Sebastian calmly observed the second hand on his watch gliding around one last time. When it reached the twelve, indicating that it was eight twenty in the morning, he rose from the kitchen chair he was sitting in, took one last walk around the apartment. Carrying his alarm clock in one hand, he closed and locked the door behind him for the final time.
After he'd dropped his keys in the landlord's mail slot, he got in the van he'd borrowed from his brother and drove down the main strip of the Stryker University campus to the little cafe nestled up against the book store. Two weeks after graduation, the campus was more or less deserted except for the construction crews that seemed to pop up every time there was a break in classes. Idly, Sebastian wondered what new buildings were going up this time. He was sure it had been in the student newspaper. He just hadn't considered it very important at the time. He supposed it wasn't now either.
"Good morning, Sebastian," said the woman behind the counter. "You're here early today. Your regular order?"
"Just the coffee. And another coffee--same bean, three sugars, no milk."
"You got it. Big day today?"
Sebastian nodded, "Yup. This is my last day at Stryker. I'm driving down to Austin this week with... a friend.
"Texas?" she asked as she made the coffee. Sebastian nodded. "No shit? What's down there?"
"A job, an apartment, a life."
She put the coffees on the counter and looked up at Sebastian, "Take me with you."
Sebastian laughed, "Why on Earth would you want that?"
She sighed, "I just finished sophomore year. I'm two long years away from any of that."
Sebastian laughed harder, "Don't rush it. It's over before you know. I haven't even left and I miss this place already."
"I suppose," she said, looking doubtful. "Well, good luck, Sebastian. Knock em dead in Austin."
Sebastian's next stop was Adam Smith Hall. The work-study student working the front desk looked up from his textbook, "She didn't show up?"
Sebastian shook his head, smiling as he balanced the cardboard tray with two coffee cups on one hand, "Nope. You owe me twenty bucks, Case."
Case scowled, "Have a heart, man. I'm just a poor, lowly college student. You're a fancy CPA with your own office. You're taking food out of my mouth."
Sebastian showed no sympathy, "Don't bet if you're not ready to lose."
"Come on, man," wheedled Case. "I'm good for it."
"Case, you wouldn't be good for it if I were standing behind you all day, bugging you about it. Now, I'm supposed to believe you're going to pay me when I'm in Austin?"
Case shrugged, feigning helplessness.
Sebastian shot his hand, palm up, over the desk, "Give me her key."
"Give me her key and I'll call it even."
Case looked around the empty lobby, "Oh, man. I can't do that. I'd get in..."
"Give me the key or pay me the money."
"Case..." growled Sebastian. "The key."
"Fine," said Case, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "But, if anyone finds out you've got it, I'm going to claim you stole it."
"Thanks, Case. You're a pal."
Still balancing the coffee, Sebastian listened at the door of Michelle's room for a minute before letting himself in. Michelle was visible only as a mop of kinky, black hair poking out from one end of a pile of blankets on her bed against the far wall.
Quietly, Sebastian carried the desk chair over to the side of her bed, sat down on it, and watched for a few minutes, sipping his coffee. The blankets rose and fell with her breathing.
After watching her for a minute, he announced, "You packed your alarm clock, didn't you?"
Michelle poked her head out of the blankets and gave Sebastian a bleary-eyed stare. "How did you get in here?" she asked groggily.
Sebastian shrugged, "You must have left the door unlocked last night."
"Ohhhh... what time is it?"
"Eight thirty," said Sebastian holding out a cup. "I brought you coffee."
"Why didn't you wake me sooner?"
"I wanted to give you a chance to show up."
Michelle levered herself up on one arm, taking the cup of coffee, "You should have known better. When have I ever been on time when it really mattered?"
"Hope springs eternal," offered Sebastian, taking another sip of his own coffee.
Michelle sat up and took a sip from the proffered cup. After a second sip, she seemed to notice that she was naked from the waist up and wrapped her towel around herself. It was an oddly modest gesture for Michelle, particularly considering that she'd spent two weeks after New Year's in a cabin with Sebastian rarely more than half-dressed.
