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Toni Shalifoe’s move-in day at UCLA is going smoother than she’d anticipated. 

Her roommate introduces herself as Fatin and tells her she’s already claimed the bed on the right side of the room, which Toni isn’t exactly bothered about, and asks her if she needs help to unpack. Toni gives her a once-over before looking around at the three open suitcases on the floor, examining the array of silk pyjamas and fur coats.

“Nah,” she replies, “thanks though.”

Toni doesn’t have a suitcase; she has a backpack, her basketball duffel bag, and an industrial strength bin bag. It holds all her stuff—old and new—with room to spare. She feels that maybe she should be a little embarrassed at how instead of three suitcases she has three mismatched bags that contain everything she owns, but she doesn’t really care. Toni doesn’t really care about things. 

Okay, that’s a lie and she knows it. Toni cares about a lot of things—too much, even. She cares about basketball, she cares about her sister and adoptive mom, and she cares about her friends. Fatin says she’s going to pop out to get a coffee and offers to buy her one too, and so now Toni also cares about her.

While her new roommate is absent, Toni takes the opportunity to put away her clothes in their shared wardrobe which is already chock full of Fatin’s clothes. Still, even after Toni has put in all her own items of clothing there’s still space left—which is probably for the best given the amount that Fatin had left on the floor.

“I forgot to ask you what you like so I just got you a caramel latte, is that good?” asks the rich girl who’s just arrived back in the room.

“Sure, thanks.” 

Toni takes the cold plastic cup from Fatin’s hands and brings the straw to her lips. Hmm, not too bad, she thinks—because no, Toni’s never actually had a Starbucks before. Coffee’s not really her thing, she personally prefers energy drinks, so it’s not that big of a deal.

“What’s your major?” Fatin asks casually, sitting cross-legged on the left side bed which she had already declared to be Toni’s, not her own.

“Not sure yet, you?”

“No idea either.” 

Toni decides she likes her. 

===

They end up going off to check out the campus together. Fatin’s been here before to visit—Toni hasn’t—so she relies on her new and only LA friend to navigate through the streets and buildings and courtyards full of stalls promoting different societies. It’s boiling and Toni’s regretting not wearing a tank top instead of a black t-shirt that’s absorbing all the heat being emitted from the sun. The sun also makes everything look a little too bright, even from behind sunglasses, and so she walks around squinting everywhere which just makes it look like she’s continuously scowling at everyone and everything.

There’s a tall brunette standing next to a blonde girl at a queue to a food truck several yards away, and Toni swears she’s been transported into some modern sapphic Romeo and Juliet when Fatin and the brunette lock eyes.

“She’s so hot,” Fatin whispers unashamedly as if this isn’t the sixth sentence she’s ever said to Toni. The brunette is wearing a red t-shirt tucked into her jeans with a brown belt, and the ends of her trousers are cuffed to reveal striped socks poking out from blue canvas shoes.

“Shoot your shot dude,” Toni mumbles. Personally, she’s more interested in the food that the truck is selling. She may be an athlete, but fried food always makes her mouth water. She’s about to ask Fatin if they can go get something to eat from there, but before she can even speak she’s already being dragged by the wrist over to the queue.

And then Fatin is talking happily with this girl, who Toni learns is called Leah Rilke (“like the German poet”), and that the blonde girl in the yellow blouse with the denim shorts is called Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all. Toni frowns and looks her up and down. The girl smells sweet, like some type of red fruit with some other undertone, and it throws Toni off when she realises how nice it is.

“Texas?” Is the only thing she can say; she blurts it out quite awkwardly actually, causing Fatin and Leah to give each other quizzical looks.

“You got somethin’ against Texas?” the girl asks in jest with a raised eyebrow.

“No, it’s um—” Toni stutters, her tongue tripping over itself with a nervousness she’s never had when talking to new girls before. “I love Texas.”

Shut up, Toni, says her little inner voice as well as Fatin’s glare. She’s never even been to Texas.

Luckily, Fatin sparks the conversation back up with the other two girls, and Toni is no longer having to dig the hole she’d accidentally started excavating the second she laid eyes on Shelby Goodkind. During the talk, Toni learns two things: Leah is a freshman and so is Shelby, and Shelby is extremely pretty.

Not that she didn’t know how pretty Shelby is from the moment she laid eyes on her, but up close it’s different.

The second fact plays on her mind as she watches Shelby bite into the hot dog she just bought, and Toni almost has to tear her eyes way because this girl has to be straight, so she doesn’t want to set herself up for disappointment. It starts to feel a little too hot and stuffy outside, probably humidity or something is what she tells herself, so Toni discreetly tugs at her collar and tries to focus on anything other than her incoming gay panic.

The four of them make their way to sit atop a stone wall under a tree for shade against the LA sun beating down on them. Toni’s glad she hasn’t had to go out of her way to make friends yet, if she can even consider any of them friends. Surely Fatin is her friend already, and if she gets with Leah she’ll become a friend as an extension. Maybe Shelby Goodkind would be added to the list, but the girl has a cross necklace around her neck—and though Toni doesn’t like to assume things, she gets the misuses-the-Bible-for-hate vibes from her. It’s probably the combination of that and the silky golden hair that looks like heaven to touch. Plus that accent is kind of annoying.

That’s a lie, it’s endearing as hell, but Toni can’t admit that.

During the remainder of the conversation, Toni sticks solely to pleasantries, feigning an unrealistic amount of focus in the small bag of fries she’s eating out of. Fatin gets Leah’s number without any effort, and Toni deliberates asking for Shelby’s number just to make friends with her but then she tells herself some lie about her being annoying or whatever and decides to not ask her.

Back in their dorm room Fatin tells her, “Dude, that Shelby girl legit looked crestfallen when you didn’t ask her for her number.” 

Toni flops down onto her own bed and groans. “She was annoying.”

Fatin and her know that’s a lie so Fatin says, “No, but she was hot.”

“Leah’s hot. Can I get hers?”

A pillow with a silk cover collides with the side of Toni’s face.

===

Somehow, Fatin has already scored an invite to a frat party—not really Toni’s scene—so that evening she decides to check out more of the campus by herself. She makes it to the basketball court—which is even bigger than it looks in photos—and it’s almost breathtaking. She’s not sure she’s even allowed to be here but figures if she wasn’t the doors would be locked, so she walks to the middle of the court and spins around on her heels to take in the sight. Almost like a movie scene, she imagines the crowd roaring after she scores, her teammates piling on top of her and shaking her shoulders with an adrenaline-fuelled pride.

Annoyingly, a southern accent interrupts her fantasy with a, “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

Toni snaps her head round to look behind her to see none other than Shelby Goodkind from Texas, nice to meet y’all standing at the entrance. 

The word annoying is being used a lot today in the context of Shelby Goodkind, and Toni wonders if she even has any grounds to be saying it when Shelby is anything but. That’s also a lie, she is annoying. Annoyingly attractive. But it’s just a stupid schoolgirl crush, Toni isn't hung up on it. 

“Why are you here then?” Toni bites back.

The blonde shrugs. “Got bored and went explorin’. My roommate’s on a date if you can believe it, first day and all.”

Cogs turn in Toni’s mind. “Leah?” She receives a nod in confirmation. “Girl’s got game.”

“I’m guessin’ Fatin’s your roommate?”

Toni nods and wonders when southern accents became attractive. She realises she has two options: try to figure out if she’s gay and flirt with her in aims of having a one, maybe two night stand with her, or stick with her guns and get annoyed at everything this girl says and does because Lord, is she overly optimistic. For some reason—maybe fear or nervousness, maybe pride, maybe the fact that she’s just not in the mood right now—Toni settles for the latter.

“Yeah, congrats Sherlock.”

It doesn’t come out as snappy as Toni wants because Shelby brushes it off and asks, “You play?” as if she’d ever genuinely be interested in whether Toni’s in sports or not.

For some reason Toni finds herself saying, “I’m here on a basketball scholarship.”

“Cool.” 

Cool? Really?

“Bet you’re here on daddy’s money,” Toni quips, and she watches Shelby’s jaw tighten at the comment.

“Right, sure.” There’s a shift in her voice and all of a sudden it goes back to being its normal happy lilt again: “I’m gonna go ‘cause I don’t think either of us should be here right now. Comin’? We could get some food.” Her tone goes soft with the offer, and that southern accent does things to Toni that should be akin to that physical tightness she gets when she’s annoyed, but it’s not. It’s more like it’s winding a little hot coil in her lower abdomen. It’s because she’s analysing her voice too much.

She decides she’s not going anywhere with Shelby Goodkind from Texas.

“I’m good, I’m gonna stay here for a bit.” 

Shelby holds her hands up. “If you get caught that’s on you, short girl.”

Toni scoffs. “Short girl, really? You’re so original. At least say Hobbit or something less didactic.”

“Didactic?” Shelby laughs. “What are you, an English student?”

“Shut up Texas.”

“Texas, wow, you’re so original. So didactic too. Where did you come up with that one?”

The short girl blinks, unable to respond to that because the answer is too obvious. Then with a sly smirk Shelby walks out, and Toni swears she flicks her hair over her shoulder and winks while she’s at it.

She’s only had one and a half conversations with this girl, but Toni knows she’s going to be the death of her—in more ways than one.

===

Toni ends up at a nightclub that appears to be extremely popular with students. She’s aware that she looks a little sad like this, perched on the cushioned metal stool alone with her gin and tonic—but it’s the first day so can she really be expected to have a million friends already?

She’s halfway through a bowl of mediocre-tasting nachos when her eyes catch a flash of blonde hair. 

Of course Shelby Goodkind is here. Of course she is, and of course she’s dancing with some girl. Her hips are swaying and her arms are over her head, until they’re not and instead become wrapped around the neck of the girl she’s dancing with. Toni is ever so slightly very incredibly unreasonably jealous of the girl—the brunette one—because Shelby’s hot. Annoying, but still hot. But probably straight.

She notices that Shelby’s wearing a flared black skirt that Toni didn’t even register at the basketball court. It’s short and reveals all the right things, and Toni’s head is spinning at the sight. She forces herself to tear her eyes away from it—away from her—but it only proves to be a disadvantage as she’s caught off-guard by a wave of the scent of red fruits and a soft hand to her shoulder.

“Toni!” calls that southern drawl, thicker and slower than she’d heard it before. “This is Dot,” Shelby says, gesturing to the girl beside her who she’d just been dancing with. “Dot, this is my new short friend, Toni.”

“Heyyyy short friend,” the girl slurs. “I’m Dot, also from Texas. Nice to meet you.” She extends a hand out and Toni goes to shake it, but Dot just sort of clasps it and gives her hand an intense squeeze.

“Hey taller friend,” Toni greets back. She suddenly feels a little bit too sober for all of this: meeting Shelby’s friend, who also appears to be Texan, which is just great.

It’s at that moment that Dot decides to grab a nacho and Shelby sits beside Toni, her knee brushing against her thigh, and clearly she has no intention of moving her knee. Great, Toni thinks, just great.

Shelby’s gaze hovers over Toni’s bare arms for a second too long before she says something, but it’s too loud for Toni to hear, so she has to repeat herself: “I said I can tell you work out!”

Oh. “Oh?” They stare at each other dumbly until Toni blurts out a “thanks”. She’s about to say something else—she is, she swears she’s going to—but then Dot starts talking about how she’s going to a different college nearby, one that Toni doesn’t quite catch the name of, and her gaze is torn away from Shelby so she can pay attention to Dot.

The three of them end up talking for a good hour; it’s mostly just Dot’s not-very-sober ramblings, but she’s extremely funny and has a deadpan sense of humour that Toni enjoys. She asks for her social media handle, to which Dot responds to with, “I know I’m wearing cargo shorts but I’m not a lesbian.”

“What? No, dude, I just think you’re funny and I need friends in the area.”

Dot apologises profusely for assuming that Toni... “swings that way”, but Toni tells her not to worry because she is—she does, she is a lesbian—and it’s all a little awkward, especially with Shelby right next to her and the fact that Shelby chooses this moment to retract her knee from the side of Toni’s thigh, and Toni tries to not think too much of it and refuses to let her mind jump to the worst conclusion, that she’s homophobic, but it’s sort of gone there already.

===

All three of them end up hailing a cab to offset the costs, and as it turns out Toni and Shelby live in the same building, because of course they have to, and as they walk up to their respective dorms they realise they live on the same floor—because of course they have to.

“So why’d you pick LA?” Shelby asks as they climb up the stairs. It’s the most she’s said to her since the comment about working out.

Toni shrugs. “I like the beach.” She decides to not mention the fact she hasn’t seen the ocean since she was a very very young child and lived in New Zealand with her biological mom before they moved to Minnesota and it all went to shit, and how because of that, there’s something comforting about beaches for her. “What about you?”

“I like the beach too, and the warm weather. California’s the hottest out of the states that are furthest away from home.” Just as she says that she stumbles, and Toni has to steady her with a hand on her bicep. It makes her realise that Shelby probably most definitely wouldn’t be telling her this if she was even remotely sober.

Toni’s dorm is first, but she skips it and lets Shelby guide her to her own dorm room. She’s about to bid her goodbye when Shelby says, “Has anyone ever told you you’ve got the most drop dead gorgeous eyes?”

Toni takes in a shallow breath and notices that her hand is still very much on Shelby’s arm, and that Shelby is very much in her personal space right now, so much so that their faces are inches away from each other.

She gulps. “Yours are very pretty too.”

Fatin doesn’t let her hear the end of that one.

===

“I’m so fucking blissed out,” Fatin states, elongating the last vowel.

Toni sits up in her bed. “Are you meditating?”

Her roommate is sat cross-legged with her hands on her knees, thumbs and index fingers touching. “I’m drunk and hooked up with some football player in the bathroom. And let me tell you, the things that boy could do with his hands—”

That doesn’t answer her question, but “that’s good to know, Fatin.”

There’s a minute silence until Fatin announces she’s going to try to get with that girl they’d met earlier that day, Leah, and then she’s passed out in her bed. Toni sighs and takes her shoes off for her, then proceeds to fall asleep too.

That was a strange first day.

===

@itsnotdotc: Dude why didnt you ask for Shelbys number that night at the bar? 

Toni blinks at the notification. She’s sat on her bed in the dark; Fatin’s out on her first date with Leah. She had just been at the bar, hanging out with Dot for a while, which means she’s a little buzzed.

It’s been two weeks since the first day. Toni has seen Shelby a fair amount, but it’s always in group settings, usually with Fatin and Leah (who seem to be hitting it off quite well), a lot of the time Dot too, and a quieter girl named Nora, who has a sister up in Stanford. They haven’t really talked one-on-one, but whenever they’re in the same room it’s always fleeting touches and glances that last a second too long.

@toni_shalif03: idk cause she’s straight. why?

Toni has been telling herself it’s just in her head.

@itsnotdotc: You asked for MY @ even tho Im straight 

@itsnotdotc: Besides who says Shelbys straight?

Toni is telling herself it’s just in her head.

@toni_shalif03: umm well i just assumed ig

@itsnotdotc: Well good thing she’s gay!

Toni’s really trying here.

She never gets to respond to Dot’s text, because suddenly the door swings open, and Toni can make out two figures in the dark, who are, funnily enough, making out.

“Dude, are you serious?”

The taller figure jumps back at the noise but Fatin’s still moving towards the bed.

“Sorry, not used to roommates,” Fatin says with a dramatic sigh. “Oh well.”

“We’ll be on our way,” Leah begins, but then she’s being pulled towards the bed anyway as if Toni isn’t in the room. Luckily for her, however, Leah managed to say, “Room 120,” and that’s how Toni finds herself in the next hall over outside the door to room one-twenty.

She knows who’s on the other side of the door, and she knows that she’s showing up outside the girl’s room completely uninvited and without warning—so she considers simply turning and leaving, maybe going back to the bar to pick someone up herself—but then the door swings wide open.

Shelby is stood flummoxed, clad in just a white dressing gown with a towel in one arm and toiletries bag in the other. “Leah’s out,” she blurts out a little dumbly.

“I know,” Toni responds with the same kind of nervous energy. “Her and Fatin are currently hooking up in my room, so she told me I could come here. Guessing her date the other week didn’t go well?”

“Nope, but this one clearly did. Well I’m glad she checked with me.” Shelby steps out of the room and allows the door to shut behind her. “I’m going to the showers.”

And maybe Toni’s just too drunk to say it—she’s not, she’s almost completely sober by now—but she forgets to mention that Leah didn’t give her keys, and by the time Shelby’s disappeared it’s too late to say anything. 

Toni just sort of slides down the door on her back until she’s sat on the floor, knees bent in front of her. Her fingertips drag aimlessly along them as if she’s raking sand at a beach, because anything to help distract her from the excruciating wait ahead of her, but it turns out to only last for one minute because soon Shelby’s flipflop footsteps can be heard down the hall again.

“I felt kinda bad, leavin’ you out here like this,” she says as she approaches, and Toni gets up to let her unlock the door. “I did consider it though, to see if you’d stick around for me.” She smiles and holds the door open, and Toni doesn’t really know what to do or say because Shelby’s being nice to her and Shelby’s wearing a gown that’s fallen open more at the chest than it had since Toni saw her five minutes ago. So she mumbles a thank you and walks in, taking in her surroundings.

“That’s Leah’s bed.” Shelby gestures to the bed on the right hand side. “Do you need clothes to sleep in? I’m sure Leah wouldn’t mind you borrowin’ a t-shirt of hers. Y’know, considering she borrowed your entire room.”

Toni finds herself laughing. “I’m not staying the night, don’t worry.”

“Sure.”

Shelby sits on the edge of her bed and kicks her toiletries bag underneath it. Toni notices that she’s a little bit messier than Leah—there’s a blouse strewn on the back of her desk chair and books messily piled on top. A ribbon pokes out from underneath the blouse, and Toni can make out the letters M-I-S and X-A-S. Impulsively, she reaches for it.

“Miss Texas... really?” Toni turns to Shelby, who’s rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, well done genius. I do pageants.”

“You do pageants?” she repeats. “Jesus H Christ, of course you do.”

Toni’s met with a polite, close-lipped smile. “You shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, Toni.” Shelby says it seriously—in a serious tone with a serious expression—but there’s a glint in her eyes that says otherwise.

“Whose name should I use then?” Toni asks sarcastically. “Yours?”

“Depends where you’re saying it,” Shelby replies—and Toni doesn’t know if it’s all in her imagination but she could swear Shelby legitimately winks at her before gathering her toiletries bag from under her bed. “I’m gonna go shower now. Don’t look through my stuff.”

“Well I wasn’t going to, but now that you give me the idea...”

“Oh shush,” Shelby says, rolling her eyes. “See ya, Short-stack.” She grabs a pastel pink towel from the hook on the back of the door, and it looks like she’s going to walk away but then she stops, hand on the door handle, and turns back to Toni. “I’m gonna try to find a smarter, less cliché nickname for you. Preferably one that still makes fun of your height.” And then she leaves—finally, much to Toni’s relief, but also a little to her disappointment—because now she’s alone in Leah and Shelby’s room and frankly she’s bored. More bored than she was when Shelby was here, of course, because being maybe-perhaps-borderline-flirted with by Shelby Goodkind (but maybe it was just her being nice, Toni thinks) is fun, to say the least.

Fun isn’t the right word but she’s too dazed to think of a better adjective.

Toni’s half asleep on Leah’s bed when Shelby comes back in, wet hair wrapped in a towel. She doesn’t say anything to Toni, simply sits herself down at her desk mirror and starts going through the motions of her night routine, rubbing moisturiser into her face and hands. Halfway through she asks Toni if she wants to borrow it, but Toni’s grunt in response is indecipherable behind the sleepiness in it, so Shelby doesn’t push.

“Bet you’ve never had to share a room before,” Toni remarks with a harsh laugh, noticing how Shelby’s stuff seems to take up far more space than Leah’s. She doesn’t know why she’s being so judgemental.

“Have you?” Shelby asks curiously with a tilt of the head as she closes a bottle of some skincare product.

Toni’s too sober to say what she says next: “In most of my foster placements, yeah. But I had my own room last year, when my sister’s sister moved out I got the room.”

Shelby furrows her eyebrows, trying to put the pieces together. “Sister’s... sister?”

“Yeah, it’s complicated but basically I moved in with my best friend who’s like a sister to me, so.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” Shelby looks like she’s going to ask more, not to pry but because she genuinely seems curious—and she is, she wants to get Toni more than what she knows of her already:

  1. She plays basketball at a collegiate level.
  2. The whole foster care thing.
  3. Her best friend is her sister.
  4. She’s extremely attractive.
  5. She’s not a fan of coffee.
  6. Her favourite snack is Takis (she found this out when Toni was kicking a vending machine because her precious snack got stuck, and Shelby helped her out by giving it a good shove, which Toni was very thankful for (although she was too flustered to mumble more than a “thanks, I appreciate that”)).
  7. Her smile is disarming.
  8. This list is getting too long already.

Toni’s asleep by the time Shelby starts putting clothes on a minute later. Well, she’s pretending to be asleep, because she doesn’t want Shelby to feel uncomfortable. She’s also very aware that Shelby doesn’t know that she knows that she’s gay.

The lights go off and Shelby climbs into her own bed. “You awake?” she whispers.

“Yeah.” Toni hears Shelby roll over to face her and for some reason it makes her blurt out, “Can I have your number?” Shelby fully giggles, and of course it’s the warmest sound Toni has ever heard.

Shelby’s phone lights up her side of the room as she opens up a new contact. “Damnit, you beat me to it.”

“Just in case we have to room again or something,” Toni adds, trying to cover up how flustered she is and how much she’s blushing. Good thing it’s too dark to see, she thinks as she steps over and types in her number.

“Thanks,” Shelby says quietly before lying back down.

A text comes through from her.

Unknown: I’m sure we’ll be rooming a lot!

Unknown: It’s Shelby by the way, in case you haven’t figured that out. Xx

Toni Shalifoe: well duh, im not an idiot 

Unknown: Personally I beg to differ.

Toni looks over to see Shelby smiling at the screen. It’s too pretty a sight, but she forces herself to look away and grumble a goodnight.

“Goodnight, Toni Shalifoe,” Shelby whispers—and her name has never sounded so good.

===

Shelby’s gone when Toni wakes up, but there’s a text that reads ‘You seem to be a slow starter so I’ve left you a pastry. I know you don’t like coffee, so. The door locks on its own so don’t worry about not having keys.’ There’s also one that reads ‘Have a good day! Xx

Butterflies flutter in her stomach and Toni thinks no, stop it, because Shelby’s not annoying and she’s pretty and she likes girls—she’s actually a lesbian—and Toni’s not awake enough to think about the repercussions of the fact that she’s enjoyed getting to know her way more than she expected.

And she feels comfortable around her too. This can’t be good.

===

Halfway through a lecture, Toni catches herself daydreaming about Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, and she realises it’s the third time this week.

It’s only Monday.

Toni’s screwed.

Chapter Text

“Your name is Antonia?”

Shelby thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world. Toni does not.

They’re both sat on the floor of Leah and Shelby’s bedroom only a week after the first night they spent together—in separate beds, of course; they were just roommates for one night, it doesn’t mean anything at all.

“Your name is Shelby, you can’t say shit,” Toni retorts.

“Literally what is wrong with the name Shelby?”

Shelby’s already dressed in her pyjamas: a red gingham sleeveless shirt with matching shorts that end at the top of her thighs. Toni isn’t—she’d been once again caught off-guard by Leah and Fatin stumbling into the dorm room that she swiftly had to evacuate. They were kind enough to wait for her to grab a toothbrush, at least, and Toni figured she could borrow something of Leah’s to sleep in. She kind of wants to swipe one of Shelby’s shirts instead, but it’s too early for that. Borrowing Leah’s things has no connotations, borrowing Shelby’s does. Or maybe it’s just in Toni’s head; there are no connotations when friends share clothes—because yes, Shelby is her friend, just like Fatin and Dot and Leah and Nora are her friends—especially if said friend and you are sleeping together.

Together in the same room.

“Everything is wrong with the name Shelby.”

Shelby scoffs. “Everythin’ is wrong with the name Antonia, yet here you are.”

“Hence why my name is Toni.”

“Hence? You keep findin’ ways to convince me that you’re secretly a literature student.”

The word ‘literature’ curls round her accent in a way that makes Toni’s mind blank, just for a second, until she replies with, “Well sorry that I have an extensive vocabulary.”

Shelby blinks. “Extensive? You’re diggin’ yourself into a hole here, short-stack.”

The short girl crumples her face into a scowl as she reaches forward to yank an open bag of Takis from Shelby’s hand, and funnily enough the “tall” (average height) girl doesn’t complain at all. Little does Toni know that Shelby doesn’t even enjoy the snack, she just knows Toni does, and so has bought a small stash to keep in her dorm room just in case Toni’s ever to room again—which, clearly, because she’s here right now. (They’d ended up having another sleepover a few days ago, and Toni had grumbled something about being hungry, so Shelby decided to be prepared. She wants her guests to be comfortable, after all).

“I thought you were gonna choose a new nickname for me,” Toni states as she chews on the end of a particularly long red chip, head tilted to the side.

“Genius takes time, Antonia.”

“Don’t call me that,” she snaps, but there’s no malice in it, just teasing. Shelby just rolls her eyes and sighs out a faux-exasperated “fine!”

Toni doesn’t have to come up with anything smart or clever to say because Leah walks into the room at that moment, hair dishevelled and says, “I’m so sorry guys, I just wanted to—” She clocks the mark on her neck in the desk mirror across the room, and her hand subconsciously drifts up to cover it, embarrassed.

“No worries,” Shelby assures her with a smile.

Both girls turn to Toni, who’s still sat with her knees bent on the floor and a purple packet in between them, crunching away.

“Oh, sorry,” she mutters self-consciously, standing up and dusting her hands off on her dark blue shorts. She goes to hand the packet to Shelby, but she insists she keeps it. “Okay, um, thanks. Bye then.”

She rushes out without looking at either of them, eyes trained on the floor.

Fatin’s already asleep when she enters her own dorm. It’s then that she realises just how late it is, and she wonders how she managed to keep up conversation with Shelby for this long without getting tired—Toni highly values her sleep, and so it’s not actually usual of her to stay up this late, let alone with enough energy to not feel drained after a long conversation.

It’s weird.

===

Sometimes, when Toni hangs out with Dot and/or Fatin and/or Leah, while Shelby’s there, she catches herself staring at the Texan, and Dot picks up on it—because of course she does.

“I heard you finally asked for her number,” Dot stage-whispers to Toni as the pair make their way up to Nora’s flat, where they’re all going to hang out with her, Fatin and Shelby for a bit. Leah unfortunately can’t make it, something about a court case she has to attend.

