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If Toni could describe being with Shelby in one word, it would be ‘peaceful’. 

However, she can’t describe it in just one word; she can’t describe it with any words at all. All she knows is that whatever indescribable emotions she feels with her, she never wants to stop feeling them.  

On Friday, Toni wakes up with the intention of upholding her promise of taking Shelby on a proper date. It’s just going to be a little dinner date at some mildly fancy restaurant, nothing too fancy though because Toni is a broke college student after all and she has every intention of paying for both of their meals. 

She’s barely conscious when she reaches out to her bedside table to see that Shelby has sent her a text. Her name comes up on Toni’s phone as ‘Shelby Goodtexas’ the way it has since August, but now there’s also a heart with a blue arrow through it beside the name because they’re girlfriends now, actual literal girlfriends, something which Toni’s heart never fails to skip a beat at when reminded of the fact.

Shelby: Good morning Toni! Xxxxx  

Toni: morning gorgeous

She knows Shelby well enough to know the reaction that text will elicit from her: she’ll blush, bite her lip to unsuccessfully contain a smile, then bury her face into the pillow. 

Shelby: You’re so sweet.

Shelby: What should I wear today?? P.S. I’m super excited (:

Toni: nothing

Shelby responds with an eye roll emoji—which yeah, okay, Toni deserves that one.

Toni: fr u can wear anything princess, u look amazing in everything

Shelby: Flirt.

Toni: u love me

Shelby: I do love you. So much.  

Toni’s poor heart can’t handle this; it beats out of her chest so loudly that she’s scared the noise will wake up the whole building. She revels in the feeling for a few moments, blushing furiously and failing to bite back a smile, before the buzzing of the phone snaps her out of it. 

Shelby: For real baby what am I meant to wear!! What’s the dress code???!

Toni: uhh naked :)

Shelby: Toni.

Toni: we’re going to a nude beach!

Shelby: Toni.

Toni: smart casual

Shelby: That wasn't so hard, was it? Thank you! (:

The rest of the day is spent in the library; Toni only has one class on Fridays so it’s the day she spends the most time at work. A few of her friends drop in here and there, Dot to see her and Leah to see her best friend—the books—and Nora to bring Toni a surprise.

At first Toni can’t really believe her eyes when Nora walks in with her twin by her side, she’s never met Rachel in real life so it’s pretty exciting—so exciting, in fact, that Toni abandons her desk and runs up to the pair, only having the sense to skid to a stop right as she’s about to hug Rachel because since when was she a run-and-hug person? One arm sticks out awkwardly as a result, and Rachel doesn’t know what to do except high five her. 

Toni takes it.

“Dude, nobody told me you were a freaking Hobbit,” are Rachel’s first words to her. 

“Since when was five-foot-three short?” Toni huffs.

“It’s one inch below the average for women in the United States,” Nora answers. 

“I’m Māori.”

“The average height of women in New Zealand is five-foot-four and a half.”

Rachel and Toni look at each other, blink, then shrug. 

They spend so long behind the front desk catching up, Rachel filling her in on her diving stuff and Toni filling her in on how the basketball tournament went, that Toni loses track of time. She’d planned to leave at four thirty in the afternoon to give herself plenty of time to shower, get dressed and actually breathe, but suddenly it’s past five o’clock and she has to rush out a ‘see you later’ to the twins before darting out of the building.

===

It’s only when she’s looking for her cleanest shirt whilst on video call with resident hype-woman Martha that she realises, “Fuck, I don’t have any flowers.”

“Toni!” Martha says in a tone that sounds too much like how Mrs B spoke when she found a mini Toni and Martha up past midnight on a Wednesday. “Isn’t that, like, the most basic obvious thing to do on a date? Even I brought Marcus flowers when I went on a date with him.”

Toni’s about to say something in response but then Fatin launches towards the phone and grabs it. “Martha dearest, how have I never heard of this Marcus boy?”

“Well,” she replies, blushing, “it’s this boy at the ranch…”

“Good with animals, that’s a great sign.” Fatin, having completely stolen Martha from Toni, sits on the edge of her bed cross-legged and leans forward like she’s conducting some sort of psychoanalysis. “Now, tell me, what’s his star sign? Does he treat you well? Is he cute?”

Shaking her head, Toni throws off her t-shirt and grabs the shirt she was eyeing: a plain white blouse with short sleeves and a shirt collar that’s curved at the edge rather than pointed. Then she spots something in the wardrobe which is decidedly not hers, but according to Toni’s limited knowledge of fashion it looks nice and like it’d go well with her only pair of nice trousers, which are black. “Can I borrow this?” she asks, interrupting Martha and Fatin’s conversation. She holds out a deep blue sweater vest with a pretty white v-neck collar.

“Oh, you can have it if you want,” Fatin dismisses. “I bought it ‘cause it looked nice but it’s really not my style, so.”

Toni thanks her and throws it on. The cable-knit material feels expensive and soft to the touch, definitely something that Toni would never even consider buying given the price tag, but one quick glance in the mirror and she can tell it looks good on her. The hem falls just below her hips given that Fatin has a bit of height on her (not much, it’s just that Toni is freaking tiny), but it still looks like a good fit. 

“How do I look?”

Fatin turns the camera to show Martha the outfit and they both speak at the same time.

“Hot.”

“So cute! Shelby will love it. But, um, flowers?”

“Fuck.” Toni begins to scramble for her wallet. “I’m gonna run to the supermarket.”

“Um, hell no you won’t,” Fatin declares, standing up. “The wind will get your hair all frazzled. will go, because I am the greatest roommate of all time, and Martha here will hype you the hell up, okay? Okay.” And then before anyone can protest, she disappears behind the door, leaving Toni alone with Martha over the phone.

A silence falls over the room. Toni’s still wearing only one and a half socks with unbuttoned trousers along with the vest Fatin just gave her. She’s holding the phone by her hips, so all Martha can see is a closeup of dark fabric. “You’ll do great, Toni,” she says, prompting Toni to point the camera back on herself. “You look super cute. She’s going to look at you and be all like, oh my god it’s Toni! It’s gonna go great, and I’m… Listen, you know I’m a good hype-woman, but your nerves are making me nervous.” 

“I’m not nervous,” Toni insists, “how am I making you nervous?”

“I don’t know.” Toni frowns into the camera. “Your face isn’t helping.”

