The night was cold and dark; clouds hung low in the sky, obscuring the normally bright winter moon. It was going to snow tonight and from what she had heard on the weather report from this morning, quite a lot at that. She briefly chastised herself for not having worn her boots today since there would likely be fresh snow on the ground on her walk home later tonight. Though her colleagues always complained this time of year about how it was dark coming to work and dark going home and how cold and drab these winter months were, to Lauren, winter was always her favorite time of year. Just like now, she loved the sound her shoes made walking over the layers of snow on the ground. That soft crunching noise underfoot coupled with the white puffs of her warm breath leaving her mouth as she moved briskly down the sidewalk made her feel as equally tranquil as it did alive. Shoving her hands deeper into her coat pockets, she ducked her head a bit lower into the collar of her jacket and picked up her pace. She may love winter, but it was still damn cold out and she certainly didn't want to linger out in it any longer than necessary. After a remarkably rough week in the lab, tonight's dinner with her two most favorite people was like the shiny, awesome toy at the bottom of a particularly awful tasting box of cereal. And she was more than willing to bear the cold for some good food, great conversation and much-needed general frivolity.
Lauren had made it a point to arrive a bit early to the restaurant this evening. She had always found it challenging to relax and enjoy an evening out coming off of a stressful day at work. It was worse for Lauren back when she was still in medical school, and even more-so during her residency. The rigors of academia and the burden of being responsible for her patients' health and well-being often made her a very serious and somewhat boring after-hours companion. Ironically, medical school was where it all began for Lauren, Emma and Thomas. The dynamic threesome had forged a hard and fast friendship during their first year in medical school. They spent many nights studying together or, more accurately, Lauren and Emma would do most of the studying and Thomas would keep their beer mugs topped off. Thomas was the absurdly smart one in the group. They were all smarter than your average bear, to be sure, but Lauren and Emma were more studious and didn't take their natural intelligence for granted. Thomas somehow absorbed all of his necessary knowledge by association - he merely needed to be in close proximity to the person imparting said knowledge to gain a reasonable grasp on the information. Even if the late-night study sessions were a bit one-sided, they all managed to make it through with flying colors and a friendship that would last a lifetime.
As Lauren's thoughts drifted to old memories of their school days together, she hardly even noticed that she had arrived at the restaurant. But the surprise was a welcomed one as she slipped in the door, instantly taken in by the warm surroundings. With an extra fifteen minutes to spare before she expected her friends to arrive, Lauren made her way over to the bar to secure a glass of mulled wine before finding a place in front of the restaurant's massive wood-burning fireplace. Years ago, when the three of them had first started coming here, they would forgo taking their meals at an actual table and would instead eat in the lounge, all three of them squeezing into the leather loveseat in front of the fireplace. As the years passed, their ritualistic gatherings had evolved to include a real table, bottles of expensive wine rather than cheap pitchers of beer, and had expanded from just the three of them to include each other's significant other of the day/week/month.
The lounge was rather quiet today, though the main restaurant was in its usual state of busy-ness. But Lauren was thankful for the solitude and took the opportunity to snuggle further into the leather sofa, losing herself in her earlier train of thought while sipping slowly on the warm wine. After a few minutes, she felt a presence behind her. Assuming it was one of her friends, she extended her hand backward over the top of the sofa trying to make contact with whomever was behind her. After a moment, she felt a warm, soft hand slide across her own, which she took to be Emma's. She squeezed the proffered hand gently and uttered a quiet "Hello." When an unfamiliar voice answered back, Lauren practically flung her wine across the room in her haste to get her body off the couch and her hand away from this unexpected stranger. Amidst the stumbling, fumbling and mumbled apologies, Lauren managed to find her manners and, after setting her wine safely down on the side table, extended her hand once again - albeit a bit more formally - to the woman now standing in front of her. The startled woman slowly reached out and grasped Lauren's hand in her own, giving a short but firm shake, then quickly returning her hands to her sides where she spent the next few moments smoothing the fabric of her skirt. The stranger began to speak again, apologizing repeatedly for having startled her. After a few awkward moments, Lauren simply could not take it anymore and cut her off with an abrupt "I'm Lauren."
Lauren stood completely still, looking with practiced confidence at the woman in front of her. The woman let out a breath as a warm smile appeared.
"I'm Bo. Sorry again for... well..."
"Don't even worry about it. Personally, I love holding hands with strange women," Lauren quipped, trying to lighten the moment. Lauren rubbed her hands across her upper thighs in a nervous gesture. Looking around the room for a second, it occurred to her that it was a bit odd that this woman had come to stand directly behind her when she was clearly the only other person occupying the lounge at the moment.