Toni frowns, wondering how and why she knows that. “Yeah?”

“So then when are you gonna ask her out on a date?”

The non-Texan stops in her tracks, shoes making an unfortunately loud squeaking sound on the stairs. Her eyes are wide and there’s a visible blush on her cheeks. “I- I’m not gonna, um... I’m not, we’re literally just friends. Why’d you even ask?”

Dot looks at her like she’s lost her mind. “‘Cause you two would be great together, duh.”

“You’ve known me for literally three weeks,” Toni scoffs.

“Yeah, but I’ve known Shelby since sixth grade. I see the way she acts around you—always blushing and shit.”

Toni tries to mentally shake it off (okay Toni Swift) and carries on walking, Dot hurrying to follow along behind her. “I’d like to get to know her first.”

It seems to sate Dot enough because a knowing grin spreads across her face. “First, huh?”

“Don’t push it.”

They knock; Nora opens the door and invites them inside. Shelby’s already there, and wait, are those—

“Here, I made cookies for everyone!”

Unbeknownst to Shelby, Toni also has a list in her mind of things she knows about her.

  1. “I want to ask her out.”

It’s obviously longer, there’s a lot more in there somewhere, and its newest addition is ‘she likes baking’ and ‘she’s really sweet/generous/kind/thoughtful’.

Very soon, the first newest addition is changed to ‘she’s really damn good at baking’ because no, Toni has never tasted simple chocolate chip cookies that are this nice.

”Family recipe. Y’all like them?” Shelby asks, to which everyone nods.

“Literally the best fuckin’ thing ever,” Toni mumbles through a mouthful, earning her a warm smile from Shelby which makes it taste that much better.

Nora’s idea of fun is charades and board games, and everyone’s completely on board with that. So, when Fatin arrives fashionably late, they all split into teams for charades: Shelby, Fatin, Rachel (Nora’s twin sister, who’s up in Stanford but there’s a laptop set up for her to video call on) in one team, Toni, Nora and Dot in the other.

This is how Toni figures out that Shelby’s favourite movies genre is romance, because every time anyone acts out a romcom she gets it immediately. When it’s Shelby’s turn, it’s a one-word, two-syllable-long movie. She picks up a cushion from an armchair and holds it out in front of her, carrying it like a box or something.

“Um... pillow?”

“There isn’t a movie called pillow, Dot.”

The other girls are a little flummoxed; there isn’t really any words they can think of that fit. Everyone’s looking at each other, frowning, as Shelby amplifies the gesture of carrying the item by putting it on her back.

“Carrie!” Toni suddenly yells out, and Shelby beams and says “yes!” excitedly.

“How the hell did you get that?” Fatin asks from the other couch.

Toni shrugs. “She was carrying something.”

“You like ‘Carrie?’” Shelby asks her.

“Everyone does, it’s a classic.”

The game has kind of died down, so as Nora announces she’s going to get Monopoly, everyone begins to chat amongst themselves.

Shelby sits next to Toni, close enough that their knees brush ever so slightly, and says, “So you like horror, huh?”

Toni keeps her eyes trained to a spot on the wall away from her. “Yep.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yep.”

The conversation makes Toni consider googling something along the lines of ‘how to talk to a pretty girl without being stupidly awkward because she makes your mind blank every time you look at her’.

Luckily, Nora saves her by laying out the board in front of everyone. It almost looks like Shelby’s going to ask Toni to partner up with her, but Toni goes with Fatin instead—Nora’s rules (roommates, twins and Texans together)—and the game begins.

Rachel has her own dice so that she can roll when it’s her turn too, because the Reids wanted to be able to have proper game nights despite the distance. It makes Toni miss Martha a little, but she knows her own sister is doing well back in Minnesota and is only ever a phone call away.

Fatin and Toni’s tactic is simply to just buy everything, and it ends up paying off because soon the Texans are trying to strike up a deal with them. Shelby is vehemently insisting that it’s in everyone’s best interests that Fani (Fatin’s idea for their team name—Toni had nothing to do with it) trade their pink card for the Texan’s utilities.

“We’ll give you a discount if you ever land on it,” says Dot.

“But then you’d be able to put houses down,” Toni points out loudly, “And the chances we land on those instead of you landing on the utilities are much higher.”

“Actually,” Nora chimes in, “there’s a five percent chance of landing on a utility and a seven-point-five percent chance of landing on a pink property.”

“This is outside interference, that’s not allowed,” Fatin insists.

“That’s a whole extra four percent,” Toni says. “Can’t take the risk, sorry.”

“What’s wrong with a little risk?” Shelby’s looking at her with sparkling green eyes and Toni has to put her foot down and stop the deal because she knows one more flutter from those eyelashes and she’ll give Shelby all of her and Fatin’s properties without her even having to ask.

The Reids end up bankrupting the Texans, and though it’s not as satisfying as beating them themselves, the roommates are happy—until they land on Park Lane with its two hotels and they realise they can’t afford it, even with mortgaging.

Shelby shoots Toni a look that says hah, you still lost, and Toni rolls her eyes but finds herself smiling regardless. She’s offered the last cookie on the plate by Shelby on the way out, and Toni doesn’t know how to tame the butterflies in her stomach because she’s just being nice.

===

Fatin’s glued to her phone all evening. Toni asks if she’s okay, because there’s worry clearly etched in her expression.

“I’m good, just worried about Leah,” she says. “She didn’t really tell me why she was going to court, said something about a thing that happened to her when she was seventeen.”

Toni bites her tongue and opts to not make a joke about how Fatin’s lowkey already whipped, because the topic seems genuinely serious. “Oh shit. It’s probably cause she can’t discuss it then for legal, or it’s a touchy subject.”

“I don’t care about knowing what happened or not, just wanna make sure she’s fine, you know?”

“Cute,” Toni quips.

“Shut up.” She sighs, and throws her phone across the bed. “I don’t think you can even have phones in court, so, I’m gonna stop worrying for now. How’s Shelby?”

It flies right over Toni’s head. “She’s probably good, but if you really want to know you should ask her herself, though.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“She’s not that bothered about the fact that I have to keep crashing there.”

“That’s also not what I meant.”

Toni is too confused, so she declares she’s off to the showers, leaving a frustrated Fatin with the need to scream into her pillow.

===

As it turns out, Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, is a cheerleader. Toni finds this out when they cross paths on her way to basketball practice on Friday. Shelby’s in leggings and a tight pink exercise shirt, which makes Toni’s chest tighten—just a little.

“Oh hey Toni!” she calls from several feet away at the entrance. “I was just goin’ to grab some food after cheer practice, you wanna come?”

Toni’s never resented basketball practice more. “I’m sorry, I’ve got practice.” There’s a pause and she can practically hear Dot screaming in her ear to say what she says next, “Maybe some other time?”

Except that’s not what she says next. What she tells her instead is, “Have a good day.”

Shelby’s head moves back an inch as she furrows her eyebrows, confused by the whole ordeal. Still, she’s already figured Toni is kind of useless around her—it’s just hard for her to figure out if it’s because she’s attracted to her, or because she’s not interested.

Basketball practice goes by just fine, until Toni gets pummelled in the face with a ball so hard that her lip ends up busted right at the end of practice. Coach insists she goes to the infirmary, which is annoying but whatever, she doesn’t want an infection. A nice second-year from her team, Amelia, accompanies her. She’s kind enough to wait the five minutes it takes for Toni to get cleaned up for her—and as they walk, Amelia decides to shoot her shot.

“Do you wanna go for drinks later?”

Ordinarily, Toni would’ve said yes, but she’s “sorry, really busy.”

She’s not busy.

“Oh, don’t worry I didn’t mean it like that, though maybe another time,” Amelia clarifies with a slight laugh. “I just meant that some of the girls from the team are gonna get together. But if you really are busy, we’re going out again next Saturday if you want to join us then.”

Toni nods and against the wad of tissue on her lip she says, “That’d be great, just text me.”

“Kinda need your number for that.”

They exchange numbers and Toni thanks her again, walks out of the building and hops on the early bus back to her dorm. Shelby Goodkind obviously has to pick this exact moment to walk down the corridor.

“Oh, hey Toni!” she greets with a smile, skipping over to her. Toni gives her a wave, and Shelby’s face grows worried when she spots the blood stains on the top of Toni’s jersey as well as the state of her lip. “Lord, what happened here?”

“Nothing, I just got hit by a basketball, happens all the time,” Toni dismisses—but Shelby’s having none of it.

“You need some ice, it’s startin’ to swell. Do you have any?” When Toni shakes her head, Shelby takes it as her cue to drag her by the wrist to her own dorm.

That is how Toni finds herself perched on the edge of Shelby’s bed with a cold pack on her lip while the blonde dabs at her top with cold water. “Hot water makes the stain set, you see,” Shelby states when Toni shivers at an ice cold drop of water that goes down her skin. “Keep still, it’s easier to get this off if you don’t move.”

The ends of Shelby’s long hair tickle her arm and raise goosebumps all over the rest of her body. She’s just a little too close and her breath is a little too warm and it’s all a little too much.

Finally, God—or Shelby—has mercy on her and Shelby stands up, satisfied with her work. “You think you’ll be okay?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Toni offers her a small smile which Shelby returns widely, and Toni knows she’s doomed to daydream about those damned green eyes for eternity. “I’ll see you tonight maybe?” she jokes as she makes her way towards the door.

“So you’re comin’ tonight? Yeah, I’ll see you there.”

Toni frowns, because that’s not what she meant. “Huh?”

“The basketball and cheer squads are havin’ a thing tonight, figured you’d be invited too. Helps with team spirits or somethin’.”

The thing is, Toni could’ve dealt with the embarrassment of showing up despite telling the girl on her team she was busy, because she’d one-hundred percent go just to spend time with Shelby, because friends go out together—but she catches a glance of her busted lip in the mirror and her hand subconsciously drifts up to cover it in embarrassment. It’s all swollen and there’s an ugly cut; she in no way looks good enough to go out in her own opinion—she doesn’t want Shelby to see her like this in the context of a club, where people are supposed to look nice.

As if having the injury isn’t already frustrating enough; it’s insanely, irritatingly itchy and makes the lower part of her face pulsate uncomfortably. The irritation turns to a prickly heat spreading throughout her body, and Toni knows she needs to leave.

“Uh, sorry, I can’t make it.”

Shelby looks genuinely disappointed. “Oh, alright then. I’ll see you later.”

===

Toni’s barely in a fresh top when she receives a text.

Shelby Goodtexas: If you’re not coming because you think you look too roughed up, don’t worry about it. Girls dig it.

She stares at it for a moment, wondering how Shelby could tell.

Antonia Shalifoe:  i just rlly don’t want to go out looking like this plus it kinda hurts. it’s fine tho honestly, hope u have fun!

She sees three dots pop up signifying that Shelby is typing, and it makes a smile tug at her lips. But then the dots disappear and she’s left with ‘Read at 19:59’ instead.

Until there’s a knock at the door, and a laptop plus a blister of anti-inflammatories are thrust into her chest.

“Friday nights shouldn’t be spent alone, especially not if you’re upset.” Shelby pauses for a second. “And besides, I kind of just want a quiet night in. Also, Leah and Fatin are in my room right now.”

The ‘I also just really want to hang out with you’ goes unsaid.

“Ah.” It takes a second for Toni to have enough sense to step aside to let Shelby in.

Both of them spend the whole time talking over the movies, not really interested in anything but getting to know each other. Toni learns that Shelby used to play soccer with Dot, whose dad was the coach. Shelby learns that Toni’s favourite animal is a giraffe and that if she could play any instrument, it’d be the saxophone, (Shelby’s answers are “cat” and “banjo” because she loves country music). This is how Toni exposes herself as a Taylor Swift stan, much like Shelby.

“Rep is literally her best album,” Toni argues, her hands moving animatedly for emphasis. “It was the most iconic comeback in music history.”

“Fearless is literally right there but okay. Now shut up, the movie’s gettin’ good.”

“You started it,” Toni grumbles, folding her arms.

“You’re so darn petulant.”

She scoffs. “Petulant?”

“C’mon, it’s a common word. You need a dictionary?”

“I know what it means, it’s just you can’t make fun of me for saying expansive when it’s a common word too.”

Shelby rolls her eyes. “Why do you even remember that specifically?”

There’s no answer to that, so Toni just shoots her a look and says, “Shut up. The movie’s getting good, princess.” The lights are too low for Shelby’s blazing blush to be visible. Toni tries to convince herself that she only used that nickname to poke fun at her and her pageant days.

They end up falling asleep with their backs against Toni’s bed towards the end of the second movie, heads resting on the mattress, laptop wedged between their legs—meaning that there’s a significant space between them.

Toni wakes up with a blanket draped over her and a pillow under her head, a sweet-smelling paper bag near her head. There’s a note in oddly messy-but-cute handwriting in a post-it note that has a little flower printed in the corner.

Here’s a pick-me-up to make you feel better. I know I keep giving you food haha but you always forget lunch and you need to keep yourself energised if you’re going to be a star athlete!! Hope the sugar doesn't sting your lip too much. - S

And yes, Toni once again catches herself thinking about her—this time when she goes out for a run and finds herself wishing Shelby was running along with her, laughing at her stupid jokes and telling her more random fun facts about herself.

Because “friends always daydream about each other, right? Tell me I’m right.”

”Toni, no,” Martha, who knows her the most out of everyone in the world, chastises from the other side of the phone line. “You have a crush on this girl.”

Chapter Text

Toni spends a disproportionate amount of time with Leah this week. She just seems to be everywhere she is, whether it’s on the bus to practice or walking from point A to point B in the campus. Now that Toni has a job as student librarian on one of the college libraries, it’s easier to get to know Leah considering how much time she spends there, usually reading in a corner. Sometimes she’ll let Leah borrow more books than allowed, and that’s how they become proper friends.

Getting to know Shelby’s freakishly tall roommate is easy. The two girls seem to have similar mindsets and opinions on a range of things, not to mention having some very niche music artists in common. Some days they’ll walk each other back to their dorm rooms, and this newfound friendship pairing seems to amuse both of their respective roommates, Fatin especially who says, “Maybe I should become besties with your girlfriend, Shalifoe. We could go on double dates?”

Leah smirks at that on her way out, leaving Toni red in the face next to a floating Fatin.

“I didn’t know you two were official,” Toni says once the door is shut and Leah is out of earshot, because she’s nice enough to wait to spare Fatin any embarrassment, unlike some people, she thinks.

“I didn’t know you and Shelby weren’t.” A pillow is thrown at her head. “Firstly, rude. Secondly, Leah and I are not girlfriends, we’re just…”

Toni grins. “Just what?”

“We’re just, okay? Fuck off.”

“Sounds like somebody has a crush.”

Fatin grins. “Bitch, you’re one to talk.”

“Fuck off.”

Toni does not have a crush on Shelby Goodkind, despite what Martha and Fatin may say. They’re just friends—good friends, even.

Besides, having tiny little crushes sometimes is good for you, healthy even. She doesn’t have to act on it, and it doesn’t have to mean anything; they’re friends. Good friends.

===

“Leah’s asked me to go to court with her,” Fatin says late one night, face illuminated by the lamp on the desk behind her.

“Huh?” Toni sits up, covers falling off her torso. “Did you two commit a crime?”

“Yes, Shalifoe, we robbed a bank together.” She sighs and props herself up on her elbow so that she can turn to face Toni. “She told me she didn’t mind if I shared this with you, but basically she was taken advantage of by some total dick author when she was in high school and decided to go after him in court. I think I’m meant to go as, like, moral support.”

Toni, who had just been texting Shelby about something or other, puts down her phone to look at Fatin properly. “She does seem to like you a lot, it’s good she trusts you.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little much? It’s only been, like, just over a month since we met, I’ve lost track of time.”

“Well, considering she moved from North Cali here alone she doesn’t really have people in the area she can trust.” She knows Fatin need to cheer up a bit, so she tries for a joke. “Maybe she’ll just need to relax a little after and that’s why she’s asking you to go.” 

Fatin rolls her eyes and then sighs again. “Thanks for the free therapy, you’re the best.”

“I know.”

===

That following evening, Toni finds out that Shelby has a belly button piercing in the worst way possible. It’s with a knock on the door and a “Leatin are in my freakin’ room again, I don’t think they’re even havin’ sex—I think they’re having an actual conversation, which they could literally do anywhere they like, but whatever, means you’re stuck with me tonight. You know what? I kinda want to just spend the night ‘cause there’s no way I’m not gonna be asleep in the next half hour and I refuse to let Fatin kick me out of here when this is basically my own room now. I mean, look, I even left my favourite moisturiser here on your desk.”

In the time that it takes Shelby to finish, she’s been let in, has sat on the edge of Toni’s bed, and has let herself sprawl over its entire surface area. There’s a toothbrush hanging between her index and middle fingers, and her other hand is draped over her bare stomach, next to the shining silver piercing.

Right, yes, of course Leatin had to have walked in while Shelby was in her gym gear.

Toni’s eyes stay firmly on anywhere but Shelby and her piercing and her—wait are those biker shorts?

“Sorry,” Shelby says suddenly, snapping Toni out of her own thoughts, “I have a tendency to talk way too much sometimes.”

Toni frowns and hurriedly says, “No, please, talk as much as you want.” I want to hear everything you have to say.

There’s a small yet very grateful smile from Shelby, which makes Toni wonder if perhaps her words hold a little more weight than she originally intended.

“You think I could borrow somethin’ from Fatin to change into?” Shelby asks, Texas drawl thick as ever as she swings her legs over the bed to sit up. “I never even ended up goin’ to the gym but I don’t exactly feel like sleepin’ in these clothes.”

For some reason, Toni finds herself saying, “Why don’t you borrow something from me?”

Shelby bites back a smirk. “I think your t-shirts would be more like crop tops on me, lover.”

If Toni had been having a drink right now, she would’ve spat it out at the nickname. It visibly shocks her; there’s no hiding the deep pink blush that spreads over her entire face. “What did you just call me?” she splutters out.

“Lover.” Shelby sifts through the wardrobe and grabs something that is decidedly Toni’s, a dark navy blue t-shirt with red sleeves, and leaves it on the bed. “It’s Taylor Swift’s shortest album. I wanted to give you a nickname that’s less… how’d you put it again? Didactic?”

”That’s- huh?”

Toni’s face must give away some sort of expression that she doesn’t intend it to because Shelby then says, “It’s annoyin’ you, huh? All the more reason for me to call you it then.”

Toni is far from annoyed, just weak at the knees. She tries and fails to not think about how the album is all about falling for someone and those kinds of feelings, but it’s a little hard not to when Shelby always seems to look at her in a way that nobody else ever has, and how she might have noticed that Toni looks at her the exact same way.

Even though the ends of her hair are still damp from the shower she just took, Toni declares she’s going to the showers to save herself from more impending embarrassment. Except she doesn’t even take a towel with her, let alone the shower caddy of her rather extensive shampoo collection. Shelby notices this of course, but Toni only does when she returns five minutes later.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she grumbles.

Shelby doesn’t make a playfully snarky comment the way Toni expects her to; she’s propped up against some pillows on Toni’s bed, silently scrolling on her phone. So Toni, being Toni, flops down next to her and in aim of being annoying asks, “Who’re you texting?”

“My brother,” she says quietly. “My sister was just rushed to hospital right now, we got worried but it was just her appendix apparently.”

Immediately Toni’s expression drops and she comfortingly places a warm hand on Shelby’s knee, making the corner of her lip turn upwards, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes let alone form a proper smile. It kind of tugs at Toni’s heart strings a little, seeing the girl who’s usually the human embodiment of sunshine so upset that it’s visible.

“It’s the only reason I’d ever go back home, y’know, if someone was really sick.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Toni says, softly adding, “Do you wanna talk about it?”

There’s a moment of hesitation. Shelby locks her phone and places it beside her on the bed so she can hold her own hand, resting them on her legs. Tentatively and quietly, she speaks. “I’m not even saved as Shelby on Spencer’s phone. That’s my brothers name. I’m saved as something basic like Sam so that our father thinks I’m just a school friend. We even have a code so we can talk about certain things without it being suspicious, like, if I say I haven’t done the maths homework yet it means that no, I’m not comin’ to Texas.” Her jaw is clenched tightly and her eyes are glassy; it’s clear she has a lot of frustration towards her parents and the whole situation. “The only way I can talk to my sister is through my brother, and if anythin’ goes wrong with our- with our code system or whatever, I don’t know how I’ll ever contact them again.”

There isn’t anything that Toni can say or do except “I’m sorry”, and moving the hand on Shelby’s knee to her forearm. 

Shelby takes it as a sign to move her arm slightly so that their hands are curled against each other. “You can hold my hand,” she says with a wet laugh.

It’s scary how nice their fingers feel interlocked. Toni can’t think about that right now though, instead putting all her focus on comforting the girl next to her. “Family sucks, right?” is what she comes up with. It seems to work though, as Shelby smiles properly this time, glad at the fact that someone else understands the feeling.

“You wanna talk about it?”

Toni shrugs. “Absent dad since day one, mom in and out of rehab like a fucking White Castle, that’s it really.” When Shelby says she’s sorry, she does so with the most sincerity Toni has felt in a long time, so she tries to brush it off by saying, “Yeah, it’s whatever.” 

There’s a pause where Shelby tries to gauge what type of response she should give her, but she doesn’t really know whether to brush over it with a joke or ask for details. She decides on a strange sort of medium by curiously asking, “What’s a White Castle?”

“It’s a fast food chain.”

She nods with a slight frown etched in her face. “You don’t have to downplay things, you know, it’s not whatever. I get it but—” she looks over at her, “—don’t feel like you have to, not with me.”

Toni meets her gaze with glassy eyes. “Thank you.” She gulps and adds, considerately, “You too.” 

Shelby takes in a breath, then all of a sudden lets it out. “My dad cut me off cause I’m a lesbian, he doesn’t like that about me at all. He literally runs conversion therapy sessions.” The last sentence is marked by a harsh laugh. “That’s a story for another time though.”

Toni can sense that Shelby doesn’t really want to expand on it, she just needed to get it off her chest and leave it be, so she racks her brain for something to make her laugh; she doesn’t like seeing Shelby sad.

“You wanna hear a funny story?” she asks, to which the Texan nods eagerly. “When we were about twelve, my sister, Martha, and I had a really bad stomach ache. ‘Cause she’s a complete hypochondriac, she convinced herself and somehow me as well that we were bleeding internally. We ended up going to the emergency room only for the doctor to say it was cause we’d eaten too many sweets the night before.” 

They look at each other for a few moments. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve never gone this long without making sarcastic digs at each other, or maybe it’s a stress-induced reflex, or maybe it’s that Shelby finds the story genuinely funny and her laughter is too contagious for Toni to not crack up too, but they both start laughing—and all the while, Shelby never lets go of Toni’s hand. In fact, she begins to run her thumb up and down her knuckles.

“Oh my lord, Toni,” Shelby says, trying to calm herself down.

Toni’s brain starts short-circuiting while Shelby thinks of a distraction for the both of them from family stuff.

“Do you wanna watch another movie?” she asks casually, as if she’s not currently electrifying Toni’s body.

“Um, I don’t have a laptop yet.”

“No worries, I’ve got my phone.” She pulls it out of her pocket and begins to flick through a streaming app, luckily using both hands meaning that she lets go of Toni’s.

But then she shuffles real close because phone screens are small, and their heads are literally touching as are the sides of their bodies— which is obviously just because the bed is too small for there to be a gap between them. Her legs bend up at the knees to support her hands as she settles against the pillows, and Toni does the same, just because. Shelby selects a film, asks if Toni wants to watch it, and she has about enough sense to nod “mhmm” without even processing what film it is.

It turns out to be another horror; Toni clocks this when Shelby gets scared and grasps her hand. They watched two horrors last week and Shelby wasn’t this touchy with her, she certainly wasn’t burying her face in her neck or snuggling into her side during particularly tense moments—but Toni decides that the reason she didn’t do this last time was because they were talking too much then, now they’re actually focused on the movie.

Well, Shelby is at least.

There’s this one moment, a jump scare towards the end, where Shelby decides to bury her face in Toni’s neck again except this time she straight up whimpers—and no, Toni’s mind can’t help but go there; the thought of that noise in a different situation travels down her body to—nope, not today, Toni is not going to have unholy thoughts next to the not-that-holy-but-still-Christian girl.

When the movie finally ends, Toni stands up abruptly, declaring she needs to use the bathroom. When she comes back, Shelby is still on her bed and this time she’s fully lying in it, still in Toni’s clothes, still smiling how she always does.

“Move,” Toni grunts.

“Nah.” Shelby stretches, still smiling, and relaxes with a melodramatic sigh. “I’m good right here.”

“Colonizers always taking shit,” she mutters under her breath.

Shelby shoots up. “What? No, I just—”

“I’m kidding, chill.” Toni bites back a grin at the other girl’s worry, and Shelby shoots her daggers.

Shelby ends up rolling off the bed and sliding under Fatin’s covers. This sort of makes Toni regret saying what she did, not the joke itself but the timing of it, because maybe Shelby was looking for an excuse for them to sleep side by side and maybe she could’ve taken it. There was a moment where Toni could’ve still done both, said the joke and let Shelby sleep in her bed: Shelby was perched on the edge for a few seconds longer than she had to, but Toni was too slow to take the opportunity.

“Sweet dreams, lover,” Shelby whispers cheerfully.

How can a whisper even sound cheerful? Toni debates this for a second before grumbling, ever so un-cheerfully due to her grogginess, “Goodnight, uh, Shelby.”

“Shelby? Where’d you come up with that one?”

”Shut up.”

Toni kind of wants her to take the easy way out and say “make me”, especially because she knows she’d gladly follow Shelby’s request without thinking twice. But she doesn’t, she just turns over to her side and curls up like she always does, and Toni wonders why and when she’s started picking up on all these details about Shelby.

Chapter Text

“Toni! Hi there!”

It’s Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, and she’s practically skipping over to the front desk of the library where Toni works. She has a side-bag—or a handbag, whatever, Toni can’t really tell—on her and is dressed in a yellow blouse and white shorts, hair pulled up into a ponytail.

Fuck, she’s so pretty.

“Hello, how can I help you?” Toni asks in her best customer service voice.

“I’m here to return these.” Shelby fishes out two books and places them delicately on the desk, library card on top, before looking back up and beaming at Toni. “I didn’t know you worked here.” She half leans over the desk, balancing on her hands as Toni scans the books in.

“You know there’s a drop-off box for these, princess, you didn’t have to bring them to me.”

Shelby can’t hide her blush as she sighs and rolls her eyes. “Isn’t a girl allowed to say hello?”

