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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.

Chapter Text

After Harper tells her she's being suffocated, Abby cries for almost a minute, trying to muffle it, then stands up with purpose. She's getting out of here. She is not going to let Harper do this to her anymore.

But when she puts her address into the taxi app, there's surge pricing, and it's more than a thousand dollars. Shit. It's not like she can ask Harper to spot her. She deflates, tears threatening again.

John appears on her phone screen and the soft buzz in her hands nets an almost Pavlovian response as she automatically swipes up to answer the call.

"Hey," she manages.

John apologizes, and Abby's grateful for that. Still, it's more pressing to get this whole shitshow off her chest and get the patented John reality check. "Well, let's see," she begins, voice heavy with sarcasm before she launches into an acidic summary of her last two days. "I know this isn't about me, I just feel crazy, like‐ Do I stick it out for two days? I- What would you do?" And what a fucking joke, asking John for romantic advice. John, who puts trackers on his Grindr hook-ups. John, who thinks marriage is more like shopping for kitchen appliances than… just being in love with your person.

And of course, he doesn't come through for her, just hangs up on her, in fact. She takes a deep breath. She needs to get out of here. She needs to talk to someone who doesn't think she's crazy, or a criminal, or heterosexual.

"Hey, um. Hey, it's Abby." She can't believe she's calling her girlfriend's ex for, like, an emotional booty call, or whatever, but. Here they are. "Are you doing anything right now?"

And Riley doesn't ask questions, doesn't pry, doesn't even mention Harper's name. She just says she'll be there in less than twenty minutes. Riley hesitates before she ends the call, and Abby feels like she wants to say something, but she doesn't, and the moment passes. "See you," she says.

"Bye," Abby responds.

She sits on the bed and taps listlessly at level 373 of Candy Crush until Riley texts her that she's at the end of the drive.

Somehow she makes it out of the house without being seen, which is a blessing. God forbid she get roped into another round of Caldwell Family Christmas Instagram 2019. Or worse, asked to babysit again.

Riley is playing early 2000s Tegan and Sara – the soundtrack to Abby's teenage years – and bopping her head along when Abby knocks softly on the window. Riley waves, so Abby opens the door and slides into the passenger seat, head ducked low like it's a getaway car.

Well. It is. In some sense of the word.

She pulls the door harder than intended and it slams shut with a bang. Abby jumps, then puffs out a sigh.

"Another fun day at Santa's grotto?" Riley restarts the ignition and pulls away from the Caldwells' house with much haste.

"I mean-" Oh, god, Abby really doesn't want to do this. It's all kinds of trashy, but yikes, she needs to purge it. "Harper just-" Ugh. No way. She takes a halting breath. "Did you know Connor in high school?" She changes tacks quickly.

Riley frowns. "Yeah. Yeah, I did. Connor O'Connor-"

"You're fucking with me," Abby snorts. "No way did he get through high school with a name like that."

Riley allows herself a smirk. "You'd be surprised. All-American footballer, Mom on the PTA, Dad a local politician, straight A's. Superbly, impeccably straight. Blech." Abby sees the speedometer ticking up as Riley's foot presses subtly harder on the accelerator.

A colossal pressure uncuffs her sternum as the Caldwells' driveway fades in the distance behind them.

"That was weird. Sorry," Abby says. She fumbles for something else to say. "Uh, you're studying at John Hopkins?" She kicks herself – what a banal change of topic – but Riley seizes it with both hands.

"Residency," Riley says. "Not studying, not anymore. I specialize in dermatology. That's why everyone and their aunt wants me to look at their weird spots."

"Oh," Abby says. "You know, I've actually been having this problem…" Riley taps on the brakes and flicks her indicator on for a side street off the main road, while Abby fishes for a ridiculous medical problem to make her laugh. "Every time I'm in a room with Sloane, my skin just starts… breaking out in pustulous boils. It's gonna be a real bummer at the White Elephant tonight."

Riley laughs. Abby breathes a sigh of relief. Being with Riley, bantering back and forth… it's like she's in a bubble, insulated from all the Caldwell drama. A welcome reprieve.

"Sloane has that effect. She once bullied some poor sophomore out of the school because his school shorts were a size too small," Riley says. She's concentrating on parallel parking and isn't looking at Abby, but Abby winces anyway.

"Jesus," she mutters. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Riley snickers. "Tipper's something else. I'm not even convinced she's human. She's looked the same since senior year of high school."

"Yikes," Abby says with feeling.  

Riley's tongue pokes between her teeth as she swirls the wheel hard and settles them in between a snow-covered SUV and a crappy 2000s Toyota Corolla.

"Smooth," Abby says, impressed.

Riley grins. "That's what my patients say, too."

Abby rolls her eyes. Riley switches off the car, turning to face her. "Okay. If you feel the urge to steal anything, give me the signal. I'll cover the exits for you." Abby blinks at her, still half-unable to tell if she's serious. Riley cracks her easy grin again. "I'm kidding. I promise there will be no robberies, attempted, fake, or otherwise, on my watch. Do you know what you're going to get?"

Abby half-smiles. "You gotta help me out here, I have no idea what will pass the Tipper Test. Trademark," she jokes.

Riley unbuckles her seatbelt with a flourish. "It's time for me to introduce you to the wonderful world of the affluent small-town shopping experience."

They get out of the car and Abby, with her hands firmly planted in her pockets as usual, nearly slips over straight onto the sleety ground. Riley catches her under the elbow without pausing. Abby's breath catches at the supportive touch, but the moment she's steady upon the pavement, Riley's hand is gone, occupied with buttoning up her coat against the winter chill.  

Riley's half-quirked smile, ironic, sympathetic, real, pulls a glow of heat into Abby's cheeks. Riley looks down, then speeds ahead of Abby, diving into a story about an encounter with one of the elderly busybodies at the last White Elephant party. Abby tries to keep up with both the tale and Riley's confident pace on the icy pavement as she leads them towards the main street. They round the corner onto Main Street to see a series of shops decorated in Christmas lights and tinsel.

The sight of so many expensive gifts in so many carefully-decorated windows makes her stomach churn with nerves again, but Riley quickly puts her at ease. "All you need to know about the Caldwells and extended family is: they will go nuts for niche kitchen gadgets."

Abby shakes her head, breaking a smile. "You're telling me they don't all have personal chefs?"

Riley just laughs, pointing into a shop that sells everything from kitsch chicken decorations to hand-painted eggcups to mugs with Papyrus-font labels reading hand-thrown by our members: proceeds to Good Shepherd Elementary School PTA.

"This will have something that'll do," Riley says.

They peruse inside for a while. Abby's getting increasingly antsy: everything is either too expensive, too oddly specific, or both.

Riley finally stops Abby's back-and-forthing about what to get by plonking a mini doughnut factory with a sale tag onto the counter. "We'll take this," she says firmly to the cashier, quirking an eyebrow at Abby to confirm that that's okay.

Glad to have the decision taken out of her hands, Abby flips the price tag over – 60% off, well within her price range – and nods. "Thank you," she says, half to the cashier and half to Riley.

"This for the Caldwell's White Elephant?" the cashier asks as she taps on the computer screen to ring up the purchase.

"Yeah," Riley says.

"I'll gift wrap it for you, then." Is Abby going crazy, or can she detect a hint of jealousy in the clerk's voice? Who on God's green earth is jealous of the dysfunctional dynamic that suffuses every interaction with a Caldwell?

Riley taps her fingers rapidly on the counter, an anxious tic. She smiles tightly at Abby, eyebrows quirking slightly at the cashier, so Abby thinks she might not be crazy.

Abby takes the bag. "Thank you," she calls as they leave. She peers down at the gift once again as she pushes out the door. "Okay, but who's really gonna want a mini donut factory?" she asks Riley.

Riley snorts. "Uh, this family. I saw two of their cousins get in a fistfight over a quesadilla maker at this party once."

What has Abby gotten herself into? She lets out a puff of nervous laughter at Riley's face. "Yikes," she says, reaching into her pocket as she feels her cellphone vibrate a split second before it chimes.

Harper: Hey, I'm really sorry about earlier. Can we talk after the party? I love you.

Abby's heart takes a nosedive into her midriff. At least Harper didn't try to justify it via text. That would've made Abby mad. Or, madder, she supposes; she's already pretty pissed off.

She can feel Riley's eyes on her phone screen – Abby's subconsciously tilting it towards her, seeking a second opinion, a reality check.

"Everything okay?" Riley says. The woman is far too astute for her own good.

"Yeah," Abby sighs. Riley pauses, hands in her pockets, to wait for Abby. She's stopped short outside a café without even noticing.

She quickly taps out a response: Yes, we can talk. Love you too.

"C'mon," Riley says softly as Abby repockets her phone. "Let me tell you about the time someone set the tree on fire trying to prove they could make the best crème brûlée."

Abby shakes her head, resolving herself to enjoying this rare moment of joy, rather than worrying at the Harper problem even more. "This I have got to hear," she says.

Riley begins talking, outlining the beginning of the story, one hand making a whisk gesture and the other resting softly on Abby's shoulder for a split second.

Abby ducks her head, trying to ignore the warmth spreading through her at the touch.

Riley's hand flickers away as she mimes lighting a Christmas ornament with a blowtorch, snorting unbecomingly. Abby's phone chimes and her hand automatically dives into her pocket, and she watches Riley's attention follow.

Riley hesitates a half-step as she relates the desperate hunt for a fire extinguisher because Tipper had hidden it in the interests of Christmas cheer.

Instead of pulling out her phone to read Harper's text, Abby simply flicks the switch to silence her phone and turns her full attention back to Riley, laughing as she explains the dildo-shaped experimental sculpture that Jane made last year.

 

The bubble bursts when Riley drops her at the end of the drive, saying that she shouldn't come in before the party's started.

"Thank you," Abby tells her, standing an awkwardly appropriate distance from the car. She tries to inject her voice with the gratitude she feels towards Riley for letting her escape this toxic hellhole, even for a few hours.

"Any time," Riley says, waving as she lets the clutch out and speeds away.

Abby turns towards the house, tilting her chin up in a gesture of defiance for her audience of none.

She takes her time walking up the driveway, steeling herself for the inevitable shitshow.

And it is a shitshow.

The second she steps in the door, carrying her gift, trying to project cheerful and presentable and amenable, Tipper jumps down her throat. All Abby does is ask where she should put that fucking donut machine. Tipper near-yells, "I don't know. In the oven?" She tosses her hands up in exasperation. "Jesus, Abby, where do you think it goes? Under the damn tree!"

Abby ducks her head, obligingly reaching to slot it under the lower branches of the (heavily, and impressively) decorated tree. Before she can complete this task and get the hell out of there, Tipper sighs. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You probably never even had a Christmas tree." Abby has to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. Yeah, yeah, they're all sad that she's an orphan. With parents like Tipper and Ted, who needs a full house of happy family?

Tipper sighs again. "We do this party every year, and every year, no matter how early I start planning, I just feel totally unprepared."

Abby tries to look sympathetic, she really does, despite feeling less than an ounce of sympathy for Tipper's party-planning malaise. Apparently, it comes out guilty instead, because the next thing she knows, Tipper's accusing her of stealing her brooch. As if Abby wants her crusty, old, undoubtedly ex-Confederate brooch.

"Have you seen it? You can tell me. I won't be mad," Tipper smiles like she's a co-conspirator, and Abby's heart dives right down into her shoes. She restrains herself from rolling her eyes, opening her mouth to correct Tipper. As she draws a breath, she realizes that anything she says will sound like a guilty conscience, so she shuts it and listens to Tipper's accusations. "I just want to know it's safe," she says.

"I haven't seen it." She nods firmly.

"Okay." Tipper looks like she 100% does not believe that. Well, she can suck Abby's thieving dick. Abby tightens her jaw to prevent herself from saying anything she'd regret. "Well, if it should magically appear on my dresser, there will be no questions asked."

"Okay," Abby agrees dully.

"Okay," Tipper says, whirling away, presumably to chastise yet another member of the catering staff. Abby settles the neatly-packaged donut maker under the Christmas tree. Ted is sitting on the couch, lost in his own world – probably a fantasy about winning the mayoral race, Abby reflects.

She hesitates in the doorway. So far, she's failed utterly at making a good impression; after everything, she still wants Ted to think well of her. She is planning to ask him for his blessing for their marriage.

"Um..." she swallows. "Hey, Ted." She shuffles her feet. "I just wanted to mention, everything that happened yesterday was a complete misunderstanding. You know, I would never, ever‐"

Ted cuts her off with a hand. "You don't‐ You don't have to explain," he says. "Let's just avoid any further incidents, yes?"

Abby still can't help feeling she's done something wrong. "Yeah. Yes," she corrects herself. Absolutely. No further "incidents". She's saved from having to clumsily extricate herself from the conversation by Jane.

Harper's erstwhile elder sister opens the door, wielding what Abby assumes from Riley's earlier stories must be some huge experimental painting, wrapped in shiny red and gold paper, a little bow gracing the corner. "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas Eve!" she announces. Ted appears to age fifteen years as he sights the gift, not to mention Jane's attire. Abby suppresses a smile. "Look at what this little elf brought in," Jane says brightly.

"Wow. What is that?" Abby's eyebrows hit her hairline.

"This is my masterpiece. Whoever picks it is going to be very pleased!"

Ted dismisses Jane's enthusiasm with a cutting request to fix the printer, and Jane, ever a source of patience and good cheer, obliges.

Abby decides then and there that she likes Ted even less than she likes Tipper. Considering this whole party a lost affair, she turns to retreat downstairs until she's absolutely forced to come back up, for politeness' sake.

Naturally, this plan is immediately foiled by Harper's appearance. Harper's make-up is perfectly done, and she looks absolutely stunning in a chaste green turtleneck and matching A-line skirt. Of course. Good Christian girls, and all that. Abby nearly swallows her tongue.

"Hey," Harper says, eyes searching over Abby's face. Abby tries to maintain a neutral expression.

"Hey," she responds, smiling tightly. A peace offering. It's not the time to hash it out.

"What'd you do today?" Abby can detect a note of minor irritation in Harper's voice. That's rich, coming from her.

"I just went and got a White Elephant gift." She gestures to the tree.

"Oh." Harper tilts her head. "In town?"

Does Harper know she was with Riley? Is that why she's being weird? That is so none of her business, since she's left Abby to fend for herself in this tiny shithole of a town with no car and no friends. "Yeah." Abby ducks her head, looking at the impeccably vacuumed carpet.

"How'd you get there?" Harper's accusing her of something, Abby knows from the little twist in her mouth.

Abby starts to respond, but before she can explain that Riley picked her up, Tipper trots down the corridor, waving that fucking iPad around. She's looking for Jane, and she's looking for Sloane right now, and the children certainly cannot be allowed to miss out. Abby shoves her hands in her pockets, points down the hall, and lets it happen around her rather than have this conversation in front of Tipper.

"Harper, come with me," Tipper commands, and Abby loses her chance to talk to Harper at all. Harper trots off with barely an apologetic glance back to soothe Abby's soul.

 

Riley presses harder than she needs to on the accelerator. The car revs aggressively for a few seconds until she calms down and lets it off.

That fucking family. Abby's sweet – cheerful and eager to please even after the way they've treated her like absolute shit – and Riley's nearly spitting tacks that Harper's doing this. Again.

She twirls the radio dial until she hits calming classical music. She drives deliberately slowly back home, trying not to think about Harper, or the Caldwells, or high school.

"Hi, sweetie!" When she goes into the bathroom to wash her hands – doctor's habits die hard – her mom is putting the finishing touches on her updo.

"Hi, mom."

"What's wrong?" Her mom tilts her head in the mirror, spitting an open bobby pin into her hand and sliding it into place.

Riley shakes her head. As well-meaning as her mom is, she can't out Abby and Harper right now. Her parents are notorious chatterboxes; not cruel or gossip-mongering, just of the talk-before-you-think variety. "Nothing. Well, just looking forward to the White Elephant party," she corrects herself before her mom can press her further. "I better go get dressed."

She flicks through her closet. She could've sworn she put aside a cream blouse for tonight. Sighing, she gets down on her knees to flick through her suitcase.

No luck. Nothing in her suitcase could be considered light – the clothes range in hue from charcoal to obsidian. She sits back on her heels, huffing in frustration. Her eyes fall upon on a storage box on the shelves lining the closet; it's labelled in her neat, pre-medical-school handwriting: Yearbooks.

Why not? She's already been picking at all her old high school wounds, hanging out with Abby. Attending all the Caldwell events. Last night, she'd even done a half-hour stint stalking Harper's Instagram on the toilet – mainly looking for pictures of Abby, as much as she wanted to deny it. That had come to an abrupt halt when she'd dropped her phone and nearly liked a post from 2014.

She slides her fingers around the cool cardboard and draws the box out, settling it on top of the suitcase. It's a bad idea, she knows. She opens the lid anyway, flicking open the top book. It's 2005, her junior year. The yearbook bears few signatures, but more troubling – and yeah, she's definitely looking for trouble – is the sheaf of letters that spill from the pages: Harper's high school love notes.

She was a sweet touch even then, a real romantic (all in the private, dark confines of Riley's childhood bedroom, of course). The notes are all signed love, h. She wasn't very creative. Riley thumbs through the pages, phrases jumping out at her. She doesn't really want to know, but… it's some kind of sweet torture.

I wish I could hold your hand.

English was unbearable without you today, R.

The banalities of teenage life.

Riley sighs. She's not remotely ready for whatever lies ahead tonight, because she has a feeling that whatever drama got Abby into her cagey mood today remains unresolved. But she's got tomorrow to look forward to, at least. Her dad has a spectacular present for her mom, and she's going to be thrilled–

Speak of the devil. Her dad knocks on the door lightly.

"Do you want to drive separately so you can sneak out at the earliest opportunity?" He grins. "I hear Tipper has a bartender all the way from New York."

Riley forces a laugh, dropping the notes back into the box. There's no need to be sad about teenage Harper when adult Harper is back and worse than ever.

"Yeah; last year I had to play melanoma or mole with the forty-plus crowd for three hours." She rolls her eyes, pulling out a black blouse that will do the job instead of the one she'd been searching for.

Her dad snorts at that. "Nice top, hon. We're going to head over in about ten, alright?"

She nods, squashing the lid down on top of the yearbooks and notes, consigning them to their deserved oblivion. "See you on the flip side, Papa." 

Chapter Text

Abby emerges at seven on the dot, just as the other guests also begin arriving. In a fit of pique, she'd donned an outfit that would've conceivably looked at home on a T.a.T.u album cover. Tipper doesn't even notice, and at this point, Abby can't tell if it's because she thought Tara and Willow were just really good friends or if it's a sign of exactly how stressed she is.

She settles herself next to the bar and accepts the glass of dark alcohol that the bartender hands her without questioning it. A quick sip, and she regrets that. She needs to be drunk, but not that much. It tastes like a goddamn Christmas cake.

The opening bars of Silent Night make her quickly reconsider that decision, and she takes several gulps in quick succession.

That's when Riley slides in next to her, eyes widened at the façade playing out in front of them. Abby tries not to look at her in that outfit longer than absolutely appropriate. Instead, she fixes her eyes back on the Caldwell situation, trying not to swallow her tongue for the second time in as many hours.

Riley takes one look at Abby's drink and says wryly, "What are you drinking?"

Abby's a little more transfixed by the layers of apparently-happy Caldwells dotted about the room than she really should be. She swallows down memories of Christmas carolling with her parents and grimaces. "Oh, it's a spiced…" she blanks, rolling her eyes at the glass. "Alcohol."

 

"Gross, can I have some?"

Something's going on with Abby – more than whatever was wrong this afternoon. The dark eyeliner can't hide – or maybe deliberately emphasizes – the dark bags under her eyes, and she's a million miles away, staring at Sloane's two (frankly, demonic) children piping out Silent Night.

Riley looks up and meets Harper's eye as she sips from her girlfriend's glass of alcohol, and Harper resolutely looks away. Petty, maybe, but Riley wants Harper to know what's at stake here if she keeps being such an idiot.

Riley can't manage the "spiced alcohol" – it is truly disgusting – and quickly sacrifices it in favour of nicking a candy cane off the Caldwells' confection of a tree. Once the kids are done singing and the Caldwells are busy cooing over the saccharine duo, Riley drags Abby to a seat facing the tree.

Abby almost hits the ground butt-first as she stares at Harper instead of where she's sitting down. Riley catches her under the elbow and readjusts her before she hits the floor. Abby spares her a distracted apology, then goes back to trying to telepathically drill into Harper's psyche.

Riley sucks at her candy cane aggressively for a few seconds. It's in no-one's best interests for Abby and Harper to have a fight here, and it's definitely in Riley's best interests to make Abby a little less morose. She springs into the story of how her dad, dressed as Santa, found her making out with her friend from swim camp on the roof on Christmas Eve 2005.

"… my parents were so attached to me believing in Santa Claus, that even after years go by, and I stopped believing in Santa Claus, and they knew that I stopped believing in Santa Claus, we just kept that charade going. Their investment in it just made me feel so bad for them, you know?"

Riley has her doubts that Abby even hears what she's saying. Her only response is a muffled "mm-hmm," as she swirls the spiced alcohol in her glass for the fiftieth time.

Riley raises an eyebrow. "Like, so bad for them that... you know, that I eventually… just… murdered them."

She'd be lying if she didn't feel a thrill of jealousy when Abby just says, "That sounds fun," gulping down more alcohol and grimacing at the taste. She's really out of it.

"Okay." Riley leans forward, laying a hand on Abby's knee to try and bring her back from whatever destructive thought-spiral she's going down. "What… is happening?"

Abby heaves a sigh as she watches Harper greet Connor with all the enthusiasm of compulsory heterosexuality. "I don't know." Her mouth works like she's trying to find the words. "Yesterday, I'd never felt closer to another person in my entire life, and now I... I don't know her. And I thought she loved me and was happy, but I see her here, and she's so terrified of what everyone thinks, and it's just making me wonder… who the real Harper is, you know?"

Oh, and Riley does know. She knows Harper fucking Caldwell's mind games all too well. She keeps that bitterness to herself, though. "Well, maybe they both are." It's the most diplomatic response she can manage because she sure as shit doesn't want to make Abby feel worse.

That said, it amazes her that after the past few days, Abby's still mostly concerned with Harper and her feelings and thoughts. Riley sighs. She needs to be careful. If she gets much drunker, she might tell Harper exactly where she can shove that mini donut maker for the way she's treated Abby over the past few days.

Abby nods, and if any nod could be described as sarcastic, it's that one.

"I was gonna ask her to marry me tomorrow," she says heavily, and Riley closes her eyes. What a fucked-up situation. Harper is an idiot. A moron. A grade-A a-hole.

Abby is such a sweetheart.

"Um…" At a loss for words, Riley pats her on the shoulder. "I'm gonna get you a real drink."

 

Abby stares at the drink in her hand. She would've felt less alone if she'd stayed in Pittsburgh and eaten takeout by herself in the Yangs' apartment.

She misses Pittsburgh. She misses certainty. She misses-

Oh. Never mind. She doesn't miss John because… he's here. In the Caldwells' house. On Christmas Eve.

She hurries over to him before Tipper can descend. "Um... How are you here?"

"When are you gonna get this? I. Have. Been. Tracking. You."

Before Abby can get any further questions in – like, what the fuck, dude? – Tipper appears like a malignant, regal ghost of Christmas present.

"I'm Tipper. This is my home. Are you the ex‐boyfriend?" She casts a glance at Abby, who remembers in a hot flush of clarity telling Tipper and Jane that she'd recently gone through a breakup. With a milkman. Jesus, she's losing her mind. Lost it already, maybe.

John is staring at her in gay panic, and Abby would find it funny that Tipper couldn't identify two prime examples of homosexuality right in front of her face – if the stakes weren't so high. She nods minutely at John, eyes wide.

He coughs to cover his laugh, and says in a voice Abby has never heard from him before, "Yes. I am John, Abby's heterosexual ex‐boyfriend-" Abby cuts a glare at him, smiling tightly in Tipper's general vicinity. "I have come to get her back."

"Mm. I see," Tipper says in a glacial tone. "Well, it would've been nice to have known you were coming, but since you are here, enjoy." She sounds about as welcoming as a DMV clerk.

"Thank you so much," John manages.

She swans away with all the self-assurance of inherited wealth.

"Okay, I nailed that, and she is fabulous." John flicks a hand to emphasize his fascination with her whole deal.

Abby frowns. That still doesn't answer the question: "What are you doing here?"

"Um, that phone call earlier was a cry for help. I'm here to rescue you. Please get your things." He looks around like a prey animal in a pack of wolves.

Abby's deciding whether she's had it up to here with people trying to tell her what to do, or grateful for the eleventh-hour ride to safety, when John intervenes, turning deliberately towards the sitting room. Abby follows his gaze automatically. "Is that the ex‐boyfriend?"

Connor. Connor, Connor, Connor. Harper flirting with Connor: the classic Harper arm-touch, giggle, leaning in like she's-oh-so-fascinated. All the little Harper things that made Abby fall in love with her in the first place.

Abby's heart stills. Free-falls.

"I mean, I guess he's handsome, uh…" John's such a fucking frat boy. Abby's anger morphs, crystalizing into absolute certainty. She barely hears John saying, "Can we please go?" as she walks deliberately across the room.

Interrupting them is unspeakably rude and Not Done in the Caldwell household, but Abby doesn't care anymore.

John's right. It's time to go.

"Harper. It's over. I'm done."

Harper doesn't even move. Abby hesitates for a second, heart whiplashing back to her throat, but Harper doesn't move a goddamned muscle.

Fine.

She goes to pack her things, offering John a minute shake no when he cocks his head to ask should I come?

Her hands are shaking as she gathers up her duffel bag and thrusts an armful of dirty laundry into it. She can hear too-tight heels clattering down the stairs, and although she'd like to pretend it's just John, or Riley, or even fucking Sloane, she knows it's Harper.

Harper, her now-ex girlfriend.

"Abby. Hey. Can we just talk for a second?" Harper's voice shakes.

"No. I've gotta go. I‐ I can't‐ I can't do this for you anymore. But, uh, merry Christmas. Enjoy your family, and enjoy Connor." Low blow. She should probably just leave.

"What? What? No, I don't‐ I don't want him. I don't want Connor. I want you."

The words still Abby for a moment. She wants so hard to believe them, it actually hurts, like a fracture in her collarbone. But she thinks about everything that's happened today and shakes her head. "Then what was that?"

"I don't know." And that's what it comes down to. She doesn't have a reason, not one beyond it's expected of me. "Why are you huddled in a corner with Riley?" she flings back at Abby, and Abby flinches.

"None of this has anything to do with Riley! This is all happening because of you, Harper. You not telling your parents about us is a choice that you made."

"It is not that simple," Harper protests, but it is. There were so many things Harper could've done differently, and she fucked up every single one of them. There was absolutely no reason for her to invite Abby for Christmas. Even less not to warn her about this family, this whole fucked up situation. She could've intervened with them even once, and Abby would feel so much less alone.

"Do you know how painful it's been to watch the person that I love choose to hide me?" she snaps.

"I am not hiding you. I am hiding me, okay? Our entire life, we have been expected to be these perfect, golden children. I mean, love in our house wasn't something we just got for free. It is something that we competed for, and if we veered off their course, we lost it. I‐ I know it's messed up, okay? I get it. But they're my parents, and I am scared that if I tell them who I really am, I will lose them. And I know, if I don't tell them, I will lose you. I don't wanna lose you." Harper's crying, trembling all over.

Abby's heart breaks for her, and she can feel herself tearing up. "Hey, come here. Come here."

"No, I don't want to lose you." Harper's fighting her, pushing her away. Abby leans into it, putting her hands on Harper's face, forcing her to look her in the eye.

"No, no. Look at me. Come here. Look at me. It's okay."

"I don't‐" Harper chokes out, crying.

"Hey, stop," Abby says gently, pulling her into a hug. Her girlfriend is still shaking, shuddering in her arms.

"I don't want to lose you," she protests one last time.

"You're not." Abby tries to pull away, look her in the eye and reassure her that they're going to be okay. Harper clings to her until Abby has to untangle her arms just to get a little bit of distance. She leans in to kiss Abby, hands cupping her face. Abby closes her eyes. This is her Harper.

She barely even registers the footsteps.

"Matilda and Magnus? Kids?" It breaks through their reverie.

Caught red-handed. Abby sees the cogs turning in Sloane's head, and sees where this is going.

Nowhere good, that's for damn sure.

"Sloane, Sloane, Sloane!" Harper chases her sister, and Abby follows, at a loose end. Why is this whole family is obsessed with figure-hugging dresses when they seem hell-bent on tackling each other at every opportunity?

"Hmm? Yeah?"

"Can we just talk for a sec?"

"Oh, what's there to talk about? You and Abby are in a romantic relationship, and you've been lying to the family about it for God knows how long. Does that sound about right, or‐" Shit's about to hit the fan in a major way, Abby realizes. More out of morbid curiosity than any sense of obligation, Abby follows Harper and Sloane as Harper begs her not to tell their parents. She wishes there was some way to sneak out the back and just miss this whole next bit, because she can't imagine it going well no matter what happens.

A clattering to their right startles Abby, and Sloane whirls around. "Found you!" she says, flinging open the closet door.

Oh is about right. Sloane's husband is engaged in a furious make-out session with… Ted's campaign manager? Abby's a fair few glasses of alcohol in and she's finding it hard to keep track of names at this point.

"I guess I'm not the only one with a secret," Harper says, looking innocently at Sloane. Great! Maybe they can all just keep their family drama under wraps for two more days and then get the hell out of Kuwait.

Of course, no such luck. Sloane, shrieking at the pitch absolute mayhem, knocks Harper to the ground.

"You keep your mouth shut, psycho!" she hisses, wrapping a string of mistletoe-themed tinsel around Harper's neck and yanking her backwards like a deranged reindeer.

"Abby, get the Santa," Harper gasps, arching away from Sloane.

"I mean‐" Abby does not want to be involved in this, but she'd better back Harper up. She steps forward.

"Stay out of this, Sappho!" Sloane hisses, grappling with Harper's hair. Abby would find that hilarious in absolutely any other context. Still, right now she's worried that Sloane might actually strangle Harper.

 

Riley comes back from the bar with two glasses of whiskey on the rocks. She couldn't avoid the festively carved crystal glasses, but you can't win 'em all.

She stops where Abby had been sitting and scans the room. She's entangled in a three-way conversation with Tipper and an obviously gay man. Yeah, nah, Riley's not self-destructive enough to try and insert herself into that. She slips back around the corner, leaning against the wall opposite the bar. She stares into the dark whiskey and takes another sip.

Some sixth sense makes her turn around to the living room just in time to witness Abby striding across the room and shattering Harper's whole world.

"Harper. It's over. I'm done."

Oh, shit. She flattens herself against the wall as Abby storms past her. She counts a full thirty seconds before Harper rushes after her. Just as Riley is debating following them, Tipper swans past her into the main room. "Everybody, please take your seats. We're ready to begin White Elephant!"

Riley's mom comes up beside her, jogging her elbow. "Come on, honey, let's get some good seats." Her eyes are sparkling with held-back mirth about the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Riley must look shell-shocked, because her mom pauses. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." She shakes her head, putting down one of the glasses of whiskey and following her mom into the living room. She's almost apoplectic with curiosity about Abby, but there's no polite way to extricate herself now. Instead, she listens for the sounds of crying, screaming, or running away. There aren't that many exits in this house, so unless Abby legs it out of a window, she'll have to go through the front door.

Her active listening is rewarded about five minutes later when a thump echoes from the back rooms. No one else seems to notice, but in Riley's inexpert opinion, it sounds like a full body hitting the floor. As she's contemplating slipping out to witness the drama, she catches sight of… Ted's campaign manager? The woman jerks her head at the smooth-skinned, gay, assistant, and they both practically bolt via the aforementioned front door.

Riley cannot parse that, but files it away for future reference. Jane is eeny-meeny-miny-mo-ing over the presents and Tipper is about to blow a gasket — god, this family is so dramatic — when a hard bang startles all of them. Even Riley's dad jumps, leaning forward to peer at the bar in confusion.

When nothing further transpires, everyone's attention turns back to the rich lady who's chosen a huge parcel. Riley covers a snort by pretending to cough when Rich Lady opens it to find a Jane Caldwell original. Jane has always been a personal highlight of the Caldwells for Riley.

She's pretty sure she can hear high-pitched arguing in the dining room, but no one else is looking, so she strains her ears to listen for Abby's voice.

Harper and Sloane burst into the living room, Harper looking frantically out-of-control while Sloane wields a festive brush with a threatening scowl.

Abby appears by the front door, hands slung low in her pockets like they always are, and the apprehension on her face twists Riley's stomach.

"All of this is happening because Harper is-" Harper whacks Sloane in the face with a bouquet, face twisted in anger. The guests collectively gasp. Riley's only got eyes for Abby, though. Her face is nearly blank, a good closet case if Riley's ever seen one.

Sloane tosses her hair neatly, drawing herself up, taking the moral high ground, gathering everyone's attention with the precision of a sharpshooter. "Harper's a lesbian." The accusation settles in the air between them, and Riley wonders what Harper's going to do now. "Abby's her girlfriend," Sloane adds, pursing her lips and flicking a glance at the doorway where Abby stands. Riley wants to go to her, shield her somehow, but everyone's frozen in this nightmare nativity scene.

There's a suspended silence. Come on, Harper, Riley prays. You can do it.

"She is lying," Harper gasps out, and Riley can almost hear Abby's heart crashing right into the floor. She looks shell-shocked, sucker-punched, disbelieving.

"I am not a lesbian," and the way Harper says it like it's a dirty word kicks Riley in the chest, takes her right back to high school, and she's sure it has the same effect on Abby. "Sloane is the one that has this big-"

Harper's panting with anger and exertion, and Riley sees the second she catches sight of Abby's slumped shoulders, the realization that she's fucked up.

Abby does the right thing, at least by Riley's standards. She shakes her head and ducks out, refraining from slamming the door, which is more than Riley would've done.

There's a moment where the shockwaves ripple across the room, and time stops. Riley shakes her head too. The cogs are turning in Connor's head, and John turns and disappears into the kitchen, and Tipper and Ted are gaping, and Jane… well, Jane looks surprisingly happy. That girl has always been such a delightful mystery to her.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Harper screams, a primal expression of anger that Riley never would've thought possible, given how tightly wound she is. Harper spins, snatching that giant painting, and brings it crashing down on Sloane's perfectly shampoo-ed hair. As tempting as it is to stay and watch this unfold, Riley takes the opportunity to slip out of the room, take the long way round through the hallway, and emerge on the doorstep. She scans the carpark briefly, but Abby's nowhere to be seen.

WWAD: what would Abby do? Riley looks around. God, it's freezing. She pulls her coat tighter around herself and sets off down the drive.

Abby's huddled against a black SUV, furiously wiping tears away.

"Hey," Riley says, standing an appropriate distance away from her. Abby jumps, turning to catch Riley's eye. She deflates when she sees Riley, but doesn't say anything.

Abby looks wrecked. She doesn't really know what to say – doesn't even really know this woman, after all. But she doesn't walk away.

The silence stretches out between them until it's almost uncomfortable. So Riley says the only thing she can think of.

"Wanna get out of here?"

And, yeah, it sounds like a pickup line, but she's not thinking about that right now. Abby nods aggressively, shoving her hands into her pockets.

"I need to get my stuff." Abby gestures towards the house.

"Are you sure? You could probably just buy new clothes." You couldn't pay Riley enough to head back in there.

Abby hesitates, then sighs and nods. "I'm already tapped out from the White Elephant gift," she jokes. Well, Riley hopes she's joking. She's still a student, actually, so maybe not.

"Alright. Your funeral," is what Riley says, trying to inject her voice with the appropriate amount of support. She reaches out to rub Abby's shoulder comfortingly.

Abby doesn't move. She swallows, throat moving, then lets out a brief sigh. "It's just… I…" She dashes a hand across her cheeks again, and Riley is seized by an urge to wipe the tears from her face. She's shockingly beautiful, even when she's falling apart.

She coughs loudly, then starts striding away from the house, hands wrapped around herself, chafing up and down her arms. Riley regrets not bringing her a jacket.

"My parents are dead," she says roughly. Riley realizes that she might be meant to follow her and hurries to catch up. "I really am an orph- I mean, that's not just another part of Harper's fucked-up… thing."

Riley keeps step with her, not sure what to say. Not sure if she needs to say anything, or if she's incidental to Abby's catharsis.

Abby continues on, creating clouds of condensation into the air. "My parents loved Christmas. Like, they were so into it. We used to watch all these old Christmas movies, decorate the tree, the front of the house, the whole thing."

Riley's starting to see where this is going, and it just makes her even angrier at Harper.

"After they died, Christmas was just… I couldn't acknowledge it. I've barely celebrated it for more than a decade. The holidays were- are just a huge reminder of… them not being here." She comes to a halt, turning to Riley, searching her face for something.

"I really thought, maybe this year, with Harper… and her family, you know, might be… different." She twists her face up, sniffling into the cuff of her way-too-light-for-winter-in-NY blazer. "I don't think- I don't think she loves me as much as I thought she did." Abby chokes for a moment, apparently holding more tears at bay through sheer will. "Maybe that's my fault. Maybe I thought she loved me because I wanted her to. Harper, you know, she was the first time I've ever really…" she swallows. "Been that serious about someone. I was gonna ask her to marry me, for fucks sake!"

Riley inhales shallowly. She's in way too deep here. She reaches over, brushing Abby's hair out of the trail of tears on her cheeks. "I'm so, so sorry," she says. "This is not your fault." She fumbles for something else to say. "Harper never should have brought you into this. Oh, god." Riley never really got to come out. She doesn't know what to say in this situation. Harper had snatched that away from her, right along with her first heartbreak.

"I just… wish this whole thing had never happened." Abby crosses her arms. She's really shaking now, shivering from head to toe, staring fixedly at the frozen gravel under their feet.

"Here." Riley shrugs off her jacket, the cold air biting into her skin immediately. She steps forward, wrapping it around Abby, holding it there with her hands lightly upon her shoulders. Abby instinctively steps forward, so they're nearly hugging. The energy changes, just a little, and the sad silence turns into something else. Riley is suddenly very, very aware of Abby's shoulders under her hands, and the flicker of Abby's tongue wetting her lips. Riley speaks before she can stop herself. "You look great in this coat." Riley stiffens with her hands still on Abby, realizing that her previous comment might have been taken as flirting. Which she was definitely not doing. "Coming out is really scary," she says instead. "You haven't done anything wrong. Harper just… wasn't ready. Isn't ready."

Abby finally looks her in the eye. "I wanna be with someone who is ready," she whispers, and she steps forward, nearly colliding with Riley. Riley's fingers are experiencing pre-frostbite, but her whole body is suddenly warmed by this inexorable pull towards Abby. The look in Abby's eyes is all too familiar.

