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Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Bennett.”

“Sloane.”

Sloane’s temple twitches. Riley can see it as she passes her: the way Sloane clenches her jaw, pushes her tongue against her back teeth. A single motion, coupled with the narrowing of her eyes, the proud tilt of her chin.

Interesting.






What follows - Abby and Harper’s reunion, the family’s pseudoreckoning - must be gleaned from conversations with Riley’s mother Eleanor, a method of news-sourcing that she has never enjoyed but will accept given the circumstances. Town gossip is unrivaled and beggars can’t be choosers: Riley doesn’t follow Harper on social media. Never did. This is a decision she made over a decade ago, and one she stands by to this day. 

Harper had sent her a follow request on Instagram. 2011, she thinks, though certain elements of college life have made it difficult to remember on which evening in particular this had all occurred. (Cocaine, for example. Alcohol for another.)

Harper was a legacy admit at Harvard, her page the product of a budding strategist, carefully curated: cashmere sweaters paired with pleated skirts, champagne flutes in manicured hands, boys on sailboats. Fucking sailboats, Riley remembers thinking, as if they weren’t both descended from the same kinds of New England dynasties, overflowing with stereotypes and sad little rich girls in gilded cages. As if this wasn’t Riley’s inheritance, too, even if she insisted on downplaying it.

Well, cliché after cliché, and here they were.

It was very bold of Harper to assume she was going to re-enter Riley’s life, unremarkable as it was at the time - Smith, terrible bangs, brief flirtation with septum ring - after four years of silence. Bold of Harper, but typical.

Delete request. Block. Done.

Over the years, she’d accepted requests from the other two Caldwell sisters, including Sloane. Watched the spectacle of her marriage, the coordinating outfits, motherhood as a kind of intensely choreographed recital with a Boston filter. Exhausting, it seemed then, and this from someone who had sacrificed their twenties to medical school. Now she realizes that Sloane was only doing what comes naturally to women like her - like Sloane, like Harper, but like Riley, too, deep down in a part of her she has chosen to ignore. Sloane was performing, and she excelled at it. The result of a natural with years of practice, dancing her feet bloody.






Riley’s recollection of Sloane at school was a scowl, a passing figure in the hall, occasionally appearing at the periphery of memories involving Harper to deliver a scathing comment. Her presence tended to sour Harper’s mood. Riley was intrigued.

A senior when Riley and Harper were freshmen, Sloane had simultaneously held the positions of student government president, secretary of the Young Republicans, and captain of the field hockey team, where she was known for being particularly vicious. The story of her breaking the kneecap of a teammate was passed down with terrified reverence. 

On other girls, the uniforms with their Peter Pan collars and plaid skirts came across as coy, but on Sloane the style was severe, even austere. When everyone else flaunted prestige with the Coach Hobo, Sloane was the first to sport a Fendi Peekaboo. The rest of the school immediately followed suit, scrambling to keep up. 

In the ecosystem of wealthy teenagers at New England private schools, Sloane had found a way to consistently hold the lead with few competitors. She was distinct from her sister this way: Harper glided through school softened by a halo of admirers (of which Riley was formerly the most loyal), her successes as social as they were academic; Sloane seemed to disdain any attempt at bonding with her peers, preferring to see them skewered when they stepped between her and her prize. A predictable cast of handsome but submissive boys would briefly play the part of her boyfriend before being rotated out for the next.

Sloane had graduated by the time Harper decided to ruin Riley’s life. But Riley remembers that first Christmas after it all happened, the annual Caldwell party that Eleanor had refused to skip: Sloane back home for the holidays, maturing herself in a Kate Spade dress, holding silent court in the corner of her second dining room. Impossible for her not to have known what had happened. Riley had kept to the shadow of her parents, ignored in the way that this town’s adults signaled their disapproval, but there was Sloane, watching her carefully, following her around the room with her eyes. In only a few minutes, Tipper would take Eleanor and Roger aside and ask them to take their daughter home - Harper’s not comfortable coming downstairs, you see how it is, thank you so much for understanding, Merry Christmas - and they, of course, would concede. 






A week into January, Riley gets a text from Abby: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it’s not awkward if we actually become friends, right?

I’m not opposed to it.

Cool. Great. 

Friendship commenced.

How was your New Years?

 

From here, a robust friendship does bloom. Riley has never been fond of certain lesbian stereotypes, especially ones that are firmly in her control and thus can be avoided, but finds this friends-with-the-current-girlfriend-of-my-ex scenario to be an agreeable compromise. And she will be the first to admit that she does feel a certain wicked satisfaction when Abby comes to her for commiseration over Harper’s more boneheaded fuck-ups. As she should, she thinks. She has more than earned that right. It also comes naturally to her, being the daughter of a born begrudger, and on this one very particular occasion, she will indulge the genetic tendency.






“I was looking at that picture you posted the other day. You’re starting to get bags under your eyes. I’d say you’re stressed, but the same thing happened to me when I was in my thirties. Well, maybe a little later. You’re aging faster than I did, you get that from your father’s side. They all retain water in their faces.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Anyway, thank god for Dr. Roman. I’m sure he could give you some kind of industry discount, doctor to doctor. You really should think about it.”

“Will do.”

“Your father says hello.”

“Hello, Dad.”

“And there he goes. Something more important in his study, I suppose. Oh, I almost forgot. Did you hear that Sloane Caldwell moved to New York? I saw Tipper yesterday, but I already knew about the divorce. Well, everyone knew about the divorce, I just didn’t know she’d left Boston.”

“Interesting.” And it is. It is very interesting.

“That poor family. It’s just been one thing after another with them. Who knows, maybe this will make her happy. She was never a very happy girl, though, was she? So intense.”

“Intense, yeah. Definitely.”

“You sound distracted. Are you distracted?”

“No, I’m just making dinner.”

“Sticking to 1200 calories? Remember that supplement I told you about?”

“Talk later, Mom.”






She will blame exhaustion for what she is doing now: scrolling on her phone, not even out of her scrubs yet, tapping her way to Sloane Caldwell’s Instagram page. 

New York, indeed. There’s the brownstone, there’s the obligatory day out with the kids in Central Park, there’s the selfie at some kind of gala in a floor-length gown. That same scowl in the mirror, as though even her reflection has done something to bother her. Maybe it has. Self-loathing is a favorite hobby among the women of their particulars.

No evidence of a new partner. Not that Riley is seeking out said evidence, but it is hard to miss that the only people appearing in these photos are Sloane and her children, and a few stray shots of Jane. No surprise appearances from her parents or Harper, interestingly enough. And no men on her arm, no men posed behind the twins, no men in the background of a mirror selfie. This is not the Sloane whose social media was formerly plastered with family portraits and couple photoshoots and clearly staged occasions of supposed spontaneity. This New York version is nearly unrecognizable in that way: private, discrete, difficult to read. 

Riley slides away from the profile, sees Abby’s post of her and Harper skiing in Aspen. Comments “I’d say watch out for yetis, but you’re on vacation with one.” Receives a cry-laughing emoji in Abby’s reply. She and Abby have an ongoing joke about Harper’s height which Harper seems to be mostly on board with, and if it makes her just a little bit uncomfortable, well, that’s unfortunate.






Abby says they’ve finally decided on a date: middle of June, most agreeable weather and no overlap with Caldwell family birthdays. And they want the ceremony to be at the Caldwells’ vacation home in Maine. Almost a destination wedding, as Abby puts it, but lowkey. Riley chooses not to tell her that any event involving the Caldwell matriarch has no chance of being labeled “lowkey.” She will pretend to be surprised when the wedding is inevitably ostentatious and overcomplicated. 

What is an actual surprise is Abby asking her to be one of her bridesmaids.

“I know, I know,” she says, her face on Riley’s phone pulled into one of her crooked grimaces. “It sounds weird and traditional but we’re not using that term, we’ll call you ‘friends of the bride’ or something. And I promise you won’t have to wear a dress I picked out. Fuck, can you imagine?” There’s a pause, Abby gnawing the inside of her mouth. In another conversation, Riley would jokingly accuse her of doing Orphan Face, but she knows how serious this is for the other woman, who confessed over the months that she can count her friends on one hand. “Look, you don’t have to say anything now. You can decide and let me know. It would mean a lot to me, but I wouldn’t ever want anyone to feel uncomfortable or even—”

“Dude. Happy to do it. Bridesmaid, friend of the bride, whatever you want to call me, I’ll be there.”

The relief in Abby’s features is palpable, her shoulders dropping as she smiles. “Oh, perfect. Thank you so much. Expect for Sloane to get in touch.”

“Sloane?”

“She volunteered to help with everything, which is great because John’s kind of useless. You know how intense she is with organization, although…” Abby shrugs. “She’s chiller now, I think. Since the divorce she’s definitely more chill.”






Actually, Sloane is not at all chill. 

In reply to Riley’s questions, Sloane presents one-word answers in a three word range: Yes. No. Explain.

‘Yes’ to Riley asking if there is a designated place for them to book their accommodations.

‘No’ to Riley asking if she has any suggestions for wedding gifts.

‘Explain’ to Riley asking if she’ll be in New York next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m headed up there for a medical conference at Sloan-Kettering.

That’s why I ask.

Well, I live here.

So clearly I will be here.

Would you like to get together for a meal?

Why?

Because we’ll both be in the same place.

Have we not been in the same place before?

We could discuss the wedding over a coffee.

Is the phone not sufficient for that?

Okay, well, I’ll be in New York next week.

And I guess I’ll see you next at the wedding in June.



Riley doesn’t know why she even bothers with the Caldwell women, why she hasn’t learned her lesson by now after everything they’ve put her through. She isn’t that stupid, really.

 

 

 

 

Except then she’s buzzed in Hell’s Kitchen next Tuesday at about 9:30 PM, the end of a very, very extended happy hour and she is feeling stupid, just exquisitely moronic, and texts Sloane again.

 

 

 

 


If coffee doesn’t work, how about a drink?

Three dots appear and disappear, appear and disappear. Finally, a response comes.

 

 

 

 

I’m not dating right now.


I didn’t ask.

When?

Now-ish? 
Tonight?


That is extremely presumptuous.


It’s spontaneous.


Where?


Wherever is convenient to you, you pick.


So not only are you imposing, you are expecting me to do all the work of finding a bar.
In a city with hundreds of thousands of bars.
Of which I am meant to select one.


Do you have a favorite spot?

No.

Name a block that would be easy to get to and I will find a bar on that block.


Which, to Riley’s shock and amusement, Sloane does. 

And this is how she finds herself riding a train uptown, seeing her reflection in the window across from her, trying not to laugh at it all. Because this is ridiculous, it cannot be denied: she makes eye contact with Sloane Caldwell on one single occasion, catches some kind of murky “feeling” that has deluded her into asking the other woman for a drink when, really, there are any number of eligible doctors and pharmaceutical representatives who would be better suited to coming back to Riley’s hotel room tonight, and now she is speeding underground to the Upper West Side so as to be more convenient to a woman who has not, as far as Riley can remember, ever smiled at her. It’s not like she lacks other options. It’s not like she isn’t in the most populous city in the United States and could wander into one of the thousands of open venues to acquire whatever it is she thinks she needs right now. It’s not like she didn’t intend to spend this evening preparing for a presentation on rare genetic disorders that she is only seventy percent ready to give tomorrow morning.

No, for some reason, despite her strong dislike of Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell, Riley finds herself strangely drawn to the fruit of their cursed loins for the second time in her life. 

 

 

 

 

 

Sloane orders a Manhattan and gives Riley the same disapproving one-over that had earlier been addressed to the interior of the bar, though the bar provoked no comment from Sloane beyond a nose-pinching sniff. She meets Riley’s eye, and for the first time, Riley considers that this entire venture is actually a very bad idea.

Sloane nods at her suit. “Did you dress up for this?”

“I was at a cocktail event.” She self-consciously straightens her jacket, smooths the sleeves. Did Sloane dress up is the real question, and Riley thinks she can make a guess: no. Or yes, in her own way. Sloane’s hair is longer than the last time they saw each other, held up at the crown of her head with a single gold clip. She’s wearing all black, which makes her recede even further into their unlit corner of the bar. Said bar being a cocktail place with a good wine list, mostly unoccupied because this is a part of town for families and old folks and it’s late on a Tuesday. School night. But here is Sloane, mother of two, sitting in the corner booth with the table between them like a statement, and here is Riley, unsure where to settle her eyes, her hands.

Sloane’s head cocks, studying Riley’s collar, then her neck. “What is that, Philip Lim?”

“Tom Ford for Gucci.”

“So you always wear a pantsuit.”

“Not always.”

Sloane’s eyebrows raise as she drinks. “But mostly.”

“How are the gift baskets?”

“I wouldn’t know. Eric kept the business in the divorce.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I’m not. It was his brainchild, I refused custody.”

“So now you’re…”

“Practicing law. I’m certified in New York and Connecticut. I’ve gone to enough waste already. I am preventing further degradation.”

“Congratulations.” She holds up her glass. Sloane stares at it, considers the gesture, and finally clinks her drink with Riley’s. At the success of this moment, maybe the first success of the evening beyond getting Sloane here at all, Riley takes a sip.

“Did you fuck Abby?”

An interruption to her swallow, causing a slight sputter. “Sorry?”

“Did you fuck her? Obviously you fucked Harper, or at least did the teenage equivalent of heavy petting.”

“I didn’t fuck Abby, no. I didn’t fuck Harper either. It would depend on your definition of fucking but I’ll make a wild guess as to yours and say no.” She gives her a look. “Did it seem like I fucked Abby?”

“No, I just…” A sigh, or the more aggressive cousin of a sigh. “I won’t even lie, I was hoping you did.”

“Aren’t you organizing their wedding?”

“I am, but I’m referring to Christmas. At the time, I thought there might be something karmic in it.”

“In me fucking your sister’s fiancee?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I didn’t. It did not cross my mind then or now. Haven’t you two made up?”

Sloane snorts. “Oh, haven’t we.”

“I’m confused. You’re her maid of honor. You’re in charge of everything.”

“I volunteered because I knew if I didn’t, my mother would step in and make things even worse. Jane is not incompetent but her enthusiasm hinders matters of project management. Harper and I have a few unresolved issues that I don’t see being resolved any time soon. That does not make me a completely evil human.”

“I never said you were.”

“It would have been evil to leave her and Abby in the clutches of Tipper. I did what had to be done.”

“Does Harper know you have these issues? I was under the impression everything was resolved.”

And this is the first time that Sloane ever smiles at Riley. She will remember it the way someone recalls seeing their first Rembrandt. Sloane leans forward, and though her smile does not reveal her teeth, though it slides across her face as though coaxed by someone’s finger, though it is...decidedly wicked, it is a smile, a smirk, and Riley swallows.

“Let’s not play pretend with each other, Bennett.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I think we both know the many ways in which Harper is not an angel.”

“Ah.” Riley sits back, cups her elbows as her arms cross. It is a slightly defensive move, she knows, but it also shows the width of her shoulders. Appropriate for whatever it is they are doing now: posturing, taking in each other’s assets, as careful as they are intrigued. “That was a long time ago.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not.”

“So you’re not about to tell me that you’ve forgiven her?” Sloane shrugs, eyes rolling. “That you’re the bigger person for taking the high road.”

“If I did, isn’t that very much my business?” 

And there’s that smirk again, Sloane smiling into her sip of whiskey. “Did she ever apologize?”

“No.”

“She never does.” 

What Sloane does not know, what Riley will not reveal here nor ever, is that Riley is the one who apologized. Worse, she wrote Harper a letter detailing all the ways she herself had been wrong, all the things she was willing to do to atone for the grievous trespass that was revealing the truth of their relationship to the greater student body, even on accident. Riley had begged for forgiveness, begged for something like release, and then done the thing that landed her at the psychiatric institute for three months. Different times, worse times. A wound she claims has healed.

“Can I give you some advice?” Sloane is leaning in again, her elbows grazing the table and Riley can’t help but to close the gap between them as the other woman’s voice lowers. “Forgiveness must be earned. They have to deserve it. Can you really say she’s done enough?”

“I never said I forgave her,” Riley says. “I just said it was a long time ago. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Has your family done enough for you? Have you forgiven them?”

Sloane lets out a brief cackle. “There aren’t enough years left in any of their lives to make up for their continued wrongs.” Her frown loosens slightly. “Minus Jane. Jane is a different story, my issue is not with Jane. But Harper, my parents...no, I’m not interested in forgiveness. I would gain nothing from it.”

“Christ,” Riley shakes her head, and it’s only the drink that pushes her this far, it’s the only thing to explain how reckless this statement is. “You’re so fucking intense.”

Sloane’s posture stiffens, her glass placed back onto the table. Yet she isn’t scowling; if anything, strangely, she seems interested in something. Curious. “I’m aware.”

“Not that it’s a bad thing. Not necessarily.”

“I’m aware of that, too.” Sloane’s jaw twitches. “When are you going to fuck me?”

Riley’s mouth falls open in a rather cliche way, the space between her teeth large enough for someone’s thumb. “Sorry?”

“I said I didn’t want to play pretend. Whatever pretense you keep upholding is unnecessary at this point. I am very aware that you did not come all this way to have small talk.”

“I didn’t assume…” Actually, she did, there’s really no question that she did, but she’s going to lie anyway.

“I’m not insulted, so you can stop trying to be polite. I’m just saying that if you’re ready to leave now, we can go. You’ve done enough posing, the point is taken. I’d prefer not to wait all night.”

She gets to her feet, finishes her drink as she does so. “My hotel is—”

“No, I’m a five minute walk and Eric has the twins until Saturday. No forty-minute Ubers.”

“Okay.” Riley feels the need to shake out her limbs, to do another shot, but she follows as Sloane leads her out of the bar with a determination that seems appropriate for an assassination, a task in which one pierces the vital organs of the others, instantaneous death.

Not entirely inaccurate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sloane has rules. Well, they are less rules than recommendations. Riley has learned in the span of a few hours that she can get away with more than initially assessed.

No usage of names.

No biting in places visible when wearing a boatneck collar.

No romance, which is how Sloane puts it, and turns out to mean that tenderness is out the window.

Not that Riley interpreted any of this as an occasion that called for tenderness.

 

 

 

 

 

Riley steps on something soft and hairy as she slips out of the bed: a stuffed bear, it turns out, and she gingerly removes her foot, feeling slightly guilty for the intrusion. Glances over her shoulder to make sure Sloane remains asleep, then places the bear up onto a chair, facing away from them so as to not shock the poor thing.

There are other signs of children in the house, their portraits (professional, casual, self-via-crayon) on various walls and surfaces, the doors to their rooms marked with stickers. If Riley had ever imagined Sloane as a domestic engineer, it was in a much more exacting role: minimalist, severe, toys hidden away, colors reduced to black and white. Yet there are small things out of place here that feel more organic, imperfect. A few dirty dishes in the sink. A coloring project abandoned on the floor of the living room that needed to be stepped around when they arrived in the dark. An unfinished mug of coffee sat cold on the nightstand on Sloane’s side, and Riley had narrowly avoided smacking it with an elbow at some point, distracted with other matters.

In the bathroom, she dares to turn on the overhead light, then flicks it off just as fast after facing the carnage of lipstick across her mouth and nose, her hair stuck to her forehead. A shining layer of...Sloane on her chin. Fuck, she thinks. The clock next to the sink declares it to be a little after three in the morning.

“Is it your intention to sleep over?” This from Sloane when she returns to the bedroom. Sloane is sitting upright in the center of the mattress, arms folded over her chest. She has put on a black negligee, though this does not hide a breach of contract: a fast-forming bruise on her left shoulder, left by Riley’s teeth.

“I, uh...I can go back to my hotel if that’s what you want.”

“I didn’t say what I wanted. What is your intention?”

“My intention?”

“If I hadn’t been awake, would you have gotten back into bed and slept? Or would you have snuck out and gotten a cab?”

Riley finds herself without an answer to this. Well, without one worth saying aloud. In truth, she’d had every intention of climbing back under the sheets and sleeping with an arm wrapped around Sloane’s middle - completely presumptuous, likely impossible, but she was not exactly thinking clearly right now.

Sloane sighs, jaw twitching. Tongue searching the inside of her mouth, eyes narrowing as she meets the other woman’s gaze. “Decide, please.”

To Riley’s knowledge, Sloane has never used ‘please’ with her before, either, or with anyone in any conversation Riley has witnessed. 

“Is it okay if I stay?”

“I would have asked you to leave immediately after I came if I wanted you to go.”

“Which time?”

Sloane blinks. “What?”

“You came more than once. Following which orgasm would I have been kicked out?”

“Just get back into bed, Bennett.”

 

 

 

 

 

She’s sitting through a panel of pharmaceutical reps when her phone buzzes against her thigh. This is the text she has been waiting for all morning, the text she did not receive when she left the apartment despite expecting one - a thank you seemed too much to hope for, but a goodbye, maybe, an acknowledgment that most of Riley’s digits had spent a portion of the evening getting to know Sloane Caldwell’s cervix? - and it was not a disappointment.

 

 

 

 

How much longer are you in town?

One more night.

Do you have plans this evening?

Do you?

Don’t make me spell this out, Bennett.

Do you want to get drinks first?

No.

So I should just come back over there and…

Just be here after 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’ll see you in five weeks.”

“What?” Riley looks up as she steps back into her pants, hair falling into her face. 

Sloane raises an eyebrow. “The wedding?” she asks. “Or have you decided not to go after all this?”

“Right, fuck. The wedding.” She zips up. “Why wouldn’t I go after this? Is this going to be weird now?”

“You tell me.” Sloane stands, slides on the silk robe previously crumpled on the floor when it had been forcefully removed and discarded. She had been wearing this robe and only this robe when Riley had arrived earlier that evening, a fact Riley continues to find difficult to believe, yet there she’d been: Sloane Caldwell in a silk robe, waiting for Riley Bennett to show up and fuck her. 

God, the town would be sent into some kind of extraplanar orbit if this ever got home.

“I don’t think it has to be weird.” Fuck, should she even go here? Should she really be this stupid and ask? “Where are we, uh...at...after all this?”

“Have you gotten what you wanted?” It’s a bizarre question, but Sloane asks it as though it is the natural follow-up to a two-night-stand. Once again, Riley finds herself going along with whatever this woman presents to her.

“I guess.”

“Have your needs been fulfilled?”

“When you put it like that, sure.”

“How else should I put it?” Sloane crosses her arms again: a common gesture for her, it seems. “Please tell me you haven’t developed a crush, Bennett.”

“I could ask the same of you.”

Sloane’s cackle makes a brief reappearance. “I can’t imagine where you would have gotten that impression.”

“So we just move on, then.”

“That seems to be the most preferable option.”

A new and sudden fear occurs to Riley. A foolish one, maybe, birthed by a leftover insecurity, and yet she has to ask. “Are you going to tell Harper?”

Sloane’s face softens, seems almost confused. “Why would I ever tell Harper?”

“I mean, I think she’d absolutely hate that this happened.”

And now all softness in Sloane is gone, replaced immediately with that set jaw, her frown back and more severe than ever. She tips up her chin. Glows with what is unquestionably anger. It’s frightening and Riley feels her organs go cold and yet god, she kind of wants to kiss her and get slapped in the face all at once. “So you think I got into bed with you to piss off my sister.”

“No, I just--”

“This was some kind of revenge fuck, is that it?”

“I didn’t say that. Look, forget I brought it up.”

“I don’t forget anything. Ever.” Sloane makes a gesture towards the door. “I’ll see you in five weeks. Do not expect me to acknowledge you beyond what is expected of a maid of honor to a bridesmaid.”

“Friend of the bride, I think.”

Sloane’s eye twitches. “Friend of the bride.”

God, she’s so fucking intense.

And this is the thought that follows her on the Amtrak, and then through the next five weeks, during which Sloane does not return her text messages, choosing instead to cc her on organizational emails and leave very militant instructions in the bridal party groupchat: God, she’s so fucking intense.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have a plus-one?

No. Do you?

I am not asking out of personal curiosity.

I need to know the seating arrangements.

Do you plan on acquiring a plus-one by next week?

I can try.

If you’re successful, let me know.

Do you have a plus-one?

That is irrelevant.

Best of luck if you are looking.

The same to you.






 

 

 

  1. Sign up for three different queer personals and dating apps. 
  2. Dredge them for a potential wedding date. 
  3. Convince said date to come with her to Maine within five days time.

 

She’s certain that if she ever explained her plan to someone, they would advise her against it, but that's hardly going to stop her. She's well aware that this is ill-advised. Riley is overly practiced in one-night-stands with strange women, perhaps a master of her ghosting craft, but she’s never had to seek a stranger on such unbearably specific terms. (Sloane, for what it’s worth, is a combination of strange and familiar that Riley is still processing.) The concept that she could meet and bond with some woman in four days in order to trust - ha! laughable in and of itself, Sloane thinks - to attend a wedding that will make considerable social demands on them both is wild. Stupid? Probably stupid, too. She has almost no faith in the system, especially after hours of scrolling through one unfortunate personal ad after the next:

No, she can’t bring a whole polycule to Maine.

No, she doesn’t date Cancer suns with Pisces moons. (Not that she knows anything about this, but it seemed the kindest way to bow out of a conversation that was growing a little too aggressive.)

That’s her ex’s ex, she’s pretty sure, the one who had all the dogs.

No, the wedding is not a fetish, this is not whatever this person means by WeddingPlay.

Sometimes she’ll make a bit of progress, but then everything gets hung up on the details of actually seeing each other in person. Somehow sexual compatibility never managed to make it to Riley’s list of requirements for a wedding date. Curious how that happened. Almost like Riley is trying very hard to stay out of any possible romantic entanglements before being in the presence of Sloane Caldwell again.

“How hard can it be?” This from Abby, frowning over Facetime, who can’t understand why Riley is attending alone when she’d sworn for months she would have a date. “When was the last time you dated?”

“Define dating.”

“Okay, when was the last time you got laid?”

Ha. Ha ha ha. “Last month.”

“That’s not bad, right? Did things end well there?”

End well? Questionable. “It was a two-night-stand, more or less.”

“Are you still in contact?”

Technically she just sent me a group email about floral arrangements. “Yeah, in a way.”

“So why can’t you bring her?”

Well, she’ll already be there. “I don’t think she’s available.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

A myriad of answers. “Nothing, really. Literally the opposite.”

“Then what is the issue?”

Would prefer not to contemplate where my feelings are in regards to Sloane Caldwell, thank you so much. “It’s complicated.”

Abby sighs, gnawing the corner of her mouth. “Fuck, I don’t want to seem like I’m pressuring you. I’m really not. You can come stag if you want, that’s totally fine with me. I just want to make sure it’s not because you feel incapable of dating or something. You’re a really great person, you shouldn’t be selling yourself short.”

“I appreciate it, dude.”

“I support you no matter what you decide to do. Obviously you are not obligated to be coupled up. Feminism or whatever.”

“Feminism or whatever.” Riley holds up a half-hearted fist.







 

 

 

Riley deletes the apps from her phones. She does not follow up on any of the match conversations that managed to migrate to text. She knows what this looks like: it is identical to the process one undergoes when they have decided they are no longer on the market. That is not the case, she wants to say. It could not be further from the case. But the case in this case is a Louis Vuitton luggage trunk so overfull with bloated emotional complexities that it is guaranteed to burst open before reaching its destination.

To the outsider, it would seem fairly obvious that Riley Bennett is enthralled by Sloane Caldwell. Enthralled, in thrall of. Thrall from the Old Norse for slave: Riley is in complete servitude to her memory of Sloane Caldwell pressing her mouth against Riley’s ear and making throaty gasps as she shuddered in her grip.

Riley would beg to differ, of course. She is not in thrall of anything, certainly not Sloane. She did not develop a crush, that crush did not swell up like a fruit during those forty eight hours, said fruit does not currently dangle from somewhere in her ribcage and it certainly doesn’t constantly threaten to emerge via her throat.

So Riley packs for Maine. Spends many hours staring at the contents of her suitcase and thinking about how she will be perceived, thinking about how she shouldn’t think about the way Sloane will see her and how she wants Sloane to want her and how she should have found a date because she wants to see the look on Sloane’s face when she shows up with a date but she also shouldn’t bring a date, she can’t bring herself to pretend to be interested in someone else right now because Riley has always been shit at lying and worse, so much worse, Riley is afraid of falsely giving Sloane the impression she isn’t available, that she doesn’t still want another of those forty eight hours. Afraid this simple fact - the presence of a random person - will completely eliminate the possibility of something happening again. As if desire were some shallow puddle, as if it could be evaporated so easily.






 

 

 

There is no sign of the car meant to pick her up from the airport. Riley has already started calculating the cost of an Uber from here to Mount Desert Island, wondering if it is comparable to an overnight stay in Bangor. She allows herself to entertain the thought of skipping the first evening for the sake of “self care” - a concept she doesn’t think she believes in but is desperate enough to use as an excuse. 

Someone gives her arm an enthusiastic tug, and she spins, finding a small and intensely grinning brunette at her rear.

“Wow! Riley! Hello!” Jane Caldwell is an interesting amalgamation of her sisters: Sloane’s severe aesthetic becomes twee on Jane, and Harper’s round eyes, which always look like she is on the urge of pleading with someone, feel softer under her sister’s straighter brow. Riley relaxes.

“Hey Jane.”

“Isn’t this exciting? I’m having full body chills.” Jane’s luggage is a brilliant fuschia, which plays nicely against her grass green ensemble. “I am such a romantic, I really do love a wedding. Did you just get in?”

“Hour ago, actually. No sign of my ride.”

Jane’s frown takes over her entire face. “Oh no, that’s awful. Well, it’s total kismet that I’m here, right? There’s room for one more in my car. I mean, it’s not my car, I’m not allowed to rent a car in the state of Maine.” She shrugs. “Complete misunderstanding, I really had nothing to do with it ending up in the cranberry bog. And even if I did, it’s a very festive ending for a Nissan if you ask me. Anyway!” She gestures towards the end of the line of cars. “Sloane and Peyton are driving me, and I know for a fact they have an extra seat. I’ve already heard her complaining about how he just had to get the Hummer.”

Ah, of course. Kismet.

“I don’t think I’ve met Peyton.”

“Oh, none of us have.” Jane gives her a conspiratorial nudge. “You and I will be the first. Look, there they are.”

There’s still time for Riley to claim the car has magically appeared, book the hotel in Bangor. Even time for her to get back on the plane and return to whence she came rather than climb into this vehicle with Sloane and her children and some man named Peyton, but Riley is an adult. Riley will not flinch when the back door opens and the twins both turn in a choreographed swivel to give her a frowning appraisal, not when Jane slides over in the third row and pats the seat next to her with a smile. She will especially not flinch when Sloane, previously preoccupied with the visor mirror, notices the extra passenger.

“Look who I found,” Jane says, shaking Riley’s shoulder. “Riley Bennett gets stranded and here we are. A wedding miracle.”

“I really appreciate the ride.” Riley directs this to the driver, the man who must be Peyton. It’s difficult to get much of an impression of him from the third row, but she can see his Persols in the rearview, a square shoulder attached to a well-toned arm. He lifts his hand from the wheel, nods once. This, she interprets, is his method of saying it is no problem.

Sloane never turns around. She meets Riley’s eye in the mirror, her mouth hidden and thus her expression unreadable, but there is something in the twitch in her brow that makes Riley want to gnaw on her own tongue. She can imagine the mouth below those eyes. The jaw tightening, the frown on Sloane’s lips. Hard for it to just be there, a few rows away, just out of sight. Worse that there is nothing she can do about it.






 

 

 

Halfway through the ride, Jane tilts her screen in Riley’s direction. In her Notes app, she has typed out the following:

What do we think????? Is he too Patrick Bateman??? He hasn’t said a word!!!!!

Riley smirks. Gestures, takes the phone, and types her response:

Sloane likes the ones who can’t verbally disagree with her.

Jane makes an exaggerated face in response, hiding a laugh.

“Can I help either of you?” Sloane’s voice from the front, her eyes reappearing in the mirror.

“No,” Jane squeaks, still wincing in suppression. “We are having a private conversation. Third row business.”

“I try to teach my children that secrets are impolite.”

“Well, Auntie Jane says they are sometimes fun.” Jane reaches forward and pats both twins on the head. 






 

 

 

The Caldwell vacation home - which, it should be noted, Riley thinks is more accurately described as a compound - is perfectly quintessential Old Money Maine: deceptively rustic white-shingled aesthetics hiding a luxury interior, a private beach on a private lake, multiple buildings for hosting sleeping guests. A stone gatehouse, now unmanned and there mostly for show, frames their entrance as they take the wooded drive, Jane talking away about the history of the property, its architectural features. Her knowledge is both impressive and charming, and Riley smirks in spite of herself, momentarily distracted from the chaos she knows will come.