Toni looks her up and down, blatantly checking her out because she knows Shelby’s noticed that she does it by this point so there’s really no need to hide it, especially not when Shelby does the exact same.

“Need anything else?”

The blonde hums and chews on her lip thoughtfully. Her green eyes dart around everywhere at the library, gazing at shelves and all the students sat at tables, before they land back onto Toni’s warm brown ones. “How about a book recommendation?”

Without thinking, Toni says, “Fifty Shades.”

Shelby’s mouth falls open slightly, much to Toni’s amusement. She smirks at the pink colouring the other girl’s cheeks, until Shelby bites back.

“I didn’t know that was your type of thing.”

Oh shit, that backfired. Toni’s mind goes into overdrive as Shelby thanks her for the recommendation and turns to leave, but Toni has enough sense to stop her by saying, “They don’t have that book here.”

Shelby grins to herself. “Shame, I was really lookin’ forward to seein’ what you’re into.”

The juxtaposition of her southern accent and the innocent act she’s putting on with what she’s saying does it for Toni. She clears her throat and excuses herself, citing that she needs to go put the returned books away. Shelby watches her leave with a satisfied smirk before whipping out her phone and texting Dot.

She’s gone by the time Toni returns, still all red in the face, and though there’s a little twinge of disappointment in her chest she’s still kind of glad that Shelby doesn’t have to see her like this for longer than necessary. 

It’s at that moment that Leah decides to walk in as well, dumping several books on the desk to return. “How’s it going with Shelby?” she asks, rummaging through her tote bag just in case she forgot a few. “And before you come for me, it was Fatin who asked me to ask you.”

Toni grimaces. “Thanks Leah, that makes it so much better.”

“So? How is she? If I don’t feed back to Fatin I probably won’t see her for a week.”

“Good, I’ll have my own bed back.”

“There’s two beds in each room, you know, you don’t have to share with Shelby.”

The shorter girl blinks wide at the miscommunication. “What? No! I meant, like, my actual bed. We don’t- we don’t share.”

Leah sucks in her bottom lip. The more Toni looks at her expression, the more she realises that Leah had purposefully misunderstood her; she was just waiting to see Toni’s reaction. “Interesting.”

“Why would we even do that?” The question is meant to bite but it falls flat and comes out quiet, almost like Toni is asking herself the question.

“Because you have crushes on each other, duh,” Leah points out like it’s the most obvious thing in the world—because it really is.

“Keep your voice down,” Toni hisses, eyes darting around to check if anyone is listening. Most people are too far away, and most people don’t even know them, but still.

“So, you don’t deny it?” Leah sounds like she’s conducting a questionnaire or a sociological unstructured interview.

Toni gulps and drops her voice. “Wouldn’t you? I mean, look at her.”

The other girl has to physically bite back a knowing smile. “No comment.”

“Please don’t tell Fatin though. I love her but I don’t trust her to keep her mouth shut around Dot or Shelby about something like this.”

“You’d be surprised,” she responds. “Fatin’s pretty good at keeping secrets when they’re needed to be kept. The only problem is that I don’t think this is something that should stay between the two of us.”

Toni’s stomach starts to twist unpleasantly at the thought of her so-called secret being revealed. “What the hell, Leah, I told you to not—”

Shaking her head, Leah cuts her off, “I’m not going to tell Fatin if you don’t want me to, that’s not my business. What I mean is that it shouldn’t just be me that you talk about your feelings for Shelby to.”

Puzzled, Toni frowns. “Who then, Dot? Nora? Should I facetime Rachel and tell her?”

Leah sighs at the other girl’s obliviousness. Her height proves to be an advantage in this situation, as she outstretches her arm over the desk and pats Toni on the head in a faux condescending way. 

“Use your brain, Antonia.”

===

She trusts that Leah didn’t tell Fatin about what she said but Toni doesn’t trust that Leah didn’t decide to spend the night in her dorm tonight simply on a whim.

Leatin aren’t even doing anything when Toni walks in, they’re sat in separate beds on their phones. Leah practically jumps onto Fatin’s bed to make it believable that they were doing something, but it’s too late.

Everyone pauses and stares at each other. If their minds were punctuation marks, they’d all be ellipses.

“Can I grab some pyjamas at least?” Toni asks in a deadpan tone.

“Of course,” Fatin says loudly. “Take as much as you need.”

“Yep, we’re gonna be here all night,” Leah adds, “so don’t forget your toothbrush!

“Leah, maybe we should swap roommates,” Toni grumbles under her breath.

At the same time as each other, Fatin says “rude” and Leah says, “I’m sure Shelby would love that.” Her not-yet-girlfriend-apparently smacks her on the arm. “What, too far?”

Toni glares at them both, even though in a way she feels like she should be thanking them for going out of their way to force her to spend time with Shelby. She’s about to leave when suddenly Dot walks in.

“I am not here,” says the Texan, starting to slowly walk backwards. “Because Leatin are going to be here all night. Without me. We are not hanging out. I’m a figment of your imagination.”

“Did they put you up to this shit?” Toni asks her.

“Actually,” calls Fatin, “it was Nora.”

“Shut up!” Dot and Leah exclaim in unison.

The point-guard decides she’s had enough and begins to make her way down the hall, not before telling all four of them that they suck, and ensuring they relay that message to Nora too.

Before she can even knock on Shelby’s door, the blonde is whizzing past her. “Hey lover,” she greets, unpausing. “I’m goin’ downstairs to collect the food I ordered for us, gimme a minute.” 

Toni is left beside the open door, stunned. There’s a lot to unpack here; she starts with moving into the room away from the waft of Shelby’s dizzyingly good perfume, the smell of red fruits with some undertone infiltrating every sense she didn’t even know she has. The door closes behind her, and Toni realises it was a mistake to go inside to avoid the scent because it’s everywhere in this room as if Shelby had just sprayed it a minute ago in preparation for the arrival of the girl she’s had a crush on for two months—but Toni doesn’t realise that despite it being so painfully obvious to everyone except her.

Okay, so Leah definitely warned Shelby ahead of time, and it was definitely on purpose.

When Shelby returns, she catches Toni reading the label of her perfume (the unidentifiable red fruit turns out to be cranberry, and it suddenly becomes Toni’s favourite fruit).

“Oh, sorry.” Toni blushes at being caught.

“You can try some if you want,” Shelby offers, putting a wide pizza box on the floor. Casually, like it’s no big deal whatsoever, Shelby picks up the bottle of perfume, holds out Toni’s wrist, and sprays it once. “Like it?”

Toni wants to say she loves it, but instead she says, “Yeah, thanks.”

Shelby gives her a bright smile, the one that appears in all of Toni’s daydreams—recently actual dreams too, but Shelby doesn’t need to know about that—and plops herself down on the floor next to the pizza box. “Hungry?”

They sit on the floor for a good couple of minutes in silence, foregoing talking in favour of eating. They’re both pretty hungry from a full day of practice, so the food gets consumed quickly.

After brushing their teeth together, something that Toni considers to be frighteningly domestic, they go back to Shelby’s room, presumably just to chat for a little longer before sleeping. It’ll be a peaceful night—comfortable, even. Toni can indulge in this small (huge) crush of hers for tonight. Except, Shelby has other ideas.

Usually, when one of them gets changed, there’s a warning. Often it’s not needed because they get changed in the showers, but today they both went right after practice, so there’s no need to have one again.

There is no warning today.

Shelby throws off her t-shirt like it’s nothing, discarding it on Leah’s bed, then walks over to the drawers and rifles through them for an excessive amount of time, giving Toni plenty of opportunity to stare at her, which is exactly what she does. Then her leggings drop to the floor and Toni knows she shouldn’t be looking but try as they might, her eyes just can’t seem to tear themselves away from Shelby’s heaven-sent body.

Toni’s body has to do what her eyes can’t, turn away, when Shelby’s bra falls to the ground. She can’t even see anything but her back, yet the knowledge of what’s there makes her entire body flush pink with heat.

Only when Shelby says, “You can look now,” does Toni turn back around. The smile on Shelby’s face is so damn smug; she knows the effect she has on Toni. “I’ll look away while you change.”

“You don’t have to,” Toni finds herself saying. Even Shelby is surprised by this. “I mean, we’re both girls, so.”

“That’s true.”

For some reason, Shelby still keeps her eyes dutifully away from Toni as she strips before pulling on an old t-shirt and pyjama shorts. She tries to not think too much of it, and wonders if maybe she shouldn’t have been looking at Shelby in the first place—but then Shelby says “I’m only not lookin’ cause I wanna be able to sleep tonight.”

Toni opts to not attempt to unpack all of that as she watches Shelby settle down at her desk and commence her nighttime skin care routine.

“You wanna borrow any?” Shelby asks sweetly, to which Toni declines. “‘Kay, well, if you change your mind, feel free to just take anythin’. If you accidentally take one of Leah’s, then, hey. Her fault for never bein’ in her own darn room.” 

“I was telling her and Fatin we should just swap roommates.”

Shelby presses her lips into a flat smile as she spins around on her chair. “As much as I’d love to spend more time with you, I do need to actually sleep from time to time.”

“You can’t sleep with me?” Toni asks, pouting. 

“You’re distractin’.” With that, Shelby spins back around to her desk and puts the final touches to her skin care routine. Meanwhile, Toni decides to be especially annoying on purpose, inspired by Shelby’s comments, by hopping into her bed. It takes a few moments for Shelby to finish up—and when she does, she stands over Toni and gives her a disapproving look.

“Uh, Toni, that’s my bed.”

“Oh, is it?” Toni asks, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Sorry, I forgot.”

Shelby gives a light tug on the covers, but the fabric hardly budges given Toni’s grip on it. “Move.”

“I’m comfortable.” Toni pouts; she knows what she wants and for once, she’s going for it.

Shelby has several options here: surrender and sleep in Leah’s bed, or go into her own with Toni in it. “Fine.”

She takes the second one for a few reasons, including the fact that she just wants to sleep beside her crush; Toni expects her to lie in next to her, but Shelby slides under the covers and lies on top of her, squashing her. It makes Toni squeal, half in surprise and half at the sudden pain of Shelby’s elbow on her rib as she moves above her.

“What the hell?” She tries to sound irritated, but there’s obvious laughter in her voice giving it away. 

“It’s my bed. I can take as much space as I want.” Shelby is laughing too as she tries to fight Toni’s incessant pushing. The two of them thrash about under the covers, wrestling with each other. Shelby’s got Toni’s wrists in her hands to stop her from pushing her off, but Toni’s relentless in her fight. She ends up giving in and rolling off of her just as Toni shifts to the side, resulting in the two of them being face-to-face.

Oh.

Shelby’s hands are still on her wrists. Toni can feel her breath tickle her skin, and she wants nothing more but to close the gap between them but she’s scared, she’s not ready to risk their friendship by kissing her—because yes Shelby has given a million signs that she likes her back, but Toni is still terrified to jeopardise one of the only good things in her life—one of the best.

Shelby does close the gap, by planting the softest kiss possible on Toni’s cheek. “Night, lover,” she says softly before turning onto her back, leaving a heavily flustered Toni blinking up at the ceiling in disbelief as that familiar warm fuzzy feeling engulfs her like a wave that never ebbs away.

===

When Toni wakes up, Shelby’s face is nuzzled into her neck. This is how she discovers that they’re both incredibly clingy when they sleep, given the way Toni’s leg is over hers and how Shelby’s arm is draped across her midsection. It’s comfortable and warm and everything that Toni could ever want to wake up to, every morning.

Toni’s awake before her, which is a first. When the reason as to why dawns on her, however, she’s completely mortified.

Memories from her dream returned to her brain sluggishly as her mind tried to wake up: Shelby on top of her, warm lips trailing from her ear along her jaw, index fingers tracing down her body before one is pressed into her—

She can feel the damp cloth of her own underwear against her, and she just knows there’s a visible dark stain on it. Even though there’s no way that she’s soaked through, the idea that she’s currently this wet and still relatively worked up in Shelby’s bed with her lying right next to her, lying this close and trapping her against the wall—it’s beyond mortifying. Ever so carefully, she lifts the covers up and tries to crawl over Shelby, tries to step over her in a way that means she won’t even touch her; maybe she can slip out so quickly that she’ll be able to crawl back in unnoticed and resume laying beside her, under normal circumstances this time—but then she loses her balance, and it’s only thanks to Shelby’s lightning-quick reflexes that she doesn’t fall out of bed.

“Good mornin’,” Shelby yawns, accent doubly thick with sleep.

It’s then that they both realise their current predicament: Toni still has one foot out of the bed, except it’s not fully on the floor yet because she’s balancing on something. That something is Shelby’s hips. 

Toni is straddling Shelby’s hips, and Shelby is still holding onto her tightly by the wrists—and the heat of her body and the way her face looks beneath her, lips parted and eyelids still weighed by sleep, it’s too much.

She tries to roll off but it backfires; Toni plummets to the ground, shoulder first, and although she feels kind of bad, Shelby can’t help but to laugh. “You alright down there?”

“I hate mornings,” Toni groans, wiping the sleep out of her eyes, “so so much.”

Her voice is too bright for this early in the morning when Shelby hops out of bed and says, “I’ll go get us some breakfast, stay right here.”

Staying there is not something Toni particularly wants to do, given her state, so she grabs some new clothes—which are probably Shelby’s, considering the t-shirt doesn’t look like it’ll feel like a dress on her the way Leah’s would given that the girl is a literal giraffe—and the change of underwear she luckily and thankfully remembered to pack for herself last night.

Right as she steps out of the shower cubicle, she receives a text from ‘Shelby Goodtexas’.

Shelby: Why are all your clothes gone? Did you go back to your room? I thought we were going to eat together.

It’s right under,

Shelby: Where on earth are you?! Your breakfast bagel is getting cold :(

That’s when she realises she took an excessive amount of time in the shower. She’d planned on being in and out within the ten minutes it takes to go to the café on campus, but there’d been… certain other things she had to take care of in there, and though that had only taken a few minutes given the dream she’d woken up from—she has to analyse the meaning of having a sex dream about Shelby later, now is not the right time, she thinks—it still added up to too much time. For some reason, the sad face tugs at her heart strings, and so she physically runs down the hallway to the dorm room, accidentally barging into a grand total of two people.

The door swings open just as she knocks. A dejected Shelby is stood opposite her, a paper bag in hand. “Oh,” she says, somewhat taken aback. “I thought you’d gone back to your room, I was just gonna drop this off for you.”

Toni shakes her head vehemently. “No, no, I was just in the shower. I’m sorry, I should’ve said something, I—”

“Don’t apologise,” Shelby interrupts, giving her a warm smile. “Here, your bagel’s still warm.”

Just like last night, they eat on the floor, sat cross-legged opposite each other. They chat through their meal this time though, talking about the day ahead and what they’re going to do.

“I gotta dash,” Shelby states as she gets up, dusting her hands on the jeans she changed into. “Don’t leave anythin’ behind, the door locks.” 

“I remember,” Toni responds, smiling sweetly up at her. “Have a nice day, Shelby.”

The way she says her name makes Shelby’s whole body feel like it’s been doused in warm water. “See you around, lover.”

Chapter Text

They don’t see each other that much for a week; both of them are too busy with reading and assignments to hang out, but they text often. Toni has a habit of sending Shelby random facts, and two days into her hourly did-you-knows, Shelby starts sending some back. 

Sometimes Shelby waits around for Toni to finish basketball practice, doing her homework up on the bleachers and glancing down at the point-guard every few minutes just to catch her eye and smile. Amelia, that girl from Toni’s team, asks her if that’s her girlfriend. Toni says no a little too defensively.

On those days, they walk back to their dorm building together, exchanging that relentless playful banter between them. It’s comfortable, and it’s friendly, but Toni has finally accepted to herself that she wants more from Shelby. However, again, she’s scared of jeopardising anything; Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, has started to mean a little too much to her. She doesn’t often tell people about her family, but she told her; she can easily get drained around others after too long—she has a healthy social battery but its lifetime isn’t exactly long—but again, not around her.

One evening, at around seven, Toni decides to give her a fun fact face-to-face.

“Did you know that Lover isn’t actually Taylor’s shortest album?”

Shelby is stood at her own bedroom door, flustered from having been fact-checked. She does in fact know that ‘Lover’ is not Taylor’s shortest album.

“Do you wanna come in?”

Toni rambles, pacing the room as Shelby shuts the door behind them, “I looked it up. By total time, it’s debut then Rep and then Lover. The only shortest thing about it is that it has the shortest average track time.”

The blonde blinks at her, surprised, but then a smirk spreads across her face. “Do you want me to call you debut, or reputation? Or do you prefer blushing furiously every time I call you lover?” 

Toni has nothing more to say; Shelby’s won this one. “Hmph.”

Almost as if she knows, Shelby asks, “Is that all you wanted to say to me?”

No, I have a huge crush on you and it’s not going away.

Then Leah’s walking in, asking them both how their days went, and though deep down Toni knows she wasn’t going to say what she needs to say, it still kind of maddens her.

“I’ll see you both later,” she says, walking out the door.

Leah calls a goodbye, and Shelby says, “Bye lover!” with a wave, because even though she can’t see it with Toni’s back to her, she knows it’s making her blush. Sure, it’ll raise a bunch of questions—and sure enough, Leah spends the night grilling Shelby for info—but it’s one-hundred percent worth it.

===

Toni hasn’t stopped thinking about the dream she had. She still hasn’t gotten over how absolutely horrifying it was, to have woken up in such a state next to Shelby, but the embarrassment has faded enough to let her actually think things through: she’s already admitted to herself that she has a crush on Shelby—‘a crush’ is putting it lightly, though—but she still doesn’t know what to do about it. Their friendship itself has quickly become one of the most important things in her life. But the problem is: the dream has made her realise that she wants Shelby—like that. It’s not like Toni didn’t know this already, deep down she has since day one, the dream only served to make her actually accept it: that it’s not just a crush, it’s a crush plus physical attraction. Plus other emotions that involve hearts racing and excessive daydreaming. Toni has feelings for Shelby. 

Although it’s a little embarrassing that she’s fallen for the (probably) rich cheerleading pageant princess, she tells Martha one night.

“Toni!” Martha exclaims excitedly. “She one-hundred percent likes you.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Can you introduce us?”

“Marty, how on earth am I supposed to—” There’s a knock on the door. Toni opens it up, and there’s—

“Shelby? Hi,” Toni breathes out, stepping aside to let her in. Martha’s silent on the other side of the line, her confused face still on the small screen.

“Hey, sorry, I just think I left my water bottle in here the other night,” she says as she looks around.

Martha’s voice is audible over the phone when she cheerfully says, “Hi Shelby!”

The blonde is immediately at Toni’s side and looking into the screen. “Why hello there! You must be Martha.”

And then Toni hands her the phone and Shelby’s sat on her bed, legs kicking back and forth, talking contently to Martha like they’ve known each other their whole lives, like Toni isn’t even in the room. The only acknowledgement she gets is when she hands Shelby the water bottle that she was looking for: a “thanks” and nod.

Toni sits at Fatin’s desk, spinning on the chair and trying to not look at the way that her crush/very good friend is talking to her sister so effortlessly. It warms her heart a little too much.

“So, is Toni gonna be visitin’ y’all next week?”

“Well, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” Martha says, leaving out the part where Toni can’t afford constant flights back and forth. “But she’s coming for Christmas.”

“I’ll bet you’re both super excited for that,” Shelby replies, wide smile unfaltering.

“Are you going back home to Texas?”

Shelby pauses. Her smile drops, eyes drifting to the left in search of a lie. “I’ll have to see how busy I am with assignments and exam prep.” The sentence is laced with laughter, but Toni knows her well enough to sense that it’s completely fake. She also knows her sister well enough—good, kindhearted, sees the best in everyone and everything—to know that she’ll make a comment about how Shelby’s family must be missing her, or how they’ll look forward to seeing her for the holidays.

So she practically lurches forward, grabs the phone off Shelby and says, “Alright, I gotta go now Marty, but thanks for the chat.”

“Alright, I’ll text you. Nice to meet you, Shelby!”

Shelby tells her it was wonderful to meet her too, and Toni hangs up. 

“I gotta go for my shift at the library,” she says.

The Texan gives her a warm smile. “Your sister’s super nice.”

“Yeah, she is.” 

“I don’t get how you two are related,” she jokes. “She’s so lovely and then you’re just.. you.” Toni pretends to be offended, mouth agape, but somehow her lips are still upturned. “I’m just kiddin’, you’re actually the most wonderful person I’ve ever met.” Her fingers lightly brush over her arm. “Now go to work, you’ll be late.”

Toni is frozen in place. The most wonderful.

“I’m glad we’re friends,” she manages, before slipping out of the door.

===

“You should spend time with her outside of your dorm rooms,” Martha says that night once they’re on the phone again.

Fatin chimes in, “I agree.”

Toni tells her to shut up, bids Martha goodbye, and climbs under her covers.

Toni: we should get brunch tomorrow

Brunch. What is wrong with her? 

Shelby: I’d love that, Toni! I’ll pick you up at 10 :) Xxx

Toni: cant wait :)

Shelby: :)  

Toni: :)

Shelby: (:

Toni: typing smiley faces like that should be illegal

Shelby: Now I know which one to use every time we text! (: 

Toni: :|

Shelby: :) (: :D :d :3 -_- ^-^ B) :/ :7 :0 :o :O :*

Toni refuses to overthink the kissing face.

Toni: ur so weird. gn

Shelby: Goodnight Toni! See you tomorrow Xxx (:

===

It pains her, but Shelby has to cancel in the morning; she’s woken up with the most awful cold of her life. Instead of texting Toni, she calls her to break the news, croaky voice and all. 

Ten minutes later, Toni is at her door.

Shelby’s hair is all frazzled, her pyjama top is on backwards, and her eyes are basically sunken. “What are you doin’ here? I told you I can’t come today, I’m sorry.”

“You still need to eat, don’t you?” Toni holds up a plastic bag and walks in, once Shelby steps aside before flopping back down into bed, clearly exhausted from the toll this cold is taking on her body. “So, what can you stomach?” Toni asks as she empties the bag’s contents on the desk. “I brought some plain suff like crackers and soup, but I can go get you something fresh from the cafeteria or wherever if you want that instead. There’s an apple here as well, and some water, an energy drink, and—” she holds up one of the six assorted boxes of pills on the desk, “—painkillers.”

Shelby stares at her, dumbfounded. “Thank you, um, wow.”

Toni hands all of them to her, along with a bottle of water. “Do you feel hot? I’m gonna go grab you a wet cloth.”

Clammy hands grasp her wrist as she tries to walk to the door. “Toni,” Shelby says sincerely, looking into her eyes, “thank you for bringin’ all of this, but I don’t want you to get sick.”

The other girl shakes her head. “Nah, Shalifoes don’t get sick.”

Toni quickly returns with a damp cloth which she places on Shelby’s forehead immediately, kneeling down beside her. The blonde’s eyes flutter shut and there’s a hint of a smile on her face.

“Have you eaten?”

Shelby shakes her head. 

Toni doesn’t leave her bedside, sat on the edge near Shelby’s legs as Shelby washes down her crackers with the water Toni brought. It warms her heart, knowing Toni is willing to go so out of her way just to look after her when she has a simple cold.

Soon Shelby has to lie down again, but this time she’s clearly freezing; her entire body is shivering and her teeth are chattering. She points to something, or at least Toni thinks that’s what she’s doing, because she ends up dumping Leah’s fleece blanket over her—but Shelby pushes it down and shakes her head; she wasn’t pointing.

“Screw you, just cuddle me.”

Toni’s heart accelerates a little too rapidly. “But I’ll get ill.”

“I thought Shalifoes don’t get sick?” Shelby’s eyebrows are raised in a playful, challenging way, but her eyes are wide and she’s pouting—and how could Toni ever say no to her anyway? 

So, she slides into bed next to Shelby, and immediately arms wrap around her, pulling her close. But then Shelby turns around, presses her back into her so that they’re spooning and says, “Sorry you had to see me like this.”

Toni frowns. “What? No, I just wanted to look after you cause we’re… y’know, friends.”

“Sure, lover.” 

Some two minutes pass between them before Shelby speaks again. “Sorry if you do end up with a cold.”

“Nah, I’m not going to.” Toni’s arm snakes around her waist, and Shelby places her cold clammy hand over Toni’s warm soft one.

Even though she’s sick, this feels nice for Shelby; lying so close to Toni, arms wrapped around her. It’s probably enough to cure the cold spells that keep coursing down her spine.

Once Shelby is asleep, Toni has to ever so carefully slip out of the bed to go to class. There’s a moment just as she’s leaving where she glances back at the sleeping figure, looks at the way her hair is splayed over the pillow, her pink lips parted slightly and her hand still over the place where Toni’s was, and it makes her feel all warm inside.

Toni spends the rest of the day daydreaming about rosy cheeks and the perfect slope of Shelby’s nose.

===

That evening, Toni hangs out with Dot and Fatin at a local diner, the two of them sat across from her. They’re an unlikely duo, but the moment they met it was like they’d reunited with an old friend, and now they’re pretty much inseparable. Fatin wastes no time in ganging up with Dot against Toni, grilling her for all the details about what’s going on with Shelby.

“Nothing’s going on,” Toni insists.

Fatin says, “Stop lying”, just as Dot says,

“She told me you looked after her today.”

“Because we’re friends.”

Fatin and Dot give each other a look and decide to drop it.

Their food arrives, a burger and fries each because fuck it, they deserve a treat, and the trio tucks in and silently eats.

As she thoughtfully chews on a french fry, Fatin asks, “Shalifoe, why don’t you have a public social media account?”

“Uh, I don’t need one.”

“You’re a collegiate basketball star, of course you do.” She wipes her hand on a napkin, moves to sit beside her, and holds out her hand. “Phone. Gimme.” Reluctantly, Toni gives her the phone. “Right, we gotta keep it professional, your username should just be your name.” She begins typing, “Antonia…”

“Nah, fuck off. Toni.”

Dot watches from the other side of the table, taking the opportunity to steal some of Fatin’s fries.

“Name: Toni Shalifoe. Bio: eighteen, Aries—”

“I am not an Aries.”

“When’s your birthday?” 

“Twelfth of April.”

Fatin rolls her eyes. “Eighteen, Aries, basketball star.”

Gulping down a mouthful of food, Dot adds, “Taken by a real hot yeehaw Bible-thumpin’ Texan cheerleader.”

A fry lands on Dot’s forehead. 

“Okay, so, profile picture… this one’s nice.” Fatin points to one of Toni with a multicoloured basketball under her arm, and Toni agrees. She begins to type in her own name into the search bar. “Now we just gotta follow people. Me first, of course. Then Shelby.”

“Uh, how about the NCCA? Or the WNBA?”

