So, maybe things hadn't gone exactly according to Vince's expectations. When he had imagined showing up at Peyton's apartment, he'd envisioned a happier reaction; in his mind's eye, he'd turned over and over again the image of her leaping onto him, kissing him, throwing her arms around him. He'd considered the possibility that she might wait until they were inside, only to rush at him with pent up joy at his sudden appearance and passion from his long absence. And he hadn't excluded the chance that it might come to a slow-burn return to romance, where her surprise would inevitably lead to some kind of sexual confrontation.

But in all honesty, none of this seemed to be happening.

It was a grey day, more so than any other day previous. The sky was thick with the anticipation of snow, as ample and frightening clouds had drifted in from the lake. Vince's things were strewn haphazardly about Peyton's living room, but she didn't care – she hardly even used it. In fact, there was a gaping space of empty shelf where the television should have been.

"Oh, I put it in my bedroom," Peyton had told him when he'd pointed to the open maw in the living room. "Help yourself to it, as long as I'm not there."

That was the other thing: Peyton had effectively (and somewhat silently) banned Vince from her bedroom. Of course, it was perfectly acceptable for him to go in by himself, but he refused to do this when she was home, so he was restricted to the hours she spent at the set...which, admittedly, were long and often.

I remember when our sex used to be long and often, he thought bitterly, sitting up. His head spun a little and he sank back into the leather couch. He glared out of the expanse of window, down into the slushy streets, grateful that no one could see in.

The silence felt unnatural, like somebody had put the world on mute. It pressed in on him, reminding him that he was alone. "She must've left early," he said aloud, just to interrupt the intimidating silence. He wandered down to the bathroom and took a leisurely, warm shower. He sat beneath one of the two spigots, and imagined. He imagined Peyton, naked and wet and alone, as she had been. He imagined her washing, shaving, touching...thinking of him, missing him, wanting him. He then imagined her pressed against the sleek, steamed glass, with himself behind her...and then the fantasy popped as easily as a bubble of soap.

Fat chance, said a voice in his head. Not after that cold reception.

It was true that the way he'd pictured their reunion had been more than hopeful, but it didn't mean they couldn't be salvaged as a couple, he told himself.

That would be true, the voice agreed, if you had ever been a couple in the first place.

This time, Vince's mind rewound his life back to that day in the pool, and instead of telling her it was alright, that they weren't a couple, that he wasn't her boyfriend...he insisted upon it. And instead of the more realistic reaction of her refusing him, she miraculously embraced him and confessed an irrevocable attraction to him, both inside and out. For a moment or two inside her shower, he was happy.

From the bathroom, Vince migrated lethargically into the kitchen. He dug around in the fridge and found himself some more birthday cake. He ate a couple of pieces, chewing, savoring, devouring. And it was here, in her refrigerator, that he stumbled across one of the rare subtleties that told him she had, after all, been thinking of him.

Soy milk. Between the diet Pepsi and the Skim, there was a carton of soy milk – the same kind Vince kept at home. She wasn't lactose intolerant. Had she enjoyed the stuff in LA and simply remembered the brand? Or had she hoped...had she hoped he might show up? Had he been right after all, about her ignorance being a kind of test? Well now he was the one hoping, because the idea was so ludicrous when spoken aloud that he had already decided not to pose it to her.

Cake finished and stomach full, Vince went into Peyton's bedroom. He always paused before opening her closed door, feeling as though he ought not to be there. She had made him feel so guilty, so bad for some unfathomable reason, that he bought into it. He pushed the door forward with both hands and stepped gingerly into the room. It was wide, bright. The bed was simple, and yet there was something undeniably ornate about it too...it was impossible to put a finger on it. In the last couple of days, Vince had sat in a chair to watch TV. But today, he decided, he was going to watch from her bed. The view would be better this way, he convinced himself, and he wouldn't have to crane his neck.

