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May Reilly and her mother packed for college extremely carefully. They went through her tiny closet with the aim of donating one-third of her clothing. The task had the triple purpose of creating more space for May’s little sister June to move in to the bigger room in the fall, getting rid of anything dingy, ill-fitting, or simply too high school, and providing for New York’s homeless. The rest of May’s wardrobe was neatly folded away in the sturdy luggage set her father had purchased and gifted to her for her eighteenth birthday, his mustache twitching slightly, a single tear threatening at the corner of his eye. The bulkier items—bedding, spare sheets, winter coat—were stored in a trunk that fit neatly under the beds native to the dorms of King’s College. Her mother added potpourri, bundled up tightly in the spare fabric from the decorative pillowcases she had sewn in the week leading up to May’s departure. Her husband had suggested the project as a form of stress relief, concerned his wife might take drastic action, such as adopting a dog or a needy child. May now had pillowcases, curtains, chair cushions, and a new sundress. May’s father had a dog.

May’s roommate had packed by herself, and it showed.

“It smells like a dog rolled in shit and wandered into the perfume department at J.C. Penny’s,” Olivia said, throwing her duffel bag on the floor. Several things clanked loudly. May eyed the bag. It was one of those scuffed-up green ones that, left alone on a subway platform, would probably merit immediately flagging down the nearest police officer.

“I don’t smell anything like that,” said May, who had already privately admitted that the potpourri had permeated more deeply into the duvet than either she or her mother had anticipated. They had made her bed and hung the curtains immediately upon arriving at Mallorn Hall, and the smell was overwhelming. Her mother, teary-eyed, hadn’t seemed to notice, but May was relieved when June (fifteen, too cool and adult for feelings) and her father (mustache quivering alarmingly, still unwilling to miss the baseball game) vetoed the plan to wait around for Olivia (name posted on the door in script so obscured by curlicues as to require a family-wide effort at decryption) in order to introduce themselves to the Octaviuses and ensure the girls were settled in. May forced open the creaky window as soon as her parents were down the hall, ignoring her mother’s dire warnings and father’s subtle placement of newspaper articles about crime on college campuses by her seat at the breakfast table.

“Do you have, like, nose blindness?” Olivia demanded. “It smells like someone emptied a dumpster inside a Yankee Candle.”

May blinked. She had mentally rehearsed meeting her freshman year roommate, who, according to the books about college she had read and her two-years-older friend Sarah, would be her dining hall buddy, her receptacle of late-night confidences, and the Lewis to her Clark as they navigated campus. Nose blindness had not factored into her rehearsals. “I’m May Reilly. I don’t have nose blindness,” she said, improvising.

“I read the door,” said Olivia. “God, it must be coming from outside.” She went over to the window and hauled in shut with a single, powerful turn of the crank, which May was immediately resentful of.

“I loosened it for you,” said May.

“What?”

“The— nothing.” Olivia had sat down in the middle of the floor and begun to pull off her heavy boots, which released a different, also-bad smell. “Are your parents coming with the rest of your stuff?”

“What stuff?” Olivia asked. “God, that’s better. I was on that bus for fucking seventeen fucking hours.”

“Seventeen hours?” said May. She had lived in Queens her whole life, and was plenty familiar with the bus, but she couldn’t imagine what would compel a person to ride one for seventeen hours. She tried to think of somewhere the appropriate distance away. “What are you, from Nebraska or something?”

“I’m from California,” said Olivia. “I just had to be in Georgia for a while and so I took the bus from there.”

“Oh, okay,” said May, who didn’t have strong feelings either way about Georgia.

“I’m not from there. I’m from California.”

“Neat.”

“I’m going to bed,” Olivia announced abruptly, and stood up. May, who kept needing to pull her trunk halfway out from under the bed for use as a stepping stool, was struck suddenly by how tall she was. She had a lot of hair that went everywhere, and it made her seem even taller.

To May’s continued astonishment, Olivia undid the closure on her bag and, with magician-like flair, pulled out a ratty sleeping bag. This was followed in short order by a fitted sheet, which she laid across her mattress without actually pulling it over the corners. Olivia then removed a flattened pillow from the sleeping bag and tossed both on top of the sheet.

“There are probably so many sex germs on that mattress,” she said, gleefully, before turning back to rummage through her bag. There were more clinking noises, and she removed a plastic bag before drifting off to the bathroom that connected May-and-Olivia to Jennifer-and-Paige. May followed behind, a small fish caught in the eddy of a speedboat.

“I talked to Jennifer and Paige, they share the bathroom with us? And like, they seem super nice.” Olivia had dumped her toiletries across the counter, and seemed to generate more toothpaste through the act of brushing than most people did. “They both are on swim and dive—all of swim and dive is in this hall actually, the girls are on even floors and the guys are on odd? And they have morning workouts so we were thinking they could shower in the mornings and we could do the evenings and that would. Make sense mostly. The most sense.”

Olivia spat vehemently into the sink. “Swim and dive?”

“Jennifer is swim and Paige is dive. Or, maybe it’s the opposite?”

“Okay,” said Olivia, and shut the door. May stood awkwardly for a moment, until she realized she was basically listening to her roommate pee for no reason and went back to sit at her desk, staring at her word processor, pencil cup, Post-it notes, and desk lamp, all laid out at neat right angles. The toilet flushed. The sink ran. Olivia emerged.

“Do you want first shower or should I…?” May asked, and instead of responding Olivia pulled her jacket off and tossed it on the floor, where it was promptly joined by her pants. May squeaked. Olivia glared. She did not shave her legs, apparently.

Olivia climbed up onto the bed and shimmied into the sleeping bag. It clearly originally belonged to a child, and her long torso stuck out comically far. After a brief and fruitless struggle, she rolled away to face the wall.

“Well,” said May. Olivia was silent. “Good night,” she finished, flipped off the desk light.

Twenty minutes later, both girls were lying still, neither one asleep. The quiet was pierced occasionally by the whoops of freshly unsupervised teenage boys on the floors above and below. After one such occurrence, Olivia sighed and rolled onto her back.

“The smell is worse,” she said.

“Yeah,” said May, and got up to open the window again.

***

May was sitting in the dining hall with Tracy, Charlie, Lindsey, and Ben, whom she had met during the small group introductions at orientation and liked fine, thus proceeding to join their default clique at mealtimes. She saw Olivia from across the long table. It was the first time she had seen her roommate outside of their shared room, and she waved tentatively. Olivia did not wave back.

“Who is that?” asked Tracy. Tracy was May’s least favorite of her orientation friends. She was hoping that Charlie, Lindsey, and Ben agreed, and that they would start doing things without Tracy soon, but she did not know everyone well enough yet to judge whether that suggestion would be well-received.

“It’s my roommate,” May said. “Olivia.”

“I am so sorry,” said Tracy. “What is she even wearing.” Olivia was wearing the same thing she was always wearing, which was a pair of ratty jeans with holes in the knees, heavy combat boots, a t-shirt with an obscure logo, and a leather jacket covered with even more obscure pins. It was a terrible outfit for the warm months. The dining hall was a large, airy room, with ceiling fans on long supports suspended from the high rafters, but it wasn’t air-conditioned, and Olivia was visibly sweating as she picked her way down the aisle towards the condiment bar.

“I really don’t think what she’s wearing is her biggest problem,” May said, absently, watching Olivia absolutely obliterate the hot dog on her tray with a barrage of condiments.

“Ooh, spill,” said Lindsey. Lindsey’s gossip radar was extremely sensitive and not very specific. She kept a running tab of all her classmates likely to be sleeping a professor, which included every girl over a B cup who had been to office hours already, and she had only been right maybe one time so far.

“It’s not like she has a problem problem,” May clarified. “She’s just. Intense, I think?”

You’re intense,” Charlie told her. “How intense is she?”

“I’m not intense, I’m serious,” said May. “I don’t know, she— you know how we’re all taking A Whole And Balanced Life?” A Whole And Balanced Life was a mandatory and utterly useless course for freshmen, which was designed to reinforce the importance of having hobbies and interests outside of the rigorous academic environment at King’s College. It accomplished this through a series of classroom lectures and eight-page essays on the importance of life outside the academic environment.

“Yeah, did she not turn in that Sports, Sportsmanship, and the Power of Team Athletics paper?”

“No, she’s not even taking the class.”

Ben’s head shot up so fast he choked on his mozzarella stick. “How? Can she show me?”

“It’s not worth it, she has to take it next year still. But she showed up at the registrar’s office every day for like, three weeks to make her case. Said it was a waste of her time.”

“It’s a waste of everyone’s time,” Charlie pointed out.

“I know! But she felt so strongly about it that the assistant registrar just gave up. Told her she could validate it if she got the head RA in our hall to sign a thing that says she’s attained a whole and balanced life on her own, but otherwise she has to take it next year, with next year’s freshmen. But Olivia’s in like seven classes, and now our RA comes by all the time, so she has to shove all her problem sets into her desk drawer and pretend to be on her way to clarinet practice or something. She doesn’t even have a clarinet.”

“This explains so much about your room,” Lindsey said thoughtfully.

“Do tell,” said Tracy.

“My room is fine,” May said, silently willing Lindsey to drop it.

“No it’s not, May, it’s weird. It’s like one side was decorated by College Barbie—no offense, girl, I love your bedspread, but it’s very pink—and the other roommate just got released from the gulag. She has a sleeping bag just like, sitting on the mattress,” Lindsey told Tracy conspiratorially.

Gross.”

“There’s a fitted sheet,” May said feebly.

“Even the bathroom is weird,” Lindsey continued. “It’s so obvious what’s Olivia’s. Like— normal towel, normal towel, normal towel, stolen gym towel. May’s shower caddy, Jennifer’s shower caddy, Paige’s shower caddy, Olivia’s plastic bag from Walmart.”

“She’s probably here on scholarship,” Tracy said, archly.

“I’m here on scholarship,” Ben said mildly, and the topic of Olivia was put immediately to rest.

When May got up to scrape the remains of her chicken quesadilla into the garbage (it had been okay, since it was a quesadilla, but May suspected any food more complicated than a quesadilla would be somewhat iffy) and deposited her tray and utensils onto a conveyor belt that carried dishes back into the kitchen with the air of mystery usually reserved for airport luggage conveyor belts, Ben came with her.

“You know,” he said, letting the rice pudding ooze off his plate and fall into the trash can with a solid glop, “there’s a show about Spacelab at the Hayden Planetarium this weekend, and the student office is selling discounted tickets. You wanna get off campus, maybe check it out? See the Natural History Museum too?”

“Sure,” said May, who had seen that museum dozens if not hundreds of times, but desperately wanted to get off campus for a while. “I can write about it for that Emotions, Locations, the City, and You paper.” Then, reflexively: “Plus, my boyfriend won’t be in town until next weekend.”

“I know Noah,” said Ben. “We met over Labor Day, remember? Seems like a cool guy.” May laughed, slightly embarrassed with herself.

“Yeah, he is. A cool guy.”

“Can I tell you something?” asked Ben, and May nodded. “I was going to ask you and Charlie and Lindsey individually because, well,” and he lowered his voice so far it nearly disappeared under the sound of the freshman crew team, which had just walked through the door in its entirety, “I don’t really want Tracy to come.”

***

May came through the door one afternoon in December to find the space in front of her desk occupied by her roommate, who was positively vibrating with rage.

“What do you think you’re doing,” Olivia said. She was peering very hard at the piece of paper May had taped carefully up on the wall beside her desk, underneath the map of campus and over her assemblage of Post-it note to-dos.

“Uh, taking my coat off?” said May, shaking the snow out of her hair before it could melt.

“No, why are you in PH256 and MA394 next semester?” Olivia demanded. “Those are my classes, why are you taking my classes.”

“They’re not yours, they’re for my major,” May said. “They’re literally required. Why would I take your classes?” She came around to peer over Olivia’s shoulder at her schedule for the next semester, but the course numbers all seemed to be in order.

“No,” Olivia insisted. “You need to tell the registrar you made a mistake. Your major is like, French Literature or some shit. Sociology. Is it Philosophy? PH is for Physics, not Philosophy. Go back and tell them to undo it.”

“Uh, I would,” said May, “but my major is physics, so that would be counterproductive.”

Olivia whirled around to look at her. “Stop it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Stop it. Stop it. Why are you trying to ruin my life?”

“Why would I try to ruin your life?” May said, baffled and a little angry. Olivia was nearly shouting.

“Are you stalking me? MA394 is a nuclear engineering req, why are you taking nuclear engineering reqs?”

“Stalking you? We live together. MA394 is a mechanical engineering req.”

“Aha! But you said you’re a physics major!” Olivia brandished her finger wildly in May’s face, which was almost intimidating because of how tall she was, but wasn’t, because of how irritated May was.

“Physics is my first major,” said May, “which you would know, if you literally asked me anything about my life ever under any circumstances, instead of like, spending all of your time either pretending I don’t exist or monologuing at me!”

“I don’t monologue!” yelled Olivia, who had been muttering about intermediate vector bosons for fifteen minutes before May went to shower two nights ago, and when she came out twenty minutes later had moved on to light neutrinos. “And you can’t double major! Literally all of your credits last semester were bullshit, it’ll take you at least five years to graduate. Maybe six. You don’t have any of the fall-only 100-level prereqs.”

“My credits last semester were core courses,” May said, “and I didn’t take the fall prereqs because I got college credit for them in high school, which means I will graduate exactly on time.” You raging bitch!, she did not add. Olivia looked apoplectic. Her face was turning red, and her mouth was twisting up into an ugly kind of expression that May didn’t have a word for. Olivia, May had noticed, always had her emotions hanging off of her. In the whole time May had known her, she had never seemed to push anything back down under the surface.

“You always need to have everything!” Olivia said, dragging her hands through her tangle of hair, then turned around and kicked her desk chair.

“What in the world,” May said.

“You can’t just— you can’t just join a fucking sorority with fucking Jennifer and Paige? You can’t just let me have this one thing?”

“What are you talking about?” May said. “Jennifer and Paige aren’t in a sorority.” Jennifer and Paige were in fact not speaking to one another, and hadn’t been since before midterms. It was making things very awkward on swim and dive, as both Jennifer and Paige had told her independently when the other was out.

“But they should be,” Olivia said. “They look it. Is your boyfriend even going to let you double major?”

“Noah,” May said, “doesn’t get an opinion on what my major is, but if he did, he would be supportive of my goals.”

“What, it’s not going to get in the way of all that time you need to spend twirling your hair and learning to ice skate? Packing picnic fucking lunches?”

“The ice skating is— actually, no. I don’t even know what you’re fighting with me about.”

“Your idiot friends are in here all the time being super loud, and your boyfriend thinks it’s okay to stop by on freaking Sunday mornings, and I have to look at these fucking flowery curtains every day, and now you want to be in all my classes? You and your credits from your fancy fucking high school are going to waltz right in? You didn’t do any fucking work this whole semester, and now you can’t just leave me alone?”

“Fine,” said May, “I’m leaving you alone,” and stormed off to see whether Lindsey had any extra space for her to sleep.

Chapter Text

May spotted Olivia shouting into a payphone on her way to the physics building. At some point, she had obtained fingerless gloves and a beanie, but her outfit was otherwise unchanged from the warm months. Her beanie didn’t even fit past all of her hair to cover her ears—she looked shaking mad, but maybe she was just cold. May did a wide loop through the February slush to avoid her.

When she reached the lecture hall, May began the process of unwrapping herself from her own hat-scarf-gloves-overcoat-sweater situation, squinting across to the chalkboard while she did so. TEST RESULTS was written across the the top of the lowest board, followed by handwriting far too neat to belong to Professor Stasinopoulos. May skimmed past the maximum and minimum, idly wondering what she should be hoping for, given a median of 72, but a mean of 68.487 with a standard deviation of 13.567. It all felt like slightly more information than she wanted or needed. Professor Stasinopoulos cleared his throat, and May settled in, pulling out her planner, notebook, and second-best pen.

