Once, things happen like a movie. Everything is just unpredictable enough and well lit, with cinematic fights and even more cinematic forgiveness. It all wraps up neat and tidy with a bow on top, happily ever afters for everyone who gets more than five minutes of speaking time and lifelong problems solved with a single realization or not solved at all. Abby and Harper smile like they’re on the front of a magazine while John and Jane outline a literary empire and Riley cries in her childhood bedroom. The surface lies smooth, unrippled, and there’s no real thought behind anyone’s eyes.
Another time it snows all day, so heavy that no one can leave their house, and no one comes to the party. The Christmas tree is still lit but the house feels drafty and cold, left waiting in the rain for a series of fights that never happen. Dec. 25th is stilted and distant, everyone goes through the motions. Harper doesn’t say anything on the ride home, eyes narrowed on the still dangerous road, and Abby tries to remember that she does know the woman sitting next to her, that they aren’t strangers.
Here, Harper never even asks Abby to come, lets her have a perfectly fine Christmas day with John in the city while she bites her lip until it bleeds on the couch her mother inherited in someone’s will. Abby proposes on New Year’s Eve and Harper says no and she never tells Abby why.
Riley takes Abby to an open field from high school instead of a bar and they turn their faces up into a glittery, hazy sky filled with holiday lights, pinkies only a few centimeters apart. In a too-hot room filled with the squeals of high school friends across town Harper takes a shot and dives across everything that screams no to kiss Connor, too hungry for her father’s pride to remember anything else.
One time there’s a world where they do go home for Christmas but the guilt combines with the three cups of coffee Harper’s already had this morning into an ache so strong she tells Abby everything.
They get married a few times, in a giant church or nearly-alone at city hall. It never ends very well.
At the party where Sloane hisses at her family and Harper can’t stop tugging at the sleeves of her dress Abby starts screaming to match all the ringing in her ears. Riley looks over at her, sharp and scared, and Tipper does her best to make everyone laugh as Ted ushers Abby out of the room.
Another time she doesn’t wait to figure out who the real Harper is, too lost in every different version of the woman she thought she loved and all the daggers that have been plunged into her stomach in the past three days. She runs out the door and into the street and on and on until she ends up sitting on the steps of an elementary school, freezing. Jane finds her like that and helps Abby into the car, turns on the seat warmer as high as it can go, and drives them around until Abby falls asleep. What works for toddlers works for all of us, y’know?
In every iteration where they go, Riley is there. Once she has the stomach flu, another time she treats the twins for matching broken wrists, but even when she stays an extra day in Boston for work she makes it up for the party, to watch Abby and Harper play out her past all over again.
When Harper tells Abby everything and they decide to not go home Riley’s car breaks down in Pittsburgh and she quite literally runs into the pair of them while she’s pacing down the street on the phone with AAA. Harper goes into work that night (Christmas Eve, but there’s so much to do) and Abby ends up inviting Riley inside where they watch holiday movies and every time Riley’s eyes glimmer Abby loses her breath.
There’s a lot to be escaped here, and a lot of different ways to do it. Harper is always running from something and Abby never figures it out before the timer dings. Riley wants to give away the answers but some old wound, keeps her quiet most times. Harper throws someone into harm’s way as she escapes. Abby ends up with bloodied palms. Each time is different but there’s something hard running through their cores. Things are always the same. They duck and roll and hide, each orbit offering a different chance at the same obstacle course. And yet, the one thing Abby never tries to get away from is Riley.
One time Riley breaks down in tears when she’s talking to Abby in the bar. She’s had a hard day, parents fighting about old wounds in an old house and maybe there isn’t any way to outrun the past. Abby’s just drunk enough to not check her texts, to follow Riley into the cold Pennsylvania air and push her against the bricks, kiss her until all their pain feels far away.
Sometimes it’s Riley who follows Abby, not John or Harper. They talk or they don’t, they go back or they don’t. These end well, all things considered.
A different reality Riley cries again, feels everything from high school even though she’s so beyond that. Abby slides over to her side of the table, lets Riley sob into her jacket as the performers pick people two tables behind them for a song. Abby feels a warm buzz in her stomach at how easily Riley lets herself be comforted, how she doesn’t tuck secrets away.
Once Riley spends all four days fascinated by Abby’s face, how she can see every single emotion flickering across it.
In another she will seethe at Harper in a way she hasn’t since their first summer home from college when her ex-friend came back with a boy and still, in some grab at the person Riley has built herself into over the past four years tries to kiss her at an obligatory neighborhood barbeque.