Peyton parks in front of the main house. Riley goes to retrieve her luggage from the trunk, only to find that Sloane is already there, pulling out bags. Riley can take the full measure of her now: hair down, large square sunglasses (Bottega?) pushed up onto her head, cashmere and expensive denim and soft leather sneakers. She looks wealthy. She looks a little like a mom. She also looks comfortable, like someone who dressed to travel and nap and if there isn’t something about this fact that makes Riley feel a little warmer, the stupid image of Sloane Caldwell, terrifying Sloane Caldwell, napping against a plane window with her mouth slightly open...

“Sloane.”

“Bennett.” Sloane hands over her suitcase, which Riley nearly drops. 

“Good trip?”

“Fine.” Sloane is not making eye contact, focused instead upon unloading the car as though this requires all of her energy, suitcase after suitcase - an entire Louis Vuitton luggage set, in fact - dropping onto the gravel drive. The twins retrieve their own coordinating bags, giving Riley yet another one over before disappearing around the side of the house. 

“Good to see you again.”

Sloane halts, finally, straightening up and using one hand to shield her gaze from the sun - as though the sunglasses do not have this very purpose - as she turns to look Riley in the eye. “No plus one.”

Riley’s grip tightens on the handle of her suitcase. “No.”

“Is this some sort of statement?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Sloane’s jaw is twitching. “You’re not repulsive, Bennett. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for you to fetch a better half.”

“Glad to know I’m not repulsive.”

“What is this all about then?”

“What is what all about? I’m single, Sloane, it’s not performance art.” 

“It has nothing to do with your being single. One can be single and still bring a date to a wedding, it’s very straightforward, it’s what people do.”

“Is that what you did?”

Sloane frowns. “Yes, I brought an acquaintance. Thus I ask: are you making some sort of statement by coming alone?”

“No,” she says, watching that jaw twitch again. “If someone wants to read into my actions, infer some kind of intention, that’s on them.”

“I see.” Sloane presses the switch, the trunk closing.

“Riley!” Abby has appeared on the steps, one hand shoved awkwardly into her back pocket as the other waves. She’s wearing that signature grin that also seems to double as a grimace, though it is a happy grimace. “And Sloane. Did you two come together?”

Yes, five weeks ago. Well, a few seconds apart. Fifteen or so? A record for Riley, who never likes to coordinate with anyone, and she imagines Sloane is the same way.

And then Tipper has appeared behind Abby, and then Harper’s there, too, both of them addressing Riley without entirely addressing Riley, and it is not lost on her that Sloane gives them little more than a nod before following her twins down a path at the side of the house, trunk dragged behind her.






 

 

 

Riley deposits her things in a building that was apparently the “artist’s cottage”, which is also housing the rest of Abby’s bridal party: John, whose clothes are already flung all over the first bedroom despite him having arrived about ten minutes prior to Riley, and Abby’s ex-roommate Jayce, who has already commandeered the bottom bunk in the second bedroom. They wave without looking up from the book they’re reading - a copy of Qiu Miaojin, it appears - and gesture to the top bunk. 

“The mattress on the top is more comfortable, I swear.”

“Thanks,” she says, and awkwardly climbs the ladder to the second bed, testing it herself by laying on her stomach.

John sticks his head into the room, grinning. “Bunkbeds. That is adorable. A top and a bottom, am I right?”

Jayce sighs at the joke. “I’m a switch.”

John smirks. “Of course. How about you, Riley? Accurate assessment up there?”

Riley lifts her head and gives him a thumbs up. “What do you think?”

Their phones buzz at the same time. Unsurprisingly, Sloane is keeping them all busy. There is barely any time after “settling in” before they are meant to attend a late afternoon cocktail hour at the boathouse.

John’s eyebrows raise at his screen. “Jesus, I feel like I’m at summer camp. She’s really got us on a schedule.”

Jayce has put on a pair of coveralls that are the same silky shade of black as their single earring. “I hear we’re making friendship bracelets at four.”

“The only bracelet you’re taking home from a Caldwell wedding is from Tiffany’s, honey.” John gives them both a look. “I notice none of us brought dates. Are we all strategically using this wedding to source a sugar daddy or is that just me?”

“Good luck,” Jayce says. “This is the most heterosexual gay wedding in existence.”






 

 

 

There are only two cocktails available at this cocktail hour, and each is named after one of the brides. The Harper is essentially a Negroni and the Abby is a whiskey sour. Riley does love a Negroni but cannot bring herself to say the words “can I get a Harper?” out loud, and so opts for a beer. 

The boathouse is still very much a boathouse, the docks on the first floor currently occupied with beautiful nautical vessels and fully-dressed children being yanked out of the water by their parents. Among the wedding attendees are people Riley knows from high school: a few choice members of this cocktail party have actually referred to her by slurs, shortly after stating that Harper needed their protection. She ignores them, unsurprised they are here, unsurprised by most of the choices the other bride at this wedding has made. Ah, well. Ancient history.

Riley watches as the sun begins to set behind the heads of the guests and strike the bare shoulders of Sloane, whose outline glows golden on the far side of the deck. Next to her, Peyton nurses an Abby. Sloane has a glass of wine, the light catching its edge like a diamond. Riley keeps having to squint as the glare hits her directly in the eye, obscuring the face of whoever she is talking to, usually Jayce. It is not until hours later, walking back to the cottage with the rest of its occupants - a trio that John has decided to nickname the Queerios - that Riley realizes the glare was on purpose. Sloane was subtly tilting her glass just so it would land on Riley’s eye. She was doing this over and over, and not once did they exchange a word.






 

 

 

 

 

Nice touch with the cocktails.

The names were not my idea.

I liked your dress.

 

Riley has to suppress a groan, smacking herself in the face where she lays flat on her back in the top bunk. I liked your dress? Jesus Christ. But the text is already sent, and anything else she might try to add now will look like pathetic backtracking. Better to own it.

 

 

 

Thank you.

I see you still only wear pantsuits.

Guilty.

Max Mara?

Helmut Lang.

Are you in the main house?

Yes.

Enjoying the cottage?

I hear you’re in the bunk bed.

I’ll send you a postcard.

Tomorrow we’re playing capture the flag.

Glad you’re keeping busy.

Not really.

Nothing to do with my hands right now.

 

This time, the groan is too automatic. She hears Jayce stirring on the bottom bunk, a quick snore. Riley makes a face, rereading the line and wincing at its sloppiness. Yet there are the three dots, coming and going, and there is Sloane’s response, making Riley’s breath stop.

 

 

 

Pine Point.

Twenty minutes.

What/where is Pine Point?

It’s on the map.

What map?

I made a detailed map of the property.

You all received maps.

I don’t think I did.

It’s in the packet.

I haven’t looked at the packet yet.

I’m going to pretend I didn’t read that.

Twenty minutes, Bennett.





 

 

 

Riley hasn’t snuck out like this since she was in high school. Her attempt to silently descend the bunkbed is comical, and she makes a point of sliding her sock feet across the cottage floor in order not to wake the other two on her way out.

But all this was a bit pointless, because not two minutes out the door and heading towards this mysterious Pine Point, she sees John doing his own bit of skulking.

John stops, stands completely still. “What are you doing?”

Riley tries not to look shocked. “Well, what are you doing?”

His eyes narrow. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Okay, that’s what I’m doing.”

“Good for you.” He pulls his flannel further around him like a shawl. “Nice night for it.” He gestures vaguely at the sky. “Nice...moon.”

“That’s why I’m out. Big fan of the moon.”

“Me too. Very into the moon. Moonlit strolls.”

“Look at us.”

“Just two homosexuals going for a walk at two in the morning to moongaze.”

“Indeed.”

“I need to, uh...I am going to go moongaze in this direction.”

“Yeah,” she points over her shoulder. “And I like seeing the moon from over here, so, good luck to you, good to see you, have a great walk.”

“You too.”






 

 

 

Pine Point is a small peninsula of evergreens that extends out into the water, a five minute walk from the boathouse. Private, enclosed by the forest, no structures or places to settle down besides the large boulders that dot the water’s edge. It is on one of these that Sloane is perched when Riley approaches. Even in the dark, even with only the slightest sliver of moonlight, Riley’s body throbs with recognition. Sloane’s voice is low, quiet, cautious. They both know how sound travels over water.

“This is a terrible idea.”

“Probably.” Riley drops onto the rock next to her, careful to keep a few inches between them. “Although you’re the one who said it didn’t have to be weird.”

“That assumption relied on a scenario where we didn’t continue to have sex.”

“Who says we’re about to have sex?”

Sloane turns to her, one eyebrow raised. Jaw tight, tongue rolling on the inside of her mouth. “Did you come here for the exercise?”

And Riley gets an idea and stops herself from overthinking, standing, beginning to pull off her clothes. “Yes, actually,” she says, and tosses her pants onto another boulder, taking the rest off. “I came here to swim.”

She chooses not to look back before jumping, naked and without ceremony, into the water, then swimming further out, telling herself not to worry about Sloane following. She doesn’t hear a splash. Treads water with her eyes closed, slightly shocked at how cool the water is, until she feels the gentlest push on her shoulder. Turns around to see Sloane is in the water, too, as bare as she is.

“Follow me,” she says, and swims away from the shore, Riley thanking fate, kismet, whatever it is, for making her a competitive swimmer for her entire adolescence and teenage years, capable of following Sloane across the Atlantic like this if needed.






 

 

 

If someone were to sit on the second deck of the boathouse and gaze out at the water, if that someone had a very high-powered flashlight, they might be able to find the two figures reflecting moonlight, pale bodies moving between the trees, heading deeper into the heart of the small island off the coast of the lake, then disappearing. Reappearing later,the two of them settling in the shallows, half-submerged.






 

 

 

Another breach of contract on Sloane’s shoulder. Riley knew what she was doing this time - it was no accident, this particular bruise, something about the utter romantic absurdity of the situation making her want to be reckless - and Riley watches the lakewater kiss the same place where Riley’s mouth was previously occupied, Sloane shivering slightly at the cool air, then letting herself drop deeper into the water.

“Well,” Riley says, keeping her voice at a whisper. “We did go swimming.”

“We did.”

“So I think if anyone asks, we have a decent excuse.”

Sloane is quiet for a moment, her expression as unreadable as ever. “This was still a terrible idea.”

“A very terrible idea.” Riley chews the inside of her mouth. “I thought New York was the end of it.”

“I did, too.” Sloane isn’t looking at her. She seems to be studying the boulders across the water where their clothing is currently strewn, evidence of what’s happened on this small island, private as it seems. “I was furious with you.”

Because of the Harper thing, of course. “It was stupid of me to bring it up.”

“No, you had the right to ask. This is a complex situation.”

“That’s an understatement.”

Sloane sighs, such a strange sound to hear from her. “It was one thing to do this in New York. This, what we’ve done here, this is reckless.”

She isn’t wrong. She really isn’t. “I know.”

“We shouldn’t do this again. If someone found out…” Sloane doesn’t have to finish; Riley already knows how that sentence ends. The wedding would become another spectacle. The spotlight would be taken away from the ones who deserve it. Riley’s relationship with half the people attending would be forever changed. Sloane would lose more than she’d gained in divorce. Things would quickly spiral into chaos and it would all be because the two of them decided to go skinny-dipping. “We need to exercise self-control.”

“I agree.”

“It won’t happen again.”

“Right. We won’t let it.”

Strange to talk about it this way, Riley thinks, her limbs a little more exhausted on the swim back to Pine Point. As though this thing between them is something tangible, fleshy, outside of themselves, outside of their control. As though it is something they need to harness before it ruins them both.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Sloane keeps her distance at brunch. Never makes eye contact, though Riley only chances this twice, forcing herself to instead concentrate intensely on the eggs and the ever-refilling mimosas. The first time, she catches Sloane's tongue appearing at the corner of her mouth, followed by her napkin. It’s an achingly simple gesture that makes Riley’s fist twitch in her lap. The second time, the last time, she does not get Sloane to look back, but she does sense that Sloane is aware she is being watched: there is something that always shifts in Sloane’s face when she is observed. Riley has noticed it over their brief time in closer proximities, the subtle way Sloane’s eyes narrow, her expression intensifying. Not that Sloane isn’t always glowering with one energy or another.

Brunch implies an intimate affair but this is hardly that: the two sides of the bridal parties make up eight in total, Harper apparently unable to whittle her options down any lower than five, and eight plus two brides is ten, and ten at a small table on a tiny cafe patio is a cramped arrangement. Riley’s elbow keeps colliding with Jayce just as they are trying to bring their fork to their mouth. On Riley’s other side, John communicates mostly through raised eyebrows, unsubtle as his eyebrows are. Harper’s bridesmaids dominate the conversation, leaving the trio to react with the occasional taps to each other’s ankles. 

“God, you are so lucky you’re gay.” This is Blythe, one of Harper’s friends since high school, who has not stopped complaining about her ex-boyfriend since brunch started. Apparently he was bad at communication. “It must be so much easier.”

Jayce makes a quiet choking sound to hide a snort. Riley hits their shin with her boot.

“Yeah, we do innately understand each other,” Harper says, eyes round with sincerity, and Riley tries to keep complete control over her expression. Right, of course, Harper. Intuitive Queen. Abby is smiling and patting her hand. 

On the third round of mimosas, Blythe makes a joke about being outnumbered as a straight girl and decides to do a literal count.

“So me and Jane are straight, that’s two, and Gwen, oh my god, can you imagine?” Blythe and Gwen burst into laughter, as though there is nothing more absurd than a lesbian. “Three straight girls, oh, and Sloane, we can’t forget Sloane.”

Sloane takes a cool sip of her drink, mouth maintaining the usual slight frown. Riley watches her, nothing betrayed there. 

“So there’s only four of us,” Blythe says, and then uses her fork to count the other side of the table. “Harper, of course, she’s not straight anymore. Abby, John, obviously Riley.” Obviously Riley. Riley recalls when Blythe had requested that Riley be given her own locker room for changing into gym uniforms. Recalls Blythe getting drunk on her mother’s wine spritzers when they were sixteen and asking Riley if she thought she was attractive and if not, why. “And...Jayce.” Blythe’s fork hovers in the direction of Jayce, her aggressively-plucked brows furrowing slightly. “Well, Jayce isn’t straight.”

“I’m straight,” Jayce says.

“Oh.” Blythe blinks. “Oh, I didn’t...I don’t think I knew that. So you’re not...well, okay, so Jayce is straight. That changes things. Five versus five. We’re even.”

“I’m kidding.” Jayce chews on a particularly long piece of bacon. “I’m not straight.”

“Six to four.” Jane smiles amiably. “We admit defeat.”








Later, as the clearly superior half of the bridal party returns to the cottage, Jayce announces that they are going to hook up with Blythe this weekend.

“I love this chaotic energy.” John examines his earlier purchase: one of many novelty soaps in the shape of a lobster. “I fully support your plan.”

“Didn’t she bring a date?” For this, Riley receives an eye roll from John and a smirking nod from Jayce.

“That means nothing,” John says. “Trust me.”

Of course he’s right. As Riley should know herself.

“We already exchanged numbers at brunch.” Jayce holds up their phone. “She texted me and said she loves making new friends, then she said she wants to get to know me better. Look, she already sent a winky face. Within three texts, a winky face.”

“You’re incredible.” 

Jayce brushes their shoulders off. “Oh, I know.”

Abby, who has decided to take a break from the main house and join her “friends of the bride”, covers her ears. “I’m pretending not to hear any of this.”

John continues picking through his lobsters. “Oh please, we’re celebrating love. Other people are allowed to get laid this weekend besides you blushing brides.” 

“Who else is getting laid?”

Jayce smirks as they type. “Blythe, if she keeps playing her cards right.”

John tightens the drawstring on his pouch of soaps. “Not me.”

“The face you’re making and the fact you’re now blushing says otherwise.”

“Where are the eligible men, Miss Abby?”

Abby shrugs. “Peyton’s gay.”

John sucks a great deal of air in through his teeth. “Peyton. Now why does that name ring a bell?”

“Sloane’s date. She knows him from work. He’s really nice, just shy.”

John snorts. “Not that shy.”

Abby smacks him on the arm. “I knew it. Wow, already?”

“Are you calling me a whore?”

“We’ve only been here one night.”

“And how many days did you and Harper know each other before you moved in? That’s what I thought. I’m not going to talk about relationship speedometers with a sapphic cliche.”






 

Overall, it’s been a rather damp Saturday. Not the weather, the weather is as close to perfect as June can get in Maine: jewel-blue skies, warm air heavy with the scent of evergreens and saltwater, a breeze keeping everything pleasant. But the attendees of this upcoming rehearsal dinner have spent most of the day in a state just removed from sober, and it’s only now, adjusting her collar in the bathroom mirror while taking measured breaths, that Riley realizes she has finally lost her buzz. The lack of warmth in her limbs hits especially hard in front of her own frowning reflection, but she is spared from having to contemplate why other things have been all thrumming and eager today by John entering the bathroom, closing the door behind him, and giving her a look of grand conspiracy. Pure drama, even.

“Who is it?”

She smooths down her hair, sniffing in a way that she hopes seems unbothered. No question what this is all about now that the fact of Peyton and John has been revealed and it’s open season on their evening run-in. “Who is who?”

“I know with absolute certainty that you are no moon lesbian.”

“That’s very reductive.”

His glare is unnecessarily accusatory. “Do you have Pisces anywhere in your chart?”

“I’m not really into astrology—”

A gasp. “I knew it. Moongazing story is out.”

“Was it ever in?” She gives him a look in the mirror. “How’s Peyton?”

“Just fine, though a little reliant on his tongue when he kisses.” He examines her outfit, which earns an eyebrow of approval. “This is a look.”

“Thanks.”

And it is, she hopes. Riley had spent enough time assembling this particular outfit, knowing its importance would be second only to what she wore to the ceremony. It’s something of a thorn in Riley’s side, that she was raised to think of herself in terms of her appearance first, that she has never entirely recovered from this ingrained need to always look her best, her most attractive, the reflection of her material worth. And just like a thorn, buried with little hope of extraction, she does know its source: in one way, it came from watching her mother rate the love of her father on the price of the things she bought with his money, but on the other, it was high school that sealed the deal. Wealthy teenagers spoke one language best, and she needed to be fluent. Needed it not just because she enjoyed fashion, liked looking good in it, but because they could not take it away from her no matter how much they ignored her, isolated her, tried to tear her down in the wake of all that nastiness. 

She went into adulthood, med school included, with some of this righteous fury very much intact: Riley Bennett would look fucking good. She would do so with fat checks deposited in her bank account and a wardrobe to shame them all. Because they would probably keep calling her a dyke, and there was nothing she could do about that, but they’d never say she couldn't dress herself.

“Who’s this look for?”

“John, please don’t take this the wrong way. I think you’re an excellent person, but I have no idea how well you keep secrets.”

“So this situation is so scandalous that it has to be a secret? Riley Bennett, if you don’t tell me right now.”

“I’m sorry.” She turns, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I just really like the moon.”

He groans. “This is going to be exquisite torture.”

“It’s not.”

“So the next time you sneak out, I’m supposed to pretend I do not see it.”

“There will be no sneaking out.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“I’m serious. You and Jayce can go cavort this weekend, and I will stay home at the cottage and knit.”

“If you don’t like the moon, then I know you don’t like knitting.”

Now it’s Riley’s turn to groan. “Oh my god, the presumptions in this bathroom right now.”

“Fine, fine. I will just say this: from one sneaky slag to another, I respect whatever you are doing. Whoever you are doing.”

“Which is nothing and no one.”

“Well, even so. Should it happen again, you have my full support.”







 

Dinner is behind the main house on the raised platform that extends out from the back porch - if anything attached to this monstrous building can be excused as a “porch” or its peer. It’s all lovely and well-lit and the flower arrangements are tasteful, clearly Northwoods-inspired; Martha Stewart would be proud. She might, if her current friendships are anything to go by, also be proud of the fact that John and Jayce shared a joint on the walk over here. Riley chose not to partake; she knows herself well enough to predict head-spinning tonight with or without cannabis.

The loveliness of the decor, for the record, is not the first thing Riley notices. It’s that Sloane’s wearing a cobalt blue dress, and her hair is down. She’s at the far end of the very long, very narrow table - the north end where the whole Caldwell family is seated minus the twins, plus Peyton. Sloane turns slightly in her chair; even from here, Riley can see the edge of the bruise on her shoulder. She shivers. Bold of Sloane to wear a sleeveless dress this evening. Bold of Riley to read into the fact that Sloane deliberately made this choice.

And that’s all. Riley loses track of that end of the table, or at least tries to, gets distracted by the narrow range of conversations that dip in and out of nostalgic stories full of inside jokes that only half of them understand, and then someone has heard Riley is a doctor and what kind of doctor exactly and what does that entail, really, oh, that’s impressive, and Jayce is kicking her under the table with no meaning lost: she’s kind of hitting on you, dude, but no, Riley wants to say, wrong tree, wrong bark.

To anyone not paying attention, the increase in volume at the family end of the table would have been lost, so slight was that escalation, but Riley tilts her head the right way and catches a classic Caldwell smiling argument. She remembers these from when she was at Harper’s beck and call, sitting in their house still in her uniform: the eerie way that the Caldwells fought with each other, their lips pulled back in tight smiles, Tipper looking ghastly when she grinned through her anger. She tries to make out what’s being said, but none of it would be clear anyway. That isn’t their style, to air anything out. Better to keep it damp so it will rot over time.

One voice rises above the others. “Will you excuse me?” 

Sloane is getting to her feet, leaving her napkin on top of her untouched plate before turning on her heel, exiting the scene. The table is long enough that few at this end have noticed, but Riley watches Sloane go through the backdoor of the house, slipping past the caterers. Watches the Caldwell patriarch and matriarch make eye contact with each other, watches Abby staring at Harper, Harper staring at her plate, Jane frowning at everyone. And Sloane now disappeared into the house, everything clear from the way she held herself as she’d gone, shoulders high as a queen.

Fuck.

It washes over her immediately, the urge to go to her. Baffling, actually, this desire Riley feels to be tender and comforting with Sloane of all people. Not only because the other woman seems like the last person to seek out any such emotion, but also because Riley has never been that figure in her relationships: her last girlfriend actually accused her of being “averse” to caretaking, then went on a rant about being sent a delivery order of soup instead of Riley just coming over when she had the flu. Other well-trodden but legitimate complaints about Riley included her choosing work over everything else and her knack for avoiding any possible instance of vulnerability. And yet here she is, distressed over someone else’s distress. Feeling deeply compelled to relieve it.

She counts backward in her head, tries to decide if enough time has passed to do this subtly. Of course, it hasn’t, no time in the world will be an appropriate amount for her to do the exact thing they swore to avoid while up to their shoulders in lakewater, but fuck, fuck, she’s standing up, she’s pushing out her chair, the word “restroom” is leaving her lips of its own accord and she is walking. Somehow she is walking.

When Riley enters the house, she realizes she has no idea where anything is, nor where Sloane has gone. A caterer gives her a look, passing by with an empty tray. The kitchen is furious with activity and so she passes through it into a dining room, then a hall, then an additional sitting room, until the second set of stairs (second!) now in front of her seem promising, or at least quieter.

Difficult to say what she expected to find up the stairs. The first door on the right says “Harper'' in juvenile letters. The second “Jane”, and Riley begins to understand where she is. The ‘children’s wing’ as they might say in a Victorian novel about crumbling manors, or maybe Tipper uses the term unironically. But “Sloane '' is not on the next door. No, this is a bathroom with a claw foot tub, and across the hall is a linen closet and another guest room that seems scrubbed of identity. It’s not until the end of the hall that she comes to the door labeled “Sloane'' in exacting, careful handwriting (easy to imagine that even preadolescent Sloane was being overly precise with her penmanship) and this door is cracked open, the sound of a children’s cartoon on the other side. She pushes it slightly, and the twins turn to look at her, each in their own bean bag chair in front of the laptop on the floor, an open box of pizza between them. They both appear to be in their pajamas.

“Oh,” she says, and then nothing else for a moment, unsure of how to receive their scrutiny. Neither look surprised to see her nor do they seem intrigued, only minutely bothered at being disturbed. 

“Do they want us to come downstairs?” the girl (shit, she can’t remember their names) asks.

“Mom said we didn’t have to go to the fancy dinner,” says her brother.

“Oh, no, I was just looking for—”

There’s a door between the bookcases. Riley hadn’t noticed it before but now it’s opening and Sloane is entering the room, holding her heels in one hand. She sees Riley and stands still. 

“Oh, Christ,” she whispers, and then drops onto the bed. “I know you’re too intelligent to think the guest toilet is up here.”

“I might be very stupid.”

“Well, you’re not.” Sloane sighs, letting her shoes fall to the ground. “I won’t ask what you’re doing.”

“Taking in the interior architecture. Self-tour.”

“Right. The ideal thing to do during the rehearsal dinner.” She bends forward, ruffling both of her children’s hair. “And I know you’re not here because you saw what happened with my family and you thought you would conduct a check-in.”

Riley shakes her head, arms folded. Leans against the doorframe. “Never.”

“Because you know that were someone to try and deduce why two women who are barely acquaintances are going to each other for any kind of solace, they might come to conclusions that were meant to be avoided after midnight swims.”

“Oh, of course. We couldn’t have that.”

“No, we couldn’t.” Sloane does not break eye contact, intense as ever, but there is something softening slightly in her brow, easing where Riley has never seen her eased before. “Well, here you are.”

“Here I am.” She licks her lips. Pauses, studying the other woman. The slow rise of Sloane’s ribcage as she breathes hard enough for it to be discernible, controlled enough that it is only just. The way her fingers keep curling, closing, but are resisting a fist. Riley grins. “So this is stop four, I think. On the tour.”

Sloane stares expectantly. “Am I meant to be the source of information?”

“The pamphlet did say you’d be here to offer insights.”

“Right. Of course.” Sloane’s mouth briefly flickers with a smirk. “I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. Eldest daughter’s bedroom in a vacation home with en suite bathroom, by request, so as to not have to share for once in her life. There used to be more signs of individual taste but the matriarch hired a new decorator last year and this room was a casualty. Thus there is nothing on the walls beyond books.” A small smile. “But they are my books.”

Riley gestures towards the nearest shelf. “Am I allowed to peruse?”

“If you want.”

“Oh, I do.” She lifts up the first book she sees. “‘The Prince’?”

“I went through a Machiavellian phase.”

“Did it end?”

“Yes, Bennett, I was twelve.”

“Are you sure?”

Sloane’s tongue is working her back teeth, her eyes narrowing, but it’s the look of someone leaning into the tease, allowing it to tie itself around her. “I no longer believe that the ends can possibly justify any and all means.”

“I don’t know, you seem to be perfectly fine with questionable means. Bad decisions justify the climactic ends.” She raises her eyebrows. “Did you have an Ayn Rand phase?”

“That’s an accusation, not a question.”

“I seem to recall your campaign for secretary of the Young Republicans.”

“Their scholarships were much more sizeable than the other side of the aisle.”

“We both know you didn’t need scholarships.”

It’s Sloane’s turn to cross her arms. “No, I didn’t have an Ayn Rand phase, and no, my politics are not the same as when I was seventeen, what a shock. Are yours?”

“Less naive but essentially the same.”

“You’re so much more evolved than the rest of us, Bennett.”

“I try.”

They both turn when the door opens again, nearly hitting Riley in the back. It’s Jane and she hasn’t seen the other adult in the room thanks to the angle of the door and Riley’s awkward position behind it, and so starts addressing Sloane with a slight warble in her voice. 

“I knew you’d be up here. I’m sorry she said that. I can’t say she didn’t mean it but I can say that she shouldn’t have even brought it up, it wasn’t the place or time. You know how Harper is, and now she thinks it’s her weekend, which, okay, we know it technically is, but still.” She lets out a long sigh, finally allowing herself to breathe. “Anyway, she won’t do it again. I’ll keep track of it, nip it in the bud before she starts up. Are you alright?” 

Riley can’t see Sloane’s face anymore but can imagine her expression. “I’m fine. I just wanted to check on the twins anyway.”

“Do you want a hug? No? Does anyone else want a hug from Auntie Jane?”

Both twins volunteer with raised hands. It’s when Jane squats to pull them into a group embrace that she actually sees Riley, standing awkwardly behind the door.

“Riley’s here?”

“Hi.”

“Hi.” Jane blinks. “What are you doing behind there?”

“I was just—”

Sloane interrupts her. “She came in from dinner for the bathroom and the caterers sent her upstairs after me to ask about the next course.”

“Oh, right.” Jane looks between the two of them, and suddenly the effervescent Jane is as unreadable as her eldest sister. “So you’re an errand girl.”

Riley shrugs. “Guilty as charged.”

“I hope they didn’t have bad news. The food has been very good so far.” Jane’s eyes refocus somewhere down the hall through the open door. “Oh, no.”

Sloane gets to her feet. “‘Oh no’ what?”

Jane frowns. “Tipper.”

Their eyes meet: Riley attempting to keep her expression neutral, Sloane’s gaze flashing like a traffic signal. And then the deafening click of heels is upon them and Tipper is pushing the door even wider, Riley once again having to shift to avoid being crushed.

“It's her wedding, Sloane.”

Jane clears her throat, though she’s gnawing on her bottom lip at the same time. “Mom—”

“You know what this means to Harper.” 

Sloane’s arms tighten around her front, a challenge to her stance. Her voice lowers. “I told you I was going inside to check on the twins. It had nothing to do with what she said.”

“What a coincidence, then. What a marvelous coincidence.”

“If you want to have a disagreement, we can go back down to the table and carry it on there. I won’t do it in front of them.” Sloane jerks her head towards the twins, seemingly unbothered by the grown-ups’ business, much more interested in the talking sponge.

Tipper blinks at her grandchildren. “They eat pizza now?” And then she takes in the room at large, and in this sweeping look, she cannot miss the left half of Riley that is visible despite the presence of the door. “Who is that?” Riley steps out, tries a mild smile. Receives no such thing in return, only a look of grave suspicion. Well, she has a track record. “Why is Riley Bennett here?”

Jane gives Riley a quick touch on the arm, not to reassure Riley as much as she seems to be reassuring her mother. “The caterers sent her upstairs.”

“For what?”

“To ask Sloane about the second course.”

“The second course was just served.”

“Oh,” Jane shrugs. “Then I guess they didn’t need the answer.”

Tipper still hasn’t taken her eyes off of Riley. “What was the question?”

“It doesn’t matter, Mom.” Jane puts her arms out as if to corral the others, moving them toward the exit. “Let’s all head downstairs and—”

“I was asking Riley.”

Riley stares at Tipper. Tipper stares back. “Timing,” she says. “They wanted to ask Sloane about holding off.”

“Well, they didn’t.” Tipper sniffs, remarkably unperturbed by having to hold her in the lock of her glare for this long. “So clearly they are a subpar business, and we’ll have to have a word with them.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Sloane says, her voice no longer at a forced whisper. “I employed them, not you. I paid them, not you.”

Finally, painfully, Tipper removes her gaze from Riley and refocuses it on her daughter. “I’m trying to help, Sloane.”

“You’re not.” Sloane lets out a mirthless bark. “And I don’t have anything else to say to you. Go downstairs. Your obligation is to Harper.”

“So is yours.”

“No,” Sloane says. Something in Riley’s chest hums when she says it. “My obligation is to myself and my children.”

Tipper is silent, looking between Sloane and Riley, jaw tight with the smile she has somehow maintained through this entire conversation. So unnerving. “I get the feeling there is something I’m still not quite grasping.”

“Don’t overthink it.” Jane sighs through her teeth. “Mom, we’re going back to the dinner. This is getting out of hand.”

“Fine.” Tipper waves her hand through the air, fingers wriggling as though untangling some invisible knot. “What do I know? Nothing, I’m sure.”

Jane takes her mother’s arm, patting it gently. “That’s not true and you know it.” And Jane, Saint Jane, escorts her mother out of the room, though Tipper shoots any number of glances over her shoulder at Riley, keeping her in sight until they disappear down the stairs.

The renewal of silence in the hall, the soft swell of cartoon voices, and Sloane collapses onto the bed as though released from a height, limp when she hits the surface. Riley stands still at first, unsure just as she was when she first arrived in the room, shaking slightly from everything that has just transpired. Sloane is staring at the ceiling, blinking. The twins laugh at something on the screen, gnaw on their slices of cold pizza. Riley puts her hand on the doorknob, making up her mind.

“Sit down.”

A command, not a request. A soft command, though. Gentle, rounded at its edges. And so Riley obeys. Sits on the opposite side of the bed, waits. Sloane’s hand takes hers. Squeezes it once, twice. Sloane brings Riley’s palm up to her mouth and presses her lips there, holds them still.