Of course, her behavior had been odd ever since that break. The two of them had been friends since before high school and gone up to the cabin as part of two separate couples. The first night, all four of them had wound up in bed together. Somehow... and Sebastian was still not entirely clear on this point... their dates, Devon and Sakura, had left as a couple. Sebastian and Michelle had left as... well, Sebastian didn't know what to call them anymore.
"Grab me my robe, would ya?" Michelle asked.
Michelle laid her coffee on the windowsill, took the robe from Sebastian's hands, wrapped herself in it, and staggered to the suite's bathroom.
When she emerged, Sebastian asked, "What's all this stuff? I thought you were packed."
Michelle retrieved her coffee before answering, "Yeah. I am. I just need to bring my sweats, my blankets, and my phone."
"You're just leaving the rest of this stuff?"
She nodded, "Housing fines you forty bucks if they have to clean up after you once you leave. Cheapest maid service I ever got."
Sebastian shook his head, but couldn't fault her logic.
Michelle leaned close to him, raising one arm, "Do I need another shower? I had one last night."
Sebastian wrinkled his nose, "I can't tell. Your robe does, though. I could tell when I brought it to you."
Michelle sighed and shrugged out of one shoulder of her robe, keeping her breast covered, but nearly spilling her coffee. Obediently, Sebastian leaned in and smelled her.
"You should be all right until Roanoke."
She nodded, "Good. We're already late because you didn't wake me up sooner."
Sebastian could see the twinkle in her eye and didn't rise to the bait. Instead, he said, "Drink your coffee and get dressed, then. I don't want to be driving much after dark."
"Baby," taunted Michelle as she downed the rest of her coffee. Holding her robe around herself, she said, "Hey, why don't you head out and wait in the lounge? I'll be there in ten. I promise."
Sebastian nodded at the dismissal, "All right."
True to her word, Michelle was out in the lounge, dressed for the road and carrying a few possessions wrapped in her blankets. She was wearing a pair of denim cut-off shorts and a sky-blue tank top with no bra. She hadn't put any make up on, but she didn't wear much anyway. Sebastian knew from past experience that she could apply it in the van in less than ten minutes while driving, but it would be ten minutes that could take ten years off his life. That was one of many reasons he'd offered to drive the first shift.
"So," she asked. "You ready to hit the road, Tonto?"
"I'm ready," said Sebastian. "But, we need to make one thing clear. You're Tonto. I'm Kemo Sabe."
"Ah, yes. Kemo Sabe--old Indian word that means 'horse's ass.'"
As they went through the lobby, Sebastian tossed the keys underhand to Case, "Thanks for the keys, buddy. That was a great idea."
Michelle looked from one of them to the other before glowering at the student at the desk. Sebastian saw her mouth the word, "dead man" at Case, who paled noticeably.
"He gave you my keys?" asked Michelle as they were climbing into the van.
Sebastian nodded, "Cost me twenty bucks, too."
"Damn," said Michelle. "I'm going to have to have a talk with that boy. I'm worth much more."
As Sebastian was pulling off campus, she added, "Did you know I almost slept with him?"
Sebastian shook his head, "I didn't know you ever almost slept with anyone."
Michelle nodded, "Normally, it's not my policy, but he passed out before it went very far."
Sebastian gave her a reproving glance, "Michelle, what did I tell you about taking advantage of drunk little boys?"
Michelle shrugged, "None of them have ever complained."
"Corey flipped out," Sebastian reminded her.
"Yeah, but Corey was a girl," pointed out Michelle. "And she thought she was straight."
Michelle shook her head, "You remember my belief on this matter."
Sebastian nodded, "Alcohol is an excuse, not a motivator. Nobody ever does anything drunk that they don't want to do sober."
"No," said Michelle, staring out the window, "I suppose they don't."
It was the first road trip Sebastian and Michelle were taking together since that Christmas. Usually, they drove to and from their parents' houses in Michigan together several times a year. This year, Sebastian had been looking forward to getting a chance to talk to Michelle alone for a couple of days when they drove home for spring break. At the last minute, Michelle had elected not to go, instead heading to New York City for a pool tournament.
