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who am I that I should get to hold you?

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The thing is, Abby loves Harper. She does. She really fucking does. Harper is one of the best people she’s ever met - fun, sweet, with eyes that glimmer the second before she laughs. She feels like home, or she did, at one point she was the closest thing Abby had felt to home in years. That’s why she leaves. In following months Abby will agonize over this choice, reimagining the scenario until she can’t recall what really happened, trying to decide if she should have stayed. But she leaves. She loves Harper. So she leaves.

John drives her home on what might be the worst Christmas Eve of her life, listening as she blubbers something about life’s just too short, you know?? And she looked so scared. God, I just, I can’t be the one to do this with her, did you see her face?? I’ve never seen anyone look like that. She’ll always remember that evening, that party, the supposed love of her life looking like she wanted to shrivel up and die on the living room carpet. When Abby met Harper she’d been enthralled by her energy, her spark, the way she made Abby feel like the most important person in the world. Harper holds her head high, makes eye contact after a firm handshake the way only a favorite daughter can. Abby didn’t know she could be that small. Abby didn’t know a lot of things about her, actually.

So yeah.

She’ll remember Harper’s contorted face, her eyes searching for any way out, the sinking feeling in her chest after Harper’s retaliations to Sloane’s barbs (and like??? who even does that????? Abby accepts that people suck sometimes, but how bad of a person do you have to be to out your sister????). She’ll remember the sting of the New England cold against her skin as the door closed behind her, everyone inside still entranced by such an ugly, public fight. She’ll remember the feeling in her chest, something like a sob rising and building, feeling just a little like relief. But most of what she’ll remember, fueled by righteous indignation and devastation so new it hasn’t started to sting yet, is John. He listens as she rambles the whole ride home, gently tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, face illuminated by the glow of the lights on the highway and the last thing she thinks before falling asleep against the car window, so worn out by the last week that she doesn’t even make it out of Pennsylvania, is I’m so glad I’m not alone.

She’ll never be able to repay him for this. Abby knows she wouldn’t have left Harper’s family, walked away from Harper, without the knowledge that her best friend would be there to hold her hand (and goad her into taking a shower once every three days, too hungover on heartbreak to remind herself). The next few months are hell, between packing her things out of their-old/now-just-Harper’s apartment, a few tense interactions when she gets there a little too early (I’m sorry, I should have texted.

No it’s fine I was just leaving), no more than three separate breakdowns that start with Harper’s I can’t and her own me either. Two of them end in weird breakup sex and Abby still knows Harper well enough to see regret in both their eyes.

She moves in with John until her world finds its axis again and they only talk about it sometimes, why she had to leave, how Harper says things are still exactly the same with her family, and Abby knows it was the right choice, knows she would never want to be the reason Harper has to do something so legitimately terrifying, knows she had to save herself. And still, she hates that this is how things ended. She hates how broken everything feels. She starts the truly awful process of laying aside every plan she had with Harper, every dream to wake up next to each other for the rest of their lives, how she thought Harper’s laugh would be layered over each of her happiest moments for years. John does his best to make her smile, provides enough tissues for a small army, and Abby marvels at how she still feels loved. She returns the ring.

And then, almost out of the blue and somehow right on time, she wakes up to a text.

Saw this and thought of you.

It’s a short video, a tiny dog running through a pile of snow that dwarfs its body. Cute, but not particularly specific to her. Still, she smiles.

Because I’m short? Rude.

Can’t avoid the truth, cowgirl. And I might have been looking for a reason to text you.

Aha! A dog with a mission. Now it all makes sense.

Well fuck, there goes my cover.

The number isn’t saved in her phone but Abby recognizes it easily, flashes of long, dark hair, a slow smile, and dry laugh running through her head.

Hi Riley.

Hey Abby.

From there, it all just flows.

Riley is like, exactly the kind of girl Abby would have been afraid to talk to in college - whip smart, unexpectedly funny, and just a little weird. She’s also warm, surprisingly honest and Abby can feel herself getting pulled in. At first she feels like Riley is the only person who understands exactly how this thing with Harper feels, even though they do their best to not talk about her. (That’s not strictly true, first she feels like Riley is an island, the only person who genuinely smiled at her in Pittsburg and then later, in the drag bar while Riley explains what happened in high school that Abby wants to give her a hug, to tell the fourteen year old version of her new friend to not worry because you’re gonna be a doctor who just happens to be super fucking hot.)