Riley allows herself to be suspended in this moment. Sloane’s lips, Sloane’s mouth warm and slightly wet against the sensitive interior of her hand. She looks over, sees that Sloane’s eyes are shut tight. Riley watches her, the subtle twitch of her brow where she furrows it, the divot that forms above the bridge of her nose, the gentle fluttering of eyelids, the pupils rolling back beneath their surface. Sloane’s breathing hard and steady again, so controlled.

“Don’t let me take up your time,” Sloane whispers.

Riley swallows. “I don’t mind.”

“And don’t let me waste it.”

“I don’t mind that either.”

And just as quickly as it had happened, Sloane releases her hand, lets it return to Riley’s lap, and gives her a slight push on the spine, a message to stand up. “Go back to the dinner,” she says. “I’ll stay here a bit longer. They’ll probably be drunk enough not to notice how much time has passed.” She opens one eye, narrows it at Riley. “Go now. I won’t ask again.”

Of course she won’t. Because Sloane Caldwell has never had to ask anyone twice. She does not mingle with those types.

Riley, though, sometimes needs a bit of extra instruction.

She turns, bends over Sloane and kisses her very hard on the neck. Sloane releases a single ‘oh’ into the air, her hand finding a fistful of Riley’s hair, but she does not immediately pull her away. She doesn’t need to, in the end. Riley is the one who sits up, slides off the bed in a single motion, and quickly leaves the room. Grinning, she should add.






 

 

John gives her a look when she sits back down. “Are you okay?”

She smirks. “I’m lactose intolerant.”

“Oh, girl, same. Don’t get me started. But do I still eat ice cream? Cheese? Constantly. Delicious misery, am I right?”

“Quite right.”

Minutes later, Sloane emerges from the back door, a slice of pizza in her hand. She is halfway through it by the time she sits down, chewing, smiling at her family. Riley watches her, waits, and when Sloane looks over, she nods. Once. It’s all Riley needs.

God, she’s so fucking intense. God, it’s a terrible idea, and Riley has no intention of giving it up.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

There was to be no bachelorette party. This message had come from Harper and Abby themselves via email a few months ago, citing reasons that seemed straight out of a naively informative Instagram story one closes no sooner than it has been opened: bachelorette parties are regressive practices that imply marriage is some kind of sentence; the “one last night of freedom” concept is problematic due to implications of incarceration; additionally, they do not plan to alter their behavior after being married and thus do not need an evening to behave any particular way as though this would then be deprived to them. 

Riley recalls snorting at the email and then texting Abby a joke about hearing from her legal team; Abby had feigned offense and sent back Law & Order gifs. 

She’d swallowed the temptation to text Sloane - an actual lawyer, after all, on whom law jokes might be better spent - but this was during that strange and tender in-between time when the bruises on Sloane’s skin were probably faded to a mere hint of lavender, her scent now fully washed from Riley’s things. Riley’s suitcase had been emptied and put back into the closet after weeks of sitting next to her bed, full and rumpled, heavy as a talisman. She’d open her phone to do something else and tap on their text conversation as if it were not stagnant, as if her last response had not been marked as read and nothing more. She’d find herself typing something bold or stupidly simple only to delete it a few seconds later, and she would do this repeatedly when she was either tired or midway through a second glass of wine or both. 

Once, she’d opened the app to see three dots on Sloane’s side: she was typing something. Riley had held her breath, carefully setting the phone down as though it were a wired explosive, not daring to do anything that might interrupt the message, but said message never came. Whatever Sloane had typed had been deleted swiftly or was sitting, finished or unfinished, on Sloane’s phone, never to be sent. Riley could picture the flicker of Sloane’s slim thumbs across the glass, the soft sound of her manicured nails like rain from another room. She could picture Sloane’s face lit up in the dark, her sheets - emerald satin, Riley had learned in those two nights, another detail that felt unexpected and yet perfectly suitable - pulled over her knees. Yet there was never a response. Not until last night, the reply that came when Riley had finally had the courage to nudge her, and then there was the lakewater and the cold air and the very warm mouth of Sloane pressed to hers, the dark sway of pines above them, the ground beneath sighing and damp, needles in their flesh that stung in a satisfying way. 

Now, here in the top bunk a day later, two showers later, she knows there is a smear of pine pitch along her spine that she has yet to fully scrub away. Maybe she wants to keep it there, to see if the next time Sloane touches her, it catches her fingers, makes them stay.

Christ’s sake, she thinks. Listen to me. She turns over, covers her head with the second pillow. Tries to drown her own thoughts out. Riley Bennett, you useless yearner.

The bachelorette party, that’s what this thought was meant to be about. Yes, she had returned from the rehearsal dinner and climbed into the top bunk with every intention of dozing through the night because no, she had not expected there to be a bachelorette party.

What wakes her up is not her own body having acquired enough sleep, but John’s hand on her shoulder, giving it an insistent shake.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he stage whispers, and she lifts her head to see that he is dressed for a club, including a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses that won’t be of much help to him at this hour, which she assesses is just before midnight

She blinks in confusion, sleep finally shaken off enough to comprehend what’s before her. “What’s going on?”

“Surprise bachelorette party, girl.”

“Abby said they didn’t want--”

“No, Harper said they didn’t want one, and we both know she has no taste.”

Riley sits up, suddenly all too aware of how long it will take her to get ready to the point of matching his energy and look. Aware, too, that she did not bring an extra outfit for this and it’s not like there aren’t people here she deeply wants to impress. “You couldn’t have told me about this earlier? Why am I being hazed?”

“Last minute decision-making.”

“By who?”

“Me and Jane. The fun Caldwell sister.” She thinks he winks beneath his shades, though it is hard to tell. “Okay, I’ll see you outside in ten.”

“Ten,” she deadpans. “How butch do you think I am?”

“Fine, twenty. But no more than twenty, the wake-up crew waits for no one. Not even Dr. Bennett and her suits.”

“The wake-up what?”

“You have nineteen minutes and fifty four seconds!” And with that, he is gone. The room, still dark, is quiet again, and she realizes Jayce is not in the bunk beneath her. And then from the kitchen comes the first notes of “Heaven or Las Vegas” absolutely blasting, half-shaking the walls. No hope of going back to sleep now.






 

 

She is more wrinkled than she’d like to be as she follows John and Jayce towards the main house, Blythe and Gwen giving the occasional high-pitched yelp when their heels sink into the soft earth. The third time this happens, Jayce offers their hand until they all make it across the grass to the stone pavers. There, Jane is standing in the low light of a side door, waving and grinning.

“Come in quietly,” she whispers, finger raised to her lips, though she raises her eyebrows at Blythe’s noisy Louboutins, followed by the clack of Gwen’s platforms. “Or at least as quietly as those will allow.” She smirks at Riley’s Chelseas. “Sensible footwear, good choice. Even better if they’re waterproof.”

“They’re Saint Laurent,” Riley says, almost in defense, but Jane gives her a genial knock on the arm and for a brief panicked moment, Riley wonders if Jane had seen these same boots sitting unaccounted for on a lakeside boulder last night, but no, that’s not possible, and besides, Jane’s grinning as she nudges her up the stairs and into a familiar corridor, all warmth and cheerfulness and not an ounce of suspicion, though it’s Riley who ties suspicion and negativity together, somehow never assuming one could know something and approve of it. At the same door that nearly crushed her hours ago, she holds her breath as Jane lifts her knuckles.

Sloane’s door opens after only two knocks, and it is evident that she was also uninformed of John and Jane’s last-minute plans; her hair is only half up, losing a battle with itself, and her makeup has been removed, her eyes made all the larger by the effect. When not post-coital, it appears that Sloane sleeps in a set of black silk pajamas, her initials embroidered in white on the left breast. They sit just above her crossed arms as Jane explains the evening’s plot, and Riley chooses not to look at them again, painfully aware of what is beneath.

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, we’re not.” Jane smiles. “We thought it would be a fun surprise.”

“Well, I’m certainly surprised.” Indeed, though Sloane could not look less amused with the situation. “Where is this meant to take place?”

“The destination is part of the surprise.”

“If the destination results in everyone leaving the estate and then being hungover for the one day that needs to run smoothly, I can’t say I’ll agree to it.”

“We’re not going anywhere we can’t walk on foot.”

“Blythe and Gwen are physically incapable of a hike, Jane, even in the daylight.”

“They’ll be fine. Anyway, you have twenty minutes, then you meet us downstairs.”

Sloane steps back and mostly out of sight, only her fingers on the door still visible to Riley. Freshly done nails, pale and pointed. Long. A thought that has no place here in this mostly wholesome plan crosses Riley’s mind: she should ask Sloane to scratch her next time, really claw at her back when she tries to hold herself in place. But it’s so presumptuous - this fantastical “next time” - and Riley wonders if she’s blushing, is grateful for the lack of light. Sloane closes the door, apparently having agreed to the situation, and Jane gestures toward the other end of the hall with a grin.








 

Outside of the door marked with Harper’s name, Jane gathers them with a hush and a few mysterious hand gestures before knocking.

There’s a noise on the other side of the door, a few words that seem sharply delivered, even if too muffled to make out, and then a long pause. Jayce and Riley exchange a look; Jane’s smile is beginning to tire, her brow twitching not unlike her eldest sister’s. Finally, the door is opened by Harper, and interestingly, Harper and Abby are both dressed, the room fully lit, closed suitcases on the bed. There is a distinctly awkward air, the sense that something has been disturbed, and that something was not going well.

“Jane,” Harper starts, and Riley tries to make eye contact with Abby, who is now gnawing her lip, sitting next to the luggage. Abby seems preoccupied with the back of Harper’s head.

“Surprise,” Jane whispers, still maintaining her pose. “You are being acquired for a surprise bachelorette party, and you have no choice but to join us.”

“Oh,” Harper says. She glances back at Abby, her knuckles white on the doorframe. “I don’t think we really planned for that.”

“Well of course you didn’t,” Jane says. “That’s why it’s a surprise.”

Harper’s voice lowers as she leans forward, her cheeks blanched when she turns towards Jane and away from the group, though they are all in too close quarters to miss what is being said. “Honestly, now is not really a good time--”

But Abby is standing, pushing past her betrothed to join the rest. She clears her throat. “No,” she says, putting on a tight smile. “Let’s do it. I’m ready. Surprise me.”

Harper looks down at Abby; Abby stares back, the slightest tinge of defiance in her stance. Jane’s expression remains chipper as ever but there’s something in her eyes giving away what is likely running through her mind: oh dear, this isn’t a good sign at all. Riley silently agrees.

“Fine,” Harper gives in, shoulders slouching. “Sure.” She smirks at Blythe and Gwen, who seem to have missed all the subtleties in these past moments, already excitedly yanking on the arms of their half of the brides.

“Perfect.” Jane’s hands meet for a single clap. 






 

 

Well, it’s closer to a teenage secret than it is a bachelorette party, but there is something charming about sitting on a moonlit beach for the past hour, passing around bottle after bottle of alcohol as though it were all stolen from an unwatched cabinet, a bonfire snapping and hissing at their knees. Riley feels a bit like she’s in high school again, not that she was usually invited to these kinds of parties, but they were certainly held by some of the people currently sharing her company, and she would hear the stories on the following Mondays: the pretty girls holding each other’s hair when they vomited, the lacrosse players receiving competent head in someone’s father’s study. Harper had been a good girl by nearly every parental definition, but she still attended parties like that, became known and admired and even more desirable for the fact she kissed the other girls when she was drunk. Riley remembers the cruel irony of people giving her a wide berth between classes while Harper was celebrated for her adventurousness. Later, much later, a more worldly Riley would realize that this was probably the only way Harper felt comfortable expressing her sexuality. Enough of a revelation for Riley to consider pitying her, which she knew was not the same as forgiveness.

And now Riley is sitting on the beach of the Caldwell vacation home, preparing to attend Harper’s wedding. Life, such a strange thing, etcetera etcetera. Besides, it’s Abby she’s here for, Abby who is currently sitting next to her on this blanket, a red solo cup between her feet. Gwen and Blythe are cackling at something John’s said, Jane and Jayce are drunkenly mixing drinks on a towel fast-collecting sand, Harper keeps shooting looks at Abby and only half-participating in the conversation. And Sloane, Sloane sits on the other side of the fire, and Riley sees her through the flames, her features veiled by sparks, and controls her breathing.

“Fuck this,” Abby mutters. Riley doesn’t hear it at first - John brought a speaker and what began as the Cocteau Twins has turned into similar decibels of Kate Bush - but Abby says it again, her feet twitching. Riley reaches out to catch her drink before it falls over, finds the cup has been emptied.

Riley feels like discretion is important now, leans in a little and lowers her voice. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Abby says, her voice so dry it sounds more like the wood in front of them, heating and splitting.

“Because you don’t seem good.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Name it.”

"I told you I drove off at Christmas, right?” Riley nods. Abby gnaws her bottom lip as she talks. “Do you think that was my one shot? Like, I’ve used it up? If I got up, I couldn’t drive off now because I had the opportunity and I already made my choice?”

Ah, so this is what it’s all about. And now Riley feels dense for not seeing the signs - Abby’s tension at the dinner, the way she’d looked so grateful for John and Jayce and Riley when they’d all first arrived, how she’d lingered yesterday at the cottage and seemed hesitant to leave. Riley hadn’t read into it enough because she was so busy having a crisis of pining and thinking with her lower brain and here was Abby, falling out of love, or at least coming to terms with it.

“I think we always have choices.” She gives her a gentle nudge with her elbow. “Did something happen?”

“Yes,” and Abby digs her palms into her eyes, rubs until Riley imagines they’ll be sore. “And no. If I said I was going to go pee, could you come with me and talk?”

Riley nods. And Abby stands, gives a little awkward wave to the group and explains they both need to empty their bladders, and gestures towards the trees. Harper sits up on her blanket, mouth half-open, and then slumps, nothing to say or perhaps too drunk to say it. The others are busy laughing, mirth-making, being too far gone to notice subtle cues.

Riley chances a look at Sloane, Sloane in her silent and intense corner, expects her to be glowering away, but Sloane is looking back at her, a careful expression, almost penitent. Watching her intensely. Riley has no idea how to communicate this with her eyes, the complexity of the situation, but lifts her eyebrows, hopes it’s enough, and then follows Abby towards the treeline.






 

“You know, sometimes I think I’m just really fucking desperate for a family, and here she was with all these stories of her parents and her sisters and sailboats and turkey dinners and I think I just fell for this fantasy, I fell for the slot I imagined would just be waiting for me, how I’d fit right in. I should have known, though, right? I should have known at Christmas. It wasn’t going to work. No one was waiting for me here. No one was going to take up all these spaces I thought I didn’t have to live with anymore. God, that feels pathetic to say.”

Abby’s crouched under a tree, running her fingers over each other, gnawing the inside of her mouth. Riley sits across from her in the underbrush, listening. Knowing that’s what she can do now, wishing she’d had the sense to do it earlier, too.

“It’s not pathetic. The complete opposite. Sometimes love is an extension of grief.”

“I want to love her. I do love her. I just don’t think that’s enough. Because I love who she is when we’re alone together, but then there are all these pieces of her in the world that aren’t that person, and I see them and I think, oh, I don’t like that person, I don’t think that person would even like me, and I don’t know what the fuck to do.” Abby takes a deep breath. “I’m spiraling here, dude. I’m rambling big time. I’m definitely drunk and high but I’m also definitely rambling.”

“That’s okay, you’re okay. Everything you’re saying and feeling is valid. I promise.”

“And I actually like her family, that’s what is crazy. Like at first I kind of thought they were a nightmare but Jane? Jane’s awesome, I love Jane. Sloane’s actually really great, too. Her parents are still chilly, and after Christmas, I decided I could live with that. I could make it work. But as soon as I see Harper around them all, I just...I don’t know who she is anymore. She and Sloane got in this massive fight a few months ago, right around the time Sloane moved to New York. Harper’s parents were against the move, which is stupid, right, it’s just about control with them, but then Harper, fuck, Harper literally acted like their enforcer, like they were paying her to take it out on Sloane. She was their little messenger or something, it was insane. I can’t even repeat the things she said to her, even about the twins. Like Harper saying Sloane wasn’t a good mother. And I know Sloane seems like a bitch and she is but she’s a really, really good mom, and it was just...it was on another level, dude. So this weekend, I thought it was all resolved but again, she’s bringing up this shit, Harper, I mean, and I don’t know how to handle it because she’s my Harper, you know? My Harper. The Harper I know when it’s just us, she’s so sweet and caring and sensitive, and then the second she thinks she can benefit from something, the second her parents ask for something, even minor, she’s different. I love my Harper. I love her so much, I think I could make the best life with my Harper. But Harper is not just my Harper, you know? And I don’t know what to do with that. Wait. Shit.” Abby leans over and vomits into the pine needles, a quick and smooth projectile, before leaning back against the tree. “Sorry, that’s not even the alcohol. I always do this when I’m this anxious.”

“Hey,” Riley rubs her shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” 

“Sorry,” Abby says.

“No, don’t apologize, dude.”

“No, I’m sorry because I actually do need to pee now. I’m going to go over behind that tree, okay?” 

She nods, turns the other way towards the glow of fire on the beach, the faint sound of Fleetwood Mac and high-pitched shrieks. She’s un-sober enough to feel slightly nauseous from the smell of vomit, sober enough to sense the avalanche of shit that this conversation is about to trigger. The downhill slope that awaits this weekend that most of those still drinking at the bonfire are blissfully unaware of, may not be privy to until tomorrow morning.  Her phone buzzes against her thigh. Sloane.

 

 

She’s calling it off, isn’t she?

I think so.

Can you keep an eye on things over there?

Alcohol keeping things jovial.

Harper’s distracted.

Is she alright?

No, but that’s not changing any time soon.

If she wants to fly out tomorrow, I’ll pay for it.

You don’t have to tell her that, though.

Just tell her everyone chipped in if she asked.

That’s really generous, Sloane.

She has been enormously kind.



Twigs snap behind her, and Abby reemerges, wiping at her face and eyes, red and damp. 

“So,” she says, hands sliding into her pockets. “So, that’s all out now.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I think I need to go for a ride.”

“Got it.”

“Is that too repetitive of me? Predictable?”

“It’s been months. Two for two, no big deal.”

“Is anyone sober enough to drive?”

“I…” She glances towards the spot of fire, considers the fact that the last time she saw John he was lying on his back gurgling lyrics, that Jayce was tangled with Blythe, Jane dancing in a frenzy as if performing a ritual before the flames. But Sloane, no solo cup in sight, politely refusing whatever had been offered, was still sitting on that blanket. “Well, actually, there might be someone.”









 

 

Are you sober?

Very much so.

Is Peyton the only one who can drive that monstrosity?

I am also on the rental form.

Excellent.







 

 

This is the destination Abby had requested: not the airport, not Bangor, not even a jaunt through the national park. A gas station on the way to Bar Harbor, tiny and lit by flickering neon, a small model of a lighthouse attached crookedly to the roof. Abby is on her back in the middle row of the Hummer, peeling back a push pop, staring at the ceiling as she absently licks it. Every few minutes, she gives a loud sniff, makes a small choking sound that is undoubtedly her attempt at preventing tears, and then returns to quiet. She’d said when they’d first left the driveway that she didn’t want to talk, but to just be, to think, and they’d only had to pull over once for her to throw up, though she swore this time it was actually from being drunk, not just the emotions. That seemed believable.

Riley has an orange popsicle; not her first choice, but the only acceptable choice in a limited freezer. Sloane had taken the other half of it when Riley had broken it off and offered. Sloane sits behind the wheel now, her eyes on the prone occupant in the back of the car, the popsicle occasionally disappeared into her mouth. 

“I’m sorry,” Abby croaks, sniffing wetly, emotion blended with inebriation and turned again to tears. “I really am.”

“Why are you sorry?” Sloane’s voice is a new one, and Riley realizes this is her “mother voice”, the one she likely uses on her children. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Abby.”

“I made you drive out here.”

“You didn’t make anyone do anything. We were more than happy to help.”

“But the party and everything…”

Riley attempts a chuckle. “Just a fire and some shelf liquor.”

“Did you stop drinking for me?”

Sloane shakes her head. “I never started.”

Riley snorts. “Yeah, why aren’t you drinking? I didn’t knock you up, did I?”

And Riley has certainly had a bit to drink tonight, it’s true, and Riley certainly gets a little reckless and ahead of herself when she’s around Sloane, but there is really no reason for her to drop that particular joke right now. Sloane freezes, stares at her with such intensity that it could only have been dredged from the depths of the earth, and Riley freezes in turn, swallows heavily. There is a pregnant pause before anyone speaks, but if Abby has noticed that particular line in her current state, she gives no sign of it, rolling over onto her side and covering her head with her jacket, letting out a groan, push pop truly cached and finished. From beneath the jacket, a quiet wheeze and question:

“Is it okay if I sleep?”






 

On the sagging bench in front of the gas station, positioned just to the right of the shining beacon of the Hummer - currently a cozy container for one sleeping runaway bride - Riley Bennett sits with a popsicle stick hanging out of the corner of mouth, somewhat like a cigar. A thigh’s length away, enough that it means something, Sloane Caldwell is licking her fingers clean of her own popsicle’s remains, missing the translucent trail that runs between her middle and forefinger, a curved line down the cleft of her knuckle. Riley stares, completely captivated by this miniscule part of the other woman’s flesh, tempted by some base urge to finish the job for her.

“I did worry that you and I could ruin the wedding, but this was not what I pictured.” Sloane finally removes her hand from her mouth, still sitting up straight, her posture never completely unseated. 

“There’s still time. It might all come out and overshadow the fact that we are aiding a fugitive.”

“I should have seen this coming after everything with Harper.”

“Abby mentioned that.”

Sloane turns her head just enough for the moonlight to catch along her jaw, illuminating the shape of her cheeks, the roundness of her eyes. “I don’t want to discuss it, for the record. I don’t know what she said but I don’t need to talk about it. It’s done.”

“Of course.” Riley nods as though she had not been prepared to process any of Sloane’s pains or concerns for hours. “I know what you mean, though. I feel like an idiot for not noticing what was going on. I mean, for months, too. She never told me how bad it was.”

“That’s what people do, Bennett. They reveal nothing that they wouldn’t want to admit to themselves. Patch the cracks with tape and pretend it’s never been better.” Her eyes narrow slightly, her focus somewhere past the parking lot. Riley tries to follow her gaze, out into the dark line of trees. She imagines them set on fire. “I’m glad it was me, actually, who you asked. I understand her. The divorce is still fresh.”

Riley feels silly for how much her voice bends under this inquiry. “Is it?”

“Yes,” Sloane says, and then looks over at her, her brow twitching, even dipping a little, a feat for her, before she corrects herself. “It is, but not that way, Bennett.”

“I mean, look, I don’t mind being a rebound.”

“Which you’re not, and the fact I have to state that outright is slightly insulting.”

“I don’t even mind being an experiment.”

Sloane rolls her eyes, tongue flipping between her teeth. Apparently this has earned no answer, so Riley continues, perhaps exhausted enough to trip right into it:

“I hope this hasn’t all been too confusing.”

Sloane’s eyebrow raises, her face twisting into a new expression. “You’ve lost me.”

“Well, you know,” and Riley gestures between the two of them. “Me being a woman and all.”

“Why would that be confusing for me? Your gender is not terribly difficult to perceive, despite your proclivity for pantsuits.”

“Right, but if I’m the first woman--”

“The first woman what? With a doctorate? I don’t think I’ve ever slept with a doctor before, but that’s no reason for me to spiral into a crisis, or whatever you think is happening.”

“So you’ve done this before.”

“I can’t be that much of a pillow queen.”

“I mean, you’re not. No, not at all, I just…” She is sure her cheeks are on fire, the parking lot feeling much warmer suddenly, the salt air pressing so very close. “Okay, so you’re not straight?”

“Which part of us sleeping together have you been absent for, Bennett?”

“But are you out?”

Sloane sighs, though it is clearly threaded through with frustration, a big tight knot of it. “You’re highly intelligent, Bennett. We don’t need to be so reductive.”

“It’s a simple question.”

“Is it? I don’t know your definition of…” She curls her fingers into air quotes, raises her eyebrows. “Out.”

“Does your family know?”

“Know what?”

“That you’re not straight, Sloane.”

Sloane rolls her eyes. “What is this, the nineties? What occasion calls for me to explain that aspect of my life to them as if it were abnormal and ominous?”

“I mean, it is abnormal. Technically.”

“By whose definition?”

“We don’t live in a utopia, Sloane. These things have meaning.”

“What things? Sitting my parents down and telling them that I am aroused by women in addition to men? Odd for me to do given I never once discussed my sexuality with them in regards to the men.”

“Right, but they’d assume--”

“And what of it? Why do I need to involve myself in their assumptions? I have spent my entire life having false things assumed of me. Actively harmful things, at times. They were also entirely out of my control. Let me tell you what happens when I correct those assumptions: nothing. People see me, they see me with my children, they see me doing one thing or another, they assume things. Even if I flagged them down and gave them a pamphlet, it wouldn’t do any good. Nor is it my job.”

“But you outed Harper.”

“Harper,” Sloane narrows her eyes again, not bothering to hide her venom. “I thought Abby told you about what Harper said.”

“This was before that, at Christmas.”

“We’ve lived an entire life before Christmas, decades. I am not particularly proud of the delivery, but I revealed her lie. I saw the harm it was doing.”

“Which was also outing her.”

“I know you’d like to make this political, Bennett, but it really isn’t. I’m actually surprised to hear it from you of all people.”

And now, perhaps, Riley does get a bit ahead of herself, though she thinks she is justified. “Really, you’re surprised that someone who was forced out of the closet would be a little offended by you outing someone against their will.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Against her will? Please, Bennett. And tell me about this closet you were in, what were the dimensions? I’m sorry my sister was such a cunt to you, I really am. I’m sorry you weren’t the homecoming queen and I’m sorry you didn’t win any popularity contests at a school full of teenagers whose main goal was to be cruel even to people they liked. But at the end of the day, that was over a decade ago and it doesn’t invalidate your experience to admit the situation between myself and Harper is different.”

Riley has to stop herself from gritting her teeth. “You’re not wrong.”

“Of course I’m not.”

“I’m not trying to play the victim here.”

“I know that, because you’re not. And neither am I. And neither is Harper. I’m not proud of December. It was a difficult, miserable, trying time for any number of reasons, some of which do not involve that party or even my sister.” Sloane sniffs, a strange sharp noise, and Riley realizes, somehow, that for most of this debate, Sloane has actually been preventing the release of her own tears. “My parents adore nothing more than controlling everything and everyone. And Harper’s just like them, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Her greatest trick is controlling the narrative. I believe you were once a victim of that trick.” Sloane makes eye contact, brief and intense. “I don’t want your sympathy, or your understanding, or your forgiveness. If you find me repulsive or disagreeable now, that’s fine. I will not change my stance and I do not want you to change yours, I will not try to convince you. It’s not my place and it’s not my wish. I don’t want to take away anything that is important to you.” Another sniff, and then Sloane sits up straight, composes herself. Steadies her voice. “To answer your initial question, Jane is aware. Harper is, too, though she has a selective memory. But no, neither of them learned through any formal conversation, and my parents will remain unaware, until, by some chance that has nothing to do with me, they are informed that their eldest daughter is now dating a woman. If that is someday the case, of course.”

There is quiet now, a long silence eagerly filled by the sound of night insects and lone insomniac gulls and the wind in the trees. 

“I don’t know what to say.” Riley tries to match her breath to Sloane’s, the other woman finally breathing audibly for the first time she can remember. It’s when she chances a glance at Sloane again that it dawns on her. “You’re scared.”

“Of course I’m scared. This is terrifying, Bennett.”

“Is it?”

“It is for me.” Sloane gets to her feet, the popsicle stick previously drying in her lap now discarded into the trash. She runs her hands over her thighs, adjusts her hair. Puts her armor back on. “We have to focus on Abby right now. Everything else can take a backseat.”

Inside, Abby is still sleeping, her snores slightly muted by the jacket. Sloane pulls it off her face, gently tucks it around her shoulders. Clears the sleeping woman’s hair from her face, smooths her cheek with her hand, gives her a sad maternal smile. Riley watches her, thinks a thousand thoughts, lets them drift away just as quickly as they came, sensing the utter danger of them. 

Sloane looks at her phone before turning on the car, sighing. “It’s Jane,” she says. “They may have sobered up enough to realize what’s going on.” 

“Fuck.”

“Indeed.”

“Tomorrow is going to be..."

“I know,” Sloane says. “I know."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jane is standing in the driveway, halfway between the gatehouse and the main house; they turn a corner and the lights catch her pacing figure just beside the trees, lifting both arms to wave them down. Sloane inhales sharply as she slows to a stop, caught off-guard, her right hand falling to grab Riley’s on the divider between them. Riley watches the sudden blanching of Sloane’s face from the side, the way it craters as she clearly bites down on the inside of her cheek, and then Sloane removes her hand, places it back on the wheel. Sloane’s knuckles are white; the air over Riley’s own knuckles is cold where it registers the sudden absence of warmth.

“Sorry,” she says, the word riding an exhale. 

“Don’t apologize,” Riley whispers. 

“I want to apologize,” Sloane says, her voice low but insistent, firm, and she looks at Riley now, lit only by the blue and green features of the dashboard. Like stars of two colors where they cluster in her pupils. “I do.”

It’s the first time they’ve addressed each other since the ride back began; as they’d left the gas station parking lot, Sloane had turned on the gentle voice of a public radio announcer, a classical music show dipping in and out of service, and thus in and out of Prokofiev, then Bartók, and Riley had stared out the window into darkness, her eyes occasionally resting as the static came and went. She remembers looking over at Sloane as the music had ended, the announcer returning. That was ‘Romanian Folk Dances for Orchestra.’ Thank you for joining us on this very late night. Next we have -- Sloane’s eyes were on the road, her face impossible to read.

Now Jane hurries across the path of the headlights, tapping softly at the driver’s window. She’s wearing the beach blanket around her shoulders like a shawl, her eyes red from what might be exhaustion or the rare encounter with marijuana or both. Sloane rolls down the window, and Jane stands on her tiptoes to peer into the backseat: Abby is still sleeping, wrapped in the jacket where Sloane had earlier bundled her.

“Is she…?”

Sloane nods. “Yes. How did things end up?”

“Everyone’s asleep. Passed out, essentially, though they’re back in the cottage or the house, hopefully on mattresses and not the floor. No guarantees, though.”

“Harper?”

Jane’s mouth tightens into a neutral line, a similar expression to her older sister. “I’ve never seen her this drunk. I put her to bed an hour ago.” 

A sharp inhale through Sloane’s teeth, her knuckles stirring on the wheel. “Christ.” She sighs, then, and gestures behind her. “Get in and we’ll give you a ride back up to the house.”

“No, I walked down here to catch you. Drive around to the cottage instead - there’s no guest room available and she should be with her friends in the morning, I think.” 

“I see.” Sloane turns to Riley, eyebrows knitted. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” And Riley nods in return, attempts to look reassuring.

Jane makes an extra effort to close the door quietly as she sits down. “Mom and Dad and everyone else seem to have slept through it all. No stirring from their wing or elsewhere. Hopefully they aren’t up at the crack of dawn, but I’ll take care of it if they are. Those two will need to have time to talk before everything starts up.” She looks behind her at sleeping Abby, smiling sadly. “Poor thing. Is it weird that I feel responsible?”

Sloane shakes her head. “I understand.”

“I love Harper. I mean, she’s our sister, of course I love her.” Riley watches Sloane’s face as Jane speaks, though nothing is revealed there. “But after everything this winter and spring, after everything that happened with you, Sloane, maybe I should have…well...” Jane falls silent.

“There isn’t anything we could have done.”

“I love Abby, too, you know. She feels like a part of our lives now.” Jane is still watching her, leaning over the back of her seat. “Poor thing,” she whispers again, and then they are taking the next turn down another dirt road, all of them quiet.

When Sloane stops the car behind the cottage, Riley gets out and opens the door on Abby’s side, gives the sleeping woman a gentle nudge on the shoulder. “End of the line,” she whispers, and Abby opens her eyes in the dark, letting out a long exhale as her lashes flutter.

“Are we back?”

Riley nods. “We’re at the cottage. Surprise sleepover.”

Abby makes a sleepy noise, her throat clearing. She rubs at her face. “Is Harper, um…”

“She’s pretty out of it. If you want us to take you up to the main house, we can, but we thought you might want to wait until morning.”

“Oh.” Abby sits up with Riley’s help, slides out of the car. “Yeah, shit. I’ll stay here. Okay. Just give me a second, sorry.” She stops mid-walk to the cottage door, bending over. “I have to throw up again.”

