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It's a Big World Out There

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Today, Hannah's flying down to New York for an interview with the dean of admissions at Columbia. Coincidentally, her mom calls when she's about to board the plane, but Hannah doesn't tell her that. She will, eventually, but this is something she needs to do on her own.

By the time she's accepted and informs her parents of her decision, however, her parents have already received a call from her boarding school, and her father, in a temper tantrum worthy of a five-year-old, decides that she's old enough to afford the independent life she so seems to want.

That is how Hannah finds herself working the afternoon shift at a coffeehouse to pay her third of the rent for a crowded, minuscule apartment in Manhattan. On the bright side, most of the clients are regulars and stay there for hours, familiar enough to cough for her attention when they need a refill, or wait until she rests for a second and looks up.

She gets most of her obligatory reading done on the job.

*

Today's a Tuesday, and it marks Hannah's third year living on her own, except for the roommates, and her third year working here. She's reading when the door opens, and she only needs to catch a glimpse of blond hair to know the girl's here to pick up the new waitress, just like the girl was here to pick up the new waitress yesterday.

"Hey," the girl says, and Hannah lifts up her fingers in acknowledgment, barely drawing her eyes from the page. "Did Vanessa leave already?"

"She's changing," Hannah answers softly.

The girl waits. Hannah keeps reading. A paragraph, and the same one again.

"My brother loves that book," the girl interrupts. A second lumbers by. "I'm Jenny," the girl finally says, and Hannah looks up.

"Hannah." She smiles brightly, that smile that will make a costumer understand that she was simply distracted and not in any way ignoring them, and gives up on getting any more lines read before Jenny's gone.

Jenny keeps watching her. Hannah's about to freak out, or ask if she can help her with anything, when Jenny says her name as a question, an apologetic grimace flickering on her face.

"I actually came here to see if you could — help me with something." Hannah smiles, relieved, and nods for her to go on. "See, I made a few changes to a dress, and the client's not available and there isn't a single model at school with the right hair and skin tone, so I was hoping you would — try it on? I'll cover for you." Vanessa chooses that moment to come out of the bathroom, dressed in her street clothes, and glares at Jenny a little. "Or she will," Jenny adds, and Vanessa walks over.

That's when Hannah notices the plastic bag hanging off Jenny's arm, and the glimmer of yellow popping through the hole on top when Jenny starts to unzip it.

"Don't you have mannequins for that?" Vanessa asks, and gets purposefully ignored. Jenny pulls out the dress. It's long, pretentious, the kind of dress Hannah never has a chance to wear. To be honest, she feels kind of glad about that. It is really yellow.

"I think I had a suicidal fish that color when I was five," Hannah muses.

"It's mustard," Jenny says. "It looks better on."

Hannah looks at her for a second before placing a pen between the pages she's on. The place is quiet, a few grey-haired men sipping coffee and reading the paper by the windows; Vanessa's glare implies that she wants to go home; and Jenny looks nervous, so Hannah complies.

"Really? Thank you so much," Jenny says, and hands her the dress over the bar. "Don't worry if it's a bit too big on you, you're thinner than the girl I made it for."

So this is how Hannah Griffith becomes stand-in live mannequin for Jenny Humphrey, independent fashion designer. Sometimes she gets free dresses out of the deal, so it's not all bad.

*

Sometimes she wishes Jenny would do the extra stitching in private, though, because, while the small crowd of giggling schoolgirls loading up on caffeine around them is good for business, the coffeehouse is not Hannah's business, and she feels kind of exposed.

"Ouch," she complains one day, after Jenny accidentally sinks a nail into her calf. "Can't we do this somewhere else?"

"Like where?" Jenny asks from the floor.

"Like somewhere without an audience."

Jenny looks up for a moment, and, sixty seconds later, stands up and looks at her again. "You have a car, don't you?"

"Sort of," Hannah says, because it's a rental and she shares it with her two roommates, and they only have it because they're all irrationally weirded out by strangers driving them around, though for Jenny that probably counts as a yes.

"Can you drive with this on?"

Hannah stretches her legs forward to see how far they'll go. "Probably not."

"Okay, well, just take it off. We'll finish later."

Finishing later means that, while Hannah goes through the last hour of her shift, Jenny goes through three cups of decaf, sketching incredibly flashy dresses on the bar that Hannah would never have the courage to wear in public. So maybe it's a good thing she doesn't get the chance.

"Are there too many feathers in this skirt?" Jenny asks at one point.

Hannah ponders this, and slowly says, "Yes", feeling a bit guilty, but Jenny simply chuckles and adds a few more.

*

Today, consequently, is the first time she sees Jenny's apartment. Which is not Jenny's, rather obvious by the décor, but her dad's working late and her brother's away at college, so she really has more space than Hannah does at her own apartment.