“What do you mean my face isn’t helping?”

Luckily for Martha, Toni’s extremely nervous face disappears from the screen as Toni swipes away from the video call to reply to a text from Fatin. 

Fatin: What type of flowers do u want.

Toni: idk she likes yellow. get her some yellow ones.

Fatin: Say please

Toni:

Fatin:

Toni: …please

Toni swipes back into the call and says, “I’m fine, Marty, I swear. I’m not nervous at all,” she insists nervously.

“Mhmm, okay,” Martha agrees, completely disbelieving. “Well, like I said, you’re gonna be fine! When are you meeting her?”

“In ten minutes.”

Toni! Your socks aren’t even on properly!”

“Okay okay, sorry mom.” Toni grunts and pulls her socks up properly, fastens her now zipped trousers with a belt and flattens out her collar. “Better?”

Martha says something in agreement, then launches into a ramble about how amazing Toni looks, how great it’s going  to go, and just repeating variations of those two sentiments over and over with the hopes that it’ll sink in for Toni—and it kind of does. She looks at herself in the mirror and has to admit that she looks pretty hot, she’s always known she isn’t ugly but there’s something about this new vest that makes her think maybe she isn’t completely out of supermodel-like Shelby’s league. 

Fatin soon rushes back in with the bouquet in hand, an assortment of yellow flowers ranging from roses to tulips to other flowers that Toni very much does not know the name of. “I got the woman at the shop to just give me every yellow flower they had. It actually looks pretty cute, good choice, Shalifoe. Very good and kind of you.”

Toni shoots her a fuck off look but she can’t truly be mad at Fatin for that pun when the girl literally just ran to the local florist because of Toni’s own disorganisation. “Thank you,” she says genuinely, as awkward as it is to be genuinely nice to Fatin. 

There’s a moment where it looks like Fatin might say something out of character for their friendship, such as “no problem” or “you’re welcome”, but then there’s a knock on the door which is very clearly—

“Shelby Goodkind!” Fatin greets dramatically, waving a hand to gesture for her to enter. “Come on in.”

“Fatin no!” Toni ducks behind a desk chair, as if that’s a hiding spot that actually conceals her, haphazardly clutching the yellow bouquet behind her back. “I was, um—” She looks up to see both Shelby and Fatin giving her two very puzzled looks that clearly read ‘what the fuck, Toni?’ (or in Shelby’s case, ‘what the heck’—she’s a family Jesus pageants girl after all). “I wanted to do the whole… picking your girl up for a date at her door thing.”

And yeah, maybe this is an incredibly awkward situation that Toni’s put herself in, probably in the top five most awkward of her life—but the  she sees Shelby blush and suppress a smile with her teeth and that makes it all worth it. “Oh, I can just return to my room so that you can pick me up,” Shelby suggests, giving Toni a private smile coupled with a look that either says ‘you’re really sweet’ or ‘you’re such a useless freakin’ lesbian’—Toni isn’t sure which one it is.

Fatin is very obviously holding back from sniggering; her mouth is hidden behind her hand and her eyes are crinkled at the sides. Toni shoots daggers at her before turning to Shelby and saying, “Yeah, uh, that’d be great.”

“Okay! See you soon then. Bye Fatin!”

The door shuts, and Fatin finally erupts into laughter.

“Holy shit, Shalifoe, that was the best fucking thing I have ever seen. I used to think I had moves but clearly you’re master here. Shelby is one lucky girl, no wonder she fell for you.”

“Shut up.” Toni rolls her eyes and tries to glare at her—but yeah okay Fatin’s got a point, that was pretty funny, so she finds herself laughing along with her. “This shit gets out to anyone else and you’re dead, this stays between the three of us.”

“Um, I watched the whole thing,” Martha says from the phone, making Toni jump. 

“Jesus Marty! You scared me.”

“Right, okay,” Fatin says, pulling herself together. “You’ve got this, just don’t say or do anything stupid even though ninety-nine percent of the things you say and do are stupid. Okay? I’ll bring Leah here so you two can have the room to yourselves if you want.”

“Thanks,” Toni grumbles, before flipping her off (in a kind way), saying bye to Martha and exiting the room.

Once at Shelby’s door barely a minute later, Toni raps her knuckles on the door. Her hand is barely off the wood before it swings wide open, and she’s barely registered this before Shelby’s throwing herself at her and enveloping her in an embrace. “You brought me flowers,” she sighs out into her neck. “That’s so sweet of you. Yellow’s my favourite colour.”

Toni smiles against her shoulder. “I know.”

Said flowers are currently being squished between their bodies; Shelby quickly realised this and tears herself away to spare the poor things. “Let me, um, let me find a vase for these and then we’ll be on our way.” She disappears into the room quickly, leaving Toni standing there in the open doorway and rocking back and forth on her heels which catches Leah’s attention.

“Hey Toni,” she greets from behind her book. 

“…Hi.”

Toni’s never been so awkward in her entire life. Leah frowns quizzically at her, visibly wondering how someone who physically appears so cool and can often hold very interesting conversations has approximately zero social skills at times. 

Luckily for her, Shelby quickly loops their arms together and bids a quick goodbye to Leah before shutting the door, but only after Toni sees the expression on Leah’s face that means she’s definitely getting shit for this later.

“Where are we goin’?” Shelby asks as she purposely tries to fall into step beside Toni, something that the brunette finds stupidly adorable.

And because Toni is cool and mysterious and has moves, she responds, “You’ll see.”

It seems to work, actually; Shelby giggles and presses a kiss to her shoulder, looking enamoured as ever, and Toni starts to wonder if maybe she’s got actual game now, but then she drinks in the sight of Shelby in her yellow sundress which causes her to stumble over the first step of the staircase, making her have to clutch Shelby’s arm and the railing for dear life. 

She’s going to work on that. 

The date itself, surprisingly for everyone and luckily for Toni, goes extremely well. Their conversation consists of the usual everything and nothing: Shelby tells her about the fact that now her and her siblings get to video chat instead of just text now that Spencer, the eldest, is allowed to be home alone with their little sister. She mentions that they said their mom wants to talk to her soon—without their father present, obviously—but she’s not too sure if she wants to talk to her yet, her mother may not have been explicitly abusive and oppressive the way that Dave was, but she was still very much an enabler.

