"It's simple: she's leaving, and we're all attached enough as it is," Kate had said nearly a year before, across the room from Poppy when she thought Poppy wasn't listening, couldn't listen: her iPod was on, and loud enough to hear. Drippy had been pestering her about the way she'd been treating Poppy — and frankly, Kate couldn't think of anything more reasonable. They had all agreed to help her out. Kate's behavior was no different from anybody else's; they were closer, maybe, but that was easy enough to explain: she was less ditzy than the rest of them, and stayed in more frequently. Poppy had, too, out of sheer ennui at the beginning of the year. They'd become fond of each other in very much the same way that Kate was fond of Drippy, where all the mystifying things Poppy did were somehow endearing.
That hadn't changed, even if Poppy was staying, even if Drippy had taken her aside after Poppy's hearing and pointed out that Kate couldn't deny it had, because Poppy wasn't leaving anymore.
"So then, you see, a part of your statement is no longer sound, and so the rest of your statement is no longer sound either."
Drippy did have a point; she hadn't actually made said point, but Kate could glimpse it beneath all the layers of ridiculousness. Kate had stepped off because it was always a lot of effort, dating someone and making it stick, and it was even worse with the fact that they were both girls and, although Poppy had made a remark or two while at the movies to the extent of, "God, she's hot," Kate hadn't the first clue as to whether that applied to live girls — and live, attainable girls, at that.
Besides, there was Freddie to think of. She'd told Drippy that, too, and Drippy had said that he was older, and therefore all of Kate's initial objections to crushing on Poppy were now objections to Poppy dating Freddie. "He'll move away to uni next year, won't he? He will break her heart."
"And that will be a great time to take advantage," Kate had said, eyebrows high, and Drippy hadn't brought it up again. Drippy was pushy, but she could read Kate well enough to know another conversation on the subject wasn't welcome.
Kate really did appreciate her friends all equally, and Drippy should know that.
With Freddie gone, school was different, but it had nothing to do with him. In fact, it was the things that caused Kate a strange sense of déjà vu that had to do with him: Poppy sneaking out at odd hours, borrowing Kate's phone when her own battery had run out waiting for Freddie to pick up, taking out her anger on the opposing lacrosse team — including during practice. Kiki had a bruise the shape of Italy on her arm to show for it. Every time Poppy saw it, she apologised again, and always in the same earnest, 'I really can't believe that happened' tone.
Eventually Poppy crept in late, soaking wet from the rain, said, "I'm done with Freddie," and climbed into bed. And Kate looked at Drippy, because none of them had ever dated someone long enough for a break-up to last as long and sting as much as Poppy's must have, and Kate wasn't sure what to do, or how to reach out without feeling selfish.
Drippy's eyes skated over Kate's face, her lids heavy; she nodded, then, unnoticeable unless you were looking for it, and dragged herself over to Poppy's bed, sat and offered her shoulder and stayed there at least until Kate was asleep.
It was at least two weeks after that that Josie came into their dorm unannounced while Kate was doing homework, and threw herself onto her bed. She fished under the hanging covers until she found a small pair of scissors, dragged them out, and suddenly stared right at Kate, long enough Kate had to look back.
"Why are you avoiding Poppy?" Josie said, like it had just occurred to her, and Kate groaned. "She's been mopey and all, but you're not that emotionally stunted, are you?"
"No, Josie, I'm not," Kate said, which Josie followed up with, "Did you two have a fight?" which made Kate set her book aside and look at Josie askance.
"Do you really think you wouldn't know?"
"Fair enough," Josie said, and only took another quick, annoyingly inspecting look at Kate before she left the same sudden way she'd come.
With Freddie really gone, Poppy even started to study without prompting, on her previously scheduled-for-Freddie breaks, so there was no need for Kate to remind her of much. It wasn't a war zone or anything like it: they got along well, and they talked, and they hung out together, with Kiki and Josie and Drippy. They all had different timetables this year, different priorities, different choices of A levels to prepare for.
