, some are sensible, others are sparkling with glitter, all of them are expensive.
There's a note in one of the boxes.
I didn't know what style you liked, so I bought a variety.
She tears up a little. Nobody's ever been this kind to her. She didn't know people were capable of being this kind.
It's a lot of trouble to go to if all he wants is to get in her pants.
She messages him that she has no idea how to repay him for being so nice to her, for paying her rent, and showering her with gifts on top of that.
You don't have to repay me, he replies. I have more money than I know what to do with. I want to spend it on you. I enjoy our time together very much.
Me, too, she says.
She decides at that moment that she isn't going to mention the rent to Sandra. She can't. She doesn't want to hear Sandra's opinion.
Over the phone, he tells her that he's bought them tickets to the opera on Saturday.
She's never been.
"You'll have to dress up," he says.
Now that he's paying her rent, she has the money to splurge a little on a dress.
But, of course, as soon as the thought crosses her mind, he informs her that he'll pay for her dress, that he's going to have someone deliver a black Amex card to her, and that if she spends a penny less than a thousand, he'll be disappointed in her.
She has no idea how to spend that much money on a dress.
What would it even look like?
She asks him what color it should be.
"I don't care," he says.
"You can wear a one thousand dollar trash bag if you want for all I care," he says.
She spends a whole day looking at dresses.
In the end, she takes a risk.
He knocks at the door at 7 sharp the night of the opera, and she takes a deep breath before she opens it.
He looks her over. "You bought a suit," he says.
"It costs more than a thousand dollars," she says, nervous. "It's custom."
He smiles. "I like it."
They have dinner before at a small, expensive Italian restaurant where he's reserved a room for the two of them.
"I've always wanted to go to the opera," she tells him.
"My siblings got to go once. We were fifteen. My father took them all."
He frowns. "He didn't take you?"
"He said the outing was for—" She hesitates. "It was for . . . you might already know this, but my siblings are actually the Umbrella Academy. The group of special, superpowered children raised to save the world? I grew up with them, but there was nothing special about me, so . . ."
"I've heard of them," he says.
"Yeah, so." She clears her throat. "He said it was an outing for the Umbrella Academy, and I wasn't a part of the Umbrella Academy."
She can't read his expression.
"Your father is an asshole," he says.
She has to smile at that.
He changes the subject to the time he was in Italy on business. They talk about the places they've been, and the places they want to go. He tells her that he hasn't ever traveled for pleasure, but business has taken him around the world.
"Remind me what your business is?"
He takes a sip of wine. "I'm a fixer," he says.
"I don't know what that is."
"If there's a problem, I fix it."
"Right," she says. "But what kind of problems?"
She laughs. "That isn't what I . . ." It occurs to her suddenly what fixer might mean. "Hold on." She leans in. "Do you work for the mob?" It seems so obvious now.
"What? No. I'm self-employed, remember?"
"Does that mean you run the mob?"
"Vanya, I assure you that I have nothing to do with the mob."
She takes a bite of her pasta.
"Don't look at me like that. I'm not lying to you. My line of work is in no way connected to organized crime."
"But you won't tell me what your line of work is."
"I—" He sighs. "You want my history? I was a homeless, unemployed vagabond for a while. Eventually, I was recruited by a company that provides tactful solutions for problems in the world, and I worked in what we'll call the human resources department. Now I'm retired, because the company was wearisome, and I dabble in other important pursuits."
She frowns. "I feel like you just told me a lot, but I haven't learned anything."
"That sounds a like a you problem."
She has to suppress a smile. He's being evasive with her, and that should frustrate her, but somehow it doesn't. She's charmed by it.
The rest of dinner is filled with wine and food and easy, lighthearted conversation.
He gives his car to a valet when they arrive at the opera.
On the sidewalk, he offers his arm to her.
She takes his elbow, and he leads her into the old, beautiful opera house, and she feels a happiness she's never really known, a sense of importance, the knowledge that she's wanted.
The opera is everything she could have imagined.
She's on a high when he drops her off at her apartment at the end of the evening.
"You don't have to wait," she says.
"I'm doing it anyway. Do you know what happens in this neighborhood? I'm waiting for the day I get the news you were murdered in your bed."
"It isn't that bad."
"Regardless, I'm going to wait until I see that you're safely inside."
"How do I know you're getting home safely?"
"I don't live on a street the police are afraid to patrol."
"I don't know that."
He glares. "Goodnight, Vanya."
She expects to hear from him soon, but she doesn't know it'll be so soon. It hasn't been half an hour before her phone rings. She picks it up with a frown, because she has no idea who would call her this late.
"I'm home," he says.
"Yes. I am calling to say I have made it safely into my apartment."
She grins. "Good."
There's a pause when neither of them has anything to say, but the silence is soft.
"I had a really good time tonight," she says.
"How are you going to outdo yourself again after this?"
"I have a couple of ideas."
She bites her lip.
He hangs up.
She is slower to put the phone in the receiver, and she stares at it for a minute after, feeling irrepressibly fond.
She doesn't hear from Peter for nearly three weeks. She thinks that he's through with her. She starts taking her pills at night as well as in the morning to stave off the dark, mean voices in the back of her head.
She is afraid to believe it when he calls, and asks if she's free for dinner.
He says he knows he's been out of touch, but there was something he needed to take care of.
She doesn't have the heart to question it.
She knows that she is dressed up more than usual when she arrives at work on Wednesday, and she hopes that people won't notice.
She is the center of attention as soon as she comes in through the back, however.
"Hey, gorgeous," says the cook.
She flushes. Her hair in big, styled curls, and she is wearing a lot of makeup, a pair of earrings, and her favorite of her new, nice flats. She lets her hair hide her face, and hurries to the front.
She had to dress up.
Her date with Peter is that evening as soon as her shift is over.
The first few hours are fine.
She learns that apparently she should try dressing up more often, because her tips are way, way bigger.
It's mid-afternoon when it happens.
She is ringing a customer up on the register when he comes up behind her.
Her boss is older, and a loud, friendly guy.
She assumes he's friends with her customer. He isn't. She takes the cash from the customer, and he puts his hand on her ass. She freezes. She doesn't know what to do. He squeezes, and leaves his hand on her ass like that, starting up a bland, easy conversation with the customer. She struggles to count the cash in her hand.
It isn't until somebody calls his name that he lets go, gives her ass a pat, and leaves.
She goes to the bathroom.
She leans her back on the door. Her hands are shaking a little, and she tells herself to get it together, because it's not that big a deal. She closes her eyes, and takes a few slow, deep breaths.
She emerges from the bathroom, sees her boss across the diner, and feels a twist in the pit of her stomach.
She goes to the back.
Sandra is smoking a cigarette.
"I'm sick," Vanya says.
"I—I feel like I'm going to throw up. I need to go home. I'm sorry."
"Okay," Sandra says, concerned. "I'll cover."
"Call me if you need anything, okay?"
Outside, the sun is shining down cheerfully, and she's reminded that she's leaving her job in the middle of the afternoon.
She hikes her purse over her shoulder, and starts quickly down the sidewalk.
She has no idea why he's here, or where he came from. He isn't wearing a suit. She's never seen him casually before, and he looks unbearably good like this, rolled up sleeves, a sweater, hair that's wavy, uncoiffed, and soft.
"I thought you worked until seven," he says, approaching.
"I, um. I did. I took off early."
"I was coming to see where you worked, and I . . ." He frowns. "What's the matter?"
"Something is clearly the matter."
"It's . . ." She shakes her head. "My job. I hate it. I was supposed to work until seven, but I had to leave early because I—I had to. I hate it."