“Good morning,” he began, his tweed and bow tie looking particularly grandfatherly. “As you can see, the TAs have finished grading Exam 1, which they’ll be handing back at the end of class. In the meantime, feel free to congratulate Miss May Reilly on receiving the high score.” Stasinopoulos smiled warmly at her, but the feeling of satisfaction settling tentatively in her gut was interrupted by a door slamming open in the back of the room. Everyone—everyone—turned to look, and May slid down low in her seat, horrified.

Olivia was in the doorway, looking windblown and frostbitten and pale-furious. The only accessible seats remaining were in the front row, so she stomped down the aisle, glaring at everyone but May. How was she so loud, May thought desperately. She must have been the loudest woman in the world—it was a wonder anyone could pay attention to anything else. Olivia punctuated this thought by slamming her notebook down on a desk.

“Settle down, please,” Stasinopoulos continued serenely, “and let’s all remember the late-arrival policy. Now, Ampère's law…”

May was unable to afford Ampère's law the attention it deserved, given that her roommate wouldn’t sit still and listen like a normal person. She started by pulling out her pocket calculator—from her actual pocket, the woman didn’t even carry a backpack—and furiously tapping at it while glowering at the chalkboard. May could hear the clicking of the keys from her seat in the center of the lecture hall. Then she started taking notes, and it was horrible—she ripped out pages from her spiral notebook, scrawling across them according to a system that would take a team of anthropologists to interpret. When she was finished with one, she shoved it back into the notebook at random and ripped out another, half-shredding it and causing May to jump. She looked down at her own notebook, where she was faithfully transcribing each equation that appeared on the board without actually processing it. Olivia wrote too hard, she decided. That was why her hand was always coated in pencil dust.

By the end of class, May was feeling what her father would describe as “rankled.” She was fairly certain she knew less about physics than she had when she walked through the door, and she wanted more than anything to go lie in her bed, turn on the radio, put a pillow over her face, and scream, except she couldn’t, because Olivia would be there. She resolved to drag Lindsey out to get hot chocolate instead.

“As the TAs hand back exams,” Stasinopoulos was saying, “I’m going to go over instructions for the final project. You’ll be working in teams of two for the rest of the semester, according to the— Silvio, did you hand out the— yes, thank you, the timeline on the rubric. Your project proposal is due Thursday after next. I’m available during regular office hours, and you can always schedule additional time with Silvio or Dirk. Now, your team assignments!” Stasinopoulos rolled up one of the chalkboards with a flourish to reveal a list of names.

A clamor of voices arose, and May was skimming over the list absently, thinking about hot chocolate, when she heard someone cry out over the noise. Her eyes cut automatically to her roommate. Olivia had her test paper crumpled in her hands, but she was staring at the board looking like she’d been stabbed. May’s stomach dropped, and she followed Olivia’s gaze to where her doom was spelled out in stern, implacable handwriting:

TEAM 23: OLIVIA OCTAVIUS, MAY REILLY

Before May could move an inch, Olivia was out of her chair and storming up to the lectern. She tripped over her own boots, nearly faceplanted, and righted herself in time to brandish a finger in Silvio’s face.

“You have to change the groups!” she shrieked, and every student still in the room immediately turned to the board to see who Olivia was paired with. May scrambled out of her seat and dashed towards her, hoping to stop the conversation or at least ensure it continued at a normal human volume.

“Uh,” said Silvio.

“This is not acceptable,” Olivia spat. “It’s— cruel and unusual, I have rights—”

“Uhhhhh,” said Silvio.

“What seems to be the problem, ladies?” Professor Stasinopoulos asked, having noticed the disruptive and undignified commotion happening directly in front of him. Olivia wheeled towards him.

“You can’t make me work with her,” Olivia said wildly. “It’s in the Fifth Amendment.” Stasinopoulos blinked, nonplussed, and turned to May.

“Miss Reilly? Are you attempting to coerce Miss Octavian into testifying against herself?”

“She means the Eighth— actually, no, the Constitution isn’t important. Well, it is. Well— Professor, Olivia and I are roommates, and what she’s trying to say is that we already spend a lot of time together, and in the spirit of, of, personal growth? We were hoping to branch out and… see other people.”

Stasinopoulos nodded along severely, but at the mention of roommates, his face lit up. “Oh, how lovely!” he exclaimed. “The two highest exam grades from the same room. Do you study together?”

“N… no,” May said, glancing at Olivia. She looked poleaxed by the idea that their roommate relationship could be termed “lovely.”

“Don’t worry about the rest of the class,” Stasinopoulos continued. “I would have probably had Silvio pair the two of you together even if your test scores weren’t adjacent—this is a long project, lots of late nights, much more fitting for the young ladies to work together. And there aren’t many of you!” He chuckled, and May tamped down on the urge to pull an Olivia and throw a stapler at him. “And now, knowing you’re roommates, you’ll have a friend to walk with from the library at night. Lovely. I look forward to seeing your final project!” Stasinopoulos patted May on the shoulder, ignored Olivia entirely, and wandered off.

“You’re my literal sworn enemy,” said Olivia. “I’m swearing it.”

“Me?” asked Silvio.

“Not you,” Olivia said, stomping away. May sighed.

“She means me,” she told him, and went to pack her things, feeling sick with nerves. She didn’t want hot chocolate anymore.

***

May scrambled into the room and lunged for her desk, backpack swinging like a counterweight. She got to the phone before its shrill ring cut off, fumbling it to her ear with a breathless “hello?”

“May,” Noah said. “I didn’t think you were going to answer.”

“No, I’m here,” May assured him, trying to sound more in control of her lungs than she actually was. “I heard the phone coming down the hall.”

“So you did forget.”

“No, I—”

“Because we talk at the same time every week, May.”

“No, I know, I was just out with friends, and we had to take the long way back from the—”

“Oh, you were out with friends. I see. Is that why you didn’t pick up last week, too?”

“No, my roommate unplugged my phone. My mom keeps calling me all the time, and she hates the ringing.”

“Well, I can’t fault Linda for that, since I’ve spent more time talking to her this month than I have you.” There was a horrible moment of dead air. “Anyway, I called you for a reason, you know.”

May shifted uncomfortably. She was still in her coat and backpack, the combination of bulk and weight cutting off her circulation. “Oh?” she asked.

“Our spring formal is in two weeks. You’re coming to that, right?”

“What day is it?”

“I mean, it’s like, a Saturday. Um—” May listened to him shuffle papers around, pictured him with those accordion folders he liked so much. “March 15th. I’m picking up tickets from the student union on Monday.”

“Wait,” said May, “I have a project draft due the 17th. For PH256?”

“Okay?” Noah said. “So you’re good for the 15th?”

“No, I mean, it’s in place of a midterm, it’s worth like 30% of our grade. I need the weekend to work on it.”

“You need the weekend,” Noah said. “For a draft.”

“I mean, we need to be in the lab to take final measurements— really, it’s more of a midterm—”

“Yeah, and last time, your problem set was more of a project. I have work to do too, you know, and I make the time—”

“You do,” May said, “and I appreciate that, I do. It’s just, this semester, it’s really important I do well in these foundational classes—”

“Why?” Noah said. He never raised his voice, and briefly, May hated him for it. “Why is it so important you do well in this class, but not so important you do well in this relationship?”

“Do well in this relationship?” May asked, aghast.

“You heard what I said,” Noah said. “It’s, what, one transfer on the subway? You can’t do that because of a class? Sometimes, I wonder whether you understand what’s going to matter in the long run, May, I really do.”

May felt like her stomach had fallen out onto the floor. She pictured going to the formal—pictured going out with Jennifer or Paige to get a new dress and shoes, pictured wearing them in the subway while she waited for her transfer. She pictured leaning on Noah’s arm, wobbly like a newborn colt, while he talked to friends that she couldn’t tell apart. She pictured him asking her back to his dorm room and having to decide whether to say yes, or to walk in her dress and her shoes back to the train and take another transfer. She realized that her hand clutching the phone was shaking. “I said I can’t go,” she said, just as calm as he was. “I can’t go.”

“Are you sure it’s because of school?” he asked.

“What?”

“Which friends were you with today?”

“What are you asking?”

“Are you sure the reason you won’t come see me isn’t Benjamin?”

It was like he bodyslammed her back into the present, and the pressure difference caused all the blood in her brain to spontaneously boil. They were back on territory she understood, and it made her exquisitely angry. “I was with Lindsey and Tracy today,” she said, which was a lie, it was a goddamn lie, but how dare he take the way that Ben smiled at her, a commiserating smile for when Charlie and Lindsey were canoodling and Tracy was being a real bitch and she needed someone to be normal near her, and turn it into something ugly. “Not that it’s any of your business, because you of all people should know I would never.”

“Whoa, no need to get defensive,” said Noah, and she hated him. “I’m just letting you know how it looks from a guy’s perspective.”

“I would never.”

“I know, Mayflower,” he crooned, and she wondered whether he actually thought he was placating her. “Listen, though, I have to go, Ken just got here. Let’s talk about this again later, okay? I’ll call you Tuesday.”

“I have lab Tuesday,” she said.

“Lab,” he repeated. “Okay. I’ll call you Wednesday.” There was a click, and the line went dead.

May replaced the receiver carefully, full of terrible energy and unsure what she was supposed to do with it. She turned around and lept a mile.

“Hey,” said Olivia from the doorway. She was eating something. From the bag, it seemed like popcorn; from the smell, it seemed like burnt popcorn.

“How long have you been standing there?” May asked, removing her hand from where she had placed it over her heart like a fainting grandmother. Olivia shrugged.

***

“She’s fucking crazy,” Tracy said, leaning enthusiastically over her tray of Mexican-Style Beef Casserole. Tracy was never allowed to swear at home, but ever since she went to San Padre Island for spring break and met a wannabe cowboy with a foul mouth and not one single cow, she had taken to it with relish.

“She’s not crazy,” May said, pushing her Irish-Inspired Rice Pilaf around her plate with her fork.

“Um, she fucking yelled at you? She threw your lab notebook in the trash? That’s some crazy bullshit.”

“It was both of our lab notebook,” May said, “and it’s not as bad as it sounds.” This was true—May didn’t need her friends’ help to deal with her roommate-slash-project-partner-slash-possible-nemesis situation. It was also, paradoxically, untrue—she had wanted to tell her friends about the crazy bullshit that was her two-hour morning lab block, but then she’d gotten to the part of the story where Silvio and Dirk decided they were in over their heads and called in Professor Stasinopoulos to deal with them, and May had almost cried right there in the materials lab, and her throat closed up in embarrassment. The upshot was that the real story was worse than what her friends heard, which was in turn worse than the version that lived inside May’s head.

Lindsey was making some kind of horrible sympathetic face in her direction. Charlie was looking at Lindsey and clearly not paying attention at all. Ben was sitting directly opposite her and gazing at her steadily over his pizza, probably because he was the only one of her friends smart and metabolically gifted enough to stick with the dining hall options that were literally just bread and cheese. “It just sucks that you have to spend so much time with someone you don’t like,” he said.

“I like Olivia,” said May.

“You what?” asked Ben.

“You complain about her all the time,” said Lindsey.

“I know I don’t like fucking Olivia,” said Tracy.

May looked at each of them, surprised. Then she looked down at her tray. May didn’t think of herself as a person who disliked people. She was startled to hear that she seemed like she disliked Olivia, even though once she thought about it, she did devote a lot of mental consideration to how annoying and disruptive and distracting and loud she was. Olivia was all of those things, but she was also driven, and dedicated, and almost as smart as May and catching up fast. She thought outside the box, and never said sorry, and would probably punch whatever friends she had in the teeth if they said May was crazy for caring that much about their project. All her weird things aside, Olivia was a serious person, and May didn’t not like her. For a moment, she tried to parse whether that meant she did like her. “I complain all the time?” she asked, finally.

“Constantly,” Lindsey said reassuringly.

“Just about this,” Ben told her.

“I don’t— Olivia is— she’s trying to become something, you know? Something it’s not easy to be. I don’t know, she’s got drive. I like her. I don’t think she likes where she came from, and she’s so tall, and—” May paused on a half-formed thought about how tall Olivia was, and how much hair she had, and the way she moved her hands.

“You’re right,” said Tracy. “It’s probably hard to be that tall and gangly.”

Ben stood up abruptly. He was pretty tall and gangly himself. “I need a book,” he said. “I’m going to the library.”

“You and the fucking library, bro,” said Charlie. “Can I eat your crust?”

“Sure. May, you have recitation, right? Walk with me?”

Recitation didn’t start for another twenty-five minutes, but at the suggestion May was overcome by the urge to leave the dining hall, possibly forever. “Yeah,” she said, and made sure to push her chair in neatly on the way out.

***

“May.” A pause. Then, louder: “May.”

May blinked against the fabric of her sleep mask, confused, then sat upright as she pushed it off her face. In the process, she almost bumped heads with her roommate, who had leaned over her bed like some kind of goblin. The streetlight caught her hair through the window, and her teeth gleamed.

“What the hell,” asked May.

“I figured it out,” Olivia said. “Part seven section two B, I figured it out. Get up, I need you to look at this.” There was a piece of paper being shoved under May’s nose. She looked around the room, baffled, and found a good seventy percent of the horizontal surfaces covered in drifts of scratch paper. The whole scene seemed faintly aglow, almost moonlit. Olivia had been working in the dark.

“What the hell,” May asked again.

“We’ve been thinking in terms of time this whole project, but here we should have been thinking in terms of space. If you do a Fourier transform, and look at the functions in the frequency domain—”

“Stop talking about the project,” May said. “What time is it?”

“No, you’re not listening, we can’t think about it in terms of time—” May ignored her, peering around at the alarm clock on her desk. She catches sight of it and suppressed a scream.

“What the hell, Olivia, it’s four o’clock in the morning.”

Olivia stopped where she’d been pacing around the room and looked up, confused. “Okay? So you agree about the Fourier transform? Because I’m going to have to go the the library to find a table to compute the inverse, and they don’t open until seven today, which means we have time to—”

Shut up.”

“Excuse me?”

“Shut up! Shut up about the project! Shut up at four in the morning! You are driving me insane. Do you know how much time we’ve already spent on this compared to other people? Compared to people who are stupider than us? It’s completely absurd, and if you don’t leave me alone during normal sleeping hours, I am going to freak out completely, I swear to God.”

For a person who was being yelled at, Olivia seemed undeterred. In fact, she scoffed. “Like you don’t want an A-plus on this as badly as I do. Come on, be serious.”

“No one gets an A-plus! No one even gets an A! What are you even talking about!”

“Untrue,” Olivia said. “Three years ago, there was this guy named Adrian who—”

“This guy named Adrian who what? Who cares? What does it matter?” Talking to Olivia was like being trapped in a house of mirrors, or some sort of parallel dimension where all of the angles were slightly off-kilter, and where things that guys named Adrian supposedly did three years ago had any bearing on what May should do at four in the morning. “Can you please, just once, just be normal about this.”

“What are you, my dad?”

“What does your dad have to do with this! Olivia, I am so tired. I have given up so much for this, and it’s just a term project. I have sacrificed my sleep. I have sacrificed my time. My relationship has suffered—”

“This thing with you and time! And boys! Oh my god, straight girls—”

“I never said I was straight!”

There was a long pause. Olivia froze mid-turn, one foot hovering comically in the air. She blinked owlishly at May from behind her glasses, and May stared back, nonplussed. It was something she had never—it wasn’t something she’d ever thought too hard about. There wasn’t a coordinated decision-making process, some kind of select committee on Whether Or Not May Reilly Was Straight. It felt right, though, when the words came out of her. It felt true. May opened her mouth to say something further, and just then, there was a banging on the wall.

