The undeclared war for Tennessee Thomas was a few skirmishes in before Z realised that was what they were doing. Up until then she'd been acting on impulse.
Charlotte was leaning her hip against Tennessee's table in the library when Z got there, and Tennessee had already packed up her work. Tenn had a free right before final bell because of the Graphic Composition subject she was taking at the local college. She could go home early, but she didn't have a car and the buses didn't run till school let out, so she usually studied in the school library instead. Z always went to meet her right after class, but sometimes Charlotte got there first.
"Hey," Z said, bumping Tennessee's shoulder with her school bag and hopping up to sit on the table. "Are we studying at mine tonight? I have this creeping feeling of doom about that World Geography paper for Wednesday." She ignored Charlotte completely, lightly kicking Tennessee's side with the point of her shoe to make sure she was paying attention.
Tennessee leaned away from the jabbing foot, laughing and making her hair swing out. "Last time you had a creeping feeling of doom you got 95% and a gold star, you big faker." She tucked her hand around Z's ankle, tugging her down. Z unbalanced and had to catch herself on Tennessee's shoulder.
"I think the gold star was to make me feel better about that last five percent," Z said mournfully. "Mr Garland is kind like that." She curled her arm around Tennessee's neck, using it as leverage to shift down till she was sitting on Tennessee's knee; she was already half off the table, after all. Tennessee made a protesting sound and spat out a mouthful of Z's bobbed hair.
"You are so creepy," Charlotte said. There was an edge to her voice. "Did you sit in Mr Garland's lap too? Is that how you got your gold star?"
Z pushed Tennessee's hair back from her cheek, not letting herself hunch her shoulders. It wasn't even like that was a hit; Charlotte was off her game. Z tilted to look at her. "Was he good for you?" she asked. She widened her eyes. "I noticed your grade wasn't quite so high."
Tennessee pulled her cheek away from Z's fingers. "Mr Garland is really nice," she said, with that censorious mixture of sadness and disappointment that she was so good at. "Don't imply awful things about him, you two."
Z wanted to point out that Charlotte had started it. She bit her tongue, pushing herself back up onto the table. She kept her feet in Tennessee's lap, though.
"So, are we? Studying at mine?"
Tennessee shot a look at Charlotte.
"Actually," Charlotte said, lifting her chin, "Tennessee and I are studying at mine tonight. Math exam. You'd be a bit lost, I'm afraid."
Z narrowed her eyes. "You didn't tell me about that," she accused Tennessee. Tennessee was biting her lip, her eyes pleading.
"She can actually do things without you, you know," Charlotte snarled.
Z wanted to claw her face. She crossed her arms, looking at Tennessee. "Isn't your math test on Friday? That means the Geography paper is due first."
"We always study for math exams together," Charlotte returned. She smiled, her voice sing-song as she added, "It's a tradition. This time I'm going to help her with probabilities and she's going to help me with linear algebra."
"She was going to help me with contour mapping," Z shot back.
Charlotte lowered her lashes, her hip a sharp jut. "Oh, come on," she said. "Help you? Aren't you a gold star student?"
Z curled her hands into tight balls. "The gold star thing was a joke, you do realise." It had been Tennessee's joke, even. Z wanted Tennessee to chime in and say so, be on Z's side, but she never would.
"Oh, was it?" Charlotte asked. "It can be so hard to tell, with you. You think the weirdest fucking things are funny, Berg."
Tennessee pulled her knees up, curling her arms around them. "I did say I'd study with Charlotte tonight," she mumbled.
Charlotte's smile flashed out. Z's stomach twisted hard and hateful.
"Come on," Charlotte said, grabbing Tennessee's hand. "We're going to miss my bus if we don't hurry." She tugged Tennessee up, dislodging Z's feet; Z was forced to tip back and lift her feet up out of the way, doubly betrayed.
Tennessee gave Z a small wave. "I'll see you at school tomorrow?" she offered.
That hardly made up for not getting her tonight. "Yeah," Z said, hearing the desolate note in her own voice.
Tennessee gave her a lopsided smile and let Charlotte tug her away. Z leaned forward, crossing her arms over her knees, and narrowed her eyes at their retreating backs.
All right, she thought, with a new sense of clarity. That round to you, Charlotte.
