The first time Riley Bennet kisses Abigail Holland there’s a full moon in the night sky and Abby’s nose is freezing. It’s a late April night, just on the edge of warm, and they’re walking back from a bar John recommended – potentially because he likes flirting with one of the bartenders. He’d stayed back, eyes zeroed in on someone named Cliff (a name that Riley finds absurdly funny for no reason) with a sandy dusting of freckles across his nose and an uncanny ability to guess your favorite drink.
“Are we boring for leaving so early?” Riley bumps Abby with her shoulder as she asks, nearly tipping them both off the sidewalk which would be fine on its own, but then she remembers that tipsy is like drunk is like tipping over and she (badly) swallows a round of giggles.
Abby pulls an arm around her waist and looks at her with a fondness that Riley isn’t used to, “I think the question is more ‘are we getting old’? My ears hurt from the music and you did not drink nearly enough to be this messy.” Her words don’t have any bite, instead they’re full of something that totally sober Riley would almost call tender.
Riley straightens and pitches her voice back down into its normal register, “I’m not messy.”
Abby grins, “Of course not. You’re a doctor.”
Riley fights back more laughter until she notices Abby looking at her skeptically and gives in, “You think I’m more put together than you. But I’m not! We, Abby Holland, are the same.”
Hypothetically this could lead into an interesting discussion about the difference between texting someone all the time (like they have been since Christmas, since Abby moved in with John and returned the engagement ring) and seeing them in person (like now, Riley apartment hunting for the weekend in Pittsburgh after a job offer from the children’s hospital and Abby finally close by), who people actually are vs. who you expect them to be, and if Riley actually comes across as more composed over long distance. Or they could debate the pros and cons of bar-related hearing loss, if Riley can in fact get wasted off two glasses of wine, or if John will in fact get Cliff (Cliff!!!!!! Riley cackles until she’s gasping for breath) to bring him home.
But Riley’s leaving tomorrow and Abby broke up with Harper almost five months ago. Nearly half a year of late night texts and dinner phone calls and inside jokes sit between them and the streetlights make everything feel hazy. Abby is giggling now, fingers brushing Riley’s as they approach the front of Abby/John’s apartment. Riley doesn’t feel dizzy any more, just slightly warm and a little breathless but she’s pretty sure that has more to do with Abby than anything else.
Abby’s cheeks are pink as she fumbles for her keys, visible even in the dim light and Riley bursts out, “Are you cold?” Abby stares at her and smiles just a little for a minute longer than normal, like she’s distracted by something about Riley’s face, before nodding seriously.
(People have called Riley serious her whole life which is fine, she knows it’s something about the way she listens – all eyes and head tilted to the side, the way she keeps track of things without being asked, how she tries ideas out in her head before speaking, all the qualities that make her a good doctor. But she’s a lot of other things too, and it’s just now that Riley realizes Abby’s one of the few people to really know that about her.) Somehow she likes the word more when it’s attached to her friend.
Riley tentatively reaches out and puts a hand on Abby’s face, attempting to heat the warm skin with her palm. They stare at each other like that for a long moment, breathing in tandem, a little bit drunk on actual alcohol but mostly distracted by the fact of each other. Abby’s eyes flick up to meet Riley’s and Riley feels it in her stomach, in her palms, in her thighs, and when Abby bites her lip before lifting her keys again it’s over. Riley presses her against the door, narrowly avoiding the buzzer, one hand clutching Abby’s shoulder and the other still against her face.
Abby sighs, relaxes into the kiss without hesitation and wraps her arms around Riley’s neck. It’s long and slow and just a little messy. Abby tightens her grip and Riley hums and the moon is bright above them. Eventually Riley loses her balance in the heels she specifically picked out to be as tall as John and collapses into Abby, cold skin against warm where their foreheads collide, a new round of cackles floating into the night air.
Abby finally gets the door open and they spend the next hour drinking water, “Riles, come on or your drive home’s gonna suck,” taking off makeup and snickering at cat videos. They don’t talk about the kiss, Abby falls asleep on Riley’s lap and Riley pulls her hands through Abby’s hair until she drifts off too.