"Quit," he says.
"You don't need that job. You're a musician. You should be focusing on that."
"I can't." She thinks she's going to cry. "I need the paycheck."
"I can take care of that," he says, dismissive.
"What if I don't want to have sex with you?" she blurts.
"I'm sorry." She shouldn't have said that. "I . . ." She turns away from him to scrub a hand over her face. "I'm sorry, it's just been a really long day, and I—"
She makes herself look at him.
"I care about you very much. It has nothing to do with sex. I have the money you need, and I want to share it with you, and I hope you won't allow pride to stand in the way of accepting it."
"I don't have a lot of pride," she says.
"You have things that matter more. Strength. Perseverance. Grace. You're extraordinary, Vanya."
She tears up.
He takes her hands. "Let me help you," he says.
He rubs his thumbs over the backs of her hands in a soft, reassuring gesture.
She moves in before she can second guess herself, and she hugs him, pushing up slightly on her toes, and wrapping her arms around his shoulders, closing her eyes, and breathing in the smell of his soap.
He returns it hesitantly.
But before she can step away from him, he seems to sink into the embrace at last, and he hugs her tightly.
He presses his face into her hair, and sighs.
"I told them I was sick." She pulls away from him. "I should get out of here before they realize I was lying."
"Do you want to be alone?"
He smiles. "Where are we going?"
She thinks of the lipstick she's wearing that got her into trouble, and she thinks about the fact that he wanted to see where she worked, and she thinks of what she wants to do now that he's handed the day to her.
He follows her up the stairs of her building. "It smells like pee in here," he says, matter-of-fact. He is frowning at a leak in the ceiling when she glances at him.
"You get used to that," she says.
She unlocks the door of her apartment.
The building is kind of terrible, but she is proud of the home she's made in her own, small apartment. She ignores the nervousness that swells in her chest when he comes in. Everything is clean, and there's a lot of light at this time of day, pouring in through the windows, and she likes to think the art she's hung up has a charm.
"This is home," she says.
She watches him.
His gaze is moving over everything with slow, careful assessment.
"What's the verdict?"
"It's what I pictured." He looks at her. "I like it."
He moves to look more closely at the books that line her bookshelf.
"I'm going to change," she says.
She changes into sweatpants, a t-shirt, and socks, tosses her hair into a ponytail, and returns to the front of the apartment.
He is sprawled on her sofa with one of her books in his lap.
She makes a pot of tea.
He doesn't look up from the book until she places a teacup in front of him.
"I love that book," she says.
"You're a fan of vampires?"
"They aren't my favorite, but Fledgling is about a lot more than vampires. Trust me. It's about discovering who you are, and what family means, and how to survive in a world that's against you."
He considers her. "Have you ever thought about writing a book?"
"I think you'd be a good writer," he says.
"I don't know what I'd write about. I don't have a vivid enough imagination. I can't imagine that anything I came up with would be interesting to people."
She shakes her head at him.
"I don't know." He looks at the book in his hands. "I don't think I like it."
"Were you reading it?"
"I read a passage from the middle. That usually gives me a sense of a book. I wasn't particularly impressed."
She reaches for the book. "Let's start from the beginning." She flips to the very first page. "I woke to darkness." She reads the first few paragraphs before she glances to check on him.
"You have my attention," he says.
She reads several chapters to him, and he interrupts on occasion to share his thoughts, but, mostly, he listens, and she gets into a rhythm.
She stops when it's getting late enough that they need to think about dinner.
He offers to pick up something for them, but she has food in her fridge. "I'm trying to learn to cook," she tells him. He agrees to dinner in, and offers to be her assistant.
They get to work, and it's kind of nice, to move in sync with him around the kitchen, and to talk about the book, to have him hold the colander for her while she pours the hot, steaming pot of freshly boiled noodles into it.
He is cutting the tomatoes for the salad when she notices the bandage on his forearm.
"What is that?"
"Nothing that matters," he says.
She believes him.
They eat salad, pasta, and meatloaf at her little kitchen table.
In a way, it's strange.
They've been on three spectacular dates that seemed like dreams after the fact, and now he is sitting in her kitchen, is eating her meatloaf, is slotting so seamlessly into her small, ordinary life like it's where he belongs.
"Have you decided about your job?" he asks.
"Have you decided if you're going to quit?"
She looks at her plate.
"You said you'd let me help you, but that could mean many things."
She doesn't really want to think about work right now. If she goes back, she'll have to face her boss. She doesn't know what to think of what he did, if it'll happen again, or whether it's naïve of her to think that what he did was awful, or unexpected.
"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want."
"It's okay." She sighs. "It's . . . I don't know what I want to do."
"You can take time to think about it."
"I think I need more than time, though. I—I grew up in a house where everything was decided for me, and I never learned how to make decisions like this, how to—how to navigate the world. I probably need therapy, honestly."
He seems to consider what to say in reply. "It can be difficult to be thrust into a world you're unprepared for." He pauses. "But . . . you'll adapt. I know you will. And if you need any help along the way, I'm here." He looks at her in his certain, steady way.
She doesn't know how to respond.
After they finish with dinner, they decide to play a game.
He claims he's excellent at games. It doesn't matter what the game is. He is excellent at it.
She finds her old, childhood copy of Stratego to test that claim.
She used to play it with Five. It was their game. She didn't take much from the house when she left, but this was her last tangible tie to Five, and she had to take it.
"I used to play this game when I was a kid," she says, setting up her side of the board.
She eyes him. "Why don't I know anything about your family, or your childhood?" She knows he's going to give her some vague, slightly amusing answer, but she can't help but ask.
He shrugs. "I grew up in what was essentially a small boarding school."
"And when I left the school, I was on my own for quite a while, and had no family to speak of."
She assumes that was the time he was homeless, because she hasn't forgotten his brief, terse mention of that. "I'm sorry," she says. She didn't mean to bring up a topic that's difficult for him.
"I survived," he says.
She won't push him for more.
"I was attached to the children at the school with me. I—I missed them when I was away. I would do anything for any of them if given the opportunity."
"Are you in touch with them now?"
"Some of them."
"I'm glad," she says.
He looks up from his side of the board.
She hopes he knows she's sincere. She's glad he has people. She'd like to meet them someday.
"Ready?" he says.
"I don't know why you're smiling. You're about to lose spectacularly. I could play this game in my sleep."
The game lasts nearly two hours.
She demands a rematch.
He agrees to play it again, and she wins, and he says they have to play a third to determine who's really the champion.
She is tipsy on wine, hugging her knees to her chest, and giggling, staring at him openly, at the softness of his hair and the slope of his nose and the dimple in his cheek.
He's the most beautiful person she's ever met.
"I don't think I can make it through another game," she says.
He eyes her.
He sighs. "I suppose we'll leave it for another night." He moves to his feet, and offers a hand to her.
She lets him tug her to her feet.
He's standing so closer to her. He's a whole head taller than she is. He's a good, beautiful man.
She kisses him.
He is taken by surprise at the sudden, fast press of her lips to his mouth, and doesn't react immediately, staring at her.
She looks at him hopefully.
He slides his hand over her cheek, into her hair, and around to cup the back of her head. She breathes in sharply, and he kisses her. He's hungry, and forceful, bruising her lips, and plunging his tongue into her mouth, and stealing her breath.
She is panting when he breaks the kiss.
He rests his forehead on her forehead. "Vanya." He is hoarse.
"Yes," she breathes.
"Yes." She kisses the corner of his mouth. "Yes."