“No, how about Shelby-dot-Goodkind?” With a smug grin, Fatin clicks on Shelby’s profile. “Shelby Goodkind. Nineteen, UCLA. There’s just a bunch of selfies and nature photos, some photos of coffee too. Oh, and a Bible quote, perfect.”

Toni snatches her phone back and scrolls back up to Shelby’s bio. “Wait, she’s nineteen? Does that mean her birthday’s passed?”

“Yeah, late October,” Dot says. “It’s just different, celebrating it here without…” She glances at Fatin, who probably doesn’t know anything about the Texan’s parents, and stops herself from saying what she was going to. “Yeah, she was probably too busy that day to even mention it.”

===

The next day, as Leah is about to leave the library, Toni asks her to leave a small, wrapped, square-shaped gift on Shelby’s desk.

Leah shakes her head as she takes it from her. “You’re down so bad.”

“It’s a late birthday present,” Toni protests.

Forty-five minutes later, her phone buzzes.

Shelby: What’s this for?

Toni: happy almost one month late birthday

Toni: i asked dot if ur birthday had gone by bc i saw ur bio said you’re19 and she said it was 10/23 so. thought i’d get you something

Shelby: I love it! Listening to it right now!!! (:

Attached is a photo of a laptop screen displaying the words: CD disc — Now playing: Lover by Taylor Swift.

===

Shalifoes do in fact get sick; Toni proves this two days later when she’s curled up in bed, groaning dramatically at Fatin.

“You just need some hydration,” the taller girl says, moving to thrust an open bottle of water into her face. “Here. Swallow, bitch.”

“Take me out for dinner first, geez.” Fatin rolls her eyes as Toni splutters a little but manages to get it down. “Thanks, you’re a great personal nurse.”

“You want me to get Shelby? She took some kinda first-aid course back in high school, won’t stop going on about her CPR knowledge.”

She doesn’t exactly say yes, but she doesn’t exactly say no either—so, exactly five minutes later, Shelby’s waltzing into the dorm room with a mask on and hand sanitiser in hand.

“I do not trust my antibodies around you,” she laughs.

But then Toni’s pouting and saying, “You already had it a few days ago, you can’t get it back”, so Shelby immediately discards it somewhere and kneels by her side.

“I will admit, half of the painkillers I brought are the ones you left me,” she says with a grin, reaching into her backpack. “There’s some orange gatorade here for you, plus some Takis even though they’ll probably make you feel worse with how darn spicy they are.”

“You’re just white,” Toni grumbles.

“Yep, but you’ve just got a strong mouth, huh?” She winks, and Toni’s too exhausted by this cold to retaliate, but she still feels the effect of Shelby’s word choice. “Some pot noodle soup, etcetera.” She stands up as she says, “Think this will last you? I’ve gotta go to cheer practice.”

Toni looks a tiny bit crestfallen; she was totally prepared to have Shelby with her here for ages, doting her, but it’s fine, she’s fine.

However, Shelby quickly picks up on this and adds, “I’ll be back as soon as it’s over, I promise.” And then she does something Toni’s heart is completely unprepared for: Shelby’s fingers brush a damp strand of hair away from Toni’s face as she leans down to leave a tender, caring kiss on her forehead.

But then she recoils and lets out a disgusted noise. “You’re so sweaty, let me just get you a cloth before I go.”

Shelby speeds back from the bathroom in record time, only to ensure that she can spend a few more minutes by Toni’s bedside, dabbing gently at her burning head with the damp cloth.

“Your fever’s breakin’ now,” she says, her left hand cupping Toni’s cheek. “Try to get some sleep, I’ll be back soon.”

They exchange smiles and then Shelby’s gone, leaving a pleasant waft of cranberries and some other undertone that Toni is yet to put a name to, and a buzz of electricity in Toni’s nervous system that only goes away once she falls asleep.

===

Shelby keeps her promise and returns the second she can get back from cheer practice. She doesn’t even bother changing out of her uniform—it makes her look good, and she wants to look good for Toni, what can she say?

The journey back does involve a quick stop to grab some actual food though, just some pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs, because she wants Toni to have some actual proper protein.

Toni’s barely awake when Shelby returns, shoves the black plastic container in front of her face and urges, “Eat, get your strength up.”

Her hands are mildly shaky as she grabs the cutlery and watches Shelby unpack her own meal at Fatin’s desk. “You don’t have to do this.”

Shelby looks at her like she just told her that the sky is green and the grass is blue. “You took care of me, now I’ll take care of you.”

Maybe it’s the painkillers making her head go weird and vulnerable, but Toni swallows some spaghetti and says, “Nobody’s ever really taken care of me when I was sick before.”

“You deserve it.” There’s a pause before she hurriedly adds, “I mean, you deserve to have someone to look after you when you need it.”

It’s weak from her fatigue, but Toni lets out a laugh—and God, is it Shelby’s favourite sound in the entire world.

Once they’ve both finished eating, Shelby discards the plastic containers and sits next to Toni on the bed, the two of them propped up by pillows against the headboard. They end up playing some sort of online card game on their phones; Martha got Toni hooked on it ages ago, and it’s a great pastime. Toni wins, of course, which makes Shelby vow that she’s going to practice so that someday she can beat her.

“It’s late, I should go,” Shelby says an hour later.

Toni groans. 

“Fatin probably wants her bed back.”

“She keeps stealing your room, you can steal her bed.”

“True, I’ve probably slept in it almost as much as her. Still, I’ve got an early start tomorrow and I don’t want to disturb you.” She climbs off the bed and gathers her stuff. This gives Toni an opportunity to properly look at Shelby in her cheerleading outfit, but then she realises if she looks at it too much she’s going to go light-headed again, so her eyes drift to an aimless spot on the door.

“Thanks for, uh, all of this,” Toni says, earning her the sweetest of smiles back.

“It’s nothin’ you wouldn’t do for me.”

When the door shuts and Toni’s got enough sense to breathe, she settles down into the pillows—which smell of Shelby’s conditioner—and falls asleep with the song ‘Lover’ stuck in her head.

When she wakes up, feeling well-rested and nowhere near as sick as the day before thanks to all the medication and nutrition from Shelby, the song is still playing in her mind.

Chapter Text

Toni basically recovers from the illness in a day. She still has a slight cough and her nose keeps running, but she’s not as shattered as she was the day Shelby had to come and take care of her.

That entire incident, especially the forehead kiss, is too much for Toni to think about.

Okay, she really needs to stop doing this, she has to stop with the whole “I’ll decipher the meaning of this later” thing when it comes to Shelby dropping hints. Everyone’s tired of it—everyone being Martha, Fatin, Dot and Leah.

And Shelby.

Shelby’s all for making the first move, but with Toni, it’s different. She doesn’t want to scare her off; every time she gets a little too close to doing something forward like shutting her up with a kiss, Toni seems to get strangely skittish. For example, there’s that time when she got out of bed so quickly she fell off—Shelby still doesn’t know what that was all about—or when she went stiff at a forehead kiss. But then there’s virtually everything else that Toni has done to imply that she likes her.

The mixed signals are deafening.

So, she’s officially decided to wait for Toni to make the first move. If not, she’s fine with the pining. She can do unrequited feelings—yes, they’re feelings, not a crush, feelings—because if that’s the price to pay for a friendship with Toni, then she’ll more than happily pay double. 

On the Wednesday that week, Shelby skips over to the front desk of the library. There’s no books for her to return or borrow, she just wants to see Toni. Deep down, she hopes Toni wants to see her too.

Toni waves as she approaches, matching the smile that Shelby’s giving her, and Shelby’s stomach begins to flutter familiarly.

“Hey, you feelin’ better?” she asks, as if she hasn’t texted her to ask that exact question on five separate occasions.

Toni tries and fails to hide the way her smile grows. “Yeah, I’m good. You got any books to return?”

She beams at her widely. “Nope, just wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” Toni says, blushing.

They look at each other for a few moments; the tension is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a knife, you’d have to get a diamond cutter. 

Leah’s sitting far away, doing some work on a desk, and it takes every ounce of self control to not march up to them and either snap her fingers in front of them or shove their faces together.

“Oh, actually.” Shelby reaches into her pocket and scrolls on her phone, looking for a specific text. “Dottie wanted me to tell you that Fatin told her to tell us that there’s a party right before Thanksgiving break on Friday.”

It takes a second for Toni to calculate what Shelby’s saying, but when she does, she nods and says, “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Okay, great! I’ll pick you up so we can go together?” Shelby suggests, a little shyly.

Toni nods enthusiastically. “Sure, text me the time.”

“Will do.” She reaches over the counter to give Toni’s arm a light squeeze. “See ya around.”

The smile on Toni’s face never falters, not even when the ‘we’re just friends going to a party together as friends’ thought gnaws its way into her head.

Just friends.

===

“Did she come all the way here just to ask you to go to a college party with her?” Leah asks around ten minutes later.

Toni kind of stares at her. “Uh, yeah?” she confirms, because it’s not that big of a deal.

“That kind of seems like she likes you; she could’ve just texted you instead.”

“Stop reading into everything,” Toni snaps, as if she herself doesn’t read into everything. “We’re just friends.”

Leah folds her arms and huffs. “Fine. But then you have to stop constantly saying that you’re just friends ‘cause it’s gonna give her the wrong idea.” When Toni doesn’t say anything, she continues, “She told me you always go out of your way to call her your friend, and she didn’t exactly say it all smiling and happy like she always is when she talks about you. Which is a lot of the time, by the way.”

Shelby talks about her all the time, “all happy and smiling”. Fuck.

An unpleasant begins to prickle in Toni’s chest, spreading all the way across her body to the very tips of her fingers. “What are you trying to say?” she asks. She knows the answer, knows what Leah is implying here—what Shelby herself means by complaining about it—but she needs to hear it out loud because she’s not entirely sure if she’ll believe it unless it’s coming from someone else. Besides Dot, and maybe Toni herself, Leah is probably the person on campus who knows Shelby the best.

“You have a crush on her, right?” Toni gulps, then nods. “So I’m assuming you want her to like you back.”

“Well, yeah I guess,” Toni confirms in a mumble, looking around to see if anyone is within earshot even though there’s nobody around.

“Then why do you keep telling her otherwise? Are you trying to convince her that you’re just friends? Unless, of course, it’s not her that you’re trying to convince.”

Leah has a point. She has several points. All of which Toni agrees with.

Toni knows that she’s shooting herself in the foot by constantly using the word ‘friend’ in reference to Shelby around her, especially given the fact that she doesn’t want Shelby to see her as just that—but still, the gnawing feeling of fear is relentlessly eating away at her, and a vindictive part of her brain that has something against being happy keeps telling her that it’s easier to not start anything at all, to not give the other person a chance to have Toni’s heart in her hand so that, if—when—it gets broken, only she herself can be to blame. It’s just easier.

“Can we not discuss this in here?” she hisses.

There’s a constant inner battle within her: is it worth it to completely throw herself at someone even if she might get hurt, or is it easier to just keep things simple, keep those small victories without letting them turn into something big and explosive? 

Usually, the first option is the one she chooses—or at least it was, until Shelby appeared.

Apart from Martha, who doesn’t count because she’s her sister, Toni has never cared about someone this much. And it’s hardly been four months of ‘friendship’. To be fair, when you’re forced to spend so much time in close proximity with someone, it’s bound to make your relationship develop in intensity somewhat faster than normal.

“Okay, but final thing,” Leah says, dropping her voice to ease Toni of any fears that someone may be eavesdropping. “I get if you don’t want to make a move, nobody’s forcing you to. But you have to stop giving her the wrong idea, because then if you change it might be too late.”

Exasperated, Toni sighs. “Fine. The word ‘friends’ is banned from my vocabulary.”

“Glad to hear it, I’ll tell Fatin to not discuss her favourite sitcom around you.”

Puzzled, Toni frowns. “Huh?”

“Fatin’s favourite sitcom… ‘Friends’.”

Toni blinks.

“Ugh,” Leah sighs, frustrated that her pun didn’t land. “Forget it, the joke sounded better in my head.”

===

Shelby spends that night in Toni’s room, but the smaller girl is so knackered from a full day of work, classes and practice that she’s passed out before Shelby even comes in. There’s a warm cup of black tea waiting for Toni in the morning, accompanied by a croissant and a handwritten note that reads ‘have a fantastic day!’ with a bunch of hearts doodled on the rest of the post-it. 

Leah’s gone home for break early, so there’s no dorm swapping on Thursday night, but Fatin decides to stay out late with Dot, so Toni’s got the room to herself for the first time.

She’s about to go to sleep when a text comes through.

Shelby: Feels weird sleeping alone, doesn’t it? Xx

A small smile makes its way onto Toni’s lips. Shelby always punctuates at least her first text in a conversation with X’s—it’s cute, she thinks.

Toni: yeah lol it feels strange

Shelby: I’m not really used to not having anyone in the bed opposite now. 

Toni: or having someone IN bed with me

She regrets that text the second she sends it, until the reply comes through less than a minute later.

Shelby: Is that an invitation?

Toni: in your dreams

Shelby: I’d take you up on your offer if I wasn’t so tired already.

Toni: who says it was an offer????

Shelby: I do. And so do you (:

Toni rolls her eyes at the use of that god-awful smiley face again (she still firmly believes putting the bracket before the colon should be outlawed), before letting herself melt into the bed for a moment at Shelby’s low-key flirting.

Shelby: Sweet dreams, lover <3

Toni : goodnight shelby

Toni: <3

That night, Toni dreams about Shelby coming into her dorm room and sleeping beside her. Nothing more, nothing less. Except for the fact that their dorm room is in the middle of a deserted island covered in lychee trees, because dreams can be the strangest things ever.

In the morning, she googles “what does it mean when you have dreams about your roommate who you’re falling for and lychees”.

===

The day of the party arrives, quite quickly considering it’s literally the next day, and soon Toni is changing out of her third outfit into her fourth. Then fifth.

It’s about to become the sixth, when Fatin stages an intervention.

“No no no, stop,” she says, grabbing the t-shirt that Toni is currently holding. “Toni, sweetheart, it’s a college party. Nobody needs to be this stressed about a college party. Here.” A blue denim jumpsuit is thrown onto Toni’s bed.

“I didn’t even know I owned that.”

“Put it on, it makes you look hot.”

And so she does. The outfit is hardly halfway up her legs when there’s a knock on the door, and Fatin immediately swings the door open. “Shelby Faith Goodkind! What a pleasure to have you here, come on in.”

Toni can’t freeze, not like this with the jumpsuit around her waist and her black sports bra fully on show in front of Shelby—who looks too attractive for Toni’s heart and lungs to cope with—but she does, of course, freeze in that very moment.

“Nice outfit, Toni.” Shelby throws her a wink.

Goddamn it.

“Would you look at that, Dorothea is downstairs waiting for me,” Fatin declares, probably lying, looking down at her phone. “That’s my cue to leave. Bye ladies, do everything I would do.” And with a smile and a wiggle of the fingers, Fatin is out of the door.

Hurriedly, Toni pulls the rest of the jumpsuit up her body—all of which is flushed red with embarrassment, her face especially. Shelby never averts her eyes. Rather, she very openly checks her out one or two or five times, hands behind her back to inhibit any impulsive temptation to zip up the jumpsuit herself.

Shelby is dressed in a pink boiler suit; it suits her, Toni thinks. Well, it doesn’t just suit her, she looks extremely hot, but unless she pushes that thought away, Toni’s going to end up redder than she already is.

Shelby’s hair is curled, and there’s several rings on her fingers, and she has pink lip gloss on, and Toni wants to know what it tastes like.

Toni cannot get drunk tonight. 

“Ready?” Shelby asks, a glint in her eye.

Toni nods. Toni is fucked.

===

They arrive at the sorority house together, because of course it’s a sorority house, with their arms linked.

Toni wants to think “like friends, we’ve linked our arms like friends”, but Leah has banned the word from her vocabulary, so she pushes that out of her mind and focuses more on not passing out at the scent of Shelby’s perfume. It’s not intoxicating or overpowering—it’s perfect and it’s Shelby’s, and that’s the dizzying part.

“You want a drink?” Shelby yells in her ear as they push their way through the main entrance.

“Yeah,” Toni yells back.

“What?”

“I said yeah!”

“I can’t hear you!”

Sighing, Toni pulls her away from the speakers and towards a table where an array of unopened bottles and cans sit in a somewhat orderly fashion. She grabs a bottle of something or other and hands another one to Shelby, who takes it holds it in front of her knuckles.

“Hey, watch this.” Shelby positions one of her rings under the bottle cap and tries to open it, but it doesn’t work. She furrows her eyebrows in frustration and tries again, then again, then once more, until Toni’s laughing as she takes it out of Shelby’s hand.

Her own bottle tucked under her arm, Toni uses the one ring she’s wearing to open Shelby’s effortlessly. “Here you go.”

Shelby practically drools at the sight. “Um, thank you,” she says, all flustered.

It can’t be written off to liquid courage, but Toni winks at her before opening her own drink in the exact same way; she’s not even looking at what she’s doing, instead holding eye contact with the blonde whose cheeks have gone almost as pink as her lip gloss.

They stand there for a few moments, drinking idly, glancing at each other but always looking away when caught. Somehow it turns into a game: trying to catch each other out and laughing every time they do.

“Do you wanna dance?” Shelby asks—or at least she’s about to, but a few girls from the basketball team go up to Toni and begin to drag her away before she can even open her mouth.

Toni shoots Shelby an apologetic look, mouthing “I’ll be back”, and Shelby shakes her head with a smile on before turning around on her heels, smile dropping, to look for someone she knows.

“You having fun?” Amelia, the nice sophomore from the team asks, slinging her arm around Toni.

From across the room, Shelby’s eyes are burning into them both.

“Mhmm.” Awkwardly, Toni nods.

They’re sitting on a sofa, surrounded by half of the team who are all chatting amongst themselves. There’s a hand twirling a strand of Toni’s hair, and usually she’d feel something from that sort of contact, but she doesn’t right now, for the obvious reason that it’s not Shelby doing that to her.

“It’s nice seeing you outside the gym,” Amelia continues. Her spare hand has somehow abandoned her empty drink bottle and found Toni’s knee, and is slowly crawling up her leg. “We should hang out more outside of practice.”

Toni gulps. “Yeah, that’d be fun, I guess.”

Amelia’s nose is on her ear and she’s whispering something to her, but Toni can’t hear it; her eyes have found Shelby’s on the other side of the room, which are fixed on the girl draped over Toni.

She doesn’t look happy, at all.

She looks somewhat sad; her eyes avert themselves from Toni’s teammate, flickering over Toni herself before Shelby downs the rest of her drink, slams it on the table and walks away.

Almost instinctively, Toni pushes herself off of the couch and goes to chase after her, maybe to even ask her to dance, but Amelia goes “woah” and stumbles as she tries to stand with her. Toni grasps her elbow to support her. “You okay?”

Amelia shakes her head. “I feel like I’m gonna be sick.”

“Let’s get you upstairs to the toilet, can you walk?” 

Toni has to temporarily forget about chasing after Shelby, and supports the girl next to her as they move to the hallway, then up the stairs. Luckily, a friend of the sophomore’s is up on the landing and spots the two’s predicament.

“Is she okay?” the girl asks. “I’m Linh, her roommate.”

Nodding, Toni says, “She’s feeling a bit sick, just from drinking I think. I’m tryna get her into the bathroom.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it from here.” Linh smiles and takes Amelia’s arm onto her shoulders. “Thanks so much, uhh—”

“Toni.”

“Toni, thank you.”

Amelia gags, and that’s Linh’s queue to hurry her into one of the bathrooms. 

Then, all of a sudden, just as Toni’s about to go back downstairs, Fatin comes up behind her. “Shalihoe! Where’s your girl?”

“Um, what?” Toni spins around.

“I just thought you came here with Shelby,” Fatin stutters defensively, “I didn’t mean—”

“Oh yeah, right, no, sorry. I don’t know where she is.”

Fatin jerks her head back, confused. “Bitch the fuck? You’re here together, go ask her to dance or something. I’m gonna go find Miss Dorothy Jane.” And with that, she disappears downstairs into the crowd.

Muttering under her breath, Toni decides to go down too in aim of finding Shelby. She’s not in the kitchen or the hall, nor the garden. Eventually, Toni checks some random large room where there’s a makeshift dance floor with a relatively large amount of people on it. Amongst the crowd, she finally catches a flash of curly blonde hair. 

But it’s paired with dark brown waves, and its owner is moving in time with the blonde and the music, and it’s all a little too much for Toni’s brain. A horrible, sinking feeling begins to grow and burn in the pit of her stomach at the sight, and it can only be described as one thing: jealousy. 

Shelby catches her glare, sees the emotion behind her eyes, and excuses herself from her dance partner for a moment before skipping over to Toni, who is clutching her new drink so hard the glass might shatter. 

The waft of red fruits makes Toni feel dizzy.

“What’s up, you okay?” the blonde asks, a knowing smirk growing on her face.

“Yeah,” Toni replies, a little coldly. Reasonably, she knows she’s being unreasonable; if she doesn’t want Shelby like that with people who aren’t her then maybe she should just tell her—but even despite the slight buzz of alcohol in her system, she can’t.

Shelby watches as Toni fixes her fiery glare onto the girl she was just dancing with. “Jealous or somethin’?”

That seems to snap Toni out of it. “What? No.” She crosses her arms below her chest.

Shelby pauses, as if deliberating what she says next: “Can I kiss her then?”

Toni feels like she could throw up just at the thought of Shelby kissing a different girl, but is also taken aback by the question—why is she asking her for permission? The confusion on her face must be evident because Shelby goes to add, “So, you wouldn’t mind, right? If I just made out with her, like, right now. ‘Cause you’re not jealous, at all.”

Toni’s eyes go wide and her mouth goes dry as she just about manages to say, “I can’t stop you.”

The words hang in the air around them. There may be hundreds of people in the house but right now, they’re the only two in this room.

“You could, lover,” Shelby drops her voice, “if you wanted to.”

The distance between them has decreased significantly since the start of this conversation; Shelby’s giving her an opportunity here, pupils blown and lips parted—Toni’s meant to take it.

But then the music is too loud and there’s one too many people around, and Toni’s not being stupid or unreasonably hesitant right now, she knows the concept of a ‘first kiss’ doesn’t have to matter that much but for some reason with Shelby it has to, if it’ll even happen—it does, it does matter. It can’t be when neither of them are sober, and it certainly can’t be in a sorority basement.

If it happens.

Then the moment’s gone. Shelby huffs, storms away, and grabs the other brunette, spinning her so that the girl’s back is turned to Toni and Shelby turns towards her. Their lips connect, but Shelby’s eyes stay wide open.

And they’re fixed on Toni.

Toni wants to look away but she can’t—and neither can Shelby, whose hands are moving to the nape of the girl’s neck to bring her closer and closer. She’s staring at Toni as if to say look at what you’re missing, look at what we could be doing right now. Toni has never wanted to be another person so badly.

It only lasts for a single torturous minute, but to her it might as well have been an hour. Shelby looks as if she’s saying something like “give me one second”, but the other girl doesn’t want to give her another second, so the second Shelby steps away, she leaves impatiently.

Toni would give her every single second.

“I thought you didn’t mind,” Shelby says as she approaches her. “But your face kind of says otherwise.”

There’s no answer, Toni simply looks down the neck of the bottle she’s nursing.

“You know,” she continues, running a hand down the side of Toni’s arm, sending a burning chill through her body. “I’d close my eyes with you.” 

The bottle slips through her fingers and falls to the floor. It doesn’t break, but now there’s mixed berries cider everywhere and there’s another layer of embarrassment in Toni’s blush as she bends down to pick it up—but Shelby also had the same idea, so their heads collide painfully, making them both yelp in pain.

A second later, they’ve both completely dissolved into laugher, clutching at each other’s wrists to contain themselves.

“Dear lord, Toni,” Shelby laughs, a tear in the corner of her eye. “You’re so darn clumsy.”

They both bend down again and their heads collide again, sending them into hysterics. People are definitely giving them weird looks but they don’t care, they can’t even see them because their eyes are screwed shut with laughter, heads thrown back.

Shelby’s laugh, to Toni’s ears, is what you’d hear as you enter heaven—and Toni isn’t even religious.

The laughter ebbs away slowly, until they’re left staring at each other, physically closer than they’d been before. Neither girl moves until Toni looks down at Shelby’s bright grin and says, “You’ve got some lipstick smudged on your cheek.”

Immediately the energy between them changes. The tension is palpable, and Toni can’t think amidst it. It’s recognisably Shelby’s, at least—the lipstick—there’s no traces of anyone else. 

Without hesitation, Toni wipes her thumb over it. But it doesn’t come off, so she swipes her tongue over her finger and tries again. She has to rub it a few times, gently, but it comes off easily.

Their faces are inches apart.

“So,” Shelby says quietly—shyly, even, “you did mind?”

Toni subconsciously wets her lips. “You’re drunk, let’s get you home.”

Not in a sorority house not in a sorority house not in a sorority house—

“How drunk are you?”

“I’m too sober for this,” she answers honestly, because she’s been hardly drinking and it’s all low concentration anyway; all this warmth coursing through her right now is in no way caused by alcohol, it’s all Shelby’s doing, it has been ever since the ‘nice to meet y’all’ under the late summer sun.

“Then I’m no more gone than you are, Toni.” 

Green eyes that are almost black now gaze into her brown ones so intensely that Toni might just slip through the cracks in the floorboards and never submerge or be able to breathe again. Not when Shelby is looking at her like this.

Toni swallows, hard. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

They decide to call an Uber to go back to the halls; they’re both sober enough to drive or walk home, but they didn’t bring a car, and walking takes too long.

Even driving takes too long when there’s this much anticipation in the air between them.

Toni fidgets with her hands nervously as they wait for their ride, trying to keep her hands busy and not anywhere they shouldn’t be. She’s put a good foot or two of space in between her and Shelby to keep her self control in check, but then Shelby does a side-step towards her so that she can put her hand over Toni’s restless ones.

Toni takes in a sharp breath, stopping herself from doing something impulsive. 

Like kissing her. 

Or grabbing her waist. To kiss her.

Or taking her hand. To tug her close enough that she can kiss her.

It’s hard.

Because there’s still a friendship that Toni can’t bring herself to jeopardise. She’s close, though, so close—in the moments between the front door and the street, she’s realised that maybe instead of risking a beautiful friendship by acting on her feelings, she’s actually risking not having something equally as beautiful, if not more, through her inaction.

Shelby certainly seems to want her to give into the impulse. Except it’s not an impulse and they both know it; it’s a genuine burning want and need that has been growing since that late summer day.

