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It's Not Rocket Science But it Might be Chemistry

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Aaron dumps Cady on October 3rd. Over email. Sent to her school email account.

Cady might still be figuring out the social rules of American High School, but even she knows that’s pretty bad as far as breakups go.

This is confirmed by Janis exclaiming, “That Abercrombie & Fitch Wearing Assmouth Motherfuckstick!” when Cady tells her what happened. Damian doesn’t say anything because he’s at auditions for the fall play that he’s directing as of about a week ago when their drama teacher decided that her true calling was actually glazed ceramics and up and moved to Santa Fe.

And it’s not like Janis spiralling into a rant about what a douchebag her ex is makes up for the sting of getting dumped over email not even two full months into the long distance relationship he wanted in the first place, but it definitely helps. At the very least Cady’s able to mostly keep it together through her classes. She does end up ducking out to the bathroom for a few minutes during English when she gets handed a page of essay prompts for their upcoming assignment and one of them is on the nature of love through hardship. But other than that she’s pretty proud of herself for not just dissolving into a pile of tears and self-pity.

Or she doesn’t dissolve until she walks into Ms. Norbury’s room at the end of the day for mathletes practice and realizes that this was the room she first saw Aaron in. That this is the room she fell in love with him in. And if that weren’t enough, Marwan and Tyler are sitting in their old desks, Marwan turned around in Aaron’s, both of them leaned in close together. It’s the kind of typical adorably annoying couple stuff she expects from Marwan and Tyler, but today it’s a little too much for her to handle and she bursts into tears.

“Oh shit, Africa, what’s wrong?” Kevin says, standing from where he was sitting on top of a desk.

“I’m fine,” Cady tries to say. Tries being the operative word, because there is so much fucking spit in her mouth all of a sudden and she barely has enough air in her lungs to breathe between sobs.

“Holy moly, what the heck is going on in here,” Ms. Norbury says, can of Diet Coke in hand.

Cady tries to choke out some kind of non-pathetic explanation, but there’s still no extra room in her lungs. As it is, she doesn’t get to explain much of anything, Kevin gently but firmly guiding her out of the room, down the hall, and into the mostly deserted cafeteria.

“I’m fine,” Cady manages out for real this time, but Kevin just deposits her at a table, only to vanish for like five minutes and reappear with a bottle of water, a twix bar, and a pile of napkins, sliding them across the table to her.

She half expects Kevin to leave, but he just sits across the table from her, politely scrolling on his phone while she goes through half a dozen napkins and manages to calm down enough to take a few sips of water.

“Do you want me to go?” Kevin asks.

“No, it’s okay,” Cady says, glad her voice is finally back, even if it sounds weird and watery.

“Okay,” Kevin says, and then goes back to his phone.

Cady unwraps the Twix and manages to eat most of one of the sticks, even if she’s not all that hungry. It feels kind of rude not to after someone literally bought it for her, and she has to admit, even if she still feels like crap at least her blood sugar is stable.

“Aaron dumped me. Over email,” Cady finally says, Kevin looking up over his phone.

“Asshole!” He exclaims.

“Yup,” Cady says, pushing her hands up into her hairline. “So that’s, yeah.”

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

“Not really,” Cady says with a huff.

“Legit,” Kevin says, and then after a moment, “I’m gonna eat this other Twix if you don’t want it.”

“Knock yourself out,” Cady says, sliding it towards him over the table.

“You know, if you wanna just like, go home, literally no one would blame you. I could cover for you. Tell them you’ve come down with some weird jungle disease we’ve all never heard of.”

“You’re my ride home,” Cady points out.

“We could both play hooky.”

“But then who would drive Tyler and Marwan home?”

“Not anyone who would let them make out in their backseat, that’s for damn sure,” Kevin says, and the corners of Cady’s mouth turn up despite herself.

“They really are a lot. Like I love them, I’m glad they’re happy. They are...so much.”

“Ahhh the throes of young love,” Kevin says around a mouthful of Twix. “Ah wait fuck, sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” Cady says waving a hand. “I just, I really just wanna go do some fucking math and not think about it for a while.”

“Your wish is my command, Cady Heron.”

Cady knows she must look rough the next morning when even her no-excuses mom lets her skip school in favour of curling up in a ball and pretending the world outside doesn’t exist. Just because she was undersocialized for most of her adolescence doesn’t mean that Cady has no concept of breakups, but actually living through one involves all these extra steps she could never have predicted. Like what exactly is the correct response to your 24-hours-long ex texting you to ask if you saw his email, or what are you supposed to feel when said ex has clearly gone through his entire Facebook untagging and deleting photos of you together even though he hasn’t even changed his relationship status yet.

And that’s not even getting into having to deal with everyone else’s feelings about her breakup.

She knows Damian and Janis are just trying to be supportive or whatever, but hearing how much her ex sucked and how they allegedly knew this the whole time they were dating doesn’t exactly make her feel better.

“Can we please just talk about something else?” Cady says finally, interrupting Janis’ tirade about the heteropatriarchy.

Janis opens and then shuts her mouth, frowning. “Alright, what do you wanna talk about then?”

“Literally anything. Like, um, I don’t know, how’s the play going, Damian? I didn’t see you after auditions, did they go okay?”

Damian lights up at that, flourishing his hands to the side. “Well I’m glad you asked.”

“Oh here we go,” Janis says, scraping the bottom of a pudding cup with a spoon disinterestedly.

“Shush!” Damian says. “So we didn’t have a huge turnout, which isn’t that surprising, you know, considering. But you know who did audition?”

“Who?” Cady asks.

“Jason. Wright.” Damian says. Like Cady is supposed to know who that is.

“Should I know who that is?” Cady asks.

“Varsity jock. He’s on the lacrosse team I think? Total out-of-left-field auditionee.”

“Oh, wait was he that guy who Regina said had teeth that look like corn?” Cady says. It’s not the best way to know someone, but at least it’s something.

“No that’s Jason Weems,” Janis says, gesturing with her plastic spoon. “Jason Wright’s the one dating that guy, you know, the Don’t Kill Yourself Poster Boy. Whats-his-face.”

“No that’s Jackson Wayne,” Damian corrects. “Jason Wright’s the one who’s always saying hi to me in the halls, like he’s going for his Gay Ally merit badge or something.”

“Maybe he’s just being nice.”

“Oh sweet, sweet naive straight Cady,” Damian says. “That’s a very nice thought, but no, you’ve met one tryhard jock ally you’ve met them all. But anyways, the real tea is that he was very good and I think I’m actually going to cast him.”

Cady’s not entirely sure how that’s hot gossip. She’s still not entirely tuned into the greater web of social hierarchy at North Shore, but she’s thankful for the distraction either way.

“Cady, oh my god,” someone says in a rush behind her as Janis and Damian continue ragging on this Jason Wright guy. Cady half turns on the bench and ends up with an armful of Gretchen Wieners.

“I heard about Aaron,” Gretchen says, which is pretty much confirmation of Cady’s fear that the whole school already knows about it. Even if she’s not Plastic anymore, people still are weirdly invested in her business.

“I just wanted to say,” Gretchen says, petting her hair and pushing Cady’s face into her shoulder, “That you are so brave, and I am here for you, whatever you need.”

Cady squirms a little out of her iron-clad grip, but the half smile she gives Gretchen is genuine. “Thank you, you’re a good friend.”

Gretchen beams at her, tipping her own head lightly on Cady’s shoulder. After everything that went down last year it’s nice to feel like she’s in a pretty okay place with Gretchen. Not that anything she did was okay, but there was a special sort of awfulness to what she did to Gretchen, who, yeah, could be gossipy and superficial, but clearly was trying to be a good person and a good friend.

Not that Janis and Damian have ever seemed to understand that, making not-so-subtle eye contact with each other on the other side of the table.

‘Stop it’ Cady mouths at them, Janis rolling her eyes in response.

“Anyways,” Gretchen says, lifting her head off Cady’s shoulder, “I should probably go, I’m supposed to meet with admin about Snowflake Soiree, but let’s do a girls day soon. We could get boba tea!”

“Totally,” Cady says.

“I’ll text you later,” Gretchen says standing and smoothing out her skirt. “Bye Janis, bye Damian.”

Janis and Damian both let out a halfhearted mumbled acknowledgement as Gretchen clicks off on her heels.

“I can’t believe they’re already planning the winter dance,” Cady says. “It’s October.”

“Snowflake Soiree is the Spring Fling of the Fall semester,” Damian exclaims. “It’s basically pre-pre-prom.”

“That still doesn’t mean anything to me,” Cady says, and Damian sighs like she’s being oh so difficult.

“Some things can’t be explained, they just have to be understood,” Damian says with a huge melodramatic sigh.

“Right,” Cady says.

Kevin’s waiting for her outside her locker after lunch.

“Hey,” Kevin says.

“Hey,” Cady says.

He hesitates for a second, and Cady can practically feel his impulse to ask her how she’s doing. He doesn’t though, instead handing her a stack of papers. “I grabbed your stuff from trig and chem yesterday.”

“I’d say thanks, but you are handing me a pile of homework,” Cady says, taking them and tucking them under her arm.

“Understandable,” Kevin hesitates again, rolling his ankle. “So um, I didn’t like, tell them what happened or anything, but I hope it’s okay I mentioned to Marwan and Ty that like, if they could maybe try and be a bit less couple-y for a little while cause you’re like, going through some stuff. I hope that was okay?”

He’s looking at her so earnestly, big brown puppy dog eyes, that even if Cady had cared she’s pretty sure it would have melted away. “Yeah, no that’s totally fine. You’re really sweet to have done that.”

Kevin grins. “Coolio, I gotta run to class, but I’ll see you in trig.”

“Totally,” Cady says, and Kevin gives her a set of finger guns and then turns on his heel disappearing down the hall.

Cady thinks whoever came up with the five stages of grief must never have been dumped. She spends the weekend in a constantly oscillating emotional state, launching from crying to fuming in the space of an hour. Typing up draft after draft response to Aaron’s email, angry and sarcastic and pleading and attempts to be mature, before deleting all of them alongside his original email. Janis and Damian both try and get her out of the house and her parents keep trying to coax her out of her room with promises of Mongolian hot pot and new Netflix documentaries, both with limited success.

She’s wrapped in her comforter on Sunday afternoon, attempting to work on homework that’s due tomorrow and trying to shove down the urge to check Aaron’s instagram when her cell rings. A picture she’d taken of Aaron the night of Spring Fling popping up on the screen.

Cady’s stomach drops and she lurches back from her phone like it’s a green mamba. The ringtone cycles through twice before the screen goes dark and it falls silent. She lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, jumping a second time when it immediately starts ringing again.

Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

“Hello?” Cady says.

“Hey,” Aaron says. “Um, what’s up.”

Oh nothing, just wallowing in my room because you dumped me two months into long distance even though you were the one who wanted to do long distance in the first place! She thinks.

“Just doing homework,” Cady says.

“Ha, yeah, I feel that,” Aaron says.

The last time they talked on the phone he was still her boyfriend, Cady realizes abruptly. He’d told her he loved her completely unprompted. So what the fuck was up with that?

“So um, what’s up?” Cady tries, fighting the urge to beg Aaron to take her back and/or tell him he’s an asshole and hang up on him.

Aaron exhales. “I just hadn’t heard from you in a while. And I meant it. When I said, what I said about wanting to still be friends.”

“I’ve been really busy, with classes and college applications and stuff,” Cady says defensively.

“Okay,” Aaron says abashed and now she feels like a jerk.

“Sorry,” Cady says, “It’s been a weird week.”

“Yeah for me too,” Aaron says. “I hope you know that I never wanted to hurt you, ever. It’s just eating me up inside thinking that you’ve been upset.”

Fuck you, Cady thinks.

“It’s fine,” Cady says. “I’m okay.”

Aaron breathes a melodramatic sigh of relief. “I’m so happy to hear that. I hope you understood like, this is just a time in my life when I really want to be able to explore who I am and not be held back. And, like you’re so young, you have so much ahead of you too. If anything I needed to break up with you for your sake.”

“Uh huh,” Cady says. “I should probably go, I have a lot of homework and I’m actually going out later with Janis and Damian, so…”

“For sure, I just um, well I just wanted to check in with you about my birthday?”

“Your birthday?” Cady says.

“Well, yeah, cause. Well remember you said in the summer we could do it at your house?”

“You still want to have your birthday party at my house?” Cady asks incredulously.

“Well, like my house is so much smaller than yours, I can’t even really throw a party there. And I’m not like everyone else at school I can’t just like, rent a villa for the weekend.”

It should be so easy to say no. To hang up and delete him from her contacts. Cady is still wading her way through the social norms of the North American teenager, and even she knows that throwing a birthday party at your own house for your ex-boyfriend is not something anyone has ever been expected to do ever.

“Look, if it’s going to be a big deal— ” Aaron starts.

“It’s fine, we can do it here. It’s totally fine,” Cady lies. “It’ll be great.”

It won’t be great.

“Caddy I love you, but what in the fresh hell were you thinking,” Janis says, first thing Monday morning, turned around in the front seat of Damian’s car so she can berate her to her face.

“He just made it sound so...I don’t know, like I was the one being a jerk for going back on my word,” Cady says. “I panicked. I’m not good at this stuff.”

“Yeah, that’s for damn sure,” Janis says. “Jesus Christ.”

Cady slams up against the side of the car as Damian takes a turn too sharply.

“Sorry!” He says from the driver’s seat.

“Look, can you guys just please come so I don’t have to be all alone with Aaron and his friends and everyone looking at me like I’m his pathetic ex.”

“Oh obviously we’ll be there,” Janis says. “I’m not missing this trainwreck.”

“I’m bringing popcorn,” Damian adds.

Well that’s at least ... something. “Thanks for the support, guys.”

“So,” Regina says, sneaking up right before Cady as she’s putting stuff in her locker at the end of the day. “I heard Aaron dumped you.”

“Yeah,” Cady says carefully, not exactly feeling up to Regina gloating to her about it.

“Lets go get cheese fries,” Regina says, and then doesn’t wait for Cady to respond before she’s walking off in the direction of the students’ parking lot. Though she’s still recovering from a spinal injury so it’s at least not that hard for Cady to shove her stuff in her backpack and catch back up with her.

“Karen’s coming too,” Regina says as they step outside, the sky overcast and grey above the North Shore student parking lot. And sure enough, Karen is waiting for them beside her bright yellow car.

“Hi Cady!” Karen says, coming over to give her a hug, tottering on the gravel in some very cute but very impractical shoes.

“Hey, long time no see,” Cady says.

“What? No, you saw me this morning!” Karen says.

“I did?”

“Yeah on North Shore Daily.”

“Oh that’s— you’re right, I did,” Cady says. The North Shore Daily was the school’s morning announcement news show that Karen was now the weather girl for. “Have you been liking doing the show?”

“It’s the best. Everyone is so nice! I always thought I couldn’t be a weather girl because I’d have to know all the science stuff, but other people help me with the science stuff and I get to do the pointing.”

Karen keeps up a pretty pleasant stream of dialogue all the way to the mall, with occasional interjections by Regina, mostly regarding how unbelievably hot she find her physiotherapist. Aaron doesn’t even come up until they’re at the little 1950s themed restaurant at the mall.

Regina orders them all a round of milkshakes, but Cady opts out of cheese fries in favour of onion rings.

“So, Aaron,” Regina says, taking a long sip of her shake.

“Yup, Aaron,” Cady says.

“Like at least the first time I dumped him I had the balls not to do it over email like a coward. Let me guess, most of it was about how awful he feels.”

“Yeah, there was a lot of that,” Cady admits. “Plus how much he wanted to go back to being friends.”

Regina snorts. “Bullshit. You guys weren’t even friends before. You had a crush on him, then he was dating me, then he was your friend’s ex.

“Aaron’s hot but he’s not as nice as people think he is,” Karen says matter of factly, licking whipped cream off her straw.

“I mean, he’s not not-nice,” Cady says defensively.

“Not not-nice isn’t nice,” Regina says. “Like, I was fine with it because like, I’m not-nice. But you’re like, actually mostly a good person.”

“Um, thanks?”

“I mean it’s not really a compliment in this situation cause I heard that you said he could still have his birthday party at your house. Like, seriously Cady, what did I tell you about being a boss? Bosses don’t throw their exes parties.”

“I know. Look, I know but he was just so...I don’t know, and I just felt like I couldn’t say no.”

Regina clicks her tongue. “I mean, you can still always say no. His birthday isn't for what, like, six weeks?”

“I guess,” Cady says, poking at her food. “But then it’s like, I’m the one who cancelled on him and he gets to control the whole narrative.”

“Cady, you have got to stop caring what people think about you so much,” Regina says. “You know where that shit gets you? It gets you hit by a bus! Now stop being a pussy and tell Aaron he can host his own goddamn birthday.” She stands to punctuate her point, though even with the spinal halo removed she’s still a little creaky and awkward standing. “I’m going to get some chocolate cream pie!”

“She’s trying to improve her relationship with food,” Karen says half under her breath. “Which is fun because now we get milkshakes and stuff!”

Cady feels a hot kernel of guilt pop into shame in her stomach. Of all the things she did when she was Plastic, fucking around with the Keltine bars is still one she can barely think about without getting a stomach ache. Even if Regina keeps rebuffing her whenever she tries to apologize.

She reaches across the table for her phone, wanting the distraction, toying with the idea of texting Aaron right now and telling him no, screw you, you don’t get to dump me and then ask me to do things for you.

Her thumb hovers for a long moment over the home button, but she can’t pull the trigger, leaning back in the booth and shoving an onion ring in her mouth dejectedly.

“There is another option,” Regina announces, sounding extremely pleased with herself as she returns to the table with a large slice of pie.

“And that would be?”

“Make him jealous. Bring a hot date to his birthday party and rub his fucking nose in it for letting you go.”

“That’s...that’s actually kind of brilliant.”

“I know, right,” Regina says taking a large triumphant bite of her pie.

There is of course the major problem that Cady doesn’t really know a lot of hot dudes who she can ask to escort her to her ex’s birthday party so she can make him jealous. Especially because she really doesn’t feel comfortable doing it with someone who isn’t in on it from the jump. Which narrows her field of candidates considerably.

Plus, after the initial exciting shine of the idea has dulled a little bit, Cady has to admit that starting another scheme where she initiates a pretend relationship with someone does not reflect super well on what happened last year. But on the other hand, it’s not like Cady would be lying to some guy and pretending she actually liked him, just to Aaron. And her parents. And everyone at school.

Fuck.

She’s consumed enough going back and forth with this that she barely notices Marwan and Tyler just fully macking in the back of Kevin’s car as he drives them all home from mathletes practice.

“Guys, seriously!?” Kevin says. “We just talked about this, can you not?”

Marwan detaches his mouth from his boyfriend’s. “Wow Kev, homophobia’s not a cute look.”

“Yeah, you got a problem with interracial gay couples or something?” Tyler chimes in.

“I literally fucking hate both of you. That’s not what I’m saying and you know it. Cady just got broken up with, the last thing she wants is anyone making out in front of her.”

“Alright, fair point,” Marwan says.

“Sorry Cady,” Tyler adds, slinging an arm around his boyfriend, the two of them cuddling close together, which honestly makes Cady’s chest a lot heavier than the making out had done. But she already feels like she’s being Too Sensitive about this whole thing. Especially because apparently everyone is just chomping at the bit to tell her about what a terrible guy Aaron was and how her whole relationship was just a sham or something and she was the only one too dumb to see it.

At the very least, Marwan and Tyler both get dropped off first, so Cady doesn’t have to keep trying not to look at them snuggling in the rear view mirror.

“Hey, you care if I put some music on?” Kevin asks as they wind their way towards Cady’s neighbourhood.

“Totally, go ahead,” Cady says.

Kevin fiddles with his phone for a minute, skipping through the first few songs that play, snippets so short Cady wouldn’t be able to guess them even if they were songs she’d heard. Kevin finally lands on a song, letting out a laugh and turning up the volume.

“Oh hell yeah, Africa this is your song!” He declares, drumming his hands energetically on the steering wheel.

Cady listens to the song for a long second, but she doesn’t know it. “Sorry, how is this my song?”

“Cause it’s Africa….and you’re Africa…” Kevin says halfheartedly.

“Oh. I don’t really know this song,” she admits.

“You don’t know this song!?” Kevin says

“No?” Cady says sheepishly.

“Oh my god don’t feel bad, I just feel honoured that I get to be the person to introduce you to the sonic masterpiece that is Toto’s Africa,” he says. “We should make you a mixtape or something.”

“Oh,” Cady says flatly, realization dawning on her.

“Or not?” Kevin says.

“No, no, sorry it’s not you, I just— Ugh I just remembered that I have all these Spotify playlists that Aaron made me that I’m going to have to like, go and unlike and. Sorry, it’s not you I’m just.” She makes a vague hand gesture before leaning her forehead against the window.

“It’s okay,” Kevin says, and she snorts. “Literally no one expects you to be totally normal and fine and not upset a few days out, cut yourself some slack. Do you how messed up I was after my first breakup? Oh my god it was tears and hysterics and twelve breakup playlists.”

“Twelve?”

“Yeah, it was bad,” Kevin says with a sigh. “And that was just a dumb middle school relationship. You and Aaron were like, for real together for six months.”

Cady hesitates for a long second. “Hey Kevin, can I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” Kevin says.

“Ever since we broke up everyone keeps telling me how actually secretly awful Aaron is and maybe they’re just trying to be on my side, or maybe they kinda have a point but I just. Were we bad for each other this whole time and I didn’t know?”

Kevin sighs. “I mean as much as I got the swag, as much as it may surprise you, I’m not exactly a relationship expert.”

“Right, but you saw me and Aaron together all the time.”

“Right, but I’m biased.”

“What do you mean you’re biased?” Cady says with a laugh.

Kevin hesitates, “Well I just, you know— I mean like. Me and you, we’re friends. Obviously. So like, maybe I was more critical of Aaron than someone, who is like, you know, more objective.”

“Right, but if all my friends secretly thought he was the worst, why wouldn’t they have told me when we were dating?”

Kevin sighs. “I mean, I don’t think he was the worst. It’s complicated, and if my friend was dating someone and seemed happy I’m not going to be like ‘actually you’re wrong, they suck.’ And you’re allowed to like, look back fondly on stuff in your relationship and also think he’s a total douchecanoe for how he’s treating you now. And if people telling you about how awful they think he is makes you feel bad, tell them to fucking knock it off!”

“Douchecanoe?” Cady says, giggling despite herself

“What?”

“No it was funny! I’ve never heard someone say that before.”

“Glad that was the takeaway,” Kevin says, pulling into her driveway.

“No it’s actually. That’s really helpful and good to hear I guess. Even if ‘it’s complicated’ isn’t exactly, you know.”

“Yeah, it’s not exactly the kinda zinger you’re gonna put on a t-shirt.”

Cady nods, pulling her backpack into her lap and going to open the passenger door. “Hey Kevin?”

“Yeah?”

“Your eighth grade girlfriend was clearly out of her mind.”

“Ahhh lookit you, adapting to high school social rules! Also it’s chill, we never would have lasted anyways. Just promise me you’ll put in a good word at the secret council of girls.”

Cady rolls her eyes affectionately, slinging her bag over her shoulder as she shuts Kevin’s car door. He gives her a friendly little honk, backing out of her driveway, and Cady waves.

She digs her house keys out of her pocket as she takes the steps up to the front door. It’s kind of weird to her that Kevin hasn’t had a girlfriend since eighth grade. Like sure, everyone goes on about how being on mathletes is social suicide, and maybe it would be for someone like Regina or Gretchen, but there’s plenty of weird nerdy girls at their school. Plus, Kevin’s pretty cute, with his floppy dark hair and big brown eyes, and he’s tall which lots of girls like. He’s smart and funny and okay, sure, sometimes he can get a little bit obnoxious and overuse weird slang, but he’s chilled out a lot from last year and—

Cady freezes, key in the lock, the realization knocking the wind out of her.

The perfect fake boyfriend has been staring her in the face this whole time.

“Hey, you’re straight right?” Cady says, dropping into Marwan’s normal seat beside Kevin in Chemistry the next morning. He’s got his safety goggles on already, pushed up into his hairline as he looks up at her, surprised, his pen still hovering over the paper he was writing on.

“Oh, I mean like, yeah, but also I mean, human sexuality is a spectrum so I’m not going to say I’m never going to find a man attractive. And I think specifically cause my best friends are gay like, I’m so much more likely to be able to recognize what that attraction would look like compared to a lot of other guys who have historically only been attracted to women.”

Cady blinks. “Is that a yes?”

“Yeah, essentially.”

“Awesome, uh, I have a favour to ask you.”

“Aight, shoot.”

“Not here, it’s um, it’s private,” Cady says quietly.

Kevin raises an eyebrow. “Are you okay? Is it like…?” He makes a vague circling hand gesture at her midsection, and lowers his voice dramatically, “Lady stuff?”

“What!? Oh my god Kevin, no. Just. I’ll tell you at lunch. Meet me at my locker,” she taps the table twice and stands.

“He did fucking not!” Kevin exclaims, a little too loudly for the student lunch rush crowd at Potbelly. “You’re a much nicer person than me, Cady Heron. I would have told him to go eat shit.”

“Yeah well, it’s hard to tell someone to get eat shit when they’re making you feel like crap and also you’re trying hard not to beg them to take you back.”

“Jesus,” Kevin says through a mouthful of turkey club. “So what’re you gonna do, boo?”

“Wellll, see, about that favour,” Cady says, steeling herself, “Wouldyouconsidermaybebeingmyfakeboyfriendforhisparty?”

“Come again?”

“Would you pretend to be my boyfriend so I have a date to his party and don’t look totally pathetic?”

Kevin puts his sub down. “You want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?”

“Um, yeah, essentially.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why, I just told you.”

Kevin shakes his head. “No, I mean why, me?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re Cady Heron, you could have your pick of like, any of the guys at school, and I’m. You know…” Kevin waves a hand around his whole body. “I’m a niche market is all I’m saying.”

“Debatable,” Cady says. “But that’s not the point. I can’t just ask some random guy from school because I’m not, you know, ready to actually date someone, so they’d have to be in on it. I’m not gonna be like ‘hey Shane Oman, wanna keep my super pathetic secret?’”

“Plus all your other dude friends are gay,” Kevin points out.

“No they’re— ” Cady pauses, doing the mental tally in her head. “Oh my god, all my dude friends are gay.”

Kevin laughs. “Yeah, welcome to the club.”

“So you’ll do it?” Cady asks hesitantly.

“Hey, a chill dope crew’s gotta stick together,” Kevin says.

Cady tucks her hair behind her ears. “If there’s anything, you know, that I can do for you in exchange. Within reason. I can’t like, give you fifty thousand dollars or something.”

“I mean I was going to ask for fifty thousand, but if that’s totally off the table, grab me another one of those sugar cookies and we’ll call it even.”

“Deal,” Cady says, extending her hand over the table. Kevin’s hand is big and warm in hers as they shake on it.

The details take a few days to totally shake out, which is good, because Cady doesn’t want it to come off as too much of a rebound, while still giving enough time between now and Aaron’s party for them to start dating so it doesn’t seem like an obvious ploy on her own behalf.

It’s a fine balance, especially because they also need other people to know about it, so holding hands in Ms. Norbury’s room isn’t exactly going to cut it. But on the other hand, they don’t want to be broadcasting it and making it seem even more like a rebound thing.

Ultimately they decide that they should leak it slowly to a few people who they think will let it slip to other people, assuring that people know but without it seeming like they’re trying to broadcast it.

T-minus twenty minutes, Kevin texts her at lunch. Cady’s in the art room helping paint props and sets for Damian’s play. She’s so nervous though that she’d already messed up on some detail work and has been relegated to painting a bunch of wooden curtain cutouts solid red.

“Hey, you’re Cady right?” a dark haired guy she doesn’t know asks as she rinses her brushes at the sink.

“Ha, yeah, that’s me,” Cady says, raising and then lowering her damp, paint-covered hand.

“I’m Jason,” he says, giving a friendly wave.

“Oh you’re Jason,” Cady says without thinking, and then backtracks. “Sorry, no that sounded weird. I just meant that Damian mentioned that like, you auditioned and he was surprised because you’re like, you know, a jock and stuff.”

Cady half expects Jason to be offended by that but he breaks into a genuine smile, “Damian was talking about me to you guys?”

“Mhmm, yeah he said that he was really impressed by your audition. Obviously. Since you got the part.”

“Rock n roll,” Jason says. “Anyways I just wanted to say hi and introduce myself.”

“I’m sure I’ll see you around lots, Damian is not shy about exploiting my labour.”

As if on cue Damian leans over and says, “Excuse me Miss Heron that looks a lot more like chatting than painting!”

She shares a bemused look with Jason, heading back over to her table of red wooden curtains. She knows Kevin is supposed to come ask her out during lunch hour, but she’d let him decide the details. She doesn’t even know exactly where he’s asking her to go, and she figures the element of surprise is what has her stomach tied up in knots. She keeps darting glances over to the door, before forcibly making herself stop and focus on painting.

As it is, she doesn’t even hear Kevin come into the room until he’s standing right beside her. Cady jumps, splattering paint onto the butcher-paper-covered table in the process.

“Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, it’s okay,” Cady says. “I was just in the zone.”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with your Deep-Look-Of-Concentration-Trademark-Symbol.”

“My what!?”

“You get this look on your face when you’re really deep in the math. It’s great.”

Cady squints at him, not sure if that’s actually a compliment or not.

“Um, excuse me,” Damian says, waving a hand at them and coming over to her table. “What’s going on over there?”

“Kevin just uh,” Cady says and then blanks. Fuck, come up with an excuse!

“I just need to talk to Cady about some mathletes stuff,” Kevin says, jumping to her rescue.

Damian looks skeptical. “Mathletes stuff?”

“Mhmm,” Kevin says.

“Look, Kevin, I don’t come into your math room and try and paint flats,” Damian says.

“Damian…seriously?” Cady says. “I’m doing you a favour.”

Damian clicks his tongue and stalks off. “Fine, but be quick about it.”

“So,” Kevin says, when Damian is safely out of earshot. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Cady says, palms suddenly so sweaty, sliding against the plastic handle of the paintbrush she’s gripping way too tightly.

“I wanted to ask you if would maybe want to, uh. There’s this arcade downtown and I know you’d mentioned last time we did mathletes bonding that you’d be down for something like that. So I thought maybe we could go together. Tomorrow after practice?”

Even though they’re both in on it, Cady can’t help but freeze like a gazelle with Kevin looking at her so intently, like he’s actually nervous she’s going to say no.

“An arcade?” Cady says finally, smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She’d kind of just expected him to ask her to a movie, maybe bowling if he was feeling really creative. Her dates with Aaron had mostly been movies or hanging at her house or occasionally going out to dinner. Sometimes they’d go out with Aaron’s soccer teammates and their girlfriends, and one memorably terrible time that she’d tried to get Janis and Damian to do something with Aaron.

“What do you think Africa? You got the skquills?”

“Oh you know I got the skquills,” Cady says grinning, gripping her paintbrush with both hands, feeling like she might just float off the floor if she’s not holding tight to something. Damian and Janis are looking over their shoulders at them talking, it’s going perfect, better than perfect.

“Cool, uh, it’s a date then.”

“It’s a date,” Cady says.

Janis and Damian are unimpressed.

“Kevin G? Seriously?” Damian says over their video call. “Look, I can respect you getting your rebound on but Kevin? Please have some standards”

“Kevin’s nice,” Cady says defensively.

“Yeah sure he’s nice,” Janis adds from her little video call bubble. “But that doesn’t mean you need to go out with him.”

“If you’re not going to help me pick something to wear, I can call Gretchen,” Cady says, digging through her closet. It feels kind of weird keeping Janis and Damian in the dark about her plan, but Regina and Karen already kind of know, and between them and her and Kevin that seems like enough stories to keep straight. Besides, the more genuine her closest friends’ reactions are, the more convincing it will seem.

“Look Caddy, we’re worried about you,” Damian says. “Aaron just broke up with you two weeks ago, do you think you’re already ready to spread your wings and take a dip back into the dating pool?”

“Bit of a mixed metaphor there,” Janis says.

“She’s waterfowl in this metaphor, thank you Janis,” Damian says.

Cady ignores them, holding a fluffy grey sweater up to her web camera. “Okay, what about this?”

“It’s an arcade, it’s gonna be filled with a bunch of sweaty preteens, do you really want to wear a light-coloured sweater?” Janis says.

“Okay well, what do you think I should wear?” Cady asks exasperatedly. Her wardrobe is a weird mish-mash of her clothes she’d brought from Kenya, clothes she bought with the Plastics, and stuff she’d picked up more recently, usually with no real clear-cut plan on how they’d fit into her wardrobe. This leaves her with a bafflingly large array of clothes to try and assemble a date outfit from, though very little of them seem to go together.

“Yes what would I wear on this date with a boy,” Janis deadpans.

“I get it, I get it, alright,” Cady says. “What would you wear on a date with a hypothetical female someone that you liked?”

Janis squints at her, crossing her arms. “Wait, are you saying you actually like Kevin? Kevin Gnapoor? Mediocre DJ, weird wannabe wangster mathlete Kevin? That Kevin.”

“Can he be wangster if he’s not white?” Damian muses.

“Not the point,” Janis says.

“What’s wrong with Kevin? He’s nice, we have things in common, he’s cute. Why shouldn’t I want to go on a date with him?” Cady hadn’t seen any of this coming in her planning, especially since she figured if Janis and Damian had allegedly not liked Aaron so much they’d be jumping at the chance of her dating someone else. Apparently not, though.

“Is this like a Regina thing?” Cady says sarcastically. “You have weird secret history with Kevin I don’t know about?”

She’s fully kidding, but Janis freezes, and for a second Cady thinks it’s just the call getting all messed up, but then Damian sighs and says, “Do you want me to tell her?”

“Damian shut up.”

“We all date people we regret in middle school, I got to first base with Emma Dougherty on the bus, it happens to the gayest of us.”

“Holy shit,” Cady says, a cardigan hanging limply in her hands. “You’re Kevin’s eighth grade girlfriend!?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Janis says, and then hangs up.

Yeah next time she’s definitely just calling Gretchen.

Cady finally settles on this drapey shawl jacket her mom had bought her at a market in Mombasa over a green sweater and jeans. Janis is still annoyed at her, giving Cady a little glare in homeroom, so Cady opts to have lunch with Gretchen, who, as expected, wants to know everything about her date with Kevin.

“We need to debrief after!” Gretchen says clutching Cady’s hand over the cafeteria table, “Tomorrow? After school.”

“For sure,” Cady says, pleased that between now and then it should be all over the school that she and Kevin went out.

She’s already seen Kevin twice today, once in trig and once in chem, but she hasn’t actually talked to him yet, and he’s not in Ms. Norbury’s room when Cady walks in for mathletes practice.

Cady wonders if Kevin’s told Marwan and Tyler about their date, but even if he has they’re behaving completely normally. Which for them means playing tonsil hockey on top of a desk until practice begins.

Ms. Norbury is sitting behind her desk, completely immune to this biweekly display of adolescent PDA as she sips from a can of Diet Coke, filling in a sudoku puzzle with a pen. She looks up, though, as Cady slings her backpack off her shoulder and starts rummaging around for her calculator and her mathletes folder.

“Hey kiddo,” Ms. Norbury says, and then makes a face at herself. “No that sounded weird, let’s start over. Hey Cady.”

“Hi Ms. Norbury,” Cady says.

“I heard about you and Aaron, that must be pretty tough,” she says, leaning forward on her elbows.

“Oh yeah, I mean, you know, some days are better than others. But I’m okay,” Cady says.

“Listen, if you need anything. Some advice, a shoulder to cry on, anything. My door is always open,” Ms. Norbury says, gesturing towards her door, which is, in fact closed.

She falters. “Metaphorically, metaphorically my door is always open even if, even if you know it’s actually closed.”

“Yeah, no I got it,” Cady says.

“Good, good,” Ms. Norbury says. “And you’re young, there’s so much opportunity out there! This might even be a blessing in disguise.”

“Yeah that’s what Aaron said,” Cady says before she can stop herself right as the door opens behind her.

“Alright, alright, lets get D T Function,” Kevin says, giving a dumb little half hip thrust as he walks into the room.

“Kevin, c’mon we’ve talked about this. Let’s keep it PG.”

Kevin looks at Cady incredulously, and then slowly gestures over to where Tyler is half in Marwan’s lap, his boyfriend’s shirt clutched tightly in his hand while they kiss like it’s the end of days.

Practice passes pretty quickly, and Cady’s busy enough looking over everything in their new prep booklets that she doesn’t even have time to be nervous about the fake-but-real date she has with Kevin right after. They have their first big qualifying round robin tournament right after Halloween and as defending state champions they’re going to be on everyone’s radar. Still, they’re all feeling pretty good about it in the car ride home, Marwan bugging Kevin until he puts on We Are the Champions, the four of them singing along to it loudly. Or well, the three of them for the verses because Cady only knows the chorus.

Sometimes Cady wishes she could telepathically send these kinds of moments back to her 16-year-old self in Kenya. So she could know that being that isolated was only a temporary state, and that one day she’d get to have the kind of camaraderie and cheesy teen movie moments that she’d spend all her time fantasizing about.

And sure, maybe fake dating a guy wasn’t exactly part of what she imagined, but it could definitely be worse.

“Africa holy fucking shit you are a beast,” Kevin says as they come out of the artificial glowing dark of the laser tag arena. “Remind me never ever to get on your bad side.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Cady says, handing her neon green plastic gun back over the counter to the bored-looking employee. “You get good at sneaking up on things or you never get any good data collection.”

“Savannah stealth ninja!” Kevin says, handing over his own gun and unclipping his vest. “Every time I thought I knew where you were, BAM! You were right behind me. Next time I want you on my team.”

Cady shields a hand over her eyes as they head back into the main part of the arcade. “What next?” Kevin had already kicked her butt at air hockey and the motorcycle racing game, but she’d come back strong with skee ball and then laser tag. They’d also played a bunch of the games where you won tickets, Kevin combining his haul with hers so she could get a plush lion keychain which was currently dangling off her bag.

“You hungry? We could grab a bite.”

“Yeah, I’ll totally eat,” Cady says, following Kevin out of the noise and light of the arcade and into the parking lot.

“Did you do something with your hair?” Cady asks, only really noticing it for the first time as Kevin fishes his keys out of his pocket.

“I’m trying this new pommade,” Kevin says, striking a pose. “Pretty dope right?”

“It looks nice!” Cady agrees, and she half reaches out to touch it before she catches herself, pulling her hand away.

Where the hell had that come from?

Kevin, to his credit, either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t say anything. “So, what’re you thinking?”

“I dunno. Take me somewhere you wanna show me.”

Kevin takes an abstract approach to her suggestion, and Cady has to admit she’s gotta respect that, as they’re sitting on top of a picnic table in a park with a great view of the Chicago skyline, a flatbread vegetarian takeout pizza between them.

“I know it’s like, Chicagoan blasphemy, but I just don’t think deep dish is that good,” Kevin says. “Tyler has tried to physically fight me on this, like, more than once.”

“I still haven’t tried it,” Cady admits as she chews. “I feel like I’ve barely done any actual Chicago things since I’ve moved here. Last year was so crazy and now it’s like, I don’t know, no one who’s lived here their whole life wants to go with me to see The Bean or whatever.”

“Who didn’t wanna go see the Bean with you!?”

“Janis and Damian,” Cady says around a mouthful of pizza. “I guess they have some beef with the guy who designed it for art reasons? I don’t really know. They tried to explain it to me once but I didn’t really follow.”

“Huh,” Kevin says. “I mean I could take you there...if you wanted.”

“Pretty forward of you to ask me on a second date before this one is even over.”

“I mean, I think this first date has gone swimmingly. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were going steady by the time Aaron’s party rolls around.”

Cady snorts, giving Kevin a little shove and using the distraction to snag the last piece of pizza triumphantly.

Gretchen agrees that the date was a success because she coos like a dove through Cady entire retelling of it.

“Oh my god that is so freaking cute,” Gretchen says. “And he got you the little lion keychain like your Africa lions, oh my god.”

“He wants to take me to the Bean,” Cady says.

“Oh my god, stop, he already made second date plans? Oh Cady he really likes you!” Gretchen reaches over for her hand, swinging it excitedly.

“I really like him too,” Cady says, and she thinks it sounds pretty convincing if she can pat herself on the back. It helps that it’s not a lie, she genuinely had a really fun time with Kevin and she totally likes him as a person.

“Awww Cady and Kevin,” Gretchen says, sipping from her pastel pink boba tea. She’d even grabbed a pink straw to match.

“The one thing is though,” Cady lowers her voice just slightly, “It’s sort of new and with everything that happened with Aaron I’m just not totally ready for everyone to know yet, you know? I just want to see where this goes before we start broadcasting it all over the school.

“I get it,” Gretchen says, making an x over her heart. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

Kevin comes over to her house after practice on Thursday. Marwan and Tyler keep exchanging not-so-secret glances in the backseat, so either Kevin must have told them or they’ve come to some kind of conclusion on their own. Which is objectively a good thing, but does make Cady feel a little weird. She’s gotten used to the safe predictable social dynamic of the four of them, and the idea of it actively shifting under her is more upsetting than she would have expected.

Still, there’s no going back now, especially when Cady completely loses track of time as she’s wrestling with her English essay and Kevin’s doing trig homework, the sound of the backdoor opening signalling that her parents are home.

“Binti!?” Her dad calls. “Come give us a hand.”

“Oh shuck!” Cady blurts, pauses, realizes what she’s said and puts her forehead in her hands.

“Wha—?”

“I was trying to say shoot and then I almost said fuck,” Cady says flatly, face still in her hands. “Again. I’ve already done that before, oh my god what is wrong with my mouth.”

“I love it,” Kevin says.

“Stop, don’t make fun of me,” Cady says, standing and bracing herself to go deal with her parents.

“I would never!” Kevin says. “Okay, maybe I would a little bit. But you know I’m always on the lookout for some hot new vocab.”

“I’m gonna put you and Gretchen Wieners in the same room together and see what happens,” Cady calls over her shoulder.

Her dad’s standing in the kitchen, brown paper bags set on the counter. “If you want to start unpacking, I can bring the rest in from the car.”

“Totally,” Cady says as her mom walks in, also carrying paper bags. “Um, just really quick though, I have a boy over so if you could just please be cool.”

“A boy?” Her mom says, setting her bags on the counter.

“Yes, a boy,” Cady says, already starting to unpack as quickly as she can, terrified at the idea of one or both of her parents ambushing Kevin at the dining room table while she’s putting baba ganoush in the fridge.

“A boy we know?” her dad asks, his retrieval of the rest of the groceries apparently taking a backseat to this.

“It’s Kevin from mathletes, we were just doing homework.”

Hey mom raises her eyes and turns around to share a knowing look with her dad, like Cady isn’t even standing right there.

“If you’re going to be all weird I’ll just tell him to go home,” Cady says, shoving cans into the cupboard.