He shakes his head. "You don't understand." He kisses her again, and walks her backwards until she is pressed up against the wall. "My perfect, precious Vanya." He bends his head to kiss her neck.
She closes her eyes.
He mouths at her pulse, and she grabs at his hair. She's overwhelmed. His big, warm body has pinned her against the wall, and she feels a flush of want at the weight of him, at his closeness, and his hot, harsh breath on his skin.
His teeth scrape her throat, and she gasps.
He pulls away from her, and her body follows his body unconsciously for a split-second.
She opens her eyes.
He has taken a step away from her, though his hand is heavy on the side of her neck.
"I . . ." She doesn't know what to say.
"I'm sorry." He brushes his thumb over the column of her throat. "I'm unused to . . ."
"You don't have to apologize."
He lowers his hand from her neck, only to take her hand, and lift it, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. His hair is wild by her hand. He looks at her, and she thinks she might be a little in love with him.
"You're . . ." She can't find the words for everything she wants to say. "I like you."
"I didn't say anything."
She bites her lip.
He squeezes her hand. "I'll call you," he says.
He has to put on his shoes before he goes, and they don't say anything while he tugs them on, and does up the laces.
"Are you sure it's safe to walk all the way home by yourself?" she asks.
"I can call you a cab."
"I have my own means of transportation, thank you." He kisses her cheek. "I'll see you soon, Vanya."
"See you soon."
He leaves, and after she closes the door, she leans her forehead on the wood, and giggles, because she's drunk, because she kissed him, because she likes him, and he likes her, too.
She decides in the early, grey morning while she's lying in bed, while she's watching rain pound on the window, and she's in a happy, hungover haze.
She isn't going to work.
The day he offered her a stipend with which to live her ordinary, unimportant life, her father told her that she lacked the talent to perform, that he had signed her up for classes at the local teaching college, and that he expected she would be able to make a living in such a fashion.
She had refused his stipend.
He hadn't batted an eye. What did he care? He had more important concerns.
She had told herself she didn't care what he thought.
She is going to prove him wrong. He might not believe in her, but he's a mean, miserable man. She is going to work at her music, is going to reach for opportunities, is going to become the talent she knows she's capable of being.
She'll have to talk to Sandra, and thank her profusely for everything.
The phone starts ringing in the kitchen.
She smiles, and tosses the covers off quickly, hurrying to pick up before he leaves a message.
"I need a cup of coffee."
"There's a shop that's three blocks over from where I live," she says.
"I'll meet you in half an hour."
"It's a plan."
He hangs up.
She'll have to walk in the rain, but that really don't bother her. She smiles. She'll bring an umbrella.
He is invited to a gala at the city's gorgeous, premier art museum because, apparently, he's a donor.
She buys a black, dressy romper for it. It's the most daring thing she's ever worn. She pinks at the sight of herself in the mirror at the store, because the neckline plunges in between her breasts. It's made of a light, flowing material that's fitted at her waist, and flares at her hips. She loves it.
He picks her up promptly at six.
"You look beautiful," he says.
She ducks her head.
The museum is packed with people when they arrive, and she hooks her hand over his elbow, and presses in close to his side.
Music from a small, string orchestra in the back is filtering over the hum of conversation.
The atrium is decorated in swaths of blue, in lovely white lights that twinkle in large, looping strings, and arrangements of flowers that together must have cost most than her rent.
Servers are weaving their way through the crowds with trays of food.
"Mr. Johnson!" The woman who approaches them eagerly is a tall, willowy blonde, young, and beautiful, and with a smile on her face. "I was thrilled to learn you would be joining us tonight."
He gives a tight, perfunctory smile.
She seems to realize he isn't going to answer, and looks at Vanya.
"This is Ms. Hargreeves," he says.
"Vanya." She offers her hand to the woman. "Nice to meet you."
"Mary Beth Richardson."
"Ms. Richardson is a curator at the museum," Peter says.
"I am, and I wanted to thank you personally, Mr. Johnson, for your donation. Your generosity will allow our museum to remain a beacon of art, culture, and history. I think I speak for everyone at the museum when I say that your donation makes a world of difference."
There's a pause.
"I'll leave the two of you to enjoy the hors d'oeuvres. It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Hargreeves. If there's anything you need tonight, don't hesitate to ask."
"Thank you," Vanya says.
Peter is silent.
She notices he's this way with a lot of people.
He isn't rude, exactly. It's like he's annoyed by the world, but he's learned how to keep his annoyance in check, and he's doing his best. He's . . . terse.
But with what she knows of his history, that makes sense.
She doesn't mind someone who's short-tempered, and irritable. He isn't cruel. She likes that he's straightforward, in fact. He's honest. She knows he means what he says, and she knows he really, truly enjoys her company, because he wouldn't bother pretending for the sake of politeness.
"I didn't know you were a patron of the arts," Vanya says.
"But you gave a pretty sizable donation?"
"I had to." He takes a glass of champagne from a server. "I thought you'd like the gala."
She accepts the glass when he hands it to her, and hides her smile.
They claim one of the many small, high-top tables that have been scattered through the room, and amass a collection of hors d'oeuvres.
He ignores every person who approaches the table to start up a conversation.
"People are trying to network with you," Vanya says.
"They don't know anything about me."
"They know you're someone with money. They know you're probably someone important. They know you like alcohol and oysters and much younger women."
"I don't like much younger women," he says, annoyed.
"I'm half your age."
"What?" She looks at him in amusement. "What's that mean?"
"It means that, physically, I'm thirty-eight, and you're twenty-one. That isn't half. And, anyway, I'm not with you for your age." He downs his glass of champagne. "I'm not some perverted old man, thank you."
She has to admit that it makes her wonder, having these wealthy, beautiful people approach him continually. Why doesn't he want to talk to them? She knows this is the company he's meant to keep, that he should be spending his time with politicians and businessmen and patrons of the art, with men and women of class and privilege.
What's he doing with her?
It isn't the first time she's wondered, truthfully.
He's a wealthy, attractive man.
He could date someone who's prettier than Vanya, who's sophisticated, who knows how to spend his money, and move in his circles. He could date someone who's sexier, who knows what men want, who would let him have his way with her, and make it good. He could date someone who's smarter than Vanya, who's accomplished, who has made a mark in the world, and is known and admired and would have people at a gala approaching her to network.
He could date anyone he wanted.
Why does he waste his time with little, mousy Vanya?
She isn't special.
He thinks I am, she thinks, and it's such a silly, childish thought, it makes her blush.
She takes another glass of champagne when he offers.
The director of the museum gives a speech soon after that. He thanks the crowd for their generous, invaluable support of the museum, and invites the attendees to explore the museum's newest, temporary exhibit on loan from a museum in France. Everyone starts funneling from the atrium to the exhibit.
They join the trickle of people.
In the exhibit, it's easier to keep to themselves.
"This is pretty," Vanya says, lingering to look at a piece by Degas.
"You don't like impressionism?"
"Impressionism?" He glances at her. "Why?"
"You've look vaguely annoyed by every single painting we've seen."
He sighs. "I don't have a problem with impressionism in particular. It's . . . paintings. Pictures that you can't hear, or touch, or experience . . ." He shakes his head.
"You don't like art?"
"This isn't art. Art is real. Why would you want to look at a picture of a meadow when you could be in the meadow? Art is the world that's around you. This is a decoration on the wall."
"What if you live in the city? If you live in the city, you can't frolic in a meadow whenever you want. Wouldn't it be nice to have a picture of the meadow?"
"You think the city isn't art?" He looks at her. "The noise? The color? The people?" He's incredulous. "You don't think that's art?"
