The appeal does not go entirely as hoped.
“Shit,” says Vod. “Fuck ’em,” says Vod.
“What did you say to them?” says Oregon.
“Wasn’t good,” says Vod, biting her lip. Oregon calls a house meeting.
“Right, so, it’s pretty simple actually,” says Oregon. “We just need to break into the office, and, and, change the grade.”
“Heist?” says Howard. “Excellent.”
“Seriously though, why are we even bothering?”
JP lifts his head. He’s lying full across the couch with his feet on the cushions because his dad just died, which is awful, but also makes it really hard to tell him to stop being a dick. Luckily Josie has hardened her heart against him following the latest Kingsley-related disaster (at least that’s what it sounded like Howard was saying through his mouthful of cereal), and also she has a rolled-up magazine.
“Stop being such a twat,” says Josie.
“Thank you,” says Oregon.
“It is a terrible idea, though,” says Josie. “No offence, Vod.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” says Vod.
“Let’s get to work,” says Howard. Oregon high-fives him out of sheer gratitude.
“That really fucking hurt,” says JP, rubbing his shin.
“Order,” says Howard, and bangs on the kitchen table. He has a plan, and possibly blueprints. It is too fucking early for this.
“Look, surely there’s no need for all of us to go,” JP says, perfectly reasonably. “I mean, won’t we just draw attention to ourselves if we’re roaming the corridors of the English department like a pack of delinquent hooded beasts?”
Fortunately, Josie is sitting too far away to inflict any more violence upon his shins, but she still glares at him.
“We were all there for you when you needed us, weren’t we?”
JP refrains from pointing out that nobody asked them, or, more topically, forced them into it, because it was actually pretty decent of them, and he doesn’t want to start crying again.
“Yes, thank you, Josie,” says Oregon. There’s a bit of a wild look in her eye.
“He does have a point, though,” says Josie.
“Yes, thank you, Josie,” says JP. Oregon looks as though she might have an aneurysm.
“Doesn’t matter,” says Howard. “Everyone will have gone home for Christmas.”
“Shouldn’t we be going home for Christmas?” protests JP.
“We have to move fast,” says Howard.
He does have blueprints, as it turns out, and detailed maps of the English department marked with viable exit routes. He also makes a motivational heist playlist and emails them all the Spotify link.
The English department staircase they’re huddled in is really echoey, which only makes Oregon’s babbling even more irritating.
“I just don’t think you’re taking this seriously,” she’s saying, and fine, JP isn’t, but Josie elbows him before he can say so. Which fucking hurts, so he opens his mouth anyway and says, “Whatever, Oregon. You’re only wearing that beret because you think it makes you look stealth.”
Oregon tugs at her head self-consciously for a second, and then she shakes it off and spits, “Look, shithead –”
“Wow,” says Josie.
“We’re all aware that my dad did just die, right?” says JP.
“Jesus, Oregon,” says Vod.
“Right, sorry, that was a bit much,” says Oregon, though she says it mostly to Vod. “Sorry.” She takes a deep breath.
“I am taking this seriously,” she says, “because it is, isn’t it? Vod totally deserves to be here, and if we have to break a few rules, or, um, laws, to make that happen then that’s just what we have to do. People have a right to an education! Fuck the bureacracy, yeah? And, fuck it, the guys all do geology, and Josie has her dentist friends –”
“Does she, though?” says JP, and Josie hits him.
“– But Vod is my, my best person. And she lives in our house. So we just, we have to do this, because I really don’t want to be here next semester without her.”
If Oregon starts crying, it is going to be really awkward.
“Alright, bloody hell, calm down,” says Vod, but she looks pleased.
“Okay,” says Oregon. “Okay.”
“Thanks, and that,” says Vod.
“You’re welcome,” says Oregon.
“Look, this is all very touching,” says JP, “but can we do this thing quickly so we can get the fuck out of here?”
“Right, yes,” says Oregon, all flustered. “Are you guys sure you know what you’ve got to do?”
“Stand guard, radio you guys if there’s anyone heading your way,” says Josie, tapping the walkie-talkie Howard gave them. JP doesn’t think anyone’s surprised that Howard owns walkie-talkies.
“Right,” says Oregon.
“Go,” says JP, and they do, Vod tossing a “Thanks, comrades,” over her shoulder and saluting as they head up the stairs.
JP flips his hood down.
“You know, when Howard said ‘heist,’ this is not what I was picturing.”
“Yeah,” says Josie, “it’s hardly Ocean’s Eleven, is it?”
“Aside from my striking resemblance to the Clooney, obviously.”
“And that makes me, what, Julia Roberts?” She does that kind of awkward laugh she does, like she thinks she should be tossing her hair.
“Hardly,” says JP, and Josie says, “Oh, cheers.”
“Is Julia Roberts Welsh? I don’t think so.” He settles his shoulders back against the wall. “You can be Catherine Zeta-Jones, if you like.”