He hovered momentarily next to her rumpled bed – it had been made, but sloppily. It put a smile on his face. Carefully, he climbed in, lowering himself onto the fluffy comforter. It swelled up around him, engulfing him in its softness. Distracted, he sort of forgot about the television. Rather, he turned and inhaled...her pillows smelled amazing. They reeked of whatever conditioner she was partial to, something minty and sinfully sweet...vanilla perhaps? Vince lowered his examination to the sheets themselves, and he realized for what felt like the first time just how great Peyton smelled. The heady smell of almonds lingered in the creases and folds of her sheets, accompanied by something softer, sweeter...

And then the sound of his towel sliding to the floor alerted him to the fact that he was naked, in her bed. She probably wouldn't like that. But what Peyton doesn't know, can't hurt her, he thought harmlessly. Besides, this was where he wanted to be.

Under the dismal light in the sky, and surrounded by the irresolute smell of girl, Vince fell asleep.

oOo

In a week, they'd hardly spoken a word to one another. Well, Peyton admitted to herself, that's not true. After all, Vince had spoken quite a few words to her...she just hadn't given him many words back. And it wasn't because she was mad at him for showing up. She wasn't ungrateful either – she understood the kind of trouble it must have caused him, the price he must have paid – money notwithstanding. She could even wrap her head around how strange such behavior was for him, and she understood its significance.

But that was what scared her.

Vince was not being Vince. Vince was being what every teenage girl in America dreamed of him being. Which could only mean one thing, in Peyton's opinion: it meant that he was falling in love with her. This was the very thing she had both dreaded and hoped for. Peyton was a romantic, deep underneath all the layers of tough independence. She enjoyed the idea of being in love with someone. She'd been in love with someone before. But that had been a long time ago...in a time when things had been simple, and her worst worry was usually what Mom had packed in her lunch box.

Peyton sighed, sliding into the back of a limo. She recalled the time she had ridden in the front, always wanting to see and be seen. Now, she was relieved to hide behind the dark mask of tinted glass. She had taken to wearing more makeup as well; a psychological effort towards relative anonymity. It had actually reached a point where she felt naked without her makeup, more than her clothes – more vulnerable, perhaps, as if the cameras might steal a part of her soul if her eyes weren't heavily guarded by dark eyeshadow and thick, garish eyeliner. On anyone else, it might have looked trashy, but she managed not to clash beyond repair.

And this only reminded her of Vince.

"Take that black shit off your face," he'd told her the other night. It was one of those sparse moments that he was abrasive with her. She hadn't come home until well after midnight, and he'd clearly sat up, waiting for her. Maybe that was why she hadn't held it against him.

"I like this black shit," she'd replied, her voice a monotonous rumble. "You think it makes me look ugly? Old?" She had maintained a certain degree of nonchalance, ensuring Vince's immediate reaction.

"No." If she remembered correctly, he had all but vaulted the back of the couch, ready to make amends. "I just think you're prettier without it." He had emphasized the 'er' on 'prettier.'

"Well," she'd laughed cruelly, calculatingly, "it's not about what you think, is it?"

The worst part of it was that he hadn't looked insulted or upset or any of it...only hurt. And that ripped her to pieces more than she would ever care to admit.

oOo

At first, Vince panicked. He woke up, staring at Peyton's bedroom ceiling, acutely aware of his nakedness. A sharp intake of breath burned his windpipe as various worries began to fill his head: Did she come home? How long did I sleep? Has she seen me here? If she has, is she angry? Vince sat up and felt about the bed around him. He dangled his feet over the end of the mattress and listened carefully. There was no sound coming from the kitchen or the bathroom. He was safe.

Sitting up, he saw the clock. He had slept for a good five hours, but not nearly enough time for Peyton to have come home and discover him so indisposed. He stood up and found his towel, wrapping it about his waist once more. Upon turning around, however, he saw something bright orange sticking out of her top drawer. Mechanically, he slid it out of the crack where it peeked out at the world. It was an envelope – one of his envelopes. Vince stared at the paper for a long while, his brows furrowed and his brain clicking away. And then his eyes moved slowly to the drawer itself. He knew he shouldn't...he really knew he shouldn't. She might kill him if she found out.

I'm only going to put it away, he thought innocently, peeling open the drawer. But sure enough, upon seeing the remainder of all his letters and gifts stashed away amongst her many mismatched socks, he could not help himself.