"I guess I've never thought about it."
"Yes, well." He looks away from her. "Why would you?"
She considers him. "You've thought about it," she says, soft.
"Imagine if the city were empty."
"There isn't a single other person. You are alone in a vast, silent emptiness. There's nothing. There's ash and ruins and—cockroaches. There isn't music, or nature, or society. Do you think a picture like this would make you feel better? Imagine it."
"I can't imagine a world without music."
"Would a picture of a violin make it better?"
"It wouldn't," he says. "It couldn't."
He's staring at the wall, and there's a tension in his posture.
"You're weird," she says.
He huffs, and when he looks at her, he's softened. "Come on." He touches a hand to the small of her back, and guides her forward to the next of the paintings he apparently doesn't consider art.
They make their way through the rest of the exhibit.
They decide to skip the gala's fancy, formal dinner in favor of pizza. She has a hankering. They go to the place that's near her apartment that has really good, crispy crusts.
At the end of the night, he drops her off at her apartment.
She thinks about inviting him up.
She could make him a cup of coffee, and read to him from Fledgling. They could play another game of Stratego. She could make a batch of brownies, and they could watch TV.
She could kiss him again.
He wants to kiss her again, doesn't he?
He's been different with her all night. She hadn't realized it before, but he's always kept himself at a respectful physical distance. He hasn't done that tonight.
He's stood much closer. He's taken her hand. He's tucked her hair behind her ear.
"Goodnight, Vanya," he says.
"Goodnight." She turns to head to her building. "Actually." She spins around again. "No."
She steps in close. "No," she says, and she puts her hands on his shoulder, pushes to her tiptoes, and kisses him.
He grips her arms.
It's a slow, gentle kiss this time.
He looks at her softly when she breaks away from him. She is happy in a way that's irrepressible, and when he cups her cheek, she leans into his palm. He brushes his thumb over her smile.
She grips the lapels of his jacket, and leans up.
He kisses her.
She presses in, sliding her hands in to her hair, and when she opens her mouth to the push of his tongue, he makes a low, hungry noise, and deepens the kiss.
They are startled apart when a passing car honks at them.
He looks at her with an affection that steals her breath.
She kisses him on the cheek, and turns on her heel, heading to her building, and biting her lip, trying to straighten her face, and suppress the silly, sappy smile that pulls at her mouth.
"Goodnight," he says, a kind of amusement in the loud, pointed way he says it.
She unlocks the door, and glances over her shoulder. "Goodnight." She grins, and goes in, thinking of his certain, steady gaze, of his hands in his pockets, of his red, kissed lips, and his smile, and she beams at nothing in the entryway of her building.
He's a grumpy old man who rolls his pizza to eat it, and she adores him.
They are supposed to go to dinner on Tuesday, but disaster strikes suddenly.
She is startled by the knock on the door. Shit. She glances at the clock. Shit, shit, shit. She should have called to cancel.
She grabs a towel to wipe at her face, and hurries to the door.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I was going to call you, but things kind of got out of hand."
"Why are you wet?"
"The pipe in my sink—" She steps back slightly for him to get a look at the kitchen. "It's flooded half the apartment, and the super won't answer my calls, and I—"
He comes in.
He sloshes his way through the lake of her kitchen, squats, and leans his head into the cabinet under the sink.
"I know nothing about pipes," she says.
He does, apparently.
She fetches the tools he asks for, and hovers. He mutters and curses and yells. She watches him, and when the rush of water suddenly peters off, she's stunned. He did it. She had no idea he was a plumber.
"You need to replace the pipe." He rises to his feet. "I'll call a plumper for you in the morning."
"Thank you. Seriously. Thank you, I . . ."
He shrugs. "There was a time in my life when I survived in part by fixing broken things."
She wants to get a towel for him, but her towels are soaked from her early, fruitless efforts to stem the flood of water. "I'm sorry." She finds a small kitchen towel that he can use to wipe his face.
He isn't bothered. "It's fine."
She gets her old, spare sheets to mop up the water in the kitchen. He reaches for a sheet, and she tells him that isn't necessary, but he gives her a look, and she gives in. She ends up fetching several blankets to use, too.
They are able to soak up most of the water.
She's going to have to take every towel, sheet, and blanket she owns to the laundromat, of course.
"Do we think that's sufficient?" he says.
"It'll have to be."
He is surveying the mess of her kitchen in soggy dress shoes and wet, wrinkled suit.
"I'm sorry," she says, embarrassed. "I—I guess we'll reschedule?"
He looks at her in surprise. "We don't have to. You go change into something dry. Night isn't over yet." He starts to take off his jacket.
"Are—do you still want to go out?"
"Let's stay in."
She nods. "Okay. I'll be right back. I'll . . ." She scurries to her bedroom.
She's mortified when she gets a look in the mirror. She knew she was a mess in soaked, dripping wet threadbare pajamas, but she didn't realize quite how ridiculous she looked, or what a wet, tangled nest her hair had become. She looks someone took a hose to a cat, and drowned it.
She changes into the nicest, newest t-shirt she owns, and a pair of warm gray sweatpants.
In the kitchen, he's fished a bottle of wine from her fridge, and Bob Dylan is playing on her old, hand-me-down record player.
She can't help but smile.
He hands a glass of wine to her.
"Do you want something to change into? I don't know that I'll have anything that'll fit you. But I can look?"
"I'm okay." He's stripped to his undershirt, nice black slacks, and socks.
They clink their glasses.
"I ordered us something to eat," he says.
She nods. "You know, you're kind of making me a lush." She swirls the wine in her glass.
"I'm making you a lush?"
"I never drank this much before I met you."
She shakes her head and looks away from him, taking a sip of her wine. She thinks of telling him that there was wine in the fridge because of him, that she bought it for him, and she spent an hour in the store, trying to decide which bottle to get. She glances at him, and discovers he's looking at her intently, so she pinks, drops her gaze, and takes a gulp of wine.
"It'll be a while before the food's here," he says, and he sets his glass on the counter.
"What do you want to do?"
He offers a hand to her.
She blinks. "I don't know how to dance," she says.
"I won't tell anyone."
She bites her lip, and, after a beat, she puts her glass on the counter, too.
He takes her hand, and she rests the other on his shoulder. He starts to move, and she follows his lead, looking at her feet, and he lets her, but when she looks up, he is watching her again with open, fond amusement, and she flushes, and laughs a little when he lifts his arm, and twirls her. He brings her closer, and she hopes the leap of her heart doesn't show on her face.
She looks up at him.
Something in his gaze makes her brave.
She slides her hand from his shoulder to his face, cupping his cheek, and, hesitantly, reaching up, and brushing her fingers over the arch of his eyebrow.
He turns his face to kiss her palm.
They've stopped their dance.
He takes her hand in his, and kisses her wrist. She can't take her eyes off him. He starts to press a line of kisses up the inside of her arm.
Her heart is beating fast when he lifts his head to meet her gaze.
They surge in together.
He grabs at her hips and she presses in close and he drags his hands up her back, pushing his fingers into her hair, and gripping a fistful. She breaks the kiss to breathe in raggedly. He murmurs her name, and peppers soft, wet kisses to her open, panting mouth.
She clutches at the material of his t-shirt.
He runs his hands down her back, over her ass, and up again, looks at her with dark, hungry eyes, and pulls her hips purposefully to his.
She kisses him.
She nods. "I want to," she breathes.
He takes her by surprise when he bends, grabs her thighs, and lifts her. She squeaks, and grabs at his shoulders for purchase. He kisses her, and she hugs his neck, wrapping her legs around his waist, and clinging to him.
