"I did not either and you know it! Give me my book back!"
Lee grinned inwardly. Claire and her books. It would never end.
"Phillip, just give Claire her book back alright? And Claire, you did too do it!" Lee told both parties.
"See? See? I told you, you did do it!" was Phillip's rejoinder as he handed a huffy Claire her book. He winked at her, causing her to blush a deep scarlet, and then grinned impishly at Lee. Lee rolled her eyes. She was so glad that Phillip had burst into their lives. If he hadn't knocked Claire over one early fall morning, and Lee hadn't seen him do it, their group would never have gotten together.
Oh, the irony. Lee thought.
"Hey guys, what's happening?" Kelly asked, long legs striding towards them, every hair in perfect place, while her face beamed. She was always so perky. Lee often wondered if Kelly ever felt depressed, but then amended her thought by assuring herself that everyone felt depressed at times.
"Claire and Phillip are at it again. Claire's insisting she didn't call herself ugly in a round about way, and Phillip took her book because she did."
"Oh, I see. I'd better not get involved." Kelly nodded in a sage fashion.
Lee grinned. "You're very right. The most I've done is tell Phillip to give Claire her book back."
"But I didn't do it!" Claire protested, having overheard their conversation.
"No comment," Kelly cried and bolted upright. "Now that everybody's here, why don't we go get lunch?"
Phillip grinned. "Sounds good to me."
"Hi, Phillip! Nice to see you too!" Kelly joked.
Lee picked herself out of her chair and trotted after her group as they headed for the cafeteria.
Lunch that day was extremely rowdy. Claire was in a good mood for once, Phillip was ecstatic to see her in such a good mood, Kelly was her usual bubbly self, and to Lee, everything was just about perfect. It helped that this was also the first week of their second year, and they were all glad to be back after a very long summer. There were chaotic fights over salt and pepper, or even napkins and Lee laughed as people walking by looked at them as if they were crazy.
When lunch ended, Lee and her friends parted ways, Phillip and Claire striding off together, holding hands, Kelly flitting off to a class, and Lee trudging off to Math. For Lee, Math was an ordeal. She did well enough, but she didn't like the process she had to go through to figure out the problems. Also there was the fact that she would rather figure things out on her own, simply because it was so much simpler that way. Two or three people all studying together always seemed like a pot of confusion ready to boil over at any moment.
After slogging through math, in which Lee's only bright spot was a joke the teacher made that made about half the class laugh, and caused half the class groan, she turned her head towards her dorm, her home for the school year. She needed to do laundry, she decided when she stepped into her dorm room and caught sight of her pajama pants lying on the floor where she'd left them that morning. She always needed to do laundry it seemed. After setting her things down, Lee grabbed her laundry bag, making sure to put the pajama pants in as she went, and dragged her laundry down the hall to the laundry room.
Starting her laundry quickly, Lee headed back to her room. Her math homework called and she wasn't too happy about it. Half way through her problems, her roommate flung the door open and stalked into the room, dropping her backpack on the floor. Lee was surprised by this because her roommate didn't normally come home.
"Hi," Lee greeted her. Unlike Claire and Kelly, Lee and her roommate, Natalie, didn't have a close relationship at all. Lee could already tell that they would probably be simply co-existing instead of actually becoming friends. Natalie was normally out with her friends, or her boyfriend, and Lee looked on their rooming together as merely that: a partnership to room together. Lee didn't plan on rooming with Natalie next year at all. In fact she was planning on asking Claire and Kelly if they wouldn't mind looking at apartments together for next year.
"Hi," Natalie grunted. She moved to her desk where she shuffled some papers, then threw open several drawers, slamming them shut again when she didn't find what she was looking for. Lee watched silently from where she sat on her bed.
"Have you seen my packet of sharpies?" she asked, digging through the drawers again. "We're doing some posters for art class, and I can't find them anywhere."
"Are they in the box under your bed?" Lee asked, after thinking over where Natalie might have put sharpies.
Natalie moved to the bed and dug underneath it, unearthing the box. After rifling through it she grunted in disgust.
"No, they're not here. Any more suggestions?"
"No, but you could use mine." Lee suggested helpfully.
"Thanks," Natalie said quickly and hurried to Lee's desk. "Where are they?"
"The largest top drawer," Lee told her. "Please don't mess them up."
"I won't!" Natalie told her as if what Lee had asked was an insult.
"Thanks," and with that, Natalie stuffed the sharpies in her backpack and headed out the door again.