Since then, Sebastian had noticed Michelle establishing a certain distance between them. No one around them would have noticed it. In a lot of ways, they were still closer than most romantically-linked couples they knew. But, any time the subject of their relationship came up, she became distant and changed the subject.
It wasn't even that Sebastian wanted a romantic relationship and she didn't. He wasn't sure what the hell he wanted and needed the counsel of his best friend on the matter.
Sebastian was able to put away his worry about any awkwardness by lunch time. Michelle provided a running commentary that started shortly after leaving campus and made the hours seem not so long.
They stopped at a Perkins in Pennsylvania. The hostess smiled warmly at them, "Welcome to Perkins. Smoking or non?"
Michelle's eyes widened like an eight year-old finally seeing Disneyland, "Oooh. Smoking, please."
After they'd sat down with their menus and ordered coffee, she leaned in conspiratorially, "Sebastian, we can smoke in here. Let's move to Pennsylvania and stay forever."
Sebastian raised an eyebrow, "Should we become Amish, too?"
Michelle nodded, "As long as I get to be your prettiest wife. The rest of them have to be ugly or fat or, if you really want to make me happy, both."
Sebastian laughed, "You're thinking of Mormons. The Amish don't practice polygamy."
Michelle's brow furrowed, "Oh, right. What do the Amish practice, then?"
"Barn raisings, butter churning, no electricity," said Sebastian. "No cars. No card playing. No swearing. No alcohol. No..."
Michelle raised her hands, "Okay. Let's not be Amish. Where are the Mormons from?"
"Utah," said Sebastian.
"Can you smoke in restaurants there?"
Sebastian shook his head, "I don't know definitively. But, I would suspect not."
Michelle threw her arm up and pressed the back of her wrist to her forehead in a passable imitation of a swooning belle and batted her eyelashes, "Oh, Sebastian. Why must we live in a world that will never understand us?"
Sebastian split open his creamer, "It's because we keep giving the world mixed signals. What's the world to think?"
"Hah!" said Michelle. "That just ties into my theory that the world is a man."
"Right," said Sebastian. "Warm and sunny one day, then freezing your balls off later for no reason other than cyclical change. That's not a female characteristic."
Michelle laughed and took a drag on her cigarette while staring off at nothing in particular.
"So," asked Sebastian. "Are you looking forward to this conference?"
"Let's see," said Michelle, extracting a cigarette from her pack. "A 'Women in Writing' conference held in Texas at the beginning of July. I get to spend a week sweating while academia rails against everything I write about. Then, after all the impressionable, young things who actually pay money for this crap have been fed propaganda for one hundred and twenty hours straight, I get to panel on women's sexuality, which is a code word for man-bashing and the wonders of sapphism, with a bunch of self-righteous cunts that I wouldn't fuck if I had a dick."
Sebastian nodded, "I think we're definitely going to have to work on that language if you're serious about becoming Amish."
Michelle struck a match, watching it burn for a moment before lighting another cigarette, "I think I'm going to have to give the Amish thing a pass. They probably wouldn't let me play pool, either." She took a long drag. "Now, that's what I'm looking forward to. This tournament is a big one--ten kay top prize."
Sebastian chuckled. He couldn't help himself.
"Sorry," said Sebastian. "I was just thinking that ten kay is the entry fee in most big poker tournaments."
"Yeah," said Michelle. "That's only because poker players are dumb enough to put the prize money up themselves. All I have to bring is my skills and my beautiful self."
"Well, at least you've got both in spades."
Sebastian had said it casually, but Michelle lowered her head and seemed to take a moment to compose herself. Sebastian gave her a questioning look, which she ignored.
"So, looking forward to your new job?" she asked.
"I suppose," said Sebastian. "It will do for a few years while I decide whether to go back for my MBA or start my own business."
Michelle took a drag from her cigarette, "I still think you should stay at Stryker and get your MBA. Once you get out into the real world..."
"I know," said Sebastian. "a wife and a passel of kids keeping me chained to my job. But, I really don't think that's going to happen."
"I don't know," said Michelle doubtfully. "All those corn-fed Texas girls, smitten with your sophisticated New York wit and flair..."