She's a bad person, but she wants it too. It all happens very quickly then. Abby tilts her head towards Riley, leaning in, fluttering her eyes closed. This close up, Riley can see the frozen trickle of tears on her cheek, that fucking shirt unbuttoned just one button too low, the soft skin visible there that Riley's been mentally avoiding all evening. She closes her eyes and bends down, one hand going automatically to Abby's waist to pull her closer, the other sliding up to her collar.

They are a hairsbreadth from kissing when an intense, white light washes over them, startling her. Riley pushes herself backwards, heart frog-jumping painfully. As if in slow motion, Abby takes a step back, Riley's jacket falling from her shoulders onto the ground. The SUV that interrupted them races down the drive, spraying gravel and ice behind its rear wheels. Riley winces. Fingers crossed they didn't recognize her.

Riley glances back towards the house, instinctively touching her lips. While they've been in their own little bubble, the guests have started streaming out, getting in various vehicles with their coats either slung over their arm from a hasty exit or at the very least shrugged on.

Abby's strangled groan draws her attention back. "That's… I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have done that." She picks up Riley's jacket, nearly shoving it at her in her haste to put space between them.

"Don't worry," Riley tells her, trailing her as she walks briskly to the house. "I'll pretend it never happened." She tries to ignore the electricity sparking along every nerve ending in her body.

"Thanks," Abby says roughly, ignoring the curious gazes of several Caldwell relatives as she strides towards the house. Riley follows in her wake, studiously avoiding the enquiring looks she knows are being thrown her way. She's perfectly aware of the muttered assumptions about any time she spends alone with any woman between the age of 20 and 40, let alone Abby, who's just been outed at the most prominent social event of the year.

Abby hesitates at the bottom of the steps to the front door, looking back.

Riley tries on a smile. "Why doesn't Santa have any children?" she says.

Abby blinks, confused. "Why?" she asks.

"Because he only comes once a year, and it's not in your chimney." Riley's relieved when Abby lets out an unladylike snort and her shoulders relax.

"Okay," she huffs. "Let's do this."

Riley follows her inside, tossing her coat over one arm and trying to control her shivering.

"Sorry, I'm just getting my stuff," Abby says. She makes for the basement, apparently trying to avoid the stares of the entire Caldwell family by sheer will alone. Riley envies the rest of the guests, making a hasty escape from the cloying sisterly tension while she stands right smack-bang in the middle of it.

She crosses her arms, feeling weirdly like Abby's emotional bodyguard in this whole mess, observing the unhappy family dynamic unfolding in front of her.

"Wait!" Harper says, voice shattered. She doesn't spare Riley a glance.

Riley sighs inwardly. This again.

"Abby, wait." Abby pauses on the threshold to the basement, then backs up, shoving her hands in her pockets in a move that Riley is beginning to recognize as a defense mechanism. She glances up at Harper for a brief second before ducking her head back down to the floor. The frozen tear tracks on her cheeks are starting to melt in the warmth of the house.

Harper gathers herself up, and Riley's seen this all before, the desperate, drowning-man apologies, but she'd be lying if she said Harper's puppy dog eyes didn't get her. Even after all these years.

"Sloane wasn't lying," Harper says shakily. "I'm gay. And I am in love with Abby."

Abby flinches. Harper fucking Caldwell. Still crushing lesbians ten years later.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you guys sooner, but I know how much appearances and reputation matter to you, and me being gay just didn't… fit into the plan." Harper's voice is trembling, and Riley is surprised to find that she can dredge up a bit of sympathy for her, after everything.

"I was so scared that you would find out I wasn't who you wanted me to be. And I still regret it. I can't do that to Abby… and throw away… our life together. So I am done being scared, and I am done keeping secrets. I love you." She turns to Abby, earnest, and Riley bites her lip. This is a lot, and she probably shouldn't be here.

Abby looks down at the floor, then up at Riley, the suspense dragging on and on.

"Eric and I are getting a divorce!" Sloane breaks the impasse, and Riley heaves a silent sigh of relief. Abby's projecting turmoil so hard she might burst a blood vessel. Riley wants to touch her, to comfort her, but that would be wildly inappropriate given their… encounter… outside.

"I'm gonna go." Abby seizes the opportunity to go down to the basement. Riley's impressed at her outward composure. Harper runs over, ignoring Sloane's monologuing – a classic display of her typical self-obsession – and Riley has to physically restrain herself from stepping protectively in front of Abby.

"Abby…" Harper is pleading now, and it's painful to watch. Riley wraps her arms around herself. "I did it," Harper says, smiling tremulously.

Abby chokes a little bit. "I'm sorry," she says. "It's just too late." She turns and ducks downstairs as fast as she can. Riley steps backwards, unconsciously preparing for a fast getaway. Harper's little self-affected oh is both pathetic and oddly endearing.

Jane walks over, putting an arm around Harper as she begins to sob in earnest, leading her into the kitchen. Sloane remains in the living room, hands clenching and unclenching on a festive wreath until the plastic leaves shear off and flutter to the ground.

Barely a minute passes before Abby re-emerges at the top of the stairs, John in tow with her duffel bag slung over his arm. Before anyone can get a word in, she walks briskly past all of them, thrusting open the door with a bang, and clattering down the stairs.

"That's my cue," Riley says, shoving her hands in her pockets. Sloane glares at her. "Great party," she says, snorting at her own joke, letting the door slam closed behind her.

Abby's in the middle of the drive, looking blankly at John. She shakes her head at him, rubbing a hand over her face in the universal symbol for tired and over it. Riley gives a little wave as she gets closer.

She flicks the button on her key fob and the lights flash to indicate that it's unlocked. She calls out to them, just loud enough for them to hear. "You need a ride?"

John looks at Abby, gesturing like Riley's just provided the solution to all of his problems. Abby sort of shrugs at him and Riley can make out the words "Don't forget the fish," as Abby walks backwards towards Riley. John's eyes go comically wide for a second before he makes an exaggerated nod.

Riley's got her doubts about the provenance of that fish.

She opens the door, taking Abby's duffel bag and sliding it into the backseat.

"Where do you wanna go?" Riley asks.

"Anywhere," Abby says, staring out the window. Riley hesitates, at a loss for what to do. There's nowhere else, really, so she starts driving them in the direction of her parent's house.

Riley shows her to the bathroom, and while she showers, Riley makes up a bed for herself on the floor of her childhood bedroom. Abby emerges with her hair damp and tousled, and a brief argument about who should sleep on the floor is settled by Riley plopping herself down and crawling into her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sleeping bag with her fingers stuck in her ears.

All the stuffing has left Abby, and she climbs mutely into Riley's bed, immediately pulling the comforter over her head. Riley can hear her trying to muffle her crying.

Oh, Jesus.

After a particularly gut-wrenching sob, Riley shoves her sleeping bag down to her knees and crawls up onto the bed. She starts by hesitantly putting a hand on what she thinks is Abby's shoulder.

Abby stills under her touch, so Riley pulls the duvet down so she can see Abby's face. Abby rolls away, wiping a hand across her cheek. Riley sighs before she finally untucks the comforter and slides underneath.

Abby turns and buries her face in Riley's shoulder and sobs. She clings like she's adrift, and Riley has no idea what to do. Eventually, she settles on wrapping her arms around Abby and holding her until her crying slows, dying down to sniffles. After a few moments, Riley ascertains that she's fallen asleep, and she's left staring up at the ceiling and contemplating what exactly she's doing spooning her ex's ex to sleep in her childhood bed.

Chapter Text

Abby wakes up comfortable for the first time in days. She's in her usual little-spoon position, but it's not quite right. The bedsheets feel different, and it smells unfamiliar. She breathes it in again, and her brain comes fully online.

She broke up with Harper.

And she almost kissed Riley.

Breath hitching in her throat, she wriggles herself out from under Riley's arm. Riley protests sleepily, without opening her eyes. Abby sits up against the wall, arms hugging around her knees.

She's in Riley's bed.

She remembers with a hot flush of clarity bawling into Riley's shoulder last night. Not the coolest move. Not even in the vicinity of the coolest move.

Oh, god.

She inhales slowly, deeply, and shifts herself carefully off the bed so she doesn't jostle the mattress and wake Riley up. She needs to rehydrate and get a reality check, stat.

She finds her phone in her jacket pocket. Her first thought is relief that it still has 34% battery, which is enough to call John for a talking-down. Her second is shock: she has thirty-eight missed calls, twenty-one voicemails — her inbox must've crapped out — and twelve texts. From Harper.

Jesus, take a hint.

She paces restlessly in the direction of the door, then stops. She doesn't know Riley's parents at all, and she doesn't want to run into them. It's light outside, so they're probably awake if they're like any of the other parents she's known. She hesitates for a second, then takes her phone into Riley's en suite instead.

She presses the door closed lightly, then perches on the edge of the bath. Drawing a deep breath, she swipes all the Harper notifications away — a problem for later — and calls John.

"It is, like, three in the morning!" he protests

Abby rolls her eyes, trying to stay quiet. "It's light outside; shut up. Did you get home safe last night?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," he says. "More importantly, how are you? Why are you whispering? How's the woman you went home with?"

Abby swallows. "She's, uh… Harper's ex."

"Oh, honey, yes."

"It's not like that," Abby protests.

She can hear John's raised eyebrows through the phone. "I'm serious," she protests. "She just, uh, helped me find a White Elephant gift yesterday, and now we're friends, I don't know." She knows it sounds like a flat-out lie when she says it like that, but she can't muster up any enthusiasm to hide it.

"Okay, sure," John says. He's right to be a skeptic, and they both know it. "Well, when are you coming home?"

All the oxygen leaves Abby's lungs. Oh. She can't go home. One night, and her whole life has been washed down to the waterline. "Home? I don't think I have one."

"Oh." John obviously hadn't thought of that. "You can come and stay with me, of course," he adds. Belatedly.

"Thanks," Abby says. She tries, once again, to not sound like her life has crashed down around her and she's watching the dust settle. "You sure it won't cramp your whole, uh, Casanova thing?"

"My door is always open for you, Abby. And if you happen to startle a one-night stand into leaving promptly, I can live with that."

Abby snorts, even managing a watery smile. "I'll see you soon, alright? Take care. And take care of those animals, okay?"

"Mmm-hmm, okay, yup, bye-e." Was it a mistake to leave John in charge of live creatures?

Signs point to yes.

She slumps her head into her hands, sighing.

She should probably get up and get her real person clothes, but… it's Christmas morning, and she's crashed at her ex's ex's place — who she met literally days ago — and she pretty much only owns dirty laundry now. She muffles a groan as she drops her phone next to the sink, bracing herself against the vanity.

She's shocked out of her pity party by just how shit she looks in the mirror. Dark circles under her eyes, flat hair, several Caldwell-induced zits making an appearance. She rubs a hand over her face, then turns away.

She pushes the door open, quiet enough that Riley doesn't even stir. She's curled on her side, drooling on her pillow, hair in her mouth. The duvet has fallen down around her waist and Abby can see bare skin where her pajama top has ridden up. Her eyes catch on it for a second, then she turns her gaze to the floor, heart pounding unreasonably fast.

She shouldn't find Riley so enticing, not when she can still feel Harper's hands on her waist, Harper holding her when Abby sat on her lap, the brief, necessary touches when they were working side-by-side at the kitchen table.

Waking up with Riley has spawned thoughts of Riley touching her like that – waking up cuddled into her, brief touches to the shoulder, the hip while they're cooking together, holding hands at the movies…

She tries very hard to clamp down on that avenue of thought as she crawls into the ninja turtle sleeping bag. The two turtles at the top line up perfectly with her ribcage; it was made for a child at least two feet shorter than her.

 

Riley is awoken by a harsh ringing sound – not her usual alarm, something else. She rubs at her eyes, rolling over to look.

Abby is flat on her back halfway in and halfway out of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sleeping bag, one arm across her face. Riley can't tell if she's crying or coma-ed out. The noise doesn't seem to rouse her, so she's probably sleeping, but it's not Riley's ringtone, so she reaches out and jogs Abby's shoulder.

"Huh- What-" Abby jumps, and Riley backs off. "Oh, shit." She crawls out of the sleeping bag, fumbling around on the floor until she comes up with her phone. She holds it with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for roadkill, but the ringing continues. Finally, she clicks the screen to black and sits back on her heels.

Riley can string together a full sentence now, which is a vast improvement from thirty seconds ago. "Everything okay?" she asks. She'd bet good money that that was Harper calling, judging by the half-panicked, half-nauseous look on Abby's face.

"Fuck," Abby swears, not answering the question at all. She clicks the screen on, blue light washing over her face, and then lets the phone drop abruptly, clenching her jaw.

"Oka-ay," Riley says, pushing herself up onto her elbows. "Are you okay?"

Abby picks up her phone again. "Yeah," she says softly. "I'm fine. I just have… thirty-nine missed calls, twenty-one voicemails, and thirteen texts from Harper. Which is fine." Abby runs an agitated hand through her hair, tossing the phone down again, smack-bang on Donatello's nose. Riley winces.

Unsure what to say — the tension in Abby's shoulders could snap a suspension cable — Riley flops back down on the bed as another text appears on the screen. "Clingy, much? Put it on silent and go back to sleep," she advises, eager for at least another two hours herself. She'd been awake for a while after Abby had cried herself out, tossing over everything that'd happened at the party.

The almost-kiss, in particular, has been occupying a lot of her mental real estate.

Abby doesn't respond for a moment, and then shakes her head. "Nah, I should, uh, head home." She props herself up, her fake bravado less than convincing.

Riley's four functioning brain cells spark together and she deduces that it's not as easy as that. "Do you have a car?" she asks, knowing perfectly well that the answer's no. She refrains from the second half of the question, which is, do you have a home?

"I'll just… get an Uber. It's cool." Abby sucks in another deep breath, twirling a ring on her thumb around and around and around until Riley's getting friction burns just watching her.

"Dude, no." Riley doesn't even think there is Uber here. "Just get some shut-eye and I'll drive you to Pittsburgh later."

"That's like four hours away, man. It's Christmas morning."

Oh, fuck. Riley had conveniently forgotten that. Giving up all hope of sleeping in, she sits up properly. "Alright; change of plans. After I do the family stuff, I can drive you to Pittsburgh, okay?"

Abby frowns. "I can't… Riley, I don't want to take you away from your family. It's Christmas." The angst she clearly feels over this statement is somewhat belied by her suddenly thrashing excessively to get out of the tiny sleeping bag. Riley has to bite her lip to stop herself from laughing. Once she's sitting upright, she crosses her arms around her legs, hunching over in a defensive position. "Really. I'll call a cab or hire a car or something. Just gotta pack up." Abby says this with finality, and then proceeds to move not at all towards packing up.

Riley tilts her head at this and pauses for a moment. "Abby, you look wrecked. When was the last time you slept for more than four hours?" Jesus Christ. She cares about Abby's sleeping habits now. That's bad. Play it cool, Riley. "Once again, it's Christmas morning. Good luck getting a cab or finding a car-hire place open."

"Oh, fuck." Abby runs a hand through her hair, lets out a groan. "I hate Christmas," she bursts out with. "It's… everything always goes wrong."

Riley gets out of bed to kneel in front of Abby. She looks terrible — the lack of makeup shows dark circles under her eyes, the dried tears, and a couple of what Riley assumes are stress-induced pimples.

"Abby," she says, crinkling her eyebrows in what she hopes is a sympathetic expression. "Seriously. You need to get back in this dumbass sleeping bag — actually, no, get into my bed-" she presses her lips together for a second, raising her eyes to the ceiling, contemplating how many times she's going to inadvertently hit on Abby, "-and go the fuck to sleep."

Abby seems to consider this for a moment and then nods. Whew.

"Okay," she agrees quietly. She stands up and crawls under the covers of Riley's bed, cocooning herself until Riley can only see her nose and eyes. She heaves a deep sigh, moving the blanket up and down. "Nice sleeping bag," she says, nodding at the ground.

Riley grins. "I was definitely a Raphael." She makes an absolutely ridiculous move that may or may not have been a ninja turtle impression, and Abby looks momentarily delighted.

"You give me more Donatello vibes."

"Way harsh," Riley laughs. Abby's eyes crinkle up at the corners with laughter, and Riley tries not to think about how goddamn cute she is.

The light-hearted bickering is interrupted by Riley's mom. "Girls? Are you coming out?" she calls, presumably just down the hall.

Abby catches Riley's eye at the phrasing, panicked. Riley grins back, calling out to her mom, "In a minute, Ma!"

"How do they know I'm here? Or do you always come home from the White Elephant party with a strange lesbian?" Abby asks, quirking an eyebrow.

Riley throws a sock from the ground at her, rolling her eyes. "The White Elephant party is, naturally, prime pick-up ground for lesbians, but, ah, I warned them this might happen. I don't have a lot of faith where Harper's concerned." She looks away from Abby, hoping this doesn't come across as some kind of fucked-up, premeditated hook-up plan.

Abby lets Riley's blankets fall down around her shoulders and crooks her elbows behind her head to lie back and look at Riley. The image of Abby in her bed suddenly seems a lot less sad and a lot more…

Get your mind out of the gutter, Riley scolds herself.

"I should, uh, come down and say hello to your parents," Abby hedges.

Riley presses her lips together to prevent any emotion from fighting its way onto her face, and shrugs instead. "We can smuggle you out the window if you want… I should warn you that you will be dragged into festive activities downstairs. Not like, Caldwell-level drama, but my parents love Santa. And presents. They may have even dug out the emergency Christmas candle as a gift for you."

Abby looks panicked. "I don't have anything for them. Not even that stupid mini donut hole thingy." She suddenly looks down at herself. "I might just… get dressed. Before I meet your parents. Um."

Riley nods, hand on the doorway. She doesn't miss Abby's unconscious look at her pajamas, matching and monogrammed: classic private school chic. Abby just seems non-plussed by it – she sleeps in a tank top and sweats, after all. "I'm gonna go downstairs and grab some coffee, alright?" Riley tells her.

Abby just nods as she sits up and shoves the duvet off her legs.

 

"Morning, Ma," Riley says as she enters the kitchen, going straight for the coffee maker.

"Morning, honey," she says, coming up beside her and wrapping her arm around Riley for a brief hug. "Merry Christmas!"

"Yeah, yeah, it's the most wonderful time of the year. Where's Dad?" She puts the portafilter under the grinder and sets it on for a moment. Her non-enthusiasm is a long-standing family joke, and her mom ignores it.

"Out the back." Her mom rolls her eyes, sitting down at the island. "Do you really need it that strong?" she asks as Riley locks the portafilter in and pours a double shot into a #1 Dad mug. Riley ignores this statement — her coffee drinking habits have long been a point of contention between her mom, who volunteers on the local PTA, and herself, who works 36-hour shifts as a medical intern. "You did end up bringing that girl home, then?" Riley's mom raises her eyebrows at her expectantly.

Riley scuffs her slipper across the floor. "Uh, yeah. She… didn't have anywhere else to go." She can tell her mom's not exactly pleased about it, the whole family Christmas thing still a sore spot for her, and the gossip mills around here that will already be churning. Better rip the band-aid off then. "I'm going to take her back to Pittsburgh later today."

"On Christmas? Really, Riley? What about Patricia's?" Her mom frowns at her.

Riley sighs. "Mom, you know Patricia doesn't approve of my… lifestyle choices." She air-quotes — her Aunt Patricia doesn't like women doing anything that she considers men's work, which encompasses almost all of Riley's main activities, from medical school to fucking other women. "It's safer to drive on Christmas Day anyway; so many people will be driving tomorrow." She empties the filter and fills it again, adding, "And I think Abby needs to get back to pick up her stuff."

Her mom concedes that point, pursing her lips. She saw Harper's outburst last night with the rest of the White Elephant party, so it's no use pretending Abby and Harper didn't just break up. And Riley's mom has always told her how proud she is of her for being caring, so she shouldn't fight Riley on this too much.

"Well, you make her feel welcome, okay? Lord knows the Caldwells haven't."

It's her mom's tacit way of approving of her sexuality, and Riley smiles into her coffee cup. "I will. Can I help you with the waffles?"

"Absolutely not! Go and look after your, uh, friend." Her mom raises an eyebrow, and Riley grumbles a protest as she turns away, second mug in hand. She can only hope a double shot will be enough to get Abby through this morning.

 

Abby riffles through her duffel bag, finally coming up with some underwear that has been worn a maximum of once before, and her comb, and bizarrely but helpfully, a sample-size can of dry shampoo. She's digging around looking for a shirt when her pinkie knocks it.

The ring.

She pulls it out, weighing it in her hand. The box is perfectly palm-sized, oiled wood. Harper would've loved it.

Oh, god. Harper would've loved it.

She swallows, fingers flexing automatically over it, feeling out how she would've proposed down on one knee, Harper looking delighted-

"Hey."

Abby jumps, fumbling the box.

Riley's leaning in the doorway, a mug of presumably coffee in each hand, and of course, she's fucking gorgeous. Her pajamas look like they were made to accentuate her whole body, her hair just kind of... does that, and this is how she wakes up every day?

She also looks profoundly sorry for Abby, which makes her want to sink through the carpet.

"Is that the ring?" Riley asks, eyebrows quirked in the same sympathetic way she's been pulling out repeatedly over the past three days.

Abby swallows again, surprised that her throat is closing up. "Yeah," she manages. "I'm just gonna, um. Get changed." She drops the ring back into her bag. She just wants to catch her breath for a minute. Alone.

"Um. Use whatever you want, but I'm pretty sure it's all at least five years out of date," Riley says. "I made you coffee." She holds out the mug with a gentle smile.

Abby nods brusquely, brushing past her into the bathroom. She shuts the door and leans her forehead against it, taking some deep breaths.

It's way too early in the morning to deal with this many emotions, and Riley being all Abby I brought you coffee and weirdly hot business casual pajamas and I'll drive you across two state lines is not helping matters in the slightest. Not to mention, she's Harper's ex.

Abby gulps down some air and gets the spiraling panic under control after a few moments, then stretches her hands above her head, turning to the mirror.

God, she looks awful. She starts by brushing her teeth, painfully reminded of two nights ago, texting Harper cute pics of herself in the bathroom.

Is every fucking thing she does going to remind her of Harper?

She closes her eyes, rinses and spits, and begins combing her hair out. It's kind of greasy and gross — she's been running her hands through it in overdrive for the past few days — but she just puts some dry shampoo in it and uses a couple of bobby pins to slick down the hair on the left side of her face rather than bothering to shower again.

After she dabs on the minimum amount of concealer so that she doesn't look as bad as she feels, she gets dressed.

Of course, this is made more challenging by the fact that she bolted in here midway through looking for a shirt and is now lacking said shirt.

She exhales sharply, staring up at the ceiling in exasperation, then crosses one arm over her chest and goes back into Riley's room.

Riley's dragged her suitcase out from the cupboard and is neatly folding things into it. She looks up cursorily, then immediately back at Abby's folded arm. Her eyes get wider for a moment, then she glances down at her suitcase. "Do you, um, need a shirt?"

Abby definitely shouldn't be gratified by the strangled tone she takes on, but she is.

Just a little.

 

"Uh, no, I got it. Just forgot to, uh, take it with me." Riley tries not to let her eyes be dragged to Abby's chest as she bends down — is she doing this on purpose?

Riley tries very hard to focus only on refolding the shirt she's packing.

While she carefully pats out the creases from her twenty-year-old Michigan Science Camp t-shirt, Abby pulls on a white tank top and turns back around. The hem is rolled up at the bottom, revealing a strip of skin and Abby's belly button. She stretches up, making it ride up even further.

Riley tries to control the flood of heat to her cheeks, with predictably poor results.

She thinks Abby might be smirking. Fine. So that's how it is.

Riley composes herself. "I'm almost done packing, so we can do Christmas breakfast with my parents, then get going?"

Abby twitches a little. "Riley, you really don't have to do this."

Riley folds the last shirt into her suitcase, holding Abby's eye. It's evident that Abby's not the kind of person who likes accepting help, but Harper's really left her up shit creek without a paddle this time. "You're actually doing me a favor," she says, trying for a comforting smile. "I don't want to spend Christmas with my Aunt Patricia, and she doesn't want to spend Christmas with me either. I'll have much more fun with you." That last bit might be a little too much, but sometimes her tongue just… gets the better of her. She bites it instead of continuing.

It's Abby's turn to blush. She runs her hand through her hair and mumbles a thank you, suddenly finding the floor extremely fascinating.

"We could split a hotel room for a couple nights while you look for a new place? You can show me the sights of Pittsburgh, even," she suggests. She knows she's being forward, but… fuck it, it's part of the charm, right?

Not to mention, she has no interest in sleeping at Harper's apartment, and she doubts that Abby can afford to pay for accommodation for more than a few nights. Riley would be more than happy to pay for a hotel room for both of them, but that might be pushing the limits of Abby's comfort a little too far.

Abby puffs her cheek out for a second, sighing. "Riley…" She shakes her head. "It's okay, I'm meant to be pet-sitting… I can crash at the Yangs' apartment. You can, uh, stay with me if you like. Or not. You can come home. It's not- You don't have to-"

Riley interrupts before Abby can dig herself an even bigger hole. "I think I'll stay at least tonight. I don't know if I can make it to Pittsburgh and back before dark."

Abby scuffs her toe along the floor before saying in a small voice: "Okay."

Riley drops the lid on her suitcase, then picks up Abby's coffee. "Here," she says. "Double shot. You look like you need it."

"Thanks," Abby says wryly.

Riley takes a sip of her own coffee and adds, "I gotta convince Dad to come in for presents. Wanna come?"

 

Riley's dad is putting the final touches on a wooden birdhouse shaped like the Eiffel tower when they enter the garage. "You must be Abby," he says, pulling off his thick leather gloves and stretching out a hand. Abby shakes it firmly, immediately a lot more at ease.

"Great to meet you, Mr. Bennett," she says politely.

"Please, call me Marcus," he says, reaching over to pull Riley into a hug. "Is your mom going to love this bad boy or what?" He pats a hand on the birdhouse and all three of them grimace as it comes away dark brown with the obviously-recent varnish.

"Bad boy? Nothing will be a badder boy than the Colosseum of 2016." Riley smirks and looks at Abby, raising an eyebrow to let her in on their family joke.

Abby muffles a snort, and Mr. Bennett puffs up with pride.

"Right you are, but sometimes you just create something so good that everything else can only ever be second-best." He lovingly taps her chin, immediately transferring varnish onto her face. She screws up her nose.

"I might get her to come out here to see it, though. Don't want to get this stuff on the couch." He laughs, and Riley rolls her eyes and grins at him.

"Come on. Ma's made waffles."

Abby trails them inside. After the Caldwells' snide comments at the disastrous dinner, she's surprised at the obvious love and care between Riley and her dad.

The three of them sit down at the dining table and Mrs. Bennett brings out the waffles.

Her mom, Mrs. Bennett – another "Please, call me Maria!" – plies Abby and Riley with maple syrup after sending Marcus to wash his hands. "It's the real deal," she says brightly.

"Oh, well, thank you," Abby says, spooning some over her waffles, ducking her head as she passes the glass pottle to Riley.

The conversation flows around her, and she's able to relax for the first time in a week. She doesn't have to say much, which is a relief. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett enquire about her work, and then her studies, avoiding the topic of Harper and the Caldwells like a sprained ankle. Still, she's uncomfortable hogging the spotlight at their family Christmas, so she hastily shifts the topic to Riley's residency.

Riley rolls her eyes. "Mom and Dad love carting me out for everything from bacne to breastfeeding advice."

Her mom laughs. "It's good practice! Abby, surely you have a mole you need checked out while you're here?"

Riley does a mock bow, hair falling into her face, which somehow makes her even more attractive than before. "At your service."

The exchange has the practiced overtones of a long-running joke, and Abby smiles. "I was actually hoping I could ask you…"

Abby's distracted by Riley's conspiratorial wink — she actually winks at her — and Mrs. Bennett begins clearing the table.

Mr. Bennett helps load the dishwasher while Abby wipes down the table, grateful for this seemingly normal family dynamic. There's a wedding photo on the wall of the dining room: the Bennetts all together. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are holding hands, a blissful bride and groom. Riley looks young, not more than five, toothily grinning in her flower girl dress. A tall boy stands behind her. He looks almost exactly like Riley – it's almost uncanny. Abby hears the dishwasher start and quickly moves to look busy with chores instead of snooping.

Mr. Bennett ushers her into the living room and offers her a seat beside the absolutely loaded Christmas tree. It's mostly decorated with misshapen salt-dough baubles and tinsel, interspersed with a few expensive-looking pieces. Abby crosses and uncrosses her legs uncomfortably, scanning the decorations on the mantelpiece instead.

This is the kind of Christmas she was used to, the kind she'd expected from Harper and the Caldwells. She'd been bracing herself for this pain, the pain where she half-expects her parents to walk right in and carry on exchanging presents. Once she got here, Harper had made sure she had to deal with a whole other kind of messed up. It still catches her right in the chest, and she's glad that no one is trying to make small talk with her, because she doesn't know if she could get any words out right now.

Mrs. Bennett comes in from the kitchen, apron gone and hands washed. "Merry Christmas, darling," she says, looking at Riley's dad with such care that it makes Abby's heart ache even more deeply.

"Merry Christmas," he responds. He sits opposite Abby on a squashy-looking sofa and begins unpacking pieces from a large leather satchel, clicking them together with careful attentiveness. Abby finally figures out that he's got a legit old Polaroid camera just as Riley returns, sitting next to Abby.

She's changed out of her fancy monogrammed pajamas into a low-cut top, men's dress pants, and the black blazer that Abby assumes is her go-to wardrobe choice. She smells musky, like men's deodorant, and, like almost everything about Riley Bennett, Abby should not be into it… but she 100% is into it.  

Riley flashes her a grin just as Marcus raises the camera and snaps a photo of them.

The noise startles Abby, and she jumps. Riley lays a hand on her thigh, and Abby breathes harder, swallowing deeply at the touch. Marcus carefully peels the Polaroid out of the camera and hands it to Riley. She holds it, unmoving, between her fingers.

"It blows out the colors if you shake it," Riley says at Abby's enquiring glance. She lays the photo carefully on the couch arm. "Okay, my turn," she adds, reaching over for the strap of the camera.

She checks something through the viewfinder, then gestures her mom to sit next to her dad. He puts an arm around her, and Riley snaps the picture at the exact right moment. Abby looks down at her hands, uncomfortably aware of the lump forming in her throat.

They meander through the presents ritual with a lot of oohing and aahing and Abby wishing she wasn't such dead weight, both in terms of conversation and present-having. True to Riley's threat-slash-warning, her mom has found a box of chocolates and wrapped them up for Abby, which she accepts with many thank yous and apologies that she doesn't have anything for them.

They wave her off, and after the gifts are unwrapped and tidied away, Riley's mom and dad get occupied with preparing for their family dinner.

"That's our cue," Riley tells Abby, gesturing up the stairs. "Let's get everything in the car and say our goodbyes."

Chapter Text

"Bye, Mom!" Riley hugs Mrs. Bennett with one arm and hauls her suitcase with the other.

Abby scuffs her toe awkwardly along the gravel. When Riley pops the trunk to load their bags in, Abby steps forward and shakes Mrs. Bennett's hand, thanking her for the impromptu stay.

"Oh, Abby! It's been so lovely; you're welcome back here anytime. You have a safe trip now, girls." Abby ducks her head, a little embarrassed at Mrs. Bennett's effusive kindness. They'd left Mr. Bennett in the garage to add another coat to the birdhouse, but he'd been equally as friendly to Abby.

It almost makes her feel likable again.

Riley ushers her into the car and backs out of the driveway, waving at her mom. Abby busies herself with her seatbelt to avoid eye contact, only giving a final wave as they round the corner and pull onto the street. As soon as they're out of sight, Riley turns to Abby with a smile. "Any road trip requests?" she says, reaching out to tap at her phone and connect it to the audio system.

"Uh…" Abby stalls.

Riley just grins and puts some playlist on shuffle, then hands Abby her phone. "Can you Maps me?"

"Um-" Abby's never been less articulate in her life. "Get on the I-86?"

Riley nods. "You got it."

"Then merge onto I-79 after about fifteen minutes," Abby says. "That's it. Clear all the way to Pittsburgh."

"Very good."

She doesn't seem inclined to small talk, so Abby curls herself up against the window and stares at the fields juddering past their window. Riley was, surprisingly, right about the traffic. There are barely any other cars, so they make good time. After a little while, Abby's eyes slide closed, and she's lulled into a shallow sleep by the movement of the car and the soft music. She hadn't realized how tired she was.

She wakes up a little while later, shocked by a quick deceleration. "Shit," she says, mouth fuzzy. "I'm sorry."

Riley glances her way, amused crinkles around her eyes. "It's okay. You look like you needed that."

Abby struggles her way back to an upright, seated position, rubbing her eyes. "God, I'm the worst! You're, like, driving me, and I'm not even entertaining you."

"I was plenty entertained," Riley smirks. "You drool in your sleep, do you know that?"

Abby rolls her eyes. "Where are we?" she asks, looking around. The fields have transitioned into groves of trees.

"Ugh, I don't know. Somewhere on the interstate. Maps it." Riley tosses her phone at Abby. Abby fumbles it, blinks until she can focus, locates them.

"Um. Like, a third of the way there?" Abby says, squinting at their little blue car moving along the little blue line. She stretches out, clicking her spine as she tilts her head from side to side.

"More specifically…?" Riley asks.

Abby zooms in. "Near… Edinboro?"

"They have this ice-cream store where I discovered my lactose intolerance," Riley says off-handedly.

"In one mile, take exit 22A to merge onto I-79 S towards Pittsburgh." Abby jumps as the phone reads out directions.

"Shit. I don't know what I pressed." Abby peers at the blue instructions appearing on the screen and locates the "x" symbol.

"Well, now I know where to go, anyway."

Abby feels oddly displaced — she's not really sure where she is, she doesn't really have anywhere to land, and she's pretty sure they're coming up on the approximate area where Harper pulled over and exploded her whole life in their faces.

She sniffs and shakes her head as she reaches into the cavity by her feet for a water bottle. She glances in the mirror at Riley, whose gaze flickers up for a split second to meet hers before she returns her attention to the road.

Riley coughs uncomfortably. "Um. Do you… want to talk about last night?" Her face is screwed up like someone's coming at her with cod liver oil.

Abby pushes herself back up, uncapping the water bottle. "Nah, I'm good." She's twisting the definition of the word good about as far as one can, but honestly… it's still surreal. She was about to propose to Harper, and now she's single. She takes an unnecessarily large gulp of water.

Talking about Harper with Riley is extremely low on her priority list right now, or indeed, any time. Riley sighs. "Thank God. I am not equipped for that conversation."

"It's okay. It hasn't really… sunk in yet," Abby says, just after saying that she didn't want to talk about it. "I was going to propose to her, you know? And it's… this last week has been, like, I don't know, some kind of fever dream."

Riley misses a beat, brow furrowing, and then nods sagely. "Okay. This I can help with."

"You can?" Abby runs a hand through her hair.

"Three rules to a breakup. Banging breakup playlist." Riley holds up a finger, then reaches over to tap around on her phone. The car veers a little off-center, and she drops her phone. "Fuck. Can you-" She tosses it onto Abby's lap. "It's called breakup playlist."

"Creative," Abby deadpans. Low-hanging fruit. Riley doesn't even deign to acknowledge it. Abby finds the playlist, puts it on shuffle, and scrolls through. "Jesus, what are you, eighteen?" She stalls over So What by P!nk and taps on it instead of the tinny pop piping through the speakers. "God, this was like the song of my senior year."

Riley laughs, then turns serious as P!nk starts singing, first mouthing the words, then starting to yell the lyrics on the chorus. "Come on!" She pauses, encouraging Abby to join in. "It'll make you feel better."

Abby rolls her eyes, shaking her head. Riley sighs, returning to enthusiastically yelling the chorus.

Abby watches her, honestly a little alarmed at how little she's looking at the road. "Dude, the road," she says over the music.

"I'm gonna get in a fight," Riley yells, ignoring her. "Come on," she encourages again in the breath between two lyrics.

Abby sighs, then leans forward, slipping Riley's phone back into the cupholder in the console. "So… so what, I'm still a rockstar! I got my rock moves, and I don't need you!"

Riley laughs, raising her eyebrows. Abby tries to hide her embarrassment by bopping her head aggressively with the music. She keeps going and Riley keeps up with her: "I'm gonna show you, tonight! I'm alright! I'm just fine! And you're a tool!"

Riley nods her head encouragingly, reaching over to turn up the sound system. Abby rolls down her window and sticks her head out.

"And I don't want you tonight!" Abby hollers out the window, then sits back, allowing herself a smile in Riley's direction. After all, she was, surprisingly, right. Screaming the lyrics to a trashy breakup song has improved her mood immensely.

Riley returns her smile, easing off the accelerator a little as the song winds up. "See?"

Abby ducks her head. "Yeah, okay. I don't feel terrible."

"That certainly seems like an improvement," Riley says dryly.

They stop off at a gas station after Riley declares that she has to pee, like, yesterday. Abby shakes her head when Riley asks if she's coming. She doesn't need to pee bad enough to enter a truck stop bathroom.

The sudden quiet takes her right back to her last impromptu stop during an interstate journey. Only five days. How bad can it be?

She was such a fucking idiot.

She shakes her head, tapping her fingers against the armrest, then succumbs and opens Candy Crush to occupy space in her brain. She's beaten three more levels when Riley returns and tosses two bags of candy and a bag of Cheetos onto her lap.

Abby raises an eyebrow at her.

"I did not trust their scungy milkshake maker," she explains. Abby forces a smile and cracks open the bag of Milk Duds to offer one to Riley. Riley accepts and tosses it into her mouth with impressive aim, and genuinely winks at her.

Putting all her thoughts of Harper to rest, Abby laughs and leans back against the passenger-side door, opening her mouth wide. Riley takes the hint and takes aim, landing a candy directly on Abby's tongue.

Abby grins and gives her a thumbs-up.

Riley starts the car, pops another Milk Dud for good luck, and returns the breakup playlist to shuffle. All the Things She Said by T.aT.u starts playing. Abby opens the Cheetos and crunches one. "Wow, this playlist really is just teenage angst," she says.

"Brought to you courtesy of Harper Caldwell, circa 2007."

"Oh." Abby swallows and dives for a Cheeto instead of responding.

"Sorry," Riley says, not sounding sorry at all. "Anyway. Rule two: my mom's patented breakup advice."

Abby gestures for her to go on, mouth full of Cheetos.

"You gotta do all the things that they hated, and you never did while you were together." Riley's mouth turns up in a conspiratorial grin. She gestures come on with her left hand. "What's on your list?"

"It wasn't like that," Abby says.

Riley just looks at her for a long second. Abby looks away, crunching a Cheeto. Riley's right – there's a lot of stuff that she and Harper never did because it wasn't Harper's thing.

Abby feels uncomfortable talking about Harper with Riley, though. It almost feels like she's betraying Harper. Harper, her person, her girlfriend – ex-girlfriend, she reminds herself, and that's what solidifies it.

"Okay," she says, swallowing the Cheeto dust. "Are you sure you want to talk about this?"