But before she even had a chance to voice the thought, Bo started in, "When I asked the hostess about the reservation that Thomas had made for this evening, she informed me that someone from our party had already arrived and was waiting in the lounge." Bo glanced around the room and then back at Lauren. "Thankfully you were the only person here when I walked in, so I assumed - hopefully correctly - that you were one of Thomas's friends. Lauren, you said?" Bo raised her eyebrows expectantly, the expression unexpectedly endearing.
"Lauren, yes. Well it is a pleasure to meet you."
Shifting back toward the couch, Lauren gestured toward it. "Please sit. I can promise you it's the best seat in the house," she spoke lightly, trying to set Bo at ease after the awkward first impression they both made. After settling themselves on opposite ends of the couch, Lauren retrieved her wine from the end table and took a fortifying sip of the dark red liquid. Glancing over the top of her glass in Bo's direction, she took a moment to really look at the person now occupying one of her favorite spots in the city. Bo was a strikingly beautiful woman. Her long brown hair flowed down her back, gently curling at the ends. Her face glowed softly by the light of the fire. She had the remains of her earlier smile still tugging at the corners of her mouth, showing off the dimple in her right cheek. But it was her deep brown eyes that intrigued Lauren the most. There was an intensity in her far-off gaze that belied her easy smile and relaxed pose.
The more she studied Bo's figure, the more she noticed just how different they were physically. Though they were both a similar height, where Bo appeared petite with gentle curves and impossibly smooth skin that softened the muscle lurking beneath, Lauren was lanky with toned arms and legs and sporting an almost boyish physique. The epitome of femininity, Bo had a certain - shall we say - sex appeal that was apparent the second Lauren laid eyes on her. She wore a very flattering blue silk blouse and a figure-hugging navy pinstriped skirt, which could have been considered office-appropriate professional attire, but there was something about the way Bo wore them - the way she stood and moved and showed off just the right amount of skin here, but not too much there. She was absolutely stunning. This was not to say that Lauren was a slouch, by any means. Also considered an incredibly beautiful woman, Lauren wore her shiny blond locks up tonight in a somewhat messy bun with the occasional stray golden curl softening her face. She could pull off just about any outfit with her long, lean body, so tonight she had worn her favorite dress pants that she thought made her look taller, and finally pulled out the new leather jacket she had bought more than a month ago to wear over a classic white oxford dress shirt. Where Lauren's look was classy and immaculate, Bo's was also classy, yes, but with an added wow mixed in. And that part was all Bo. Taking another slow sip, Lauren turned her gaze away from Bo's profile to avoid yet another embarrassing moment.
Lauren's brow creased ever so slightly as she contemplated how Bo and Thomas were connected. Was Bo Thomas's girlfriend? If so, it would be the first she had heard of it, and Thomas was not one to keep his romantic life a secret from his two best friends. So perhaps Bo was merely a friend or close colleague that he wanted to bring into the fold. A twinge of jealously swept through Lauren unbidden. She had always felt a bit territorial where Thomas was concerned. Granted, they had only dated briefly during their second year of residency at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and it wasn't a very impressive run at that. It started with an unexpected kiss while parting ways in the hospital parking structure, and ended with a few nights of rather un-noteworthy sex. No matter how amazing they were at being friends, they never fit together physically or romantically. But that didn't stop Lauren from having opinions about every single girl in Thomas's life from that point on. And Bo?... Well... Bo was a mystery for the moment.
Taking a steadying breath, Lauren positioned her body on the end of the couch such that she was now fully facing the opposite end where her newest acquaintance sat gazing quietly into the fire. Holding her glass in both hands and gently resting it on her lap, Lauren cleared her throat, successfully grabbing Bo's attention. "So," Lauren started in, "I feel a bit bad that I didn't even know Thomas had a guest joining us tonight. But welcome," she said, accompanied by what she hoped was an inviting smile. She was rewarded with a large grin and the return of Bo's dimple that Lauren was finding herself quite fond of.
"Thanks. I'm sorry Thomas didn't mention I'd be tagging along, but I was so thrilled when he invited me. Your standing dinner dates have quite a reputation." Bo's last statement caused Lauren to raise her eyebrows in surprise and - to be honest - delight. Glancing down for a moment, Bo continued in a quieter tone, "I had hoped he would invite me along eventually. We've known each other for a while now and I felt like this was one thing he was keeping private. I would never make him bring me, but I'd hoped he would want to eventually. You're one of his best friends and he tells such wonderful stories about you... but anyway, it's great to finally meet you."
"Bo, I don't mean to sound rude, but how exactly do you and Thomas..." Lauren's words trailed off as they were interrupted by the simultaneous arrival of her two missing friends. Emma, a tall farm girl from central Wisconsin, was the loudest of the three and had the best sense of humor. She had a pretty casual sense of style, opting for dark jeans and a cotton shirt whenever she could get away with it, like tonight. She also had a tendency to wear her hair up and out of her face at all times. In fact, there were probably only a handful of times in Lauren's memory where she remembers Emma wearing her hair down. But Emma has always hated her straight, light brown hair, arguing that no matter how much effort she put in to it, it never did her justice to wear it down and it just served to make her self-conscious and uncomfortably warm. To her credit, her perpetually casual look really suited her laid-back, easy-going nature. Lauren loved how low-maintenance she was and how easily conversation flowed between them.
