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if love is fire (then i’ll burn for you)

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If the universe happens to be in a particularly giving mood, Lauri has three chances to see that person every weekday. This is, of course, assuming that all of the stars in the galaxy align perfectly in her favor.

The first chance is during morning rush hour on the tube. Lauri leaves promptly at seven on the dot in hopes that that person will get on three stops into her commute. It’s quite tricky considering there’s no telling which exact door that person will walk through, but Lauri’s gone through enough practice trials that she’s comfortable betting on the fifth entrance from the front. Unfortunately, public transportation is about as reliable as the daily forecast, so she tries to not be too disappointed when three stops pass by and she can’t locate that person in the crowd.

The second chance has slightly better odds than the first. There’s an hour between ballet practice in the morning and Smith’s charcoals class in the afternoon that’s perfectly timed to the lunch break of the library across the street from the college. Sometimes, that person brings her coffee and salad over to sit by the same fountain on campus that Lauri eats her sandwich at. This encounter is entirely at the mercy of the weather, depending on whether it rains or shines, and Lauri prays for sun every day.

The third and final chance is a guarantee. It’s after charcoals class, when that person comes by to walk home with one of Lauri’s classmates, also Lauri’s best friend, and also, very tragically, that person’s boyfriend. Lauri gets it. Her best friend’s pretty cool—smart, calm, and reasonable, but will fight for your honor if the occasion calls for it. Everybody wants to date him. A perfect Prince Charming of a specimen.

At least, that’s what Tom’s always calling him, anyway. As a lesbian, Lauri tries to defer to someone with more expertise in this area, such as a guy who actually likes guys.

“I can’t even be mad about it,” Tom is saying one day over fries and a shake. He slurps loudly out of his cherry and vanilla swirl. “They literally look like they walked out of a picture book.”

She can’t argue against that. “They’re both really nice, too,” she says, remembering the time that Will and Eleanor co-ran a book drive as a collaboration between the college and the library. “Actual saints.”

“I could never do it,” Tom says with a hint of pity in his voice that Lauri’s all too familiar with. “Be friends with the guy who’s dating my crush.”

Lauri wrinkles her nose. “Crush? How old are you?”

Of course, she’ll never admit that she uses the same word to refer to Eleanor in her head. What else is she supposed to call her, anyway? Her flame? Torch? If there’s a fire anywhere in this situation, it’s inside her own heart, because that’s what her feelings are—a fire that burns brightly and can’t be extinguished, no matter how hard she tries. She was doomed the day that she accompanied Will to the library to pick up some books and saw Eleanor standing behind the front desk in a pretty white blouse and her hair done up in soft curls. “Oh, Will, what a cute friend you have!” Eleanor had said in that songbird voice of hers, and Lauri just about fainted on the spot.

Eleanor is her crush, because Eleanor is crushing her hopes and dreams just by existing, by being the most beautiful creature she’s ever beheld, and most importantly, by not being single.

If this all sounds a little melodramatic, well, at least she’s not Tom, pining after a guy who’s referred to Tom in the past as “like a younger brother.” Lauri was there when the incident happened (a New Year’s party hosted by the Blakes), and even though she might’ve been slightly tipsy, she remembers it wasn’t pretty. Being sibling-zoned is so much worse than being friend-zoned.

“It’s all because he’s mates with Joe,” Tom laments, waving a fry around. “That’s my problem.”

Here they go again. Lauri sinks further down into her chair and props her feet up onto the empty seat next to her, getting ready to endure the ensuing wave of complaints from Tom’s mouth.

“I love Joe, but you know what he’s like. He dotes too much. Always afraid I’m gonna forget something or get stabbed on the street or burn the flat down in his absence, or something.” Tom narrows his eyes, then crosses his arms. “Bet he’s the one putting those ideas in Will’s head.”

“You did forget your portfolio that one time,” Lauri reminds him. Tom had to convince Erinmore that, yes, he did in fact finish drawing the maps of Écoust-Saint-Mein and the surrounding Croisilles Woods by last night, and no, this was not a rouse he was using to try and get an extension.

“I was studying for art history!” Tom argues. “My head was full of dates and names and numbers! You know how Mackenzie can get with those exams, the bastard.”

“You also did leave the stove on,” Lauri continues, counting off on her fingers. “Joe had to text me to tell me to yell at you because you left your phone at home.” She slaps Tom’s arm with the back of her hand. “Which is another thing you forgot! Who forgets their phone these days?”