Lee heaved a sigh. She really ought to ask Kelly and Claire what they were doing next year. Then she looked at the clock and realized that it was time to go check her laundry.
As she headed back to her room from the laundry room, her arms full of warm, dry clothes, she called a hello to a friend she saw on down the hall. Aubrey was clearly waiting for someone that was coming down the hall behind Lee. Lee, who could hear footsteps behind her, felt a sock drop from the pile of clothes in her arms onto her foot. She groaned, but before she could awkwardly reach down to pick it up, it was removed and placed on top of the pile in her arms by a guy with a friendly face.
"Thanks, but I could have done that myself." She almost reprimanded him.
"I thought it might be a little hard for you to reach your foot with that pile in your arms." He told her with a wink and simply walked off down the hall to meet Aubrey. Lee gaped after him and then fumed the rest of the way down the hall to her room.
Dropping her clothes in a pile on the floor, Lee went back for the rest, fuming the whole way. She didn't know why she was mad. Maybe it was the fact that the guy had quickly assumed that she couldn't pick the sock up on her own, or maybe it was the fact that he was condescending to her, or maybe it was the fact that he winked at her, but one of those things had set her off. Lee fumed through folding her clothes and had finally calmed down by the time her homework was finished.
Then it was time for her to go back out and meet the gang for dinner. Lee grinned. After dinner they were going to have fun. This was the middle of the week, and because it was the middle of the week, they'd quickly picked back up a rule and a tradition that they'd established last year. No work for at least two hours, if not more, which included getting up or doing anything productive. The only thing allowed to happen was hanging out with friends, doing stupid things, and laughing.
Dinner was crazy and Lazy Night was even better. Lee laughed along with her friends as they watched The Princess Bride and quoted the movie for memory. Claire and Phillip sat together on the floor against the bed, Claire leaning into Phillip, Phillip with his arm around Claire. Lee and Kelly, who were between relationships, claimed the bed, laughing at how their feet were probably going to fight for space all night.
Claire turned to the two of them, "Hey, no footsy between the two of you. That would just seem wrong."
Lee laughed. "We won't footsy as long as you and Phillip behave yourselves."
"Who us?" Phillip asked, trying to look askance, as he inconspicuously tried to kiss the top of Claire's head.
"Yes, you!" Kelly cried. "I swear couples will be the death of me."
"You always say that when you're not in a relationship." Lee reminded her.
"What can I say? It's just the wanna be romantic in me. When I'm not part of a couple, I hate couples." Kelly complained.
Lee sighed. "I just don't see what you find so . . . interesting about them."
"Would you two be quiet?" Claire asked, turning to look at them. "We're just getting into the movie, and already you two are talking!"
Kelly giggled before leaning over to whisper in Lee's ear, "You'll understand eventually."
Lee snorted, earning a backwards swat from Claire and a shushing from Phillip, who immediately afterwards launched into an imitation of Prince Humperdinck.
The rest of the evening was spent imitating Vizzini, Inigo, Fezzik, Buttercup and her absurdly cheesy lines and Wesley and his even cheesier lines.
After the movie ended and Phillip had left, Lee, who had brought all her stuff for the next day with her, pulled a pillow and extra blankets off Kelly's bed, and set about making the habitual "spend the night nest" that she normally slept in on Wednesday nights. Together, the girls went about getting ready for bed, and eventually climbed into their respective beds, giggling about various things.
As things quieted down, Lee lay in bed, wide awake, not ready for sleep. Instead, her mind kept running over the discussion that they'd been having at the beginning of the movie. As she told Kelly, she'd never understood the whole relationship thing, though she'd tried it in high school. While she had had a couple of boyfriends, in the end she hadn't liked them at all, and had always left wondering why she'd dated them if she hadn't liked them in the end. Yes, it had been interesting, but she didn't want interesting. She liked romance, but only in stories. Deep down inside, so far down that she didn't even admit it to herself, she was afraid that romance wouldn't happen for her, so she excluded all mention of romance in her life except those of her friends, or the fictional type. Lee sighed. She supposed she would never understand, but that was fine by her as far as she could see.
The next morning, after the flurry of showers, dressing and racing to get ready for classes, Lee, Kelly and Claire headed for the cafeteria for breakfast.
Standing in line for breakfast, Lee couldn't decide what she wanted and was startled to hear a voice behind her.
"I can never decide what I want either. I normally end up getting the same thing. What about those hash browns?"