“Yeah, well, nobody wants to be in Ocean’s Twelve, do they?” she says, and he can’t argue with that.
Josie pulls out a flask – it’s a hot pink and it looks as if she got it in a pound shop, but beggars can’t be choosers, and JP’s pretty sure his hepatitis jab is up to date.
“Good girl,” he says appreciatively, and Josie says, “Ugh,” and rolls her eyes, but she passes him the flask anyway, so, whatever.
After a minute, she says, “Do you want to talk about it,” and he says, “Not really,” which is mostly true, and she says, “Fair enough,” and just kind of looks at him sympathetically while they pass the flask back and forth, which is quite nice.
“Shit,” Josie says suddenly, “did you hear that?”
Footsteps, definitely coming their way, and for all that their directions were so simple Kingsley could manage the thing, JP has a moment of complete blankness.
“What the fuck do we do,” he hisses, and Josie goes, “I don’t know,” and then, “Follow my lead,” grabs him, and starts snogging his face off.
JP hears the clack of footsteps go past them up the stairs. He gives it another minute, because why not, better safe than sorry.
“Good thinking, Batman,” he says when he pulls back, like a dick, but Josie just says, “Yeah, yeah,” and kisses him again, her mouth all nice and warm and tasting of schnapps.
The English department proves surprisingly difficult to navigate in the dark; Oregon almost regrets declining Howard’s offer of head torches.
“I never realised, right,” says Vod, crumpling the map into a ball after their third wrong turn, “how everything in this fucking department looks the same.”
When they finally reach the office door, Vod looks like she’s about ready to shoulder it in, but thanks to some helpful YouTube tutorials, it only takes Oregon a couple of minutes to unlock it with a hairgrip. With a satisfying click, the door swings open. They hover on the threshold for a moment, oddly hushed.
“Quiet, innit,” says Vod, right by Oregon’s ear. Oregon shivers.
“I’ve never broken in anywhere before,” she says, although it must be obvious. She turns her head and Vod’s face is right there.
“I still haven’t had risotto.” Vod says it in a rush, freezes for a second with her eyes fixed somewhere over Oregon’s shoulder, then goes on, “I mean, risotto, like, gay risotto, like –”
“No, no, I know,” says Oregon, and kisses her, and it’s like all the manic worry of the past few days just falls away, having Vod here, all under her hands, and not going anywhere, and it’s soft and slow until it isn’t.
“Oregon,” Vod says against her mouth, and Oregon pulls off her driving gloves behind Vod’s back, lets them fall to the floor, because she wants to get her hands up under Vod’s jacket and touch her skin.
The light goes on, and Jean Shales is standing there.
“Shit,” says Vod.
“Professor,” says Oregon. She can feel an impassioned speech bubbling up inside her again, like explaining why she can’t let Vod be expelled is just going to get easier every time she does it; she has the words on the tip of her tongue when Vod says, “Yeah, we broke in a little bit.”
This is a terrible idea, but before Oregon can do anything about it Vod is pressing on, saying, “I fucked up my appeal interview, so we were going to find my mark and change it, only we hadn’t exactly got that far yet.” She still has a hand at Oregon’s waist. “It was all my idea, Oregon was just trying to stop me. So there you go.”
“Professor, no, that isn’t –”
Shales cuts her off with a wave of her hand, moving past to dump a carrier bag on the desk with a glassy thunk. She turns to look at them, and after a long pause, she says, “Do you honestly think I give a shit about whatever juvenile scrape this is?”
“Sorry, you what?” says Vod.
“You, Lolita,” Shales says, and Oregon feels mildly offended, because she’s obviously more than legal, she’s a university student, she’s hosted dinner parties for Croatians – then she feels mildly violated, wondering if Tony told his wife about that time with the school uniform as part of their weird middle-aged sex dominance games. “What have you done to my fucking useless husband?”
It’s strange, she hasn’t really had a chance to think about Tony at all.
“The last I heard, he was cooking turbot,” she says, and the walkie-talkie on her belt hisses into life.
“Actually, he left a message on the landline,” says Howard, voice fuzzy and disembodied in the air.
“Since when do we have a fucking answering machine?” says Vod. “Since when do we have a landline?”
“We must have a landline,” Oregon says, almost automatically. “You need one for the wi-fi.”
“It’s not entirely clear,” crackles Howard, “but he said he was going to the Lake District. He sounded quite bitter about it.”
Professor Shales lets out a snort that somehow manages to sound cutting, and says, “What an entirely, predictably pathetic little man.” She sits down on the edge of the desk and takes out a pack of cigarettes.
“He’s probably just gone to see Wordsworth’s cottage,” offers Oregon. “You know, clear his head a bit.”
“Dick,” mutters Vod. Shales lights up, as if in agreement.
The walkie-talkie crackles again. “Are you supposed to be smoking in there?”