Kate was only being careful. No snide looks at Poppy in the dining hall over her strictly dietary choices, no arguments about tidiness or Poppy's habit of messing up other people's beds and leaving them that way, and no asking Poppy to pick Kate's outfit whenever they went out at the weekend. It had always made Kate feel weird, like she was trying too hard to please Poppy, but Poppy had raided her chest the weekend after she broke up with Freddie and that had made Kate feel sort of dirty, as though she was beckoning to Poppy.
It was so irrational she felt it made sense, and that was even more frustrating, missing things she used to hate.
November brutally murdered the last hope of proper sun for the autumn, and Poppy took to the cold like she'd spent the summer in the North Pole and she was only just getting back.
"Look, you want to warm up, right?" Poppy yelled over the lacrosse field. "So don't stop!"
She didn't actually mean 'warm up' as in 'stop being cold'; they'd all been playing long enough to be used to the weather. They just hadn't been playing well long enough for all of them to trust themselves and start the year as though they were going to win the season. September had been exciting, October had been a month of half-arsed practices with half the team otherwise engaged, and November had taken on a flair of long-suffering bleakness.
Kate couldn't say she didn't participate in it. In all truth, she was considering quitting the team to focus on studying; she liked lacrosse, but she didn't like it that much. She knew she'd miss the distraction, though, having something productive to do and think about that didn't require exerting her brain.
"You do think too much," Poppy said, towelling off her wet hair, smiling, when Kate told her later in the month. Maybe a little too late — Kate had already made her decision, after all — but she felt she owed Poppy the knowledge that Kate was thinking about deserting her. As team captain, that is.
That, and Kate had just missed practice in a failed attempt to make some headway into a Philosophy essay, and was desperate to talk about anything other than absurdism.
"I adhere to the belief that others think too little," Kate replied cheerily.
"And yet somehow your paper is currently four lines long," Poppy said, peering over Kate's shoulder, standing until her weight got the best of her and her knee sank down by Kate's side on her bed, "and two of them are crossed off."
"I said I do a lot of thinking, not that it's eloquent enough to write it down. I can't write it all down."
The stupidly flexible mattress brought Poppy closer, her chin brushing, first, then settling on Kate's shoulder. "That would be pretty egomaniacal of you." Poppy's knee edged in beside Kate's hip, her body pressing clean and warm against Kate's back. Kate leaned in, now feeling the tiredness she'd been staving off all day, maybe all week; Poppy was comfortable, her invasions of Kate's personal space familiar by now, and natural in a way that Kate could never pull off, not as early into knowing someone as Poppy had the year before.
"Precisely," Kate said, and coughed, and shifted aside before standing. "So I'm headed to the library now."
Poppy frowned, which made Kate feel horrible, because Poppy always frowned like someone had questioned how much they loved her, and oh, that was also very firmly something Kate didn't want to think about.
"I can leave if you need the quiet," Poppy offered, righting herself on her knees before bouncing off Kate's bed.
"That's all right, I need something—" She shook her head, shrugged. "I need something new. New commentary. New angle," she finished, and closed the door behind her.
The winter formal felt to Kate like just as much of a big deal as Poppy's first, if only because Poppy decided they all take a week-long break to design their outfits. She'd had proper fabric shipped to Abbey Mount, because 'the thrift store thing was a challenge, but there's only so much you can do with prêt-à-porter', and:
"This is our last formal, guys. We're not in the military anymore. We don't have to make do."
Kiki narrowed her eyes and said, "What if I want to make do? I like the sort of — the crafty look. It's pretty one of a kind."
"Then," Poppy said, the 'e' stretching on her tongue, "we'll make it look like you made do."
It felt good, though, wearing a dress with all the seams where they should be and zero patchwork going on inside. Poppy — well, her dad — had upgraded the school's sewing equipment, and they all looked fantastic, in an eclectic way that Kate found amusing, and even a bit comforting: the knowledge that all five of them had made it all those years — "Some less than others," Josie added, voice heedful of their hangovers, with a wink at Poppy when Kate told them, flicking through the pictures — without severely injuring each other — "Off the field, d'you mean," Kiki said, and Poppy scrunched up her face and whined, "I'm sorry," which made them all wince — or making a big fuss and causing Mrs Kingsley to make them switch dorms.