“Hey, c’mon now,” her dad says apologetically. “We’re just excited to see you putting yourself back out there, that’s all. Here, why don’t you go, mom and I can handle this.”

Cady knows this is a trap, but she’ll take it anyways, walking back out into the dining room where Kevin is packing his stuff into his backpack.

“Oh thank god,” Cady says. “Escape while you can. My mom is about three minutes from asking you to stay for dinner and I’m pretty sure we’re having goat.”

“I love goat,” Kevin says, slinging his bag over his shoulder.

Please do not tell my mother that, she’ll never let you leave.”

“Don’t tell me what?” Cady’s mom says, coming into the dining room with a bottle of wine in hand. “Hello, you must be Kevin.”

“Ahh, yes, hello Dr. Heron,” Kevin says, subtly wiping his hand on his jeans before extending it towards Cady’s mom who shakes it once.

“Please, Jane’s fine. Did you want to stay for dinner, Kevin? Cady’s dad is making an excellent curried goat stew.”

‘Told you,’ Cady mouths over her mom’s shoulder.

“Is Kevin staying for dinner?” Cady’s dad says, poking his head out of the kitchen, and giving Kevin a wave. “Hi Kevin. Great to see you again.”

“Great to see you again too, sir, but uh, I should probably be heading home.”

“Another time then,” Cady’s mom says.

“Totally,” Kevin says. “And thank you so much for the generous offer.”

“I can show you out, Kevin,” Cady says and she can practically feel his bemusement as he follows after her to the front door.

“You don’t have to suck up to my parents, I promise they’re over the moon that I’m no longer hiding up in my room wallowing.”

“Noted, I’ll try much less next time,” Kevin says.

“Very funny. Get home safe, okay?”

“I will,” Kevin says, clipping the front strap of his backpack together. “Oh, by the way. You. Me. Bean. Sunday?”

“Sunday. Bean. Me. You.” Cady confirms.

“The Bean, fucking really?” Janis says, not looking at Cady as she paints, sending harsh strokes across the canvas.

Cady shrugs, twisting side to side on the stool she’s perched on in the art room. “I’ve lived in Chicago a whole year and I still haven’t gone.”

“Ugh, fine, I guess you get to go once. But you are on thin ice, Cady,” Janis says, back still towards her. Cady watches her paint in silence for a long few minutes, hoping that maybe for once Janis will be the one to bring something up, but when it seems like the conversation is definitely not going that direction she clears her throat.

“Hey, so I just wanted to say I’m sorry about the other day on the phone. I really had no idea about you and Kevin, I wouldn’t have joked about it if I had.”

“It’s fine,” Janis says, splattering paint on the canvas aggressively.

“It kinda seems like it’s not,” Cady says. “If you really don’t want to talk about it I’m not going to push it, but…”

Janis sighs, blowing hair out of her eyes and setting her brush down as she turns. “Look, it’s really not that big of a deal. And Kevin didn’t do anything wrong, I was thirteen, I wanted people to think I was straight, we went on one date and then I broke up with him over text.”

“Ouch.”

“I’m not proud of it.”

“Is it going to be,” Cady frowns, “Is it going to a big thing between you two if this gets serious?”

“No, oh my god of course not. I guess I’m a little bummed because like, I thought we were all gonna be single pringles together for awhile before you spun off into some heterosexual fantasy, but whatever. Kevin’s fine. I’d take him over Aaron any day.”

“You know he told me he made twelve breakup playlists over it,” Cady kicks at Janis’ ankle playfully. “Heartbreaker.”

Janis tosses her hair over her shoulder dramatically, “I have that effect on people.”

Cady Heron

Can’t believe I’ve lived in Chicago a whole year and still haven’t BEAN here. Thanks @Kevin Gnapoor for showing me around.

— at The Bean

Cady knows she’s not Plastic anymore, but she still kind of expects at least some people to be talking about the fact that her and Kevin are an item. Especially after she posted the pictures of them together at Cloudgate a whole twelve hours ago. But nobody even gives her a double take as she walks down the hall before first period.

Cady makes a detour over to Gretchen’s locker where she is playing with her hair in the little mirror she’s hung up. There’s also several photos of her cat Ravioli, a picture of Gretchen surrounded by a trio of boys she doesn’t recognize all in matching t-shirts, and a photo of her with Karen and Regina at Spring Fling.

“Hey girl!” Gretchen says, hair and earrings going flying as she turns. “I saw your pics this morning. Hundred percent love react.”

“Ha, thanks,” Cady says, fiddling with her ponytail. “Did you um. did you tell anyone about me and Kevin?”

“Oh my gosh, no, of course not,” Gretchen says, her eyes going wide. “Why, did something happen?”

“No, no, just, uh, okay this is kind of embarrassing.”

“You can tell me,” Gretchen says, big brown eyes going impossibly wider.

“It’s just that um, I actually do want people to know about me and Kevin. I just, you know, it’s kind of weird if I’m the one being like ‘hey, look how quick I got over Aaron’ you know?”

Realization dawns on Gretchen’s face. “Oooooooh.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s just that I’m doing this new thing where I try not to tell people’s secrets because this summer I— ” Gretchen blinks, shakes her head and then tries again. “It doesn’t matter. I just meant that I thought you didn’t want me to tell people.”

“I’m just so sick of people asking me about Aaron,” Cady says, even though no one’s really mentioned Aaron to her in at least a week.

“I get it,” Gretchen says. “I’ve totally got this for you, Cady.”

“You’re such a good friend,” Cady says, and she really means it.

Gretchen works fast, because by lunch time people are turning to look at her and Kevin standing in the lunch line together. Cady actually brought lunch from home, but it felt like the kind of girlfriend thing she was supposed to do to wait with him.

She’s debating if it’s too early for them to go facebook official while Kevin orders food when she feels someone jab her sharply in the hip.

“Ow!”

“So Kevin Gnapoor,” Regina says conspiratorially. “I like it. It’s going to drive Aaron up the fucking wall that you’re dating someone smarter than him.”

“Aaron’s smart,” Cady says, a knee-jerk reaction.

Regina rolls her eyes, pulling a lip balm out of her pocket and smearing it over her mouth. “Never said he wasn’t.”

“Hey, are you sure you don’t want anything?” Kevin says, turning back from the hot order counter, eyes widening almost comically when he sees Regina.

“Nope, I’m good,” Cady says. “Thanks.”

Regina snorts when Kevin looks away a little shell-shocked, Cady giving her side eye, “Oh don’t worry, I’m not gonna rat on you and your precious puppy. My lips are sealed.”

Nobody else’s are apparently though, because a small flurry of whispers seem to follow Cady and Kevin as they step out of the lunch line. It’s unexpected, but not unpleasant, the smug little thrill that runs through her as Kevin shifts his tray so he can wrap his arm around her shoulders.

“Hey, so maybe we should talk about PDA?” Cady says, sitting on top of one of the desks in Ms. Norbury’s room. Ms. Norbury’s doing her usual diet coke run in the cafeteria, and Marwan and Tyler had volunteered to go photocopy the permission forms for their upcoming Round Robin weekend trip, so they’re alone.

“Was that okay? In the caf? I shoulda asked,” Kevin says, forehead scrunching in confusion.

“Totally okay,” Cady says. “I was just going to say I’m okay with more stuff, like kissing and whatever, but we should just probably set, you know, ground rules.”

Kevin nods, leaning up against one of the other desks. “Aight, aight.”

“So like, if it feels like, you know, a natural time and place to kiss me, I’m okay with that,” Cady says, suddenly full of nervous energy like a shaken up bottle of pop. “And like, hand-holding and you know, arm stuff is all okay. And then maybe just ask about anything else?”

Kevin nods, a very serious look on his face all of a sudden.

“Are you okay?”

“No s’all good, I just,” Kevin cards his fingers through his hair, before resting his hand on the top of his head. “Like I’ve kissed girls before and stuff. Like parties and one-off kinda situations, but I haven’t in like, a while? Just keep your expectations reasonable.”

“What, you telling me you weren’t getting hot and heavy with Janis?” Cady jokes, and then immediately feels bad. “Er, um, I just mean she sort of told me. About what happened.”

“I mean, can’t really hold it against a lesbian for not wanting to kiss me in the week and a half we middle school dated,” Kevin says with a shrug. “We all good.”

Cady nods, smacking her lips together and trying to feel for the next logical handhold in the conversation like she’s scaling a rock wall. “Oh. We should talk about petnames.”

“Babygirl!’ Kevin blurts immediately, Cady makes a face. “Babydoll?”

“That sounds like something someone calls their car that they’re way too emotionally attached to.”

Kevin considers this for a long second and then nods. “Yeah, no I see that. I see that.

What about just like, classic baby, babe?”

Cady nods. “Yeah, I’m cool with that.”

“Oh what’s that cool thing your dad called you, Bindy?”

“Binti?”

“Yeah, that sounds dope.”

“I mean, it means daughter in Swahili sooooo…maybe not?”

Kevin winces. “Okay, nevermind then.”

“And nothing too like...frilly? Aaron used to call me princess sometimes, which now that I think about it was definitely a holdover from Regina, yikes. But yeah I’m not really into like, darling or sweetie pie or kitten or pumpkin or anything, like, food based.”

“Aww c’mon what about sugar?”

Cady considers this for a long moment. “Okay that’s kinda cute, but maybe let's be sparing.”

“You got it baby,” Kevin says, and it’s so weird how totally normal that sounds, but maybe that’s because he’s already calling her something that’s not her name half the time.

“For your pet name generosity” he kneels with a dramatic flourish, holding his arms out in front of himself as if presenting Cady with an invisible sword, “I would like to bequeath upon you, Kev privileges.”

“Oh holy shit,” Cady says breathlessly.

“Yeah that’s a very elite squad. You happy few. You band of….I don’t wanna say brothers cause that feels sexist but there isn’t really a gender neutral term for that,” Kevin says, hopping back to his feet. “Oh no wait, homies. You band of homies.”

Cady laughs. “I feel very honoured. Truly.”

Their laughter fades into a lingering stiff awkward silence.

“Hey, um, I mean if you were seriously worried about kissing, we could like, practice,” Cady says finally. Trying to make it sound casual and not at all something she’d been wanting to broach for most of the conversation. Not in like, a weird, desperate to kiss Kevin way, but just wanting to try and minimize any future awkwardness as much as possible.

“Yeah, um, yeah, no, we maybe should,” Kevin says and then makes absolutely no move to get any closer to her.

“C’mere, I don’t bite,” Cady says, “biting is fully off the table.”

“Darn,” Kevin says, but he takes a half step closer into her, and Cady can reach out and grab his forearms to pull him closer.

“Just, pretend it’s a little hello kiss,” Cady says, tossing her hair over her shoulders and half closing her eyes.

It’s easily another twenty seconds until Kevin leans in, but Cady’s patient and she knows well enough from years in the field that sometimes you have to wait for it to come to you. So she just stays still, barely peeking out from until her eyelashes until Kevin leans forward and gives her a very tentative chaste kiss. His lips are dry and warm and it’s nice, if a little, well, familial.

“Okay, pretty good,” Cady says when he pulls away. “A little stiff. Can I?” She gestures for his face with two hands, and Kevin is shaking a little bit as she pulls his face down towards her. He’s taller than Aaron, but she’s elevated a little bit so it’s a familiar height difference.

“Relax, I’m just saying hi,” Cady says, sweeping her hands from Kevin’s face down across his shoulders, feeling them relax under her. She leans up and kisses him before he can tense up again and she can feel his slight surprise as his lips meet hers, slightly parted this time.

She has to admit, even if it’s not the same as kissing Aaron it’s still nice, the rush of endorphins from skin to skin contact making her feel warm all over. There’s also something especially satisfying about Cady getting to be the expert in something social for once, not just treading water trying to keep up.

“Wanna try doing something with your hands?” Cady says when she pulls back, just slightly.

“Oh fuck I forgot I have hands!” Kevin says sounding genuinely aghast. There’s another awkward shuffle as he sets his hands, first both on her shoulders, and then shifts up to her cheek, the one down to her side, causing him to step closer into her personal bubble.

“Again? You lead,” Cady says, and then Kevin is tipping her face up and up and this one is perfect movie textbook. Soft but still firm, both of their lips slightly parted but no aggressive tongue, lingering just long enough before Kevin pulls back, head still tipped close to hers, the fringe of his hair tickling at her forehead.

“Oh my god get a room you two,” Tyler says loudly from behind them and only then does Kevin take his hand off of her side to flip him off.

They go Facebook official on Friday morning, and as much as Cady’s tried to wean herself back from social media since last year when she went a bit off the deep end, she has to admit that she can’t help the sharp zings of happiness that she gets as she watches the likes and comments on the post keep ticking up and up and up.

Kevin wants to take her out for a congratulatory dinner date, but Cady’s already promised that she’d go out shopping with Janis and Damian after school, so he kisses her goodbye at her locker and Cady goes to hang out in the auditorium until Damian’s done with rehearsal. She’s up against the back wall, a few textbooks spread around her, and she’d honestly had every intention of doing homework, but the sweet siren call of social media had lured her away.

“Hey Cady,” someone says, and she looks up from replying to a comment on her phone to see Jason standing over her. He’s traded his varsity jacket for a North Shore Lacrosse hoodie and sweats, and Cady makes a mental note to ask Kevin if she can wear his mathletes jacket at some point soon.

“Can I sit?” he asks.

“Totally,’ Cady says, clearing her unopened textbooks to the side. “How’s rehearsal going?”

“Really great, honestly. Damian’s an awesome director, he actually sticks to schedule which is, like a miracle.”

She looks down towards the stage where Damian is having two of the sophomores in the cast run a dance number for what must be the sixth or seventh time.

“I thought you hadn’t really done theatre before?” Cady asks.

Jason shakes his head. “Nah, I mean this is my first show at North Shore, but I do tons of community theatre. I’d just never auditioned here before because I kinda thought the drama department was kind of a clusterfuck. But when I heard Damian was taking over, I was like, hey what the hell, why not.”

Cady nods, watching for a moment as the couple on stage runs through some dance steps. “I’m going to be honest, I have absolutely no idea what this show is about.”

“It’s a spoof of Agatha Christie novels and just murder mysteries in general,” Jason says.

“Gotcha. I don’t do super great with referential humour. Shocker,” Cady says. “But hopefully I’ll still really like it. I know Damian’s going to want like a three page essay on all my thoughts.”

Jason laughs. “Well I’ll try and make sure I’m extra non-referentially funny, just for you. Speaking of, I should probably go get ready, we’re running one of my scenes after this. But I actually just came over because I wanted to invite you to my Halloween party. Well I say ‘my’, Jackson Wayne and I are kind of co-hosting. Do you know Jackson? He’s great. Anyway, please pass the invitation on to Janis and Damian too. I thought maybe it would be weird to invite him directly because he’s like, my show boss right now, but you’re all totally welcome. And obviously your boyfriend too.” Jason pauses for a long moment. “I think we already invited Tyler and Marwan.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you guys were friends.”

Jason shrugs a shoulder. “Gotta have solidarity.”

Oh okay, Cady sees now what Janis and Damian were talking about with the whole straight ally thing. She thinks it’s really nice though and she nods. “That sounds fun, I’ll tell them.”

Jason beams at her before standing and taking the steps back down towards the stage at a jog. She’s picking up her phone to text Kevin when it buzzes with an incoming text. She’s expecting it to be Kevin, or maybe Janis or her mom, but instead she’s greeted by a message preview from Aaron. Which already kind of sucks, but the heart emoji beside his name that she’d forgotten to delete is just salt in the wound.

Aaron <3

Hey!

Cady chews her lip for a long moment before hesitantly unlocking her phone and clicking on the message.

“This is hot, you should get this,” Janis says, pulling a suede fringed jacket off the rack at the third secondhand store they’d been at this afternoon.

“Aren’t oversized jackets kind of your thing?” Cady says, flicking idly through a rack of vests.

“I’d be willing to share my thing,” Janis says. “C’mon try it on and we’ll send a pic to Kevin and he’ll be so disgusted he’ll stop texting you so you can enjoy your afternoon out with your friends.”

Cady rolls her eyes, not looking up from her phone as she types a reply. “I’m not texting Kevin.”

Janis stands at the end of an aisle looking unimpressed, behind her Damian rummaging through a rack of dresses aggressively. He’d attempted to describe the kind of pieces he was looking for to Cady on the drive over, but she honestly couldn’t conceptualize most of what he’d said.

“Look, sorry, I’ll text Aaron and just tell him I’m busy right now.”

Janis’ eyebrows jump. “You’re texting Aaron!?”

“Yeeaah,” Cady says slowly. “He, he had a weird thing with his roommate and he wanted to talk to somebody about it.”

“Caddy have you seriously been texting your ex this whole time?”

Cady’s cheeks flush but she crosses her arms defensively. “He said he wanted to still be friends. And that’s what friends do, they support each other emotionally.”

Cady,” Janis says emphatically, but almost, kindly, coming in close and resting a hand on her shoulder, “Listen to me, okay? When someone breaks up with you and says they wanna be friends, they don’t want to be friends.”

“What’s happening,” Damian says, popping up in the next aisle like a gopher.

“Aaron is texting Cady to complain about his roommate because he ‘wants to be friends’,” Janis says, punctuating it with a melodramatic pout.

“Honey, no,” Damian says.

“Well I don’t wanna be rude if he’s upset. What am I supposed to text him, ‘sorry you’re sad but fuck you!’”

“Yes, that’s exactly what you text him,” Damian says.

“Well, I’m, I’m not that kind of person,” Cady says. And sure, okay, maybe she’s the kind of person who would instigate a fake relationship so she doesn’t have to be pathetic at Aaron’s birthday party, but that’s only because she couldn’t say no to hosting his stupid party in the first place.

Plus, as much as he hurt her, the idea of Aaron never ever being in her life again is kind of awful.

Damian and Janis look unconvinced though, sharing a judgmental look.

“Alright, alright fine,” Cady says, pulling her phone out of her pocket. “I’m texting him right now to tell him I’m busy, happy?”

“Moderately,” Janis says.

“No,” Damian adds. “Why does no one in this town have a reasonably priced fur stole!”

“I’m not even totally sure what that is, but I feel almost entirely sure Gretchen has one. I bet she’d love to help with costumes if you asked.”

Damian inhales hard and then exhales through his nose. “...Maybe. See if she has the stole at least.”

“I’m texting her right now,” Cady says. “I’m gonna say you need help, because you clearly need help.”

“Caderine Marie Heron!” Damian says, grabbing for her phone, but he’s too late, the text already sent.

In lieu of a written response Gretchen has just sent an entire row of different heart emojis, which Cady figures counts as a very enthusiastic yes.

“You know this crusade to make us all get along is going to end in tears,” Janis says.

“Or possibly bloodshed,” Damian adds.

“Or both!” Cady adds cheerfully, which gets them both to shut up about it.

The weather takes a turn over the weekend, and even though she’s already braved one Chicagoan winter, Cady is harshly reminded that she did in fact grow up on the equator, spending the weekend writing her english essay curled up in her duvet.

She’s still adjusting by Tuesday morning, wearing a truly unflattering combination of layers, which Gretchen gives her a slightly judgy look for, but doesn’t say anything, as they’re carrying costume pieces from her car into the backstage area of the theatre.

“Oh my goooood,” Damian trills, coming over and starting to dig through the pile. “Oh this is fucking Christmas.”

Gretchen beams at Cady over his head as he starts pulling out pieces, Cady giving her a thumbs up, her hands barely sticking out from where she’d tucked them into her sleeves.

It also doesn’t help that no one else seems to think it’s that cold, Marwan literally walking into their mathletes practice wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

“Oh come on,” Cady says from where she’s huddled in the corner of the room near the radiator.

“Ignore him,” Tyler says, “he likes to show off how not affected by the cold he is because he’s from Canada.”

“Are we bullying Marwan!” Kevin says brightly, slapping the door frame as he walks into the room, “Hey, hey Mar, what’s the last letter of the alphabet, what’d you call that again?”

“Oh fuck off.”

“What did he call coloured pencils again?”

“Pencil crayons.”

“Pencil crayons!”

“Real bold move to bully me in front of your girlfriend, Kev,” Marwan says. “Cady, the shit I could tell you.”

“Hey, what about bros before— ” Kevin cuts off abruptly. “Uh, I mean bros respect confidentiality and privacy whether to friends or romantic partners on a case by case basis.”

“Smooth,” Tyler says.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin stage whispers, grimacing a little, and it’s so dumb and genuine that even if Cady were annoyed she would have forgiven him on the spot.

“It’s okay,” Cady stage whispers back, and reaches up to cup his jaw. It feels totally appropriate to kiss him hello, but Kevin lurches back.

“Ahh Cady! What, did you replace your hands with icicles?”

“I’m cold, don’t make fun of me.”

“Do you want my jacket?” Kevin says immediately.

“You’re not wearing a jacket…”

Kevin laughs. “No, I mean, I have a jacket in my locker. I could get it for you.”

Oh,” Cady says.

“You’re adorable, I’ll be right back,” Kevin says, walking out the door just as Ms. Norbury is walking in.

“Alright, see you later Kevin! Not like we have a big competition to prepare for!” Ms. Norbury says.

“He’s getting Cady his jacket,” Marwan says, leaning over a desk, chin resting in his hand.

“Well,” Ms. Norbury says. “Isn’t that...cozy.”

“She’s cold,” Tyler adds unhelpfully.

“It’s only 60,” Ms. Norbury says.

“I don’t know what that means,” Cady says at the exact same time Marwan says, “Wait what’s that in celsius?”

“Celsius squad!” Marwan says excitedly, holding out his hand for her to high five.

“Hey, I meant to tell you earlier, Jason Wright invited me to his Halloween party, did you want to go?” Cady asks after practice as they’re walking from Ms. Norbury’s room to the student parking lot. They’d run over and the school is mostly deserted and the sound of the girls’ volleyball practice echoes in the empty halls.

She’s still wearing Kevin’s mathlete’s jacket, which is ever so slightly comically large on her, but it smells nice in that warm boy way and she’s finally warm for the first time all day.

“I didn’t know you knew Jason,” Tyler says. “Hell yeah Squad Halloween!”

“Oh, crap. Are we doing like...a costume?” Cady says slowly. Shit, that’s a couple thing and Halloween’s on Thursday and that’s barely time to think of anything and—

“Hmmm, uh, actually,” Kevin says, “me and the boys are already going as Marty McFly...Sorry I should have mentioned this earlier, I meant to and then I kept forgetting and— ”

“Oh my god no, that’s perfect!” Cady says. “I already told Janis she could practice doing special effects makeup on me for Halloween, so now we don’t have to come up with a couples costume that incorporates that. Which just sounds very stressful.”

“Totally perfect,” Kevin says grinning at her as they push through a set of double doors and into the student parking lot.

“And who exactly is Marty McFly?”

“Okay just don’t move your face or talk or breathe for like, thirty minutes I think that will stay,” Janis says, poking at the stripes of toilet paper and glue and paint on Cady’s face. She’s sitting on the counter of the art room while Janis adds a few finishing touches.

“Alright close your mouth and your eyes, I’m going to give you a spritz,” Janis says, holding Cady’s hair off her face as she sprays her with setting spray.

“Ta-da!” Janis says. “Take a look.”

Cady jumps down off the counter, crouching down to get a better look at herself in the mirror along the back wall of the art room. While Janis had done more general wounds on herself and Damian, they’d gone all out with Cady. Three gashes across her cheek and down onto her neck to imply she’d been mauled by a lion. It’s not entirely realistic, not least of all because the gashes would be spread apart farther, but it’s gross and bloody and awesome.

She’s paired it with one of the outfits she used to wear all the time in Kenya. A rolled up plaid shirt, cargo shorts, birks with socks and a vest. Janis and Damian had insisted that she top it off with one of her dad’s sun helmets even if it’s a little bit too big on her and in her opinion makes her look a little bit like a cartoon of some old timey colonial explorer.

“God I’ve missed lesbian Cady,” Damian says.

“Mpphh??” Cady says, trying to convey the question as best she can while banned from talking.

“Have we never told you that? Caddy we totally thought you were gay, why did you think we wanted to adopt you so badly?” Janis says.

Cady makes a vague hand gesture of confusion.

“Like obviously we learned our lesson about judging books by their covers,” Damian says. “And also the joys of having straight friends. But yeah, I know the rules might be different on the savannah but here birkenstocks with socks-plus-plaid-plus-cargo shorts equal lesbian.”

The last eighteen months of her life are just flashing before her eyes, but Janis and Damian have already moved on to talking about Jason’s party, so Cady is stuck having this revelation in stunned silence. Not in a homophobic way or anything, but it’s weird to find out the friends you thought adopted you because you were a quirky outsider who needed help actually just thought you were gay.

It’s still forty-five minutes until first bell so Cady splits off from Janis and Damian, who are now doing some sort of zombie makeup on each other, and heads over to her locker so she can work on more practice problems for this weekend. She hadn’t been on the team for qualifiers last year, and she finds herself weirdly nervous about the weekend, even if she’s pretty confident in her math abilities.

She thinks at least part of it is because the guys are always talking about qualifiers more like a social event than a competition, sharing insane stories about who hooked up with who where and using what inappropriate toiletry product to do so.

At least she can use the excuse of her newly acquired boyfriend to avoid some of the messier hookup stuff but the thought of having to try and be impressively smart and cool and sexy and fun to a bunch of strangers is still anxiety-inducing enough on her own.

She’s pretty deep in some derivatives review questions when she feels someone hovering over her, her field of vision partially obscured by the wide brim of her hat.

“Hey!” Kevin says beaming down at her.

“Hey,” Cady says, the side of her face tugging a bit awkwardly with her fake wounds. She holds her hands out for her to help her stand, Kevin pulling her to her feet.

“That is so gross!” Kevin says excitedly.

“I got mauled by a lion!” Cady says brightly.

“I can see that!” Kevin says, he leans in like he’s going to kiss her on the cheek, but ends up navigating up and kissing her beside her eye to avoid her faux-wounds. There’s not a ton of people milling around yet, but there’s enough that it feels worth playing into happy couple.

“And you’re um, the McFly guy thing,” Cady says looking over Kevin’s outfit, which is really not that different from stuff he wears on a regular basis. A puffy orange vest and a denim jacket over a plaid shirt with jeans. He’s got a skateboard tucked under his arm and sunglasses pushed up into his hair. Honestly it looks really good and if he’d just been wearing this as a regular outfit Cady probably would have gone out of her way to compliment him on it.

“Yeah! We should watch the movies sometime, I think you’d really like them,” Kevin says adjusting the skateboard under his arm. “I was just wondering if you’d come take some pics of me and the guys?”

“For sure!” Cady agrees, and follows after Kevin to where Marwan and Tyler are chilling against one of the external walls of the school. Marwan is wearing more or less the same outfit as Kevin, only he has a jacket instead of a vest, some weird clunky shoes, a holographic hat, and a pink snowboard looking thing under his arm. Tyler is straight up just a cowboy.

Cady really does not understand these movies.

“Hey Cady, dope wounds. Very gross,” Marwan says cheerfully.

“Thanks! Janis did them for me. You guys look awesome.”

“We’re Marty McFly!” Tyler says.

“I know!”

“No, see, we’re Mar-Ty McFly,” Tyler says more slowly, gesturing at Marwan and then himself. “Marwan-Tyler, Mar-Ty, get it?”

“Oh my god, stop, you’re not funny,” Kevin says, but Cady giggles anyways.

She takes a bunch of photos of the three of them in various poses, then a few of just Tyler and Marwan, and then Tyler insists that her and Kevin take photos together even though their costumes really do not go together, and then Marwan does manage to rope some freshman into taking a few of the four them together. Though Cady has to kind of half smile and tamp down the sudden impulse to tuck herself tightly into Kevin’s side in order to not mess with her wounds.

“Hey, if we’re going to Jason’s Halloween thing on Friday, would you wanna like, come over before hand and watch Back to the Future? We could order takeout or something? I promise these costumes are actually really cool if you know the movies.”

“Yeah the cowboy is throwing me off,” Cady says, glancing over to Tyler, who is pressed up against his boyfriend taking selfies.

“Well that’s not until the third movie,” Kevin says, and then, “I promise it does make sense.”

“Maybe we can just start with the first one?” Cady says slowly. She’d been roped into Damian and Janis sitting her down and trying to force her through all of the Twilight movies in a single evening and had learned her lesson. Not that it hadn’t been fun, but she could barely keep track of who anyone was or why anything was happening or why everyone’s hair was different every movie if they were vampires.

“Totally, I’ll text you and we can rendezvous.”

Janis and Damian are not happy about it.

“I can’t believe you’re ditching us for your boyfriend!” Janis says from the stall as Cady washes off the disintegrating strips of toilet paper and glue and fake blood into the bathroom sink. She’d wanted to wear it through the rest of the day, but it’s just not going to make it so she’s cutting her losses.

“I’m not ditching you at all, we’re all going to the same party right after. Besides, Damian has rehearsal and you always stay late on Fridays to paint anyways.”

The toilet flushes and Janis comes banging out of the stall, “Alright, touche.”

“We could watch something tonight though!” Cady says as she dries her hands. “Hand out candy and watch a movie.”

“Can I put more gross shit on your face?”

“Yes, you can put more gross shit on my face,” Cady agrees diplomatically as she pushes out of the bathroom. Damian is waiting for them against the bank of lockers on the opposite wall, but instead of finding him scrolling through Instagram like they’d left him, he’s chatting animatedly with Jason Wright, who’s wearing some sort of vaguely astronaut looking costume.

They talk for another minute or so before Jason pats Damian on the shoulder and gives her and Janis a wave before heading off down the hall.

“What was that about?” Janis asks.

“Just chatting,” Damian says, and flits off down the hall before Janis can interrogate him any further. Which is somehow made unspeakably funny because he’s still in his zombie/plague makeup, Cady and Janis breaking into snorting laughter as they follow after him.

Kevin’s house isn’t that far from her own, and he offers to pick her up but Cady opts to walk over around seven on Friday night. She gets a little bit looped around in a cul-du-sac but manages to find his house without much additional trouble.

Kevin’s suburb is a little bit older than the one Cady lives in, so all the trees are taller and the landscaping more lived-in than all the newer buildings over where she lives. Even though it’s still a suburb it manages to have so much more personality than hers.

“Hey,” Kevin says brightly, when he answers the door, “uh, come on in.”

Cady takes a glance around as she takes her shoes off and tucks them onto the little mat by the door. It had taken some adjustment to get used to having to take off her shoes inside, and she still had a bad habit of wearing hers around her house.

“We do have a cat, I hope that’s okay. Though he’s pretty skittish with new people so you probably won’t see him.”

“I mean, yeah I’d say I’m good with cats.”

“Oh, right. Duh,” Kevin says embarrassedly.

“Your house is so cute,” Cady says straightening up and getting a better look around. The entryway opens up into an open concept dining room and kitchen on one side and living room.

“Ha, thanks,” Kevin says. “I can’t take literally any of the credit, my mom’s like, an interior designer. It’s all her.”

“That’s awesome,” Cady says. She wanders into the living room, Kevin trailing after her. “Is this you!?” She asks picking up a framed photo off a side table.

“Oh god,” Kevin says, which is confirmation enough.

“You’re so cute, oh my god,” Cady coos. Kevin’s probably about eleven in the photo, grinning with braces and a pair of bright orange plastic frames. “I didn’t know you had glasses.”

“I still do, I just mostly wear my contacts,” Kevin says with a shrug.

“And you have two siblings right?” Cady continues looking at the other photos, an array of holidays and school photos.

“Yup, Lea and Neil, who are twins so uh, just a lifetime of being the third wheel. Which actually did admittedly really prepare me for when Tyler and Marwan got together.”

“Aww, I always really wanted siblings. I used to pretend I had a secret long lost sister who lived in Tanzania,” Cady says setting a picture of the three Gnapoor siblings back in its spot. “Is anyone home right now?”

“Nah,” Kevin says, “My parents are out of town for a few days at an interior design show and Lea and Neil are both like, in college. So. We’ve got the house to ourselves.”

There’s an abrupt pause and it seems to dawn on Kevin over the course of a few seconds what he’s just said. “I mean like, not like, ‘we’ve got the house to ourselves,’ I just, uh, you know. It’s um, no one’s gonna walk in or like, uh.”

“Yeah, no, I got what you meant,” Cady says, feeling a wave of hindsight embarrassment as she realizes that the context of going over to Kevin’s house to watch a movie before a party is dramatically different given that he’s her alleged boyfriend.

Suddenly Janis being annoyed makes a lot more sense.

“I’m gonna go get some takeout menus,” Kevin says, “from the kitchen.”

“Okay,” Cady says, trying to sound casual, arms wrapped around herself tightly. It’s easy for them to busy themselves with trying to pick out something to order, and they settle on a Greek place because Cady’s never really had Greek food before, Kevin walking her through the menu and then calling in the order.

“Hey, before we start the movie is it cool if I look at your prep sheets?” Kevin asks, “I wanna make sure I’ve been getting stuff right.”

Cady huffs a laugh, “I mean your guess is as good as mine.”

“Hmmmmmmm, is it though?” Kevin says.

“What do you mean?”

“Cady you’re uh, way smarter than me. You’re our fucking MVP.”

Cady rolls her eyes, “Alright.”

“You can believe me or not, I’ve been playing against you in matches all semester, I know what it’s like to get my ass kicked.”

“Sorry,” Cady says halfheartedly.

“No, please do not apologize. It’s awesome,” Kevin says sincerely, but something in the back of Cady’s mind still twinges. Aaron would make comments like that sometimes, about how she was making the rest of them look bad, and he always played them off like jokes, but she’d always wondered how much truth there was to them. Especially when he was so willing to believe that she’d done a complete 180 and forgotten how to do math overnight.

She tries to brush it off though, rummaging around in her bag for her practice sheets. “Oh crap, I was going to bring you back your jacket, I’ll bring it for Monday morning.”

“That’s aight, females be stealin’ yo jackets, that’s par for the course.”

Cady frowns at him, “Females be not likin’ it when you call them females.”

“Oh, seriously?” Kevin says, immediately sounding abashed.

“Uh, yeah, no it always sounds gross when people make adjectives into nouns. Also it just sounds weirdly, I don’t know, biological. Like you’re talking about a pack of lionesses or something.”

“Shit, sorry,” Kevin says. “My bad.”

“Thank you.”

“Fo real though, you can hang on to it for a while, it’s chill.”

“Won’t you need it for qualifiers?”

“I mean I could wear yours,” Kevin suggests.

Cady snorts. “Yeah just tell everyone it shrunk in the wash.”

“Aren’t crop tops in style?” Kevin says, as Cady finally manages to fish out her practice sheets and hand them over to him.

They sit in companionable silence for a while, Cady checking her snapchat stories while Kevin looks between her practice sheets and his own, marking stuff down in red pen, the silence only being broken by the arrival of the delivery guy.

“What do I owe you?” Cady says as Kevin sets the bags of food onto the table.

“Naw, don’t worry about it. I got this one.”

“You sure?” Cady says.

“Yeah what kind of fake boyfriend would I be if I couldn’t buy my fake girlfriend some gyros once in a while,” Kevin says going into the cabinets to retrieve plates. Cady finds it kind of adorable that he unpacks everything out of its takeout containers and onto proper dinner plates, but she accepts hers happily along with a handful of napkins.

“There’s a bigger tv downstairs,” Kevin says, “But uh, forewarning it’s kind of, um, intense.”

“How so?”

Kevin says, “Uh, you’ll just see.”

He hits the light switch and she follows him down into the basement. “Oh. My god.”

The basement opens up into a large main room which has been styled like an old movie theater, lots of red velvet and gold accents, an entire wet bar designed to look like a concession stand, behind which there is a vintage-looking popcorn machine.

“My parents met working at this old cinema in the 80s so it’s like, an homage to that.”

“It’s so cool,” Cady says setting her plate down on the bar so she can look around more.

“My mom does a lot of these like, highly detailed themed rooms. She actually did Regina George’s little sister’s bedroom a few years back.”

“I love this couch,” Cady says, running her hand along the red velvet three seater sitting in front of a huge television.

“I’ll pass on your compliments,” Kevin says. “Though, I um, actually haven’t told my parents, about, you know…” He gestures loosely between the two of them.

“You haven’t?” Cady says, feeling a little bit hurt even if she has no reason to be.

“Yeah, not because, not because of you or anything, I just. If they know they’re gonna wanna meet you and they’re probably gonna think you’re great but then like, I thought it might be awkward. You know...when we go back to being ‘just friends’?”

“Oh. Right. Totally.” Cady says, and yeah duh, obviously this has an end date sometime after Aaron’s party. She just hadn’t. Actually thought about it before. Logistically.

“Anyways, uh, my mom will kill us if we get anything on the couch so I was just gonna sit on the floor to eat but I can get you a chair?”

“Oh no, I love eating on the ground!” Cady says brightly, glad for the distraction.

Kevin sets up the movie and while Cady admits she’s not totally following it for the first twenty minutes or so, possibly because she’s distracted by the revelation that is tzatziki sauce, she starts to settle in more as it goes on.

She also appreciates that Kevin doesn’t immediately launch in to explain a joke or reference unless she asks first. Janis and Damian have a tendency to do that a lot, and while Cady can appreciate that they’re trying to be considerate, it just makes watching movies with them weirdly stressful, trying to keep track of what’s happening on screen and listen to what they’re saying.

“Well,” Cady says as the credits start to roll, “I have to admit, I still don’t totally get why

Tyler is a cowboy, but your costume was pretty freaking accurate.”

Kevin grins at her, stacking their plates together. “Yeah we’ve all been working on these for a while. Our squad goes hard for Halloween.”

“I can tell,” Cady says, following Kevin up the stairs “I like that. I’m excited for you to see my new costume.”

“Oh you’re not gonna do the mauled-by-a-lion thing again? That was awesome!”

“Yeah, sadly the fake wounds were all Janis so I can’t really do them on myself.”

“Bummer,” Kevin says, setting their dishes in the sink and then checking his watch. “Hey, not to like, rush over but we’ve gotta get Tyler and Marwan and I still need to change…”

“Yeah of course,” Cady says nodding. “Janis is bringing me the rest of my costume stuff for the party, so I can just like, chill while you get ready.”

“Dope,” Kevin says, giving her a double thumbs up and turning to head up to the second floor, “B-R-B.”

Cady finds herself latently curious about what Kevin’s bedroom looks like. If he keeps all his school things out on his desk, if he makes his bed, what colour the walls are. But it doesn’t seem like she can exactly invite herself up to poke around, especially when Kevin hadn’t like, actually asked her.

She lingers in the dining room, packing stuff back into her bag and snooping around as much as she can without actually touching things. She’s perusing the books on the shelf in the dining room when she hears a little trilling noise behind her and turns to see a tabby cat gazing at her from behind the kitchen counter.

Cady drops her gaze on instinct, slouching her shoulders and dropping to the floor, hand outstretched softly, holding still for a long few minutes until she feels the cat bump its head against her hand.

“Hello,” Cady says softly, still keeping her gaze low as the cat sniffs at her hand. She’s so focused on maintaining a non-threatening posture that she barely hears the scraping shuffle of a key in the lock until the door is already being opened, the cat skittering away.

“Jesus, Buster it’s just me,” the guy says, and even if she hadn’t seen a photo of him earlier, he looks enough like Kevin that Cady would have been able to identify him as his older brother Neil no problem. He’s lugging a heavy-looking backpack over his shoulder, and it takes him a second to spot Cady, still sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Oh, uh, hi?”

“Hi,” Cady says, knowing her being on the floor is making this exponentially weirder but frozen to the spot.

“Are you the cat sitter?” Neil says slowly, placing his backpack on the floor with a thunk.

“What?” Cady says, and then after a pause rolling her eyes at herself, “Oh, duh, right the cat sitter.”

“So you are the cat sitter?”

“No, no, I’m not. I just, I was confused about why you would think I was the cat sitter. But then I remember like, your parents are away for the weekend and you sure do like, have a cat,” Cady says, finally finding the ability to scramble to her feet.

“Riiiight,” Neil says, “Listen not to be rude, but who are you exactly?”

“Af-ri-ca are you ready to roll or what!?” Kevin calls suddenly, practically bouncing down the stairs and coming to an abrupt halt at the bottom of them when he spots his brother, gaze darting quickly back and forth between him and Cady.

Oh.” Neil says, “Hey Kev.”

“Hey, uh, what are you doing here?”

“Just thought I’d pop home for the weekend, do some laundry, get out of the dorm. My roommate has his girlfriend up for the weekend, thought they might want some privacy,” his eyes dart over to Cady.

There’s a long standoffish moment, Kevin’s shoulders tense and defensive as Neil crosses his arms over his chest and raises an eyebrow. “Are you gonna introduce us.”

“This is Cady,” Kevin says a little stiffly. “We’re on mathletes together. We’re going to a

Halloween party with Tyler and Marwan.”

“Hey,” Cady says, trying to sound casual and friendly and not weird.

“Hey, I’m Neil, Kevin’s brother” he says extending a hand. Cady pushes down the compulsion to tell him she knows who he is, shaking the hand he offers silently.

“We should probably get going,” Kevin says.

“Totally,” Cady agrees nodding.

“Be back before curfew,” Neil says, hefting his bag back over his shoulder.

“Dude shut up, you don’t even know when my curfew is,” Kevin snaps.

“Touchy, touchy,” Neil says, breezing past both of them and heading towards the staircase. “It was nice meeting you Katie.”

“It’s Cady…” she says halfheartedly, but she’s pretty sure he doesn’t hear her. Kevin is still standing in place, his tongue running across the inside of his bottom lip in annoyance.

“Should we go?” She asks finally.

Kevin snaps back into himself. “Yeah, sorry, let’s blast,” he says, flipping his keys in his hand and following her out of the house.

A lot of kids at North Shore have money. Cady knows she herself has money, both of her parents having transferred from field researchers into well-paying university professorships. She’s been to Regina’s house, and Gretchen’s and Karen’s. But truly nothing has prepared herself for Jackson Wayne’s place, which is not only large and impressive but also cool and historic-looking as well.

It takes Cady awhile to track down Janis, who’s already there when she and the boys arrive, tucked up on a couch chatting animatedly with some dark-haired guy Cady doesn’t recognize. “Here ya go,” Janis says, handing Cady a tote bag she had stashed behind the couch. Janis has a pair of plastic devil horns pushed up into her hair but otherwise is dressed pretty normally. “Where’s your boy toy?”

“I don’t know, probably with Tyler and Marwan, I told him I was going to find you so I could change.”

“Well I hope you guys had a safe and sexy afternoon,” Janis says.

“Thanks, it was great,” Cady finds herself saying rather than insisting that they just watched a movie. But hey, Kevin’s brother already clearly thinks they were up to something, and she’s not going to defend herself if people are just going to come to their own conclusions.