He rifled through them, examining them. The first one was blotched and tear-stained. That made his heart beat a little extra fast. He had not meant to make her cry, and yet it was guiltily satisfying to know she had shed tears over him. The one that had come with the sand was torn around the edges...he couldn't quite put that together. The one that came with the pen was still in its envelope, in almost perfect condition. The pen, he noticed, was not to be found amongst the many gifts. And then, there was the last letter he'd sent her before he had come to Chicago. It was crumpled and wrinkled and badly stained. It was creased in several intersecting places, as though she had tried to flatten it after it had been folded for a long period of time. It was painfully obvious that this was the one she had read the most.

She missed me, thought Vince with a horrible, gleeful turn of his stomach. She really fucking missed me.

The door of the apartment opened and shut. "Vince?" Peyton's voice rang eerily through the stifled space.

"Shit." Vince pushed everything back into the drawer, praying that she wouldn't notice, and he turned on the television and threw himself onto her bed. And then he remembered that he wasn't really wearing anything... "I'm in here!" he called, internally ridiculing himself.

Peyton knocked softly on her own bedroom door. "Vince?" she cooed.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "You can come in, you know. It's your room."

"I know," she said, without coming in. "I wanted to let you know," she sounded weepy, "that I am going out for dinner tonight. I..." and here, she hesitated, "I thought you might like to join me." She sounded so stiff, that he wondered if she was trying to convince herself of it.

"Um, yeah. Just...I'll be out in a moment."

"Take your time, I'm not leaving yet," she murmured. It was odd, because he had gotten so used to the girl who felt at ease ordering him around and speaking as though to a crowd of hundreds, rather than an audience of one.

Once her footfalls died away, Vince stood up. He made to leave, but as he passed her bureau, he opened the top drawer, and made sure that the point of the orange envelope was sticking out.

oOo

Dinner turned out to be at a pizzeria only a few blocks from 1147. And the pizza turned out to be as big as a cheesecake, the complete polar opposite of New York pizza. "Don't worry," Peyton said as the waiter lowered the massive platter onto their table, "it won't eat you."

It struck Vince after a moment that she was making a joke, and a weak smile appeared on his face.

"So," Vince began, serving himself a slice of the intimidating pie, "you seem to know your way around the area."

Peyton was gorgeous tonight: bathed in the warm light of the lamp overhead, her skin looked slightly golden and her eyes shined. As she opened her mouth to answer him, she licked her red lips slowly, tantalizingly. "I came here once, as a child." She took a big bite of pizza, not bothering with silverware the way Vince had.

"Oh?" This was the first real skeleton of a conversation, whereas anything that had happened in the last few days was strictly a specter. "Please, tell me about it."

"Well," and for what felt like the first time, there was laughter in her voice, "when I was eight years old, my mother took me to see my Aunt Rachael, who lived in Chicago."

"Lived?" Vince interrupted, regretting it instantly. Peyton's pretty face fell, and he apologized, gesturing for her to continue.

"Anyway. We had saved up for this trip for a whole year – I'd never met Rachael. And we had decided to leave on Thanksgiving Day." She smiled wistfully, reminiscing. "Everyone thought it was..." she searched for a polite word, "...impertinent, I guess, to miss the family dinner, but I hate turkey and half our family are a bunch of nuts anyway." Peyton took another large bite of pizza, savoring it before swallowing. "So Thanksgiving morning, Mom and I piled into her old Dodge Dart, and we headed for Illinois. Five minutes into the trip and I asked Mom how we were gonna' get there, and she says 'Honey, I thought it would be fun to go through Canada!' Well I had just studied Canada in my geography class and I looked at her and said 'Mom we're going to need birth certificates.' Imagine this, at eight years old."

Vince loved the way Peyton gesticulated, the way her hands seemed to convey exactly the right emotions and visages. He loved how happy she looked while telling a story. And above all else, he loved that she was sharing a piece of her life with him.

"We argued back and forth about it for a few minutes," she went on, oblivious to Vince's admiration, "but in the end, I surrendered with a bit of a grudge."

"Nothing's really changed, has it?" he smirked. She threw a bit of pepperoni at him and missed.