A few times Riley and Harper actually end up talking, something they haven’t done in fifteen years. They both cry, or one of them cries, or they both don’t cry. Harper comes out after, or Riley doesn’t come to the party, or nothing changes or they both feel a little lighter or they both feel a little worse. It’s never like the familiar ease Abby brings with her, like a warm gust onto a cold ocean.
The thing is a million different things happen in a million different universes and it all ends differently. (Except that it’s never all that different, but sometimes it is so so wrong and other times it all feels exactly right.)
“Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a life that isn’t yours?” Abby swings her legs against the wood of the bar stool she’s perched on with a soft thumpthumpthump. She normally doesn’t like the feeling of her feet being unable to touch the floor, but it’s late and just a few days before Christmas. She feels warm and happy, except for a slight gnawing under her ribs where all her concern for Harper lives, plus the newly growing ache of confusion and loneliness in her shoulder. But the soft light of the bar and music floating from the front of the room are draining the tension as quickly as the Calldwells had created it. Yeah. Abby’s glad she found this place, tucked between a boutique and dog groomer.
“All the time, actually.”
She starts and turns toward the stage, coming face to face with dark hair and a wry smile. “Riley?”
Last night’s dinner had not made Abby’s list of remotely-enjoyable-evenings between Harper’s cold shoulder and Sloane’s weird death glare, but meeting her girlfriend’s ex by the bathroom had felt more like what this trip was supposed to be – a peek into Harper’s childhood.
Riley grins, open and relaxed, and presses a finger into her own nose. “Abby, right?”
They sit like that for a minute, considering one another before smiles burst across both their faces and Riley starts giggling. It is, unsurprisingly, a perfect sound. Abby’s hands feel warmer. “Did you mean that?”
Riley sobers (kind of) and focuses back on Abby’s face. She nods. “Totally.” Her eyes flicker and Abby sees worlds in them. “ Like if you think about it too hard the whole illusion will shatter.”
Abby’s fingers twitch. “Which would suck. Because then you won’t be left with anything.”
“Maybe.” Riley tilts back in her seat and looks off to the drag queens for a minute. “But I bet there’s better stuff waiting after.”
“My parents are dead.” Abby’s not sure why she said that, except that it’s apparently her calling card or whatever for the week. She’s not drunk and she still feels a little looser, a little happier than before Riley started talking.
Riley smiles, “You said.”
“Last night. Restaurant. Bathroom.”
Abby blushes and she knows that Riley can see, because she’s pretty sure Riley can see everything. “I guess I did.”
“I’m sorry. That sounds awful.” Riley looks totally honest, her Christmas-Eve-Eve-midnight-bar-laughter completely gone. Abby doesn’t judge people on their reactions to her parents, knows it’s weird for everyone – they don’t teach a class called “how to appropriately react to your new friend’s story about her deceased parents.” And yet, Riley’s sympathetic face and shoulder squeeze feels perfect.
Abby watches as Riley bumps their feet together and only looks back up when Riley takes a deep breath. “Harper ruined my life when we were in high school. And broke my heart. But also, you know. Ruined.”
Abby tilts her head. They are definitely not sober enough for this conversation. “I didn’t know that.”
Riley’s lips twist up and Abby wants to run her fingers across them. She settles for a hand on Riley’s knee instead, which, judging from her dark eyes suddenly getting just a little brighter, was the right choice. “I assumed as much.”
They stay like that, feet knocking against each other, watching the stage and swapping drinks, until their heartbeats feel normal again.
“Earth to Doogie Howser.” Abby tugs off her coat and throws it across the back of the couch where her dear sweet doctor friend (friend????) is currently curled up, hair falling across her face and totally dead to the world.
Riley grunts without opening her eyes and shrinks further into the pillows she’s burrowed between. Abby half wants to lie down next to her and half wants to stay like this, basking in the glow of a relaxed Riley Bennet as long as she possibly can. (They’ve known each other for almost a year now and in the dim light of the October evening Abby can’t help but notice how completely gorgeous she is, even drooling on the arm of the new couch Riley picked out when she moved to Abby’s city over the summer.)