The fissure between Z Berg and Charlotte Froom had probably looked sudden. The screaming fight outside the cafeteria was certainly the part the rest of the school remembered, in the kind of vivid colours and surround sound that meant Z still overheard gossip about it. That fight was when people assumed they'd stopped being friends.
The truth was that they'd been clashing more and more before then, though. It felt as though all last year they'd been growing up miles faster than before, and Z was noticing all the ways she and Charlotte were growing up differently. She loved Charlotte, but they hardly had a conversation without it turning into a spat; it was only Tennessee who kept the three of them a trio, kept the cracks all smoothed over. Partly because Tennessee hated conflict, Z thought, and partly, maybe, because she'd already been able to see what it would be like if Z and Charlotte really did fall out, and Tenn was caught in the middle.
Anyway, then Z had trashed Charlotte's car.
Charlotte was the only one of them who had a car, and it was a shonky, bad-tempered little two-seater that they could only all fit in if one of them squeezed into the middle seat like a kid; always Z or Charlotte, since Tennessee had the kind of legs that (a) made boys and girls watch her longingly when she walked away, and (b) unfairly disqualified her from anything that required squeezing yourself into small spaces. The three of them traded off designated driver status, but Tennessee only alternated from shotgun to driver's seat, with a smug grin.
Z didn't drink when she was designated driver, but someone had spiked the non-alchoholic punch that night. And okay, she should have known that, and she shouldn't have had a second glass, but it was so boring to be the only sober person in the room, and that night Ryan and Spencer weren't even there to swap snide remarks with about the kids getting wasted around them. (Z assumed that on nights she wasn't designated driver Ryan and Spencer made the same viciously funny comments about her, but she was fine with that, as long as she was actually having fun.)
She'd had fun that night, up until Tennessee made a stupid giggly joke on the ride home and Z turned around to laugh at her and accidentally turned the wheel around at the same time, sending them hurtling through somebody's mailbox and over their inflatable wading pool into a tree.
Nobody was hurt, which Z thought people could have paid more attention to.
She hadn't had the money to fix Charlotte's car, of course, and maybe she would have been more contrite about it, but Charlotte had been snide all night, and it was funny to end up in a wading pool with Decepticons all over it. Who put Decepticons on a kiddie pool? It was like they actually wanted it to be attacked by a rogue car.
Charlotte didn't see the funny side. The more Z laughed about it, or about offering up her pitiful savings (currently $34, since she'd spent the last chunk of her birthday money on that massive shoe sale the week before), the less funny Charlotte thought it was.
It hadn't been Z's finest hour. She should have borrowed the money from her parents and got a job to pay it back, she did know that. But Charlotte had been being such a bitch about the whole thing. At first Z hadn't been able to bring herself to offer.
After that things had died down for a week or so. Z had actually thought maybe Charlotte was getting over it. She had decided that she would find a way to get the money for repairs, and present it to Charlotte as a surprise, as soon as she could. That had been the plan.
Charlotte still didn't have a car, even now.
Now that Z only had one best friend, it was ... different. It was as though everything about being around Tennessee was heightened. Z wasn't sure if it was because Tennessee was the only one left, or if that feeling had always been there, and being part of a trio had only disguised it.
She was watching Tenn now. They were supposed to be conjugating Spanish verbs, and Tennessee had her head bent over her work, her hair falling forward in a curtain that obscured her page. There was a good chance she really was copying out columns of verbs, although there was an equal chance that she was inking sad mermaids into her margins.
Z wanted to reach out and thread Tennessee's hair back from her cheeks. It was probably getting in her mouth, and Tenn was always annoyed with herself when she realised she'd been chewing on it – it gave her split ends. Z just wanted to see her face, though, to know if she was smiling.
She stared at the back of Tennessee's neck instead, where her hair had slipped to the side and a little bit of skin showed above her collar. Tennessee had dropped her shoulders, her whole back twisted in a way that made one of her shoulder blades stand out in a softly defined line against her sweater. That line was doing funny things to Z's insides.
Z tore a piece of paper off the corner of her notebook and wrote in loopy cheerful text:
I wanna go dancing this weekend. The Bell House Sat night?
She stretched as though she was yawning and subtly pushed the note under Tennessee's crooked arm.