“Ri,” Tom protests, rubbing at his arm. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”

Lauri stares at the pout on Tom’s face and tries not to laugh, not this time, but ultimately fails. She’s never going to be able to get used to the sight. No wonder Will treats him like a kid—Tom certainly acts like one. “Fine. At least you haven’t gotten stabbed yet, I’ll give you that.”

“Yet?” Tom challenges. “Come on. We’re in this together. This sad, pathetic excuse of an unrequited love. If we never find anybody, we’ll be stuck with each other until we’re old and grey.”

Lauri hits him on the head with her sketchpad. “You could do worse, you prick.”

 

~

 

It’s been like this for the entire semester thus far. Lauri wakes up, tries to see Eleanor three times a day, gets food with Tom to recharge and feel sorry for themselves if they’re not swamped with work, then goes home and does it all again the next day. The weekends are devoted to sleeping and actually doing the things she’s supposed to be doing, like practicing her dance routine, or sketching the miscellaneous items in her barren flat, or hanging out with Will.

“I feel like we don’t see much of each other anymore,” Will tells her one Saturday on their way to the cinema. “Tom’s stolen you away from me.”

“He’s got less going on than you do, Mr. I’m-Going-To-Complete-My-Thesis-In-One-Year-Instead-Of-Two,” Lauri says. “His life’s not that complicated. I feel bad for him.”

“Ouch, Ri.” Will laughs, low and light. “That’s harsh.”

“Don’t be jealous. You’ve still got the best friend spot, that’s never gonna change,” Lauri says. “Can’t help it if you’ve got a girl now, anyway.”

Will makes that face he always makes whenever she mentions Eleanor, the one that’s one dash of confusion and another helping of embarrassment. “It’s really not like that with me and El.”

Lauri takes in the blush growing on Will’s face and sighs internally before paying for a tub of popcorn. Who does he think he’s fooling? “Whatever you say, William.”

Will digs his hand into the tub and picks up a handful. “I hate it when you call me that.”

“I know.” Lauri throws a few kernels at Will’s head. “That’s why I do it.”

 

~

 

Anyway, the reason this is all relevant is because when she walks into charcoals class on Monday, Eleanor is standing in the middle of the room, hair still done up in curls, and barefoot.

It’s not four yet, right? Lauri looks at the clock, then compares the time with the one blinking back at her on her phone. It’s definitely ten minutes before one. What’s going on?

She glances at the words scribbled onto the chalkboard at the front of the room: NUDE MODEL PRACTICE DAY ONE.

Oh. Now that she’s thinking about it, Smith might’ve mentioned something about that last Friday. It was probably after the bell had already rung, because that’s when Eleanor would’ve stopped by to retrieve Will on their way out, and Lauri would’ve had her eyes stuck on Eleanor’s back as she exited. It was certainly not the time to be paying attention to Smith, who is always going to be significantly less interesting than Eleanor’s back.

Lauri walks in a daze over to an easel in the farthest row in the back and slumps down. Thank God they don’t have assigned seats. For a minute, she’d debated sitting front and center, because—seeing Eleanor unclothed? When the hell is she going to get this chance again? Possibly never. Definitely never. But if she sat in the front, she’d never get past the initial sketch, and she’d fail today’s class.

It would probably be worth it.

Suddenly, Will appears at the easel to her right. “What’s wrong?” he asks casually.

Her ears perk up, and she looks over at Will suspiciously. What’s with that tone? “Nothing. Did you know about this?”

“Oh, I didn’t mention it to you on Saturday?” Will asks, tapping a finger against his chin. “Could’ve sworn I did. Must’ve slipped my mind, then. Sorry.”

Something smells fishy. Lauri pokes at his ankle with her foot. “Why are you apologizing? Also, how are you okay with these horny men staring at her like that?”

“Hey, all I did was mention the opportunity to her.” Will raises his hands. “Volunteering was completely her decision. I fully respect it.”

Then, either by accident or by design, a glint begins to emerge in Will’s eyes. Will has only gotten this look once before in their many years of friendship, and that was when Will asked her to go to the library with him to pick up his books.

Wait a minute. Does that mean…?

Just as the bell rings, Will promptly says, “I’ll accept your thanks later,” then turns to face his easel.