The formal itself went well, with no Freddies to impress and no Harriets to interfere. Harriet's former minions actually joined Drippy and Poppy in a rendition of what Kate thought was some dancing scene from a movie, though she didn't recognise it. It looked surprisingly complicated for something they were winging, at least when they actually managed to sync up and make it look half right.
Poppy came off the makeshift stage without falling on her face this time, and made a beeline for Kate, who was standing by, laughing, now the boy she'd been dancing with had returned to his date. The music switched from upbeat hip hop to slightly less upbeat hip hop, which apparently was just slow enough for Poppy to wrap her arms around Kate's ribcage until Kate stopped floundering and set hers on Poppy's shoulders.
"This is very prom-like of us," Kate pointed out, and Poppy laughed and buried her face in Kate's neck. They swayed aimlessly for a little while; Poppy was winding down, her breathing settling back to normal, and Kate felt stiff, not sure what to do about the proximity, not sure if it was a good idea to let go and just dance. If it would send some sort of message. Possibly her constant shuffling and dodging whenever Poppy's mouth grazed Kate's neck sent an even worse one, but she couldn't make herself relax.
"You're so damn careful," Poppy said as the song sped up near the end, pulling back and grabbing Kate's hands. "Be less careful. Take a leap sometime."
Kate huffed, and spun Poppy around. "I like that I'm responsible, thank you."
"You're so not," Poppy said, failing to hold back a grin, "you're just scared," and then one of Harriet's former minions — they had names, Kate knew they had names, she just couldn't seem to remember much of anything at that point — tugged at Poppy's sleeve. Poppy leaned in again, her nose brushing Kate's ear, and said, "Ball's in your court now," and smiled warmly at Kate as she let herself be dragged away.
The stressful thing about knowing Poppy knew something wasn't quite that she knew, or that Kate wasn't sure what to do about it or what Poppy wanted Kate to do about it. It was rather the way Kate wasn't nervous, and she didn't start avoiding Poppy any more than she'd been all autumn, and she didn't have to tell herself twice that it was a good thing she knew where she stood.
It was still difficult, because Poppy was usually louder than this, a lot less subtle, and Kate didn't have much to go on; did Poppy want to give Kate a chance, or did she want Kate? Kate would have done something right away, maybe, if she'd been clear on that. Then again, maybe not. She wasn't sure what she wanted, either. She'd done her best not to think about it too much, and mostly succeeded. She wanted — more than just permission and a healthy span of time for Poppy to get over her break-up, but there wasn't much else. She could do something, or she could wait until they ended up in different sides of the country, or different countries or continents for university.
Sometimes that felt like the right option, letting it go. But then Poppy would be right: it wouldn't be emotionally responsible anymore, letting herself wonder what if. It would be acting like a coward. Always easier to criticise your own behaviour than stop it, especially when it had become inertia to put it off.
Kate was getting a lot of studying done. That was one upside.
They were packing to go home for the holidays when Kate finally decided to ask, once they were alone in their dorm, "How long have you known?" It wasn't exactly the step Poppy had asked her to take, but it was — it would put Kate's mind at ease, a little clarity.
"Last year," Poppy said with a one-shouldered shrug, easy-going but looking up at Kate, meeting her eyes.
Kate laughed, pressed her lips together, as if that would stop the heat spreading over her cheeks. "And you let me embarrass myself—"
"You didn't do that," Poppy said. She shook her head, her eyebrows drawn in. "You didn't— Come on, I was planning to leave. I was actively trying to get kicked out. And then, I don't know. You were my friend — I mean, you are my friend. I thought if you wanted something else, you would tell me." She zipped up her bag and gave another shrug, this time as she stood upright. The corner of her mouth quirked up. "The whole secretly pining for someone thing, that's new to me," she added, but her tone wasn't hurtful; there was definitely an amused glint in her eye, but it was fond, like her half smile.