Lee grinned at the comment. "I know what you mean." She said, not bothering to see who was behind her. "I'll take the hash browns please," she told the lady behind the counter. When she'd finished the order, she turned to look at who had been behind her, making comments. He was bending over the food, asking the lady for some eggs and hash browns. He looked familiar, too. When he turned to look at her questioning face, she knew. He was Sock Boy.
"Are you getting French toast too?" He asked casually, loading his plate with French toast.
"Do you enjoying speaking to random strangers?" She shot back.
"Do you always answer questions with questions?" he asked back, pouring syrup on his French toast.
"What?" She asked, not expecting this answer.
"Ah ha! I thought so." He said with a smirk. "And you're not a random stranger. I met you in the hall of your dorm. Though, I do believe we haven't been formally introduced. I'm Tony. You're Lee right?"
"How in the world do you know my name? Oh right," Lee said automatically, "I forgot, you have a girlfriend down my hall. She must have told you my name, or maybe you saw my name on my door! Stalker!"
Tony laughed. "No, not a stalker. Aubrey mentioned your name in passing. She asked me how I seemed to know you. I said I didn't. I do now. Are you going to eat that somewhere?" He asked pointing to her tray.
"Yes, I have friends here with me. They're getting breakfast too." Lee said, almost showing her relief at having somewhere else to sit. Guys who approached her in the cafeteria were few and far between and none of them had practically asked if she would eat with them.
"Hi you two!" came Kelly's voice behind them. "Lee, are you ready to eat? I'm Kelly," she added, turning to Tony. "How do you know Lee?"
"I gallantly rescued her foot from a deadly sock." He said with a grin.
Kelly laughed. "When was this?"
"Yesterday, if I remember correctly." He told her.
"Well, why don't you come eat with us?" Kelly asked, much to Lee's horror.
"Don't mind if I do," Tony said happily, grinning at Lee. "My name is Tony." He said as he and Kelly walked towards the checkout.
Lee groaned quietly and trudged after them, making faces behind Tony's back as he chattered with Kelly. Claire walked up behind her.
"Who's he?" She asked quietly.
"He says his name's Tony. I bumped into him in the hall yesterday and he seems to have befriended me without my asking." Lee said ruefully. "I barely know him and yet Kelly invited him to eat breakfast with us."
Claire nodded. "Well, I suppose that's not too awful. What would be awful is if you actually didn't know him, but Kelly thought you did. Try to be nice to him, Lee. Like you were to me."
Lee stared at Claire as she pulled in front of Lee in the line for the register. Where had that come from? Claire was usually against meeting new people, and here she was encouraging Lee to get to know the guy.
Lee shrugged it off as she paid for her food and followed her friends to their table where Phillip was sitting waiting for them. Kelly introduced Tony to Phillip and then to Claire and jokingly introduced him to Lee.
As they all piled around the table, Phillip leaned over and asked Tony where he knew Lee from. After learning that Tony had rescued Lee's foot from a "rabid sock" he laughed raucously, causing Claire to grin and blush at some unknown thought.
"Are you in any clubs?" Kelly asked him, a little further into the conversation. Kelly enjoyed her clubs, and because of this, always had to ask anybody she met what club they were in.
"I'm a part of Alpha Sigma Phi but that's about it. The brothers take up most of my time." Tony said casually, lifting his French toast-laden fork to his mouth. "The time, of course, when I'm not studying." He added around the French toast, waving his fork in the air.
"Oh, so you're a fraternity boy, eh?" Lee asked, a little distaste edging her voice. She'd never much liked people who hung with a clique and excluded others.
Tony either didn't hear the distaste, or chose to ignore it, and nodded before happily launching into a story detailing one of the adventures he'd had with his fraternity brothers. In the end, everyone was laughing because Tony was a great story teller and the story was interesting. Lee had to admit that she'd enjoyed it.
Over the next few weeks, Tony seemed to be everywhere. He would stop by to see Aubrey down the hall, and while he was at it, he'd knock on Lee's door to see if she was home. Half the time she was, and if she wasn't home, he'd write on her white board to let her know that he'd stopped by. He quickly assimilated himself with the group and became the fifth member. He ate breakfast, lunch and occasionally dinner with them. Because he didn't have classes with any of them, they often met at the student union or found things to do elsewhere. He even joined them for Lazy Night, but only came every other week, because the other Wednesday nights he had fraternity meetings.
Lee quickly became accustomed to seeing him around and soon began to enjoy his company. Tony was considerate, and rather a little old fashioned, in the sense that he held doors for people. Lee had trouble getting used to letting him hold the door for her at first, but eventually, because Kelly and Claire never complained, and because Phillip had already started the habit before Tony joined the group, Lee stopped complaining and went with the flow. It still felt just a little weird to let him do something as simple as hold the door for her.