“Maybe I’ll give her some sort of ultimatum,” she suggests. “She either accepts me for who I am and tries to give Spencer and Mel a better life, or I refuse to have a relationship with her.”

“I think you should do whatever feels right, but maybe sit on it for a while,” Toni advises her. “If she’s really committed to rebuilding your relationship then she’ll wait for as long as you need.”

“You’re right. I’m definitely gonna reach out but I’ll think about what I wanna say for a while.” Shelby gives her a watery smile, placing down her cutlery to reach across the table to hold Toni’s hand in hers. “Lord, Toni, I’m sorry. Such a depressin’ topic for a date night.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she responds in a reassuring tone. “I told you about how I used to sleep outside on our first date.”

“First date?” Shelby furrows her eyebrows in feigned confusion. “You mean when we went to the arcade and the beach? I thought you were insistent that it was just friends hangin’ out, that’s what Martha and Leah told me.”

Toni’s mouth hangs open as she flushes red at being caught, and quickly tries to cover it up with a, “Well, we’ve been over this, you know I was tryna, uh, take things slow to protect our friendship, cause… you meant so much—I mean you do, you mean a lot to me. And I just… I um, I really want you in my life.”

Shelby rolls her eyes at that, but it doesn’t distract from the lopsided grin that spreads across her face. “Alright, smooth talker. I’m guilty of doin’ the exact same. Dot was close to gettin’ down on her knees and beggin’ for me to stop sayin’ the f-word.”

“Damn, I really got the Jesus girl to start swearing so much that even Dot couldn’t handle it?” It’s a stupid pun but it gets Shelby throwing her head back in breathless laughter, and Toni can see what Dot meant about how Shelby becomes so bright around her—there’s always light in her eyes and laughter in her voice that is warm enough to make Toni light ablaze too.

The date ends with Toni dropping Shelby off at the door to her dorm, leaving her with a gentle chaste kiss because as much as Toni would love to spend the night twisting in bedsheets with Shelby, she knows that Shelby wants her to spend the night tomorrow so she can wish her happy birthday at midnight, and from all the hints that she’s dropped Toni’s pretty sure that Shelby will do that with more than just her voice. Still, as she walks back to her own room, she can’t help the dopey smile that spreads across her face, the type that she knows will last her until she’s asleep.

===

While back in her own dorm with Leah, Fatin begs them to do a haul of what she bought while out shopping with Shelby. There’s a few nice items of clothing, some makeup, a new set of pens, etcetera, then,

“A vibrator?”

Leah doesn’t even flinch.

“Don’t act like you’ve never seen one in your life, Shalifoe,” Fatin says with an eye roll as she begins to fold up her new clothes, and Toni huffs because a, she’s right, and b, it does look like a really nice toy. “I’ve been through your drawers,” Fatin continues, “it’s a bit of an obvious hiding place, but, hey.”

“I—” Toni splutters out, because she can’t decide what to be more shocked about, the fact that Fatin willingly rifled through her underwear drawer or that Fatin found her one (and only) sex toy, something which she uses privately (for now, that is; her and Shelby have only had sex a few times, and it’s always been soft and sweet with forehead kisses and hand holding but Toni knows that at some point, once Shelby is more used to the whole thing, they’ll get a little rougher with each other).

“Oh don’t worry, I made sure to take Shelby too,” Fatin tells her with a wink. “My birthday treat to you.”

Only Fatin would take a person’s girlfriend out to a sex shop for their birthday, Toni thinks, blinking at her, then looking at Leah who just gives her an apologetic shrug.

“She was actually the one who suggested it,” Fatin explains. “She just wasn’t sure what she should get exactly and figured I’d be able to help her out, plus it’s kind of nerve-racking going in there alone when you grew up in yeehaw conservative blessed be thy fruit Texas.”

“It’s blessed be the fruit,” Leah corrects. “And I think that’s very sweet of you, actually.”

The two turn to Toni and look at her expectantly, waiting patiently to hear her thoughts, to which she says, “Yeah, that was, um, really cool of you, thank you.”

She racks her brain for a reason  as to why it would be weird that her roommate took her roommate’s girlfriend/her girlfriend’s roommate to a sex shop, but she comes up empty because in reality, like she and Leah said, it was nice of Fatin to do that. 

The three of them hang out for a while; Leah finally ends up teaching Toni that Russian card game she plays so often until she decides she’s tired enough to retire to bed. It’s only when she’s gone and Toni’s showered and laying in bed in her sleep shirt, her face illuminated by Fatin’s phone light, that she says, “You’re only going to hear this from me once, but you’re a really good friend. Thanks for putting up with my shit.”

“Toni darling, I’m not ‘putting up with you’, I enjoy your presence,” Fatin says sincerely, looking away from the phone screen to look at Toni properly. “Your useless lesbian ass provides me with top quality entertainment every single day, it’s like being in an immersive reality television show.”

“Yep, never being nice to you again.”

Twenty minutes later, as Toni is trying to fall asleep, Fatin speaks into the darkness. “I bet you have some deep, fucked up story behind that scar on your nose. Like, you got into a fight with a polar bear that broke into your bedroom.”

“Oh, yeah.” Toni nods. “There actually is a pretty long story behind this. Kinda messed up, though, you sure wanna hear it?”

Fatin nods, except Toni can’t see because the room is pitch black, so a few seconds later she finally says, “Yeah.” So Toni reaches for her phone, turns on the torch feature and shines it beneath her chin to illuminate her face.

“Okay, so, on a dark and stormy night,” she tells dramatically, “I… fuck it, it was probably barely cloudy, I’m pretty sure it was the summer. Anyway, I must’ve been around eight or nine. I woke up in the middle of the night extremely thirsty, so I tiptoed out of my room… then bang!” Fatin jumps. “There’s a noise from the kitchen: a growl. Then… You know what, I don’t know what the fuck I’m saying, I smashed my face into the corner of a table because the dog scared me.”

“Dude what the fuck. You didn’t have to give me a heart attack over that.”

“Well”—Toni switches off her phone, leaving them in darkness again—“I gotta provide you with entertainment, right?”

She hears her roommate groan loudly. “I actually fucking hate you.”

“Goodnight, Fatin.”

“Fuck you.”