And it’s Sloane now who is suddenly at her side, rubbing at Abby’s back, as Jane holds her jacket and Riley holds her arm. “That’s alright, do what you have to do,” Sloane whispers. “Let’s get you into bed and we’ll find you a bucket, too.”

The cottage is pitch black when they get in, the door to John’s room closed. Riley knows the couch in the small parlor folds out and assumes that’s where they can put Abby, but is surprised to find that the bottom bunk of her bed is empty, Jayce nowhere to be seen. She comes back into the kitchen where Abby is sitting in a chair with a chore pail between her knees, Sloane’s protective hand on her spine. Jane’s filling a glass of water at the sink, the blanket still over her shoulders.

“Looks like we have a vacancy,” Riley gestures towards the hall. “Good news. We can be bunkmates. Like gay little sailors.”

And so that is what they do. Abby falls into the bottom bunk with a stuttering exhale, and Sloane kneels next to her, pulls the covers over Abby’s curling limbs. Riley hands her the pail, which they set on the floor next to the fresh glass of water Jane deposits along with a hug and a sad smile and a wish for very good dreams until she sees her in the morning.

“Riley will be right above you if you need anything,” Sloane says, and pats Abby’s arm as she stands up. “Try to sleep some of this off.”

Abby’s hand shoots out from beneath the blanket, grabbing Sloane’s. “Sloane,” she whispers. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Sloane pauses at the door. “You won’t lose us, Abby. Jane and I aren’t going anywhere, no matter what happens. I just want you to know that.”

Abby’s quiet, no response beyond a stilted sniff, and then there’s a sound like a sigh. “Okay,” she says, her voice small, and flips over onto her other side.

In the kitchen, Jane gives Riley a tight-smiled goodnight before going outside, the door closing behind her. Riley stands next to the table, watching Sloane shift her weight from one foot to the other. The other woman is stalling.

“Are you going to sleep now?” Sloane asks, and Riley shakes her head.

“Don’t think I could after all this. I’ll probably just stare at the ceiling, given it’s only an inch away from my nose.”

“Well,” Sloane says, hands briefly finding her own hips, forming fists there. “You should sleep.”

“Thanks.” Riley waits, not knowing what will come next, only knowing that she wants many things she can’t have at this minute. Fills the gap out of nerves, more than anything. “And thanks for driving.”

“Of course.” Sloane is biting the inside of her cheek again. “Thank you for the popsicle.”

“Half a popsicle. Nothing special.”

“The unbroken popsicle is two full popsicles, so one half is actually one full popsicle.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“I think the definition of a popsicle is dependent on the presence of the stick, so the presence of two sticks indicates two popsicles.”

This, finally, breaks Riley, and she can’t help but smirk. “The defense rests, Your Honor.” 

Sloane looks slightly flustered, but that jaw of hers is beginning to tighten again. The tell. “I know you’ll look after her, but text me if anything happens, okay?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

Sloane finally takes a step toward her, then halts again. “I meant what I said earlier, about not objecting if you want this weekend to have been the end of it. I don’t want you to feel you owe me an explanation. With everything going on, you can make a clean break and I will honor that, I promise.”

“Is that what you want, Sloane?”

Sloane is quiet, staring at her in that way of hers, as if Riley is the only thing here, the rest of the universe declared uninteresting. Sloane’s chest rises in the dim light with more effort; she is breathing harder. Riley can see it from here. “Please don’t ask me what I want,” Sloane says, her voice so low it is nearly a whisper, but each syllable is sharp, taut as a rope.

Still, Riley finds herself wanting to tie it around her neck. 

“Why?”

But Sloane shakes her head, lips sealed. The door suddenly opens, and Jane is there, smiling again, a whispered apology.

“Everything okay?” she asks, looking between the two of them.

Riley nods. “Goodnight, Sloane.”

And Sloane stops before she follows her sister out the door, nods back. “Goodnight, Riley.”






Abby is gone when she wakes up, the bed remade with new sheets, the bucket cleared away, the cottage silent and humid. The forecast had predicted cool weather, but it’s muggy as ever, the sky swollen grey with heat. Jayce eventually slinks in, Blythe’s wide-brimmed sun hat crookedly hanging off their head, their overalls half-undone; they give Riley a tired wave and then collapse in their bunk without a word, almost immediately producing snores. In another half hour, John has returned to the cottage with a plate of brunch items that he offers to Riley just as she’s headed for the shower.

“Breakfast buffet from hell,” he says, leaving it on the table for her. “I’ll tell you more when you’re clean.”

Under the water, hands in her hair, she feels her fingers touch each other, the sensation of one palm brushing against the other. Can’t help but think of Sloane’s palm falling onto Riley’s knuckles, then of the insistent press of Sloane around her hand, a pulse, pulling her deeper.






 

While tucking into artisanal bacon and very cold eggs, Riley receives more intel on the situation at the big house, and it’s fairly predictable: Tipper Caldwell pacing the halls like a determined phantom, looking to exact paranormal levels of vengeance; family and friends milling around without much purpose, some having taken to sunbathing next to the altar where the light is particularly good; a few spontaneous games of croquet and volleyball that have been stretched out for hours; the handful of children in attendance having banded together in some kind of loose association involving face paint. John, an endearingly hyperbolic person, it turns out, makes it sound as though everyone is on the verge of ferality and complete anarchy is only hours away.

“Did you see Sloane up there?”

“Sloane?” John finishes his coffee. “I think she was fixing plates for her kids at one point. Haven’t seen her otherwise.” He pauses, giving Riley a careful look. “Heard you two drove Abby around last night while she was going through it. Good call.”

“More or less.”

Jayce emerges, still in their overalls, yawning and collapsing into the chair closest to John. Riley is still eyeing the straw hat, now crookedly arranged on Jayce’s head. “Where were you last night?”

“Where was I?” Jayce taps their chin in feigned deep consideration. “Difficult to say. A little here, a little there. The veil between the realms of the mundane and the ecstatic was thin last night.” Their smirk falls, their tone shifting to something more somber. “Never mind me, though.” They look at John.  “You walked Abby up to the house this morning, yeah? Anybody have updates?”

John and Riley both shake their heads. 

“Fuck, what a situation. Poor Abby.” They pause, clearing their throat. “And Harper, of course. Poor Harper. All the rest of us can do is wait.”

John raises his eyebrows. “Luckily the maid of honor provided three pages of suggested activities in the back of our packets.” 

“Sloane is a trip, man. Very hot, but she is a trip.” Jayce’s eyes fall on Riley. “Abby mentioned you had history with the Caldwells, I’d forgotten that. You and Sloane dated in high school or something.”

Riley snorts into her food. “Oh god, no.”

“Really? I would have guessed, you know, with last night and everything.”

“It was Harper. Not Sloane.” Well, not back then, at least.

“Harper?” Jayce leans forward, clearly intrigued. “You dated Harper?”

“No, no, just the history part. We have history. We never dated.”

“But you something’d.”

“No, we didn’t.” Seeing Jayce’s expression, Riley makes a face in return. “I’m serious, we didn’t. It’s complicated and takes a long time to explain.”

“Well, we do have a whole lot of time and not much else right now, at least until the inevitable.” Something appears to occur to Jayce, and they fish around in the front pocket of their overalls, finally producing a blunt. “Ah, there she is, isn’t she just gorgeous. Wanna take her out to the porch? Show her the sights?”






 

Though things do briefly slow and dilate and cosmically center themselves on the porch, the rest of the day avalanches as Riley worried it might. Within another hour, they are called up to the site of the ceremony for an announcement: when Riley and company arrive, there’s a small crowd of guests and family, Sloane and Jane standing awkwardly to one side, the twins nearby, sporting coordinating butterfly face paint and oversized nets. Riley stares at her, studies her. Today has been a blur of exhaustion and strangeness, everything tilted now that the purpose for the entire weekend is up in the air, the cause for celebration declared to be rotten at its core and likely dissolved, and Riley would be lying if she said she hadn’t spent every empty minute of this morning thinking about the talk with Sloane last night, thinking about all of those words spilling out of Abby as they crouched between the trees, thinking about the way Sloane had looked in the dim kitchen, the way she’d looked at Riley with the kind of intensity that ought to start fires, that ought to raze cities.

She’s got to make up her mind. Riley’s got to decide what she wants, she knows this, and this is probably the worst time in the world to decide what you want to do with some murky little situationship - at a wedding that is no longer a wedding but has yet to cease being a technical wedding - but she’s got to do it. She has to know.

Sloane makes brief eye contact, her expression veiling an emotion beyond recognition, acknowledgment, and then she steps up onto the platform, wearing the most serious of frowns as she gazes out at the assembly, half of them looking exhausted already.

“Harper and Abby have asked me to extend their deepest apologies as well as their gratitude for your attendance this weekend.” Sloane squints at her phone, apparently now reading a message. “While they have made the difficult decision to ultimately not get married—” A few gasps release from the crowd, but worth noticing, too, are those who seem to barely bat an eye, nodding with tired approval. “They do not want the weekend or your time here to go to waste. Even though there is to be no wedding today, they have decided to hold a reception regardless, as they already paid for the DJ and catering and cannot get out of those contracts anyway.” Sloane raises an eyebrow at her phone, then continues. “So, in celebration of the rest of us being together, no matter the occasion, they invite you to dress up for the reception this evening and enjoy yourselves.” Sloane scrolls through her phone as if she expects there to be more, pauses, and then puts it down. “That appears to be their main message.”

The crowd dissolves into smaller conversation, trickles into groups before most start leaving for whatever new activity will hold them over until tonight - Riley thinks she overhears someone saying “that was not exactly a surprise” to a hearty agreement - and John lets out a long sigh. 

“Yikes.”

Jayce shrugs. “Well, it’s gonna be a weird night, but it could still be a fun night.”

“What are we going to do for the rest of the day? Nap?”

Riley gestures towards the house. “There’s a lively game of croquet over there.”

John makes a face. “What kind of old queen do you take me for, Doctor?”

Jayce subtly leans over, sniffs their own underarm. “I should shower. I smell like--”

“Blythe,” John says, giving them a look. “You smell like Blythe, honey.”

Jayce grins, searching the crowd over their shoulders. Riley turns in time to see Blythe near the big house, giving Jayce a small wave before going inside. 

“I’m going for a walk,” Riley announces, the idea having only just occurred to her. It’s not a very good idea, it might even be an idea planted there by a desire to repeat certain actions until the desired result is achieved, but it seems like the best thing to do until everything wears off and she’s content to face the evening. So many things tied up in the assumption of this event, so many people, a few people in particular she isn’t sure how to be near.

“That’s very enterprising of you,” John calls after her, smirking under his sunglasses. “Look out for the moon.”






Halfway down the path along the water, Riley encounters what she assumes is the remains of the child confederacy John had so enthusiastically described, all of them in facepaint with balloons tied to their wrists, some of them with little butterfly nets and walking sticks. She pauses as though she has come across a group of feral animals, and they glance at her without much interest, disappearing again into the underbrush.

When she reaches the lakeshore, it appears two of the children have been left behind, and once she comes out from under the trees it’s clear that they are two children familiar to her: the twins.  

“Uh, hello.” 

The girl has the net over her shoulder; her brother is sitting on the ground, tapping his own net against a rock. “Hello,” they say, and then the girl - Christ, what are either of their names, Riley did unspeakable things in front of their bear - cocks her head. “You’re our mom’s friend.”

“Yes,” Riley says. “I’m Riley.”

“This is Magnus,” the girl gestures to her brother. “I’m Matilda.”

You’re kidding. But Riley nods, aware her own name is ‘Riley’ and Sloane is called, of course, ‘Sloane’, and smiles. “I just saw your friends down the trail.”

“They’re not our friends,” Matilda says.

“We just met them yesterday,” Magnus chimes in. “And they aren’t very nice.”

“They won’t allow us in the group anymore.”

Magnus taps a little more furiously with his net. “And we didn’t even do anything.”

“They said we look funny.”

“Because we chose butterflies for our faces.”

Matilda scowls, hands on her hips. She looks like her mother. “But we like butterflies best.”

“And there isn’t anything wrong with butterflies.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Riley remembers herself at this age, perhaps one of the last years of being socially accepted, never having to consider that a person might not be friendly, that someone might not approve, that she might someday be on the outside, always looking in. “Butterflies are really fantastic. They’ve definitely got the wrong idea about butterflies.”

“Yes,” Magnus says, getting to his feet. “We agree.”

“Can you take us down to the water?” Matilda points at the shore, a small beach in between the boulders that is merely three or so feet away. “We aren’t allowed to go in without a grown-up.”

“Sure.”

“Take your shoes off please,” Matilda instructs, removing her own and staring intensely at Riley until Riley steps out of her loafers, places them on the ground. “We want to catch minnows.”

“With your nets?”

Matilda blinks as though Riley’s grown a second head. Of course she means with their nets. “Yes.”

“Right, the obvious choice.”

“Can you help?”

Riley stares at the net in the girl’s hand, held out to her now with great expectation. She can see Sloane in that probing expression: the tiny narrowed eyes, her frown firm and unforgiving, her brow furrowed. 

“Yes.” She takes the net, rolls up her pants, and steps into the shallows. “I can absolutely help with that.”






 

“Matilda! Magnus!” It is unmistakably Sloane’s voice echoing through the woods, and unmistakably Sloane who emerges, breathless, and gasps at the current events just offshore: Magnus holding a jar heavy with water and a cloud of minnows, Matilda crouched next to Riley with her net poised, Riley absolutely soaked from having fallen not once but twice while trying to catch the glimmering flickers of fish. She gets to her feet, slapping hopelessly at her wet clothing, and Sloane cocks her head, mouth twitching. “You had me scared. I thought you were with the other children.”

“They aren’t very nice.” Riley says, and Matilda straightens, too, revealing what is in her net before depositing it in her brother’s jar.

“But it was okay because we found a grown-up,” she says, giving Riley a clear assessment and then nodding, smiling. “Riley has been helpful.”

Sloane’s arms fold across her chest, but she smirks a little, eyeing Riley. “I can see that. She’s clearly been very enthusiastic.”

“Riley doesn’t have very good balance,” Magnus says, but his grin is cheerful as he taps the jar. “But she is good at catching fish.”

Sloane’s mouth continues to flutter: her teeth appearing briefly to graze her bottom lip, each corner teasing at a smile before receding.  “An admirable skill.”

“And now we can eat these for dinner,” Magnus says, holding the jar aloft, only for Sloane and Riley to simultaneously cut in with a resounding no.

“We need to get ready for the reception,” Sloane says, gesturing to the twins, and they let out big childish sighs, stepping up out of the water and onto the shore in exaggerated movements befitting their age.

“But Aunt Harper and Aunt Abby aren’t even getting married,” Magnus says, the jar still sloshing between his hands until Riley delicately takes it from him.

“Yes, but Aunt Harper and Aunt Abby understand the value of a contract.” Sloane sees the jar in Riley’s hand. “Are we going to let the fish go home to their families?”

“We’re going to eat them,” Magnus starts, but Matilda cuts in.

“No, we’re going to put them back.” She stares at Riley, small hands on her hips. “Riley, you have to pour them out, you can’t keep them.” Then, unexpectedly, she smiles and pats Riley on the arm. “It’s okay, Riley. They have to go back to their friends. Don’t be sad.”

“Oh.” Riley summons up a morose expression, feigning indecision before crouching in the shallows, turning the jar over to release the water and captive minnows. “Thank you for that advice, Matilda. I feel less conflicted about it.”

“It was the right thing to do,” Matilda says, and then reaches out her hand. “Please hold my hand now. I’m tired.”

Sloane is watching them, raising her eyebrows at Riley with the most natural of smiles, and then turns to take the lead behind Magnus. And Riley takes Matilda’s hand and follows behind, her shoes squelching with each step, dripping down the trail.






 

It’s certainly not as awkward as it could be. 

Abby finally answers everyone’s texts, saying she’ll probably spend the night in town and needs some space but feels good, really good and relieved, and tells them to enjoy themselves, honestly, seriously, don’t let the DJ go to waste, and this does feel like permission to not be weird about it even if they all still feel weird about it. Riley calls her as she’s getting ready and they joke about how this is very strange and fucked - “dude, I’m literally doing my hair right now to go to your wedding reception and you are straight up sitting on a hotel balcony because you will not be attending” - and there are moments Riley can’t miss when Abby sometimes sounds more strained, a little soggy, and she tries to distract her with humor, relating how Jayce is still wearing Blythe’s hat and John has taken thirty minutes to put on one sock. 

“Listen,” she says, just as she senses the conversation slowing down. “If you don’t want to be alone, we can still come over. Me and the queerios or whoever you want to be there. Whatever you need, you just ask, okay?”

And Abby is quiet for a moment, not filling the gaps with nervous chatter like she usually does, and then sighs. Riley can picture her sucking in her bottom lip, fiddling with her mouth and chewing her nails as always. “I love you guys. I’m okay, though, really. Sloane and Jane have me set up in this ridiculous suite, and I kind of like the silence right now. I just...you know how it is there, I can’t get far enough away from anything to think about what comes next.”

“We could always drive you to another gas station. One with better ice cream selection.”

Abby snorts. “Yeah, I’ll let you know. Go dance or something.”

“I don’t dance, Abby.”

“Pretend I have asked you to dance as a favor to alleviate my suffering. And don’t tell me to fuck off, dude, because I am definitely the champion of going through it right now, no other contenders. Go dance.”

So she does, sort of. There is a whole lot of alcohol and an open bar and beneath the finest quality tent that had been erected around noon and occupied by eight, what starts as slightly strange vibes devolves into people getting their uncertain feelings fully exorcised, and in time, even with the Caldwell patriarch and matriarch absent, even with the former brides gone, which is surely the best thing for them, the party might even pass for fun. Riley has another cocktail whose romantic Abby-Harper-centric name has been replaced with a numeral assignment - this is the Number Six, though it was probably previously something foul like ‘Pittsburgh Date Night’ - and Jayce yanks her out onto the floor with the rest of the ‘friends of the brides’ and leads them all in a lot of gyrating to Robyn. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Sloane in some kind of intense conversation with the DJ, and slowly, subtly dances in that direction, making her way towards them without a lot of grace but decent intent.

“But this track is from their playlist, too,” Sloane is saying as Riley approaches, gesturing to the DJ’s laptop. “And at this point we don’t want to hear any of that. Do you have some sort of generic mix you just throw on in case of...suddenly generic events?”

“Ying Yang Twins.” Riley leans across the DJ booth, grinning at Sloane and the DJ. “Only play Ying Yang Twins. If you must branch out, only Dirty South rap for the rest of the night.”

The DJ shrugs. “I can do that.”

Sloane puts an arm out across Riley’s chest, although the expression she’s making twists it into a playful gesture, one that is willing to give in a little. “Please ignore her.”

“But I really can do that.”

Riley gives him a thumbs up. “Excellent, carry on.”

“No,” Sloane cuts in. “Do not carry on. Please play something else. Whatever you play for weddings.”

“I play a lot of things for weddings,” he says.

“Like I said, generic, genre-spanning, generation-hopping wedding reception playlist. That is all I ask.”

In another minute, as Riley has retreated towards the bar with that heat in the pool of her stomach and the DJ hunched over his computer again, Sloane catches up to her, brushes against her briefly, just long enough for Riley’s elbow to register the warm clench of Sloane’s fingers.

“You’re very unhelpful, Bennett,” Sloane says, and even though she’s frowning and her eyebrow is raised, Riley knows Sloane well enough by now - which is not to say well at all but also very well, really very well -  that she can see the smirk in her eyes, the playfulness in the way her cheek has been sucked.

“I’m only helpful where fish are concerned.”

“So I’ve learned.” Sloane looks her up and down, a gesture not lost on Riley. “You’re bonding with my kids now, is that it?”

“They roped me into it.”

“They’re very good at that.”

“The apples don't fall far from the tree, I think.” She orders her drink, pauses so Sloane can tell her what she wants - a drink, that is - and then allows her expression to fall into more serious territory. “How are you?”

“How am I?” Sloane snorts. “I’m currently attending the alternate universe version of the reception I planned, all for a wedding that will never happen, which is for the best, certainly, but does not make this process any smoother.” She accepts the cocktail from the bartender - Number Five, probably ‘Love Wins’ or something awful - and takes a sip. “And I’m supposed to be enjoying myself because I was specifically asked to, but I’m terrible at pretending.”

“Are you?”

“Yes, Bennett.” A pointed look. “I am.”

Riley glances around the crowded tent, finally ridding itself of its previously nervous energy. “Your folks aren’t here.”

“No, they’re not. This may actually be the thing that pushes them over the edge and into therapy.” Sloane raises an eyebrow. “Either that or Tipper climbs up to the attic and never comes down. She might be there now, wailing out the window.”

“Stranger things have happened, I guess.”

“They have indeed. We’re standing in one of them now.” She balances against the nearest chair, the tables still decorated with the approved decorations, the favors still lined up at each seat. Sloane opens one of the bags up and pulls out a selection of truffles, offering it to Riley. “Ignore that a personal message from the brides is embossed on the back of the box.”

Riley holds up her free hand. “I’m good. These souvenirs are going to be worth a whole lot on eBay next week.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, this feels like a world first, right? Cancelling the wedding on the day of the wedding but still holding the reception.”

Sloane’s expression shifts, her gaze drifting towards the rest of the tent. “I doubt this is a first of any kind. Last minute departures are common in love.”

Riley asks the question before she can regret it. “Do you think they were in love?”

Sloane looks at her, eyes narrowing, but her mouth is pulled into an unfamiliar line, not quite a frown. “Yes, I think so. Not now, maybe, but at some point, they were in love.” Sloane blinks. “Do you not believe in love, Bennett?”

“I believe in love.” She downs the remains of her drink, which is actually more than half of her drink, a long swallow that deprives her of air but feels necessary all the same, and then nods towards the back of the tent. “I’ve got to, uh...use the...”

“Sure,” Sloane says, shrugging, but she’s watching her with that intensity again, everything else fading, and Riley has to turn away to break the gaze, the only way.

Behind the tent she goes, the crickets singing beneath the thud of bass, the night outside the reception cooler and lit only by the far lamps of the porch, a brief respite. And then she sees her.

Shit.

Harper is crouching there, awkwardly digging through the box of wine. She is wearing some kind of loungewear, her hair up, her makeup off: as un-Harper as she could be.

“Oh,” she says, straightening to her real height, looking down at Riley. Riley recalls why she has never dated anyone taller than her since.

“Sorry.” She takes a step backwards, but Harper reaches out her hand, gesturing for her to stop.

“Riley.” 

She smiles in awkward acknowledgment. “Hey Harper.”

“Am I a bad person?”

Oh Christ. Riley pauses the automatic response her face wants to make. She holds very still before shaking her head. “Yeah, look, I’m just not really the one to —“

“I’m sorry for everything I did to you. I’m sorry that I'm like this.”

“I hear you, but not right now, okay?”

“Do you forgive me?”

“Oh boy.” She sucks air in through her teeth. “Honestly, I feel like it’s been more than a literal decade and we are both better off just moving on.”

“No, it’s not about moving on. I want your forgiveness, Riley.”

“Harper, look.”

“Forgive me, Riley. Please.”

“I don’t care about all that anymore. If anything, I came out of it feeling sorry for you.”

Harper sniffs, only for her brow to curdle in clear confusion. “You feel sorry for me?”

“I mean, right now, definitely. But even then, yeah.”

“Why?” 

She sighs. “You cut a pretty pathetic figure. All that fear you bottled up. Hurting me didn’t make you happy.”

“I don’t think I was that pathetic.”

“Okay.” Riley holds up her hands, taking another step back. “Look, I can’t imagine how difficult this is right now--”

“Really fucking difficult, Riley.”

“Right, exactly. Dredging up this ancient shit won’t help, Harper.”

And now Harper does something fairly unexpected: she lets out a gasping sob, her face crinkles, and she begins to silently cry, tears descending to her open mouth.

“Oh dear,” Riley says, calculating the best way to exit this scenario, but Harper’s shoulders are shaking violently and she’s covering her face, now twice as pathetic as Riley had earlier intimated, and Riley is struck by the memory of Harper across a classroom, deep into the days of pretending not to know her, glancing at Riley when she thought she wouldn’t notice, turning red when she did, and at the time, Riley had thought Harper was only finding a new way to be cruel, but now she thinks that Harper was regretful and ashamed and had never been taught how to apologize, and while it doesn’t make any of it right, while it remains so very wrong, she thinks it’s very sad. And so she steps forward, shaking her head before she does it, and gives Harper a tight embrace. “I will give you one single hug, okay? And then I’m going to step away, but I will give you this hug. I’m just stating my boundaries here.”

Harper continues to cry in her arms, a bleak physical thing, and Riley counts backwards from ten, and then steps away. She bites her lip, continuing to not quite know how to stand as witness to this spectacle, settling on her arms crossed at her chest.

“You’re not a bad person, Harper, because no one is a bad person, everyone can choose to do good things even after they’ve done bad things.” She sighs. “But you should really be fucking nicer to Sloane."

Harper sniffs, the crying currently exhausted, wiping at the wet of her face. She blinks at Riley. “Okay.”

“Can I...can I do anything for you?”

“No,” Harper says. She is staring intensely at the wine bottle in her fist before finally rubbing at her face again. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything for me. That’s not fair.” 

And then there’s Jane ‘Deus Ex Machina’ Caldwell coming around the other side of the tent, taking in this scene with a generous heap of confused expressions, her smile changing to a frown before warping to a slightly open mouth, brows constricting to match each new revelation of emotion. “Harper,” she starts, and her tone is that of someone coming across a toddler who has gotten into the paint. “This feels like a bad idea, Harper,” she says, removing the wine bottle from her sister’s hands and setting it back into the box. She glances at Riley, gives her an apologetic look before turning her sister towards the house.

Riley watches them disappear around the corner, her stomach slightly sour. “Fuck,” she says to absolutely no one, or perhaps to herself, perhaps it’s with Riley Bennett that Riley must converse. She is reminded again of the need to decide what she wants. Feels the question rushing up her spine before she shakes it off, goes in search of what are probably excellent portapotties.






 

The night progresses, peaks around midnight, everyone thoroughly sloshed and enthused by the occasion they are so actively trying to forget. And through this Riley watches Sloane sometimes appear, never to dance, rarely with a drink in hand, seemingly only to check in on certain things, or to sit at the tables, staring into the crowd. Jane joins her at times, but then she, too, is pulled into the group and Jane’s smiles are infectious and it’s easy to see how the rest of the tent ripples with the after effects of her laughing presence, everyone relaxing a bit because Jane Caldwell is having a good time, and so should they. And the hours pass like this, charged but tiring out, until people disperse and return to their beds, and the tent begins to empty out, and finally it is only these friends of the bride spinning and sometimes falling onto the dance floor, pushing into the early hours.

And it is at this time that Riley sees Sloane leave the tent, and so Riley follows, as she was always going to do tonight, as she probably knew when she woke up this morning.

Sloane has entered the back room where caterers and bartender were previously occupied, a flap of canvas between this space and the dancefloor. She’s not actually doing anything - her back is to Riley, her hands are on her hips, and then they are going to her face, rubbing at the sides of her head, kneading her temples.

“Hey,” Riley says, and Sloane gives the smallest, mousiest sound, so incredibly unlike Sloane, as she turns. 

“Jesus,” she says, palm pressed flat to her collar. Riley hasn’t told her yet, and maybe she won’t, maybe that will cross lines they keep trying to remap, but Sloane looks beautiful tonight.

“Sorry.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes.”

“Then what are you doing, Bennett?”

What is she doing, really? She runs her hands through her own hair, pushes it back as she takes a deep breath. “Do you want to dance?”

“Do I…” Sloane’s mouth remains open even as her words fade, her tongue visible as it rolls, and then she holds out her hand, expectation lit across all of her features. “You lead.”

So she does, or at least she tries to, and it’s easy enough to dance to the tracks the DJ has left for this final hour, sappy tracks that are probably reserved for wedding dances, but here they are, circling each other to the Bee Gees of all things, trying not to internalize the lyrics - Riley decides it is not the time to contemplate how deep their love is, or to bring that word into it at all.

The music slows and grows steadier, Riley making a face as it transitions into an old Nat King Cole standard she has no idea how to dance to - quizas, quizas, quizas, indeed, as in “quizas she can’t move to this”. But Sloane holds tight to her hand, Sloane’s hips switch with professional precision to the tempo, and they fall into a loose cha-cha, if Riley was going to call it anything at all. The warmth of Sloane’s waist under her palm, the feeling of her weight pressing into Riley’s grip before swaying to the other side: Riley looks down at her and feels foolish for even entertaining the idea that they could just tie things up here and move on to the level of acquaintances. 

“I want us to be friends.”

Sloane’s hip pauses in its pendulum, delayed within the other woman’s curved fingers even as the beat continues without them. “Oh.” 

“I think if we choose to be friends, we take the pressure off everything else.” She lets her fingers fan over Sloane’s waist, pulling her slightly closer. It’s an automatic gesture she barely notices until it’s too late. “What do you think?”

“I think that’s an acceptable proposal.” The muscles in Sloane’s neck tighten; Riley can see the shadows elongate against the orange light that has settled on her skin, knows how it would feel to press her hand there, the tendons rippling beneath. “Yes. Fine. We can be friends.”

“Friends without benefits, just to clarify.”

Sloane’s mouth twitches into a frown. “That’s an unnecessary clarification. I think making this platonic would be the whole point of reducing it to a friendship.”

“Is it a reduction?”

Sloane makes a soft sound in her throat. “Fine. Poor wording. Relegation or reassignment.”

“If anything we might see more of each other because it won’t just be about…” She is now hesitant to even say the word in the wake of this decision.

“Was it previously only about sex?”

Riley swallows. “I don’t know.”

“Well, it might be wise to have an answer to that question now that we are entering this new stage. I’d hope you have enough evidence to form one.” Sloane steps forward again, leaning into the dance as the music picks up, Riley following even as she is leading. “Alright, you and I are just friends. Let’s consider that commenced.”

“Maybe I should find something to drink and we can toast to it.”

“Oh, there is so much surplus alcohol, you wouldn’t have to look far.”

And they don’t - just behind them is a crate of very good quality Scotch and Riley fills an empty champagne flute with it, rules for glassware be damned. Sloane extends her own flute without even the slightest hesitation, allowing Riley to top her off, and then lifts her hand. 

“To friendship.”

“To an uncomplicated friendship.” She downs her flute in a single swig, swallowing the urge to slightly choke. Looks Sloane in the eye as she winces, immediately banishing the flood of additional thoughts that accompany the act of looking at this woman, and smiles. “We can do this.”

“We can.” Sloane’s voice is lowered to a whisper, barely audible above the music, but she is smiling with her eyes, that rarest of expressions as she closes the space between them, drops her head onto Riley’s shoulder for this last dance. “We can have an uncomplicated platonic friendship.”

Reader, they could not.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

THREE MONTHS LATER

 

 

 

 

“My neighbor’s doing that thing again.” Riley pauses, and Sloane’s face stills on the Facetime, both of them falling silent to hear The Thing The Neighbor Does, which is better described as a rhythm of thuds in quick succession, followed by a finale of what sound very much like slaps on bare flesh.

“It’s a sex thing,” Sloane says.

“But he’s alone. I don’t hear any other voices.”

“One can be alone and do sexual things, Bennett.”

Oh, she’s aware, Sloane. “He could be working out.”

“It’s not a workout I’m familiar with.”

“There’s no moaning.”

Sloane’s eyes roll. “I wasn’t aware that moaning is a required noise for intercourse.”

“He’s not making any noises that indicate pleasure.”

“Such as?” 

Riley smirks at Sloane’s expression; Sloane is semi-distracted, her phone propped up somewhere in her home office so she can chat while she works, but even while Sloane types, her eyes on her computer screen, Riley can see the slightest movement of tongue in her mouth, that sweet hint of a tease. Riley allows herself the indulgence of this flirtation. “Well, some women whine, for example.”

Sloane’s hands freeze over the keyboard. She turns to face the phone screen directly, that frown tinted with challenge. And then it slides to one side, her eyes giving everything away: Sloane is charmed. It’s reckless to provoke after all these boundaries they’ve so expertly erected, but it’s clear as day. “I see. And as whining doesn’t typically travel through walls, you might not hear it. Disproving your argument that the lack of pleasurable noise automatically denies the possibility that this is a sex thing.”

“Who says whines don’t travel through walls? Your neighbor?”

Sloane’s gaze returns to her work, but the smirk is intact. “We were talking about your neighbor, Bennett, not mine.”

“No further questions, Your Honor.”

“That’s not how that works.”