Sebastian laughed, "Nah. They'll see through that ruse in a second and know me for the simple, Michigan farmboy that I really am." He picked up Michelle's pack of cigarettes, stroking it absentmindedly. "Besides, my heart already belongs to you."
Michelle scowled, "Sebastian, I'm trying to be serious here."
For a moment, Sebastian considered pressing his case, but decided it wasn't the right time. Instead, he said, "First time for everything, I suppose. What's on your mind, Belle?"
It was an old nickname, one Michelle had chosen for herself in high school. Sebastian hadn't used it in years, but it felt appropriate right now and brought a smile to her lips. She took another drag of her cigarette before speaking, "I've got to start making plans. Theoretically, I could graduate this year. But, I would have to work my ass off. I took too many electives these last few years."
The waitress brought their coffee. Sebastian took the opportunity to meticulously prepare his coffee while he weighed his next words carefully. Michelle watched him for a moment, then turned to her own coffee.
"I don't plan on staying at Proffet and Horton for more than a few years," he said. "I just feel like I've been going to school my whole life and it's time to do something real before I do any more."
Michelle took a sip of her coffee, "Would you consider coming back to Stryker for your MBA?"
Sebastian shrugged, "It's hard to say. They're still building their MBA program. But, in a few years, it could be amazing. Considering how quickly they built up their undergrad stuff, I wouldn't be surprised. Why?"
"Well," said Michelle. "If I take forty-five credits over the next two semesters in my major and core, I can graduate at the end of the year. Or, I can take my time and do it over two years. I could even go overseas for a year and graduate on the seven-year plan."
"Well," asked Sebastian, drawing out the word, "what do you want to do?"
Michelle's shrug was expansive, "I really don't know. I want to pick a novel and finish it. The longer I stay in college, the more chance I have of doing that. I just always assumed I'd go to grad school after this. But..."
She stirred her coffee thoughtfully, staring into the cup as if seeking answers there, "I think it's like you said. I'm twenty-one. I've been in school my whole life. What in the hell am I going to write about when I haven't done anything?"
"Now, that's not fair," said Sebastian. "You've probably done more with your life than most people twice your age."
Michelle ran a hand through the tangle of curls on top of her head. She looked like she was going to say something, but the waitress reappeared to take their orders.
"So," asked Sebastian after they had ordered. "how do my plans come into this?"
Michelle took one last drag of her cigarette, then mashed it out against the bottom of the ashtray. Sebastian started to wonder if she'd heard the question, but she finally said, "You're really going to Austin, aren't you?"
Sebastian laughed, "You thought I was bluffing?"
"Maybe," admitted Michelle. "It didn't really hit me until somewhere around Newark."
Sebastian was incredulous, but bit back his first response. Instead, he said, "I'm really going to Austin."
"It's going to be weird, going to school without you."
"You did it before."
"Sure," said Michelle. "Kindergarten to sixth grade. The pressures were a little different."
"When did you ever let the pressure get to you?"
"Never," said Michelle. "I dumped it on you, instead. Now, who am I going to dump it on?"
Sebastian drained his mug, "I hear they have phones in Austin."
"Yeah, but you'll be too busy balancing your debits and... stuff."
"Credits," said Sebastian. "Michelle, it's just a job. I'm not going to give up on my best friend because of it."
Michelle stared into her coffee and didn't answer. When she spoke again, it was to change the subject.
By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the Days' Inn in Roanoke, it was later than they expected and already quite dark.
After lunch, Michelle had climbed into the back of the van, rearranged some pillows and blankets, and fallen asleep. She'd woken up briefly to tell Sebastian to pull off at the next available bathroom. After the rest stop, she'd climbed in the back again and gone back to sleep.
Sebastian left her there, wondering how much sleep she could have possibly gotten the night before to be so sleepy today. He was checking them in when Michelle wandered into the lobby, scratching her head and looking sleep-addled.
The security guard eyed her suspiciously. When Sebastian waved her over, the security guard eyed him suspiciously, too. Sebastian had to admit to himself that she did look a bit disreputable just now.
