It's been almost two months since you woke up next to Mena, and you're not really sure if things can get much worse. Frank is gone, vanishing heartbroken out of your life the day after Mena told him what happened; Poot is apparently on strict orders not to tell you where he is, or give you his new phone number, or any other means of contact. Mena looks all but broken every time you see her, with black circles under her eyes and a look of fatigue and listlessness at all times. Poot tries, but his time is taken up with Joanne and his community college classes and making sure Frank doesn't fall too far into his depression.
And no matter how hard you throw yourself into practice and training and studying and writing papers—you even study for and take the GRE, despite not having a single idea of graduate school in the past— you can't forget. You've been working yourself to the wire every single day since you tried to talk to Mena a second time and had the worst timing ever, coming up the hallway as Frank stormed out of her dorm room, anger warring with betrayal and heartbreak when he caught sight of you standing there shell-shocked and Mena in the doorway with tearstained cheeks and trembling shoulders. He only glared at your hollow attempts at an apology and shoved past you; you shared one final moment of eye contact with Mena and her tears and her broken heart, feeling your chest and stomach clench painfully enough to leave you gasping for breath, and she closed her door to you.
Every calisthenics session, every practice, every team meeting since then has been strained and painful for the both of you. Coach tried to fix things, dragging you both into her office for a tongue-lashing meant to shock you both into explaining what was wrong and fixing what was broken, but she eventually gave up; both you and Mena kept up with training and schoolwork, and Coach had no jurisdiction until one you slipped.
The end of the fall semester is drawing closer. You busy yourself even more with hounding professors for letters of recommendation for the handful of graduate programs you're interested in, and have several more conversations with Coach than you'd like about how graduate school with always be there but international competition won't. Wei Wei comes to visit around Halloween and stays with Mena; you run into her one morning when you're out for a jog and she gives you one of her rare serious looks and asks you to please, please, try to fix this; you tell her that you're not built to fix things and you don't have any idea how to. You stay in more than you ever have in your life, turning down every party invitation, date request, and drinking opportunity that comes your way; you're determined not to make the same mistake with a single other of your friends. Besides… the smell of both vodka and beer remind you impossibly of Mena, and every time you bask in upside of the memories for a second, you wind up feeling like you're going to vomit.
Thanksgiving rolls around, and you tire of your father trying to drag you back to Texas and your mother trying to drag you to Prague to be a new happy family with her and Chris; you elect instead to stay at school and finish the last of your grad school applications. Instead, you spend Wednesday sprawled across the couch watching cartoons and playing video games. Thursday you wake up antsy and, ignoring the dreadful weather outside, bundle up for a run.
There aren't very many people out, unsurprisingly. On your second loop around the campus, you inadvertently slow to a walk as you round the corner to the pink-haired barista's coffee shop. It's unsurprisingly closed; you pause by the door, staring through the glass as it fogs with your breath at the dark interior. You can barely make out the outline of the couches, the chairs, the small table along the wall that you and Mena had so often sat at.
"Hey," you hear through the music in your headphones. Startled, you yank them out of your ears and spin around, even more startled to see Mena standing there, shivering in the cold.
"Hi," you say automatically, and promptly cringe internally at how idiotic you sound. "I… how are you?" you ask. You wish you didn't sound so impossibly awkward.
Mena shrugs halfheartedly, arms crossed tightly across her chest. "Okay, I guess. Rough semester."
"Yeah," you agree. "No kiddin'." Unbidden, a small smile creeps across your lips; you're about to try to squash it when you see Mena return it uncertainly. She sighs after a moment.
"Things got so screwed up," she says softly. "And…I'm sorry, you know? I don't think I ever told you that."
"It wasn't your fault," you say automatically.
"It wasn't anyone's fault," she corrects. "But I let you blame yourself, and that wasn't fair."
You open your mouth to protest, but falter. For weeks you've carried the guilt from that night, convinced that you deserved it. You'd by lying if you said you didn't want a reprieve.
"Thanks," you say, your voice so soft it almost disappears in the cloud of your crystallizing breath. She offers you a weak smile, and you're unable to stop yourself from asking, "So… now what?"
She sighs, arms tightening around herself yet again. You watch apprehensively as she shifts her weight back and forth, from one foot to another, her eyes drifting down to stare at the sidewalk. It's trying to snow, the odd flake drifting down from a grey sky, and you don't know if it's the freezing air or the uncertainty of your standing in her eyes that makes you shiver.
Finally, she looks up and meets your eyes again. "It's freezing out here," she says, a laugh half-forced out into the open. "Can we go inside?"
"Yeah, sure," you say without thinking. "It's only a few blocks to my place." You jerk your head in the direction of your apartment, and the two of you start to walk side-by-side.
The cold air bites at your fingers, and you wished that you'd worn a jacket with pockets. Or, even better, gloves. The snow is coming down harder now, slowly starting to accumulate on metal benches and mailboxes; the wind picks up and you can't help but shiver. Uselessly, you pull your jacket sleeves down over your hands and bring them to your lips, blowing hard in an attempt to ward off the numbness you feel creeping in from your fingertips. The clothes that had kept you warm enough while you ran do nothing for a slow walk.
"Oh, Haley," Mena mumbles abruptly. "You've got to be freezing. Here." She yanks her gloves off, pushing them into your hands. "Put these on before you get frostbite or something."
"No, I'm fine," you protest halfheartedly. "You'll get cold."
"I'm okay," she says with a small smile. With a flourish, she stuffs her hands deep into the pockets of her pea coat. "See?"