===

Sunday afternoon rolls around pretty quickly, and Toni finds herself alone in Shelby’s room getting ready for the party that Nora’s throwing her—even though Nora isn’t a party person she’s the one with the private flat, so it makes sense for her to host. 

Toni’s only left the room to use the bathroom and to have lunch since last evening; her and Shelby were up until daylight was shining through the window, sweat on their backs and legs tangled in each other’s. She shivers pleasantly at the memory, shifting in her seat to help the residual ache in her thighs and wondering if she can quit going to the gym because she’s sure that having sex with Shelby wears her out more than a treadmill ever could. Maybe she should thank Fatin for the shopping spree she took Shelby on, she thinks, but then she realises that Fatin will eternally give her so much shit for that, so she decides against it. 

She’s just come off a phone call with Mrs B, who wished her a happy birthday and told her that there was something in the mail for her despite Toni insisting that wasn’t necessary (not that she’d be able to change her mind, Mrs B has always treated her like her own daughter because, technically, she is), when Shelby enters the room, the ends of her hair a little damp from the shower.

“Hey there,” Shelby greets, sliding in front of Toni so that their bodies are inches apart. Toni smiles and greets her back, but her words catch at the end when she feels Shelby tug on her open shirt collar. “Now, not that I’m complainin’ about you wearin’ this open, but you might wanna cover this up before Fatin sees.” 

She nods her head down to gesture to Toni’s cleavage which makes her blush enough as it is—but then Toni’s own eyes flicker down to her chest and she notices it: the deep, reddish purple marks shaped like Shelby’s mouth that cover the visible parts of her boobs. Her blush spreads down to her neck at the memories of last night: Shelby’s hands grabbing her hips roughly, her teeth at her collarbone, her nails down her back, Shelby opening up the box she got from the sex shop and, “Fuck,” she mutters as Shelby does up the top few buttons of her blouse, “that’s what I get for never looking in the mirror.”

“Well, if I were you,” Shelby tugs her a little closer, “I’d look in the mirror every chance I get.”

“You’re such a cliché,” Toni mutters. She rolls her eyes but finds herself falling forwards into Shelby’s arms to embrace her anyway because she smells like red fruits and Toni likes that—plus Shelby is warm, her arms feel nice around her waist and her hair is soft against her forehead. If she could choose a way to die, it’d be like this, blissed out in the warmth of Shelby’s arms. 

“We have to go,” Shelby murmurs, “Fatin’s calling us an Uber.”

Reluctantly, Toni pulls away. “We’re switching rooms again tonight, right?”

“No, I’m gettin’ an early night, sorry.”

Toni pouts at that. “But it’s my birthday.”

“So?” 

“What have I ever done to deserve this?”

Shelby shrugs. “Exist.”

“Hey!”

A small laugh leaves Shelby’s throat as she dodges the incoming smack to her arm (it’s an extremely gentle one, Toni would obviously never hurt her). “But honestly, I think Nora said this was a sleepover and a party in one for the seven of us, so I think we’re both technically switchin’ rooms tonight.”

“Fuck, I didn’t even pack overnight stuff. Gimme a sec.” Toni darts to her closet and shoves a random shirt and pair of boxers into her backpack, rushing around the room to fit in other miscellaneous essentials—and if she would look up from what she’s doing, she’d notice the warm smile on Shelby’s face at watching her girl be able to pack an overnight bag just with things she’s left behind in Shelby’s dorm.

“Didn’t Nora text you about this?” she asks, watching Toni haphazardly stuff a toothbrush inside.

“Nope.” She zips up the backpack. “Didn't even know there was a party until you mentioned it, I thought we were just going out to dinner with everyone else.”

That’s when Shelby freezes in the spot, eyes wide, hand over her mouth. “Oh. Oh my gosh,” she says in shock, “I messed up. I really messed up. Oh my actual gosh.”

Toni frowns quizzically at her, examining the panicked look in Shelby’s eyes for a moment before it finally hits her: “Oh my god, Shelby, was this supposed to be a surprise party?”

“…I’m sorry!”

Toni doubles over in laughter. Of course Shelby got too excited about the party and let it slip, it’s such a Shelby thing to do. “I can’t believe this,” she says through her laughing, making Shelby turn even redder in embarrassment. 

“It’ll be fine,” she huffs, arms folded and her own giggling somewhat successfully suppressed. “You’ll just pretend to be surprised, okay?”

“Sure,” Toni agrees. “I’m a pretty good actress, nobody will even notice I’m faking it.”

===

Toni is a horrible actress; everyone notices she’s faking it.

“You had one job, Shelby.” Rachel shakes her head in disappointment and shoves her party horn into her pocket. “One job.”

Thankfully everyone soon becomes more interested in Toni herself—Fatin whips out a sash that reads “9th birthday” and tugs it onto Toni and Dot throws in a paper crown for good measure. There’s a few other guests, among them most of Toni’s basketball team, two of Leah’s nerdy friends from class that Toni always sees with her in the library, a boy from Dot’s work with whom she is close friends with, etcetera. They all make their rounds to wish Toni a happy birthday, and it kind of floors her because she’s never really had a proper party like this for each of her previous eighteen birthdays. 

“I’ve delegated party host jobs to Dot,” Nora explains to her once Toni has a free moment. “I get kind of overwhelmed at parties so I’ll be in my room until it’s time for the cake. Call me if you need anything.” She then holds out a rectangular parcel wrapped in newspaper. “This is from me. Happy birthday.”

Toni smiles gratefully and thanks her before ripping it open in the most ungraceful manner ever—not on purpose, she’s just not exactly a present connoisseur—to reveal a book.

“It’s a guide on the Dewey Decimal Classification System,” Nora says, “so you can organise the books in the library.”

It’s kind of really sweet and thoughtful. “Thanks, Nora. I kinda needed this to be honest.”

“I know.” 

===

Shelby seems to be playing a game with Toni. She’ll lean in right up next to her ear and whisper things to get her all flustered, but Toni never knows what genre of things it’ll be. Sometimes it’s, “You look so good in these jeans,” and Toni winks at her in response.

Sometimes it’s, “I’m so beyond in love with you”, and Toni will look at her with eyes brimming with adoration. 

Other times it’s, “I can’t wait to rip this shirt off of you tonight.” That one makes Toni cross her legs, tightly, for some form of relief.

It gives Toni whiplash. The best kind. 