What Lee wasn't ready for were the feelings that suddenly started growing around her middle every time Tony smiled at her. It was little at first, and Lee thought that maybe it had been something she'd eaten that day, but then when she started carefully thinking about what she would say around him, it got awkward. When Lee when to Kelly and Claire with her problem, Claire and Kelly grinned at each other knowingly and then told Lee that she'd have to figure it out for herself. Lee, being Lee, was frustrated with this answer, but knew that if they told her what they looked like they were thinking, she probably wouldn't believe them anyway. Whatever that was.
One Monday around noon time, as she headed for lunch, Lee's cell phone rang and on the other end of the line was Claire.
"Hey Lee," Claire was a little breathless. "Kelly asked me to call you and tell you that we couldn't make it to lunch today. Our pretty, graceful Kelly tripped up some stairs today and managed to sprain her ankle. We just got to the infirmary and hopefully they'll give her an ace bandage or something. This is going to cut down on her dance team for about a week or so."
Lee laughed. "Tell Kelly that I feel for her. I feel for you too. I've had my fair share of taking people to the infirmary. It's about time you did this. I bet she's moping and whining."
"Just moping," Claire told her with a snort.
"Well, good for her. Phillip, I think, can't make it this time either. I guess it'll just be Tony and me. That's ok." She added to answer the question that she knew Claire would probably ask: "Is that ok with you? I know you don't feel completely comfortable around him right now."
On the other end of the phone, Claire nodded, and then realized that Lee couldn't see her. "That's good." She said, instead and added, "Eat well!"
Lee grinned. "I will. I'll see you and Kelly later!"
Then it was just Lee walking towards Tony who was standing by the front of the cafeteria.
"Hey Tony!" Lee greeted cheerily.
"Hey!" he said, and then followed her into the building. "Aren't we going to wait for the others?"
"It's just you and me today. Kelly sprained her ankle and Claire's taking her to the infirmary and Phillip couldn't make it today. He had some thing he had to do, but I don't remember what. Claire would know but she's busy. It's just you and me today, Frat Boy."
Tony grinned at her. "Sure, sure. I'm sorry that Kelly sprained her ankle. I never would have thought she could do that."
Lee laughed as they selected their meals. "She apparently tripped up some stairs."
Tony's eyes widened in surprise. "Never thought I would see the day! Kelly tripping!"
As they sat down together at their table, Tony prattled on like a girl about his day. Lee had come to know him well enough that when Tony prattled, he was agitated about something.
"What's wrong Tony?" Lee stopped him bluntly in the middle of one of his sentences.
He stopped and looked slightly abashed. "You can tell?" He asked.
"You only prattle like a girl when you're agitated. What's wrong?" she nudged him.
Tony sighed. "Some of the brothers are beginning to make jokes about how I'm hanging out with people who aren't in Greek life."
"That bothers you?"
"Yeah, it does. I thought doing Greek life would be great, but after initiation, things have slowly gone down hill. My full name is Anthony, but they were the first people to call me Tony. I haven't ever really liked it, but I let them call me that because I feel accepted when they call me that."
"That's some of the most ridiculous stuff and nonsense that I've heard in a long time! If you don't like someone calling you Tony, you tell them." Lee told him bluntly.
Tony stared at his plate. "I know. I don't want to stop hanging out with you guys, but at the same time, I want to have a good relationship with my Greek brothers. I'm not exactly sure what to do at this time. Can we change the subject right now?"
"Just one more thing," Lee hesitated.
Tony looked defeated. "Yes?"
"If you don't like Tony, may I call you Anthony, and will you let the others call you Anthony if they want to?"
Tony looked slightly stunned. "Sure. Can we change the subject now?"
"Good," Tony—Anthony told her. "How's your day been?" he asked, looking up from his plate and flashing her a brilliantly painful smile.
That's when it hit her like a sack of bricks. She liked Tony. She liked Tony a lot. Lee's thoughts stuttered to a sudden halt. And then picked up with surprising speed. Tony was expecting an answer so Lee gave it to him, mumbling a phrase that sounded intelligent enough. How she made it through the rest of lunch without completely falling all over herself, tripping over phrases and making Tony suspicious, she'd never be able to figure out later, but somehow, she made it out of the cafeteria no worse for the wear.