Thomas, on the other hand, was the most dramatic and high-maintenance of the three of them, and fittingly an impeccable dresser. In the beginning when they were first getting to know one another, Emma and Lauren often joked that Thomas was secretly gay, which would really have gone a long way in explaining things. But that rumor was quickly dispelled, and it was actually Emma who eventually came out to the two of them a few years later when she had first met her now-partner, Angie. They all had a good laugh over that little bit of irony, and welcomed Angie into the fray with open arms. Angie wasn't usually able to come to their almost-weekly gatherings, but they saw plenty of her at other times throughout the year.
After a quick bear hug and kiss to the cheek from Emma, Lauren turned, expecting to get the same attention from Thomas but instead was greeted with the sight of her friend lovingly kissing the woman Lauren had met only moments ago. Well, Lauren thought, that certainly answered that question. Lauren continued to study their interaction somewhat skeptically, but broke out into a large smile when Thomas parted from Bo and turned his attention to Lauren.
"Tom", Lauren said while enveloping his long-time friend in a warm embrace. Thomas offered Lauren a warm smile that made his blue eyes sparkle, and held Lauren at arm's length for a moment just gazing at her. Lauren's smile faded just a bit as she took in his odd behavior. "Tom, is everything all right?" she asked, concern creeping into her voice.
Thomas released Lauren's upper arms with a soft pat and shoved his hands into his pants pockets, shifting his gaze back and forth between Bo and Lauren. "You know," Thomas started, "I think we should go to our table. The hostess has one ready for us in the back tonight," he continued while ushering the three women out of the lounge and up the short flight of stairs to the main dining area.
For the love of god, what was going on tonight? Lauren mulled over the moments since she arrived at the bar, wondering what could have pushed her so far off kilter. First she inappropriately touched a complete stranger, followed by her rather rude attempt to ask her what she was doing here tonight. And to top it all off, Thomas was being awkward and cryptic, two things he never was. Someone had some explaining to do. After the foursome had been seated and had all ordered a round of drinks, Lauren carefully folded her menu, set it down and, resting her clasped hands on the table in front of her, steeled herself for whatever news Thomas had for them tonight. She had to wait a remarkably long time as everyone seemed unusually engrossed in tonight's dinner menu. She did notice, however, that Emma kept glancing over the top of her menu at Lauren, then at Thomas, then at Lauren again. What was with everyone tonight?, Lauren wondered. Was there something wrong with her makeup? Did she have something in her teeth from her lunch earlier today? What?!
And just when she couldn't take the suspense any longer, Bo cleared her throat. "I think you were asking me something while we were waiting in the lounge, just before these two jokers showed up," she said with a smirk.
"Right, yes, well. I was going to ask you how it is that you know Mr. T here, but it seems a bit obvious now that you two are a couple. Congratulations to you both," she said with a tight smile, her gaze never wavering from Thomas's.
Bo shifted uncomfortably in her seat, not quite understanding what was going on, while Lauren gave Tom a quick kick to the shin under the table.
"Ouch! Jesus, Lauren! What the fuck was that for?!" Thomas hissed, slouching forward slightly.
"I'm sorry," Lauren started, turning toward Bo again. "I'm not always... this..." she gestured vaguely "... whatever. I'm sorry. Usually we know about each other's significant others before they show up at dinner, so I was caught by surprise. I meant no offense, Bo." And with that said, she picked up her menu and resumed her ruse of trying to decide what to order. She could hear the three of them talking in the background. Bo was talking about some "clients" that have been coming to her practice lately, from which Lauren assumed she was a therapist or psychiatrist. They all laughed every now and again at something Bo said, and it made Lauren all the more confused by how strongly she was reacting to this new person in Tom's life. Bo seemed like a delightful person and was clearly intelligent, and had a lovely sense of humor. Emma acted like they had been friends forever, which seemed a bit weird to Lauren and made her wonder if perhaps this wasn't the first time the two had met. But no matter how rational she tried to be about the situation, she just kept coming back to this weird feeling of jealousy and hurt. It was so ridiculous! Thomas had been with plenty of women over the years, and there were even one or two relationships in that time that seemed pretty serious. But Bo... she couldn't put her finger on it. She was worried about something she couldn't even put words to. It was all so irrational and silly. And with that last thought, Lauren straightened in her chair and put her menu back down, making an effort to rejoin the light conversation happening right in front of her. Emma was the first to notice her reappearance and jumped right in, asking how things were going with her research grant proposal.