Their room turned out to be as far away from the front desk as it was possible to be and still be in the motel. As Sebastian looked around, Michelle expressed his sentiments in exquisite detail.
"Wow. What a shithole."
"Yeah," said Sebastian. "Remind me not to book a room based solely on price again."
Michelle picked up the hotel phone, "Phone's dead."
"Shit," said Sebastian. "Let me head back to the front desk. I'll get us..."
"Did you find any place to eat around here that's still open? I imagine things close pretty early."
Sebastian nodded, "The desk clerk mentioned a place called the Coach and Four. If we want to get there, we'd better hurry. We've got less than an hour before the kitchen closes."
Michelle wrinkled her nose, "Get in the shower. I'll get our stuff out of the van."
Sebastian did as he was told, glad to feel the hot water sluicing off the day's grit and grime from his skin. When the door to the bathroom opened a few minutes later, he held his breath, thinking Michelle was about to join him, but he could see through the crack between the wall and the shower curtain that, after a momentary glance, she hung his robe on the back of the bathroom door and left.
Sebastian showered and dressed quickly, knowing he would probably have to hurry Michelle if they were going to eat anywhere that they didn't have to unwrap their food.
Surprisingly, he heard the shower stop after a few minutes. Then, only a few minutes later, Michelle's head emerged from the bathroom door.
"Give me your robe," she said.
"Give me your robe," Michelle repeated. "Mine needs to be burned or something."
Sebastian retrieved the garment in question, "Mine's not exactly springtime fresh, either."
"It's got to be better than mine."
Sebastian couldn't argue with that point. He handed the robe over. A few second later, Michelle emerged, wrapped in the oversized garment and trying not to trip over the trailing hem. Sebastian watched as she contorted herself on one of the beds, managing to get into her undergarments without exposing any unusually prurient flesh. Next, she slid on a midnight blue velvet skirt, letting the robe drop as she wriggled into it.
The modesty of the moment was somewhat ruined as Michelle spent the next few minutes rifling through her luggage looking for a starched white peasant blouse, then pulled down her skirt to tuck it in.
"Let's go," she said. "I'm starving."
They got to the Coach and Four with about twenty minutes to spare. The place turned out to be surprisingly upscale and ambient. Red tablecloths, soft overhead lights, and candles would have made it clear that this was a place ideal for romantic rendezvous, even if there hadn't been three or four couples rapt in each others' company dotting the room.
"Y'all take your time," said the waitress. "I'll let the cook know not to shut things down."
Sebastian did a double-take when he opened the menu. The two of them were going to eat for less money than either one would have paid for a single meal in New York.
"My treat?" he offered.
Michelle gave him an odd look, "That relocation bonus burning a hole in your pocket?"
Sebastian laughed, "That relocation bonus ran out before we ever left SU. I'm spending my graduation gift now."
Michelle shrugged, "Far be it from me to turn down a free meal." Even though she was trying to act nonchalant, her broad smile reached her eyes. Sebastian knew that she was pleased.
Dinner turned out to be as delicious as anything Sebastian had eaten for twice the price. Michelle took the opportunity to comment, too.
By the end of dinner, they were speaking barely above a whisper, just loud enough for their voices to carry to each other's ears. Sebastian could see by the looks that were directed their way that everyone just assumed they were a couple of young lovers, as if life were always that simple.
Whatever they were, they walked nearly arm-in-arm back to the van. Sebastian wanted to interpret the look in Michelle's eyes as love, but he'd been burned by that look too many times before. Still, he couldn't resist reaching over and tucking one of many errant curls behind her ear. Michelle lowered her head and, if he didn't know, Sebastian would have said that she blushed.
"Tired?" she asked.
Sebastian shook his head, but his body chose that moment to yawn. Still, he tried to deny his exhaustion, "Just a little bit weary from the road. I'll probably toss and turn all night."
"Sorry I didn't take my turn driving," said Michelle. "I stayed up late practicing for the tournament."
"It's all right," said Sebastian. "I missed the company more than I minded the driving."
"I'll drive all day tomorrow if you like," offered Michelle.
Sebastian shook his head, "Not necessary."
"How's your back after all that driving?"