Lee was so flustered with her new found feelings for Tony that she skipped dinner. She called Claire and told her that she had too much homework to make it to dinner. In reality, Lee, after trying to do homework, paced her room, her mind spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The main thing she knew was that she didn't like the feelings that she'd just discovered. Lee never liked anything that she had never experienced before, and she'd never really liked a guy, so because it had hit her so suddenly, Lee was fighting back as much as possible.
She didn't want to like him, she told herself. There were reasons, she assured herself. He didn't like her back, couldn't because he was in a fraternity and would get picked on if he did. It would ruin their friendship that was just starting to bud. Kelly and Claire would smirk and Phillip would laugh that all knowing laugh. But of course, someone would find out eventually.
Of course there was only one thing to do. She had to pretend that these feelings had never existed. She didn't like Tony, she never had. She liked him only as a friend, and nothing more platonic. It was the only way to deal with something like this. Gradually as her plan started to make sense and form a path through all the chaos running about in her head, she started to calm down and her breathing slowed. Lee began to categorize her affections for Tony and place them in the "do not open" box in the back of her mind, and things started to fall into place. Kelly and Claire would never find out, and the best part was that Tony wouldn't know either. It wouldn't ruin their friendship. The next step was facing her friends and keeping her feelings buried. Lee began to feel sick.
"Why did Tony—Anthony have to come along?" she groaned aloud, before kicking a random piece of paper across the room.
It was then she realized that she was hungry. She was going to have to get something to eat eventually.
There's no better time then now, she told herself, pulling on a hoodie over her sweat pants. She left her hair down and simply pulled her hood up over her hair. There wasn't much point in looking nice just to go get something to eat if she wasn't going with someone else. Anthony, her mind whispered, and she ground her teeth.
The five-minute trek to the second cafeteria on campus calmed her a bit, but her reverie was broken when she saw, sitting at a table in the far corner of the eating area, Tony and a group of guys. Glad that her face was partially hidden by her hood, she headed into the cafeteria itself, praying that he hadn't seen and recognized her. She picked up her food and was heading for the door when she heard her name called. Cursing silently under her breath, a habit that Claire had never been able to fully break her of, Lee quickly left the cafeteria and dashed back out into the night, heading full tilt towards her dorm. When she was finally back in her room, she slumped to the floor, breathing hard, glad to have escaped that encounter. Maybe he would assume that it wasn't her, but someone who looked like her.
Lee quickly banished the episode from her mind and set about demolishing her dinner. If she had anything to say about it, nothing would come of this.
The next day, however, Tony approached her as she tried to skirt around him in the student union. She knew it would be impossible, but she tried it anyway.
"Lee!" Tony called as he saw her hurrying through the main part of the student union. When she didn't answer, he hurried after her. "Lee!" he called again, before catching up to her side.
When it was unavoidable, Lee turned. "Oh, hi," she told him, trying to infuse her voice with a cheeriness that she really didn't feel.
"Are you ok?" he sounded worried as he hurried beside her.
"Yeah, I'm fine!" she fluttered breathlessly. "I'm just been rather busy. That's all. How're you?"
"I'm fine, but a little worried about you. This busy-ness seems to have sprung up suddenly. You didn't even respond to me last night when I called after you in the cafeteria."
"You were there?" Lee faked surprise. "I didn't even see you! And, you're right about the busy-ness. I completely forgot about a big project that I have due."
Tony didn't look convinced. "That's not like you. You don't forget about projects. You have that little planner that you write everything down in. If anything, it would be me forgetting something big."
Lee could see her opening for escape slipping away. "Look, I had a lot on my mind when she assigned it to us, and I forgot to put it in my book."
"But what about later? Didn't you remember then?"
"No!" Lee almost shouted. "I was . . . distracted! I forget things sometimes!"
Tony looked taken aback. Lee had never shouted at anyone before. "Alright, alright. I believe you." Tony assured her.
"Thank you!" Lee was relieved. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I, uh, I have to get to the library. Some very—important studying to do. Project and all that." She started to move off.
"Oh, well, I was walking there. I'll join you." He moved into stride next to her.
Lee inwardly grimaced and it must have shown on her face.
"Are you ok?" Tony asked, concerned when he saw the look on Lee's face.
"Hm?" Lee asked absentmindedly, not quite sure what he was talking about, and trying to figure out how to keep him from walking all the way to the library with her.
"You grimaced. Are you in pain?"
Lee scrambled for a response. "My, um, my stomach hurts. Just something minor. I'm sure it'll go away."
Tony shrugged. "Ok, as long as you're certain."
Lee wanted to scream, but instead she nodded. This was torturous. What made it worse was that the whole time, her stomach was doing this weird flip thing and buzzing. She felt like she was going to throw up.