"Sure enough, a few hours later, we were at the border in Buffalo and the guy at the gate asks us for birth certificates." She shook her head, grinning at her own pride, "and God, was I smug. I remember sitting in the passenger's seat, my arms crossed and giving my mother the most livid I told you so look. I think it may have been one of our finest moments together." She sighed.

"And what happened then?" Vince inquired past a mouth full of sauce and soy cheese.

Peyton hiccuped and took a long sip of her rootbeer. "In the end, they gave us each a yellow slip to be presented to the guards at the border when we left Canada. I might be wrong, but I think he actually alerted the entire border that there were two semi-authorized Americans in the country." She grinned at Vince's laugh. "So we got really, really lost."

"Of course," Vince nodded, as if this was some rite of passage.

"And my mother...God," she sighed, exasperated even by the memory, "my mother is like a man when it comes to asking for directions. She hates doing it." Another bite, another moment of chewing. "It must have been an hour before she finally caved and we stopped at this little convenience store. And let me ask you something, Vince: if you were gonna' run into a language barrier in Canada, what would be your first guess?"

Without thinking, Vince answered, "French."

"Right. Well, we walk into the store and they guy behind the counter doesn't speak a word of English. You know what he spoke?"

"French?" Vince repeated.

"No. Korean." They both laughed. "And so my poor mother spent fifteen minutes trying to make out this guy's directions – and failing horrifically. Meanwhile, I'm just thinking about those border patrol guys and how they're probably either laughing their asses off, knowing we are lost, or gathering some kind of Canadian SWAT task force to go find the crazy Americans.

"So we get back in the car, and even though the Korean man drew a truly magnificent map," Vince snorted into his beer at the good-natured slur, "it was completely useless, as Mom hadn't understood a word he'd said."

And just then, the waiter appeared to check on them. "Oh the food is excellent," Vince said, though he decidedly preferred New York crust. When he turned back to Peyton, she looked concerned. "What?"

"Am I boring you?" she asked.

"What? No! Please, I want to hear the rest of this." Vince smiled and hoped she didn't think he was pretending. He really was pleased at being let in a little bit, after all this time.

"Okay. Well, after another two hours of driving around hopelessly," she flung her hand out flamboyantly, "we stopped at a Mr. Sub – it's kind of like Subway, only Canadian. And I cannot believe it was still open! Anyway, we were just in the middle of asking the lady behind the counter for directions, when this really tall, really ghetto-looking black guy walks in with his girlfriend. And she was like, a video vixen."

To Vince, it sounded like some endless, trippy joke – very appropriate for Peyton, though.

"Before the lady could answer, they started to give us the clearest, most incredible directions. And get this: at the end of his sentence, the ghetto guy said 'eh.'"

And they could contain it no longer. They both spluttered and giggled and hiccuped until there was hardly any air left to breathe. After finally finding his breath, Vince said, "There has to be more...how did you get out?"

Peyton inhaled deeply and smiled. "Well we followed their directions and everything was going alright. We stopped at a gas station and Mom complained and complained about how small everything was in Canada – now that I'm older, I still laugh about that," she said without laughing. "And eventually we wound up at the border in Indiana, I think, and I remember practically jumping up and down in my seat when I could see a 'miles per hour' sign up ahead."

Vince chuckled, trying to picture an eight-year-old Peyton, tired and road-happy, ecstatic over a road sign. "So then you got to your aunt's?"

"Yeah...but that's kind of a long story too. Maybe another time." And it was clear in the way she sipped her soda that she was heading off any more questions about Aunt Rachael. But Vince considered the story he had just been treated with tantamount to a gold rush.

When the waiter came around again, Peyton inquired about a box and dessert to go.

"It's not like we'll be able to eat that five blocks from now," Vince said, rubbing his stomach contentedly.

"No, but it will make for a nice breakfast," she said. "I am so happy the movie wraps tomorrow night. I've really missed this..."

Though, what this was, exactly, Vince never found out because the waiter arrived with the box and the dessert menu. He watched Peyton order something chocolatey and sinful, and refused when asked if he wanted anything.