He carries her to her bedroom.
His hot, insistent kisses never falter when he plants a knee on the mattress, and lowers her.
She finds herself flat on her back, and he is heavy on top of her, kissing her senseless, and she clutches at the material of his shirt, at his hair.
He drags his mouth to her throat.
"I've—I've never done this before," she confesses.
He lifts his gaze to look at her.
She pets at his hair.
"Do you want to do it now?"
He kisses her, only to tear away from her, and rise up slightly, pulling his shirt over his head, and tossing it.
"You won't be done with me after, will you?"
He cups her face in his hands. "I'll never be done with you as long as I live. Don't you know? I've waited a lifetime for you." He looks at her with an intensity that takes her breath.
"Do you believe me?"
He kisses her.
She's read about kisses in books.
Once when she was younger, she saw Allison with a book, and she was excited. If there was a book Allison liked, there was something they could talk about. She had waited for a mission, and as soon as her siblings were gone, she had borrowed the book. It was a romance, and it was filled with sex. She had learned a lot from that book, and, of course, had never, ever said a word to Allison.
In the book, the cowboy was always, unfailingly gentle with his kisses.
That isn't how Peter kisses Vanya.
There's a demand to his kisses, a desperation.
She loves it.
He pulls away from her, and he's got a wrecked, wild look on his face.
She rubs her thumb over the trail of dark, wiry hair that starts at his bellybutton, and disappears under his trousers, and she brushes a hand up his belly, over his ribs, and to rest on his chest.
"Can I take off your clothes?" he asks, a strain in his voice.
He reaches for her shirt, and she helps him take it off, sitting up slightly to unclasp her bra. Her heart is beating in her stomach. He grabs the waistband of her sweatpants, and she lifts her hips for him, pushing her underwear down her thighs, too, before she can think twice about it.
She lifts her gaze to look at him.
He is staring at her shamelessly, and it makes her throat go dry. He drags his gaze to her face at last, and she's aware that she's breathing so hard it must be visible. He says her name, and brushes the backs of his finger to her cheek.
She closes her eyes.
He slips a hand into her hair, climbing on the bed, and kisses her again. "You have no idea how long I've wanted this," he breathes. He slides his hand down her neck, and lower, cupping her breast, and squeezing, trailing hot, wet kisses down her throat, and mouthing at the curve of her breast.
It sends a rush of deep, aching want through her.
She grabs at his hair with a gasp when he scrapes his teeth over her nipple.
She's gotten this far by herself. She's touched herself before, and she's made herself feel good. She's never been able to make herself feel any more than that, and she isn't certain she's capable.
She'll make it good for him anyway.
He lifts his head, and she opens her eyes to look at him. "What do you want?" His breath is hot on her face.
"You," she says.
He drops his forehead to her cheek.
"You can do whatever you want. It's you. You can—"
He cuts her off with a violent, bruising kiss. "I'm going to make you come," he says, matter-of-fact. He holds her gaze.
He slides off the bed, and drops to his knees, hooking his hands under her knees, and dragging her to the edge of the bed, and when she feels his breath on her cunt, it sends a shiver up her spine. She clutches at the sheets. He spreads her open with his thumbs, and licks a stripe up her slit.
She jerks her hips in surprise.
"Sorry," she breathes. "I—"
He brushes his tongue over her clit, and she gasps.
"I—" She squeezes her eyes shut tightly. "I . . ." She works to steady her breathing when he nose brushes her clit, when he licks at her opening, and fucks her with his tongue, making her whimper, and grab at his hair.
She wants to cry with frustration.
She clenches her thighs to force him closer, rolling her hips up, and clapping a hand to her mouth to cover her desperate, breathy whimpers.
He swirls his tongue around her clit, and sucks.
She arches off the bed with a cry at the sharp, sudden pleasure that pulses through her.
It takes her a moment to open her eyes.
She meets his dark, heavy gaze. He grins. She is struck with sudden, lovely certainty, and reaches to touch his cheek, to swipe her thumb over his mouth, and wipe away the wetness that gleams on his lips, that's smeared on his cheeks, and his chin.
"Yes," she says.
He kisses her.
She can taste herself on his tongue.
He rises to his feet, and he takes a small, silver condom packet from his pocket, holding it between his teeth while he unzips his trousers, and shoves them down along with his boxers, and she looks at him, at his pale, slim thighs and the v of his hips and his thick, erect cock.
She opens her arms for him when he climbs over her again, and takes the packet from his mouth, tearing it open.
He rolls the condom on.
She reaches for him hesitantly, taking his cock in her hand, and stroking him, and he curses under his breath before he covers her hand with his hand, tightening her grip, and guiding her strokes.
"You—" He drops her forehead to his shoulder. "God, Vanya."
She squeezes him, and twists her wrist, feeling his breath hit her neck in hot, heavy bursts. He lifts his head, and meets her gaze. She kisses him.
He tears away from him to shift their positions, and she takes a hold of his arms, and when he pulls up her thighs to plant her feet on the bed, and settle in between her thighs, she feels the tip of his erection bump her entrance.
She digs her nails into the muscles of his arms.
She releases a breath with a smile. "Yes." She holds his gaze, and she's certain.
He pushes in, and there's a faint, unpleasant burn at the stretch, but he kisses her, and she clings to him, and when he's buried to the hilt, she breathes in shallowly, and loves him dearly.
She reaches to brush a hand over his hair.
He presses his nose to her cheek, and pulls out, pushing in again, and there's a wave of pleasure this time.
She tilts her hips.
"Do you know how good you feel?" He is thrusting in faster, harder strokes. "Do you have any idea what it's like to have your tight, wet cunt around my cock?"
"You—" He bares his teeth. "You were made for me."
She presses her toes into the mattress. She can feel it building in her again. She digs her nails into his back, wanting him closer, and rocks her hips up slightly to meet his thrusts.
His strokes are hard, fast, and sloppy.
"I—" She whimpers. "Peter, I—"
He mouths at her cheek, and at her jaw, and sinks his teeth into the curve of her neck.
Her back bows off the bed when she comes.
He growls, and he is coming, too, burying his face in her neck, and shoving her up the bed with the force of his thrusts, and she hugs him tightly, trying to catch her breath, and trembling with aftershocks of pleasure.
She doesn't mind taking his weight when he collapses on top of her.
He realizes he's crushing her, though, and he rises up. She feels a kind of loss when he pulls out of her. He kisses her cheek sweetly, and moves off her.
She watches him. He sits up, and disposes of the condom. She touches a hand to the soft, smooth skin of his back, because she wants to, and she's allowed to, and when she does, he turns, catches her hand, and kisses her knuckles.
He's more than she ever thought she'd have.
Who knew someone like him would want someone like her?
He does, though.
They clean up together, and he goes to see if their food was delivered, learns it hasn't, and announces that means they've got to stay in bed, and they do.
"They could have tried to deliver it, and we didn't hear them," she points out.
He orders it again.
She fetches her copy of Fledgling.
He builds a backboard of pillows for them, wraps his arm around her shoulder, and holds her while she reads to him.
She put on underwear, and his undershirt, too, because she couldn't just lounge there naked.
He is apparently perfectly comfortable in the nude, however.
She runs his finger over the flat, smooth pink skin of a scar on the top of his thigh.
"Can I ask you a question?"
She turns her head to look at him.
He brushes a lock of hair from her face. "Why did you have a quote from The Invisible Man in your profile?" he asks.
"I've always been attached to Dr. Griffin."