“Um, guys?” called Paige. It might have been Jennifer. “You’re being really loud? And I have to be up for practice in forty-two minutes.” Wordlessly, May pulled down her sleep mask and turned over to face the wall. She listened to the sound of Olivia rummaging around for a long time.

***

They did not get an A+ on the project.

They did, however, get an A.

Chapter Text

May arrived on campus the next September a single woman. She and Noah had broken up for a neat linear combination of reasons: the distance between their respective schools divided by the intensity of their desires to overcome it, plus the decreasing length of their phone calls over the increasing number of other potential partners, all amounting to a relationship that neither of them could reasonably expect to last. May, having finally ended it, wouldn’t have felt any angst whatsoever had the breakup not coincided with a series of bouts against her mother over May’s “direction,” as indicated by her recent behavior (“sulking”). May suspected the root problem was that she was nineteen and it wasn’t 1965 anymore, but this did not prevent her from feeling insane with anger every time she and her mom spoke for more than three minutes, nor did it prevent her father’s concern and alarm. The only family member positively impacted was June, who was suddenly getting away with a lot of shit.

The only odd thing about the breakup and the fighting, really, had been that the only person May wanted to tell about it was Olivia.

May moved into apartment-style housing with Lindsey, the other two sides of their quadrangle formed by Jennifer and Paige, who seemed to have forgiven each other during the swim and dive summer session and were once again joined at the hip. Luckily, they also either hadn’t heard the whole “not straight” middle-of-the-night-yelling thing, or had decided to be cool about it, which would make sense because they played sports. Tracy and Charlie moved their two-month relationship into an ill-advised off-campus housing situation specifically to make Tracy’s father mad, and Ben lived in his fraternity house. It was one of those nerd fraternities where their main asset was row upon row of neatly-curated study materials for every gen ed course, but it was a frat nonetheless, and May was embarrassed to be seen on Fraternity Row and thus never visited.

Olivia had disappeared, presumably into the vortex of random roommate assignments. She was in a few of May’s classes, of course, and May kept catching glimpses of her hair or the line of her shoulder from across the room. They went out for coffee, once, May’s idea, and talked over the syllabus for their Modern Physics seminar. May took hers black, and Olivia ordered it the same way, grimacing her way through determined sips at regular intervals before it even had a chance to cool down. They didn’t talk other than that, which was why May was surprised when she opened her door one afternoon to find the totality of Olivia draped across her shitty couch.

“You have a, uh, visitor,” Linsdey said, and pointed unnecessarily. Among the couch’s many deficiencies was its length, and Olivia hung off on three sides.

“‘Sup,” Olivia said, a heavily annotated copy of a journal article held three inches from her nose.

“Hey,” May said warily. The appeal of talking to Olivia about anything was dimmed somewhat by the actual physical presence of Olivia.

“Silvio is a dick,” Olivia said. Silvio had the misfortune of TAing one of their shared classes again this semester, and his relationship with Olivia had yet to blossom. “Do you have the page numbers and questions for the Experimental Physics problem set?”

“Would he not give them to you?” May asked, slightly alarmed by the potential miscarriage of academic justice.

“I banged on the office door, he wouldn’t come out,” Olivia grumbled. May laughed despite herself, and Lindsey’s dressage-straight posture seemed to relax slightly, like she was no longer afraid that Olivia would hit someone or break something or strip naked and start singing opera.

“Let me find it for you,” May offered, swinging her backpack off to rummage for the appropriate accordion folder (a last gift from Noah, and actually pretty useful).

“I got your room number from the housing office,” Olivia said abruptly. “That’s where my work-study is this semester. Sorry if that’s. Weird.”

May’s hands stilled briefly, then continued flipping pages. That was more personal information than Olivia had ever volunteered before, and the first time she had ever apologized. “That’s not weird,” May tendered, even though it kind of was. “Lindsey was here, and you knocked.”

“Actually, she didn’t knock,” said Lindsey.

“Here,” May said, settling on the correct sheet of paper and holding it out. “That should have everything for the semester—you can take it, I already copied it onto my desk calendar.”

Olivia leveraged herself up off the couch and grabbed the list of assignments from May, shoving it into her jacket pocket. She stood there a beat too long, just long enough for May to wonder whether there was something else she wanted.

“Sick,” Olivia said instead, “bye,” and walked out the door.

“What the hell was that about?” Lindsey asked.

“I have no idea,” May wondered, but after that it was like a damn had burst. Suddenly, May and Olivia talked all the time.

***

It started with Olivia sitting next to her in her classes, which May didn’t mind nearly so much as she would have guessed. May had friends in the physics department, obviously; she was acquainted with the people around her, and she had study groups and project partners and people who tended to sit in her general vicinity. But maybe she wouldn’t have called them friends, actually, so much as acquaintances. Liv she could whisper wry comments to when Professor Xi inevitably let a simple math error propagate across the board until he was lost in a hedge maze of crammed-in denominators and negative signs that had been turned into redundant positives. Liv would walk with her out of class until the point where the sidewalk split two ways around Huorn Quad, and do a dead-on impression of their stumbling TA and his long-suffering partner. Liv very rarely paid full attention in class, it turned out, filled her notebooks with scribbles and sometimes fell asleep, but she never seemed to miss anything. May’s own notes deteriorated until she realized it was happening and began to employ the Cornell method with renewed vigor.

“Oh my god, Olivia, shhh, he’ll hear you,” May whisper-yelled one day after class, as Olivia roundly lambasted their professor’s perspective on the role of the scientific advisor in the public decision-making process, which wasn’t even on the syllabus. To May’s surprise, Olivia shut up.

“You know,” she said, uncharacteristically quietly, “my friends call me Liv, mostly.”

“Oh,” May said. Olivia was messing with the loose edge of the aisle carpeting with the toe of her boot. May had never heard anyone call her Liv. Reaching for the right response, she asked: “Can I call you Liv?”

“Sure,” Liv said, smiling a bit, and that was that.

***

Liv spent a lot of time sprawled across May’s couch, freaking out May’s friends a little bit, which was in turn a source of tension. Lindsey was just a bit baffled, while Jennifer and Paige, who clearly thought they were beyond the Liv portion of their lives and on to the part where they never had to speak to her again, were actively annoyed.

Feet!” Paige shrieked one day upon entering the apartment and seeing that Liv had her boots kicked up on the coffee table. Jennifer had acquired from a guy she met at the park, who insisted on coming up to the dorm to drop it off personally but to everyone’s surprise turned out not to be a murderer. It wasn’t that nice of a coffee table, and Paige herself put her feet on it all the time.

“May?” Liv called, lolling her head back in the direction of where May was attempting to rewire the mini fridge in order to achieve a temperature appropriate for storing Lean Cuisines and vodka. “Your roommate’s an asshole, can we go hang out with my friends?”

“Your what?” May asked.

Liv, it turned out, had friends. She was even friends with the person she lived with, a scary-looking girl with short hair and black lipstick named Moonbeam.

“I am not. A hippie,” Moonbeam said immediately upon being introduced.

“I did not assume you were,” May said honestly.

“My parents were hippies. We’re way beyond that,” said Moonbeam. May did not personally feel she was beyond hippies. It was possible she had not even gotten to hippies yet.

“May’s cool, though,” Liv said, and Moonbeam shrugged. She was nearly as wide as the doorway, broad-shouldered and thick-waisted, but she stepped aside and let May in.

Liv’s dorm room was, as expected, a disaster. It was the same setup as May and Liv’s old room, but without the bulwark of May’s neatness to hold back the tide of Hurricane Olivia. Unlike in their old room, however, the mess seemed like a natural part of the ecosystem. Liv had at some point obtained a wall’s worth of posters for bands May didn’t know, a beanbag chair that looked like it had been stolen from the library, and, May was pleased to see, a real blanket. For the first time, May felt uncool in Liv’s presence.

“Did you crack it yet?” Moonbeam said.

“Sorry?” May asked, alarmed, and Moonbeam rolled her eyes.

“The secret code,” she said, and cut her eyes to the posters. May realized she had been staring for far too long, and laughed a little, some kind of tension easing in her chest.

“Not yet,” she said, “but I’m getting there.”

***

Moonbeam, it turned out, was the coolest. She was an English major (“What a waste,” Liv mourned) with an incredibly wry sense of humor, an unexpected green thumb, and absolutely no time for May’s opinions whatsoever. She was the vice-president of the gardening club, and when she was feeling charitable she would let May come along when she and Liv went up to smoke cigarettes in the rooftop garden on top of the biology building.

Liv’s other friends were Sumaya, a generally unassuming pre-med student who would sometimes get inexplicably angry and refuse to speak to anyone for several days, and Rob, a Music Education major even tinier than May. Rob’s older brother on the football team supplied all their alcohol in exchange for never having to be seen with him in public. May’s mother would have called them odd ducks. May liked them, and hung out with them all every couple of weeks or so, to her increasing delight and comfort. They each seemed to have a collection of satellite friends who travelled in their orbits, occasionally swinging by whatever delinquent activity someone had come up with that evening. May was startled to realize that if she thought about it in terms of orbits, she was in Liv’s.

***

On a Thursday night that found May and Liv lying on the grody dorm carpet in Liv’s place and testing a conjecture (“there exists a nonzero amount of whiskey that, consumed orally, will maximize our ability to complete Linear Algebra problem sets”), Liv abruptly turned to face May. “Did you mean it?” she asked.

May thought her way back to their previous topic of conversation, which she had lost the thread of somewhere in the bottom of the shitty plastic cups from the math department’s open house. “Yeah,” she decided, “I think I’d be a great water polo player. I can, you know,” and made a gesture to indicate the general concept of floating.

“No, no, I mean. Did you mean it about not straight?”

May picked at the fabric of her sweater where it had pilled from rubbing against the carpet. “Why?” she asked.

“I mean,” Liv said, and let her foot fall from where it was propped up against her desk chair with a thud. “You know I’m a lesbian, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” May said. She had never had a lesbian friend before, but she had picked up on it even before she started hanging out with Moonbeam and Sumaya and Rob and it became explicitly clear.

“So!” Liv exclaimed.

“So what?”

“So what are you?”

May sat up, drawing herself in a cross-legged position. She didn’t have an answer prepared—given that she was a tiny blonde who stumblingly flirted with boys at house parties and owned a pink floral bedspread, she didn’t have to field a lot of inquiries about her sexuality. But the room felt warm and slightly disconnected, and Liv was looking up at her from the ground. May realized quite suddenly that there were things she wanted to say.

“I don’t really know,” she began, tilting her head back to rest against Moonbeam’s bed frame. “I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m not straight, but I also wouldn’t say I am straight, if that makes sense?”

“No,” Liv said.

“I don’t know, I just. I feel like I don’t really have the words to say what I’m thinking.”

Liv cleared her throat slightly. “So there’s this thing called bisexuality…”

“No, I know that. I mean, I guess that’s probably right. But I just used to know what I was feeling most of the time? Or at least I thought I knew. But now I hardly ever know, and I just. I don’t know. It gets all tangled up in my head. The doubt, and stuff.”

Liv considered her, eyes flitting across her face. “I don’t really feel that way,” she said.

“Yeah, I figured,” May told her.

“But I guess. It’s cool,” Liv ventured. “Not-not-not straight.” May laughed despite herself. “What do you say when your mom asks?”

“I’m focusing on my career right now,” May said primly, and Liv snorted whiskey up her nose.

Chapter Text

That Christmas, May bought Liv a scarf. She didn’t think much of it, beyond the fact that she was the kind of woman who bought gifts for her friends and it irritated her to no end that Liv was still wearing the same, completely inadequate, winter clothing. The scarf was rainbow. Liv was extremely weird about it.

“What are you,” she said, wrapping the scarf around and around her hands. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

“For… Christmas?” May tried. “I know it’s not for a couple weeks, but the weather’s right for it, and it’s not like we’ll be together on the holiday anyway.” In a split second, May realized what her faux pas might have been. “I’m sorry, do you not celebrate Christmas? I shouldn’t have assumed—”

“I celebrate Christmas,” Liv said, her voice twisting sharply around celebrate like it meant something else.

“Okay, good,” May said. “So we’re good?”

“But I didn’t,” Olivia started. “I didn’t get you a scarf.”

“Well, I have a scarf, so that seems fine,” May told her.

After that, Liv didn’t talk to May for a week, including in class, where they sat directly next to each other. Just as May was considering giving up on their entire friendship as some sort of calculus-induced fever dream, Liv showed up at her door at 9 p.m. on a Friday.

“Hey, come out with us,” she said. She had been knocking on the door like she was trying to batter it down, and was out of breath but trying to conceal it. She was also wearing the scarf.

“Out where? Us who?” May asked.

“Out to Chelsea. Me, Sumaya, Moonbeam, Rob, us-us. Come on, put on whatever it is you need to put on.”

May looked down at her pajama set. She and Lindsey had been planning to borrow Ben’s VCR and watch Real Genius, but May was pretty sure Lindsey wasn’t going to appreciate it properly. Besides, Liv had worn the scarf. “Okay,” she said. “Give me five minutes.”

“Does that mean fifteen?” Liv asked.

“Yes.”

***

They rode the subway up to 23rd Street. It had been dark for hours, so it felt later than it was. The car was neither empty nor full. Moonbeam sat down between two men in dark suits and Rob settled into her lap like it was the most natural thing in the world. She put her arms around his waist. Sumaya took a free seat halfway down the car, headphones over her ears, bobbing along to something. Liv hung onto one of the metal poles, the horizontal ones that May could never reach comfortably, and May planted herself nearby and listened to their conversation.

“We need to come into the city more,” Moonbeam was saying.

“We live in the city,” Rob said.

“Being on campus is not being in the city. We’re going to get stuck in a rut,” Moonbeam argued.

“I was in the city last weekend,” Liv said.

“For that physics talk? If it’s for a physics talk it doesn’t count.”

“Yes it does.”

“No, physics talks definitely don’t count,” Rob said, arbitrating. “They have those on campus.”

“What physics talk?” May asked. She was slightly hurt that she, the physics friend, was the one who had not been told about the physics talk, even if it was during the period that Liv was inexplicably not speaking to her.

Liv turned full-body to face her, frame swaying with the motion of the car, eyes alight. “Wilson Fisk,” she said.

“Now you’ve done it,” said Moonbeam.

“Wake me up when we get there,” said Rob.

“The guy from the startup?” May asked.

“Wilson Fisk is a genius,” Liv enthused. “He’s going to change the world. The universe, probably. May, how have we not talked about this?”

May thought back to the internship seminar that the Fisk Company had had a table at. It was flashy, slick, but she couldn’t remember anything that distinguished the tech or the mission, particularly. “Isn’t he a businessman, more than anything else? Underestimates how long it’s going to take fusion to reach breakeven by several decades?”

Liv was shaking her head wildly. “It’s about the ways he’s structured the company. He’s willing to move forward with ideas faster than anyone else, he’s not afraid to break things and start over—everything is secondary to what the technical experts think, and he’s recruiting real talent. It’s the closest you can get to pure science in our fucked-up economy. He’s not bound by—”

“Labor laws?” Moonbeam asked. “Workplace safety? Remember when he was cited for—”

“That’s irrelevant to—”

A loud screech of the brakes, and Liv, who had let go of the pole to gesticulate, was knocked off-balance.

“We’re here!” Rob said loudly and cheerfully. He hopped up and linked his arm through May’s. “Everybody off the train, let’s talk about literally anything else in the world.”