“Right, there is no way you heard that,” says Vod, “not even if you had wizard ears.”
“Security cameras,” says Shales, gesturing with her cigarette.
“Oh, god,” says Oregon, because they are almost certainly getting expelled for this, and then, “Oh, god,” because who knows how long Howard was watching the feed, and possibly recording the feed, and Howard wouldn’t put her and Vod making out on a website, would he?
“Look,” says Vod, “should we just fuck off now?”
“I think that’d be best, don’t you,” says Shales, and it’s all Oregon can do to croak, “Right.”Shales eyes them for a second, exhaling. She says, “It’s only first semester. Doesn’t count for shit, in the scheme of things. The appeals board like to think that they matter, but they don’t, not really. Nobody’s going to stop someone coming back, our dropout rate’s awful enough as it is. Even someone like you.” She lets her gaze drift disdainfully up and down Vod’s general person, then nods at them. “Go on, piss off.” She turns her attention to the whiskey, starts pouring it into a mug on the desk.
“Cheers,” says Vod, and they’re so very nearly out of the door when Oregon has to go back, ducking down awkwardly to retrieve her gloves.
“Sorry, it’s just – they’re leather.”
“You can turn out the light,” Shales says. Oregon does, and she has a second looking at Shales’ silhouette against the window, whiskey in hand, cigarette glowing, wondering if she will ever in her life be that magnificent, before Vod grabs her hand and tows her away down the corridor.
“Oh, you have got to be shitting me!”
JP detaches his mouth from Josie’s and turns around.
“K-Man!” Kingsley does not look happy to see them. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing? Well, I came back to the house, because, you know, misguided sense of Christmas loyalty, thanks a fucking lot, and then Howard sends me over here with a spare map, because apparently yours was all stuck together with porridge, Christ knows why you’d need a map of the sodding English department, but apparently it’s vitally important. Only you two –” Josie wriggles out from under JP’s arm, in a truly sad and belated attempt to pretend they weren’t just going at each other – “you two are having yet another drunken grope!”
Kingsley is quite red in the face at this point.
“We’re not even that drunk, mate.” JP shrugs.
“Oh, brilliant,” says Kingsley.
“We had a flask!” Josie says. “See?” She brandishes it at Kingsley.
“Josie,” says JP. “Come on.”
“It’s not a thing!” Josie’s voice has gone all high-pitched, which is objectively hilarious. “He was just upset.”
“Well,” he starts, but Josie steps hard on his foot, so he just lowers his eyes and goes, “I am feeling very fragile right now, yeah.”
“Unbelievable,” says Kingsley, but before he can work up to another rant, Vod and Oregon come clattering down the stairs.
“Kingsley!” says Oregon. “Great, you’re here!”
“Did it work?” Josie asks quickly.
“Near enough,” says Vod. “Lady-Shales caught us at it –”
“Thanks for the heads-up on that one, by the way,” Oregon cuts in.
“– Only she’s been possessed by the Christmas spirit or something, so she basically let us off,” Vod finishes. “Now let’s all fuck off before she changes her mind, yeah?”
Josie’s walkie-talkie crackles. “Move out,” says Howard.
“That really was a fucking terrible plan.”
Everyone’s drifted downstairs for House Christmas Breakfast with barely any coercion at all. One last meal, before everybody finally heads home for the holidays; it’s really nice, even if Kingsley is being somewhat scornful.
“Seriously, were you just going to, like, Tippex out her grade and write the new one in? They keep that stuff on computers too, you know. Aren’t you supposed to know about this shit?” he says, gesturing to Howard with his mug of Cadbury’s Instant.
“It was Oregon’s terrible plan,” says Howard modestly. “I was just in charge of implementing it.”
“Right,” says Oregon, before anyone else can talk about how terrible her plan was, “this is just about ready.” She gives the munge pot one last gloopy poke.
“It was a really terrible plan,” Kingsley says again. “Not that I’m not glad it all worked out, obviously it’s brilliant Vod’s coming back – it did actually work, didn’t it?”
“Yes it fucking did, Kingsley,” says Vod, grabbing him for a noogie, and by the time she lets him go, breakfast is dished up.
“What is in Christmas risotto, exactly?” Josie asks, sounding dubious, as Vod pulls out the chair across from Oregon and sits down. Oregon brushes their feet together under the table.
“Rice pudding and mincemeat, mostly,” she says, and Vod adds, “Plus, like, a fuckload of Baileys,” and flashes the gap in her teeth at Oregon across the table, which is just, brilliant.
“Very festive,” says Howard happily, tucking in while JP lets a dollop of risotto fall slowly from his spoon. Josie makes Kingsley pass her the Baileys, and upends the bottle over her bowl.
“Yeah, it’s not bad, this,” Vod says, mouth full, and Oregon just feels really, really happy, her foot tucked between the two of Vod’s, and tries not to grin into her bowl too obviously.