"You're attached to the character who loses his mind, becomes totally consumed by rage, and wants to terrorize the world?"
"It's—" She smiles. "I'm fond of the clever, ambitious man who makes a mistake, and is desperate to fix it." She knows that isn't much of an explanation. It's the best she can give him, though. She can't share every last piece of her heart with him.
"I'm clever," he says.
"I'd say I'm ambitious, too."
"Is that so?"
"And I've made a couple of mistakes. Maybe. It depends on your point of view."
"It sounds like you're fond of me," he says.
"You know what?" She pushes up slightly to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I think I might be."
She kisses his cheek and the side of his nose and his eyebrow.
He rolls them suddenly, pinning her back to the bed, and making her heart skip a beat in excitement. "Might?" he repeats. He bends to kiss her, only to pause a breath from her mouth.
"Fine," she says.
She wrinkles her nose at him.
He pinches her side.
"Fine!" She laughs. "I am really, stupidly fond of you. There is no maybe, might, or probably about it. I am fond of my clever, ambitious man who might have made a couple of mistakes."
He kisses her.
She wraps her arms around his neck, and returns it eagerly.
He stays the night.
She's alone in bed when she wakes in the morning, but there's a murmur of voices in her kitchen.
She frowns. Did he invite someone over? She goes to the bathroom, washes her face, and brushes her hair, and pulls a robe on over her pajamas, going to investigate.
There's a plumber in her kitchen, lying on his back with his head under the sink, and Peter is standing in his boxers, his undershirt, and a pair of socks, watching the plumber with a furrow in his brow.
She comes to stand by him. His gaze is steady on the plumber, but he lifts his arm in invitation, and he draws her close, pressing a kiss to her temple. She leans into him easily.
She makes flyers advertising violin lessons. It takes much longer than she would have thought to design them properly, but she's pleased with the result. She prints several dozen at Kinko's, and posts them around the city at every community board that will allow it.
In the evening, she returns to her apartment to find a package.
She swallows a smile.
It's a new, beautiful record player. It must have cost several hundred dollars. It's the kind of thing she would have run her hands over in the store with a kind of awe, and imagined a life in which she was wealthy, famous, and beloved, and she could afford things like this.
I'm getting you a new apartment next, says the note.
She tucks the note into the pages of Frankenstein with every other note he's written her in his neat, slanted writing.
She checks the address he gave her again, takes a breath, and goes in. It's large, high-rise building, and it isn't as ornate as she would have thought, but it's certainly a much nicer place than where she lives. She looks around the clean, quiet lobby, finds the elevator, and makes a beeline.
He gave the address to her in case of an emergency.
She tries to ignore the knot of nerves in the pit of her stomach when she punches the button in the elevator for the penthouse.
There hasn't been an emergency.
She knows it's rude to show up unexpectedly like this with no real, good reason, but she hasn't seen him in several days, and there's a small, mean voice in her head that she needs to silence, that says he got what he wanted when she had sex with him, and he has no use for her now.
The doors of the elevator open to a small, empty entryway with a light on the wall, a sofa, and a door.
She knocks on the door.
Who was that? She panics. What if he's got a bunch of friends over, and they have no idea who she is? What if she is interrupting some big, important meeting? What if he's married, and his wife is about to answer the door?
She's made a mistake.
The door swings open before she can make a run for it.
"Klaus?" She gapes. "You . . ."
"Shit," he says.
"I haven't seen you in years. Wow! This is crazy." He leans a hip on the doorframe. "How are you?"
It's her brother. How's that possible? He's older, and thinner, and there's a pale, sticky look to his face, a kind of sickness in the hollows of his gaunt, unshaven cheeks, but he's very much her brother.
"What have you been up to?"
"Klaus . . ." She shakes her head. "I—"
"Hold on." He frowns. "How'd you know I was here?"
He tilts his head like it's taking a moment for him to process that fact.
"Klaus?" says a voice.
Klaus glances over his shoulder into the apartment.
That was Peter's voice.
"You won't believe who's here," Klaus says, stepping to the side, and opening the door for her to get a look at the inside of the apartment, and for the man inside the apartment to get a look at her.
"Vanya," Peter says.
"You know my sister?" Klaus says.
"How do you know my brother?" Vanya asks. She looks at Klaus, and processes the fact that he's wearing a bathrobe. Oh, God. Suddenly a hundred horrible scenarios are occurring to her all at once. "Are you some sick, crazy Umbrella Academy fanatic?"
"You are," she says, backing up.
"How do you two know each other?" Klaus says. "Oh!" He claps a hand to his mouth. "Is she your special lady friend?" He whispers the words, and looks between them like he's delighted by this new, scandalous turn of events.
"Klaus," Peter says, gritting his teeth, "I will pay you to shut up."
The elevator dings softly before the doors open.
"Peter, I need to . . ." It's Ben. "Vanya?" he says, startled.
Vanya has to take several shallow breaths to keep it together.
"Dammit," Peter says.
"Are you fucking him, too?" Klaus says, pointing.
"What?" Ben says.
"Too?" Vanya is going to be sick. "You're having sex with him?"
"No," Peter says.
"He wishes," Klaus says.
"What the hell is going on?" Ben says.
"I don't know." She shakes her head. "And I don't think I want to know." She doesn't understand what's happening, but it's clear that Peter isn't who he said he was, and he's most likely been using her for some twisted, fucked up reason. "I'm going to go."
"Are you okay?" Ben says, touching her elbow.
"I'm—" She turns. "I'm going."
"Vanya, I need to explain," Peter says.
She ignores him.
But before she can reach the elevator, there's a crackle of energy, and in a loud, blue burst, Peter is standing in front of her.
Klaus screams loudly at her back.
"This isn't how I wanted to tell you," Peter says.
"Did everyone see that happen? Was that just me? Who else saw that happen?"
Peter doesn't take his certain, steady gaze off Vanya.
"You . . ." She gapes.
He tugs up the sleeves of his shirt, and he tears off the bandage on his arm to reveal a fading umbrella tattoo.
She drags her gaze from the tattoo to his face, and she looks at him, at the line of his jaw, and the shape of his brow, at the intensity of his gaze, and she knows. "Five?" She thinks she's going to cry.
"I know this is a lot," he starts.
"What the hell?" Ben says.
"That's . . ." Klaus is actually at a loss for words. "You—?"
"Can we go into the apartment?" Five says.
She can't stop looking in him. Why didn't she see it before? She traces her eyes over him, and it's obvious, except that it can't be real.
"Please?" he pushes.
She feels slightly numb when he shepherds her into the apartment with her brothers.
"This is a trip," Klaus says, sprawling on the sofa.
She sits on the edge.
"You're Five," Ben says, a statement.
"But you didn't tell us because . . . ?"
He sighs. "Why don't I start at the beginning?" He glances at Vanya.
She has to look away from him.
"I went to the future that day when we were thirteen. I did it. I went to the future, and I ended up stuck in the future. I couldn't get back. I tried to. Desperately. I tried to do it for years, but it was pointless."
"If you ended up stuck in the future, why are you older than us?" Klaus's brow wrinkles. "Shouldn't you be, like . . . younger?"
"It's a little more complicated than that."
"Sure," Klaus says.
"I wasn't just trapped in a regular, average future. I had jumped to a time after the apocalypse. I was trapped in an empty, ruined world. The moon was destroyed, and every living creature was gone, and there was nothing but cockroaches for company." There's a tick in his jaw. "I . . . I was by myself for over thirty years."
She looks up, and he is gazing at her.