She has to wait a stupidly long time for the bathroom so she can change, but she bumps into Jason, who introduces her to Jackson Wayne, an eerily similar-looking handsome dark haired guy. The two of them are dressed as Superman and Batman respectively, and they geek out with her about comics for a few minutes, Cady pleased to actually be able to be in on the reference for once, before Jackson mentions something about needing to find his boyfriend and heading off down the hall.

“I wouldn’t have taken you for a comics nerd,” Jason says, “Wouldn’t have thought that was real big in Africa.”

“Comics are popular everywhere,” Cady says with a shrug. “My dad and I used to make this big trip like once a year to Nairobi to go to this one comics shop.”

“Rock on,” Jason says, “Hey uh, do you know where Damian is? I should probably say hi, you know, just to be a good host.”

“No idea,” Cady says, “But I think him and Janis are doing this angel/devil thing so look for wings.”

Jason nods, disappearing into a crowd of people and out of sight.

Between changing and trying to track down her friends, Cady is way more sober than the general level of the party by the time she actually gets a drink in hand. She’s wandering through the living room, almost tripping over Jackson now making out with the goth kid Janis had been talking to earlier, when someone reaches out and taps her on the shoulder.

“Hey, sorry, just me,” Kevin says when Cady startles, but he’s the one who takes a half step back as he takes in her new costume. She’s borrowed a sort of hooded cape thing from the depths of Janis’ closet over a dark burgundy dress that Regina had bought for her some time last year, but the real centerpiece of the ensemble is the special effects red contacts and the vampire fang caps on her incisors. She’s even dripped a line of fake blood down the corner of her mouth.

“Holy shit, uh, you look…” Kevin pauses for a long thoughtful second. “I’m trying to come up with something a little more eloquent than hot, but the only thing that’s coming to mind is hot. In like a super awesome terrifying way.”

“Thanks,” Cady says, still adjusting to the feel of the fang caps in her mouth so she’s glad that Kevin goes for the forehead kiss and then offers his hand to hers as they drift through the party.

They’re chatting with Gretchen and Karen, Gretchen in a cute bright yellow dress and holding a little cardboard cutout of the snapchat logo, Karen in some lingerie and an indecipherable pair of animal ears, when Marwan comes over, tugging on Kevin’s sleeve like a toddler.

“Kev,” Marwan says, “Kev, Tyler just threw up.”

“How is that my problem?” Kevin says.

“Man ‘cmon,” Marwan half slurs, “I’m sloshed I need, you need to help me. I can’t take care of him.”

Kevin sighs, “Fine. We gotta go pretty soon, Neil’s already gonna be up my ass about being out late.”

Marwan’s already tugging Kevin off, but he shoots a, “Babe I’ll text you,” over his shoulder, and it takes Cady an embarrassing few seconds to realize that she is ‘babe,’ flushing so hard she can feel it when Karen and Gretchen immediately start cooing.

They take some selfies — Gretchen insists as part of her costume — and are chatting about Snowflake Soiree, Gretchen apparently having a line on a cool venue, when her phone starts buzzing loudly.

“Oh crap I gotta take this,” Gretchen says looking at her vibrating phone, “Catch you later pretty ladies!”

“I want pretzels,” Karen says abruptly, and starts off in the direction of the kitchen, so Cady finds herself alone in a crush on people. She’s pretty sure Janis and Damian are out on the back deck getting high with Jackson’s younger brother and his rich stoner friends, so she finds a spot on one of the couches, crushed between some excitable juniors and a girl trying to console her crying friend.

Cady had learned pretty quickly that it really wasn’t a party until at least someone had cried.

Hey, Kevin’s texted her, Ty is okay should be good to go in 10 mins.

She sends him back a thumbs up and flips over to Facebook, just to have something to do, and it’s Halloween which means her feed is filled with lots of costume and party pics. Which is why she doesn’t even register anything as being off for a second, scrolling past and then quickly scrolling back to a post Aaron’s been tagged in. It’s dark in the picture so she can’t totally make out his outfit, but he’s wearing a plastic crown, face pressed in close with a girl who’s wearing a tiara.

Thankful this Prince Charming didn’t disappear at midnight <3 with Aaron Samuels.

Cady can hear her breathing, shallow and loud, mind struggling to put together what she’s already feeling in her chest. Couples costumes aren’t the kind of thing you do with someone you’ve casually been, maybe been on a date or two with. Couples costumes are for couples….which means... which means….

Cady needs to get outside, get out where there is sky and air, and she’s stumbling through the party and out the front door. There’s a smattering of people sitting by the front steps, passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, so Cady heads down a footpath around the side of the house, shivering in the night air but taking in big lungfuls trying to calm herself down. She’s already crying, and without thinking goes to rub her eye, the contact sliding out of place.

“Ahh fuck,” Cady curses, blinking rapidly, reaching up to try and fix it only to have it slip off entirely. She sighs, tucking it into the pocket of Janis’ cape. It doesn’t really matter since she doesn’t have any intentions of going back into the party.

She hears Gretchen before she sees her, pacing back and forth rather impressively on cobblestones in heels, a hand pressed to one ear.

“What do you mean you think he’s on drugs? He’s probably just busy with school stuff,” Gretchen says, looking up and seeing Cady, and she must really look like shit because Gretchen’s entire face shifts and she says, “Listen I’ll call you right back. Okay? Okay, okay.”

“It’s fine,” Cady says, but she sounds so pathetic even to herself, voice wobbling as tears start pouring even faster.

“Oh sweetie what’s wrong?” Gretchen says, ushering her over to a little wrought iron bench. It’s cold and uncomfortable, but Gretchen wraps an arm around her, tilting her head onto Cady’s shoulder and lets her just cry for a solid few minutes.

Cady finally sits up a little bit, sniffling and pulling her phone out and handing it to Gretchen. It’s still open on the same picture, and Cady sees understanding dawn on her.

“I guess it wasn’t that he didn’t want a relationship right now, it was that he didn’t want one with me.”

Gretchen clicks her tongue sympathetically, pushing Cady’s hair over her shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s just so stupid because like, this is literally what happened last Halloween! Aaron told me he wasn’t interested in a relationship, and then bang! He turns around and is making out with Regina. Is something just like, horrifically wrong with me?”

“Of course there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“And then I’m like, I shouldn’t even want this guy to still want me after everything he’s done to me but I still do.” Cady wipes her nose. “Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve ever heard?”

“I promise you it’s not, not by a long shot,” Gretchen says and then takes a long deep breath. “Look, sometimes we like people who we know aren’t good for us, and it doesn’t stop us from wanting them, but we can know better and we can know better for ourselves.”

Cady sighs, “I guess.”

“Kevin’s really crazy about you. You deserve someone who wants to be with you.”

He doesn’t though, Cady thinks, but swallows it down and just nods.

“Feelings are messy and weird and complicated and sometimes you think you’ve moved on and you really haven’t,” Gretchen says. “But that’s okay. We’re all just out here, trying our best.”

“That’s really smart Gretchen.”

“Really? Because I’m pretty tipsy right now, I’m honestly just wingin’ it.”

It’s a quiet car ride home, Kevin taking one look at her tear-stained single red contact face and not pushing the issue.

Tyler’s basically horizontal in the backseat, head mostly in Marwan’s lap, moaning softly every once in a while, but they never end up having to pull over to let him puke. When they pull up to Tyler’s house, Kevin hops out of the car to help Marwan with him.

“Aaron’s dating another girl already,” Cady says with no fanfare when Kevin gets back into the car because she knows he’s not going to ask.

“Motherfucker,” Kevin says, and then abashedly, “Sorry, not helpful.”

Cady lets out a huffing laugh. “No it’s okay. He sucks.”

“He does suck,” Kevin agrees seriously.

“But hey, I’m not going home with a plan to try and ruin the life of his new girlfriend so I call that growth,” Cady says, leaving the fact that she’s already been scheming for weeks unsaid.

Cady’s dad drops her off at North Shore bleary-eyed at 7 am, and she’s so tired that she doesn’t even attempt to dissuade her father from getting out of the car to go talk to Kevin, practically refusing to leave the parking lot until Kevin agrees he’ll be over for dinner sometime soon.

“Dad, don’t you need to go get ready for your 8:30?” Cady says sweetly, when her dad takes a breath midway through a story about the latest episode of Planet Earth.

“Oh, sure thing Binti, I’ll leave you kids to it,” her dad says, leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead.

“Your dad is so cool,” Kevin says once her dad is driving off. They’re the only ones here so far, even though Ms. Norbury had said they were leaving at 7:15 sharp and it’s already 7:09.

“Please never say that to his face, if he gets any external validation that he’s as cool as he thinks he is I think he will be impossible to live with forever,” Cady says. “When we were living at the conservation area near Kilimanjaro he got really popular with this gang of local teen boys because he’d play football with them and he’s never been the same.”

“Duly noted,” Kevin says. “Oh um, hey, unrelated, I have a gift for you.”

“A gift?” Cady echoes as Kevin goes over to the back passenger side door and retrieves a small white cardboard box. He hands it to her and it’s heavier than she’d expected.

“I just thought they’d be useful,” Kevin says with a shrug as Cady pulls the sleeve off the box. It’s full of white business cards and she pulls one from the front.

“Cady Heron, North Shore Mathletes, State Champions 2018,” Cady reads aloud. Under her name there’s her cell phone number and school email and in the middle of the card there’s a small abstract line drawing of some kind of bird in flight. “Is that a heron?”

Kevin nods. “Yeah, is it dumb? I came up with it when I was designing the font and I thought it would just help you stand out. There’s college recruiters hanging around the competition and people are networking so it’s nice to be able to just, whip out your card like a boss.”

“Wait, sorry, did you say you designed the font?”

“Ha, yeah. I’ve made a few fonts before just for fun in my spare time. But I made this one special for you, it’s called Nouveau Heron. I can send it to you if you want. I mean, if you, you know if you like it.”

Cady runs her thumbs over the card. It’s a thick cream cardstock and the ink on the paper is slightly raised and textured. “You made me a font,” she says, a little bit breathless, knowing she’s kind of missing the point.

“Yeah,” Kevin huffs out on a laugh, his warm brown eyes so large and deep and sincere.

Cady feels too hot suddenly but also can’t stop shivering, the fact that she has Kevin’s jacket rolled up in her rucksack the opposite of comforting in this moment.

“I— ” Cady starts, not knowing at all where this is going.

And fortunately—or not—for her she doesn’t get any further, Ms. Norbury’s yellow compact practically screeching into the parking lot and halting wherever that could possibly be going in its tracks.

Cady sleeps in the car, her box of business cards tucked safely on her lap, and while she half entertains the idea of pulling out Kevin’s borrowed jacket as a sort of blanket, something about that seems...dangerous. Besides, she has her own jacket already, trying to wear two at once just seems kind of excessive.

She’s almost relieved when Kevin asks for his jacket back when they stop to get gas and McDonald’s breakfast an hour or so into the drive.

“Hey Cady, why don’t you drive the rest of the way with me,” Ms. Norbury says, sipping from a can of diet coke even though it’s only 8:30 am. “Let the boys have some guy time.”

“Um, sure, okay,” Cady says, partially because she doesn’t mind the idea, and partially because she’s pretty sure there’s nothing she could say to get out of it. Ms. Norbury was, after all, a pusher.

“Good luck,” Kevin says, rolling down his window she walks past with her rucksack retrieved from the trunk, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Cady blows a piece of hair out of her face and leans forward kissing him through the window opening, Kevin making a small noise of surprise against her mouth before leaning up into the kiss.

“See you on the other side,” Cady says, walking off before she can linger too long on the smug satisfaction his surprised, wide-eyed look stirs in her.

“So you and Kevin, huh,” Ms. Norbury says almost immediately after they’ve pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.

“Yup, me and Kevin,” she agrees.

“I don’t want to pry,” Ms Norbury says after what cannot possibly be more than thirty seconds, “Believe me, what my students get up to is their business, and I want no part of that, but I just wanted to say Cady I’m really proud of you for putting yourself back out there. I’m sure Aaron dumping you must have really knocked you down, but hey you dusted yourself, got back up, and climbed right back up onto that horse. Erm, well, a different horse I guess metaphorically speaking.”

“Alright,” Cady says.

“I mean hey, I met my second husband when I was at the lawyer’s office filing for divorce. Well I mean, he was my lawyer. Which really screwed me over in the long run because boy oh boy I did not get anything from that second settlement, I’ll tell you.”

“Uh huh.”

After a moment Ms Norbury seems to belatedly realize that this is inappropriate. “Anyways, sorry, what I’m trying to say Cady is that I think it’s great that you’re going out there and living your life while you’re young! Carpe-ing some diem!”

“Thanks Ms Norbury,” Cady says, and she does mean it genuinely, even if she really could have done without the part about Aaron dumping her and also the details of her calculus teacher’s multiple divorces.

“You’re welcome,” Ms Norbury says flicking on the radio. “Oh but if you do dump him, maybe wait until after nationals — knock on wood that we qualify — you know, just for the good of the team.”

Qualifiers is, well frankly there’s only one word for it: horny.

What Kevin had called networking was really more just a hotel ballroom of sexually frustrated nerds flirting with each other. Which wasn’t a problem or anything, but definitely not what Cady had expected. It also doesn’t help that they roll up wearing their North Shore championship jackets, cards shoved into their hands as they get flocked by people. Cady has to deter at least half a dozen guys who want to do more than just give her their cards, Kevin having to swoop in at least twice to play jealous boyfriend.

And while there’s definitely a majority of guys, there’s a lot more girls than Cady would have expected, and she points this out to the guys as they’re sitting down to eat lunch before rounds begin.

“This is the same number as girls as always,” Marwan says. “I mean, more or less, I haven’t counted.”

Cady tilts her head. “But we get extra funding because there’s a girl on the team, right?”

“I think that’s like, a general women in STEM state initiative,” Marwan says with a shrug. “I dunno.”

“Huh, okay,” Cady says, taking a bite of her pasta. “I just thought cause I was like, the first girl ever on the North Shore team and there was only the one girl on the Merrymount team that it was like, uncommon?”

Tyler tilts his head and blinks at her, “Who told you that?”

Kevin makes a very not subtly throat slashing motion, trying to play it off as touching his face when Cady turns to look at him incredulously. “Why did you tell me you’d never had a girl on the team before?”

“Well, technically we’d never had a girl on this version of the team,” Kevin says. “Not since I’d been captain.”

“Yeah because our last captain was literally a girl, Kevin,” Marwan says.

“Alright, alright,” Kevin says. “I wanted you on the team so I...selectively presented the facts. Happy?”

“Weirdly yeah, it’s kind of flattering,” Cady says. “Though for the record if you tell a girl she’s the first woman ever to do something it kinda feels like a red flag. Like, why has no one wanted to do this before me?”

“Huh. Noted.”

Cady stands. “I’m gonna get dessert, anyone want anything?”

The guys shake their heads, so Cady grabs a plate and heads over to the self serve spread of cookies and brownies. Her hand bumps someone else’s as she goes to reach for a set of tongs.

“Shit sorry,” Cady says, and looks up to see C Krafft from Merrymount, and she sees her own realization reflected on her face.

“Hey,” Cady says.

“Hi,” C Krafft says.

“Your hair’s different,” Cady says.

“Yeah,” she says. “Some girl at a math competition told me I should change it.”

Cady winces. “Sorry, that was. I was going through a whole thing at the time, I’m sorry I was all weird and lectured at you.”

C Krafft, gives a half shrug. “Sorry for calling you a slut. I’m Caroline by the way.”

“Cady.”

“Katie?”

“No, Cady, with a D.”

“Oh, cool,” Caroline says, handing her the tongs and then after a long moment of hesitation saying, “Hey, um, some other girls and I were talking about meeting up after rounds and just chilling and having a few drinks in someone’s room, if you’d be like, into that?”

“For sure,” Cady says, reaching into her back pocket and shuffling through the handfuls of cards she’s ended up with until she finally finds one of her own. “Gimme a text.”

“Huh, this is a really nice font,” Caroline says.

Cady might love math, but after almost five hours of round robin competition she feels like her brain is about to leak out of her ears. She flops down on her bed and stares blankly at the ceiling for a good five minutes when she gets back to her room.

It’s not like the mathletes team is rolling around in school funding, but she’s glad that they could at least afford to get her her own room so she doesn’t have to bunk with Ms Norbury. Cady’s pretty sure if she had to hear more about her multiple divorces her brain would just fully shut down.

She’s already decided she’s going to opt out of the actual competition sponsored mixer tonight, even if she didn’t have to keep up appearances with Kevin for the sake of the guys and Ms Norbury, she’s not really sure she understands the intricate social cues of academic competition hookups, and honestly she has no real desire to learn.

She skips the super busy hotel restaurant and wanders around nearby until she finds a cute little deli and orders a bunch of to-go cold salads and a couple of glass bottles of lime soda just because she likes the colour. There’s still a ton of people milling about the lobby, and she spots Tyler getting his mingle on, but she’s honestly still called by the siren call of her bed. Plus the hotel has a million channels that she doesn’t at home, Cady flicking around until she lands on some vaguely trashy wedding reality show.

She’s midway through her second episode when her phone lights up with a text from Caroline letting her know that she should swing by 346 whenever she wants. Cady’s still wearing her North Shore polo shirt and while she didn’t exactly pack for this trip thinking she’d want to look cute, she still manages to throw something together that hits that elusive balance of Trying But Not Trying Too Hard.

Cady’s checking her reflection in the hallway mirror when Marwan and Kevin come tumbling out of their room in bathrobes, shoving at each other playfully.

“Hey!” Marwan says brightly when he spots her.

“You guys off to the spa?”

“Naw, gonna go hit that jacuzzi tub. Enjoy those whirlpool jets,” Kevin says, and Cady suddenly finds herself very aware of the triangle of his bare chest that’s exposed between the sides of his robe. “Did you wanna come?”

Cady forcefully pulls herself out of a mental vortex about Kevin’s chest hair and why of all things she finds that bizarrely attractive in a really primal way.

“I’m actually going to hang out with some of the girls from other teams, you know, since I was the first girl on the North Shore team.”

“I’m never living that down am I?” Kevin says.

Cady grins, “Nope.”

“You look super nice by the way,” Kevin says, “Very, um...nice.”

“Oh my god stop flirting and let’s go,” Marwan says, practically dragging Kevin down the hall, “See ya later Cady!”

Cady can tell everyone had gotten a pretty good head start without her and Caroline’s eyes are ever so slightly unfocused behind her glasses.

“Oh my god Cady!” She says, pulling Cady into a hug and then dragging her by the arm farther into the room. “Guys! Cady’s here.”

About half a dozen other girls are spread out across the room, making various noises of greeting at her. There’s a case of beer and two six-packs of Mike’s Hard Lemonade sitting on the desk, both of which are about half empty.

“Help yourself,” Caroline says, pressing a Mike’s into Cady’s hand when she hesitates. She wasn’t really planning on drinking tonight, but it’s not like she has anywhere else to be, and besides, if they were trying to sabotage her via hangover they’d surely be offering something stronger.

“So this is Dani and Kazuki and Kaleigh,” Caroline says helpfully, “And then over there that’s Sofie, Maya, and Essie.”

“Did you guys just all meet through competition stuff?” Cady asks sipping at her drink.

“Yeah, it’s a real sausage fest. Well it’s not as bad anymore cause of the STEM initiative program, but it used to be a lot worse a few years ago. But we’re all on male-dominated teams so we sort of just, banded together. I’m sure you get it.”

“Totally,” Cady says nodding. “Like, I love the guys but it can be kind of exhausting. Also I wasn’t expecting the competition to be so….social. It’s kind of nice to just get to relax.”

“Yeah it’s ‘social’ alright,” Dani says with a laugh, tipping her head back to down the rest of her beer.

“I bet you’ve got tons of cards already,” Kazuki says. “Anyone caught your eye?”

“Oh, um, not really,” Cady says, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I’m sort of off the market.”

“Ahh well, more for those of us who are into that sort of thing,” Dani says. “You’re from North Shore right?”

“Yeah,” Cady says nodding. It’s weird that people Know Who She Is by association to her team, all of them having targets on their backs from the championship.

“Hey didn’t you make out with one of the dudes from North Shore last year at the mixer?” Kaleigh says, tossing her braid over her shoulder. Cady feels her hands go clammy against the glass bottle of her drink, a weird wave of something rising in her.

“Ohh yeah I’m pretty sure I did, wait lemme ask Essie cause I know we made out with the same guy,” Dani says. “Essie, that guy we made out with, he was from North Shore right?”

Essie turns over her shoulder, chewing her lip thoughtfully. “I honestly don’t remember...Wait no, let me check. I added him on Facebook.”

“Anyways, whether or not he was from North Shore, I did make out with a very hot guy last year at the official mixer, which is exactly the kind of socializing I’m here for.”

“Yeah he was from North Shore!” Essie says, coming over to show her phone screen to Dannie. “Kevin Guh-napoor? Not sure how you say that. Aww bummer he’s in a relationship now though...with some girl named Caddy.”

“It’s Cady,” Cady says, mostly on reflex.

“Oh Jesus,” Caroline says apologetically.

“No, no it’s okay,” Cady says, already waving a dismissive hand. And really it is. Kevin’s not even her real boyfriend so it’s not like it bothers her. Or well, okay maybe it bothers her a little, but only in a protective totally platonic totally non-jealous friendship kind of way.

“I mean if anything,” Cady hears herself saying before she can stop it, “he’s probably a way better kisser thanks to like, making out with people at mathletics competitions so really, in a way I should be thanking you guys. For making out with my boyfriend. Before we were dating.”

“Mhmm,” Kazuki says, patting Cady on the hand sympathetically.

She needs another drink.

Cady doesn’t really think she’s that tipsy when she leaves Caroline’s room but her inability to get her door to unlock on the first or second or third swipes is really telling. Still, the evening had ended up being pretty fun despite 37.5% of the people in the room having kissed the same guy.

She makes herself drink two full glasses of water from the bathroom sink, setting another on her bedside table alongside a bottle of Advil. Cady refuses to be hungover for the rest of the competition tomorrow, so really it’s just common sense to finish the rest of the curry pasta salad she’d picked up for dinner to get some extra carbs in her stomach.

Hey are u back? Kevin texts, the message preview popping up on her phone.

Yeah why? Cady texts back, licking the back of the fork she’s been eating with.

There’s a long pause as Kevin types, dots appearing and disappearing and reappearing and disappearing until finally: sorry theres not really a non gross way to say this mar and ty are def going to fuck even if im in the room can i come hang with u???

Oh my god? Yeah no it’s chill come over, Cady replies, and it’s only about a minute later when she hears a soft knock at her door and gets up to let Kevin in. He’s wearing a soft grey hoodie and a pair of North Shore sweatpants, his hair still slightly damp from the pool, the smell of chlorine lingering on his skin.

“Hey,” he says, sounding relieved.

“Hey,” Cady says.

“Sorry about that, I just, I could see it in their eyes,” Kevin says hands dramatically grasping at nothing.

“It’s all good,” Cady says. “I literally wasn’t doing anything anyway. My big plans are making sure I’m sober when I fall asleep and watching some bad reality television show I’ve never heard of.”

“Whoa, party girl,” Kevin jokes.

“Here, come sit,” Cady says, clearing the stuff of her bed and patting at the other side until Kevin comes and stretches out beside her. They flick around for a while until they find some dumb show about, of all things, auctioning storage lockers.

“Who even comes up with these?” Cady says sipping her water.

“God who knows, probably some poor unpaid interns throwing darts at a board,” Kevin says.

Cady hums in agreement, maybe it’s because she’s still kind of tipsy, but she can’t stop looking at where Kevin’s foot is resting ever so gently against her calf, like it’s so subconscious and normal to be touching her.

“So uh, how’re you enjoying your first proper competition?” Kevin asks.

“The math part is fun. The social stuff is um, not what I was expecting.”

“Academic competitions are always way hornier than people give them credit for. That’s why band geeks are like that,” Kevin says. “And Model UN, and Debate Team, and Forensics, and well, us too.”

“Yeah,” Cady says. “Uh, two of the girls at my thing tonight said they’d made out with you last year. Which is like, chill, obviously. I know we’re not actually dating, and even if we were like, who cares? But, um, yeah.”

“Oh, was it Janine?”

“Neither of them were named Janine, holy shit Kevin were you just like tripping tongue-first into people!?”

“Look, beggars can’t be choosers, if a cool hot smart girl wants to make out with me I’m not gonna say no. Even if it did land me with a super wicked cold last time.”

“Gross,” Cady says.

“Hey at least I didn’t end up like Marwan. Two years ago he got mono from making out with the delegate from Paraguay in the bathrooms at Model UN which was infinitely— Oh Jesus, speak of the devil,” Kevin says, gesturing behind them, and Cady is suddenly very aware of the soft rhythmic thumping against their shared wall.

“Huh, they actually showed a lot of restraint it’s been like fifteen minutes.”

“I mean, I’m sure there was lead-up to this as soon as I left, they were basically already in the midst of foreplay.”

Something slaps against the wall and Cady practically bolts off the bed. “Okay, let's stop talking about our friend’s sex lives.”

“Agreed,” Kevin says, and moves to come join her on the floor.

They turn up the volume on the show and they try to watch for a few minutes, but it’s really hard to ignore what is clearly going on in the room next door.

“Oh fuck it,” Cady says finally, turning the tv off and throwing the remote on the ground. She climbs back onto the bed, first on her hands and knees and then standing, Kevin getting up to look at her quizzically.

“What are you doing?”

“If you can’t beat ‘em,” Cady says, and starts jumping up and down, the bed creaking and thumping against the wall as she does.

“Oh my god,” Kevin says, a hand half thrown over his face, peeking through his fingers like a little kid at a scary movie.

“I saw this in a movie!” Cady says triumphantly. “C’mon, come help.”

Kevin accepts her hand up, and she holds steady as he comes up onto the bed with her, the whole thing creaking a little under their weight. “C’mere,” Cady says resuming her jumping, and after a moment of hesitation Kevin joins in two.

“Okay I just wanna say though,” Kevin says, “I’ve seen this movie too and can we please skip the part where you punch me in the dick.”

“We’ll see,” Cady says. “One thing at a time, we should, like, make more noises.”

“Noises?”

“Like sexy noises!” Cady says. “Moan.”

Kevin makes a noise but it’s definitely not a moan, more like kind of a pained sigh.

“What? No, what was that?” Cady says. “Here just do words.”

She’s blaming the three drinks on her being weirdly emboldened to do this, but honestly if Tyler and Marwan wanna play hardball they’ll play hardball.

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Cady moans, “Yeah just like that! Just like that! Ohhhh yeah, ohhhhh yeah.”

“Uh, um, um,” Kevin says fumbling. “Yeah, um, you like that baby?”

“Yeah! Yeah! Kevin, please, please!” Cady says, slapping a hand against their shared wall. It’s way too high up for almost any sexual position she can think of, but she figures it’s more the thought that counts.

“Yeah baby whatever you want!” Kevin says, joining in with a few wall slaps of his own.

“Yeah just like that, just like that, just like that,” Cady is practically chanting, brain scrambling to remember anything that she’d said in bed the few times she and Aaron had had sex. She’s mostly just winging it though.

“Cady holy shit, Cady yes!” Kevin says getting more into it.

“Come on baby, come on,” Cady says. “Give it to me, I want it!”

She’s so wrapped up in the tableau that she’s honestly not even sure if Tyler and Marwan are even still having sex anymore, but it feels like they have to play this to some kind of conclusion.

“Kevin! Kev oh my god!” Cady moans, loudly. So loud she hopes Dani and Essie and Janine can all hear her.

Wait. What?

Cady doesn’t have any time to examine what the hell that’s supposed to mean, when there’s suddenly a hammering pounding on the door to her room.

“HEY! KNOCK IT OFF! THIS IS A SCHOOL TRIP!” Ms. Norbury shouts through the door, startling Cady so badly that she has to reach out and grab ahold of Kevin so she doesn’t go ass over teakettle onto the floor.

They’re holding onto each other and panting to the sound of Ms. Norbury going next door and shouting more or less the same thing at Tyler and Marwan before going back to her own room and slamming the door shut.

“Oh my god,” Kevin finally breathes incredulously and it’s like a switch goes off, the two of them breaking out into hysterical laughter, Cady practically melting down to the mattress, laughing so hard she can barely breathe and her stomach hurts with it.

“Holy crap,” Cady says, wheezing and trying to catch her breath. “Oh my god.”

She finally lets out a long exhale, rolling over onto her side to face Kevin who’s curled in towards her two like the other half of a pair of round brackets.

“Hi,” Kevin says.

“Hey,” Cady says.

“It was good for me, was it good for you?” Kevin says, and Cady bursts out laughing so quickly she snorts with it, both of them melting back into giggles.

“I’m never going to be able to look Ms. Norbury in the eye ever again,” Cady says.

“Worth it though, right?”

“Oh absolutely.”

Kevin grins at her rolling off the bed and standing. “Oh shit.”

“What?”

“I just...I didn’t think through like...walking back into the room with Tyler and Marwan after that…”

“I’m sure Ms. Norbury put them off the mood,” Cady says.

“No, I mean...they think I just had sex.”

Oh. Right. Duh.”

“I don’t wanna impose but could I, would it be okay if I crashed here? I’ll totally sleep on the floor or whatever I’m not trying to like, I’m not trying to get into your bed.”

“It’s a big bed, it’s not a big deal,” Cady says, half terrified he’ll say yes but offering just the same.

“I’m not gonna do that,” Kevin says. “Plus sleeping on the floor is super good for your back. Allegedly.”

“Huh. Do you need like, a toothbrush or something?”

Kevin half shrugs. “I actually sort of saw this coming so I did bring a few necessaries over with me.” He pulls a toothbrush out of his sweatpants pocket with a flourish, “Can I borrow some toothpaste though, is that cool?”

“Are you gonna pay me back?” Cady jokes.

“Sounds fair,” Kevin says, breezing past her and into the bathroom. Cady takes the opportunity to change into her pajamas, half self-conscious that Kevin’s going to come back out at any moment and see her in her dumb days-of-the-week underwear Karen bought her for her birthday. It’s a strange space to occupy, pretending to have sex with someone one minute and being terrified of them seeing you undressed the next.

Still, Cady’s fully dressed and sitting on top of the still made but rumpled covers with a crossword puzzle she fished out of a free newspaper at the deli, when Kevin creaks the door open and asks “Hey, am I okay to come out?”

“Yeah all clear,” Cady says, folding the newspaper over, “So do you think we should like— ” she starts and then abruptly stalls as Kevin comes around the corner, the complimentary hotel pen she’d been using tumbling from her fingers and getting lost somewhere in the mess of sheets.

“We should like?” Kevin prompts after a moment, staring at her wide-eyed.

“Glasses,” Cady says dumbly, shaking her head. “Sorry, uh, I’ve never seen you in

glasses before you just. Surprised me.”

“Oh,” Kevin says, making a melodramatic grimace face, reaching up to touch the frames self-consciously, “That bad?” They’re a pair of heavy-framed glasses, the sort of shape that Damian would probably call Geek Chic if he was in a good mood. But instead of being a basic black or tortoiseshell they’re a dark matte blue, making Kevin’s eyes look even more brown behind them.

“No they’re really nice,” Cady says, scrambling to get off the bed, pen forgotten.

“Good. Thanks,” Kevin says. “Did we uh wanna figure out the blankets situation?”

“Yes,” Cady nods, thankful for the distraction. “I was going to say maybe you should put some towels down first so you’re not sleeping directly on the floor?

“You sound pretty scandalized for someone who grew up roughing it on the savannah,” Kevin says, but he does grab two towels from where they’re stacked on a shelf above the dresser.

“I mean the literal ground is softer than floors,” Cady points out, handing him two of the pillows off the bed.

“Fair,” Kevin kneels down, spreading out two towels and accepting the pillows before going into the closet to retrieve an extra blanket.

“Okay last chance,” Cady says. “Are you totally sure you’re going to be okay on the floor?”

“Hundred percent,” Kevin says.

“Alright,” Cady says with a shrug, climbing back into her bed. “No climbing into my bed in the middle of the night.”

“Awww not even if I have a nightmare?” Kevin says, pulling his phone out of his pocket to set an alarm before taking his glasses off and setting both of them on one of the night tables.

Cady snorts, rolling over to turn the light off.

Cady wakes with a jolt at the sound of an unfamiliar alarm, the sound of Kevin rummaging around for his phone for a second before it stops.

“What time is it?” Cady says, still half asleep.

“It’s only six,” Kevin practically whispers, “I’m going to go down to the gym, you can go back to sleep.”

“Hmmmmm,” Cady says, rolls over, and does just that.

When she properly wakes up to her own alarm she lies in bed for a few long minutes, noting that Kevin had put the pillows back on her bed, the towels and blankets folded and set on top of the dresser. She debates for a long time about if it feels worth it to shower, but decides instead just to throw her hair up in a ponytail and be done with it.

She gets a few nods when she walks into the hotel’s continental breakfast lounge, both from some of the girls she’d been hanging out with last night and a handful of boys. The line for the waffle maker is absurdly long, so even though that sounds delicious, Cady skips it in favour of a prewrapped breakfast sandwich and some pastries.

“Hey,” Kevin says, sidling up alongside her at the end of the line where the cutlery is. “I snagged us some spots.”

“Oh my god, good,” Cady says; she hadn’t been looking forward to navigating and trying to claw some space out of a table.

“Have you seen Tyler and Marwan at all?” Kevin asks when they sit down at their end of a long table.

Cady shakes her head. “No, why?”

“I just haven’t seen them. I went back up to our room to change after I went for a run and they weren’t there. I thought they’d be down here but I guess they’re— ”

Cady never finds out where Kevin thinks they’ve gotten up to because abruptly from about ten feet away Tyler and Marwan appear from behind her, loudly singing what Cady at first takes to be Happy Birthday. Marwan’s holding a paper plate with a cupcake on it, a single lit candle that he’s shielding as they walk through the crowded room.

For a panicked half-second she thinks she’s forgotten somehow that it’s Kevin’s birthday before abruptly remembering that they’d all gone out for his birthday in June. People are looking over at them now interestedly, Tyler and Marwan singing loudly and she realizes now what they’re saying.

“ —Happy V-Day dear Keeeeeev-in, happy V-Day to yoooouuu,” They finish, Marwan setting the cupcake down in front of Kevin who looks at them with daggers in his eyes.

“C’mon make a wish,” Tyler says, holding his phone sideways so he can, presumably, get video.

“I will murder you in your sleep,” Kevin says.

“Don’t be a killjoy,” Marwan says. “It’s a big day!”

“I hate you both, you’re dead to me,” Kevin says.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say to the people who just brought you a cupcake to celebrate your special day,” Tyler says smugly from behind his phone.

Kevin licks his thumb and index finger, pressing down on the wick of the candle to extinguish the flame. Cady’s whole stomach turns over uncomfortably and suddenly she is painfully not hungry.

“Spoil sport,” Marwan says.

They lose their first bout of the competition, Cady badly fumbling a graphing question and practically handing the win over to the other team.

“Hey, we’ll get ‘em on the next round,” Marwan says, cheerfully undeterred, but Cady catches him giving Kevin a look when he thinks she’s not looking. It’s not the end of the world that they lost, especially since they’re not in brackets and their scores are cumulative, but still, she alone is the one who fucked it up this time.

“I’m going to go grab some water,” Cady says, but instead of heading over to the little lemon water cooler the organizers had so graciously set up in the conference centre she finds herself just walking out and out and out, already to the lobby by the time Kevin is calling out from behind her.

“Cady, hey, wait, wait,” Kevin says, catching up with her easily on his long legs. “Look, I will fully leave you alone if you wanna be alone but I just wanted to like...check in with you.”

Cady crosses her arms over her polo shirt, arms cold in the overly air conditioned lobby. Why an air conditioner needs to be on in November, she has literally no idea. “Can we talk somewhere, not here?”

“For sure,” Kevin says, and god it must be serious if he’s not saying ‘fo sho.’ “C’mere, I know where we can go.” He holds out his hand for her and she takes it without thinking. Kevin looks down at their joined hands in surprise which is when Cady realizes maybe he was just gesturing for her to follow him, but either way he doesn’t let go and leads her out of the air-conditioned lobby and down a series of halls, out into a little courtyard area with benches and tasteful shrubbery. It’s a bit chilly out, but it’s sunny, and Cady sits down in a warm sunny patch, tilting her head back to sun herself like a cat.

“I’m sorry Tyler and Marwan did that,” Kevin says, not sitting. “Like I kinda knew they might because we’ve been joking about like, ‘Congrats on the sex’ cake for literally years but I didn’t even think like, you were going to be implicated in that with like, everyone around. I’m really sorry.”

Cady blinks up at him, “What?”

“I mean like I know we’re doing this,” Kevin says, gesturing between the two of them, “But obviously it’s not— I know you initiated it but like— I didn’t mean for people think that we like. Actually did.”

Cady’s barely following what Kevin’s trying to say, but she scrapes the meaning together more in the sheepish bend of his neck. “Oh my god do you think I’m upset because people think we had sex?”

“...Maybe?” Kevin says. “I don’t know. Is it not that? Was I being super weird and self centred?”

“No it’s,” Cady shakes her head, “Sorry, this feels like, really dumb. I didn’t realize you were— that you’d never had sex before.”

“Seriously?”

“I mean it’s not like I was sitting around thinking about it but yeah, kinda. I mean you were clearly playing the field last year, I thought maybe one of them? Or someone from school.”

“I know this isn’t the point, but this is a huge boost to my ego,” Kevin says.

Cady pulls at the scrunchie in her hair. “I just feel bad that like, now everyone’s going to think that this was your first time.”

Kevin crosses his arms over his chest, thinking, before finally saying “...I’m confused. Why does that make you feel bad?”

“I just— You shouldn’t have to lie about it later. You should get to have a first time that’s really special and perfect. Don’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” Kevin says, even though he totally laughed, “No, you’re just, I think you’re really sweet for worrying about people wrongly thinking you deflowered me on a mathletics trip.”

“I know it’s stupid, I know virginity is like, not a real thing, but still,” Cady says. “It’s fine, I’m just in my head about it.”

Kevin sits finally, putting an arm around her shoulders, patting her twice on the upper arm. “I’m going to head back okay? Take your time, I’ll cover for you.”

“Thanks,” Cady says.

“I got your back boo,” Kevin says, patting her once more on the arm before standing. Cady watches him go, missing the warm solid weight of him almost immediately. It was something she’d loved about Aaron too, just leaning up against the solid warmth of his body, feeling safe and valuable and protected.

She knows, on paper, that Kevin is right, that it’s not really a big deal that she took his fake virginity, but she can’t help the guilt that rises in her stomach and into her chest like acid reflux. She doesn’t regret her first time, not in the broad sense, but it was hard to feel now like Aaron’s insistence that they do long distance right before their first time doesn’t feel like at least a bit of a plot given how little he seemed to care about maintaining their relationship once he was gone. Still, it had been nice and Cady figures no one can truly know what these kinds of choices look like in hindsight, stuck trying to do the best you can in the moment and being okay with it.

It doesn’t completely settle her stomach, but it’s enough to get her off the bench, metaphorically and literally, and Cady lets herself focus on the task at hand: kicking some serious ass.

They place second overall, Merrymount placing third and one of the other prep schools beating them by only two points to take top spot. Still after the disastrous bout that morning they’re all in a good mood, Tyler practically hoisting Marwan into the air as they cling to each other, whooping and cheering in between kisses. Cady throws her arms around Kevin’s neck as they hug so tightly her feet fully leave the ground.

“Oh ow,” Kevin says as he sets her back down.

“You good?”

“Yeah sorry I’m just kinda sore from last night,” Kevin says.

“Oh my god Kevin shut up, we get it,” Tyler says. “Grow up.”

It could almost be cutting if Marwan didn’t have his hand halfway up his shirt.

They’d already brought their luggage down to their cars during the lunch break, so after a few more exchanges of cards, this time with some college recruiters instead of just obnoxious horny nerd boys, they’re more or less ready to head home.

“I am just so proud of you kids!” Ms. Norbury gushes, all their late night sins seemingly forgotten in the face of their win. “I’m buying you all Dairy Queen on the way home!”

“Oh speaking of,” Marwan says, “Cady remind me we got you a cupcake when we were out getting Kevin’s. We recognize that this was a team effort. And honestly it sounds like you were the MVP.”

“Alright! Enough of that!” Ms. Norbury says, clapping her hands loudly. “We’re going to have a super awesome chat about appropriate academic conduct real soon.”

Cady is not looking forward to that even a little bit, but she’s still floating enough on their good placing that she’s not too fussed. Kevin holds open the passenger side door for her before crossing over and letting himself in the driver’s side.

“Kev, it’s locked,” Marwan says, trying the door.

“Yeah I know,” Kevin says sweetly, through his rolled down window. “Uh, unlock it then,” Marwan says, trying the handle again uselessly.

“I thought maybe you clowns could use some quality time with Ms. Norbury.”

“Ha ha, c’mon that’s not funny,” Tyler deadpans.

“Yeah no, I’m fully serious,” Kevin says. “Sorry assclowns, payback’s a bitch.”

And with that he rolls up his window and backs out of his parking space, Tyler and Marwan looking unimpressed as Kevin waves at them good naturedly, Cady covering her grin with the back of her hand.

“I cannot believe you fucked Kevin Gnapoor on a school trip,” Janis says without so much as a hello, coming up behind Cady before homeroom on Wednesday.

“What?” Cady says whirling around. “Who told you that?”

“Tyler Kimble’s been talking about it to people he was all like,” Janis pitches her voice into a pretty decent imitation of Tyler’s voice, “‘Look I don’t wanna name names, but I’ll just say that while we might have won the competition, someone definitely lost something wink wink.’”

“We didn’t win, we came in second,” Cady says, her cheeks on fire. Janis isn’t listening though.

“Look, I know you get all hot for this stuff, but honestly taking some nerd’s virginity at a math competition sounds like the premise for some terrible teen comedy written by straight white men who still feel entitled about the cheerleaders they didn’t get to fuck in high school.”

“...What does that even mean.”

“You know people are gonna be weird about it because you’re like, former-plastic and he’s like, Kevin” Janis says with a shrug. “Plus all the nerd types are going to be like, wow, one day too maybe I can get a hot girl to have mediocre sex with me too.”

Cady feels a tide of anger rise in her so high and so fast that she’s defenseless to the rush of verbal vomit that follows. “Um, hi, who said it was mediocre? Kevin is actually really great and sweet and attentive in bed. And he’s super into consent. And before you say that’s holding straight men to a low bar I actually came twice and it was amazing.”

Why is she saying this? She needs to stop saying this.

But instead she adds. “Oh also he’s bigger than Aaron.”

“Jesus Caddy I don’t wanna hear this.”

“You’re the one who brought it up,” Cady says defensively.

There’s a long silence between them as Cady finishes shoving stuff in her backpack and then closes her locker. Janis has her arm draped weirdly around herself, pushing the side of her doc martin against the floor.

“Alright, okay, I’m, I’m sorry,” Janis says. “It just like. I thought you might be upset that people are spreading your business all over school. I know how bad that sucks.”