Sebastian's back wasn't bothering him, but he wasn't about to turn down such an obvious opening, "A little bit sore."
Michelle gave him a crooked half-smile, "Get ready for bed. I'll rub it for you. It's the least I can do."
So, after manhandling the mattress on one bed until it was properly seated on top of the box spring and remaking the other bed to his satisfaction, Sebastian pulled on a pair of sweat pants, leaving himself bare from the waist up, peeled back the sheets, and lay down on his belly.
He wanted to roll over and take Michelle in his arms so badly that the longing tasted like tarnished copper in his mouth. But, even as he felt her straddle him at the waist, he knew that he wouldn't last. Long hours and good food conspired to make him immediately drowsy. He didn't know if he was going to have a shot during this trip, but he knew he wasn't going to get more than one and didn't want to waste it by falling asleep after he'd coaxed her into bed.
As Michelle's hands worked their way down his back, Sebastian made appreciative, subvocal sounds. He was just awake enough to discover that he had been holding a lot of tension in his back that he didn't even recognize until it was released.
Still struggling against sleep, he tried to say Michelle's name. It came out as just another sound, though. Then, he was asleep.
When he woke, Sebastian noticed the TV on, the sound turned way down so that he could barely hear it. Michelle sat up in the room's only armchair, dressed in a long t-shirt and bathed in a single circle of light, writing furiously on a legal pad.
Sebastian looked at the clock. It read "2:09."
"Should get some sleep," he murmured, finally rolling over onto his back.
"Soon," said Michelle. "I just wanted to get something down that I think will work in my novel."
Sebastian smiled groggily, "Which one?" But, if she answered, he was already asleep again before he could hear it.
Sebastian woke again, the TV still a low drone in the background. Michelle still sat in the chair, her head back, pad and pen at her feet, snoring gently.
"Michelle," he said quietly. When she didn't stir, he repeated it, more loudly.
Michelle looked up, "Whu?"
"If you sleep in that chair all night, I'll have to carry you to the van tomorrow morning."
She shook her head, "Not really sleeping. Every time the wind blows, it sounds like someone's trying to break in and I wake up."
Sebastian, already fading back to sleep, patted the empty spot next to him, "Come back to bed. I'll protect you."
Michelle nodded sleepily, standing up, walking around the bed, turning off the TV on the way, and crawling in next to Sebastian, sliding backwards until her whole body pressed back against him. Sebastian wrapped one arm around her waist, holding her close, his head nuzzling up against her neck.
Michelle made a noise that seemed neither positive or negative, just an acknowledgement that she was still awake. Sebastian gently kissed the back of her neck once before falling back asleep.
The next time Sebastian woke, the sun was beaming brightly into their window. At first, Sebastian drowsed lazily. But, as soon as he realized where he was and who he was holding, he woke up all at once. Michelle didn't stir. In the night, one or both of them had kicked the blankets off. Michelle's t-shirt had ridden up enough to let Sebastian clearly see the sun shining through the thin thatch of hair she had trimmed down to below the waist.
For a long moment, he was too surprised to move. It took him a few crucial seconds to remember how they had wound up in bed together and, even then, he was a little hazy on the details.
Before he could decide what to do, the alarm sounded. Michelle reached out, hit the snooze alarm, then sat up and stretched. She arched her back so far that the shirt rose above her ribs. It wasn't until she stopped stretching that she looking at Sebastian and, with a meaningful look, tugged the bottom edge of her shirt to anywhere approximating decency. Then, she stood up, padding across the room, and disappeared into the bathroom.
She emerged, brushing her teeth and holding a mug of water in her hand, "If you need to get in there, hurry."
Sebastian bolted, knowing that Michelle got impatient about shared bathrooms fairly quickly. When he emerged, Michelle was just closing the front door.
She smiled at him, "Even here, I suspect it would be frowned on if I spit toothpaste on the carpet. Do you want the first shower?"
Sebastian nodded. He wanted to get on the road. And, whatever amorous thoughts he may have woken up with, seeing his surroundings in the cold light of day had killed them anyway.
"I want a picture," said Sebastian.
Dusk was approaching and they had just pulled into the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Christianburg. Michelle looked at him suspiciously, "Of what?"