Tennessee jumped, then slid the note over to where she could read it. She threw Z a quick, bright look, which had basically been the point of the exercise. A moment later the note came back, turned over and written on on the other side.
Estoy estudiando. ¡Es muy importante!
Z grinned and curled the note into her pocket. She figured that was as good as a yes.
Z reminded Tennessee about Saturday night a couple more times over the week, to make sure she hadn't forgotten. The first time Tennessee nodded vaguely, then looked at her watch and pushed back her chair because Charlotte had just come on lunch. (The two lunch periods overlapped by fifteen minutes. Z guessed she was glad she got Tennessee for the longer period, but it still cut when Tennessee abandoned her every day to go hang out with Charlotte for those fifteen minutes.) Today Charlotte beamed when she saw Tennessee and reached out to grab her hand, writing something on the back of it with a marker pen while she waited in the cafeteria line. She rolled her eyes at Tenn; Z was pretty sure she was saying, So you don't forget. Z tried not to be curious about what their plans were.
The second time Z mentioned going out dancing Saturday they were packing up the music room after class. Tennessee doffed the tambourine she'd just picked up like a hat. "Saturday is a very long way away," she said gravely. "Won't you dance with me now, Miss Berg?" Then she seized Z and began to dance her around the room, Z laughing helplessly as she tried to follow Tenn's lead.
Behind the timpani Tennessee whirled and dipped her. Z widened her eyes, batting her lashes up at her. "This is so sudden," she murmured. She was dizzy and exhilarated.
Tennessee set her face into a scowl. "My rough manly urges overwhelm me sometimes," she husked. Then she tried to swing Z back up to her feet. Her arms trembled, Z's ankles got tangled, and they both tumbled to the floor. Tennessee couldn't get her breath for laughing for more than twenty minutes.
So Z was pretty sure they had plans Saturday night, anyway.
They kept on having plans until seven in the evening on Saturday, when Z added one last swathe of kohl to her eyes, glared critically at herself in the mirror, and called Tennessee to coordinate getting to the club.
"Oh," Tennessee said. "I'm actually ... not feeling very well." She sounded guilty. Z stayed silent. Tennessee coughed unconvincingly. "I'm sorry," Tennessee said. "I think I'm going to stay in, tonight. I might just curl up with a hot water bottle."
"Oh," Z said. She hated how small her voice sounded. "Okay." They hung on for a moment longer in awkward silence. "Feel better soon," Z said in a rush, and disconnected.
She looked at herself in the mirror again. Her eyes were even bigger than usual in the heavy kohl. They looked wide and tragic. She thought about calling around to see if any of her other friends wanted to go dancing, but a miserable feeling coiled in her belly at the idea. She tossed her phone onto the bed and put her iPod headphones in instead, turning The Shangri-Las up loud. Boppy Sixties heartbreak drowned out everything else.
On Monday Z was loitering (eavesdropping) around the corner from Tennessee's locker. She heard somebody march up a moment after Tennessee got there, then Charlotte's voice demanding, "Why did you blow me off on Saturday night?"
Z sank back against the wall. Tennessee hadn't gone out with Charlotte.
"I was sick," Tennessee answered. It sounded like it wasn't the first time she'd answered – there was an annoyed thread to her voice.
"Right," Charlotte said. "You're a shitty liar, Tennessee Thomas."
(Tennessee hadn't chosen Charlotte. Not yet.)
Tennessee didn't say anything, and Z heard Charlotte stomping around a bit more, opening and closing her own locker.
"See you at lunch?" Charlotte asked finally, her voice quieter.
"With little tiny bells on," Tennessee said, the relieved grin bright in her voice.
Z waited till Charlotte was safely gone before she rounded the corner. Tennessee shot her a wary look, tensed for attack, and Z wanted to sulk at her but she couldn't be more petulant than Charlotte. She hugged one arm around Tennessee's waist. "Hey, hey," she said, tilting her head up. "I hope you're feeling better?"
The beam Tennessee gave her was worth it. "Like a newborn spring robin!" Tennessee exclaimed, which made no sense but which made Z lean into her and laugh anyway.
If Z had found the money for Charlotte's car quickly, they would probably have been friends again in a few weeks. But maybe they would have just fought about something else. Every single thing Charlotte said had annoyed Z on some days, this last year before the fight.