“Well, I am not the half of this conversation that attended law school. I was only slumming it in med school.”

“Eleanor must be so proud.”

“Oh, I think there is one glaring way in which she is utterly disappointed.”

“Any way of fixing that?”

“Not without electroshock therapy.”

“I hate to tell you this, Bennett, but that doesn’t actually work.”

“Is that so? Wow. How disappointing.”

And Sloane is quick as ever, barely batting an eye as she continues to type at her own work. “As a medical professional, you really should know that.”

“I’m very stupid.”

“Of the many things I could call you, Bennett, ‘stupid’ is not one of them.”

“Tell me more about these many things. Name three of them.”

Sloane smiles wickedly. “No.”

“That’s very withholding, Sloane.”

“I do have a knack for it.” There's a muffled sound on Sloane’s end, and her attention goes somewhere over the camera, brow furrowing. “One second.” She stands up, leaving the phone with a view of her office, obscured suddenly by the appearance of Matilda, who is now climbing into her mother’s chair.

“Bonjour Riley.” Matilda and her brother have been enrolled in French classes since their fourth birthday; Riley has learned that Magnus has little interest in French and much prefers his piano lessons, but Matilda is a devoted student, intensely committed to a future of bilingualism.  Matilda smirks at Riley; Riley winks back. 

Riley has never taken a stand on the concept of children: in her dreamier and less-grounded moments, she has imagined the possibility of parenting the same way she might imagine purchasing an endangered architectural work and restoring it. Potentially a lovely and fulfilling experience, but a lot of work. Past partners bringing up the subject have tended to spell the beginning of the end, as Known Commitment-Avoider Riley Bennett could, at the time, think of no greater commitment than committing to the partnered creation and shaping of a human life. In the wake of her usual act of getting antsy and breaking things off, women have accused her of being devoid of maternal instincts, among other things, and she has never disagreed with them. Never tried to defend herself on that particular field. She cannot keep a plant alive, after all, and she has never had a pet, a matter of circumstance but further evidence, apparently, of her true under-nurturing nature. No, she has never imagined herself to be someone good with kids, but along came Matilda and Magnus, two more surprises from the direction of truly unexpected Sloane. 

Magnus is unflappably positive about Riley, always eager to show her a recent acquisition from his ‘interesting rocks of Central Park’ collection, or a new piece of music on the piano - Riley didn’t even have to play up her shock at his command of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Matilda is quieter than her brother, serious the way her mother is serious, earnest like Sloane, too, with a soft spot for Riley. Anything that Riley does that Matilda catches news of seems to awe her; Sloane says Matilda is now asking about picking up dry cleaning or making bruschetta, activities she would like to do because Riley does them, and what Riley does, Matilda wants to do, too.

“Bonjour Matilda.”

Matilda adjusts the phone, nearly dropping it before setting it at her height on the desk. “Comment allez-vous ?”

“If I’m honest, ça pourrait être pire.” 

Matilda blinks at her. “Riley, that’s not what you’re supposed to say.”

“Why not?”

“You have to say ‘bien, merci’ or it isn’t right.”

“But what if I’m not bien?”

Matilda’s face scrunches into the distilled skepticism that can only be expressed by a child. “No, that’s not right. You are bien, Riley.”

Sloane reappears, requisitioning her chair and lifting Matilda onto her lap. “We can’t tell other people how they feel, Matilda.”

Matilda looks up at her mother, clearly dissatisfied with this revelation, all seriousness. “Why not?”

“Well, we don’t always know how they feel, do we? Not unless they tell us. And even then, that might not be the truth.”

“That means they’re lying.” Matilda sighs; a deeply logical child, much of the world that does not follow the rules is a disappointment to Matilda.  “But Riley wasn’t lying, was she?”

“I’d agree. I think she’s practiced at emotional honesty.”

“Emotional honesty.” Matilda looks up at her mother. “What does that mean?”

“It means we can rely on her to tell the truth about her feelings.” Sloane gives the camera a sharp slice of a smile. “Matilda, did you know that Riley lived in Paris for a year?”

Matilda’s eyes go wide. “In France?”

“Well, one hopes. The alternative is Texas.”

“Yes, it was Paris, France.” Riley smirks. “And it was only a semester, not a full year. I ended up coming back after winter break.”

“What was so dire in Western Massachusetts that you couldn’t allow yourself a year in Paris?”

Dyke drama is the technical answer, but not appropriate for present younger company. “Take a wild guess.”

Sloane’s arranged her arms in such a way that she can return to typing on her computer while Matilda remains in place. She lifts a single eyebrow as she does so. “A few scenarios come to the imagination.”

“I’m sure at least one of them is very accurate.”

“Oh, I hope not.” Sloane glances back at the camera. “Did your neighbor stop?”

They both pause, listening, including Matilda, who looks up at her mother and then at Riley with intense curiosity, never one to be left out of the conversation. Riley whistles. “Sounds like his exercise is over.”

“One could say he finished.”

“With his workout.”

“It was vigorous, yes.” Sloane looks into the camera again. “You know that I’m right, Bennett.”

“Objection, Your Honor.”

“Again, not how that works.”

“Look, all I know how to do is perform surgeries. I’m useless.”

“You aren’t useless, Riley.” Matilda looks very concerned at Riley’s self-condemnation. “You are useful.”

“Merci, Matilda. Merci beaucoup.”

Matilda smiles, and above her halo of curls, Sloane smiles identically; on the younger Caldwell, it’s a smile of pride, but on the mother, it could mean too many things, all of them very good, which is precisely the problem.

 

 

 

 

 

The platonic friendship has been a success, technically speaking, at least when put in the terms of its platonic nature: they have not had sex with each other since coming to the agreement. 

‘With each other’ is an important qualifier, of course. If Sloane has found herself sexually occupied with someone who is not Riley, Riley is not privy to that information, and Riley is nearly sure that she doesn’t want to be privy. She will elect out of that particular newsletter for now. It’s a newsletter that would lead only to intentional papercuts, she thinks.

On her own end, there has been one hookup, yes: a situation named Ashley or Ashton or something similar, and a familiar impulse that lingered past their first meeting at a friend’s party, but the lingering only lasted for a total of one hour, after which Riley gave a false last name before leaving the woman’s apartment, forgetting that they’d met through a mutual friend who would absolutely know Riley’s surname and inevitably ruin that escape plan. There was nothing wrong with Ashley or Ashton. She was Riley’s usual type - strikingly feminine, a little or a lot straight, someone who flirted by way of a teasing that skirted the edge of mean - and she had scratched the old itch, appearing at just the right time on a night when Riley was the kind of lonely that could pass for self-loathing. She hadn’t even wanted to go to the party. Abby had given her a hard time over text about avoiding the event -  “I know you’re not skipping a sexy night out to watch TLC in your sweats, dude” - as did Jayce - “you really want to pass up free booze? probably free smoke?? gorgeous babes????? ur a dummy, pal…” 

And then she’d gone and Ashley or Ashton had appeared about midway through her second glass of wine, and she thought that it had been a while, not that she was calculating everything based on how long it had been since Maine, or worse, since New York, no, certainly not, and Ashley or Ashton was negging her about the pantsuit, and Riley recognized what was happening: Ashley or Ashton was hitting on her, vaguely, maybe even badly, but enough that Riley knew someone was showing interest, and it had been a month since Maine, and almost three months since New York, and Riley wasn’t in New York right now, and she didn’t have any plans to be in New York tomorrow, and there was a chance Sloane was currently in New York at a party having someone show similar interest in her, and there was an equal chance that Sloane was accepting their flirtation, leaning into it the way she did with that vicious smirk of hers, that tight-fisted smile that loaded her secrets like bullets, spun them like a revolver, and Riley felt the vision of Sloane’s hand on someone else’s lapel like the barrel of a gun pressed into her forehead, she pressed back as if she wanted the vision to break her skin, and then Ashley or Ashton got bolder, a little intense, and Riley kissed her in the kitchen of her friend’s penthouse, up against a very nice black refrigerator that could digitally represent its contents. They activated the refrigerator as they kissed against it. Behind Ashley or Ashton’s head, the sudden apparition of a carton of eggs and a sad jar of Grey Poupon, and a robotic voice announcing eggs, mustard ; Riley committed herself to the scenario, almost grateful for how deeply unromantic it was, how there was no way to mistake it for the start of something. When they’d gone back to the other woman’s apartment, Riley had avoided conversation, answering only to various commands, finding the switches in each room they passed and dutifully turning out every light, pleased at the complete darkness. Maybe Ashley or Ashton would forget what she looked like. Maybe she’d never get a good-enough look, actually, and remember Riley as a blonde, and all of this would evaporate in the morning. It wasn’t even fucking, really, or at least not Riley’s definition of it, nothing that needed to be washed off. Afterwards, Ashley or Ashton had lit a very expensive candle and sleepily patted the other side of the bed; Riley had introduced herself as Riley Smith and then ordered a car for immediate exit.

She recalls the Lyft home: a sudden urge for a cigarette as though she were 25 again, that dry yearn in her throat, and the square-faced current of Baltimore’s rowhouses, turning blue along their bricks as the dawn followed Riley’s tired gaze. She had been exhausted and wide awake all at once, nauseous like she always was when she disturbed her sleep patterns, aware that her clothes smelled like this woman’s apartment and the reason she wanted a cigarette, the reason she wanted one now and had always wanted one back then at 25, was to erase the scent of the night so that she didn’t have to carry it home with her. 

Never mind that after New York, she had chosen not to immediately wash Sloane’s perfume from her things; she’d dragged her feet about laundry, she’d dawdled over a pile of unwashed clothes for far too long. Additionally, never mind that while she was not morally opposed to casual sex, maybe even preferred it half the time, that usual urge to leave and not spend the night and get out of Dodge before there were any casualties had not been observed with Sloane. It had been strange, and now, back in her habits, back to the same old, the difference became even more obvious. 

But never mind all that, really, because she had to stop herself while she was ahead. Riley needed to deal with the knowledge that she, Riley, was entirely her own person, capable of making her own decisions, and that this sudden liaison had been her decision, her call. As had this friendship. Sloane Caldwell had nothing to do with her current sex life. 

Oh, yes. It is all very uncomplicated. 

Riley Bennett has spent most of her life committed to making things difficult for herself, and Sloane Caldwell is a human anvil, a human guillotine, Sloane Caldwell is hard and honed in exactly the right ways, but for whatever reason, this thing between them is weightless, natural as an instinct. So easy it hurts.

But they are friends, as agreed upon, and it is uncomplicated. Extremely uncomplicated.

 

 

 

 

 

Did you get the recipe I just sent you?

Yes, but not the hint I assume it represents.

It’s a breakfast bowl.

I am suggesting that you make it.

Why do I feel like the suggestion is actually an instruction?

I am concerned about your nutrition, Bennett.

My food is nutritious.

You eat an unbelievable amount of pasta.

Not for breakfast.

Liar.

Fine.

I am always suspicious of ‘bowls’.

We’re putting honey in these. 

We’re?

I am also making the recipe.

What else do I need?

Fruit.

Various types of grains.

Please refer to the recipe.

Disgusting.

I hate knowing that you are a medical professional.

I should report you.

You wouldn’t.

Check your cupboard for the ingredients or I’ll threaten you with a Postmate.

Did you wake up bossy today?

No.

It’s my nature.

Matilda is helping.

She says...bonjour.

And don’t make me relay a message to her in French, because you know I don’t speak French.

Right, you only know three other languages.

Overachiever.

Get out your fruit, Bennett.

 

 

 

 

 

Riley hasn’t made many friends in Baltimore, at least not the ones she’d consider ‘activity partners’ or whatever millennials are meant to be labeling that category of acquaintances. She has the excuse of work, but it’s been a conscious choice, too, she knows that. Trust issues. Avoiding vulnerability. Other things her therapist congratulates her for recognizing while reminding her that being aware of why one does something is not the final step, one must also choose to correct the action. To which Riley tends to shrug and nod knowing full well she will not correct the action. 

It’s hard to tell if Sloane has socially adjusted to New York; Riley has yet to determine exactly where Sloane’s needs lie when it comes to human interactions. Jane visits. A few college friends in the city have come up in conversation, and she’s been attending the kind of events that are expected of someone like Sloane, though far fewer than she had in Boston. If anything dominates her calendar, it’s the twins, and Riley suspects this is exactly how Sloane likes it.

So, from time to time, Riley calls Sloane. Or Sloane calls Riley. The occasions tend to be unclear. Sometimes Sloane is in the middle of preparing dinner and wants Riley to decide if she should use a smoked bittersweet paprika or a traditional paprika. Sometimes Riley is on her way home and exhausted and wants to know how Sloane’s meeting went with her more difficult client (‘very well’ is the answer, because Sloane is nothing if not an expert at handling difficult people). Tonight, Riley wants a film recommendation.

“Okay, but you absolutely need to see Wong Kar-wai’s work.”

“I thought you called me for a recommendation. Now you’re giving instructions, Bennett.”

“Well, if you’re free, it could be your lucky night.” Riley begins scrolling through the list of films in her library, sprawled on the couch. “ In the Mood for Love is streaming, and I'll rewatch that any day.”

There is a pause. “I’m meeting someone for dinner, actually.”

“I thought you weren’t dating.” She means it as a joke, a riff on that first drink they had six months ago in New York, but the moment Riley’s introduced the concept she regrets it. 

“Well,” Sloane starts, and then there is another pause, another long inhale and exhale. “Technically, I am not, no. He is a friend of a friend, and this appears to be something they have discussed frequently in the past. Them setting him up with me, I mean. So I am entertaining the situation for this evening, but I will not be fully indulging him.”

“In what?”

“The assumption that it is a date.” Sloane sighs, though it is not a sigh of exasperation; rather she sounds uncharacteristically flustered, even nervous. “Should we have discussed this? I feel like this is something we should have laid out beforehand.”

“Well, we did. Platonic friendship. That is a label that lays things out.”

“Have you been seeing anyone?”

The blonde immunologist they keep setting her up with, no. Nor the ex-neighbor who she ghosted after two coffees and two drinks and a swift departure in the direction of a feigned medical emergency she wouldn’t have been needed at anyway. It was all rather cowardly. “Yes,” she lies, though it is only half a lie, she thinks. Ashley or Ashton must count for something. 

“Oh. I see.” Sloane’s tone arches in the middle; Riley can picture an identical movement of Sloane’s spine, particularly when she is on the edge of a certain sensation. “And how’s that going?”

Riley immediately regrets her previous answer. “It hasn’t been anything serious. There was this woman but it was just...” No, she doesn’t need to get into that now. “And I’ve had a few coffee dates.”

“Coffee dates.” The way Sloane says the two words, it is impossible to tell if she is casting doubt on the concept or stating her approval. It is an entirely neutral tone.

“And maybe we have evolved past coffee dates as a generation—“

Sloane snorts. “You think, Bennett?”

“So all of your dates are at night.”

“All of them.” Sloane rolls her eyes, Riley is sure of it; she doesn’t need to see the gesture to know it’s on the other end of the phone, weighing on her tone. “All one of them, yes. This is the first and only.”

“So you admit this is a date.”

“It is dinner with someone who potentially wants to date me and has been doggedly persistent.”

“It’s a date.”

“I think both parties have to be mutually interested in—“

“It’s a date.” Riley suppresses the sigh that overcomes her. “And that’s not something we need to be weird about, for the record.”

“Yes, this exchange has been completely normal until now. Not weird at all.”

Riley can picture Sloane’s raised eyebrow, an expression she is sure the other woman is making many hundreds of miles north of her right now. She sees Sloane in front of her mirror, Riley on speakerphone on the vanity, and she imagines Sloane putting up her hair, the slow application of her lipstick between words. The cool intimacy of the ritual, something only Riley is sharing with her, even by voice and a considerable distance. She wonders what Sloane’s wearing, if she fretted over her choices, if she removed a dress after self-critique and stared for a while at the clothing laid out on her bed, brow furrowed, one knuckle between her teeth. Wonders if Sloane chose tonight’s outfit because it could substitute as armor, or because it presents her in a very particular light, a single slice isolated for the easiest consumption of her person.

“What does he look like?”

“I have no idea.” 

“Do you know his name?”

“Peter.”

“Peter what?”

“Earlton. No, wait.” Sloane catches herself. “Bennett, don’t you dare Google him right now.”

Riley pretends she hasn’t just typed his name into the search engine. “Right, like you haven’t already run a background check.”

“I haven’t.”

“And you don’t want to know his general appearance? I could pull up a photo and give you a description.” She leans into it, the feeling of envy that can pass for humor right now. “I can be very descriptive.”

“I don’t care what he looks like.”

“Really? He could be your type.”

“What’s my type, Bennett?”

“I recall that your high school boyfriends all fit a similar profile.”

One of those rare laughs. “Oh, of course. The way I dated at sixteen and seventeen is obviously identical to the way I date now. My taste is utterly unevolved. You’ve done it, Bennett. You’ve figured me out.”

“Some people are predictable, Sloane.”

“Am I predictable?”

Well, sometimes, which is really the problem, isn’t it? “I abstain.”

She can practically hear the smirk in Sloane’s voice. “That’s what I thought.” There’s another pause, and this time a more drawn out exhale, and Riley imagines Sloane looking at herself in the mirror again, appraising herself, judging what she sees. “I have no idea why I’m doing this.”

“What?”

But it’s clear that was not meant for Riley, and Sloane’s tone cools, loses its simmer. Back to business. “I need to put together the binder for the babysitter.” 

“You could probably just prop me up on Facetime to watch the twins for a few hours. I’m sure Magnus has enough recital pieces to last the length of a date, Matilda’s got those vocabulary words she’s only halfway through. I’m dead cheap, too.”

“You’re joking, but I know they’d prefer that scenario more than anything. Including this babysitter I am paying an exorbitant amount to scroll on her phone while they sleep.”

“I’m sure her recommendations were flawless.”

“They were.” There’s a longer pause than before. “I think I’m about to ask a very stupid question…”

Riley pulls the phone up onto her knee, sprawls even further back into her couch cushions, eyes pressed shut. “Doubtful.”

“Do you want to know how it goes?”

Oh, she wants to know anything Sloane wants to share with her, it’s only the worst urge in Riley’s arsenal. “‘It’ being the date?”

“I don’t want to tell you something you don’t want to hear. I’m trying to be…” Sloane appears to be choosing her words carefully. “Considerate of our history.”

And it is kind, Riley thinks, for Sloane to be...considerate, as she calls it, and Riley would love to be granted this kindness, she would love to have the cushion of ignorance to wake up to tomorrow morning, and Sloane is handing it to her, an act of consideration, and Riley can feel herself already leaning against it and being dissatisfied with the dull nature, that miniature streak of masochism pressing through to her surface.

“No, it’s fine. You can tell me about it if you want. I think it’s weirder if you treat me differently than any other friend.”

“But you’re not like my other friends.” It’s a factual statement, not a plea. “You are different, Bennett. I have never thought that choosing to make things platonic erases the rest of it.”

“The rest of it.”

“Yes. The rest of it.” There’s the hard tap of Sloane’s phone being set down somewhere, her voice growing more distant as she steps away. “Yes, Mommy looks pretty tonight, thank you, back to bed. Magnus, I’m serious. Thank you.” 

Riley smirks in spite of herself. “So Mommy looks pretty tonight?”

Sloane’s voice returns. “She might, though she would insist that outside of a certain pair of twins, she is never to be called by that title again.”

“Goodnight, Sloane.”

“Goodnight, Bennett.”

“Good luck.”

“Do I need luck?”

“No.” She suppresses an exhale. “No, you’ll be just fine.”

 

 

 

 

Sloane never tells her how it goes. The name doesn’t come up again, the date is never recounted to Riley via text or phone call, there is no dish session that most female friends would share over brunch or drinks, cackling into their hands.

Sloane has made an executive decision to spare her the details. A week passes and Riley feels slightly stupid for not seeing the obvious: that Sloane recognized that tendency towards psychological self-harm in the other woman a long time ago, and knows better than to hand her something useful. A story like this one would have had a recognizable edge, or if it wasn’t enough, Riley would have found a way to sharpen it for herself. 

Well, she has her ways. When the phone call had ended, Riley hadn’t closed out of the search for his name. Instead, she’d gone through the man’s very professional LinkedIn, found the photos of him on an ex-wife’s public Instagram, still tagged, no digging necessary. All done within two clicks. She’d stared at his broad shoulders, his white polo tucked into belted jeans, the Gucci loafers, the Audemars, the dinner at Frankie’s with his daughters, slightly older than the twins but still young, still a subject he could relate to Sloane on their date. There were his girls, kneeling in jewel green grass in Montauk. There he was with his ex-wife, his hand tight on her waist, cordial but clear-intentioned.

And it’d occurred to her then, a pointless question: had she ever held Sloane by the waist? Not unless it was during…but that couldn’t count, could it? That was different.

No, of course she hadn’t held her waist. They’d never touched in public, not like this, not in a way that was meant to show the other one off. Not in a way that proved something.

She’d put her phone down after fifteen minutes had passed, admitting to herself that it was enough, and it was fucking stupid, and it was all very uncomplicated. More than that, it made sense. He made sense. Peter Earlton in the white polo and Gucci loafers made sense for Sloane Caldwell. It was easy to see Sloane’s slim waist in his hand, her small form pressed against his broader one as they posed for a photo, their blended family on the second porch of his summer house. He was vaguely decent-looking, well-kept, just bland enough to agree with Sloane’s severity, to offset all her edges and her toothless smiles and her final word on decisions. Yes, Riley had thought, this was a good move for Sloane, a good match, even, and if she were any other kind of friend, she’d encourage Sloane, send her cheeky texts, remind her of how perfect it is that he happens to be single at the same time as Sloane, that he’s a family man and independently wealthy and part of all the right circles, isn’t that too perfect, and if Riley were any other kind of friend, she’d be happy for Sloane, giddy for her, she’d make everyone toast the occasion at brunch. 

But Riley isn’t that kind of friend. Riley is the kind of friend who first tasted Sloane minutes after they’d stepped into Sloane’s unlit apartment, who narrowly missed toppling the twins’ amateur chemistry set to push Sloane up against her living room wall, Riley’s thigh slipping naturally between Sloane’s legs and Sloane settling there with no hint of gentility, grinding with a practiced and desperate rhythm, the direness of her nature fast revealing itself as she’d hooked her arm around Riley’s neck and pulled her head down until their cheeks were stuck together, Sloane’s breath ragged where it met Riley’s ear, Sloane’s throat blooming with soft noises of fury while Riley pinned her there, almost afraid to withdraw, that force between them already strange and too strong and full of sudden shifts, knowing that it was Riley’s fist keeping Sloane’s open hand pressed to the wall, knowing that it would all end in an exhale if Sloane willed it. But it had not ended, and Sloane had pushed forward suddenly, gently, her splayed fingers had closed over Riley’s wrist and led Riley to her bed, and that tether had formed between them that has yet to fade months later, even as Riley is alone in her apartment in Baltimore and Sloane is getting out of the car in Manhattan and following this man into the restaurant, even now, Riley is the kind of friend who knows that the third time Sloane came on Riley’s hand, she’d drawn back her head and tilted her proud chin and the moonlight had caught something in Sloane’s eyes - tears, Riley realized, like silver dew - and if she hadn’t been in love with her then, she was probably in love with her now.

 

 

 

 

Abby visits for the weekend, makes them Moscow mules with Riley’s vodka, and they sip them in the late afternoon light, an improvised happy hour on Riley’s couch. Life has unquestionably improved for Abby: a new job, a new place, no Harper in her life but the other Caldwell sisters still very much present, and Riley has to swallow down the occasional urge to refer to her friend as an inspiration, something she knows would get on Abby’s nerves. Abby’s less jumpy now, has minimized her slouching, but she isn’t immune to the occasional awkward eyeroll, her signature mouth contortion still intact. And she’s dating now, allegedly, though Riley has yet to hear of anyone sticking, which she pretends is also the case for her, something they can share for now. Abby and Riley, never getting attached to any of these women. Ha ha ha.

“You know, Sloane asked me the weirdest thing the other day.”

Riley’s hand freezes around her mug, fingers barely registering the cold. “Yeah?”

“She asked me if you were seeing anyone.”

“Huh.”

“Actually, scratch that, she specifically asked if I knew the name of the woman you’d had a one night stand with, and that’s why it was weird. I know you’re friends and everything, I assume she would know if you were seeing anyone.” Abby pauses. “Which you aren’t, correct? You’re not, like, formally dating at this time?”

“No, not seriously.”

“But you’ve had a one night stand or something?” The answer occurs to Abby, who was once made privy to this story. “Oh, shit, it was that Ashley girl, right? Or Ashton? Was that her name?”

“I...genuinely do not remember.”

“Jesus, dude.”

“Okay, that is not a crime, for the record. It is not a crime to sleep with someone whose name you don’t know.”

“I’m not reacting to that. Power to whatever level of casual you maintain in your sex life, I don’t give a fuck.” Abby’s rubbing the back of her neck, mouth screwed up to one side. Riley can feel the next stage of this conversation coming from a mile away. “It’s just a really weird thing for her to ask me for a lot of reasons.”

Riley says nothing, taking a strategically long sip of her drink.

“You know what, dude?” Abby’s eyes grow large. “I think she has a crush on you or something.”

“Huh.” Riley feigns what she considers to be a reasonable amount of surprise. “That’s really...” She takes a monstrous gulp of vodka-heavy dregs. “I don’t know about all that, honestly.”

But hours later, Abby audibly snoring in the guest room, Riley does know about all that, honestly. She stares at her ceiling, working the corner of her sheet between her thumb and forefinger, imagining Sloane scowling slightly as she scrolls through Riley’s social media between meetings, imagining Sloane in her own bed, gnawing her own lip, signaling her own impatience and frustration with that frown of hers. Sloane covering her eyes with her hand as she pictures Riley and some phantom woman - Ashley or Ashton, but Sloane doesn’t know that, not her name or her appearance, and this must drive Sloane insane, the fact she cannot acquire what she’s aimed for, that the goal cannot be reached, that something about Riley is this unknowable - and Sloane pictures Riley and the woman kissing, Sloane pictures all the things Riley has done to her, the things she knows Riley can do, and Sloane groans quiet and low in her bed in New York, miles and miles north of Riley and her phantom woman, this mysterious creature that Sloane had sworn to never be jealous of, this situation she must be fine with according to the arrangement, but Sloane is nothing if not honest with herself and she will not begin lying to herself tonight, she is happy to deny herself things but she refuses to live in denial. All this Riley imagines from her pillow in Baltimore, and something tells her she’s right, or as close to right as either of them will ever be.

She rolls over, finds her phone next to the bed. Opens the latest conversation with Sloane. Types: “Anything you want to ask me?” only to delete it before sending. Sloane would say no, Riley’s sure of it. Either to not admit to that particular burning, or to stop them from opening up a can of worms neither is prepared to sort through. And Riley would have to be fine with that.

Instead of sitting in further temptation, she opens her email and scrolls down through her inbox. Opens the message from the head of Cardiology at Mount Sinai, the additional message from Human Resources, the invitation for an interview. The email is three days old; she’s being more foolish than she can even quantify to have not replied yet.

She goes back to the conversation with Sloane, resumes typing.

 

I’ll be in New York next week. 

Tuesday, leaving Wednesday morning.

 

And, to Riley’s surprise, three dots immediately appear.

 

I see.

Think you can pencil me into your calendar?

I’ll have to check.

I’m very busy.

Let me know.

 

Three dots appear, disappear, reappear again. But a response never comes, and Riley chalks it up to the late hour and refuses to let herself spend more hours parsing that particular riddle.

 

 

 

 

When Sloane finally gets back to her, Riley’s surfacing from Penn Station on Tuesday afternoon, crinkling her nose at both the sudden wall of sour unseasonable warmth and the new vibrations in her pocket, the name on her notifications. She opens the messages in the Lyft.

 

I think the twins would never forgive me if you visited and didn’t say hello to them.

Unfortunately, they are with their father this week.

Is their mother available for dinner?

Potentially.

I’ll send you the address.

I made a reservation.

That’s presumptuous, Bennett.

I’m right, though, aren’t I?

You’re available.

Yes.

I am.

 

 

 

 

 

Sloane arrives at the address five minutes before their reservation, exactly when Riley assumed she would be there, which is exactly why Riley makes sure to be there ten minutes early. This is the first time they’ve seen each other in person since Maine and the agreement. In one instant, Riley’s standing on a quiet corner in Gramercy, the restaurant buzzing behind her, the success of her interview still a faint heat in her chest, her fingers rotating one of the buttons of her double-breasted suit jacket, and the next, someone is cupping her elbow, giving her forearm a gentle squeeze. “Hello,” Sloane says, and bears the most achingly beautiful thing Riley’s ever seen: a smile, a smile with teeth. She nods at Riley’s suit - “McQueen?” - and Riley smirks as she corrects her - “Bottega.” - and she thinks that if it’s just this, if it’s only ever this, it’s still worth whatever they’re doing, whatever they’re calling it. 

 

 

 

 


“You didn’t tell me why you were in the city.”

Riley finishes swallowing before answering. “Interview.”

“Interview.” Sloane’s eyes narrow; in her right hand, a fork laden with the last scraping of bone marrow, heavy and glistening with roe. “Intriguing.”

On the table between them, there are long slivers of razor clams, a plate of grilled endives and sardines, the hollowed-out boats of golden-white bone. Everything has been very tactile, often running down chins or slurped messily off spoons. One glass of wine has already turned into two. From anyone’s outside perspective, it’s a very involved date: Riley’s dressed for her interview, but she’s dressed for an evening, too, and Sloane’s wearing a black dress Riley hasn’t seen before, hair down, she’s leaning forward and bright-eyed and intense as a cleaver, intense as a storm, but all of it is directed at Riley like nothing else exists, that tether between them as short as ever and tied into the tightest knot.

“I won’t hear back for at least a week, but it’s promising.”

“Oh, a job interview.” Sloane looks caught off-guard, cleaning the tines of her fork. “I don’t know why I immediately thought you were being consulted.” She’s briefly quiet. “I’m hearing about this now for the first time, but I know this didn’t all come together today.”

Well, about that. Why hasn’t Riley said a word to Sloane about the job? Or Abby, for that matter, or any of the other friends who know many other aspects of Riley’s life? Why has Riley hardly allowed herself to process its existence? Riley does know the answer; the answer is currently sitting across from her, a slight breeze stirring the answer’s hair, the light striking the side of the answer’s face where she awaits Riley’s response. 

Because it is easy to be only friends with Sloane when geographic distance looms between them, when physical separation makes certain things so difficult as to be twisted into a sense of the impossible. Because the terms they’d agreed to are simple and straightforward when Riley isn’t living in the same city as Sloane, when they are not occupying the same space, when they are not immediately available to each other and the option of a future, the one future she is slightly terrified to entertain, isn’t gleaming right there in front of them.

But Riley says none of this. “It’s all been fast.”

“Fast.” Sloane repeats the word with a look that could split tendons. “So you’d be here. In New York.”

“At Mount Sinai, yeah.” Riley watches the other woman carefully: Sloane presses her hand to her mouth, brow creasing, eyes focused on the plate in front of her, yet there’s something to the way her skin blanches where the corners of her lips press into her cheeks, a certain tightening of the muscles there that gives away the fact she is intensely controlling herself from smiling. 

“That’s outstanding,” Sloane says, finally, and makes eye contact with Riley again. It’s not the response Riley had expected, no, so much that she’s breathless, has to manually inhale while Sloane speaks. “No more Baltimore.”

“Well, another month in Baltimore, but then, yes, somewhere here. Nothing is set in stone, though. I don’t have an offer yet.” She takes a quick sip of wine to stall. “What do you think?”

Sloane doesn’t even hesitate. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity and you absolutely have to take it.”

“And what do you think about me living here?”

“It suits you. Well, Brooklyn probably suits you, but yes, New York makes sense.” She pauses. “The twins would be ecstatic. Not that you’d be obligated to see us all the time, but if you got the chance every once in a while, they’d be thrilled.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

Riley only looks at her in response, sure that her expression conveys the right meaning. Sloane isn’t dense, Riley knows that; it’s all been relatively formal so far, a conversation circling the more obvious tones and themes, getting used to itself again first, but if there’s one thing she knows about both of them, it’s that they are equally impatient in their own ways.

Sloane’s smile shifts to something decidedly coy.

“I’m happy when the twins are happy.”

“But would you want me to be here?”

“It’s a very large city, Bennett. Even if I didn’t want you to be here, it would be more than possible to not see you.” She cocks her head. “Which, of course, I don’t need to say is not at all the case. Obviously I’m happy to have you closer. I’m slightly insulted if you’d assumed that my thrill at your friendship in easier reach was not a given. It’s rare that something works out so perfectly, I find.”