The second time is the opposite, quick and butterfly light. Riley is sitting on Abby’s bed the next morning (John’s guestroom bed piled with enough blankets for a small army) while Abby slides around the room in slippery socks and puts the pillows Riley was sleeping with on the couch back into the closet. When Riley stands to go, Abby is right there and lighting fast. Their lips brush and Riley feels her whole body hum.
“Bye, Riles.” Abby says it with a coyly cocked head and sad eyes.
“I’ll be back soon, Abs.”
“Can’t stay away, huh?”
Riley grins and pulls who has quickly become her favorite person into a hug. When she finally pulls back to speak there are volumes behind her eyes (which is kind of exactly how it always feels to Abby anyway, if you were to ask her) “Never.”
John hugs her at the door and Abby grabs one of her bags to carry to the car and waves as Riley drives away. Riley knows she should be scared, knows that kissing your friends rarely ends well, but this is Abby. They don’t need an auspicious start to care about each other. As she starts on the long drive back to Boston the ease of their weekend pours through her thoughts, how being around Abby is always easy, as natural as breathing.
The memory of Abby’s swift smile and soft hands and charmingly open face feature heavily in her dreams for the next month and Riley thinks it might be kind of a blessing.
The third comes at the end of the last week in June. Riley’s officially been in Pittsburgh for three weeks, at her new job for one, and finds endless joy in her new apartment’s view of a park. Abby sits near the front windows, names every dog that walks by, and they pass the unpacking just like that, making up elaborate backstories for an unending stream of dogs and Riley humming appreciatively at the parts of essays from her 102 students that Abby reads out loud for dramatic effect as she grades.
Riley likes it here, likes her coworkers and the light lavender of her bedroom walls and how close Abby is. She’d worried, in the back of her mind when she wasn’t thinking about packing or the “surprise” going away party she knew her friends might be pulling together, if things with Abby might get weird, if something about their easy friendship might be lost in translation in the shift between living in the same city after months in different states. Unsurprisingly her fears were completely unfounded. Same-city Abby is so much better.
They don’t talk about whatever sits between them, warm and heavy and getting more solid by the day. Instead they spend a day building Ikea chairs while watching Full House reruns, another playing card games while Riley (mildly) freaks out about starting a new job, and one weekend Abby and John let Riley sleep on their couch and take her to all their favorite parts of the city while the new paint smell leaves her apartment.
It’s all so simple but somehow, surrounded by Abby’s quiet laugh and John’s skeptical eyes, Riley feels like this might be home.
It’s one of these nights, almost a month in when a little of the shiny newness has faded and Riley can breath deep into her lungs again, with Abby’s shoulder softly bumping hers while they sit on the edge of her balcony, that she thinks yeah. Abby’s face is wide open like always and when Riley accidentally stops listening to a story about her dissertation adviser’s pen collection for the third time because Abby’s lips keep catching the light she decides this probably won’t mess anything up and really? It’s been too long since the last time. Abby looks beautiful in the light shining through the open door (Abby always looks beautiful) and Riley’s not strong enough for this.
When she closes the distance between them Abby seems to get what’s happening almost immediately. It’s not quite as patient as that night by the front door, this time they’re completely sober and entirely comfortable like this, sitting side by side in the warm evening. Riley briefly clocks how Abby slides to face her, the roughness of the wood under their legs, and then she’s lost in AbbyAbbyAbby, the gently spiced smell of her hair, the firm pressure of her fingers as she grasps at Riley’s waist, the hunger threading between them.
It feels a little like a release and a little like a promise, tuned to the orchestration of their breath. Riley is so glad she’s here.
Abby pulls back eventually, gasping and her eyes are alight. Riley considers herself an Abby-expressions enthusiast if not an expert and everything on Abby’s face is content, like a cat in the sun, with a burning that Riley’s never seen before. She feels it in her stomach, thinks yes, thinks this might be good, and when Abby pulls her in again Riley can’t stop the smile that breaks across her face. It’s not technically cool but Abby smiles back, bumps their noses together, and the last coherent thought Riley has is that cool is overrated.
They spend the night like that and when the sun starts to set Riley rests her head against Abby’s shoulder. It feels like a move she would have used in high school, if anyone at her high school at been willing to talk to her, but she thinks it works just as well now. Abby makes her stomach flip in a way it hasn’t since she was seventeen and Riley likes how Abby makes her feel just a little off balance.