"I don't think I'll be eating for..." he pretended to think about it, "another week or so,"

And as Peyton signed the check, Vince swore he heard her mutter "You have no idea."

oOo

Vince was sitting at the marble kitchen island when Peyton woke up the next morning. He wondered for a daunting moment if maybe everything that had taken place the night before had meant nothing, because without a word, she went into the fridge.

Vince cleared his throat tentatively. "Um, good morning." He set his spoon into his cereal bowl and watched her.

When she looked up, Peyton seemed to be coming out of a trance. "Morning, Vince." The Styrofoam tab on the dessert box made an awful squelching noise that echoed in the kitchen. She served herself some double chocolate mousse cake (or whatever the hell it was) and sat down beside him. She took a bite, and then, of all things, she kissed Vince wetly on the cheek. A bit of whipped cream was left in his stubble, wiped away as he rubbed the spot where her lips has touched him, shocked. He wanted to say something about it, anything, but he couldn't. What did this mean? What terms were they on? Was it back to square one or were they picking up where they'd left off? What the fuck was going on?

Peyton stared at the slice of cake longingly, twiddling the fork between her thumb and forefinger, looking torn. Vince watched out of the corner of his eye, not saying a word. Following some doubtlessly sad observations, he was coming to an even sadder conclusion... In the end, Peyton took her plate around and put the untouched cake back into its box. She folded in the tab and carried it back mournfully to the refrigerator, shutting the door with a sigh to end all sighs. Then she looked at Vince, clearly warning him not to ask.

She stood beside Vince and his neglected cereal bowl and rested her head on his shoulder. He gulped. "Wanna' watch a movie with me?" she asked. She sounded exhausted.

"In your room?" Vince asked absurdly, as that was where the TV was.

A weak giggle escaped her pale lips. "Yes Vince, in my bedroom." She tugged at his arm in its fleece sleeve, and he followed her down the hall, abandoning his bowl completely. Entering the room together felt like some sort of privilege to him, like maybe he'd just run a marathon and earned a gold medal.

Reclining horizontally across her unmade bed, Peyton unfurled herself like some patient, delicate flower. She reached across the way and found the remote, turning on the television and searching for a movie. That was the thing about living in a nice apartment – the cable was excellent.

Vince stood diffidently in the doorway, trying to gage his next move. Peyton looked up at him, beguiling him with one of her old, belligerent smiles. "Are you going to join me or what?" she asked. Wordlessly, he mimicked her in parallel – not so close that they were touching, but not so far away that it was out of the question.

Sound came out of the speakers and pictures moved across the screen, but neither of them were really paying attention. Peyton hit a button on a sleek, ambiguous-looking remote and suddenly, it was about ten degrees hotter. Whether she had meant to or not, she had flushed Vince out of his hoodie. The view outside was obscured by a flurry of white fluff and whirling wind. As the world shook beyond the glass and drywall, the infinitesimal world within was impeccably still.

Relinquishing only a soft groan, Vince let one of his arms fall in front of him, filling the space between them; his arm propped on the cushy bedspread, he let a hand fall tenderly onto her shoulder. In an instant, Peyton's body became rigid, her breathing stiff and synchronized. He could not tell what kind of line he was crossing, or how deep a blunder might dig, but it was now or never. Trying not to alarm her, Vince slid his open palm from her shoulder, down her side until it came to rest in the very lowest point of her ribcage. He scoped out her midriff, gently feeling where ribs stood out against skin, which felt paper-thin and fragile.

Vince nuzzled his nose in Peyton's hair. "You've lost weight," he murmured. Then he asked the question that had been burning his insides for quite some time. "Why did you put the cake back in the fridge? Why did you look so guilty, after eating a few slices of pizza?"

Absolute silence. The television had been muted and its glow now seemed ghostly. Peyton made no effort to relocate Vince, but she still felt tense beneath his hand. "I had to thin out for the movie," she finally croaked, "my part was that of an anorexic."

"But you didn't –?"

"No, Vince!" Seeing that he still wasn't convinced, she went on. "I ate enough, I wasn't starving myself."

"There are all kinds of tricks they could've used, Peyton, you didn't have to torture yourself."

"I was fine. And tonight is the last night. Then I will eat that cake."

Vince waited, trying to figure out what direction to plunge in. "I still don't like it, even if it was for a movie."