***

There was a twenty-four hour diner near the subway stop, and they all piled into a booth by the front windows. The waitress, who, based on her expression, may have been plotting to poison them already, plopped a stack of menus down on the table and vanished into the back. Rob dragged one towards himself by the corner and flipped it open. It took up half the table, from Moonbeam on his right to Sumaya on his left.

“Given five dollars for the ticket and one for the subway back, I can afford— fries,” he said, rapidly scanning the columns.

“We can afford pizza if we split it,” Moonbeam told him.

“You mean you can afford most of a pizza, and I can cover some scraps of crust.”

“You eat like a bird anyway.”

“Between the five of us we can make two pizzas appear,” Liv said. “It’ll be fine.”

“They have to have olives or I’m not helping,” Sumaya said. May, who had been eyeing the Greek food section of the menu, was coming to the uncomfortable realization that she might be the only one with anything resembling disposable income.

“We can negotiate on the olives,” Moonbeam said. “Someone without an opinion should go buy tickets now though, I don’t want them to sell out.”

“I can do it,” May offered. She was already trying to work out how to subtly defray the cost of tickets.

“No!” Liv said. It was more of a yell: the waitress, who had returned with five big plastic cups of water, almost spilled the one she was setting down. “No, I’m going to do it.”

“You hate olives,” Moonbeam said warningly.

“Let her do it, otherwise I’ll have to,” said Rob, waving a five in Liv’s direction. Liv collected cash from Moonbeam and Sumaya as well, and then flatly refused to take May’s proffered money.

“I invited you,” Liv said.

I invited you,” said Moonbeam. “Doesn’t mean I’m paying.”

“She’s new,” Liv argued.

“I’m a freshman,” Rob pointed out.

“It’s really fine,” May began. “I’m happy to—”

“It’s a Christmas present!” Liv said finally. “Oh my god, just— let it be a Christmas present!”

May looked around at the group. Moonbeam’s face was impassive and Sumaya looked vaguely pissed off, which didn’t tell her anything. Rob was trying and failing to conceal glee, which was alarming but not clarifying. May turned back towards Liv. She looked determined, but more vulnerable than May could ever remember seeing her. Even though it was warm indoors, she hadn’t taken off the scarf.

“Okay,” May said. “I— thank you.”

Liv looked strangely relieved as she turned to go. The bell clanged behind her, May stared for a bit at the space she used to occupy.

“So are you guys ready to order or what,” the waitress said, and May jumped.

“No,” said Sumaya. “What kinds of olives do you have?”

***

After pizza (one olive, one pepperoni—May, who quite liked olives, had found herself launching a vigorous attack against them), they went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which May was tangentially familiar with but had never seen.

“Any virgins?” a staff member asked, the moment they walked through the door of the theater.

“Just her,” Moonbeam said, jerking her head at May.

May stopped in her tracks, poleaxed. As she was gearing up to— object? complain? storm out?, Moonbeam rolled her eyes and said, “It’s your first time, right? At the show?”

“Oh,” May said, and Rob snickered. In the corner, a man in a blond wig and pink dress and a woman with wild red hair and a maid’s uniform started shouting at each other.

“Not again,” the staff member muttered. “Could you guys mark her? I have to deal with this.”

“Sure,” Moonbeam said, and pulled a tube of what looked like eye black out of her jacket pocket. “May, hold still.”

“Um,” May said, eyeing the tube as it approached like it was a snake in the grass.

“No, no,” Sumaya said. “Your lipstick sucks, use mine.” From her shoulder bag, she pulled her own tube and uncapped it. It was bright pink, a color May had never once seen on Sumaya. “Close your eyes.”

May did, and she only flinched a little when something brushed her face. Gently, carefully, Sumaya drew what felt like a large V across her forehead. May thought, absurdly, of Ash Wednesday. She opened her eyes to see her friends grouped loosely around her, watching. Hyperaware of her own forehead, she asked, “How do I look?”

“Ready,” Rob said. “Come on, let’s go get seats.”

***

The show was great fun. May started out nervous: just before midnight, she was herded away from her friends with the rest of the lipsticked virgins, who were on the whole costumed at a rate and with an enthusiasm far below that of the average showgoer. They were all lined up at the front of the theater, right below the screen, and the host—the movie had a host—introduced the film, and then told the man on the far right to give everyone his name and his very best orgasm noise.

May’s stomach dropped.

Luckily, she was about two-thirds of the way down the line, so she had time to come to terms with her new reality. By the time the man to her right, who had attempted some kind of dying cat sound that caused horrible squealing feedback, handed her the microphone, she was as ready as she’d ever be.

There was a spotlight pointed in her direction. It was very bright. “I’m May Reilly,” she told the room, her voice cracking only a little on Reilly. “Here I go.”

She had decided to try something— breathy was the word, probably. A little weak, but not an active assault on the ears. It was, in fact, the most embarrassing thing she had ever done. Someone in the crowd whooped. It sounded like Rob; she squinted a little to try and catch a glimpse of her friends. Liv looked pained to know her, but Moonbeam, Sumaya, and Rob were all cackling. Grinning just a little despite herself, she brought her portion of the show to a close.

After some further heckling, she and the rest of the newly-deflowered were released. She headed for the seat her friends had saved for her, and Liv carefully pulled her knees up to her chest to let May pass down the aisle without touching her. The rest of the lights went down, and she relaxed.

Rocky Horror was the strangest movie May had ever seen. There was a live cast, who appeared to be just—acting out the movie, in sync with the movie. Between them, May’s friends produced toast, rice, a roll of toilet paper and a newspaper, all of which were leveraged at various points during the film. They were not the only or even the most-prepared audience members—some people had noisemakers, confetti, and full costumes—but they clearly knew the established call and response phrases, even if they weren’t trying new ones like the guy in the back corner who was intermittently cheered and booed.

At one point, everyone got to their feet, and May looked over to see Liv singing and dancing, elbows and knees pointed in wild directions. She was objectively terrible at it. It was wonderful.

By the time the show ended, it was properly the middle of the night. May was riding a weird and warm high, feet barely touching the cracked sidewalk on the way back to the station. They got about halfway there before she realized she left her coat in the theater, draped over the back of her seat. They went back for it, but New York being what it was the coat was long gone. The night air cut cold, and May shivered, settling back into reality. Liv reached out and tucked her neatly under her arm. They walked home that way, first to the station and then all the way to the door of May’s building.

Back in the confines of her room, she tucked the crumpled ticket Liv had handed her safely into the corner of her vanity mirror.

***

The next semester, May still did almost all of her usual stuff. She spent an absurd number of hours on problem sets. She and Lindsey watched movies and painted their nails, and she called her mother every week and set aside time specifically to get dinner with Ben. She went to her first swim and dive meet to cheer on Jennifer and Paige, and participated in the rumor mill when Charlie and Tracy dropped out of school to elope. (They wound up breaking up instead, and so had to grovel to the registrar and the housing office in order to re-enroll and also move rooms off-cycle. The whole thing cost a ton of money, and Tracy’s dad was furious. Tracy was delighted.)

Other times, though, May was in Liv’s room, or with Liv’s friends, who were her friends. They talked about politics in a way that May had never heard before and frankly felt a little lost in, but she knew enough to chime in with a groan every time Liv mentioned Wilson Fisk. She smoked weed for the first time and hated it, though she had to admit it seemed to be doing Liv a lot of good. They almost came to blows once when Noah, whom May had mostly forgiven for being nineteen years old and a shit and Liv hated on principle, came up. This was made up for the way Rob high-fived her the first time she tentatively mentioned how good Linda Hamilton looked in The Terminator. Once, Liv ended a story with “And my dad, you know,” and everyone in the room nodded and affirmed, leaving May feeling not just a little but hopelessly lost.

At the end of the semester, Liv came to say goodbye. May was going down to D.C. for the summer to intern in a government lab, and just as she was leaving New York for the first time, Liv was staying. She had a research assistantship with the Fisk Company, which had opened up a satellite campus right in the middle of Brooklyn. May’s understanding was the the job had something to do with nuclear reactors. Liv was so excited.

“I’m going to miss you,” May said, in a sudden fit of honest feeling. They were standing on the sidewalk outside May’s building. Liv had her duffel over her shoulder, and May, on her way to the gym, had almost missed her. She hated the idea of almost missing her.

Liv grinned all crooked-like. “I— yeah,” she said. “You too. Good luck this summer.”

“Thanks,” May told her. “You too.”

“You don’t need it, though,” Liv said suddenly. “The government doesn’t deserve you.”

“Yeah?” May asked. She felt almost giddy. It was the closest Liv had ever come to telling her she was smart.

“Yeah,” Liv said. “They’re no Fisk Company.” Then she smiled for real, and May, following a rare gut instinct, wrapped her arms around her waist. Liv froze, surprised, before tentatively settling her hands on May’s back.

It was nice.

They stood there for a while, spring breeze blowing across the patchy grass. Eventually, May let go and stepped back. Liv cleared her throat.

“Come back and see me the second you’re back on campus,” she said, with an urgency May was still getting used to. “I’ll have a lot to tell you.”

“I’m sure you will,” May said. She stood and watched, gym trip forgotten, as Liv resettled her duffel over her shoulder and then walked away, a tall figure caught by the sunlight as she cut her way down the sidewalk.

Chapter Text

The day before the next semester began, May rolled up to the housing office with a spring in her step. Her stuff was unpacked, her calendar was set up, and she had hours to spare before nine o’clock, at which point she would tuck herself into bed in order to wake up refreshed for the first day of classes.

“Hey, Rob,” she said, pushing open the heavy wooden door. Rob gave a mock salute from behind the counter. “Liv got you the gig?”

“She claims it was her charming personality, but I suspect there were threats involved,” Rob said. May leaned over the counter to ruffle his hair, and he threw his arms up in a karate pose to block her. “You’re gonna mess it up,” he whined.

“It looks good like that,” May told him.

“Thanks. You trying to see Liv?”

“Yes please.”

“You know, it’s technically illegal for me to give out personal information on my fellow students,” Rob said primly. “What were you gonna do if it wasn’t me?”

“Same plan, ask nicely.”

“That kind of thing goes better for you than it does for other people,” Rob informed her. “Nimloth, number three-two-eight, which is actually on the fourth floor. Do you want the other key?”

“Wait, did she swing a single?” May asked, a little bit awed. Nimloth Hall was all double rooms, and with the new construction, there had been some talk of putting three students in each.

“The housing office is a brotherhood,” Rob intoned. “I swore an oath never to betray its secrets.”

“Oh, well, if you swore an oath,” May said. “Yes, I would like the key.”

Rob retreated into the back room and returned with a small silver key, which he tossed to May, who fumbled to catch it. “Take care of that,” he said. “I like this job.”

Nimloth Hall was on the far end of campus, and May took her time getting there, winding her way through the stretches of green that slashed through the blocks of staid stone buildings. She had always thought of New York as humid, but summer in D.C. was more like drowning, and the end of August had turned the weather kind. She breathed in deeply and watched the play of the light, listening to the sounds of life around her.

Eventually, she turned off the sidewalk and mounted the steps to Liv’s dorm. The building was old and its layout byzantine. May had never lived there herself, so it took her a while to find room 328. She came across a couple of guys in her major, both named Dan, whose spirited debate about the rearrangement of furniture had spilled out into the hallway. May offered a diplomatic opinion on the relative positions of desks and windows and, placated, the Dans pointed her in the right direction.

May knocked on Liv’s door, but she could hear Joan Jett playing at an ear-damaging volume, and there was no response from within. May grinned and shook her head. Good to know the Fisk Company hadn’t changed Liv. She fumbled with her key for a minute, then wrestled the ancient door open, a wave of sound rolling out. “Liv?” she began, then froze in the doorway.

There were two people on the bed under the window. May didn’t recognize the woman on her back, spread out across the fitted sheet. Her leg was drawn up, one foot planted on the bed, and the other woman’s face was hidden behind her thigh, but May had seen Liv without her shirt on enough times to know. She was still wearing her jeans with the holes in the knees.

Just as May realized she should do something, anything, the stranger rolled her head towards the door and let out a shriek, reaching down to shove Liv’s head away. Liv said something May couldn’t hear, and then, being pointed in the direction of the door, began to yell, “Sumaya, what did I say about—”

Her eyes fell on May, who felt a jolt of adrenaline so strong it made her head spin. “Sorry,” she murmured, surely too quietly to be heard. “I didn’t mean—”

Liv said something—“Hey,” maybe, she couldn’t quite make it out—but instead of sticking around to decipher it, May whirled around and rushed out the door, slamming it. The door bounced back open, and May had to close it again more firmly, catching one last glimpse of Liv’s expression of utter dismay.

May didn’t realize she was heading for her own room until she was standing in the doorway staring at Lindsey, who looked kind of freaked out. “Are you okay?” she asked tentatively, shifting the area rug that she was carrying awkwardly in both arms. May thought they had nixed the area rug, but she could not bring herself to care.

“I’m fine,” she managed. “Just. Saw something I didn’t want to see.”

“Ooh, that flasher who’s been hanging around east campus? It’s a bit early in the day for him.”

“Yeah,” she said, the lie burning like acid in her throat on its way up.

***

That night, Liv was not in the dining hall with Sumaya, Rob, and Moonbeam. May was nominally there to catch up with Ben and Charlie, but she spent most of the meal slumped in her chair, trying to both hide behind and peek around the cluster of condiments at the head of the table. Despite her tactical position behind the grape jelly, Rob spotted her and waved. May waved back, then spent the rest of dinner poking at her pile of sad-looking vegetables, giving one-word answers to Ben’s politely interested questions and wishing she was brave enough to ask whether Liv was avoiding her.

The next morning, it became apparent that Liv was, in fact, avoiding her. She and the other gladiators in the nuclear-mechanical-civil-chemical arenas that formed the backbone of the College of Engineering were gathered in the school’s largest and dingiest lecture hall. It was a basement-level affair that, though it did not store piles of ancient, moldering textbooks and still-damp mop buckets last used during the Eisenhower administration, smelled as though those items had been cleared out just to make room for XE300: Theory and Practice of Engineering Research.

XE300, known colloquially as “How to Research Research,” was the first of a four-part capstone sequence, and widely regarded as a complete waste of time. Lectures began at eight a.m. sharp. Attendance was taken, and a small army of hard-bitten TAs graded weekly personal reflections with a callous disregard for the consequences to borderline GPAs. May, perversely, had been looking forward to it. She thought Liv would probably have some interesting thoughts, or, at the very least, some spectacularly mean commentary.

By 7:50, she had claimed a seat with decent sightlines that wasn’t situated below the thunderous HVAC unit, dropping her backpack into the chair immediately to her left. She fended off no fewer than three greasy-haired hopefuls as the room filled up, turning backwards in her seat to watch the door in a way the May of freshman year would have thought shameless. Wave after wave of prematurely exhausted engineering students poured in, identical in affect if not actually in appearance. Then, at 7:59 exactly, Liv entered. Without allowing herself to think about it, May waved.

Liv saw. She definitely saw, because she looked right at May, and then turned sharply aside and chose a seat that was not only beneath the HVAC, but also behind a large column that, while presumably structurally important, was both practically and aesthetically appalling.

It was like having a bucket of ice water dumped over her head. May felt shocked, and then immediately, childishly stupid for feeling shocked. She spun forwards, blinking rapidly against a sudden flush of heat and wondering at how quickly she had been transported back to that first semester, when Liv still had not just the capacity but the willingness, or perhaps the carelessness, to embarrass her thoroughly, and May had the capacity to let her.

It didn’t help that no one else had even noticed.

The lecture droned on. May began to worry that she was getting actually, physically sick. She couldn’t process a single word of what the professor was saying, and her notebook remained stubbornly blank. The minutes oozed by, and May tried to evaluate how much of a scene she would be making if she ran out, then caught a train to Poughkeepsie, never to return. Too much, probably.