(she says this to Abby a few days later and Abby blushes, bites her lip the way she does when she’s thinking hard about something and then she’s across the room, the front of Riley’s scrubs twisted in her hand. Her mouth is warm and a little sweet, a feeling Riley is quickly associating with moments like these and she breaths it all in, relaxing against Abby’s chest. And that’s the fourth time, over before Riley can catch her breath.)
A small part of her considers all of this, thinks about how Abby stares at her with knowing eyes and has her most of her takeout orders memorized, how Riley knows what kinds of soap makes Abby’s skin itch and can accurately rate movies on a “how long will it take before this puts Abby to sleep” scale. They don’t talk about it much, how much of their lives they’ve both spent lonely, how hard they’ve worked to fight their way out of that isolation but Riley feels it running underneath them sometimes, an undercurrent that isn’t strong enough to pull them away anymore.
The fifth time, the last time before it gets to be too many for Riley to keep track of, it’s a Saturday in July and everything is hot. It’s the kind of day that brings back memories of second grade burned legs from playground slides and sunscreen in her mouth. John cranks the air conditioner at every possible chance, “We have grownup jobs so we can afford grownup air conditioning,” is his litany until late August. Riley spends a lot of time at his and Abby’s apartment because of that, basking in the cool air and watching Abby’s nose peel from the sun.
But on this particular day she’s on her own couch (in a tank top from college and polka dot pajama shorts with all the windows open in lieu of actual cold air coming from anywhere) on a biweekly call with her mom who catches her up on the minutiae of town gossip. (Riley likes these conversations significantly more when she is not in her hometown.) Abby unlocks the door with a click and sticks her tongue out at Riley who waves back. “Gotta go, mom. Bye!”
She hangs up and Abby chuckles at the relieved look on her face, “How are things at home? Did the Parker kids kidnap the Jensens’ dog again? I swear to god Jane mentioned that like seventeen times on her call with John last week.”
“You’d laugh too if you knew the Jensens, they used to squirt us with the hose if we stepped onto their lawn” Riley says, and the humor in her voice must be evident because Abby grins. “What brings you to my land of no air conditioning?”
Abby flops next to her on the couch, “John wants the apartment to himself, I do not want to know what he’s doing.” Riley scrunches her nose at the information and Abby waves her hand, “Also I missed you.”
“Awww,” Riley hopes Abby can’t hear the honesty in her voice, “Codependency is better when it’s us.”
“You know,” Abby mimics Riley’s signature wink, “I agree.”
Riley tips her head back and laughs, lets Abby’s warmth (still welcome in the sweltering heat) roll over her. She turns, information weighing heavy in the pit of her stomach. “Abs?”
Abby opens her eyes and pulls at the neck of her t-shirt for more airflow. “What’s up?” She must see something on Riley’s face because she sits straight up, “Is something wrong?”
Riley shakes her head, “No, no. Nothing to worry about. My mom just mentioned something I thought you might like to know.”
Abby nods, places her hand on Riley’s knee and squeezes. “Yeah?” She grins, “I do love learning new things.”
“Harpercameout.” Riley says it all at once with no idea how to deliver the news.
Abby blinks, bites her lip, and takes a breath. “Ok.”
Abby smiles and Riley squints, “That’s all?”
“Is there something else I’m supposed to say?” Abby sounds skeptical. “I’m happy for her. That’s really good.” Riley nods and Abby frowns at her, like she can tell that Riley’s lungs aren’t working quite right. “Were you expecting a different reaction? Also are you like, gonna pass out? I know I’m not the doctor here, but you look a little weird.”
Riley takes a breath, a deep one, and feels her pulse return to normal. “I didn’t think she was ever actually going to -” She can’t quite get the words out.
“Yeah.” It’s more of a sigh than a word but Abby nods like she understands completely. “I mean, if she wouldn’t do it for you.”
Abby blows at her own forehead, “I think you might actually have to do for it yourself. Would’ve been a little nicer if my Christmas didn’t have to be collateral damage but,” she shrugs, “I’m glad I could help. Besides, I’d wade through a hundred bad meet-the-parents to meet you.” She squeezes Riley’s knee again, “What else are you thinking?”
“How do you know I’m thinking?” She says it like a joke but Abby’s eyes are serious.
“I know you, Riles.”
