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that’s just love sneaking up on you

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“You should come hang out with us tonight,” Preston says on the fourth day of winter break in their sophomore year, lifting his and Amanda’s joined hands like Denise was somehow going to be unclear on the us he was referring to. “My parents are gone until the 18th."

Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely is playing over the diner’s speakers, and Denise is making a concerted effort not to hum along (a thing she is only able to do thanks to this year’s randomly assigned roommate who has tried repeatedly to engage Denise with her impassioned treatise on why the Backstreet Boys are clearly an obviously superior to Nsync. That’s usually when Denise suddenly remembers a major homework assignment that requires her to go to the library. Wendy is a freshman. She’s nice and she keeps her shit off Denise’s side of the room and has a scary ability to both understand and explain intermediate trigonometry concepts in a way that absolutely pulled Denise’s ass out of the fire during midterms, but if she has to hear one more word about Kevin Richardson’s perfect jawline, Denise is not going to be responsible for her actions.)

Preston clears his throat and Denise realizes that the sound system has transitioned to that god awful Creed song that Preston had somehow mistaken for Pearl Jam for like a month and she still hasn’t responded to his invitation.

“I absolutely should not do that,” Denise says, shaking her head and reaching for the ketchup as their waitress approaches with an irritated expression and their single order of fries ‘for the table.’

“Come on, Denise,” Amanda says. “It’ll be fun. We want to spend time with you.”

“Oh yeah, fun.” Denise splits a reasonable number of fries from the center of the plate and drenches them with Heinz 57. She ignores the judgmental looks both Preston and Amanda are giving her, because fuck them and their very wrong french fry opinions. Who cares if it makes them soggy and cold, ketchup is the best and most important part of the fry eating experience. “We’re spending time together right now, and let’s be real, you guys don’t actually want me there third wheeling and ruining the mood.”

“You wouldn’t be ruining a mood,” Preston says. “We’re just going to be watching movies.”

“Uh-huh,” Denise nods and rolls her eyes. “And you’re telling me there is absolutely no possibility that the three of us ‘watching movies’ is going involve me trying to ignore the two of you making disgusting googly eyes at each other and obviously wishing I wasn’t there so you could be making sweet, sweet holiday break reunion love?”

“I absolutely, one-hundred-percent swear that will not happen,” Preston says, flushing in a way that makes Denise doubt him immediately. “Scouts honor.”

“You were a scout for like 5 months,” Denise says. “That doesn’t carry the weight you think it does.”

“We’ve had like three straight days of wild and sweaty holiday break reunion fucking. I had to let Preston up for air at some point.” Amanda says utterly placidly, and Denise nearly chokes.

She glances and looks across the table at Preston who has gone from slightly-embarrassed-pink to mortified-and-a-little-aroused-fire-engine-red. (And Denise hates that she knows exactly what that looks like on Preston, but there was a thing with a tape mix-up at the independent video rental place when they were 14 and some things just stick with you.

“That.” Denise coughs and looks at Amanda who is looking back entirely too smug and satisfied for her to be comfortable with. “Ok, look, I actually absolutely deserved that, but you’re going to disturb Preston’s delicate sensibilities if you talk about him like that in public.”

“Point stands,” Amanda shrugs. “We absolutely will not be wishing you weren’t there.”

“Geez, ok, fine. But the second I’m in the way, tell me. Seriously.”

“Scouts honor,” Amanda says. “And I was a scout for eight years, so it totally counts.”

(As they leave, they tip their waitress five bucks on their $6 order of sodas and fries, because they might be broke college students, but they aren’t animals.)

Denise hadn’t been exactly over the moon when Preston and Amanda got together, if she’s honest with herself. It’s not that she hated (or even vaguely disliked) Amanda or wanted Preston for herself (anymore). It was just that, she and Preston had known each other forever and been in each other’s pockets pretty much from the day she and Kenny stopped. If she was really being honest with herself (or her therapist), she’d spent pretty much all of high school waiting for Preston to pull a Kenny and she felt like getting a hot girlfriend just made it all the more likely.

(When she admits this to Preston years later, he tells her that he’d worried about the same thing the third time she and Kenny started dating, and Denise called him an idiot.).

But that wasn’t how it went down.

A week after Preston left for his summer workshop, Amanda called Denise and said, “I told Preston i was feeling kind of bored and lonely since all my I’m-Dating-Mike-Dexter friends have dumped me, and he said you were probably bored too and we should hang out.”

“So you’re letting Preston arrange pity play-dates for you now?” Denise had sniped back instinctively, guard up.

“It was just an idea,” Amanda said, “but clearly I caught you at naptime. Maybe after you have some juice and cookies I’ll ask again.”

“Geez,” Denise said. “Fine. I’ll meet you at TCBY at noon.”

By the time Preston got home, Denise had grudgingly accepted that Amanda was ok to spend an afternoon at the mall with, and Amanda had admitted that she’d generally rather make pizza rolls and watch movies than go shopping. It hadn’t been an instant match-made-in-heaven as far as friendships go, but once Denise stopped waiting for everything to go wrong and let herself relax, she realized they actually had a lot in common. Enough that they almost never resorted to talking about Preston or Kenny. It turned out Amanda was sharp and funny and never took it personally when Denise got a little prickly.