By the time class ended, May couldn’t process what the professor was saying over the buzz of anxiety in her brain. The guy next to her clipped a three-inch binder shut on his own finger and swore, startling her back into reality. May squinted up at the board, figuring she should at least copy down the reading, even if the chances of her actually doing it were asymptotically approaching zero. Below an absurdly wide page range out of a ludicrously boring text was scrawled SEMESTER PROJECT: PARTNER SIGN-UPS IN BACK.

“Shit,” said May, scrambling out of her chair. Teams with As on their semester projects stayed intact throughout the entire capstone sequence. She and Liv were going to work together—they hadn’t actually talked about it, but May had been sure they were on the same page. But maybe they hadn’t been, or they had been, but weren’t anymore—May could see Liv’s frizzy hair as she turned the corner at the end of the hall, and it was like watching their friendship walk out the door. They were both going to get As no matter who they worked with, and then someone else would get to be Liv’s lab partner, and spend all those long, late nights with her, and maybe end up with their name alongside hers on a thesis. May did end up making a scene, pushing her way through the crowd to see what idiot in a graphic tee and baggy jeans would be taking her place.

May scanned the slightly crumpled sheet of graph paper, heart pounding. She missed Liv’s name at first, and on a second pass located it right at the top of the sheet.

In messy block capitals, Liv had written OLIVIA OCTAVIUS. Below that, in the same handwriting, the sheet said MAY REILLY (ONLY), with a little pair of angry eyes next to it. A box had been drawn tightly around the two names, leaving no room for anyone else.

May’s heart skipped a beat, and a laugh bubbled up from somewhere deep in her chest. “Hey,” said some guy who had almost failed their Engineering Math class the previous year, poking her with a pencil eraser. “Places to be.”

“Sorry,” May said, not feeling that way at all, and headed back down the aisle to gather her things, and herself.

***

How to Research Research, it quickly became evident, was as much of a complete waste of time as the rumors said. The rest of the dreaded junior year course load, however, wasn’t bad at all—most classes were a breeze if you had half a brain or had been paying attention during the prereqs, and on her less kind days, May couldn’t help but wonder what on earth her classmates were doing with their lives.

Other than one particularly pernicious lab block, there really wasn’t much May had to do. For once, she had too much time on her hands and no real way to fill it. Even Tracy, who was a Communications major, seemed desperate to remedy her past neglect of her own graduation requirements. The only other person whose schedule seemed sane, or at least reasonably well managed, was Ben. May realized she had missed him over the last year—they started doing long brunches on Saturday mornings when everyone else was sleeping off their regrets, and going on walks during the brief golden period before the weather turned ugly. They fit together in an easy way, an island of calm in a sea of twenty-year-olds desperate to win swimming Nationals (Jennifer), or poetry contests (Lindsey), or their dads’ approval (Paige and Charlie both).

Liv, of course, was a storm unto herself. She was as psychotically obsessed with their dumb research class as she was with everything else, and while May respected that, she felt like whatever central point they had been approaching had been removed, leaving a neat discontinuity in its place. As much time as she spent with Liv, she couldn’t seem to connect with her. They would meet in the dining hall, but there were no more evenings spent talking over picked-over trays until the lights went off. Liv would mumble ideas over mouthfuls of buttered noodle and dash away before the cleaning staff even began to pointedly slosh mop water in the direction of their shoes. Other times, they would meet in May’s room, and Liv would sit cotillion-prim on the windowsill, every trace of her usual sprawl erased. They would talk for hours without May getting the sense that Liv was putting any of herself into the conversation.

May had exactly one contingency plan for Liv-related problems. As fall began to fold back in on itself without any of the static clearing from their relationship, she decided it was finally time to activate it, and invited Moonbeam to lunch.

“She doesn’t even use contractions when she talks to me anymore, have you noticed that?” May asked.

“Mm,” Moonbeam said. May shifted a little in her chair, squinting to read her reaction against the glare coming through the windows of the little cafe. She shifted too far, and the rickety wooden table rocked on its uneven legs, splashing black coffee onto its scarred surface. Moonbeam sighed.

“Sorry,” May said. “But she’s never like, ‘Sorry,’ you know? It’s always ‘I am sorry,’ or ‘I think we should not do that,’ or ‘It is an okay idea but mine is better.’ Who talks like that?”

“Liv,” Moonbeam said, evidently far more interested in her mushroom panini than in May’s ongoing crisis. “To you.”

“Exactly! Exactly. And so the other day I said to her, I said, ‘Liv, do you want to meet up one last time before our paper outline is due?’ And of course she said yes, but then—”

“May, are we actually going to the gallery, or was this all a big trick to get me to listen to you talk about Liv? Because my answers would have been exactly the same on campus, and I don’t like having my time wasted.”

May paused, derailed. “I do want to go to the gallery,” she said. “Sorry, I— I’m sorry. I promise we’re going, and I won’t even talk about Liv. That much.” Moonbeam waved magnanimously, and May continued, twisting the paper napkin in her lap into shredded halves. “It’s just— is she dating that girl? The one I saw? Because she never talks about it, but it doesn’t feel like there’s nothing to talk about. It feels like there’s everything to talk about, but she just— doesn’t want me to know.”

“May,” Moonbeam said, and May looked up at her like a drowning woman at a life raft. “Don’t talk to me about this stuff.”

“Oh,” May said, her throat physically closing at the prospect of having to keep all of her questions buried.

“You need to talk to Liv about it.”

May shook her head. “But what if—”

“You need to talk to Liv,” Moonbeam said, gently but firmly.

May hesitated, then nodded. It was the advice she had known she would receive, deep down, but following an instruction seemed fundamentally easier than taking the initiative. Lighter, less vulnerable. “Okay,” she said. “I will.”

“Good,” Moonbeam said briskly, returning to her sandwich. “Now go get the waitress, and put my coffee on your bill.”

***

The problem with talking to Liv was that Liv did not always respond well to being talked to. May had selected a time and a place with care, rehearsing the conversation with a mental approximation of Liv, resulting in a model of the evening that Liv completely failed to adhere to.

“That reminds me of this theory Wilson Fisk has about open, collaborative workplace cultures,” Liv said.

“Is it that they’re good?” May asked, exasperated. She had begun the conversation by insinuating that she, May, was the type of person who would be happy to talk through any kind of difficulty, were Liv the type of person who had a difficulty that needed talking through. She was not sure, precisely, how they had ended up, once again, on the topic of Wilson Fisk.

“It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Liv said.

“Okay, Liv, I’m trying to talk to you about our friendship, and it really feels like you’re ignoring me, which is what I wanted to—”

“Did you know individual time and space is an important part of the collaboration process? There’s a flowchart. It’s only in the internal handbook but I took a copy home with me at the end of my internship. I figure, better to have really internalized it if I’m going to take a job there after graduation. I can—”

“Olivia, if you don’t listen to me, we’re going to lose each other,” May said, and she might have snapped, a little, because the other huddled clusters scattered throughout the engineering library, each representing a group project in dire straits, swung like weather vanes towards her. She made a face at the girl who had made repeated middle-volume suggestions to her teammates that they just ask May and Liv for help. May couldn’t remember her name, but she was partnered with two of those dudes who thought that having rolling backpacks and wearing threadbare t-shirts from their middle-school science competitions automatically made them smart, so she seemed most likely to attempt to homewreck May and Liv in the name of the all-powerful A and also, her own sanity.

“That’s important to you?” Liv asked.

“What?” The girl had turned back to her partners, probably to attempt to convince them of the importance of legibility without getting herself designated group scribe for the duration, or some other herculean task. May felt the pull of solidarity in her gut.

“It’s important to you that we stay together?”

May blinked, startled. “Of course,” she said. “Of course it’s important to me.”

“Okay,” Liv said, “I’m listening,” and then she was perfectly quiet and still.

May’s mental model had not accounted for a perfectly quiet and still Liv. Operating outside the expected parameters, she defaulted to simple, childlike honesty. “Are you mad at me?” she asked, the question slipping out like a fish making a break for the sea and flopping hard onto the deck. She winced.

“Wh— no, I’m not mad at you, are you mad at me?” Liv asked, alarmed.

“No!” May said. “No, I’m— I’m hurt.” She had meant to add I guess, or or something, anything to cut the raw sentiment down into a manageable chunk, but her voice cracked over the last word and she left it lying there, grossly whole.

Liv looked surprised for a moment, her jaw slack, her mouth shaped into something unfamiliar and soft. Then she grinned, slowly, and said, “Good.”

Good?”

Liv leaned over to slug her in the shoulder, and it landed like a crewed capsule in the ocean, a splashy, lonely homecoming. Liv hadn’t touched her all semester. “Yeah, hurt I can work with.”

***

Just like that, they were back to normal. It reminded May, above all else, of her fights with Noah—they would always simmer for a while, but once they boiled over they’d return immediately to equilibrium, all the way up until it ended. Normal with Liv, May had long since realized, was far more fun than normal with Noah. It brought out her brighter, sharper sides, and just listening to Liv talk made May smarter. There was a challenge inherent in knowing either of them, but with Liv it was not to meet her expectations but to exceed them. Despite this, it was easier—the days passed, and May felt no need to pencil every one of their interactions neatly into her planner. She simply made space.

One night, they went out to a bar. It was a Tuesday, and she’d set aside some time to finish a problem set that evening, but instead, she made space. It was nice—Liv hadn’t been drinking as much this semester, which May thought was overall a good thing, but tonight she was just a little bit crossfaded, and she seemed more relaxed than she had been in a while.

The bar was mostly quiet, it being a Tuesday, but it seemed like a space built for relative quiet. There was greenery out back, one of those small wonders you wouldn’t find in Manhattan, and some outdoor furniture that probably made for a lovely space on nights without cold rain. Pool table in the corner, kitschy nonsense on the walls, and a non-too-strict ID policy, which meant Rob and Liv, who were nineteen and twenty, respectively, could partake.

It was also a lesbian bar, and May was being hit on, which was both nerve-wracking and incredibly flattering. She’d been drinking, but not enough to de-inhibit herself completely, and the girl—woman, she was older, maybe even almost thirty—was really pretty. Long dark hair, high cheekbones, biceps May had no concept of how to attain. They had the same name, which sent May into irrational panic—was this somehow taboo?—until she discovered the other woman spelled it M-e-i. Mei worked in finance, which May knew nothing about, so Mei talked about her dog instead. Dog ownership was as foreign to May as finance was, but she listened diligently, asking polite questions and trying to figure out whether it was a good or terrible idea to put her hand on Mei’s knee.

Over her shoulder, May could see Liv, arms pillowed on the short side of the L-shaped bar, chin resting atop them. She had been chatting with the bartender for a while, an older lady in flannel who clearly knew both Liv and Moonbeam. Moonbeam, however, had wandered off to arbitrate a dispute between Rob and Sumaya over darts that Rob had no chance of winning. Liv was watching May, calmly but steadily. May tried to focus on what Mei was saying about finding a good dog walker, but her eyes kept flicking over to meet Liv’s.

“You know what? I’m going to give you two some space,” Mei said, like she was taking a hint that May wasn’t sure she’d been trying to offer. May tried to muster an objection, but Mei patted her knee kindly, not in the way May had been picturing at all, and went off to join her friends. Liv was still looking steadily at her, so May got up and joined her at the end of the bar.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” Liv said. “You should have gone home with her.”

“Yeah?” May asked, startled, and Liv shrugged.

“Moonbeam knows her. She has a sweet apartment, apparently.”

May considered this. “Lindsey would be worried if I wasn’t back when she got up,” she offered tentatively.

Liv shrugged again. “My understanding, it would have been worth it.”

“Huh,” May said, and they sat in silence for a while. Liv unfolded herself from the bar, and May reached across to steal a sip of her watery bourbon. “She seemed to think I didn’t want to,” she said abruptly, and took another sip.

“Why?” Liv asked, turning to face her.

“Because I didn’t,” May said, and she might have been drunker than she realized, because she was turned all the way sideways to face Liv, leaning in close. She put down the drink and moved her hand to Liv’s upper, inner thigh, just to feel something solid.

Liv’s face turned to cold murder, not like the storm she’d been their freshman year but just as furious. “Don’t do this to me if you don’t mean it,” she said.

“Do what?” May said, in a moment of deliberate, ill-conceived ignorance. Liv slid off of her barstool, and May almost fell over. “Liv,” she said, but Liv was on her way out the door. May struggled to follow her, stumbling over a chair and waving off Moonbeam, who looked exasperated but ready to help. By the time she made it outside, Liv was halfway across the street. The rain had picked up while they were drinking, and May stopped under the awning. “Liv!” she yelled.

Liv stopped dead in the middle of the street and turned around. Her hair was slowly plastering itself to the top of her head, and her jacket was going to be disgusting later. May thought about asking her to come back inside, but dismissed it as a hopeless case. “I mean it,” she shouted instead.

“Really?” Liv called out dubiously. She was soaked already, water dripping from her sleeves and the tip of her nose.

“Liv, will you come out of the street? You’re going to get hit by a bus,” May yelled, in an approximation of a reasonable person.

“Depends, do you really mean it?” Liv yelled back.

May made an irritated noise in the back of her throat, looked both ways, and stepped out into the street. She was aware she was operating on a combination of the depressant properties of alcohol and the adrenaline-inducing ones of cold rain, but she didn’t care. Liv was in the middle of the road, looking like a grumpy poodle at the groomers, and May wanted her.

She got to Liv just as she was saying “May, seriously,” and instead of answering May put a hand on either side of her face and pulled her down into a kiss.

It was not, for the record, a very good kiss. Liv had been interrupted mid-word and wasn’t adjusting to the height difference well. Their faces were too cold and damp, and they tasted like the same bottom-shelf bourbon, but when Liv’s lips parted, May pressed into her, chasing that bit of warmth. Liv slid an arm around her, under her jacket, and spread an icy hand across her lower back. They stayed like that, a little desperate and a little sloppy, exploring, until May heard a wash of tires and someone laid on their car horn.

Laughing, she broke apart from Liv, who looked dazed and a little shivery. May pulled her off the road, and she seemed to become suddenly aware of the rain, tugging May in the direction of the subway stop. They skittered down the block like mice until they reached it, then headed down into the warm, bright place, hand in one another’s hand.

Chapter Text

May’s friends, for the most part, decided to pretend that her relationship with Liv was occurring in some sort of parallel universe that had split off from reality on the night of their first date, at the precise moment Lindsey opened the door in her bunny slippers and side pony to find May and Liv dripping on the mat, lips locked together with a technique they had significantly refined since then.

In a rare example of concordance between the two groups, the friends that Liv had brought to the relationship were also pretending that said relationship was not happening; mostly, May thought, on the basis that they had learned their lesson freshman year about caring too much about who was sleeping with whom, and were reluctant to begin a new descent down a slippery slope towards drama. The first time Liv had tried to octopus her way around May’s torso the way she was inclined to when they were alone in the common room, Sumaya had yelled “Hey!” and stabbed her finger in their direction until May gently unwound Liv and deposited her in a completely separate armchair.

An unacknowledged relationship was not, however, an unofficial one. May and Liv went to the winter formal together, not long after that first night at the bar. May had a dress she’d bought months back on an ill-advised outing to Fifth Avenue proper with Tracy. Liv wore her normal jeans and boots, but she pulled her hair into what May felt generous enough to call an updo and topped the whole thing off with a too-short blazer. May was inordinately pleased.

After the mingling portion of the evening (just long enough to be painful—May regretted not sticking a flask in Liv’s jacket pocket before they arrived), the masses dispersed to locate their names among the illegibly scripted, often misspelled place cards. The whole event was crammed into the student center, and May and Liv turned out to be seated, chairlegs entangled, with Ben and Paige and their dates at one of the plasticky folding tables that were normally used by people who wanted you to register for things. The main indicator that the event was, in fact, a formal one was that the tables had been draped in musty white cloths that somehow managed to communicate both apology and optimism at the same time.