"Let's hear 'em," Riley says, instead of answering the question.

Trying to ignore the hole in her heart when she thinks about Harper as her ex-girlfriend, Abby says, "She, uh, hates mixed drinks. Says they're for teenagers." Abby would be the first to admit that Harper's actually right about that, but she was always a pretentious dick about alcohol. Woody overtones this and floral notes that. Abby wrinkles her nose in unconscious distaste.

"First stop in Pittsburgh is a liquor store," Riley promises, and it's the mark of a really good friend that she doesn't even say, Harper is right. Weirdly, Riley's enthusiastic agreement does make her feel better about the situation.

Warming to the idea now, Abby continues. "She wouldn't eat Chinese food."

Riley laughs. "She's always been a bit shit."

"She hates foreign language films! Who hates foreign language films?" Abby says, throwing her hands up. "I still haven't seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire because Harper hates subtitles. It's a historical movie about art and lesbians. I mean, come on."

"I'm beginning to sense some evening plans here," Riley says. "A box of wine coolers, some Chinese take-out, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

That sounds suspiciously close to a date, and Abby would be lying if she said her heart didn't rocket into her throat at that prospect. Riley, who is absolutely gorgeous and extremely nice to boot, wants to hang out with her tonight and do fun stuff.

Why the hell not?

"Hell, yeah," she says. "There's a great Chinese place like, a block away from the apartment we're staying at."

"Sounds great. Can you check how far away we are?" Riley gestures at her phone.

Abby picks it up, opening the Maps app again. "Like… an hour. Maybe a little more."

"Hmm. How do you feel about car ride games?"

Abby snorts. "What?"

"Like… twenty questions or whatever."

"I hadn't ever thought about my position on them until right now, but, I mean, sure." It occurs to Abby that she should tell John that she's nearly back. She has to do something about her lack of clean clothes, and that something should probably be getting her stuff from their – Harper's – apartment. Ugh. "Hold on," she says. "I'm gonna call John first."

Riley inclines her head, turning her full attention back to the empty stretch of highway in front of them.

"Hello-o?" John answers his phone like he has no idea who it's going to be, when Abby's perfectly aware that he has an absolutely awful photo of her as a twelve-year-old as her contact picture. She rolls her eyes.

"I'm going to stay at the Yangs' apartment until they get home," she says, not bothering with a greeting.

"Okay? How did you get back?"

"Riley's driving me down now."

"Ooooh," he says, way too loud, and Abby's positive that Riley heard. She furiously turns down the volume on her phone as Riley glances at Abby with a thinly veiled smirk.

Great. Awesome. Fantastic.

Trying to recover her cool, Abby gets to the real point of her call. "I have to go get my stuff tomorrow."

John, fortunately, reads between the lines. "I can pick you up at ten," he says. "You doing okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," she says, once again stretching the definition of a word well beyond its usual limits. She's unconvincing, and they all know it.

John sighs. "You know I'm always here for you, right? I'll see you tomorrow."

She makes an attempt at a positive noise, hangs up, and drops her phone into her lap, staring through the windshield and watching the tarmac fly underneath the wheels. Suddenly the car feels very quiet.

"Hey, uh, thank you," Abby says quietly to Riley, looking out the window so she can't see the rest of the sentence on her face: Thank you for letting me escape, for cheering me up, for driving me 200 miles in the opposite direction to your house. Riley's done Abby more favors in the past forty-eight hours than Harper has for the entire duration of their relationship.

"Fuck, marry, kill: Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton." Abby smiles to herself, grateful that Riley doesn't linger.

She snorts. "I thought we were playing Would You Rather."

"I can't think of any good ones. C'mon." Riley waves a hand.

"Uh… Jesus," Abby says.

"Fuck, marry, or kill him?" Riley smirks at her in the mirror.

Abby rolls her eyes. "Fuck Jesus, obviously. Okay. Marry… Hillary?" She scrunches up her nose.

"Interesting," Riley says. "And…?"

Abby purses her lips. "I don't know! Uh. Kill Obama, fuck… Biden? Ugh," she says with feeling.

"Wow. Why?" Riley looks honest-to-god surprised by that.

"The elections. Obama can't get re-elected, but Biden can," Abby says.

"Logical." Riley raises an imaginary glass. "Not sexy, but logical."

"None of them are sexy."

"Agree to disagree," Riley says blithely.

"Gross."

"Your turn."

Abby fishes for an appropriate trio. "Um… Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, and Cameron Diaz in Charlie's Angels."

"Ooh, good one. Iconic gay awakening." Riley thinks for a second. "Marry Lucy, obviously."

"Obviously." Abby inclines her head.

"Fuck Drew, kill Diaz."

"Harsh," Abby says.

Riley shrugs. "Fuck, marry, kill: Scully, Willow, Tara."

"Ooh, hard call," Abby says. She's beginning to enjoy this. She'd forgotten that life could be… a little less uptight than guided Christmas tours and dates to the symphony and never, ever eating Chinese food.

She glances at Riley in the mirror again. She's concentrating hard, a little furrow in between her brows.

It's not that cute, Abby tries to convince herself. Riley flicks a look at her. She screws up her nose to appear deep in thought on the question of Fuck, Marry, Kill, rather than the question of Riley's intensely attractive face. "Marry Tara. Fuck Scully, obviously. Gillian Anderson is still the hottest. Which means… kill Willow?" Having thawed to the game, she continues without being prompted. "AOC, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren."

"Marry AOC," Riley says instantly. "Fuck Elizabeth — although, gross — and kill Hillary. Fuck, marry, kill: Meredith, Izzie, Cristina from Grey's Anatomy."

"I have absolutely no idea who they are," Abby says.

"You've never seen Grey's Anatomy?" Riley demands.

"Uh, no." Abby raises an eyebrow.

"That show raised me," Riley says. She has that lilt in her voice that makes Abby think she's joking, but she's never quite sure. "Okay, um, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep."

"Marry Cate Blanchett," Abby says. "Honestly, though, fuck Meryl. What a wild ride that would be."

Riley laughs, and before Abby can stop herself, she thinks, I'd like to hear that for the rest of my life.

 

True to her word, Riley stops off at the first liquor store she sees on the way to the Yangs' apartment. Abby fishes in her tote bag for her wallet and follows her into the store.

"The world's your oyster," Riley announces, gesturing from one poorly-stocked shelf to another.

Abby settles almost immediately on two boxes of Jack Daniels' rum and cokes, which Riley snorts at. She gets herself a box of Mike's Hard Lemonade, which Abby pays for alongside hers.

"Next stop, Chinese food," Riley promises, hoisting the box with one hand, forearm flexing where her coat has pulled up. God, she's hot. Abby nearly trips and drops the other box.

She directs Riley with one half of her brain and places an online order with the other. By the time Riley's disentangled her directions, and they're parked outside, their food is almost done.

Abby runs inside without bothering to put on her coat and comes back shivering so hard her teeth are chattering. She has two full paper bags balanced in her arms. Riley shoves open the passenger seat door from her side of the car so that Abby can sit down.

"Are you throwing a fucking party?" Riley asks as Abby struggles to balance both bags. "It's just us, and I assumed the dog had his own food."

Finally getting both on her lap, Abby throws her hands up. "I just broke up with the woman I was going to marry. Let me eat my feelings, okay?"

Riley snorts and rolls her eyes. "Alright. Where's the apartment?"

Abby gives her directions, grateful that she didn't get a pitying look or prying question. After parking in the basement garage, Riley lifts both of their bags — one in each hand, causing Abby's brain to stall about how hot and strong she is for, what, the third time today? This is getting ridiculous — and gestures Abby to lead the way.

Abby, balancing two huge bags of Chinese food on her thigh, hits the elevator call button with an elbow. While they wait, she turns back to Riley. "Seriously, though. Thank you for driving me all the way here on Christmas. I would've been absolutely fucked without you." Riley gets a look on her face that Abby's never seen before and says nothing.

They don't talk much on their way into the apartment, Abby concentrating on balancing the food, finding the right key and the right apartment. They're unscathed and have avoided any major spills, which Abby takes as a win. She dumps the food on the table, gives Riley the whirlwind tour: kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom — the apartment's tiny — and turns on the heat.

 

Riley sighs in relief as a gust of hot air washes over them. Her fingers are freezing up.

A Labrador puppy, all big paws and a big, lolling tongue and an aggressively wagging tail, bounds out of the kitchen, sticking its nose into her knee and slobbering on her. Riley coos and scritches its ears before it bounds back to the kitchen at Abby's call.

Riley follows it, finds some cutlery and plates in the cabinet, and takes them to the table. She unpacks the food — Abby really wasn't kidding about eating her feelings, there's enough here to cater the entire White Elephant party — and pours their drinks into wine glasses. They might be drinking like college kids tonight, but that doesn't mean that they have to look like it too.

"Riley Bennett, domestic goddess," Abby jokes as she returns from the kitchen.

"It's Johnson, not Bennett. Nice place you got here," she says reflexively, handing her a wineglass of rum and coke.

"Ah, thanks," Abby says, toasting her and then taking a sip of her drink. Riley can see her processing the last name thing. Fuck, maybe she'll think she's married. Not that it would matter, because nothing's happened between them, and nothing will happen between them.

Abby obviously decides that asking about it would be uncool; she takes another gulp of her drink.

The puppy bounds out of the kitchen, putting its huge paws on Abby's lap. "Off," Abby says firmly, pointing at the floor and rewarding it with a scratch on the head when it stays down. She reaches over and grabs a carton of noodles.

In the lull of silence, Riley's struck by how little they actually know about each other. This suddenly feels like a first date, but with all the added awkwardness of the whole Harper sitch. She's immediately hyper-aware of her entire body. She takes a shallow breath.

She crunches on an egg roll to distract herself and inhales several fragments of pastry. She coughs, covering her mouth with a hand, trying to avoid looking like a major dork.

Abby laughs, then grimaces in sympathy. "Um, I love the commitment to real adult things like plates and tables and servings, but I'm really more of a sit-in-front-of-the-TV-and-eat-from-the-carton person, if I'm honest," she says.

Gulping Mike's Hard Lemonade at an alarming rate to clear her throat, Riley manages, "Yeah, you're right. Me too." She exhales. "You wanna watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire?"

"Mm-hmm." Abby picks up a carton of noodles, balances a pair of chopsticks on top, and turns to walk the seven feet to the couch. The chopsticks overbalance almost immediately, clattering to the (gorgeous) hardwood floor. Abby bends over to pick them up. She's got a really nice ass, to top it all off.

She bites her lip.

Riley follows her to the couch, bringing some food and both boxes of alcohol as well. Abby drops her noodles on the table and dumps an armful of blankets on the couch. The wineglasses join the noodles on the table; Riley watches as Abby flicks through Hulu's offerings. When she finally finds the movie, she turns back to Riley. "Ready?"

 

Several hard lemonades and almost an hour later, Riley is beginning to realize that she was in no way ready for this movie. It is straight-up horny. And not even in a pornographic, made-for-straight-titillation way. It's made for gay women. She's lucky that the plot is obvious enough that she doesn't have to pay much attention to the subtitles, because she'd be entirely lost; she's been sneaking looks at Abby, trying not to feel the sparking tension between them, wondering if Abby's even thinking about her.

It hasn't even been an hour, and the two main characters have shared more longing looks than Riley can count.  

Riley's about ready to scream if the two women on the screen don't. Just. Kiss. Already. She tries very hard to think only about this, instead of what it would feel like to just… turn her head a little to the right and kiss Abby senseless.

It takes another twenty minutes before the main characters finally kiss, and it's desperate, grasping, and emotionally charged.

Riley knows exactly how they feel.

She chews on her lip to distract herself from every little urge to reach over and touch Abby and instead twines her fingers in the edges of her t-shirt, trying not to make any sudden movements.

The distance between them is mere inches. Riley slowly slides her hands under her own legs, just in case her alcohol-infused impulse control centers give up and she kisses Abby on the spot.

Riley once again attempts to refocus on the movie.

Abby's not a talker, which is good, because Riley's brain might actually short-circuit if she had to keep up witty banter, watch the film, read the subtitles, and avoid kissing Abby all at once.

Towards the end, Abby reaches out, crossing the space between them, and quickly slips her hand onto Riley's thigh, under the blanket they're both huddled under. It's low enough on her leg that it would be completely appropriate on any other occasion, a casual touch between two good friends, but Abby's warm hand on her jeans feels intoxicatingly erotic.

Riley catches her breath, looks over at Abby. She's staring fixedly at the television, drinking in the movie. Vivaldi's Summer accompanies the final, lingering shot of Héloïse. The rich, orange light of the screen flickers over Abby's profile.

Riley's caught unaware by how beautiful she is, the soft curve of her lips slightly open. Transfixed, in fact. She inhales shallowly, trying not to disturb the moment. Abby's eyes are flickering over the television, and now she's absent-mindedly chewing on her lip.

Her heart is jack-hammering under her too-tight bra, and when Abby glances over at her, she tries to wipe her face clean of the thoughts running wild in her head, pretend she hasn't just been staring at her for the length of an entire movie.

She's surprised at the single tear she can see trailing down Abby's cheek. Riley swallows. This is not the time to be having a horny gay meltdown. Abby needs a good friend, a shoulder to cry on, not a sexually-charged, French-movie-fueled encounter.

"I'm gonna go — um. Get ready for bed." She slides away from Abby's hand and Abby's gaze, jumps off the couch, drags her whole suitcase into the plush bathroom, and locks the door.

The first thing she does is lean her forehead against the door and groan into her hands. Then she stares herself down in the mirror, surprised at the way her reflection swims through the alcohol, splashes her face with cold water, and completes her evening routine on automatic.

Riley Johnson can be cool. She can compartmentalize. If she can look at hundreds of naked patients every day, she can handle a single, fully-clothed, night in a separate room to Abby without being weird about it.

She somehow feels much less sure about this after getting changed, in her pajamas, braless, hair tied up, face bare.

When she returns, Abby's gone from the living room, and it appears that she's taken both the blankets with her. Riley bites her lip – she's going to give herself a goddamn piercing at this rate – and thinks that looking for Abby is a bad idea.

Definitely, absolutely, positively a bad idea.

She doesn't need to see Abby in bed, and Abby doesn't need to see her braless, tipsy, mildly aroused.

Riley doesn't need to say goodnight. She doesn't need blankets for the couch.

She knocks on the bedroom door anyway.

"Come in," Abby says. Riley pushes the door open. She's in bed, lying on her side, arm under her cheek like a pillow, and she blinks slowly at Riley as she leans in the doorway. The strap on her tank top is threatening to fall down, and Riley has to struggle to think back to her excuse.

"Hey," she says. "I was- I was just looking for the blankets."

"Um, I thought… You could just sleep here," Abby says, gesturing at the bed. "It's huge, and it's gonna be cold in the living room."

The bed is a king, for sure. Huge. Tons of space. No risk whatsoever of getting tangled up in Abby's arms while they're asleep. Yeah, right, Riley tells herself.

"Are you sure?" She lists to the side a little, then quickly rights herself. It's all that hard lemonade, she tells herself. There's no way she just swooned in front of another human being.

"You're gonna freeze out there," Abby says. "Really. There's loads of room." And it seems that there's a shape to the way that these things go, and they both know what it is, and they're taking more and more steps past the point of no return, and somehow, Riley can't bring herself to care. There's something inevitable between them, something since that first encounter at the restaurant.

It feels awfully like fate.

She shrugs. "Okay," she says. She shifts her weight to stop leaning on the door, trying to hide her nerves by unnecessarily checking her phone, not even registering the notifications, then gets into bed. There's no reason to be nervous. Nothing's going to happen.

She rechecks her phone, this time actually focusing on the screen – there's a thumbs up from her mom, nothing else – and then she's forced to face this. She tugs a blanket up to her chin, rolling over to face Abby.

Abby draws an intake of breath, then pauses for a moment. Riley's breathing stops. "What was the third rule?" Abby finally says, looking at her with big eyes. It might have been the first sentence Riley's heard from her without a stutter all day.

Riley blinks. "The third rule of what?" She knows the answer, of course, but it's a little too obvious to admit that.

"Your breakup advice."

"Oh." Riley swallows deeply. Oh, yeah. This is happening. She can only see the honest answer going one way, but she's too tipsy to think of a convincing lie on the spot. "Get over them by getting under someone else."

"Yeah?" And Riley's in trouble; they both know it. Abby purses her lips thoughtfully, regards Riley deeply for a second, and Riley thinks, tangentially, how much she looks like the painter from the movie. She closes her eyes, exhales, tries to let the moment pass, and before she opens them again, Abby's kissing her.

She lets out a little huff of surprise, then kisses back, one hand finding its way to the nape of Abby's neck, caressing her, pulling her closer. It feels as good as she'd guessed, setting her skin on fire, and then, they're moving, rolling, Abby half on top of her, and their legs are firmly entangled.

Abby breathes a sigh of satisfaction, breaking off the kiss to make her way down to Riley's neck. Her hand is suddenly on Riley's ass, the other roaming along her front. She presses her lips against the skin there, sighing warm air over Riley's pulse point, grazing it with her teeth, soothing it with her lips. Riley stretches her head up in automatic response, and wow, Abby knows what she's doing. Riley is turned on. Unreasonably so for barely thirty seconds of kissing and PG-13 fumbling.

One of Abby's hands cups Riley's ribcage, the line right under her breast, pushing up her top, and she moves down to start paying attention to Riley's clavicle. Riley groans. Obviously, she'd be lying if she said she hadn't imagined this moment before. This way, and a million other ways, and fuck, she's into it. Her body is tingling, and she's desperate, and the rational part of her brain that should be putting the brakes on is slipping away from her with Abby's every movement. Riley tries to pull Abby closer, but they're already pressed together. She's grinding up with her hips, and Abby is fully on top of her, one knee on each side of her torso, and Riley knows she's being the opposite of cool but she wants Abby.

She wants Abby to fuck her, right here and right now.

Abby's thumb is trailing higher and higher, getting dangerously close to her nipple before stopping. She looks up at her, asking for permission, and Riley almost nods until she sees the necklace.

Harper's fucking necklace.

Christ, this is Harper's ex that she's in bed with. The warning lights in her brain finally kick into gear, saying this is a bad idea. Big ole nope right here.

"Abby-" she says roughly, and it comes out far more of an invitation than intended.

"Mmm," Abby responds, pressing one last kiss to Riley's collarbone before she swings one leg between Riley's and nudges it upwards. She rolls her thigh like she knows exactly what she's doing to Riley. Riley bites back another moan.

Riley wants to enjoy this. She is enjoying this. Far too much. Abby grazes Riley's nipple with a thumb and Riley responds instinctively, grinding on Abby's thigh, her groan so dirty she can't believe it came out of her mouth. Her hands are splayed on Abby's back, under that tank top that's always riding up, pulling her closer.

Abby should be engaged today.

Oh, fuck.

They can't do this.

"Abby," Riley says again, less heated this time. She stops Abby with a gentle nudge to the shoulder. Abby stops, looks surprised, then hellishly embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she says. "Shit, that was… bad. I'm so sorry." She struggles to disentangle their bodies, rolling away awkwardly. "Jesus," she says, more to herself than Riley. She lands on her back, tank top still riding up, still stretching over her nipples.

Riley gulps and looks away. If she has to stay here one more minute, she won't be able to stop them again

"I'm gonna-" She sits up, pushing the blankets down.

"I'm so sorry," Abby says again. "I shouldn't- fuck, you were just being nice, and I- don't know when to stop, and. Shit. Shit."

"No!" Riley closes her eyes and pinches her nose so she doesn't have to look at Abby's furious blushing. "I… uh. I was… am, very much into this. It's just… You're rebounding," she says, throwing her hands up. "And, I mean, I don't even know if you're really broken up with Harper, and-" Riley stops, realizing how stupid she sounds. Why should Harper matter for a one-night rebound? They're never going to see each other again, anyway. Just stop over-thinking it and enjoy it, Riley tells herself.

"What? Of course I'm broken up with Harper. What do you even mean-"

"Does Harper know that?" And, again, Riley asks herself: why does she care? It shouldn't matter. But her preoccupation with it indicates to her that she wants something more with Abby, something she's never going to get if they hook up now and never speak of it again.

She finally looks up and catches Abby's eye, and Abby immediately looks away, cheeks on fire.

"I-" She bites her lip, looking like she's trying not to cry. "I don't- It's not-"

"I'll… see you in the morning." Riley inhales deeply. "It's all good. Really. Sleep well."  

She pulls the door closed behind her, but it doesn't muffle Abby's groan at all.

Chapter Text

Abby has some regrets.

Chief among them her sloppy attempt at hooking up with Riley last night, followed by a sobering shower and two hours of non-stop replays of every dumb move she's ever made on a woman before she finally fell asleep.

She groans and buries her head in her pillow at the fresh recollection of her miserable rebound attempt, and then, finally, she gets up. She spends five minutes finding clothes that at best have been worn once, and at worst — well, at least they're black, so no stains show – and then wishes she'd wasted more time looking for clothes, because now she's at the part of her day where she has to get up and talk to the woman who rejected her at her most pathetic.

She inhales deeply, runs a hand through her hair, and then makes her way to the kitchen, dreading having to look Riley in the eye.

Abby sees Riley before Riley sees her – she's sprawled on the couch, scrolling on her phone, scratching at the dog's head. Her suitcase is packed and ready at her feet.

Abby's heart falls — it's not that she expected Riley to stick around, not after last night, but she'd been looking forward to it, somehow, somewhere in the back of her mind. Pittsburgh is always too quiet in the post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull, and it would've been nice to have someone to dog-walk with.

She looks up and smiles at Abby. Abby quickly looks down, heart rate increasing. "Morning," she says, shoving her hands in her pockets reflexively.

"Hey," Riley says. Abby can't read her, can't tell if she's mad about last night, embarrassed, anything. Riley drops her phone on her lap and stands up. "How did you sleep?"

"I think that's meant to be my line," Abby says, attempting a smile that turns into a yawn. "I …" She hesitates, then decides that I was humiliated but horny all night and I sure hope that doesn't awaken anything in me might be coming on a tad too strong. "I slept fine. How about you?"  

"Yeah, I slept okay. Had to share with this guy, though." Riley pats the dog's head, smiling in Abby's direction, but not looking her in the eye. She glances back down at the dog instead, shaking her head as he licks at her palm.

"Oh," Abby says. There's a hiccup in the conversation, neither of them sure of what to say when so much has been left unsaid. Abby scuffs her foot along the ground, tries to think of a way to break the ice.

She raises her head, about to say something, when Riley jumps in, saying, "I'd better get out of your hair."

Abby's heart takes another little dive and she plasters a smile on to cover it up. "Thank you, again, for driving me. And, um, sorry about-" She bites her lip, ducking her head again, not sure that she should bring it up, but not wanting to leave it unaddressed.

"It's okay. Really." Riley looks equally uncomfortable and swiftly moves the conversation on. "Um… I live in Baltimore, so if you're ever in that neck of the woods, you could, uh, hit me up."

Abby nods as though she isn't shocked to her core by the suggestion that Riley would ever want to see her again. "Oh. Yeah, okay. You, um, have a safe trip."

Riley bends to pick up her suitcase, and Abby realizes she doesn't want this, no matter how agonizing it is, to end quite yet. "I'll, uh, walk you down," she offers quickly.

"Okay," Riley says, a little too fast to be cool.

Abby grabs her phone and keys, then follows Riley down to the parking lot, still grasping for something cool or funny to say to bracket their strange experience and break the tension. She leans up against one of the concrete pylons, hands in her pockets, trying to look relaxed and not desperate as Riley puts her stuff in the trunk.

She slams it shut, then turns to Abby. There's an awkward moment where they both think about going in for a hug, decide it's a bad idea, and then side-step each other.

"Um," Abby says. "Bye." That sounds meager, so she hastily adds, "Thank you. Again." She's blushing. Great. Things could not be going better.

"See you," Riley says, giving a little wave.

Just as she gets into her car and switches it on, John pulls up, waving cheerily at Abby, then turning to wave at Riley too, with a smile so presumptuous that it beckons Abby to violence. She grits her teeth.

Riley waves briefly through the side window as she negotiates her way out of the car park. Abby's eyes trail her driving out of the parking lot, then she turns back to John. He gestures at the passenger seat.

Abby sighs, aware that she's about to undergo the third degree, then gets in. "Hey," she says.

"Hey," he says, glancing at her in the mirror, then does a double take, looking a bit more serious. "Are you okay to do this?"

"No," she says honestly. "But I would rather do it before Harper gets back. I can't… I don't want to see her." She doesn't feel like she's up to rubbing two brain cells together, let alone successfully extracting her stuff from their – Harper's – apartment. She slumps against the window, all thoughts of Riley immediately wiped by the imminent dread of what she's about to do.

"Are you sure about this?" he asks as he pulls onto the main road, not a car in sight.

Abby turns her head and looks straight at him. "What do you mean?"

He looks uncomfortable. "I don't know. Abby… you and Harper are really good together. You were going to propose to her! And, while I don't agree with marriage on principle… you do. Are you sure you want to give up a whole year over… what, two bad days?"

Abby looks out the window again, bites her knuckles. She's thoroughly unsettled by the prospect of cleaning her stuff out of the apartment she thought she was going to live in until she bought a house together with the person she thought was the love of her life. She shakes her head. "Dude. You didn't see her with her family. Not really. She was… It was like I didn't even know her."

He exhales, accelerates through a red light. "Well, she was under a lot of pressure," he says, eyeing her out of the corner of his eye.

Abby turns and stares at him, incredulous. "Are you… are you actually taking her side right now? She told her parents I was her orphan, heterosexual roommate."

John raises his hands off the steering wheel in a mercy gesture, and Abby glares until he puts them back. "No, no! You know I'm always on your side." He's still side-eyeing her, and she refuses to acknowledge it. "But. It kind of seems like you're moving pretty fast."

Abby sighs. "Maybe." She has an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt, not for the first time in her life, and realizes that she has no idea how the next few days will go.

John doesn't say anything, and Abby turns to stare out the window again, chewing on her thumbnail, trying not to cry, which is an activity she's been engaging in far too often for her liking over the past few days.

She feels her phone vibrate in her pocket and automatically yanks it out as it starts playing Harper's ringtone. John also feels for his in the console, then stops when Abby holds hers up resignedly.

She'd muted Harper yesterday so she didn't have to keep declining her calls, but it must have expired. She rejects the call and tosses her phone down on her lap.

She blinks hard, refusing to cry. "She didn't even tell me until we were halfway there," she says unsteadily. "She barely looked at me the whole time. Her parents hated me-" Her voice breaks, and she has to gulp down air to get herself under control. "It's too late. I think I was moving too fast anyway. I couldn't… I couldn't see the warning signs until they were right in front of me."

John tilts his head and arches an eyebrow at her in the mirror. "And Riley…?"

"Oh," Abby says, not really registering the suggestion behind his words. "Yeah. Get this. Harper and Riley were together in high school, and Harper just outed her to everyone just so no one would think that she might be gay." She stops for a second, thinking of Riley's face in the bar; she'd told Abby her childhood trauma like a warning. Then, later, Harper doing the exact same thing, throwing Abby under the bus to save her own ass. Riley had been right. "I can't… I thought I knew her."

John winces. "That's terrible. That's… that's so fucked up."

"Yeah." It is.  

"So… what happened with you and Riley?" John tries again.

Abby blushes. She puts her cold fingers on her cheeks like that's going to stop it. "I came onto her and she rejected me," she says with a groan.

John once again stays quiet for several breaths. Abby's blush doesn't abate at all. Finally, as they draw closer to her – Harper's – apartment, he says, "That's… out of character for you."

Abby doesn't respond to that. He's right. She's always been a romantic, not particularly inclined to casual hook-ups or quick rebounds. And she doesn't want to think about that, what that means about her and Riley.

She'd almost kissed Riley in the Caldwells' driveway, had thought about Riley entirely too much even since the Foxwood, and… she knows that whatever would've transpired between them last night absolutely wouldn't have felt like a casual hook-up, at least for herself. She can't imagine how they would've gone their separate ways if they'd had sex; she hates the idea of Riley thinking that Abby just wanted to fuck her to get over Harper.

If Abby's being honest with herself, she misses Riley already. Maybe that's just the breakup talking. It's hard to disentangle her grief about breaking up with Harper, the weird cocktail of shame and confusion that shrouds the whole Riley thing, and the pervasive exhaustion she can't shake from hiding in the closet at the Caldwells'.

The car stops with a jolt, and she blinks in surprise, trying to reabsorb her tears through willpower and stubbornness.

John's parked in the basement of the building, in the yellow-marked "Visitor" space, and Abby gets light-headed with relief when she sees that Harper's car isn't in their apartment's designated parking space.

"Are you ready for this?" John says.

She just gets out of the car. John opens the back door and pulls out some flattened boxes. She hadn't even thought of any of the practicalities of transporting her stuff, so she's glad someone has their head screwed on. 

"You okay?" John asks as she swipes her keycard against the lift and presses the button for their floor. She nods, but her fingers are trembling as she shoves them back into her pockets.

He tilts the stack of flattened moving boxes squashed under his arm against the elevator wall and puts his arm around her shoulders to give her a supportive squeeze.

"I'll keep a lookout while you go upstairs," he tells her when they enter the apartment. She nods distractedly.

Most of the big-ticket items in here are Harper's — the furniture, all here before she moved in, the kitchenware all Harper's expensive taste. Some of it they'd bought together – some hand-thrown plates and bowls – but it hurts Abby's heart to even think about Harper right now, so she doesn't think she could handle looking at them every day. So… that leaves her clothes and her books, both upstairs. She picks up a box and goes that way, deliberately avoiding looking at all the photographs of them together on the bookshelf in the living room.

Upstairs, she avoids looking at the bed, where she's spent many hours tucked just-so in Harper's embrace, and turns away, wrapping her arms around herself, trying to think only about what she came here to do.

She reconstructs a box carefully, puts it on the floor next to the closet, and begins. Their two sides of the closet could not be more different. Harper's is professional blouses, light prints, airy jackets, tight pants. Each one is freshly ironed or dry-cleaned, ready for the office. Abby's throat tightens thinking about Harper coming home from work, the way she'd enter their apartment and let her hair down, transform from her uptight, efficient journalist self to the more relaxed, affectionate Harper. Abby bites down on her lip, looking up at the ceiling, feeling her eyes welling up.

She was the only person who got to see Harper's soft side, the one before she put on the make-up and the heels and the figure-hugging pants and went to work. Abby thinks that maybe she should've anticipated this thing with the family – Harper had always been harder, harsher, more eager to please, more perfectionist when she was at work, with their friends, on the phone to her family than when she was alone with Abby.

But then she thinks that that's not fair – there's no way any sane person could've guessed what was happening with Harper and her family, especially when Harper had explicitly told her that she'd come out.

Abby yanks a handful of blouses off the bar viciously, hangers still attached, and throws them into the box like they've personally offended her. She dumps an armful of shoes on top, then turns back to the closet to start on the blazers and pants. They half-fill another box, which Abby tops off with the clothes from the dresser – pajamas, socks, underwear, t-shirts. She swipes away tears as she separates her t-shirts from Harper's. It's been long enough that she's not even sure whose some of them are, but she takes some anyway.

That's it. That's the extent of her belongings, barring her books. She carries the boxes one after the other downstairs, then takes another empty one back upstairs to the study. John doesn't say anything about her progressively reddening eyes or the semi-regular sniffs. He just picks up the already-packed boxes and navigates his way out of the apartment like a pro.

In the study, she stacks her books with a little more care, ordering by size so none of the soft covers gets creases. She has to go back down for a second box to fit them all in, and she's just finished filling it and is contemplating whether her toiletries are really worth it — she took everything essential on their trip anyway — when she hears someone talking.

"John?" they're saying, and Abby takes far too long trying to figure out who else is there until she realizes that it's Harper. John says something, too quiet for her to hear, and her heart jackhammers up under her throat.

She hears Harper's characteristically soft footsteps on the stairs, and she reacts instinctively. Not logically, not practically, not in the slightest.

She thrusts the window up, judges whether she can fit through the gap, and swings herself out onto the ledge leading on to the fire escape.

She hears John talking from downstairs, probably telling Harper don't go up there, but Harper never really liked him anyway, so she's probably going to ignore it.

Abby shuts her eyes. She has to get out of here. More footsteps. She lowers herself out the window and onto the platform, edging away from the wall. She can faintly hear the sound of a door slamming inside, and then, just as she's debating whether to go back — she does want to keep her gorgeous art history books — the window slams down, latch falling into place with finality.

Well, that's that decision made then. She turns around, stepping carefully on the icy stairs, keen to avoid falling five stories and breaking her neck. It's cold enough that she tucks her hands under her armpits, shivering slightly. She doesn't know how she's going to get over the humiliation of having to knock on the door of her own apartment – she gave John her keys – but it might be worth it. For the books.

"-maybe just wait out here, we're almost done," Abby hears John say, and she stops short. There's no way she's hearing things from inside the apartment, so that means…

Oh, fuck.

John and Harper are exiting the building's front door, and they've stopped right where the fire escape ladder drops to the ground. Fuck, fuck, fuck, Abby thinks fervently. She's walked right out of the frying pan and into the fire, and unless she wants to add breaking and entering to her lengthening list of fuckups, she's going to have to hide out up here until Harper goes away.

"John, this is ridiculous," Harper says, pulling her phone out, and Abby's not quick enough on the uptake to silence her phone. It rings out, ridiculously loud in the frosty morning air. Both John and Harper snap their faces up fast enough to get whiplash. Abby is immobilized by an imminent sense of doom breaking over her like a tidal wave.

"Abby. What the fuck," John says calmly.

"Abby!" Harper yells, less calmly.

No, no, no, no, no, no. Abby grimaces, then straightens up, like this was her plan all along.

"What are you doing?" Harper asks.

"Uh…" Abby's heart is about to beat out of her chest at the sight of Harper. She's crisp even now, perfectly aligned pea coat, tight black jeans, low heels, hair swept off her face. She's fucking beautiful, and being here and seeing her makes Abby think of all the reasons they're together, the way they fit together in bed, the long walks in the evening, everything.

She thinks about the half-empty wardrobe inside, then thinks harder about Christmas. She grips the railing tighter. "Packing," she says.

"You're… packing," Harper repeats. "What, you just thought you'd clear out while I wasn't here?" She sounds pissed. John takes an instinctive step back.

"I thought I'd clear out now that we've broken up," Abby corrects, having to raise her voice slightly. This is so stupid; she would've been free and clear by now if she had just waited one minute instead of climbing out of the window to avoid her ex like a dumbass. Now, she gets the privilege of airing the minutiae of her breakup to all their neighbors, the entire street, and also her best friend.

She tries to glare at John, but he raises his hands, as if to say, not my fault, and Abby can't blame him. This is a goddamn comedy of errors.

"Abby, I told them! I told them! Why is that not enough for you?"

Abby is tongue-tied. "This isn't… this isn't about you coming out. I get why you didn't want to come out! That's fine! But you didn't have to drag me into it. You didn't have to lie to me. I don't…" She runs a hand through her hair, turning to look over the buildings instead of down at Harper.

Harper doesn't say anything for a second, and Abby thinks that maybe she's finally made her point, as cruel as it makes her feel.

But then Harper says the most unexpected thing: "Why were you at Riley's house?" Her hands are on her hips and she's staring up at Abby with a defiant tilt to her chin.

"What?" Abby says, jaw dropping. She computes for a second, then figures it out. "Have you been tracking me?"

"John showed me how."

Abby glares down at John, this time catching his eye and making sure he knows how pissed she is.

"I'm sorry!" he says, holding both his hands up. "I regret it!"

"Jesus fucking-" Abby closes her eyes, then looks up at the sharp gray sky. "I didn't have anywhere else to go, Harper," she says. "Weirdly enough, waiting around for you to throw me under the bus again wasn't a super appealing option."

Harper swallows, looking down at the ground. Her shoulders relax minutely, signaling that she's less defensive now. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry about everything. But I did it, I told them," she repeats, and quieter: "Everything's messed up now."

Abby feels like she's been punched in the gut, and she's surprised that after the emotional roller-coaster she's been on, Harper can still make her feel guilty. "Harper-" she says, and it sounds like an apology, which is so not what she wanted right now.

"Abby…" Harper says. She's tearing up, and Abby's always been a sucker for her like this, no make-up, bangs messed up like she's been running, lower lip just a tiny bit more pronounced like she's about to cry. "Please," she says, lip trembling. "I need you."

She catches sight of John, who looks completely out of his depth. He probably hasn't been this close to emotions in years.

She swallows, turns her attention back to Harper, trying to batten down her feelings, trying to think of some way she can do what she needs to do. "Harper," she says again, and the name is so familiar, so intimate on her tongue. She swallows again. "I'm sorry. I can't be what you need me to be."

Harper's eyes are definitely threatening to spill over now, and Abby hates that she knows that from this far away, that she can tell that when Harper looks up past her at the sky, it's because she's trying not to cry. Abby digs her fingernails into her palms.

"I'm sorry, I really am… It's just. Just," Harper gulps back her crying. "They change me. I forget who I am; I become this carbon copy of what they want. That's not who I am. I'm yours."

Harper starts really crying now, and Abby shifts uncomfortably.

"Harper, I'm sorry, but I just can't. It's too late. I can't… can't be with someone who makes me feel ashamed to be myself."

"I can change! I have changed! I'm not like that anymore. I told them about you. Abby." Harper holds one hand to her chest like it's keeping her heart in.

Abby steps backward, trying to escape, blinking quickly to hold back tears. She can't get anything out around the lump in her throat.

John finally steps in. Abby breathes deeply. "Abby, come on. We should go," he says. "Harper, come inside with me for a second."

Abby swallows against the lump in her throat and nods, then starts climbing down the fire ladder. John chivvies Harper into the building.

"Is there anything else in the apartment?" he asks quietly when she sets foot on the solid concrete sidewalk.

"Books," she whispers.

"I'll get them. Here are the keys."

She takes them dumbly, confused about it. Eventually, she realizes that she's meant to wait in the car. She sleepwalks down to the underground car park, clutching the key so tightly that it leaves an imprint on her palm.

John comes back with her box of books, no Harper in sight, and he puts it on her lap because the backseat is already full. Abby wraps her arms around it like a hug and drops her head down. He doesn't say anything as he starts the car and leaves the car park, and Abby tries to forget that this is the last time she'll be here.

It doesn't work. Tears are dripping onto the top of the box, making little indents in the cardboard. Abby focuses on these instead of thinking about anything else. She feels like being with Riley was the eye of the hurricane and now she's about to come out the other side into hell.

When they get to John's, they both haul boxes of her stuff up the stairs, John once again politely pretending to ignore her regular sniffles. Or maybe he just doesn't know how to deal with them.

That seems more likely, actually.

Abby sits down heavily on the couch. Her entire life is in five boxes at her feet. Her entire life is in five boxes at her feet.

She's homeless, and she did for-real just break up with Harper, and, oh god, she's alone.