Neither of them say a word because there’s nothing to say, at least not while they’re on the side of a public street. Instead of communicating verbally, Shelby takes to running her thumb along  the back of Toni’s hand.

She doesn’t stop, not even when the car arrives and they slide into the backseat together. There’s a middle seat in between them, but Shelby doesn’t care—she just reaches over and takes Toni’s hand right back into hers. 

Once the car pulls up and Shelby thanks the driver with that overly-cheerful lilt in her voice that Toni has grown to love, the two girls step out of the car on opposite sides. Shelby skips around the vehicle and begins to walk into the building, Toni alongside her, both of their hearts pounding against their chests so loudly that they’re terrified the other girl will hear it.

Toni’s dorm is first, and she’s about to invite Shelby in but then she remembers Leah’s out of town but Fatin could return at an any unexpected moment, so she asks if they can go to Shelby’s room. 

“Why mine?” Shelby inquires, walking towards her own room.

When the key is in the lock, Toni replies, “We need to talk.”

Amusement tugs at the corners of Shelby’s lips. “Talk, huh? About what?”

She holds the door open for Toni, who steps inside and begins to ramble the second the door shuts. At the sight of Shelby’s cheer outfit, she decides to start with that, because Toni’s a master of deflection. 

“I can’t believe that you’re a cheerleader. I mean, I can, you have the biggest cheerleading energy ever, but still. Do you know what energy you definitely have?” She turns around to face a half stunned, half confused Shelby. “Sorority energy. I’m surprised you’re not in a sorority, y’know, like the house that we were just in right now? I could totally imagine you living there.”

Biting back a highly amused smile, Shelby folds her arms and takes a step towards her. “And why’s that?”

“You’re blonde, and you’re cheerful; all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and shit,” Toni replies, going back to pacing back and forth, running her fingers down the only pageant ribbon Shelby has in her dorm. “And no wonder you did pageants, I mean, no wonder you won pageants—like, duh, look at you. Anyone with normal eyesight would give you a ten out of ten, or whatever the maximum score is in those competitions. I would, I’d give you a hundred out of ten, or a thousand, I don’t know. And I hate that, I hate that you’re so pretty that I just wanna—”

She stops herself abruptly, shocked at how close she got to saying it out loud. There’s evident panic in her eyes, and it only grows stronger as Shelby steps so close to her that their faces are less than inches away from each other.

“Just want to… what?” Shelby asks with faux innocence, mouth shaped in the sweetest smile Toni’s ever seen.

Toni stays silent; her eyes do all the talking, flitting down to Shelby’s lips, then back up, then down again where they stay for long enough to make her intentions impossibly clear. Both of them are sober; this isn’t a sorority basement; all of Toni’s requirements for a first kiss with Shelby are met.

The thought shoots straight to her heart, making it beat in triple time. Her mind is completely sober yet completely cloudy; everything about Shelby is so perfect and endearing that it’s dizzying. The only thought she can now form is Shelby Shelby Shelby Shelby. 

She leans in, slowly to give her enough time to back away—but Shelby closes her eyes just as Toni’s about to close the gap between them, so Toni swallows all her inhibitions because fuck it, and then—

And then Shelby turns her head; Toni kisses her cheek, only having the sense to pull away after the first split second too late.

Shelby’s biting down hard on her own lip to contain her laugher, while Toni is trying and failing miserably to not turn as red as she’s going right now.

“Got you there, lover,” Shelby teases her with a grin.

Toni flushes deeply. It was a trick, and she fell right for it.

She shakes her head at Shelby’s clear display of amusement, and then smirks—because Toni doesn’t know what comes over her for what she does next: her hand is fisted on the top of Shelby’s collar, Shelby’s being tugged towards her, and then they’re kissing.

Toni presses her lips hard against Shelby’s, whose eyes widen at the impact—but only briefly because she immediately melts into Toni, putting one hand on the back of her neck and the other one tangled into her soft curls to bring her closer.

It finishes as quickly as it begins; Toni’s stuttering out an apology, but Shelby’s quick to shut her up with a breathy, “Took you long enough.”

The way Shelby stares at her is so smug, but the loving smile she gives her is enough to make Toni’s knees buckle. But then Shelby has her hands on Toni’s waist to pull her closer, and they’re kissing again, so there’s no time to literally fall, only figuratively.

This time it’s soft and slow, with Shelby taking the lead as she trails her hands along the sides of Toni’s body up to her face. She runs a thumb across Toni’s cheekbone, so lightly that it sends goosebumps along her arms. She tastes a little bit like her strawberry-flavoured lipgloss and entirely like Shelby. 

Toni had been trying so hard to not fall for her kind-of roommate. If it was impossible not to before, it’s certainly out of the question now—she can’t turn back when she knows what it feels like to kiss the girl she’s been pining after for what feels like twenty seconds and twenty years. She’s free falling and there’s nothing to hold onto, but she doesn’t want to hold on anymore; if she’s honest, she never did.

When they pull apart, foreheads together, it’s only because Shelby can’t stop smiling. “So, you think I’m pretty?” she whispers.

“Fuck, Shelby,” Toni sighs. “You’re gorgeous.”

The two gaze at each other, an intense look in their eyes, both pairs darkened by blown pupils.

The taste of her lips is the only thing Toni can think about. Months of daydreaming about this moment, about how Shelby’s mouth would feel under hers—soft and wanting and so pliant against her own—but the dreams could’ve never prepared her for just how perfectly they fit together, how sweet Shelby tastes and how gently she holds her.

It’s so much and it’s too good and it’s all at once; Toni has to go. If she stays for much longer she’s going to kiss Shelby again, and she won’t be able to stop.

Not that either of them would complain.

But Toni has her last practice session before break tomorrow morning, something which she reluctantly mumbles as she steps away from Shelby and makes towards the door.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” Shelby suggests, a hopefulness to her voice.

Toni nods, then leaves.

===

Toni’s lying flat on her back in bed, wearing a long t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms when Fatin arrives, stumbling around.

“Dorothy is back home, all safe and sound,” she declares, throwing her heels somewhere on the floor. “And me? Well, I’m doing amazing. Leah’s asked me to come up on Wednesday in time for Thanksgiving… which I don’t even fucking celebrate, but it’s free food with my almost-girlfriend, so should I say yes?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you Antonia.” Fatin hiccups. “I’d kiss you if we weren’t both shackled up.”

“Excuse me, I’m not—” Toni stutters, “shackled up.”

Fatin hiccups again. “For lack of a better term, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, whatever.”

Then she collapses backwards onto the bed. “G’night,” she slurs out.

“Night, Fatin.”

===

The alarm blares at half past nine in the morning, way too early for Toni after the events of last night, but she gets up anyway because she has to.

There’s a weird nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach, but it’s not sick, it’s just anxious. She’s anxious. But in a way, it’s not actually just anxiety—there’s excitement in there too.

A lot of excitement. 

And fear.

And dread. 

And nervousness. And fear. And elation, apprehensiveness, exhilaration, worry anticipation, a crushing feeling of what-the-fuck-I-just-kissed-my-kind-of-roommate-slash-best-friend-if-I-can-even-call-her-my-best-friend.

“Put that thesaurus down,” she can hear Leah tell her inside her mind.

That’s when she realises she’s at the library and not the gym. Fuck.

She runs out of the library and down the street, blue and yellow duffel bag bouncing behind her. Her hair is flying everywhere and her eyes are tearing up from the harsh air resistance; she looks like a mess but she doesn’t care because the sprinting almost feels like flying.

===

Fifteen minutes isn’t that late—well, seventeen if you take into account the time it took her to change into her basketball kit and run out onto the court—but Toni’s missed warmup, so she stands alone doing stretches in the corner as the rest of the team begins drills.

“Shalifoe,” the coach barks. “Care to explain why we’re late?”

“Sorry ma’am.” Toni straightens her back. “My, uh, alarm didn't go off.” 

The coach squints at her, crossing her arms. “I expect my girls to all be on time, we’ve got our first game soon. Doesn’t matter if you’re still a benchwarmer, I see great things in you—okay?”

Toni nods appreciatively. “Thanks coach, I won’t let you down.”

“Good. Glad to hear it, Shalifoe.”

She resumes her final stretches, looking around to see that there’s a few girls missing today, including Amelia. Poor girl is probably super hungover, but the headache can’t be worse than what will happen once Coach gets to her.

It seems that pretty much the entire team was in attendance last night, so everyone’s playing a little sluggishly. They get yelled at a lot, which is to be expected, but Coach isn’t downright evil, so her voice is kind and genuine when she dismisses everyone and wishes each girl a happy Thanksgiving-slash-break.

Toni showers quickly, gets changed, and just as she’s pulling on her navy blue sweatshirt with striped sleeves, she receives a text from ‘Shelby Goodtexas’.

Shelby: Good morning! You feeling okay after last night? Xx

‘Last night’ could mean a lot of things: the party, the drinking, the night itself, the kiss, the aftermath.

By process of elimination, Toni discards the ‘drinking’ option because her lips barely touched anything (any drink) let alone anything with an alcohol percentage in the double digits. That really narrows it down. 

Toni: i’m good. you?

Shelby: I’m great (:

There’s a minute while the three dots that signify that Shelby’s typing keep appearing and disappearing, long enough to make Toni notice that Shelby keeps using the smiley face that she hates.

And now she loves it. Screw her, she thinks.

Shelby: Do you want to go out with me to the arcade in the afternoon?

Toni rushes to type a yes, I’d love to.

Shelby: Yay!!! See you at 4:30! (:

Toni: you mean :)  

Shelby: No. (:

Toni:  i hate you

Shelby: No you don’t! Don’t be silly.

===

“This is totally a date,” Martha tells her over FaceTime as Toni scrambles for a last minute outfit.

“Uh, this is totally not. We’re just f—” Toni stops herself, knowing Leah will have her neck if she somehow finds out she’s used the f-word again. She’s also unsure if it’s the right word to use. “We’re just going to play overpriced arcade games and lose all our money.”

Dramatically and loudly, Martha sighs. “Whatever. It’s so cold, just wear a sweatshirt and call it a day.”

Technically, even if they were married ten years down the line or something, they’d still be friends; Toni has a philosophy that you should never date anyone other than someone who you consider one of your best friends.

Wait—how did her mind go there?

“Maybe I’ll borrow some of Fatin’s clothes. How about this thing?” She turns to the camera that’s propped up on her desk, holding up a green fur jacket to her waist. “Totally my style, right?”

“Oh yeah, Shelby won’t be able to resist you in that.” Toni throws the jacket at the phone. “Hey!”

Just then, there’s a knock on the door. Toni swings it open, expecting it to be Fatin saying she lost her keys or something, but instead it’s a bright green-eyed blonde in a white one-third zip fleece and a small black purse with the strap diagonal across her body.

“You ready?” the Texan asks, waltzing into the room with a skip in her step.

There’s a muffled sound from under the jacket of Martha saying, “Shelby, is that you?”

Shelby’s smile, something that seems permanent around Toni, brightens impossibly at hearing Martha. “Hey Marty! Where are you?” She looks around, puzzled, until Toni lifts Fatin’s coat. Shelby takes the phone and begins chatting away happily with Martha, asking her how she’s doing, if she has any more dog photos to show her.

Toni just stands there, blinking silently.

“Why don’t you just exchange numbers?” she suggests after a minute.

The two girls agree it’s a great idea, and then they fully schedule a time to call someday soon. Toni thinks it’s oddly sweet. 

“Okay then Martha, Toni and I have gotta get goin’ now but we’ll see you later!” she says cheerfully, getting Toni into frame before waving goodbye and hanging up. She hands Toni her phone back, sarcastically adding, “I love your sister, I wish she was Fatin’s roommate instead of you.”

Toni scoffs. “Yeah, right. Let’s go.” 

===

The arcade is right by the sea; Toni can taste the salty air once they’re at the entrance, arms linked round each other’s. Immediately, Shelby’s drawn to the claw machines at the entrance and stares longingly at them. Toni tugs her away, citing the fact that they’re rigged, but Shelby pouts and says she’ll try just once.

Five dollars and ten tries later, she finally accepts defeat and lets Toni lead her to the basketball hoops. Shelby fails miserably at it, while Toni gets every single shot in, clean.

Eventually Toni goes up behind her to places her hands on her arms in order to guide Shelby to try and shoot a hoop. Shelby, however, is too distracted by the way Toni’s breath tickles her ear and the way her warm hands hold her arms so delicately that she does considerably worse than before. To be entirely fair to her, she can’t think about basketball when all of her willpower is focused on not turning her head, grabbing her face and— 

After the hoops they play air hockey for a little while. Shelby makes use of her insanely quick reflexes to beat Toni in a close end result of three to two. Toni tries to blame the fact that she was distracted; it reminded her of when Shelby grabbed her quickly enough to inhibit her from falling off the bed. But try as she might, she knows Shelby’s just insanely good. 

They play some more random games, some together and some solo. At one point, Shelby decides it’s a great idea for both of them to go on one of those motorcycle racing games where the player is meant to go on a life-sized imitation of a motorcycle.

Toni clutches desperately at Shelby’s waist as the bike keeps sharply turning to the side, wobbling every time Shelby has to physically push it back up with her feet due to their combined, unevenly dispersed weight being too much for the contraption. Obviously, it’s not built for two people; Toni is hanging on for dear life at the back, not even sat on the actual seat where people are meant to sit.

“Nope nope nope, Shelby, I can’t do this.”

“Stop leanin’ to the side like that—”

“—I’m not leaning anywhere, you’re just—”

“—you’re gonna topple me over!”

“—tilting too fast!”

Halfway through the race, Toni tries to step off during a long stretch where there’s no bends in the virtual road. Unfortunately, she grossly miscalculates the way the vehicle is balanced and ends up falling to the side onto the ground, shoulder first.

Shelby laughs at her from above, but looks a little bit concerned. “You okay?”

“This was a horrible idea,” she groans from the ground. “I hope you lose.”

Shelby ends up coming third in the race.

She steps off the motorcycle proudly, and says, “Sorry about that,” entirely un-sorry.

Toni furrows her eyebrows in feigned anger before grabbing Shelby’s wrist and taking her to a game she’s actually good at:

“Dance Dance Revolution? Really?” Shelby questions with a raised eyebrow.

“Yup. Marty and I used to play this all the time back home. She’s like a legit pro dancer so I’d always lose, but I was never far off.”

“I bet I could still win.” There’s a spark of challenge in her eyes.

Toni grins. “We’ll see about that.”

Turns out that Shelby plays to win; she has zero issue in nudging Toni, elbowing her every time they step in the same direction. And maybe usually Toni doesn’t play dirty, but she’s not having any of that without a fight.

So maybe they both spend more time physically wrestling each other off of the board than focusing on the dance, if you can even call it that, and in the end Toni wins anyway (by a margin), but Shelby vows to secretly practice all the time so that she can get better and eventually beat her someday.

Toni tells her that’s impossible, Shelby says she’ll see about that.

There’s one last pit stop to the claw machines again, this time it’s Toni dragging her to them. Secretly she wants to show off and win Shelby something, pretend for a minute that this is a date.

Because it’s not actually a date, obviously, it’s just ‘going out’.

“Thought you said they were rigged?” Shelby tells her, leaning up against the corner of the machine as she watches Toni intently, learning the way that the tip of her tongue sticks out between her teeth and her eyes squint when she’s concentrated.

On the third and final go that the dollar provides, it looks like she’s going to get something, some leopard-looking thing, maybe a tiger it’s hard to tell, but it drops off of the claw at the last minute, falling to the side of the chute.

“Ugh,” Toni groans, “never mind.” 

“You tried,” Shelby says with a smile, looping her arm through hers, other hand rested on her bicep.

Trying to ignore the overwhelming warmth blossoming in her chest, Toni returns her smile and walks with her over to the desk where they can exchange tickets for dumb little prizes.

Shelby hands over all of her strips to Toni, arguing that if they put theirs together she can actually get something nice for herself. It’s a sweet gesture, but Toni’s not going to take her up on the offer. Instead, she scans the cabinet full of things, points to one near the top and asks the guy at the desk to get it.

“Here,” she says as they begin to walk away, handing the prize to Shelby. “There weren’t any cats, so I decided to do you one better and get you my favourite animal.”

There’s an evident blush on Shelby’s cheeks as she accepts the little soft giraffe toy from her. “Toni, you were meant to get somethin’ for you. But thank you.” She ducks her head slightly to leave a soft, lingering kiss on the side of her face, right next to her hairline.

Toni goes weak at the knees.

It’s basically dark out now; there’s still a slither of light coming over the ocean from the sun, so they both decide to get cheap prepackaged sandwiches and sit on the beach to eat them.

Because it’s so cold, they eat them as quickly as possible, trying to avoid getting “literal frostbite”, as Shelby calls it.

“Nah, this is nothing,” Toni says after swallowing her last mouthful. “This is a warm spring evening in Minnesota.”

“This is a freakin’ Winter solstice midnight in Texas,” Shelby laughs. She brings her cupped hands up to her mouth to blow on them for warmth, but Toni takes them in hers instead.

Shelby smiles gratefully and curls into her. Toni wraps her spare arm around her, bringing her closer.

This feels an awful lot like a date.

“It’s a shame we can’t see the stars,” Shelby says quietly after some moments of comfortable silence. “Darn light pollution.”

“You could see them in Minnesota, there was no light pollution at the res. Sometimes I’d go down to the lake and sleep under the stars.”

“Was it safe?” 

Toni glances down at the worried green eyes that are paired with a concerned frown. “I’m still here, right?” she says lightly, earning her an eye roll and a playful shove.

Several minutes go by where neither of them say a word; there’s no need, each other’s company is enough to fill the silence and keep them entertained. Eventually, Toni breaks it by saying, “I’ll take you properly stargazing someday. You can come up to Minnesota and meet Martha and the dogs.”

“And the rabbit, goldfish, cats and hamster?” she suggests hopefully, to which Toni laughs.

“Yeah, you can meet the whole family.”

“I’d like that.” Shelby’s voice is soft but it’s obvious how much she means it.

Without saying it out loud, Toni promises that she will, and tells her by squeezing her hand. 

===

The walk home is pleasant; they talk about everything and nothing all at once, laughing at each other’s dumb jokes harder than with anyone else just because there’s an extra level of something when it’s the other girl who’s the one telling the punchline. Shelby’s laugh is warm and infectious and all that Toni wants to hear for the rest of her life.

Gazing down at the stuffed animal Toni got for her that’s tucked under her own arm, Shelby asks, “Are giraffes your favourite animal cause they’re everythin’ you’re not?”

Toni frowns. “Huh?”

“Tall.”

Shelby smirks down at her and it takes everything in Toni to not lean up and kiss it away. Instead, she elbows her playfully, because she’s smooth as hell.

It only gets awkward once they’re outside Toni’s door. She wants to invite Shelby in, and it’s clear Shelby does too, but there’s something in her that says it’s too much too soon—she doesn’t want to rush whatever this is.

“Um, thank you for today,” Toni says softly, so quiet it’s barely audible.

“Thank you,” Shelby returns.

Her eyes flicker to Toni’s lips—once, then twice, and on the third she gives in and takes Toni’s lower lip in hers. The kiss is quick but she’s soft and gentle and perfect, and Toni knows she’ll never go a day without thinking about this moment, or about her.

“Goodnight, lover,” Shelby whispers with the smile that never runs out around her.

“Sweet dreams.”

Shelby turns and leaves, reluctantly, leaving Toni alone to wonder what this could possibly all mean for the both of them.

Chapter Text

Shelby Goodkind is a very good kisser. That is a fact that Toni Shalifoe cannot get out of her mind.

She doesn’t tell anyone about the kiss—or, rather, multiple ones. Three to be precise, because yes, Toni is counting.

The day after the first, second and third kiss, Dot drags Toni and Fatin on a day out with her. Her version of a day out is actually inviting them to her place to watch survival shows together, except Toni is adamant that they watch a game. Eventually they settle on trashy reality TV “as a joke”, but judging by how intently the two are discussing it, it’s clear they are somewhat enjoying it, even just in a love-to-hate way.

Fatin tells them that they will never hear the end of this.

So Toni doesn’t end up seeing Shelby that day, but she doesn’t need to; they’ve been spending a lot of time together recently, and you shouldn’t have too much of a good thing—though Toni is sure that there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ when it comes to Shelby. 

What she means is that she doesn’t have to spend every single day with Shelby, because she knows she’s always there when she needs her. It’s a nice feeling, having someone like that. Toni hasn’t had many of those people in her life before, and can’t really fathom why Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, has ended up being one of those few—all she knows is that she’s glad that she is.

They do end up seeing each other pretty soon though, because Nora’s organised another game night. Together with Fatin, the three make their way to Nora’s place, engaging in random conversations as a trio and acting like nothing is different.

And in a way, nothing is.

Upon arrival, because Fatin is Fatin, she makes a point of not sitting on the same couch as Shelby and Toni despite there being no space elsewhere. Instead, she plops herself down on the side of Dot’s armchair, swings her arm around her neck and loudly says, “Dorothy Jane! I have missed you so much, my love.”

“Fatin, you saw me literally yesterday.”

“Am I not allowed to miss my best friend?”

The two continue to bicker as Nora rummages for games while Shelby sighs, turning her head away from the amusing interaction she’s just witnessed. Her eyes meet Toni’s, and the brunette finds herself blushing as she returns the warm smile given to her.

“Hi,” she says quietly. 

“Hi yourself.” Shelby shuffles closer to her, enough that their legs are touching. Toni’s hand twitches; she wants to put it on her knee, take her hand in her own maybe, but she doesn’t do any of that.

Instead, she says, “Um, how are you?”

It elicits a brief but (extremely) cute giggle from Shelby. “I’m good, how are you doin’?”

Freaking southern charm, she thinks. “I’m fine.”

“Good.” Shelby shuffles closer again, this time so that their legs are entirely pressed against each other’s, as well as their arms.

But before Toni’s brain can short circuit even more, Nora—like the saviour she is—declares that they’re going to play Scrabble this time, much to Rachel’s chagrin.

“Nora, just because I don’t despise this game anymore it doesn’t mean I’ve gotten any better at it,” she says through the video call displayed on the laptop.

“We’re going to be in pairs again,” Nora states in assurance, “so you will be fine.”

Dot goes to move towards Shelby, assuming that they’ll be partners again given Nora’s previous arrangements. However, the host has different ideas: “No, we have to switch up the pairs for Scrabble. I’ll go with Dot. Toni, you go with Rachel, and then—”

“Actually,” Fatin pipes up, sliding off of where she’s perched on Dot’s chair. “Toni can’t go with Rachel.”

The short basketball player shoots daggers at her.

“Why?” asks Nora.

“Because want to go with Rach, and Toni’s too dumb to work the laptop.”

Rachel and Toni both speak at the exact same time:

“Don’t call me that,” and,

“I work in a library, I know how to work a fucking laptop.”

But at the end of the day, it’s Nora’s call, and after looking intently at Toni and Shelby—almost like she’s onto something—she agrees.

Toni knows that Fatin did that on purpose, and she knows that Shelby knows that too. Much to her relief, however, Shelby seems completely unfazed by it—content, even, with Fatin taking on the role of wingwoman. She has to quickly shrug that thought off as everyone sets up for the game.

The first set of letters that the pair get are extremely annoying: P, L, J, S, L, E, U. Luckily they don’t have to go first; Nora and Dot start, putting down the word ‘mowed’, which earns them thirteen points. Then it’s Fatin and Rachel’s turn, putting down the word ‘rouse’ using the ‘o’ already on the board, earning them seven points.

Shelby’s rearranging the letters as the others place their words down, trying to find a word with a sufficiently large score.

“Wait, I have an idea,” Toni says, looking to Shelby for permission.

She nods, and Toni takes five letters to place them along the board to spell ‘pulsed’, using the ‘d’ from Nora and Dot’s word. It lands on a double-word square, meaning that they get eighteen points, the highest out of the first turns. Toni feels quite accomplished at that, and turns to Shelby who’s smiling at her with something very akin to adoration in her eyes.

“Well done,” she says to her as everyone else chats around them.

Toni can’t stop her eyes from flitting down to her lips. When she says “thanks”, it hardly comes out as a whisper, and Shelby just smirks at her knowingly before turning her attention back to the game.

It’s only when Shelby leans across Toni’s legs, arm brushing against her midsection as she fetches the little black bag with the lettered tiles inside, that Toni realises how fucked she is. Between all the hand brushes and the way that Shelby always moves a little too close to her ear when trying to be discreet about what their next move should be, Toni is subconsciously getting pretty worked up—and Shelby knows it too, it was her plan all along, after all.

Toni tries to not show how much it gets to her, tries to not blush every time Shelby looks at her like that, but it’s not like she can take her own eyes off of the green ones paired with full pink lips that she just wants to—

“Hey, I think we should do this one next,” Shelby says to her in a low voice while everyone else is distractedly arguing about the correct spelling of some word. “The ‘x’ would be on a double letter, so.” She arranges the tiles to spell the word ‘axon’ and looks at Toni expectantly, who shakes her head in disapproval.

“Nah, if we wait for the next round we could probably get the ‘o’ to land on that double word if either of them put something above it, which I think they will. We’d get more points that way.”

“But I’ve seen Dot eyein’ up that spot, I think her and Nora are gonna play there next.” 

“I don’t think we should waste the ‘x’, though,” Toni insists.

Shelby looks at her—really looks at her—and Toni can almost see the idea appear in a flash across her face. Her expression goes from contemplating to teasing, before she leans close to Toni’s ear, lips almost brushing it, and whispers, “I’ll give you a kiss if you do as I say.”

So Toni nods, blushing, because it’s the only thing she can do.

It ends up paying off for two reasons: one, Nora and Dot do end up playing there, taking the spot on the board; two, Toni is guaranteed a kiss from Shelby at the end of the night.

Not that she wasn’t already, but she doesn’t need to know that.

The fact plays on her mind for the rest of the game, doesn’t leave when she realises they came in second place, and it’s still there by the time that Nora announces that they’re moving onto Cluedo.

The aim of the game is to figure out who killed someone with which weapon and in what room, and you have to do that via process of elimination as you move along the board. There’s a lot of psychoanalysis involved, a lot of tricking the other person/team (usually you don’t play it in pairs, but because six is the maximum number it can get a little long, Nora decides everyone can just stay in pairs as it’s getting relatively late). Nora gives everyone a card to tick off the weapons/suspects/locations, along with some spare paper for anything else they may want to write down, and so the game commences. 

Shelby’s a little confused, given that it’s her first time playing the board game, but Toni has played it many times with Martha and is therefore pretty familiar with the way it works so she explains the rules in more detail to her after Nora does, answering any questions she has along the way.

