Olive did a quick scan of the room. Study hall was rather quiet this time of day and Heather's blonde bob was easily locatable. She'd chosen a central table near the vending machines, her materials strewn about.
Heather always frowned when she was concentrating, which struck Olive as oddly adorable. When Heather was so lost in thought she forgot to paint on her ever-ready smile, it felt like the otherwise sprightly and alert woman could be taken off guard. Olive enjoyed revelling in those cheeky little feelings.
As if on cue, Heather's head snapped up. Olive hesitated, ready to give an awkward wave, until she saw another girl approach the table, two steaming cardboard cups in hand. Heather's brilliant smile broke out in full force.
Olive wrinkled her nose and sauntered over.
"You're here!" Heather greeted, as if they hadn't agreed to meet up through text earlier. A mushy sentiment, but not unwelcome.
Olive stiffly held up a brown paper bag. "I brought muffins."
"Olive, meet my cousin, Justine", Heather said, her eyes twinkling. "Justine, this is Olive."
Justine's smile, it turned out, was just as vibrant. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"I've got my thermos", Olive replied. She wasn't a big coffee drinker, herbal teas and fresh spices being her daily medicine. As a placating gesture she opened the paper bag, releasing sweetness into the air.
Both girls graciously accepted, chattering away, their voices like little tinkling bells. They didn't resemble each other much appearance-wise - Heather being a bubbly blonde while Justine had some sort of dark hipster thing going - but something about the way they interacted screamed family.
Olive pulled out her books, already fully aware she wouldn't get much studying done. The few times she'd met up with Heather under the guise of a study date, their little sessions had quickly devolved into idle gossip territory. Heather was a serious student only when she wanted to be. With her cousin present, that will seemed to have evaporated.
While Olive anxiously calculated the backlog this would cause to her schedule, the spirits at the table steadily rose. These two cousins sure seemed to get along - which was fine - only Olive inadvertently felt somewhat out of place.
"Has anyone heard back from Alex?" Justine asked, toying with an unopened sugar package. "My phone died before I could shoot her a text."
"Didn't know she had class today", Olive commented, no trace of her real feelings showing. Last time's encounter had left a bitter taste in her mouth. She was sure of it now: there was something fundamentally off about Alexandra Lomami, something unhealthy simmering underneath that poised look she used as a mask. Olive's convictions hadn't wavered; she merely hoped to convey them in a better, more effective way.
"With some luck we'll be able to greet the happy couple", Heather chirped, beaming like a toddler on Christmas. Her face seemed to just light up. "I can't wait!"
"It's official, then", Olive noted morosely.
"I didn't tell you?"
"You might've. I've likely blocked it from memory."
Justine smiled. "So you've met Gabe? What do you think of the two of them together?"
"A perfect recipe for heartbreak", Olive deadpanned. "She's acting on impulse, he seems like a total wimp. It's a mess."
"They're an unlikely couple", Heather admitted.
"I wouldn't be too hard on Gabe", Justine said. "He's a sweetheart."
Olive made a deep, throaty sound. "People keep singing this guy's praises, but I honestly don't get it. For the one time we've met I can't say he made much of an impression. It's like he'd rather have been huddling in a corner."
"It's called being an introvert", Justine said.
"Not with Gabriel", Olive countered. "He's too compliant. It's not a healthy way to live"
"I think you're mixing up naiveté and innocence", Heather said. "There's an important distinction."
Olive gave her a blank look. "I don't see it."
"Maybe you simply don't like him as a person?"
Justine's observation was made lightly, carefully. She added in a flustered grin for good measure. "I get that Gabe's a bit of an acquired taste."
Olive frowned, examining that thought for a moment before emphatically shoving it aside. "I don't know him well enough to dislike him. I just think him carelessly lowering his defences time and time again shows a troubling lack of discernment."
"What discernment?" Justine asked, looking helpless. "You've lost me. What's this imminent danger you're referring to?"
"She's here", Heather said, putting down her cardboard cup.
Alexandra laid her bags on the table, stooping to give Justine a tight little hug. Right away Olive noticed there was something different about her.
"Sorry I'm late", she said, her feline grin stretching from ear to ear. "We went a bit past schedule."
"Congrats!" Justine cooed, pecking her on the cheek. "How'd your very first date go?"
Alexandra smiled a full-bodied smile, and it was then Olive realized she simply looked happy.
"We went shopping. Afterwards we went and got ice cream."
"A perfect date", Heather sighed. "Show us the dress."
There were aaahs and ooohs and some cheerful giggling. It felt like high school all over again.
Olive tried to pinpoint her own feelings. Unsurprisingly, she felt kind of betrayed by Alexandra's ability to seamlessly slip into the wholesome girlfriend role. Was this another shrewd act? A means to an end? It had to be.
"So did you get to first base yet?" Heather asked, forcing Olive to repress the urge to groan.
Alexandra flashed a cordial smile. "You know it'll be a long time before Gabriel tries anything."
"Pity", Justine said.
"Maybe." Alexandra gave the wooden stick in her fresh cup of coffee a twirl. "I've been single for a little over three years now. Sexual frustration has become somewhat of an unwelcome constant."