Weirdly, it's not the thought of being alone, or Harper crying, or being homeless that makes her cry. It's thinking about Riley – not the rejection, not the kiss, not the crying in her bed, but the way her family was so normal, so kind. That's what triggers the first, achingly deep sob.

She instinctively covers her mouth, trying to muffle it. It doesn't work. John reaches out for her, then hesitates. She turns her head into the upholstery, away from him, shakes her head. He can't fix this. Through the pathetic whimpering noises she's making, she hears him get up and leave, the front door shutting gently behind him, and now she's really, actually alone, and she sobs even harder. After a minute, she realizes that her tears and snot are definitely staining John's couch, so she pushes herself upright and cries into the cuffs of her sweatshirt instead.

After ten minutes, John reappears with two premade salads and forks in hand and stands in front of the couch, staring down at her. Abby looks up at him and tries to look a little less pathetic and a little more in control of her own life. He puts one on the couch next to her, her favorite order from her favorite place. Of course. He's always unexpectedly thoughtful.

"It's okay," he says as she struggles upright. "Really. Stay here for as long as you need."

"I'll be fine," Abby says. "I'll get a new apartment. I won't be here for long."

John takes a bite of his salad instead of dignifying that with a response, which Abby has an unfortunate premonition might be accurate.

They spend the rest of the afternoon watching dumb reality shows. Usually, Abby is kind of a snob about shitty TV, but she doesn't have the heart to protest when John puts down a glass of water, throws a blanket over her, and then puts Love Island on.

It's kind of nice, being able to switch her brain off, and eventually, she finds her eyelids closing more and more until, in one ad break, she finally gives in and closes them.

She's out like a light.

 

Riley braces herself for the wintery air, bumping her suitcase over the threshold and slamming the back door behind her. She sags against the kitchen counter, breathing in the familiar-but-slightly-musty scent of the jasmine-scented candle her mom gave her last Christmas.

Thank god. She finally feels like herself again, adult Riley who has a job and an apartment and a life in a city, not high school Riley, directionless, alone, always on the outside looking in.

There's something about being away from home that makes you look at it anew, and Riley takes a minute to survey her apartment – dusty carpet, barely-used kitchen, a jumble of shoes by the door. She inhales one more time to make sure it's real before she makes a move for her bedroom.

She has about fifty million things to organize before she goes back to work in two days, but right now, she wants to sleep for ten hours and wake up in her real life, in her real bed, in her real house.

She fills a glass of water from the sink in her bathroom, chugs it back, switches on the heater.

She has a splitting headache after spending five hours spinning her wheels thinking about Harper and Abby and high school and her parents and every goddamn Christmas of her life, which really peaked at six years old and has been hurtling downhill since then.

She sits on her bed, kicks off her shoes, then lies down and buries her face in her pillow to try to sleep.

No such luck, of course.

Her phone rings out, and she thrusts herself out of bed to look for it, heart hammering at the thought that it might be Abby.

It's not. It's her mom. She swallows the odd feeling of regret that she gets from thinking about Abby, and picks up the call.

"Hi," she says, sitting back down on the bed. Then she decides that she doesn't want to be upright, so she scooches back and ensconces herself under the covers.

"Hi, honey," her mom says. "How are you?"

"Okay," Riley says, swallowing down how she really feels. "How are you? How was lunch?"

"I'm good. You were right about Patricia; that old bag definitely enjoyed not having you there."

Riley snorts. "Yeah, I bet. So, you've decided to not like her again?"

"Well, maybe if she didn't decide to add ham to my perfectly fine potato salad and mind her own business, I'd give her a little more respect, you know?" Her mom pauses like she's waiting for Riley to respond to that, even though they both know she won't.

Riley sighs in a way that might be construed as agreement, and her mom moves on. "What happened with you and Abby?" she asks gently, and Riley feels a wave of redness spreading up from her collarbone, even though she's completely alone.

"Nothing," she says quickly.

"She seemed nice," her mom says carefully, and Riley bites back a groan, because, are they really having this conversation? The one her mom has had with her about every other girlfriend she's had?

Abby is definitely not a girlfriend, and Riley definitely doesn't want to have this conversation with her mom, and she definitely fucked that whole situation up immensely.

"She is," she says. "Look, Mom, I have to go, okay? I love you."

"Okay, honey. Bye-bye. I love you too."

Riley hangs up and pulls the covers over her head, pretending that she's cold, not thinking about someone – Abby – being in bed with her.

Eventually, she gets bored of staring at the inside of her duvet, and she wriggles her head out to put on a random episode of Grey's Anatomy.

The repeated drama of near-death experiences and the incessantly unprofessional bedside manner does nothing to take her mind off Abby. She can't stop thinking about last night, the night before, the instant, sparking connection she felt between them. Sober, tired, and lonely, she can hardly believe she walked away from that.

She picks up her phone for the third time since she hung up with her mom and thinks about whether she should text Abby. She then decides against it for the third time; she's sure Abby's struggling with her breakup, and as much as Riley would like to be the one that's there for her, they're not really friends.

Not to mention, Abby probably got back with Harper anyway. Lesbian breakups are never that easy.

So she probably wouldn't even text back. So, Riley puts the phone down again and turns her attention back to the intimate personal lives of Seattle Grace's surgical team.

Chapter Text

They're watching yet another reality show — Abby has honestly lost track of the titles after three months of enforced binge-watching — and she's tossing her phone from hand to hand.

She's waiting for a call. The call. She had a preliminary phone screening with Columbia on Tuesday and they had promised they would let her know by the end of the week whether they were taking her application to the interview stage. So, it's late Friday afternoon, and she's watching her phone like a middle-schooler with a crush.

"Stop it," John says, putting a hand out to knock the phone to her lap. "I can't concentrate on Miles' fine ass when you do that."

Abby frowns – concentrate is a strong word to use on reality TV – then picks up her phone and compulsively opens Instagram.

A minute of mindless scrolling later, one post stops her in her tracks. She lets out a huff of surprise.

"What?" John asks, looking at her with concern.

Riley's in Pittsburgh.

Riley goddamn Johnson is in Pittsburgh.

She's right there, in front of a building at Pitt, her arms around a group of four women, all dressed in what has got to be doctor formal and sporting lanyards. Abby tries not to think about the fact this is the first time she's ever found someone wearing a lanyard hot.

"Nothing," she tells John, and she can tell he doesn't believe her, because he casts a critical eye to her phone screen, scanning. She quickly scrolls onwards, hoping he didn't see. John is prone to shenanigans when it comes to Abby's love life.

Before she gets very far, the phone starts vibrating in her hands. She nearly drops it from a jolt of pure adrenaline. It's from a private number.

She stands up, gesturing at John to mute the TV. It takes him a second, because he's intently peering at something on his phone. "John," she hisses, and he finally hits pause.

She answers the call. "Hello, Abigail speaking," she says, as professional as she can be when she's pretty sure she's about to black out. This had better be Columbia and not some random telemarketer.

It's Columbia. They want to interview her. She nearly trips over the coffee table as she paces, and when there's a pause for her to respond, it takes what feels like an age for her to even get a word out. "Yes, thank you" is all she manages. She catches John's eye, and he gestures frantically for her to say more. She chokes for a second, then adds, "Thank you so much."

They tell her that they'll arrange travel and accommodation and will email her the details. "Thank you," she says. Clearly, she's going to have to work on her interview technique before she thanks them all the way into a rejection.

"The selection committee was very impressed by your application," they say just before they hang up, and Abby thinks she might have ascended to another plane of being.

"Well?" John demands, sticking his head into her frame of vision.

A shocked smile makes its way onto her face. "I got an interview at Columbia," she says, wriggling her shoulders and moving her arms in an approximation of a victory dance. It's a testament to their friendship that John says nothing.

He grins, dropping the remote and standing up to engulf her in a hug. She winces as he tries and fails to swing her around. "Congratulations! Let's celebrate," he says.  

She lets out a nervous laugh. She's ambivalent about John's idea of celebrating, because it usually involves far more alcohol than she's strictly comfortable with, given how much of a lightweight she is. "Uh…"

"I have the perfect idea," he says, in a tone that tells Abby that he's already decided what will happen, and nothing on God's green earth will stop him. "There's a really nice new restaurant downtown that I think you would love. Let's go have a decadent dinner together, maybe even a couple of cocktails..." he raises his voice like it's a question.

"It's not that big of a deal-" Abby tries again.

"Abby. Abby." He shushes her with a hand, obviously thinking of bigger and better things than reality shows in their pajamas. "You just got offered an interview! That's amazing, and you are fabulous, but you've also been moping in my living room for… like, three months, so forgive me for wanting to get you out of the house."

The couch-surfing is a low blow, so Abby doesn't argue the point further. "How fancy?" she asks instead.

"Dress like you're going on a date," he says, and then cryptically, "but like, with someone even dreamier than me." When Abby doesn't move at this, he practically moves to roll her off the couch. "Come on! This is a life-changing day for you, Abby Holland."

Abby just rolls her eyes and gets up to get changed, only half pretending to hate the idea.

How bad could it be?

 

Riley captions the Instagram post of her presentation with a bland, professional note. The important part of this is the location. She corrects the automatic tag to "University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine" and hits post.

And look, she wouldn't want anyone to think that she was desperately posting this to get Abby to message her.

This very definitely has nothing to do with the fact that Abby's liked every single one of her posts since January.

It absolutely has nothing at all to do with the fact that Christmas Eve was the closest she's gotten to any action in a long time.

Not at all.

She's thought about Abby a lot, that's all. Too much, maybe.

She stares at the post for a second longer, then flicks her phone onto silent and tosses it face-down on the bed. She's going to be hovering over it all night waiting for Abby to DM her if she keeps looking at it.

And yeah, she's almost thirty, and yeah, she could just call Abby and say, "Let's get a drink," but she doesn't think she could pull off that level of nonchalance. She doesn't even know if Abby and Harper are back together. Oh, god, what if Abby decided Christmas was a fever dream and proposed, and now they're for-real married?

Riley exhales sharply, putting all thoughts about Harper and Abby in a box and slamming the lid. She has a dinner to get ready for. She turns to the mirror, brushes out her hair, puts in earrings, swaps out her blazer for a slightly less fitted, more informal one, and then she allows herself to pick up her phone.

She has an Instagram DM. Her heart falls when she sees it's not from Abby, but when she taps on it, it's… Abby's friend? The guy who showed up and pretended to be straight for Tipper at Christmas. Hmm. He gets straight to the point.

john_davies: What are you doing tonight?

Riley's tempted to say Who are you, but she gets that this is probably something to do with Abby, so she doesn't.

rileyjbennett: I have a dinner.

She debates adding the next bit, but she assumes that John isn't messaging her out of the blue while she's in Pittsburgh because he cares about her well-being.

rileyjbennett: At twenty-eight.

It's an upmarket new restaurant near the conference venue, and there's a small group of them going out for dinner and drinks tonight. Well, she says a small group. Thirty. Thirty-five, tops. Forty with plus-ones?

john_davies: lovely. 😉💘

Riley's blood pressure skyrockets to near-fatal levels at the sight of a winky-face emoji.

"Riley? You coming?" One of the other women at the conference knocks on her door. Riley puts a hand on her heart, trying to settle it down.

"One sec," she yells back, grabbing her wine-red lipstick and her purse. She shrugs off the blazer and picks the more formal one back up.

Just in case.

 

"Why are we going to a restaurant that's like, half an hour away?" Abby asks John for the third time. He successfully maneuvers the topic away from it without answering again, and starts asking her about Columbia.

Abby grits her teeth.

When they arrive, John immediately starts flirting with their waiter. Abby smiles apologetically at the waiter, but he seems to be into it, so she occupies herself with reading the menu instead. Maybe they're just here so that Abby can reprise her role as a terrible wingwoman for John, just… slightly further from home than usual. At the very least, it's a better plan than avoiding all the coffee shops and restaurants in their local area whenever they go out because he keeps hooking up with and ghosting the staff there.

The waiter leaves them, and Abby finally looks up again, grinning. "John, are you trying to fuck every waiter in this city?"

Instead of responding, John leans over and peers past Abby's shoulder, looking at a large group behind them. Abby twists in her seat to look too, but John grabs her arm and drags her back almost immediately. "What are you having?" he asks intently, bringing their foreheads so close they almost touch.

"Um. Dude," Abby says, trying to extricate herself. "What are you having?" she hisses when John won't let go of her arm. He's still trying to stare past her at the other guests.

Given that it's a table full of women, this seems to be an unhealthy interest for John. Abby turns to look again. She can't make out anything particularly fascinating about them, so she turns back and frowns at John. He shrugs, tapping on her menu impatiently. "I'll get the…" She scans her eyes down the list and picks a pasta dish almost at random: "…puttanesca."

Their waiter returns and takes their orders, and John starts making small talk again, staring at her intently, one hand on her arm.

She tunes in and out of an in-depth account of a new series he's managing for an author. No offense to John, but she's not interested in banal arguments over font size, and she's a little pre-occupied thinking about Columbia right now. On the other hand, he's never this chatty about work, so maybe this book will be some big hit – she tries to tune back in out of politeness.

He stops talking about Elena when the waiter brings their food over, immediately turning his attention back to flirting. Abby doesn't make eye contact with either of them; she just slouches over her pasta and begins eating.

She's almost finished when John bounces up in his seat, looking every bit an eager puppy. "Riley," he stage-whispers, and Abby chokes on her last mouthful of pasta.

No, no, no, no- "Riley!" he calls loudly, and Abby's going to die right here in this restaurant if it actually is her, and John's caginess all night suddenly makes sense, and his enthusiasm for going out right then and there on the spot, and-

"Hi," someone says, and it is Riley; of course it's Riley. She looks gorgeous, as she always does, hair swept off her face, sharp blazer, tight pants. The bottom drops out of Abby's stomach; her face betrays her with a dark blush, and she's pretty sure her mouth is literally hanging open.

"Hi," she croaks. Very cool, bud. It's Riley. It's Riley. It's Riley.

"Hello-o," John says cheerily. "So lovely to see you, Riley, but I'm afraid I have a very attractive waiter I need to go and take home." He stands up gracefully, hooks his coat over his arm, and swans off to the bar, abandoning Abby to Riley's attentions without a backward glance. She doesn't even protest, sitting, mouth open, staring after John.

Riley waves after him as if that wasn't insanely weird, then points at his chair. "May I?"

Abby just nods. This cannot be happening, this cannot be happening, this cannot be happening. Did Riley know about this? Is she still on John's couch, dreaming? Was she even invited to interview at Columbia?

Did she put deodorant on today?

"Long time no see," Riley says lightly, when Abby remains silent as a stunned mullet. She sits down in John's seat, smiling at Abby. "How are you?"

Abby finally manages to swallow all of the pasta. She's experiencing traumatizing reruns of her botched hook-up attempt, which is making it very hard to put together a full and complete sentence. Not to mention the tongue-tying effect that Riley, the first hot single (she assumes) lesbian she's seen in months, is having on her. "Good," she finally says. "Um. How… are you?"

"I'm good," Riley says. She reaches over, plucks a bread roll off the table, and starts eating it. Abby tries really hard not to look at her mouth, or her fingers, and brings all of her attention to bear on not making an absolute fool of herself. Tries hard not to think about the last time they saw each other, Riley flushed and- 

"What's up with him?" Riley nods in John's direction — he's now leaning over the bar, squeezing the tall waiters' biceps, fluttering his eyelashes.

Abby shakes her head, trying to erase the image from her mind. "I don't even know. Um. What- Why are you… in Pittsburgh?"

"Dermatology conference," Riley chirps, smiling like she can tell exactly what Abby's thinking. She leans back and Abby gets a look at her whole upper body: miles of slightly tanned skin, understated necklace, low neckline.  

"Oh," Abby says. Her whole brain is really stuck on Riley's here, Riley's here, Riley's here, and she's even hotter than I remember, and before she can respond in a way that makes her seem witty and intelligent rather than inarticulate and buffoonish, another waiter stops at the table. He puts down two glasses of wine and a single dessert, followed by two spoons.

"From your friend," he explains, nodding at John. "He says to tell you to have a good night." The emphasis makes it clear that John means fucking Riley.

Abby chokes. Riley looks positively delighted as she thanks him. "I wasn't expecting to be wined and dined before you tried to take me home," she says teasingly, and if Abby could sink through the floor and die, she would. She's been well and truly set up; she's not quite sure whether to thank John or kill him. Maybe both.

Riley is here, and she's flirting with her, and Abby is beyond unequipped to deal. Riley takes a sip of wine, eyes sparkling at her. When Abby doesn't smile back, she leans over and puts a hand on her arm. "Hey," she says more softly. "I'm just kidding. I'm glad I ran into you."

Abby pulls herself together, rubs her hideously sweaty hands down her jeans. "It's nice to see you too," she says. "Sorry. Uh."

"It's fine, Abby." She smiles in that beatific way, like she can see straight right through Abby's feigned nonchalance and into her fantasies that involve the two of them, very naked and very not here. "So, what brings you here tonight?"

"Um." Abby swallows, tries to remember how to make small talk like a normal human being. "I, uh, got a post-doc interview. John wanted to celebrate," she air-quotes. "But I'm beginning to think he might've had some other motivation." Like, for instance, orchestrating a completely unsubtle meet-up with Riley.

"Congratulations!" Riley looks genuinely pleased.

"Thanks," Abby mumbles. She reaches over for her wine and takes a large sip.

"Where is it?" Riley tilts her head curiously.

"What?"

"The interview."

"Oh." Abby feels like she might be boasting, but Riley did ask. "Columbia."

"No shit!" Riley grins, raising her glass briefly. "That is a reason for celebration." Abby must not look happy enough, because Riley follows up with, "Do you not want to move to New York?"

Abby blinks in surprise. "I… guess I do," she says hesitantly. She's never thought about whether she wants to move. It's just the next step in the plan, now that she's single and jobless and Dr. Holland.

Riley tilts her head curiously, and her hair falls against her neck. Abby tries not to remember what the skin over her collarbone tastes like.

"I… Do you want to get another drink?" Abby blurts. Both of their wine glasses are nearly empty now, and she doesn't think she can stand to sit opposite Riley and look at her for much longer. The dessert remains untouched; it's cheesecake, so Riley can't eat it, and Abby's way too nervous to think about eating.

Riley relaxes a little. "Yeah, that sounds good."

 

John's long gone, and Abby's stalling. She has a strong suspicion that she doesn't want to be at home at the same time as John and his waiter friend, and she's also feeling an intense pull towards Riley. They're sitting at the bar, both sipping slowly at a craft beer recommended by the bartender. It tastes like shit, so Abby can only assume he's jealous that he didn't get to go home with John.

"So, what misadventures have you been up to?" Riley asks, eyes sparkling at her, chin on hand.

Abby tells her about handing in her thesis, the long hours, the defense, her job-hunting. She conveniently leaves out the part about living on John's couch, implies that she at the very least has a bedroom like a normal adult. "Although… I think John might be getting to the point where he's willing to sell me out and put my organs on the black market to recoup the rent I haven't been paying."

Riley tosses her head back and laughs, looking ferociously pleased. "If he's selling skin grafts, I know just the people. No questions, just a good ole shady back-door deal."

Abby laughs too, taking another sip of beer. This feels a lot more like two old friends catching up than whatever she was doing before. Riley's natural charm is taking center stage rather than Abby's awkwardness.

She looks down as her phone dings on the table next to her. She can read it without even moving her head, and Riley's eyes flick to it too.

John: don't come home for a couple hours.

Abby groans, clicking her phone off and turning it face-down. She was expecting it, but it's still a bit of a bummer.

"Everything okay?" Riley asks, gesturing at the phone.

"It's, uh, John. He said not to come home. He's going to fuck the waiter." Abby sighs and runs a hand through her hair. "I've been living on his couch, so he has every right to do that," she admits.

"Oh," Riley says contemplatively. She takes a long sip of her beer, then turns and puts a hand on Abby's thigh. "Wanna come back to mine for a mini bar drink? Courtesy of Johnson and Johnson! The, uh, pharmaceutical company." She waves a hand, smiling widely. "Not Johnson, Riley."

Abby mentally chokes. There is a hand on her thigh. It's very warm and very steady. However. The only other times she and Riley have been in a room, alone, with a bed, have ended in crying and misguided hook-up attempts. Is Riley flirting? She still hasn't moved her hand. Is Abby once again misconstruing this whole thing?

"No, I couldn't. I mean, your friends, you're doing stuff…"

Riley shrugs. "They're just colleagues. I barely know them." She stands up, giving her a conspiratorial smile and shrugging on her jacket.

Abby gets up and follows without hesitation.

 

They leave the bar – Riley picks up the tab despite Abby's protests – and head to Riley's hotel, conveniently next door. Abby trails her through the lobby, unreasonably nervous about what's going to happen next. 

Riley walks with what Abby would almost call a strut, nodding politely to the receptionist as they go to the elevator. Abby takes a deep breath. She can't stop staring at Riley, no matter how cool she tries to be. She needs to chill. They'll just go to Riley's room, have a couple of drinks, and then she can make some excuse, Uber home, and sit in the all-night diner near the apartment and drink shitty coffee until sufficient time has passed and it's safe to go home.

Riley probably just feels sorry for her.  

The elevator ride shatters this illusion.

Abby's never really thought about the inherent sexual tension of elevators before, but Riley's not even looking at her, and she feels like she's about to come apart at the seams. Riley's a fraction too close to be polite, arm grazing Abby's with each breath.

Abby's whole left side is tingling, aching to reach out and touch her.

The thought crosses her mind of hitting the emergency stop button, pushing Riley up against the elevator wall, touching all the skin she can reach. Riley would look pleased, maybe flustered. Definitely turned on. She flushed easily, last time, creeping up her cleavage to her cheeks… Abby tries not to breathe too loudly, tries not to let on what she's thinking about.

They exit the elevator, and Abby hangs back as Riley swipes her card and unlocks the door. "Mi casa," Riley says sarcastically. When Abby doesn't immediately follow her inside, she turns back. "You don't have to come in if you don't want to," she says, softer.

Abby shakes her head, shoving her hands in her pockets, and enters. It's a reasonably small room, and the queen-size bed dominates her vision. She looks away quickly, gaze settling on the safer arm-chairs next to the mini-fridge.

She shifts uncomfortably as Riley sits on the end of the bed and kicks off her shoes, then shrugs her blazer off, letting it crumple on the end of the bed. Abby looks at the smooth expanse of skin that her blouse exposes, swallows, and looks away. Leaning against the doorframe, she tries to look nonchalant and not like she's already nervous-sweat through her shirt. She once again mentally curses John, this time for not giving her the warning to at least wear sexier underwear.

Not that Riley wants to see her underwear.

"Drink?" Riley goes to the mini-fridge and swings it open, leaning down to peer inside. This move gives Abby an extremely good view of Riley's ass in her tight pants. Riley peers back at her, still bent over, eyebrows raised. Abby thinks she might start speaking in tongues. Everything takes her ten extra steps to process while Riley is in the room, looking like that.

Riley stands back up without receiving a response, mini bottles sticking out between her fingers like keys. She clatters them onto the coffee table, then gestures for Abby to sit down. She does, almost automatically, folding one leg underneath her. She starts nervously scraping her fingernail along the stripe of the chair's upholstery.

"So, no Harper?" Riley says casually as she cracks open a tiny tequila and drinks it off in one gulp.

Abby blinks in surprise – she thought she'd made that abundantly clear when they parted ways in December – then nods. "No Harper," she confirms, uncapping a vodka and taking a shot-sized sip. It burns on the way down, and Abby inhales to suppress a cough.

Riley smiles to herself and puts down the empty bottle, and, instead of responding, leans forward and puts a hand on Abby's arm. Abby can once again feel a traitorous blush rising in her cheeks. She suddenly finds herself very over-heated; she extricates her hand from Riley's in order to remove her blazer. She's just being friendly about your shared ex. Don't get any ideas.

She has ideas. A lot of them. About exactly what they could do.

There's a stretch of awkward silence between them – Abby's staring intently at the carpet, trying to find any pattern repetition, feeling remarkably like Kellogg inventing cornflakes to avoid having impure thoughts. She stifles a chuckle at that thought, but she can still feel Riley staring at her intently.

 

Abby's not at all sure what to make of this whole situation. She's in no way capable of making small talk right now; Riley's leaned back in her chair and her shirt is gaping scandalously low. Luckily, Riley doesn't seem inclined to small talk. She drinks off something else in one long gulp, then sits forward again.

"So," Riley finally breaks the silence. Abby's eyes snap to hers. "Did you want to fuck?"

Abby snorts. She can't seriously be asking that. Riley raises her eyebrows. "Oh, you're serious." Abby hesitates for a moment – does she want to fuck Riley? Yes. Who wouldn't? Is it a bad idea? Probably. She says, "Yeah. Obviously," anyway, because it's true.  

Riley stands up, beginning to unbutton her shirt. Abby just stares at her in disbelief.

Once Riley's fully taken her top off, she gestures in Abby's direction. "Are you coming?" she says, and Abby has to stop herself from laughing at that, because, yeah she fucking is.

 

Riley wakes up to daylight pouring in the open blinds, Abby's head nestled on her shoulder, and a hand possessively splayed over her stomach. It takes her a minute to process the events of last night, then she realizes that she must've fallen asleep in the haze after three consecutive orgasms.

Abby must think she's such a pillow princess.

As Riley tries to disentangle their bodies, Abby blinks awake too. She immediately yawns hugely and covers her mouth.

"Morning, sleepyhead," she says teasingly.

Riley grimaces. "Did I fall asleep on you?" she asks.

"Yeah," Abby says. "You just about, uh, passed out in my arms."

Riley grins, now thoroughly awake. "I'll make it up to you," she promises.

Abby has arms crooked behind her head. "And how are you going to do that?" she says, light eyes still hazy with sleep. Riley thinks she might, possibly, be the most attractive woman in the world right now, with her soft pink nipples exposed and the expanse of her inviting pale skin just waiting for Riley to put her hands on it.

"I was thinking I could, you know, buy you breakfast," Riley tells her nonchalantly, swinging a leg over Abby's stomach and sitting down. Abby raises both eyebrows in response. Riley bends down to kiss her, making a point to slip a hand behind her head and grip a handful of hair. Abby lets out an appreciative groan as Riley tugs gently, bringing their lips into alignment. "Maybe give you a free mole map."

Riley takes her time with Abby, and she's just, finally, getting Abby over the edge when they're interrupted by a loud ringing. Both of them jump, then Riley frantically feels around to silence her phone alarm, picking it up and only then realizing that it isn't her. The bed jolts as Abby gets out and starts looking for her phone, picking up and discarding each piece of clothing scattered on the ground until she finds her phone.

Abby straightens up, puts her shoulders back, and answers. Riley hopes it's important, important enough to interrupt what had promised to be an excellent morning.

"Hello, Abigail speaking," Abby says, breathless.

The sight of Abby standing in her room, wearing nothing but a white singlet, nipples hard, weakens Riley at the knees. Get it together, Johnson, she scolds herself.

"Yes, that's great. Thank you so much," Abby says in a high-pitched tone of voice, and Riley realizes that Abby's stressed about whoever's on the other end. She's running her left hand through her hair over and over, chewing her lip as she listens.

Riley picks up her phone again and experiences a jolt of adrenaline. She's meant to be on a plane in less than an hour – thank god she only has carry-on.

Shit, shit, shit. She flips open her suitcase, flicking through for something vaguely presentable. She's pulling on underwear with her left hand and trying to brush her hair with her right when Abby ends the call and turns to her, looking non-plussed.

"Who was that?" Riley asks before she can stop herself.

Abby looks panicked for a moment. "Um. The panel at, uh, Johns Hopkins. They want to interview me. What are you doing?"

Riley can't breathe. She knows an interview is far from an offer, and even further from moving cities, but the thought of Abby moving to be in the same city makes her chest seize in a way she's never felt before. She realizes she's been frozen in a contorted position for a few seconds too long, so she straightens up, leaving her hairbrush stuck in a tangle of hair and her underwear barely covering her. 

"Oh," she says, then: "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," Abby says. She looks completely shell-shocked – well, Riley would be too if she'd just had an interrupted orgasm followed by that kind of phone call. "It's on Friday."

"Oh, shit. Like, in-five-days Friday? That Friday?" Riley realizes she's not making any progress towards leaving and being hastily pulling on last night's pants, looking around for her boots.

"Yeah," Abby says. "What are you doing?"

"I'm sorry," she says to Abby's tilted head. "I have to go; my flight's at ten." Riley shifts her weight from foot to foot, unsure what the protocol is for abandoning a one-night-stand in your hotel room. "You can stay with me in Baltimore when you come down," she offers. She pulls the first shirt she finds in her suitcase over her head, sweeps her toiletries off the bedside table into the case, then huffs out a breath.

"Oh," Abby says, then, "I'd like that."

"Okay, um, bye!" Before she can second-guess herself too much, Riley grabs Abby by her singlet, pulls her in and kisses her softly, and then rushes out the door.

 

Abby tries to comb her hair out with her fingers as she walks home. She's undergoing some serious Riley-related turbulence. She had been right: hooking up with her didn't feel like just a hook-up. It felt like coming home to an old friend.

A friend that also gives incredible orgasms and says things like stay with me in Baltimore!

John had texted her at 3 am, giving her the all-clear to come home, but also, I understand if you have a more appealing offer 😉.

She'd stayed put.

So, this morning, it feels like she's probably heading into an interrogation. She unlocks the door with more than a little bit of apprehension. He's sitting cross-legged in the middle of the couch in his robe, eating muesli, staring straight at her.

Yeah, this is gonna be an interrogation, all right.

"So…" he says the second she closes the door. She winces as she flicks the lock into place, then turns to face him.

"You set me up," she says, aiming for accusatory. It comes out more like a statement of fact than anything else.

"Did you fuck Riley?" he demands.

Abby tries to play it cool. "Yeah, dude. Did you fuck the waiter?"

John brushes that off with his left hand. "Was it magical? Are you moving to Baltimore immediately?"

Abby lets out a snort. "John. We hooked up. No, I'm not U-Hauling to Baltimore. Are you okay?" She walks over and puts a hand on his forehead like she's taking his temperature. He rolls his eyes and bats her hand away.

"I'm fine! You just had the night of your dreams with the woman of your dreams, and now you, Abby Holland, are talking to me about hooking up instead of having a post-coital day of bliss with her? Are you okay?" He air-quotes "hooking up," which is a fair assessment of Abby's feelings about Riley, but considering that Riley just disappeared on her this morning, it shouldn't be.

"It's not that- Why do you think she's the woman of my dreams, exactly?" Abby demands, trying not to let her voice break on that phrase. John is so… presumptuous. "We had sex once – well, twice – and I barely know her."

"Twice?" John raises his eyebrows and Abby blushes. That might have been a little too much information to reveal. "You think I don't know you stalk her social media? You think I actually believed that you watched four seasons of Grey's Anatomy for fun? Abby, come on. This is exactly what you need. A change of scenery, a hot woman who actually likes you…"

John looks way too satisfied with this development, and Abby feels way too raw to be having this conversation.

"No- I- It's-" She fumbles her words, then closes her eyes. She inhales for a long second, getting her stormy emotions under control, and changes tack. "I got an interview at Johns Hopkins on Friday. They called this morning."

"Johns Hopkins… where Riley works?" John waggles his eyebrows as he eats more muesli.

Abby strongly considers turning around and leaving again. She's not sure why he's getting on her nerves so much this morning – he's always like this, she should be used to it. She pinches the bridge of her nose. "John…" She shakes her head. "Seriously. It's not like that. We had a good time, whatever. Riley's gone back to Baltimore-"

"You're going to Baltimore in five days," he says. "Give it a chance. Take her out. Give her the full Abby Holland treatment!" He gestures sharply with his spoon.

Abby doesn't even know what that means. She exhales, puffing her cheeks out. "Shockingly, I'm not going to take relationship advice from you." She huffs and crosses her arms, then sighs deeply. That was out of line. "I'm sorry," she says, sitting down beside him, rubbing her hands over her face.

He looks at her for a long second, takes a considered bite of cereal, and then shakes his head, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "It's okay. Do you want to practice-interview with me? I do an excellent Miranda Priestley."

Chapter Text

"So," Riley finally breaks the silence. Abby's eyes snap to hers. "Did you want to fuck?"

Abby snorts. She can't seriously be asking that. Riley raises her eyebrows. "Oh, you're serious." Abby hesitates for a moment – does she want to fuck Riley? Yes. Who wouldn't? Is it a bad idea? Probably. She says, "Yeah. Obviously," anyway, because it's true. 

Riley stands up, beginning to unbutton her shirt. Abby just stares at her in disbelief.

Once Riley's fully taken her top off, she gestures in Abby's direction. "Are you coming?" she says, and Abby has to stop herself from laughing at that, because, yeah she fucking is.

She nods, then stands, body finally catching up to the situation, and hits her leg on the coffee table in her haste to start taking off her shoes. Ow. She gets her shirt off, undershirt still keeping it PG-13, then doesn't bother with anything else because Riley just looks so kissable right there, all smooth soft skin and lacy bra and holy shit, this is actually happening.

Abby steps forward, avoiding the coffee table completely this time, grabs Riley's hips and brings their bodies together decisively. Riley lets out a huff of surprise as Abby finally kisses her. She's four drinks in, so it's a little messy, but they sort it out pretty quick.

Abby's breathing steadies as she feels her way around Riley, one hand on the soft skin of her back, one hand stroking up and down her side. She knows how to do this part, even if she's not great at the talking bit. She's going to make Riley come so hard she forgets her own name.  

Riley reaches underneath Abby's tank top, cups her hands up around her ribs, and pulls her in closer, bodies completely flush. Her fingers are tucked up where her bra would be, if she ever wore one, and her hands are so soft and warm. She leans back for a moment to look Abby in the eye, and Abby short-circuits at the sight of her, so close, pupils wide and intent with desire.

"I've been thinking about you," Abby says, before her brain catches up with her mouth.

Riley doesn't seem fazed, though; honestly, she never seems fazed. God, Abby wants to see her come undone.

"I thought you might have been," she says with a grin, her hands coming down to graze Abby's waistband, fingers brushing the very top of her ass. Everywhere she touches feels like it's on fire. Abby goes to the soft skin beneath her ear, kissing it softly, letting her breath ghost over it, and Riley shivers, tries to pull her even closer by her belt loops, making soft little huffs of want with every breath. God. Abby needs to lie down before her knees buckle.

She presses a final open-mouthed kiss to Riley's neck and takes a moment to look at Riley's face again – her long lashes flicker as she blinks at Abby, pupils blown, eyebrows furrowing like she's confused about the interruption – before Abby wraps her arms around Riley's body to keep her upright and walks them backward until Riley's knees hit the bed and she sits, looking up at Abby.

Abby kneels over Riley's thighs, straddling her. Their bodies are so close that Abby can feel the heat from her. Her hands are in Riley's hair, tilting her face up to Abby's face. "You're hot when you're toppy," Riley grins at her.

Abby doesn't respond to that, just moves her hands around Riley's jaw so they're at a better angle to continue making out. She doesn't have a whole lot of focus left for conversation.

Riley's hands roam up her back, palms flat across her shoulder blades, and then she mutters into the corner of Abby's mouth, "I think you're wearing too many clothes." 

"Mmm," is all Abby says, reaching down to pull her tank top over her head. Riley lets out a satisfied noise, cupping both of Abby's boobs and stroking a thumb over her right nipple. Abby twitches in response, then she bends to kiss Riley's neck, grazing her teeth over the soft skin.

Riley lets out a huff of a laugh. "Do you ever wear a bra?" she asks idly, hands roaming freely up and down Abby's body.

Abby tries to concentrate on the banter. "Nope," she says.

Not her best work. Deciding to even the stakes, she takes the opportunity to reach behind her and unhook Riley's bra. Riley shrugs it onto the bed beside them, then closes her eyes as Abby pushes at her shoulders until she's lying down on the bed, arching her back. Abby takes a long, hard look down at her, which – fuck. She has the faintest hint of a tan line across her chest, paler skin there contrasting against her dark nipples. Abby doesn't think she's ever seen anything as enticing as Riley right now. She wants – fuck, she wants to do so many things to her.

Riley seems faintly amused by Abby's look, biting her lip, a smile quirking at her lips. She shrugs up the bed a little so that there's enough room for them both. Abby follows, straddling Riley again. She grins down at Riley from her position on top, pleased that she seems to be enjoying this.

Riley smiles back, hair splayed across the duvet, cheeks flushed red. Abby holds her gaze for a moment, then bends a little to continue kissing her way down her neck, moving over her collarbones, which seemed to work on Riley last time.

She pauses to flick her tongue hard against Riley's nipple. In Abby's experience, this is a move that women either love or hate, so she likes to establish early whether it does it for them. Riley moans so loudly in response that Abby actually feels herself getting wetter, Riley's hands coming up to rest on Abby's shoulders.

Good to know.

She grazes her teeth over the same spot, and Riley moans and twitches underneath her like she's holding herself back, hands gripping at Abby. Abby shifts her weight a little so she can nudge a knee between Riley's legs.

Riley falls open for her, moaning again as Abby grinds up into her. She's loud, Riley, which kind of does it for Abby, if she's honest. She keeps shifting her hips back and forth a little bit, needy, and Abby keeps grinding, enjoying Riley's little huffs of pleasure each time her thigh presses against her. Riley curls a leg around, foot hot on Abby's calf, trying to get closer, deeper, more pressure.

Abby goes back to kissing her neck, grazing her teeth just under one ear and gently sucking. Riley's whole body shudders with pleasure as Abby adds the final touch – a firm tweak to the nipple that makes her moan just as loud as the first time.

Riley's an open book; it's almost too easy.

Abby moves her hand to the other nipple, just in the interest of keeping things even, tries taking Riley's earlobe between her teeth. Riley twitches underneath her – "Abby," she says in a choked tone – then crooks up a leg, surprising Abby. Abby lets out a loud breath as the contact presses the seam of her jeans into her clit, hips instinctively thrusting once. Riley moves one hand to Abby's waist, gripping uselessly at her waistband. "Ugh," she says impatiently, "Take your pants off."

They separate themselves for a moment. Abby yanks her jeans and underwear off in one fluid motion, letting them drop on the floor. She's never been one for shyness. She turns to watch Riley as she takes off her pants, underwear still on underneath, plain black against her skin. Abby wants to see all of her, wants to see her as she comes. She's pretty invested in it, actually.

"Come back here," Riley instructs her, laying back on the bed. Abby crawls up the bed so that she's kneeling on top of Riley again, this time with both legs between Riley's legs. She starts out with a kiss, Riley kissing back messily, hot breath and open mouth. Abby's not opposed to making her beg a little, here, thinks it might even work for Riley (just a hunch, and that would, uh, definitely work for Abby too). Riley wriggles, then lets out a little moan as Abby reaches her nipple and flickers her thumb gently around it.

"Abby," Riley says, loud and impatient.