The first round ends pretty quickly; Rachel and Fatin win, deducing everything in a short amount of turns. Everyone’s pretty impressed, and collectively agree to play one more round before calling it a day.

This next round goes on for a lot longer, but Shelby seems to be getting the hang of it pretty quickly. “I think we should move to the ballroom next,” she whispers to Toni as quietly as she can while the other duos discuss tactics amongst themselves.

Toni shakes her head, “We’re so close to finding out the weapon; I think we should go back to the hall to make it easier to single it out.”

“But we still need the location—”

At that, everyone’s heads turn to Shelby. The four girls exchange glances, including Rachel through the screen somehow, trying to work out how close the pair are to figuring things out, and so Shelby takes to writing out her reasoning instead. Except it’s not actual reasoning, it’s just a, “please.”

Toni conceals a laugh and writes back in her messy, slanted scrawl.

Trust me, it’s better in the long run if we go back

Shelby takes the pencil from her and scribbles:

I disagree.

The messy-but-neat-and-also-super-cute handwriting makes Toni’s stomach flutter for some unknown reason—maybe it’s the heart that Shelby draws next to it that makes her head spin—but she pushes the sensation away as best as she can when she writes:

I’ll kiss you if you let me go back to the hall.

Admittedly, it’s not as smooth as when Shelby used the same trick on her, but hopefully it’ll work.

But you’re already going to so that isn’t going to work, sorry.

Toni finds herself overanalysing the sentence: is she referring to the fact that Toni had previously accepted the same deal, or that she thinks that Toni would just do it anyway? She quickly accepts that it’s probably the first fact, and then, because she’s not entirely useless, she writes:

Don’t you want another one though?

It’s Shelby’s turn to blush now. She glances over at Toni, who’s pretending to pay attention to Nora’s conversation in an attempt to appear as inconspicuous as possible, and smiles to herself at what she writes next.

You can’t use that for leverage as if I haven’t noticed you staring at my lips all night, lover. We both know I’m getting that kiss either way.

By the time that Toni has read it, mouth hanging open before she promptly clenches it shut, Shelby has moved their counter to the hall—so Toni opens her mouth to make some remark about how her offer worked, but Shelby takes the pencil and quickly scribbles:

This is only because I realised you were right, not because I want to kiss you.

Toni replies with,

Oh, so you don’t want to? :(

And Shelby writes,

Lord, Toni, it’s all I ever think about doing. Of course I want to.

Somehow, despite Toni being completely dazed for the remainder of the game, her and Shelby still manage to win. The best way to celebrate that, Shelby decides, is to throw her arms around Toni and hug her tightly enough that both of them forget how to breathe for a split second.

===

The walk home with Fatin is pretty tense—at least for Toni and Shelby.

Fatin keeps talking, as she usually does, about this and that—and it’s a welcome distraction for Toni who is simultaneously extremely scared yet excited for what she knows she’s owed.

‘Owed’ is the wrong word, even though in the context it’s technically correct. But still, regardless of why what they’re about to do is happening, Toni’s scared. 

Maybe ‘scared’ is the wrong word, maybe it is more ‘excited’, because she certainly is—excited, that is—or maybe the Scrabble game has got to her head now and all she can think about is words. And words, at the end of the day, are just that: words. The word ‘scared’ is worth nine points; ‘excited’ is worth seventeen. So yeah, maybe excited is the winner here.

Toni is about to go into her room with Fatin—key word: about (worth seven points)—when Shelby says, “Hey Toni, before I forget, do you wanna get the hoodie you left in my room the other day?”

Somehow, it’s actually casual enough for Fatin to not bat an eyelid; she genuinely believes Shelby.

So Toni says yes, and the two find themselves walking along the corridors to Shelby’s room. No words are exchanged, the only noises are of their synced up footsteps and Toni’s heart thumping against her chest.

Shelby unlocks the door, holds it open for her, and then steps inside.

Then there’s just quiet.

“So,” Shelby says in a soft voice, holding her hands behind her back as she takes a tentative step towards her. “I think I owe you somethin’ after tonight.”

Toni gulps. “Mhmm.”

There’s only meant to be one, but when Shelby presses her lips to hers so softly and chastely, Toni doesn’t want that to be it.

She places her hand on her waist to bring her closer and their mouths begin to move in tandem, and it’s all a give and take—it was only meant to be Shelby giving her one kiss for the game, just onebut she’s right there and Toni can’t help but to lean in again, then again, then again for more—more of her—and Shelby can’t seem to get enough either.

They’re standing upright but neither of them want to be. Toni goes to tug Shelby onto the bed, not for anything other than to make out for a few more minutes, maybe more—but then Shelby’s easing the speed down, slowing the kisses into being gentle and close-lipped, before she pulls away and gazes into Toni’s eyes.

“There you go,” she whispers, hands still cupping her face warmly. “Goodnight, Toni.”

“G’night,” is what a dazed Toni just about manages to say as she slowly steps out of Shelby’s space, walking backwards until she turns to the door, opens it, and then leaves with a small wave that Shelby returns happily.

===

“Where’s your hoodie?” Fatin asks teasingly, eyeing up Toni’s lips which are now swollen and two shades darker. 

“Shut the fuck up.”

===

The rest of Toni’s week is mostly spent studying, practicing basketball in her spare time, and going out for group outings that Fatin keeps organising.

Shelby’s usually there, and the two of them tend to always act casual. 

Except, of course, there’s the constant touches that linger too long to be innocent, the way that they both blatantly check each other out, the way that Shelby’s smile is at its brightest when she’s looking at Toni and laughing at one of her horrible jokes that nobody else finds anywhere near as funny. It’s not even forced; Shelby genuinely loves everything Toni says, so she can’t help but to throw her head back and crack up at everything.

Toni does the same but in a more subtle way: she’ll give Shelby these glances where the skin around her eyes is crinkled and she’s visibly biting back laughter, and Shelby will beam right back at her with a look that shows she knows exactly how hilarious she finds her.

It’s all very sweet, the rest of them find, but there’s an unspoken pact that nobody’s allowed to say anything about it, at least not in a group setting where it’ll do nothing except embarrass the two.

On the Thursday, Toni spends most of the day chilling out in her room alone. Fatin’s gone off to Leah’s home to spend actual Thanksgiving with her, and Shelby and Dot are having a proper large lunch together to celebrate. It’s their first Thanksgiving away from home for both of them—whatever ‘home’ actually means to Shelby—so they figured it’d be nice to spend it together, to make things feel a little more normal. They did offer for Toni to join them, but she just told them that she likes to pretend this Thursday is any other day, just with a little extra food, and that the Texans should go ahead and properly celebrate. 

Bernice Blackburn—Martha’s mom, who is also the closest thing that Toni’s had to a mom since the age of seven—calls Toni early in the afternoon, just to check up on her. She asks the usual questions about how studying is going, how basketball is, if she’s had any injuries from it, if her roommate’s nice, etcetera.

“She’s gone to her kind-of girlfriend’s house for the holidays,” Toni explains.

She’s a curious woman by nature, and since Martha and Toni are used to keeping her up with all the gossip, Toni’s not surprised when Bernice asks, “Ah, her name’s Fatin, right? What do you mean by kind of?” 

“Yeah, well, Fatin’s kinda had this thing for my best friend’s roommate since the beginning of the semester. They’re not dating officially but they might as well be.” The term ‘best friend’ (worth six and ten points respectively in Scrabble) kind of just slips out, but it feels so completely natural. Technically, Shelby is her best friend by definition, especially seeing as Martha doesn’t count because she’s more of a sister than just a friend—and besides, you can have multiple best friends.

“I see. And who’s your new best friend?”

It’s the smile Toni has and the way her voice goes higher that makes Bernice see it right away. “Her name’s Shelby, she lives on my floor. She’s from Texas, and Fatin and I met her and Leah—that’s her roommate we were just talking about—on the first day when we were checking out the campus. She’s a cheerleader and we’re kinda in this friend group with Fatin, Leah, this girl called Dot who moved here from Texas with her, they actually knew each other before, and another girl, Nora, who has a twin up in Stanford that we’re always on the phone to. But yeah, Shelby’s super nice. Her and Martha get along too, so I really think you’ll like her.”

You will like her. Fuck, Toni thinks.

Bernice picks up on that too, and says, “Is she coming up any time soon?”

Toni laughs nervously; she’d offered for Shelby to go over when they were talking at the beach, but she hadn’t actually thought about it happening in practicality, but rather as a far away thing for the future: a bridge to cross when she gets to it. “Um, well, we’ll have to see.”

She can see the way Bernice presses her mouth into a tight, knowing smile; she knows that she knows. “You seem to really like her.”

“Mhmm,” Toni confirms, nodding.

“You seem to really like her, Toni. Are you sure there isn’t something you’re not telling me?”

“I don’t—” she stutters, trying to decide exactly how honest she’s going to be. Not that she wants to lie to Bernice anyway, but she knows that if she tries to deny anything, she’s not going to believe her, so she settles for something vague yet truthful: “I don’t wanna ruin our friendship.”

The idea of ruining the friendship is Toni’s surface-level recurring reason as to why she’s “not” acting on her feelings—the real reason runs much deeper than that, rooted in a deep fear of abandonment and a need to have strong lasting connections like the one she’s formed with Shelby—but considering the blatant, explicit flirting, and the fact that they basically almost made out with each other a few days ago, she can’t actually say that she’s not acting on her feelings. She can try to convince herself and Bernice, but at the end of the day she knows the real truth: she’s stepped over the line of friendship and can’t just step backwards to go into it again. She’s not even sure that she still knows where the line is.

“I believe that all the best relationships are built on a strong foundation of friendship,” Bernice tells her. “So, if anything, you’d just be ruining your chance at something beautiful.”

It scares Toni, because that is the exact thought she’d had last week when she first kissed Shelby. 

It also scares her because she knows she’s right.

“I guess.” Then quickly, to distract from the conversation topic, she says, “So, how’s work going?”

Toni,” Bernice chastises firmly in her best mom voice.

Mrs B.”

”Stop trying to change the subject.”

“I’m just making conversation!”

===

When she finds out through Shelby’s Instagram story that all she’s doing that night is watching a film in the darkness of her bedroom (“Halloween’s gone but this is forever a timeless classic!” the caption reads above the title screen of ‘Coraline’), Toni decides that, despite her deep hatred for the holiday, she understands that it’s probably pretty weird for Shelby to be spending the evening alone when all she’s used to is a lot of food and family.

Toni doesn’t have a lot of food, and the only family she has is back in Minnesota and not even related to her by blood, but she has two turkey sandwiches that she just went out of her way to get on purpose as well as herself, and that’s better than nothing, right?

So she knocks on the door to room 120, and the second it opens she blurts out, “Look, I hate Thanksgiving for obvious reasons, but it’s your first time spending it alone, so I made us turkey ham sandwiches because I don’t exactly have five ovens to roast a turkey in nor do I actually want to roast one, that’s a lot of effort, and I figured you wouldn’t be too hungry after that lunch with Dot, it seemed pretty big, so—”

She doesn’t get to finish the rest of the ramble because Shelby’s flung both arms around her, enveloping her in a tight embrace that lasts for many conforming moments.

“Thank you,” Shelby says, a little breathless. “I love, um, I love this. I love it. Thank you, you really didn’t have to, but thank you.”

They end up cross-legged on Shelby’s bed, eating over plates balanced on their knees while watching the greatest children’s horror movie of all time.

“I will never understand why this is considered a kid’s movie,” Toni says through a mouthful of sandwich. “It’s scary as fuck.”

“I’d consider it more creepy than scary,” Shelby muses. “It’s the animation that does it for me, you know? The character design and the way they all move.” 

Toni nods in agreement.

Once the food is over, they cast the plates aside and shuffle closer to each other, ending up against upright pillows with Shelby’s head on Toni’s shoulder, and that’s how they stay until the end of the movie.

When Toni makes a move to slide off the bed,  Shelby stops her. “You can, uh, stay if you want.”

The suggestion sounds more like a question, with the way that Shelby says it so shyly, and there’s no hiding the smile that comes over Toni’s face. “Okay, but I gotta go brush my teeth and all that.”

“Oh right, yeah, me too.”

Around ten minutes later, Shelby’s at her desk doing her usual night routine (make up remover, then hydrating lotion, then two moisturisers—one for the face and the other for the hands—so Toni has learnt), feeling a tiny bit disappointed that Toni decided to change into her own clothes for the night instead of asking to borrow some of hers, and Toni is chilling on Leah’s bed, scrolling through her phone while absolutely definitely certainly not stealing frequent glances at the girl across the room from her.

Definitely not.

Then, when Shelby slides into bed and shuffles all the way to the edge, leaving enough space for another person and holding the covers open, it takes Toni a good moment and a half to realise what the suggestion in Shelby’s eyes means.

“It’s a single bed,” she blurts out dumbly.

“You’re tiny, not like it’s been a problem before.” 

Shelby has a point.

So, Toni hops off of Leah’s bed and slips under the covers besides Shelby, then reaches over to the desk behind her and turns off the table lamp as the other girl begins to curl into her.

There’s a few moments of silence where neither of them close their eyes; Toni stares at the ceiling and Shelby gazes over at the other side of the room, head resting on Toni’s shoulder.

The quiet is interrupted when Shelby whispers, “Can I kiss you goodnight?”

Toni’s mind goes blank for a second. “Yeah.”

Shelby props herself up on her elbow and gazes down at Toni’s features in the dark, just about making out the slope of her nose and the curve of her mouth, before she leans in and leaves a delicate kiss on her lips—and then, just because she can, one on her forehead, leaving Toni to melt into the pillows.

“Goodnight, lover.”

Toni smiles up at the ceiling in the dark, curling her arm around Shelby. “Night, princess.” 

Chapter Text

When Toni wakes up in the morning, Shelby isn’t there. She can’t say she’s not disappointed to wake up without the feeling of her warm body tangled up with hers, long blonde hair tickling her face.

But of course, because it’s Shelby, there’s a handwritten note neatly folded on top of a paper bag filled with a fresh pastry (today it’s an almond croissant) beside a hot chocolate. The top of the note has ‘Lover’ written on it with a heart and a bunch of stars dotted around, and Toni’s own heart can’t help but give a little flutter.

Toni, 

I would’ve loved to stay and wake up with you but I have so many errands to run this morning. Feel free to stay as long as you like, I’ll be back at around 10:30. Just in case I don’t get the chance today, I wanted to say thank you again for last night. You are beyond kind to me. It means more than you know.

- Shelby xxx

She rereads it again and again until she has enough sense to check the time on her phone: half past ten. 

Oh, shit. 

Right on cue, Shelby swings the door open, some paper bags hanging from her arms. She beams at Toni, secretly ecstatic that she’s still there, and wishes her a good morning in her most cheerful tone, the same she always has around her. She’s an outwardly happy person by nature, but Toni always seems to make her feel that much brighter.

“Hi,” Toni greets. “Sorry, I literally just woke up.”

“I figured.” After setting the bags down, filled with textbooks she had to pick up along with a new sweatshirt she bought (just because it looked cute and warm and the weather has been too cold for her Texas-appropriate clothes lately, and she was in town anyway so it gave her more of an excuse), she sits on the edge of Toni’s bed—or, rather, her own bed that Toni is currently in, the bed that they’ve shared a few times already.

“I did want to stay,” she continues, a little shyly as she shuffles closer to Toni. “But I had an appointment to get some things sorted at the bank, and then I had to pick up some textbooks, so.”

Toni gives her a small, tired, but genuine smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

A hand twitches forwards to take Toni’s, but Shelby resists it. Instead, she stands up, kicks off her jeans without thinking twice about it—much to Toni’s bewilderment—and shoves some sleep shorts back on.

“Move.” She nudges her leg lightly with her knee, and surprisingly it only takes two seconds for Toni to budge up to give Shelby the space to sit next to her under the covers.

And all they do is talk. For hours. That’s it.

Neither girl notices the time go by, Toni isn’t bothered that her drink has gone cold by the time she remembers it exists, and Shelby doesn’t mind that her arm has gone numb against Toni’s back.

When Toni drags herself out of bed, it’s only because she’s too aware that she hasn’t brushed her teeth since waking up, and she kind of wants to kiss Shelby because apparently that’s a thing that they do together now—but when she comes back, Shelby’s dressed again and says she’s off to the library to study, unfortunately. 

Toni simply smiles and tries to quell that slight pang of disappointment in her chest at the realisation that she was too late, reasoning that there will be plenty of opportunity later for them to… yeah.

It’s funny how she can’t even think about it properly in her mind sometimes, just because she’s embarrassed at herself at just how much she wants Shelby. She’s had a few girlfriends before, sure, but they’re not even together yet somehow she feels more of a draw towards Shelby than she has to anyone else.

Before going to the library, Shelby walks Toni—who’s now in actual clothes that she changed into in the bathroom—back to her own room, telling her about all the upcoming exams while Toni nods in understanding. Once they get to the door, she says, “See ya around!” and flashes her a wide smile before skipping away, leaving Toni behind in a bit of a daze caused by the lingering scent of her perfume.

Lord, she’s down so bad.

===

The next day is spent doing everything and nothing. Toni studies a bit, spends some time in the gym, texts Dot to make some plans, etcetera. Nothing interesting happens, really—not until she’s chilling on her bed aimlessly scrolling through social media, which is when a text comes through.

Shelby: I wish I’d kissed you before you left yesterday.

Toni has to reread it several times for it to sink in. She tries her hardest to think of a reply, but after three minutes of intensive thinking, all she comes up with is,

Toni: me too

Shelby: You do?

She grins and rolls her eyes.

Toni: well obviously

It takes a few moments for the next message to appear; the three dots that signify that Shelby is typing keep appearing and disappearing, until they’re replaced by words that make Toni’s head spin.

Shelby: I wish I’d done more than just… that.

She gulps at the subtext, feeling the effect of the words just below her stomach, and without giving herself a chance to second-guess it, she sends a response within seconds.

Toni: …more?

Granted, it’s not the greatest response she could’ve given. 

Shelby: Yeah, more.

Toni: i don’t know what you mean, i think you’re gonna have to elaborate on that

Shelby: You know exactly what I mean.

Toni: hmm i don’t think i do. care to explain?

It’s a never-ending game—Toni knows this probably won’t go anywhere, they’ll just exchange a few rhetorical questions in a cycle, and then Toni will be left to deal with the effects alone. Still, despite thinking that, the rate at which her heart thumps in her chest can’t be healthy.

Shelby: Are you seriously trying to sext me when we live in the same building, Shalifoe?

Maybe it’s the use of the word, maybe it’s the fact Shelby called her by her surname, or maybe it’s the whole situation (and the girl she’s in said situation with), but the effect the text has on Toni is physical; she’s going to have to get changed once this is over.

In a futile attempt to dim the tension, she types,

Toni: hey, you started it

Shelby: You want me to stop?

Toni has never typed out the word “no” so quickly in her entire life. 

There’s another pause, another minute where the three dots continuously appear then disappear, and then:

Shelby: Can I a be honest? I have no idea how to do this sort of thing, I’ve never done it before.

It’s certainly the last thing Toni expects her to admit; her confidence and forwardness up to this point have been far from what one would expect from somebody who hasn’t done this before, especially not someone who allegedly has no idea what she’s doing.

So, in an attempt to knock the tension a little and to make Shelby laugh in order for her to feel more comfortable, as well as reassuring her, Toni says,

Toni: well you’re doing a damn good job of it so far!

She can practically hear Shelby’s eye roll.

Shelby: Really, Shalifoe? Really?

Toni: i was trying to be encouraging

She huffs, then immediately follows it with:

Toni: i can’t help myself around you, you know that

The subtext is obvious; there’s no way Shelby won’t pick up on it. Toni’s heart races as she waits for a reply, but the three dots don’t even appear, and that sends her mind spinning with reasons why that could be.

Maybe Shelby’s put her phone down. Maybe she’s doing something else. It’s not entirely out of the question—maybe she just got bored? Toni thinks, or maybe she’s taken it too far? 

She considers sending Shelby an apology, telling her it’s fine if she doesn’t want to carry on, that they can forget this ever happened until—

There’s two brief knocks on the door. Maybe Fatin came home a few days early?

She immediately chastises herself for the thought because of course that’s not what’s going on, but the problem is that it only hits her a second too late, and so she only has about one more second to pointlessly fix her hair—pointlessly as in the second the door opens, Shelby’s fingers are tangled in her curls, messing them all up, the palms of her hands cupping her cheeks, and her lips are moving hungrily against Toni’s, which immediately begin to move in sync with hers.

Shelby moves down to leave open-mouthed kisses along Toni’s jaw, then down the side of her neck and along the base—and all the while Toni’s seeing starts, having to hold onto Shelby’s jumper to keep herself upright. Her mouth trails back up to meet Toni’s, and her tongue darts out to part her lips. Toni opens obligingly, moaning into her mouth, and that incites Shelby to slip a hand under her shirt to skim her fingers along a particularly sensitive spot on Toni’s bare waist, eliciting another noise that Shelby quickly muffles.

 

Somehow, barely, Toni manages to tug her backwards onto the bed and the two stumble without ever breaking apart the kiss, ending up with Toni pressed flat on her back and Shelby above her, straddling her hips.

It’s so much and so fast that neither of them can barely breathe, let alone think.

Toni gets pulled up by the collar so that their faces are levelled. She’s breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling so rapidly that Shelby asks, “Are you doin’ okay?”

Toni nods quickly, internally cursing herself for how attractive she finds the accent. “Keep going,” she sighs.

Shelby ducks her head and starts to kiss further down her neck. She tugs at the collar of Toni’s t-shirt to gain better access to her collarbones, where she begins to leave a mark, using the tip of her tongue to taste her skin, flicking it periodically to draw out more noises from Toni. The girl beneath her has been rendered a whimpering, squirming mess, completely at the mercy of Shelby’s touch and movements.

Toni attempts to press her legs together to help alleviate the pressure growing between them, but Shelby moves to straddle one of her thighs, therefore inhibiting Toni from doing so as now her leg is trapped between hers.

“You sure you’re okay?” she asks sweetly, and Toni just melts into her.

“God yes, Shelby,” Toni groans. “I’m just really—” 

She cuts herself off, to which Shelby smirks knowingly. “Just really…?”

Toni flushes a deeper shade of red than she’s already gone. “Don’t make me say it.”

She kisses her neck to distract her, and it almost works, but not quite, because now Shelby’s tugging her head back, somewhat gently, by a fistful of hair.

“No, say it,” Shelby insists, and it’s so commanding and does so many things to Toni right there, it’s so visibly obvious; they both know what Toni’s about to say next.

She stares at her blown pupils and parted pink lips, wetted with saliva, and goes, “Jesus fucking Christ, Shelby, I’m turned on.” 

Even though it’s the exact answer she expected, Shelby still seems a little taken aback. Giving them both a pause to breathe, she stares at her, eyes darting all over her face to absorb every single detail her hazy mind can take in.

Then there’s that feeling again: the free falling through endless sky, the feeling she only gets around Toni, her best friend here in LA—or rather, just her best friend in general.

She gets Toni’s top off easily. Toni immediately raises her arms when she feels the tug at the hem, wanting nothing except more contact, more her, and that’s when the line of ‘just best friends who sometimes kiss’ is crossed.

Or maybe it was crossed when the first text was sent, or when they first kissed, or when Shelby introduced herself—or maybe the line was never there at all.

It’s crossed when Shelby throws her own sweatshirt off, when Toni’s eyes widen at the realisation that Shelby’s only wearing a bra underneath it, when she realises Shelby really is the most beautiful girl she’s ever seen, and when their lips reconnect and Toni licks into her mouth.

It’s crossed when Shelby’s hips start moving involuntarily, and then when Shelby lowers her head to Toni’s chest and the brunette can’t take it anymore.

It comes out as a moan: “Shelby, please.”

The girl on top of her mumbles into her chest, “Please what?”

“I need to, um—”

Shelby looks down at the space between their hips where Toni’s finger is hooked on the hem of her own trousers in a futile hope that the press of the fabric will alleviate her in any way.

Something dangerous flashes across her green eyes, and Toni catches it. “If you need to take care of yourself, go ahead.”

Toni’s mouth goes dry. “What about you?”

A small, sly smile works its way onto Shelby’s face—and even though she knows it’s not exactly what Toni meant, she says, “I’ll just stay here,” and rocks her hips down onto her thigh to demonstrate exactly what she’s talking about.

While Shelby isn’t entirely prepared to vocalise things in detail, not about herself and what she wants, she knows that however vague her words are they’ll drive Toni crazy anyway, and it seems to have that exact effect, judging by the dazed look in her eyes and the fact that she’s yet to pick her jaw up from the ground.

Toni can’t quite grasp that this is really happening, that Shelby is about to get herself off on her thigh while she does the same to herself. She’s been extremely attracted to Shelby from the beginning obviously, and she’s had one too many daydreams and other types of dreams about situations like these, but the reality is so beyond what her imagination could come up with.

Shelby’s body is warm against hers, as is her breath that Toni can feel on her neck, and it’s growing shallower and getting more high pitched. The breaths turn to sighs of Toni’s name and she knows what it means the louder it gets. 

Her own fingers work against herself in tight, quick circles over the damp fabric of her underwear.

Shelby comes only seconds after her with a high-pitched whine, her head pressed into the crook of Toni’s neck, and the image is pleasantly burned into her mind for all her future daydreams. 

===

A quarter of an hour later, they’re both still shirtless and lying under the covers staring at the ceiling.

“That kinda knocked me out,” Shelby breathes with a laugh that Toni feels beneath her head. “You’ve had quite the workout too, lover, what’s your post game ritual?”

“Um, I get food?” Toni says tentatively. 

Shelby nods. “Yeah, I think we should do that.”

“Agreed.”

Toni rolls off the bed less than gracefully and throws on her top again; Shelby does the same, letting her eyes wander down Toni’s body for the hundredth time today. “You’re really pretty,” she blurts out. 

And for the hundredth time that day, Toni blushes. “You too.”

Once they’re out of the door, barely halfway down the corridor, Shelby gives into her impulse and takes Toni’s hand in hers—and that’s when it hits her: there’s no going back from here. She looks over at Shelby, who gives her a shy smile, and sees the exact same thought behind her eyes. 

Chapter Text

Toni is lying on her own bed with a textbook covering her face.

“I hate this,” she tells Fatin, who returned from Leah’s folks’ place a few days ago, from beneath the pages. “Who the fuck cares about algebra?”

“I thought you wanted to major in astrophysics; I may know shit all about space but I do know that it involves a lot of algebra.”

“Okay—” Toni sits up defensively, the heavy textbook dropping into her lap with a thump, which leaves an annoyingly placed paper cut on her cheek. “Ouch. I said I was considering majoring in it, and also that’s not just algebra that’s space algebra.”