It didn't happen, anyway. Suarez's party happened instead, and Z went without Charlotte or Tennessee, and the couple who'd offered Z a lift home got into a screaming row with each other and left Z in the parking lot attached to an out of business car wash while they went to settle ... Z wasn't actually sure what they were settling, or where, because she was a little drunk, but the important thing was that she'd been left in a parking lot, and actually, yeah, the other important thing was that she was drunk. And it was three in the morning. And her cell phone was almost out of credit.
She called Charlotte.
She got through. She was a bit rambly because she was drunk, but she definitely told Charlotte where she was, and that she'd been abandoned.
"I don't even have a car anymore," Charlotte said, her voice thin.
"You can borrow your parents' car!" Z objected.
Charlotte breathed out heavily through her nose. "Right," she said. "Right. Oh, fuck you, Z." Then there was the dial tone. Z's phone had no more credit.
Z still thought Charlotte would come. She waited, with her knees hunched up and her arms around them, shivering, till some guys pulled up and idled by the curb, drunkenly calling out the windows of their car. Then she started walking.
Her coat was too short and her skirt was too short and she was freezing, and it was four miles to Tennessee's place. There was another group of guys on the way there, yelling from her car, raucous, making her heart thud with fear. When she finally got to Tennessee's place and crawled in through her window she was tired and achy and cold, and the only thing that she was sure of was that she was never going to talk to Charlotte again.
Tennessee lifted her head from the bed, sleep rumpled and a bit alarmed, and Z burst into tears.
That had been three months ago. Z still felt the same coil of betrayal in her stomach when she remembered it.
"Can you not just ... give it a rest?" Tennessee asked, pillowing her cheek on her arm. She was sprawled on the grass, the daisies she'd collected lying in a heap next to her. She'd got as far as threading some behind her ears, but no further. "I keep expecting you to make up, but you don't."
Z was sitting cross-legged, neatly threading her own daisies into a chain. They were only making daisy chains because neither of them wanted to stop lazing in the sunshine and actually go and do something, but Z didn't see that that was any reason not to do it properly. She kept a needle and thread in her bag for hem emergencies anyway. She pushed the needle through a daisy stem with a jerk. "You don't forgive some things," she said darkly. She scowled down, spearing another flower with the needle. "You don't deliberately fuck over your friends and then expect them to still be your friends."
"I didn't know there was a rulebook," Tennessee said.
Z didn't answer. Tennessee sighed and rolled over, scooping up her daisies. A moment later Z looked up from her perfect chain to find Tennessee stuffing tiny white daisies between her lips. She widened her eyes at Z and lurched to her knees, giving a horrific zombie groan and spilling daisies like rabid froth from her mouth.
Z broke into husky giggles and grabbed her, grappling her to the ground as Tennessee spewed daisies. Z sat on her while Tennessee thrashed and pulled horrible faces, till she choked on a daisy and started to cough. Then Z rolled off, laughing at Tennessee as she fished the stem out of her mouth, poking her tongue out and making little th-th-th sounds like a cat spitting up grass.
It shouldn't have been sexy. Z wanted to drag her down and kiss her anyway. Instead she reached out with her chain and carefully crowned Tennessee with it.
Tennessee stopped spitting and bowed her head. "Thank you," she said gravely. "Your queen is pleased with you."
"You have a daisy in your nose," Z told her. "You freak."
"It's a thing," Tennessee said, waving a hand. "Like a nose stud. I wear a daisy nose stud now. Daisy nose studs are cool."
Z sat on the top step of the staircase in her house, looking at the contacts on her phone. She was thinking about deleting Charlotte's number, for the fiftieth time at least. Every time she scrolled through her contacts it was there, obnoxiously close to the beginning of the alphabet. She carefully pressed down with her thumb.
Delete this contact? her phone asked.
She hovered her thumb over the yes, then finally skipped across and hit no. She pressed the call button instead, on impulse.
She thought better of it two rings into the call and hit disconnect. Then she dropped her phone into her lap and chewed her lip as she stared at it. She felt as if it could bite her.
Charlotte rang back ten minutes later. "This is a new low, " she said in place of any kind of greeting. "You're prank calling me now?"
Z faked confusion. "Charlotte?" She could have pocket dialled; she might not have meant to call Charlotte at all. Charlotte wasn't buying it.