Though it was a grueling, painstaking process, Lauren loved research more than she ever loved clinical practice. She had found a home in the field of genetics and, after completing her fellowship in pediatric gastroenterology last year, took a position in the medical school's research lab. Lauren recounted a couple of run-ins she had with her colleague, Henry, who thought that all of the great ideas coming out of the lab were his and his alone. But one thing about Lauren that had always impressed her friends was how she always stood up for herself,and others when it was important. So Lauren had pushed a few of Henry's buttons which had some repercussion that became the cause of her particularly bad day. But after another glass of wine, she was starting to care less and less about stupid ol' Henry and whatever stick he currently had shoved up his ass.
As the evening wore on and the food, wine and conversation flowed more freely, Lauren noticed herself warming up to Bo. She could see how gentle she was when she'd reach out to squeeze Tom's hand after he said something funny, or the way her eyes would shine and her dimple would come out in full force when he looked over at her. The soft touches and warm looks were all Lauren needed to realize they had something special between them, and what kind of friend would she be if she didn't let down that weird icy exterior she had been sporting earlier in the evening and just let everyone enjoy themselves?
At one point in the evening, everyone decided to try to one-up each other by telling an embarrassing story about Tom - or more specifically, a story in which Tom made a complete idiot out of himself. Emma left them laughing hysterically over the time that Tom had given his first injection on a kid and after withdrawing the needle, he went to put a Band-Aid on the little guy and couldn't see the hole where the needle had been and ended up putting the Band-Aid on over a freckle. The boy's parents didn't want to embarrass the good doctor, but Emma had heard them whispering to one another as they left the room and the little boy asking if his freckle had a boo-boo. Even Bo had some wonderful stories that, thankfully, didn't involve small children, random body parts, or smelly fluids. Lauren was laughing so hard by then that she almost spit out the ice water that she had switched to partway through the evening, opting instead to dump the entire glass over into Bo's lap. Poor Bo shot up out of her chair so fast she almost knocked it over backward, ice cubes dropping off her skirt onto the floor. Lauren felt so bad that she offered to go with her to the restroom to get her dried off and ensure that the water didn't ruin her lovely silk blouse.
The walk to the ladies' room was short but gave them a moment to calm down from all the commotion. Once inside, Bo headed over to grab a handful of paper towels while Lauren leaned her back up against the counter, folding her arms loosely over her chest in a casual stance. "I am having such a great night with you guys!" Bo said as she joined Lauren at the row of sinks. "I moved here a year ago and haven't developed much of a social life yet. It's a miracle I even met Tom!" she went on as she dabbed gently at the dark spots on her lovely blue shirt.
Lauren's gaze lingered on the spot where Bo was dabbing, staring thoughtfully at her hands moving across the fabric. "You know, I meant to ask what your story is with Thomas; where you met, how long ago," she shrugged for no one in particular, "you know, the usual."
Bo's hands stopped what they were doing and dropped to her sides. "Lauren, I'm so sorry. I feel like I may have made a wrong first impression or picked the wrong time or place to finally meet you. I know you and Thomas go way back and clearly I didn't fully appreciate how you were going to react to the two of us being together..." she trailed off.
The silence in the bathroom was almost deafening. But after a moment of collecting her own thoughts, Lauren finally met Bo's worried gaze with a worried look of her own. Lauren was startled to see how close they were standing to one another, their sides lightly pressed together, Lauren with her back to the row of sinks, and Bo facing forward to get a better look at what she was doing in the mirror. Why was Bo standing so close to her? Hadn't they had enough awkward touching for one day? But Lauren found herself enjoying the warmth emanating from the woman in front of her. And with that thought, the worry lines eased from Lauren's face and were replaced with a genuine smile and slight shake of her head.
"No, Bo. I'm the one who should be apologizing to you. I am so happy that you came tonight and that I had the chance to meet someone who is clearly an important part of Tom's life. You are..." she let out a slow breath"... beautiful. And wildly entertaining," she rushed on, suddenly aware of how that earlier comment might have come across. "And honestly, I've been such an asshole tonight and I apologize. I know it's not an excuse, but work has been rough this week and I've gotten so use to these get-togethers being just the three of us that I reacted badly when I realized there would be a fourth tonight. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," Lauren finished, resting her hand softly on top of Bo's which was back at work dabbing at her blouse like a nervous tic. Lauren's gesture caused her to still in her motions for a moment and she glanced between Lauren and the hand touching her own, making no move to pull it away. The moment stretched on and eventually Lauren removed her hand, immediately missing the warmth from the other woman. Pushing up off the counter and away from Bo, Lauren glanced back over her shoulder as she headed out of the restroom, "I'll see you back at the table. Take your time, I'll have them top off your drink for when you get back." And with that, she offered one last smile and let the door close behind her.