Abby's going to make Riley scream, but not quite yet. She slides a hand, painstakingly slowly, down Riley's stomach, other hand propping her up, before she finally reaches the line of her underwear. She keeps her hand over the top, cups her hand gently over the cotton, teasing, barely any pressure in it. She wants to make Riley's first time with her good, not some quick lay in a hotel room. She wants Riley to remember it, remember her. The wet patch she can already feel on the cotton suggests that won't be a problem.

"Abby, please," Riley says, a little more strangled. Her hips push upwards just a little, seeking more friction. Abby slides her fingers down, pushing the underwear to the side to feel her, all slick, wet heat. Riley twitches compulsively as Abby replaces the underwear, moving up to rub at her clit a little through the fabric. It's sensitive, Riley letting out an involuntary groan as Abby palms it again. She looks and feels, honestly, much closer than Abby would've expected right now.

Riley shifts her hips desperately as Abby stops touching her in order to hook her fingers around her underwear, pull them down her legs and discard them. "Ab-by." She's practically begging now, and Abby can't decide whether to taste her or touch her, wants to do all kinds of things to Riley just so she'll say her name like that again.

Abby moves back over her, kneeling between Riley's legs, instincts going for wanting to watch over anything else. Riley is worked up, hips rocking, eyes closed. Fuck, she's gorgeous. Unbelievably gorgeous like this, especially. Abby wants to see her like this as many times as humanly possible. She slides a hand up her leg, gripping at the soft, smooth skin where her ass meets her thigh. Riley tries to move down the bed, letting out a little whine, and Abby finally gives in, hand settling over the dark hair between her legs.

She's definitely wet, yeah, and Abby runs two fingers up the length of her before circling her clit a few times, then up and down the length of her again. Riley's eyes are still shut tight, hands gripping at the sheets. Every time Abby gets to her clit, she moans, and after a couple of seconds, she starts moving her hips hard against Abby's hand. She's not being subtle, so Abby takes the hint, moving firmer against her, the sounds of their breathing loud in the room.

"Abby, if-" Riley starts, letting out a loud groan as Abby starts circling her clit consistently with her finger. Abby smiles.

"Yes, Riley?" She sounds cocky and she knows it, hopes Riley likes it.

"If-you-don't-get-inside-me-right-the-fuck-now, I swear," Riley gets out in one breath, moving her closest hand to Abby's wrist to direct her, just in case the words weren't clear.

Abby finally slides the full length of her first two fingers inside, eliciting an incoherent groan of pleasure. Riley's legs fall open further, getting her deeper, so wet that Abby's fingers slip effortlessly inside, crooking upwards a little. Abby lets out a little noise of want, and Riley's breathing hitches as she makes another incoherent noise, louder this time, demanding.

Abby finally sits back and brings her other hand into it, left thumb circling her clit as she sets up a rhythm with her right hand. Riley moves with her, tossing her head back, chest heaving, fingers yanking at the sheets. "Fuck, fuck, Abby, please," she says, all gravelly and desperate, and Abby nearly comes there and then from the sound of it. God, Riley is so hot like this, coming apart under her fingers.

Abby wriggles up the bed a little to kiss her, wanting to give her that little bit of extra stimulation to get her over the edge. She kisses her full on the mouth just as she circles with her left hand, and Riley's mouth goes slack underneath hers; she squeezes a fist into the sheets and comes hard, clenching around Abby's fingers, arching her body up against Abby's.

Abby leans back to watch her face as she comes down, eyes fluttering open and settling on Abby's face, pupils wide. "You okay?" Abby says, and Riley pulls her down towards her, into a messy bear hug, face falling into Riley's boobs until Abby pushes her weight onto her hands, moves her knees out, and lays down on top of her, face nuzzling into her neck, pressing tender kisses into the soft skin.

Riley takes a couple of deep breaths. "Huh," she says, with feeling. Her hands are warm on Abby's back, the slick moisture of sweat and arousal on Abby's thigh making her skin tacky.

Abby tilts her head. "I, uh, think I can make that happen again," she says, pulling her head back to see Riley's face.

"Wanna bet?" Riley says, smiling wide. She's definitely going to make it happen again if that's how Riley looks at her after.

She takes it slow, trying to give Riley a chance to fully come down, works her way from Riley's neck to her chest, pressing open-mouthed kisses into her skin. She pauses to kiss Riley's nipple, then blows on it gently, waiting for it to peak up again. Riley doesn't make a noise in response, and Abby looks up at her, worried that she's over-done it. She's staring at her intently, neck craned. Abby looks down at the bed, gauges the space between them, and then pushes gently at Riley's thighs until she gets the picture and shuffles further up the bed so that Abby can settle in between her legs. Riley's still looking at her with an unreadable expression, hands resting on her stomach. Her feet are resting on the mattress, near Abby's shoulders, knees now pointing up at the ceiling instead of wide open like they were a minute ago. If Abby had to bet, she'd say Riley looked a little nervous.

"All good?" she asks, putting a gentle hand on Riley's thigh. She's serious this time, ready to haul ass out of here if Riley's overwhelmed. However, Riley nods without a moment of hesitation, mouth open, and then puts her head back down on the pillows, relaxing her legs open in a clear invitation for Abby to touch her.

She lowers her head towards the apex of Riley's thighs. She can smell her now, the slightly tangy, musky scent of arousal. She can't wait to taste it. She presses her lips to Riley's inner thigh, letting her teeth graze as she strokes the other thigh with her left hand. Riley finally lets out a soft moan again. Abby moves her forearms forward on the bed, hands underneath Riley's ass, giving herself that extra little bit of leverage. Riley grinds back into her hands, and Abby takes a second to suck at her inner thigh, Riley groaning, impatient again. Abby smirks against her skin, then feels movement and looks up again. There's Riley, propped up on her forearms, staring at Abby with clear intent, lip between her teeth, nodding once. Abby tries to get back on task before the urge to kiss her becomes overwhelming; she turns her attention back to the triangle of hair between Riley's legs.

Abby uses her hand to spread her labia wide open. The air must feel good on her clit, because Riley starts writhing needily at the feeling, hips opening as wide as they can go, breath quickening with a whine. She looks so wet that Abby has to take a moment before she gives up on trying to tease and finally bends her head, settling her tongue over Riley's entrance before swiping one long lick up the center of her, all the way to her still-sensitive clit.

Riley's hips buck so hard she almost takes Abby out.

"Oh, shit. Are you okay?" Riley puts a hand on the side of Abby's head, looking mildly concerned.

Abby laughs and nods. She moves an arm to hook around Riley's leg and hold her hip down, just in case she can't control herself again. Safety first, after all.

"You okay?" says Abby, looking up at her again, tilting her head.

"Mmm." Riley nods, falling back, hands coming to rest against her sides. Abby moves her other hand to spread Riley apart again, feels Riley tilt her hips towards her in anticipation. She squeezes Riley's hip as a warning this time, then licks her clit slowly, sensuously, and Riley moans, loud and sharp. She tastes like she smells, earthy and sharp at the same time, and Abby can't get enough of it. She starts out a rhythm again, slow at first, focusing on a spot that seems to work just right, judging from Riley's tortured little grunts and twitches as she laps her tongue over it.

Given the pressure it took Riley to come the first time, Abby knows her tongue alone probably won't cut it, but she doesn't really have a plan to deal with that until Riley's hands find her hair, gentle at first. Abby unhooks her arm from around Riley's leg – hopefully Riley won't attempt to take her out again – and guides one of Riley's hands to her own clit. Riley takes the hint easily, rubbing herself efficiently, and Abby moves her tongue down, keeping her fingers spread for easier access. She circles her tongue at Riley's entrance and pushes in, tasting it on her tongue, feeling the hot, musky scent of Riley's arousal on her face.

"Ohhhhhh," Riley says, guttural and desperate, as Abby licks into her again, and Abby is honestly so turned on she can hardly contain herself. She keeps going, tongue working as hard she can physically move, and before long, Riley's other hand is clutching at Abby's hair. Sure as shit, Riley comes in under a minute with a high, loud keen, every muscle in her body tensed, hand gripping Abby's hair so hard it hurts. Abby's tongue is seriously cramping up.

Worth it.

Abby moves gently, shuffling up to lie next to Riley as she recovers, watching her chest rise and fall, sweat at her hairline, eyes closed.

She looks sated, lying like she has no desire to move a muscle ever again. She cracks open an eye to peer at Abby, raises both eyebrows quickly. "Water?" she asks, sounding a little husky. Abby feels a glow of satisfaction.

"I'll get it." Of course, the water's on the other side of the room. She pushes herself up, climbing over Riley clumsily, knee coming between Riley's legs. Her thigh brushes so gently against Riley she's not sure she even made contact. Riley, never one for subtlety, moans, eyes rolling back and legs snapping up to wrap around Abby's waist and keep her where she is.

Huh. She'll try not to let that get to her head.

Then, since she's already on top of Riley, she rolls her hips and pushes her thigh up between Riley's legs, lightly as she can, just to see where she's at. Riley grinds upwards, eyes closed and clearly no longer thinking about hydration.

Riley grunts softly when Abby stops moving, then brings her hands up and clutches at Abby's shoulders as she begins to grind on Abby's thigh slowly. Abby starts moving again, back and forth, observes Riley's face for any sign that it's getting too intense – she doesn't want to move too fast and hurt her – but Riley doesn't look pained. Honestly, she looks like she's never enjoyed anything so much in her life.

"More, please," she gasps out as she tilts her hips up so that Abby's thigh can grind against all of her. This inadvertently – or maybe intentionally – causes Riley's thigh to rub against Abby in turn, and Abby lets out a soft moan as she finally gets some much-needed contact.

It's so good that her arms forget to work for a moment and she falls to her elbows, still grinding against Riley's thigh. "Riley," she says, suddenly unable to think of anything else.

"Mmm?" Riley says, obviously pleased with herself, and Abby pushes herself up again, determined not to relinquish control. She slips her hand in between her own thigh and Riley's clit and starts circling it gently, rocking her hips forward in time to push up against her. Riley's whole body shudders with pleasure and her eyes roll back in her head as she starts moving against Abby too. "Abby," she says again.

That's more like it. Never let it be said that she's not a fast learner.

Riley's making desperate little grunts, and Abby's starting to think she might come just from being here, from the sporadic sensation of Riley pushing up against her, from the smell of her like this, from the unbearably erotic way Riley says her name.

"Abby," Riley says, "I need…" She inhales sharply as Abby, ever a step ahead, slides her fingers down and teases around her entrance for a second. "Fu-uck," Riley says just before Abby pushes inside her again.

"God, Abby," Riley says again, and Abby allows herself a satisfied smile. She's nearly there. Abby can read her tells now, her eyebrows knitting together with a bit of a crease, riding Abby's thigh from below with determination. Abby maneuvers her thoroughly wet fingers back to Riley's clit, applying just a little more pressure, and Riley comes with her loudest noise yet, open-mouthed.

Abby finally lets her arms give out, gives a breathless laugh on top of Riley. Riley lets out a tired huff. "Show off," she says. Abby rolls off now for real, lying next to her as Riley basks. There's a slow, lazy look of contentment about her.

They're both breathing a little heavily; Riley clearly finished for the night and Abby taking stock of the situation. Her forearm is aching after being cramped up in one position for so long. She stretches it out above her, trying to relax the muscles.

She settles with one arm over Riley's stomach, nestling her nose against Riley's collarbone. Even the way she smells is alluring, men's cologne, sweat, arousal. Abby inhales deeply, then wonders if that's weird.

This tender cuddling is not the post-coitus positioning of a one-night-stand, and Abby's perfectly aware of that, but she doesn't say anything. She's too content. She listens for Riley's heartbeat in between breaths. It's slow and steady, and Abby tries to match her breathing with it.

Riley gives a slight twitch and Abby jumps a little. She tilts her head up to look at her, and then realizes that she's fallen asleep. Riley's eyes are closed; she sighs with each breath. Abby suppresses a laugh – she's fucked Riley to sleep – then considers the possibilities of the situation; she's so turned on she can feel it on her thighs, and it's definitely too early to go home to John.

She huffs out a huge sigh.

1. She can go home and walk in on John fucking that guy.

Hard no.

2. She can leave and sit in a bar or diner until it is fine to go home.

Probably a bad idea, given how tangled her hair is and how she probably smells of sex.

3. She can accept her fate and just fall asleep here in Riley's hotel room.

There are a few gnarly points about that option too – the morning after is always an awkward experience, doubly so because this will be her third time waking up with Riley. But she's tired. And she likes being near Riley, likes the comforting way Riley takes everything in stride.

And, on the off-chance Riley wakes up in five minutes, she'd definitely like to find out how Riley would fuck her.

So she gets up and finds her tank top and her underwear – they have Tuesday printed on the butt, so she's glad that Riley didn't see that – and goes into the bathroom to wash her face.

After rinsing her face, Abby goes back to bed. Riley is splayed out on the bed, mouth open, drooling a little, half-snoring. Abby muffles a laugh. She really is utterly adorable. Abby lies down and tucks an arm under her head, immediately chilly.

It looks like Riley's also feeling the cold; she shifts in her sleep, hunching over, arms coming up to her chest. Abby settles a blanket over both of them before she turns over to go to sleep.

 

Riley wakes up to daylight pouring in the open blinds, Abby's head nestled on her shoulder, and a hand possessively splayed over her stomach. It takes her a minute to process the events of last night, then she realizes that she must've fallen asleep in the haze after three consecutive orgasms.

Abby must think she's such a pillow princess.

As Riley tries to disentangle their bodies, Abby blinks awake too. She immediately yawns hugely and covers her mouth.

"Morning, sleepyhead," she says teasingly.

Riley grimaces. "Did I fall asleep on you?" she asks.

"Yeah," Abby says. "You just about, uh, passed out in my arms."

Riley grins, now thoroughly awake. "I'll make it up to you," she promises.

Abby has arms crooked behind her head. "And how are you going to do that?" she says, light eyes still hazy with sleep. Riley thinks she might, possibly, be the most attractive woman in the world right now, with her soft pink nipples exposed and the expanse of her inviting pale skin just waiting for Riley to put her hands on it.

"I was thinking I could, you know, buy you breakfast," Riley tells her nonchalantly, swinging a leg over Abby's stomach and sitting down. Abby raises both eyebrows in response. Riley bends down to kiss her, making a point to slip a hand behind her head and grip a handful of hair. Abby lets out an appreciative groan as Riley tugs gently, bringing their lips into alignment. "Maybe give you a free mole map."

"Mmm-hmm," Abby mumbles as she kisses back, pulls Riley closer, slips a hand in between them to gently thumb one of Riley's nipples. Riley shivers, lets out a little grunt of pleasure. She's really quite fond of Abby's hands, but she seriously cannot get distracted again here.

"None of that, now," Riley says teasingly, and Abby retaliates by pulling Riley down and kissing her hard. Riley closes her eyes briefly as arousal rushes through her, and then shakes her head at Abby playfully. 

She moves down to put her mouth around Abby's nipple, gently nipping at it through her singlet. She knows Abby likes this, could tell from Abby's desperate little whines last night that she likes having her nipples played with, likes it when Riley tugs on her hair, especially likes getting other women off.

"You know, I really enjoyed last night," she tells Abby, looking her in the eye, and she's rewarded by Abby rutting her hips upwards. She grins at her and then leans to kiss her again, unsubtly grinding her hips down against Abby.

Abby pushes her hips up needily. She wasn't chatty, Riley had established last night.

Riley laughs softly, then reaches down to move her hand over Abby's clit through her underwear. She remains there, rubbing soft circles that have Abby squirming until she impatiently pushes Riley away to strip off her underwear. They say Tuesday on the butt, which Riley had never thought she would find sexy.

Riley grins at her and brings her whole palm against Abby, moving it in small circles. Abby squirms against her, looking up at her pleadingly with smudged mascara everywhere. Riley bites her lip, feeling herself get even more turned on at Abby's desperate movements. Then, she gives Abby what she wants, sliding her hand up and sandwiching her clit between her two fingers. Abby lets out a hiss, throwing a hand over her face, moving her hips against Riley's hand, still looking for more.

Riley brings her other hand down, then thinks better of it and pauses to shift down the bed. "Riley?" Abby says as she repositions herself, and then: "Oh," as she puts her lips around Abby's clit, the slick wetness of Abby's arousal against her mouth almost unbearably hot. Abby's breathing gets louder as Riley swirls her tongue over Abby's clit. Her hips are moving rhythmically now, pushing herself against Riley's mouth.

"Don't stop," Abby says, then, "I'm close. God, Riley, I'm so close."  Riley can feel herself rubbing against the bedding unconsciously, her own thighs reflexively tensing at the sound of Abby's moans. She increases the pressure around Abby's clit, just slightly, Abby's hips stutter against Riley's face like she's close to the edge. "Fuckfuckfuckfuck Riley," Abby gasps out as she begins to come.

Riley jumps as someone's phone lets out a loud, unfamiliar ringing noise, and Abby pulls away from her, eyes flying open, looking slightly dazed. Fucking hell.

Chapter Text

Abby spends the intervening five days alternating between adrenaline-infused panic and infectious ecstasy. She has two interviews at two prestigious universities – ecstatic. She might be moving out of Pittsburgh for the first time ever – panic. Definitely panic.

She wakes up three mornings in a row in a cold sweat, her dreams suffused with terrifying menageries of interview panels, parents and empty hotel rooms. The worst one is a panel interview with Tipper, Sloane, and the angry man from her PhD examination.

She doesn't get much sleep.

John, on the other hand, is uniformly ecstatic. This might be because Abby's career is finally taking off, or, Abby suspects, because he gets to have his apartment to himself for six whole days. She's going to Baltimore for the weekend and from there straight to New York.

They have dinner together on Thursday night before Abby leaves on an early flight – it's low-key burgers, fries, and milkshakes, and, as the cherry on top John doesn't even hit on the serving staff. Which might be because she's a) twenty and b) a woman, but Abby will take what she can get.

Then he has to go and make things weird. "Are you going to see Riley tomorrow?"

Abby chokes on a mouthful of burger – she's beginning to think that eating out with John is a clear and present danger to her health – and struggles for a response.

"That's a yes," he says cheerily, dunking a fry in ketchup and popping it in his mouth.

She exhales. The thing is, she's not sure. If she sees Riley, she'll remember how much she likes her. How she'd like to move things past one-night-stand territory into dating territory. And she's not ready for that. She's especially not ready for that if her interview goes badly and she's not going to be able to move to Baltimore.

John's brow wrinkles. "Abby…"

She crosses her arms at the sympathetic lilt in his voice. "What?" she says, leaning back in her chair, rubbing a thumb across her forearm absent-mindedly.

"I know… everything that happened with, well, Harper-" He pauses reflexively as she flinches at the name, then frowns. "That was awful, and heart-breaking, and maybe your feelings about Riley are tangled up with that, but… Abs. She seems like she might be good for you."

And Abby swallows back her instinctive snappy response, because he's being genuinely kind right now. "I just…" She sighs, pinching at the bridge of her nose like that's going to stop her eyes from welling up. "I don't want… After Harper. I feel like I'm not ready, you know? I don't want it to be sad and weird."

John chews his burger thoughtfully and then raises an eyebrow. The look he's giving her really says if you weren't so pathetic right now this would be witty and snarky. "I'm not saying you should move in with her. Just see where she's at."

She almost wishes he'd roast her instead. He's right, she's being pathetic. Riley absolutely would not be interested in her right now. She hasn't even managed to get rid of Harper's ring.

She won't call her. It's only three days. She can entertain herself for three days.

 

It's a Tuesday in April and Riley Johnson is definitely more emotionally invested in Abby Holland than she should be.

Abby Holland, who hasn't texted her or acknowledged her existence since she left her alone in a hotel room on Saturday morning.

She'd been clear, right? She'd said the exact words, come see me in Baltimore? There was no way Abby could've misunderstood that?

It gets to Thursday with no text, no nothing, and Riley's not fit to work. She's – gag – lovesick, completely useless in a way that isn't acceptable in a hospital. She's starting to worry that it was a one-night-and-one-night-only thing.

She frowns at the computer in front of her, where she's been trying to file a referral to peds for at least fifteen minutes, and stretches her arms above her head. If Abby doesn't call her tomorrow, she'll just have to get off her ass and do the heavy lifting herself.

It's not that she hasn't done her fair share of pursuing before – she's an intimidatingly attractive lesbian who's worked 60+ hour weeks for the past, well, forever. If she didn't put in the effort, she wouldn't have gotten laid since undergrad. However. She really doesn't want to come on too strong and fuck this whole shebang up. She kind of wants Abby to be in her life in whatever capacity she'll have her, even if it's not like that.

She clicks aimlessly at the checkboxes on the screen and resolves to call Abby if she hasn't heard from her by 8 on Friday. It's late enough that she won't seem desperate, won't interrupt Abby's interview, and, if worst comes to worst, she can pass it off as a drunken booty call.

In a fit of mild insanity, and, she won't lie, a moment of horny gay weakness on Monday, she'd arranged Friday off work – she has a ton of time off accrued, because she's a single workaholic, and she hasn't take a real, non-Christmas, break since 2018. It's not like she took time off specifically to see Abby, it's just that if Abby was around and her interview was done early, Riley would be available to see her.

That's all.

 

Which is how she finds herself in bed at 10 am on Friday morning, on her third episode of Grey's Anatomy and bored as all get out, with absolutely no sign of Abby Holland in her DMs, messages, or call log. Thanks to her own dumbass (horny) decision, she doesn't even have work to distract herself with – no snotty, rash-ridden kids, no pimply teenagers, no nothing.

After one too many Meredith Grey monologues, she switches off the TV and decides to put her day off to good use. Her house could really use a deep clean; she's barely vacuumed in about a month, and if she's going to be bringing Abby home… She nips that thought right in the bud and gets to work.

She gets so involved in cleaning and hollering the lyrics to Just Another Girl by The Killers that she misses Abby's call.

She fumbles her phone just as the call drops and she grinds her teeth. Too desperate to call back immediately? Possibly, but she doesn't want Abby to think she's getting ghosted.

She calls back, obviously.

"Riley," Abby says, so intense that Riley briefly forgets her own name. "I had such a good interview. You should come have drinks with me."

Riley grins. "Where are you?"

"Some bar… but it's not that good," Abby whispers conspiratorially. She's definitely tipsy already. "Take me somewhere good, Riley," and okay, yeah, Riley's going to marry her one day.

She inhales deeply. "What bar?"

 

Abby swirls the last of the whiskey in her glass – fourth glass – and smiles at her wonky reflection in the laminate tabletop. Riley's coming. Riley's going to be here, with her, at this bar.

Oh, shit. Riley's going to be here. With her. Seized by heart-clenching panic, Abby picks up her phone, trying and failing to unlock it as she clings to the wall to stay upright on her way to the bathroom.

She locks herself in a stall, leaning against the door. She doesn't need to pee, but she does need someone to talk her down.

"Abby?" John sounds concerned as he picks up the phone.

"John," she sighs, relieved. "Hey. Riley is coming." This statement explains all of her worries completely, so his response leaves a little something to be desired.

"That's great," he says. "Go get 'em!"

Abby groans. "John! I don't know what to do with her! I'm, like, five drinks in, and I think I booty-called her at 6:30 pm on a Friday." She inhales deeply – that was a lot of words and a lot of oxygen – and groans again. She wants to see Riley's face right now and also forever, but she used to think that about Harper too.

"Hey," he says. "It's going to be fine. Stay hydrated and use protection!"

He hangs up.

"John," Abby whines, like he might suddenly develop a new personality and become the kind of person who says "goodbye" before hanging up.

She exhales slowly and makes her way back out to the bar.

Riley arrives as instructed, but Abby's nowhere to be seen. She's just about to call her when she appears from the women's bathrooms. She's wearing the blazer she was in at the country club, the same one that's hanging in Riley's own wardrobe right now, and she looks a few drinks beyond tipsy.

"Riley!" she calls enthusiastically, breaking into a huge grin. She stumbles a little as she lets go of the wall to get to Riley, then collapses into a hug like a wave breaking over her.

"Hi," Riley says, a little teasing. "You doing okay there?"

"Mmm. You know what?" she says breathily, right next to Riley's ear. "We should just hang out. I had such a good interview. Let's… hang out."

Riley gets the feeling that hang out might be drunk Abby code for fuck. Although Abby's cute like this, a little bit sloppy drunk, confident and rocking it, something in between lipstick and tinted lip-gloss smudged around her mouth, Riley's not about to take her home and fuck her in this state.

"Hey now," she says as Abby steps backwards and nearly falls. "Easy there." Riley steadies her with a hand under her elbow.

Abby grins goofily at her. "Riley," she says again, contented.

"Dude, you are drunk," Riley laughs. "Let's sit down before you fall down." She guides Abby to a table and helps her sit on one of the stools before hopping up on her own.

"You should get a drink," Abby says earnestly, and she's way too eager to rest her full arm on the sticky black table.

Riley snorts. "I'm good," she says. If she knows drunk people – she did her ER rotation over spring break, so, yeah, she does – she'd say Abby's got about twenty good minutes before she's either conked out, got her tongue down someone's throat, sobbing into her beer, or puking her guts out.

"Just one drink?" Abby genuinely pouts at her, and Riley laughs.

"Okay, fine. One drink. For me only. You, get some water."

Abby does a cute little victory punch, then stumbles off her stool in the direction of the bar. Riley thinks about stopping her and getting her own drink, because she's not confident the bartender will serve her in that state, but Abby spins around and gives her a goofy thumbs-up, hunched over like some ridiculous goblin, so she leaves it. No reason to make Abby prematurely sad.

Abby returns victorious, tall glass of beer clutched in both hands, and Riley accepts it with thanks. "So, the interview went well, then?"

Abby breaks into a huge smile. "It went so well. What if I get to move to Baltimore? Wouldn't that be amazing? You could-" Abby hiccups, shakes her head, and looks Riley dead in the eyes. "You could show me around." She touches Riley's arm, fingers warm, gaze intense. Okay, maybe this isn't one-sided. Maybe Riley won't have to do that much in the way of pursuit.

"I'll show you around Baltimore," Riley promises as Abby leans closer.

"Mmm," Abby says, tilting her head just a little, still leaning, like she's going to kiss Riley. Riley's heart-rate easily doubles and she automatically flutters her eyes closed, leaning in just as Abby slides sideways off her stool and nearly falls down.

Jesus Christ. Riley reaches over to steady her automatically, getting pushed off her own stool by Abby's drunken center of balance.

"Okay, maybe we should move this somewhere with fewer hard surfaces," Riley says, standing up and putting an arm around Abby's waist. Abby leans into her naturally.

Before she can ask where Abby's staying, Abby grins and turns her head towards Riley, eyes wide. "Are you going to take me home, Riley?" The innuendo is heavy in the words, but Riley just rolls her eyes.

"Come on, Casanova," she says, "Yes, I'm going to take you home. To sleep and drink. Water," she adds hastily as Abby opens her mouth to tease her.

Abby closes her mouth, smiling up at her.

 

"I'd offer to sleep on the couch, but I feel like we're past that point in our relationship," Abby says, collapsing on Riley's bed and beginning to take off her shoes. "Is that okay?"

"No problem-o," Riley says, turning to her dresser. "You need some pyjamas?" She fishes out an old t-shirt and some sweatpants and turns back to Abby, who's mid-tank-top-removal. Riley blinks at the sight of one pale pink nipple, then tosses the pyjamas onto the bed.

Abby grins at her, sultry-like, and Riley rolls her eyes. "Alright, you need like… a gallon of water, or you're gonna be fucked tomorrow."

Abby waggles her eyebrows and Riley groans in her direction. "I'm serious." She brings Abby a glass of water, watches to make sure she starts drinking, and gets changed into her own pyjamas, thanking her previous self for cleaning her house today.

When Riley turns back, Abby's snuggled under her covers, nose peeking out, bleached hair splayed across Riley's pillow, empty glass already on the nightstand. "Thanks," she says, wrinkling her nose. "Sorry I'm a sloppy drunk."

"You're sweet," Riley says, motioning for Abby to shuffle over so she can get into bed too. Abby rolls away, watching her for a second before she wriggles into Riley's arms. Her legs tangle with Riley's, her face drops onto Riley's shoulder, and she's snoring gently before Riley can even get a goodnight in.

It's not even 8:30 pm.

 

Riley wakes up at stupid o'clock in the morning – a combination of their early night and her habitual early rising for work. She's still cuddling Abby, and she's surprisingly comfortable.

She tries to extricate her arm from under Abby's neck and Abby lets out a little "Hnngh," in protest.

"Sorry," Riley whispers. Abby snuffles and rolls over, obviously not really awake. Riley gets up, decides against showering in case she wakes Abby, and goes downstairs.

Her fridge is completely empty, but she still opens it and stares hopefully like she might magically become the kind of person who possesses the ingredients for breakfast instead of the kind of person with a bulk order of Clif Bars and an unhealthy amount of frozen meals.

Figuring that Abby might need something a little more carb-heavy, she goes out to the store in search of real breakfast items. Predictably, as it's 6:30 am on a Saturday, the corner store is closed, so she wanders further down the block to the waffle place.

 

When Riley gets back, takeaway containers stacked high in her hands, she drops them on the island and goes to see if Abby's awake. She is, hunched over on the edge of Riley's bed, looking a little the worse for wear.

"You okay?" Riley says, sitting next to her with caution.

Abby lets out an incoherent groan, then looks up at Riley. "For a minute there, I was worried you'd run out on me." She rubs a hand over her face. "Then I was like, that's ridiculous, this is her house."

"Of course not," Riley says, reaching over to pat her back gently. "Hangover?"

"Mmm," Abby says, covering her mouth. She looks beyond wrecked, make-up everywhere, under-eye bags making a helluva comeback, so pale she's verging on green. "Glad you missed the part where I threw up everything I drank last night. What did I even do?" She unsuccessfully hides a yawn behind her hands, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Riley grins. "You got really, really drunk and called me to hang out with you. I had to put you to bed at like, 8:30 pm."

"God, I'm so sorry," Abby says, snorting.

"You were wasted."

Abby taps her lip mock-thoughtfully. "I do seem to remember that you promised to show me the sights of Baltimore, though."

"I also recall that," Riley says. "In fact, I have a packed weekend schedule ready for us, to show you how great Baltimore really is."

Abby smiles. "That sounds amazing. Unfortunately… if your plans include me functioning like a real human being and not a hungover piece of shit, I'm going to need about four hours."

Riley pretends to examine her imaginary itinerary. "I think that can be arranged. But I got us waffles for breakfast, think you can manage it?"

Abby wavers a hand in the air. "Carbs would improve my mood immensely, I think."

"Excellent."

They go downstairs, where Abby shotguns her waffles, fast enough that Riley experiences a brief moment of concern that she might just barf them back up again, but Abby actually looks less green after the food.

Riley eats hers at a slightly more measured pace. "You okay?" she asks.

"Peachy, babe," Abby says. "Thank you so much for breakfast; I'm going back to sleep."

And with that, she disappears back up the stairs.

 

Abby comes downstairs just after eleven, hair wet, yawning into the cuffs of Riley's sweatshirt, which she has clearly stolen from the not-clean-but-not-dirty-laundry chair. Ugh. Riley really does have a soft spot for Abby wearing her clothes. "I gotta go back to the hotel," she says. "I had a shower, but I drew the line at borrowing a toothbrush."

"I can drive you," Riley offers. "Do you want to stay here for the weekend?" It's a little forward, but it's all part of the Riley Johnson charm.

"You sure? I'm starting to feel like ninety percent of our relationship is you driving me places," Abby says, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah, it's all good. And," Riley says, "Here in Baltimore, we have this amazing thing. It's called an art museum. Well, actually, we have two, but do you wanna go check one of them out after we get your stuff?"

Abby grins and nods. "That sounds cool."

 

Abby doesn't even have to repack – her hotel room contains only her still-packed duffel bag and a crumpled blazer abandoned on the end of the bed. She can't seem to stop smiling, even though she's completely alone in this beige hotel room.

She flicks through her bag, pulls out some jeans, underwear, and a clean shirt, and makes quick haste of getting changed, brushing her teeth, and pulling her hair back into a semi-acceptable half-bun.

She checks out, thanking the bored receptionist with a much wider grin than the situation warrants.

She goes back down to Riley's car, duffel bag slung over her shoulder. She tries not to be reminded of the last time she did this – post-White Elephant, having just broken up with Harper. The crying, gate-crashing Riley's family Christmas, getting way too tipsy and-

She catches sight of Riley, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, mouthing the lyrics to – yep, that's Tegan and Sara, again. Abby exhales. It's okay. Different day, different place, same goddamned soundtrack.

"Ready?" Riley asks, rolling down the window.

Abby slides her duffel bag into the back seat and drops into the passenger seat. "Lead on," she says.

Riley reaches over and skips through her playlist until Abby lets out a muffled noise of protest as she skips All the Small Things by blink-182. Riley laughs and goes back to it, shrugging at Abby.

Abby grins at her in the mirror; they both belt the lyrics whole-heartedly all the way to the museum. She's never really been one for car ride sing-alongs, but Riley just might be converting her. God. Abby cannot get over how attractive she is: make-up-less, throwing her head back and forth, singing badly.

When they arrive, Riley leads her inside, threading her arm through Abby's, thanking the visitor assistant who offers them a map. She stops at the bottom of the stairs. "Okay, you do your thing. I know nothing about art." She hands Abby the map, and Abby scans it.

"I mean… We can just start here and keep going. They kind of make it easy."

 

Riley follows Abby around; she wasn't lying about knowing nothing about art. Abby's clearly more comfortable with something to do, even letting her hand slide down Riley's arm, lacing their fingers together as they take in the art. Riley's a little more impatient than Abby, getting distracted by the time Abby's ready to move on, but she tamps it down and waits.

Honestly, watching Abby is an experience in and of itself, one that Riley can really appreciate. Abby's face is expressive, showing her thoughts as she reads the captions, eyes flickering over the art. Something she squeezes Riley's hand as she smiles, lost in her own thoughts.

"Hey," Riley says quietly as they stop in front of another piece. "Tell me about it," she says, nodding at the explanation.

Abby turns to her, looking completely relaxed for the first time… well, ever, actually. "Yeah?" she asks, face lit up, almost glowing. Riley closes her eyes for a second, then looks back up at Abby.

"Yeah," she says. "Tell me everything." She drops onto the couch in front of the painting, propping her chin on her hand to smile encouragingly at Abby.

Abby chews on her lip for a second, probably thinking about where to start. She doesn't look stressed, just kind of engaged, like she's throwing off sparks, brow a little furrowed. "Hmmm," she says. "We actually studied this artist in a class I took in undergrad… She wasn't very famous, but our lecturer loved her work…"

Riley watches Abby as she becomes more animated, gesturing at specific details on the painting, explaining the way the shapes function to draw the art, the intentionality of each piece. "…And she was a lesbian! She set up an all-women art school with her wife," and when she stops, looking positively delighted, Riley can't stop herself. She stands up, cups her hands around Abby's face, and tilts it up to kiss her.

Abby kisses her back, then pulls back, smiling. "If I'd known all I had to do to get you to do that was nerd out about art, I would've started a lot earlier," she jokes.

Riley exhales deeply. She hadn't even stopped to think about whether Abby was still into her, or she'd assumed that she was. Thank god. Things could've gotten rather more awkward if she'd rejected Riley. "You're cute when you talk art, Abby Holland," she says, kissing her one more time for good measure.

Abby laughs, then turns back to the painting at hand. "And if you look over here, you can see…"

Riley traces her fingers down Abby's arm, relaces their fingers, and pays full, intense attention to Abby's descriptions.

 

When they've walked the entire museum, Abby yawns. "God, I'm hungry," she says, looking at the clock on the wall. It's almost 3 pm. "Shit, is it really that late? I've been talking your ear off," she chides Riley.

"It was fun," Riley says, shaking her head. "But, yeah, we should go get lunch. There's a good place on the way back to mine. They have this green juice that will one hundred and ten percent cure your hangover."

Abby yawns again, eyes widening momentarily. "I do love a green juice," she says.

They drop a couple of notes in the donation box as they exit; outside, Riley can feel the compulsive shudder of tension that runs through Abby. She drops Riley's hand, moving to shove her hands in her pockets.

Riley purses her lips, wondering exactly what's going on in her mind. She feels like every time they get a little closer, something happens, and Abby shutters up again.

"You okay?" Riley asks as she drives in the direction of the juice place.

"Mmm," Abby says, chewing on a knuckle. "Sorry, I'm just… hungover."

Riley reaches over and touches her knee gently, and Abby flashes her a tense smile. Riley leaves it.

They get lunch to go and retreat to her place. Riley kicks off her shoes at the door and takes the stairs to her room two at a time. Abby follows a half-step behind, hauling her duffel. She hesitates in the doorway of Riley's room. Predictably, she looks tired and nervous, one thumb rubbing over her elbow in an anxious tic. Riley takes her bag and sets it down, then points her towards the door. She doesn't ask if Abby has anything to hang in the closet – Riley's blazers can't handle too much time crammed into a bag, that's for damn sure, but asking Abby to put her clothes in her room might be a little much right now.

She guides Abby back downstairs, sits her on the couch and hands her a green juice. Abby accepts, looking concerned as Riley goes over to the island and bring some cutlery and their salads.

Abby looks just about ready to bolt, and Riley wonders once again exactly what's going on in her mind. She hands Abby one of the salads. "Come on," she says gently. "Eat."

They both eat, and Abby looks slightly cheerier afterwards, although still exhausted. Judging that she's probably not up to more sight-seeing, and alert to the tension still present in every line of her hunched figure, Riley re-evaluates their afternoon plans and says, "Do you wanna watch a movie or something?"

Abby straightens up, brushes her hair out of her face. "Sure," she says, yawning again. "Shit, I'm tired. Sorry."

"It's okay," Riley says softly. "You wanna go back to bed?"

Abby nods. Riley leads the way, folding the covers back for Abby, tucking her underneath before she finds her laptop and climbs into bed too. Abby holds herself stiffly away from Riley while Riley flicks through their options. "What are you feeling? Light and fluffy?" Riley stays still, scrolling slowly, letting Abby settle in next to her. She leans her head on Riley's shoulder, looking down at the screen, finally seeming to relax a little.

She makes a noise that could be construed as agreement. Riley pats her shoulder comfortingly. "How about Saving Face?" she suggests. Light, fluffy, soundtrack that's easy to fall asleep to, which she thinks is high on Abby's priorities right now.

"Saving Face?"

"It's pretty much the best lesbian rom-com ever," Riley tells her. Saving Face was a definite staple of her teen years – hot lesbian doctor was her only life goal at that point, so Wilhemina was basically a goddess. "You'll like it. If you stay awake."

Abby shakes her head. "I'm not-" she yawns widely, "-sleepy." Her mouth twists self-deprecatingly and Riley laughs.

"Sure, sure." She hits play, snuggling Abby closer. She can feel Abby starting to relax against her as the opening notes play, some of the tension leaving her shoulders as Riley rubs her fingers along her shoulder blades.

They don't even make it to the scene where they flirt for the first time before Abby's conked out, snoring a little, drooling onto Riley's shirt. Riley smiles down at her and returns her attention to the movie.