“Oh Janis, I’m so sorry.”

Janis shakes her head, “No it’s, I gotta stop using that as an excuse for everything. Like it was fucked up but it was a long time ago. I could have just asked you if you were upset like a normal person.”

“I mean I’m gonna text Tyler and tell him to shut up, but it’s like, it’s fine.”

“Yeah,” Janis says, and then very suddenly, “It just fucking sucks because you were so busy with mathletes all last week and Damian’s always at rehearsal and now that you and Kevin are getting more serious so I’m just me all alone over here.”

“I mean that’s fair,” Cady says, “but maybe you could, like, actually try and hang out with my other friends sometimes so I’m not forced to choose between having out with them and hanging out with you. And I’m not saying that’s what happened this week, and obviously like, I’m not going to force you to hang out with Regina or something. But maybe you could eat lunch with me and Kevin and the guys sometimes. Or come out with me and Gretchen when we go for coffee.”

Janis huffs. “Fine, I will try to hold hands and sing kumbaya with your weird friends, but I’m only doing this for you.”

“Thank you,” Cady says sweetly.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. My therapist better give me a fucking gold star for this.”

“So I heard you slept with Kevin G,” Regina says when Cady emerges from the bathroom stall between third and fourth period. “Don’t look so surprised. I saw your shoes under the stall. I’d recognize Gretchen’s hand-me-downs anywhere.”

“Oh,” Cady says, “Look, um— ”

“You don’t have to explain,” Regina says, pulling a heavy-looking gunmetal lipstick tube out of her pocket, uncapping it and turning towards the mirror.

“I don’t?”

“I mean flirting with Shane was just to keep Aaron on his toes originally,” Regina says, running her middle finger across the edge of her lip. “But then things happened. There’s no shame in it. Sometimes you need to try a sample before you’re ready to buy.”

“I really don’t think we’re on the same page— ” Cady tries, realizing what Regina’s implying, but she either doesn’t hear or doesn’t care, tottering out of the bathroom in her clicky heels before Cady can even finish.

It’s a testament to her de-plasticization that Cady and Kevin allegedly sleeping together isn’t even news by Thursday. Though that doesn’t stop Ms. Norbury from forcing them all to sit through a lecture about PDA and academic etiquette during their normal mathletics practice time slot.

“This should go without saying guys, I should not be seeing or hearing the kind of hormonal underage nonsense you’ve been getting up to!”

Cady honestly zones out for most of it, but when they’re walking to Kevin’s car afterwards Tyler says, “Look I know Ms. Norbury’s kind of a drama queen, but maybe we could actually tone it down a bit? Marwan and I talked about it and we’re cool with keeping mathletes more or less PDA free if you guys are.”

‘Holy shit,’ Kevin mouths to her over Tyler’s head, before clearing his throat and saying with careful nonchalance, “Yeah, I guess I’d be cool with that, Cady?”

“Yeah, no that’s chill with me,” Cady says.

“Sweet,” Marwan agrees, “I’m glad we’re all on the same page.”

Kevin still looks a little dazed as he unlocks his car and climbs into the driver’s seat. Cady loves Tyler and Marwan, and honestly at this point their lack of chill is just background noise, but the idea of it just being a non-issue, even if it’s only during mathletes, is shockingly calming. Like obviously she doesn’t have any problem with them wanting to be affectionate but at least now it won’t be literally on top of the table she’s trying to graph a problem on.

And yeah, sure, they make out for a good seventy percent of the ride back but still, progress.

Friday is opening night for Damian’s show, which Cady presumes he’s excited for, but she couldn’t really say for sure since the only time she’s seen him this week was as he was rushing somewhere else, sometimes with Gretchen or some freshman tech kid on his heels. As per her promise to be more open-minded about spending time with her other friends, Janis does actually agree to tag along to her after school study session with the guys. Though she does make a snarky comment about them going to Starbucks, but it’s mostly under her breath and no one else seems to hear it so Cady counts that as a win.

“Alright, what’re your new Starbucks assigned identities?” Janis asks once they’re all spread out at a long table with their notebooks and drinks.

“I’m Katie,” Cady says taking a sip from her iced chai.

“Predictable. I’m Janice with a C. Which is better than Janine I guess.”

Tyler squints at the side of his cup for a long second. “I can’t tell if this is a T or a K so I may or may not be Kyler.”

“Schrodinger's Kyler,” Marwan says. “I did actually get my name, which is kind of an embarrassing testament to how much I come here. I didn’t even spell it for her.”

“I got Evan,” Kevin says. “That’s pretty close.”

“And better than Kevin. Kevin’s such a little bitch name.”

“Do you really want to be throwing stones in that glass house Tyler,” Kevin says aggressively uncapping a highlighter.

“I’m not saying mine isn’t, I’m just saying Kevin is like the little bitch name.”

“Hey, remember when I literally tried to go by my middle name for a full year because people apparently cannot wrap their minds around a brown dude named Kevin.”

“What?” Cady says, “You never told me that.”

Kevin shrugs, “I mean it didn’t really work, but yeah, I thought maybe then people would stop being like ‘is that your real name’ all the time. But uh, nope they just found cute new ways to be the worst about it.”

“It’s almost like it doesn’t matter if you have an Americanized name or an ‘ethnic’ name, people are going to stigmatize you either way cause racism,” Marwan deadpans.

“Dark roast for Tina,” the barista says.

“I did kind of lowkey think Kevin wasn’t your real name if we’re doing honest hour,” Janis says taking a sip from her drink. Unlike the rest of them she doesn’t seem to even have the pretense of studying, nothing but a pack of gum sitting on the table in front of her.

“I’m actually named after my dad’s great uncle Kavin.”

“I thought you were named after Kevin Bacon cause your parents met the summer Footloose came out.” Marwan says.

“I can be named after two people!” Kevin insists.

“Your parents must really like Footloose,” Janis says skeptically.

“God and who doesn’t,” Tyler says.

Cady’s not totally sure she gets the musical, but she kind of loves it either way, even if Damian keeps reaching over and trying to squeeze her hand when something exciting happens. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal if she hadn’t been holding hands with Kevin for the whole thing. Which meant that Damian was mostly squeezing Kevin’s hands. Not that Kevin seems to mind, he’s pretty chill with being affectionate with other guys, having witnessed him literally sit in Tyler’s lap earlier so they could watch a vine compilation on Tyler’s phone.

Anyway, the show is really good, and Cady’s fears of having to come up with a purposeful list of all the things she liked fall away almost as soon as the first number ends. Even feeling pretty certain that she’s missing things—Damian does have to explain to her who Agatha Christie is during intermission—but she’s having a good enough time that she doesn’t even care. Jason especially is excellent and almost completely transformed as the Colonel, drawing Cady’s attention almost every time he’s on stage.

“He’s really good,” Cady says, leaning over to whisper to Damian after his big duet as people are still applauding.

“I know,” Damian whispers back. “Who knew jocks had it in them.”

Cady notices that everyone else must think he’s pretty good to as he gets a notable uptick in applause when he bows, Kevin wolf whistling with his fingers in his mouth. Damian waves them off at first when the cast starts gesturing for him to come up, but relents pretty quickly, the girl who played the maid sneaking offstage and returning with an enormous bouquet that Damian cradles in his arms like a newborn baby.

“It’s like he won fucking Miss America,” Janis says as the applause starts to die down, the cast shuffling offstage.

“We should have gotten him a crown,” Cady says, accepting her jacket from Kevin.

“God, don’t encourage him,” Janis says, but then immediately runs shrieking to give him a huge hug when he comes out from backstage with the rest of the cast.

Up close Cady realizes that his giant bouquet is not actually red roses, but rather red foil wrapped chocolate roses on sticks, a few other wrapped treats stuck in the bouquet. She barely has time to give him a hug and a few brief words of praise before he’s being swept up into the crowd of admirers.

“Cady! Oh my god!” Gretchen trills, throwing her arms around Cady. “Did you totally love it!?”

“I really did!” Cady gushes. “The costumes looked so good!”

Gretchen beams at her. “I had so much fun working on this, thank you for like, asking me to help. Everyone was so so amazing and fun and I had the best time.”

“I’m so, so happy,” Cady says giving Gretchen one last squeeze on the arm before she goes over to hug her parents, Gretchen’s dad holding an almost comically large bouquet of flowers.

“Hey,” Kevin says, a gentle hand appearing on her upper back. “So what’s the plan, are you still heading to the cast party?”

Cady nods. “Yeah I’ll probably just go stand off to the side until this dies down and then Damian’s going to drive us over.”

“Is it cool if I head then? Me and the guys are having boys’ night.”

“Yeah totally,” Cady says. “Have fun!”

“You too, text me if you need a ride home or anything. Even if it’s late.”

“I will.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Kevin shakes his head. “I know you’re smart about this stuff.”

“I am very smart,” Cady agrees, reaching out to give his hand a squeeze.

He leans down to give her a kiss on the top of her head, flicking the fringe off his forehead with a toss of his head when he leans back upright, and then he’s navigating through the crowd of proud parents and cast members still in costume.

Cady tries to linger in the lobby, wanting to look supportive and engaged, but no matter where she stands she seems to be in the way as people take down the concessions tables and cast and crew members traverse between the auditorium and the lobby. Giving up the ghost on that idea, she goes to find a quiet spot on a bench near the cafeteria, scrolling idly through her social media feeds.

She stops mostly out of reflex on a photo of some french bulldog puppies. Cady didn’t totally get the appeal, but Aaron had spent a good chunk of one of their ‘tutoring’ sessions telling Cady about how badly he’d always wanted a French bulldog. After which Cady had made a point to try and send him any cute photos she’d found, at first just to have an excuse to text him, and then because it seemed like nice girlfriend behaviour. She hesitates on the post for a long moment, before copying the url. As messed up as it maybe is, she still wants Aaron in her life, and sending him a harmless photo of some puppies feels like some appropriate still friends behaviour. Even if Janis and Damian keep telling her that no one actually wants to be friends after a breakup. Besides, it’s not like either of them really has that much experience in that area.

So cute! Cady types out, and then on second thought deletes the exclamation point.

Aaron replies back almost immediately, but instead of some generic affirmation or maybe an emoji he shoots back, oh are you done ghosting me then?

Cady stares down at the screen, a cold drip of dread running down her back.

I wasn’t ghosting you ?

alright :/

Cady stares down at this completely baffled. She’d been texting with Aaron yesterday. Spending a frankly exhausting amount of time trying to coordinate the Facebook event page for his party, which they still weren’t even done with.

Did I do something? Cady finally tries.

Aaron types for a while, much longer than it would actually take him to type his reply; i just think its interesting that you start seeing some guy and then never text me first

And then before Cady can even start trying to formulate a response to that; and honestly dont love how quickly you turned around and started seeing someone else

Cady’s stuck between anger and hurt, the two mixing and curdling as she reads Aaron’s texts over again. Half a dozen replies filled with righteous fury fly into her mind, but she takes a deep breath and decides to go back to his first issue.

It’s not ghosting you just because I hadn’t texted first in a while, I’m sorry if you felt ignored

whatever

its fine, whatever

Cady exhales, not exactly thrilled, and Aaron clearly is still pissed, but if he wants to be passive aggressive about it she’s not going to indulge that. She used to think it was a side effect of him having dated Regina, who was a master of the passive aggressive text, but she’s starting to wonder if that was just an Aaron thing all along.

He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes so Cady thinks that must be the end of it. In the middle of texting Janis about how much longer she thinks it’s going to be until they can leave, she suddenly gets another flurry of texts from Aaron.

look I just dont think its fair that youre letting everyone treat you like youre the victim and im just some asshole

especially when you were the one who pretended to be bad at math to get my attention which was really fucked up and manipulative but somehow you still get to be the victim

you went out and started dating the guy you told me you were ‘just friends’ with our entire relationship

wouldn’t be surprised if i wasnt the only guy ‘tutoring’ you

Im just saying there was shitty stuff on both sides and you dont get to be all holier than thou about it

The dam of anger that’s built up on Cady finally breaks, letting loose a rush of hurt as she scrolls through Aaron’s messages. She is not going to cry. She is not going to cry. Forcing herself to put her tongue on the roof of her mouth and take long breaths, her phone turned upside down on the bench. She’s still frozen like that when Damian comes around the corner.

“Caderine! There you are!” Damian says, and then clearly catching a look at her face, “What’s wrong?”

Cady lets out a watery sigh. “Aaron. But it’s fine, it’s fine. Tonight is about you! Damian! The show was amazing.”

“I know,” Damian gushes. “Scoot over.”

Cady moves her phone so he can sit. “I don’t really know anything about musicals but I like, really wanna go see more now. It was so fun and funny and everyone was so good. Jason especially was amazing.”

“He’s so fucking talented. Who would have known a jock would have such hidden depths,” Damian says.

“I’m really proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too,” Damian says. “Don’t tell anyone I said this but I spent so much of this week being like, well I guess it’s just going to be a trainwreck.”

“Noooo!”

“I had a fucking meltdown in my car after rehearsal on Wednesday our run was so bad, but then we all just pulled the fuck together and just figured it out, I guess.”

Cady leans her head on Damian’s arm. “I promise I’m not just saying this because I’m your friend, it was so good. I took a lot of mental notes on all the parts I liked, but is it okay if I tell you them later?”

“Yeah you look a little grim there, cupcake,” Damian says.

“Just more Aaron stuff,” Cady says with false enthusiasm. “Can you, maybe not tell Janis right now? I just can’t deal with hearing about how I need to tell him off or whatever.”

“Your wish is my command,” Damian says. “Is Kevin coming to the cast party?

“Nah, he had stuff with Tyler and Marwan.”

“Oh. Are you going to be okay at the party then?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I?”

“Um,” Damian says. “Well, uh, cast parties are very… If you’re experiencing issues with your ex it might not be super fun to be surrounded by people making out if your boyfriend isn’t there.”

Cady considers this for a long moment. “Are all high school extracurriculars secretly just ways for people to hook up?”

“Yeah basically,” Damian says.

“Jesus.”

“Look,” Damian says. “Theatre cast parties are The Most. If it’s going to be too much right now, I get it. I won’t be offended.”

Cady wipes her face. “And what, go home and be pathetic and alone trying not to text him back?”

Damian looks at her for a long moment like she’s an idiot, and Cady can feel her face heat up under his gaze.

“What?”

“Cady. Call your boyfriend.”

Oh shit. Right. Boyfriend.

“He’s doing stuff with the guys, I don’t wanna intrude.”

“Hoes before bros,” Damian says with a shrug, standing and offering her a hand. “Besides I’m sure we’ll personally hear from Kevin if he finds out you were crying and we didn’t immediately rush you into his loving arms.”

“I wasn’t crying,” Cady says defensively.

“Beside the point.”

“Also Kevin’s not going to— what, do you think he’s gonna like, corner you in the bathroom?”

“I mean he texted me like twelve times to see if you were okay when you and Aaron broke up.”

Warmth sparks in Cady’s chest. “He did?”

“Oh my god it was like, incessant,” Damian says. “Boy had it bad.”

“No he didn’t,” Cady says with a hand wave. Because really, seriously, he didn’t. But the fact that he’d wanted to check in on her is so genuinely sweet, all the layers of his posturing and posing pulled back to care about her so openly.

“Cady he is head over heels for you,” Damian says. “Now stop fishing for compliments. I’m morally opposed to over-indulging straight couples. Call your boyfriend. I’ll deal with Janis.”

Janis does admittedly grumble a little bit about Cady ditching the cast party, but she’s placated by Damian swearing that he will introduce her to every gay girl on the show crew and Cady’s promise that they can go to that new installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And by Cady getting her a snickerdoodle and a chocolate chunk when she runs in to Insomnia Cookies. Kevin had said that Marwan and Tyler were chill with her coming over, but she figured it never hurt to bring snacks. She gives Damian another congratulatory hug through the open window of his car before heading up the front steps of Marwan’s house.

She’s cradling the warm box of cookies in her arms as she waits, phone in one hand as she waits for Marwan to come let her in. He takes just long enough that Cady’s on the edge of starting to worry that she’s somehow in the wrong place or he hasn’t gotten her message, and is debating if she should send another text when the front door opens and Marwan’s face peeks out.

“Hey,” he says brightly, if somewhat quietly. “Sorry about that, my little sisters are in bed.”

“No problem,” Cady says. “I uh, brought these as repayment for crashing.”

“Well I’m not going to say no to that,” Marwan says, taking the box from Cady as she takes her shoes off and follows him down a set of stairs and into the basement.

“She comes bearing gifts!” Marwan says, setting the box of cookies among the Domino's delivery boxes and the opened two litre bottles of Pepsi.

“Fuck yeah,” Tyler says, emerging out of a cocoon of blankets on the sectional.

Cady tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, turning to see Kevin sort of crouch hovering out of his seat, like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to stand up. Cady might not know the most about the habits of the North American teen but she knows enough to recognize hesitation when she sees it. She spreads her arms, gesturing for him, and he wraps himself around her, tighter than she’d expected, like he’s the one wanting to be comforted. He rests his head on top of hers, her hands coming up around his back to rest on his shoulder blades. It’s not like they’ve never hugged before, even before they started pretending that they were dating, but he’s never held Cady this close before, never made her feel so safe.

“Sorry for breaking up boys’ night,” Cady says mostly into Kevin’s shoulder.

“I told you you could text me if you needed me,” Kevin says mostly into her hair and Cady squeezes him once tightly before letting go.

“Alright, alright you vultures,” Kevin says to Tyler and Marwan who are huddled over the box of cookies. “Save some for the lady.”

“Sorry Cady,” Marwan mumbles around a mouthful of cookie, a dark stain of chocolate on his upper lip.

The boys are in the middle of an episode of Doctor Who, which Kevin assures her is a lot better than it looks if she could understand what was happening, but as it is the whole thing is very confusing. She tries to insist that they can keep going when the first episode finishes, but they all agree that they can switch to something a little less confusing instead. She’s still trying to convince them as Marwan digs out his Wii Console from behind a pile of Disney dvds and Tyler is forcing a controller into her hands and trying to explain to her the basics of Super Smash Bros. “I’d let Kevin tell you but he’s kind of shit.”

“Ow, thanks Ty.”

“I’m just being realistic buddy,” Tyler says.

Despite Tyler’s actually pretty detailed walkthrough, when they actually try and play Cady sticks mostly to button mashing and trying not to fall off the edge of the platform. She’d picked Kirby mostly because she’d thought he was cute, but she can’t seem to figure out how to actually do any of his attacks on purpose.

“B, Cady, hold B,” Kevin says, his own controller forgotten beside him. “Atta girl, atta girl! You got him!”

Cady laughs despite herself, too loudly, but none of the guys seem to care, even Marwan actively egging her on at this point, despite the fact that his character is the one she’s inhaled.

It doesn’t even matter that all the guys have effectively stopped playing, they still cheer for her like it's the Super Bowl when she manages to knock Marwan’s character off the edge of the platform.

“Boys! The girls are in bed!” A feminine voice calls down the stairs.

“Sorry mum! We’ll keep it down!” Marwan calls back.

“Ha, mum,” Tyler says.

“Shut it,” Marwan says, chucking a pillow at his boyfriend.

Cady decides to take an early retirement after her grand victory, happy to curl up against Kevin’s side and watch him play for a few rounds before they switch over to Wii Sports. Which Cady finds herself embarrassedly pleased with how much easier and more intuitive it is to pick up.

While Marwan and Tyler have been shockingly PG-13, Cady can tell they’re growing closer to R territory as the night goes on, so when Kevin taps her on the shoulder and gives her a knowing look, casting his gaze to where Marwan and Tyler are gazing at each other very intensely.

“Hey, I gotta get Cady home,” Kevin says standing and rummaging around for his jacket.

“Oh? You can hang longer,” Tyler says, completely unconvincingly.

“Nah, I’ve gotta do a bunch of college app stuff tomorrow,” Kevin says, helping Cady into her own jacket. “You guys have a good night.”

“Mhmm,” Marwan says, and Cady’s not surprised when they’re barely up the stairs when she hears the sound of someone pouncing like a jungle cat.

“I hope that was like, actually fun,” Kevin says, opening the car door for her in a totally unnecessary but still kind of sweet gesture.

“It was really perfect,” Cady says. “Totally perfect.”

“Good,” Kevin says grinning. “I’m really glad.”

They drive in silence for a little while, winding through the dark suburban neighbourhoods. It’s a little before one, but it might as well be four in the morning for how quiet and still it is.

Finally, Kevin speaks up. “Did you wanna talk about it? What happened?”

Cady bites her lip, deliberating for a long second. She does kind of want to talk about it, kind of really really does. But on the other hand, for all the presumed closeness that pretending to date has given her and Kevin, the idea of crying in front of him is still six different kinds of scary and embarrassing.

“You so so so totally don’t have to,” Kevin says. “Like, you probably wanna talk to Janis about this or whatever, not me. It’s cool.”

Cady snorts. “Janis is probably the last person I’d talk to about it. I just, I don’t really wanna burst into tears in your car in the middle of the night.”

“Would it make you feel better if I also cried? I could put on some sad music.”

“That’s not really necessary,” Cady laughs, mostly an exhale of breath. “I just, I feel so stupid.” “Cady, don’t say that, you’re like, the smartest person I know.”

“No like, school stupid, life stupid. Love stupid.”

“My first girlfriend was a lesbian, you gotta cut yourself some slack.”

“No but that’s exactly the problem,” Cady says, feeling her throat get thick. “Aaron’s right, I lied to him, I manipulated him, I was just like Regina and then I tried to act like I was the one who got wronged and now I’m still pretending and manipulating and— ”

She doesn’t get any further, throat constricting with a sob as she starts fully properly crying.

“Hey, hey,” Kevin says, immediately pulling over to the side of the road as Cady buries her face in her hands. “Cady it’s okay.”

His hand is on her back, rubbing soothing circles between her shoulder blades as Cady just sobs for a long few minutes, tears running down her face and pooling under her chin. The jagged shards that had embedded themselves in her chest as she read Aaron’s texts finally starting to soften and melt away, until finally the tears stop coming of their own volition.

“Sorry,” Cady mumbles, wiping at her face with the back of her hand.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Kevin says, fishing around in the little middle console for a pack of travel tissues, which Cady accepts gratefully, wiping her face and then blowing her nose.

“You okay?” Kevin asks.

She nods. “Yeah, I just, I think I just needed to get it out of my system.”

Kevin’s hand moves from her back, cupping the side of her face briefly before pulling away. “I don’t wanna get you going again but can I please reiterate that you are not stupid. And you’re not a bad person for making mistakes.”

“Thanks,” Cady says unconvincingly.

“You’re not exactly the first person who ever tried to change yourself or be interested in things because the person you had a crush on liked them,” Kevin says, “Tyler started watching hockey because Marwan likes it, does that mean he’s manipulative?”

“It’s not the same,” Cady says. “He didn’t start acting like someone else.”

“Sure, but I mean, Aaron dated Regina twice, so you trying to act more like Regina wasn’t exactly illogical. Especially because she broke up with him the first time, right? And then he broke up with her because she was cheating on him, not because he had a problem with her personality.”

“Yeah but— ” Cady starts and then pauses. “That’s...that’s actually a good point.”

“And yeah, okay the math thing was kinda weird. Especially because like, I-M-H-O, someone being smarter than you is legitimately awesome, but even putting that aside. Like you pretended to be bad at math to get his attention...and it worked. It takes two to tango. So stop letting him put it all on you.”

“It’s hard,” Cady says. “I don’t know why he just, I hear myself repeating what he says to me and it sounds so obviously awful but. I really liked him Kev, I really really liked him and he just tossed me aside and made me feel like it was my fault.”

She’s going to start crying again, fuck. Kevin’s unbuckled his seatbelt so he can lean in close to her, not quite hugging her, but not quite not hugging her as she continues in a frantic deluge.

“You’re supposed to be able to trust the people you love to tell you about yourself aren’t you?” Cady says. “If I can’t trust Janis and I can’t trust Regina and I can’t trust Aaron then I’m just...I don’t even know who I am or who I’m supposed to be or who I even want to be.”

“Hey, welcome to the most normal teen feeling ever. I know it sucks, but I promise you you’re not some sort of weird freak for not knowing who you are or what you want right now.” Kevin says, rubbing at her arms like he’s trying to warm her up, her second wind dying down as quickly as it had come on.

“I mean I guess being normal is good,” Cady says eventually, sniffling and dabbing at her face with the crumpled tissue on her hand.

“That’ll do pig,” Kevin says patting her knee.

“I’m guessing from your tone that’s a reference to something and not just calling me something kind of mean.”

“Yeah geez, sorry,” Kevin says. “If it makes you feel better though, the pig’s name is Babe.”

“It does a little,” Cady says, adoring Kevin a little bit more than she already did for letting her move past her breakdown with no more than re-buckling his seatbelt and launching into a detailed explanation of why a movie about a pig herding sheep is some sort of American children’s cinematic classic.

So the art exhibition is….interesting. It’s a neon installation set in a darkened room lit with blacklights, which does look pretty awesome. And it’s a good distraction from dealing with Aaron’s newest stream of apologetic texts, swearing that he’d been drinking a little and hadn’t meant what he’d said. So she’ll take neon art over that nonsense any day, even if Cady’s starting to get bright spots in her vision from Janis making her take not-posed-posed photos of her looking at the various installations.

They’re not the only ones doing this, a duo of middle-school-aged girls in choker necklaces and stompy boots trailing behind them through most of the exhibit and taking pictures together.

“You ask, you do it,” one girl whispers to the other, not quite quiet enough to not catch Cady’s attention. Though she wonders if that’s maybe another savannah observation skill, since Janis doesn’t even turn her head away from the placard she’s reading.

“Hey, um, can you take a picture of us?” The blonde girl asks, holding an iPhone tentatively, the bottom of her choppy blonde hair dip dyed a light purple.

“Totally,” Cady says brightly.

“Um, I actually um, could your friend take it?”

Cady looks over her shoulder at Janis who is now looking at them quizzically. “Oh, yeah, um Janis can you take a picture of them?”

“I guess,” Janis says flatly, but she comes over and accepts the iPhone, even going so far as to adjust them slightly as she takes pictures of the two girls.

“Thanks so much,” The blonde one says, her friend practically hiding behind her. “I um, your jacket is really, um, it’s really cool.”

“Thank you,” Janis says, handing back the iPhone. “I actually painted it myself.”

“That is so cool!” The brunette gushes, showing off the pink and purple elastics on her braces. “Um, I mean, yeah that’s pretty cool.”

Janis watches them head out of the exhibit with a bemused little smirk on her face. “Glad that I’m finally cool with middle schoolers now that I am no longer in middle school.”

Cady nods halfheartedly. As much as she’s still struggling to catch up on all the group socialization she’d missed for her entire childhood, she has to admit based on what she’s heard, that her missing middle school might have been a blessing in disguise.

She’s hovering on the edges of the little pop-up gift shop for the exhibition when she hears the familiar airy trill of feminine laughter; Regina and Shane are pressed up against each other on a bench just on the other side of the gift shop.

“Shane you need to, hold it— there, there you go!” Regina says, posing as Shane holds his phone out in front of them to take the photo, Regina immediately snatching it from him to inspect when he’s done. Which means it’s Shane who spots her first.

“Hey! Cady! Hey what’s up!” Shane says waving her over, and Cady can’t help but be reminded of her neighbour’s big friendly golden retriever.

“Cady,” Regina drawls, tucking the phone back into Shane’s hand. “Let me guess, you’re here with Janis?”

“Uh, yeah,” Cady says. “She wanted to check out the neon exhibit. What are you— what are you guys doing here?”

“Shane was just in town for the weekend and my sister and his sister are like, besties, and they wanted to come,” Regina says, looping her arm through Shane’s and squeezing him affectionately.

“Yeah you’re at Michigan now right?”

“Michigan State,” Shane says. “Go Spartans!”

“I hadn’t realized you two were still...together,” Cady says, trying hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

Regina must hear it anyways, raising a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at her, but she doesn’t

say anything. Which is just as well because Janis comes around the corner, a museum shopping bag slung over her wrist, and Cady hears rather than sees the falter in her stride when she spots Regina and Shane.

There’s a long tense pause between the three of them, Cady feeling weirdly guilty, even though it’s not like Janis doesn’t know that she is still kind of friends with Regina. It’s not like Janis is even looking at her anyways, Regina and her sizing each other up with mild interest.

It’s Shane who finally breaks the silence. “Hey Janis, what’s up?”

“Not much,” Janis says, eyes still fixed on Regina for a long moment before she looks away at Cady. “You ready to go?”

“Totally,” Cady says, welcoming the excuse to get out of this Bermuda Triangle of Weird Teen Girl Friendship Baggage.

“Re-gina,” someone says behind them, and Cady’s surprised to see the blonde girl from earlier bounding over to their little semicircle of social anxiety. “Can I use the credit card? I wanna get a tote bag.”

She also halts in her tracks when she sees Janis, eyes going wide and cheeks tinging pink, “Um, hi.”

Cady looks between this mini-Janis copy, and Regina, her brain working frantically to rectify Regina George and an awkward twelve year old trying her best to seem cool and artsy. Janis doesn’t say anything, but the cogs are clearly turning in her head too as Regina digs out her pink Kate Spade wallet and hands over the credit card and Janis’ little admirer practically scampers back over towards the gift shop.

“Is Kylie in middle school now?” Janis says incredulously.

“Yeah, seventh grade.”

“Holy shit,” Janis says. “Well I feel fucking old.”

“God, tell me about it,” Regina says, and then tugs on Shane’s hand till he stands, “C’mon let's go get pictures by that weird wire thing before the girls are done. Bye Cady, bye Janis.”

“Yeah, bye,” Janis says, tongue poking into the side of her mouth. “Seventh grade, holy shit.”

“Um, what just happened?” Cady says.

“I dunno,” Janis says. “But let’s go before I find out that the kid who used to bully me on the bus in third grade has a baby brother who is into all the same bands I like.”

Kevin texts her on Sunday night to let her know that he’s not feeling well and that he’s not going to be in school tomorrow so she needs to find an alternative ride. He also suggests a truly extensive level of preventative measures on the off chance that she’d picked up whatever he’s come down with from snuggling on the couch at Marwan’s house.

It’s easy enough to ask Damian to pick her up, but as Monday turns to Tuesday turns to Wednesday, she’s missing Kevin’s driving abilities just as much as she’s missing Kevin himself.

She’s texting Kevin to see if he’s feeling any better, dreading another day of being buffeted around Damian’s backseat like bumper cars, tagging along behind Janis and Damian out to the student parking lot.

“Damian! Damian hey!” Someone calls, and Cady looks up just in time to spot Jason, lacrosse stick in hand, waving towards them and jogging to the edge of where the field meets the gravel of the parking lot.

“Hey Jason,” Damian says cautiously, like this might be some sort of trap.

“How’re you?” Jason says, wiping his forehead with the back of his forearm.

“Ahhh well, you know, the usual Post Show Depression, but I won’t pretend like the lack of stress dreams isn’t heavenly.”

“God, I feel that,” Jason says. “Hey I uh, I was gonna text you about this but since you’re here right now anyways um. I saw they were playing Dreamgirls at the Roxy — you know, that indie theater? — on Friday and I know you’d mentioned it a bunch during rehearsal and I haven’t seen it in ages so I thought maybe you’d wanna go? With me?”

“Oh?” Damian sounds genuinely surprised, darting a quick glance at Janis over his shoulder. “Sure, yeah, um, okay.”

“Jason! This isn’t social hour!” One of the other dudes on the team shouts over at him.

“Fuck off!” Jason calls over his shoulder.

“Stop flirting!” Another lacrosse bro calls and Jason flips him off.

“Sorry, I gotta— they suck, I’ll text you.”

“Mhmmm,” Damian says, and then whirls around on them the moment Jason is out of

earshot.

“No,” Janis says flatly.

“C’mon, please? Don’t make me make awkward small talk with him alone?”

“You guys seemed to have enough to talk about before.”

“Yeah, because we always had the show to talk about, what are we supposed to talk about now?”

“That sounds like a you problem,” Janis says.

“Traitor. Cady, what about you? You could bring Kevin, help extend the buffer a little more?”

“I’m so unclear what’s even happening here,” Cady says. “Why am I inviting Kevin?”

“So I don’t have to sit through a straight man attempting to get on my level about Beyonce by myself.”

“You know Kevin loves Beyonce right?”

“Caddy,” Damian says.

“Alright fine, I’ll ask him,” Cady says. “But you gotta get over your weird straight people paranoia.”

“How could you say that!?” Damian says with mock indignation. “Some of my best friends are heterosexual!”

Kevin is, unsurprisingly, totally enthused about going to see Dreamgirls and even insists they should get dinner beforehand. Which is how Cady ends up cornered into a booth at some generic American roadside restaurant with Jason and Damian tag team explaining the plot of Dreamgirls to her with only marginal levels of success. Part of which is definitely due to the multitude of televisions mounted on the walls, constantly drawing Cady’s attention, even as she’s trying to listen to them.

“It makes sense, it makes sense when you see it,” Kevin keeps adding helpfully, his voice still a little croaky from his cold, though he keeps insisting he feels fine.

“I’ll trust you on this one,” Cady says, leaning up to give him a little kiss on the underside of his jaw, a little zing of happiness sparking in her at having him back in the flesh after days of text only conversations and kicking his ass at Words with Friends. “Here, scoot over, let me out.”

For some reason the bathroom feels the need to blast the audio of one of the sports games that was playing on the tv outside, and Cady can’t shake the feeling that someone else is in the bathroom with her. So when Jason taps her on the shoulder just outside the little hallway where the restrooms are, she can’t help but practically jump out of her skin.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jason says, taking a full step backwards and putting his hands up.

“It’s okay,” Cady says, “It’s me it’s not you, this place is just so…”

“Loud?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Shit,” Jason says. “Is this...was this a bad choice? I wasn’t sure what kind of food you guys were into and it just felt like kind of a safe option.” “Hey no it’s totally fine,” Cady says. “I’m very excited to try more classic American food. You guys will really put cheese in anything.”

Jason snorts, “And you think, like, overall it's going okay? When Damian said he invited you guys I was like, oh crap, — No offense you and Kevin are such a sweet couple — but then I was like, maybe he just wanted to make it a group thing so it’s like...more comfortable?”

Cady nods, “I think it’s just that.” She helpfully does not add the part about Damian begging her to come, because she thinks Jason seems really nice and as much as she respects Janis and Damian’s whole loner brand, she also thinks it would be good for them to branch out a little more socially.

Jason gives her a relieved grin. “That’s rad. I just want this to go well. Anyway I’m gonna just…” he gives a little nod towards the men’s room.

“Totally,” Cady says, waving him off and weaving her way back over to the booth where Damian and Kevin are talking animatedly about Drag Race. Kevin jumps out of the booth, ushering her back into her spot with a flourishing little bow, and Cady helps herself to a few still hot jalapeno poppers as Kevin and Damian snip at each other rapid fire about the most recent season of All-Stars.

“Look, you’re entitled to your wrong opinion,” Kevin says, an arm slinked around Cady’s shoulder as he leans over to grab another popper.

“I mean, you’re entitled to your heterosexual opinion,” Damian says. “God, why I agreed to be outnumbered tonight I have no idea,”

“I mean just wait til Jason gets back and it’ll be a little more even,” Kevin says, half covering his mouth as he talks through a mouthful.

Damian wrinkles his nose. “No, three against one.”

Kevin swallows. “Uh, no dude, two against two. Jason’s gay.”

“No he’s not,” Damian says with a scoff.

“Yeah, no dude he totally is,” Kevin says. “Him and Tyler both made out with the same dude at Model UN sophomore year.”

Damian’s gaze shifts off to the mid-distance, and Cady can practically see him scrolling through a mental rolodex. Face contorting through a whole series of expressions Cady could only describe as an ‘emotional journey,’ before finally saying, “No, no, that’s not. That’s not possible because if Jason is gay. If Jason likes guys then this is. This is totally a date. And it’s not a date. I definitely did not agree to go on a date.”

“Oh my god,” Cady says, the conversation she just had with Jason, not to mention the one from rehearsals suddenly coming back to her. “Yeah, I definitely think he thinks this is a date.”

Kevin looks between the two of them. “Is this…? Was this not what we all thought was happening here? Because I totally thought this was a date.” He looks at her promptingly

“Oh my god, don’t look at me, the only gaydar I have is for lions,” Cady says. Which is true.

Damian opens and then closes his mouth and then looks very seriously at Kevin. “You’re sure?”

“Totally positive.”

“Fuck,” Damian says.

“It’s okay,” Cady says, reaching across the table to pat him on the hand sympathetically. “It’s just a date, it doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

“Yeah but I think,” Damian says slowly, “I think I want it to go somewhere…” He looks back across the table at Cady and Kevin. “Fuck. You need to leave.”

“Excuse me?”

“You need to leave! I’ll tell Jason you, I don’t know, that you have Zika virus or something.”

“Damian, what!?”

“Oh fuck he’s coming, okay, okay, okay,” He leans across the table grabbing one each of

Cady and Kevin’s hands, “Do either of you have any experience with improv? Jesus, look who I’m talking to, of course you don’t. All you need to know is the first rule of improv is don’t say no, don’t contradict, and use ‘yes and’ statements.”

“That sounded more like three rules,” Kevin says.

“Shut up, shut up he’s coming— “Hey Jason,” Damian says, voice jumping up several octaves as he leans back into his spot as Jason returns to the table and slides in beside him.

“Hey,” Jason says sweetly.

Cady tries to sneakily look over at Kevin, who looks about as confused as she does, but he finds her hand under the table, giving it a little squeeze, giving her something to ground herself to.

There’s a long awkward pause, Cady giggling out of nervousness because no one is

saying anything so she reaches for another jalapeno popper just to have something to do.

“Cady!” Damian says as soon as she swallows the slightly-too-hot bite, his voice slightly stilted and unnatural, “Aren’t you allergic to jalapenos?”

“Ummmm…” Cady says, and Damian’s eyes grow wide as he nods almost imperceptibly, “Uh, yes and….” her eyes dart around frantically, “um, fried things…”

“Oh my god, Cady!” Damian exclaims melodramatically. “You need to go!”

Jason says, “I have an epi-pen in my car should I go— ”

“No she’ll be fine!” Damian says hurriedly. “You should just, leave. Like now. Before the symptoms kick in— The totally not life threatening symptoms!” he adds at Jason’s look of concern.

“Yeah, c’mon babe, let’s get you out of here before uh, that stuff starts,” Kevin says, her jacket already in his hands and it’s a good thing because they barely get past the hostess stand before Kevin starts cracking up, Cady right behind him as they burst out into the parking lot.

“Oh fuck my stomach,” Kevin says, practically doubled over as he laughs. “Ow, ow. Oh my fucking god Cady.”

“I’m sorry,” Cady says. Or mostly tries to say, because she’s in a pretty similar state. “I swear I’m smart.”

“You’re the smartest person I know,” Kevin says, wiping his eyes. “Allergic to fried food, you absolute genius.”

“I’m never going to be able to eat in front of Jason ever again.”

“Awww, I’ll get you all the fried food you want baby,” Kevin says cheerfully. And then there’s a lag between them, both of them realizing that there’s no one around they need to pretend to be a couple for. Just force of habit.

“Well anyways,” Cady says, “I guess that’s no Dreamgirls for us.”

“Hey, the night is young,” Kevin says. “We’re already downtown. Why don’t we do something else? I mean if you want to?”

Cady beams at him. “I would legitimately like nothing more. I’m so hungry, I did not get to eat basically anything.”

Kevin clicks his tongue. “Now that just won’t do.”

They end up at little hole in the wall tapas restaurant where they just tell the server to bring them an assortment of her favourites. Cady’s so full by the end of it that she legitimately feels like she might fall asleep pressed against Kevin’s shoulder in the car. Still, she agrees to let him detour them to Navy Pier, even if she’s a bit bummed that they’re too late to ride the Ferris Wheel. Even still there’s something so stunningly beautiful and indescribable about standing under the heavy blanket of the skyline, not completely unlike being under Kilimanjaro.

Kevin laughs, but not unkindly when she tells him this on the drive home.

“It just makes you feel, I don’t know. Small? But not in a bad way.”

“That makes sense,” Kevin says nodding. “Like the ocean.”

“Yes! Exactly,” Cady says. There’s something both exciting and painful about how well Kevin seems to understand her, seems to know exactly what she’s trying to say even when she can’t make the words come out as effortlessly as she’d like. But in some corner of her mind she can’t shake the fact that maybe she’s supposed to have this effortlessness with Aaron or even Janis and Damian. What does it say when the person who gets you most is a dude you’re only pretending to date, and not the one you’d dated in the first place?

“You okay?” Kevin says and Cady realizes she’s been staring kind of blankly at the retreating shape of the Chicago skyline as they wind their way back to suburbia.

“Totally,” Cady says, nodding perhaps a little too enthusiastically. “Everything’s great.”

Everything is not great.

“Jesus Christ what the hell happened to your house!?” Janis exclaims out her rolled down window as they pull up on Monday morning.

“Oh my parents just thought it would look cool to put a tree through the second floor,” Cady says, yanking open the backdoor and throwing her backpack in. “A tree fell during the storm, what does it look like?”

“No need to get snippy,” Janis says, flicking her sunglasses down over her eyes.

“Don’t mind her,” Damian says adjusting his mirror, and lowering his voice to a melodramatic stage whisper. “She’s just grumpy that she’s the only one who’s still S-I-N-G-L-E.”

“Yeah I’m desperately sad that I don’t have a dumb jock boyfriend to watch Disney World food vlogs with all weekend and wear his jacket around like an object. Woe is me.”

“First of all,” Damian says, “he forgot his jacket at my house and I am very kindly returning it to him. Wearing it was just convenient. Secondly, ‘jock’ is actually very derogatory, the preferred term is Athletic American.”

“I’ll take it the date went well then?” Cady says, clicking in her seatbelt.

Damian practically melts. “I think Jason might be my soulmate. Did you know he played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast!? It’s like, totally fate.”

“I don’t know who that is but I’m happy for you. Glad my impromptu improv wasn’t the worst ever and didn’t totally ruin everything.”

“Awww Cady, you’re so sweet,” Damian says reaching for her hand. “And don’t worry we can work on it for next time.”

“Uh huh,” Cady says unconvinced.

“So what are you gonna do for Aaron’s party?”

“Huh?”

“Well you can’t exactly throw a party with a hole in your roof. Aren’t they gonna have to like, fix that?”

“Oh shit, I didn’t even think about it,” Cady bemoans. “Yeah crap, I think my parents already have people coming in to fix it. I’m not even sure if we’re allowed to be there when it's happening.”

“Well don’t worry, I’m sure some nice soul will let you have your shitty ex-boyfriend who doesn’t even go here anymore’s birthday party at their house,” Damian says, and then in haunting unison with Janis, “Not it!”

So that’s. Great.