It didn't make Kate feel any less embarrassed, but on a certain level it put her at ease. "Don't flatter yourself," she said. Out the corner of her eye, she saw Poppy's smile turn different — not disappointed, not quite, but a little sad. Then, she returned her attention to her luggage.
January was for exams, everyone knew that, and besides, Kate always resolved, for the new year, never to do anything rash so early in the year. She was always a little more reckless then, looking for beginnings, but beginnings always steered into slugging middles and often missed the mark of an end altogether. It was always a letdown when that happened, looking back in August or September and realizing Kate had accidentally given up on something she'd been incredibly excited about trying — baking, teaching herself the violin, that time she decided to take apart her old phone and put it back together again. She overreached.
Overshooting on studying was a tried and true goal, so she focussed on that. It wasn't a stressless month, by any means, but she liked that she had something to do that everyone was doing; for some reason, the library felt much homelier when it was full of sleep-deprived girls trying to cram thick textbooks into their heads overnight. Kate felt less out of place for frequenting it at odd hours, too.
Her last exam this semester was on a Wednesday, and Kate would have skipped lacrosse practice Tuesday afternoon had it not already been postponed. She grabbed her favorite seat in the library early after lunch and camped out there with a bottled water and some snacks from the vending machine; she was still waiting for some sort of answer on her and Josie's proposal for the board that they officially allow food in the library, but Kate had a habit of not moving until she was finished with something, and she didn't much enjoy the thought of starving before she had an A on her exam to show for it.
Drippy, lucky Drippy who was done with exams already, showed up a couple of hours in, bringing a set of flashcards Kate had left in her room. Josie joined her soon after, taking the empty seat across the table and replacing Kate's pen when it kicked up a fuss over being inkless. She left after a while, and took Kate's rubbish with her, which was sweet. Kate would have thanked her if she hadn't been trying to commit an inane paragraph to the photographic memory she did not possess.
It was fully dark outside when Poppy swung by, a textbook and notebook propped up on her hip and two bottled waters in her hand.
"Oh, thank God," Kate said, and grabbed one before Poppy thought to offer it — chugged half of it down before Poppy said a single word. Kate forgave herself; it was exam week. Her brain was too fried for politeness.
When she looked up, Poppy had a funny, twisted smile on her face, like she was trying not to laugh. "You're welcome," she said softly, not like they were in a library but like the words had caught on her breath.
Kate screwed the cap back on and inhaled deeply, closed her eyes. Okay, yes: she needed a break. And Poppy was still standing, so Kate did as well.
"I have this book in my bibliography," Kate told her. Her voice emphasised the nouns, which made it even more obvious that she was only coming up with them as she went along. That was all right. "I want to follow up on, uh, something, but I have a feeling if I go upstairs and sit down to read, I will fall asleep."
"It's sort of dark up there," Poppy agreed, and then, brightly, "I'll come with."
Library stacks were an obvious kissing spot for several reasons, and Kate was sure one of them was it was such an obvious plan that Poppy saved her from starting it, pushing her against a bookshelf as soon as they found a private enough place and pinning Kate to it with her hips and her hands on Kate's waist. Kate leaned in to kiss her, soft and easy, the apple-glossy taste of Poppy's lips familiar from borrowing it so often.
"What about your test?" Poppy said after a while; sounded like pleasantries.
"I may have been revising extra to avoid you," Kate admitted sheepishly, licking her lips. She didn't add that she'd been doing that for a while now; if she wasn't ready for this exam by now, she never would be.
Poppy hissed, quiet but exaggerated, as though she could literally feel Kate's pain. She kissed her again and pulled back quickly, so quickly Kate followed her mouth before noticing and letting her head tip back against the shelf. "So I rescued you from a horrible, boring evening. I'm your knight in schoolgirl uniform."
Kate shushed her. "You're not allowed to take on that role," she said, punctuating it with a kiss. "I'm attached enough as it is."