Once everyone had either found their assigned places or given up and chosen randomly, the Dean of some college other than engineering delivered welcome remarks. May listened politely to the nondenominational prayer, which so far as she could tell was just Christian without the commitment. Then it was time to be seated, but before May could arrange herself, she found herself pinned to the water polo player behind her by the back of her own chair.

“What the hell was that for?” May asked Liv, who had one hand on the chair and a look on her face like it had betrayed her.

“I’m pulling out a chair for my date,” Liv said. Her tone made the process sound like an obscure but vital surgery she was being forced to perform while stranded in a remote jungle.

“Are we doing that?” May asked. Seeing as she’d spent a not-inconsiderable portion of the last two and a half years pushing in chairs that Liv had just stood up from, she wondered whether she could negotiate Liv doing that herself as a new, modern form of girl-on-girl chivalry.

“I’m doing it right now,” Liv grumbled.

By now, Ben, Paige, Paige’s date, and Ben’s girlfriend who May had been reminded about multiple times but whose name she kept forgetting were all fully seated, looking between May and Liv with the kind of hostility reserved exclusively for people standing between the observer and dinner. “Thank you,” May said, making a mental note to come back to the issue later, but then she stepped around the chair and Liv managed to slide it under her perfectly as she sat. It was sort of nice. Care without obligation. Maybe she could pull Liv’s chair out for her some of the time too.

Everything they did was like that—an unexpectedly smooth settling-in. Their progress on their capstone project was genuinely terrifying, according to whichever TA always left coffee rings on their reports and snide notes in the margins. It turned out to be easy to make rapid progress on a group project when you wanted an excuse to call your partner’s home line every night over the winter term, or when, once back on campus, you were always touching in one small way or another.

May wouldn’t have described them as joined at the hip—Moonbeam would, and did, but they still have their own separate things. About twice a week Liv refused to come with May to dinner on the basis that Paige would be there and Liv hated her face. May had, through no fault of her own, wound up with a spot on the community service committee of the student government, the previous occupant of which had had a nervous breakdown and been sent, nebulously, “away.” Liv had swung a very odd part-time paid internship with the Fisk Company (“Fisk Industries, May, they restructured”), and while she was categorically unwilling to hear about petty power struggles between her semi-democratically appointed peers, she was more than happy to break down the office politics and technical challenges in what was basically real time. May didn’t mind listening—Liv could tell a great story if she was interested in the topic. Privately, May thought that Liv would actually make a great teacher, if teaching could somehow be abstracted from any actual contact with students.

“What do you want to do after this?” May asked one afternoon. They had gone outside to perfunctorily admire the first snow of the year to have well and truly stuck. Liv tilted her face up to the sky, considering. If she stuck her tongue out, she’d catch one of the sparse, icy flakes that were still coming down.

“I want to be God,” Liv said. “I want to know how the whole world works. I want to pull every lever that’s ever existed, just to see what happens.”

“And short of that?” May asked, although, if anyone could.

Liv rolled her neck back out like a boxer and flashed May a grin. “The next best thing, I guess.”

“What’s that?”

“I want to be Wilson Fisk.”

For someone so self-professedly faithless, Liv was capable of very particular devotion. It was the kind of thing May normally only encountered in priests and baseball fans.

They kept moving forward. Their shared coursework was attacked in small doses, chipping away at it for ten minutes here, fifteen there, every time one or the other of them has an idea or a spark of motivation. It was exactly as effective a method as the self-help books May’s mother loved always said it would be, and by mid-February they had basically finished all of the coursework for the second class in their capstone sequence. May suspected that if they kept at it, they could have a product equivalent to what most groups would submit as a final thesis by the end of junior year. However, she had very little interest in doing so, distracted as she was by her interest in getting Liv to spread her out across a bed and take her pants off.

By the time Valentine’s Day began to loom, they’d been together three patchwork months, scraps of time broken up by Thanksgiving, finals, and the extended winter holidays. In that time, they’d gone about as far as May ever did with Noah, which amounted to heavy makeout sessions with hands sliding under clothes and the occasional leg slung up over a hip until it got to be too much. May was delighted to discover that breasts, not a feature of her own that she’d ever spared much thought, were in fact extremely interesting on other people, or at least on Liv. Every time Liv departed for her own dorm, May felt like a boiling pot left on the stove. She developed a certain very limited sympathy for some of Noah’s traditional complaints, and began having a lot more of what Tracy had referred to since her breakup with Charlie as ‘girl’s nights in.’

On February 12, a date that May determined held minimal proximal significance and therefore deserved no overthinking, Liv was in May’s room, pressing her down into her floral bedspread. May pushed her back a little, and Liv made space for her to reposition. Instead, May pulled her shirt over her own head and flung it aside, her bra following shortly after. Liv looked very pleased and a little feral, leaning down to trail tongue-teeth-lips over her left breast. May shivered.

“Is the taking it respectfully slow portion of the relationship over, or should I stay up here?” Liv asked.

“Well,” May said, “it is my first time, so I think a little bit of slow is warranted, but I see no reason for you to stay up here.”

Liv chuckled a little and closed her teeth gently over her collarbone. “You’re allowed to count dudes, you know. Like, they’re technically people.”

“Obviously,” May said. She lifted her hips a little, to be helpful—it didn’t actually make a difference, but she wanted Liv to be the one to take her pants off.

Liv came up off her forearms, all the way on to her hands. “Wait, what?”

“What?” May said. She made a grab for the hem of Liv’s shirt, trying to get them on the same page.

“But what about you and Noah?”

May narrowed her eyes, but Liv didn’t look like she was trying to be glib. “Why are you talking about Noah?” May asked. She hadn’t thought about him at all in weeks, and was frankly a little peeved that he was being brought up now, of all times.

“Didn’t he.” Liv appeared to be fishing for some sort of abstract concept. “Take you to the drive-in?”

“What is that a euphemism for?”

“Nothing! Didn’t he, like, take you to the drive-in? Lift your skirts in the backseat or whatever?”

“None of us owned cars. I’m from Queens, not the fucking nineteen-fifties.” May was starting to get a sense of what was going on. “Virginity is socially constructed,” she said, parroting something that she’d seen Liv vigorously nod along with when Moonbeam said it.

Obviously, just—”

“Okay, so, I didn’t want to with Noah, and now I do. It’s not like you’re writing ‘first’ in my yearbook.”

May happened to agree with Moonbeam on the whole social construction thing, but when she said the word ‘first,’ Liv got a look in her eye that made May think Liv was more paying lip service to the idea. It was half-hungry, half-calculating—that intense kind of needy that edged up towards something scarier and more.

“I’m going to make you feel so good,” Liv said, and when her hands went for May’s waistband, May flushed with victory.

Half an hour later, May was laid down among the embroidered begonias, completely wrung out. One of Liv’s hands was spread wide across May’s abdomen, and one of May’s was tangled in Liv’s hair.

“I want to learn how to do that,” May informed her girlfriend.

“Mm,” Liv says, and kissed her hip idly.

May waited a few seconds, but Liv didn’t move any further. “Just let me know when you’re ready,” May said, and Liv shot upright immediately, yelping as she managed to yank out a few strands of her own hair.

“Jesus, girl,” May said, leaning up to unwind her fingers and preserve what she privately thought of as Liv’s best feature. “Are we in some kind of hurry?”

“Absolutely yes,” Liv said, and put a hand on her shoulder, pushing her back down onto the bed.

The next morning, they ate breakfast together in the dining hall. There weren’t that many people there, so the usual steady rush of background conversation came through at a low murmur. Liv kicked at May under the table, catching her sharply on the ankle bone.

“Ow, what?” May said, reconsidering her half-executed decision to scrape the honeydew from her fruit salad onto Liv’s plate. Liv was unchastened, looking pleased at the attention.

“Just thinking I could get used to this,” she said.

“Well,” May said. “With all due haste, please.” She was only about half-joking. May was pretty sure she’d gotten used to it already.

Chapter Text

Over the course of the next semester, May was so thoroughly deflowered she probably could have supplied the centerpieces at Princess Di’s wedding. She and Liv did not, needless to say, finish their thesis a full year ahead of schedule.

May also told her parents about Liv: casually, and arguably so vaguely as to be plausibly deniable. They had already known Olivia Octavius existed in May’s life, so it was more of a reintroduction from a closer vantage point. May’s dad was gruffly and blithely approving that May had such a good friend; May was beginning to suspect that gruff, blithe approval might be his reaction to his daughter’s adult life writ large. Her mother kept looking at her funny, and near-insisted, not going quite so far as to threaten the wellspring of allowance and tuition but allowing the threat of their historical generosity to hang heavy in the air, that May stay home for the summer. May picked her battles, in part because they were on the same page regardless. She had a strong internship down on paper, glowing recommendations from her supervisors, and a sister who had somehow grown up when she wasn’t looking. She pictured a summer walking up and down the streets with June, looking out onto the kid’s future and sharing whatever secrets May didn’t mind becoming known.

It was strange not knowing what to think of June. Some days, she felt like a version of May herself that existed light-years away. Others, she felt like a stranger in her childhood bedroom. They didn’t talk as often as May liked to imagine they did, but they were on the phone once that spring, May candidly describing two conflicting obligations to set the stage for an interpersonal drama: a protest, a poetry reading. Before she arrived at the meat of her story, June cut her off like she’d already gotten the point.

“May, ninety percent of the time I feel like we live in completely different cities,” she said, and May wanted nothing more than to spend her summer bringing those two worlds into alignment.

Liv was staying for the summer, too, in a third New York—she would be working at Fisk’s corporate offices and spending her weekends on an application to a research fellowship she had just heard about and now considered herself destined for. She would be renting an absolutely garbage apartment way uptown with a woman with a full sleeve of tattoos. May tried hard not to be insanely jealous. She’d gotten used to having Liv within arm’s reach, and, in her melancholy over having missed June’s bursting of the chrysalis of adolescence, was keenly aware of the activation energy required to get out the door and see someone across town, and how it might compare to the energy required to stay in with someone just across the room.

Even at school, they weren’t seeing each other as much as May would have expected, given their proximity. It wasn’t that they weren’t together often—they still had shared coursework, and when May was in Liv’s bed or otherwise in her line of sight, she felt like the center of the world. Sometimes, though, May wondered whether Liv had some kind of object permanence issue. Fisk and company had attracted something of a fan club among the nuke kids, and when Liv disappeared with them, May would have to go and find her not hours but days later, long after the Wilson Fisk’s Stock Prices and Dick Size Appreciation-slash-Adulation Meeting adjourned. Liv would look up from whatever obscure corner of the economics library she was holed up in and look—not displeased to see May, but surprised that she was still there. That, coupled with May’s having been summarily uninvited from Sumaya’s burgeoning activist group for repeating something neutral she heard about Reagan, meant that if May wanted to keep up their schedule of bedroom and classroom activities, precious little of their time together could be spent on anything else.

May spent a good portion of her non-Liv-adjacent time worrying about this new dynamic, and then a good portion of what was left over after that worrying that she was being too controlling and/or possessive, two of the qualities of straight people that Liv most often maligned. By any evidence-based standard, May’s queerness was undeniable, but sometimes she worried about being recategorized without her knowledge due to her possession of certain alleged social markers of a straight woman.

In this milieu of lust and insecurity, the semester drew inevitably to a close. May spent most of the last week of classes at the strung-out hall party on the seventh floor of Elanor, which had been the site of a happenstance conjunction of men who did not care about school but had the organizational willpower to dedicate each of their respective dorm rooms to the exhaustive study of one specific type of hard liquor. Rob, at the east end of the hall, was tequila, and Charlie, at the west, was gin. May floated between the two poles, coming across, at one point or another, nearly every person that she knew.

The next week, she took her finals, scoring about as well as she always did and reinforcing her suspicion that sometime around the middle of her sophomore year the TAs had stopped carefully grading her work. The day after that, she helped Liv move into her new apartment, clutching a pile of bedding as the train rattled its way uptown and then eating Liv out as she stood, pantsless, in front of the window, looking out at her new slice of city.

“See you Friday?” May asked when she finished. Liv grinned down at her and kissed her on the lips.

“Don’t worry, I’m convinced,” she said.

They were doing a meet-the-parents. Liv had been apathetic verging on hostile to the idea at first, more because she didn’t understand the endeavor than because she detested it. Liv’s own parents were not on the docket, and the more Liv thought about it the less she realized she knew about them. Liv’s father was in the Army, in some capacity; this only came up in the context of some kind of paperwork being required for something to do with the G.I. Bill. Liv’s mother was absent, probably not dead, and probably back in whatever small town Liv claimed to be from that was not so near San Francisco as she suggested it was. Playing house with a tattooed woman seemed to have ignited in her an interest in the normal proceedings of adult life, however, and before their debate over the issue could rise to the level of a fight, Liv was asking whether she should bring wine and learning how to pronounce cabernet.

Liv’s transient enthusiasm lifted May’s hopes, which were then dashed on the rocks of the evening itself. It was terrible, and not from the direction she expected. May’s dad was cheerfully oblivious, chatting in Liv’s direction about the expiration of SALT I, even though that wasn’t the kind of nuclear engineering Liv did and he himself was no great shakes at foreign relations. May’s mom was twitteringly, nervously over-polite and kept pointedly having May come help her with things in the kitchen and then not saying anything: par for the course. June clearly couldn’t tell whether Liv was grungy in a cool or gross way, but was fascinated regardless. The problem was not the Reillys. The problem was Liv.

She wasn’t rude. She wasn’t particularly polite, but she wasn’t rude. She was also not, however, invested. She didn’t compliment May’s dad’s strategic insight, or ask for her mother’s recipe for julienned carrots, or find out what June’s plans were for the fall. She simply did not care enough to make an impression. Liv not trying to make an impression probably resulted in a better impression than any of her attempts to make a good one might have, but it still stung. Liv left immediately after the dessert course concluded, and May felt almost cheated: like Liv got credit for meeting her parents without ever allowing them to meet her.

May spent the rest of the summer eager to return to school, sitting through interminable coffees with her mother’s friends with sons and taking the train uptown to see Liv every other or every third weekend. Most of the time, she’d end up proofreading some application essay or another, and on two occasions spent the afternoon alone with Liv’s roommate, who was, regrettably, quite cool. She worried she was setting herself up for disappointment—it seemed possible that she and Liv had been interrupted at just the wrong time, like the time Lindsey had walked in on them during the good part of sex and the mood broke and couldn’t be repaired.

Then, two weeks before school resumed, there was an accident at Fisk Industries. May found out about it from the Daily News in the rack at the bodega—an explosion at the Hudson River campus, three employees on the night shift killed. Liv didn’t work the Hudson River campus or the night shift, but May shoved her half-gallon of milk and Snickers bar onto the nearest counter and briskly but restrainedly jogged to the nearest payphone. It was 7 a.m.

“What,” Liv said irritably on the eighth ring, and May said, “Oh, thank god. Hey Liv.”

“May?” Liv grumbled. “Why are you calling at night?”

“I was just—” May began, then realized she had inadvertently positioned herself as the bearer of bad news. She took a moment to grasp the appropriate solemnity amid her relief. “I don’t know if you heard, but—”

Liv groaned, and May could her her shuffle around in bed. “You saw about the accident.”

“Yeah. Liv, I’m so sorry—”

“Don’t be,” Liv said. “We never should have hired those fuckers in the first place.”

May was taken aback. Then she realized Liv must not have the whole story. “Liv, three people died,” she said, delicately.

