February 1996

University of Mississippi

Having someone banging on her dorm room door in the wee hours of the morning is something Joss has gotten used to after two and a half years of rooming with Alyssa. She's thankful the older girl offered to stick it out in the dorms her senior year so that Joss didn't have to find a new roommate, but Joss wishes that just once Alyssa would remember her keys. It's not too much to ask, is it?

Reluctantly throwing off the covers, Joss scurries across the chilly tile floor and unlocks the door. She hisses as her fingers make contact with the frigid metal of the door knob. She cracks open the door only to close it when alcohol fumes reach her nose. Pulling the collar of her sweatshirt over her nose, she opens the door again.

Nate, not Alyssa, leans heavily on the door jamb. "Let me in, Mal?"

She nods and steps back. She's not worried about getting in trouble with the RA for having him in her room after midnight. Laid-back Maggie knows Nate and most of the girls on their floor tend to see Nate as an honorary roomie. Except for the few who want to date him.

"Are you drunk?"

"Little bit, yeah." Nate stumbles to Alyssa's bed and flops down. Even in his inebriated state, he makes sure to keep his sneakers off the pink quilt. There are few things scarier than a pissed-off Alyssa.

Joss flicks on her bedside lamp, taking a bit of satisfaction in the way Nate flinches away from the light. Serves him right for waking her up. "How can you be a little bit drunk? Either you are or you aren't. There's really not much room for middle ground."

"I just am, Joss," Nate growls and pulls a pillow out from under his head to place over his face. It blocks out the light but not Joss' voice.

"Don't you have an apartment you could be at right now? I'm pretty sure Adam's supposed to be out of town this weekend. He said something about visiting his sister in Carthage."

"Didn't want to drive."

Fair enough. Not only is it dangerous, if he got caught it would ruin his chances with any police department in this country. It still doesn't explain why he chose her room to crash in. He's got other friends, the ones he went to the frat party with come to mind, and a girlfriend who lives on campus. "Don't you have a girlfriend?"

"What's your point?"

"That you could be there and not here." Since the first of the year they haven't been on the best of terms. They still talk, but it's every other day not every other hour. She's hoping it's just winter-blues and new-girlfriend-itis and not something worse. She's willing to give Nate his space as long as he doesn't alienate her completely.

"Knew you'd be home." Nate kicks off his shoes and pulls the quilt over himself. It figures that of all nights, Joss is choosing tonight to be chatty. "Can you shut up now?"

"No." Joss purses her lips. She doesn't like Nate just assuming she'll be around whenever he wants to be her friend. She's got a life of her own. She has friends. She doesn't just sit around waiting for him to pay attention. "I had a date tonight."

That gets Nate to sit straight up. His eyes strain to focus on Joss' face to ascertain whether or not she's joking. It's too hard to tell in the dim light. "With who?"

"Guy in my anthropology class." She won't tell him that he's also on the baseball team. It's bad enough he's likely to be waiting outside her next class hoping to catch the poor guy. Travis is a nice guy. He's potential boyfriend material and doesn't deserve the Nate Morgan Third Degree.

"Your UFO class?"

That earns him an eye roll. Of all the things she's said about her favorite new class, that would be the one part he remembers. "Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. We do more than UFOs."

Nate slides off the bed to rummage through the mini-fridge for a bottle of water. He pulls two out and tosses one at Joss. He grabs a package of cookies off a dresser and returns to his temporary bed. "Where'd you go?"

She names a nearby restaurant. It's a popular first-date spot for college kids so he gets points off for lack of originality. Fortunately for him, he gained them back by requesting a table away from the bar and the basketball game on television. It's one of the few sports she doesn't like to watch. "You want to know what I ate, too?"

"No. You ordered the Hawaiian Chicken. It's what you always order." Nate's not fond of her snippy tone of voice. It can't just be because he's drunk. This isn't the first time he's imbibed a little too much. "What's wrong with you? It's too soon for PMS again."

"Maybe I just don't feel like sharing every little detail with you."

"Who else are you going to share it with?"

The truth hurts. She'll talk to Alyssa, but the other girl will only want to know about what Joss wore, Travis' car, the food, and where they went afterwards. With Nate she can point out that the way Travis constantly jiggled his foot started to get on her nerves, that he's an Orioles fan, and he had a Shania Twain tape in his car.