Never was Lee so glad as when they got into the library and she could make a quick dash for her study group. She had told the truth when she said that she had a project, but in reality she already had her part of the project done.
Her group managed to drag their meeting out to two hours, and to Lee, who was ready to get it all over with, two hours seemed as long as four. The biggest problem she faced was tuning out her study group and day dreaming about something else—except, Lee didn't day dream. Instead, her mind wandered to her problems, or her day. And some how, by hook or by crook, Tony always ended up coming back to the forefront of her thoughts. At one point, she very nearly started banging her head against the table in aggravation, but caught herself in time to avoid an embarrassing moment. When her group finished up, Lee was the first one out of the room. She'd gotten up and left twice, with the excuse that she needed to use the restroom, but in reality, she'd paced, and then stared out one of the huge windows that the library offered for the studious student.
Hoping for a place of peace and quiet where she could rest from the rigors of the day, Lee headed back to her room. She was shocked and dismayed, however, to find Natalie and her study group sprawled around the room, coloring intently on pieces of posterboard.
"Natalie?" Lee sighed wearily. "What's going on? Why are these people here?"
"We're making posters for a presentation that we have to do." Natalie explained, eyes trained on the poster in front of her, which was rapidly becoming something that looked like a flower.
"Why couldn't you have done this somewhere else? Like in the student union, or the library?" Or someone else's dorm. Lee added silently.
"Because we all wanted to do it here, and I have the biggest dorm room." Natalie told her, meeting her gaze almost defiantly. None of her study group looked at Lee.
"Alright." Lee whispered, and turned and walked out the door. It didn't help matters when she heard one of the guys in the group say quietly, "Man, she looked awful!"
Lee blocked the titters from her hearing and plodded off. She wandered campus wondering exactly where she was going to go for the next several hours. She found herself in the cafeteria. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until she smelled the food. By then she was so hungry that anything looked good. By the time she decided that she wanted more then just a snack, that she would have dinner, she'd also decided that she wouldn't eat dinner with her friends who were doubtless getting ready to eat elsewhere right now.
The way she saw it was that if she ate dinner with them, she'd have to eat dinner with Tony and eating dinner with Tony meant getting that sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Inevitably, one of her friends would ask if she was ok, and she'd either have to lie and say that she was fine, or lie and say that she had the flu, which would land her in the infirmary. She'd rather eat by herself then be sick to her stomach.
And so, that night, for the first time all year, Lee ate dinner by herself. She kept trying to tell herself that the loneliness was preferable to an upset stomach, but some how her head couldn't convince her heart, and not even her mashed potatoes smiling up at her through their gravy could help her
On her way back to her dorm, she almost wished it was Wednesday night, but then, if it were Wednesday night, she'd be with all her friends, and that included Tony. Lee shook the idea from her head. She had quite quickly realized that she didn't want Wednesday night to come at all. Lee sighed. She supposed that she'd have to go speak to Natalie. She knew she wanted to get this over with.
Trudging into her room, Lee was grateful to see that Natalie's study partners were packing up and leaving. After the last one had gone, cheerfully saying goodbye to Natalie, Natalie returned to her desk and turned away from Lee.
"Natalie," Lee began, slouching into her own chair.
Natalie looked up surprised. There was an unspoken rule that they did not talk to each other when it was just the two of them in the room.
"What do you want?" Natalie asked, a little resentful of being bothered.
"Why did you have all those people over here when you knew that I don't like us having friends in this room. I've told you that it makes me uncomfortable."
"We didn't think there was room enough for us elsewhere. Besides, you're never home during the day, or before dinnertime anyway, so, I figured it would be ok. You're always out with those friends of yours." Natalie sounded a teeny bit jealous.
"Well," Lee said with an air of distinct frustration, "I'm not always out with 'those friends of mine'. Sometimes I like to come back to my room, and I'd rather not find people I don't know in it." Lee almost shouted.
"It's my room too." Natalie said quietly, defiantly, and turned back to her homework.
"One last thing," Lee began. Natalie turned back. "Are you done with my sharpies?"
"Not yet. You'll get them back when I am."
Lee sigh for what seemed the umpteenth time that night. What with Natalie emanating ice from across the room, and homework to be done the night was a long one.
The next morning wasn't much better. As Natalie got ready for her classes and left, Lee pretended to be asleep. As soon as Natalie was out the door, Lee was up, getting ready for class.