Riley takes another breath and it’s shaky, like she’s about to cry or something equally unreasonable. “It’s stupid.”
Abby looks at her pointedly, “We just read an article about how stupid isn’t a thing.”
Riley exhales slowly and fights back the tears at the edges of her vision, “I guess I always kind of thought that the minute Harper actually figured her stuff out you’d just-“ It’s the second sentence she hasn’t been able to finish, but just like before Abby fills in the blanks.
“Run back to her? Realize that I’ll always love her and can’t live without the way she loads the dishwasher?”
“Yeah.” Riley didn’t even know she felt like this, she doesn’t expect Abby to get it, but Abby smiles and slides her hand almost up to Riley’s thigh.
“Riley Bennet. Listen carefully.” She taps Riley’s nose with the pointer finger of her other hand. “I am happy for Harper. I want her life to be good and this is a big step in that direction. But. I am not still in love with my ex. At all. There are no feelings to rediscover. Her coming out doesn’t change anything between me and her.” She reaches up and brushes hair out of Riley’s face with an expression so gentle that Riley actually might cry. “I don’t want to be anywhere else but here. I promise.” She smiles, Riley smiles back, and Abby pulls her into a hug because somehow Riley’s shivering in the heat. “I hate what she did to you.”
Abby’s face is muffled by Riley’s hair but her words come through crystal clear and Riley laughs, except that it comes out as more of a sob. “Me too.”
When Abby loosens her grip and pulls back she presses a kiss to Riley’s cheek. (kiss 4.5) “But did the Parkers give that dog back? I have to know!”
Riley laughs again and this time it sounds like an actual laugh, “I actually don’t know? The dog is kind of a menace. I wouldn’t put it past the Jensens to leave it.”
“But it’s the principle of the thing! You can’t just leave your dog with the kids next door!”
Abby’s arm is still loosely wrapped around Riley’s waist and she lets herself be pulled in again, head resting next to Abby’s on the couch. “One of the nurses texted today and said a kid got ten peas in one nostril.”
Abby laughs and Riley feels it. “I know I should say that’s too many peas for one nose, but is it bad I’m impressed?”
They stay like that Abby’s stomach growls and Riley’s follows a few minutes later. It’s too hot to cook but there’s pizza in the fridge (that Abby microwaves and Riley eats cold) and popsicles that Riley’s been a little obsessed with since third grade in the freezer that they eat on the floor, backs pressed against the kitchen cabinets. The faint sound of kids squealing and water splashing filters in through the open window.
It’s here, mid anecdote with the edge of a knob poking into Riley’s back, that Abby reaches out to wipe grease off Riley’s lip. Riley catches her wrist teasingly and Abby must see the right question in her eyes. Riley’s hair is escaping from her ponytail in the heat when Abby surges forward and kisses her hard, long and hungry. She pulls herself onto Riley’s lap and Riley forgets about the hair sticking to her neck. She slides her palm under Riley’s shirt, palm on her stomach, fingernails lightly scratching against her ribs, and Riley forgets about everything.
From there, everything goes swimmingly.
Riley doesn’t think of herself as particularly traumatized, not after years of therapy, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever bee entirely fine either. And maybe that’s ok, maybe lots of people cry in the bathroom every day of sophomore year, maybe she knows things about herself, knows what exists at her very core, has forged her personality out of iron, maybe she’s learned how to drop her guard most of the time.
She’s not a superhero either, couldn’t put on a cape and sweep Abby out of harm's way, stop what happened to her from happening to someone else. She’s not even particularly serious, or deadpan, or any of the other descriptors boys in college attached to her after one conversation. Riley knows herself pretty well, knows where her fractured places are and how the protective surge of righteous anger in her stomach feels.
But this, the burgeoning sense that Abby might understand these things about her, might understand her, full stop. Well, that’s new.
Riley knows people like her, knows she’s a good friend, knows she’s funny (in some cases) and she’s felt loved before. (by her mom, her college roommate, her girlfriend for the first two years of med school) But the way Abby looks at her, even as she slides one hand up Riley’s fuzzy polka dot shorts and the other further into her shirt, it makes Riley feel like a known quantity, like Abby’s solved the algebra-equation-also-known-as-Riley and likes the answer, like Abby’s charted the whole map without any extra parts of Riley getting lost in the ocean. It’s different. And really nice.