"You're about six years too late for it to be funny, you know. Tenn and me went through our prank calling phase when we were eleven."
Z curled in tighter around the phone. Unfair, she thought desperately. Charlotte had thirteen years of best friend memories with Tennessee. Z barely had three. She was going to go down kicking, though.
"Actually, you're wrong. Eleven wasn't the last time for Tennessee. Didn't she ever tell you about the time Mr Gallagher yelled at her for knocking over her kit in band? And then she stayed over and we pranked him twelve times till he disconnected his phone?"
There was a pause. Z could hear Charlotte breathing out. Then, "No," Charlotte said. "She never mentioned that. I guess it was boring."
Z shrugged. "Well, we got pretty trashed that night," she drawled. "Everything's hilarious when you're out of it, you know, at the time."
"With Tenn there?" Charlotte said. "Yeah, I imagine." There was a cruel edge of laughter in her voice. "We got drunk together the very first time, you know. Well, I got tipsy, Tenn got falling down wasted, on exactly the same amount of stolen Jack Daniels. That was pretty hilarious. My mom came in and Tennessee totally hid under the bed so she couldn't tell she was drunk. Luckily Mom just thought she was fucking weird."
Z's stomach swooped. She refused to ask whether that had been before or after she met Tennessee and Charlotte. "Oh, right," she said. She chewed her lip fiercely, and came up with, "I think the first time I saw Tennessee get drunk was that night we snuck into Cat's Paw to see Alex's band. You were sick or something." She grinned, exultant as she remembered. "That was a wicked night. This guy was trying to sleaze on me while I was waiting for Tennessee, then Tenn came out of the bathroom and totally threw up on his shoes. Best ever."
Charlotte made a sound in her throat. "That's a beautiful story. Wow."
Z kicked her feet on the stairs, leaning back. "I thought so."
There was a pause. "I was Tennessee's first kiss," Charlotte said.
Z's ankles hit the step as she jerked upright. "What."
Charlotte didn't sound as triumphant as she should have. "When we were twelve," she said, still stilted. "Just to practise. We were worried we might get invited to a party that had kissing games."
Z felt as though all her thoughts had slowed down. "Oh," she said. She had nothing to compete with that; none of her stories would come close.
Her eyes were prickling. She blinked them, refusing to cry.
"You're such a fucking idiot," Charlotte said. "You don't even. I know Tennessee's biggest fucking secret, and you can't even guess." Z couldn't understand why Charlotte sounded so miserable.
She hunkered down on the stairs, not answering; not hanging up, either. Charlotte was breathing on the other end of the line, her breaths quick, not hanging up either. Everything in Z was twisted tight.
"Tennessee still thinks we're going to make up," Z said at last. Her voice was so quiet she wasn't sure Charlotte would even make out the words.
There was a cloth scraping sound, as though Charlotte was sliding the phone against her collar, moving her head side to side the way she did sometimes. "Maybe we will," she said at last. Her voice wasn't conciliatory, despite the words. She sounded tired, and fierce, all at once. "Years from now, when we've graduated, got out of this town. Maybe I'll forget what a righteous bitch you are, or I won't care anymore."
Z tried to imagine that; if there could be a time when the tangle of feelings balled in her stomach would come unknotted and not matter so much. If everything Charlotte said and did, every joke she didn't laugh at, would no longer rub and chafe the way it had this last year, and if the two years of being best friends before that would come to weigh heavier on the scales than this right now.
"I guess," she said quietly. "I –" She shook her head, lowering her voice still further. "I guess I'll see you on the flipside, then." She disconnected before Charlotte could answer.
Tennessee kissed Charlotte two years before Z met them. Two years before Z even had a chance.
Z couldn't look at Tennessee and think about anything else, at school the next day. Tennessee started to give her weird looks in English, and Z realised she was staring at Tennessee's mouth. Z ducked her head, feeling heat rise in her cheeks. She was glad her fringe had started to grow out, shaggy and dark at the roots. It hid her eyes when she needed it to.
Tennessee was still looking at her oddly when they got out of school. Z shot her glances under her lashes, nerving herself. She still surprised herself when she grabbed Tennessee's arm just shy of the school gates and tugged her around the side of the building, under the outward jut of the science lab windows.