“Don’t pick up, don’t pick up, don’t pick up,” Cady chants to herself as the line rings and rings and rings. She’s holed herself up in the second floor girl’s bathroom during lunch and she honestly thinks she might be in the clear to just leave a message when suddenly the call picks up and Aaron’s in her ear.

“Hey,” Aaron says. “Uh if this is about the kegs my boy Danny said he would come pick them up and— ”

“It’s not about the kegs,” Cady says, and then shuts her eyes tight, balling her hands into fists as she wills herself to just do it fast and get it over with. Like jumping into a cold river. “So, um, I can still like, host and plan and everything but we can’t actually have the party at my house.”

Cady keeps her eyes shut as Aaron breathes on the line, and then, “What the hell are you talking about Cady?”

“There is a tree. On the roof of my house. Or more like in the roof of my house.”

There’s a long pause, Aaron sucking his teeth and then finally saying, “Look if you don’t wanna have this party at your house you could just say so.”

“It’s not that I don’t wanna have the party!” Cady says, even though….that’s not entirely true. She leans her head against the stall wall. “Look, maybe we could do it at someone else’s house.”

“Where exactly?”

“I haven’t— I don’t know,” Cady says. “Maybe we could do it at Kevin’s?”

“You want me to have my birthday at your boyfriend’s house?” Aaron says, spitting out the word.

“I don’t know,” Cady says. “Uh, maybe Gretchen then?”

Aaron scoffs. “Yeah sure, that sounds like oodles of fun. I bet she’d make goodie bags.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I just wanted to have a nice party with my friends,” Aaron says. “And look if you can’t do that— ”

“I can do it okay,” Cady says, even as she’s frantically trying to figure out why she’s saying it exactly. “Just, just give me some time I’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah, okay. It’s not like the party is this weekend,” Aaron says unhelpfully.

“I know.”

“Alright whatever,” he says, and then hangs up.

Cady lets out all her breath sagging forward so her forehead is resting against the hard plastic of the toilet paper dispenser. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

She should really go eat lunch, but the thought of having to gather herself up and be a proper human being is so exhausting. That’s one thing she misses from being in Kenya, the days when she barely saw anyone she never had to put any real effort into being a presentable person. It’s exhausting to have to be smiles and engagement and conversation all the time.

The door to the bathroom opens and closes, a loud group of laughing girls. Cady recognizes Caitlin Caussin’s voice loud and bubbly in the weirdly echo-y bathrooms.

“ —Honestly I totally would,” Caitlin says. “And not just because Cady Heron said his dick is huge.”

“Okay but did she actually say it was like, objectively huge or just that he’s bigger than Aaron, because those are two different things,” another girl says.

“I buy it, he’s so tall so it’s just like, proportional right?” Caitlin says.

“I guess so. Honestly I’d fuck him even if it’s not. Kevin’s hot.”

“I feel almost stupid for not noticing that he’s kinda hot honestly?” Caitlin says, banging into the stall beside Cady. She inhales so hard she almost chokes, stifling the cough that wants to crawl out of her throat and forcing herself to be very quiet and still. Somehow though this feels so much more dangerous than trying to get close to a cheetah.

“Yeah well, it’s not like he’s gonna look at either of us now that he’s dating Cady. I heard they banged in the hotel pool on some math trip.”

“Oh my god!?” Caitlin says bursting into giggles. “No way!”

“I heard it from Becky Cook and she’s friends with Tyler Kimble, so like, it’s probably true.”

“I bet she would, it’s always the quiet ones who are like, way freaky in bed.”

The bathroom door swings open again and Caitlin and her friend suddenly fall silent, and for a half second Cady thinks she’s in the clear.

“Who’s a freak in bed?” Regina says, tone somehow both completely intimidating and totally disinterested.

“Oh, ha ha, no one really.”

“No seriously who were you talking about?”

There’s a long pause, and even though Cady can’t really see anything through the small slit where the stall door doesn’t quite meet the wall, she can feel the panic between Caitlin and her friend as they debate whether it's safer to lie to Regina or tell the truth.

“Just Kevin Gnapoor,” Caitlin’s friend finally cautions.

“Kevin Gnapoor?” Regina says measured. “Hmm.”

“We just, some people were saying that like, he did stuff. On the math trip. It’s probably not true.”

“Oh it’s definitely not true,” Regina says. “And you think he’s hot?”

“Oh my god yeah,” Caitlin Caussin says, voice flooding with relief. “Total hottie.”

“Yeah he is pretty cute. Isn’t he Cady?”

The bottom drops right out of her stomach, but there’s not exactly much she can do now that she’s been caught. So she shoves her phone back into her pocket and stands up, taking a long deep breath as she unlocks the bathroom stall door.

It’s a good thing they’re in a bathroom cause Caitlin Caussin’s friend looks like she might puke.

“Hey,” Cady says. “Um, we did not have sex in a pool.”

Caitlin goes wide-eyed. “Oh my god, Cady I am so sorry— ”

“You can go now,” Regina says and it's like they can’t get out of the bathroom fast

enough, practically tripping over each other like it’s a contest to get into the hall first.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Cady says half-heartedly as Regina turns towards a mirror, pulling a tube of lipgloss out of her bag.

“I think stopping people from spreading the rumour that you fucked Kevin G in a Holiday Inn Hot Tub is actually extremely nice of me,” Regina says running the wand over her lips. “You’re welcome.”

“How’d you even know I was in here?”

“I bought you those shoes, duh. You’re also welcome for that. So why’re you hiding in the bathroom anyways? It’s kind of a weirdo move Cady, no offense.”

“Just, stuff with Aaron,” Regina looks at Cady in the mirror, prompting, until she sighs and says, “A tree in our yard split during the storm this weekend and it fell on the roof. And no one got hurt or anything but our whole second floor is kind of fucked up so I can’t exactly throw a party at my house anymore. But somehow that’s my fault and Aaron’s being such a dick about it. Like he could totally have it at his house! It’s not even that much smaller than mine.”

“When I found out he was lying about his address I totally thought it was this like, tragic poor white boy thing,” Regina says, pressing her freshly glossed lips together. “But it’s actually just cause we have a higher ranked soccer team. He was just at Thornbridge before. Yeah, it’s true.”

Cady’s honestly not even surprised. “I don’t know why I can’t just say no to him. I say no to people all the time!”

“Give me your phone,” Regina says, suddenly whirling away from the mirror. “Don’t gimme that face, I’m not gonna do anything bad, I’m just going to give him an offer.”

“Regina…”

“Phone. C’mon. We’ll say it’s even for the shoes.”

Cady doesn’t really think she can haggle out of this one. And ever since Regina started

spending free period in the weight room, she doesn’t think she can get out of here by force either. Reluctantly she unlocks and hands over her phone. She has a picture of her and Kevin after they placed at Round Robin as her background, and even though Regina was in on this from the jump Cady feels like she’s maybe come to her own conclusions about it. Especially since she at the very least seems to buy the idea that she and Kevin have had sex. Which, after the whole thing with Caitlin Caussin is really stirring up an entire moving truck’s worth of emotions to unpack.

“Hi, Aaron?” Regina says in a sickly sweet voice that always means trouble. “Yeah, I’m calling from Cady’s phone.”

There’s a very long pause and Regina rolls her eyes while Aaron’s distant and unintelligible voice drones from Cady’s phone. “Aaron stop talking for like, five seconds oh my god,” Regina says, presumably cutting him off. “Don’t be a hypocrite, one ex can host your birthday as well as another. Oh, or do you think that’s awkward? Your ex hosting your fucking birthday?”

Regina admires her nails smugly. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. See you Friday.”

For a half second Cady’s terrified she’s going to hand the phone over to her, but then Regina just hangs up and hands her her phone back. “Ugh I miss flip phones, so much more satisfying.”

“Totally,” Cady agrees, mostly out of relief since she’s never actually seen a flip phone outside of movies.

“God I want some freakin’ cheese fries,” Regina exclaims abruptly, even though she doesn’t seem to care if Cady comes with her or not.

“Hey,” Kevin says, as he taps her on the shoulder and slides into his alphabetically assigned desk behind her in trig, Cady turning around in her chair to face him. “Missed you at lunch.”

“Yeah, sorry, I had a call to make and when I got back you were done I guess.” Their newly merged lunch table had gotten even weirder with Damian and Jason now being a thing, and Cady had returned from the bathroom to find a very grumpy Janis stuck between Jason and Damian who seemed to be giving Tyler and Marwan a run for their money with their adorable couple antics.

“No biggie,” Kevin says with a shrug. “There’s kind of a thing I need to talk to you about but like, it’s not super pressing. Or well, like it’s kind of pressing but it’s not— I don’t need to know immediately.”

“Okay?”

“So uh,” Kevin laughs, self deprecating. “God, okay this is very stupid but— ”

“Kevin and Cady!” Mr. Woods says. “Eyes forward please, we have a lot to get done today.”

“Tell me after,” Cady says in a whisper, patting his arm, and then spending way too much of the class period debating if that was super weird. And also thinking about the fact that Kevin’s arm hair was weirdly soft, and is it weird to think that someone’s arm hair is attractive? She’s still internally debating when they’re packing up and Kevin looks at her expectantly.

“So,” he starts. “You remember my brother Neil? From Halloween.”

“Totally.”

“So I don’t have him on Facebook because he’s a dick, but ever since you were at our house he’s been like, lowkey harassing me about if we’re together. And like, since we’re not gonna um, you know, after Aaron’s party I didn’t want him to know cause my parents would make it this big thing. I told you that already before, sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Anywhomst,” Kevin says running a hand through his hair, “Neil’s a fucking douchecanoe and in our family text chain we were trying to figure out Thanksgiving stuff cause Lea has a boyfriend now and he was like ‘Oh Kev is your girlfriend coming’ and I tried to play it off but I have Lea on Facebook and she’s a traitor. So um, basically, my parents want you to come to mine for Thanksgiving and this would be the perfect time for you to come up with a great excuse for why you can’t.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Cady says, stopping by the bank of lockers across from the trig classroom. “You don’t want me to come?”

“No, oh my god Cady no, it’s not about you. You’re perfect. You’re amazing and wonderful. It’s just that my family is. A lot. Especially because like, my dad’s brother and his kids are coming and my cousin Krish is an asshole. And I didn’t wanna like, subject you to that since you know, this,” he gestures between them, “We only agreed to do it until the party so I just didn’t want to make you feel like you had to go to this awkward family thing with me.”

“I mean, you go to one awkward party with me, I go to one awkward family thing with you. That feels pretty fair. One to one.”

Kevin rubs the back of his neck. “You 100% don’t have to.”

“I 100% don’t mind. Also like, my family doesn’t do anything for Thanksgiving anyways.”

“I guess,” Kevin says, looking down a little sheepishly at the floor. Cady is peripherally aware suddenly that Caitlin Caussin is at her locker just a few banks down, very purposefully trying not to watch them but darting a glance over at them every few seconds from behind the door. The logical part of her brain knows that Caitlin probably feels weird and uncomfy about the whole thing and that she’s not actually going to try and go after Kevin. And even if she did it’s not like Cady is actually his girlfriend. She doesn’t have the right to be jealous.

And yet.

There’s something so primal and feral that rises in her as she leans up and cups Kevin’s jaw, “Hey, I wanna do this for you,” she says, and then leans the rest of the way up to kiss him. She feels Kevin start to pull away a little bit but she just holds onto his shoulders, opening her mouth under his like an invitation which he takes hesitantly, licking along her bottom lip gently as she moves her hands down from his face and onto his shoulders for better leverage.

Someone wolf whistles behind them and Cady pulls away, a group of Varsity jocks giving appreciative bro nods at Kevin, but he doesn’t bask in the attention, rolling his eyes at them and putting a protective arm around Cady’s back.

Cady can’t help but dart a glance at Caitlin, who makes eye contact with her for a brief second before shutting her locker and scurrying away down the hall. Which. Okay, makes Cady feel a little bit guilty because it’s the sort of territory marking thing Regina used to do in front of her all the time with Aaron. And as someone who’d been on the other side of it, it really does suck.

But she can’t help the powerful thrill that shoots straight into that primal part of her psyche.

Humans are ultimately apex predators after all.

...Okay actually, there’s debate and not all ecologists are in agreement on it. But honestly, after that little instinctual mating display, Cady’s ready to pick a side.

Thursday they’re supposed to be prepping for their next competition after the holidays, but Ms. Norbury is off sick so they do some practice sheets for about fifteen minutes and then spend most of the rest of it goofing off. Kevin puts his spotify on shuffle, and Cady finds herself pleasantly surprised to realize she recognizes more than a few songs. Which makes her a little more willing to let Tyler pull her into their little impromptu dance party. She knows that dance is a deeply ingrained human action and she shouldn’t be concerned about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but it’s hard not to feel a little self conscious around the guys, all of whom just seem to know how to move so easily to the music, Kevin especially, who dances with such a fluid confidence that Cady can’t help but watch him out of the corner of her eye.

“Ack okay,” Cady says, pushing some sweaty hair out of her face. “I need a breather. I’m gonna grab a drink.”

Kevin pouts and grabs for her hand, “C’mon one more song.”

“I’m so gross and sweaty,” Cady says, but lets Kevin reel her back in anyways. Spinning her around twice before settling his hands on her hips.

“Yeah you got it,” he says encouragingly, and Cady is very aware of the movement of her hips under his palms, trying to match his more purposeful rhythm. And she’s both relieved and disappointed when the song ends and Kevin allows her to slip out of the room without protest.

The lacrosse team is just heading back inside from their practice and Cady bumps into Jason in line for the drink machine.

“Hey, what’re you still doing here?” Jason says, running his sleeve-covered forearm over his sweaty forehead.

“Mathletes,” Cady says. “Do you guys have a game coming up?”

“Just like fun practice games, the season doesn’t start until the spring actually, but we pretty high ranked so we wanna keep up that edge,” Jason pulls his Gatorade out of the bottom of the machine just as his phone starts ringing loudly.

“Sorry can you hold this?” he asks, holding out the fluorescent blue bottle of Gatorade to Cady, who accepts it as Jason pulls out his phone, grinning a little as he sees the screen. “Hey cutie,” he says and then mouths, ‘It’s Damian’ to Cady, who had figured as much. “Yeah, no we just wrapped up a few minutes ago. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yeah, I should be on the road in like ten minutes? I gotta change I’m all sweaty. Stop it, oh my god. Okay. I’ll see you soon. Alright. Alright. Bye.”

“Thank you so much,” Jason says, grabbing back his Gatorade. “Damian’s coming over, we’re gonna watch Company.”

“Oh, that’s fun,” Cady says, even though she has no idea what that is.

Jason takes a long drink and then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Mhmm.”

“How long did you and Kevin wait before going Facebook official?”

“Oh,” Cady says. “I don’t. Maybe like a week? Week and a half?”

Jason nods seriously. “Cool.”

“I take it things are going well then?”

It’s like Jason’s entire body melts a little and he gets this soft boyish look in his eyes, “I’m still kind of pinching myself? I liked him for so long and I never thought it would like, you know, actually happen.”

“I think Damian really likes you too,” Cady says, punching in her own drink selection. “Even if it took him a little longer to figure it out.”

“Yeah,” Jason says dreamily. “He’s pretty great.”

“Are you guys coming to Aaron’s party?” Cady asks, resisting the urge to press the cold can of soda to her still sweaty forehead.

“Erm, maybe,” Jason says. “There’s always been this kind of weird rivalry between the soccer team and the lacrosse team and I thought it might be weird?”

“I don’t think it’d be weird,” Cady says. “I mean, I’m throwing the party and it’s at Regina’s so it’s not like he could kick you out or anything.”

“Fair,” Jason says. “And like, if Damian’s going I probably will.”

“Cool,” Cady says. “I should probably get back to practice.”

“Good luck with...the math stuff?”

“Ha thanks,” Cady says, turning off the other direction.

“Hey Cady?” Jason calls after her.

“Yeah?”

“You’re not actually allergic to jalapenos, are you?”

Cady feels her cheeks flush. “Uh, no, actually I’m not. I guess my improv skills could use a little work.”

Jason shrugs. “Nah, I think it turned out just fine.”

Tyler and Marwan have devolved into grinding by the time she gets back to Ms. Norbury’s room, which Cady takes as a sign that they might as well pack up.

“Hey, so I was thinking maybe if you wanted we could swing by the mall? I wanted to maybe get something nice for the party since, you know,” he lowers his voice, “I’m supposed to be arm candy and all.”

“For sure!” Cady says, thrilled to have an excuse to stay out longer. Since they couldn’t stay at home while the roof was getting fixed, they’d been staying the week with one of her dad’s colleagues from the university, the Caldwells. Which was mostly fine but they were an empty-nest couple who seem thrilled to have the company so Cady was always getting roped into watching a movie with them, or helping make dinner, or playing a board game. And while she knew it was a little ungrateful, staying out with Kevin meant at least a few more blessed hours where she didn’t have to answer a million questions about her friends and her college plans and her classes.

They hit a few stores with limited success, Kevin struggling to explain to her what exactly he’s looking for. “I just wanna look cool,” he keeps saying again and again, but the specifics seem to elude him.

Cady’s glad to stop for a little bit in the food court, and even more excited as she spots Karen and Regina at a table while Kevin is waiting in line.

“Hi Cady!” Karen says brightly, getting up to come give Cady a hug. There’s something about how she moves that always reminds Cady of a baby giraffe, slow and purposeful, but ever so slightly off-balance.

“Hey,” Cady says brightly. “What are you guys doing here?”

“Oh we just come here,” Karen says. “Even when we don’t need to buy anything. That’s what malls are for.”

“Um, excuse you Karen, malls are for little frozen yogurt kiosks,” Regina says, and then licks the back of her spoon. “Have you ever wondered why you can only buy frozen yogurt in the weirdest places?”

“I can’t say I have,” Cady admits. “But I guess I’m not the best person to ask.”

“Cady, please go help your boy, he looks like a lost puppy,” Regina says, gesturing somewhere over Cady’s shoulder with her spoon. And sure enough Kevin is looking around for her, a plastic tray clutched close to his chest.

Warmth opens in her chest like an evening blooming flower and she can’t herself from cooing out loud as she waves him over. “You looked so lost,” she says, pouting out her bottom lip melodramatically.

“I got abandoned,” He pouts back, looking between Cady and towards the table where Regina and Karen are still sitting.

“We’ll leave you two alone,” Regina says, standing. “Don’t worry, we’re not crashing your date.” She gives Kevin a slow once over. “You’re not going to wear that to the party, are you?”

Kevin’s wearing a grey Nasa shirt under an unzipped blue hoodie, which isn’t exactly the most exciting thing ever, but it’s pretty par for the course for his wardrobe, and Cady thinks he looks nice enough. Cozy and approachable.

“I’m actually still trying to figure out my ‘fit,” Kevin says quickly, a little defensively.

“Your what?” Regina says dryly.

“My ‘fit? My outfit? For the party.”

“Hmmm,” Regina says, clearing her own tray. “Meet us at H&M in twenty minutes, and don’t look so dour I’m doing you a favour.”

“Why do I feel like I just made some sort of Faustian bargain?” Kevin says, sitting down at the table as soon as Regina and Karen are out of earshot.

“Don’t worry,” Cady says, popping a pretzel nugget in her mouth. “That feeling goes away.”

In the end though, Cady has to admit that letting Regina and Karen take the reigns was the right call. Even if watching them navigate the men’s section of H&M with terrifying precision is giving her the worst deja vu to last year. Still, the whole thing is worth it when Kevin finally emerges from the change room for her viewing pleasure and Cady literally feels her mouth go dry and words evaporate.

“Pretty sick right?” Kevin says cockily, giving a little spin before catching a glimpse of her face and flicking his sunglasses up to his hairline. “Do you hate it? I can totally wear something different if you hate it.”

“No, I— ” Cady shakes her head. “Um, sorry words are hard I just. Kevin holy shit you look. You look really good.”

It’s not like she didn’t know Kevin was attractive. Hello, she has eyes, and if anything, pretending to date him for the last six weeks has just reinforced that fact. But Cady has to give Regina props, because this is another level. The v-neck shirt clings just tight enough and shows a nice flash of chest hair, while still fitting in a cool slouchy effortless way. The blazer helps balance out Kevin’s shoulders, but the rolled up sleeves and the jeans make the whole thing casual enough for a house party.

“Wow, Kevin’s like, almost hot now,” Karen says, which theoretically isn’t very nice but somehow in her airy voice it’s almost a compliment, and Kevin waggles his sunglasses up and down in her direction.

“Don’t do that, you’re ruining my hard work,” Regina says, but even she seems kind of impressed.

“You know you love it,” Kevin says, crossing at the ankles and doing another little spin.

Cady hears herself giggle at an octave she didn’t even know she could achieve, clamping her hand over her mouth as Regina and Karen both turn to look at her over their shoulders, and then back at Kevin.

“Imma, um, change out of this,” Kevin says, suddenly sheepish as he disappears back into the guys’ dressing room.

“Wow,” Karen says beaming. “The Rule of Twos!”

Cady has a sinking suspicion she knows what Karen means, but she very purposefully

does not ask her to clarify. Much happier to live in ignorant bliss.

 

Cady hasn’t been over to Regina’s house since last winter and it’s so weird to be standing in the entryway again on Friday afternoon, Mrs. George’s little white dog jumping around ankles like nothing has ever changed.

“Cady! I should have known that was you!” Mrs. George exclaims from the top landing of the stairs. “How’re you doing lil mama!?”

“Oh, you know,” Cady says, which is a very American phrase that has wormed its way into her vocabulary. But it feels apt for being hugged by her ex-best-friend-slash-current-actual-friend’s mom like she’s her long-lost daughter.

“Well I know you girls are gonna have such a fun time tonight!” Mrs. George says, giving Cady’s shoulder a little squeeze before traipsing off. “Don’t worry about little old me, me and Kylie are gonna do a little girl’s spa sleepover night while you crazy kids get up to some fun. Here let me take that for you!” She says, grabbing Cady’s overnight bag from off the floor.

Regina gives the tiniest eye roll but doesn’t launch into her usual tell off of her mom, which is. Different. “Cady, c’mon I wanna show you something.”

Cady follows Regina down into the basement, which unlike Janis’ basement is pretty light and airy since the whole house was built into a hill and the large sliding glass doors lead out onto the pool deck.

“So, I thought, lets keep it simple right? Danny Baker is bringing kegs and you know everyone’s just gonna BYOB so I thought we’d do one signature shot and call that good.”

“Oh,” Cady says, “I never would have thought about that.”

“I’m not giving Aaron any excuses to be all ‘woe is me my two hot ex-girlfriends threw me a party,’ so I’m on my A-game,” Regina says pouring from several bottles into a shot glass, “Here try this.”

Cady angles to dump the whole thing back but Regina grabs her wrist. “Just sip it, lightweight. Oh my god Cady.”

“Whoops,” Cady says, taking a small sip and then humming. “Oh that’s really good.”

“I know,” Regina says, “It’s the ex-boyfriend shot.”

“Regina!”

“What? We don’t have to tell him. We’ll just call it The Aaron or something. ‘Cause it’s nice at the time but it will fuck you up tomorrow.”

Cady frowns into her shot glass, and it’s like Regina reads her mind because she sighs and says, “Okay, alright, I cheated on him. It wasn’t my cutest look. But I also don’t use his flaws to like, bully my new boyfriend, so I think I get credit for that at least.”

Cady hums in lackluster agreement. Even though she and Regina being on the same ‘side’ is ultimately kind of nice, she can’t help but feel like Regina’s a little too invested in the whole ‘Aaron sucks’ narrative. Still, she figures there was probably a lot going on between them that she didn’t see, and the last thing she’s going to do is rock the boat when Regina’s literally letting Cady throw a party at her house.

“Regina?” Kylie says from the landing. “Mom wants to talk to you.”

“Now?”

“I guess,” Kylie says with a shrug. “I dunno.”

Regina sighs melodramatically, but she ruffles Kylie’s hair as she passes her back up the steps.

“So, uh,” Kylie says after Regina’s footsteps fade away upstairs. “Is your friend coming? To the party?”

“Janis?”

Kylie nods seriously, the purple ends of her hair swaying.

“She said she would, but probably not til later.” Cady had been pretty sure that Janis would flat-out refuse to come. But after Damian announced loudly to their lunch table that he and Jason were going, and also when Cady promised they could do a sleepover after and deconstruct every dumb thing Aaron did, she’d come around to the idea. Still Cady is a little stressed about the idea of putting Janis and Regina in the same place at the same time. She feels in her heart like Regina is trying to be a better person, but that can’t always fix things in the past, and she gets that Janis doesn’t have to forgive her. But she is going to take Janis agreeing to go to a party at her (former?) nemesis’ house for Cady’s sake as a friendship win.

“You better be all packed, mom’s not looking to wait around for you, Ky,” Regina says as she walks back down the stairs, and Kylie pouts a little but reluctantly heads back upstairs. Regina gives Cady a long once over. “You’re not wearing that, are you?”

Cady looks down at her outfit. “Um, no, I brought options though.”

Regina gets that same glint in her eye that she had when she first spotted Cady in the cafeteria last year. Like she’s a lump of unshapen clay, or maybe more like a steak dinner. Either way, Regina is happy to spend well over an hour weighing the different options while she does her own hair and makeup.

“You changed rooms,” Cady observes while she sits on the end of Regina’s bed, watching as she meticulously curls her hair with a curling wand.

“Yeah, stairs are a total bitch with a spinal halo,” Regina says with a shrug. “And my parents seemed pretty happy to get their room back.”

Cady nods, checking her watch again. It’s already after 9:00 and the Facebook event said that it was starting at 10:00 and she’s pretty sure the kegs aren’t even here yet and—

“Oh my god you need to relax, you’re giving me fine lines just looking at you,” Regina says, and Cady realize abruptly she’s been tapping her foot rapidly on the floor.

“Sorry.”

“Besides, no one’s gonna be here til like 10:30 anyways,” Regina says tossing her newly curled hair over her shoulder.

“But it starts at 10.”

“Well yeah, but that’s what you tell everyone so you know they’ll be here by 11.”

“That’s dumb, why not just tell people it starts at 11 then?”

Regina looks at her like she’s a bit slow. “Because then people would be here at midnight, I know it’s stupid, but that’s just how people are.”

“Um, should I text my people and tell them to come at like, 10:30 then? Cause I told everyone it started at 10.”

“No, I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” Regina says. “Wanna make a pizza or something in the meantime? And by make I mean put a frozen one in the oven, I’m not messing around with dough with these nails.”

Cady can’t totally quiet the sinking paranoia that everyone is not as into this unwritten lateness rule about parties as Regina is, but she has to admit that she turns out to be right when Kevin is the very first person to arrive at 10:37.

“Hey,” he says, walking into the kitchen. “Um, someone just like, left kegs on your driveway, I’m assuming that’s not what you want? Unless you like cops busting your party early. Which I mean…”

“Fucker,” Regina says, abandoning her glass of rosé on the marble island and snatching up her cellphone on her way out of the kitchen.

“Hey,” Kevin says.

“Hey,” Cady says, back, feeling oddly shy. “I guess you know about the whole coming late rule.”

Kevin’s eyes crinkle. “Oh Africa, has no one taught you about the need to be fashionably late to things?”

“Not really,” Cady says. “Though it does make a lot of sense given how late everyone showed up to my party last year.”

“Shit yeah,” Kevin says fondly. “That was a great party.” Cady winces, and he waves a hand, backpedaling, “I mean, um, like, it was fun for the people whose house wasn’t getting destroyed?”

“Well that and the Aaron stuff and the Janis stuff and also Gretchen barfed in my oven.”

“Triple threat,” Kevin says, and Cady’s not totally sure what that means, but she doesn’t get to ask before the doorbell rings twice in a row insistently.

“Guess who brought bubblegum schnapps!” Gretchen says excitedly, waving a bottle over her head before throwing her arms around Cady in a hug. “Don’t worry, I know this is going to be stressful to you so if you need me to make a diversion or get you out of a situation with Aaron, I have your back.”

“Thanks Gretch,” Cady says, right as Regina comes back into the entryway, phone in hand.

“Okay so I told Danny him and his soccer clones better get here asap and put the kegs in the back or this party is going to be over before you can say ‘Neighbourhood Watch.’” Regina says, “Oh, hi Gretchen, you’re early.”

“Hi,” Gretchen says, hands wringing awkwardly around the top of the bottle. “Um, I thought maybe you’d some help like, setting up or whatever?”

Cady glances quickly between the two of them. She’s still not entirely sure what went down between the two of them, Gretchen still fervently keeping her distance even as Karen had seemed to make quick peace with Regina and everything that had happened last year.

“Actually,” Regina says, “maybe you could help me shove some stuff away before people start showing up? I’d do it myself, but, you know.”

“I can give you a hand,” Kevin says, and him and Gretchen follow behind Regina into the living room, Cady relegated to the kitchen to set out bowls of chips and stacks of red solo cups. A group of soccer players passing through with kegs hoisted between them nod at her in acknowledgement as they go.

It seems to Cady that one moment there’s just a few people in the house, and then the next the whole place is filled with everyone she’s ever met and then some. Like everyone had learned the same secret rule about when exactly fashionably late became on time.

“Heya,” Kevin says, drumming his hands on the kitchen island and leaning over on his forearms.

“Hey,” Cady says, as she averts her gave ever so slightly so as not to be looking all the way down Kevin’s shirt. “Having fun?”

“This party is about to be turnt!”

“And that’s…good?”

“Yeah it’s like, turnt, I don’t know how to describe it it’s just. Turnt.”

“Is that different from turnt up?”

“Turnt up is like, the next level of turnt,” Kevin says. “If this weren’t a party you were being bullied into hosting for your ex? That’d be turnt up.”

“Have you seen him?” Cady doesn’t say Aaron’s name, but she knows Kevin knows exactly who she’s talking about. It’s weird how much she keeps forgetting that this was the entire point of her and Kevin doing this pretend dating thing in the first place.

Kevin shakes his head though. “Nah babe, but he might be outside with some of the soccer guys? They were hanging around the pool. I heard Mike T fell in.”

Cady gives an involuntary little shiver about the idea of falling into the pool in November, which Kevin must misread because he’s suddenly on the other side of the island, pulling her into a hug. “It’ll all be okay,” he says.

“Why did I agree to do this again?”

“Because you are too goddamn nice for your own good,” Kevin says, rocking her back and forth slightly, somehow making it sound like almost a compliment.

“Said the pot to the kettle.”

“Since when am I nice?”

“Kev!” Cady says with a laugh looking up at him, and then gesturing vaguely with her free hand at the two of them embracing, “Hello.”

“This is only about half as nice as you think it is,” Kevin says, half-under his breath, and Cady could probably spend an hour unpacking what exactly that was supposed to mean. But it’s Aaron’s party and she already has so much on her plate. She’s not even sure where Regina got off to and there’s cake to be cut and guests to say hi to, especially since she has an entire lunch table’s worth of people that are only here because of her.

“I should probably go get the cake from downstairs,” Cady says, turning away but not getting any farther, one of Kevin’s arms still around her back as she spots Aaron in a loose circle over by the living room.

Seeing Aaron again in the flesh is like tripping over a pathway she thought had been clear, stomach cartwheeling as gravity shifts around her. Cady can’t help the muscle memory of loving him, palms damp and heart loud in the hollow of her throat, but she’s out of practice now. Everything about it is stiff and impersonal. Kevin’s still got an arm around her shoulders and it's easy to lean back into him and regain her centre of gravity.

He must feel her eyes on him, because he looks up, and for a split second it’s like everything Cady’s wanted since that first day in calculus. Just the two of them completely alone even with a room of people swirling around them. And he’s looking at her. Really looking at her.

And Cady doesn’t feel anything. Or at least not anything like she used to feel before, excited and dizzy and a little sick in the best way. Mostly she just feels a little stupid that she’s let some guy talk her into this whole production in the first place.

She feels Kevin tense, but she feels weirdly calm as Aaron makes his way over to them.

“Hey,” Aaron says.

“Hey,” Cady says, and then after a slightly awkward pause, “Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks,” Aaron says a bit flatly. “Uh, looks like a pretty good turnout. Seems like you and Regina added some people to the guest list.”

He doesn’t sound particularly annoyed or anything, but Cady still feels like she’s being baited into something, so she just shrugs. “I guess so.”

“People like a party. Free booze,” Kevin says a little defensively.

Aaron crosses his arms over his chest. “I guess you’d know more about that than I would. Didn’t you crash Cady’s party last year?”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Cady says placatingly.

“Yeah, no I remember now,” Aaron continues like Cady hadn’t said anything at all. “You and your little squad just rolled up, right? Am I remembering that correctly?”

“Oh hey look at this fun little corner of toxic masculinity,” Janis says, and Cady has never been more thankful for one of her poorly timed entrances. “Kevin, I think Tyler was looking for you?”

Kevin hesitates for a second, looking to Cady, but she gives him a half shrug, hoping that it’ll get across that she’ll be fine, and it must more or less get across to him because he gives her a small nod, squeezing her on the arm before diving back into the crush of the party.

“So, Janis, it’s been a while,” Aaron says once Kevin’s gone.

“Has it? I hadn’t noticed,” Janis deadpans, looking at her nails, and Cady has had enough practice navigating between the two of them to know that this interaction is only going to go downhill and fast.

“I actually should probably go get the cake, Janis can you give me a hand?” Cady says, tugging Janis with her by the sleeve before she can protest. “We’ll catch up later!” Cady calls over her shoulder to Aaron belatedly.

“You’re such a fucking liar, Caddy,” Janis says once they’re out of ear shot.

“Shhh,” Cady says, but she can’t help the giggle that bursts out of her. “Shut up, I’m trying to be nice. It's his birthday.”

Janis rolls her eyes. “See, this is what nice gets you. Throwing a party for your ex-boyfriend. That’s why I’m never nice.”

“Your ex-boyfriend is Kevin,” Cady says, “it’s not really the same.”

“Yeah and I’m not going to throw him a party no matter how much he loves you,” Janis says. “Okay, where the fuck are we going?”

“The cake’s in the basement,” Cady says, fumbling along the wall for the light switch.

“What, no, there’s actual cake? I thought you were just making shit up for a quick getaway.”

“Why would I lie about the cake?”

“I lied about Tyler needing to talk to Kevin.”

“Janis!”

“Oh c’mon, you don’t need two dudes spraying their pheromones all over you,” Janis says, following Cady down the basement steps.

“I asked Kevin to come. I thought, you know, he could be a buffer.”

“And so you could make Aaron jealous,” Janis says flatly.

“I mean...maybe a little,” Cady admits, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I’m glad you’re here though.”

“Don’t suck up to me and change the subject at the same time, that’s just playing dirty.”

“I am glad you’re here!” Cady protests, pulling the cake box out from where she’d stashed it under the wet bar. “Janis?” she prompts after a long few moments when Janis doesn’t say anything.

“Yeah?”

“You okay? You just got really quiet.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. It’s just...weird. Being back here. We used to hang out down here all the time. They’ve renovated a bunch.”

Cady chews her lip but doesn’t say anything, hoisting the box into her arms, happy to get out of the basement and ditch the cake in the fridge upstairs. They meet back up with Jason and Damian, who are curled around each other on a chair in a way that seems both physically impossible and structurally unsound. Jason’s almost as tall as Damian, and pretty buff too, so Cady winces every time one of them readjusts and the whole chair creeks.

“So a little birdy told me there’s cake and I would like to know if you can substantiate that rumour, Ms. Heron,” Damian says eagerly.

“Yeah, I’m not sure how exactly Aaron wants to do this whole thing, I guess you don’t really do candles and stuff at a party like this?” Cady’s only had one American birthday so far, and that involved a bunch of waiters at Chili’s singing her a non-copyrighted birthday song so she’s not totally sure how much Aaron’s tied to the idea. “I’ll go ask him in a while? I’m not sure where he went.”

“I think he’s with the beer pong guys,” Jason offers helpfully. “Which I’ve been banned from.”

“No!” Damian gasps melodramatically.

“I mean, not formally banned, but they’re laxphobic so I wasn’t even gonna bother asking.”

“Poor baby,” Damian coos. “It must be so hard to be popular and hot and have only one group of people not like you.”

“Where was this Damian when you were begging me for all the sports team tea,” Jason snarks back.

“Listen! This is a whole new avenue of drama I didn’t even know existed!” Damian protests. “I’ve gotta make up for lost time.”

“You’re adorable,” Jason says, kissing Damian on the hairline just as Kevin comes up and saddles comfortably along her back like a baby baboon.

“Hey Janis, uh, Tyler said he wasn’t looking for me?” Kevin says. “Are you sure it was him?”

“You know, I’m really not,” Janis says. “But sorry I gotta go right now and look for an excuse, sorry.”

She slips off away from them before anyone can protest, and Damian groans and starts disentangling himself from Jason. “Ugh, I gotta go deal with this. We’ll get half a cooler in her and she’ll be much more fun, I promise.”

Cady’s about to protest when suddenly Gretchen is at her shoulder. “Um, Cady, did you want the cake put out now? Because a bunch of people are just helping themselves?”

“What? Fuck,” Cady swears, pushing past Gretchen and making a beeline for the kitchen when a whole pack of dudes are a good three quarters through the cake. “Hey! What the hell! That’s for Aaron!”

None of them really listen to her, and honestly there’s not much they could really do anyways, it’s not like they can put the half-eaten pieces back, so Cady makes the executive decision to just grab Aaron a piece before there’s nothing left at all.

“Gretchen, you’re in charge. Put the rest in the fridge and wait here til I get back.” Gretchen calls something after her, but Cady doesn’t hear her, too focused on her own mission.

Jason was right about the beer pong, and Cady finds Aaron in the backyard set up at one of the tables. He’s definitely had a fair bit to drink since she’d seen him last, his eyes glassy and unfocused, and there’s a lag between her touching his arm and Aaron turning around.

“Oh hey guys!” Aaron says loudly. “It’s my ex-girlfriend. The smart one.”

The group of guys hanging around the table snort laughs like this is in some way actually clever.

“I brought you some cake,” Cady says, cutting to the chase. “Some people got into it early so I wanted to be sure you got a piece.”

Aaron looks down at the paper plate with hazy unfocused eyes and then back up at Cady judgmentally. “A corner piece?”

“Um, yeah?”

“So you just brought me a piece of icing with some cake,” Aaron says dismissively.

“Look, do you want it or not? If you want a different piece you can go risk it in the kitchen with what’s left.”

“It’s my cake, what the hell Cady, I don’t even get to pick a piece of my own cake?”

“I tried,” Cady says. “I’m trying.”

“Fine,” Aaron says, gesturing for the plate, shoveling two large bites into his mouth with the plastic fork he grabbed. “Happy?” he says, mouth still half full and then the entire expression on his face rapidly shifting from annoyance into something Cady can’t decipher.

“Aaron?” She says cautious. He holds up a finger and then suddenly keels forward, the paper plate of cake toppling out his hands as he bends almost double and retches.

“Crap,” Cady exclaims, taking a step backwards to avoid getting vomit on her shoes.

“Oh fuck, dude,” One of Aaron’s soccer friends says half-heartedly, and suddenly Kevin is pushing through the groups of people chilling on the pool deck and gently pulling Cady away from Aaron.

“Are you okay?” Kevin says, hands coming up to cup Cady’s face, his eyes bright and wild and full of concern.

“Oh my god, fuck off dude,” Aaron says straightening up, wiping the back of his mouth.

“Here bro,” someone says, handing Aaron a half empty bottle of water, but he swats them away.

“I’m so fucking sick of this Nice Guy bullshit,” Aaron says. “You don’t get to be Mr-fucking-Perfect after a year of sniffing after my sloppy seconds. I know how you were fucking looking at her. And then the moment we’re over you jumped on it? Had to get in the door while she was still all sad and desperate cause she’d never give you a second glance otherwise.”

“Dude you’re drunk, I’m not gonna fight with you,” Kevin says, holding his hands up. “C’mon, lets go inside and you can get some water and calm down a little.”

“Shut the— ” Aaron starts and then doesn’t finish because he turns and pukes again.

“Um, Cady?” Tyler taps her on the shoulder.

“Kinda busy right now.”

“No, I get that,” Tyler says, “but um, your friends are kind of having a blow out in the middle of the living room right now?”

“What!?”

“Yeah, uh, we were just sitting around and talking about — well, it doesn't really matter, but Janis got annoyed and then Damian went to go talk to her and it just sort of turned into...ummm, a screaming match?”

“Fuck,” Cady swears, looking over at Kevin who’s supporting Aaron.

“Go, I’ll deal with it,” Kevin says.

“But— ”

“You think this is the first drunk dude I’ve ever dealt with? I’ll be fine, just go see what’s wrong.”

“You’re the best,” Cady says mostly over her shoulder as she follows at Tyler’s heels. They spot Janis and Damian almost immediately, a small crowd having gathered around them, and Cady sees at least two people with their phones out. Jason casts her a wide-eyed glance from the edges of the circle as Cady elbows her way through.

“ — that is such fucking bullshit and you know it!” Janis exclaims, “You’re being a shitty friend! I didn’t even want to come here in the first fucking place, but I came because you and Cady asked!”

“Sorry I didn’t wanna spend another Friday night in your basement watching the same five movies and talking about the same five things. I wanna go sometimes! Fucking sue me, Janis.”

“You wanted to go because your boyfriend of a week wanted to go, because you’re gonna pick him over me now. We’ve been best friends for years, but I guess that means nothing to you.”

“Jason liked me for two years! Maybe if I hadn’t been going along with you judging everyone constantly— ”

“Oh so now it’s my fault!? Do you want me to spill all the shit you’ve said about all those people too!?” Janis snaps back, throwing her hands up.

“I’m not saying I didn’t do it too, I just don’t wanna fucking be that person anymore! Aren’t you tired of walking into school every day and looking at hundreds of people and deciding that there’s something wrong with all of them except the two people you’ve decided you like??”

“I know what they’re like,” Janis says, dangerously calm.

“Do you!?” Damian exclaims. “Do you actually know what they’re like or do you know about the neat little box you put them in because that was easier than actually dealing with people. I’m tired of feeling like being mean to people is a requirement for being your friend.”

“I’m not mean to people, what the fuck.”

“Bullshit! You think that because of what happened in seventh grade you can’t hurt people? Grow up Janis.”

“Fuck you!” Janis shouts suddenly, shoving her way out of the circle of people.

“Fuck you!” Damian calls after her retreating back, and Cady hears rathers than sees the front door slam shut, Damian shoving off in the opposite direction.

“Hey!” Jason says suddenly, standing on the couch. “If any of you douchebags were recording that you better delete that shit right now!”

There’s some sheepish murmurs in the crowd as people lower their phones and Jason continues to glare at them for a long moment before heading in the same direction that Damian disappeared.

When Cady turns Gretchen is right at her shoulder, eyes big and misty. “I am so, so sorry,” she says, grabbing for Cady’s hand.

“What the hell happened?”

Gretchen’s chin wobbles. “Um, we were just talking, and— I don’t know, Janis got so upset because I...I said something and I guess it upset her and Damian was trying to intervene but I guess that just made her more upset.”

