Martha frowned. The voice cut very neatly through the din, but made its way less neatly through her brain, because at that point the din was the more orderly of the two. She looked up from her conversation—and up, and up, because the voice was terribly inconsiderate and coming from far too high.
"Wayne," she greeted, taking a certain amount of pleasure in how unhappy he looked to see her there. She hadn't been aware that it was his fraternity, but it was hardly a surprise. Of course he'd be in a fraternity. Of course it would be this one. She took another sip of sickly-sweet wine cooler, and behaved for all the world as if she belonged there.
"You shouldn't be here," he said.
"She's fine," said Gene, but Thomas silenced him with a look. It was a very silencing sort of a look.
"I'm quite fine," Martha agreed, not at all silenced. She took a drag from her cigarette, exhaled smoke through her nostrils.
"You're wasted," he said, and he took the cup from her hand before she could stop him. This was not saying much. Her reflexes were not what they could have been. "Do you live on campus?"
"Where I live is none of your business," she said with a lofty tilt of her nose.
"Fine," he said, her drink abandoned on a side table. He bent down, and hooked an arm around her waist, another under her knees. Her indignant protest turned into an equally indignant shriek as he picked her up to throw her over his shoulder.
"Put me down."
"Bye, Martha," Gene said with a wave of his fingers as Thomas carried her out of the house.
"I insist that you put me down immediately."
"There aren't that many vowels in the word 'immediately'."
She kneed him in the ribs as best she could. He stumbled a little, with a grunt that seemed disproportionate to her ability, but soldiered on. "I'll put this out on you," she warned, though he couldn't see her holding her cigarette aloft behind him. The night air was cold, and her mouth trailed steam as her hand trailed smoke. She'd left her jacket inside. Thomas' shoes crunched in snow.
"This is entirely unnecessary." His arm was still hooked around her knees, and she was failing to find a graceful way to keep her head mostly-upright. She took a sullen drag of her cigarette. "Do you do this to all the girls, or am I just a special case?"
"You're not special." Streetlamps cast an orange light that didn't illuminate the trees.
"So you do this to all the girls?" She threw her lit cigarette butt into the middle of the street; the cherry glowed against the asphalt in the dark.
"You're lucky number thirteen."
She frowned. That wasn't what he was supposed to say. She wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say. Something stupid. Instead her mental construction of the conversation had all collapsed. "Put me down," she said again. "I am perfectly capable of walking, thank you."
Finally, he stopped, and bent to let her heels touch the thin layer of snow on the pavement. She stumbled. His arm was conveniently positioned to let her steady herself. He wore a heavy sweater and no coat. She let him go, and tried to take another step. She missed the ground, though she wasn't sure how. He caught her by the shoulders. "Uh-huh." She was irritated by how smug he seemed to sound. The kind of smug that sounded irritable. The worst, and smuggest kind. "Do you live on campus, or should I get a car?"
"I'm not telling you where I live." The chill pricked at her forearms.
He made a sound of disgust. "So now you're worried about safety."
"I was perfectly safe."
"You were at a frat party, too wasted to walk."
"I was with Gene."
"At a frat party. Wasted."
"I'm aware," Thomas snapped. "Which I assume you knew, because otherwise you would have just outed him." His tone made it clear that he believed no such thing; it was a warning. She crossed her arms with a stubborn tilt to her jaw. "He doesn't like you as much as he wants everyone else to like him, and he is an enormous pushover. As you can see by the fact that you're here, with me, because he didn't even try to come with me to make sure you'd be okay."
Martha huffed a dramatic cloud of steam. She tried to push him, and instead nearly tipped backward. He caught her by the shoulders again. "That hardly signifies," she said. "You're you." She gestured vaguely at him, which required leaning back, which meant he had to keep her from tipping over again. "Your entire personality is predicted on convincing people of your unimpeachable goodness."
"I really thought that accent might slip when you were drunk, but instead it's just getting worse, wow. Are you going to let me carry you, or are you just going to keep stumbling in circles?"
"I don't need you to—to..." She ground to a halt as she lost track of her sentence. "I don't need you," she said instead, to give it closure.
"I don't have time for this." He scooped her up into his arms, and she responded by prodding him in the ribs. He winced, but didn't drop her. It irritated her that he actually looked both ways before crossing the empty street.
"Where exactly do you think you're taking me?"
"There's a hotel this way. If you won't let me take you home, you can sleep it off there."
"If you try anything," she informed him loftily, "I'll slit your throat."
"Good for you."
She rested her head against his chest, only because it was there. "Ooh!" She pointed to a nearby building as he cut through a parking lot. "Fried chicken, I want fried chicken."
"Get some in the morning."
She pulled in her arms to curl against him, only because he was warm and she didn't have her coat. "I want it now."
"You didn't even check."
"It's the middle of the night. Stop whining."
"I've never whined in my life. You're going through an awful lot of trouble, you know, for someone that's supposed to hate me."
"The fact that you think those things are mutually exclusive is why I don't like you," he said. No one looked askance as they entered the lobby, hitting a wall of warmth inside the door. He went straight to the elevator. "Despite what you seem to think, you're not the first person to tell me I'm going to spend the rest of my life a miserable failure, and you probably won't be the last. You're just the only one who needed to pretend to be psychic to do it." He set her down, and she braced herself against a rail as he hit the button to the top floor.
"You say that," she said, retrieving a metal case of cigarettes from her bra, "but you're angry." It ought to have been unwise to taunt him while they were trapped in an elevator together. She was at a marked disadvantage. Repeated attempts to work her lighter ended in failure, until the side of her thumb hurt from rolling the flint. "And I never said failure," she added. "I said mediocre."
"You meant failure. I have better shit I could be doing than babysitting an amoral bitch without a conscience." He got a soft pack out of his pocket, used his own lighter with ease, and so she leaned close to light her cigarette off the same flame. They breathed smoke at each other.
When the elevator stopped, he didn't pick her back up. She walked very slowly after him, one hand against the wall of the hallway. He unlocked a door, and left it open. It took her entirely too long to join him. She left a crooked trail of ashes along the carpet. He was gathering up a duffel bag of items strewn about the suite, his cigarette hanging off his lip.
"Is this your room?" He didn't answer, and kept packing. "I thought Daddy would have a house or five for you to stay in."
"He does." His cigarette managed to stay motionless as he spoke around it.
"Hm." She wobbled closer while he ignored her, shoving books into his bag. He was only packing enough for one night. He was planning to come back. Without warning, she grabbed the edge of his sweater and lifted it to look at his ribs. He knocked her hand away to fix it almost immediately.
Red and black and purple and yellow, criss-crossing hatchwork over dark and formless shapes.
"Christmas present?" she asked as he pulled his bag over his shoulder. He didn't respond. "Who from?"
"You." He took the wrist of her free hand, and pushed two sets of keys into her palm, curling her fingers around them. He took his cigarette out of his mouth, other hand still wrapped around hers. "Don't let anyone in. There's money on the desk for a cab in the morning. Happy New Year."
He shut the door quietly when he left. She leaned against the wall, and breathed smoke.