"I'm sorry, Joss. That wasn't right." Nate holds out the half-empty package of cookies as a peace offering.

She pulls a couple of cookies from the bag then hands it back. Since it's question-and-answer time, she might as well figure out what's going on with them. "Why've you been such a jerk lately?"

"According to you I'm always a jerk." He shrugs his shoulders at her stony silence. "More of a jerk, you mean? I don't know. Didn't realize I had been. I've just been busy with my classes and scoping out a job for after graduation. You've got those two Chem classes plus labs so I've backed off a bit. Stress makes you bitchy."

Maybe she's been reading too much into the distance. It's a better answer than she was expecting. "Still, why here and not Cori's?"

"Cori dumped me tonight."

"What's her problem?"

Nate barks out a laugh. "That's why I love you, Mal. You have such faith in me."

"You've been dating since Christmas. If you were the problem, you wouldn't have last a week." Joss ducks the pillow thrown at her face. Fortunately for her, and her lamp, Nate has crappy aim when he's drunk.

"She gave a big speech about how she doesn't like being the other woman. Said I'd have to make a choice."

Joss shrugs her shoulders. "Between what? I didn't realize you were dating two girls at the same time. That's kind of sleazy, even for you."

"I'm not, moron. She wanted me to choose between you and her." Just remembering the fight makes Nate's head hurt. No matter how many times he tried to convince Cori that his relationship with Joss would always be platonic, she'd insisted that he was a two-timing jerk. "I chose."

Joss bounds off her bed and plops down next to Nate. She wraps her arms around his waist and slides her chilly hands under his shirt. He gasps and curses but doesn't make her move. "I'm sorry, Nate. You really liked her, didn't you?"

"I did. But, like you said, we'd only been dating since Christmas. It's not like I had a whole lot invested in the relationship." It does hurt a bit because he had enjoyed going out with Cori and had even considered taking her home to meet his parents one weekend. What hurts more is that he actually hesitated for one second before giving his answer. He can't ever tell Joss about that moment of indecision.

Joss smoothly segues into a conversation about one of her classes and they chat until dawn. Alyssa doesn't even bat an eye when she slips in sometime after six. Nate offers to take both girls to breakfast but they decline. Alyssa convinces him he desperately needs a shower. She sends him home with her quilt and strict instructions on how to wash it.

The next afternoon, Nate's sitting in the cafeteria trying to cram before a quiz when Alyssa sits down across from him. The smile on her face is one he only sees when she's got good gossip to share.

"Where's Joss?"

Nate glances down at his watch. They had plans to meet at noon and she's only a few minutes late. "On her way, I guess. What's going on?"

"Remember how she said she was going to talk to Cori Madison? You'll never guess what just happened?"

"Not in the mood for guessing games, Aly."

Alyssa huffs. Nate's no fun. "She fell down a flight of stairs."

Nate's heart jumps to his throat. "Joss?"

"No! Cori. In the same building where Joss had her last class. You don't think she..." Alyssa makes elaborate hand gestures Nate assumes are supposed to mimic pushing someone down a flight of stairs.

"No." Nate's answer isn't as emphatic as it should be. Joss had been pretty upset on Nate's behalf. Would she have really pushed Cori down some stairs over a stupid breakup? "Maybe."

The girl in question appears while they're still debating the question. The conversation stops abruptly once she's in earshot. She glances back and forth between her two friends. "You can talk about me in front of my face. Why wait until my back is turned?"

Alyssa recovers first. "Where have you been?"

"I stayed after to talk to," Joss pauses, glances over at Nate, and looks away, "someone. I didn't realize we were on a time schedule. Shouldn't you be in your communications class, anyway?"

Alyssa waves her hands dismissively. "Were you talking to Cori?"

Joss frowns and sits in the seat beside Nate. She steals a couple of fries off his plate and pops one in her mouth. "Cori Madison? Nope. Why?"

Alyssa and Nate exchange looks. Alyssa feels guilty for even thinking Joss would hurt someone like that while Nate is fully aware that Joss is hiding something. No matter. The guilt will eat at her and she'll spill her guts at dinner. He can wait until then. He shrugs and flashes his most innocent smile. "No reason at all, Mal, no reason at all."