Cady takes in a long deep breath, exhaling slowly, which doesn’t entirely stem the rising panic in her chest, but it helps a little bit. “I’m going to go check in on Aaron, can you tell Regina what happened?”

“You want me to tell Regina?” Gretchen repeats.

“Just if you see her,” Cady placates, already heading up the stairs. “You don’t have to go find her or anything.”

Gretchen seems full of trepidation about the whole thing, but Cady has other things to worry about right now. She’ll check in on Gretchen later, Cady promises herself, opening and closing the different doors along the hall as she tries to find where Aaron and Kevin have ended up. Which, in a house as big as Regina’s is not exactly an easy endeavour, and she walks in on at least two couples in compromising situations and one very drunk girl sobbing on the floor of what appears to be an entire room dedicated to a pool table.

Cady’s about to abandon hope that they’re upstairs at all since the only room left is the giant bedroom suite that used to be Regina’s room, and she’s already pulling out her phone to text Kevin with one hand when she spots Regina sitting on the bed that dominates the centre of the room.

“Hey,” Cady says. “Have you seen Aaron? Kevin said he’d bring him to a bathroom.”

Regina snorts and gestures with her foot towards the bathroom, “Well Aaron’s in there being pathetic, Kevin left to go find you.”

“Shit,” Cady says. “Here, you don’t have to stay with Aaron, I can.”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a martyr, Cady, people don’t like it.”

“Gina?” Aaron calls from the bathroom, sounding totally pathetic. “Can you bring me some water?”

Regina rolls her eyes, but it's slightly fond as she stands and heads into the bathroom. Cady hovers awkwardly, not totally sure if she should stay or go, before finally deciding it's not like she has anywhere better to be. Especially since she texted Kevin to let him know she’s alright. She hears Aaron throw up one more time, the soft sounds of Regina, well, probably not soothing him, but at least talking to him in a soft tone.

Cady flops back on Regina’s parents’ bed, happy for the brief reprieve over everything that’s happened over the last few hours. Her body feels like it could curl up and sleep right here, but her mind is whirling far too fast for that ever to actually happen.

There’s something so quintessentially wrong about Janis and Damian fighting. Even last year when they’d been mad at her it had been as a unit. She can’t even fully think about them as separate entities, even when she’s doing something with one of them separately it's like the other person is always sort of there in a shared joke or specific mannerism. And while Cady’s seen them bicker and disagree over everything from pizza toppings to which songs count as “Iconic Gay Jams” she’s never seen them blow up at each other like that.

Hope you’re okay, she texts Janis, i’m here if you want to talk. She’s not even totally sure how Janis got home since Jason was supposed to be their DD. Cady realizes belatedly that she was supposed to stay over at Janis’ tonight, which is probably a terrible idea even if Janis still wanted her there. She can’t deal with Janis ranting to her about Damian right now, not after the night she’s had. Though trying to sneak into the Caldwell’s house is almost equally unappealing.

“Hey,” Aaron says pulling her attention, “um, can we talk?”

Cady sits up, looking over to Regina who gives her a little half ‘your call’ shrug in response, and it’s genuinely kind of comforting to know that Regina would have her back if she says no. Which seems is at least partially why she ends up saying yes, moving over so Aaron can sit beside her on the bed.

“I’m leaving this open,” Regina says, gesturing at the door as she leaves.

“I’m not gonna do anything,” Aaron protests loudly, but he doesn’t move to close it and neither does Cady.

“So,” Cady says after a long moment when Aaron does start.

“Yeah,” Aaron says exhaling slowly. “I am, I’m so sorry Cady. I should never have asked you to do this in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Cady agrees. “You shouldn’t have.”

Aaron shakes his head, rubbing a hand over his forehead. “This year was so much fucking harder than I thought it was going to be and I just. I thought if I could have my birthday back here with everyone from North Shore that somehow, I don’t know, that it would be like going back to senior year? Everything just seemed so much easier. Like, people knew who I was here. And now I’m at ISU and I’m just fucking nobody.

“Not that like, I know it’s not an excuse. I know that. I just,” Aaron shakes his head, “I could just feel the thing between us fucking dying and it made me so mad that you just turned around and replaced me before I could even have the chance to regret it.”

“I’m not apologizing for dating someone after you dumped me,” Cady says. “Especially because you did it too. I saw the Halloween pictures.”

“Shit, no, I know, I know,” Aaron says. “If it makes you feel better that didn’t last it was just like, a rebound.”

“It doesn’t.”

He frowns. “I’m still kind of drunk, this isn’t coming out great.”

“Look, what I’m trying to say,” Aaron restarts after a moment, “Is that I know it wasn’t. It wasn’t the right thing. I was just doing what I wanted and I wanted this so fucking bad. To matter again to a whole fucking school of people. And that was stupid because all I’ve done is make myself look like a jackass and remind myself that I’m not in high school anymore.”

“That sounds like it sucks,” Cady says measuredly.

“I’m so sorry,” Aaron says sincerely. “For all of it.” And Cady can tell he really truly means it.

“Thank you for apologizing,” Cady says. “But have you ever considered, like…Getting out of this cycle of behaving badly and then apologizing for it. And just, being nicer? In the first place? Like I know you mean it when you tell me you’re sorry, but it doesn’t seem to really change your behaviour very much.”

Aaron’s eyebrows bunch up in annoyance, and for a second Cady thinks he’s going to spiral into a whole other thing, but then the tension releases and he flops a hand. “Yeah, probably I should. I’m sorry for,” he waves vaguely, “All of it. Can we still be friends?”

Cady presses her lips together. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. We’re not good at it.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Aaron says.

“Happy birthday,” Cady says patting him once on the shoulder. “And take it from the girl who’s seen everything. It’ll all make sense one day.”

Aaron huffs a laugh and gives her a little grin, and for a half-second Cady could be in love with him.

“Cady?” Kevin says from the doorway. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Cady says, turning away from Aaron. “I’m okay.”

Since Janis left, and isn’t responding to her texts, Cady takes up Tyler’s offer for her to crash at his place. “I’d let you stay at mine but I’m pretty sure my folks would probably put tape on our doors or something,” Kevin says apologetically as they gather up plastic cups into a trash bag. The party has mostly thinned out at this point, a few groups of people clinging to the edges even as they clean.

“Tape the doors?”

“When we went to New York for our eighth grade trip they taped us into our rooms,” Kevin explains. “So then if you leave your room at night the tape breaks and they could tell. It was stupid.”

“What’d they think you’d get up to?”

“Oh probably just spin the bottle or some dumb shit like that,” Kevin says.

Cady tries to imagine Kevin at that age, probably just as eager and bright and funny. Maybe a bit too try-hard but sweet and charming all the same. It’s hard to imagine sometimes, these collective childhoods everyone around her has. Being alone wasn’t the same thing as being lonely, but Cady wonders what her life would be like if she’d always been a background player in the lives of the people she knows now. Though if Cady had grown up in Chicago, she supposes she’d be an entirely different person, and maybe everyone in her life now would feel entirely different about her. Maybe Kevin would feel entirely different about her.

She glances over at the curve of Kevin’s spine as he bends over to pick something up. It’s weird to think this time last year Cady barely knew who he was, and now even the thought of them not being friends opens a terrible mawing hole in the pit of her stomach.

“You good?” Kevin says suddenly, snapping Cady out of her meerkat tunnel maze of what-ifs.

“Yeah, no, sorry, just tired,” Cady says, trying and failing to push her hair out of her face from where its fallen out of the clips she’d pulled it back with. There’s some weird unidentifiable liquids on her hands from picking up the cups, so she doesn’t exactly want to touch her hair directly.

“Here,” Kevin says, setting down his bag of trash and coming over, “I got it.”

There’s something so gentle about the way he moves into her personal space, reaching down to tuck her hair behind her ear. Cady feels hot and cold all over, like she’s just sprayed herself down with that natural bug spray they used to use in Kenya.

“I meant to tell you earlier,” Kevin says, not quite meeting her eye as his hand hovers right beside her ear, “You look really— just. Perfect. You’re perfect.”

Cady’s breath catches in her throat like a fish on a hook and she’s overcome with the urge to lean up and close the distance between them. Which is ridiculous. Aaron’s gone already and it’s not like there’s anyone else to see it. No one to sell the story on. But still, Cady wants the press of Kevin’s mouth on hers like a phantom limb and her eyes flicker to his lips completely unsubtly, and when she looks back up she knows that he saw.

“Cady— ” Kevin starts, wide-eyed as she leans up towards him, but Cady never finds out what the rest is because Regina comes banging into the entryway and Kevin practically leaps back from her.

“Oh my god,” Regina says, “We have people for that, go home.”

“But— ” Cady says.

“No seriously, it’s fine,” Regina says, one hand on her hip. “C’mon, get out of my house.”

Cady and Kevin share a look and he shrugs. “I’ll go get the guys then. Meet you out front?”

“Totally,” Cady agrees with a nod. She ties off the bag she’d been throwing cups into and when she looks over Regina has her arms crossed over her chest, a smug expression on her face.

“What?” Cady asks.

Regina just raises her eyebrows and pokes her tongue into the side of her cheek.

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” Cady says.

Regina just raises her eyebrows even higher for a second before turning on her heel and walking off with no other goodbye than a fluttery wave over her right shoulder.

It’s admittedly very weird, and on a normal day Cady might devote at least a few minutes to wondering what exactly any of that was supposed to mean. But after everything that's gone down in the last few hours, Cady’s happy to abandon it without much more than a second thought as she leaves her trash bag and goes to find Kevin.

Tyler lives with his dad in a narrow modern townhouse tightly squeezed between two older brick models, and even though Cady hasn’t really had anything to drink, she feels a little bit uneasy on the floating stairs, half expecting her foot to fall through nothing at any moment.

“You get used to it,” Marwan says. “Ty can make it up these things drunk and eyes closed, it’s freaky.”

“I’m not drunk,” Tyler scoffs behind them.

“I didn’t say you were,” Marwan retorts, fumbling around for the light switch and illuminating the open concept kitchen and living room at the top of the landing. The whole thing is done in shiny metal and sharp angles and it feels so unlike Tyler, who is all bright colours and goofy jokes. It makes her a little sad to think of Tyler banging around this dull grey bachelor’s paradise all by himself, especially since his dad is a pilot and is often gone for stretches at a time. Though that’s quickly dampened by Tyler leaping onto the granite topped kitchen counter and pulling out a box of Lucky Charms from a cupboard, shoving handfuls into his mouth with gusto.

“Classy,” Marwan says. “Are you gonna help me set up the couch for Cady or are you too busy with your children’s cereal, babe?”

Tyler says something mostly unintelligible through a mouthful of cereal, but Marwan seems to get it because he sighs and says, “The only reason I’m better at it is because I had to do it a million times while you were too chicken to ask me to sleep in your bed with you.”

Cady’s not totally sure how she’s meant to sleep on the L-shaped sectional couch, but Marwan approaches the thing with practiced determination, pulling the modular pieces apart and reassembling them into something which does actually resemble a bed.

“Ta-da!” he says, “It’s actually pretty comfy too.”

“Oh well if you miss the couch baby...” Tyler teases, hopping off the counter and coming over to poke Marwan in the hip who swats at him on his way out of the room.

“I’m gonna get sheets,” Marwan calls over his shoulder, thumping up the stairs.

“He’s so domestic,” Tyler says dreamily and then turns to Cady, eyes more serious behind his glasses. “How was the Aaron stuff? Kevin was worried. Which isn’t like, that big a deal, Kevin’s always worried about you.”

“Oh, it was fine,” Cady says playing with the end of her hair. “A little weird, but, that’s to be expected.”

Tyler looks at her skeptically. “We should debrief about everything that went down at the party tonight. Do you wanna order a pizza? I want pizza. Mar, do you want pizza?”

“I’m good,” Marwan says, setting the pile of sheets on the newly formed couch bed.

“For real, it’ll be good for you to talk about it. It’s basically therapy,” Tyler says. “Look I’m gonna go change and then we’ll chat!”

Marwan catches Cady’s eye and gives her a little eye roll, but it’s so affectionate she can’t take it as anything but basically a declaration of love.

Cady makes the bed and then changes into her pyjamas in a tiny powder room with a sink that takes her a full minute to figure out how to operate so she can brush her teeth, checking her texts one handed. Kevin has sent her a sweet goodnight text, but no word back from Janis yet. Which isn’t totally surprising. Last year when she’d been the one on Janis’ shit list, Cady didn’t hear from her for a full three weeks. She’s not exactly known for being candid about her feelings.

There had been so many things to worry about during the party that it had been easy to brush off Janis and Damian’s fight as just one more thing, but now that Cady’s alone with her thoughts in Tyler Kimble’s very sleek modern bathroom the thought of it makes her stomach curdle. And the thought of ‘debriefing’ that on top of all the stuff with Aaron makes her stomach hurt so bad it’s like she was the one throwing up on the pool deck.

She knows it’s sort of cowardly, but Cady just crawls into bed, turning off most of the lights and pretending to be asleep when Tyler comes banging back down his dangerously fashionable stairs.

“Cady what are your thoughts on garlic knots?” Tyler says, and she actually hears him halt in his tracks, saying softer, “oh my god, babe she fell asleep.”

Cady keeps her breathing deep and even as one of them, Marwan probably from the sound of his footsteps, comes over and turns off the one lamp she’d left on.

“I don’t blame her, I’d be exhausted too,” Marwan says.

“I’m gonna text Kev, you know he’ll be all panicky if she didn’t text him good night and just disappeared.”

“I still can’t believe it happened, I mean it makes sense— ”

“Yeah for sure,” Tyler agrees. “It’s just, after Kevin’s never-ending pining it’s nice that it happened. Like remember after Spring Fling when he was gonna ask her out but then the Aaron stuff happened?”

“Oh yeah shit,” Marwan says. “But hey, it all worked out. And now we’re both a mathletes team and a double date waiting to happen.”

Cady’s entire body goes stiff under the blankets and she stops breathing entirely.

“Yeah funny how stuff works out sometimes,” Tyler says fondly, and even the fact that Cady doesn’t think they’re talking about her anymore doesn’t do much to calm the rising panic in her chest.

“Lets go to bed,” Marwan says gently, and Cady listens to the sound of their footsteps on the stairs climb up and up and up before finally stilling.

Kevin liked her. (Likes her?) Liked her enough that he wanted to ask her out. Cady turns over onto her back and stares up at the ceiling, and even though moments ago all she’d wanted to do was sleep, the buzzing that’s building in her head. Her heart feels like its thudding so loudly that Tyler and Marwan are going to be able to hear it three floors above her.

She should feel angry that Kevin agreed to pretend to date her if he had feelings for her. Or she should feel guilty for, well, everything. But the only emotion that really sticks out underneath the panic is a warm glow of contentment. Which is possibly the most terrifying part of all, and Cady spends a long time staring up at the ceiling before she finally nods off the sleep.

Admittedly, in the morning the whole thing feels a little less...clean cut. Tyler and Marwan tell her dumb stories about stuff they got up to when they were underclassmen while they seamlessly move around each other in the kitchen as they make breakfast. Marwan had definitely been drinking the night before even if he seemed more sober than Tyler, maybe he was mistaken in the details. The positive confirmation bias version of how everyone had wanted to tell her what an asshole Aaron was after they broke up. And besides, even if Kevin had maybe liked her, that was last May, and Cady knew better than most people how quickly the tide of infatuation could turn. Plus, Kevin was the one who agreed to go along with her whole scheme in the first place, so Cady feels like she should trust that he wouldn’t have done that if he was uncomfortable, right? Cady knows she wouldn’t have agreed if it was someone she actively had more than platonic friendly feelings for, she can’t even fathom why someone would torture themself like that.

So that was all fine. Probably.

It was more what Tyler and Marwan had said, about them being this unit of two couples. That’s what Cady really can’t shake, even as she eats her shockingly delicious pancakes and jokes with the two of them, Marwan rolling his eyes when Tyler pulls out non-maple syrup from the fridge. What the hell is going to happen between the four of them when Cady and Kevin ‘break-up’? There’s no way things can stay the same, even if Cady and Kevin insist it was totally amicable. The thought of Marwan and Tyler talking about her like Janis and Damian talked about Aaron after the breakup is enough to make her lose her appetite. And even if they’re not actively hostile it feels like it can’t possibly go back to the way it was. Even Ms. Norbury had joked about them not breaking up for the sake of the team.

Still, whether for better or worse, Cady doesn’t really have much time to dwell on it. The next two days are filled with moving back into their structurally re-sound house, and between fielding Damian’s constantly stream of texts and Janis’ radio silence, she has precious little mental space for anything fake-relationship related. Especially since, of all the people in her life right now, Kevin’s the most blessedly normal, sending her a few memes over the weekend and gloating when he finally manages to beat her at Words with Friends.

So maybe it’s totally cowardly of her, but Cady doesn’t bring up anything Marwan said when she slips in beside Kevin in chemistry on Monday morning.

“Hey,” Kevin says, “so I was thinking, I should probably like, brief you more about my family stuff but that’s kind of boring so maybe we could do something fun and make a date out of it? Like I could just make you flashcards or a very detailed powerpoint presentation but where’s the joy in that?”

“You make great powerpoints!”

“Oh sugar, you don’t gotta tell me, I know,” Kevin says. “Buuuut, I thought it would be more fun this way.”

“Sure, okay,” Cady says, pulling her binder out of her backpack. “What were you thinking?”

“Have you ever gone glo-in-the-dark mini golfing?”

“I’ve never gone mini-golfing.”

“What!? Okay we’re definitely doing that then! Fuck, Cady’s first mini-golf. We’ve gotta like, commemorate!”

“Wait what’s happening?” Marwan asks, sliding over on a rolling stool, safety goggles already placed over his eyes. “Are we going mini-golfing?”

Kevin turns to glare at Marwan. “It’s a date, bro.”

Marwan raises his hands in sarcastic surrender. “Touchy.”

“What’s a better night for you?” Kevin continues. “Tuesday or Wednesday?”

“Tuesday’s good, we won’t have practice right?” Cady says, and satisfaction sparks in her stomach like flint on steel as Kevin pulls out his planner with a flourish writing, Mini Golf w/ Bae <3 in swoopy orange pen.

“You have such good penmanship,” Cady says, resting her chin on her hand. “I bet that helps with fonts.”

“I got so into calligraphy in like, ninth grade,” Kevins says with a shrug, flipping his planner shut. “I had all these dreams of grandeur about like, writing valentines to girls I liked that would be so beautiful they’d all fall head over heels for me.”

“Did it work?”

“Fuck no. But I did learn that you can sell that shit to their dumb boyfriends for like $15 a pop so I made bank.”

“Awww well I’ll appreciate it extra then.”

“What?” Kevin says, nose crinkling.

“You know for Valenti— ” Cady starts and then realizes abruptly, like missing the step on Tyler’s floating stairs. They’ll be broken up by Valentine’s Day. They’ll be broken up months before that. “Nevermind. Sorry I. I wasn’t thinking, ignore me.”

Kevin chews his lip but doesn’t say anything else, the bell ringing and effectively shutting down the conversation better than Cady ever could.

Lunch is even worse, their regular lunch group splintered and spread across two different tables. Damian’s sitting with Jason and his jock friends, Cady with Kevin, Tyler, and Marwan, Janis notably missing, as is Gretchen for that matter. She’s still pretty fuzzy on what exactly went down, Tyler and Marwan both uncharacteristically tight-lipped about it, though both of them encourage her to reach out to Gretchen.

Cady’s debating if its worth it to try and track her down in the last twenty minutes of lunch, staring off absentmindedly as she scrapes stuff off her plate into the food waste trash can. Which is probably why Jason Wright manages to sneak up on her, Cady jumping and almost dropping her fork when he taps her on the shoulder.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jason says, wincing. “I called you, I guess you didn’t hear me.”

“I was just, um, yeah thinking. Sorry,” Cady dumps her plate and cutlery into the dish bin. “What’s up.”

Jason wipes his hands on his jeans. “Uh, so this might be a stupid question, but, how bad is this fight betwen Janis and Damian?”

“What do you mean?”

Jason tosses his head back and forth for a moment, clearly searching for the right words, “So, obviously we haven’t been dating very long but I know Damian has a tendency towards the dramatic. Is this like, something they do where they’ll have a big dramatic fight but it’s not actually that big a deal? Or should I be worried?”

“I mean,” Cady tries, “I’m not them. But I’ve never actually seen them stop talking over a fight before.”

“Cool,” Jason says in a way that makes it clear this is definitely not cool. “I’ll just. I’ll figure it out. Thanks Cady. I’m just totally new to this.”

“Yeah, you just started dating, it’s okay to not know the perfect answers to everything,” Cady says.

“Yeah, that and I’ve never actually. Um. Dated anyone before. So it’s like, does he need tough love or does he just wanna talk about it? I have no idea I’m like, brand new to all of this.”

“Oh,” Cady says, trying and failing to sound unsurprised.

“Is that weird?”

“No, I just. I wouldn’t have expected that,” Cady admits.

“That’s kind of flattering,” Jason says conspiratorially, pushing his hair off his forehead dramatically.

“You’re welcome,” Cady says, trying in vain to extract her foot from her mouth.

“Oh also,” Jason says. “Have you talked to Gretchen?”

“Not yet, no,” Cady says, sensing a pattern. “Why?”

“It’s more her business to tell you,” Jason says, vaguely. “But hey I’ll see you in trig later.”

“Yeah, sure,” Cady says, accepting that clearly no one who actually knows what happened is going to clarify what exactly she’s supposed to be talking to Gretchen about in the first place. She sighs, turning on her heel and stalking off towards the arts classrooms in the hopes of finding Janis, who still isn’t responding to any of her texts.

Janis is angry painting, which isn’t a good sign persay, but it’s also not a bad sign. Much better for Janis to be taking it out on a canvas than a person at least. Still, Cady keeps her distance for a good few minutes as Janis practically throws paint onto the canvas, drips of bright red and harsh white.

“Are you just gonna stand there?” Janis says finally, turning away from her canvas as she goes to run her brushes under the tap.

“You looked like you were really into it, I didn’t want to interrupt,” Cady says measuredly, and watches Janis methodically scrub first her brushes and then her hands for a long few minutes.

“Hey Caddy you got any snacks?” Janis says finally, turning off the facet.

“Um,” Cady says, slinging her bag off her shoulder and rummaging around the front pockets. “I’ve got a Kalteen bar? It’s a bit smushed.”

“Gimme,” Janis says, accepting it and chewing thoughtfully for a moment. “Honestly these aren’t half bad.”

There’s a long extended silence, Janis eating and staring at her own painting thoughtfully while Cady hovers and attempts not to feel awkward.

“I don’t wanna talk about the fight,” Janis says around a mouthful of Kalteen bar.

“Okay,” Cady nods, perching herself against one of the counters that line the perimeter of the art room.

Janis looks at her skeptically, eyes narrowed, “And I’m not going to fall for any reverse psychology nonsense so don’t try the whole ‘I don’t even want to talk about it’ thing.”

“Alright.”

“God don’t be so accommodating, its annoying.”

“Are you trying to pick a fight with me? What is going on here?” Cady says finally.

Janis sighs, “Sorry. It’s not you. I’m just so,” she clenches her fists and makes a guttural non-verbal sound. “My parents are pulling me out of school tomorrow.”

“Oh my god!? What!?” Cady says alarmed.

“For the day, Cady, chill.”

“Oh. Duh.”

Janis pulls her hair out of the messy ponytail she’d pulled it up into. “We’re flying to Colorado tomorrow night and they want me to go for an emergency therapy session before then.”

“Well that’ll be...good? Right?”

“Maybe,” Janis says, leaning her head against Cady’s shoulder. “I hate fighting with him. I fucking hate it. But it’s not like I did it for the good of my health. Especially because like, he’s the person I talk to when I’m mad at like, my mom or dumb school people or whatever. So what am I supposed to do when I’m mad at him?”

Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Janis scoffs. “Maybe. Ugh, did you talk to Gretchen?”

“Oh my god did she give out some sort of nuclear launch code!?” Cady snaps. “Why can’t someone just tell me what she said?”

“It’s just private,” Janis says seriously. “Are you going to talk to her?”

“I will, she’s just busy with Snowflake Soiree stuff right now. I’ll probably see if she wants to hang out during break. Speaking of…” Cady says nudging Janis. “Did you wanna hang out? We could finally watch the last Twilight movie.”

“It’s actually two movies, they split it in half.”

“Why!?” Cady exclaims which makes Janis laugh.

“Hey, it was your suggestion. No take backs.”

“Ugh fine, when are you back from Colorado?”

“Not til really late Saturday.”

“Oh thank god,” Cady says. “I don’t think I could do Kevin’s family Thanksgiving and then turn around and watch four hours of anything.”

“That’s kind of a big deal,” Janis says pulling her head off Cady’s shoulder and standing, “First big family event.”

“Oh god, seriously?” Cady winces. She’d been so focused on Aaron’s party that she’d barely given a second thought to Thanksgiving.

“Chillax, they’ll love you,” Janis gives her a reassuring squeeze. “Just don’t bring up politics and you should be fine.”

“Thanks,” Cady says.

“Hey don’t thank me yet, I’m still going to make you watch Breaking Dawn Parts I and II.”

Kevin is freakishly good at mini-golf. Or possibly Cady’s just really terrible at mini-golf, but either way they stop keeping score pretty early on. Though Kevin’s enthusiasm when she does manage to sink the ball into the hole (albeit usually five or six tries after he’s gotten it) makes up for a lot of the sting.

“Plus,” Kevin points out, white shirt glowing under the blacklights, “you’re practically a prodigy at laser tag, and you’re like, a super hot mathematical genius in your day-to-day life so if you were a natural at mini-golf too that’d just be grossly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals.”

“Ha-ha,” Cady deadpans, trying and failing for the fourth time to putt her ball into the hole. She can see out of the corner of her eye that there’s a family waiting for her to finish so they can go. “Look, I’m a lost cause, we can just go.”

“Hey, hey, no,” Kevin says. “They can wait. Here, c’mon, I’ll help you. You’re just getting too in your head about it.” He sets down his own club, coming up around Cady and pressing himself up close to her back like he had at the party, arms crossing over her body. He adjusts her grip on the club slightly and presses his hands over hers.

“Now here,” Kevin says. “Focus on the hole, gauge the distance and we’re just going to give it a good tap.”

Cady pulls back from the ball, and lets Kevin guide her swing, giving the ball just enough of a tap to sink it into the hole. “Atta girl Africa!” Kevin exclaims, a little too loudly right by her ear, but the hug he wraps her in from behind is worth it, twisting his body over her shoulder so he can catch her eye and grin at her.

For a half-second Cady really thinks he might kiss her. Not on the mouth, but maybe on the cheek or the forehead. But then the mom in the group behind them clears her throat loudly and Kevin slips away from her, grabbing his club back from where he’d set it down and ushering Cady to the next hole.

Cady does feel like she’s doing better at putting after that, even if she’s still way behind Kevin. Not that you’d be able to tell from the way he cheers her on. Still, the totally irrational urge wells up in her to pretend like she needs more help. To get him to come wrap himself around her again, his big broad hands entirely covering hers and he shows her what to do. But Cady knows too well from all that went down with Aaron that pretending to be bad at something just to let a guy feel like he can teach you is short-term gain for long-term ruin.

Plus, Kevin seems so excited as she does better and better as they make their way through the various glowing obstacles that she’s not even sure that would really work on him. Especially given the way he cheers and pulls her into a hug that lifts her off the ground when she manages to get a hole-in-one on the second to last hole.

Not that she’d try to do the same thing with Kevin that she did with Aaron. Obviously. It’s totally different. Absolutely.

She doesn’t like Kevin. Well okay, obviously she likes Kevin, but she doesn’t like him the way she likes Aaron. Or the way she used to like Aaron. Or Thimba or that guy from the Peace Corps. She’s always burned bright in her crushes, like an emergency flare, sparking hot and fast and sometimes dying out just as quickly. Kevin’s never made her feel that way, if anything he makes her feel exactly the opposite. He makes her feel so calm.

Which is very nice but is not the same as liking him, obviously.

And yes okay, she can acknowledge that objectively he’s good-looking and that it’s nice to have someone show her physical affection without that specifically meaning something. Especially if there’s any truth to what Marwan said about him having a crush on her last year, she shouldn’t be doing anything that might be leading him on

“Hello, earth to Cady Heron? Heron please respond.”

“What?” Cady says, head jerking up from where she’d been absentmindedly playing with the lion plush that was still attached to her key ring, lost in thought. “Sorry, can you say that again?”

“I said did you wanna get something to eat or do you need to go home?”

“We can get food,” Cady agrees. “You pick?”

“I always pick.”

“You know all the best places!” Cady protests.

Kevin shakes his head at her, but he’s grinning, “Alright, alright, I’ll pick.”

They end up at a Japanese restaurant, Kevin helping her navigate through the immense menu before finally pulling out a pen and drawing a family tree for her on the back of a napkin while they wait for their orders of maki rolls and half a dozen other things Keivn had insisted were ‘so delicious.’

“Okay, so,” Kevin says. “The big thing you need to realize is that my dad and his brother are sort of in this weird silent unspoken rivalry.”

“Oh-kay.”

“Yeah they’re both like, very stubborn about like— okay so me and Neil and Lea all have more like, westernized names right? Like you’ve been to my house my parents are very much like, baseball and Hollywood and apple pie. We’re American and we do American things, we eat American things, we can respect our heritage while still like, acknowledging that culturally we grew up here.”

“Sure, that makes sense,” Cady says.

“So basically my uncle hates that my parents do that, he thinks it’s like, assimilation and shame. Which like, I get kind of. I do think maybe my parents went a little overboard with their whole We Are American First stance, cause you know, obvs that’s kind of a racially tumultuous thing. But also, me going by Karnapriya didn’t magically connect me to my heritage and me being named Kevin didn’t magically make me white.” His voice raises a little at the end and Cady can tell this is about more than just his family drama as he scrubs a hand over his face. “Sorry, anyway, all this to say that it will be a very silent tug of war about this and I can promise dinner will be a super delicious but very weird mix of traditional American Thanksgiving stuff and traditional Indian food. Also my dad and his brother will passive aggressively argue about watching football or cricket for most of the day. But it should be a pretty fun time other than that.”

Can we go over names again?” Cady asks, poking through a basket of some kind of fried dumpling with her chopsticks. She’s not very good with them, but there hadn’t been forks provided and she had felt awkward asking for one.

“Okay, so me obviously. My mom, Diya, and my dad Arnav. You should call them both by their first names but call my dad Dr. Gnapoor when you first meet him and let him insist that you can call him Arnav cause it’ll make him feel like he’s really chill. And then Neil, who you met, Lea and her boyfriend Roshan, he seems chill, I don’t know him that well. And then my Uncle Jaideep and my Aunt Garima and their kids.

“So Sahana probably won’t be there because she just got engaged and I think they’re visiting his family or something. Priyasha is the same age as Lea and Neil, she’s super great and very chill, it’s my cousin Krish who’s probably gonna stir up some shit. Oh. Also, um. Someone might make a comment about you being white.”

“Oh?”

Kevin rubs his hands along his jeans. “They did a little bit when Lea was dating this guy, Chatham in high school. But like after the first time Pri brought her girlfriend, I think everyone kind of was like, ‘maybe commenting on that kind of thing is super rude.’Oh also, the Kenya thing will probably help a little.”

“Great,” Cady says, the maki rolls she’d been attempting to pick up sad and forgotten on the tray.

“Hey, don’t worry,” Kevin says. “You’re so awesome and if they can’t see that like, that ain’t on you. Besides, you’re not gonna see most of them again so no sweat.”

“Okay, but that means I have one shot to not look totally stupid,” Cady points out.

“You could never look stupid,” Kevin insists. Which is a very sweet thought that Cady almost immediately disproves by putting way too much wasabi onto the maki roll she pops into her mouth and Kevin has to rush off to find a waiter to bring her milk.

(“If it makes you feel any better that’s not real wasabi, it’s just green horseradish, real wasabi is way spicier.”

“Shockingly that doesn’t actually make me feel better.”

“At least your sinuses are super clear?”

“Okay, I’ll take that I guess.”)

“Okay if this is supposed to soften beard hair do you think it’d soften like...you know?” Damian says, looking at the back of a pot of some kind of face wash.

“I don’t know, what?” Cady says. She’d agreed to let Damian drag her out shopping to quote ‘pick up a few things’ after school, but so far all they’d done was wander around a Homegoods before he insisted they needed to go to Lush

“You know….” Damian says trailing off. “Like the other beard.”

“Like...the gay beard?”

“Cady no,” Damian says huffily, setting the pot down. “Your lady beard. Pubes.”

“Oh. Gross. Don’t say pubes.”

“I didn’t want to but you forced my hand!” Damian insists, moving on to the bathbombs where he holds up an eggplant emoji shaped one towards her as if to prove his point that this discussion was somehow entirely warranted.

“You’re gonna get us kicked out, oh my god,” Cady says, shoving him lightly in the arm.

Damian looks over his shoulder at the lone employee, a tall dude with his hair pulled back into a bun, who is very patiently running some moms in yoga gear through the shampoos. “You know that’s Jackson Wayne’s boyfriend right? That’d be so against boyfriend’s-friend’s-boyfriend code. That’s like if Tyler kicked you out of— where does Tyler work? Like Best Buy or something?”

“Or something,” Cady says, distractedly working her way through sniffing the line-up of body wash testers. She’s never really gotten the point of body wash, but when you’re using a camp shower with two minutes of hot water your priorities are a little different than the average American’s. She reaches for the last bottle in the line-up, jolting a little as the smell hits her, the subconscious part of her brain zinging a high alert of Kevin! Before her conscious mind can fully catch up.

“You okay there?”

“Yeah, um, sorry,” Cady says, shaking her head at herself. “Kevin must use this. It smells exactly like him and it just. I was surprised.”

Damian honest-to-god coos at her. “You are too fucking cute oh my god. It smells like him.”

“Hrghh, shut up,” Cady says, shoving the body wash back into its space as Damian continues to laugh at her. “What does your boyfriend smell like.”

Frankincense,” Damian says dreamily, “it’s divine.”

“Right,” Cady says skeptically. “Did you actually need to buy something?”

“Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” Damian says. “I’m browsing.”

Cady sighs but dutifully follows him around Lush before they switch gears and wander aimlessly through a whole host of clothing stores.

“Okay what are you actually looking for?” Cady says, getting more than a little impatient as Damian paws through yet another rack of clothes.

“Well you never know!” he says. “Besides, don’t you need something nice to wear to Kevin’s for Thanksgiving?”

“Gretchen’s helping me put something together. I’m going over to her place tomorrow— yes I’ll ask her about the party oh my god,” Cady says when Damian’s head snaps up at the mention of Gretchen’s name.

“I mean okay,” Damian says, hangers squeaking on the rack as he moves through things. “But what if what you have isn’t the right thing and they can all tell you’re trying way too hard and they think you’re this try-hard weirdo they don’t want anywhere near their son.”

“We’re not talking about me anymore, are we?”

Damian sighs. “We thought Thanksgiving would be too much pressure to do at this point, like, we’re not even a month in, but he still wants me to like, come over this weekend and meet his parents.”

“Isn’t that like, a good sign it’s going well though? That he wants you to meet his family?”

“I guess,” Damian says with a sigh. “It’s just, I don’t know. Jason is so like, sporty and preppy and not your textbook gay guy, and I’m not exactly Mr. Masc4Masc. Like I know, I know, if we want to be loved we have to submit ourselves to the motifying ordeal of being known, but my god at what cost? Oh plus, Jason’s stepbrothers are both in middle school and middle schoolers are terrifying.”

“Damian, your brother is in middle school.”

“Exactly! So I know how truly diabolical they are!”

Cady snorts and rubs his back sympathetically. Damian being hyperbolic is honestly probably a good sign. As is the fact that she manages to corral him out of the mall pretty easily after that, though he does insist on swinging by the Godiva store and picking up a fancily wrapped box of truffles. Whether these are for Jason’s parents or for himself is not entirely clear.

“Hey, what did you and Kevin do for your one month anniversary?” Damian asks as he’s unlocking his car.

“Um, nothing?” Cady says. “Oh, well actually, he made me a Spotify playlist, but I think that was more just good timing than anything. But I’m sure Jason would love anything you did for him.”

“God, you are no help!” Damian exclaims melodramatically, throwing his hand out the window. “I don’t need your sweet reassurances, this whole angel and devil on the shoulder thing doesn’t work that well if I don’t— ” He stops abruptly. “Nevermind, you’re right, it’ll be fine.”

“It’s okay to want to talk to Janis, she’s your best friend. I get it.”

“I know, but you’re my friend too. I don’t want you to think I don’t care about what you have to say.”

“I wouldn’t think that, Damian, honestly.”

“Good. That’s good. I’m glad,” Damian says. “And at this point I can pretty much recreate all of Janis’ arguments against just about anything via a combination of excellent memory and improv skills.”

“Still, you should talk to her when she gets back.”

“Yes, Caderine,” Damian says dutifully. “And I will. Eventually.”

Cady hums in agreement, not wanting to push it any further. Janis and Damian both think they’re so tough but they start like gazelles if you come at them too quickly.

“Here, let's listen to those musical stylings of your mister,” Damian says, handing Cady his aux cord so she can pull up the playlist Kevin made her (music blarin’ for cady heron <3), which is an almost aggressively eclectic mix of 90s and 00s rap songs, more recent folk-indie stuff, a lot of music from teen movies and a whole gaggle of songs that she’d admitted to not knowing in front of him.

“Cady,” Damian says seriously as Lovefool blares from her speakers.

“Yeah?”

Damian takes a long, deep breath. “I’m really sorry for telling you that you shouldn’t join the mathletes last year.”

Cady blinks in surprise, completely caught off guard. “Um, okay?”

“I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about last year and you know, the part I played in all of it. And I just can’t stop thinking about when we were like showing you around in the cafeteria and I was making all these snide — if perhaps partially accurate — comments and we got to that table and you lit up like the Rockerfeller Christmas tree and I just. That was wrong and it was selfish and I mean, you’re fucking dating Kevin so it was definitely short-sighted. I wish we hadn’t— I hadn’t— done that. But I did, and I’m so sorry. Especially the stuff with Regina.”

“I wanted to do it, I wanted to ruin her life to get back at her for stealing Aaron. I wasn’t exactly a helpless bystander.”

“No, but you were new and didn’t know anyone. I feel like if I was in your position, though not your shoes because birkenstocks don’t really make sense as a part of all of this, but if my new friends who were basically the first teenagers I’d ever hung out with had said jump you can bet I would have jumped!”

Damian shakes his head. “Anyways, it’s easy to say, like, ‘well we all did bad stuff’ because we did, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it and I wanted to actually say what I did and apologize to you for it. And I hope you can forgive me Cady.”

“Of course,” Cady says. “Of course I forgive you, Damian. Obviously.”

“Good,” Damian says, reaching over and squeezing her hand. “Also forgive me for changing this, I’m sure you love him, but homeboy put together a very erratic playlist and Baby Got Back is not exactly the tone I’m desiring in this beautiful post-conflict resolution moment between friends.”

Despite spending a majority of her time with Gretchen last year, Cady has never actually been inside her house, which is larger than Regina’s but much more understated. Her dad makes her drive over because he’s become increasingly invested in Cady trying to get her license before she starts college. And while it’s a pretty easy drive, Cady is especially aware of the fact that all the cars here are both expensive and owned by the kind of people who would probably sue her into the next century if she so much as dinged any of them.

It’s not that Cady doesn’t know how to drive, but there’s a real difference between driving in the suburbs of Chicago and navigating a Jeep that’s old enough to buy a drink across the savannah, where the only real things she has to watch out for are trees and while the cats she was interacting with were a lot more dangerous, she wasn’t likely to run any of them over by mistake.

She also never had to parallel park, a horrific exercise in raising her blood pressure which her dad forces her through even though Gretchen has a perfectly good driveway for her to pull into.

“We don’t learn by taking the easy way out, binti,” her dad says. “Now line yourself up with this car’s front door and we’ll go from there.”

Cady can feel her palms actively getting sweatier against the steering wheel as she tries to get her wheels in line so she can back into the space.

“Okay, easy, easy. Whoa okay, Cady,” her dad says. “Alright, here, you see that place right there on the sidewalk right at the bumper of the second car?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s pretend someone you really care about is standing there.”

“Alright,” Cady says, her mind immediately cutting out the mental image of Kevin in his letterman jacket and pasting him onto the edge of the sidewalk.

“I will assume, of course, that you have selected me— no don’t correct me, I want to live in ignorant bliss,” her dad jokes. “Okay, now as you ease in, remember not to hit the person standing there.”

“Or the other cars,” Cady says, craning over her shoulder.

“Yes, don’t hit those either.”

It probably only takes about three minutes for her to get into the spot without being like four feet from the curb, but it feels like ages as she backs in, straightens out, isn’t close enough, backs out, and repeats at least four times. Her dad is so cheerfully enthusiastic and somehow that makes the whole thing even more stressful, how much he believes in her the entire time. But she doesn’t hit either imaginary Kevin or the two cars she’s parked between, so she’ll count it as a win.

“Have a good time, honey,” he says, giving her a little kiss on the forehead as they switch sides around the front of the car.

Gretchen’s mom answers the door, a stunningly gorgeous woman with the same affinity for big hair and the soft remnants of a southern accent. Cady vaguely remembers Gretchen mentioning that her mom was the first Asian-American Miss Virginia. Or was it West Virginia? Cady really should brush up on her US geography, at some point, the entire country a confusing void outside of Illinois and the recognizable states like Texas and Florida. She’s still not entirely sure why the Midwest is so far East, or what exactly is the difference between the South and the Deep South.

Not that she’s about to bug Gretchen’s mom for answers on this, especially since she’s talking a mile a minute about how busy she is prepping for Thanksgiving as she leads Cady up to Gretchen’s room, which looks like a storm of craft supplies has just blown through, Gretchen sitting in the middle of the chaos.

“Somebody’s been busy!” Gretchen’s mom exclaims.

“Oh jeez, sorry Cady,” Gretchen says standing, little cut outs of snowflakes sticking to her. “I totally lost track of time. Thanks Mama.”

“Aww, my pleasure sugar,” Mrs. Weiner’s says. “Now I gotta get back to it, you girls have fun. Oh and Gretchen, leave the door open.”

“Mama!” Gretchen squawks in protest, but doesn’t move to shut the door.

“So Snowflake Soiree planning is, uh, going well?” Cady says, nudging a roll of some

kind of shiny wrapping paper out of the way so she can sit on the yoga ball that Gretchen has in front of her little vanity. The duffel bag that she’d brought her clothes in is a heavy canvas thing she’d lugged all over Eastern Africa and even though at this point it seems like the dirt is molecularly bonded to the fabric, she feels a bit guilty for setting it down on Gretchen’s pristine white carpet.

“I’m kind of losing my mind,” Gretchen says. “But, well at least I got the venue all figured out so that’s one major thing down and just a billion small things to go.”