"Try initiating it", Justine offered. "Take the edge off."
Alexandra frowned. "That somehow seems too easy."
What does that even mean, Olive wondered, irked. "What if he never takes the initiative?"
"Give it time", Heather suggested. "He did confess of his own accord."
"With a little nudge."
"How about a second nudge?" Justine said, struggling to keep a straight face.
Heather lost, her grin breaking out. "We're way past the second nudge already. It's probably time for a little break."
Alexandra sighed happily, like someone coming home from a hard day's work to find a pot on the stove and a cold beer waiting on the table. She cocked her head, flicked away a bread crumb. "Maybe I should try abstinence with Gabe."
Olive's eyes grew wide. "Why?" she blurted.
Alexandra turned and looked at her. "It's a beautiful vow."
"Well, sure. But what if Gabriel doesn't want to wait?"
"We'll talk about it."
Olive had the decency not to scoff, but only just. "I have a feeling he'll go with whatever you say regardless of personal preference."
Alexandra traced a pattern on the table. "He's entitled to his own opinion."
"How can you know for sure it'll be his?" Olive probed, sensing Alexandra might actually drop her pretence and listen this time around. "Does he have enough of a backbone to stand up to you?"
"He won't have to", Alexandra said, keeping her tone low, deliberate. "We'll talk, and once he's made up his mind we'll talk again."
"I think we both know it won't be that simple."
"I think you're jumping to conclusions."
"If I am, it's out of concern."
Alexandra slammed her hand down on the table, hard. Olive jumped, the legs of her chair scraping the floor. Her thermos toppled over, tea spilling everywhere. The smack resounded like a gunshot.
Heather's face had fallen. She stared straight ahead, her mouth pulled into a tight line.
Alexandra looked Olive dead in the eye and said: "Just because you disagree with the way I choose to handle my relationship doesn't give you the right to insult me to my face."
Olive realized her hands were shaking. She swallowed a leaden lump of dread, panic burning at the corners of her eyes, rising and falling in her chest.
"It wasn't meant as an insult", she whispered, squeezing the words out through a parched throat.
Alexandra's lips curled up into a bone-chilling smile. "Of course it wasn't", she said, and leaned back in her chair.
Olive felt like she was being strangled. She lowered her head at the first sign of tears.
"Alex", Heather said, her voice a quiet warning. Olive felt them looking at each other.
She took a shuddering breath and bolted, flew out the door, past the people gathering at the entrance. Justine called out to her, but Olive's name was drowned out by the sound of blood rushing furiously through her head, lighting her face on fire. She didn't think she'd be able to face Alexandra Lomami ever again.
Vincent was nearly mowed down by the girl blindly stalking out of the room. He thought she looked upset, but couldn't tell for sure. He knew she was Alexandra's friend only because Gabriel knew she was Alexandra's friend. In the same way, he knew her name was OIive.
"What's with her?" he asked Gabe, only to slam right into his best friend's bone-straight back.
"Gabe, what the fuck?" Vince muttered, clutching his nose. It felt hot and frail.
Gabriel mumbled a quiet apology, gazing into the room.
Vincent could guess the object of his friend's solemn contemplation even before his own eyes found Alexandra Lomami, sat at the table surrounded by girlfriends, dazzling, dignified, soothing; to the eye what a sweet, sweet melody is to the ear. He'd lost count of the flowery adjectives Gabriel threw around on a daily basis, had stopped minding, had even learned to look.
Vincent no longer believed being smitten was a right only reserved to the very young and very dumb. Over the months and years leading up to his best friend's sudden confession, he'd learned to view Alexandra Lomami through Gabriel's eyes. Call it a bias, call it "friendly" deformation; Vincent hadn't merely grown to like Alexandra. At this point, he loved her. For brightening Gabriel's day with the simplest of gestures. For making him pour his heart out, forcing him to man up and take that crucial leap of faith. For doing the impossible and accepting his confession.
"Don't just stand there", Vincent said, tapping Gabriel on the shoulder. "And stop freaking out. You look like you're about to take a job interview."
"I just want to make a good impression", Gabe shot back, patting down his immaculately ironed, slightly over-sized plaid shirt.
Vincent eyed the hideous thing, sighing. "I'm afraid you've already made a more or less definitive impression. Wearing your grandpa's shirt won't change anything." He said the last part jokingly, but saw Gabriel's morale sink in like a limp pudding as soon as the words had left his mouth.
"That's what I'm afraid of, too", Gabe said quietly. He was a pretty tall guy, but when he hunched his presence shrank down to that of an ant.
Vince felt something twist in his chest. "Hey, guy", he said. "How about some self-confidence? Aren't you dating the girl of your dreams?"
Gabe forced out a pained smile. "That still hasn't fully registered."
"Well, it should." Vince punched him in the arm. "She's waiting for you in there."
"Thanks for coming with me", Gabriel said, breathing in deeply.
"It's because I ditched you last time."
"That was out of your control."
That weird twisting thing again. Gabe was just a little bit too pure for comfort.