It was Wednesday and as Lee trudged to class in the deluge of rain that had been falling steadily since she looked out the window, she felt that this was going to be one of the worst Wednesdays she had ever had. She'd already thought it all out, and there was no possible way for her to avoid tonight. Already she had avoided enough. People would begin to be suspicious and she would be forced to answer awkward questions that she didn't want to face, let alone answer.
Classes were brutal, the homework more so. As she pushed herself through till lunchtime, it felt as if the day were never going to end. She had got her nerve up to eat lunch with her friends, and when they saw her coming, Phillip had the audacity to stand up and clap as she approached. Claire, the more sensible of the pair, was torn between trying to hide under the table and tugging on Phillip's jean jacket to get him to sit back down. Tony was watching her anxiously at her, as if he felt that this was all somehow his fault. Kelly was grinning broadly at her, crutches leaning against the table next to her.
"Here she comes!" Phillip cried unabashedly.
Lee's butterflies killed themselves at this, and she rolled her eyes, laughing at Phillip. Even though Tony was there, she was still happy to be back with her gang. She'd missed them, even if it had only been a couple of days.
"Hi guys." She called across the room, happily, and picked up her pace.
With hugs to Claire and Lee, and Phillip messing up her hair, she took her place at the table and put her tray on the table.
"Anthony," she nodded in his direction, giving him a small smile, trying to reassure him silently that he'd done nothing wrong.
Claire stared at her. "Anthony?"
"He gave me permission to call him Anthony because I asked." She told Claire, trying to quell the defensiveness rising in her chest.
"You all may call me Anthony if you wish." He said, sounding stiff almost, as if he were trying to break himself of a habit that didn't want to be broken.
"Do you want to be called Anthony?" Kelly asked, ever the peacemaker.
"It doesn't matter. I've become used to Tony. I don't mind either too much now. Everybody at home called me Anthony, but everybody here calls me Tony. I've been thinking about it," he looked a bit pointedly at Lee, "and have decided that I don't really mind Tony at all. It's kinda my identity here. I don't mind Anthony either, because that's my name, but Tony's not bad."
Lee sniffed, trying to squash the lightheadedness that had inflicted itself upon her when he had spoken to her. "I'm still going to call you Anthony. I don't like the idea of people thrusting unwanted nicknames on other people."
Tony nodded, a small grin on his features.
Claire snorted, and Phillip was quickly counting the tiles in the ceiling. Only Kelly nodded serenely, as if she hadn't noticed anything, and then asked Lee if she wanted to hear about her time in the infirmary with a sprained ankle.
The rest of lunch was spent discussing the ludicrous questions that the infirmary asked in the paperwork, when the patient came in for something as simple as a sprained ankle.
That night wasn't nearly as bad as Lee had jacked it up to be, but she couldn't squelch the butterflies that pounded against the walls of her stomachs whenever Tony looked at her. This wasn't a good thing because it also didn't help her nerves. She managed to avoid him as much as possible, but avoiding Tony in a small dorm room. Lee didn't know if she was imagining things, but Kelly seemed to pick up on the fact that Tony was making Lee nervous, and claimed Tony as her "helper" for the night. She made up little things for Tony to do for her because of her foot. Tony, being the willing person that he was, did everything she asked.
As the girls settled down that night, Claire, the intuitive of the group, hung over the side of her bed.
"So, what's with you and Tony? He seems to think you're avoiding him."
Lee almost squeaked. "Me and Tony—I mean Anthony? I'm not avoiding him."
"So, nothing's wrong?" Kelly asked, watching Lee's face carefully.
"No." Lee said trying to keep her voice calm.
"Ok, as long as you're sure. You might need to tell Tony that. He's feeling a little worried."
Lee nodded. "I'll let him know. Thanks for letting me know."
Claire snorted. "I still can't believe you call him Anthony now."
"Well, you know how I don't like nicknames."
"I think I'm going to stick to Tony, because that seems to fit him best. He's not shy, and that's what the name 'Anthony' makes me think of." Claire declared.
Kelly had rolled over and was pretending to be asleep. Lee poked her, and told Claire above Kelly's muffled squeak, "I'm calling him Anthony, regardless of what you call him."
The next morning came entirely too soon because they'd spent the night talking and giggling and teasing each other. Lee had missed Claire and Kelly in just those few days that she'd spent away from them. They tramped to the cafeteria together, meeting the boys there shortly after 7:30, all filing into the cafeteria to grab a tray and breakfast.
With her friends there, Lee found it easy to ignore the acrobats that had taken up residence in her stomach. It was almost easy to look at Tony—Anthony, as she kept reminding herself—and laugh with out feeling a twinge of uneasiness.
