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Best Served Warm

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Natalie’s nominally awake when she pulls into Kelly’s driveway to pick her up for practice. She lets the car idle, kicking up clouds of steam into the cold air outside, and plants her face in her coffee mug while she waits for Kelly.

The Kelly she gets looks even grumpier than Natalie feels: hair askew in her ponytail, and no “good morning.” Kelly always says good morning. Kelly sings good morning most days: the song from Singing in the Rain. Natalie sometimes pulls herself out of bed based solely on the knowledge that if she does, Kelly Terry will sing, “Good morning, good mo-o-orning,” in that adorably tone deaf way she has.

But this morning, Kelly tosses her bag into the back and slides into the passenger seat with a grimace and a slammed door.

“Good morning?” Natalie says.

“I broke up with Jake.”

Oh, thank fuck.

“That’s terrible,” Natalie says dutifully. “I’m so sorry.”

Kelly actually rolls her eyes. “You are not sorry; you think he’s a douche.” Kelly looks over at Natalie expectantly, like she’s waiting for further snarky remarks, and Natalie is kinda relieved to figure out that’s her role in this conversation.

“I am shocked and heartbroken,” Natalie says. “I don’t know what I shall ever do without Jake McDoucherson.”

Kelly snorts and sags back into her seat. “Yeah. I guess he was a douche.” She sounds tired. Regretful.

He made you sad, Natalie wants to say. He interrupted you when you talked, and he made you feel embarrassed about stuff you like, and he made you all quiet and solemn and sad, and I hope he dies in a ditch on the side of a road.

Instead, she says, “Wanna talk about it?”

“Nah.”

Her frown makes Natalie twitch. For lack of anything more comforting to do, Natalie thrusts her coffee mug in Kelly’s face.

“Drink some coffee,” she orders.

“I don’t want your leftover coffee,” Kelly says, but accepts the mug and takes a sip. Her face goes soft with pleasure—that universal expression of thank-you-lord-for-this-coffee—and Natalie feels stupidly relieved. She throws the car into reverse and gets them back on the road.

“Let’s go out after practice,” she suggests. “We can go to that fancy French place you like and get drunk on high-dollar wine.”

“Yeah, okay.”

And by the time they’re halfway to the arena, Kelly’s singing along to the radio like normal, and the relief Natalie feels that she’s not too heartbroken is kinda ridiculous. She just needs Kelly to be happy, okay. She needs it like she needs coffee and winning and hockey.

Ugh.

*

Natalie had thought about inviting some of the other girls, but then she’d thought, what if Kelly wants to talk about her feelings and be sad and shit. She should have her privacy. But Kelly doesn’t want to seem to talk about Jake. She wants to talk about mussels.

“God, I love mussels.” Kelly says. She eats them lovingly, without utensils, scooping up broth with each mussel shell and slurping the mussel and broth together as if from a soup spoon. Sometimes a piece of tomato or olive or herb escapes her mouth to lands on her chin or the swell of her lip, and her tongue slips out to snatch it back.

She smiles at Natalie. “This was the best idea, Spoons. I was in such a bad mood, y’know all—” and she gesticulates haphazardly with the mussel in her hand. She considers her shiny-wet fingers as the little mussel drips over her plate. “Mussels are the best food. Mussels and cream puffs. Don’t you think so?”

Natalie takes this subject change in stride. It’s always a good sign when Kelly’s going off on tangents.

“Mussles and cream puffs,” Natalie repeats. Her doubt must show on her face.

“Not together. Just, each of them separately. They’re both little packages of goodness, you know?”

Natalie’s first thought, of course, is that they’re both kind of sexual, what with the opening them up and sucking out the juices, but she’s trying to be classy.

“They always make me feel kinda drunk, mussels.”

“You’re eating them with wine,” Natalie points out.

“Well, yeah.” Kelly purses her lips. “But it’s not just the wine. There’s something about them, like prying apart the shells, and the soupy parts and the bread and the wine. It’s a whole experience. They’re…” She sighs happily, quirks an eyebrow, and slurps down another in demonstration.

Which does not make Natalie’s sexy thoughts go away, except that she’s also got this warm, tender feeling welling up in her chest. Natalie needs a goddamn witness. She wants to turn to the next table and say, Are you seeing this? Who gets this adorably excited about shellfish?

As they near the bottom of the pot, Kelly starts pulling off hunks of bread and pressing them into the crannies of their pot and plates. Natalie just puts her chin in her hands and watches her eat.

She can admit it now, at least to herself. She is stupidly, excessively in love.