“Riiiiles.” Abby bends down to brush hair out of her sleeping friend’s (friend?????) face and gets close enough to catch a hint of the perfume she always wears. (It smells like home, more than Abby cares to admit.) She savors it. Riley is quick to welcome but takes a while to trust, maybe a holdover from high school trauma and maybe just the way she’s always been, but either way Abby treasures moments like these when Riley drops her walls without hesitation. Abby’s fingers trace across Riley’s cheek and she leans into the touch. (This has been happening more and more, usually when one or both of them aren’t thinking. Riley will smile a little softer or Abby will lean into her for a little longer than normal and the thing wavering between them, delicate but stronger every day, becomes impossible to ignore.)
Right before her fingertips brush across Riley’s lips she pulls back, instead gently tapping Riley’s shoulder. “Riles. C’mon. You won’t be happy if I let you stay here.”
Riley finally opens her eyes, slowly with the bleary kind of smile that never fails to make Abby’s stomach do somersaults. “Abs. What time is it?”
“Only six, I just got here. Traffic sucked today.”
“Aw, just for me?” Abby smirks and bumps Riley with her shoulder. “Someone’s gotta wake you up, babe.”
Riley groans and tilts her head back, “This isn’t my best week, huh?”
“Just mildly concerning. You know that you don’t have to take so many night shifts, right?”
“I’m done! Two weeks is plenty for me. And it’s a-“
“Nice thing to do. Because you’re a great friend/coworker. I know.”
Riley grins and Abby smiles back, basking in their easy banter as she drops onto the couch too. Riley leans into her the second she’s settled and even though Abby knows they need to make dinner, knows Riley needs to take a shower and then get to bed at a normal time now that the graveyard shifts are over for the time being, but a large part of her (embarrassingly large) would be happy to stay just like this for as long as possible with a groggy Riley tilting into her at every angle. Abby presses her cheek to Riley’s hair, “Thanks for the key, by the way.”
“What’s mine is yours, Abs. It’s better when you’re here.”
Abby tries to not look at Riley’s bookshelves with her art history books scattered across them or into the kitchen where half of her favorite foods are tucked into the pantry. What if this doesn’t really work. What if it’s too soon. What if Harper’s specter will loom over them forever. She comes here most days after work, partially to give John the space (he didn’t get his apartment with a roommate in mind but welcomed her into his guest room the second she and Harper broke up) and partially because Riley.
At her side, Riley huffs out a breath and turns to look at Abby, their noses only inches apart, and Abby’s legs start buzzing. “Thanks for waking me up.”
“Dinner? And then keep me awake until a time that normal people go to sleep at?”
“Yes. I’ll do all the cooking if you tell me about last night?”
Riley rolls her eyes, “The ER will be fun, they said. No one actually swallows anything too weird, they said.”
Abby laughs and pulls them both off the couch, “I think it’s very cool that you’re a doctor.”
Riley’s eyes sparkle and a little of the exhaustion lifts off her shoulders, “Why, thank you Ms. Holland.”
“I mean it,” Abby knows she’s slipping but Riley is watching her with absolute focus and Riley’s attention always makes Abby a little braver. “If I had to get my arm sewn back on, I’d want to see you with the needle.” (If Abby was the half asleep one and not Riley she might start babbling about how Riley’s face always makes her feel better, if it’s scientifically proven that hot doctors with nice eyes are extra successful.) Riley's nose scrunches and Abby dives a little deeper "I'm glad we're us. I'm glad we're here."
Riley dips into a small bow that nearly knocks both of them off balance, but instead provides Abby with a very good excuse to feel Riley’s forearms tense under her palms. “Me too. I promise I will always sew your arms back on. Also, do you know what I do?”
“Oh,” Abby airily waves a hand, “save lives and stuff like that.”
Riley chuckles and Abby feels it pulse through her body. “I love you, Abs.”
Abby wraps her arms around Riley’s waist and tugs them together, basking in the ease of all this. “I love you too, Dr. Bennet.”
This time when Riley laughs Abby feels the rumble in her own chest. They stay like that, Abby’s head on Riley’s shoulder, giggling back and forth until Riley tries to tip them back onto the couch and Abby pulls away to keep them both upright. The sun is starting to set through Riley’s front windows and the room is all lit up in bright orange. “Let’s make this dinner thing happen, ready?”
Riley smiles, “Oh baby, I was born ready.” and takes off across the room, Abby’s at her heels. Abby wins, (short legs are good legs too!) and slides into the kitchen first, but it may or may not be because Riley stops halfway past the couch and frowns, “Did you call me Doogie Howser? Like Neil Patrick Harris the doctor kid?”
“Told you I understand your job!” Riley sticks out her tongue and Abby smirks. Yes. This is good.