Fatin sighs and closes half of her own pile of textbooks that are scattered all over her desk. “Same fuckin’ thing, dude.”

It’s been almost a week since, well, everythin’, as Shelby would put it. Toni hadn’t expected the end of the very brief break to hit her with such force, and so now she has been having to cram all the time, as well as prepare for upcoming games. She hasn’t played with her new team yet, probably won’t given that she’s new, but there’s a good chance she’ll be called off the bench at some point to play for a bit so regardless, she’s excited.

That also means that Shelby has had to do the same recently, so they haven’t seen each other much, and when they have it’s all been in public.

If anything, it’s for the best.

Toni doesn’t trust herself around Shelby, not after what happened last time. She doesn’t regret it at all—how could she regret anything good with Shelby? But she can’t allow herself to slip any further than where they went last time, not yet at least; Shelby deserves slow and steady, she shouldn’t be on the receiving end of Toni’s impulsiveness.

Toni’s still struggling with that internal conflict of should she or should she not make more moves towards her—it seems to change quite often, hour to hour, even. She wishes she could just settle on one decision. There is one thing she does know, though: regardless of how slow or quickly they end up going, the outcome she wants is to be with Shelby, and denying that is completely useless.

This is the same conversation she keeps having with herself time and time again, slightly different each time yet always the same issue, always the same conclusion of “I don’t know what to do.”

What she needs to do—and she knows this too—is to stop overthinking things, to just go with the flow or whatever phrase it was that Martha used, but falling for your stupidly beautiful, kind, new best friend is something basically guaranteed to involve overthinking. Constant overthinking.

And then, just as she’s able to force her mind back to focusing on equations instead of blonde hair and green eyes and a warm voice and touches that feel like fireworks, there’s a knock on the door.

Exasperated, Fatin snaps a textbook shut and sighs, “I needed an excuse to stop anyway.” She swings the door open, and Shelby rushes in, all shaky with her eyes fixed on a spot on the wall, stress creasing her forehead and her breathing uneven.

“Go sort your fuckin’ girlfriend out,” she snaps, the anger causing her voice to waver.

“Oh, gladly,” Fatin responds with a smirk.

But Toni can tell how actually hurt Shelby is, can see it in the way her eyes water and the way her arms are crossed over herself protectively, so she snaps, “Now’s not the fucking time, Fatin.”

Fatin furrows her eyebrows, torn between concern for her friend and defensiveness towards her girlfriend, and turns back to Shelby. “What are you talking about?”

Shelby takes a short breath out, trying to calm herself as she continues with loose reins on her vexation. “Look, I know she’s been thrown by all these changes in her court case, and I know that can all be real upsettin’, but she has no right to take it out on me.”

There’s a sense of understanding that washes over Fatin, as she nods and grabs her phone before slipping on a pair of shoes. “I hope you’re okay, Shelby,” she says on her way out, and Shelby returns a quiet thank you.

The second the door shuts, Shelby sits down on the very edge of Toni’s bed, all tensed up with her back straight and her hands clasped on her lap, and so Toni immediately shuffles right up to her.

“You okay?” she asks, even though the answer is obvious; she just wants to somehow verbally convey that she’s here to listen to Shelby if she needs to talk.

Shelby nods. “I’m fine, just a little shaken.” As if to emphasise just how fine she is, she pulls on her ponytail to tighten it and runs her hand over her hair, thus flattening any loose strands. There’s a smile on her face but it’s made of hard plastic and Toni can tell immediately; it’s nothing like her usual warm ones that reach her eyes, and there’s no shine to it whatsoever.

“Don’t do that,” Toni rushes out, which earns her a confused frown that makes her clarify: “Pretend, I mean—that you’re fine. It’s okay if you’re not, you know.”

There’s an airy laugh that escapes Shelby’s throat, but there’s no humour behind it. “I’m sorry, I guess I just don’t wanna talk about it… yet. The stuff she said, it was—”

“Shelby.” Toni instinctually reaches out and takes her hand in her own, pushing away the thought that involuntarily arises about how their hands slot together perfectly, because now is not the time. “You don’t have to talk about it, but you don’t have to act like this shit hasn’t got to you either.”

A little bit of the sunshine that Shelby always seems to carry around with her returns to her eyes at Toni’s words, and that’s when she finally brings herself to meet the honey-brown gaze of the girl who always seems to turn bad days into the best days.

”You have a paper cut,” she says quietly, and before Toni can even open her mouth to dismiss it, Shelby’s is softly brushing against the pink line on her cheek, leaving a gentle kiss over it.

Toni, who’s blushing furiously, mumbles out a “thanks”, and Shelby lets her eyes wander over the flushed skin of her face.

“You’re too good to me, Toni,” she practically whispers.

“There’s no such thing as too good to you.” 

Shelby’s always been good at taking compliments—she may be insecure but she’s not blind, when someone tells her she’s hot she knows they’re not lying—but compliments like that, words like those coming out of the mouth of the girl who makes her feel the most like herself, and in turn sees the real Shelby more than anyone else, it’s all a bit overwhelming.

So she suggests, “Um, can we maybe just go for a walk or something?”

She doesn’t need to ask twice; Toni’s immediately pulling on her Vans and reaching for her tan jacket, the one from her mom, before she makes sure she’s got her keys.

“You wanna stop by your room to get a jacket?” Toni asks, eyeing Shelby’s relatively thin pink hoodie. “Might freeze in that, Texas.”

“I’ll be fine, it’s not that cold.”

===

Five minutes after they arrive at the beach, Shelby reluctantly admits, “It’s really cold.”

And so obviously Toni, being the gentlewoman that she is, shrugs her jacket off—the one she has never let anyone else wear before, not even Martha or past girlfriends—and drapes it around Shelby’s shoulders.

“You sure? I don’t want you gettin’ cold either.”

Toni smiles in a way that warms her up more than any other jacket could. “I’m from Minnesota, remember?”

As if Shelby could ever forget anything about her.

The late evening sky is draped over them along with a comfortable silence, as well as the few people milling about on the sand—all of them too far away for their faces to even be recognisable—as the two walk right by the water. It’s so peaceful: the light sea breeze in their hair, moonlight reflecting on their features, the sounds of the water calmly hitting the shore.

Only when Shelby speaks is the silence broken. “Leah made some pretty harsh digs about my family,” she says so quietly that Toni almost doesn’t catch it. “Somethin’ about how at least her family wanted her home for the holidays.”

Toni stops in her tracks, visibly angry, and turns to look at Shelby, who stops alongside her. “What the fuck?”

Looking down at her feet, Shelby shakes her head. “I was tryna say some stuff to comfort her cause I could tell she was in a bad mood, but she- she was real upset about stuff with the court case, I don’t blame her.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“No, I know, but still.” The sky feels like a pretty inviting thing to look up at, so Shelby does to avoid eye contact with Toni, knowing that there’s a caring look in her eyes that will just make the tears she’s holding back fall. “I guess it just reminded me of how alone I am,” she whispers to the sky, and it breaks Toni’s heart into pieces; the only thing she wants to do is protect Shelby from such an ugly feeling.

Somehow, Toni’s hands find their way onto Shelby’s, and she hears herself tell her, “You’re not alone.”

“I suppose not.” Shelby looks back down from the night sky, but her eyes still can’t bring themselves to look into Toni’s. “I was taught by my dad that if I ever decided to be with a girl, I’d be alone. It’s weird ‘cause even though I know he’s wrong, it’s still hard to get rid of that feelin’ that’s always in the back of my head.”

Toni clamps down on the bubbling, defensive anger that’s beginning to boil against the man. “What’s his name?” she asks, much to Shelby’s surprise and confusion.

“Uh, Dave.”

So, cupping her hands around her mouth, Toni turns to the ocean and yells, “Fuck you, Dave Goodkind!”

And although Shelby has a mortified look on her face, she’s laughing along with her. “Toni! Shush, people can probably hear us!”

Toni just shoots her a grin and corrects, “Screw you, Dave!”, before turning back to her and asking, “Is that better? More PG and shit. Try it.”

Shelby rolls her eyes, but half-yells, “Screw you!” at the water, but all it does in response is gently crash back onto the sand. 

“Hey, maybe if we go in it’ll be easier,” Toni suggests as she kicks off her shoes, pulling her socks off along with them.

“Um, Toni what are you doin’?”

She simply grins and rolls up her trousers before running into the freezing water, letting it splash around her ankles and dampening the hem of the rolled up fabric. “Maybe nobody will hear us over the waves!”

“It’s too cold!” Shelby yells back over the sound of crashing water, but her shoes and socks are coming off too, her jeans are being rolled up, and seconds later she’s sprinting towards Toni with her hands out to stabilise herself as she falls onto her, laughing wildly. 

The scene is too beautifully cinematic, even despite the cold, for Shelby to pass up the opportunity to make it romantic, so she haphazardly pulls Toni towards her by the collar of her jumper and kisses her; once, twice, three times, until a wave high enough to reach their thighs hits them, and they’re pulled apart by the instinct to hurriedly run away from the cold.

Shelby shakes her head, rolling her now freezing cold jeans back down, but the smile—that real, bright one that makes creases appear around her eyes from how big it is—is still all over her face. “C’mon, let’s keep walkin’.”

Somehow, barely a minute in, their hands interlock. Somehow, Toni finds herself inching closer to her as they walk, seeking out a little bit of extra warmth—because okay, it might not be that cold in the city but the beach is a different story with all that sea breeze.

Somehow, Shelby finds the courage to say, “I’ve never really told anyone that before.” There’s a pause before she stops them from walking and adds, “You make me feel less alone, like I don’t have to be—alone.”

A fire envelops Toni’s heart, and the flames spread across her whole body. “You’re not,” is the only thing she can get out, and it makes Shelby’s smile impossibly warmer. “Never when you’ve got me.”

And God, it’s too early but something about this whole exchange makes Toni want to say it all: to expose how hard and fast she’s falling for her, how she’s only known her for a few months but doesn’t know how to spend another one without her. But she doesn’t.

So they just keep walking along the shoreline, rarely exchanging conversation, just enjoying each other’s quiet company.

When they reach their building and begin to climb the stairs up to their floor, Toni asks, “Are you okay going back to yours? You could, um, always just stay with me, I’m sure Fatin wouldn’t mind.”

“No, it’s okay, I’d like to talk to Leah.”

“Okay, cool. Text me if you need anything.”

She nods. “I will. Bye, Toni—and, um, thank you.” She shrugs off the tan jacket, albeit a little reluctantly, and hands it to her.

“If literally everything I own wasn’t in these pockets, I’d just give it to you,” Toni admits, and Shelby smiles back at her coyly.

“Guess I’ll just have to borrow it more often then.”

===

Toni is hardly even falling asleep when a text comes through from Shelby—or, rather, several all in one go.

Shelby: Everything went fine! We talked it out and she apologised. Xx

Shelby: Thank you. Again. You’re very sweet.

Shelby: You always seem to make me feel better, even if I’m not sad and I’m happy anyway, I’m always happier around you. I appreciate that a lot.

Shelby: I appreciate you a lot.

Shelby: Thank you.

Shelby: Goodnight.

That familiar electricity that she only gets from her washes over her like a wave, reaching the ends of her fingers where she feels the warmth pleasantly singe her.

Toni: that’s how i feel when you’re around

Toni: sweet dreams princess

Chapter Text

It happens again several nights later, all thanks to Fatin.

She very politely asks Toni to stay with Shelby for the night, going as far as to tell her several hours in advance, adding an elongated “please” here and there.

As she reluctantly shoves a shirt and toothbrush into her tattered backpack, Toni grumbles, “I really do think we should just swap roommates at this point.”

“You’re so rude,” Fatin replies, but there isn’t a hint of malice or truth behind it. “I like being your roommate.”

“Leah’s probably spent more time being your roommate than me.”

Fatin opens her mouth, then closes it again, then reopens it to say, “I’m pretty sure if you, like, counted up all the nights, we’ve spent most of our nights together.” She wiggles her eyebrows at that, and Toni just rolls her eyes. “Besides, Leah and I are basically doing you and Shelby a favour by making you spend so much time together. You would’ve definitely fucked anyway, but we just helped speed run your relationship.”

Toni blinks. “That’s—” she stutters, “there’s so many things wrong with that statement.”

“Hmm… nope.”

She sighs and rolls her eyes as she slings her backpack over her shoulder. “Just make sure you wear protection.”

When Toni arrives at Shelby’s dorm, the blonde is a little flustered and her hair’s all messy, a million strands hanging loose out of her high ponytail, and she’s still wearing her cheer outfit; she’s clearly just returned from practice. 

“Oh, hey,” Shelby breathes out, her eyes darting all over Toni’s face, which now appears a little confused.

“Were you not expecting me?” Toni asks as she’s let into the room. “I thought Leah would’ve warned you.”

“No, yeah, no, she did—sorry I, like, legit just got home from practice and the stairs up here really wore me out.”

Toni nods and sets her bag down on the floor. “Nice outfit,” she teases. Her eyes unapologetically rake over her body, admiring her toned legs and the way the curves of her body looked beneath the fabric.

“I know right?” Shelby shoots her a knowing smirk that says ‘caught you staring’, and then adds a phrase that Toni immediately recognises: “God bless the perv who invented these.”

It’s a reference to a musical TV show that Toni was introduced to by Martha, and when she discovered there was a sapphic couple in it, she got a bit hooked back in middle school—so yes, she’s seen it several times.

“Ha!” Toni points at her, grinning at her new discovery. “I knew you were the type to watch Glee.”

Shelby furrows her eyebrows but still smiles; it wasn’t the response she expected, but the revelation that Toni also watches ‘Glee’ is very interesting to her. “I didn’t know you were the type to watch it.”

The brunette rushes to defend herself, “I’m—what? No I’m not, I only saw, like, one episode because of Marty.”

“Mhmm.” Shelby takes a slow step towards her. “And it just so happened to be the one I referenced right now, what a coincidence.”

She’s so close to her that Toni’s heart rate automatically speeds up, craving even more proximity. “Yeah, well, Quinn was acting really gay in that one so obviously I remembered it.”

“You totally watched more than one episode, don’t lie.”

Toni’s been caught and she knows that there’s no use in covering it up, she may as well just succumb to the inevitable teasing that Shelby is going to put her through. “Okay, and?” 

“You’re an actual nerd, Toni.”

“So are you!”

“Okay, and?” she mimics in an exaggeratedly low voice.

“Go away, I do not talk like that.”

“You totally do.” Shelby’s voice drops an octave again, “My name’s Toni Shalifoe and I’m a secret Glee fan. I also have a huge crush on my friend’s roommate—”

Okay, Shelby did not need to come for her that hard, she thinks, and though the explicit acknowledgment of her feelings towards Shelby (“crush” is a major understatement, but still) is making her head spin, she somehow finds enough sense to retort with: “Yeah, I totally have a crush on Leah.”

“Oh shut up.” Shelby giggles and goes to shove her playfully by the shoulders, but Toni’s hands dart up and catch her wrists.

Immediately the air around them changes; it’s so thick with tension that Toni’s mouth goes dry, and she has to collect herself when she notices Shelby wetting her lips.

“Toni…” Shelby whispers.

She barely manages to squeak out a “Yeah?”

“Can I k—”

“Yes,” she interrupts, not even knowing what she’s saying it to. “You can do anything you want to me.”

And oh, does that sentence do so many things to Shelby.

Her lips dive straight onto Toni’s neck. Soon they’re immediately stumbling onto the bed, and Toni has to grasp her waist for some form of stability to help her sit upright.

She wastes no time in rocking her hips down to meet Toni’s, which are annoyingly covered by denim jeans, and the amount of friction provided is completely insufficient for Shelby’s needs. “Off,” she huffs into her lips, hands fumbling with the button and zip.

Toni immediately complies and throws them off, while Shelby takes the opportunity to remove her cheerleading top, leaving her just in a skirt and pink sports bra. Feeling a little awkward in her underwear and sweatshirt, Toni follows suit and removes that too, and when her shirt accidentally comes off with it, she knows there’s no use in putting it back on regardless of how much she wants Shelby to do it herself—there’s always next time—and before she can curse herself for being so certain of a ‘next time’, Shelby’s lips are on hers and that’s all she can process.

The kiss is hungry and desperate and filled with an achingly high amount of desire that can only be sated by one thing.

Shelby’s hands find their way to Toni’s chest, and she slowly begins to apply pressure, massaging both of her breasts in a way that makes a small wet patch on Toni’s underwear appear. Shelby continues to move her hips; she’s now positioned herself over Toni’s thigh just like last time, except now the only thing separating them is Shelby’s own underwear instead of several layers of fabric, and god if Toni can’t feel the direct effects of that.

She hooks her fingers over the hems of the skirt, but Shelby moves her hands away and whispers into her ear: “I can keep this on.”

Dizzy again, Toni distracts her mouth with Shelby’s collarbone, teeth grazing as she leaves a bruising mark on it. She lets out a pitchy moan when she feels Shelby’s fingers dance over the top of her boxer briefs.

“You’re so wet,” Shelby says breathily, and her words only create that effect even more on Toni.

“So are you.” And it’s true, Toni can feel it streaking over her thigh as Shelby grinds down onto it.

They kiss again, tongues sliding against each other’s, Toni occupying her hands over Shelby’s bra and feeling her hardening nipples beneath her palms, while Shelby grips Toni’s waist with one hand and begins stroking over the thin material separating her fingers from Toni.

The wetness spreads over the fabric as the dark patch gets wider and wider, and when Shelby pulls it up so that it’s pressing directly onto Toni’s clit, the girl beneath her can’t help but to break the kiss with a groan that sends shivers down her spine.

The touch is so light and barely even there but because it’s Shelby touching her, Toni is worked up the most she’s ever been in her life, there’s no way she will last for much longer, and for some reason she finds herself admitting that.

“Shelby, you’re gonna make me come if you carry on,” she sighs.

“Would that be so bad?” Something flashes across Shelby’s green eyes, which are now mostly black from just how wide her pupils have gone, and Toni’s one step away from letting her push her over the edge—but her hand stops moving, and instead Shelby’s pulling the covers away so that they’re bunched up on the end of the bed, and Toni’s sat on the bare sheets with Shelby’s hips hovering over her lower thighs. “Lie down,” she orders softly with a chaste kiss to Toni’s cheek, and it’s so sweet yet so fucking hot at the same time that Toni’s heart does a summersault.

She does as she’s asked, and once she’s settled and propped up against the pillow, Shelby starts trailing kisses all down Toni’s body—and oh, that feels so good that it takes a moment for her to realise what’s about to happen.

Shelby kisses her navel, then her waistband, then directly over her clit and fuck, if she does anything else Toni knows she’ll just fall apart there and then.

But she doesn’t. 

Instead, Shelby sits back onto her ankles, and ever so casually says, “I think you should do somethin’ about that.”

“Excuse me?” Toni blurts out.

“You heard me.” 

And then she rolls off, flops down beside her and sighs contentedly like nothing has happened. 

“But—” Toni stutters in confusion, “don’t you also have to—huh?”

Shelby rolls over to face her, smirking at Toni’s wide-eyed gaze. “I can take care of myself too, you know.”

Somehow Shelby saying that in that way has more of an effect on Toni than Toni’s own fingers ever could.

Darkened green eyes lock onto darkened brown ones as Shelby moves her hand down her own body, hitching up her skirt so that she can slide her fingers over herself. Toni is torn between looking up or looking down, so when Shelby’s eyes flutter shut, she takes the opportunity to glance between her hips.

Without her realising, Toni starts doing the same as Shelby is.

She’s so worked up already, and so she knows that it’ll only take a minute for her to go over the edge which isn’t what she wants—she wants to enjoy this moment for as long as possible, but then Shelby’s whimpering that she’s close and Toni immediately gives up on holding back.

“Fuck, Toni I—” Shelby gets cut off by Toni’s mouth on hers, and so her left hand goes up to cup her cheek to bring her closer.

She reaches her climax and all the while Toni is kissing her though it, deeply with a searing desire that intensifies every sensation in her body. Toni immediately follows, and Shelby quickly grabs her waist with her now free hand, pulling their bodies flushed against each other’s so that they’re as physically connected as they can be in this moment.

Both girls have to pull away in order to breathe, rolled onto their backs and panting heavily, both minds too empty to take anything but the feeling of the other in.

“Holy shit,” Toni sighs, a small chuckle escaping her. Never would she have thought she’d be in this situation when she first met Shelby.

Shelby sits up and pulls the covers over them, citing that, “As much as I wanna keep starin’ at your body, I’m real cold now.”

Toni rolls her eyes but sits up slightly, holding out her arm so that Shelby can rest her back against it, and before she can think any better of it, she tucks her chin over the head of long blonde hair.

And that’s how they stay for a while, silent and still relatively breathless, trying to ground themselves back down to earth after that earth-shattering experience, (it’s counterproductive, really).

“So, you really think that Quinn was gay?” Shelby asks in a soft voice.

“Well yeah,” Toni answers, “she only dated men because of comphet.”

Shelby frowns confusedly. “What’s that, a disease?”

It’s Toni’s turn to laugh now at how Shelby’s actually kind of correct. “It’s basically a thing where lesbians are forced into thinking they have to like men ‘cause it’s expected and all that.”

Slowly, the concept visibly sinks into Shelby’s brain; her expression goes from one of confusion, to shock, then realisation. “Oh.”

Toni chuckles. “Yeah, there’s a lot more to it than that, but yeah. So, Quinn is one hundred percent a closet lesbian. All the men she dated were basically stereotypes of the guys that girls with comphet tend to go for, like the unattainable emotionally unavailable ones, and the way her and Rachel interacted was so not straight. Also, her and Santana literally hooked up so like—“ She cuts herself off, albeit a little bit too late, realising that her rant has just completely exposed her as a secret fan of ‘Glee’.

“Okay,” Shelby laughs, “there’s a lot to unpack there. Firstly, you totally had a crush on Quinn, which is cute—you seem to have a thing for Christian blonde cheerleaders who were closeted all throughout high school.”

Toni’s mouth opens, then closes again with a clicking of her teeth. She makes a mental note to ask about the high school thing later, when Shelby wants to talk about it—if she does, of course.

“Secondly, I think that comphet thing you just told me about explains, like, the first seventeen and a half years of my life.”

“There’s some essays about it in the library that I can get for you at my next shift,” Toni offers. “I mean—if you want, that is.”

A grateful smile graces Shelby’s lips. “I’d like that, thank you.”

Another few moments of silence pass, until Shelby decides to break it again by admitting, “I had a huge crush on Santana in middle school, and probably high school too if I’m honest.”

“So, your type is hot brunettes with anger issues?”

Suddenly, Toni remembers that that’s a side of herself she’s never revealed to Shelby, that she’s never mentioned before. Her heart drops because she immediately expects the worst: for Shelby’s feelings to evaporate right in front of her, for her to regret everything, for her to stop letting them share a room let alone a bed, for—

“That was like, past us in middle school accidentally foreshadowin’ current us,” Shelby points out casually.

“Oh?”

She wasn’t expecting that reaction, especially seeing as it’s an almost explicit acknowledgment of her feelings towards Toni too, to some degree.

And because Shelby already knows her so well, she instantly sees the worry behind her eyes. “Toni, I don’t care that you have anger issues,” she says assuringly. “I mean, I do care obviously, as in I care about what affects you and stuff—I just mean that I’m not gonna see you any differently because of that, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The loving look in her eyes is almost too much for Toni, because Shelby was already perfect enough as it was, and now she’s convinced—if she wasn’t already—that there is absolutely nothing that can stop this endless free fall. 

“Thank you,” she whispers.

“No need to.”

===

It’s 2am when Shelby points out the time; somehow, neither of them are tired yet despite talking all night after that. (She thinks that the image of mini Toni singing along to acapella versions of pop songs on TV is just simply adorable, and has spent a good amount of time teasing her over it as if she didn’t do the exact same thing).

So, Shelby suggests they shower before going to sleep. 

However, Toni didn’t foresee this happening, so she finds herself very carefully unlocking the door to her own room to slip inside and grab her shampoo and conditioner amongst other things, including a towel, while avoiding the irresistible urge to pull a prank on the couple that are currently intertwined on Fatin’s bed.

“You could’a just borrowed some of mine,” Shelby whispers to her as they walk down the hallway to the bathrooms, her flip flops making their distinctive noise with each step beside Toni’s almost-silent trainers.

“Nah, I’ve got a pretty extensive hair routine,” she explains as they enter the completely empty communal bathroom. “Having hair that is sort of curly sort of not requires a stupid amount of maintenance, I didn’t even know until Marty was like ‘hey, why do you use shampoo for straight hair’. I mean, I was never really able to afford anything other than the super cheap shit that my foster families would forget to even buy, but then Marty started going out of her way to get me these, and yeah.”

Shelby smiles at her as she kicks off her flip flops, leaving them under the bench. “I love y’all’s relationship, it’s real sweet.”

It’s then that Toni realises she’s never really been able to talk about her past in such a casual way before like everyone else gets to do with their families, without the other person treating her like a kicked puppy.

She smiles back and then says, “I think we can leave our stuff out here, I doubt anyone else wants to shower at this time”, to which Shelby nods, before dropping her bathrobe down and hanging it on the hook—and fuck.

That’s when Toni realises she’s never seen Shelby completely naked before, and that’s when she starts to think that maybe God is real, because how on earth could somebody this perfect be made otherwise?

Shelby doesn’t even flinch, just eyes Toni’s half-bare body up and down, pulls open the curtain to a cubicle and asks, “You gonna join me?”

Toni has never undressed so quickly in her life.

Obviously, Shelby’s the type to have one of those shower caddy things full of bottles of shampoo and conditioner which she hangs up on a hook, whereas Toni just sets her stuff down on the floor.

Underneath the hot water, Shelby tugs at Toni’s hand so that she turns around to face her, a wet strand of hair stuck to her forehead which she gently wipes away. She gazes adoringly at her face, then her body with all its freckles and scars undoubtedly from basketball. She can’t help it when she whispers, “Lord, Toni, you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”

Toni’s breath catches in her throat as the compliment warms her more than the water. “You clearly haven’t looked in a mirror then.”

Undoubtedly, it’s a little bit cliché, but Shelby blushes nonetheless.

When Toni ducks down to retrieve her shampoo, Shelby quickly grabs her wrist before she can pour some into her own hand, much to her confusion until she clarifies, “Can I, um, can I do that for you?”

The feeling of Shelby’s fingers massaging her scalp was something Toni never knew she needed. She’s so gentle with her touch, as she always is, so Toni asks to do the same for her to reciprocate.

They help the other rinse it off too, running their fingers through each other’s hair, and the process is repeated the exact same way.