Meanwhile, the night progresses and Toni gets drinks and snacks pressed into her hands by everyone, because it’s her birthday after all. Turns out Dot’s got a pretty varied taste in music so a range of songs fill in as background noise through Nora’s speakers. Some people have even brought her gifts which surprises her, even though it shouldn’t, it is a birthday party after all. Mostly it’s just ten dollar gift cards for sports gear shops, something which Toni deeply appreciates because by the end she’s got enough for a brand new pair of basketball shoes, something that she’s been desperately needing. 

Fatin seeks her out early on in the party, pulling her and Shelby aside. “Right,” she says, clasping her hands. “I’m going to tell you this before I get too drunk to remember. My birthday present to you, Shalifoe, is the option of no longer living with me next year.”

Maybe it’s a little bit embarrassing, but Toni’s heart sinks at Fatin’s offer. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been talking to my parents, unfortunately, about living arrangements next year, and my parents know a guy who deals with student accommodation here—”

“Dude, how many people do your parents know?”

“Too many, Toni. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that we can get first picks of this super nice set of flat blocks. I was thinking you two could get one opposite me and Leah so we don’t have to disturb each other again. This is what it looks like.” She holds out her phone to show a slideshow of photos of the building, the rooms inside, and so on, but Toni shakes her head.

“No way I’d be able to afford that bougie-ass place,” she says. “I don’t think my scholarship covers flats that expensive.”

“It does, I checked. Plus, rent starts when this semester ends so Shelby, you’ll still have a place to stay in California over the summer.”

Toni sees Shelby’s eyes light up like a firework, and immediately her answer is already yes. 

She frowns in focus as she swipes through the photos again. The flats do look extremely nice, with white couches and a cute little kitchen area as well as a double bed in a somewhat spacious bedroom. Her mind immediately fills with imagined scenarios of waking up next to Shelby, sitting at the tiny table eating breakfast and studying, curling up on the couch in the evening. She thinks about getting to spend every night with her on a spacious bed rather than crammed into a little single bed, something which will definitely come in handy during the hotter months. “Yes.”

“You can take some time to think—”

“Yes, I’m down.” 

Toni looks at Shelby, who nods and says, “Yeah, I’m down too.”

“Well, we have a few months to decide officially, so let me know then if you two are still together.” Fatin looks between the two of them and adds, “I’d bet every dollar that you will.” She then walks away, leaving the pair alone in that corner of the room.

“You sure you wanna live with me?” Toni asks Shelby. “I thought I was too… distractin’.” She lets out a tipsy giggle at her own horrible Texan accent and wiggles her eyebrows suggestively, earning her a playful shove from Shelby.

“Screw you,” she says, folding her arms. “A girl gets flustered around her crush once and she never hears the end of it, huh.”

“It’s cute that you have a crush on me.” Toni grins up at her. “Kinda gay, no?” The Texan huffs and flips her off which only prompts her to say, “You wish.”

“You sure you could handle another round after last night?” Shelby takes to running her index finger down Toni’s chest, hooking it above the fabric and tugging it a little so that Toni has to step closer to her.

“I’m not sure you could, princess,” she responds with a teasing grin. “But we could always give it a go.”

Clearly discontent at Toni’s misjudgement, Shelby leans in so that her lips are so close to her ear that she can feel them brush against it and says, “I wasn’t the one moaning ‘oh, please baby, I’m too—”

“I need a drink,” Toni declares, swiftly removing herself from being in such close proximity to Shelby because she’ll be dammed if she gets so turned on by her this early on in the party that she has to drag her into the bathroom to help her sort herself out. 

Fifteen minutes later, Toni’s up on the bathroom counter, with Shelby’s face in between her legs and absolutely zero regrets.

After a short while of talking to other people, a little drunk Toni (as in she’s a little bit drunk and also really short) meanders across the room, gazing around at all her friends and assorted guests milling about, before she finally catches sight of who she’s looking for: “Shelby!” she calls out, making a few heads turn, but only one stays looking at her whilst everyone else turns away to continue their conversations, paying her no mind.

There’s a permanent dopey smile stuck into Toni’s face, and Shelby returns it automatically. “You havin’ fun, birthday girl?”

“Mhmm,” Toni hums. She’s nodding enthusiastically as she reaches for Shelby’s wrist; on it are the two bracelets she gave her for Christmas, the ones with the shell and the bee charms. “Bee shell,” she says whilst moving the bee charm over the shell, switching the position of the bracelets. “Bee shell.”

Okay, so maybe Toni is more than just a little bit drunk, because after that she tries to lean in and kiss her neck but ends up hiccuping into Shelby’s shoulder, and Shelby has to gently pry her off and lead her to the sofa, telling her, “Alright, Toni, we need to get you some water.”

Toni flops down onto a grey couch as Shelby grabs a sealed water bottle from the packs that Nora has graciously scattered around the main room for drunk people in need of hydration. “Tell me a fun fact about yourself,” she says, her words a bit slurred as she clumsily takes the water that Shelby offers her.

“Hmm.” The blonde taps her chin in thought, then says, “I used to rap on the morning announcements at school.”

Water almost spurts out of Toni’s nose, which makes her swallow so hard her throat hurts. “What?”

“Yep,” Shelby says in a strained way like it pains her to admit this fun fact.

“Gimme an example, please,” Toni begs, prompting Shelby to shake her head and for Toni to add, “Please, it’s my birthday.”

“It’s almost midnight!” Shelby insists, immediately regretting mentioning this because she knows she’s going to give into her in five, four, three, two…

“Yeah, almost, so it’s still my birthday. Please?”

One.

So, the Texan clears her throat and timidly starts, “Good mornin’ y’all, here’s your—lord, do I really have to?” Toni nods. “The things I do for love,” Shelby mutters before picking the (off) beat back up: “Here’s your wake up call, don’t you forget, there’s prom tickets to get, so come on down, to the office of Mrs Brown, five dollars each, it’s just in reach!”

Toni blinks—and then, she claps.

“Dude, I wish that they did morning announcements in, like, all my classes, that was the sickest thing ever,” she says, like she isn’t too drunk to know what she’s saying and like she isn’t currently slurring half of her words. “Mrs Brown is so lucky. want a shoutout in your morning raps. Can you rap about me on the next morning announcement? We can start a petition to make morning announcements a thing here.”