“Yeah, I was there when the call came in, and let me tell you, their supervisor was hysterical.” The bedsprings creaked again and Liv’s voice came through fuzzier. “Been having problems with her for months. If you can’t handle fourteen hour shifts, you shouldn’t be— Things constantly getting missed. Always complaining. Now all of a sudden it’s big things. Set that whole project back— Who knows. You know?”

“Liv?” May said. She thought she heard murmuring in the background, but it was hard to tell. A guy with his bicycle basket full of single red roses had started yelling at her to get off the phone.

“Better if you don’t call again before school starts,” Liv said, quite clearly. “There’s a lot going on right now, obviously, and I’m trying to get it all settled before I leave.”

“Oh— Of course,” May said. “Whatever time you need. I love you.”

“See you in class,” Liv said, and hung up.

***

When May moved back on campus in September, Liv wasn’t the first person she sought out.

“What’s up, May,” Moonbeam murmured, gesturing her into the room while blowing a stream of smoke out the open window. Rob was racked out on one of the beds, looking about eight years old in the sunlight.

“He did it?” May whispered, and Moonbeam nodded. “Nice. Just in time.” Rob had wanted to live with Moonbeam or Sumaya for years, but it required highly strategic fudging of his gender and class year to manage without impacting the rest of his records.

“How was your summer?” May asked, and Moonbeam stubbed out her joint on the windowsill, jerking her head towards the door. They walked out into the hallway and Moonbeam closed the door behind her, leaving Rob cocooned in the quiet.

“Alright,” she said. “Worked. You?”

“Alright,” May said. “Family.”

“Yeah,” Moonbeam said. “Listen, if you’re teeing up to ask me about Liv, don’t. We’re done.”

“Done?” May said. It was hard to imagine being done with Liv, who seemed to May to be an inexhaustible well of something more to wrap herself up in. “Wait, what happened? Did you guys have a fight?”

Moonbeam snorted. “I forget you weren’t in Sumaya’s thing last semester. Liv and I had a lot of fights, but I’m not done with her because I’m pissed. I’m done because I’m done.”

May could feel her eyebrows knitting together, and had a sudden double image of herself, the grown woman in the hallway and an adorably confused toddler her mother loved to watch on home video. “I don’t— Do you want me to leave?”

“You’re fine, May. I get that she’s your girlfriend or whatever, that’s a you issue. We just have to get serious this year, and I don’t have the energy to expend on her.”

“Okay,” May said tentatively. “I guess— okay. I don’t really understand.”

“That’s fine,” Moonbeam said. “I’ll tell you about the LSAT, and you can tell me about your sister, and we won’t talk about Liv.”

“Sure,” May said, and they did just that, propped up against opposite walls until Rob stumbled out, bleary-eyed and hungry. Moonbeam whisked him off to the dining hall, and May went to find her—girlfriend, or whatever.

***

Liv was standing in the middle of the quad, talking to two econ majors in polo shirts that May could have sworn she once declared Enemies of the People. “Hey, May,” she called. May was still a ways off, so she hurried up to her. “These are David, they were with me at F.I. this summer. Davids, this is May Reilly, my freshman roommate.”

“Hey, David, David,” May said, shaking hands, too amused for a moment to process the way she’d been introduced. Then it hit her.

“May’s a really sharp mechie,” Liv said, sort of half-winking like she was doing May a favor. One David threw his head back in a laugh, and the other one made a comment about thank God someone to do the real work, but May was too formlessly angry to hear it.

“Liv, can I talk to you for a minute?” May said tightly, and Liv nodded, somehow banishing the roaring Davids with a joke about tax fraud. “I had something for you too,” she said, and for a small moment of whiplash May forgot what relationship she was in and thought she meant a gift. “It’s about the road trip.”

The road trip. It was to be the coup de grace in their complete and total domination of the College of Engineering. A federal study had been released the previous year, identifying ten potential sites to serve as the national spent nuclear waste facility, most of them located in the great western nowhere. With a little rearrangement of their class schedules, a lot of begging, and a proposal that could be conservatively described as bombastic, Liv and May had managed to secure a line of funding for a pup tent, some gas money, a reasonable food allowance, and the lease of one of the archeology department’s rattly old Jeeps. They would spend their final semester on the road, using the almighty research catch-all, the case study, to document the selection process. It was to be a little bit Oppenheimer and a little bit Kerouac. Liv could drive and May could read maps, so they were only one signature away from making it a reality.

“Are you still coming with me to finalize things with Professor Sarrafan later?” May asked.

“May, listen. There’s this course on tech leadership that the business school is offering, and Wilson Fisk is a guest lecturer. He highly recommended it. What do you think?”

“I mean,” May said, not connecting this to the road trip. “Okay, if it fits in your schedule you should totally take it.”

“Thanks,” Liv said. “I knew you’d get it. It sucks to miss our road trip, but. The future comes first, and Fisk’s the future.”

That was a line straight out of the F.I. careers pamphlet. “Wait, what are you talking about?” May asked. “Why would you miss our road trip?”

“Oh, did I not say?” Liv asked casually, and May realized she hadn’t said on purpose. “It’s spring only—we’ll have to omit the case study, which’ll still be more than enough to graduate. And you can take that silly art class you never had time for, so it’s a win-win, really.”

“Beginner ceramics will be full already,” May said distantly.

“Well, you can basketweave or something then,” Liv said. “Hey, listen, I gotta go. Tell Sarrafan I said what’s up. And come over later, yeah?” she smirked, pressing a thumb against May’s hipbone.

“Liv—” May started, and Liv repeated, “Gotta go,” before jogging—her least favorite form of movement—away across the quad.

***

“May Reilly!” Professor Sarrafan exclaimed when May tapped gently on her office door. “Just the woman I wanted to see. How was your summer?”

“Good,” May half-mumbled, gingerly taking a seat, which placed her directly in the line of Sarrafan’s dark-eyed attention. Dr. Jean Sarrafan was the only female professor in the department, and its assistant head. May loved her in a way that felt childish, but sincere. “Got to drop my little sister off at college.”

“Another brilliant young woman for the field of engineering?”

“Probably not,” May said ruefully. “Art history aspirations.”

“Ah, we can’t win them all, I suppose,” Sarrafan said, leaning back in her chair. “Where is your partner in crime this afternoon?”

“She’s, um— She’s— We’re, uh, she has this class at the business school next semester? So we’re not doing the case study anymore, it turns out, and she’s not here. I just wanted to— We had this meeting already scheduled, so, I just wanted to tell you.”

“Ah,” Sarrafan said, looking at May steadily. “I’d send you on your own, you know, but there are safety concerns the department would rather not find itself liable for.”

“I know,” May said miserably.

“I’m very sorry.” May nodded, and Sarrafan checked her watch. “Because I have you on the calendar for another twenty-eight minutes,” she said, “there’s something else I was hoping to talk to you about.” She shuffled around a number of seemingly identical folders on her desk before extracting one, flipping it open to reveal a familiar-looking cover letter. “Ms. Octavius has asked me to recommend her for the Falkowitz Fellowship. Has she told you about that?”

“Yeah,” May said hoarsely, then cleared her throat. “Yeah, she’s really excited about it.”

“Good. I love to see passion when I recommend students for this sort of thing. But I was going to ask you: the department is only able to submit two candidates to the Falkowitz Foundation each year, and I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching Ms. Octavius. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues, and they can be a bit,” here Professor Sarrafan wiggled her hand back and forth as if to say small-minded, “safe, with their choices. I was hoping for an additional opinion from someone who knows Olivia well.”

“That makes sense,” May said. There was a beat of silence, and May realized the additional opinion was meant to be her own. She summoned some enthusiasm from the well. “Oh, I mean, yeah, Liv would be great for it. She’d work really hard there, of course, and she’s basically the smartest person in the department, so, yeah. She’d be great.”

“That’s great to hear,” Professor Sarrafan said warmly, with an edge of kind mockery. “Her grades certainly reflect that. I was hoping you could also tell me a bit about Olivia as a person. The students we nominate are important representatives of King’s College itself, and I’m hoping to hear a bit about her character, professionalism, interpersonal skills—her service-mindedness, if you think that fits her. If I do write the recommendation it’ll also give me a bit more personal information to include. We don’t want these to come off as mass-produced.”

“That wouldn’t fit Liv,” May murmured, and Professor Sarrafan laughed slightly, an invitation to continue. “Well,” May said. She couldn’t come up with the words she was supposed to say. It was as if a flood of negative memories had breached their levee and swamped the love and admiration for Liv she’d so carefully cultivated. Every classmate she’d alienated, every ethics lesson she’d blown off, every long-suffering TA May had made nice with on her behalf watched her in her mind’s eye, wondering if whether what she was supposed to say was even the truth. Liv claimed to love truth.

“May?” Sarrafan asked. She had interpersonal skills—she clearly sensed something was wrong. “If you don’t feel that those are Olivia’s strengths, that’s okay too. Nothing you say here will leave this room. I’m just looking for your honest opinion.”

May took a deep breath, and the loud rushing sound in her brain ebbed, like the waters had finally reached an equilibrium. At the very least, she could be honest. That was something she could do.

***

When May finally left Professor Sarrafan’s office, it was in a haze of fury and hurt. She floated around campus for a while, unsure where her new room was but not trying particularly hard to remember. She couldn’t decide whether she was the worst person in the world or Liv was, and thinking on the question seemed to magnify both their sins until they threatened to crush her. She thought about drinking, and she thought about going home to her mother. She thought about drinking, then going home to her mother, and it was at that point that she ran shoulder-first into Ben Parker.

“Ow!” he said, and then, “Oh, hey May. You okay?”

May nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and moved to brush past him.

“Whoa, are you sure?”

May nodded again, and then shook her head.

“You wanna go sit down?”

May shook her head, then nodded. Ben led her off behind the music building, to some little courtyard May had never seen before in her life. There was a mildewed bench there, and a crumbling bird fountain with actual birds. Ben led her over to the bench and then sat in the damp grass beside it.

“I don’t think people really come over here,” he said. “The birds really like it, though. Do you want to talk?”

“No,” May croaked, and the sound of her own voice popped the cork off of her emotions. She preemptively wiped her eyes, angry at herself and embarrassed, but she started to cry anyway.

“Okay,” Ben said. “We can just watch the birds for a bit, if you want.”

They sat in the little courtyard for a long time. May cried herself dry, and Ben never looked away from the birds.

Chapter Text

There was an evening that May thought of often that fall. It was a formless memory, set in one of a string of arbitrary dorm rooms, wreathed in the fading light of some arbitrary change of season. They had been a little bit drunk, or maybe a little bit high, either climbing towards sobriety or preparing to tip into the freefall of intoxication. What they had been for sure was curled towards each other on a twin XL, one of May’s ankles caught between Liv’s. Had they been dating at the time? May didn’t think so.

May had looked at Liv across the span of a single pillow—her big eyes, the shadow of her strong nose. She had been younger than she gave herself credit for. The May remembering would have leaned across and tasted her, would recall whiskey or tequila, weed or sex or pure exhaustion.

“I lied to you,” she’d said instead. Murmured it, across about eight inches of cheap cotton.

“Ooh,” Liv had said. “Is this one of those Catholic schoolgirl things?”

“Which?” May asked.

“With the girls in the little skirts.”

“That’s most of them.”

“They kneel down in the little box? Because they’ve been so very, very bad…”

May snorted. “Don’t be gross,” she said, mostly on behalf of her mother. “It’s not confession. It’s—”

“A confession.”

A confession.”

“May,” Liv said, and blew a thin stream of air that ruffled the whisps of hair by May’s temple. “Is whatever you’re about to confess in the universe of things I care about?”

May’s confession was in the universe of things that had happened at Paige’s dive meet. “Statistically, probably not,” she said.

“Save it for the creepy old man at the interfaith chapel then, huh?” Liv said.

“It’s just,” May said. She had worried that she was going to sound stupid, and she shouldn’t have. “I didn’t think we should lie to each other.”

Liv’s eyes cut to hers, briefly, and she rolled onto her back, releasing May’s ankle. The room itself cooled, but then Liv jabbed an elbow into her stomach.

“We won’t lie to each other when it’s important,” Liv had said.

Now May thought about that evening the way old women in hospice thought about their wedding nights and the way lawyers thought about constitutional amendments. What was lie? What was to each other? What color had Liv’s eyes been in that light?

The truth was, it didn’t matter; the truth was, she knew they were doomed. But there was a grace period. They went to class, they did their homework, they ate in the dining hall, they went to bed. May, for the first time, knew something about Liv’s universe that Liv did not.

May’s own future was climbing over the horizon as well. The blank spaces between the familiar beats of her life were saturated with tasks in preparation for its arrival. Applications to complete, statements to write, exam books to study, and brochures to review accumulated like snow drifts, and May had not one but three near-volcanic conversations with her parents over the phone before meeting them for lunch one Saturday and brokering a peace on the basis that, while not one of them knew precisely what an engineer should do next, they could agree that she should certainly do something.

What May wanted to do was move to Illinois. This was not, as Liv had initially assumed, a joke; Illinois had a top-five mechanical engineering program and a professor with whom May was in correspondence about her work on engineering ethics. It was May’s first choice for a PhD program. Ben was applying too. The more she thought about it, the more it excited her.

“It’s not even in Chicago?” Liv asked. “Jesus Christ.”

It didn’t escape May’s notice that Liv hadn’t asked her about applying to West Coast programs—CalTech, Stanford, anything in the time zone that Liv imagined herself destined for. Liv’s objections were bound up in distaste for the middle of the country’s intangible midwestern-ness, not its actual physical location. She saw herself on a boomerang’s course, out to some desert in Nevada and back in two years with a guaranteed job at Fisk and a CV she could wave around like a ten-inch dick. May, at her least charitable, saw her as a dog after a tennis ball no one had actually thrown.

Sumaya, of all people, was the first one to verbalize the tension between the two of them. May was explaining the whole thing—Illinois; no, Urbana-Champaign; yes, engineering ethics—to her, Rob, Moonbeam, and Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend of the month, who was painting Rob’s lips a shade of red that Moonbeam herself wouldn’t be caught dead in.

“And Liv doesn't want you to go west-west with her,” Sumaya summarized, ignoring the rest of what May had said.

“Um,” May hedged. She wished it otherwise, but it really was that simple. “She’s having this thing where she’s laser focused right now.”

“You mean she’s having that thing where she always wants the best thing and hates the second-best thing because nobody paid attention to her when she was a kid and now she only cares about whatever people are paying the most attention to because if she stands close enough to it then people will have to pay attention to her too. And if you like the second-best thing then you’re an idiot.”

Sumaya said this extremely quickly. “No,” May stalled, only understanding about half the statement. She couldn’t quite tell how vigorously she was supposed to defend her girlfriend from character assessments when her girlfriend barely felt like her girlfriend and the character assessments felt accurate. She didn’t like that this was becoming a recurring problem.

“Sumaya’s just saying that everyone likes to feel important,” Rob said peaceably. Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend hushed him with a finger under his chin.

“I’m saying Liv likes to feel important,” Sumaya grumbled. At that moment, there was a loud bang on the door, which swung open to admit the woman herself.

Liv was steaming, literally: outside it was the first truly cold day in October, and she appeared to have run across campus. She was breathing heavily through her nose, like a horse that had been run into the ground. The whole room looked to her expectantly, May with a sinking feeling in her stomach.

“May,” Liv said, her voice tightly controlled. “Could I speak to you?”

“Ooooo,” Rob said, as if someone had been called to the principal’s office.

“Rob,” Moonbeam warned.

“Yeah, babe,” May said. She gathered her loaned-out belongings together like a deckhand furling the sails before a storm—Sumaya had needed chapstick, Rob, her green pen, and she wasn’t sure whether she’d be back to retrieve them. She went out into the hall, to Liv, and the door swung shut behind her like an inverted cell door.