Hannah leans awkwardly against the kitchen counter while Jenny organizes the fashion disaster that is her room. When Jenny comes out, she's carrying the same maroon dress she tried to sew to Hannah's skin at the coffeehouse, only it's missing the bottom half of the skirt.

"Cocktail dress," Jenny announces. "My client wants this within the week, so I've had to make do with a few half-done designs."

Hannah pulls her shirt over her head before realizing that she's not in the storage room at the coffeehouse, and Jenny's looking at her. She feels self-conscious all of a sudden, regardless of the fact that she shares a tiny apartment with two girls and spent almost three years at boarding school. She suddenly feels cold, too, and Jenny quickly slides the dress over her head before Hannah can take off her jeans.

She feels really self-conscious about the fact that her nipples are hard, mostly because Jenny's hands are all over her chest right now, tugging at the dress so the fabric will stay in its right place, and Hannah's starting to feel a certain tingle between her legs, and apparently today's the day her body decides to remind her that she hasn't had sex since New Year's Eve.

"So," Hannah begins, awkwardly, when Jenny kneels down to start on the skirt. Jenny looks up with a pin between her lips. Hannah realizes that she'd usually gross herself out by picturing the pin perforating the inside of her own mouth, but Jenny looks like the pin's a harmless part of her life, and the pin returns the affection by making her lips stand out, and. "Do you really have clients?"

Jenny lets out a breathy chuckle, and fastens whatever it was she had to fasten. "Yeah," she says quietly. "It's how I pay for my clothes."

Hannah's about to say That's really cool, but it sounds stupid even in her head, even if she's talking to an eighteen-year-old, so she doesn't. It's not like Jenny's age matters a lot to her belly, which is doing that swirling thing it does when she's excited, and Hannah can't will it to stop.

Jenny looks up at her, a little puzzled.

Hannah offers a small smile and asks for some music.

*

Today is mostly just cold, Hannah thinks, pulling into the curb in front of Jenny's building. It's a Thursday, too, but that's irrelevant up against the iciness. Jenny wants her to try on some sort of mermaid costume she's designed for an off off Broadway play a friend of her brother's is putting on, and all Hannah can think about is how cold it is outside, and how wearing skirts with socks has never really worked for her, never mind how thick or high the socks are. The small walk from the coffeehouse to her car has practically made her feet curl up into a ball and die, she tells Jenny.

"I think I'm taking my foot off the pedal, but I can't actually feel it," she says.

"Come on, I'll make you some coffee if you get upstairs," Jenny promises, and Hannah grins.

Jenny's run out of coffee, though seemingly she didn't know until she went to look for it, so she makes Hannah a cup of hot chocolate instead. When Hannah looks down at it, all she sees is marshmallows. When she looks up from her comfortable place on the couch, all she sees is Jenny looking at her, and the mermaid costume halfway on.

"What?"

"The color's kind of weird," Jenny admits.

"I'm wearing an orange sweater over it," Hannah points out. "The orange sweater isn't part of the costume."

Jenny seems to ponder this.

"I'll put the whole thing on when I warm up," Hannah says with a smile, intertwining her fingers behind the hot cup and blowing a bit into it. Jenny's still looking at her; at her face, this time, and there's an amused grin playing on her face.

"What?"

"Nothing," Jenny says, looking away, and goes off to her room. When she emerges, she's got an old, oversized grey cardigan over her arm, and she offers it to Hannah. "I can see the veins on your hands."

Hannah puts the cardigan on, and she's still wearing it when she drives back to her apartment after Jenny decides that the color of the mermaid costume is definitely wrong.

*

Today, the mermaid costume is more green than aquamarine, light and bright, more of an elaborate evening gown than a theater prop, but still completely out of place under the dark grey skies of Manhattan. Hannah sees it over the counter, while she's reviewing for a final. She changes her mind every thirty minutes about whether she's ready for it or not.

"So what do you think?" Jenny says, beaming, and Hannah reaches out to touch the fabric.

"It's — scaly?" Hannah attempts, and realizes she's forgotten something, so she goes back a few pages to find the answer. "Sorry. I have a final tomorrow."

"Oh," Jenny says. "We can leave this for another time. It's fine. Really."

Hannah looks up at Jenny's face, clearly disappointed and not even trying to hide it, which is what Hannah would do, and what Hannah thinks most people should do. The thing is, Jenny has this stupid power over her; not real power, more like Hannah just can't say no to her, so she glances one last time at the book, sighing as she smashes it closed.

They cross paths on Hannah's way to the backroom to change out of her work clothes. Vanessa's drying her hands on her work pants and eying her with — curiosity, Hannah thinks.

"She has mannequins for this, you know," Vanessa says.

"I know," Hannah murmurs. Vanessa raises an eyebrow, but doesn't press the subject.