"Of us, outside of a Cracker Barrel, in Christianburg, VA."
Michelle grinned, "We'd better get it quick before the townsfolk show up with pitchfork and torches to drive us out."
Sebastian took a picture of Michelle in one of the rocking chairs on the porch, then handed the camera to Michelle, who got a picture of him in the same pose. Then, she turned to a woman coming out, "Excuse me, Miss? Could you take our picture, please?"
The woman took the camera. Michelle explained the vagaries of the particular model.
"All right," said the woman. "Why don't y'all sit on the swing over there? Now, get a little closer together. He don't look like he's going to bite. All right. Smile." A flash erupted, blinding them momentarily. "Now, one more."
"Thanks so much," said Michelle, taking the camera back.
"Pay it no mind," said the woman. "Are you two newlyweds?"
"Oh, no," said Michelle, waving her hand. "We're practically an old, married couple."
"Well, y'all sure look like you're still newlyweds."
Michelle's smile was pure mischief as she handed the camera back to Sebastian.
On the road again, Sebastian decided that it was finally the right time to bring up what had been on his mind more or less constantly since January.
Finding the whole subject too enormous to bring up at once, he decided to tackle it at the edges, "Michelle, I want to talk about what happened last night."
Michelle gave an involuntary half-shake of her head, but when she spoke, it was teasingly, "Don't worry, sweetie. I didn't take advantage of you while you slept."
Sebastian sighed, "I'm serious."
"So am I," snapped Michelle. "Nothing happened. I was half asleep. You said 'come back to bed, ' I did it without thinking."
"Had I known that would work, I wouldn't have just said, 'come back to bed.'"
"I thought you wanted to be serious."
"Sorry," said Sebastian. "But, I am serious. I've been trying to talk to you about this since winter."
Michelle shook her head, "We shouldn't talk about it. It's not a good idea."
Sebastian didn't speak as a few more miles ticked away. Michelle took the opportunity to light a cigarette. Finally, Sebastian said, "We have to talk about it."
"Somehow, I knew that."
"Listen," he said. "What happened this winter..."
"Was great," Michelle broke in. She paused, then went on, "It was amazing--the happiest I've been in a really long time."
Sebastian thought she was going to say more, but Michelle seemed content to smoke and stare out of the windshield.
"So?" he asked.
"It was great because we all knew it couldn't last," said Michelle. "We were isolated from the world. It never would have worked anywhere but there. We all knew we were going back to college in a couple of weeks and everything would go back to normal."
"I didn't know that," said Sebastian emphatically. "And, it hardly went back to normal. Somehow, Sakura and Devon wound up together and I wound up single."
Michelle took a long drag on her cigarette, blowing smoke out of her nose, "I wound up single too, don't forget."
"Yeah?" asked Sebastian. "How long did that last?"
"You tell me," said Michelle.
Sebastian considered the question, "I don't know. You stopped telling me about who you were seeing after that."
Michelle didn't answer. She just lowered her head and shook it silently.
Sebastian decided to try again, "Michelle..."
"Sebastian, please let's not talk about it."
Sebastian looked at her. The supplication had been plain in her voice. It was in her face, too.
"All right. Not today."
Michelle shook her head again, "Not ever, Sebastian. No good can come of it. We went almost ten years without talking about it."
Sebastian kept his eyes on the road, "I'm moving to Texas."
"I know," Michelle said, sounding irritated. "Like there aren't any goddamned accounting firms in New York."
Sebastian couldn't keep the bitterness out of his laugh, "What was I supposed to do, Belle? Hang around forever, waiting for you to decide that it was my turn? Every time I try to talk to you about it, you clam up."
"Talking about it is a bad idea," said Michelle tonelessly.
"Fine," said Sebastian. "So, we won't talk about it. We'll drive down to Austin. You'll go to your conference. I'll put you on a plane. End of story."
Even as he said the words, he regretted them. Michelle's face was ashen. Despite the fact that there was no discernable expression on her features, she looked miserable.
The next ten minutes went by in stony silence. They seemed to stretch out forever.