Shelby decides to skip past everything relating to the rap for the sake of her own well-being and asks, “Did you just call me dude?” 

“Yeah,” Toni says, nodding. 

“I thought we were datin’, is that like some sort of romantic term of endearment up in the midwest?”

“Oh, totally,” Toni says with even more nodding, prompting Shelby to urge her to take more sips of her water. “Girlfriends aren’t real in—” Toni hiccups, “in the midwest. Just… dude. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.”

“That’s real interestin’ Toni,” Shelby coos as Toni finally begins to drink the water. It’s not like Toni is that drunk, it’s just that given her relatively low tolerance to alcohol it’s easy for her to get into a state where she says things like “bee shell” and “rap for me”.

Turns out that Nora and Rachel are actually somewhat culinary geniuses, a mildly sobered-up Toni finds an hour later as Nora brings out a cake with nineteen candles around the edge. “I measured the circumference of the cake tin to make sure all the candles were evenly spaced out,” she says as she places it on the coffee table so that Dot can begin to light each candle with the lighter she whips out of one of her many, many pockets.

Everyone sings happy birthday, with Fatin pointing the camera at Toni and the cake so that Martha and Mrs B can join in while she (attempts to) dramatically sing in an operatic style with Dot. Toni’s lucky enough that either side of her are Shelby and Rachel, both of whom are actually really good singers and who sound like angels compared to the rest of the drunk choir.

Then it’s time to blow out the candles and make a wish. 

When she was five, she wished for a plastic basketball hoop to put in the yard. When she was six, she wished for an endless supply of candy, as well as a water slide from her bedroom to the garden, two kittens (one black and one white), plus with a dad who could carry her on her shoulders and cheer for her during school sports days the way all the fathers of the other kids in the class would. On her seventh and eight birthday, she wished for her mom to get better—then on the ninth through to the fifteenth, she wished to be able to celebrate her birthday with her again. On her sixteenth she didn’t have to ask for that; Mrs B baked her a cake and sang to her with Martha and all her sisters, so she wished for Martha to get a new fish because she really wanted one, and that was the first time since the age of five that any of her wishes came true. At seventeen, she wished for the basketball captaincy next year (plus for Villanelle and Eve from the television show ‘Killing Eve’ to kiss in the upcoming season), then at eighteen she wished her scholarship to UCLA wouldn’t fall through.

Now, at nineteen, surrounded by her friends with her sister on the phone and her girlfriend by her side, scholarship still intact, she doesn’t really know what to ask for from the birthday gods as she blows out the candles. So, because there’s still a little bit of alcohol in her brain and it’s a bit foggy up there, she wishes for the vending machine near the library to stop trapping her Takis inside every single freaking time she tires to buy some.

“What d’ya wish for?” Shelby asks, wrapping an arm around her waist as she passes her the first slice of cake which Toni happily starts digging into.

“I’m not allowed to say it or it won’t come true,” she responds through a mouthful of vanilla sponge, because honestly she really needs this wish to materialise. 

“The rule doesn’t apply to girlfriends,” Fatin chimes in from the other end of the table where she’s already beginning to set up a race between her and Dot to see who can finish the slice first.

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

So Toni shrugs and says, “Good enough. I wished for Takis.”

Shelby blinks. “For real?”

“Yeah, every day I try to get it out of the vending machine but it never fucking works,” she says with her eyebrows in a knot like she’s discussing a very serious issue. “I need it to work.”

The blonde hums and nods along with what Toni says, and Toni continues to ramble—‘Takis are the best chips ever’ this, ‘the vending machine is homophobic’ that—but all the whole she’s just staring at Shelby’s lips, wondering when the right time is to just lean in and shut herself up. Luckily for her, Shelby gets the memo and does it for her, pressing a smile to her own with such softness that Toni melts right into the kiss and tugs her closer by the collar of her dress.

“Fucking gross,” she hears Rachel mumble as she stands up to eat her own cake slice in peace. 

After that, the pair hardly stop touching each other for the rest of the night—not inappropriately, it’s not like they’re making out in front of everyone, they’re gracious enough to slip into the bathroom for fifteen minutes to do that. Even when they’re having two separate conversations with different groups, they’re always holding hands or brushing their knees together when sitting down. Nobody notices, or at least if they do they choose to say nothing because at the end of the day it’s blatantly obvious how stupidly in love they both are, you can see it in their eyes every time they catch a glimpse of each other.

“I feel so fucking single, dude,” Dot grumbles quietly to Rachel. “But I don’t even care ‘cause they’re so cute together.”

“For real.” Rachel nods. “I feel like I should be irritated but I can’t be.” She then raises her voice loud enough so Toni can hear and says, “Shalifoe’s down so bad it’s embarrassing though, right?” 

“Fuck off.”

===

Dot kicks everyone out after midnight, citing noise complaints as the reason even though it’s total bullshit. The usual seven hang back though, changing out of their nice party clothes in favour of lose t-shirts and sleep shorts. Dot whips out a whole sleeping bag fit for the wild, claiming a spot on the living room floor. Fatin claims the spot directly next to Dot, in the sleeping bag, arguing that, “It’s warm.”

As everyone else finds their own places to camp for the night, Toni claims the sofa and beckons Shelby to join her. Shelby shakes her head, saying there isn’t enough space on it for the both of them, but Toni says she can just lay down on top of her. 

“Are you sure this is gonna be comfortable?” she asks, perched on the side of the couch.

“Yeah, c’mon.” Toni opens her arms wide for Shelby to fall into them, and when she does, Toni melts a little at the feeling of Shelby’s entire weight pressing her down.

Shelby shifts a little to make herself comfortable, burying her face in the crook of Toni’s neck. “Is this okay?”

“Mhmm.”

The girl above her presses a kiss to her neck, making Toni shudder at the sensation because fuck does that feel good. If they were anywhere else she would ask her to keep going, but for everyone’s sake she settles on just stroking her back soothingly. She feels Shelby whisper, “I love you,” into her skin, so she whispers it back.

“Did you have a good birthday?” she asks her quietly.

“Yeah, I had a great birthweek,” Toni responds. “All thanks to you.”

One by one, all the other girls begin to drift off to sleep—all but Shelby and Toni. Once she’s sure everyone else is asleep, Shelby quietly rolls off of Toni’s body and whispers, “Let’s go outside,” and so the two of them find themselves stood in the balcony in total silence, simply enjoying the presence of one another.

