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blame it on christmas

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Abby hates this.

She can't believe that Harper would spring this on her at the last minute. But Harper looks so freaked out, and at least she has parents, and Abby would be lying if she said she wasn't more than a little curious to meet-the-parents.

"I told them you had nowhere else to go because your parents are… no longer with us."

Meeting them as her orphan roommate, however… might pose some problems.

That's it. No fucking way. Abby can't do this.

"I'm not going." She shakes her head, and keeps shaking as Harper begs and pleads. No way.

But… they're almost there. Abby doesn't want to go home and admit to John that Harper wouldn't even tell her parents about Abby. That she was ashamed. John's a good friend, but he's never been on the best of terms with Harper and he would absolutely flip a gasket if he knew about this.

Abby's heart beats painfully in her chest, and Harper widens her eyes, looking so bereft that Abby finally relents, nodding. "Okay, we can do this… It's five days. How bad can it be?"

 

Famous last words. The whole family is weird as hell. Snooty and snotty and snobby and Abby thanks every one of her lucky stars that her family was normal – or more normal than this, anyway.

It's the constant jabs that start to get her. "Those in need", "Abby's orphan friend", "You're so brave."

Although, Jane seems like a one-of-a-kind kook-ball so Abby can't really blame her for Tipper's passive-aggression.

She has to sleep apart from Harper. Although Tipper is being perfectly reasonable – two grown women who were just roommates would certainly not want to share a bed – Abby resents Harper's not intervening right then and there. It would've been a perfect opportunity to come out, smooth things over. But Harper's closeted at the moment, and Abby has to respect that, so she plays nice with Jane and starts unpacking her stuff.

She gets a kick out of Jane – what a character!

 

She doesn't get a chance to talk to Harper before the dinner, and she gets squished in between Tipper and Jane in the SUV, so she's a little non-plussed when Harper's ex-boyfriend shows up.

But, make the best of a bad situation, and all that, so she listens carefully to Jane's plot synopsis and Connor's tedious stories about working as a legal assistant (the man is nearly thirty, really, get a life, Abby thinks uncharitably as she downs more wine). She's a full head below everyone else, and it makes her feel like the unwanted cousin, little sister, kid-no-one-could-get-a-babysitter-for-on-short-notice.

It's all made up for by running into Riley though. She's always been curious about her, the ex, the first one. From what she can tell, she was the only woman that Harper dated before Abby, but Harper's never really talked about her at all. Her curiosity is only further piqued by the challenging way she greets both of them, and Abby thinks they've probably been sprung.

Barring that, or maybe even including it, the dinner is a disaster from start to finish. And despite Tipper's promise of total privacy, people keep barging in on her. Harper apologizes profusely for everything, but they're still not harmonious.

And that's before Harper and Sloane maul each other at ice-skating, the whole dinner thing with Connor, the constant snide comments from Sloane, and Tipper's obsession with nit-picking everything about every person in the house.

In particular, she has a problem with Abby's sense of style, which is problematic because she doesn't even own any dresses.  

"Oh, you're such a tomboy," she says before the dinner. She has a somewhat satisfied smirk on her face, and it's not 'til later that Abby clicks that Tipper must have been pleased that she wasn't going to be any competition with Harper for Connor's affections.

"Don't you have anything more… feminine?" Tipper asks the next morning. They're going ice-skating, for crying out loud.

This whole thing turns into an endless shitshow, and she regrets not bringing a bottle of whiskey. Or vodka. At this point, she'd take tequila. Harper seems terrified to look at or touch her, so she's cold and lonely.

At the party that evening, she's dragged off with her father, and Abby's left with Jane again. She's nice enough, but intense, and a little too interested in men, in Abby's humble opinion. Riley acknowledges Abby over the balcony, meeting her eyes and raising her wine glass ironically.

God, Abby needs wine.

She makes her excuses to Jane, saying she's going to the bar, but she's really thinking about talking to Riley. As she steps across the buttery wooden floor, a waiter wanders past and offers her a glass of champagne. She grabs it with a tight thanks and drinks most of it before she gets three steps closer to the bar. She looks around for another convenient tray of champagne, but none are within reach, so she caves and orders a vodka neat from the open bar.

But she can't stop thinking about Riley and her ironic smirk.