Tennessee laughed and let herself get tugged. "What?" she asked, as Z positioned her against the brick wall.
"I was just thinking," Z said. Then she went up on her toes, her hands on Tennessee's shoulders, and kissed her.
Her heart was pounding, her breath juddering against Tennessee's mouth. Tennessee had gone still all over. Z moved her mouth, tentatively sliding her lower lip against Tennessee's. Tennessee opened her mouth in a silent gasp, and Z spooked, dropping away and back down to her heels. She curled her hands back at her sides.
Tennessee was staring at Z; blinking to focus. She touched her mouth. "What?" she said again, her voice barely making a sound.
Z took a moment to remember what she was doing. Her breath was coming fast. "I talked to Charlotte last night," she said. "She told me you two practised kissing once."
Tennessee's eyes widened, beginning to look hurt. Z hurried on. "I just thought – that's not fair. And we should kiss, to – to make it fair. Only I think we should do it again, because that wasn't a very good kiss."
"That's – what? You –" Tennessee stepped away, pushing her hands out as though she would physically push Z away. "No! No, we're not going to – don't try."
Z felt as though the distance Tennessee was putting between them was stretching miles. "It's just a kiss," she objected.
Tennessee took another step back. Her face was white and awful. "Stop it," she said. "Stop –" Her voice scraped, and she swallowed. "Stop talking. I don't want to talk to you right now."
"Tenn –" Z said, but Tennessee had turned, walking quick and hunch-shouldered.
"Wait," Z called. Tennessee sped up, almost running. The flood of students at the gates hid her from view, and Z lost her.
Tennessee wouldn't answer her phone.
Z had fucked up, she'd fucked up so bad. She'd never seen Tennessee that pale.
She tossed in bed, her pillow over her head, squashing her cheek. Tennessee was going to make up her mind, after this. This was going to be the thing that made her make up her mind.
Z couldn't sleep.
She flung out a hand to her bedside table, picking up her phone to make sure that it was on. The display came alive under her fingers. There were no missed calls and no messages. It was just past midnight.
She tried calling Tennessee again, even though Tenn would be asleep and would probably throw the phone on the floor if she hadn't already turned it off. It rang out. Z closed her eyes, pressing the number pad against her forehead.
Then she pushed herself up and scrambled out of bed, dressing as quickly as she could.
The walk to Tennessee house's should have been long enough and dark enough to give her second thoughts, but Z was still swallowing down the same reckless desperation when she finally tapped on Tennessee's window.
All of the lights were out, but Tennessee couldn't have been asleep. She came to the window too quickly. The streetlamps on the road behind Z were clear enough to light Tennessee's face, behind the glass.
Her eyes widened when she pushed the curtains aside and saw Z. For a moment she looked happy, and Z felt her chest expand with hope. Then Tennessee bit her lip; not frowning, but with something bleak coming into her eyes. She ducked her head, unhooking the catch, then pushed the window to the side.
Z rocked on her heels and toes. "Can I come in?"
Tennessee hesitated. "No," she said. "My parents are asleep." She hoisted herself up, slinging a leg over the windowsill. Z moved out of the way. Tennessee stepped carefully out of the way of the flower beds, her eyes on the ground. She was wearing the pyjamas her grandma had given her, with the candy cane colours. She refused to look at Z. The patchy darkness and the pale light of the streetlamps made her a strangely distant figure.
"Don't choose Charlotte," Z blurted. "I'll apologise for anything you want, I'll lay off, I won't – I won't do anything like that again, but." Z could barely breathe. "Don't say you choose her now."
Tennessee lifted her face. The glow of the streetlamp caught her face, illuminating her frustration. "I'm not going to," she said. "Would you just – oh lord, Z. Would you please stop this? I'm not going to choose Charlotte."
She was pissed off – that was clear in her tone. Z still felt a rush of relief at the words, the worst of her fear subsiding.
"You can't say that," she objected. "You might choose her. You know I can be a jerk, and – and Charlotte was your first friend. You've been friends for forever, and I can't touch that, and it would be easier, you know it would, if you didn't have to leave her every time you wanted to hang out with me."