Unexpectedly, she turned sharply to face him, and while it made him happy to see the old smolder back in her eyes, it scared him more than he would ever take credit for. "You put on weight for Medellín. That's not exactly healthy either."

"Okay," Vince huffed, not at all pleased with the turn this morning was taking, "first of all, don't even touch Medellín in this conversation." Indeed, without knowing it, she'd prodded a sore spot. "Second? It wasn't the same as starving myself. That is really, really risky, Peyton. And what I did hadn't effected me beyond my appearance."

"And this has?" she snapped.

Vince nodded, his lips pursed. "Yeah."

Peyton looked down, to the side, anywhere away from him. "It's this role," she finally spat. Tears were welling in her eyes, and Vince mentally scolded himself. "It isn't just not eating, Vince. It's being this person...I mean, I could do Sickly, that was okay because she was okay, once you got past all the bullshit, but..." she sniffed, and Vince coaxed her forward into his arms. This, he could understand. "God, she's just a monster, Vince!" Peyton shook, wracked with silent tears. Vince had a feeling this was something she had needed to do for a long, long time.

"It's going to be fine," he said, staring out at the murky sky. "Just a few more hours."

Peyton sniffed again. "I know," she acknowledged happily, despite herself. "A few more hours and it's over. And then in a few days, we can go home."

Something hit Vince over the head like a cast-iron frying pan. "Did you say we?"

"Yeah." Her eyes widened in sudden horror. "Oh God," she choked, "you don't want me to come back with you, do you?"

"Are you crazy?" He laughed. "Why would I come all the way out here and go to the trouble of finding you just to tell you it's over?"

"It?" Her eyes were still wide, but now with confusion.

"Peyton," Vince sighed, smiling. "We had sex, exclusively together. We practically lived in together. We ate together, laughed together and slept together – figuratively and literally," he affixed. "What does that sound like to you?"

Peyton's line of vision became oddly fixated on the bed beneath her, and a grim smile forced its way across her face. "I don't want to say it," she delayed, but there was a certain thrill in her voice.

Vince lowered himself to eye level with her and grinned. "Say it," he sang, closing several inches of space between them. "What am I?" he teased. It seemed to be the only thing that was effective with her right now, which was fine as he wasn't much for serious conversation either.

"Incessant," she said, closing a few more inches herself.

"Aside from that," he persisted.

With an eye-roll worthy of her age and a groan like an old door hinge, she grumbled, "You're my boyfriend."

Looking very pleased with himself, Vince said, "Doesn't sound so bad, does it?"

"It sounds kind of high school," she pushed on obstinately.

An eyebrow raised, he reminded her, "It wasn't that long ago that you were in high school."

"Four years," she said, drawing herself up indignantly.

Quickly calculating the math, Vince asked, "Wait, you dropped out?"

"Mhmm," she said, but whatever she was going to say next was cut short by a loud knocking at her door. She froze, not even an inch from Vince's face, startled. Then, "Oh that's right, Tony said he was coming by!" She face-palmed herself, standing and pulling her hair into a messy bun.

"Tony?" Vince asked, feeling that this was not the time for anyone named Tony to come by.

"Tony Cooper-Owens, the male lead in Stranger," she shorthanded the title, as she always did.

"Ah," he said, not at all comforted by this news. "The guy you're trying to trick out of his marriage?"

Peyton shot him a truly acidic glare. "They guy my character is trying to trick out of his marriage. Vince," her expression turned abruptly beseeching and Vince was reminded why she was an actress, "stay in here, won't you? We'll only be an hour or so."

Principally, he understood why she might want him to stay out of the way, but the masculine, more involved part of him felt frankly insulted and cheated. But he heaved a sigh and agreed, peeling off his last layer for her benefit as she left him to go answer the door.

oOo

For the first time in a very, very long time, Ari Gold – Super Agent – felt overwhelmed. Scripts were flowing in for Vince, and he was not available to pass them along to Eric to read them. Of course, this wasn't really the root of Ari's discomfort, but it made a good excuse when said aloud, usually to the reception of much laughter. And at the moment, Ari's discomfort – as it were – was manifesting itself on a very unhappy Mrs. Ari. She pushed him off to the side and turned over with a spectacular huff.