On her way to class, however, she found herself walking with Tony, because they had class in the same building. It was then that she caught herself watching him, almost wistfully, before jerking her head quickly in the other direction. Tony, who was watching the cracks of the sidewalk pass under his feet, hadn't noticed anything, and Lee was thankful for that. He was grinning, Lee noticed. She wondered what he was happy about, and before she could stop herself, she heard her voice asking him, "Why so happy, Anthony?"
"I was just remembering something." He told her, lightly, grinning benignly at the sunlight streaming through the bare branches of the trees overhead.
"What's that?" Lee asked. She'd started the conversation. It would be rude not to finish it. You can still be friends with him! A little voice urged her.
Tony glanced sideways at her, as if to gauge her interest, saw that she looked genuinely interested, and launched into a funny, abbreviated story of two of his friends and sleeping cows in a pasture just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
" . . . and then he managed to throw himself against one of the cows, before tearing back over the other side of the fence and into his friend's car. He says he thinks they managed to tip one cow, but he couldn't be sure, of course because they ran for it as soon as they tried, and it was dark."
Lee was laughing as they entered the building. Tony startled her by pulling her into a swift side hug and saying quickly, "Thanks for listening to me the other day, and you really don't have to call me Anthony."
Lee's stomach flew to her throat, and she coughed, to cover the sudden gasp that had almost escaped her. "Yeah, no problem," was all she managed to get out without sounding like a strangled chicken.
Tony chuckled a little at the look of surprise on her face. He ruffled her hair, a move he'd definitely picked up from Phillip, and said cheerfully, "I'll see you later, Lee. Enjoy class."
"Bye, Anthony." Lee choked again. Her stomach now had a strangle hold on her voice box.
All she could think about during class was the fact that Tony had hugged her. It was the first time he'd hugged anyone in their group, that she knew of and to her Tony infused brain, this was huge. The more reasonable sixty percent was screaming at the other forty percent to be quiet so it could listen to the teacher, and that Tony hugging Lee shouldn't be anything interesting. You're only excited about this because you like him, that sixty percent insisted.
The teacher thankfully didn't notice that Lee wasn't as talkative as she normally was, and class around Lee proceeded normally. The only time she surfaced for air was when she realized that most of the class was ruffling about, packing up and getting ready to leave. She'd managed to daydream away all of her class, and she suddenly wasn't proud of herself. The stray forty percent tried to convince her that it was all ok, but in the end the better sixty percent of her brain won out, and she felt miserable.
There was no way she could be daydreaming about Tony. It was just unacceptable, simply because she was missing class. She had no clue what the teacher had said at any moment during the class. All her class notes were sure to be gibberish.
Lee continued to beat herself over the head right up until lunch. She had decided by that time that she was simply going to smother any day dreaming that might appear, and prayed that Tony wouldn't do anything accidentally to start her day dreaming.
Lunch, to Lee's extreme gratefulness, was about as uneventful as lunch can get. Phillip was busy trying to get Claire to laugh, and in turn making all of them laugh at his antics. Tony, whose mind seemed to be in a million places, would occasionally break out into song, then realize what he was doing, grin sheepishly around the table, and then laugh extra loudly at something Phillip had just done. Kelly was guy watching.
"Who're you looking at now, Kelly?" Lee asked, as a way to distract herself from the rest of the group.
"That guy over there." Kelly said inclining her head towards a table that was three over.
"Which one? There are, like," Lee swiftly counted, "seven guys at that particular table."
"The one with the bright red curls."
"He's kinda scrawny, isn't he?" Lee asked, knowing that Kelly liked the well-built men.
"Yeah, but his face is adorable. I think he has blue eyes." Kelly had loved blue eyes for a long time. She had brown, and while everyone said they were a warm chocolate color, Kelly thought of them as mud brown. She liked a bright blue to balance her own out if she could help it. Normally she couldn't.
Lee took a second look at the redhead.
"I guess he's ok. I think you could do better."
"Yeah, maybe. I'd have to meet him first."
"What about that guy over there?"
"The one at the table four over."
"You mean the guy sitting by himself? A guy who sits by himself is normally a loner and no fun at all!"
Lee laughed. "Kelly, that was such a generalization! You don't know that!"
"Yeah, I know. But, like with the redhead, I'd have to have an introduction first. I always feel awkward when I talk to a guy with out having a class or something with him. Self-introductions seem like they're pleading for you to notice them."
Lee agreed, silently, letting Kelly continue with her guy watching.