Tennessee wheeled on her. "Yes," she said. "Yes, it would. It was easier when you liked each other." Z opened her mouth, and Tennessee rolled over her, her deliberate enunciation tripping up as she talked. "It was easier when you didn't squabble over me as if I was a doll instead of a person, and it didn't feel as if everything you did was about defying Charlotte instead of – it was easier." She was breathing hard. "But I'm not going to choose –"
"You might," Z said.
Tennessee glared. "I'm not. I'm not going to choose Charlotte because I already chose you."
There was a very long silence. Z tried to process the words. The flush slowly faded from Tennessee's cheeks, till she was as pale as she had been when Z kissed her. She looked scared.
Z swallowed. Her throat was painful. "What?"
Tennessee blew her breath out. She looked at Z and then away, as if she couldn't hold her gaze. She hugged her elbows. "Charlotte knew that," she mumbled. "She was my first friend, and she's – I don't care how much you guys fight, she's still Charlotte. But I chose you."
Z couldn't breathe. She took a step closer, swaying towards Tennessee. "When?" she asked, her voice lower than usual.
Tennessee looked up. Her eyes were dark; Z couldn't make out their expression now. There was a tree behind her, the spread of branches black against the roof of the house and the sky. "Always," she said. "From the beginning."
Z had to stop and swallow, overwhelmed. "Oh," she whispered. She took another step forward, feeling as though she was sleepwalking. "Why?"
Tennessee shook her head, refusing to say it. Z was close enough to touch now. She wet her lips, praying she wasn't wrong. "I want – I want to kiss you again," she said. Her voice was quiet, but it was the only thing in the still night.
Tennessee's eyes went wide and hurt. "I told you," she said, "I told you, you can't do that, I'm not doing that just because of Charlotte. There are people who actually want to kiss me, you know? I don't need you to do it."
Z choked on laughter. "You're really wrong," she said. "You have never been this wrong. Please say I can. I know I fucked up when I didn't ask last time, but I –" She'd picked up Tennessee's hand at some point, threading their fingers together. Tennessee looked down. She was scowling.
"You pulled away at the tiniest hint I might kiss back last time," she said. There was a tremble in her voice.
"Sorry," said Z. "Sorry. I won't this time. Tennessee. You're fucking killing me."
There was a long pause.
Slowly, Tennessee looked up. The ghost of a wicked grin touched her mouth. "I heard..." She wet her lips. "I heard war is pretty dangerous."
Z pushed up onto her toes, her eyes meeting Tennessee's for a testing moment. Tennessee's eyes shone, and Z curled her arms around Tennessee's neck and leaned up into the kiss. Tennessee kissed back, hesitantly at first, then letting her mouth fall a little open. The first brush of Tennessee's tongue made Z's toes curl, and she strained up higher, making a broken sound against Tennessee's mouth.
Z had never kissed anybody who wasn't taller than her, and she knew exactly how much her neck could take, so after a while she drew back, her mouth tingling when she ran her tongue over it, and tugged at Tennessee. Tenn looked dubious, but let herself be tugged, until they were both kneeling on the grass, in the lee of the tree in Tennessee's yard.
"Oh," Tennessee said. Her voice came slow, almost drugged. She grinned. "Yes. Good idea." She leaned in, kissing Z quickly.
"My tactical genius," Z agreed. Tennessee flinched slightly at the words. "I'm sorry," Z said again, quietly. "About the Charlotte thing. Fighting over you, I mean. I'll, uh. Try not to do that anymore?"
Tennessee scraped her fingers through the grass. "I'll probably have to spend more time with her for a little while, after ... because of this." She picked up Z's hand, linking their fingers.
Z swallowed. "Okay," she said. Tennessee shot her a look, and Z leaned forward, taking Tennessee's chin in one hand. She kissed her, drinking in Tennessee's breath as she let it out. "Okay," Z whispered. "She can have that. If I get to do this."
Tennessee grinned, twisting so that her arms were around Z, and darted in to bite Z's lower lip.
Z gave a hiss and thumped her on the arm. "Oh my god, you're rabid."
Tennessee lowered her lashes. "You're a weakling, Elizabeth." She grabbed Z's hand and flopped back, pulling Z down to lie at her side. Even in the dense shadow under the tree Z could only make out one or two stars in the sky, under the haze of city lights. Tennessee's hand was warm in hers, a tingle of possibility.
She meant what she'd said to Tennessee. Charlotte could have anything else, as long as Z got this.