Lauri does the same, because…well, what else is she supposed to do? She forces her eyes up to look at Eleanor standing in the middle of the room, and finds Eleanor looking right back at her with a dazzling smile and a small wave of the hand.

Smith starts saying something—Lauri hears words like model and practice and they get three sheets of paper to produce something they’re satisfied with by the end of class, but her bandwidth is hit when Eleanor pulls off her frock and reveals she wasn’t even wearing anything underneath.

Lauri’s hands freeze on their way to picking up a piece of charcoal. A quietude settles over the room as everybody around her begins scratching at their easels, but she’s still suspended in a half-motion, like an automaton that needs to be wound up. Something like a chuckle sounds out beside her and that’s what gets her to become unstuck. She turns and sees Will with one hand hard at work, and the other stifling a poorly hidden grin on his face.

“You should probably get started,” Will advises in a low whisper. Lauri nearly dumps her entire box of charcoals onto his head, but charcoals are expensive, and she’s a poor art student, so she doesn’t.

Instead, she runs her eyes over Eleanor’s silky-smooth skin that’s white as snow, Eleanor’s gentle curves that’re soft as cotton, and Eleanor’s pubic hair that’s as dark as chocolate.

Lauri swallows, then begins to sketch. She should’ve sat closer to the front.

 

~

 

Three hours finally pass by, and she’s honestly not sure if it’s too soon or not soon enough. What she does know, however, is that Will is squeezing her shoulder and whispering into her ear, “Good luck.”

She glares at him as he walks away, though it doesn’t last long because Eleanor puts her frock back on and begins heading in her direction.

What does she want? Lauri starts unclipping her sketches on reflex, but Eleanor moves too fast and puts a hand over the easel, pinning the sheets of paper in place.

“Lauri, right?” Eleanor asks, and her voice is as lovely as Lauri remembers. “Won’t you let me see?”

Eleanor’s eyes are wise, curious, perceptive. Lauri feels her heart opening against her will to reveal all of her deepest secrets, and she doesn’t even feel scared or ashamed. She nods, then sits back, letting fate dictate whatever’s going to happen next.

Eleanor steps around the easel, steps closer, and Lauri can smell the faint remnants of Eleanor’s perfume, a purple lavender that reminds her of her hometown in France.

“You’re very good,” Eleanor says after a few wordless minutes. She smiles, a gesture that’s as mysterious as the enigma of Eleanor’s entire being. Lauri wants to dive head in and unravel the truth of her existence.

“Will’s the better artist by far,” Lauri says, because it’s a fact. “He won all those contests.”

Eleanor hums. “I like yours better. It seems more…” she trails off, running a finger over Lauri’s rendition of her lips, her breasts, her hips, and then lower, down to her…

Lauri flushes. “More what?”

“More personal.” Eleanor removes her hand from the easel and hovers it over where Lauri’s hands are clutching her knees. “More intimate.”

Is this really happening? Lauri stares at Eleanor’s hand that’s so close, yet so far out of reach.

“You’re so quiet,” Eleanor says with a hint of humor. “Different from what Will’s told me about you.”

Lauri looks up, feeling bold. “And what has he told you about me?”

“That you might fancy getting tea with me right now.” Eleanor drops her fingers onto Lauri’s. “Is he right?”

Lauri turns her palm upward and laces her fingers with Eleanor’s. “Pains me to say it, but I think he is.”

 

~

 

You are one crafty son of a bitch, Lauri texts to Will when she arrives home.

Just looking out for my best girl.

I take it you two got on fine?

Something tells me you already know the answer to that.

But, thanks. I owe you.

Nonsense.

Lauri smiles, huffing out a laugh. What a big softie. She’s about to plug her phone into the wall to charge it for the night when another notification pops up.

Although…

There is something you can do.

Anything, she immediately sends back. Will hardly ever asks for anything. Whatever it is, it’s the least she can do to repay him.

I heard that you and Tom are going to a concert for that band he likes next weekend.

Lauri pauses. How did he find out? Did Joe tell him?

Yes?

I was thinking it would be terribly unfortunate if you suddenly had urgent plans at the last minute.

Lauri stares at the text, reading it and rereading it until the words begin to blur together. Is this…?

Those tickets were expensive. I’m not just giving mine to you.

I’ll buy it off you.

For twice the price, even.

Deal?

Lauri smirks. One crafty son of a bitch, indeed.

Deal.