It was honestly, one of the better summers Denise ever had. But with none of them going to the same school, the middle of August turned into a lot of overly earnest commemorations of their time together. On the Saturday of their last trip to the beach, they shot through 5 disposable cameras, dropping them one after another into a gallon zip-loc back. Amanda showed up on Wednesday with triple prints of out-of-focus, overexposed shots of random strangers (“I was just trying to advance the film to the start!” she insisted), herself on her towel leaning up on her elbows and grinning at the person (obviously Preston) taking the picture. Preston freckled and tan splashing in the shallows, Denise flipping her off from under the beach umbrella, enveloped neck-to-ankle by a flowing kaftan cover-up (she still wound up burned), and dozens of attempts at getting a picture of the three of them together, at least one person’s face always three-quarters out of the shot.

There was one last blow-out party before the semester started, and they talked Denise into going even though she was still in a rotten mood from her second break up with Kenny who had skipped out on the beach trip in favor of sneaker shopping. Since she didn’t spend the majority of this one trapped in a bathroom, Denise figured it was pretty ok, even though there had been kind of a weird moment at the end of the night where Preston and Amanda started kissing in the middle of a group hug and she briefly thought about how nice it might be to be in on that before she realized they were all definitely a lot more drunk than was strictly a good idea with emotions already running high and stumbled out of the hug to give them some privacy.

Three days later, she was on campus for orientation, and when she checked to make sure her mailbox key worked, there was a package addressed to her in Amanda’s loopy script. Inside was a wooden four-by-six picture frame with a heart and the word “Friends” engraved and an only slightly out of focus photo of the three of them at the beach, Denise in the center in that brief period she’d let herself be out from under her kaftan. Her face was face squinched up from laughter, and both Preston and Amanda’s arms werearound her. Now that she was seeing it, Denise vaguely remembered Amanda snagging a passing volleyball player to take the shot, saying it was important.

She put the frame on the corner of her desk, and as soon as her computer was set up, she logged into AIM.

you sap

I have no idea what you’re talking about. Go finish unpacking, and no depressing songs for your away message until at least the second week of classes.

And nothing changed

They’ve made it through The Craft and are 20 minutes into Dazed and Confused when it happens. Amanda gets up and leaves the room, shooting Preston a significant glance when she does, and Denise figures this is going to be it, the moment when Preston says, hey sorry, we lied, I need you to leave so I can get laid now.

Instead, he fidgets awkwardly at the far end of the couch,

“So, this has been fun,” Denise says, shifting to untuck her feet from under her. She’s got pins and needles in her left foot, so hopefully Preston isn’t going to give her the bum rush. “But I should probably get going.”

“We really like you,” Preston says, all rushed together and it takes Denise a second to parse.

“Uh, yeah.” Denise says. “I know. I’ve got the friendship picture frame and everything. It’s cool man, I’m not offended. You don’t get that much time with Amanda.”

“No,” Preston says. He licks his lips and shuffles toward her on the couch. “I mean. Um. We, like. We really like you. Both of us.”

“Okay,” Denise says slowly. “Preston, You’re gonna have to use some different words, because—uh, what are you doing?”

She looks down and yup, that’s her hand. In Preston’s. His fingers slipping between hers. and their palms pressed together and wow, who knew someone she’s known for almost twenty years touching her hand could make her stomach twist like that.

“Dude, your girlfriend who you have been desperately in love with for like six years left the room 90 seconds ago. Also, this,” she says, forcing herself to pull her hand away from his “isn’t something we do. This isn’t something we’ve ever done.”

“I told her I would be bad at this,” Preston says, scrubbing his now free hand through his hair and Denise can tell he’s mostly talking to himself in that absent kind of way he’s always had. “I absolutely reminded her that I spent four year revising a letter to tell her how I felt about her and I almost blew the whole thing anyway. But she said, no, Preston, you’ve known her longer, you know how to talk to her, she’ll trust you.”

“Uh, she’s still here, and she is getting more confused by the second.” Denise says. “Because there is no way you’re saying what I think you’re saying.”

Preston looks at her then with his stupid puppydog hazel eyes and that wry smile and and flushed cheeks and she thinks he looks... mortified. and a little— oh god.

“It could be something we do,” Preston says again. “All three of us. But only if you want. You can say no and nothing will change, I swear.”

“Oh fuck,” she says, and there’s nothing else for it then, Denise has to kiss him. And it should be strange because it’s Preston she hasn’t wanted Preston for herself since seventh grade. But his mouth is soft and open under hers and his lips are chapped and his tongue brushes against hers in a way that promises way more than Kenny’s ever did (oh my god, why is she thinking about Kenny?) Then Amanda’s walking back into the room, and sitting down on her other side, and when Denise stops kissing Preston it’s the most obvious thing to turn and start kissing Amanda and it’s completely different and exactly the same and that makes a kind of sense, since they’ve been kissing each other for like a year and a half. And Amanda is bolder, hand slipping up under her shirt and cupping her breast, and Denise wishes she’d had any clue at all because she definitely would have worn a nice bra. Not that she thinks Amanda cares, because they’ve definitely talked about the virtues of comfort over everything else. Still, she’ll yell at them about piss poor planning later. For now, she’s going to be a little selfish and enjoy what’s hers.

No, not mine, Denise thinks. Ours.

(And Amanda was not kidding about the wild and sweaty)