"I . . . eventually, I met a woman who works for a—I don't know, a—a time traveling corporation. She recruited me. I worked for her for a number of years after that. They have a more precise, mechanical means of traveling in time. But when I had completed the length of my contract with the Commission, they wouldn't release me from it."
She's heard the bones of this story, hasn't she?
"If I wanted to live my life again, I had to use my powers. And I needed to live my life again, because I needed to stop the apocalypse. It was a risk, but I made a calculation, and I jumped."
"To now?" Klaus says.
"I miscalculated. Sort of. I'd explain the details of the math, but you know as well as I do that it'd be pointless."
"Okay," Ben says. "So . . . ?"
"I was aiming for 2019. I missed. I landed in 2002."
"That's when you left," Vanya says.
"I know." He sighs. "I returned to the day I left, actually, but, physically, I was thirty-years-old."
"And you're older than that?" Ben says.
". . . Mentally?"
"The point is that I made it back, but I had work to do. I had to stop the apocalypse. That was supposed to be my focus, but I couldn't resist checking on everyone." He hesitates. "And I knew from Vanya's book when Ben was going to die, so I had to intervene."
"I'm sorry," Ben says. "Who was going to die?"
"I stopped it," Five says.
"My book?" She looks at him incredulously. "I wrote a book?"
"You wrote a book. Or I suppose you will write a book. You shared every family secret."
"Why would she do that?" Klaus says.
He shrugs. "It was a lifeline for me," he says.
"It was a mission that got out of hand. Vanya didn't include many details in her book. She gave the date, and that's what I had to work with. It was—difficult, but I succeeded. Obviously. You aren't dead."
"Yeah, um." He blinks. "Thanks?"
"If you've been back all this time, why didn't you say anything to us?" Klaus says.
"I didn't want to involve you."
"You have to understand that I'm wanted. The Commission? They aren't exactly a pillar of outstanding moral virtue, and I am trying to stop an apocalypse that they believe has to happen."
"If you're in trouble, we can help you," Ben says.
"Trouble is a very benign way of putting it. The agents of murderous, time traveling organization are trying to ensure the end of the world by assassinating me. I'd say that's beyond the talents the Academy."
"And we aren't exactly the pick of the litter," Klaus says.
"The world is really going to end?" Ben says.
"That's a downer," Klaus says.
"I knew when I returned that I had a mission, and I've been trying my best to complete it. I stayed away to protect all of you. I had to intervene to save Ben's life, but, otherwise, it was better for me to stay away from you."
"What changed your mind?"
He is looking at her. She knows it. He is looking at her, and she can't bring herself to meet his gaze.
"Aw," Klaus says. "You missed us."
"Hardly," he says, sour.
"Come on. You can do it, buddy. Say it. I missed you. Come on."
"I had to intervene before you died of some nasty, untreated STD in a seedy back alley."
"What about me?" Ben says.
"I learned of your loans, and I figured the least I could do was keep you from going in debt to earn an education. You're trying to make a life for yourself. I had to give you a job, because you wouldn't accept money from me otherwise."
"He gave you a job?" Klaus says.
"I'm his assistant," Ben says. "I wash his car. I pick up groceries. I leave long, angry Yelp reviews for him."
"Why didn't you give me a job?"
"You didn't need the pretense. You never asked questions when I gave you money. You were more than happy to take it."
"I figured it was a fetish!"
"Who's fetish is giving a man an excessive, unending supply of cash, posting his bail whenever he's arrested, and letting him crash on his sofa for weeks at a time?"
He looks flatly at Klaus.
"What about Vanya?"
"I . . ." He hesitates. "It seemed like Vanya needed me, too, so I . . . helped."
"You've been keeping tabs on us," Ben says.
"What about Luther, Diego, and Allison?"
"I keep an eye on them, too."
He messaged her because he thought she needed him. She feels sick to her stomach. He saw her profile on a sugar daddy website, and decided to intervene to save poor, pathetic Vanya from herself.
"I want to be clear. I haven't spent eight years spying on all of you. I have a mission."
"To stop the end of the world?"
"But the Commission is trying to thwart your efforts?"
"I feel we're going in circles."
"It's a kind of a lot to wrap our brains around," Ben says.
"You've, um." He clears his throat. "You've been awfully quiet, Vanya."
She doesn't have anything to say. She is playing through everything he's said to her in the months she's known him. She can't find her voice when she feels so incredibly, unbelievably stupid.
"You're mad at me," he says.
"I'm . . . trying to reconcile the fact that you're—you." She swallows. "I—I can't believe you've been lying to me for this long, and . . ."
He frowns. "I never lied to you."
"Everything I told you was completely the truth."
"You told me your name was Peter."
"Technically, my name is Peter. Do you remember when Grace gave us names? That was the name she gave me, and I chose not to go by it, but it's nonetheless my name."
She opens her mouth, and closes it.
"Everything I told you was true," he insists.
"But there was a lot you didn't tell me. That's a form of lying. You listened to me talk about my family, and about you, and . . ." She shakes her head. "You must have thought I was an idiot."
"I thought it was so crazy how you just knew me."
"I do," he says, emphatic. "I know you better than anyone."
She pushes to her feet. "But I don't know who you are. I'm sorry. I have to go." She refuses to look at him, and starts for the door.
Why did he sleep with her? Was it because she threw herself at him, and he didn't think it worth the effort to protest? Why would he do that to her?
"I'm going to be honest," Klaus says.
"Great," Ben says.
"There's a part of me that still thinks this is a really weird, fucked up trip."
She closes the door of his apartment on them, and heads for the elevator, jabbing at the button.
The door opens again at her back.
She hits the button repeatedly to make it hurry up.
"You're allowed to be mad at me, but—"
"I'm allowed? That's okay with you? You'll allow it?"
He purses his lips.
"You—" She shakes her head. "You came back only days after you left, and—and you stayed away on purpose. I used to leave the lights on for you. I used to . . . I waited for you for years, and you were here. And when you did finally get in touch with me, you didn't tell me who you were."
"I thought I was keeping you safe."
"Why didn't you just . . . I don't know, give the money to me anonymously?"
He frowns. "What?"
"You found me on that website, and you knew I needed money. Okay. I guess it isn't as bad as finding me strung out somewhere, but it was bad enough that you had to intervene."
"But you didn't have to do it like that. I mean, why did you have to take me on a date? You could have just mailed me the money, or—you could have given me a job, or . . . Why did you have to—to make me fall in love with you? That was—that was cruel, Five."
"I . . . misspoke."
He clenches his jaw. "Earlier." He looks away from her, and scrubs a hand over his face.
"I don't know what . . ."
"It wasn't that you needed me. I told myself that's why I got in touch with you, because I wanted the excuse. But the truth is that I couldn't stay away."
"You couldn't stay away?"
"Don't you know?" He's frustrated. "Haven't you always?"
"I missed you!"
It hangs in the air in between them.
"I spent a lifetime without you, and I was supposed to spend a lifetime with you. You want to talk about a timeline that's correct? I never should have left." He looks at her imploringly. "Now that I'm back, I don't want to lose you again."
"I—I don't want to lose you either."
"But . . . I don't know who it is I don't want to lose. You're two different people in my head. I—I need to find a way to make it make sense."
She stares. It's Five. She can see him standing in front of her, and she can't.
"Take the time you need."
He doesn't try stopping her from entering the elevator, and when she turns to face him, he doesn't say anything before the doors slide shut with a soft, final thud.
She passes the diner on her way to her apartment, and hesitates. It looks fairly empty. She sees Sandra's curly blonde hair through the window, and decides.