"Pull over at the next rest stop," said Michelle. "I need to use the bathroom. And, it's about time that I took my turn at driving."
"All right," said Sebastian. "I'd really appreciate a chance to stretch my legs, too."
Sebastian hadn't even killed the ignition before Michelle was out the door, trotting across the parking lot to the rest stop.
Sebastian, despite his stated intentions, sat alone in the van for a long time. He felt numb and empty. Now that Michelle was gone, he felt himself shaking, adrenaline built up for a confrontation coursing through him with nowhere to go.
Finally, he reached over, picked up Michelle's pack of cigarettes, extracted one, lit it, and strode away from the van, angling away from the rest stop, each step bringing him closer to the interstate.
He let his feet carry him forward until he was standing on the concrete divider between the off-ramp and the parking lot. He stood and smoked and tried to get his thoughts together.
Unfortunately, the only thought he could come up with was that he had to pee.
Finishing the cigarette, he flicked it away in a gesture of annoyance, and strode back to the rest stop.
On his way out of the bathroom, he caught Michelle's unmistakable mass of black curls heading towards the wrong exit, the one facing towards the picnic area instead of the parking lot.
Sebastian followed her out, but didn't see her out back. Deciding that she must have gotten disoriented and gone around the building, Sebastian followed the path around the side.
His longer strides brought him out in front of the rest stop a half-dozen steps before Michelle coming the other way.
"Sorry I took so long," she said. "I wanted a cigarette."
Sebastian just nodded and held out his hand, "Your keys, madam."
Michelle gave a half-bow, "Thank you, sir."
Sebastian fell in behind her and followed her back to the van.
Two things didn't sit right with him. He supposed that Michelle could have another pack of cigarettes in her purse. And, she could have gone out to smoke before going in to use the bathroom. But, that was two improbabilities on top of each other.
As she started up the van, Sebastian watched Michelle very closely while appearing to stare out the windshield.
"So," said Michelle. "It looks like we're about a half hour ahead of schedule."
Sebastian nodded, "I hear there's usually traffic around Knoxville, though."
Michelle turned her face away from him to adjust her rear-view mirror. Sebastian noticed that she had re-applied her make-up.
Not wanting to jump to any conclusions, Sebastian asked quietly, "Can you see out of this side mirror? It's a little bit tricky."
Michelle looked over, "Could you pull it a little towards the left?"
Sebastian rolled down his window and deliberately pushed the mirror to the right.
"The other left," Michelle said.
Sebastian pushed it back towards the left, but tilted it down a little as he did.
"Hang on," said Michelle, unbuckling her seatbelt. "Hold the wheel."
Sebastian did as he was asked. Michelle snaked across him, mashing her breasts into his shoulder as she arranged the mirror. Sebastian scarcely noticed. He was focused on something else.
Michelle had been crying. Both the edges of her eyes and the inside of her nostrils were red from it.
She'd done a masterful job of covering it with make up. Sebastian would never have noticed if he weren't up close and looking for it.
After Michelle had taken the wheel back, Sebastian reached into the space between them and extracted his cell phone, "I'm going to call ahead to Nashville."
"Why?" asked Michelle.
Sebastian started pressing buttons, "I can't take another night in a place like where we slept last night."
Michelle nodded, "No complaints here."
Sebastian decided to take the opportunity to use his new phone's web browser. It was so slow that it gave him time to think.
Why would Michelle be crying? It may be a traditionally female response to conflict, but totally uncharacteristic of Michelle. She thrived on conflict and chaos. So, why had she been crying and why didn't she want to talk about their relationship.
Sebastian had a few theories, but he wasn't about to guess on something so important.
Just thinking about it was making him tired. A part of him wanted to just give up. But, he had a feeling that, if he didn't keep pressing his case, he'd be playing "what-if" for the rest of his life.
Eventually, he figured out what he was looking for, called the new hotel, and made reservations. He didn't react outwardly when he heard the price for two nights, but inside, he was calculating. If he was going to try anything, it would have to be in Nashville or wait until some of his stuff was unpacked in Austin. His budget was stretched thin enough that even this one unexpected expense had him thinking about the bottom line.