“I was under the impression that you always get what you want.”

“No, Riley.” Sloane pauses; a hundred sleepless nights in which Riley has imagined any number of outcomes live and die in that pause. “I don’t.”

“Oh.”

“I am much more in the habit of denying myself things. I’m like a trained dog that way. It’s instinct now.”

The sensation is so familiar that Riley can practically taste it, warm and metallic on her tongue. “I get it.”

“Yes.” Sloane gives her a careful look. “I think you do, actually.”

“I’d blame our upbringing, but I try not to admit to mommy issues.”

Sloane snorts; it is the first of its kind, a hearty and silly noise coming from this woman. “Bennett.”

“For the record, that has nothing to do with...” She squints. “You know.”

“I don’t.”

“I mean, you being…”

“A mother. Or a mommy, in this case.” Sloane’s expression is pure and rich amusement, barely hidden by her attempt at feigning seriousness. “Are you calling me a MILF, Bennett?”

“Only in the technical sense. You are technically a mother.”

“Yes,” Sloane says, a new meaning to the way she looks Riley up and down, appraising her. “This is all very technical.” Riley’s glass is drained; Sloane’s is empty again, too. Sloane looks between their glasses with meaning, then glances over at the waiter. “Should we…” she starts, and Riley nods, grins with abandon. “I could go for more clams, too.”

“I’ve been told that they’re--”

“The aphrodisiac mollusc line is a cliche at this point, Bennett.”

Riley smirks, caught. “I was going to say they’re in season.”

“You know,” Sloane says, fork playing with the garnish. “This isn’t a date, to be clear.”

“Who said it was a date?”

“One could come to certain conclusions, I think. Given the circumstances.”

“The circumstances being…” Riley leans forward with feigned conspiracy. “The clams, I assume.”

“Yes, Bennett. The clams.” And it’s the same wicked smile Sloane’s sported before, but it’s warm, Riley notes, when warmth is something that months ago, she would never have associated with this woman. 

They split the check. And even after they leave the restaurant and return to that same corner where they met hours earlier, Riley can feel the heat in her chest each time Sloane looks up at her, and maybe it’s the third glass of wine, maybe it’s because it’s been months and hardly a day goes by when they don’t speak in some form, but there is no veil over Sloane’s eyes, everything seems laid bare when she finally speaks.

“I missed you, Bennett. I missed you rather intensely.”

“I know.” 

Sloane pauses, seemingly thrown. “That’s all you have to say?”

Riley can’t help it; she grins. “Yes.”

“For Christ’s sake, Bennett.”

“I missed you, too.” She sees Sloane’s face and defaults to a more serious expression. “I mean it. If I get the job--”

“You will.”

“If I get it--”

“You’re insanely capable and unquestionably the best candidate they have. Why wouldn’t you get the job?”

“Sloane.”

“Bennett.”

“Sloane, I’m serious.” 

Sloane rolls her eyes, finally releasing a quiet huff of an exhale. “Are we going to say each other’s names until someone orders a car? Stop pretending you aren’t incredible.” There’s a pause, heavy as a stone. “Are you staying nearby?”

“Murray Hill.”

“We could share a car.”

“That’s out of your way if you’re going home.” Riley finds she suddenly cannot meet Sloane’s eye. “I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

“You’ve never inconvenienced me.”

And Riley looks at Sloane, sees her that second night in New York as she’d met her at the door, wrapped her legs around Riley’s waist the moment it was closed behind them, and Riley recalls the memory of pine and salt and Sloane’s skin lightly dusted with sand as she’d climbed from the lake, as she’d lifted her hand to Riley’s forehead and cleaned away a single needle of cedar that had glowed like an ember on the whorl of Sloane’s thumb, and Riley’s body still remembers the dizziness of that slow rotation in the tent, the weight of Sloane’s head on her shoulder, the heat of Sloane’s body against hers as the music had played and they’d turned and turned and turned because Riley had not wanted to stop dancing, and Sloane had not wanted to stop dancing, and when eventually they did stop, Sloane had kissed Riley’s cheek, the gesture that had transitioned everything to what it was now: two friends on the corner, aching and warm and a foot apart, a thousand miles apart for all it mattered.

“I think I have, Sloane.”

Sloane is quiet. Riley can only imagine what similar thoughts must run behind this woman’s irises. What fuels the look she gives her, so complex that it cannot be torn apart. “I never minded it, Riley.”

“Sloane.”

It’s almost cruel, how easy it could be. How simple and straightforward it is, how it’s all been laid out before her like a route lit in neon. Get in the car. Take the elevator. Go through the door, the familiar door, and kiss Sloane Caldwell, enter Sloane Caldwell like one enters a church, penitent and desperate and full of conviction. 

“We can take separate cars if that’s what you want. We can say our goodbye here.” Sloane’s hand briefly squeezes Riley’s arm. “But you’ll be here soon, a native New Yorker. It’s a temporary goodbye.”

Sloane’s car arrives first. She does not hug Riley, only waves as she slides into the back. “In a month, we’ll be neighbors.”

“Again, I don’t have an offer.”

“But you will.” Sloane’s smile is tight-lipped. “Good night, Bennett.”

 

 

 

 

In the hotel bed, Riley opens their messages. Types: “It’s strange to be in the same city as you tonight. To not be with you.”

Erases it before she can send it. 

No, it is all very uncomplicated.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Of course it all goes as she more or less expected.

She gets the job, calls Sloane before anyone else, before she even knows that her thumb is scrolling through her contacts and selecting Sloane’s name, laughing to herself when she hears Sloane’s voice on the other end and thinks oh, of course, before sharing the news. Texts Abby next, then her various important-enough groupchats, and finally, around dinnertime when she feels it will be otherwise unavoidable, calls her parents. Riley gives them exactly three minutes to think they have shared in her success and then finishes the conversation, hangs up before the usual and expected pause in which no one says they love each other. Sees that Sloane has already sent her a link to an article on neighborhood ratings in Brooklyn.

She finds a place in Park Slope, which Abby jokes is very domestic of her, very “in your thirties, Riley”, but Sloane does not immediately make similar jokes even though she could because Riley is sure that neither of them are supposed to be making jokes about domesticity or what it means to live in a neighborhood full of happy little moneyed families when she is decidedly not courting a woman who would provide her with a happy little moneyed family. But Sloane does insist on helping to coordinate the moving services - “you forget I moved my entire life not that long ago, Bennett” - and sends over a bottle of very fine Beaujolais as a housewarming gift. 

“It would have been champagne but one does not solo imbibe champagne.” Sloane pauses, her end of the line going completely silent for a moment. “Not that I am saying you have no one to drink it with, Bennett. I wanted something you could enjoy on your first night in the apartment. I’m not trying to imply that—”

“Good intentions were understood, Sloane.”

“Well,” Sloane says, and then there comes another pause, as if she is considering the direction of her next phrase. “If you did want to share it with someone, you’re in a very flamboyant postal code now, making the task of finding an eligible woman a matter of going out your door.”

“My block’s a bit settled down for that.”

“Bike a block over, then.”

“I don’t have a bike.”

Sloane’s smirk is apparent in her tone. She’s been a little wicked on the played-out-jokes-about-Brooklyn front lately. “Oh, shouldn’t you, Bennett? Top of your to-do list now.” 

“I don’t like arriving to places sweaty.”

“I’d think perspiration flatters you. You have such nice eyebrows for some beads of sweat to sit over.”

“We really went from the topic of wine to my bodily fluids.”

Both things Sloane has technically ingested, for the record. Beyond the point, too, so Riley steers the conversation back to wine, its more appropriate terminus. Before they hang up, Riley remarks for the third or fourth time since the move that it all still feels surreal, and Sloane reassures her that it’s very real.

“You’re a nascent New Yorker now, Bennett.”

“Coming from a slightly less nascent New Yorker, sure.”

“Just in time for autumn in New York.”

“Billie Holiday has the best version of that.”

“Ella and Louie, Bennett. Either way, it’s a very quintessential experience.”






Oh, it’s more dangerous than quintessential. Riley only needs one double feature rewatch of When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail to be reminded that autumn in New York is arguably the most iconic backdrop for the romantic comedy genre. Late September’s damp brownstones gone dark in the early evening, the red leaves artfully scattered on the sidewalk or aflame in Central Park, the steam off a freshly pulled espresso caressing full lips? And with jazz? The classics? Frank fucking Sinatra? Forget about it. That’s all she needs, she thinks. To wear a knit fucking scarf or something while falling unavoidably and further in love with Sloane Caldwell. Lethal.






After a week of being in New York, Riley does take Sloane’s suggestions into consideration. Not the bike, obviously - if there is one thing slightly and shamefully prissy about Riley, it’s her desire to avoid exerting herself on unnecessary transportative exercise - but she does find herself pouring a nightly glass of the Beaujolais in her currently couchless living room and wondering if she should start the process of dating in a new city. Part of that is prompted by a miniscule revelation in a recent call with Sloane, a single word. A name, actually.

Riley had been talking about a restaurant her colleague had mentioned, wanting to know if Sloane had an opinion.

“I haven’t been. Pete’s been, I think. I suppose I’ve heard good things.”

Riley had been entirely placid on the phone but the response to the name was lodged in her throat for the remainder of the call, even as the conversation ventured elsewhere. Pete’s been, has he? Where else has Pete been, Riley wondered. She has a few choice places she’d prefer he not go, actually. Only a preference, though. She hardly has an opinion on the situation. In fact, there’s a much sillier and even slightly problematic thought playing at the back of her mind even now: Pete feels like less of a misery than, say, a Petra. Sloane dating a man registers as a brief sting, an irritant, not a devastation, but were Sloane to start dating a woman? Who is not Riley? The concept makes her want to vomit, and then die of the shame of even being bothered. She feels the need to get ahead of the emotion entirely, to outrun it, so to speak.

So she begins the complex ritual of the single and seeking thirty-something dyke of means: she downloads the apps, she fills out the profiles, she selects the photos. Her approach this round is a bit different than Baltimore, a little more straightforward. She’s not looking for an activity partner or a soulmate. (Nor a wedding date this time, thank God.) She is, quite frankly, seeking something entirely casual. She makes that abundantly clear. And this turns out to be a shockingly successful strategy.

By her second week in New York, she’s had three dates. She feels like a newly minted debutante back home, the belle of the fucking ball, really. Who would have thought the clear communication of non-commitment could lead to functional non-commitment? Baffling stuff. Riley enjoys her dinners and drinks and chooses not to go home with any of the women just yet, lovely and accommodating as they all are, telling herself she’ll bookmark sex for now. She’ll get around to it, sure. Like an opened bill on the counter that she keeps leaving in the key dish, unaddressed. Sexy.






It was Magnus’ idea, apparently. Or Matilda’s, depending on which of the twins is asked: both seem equally determined to claim the initial concept as their own. But either way, Riley receives an invitation to lunch that will begin at Sloane’s apartment and proceed, leisurely, toward the park for dessert, which has been baked by either Magnus or Matilda, another hot debate. 

It’s her third Saturday in the city, but it’s the first time she’s seen Sloane in person since the move. It isn’t like she’s been avoiding Sloane, or vice versa, at least not intentionally, but she knows perfectly well why it’s taken three weeks for either of them to schedule some kind of meeting in person. No sense in putting words to that particular can of worms.

Riley brings flowers. She tells herself it is a thank you for the invitation. These are flowers of friendship, and not even true flowers, mostly platonic greenery. When Sloane opens the door, sees Riley first and then the flowers in her fist, her brows tilt, her mouth contorting. But she doesn’t take them from Riley, her hand pulling at the front of her own blouse instead. A strangely nervous gesture on Sloane. 

“I don’t think anyone has ever bought me flowers before.”

“No.” Riley freezes in genuine disbelief. “You’re kidding.”

“It’s true,” Sloane says, and finally reaches for the paper, her fingers closing around Riley’s to pull them from her grip. “I think I have given the impression in the past that I am not the type of woman who likes flowers, that I would think they are frivolous.”

“I would have thought you liked delicate and prickly living things."

Sloane’s smirk is quick and achingly beautiful. “That’s because I do.”

“Well, these are queen protea,” Riley says. “And that’s eucalyptus and smokebush. Not all technically flowers, but they’ll do the trick.”

“They’re beautiful, Bennett. Thank you.” Sloane looks her in the eye, and now it’s all rushing in, this reality they’re occupying: Sloane is no longer on the other end of a phone, she is no longer reduced to pixels on a screen, she is standing here only a few breaths from Riley and if Riley wanted to lift her hand, to stroke Sloane’s cheek with her knuckles, she could do so, she could lean forward and kiss her and it would hardly take any effort at all. 

She allows herself an inhale, and then steps back, waits for Sloane to invite her inside and chooses to do so on this side of the threshold. “You’re welcome.”

And then the twins are there, needing Riley to come see their experiment and hear Magnus’ new piece on the piano and give her opinion on a painting Matilda has recently completed in imitation of Bouguereau, and she is grateful for these occupations and distractions because she would otherwise be alone with Sloane in the same place where she once pushed Sloane against the wall, that wall where there currently hangs a nice photograph of a horse that seems to cover the spot where Riley’s slick hand would have pinned Sloane’s wrist in place. She doesn’t intend to keep staring at the wall, but it must be obvious, because at some point during lunch, Sloane looks over at Riley and gestures to the photo with her fork.

“My grandfather took the original photograph.”

Riley grunts into the napkin she’s lifting to her mouth. “Great picture.”

“I thought so.” Sloane’s eyes narrow with a twitch, and then she’s smiling. “Do you think it’s the right place for it?”

“Sure.”

“I thought that wall in particular was best.”

“It works there. It’s a good wall.”

“Oh, I agree.”

Later, on a Hudson Bay blanket just near Summit Rock, the desserts are removed from the picnic basket and it becomes obvious that these were, in fact, Matilda’s creations: four lopsided eclairs. Matilda furrows her brow at Riley, awaiting her reaction, and Riley answers in turn with complete delight.

“Parfait, Matilda.”

Matilda’s smile overtakes her, and she practically vibrates in her sweater. “Merci, Riley.” 

“I helped,” Magnus says, reaching for his own.

Sloane raises her eyebrows in mock seriousness. “It’s been a very productive morning at our residence.”






On the walk back to the apartment, Matilda and Magnus have the clear advantage: a pair of scooters they ride ahead of Riley and Sloane, leaves flying up behind them, abandoning the two adults to a slower pace with the blanket rolled up under Riley’s arm, the basket in Sloane’s hand.

“They’re funny where you’re concerned,” Sloane says, her eyes on the twins. “They’ve always been such a unified front, and they usually don’t take any interest in what adults do, but you’re different. They’re so competitive for your approval. You occupy a very unique pedestal, Bennett.”

“I’m not sure what I did to earn it.” 

“Well, you’re a favorite.”

“It’s an honor, especially coming from them. I’ve never been a favorite before.”

Sloane snorts, adjusting her scarf. “Oh, I doubt that.”

“No, it’s true. I’m an only child and I’m still not my parents’ favorite.”

“Jane is my mother’s favorite. Not that she benefits from that in any way or has ever explicitly sought out the title. Her function is more of an emotional support daughter due to Tipper’s taking advantage of her patience.” Sloane sighs at her own statement. “And Harper is a daddy’s girl, as you probably remember. He never hid his bias there. Neither does she.”

“Oh, I recall.” Riley’s laugh is devoid of any humor.

Sloane does not laugh in return; instead, her expression softens further. “I remember the way your parents acted after the Harper debacle.”

So does Riley. In truth, they threw her to the wolves. They did not defend her, nor did they attempt to protect her from everything that came after. They did what the best parents of their status did: they allowed the situation to be a lesson, one they would impart upon her indirectly, by not intervening in the least. She reached the lesson’s logical conclusion in her sixteen year old mind, saw it through because no one was watching anyway. An overdose in her en suite bathroom; three individual apology letters addressed to her parents, Harper, and her therapist; a photograph in her pocket from a childhood vacation to Portofino, a silly teenage talisman that bore all the leftover hope she had, miniscule as it was, because she’d convinced herself that if there was an afterlife, if she was going anywhere, she wanted it to look a bit like that. A coincidence that Eleanor would come home early from tennis and think to go upstairs to scold her daughter for leaving a so-called mess in the kitchen. Another parent would say it was a miracle, but Eleanor never said anything beyond what was necessary. Riley went from the hospital to the place her parents would only ever refer to as “the center”, to help her with what they would only ever call “the health issue.” Ironically, it was the psychiatric facility, upscale and garden-side as it was, that inspired her interest in the medical field. All their aspirations for their daughter, the illustrious career achievements they wanted her to have, and those dreams were only realized because she had tried to cut the whole thing short.

“They were not at their best.”

“No,” Sloane says, firm as a stone. “I suspect their best has never been good enough, though.”

“Your family believes in control. Mine believes in ignorance.”

“They’d make a lovely board of chairmen for a dictatorship.”

“I think Tipper would probably have everyone else assassinated and assume power.”

“Very astute, Bennett.” 






Abby thinks she’s fallen in love again. This she confesses to Riley towards the end of a very long Facetime, pushing the hair out of her face as she grimaces in her patently Abby way and lets out a long-suffering exhale as prelude. 

“I’m kind of in love, dude.”

“Kind of?” Riley chuckles into her wine, grinning with sympathetic triumph; Abby’s happiness always feels like Riley’s happiness, and vice versa, which has made the Sloane Situation extra tough, certainly, since Abby is one of the few people Riley hates to keep secrets from. “Since when?”

“Since, I don’t know, a few days ago? Or at least that’s when I realized it. I don’t know that I wanted to be back here this fast - here being in love with someone - but I guess I am, you know? I really had little say in it.”

“I didn’t even know you were dating anyone seriously.”

“I’m not.” Abby gnaws the end of her thumb, then sucks in part of her bottom lip, chewing this, too. “God, I don’t know how to explain it to you.” Another pause and a toothy abuse of her fingertips. “I’m nervous for some reason.”

“Do not confess your love to me right now, dude.”

“Oh, god.” Abby makes a face of revulsion. “Gross, dude.”

Riley pretends to be insulted. “Okay, I’m not completely disgusting, thank you very much.”

“Look, the whole idea of even, like…” Abby silently gags. “Kissing you would feel like kissing my cousin.”

“Are you sure you’re not from my town? Because there is always a good chance of kissing one’s cousin there.”

“Oh, I’m really fucking done with kissing anyone from your zip code. Or kissing the cousin of someone from your zip code, because they’ll probably have a trust fund and daddy issues, too.”

“Harper’s issues were not limited to daddy, though. She has parental issues as a generalized problem, I’d say.”

“Very true.”

“So this current object of your affection, they’re daddy and mommy issues-free, then.”

Abby appears to need to think this through, briefly deliberating as Riley looks on. “I don’t actually know. I’d like to say yes, but I’m also kind of terrified. I mean, she’s gorgeous and funny and easy to be around. Jayce hasn’t dated her, which is a plus, and like, that almost never happens here. She introduced me to her parents as someone she’s dating and no one was disappointed or weird about it.”

“Ideal.”

“Definitely ideal.”

“Wait, is this that girl you’d told me about before? Noel?”

Abby blushes a deep red. “Yes, Noel.”

“Christmas name.”

“I know, Christmas name. And you’d think I’d have Christmas PTSD or whatever but I took it as a sign, right? And one day I kind of woke up and said, oh, shit, she literally makes my body feel like electricity. Like just a text from her and I’m humming all over, you know? And I haven’t had this feeling in a long time, not since Harper, but I do recognize it, I do know what it is.” Abby drags out a long sigh, but she’s wearing her crooked grin that is the exact reverse of her grimace, and Riley can’t help but be a little joyous for her. “Yeah, dude, I don’t know. I’m kind of in love with Noel.”

Riley nearly spills the rest of her wine in her effort to clink the phone screen with her glass. “This is me toasting you into eternity.”

“I’ll return that toast if you tell me your deal now.”

Riley is thrown by this response, especially the way Abby is clutching her beer in a very withholding way, her arm rigid, her expression no longer a blushing smear of happiness and now absolutely serious.

“What deal?”

“Dude, I’m not stupid. I know what’s going on.”

Oh, fuck. She’s figured it out. Riley’s stomach drops. “Right.”

“I don’t know who she is, but someone has had you hung the fuck up for months now, and I know you keep acting like you’re just fine being single and unattached but you’re transparent as fuck, dude.” 

Okay, so not quite figured out, but just about. What fills Riley now is something adjacent to relief; she almost wants Abby to get there on her own, to take away the burden of Riley having to spill this whole sordid tale herself. So she lets her continue, trying to keep an impassive face, hoping she’ll reach the conclusion before Riley has to admit it outright. 

“All that stuff about not being able to find a wedding date but then there was this woman you wouldn’t answer any straightforward questions about, not to mention you consistently dodged any intel on whoever you supposedly saw in Baltimore for literal months. And now you’re in New York and I know you said you’re doing this casual thing but yesterday, I ask you how it’s going and if anyone in particular stands out, and you tell me a five minute story about how none of them are very intense and how they’re being so accommodating and nice and that’s off-putting to you, which, first of all, is not what I asked, and secondly, tells me you’re distracted by some woman you’re going to always compare them to but never inform me of, apparently, which, okay, okay , but really, dude. Really.” Abby takes a deserved inhale and the grimace returns as she drags her lower lip into her mouth, giving it a good pinch with her teeth. “You see what I’m getting at here?”

Riley scours her mind for the best response, the one that will tie all this up in a nice little bow and make it all make sense, and can only find something very subpar. “It’s not like that.”

“So you’re not in some little mindfuck of a situation with a woman you’re not over?”

“Okay, so it is actually like that, yes, but it’s complicated.”

“Did you not hear me say the word mindfuck?” Abby sighs. “I don’t want to force you into this conversation, dude, and I’ve been trying not to bring it up for at least a month, but like...come on. You’ve got to tell somebody. If it’s not me, please tell me you’re running it by some therapist.”

Riley releases an involuntary sigh. “I know.”

“I just don’t want you to be miserable, okay?”

“I’m not miserable.” She sees Abby’s expression and doubles down. “I mean it.”

“But whatever’s going on with this woman, it’s not going the way you want, huh?”

Riley looks into the camera. Abby’s got one of her most sincere and devastating expressions on: the smile crooked and soppy and her thin brows bunched above her thin nose, all of her scrunching towards the middle with the weight of concern. It occurs to Riley that she has never had a friend like Abby before. She has never had many friends at all, for reasons that are both multifaceted and terribly straightforward, and she’s not sure what she did to deserve this one. “I’m okay,” she says, and it’s only half a lie. “Really. I am.”

Abby doesn’t seem satisfied by this answer, but she shrugs. “Fine. Just don’t forget you can ask for help. Even if it’s not from me.”

But Riley already knows that Abby is probably the only person she’d ask for help, and even that is too much for right now.

Maybe another day, she tells herself. Maybe when she isn’t so terrified of Abby learning about it all and deciding she’s had enough, pushing her away. Maybe in another week, or another month, or never. 






“Do you remember Reginald, from school?”

Reginald? Oh, Reggie, who, slightly tipsy at the graduation rehearsal, asked Riley if she really thought she could replace a man. Riley recalls her response: “For whomst, Reggie? Are you looking? Because I won’t peg you—” and the devastation of realizing no one overheard her comeback.

“Sure, Mom.”

“His sister is apparently involved with a woman now.”

“Fascinating.”

Eleanor seems displeased with her daughter’s underwhelming response. “Well, I thought you’d like to know.”

“Is she single?”

“No, I just told you—”

“I know, Mom. Kidding.”

“I saw Harriet at the Club and she happened to mention it, and I said that was very nice.” A pause, during which Riley is sure her mother is expecting some kind of congratulations. “Did you hear me, Riley?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I told her it was very nice.”

“You did.”

“Well, I—” Eleanor pauses again, and Riley can imagine her expression of twitching irritation, followed by the typical swallow of exasperation. “Anyway, that’s not why I called.”

“I assumed.”

“My old classmate Janet - you remember Janet, she had the house in Sandwich - well, she’s been in Manhattan for years, and I told her about you and she said she’s having a dinner party at the weekend, and you absolutely have to be there.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, Riley, you do.”

“Who is Janet, again?”

“Janet, the gallery owner. She runs Nianto Galleries, she’s very well-known.”

“Oh, that Janet.” That Janet being one of the few people in her mother’s life that Riley has ever found interesting, and, dare she say, attractive for her age, even if she shares a birth year with Eleanor. Well, sixty is the new thirty or whatever. Okay, she’ll bite. “Sure, have her send me the details.”

“You really need to make connections in the city. I know that isn’t your forté, Riley, but it’s so essential, you know that.”

“For what?”

“It could be very important for your career.”

“Mom, I’m already a cardiologist. It’s not like I’m going to get passed over for the corner office.”

“Well, you never know.”

“I do know a bit, actually.”

“I’ll have Janet get in touch. I’m sure she has the most dynamic people at her dinners, she’s always kept such interesting company.”






Riley will do her part to contribute to the interesting company; by this, she means she will bring a date. Well, she herself checks a few boxes: a woman in medicine, a full-blown lesbian, someone who has held a beating human heart in her left hand. Fabulous dinner conversation material: yes, the heart was very warm, yes, you can learn a lot about a woman by the temperature of her cervix squeezed around your digits.

Of the multiple women she is currently seeing on the most casual basis, she decides that Alden makes the cut. Or at least Alden is the one Riley feels has the most potential to, at some point, maybe, be the object of a crush, if Riley can muster up something that passes for a crush that is not exclusively aimed at Sloane Caldwell. Not that a crush is necessary for any of this, and Alden has made it clear that she’s seeing other people, only looking for something that “feels like the right vibe in the moment” and as Riley was informed on their last date, Riley is “a vibe” that agrees with Alden, and that, Riley thinks, will suffice.

Alden’s an artist, a good fit for this function; she’s done some video installations, and she gained some notoriety for a work that involved her coating part of her body in a brilliant fuschia wax and then painfully prying it off, apparently, though Riley could only hear every other word of that conversation in the bar that particular night, and by the time they were somewhere quieter, she was racing towards the door after a hasty session of wordless kissing and groping above their clothes. God, she felt like a teenager. No, worse, she felt like the teenager she was never able to be: equally awkward and distracted, but sexually active in a way that was utterly dissatisfying.

But she likes Alden. She does. Alden went to art school but she comes from money that she prefers to hide; she understands Riley in a way that neither of them will ever discuss. The two dates with Alden have been easy, painless, and there was a moment towards the end of the second one where Riley saw the way the light hit the side of Alden’s face, the red neon making her eyes seem bigger, reducing her dyed hair to the faint hint of its original dark brown hue, and Alden had been looking away from her, she’d turned at the right moment and Riley had seen something in her that made her want to kiss the woman, something instantaneous and struck through with a heat she hadn’t known she’d missed.

Later, maybe, she’ll realize that it was because of the resemblance to Sloane. How long she will allow herself to sit in that revelation will be up for inner debate, but slammed shut once decided.






When Alden slides into the car, she’s wearing an oversized tweed suit jacket, a vintage Dior scarf wrapped around her torso in place of a shirt, her small breasts flattened by a field of navy monograms on khaki silk twill. She smirks over at Riley.

“That’s why I told you to wear this brown YSL,” she says, fiddling with the front of Riley’s corduroy blazer, smoothing her palm down Riley’s black cashmere turtleneck. “See? It looks perfect. We’re coordinated.”

Yes, Alden will probably be cold later, but the effort is still thoughtful, even cute, and Riley will allow herself to slip her arm around Alden’s waist as they ascend the steps of Janet’s townhouse in the bleeding heart of the UES, the street cast crimson with the turned leaves, and she will grant herself the brief and stupid fantasy of this becoming something more, a power couple with one foot in medicine and the other in the art world; the fantasy gains footing when introduced to Janet, still looking very enticing for her age, her hair in a blunt bob, her eyeglasses massive and shaped like generous squares, her resin jewelry clicking with a cathedral-like volume as she embraces Riley, clasps Alden’s hands between her own and kisses her on both cheeks.

“You’re both so gorgeous,” Janet says, inviting them further into the house, something out of Architectural Digest - featured there at one time, actually, Janet will mention later, though she will seem underwhelmed by her own achievement. 

Janet’s arm loops through Riley’s free one, and she nods to various faces, some of them more familiar than others. “You may detect a theme, Riley,” she says, and winks at Alden. “I like to do these dinners a few times a year. I call them “City Capers.” It’s a very bad pun, you see, but it’s a play on the idea that Cape Cod has descended on New York. I’m so happy to add you to the roster. You’ll probably recognize at least a few fellow expats.” 

And she does. In the corner, the older brother of someone she went to school with, and the woman currently examining a bottle of wine at the far table in the other room, that has to be Celine Pryce, she’s almost positive. 

“Oh,” Janet looks over her shoulder, makes an apologetic face. “Darling, I almost missed you.” She turns Riley around with some speed, Alden spinning, too, and there is Sloane swirling a glass of what Riley will guess is a very nice pinot noir, there is Pete Earlton in the flesh, looking less like his LinkedIn photo and more like one of Sloane’s exes, actually. Riley is struck immediately by the resemblance in aesthetics, and before she registers the shock of Sloane being there at all, her instinct is to smirk privately, a continuation of that long-ago conversation in Sloane’s childhood bedroom: the playful accusation that all Sloane’s boyfriends had looked the same, and Riley wishes she could say as much now, wishes she could take her into another room and pick up that flirtation where they’d left off, Riley simmering with triumph as she goes for the finish. Sloane’s reaction to the smirk is subtle: her tongue moving against her cheek, and then the immediate flicker of her gaze to Alden, a very sharp blade choosing a new target, her eyes narrowing before returning to Riley. And, best of all, that smile of feigned politeness settling into the tight corners of her mouth, so phony it is almost funny, almost a shared joke between them. Almost.

“Sloane Caldwell,” Janet says, pressing Riley’s hand to Sloane’s. “This is Riley Bennett, the cardiologist. You couldn’t have been too far apart in school.”

Sloane’s fingers close over Riley’s, then withdraw. “We weren’t. Three years.”

“I thought so. You were both at Greenfield, too, weren’t you? I won’t tell you my graduating year, I’m shameful.”

Sloane nods. “Riley was valedictorian.”

Riley has to suppress a snort. “I was not.”

Sloane taps a finger against her chin, then resettles it onto the lip of her wine glass. “Oh, I must be misremembering.” To Janet: “And you said she was a cardiologist?”

“Newly starred at Mount Sinai.”

“How impressive.” There is nothing in the world but Sloane looking Riley up and down now, the slow drag of her eyes from Riley’s torso to her lips. All else has evaporated, she’s sure of it. “YSL?”

“That’s right.” This from Alden, who sounds pleased, reappearing on Riley’s arm despite never having moved during this conversation. She holds out a hand to Sloane. “I’m Alden. Alden Hopkins.”

Janet perks at this. “Oh, you’re one of the Yarmouth Hopkinses?”

“Well, my father’s from the Connecticut branch. I grew up in Darien.”

“Alden is a video artist,” Janet says.

“That sounds like an interesting career to dedicate one’s life to, doesn’t it?” Sloane’s attention is now entirely focused on Alden. “What does being a video artist entail?”

No, let’s not start that, Sloane. Riley clears her throat, holding her hand out to Pete. “And I don’t think we’ve met.”

Pete smiles, and there on the extended wrist is the Audemars she’d seen in the photos, and there is his wedding ring, too, which she knows is not one he exchanged with Sloane, and his grip is entirely acceptable: not aggressive, not limp, and she thinks that if he has ever gripped Sloane’s waist or hand, it has been with an amiable pressure incapable of inspiring envy. “Peter Earlton.”

Riley wastes no time now that the bile has hit her throat; she goes right for the jugular. “And how long have you and Ms. Caldwell been married?”

“Oh,” Pete says, his laughter stuttering and awkward, his cheeks blanching and going pink at the middle, undercooked. He switches his glass to his other hand. “We’re not.”

But Sloane is just as quick. “What about you two?” She makes a show of glancing between Riley and Alden, her smile so miserably perfect that Riley’s fingers are twitching. “How long have you been an item? You seem so at ease with each other. It must be serious.”

“No, and we hate labels.” Alden shrugs, still smiling. “This is our third date.” Her hand falls onto Janet’s forearm. “Janet, would you recommend a bottle?” And then the two of them are stepping past into the other room, out of sight. Pete is still staring at Alden over his shoulder, downing his own glass in one impressive go, and then following her and Janet, leaving Sloane and Riley standing in each other’s air, alone together, unaffected by the disappearance of their dates.

“I like your jacket,” Sloane says, taking a cool sip. “Especially with the turtleneck. Festive.”