The walk from Rob and Moonbeam’s dorm to Liv’s was uncomfortable. They wound their way down the stairs, across the quad, and into Liv’s building in silence, May murmuring barely-there greetings to the acquaintances they marched past. Liv’s roommate, a junior with a delicate constitution whom May had never had a full conversation with, looked up in alarm when Liv shouldered the door open.

Out,” Liv barked, and the junior scrambled away with two textbooks and without her pencil. Liv locked the door behind her and turned to face May, crossing her arms. The air shifted then, the silence moving from uncomfortable to somewhere in the neighborhood of threatening. May wished that she had sat them down on a bench outside, that they were doing this anywhere but shut in a tight, airless, soulless room that May would never remember right.

In lieu of apologizing, she said, “You shouldn’t talk to her like that. You guys have to cohabitate.”

“I’m not getting the fellowship,” Liv said. May braced for an accusation, but after one moment, then two, it became clear none was forthcoming. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Liv.”

“That pretentious bitch didn’t give me the recommendation.”

“Oh,” May said. “Professor Sarrafan?”

“Dave got it,” Liv spit. “And fucking Carly, which is token.”

May didn’t need to ask which Dave—it didn’t matter. Carly was the only other woman left in the intersection between their majors and graduating class. She was okay. “Gosh, Liv,” May said, aware that she was beginning to sound corn fed. “I know it was important to you.” And then, very honestly: “I’m sorry.”

“I need you to talk to her,” Liv said. “Right now.” She was still standing in front of the door, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

“To Carly?” May blinked. “I think she’s pretty set on applying. She mentioned it a couple of years back, and since then she’s been working on—”

“To Sarrafan. The letters go out tomorrow, and I need you to convince her to take back Carly's.”

“How am I supposed to—”

“I don’t know!” Liv yelled. “I don’t know how you get people to do what you want. I don’t know how you get people to like you. You walk around doing it every day and I don’t— I don’t. But you can, so I need you to go to Sarrafan’s office and fucking do it for me.”

“Liv,” May said, dread at the prospect of breaking a heart continuing to trickle in. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Sarrafan made a decision—”

“So smile and flash your tits and get her to un-make it—”

“Liv!” May said. The dread ebbed. Softer emotions—pity, nostalgia—were destined to suffocate in Liv’s presence. She was beginning to loom over May, infringe on the space that was theirs in the good times but just May’s in the bad. May didn’t mean to be made smaller than she was. “Sarrafan doesn’t care about my tits, she cares about your service-mindedness.”

“My service-mi—” Liv paused, and her face contorted into an unholy expression. “You already talked to her.”

May took a deep breath. “I went to her office. To talk about the road trip. You were supposed to be there—”

“And I wasn’t, and you were pissed, apparently, so instead of talking about the road trip, you told her what, May.”

“I told her about the road trip! And then, when she asked, I told her you’re not service-minded, Liv, which you aren’t—”

“You know, May, you’re a real fucking pretentious bitch too,” Liv said.

The room was quiet, the air shaping itself, for the first time in a long time, around their mutual dislike. “You’re important to me, Liv,” May said, not sure what she was trying to justify or why. Maybe after all this time, she was still just trying to win. “Who you are is important to me. And I— you— we both— You never would have lied about me like that. You would have never even thought to. You never would have.”

“I am important,” Liv snarled. “You don’t get to fuck with anything about me just because you noticed. Because, May, listen up: nothing, nothing you ever do will be as important as the part of my life that you just got in the way of.” She turned on her heel, wrenched the door open, and slammed it closed behind her, leaving May surrounded by the detritus of Liv’s life.

***

When May was about seven, she realized it had been several months since she had looked after her Pet Rock. Concluding that Angela was absolutely, irrevocably deceased, she resolved to lay her to rest with full honors and threw her in the East River the next time her father took her on the ferry.

Two and a half seconds later, May wanted Angela back.

What May was still learning, fifteen years out, was that dead things seemed alive in absence of evidence they were not. The second the cold, smooth stone slipped under the water, its potential became infinite. Young though she was, May could have warmed Angela in the palm of her hand until she was withered and grey.

All this to say: in the immediate aftermath of their fight, May wanted Liv back.

In very particular times of crisis, straight girls were the ones you could rally around. May consulted with Lindsey, who consulted with Tracy, who consulted with Jennifer and Paige, mostly for the sake of gossip. Jennifer and Paige consulted with some chick named Amy who was also in the room at the time, and May had her very own brain trust. They generated a very simple two-step solution: one, go to a party. Two, show Liv what she’s missing.

It was late October then, and rapidly approaching Halloween. May considered this a stroke of luck—it seemed a much easier holiday to execute on than, say, Easter. There was scheduled, as usual, a party: the kind of thing that unaffiliated frat-looking boys came around collecting five dollars on behalf of, held off campus in a warehouse of mysterious provenance. It was an event that cut across the social strata of King’s College, the result being that everyone who knew anyone attended.

Lindsey et al. decided that May was attending as “sexy.” Per May’s understanding of the holiday, sexy was supposed to be followed by some sort of noun, but Tracy’s interpretation, which had served her well year after year, was that if you leaned hard enough into sexy alone then your target audience would project the rest of the costume according to their own preferences. May was escorted to the mysterious warehouse in platform heels, fishnets, and a leotard, none of which were her own, and a coat, which was, but which was confiscated the moment they were within the radius of visibility of the building.

The party was loud, crowded, and surprisingly chilly—the architecture of the space created an echo, so the music seemed to be playing, then playing again, softer. Combined with the assemblage of mistimed strobe lights and some-chick-Amy’s expansive definition of a pregame, the effect was immediately disorienting. May had a mind towards locating Liv and propelling herself into her approximate orbit, but for twenty, thirty, long minutes the best she could do was allow herself to be glad-handed from friend to acquaintance to girl who is so fun, promise, doing something resembling dancing and trying to stave off dizziness.

Eventually, there was a break in May’s chain of minders, and she was momentarily deposited at the edge of the building, near the corner where a set of rusted stairs led up to the mezzanine catwalk that was the dumbest and most popular place to stand. There were two couples tucked into the recess underneath the landing, and, with a blink and a sway, May realized that one of them included Liv.

The sexy noun Liv had selected was octopus: there were improvised tentacles sticking out every which way from a backpack she was carrying, most of them constructed from paper towel rolls and hanging listlessly but one, which seemed to be the tube of a vacuum cleaner, waving about under its own power, if aimlessly. Liv was pressed into a blonde woman who was pressed into the wall—May recognized her mostly by her hair, which had escaped containment and covered most of her face.

In the flashes of the strobe light, May could see them licking into each other’s mouths—it looked sloppy, artless, but enthusiastic. May let the dizziness take over and leaned back into the wall, parallel to the other girl but about five yards distant. For a minute, she just watched as the scene blinked on and off. Finally, Liv cut a glance sideways. Noticed her. On the next flash, May waved.

May watched it happen in stuttering bursts—Liv grinned, and the next moment her attention was back on the other girl. Then her hand was threaded through her hair, their kiss broken off and her mouth against her neck. Liv’s hand was against her stomach, then down below her waistband. The girl’s eyes were closed. Her head was tilted back. Her mouth opened.

In all, it was a very thorough way of breaking up with someone. May pushed off the wall and allowed herself to be carried back into the center of the party, working herself back up the chain from girl who is so fun, to acquaintance, to friend. Her strategy was mostly forgotten in the face of some new drama that May wasn’t following, so she was blessed with the privilege of not speaking to anyone for the rest of the night.

***

Six months later, they graduated. May was struck by how much there was to fill that time: she and Ben visited Illinois. Her family spent Christmas in Florida, where June was spending her freshman year in the sunshine. Moonbeam won a prize for one of her short stories, and everyone dressed up for the associated banquet. Paige did something shocking and upsetting to her ankle at a dive meet, and they took turns visiting her in the hospital.

May went in to see her one Tuesday with a stack of newspaper crosswords and a coffee and an apple muffin from the good-muffins-okay-coffee diner five blocks over. Paige’s room in the recovery wing was as cold and dreary as the early March air outside, but with muffins in a paper bag and MTV on in the background it felt companionable.

A doped-up Paige was the same amount of help on the crossword as a sober one: none at all, except where May needed it, which was on the sports clues. “Gwynn, with a Y,” she slurred, almost before May had finished saying the words Padres, and promptly burst into tears.

“Oh no,” May said, not as horrified as she would have been had Jennifer not let her know this would happen. “Do you not like the Padres?”

No,” Paige said, tapping the nurse’s call button emphatically—and, May thought, accidentally. “I just like having you so much and you’re going to leave without knowing anything about baseball.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” May said, just as happy and as sad as Paige was in that moment. “How about I learn in Illinois, huh? Does Illinois have baseball?”

“The Cubs!” Paige wailed, and the nurse came in to give May an exhausted look and take away her coffee for no good reason.

May told Ben this story that same afternoon when she saw him in the dining hall, pouring medium-bad coffee from the row of grimy pots. He was outside her dorm the next morning with a thermos.

“Apparently by the time we get to Illinois it’ll be playoffs, which is expensive for tickets even if the Cubs do make it,” he said without preamble. “But games start again in March or April or something.”

May took the thermos and a sip: medium good. There was a swooping feeling in her stomach—the same as being on the monkey bars as a kid, trying to skip a rung for the first time, in the moment before you make contact but after you realize you’re going to do it.

May and Liv weren’t speaking then—in fact, they did not speak again for the rest of the year. May caught glimpses of her around corners and across rooms—her hair above a sea of bobbing heads, her boot prints distinct on the lab’s slick tile—almost every day until she stopped looking. May only found out where Liv had ended up when the circular proudly listing the graduating class's destinations was published. Octavius, O. was listed under the Fisk heading, the name of a decent but lesser San Antonio office tacked on. Their thesis was completed by means of dispassionate Post-it notes left atop neatly organized stacks of meticulous lab notes, left behind in departmental mailboxes they visited at rigidly different hours of the day.

They had drafted their dedications in the winter of their junior year, in a lust-addled fugue state that it was difficult for May to remember had felt the way it had. They had been love letters, basically, meant to be surprises planned a year or so out. May redrafted hers in the spring: she thanked Jennifer, Paige, Lindsey, Tracy, and Charlie, who had stuck it out from the beginning; she thanked Ben, who had been and would continue to be her friend. She thanked Rob, Moonbeam, Sumaya, having become herself among them, and Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend, who knew a lot about formatting long reports and was willing to share. She thanked her parents and her sister, because she loved them, and Professor Sarrafan, for the same reason, and every T.A. she had ever had, for their pains. She thought, for a fleeting moment, about thanking her past self, but decided to leave that task to the future.

Liv didn't bother with edits. Her dedication read:

To May, the smartest woman I know.

Chapter Text

EIGHT YEARS LATER

They go to the park by the river on the first warm afternoon in the spring—the earth obliging, as she always does, to bring things back around to where they began. May sits on an old bed sheet, Ben’s forefinger tracing a small, repetitive pattern on her ankle as he watches his little nephew totter around recklessly through the grass. She’s taking the opportunity to go through the comments on her current paper, a process only made tolerable by the company, as well as the quality of the light filtering through the trees that the city has planted, a signpost of their own revitalization efforts.

“Hey,” Ben says, removing his hand from her ankle. “Is that Liv Octavius?”

May turns towards the row of benches facing the park and the river, doubting, but of course it is Liv. She’s a difficult person to mistake for anyone else. “Shit,” May says.

Liv doesn’t wave, nod, or do anything else to indicate that she is one person seeing and recognizing another, but she is watching their little trio, steadily and unmistakably. What an annoying and arrogant way of summoning someone, May thinks, very nearly dispassionately.

“You want to go say hi?” Ben asks. “I got Peter.”

May does not want to go say hi. She also can’t imagine going back to her paper while Liv is still sitting there staring, so she flicks Ben on the ear and goes to see what Liv could possibly want.

“Sup,” Liv says. May stops a few feet short of her bench, so there’s a sidewalk between them. A neon rollerblader whizzes by, and May is struck by the politely impolite urge to laugh.

“Hello,” she says. Liv looks different—not much older, and she hasn’t thickened or thinned the way that most of their cohort has begun to, but May would’ve thought, now that she is thinking about it, that Liv would have taken to the flannel and denim years with the pride and panache of an early adopter. Instead, things seem to have gone backwards, and very California—May has seasonal allergies and can’t smell a thing, but her brain is processing Liv’s outfit and suggesting patchouli. Her body language is showily confident, ankle crossed over the opposite knee, but she’s also holding a New York Post from the broken newspaper box and looking squirrelly.

Liv’s eyes cut away from May, and she makes a gesture towards the other half of the bench that might mean sit down. The urge to laugh bubbles up again, but May takes a seat, and they look out onto the water together.

“I might have a job for you,” Liv says, confirming May's suspicion that on some level Liv is currently living out a heist movie in her mind.

“Why?” she asks, instead of What’s the job? or I'm too old for this shit. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Liv glance over.

“I read your thesis,” she says, which isn’t an answer so much as an unrelated statement.

“The paper in IJES?”

“That too.” May is pulled up short. She must have sent away to Illinois for a copy.

“What’s the job,” she concedes, and Liv rolls her shoulders under her baja hoodie—on closer look, it’s more shoulder than May remembers. She's put on muscle.

“It’s here,” Liv says, inclining her head vaguely southwards. “Well, Brooklyn. Fisk Industries is—”

May stops her there, shaking her head. “I won’t work for Fisk.”

Liv shrugs. “We’ll pay you. Really pay you. Doesn’t matter whether you play coy.”

“You know, the work-related fatality rate for most physicists is zero.”

“Most physicists end up covered in chalk dust,” Liv says. “Not glory.”

“It’s a no, Liv,” May says, not unkindly, in her own estimation. “A hard no.”

Liv huffs out a breath and stands up. “Well,” she says, “I gave it a go,” like they’d just concluded a cursory interest check that wasn’t the product of probably-stalking. “If someone from the office rings you up, do me a solid, don’t tell them I scared the ingenue off with—” She half-makes an obscene gesture that indicates she believes that somehow, now, May’s making career decisions based on Liv’s vagina.

“That’s— Sure,” May says. “That’s fine. I’ll bring up the mortality rate thing.”

“Whatever you think they’ll buy,” Liv condescends. She begins to walk away, and May stands, but then Liv turns on her heel and frowns, the same way she does when she doesn’t think she’s wrong—just that May misunderstands.

“I thought I loved you,” she says. This is a lie. May begins to tell her so, but Liv shakes her head violently. “Or— I should have thought of it.” Her eyebrows knit together like this is a problem that’s just occurring to her.

“Maybe you’re right,” May tells her: a conversational ejection seat. They’re well past it mattering, and Liv will forget by the time she’s back on the train. Indeed, her face is beginning to clear, a cloud passing, and she searches around for a parting line.

“Cute kid,” she says, jerking her chin at Peter. He and Ben are playing a delightful and very loud game they share called Super Firetruck—Liv’s looking at them with an utter non-expression. When they were together, May had been frustrated that Liv didn’t see her. From a distance, the problem looks different: Liv just doesn’t see people.

May’s normal response to that statement, typically used on older women with a vested interest in her wanting a baby, is That’s Ben’s nephew; we love having him for the afternoon. “He is,” she says instead. “Goodbye, Liv.”

“See you,” Liv says, with no trace of irony. She heads off down the sidewalk—the rollerbladers are coming in waves now, and Liv is swallowed up sooner than May expects.

When she crosses the grass back to them, Ben has Peter give her a high-five. “She doesn’t seem nearly as tall as she used to,” he says. “Think she shrunk?”

“Who knows,” May shrugs, taking the mushed piece of strawberry Peter hands her with earnest solemnity. “Maybe we grew.”