“It’s gonna be amazing,” Cady says reaching for Gretchen’s hand and giving it a little squeeze. “You plan great parties.”

For a half second Cady thinks she might honest-to-god burst into tears, but she seems to reign it in, jumping to her feet and starting to pile the various craft supplies into her arms.

“Anyways I’m just trying to focus on the posters right now, but it is so hard to find a font that says winter wonderland without being tacky. Like this isn’t my eighth grade skating birthday, it needs to be classy!”

“You know Kevin makes fonts,” Cady says, pulling her hair over her shoulder. “Maybe he could help you make one for the posters? He made this font for me and it’s really nice.” She digs into her wallet until she finds one of the cards he’d made for her.

“Oh this is gorgeous,” Gretchen says, practically gasping. “Oh wow, I’ll definitely ask him about it. But enough about all this, let’s talk family first impression outfits.”

Cady had been kind of hoping that they could maybe talk about what happened at the party first, but Gretchen seems pretty determined to bust into what she brought, laying everything out on her bed (though Cady’s duffel stays on the floor).

“So, meeting Kevin’s family, that’s pretty big,” Gretchen says. “You nervous?”

“I wasn’t really that nervous and then everyone kept asking me if I was nervous, which made me worried that I should be nervous,” Cady admits, tucking her arms around her chest.

“Awww Cady,” Gretchen says, dropping the blouse she’s holding and coming over to give her a hug. “They’ll love you. Especially if you’re wearing the perfect ensemble,” she gushes, popping up her foot for emphasis and using the French pronunciation.

Cady steps into Gretchen’s walk-in closet to change, which is so big that it might as well be a second room, as she pulls on the first outfit, a powder blue sweater dress that her aunt had bought her for Christmas. Cady adjusts her hair in the mirror, her eyes catching on the collage of photos and trinkets Gretchen has taped up. There’s a large wooden heart that has Fetchest Betch Award burned into it right beside another photo of Gretchen and her camp friends, a trio of dudes in matching shirts holding canoe paddles.

Gretchen didn’t talk about camp that much, but not really for lack of trying. She hadn't usually been able to get out more than a ‘this one time at camp’ or ‘me and my camp friends’ before Regina was silencing her with a withering stare. It’s weird to consider that Gretchen has a whole entire seasonal social group that Cady’s never met, and it’s even weirder to consider that Gretchen voluntarily spends her summers in the great outdoors away from the comforts of hair dryers and Anthropologie.

“So pretty!” Gretchen exclaims when Cady re-emerges from her closet. “It is a little winter-y though, I will say, for Thanksgiving.”

“Is that bad?” Cady asks, giving a self conscious little half turn.

“No, no, it’s just something to consider,” Gretchen says. “This is a very solid contender.”

Gretchen immediately vetoes her second outfit but gushes over the third, a light purple blouse patterned with what Cady thinks are supposed to be ferns and a pair of grey jeans, nice ones that she’d worn to the mathletics round robin.

“Oh this one, this one absolutely,” Gretchen says, “Hold on I have the perfect…” She trails off vaguely, practically bouncing as she walks into her closet, Cady left alone to look at herself in the mirror.

She looks like herself, she realizes abruptly. Which is maybe a stupid realization to have, but after sixteen years of wearing things for practicality only and then another twelve months of trying to look like someone else, it’s nice to see only herself when she looks in the mirror.

“Hey Gretch?” Cady calls.

“Mhmm!?”

“Um, we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to but um. Did something happen at Aaron’s birthday? Everyone keeps telling me I should talk to you.”

Gretchen appears in the threshold, eyes wide, and for a horrible second Cady thinks she’s done something terrible. “We don’t have to!” Cady backtracks quickly. “We don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to.”

“No it’s okay, it’s okay,” Gretchen says, still a little wide-eyed, shoving a pair of gold leaf-shaped earrings into her hands. “I just um, give me a second.”

“Okay,” Cady says, fidgeting with the earrings as Gretchen goes over and sits on the edge of her bed, her hands tucked up under her legs like a little kid. She counts to sixty in her head, slowly, but even after that Gretchen doesn’t seem ready. Cady tries to seem disinterested, going back over to the mirror and putting the earrings she gave her on, which do look nice with the rest of her outfit.

“I think I’m a lesbian,” Gretchen says suddenly, and Cady fumbles, dropping the back of the earring as she whirls around.

“Or, no, I like, I know I’m a lesbian. I wasn’t sure for a while but yeah, I totally am,” Gretchen continues in one long verbal spill, and Cady realizes suddenly that her just standing there gobsmacked is probably a less-than-ideal reaction to Gretchen telling her she’s gay.

“Gretchen, that’s great, oh my god,” Cady says. “That’s. That’s so awesome.” She joins her on the edge of the bed, giving her an affectionate pat on the knee. She’s trying to look less blatantly shocked, and while she definitely had never thought about Gretchen being anything but totally heterosexual, it does at least kind of make sense the more she thinks about it.

“Wait, so is that. Is that what happened at Aaron’s party or is that totally unrelated?”

Gretchen shrugs. “I sort of told Janis and Damian, and his boyfriend, and your math friends. Not in so many words or anything. But I did, and then Janis got kind of upset.”

“Why’d she get upset?” Cady frowns. She’s not exactly an expert on this sort of thing but it seems weird that finding out that someone was a lesbian would send Janis into a rage, even if she and Gretchen aren’t exactly best friends.

“I don’t know, or I’m. I’m not sure. She left right after when I said— well, when I said that I wasn’t. That I didn’t. And then suddenly she was fighting with Damian.”

“Did she think maybe, I mean you don’t— do you like Janis?”

Gretchen gives her an incredulous stare. “No!”

“Okay, just asking. Damian’s told me she’s been weird with people liking her in the past. So I just thought, maybe?”

“Oh like with Sonja Acquino,” Gretchen says knowingly, her archives of gossip clearly having stuck with her despite her recent commitment to not talking about people behind their backs.

“So, is there, you know, someone special?” Cady tries gently. “Someone that you like?”

“Um, kind of,” Gretchen says, and then her voice suddenly breaks, her fingers clutched tightly into the sheets of her bed and Cady remembers suddenly what Gretchen had said to her at Jason’s Halloween party, that sometimes you fell for people who weren’t good for you.

“Is it, is it Regina?” Cady tries gently, and the fact that Gretchen immediately bursts into tears is enough confirmation for her.

“Oh, sweetie,” Cady says wrapping an arm around Gretchen while she hiccups out a few sobs and then seems to get annoyed with herself, wiping her face.

“I’m fine, it’s fine. It’s just a lot.”

“I’m really happy for you,” Cady tries gently.

“Thanks,” Gretchen says with a snort, wiping her face.

“I mean not about, you know, that, but for figuring yourself out. Like that’s exciting right?”

“I guess. I’ve known for. Awhile. And my parents know, and some of my camp friends, they knew first actually, but I wasn’t really ready to tell anyone at school. I know how fast stuff travels. And I didn’t know if I was ready for her to know.” Gretchen says, her posture a little less stiff but her hands still clenched in the sheets. “But then I just. I was tired of just lying by omission all the time. Like, not telling people wasn’t going to magically make me like boys.” “I’m really. I’m glad you told me. I’m glad you trusted me to tell me,” Cady says, and Gretchen tips her head onto her shoulder.

“Me too,” she says with a sniffle and suddenly there’s a mrph!? and the jingle of a bell as Gretchen’s cat jumps onto the bed and bumps his head against her knee.

“Aww she wants to make sure you’re okay.”

“Thanks Ravioli,” Gretchen says, scooping the black and white cat into her arms and swaddling him like a baby. Ravioli purrs in response, rubbing his head against Gretchen’s chest happily, “I’m okay, I promise.”

Kevin had only texted Cady twice the entire time that she’d been at Gretchen’s house. The first text read; Fam should be here soon pray for me 🙏. The second read; omg im gonna murder krish im counting the minutes til ur here. So that wasn’t exactly helping to soothe any of her anxiety about meeting Kevin’s extended family. Neither is the incoming stream of posts from Jason’s instagram of Damian with Jason’s parents and younger brothers, which at the very least seem to imply that Damian had managed to charm the whole lot of them during their pre-Thanksgiving family fun time.

Charming people has never really been Cady’s strong suit, and she spends Wednesday night struggling to sleep and having vague stressful dreams when she manages to drift off. At five she gives up the ghost of getting some proper sleep and hauls herself into the shower to start getting ready, glad to at least have a task to occupy herself with instead of tossing and turning both her body and her mind in search of sleep.

She texts Kevin when she leaves her house a bit before noon (her dad making her drive herself again), but she doesn’t hear back from him, which does nothing to calm her nerves as she climbs the front steps of Kevin’s house, giving her dad a half-hearted wave.

She’s so relieved she actually laughs when Kevin answers the door, slipping out quickly and shutting it behind him like he’s about to tell her a secret. He doesn’t, but he does hug her, arms coming around her back so quickly that she doesn’t manage to angle herself and ends up with her face in the soft green material of his sweater somewhere between his pectoral and shoulder. “If you wanna run, this is your last chance,” Kevin says, arms still around her. “Krish is really in impeccable douchebag form today, college has done— well, not wonders, horrors?— to his already dubious interpersonal skills.”

Cady wants to say something quippy in response, and there’s a response just on the tip of her tongue about the fact that historically her closest friends have been a few gazelle carcasses short of turning her into dinner, but when she pulls away Kevin looks so genuinely stressed that she swallows the temptation like chewing gum. Instead she just reaches up and cups Kevin’s jaw, runs a thumb over his cheek and says, “Throw me to the wolves.”

Even having been prepped beforehand, Cady feels a little overwhelmed trying to match names and faces and relations, even though she realizes this really isn’t very many people to keep track of in the grand scheme of things. Like Kevin had predicted, his dad does immediately insist that he call her Arnav, shaking her hand enthusiastically and complimenting her on her posture. Kevin’s mom and his aunt and uncle are in the midst of cooking, so Cady’s introduction to them is a little more passing, but she figures it goes well all things considered. And it’s sort of charming to try and reverse engineer Kevin from his parents, the way his speech patterns are similar to his father’s, or how he has the large expressive eyes of his mom.

“I’m going to introduce Cady to the youths,” Kevin says, cutting off his mom’s third follow-up question about what exactly her parents were doing in Kenya for all those years.

“Wait,” his mom says. “Give me a quick hand with the stuffing, I need some chopped celery.”

“Mom,” Kevin whines.

“Help your mother, Kevin Karnapriya,” his uncle Jaideep says chastisingly without

looking up from where he’s stirring something on the stove. “I’m sure Cady can find her way to the basement unaccompanied.”

“I could totally help. I’m not particularly good at cooking but I can follow directions,” Cady offers, but Kevin’s dad waves a dismissive hand at her, coming over from where he’d been setting the table.

“No, no, you’re our guest. Why don’t you come relax downstairs,” he gestures, and Cady doesn’t really have much choice but to follow, Kevin giving her a strained, wide-eyed glance that she returns sheepishly as she follows his dad into the basement.

“Hello, hello young people!” Dr. Gnapoor says enthusiastically as he leads Cady into the basement, which now in addition to the movie theater theme has incorporated some seasonally appropriate decor. Everyone is sitting on the plush velvet couch except for one of the girls, who is crouched on the floor looking under a chair, but she looks up as Kevin’s dad continues. “Kevin is indisposed for the moment so I take it you will be welcoming to the lovely Cady.”

“Hey Cady, hi. Kevin’s told us so much about you!” the girl on the couch says standing and extending her hand. “I’m Kevin’s sister Lea. I think you’ve met Neil,”

“Yeah, hey Cady,” Neil says, raising a hand at her.

“Hi,” Cady says, annoyed at how her voice comes out as a sheepish squeak. She tries to remind herself that she’s not really Kevin’s girlfriend and there’s no real actual stakes to any of this, but logic doesn’t do much to settle her stomach.

“And then this is my boyfriend Roshan,” Lea continues, setting an affectionate hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder, “and that’s Priyasha under the chair.”

“I’m trying to get the cat to come out,” Priyasha says annoyed, but she waves at Cady anyway. “Hey, I’m Pri.” She’s got that same half-long half-shaved hair cut that Janis has, and Cady wonders idly if that’s a gay girl thing. Maybe Gretchen will do that now too.

“And Krish is...somewhere…” Lea trails off uncertainly, adjusting her glasses.

“I’m what now?” (Presumably) Krish says, coming into the main room with a can of Dr. Pepper in hand.

“Krish, this is Kevin’s girlfriend Cady,” Lea says. “I’m saying that right, yeah? Cady?”

Cady nods, but she’s not looking at Lea anymore, looking back at Krish as he gives her a slow unimpressed once over. “You’re Kevin’s girlfriend.”

“Dude, don’t start,” Priyasha says, having given up on the cat and climbed back into the chair.

“Oh what, c’mon what,” Krish says. “I’m just supposed to pretend it’s not totally weird that Kev landed this totally normal white girl? Who, aren’t you supposed to be from Kenya anyways? Or was he mixing you up with one of his imaginary girlfriends?”

“I grew up in Kenya,” Cady says, since that’s a question she can actually answer. “Well Tanzania too, but mostly Kenya. My parents are American, though.”

“Uh huh,” Krish says skeptically, sinking into the couch and cracking open his pop. “And how much is Kevin paying you to do this?”

“Oh my god, lay off,” Neil says.

“Where’s your girlfriend, Krish?” Lea says good-naturedly, and Priyasha snorts which thankfully seems to end the conversation right as Kevin comes down the stairs.

“Hey, sorry,” he says a little breathless like he ran down the stairs and settling a kiss on the top of her head. “I see you met the assorted ragamuffins I share genomes with. And Roshan.”

“Rude,” Priyasha says, leaning over to snag a tortilla chip from one of the assorted bowls of snacks on the coffee table.

Kevin offers to get her a chair, but Cady declines since she’s honestly fine with sitting on the floor, “I mean I was basically lying down on it last time,” Cady says reaching for a pretzel, and it’s already in her mouth when Neil splutters and she puts together what that sounds like.

“Holy shit,” Krish says. “Kevin you beast!”

“Oh my god, no not like— we weren’t— we were just watching a movie!” Cady blurts out and she kind of wishes she could evaporate off the face of the earth.

“Totally,” Lea says sweetly, and Cady can tell she only kind of believes her, but she forcefully moves the conversation onto school stuff.

“It’s okay,” Kevin says under his breath, rubbing her knee. “They know we didn’t, they’re just being dumb.”

Cady very much doubts that, but she’s thankful at least her (hopefully only) epic blunder was well out of earshot of all the adults. No one brings it up again, Neil peer pressuring all of them into playing a round of Codenames. They’re an odd number, so Cady sits out the first few rounds to watch, Kevin paired off with his brother against Priyasha and Krish.

“I actually grew up internationally too,” Roshan says, moving over on the couch so she can sit beside him. “We moved here from Sri Lanka when I was ten, total culture shock. But at least it was middle school so everyone was having a rough time. I bet moving halfway through high school was tough.”

“A bit,” Cady agrees. “Last year was really hard, but I have a bunch of friends now, and I’m on the mathletes team.”

“Oh cute, so that’s how you and Kevin met?” Lea says. She’s sipping wine from a stemless glass, her lipstick sticking to the rim.

“Yeah. Well, kinda? I knew who he was before I was on the team, but we hadn’t really hung out or anything. But then I joined the team last spring and then like, the other two guys on the team are dating so Kevin and I kind of bonded over being the third and fourth wheels and got closer. And yeah, now we’re together.”

It’s weird how little she has to think about it, and how much it doesn’t feel like a lie. And it isn’t really, if you cut out the part about them dating. Which, okay, is the point of the story, but if the point of the story was just about how Kevin became her friend then, well, it would have been completely true.

They eat dinner basically in the middle of the afternoon, which Cady does find a little strange, but everything smells so good that she’s not complaining. Though she does find it very cute that when they line up to serve themselves in the kitchen, Kevin immediately launches in to explain to her the different Indian dishes on the counter, but skips right over the confusing Midwestern phenomenon that was green bean casserole.

“Oh, I’ve had fogyas before,” Cady says, stopping Kevin mid-explanation. “We actually had this really awesome team of researchers from, I think mostly Mumbai, at the conservation area a few years back. Plus I mean, every culture has their own take on fried bread.”

“Sorry,” Kevin says sheepishly.

“You’re perfect. Also, I am going to need you to explain this whole casserole situation. Also stuffing. It’s just like, soggy bread?”

Kevin brightens at that and takes her through a whole rundown of the great Midwestern tradition of taking things out of various cans and packages and calling it a casserole. Though she can’t actually fault the results, which are a lot better than the vaguely unsettling grey and green mass would suggest.

There’s no kids’ table so to speak, but they’re at the end of the table with Lea and Roshan acting as the border between the adults and the, well, not kids, but the young people. All the Gnapoor cousins are more than happy to chat amongst themselves about old inside jokes and the drama surrounding Priyasha and Krish’s sister’s wedding, but Cady feels bad all the same for focusing more on eating than conversing. “Did you and your girlfriend do anything for Thanksgiving?” Cady tries when there’s a natural lull in the conversation.

Priyasha looks up at her, eyebrows creased. “Um, no. Actually we broke up like, four months ago.”

Cady wants to melt into the floor, frozen in place for a long moment before she hears herself say, “Oh,” like the soft puncture of a balloon.

“Christ,” Krish says, only slightly under his breath, and then Cady hears rather than sees Kevin kick him under the table. “Ow, what the fuu-frick!”

“It’s okay,” Priyasha says. “It was like, well it wasn’t amicable exactly. Like, she broke up with me, but honestly it was for the best.”

“I got dumped in October,” Cady blurts, like she’s trying to out embarrass herself in solidarity. “Sorry, that’s. That’s dumb, I don’t know why I said that.”

Priyasha laughs at her, but it’s not cruel. “It’s okay. Hey at least you’re acknowledging that I actually had a girlfriend, unlike some people.”

“Sahana’s... she’ll come around Pri,” Neil says.

“I mean she better, I’m definitely going to find a hot girl to be my plus one for her wedding, so. She needs to get over it,” she says, aggressively stabbing a green bean with her fork. “Like, I don’t get what’s so hard to understand about bisexuality. It’s not that complicated.”

“Anyway, whatever,” Priyasha says. “It’ll be fun. I don’t know what kind of weddings you’ve been to Cady but uh, Desi weddings are like, off the chart.”

Kevin inhales too rapidly beside her and starts coughing.

“Dude!” Neil says. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Kevin rasps, drinking some water, as Cady rubs his back.

‘Alright?’ she mouths, and he nods dismissively in response.

“You kids alright down there?” Kevin’s mom says.

“Kevin almost died, so it’s fine,” Neil says with a shrug.

Kevin is still kind of coughing but he’s trying to play it off like he’s fine, so Cady lets him. The conversation moves forward, Krish telling some long extended story about how his class tried to condition their psych professor when Kevin interjects abruptly, “I’m probably not even going to get a plus one anyways. To the wedding I mean.”

“Uh, you definitely are,” Priyasha says. “Don’t worry we won’t embarrass you. Much. But only because we like Cady and it’s her first time, we don’t wanna totally scare her off.”

“Well, yeah, but, um, Cady you have that thing right? In May?” Kevin says.

Kevin’s weird hesitation suddenly slides into crystal clear focus. May. Shit, oh they’re definitely not going to be doing this in the spring, though in the moment Cady finds herself slightly foggy on why that is.

“Yes and, I’m going to be out of town because I’m going to. Uh. Minnesota.”

Priyasha squints at her. “I didn’t even say when it as.”

“Right, but I’m going to be gone for um, most of the month,” Cady says, and then goes for another huge bite of mashed potatoes before anyone can question her on it.

Dinner (Lunch? Linner?) tapers off pretty quickly after that, dishes being returned to the kitchen and Kevin stretching his arms over his head and groaning, “Frick, I need to be in stretchier pants than this.” And then suddenly Cady is alone at the end of the table with Krish, only Kevin’s mom and aunt left way at the other end of the table, chatting and sipping tea.

“So Cady,” Krish says, leaning forward on his elbows over the table, voice low like they’re sharing a secret, “for real. How much is he paying you?”

“What?” Cady says, the t getting half caught in her inhale.

Krish tilts his head and smirks at her knowingly, “C’mon, you can tell me. This whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing is bullshit, right? You’re not actually dating Kevin. I just wanna know why. He’s doing your homework, right?”

“I’m— That’s not— What are you talking about? Kevin’s my boyfriend,” Cady stumbles out, like tripping on a tree root and catching herself at the last second.

“Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” Krish says, winking at her and grabbing her empty plate off the table as he walks off.

Cady kind of feels like she might throw up. He figured it out. Despite all their best efforts, he figured it out. Well kind of, he’s wrong about the money and the homework but stripping that away the fact is staring her in the face. Someone figured it out.

“Cady? Are you okay?” Kevin’s mom says, which is not exactly the adorable first impression Cady’s been aiming for.

Cady forces what she hopes is an airy smile. “Totally. Um, where’s your bathroom?”

“I think someone’s in the powder room but you can use the one upstairs,” she says.

“Great,” Cady says, and then forces herself to just walk even when every flight instinct in her body is telling her to run.

Kevin’s room is easy enough to find because it has KEVIN written on the door in a shockingly good calligraphy sign. Cady knocks twice quietly before cracking the door open just a little bit. “Are you decent because we need to talk right now.”

“Ahhh, shit, one sec,” Kevin says, and Cady averts her eyes down pulling the door most of the way shut until Keivn reappears in a North Shore hoodie and black Nike lounge pants. “Hey what’s up?”

Cady pushes past him into his room. “Krish knows.”

Kevin snorts. “That’s a new one.”

“I’m not kidding,” Cady says, whirling around so she can pull the door shut behind her.

“He knows that we’re not, you know. Actually…”

“He’s just being a dick,” Kevin says.

Cady shakes her head. “He knew,” she can feel herself getting flustered, nails making little half moon indents into the skin of her palms.

“Cady, hey, hey,” Kevin says softly, reaching out for her, “it’s okay.”

“I wanted to do this for you,” Cady says, and while her eyes are totally dry there seems to be a weirdly large amount of saliva in her mouth, even as her throat feels tight and parched. Kevin hugs her for a long few moments, the two of them swaying back and forth ever so slightly.

“Thanks,” Cady says.

“Don’t mention it,” he replies, but neither of them move away. “Are you okay? Do you want to chill up here for a while?”

Cady shrugs. “I mean, the longer we’re up here the more they’re gonna think we’re fooling around.”

She realizes what she’s just said, pulling away abruptly. “Oh. My god. The longer we’re up here the more they’re gonna think we’re fooling around.”

“Cady— ” Kevin starts.

“We don’t have to do anything crazy!” Cady says. “Just imagine the look on his face! Please, let me restore your honour in the eyes of your dumbass cousin.”

Kevin sighs and sits down onto his bed (which Cady notes has been made but without particular attention to detail, the sheet hanging out lower than the duvet). “I don’t know…” He skirts a glance at her that’s almost shy, “I don’t want, you shouldn’t feel like you have to just because he was all weird to you.”

“I don’t feel like I have to,” Cady says. “But I’m not going to stand idly by while some guy implies that my best friend could only date a hot girl if he was paying her.”

“Wait he said that!?” Kevin exclaims, and then a half second later, voice going soft, “Wait, best friend?”

“Don’t make it weird,” Cady says sitting down on the bed beside Kevin. “But yeah you’re my best friend. I think.”

“You think?” Kevin teases, but he honestly sounds delighted.

Cady shoves him with her shoulder. “Well I’ve never had a best friend before. Unless you count when I was like six and obsessed with the idea that I had a secret long lost twin sister who lived in Tanzania. But yeah, I think you are.”

“What about Janis and Damian, I don’t want to be dethroning anyone.”

“I mean they’ll always be my first friends. My first real friends. But they have each other you know? Like they’d be just as happy if I’d never shown up. Differently happy. But still.”

“I get that,” Kevin says.

“I know you do,” Cady says, reaching over and holding his hand, the two of them sitting side by side in pleasant silence for a long few minutes.

“I think you’re my best friend too,” Kevin says, like he’s been working up to it this whole time, and Cady squeezes his hand in response.

“Well thank god, cause that’d be really embarrassing,” Cady jokes, only not really, and she’s pretty sure Kevin can tell too.

“Hey Kev! Kev-y!” Krish calls from downstairs, and it’s like some sort of sexy demon possesses her because she’s on her feet standing between Kevin’s knees before she can really think about it, hands skirting the hemline of her top.

“Do you want to do this?” Cady says.

“I— okay,” Kevin says, looking and sounding a little dazed, and that’s all the encouragement Cady needs to pull her top off over her head, pushing Kevin further onto the bed with a firm hand on his chest so she can get one knee up onto the mattress as she leans over to kiss him.

It’s not really that different than the other times they’ve kissed. Which is to say that overall it’s nice. Kevin is a good kisser, at least in Cady’s limited opinion, which probably explains why she’d been having the impulse to kiss him even when they’re alone lately. That and the burst of oxytocin humans get from skin-to-skin contact. Which is probably why warmth radiates out from just above her hip when Kevin touches her there, a bright red heat signature on a thermal scope.

Cady rocks up higher on her knee, holding Kevin’s face just under the jaw in both hands, kissing him back hard as his other hand joins the first on her side as he licks into her mouth, making a little tentative sound. It’s nothing like the fake noises he’d made at the hotel, something much more primal behind this one as he uses the grip he has on Cady’s sides to pull her up and over so she’s over top of him, flat on his back against the mattress.

“Cady,” he says, or maybe he just mouths it, and his bottom lip is a little bit swollen. She must have done that, Cady realizes abruptly, but she can’t remember doing it, everything that’s flowing through her coming from some deep instinctual place inside her.

“Kevin! Cady! C’mon tea’s gonna get cold. Hey you two better not be fu— ” Krish starts and then doesn’t finish, the door creaking like the punchline of a joke.

Kevin shifts his body so he’s mostly covering her and hisses, “Close the door asshole!”

Cady kisses the underside of his jaw over and over and over again, pointedly ignoring the third party in the room until Krish, several attempts for the door knob later, finally manages to get the door closed.

She waits until she can’t hear his footsteps anymore to ask, “Should I give you a hickey? Really drive the point home?”

Kevin snorts, shifting away from her and averting his gaze down. “No, uh, I think the point is parked in the garage by now. Where’d your shirt go?” He rummages around until he finds where it had slipped off the bed and onto the floor, handing it back to her without looking her in the eye.

“Thanks,” Cady says, pulling it back on, careful to not pull on her borrowed earrings from Gretchen. There’s a weird tightness in her chest. Not like earlier, when she’d been panicked about Krish, but something colder and more tightly coiled. She wants Kevin to come back onto the bed with her, like they’d been before. Or well, not when they’d been kissing so much, even if it had been objectively, nice, from a scientific sort of perspective, but just when they’d been sitting together. Shoulders touching and hands intertwined.

But the moment has clearly passed, Kevin awkwardly rummaging around his room, which is a bafflingly cute mixture of both messy and clean. Floors and desk spotless, but odd piles of things on his desk chair, the bookshelf, the bedside table.

“I’m gonna,” Kevin starts and then stops, “I think maybe you should go downstairs first and then I’ll come down a little bit after you. Just so um, it’s less suspicious. Also if my mom asks maybe lie and say your, uh, your crimson tide came in?”

“My what?”

“Like, you know. Your period?”

“No, I know that. I just. Crimson tide, really?”

“Hrghhh, shut up,” Kevin says.

“Wasn’t the point to be kind of suspicious?”

“Yeah to Krish, not to my parents. They’d ground me ‘til New Years if they thought I was skipping family Thanksgiving to fool around with my girlfriend.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh my god, don’t be. That was the most badass thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Kevin

says, opening the door for her. “I owe you one, fam,” he says, and then leans over and kisses her on the forehead before shutting the door again.

Cady tries not to read into the fact that the kiss felt like a goodbye.

The rest of Thanksgiving is mostly an homage to sibling rivalry. First with Dr. and Mr.

Gnapoor getting into their (predicted) passive aggressive argument about whether to watch football or cricket. And then with Neil and Lea getting into a semi-heated fight over a game of Scrabble. Which, Cady quickly learned, was actually the original game, and not as she had called it a ‘copy of Word with Friends,’ which had made Kevin laugh so hard he needed to go upstairs for a little bit and calm down. And even then he’s still giggling about it later when they’re having dessert.

“I’m gonna jab you with this dessert fork, don’t think I won’t,” Cady says, which is possibly the most empty threat she’s ever made since she needs her fork free to enjoy the revelation that is pumpkin pie.

“Noooo,” Kevin protests. “C’mon it was so cute. Don’t be grumpy, don’t be grumpy.” He pokes her in the side for emphasis.

“Oh my god, get a room,” Neil says, flopping down in a chair. “So Kev, when do you find out about U of M? Pretty soon, right?”

“Yeah, probably before Christmas.”

“Well that’ll work out well if Cady’s at Northwestern, that’s not too bad a drive.”

“I mean, I still have to get in,” Cady points out. Both of her parents working there did mean that she’d get a pretty sweet tuition cut, but it wasn’t any sort of advantage in terms of admissions. It dawns on her more secondarily what Neil’s main point is. How easy it will be for them to keep dating next year.

It’s flattering how much everyone in Kevin’s family feels like she’ll be sticking around, even if thinking about that too much opens up a weird hollow ache in her chest.

Everything winds down kind of quickly from there and there’s hugs and tupperware containers of food being passed out and goodbyes that seem to stretch on and on again, looping in on themselves like a mobius strip until finally ‘well we really really must be going now’ and the final sigh of the door being shut.

Cady follows Kevin back upstairs, his parents too busy saying goodbye to Neil and trying to foist leftovers on him to give them much more than a cursory glance. “I wanna show you something,” Kevin says, as she follows him up the stairs, and Cady gets hot and cold all over with an emotion she can’t quite label at the sight of Kevin’s bed, the duvet even more rumpled after what had happened earlier. He bypasses the bed completely though, going for the window on the other side of his room pushing it open.

“Here, I’ll go first,” Kevin says, grabbing a blanket off the end of his bed and balling it under his arm before climbing right through the window.

Cady sticks her head out after him, relieved to see that the roof has an almost completely flat section right underneath Kevin’s window, and he spreads the blanket out with practiced ease before bracing one hand on the outside of the window and offering the other to her. “I used to come out here all the time just to think. I thought, maybe it’s dumb. But I thought maybe you’d like it too,” Kevin says, helping Cady climb through the window and helping her settle on the blanket.

“It’s perfect,” Cady gushes, and gives a tug on Kevin’s hand until he sits beside her, legs bent at the knees and forearms wrapped around them. “I really like your house. It’s got so much personality. Like it feels like you really live here, you know?”

Kevin laughs like he’s not sure if that’s a compliment. “Thanks. It’s probably because I do really live here.”

“Shut up you know what I mean,” she says. “So how would that rank, on the scale of Thanksgivings?”

“Oh easily top five.”

“Just top five?” Cady teases, tapping Kevin’s ankle with her foot.

“Alright, maybe top three,” Kevin concedes with a grin.

“I’ll take it!” Cady tucks her hair behind her ear. “So uh, I see what you were saying about Krish being kind of a douchekayak.”

“What!?” Kevin startles and then starts laughing so hard that Cady’s legitimately a little scared he’s going to lose his balance and go toppling off the roof into the backyard.

“Did I use that wrong?”

“No, no, you’re perfect,” Kevin says, eyes softening even as he clears another laugh out of his throat. “It’s um, well generally it’s douchecanoe.”

“Oh.”

“No! Hey, I loved your take. I’m a total equal opportunity douche-paddler.”

“How do you do that!?”

Kevin’s forehead creases. “Do what?”

“Make me feel like I didn’t fuck up even when I do.”

Kevin looks away and rubs at the back of his neck. “Just one of my many talents, I guess.”

She’s not sure why but that somehow seemed to be the wrong thing to say, and she takes a long minute of pretending to adjust the blanket under her and then gazing up into the dark night sky. She’s cold but the last thing she wants to do right now is to move from this spot, so she just snuggles up a little closer to Kevin and tells herself to deal with it.

“There’s Orion’s Belt,” she says eventually pointing. It’s pretty faint but still there exactly where she wanted it to be. Reliable.

“Sorry the light pollution kind of sucks. It’s more satellites and airplanes than stars. And hey, I guess we’ve always got the moon.”

“You know I’d never seen the moon this way around until I was six years old,” Cady says.

“What? How’s that possible?”

“It’s the other way around in the Southern Hemisphere,” Cady says. “We lived in Tanzania until I was six so I’d only ever seen it the other way.”

“Huh,” Kevin says. “I’d never even thought about it but that makes sense I guess. It’s all different constellations there too right?”

Cady nods. “Yeah it was super jarring to look up at night and see a totally different sky. I, it sounds kind of dumb now, but I became convinced that the plane was actually this portal to a different alternate world where everything was just a little bit different and that I had a secret sister in the other Tanzania.” She scoffs at herself. “Pretty dumb, right?”

“It’s not,” Kevin says. “Not at all.”

It’s too much to meet his gaze right now, Cady distantly aware that she’s never actually told a soul about this before, the words coming awkwardly as she tries to articulate them. “But then, it’s weird. I looked up at the moon one day and it’s like I saw it, I knew it could be the same moon even if it didn’t look exactly the same.”

Neither of them move for a long moment, and Cady realizes suddenly that Kevin’s hand is on top of hers, even though she couldn’t tell you when he’d moved it. Had they been holding hands this whole time?

“Anyways, the really weird part is that I found out when I was thirteen or fourteen that when my mom first found out she was pregnant, it was with twins, but then when they did the ultrasound it was just me all alone in there. I guess it’s really common, vanishing twin syndrome, but it’s weird how I always felt like there was this other version of me, and in another parallel universe there probably is.”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin says.

“I mean, I didn’t know,” Cady says with a shrug. “I’m not really sad about it, and my mom’s a biologist so she was so practical when she told me. It’s just a crazy coincidence, right?”

“Yeah,” Kevin agrees softly.

Neither of them talk for a while, Cady resting her head on Kevin’s shoulder and watching the blinking lights of planes crossing overhead.

“I think we should keep dating until the end of the year,” Cady says lifting her head off Kevin’s shoulder. And she hadn’t planned to say it, but somehow she found it perfectly waiting on the tip of her tongue.

Kevin looks at her, but she plows ahead already knowing his confused protests. “Like, okay think about it. It’ll be super weird with mathletes if Tyler and Marwan and Ms. Norbury think we broke up, because even if we tell them it was super mutual and amicable stuff is always weird after a breakup. Plus you know Krish will be a dick if you tell him we broke up and you won’t have a date for your cousin’s wedding. I, I think it’s just easier for both of us if we. Just. You know, keep doing this. At least until the end of the year. Or maybe the end of the summer? I don’t know, we can figure that out later.” Kevin is looking at her incredulously. “What? Is that a dumb idea? I feel like it makes sense.”

“I— We can’t— ” Kevin splutters for a few more seconds like he’s trying to articulate one of Damian’s keysmashes. “What, are we just supposed to like, not date anyone for the rest of the year? Cady that’s crazy.”

“I don’t think it’s crazy. It makes sense.”

Kevin inhales and then closes his eyes as he exhales like he’s trying to centre himself, “I see your point but— this was just supposed to be for Aaron’s party. And like, it was really cool of you to do today but. I can’t keep doing this. I think we should just, you know. Rip the bandaid.”

It’s like the cold is affecting more than just her body, Cady stuck to the spot and unable to fully process what Kevin is saying until it hits her all at once, a sharp recoil punching all the air out of her like the first time she used a tranq gun.

“Rip the bandaid,” Cady repeats numbly, scrambling to her feet.

“Cady, wait, don’t—” Kevin says, scrambling up after her, but Cady’s already back through the window and in his room and she hears him smack something hard against the window in his haste to follow her. “You don’t have to— I’m sorry, I wasn’t— ”

“Cady! Sweetie your dad’s here!” Kevin’s mom calls from downstairs.

“I have to go,” Cady says, trying to place the emotion that rises like bile in the back of her throat, unable to say exactly why the only one that comes to mind is betrayal. She knows he’s right, logically, but she can’t— there’s more— it’s wrong. Something about it is deep in her gut wrong and all she knows is that she needs to get out of there before she totally loses the spider-thread that she’s tethered to.

“Look I’ll— I’ll see you on Monday,” Kevin says, trying so hard to sound calm that he’s clearly a little frantic, “And, you can text me if you wanna talk. I wasn’t. I wasn’t just bullshiting you earlier, Africa. You’re my best friend. But there’s some stuff I can’t do, even if I want to. Not even for you.”

“Okay,” Cady says, because there’s nothing else to say. “Happy Thanksgiving Kevin.”

Kevin’s eyes scan over and over her face, like he wants to say something else, like he needs to say something else. But all he says is, “Yeah, Happy Thanksgiving Cady.”

Cady spends all of Friday and Saturday feeling like she got hit by a bus, her body betraying her and collapsing under the stress of a cold. But in a way it’s a nice excuse to spend all day in bed, alternating between napping and watching hours of interspecies animal friend videos on Youtube. Though she does manage to drag herself out of bed on Sunday and into some actual clothes so she can go over to Janis’ house around seven.

“You look like hot garbage,” Janis says when Cady walks into her Studio, which is just a guest house her parents had renovated into an art studio-slash-hangout area.

“Thanks,” Cady says, her voice clogged from lack of use and general stuffed-up-ness.

“You are in no shape for the emotional roller coaster that is The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn Part I,” Janis says. “God, you look like you’re gonna pass out. Sit down or something.”

Cady doesn’t argue, flopping down into Janis’ huge bright orange pleather couch while Janis retrieves her a bottle of Snapple from the mini fridge. “How was Colorado?” Cady asks after a few sips, her voice a little less horror movie.

“Fine,” Janis says with a shrug. “My family are really going for collective allies of the year, they keep asking me about girls and am I dating anyone? Which like, I’m not complaining, it’s nice they’re so supportive but oh my god it really rubbed in how aggressively single I am right now. But my grandad did make us gluten-free dairy-free pot brownies, so that part was fun.”

“Oh my god?”

“Better than you’d think. And not just cause they got us super stoned.”

“Your family is so cool,” Cady says. She thinks sometimes Janis wishes her parents were more the kind of authority figures she could rebel against and not the kind of people who get stoned together on holidays.

Janis snorts. “Dude, your parents are way cooler than mine. Tom and Julia are just like, accommodating.”

“Alright,” Cady says skeptically, but doesn’t push the issue. “So, um, I talked to Gretchen.”

“And?”

“I’m happy for her. Obviously. Though I’m not exactly sure why Gretchen Wieners being a lesbian has like, anything to with what happened at Aaron’s party.”

“It wasn’t like. That wasn’t what made me upset, it was just sort of. The icing.”

“Okay,” Cady says, and waits prompting until Janis continues. Sometimes her animal observation skills come in more handy with her new life than you’d think.

“Regina thinks Kylie might be gay,” Janis says finally. Which is. Not what Cady was expecting even a little bit. The surprise is clearly evident on Cady’s face because Janis makes a face and then says, “Okay she didn’t say that in like so many words. But I guess she’s kind of having a hard time in middle school and it’s made Regina like hyper aware about all the shit that happened between us and— ”

“Wait, when were you even talking to Regina?”

“At Aaron’s party, before the Gretchen stuff. She just kind of like, cornered me and told me about Kylie and asked if maybe she could give her my email or something. Like, what, I’m going be some sort of lesbian reading buddy? But whatever, I said yes, and then she was like ‘look I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I am really sorry.’ Which like, I don’t forgive her but I guess that’s...decent of her.”

“Wow,” Cady says. She knew Regina was trying to turn over a new leaf, but she hadn’t thought she’d actually try and reach out to Janis, especially since after last year, well they might not be equal, but there was even more bad blood between the two of them.

“So all that fucking happened, but fine, I could deal. But then like me and Damian and Jason and the math gays were all talking about like, all the weird compulsory het crushes we had as kids and Gretchen Wieners chimes in about hers was Kevin Jonas and just comes out to us and I just. I just snapped.” She sighs and leans back. “I’m not like, proud of it. But it happened.”

“And then Damian got all pissed because I wanted to leave and he wanted to stay and it just sort of spiralled from there and. Well, you know the rest.”

“Yeah more or less.”

Janis flops down on the couch beside Cady, tipping her head on the backrest until finally saying, eyes still on the ceiling, “You wanna know what my therapist said?” This is clearly rhetorical because she continues before Cady can confirm or deny. “She said that I tend to operate under the assumption that because I view myself as inconsequential to other people and that therefore my actions towards them are inconsequential. And I just kept thinking about it all weekend and like, she’s kinda right and it’s fucking me up. Like Regina Lesbophobe George might actually be kind of a better person than me and. I really don’t like that.”

Janis finally looks over at her. “If you told me one of the Plastics manipulated a new girl into being a spy for them, I’d be like, yeah, no duh they’re terrible people. But somehow me doing it was, I don’t know, balancing the scales of the universe or something.”

“I did it though,” Cady says. “I’m a person with free agency and I had reservations and I still did it.”

“I guess,” Janis says. “And you got suspended for two weeks for it. What did I get? Learning that Damian was fucking right and we were judgey and mean and manipulative and generally sucky last year? And he got a boyfriend out of this whole not judging a book by its cover nonsense! So unfair.”

Cady rubs her arm and coaxes her over until she can give her a proper snuggly hug, “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah me too,” Janis says with a sigh. “Did I ever tell you about what happened with Sonja Acquino two years ago?”

The name sounds vaguely familiar but Cady can’t put a face to it. “No, why?” She’s not sure if this is Janis trying to change the subject or not, but she figures she should go with it if Janis is actually kind of opening up for once.

“So we were both in Music Appreciation in sophomore year which is such a bullshit write-off class and everyone knows it. But we sat at the same table a lot and would chat about music and whatever. We both really like Alanis Morrisette but she’s really like, involved with that whole Student Activism group who are always doing some fucking fundraiser for whatever organization is the hot dead-gay-kid Project of the week. She’s. Like she’s fine. Sonja’s fine but she’s not really— I never would have. Whatever, so what happens is one of her little petition bunny friends cozies up to me in homeroom and is like ‘oh do you like her,’ and I um, maybe have said something along the lines of her being an overbearing Social Justice Warrior with a Can-I-Speak-to-The-Manager haircut.”

“Jesus, Janis.”

“I know, I know. Not my finest moment. Anyways, of course that’s when I find out she has this huge crush on me and was really upset and actually like, cried.”

Cady winces, “Yikes.”

“Well joke’s on me because she has a girlfriend now and I don’t,” Janis says sullenly. “I just. I feel like I’m stuck, like I’m still this angry hurt little kid with Space Dyke on her locker and everyone else has fucking moved forward without me. And I don’t wanna be like that anymore but how do I even start to separate me from her when everything about me is like, built around this one thing and— Oh my god, you don’t have to hug me Caddy I’m fine.”