"Baby," Ari whined, "what's wrong now?"

That had been the wrong thing to say. "Ari, you're not even thinking about me. I can tell – I can tell when your mind is elsewhere." Her face was pretty, beneath the tight lips and hardened stare. "Is this about Vince?" she demanded.

Caught unawares, Ari made it halfway through an 'uhuh' before changing his mind and shaking his head.

"Well I think it's sweet that he went after that girl." Clearly, Mrs. Ari was admiring simply to get a good dig in at her husband. "It's about time he settled down anyway."

"About time he...what do you mean by that, baby?" In the back of his mind, Ari felt obliged to contemplate the possibility of his wife being suspicious of Peyton as well...

Mrs. Ari arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow and snorted. "He's thirty-three, Ari."

"You'd never know it," Ari defended.

"That's not the point."

Ari wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. "I only want Vince to come back asap so that he can get a move-on with finding a new job. I'm just worried that he's getting distracted from his career for this girl."

Mrs. Ari dug a little deeper beneath the sheets, away from her husband and murmured, "And that's a bad thing?"

oOo

Tick...tock...tick...tock. Vince looked up and groaned: it had barely been five minutes since he'd last checked the kitchen clock. The candles were down to their wicks and he was forced to turn on the overhead. He was beginning to wonder if he should just put away the cake and celebratory Pinot Noir. Tick...tock...tick...tock. The storm outside was picking up...was Peyton stuck at the set? Or worse, had there been an accident? Was she okay? Vince couldn't think about it. He crossed the floor and went into the living room, finding his phone. Halfway through dialing Peyton's number, he stopped. He would have heard sirens if there had been an accident – it wasn't like she was across town. Or was she? Tick...tock...tick...tock. She hadn't specified where the last shoot was going to take place. And come to think of it, she hadn't even mentioned what time she could be expected home. Tick...tock...tick...tock. That clock was going to drive Vince insane. He was slowly going out of his mind. Any minute now, he was going to lose it completely – yes, he was going to have a mental breakdown from the sheer anticipation, the anxiety, the impatience, the –

Tick...tock...tick...tock...tick...tock...tick...BANG.

The door burst open and Peyton crawled inside, cold and wet and altogether unhappy. Her makeup was drooling and her hair was more than windswept. Disheveled and exhausted, she walked right past Vince, holding up a hand at him in silence, a sign to keep back until she was ready to receive him. Of course, never one to follow directions, Vince trailed behind her to the bathroom where she promptly shut the door in his face. Undeterred, he asked, "How was it?"

Nothing but the sound of the tap coming on.

"I waited for you," he chattered needlessly.

The splash of water, the muffled sound of scrubbing.

"I went out and bought us some wine."

The tap squeaked off. The door opened and Peyton seemed quite surprised to find herself face-to-face with Vince. "Kitchen. Wine. Now," she ordered. Happy to hear her voice, Vince obeyed. To a civilian, Peyton's mood might be completely undermining and threatening, but to a fellow actor, it was well within the realm of reason. Vince had certainly survived such ordeals, and was fully aware how it felt to come home at the end of a laborious last shoot. He popped open the Pinot and poured a generous amount into Peyton's glass, as well as presenting her with a large slice of cake. She took the wine and gulped it down before he could even say 'cheers' but eyed the cake maliciously.

Vince forewent a glass entirely and simply drank from the bottle.

Amused, Peyton let out a giggle, smiling for the first time all night. She stood up and grabbed the hand that wasn't around the bottle, and led him down the singular step and onto the couch, flicking off the light as she went. Now, sitting in the dark with the slowly guttering candles behind them, the evening was taking on a different tone. Peyton leaned against him and thought the word boyfriend several times over, trying to acclimate herself to the ostensibly juvenile term. "More, please," she held out her glass.

Carelessly, Vince refilled her glass. And then, the most minuscule tract of thought broke off and floated into the kitchen. The cake, he thought. It seemed oddly symbolic to him somehow, that she eat it. He got up and retrieved the slice he'd cut and brought it to her, fork placed neatly to the side.