"Vanya!" Sandra says.
"Have a seat." She pats counter. "You want a cup of tea?
"I've missed you around here. I'm glad you don't have to work in this dump, but, oh, my God, now that you're gone, it's like I'm alone in a sea of idiots. I swear, Jerry hires them dumb on purpose."
"I believe it," Vanya says.
"You don't want to hear me complain." She waves a hand. "How's your man?"
"Oh, um. He's . . . Fine, I guess."
"Okay." She puts her elbow on the table, and chin in her hand. "Spill."
"Last time I saw you, you were gushing about him. How smart he was, how kind he was, how thoughtful he was. You quit your job because he was taking such good care of you!" She raises her eyebrows at Vanya. "Now he's fine, you guess. Nope. You're going to have to give me more than that."
She hesitates. "It's complicated." She doesn't know where to begin.
"Did the shine come off him?"
"Sort of. No. I don't know." She opens her small, packaged tea, and dunks the bag in her cup. Her eyes burn a little. She ignores it, and works to steady her voice. "I think I made a mistake."
"You can end it whenever you want. You know that, right? You don't owe him anything."
"I don't want to end it."
"I—I think I'm in love with him."
She looks at Sandra with a sheen of tears in her eyes. "I . . ." She shakes her head.
"You can't fall for guys like that. They're good for something, but it isn't loving you. You got to be stronger than that." She touches Vanya's shoulder "You can't let him get to you."
"He says . . ."
"What? What's he say?"
"He says he doesn't want to lose me, but he's been lying to me all this time."
"Married? Should have known. I'm sorry, baby." She tuts her tongue. "Men are despicable."
"He isn't married. And I don't think he's despicable. He's . . . Five."
That's it, isn't?
She should have known that Five would do something like this, that he'd return, and keep it a secret, that he'd scheme in secret, play at God, and say it was because he determined it was for the best.
It makes her want to laugh, and it makes her want to cry.
"What's that mean?" Sandra says. "He throws a lot of tantrums? He's stubborn? He always has to get his way?" She tilts her head at Vanya. "You know that's just men, right?"
Vanya has to laugh at that.
"Listen." Sandra puts a hand on her arm. "It's going to be okay. You're tough. If you want to get through this, you'll get through this."
"And, now, you're not giving me much to work with, but—"
"I know, I—"
"But it sounds like you don't want to leave him but you feel like you should. Is that it? You don't have to tell me, but you better believe me when I say that should is a waste of time, and you go on and do what you want."
She bites her lip.
"You deserve good things, Vanya."
She doesn't know why that makes her throat go tight. "Thanks," she says, and she musters a smile, because she means it.
Sandra starts wiping down the counter.
She clears her throat. "Have they hired someone to replace me?" She needs a change of subject.
"Don't even get me started," Sandra says.
She ends up staying at the diner for the rest of the evening, and is more grateful for a friend than ever before.
She lives in a small, shabby apartment. After she turns on the lamp by the bed, she pauses, and looks at her home. She curls her hand into a fist. There are giant water stains on the ceiling. Her furniture is secondhand. The wood that frames the window is splintering, the tiles in the kitchen are uneven, and the doorknobs are loose in the doors. She's never really thought about how sad it looks.
It's the best she can do.
She goes to the kitchen.
She digs through the fridge for leftovers, and chooses a casserole, getting a fork, and eating it from the pan.
Sandra says to go for what she wants.
He said he lived in an empty, post-apocalyptic world for over thirty years. How old does that make him? He told her once that he was more than twice her age mentally, and she had laughed off his weird, inexplicable wording.
Is he in his forties? Fifties? Is he in his sixties?
Does it matter?
He's her friend, and her protector, and her confidant, and her ally, and her brother.
And she's in love with him.
She opens the cabinet where she keeps her pills.
If ever she feels overly emotional, she is supposed to take a pill.
That's her prescription.
There was a time when she took three daily, because she was sixteen, lost, and lonely.
She was able to lower her intake because she couldn't afford refilling the prescription so often, but she continued to take two pills a day for a while.
Recently, she's only been taking one pill a day.
She doesn't really want to go to sleep in a fog as soon as she is home for work. She likes the low, pleasant ache in her belly when she laughs a lot. She isn't afraid that quiet, creeping loneliness will find her in the dark if she fails to take a pill.
It's healthy to take it once a day.
But if she's meant to take a pill whenever emotions overwhelm her, she needs to take one now.
She told Five that she doesn't know how to make decisions for herself.
She knows how to take a pill.
She ignores the bottle of pills, and goes to her bedroom. She can sleep without them. She starts to change into her pajamas, only to see the beautiful, first edition copy of Frankenstein by her bed.
Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change, she thinks.
But was it really such a change?
He was himself with her. He didn't play at being some other, better person. He was himself, and, in fact, he was so much himself that she even thought it, that she looked at him, and thought he reminded her of her brother.
Now that she knows the truth, what's it change?
You're extraordinary, he said.
You look beautiful, he said.
I've waited a lifetime for you, he said.
She's already in her favorite, faded pajamas bottoms, but she hasn't finished changing, and she doesn't.
She returns to the kitchen. She realizes that she'll have to go to the store to get the things she needs. She puts on her shoes, grabs her keys, and leaves.
She makes the sandwich on a bench in the lobby of his apartment like she's homeless.
Some tall, blonde man gives her a look when he comes in. "I'm a friend of Mr. Johnson," she says, awkward. The man is unimpressed, and disappears into the elevator.
She waits until she's sure he's where he was going before she clicks the button for the elevator to return.
She knocks on the door of the penthouse.
He opens the door with a hard, sour look on his face, the start of a comment on his lips, and seems to short circuit when he sees it's her.
She meets his gaze.
"You're back," he says.
"I thought you'd . . ." He moves to allow her entrance. "Do you want to—?"
It's a clean, spacious apartment. There are pillars. It looks like the model in an upscale furniture catalog.
"Where is everyone?" She turns to him.
"Klaus took Ben to . . . I don't know. Somewhere. I don't really care what they're up to." He clears his throat. "Can I get you something to drink? Or I can order something to eat. Is there something you're in the mood for?"
"I ate," she says.
He nods. He doesn't seem to know what to do. He's nervous.
Something in her is calmed at the realization. He cares. It gives a boost of confidence to her, and she straightens her posture a little.
"You should have told me who you were at the start," she says.
"If you had, I could have given this to you earlier." She offers the plate she's wrapped in foil. "I've been waiting a long time to give it to you."
He takes it, looks at her searchingly, and peels off the foil to reveal a peanut butter sandwich with marshmallows.
"I missed you," she says.
There's a kind of restraint on his face, though she isn't certain what emotion he is struggling to keep in check. "I know," he says. He swallows, and he puts the sandwich on the counter.
"You aren't going to eat it?"
"I love you."
She blinks. "Oh." She thought she knew what to expect from him, but she hadn't predicted that.
He steps in close, and touches her hand.
"I love you, too," she blurts.
He pushes the hair from her face, and when she looks up, he is ready for her, and he cups her cheek, leans in like he's going to kiss her, and tilts his head to kiss her cheek. "Forgive me," he murmurs. His nose is pressed to her cheek, and his breath is warm on her skin.
"You can't leave me again."
"And you can't keep secrets from me."
"And you can never, ever tell the others how you got in touch with me."
He kisses her.
She hugs him. There’s still so much she needs to know, and they have to discuss. She closes her eyes, and holds him closer.
I'll change my habits just to show I care,
I'll face my demons just to show I'm there.
I'll be with you 'til my final days.