“Nope, It’s already happening,” Cady says, going full sloth and wrapping herself around Janis who swats at her half-heartedly before finally accepting it and leaning into the embrace.

“Alright enough, you’re gonna give me all your germs,” Janis says but she doesn’t actually move away as Cady lets go, the two of them loosely slumped together.

“Look, I don’t know if you actually want advice about this,” Cady says, “but as cliche as it sounds it’s never too late to start over. To decide you wanna do better. It’s not like snake venom, you’re not doomed because you didn’t do it quick enough. I promise. You can always try again.”

Janis sits up. “I love all your weird jungle anecdotes, who else is gonna bust out the metaphors about sucking out the snake venom of your life?”

“I mean you can’t actually suck the venom out of a snake bite, that’s a myth.”

Cady, stop fact checking my metaphor.”

Cady raises her hands in surrender. “Alright, alright.” She gets up to chuck her empty bottle in the recycling bin, noting happily that Janis has a photo of the three of them after Spring Fling stuck to the fridge by a magnet in the shape of Frida Kahlo’s head. Her phone buzzes from where she’d left it on the handpainted coffee table and Janis leans over to glance at it.

“It’s Kevin.”

“I’ll text him back later,” Cady says with a wave of her hand.

“You don’t have to do that on my account,” Janis says. “I know I didn’t start off this whole Kevin G situation on the best foot but like, he clearly adores you and I want you to be happy.”

“It’s honestly fine,” Cady’s more than happy to have an excuse to continue ignoring him after the other night. Not that she’d about to tell Janis that.

“Okay,” Janis says unwrapping a jolly rancher she seems to have literally manifested out of thin air. “But for real. I’m cool with Kevin. I like Kevin. I am every day becoming more zen with the idea that he might be your soulmate with whom you raise several very cute biracial math prodigy children or something.”

“Yeah,” Cady says, heart squeezing hard in her chest. “Or something.”

So Cady’s not avoiding Kevin. But she’s also not not avoiding Kevin by wandering around parts of school she doesn’t usually hang around before homeroom on Monday morning. This is partially because in sometime between ten pm on Sunday when she left Janis’ house, and eight am when Damian picked her up for school the two of them seem to have semi-miraculously made up and she feels like they deserve some alone catch up time. It’s also partially because she just knows if she hangs around near her locker or over by her homeroom or at Ms. Norbury’s room, it’s only a matter of time before Kevin comes wheeling around the corner with his big sympathetic eyes wanting to talk to her about Thanksgiving.

She even manages to make it through all of chemistry without exchanging anything more than basic small tall because they’re doing labs today and Kevin’s already partnered up with Marwan. Cady can feel him trying to catch her eye through most of class, but she just keeps her head down and sneaks out as soon as the bell rings.

He finally tracks her down at lunch though, appearing at her elbow in the lunch line, and Cady’s braced for him to immediately jump into ‘can we talk’ but instead he gives her a friendly boop on the arm with a folded up piece of paper.

“Karen Smith asked me to give this to you,” he says.

“What is it?” Cady says, shifting her tray so she can look at the intricately folded square of paper, the whole thing covered in doodles done in a hot pink pen.

“Dunno, I’m just the delivery guy,” Kevin says with a shrug, his hands shoved deep into his pockets like a little kid told not to touch anything at a store.

“Okay,” Cady says, turning to look in one of the fridges and finding her mind completely blank as to what she actually wanted. Kevin is still hovering beside her and she’d never thought they were spending that much time as a couple at school being touchy-feely, but suddenly the absence of him is distractingly jarring. Not even so much the big things, holding hands, an arm around her shoulders, but the friendly intimacy they’d grown accustomed to, Kevin’s hand brushing against her leg or the bump of her shoulder against his arm. The sort of undefinable familiarity which had come from dating.

From pretending to date.

“You okay, Africa?”

“What?” Cady says, realizing she’s still looking into the drinks fridge like a bottle of strawberry milk holds the secrets to her interpersonal life. “Oh, shit, sorry. Yeah. I’m just a little tired still from being sick. I just slept like. All weekend.”

“Ah shit, that sucks. Did you uh, did you get my texts?”

“Yeah. I just wasn’t really feeling up to having that kind of convo, you know?” Cady says finally just grabbing a bottle of orange juice, so she can step into the payment line and leave this whirlpool of awkwardness.

“Totally,” Kevin agrees. “Maybe we could talk, though? Not like, now-now, because, you know.” He gestures with his head over towards their lunch table, which is now bigger than ever since Damian and Janis are on speaking terms. Cady doesn’t mind though, even if she has to squeeze a little bit to fit in between Tyler and Jason, the latter of which is cackling at something Janis had just said.

“Why would they do that!?” Jason says. “Oh my god.”

“I mean to be fair, some of that body stuff smells straight up like food,” Damian says.

“Okay, but you don’t walk into a store and take a bite out of the for sale food items Damian!” Janis rants intensely, Jason breaking out into another round of snorting laughter beside her.

“So wait, and you got fired for that!?” Jason says. “For telling some guy he couldn’t lick the body butters?”

“I didn’t even tell him he couldn’t, I just told him if he was gonna lick it he was going to have to buy it,” Janis says. “but then I guess he complained so management was up my ass about it and so like I didn't technically get fired but it was kind of a quit or we will make your life a living hell and it’s not worth it for $8.25 an hour.”

“I mean if it makes you feel better,” Marwan says, “The Body Shop is legit a pyramid scheme.”

“Yes, but it’s a pyramid scheme I could have been at the top of! Anyways, I’ll probably just apply and get rejected from Lush again like I do every three months.”

“You know my boyfriend works at Lush,” Jackson Wayne says, looking around Jason from the end of the table. “I could totally get him to put in a word for you if you want. They’re probably looking for seasonal staff right now.”

Cady genuinely half expects Janis to roll her eyes or make some comment about nepotism and patriarchy in the workplace, but instead she just says, “That’d actually be really cool, thanks.”

She does look up and give Cady a half-hearted smirk when Jackson launches into a story about how he met his boyfriend at a ski chalet, (“Which is super funny actually because he hates skiing”) but Cady’s going to count it as a win anyways. Especially when Janis keeps her mouth fully shut when Gretchen comes striding up to their table, heels clicking against the linoleum floor, wearing both a rainbow striped mini-skirt and a shirt that says GIRLS in a big pink heart.

“Hi y’all,” Gretchen says, sitting with a dramatic flourish.

“Hey Gretchen, loving the outfit,” Damian says knowingly, and Gretchen beams at him.

“Thanks!” She says flipping open a large pink portfolio, and a matching pink pen. “I don’t have long because I need to go pick up the posters from the printers in twenty minutes, but I thought before I did, I’d give you guys first dibs on song selections.” She turns to Cady expectantly, which is really not the right place to start.

“Oh, jeez, I don’t know songs. Um, Kev what’s that song you put on my playlist, the Africa one?”

“Uh, Africa?”

Damian chokes hard on the sip of his drink and Jason rubs his back as he laugh-coughs and Marwan raises an eyebrow, “Wow, peak romance.”

“It is romantic!” Kevin protests, “I mean, it’s like, kinda romantic. If you listen to the lyrics… Fuck off.”

“I like it,” Cady says sheepishly.

Tyler elbows his boyfriend in the side. “Sorry Cady.”

“Um, okay,” Gretchen says, evidently confused but eager to please. “Anyone got any other suggestions. Janis?”

“I dunno, maybe some old school Alanis Morrisette?”

“You can’t dance to Alanis Morrisette,” Damian says, finally having regained control of his windpipe.

Janis jabs him with her plastic spoon. “Not with that attitude you can’t!” And Jason breaks out into another round of snorting laughter.

“Sweetheart you have got to stop encouraging her,” Damian says while Janis looks very smugly over at Cady. Apparently Jason finding her hilarious was enough of a consolation prize to Janis having to share Damian, and honestly, Cady will take it.

Gretchen scribbles down all of their suggestions, though Cady admittedly doesn’t recognize most of them, Kevin pulling open his Spotify and snorting as he looks at his phone, “God, not to drag myself but my top played song from 2018 was Baby Got Back.”

“Oh, how the tables turn,” Janis says mostly to herself and Tyler and Marwan crack up.

Gretchen looks between them. “I don’t get it.”

“I mean Cady’s not the most, uh, endowed in that department.”

“Oh my god,” Damian says. “Can we not talk about Cady’s butt during lunch? I’m eating.”

“Or we could not talk about her butt at all,” Kevin adds, flushing.

“Since when are we talking about my butt!?” Cady splutters. “Stop it.”

“It’s a good song,” Kevin sulks. “You all suck.”

“We’re just saying you’ve had quite a change of heart since,” Marwan pauses dramatically, “What was it? ‘Don’t bring me none of that white girl booty’?”

“It’s called an homage!”

Cady rolls her eyes and shoves her tray away from her. “I’m gonna go. Also Marwan, real hypocritical of you when Tyler’s got a total pancake ass.”

“Ouch! What did I do!?” Tyler protests.

“You’re an enabler,” Cady says, and her exit is a little less dramatic than she’d hoped since their table is so crowded she basically has to climb out of her spot, but she swishes her hair over her shoulder and still gets some satisfying Oooohs from Janis and Damian.

“I love this table,” Cady hears Jackson Wayne say as she shoves her tray onto the return pile beside the trash and books it right out of the cafeteria.

Kevin somehow beats her back to her locker thanks to the power of long legs, and Cady’s not in the mood as she pulls her locker open.

“I am so sorry about them, they’re such assholes. They think they’re so funny,” Kevin says.

Cady pulls her English binder out of her locker. “It’s fine. It’s not like I don’t know I’m not your type.”

She feels more than sees Kevin pull back from her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Cady forces herself to take a big inhale and then blow it out through her nose, de-escalating her desire to give into her worst most passive-aggressive impulses. “I just. I know this isn’t real in more ways than one. Which is fine. I just don’t like having my face rubbed in it.”

“Sure,” Kevin says but won’t meet her eye, which is basically confirmation that she’s right that Marwan was misinformed about the whole alleged crush incident. He’d probably just wanted the whole Mathletes team to go out after Spring Flight and then they couldn’t because Cady was with Aaron and—

“Snowflake Soiree,” Cady blurts.

“What?”

“We should breakup after Snowflake Soiree,” Cady says. “Because it’ll be weird if we break up before that with you know, the lunch table and stuff, but then we only have to be weird broken up for the week before the holidays and then once we get back we can just tell everyone we’re going back to being friends.”

“I’m not sure— ” Kevin starts, but then seems to reconsider. “Yeah, sure, okay. Makes sense.”

“It’s a deal,” Cady says with a sense of finality that drags on her a little bit. But she reminds herself that change can’t happen without loss and the sooner they get it over with the sooner things can go back to the way they were.

They have to go back to the way they were.

“Here,” Kevin says. “You forgot this,” he hands her the note from Karen.

“Ah, crap, thanks.”

“Yeah, of course. Anytime,” Kevin says, and Cady knows somehow that he feels it too, the impending finality of their fake-but-real breakup.

She’s not even sure who moves first, him or her, but suddenly they’re hugging in front of her locker, Cady rocked up onto her tiptoes and inhaling his Lush Body Wash and Boy scent. Neither of them pulling away for a long moment, even after the bell rings.

The note from Karen turns out to be about going dress shopping for Soiree after school on Thursday. Cady has mathletes practice, so she texts Karen to let her know they can go right after she's done. Karen sends back a lollipop emoji, which Cady is going to take as a good sign.

“Hey Cady,” Marwan says, pulling her focus away from her phone, as he approaches her desk, Tyler following behind him. “Um, Ty and I wanted to say we were really sorry about the other day.”

“It’s okay,” Cady says, “I know you were just kidding around.”

“Yeah but still,” Tyler says. “Not cool.”

“So not cool,” Marwan echoes.

“You’re totally forgiven. We’re all good,” Cady says, and she expects them to launch right into their regularly scheduled pre-practice makeout, but instead they both hover in front of her desk before Marwan speaks.

“Um, hey so this totally not our business— ”

“ —Totally not.”

“ —So I get if you like, don’t wanna talk about this but um. Did you and Kevin. Did you guys have a fight?”

“What?” Cady says, feeling caught even though she has no reason to suspect that Kevin would have told them anything about what happened at Thanksgiving. Not without completely blowing his own cover.

“You just— He’s been kind of quiet and...I don’t know, just off. And then we thought— ”

Tyler jumps in, “ —We thought you also seemed a bit upset but we thought maybe it was because of us. But if it’s not… We just. Kevin’s our best friend but that doesn’t mean you aren’t our friend too. We just want to make sure you guys are okay.”

“Totally,” Marwan interjects. “And we’re sorry if we weren’t being supportive enough before. We really are so happy for you guys, you’re so great together— ”

“ —Right and like the shit yesterday— ”

“ —Or the shit with the cake— ”

“ —God yeah we’re so sorry about the virgin cake too,” Tyler says, all of it blurring together.

“Well, um, thanks,” Cady says, when it becomes apparent that they’re done. “But Kevin and I are totally fine.”

Marwan and Tyler exchange a glance right in front of her, and jeez she really thought she was a better liar than that, but Marwan just shrugs and says. “Okay, sure.”

“What are we talking about?” Kevin says, slapping his hand on the top of the doorframe.

“Just how much you and Cady are such a cute couple,” Tyler says too quickly for it to not sound suspicious. But Cady just shrugs in response to Kevin’s quizzical look, it’s probably kind of good in the long run if Tyler and Marwan think stuff is a little weird between them, since they’re a few weeks away from an alleged break-up. Ugh. Kevin was supposed to be the easy option for this whole thing, how did it get so complicated?

At least Cady doesn’t have to wallow in it very long, Ms. Norbury striding into the room, diet coke in hand and a stack of practice books under her arm and declaring with more enthusiasm than even Cady deems necessary, “Who is ready to do some math!?”

Life at North Shore goes on. And while things between her and Kevin never go back to quite the comfortable rhythm that they’d fallen into before Thanksgiving, everything’s fine. It’s good even. Her lunch table somehow achieving perfect balance even as Gretchen pushes the limit to how many rainbows she can wear at a single time and relentlessly teases the still-to-be-announced mystery venue of Snowflake Soiree. Cady goes dress shopping with Regina and Karen, the latter of which has been spending a good chunk of her free time teaching a choreographed dance involving umbrellas (or maybe the song was about umbrellas?) to her co-hosts on the news show. Janis and Cady spend a solid three days trying to talk Damian out of doing something too outlandish for his and Jason’s one month anniversary only for Jason to serenade him in the cafeteria to Lay All Your Love on Me backed by the show choir.

(“And this is exactly why I had that Edible Arrangement on reserve!” Damian gloats.)

It’s fine. It’s good. The longest conversation she’s had with Kevin in the last week was about how exactly they’re going to break up. She’s totally chill about it.

Maybe that’s why she’s so happy to see him on Friday despite the circumstances. Both their impending (fake) breakup but also the fact that her parents have finally managing to evade her protests that Kevin is too busy to do a big dinner by proposing that they do light canapes and drinks before the dance. Which Cady is pretty sure will mostly turn into her and Kevin eating break dipped in olive oil while her parents have wine and interrogate them. But even still, she’s excited enough to see him that the dread is mostly just an aftertaste.

“Holy crap,” Cady blurts completely involuntarily when she opens the door and Kevin is wearing a high collared white dress shirt and black pants, a garment bag hung over his shoulder.

Kevin laughs, “Hello to you too.”

“Shut up,” Cady mutters, suddenly weirdly self-conscious about the Northwestern sweatshirt and sweatpants she’s still in (a gift from her parents for getting in and making their lives that much less stressful in the process). “You look very nice.”

“So do you,” Kevin says.

“I’m not wearing this to the dance.”

“Well I figured, but you still look nice. I like your hair.”

“Thanks,” Cady says, taking Kevin’s garment bag and hanging it gently over the bannister. She doesn’t tell him that she’s so out of practice curling her hair that she’d burnt herself at least half a dozen times before giving up and clipping the whole thing half-up half down.

“There he is!” Cady’s dad says, coming bustling out of the kitchen with a wooden cheeseboard in hand. It was weird after so long living in the field how quickly her parents had embraced the suburban upper-middle class life, but Cady’s not going to complain when that means baked brie and four different kinds of hummus to dip pita in.

Kevin is midway through explaining his program at UMich to her parents when Cady slips upstairs to put her dress on. It’s a long airy slate blue number with off-the-shoulder sleeves which Karen and Regina insisted she had to get when she’d walked out of the dressing room. Well, Karen had insisted, Regina had threatened to never speak to her again if Cady didn’t buy it.

“Let me get the camera! Jane, where’s the camera?” Her dad exclaims when Cady comes down the stairs, the heel of her flats thunking almost comically loud on the stairs. “You look amazing binti, wait hold it right there,” her dad says, gesturing for her to stop on the stairs so he can take pictures (with his old field camera no less, minus the scope of course).

“Beautiful,” he says, looking at the viewfinder, “Okay, let’s do some of the two of you together.”

Kevin appears in her sightline and Cady’s glad she’d opted for flats because he looks so good now wearing a long red silk jacket that Cady feels like her entire centre of gravity has shifted.

‘Are you kidding me!?’ she mouths at him as he offers her a hand down the stairs and then wraps an arm around her.

“It’s called fashion,” Kevin says very softly under his breath and Cady really hopes that the photo her dad takes at that moment comes off more ‘cute candid laughter’ and less ‘just inhaled a bug.’

Kevin is practically preening under the attention and Cady is about to tell him off for encouraging her parents when both of their phones buzz in unison on the coffee table. “Oh, that’s probably the location text, we should go,” Cady says, reaching for her phone.

“You don’t know where it is?” Cady’s mom says skeptically.

“It was a surprise. I guess Gretchen could only get the venue if she agreed not to disclose where it was? I guess they were worried about the demand for tickets being too high if they disclosed the location.”

“Do you think that’s safe?”

Cady resists the urge to roll her eyes. “I don’t think it’s any less safe than anything we did routinely on the reserve. You know, like when I was tranquilizing and tagging some of the most dangerous animals on the planet.”

“Whoa,” Cady’s mom says, “Dial down the sass.”

“I can give you the address,” Kevin says placatingly, pulling up his phone and dutifully writes the address down on a memo pad for her parents while Cady pulls on her giant puffy black winter coat, which completely clashes with the elegance of her dress, but Cady is not about to brave the December temperatures of Chicago in nothing but a tasteful wrap cardigan thank you very much. Besides, she’s sure there’ll be a coat check at the venue, whatever it actually turns out to be.

It takes them another few minutes to actually get out of the house, Cady’s dad insisting he should give Kevin the number of one of his old college buddies who was now teaching at UMich and Cady’s mom insisting they should really just have the last couple figs because they’re not going to eat them, so Cady is glad for the quiet, if cold, reprieve of Kevin’s car.

She tries not to let her teeth chatter audibly as Kevin dutifully turns up the heat for her before leaning over to type the address into the GPS.

“Route calculated,” The cold feminine voice says, but Kevin frowns at the screen. “The hell,” he says mostly to himself, pulling his phone back up to double check the address, before letting out an incredulous laugh. “Holy shit, Gretchen Wiener’s just changed the whole motherfucking game!

“Why,” Cady asks, leaning up out of her delightfully heated pleather seat. “Where are we going?”

The lights outside of the Adler Planetarium are lit up icy white and blue around the perimeter of the building while a large banner strung over the door announces that this is, despite Kevin’s initial disbelief, the location of North Shore’s Snowflake Soiree. There’s even more decorations inside, which feel like they clash with the space themed posters and displays in the lobby but somehow mesh together. Cady makes a beeline for coat check but somehow still isn’t fast enough Damian crowing, “Yasss honey,” melodramatically from behind her.

“What a bold look, Caddy,” Janis says following behind Damian as Cady tries to unzip her coat and hand it over the coat check attendant as quickly as possible. Janis has reprised her painted faux velvet jacket from Spring Fling but has paired it with a pair of skinny cropped dress pants instead.

“So camp,” Damian gushes, and Cady swats at him as Jason appears from the crowd with drinks in hand.

“Jason, your boyfriend is bullying me,” Cady says.

“It’s cute that you think I have any influence at all over what Damian does,” Jason says. “That’s Janis’ job.”

“Chin chin,” Janis says raising her plastic champagne flute and downing half of it. “I have to give Gretchen credit, this is pretty sweet.”

“I still can’t believe she did it,” Damian says. “Not in a mean way Cady, stop making that judgey face. This is a highly in-demand venue, you know how many people would sell their left testicle to have their wedding here?”

“Sexist,” Janis says.

“Or their left ovary.”

“Thank you.”

“What about left testicles?” Kevin says, coming up behind Cady, his left hand finding her waist and wrapping her into a hug from behind.

“Nothing important,” Cady says.

“Hurtful!” Damian pouts.

“Accurate,” Janis retorts.

“Are they always like this?” Jason says, and it takes Cady a second to realize he’s asking Kevin.

Kevin shrugs as well as he can with his arms still around Cady, “You get used to it.”

There’s no formal sit-down dinner, but there are tables arranged in one of the different venues rooms, Tyler and Marwan already having snagged one for them, Tyler sprawled across three different chairs to ‘save them.’ Or possibly he was just sitting like that, Cady’s not entirely sure. She thinks sitting on things weirdly might be a gay thing, but it’s hard to tell most of the time what is actually a gay thing and what is Janis and Damian committing to a bit.

There’s canapes and other light finger food type options on the tables that perimeter the room, but Cady’s not really hungry since she stress ate a lot of bread at beforehand. Kevin isn’t hungry either, or maybe he’s just too excited to lead Cady through the selection of exhibits that have been left open to care.

“I can’t believe you haven’t been here yet!” Kevin says. “I’m a terrible boyfriend, I should have brought you ages ago.”

“Well, we still— ” Cady starts and then abruptly stops herself from saying they still could. Which, okay of course they still could come here. As friends. They’re still friends. But who’s to say Kevin won’t have an actual date he can bring here in the near future? Another girl to point out all his favourite parts to while they stroll hand in hand under models of the solar system. The thought of which makes Cady’s stomach hurt so badly that she turns away and looks at a plaque about astrolabes, taking long deep breaths until her vision unblurs.

“Cady? Hey, you good?” Kevin asks.

“Totally,” Cady says, “I just uh, could we maybe go sit down for a bit?”

“Yeah of course,” Kevin says, all serious and take-charge, practically shoving some underclassmen who are making out against the railing for an exhibit and blocking the way.

Back in the main hallway Cady spots Janis talking to one of the museum staff, which is already kind of weird in itself, but is even weirder when the staff member turns around and it’s Caroline Krafft.

“ —And there they are,” Janis says. “Typical.”

“Oh my god, hi!?” Cady says, picking up the bottom of her dress which is just long enough that her slipping seems like a very real danger. “What are you— do you work here? That is so freaking cool!”

“Unfortunately,” Caroline deadpans. “Okay, no actually, it’s not that bad I just. Weddings and proms always kind of suck because there’s always someone getting drunk and trying to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be or touch something they should not be touching.”

“Or making out somewhere they’re not supposed to be making out…” Janis says pointedly.

“We were not,” Cady says rolling her eyes. “I promise we are not suctioned to the mouth every time you leave the room, grow up.”

“Sure thing Caddy-Cat,” Janis says. “Thanks for your help, uh..?”

“Caroline,” Cady says helpfully.

“Yes, right. Caroline. Cool. Good luck with the mobs of youths.” Janis says, unsubtly backing up so Cady and Kevin will follow.

“Wait, so who was that?” Janis says loudly over the echoing voices of hundreds of North Shore students in the main venue space.

“Caroline Krafft, we know her from mathlete stuff,” Cady says.

“Cady made fun of her hair at state championships last year,” Kevin says proudly.

“I did— It wasn’t that bad,” Cady protests.

Kevin clutches his hands to his chest melodramatically. “Straight up savage.”

“Well, well, well how the tables turn,” Janis practically purrs.

“I hate both of you,” Cady says. “I’m gonna get a drink.”

There’s an entire table of different non-alcoholic drink options, and Cady is still mulling them over when the DJ starts up, some college-aged guy shouting, “How we feeling tonight North Shore!” to the screamed approval of the room. She barely has time to down a glass of what she’s pretty sure is some kind of lemonade before she’s being forcibly dragged onto the dance floor by Damian.

Cady still only recognizes maybe every third or fourth song, and there is a slight disconnect as she tries to just get her shoulders and her feet to agree about a rhythm as everyone around her scream sings along to the lyrics, but she’s having too much fun to feel too bad about it. Especially when her awkward dancing doesn’t seem to put off anyone, even Regina, who pulls Cady off for some song she vaguely remembers hearing at the grocery store about exes.

“It’s our song!” Regina insists. “C’mon we can pretend we’re mature and above all of the pettiness another time.”

It takes Cady until well after the song, when Regina teethers off in some impressively high heels to wrap herself around Shane Oman who is back in town for the occasion, to realize that Regina had meant being petty about Aaron. Which feels like such a bizarre way to put it when Cady had barely thought about Aaron since his birthday, that the ache he’d left in her that had healed so slowly to begin with had just vanished and left no phantom pain.

Not that Cady’s complaining, the awareness that the last of the toxic cocoon of last year has finally sloughed off her shoulders with the rest of her lingering feelings for Aaron making her feel so much lighter as she slips off the dance floor and back towards the tables. Gretchen is sitting at their table looking like a Barbie in a glamorous silky magenta dress.

“Hey! I feel like I haven’t seen you at all!” Cady says, giving her a little hug around the shoulders before pulling out one of the chairs. “This is so crazy amazing, everyone’s been saying all night how cool it is.”

“Really?” Gretchen says, smiling even as anxiety seeps into her voice. “Wow that’s. I mean the arrangement of the tables could definitely be better, and— ”

“Gretchen, seriously, it’s amazing. Stop stressing and enjoy it. You worked really, really hard, you deserve to have fun.”

Gretchen looks like she’s physically restraining herself from making another critical comment about her hard work, so Cady decides a subject change might be her best bet.

“What’s that?” she asks, gesturing at the ribbon wrapped around her wrist like some kind of very minimalist corsage.

“Oh,” Gretchen says, looking down at her hand and opening her palm to reveal a flat gold medal. “It’s. It’s kind of silly actually.”

“Did you win an award?”

“Kind of?” Gretchen says. “Regina gave it to me. I mean. It’s sort of mine. She just gave it back.”

Cady squints. “Okay?”

“Remember how I told you I had that skating birthday in middle school?”

This only sounds vaguely familiar, but Cady nods anyways.

“Well at the end of it my mom gave me this, but um, well Regina said that bronze was more my colour and I thought. It seemed like a good friend thing to do at the time,” Gretchen lets out a nervous little laugh. “But I guess she realized that it was a pretty not nice thing to do and wanted to give it back.”

Cady looks over her shoulder to where Regina is taking selfies with Shane. On the one hand it would maybe be easy to chalk up Regina’s redemption world tour to just the shock of almost dying forcing her to reconsider her priorities, but Cady thinks that maybe all of this would have happened anyways. All of them trying harder to do better in the small pond of North Shore as the looming reality of larger ponds grows ever closer.

“Anyways,” Gretchen says, “it was nice of her to do it. It feels like I won Snowflake Soiree Queen. Not that that’s a thing. And not that I’d win it. Especially because I’m still not happy with this font!” She grabs one of the little itinerary cards off the table and waves it.

“I thought Kevin made you a font?” Cady asks.

“It didn’t work out,” Gretchen explains. “I guess he needs like four to six months to make a font. Which is totally legit I’m sure, he did such a good job with that font he made for you. So I was stuck using a stock option. Ugh. But it couldn’t be helped.”

Gretchen sets the itinerary back on the table, and Cady is suddenly aware of every single sound in the room. The bass pounding out of the DJ’s speakers, chairs squeaking and heels clicking on the floor mixing with the sound of hundreds of teen voices.

“Cady are you okay?” Gretchen says.

“I— ” Cady tries, the words slipping away from her like darting fish. “I need to— ” she starts and doesn’t get any farther before she’s out of her chair, out of the room and back into the rest of the museum. She has no idea where exactly she’s going, but it’s like Jason’s Halloween party, the instinct to go stronger than such inconsequential things as a plan.

“Cady?” someone says, and she whirls on her heel to see Caroline Krafft standing outside a set of double doors. “Everything good?”

“What?” Cady asks, blinking like she’s just woken up. “Yeah sorry. I. I’m just thinking about— A lot of things, actually.”

“Oh-kay,” Caroline says. “Neat.”

“What’s this room?” Cady asks, mostly just to change the subject.

Caroline fiddles with her staff lanyard. “It’s the sky theater. With like projections and stuff? We’re going to do a show in a bit but until then I get the super exciting job of making sure straight couples don’t sneak in here to get frisky.”

“So it’s empty right now?”

Caroline raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, why?”

Cady clenches her fists, nails making crescent moons into the skin of her palms. “Could you do me a huge favour?”

“Tell me what it is first.”

Cady exhales. “If I promise you that we’re not going to do anything, uh, frisky could me and Kevin talk in here for a few minutes? There’s something really important I need to talk to him about and I think if I wait I’m going to overthink the whole thing and panic and chicken out and then it’s going to be over and I’ll have totally fucked everything up.”

“Oh my god, are you pregnant!?” Caroline half-whispers.

“What!? No, oh my god. I’ve just, had some very important revelations.”

“About what?”

“The moon. Kind of.”

“So what, you want me to let Kevin in but stop everyone else?”

“Yeah, basically?”

Caroline squints at her behind her glasses. “Okay.”

“Okay!? Seriously?”

“Yeah why not, I’m bored. But you need to do me a favour too.”

Cady’s heart is stampeding in her chest. “Sure, sure. Anything.”

“Give my number to your friend?”

“My friend?” Cady squints. “Wait, Janis? Are you— wait sorry, that’s really rude. Ignore me. I’m just surprised she’s your type. Not like, not that way just more like. She’s so. Janis.”

Caroline shrugs. “I like a girl who knows what she’s about.” She hands Cady a calling card like the ones from the mathletes competition in November.

“Okay. Awesome. Great. Cool. I am rambling. Uh. Can I?” Cady gestures at the door with one hand while trying to shove the card into her clutch with the other.

Caroline nods, regarding her with mild interest, but Cady’s already pulling her phone out of her bag to text Kevin as the door shuts behind her.

It’s half dark in the theater, which is basically just a large dome, the walls lined with canvas material. Cady has to wipe her hands off on her dress twice before she can even unlock her phone, forcing herself to send the text without rereading it. Knowing that if she lets herself think about it too long she’s liable to just freeze in place like an oryx that’s wandered away from its herd.

Cady’s wound so tight that she fully jumps when she hears the doors open, Kevin slightly sweaty and rumpled from dancing, a little winded like he ran here the moment he got her text.

“Hey what’s happening?” Kevin says, reaching for her hand and then hesitating and patting her on the arm at the last minute. “Is it— do you wanna do it now?”

“We can. We can totally still break up and just go back to being friends and pretend none of this ever happened,” Cady says in a rush. “But before we do, can we— I need to tell you something because I think if I don’t do it now I will totally wuss out and I only figured this out like ten minutes ago so I’m a little. It’s not perfect.”

“Whoa, okay, okay,” Kevin says. “Cady slow down. I got about 40% of that.”

Cady takes a long deep breath. “Sorry.”

Kevin huffs a laugh. “S’okay. So go back. What did you want to tell me?”

Cady realizes abruptly that she maybe should have spent the long painful minutes she was waiting for Kevin to actually formulate what she was planning on saying to him. “Um, okay,” She says finally. “Do you remember how I told you about the moon thing? Like how you could see this thing over and over again but because it looks different than you think it should it’s hard to see that it’s the same thing? And like, I was staring at it and staring at it and then suddenly I just like. I saw it and it had been the same moon the whole time?”

“Yeeeaaaah,” Kevin says cautiously.

Cady shakes her head. “Shit, sorry, I’m doing this all wrong.”

“Cady, hey, it’s okay,” Kevin says. “Just slow down.”

“Okay, um, forget the moon.”

“Done. Forgotten. Never heard of it,” Kevin says seriously and Cady half wants to abandon the whole explanation right there and then and just, and just—

But that’s not fair to Kevin, and it’s not fair to her either, so she forces herself to look away from Kevin’s stupid adorable earnest expression and tries again. “Okay. Um, forget the moon thing. It’s like, you know the rule of twos?”

“Is that like how bad things always happen in threes? Or is it good things happen in threes?”

“No it’s, like. How sometimes you think one thing is happening but actually two things are happening? Like how ‘be yourself’ can be really encouraging but can also let you off the hook for being a shitty person.”

“Oh sure, okay,” Kevin nods. “I’ve never heard of that ‘rule’ thing but I think I get the gist.”

“Crap, I thought this was a whole widespread thing. Was it just a Karen thing? I think it was just a Karen thing. Anyways, sorry, doesn’t matter. I am saying so many things right now and none of them are the kind of thing I’m trying to say. Ack, blah,” Cady says. She can hear herself rambling but somehow that doesn’t do much to stop her from rambling. “Sorry, okay. Sorry, getting to the point now.”

Cady can see Kevin’s about to say something, probably that it’s okay and that she doesn’t have to apologize but Cady holds up a hand. “Can you just hold that thought for two seconds because if I don’t keep going I’m not going to get through this.”

She takes a deep breath. “I think there’s more than one reason that I thought us staying a couple until the end of the year was a good idea, and I think there’s more than one reason I asked you to pretend to be my boyfriend. And I think,” Cady says, more cautiously, looking down as she reaches for Kevin’s hand, “maybe it’s the same reason you spent six months making the most perfect beautiful font for me.”

There’s a long impossible silence, Cady staring down at their joined hands because she’s terrified if she looks up at Kevin she’s going to fully burst into tears, pushing down the urge to demand an immediate answer out of him.

“It was, it was actually more like eight months,” Kevin says finally. “I made a lot of special characters.”

Oh,” Cady says followed by a sound that is somehow both a laugh and a sob, pushed out of her completely involuntarily, like stepping on a scorpion. Or being hit by a bus.

Cady climbs her free hand up the silk of Kevin’s jacket, both of them shivering as her palm lands where the collar touches the warm skin of his neck. His tongue darts out of his mouth just slightly, touching his top lip gently like his mouth has gone dry.

“I’m um, I’m planning to kiss you now so if that’s something you don’t want you need to tell me to stop right now,” Cady says, leaning up ever so slowly, giving Kevin time to pull away or change his mind, but he just stares at her a little dazed, eyes not falling closed until she’s so close she can feel him sigh into the kiss.

It’s not like all the times they’ve kissed before. But it’s also not-not like all the times they’ve kissed before. Almost as chaste as their first kiss but with none of the awkwardness and an entirely different kind of restraint.

“Deja vu?” Kevin whispers when Cady forces herself to pull away.

“Deja vu,” she agrees softly, and suddenly his hands are on the small of her back and Cady is regretting her decision to wear flats because she wants her mouth closer to his right now; the same primal instinct that Caitlin Caussin had unearthed in her all those weeks ago clawing its way to the surface as she kisses him again. And then it all kind of spirals away from her. Kevin’s hands are in her hair and hers are clenched into the fabric of his jacket, tightening when Kevin sucks her lower lip into his mouth.

“Cady, fuck,” Kevin swears, as she abandons his mouth, her mouth leaving damp smears of tinted lip balm across his cheeks before she sucks a kiss to the underside of his jaw. He reaches out for her face with both hands, pulling her back up to his mouth, a smug thrill shooting through her at how much he wants this. How much he wants her.

He licks into her mouth, not too wet or too forcefully but just perfectly, and Cady feels one of her knees start to buckle. So maybe not wearing heels was the right call after all. One of Kevin’s hands has migrated to where her dress dips down and exposes her upper back and Cady feels goosebumps erupt over her entire body, hot and cold all at once. Kevin leans down, following Cady’s example and kissing down her jaw and her neck, lingering where the slope of her neck meets her shoulder. She hears herself make a truly embarrassing desperate noise, Kevin humming against her neck in approval, and she can just tell he’s totally smug about it.

“Oh shit,” Cady says suddenly.

“What!?” Kevin says immediately, his head popping up comically. “What’s wrong.”

“I promised Caroline Krafft we weren’t going to get frisky in here.”

“Get frisky?” Kevin echoes, raising an eyebrow.

“Hey, her words not mine,” Cady says, and then, annoyed, “fuck. I wanna make out more.”

Kevin snorts, and then snorts again, and then doubles over laughing, wiping at his eyes when he comes back up, “Sorry, sorry I’m not laughing at you, I just. I sort of half expect to wake up like, any second. It’s not every day the girl you’ve had a crush on for a year and a half is annoyed you don’t get to make out more in a planterium’s project theater.”

“Wait, what? You just said eight months.”

“Well yeah eight months on the font, but I’ve kind of had a thing for you way longer than that.”

“Wait but,” Cady does the mental math as she bends over to pick up her bag (when had she even dropped that?), “No, Marwan said you wanted to ask me out after state championships and that was eight months ago, give or take.”

Kevin’s eyes go wide. “What did Marwan say to you!?”

“He didn’t tell me exactly, more like I overheard him talking about it.”

“Don’t scare me like that, I swore them to secrecy,” Kevin says.

“Why?”

Kevin presses his lips together. “Because it’s kind of embarrassing that I’ve been, I’ve been totally crazy about you since you rolled up to Ms. Norbury’s class like an African math goddess last fall.”

Cady’s brain stalls like an overheating computer, but Kevin rushes in to fill the silence. “Like, obviously obviously, you know I didn’t. I didn’t know you that well so it was very lowkey. But then when you joined the team and we started hanging out and you were so just, you and clever and funny and sweet. That’s when it reached the font making levels of pining.”

“You liked me for eighteen months and didn’t say anything?” Cady says slowly. “I’m just. I’m just clarifying here.”

Kevin shrugs awkwardly. “I mean. Yeah? Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry I just. I’m still processing all of this. I only realized I was— that I liked you twenty minutes ago.”

“You realized you liked me and immediately dragged me off to make out in a sky theater?”

“There was no dragging, don’t exaggerate,” Cady says. “And it’s not like I planned the making out part. I was just going to tell you the whole revelation part.”

“You figured out you liked me and immediately were going to tell me?” Kevin says, a little awestruck. “What kind of emotionally in-tune pargon are you?”

“I mean, spend an entire year pretending to be someone you aren’t and telling the truth becomes shockingly appealing,” Cady says. “Besides,” she adds, rubbing a hand over her bare arm, “I sort of had a time pressure.”

“Oh crap, we were gonna break up,” Kevin says.

“I think maybe we still should,” Cady says gently, and then in a panic spiral as she catches sight of Kevin’s expression. “No, no I mean like, we should fake break up. Or, no that’s not really— I am so bad at this, why can’t I talk? Okay. Kevin. Will you please stop being my fake boyfriend so you can be my real boyfriend? If you want.”

“Well I guess if you’re offering— I’m kidding, no, I’m kidding. Yes, I will,” Kevin says, cupping her face in his big perfect hands and kissing her just once gently, Cady’s eyes fluttering shut.

“Hello, real girlfriend Cady,” Kevin says when she opens her eyes, thumbs gently rubbing along her cheeks.

“Hello real boyfriend Kevin,” she parrots, and leans up to kiss him again. And again. And once more for good luck. And maybe once more for—

They jump apart like startled gazelles as someone bangs twice loudly on the theater door. “Cady!? I’m kicking you out, they gotta set up to do the projection,” Caroline calls through the door.

“Do we look like we were getting frisky?” Kevin stage whispers to her.

“I think you kinda do,” Cady says, reaching up to push his disheveled hair out of his eyes and casting a half-hearted glance at where she’d wrinkled the silk of his jacket from balling it in her fists. “Please tell me I don’t have a hickey? Janis and Damian are going to have a field day.”

Kevin squints at her neck. “You’re all good babe,” he confirms, holding out a hand for her. Cady feels both happier and stupider than she ever has for never putting together until tonight why the whole pet name and hand holding combo had made her so happy over the last few months. And she’s honestly still so vibrantly happy that she doesn’t even care when Caroline gives them a judgmental once over, Cady pulling Kevin’s hand up and around over her shoulder to get his arm tight around her back. Part of her wants the rest of tonight to be just for her and Kevin, the gleaming shine of their new relationship like metal being scrubbed clean of the willful ignorance over their old fake one. But so much of her is just as happy to throw herself back into the softer incandescent love of their friends who are all clustered in little groups around their table.

“Well, well, well, look who’s back,” Tyler says, eyeing them suspiciously.

“Yeah what happened to you two?” Janis says, her feet kicked up on the back of one of the chairs.

“I mean, I just got a girl’s number for you,” Cady says. “But if you don’t want it we can totally go.”

“What!?” Janis says sitting up. “Who?”

“My friend Caroline thought you were hot, she wanted me to give you this,” Cady says pulling the calling card out of her bag. “But if you don’t want it…”

“Homophobia!” Janis exclaims, clambering to her feet to snatch the card from Cady. “Damian did you see that blatant homophobia!?”

“Hmm?” Damian says looking up from where he’s sitting with Gretchen, staring over her shoulder at her phone. “No, I was busy doing this very important Buzzfeed quiz where you make an omelette and it tells you what Disney park you should get married in.”

Janis sighs melodramatically and flops back down into her chair just as the familiar opening bars of a new song starts playing.

“YO!!!” Tyler exclaims, bounding out of his chair. “Gretchen came through!”

“Oh!” Cady says pleased. “This is that song! This is my song. Our song!”

“Honey no,” Damian says, as Marwan and Tyler practically scramble over each other on their way to the dance floor. “It’s a meme, it can’t be your song.”

“Hey, to each their own,” Jason says, draping himself over Damian’s shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. “I think it’s cute.”

“I don’t even care, c’mon, I wanna dance,” Cady says, tugging at first Gretchen and then Janis, who are enthusiastic and reluctant in about equal measure, Damian and Jason following in behind until they have a whole dance circle going in the middle of the floor, Cady catching glimpses of Regina and Shane around the edge of their group like fish flitting in and out of a reef.

Kevin grabs her hand spinning her again and again and again while everyone around her breaks down and starts scream-singing along, even Janis who has ended up in a weird dance trifecta with Gretchen and Karen. Cady’s so sweaty and her hair is falling out everywhere and she still can’t dance, and Janis’s complaints about it not really being a slow-song and not really being a fast song are kind of true.

And Cady knows in ten minutes she’ll be thirsty and sore and tired of dancing.

And she knows tomorrow she and Kevin are going to have to figure out the logistics of this whole actually dating situation.

And in a week she’ll probably break down and tell her friends about the whole fake relationship thing.

And in six months they’re all going to graduate and everything is going to change.

And in nine months Kevin is going to move out of state for college, and.

And.

And.

But right now Cady is surrounded by everyone she loves and her entire body is made of fizz and white light and she’s content to do exactly what the song says; and take some time to do the things she’s never had.