 

Abby wakes up when Riley starts moving her arm from underneath her. "Hnngh," she says.

"Sorry," Riley winces. "I have to pee." Abby pushes herself up, letting Riley get up, and rubs her hands over her face. Shit. She was way more sleep-deprived than she thought. Come to think of it, she hasn't really slept more than five hours a night in at least a week. Still. She shakes her head, trying to clear it. Riley must think she's such a fucking drag.

By the time Riley re-emerges, Abby's mostly functioning. "Did I miss the movie? I'm sorry," she says. "I just haven't been sleeping because of the interview, and, today, being here, I just feel…" Safe, is the last part of that sentence, but she thinks that might be coming on a little strong.

"Dude, it's fine." Riley sits on the edge of the bed. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good. How was the movie?"

Riley grins at her. "Excellent, as always. We'll have to re-watch sometime. Are you hungry?"

Abby swallows, surprised to find that she actually could go for dinner. Her sense of timing has been well and truly messed up by her intermittent napping. "Yeah, a little."

"Alright, I've gotta confess that I pretty much have no food in the house – I need to get groceries. Can you survive another round of takeout?"

Abby nods, stretching over to kiss Riley on the cheek. "Hey. Thanks for looking after me. I'm sorry to crash on your doorstep again."

Riley smiles at her fondly. "It's okay. You like Thai food?"

She sits at the end of the bed, taps around on her phone for a minute. Abby watches her, the curve of her neck, the way she frowns a little as she reads her screen. She's stupidly attractive. Abby crawls to the end of the bed and rests her chin on Riley's shoulder, Riley's head automatically leaning to touch hers. She's warm through her shirt, and she smells good. "Here." She hands Abby the phone to order dinner, which Abby does with half a brain, the other half thinking about exactly what she's going to do to Riley the second they're done with this.

Riley takes her phone back, completes the order, and Abby grins. She turns her head a little and kisses Riley's ear. Riley jumps a little, surprised, then smiles and tilts her head to give Abby access to the nape of her neck. Abby kisses her way down to where Riley's neck meets her shoulders and shifts a little so that she's better positioned to reach around Riley's waist.

"Mmm," Riley says, then she stands up and spins around, pushing Abby down on the bed and straddling her. "Okay?" she checks, leaning down to kiss Abby.

Abby nods, wriggling happily underneath Riley. Riley's eyes are intense, hands even more so as she traces her way up to Abby's nipples, hiking her shirt up for better access.

"No fair," Abby manages as Riley thumbs both nipples at the same time and Abby's breath catches.

Riley just grins, and Abby reaches up to pull her down properly, so they can continue kissing. At the same time, she snakes both hands behind her, sliding under Riley's shirt, unhooking her bra, letting it fall.

Abby is thoroughly enjoying herself when they're interrupted by Riley's doorbell.

Riley sits up, looking apologetic and not a little amused. "To be continued," she says, leaving Abby shirtless and panting on the bed while she throws on a t-shirt and runs down the stairs.

Abby groans, then gets out of bed and pulls on one of Riley's sweatshirts and some of her own underwear. Is she ever going to get an actual orgasm out of this or is she destined to edge forever?

"Come on," Riley yells up the stairs, so Abby goes.

 

She wakes Riley the next morning at a reasonable hour with an off-key rendition of "Good Morning Baltimore." Riley throws a pillow at her to get her to shut up, and Abby grins at her from across the room. "You can look forward to this a lot more often if I move here," she tells Riley cheerfully.

"The novelty wears off after a while," Riley tells her as she gets up and goes downstairs to make them both coffees.

"What's on the agenda for today?" Abby asks, sitting up at the island and leaning her chin on her hand. Riley is unfathomably attractive in a t-shirt and underwear, hair messily tied up to facilitate their late-night activities. She holds both of their mugs in one hand, something Abby finds unreasonably hot, then turns back to give Abby the full benefit of her smudged eyeliner and the remains of her definitely-not-waterproof lipstick.

"Do you wanna go for a drive? There's a nice wildlife refuge about half an hour away."

Abby tilts her head. For some reason, she's surprised that Riley's into that. "Sure."

"Then, as I said, I really do need to pick up some groceries. You don't have to come – I can drop you off at the museum-"

"No," Abby interrupts. She doesn't want Riley to think for a second that she's only here for the fun, fluffy things. "I'd love to."

"Also, I usually go out for dinner with my friends on Sundays. We're doing karaoke tonight. Wanna come?"

"Jeez, you don't give a girl time to breathe."

"Well, you were asleep for… a good ninety percent of yesterday," Riley retorts. "I've gotta get it all in today!"

"Is that what you would call what we did last night? Sleeping?"

Riley shakes her head, snorting and sliding a coffee across the bench. "When's your flight?"

"Nine am, tomorrow."

"I can drop you off before work," Riley offers. "It might be a tad early though."

"You really don't-"

"Dude, we are really past the stage where you have to pretend like you don't want me to drive you places."

Abby shakes her head. She wasn't this comfortable with Harper even after living together for six months, let alone two days. "That would be cool," she tells Riley over her mug. It's possibly the best coffee she's ever had, too.

 

Riley switches on a playlist as soon as she starts the car, and Abby laughs at her choice of song. "Do you listen to anything that's not… mid-2000s pop?"

Riley laughs. "Not on long car-rides. Car karaoke – car-aoke, if you will-"

"I won't," Abby interrupts.

"-is an essential part of all road trips," Riley continues as if Abby hadn't said anything.

"It's a forty-minute drive," Abby points out.

"I'm sorry, but 2008 Lady Gaga is simply peak sing-along and if you don't think I'm right, well…" Riley shakes her head in mock severity, then starts singing along to the (presumably) Lady Gaga song blaring out of the speakers. Abby has vivid memories of dancing to this in Ricky Prichett's basement den after drinking about ten wine coolers and then throwing up on his best friend.

Good times.

She relents and joins in on the chorus, nodding her head in time. Riley grins over at her, and Abby's starting to think that 2008 sing-alongs might be Riley's love language, so she throws herself whole-heartedly into the back-up part for her.

 

They're about half-way there when Riley decides that they've sung along to enough mid-to-late 2000s songs and reaches over to turn the stereo down a little. "How's the job search going?" she asks.

"It's… Well, hopefully good. Like I said, I think the interview at Johns Hopkins went well. And I have Columbia next week. We'll see." She sounds guarded, unsure, and Riley's once again struck by how unenthusiastic she seems about it. Two interviews, at prestigious universities, and she doesn't think Abby's downplaying it because she's being modest. Something's genuinely going on.

"You don't sound so thrilled about that," she offers. She kind of wishes the soundtrack to this conversation wasn't… Disturbia by Rihanna, but she can't turn it off without making it a capital-M Moment.

Abby shrugs, staring out the window. "It's-" She shakes her head. "It's just not how I thought things were going to go, you know?"

Riley cocks an eyebrow at her in the mirror. "Yeah?" She's pretty sure Abby's talking about Harper, but she doesn't want to bring it up if she doesn't have to.

"I mean…" Abby chews on a knuckle, sweeping her bangs out of her face. "Look, if you don't wanna talk about…"

"Harper?" Riley says. "It's okay, Abby. I'm not gonna be weird about it."

Abby winces, shakes her head, refuses to meet Riley's eye. "I mean… I was going to propose."

Riley reaches over and rubs a thumb over Abby's thigh, trying to comfort her, not sure what to say.

"I just…" Abby sounds like she's getting choked up. This conversation is moving way faster than Riley anticipated. "I thought we were gonna, you know, get married, spend the holidays with her family, be happy. I was going to work at Carnegie Mellon…" she coughs, sniffles. "And now… I don't know. I don't even have a real bed. I've never… My parents-" She breaks off and chokes, and, wow, Riley is once again in a car with Abby and is beyond unequipped to deal with her emotional turmoil.

She snakes her hand across and squeezes Abby's hand, interlacing their fingers.

"I've lived in Pittsburgh my whole life. I grew up there, my parents lived there, they worked at Carnegie. I can't-" She pinches the bridge of her nose, obviously trying not to cry. "I don't know if I can leave, but I don't really have a choice anymore, and…"

"Abby…" Riley squeezes her hand again. "I'm gonna-" She flicks a glance in her rear-view and indicates cursorily – the road is completely empty in both directions – and pulls over, cutting the music off. She turns around and pulls Abby into a clumsy hug, feeling her shoulders shaking as she cries. "Hey, it's okay," she murmurs, stroking the back of her head. She reaches between them and unbuckles both seatbelts.

"I'm sorry," Abby gasps out.

"I understand," Riley says, stroking her back comfortingly. She exhales softly. Telling Abby her childhood trauma – well, one of her childhood traumas – was not high on her list of seduction techniques, but… she's really falling apart here in Riley's passenger seat. "Shh," she says. "Hey. I… okay."

She takes a deep breath, trying to mentally prepare herself.

"I had a brother. He-" Riley leans back a little, separating them, and exhales, a sudden lump forming in her throat. "We were-." Shit, there's too much here to even… "He died when I was in high school." She swallows. "After… I mean, I was supposed to be going to Stanford, following in his footsteps. I had a full ride and everything. But it was so far away… I mean, California, right, and I just… I couldn't leave. So I ended up in Baltimore instead."

"Riley," Abby says, face wet, eyes wide, staring at Riley sadly.

Riley inhales, getting the lump in her throat under control. It's just simple facts; she shouldn't be so upset about it, not more than a decade after the fact. "Look, what I'm saying, is, if you can't move, it's okay. You need to do things at your own pace." She hugs Abby close again, pressing a kiss to her temple.

Abby nods and sniffles, then pushes away, dashing at her eyes with her shirtsleeves. She gulps a couple times. "I'm so sorry. I just… dumping all that on you is a dick move."

"Abby. We are friends. This is what friends do." And, yeah, cool, Riley just called them friends like she wants nothing else.

Once Abby's recovered enough, Riley starts the car again. "Do you still wanna go to the park? We can go home," she offers. Her plans to show Abby a good time are really… not going well.

Abby shakes her head. "Yes, of course I still wanna go." She wipes her face with one hand. "Riley," she says again, almost to herself.

Riley watches her for a second. When she tries on a watery smile, Riley nods. "Alright. You wanna put some music on?"

Abby nods quickly, accepting Riley's phone. She taps around and puts on something more recent, less nostalgic. Probably for the best.

They don't talk much for the next ten minutes, Abby humming along to the songs, Riley concentrating on the road; there's a turn-off coming up that she doesn't want to miss. Abby's breathing has slowed, at least, and she's not actively sobbing, another good sign.

The last song fades out and another starts, and Abby stiffens in her seat. She fumbles across the dash for Riley's phone and hits skip, but Riley can tell she's suddenly all jangled nerves again and anxious, jittery energy. She opens her mouth like she's going to say something, then stops.

Riley hesitates. "What's up?" she says after a breath.

"I…" Abby bites her knuckle, a habit that Riley's starting to realise accompanies peak internal turmoil. "I-still-have-the-ring," she says all at once.

The-? Oh. "Ah," Riley says.

"I'm sorry-"

"It's okay," Riley says hastily. "I get it. It's kind of weird, that Harper, and me, and you, and- Anyway. Talk about whatever you need."

Abby chews on her lip for a full twenty seconds before she says, "I just don't know what to do with it. It's just become this big symbol of… I don't know. My failure to keep it together."

Riley frowns at her. "What do you mean?" From where she's sitting, Abby seems to be doing a pretty good job of holding it together, barring the past ten minutes.

"I keep…" Abby exhales. "I don't know. I keep wondering, keep thinking that maybe if I'd just… If I'd left earlier or been more patient or if I'd been able to be what Harper needed me to be, we'd still be together. We'd be engaged, and happy, and… I feel like I fucked it up."

Riley has to stop herself from letting out an incredulous chuckle. "Dude. You were beyond patient. You and Harper were just at different stages of your lives, and she put you in a really shitty position."

Abby hums, sounding like she disagrees but doesn't want to say it.

"Listen," Riley says, finally spotting the turn-off and flicking on her indicator. "New rule. Rule number four: You need to do something big. Something cathartic, to help you get over Harper. You know, like chucking the ring off a cliff or whatever. I mean, it's probably way too expensive to waste like that, but you know. Burn some photographs. Dance naked around a bonfire. That kind of thing." She turns smoothly down the side road that will take them to the wildlife reserve.

Abby snorts. "Yeah, maybe." Her leg stops jittering, though, so Riley exhales and moves the conversation on.

 

The drive home is a lot more relaxed. Instead of anything heavy, Abby banters for all she's worth, finally gets an update on Riley's life – "work, work, work," she says wryly, "I'm a resident," – and manages to avoid any and all conversations related to childhood trauma, instead trading stories of their rebellious stages.

"Oh, wait, you know what?" Abby says, as Riley wraps up a story about getting trapped in the university labs after hours and having to climb down a fire escape. "I didn't tell you how I managed to fuck up moving out, like more than I thought was humanly possible."

"What happened?"

"I… oh, my god. This is so embarrassing." Abby relates the tale of being trapped on a fire escape, talking up the ridiculousness of the situation and downplaying the pathetic parts where everyone was crying.

Riley laughs. "God, your life is like a romantic comedy gone wrong."

"So wrong," Abby agrees, glancing out the window. They're re-entering Baltimore City limits now, trees rapidly turning to industrial streets and residential housing blocks.

"You all good to go grocery shopping now?" Riley asks.

Abby shrugs and nods. Why not?

 

"No judgement," Riley says as she pulls a shopping cart from the stack outside the store. "I barely have time to breathe during the week, so this is gonna be a lot of… microwavable goods."

Abby laughs, putting her hands up. "This is a judgement-free zone. Why don't we cook dinner tonight, though?" The second it leaves her mouth she experiences full-body regret. She's basically on a fully-paid, one-way ticket to girlfriend territory right now, and she needs to chill the fuck out. "I mean, we don't have to. I just thought it would be nice, you know. I've, uh, been cooking a lot recently. It's- fun. I mean. I, uh, enjoy it." Oh, God. Has any person ever been less cool?

Riley eyes her like she's grown another head, but nods anyway. "Any ideas?"

And Abby has definitely dug herself into this hole, so she collects all of her wits about her and says, "Uh…"

Riley snorts. "We can get takeout again," she suggests as she turns down the snacks and drinks aisle.

"No, no, I got this," Abby says, putting a finger on her nose, closing her eyes for a second, grinning. Riley laughs at her. "Risotto? No cheese?" she suggests.

"Yeah, sure," Riley says, shrugging. "We'll have to be quick, though. We're supposed to be meeting them for karaoke at seven."

"Roger that."

Riley buys a lot of things that can be made in under fifteen minutes, and Abby refrains from commenting, although Riley shoots her a suspicious look. She grins innocently and turns to the cheese section. "Vegan cheese?" she suggests, looking back at Riley.

"Vegan cheese is the opposite of a turn-on," Riley says, shaking her head.

Abby snorts. "You're right, but I wasn't going to say it."

"I legitimately don't have any ingredients, so get whatever we need for risotto," Riley tells her, scooping five Clif bars into the cart.

Abby nods, then circles back to fresh produce, aiming for the mushrooms. They'd missed produce on their first pass due to Riley's penchant for frozen meals and protein bars.  

 

Riley follows Abby, stopping the cart a couple feet away and watching as she inspects mushrooms one by one before dropping them into a paper bag. The way her nose scrunches is just too adorable and Riley wants to kiss her right here in the produce section of Whole Foods.

She abandons the cart and sidles up to Abby, touching her arm. "Hi," she begins, and Abby turns to her with a wide smile. "I really want to kiss you right now," Riley tells her, watching her face closely.

She shutters up for a second, then shakes her head briefly, a happy smile returning to her face. "I bet you do," she says, leaning into Riley and pressing her lips to hers in a quick peck, very grocery-store-appropriate and very teasing. "I've been told I'm at my hottest when choosing fungi."

"They were right," Riley says, laughing. "Come on, you."

 

"Okay, we've got… forty minutes before we need to leave," Riley says, frowning at her phone as she opens the back door one-handed, the other hand clutching three out of four grocery bags.

"Yikes," Abby says, forcibly taking the bags from Riley as the door slams shut behind them. "I'll start dinner, you can go get changed."

"Then switch?" Riley's already halfway up the stairs, shrugging off her jacket.

"Yeah," Abby calls after her. She unpacks the groceries as much as she can – mainly concerned with Tetris-ing the many freezer meals that are a staple of Riley's diet into the freezer – and then starts chopping an onion. By the time Riley comes down, freshly showered, dressed, and half-way through doing her make-up, Abby's stirring stock into the arborio rice and breathing in the umami scent, a lot more relaxed than she thinks Riley is.

"Your turn," Riley says, catching Abby around the waist and pressing a kiss to her forehead, then moving down to kiss her mouth.

Abby grins and breaks it off. "I'll be quick," she promises. "Stir this, okay?"

"If I fuck it up, you can choose a song for me to sing tonight," Riley says.

Abby laughs. "You're on."

She strips off her tank top as she takes the stairs two at a time, showering in near-record time. She gets dressed as quickly as she can, donning a white t-shirt and black jeans, brushing her hair out of her face, dabbing a little concealer on. She feels unduly nervous about tonight; she tries to tamp it down by focusing on being as fast as possible. She bounds back down the stairs fully dressed and ready to meet-the-friends, pleased to see that both Riley and the risotto remain undamaged.

Riley's poured them both glasses of the wine that Abby used in the risotto. Abby grins and takes a sip, wrapping Riley in a one-armed hug, then moves to bring some bowls over.

They eat next to each other, Abby's leg resting against Riley's calf. Abby finds herself just looking at Riley, drinking white wine and laughing while she gives Abby a brief run-down of her friends. Abby's far too preoccupied with the way Riley's hair curls at her temple to really register anything she's saying.

She offers to do the dishes when they're done so that Riley can finish her make-up. Riley comes back downstairs and hugs her from behind, kissing the back of neck, and Abby ducks her head, moving to rub what she's sure is a lipstick stain off the back of her neck. "We do not have enough time for that," she laughs, and Riley groans against her neck in mock-protest.

"We could be late…" Riley says, leaning into Abby and pressing her lips just under Abby's ear. Abby shudders and lets out a little groan, then gathers herself.

"I want your friends to like me, not think I'm some sex-crazed Riley-kidnapper." She rubs at the spot where Riley kissed her again, getting dark red lipstick on her fingers.

Riley laughs. Abby tries not to think about why she wants Riley's friends to like her, but she's assaulted by a mental image of Harper's catty friends, and she pushes it away with such force that she actually makes a little grunt.

"You okay?" Riley asks, frowning.

"Yeah," Abby says, shaking her head. "You ready to go?"

 

Riley's friends are already there; they do end being fifteen minutes late, after all that.

"Riley!" one of them hollers in their direction. Riley can feel Abby tense up next to her, even though they're not touching. She's beginning to sense the pattern behind her discomfort: it has something to do with being around groups, being seen. Yeah, that's got something to do with Harper for sure. Riley exhales a little, wondering if she'll ever be able to forget about Harper fucking Caldwell. She plasters a smile on, performing the necessary introductions as they approach their table. "Abby – this is Taylor, Cherie, Fran, Evie."

"Hi," Abby says, extracting a hand from her pocket to wave at them.

"Here," Riley says, pulling out a chair for Abby and gesturing for one of her friends to move over so that can sit in the booth. "Abby's visiting from Pittsburgh," she explains to the group.

She wills her friends to be normal and not immediately start teasing her, and they pull through with shocking success.

"We were just discussing the best places for bottomless brunch," Cherie tells them, and Riley laughs.

"Of course you were." Riley glances around the table – there are already empty glasses littering it, and a few of them already have second drinks. "I'll go get us some drinks – Abby?"

Abby nods, eyes widening just a fraction. "Uh… beer?" she asks.

"You got it."

 

Riley's friends are perfectly welcoming, and Abby hates that she's so on edge, that she feels like she's being judged. She rubs her finger along the seam of her jeans. Harper really… fucked her up. She exhales.

"Why are you in town, Abby?" The friend closest to her – Abby definitely has no idea what her name is – leans across the table, glass of beer tilting dangerously close to horizontal as she gestures around them. She's pretty, intense blue eyes, round face, dark blonde hair. Not really Abby's type, but then, with Riley around… who is?

She leans forward, trying to concentrate fully on the four faces looking at her inquisitively. "I had an interview on Friday," she says.

"Ooh, where?"

"What do you do?" The questions come from across the table, two women who are sitting way too close to be just friends. They knock each other's' shoulders and laugh at their simultaneous questions.

"Oh, I just finished my PhD in Art History," Abby explains. "I had an interview with the Art History department at Johns Hopkins."

At this point, Riley returns, balancing two full glasses of beer. She pushes one across to Abby and takes a long sip from her own.

"Thanks," Abby says. "What about you guys? Are you all doctors?"

Riley laughs. "Yeah, we are," she grimaces. "We met in med school. Except Evie-" One half of the couple waves from across the booth, "-she's finishing up her PhD in Anthropology this year."

"Oh. Fun," Abby says, grinning. This elicits a disproportionately large laugh from the group. She shakes her head, sneaking a glance at Riley, who reaches over and squeezes her hand briefly.

"Alright, ladies," Taylor says, the only one whose name Abby remembers. "Let's get our karaoke on." She stands up, and Riley shifts out of the way so she can get out. "Who's with me?"

The pretty blonde sighs and shakes her head, then stands up. "Fine."

Riley shuffles along into Taylor's spot and gestures for Abby to sit next to her. Abby slides into the spot, letting her entire thigh touch Riley's as they squash together. She's suddenly hyperaware of every nerve ending in her body. Riley smiles down at Abby, wraps an arm around her shoulders.

"So, you might be moving to Baltimore?" One half of the couple leans forward, resting her elbows on the table.

"Oh-" Abby blinks, takes a sip of her beer. "Well. If everything goes really well, maybe," she says, one hand jittering against her leg.

They both look delighted at this prospect, and then they start in on all the great restaurants she'll have to check out and which neighborhoods are suitable for a lesbian in her early thirties, and the difficulties of getting Riley to make time to hang out, which Riley blushes furiously at.

Abby laughs and nods along. Riley's friends are lovely, welcoming, funny, but this whole conversation is making her throat seize up. She's spent her whole life in Pittsburgh, and now she's unemployed, anchorless, adrift, and the only person who makes her feel slightly okay is sitting next to her, showing her this is what you could have.

It scares her shitless.

She cuts across a diatribe on the merits and demerits of the local mom-and-pop pizza shop to say, "I'm just gonna go to the bathroom," quiet, almost a whisper. She slides out of her seat, Riley's hand slipping off her thigh, and makes her way to the bathrooms.

 

The second Abby's out of earshot, Fran turns to Riley with a shit-eating grin. "You li-ike her," she sing-songs.

Evie swats Fran's upper arm. "Leave her alone." Then she turns to Riley. "But she has a point; you never bring people to our hang-outs. Who is this girl?"

Riley purses her lips, not saying anything.

"C'mon. Riley. I mean…" Fran gestures after Abby.

"We're not together," Riley protests half-heartedly.

"Sure, babe," Evie says. "But you did hook up, right?"

Riley closes her eyes, trying to suppress the smile curving on her lips. "Maybe. Once. Or twice."

"Mmm-hmm…" Fran waggles her eyebrows. "Riley, we've been trying to find you someone for years, seeing as you're apparently not into the throuple thing, and I have never in my time seen you this…" She gestures in Riley's general direction in a way that is probably supposed to indicate whipped or affectionate or something equally as offensive.

Riley rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah."

 

Abby tries to empty her mind of thoughts about Riley Johnson, and how fond she is of Riley's laugh, and how content she is when they're together, and the stupid little smile she gets when she thinks something's funny, and their through-the-roof sexual compatibility.

She has absolutely no success.

She takes a good long minute washing her hands, contemplating why she's freaking out, then, she stares at herself in the mirror as she dries her hands and tells herself to keep it together for Riley and her friends.

Heading back to their table via the bar, she orders two more beers and carries them over to the table, handing one to Riley.

Riley looks up at with a strange expression, and for a moment Abby can't read it, but then it passes and she grins up at Abby. "Thanks. You wanna-?" She gestures at the stage.

Abby groans, and shakes her head. "I'm nowhere near drunk enough to voluntarily do karaoke."

"We can fix that – and – you don't even have to work in the morning," Riley says. "Drink up."

Abby laughs, taking an obligatory sip of beer. "We'll see about that."

"How did y'all meet?" Fran says as Abby slides back into the booth next to Riley. Riley looks up at her with a small smile, and Abby bites her lip. What is she supposed to say to that? Riley here basically saved my ass at the lowest point in my life, oh, and, surprise! She's my ex's ex.

No flippin' way. Fortunately, Abby's saved from turning that into a socially acceptable answer by Taylor and Cherie returning from the stage and calling, "Shots, shots, shots!" to anyone who will listen.

 

"Do you think they liked me?" Abby asks, not sure why she's asking. It doesn't matter what they thought if she's not going to move here, and it doesn't matter if she's not dating Riley, which she is definitely not doing.

Riley doesn't respond for a second, concentrating on backing out of their parking space. Abby taps her fingers anxiously on her thigh.

"Are you kidding?" Riley finally says as they slide out of the parking space and she throws the car into drive. "I finally brought someone to our group hang-out and she's cute, funny, and gay. They're about to ring the fucking wedding bells."

Abby's stomach falls at the mention of a wedding and she's thrown right back to December. She's so goddamned pathetic. Is she going to feel this way every time someone says "wedding"?

God. She rubs her hands over her eyes.

"Hey," Riley says, looking over at her. "Sorry. Was it too much?"

Abby musters an approximation of a smile. "No, sorry, just a little spacey from the beer. I'm glad they liked me. They seemed really nice."

Riley reaches over and rubs her thigh, offering Abby a soft smile. She seems to instinctively understand that there's something else going on under the surface, but she doesn't pry.

It's only a five-minute drive back to Riley's place, and she leaves the music off for once, so Abby mulls over her conflicting feelings in silence.

When they get home, they both shed their clothes rapidly, donning the t-shirts-and-sweatpants combo. Abby was pleased to note that the monogrammed, private-school two-piece from Christmas didn't make a reappearance in Riley's wardrobe.

Abby crawls into Riley's bed like it's something she's done every night for years, Riley's scent washing over her as she pulls the covers up to her chin. She relaxes immediately, closing her eyes.

Riley gets into bed beside her and touches her arm gently, seeking permission. Abby settles into the inviting curve of her embrace, snuggling her chin against Riley's shoulder. Riley scratches her nails gently against Abby's scalp and Abby exhales, finally feeling the weight at the bottom of her stomach feel a little lighter. She rubs her whole palm over Riley's hip, a warm touch just to remind her she's there.

Riley bends her head and kisses Abby's forehead. Abby smiles and nestles closer. She smells like risotto and wine and summer, and Abby can't really think of ever wanting anything more. "'Night, Riley," she whispers. "Sleep well."

"Goodnight, Abby," Riley says.

Chapter Text

Riley watches from the pavement as Abby extracts her duffel bag from the backseat, doing anything she can to avoid eye contact. Abby’s standing by the passenger door, hands shoved in her pockets, collar high and beanie low, looking like she's about to crawl inside her jacket and never come back out. When she finally glances up at Riley, she just drops her bag to the pavement, offering Riley a brief, almost impersonal, hug. "Thank you for, uh, letting me stay," she says speedily, eyes snapping back to a particularly fascinating spot on the ground.

"Any time," Riley says. She doesn't want them to part on this awkward note but she suspects pushing Abby to talk about her feelings right now would have the opposite of the desired effect. She thinks back to the cat her parents got for her fifth birthday, how you had to act utterly disinterested if you wanted him to approach you.

Abby would definitely be a cat in that icebreaker game where you pick an animal to describe your personality. She picks up her bag and offers Riley her characteristically shy wave as she walks into the terminal, left hand tucked in her pocket.

Riley waves back, then jumps as someone sounds their horn at her. She frowns, then gets back into the drivers' seat. That could have gone better.



Abby lands in New York with a mild hangover and a severe case of what Riley might term contact stupiditis. It takes her more than twenty-four hours to settle her nerves enough to text Riley.

After her interview, she finally opens up their message thread and hovers her thumbs over the keyboard. It seems crazy that the last text Riley sent her was I'm here on Christmas Eve.

Abby bites her lip. She can't think how to convey what she wants to say in a text message. She stops hovering her thumbs and tosses her phone down on the hotel bed. Fuck.

Then, she huffs and picks it up again. This is ridiculous. It's Riley. Abby exhales deeply and then just taps her name to call her. It takes Riley an agonizing six seconds to pick up, and Abby can already feel herself blushing.

"Oh, thank god," Riley laughs when she answers, holding her phone up so Abby can see her face. "I thought you were going to leave me high and dry."

Abby laughs semi-hysterically. She's barely thought about anything except Riley and whether she likes Riley as much as she thinks she does, and Riley thought she was getting ghosted?

Abby swallows and says, "No." Yeah, she's cool and articulate, everything Riley's ever wanted in a woman, for sure.

Riley half-smiles. "How's New York?" she asks.

"It's… something," Abby says, not particularly enthusiastically. The jury's out on New York; it's vast and busy and loud, and she misses Pittsburgh, and, well… both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have the advantage of containing people she actually likes.

"Oh," Riley says quietly. "That's great. Did your interview go well?"

Abby nods, then shakes her head, then tosses a hand up. It's so natural to talk to Riley. To tell her every half-formed worry about her interview. "I think so. I hope so. Oh, god. I don't know. You can never tell. Ugh…" she groans, covering her face with a hand.

"I'm sure it went fine," Riley soothes her. "Columbia would be lucky to have you."

Abby hides a smile, looking down at the dirty lace on her shoe. "Thanks," is all she says. Riley's voice is just comforting. Riley tilts her head down at the phone. She's wearing this dark red top, something Abby's never seen before. She tries very hard to avoid thinking about the mark she left on Riley's neck, just where the collar sits. It doesn't work.

"Seriously, dude. You're amazing," Riley says confidently.

Abby ducks her head. "Mmmph," she says, not sure how to respond to that. "It all feels very real now."

"Yeah?" Riley says, head tilted sideways.

Abby nods, then shifts the subject – enough about her and her probably-terrible interview. "How's work?"

Riley looks momentarily confused. "Oh…" She shakes her head. "Same old, same old. I'm snowed under at the moment, but then… when am I not? I'm meant to be writing up this case study for a journal, but I haven't got time, and… ugh," she says with feeling, looking around, voice lowering conspiratorially, "Let me tell you about this radiologist in peds…"



This call leads into a brief text exchange on Riley's next break, and then they trade GIFs for a few hours, and eventually they're part of a conversation that they never really stop – an endless exchange of stupid videos and jokes, pictures of their day-to-day lives, commentary on TV shows, near-ethnographic descriptions of people-watching. Riley forwards her her dad's video of his birdfeeder in action, and Abby sends her a picture of John in his old man reading glasses in return.

Riley calls Abby from a café the following weekend, making her say hello to Fran and Taylor before demanding Abby's opinion, entirely seriously, on whether a burrito can be considered a sandwich, and if so (she holds a finger up to forestall Abby), by what definition of a sandwich.

Abby can see Fran rolling her eyes in the background, and she laughs and asks whether this is a dealbreaker for Riley. Riley snorts. "Depends how you answer," she says lightly.

"Hmm…" Abby pretends to consider this deeply. She's anxiously awaiting a call from both universities, and Riley's stupid questions and jokes always lift her spirits. "If your definition of a sandwich is 'filling inside a bread', then yes-" She breaks off with a smile as Riley opens her mouth, almost certainly to object to Abby describing a tortilla as bread.

"But by that logic, a steamed bun is also a sandwich," interrupts Fran from behind Riley. Riley nods emphatically, mouth still open.

"-so," Abby continues pointedly, "I don't think so."

"Mmm. Good answer. Talk later, doll." Riley hangs up, leaving Abby to laugh to herself at how ridiculous Riley can be sometimes.



"Doll?" Fran says scathingly after Riley ends the call, pointing a metal straw in her direction to punctuate her look of disbelief. "Is this the 1950s? Are you an upstanding young man who just visited an ice-cream bar with his high-school sweetheart?"

Riley rolls her eyes, trying to distract from the blush rising in her cheeks. She hadn't even noticed that she'd said it. "Well, darlin', a good answer deserves a compliment, don't you think?" She shrugs.

And yeah, it probably would have been better to just keep her mouth shut, because Fran is looking at her like she can't believe the absolute bullshit that's coming out of her mouth. Fair enough, to be honest. "When are you going to woman up and realize that you are already in a relationship?"

Riley coughs. "No- I'm- It's not. I mean, I like her. I mean, I'd like to-" She takes a breath, trying to recover her composure. "Would you please just pick a burrito so we can go?"

Fran just shakes her head and laughs.



Abby stirs the pasta sauce on the stove and leans over to squint at Riley's face through a cloud of steam. John's due home soon, and they've been talking for forty-five minutes already. They're sharing shitty holiday stories, starting with Halloween and now onto Christmas. Abby's relating how she fell off a roof belonging to a role-playing Mrs. Claus, and Riley is howling with laughter before she calms herself and starts her own story.

"My parents were, like, obsessed with Santa. Like, us believing in Santa. Every year we'd leave out cookies, and milk, and carrots, and this big 'sleigh maintenance kit'-" in air quotes, "-that I figured out was the same one every year when I was, like, eight."

Abby mumbles an "Mmm-hmm" as she measures out pasta.

"And I think they figured out, at some point, that Leo and I weren't buying it. So they upped the stakes." Riley disappears off-screen for a moment. When she returns, she continues, "Of course, this was the year that I had invited Lindsey from swim camp over for Christmas – her family was Jewish so she wanted to check it out – and so, we were on the roof next to my bedroom window. And of course, we were both thirteen-year-olds who had just discovered making out, and it was fucking freezing, so we were inside that stupid sleeping bag-"

"The fucking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one?"

"The very same. My brother's name was Leonardo, so it was only natural that he got that one and I got sloppy seconds."

"Wait, your brother's name was Leonardo? Like the turtle?"

"Well, I mean, we're Puerto Rican, so…"

Abby blinks. "Wait, your parents are Puerto Rican?"

"No, well, yes- I mean, it's a long story. Anyway. We were making out, on the roof, in a Donatello sleeping bag." Riley holds up a finger expectantly, and Abby nods for her to continue, dropping the question for now. "And then suddenly my Dad is there, dressed in a full Santa outfit with a beard, carrying two coconut shells that he's clapping to sound like hooves. He's covered in bells, and he's dragging along this kids' toboggan that I guess was meant to sound like Santa's sleigh."

Abby drops the spoon into the pasta sauce, she's laughing so hard. Riley's family are really something else. "What the fuck," she says.

"And suddenly I'm making full eye contact with him. I've got one hand up her junior varsity jacket, rapidly rounding second base, and- I shit you not, he fucking says Ho ho ho!"

"Oh my God." Abby shakes her head in disbelief, picking up her phone so Riley can see her as she laughs.

"Like I, a thirteen-year-old, won't figure out that he's not the real Santa Claus. Anyway, Lindsey – bless her – tries to roll back towards the window. And of course, we're in that tiny sleeping bag, zipped up all the way, so we start rolling down the roof in slow motion, screaming, until my Dad grabs us by the little turtle hood, puts us in his toboggan, and drags us back to my window."

"What did he say?"

"Absolutely nothing. I honestly think he was still clinging to the Santa thing as though it might somehow make the situation go away."

"Oh, shit," Abby laughs. "Oh, my god."

"He never told my mom, though. Or, maybe he did." Riley raises an eyebrow. "She never mentioned it."

"Aww," Abby says, just as John opens the front door.

"Hey Abby, hey Riley." He gives a little wave when he sees Abby's phone propped up against the fruit bowl.

"Hey, John! Good timing; I'm gonna go pick up dinner. Talk to you later, Abby?"

Abby gives her dumb little finger guns and a wink, and John and Riley laugh simultaneously as Riley's face disappears from her screen. John walks up, glances meaningfully at her phone, and then actually ruffles her hair . Abby doesn't love that, but she's in such a good mood that she lets it slide.

"Is it rude to ask if someone's adopted?" she asks. That would explain Riley's last name, and the maybe-maybe not Puerto Rican parents, when Abby could've sworn Mr and Mrs Bennett were WASP through and through.

"What? I'm not adopted, Abby. Although, that would explain a lot…"

"I obviously know you're not adopted," Abby snorts. "Your Mom showed me the first five minutes of your birthing tape two Thanksgivings ago."

"Is that why you never came back?"

"Off-topic." Abby waves a finger. "Is it rude?"

"That you've never come back? My Mom was a little peeved until I told her you were a humble grad student who was forced into pet sitting to avoid selling your soul to the liberal media." John grins and leans over to swipe some toasted pine nuts from the frying pan.

Abby mock-glares at him for both the change of topic and for stealing dinner ingredients under her nose. "No, dude, is it rude to ask if someone's adopted?"

"Oh. Yeah, probably. But I think you could ask Riley."

"Who said it was about Riley?"

John just gives her a look.



Abby is in the middle of an argument (or, a robust discussion as Riley calls them) with Riley about the pros and cons of dog ownership when she gets a call from an unknown number. She stutters off the sentence she was in the middle of ("Think about the cost, Riley!") and says, "I gotta go," abruptly.

Riley starts saying something, but Abby ends the call without waiting. She hesitates for a millisecond, trying to compose herself before accepting the other call. Abby can't stop smiling, points for her argument ("robust discussion") with Riley still running amok in her mind. She's going to come across manic if she takes the call like this, and she's hoping, hoping, hoping that it's Johns Hopkins.

She forces her lips into a neutral line, trying to compose herself, and then swipes to accept the call.

"Hello, Abigail speaking," she manages as she lifts the phone to her ear. Her ears are buzzing so loud she can barely hear the first few words: Columbia and offer you a role get through, though. Jesus. She really needs to fix her phone anxiety before they decide not to offer her a job on the spot.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. They ask that she confirms her acceptance and returns the completed paperwork within ten days.

"Yes, I will, thank you," she says. "You too!"

She chokes for a second after hanging up, then drops her phone unceremoniously on the couch. Wait – you too? That didn't even make sense. Fuck.

She did it. She got a post-doc role. At Columbia. In New York. She has to move to New York. She has to leave everything she's known her whole life and John and the university she's spent ten years at and John and the cemetery where her parents are buried and John and-

She's spiralling hard by the time John gets home, pacing around the apartment, trying not to think about how she's going to tell Riley, and leaving her home, and finding an apartment in New York, and-

John steps over to her, puts his hands on her shoulders, and makes her sit down, then perches on the couch next to her. "Are you okay? Abby?" He waves a hand in front of her face.

She sucks in a big breath before she can get the words out. She puts them all in a line for him. "Columbia called." All two of them.

He frowns. "And…?"

"Yes," she says. "I got it," she elaborates, when John continues to look blankly at her.

"Congratulations!" he says. "Abby. This is good."

"Yeah," she says. Her lips feel numb with shock.