And the thing is, she does know. Maybe she's getting in over her head, but she really can't say no when spending time with Jenny is so easy, when it means avoiding her roommates' boyfriends and those moments when they watch TV in the living room and it's not what it was two years, one year ago, because they're cuddling and Hannah is — and Hannah's thinking about Jenny, and whether or not she should make the first move, if the fact that she's twenty-one means anything to Jenny, if Jenny's even interested in girls at all, and even if she is, if Jenny's interested in Hannah past the modeling and the stitching and the fact that Hannah couldn't know less about fashion if she tried.

So that's what Hannah's wondering, again, when the bottom of the costume disengages itself over her thigh. "Sh—" she whispers, not getting the complete word out, because she never does, and cautiously takes it off again and gets her work clothes back on before walking back out.

"It fell apart," Hannah says, sheepishly giving the dress back to Jenny, and Jenny just smiles, wide and bright, like it doesn't matter.

"I'll put it back together," she says. Hannah apologizes with her eyes. "You have to study, anyway."

So Jenny leaves, and turns around before she opens the entrance door. Hannah catches her eyes, smiles at her, and realizes that Jenny looks awfully happy.

*

Today Hannah has off, and she's about to get started on her very exciting plan of lying on the couch with a big carton of raspberry B&J's and a bunch of crappy chick flicks when there's a knock on the door.

"The doorman let me in," Jenny says when it's open, and Hannah stares at her for a little too long before she remembers to ask her to come in.

"How did you know where I lived?" Hannah asks. Jenny looks around.

"Would it be creepy if I said I asked Vanessa to look it up at work?" Jenny says, smiling like she's just confessed to breaking a vase.

Hannah chuckles. "It's actually kind of cute," she says, which she doesn't think has to mean anything or — or anything. It's just a fact. "So, I was going to eat ice cream and watch movies, and you're welcome to join me if you'd like."

"Actually, I just wanted to give you this," Jenny says, and gets something wrapped in plastic out of her oversized handbag. Hannah half-sits, half-leans on the back of the couch to open it. "I made it myself."

Hannah stares at the hot pink satin for a few seconds before saying, "It's a nightgown, right?"

"Yeah," Jenny says. Hannah thinks the smile means she's pleased with herself.

"You made me a nightgown?"

"Well, I've never actually designed sleepwear, and I don't think I want to fall down that particular career path until I'm properly settled in couture, but I saw it so clearly in my head I couldn't not make it. So I decided to give it to you. As a gift. For — you know. Trying on my half-sewn clothes and all."

Hannah offers a small smile. "You gave me a shirt last week."

"This is different," Jenny remarks. "Oh my God, you don't like it, do you? You don't have to like it," she blurts out. "I didn't put that much effort into it or anything."

"No, it's — it's gorgeous."

"You don't have to lie," Jenny says, although Hannah knows she doesn't take criticism very well. The thing is, it is gorgeous. It's a gorgeous nightgown. Not very useful, but pretty. The skirt probably doesn't stretch any further than mid-thigh, and the top half is kind of skanky, but the layers of fabric form some sort of flower around the ribcage area and it's — well, it's pretty.

"It's lovely," Hannah says, looking at Jenny. "It's also kind of slutty? But it's really pretty."

"I think it would look amazing on you," Jenny says brightly, and Hannah becomes aware of something.

"Are you coming on to me?" She blinks, a bit surprised that her curiosity has crossed the thinking-before-speaking line. She adds, "Or something?"

Jenny feigns surprise. "No. Of course not. I just thought up the design and figured it would look good on you. Most things do, you know. From an objective point of view. The image just popped into my head."

"The image of me in a scanty, hot pink nightgown that's practically a negligee?"

There's a long pause in which Hannah raises an eyebrow playfully, because she never learned how to be sarcastic, and then Jenny says,

"It's totally platonic," and Hannah can't help but chuckle. As far as declarations of interest go, this one is pretty out there, but then she remembers the flower and realizes that Jenny's entire mind is pretty out there, too. "I've never — I mean, how are you supposed to hit on a girl?" Jenny blurts out. "Like, a total stranger at a bar, that's easy, there's only dignity to lose there —"

Hannah takes a step ahead and kisses her. It's kind of awkward, because she's leaning forward and it probably looks like one of those scenes where the little girl keeps her hands behind her back and pecks the boy on the cheek, but at least Jenny shuts up.

For about a second.

"But you're kind of my friend," Jenny finishes. "You can just keep the nightgown, you know. It's just a gift."

Hannah giggles. Sort of undignified, that, but she can't help it. Then she looks at Jenny, straightening out her face, and says, solemnly, slowly nodding, "I'll keep the nightgown."

"Okay," Jenny replies, her smile returning, and closes the distance between them.

For the rest of the afternoon, they lie on the couch eating ice cream and watching crappy chick flicks. It's not exactly newsworthy, but they snuggle a little, and they kiss a lot, and it's really much better than doing all that on your own.