But soon, about a month after the initial text, Abby finds herself wondering what Riley’s hair might smell like, how her skin might feel. She confesses as much to John after he asks why she’s smiling at her phone for the seventeenth time this morning and he laughs, says I’m happy for you.

Riley starts calling her on the way to work, killing the commute time together. Then she calls as she’s driving home, they swap stories about their days while making dinner, cutting up the same vegetables in different cities. It all feels remarkably adult, nothing too fast, nothing too soon, but Abby still feels flushed and dizzy when her phone buzzes. The rasp of Riley’s voice starts to sound like home, the same way John’s smirk makes her feel like a teenager when she asks to borrow his car for the weekend. (public transportation DOES save the planet, but it does NOT get her to Riley very quickly.) It’s the fastest drive ever, or the slowest, as she flips between radio stations and trains of though almost there and how am I still so far away.

There’s a second, just before she knocks on Riley’s apartment door, where some animal part of her wants to run, wants to shrink away because it’s stupid to get your hopes up like this, but then Riley opens the door grinning in a way that Abby associates with late night facetimes and the promise of a joke that she’ll understand in three more seconds.

Her hair is down, slightly longer than Abby remembers, fluttering down past her shoulders and she smells clean, somehow like a day on the edge of spring when they started texting. And even though time with Riley should be awkward, at least a little, between their comparative senses of humor and Harper-filled past, it’s just not. Abby steps into the offered hug and tries not to hold Riley for longer than strictly appropriate, but the press of Riley’s cheek against her hair makes it hard to let go. It’s fully summer now, complete with long days and fireflies when the sun eventually decides to set. They sit on Riley’s balcony to enjoy the lessening heat (the air conditioner’s out, I’m trying to get that fixed) and Abby tries to hold up her end of the conversation.

(It’s easy because she likes talking to Riley more than most things, and it’s tough because her eyes keep slipping to Riley’s shoulders. The heat equals tank tops and t-shirts and halfway through a detailed rendition of the first time she saw Shrek Riley twists her hair up into a bun, one of the pretty girl things that have always made Abby’s stomach fill with butterflies.) For all her worries about how things might be strange, how maybe talking to your ex-almost-fiancée’s high school girlfriend is doomed from the start, it’s just fun. It’s fun like their night at the drag bar, or shopping for secret Santa, giggly and unusual and exciting, but there’s something else, an added ease.

Abby’s just starting to realize that Riley holds herself back around her family too, not as much as Harper or Sloane, but still like she hadn’t taken a full breath at home. Here, in her own space, the walls covered with art and scrubs visibly thrown behind the couch, Riley is even more herself. Abby can feel herself spinning further and further into Riley’s orbit, but she’s been falling for a long time now. It’s only when there’s a pause in their conversation, when Riley’s eyes flick to meet Abby’s and they waver with a familiar kind of giddy unsteadiness that Abby realizes Riley doesn’t know what she’s doing either. And Abby grins, says something about Finding Nemo that sets Riley off on another tangent, tucking this new fact into her pocket for later.

It’s this, the fact that they both aren’t sure what’s going on and both can’t imagine leaving that, when they’re cleaning up dinner and trying to decide on a plan for the next day, lets Abby lean forward and tug Riley closer to her. And then it’s scary again, terrifying, Riley’s breath is on her cheek and her unfairly perceptive eyes are locked on Abby’s own. She grins, her eyes flicker in that same momentarily shy way, and that’s all the permission Abby needs. She surges forward, Riley’s hands find their way to her neck and she pulls Riley even closer than before. It’s a good kiss, the kind of kiss that middle school lesbians think might make this whole gay thing suck a little less, and Abby savors it. When they finally break apart Riley laughs, soft and low, and Abby’s knees almost buckle right there.

You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that. Abby’s voice comes out a little wobbly, a little breathy, decidedly not the coolest she’s ever sounded, but Riley’s eyes get dark and hot at the sound, setting her stomach full of butterflies on another lap.

Probably not as long as I’ve wanted to do this to you. Riley leans in again, fast and hungry, hands in Abby’s hair.

The warm air blows in from the open windows, smelling like popsicles and sprinklers, all the best parts of July. And here, totally enveloped in everything Riley, consumed by sweaty hair and tanned shoulders and soft lips, with just the hint of a tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow after that, some part of Abby’s chest unclenches. She can’t tell how long she’s been holding in this tension, how long she’s been maintaining an ache, but all she can feel is its new gone-ness. Standing here, pressed against a sarcastic and gorgeous doctor’s kitchen counter, a new feeling floods through her body and Abby can’t help but think this might be happiness.