“Well, it’s autumn.” Riley sets her jaw to prevent a grin from forming. God, why is it so good to see her? “Autumn in New York, you know.”

“A great Billie Holiday record.”

“I was told Ella and Louis Armstrong had the best version.”

Sloane makes a face. “Who told you that?”

“Someone whose boyfriends all look the same.”

Sloane’s tongue returns to her molars, her eyes narrowing, all of her seeming to come to a very fine point, tilted back at Riley. “Oh, really?”

“Really.”

“Where did you meet your video artist, by the way?”

“Bushwick.”

“A Darien Hopkins in Bushwick?” Sloane’s eyebrows raise as she takes another sip of wine. The sip itself, of course, says everything. “Oh dear.”

“You should take a look at her work, actually.”

“Have you, Bennett?”

“Have I what?”

“Looked at her work?” Sloane blinks. “Describe one of them to me.”

Riley rushes to remember. “Well, she did this thing with wax. She poured it on herself and then she took it off.”

“I see.” Sloane’s brows are furrowing in what is undoubtedly an imitation of intellectual interest. “A commentary on the female body, I’m sure.”

“It was, actually.”

“I think when women of a very particular privilege reclaim their bodies, it’s so inspiring, don’t you? Especially in shows put on by gallery owners who are old friends of their fathers.”

“Interestingly, you don’t know her father.”

“I thought he was a Hopkins of Darien. One of the Connecticut branches. Practically cousins with the Caldwells.”

“Everyone is practically cousins where we’re from, Sloane.”

“Oh, but you and I aren’t.”

“No Bennetts and Caldwells interlacing in the annals?”

“No.” Sloane takes yet another long and torturous sip. “I checked.”

Now, finally, she laughs. “How fortunate for any of our genetic offspring.”

“Is that possible, in your opinion? Speaking as a medical expert, of course.”

“I’m afraid I’m only a lowly cardiologist.”

“Oh, I thought the heart would have everything to do with it.”

Pete has returned, his glass refilled, whiskey, it appears, just in time for Riley’s chest to start thrumming like an engine, unable to tear herself from Sloane’s careful gaze. Pete clears his throat. “So Riley, is this your first, uh...what does she call it? City Caper?”

Riley folds her arms across her chest. As if this can hold everything in place, still it. She meets his eye only after making the deliberate choice to no longer look back at Sloane. “Yeah, it is. My City Caper cherry was intact until only an hour ago.”

Sloane makes a face into her wine. Pete laughs uncomfortably. “It’s my first, too. Sloane’s come to a few before.”

“So what do you do, Pete?”

“Oh, I’m in Advisory, corporate side. Legal.”

“A lawyer.” She pretends to be shocked, like this information was not easily discerned from his LinkedIn. “And I’ve just learned Sloane is a lawyer. I never would have guessed. She’s such a gentle conversationalist.” 

Pete looks briefly confused, though he is trying to laugh through it. “Right.” 

Alden hands Riley a glass, and Riley takes a sip without looking first, trying to hide her shock and manage a swallow. 

“I got you a moscato.”

Riley completes the swallow, an entirely manual procedure, and nods. “Yep,” she says. “That’s a moscato.”

Riley strongly dislikes moscato. And she’s sure this is a very nice one, she’s sure it’s something that costs a great deal of money and would be a nice experience for anyone who enjoys moscato, but Riley does not enjoy moscato, and there is only one person in this room tonight who would know that.

That person is smirking, watching the progress of Riley’s second sip with great amusement. 

“Well,” Sloane says, reaching out to tap Alden’s arm, such a friendly and feminine gesture that only Riley can register it as something of a parody. “It was very nice to meet you two. What an interesting couple. We’ll talk later.”

Pete raises his eyebrows in acknowledgement, following Sloane into the next room, though his gaze does linger on Alden for a few beats too long, and when they’ve disappeared, Alden snorts, grabbing Riley’s side as she leans in conspiratorially, breath grazing her neck.

“What a cunt, wow.” Alden sips her own moscato now, looking more pleased with herself. “But he’s cute, right? Zaddy vibes.”

“If that’s your type.”

“Oh, I have lots of types.” She squeezes Riley’s elbow. “Yours must be cunts.”

Even the moscato is not responsible for Riley’s face. “Come again?”

Alden appears even more bemused. “You’re adorable.” She taps Riley on the end of her nose. “You were putty in her hands, darling. It was cute. In all honesty, say they come over toward the end of the night and want a foursome—”

Riley’s palm finds Alden’s mouth, playful but also a way to distract from the fact her limbs feel electrified. “Shush, you.”

Alden bites down gingerly on Riley’s finger until the other woman removes her hand. “I mean it. The vibes are intriguing; you can’t deny it. And he couldn’t stop eyefucking me. I know you’re only wired the one way, so she and I can handle him, and you can concentrate on just me and her, if you’d like.”

“Fucking hell.” Riley gives a more definitive shake of her head, banishing all imagery from existence. “No foursome. No intrigue.” 

Alden puts on a very pouty face about it. “I’ll change your mind before the end of the night.”

“No, you won’t.”






And she doesn’t change Riley’s mind, not for one second, but that doesn’t stop Alden from two hours of suggestive commentary and placing herself in close physical range of Sloane and Pete, leaning heavily in Pete’s direction, constantly stroking his arm, his hand, resting her fingers on his shoulder when she laughs too loudly at what Riley can imagine from her end of the room are terrible jokes. Sloane gives Riley a single and devastating glance of disapproval before ignoring her for at least an hour.

This is how Riley finds herself in Janet’s very gorgeous kitchen, and then, through sheer luck and her supernatural ability to discover nooks and crannies after years of occupying the corners of house parties, a small back entrance to the fire escape via the pantry. In the interior pocket of her jacket as a courtesy are Alden’s cigarettes, and she lights one out of habit and boredom, settling onto the rail.

“I think your girlfriend is trying to fuck my date.”

Riley grins to herself, the fire escape shifting as Sloane’s small form steps onto it, and then everything is overtaken by the feeling of Sloane to her left, her elbow against Riley’s forearm.

“She’s not my girlfriend, but she is trying to fuck your boyfriend, yes.”

“Oh, lovely.” Sloane sips her wine. “Well, let’s see how that works out for her.”

“For the record, she is entirely available to do so. We are not exclusive.”

“That’s a shame.” 

Riley rolls her eyes, but she can’t help smirking. “I seem to recall someone telling me I ought to start dating most of Brooklyn.”

“Is that what you’re doing, Bennett?” Sloane turns to her, and Riley finally meets her gaze again, sees the quiet little fire in her eyes.

“How’s Pete? Doing well?”

“Fine, as far as I know. You’ve met him tonight. Did he strike you as unwell?”

“It’s been about a month, hasn’t it? If my math is correct. Hard to know because you’ve never mentioned him to me since that first date.”

Sloane’s eyes narrow, but there’s something to her tone: Riley knows there’s more concern there than guile. “I told you what I was doing. I respect our history.”

“Is he good to you?”

Sloane’s brow twitches, her mouth pulls itself thin. “Jesus, Bennett.”

“I mean it.” She does. “Are you happy?”

“What is this, a country song? I’m fine, for heaven’s sake.”

“Okay, good. As long as he makes you happy. Or fine. Whatever your measurement.”

“I…” Sloane takes a long swallow of wine. “I appreciate his companionship. He doesn’t see me as monstrous.”

“Monstrous?” Riley makes an involuntary noise. “Come on.”

“I know that I’m difficult. I know I am not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Bennett, I’m not oblivious. It’s not like I’m trying to be palatable and failing. I scare well-intentioned people off and that’s fine.”

“You didn’t scare me off.”

“I know.” She gives her a long look of appraisal. Or perhaps it is approval. “Somehow you’re still here.”

Riley knocks her elbow into Sloane’s, slides a bit closer on the rail. It’s meant to be friendly, to inject a bit of humor into her next statement, but instead she feels Sloane press back and now it’s all genuine and sloppy, this sentence: “I don’t plan on going anywhere.”

Sloane sighs. “Sometimes I’m afraid that’s a mistake on your part.”

“How’s that?”

“I’m not ideal.”

“Who is? That’s the whole concept of an ideal, Sloane. It’s…” She gestures, forms an imaginary Greek sculpture in the air with her hands, a trail of smoke following. “An ideal.”

“But you could attach yourself to anyone else.”

“Am I a strip of Velcro?”

“There are much better options. I’m sure there were plenty in Baltimore, and now you’re in New York. The options are in abundance. Your cup overfloweth, Bennett.”

“Let’s not make assumptions about my cup.”

“I don’t even have to assume.” A pause. “Alden is very beautiful.”

She wants to sink through the grate. “Sure.”

“I heard her say you weren’t...” Sloane makes quotation marks with her fingers. “‘Doing labels’.”

“We’re having fun. I’m just, you know,” and she fights herself for the right way to phrase it, nothing feeling right in her head. “Trying this all out.”

“I know you’ve had a serious relationship, too.”

“Your intel is trash.”

“So Abby’s just lying through her teeth, is that it?”

Abby. Come on, dude. Technically hilarious, but also so dangerous. “Abby’s understanding of my love life is a bit limited. She’s not getting an accurate picture of the situation.”

“So you’re the one lying, then.”

“I may be withholding certain details.”

“Which ones?”

“Which ones have you heard?”

“I heard there was a woman you were seeing for a while, and you had very intense feelings for her.”

Oh. Riley has to stop herself from busting out with laughter. “Not accurate.”

“What’s inaccurate?”

“I mean, it is...technically accurate. It’s just…” She shakes her head, finally allows a chuckle. “It’s not what you think.”

Sloane huffs at this, narrowing her eyes as she brings her glass to her lips. “Fine. It’s none of my business anyway.”

Sloane’s shivering. Riley wants to take off her jacket, she wants to set it on Sloane’s shoulders and pull her into her chest, hold her there until she’s warmer.

“It could be.”

“I am not entitled to your life’s details, Bennett.”

“It’s not about entitlement. I would give you permission.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” 

“What do you want? Name it. Anything. I’ll hand it all over.”

Sloane rolls her eyes again, taking another frustrated sip of wine. “Jesus Christ, Bennett.”

“Or let me be the one to beg for permission.”

Sloane freezes. She turns the rest of her body to face Riley, her shoulders squaring even as they continue to slightly shake in the cold, her frown firm. “Permission to what?”

Riley just smiles down at her, saying nothing. In the heat of her cheeks, the memory of every time she’s touched Sloane, every time that touch has provoked a noise from the other woman, every noise that’s lodged in her dreams and made itself a nuisance. 

“Your teeth are going to start chattering soon.”

Sloane’s glare is purely stubborn. “Well, it’s an autumn evening and my coat is on someone’s guest bed.”

“You should go back inside.”

“I’m aware of what I should do. I don’t need to be prompted.” Sloane takes a step closer, and her hand falls onto Riley’s forearm, her thumb rubbing over the corduroy. “We should both go inside. Before Pete ends up necking your Alden.”

“She isn’t my Alden.”

Sloane lets go, stepping past Riley towards the warmth of the pantry interior, but she smirks. “Well, not if she goes home with my date.” 






“Do the twins like Pete?”

Sloane looks over her shoulder, brow furrowed. She’s waiting in line ahead of Riley, previously occupied with the boulangerie’s menu and the presence of Matilda and Magnus further down the case of pastries, carefully holding a baguette between them. “They have absolutely no opinion as they are unaware he exists.”

“They haven’t met him?”

“Why would they?”

Riley finds herself, for lack of a better word, flabbergasted by this. She fumbles for a response. “Well, I mean, he’s your…”

“My what, Bennett?” Sloane’s tone indicates irritation as she pauses the conversation to list her order, then gives a heated look as Riley reaches over her to pay despite earlier protestations at the concept. 

“You’re dating him, Sloane. There are words for that.”

“The same ones you use for Alden?”

“I’m not sure we’re using any words at this point.”

She hasn’t seen Alden since the City Caper dinner. Not because it didn’t go well - Alden had left in a deeply cheerful mood, bolstered by free wine and free sexual tension, and on the ride back to her apartment, she’d snored gently on Riley’s shoulder, which would have been endearing had Riley not been staring intensely out the window of the car, smoldering about what she could have said and done to Sloane on the fire escape. Alden had texted her the next morning with a tease about the foursome, but the conversation had cooled to something closer to friendliness, the messages getting more sparse over the week as Riley began to realize that she was probably not holding Alden’s interest.

It is difficult to tell if Sloane’s look of concern is genuine or slightly sardonic. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bennett.”

“No, it’s fine. No harm, kind of inevitable. We were just having fun.”

“Of course, I forgot that’s what you were calling it. Brooklyn’s some sort of playland, apparently.”

She grins, ignoring the quip. “We were talking about Pete.”

“If I say he and I are having fun, will you stop asking what he is?”

“Oh, I don’t think you’re having fun.”

“On the contrary, Bennett, for all you know, I could be having a ball.”

“So introduce him to the twins.”

“I choose not to introduce a person to my children, even in mere concept, when that person is impermanent. It prevents confusion for them down the line. Were Pete to accidentally meet them, I would still remove him from their life, and not mention him further.” Sloane sighs, handing some of the tied packages to Riley. “I assume that explanation is thorough enough?”

Matilda and Magnus catch up, baguette now cradled by Matilda, Magnus pulling his knitted hat over his ears. “Riley,” he says, holding up a single macaron. “I found this on the floor!”

“Don’t eat it,” Riley and Sloane remind him in unison.

Outside, the twins’ scooters are still stacked against a tree, Matilda’s basket full of leaves she collected on the walk over. She sorts through them before settling in her baguette. “Riley, what is French for leaves?” 

“Les feuilles. There’s actually an old song I can play you when we get home. In French, the title means ‘the dead leaves’, but in English it’s ‘autumn leaves.’”

Matilda makes a face before kicking off. “I think Autumn Leaves is a prettier title.”

Magnus speeds past her. “I like the French one better.”

And there is a moment on the walk, arms full of groceries, a bag of pastries and croissants hanging from Riley’s arm, when she glances over at Sloane. She sees that determined brow, her mouth betrayed by the smirk she always wears when she’s watching her children, her cheeks brushed pink from the cool air and the exertion and something else, if Riley wants it to be there. In her chest, Riley feels a door opening to a room full of warm sunlight. She knows for sure that she will be hopeless to close it ever again.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Riley used to say she had a very particular insomnia. It was an excuse, of course, and only half-true; claiming the inability to fall asleep alone made it much easier to exit immediately following completion of an agreed-upon act, and it seemed to smooth over her requests that women not linger at her apartment. I’d love to have you stay over, it’s just that I have this surgery tomorrow and I really need my sleep and I never sleep with someone else in the bed, it’s the worst, I know, I’m sorry, you’re so great, thanks for understanding. And some of them would pout and tease before leaving, and some of them wouldn’t text her back because she’d been too tired to put her mask up and they’d seen through the lie, and some of them would try to barter for a few more minutes, and Riley, still somehow the host to a teenage version of herself that thought she had no right to turn anyone down, would oblige. For a time. Then they’d be out the door like the rest of them, and she’d sleep as soundly as anyone did with supplements, and wake up alone. 

The truth is that she doesn’t sleep well by herself, but she also doesn’t sleep at all when she doesn’t trust the person next to her, and trust is hardwon with Riley. It was never a byproduct of the casual sex she used to prefer, so the old insomnia lines were used again and again, and they were effective. They got the job done, and she got the bed all to herself, and it kept everyone else at that lukewarm-to-cool distance Riley had always preferred. 

And then she’d been in Sloane’s bedroom all those months ago, and Sloane had stared her down, radiant as steel, arms folded at her chest in a gesture Riley would soon recognize was something of an instant armor for Sloane - it stated disapproval, but it defended her, too, it signaled the urge to protect some soft part of herself - and Riley had been overwhelmed by the urge to climb back into bed and pull Sloane in by her middle, to press Sloane’s back against her chest and keep Sloane’s belly warm under her palm and then, arranged just like that, to sleep like a fucking cherub. 

Which she did. In the morning, just past six, she’d woken up to find Sloane watching her, eyes narrowed and brow scrunched, searching Riley’s face for some unknown thing. With anyone else, it would have been disconcerting; had it been another woman, even the girlfriends of the past that she’d considered relatively stable and trustworthy, Riley would have flung herself from the covers like some airborne toy, but in the moment, she’d looked back at Sloane and merely yawned. “Good morning.”

“You snore,” Sloane had replied, and sat up, her negligee slipping down her arm until a nipple was revealed, which did not seem to concern the honorable Sloane Caldwell in the least. She’d watched Riley over her shoulder, continuing to study her even as Riley, still half-asleep and groggy as a fog, couldn’t have been terribly interesting to observe.

“Sorry,” Riley had said, mostly into her pillow. “I have a cold.”

“Don’t apologize. I slept very well.” Sloane stood and the negligee dropped to the floor with a utilitarian efficiency. “I assume you did the same. You appeared comatose at times.”

“I’m usually a deep sleeper.” A lie. Such a blatant and stupid lie that it was probably the sheer weight of the fib itself that got her fully awake and on her feet, searching the room for her clothes while Sloane showered, and even if they didn’t have breakfast together, even if it was only a few minutes after getting dressed that Riley ordered a cab and returned to her hotel, even if Sloane had still been drying her hair when Riley had given her a one-word goodbye, Sloane contorting her mouth into something less dire than a grimace in the mirror, even after all that, there was no denying that Riley had just had the best sleep of her life.

She had chosen not to overthink it then. Gone back to her shittier sleep cycles alone in her bed, added melatonin to her grocery cart every time she was in the store. Returned to waking up two or three times a night and never mentioned it to her GP because she already knew what they’d tell her - eliminate caffeine, eliminate stress, try some exercise during the day - like she wasn’t a doctor, too, like she didn’t already know that there was a cure living on W 87th Street with two children and a houseplant that Matilda had named Pierre. 

Of course, as with all cures, there was fine print to be read, and upon inspection, one would find that terms and conditions applied. Riley was sure that under the label of ‘platonic’, she would not find ‘sharing a bed and spooning like your life depended on it’ as permissible activities.

So it hasn’t been a good sleep when the pillow vibrates against her left cheek, pulling her from the shallows of a dim dream into consciousness, realizing it’s her phone that’s the culprit and seeing the name on her screen as she answers.

“Sloane?”

“Oh, you’re awake. I didn’t think...” There is a strain in Sloane’s voice she knows she hasn’t heard before. Something pulling at the edges of her words, tender and worrisome. “I’m sorry it’s so early.”

Riley sits up, pushes her hair out of her face. Pulls her tank back into place where it’s bunched and gone crooked. She looks at the time: almost five in the morning, which means her alarm has another half hour to go. “No, that’s okay. Is everything alright?”

“Magnus has a fever. Matilda’s throwing up.”

“Shit. For how long?”

“Were you sleeping? You sound like I woke you up.”

Riley’s already out of bed and digging through the pile of clean but unfolded laundry sitting on her corner chair. “No, no, it’s fine. My alarm’s going off soon anyway.”

“On a Saturday?”

“What are their other symptoms?”

“Nausea, which has now escalated to vomiting.”

“Give me the temperatures.”

“Last check, Magnus at 99.7.”

“That’s good, that’s low-grade. Is that better or worse than before?”

“He was 102 earlier.”

“Okay, that’s not too bad. We can work with that.” She finds jeans, a shirt that is easy to pull on while she has Sloane on speakerphone. “When did it start?”

“Just after midnight. Magnus woke me up by throwing up onto the floor next to my bed.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.”

She notes the symptoms the same way she does on a daily basis, allowing them to build a thread in her mind. “And did that eventually stop?”

“Probably around two. Only for Matilda to start thirty minutes ago.”

“Were they able to sleep at all?”

“Barely. They never sleep when they’re sick.”

“How about you?”

“That’s not important.”

“Well, maybe you need another pair of hands. You all need to rest.” She pulls up her apps, looking for Lyft. She knows for a fact that Sloane is allergic to asking for help; she’ll never request it outright, the words will never formally leave her lips, but this is the point of the call, of course. This is her way. “Have you given them anything?”

“Children’s Tylenol for the fever, though I worry Magnus will go the way of Matilda again and not keep it down.” Sloane pauses. “Bennett, if you’re thinking of taking a train from Park Slope to here at this hour...”

“No, no. I can take a car.”

“Bennett, I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

“Bennett.”

“By all means, Sloane, please keep repeating my surname.”

“I’m serious.”

“You said that. Unnecessary, by the way, because you’re always serious.”






Forty-five minutes later, Sloane opens the door to the apartment; her dark hair is escaping its bun, her white Oxford is half-unbuttoned and wrinkled, her pearls are almost comically askew, but her eyebrows soften in the most endearing way when she looks up at Riley. It’s only just morning, the grey light out the window giving way to a pale buttery yellow, and the way that first sun strikes Sloane’s face ignites something in Riley, too. Something more than desire. A plusher, deeper kind of want. 

“They’ve been much sicker than this before and we have gotten through it.” Sloane is quiet, taking Riley in, who is perhaps equally as rumpled from getting dressed in the dark. “You really didn’t have to come.”

“Bit late for that sentiment, Sloane.”

“I’m sorry,” Sloane says, her arms wrapped around herself, suddenly small, and while she has always been shorter than Riley, while her figure is slight, she has never looked small to Riley until now. “This isn’t convenient for you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Riley says, pulling her in for an embrace that seems to catch Sloane off-guard, and the other woman makes the slightest “oh” as she is drawn to Riley’s chest, kissed on the forehead. “But it helps to have me here, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Sloane whispers into her shoulder. “It does.” 






The apartment is bright when Riley wakes for the second time that day, clearly mid-afternoon from the length of shadows across the coffee table. She hardly remembers falling asleep like this: her last recollection is of Sloane collapsing on the other end of the couch, having just checked up on the twins, Sloane leaning forward to give Riley’s hand a chaste squeeze. Sloane’s lips moving, mouthing “thank you” with her eyes all round and genuine, and Riley’s chest tight with the sensation of being suspended above a deep pool of sleep and nameless emotion. 

Riley’s still sitting upright, but there's a weight in her lap now; the weight makes a soft moan when Riley stirs and stretches out her legs. Sloane’s sleeping with her head on Riley’s thigh. Her fist is curled tight beneath her chin, her mouth slightly open. Riley gazes down at her and thinks she can almost see Sloane as she must have looked as a child, not yet burdened by the pieces of the world that she would eventually sling over her shoulder out of obligation or personal challenge. Had they been aware of each other as children? No, hardly, even more peripherally than high school. Riley tries to imagine a version of the past where she’d cleaved herself to Sloane’s side when they were still young, the things that Sloane’s iron temperament could have protected Riley from, the paths Sloane might not have chosen if she’d known Riley first. But it’s even more laughable than the way it worked out in reality: the thought of Tipper Caldwell allowing Sloane, neither parent’s coddled favorite but a thoroughbred nonetheless, to have forged a deep bond with awkward loner Riley Bennett. No, it would have always been like this. They would have always showed up in each other’s lives too many years late with more baggage than an airline, an impossible knot whose only solution appears to be slapping a vow of celibacy on its tangles.

Riley’s careful to lift the other woman’s head as she slips out from beneath her, settles Sloane back down onto a pillow. Sources a very nice cashmere throw to cover her shoulders. The urge to kiss her fills Riley’s chest like a fire; Riley swallows it down, settling instead for a few tentative fingers resting on Sloane’s hair, stroking once, twice, then removed with caution. 

In the twins’ room, she drops to a crouch to test their sleeping foreheads with her palm: they’re cool now, their breathing normal, though Magnus is still damp from the broken fever, and she pulls his topsheet off, changes it while he continues to snore with a brontosaurus buried under his arm. His fever had cooled by the time she’d gotten to the apartment, but the vomiting was more stubborn, Riley and Sloane holding Matilda over the toilet for a good portion of the early morning. When, finally, all the symptoms had let up, the twins had been dropped into their beds, freshly bathed and trying admirably to tell Riley about interesting facts or stories from French lessons despite barely being able to keep their eyes open. It was nearly ten in the morning then, and she’d pulled down their blinds and told them it was time to sleep.

“But I was going to show you the book about meteorites,” Magnus had said, or slurred, really, and she’d felt so full of affection for him in that moment, for his brilliance and his inherited stubbornness and his wide-eyed admiration for her, and she’d hugged him fiercely, something she’d never done before; for all the twins’ enthusiasm, they were - perhaps predictably so, given their mother - very selective with physical affection, but Magnus had hugged her back with surprising ferocity.

“You can show me when you wake up, I promise.”

“You’ll be here?” This was from Matilda, her voice quieter than usual, still a little weak from how much she’d thrown up. 

“I will.”

Sloane had watched silently from the doorway, glowing. Saying nothing when Riley had passed her, only touching her arm, her fingers grasping at her sleeve before letting go: a gesture that could mean too many things, none of them helpful for this arrangement of theirs.

“You promise you’ll stay?” Matilda had asked again, always like her mother - in need of commitments and guarantees, of everything to be certain - and Sloane had answered for her.

“Riley will stay,” she’d whispered, and closed the door.

And Riley is still there, hours later, though there is no one currently awake at two in the afternoon to witness it. 

It’s all very curious. 

Riley knows for a fact that Sloane has a highly esteemed doctor on speed dial who makes house calls, a doctor who would have addressed the situation in an expensive but very efficient way. She also knows that Riley is not the only medical professional in Sloane’s social circle; one of Sloane’s neighborhood friends is a pediatrician, for Christ’s sake, and while what Riley has an inkling was a minor virus is not exactly rocket science, cardiology it is not. 

But that’s beside the point, because Riley knew the second Sloane opened that door why it was Riley Bennett who had been called to the apartment at the crack of dawn to deal with a situation which was not chiefly her professional expertise. It had only taken that shift of Sloane’s expression, that sudden pliability and bruising tenderness, and everything was clear as the day waking around them. And wasn’t that so utterly uncomplicated of them?






“You’re cooking.”

Sloane falls into a stool at the island, her cheeks flushed from sleep. She’d dozed on the couch for another half hour before emerging in the kitchen, her hair now liable to be considered a nest, her robe tied over her slept-in clothes. Riley can’t help but smile privately at this version of Sloane, messy and softened by exhaustion, one she’s certain she’s never seen before. 

“I thought we might want breakfast.”

Sloane yawns, covering her mouth with her fingers. “The twins—”

“Are on the bread-rice-applesauce diet for today. You and I can branch out from pedialyte.”

“Can I help?”

“You are forbidden from doing so.”

Sloane watches her work, eyes narrowed with interest. Her smile slides into place as Riley seasons the eggs. “You’ve found your way around.”

“I may not have gone to law school, but a kitchen is only slightly more complicated than a surgery.” She reveals the omelette in progress. “I made an assumption. If you prefer scrambled, speak now so I can fuck it up.”

“Why do I smell bacon?”

Riley smirks at her own triumph. “Because it’s in the oven.”

“I’m impressed, Bennett.”

“It’s eggs and bacon, Sloane. Please don’t expect the Barefoot Contessa.”

“I don’t know the last time someone made me breakfast. Or any meal, actually.”

“Well,” and she can’t quite pull out a quick response, not with the bite that usually fuels their banter. Instead, she’s unavoidably sincere. “That’s a real shame. I’m sorry.”

“I’ve never enjoyed cooking. It’s nice to be relieved of the responsibility.” Sloane pauses. “You’re very kind to do this, Bennett. You’ve already done so much.”

“I like to be of service.”

“Yes, that’s clear.”

Riley looks up from her hands then, encouraged by Sloane’s tone - that small challenge in the statement that was too telling of a flirt - and Riley smirks as the other woman meets her gaze head on, undeterred. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not the type that makes breakfast.”

Sloane snorts. “I doubt that belief ever gained popularity.” 

“Tell that to a number of disappointed women in the greater Baltimore area.”

“It’s their own fault for coming to the conclusion, given that you treat anything beyond a one-night-stand with the avoidance of radiation.”

“Who told you that?”

“It’s your modus operandi, Bennett. You have trust issues for good reasons, valid reasons, even, but that doesn’t stop you from keeping the poor things at a stratospheric distance. You jump like a rabbit when they so much as hold your hand.”

She chooses the occasion of sliding the first omelette onto a plate to grit her teeth, though she’s not sure she’s hiding her reaction well. “I see you’ve opened the library on a Saturday afternoon, what with all this reading, Sloane.”

Sloane shrugs, her expression placid. “You’ve told me about your exes, and I saw you with that video artist. I’m only repeating what I’ve observed.”

“I don’t recall doing any hopping at Janet’s party.”

“What rabbit-esque activities you and the video artist got up to is none of my business, but you did appear deeply unnerved whenever she pawed you.”

“That’s because she was usually whispering her plans to corral you and your boyfriend into a foursome.”

“Good god.” Sloane’s hand immediately goes to her mouth, genuinely shocked. “I thought she was only interested in him.”

“No, her dreams were much grander.” Riley clears her throat, feigning a great deal of focus on the last of her culinary work. “Unfortunately, I was never convinced.”

Sloane makes a careful slice with her knife, giving Riley an equally careful look. “You weren’t.”

“Please. How would you have proposed that worked? Logistically speaking?”

One side of Sloane’s mouth has tilted at the slightest possible hint of an upward angle. “So it’s the logistics you objected to, then.”

“The logistics are the principle, Sloane.”

“I’d think a foursome is easier to coordinate than a threesome.”

“And I think triangulation lends itself better to sex than the never-sexy square.”

“Spoken with the authority of experience.”

“Hardly. Well, a threesome, yes. Once or twice. Okay, three times, but it feels like twice because the one time was a bit of a bust. But that is the extent of it.” She studies Sloane; the other woman’s earlier shock has given way to what is clearly some kind of deeply satisfied little smirk, barely hidden. “And you’re not immediately disgusted by this idea?”

“Well, I was never asked, Bennett.” Sloane shrugs, takes a nonplussed sip of her coffee. “I am only just being given the opportunity to consider it.”

“So if Alden and I had come up to you two towards the end of the evening and proposed we all go back to my place—”

“Preferable to the video artist’s drafty little warehouse conversion, I’m sure.”

“You wouldn’t have been opposed?”

“In this scenario, you and Alden have already decided this is something you want, I assume?”

Riley checks the bacon’s progress, scowling. “I did not want it, no.”

“Yes, Bennett, you’ve made that quite clear, but in the question you’re asking, you’re posing yourself as one half of the querying party, and the video artist didn’t give me the impression she had that much sway over you, so I wouldn’t assume you were manipulated into the desire. I’d assume you were quite willing and eager.”

“Peter would probably be willing and eager, wouldn’t he?”

Sloane’s tongue running over her teeth signals that Riley’s quickshot has hit its target. “He would pull me aside and do a very bad job of pretending to be buttoned-up about the situation, but he would eventually reveal his interest, yes.”

“And what would you say?”

Sloane appears to give this genuine consideration, though it is so genuine in appearance that it could also be a parody. “Well, I probably wouldn’t respond immediately. I’d probably look over his shoulder and make eye contact with you, because I’m sure I’d be furious.”

“Why would you be furious?”

“Bennett, you’ve had every opportunity to warn me ahead of time, and now you and this woman are just springing this on me. You know how much I dislike spontaneity.” She rolls her eyes. “Anyhow, I’d tell Pete we could return to your apartment, but we would see how it goes, and that, if at any point, I stated my disinterest, I would leave. He would be welcome to stay, and I would not take offense.”

“Well, if you left, I’d leave.”

Sloane’s eyebrow raises, whether out of surprise or suspicion, it is not clear. “Really? You’d just leave Alden?”

“I wouldn’t be much use anymore. What am I supposed to do in that situation? Get a snack while I wait for my turn? Coordinate with him?”

“Oh, I see.” Sloane’s smirk is pure guile. “You’ve only had threesomes with two other women.”

“I’m morally opposed to the unicorn role, Sloane.”

“Take your gold star, Bennett.”

“This is what I meant about logistics, for the record.” Riley’s burnt the second omelette, her own omelette, which seems fitting to the conversation’s state. “You’d all come back to my apartment and you’d what? Pretend you’ve never been there before?”

“Certainly.” Sloane chews with her smile intact. “I don’t think the ruse would have lost its charm yet.”

“And then we’d have to coordinate preferences, and Peter and I would have to have an awkward talk about boundaries, and I seriously doubt you’d take the initiative with Alden—”

“Correct, but I’m hardly there to have my own needs satisfied.”

“Why else would you be there?”

“Bennett, you’ve approached me with the video artist, asking me to break a boundary we very clearly set, and in order to break that boundary, I’d have to watch you have sex with another woman, something I find completely disagreeable, something you’d already know. Barring that you’ve had a stroke, I would need to know your game.”