John reaches over and takes her hand. "Hey. You'll be okay," he says. When she doesn't respond, just stares at the ground, he pats her knee awkwardly, then stands up.

He brings her a glass of water and puts on the latest season of RuPaul's Drag Race, seemingly recognizing that she's not quite herself again yet, that she needs to somehow interpolate this devastating shift into her psyche before she can function properly.



They're eating dinner – salads that John went and got, from their usual – when her phone rings again. Another unknown number.

It does seem like that kind of day.

This time, she hesitates only long enough to swallow her mouthful of quinoa. "Hello, Abigail speaking."

It's Johns Hopkins. They also want to offer her a job. She says all the right things this time, thanks them; another ten-day deadline. The buzzing in her ears is back and thicker than ever as she hangs up the phone.

She can feel John practically jumping up and down next to her, grinning, gesturing for her to smile.

"Abby, congrats, oh my god!" John squeezes her hands.

She shakes her head. "John-" she says. "I don't-" She swallows back the saliva suddenly running thick in her mouth. "I'm not ready for this."

There are some persistent black spots in her vision. She's breathing too fast. Things are not going according to plan. Or, they're going exactly to plan and she's suddenly realizing that she does not like the plan at all.

John nudges her to put her head between her knees. She does, staring at the loops of carpet fiber between her feet. John's hand is warm through her t-shirt, the only anchor to a world that's otherwise spinning so wholly off its axis that she doesn't know where to start. The black spots begin to recede, and she realizes belatedly that she was hyperventilating.

She gives it a couple seconds, then sits back up, blinking at John. "Sorry," she says.

"Abigail. Sweetheart. I know this is scary, but you are ready. You have such a great opportunity here to get out of Pittsburgh and try something new." He pauses, looking like he's chewing his next words. "Baltimore… is a great city, and Johns Hopkins is a great university, with lots of great people," he says, eyebrows raised, suggestive. Suggestive about Riley.

And oh, god, Riley.

A couple of hours ago, she'd been worrying about telling Riley she was moving to New York, and whole-heartedly avoiding that conversation in her head. And now she has the option to move to Baltimore. You'd think it was a no-brainer, but she feels frozen. Is she ready to start a new relationship, or does she want a fresh start?

Because, ultimately, that's what this choice comes down to. Riley, or the freedom of starting over? Riley, or the anonymity of the most populous city in the United States? Riley. Riley. Riley.

Assuming Riley even wants a relationship. How would Abby even begin to have that conversation with her? I think I might like you, shall I move cities for you? That's way too much to put on someone who, despite being one of her best friends, she hasn't known for very long at all.

"Abby?" John says, obviously concerned. Her breathing has mellowed out, and she leans back on the couch.

"I… don't know what to do," she says.

John tilts his head. "You've got time to think about it."

"But… Riley," she says, incoherently.

"Ah," John says, tapping his nose. Abby frowns at his nonchalance. "Honey. You are already in a relationship! You text each other, like, every hour of the day."

Abby sighs and shakes her head. "It's not… like that." John doesn't get it, and she can't articulate what Riley is to her. What she's scared of losing, but even more scared of committing to.

It's times like this that she misses her mom the most. Her mom would've understood her reticence, the confusing feelings swallowing up her entire chest, the flip-flopping, stomach-dropping anxiety she's always had about all-or-nothing decisions. Even as a kid, she'd agonize until the last second; always fifty-fifty whether or not she'd actually make it to anything. One time she'd committed, gone to her friend's place, and then started freaking out in the driveway. Her mom had just driven her away, no problem, put on the Addams Family Values VHS at home.

But this isn't a fucking sleepover. This is the entire rest of her life and career.

No pressure.



Riley buries her face in her hands and muffles a yell. Peds is so frustrating. She picks up her phone and opens her message thread with Abby, double-tapping the caps button and typing some incoherently frustrated words.

Before she sends it, she notices that their last text message is timestamped… yesterday? She hadn't noticed this morning – she'd been in a huge rush – but Abby hasn't texted her since yesterday. That's unusual. And she'd hung up on their call abruptly yesterday afternoon too, hadn't followed up afterward.

Riley sighs and taps her finger on the desk for a second. Is Abby okay? Riley had been worried when she hung up yesterday – it was out of character.

Then Riley does the mental math and realizes that Abby hasn't broached the topic of her interviews since getting back from New York. Maybe an offer, or a rejection, from one of the universities?

Surely Abby would tell her though. Riley has a definite investment in Abby getting a job at Johns Hopkins, and she thought Abby would too.

She keeps tapping her fingers on the desk instead of typing a message – she's not sure if she should just straight up ask or if she should give Abby some space. If she's been rejected by both, she's probably licking her wounds, but if she's been offered a job, or both jobs… Riley's heart thuds in her ears.

Abby could move to Baltimore. That would be… Riley would like that. In fact, she really wishes Abby was in Baltimore right now. Being able to go to Abby's place and check on her would beat the hell out of sitting here wondering if she's okay. Huh.

That's a lot. She frowns at her monitor, tests it again. Yeah. If Abby was in Baltimore, Riley would definitely be knocking on her door with takeout for dinner tonight, asking if she was okay.

Oh.

She's in love with Abby Holland. Like, really, actually, would-show-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-if-Abby-needed-her in love. She already knew that she was invested. Too invested, maybe? More invested than Abby, anyway, which was fine – Riley knows how to woo – but this is something else.

Love? Could she love Abby? They've seen each other in person for what… days? A week, tops? She thinks about Abby now, her shitty dye job growing out, the twitchy way she moves her shoulders when she's nervous. The endless supply of off-white undershirts. The dorkiness that comes out so unexpectedly. The curve of her ear.

Yeah. She could love Abby.

Staring out her window, she spies the pediatric radiographer who's been causing her so much grief, in the hall outside her office, and she doesn't even duck. She's shell-shocked.

After a good five minutes, she finally wiggles her mouse to wake her screen back up, tucks a stray hair back. So, she's in love, whatever. She's Riley Johnson. It doesn't have to be a big thing.

If Abby is freaking out, it for sure won't help for Riley to- whatever. Try to intervene. Be a knight in shining armor.

Eventually, she settles on deleting her incoherent, frustrated message about the hospital bureaucracy and instead just types, Hey. How are you doing? Everything okay?

She clicks her phone off. She'll be here when Abby's ready to talk about it.



Yes, Abby should be happy. She should be beyond thrilled. She should be ecstatically filling in contracts and retirement fund forms and apartment applications. Packing her stuff. Looking for a place to live. Talking to Riley.

Abby is not doing any of those things.

What she is doing is lying in a blanket burrito on John's couch, still consuming shitty reality TV and trying to avoid making any decision about anything. She doesn't know what to do.

Half of her is pulling towards Baltimore, towards Riley, towards maybe falling in love again. The other half of her is fucking terrified of having her heart broken again , of moving to Baltimore only for Riley to pull the plug.

She's scared that she's just rebounding, that the circumstances under which they got together are too weird. At least if she moves to New York, it'll be on her own terms, a completely fresh start. No more Abby-the-orphan, no more Abby-the-loner, no more Abby-the-anything – she could even be Abigail, if she wanted to.

She doesn't want to.

More than losing Riley, she's scared of leaving John, the only stable person in her life for more than a decade. Scared of leaving the streets where they walked the family dog, the old group photos with her parents in the faculty lounge, her slightly-awkward familiarity with the local baristas.

She's paralyzed by indecision, and by the niggling desire to talk to Riley. She hasn't texted or called her in five days. She doesn't know what to say. How to ask Riley whether there's enough there, between them, for her to move to Baltimore. Doesn't want Riley to think she's fishing to move in, because – yikes – that would be moving way too fast, and she learned her lesson about that with Harper.

The worst thing is: Riley keeps trying. Concerned texts and a voicemail, are you okay? followed by a video of a dog chasing its tail. Abby doesn't know what it means – or, she suspects, she does, and she doesn't want to admit it to herself.

So she buries her face in the pillows, pretends she doesn't need to pee, and watches three more episodes of Queer Eye.

When John comes home, Abby finally hauls herself off the couch and goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, John's kicked his feet up on a stool and is commentating snarkily on the Fab Five's fashion choices.

"Look, no one, but no one, should wear corduroy as a shirt," John says. He looks up at Abby. "Any progress?" He's asking about all the paperwork she's meant to be doing.

"Ughhhh," Abby groans and throws herself down next to him.

"Aww," he says. He leans over and pulls her into a messy hug, her face squished up into his chest.

"Mmm," she protests half-heartedly.

He smells like he always does, and she pulls him closer for a heartbeat. Regardless of her decision, she's leaving Pittsburgh. John's the only family she's had in more than a decade, and she can't imagine being in a different city from him. They've eaten dinner together at least twice a week for almost eight years.

She tries to smile. "Sorry," she says. "I'll miss you. No matter where I go. You know that, right?"

He nods, squeezing her shoulder with a rare seriousness. "I'll miss you too, Abby."



On Wednesday evening, John forces Abby to attend a work event with him, just to get her out of the house. She dresses barely presentably and props herself on an out-of-the-way table, smiling politely at anyone who tries to approach her. They mostly get the hint, until…

"Abby!" She barely has time to brace herself before someone flings their arms around her.

"Hi?" she says, half-turning in the embrace to see who it is. Her sweater catches in a sequin.

Jane.

Jane Caldwell.

Her heart takes an automatic swoop, but as Jane lets her go, grinning widely and unselfconsciously, it bounces back to its usual spot.

Oh. It doesn't hurt. She doesn't think about Harper, about Christmas, about any of that. Well, she does, briefly, but her brain doesn't snag on any of it, at least. She remembers Riley. She remembers Jane's effusive bubbliness and manages a small-but-genuine smile for her.

They make small talk mostly successfully, on Abby's part anyway. Although, she does have trouble following the plot of her planned book series, possibly due to the speed of Jane's diction.

As Jane finishes explaining the first book's plot with a firm nod, John appears beside her. Jane greets him unbelievably enthusiastically. She is a lot. Abby had forgotten how intense she is.

John touches Abby's arm, grinning at her. "We just signed a six-book deal for Jane," he tells her.

Abby blinks. "Oh, wow. Uh. Congratulations," she says, finding that she doesn't have to fake a smile.

Jane glows. "Thank you," she says gravely, touching Abby’s arm in an over-familiar gesture. "I'm so glad that people will finally get to enjoy them."

Abby nods and John takes over the conversation, asking Jane about her plans for the evening. Abby fades into the background a little, nodding along, glad not to have to contribute much, glad that Jane is kooky enough that she doesn't ask any routine questions, like what are you doing at the moment? and New York? That sounds fun! because Abby really wouldn't be able to handle that.

Jane does, however, ply Abby with a couple drinks. Abby declines twice, then finally accepts a wine, which she sips slowly as John introduces Jane to some other up-and-coming authors and their agents. Abby smiles and nods when he gestures to her. Nobody tries to engage her further. Thank god.

By the time she's walking home with John in the cool spring air, she's stone-cold sober again, the ragged edges of a headache behind her eyes, unreasonably exhausted but strangely, on an even keel. She feels better than she has in days.

John unlocks the door to the apartment and pushes it open, dropping his leather satchel on the couch. Abby goes to the box that's been sat half-under an overhanging pot plant for the past five months, a light layer of dust now stuck over the top of it. She digs through until she finds a photo of her and Harper.

Something's settled in her chest – not a decision about the future, but some kind of finality about the past.

"What are you doing?" John asks. She lets her eyes track the photograph, the happy grins she and Harper are sporting, the messy hair sticking out from under their beanies. Seeing them together doesn't make her heart twist with pain now. It feels like dipping a hand in lukewarm water.

"I'm getting over Harper," she says. She runs her fingers along the bookshelf until she finds the lighter stashed in with the emergency candles.

"Abby-" John says as she goes into the bathroom. "Don't you set that on fire."

She grins; "Too late," she says as she touches the lighter to the photograph. It catches, the edges crumple and burn, and the glossy coating of the picture lets out an acrid burnt-plastic smell.

"My smoke alarm!" He gestures at the kitchen and she pulls the bathroom door shut to stop the smoke from escaping. He frowns at her.

"I'm over Harper. I'm ready to move on," she tells him, almost wondrously.

"That's great, sweetheart," he says, not unkindly. He goes and sits down on the closed toilet lid, staring up at her. "What are you going to do?"

And that's the million-dollar question, isn't it? The million-dollar question that Abby still doesn't have an answer to. Does she want the comforting safety net of Riley, or does she need to strike out on her own?

She turns on the tap and douses the ashes of her relationship. She watches the black flecks circle in the water until they drain away.

"No idea," she says.



Riley picks up her phone for the fifteenth time, then tosses it back down when she sees the only message is her phone bill. She's trying not to panic; she's trying to be adult and mature and normal about this, but there's nothing normal about this situation.

Abby hasn't texted Riley in four days, two hours, and thirteen minutes. Riley knows the exact timestamp of the last message Abby sent her. She scrolls back aimlessly. Every day, back and forth, checking in, little jokes, sarcasm coming through in every period of every text.

Since Abby went incommunicado, Riley's texted her a couple times, called once; nothing.

She's racking her brains for something she's done that might've offended Abby, but she really can't think of anything at all. Surely if she'd had an offer, even from Columbia, she would have called? It's been four days. They'd talked about everything, every day, for the past month.

Riley purses her lips. She does half-heartedly consider messaging John, but that might be overstepping a little bit. Abby's not dead – the traitorous 'read' next to her messages gives that away. She sighs and puts her head in her hands, tapping on a temple with her finger.

Patience.



John comes home to Abby lying on the couch in another blanket burrito. At this point, she probably owes John a new couch, based on how much time she's spent ruining its springs. She's been stewing on the Columbia/Johns Hopkins question all day. She only has two days before she needs to return all the paperwork. And she does have to take one of them. She really can't keep living on John's couch, despite her best efforts.

"What happened to I'm ready to move on?" John says drily, dropping his messenger bag on one of the chairs. Abby shakes her head.

"I don't… I don't know what I should do," she says with great effort. She's been tossing it over in her mind all day – Columbia or Johns Hopkins? New York or Baltimore? Riley? Riley? Riley?

John crosses the room and shoves her legs aside so he can sit on the end of the couch. Abby lets out a muffled grunt in protest. "Why not?" he asks.

And Abby stops breathing for a second. She hadn't thought of it like that. What's stopping her? What's the real reason she can't decide?

"I… I'd like to be with Riley. But I don't know if she feels the same way." And I can't ask her, because what if I'm wrong about my feelings?

John sighs, and Abby gets the strong sense that he's restraining himself from rolling his eyes. Probably also from saying something like dumb fucking lesbian. "Abs… Just call her and talk to her."

Abby shakes her head mutely.

John pats her knee. "It'll be okay. You can do it." And with that, he turns and heads to his room.

Abby sighs and returns her attention to The Bachelorette.



Four episodes and one very unjust rose ceremony later, she still can't get John's words out of her head.

Just call Riley.

Riley's the first person she calls when something happens to her, the only person whose voice she wants to hear at the end of a long day.

All she can think about is the tiny art museum in Baltimore, Riley following her around, Riley's arms around her like coming home, waking up with Riley, Riley in just a shirt, making breakfast, pressing Abby into the counter and kissing her.

Riley.

Riley is the only person Abby wants to talk to about this dilemma and the only person she feels like she can't talk to.

Okay. This is getting ridiculous.

She finds herself on her feet, shedding the blanket burrito in a pile on the floor.

"John," she says. "John, I need to talk to Riley." She stands outside his door, as though this was a conversation they had just been having and not a throwaway comment from two hours ago.

"Yeah, Abby, that's obvious," he calls from inside the room.

"I mean… I think I need to see her. In person."

"Ugh…" He swings open the door and looks at her for a few seconds too long. She tries to picture herself through his eyes: (stained) white long-sleeve top, rings around her eyes for days. She tries to look a little more pathetic, running a hand through her hair. He groans, looks up at the ceiling, presses his palms together. "Okay. I'll drive you."

Abby breaks into her first grin in days. "I know I don't say this often enough, but you are the best," she tells him. He raises an eyebrow, shrugs, then cracks a smile at her.

"I know."

 

Abby calls Riley once they're half an hour out of Pittsburgh, just as the optimistic adrenaline rush is fading and she's beginning to worry that this is insane.

Riley picks up within three rings. "Abby!" she says, her face coming into focus. "Hey," she says, quieter. She looks kind of confused, which, well, it's 10 pm on a Thursday night, so fair enough. Also, Abby hasn't responded to her texts in several days, so she probably deserves a lot more than a confused look.

"Riley," Abby says, trying to gather all her words together. "I'm coming to Baltimore to talk to you. Is that okay?"

Riley stays still for so long that Abby thinks her service might have cut out. "I'm sorry?" Riley says in a very high-pitched tone of voice. Shit . Okay. Maybe this was a terrible idea.

"I-" Abby tries to speak through her breaking last nerve. "I just need to talk to you."

"Okay," Riley says. "Go for it." She's frowning at the camera, and if John wasn't already half an hour out of the city and fully committed to this, Abby would just chicken out right now and dive back on the couch.

"No, I mean-" Abby swallows. "I'm coming to Baltimore right now. Can I see you?" She realizes as she's saying this that it's 10 pm at night, they're four hours away, and Riley might not want to be awoken at 2 am.

"Wait, now ?" says Riley, eyebrows suddenly unfurling. She looks… not mad, at least. Abby's anxiety does not abate at all. "Yeah, Abby. Of course. You can see me, any time."

"Okay," Abby whispers. "See you soon." She ends the call. She's suddenly exhausted, emotionally drained, strangely relieved. Everything feels out of her hands now, just like that night at the Yang's apartment – like maybe, just for tonight, fate's stepping in.

"Okay?" John says.

"Yeah," Abby says, jaw opening in a yawn, tucking herself against the car door. "Thank you." She puts a half-hearted hand on John's arm.

"You fucking lesbians need all the help you can get," John replies. Abby sees him laugh to himself just before her eyes close. Once a shit traveling companion, always a shit traveling companion, she supposes.

 

Riley blinks once as the call ends, then stands up. This is… she doesn't even have a word for how crazy this all is. No contact for a week, and now Abby's driving to Baltimore? No. Riley's not about to wait until 2 am to hear what Abby has to say. (Oh, she's so fucking gone on this woman.)

The logical thing to do, that will make everybody's lives easier, is for Riley to meet them halfway. They can get this out of the way at midnight instead of 2 am, and if she sleeps over and drives back at 6 am, she can be home in time for work. Or call in sick, if things go… well? Badly? She's not sure how to finish that thought.

She hastily shoves her work clothes into a bag, pulls her phone charger out of the wall, and puts on her shoes.

She's already in the car when she realizes she's still in her pajamas. She contemplates going back and getting changed for half a second, then figures it's really irrelevant. At least she's wearing a coat. She connects her phone and queues up her upbeat playlist to keep her awake on the drive, even though she feels like a bundle of live wires right now, sparking on every nerve ending. Like she might fail a drug test, even though she's completely sober.

She navigates the city streets, jumpy, left foot tapping at every red light. She heads for the highway, looking on Maps to see where they can meet. About halfway between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, there's a truck-stop town with a Holiday Inn. That'll do. She sets it up to direct her out loud and accelerates onto the on-ramp a smidge faster than necessary.

A full hour out of Baltimore, she realizes that she might be a little premature. She should probably tell Abby that she'll meet her halfway, or they'll both end up in different cities again.

God, why couldn't this just be easy? She wishes for the millionth time this week that she and Abby were in the same city.

She exhales, then reaches over to call Abby. It rings for a little longer than she expected.

"Hey, Riley." It's John. He's whispering. Fifty bucks says Abby's asleep in the passenger seat. Riley smiles to herself.

"Hey," she says, automatically keeping her voice low in response. "Listen…"

 

Abby wakes up as the car stops, bright lights leaking in the windows.

"What?" she says, blinking several times. She doesn't think she's been asleep long enough for them to be in Baltimore, but her heart speeds up anyway.

"Gas," is all John says as he gets out of the car. Abby cranks her seat up from reclined to a normal sitting position, swallowing to get rid of the slightly sour, stale taste in her mouth. The dashboard says 11:54 pm. They're not even halfway. Thank god. She really needs to brush her teeth before seeing Riley.

The faint adrenaline rush fades as she rubs a hand over her face, turning to peer out the window. As John pushes open the double doors of the gas station, someone else exits.

It's a woman in a long coat, dark hair falling around her shoulders. For a split second, Abby thinks it's Riley, then she shakes her head. They're not even halfway to Baltimore.

Then the woman raises her head.

It is Riley.

Abby's heart stops.

She's such a goddamn idiot for thinking that she could ever figure this out without Riley. She's such an idiot for waiting so long. She shoves the door open and is out of the car before she knows what she's doing.

"Hi, John," Riley calls across the parking lot, sounding faintly amused.

"Hi, Riley," he says, and then he's inside, and Riley's outside.

Abby tangentially thinks she's wearing pajama pants and Oxfords with no socks and that she still looks hot as hell. Abby doesn't really register that she's moving until Riley is right in front of her, arms wrapped around her own elbows. They circle each other, hesitant under the fluorescents.

"Hey, you," Riley says as they look at each other.

"What are you doing here?" Abby says, finally regaining control of her tongue.

"I'm here. I'm meeting you halfway," Riley says, reaching over to touch Abby's coat.

When Riley's hand connects with her forearm, warmth spreads out, through Abby's whole body. She leans in as Riley does, and then they're embracing, Riley's hand low on her back.

It feels so right. How did she ever leave Riley behind in Baltimore? Why did she ever leave Riley behind in Baltimore? On their last morning together, she'd been so careful to not even look at Riley. So scared of not being able to leave.

She feels it now, this magnetic attraction between them, the way they fit together, just right and warm and easy.

Riley pulls away but brings her hands up to Abby's jaw to look at her, until Abby pulls her into a tight hug instead. She still hasn't looked Riley in the eye, doesn't know if she can. Doesn't know if she can handle seeing Riley's expression right now, in case it says, why the fuck did you drive here in the middle of the night and please go home.

She wants to ask a million questions, tell her a million things, maybe ask how she's doing, but what comes out instead is, "How did you know where we were?" She lets Riley's coat muffle her voice and the almost-crack in it. "Did John teach you to track me?"

Riley snorts. "No! What? Track you?" She pushes Abby away to arm's length, scanning her face inquisitively. "There's only, like, one fast route between Pittsburgh and Baltimore; I figured you guys were on it."

Abby nods, staring steadfastly at her lapel. "Oh. Okay."

"What's going on?" Riley asks, hands warm on Abby's upper arms, face crinkling in that sincere expression of concern, her trademark. "You ghosted me for, like, a week."

Abby bites her lip, swallowing hard. She's been avoiding these words and this situation for eight days. She wishes she could avoid it a little longer. "I-got-two-offers-and-I-don't-know-what-I-should-do," she finally says, words blurring together with panic.

There. It wasn't so hard, but now her throat's closing up again. Inconvenient. Not for the first time, she wishes that she was more cool-Abby and less tongue-tied-Abby around Riley. Riley, for her part, takes it in her stride. She hugs Abby close again, kissing her temple. Abby's shoulders relax and she exhales deeply.

"Columbia? Johns Hopkins?" Riley asks.

"Mmm-hmm," Abby nods, still not sure she can get any words out. Riley's hand is on the back of her head now, cupping her skull. She's torn between the compulsion to pull away and this pervasive, new, desire to stay here forever.

"What's stopping you from moving to Baltimore?" Riley asks, and Abby swallows down the lump in her throat.

She inhales, making sure she can speak again. "I… I kind of want to move to Baltimore, because I really like you, and I think I want to… be with you, but I don't know if I'm ready for a relationship, and I don't know if you… want that. I mean-"

Riley laughs, almost incredulously. Abby's shoulders tense up, anticipating the rejection before it happens. Riley shakes her head. "Abby." She cups her hands around Abby's face. "Abby. I want to be with you. I want to be in a relationship with you. God," Riley says, still shaking her head, looking across the parking lot. "You are such an idiot. Please. I want you to move to Baltimore."

She tilts her head a little and presses a soft kiss to Abby's forehead, then her mouth. Abby makes a frankly embarrassing noise at the intimacy of it. Riley rubs a hand up and down her upper arm comfortingly.

"But… What if things go wrong?" Abby whispers. The secret fear, the heart-wrenching anxiety that started the day her parents died and never really stopped, that she's never going to find her place and her family, has its claws deep in her chest and won't let go.

She takes a deep, shuddering breath, trying to get herself under control. Riley steps forward a little bit, bringing their foreheads close. "I'm not going to hurt you, Abby," she says softly. "I think you're the coolest-" Abby lets out a wet, choking laugh at that – she's beyond uncool right now – and Riley smiles. "Really," she says. "I really like you, and, if you really want to be together, I'm going to do everything I can not to hurt you. We can take it as slow as you need."

Abby closes her eyes, the lights from the gas station forming watery starbursts in her vision as she blinks them open again. "Okay," she says, looking at Riley's face. She has soft creases under her eyes, a tiny furrow between her eyebrows. Abby wants to curl up there and sleep forever. She drops her gaze an inch or so, finally looking Riley in the eye, and she can see it.

She believes her.

"Okay," Riley says back, before Abby pulls her close and kisses her, tasting the remnants of coffee on her lips, feeling the way their mouths fit together, inhaling Riley's specific and alluring scent. She feels real and steady against Abby.

The past few weeks solidify into a reality, a tangible future that Abby can see right in front of them, if she lets it happen.

She pauses their kissing when she hears a cough from behind them. She lets Riley go and turns to see John standing, holding a bag of Cheetos and a Gatorade.

"If you're all set, I'm gonna-" He jerks his thumb at his car.

Abby blinks. "Oh-" She's surprised, but she supposes she's already caused enough disruption to everyone's lives. "Yeah. Okay." She turns to Riley, who's grinning at John behind Abby's back. Abby always gets the feeling that the two of them are conspiring when they're together. "Um-" she says intelligently.

"There's a Holiday Inn around the corner. We could sleep there tonight," Riley suggests.

Abby exhales. There's nothing she wants more than to lie down with Riley. "Okay," she says, letting go of Riley's hand and going to John. She pulls him into a wordless hug, trying to convey her gratitude.

"You okay?" he asks, squeezing her shoulder.

She nods, then shakes her head. "I… don't know. I'll be okay with Riley."

"She's a real good one, Abs," he says, grinning. "And, you're welcome, by the way."

"Thank you," she says. "Seriously, I meant it earlier. You are the best friend anyone could ask for."

"I know," is all he says as he gets into the car. "I'll see you in a few days, yeah?"

"Yeah." She waves at him as he pulls away, and then Riley's beside her.

"Are you okay?" she asks, echoing John. Abby's really put her friends through the wringer the past couple of days. She'll make it up to John somehow.

"Mmm," she says. "Where's the Holiday Inn?"

"It's literally… behind the gas station. I'll drive around though, I don't wanna leave my car here." Riley squeezes her hand and kisses her once before leading her over to the car.

Chapter Text

"Yeah, just… put it through there." Abby squeezes herself into the corner by her new front door as two moving guys carry the parts of her new dining table into her new apartment. It's been a whirlwind since their heartfelt reunion in a parking lot: Riley had to gap it back to Baltimore, Abby decided to go with her, and the only time they've been apart since then was when Riley had to go to work. They'd had the all-consuming rush of serotonin from the start of a new relationship, and Abby hadn't tried to fight it. She was happy.

She'd had spent the five long, lonely days at Riley's house knee-deep in making all the arrangements that go with moving cities in the space of three hours, culminating in Abby's taking over Evie's lease as Evie and Fran are (finally, apparently) moving in together. Riley had offered for Abby to move in with her, but Abby's had her fill of moving too fast. She wants to enjoy every part of being with Riley, even just dating her. And hey, she's only a five-minute walk away now.

"Hey!" Riley yells. Abby steps to the railing and looks down. Her heart skips a beat at the sight of her. She's two floors below, carrying two boxes of beer and several shopping bags. She looks slightly windswept, intoxicating as always. Abby doesn't even know what's in the bags. Her everything is still in Pittsburgh; John's driving over with her stuff tomorrow. Riley starts up the stairs and the top box wobbles like it's about to overbalance and douse the stairwell in hipster craft beer.

"Oh my god," Abby calls. "I'm coming down." She casts a glance back at the movers, who are lowering the table into place in the living room and definitely don't need her help.

She stops in front of Riley and scoops the top box of beers from her, stealing a quick kiss. "What even is all this?" she asks.

"Just some essentials," Riley says.

"Hmm," Abby says as they make their way back up the stairs.

The movers are waiting for them. Abby thanks them and tips them, then she and Riley collapse on the floor in the living room. Abby puts her cheek on the beige carpet.

"What do you think of it?" Riley says, gesturing up at the ceiling.

Abby pushes herself up on her elbows, looks around at the new-to-her table, the wooden beams on the high ceilings, the light walls, the big window, her duffel bag by the door. Riley's hair spills out in a pool next to her.

"It's perfect."

 

Sunday morning, Fran, Evie, Taylor, and Cherie arrive, ostensibly to help her unpack. Evie ceremonially hands her a loaf of plaited bread and a small glass jar of salt. "Family tradition," she chirps, hair in a frizzy blonde halo around her head, hugging Abby then Riley.

"Thank you," Abby says. "Wow, that, uh, smells delicious." She awkwardly cradles the bread, trying to figure out where on the expanse of empty kitchen countertop it should go.

"Abby, your house looks like a real estate agent's wet dream. You need some mess in here," Fran declares, opening the bare kitchen cupboards and gesturing. "This is the cutlery drawer of a serial killer. Friends, we have to get her some kitchen stuff."

"Guys, you really don't have to-" Abby starts to protest as Fran begins rattling off a list of items that she thinks Abby will need.

Evie touches her arm from behind, making her jump. "Don't worry. I'll find you some stuff we've been trying to get rid of anyway, and maybe we can go to the thrift store for anything we can't find already in our houses."

Abby still wants to protest this – she doesn't want to put them all out, make them do things for her, but Cherie is making notes and telling her they'll see what they have at home, and Taylor whips out a measuring tape to measure the space under the cabinet.

While Riley unpacks a box of bed linen that she's brought over, the others contribute various items – "I have a spare set of plates," and "Oh, my mom has been planning to get rid of her reading lamp."

This epic coordination effort, overseen by Fran, who is impressively good at it, is interrupted by John. He calls Abby, and she and Riley go to help him bring her boxes upstairs.

"You don't even have a juicer," John says, perusing her kitchen.

"I-" Abby starts to protest. She doesn't need a juicer.

"She doesn't even have a juicer," Riley agrees seriously.

Abby snorts, resigned to this. "Oka-ay. Shall we make IKEA trip?"

John shakes his head. "Sweet, sweet Abigail. IKEA definitely doesn't sell juicers."

"Well, that's my knowledge of Baltimore shopping options exhausted." They both look at Riley expectantly.

"Don't look at me; I've never even turned my oven on, let alone bought another appliance."

John's overly expressive eyebrows furrow. "There has got to be somewhere within a five-mile radius that sells a juicer."

 

They end up driving eight miles thanks to Yelp's helpful suggestions. Abby leaves her apartment in the capable hands of Fran and the gang, who have promised to unpack and set up what they can.

"So, you're a juicer kind of gal, huh?" Riley says teasingly, leaning through the gap between the front seats while Abby hunts for a park. She's been driving Riley's car in preparation for getting her own, something she hadn't needed in Pittsburgh.

"Ah… A little bit, I guess," Abby says, shrugging. "I am quite fond of green juices."

"Abby loves my fancy kitchen appliances," he confides to Riley.

Abby grins at him in the mirror. "Seatbelts, everyone?"

"Abby, we're almost middle-aged," John snorts. "I think we can take care of our own seatbelts."

Abby puts up her hands in mock surrender and backs them into the parking space. 

 

"Holy fucking shit," Riley says. "Who knew there were so many different kinds of kitchen appliances?"

Abby steps up behind her, so the three of them are arranged like the fucking Charlie's Angels, staring at the mammoth wall of mixers, blenders, juicers, fryers, and pressure cookers.

"I guess it is called Appliance Mart," Abby says apprehensively.

"Mmm."  

"Okay." John steps in front of both of them. "Split up. Abby, aisle 2. Riley, aisle 4."

"Who died and made you the appliance master?" Riley grouses.

"I think you mean the appliance mart-yr," John deadpans. Riley shrugs, like you can't possibly argue with that, and heads off to aisle four.

Abby goes one to the left, finding herself in towering stacks of boxes, all depicting air fryers, toaster ovens, and pressure cookers. She exhales sharply and starts down the aisle. Nothing looks like a juicer. She gets to the end of the aisle and turns back to the others.

"Found it," John hollers. Abby jumps, then follows his voice.

"No kidding," she says when she gets to him. There are about seven different options.

"Should've done some research," Riley says, eyebrows raised.

"Nah," Abby says, more confidently than she feels. "Let's go for…" she scans the price tags, picks the second-cheapest one. "This one."

"Sure?" Both Riley and John look surprised at her decisiveness.

"Guys, it's a juicer, not a wedding ring."

"Yeah, and look how well that worked out last time," John says.

"Oof!" Abby mock punches at him, but laughs nonetheless.

"Oka-ay!" Riley says, plucking the juicer from Abby's arms. "Let's keep going. You still need a toaster and a microwave."

 

When they return to Abby's new apartment with a trunk full of kitchen appliances, Fran and Evie are also there, waiting with a couple of full boxes outside Abby's door.

"Hi guys," Abby says, unlocking the front door. All five of them relay the various boxes inside, dumping them around the living room.

Evie hustles them over to a mismatched pile of boxes. "Abby, take a look. We've rustled up most of what we thought you'd need."

Abby flips open a box and peers inside. There's a small selection of plates, bowls, knives, forks, and spoons – nothing excessive, but definitely enough for just her. "Thank you so much," Abby says. "Guys – I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this."

Evie grins. "You are so welcome. We're so happy that Riley's finally found someone and that that someone is actually pretty awesome, hmm?" She nudges Abby's shoulder, and Abby ducks her head, smiling.

She turns her attention back to the living room, where Riley has decided to try and construct the IKEA coffee table.

"Here, pass the- fucking-" Riley makes an obscene gesture and Fran and John burst out laughing. Riley huffs. "The Allen key," she settles on.

While Fran and John stand around chuckling, Evie goes over to the toolbox, flicks through, and hands it over to Riley, rolling her eyes at Abby. Riley finally tightens the legs on the coffee table and gestures for Evie to help her flip it over. They settle it in the middle of the living room.

Riley dusts off her hands. Fran whistles. "This place is starting to look like a real home."

 

Riley takes her friends away so that Abby and John can have dinner together, which John keeps referring to dramatically as the Last Supper. John utilizes her shower while Abby goes out and picks up dinner. She would've liked to have cooked for him one last time, but somehow, despite now having cutlery and kitchen utensils aplenty, she still doesn't have any actual food.

She pours them both glasses of wine, setting them carefully adjacent to the knives. She already has a feeling they're going to get tearful tonight. John emerges from the bathroom with freshly blow-dried hair, gets his phone, and taps around until something relaxing starts piping through the speakers.

"Thanks," Abby says. She slides the garlic bread onto a plate, puts both of their meals into pasta bowls, and brings them to the table.

They talk about nothing and everything, and after a glass and a half of wine, Abby starts haltingly telling him about being with Riley, about being happy. He smiles fondly and raises a toast to, "a crazy Christmas with Harper fucking Caldwell, without whom you would never have been this happy," and Abby supposes that that's true, but it feels wrong anyway, so she frowns and shakes her head.

"To John Davies, who is the best damn friend anyone could ask for." Shit, she gets so maudlin drunk on wine.

"Aw," he says, clinking his wine glass with hers and hiccupping as he takes a sip. "That's much better."

"Hmm," Abby agrees.

He looks authentically emotional for a minute, and then shakes himself out of it. "It's time for an Adele moment," he says. "Come on."

Abby sighs but reaches out for him, putting her hands on his shoulders. He taps around on his phone for a moment, then the first chords of When We Were Young ring through the room.

"Really?" she says, smiling. It's a little too on the nose.

He ignores her skepticism and puts a hand on her shoulder, dramatically mouthing the words to the song. Abby realizes after a second that he expects her to lead. Again, she sighs, but begins to push him around in the most basic step she remembers from her dance elective. John looks delighted. Abby finally smiles, then laughs, as John immediately fucks up the dance and steps on her foot.

When they get to the chorus, neither of them has the heart to stay silent. "Could I have a moment, before you go-o," they both sing. John is really alarmingly tone-deaf.

By the second verse, they're not so much dancing as hugging and shuffling their feet, Abby's face resting on his shoulder. "I'm gonna miss you so much," she mumbles.

"Abby," he says, then buries his face in her shoulder with a loud sniffing noise.

Abby hugs him tighter, then slowly maneuvers them towards the couch, where they both sit and stare away from each other. Abby tries to wipe her eyes subtly, like she's not crying, just a bit damp.

"I'll visit you," she says eventually, voice hollow.

"I know," he says. "I'll visit you too. I'll visit you so much you'll wish I would go back to Pittsburgh."

"Never," Abby says, blinking furiously again.

"God, we're so pathetic," John says, at the same time that Abby says, "Fuck, I would hate us." She makes a funny huffing noise, and the spell is broken.

"Wanna watch something?"

"Love Island?"

"Definitely."  

 

Everything moves really fast after the weekend of unpacking. John leaves on Monday afternoon after taking her and Riley bowling (Riley took an additional day off in anticipation of Abby needing a lot more help with unpacking than she actually did). Both Abby and John cry a bit, and Riley leans against the car and pretends to stare into the distance for a good ten minutes to give them privacy.

Abby starts at Johns Hopkins, and it's full-on and nerve-wracking but really, really incredible.

She quickly finds a new rhythm, sleeping over with Riley about half the time, arriving at work early because she has an insanely short commute now, coordinating dinners with Riley and her friends, as well as her work colleagues, who are a surprisingly collegial bunch.

It takes her until Friday to realize that she hasn't even talked to John all week. She texts him and he immediately flicks back, Nice of you to remember I exist.

Sorry, she texts back. How is Pittsburgh?

I can't believe I'm saying this but I miss your stupid face being on my couch every day.

Miss you too, Abby writes.

 

Abby stacks up the books on her desk and slides one into her satchel. She looks at the pile of marking she has to do, thinks about leaving it until tomorrow, and then sighs. Better get through at least a couple tonight. She takes half the stack and puts it into her satchel too.

Then she locks her office up, calls goodbye to Anoushka, her next-door-office neighbor, and picks up her phone to call Riley. On Thursdays they usually eat and sleep at Riley's place, but Riley was gone before Abby got up this morning, so she hasn't actually spoken to her all day.

"Hi, babe," she says as she hits the call button on the elevator.

"Hi," Riley says. There's background noise, chatter, and Abby frowns. Riley usually leaves work around the same time as her.

"What do you want for dinner?"

A beat of silence. "I. Um, I have something on tonight."