“It’s crazy,” Toni says out of the blue, still staring up at the orange, starless sky. 

Shelby cocks her head and hums questioningly.

“Like, I get to be happy,” she continues. “But it’s kinda scary. Weird feeling to get used to.”

“I get it. It’s funny how after years of being told I’d be sad and alone if I didn’t act straight, I’m the happiest and least lonely I’ve ever been with you.”

Tears begin to well up, threatening to spill out of brown eyes. “Fuck, Shelby, don’t make me cry.”

Shelby doesn’t say anything back, just reaches out to lace their fingers together and lets out a content sigh as Toni thinks about how, despite it being a different kind of loneliness, she’s struggled with that same feeling her whole life—there’s always been a sort of emptiness, a hole of sorts that grew and grew with time, but now, she can feel it closing up. She feels whole. 

The realisation makes her smile up at the stars behind the sky.

===

Two months later, Toni’s shoving all of her belongings into her backpack, basketball duffel bag, and an industrial strength bin bag. It holds all of her stuff—old and new—even if there’s no room to spare. 

“Hey,” Fatin calls from her desk which is now devoid of any personal belongings. “Leah just texted inviting us to some open mic thing at a bar to celebrate the fact we survived freshman year and that she won her case. You coming?”

“Leah won her case?”

She looks up to see Fatin beaming proudly. “Fuck yeah she did. That creep’s getting locked up for years, saving us all from having to read his shitty books.”

“And she’s okay?”

Fatin’s smile grows even wider. “She’s, like, Shelby-level happy right now.”

Toni looks around at their barren dorm room—well, Toni’s side is pretty tidy, there’s still clothes littered everywhere on Fatin’s side—and decides that yeah, she deserves a break from all this packing, plus she wants to be there to celebrate her friend’s win against the man who messed her up so badly. “Sure, let’s go.”

Everyone’s already there when they arrive; there’s some chill acoustic music coming from the person onstage that fills in as background for the chatter that fills the room. The second she sees her, Shelby jumps up to throw her arms around Toni and greet her like they didn’t just see each other for lunch—and it makes Toni legitimately melt into her arms because she will never get over the way that everything with Shelby feels as exiting as the first time—and they slide into the booth side by side. “Hey babe.”

“Hi baby,” Shelby replies, giving her a private smile that’s paired with a blush. “How’s the packin’? All good?”

“Yep, pretty much done. You?”

Shelby nods. “I’ve just got a few little things left to put away, now we’ve just gotta pray that Fatin’s mom pulls through for us.” She crosses her fingers, and Toni isn’t embarrassed to admit that she finds that stupidly cute. “I have to say though, Leah,” Shelby adds, turning to her roommate, “I will miss you and our late night talks.”

“Me too. Train wrecks unite.” The two of them laugh; Toni figures it’s some sort of inside joke, and places a comforting hand on Shelby’s knee beneath the table. “I used to think that I’d get engaged at one of these,” Leah continues from her seat across the table from Shelby and Toni. “Or at, like, a slam poetry competition where the person would write the proposal as a slam poem.”

“Please do not expect that from me,” Fatin tells her with a grimace. “There’s a lot of things I’d do for you, but that? Yeah, no, not that.”

“It’s okay Leah, can’t be much worse than what used to think my engagement would be like,” says Shelby, to which Leah asks what it was leading her to reply, “With a man.”

Everyone reacts in disgust. 

“Dude, I remember you in middle school talking about how you had a crush on Tony Romo,” Dot says with a laugh. “That should’ve been the first red flag—or the first pink, white and orange flag, actually.”

Everyone laughs at the joke except for Fatin, whose eyes are wide in realisation. “Wait wait wait wait wait.” She places her hands flat down on the table, looks right at Shelby and says, “Let me get this straight: you had a quote-on-quote crush on someone called Tony Romo only to go on and date… Toni Shalifoe?”

Toni watches Shelby blush in embarrassment, but it only lasts for a moment because Shelby is everything that Toni isn’t; cool and collected—so Shelby, beaming, nudges her and says, “I guess I’ve got a type, huh?” Toni’s a little busy trying to gaze adoringly at her girlfriend’s eyes to notice the way that Fatin rolls her eyes at the couple before whispering conspiratorially to Dot, who nods at her before rising to her feet.

“Shelby Faith Goodkind!” Fatin calls dramatically, turning the heads of everyone at the table towards her—but she’s not addressing Shelby, she’s looking straight up at Dot, whose hands are clasped over her mouth, and then she drops to one knee. Leah shoots Toni and Shelby a look that says ‘I am so sorry’; Nora stares blankly while slowly sipping her drink; Shelby has a completely scandalised look on her face; Toni, well, she does what she does best, and blinks at them. She just blinks. All the while, Fatin grasps Dot’s hands in her own and continues, “I, Antonia Shalifoe”—that earns her a glare from Toni—“would like to say to you, my dearest Shelby Faith Goodkind, are the love of my life. Your sunshine brightens up my day like nobody else.”

“Oh, Antonia!” Dot drawls in a thick Texan accent, two octaves above her natural register. “Why, that’s real romantic of you, God bless you.” 

That gets Toni laughing, which gets her a (kind of) gentle elbow to the ribs from Shelby because, “I do not speak like that,” she hisses. 

Fatin’s completely in character as she carries on, “Your deep, alluring green orbs”—Leah gags—“melt my cold, angry, dead heart. I have never believed in God, but then I met you and now I realise he handpicked us to be soulmates. We are destined to be together forever, crafted for one another, and I could not imagine my life without you in it. I am forever indebted to my wonderful, kind, hot as fuck roommate for making us meet back in August. I swear to you, Shelby, that was the day my life begun, because life is only worth living when you’re in it. So, Shelby Faith Goodkind…” Fatin reaches into her back pocket, produces a handful of air and holds it up to Dot. “Will you do me the pleasure of becoming my wife and marrying me?”

Dot is wiping away fake tears and nodding like her life depends on it. “Why yes, Antonia, with God as my witness I promise you that I will marry you.”