She actually thinks she might pass out from boredom listening to Harper's high school friends drool over her ex. Connor is, possibly, objectively attractive. But he's obviously obsessed with Harper, and none of these mediocre small-town housewives has a snowball's chance in hell of getting with him.

And, Abby has to admit, Harper doesn't seem to be hating it. She's definitely not hating it as much as she should, given that her girlfriend is less than twenty feet away.

She sighs a prayer when her phone starts to buzz, then genuinely smiles when she sees that it's John.

She hurries outside, accepting the call.

But it only makes her feel worse, reminding her of the mess she's in. "Did you need something, or did you just call to shame me?" she finally snaps.

Something something about a fish, then he just hangs up on her.

"Hey." Riley pops out from around the corner. Abby's heart drops into her shoes. Did she hear any of that? She doesn't have the Caldwells' heterosexual blinkers, and she'd definitely be able to put two and two together.

"Oh. Hey, hey," Abby says, shoving her hands into her pockets.

"How's it going?"

"Great," Abby says sarcastically. She half-hopes Riley picks up on it and half-hopes she doesn't.

"I was just taking a break from diagnosing everyone's mystery illnesses," Riley grimaces.

Abby chuckles awkwardly.

"Hey, I wasn't trying to eavesdrop or anything…"

Oh. She does know. Abby tunes out for a second – what's she gonna do? Harper is going to kill her. "I can relate," Riley says, searching her face.

Deflect. Avoid. "Like, to what?" Abby says, heart beating in her throat.

Riley eyes her, then puffs her cheeks out in a sigh. "Nothing. Nothing. Um, I'm gonna go inside. I'm sure my mother's hairdresser wants to show me her weird finger again. So… I like your jacket." Riley gestures at the similarities in their attire and Abby finally relaxes. As if this woman didn't clock her from a mile away.

Riley leaves, and Abby spins on her heel. What the fuck kind of situation has she gotten herself into? Could this get any more complicated?

 

Turns out, the answer is yes. She gets fake arrested by two spotty kids masquerading as mall cops. She doesn't even have the energy to argue. It had something to do with the two kids, she's sure. But they're so young, and surely even Sloane wouldn't put them up to something like that?

She's banned from dinner, and Harper doesn't even try to stick up for her. She tries not to be sullen, but it's getting harder with each passing moment. Tipper's barbs about her morals are starting to get old, and when she says something about "your parents didn't raise you like we raised our girls," Abby has to physically bite her tongue to stop herself from yelling. Harper doesn't even offer her a soft touch, and she feels so alone. She stares out the window and tries to recite the alphabet backwards to distract herself from Tipper's monologuing and Jane's overenthusiastic side-hug. She's sandwiched in between Jane and Harper, and, sure, they're the lesser of two evils – the alternatives being Sloane and her husband – but why is she in any kind of position where she's referring to her girlfriend of more than a year as the lesser of two evils?

They drop her off unceremoniously on the main street of the town. Harper doesn't even wave at her as they drive away.

She feels so goddamned alone in the middle of goddamned nowhere. She crosses her arms over her chest. Better find somewhere for dinner, even if just so her fingers don't drop off from cold. She ends up in some random, sub-par Thai restaurant. She gets a Panang curry and frowns about it.

She pays, tips the waitress generously because she's the first person who hasn't looked at her like she's a monumental fuck-up all day, and makes her way out into the freezing winter air.

The cinema across the road is the pinnacle of Christmas cheer, and it's in stark contrast to the hollow feeling opening up under her breastbone. "It's a Wonderful Life." Yeah, right. When she blinks, the lights blur and refocus through her tears. She can imagine that she's on her way to the Yangs' apartment, ready to play with their puppy and eat Chinese takeout, instead of wandering the streets alone, while her closeted girlfriend plays nice with her homophobic parents.

When she sees Riley, her breath leaves her all in one exhale. The half-shrug of understanding Riley gives her nearly makes her cry, but she gulps it down.

And maybe it's against her better judgement, but after watching her girlfriend play heterosexual happy families with her ex-boyfriend for a whole dinner, and getting interrogated by mall security, and having Harper's parents tell her off like a little child, she's feeling a little rebellious.

So yeah, she flirts. Riley's sarcasm feels like coming home, like she's the only sane person in this town of empty facades and power plays.

It's definitely against her better judgement.