Peyton stared at him, incredulous. "Are you serious right now?"

"Don't make me force-feed you," he teased.

"You don't have to tell me twice." She took the plate and she stared at it. Then, slowly, she picked up the fork, she lowered it into the many layers of chocolate and mousse and cream, and she lifted the bite skyward until it was level with her mouth. And belatedly, at long, long last, she ate the cake. A grin spread warmly across her features as she luxuriated in the array of complimenting tastes and textures. It was good to enjoy food again.

"Not so bad, is it?" Suddenly, Vince was right in her ear.

"I told you I wasn't sick," she asserted, "just dedicated."

"Same thing," he shrugged. About five bites later, the empty cake plate lay forgotten on the floor, with only the crumbs for company. Peyton was lying on Vince's shoulder, sipping her wine and sighing contentedly every now and again. Before long, the bottle was empty, and while they were certainly a far cry from drunk, tipsy would have described them more accurately.

Inspired by the alcohol, Vince made his move: he took Peyton's chin between his fingers and he kissed her, deeply, the way he'd wanted to for what felt like an age. He put as much heat into that kiss as he could, pushing words he could not say aloud into her mouth. At first they were playful and passionate, but as the minutes stretched on, the kisses became increasingly urgent. Vince pulled her onto him across the couch, tasting as much of her as he could, and then...

"Vince." She looked as if she was trying to be reprimanding, but it was fruitless as a smile was tugging at her lips.

"What?" he asked, acting all kinds of innocent.

"This," she said, running a hand over his steadily growing hard-on. Vince shrugged and smiled unapologetically. Peyton continued to rub him through the fabric of his pants, kissing him uninhibitedly. It was the first time she'd had any real male contact since she'd left Hollywood. Tony didn't count, whatever Vince thought – and she knew exactly what he thought about it. She hadn't been deaf to the intermittent creak of her bedroom door during her rehearsal that day. She'd practically felt his stare drilling into her back.

Coming up for air, Vince found her neck with his lips, gradually settling in the soft space where neck met shoulders. The satisfaction was greater than her little groans of pleasure; it was greater than the way she squirmed above him at only a kiss; it was greater than every gasp of hot breath that ghosted over his head. This was an infinitely deeper satisfaction: this reached way down inside Vince and gripped him tightly in the chest. This was a taste of something he'd rarely known – something most of his friends took for granted, except maybe for E. And for a blistering second, Vince thought he could understand how E had made love his drug of choice.

"Vince, off," she tugged at his shirt, "this has to come off."

"As you wish." He pulled off the fabric, very aware that sweat had pooled at the small of his back as he did so. "It's not very fair though," he ruminated, painfully feigning a remorseless calm.

"What's – not – fair?" Peyton asked between kisses. She ravaged what she could of him like a starved dog, and her desperation wasn't lost on him. Between her deprivation and the effect of the wine, Vince wondered if he was out line.

"You're still fully dressed." He decided she was still capable of her own decisions.

An unrelentingly dangerous burn had accumulated behind her eyes. She sat up, straddling his legs and seemed to melt right out of her tee. Vince reached around her and pulled her forward until he could place slow and easy kisses across her cleavage. She smelled so, so good – like sweet wine and spice, or vanilla. Like a million winter evenings spent beside a warm fire; like smoke in the night or starlight. Vince made to unclasp her bra, but Peyton stopped him.

"I..." she faltered. She was flushed, and beautiful, and...

Vince took a good, hard look at Peyton. If he overlooked his need, if he could manage to get enough blood up in his brain, he started to notice things. Little things, like the way her ribs were a little too prominent; the way her hair seemed only slightly thinner; the way the veins in her arms now seemed bruised.

"So I don't think I can do this, Vince," she sniffed. God, when had she started crying? He felt bad. Surprisingly bad.

"It's..." he searched, "it's okay." What had happened to him? He was saying the words that his friends would never have said. Turtle, Drama – even E – and Ari...and at the mere thought of Ari's name, a flare of anger rose up inside him. It was Ari's fault that Peyton was here, now, waifish and reluctant.

If it wasn't okay for anyone, it was Ari.


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