Then everyone goes woah as the duo crash into each other, sloppily pretending to make out by kissing their thumbs which separate their lips; Nora and Leah are clapping and cheering along with the people in the surrounding tables who all genuinely think this was an actual engagement. Amidst the commotion, Toni sinks into her chair in embarrassment and prays for the ground to swallow her whole. Shelby notices this, leans down and says quietly so only she can hear, “That was pretty romantic, don’t ya think? The whole thing about us bein’ soulmates.”

Somehow Toni becomes even more flushed because Shelby’s legitimately implying that their souls were created for one another—and if Toni gets butterflies when Shelby does so much as look in her direction then her stomach is on a whole other level beyond a butterfly exhibit right now, it’s more like a stampede of wild animals all hurtling towards each other.

So, as always the master of deflection, Toni huffs and mutters, “Yeah but my speech is gonna be way better than that.” The words slip out before she can even register what they are let alone what they mean, and suddenly the idea of the ground opening up to swallow her whole is seeming like even more of a good idea. Yeah she’s admitted before that she wants to spend the rest of her life with Shelby, and while she was nervous to let that slip a few months into their relationship, it ended up fine because Shelby feels the same way and it’s all good—but the problem is that that’s more of a hypothetical agreement whereas “I will write you an amazing proposal speech” has the heavy underlying implications of “I want to be legally tied to you forever”. Plus, Shelby’s a Christian and though Toni might not know too much about the ins and outs of Christianity, she does know that marriage is a sacred thing and Shelby probably really cares about it and—

“Oh, so you think you’ll be the one gettin’ down on one knee, huh?”

Oh.

Toni really needs to stop worrying about these things. 

It’s not like she’s worried that she’ll scare Shelby off or anything like that, if there’s one thing Toni feels secure about is their relationship, she just knows that this is all new for Shelby and doesn’t want to overwhelm her—but the thing is, Toni’s the one who’s overwhelmed. She’s never felt so much for another person in her life, she’s never wanted to be with someone so badly. She’s never had something so good in her life. It’s overwhelming, but in the best way.

Maybe she should stop stressing herself out so much, though, this can’t be good for her heart. Toni takes a mental check note to relax, or in her words: chill the fuck out. 

Halfway through dinner and drinks, Fatin and Dot decide it would be absolutely hilarious to go up to the mic and improvise a slam poem about shrimp, and to their credit it is pretty freaking hilarious. Nora and Shelby have tears in the corners of their eyes while the other two clutch their sides from laughter, having to put down their drinks in case they spit it out, and when they finally finish the room bursts into applause while the two of them bow like they’re on a Broadway stage.

“Dorothy, have we just found our calling?” Fatin asks, sitting back down at the table.

“Hell fucking yeah, I can just quit my day job now.”

They high five, then Fatin says, “Right, who wants to try and top that?”

Nobody speaks, but Shelby looks like she’s considering it so eventually she says, “Maybe I’ll go play somethin’ on the guitar.”

“Wait, you play guitar?” Toni asks, eyes wide at this new fun fact about Shelby—one that makes her instantly hotter, if that’s even possible. 

“I’m a country girl born to and raised by Taylor Swift, Toni,” she answers, playing up the Texan accent, “what more did you expect from me?”

And of course Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all has the confidence to waltz right up to the stage, pick up the acoustic guitar and say, “Hi y’all, I’m Shelby Goodkind. I’m goin’ to be singin’ a song by one of my all time favourite artists.” Fatin whoops, making her laugh into the mic. “So, I know my friends and girlfriend will never let me hear the end of this but”—she sits down on the stool with the guitar resting on her thighs—“this song means the world to me. It’s Lover by Taylor Swift, I hope y’all enjoy.”

Toni’s heart forgets to beat. 

The slow finger-picked chords fill the room during the intro, and it makes Toni so lightheaded she swears she’s going to pass out. Her mouth hangs open in shock and she’s completely frozen in place as Shelby’s angelic voice sings over the guitar—she’s singing about leaving Christmas lights up until Janurary and letting friends crash in the living room and always being this close forever and ever, but the final straw is when she replaces the word ‘man’ to sing, “I take this magnetic force of a girl to be my lover”.

Toni never recovers from that; the overwhelming feeling of something that can only be ascribed to pure, unconditional love, the type that engulfs you so that you’re drowning in it but breathing the best you ever have. She doesn’t even process when the song finishes, she can’t even bring herself to clap, so when Shelby sits back down beside her looking a bit worried that she didn’t enjoy the performance, Toni just kisses her. 

She doesn’t care if all their friends are watching, she cups her face in her hands and kisses her. 

She knows she’s never going to forget this: the way Shelby’s lips feel soft and cushiony beneath her own, the way her bottom lip slots perfectly between Toni’s own. She also knows she’s never going to have to forget it.

It’s only one kiss but it sends the room spinning and leaves the couple staring at each other, nothing but sheer adoration shining in their eyes. 

“Hey, lovebirds,” Fatin calls out to them, making them both jump apart; they were so wrapped up in each other that they forgot they weren’t the only two people in the room. “My mom just texted, we got those flats we wanted.”

Toni’s cheeks hurt from smiling. “For real?”

“For real dude, we get the keys tomorrow. No more kicking each other out of our rooms.”

Shelby, who has her arm wrapped around Toni’s waist, tugs her a little closer and turns to smile at her. Toni meets her gaze and has to gulp when she realises how close their faces are, because her and Shelby could be married for ten years with children and a cat but she would still be getting this flustered around her every single time. “Well,” she says as she looks right into Toni’s light brown eyes. “That’ll be real convenient.”

===

That night, Toni’s in Shelby’s bed—or her bed, she can’t actually tell the difference between the two rooms anymore—with her girlfriend laying across from her, their foreheads pressed together.

“Goodnight, beautiful,” Shelby whispers with her eyes closed. “Sweet dreams.”

Toni leaves a light kiss on her cheek. “Sleep well, princess.”

Toni falls asleep to Shelby’s fingers tracing patterns on the small of her back, dreaming about green eyes and blonde hair and a radiant smile, and when she wakes up the next morning tangled up in her arms, she finds herself daydreaming about waking up like this every day in their shared flat, never having to hope for their roommates to spend the night with each other to give them an excuse to spend time together.

Months later, when she’s curled up on her side in bed with her best friend waking her up with a kiss and a, “Good mornin’, lover,” she realises that her reality with Shelby is impossibly better than any daydream.