"You know, I'm glad I ran into you," she says, and she doesn't miss the quirk of eyebrows, the flicker of interest that runs across Riley's face. She swallows, trying to remember how to be funny. "'cause, I'm having this thing where if I stick my finger in my eye, it, like, really hurts." It's deadpan, and she hopes Riley will catch on.

Riley plays along – "once you get to the finger-poking stage, you're pretty much dead" – and maybe it's because she's the only person who's talked to Abby like a real person since she got here. Maybe it's because she's a gorgeous probably-lesbian. Maybe it's because Harper left Abby for Connor's company, but Abby says, "I'd really like to drink some alcohol. Do you know where I could do that?"

And Riley delivers the goods.

Foxwood is a drag bar. Abby grins at Riley when she pushes open the door. Riley makes chitchat with the bouncer for a minute, then wends her way through the tables to find a booth for them. Abby smiles as she slides into the seat across from Riley.

She's definitely a lesbian, present-tense. That blazer, the confident way she cocks her head at Abby? Big. Dyke. Energy.

"I'll grab us some beers," she says, quirking an eyebrow as if to confirm Abby's alcohol preferences. Here she was, thinking this town only had too-fancy wine and hard spirits.

Abby nods gratefully, twisting around in her seat to watch the drag queens bumble their way through a raunchy Christmas carol. It wrings a laugh from her, unexpectedly, and the tension in her chest and shoulders eases up just a little.

Maybe this will be okay.

It's five days. How bad can it be? she reminds herself.

"So, what's going on?" Riley asks, sliding a full glass across to her and dropping into the seat opposite.

"It's just…" Abby sighs, fumbles, takes a huge sip of beer. "Harper." The word comes out like an exhale, and a caress, and an accusation.

"Yeah." Riley's mouth twists as she takes two gulps of beer in quick succession.

Realizing even that might be saying too much, Abby backtracks. She ends up telling Riley the whole mall cop story. Abby thinks Riley knows that Harper's her girlfriend, but she doesn't want to open up that can of worms right now. She wants to pretend that some other circumstances led to them sitting together in this bar, joking, laughing… flirting. Flirting? 

Riley promises to help her with the as-yet-unpurchased White Elephant gift, and then as the drag queens launch into another song, she bops her head up and down and smiles.

And although she had promised not to open that can of worms, Abby is curious. About yesterday.

"What did you mean, last night, when you said you could relate?" She's partly looking for validation, for someone, anyone to acknowledge their relationship and make her feel like she's not insane, and she's somewhat curious about Riley's history with Harper.

"That was just a comment based on an assumption that I was making about you and Harper," Riley fudges. She has a very light touch, hesitant to offend, clearly raised in this town of people who can talk around anything.

"I think it's probably an accurate assumption." Abby sips from her beer. Riley tilts her head, looking sympathetic, and understanding, and a little… disappointed, maybe? "You don't have to talk to me about this stuff. I know, it's weird."

Riley shakes her head abruptly. "So, what has she told you?"

There's more to the story. Not surprising. Harper's been a completely different person since they've been here. It must've been hell to try and deal with her as a closeted teenager. And the Connor thing. "That you dated in high school," Abby settles on. "That you were her first girlfriend. That's about it. Is there more?"

"Yeah. A little." Riley rolls her eyes. "I mean… Yeah. Yeah. Growing up, we were totally inseparable. We were best friends. And then, freshman year, we became more than friends. We started dating." Riley looks a little guilty for telling her ex's current girlfriend about their relationship, but the way she's shifting uncomfortably makes Abby even more curious. She nods encouragingly, trying to look open. "But nobody knew that, obviously," Riley continues. "We would, like, leave these little love letters in‐in each other's lockers. And one day, one of Harper's friends found one of the letters, and she asked Harper what it was about, and Harper basically just said that I am gay, and that I wouldn't leave her alone. And then within a couple days, like, everybody in school found out, and everybody was so awful to me."

Abby's heart stops for a second. That's awful. She can't picture Harper, the effervescent woman she's in a relationship with, doing that to anyone.

Oh, except now she can. Harper, the quintessential people pleaser, with her wide eyes and innocent stare. Yeah. Abby can see that, and it makes her feel sick.

"I'm sorry, that's… I'm sorry," she says.