 

*

“So you want to get dinner again after practice?” Natalie says next week, because she is a masochist.

“Sounds good,” Kelly says, looking up at her from underneath her lashes, and Natalie sternly tells herself not to read into shit.

“Awesome. I thought maybe we could go to that Japanese place you wanted to try.”

Kelly looks like she wants to laugh. “You hate eating with chopsticks.”

“Yeah, but you don’t.”

It’s worth it, for the look on Kelly’s face.

*

Natalie’s heard Bozek rave about shabu-shabu for the last two years, but she’s never really seen the appeal. What is the point of a restaurant where you have to cook your own food?

The other problem is that Natalie’s not so hot with chopsticks, which pisses her off, because she hates being bad at things, and also because she keeps losing her food in the pot of simmering miso.

“It’s easier if you hold them further up,” Kelly says, and demonstrates.

“Mmm-hmm.” Natalie re-adjusts her grip, haltingly. This is fine, Natalie’s got this, she’ll just pinch that piece of beef there and—

Natalie whines when she loses yet another perfectly good cut of Kobe beef to the pot. Kelly snickers.

With a flick of her wrist, Kelly fishes out the beef and offers it up, her arm outstretched above the hot pot. She wriggles it.

“It’s okay, baby, let Mama feed you,” she coos, and Natalie knows it’s a joke, she knows that, but jeez. She opens her mouth and lets Kelly place the beef on her tongue.

Natalie is not reading into shit, there is no reading, Natalie is illiterate, oh god.

Kelly doesn’t need Natalie to laugh at her jokes, though. She breaks into giggles and starts feeding Natalie all of the rest of the beef on the plate, and well. It’s not like Natalie’s gonna stop her.

*

The next week is phở, and the week after that is Burmese, and then there’s a steakhouse, and Kelly is delighted every time. Natalie can’t stop herself.

*

They’re at the fanciest Italian restaurant Natalie’s ever been to, but it’s fine, because they’ve got spaghetti on the menu, so Natalie can order that. Kelly’s ordered some kind of pasta where everything is black because there is squid ink in it. It’s initially gross, but Kelly seems to like it, and it makes her lips all dark, like she’s been drinking wine.

“Spooner.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Are we dating?”

Natalie chokes on her spaghetti. “What?”

“I—,” Kelly laughs a little. “We keep going to these nice restaurants together, and sometimes you look at me like….” Kelly widens her eyes at Natalie, presumably making whatever dumb, lovelorn face that Natalie makes, and Natalie freezes.

The silence stretches out between them. Kelly’s face starts to get red, and Natalie wants to reassure her, but her brain has shorted out. Are they dating? Is that what Kelly thought? Is Kelly into that? Is Natalie that transparent?

Kelly’s coughs a little. “I can’t tell whether I just said something super dumb or whether I got it right. Clue me in, here.”

“Not—. Not dumb. Um. I mean.” Get it together, Spooner. Use your words. “I didn’t intend them to be dates, but are you…are you saying that you’re interested?”

“Spoons, I thought we were dating.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” Kelly looks at her expectantly, and Natalie would love to say, yes, good let’s be dating, but Kelly just got out of a relationship.

“I thought I was helping you get over Jake?” Natalie says. Or asks. Her voice is a little high.

“Yes.” Kelly raises her eyebrows. “But, like, it seemed like you were helping me get over him by wooing me yourself.”

Oh God, only Kelly would use stupid words like wooing and mean them. Natalie can feel her lips quirking up, helplessly.

“I guess…I guess I kinda was.”

And Kelly’s smiling back at her, sweet and sly, and Natalie doesn’t really know what to do with her face or her hands or her anything right now.

There’s a sound like a glass breaking that makes Natalie’s gaze flicker away for a moment. The restaurant around them is a cacophony of clinking dishes, and murmuring guests, and soft candlelight shining on Kelly’s hair. Natalie is overwhelmed by the possibilities.

“Hey Spooner,” Kelly says, and Natalie’s attention snaps back to her. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

“We’re already at dinner.”

Kelly leans forward and stage-whispers: “Yeah, but like, a romantic dinner.”

Natalie has to clear her throat before she can say, “What, this one not romantic enough for you?”

Kelly shrugs. “Meh.”

Natalie scoffs, trying to summon up playful indignation, but she can’t stop the laughter bubbling up in her throat.

“I am gonna woo the shit out of you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Definitely.”

The look on Kelly’s face is like when they’re about to go out on the ice and it’s already in the bag. Natalie can’t wait.