Riley swallows. “My game?”

“Yes, Bennett, your game. Whatever game you must think you’re playing to subject me to the scenario in that way. It’s very out of character, and I’d need to understand your intent.”

“Jesus.” Riley finds herself unable to begin eating, staring back at Sloane, the other woman’s knife slicing too insistently through her eggs. “For the record, I remain completely against this idea. I would have never—”

Sloane puts down her knife, and her hand skates over the back of Riley’s hand, settles momentarily on her wrist, the quick clasp of her fingers some kind of reassurance. “I know, Bennett. It was all a hypothetical, but you have your answer.” She returns to her omelette. “Anyway, even if I was willing to participate, it would have ruined our little stunt.”

“How so?”

“I think it would become rapidly apparent that we were already familiar with each other.”

“Oh.” Riley swallows, transfers all the energy of suppressing a flood of memories into a nod. “That’s true.”

“But it’s all for the best, isn’t it? Alden didn’t work out and you’d probably hate carrying around that memory while moving on to the next temporary arrangement.” Sloane dabs at her mouth with a napkin. “How’s dating going, on that note?”

And Riley, licking her lips, fully aware of this inferno they’re fanning between them, only couples her lie with a beaming smile. “Very well, thank you.”

“Keeping them at a distance or anyone crossing the mile marker?”

“Look, for the right woman—”

“What would make her the right woman, Bennett? What traits would she possess?”

Riley is caught now, absolutely cornered and visibly flustered, she’s sure, but she tries to play it off with a cocky grin. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? I don’t believe that. You must have some idea.”

“The right woman is...the right woman.”

Sloane blinks, her chin now cradled in her hand, her elbow planted on the counter’s edge. “Right.”

“You’re really going to make me elaborate on this.”

“I’m only curious, Bennett. From what you’ve said, some of your exes were very accomplished, accommodating, apparently more than conventionally attractive. That video artist was certainly someone’s ideal. It brings your standards into question.”

“My standards?”

“Well, if they were so exceptional, why didn’t they make the cut?”

“Because they weren’t the right woman.” She leans forward. “What’s wrong with your standards, Sloane? Why haven’t you met the right one yet?”

And Sloane snipes right back, never dethroned. “Who says I haven’t?”

Riley whistles. “Congratulations, Mr. Earlton.”

“I never said it was Peter.”

“Congratulations to whoever else you’re dating, then.”

“I’ll pass it on.”

“What are they like, I wonder? I’m sure they strike that perfect balance of bland, passive, and just agreeable enough to never challenge your authority or drag you too far outside that luxury comfort zone of yours.” Riley leans in, eyes narrowed, grin widening. “Don’t you just love settling?”

But Sloane doesn’t take the bait, because she never takes the bait. Riley can only crest the conversation for so long before Sloane immediately reclaims her seat. “What about that woman you were so in love with earlier this year?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. “What about her?”

“Why wasn’t she the right woman?”

“You’d have to ask her.”

“Are we acquainted already?”

“What are we doing here, Sloane?” Riley lays her hands flat on the counter, looks Sloane dead in the eye and sets her jaw. She’s sure her pulse is racing; she can hear it in her ears, pounding like a drum.

But Sloane seems more determined than ever, that smile far too triumphant for its own good, uninterested in preserving Riley’s cardiac health. “You’re making breakfast and I’m being patient.”

“I don’t think you’re being patient at all.”

“On the contrary, Bennett, my patience is unmatched.”

“You know what I mean.”

“And I’m sure my meaning wasn’t lost either.” Sloane nods towards the oven. “How’s the bacon doing?”

“How do you prefer it?”

Sloane’s smile could raze an entire block. “Absolutely scorched.”

“Then it’s doing just fine.”

 





And then the smoke clears, both literally and figuratively, and the twins have roused themselves and been returned to their beds at least four separate times, and all of Sloane’s edges, delightful but deadly, have gone soft again: her glances at Riley lingering longer, cheeks reblooming pink in reaction to certain jokes, her laughter a loud and unchecked cackle that makes Riley’s temples thrum.

Riley knows it’s time to go. Even a second longer would be dangerous, she thinks. 

Magnus has shown her his meteorites. Matilda has tried, though always on the verge of falling asleep, to carry on a French conversation about using the library. Riley has kept her promises, and hugged them goodbye, and apologized during the hugs because she badly needs a shower. The car is on its way.

“Do you want me to walk you down?” Sloane asks, but Riley is quick to shake her head. 

“I don’t think I can get lost on the way to the door.”

“Better safe than sorry.” Sloane catches Riley’s hand as she passes her, only for her to let go, drawing her arms to her chest the same way she has dozens of times before, that same betrayal of her innermost thoughts. “Bennett, I don’t know how to begin to thank you.”

“That sentence sufficed.” Riley contemplates an embrace, remembers how easy it was to pull Sloane closer in the early hours of the morning, to press her mouth to Sloane’s forehead in an act so instant and natural that there had been no time to chastise herself for it. “And now you know I’m available for house calls.”

“For the twins’ sake, I hope we don’t make a habit of it.”

“Well, even so, I’m always available. Whatever you need.”

There is a pause, the air between them so close that Riley can feel it pushing in on either side of her head, can feel Sloane in front of her like a source of heat, can measure the number of breaths it would take to close the gap. This is exactly why she needs to go downstairs and get in a car and put the East River between herself and this moment. 

But Sloane takes a step closer, as if she knows exactly how to undermine these best-laid plans.

“Thank you, Riley.”

And what can Riley Bennett, not well-raised but certainly well-bred, do except be instantly polite? “You’re welcome, Sloane.”

It’s a swift motion: Sloane reaches up and her hand cups Riley’s cheek at the same moment her lips press to the corner of Riley’s mouth, slide to kiss her entirely, wholly, a kiss that makes Riley’s fingers tremble where they rise to hover at either side of Sloane’s waist. 

“Shit,” Sloane hisses, and withdraws as quickly as she’d swept forward, steps back and back again until she’s on the other side of her threshold, her hand over her mouth as though her mouth is bleeding, as though it is guilty of something, and it is, yes, but Riley could forgive that trespass a thousand more times, which is exactly the problem. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s…” Riley lets her hands drop, closes her fingers. “Don’t apologize.” 

Sloane’s voice is higher than normal, ragged at its edges. “No, I am apologizing. I shouldn’t have done that.”

And Riley can’t help herself, she’s too tired and too weak and she can still taste Sloane on her lips, the residue of the kiss is still there. “Why not?”

“Jesus Christ, Bennett, you know why.” Sloane’s hand falls onto the doorknob, stating its own intent, and she takes another step back into her living room. “I’m sleep-deprived. We’re both sleep-deprived.”

“Right.” Riley blinks. The rational plan resurfaces in her mind, clears the rush. “We’re tired.” She looks at her phone: no notifications. “My car is here.”

“Of course.” Sloane reaches out as though she is going to take Riley’s hand, but she withdraws before completing the gesture, sensing the potential of even that touch, its immense power to unravel things further. “Well, goodbye, Bennett. Thank you again.”

“Get some rest, Sloane.”

“You too.”






Of course it’s raining, the car still three minutes away and Riley with all the time in the world to stare despondently at the nearest storm drain, watching the steady trickle of water growing stronger. She refuses to let herself turn around and look up at Sloane’s window; the fallen leaves are slick beneath her feet, and she convinces herself that even the slightest motion would provoke a fall, a cracked skull. That seems about right, she thinks. Bleeding out on the sidewalk in front of Sloane Caldwell’s beautiful apartment, under Sloane Caldwell’s beautiful gaze, Sloane Caldwell’s kiss dry on her lips, the whole mess about as well-intended as a head wound.






“So someone kissed me and I think it’s going to actually kill me.”

Abby turns and blinks at her. “I just need your bagel order, but okay.” 

“Sesame with olive cream cheese.” Riley groans as she briefly covers her face with a gloved hand; it’s seasonably chilly today and yet she’s certain her skin temperature could rival the face of the sun. “God, I’m sorry. I’m kind of losing it over here.”

“What, did you fall in love or something?”

“Yes.”

They’re in line at Riley’s second favorite bagel place, perhaps the third worst place to have this conversation; Abby’s visiting for the weekend and they’re meant to be having a fantastic time, an utterly chill and relaxed time, but all Riley can think about is how she’d hardly heard anything from Sloane this week, and then Sloane had cancelled their afternoon with the twins on Thursday without much of an excuse beyond scheduling issues, and maybe she is being too neurotic, and maybe she is overthinking all of it, but it felt like something had wriggled free and was stabbing her in the tenderest part of her side, it felt like a bruise and everything with Sloane had always felt like a bruise but in such an excellent way, and this was in the worst way, this way could be the end of her.

For a moment, Abby still looks very concerned, face scrunched up under her beanie until it appears even more contorted than normal, but then her grimace is transitioning to a crooked smirk, and she’s gnawing her free thumb, chuckling to herself until she’s fully grinning. “Jesus fuck, dude.”

“I know.”

“Over one kiss?”

“I mean, it’s been more than one kiss. It has been...significantly more than that.”

“Should I congratulate you? I want to congratulate you.”

“It’s not new, to be fully transparent. I’ve been feeling this for like...six and a half months.”

“The love or the feeling that it’s going to kill you?”

“Both.”

Abby raises her eyebrows. “No shit. Wait, is this that...is this the same woman from before?”

Riley nods.

“And you were dating?”

“I mean, no. Not formally. We had a two-night stand when I was in New York this one time and it went undefined from there.”

“So she’s from here.”

“Well, she is now. Yes.”

“And did you two hook up again?”

“Yes. But only once.”

“So you weren’t sexually compatible.”

“Oh, god, no. I have never been more sexually compatible with anyone. It’s frighteningly perfect.”

“So it’s a personality thing, then.”

“No, she’s...I mean, she’s a lot of things, but they all work somehow.”

“I don’t get it.” Abby’s shaking her head, looking very much the picture of bafflement even as she pauses to place their order. “What is the issue here, dude? You’ve checked all the boxes. Does she not feel the same way?”

“I don’t know.” Riley buries the urge to moan ghoulishly in this bagel shop. God, she wants a fucking cigarette for some reason. “I really don’t know.”

Abby shrugs, then, smiling affably. “So try being together and see what happens. You’re in New York, she’s in New York. I don’t see the big deal.”

And it’s somewhere between a whisper and a sad little groan, this final admission that is made mostly to the case of bagels: “Sloane.”

Abby has frozen in the middle of paying; the cash in her hand hangs above the cashier’s open palm, and the man stares between the wad of dollars and Abby’s open-mouthed face, waiting for something to happen. “What?”

“Sloane.”

“Sloane Caldwell.” It takes a few beats more for Abby to fully internalize it, but she finally releases the money, takes her receipt, and wheels on Riley, her eyes wider than ever, her expression one of slightly unhinged triumph. “Sloane fucking Caldwell?”

“Sloane fucking Caldwell.”

“I knew it! Didn’t I— oh my god, I told you, I fucking told you, dude. I knew she had a crush on you.” Abby pauses, all the data downloading behind her irises. “But wait, you said this was months before the— so you hooked up before the wedding?”

Riley nods.

“Did you hook up at the wedding?”

She feels suddenly apologetic. “Only once.”

“Holy shit. I’m not holding that against you, for the record. I’m glad at least two of you had a good weekend.” She can practically see the pieces flying together between Abby’s sentences, all of it assembling. “Fuck, and that night you guys drove me — and then — I mean, I knew you were a lot closer now but I thought that’s because you bonded at the wedding—well, you definitely did some bonding, huh?” Abby stills, fixing Riley with a look of deep inquiry. “So you’re in love with Sloane?”

Riley nods. “I am.”

“Wow.” Abby’s expression falls, sucking in her lip. “But you know about Pete, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck, of course. You met him.” Abby’s chewing her index finger now, her gaze elsewhere. “Shit, dude.”

“I know.”

“God, everything makes so much fucking sense.” Abby blows the air from her cheeks. “You two make sense, too, you know? Like, now that I see it, it makes perfect sense.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. Well, minus Pete.”

“Minus Pete.” It’s Riley’s turn to let out a gigantic sigh. “Is it biphobic of me to at least take comfort in the fact she’s with a dude? As in, I’d hate this whole thing more if she was dating a woman right now. I’d die, actually.”

“No, I think that’s the opposite of biphobia, right? Like, it would be biphobic if you were more upset that she was with a dude. Because it would be that aspect of her sexuality you’d be prejudiced against or whatever.” Abby misses the outstretched bag of bagels not once, but twice, before managing to take it from the employee’s hands. “We’re really standing here talking about the definition of biphobia while you’re in love with Sloane fucking Caldwell, dude.” She lets out a snort. “But in all seriousness, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Die, I guess, slowly and painfully or whatever. Actually, that’s hyperbolic. If she’s happy, I can live with that. Right now, we’re friends, and we’ve agreed to be friends, and if that’s what she wants, if that’s how she’s in my life, I will deal with that.”

“When did you agree to be friends?”

“About an hour after the last call at your not-ceremony-afterparty.”

“So you discussed it, then. You processed it, she said ‘let’s be friends’, and you agreed to proceed that way.”

“Well, I said the ‘let’s be friends’ part. That was my suggestion.”

“You what?” Abby slams the shop door behind her. “Did I just hear you right? You are currently in love with slash desperately pining for this woman and yet you were the one who chose to make it fucking platonic?”

Riley throws up her hands, almost on cue. “It wouldn’t have worked!”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I do. Because she’s Sloane Caldwell and I’m me and it was very complicated.”

“Jesus, why do you care if it’s complicated or not?”

“Why do you think I’ve kept it from you until now?”

“I don’t know. I actually have no idea.” Abby’s tone does shift now: Riley feels the guilt again, seeing the way the other woman’s expression goes briefly dark, and Riley knows Abby well enough to know whatever Abby’s feeling isn’t directed at Riley - Abby’s probably telling herself she did something wrong to not be entrusted with the secret, she’s probably blaming herself. But Riley won’t let her.

“I have wanted to tell you about a hundred times. Fuck, I almost told you at the wedding, but that would have been even worse timing than the wedding itself.”

Abby’s chewing the inside of her mouth, but she chuckles once. “Probably would have been a welcome distraction.”

“I mean, you’ve made this new life for yourself, you’ve done so well. The last thing I want to do is drag you into Caldwell drama and fuck that up, but I could never blame you for distancing yourself from me at that point. And I’ll be honest, dude.” She feels the burn in her throat again. “I don’t have a great track record with friendships, and this one is just...it’s important, okay? I can’t lose you, too. You’re…”

“You’re my best friend, too.” Abby’s crooked smile appears again. No, of course, they have never said that out loud before. “I get it.”

“Yeah.” Riley swallows whatever was about to emerge as a sob or a slab of bile or both. “Shit.”

“See, this is why you and Sloane are perfect. She gives the impression that she can’t be vulnerable but she’s weirdly self-aware, and you’re outwardly charming but incapable of vulnerability. And you have the self-worth of toilet water.”

“I’m going to slap that bagel out of your hands.”

“But hey, wait. What about the fucking kiss? You said there was a kiss. She kissed you.”

“She did, but it was a bad idea. We immediately agreed that it was a bad idea.”

“Why?”

Riley eyes Abby’s vape pen enviously. “Can I?”

“You have to tell me why it’s a bad idea first.”

“I am asking you for nicotine and you are withholding.”

“It’s weed, first of all, and you’re avoiding the question. Aren’t you basically married anyway? The twins love you, you’re already over there all the time. Adding sex at this point is like...adding salt and pepper to a stew. How is this a bad idea?”

“It just is, okay?” She raises an eyebrow. “Did you say pepper in a stew?”

Abby waves off this criticism of her metaphor usage, chewing on her bagel. “God, you’re being so unbelievably stupid. You both are. Call me when your brain injury ends and you come to your senses, dude.” 





Predictably, Abby is not the only one with opinions on the matter. 

In another week, Riley’s sitting at a cafe around the corner from Sloane’s apartment, sharing a table with Jane Caldwell. It’s the first time she’s been scheduled to see Sloane since the situation, and Sloane is running late from a hearing, leaving Riley and Jane to keep an eye on the twins in the reading corner while Riley nurses a nice Earl Grey with oat milk, which she was only slightly ashamed to request from the lovely server, and she’s hardly even thinking of the kiss at Sloane’s door, hardly even considering it.

“Let’s talk about Sloane.” 

Riley looks up from her tea; Jane, her ensemble today a dandelion yellow and fuschia, her accessories all Betsey Johnson, is merely smiling, only the crinkling of her eyes giving away a secondary and more mysterious meaning beneath. Riley sets down her cup, the saucer chiming noisily at the impact. “Uh, certainly.”

“How do you feel about my sister, Riley?”

Riley is grateful that there is no tea in her throat. She gives Jane a quizzical look, studies her for an angle, finding none. Honesty is her expectation, then, so Riley obliges.

“I think she’s excellent.” And Riley knows this is an understatement and suspects that Jane does, too, based on the other woman’s expression.

“That’s what you think of her. Your feelings are a different matter.”

“My feelings are very fond and warm.” Riley pauses; by now, she’s had enough experience with each of the Caldwell women to understand something of their approaches. Sloane is exacting and blunt and unflinching; Harper connects with people emotionally before anything else, which has made her a master of networking. Jane, though: perhaps Jane has not been given her dues. Jane gives the impression she is as straightforward as Sloane, though in a way that’s very affable and endearing, and Riley doesn’t doubt that Jane is being earnest and has always been earnest, only that she may be much more clever in her approach to earnestness than is let on. “I like her very much, Jane. I assume that’s pretty obvious.”

“I don’t assume anything, Riley Bennett. The world is too…” She gestures vaguely in the air as if forming a cloud. “ Messy if all we ever do is assume. I like for people to be up front.”

“You share that preference with Sloane, I think.”

“Maybe.” Jane taps her chin, smiling enigmatically. “Or maybe not. Sometimes Sloane is very partial to denial.”

Interesting. “I might tend to agree.”

And this provokes the widest smile from Jane yet. “Oh, I’m sure you do. You know, when I was young, I used to think Sloane could do anything. She was unstoppable, and she still is. I think so, at least, but I bet you do, too.” Jane pauses for confirmation, and Riley would be lying if she didn’t nod, chew the inside of her cheek as if that could neutralize the gesture. “I didn’t realize until I was older that Sloane was capable of changing the world because she never made room for herself in it.” Jane takes a sip of her tea, still watching Riley as though she is waiting for something. “I was given a hard time at school; I think it’s hard for anyone who has a hard time being anything but honest, or maybe that’s just the schools you and I went to, where it’s not rewarded as well as manipulating the truth. I could only ever be myself, unfortunately. But god help the child who so much as smirked the wrong way at my drawings. Sloane was ruthlessly defensive of me. They used to call my mother because she’d have my bullies locking themselves in stalls, sobbing until they threw up. I don’t know what exactly she said to them, but she was very good at it.”

Riley has to hide a smirk, serious as it is. “I can imagine.”

“She was my champion. She was Harper’s champion, too, when we were children, until it became more complicated. I think that’s why it was always so difficult between them, why it felt like betrayal to Sloane: I’m sure you know that Sloane is very deliberate, very black and white in her moral code, and she didn’t want to have to choose between being loyal to her family or loyal to what she believed in. It was easy to defend me because I was a victim. It was impossible for her to defend Harper because Harper made victims, not always on purpose, but Sloane wouldn’t help her out of those situations. She took sides with the ones Harper had wronged, then she’d come home and our parents would side with Harper, too, they’d call the school to fix her mistakes and oh, it made Sloane furious. They used to have the most unholy fights at the dinner table. It broke her a little, I think, to constantly be at odds with herself. She hated herself for her own convictions, and hated herself for not being able to love Harper the way she wanted to, for not being able to take the easy way out and please our parents. So she threw herself into all the ways someone could measure worth that had nothing to do with loyalty or love. She’s never had a champion.” Jane leans forward, her voice lowering to a stage whisper. “Oh, I’ve been dying to tell you this, Riley.”

“You have?”

“Yes, I have. See, you’re very, very good for her. She’s so much calmer since you came along, she’s sure of herself in a way that doesn’t feel like she’s afraid. I’ve never seen this Sloane before. And you wouldn’t know this, but when you’re not around, she never stops talking up your accomplishments. Even Tipper’s gotten an earful. Riley did this, Riley did that, and so on. She thinks the world of you.”

“But you know, Jane, we’re just—”

“Just friends, though. I know.” There is something in Jane’s eye that could not be called anything but a distinct twinkling. “I also know that you two have had an interesting year.”

“Have we?” Riley studies the other woman intensely, but the only emotion Jane seems to betray is amusement. She is as accomplished in this skill as her eldest sister.

“Sloane does confide in me from time to time, despite her reputation as a vault of utter secrecy.”

Ah. Well, then. “I see.”

“I think you know Sloane well enough by now to recognize that she isn’t very good at forgiving herself. She’s always been like that. Denying herself what she really wants. Settling for something that will present the least risk. It all comes from what I’ve told you, and other things that I’m not qualified to understand because I’m not a therapist, though I am working on a mystery novel from one’s perspective.” She glances at the twins across the room and well out of earshot, but still lowers her voice. “Someone whose name rhymes with Beric was a good example of that.”

“Right.”

“And I’d say someone named Peter was a similar example.”

She pauses, internalizing that tricky little verb tense. “Was?”

“Oh, yes, Riley.” Jane’s eyebrows waggle conspiratorially. “He’s not in the picture anymore. I don’t know how much he ever was, if I’m honest. I heard the man mentioned twice.”

Well, this is news. Actually, much of what Jane has said is news, particularly the bit that Sloane has not hidden Riley away, that she has spoken about her to her family, that their friendship is common knowledge; Riley had previously assumed that the twins had been told not to mention her to their grandparents or some other strained arrangement that is apparently far from the truth. It’s all thrilling and stomach-twirling and then Jane drops this into her lap: Sloane is single. Well, Sloane has been single, and so has Riley, neither statement is new, but somehow, this time, the way Jane’s leaning forward and practically vibrating out of her chair to deliver it, makes the fact feel ten times heavier. 

“Riley, it's mostly none of my business, and you’ll tell me to butt out, I hope, if I cross any lines, but what exactly are you two waiting for?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Yes, you do, Riley.” Jane tents her fingers in front of her on the table and smiles expectantly, apparently prepared to wait however long is necessary for an answer.

“Jane.” Riley takes a sip of her tea out of the sheer need to fill her mouth with something other than her chewed tongue. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

Jane looks triumphant, almost as pink as her sweater. “I’m glad to hear that, because that’s exactly how I hoped you’d feel.” She sighs, sitting back in her chair. “You know, I’d just love a pumpkin scone.”

 

 

 

 

The twins are at Eric’s for the weekend, which is why Riley doesn’t expect to receive an invitation of any kind from Sloane: significantly, they have been avoiding spending any time alone together, which has been painful enough, but now Sloane has asked her to get coffee and Riley jumps to oblige. It’s fine, of course, but only just. Because as nice as it is to speak to Sloane one on one again, as lovely as she is to sit across from, there’s a weight to every other word between them. Riley can feel the pauses where they’re both trying to find phrases that won’t have secondary meanings, the moments when they look away and awkwardly touch their mouths, adjust their hair, attempt to find anywhere to gaze but at each other. Because the second Sloane looks at Riley, the opaqueness is gone, and she’s sure it’s the same on Sloane’s end. A hopeless fucking mess, to put it simply.

And the more the minutes pass, the more Riley feels herself steeling to the idea of something else. She remembers what Jane had said, remembers Abby calling her a fucking idiot in about twelve different phrasing, and as she’s walking Sloane back to the train, she lets herself ask the question.

“It’s different now, isn’t it?”

“What?” Sloane asks, though there is something to her tone that suggests she knows the answer.

“Us. The dynamic.”

“Oh.” Sloane’s gaze is focused ahead of them, but her eyes narrow briefly, her brow twitching when Riley glances over. “Yes.”

“It used to be easy, being your friend.” Riley licks her lips. “It’s not easy anymore.”

“I know. We were doing well for a while, but I don’t know how to...return. Sometimes I feel like we were holding water in a vase, and now that we’ve turned it over, we’re expecting to be able to gather it all up again.” Sloane’s expression is unreadable. “I doubt that even makes sense.”

“It does.”

“I’m sorry, for the record.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“This isn’t what you asked for, Bennett. You were very clear with your expectations. I appreciated that, for the record. The boundaries.”

“I thought it would be...safer.”

Sloane’s voice is low, her tongue briefly pressing against her cheek. “It was.”

“Sloane.”

“Yes?” Sloane stops, turns to face Riley, to finally meet her eyes, and that might be worse, somehow, than trying to have this conversation with her profile; Sloane’s brow is furrowed and her breath is forming the faintest clouds just beyond her lips. Riley doesn’t need more excuses to look at the other woman’s mouth.

“What if I made a mistake?”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I had a choice at the wedding. I could have chosen something else.”

“No, Bennett. This is what you wanted. That’s what you said.” Sloane’s frowning now. “Besides, if we’d kept...if it had continued being the way it was, the rest of it would have been different. We wouldn’t have let each other in. You would have kept me at a distance.”

“I’ve never kept you at a distance, Sloane.”

“Don’t, Bennett.” Sloane’s frown increases, though it doesn’t seem to be one of anger or sadness. Instead, it might be the best way to communicate an emotion that is far too immense for a single expression, and this small gesture must suffice in a shallow way. “I much prefer when you’re the sane one.”

Fuck it, she thinks. Fuck all of it. She’s all in or she’s nothing. “Do you hear what I’m saying here?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’ll entertain it.” Sloane sighs, a forced huff. “I interfere, Bennett.”

“With what?”

“With everything. What about that woman you were in love with? You have so many better options.”

“No one has ever surpassed you.”

“Christ.” Sloane visibly winces. “Don’t be sentimental, Bennett.” 

“This is a completely unsentimental judgment. I find you superior to every other person in every possible way.”

“Be rational.”

“I am. I’m too rational, actually. It’s being rational that has made me feel like I have to suppress the rest of it, and I’m sick of pretending it’s not there, Sloane.” 

“No.” Sloane gives her a look, her eyes flashing. “You’re not supposed to…” Her voice trails off, replaced by audible breaths.

“I’m not supposed to what? You kissed me, Sloane.”

“I did, and I shouldn’t have.”

“Why not?”

“Because that goes against our rules.”

“Fuck the rules. Has anyone ever made you feel like I do?”

And Sloane’s voice is hardly a whisper, carried on a breath that shimmers between them. “No. Never.”

“Isn’t that worth something?”

“Please, Riley.” Sloane reaches out and grabs her by the sleeve; it’s their first touch in weeks, the first time they’ve made contact since Sloane’s palm had cupped her cheek in the hallway, since the warmth of their mouths had made that hollow space between them, a room Riley had never wanted to leave, perhaps was still occupying even now. “I have survived everything my life has handed me. I could not survive you...should you choose to break me.”

Riley looks down at Sloane’s hand, her white-knuckled grip. She closes her own fist over Sloane’s fingers. “I couldn’t hurt you.”

“You’re better equipped than anyone in history.” Sloane’s gaze is fierce, she’s brighter than any other light in this city, but oh, Riley can see the way her bottom lip twitches, the tremble of her cheeks. “Do you have any idea how terrifying that is?”

“But I won’t hurt you.”

“People don’t usually mean to hurt each other. That’s the worst part of it.”

“Sloane, I’m serious.”

And Sloane’s smile is so heartbreaking that Riley thinks she can feel both of her kneecaps blow out. “I know you are.” She retrieves her hand, draws it to her chest. Steps away from Riley, and then starts walking toward the end of the block, only to stop and turn. “I’m the woman, aren’t I?”

Riley nods once. “Yes.”

“And you still feel the same way after all this time?”

“Yes.”

Sloane shakes her head, that devastating smile still intact. “Christ, Bennett.”






She doesn’t know if she’s surprised when her door is buzzed at two in the morning. She doesn’t know if the fact she hasn’t gone to sleep yet indicates that she saw this coming somehow, or had only hoped so intensely, so fervently, that she’d moved the universe even an inch in her direction, and this is the result of that shift: Sloane Caldwell, hair slightly damp from the first snow of the year, standing on the steps of Riley’s building and waiting to be let in. Riley hears her voice on the intercom and unlocks the door, then waits for Sloane’s ascent to her apartment, and this wait seems to take years, or maybe it takes three short exhales, and then the knock she’s expected, and Riley’s hand on the cold knob, instantly warming to her touch, and Sloane there when the door opens, her cheeks flushed, her mouth red and slightly open, her breath coming hard.

“You’re in love with me, Bennett?”

“Yeah.”

Sloane hasn’t moved from the doorway yet. Her crossing of the threshold seems to be predicated on Riley’s responses.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Because I swear to Christ, if you’re just saying it, if you’re not actually sure and I’m the only one feeling like this…” Sloane removes her scarf, balling it in her fist. “I can’t go back, we can never go back, but I can’t go forward if you’re not certain.”

“I’m absolutely certain.”

“You have to be, Bennett. It’s unacceptable if you’re not.” Sloane is now unbuttoning her wool coat, and Riley, for everything that her mind is currently attempting to process, is considering the possibility that Sloane might drop the coat to the floor, and it’s one of those Burberry down coats that ought to be put on a hanger, Riley’s deranged mind is really thinking about hangers right now, but Sloane does not drop it on the floor of the hallway, Sloane holds it in her hand, steps into Riley’s foyer, closes the door behind her, and drops it on the runner instead, which hasn’t been vacuumed in a week but fuck it, really, because Sloane’s now pulling her sweater off, too.

“So you’re in love with me, too?”

“Yes,” Sloane says, kicking her leather boots to one side, pulling off her socks. “It’s become increasingly obvious that if nothing is done about my being in love with you, I’ll start to become unhinged.” She’s now working on the zipper of her pants, unbuttoning them and sliding them to the floor. Riley continues to watch, not touching her yet, waiting like her life depends on it. “And despite not being a jealous person, if I had to watch you fall for someone else, if I had to watch you choose some other woman and love her, I’d unravel completely.”

“I understand that.”

“Do you?” And with this final removal - the silk blouse she was wearing beneath her sweater - Sloane is standing in Riley’s foyer in nothing but her underwear, and it’s a very lovely black lace set that Riley thinks is Agent Provocateur, nothing you’d wear to bed or under your cashmere sweater, but this is Sloane, and she is nothing if not a planner.

“Yes.”

“Riley Bennett,” Sloane says, and finally steps up to Riley, stares at her with the force of all those nights she wasn’t in her bed, all those miles and minutes that have been between them over these past months. Riley reaches for her, moves her hand to Sloane’s face, but Sloane’s fingers shoot up and stop her before it can land. “I need you to understand the power you have over me. Because I won’t let you touch me unless you know what you can do to me. What you are capable of. Do you understand?”

Riley nods. “I do.”

“Good.” Sloane releases her hand. 

Riley holds her breath as she lowers her fingertips to Sloane’s cheek, down to the edge of her jaw. In her peripheral vision, Sloane’s chest rises and falls, faster each time. 

“If we do this,” Sloane says, her voice lowered to a whisper. “If we do this now, we can’t go back.”

“We were never going back.” Riley pushes Sloane against the wall, applies her teeth to her neck with no concern for the mark it will leave.

The noise that escapes Sloane will stay in Riley’s memory long after this night has turned into morning, and then into another night, and all the weeks after that, and the months, the years. Sloane repeating her name like a chant into Riley’s headboard; Sloane clutching Riley’s wrist where her fingers wrapped around her neck; Sloane’s sudden halting of her rolling hips, the clenching of her thighs on either side of Riley’s waist, a true equestrian’s stance, locking Riley’s hand inside of her as she waited for Riley to say it again, to tell her that she loved her. And she did. And she does.

Outside, the snow gathers on the windowsill, softens every hard edge. The radio stations, unheard, turn over to holiday music. Elsewhere the overnight staff are changing the displays at the department stores, hanging gold ribbons in the windows, yawning as they watch the accumulation on the sidewalks. In this particular corner of the North Slope, shoveling can be ignored for a few hours more. Riley sleeps with her body curled around Sloane’s, skin against skin, the sheets discarded. Only minutes ago, she was just on the edge of dreaming, her finger tracing Sloane’s spine, the curve of her hip, the soft marks of motherhood, and then Sloane had taken her hand and pulled it forward, clutched it fiercely. She still holds it to her middle now.






Reader, we should let them sleep. The film is over and the moon is out. Nice night to moongaze. We’ll still be here when you return, should you want to visit us again; get into your bed, look at these glowing words. Let the screen be a window: you are looking at me, and I am looking at you. See me smiling, grateful and exhausted. May all endings be this happy.