"Yeah, so the thing that I can relate to is just being in love with somebody that is… too afraid to show the world who they are." That resonates painfully under Abby's collarbones. "But that was a long time ago." Riley shrugs, and half-smiles, and there's more she could say, Abby bets, but she doesn't, instead up-ending her glass to drain the dredges.

 

The thought of fucking Harper's girlfriend in the bathroom appeals for more reasons than one.

Of course, the first is that Abby is attractive, and Riley thinks it'd be pretty satisfying. The second is that the thought of getting back at Harper for outing her in high school by hooking up with her closeted girlfriend is… something. Something that makes Riley feel petty and vindictive, but also thrilled.

Harper's had everything handed to her, her entire life, and she's always avoided personal responsibility by lying and skating over the truth and pretending the ugly parts of life just don't exist.

So, yeah, Riley's not opposed to the idea of fucking Abby in the bathroom. But the longer she listens to her pour her heart out, the more she knows she can't do it. Abby's sweet, and obviously out of her depth, and she doesn't have the know-how to navigate these upper-class twats. Riley knows better than anyone how they screw with your head until you don't know which way's up anymore.

Riley gets her another beer and they finally broach the topic of Harper and Riley.

She doesn't want to come off bitter, but Abby deserves to know what she's getting into. She genuinely seems like a nice person. So Riley tells her what happened in high school.

To her credit, Abby seems shocked, and she looks like she's re-evaluating the Harper she thought she knew. Which is the correct response, Riley thinks.

With a helpful move of the drag queens to the back of the room, Riley slides her way around the table, their thighs touching, and Abby's flirting back, and everything's going well, until Abby looks at her phone, and says she has to go.

Her hesitancy over the words makes Riley wonder if she should push her to stay, but she restrains herself. Abby will get there with time.

Riley plasters a smile on, nods, shuffles over to let her out of the booth, hugs her goodbye. Em K Ultra gives her a sympathetic look – struck out? – and Riley shrugs and laughs.

She has another beer and settles in to watch the show. She chats with a guy she went to high school with, who's now running his own law firm in town. He's not boring, but he's not interesting either. Not like Abby. When they weren't talking about Harper's fucked up family, Abby had told her about her thesis in Art History – looking at how practices of restoration have been used to deny women artists' depictions of themselves. Interesting. Not something Riley had ever considered.

Fuck. The prospect of fucking someone in the bathroom is one thing, but finding their thesis interesting is another. She needs to pull herself together – she's just lonely, missing her liberal friend group in Baltimore, feeling like she's been thrown back fifteen years to the throes of high school politics.

She drains her second glass of beer and waves goodbye to Robert, making her way out into the cold. She walks past Fratty's on the way to her car, and she debates going inside to throw a spanner in the works of Harper's night out.

But she dismisses that urge and instead drives home slowly, not particularly drunk, and certainly not over the legal limit, given how long they'd been at Foxwood.

Her mom is having a Christmassy night-cap at home, but Riley declines her offer of a glass and goes straight to bed after chugging a tall glass of water.

 

Abby's feeling pleasantly buzzed when she gets to Fratty's, still glowing from the Foxwood. She waves happily at her girlfriend, and Harper barely acknowledges her.

Her mood sours instantly.

They barely have a chance to talk, and Abby's not at all interested in doing shots and dancing to mid-2000s pop songs with Harper's high school friends, one of whom is clearly trying to get her talons into Connor.

Abby's once again overwhelmed by a strong sense of being the one-gay-friend, the unpopular cousin, the tag-along little sister. She sighs. A proper drink sounds good right about now – a hoppy beer, or whiskey-on-the-rocks, but she can already feel herself moving from pleasantly drunk to hungover, so she decides against it.

Harper finally bothers to circle back around to her, and she tilts her head and makes the pouty face that always gets Abby right under the collarbone. "Are you having the most terrible time?"

Abby thinks back to her evening with Riley, the throbbing pop music giving her a headache right, and tells Harper she's going to go home.

Harper doesn't seem at all cut up about this, and Abby tries not to let it bother her. She's starting to feel more and more distant from Harper. She slumps against the window in the taxi and resists the urge to text her and ask when she'll be home.

At the Caldwell's house, she procrastinates by having a shower, refolding her clothes, moisturizing. Harper still hasn't texted her back. She gives in and texts her again. It's pathetic, but she wants to see Harper before she goes to sleep.

Finally, she gives up, texts Good night, and rolls over to pretend to sleep.