You feel another protest rising in your throat, borne of a combination of your hard-won reputation as a hardass and the good southern breeding you were reared with, but for the first time in over two months there's a smile in Mena's eyes and it's directed at you, so you smile your thanks and gratefully slide your hands into the gloves. Besides, you think wryly, it'd be pathetic to lie to yourself and pretend that you didn't feel a warm flutter in your chest at the thought of Mena offering her gloves to keep you warm.
The silence is a little less awkward the rest of the way to your apartment.
Inside, you apologetically shove away the stacks of books and papers that clutter your coffee table, finding room for her to sit on the couch. "I… uh, do you want some coffee?" you offer awkwardly.
"You have coffee?" she asks in surprise. Her eyes crinkle at the corner in amusement, and you can't help sliding back into something like the easy rhythm of friendship the two of you once had, and stick out your tongue childishly.
"Stranger things have happened," you mutter from the kitchen as you dump coffee grounds into the coffee maker. You turn back to face the living room and see her inspecting the papers on your coffee table curiously. She looks up to see you watching her and blushes, dropping the folder she'd picked up.
"Sorry," she half-stammers. "I just… you're applying to grad school?"
"Yeah," you say, fidgeting with an empty can of Dr. Pepper on the counter. You focus your eyes on the soda can tab as you slowly bend it back and forth. "A few, at least. Keep my options open and all that."
"Wow," Mena says. "I mean, these are really good schools. You had to have owned the GRE or something."
You shrug modestly, still not looking up, and feel that warm flutter in your chest once more. You'd never thought you'd do something that impressed her ever again, not after things became so horribly strained between the two of you.
The silence spreads between you again, and you renew your focus on the soda can in front of you, looking up through your eyelashes at where she sits uncomfortably, staring at her knees. The beep from the coffeemaker rescues you, letting you abandon the aluminum distraction in front of you in favor of the familiar actions of pouring out coffee and spooning cream and sugar into them.
It's not until after you've taken a seat on the floor across the coffee table from Mena, both of you wrapping cold hands around warm coffee mugs, that you dare speak again. When you do, though, it's not what you wanted to say.
"Have you talked to him recently?"
Mena winces as visibly as you do, both of you almost jostling coffee out of the mugs, and you wonder angrily if there's a way to kick yourself without being terribly obvious about it.
"I haven't talked to him," she says delicately. "But I wrote him a letter, and he sent me an email back."
You hesitate, not wanting to pry but as desperate to hear how he is as you are to know where you stand with her. "How are things?"
"He's still hurt," she says. She speaks slowly, glancing up only briefly to meet your gaze before her eyes dart back to the coffee in her hands. "Which I get. I told him that I was sorry for what happened, and how it happened, and that we… that I hurt him. He said he thinks he'll get over it eventually. But not yet." She pauses, looking up once more to meet your eyes. "He's not really angry at you," she says deliberately, holding your eyes with hers. "Or me, somehow. He's just… hurt, you know?"
You both sit in silence, eyes drifting away from one another, as you contemplate her words. You wonder if you should try to talk to him again, if you can ever rightfully ask for his forgiveness, if you can even dare to hope that your friendship will ever be the same. The past months have been unbearable, not only from losing Mena and something you didn't know you had or wanted, but also from losing one of your two best friends and shoving your other best friend in the middle of it all.
"He said something else," Mena says eventually. She speaks so soft you barely hear it. She looks you square in the eye and is obviously forcing herself to do so, her cheeks flushing and her hands tightening perceptibly around the coffee mug. "He said that it… this…" Her voice trails off, and she gestures awkwardly to the space between the two of you. You feel your chest tighten in anticipation and bite down on your lower lip, tamping down on any feelings of hope that might dare to surface.
She wraps her hands back around the coffee mug and takes a slow, deliberate breath. "He said that if this is something we both wanted, then he doesn't want to stand in the way."
You exhale loudly without meaning to, the pressure that had built in your chest so quickly escaping through your mouth. The muscles in your arms and hands suddenly feel like jello, and you have to set the coffee mug down on the floor before you drop it. It feels like your stomach's turned into a knot again, but it's not in a painful way; rather, this time, it's more like walking off the floor after a great routine and waiting for the judges to publish the score you know you earned.
"And is this--" You mimic her gesturing to the air that separates you. "Something you want?"
She looks down, a delicate blush spreading across her cheeks. Blonde hair tumbles down alongside her face, contrasting sharply with the red of her blush. "I think I might," she says carefully. She glances up at you, eyes wide and a little hopeful, and you suddenly realize that there's what has to be a foolishly wide grin on your face.
"Oh, thank god," you mutter. Immediately after the words pass your lips you feel a rush of embarrassment and your face heats up impossibly, making you wonder absently how you could have possibly been so cold so recently. It's only when you look up to meet her eyes and see all traces of the sadness that had filled them for months have vanished that your embarrassment fades.
Mena clears her throat, setting her coffee mug down carefully and deliberately. "So," she squeaks, and you smile impossibly wide at how utterly adorable she is. "What now?"
You clear your own throat, trying to buy yourself some time; when no words come to mind, you push yourself to your feet slowly to buy some more. She mirrors your actions as you both step around the coffee table, stopping with barely a foot of space between you.
You struggle to think of a single appropriate thing to say, but nothing heartfelt, eloquent, romantic, or even remotely humorous and mood-lightening comes to mind. Then Mena, in a moment almost painfully reminiscent to that one night that changed everything when she took the lead for the first time, reaches out and tugs gently at the strings of the hoodie you're wearing; you respond without thinking, fingers hooking casually through her belt loops and tugging her closer. She offers you the same shy and sweet smile you'd seen her offer Frank so many times, and you want to say something to let her know how much this means to you, but your star-struck brain is too addled to keep up with your rebellious body, so you pull her even closer and kiss her. Just like the first time, she takes a moment to respond, but this time when she does, it feels right in a way you'd never imagined possible.