Abby blinks. The elevator dings and she steps inside, hitting floor 1 on autopilot. "Oh. Okay." They haven't spent an evening apart since she moved here, pretty much.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" Riley says before Abby has a chance to ask what mysterious activity she's doing.

"Um. Yeah, okay. See ya."

Well, that was beyond weird.

 

"Where were you last night?" Abby asks as she slides a container of Pad Thai across the counter. Riley pulls a couple of forks out of the dishwasher and hands one to Abby.

"I… um. I had a thing." She hops up on one of the counter stools, opening up both of their dinners.

"Mmm…?" Abby raises an eyebrow. Riley's oddly cagey. Abby wonders if it has something to do with her brother.

Riley exhales deeply, then puts her fork down on the counter with a clatter. "You know how sometimes, something should really come up earlier in the relationship, and then it's been a while, and it's weird, and you don't really know how to mention it?" she says all at once, a furrow between her brows. Abby's only seen her look this worried when she FaceTimed her from the car before they met at the Holiday Inn.

"Is this about you being adopted?" Abby says, trying to break the tension. "Because I worked that out a while ago."

"What-?" Riley laughs, furrow disappearing. "No. Although, yes, I am adopted. Okay, I, uh, commentate for a local roller derby club. The season just started up last week."

"What?" Whatever Abby had been expecting, that was not it.

"I, you know, announce stuff. Tell everyone what's happening. It's… I'm funny, I guess."

"No, I get it." Abby nods. "That's cool, just… unexpected."

"Yeah." Riley laughs, brushing her hair out of her eyes. "Sorry, I probably should've mentioned it before."

"It's cool," Abby says. "Can I come to a game?"

"Hell, yeah."

 

Riley agrees that she can come to the next game the following Thursday. Abby drives over to the roller rink with Evie, because Fran plays in the league too.

"Of course Fran does roller derby," Abby says.

"Yeah, since university. She's the one who got me into it too, but I was always scared of showing up at work with a black eye."

They enter within a throng of people, all of them pausing at a table to pay the $10 ticket fee. Evie buys a purple All-Stars badge and pins it on the lapel of Abby's blazer.

"Thanks," she says.

Evie greets a bunch of people that she obviously knows through the league – partners of other players, Abby assumes. She doesn't introduce Abby as Riley's girlfriend, thank god. Abby's had that conversation with two of Riley's acquaintances already, and it's quickly become apparent that Riley was a chronic bachelor before her.

The two of them find seats, next to a couple of people that Evie appears to know more than moderately well, as she starts chattering away to them immediately.

"Hey, all you shes, gays, and theys!" rings out across the arena. Abby grins at the sound of Riley's voice. She looks out across the rink to see her girlfriend, dressed in a fitted men's suit with dramatic eye make-up, holding a microphone and hollering into it. Abby swallows sharply. She is gorgeous.

She skates around the edge of the rink, microphone in hand, honestly practically making out with it, and Abby kind of wishes she wasn't there with Evie because damn is she unreasonably into seeing her girlfriend at her most competent. And the suit doesn't help either.

One of the teams is awarded a penalty, which apparently means they have to do a mini-game from the "Wheel of Misfortune." Riley slides over to it, smooth as butter, and pushes up her shirt-sleeves to spin. Abby's mouth goes dry. The muscles in Riley's forearm flex as she grabs an edge of the wheel and spins it dramatically.

Two women arm wrestle, then the bout continues, with one team establishing a clear lead. Riley is hilarious. Abby knew she could deadpan, but this is on another level – she's constantly keeping up with the game, punning left, right, and center, performing dramatic gestures as she commentates. She also knows her stuff, which is very impressive. Roller derby is way more complicated than Abby would've expected – not that she's ever given it thought before, to be fair.

"That was so hot!" Abby hollers at Riley in the car on the way home.

"You think?" Riley says, turning to look at her with her dramatic eye make-up and a saucy grin. Abby laughs.

"Fuck yeah," she says, slapping the steering wheel.

They have such noisy sex that Riley's neighbors leave a passive-aggressive note in her letterbox, which they laugh raucously about and pin on the fridge.

 

"I'm going to Pittsburgh next weekend," Abby says. They're out for a walk in the park on a rare, sunny Saturday afternoon.

"Okay," Riley says. "Visiting John?" That will be nice for Abby. Obviously, they miss each other, from their comments on each other's Instagram posts and the lengthy phone calls they have about once a week.

"No, it's, uh… the anniversary of my parents' death." Abby takes a deliberate lick from her ice cream, not looking up at Riley. "I'll see John too, though."

"Ah," Riley says, reaching over to thread her fingers through Abby's hand. "I see."

Abby chews on her lip, then looks up at Riley briefly. "They… died in a car crash."

Riley nods. She doesn't want to press her, but she gets the feeling that Abby wants to tell her, wants to confess her demons before they go much further, that maybe this was a conversation she'd never had with other people, and so she needs Riley to know now. "I see," she says again, rubbing her thumb over Abby's hand.

Abby nods once, sharply, looking away. "They died when I was nineteen, halfway through my first year of university. That's why John and I are so close – he was in my dorm, we spent a lot of time together."

Riley nods again. She had wondered about the intense friendship between them – it seemed more like a sibling relationship than anything else, and this explains it. Abby sighs. Riley reaches over and hugs her gently.

Abby rests her head on Riley's shoulder and strokes a hand down her back, keeping pace with her. Her hand finds its place on Riley's waist.

They keep walking in silence, Abby's arm around Riley's waist, perfectly in step with each other.

 

Thanksgiving comes around more quickly than either of them anticipate – they're distracted with busy work schedules, derby, and generally spending all their free time together.

Riley, unfortunately, has to work the whole week of Thanksgiving bar Thursday, so instead of visiting her parents, they come to Baltimore.

They're watching Jennifer's Body on the couch before bed on Sunday when Riley asks, "Do you want to come over for Thanksgiving? I mean, I totally understand if you don't want to hang out with my parents or whatever, but… you know. I'd like to have you here."

Abby crinkles her eyebrows and says, "No, of course I want to. But your parents… they know about us? They'll be okay with me being there?" Mr. and Mrs. Bennett were nothing but polite to her at Christmas. Still, she doesn't want to impinge on their family Thanksgiving, and she especially doesn't want to have to pretend to be just friends with Riley.

Riley nudges her with her foot. "Of course they know about you. They even asked if you'd be here. My Mom has honestly been asking about you since Christmas – I think she's relieved I'm not going to be alone forever."

Abby nods, relaxing against her side, letting Riley's arm rest around her shoulders. "Okay. Yeah, I'll come. Do you want me to make something?"

"Whatever you like," Riley says. "I'm going to make empanadas – well, try to. Mom will take over the turkey even if I try to do it."

Abby laughs. "Your mom is serious about the holidays, huh?"

"Oh, for sure," Riley says, running her fingers through Abby's hair. Abby shivers with pleasure at her touch, leaning into it.

"My roots are getting way too long," Abby says, reaching up to touch her own hair.

"They are kind of long," Riley agrees. "Do you want me to ask the gang for a salon recommendation? Fuck knows I have no idea where will do a good dye job."

Abby laughs and shakes her head. "Nah, I do it myself. Thanks, though."

"No kidding," Riley says.

 

Abby pops to the store on her way home from work on Tuesday evening. She gathers the ingredients for a sweet potato casserole, her assigned dish, after a quick text back-and-forth with Mrs. Bennett. She also picks up some bleach and developer for her hair. Riley has agreed to assist her, with the caveat that she's "only ever watched other people bleach hair."

Abby's an old hand at this – one of the few precious things she owns is her bleaching kit: an old t-shirt, protective gloves, a measuring bowl and scales, and a couple of brushes.

Riley heats them up some leftovers while Abby prepares, putting everything in the bathroom away, measuring out the correct amount of powder.

They wolf down their dinner because Abby is keen to get to the bleaching part of the evening. Riley peppers her with questions about the process of bleaching. She seems to know way more about the science of it than Abby, and when Abby questions it, she explains that she was a Chemistry major in her undergrad. Abby thinks about the methodical way she helps Abby cook – no sense of improvisation – and her horror when she saw Abby pour laundry liquid without measuring it. "Makes sense."

After dinner, Abby separates her hair out into sections, tying each one up, leaving the back down. She puts Vaseline all around her hairline, and when Riley joins her in the bathroom, she risks a kiss to her forehead, grimacing at the feeling.

"That's a lot more… uh. Slug-like than I expected."

Abby can't contain her laughter at that statement, or the scrunched look on Riley's face.

She sits down on the closed toilet and starts working the thick paste into her roots with a brush, being careful to coat each strand. It's kind of hard to see at the back, even with the mirror, and eventually, Riley reaches over and takes the brush off her.

"Let me," she says.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, of course," Riley says. She works the brush over a section of Abby's hair and then moves onto the next, gentle with Abby's scalp.

"Make sure you get all of the dark bits, and not on the already-blonde parts," Abby says, a little anxious at the prospect of not doing it herself for the first time in more than a decade.

"I'm being careful," Riley reassures her.

"Okay," Abby sighs. "I trust you."

Riley is cautious, gently stroking the bleach into her hair. Abby supposes that her steady hands are due to her medical training, but it's very soothing all the same.

"I can do the front, it's much easier," Abby says once Riley finishes the back.

"Are you sure? I'm enjoying this," Riley says gently, working one of the hair-ties out of the front part. "Stay still," she chides Abby as Abby looks up at her for reassurance.

"Thank you," Abby says, returning her gaze to her lap.

They wait for fifteen minutes after Riley finishes, doing a cryptic crossword together in the bathroom, and then Abby showers and washes the bleach out.

"It looks different to the tips," Riley notes when she gets out of the shower.

"I'll have to put some toner in it tomorrow," Abby says. "But this is good for now. Thank you so much."

"Anytime."

 

They're relaxing in the living room at Riley's on Sunday morning, Abby with a stack of grading; Riley with a cryptic crossword. Riley's mom calls just as she's about to crack the second-to-last clue, and Riley groans and excuses herself to go upstairs to talk with her mom on the phone.

"You are planning to come home for Christmas?" she asks, like she does every Christmas, and Riley says, yes, of course, like she does every Christmas.

"What about Abby?" her mom asks.

"What about Abby?"

"Will you be bringing her home for Christmas?" Riley's mom asks like she's perhaps lost all cognitive powers. She's been bugging her about Abby with renewed intensity since Thanksgiving, including asking with zero subtlety what Riley's 'intentions' are, and referring to Abby increasingly as a 'very sweet girl, ready for some commitment, hmm?' and once, only once, as, 'my future daughter-in-law.'

"Oh. Uh." They haven't actually talked about this at all; it cuts a bit close to the awkwardness of last Christmas. "I'm not sure. I'll ask her."

"You'll have to figure out what to do about the White Elephant if you do bring her," her mom warns.

"Yeah, I know." Riley sighs. "Are Patricia and John coming to us this year?"

"That's right." Riley can hear the forced jolliness in her voice.

"That'll be fun, ol' Pat and Johnnie."

"Riley," her mom says warningly, then, "I'm going to make such a delicious ham that she will never even dream of trying to put it in a potato salad."

Riley snorts. Her mom can hold a food-related grudge like no one else. "Okay. Talk later, mom."

"Love you, sweetheart! Say hi to Abby for me."

"Love you too. Say hi to Dad for me."

Riley goes back downstairs, where Abby is grading papers on the couch.

"These students really need to learn the meaning of socialist realism," she says with a sigh.

"Ah," Riley says, raising an eyebrow. "My mom wants to know if you want to come home for Christmas."

Abby drops her pen.

That's not a positive response. Riley chews her lip.

"Uh," she says. "I mean, I'll have grading to do…"

Riley can tell a dismissal when she hears one. "Okay. No pressure…" She exhales softly. "But the offer's open if you change your mind. We can even skip the White Elephant and go down to the Oxwood." She doesn't want to sound too needy, but she does want Abby to know that she wants to spend Christmas with her.

She wants to… decorate the tree with her, and make cookies, and do all the stupid Christmassy shit she's avoided for the better half of her life. She wants to wake up with her, ideally not after a long cry about Harper fucking Caldwell. But after last year, she understands Abby's Christmas-related reticence.

"Thanks," Abby says. "Come here." Riley obliges, leaning over the stack of papers on the couch. Abby grabs her neck and pulls her in for a kiss.

 

"Come on, come on, come on, we're gonna be late!" Abby says.

Riley groans. "I know, I know, I'm sorry!" She's still only half-dressed, and they're meant to be meeting the gang at a karaoke bar… five minutes ago. She'd had to stay late at work today. Bad timing.

They get roundly mocked for their tardiness when they arrive. It's Fran's birthday, and she has mandated that everyone has to sing at least one song.

This poses no difficulties for Riley, who throws back three shots as proffered by the gang, and follows Evie to the stage. Evie's clearly already queued something up because she just hands Riley a microphone.

There's a second of hesitation before the song launches into the guitar riff. Abby laughs out loud – Mr. Brightside is a bold choice – but both Riley and Evie are getting really into it. Fran laughs too, clapping them on.

Evie throws an arm around Riley, and Riley brings the microphone close to her lips, close enough to kiss it, and sings, off-key and off-time, into the chorus: "She's touching his chest…" She waves at Abby enthusiastically, and Abby laughs and waves back. Evie and Riley toss their heads back and forth in time, hair whipping around dramatically.

Evie disentangles the pair of them and backs away a few steps, pointing at Riley as she hollers, "Jealo-ousy, turning saints into the sea," shoulders shimmying, "swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis," spreading her arms wide and hollering into the microphone, grinning, eyes closed, lost in whatever's going on in her head.

Abby's in love with her.

When she returns from the stage, Abby jumps up, wraps her arms around her, and shouts, "I love you, Riley Johnson!" in her ear. Riley laughs and caves to her gesture, squeezing her close, kissing her ear a bit sloppily.

Fran gets up and does a rendition of Baby Got Back, demonstrating a surprisingly good knowledge of the entire song. Riley encircles Abby in her arms, grinning next to her ear.

The others, one by one, choose songs straight off a playlist called Songs that get white people turnt, eventually leaving only Abby. "Abby, Abby, Ab-by!" Fran starts up a chant until she caves. Riley raises an eyebrow, offering to go with her, but Abby shakes her head. She's a few drinks down, liquid courage, and she can do this by herself. She's with her friends, and she's with Riley, and Riley will probably video this and send it to John, and everything's good. She feels her heart overflowing with exactly how perfect her circle has become.

She knows she risks mocking for her choice, but it's what she wants, a classic school disco song, the song that everyone knows when it comes on a playlist. She picks Heaven is a Place on Earth, even though it's early and a bit stupid.

"Woo!" Evie cheers her on with a holler as the opening chords play. She inhales deeply, brings the microphone to her mouth, and sings. "Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Oooh, heaven is a place on earth!" She punctuates it with a bumping nod and a fist pump, trying to forget how ridiculous she looks and instead remember how sing-alongs are Riley's love language.

She opens her eyes and catches her girlfriend's eye. She's grinning, raising her glass to Abby.

The rising chords catch her somewhere in her chest and even though she tries not to be moved by this song that definitely belongs on a meme playlist, she can't help it. Looking over at Riley, she calls out, "Baby, I was afraid before; I'm not afraid anymore!"

After the song finishes, she trips down the stairs, joins Riley and her friends, and drinks.

Slowly, they wrap up the night, finishing drinks, toasting to Fran's birthday. Riley calls them an Uber, and as they wait near the door for it to arrive, Abby slings her arm around Riley's waist.

"I'll come home with you for Christmas," she says. It slips out, almost, a thought that's been floating around on the tip of her tongue since earlier this evening.

Riley stiffens. "Really?" she asks.

Abby nods against her shoulder. "Yes. Really."

"Okay," Riley agrees softly. "I'd really like that." 

 

"Have you got everything?" Riley calls.

"Yes!" Abby calls back. "Wait, let me double-check your parents' gifts are in there."

She flicks through her backpack one last time. The presents are present and accounted for: fancy chocolates for both Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, some silly Christmas-themed photo accessories and black-and-white Polaroid film for Mr. Bennett, and a nice coffee-table book about Renaissance art for Mrs. Bennett. Riley has a bag of matching Santa hats for the four of them – she'd reassured Abby that her dad loved a good Christmas gimmick when Abby had expressed doubt.

Abby closes the trunk and goes around to the passenger seat. "We're good," she tells Riley.

"Okay, great!" Riley grins and starts the car. "Now, prepare yourself. I've made the best road-trip playlist ever."

Chapter Text

The Bennetts descend on them as soon as they pull the car in the drive.

Riley hugs and kisses her mom as her dad hefts both of their suitcases out of the trunk and heads inside with a cheerful, "Hello, girls!"

After letting go of Riley, Mrs. Bennett turns around and envelops Abby too, hugging her close. Abby was prepared for a deluge of parental affection, after Thanksgiving – she now knows both of Riley's parents are big huggers – but she still gets a little choked up when Mrs. Bennett squeezes her gently and says, "So nice to see you again, dear."

"Thank you so much for inviting me," Abby says, as Riley grabs her own handbag and Abby's backpack. She means it, too – after Christmas last year, when she'd essentially stole their daughter away, she had her doubts about whether they'd want her back.

"Anytime," Mrs. Bennett reassures her. "Now, let's get you girls settled in… we have so much to do, and so little time!" Abby and Riley trail her into the house, Abby remembering to grab the bag of presents. "Freshen up, and then it's time to decorate the tree! I've been saving it for you," she adds.

"Saving it" apparently means that Mrs. Bennett restrained herself and decorated it with "just the basics, dear!" "The basics" are fairy lights and tinsel packed so tightly Abby can barely see the tree itself. Riley and Abby are supposed to add the ornaments, a motley assortment of school children's salt-dough ornaments, fancy filigree, and fine-blown glass pieces.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett unpack the ornaments carefully on the rug, hands touching every so often. Their living room feels like a home: the fireplace burns with a gentle glow, photos litter the walls, and gentle orchestral music plays in the background.

Riley places each ornament with careful consideration, stepping up and down from the stepladder to judge where best to put a crystal sleigh, a felt Santa, a blown-glass bauble. Abby watches in awe of her exactitude, the serious way she holds them up against the tree. She's so beautiful, cheeks slightly flushed from the fire, head tilted just so.

Abby thinks she could watch her forever.

By the time they're done, the tree is absolutely groaning with decorations. Riley says, "Wait a second," and runs upstairs, returning with a small box. She calls her parents in for a ceremonious unboxing.

"It's a tradition," she explains to Abby, smiling wide. "New ornament each year."

Abby nods sagely. This year Riley has a small wooden bauble with overlapping curlicues engraved around it. All three of them ooh and aah over it before Riley decisively places it on the tree, right in the middle.

"Perfect," Mrs. Bennett declares. "Here, I made one too."

She produces a small elf figure, handing it to Abby to feel. It's soft, made of felted wool. "Wow, you made this?" Abby says, handing it back.

"Yes!" Mrs. Bennett says. "But you do the honors, Abby," Mrs. Bennett says. "You're part of the family now."

Abby chokes for a second, then nods, stepping forward to pick an appropriate spot. She's surprised to find her eyes blurring a little with unshed tears. She takes a deep breath to stave them off and hangs the ornament in a tiny opening of green leaves, stepping back to admire her handiwork.

Riley and her parents stand in a semi-circle, heads all tilted to the right to best judge the tree's composition. Abby suppresses a smile at the sight of the three of them, lined up with the same expression.

"Perfect," Mrs. Bennett says again, bestowing a glowing smile upon Abby.

 

The next day, Christmas Eve, they are willingly roped into helping Mrs. Bennett prep some dishes for tomorrow. She coordinates them as they stack the fridge high with chopped potatoes, whipped herb butter, pumpkin wedges marinading in olive oil and garlic… The works. More than the works. Abby's parents were extra on Christmas, but not like… Martha Stewart extra.

Still, she doesn't hate it – it's nice to get to know Riley's parents better, for longer than a Thanksgiving dinner, and it's a vast improvement on last year. And indeed, many of the years before that, dating back ten years.

She's happy, peeling a mound of potatoes, when a Christmas carol that her parents used to listen to on repeat starts playing. Her hands stutter for a second, a pit opening up in her stomach. She swallows, surprised to realize that being here, with Riley's family, helps. She doesn't have to dwell on her parents' absence. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are no replacement, but it's nice to be part of a family again, even if it's not her own. Yet.

Riley notices her pause and raises an eyebrow, checking if she's okay, and Abby smiles and nods and returns her attention to the potato in her hands.

Sometime over the course of the day, before making the desserts that will keep until tomorrow but after peeling a vast number of carrots and potatoes, while joking and chopping and laughing and singing along to Christmas music on the radio, Abby transitions from thinking of Riley's mom as "Mrs. Bennett" to thinking of her as "Maria."

Maria, of course, notices this immediately. She puts a gentle hand on Abby's shoulder the first time she calls her "Maria" unprompted. "Excellent. Now you have to work on thinking of me as 'Mom'!"

"Mom!" Riley immediately protests.

Abby just laughs, ducks her head, not entirely sure how to respond.

 

Come the evening, Riley's parents head out for the Caldwell's White Elephant party. Riley and Abby had discussed whether they should attend – Riley's parents had received two invitations, one saying, "Maria & Marcus Bennett are cordially invited to the annual White Elephant Party at the Caldwell residence" and the other for, "Riley Johnson & partner," which all four of them take to mean that the small-town grapevine has done its work: i.e., everyone (and by extension, Tipper Caldwell) knows that Riley is dating Harper's ex.

Although Abby offers to go, for the sake of the Bennetts, all of them pick up that she's uncomfortable, and the second she expresses a slight ambivalence about attending, they declare that she and Riley should stay home.

"I'll tell them you have a terrible stomach bug," Maria says delightedly. "Maybe they'll stay away from us too."

Abby snorts.

So, instead of braving the Caldwells' holiday festivities, the pair of them pick up some takeout to eat while watching the designated holiday film (Home Alone) on the TV. After they eat, Riley chucks the takeout containers and picks up the list Maria left for them: instructions to set up the dining table ready for Christmas tomorrow.

"Okay, if you go upstairs, third door on the left, you'll see a closet. There should be some table decorations, wreaths, centerpieces, that kind of thing. Can you find… three, maybe? And bring them down? I'll sort out the nice silverware."

Abby goes upstairs obligingly, counting the doors on the left side of the hall until she gets to the third one.

Upon opening the door, a deluge of small items spill over her and onto the ground. She jumps backward, staring them down.

It's needle-felted hell. There's everything from llamas to Lego figurines, not to mention the Christmas decorations. Abby represses a snort as she picks up a few Santa ornaments. They're impressively well-made, impeccable attention to detail, but they are still essentially Santa-shaped teddy bears. She scans the rest of the cupboard and concludes that the requested table decorations are probably the painstakingly ornamented wreaths, each one a confection of felted flowers, leaves, and berries.

She puts these aside and takes the time to slot the spilled toys back into the cupboard.

"I got buried up there," Abby tells her when she gets back downstairs.

"Oh yeah, my mom is obsessed with it. Took it up in July, hasn't looked back. What possessed her to take up a wool-based craft in high summer will never make sense to me."

Abby just shrugs, arranging the three wreaths equidistantly on the table.

"Good enough," Riley says affirmatively. "Now we just need some candles…" She pulls open a drawer in the crystal cabinet and adds two candleholders to the tableau.

Abby takes a step back to admire. It's not exactly her style, but she can't deny that it looks spectacular. The silverware glints under the overhead light as Riley wedges some new candles into the candleholders. Everything is going to look festive when they turn off the electric light and light the candles. Even the wreaths look wonderful from a few steps back: the different colours melt into each other, making the larger-than-life berries pop just right against the green wool.

"I'm just going to check we've gotten everything on Mom's list," Riley says, running a finger along the side of the note. While Riley mouths "wreaths" and "dessert forks" and other WASP-type accoutrements to herself, Abby takes the opportunity to more closely inspect some of Riley's childhood photos.

She identifies one in particular, the wedding photo featuring Riley as the flower girl at their wedding and the kid she assumes in Leo in a mini tux. She wants to know about him, where he fit into this family. How well Riley knew him.

 

Riley watches Abby scanning the row of photos, measuring the pair of them against one another. There are family holiday photos, every year since Riley was two through to her sophomore year. She waits until Abby gets to her high school graduation, no Leo in sight, and Abby exhales slightly. She can tell that Abby wants to ask what happened, but doesn't want to pry. It's time to tell her, Riley thinks. Rip the Bandaid off. She inhales deeply. "He died when I was in high school. He was a competitive swimmer – we both were – and he and his swimming buddies went out to a lakehouse the summer after he graduated, got drunk, and drowned. I was a sophomore."

"Shit," Abby says. "Riley, I'm so sorry." Her eyes track across the family photos, obviously cataloging the timeline.

"It was a long time ago," Riley says, the same line she's heard Abby use about her parents multiple times.

Abby offers her a gentle smile, squeezing her hand. "You were adopted?" she asks, moving the conversation on. There is a notable dearth of photos of Riley or Leo before the ages of two and five, respectively.

Riley snakes an arm around her waist, leaning her head against Abby's shoulder. "Yeah. I mean, my dad is actually my biological father's cousin or something. CPS sent us to them after our biological parents died. I was only two; I don't remember any of it. Leo never talked about them. We were lucky, I guess."

"Of course," Abby says. "Your parents are lovely."

"Yeah," Riley agrees. Her parents are pretty great, especially given the nastiness that went on in some of the WASP households in this town. They were a little… stunned by her coming out, but they didn't kick her out, and they didn't make her go to church, so she counts that as a win for the late '90s. She still wishes she had known more about Puerto Rico and her family there growing up, but her parents did their best with what they had.

"Shall we finish Home Alone?" Abby asks. Riley suspects that she can sense that Riley wants to move on from talking about her childhood.

"Definitely," Riley says. "How else can we know if Kevin will take out the burglars?" 

 

Riley wakes up tangled in Abby's arms. Abby's still asleep, snoring a little, mouth open. Riley grins delightedly and presses a kiss to her forehead. Abby snuffles and groans. "'s too early," she says sleepily.

"Noooo," Riley says. "Merry Christmas."

"You hate the holidays," Abby says, pulling a pillow over her head.

"Not this year," Riley whispers to the pillow. "Not with you."

"Hnnngh," Abby says. Riley rolls her eyes and wriggles her face underneath the pillow to kiss Abby's temple. Abby lets out a small, happy sigh.

Riley tucks her arm under her head, staring out the window. She hadn't quite closed the curtains properly last night and she can see a perfect mound of snow settled on the windowsill like a pillow. A white Christmas! If this doesn't get Abby in a festive mood, Riley doesn't know what will. It's even putting Riley, a chronic grinch, in a decidedly Christmassy mood.

Although… that might have more to do with the anticipation she feels about the ring, and associated proposal.  

No, she's not going to propose to Abby right now – they've only been properly dating for a few months, and she doesn't want to bring up any proposal-related trauma from last year, but yesterday, while Abby was showering, she retrieved her grandmother's wedding ring (with her dad's permission) and put it in her luggage, in preparation for getting it professionally cleaned and fitted back in Baltimore.

She's going to marry this woman.

She kisses Abby's shoulder one more time, then gets out of bed. She showers and dons slacks and a festive, deep red blazer, then picks up the bag with the presents in it and takes it downstairs.

"Morning, honey," her dad says. "Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," she says, grinning. "Merry Christmas, Mom." Her mom is wearing a creamy blouse and a large red necklace with black slacks, mostly obscured by her staple blue apron. Her outfit is understated, but Christmassy. Her mom always likes to try and out-class Patricia at Christmas, and this year is no exception.

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart!" she says, brushing her hands off and hugging Riley.

Riley deposits the contents of her Santa sack under the tree, then returns to the kitchen in search of coffee. She makes herself a double-shot, then does the same for Abby. This nets barely a disapproving sigh from her mom, who is thoroughly engrossed in arguing with her dad about the menu for today – something about not needing ham and turkey for six people.

Riley's on her dad's side, really. Just a turkey will be plenty. 

She takes the coffees back upstairs, bumps open her bedroom door with a hip.

"Rise and shine for real, sleepyhead," she says. "I made you a coffee, and there are presents downstairs."

Abby yawns, then sits up, hair completely mussed. She softens at the sight of Riley holding two mugs. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Abby Holland," Riley says fondly.

 

Patricia and John arrive early at 11 am, just in time for everything to go wrong in the kitchen.

Riley's mom looks like she's going to scream into a pillow when she puts the meat thermometer into the turkey, and it comes out cold. Riley winks at Abby over her mom's shoulder and gestures for her to head out to the living room. She can handle it in here. She's not as emotionally invested in Christmas as her mom.

Abby just nods and exits the kitchen gracefully.

"Mom," Riley says. "It's fine. Put some tin foil on it, turn the oven up. I'm going to go and head off Patricia for five minutes."

Her mom groans but nods and turns to find some foil. Riley smiles in what she hopes is a soothing manner and pats her mom on the arm before heading out to the living room.

"Hi, Patricia," Riley says, accepting the hug that her aunt offers. "Hi, John." He just shakes her hand.

"This is my girlfriend, Abby," Riley says. Abby reaches out to shake hands too.

"Lovely to meet you," Abby says.

"Nice to meet you too," Patricia says. She has a slight furrow in her brow, which Riley attributes to her mild homophobia, but there's no further comment, so she lets it slide. Abby tenses up a little, obviously picking up on the subtle slight, but she also shakes it off.

"How have you been? How is tennis going?" Riley has pre-prepared a list of relatively safe conversation topics to carry them through today, and she immediately deploys one of them in the hopes of keeping Patricia and John out here for a good ten minutes. Patricia starts to relate an involved story about unfairly losing a tennis match; Riley interjects with shocked exclamations at all the right moments. Abby stands just next to Riley, not touching her, but with an obvious current of tension running through her.

They haven't had the talk about whether to behave like a couple in front of Patricia and John, but Riley closes the distance between them and puts her arm around Abby's shoulders. Abby relaxes immediately, smiling up at her.

Her dad comes in, shakes both Patricia's and John's hands and keeps the conversation going by asking John about his job.

Abby touches Riley gently on the arm and says, "I'm going to see if your mom needs help."

"Your funeral," Riley mutters. Abby just grins in response.

 

Patricia drops a bombshell at lunch.

"Have you found a nice boy yet?" she asks as she puts more green beans onto her plate.

"A… what?" Riley says, genuinely non-plussed for a moment.

"A husband," Patricia elaborates.

Abby's eyebrows rise, across the table from Riley. Riley raises a matching one, not sure what's been miscommunicated here.

"Um. Abby and I are… together," Riley says slowly. "Like, as a couple."

"What?" Patricia drops her fork. "But… you're not a lesbian!"

Abby is frozen. Riley is just plain surprised. She racks her brains through their conversation today and in previous years. How could Patricia possibly think she was interested in men?  

She shakes her head, dismissing the question. "I… Yeah, I am a lesbian," she says patiently. "I've always been a lesbian." She is beyond confused about how they got here. She definitely introduced Abby as her girlfriend; she thought Patricia had known she dated women for years. Since high school. Just to reiterate the point, she adds: "Abby's my partner."

"Oh…" Patricia puts down her fork, brow creased in the middle.

Riley holds her breath. "Well, welcome to the family, Abigail," Patricia says.

Abby coughs in surprise, then manages a swift "Thank you."

Riley's mom's eyebrows have shot so high they look like a cartoon character's, but Riley manages a neutral expression. She's surprised by Patricia's openness, given her historic reticence towards Riley's life choices (both sexuality-wise and career-wise), but… she supposes this shows that people really can change, after all.

Bon appétit.

 

Apparently, post-dinner charades are a Bennett Christmas tradition, so they congregate in the living room after an informal dinner of leftovers. Patricia and John headed off around 3 pm, after they'd all exchanged gifts and played a couple short games of cards, in which Riley beat them all handily.

"Charades," Riley says. She pulls a legit felted wool Santa stocking from the mantelpiece, probably another of Maria's creations, and shakes it gently. "We'll be a team, obviously," Riley says, gesturing at Abby. Abby breathes a silent sigh of relief.

"We're gonna kick your asses!" Marcus jokes.

"I'd like to see you try!" Riley retorts, grinning. She fishes around in the stocking and pulls out a slip of paper. She grins, turning to stand in front of the Christmas tree. She looks at Abby. Abby takes a seat on the sofa and sits up attentively, gesturing for her to go on.

Riley frowns for a second, thinking, then winds her hand in the gesture for movie. She pauses expectantly.

"Movie," Abby tells her obediently.

Riley nods, grinning, then holds up five fingers. "Five words?" Abby suggests.

Riley nods again. She holds up one finger, then draws a question mark in the air.

"Question?" Abby guesses. Riley shakes her head, then makes the same gesture. "A question…" Abby says more to herself than Riley. "Oh! A question word. Where. Who. What." These are punctuated by shakes. "Uh… How?"

Riley nods and holds up three fingers, making an exaggerated frown gesture.

"Sad?" Abby guesses. Nope. "Depressed?" Another shake. "Uh…" She runs a hand through her hair on autopilot. "Forlorn?" Riley rolls her eyes at that, putting her hands on her hips and scrunching her brows together to make an angry face.

"I have literally no idea," Abby says, raising her hands in an I give up gesture. Riley shrugs like she expected that and holds up four fingers.

Abby nods. Riley waggles her hand aggressively and then picks up a discarded box from the morning's gifts. She tucks it inside her dressing gown with a sneaky head twist.

"Thief?" Abby guesses. Riley stops, and gestures go on. "Uh… theft. Burglar. The Hamburglar?" Riley puts her hands on her hips and glares at Abby in mock-reproach. "No. Um. Stealing." Riley holds up a hand, indicating that she's warm, and gestures, go on. "Steal. Steal. Steal. Um… Stole?"

Riley nods enthusiastically. Five fingers. Fifth word. She turns around and gestures up and down at the Christmas tree. "Tree?" Riley frowns, knocking one of the Santa ornaments. "Santa?"

Riley's parents are both giggling.

"Christmas?" Abby guesses. Riley nods. "How… sad… stole Christmas?" she says more to herself than her audience. "Oh! How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

"Yes!" Riley grins and flops down on the couch next to Abby.

"My turn," Marcus tells them, digging around in the Santa sock. "Aha!"

He holds a hand up as a microphone. "Song," Maria says. He nods. Holds up both hands, seven fingers total. Maria pauses for a second. "All I Want for Christmas is You!"

"Too good," he laughs. "We're just too good."

Riley rolls her eyes. "Come on, you guys wrote these!" she protests.

"I think you'll find it's actually our psychic connection," Maria says. Abby allows herself a grin, looking down at her lap. "Alright, Abby. You're up." She holds out the stocking.

Abby pulls out a slip of paper, leaning away from Riley to read it.

Oh, god. Yeah, this is gonna be embarrassing. She sighs and stands up, shuffling over to the Christmas tree. She gestures song, then holds up one finger. "One word, song," Riley tells her.

Abby nods, then sucks in a breath through her nostrils. She puts one arm out straight in front of her, then the other. Flips them both, one at a time. She can see Riley fighting down laughter in the corner of her eye, and she blushes. Crosses her arms one at a time.

She can't believe she's doing the Macarena in slow motion for a game of charades. In front of Riley's parents.

When she puts her hands on her head, Riley loses it and starts laughing.

Abby mock-frowns in her direction, but Riley still doesn't say anything. "Keep going," she encourages.

Abby restrains a grin as she slowly gyrates her hips and Riley finally gives in. "Sorry, sorry," she gasps. "Macarena. It's Macarena."

"Thank you," Abby says, lowering her hands with affronted dignity.

"That was incredible," Riley tells her, still laughing. Abby sits back down. She glances over at Riley's parents, who are giggling and thumbs-up-ing at Abby. She grins back. 

The game continues until Riley's mom is stumped by the movie Frozen. Eventually, Marcus gives in and tells her, and she calls an end to the game genially. "Good night, girls," she says.

"Night, Mom."

"Goodnight, Maria. Goodnight, Marcus," Abby says. They head up to Riley's bedroom.  

Although it's relatively early – just gone 9 pm – they get into bed almost immediately. Abby holds out an arm and Riley snuggles into her, putting a hand on her stomach.

"Was that okay? Did you have fun?" she asks, tracing an overlapping series of circles on the skin of Abby's stomach.

"Riley, that was great. Your parents are lovely. Even your aunt and uncle were nice. Sweet, even. I was expecting them to be way worse after the way you and your mom talked about them." Abby strokes her hand over Riley's hair and Riley leans into her like a cat.

"Oh, yeah. They're fine, just uptight sometimes." Riley shrugs.

"But, really, it was a great Christmas. I hope your parents really did like their gifts."

"I'm sure they did," Riley confirms, then yawns, reaching up to cover her mouth. "Wow, I'm tired."

"You woke up ridiculously early, so," Abby says.

Riley snuggles her head into Abby's shoulder. "Yeah. I'm still on my sleep schedule for work. Early mornings, early nights…"

Abby hums in agreement, rubbing her thumb over Riley's shoulder in a soothing gesture, and Riley yawns again. She closes her eyes as she drops her head onto Abby's chest, then lets out a gentle snore.

Abby suppresses a laugh. Riley really can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. She wriggles her other arm out from under the duvet to get her phone from the bedside table. She unlocks it to find a picture from John and his mom, both sporting silly reindeer ears and thumbs-up-ing the camera.

Merry Christmas, she texts back. Say hi to your mom for me.

Shan't, he responds. She's still miffed that you never came back after the birthing tape.

She texts back an awkwardly-positioned selfie of Riley asleep on her.

She's almost asleep herself when she gets his reply: 🤶 🤶 .

 

Riley is starting to realise that her family has a lot of Christmas traditions. She'd never really thought about it, but bringing Abby into their Christmas this year has really demonstrated how a lot of things she'd taken for granted, like charades, and tree ornaments, and Christmas lunches, are all part of a big, elaborate Christmas experience in the Bennett household, and that that's… maybe not so normal for other people.

On the topic of Christmas traditions, there is one final tradition that Riley is ready to initiate Abby into: It's a Wonderful Life. They go every single year on the 26th, and inevitably run into many of her parents' acquaintances. This year is no different; Riley has to do a lot of "Yes-I'm-still-at-Johns-Hopkins" and "This is my partner, Abby" and "No, I'm not that kind of doctor." Abby shakes hands and smiles and nods politely at everyone. Riley squeezes her hand every time someone else moves on. For what it's worth, Abby seems to be coping fine.

Riley's dad gets them a giant bucket of popcorn, and soda for everyone, balanced in a four-cup holder. They file into the theatre just before the lights go down, her dad ushering her mom ahead of him. Abby and Riley sit down in their seats as the opening screen starts playing.

Riley hands Abby her soda, and Abby smiles at her, then turns her attention to the screen. Riley's gaze sticks to Abby a little longer, tracing the contours of her cheek and nose as the lights flicker over her face, the shadow of her eyelashes on her cheek. She feels her heart swell as she tucks her hands into her pocket and rubs her thumb over the small ring box taking up real estate in there.

Patience.