Toni leans in to kiss Shelby, but when she goes to deepen it Shelby slows it down, keeping it all soft and closed and meaningful—it’s clear how much affection she puts into each one, and Toni decides to match it, hoping there’s enough reverence in the way she kisses her back, in the way she holds her.

The closest they get to doing anything further is when Shelby offers to use some of her fancy body scrub on her, and she teasingly runs her hands down her back to cup her ass for a brief second, earning her a “hey!” from Toni.

They rinse off together, pass the time for the conditioner to take effect by kissing and giggling at just about everything, and when all the soap and conditioner and body scrub is washed off and they’re wrapped up in their own towels, discussing random things, Toni realises that yet another line has been crossed, because there is only one type of relationship where you do this sort of thing together in such an intimate, tender way.

And when they’re curled up together in bed and Shelby is sleeping soundly on her chest, a hint of a smile still contentedly grazing her face, Toni realises that all she wants to do is to be with Shelby—and not as a best friend, or best friends with benefits, she wants to actually be with her.

Toni is falling in love with her.

Chapter Text

Exams are in full swing, meaning that Toni spends most of her library shifts revising despite the fact that students who are cramming keep disturbing her concentration—which is lacking—every five minutes to check out a new book in a futile attempt to aid their studying.

She also has an upcoming basketball game right after break, and although it’s not the big televised NCCA tournament ones yet, it’s still quite a big deal: the game is her first chance to prove herself to her coach and teammates, meaning that she’s been staying behind after training to practise more and more.

Essentially, there’s a lot of pressure on her. 

Basketball used to be a form of stress relief for her, but now it’s a source of it, and so there’s only one place where Toni feels stress-free right now, and that’s anywhere that she’s with Shelby.

There’s one problem, though: she doesn’t get to hang out with the girl she wants to be with anymore.

They’re never in each other’s rooms now, always holed up somewhere with a textbook or busy at cheer and basketball practice respectively. They never hang out anymore either, despite Toni regularly asking if she wants to grab dinner after practice or go for a short walk on Sunday evening.

And maybe she’s being unreasonable, she thinks; maybe it’s just because of exams taking up everyone’s time, but there’s still that nagging voice of insecurity that keeps telling her that Shelby doesn’t want her around anymore. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone left her, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. Toni is used to abandonment, she can handle it.

Except, she can’t.

So all she can do is pray that it’s just temporary because of exams. Besides, they’re not exactly codependent on each other, Toni can easily spend ages without seeing or even talking to her.

Except, she can’t.

But it’s fine because Toni is a rational person, and she knows how to not let her insecurities get out of hand and spiral into something bad for her and everyone involved.

Except, she can’t.

===

One night, as her and Fatin chill out in their room after having spent the whole day together like they have been for a while, her roommate complains about she’s sick of seeing Toni’s “dumbass face.” It’s obviously a joke about how exam season has temporarily got rid of their social lives and forcing them to spend a copious amount of time in their room together, but still, it strikes a specific chord that Toni’s been playing constantly for two weeks now.

So Toni asks her, “Are you sick of having me around?” And though she makes it sound like a joke by adding a laugh, anybody could tell she means it, that she really does think that the answer is yes.

“Yes, I fucking hate you,” Fatin deadpans. “That’s totally why Leah and I begged her parents to ask you to come for Christmas.”

Toni suppresses a grin as Fatin adds, “For real, though? You’re one of my favourite people.”

“Ew, that’s so disgustingly nice of you to say, I definitely do not feel the same way about you,” she replies sarcastically.

Fatin grimaces. “Gross. By the way, the Rilkes ended up saying you can come for the holidays, we didn’t have to do much begging.”

The confirmation that someone wants her in their home for Christmas makes Toni warm inside; the only people who ever have are Martha and Bernice Blackburn. Because sure, she doesn’t really like Christmas all that much—she’s not into the whole religion thing and it’s all materialism now anyway, but she likes the food and trashy movies—but it’s more about the sentiment of it all, of it being a time to spend with loved ones and all that.

She declines, explaining that she’s going home to see her sister but tells her to thank the Rilkes.

Then she finds herself wondering what Shelby is doing for Christmas. She knows that it’s Shelby’s favourite holiday, and knows it’ll be her first without her family which will hit much much harder than it did on Thanksgiving.

She wonders if maybe she should ask Shelby to go home to Minnesota with her; the thought makes her impulsively open up their texts, and she reads the most recent ones from this morning.

Toni: do you wanna study together at like 5???

Shelby: I can’t, sorry. I prefer studying alone.

Shelby: But thanks for the offer :)

There’s no row of x’s after the first text like there usually always is, and it makes Toni’s heart drop a little. But there’s still a smiley face, she notices, and that eases her until she starts cursing herself for excessively overanalysing texts like when she did in middle school when she had a crush on a girl from science class.

Maybe she’ll ask Shelby to come home with her later.

===

It’s on a Wednesday morning that Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all skips up to the front desk of the library, huge smile on her face and a paper bag in hand—and immediately Toni knows what it is, and she beams right back up at her, totally ignoring the practice algebra test beneath her own hand.

It’s been so long (a week, max) since they’ve properly seen each other, and the sight of her makes the familiar swarm of butterflies start to flutter in her stomach. 

“Delivery for Miss Toni Shalifoe,” Shelby says in her stupidly addictive drawl, and Toni can’t help but to melt at the way her name rolls off her tongue so easily. “I know you didn’t eat breakfast today, so here you go.”

There’s a toasted pretzel roll with bacon, Toni’s favourite, inside the paper bag, accompanied by a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

She’s so kind, and Toni’s down so bad.

“I swear I’ll pay you back someday for all of the times you’ve fed me,” she says as she immediately tucks in, only just realising how starving she really was after skipping breakfast. (It’s a habit from trying to save every last cent she had back when she was in limbo between foster homes with nowhere to go, and she’s been pretty good at breaking said habit at college apart from days where she gets stressed—aka most days—so she’s extremely grateful that Shelby’s been reminding her constantly). 

Shelby blushes and stares at her feet. “There’s no need to do that,” she mumbles, “I’m just bein’ nice.”

But Toni’s not used to people giving her stuff purely out of the kindness of their hearts, and she knows that even though these sorts of costs appear small at first with a few dollars here and there, and she doesn’t want Shelby to drain her bank account just because Toni is horrible at looking after herself.

“No seriously,” she insists, “I have a job, I can pay you back.”

“Toni, no.” Shelby frowns. “You don’t have to pay me back for bein’—for bein’ nice. I’m just helpin’ you out cause you’re so forgetful.”

Toni gives her her best attempt at a smile. “I’m not gonna pay you back for reminding me to eat, it’s just the food itself, y’know, I don’t want to—”

“Toni!” Shelby huffs, drawing unwanted attention to herself from people nearby, and so she lowers her voice. “You don’t have to pay me back, I don’t need or care about money, I’m just—” she stutters, “I’m just tryna be friendly.”

The last word feels like a harsh, blue flame on her skin.

“Can you just freakin’ take it?” Shelby nudges the bag towards her, and Toni just stares at her with a half-open mouth, noticing how she’s taken the sunshine Shelby walked in with and replaced it with storm clouds.

This is what she does to people, she thinks to herself: make them as miserable as her.

“Thank you.” Toni tries to convey the gratefulness she feels in her voice, but the bitterness and frustration at herself that she feels comes out too, and it makes a sort of disappointment flash across Shelby’s eyes.

“Have a nice day,” she says flatly before turning around and walking off.

There’s so much visible tension in her body as she walks: her back is straight, head up, shoulder back, almost like she’s walking onstage to a pageant. Shelby goes over to a table on the far end of the library, where three other people are sat, and sits down before taking a couple of things out of her bag, opening a textbook and—

They’re studying together.

Shelby had told her she prefers to study alone when Toni asked if she wanted to do that with her.

Her heart sinks all the way down to her stomach as she swallows her first mouthful of food, tears prickling behind her eyes.

She just wants to know where she messed up.

She looks longingly at the girl she wishes was her girlfriend, and watches her smile and laugh with people who aren’t her.

There’s a bittersweet pang in her chest; she’s glad Shelby is happy, that’s all she wants for her, but she hurts at the realisation that Shelby doesn’t want to be around her as much as she used to.

How could Shelby ever be happy with someone like her?

A sad look in her eyes, Toni goes to take another bite out of her soft pretzel roll but it falls onto her open book, sending splatters of sauce all over it, and she nearly cries in frustration when she realises that now there’s paper stuck onto it which she can’t get off, because all she wanted to do was eat her favourite roll in peace and make her favourite girl in the world laugh, but now she can’t do either of those things.

She’s not even angry, all she can feel is hurt, because she knows she’s unlovable and that it was stupid and naive of her to think Shelby could ever reciprocate that intense, indescribable feeling that Toni has for her.

===

Right before basketball the next day, she tells one of the people she trusts the most in the world about everything—not all of it, just some.

Mrs B: Sweetheart she’s just busy, and so are you! BIG GAME in a few weeks!!! You have to practise loads and she has to practise her cheer routines too, they’re very hard you know! Must be time consuming! 

Mrs B: Maybe she finds it easier to revise with other people who aren’t you because she gets distracted by how much she likes you!!

The excessive use of exclamation marks is a trademark Bernice thing, and it always makes Toni laugh because she pictures her screaming all those positive things like “stay hydrated” in her head at the top of her lungs. 

Toni: you’re probably right for the first part. i hope ur right for that last one too.

Mrs B: Moms always are!

Mrs B: Now isn’t it in time for practice? Go in there and train hard for the big game! Make me proud!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Toni’s bottom lip quivers; she’s never had an adult to make proud.

Toni: i will try!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  

Mrs B: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

===

Exams die down pretty quickly and so does the stress that comes along with it, and that’s when Toni gets a text from Shelby.

Shelby: Sorry I haven’t seen you much lately, things have been super stressful and I’ve been real busy. Do you want to come over later? Xxx

Shelby: We can put on a movie or something. You can choose your favourite.

So Mrs B was right, as usual, and Toni’s insecurities were thankfully wrong, as usual.

Toni immediately begins to fumble for an outfit that isn’t a sweatshirt and boxer shorts, when another text comes through.

Shelby: Please? I’ve missed you.

Toni: give me 5 minutes baby

She regrets it immediately because,

Shelby: Baby???

Toni: i meant to say SHELBY. it’s autocorrect.

Shelby: Most of the letters in my name are nowhere near B and A but okay!

And lord, it’s so easy with her. So easy.

It’s so easy to be with her, to talk to her, to go back to normal after dumb things get in the way—and the easiest thing of all is falling for her.

Toni curses her tendency to self-doubt, vows to look into getting a therapist once she has enough money because she’s sure this tendency stems from her fucked up childhood that needs to be explored with a professional, while she throws on an appropriate outfit (aka jeans)—before basically running to Shelby’s room to be greeted with a smile, a tight hug, and a reiteration of “I’ve missed you.”

Everything’s right. Until it’s not.

Because Shelby rests her head on her shoulder, but doesn’t play with her hair the way she used to. She brushes their hands together sometimes, but doesn’t hold it the way she used to, doesn’t trace patterns on her palm.

When it’s late and the movie finishes, she doesn’t ask her to stay, and doesn’t kiss her goodbye, and Toni’s too scared to initiate it herself. At one point it looks like Shelby wants her to, but she doesn’t, so the green eyes flash with disappointment.

Somehow, Toni convinces herself Shelby doesn’t look sad about it, so she just leaves with an ache in her chest.

This ends up happening a few times over the next week, always ending with that same look that makes Toni wrongly assume Shelby doesn’t want a kiss goodbye, and Toni convinces herself of more: that after they showered together, she stopped wanting her that way, and just wants to go back to being best friends.

She’s put herself back in square one.

And that’s fine, if that’s what Shelby wants. Toni is fine. She’s fine.

===

The worst moment comes when Fatin comes back on a Sunday evening all grumpy, and Toni, who’s sat on her bed with a laptop in front of her, asks her what’s got her in a mood.

“I very nicely asked Shelby if we could swap rooms tonight cause I haven’t seen Leah in forever, and she said no! I know it’s bad to be so ugh about this because it is her room, but like she’s done it before so—”

“Wait,” Toni interrupts quietly, “what? Did she say why?”

Fatin shakes her head. “No. I think I caught her at a bad time, she was all like ‘I wanna sleep in my actual room with my actual roommate’. I can’t remember what her exact words were, but…” She trails off when she sees Toni’s saddened, watery look. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that, Toni, I’m sure it’s nothing personal.”

“I scared her off,” she whispers shakily. “We were so close to something good, and I scared her off. I always scare people off, Fatin, it’s what I do. It’s what I always do.”

Then she’s sobbing heavily and shaking, all her pent up feelings gushing out all at once, and so her roommate rushes to her side and curls an arm around her shoulders to still them, putting her spare hand on her knee. Toni’s all curled up into herself, looking so small and vulnerable that she almost looks childlike; it’s how she used to sit, waiting for her mom to come home for days on end, all alone.

But luckily Fatin is there, and she immediately notices the cans of beer strewn all over the floor. “Toni, how much have been drinking?”

“It’s—” Toni hiccups, “it’s been two years since I smashed my ex’s car window.”

It’s a good enough answer for Fatin, who immediately gets up to grab a bottle of water for her.

“I didn’t want to drink all of it,” Toni continues through her tears. “I just got them so I could have one or two to watch the game tonight, but then the announcer said the date and I ruined, I ruined it—” Her crying cuts her off again, and Fatin hurries back to her to give her the water.

“Swallow, bitch,” she urges in a soft voice, and it makes Toni laugh into the water.

Being hydrated and having Fatin there by her side calms and sobers her enough begin talking again, eventually. “Regan, my- my ex with the smashed car, she said I’m like birch bark that catches fire just like that. And she’s right, but… I don’t want to be like that anymore. She makes me want to be good, she makes me want to be calmer, for her and- and for me. And I am. I’m so much better now already.”

It’s clear that the ‘she’ that Toni is talking about switched halfway, and Fatin understands, so she nods and says, “You didn’t hurt her.”

“I did.” Tears threaten to spill out again, but Fatin shakes her head vehemently.

“You didn’t.” 

“I did!”

“Bitch when? Please give me an actual example of when you did something to hurt Shelby.”

Through the fog in her brain, Fatin’s words begin to sink in: she hasn’t done anything wrong.

“Oh,” she says quietly, letting her legs fall out of her arms so that she’s sat cross-legged again.

“Yeah, oh. Now, I’m not going to pretend she didn’t talk to me about this too, but all I can tell you is that you’ve got the completely wrong idea,” Fatin admits, and Toni’s eyes widen. “Have you tried talking to her about it?”

Her eyes grow impossibly larger at the suggestion. “That’s such a good idea, you’re a genius.” 

“I know, I know. But you’re drunk, please don’t go declaring your love to her when you’re this gone.”

Toni huffs and crosses her arms. “Why is everyone but me always right?”

Fatin smirks, tapping her hand against Toni’s puffed out cheek. “Because you’re dumb, Shalifoe.” 

===

The next day, Toni is outside room 120, hair tidy, and her shiniest trainers on.

She’s going to go in, talk with Shelby about the last few weeks, and if the time is right, if Fatin was right, if everything is fine which it probably most certainly is because there’s always a reasonable explanation for everything, she is finally going to confess her feelings for her. 

It’s nerve-wracking, but the rapid beat of her heart is more from excitement than anxiety; she’s been needing to do this for so many months. Too many months.

She has to do this, for the both of them. They deserve something good.

Taking deep breaths, she works up the courage to knock on the door.

But it isn’t Shelby who opens the door, it’s a girl who Toni’s never seen before, and Shelby is standing behind her.

“Uh, Toni?” Shelby says confusedly. “Sorry, I wasn’t, um, expecting you right now.”

The unknown girl looks between the two of them, eyebrows furrowed. Toni notices how her hair is a little ruffled, how Shelby’s eyes are wide, and all of a sudden she recognises the brunette in front of her: she was one of the girls in the group Shelby was studying with.

So she runs.

Chapter Text

Toni runs; it’s all she can do.

She runs before people can turn their backs, because she knows it hurts less to blame herself for leaving, since at least you’re the one in control when you’re the one running away.

She runs away because it’s easier than walking towards something that will inevitably hurt her.

She runs away because that’s like tearing off the bandaid, and that’s easier than taking it off slowly.

Toni always used to rip them out, so the pain would be worse but at least it would be over quicker—it’s a habit from her childhood.

It’s not the first time she’s done this, she’s ran away a lot throughout her life: away from foster homes, away from people who promised to help (and maybe they could’ve but too many couldn’t), away from the supervised visits with her mom that went south the moment Toni realised she was using her for money. And every time, she ran by herself. She’s used to running alone—but that doesn’t mean it hurts any less every time she has to.

Except this time she’s not running alone.

There’s a pair of footsteps following behind hers but they’re not as quick, so she makes it out of the hallway before the person does—that person being Shelby, of course, who’s finding it hard to chase the small-but-extremely-fast Toni.

She calls her name again and again but Toni never stops, not until she’s safely back inside her own dorm room.

But Shelby knocks.

“Toni, please,” she pleads. “Open up.”

Toni keeps her back to the door, but Shelby knocks.

“We need to talk, please.”

She presses her back harder against the wood, but Shelby knocks.

“I’m goin’ to ask Fatin for her key if you don’t let me in.”

The door swings open. “What the fuck do you want, Shelby?” she snaps, but the waver in her voice and tears in her eyes are audible.

“I wanna talk,” Shelby responds, and there’s a certain type of weakness there too, in the way her pitch falters and the glossiness of her eyes.

And fuck, Toni’s so hurt but it hurts even more to see Shelby in pain; she just wants to take it all away, get rid of everything bad that Shelby could ever feel. 

But she has to stand her ground first, she has to ask what she needs to ask. “Who the hell was that? And why the fuck was her hair like that too?”

Shelby blinks, and then: “Toni, that’s Leah’s cousin, she’s visiting for the week to see her and some friends. She was havin’ a nap.”

Now Toni just feels stupid for jumping to a completely different conclusion. Her mouth forms a small ‘o’ shape, totally silent, as Shelby makes the correct decision to shut the door behind them to allow for some privacy. 

“Did you think I was, what, hookin’ up with her?” she accuses harshly. “Do you really think I’d do that to you?”

Toni flinches at the words. The sound of a phone pinging goes off, but both of them ignore it—it’s not important right now.

“You’ve kept making excuses to not see me,” she states as she folds her arms over herself, completely deflecting from Shelby’s question because the answer is embarrassingly yes, but she doesn’t think she’s strong enough to explain that it’s because she doesn’t trust Shelby—she does—she just doesn’t trust her own self worth.

“I was really fuckin’ stressed out.” The profanity sounds cold and jarring coming from Shelby’s voice; Toni isn’t used to this from her at all, she’s used to that sweet southern drawl that weakens her knees, and so it makes her recoil into herself, hearing her like this.

The phone goes off again.

“You didn’t have to shut me out!” she finds herself snapping, and then all of a sudden her feelings come tumbling out. “You never wanted me around, how was I supposed to feel? You’re the person I want around the most out of anybody, especially during stressful fucking times cause just having you there makes me feel better and I thought you felt the same way about me. But clearly not.”

Her own vulnerability almost makes her cry, and the need to do so is only increased when Shelby responds ever so softly with, “That’s not true, Toni.”

Toni’s face scrunches up with the effort of not breaking down, because this feeling of shattering glass in her chest is all to familiar, but it hurts so much more because her and Shelby were so close to something good, and now it feels like the more she reveals about her uncertainties about things that Shelby definitely has good explanations for, the more that something good begins to slip away. Yet, she carries on anyway, “You literally told me you couldn’t study with others and then went off with some random people, you told Fatin you didn’t wanna switch rooms for a night even though it’s been weeks since—”

“Because you’re distracting!”

The adjective makes her frown. “Huh?”

Shelby takes the moment to take in a deep breath to collect herself so that she can speak more calmly—she doesn’t want to keep yelling and snapping at Toni, she doesn’t deserve it. 

“I’ve told you this time and time again, I can’t focus when you’re around, and I really needed to keep my grades up to keep my scholarship—”

That makes Toni scoff. “I am capable of shutting up, you know, I’ve got scholarships to keep too.”

And she’s right, but, “That’s not what I meant,” Shelby tells her, somewhat shyly. An embarrassed blush creeps onto her face at the admission that follows: “I mean you’re distractin’… like that.”

“Oh?” It takes a moment for her to get it—the phone goes off her again in those few seconds of silence—but when Toni does, she scoffs again at the irony. “Like you barely even touch me anymore.”

For some reason, that makes Shelby look the most hurt she has during this entire conversation.

“Uh, like you do?” Her voice is raising in volume again, but now there’s an added desperation that keeps climbing and climbing as she goes on, “You never made a move to touch me either all the times we’ve hung out this last week. I’ve been hopin’ the whole time you’d at least kiss me hello or goodbye but you never did, so how was I supposed to know that’s what you wanted?”

“But—”

“But what, Toni?” she practically exclaims. “Look, I’m sorry if this is just about getting off to you but it means somethin’ way beyond that to me and I don’t wanna fuck it all up.”

That takes Toni aback; she has no idea how Shelby ever got the idea that that’s all this is for her, because she’s so hugely far from the truth. Touch, for Toni, is her way of expressing affection, she has no idea where in translation it was lost that every single time her hands or lips even grazed Shelby’s body, it was to revere it—her—it was to express just a fraction of her deep fondness for her.

No part of this has ever been solely about physical pleasure; when it was, it was because it was a form intimacy, the purest kind laced with passion and reverence.

“That’s not— no, that’s not what this is about to me at all, I- I just—” Toni sighs, defeated. “What am I supposed to think?” she asks in her tear-filled low voice that would usually make Shelby’s heart melt, but is now making it break. “When you kept turning me down every time I asked to hang out—and I get that you were stressed but you could’ve just told me you were—you could’ve told me you didn’t want to see me because you wanted to focus. I would’ve understood. You didn’t have to lie about it then go be with other people right in front of me when you told me that.”

Her eyebrows are curved inwards and her eyes are so sad, all Shelby wants to do is hold the pain away, relight the auburn fire in them that’s kept her warm on her coldest nights. She never wants to see the flames in her eyes fade out.

“Okay, you’re right, I shouldn't have said that,” she admits quietly. “But I promise it was only that one time ‘cause Leah asked me to stay with her cousin for a bit, and she was seeing friends who go here which were the other people we were sat with, and… yeah, I’m sorry. I should’ve just told you.”

Toni stares at her feet, willing tears not to fall as another pinging noise comes from her pocket, but she ignores it like she has been the whole time because hopefully it’ll stop soon. “Yeah well, it was pretty fucking shitty, feeling like the one person you wanna be with doesn’t want you around. Especially after everything with the way we were before, I mean, I don’t know. It was a really sudden change out of nowhere.”

“Don’t you think I have my own insecurities and fears too? About whatever… whatever this is between us? The last thing I wanna do is rush into it and ruin it but at this point I don’t even know what you want from me—do you wanna be friends or friends who just do stuff or… But whatever it is I am scared to death of messing things up with you, Toni.” 

The words take the breath out of her lungs. 

This is it: this is the moment where Toni’s going to let it all out, the way she was going to when she knocked on Shelby’s door what feels like hours and seconds ago, but her phone goes off again and she can’t have it ruin the moment, because what she’s about to say is far too important.

“Let me turn this stupid thing off, one sec,” she mumbles, earning her a semi-laugh from Shelby that just sounds like a puff of air. 

Her index finger goes straight to turn off the ringer, but that’s when she sees it.

And that’s when her heart drops.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, then repeats a little louder, “I’m so, so, so sorry, Shelby, I really need to take this.”

Then she’s running out of the room, just like that, and Shelby finds herself crying helplessly in frustration—because this is the second time in less than one hour that this is happening, and it really just seems like the universe is doing all it can from letting her confess her feelings for Toni: the ones that have been growing since that warm, late summer day.

Chapter Text

Shelby doesn’t know much about love. She doesn’t know when she should feel it, when it’s appropriate to tell someone that you feel that way about them, who you should feel it for.

What Shelby does know, is that she loves Toni.

She doesn’t know when she started, and she sure as hell doesn’t know how a feeling can be this intense, or how it can consume her whole being every time she lays eyes on her and every time the girl crosses her mind, but she does know that she never wants to stop feeling this way.

A few minutes after Toni has left, she realises that she’s still standing in the middle of Toni’s room, alone, and thinks about leaving to give her space—but she’s left Toni one too many times lately, and she doesn’t want to do that again, especially when she seemed so terrified at whatever it was that came up on her phone.

So she stays, exactly where she is, until Toni comes hurrying back through the door. Toni doesn’t even acknowledge her, eyes trained on the floor as she drops to her knees beside her bed, yanks out a duffel bag and begins to shove every piece of clothing into it within arm’s reach.

“Hey,” Shelby calls softly, kneeling down next to her. “Slow down, I’ll help you get everythin’ properly.”

“No,” Toni snaps as she jerks the bag away in an almost protective manner, but then she sees the hurt flash across Shelby’s face and hurries to patch it up. “No,” she repeats again, kinder this time, “no thanks. But, um, thank you. I just… I’m sorry, I’ll explain later.”

There’s a conflict in Shelby as to what she should do next: leave wordlessly, offer some verbal support, give her a hug, something like that. But all she does is reach out her hand and place it gently on Toni’s shoulder, and that’s when Toni finally looks up at her, showing Shelby the red in her eyes and the tears streaked down her face.

It feels like a dagger twisting into her heart.

But she knows Toni well enough to know that right now she needs to pack, she’s in a huge rush, so with a small smile and a squeeze to her shoulder, Shelby leaves the room.

Her own room is empty when she gets back—Leah has thankfully taken her cousin out—so the second she steps inside, Shelby collapses into her own bed and allows tears to pour out onto her pillow.

Her pillow used to smell like Toni—and sometimes, even though she thought she looked a little creepy, Shelby would bury her face in it and shut her eyes while imagining Toni was next to her, wrapping her arms around her and nuzzling into her neck while Shelby played with her curls that she is so obsessed with. But now it just smells like her own shampoo, no trace of Toni’s, and it makes her cry harder.

Eventually she has enough sense to pull out her phone and send a text.

Shelby: Hey, I’m sorry everything got so heated. I would really like to go back to this when you can though, but are you okay? It seemed pretty serious back there. I love you.

She deletes that last sentence because it’s too much right now, and even though she still doesn’t know when she should say it, she knows that she wants the first time to be out loud, face-to-face, not over text when they’re both feeling so vulnerable.

She had been so close to telling her during their argument, so close to saying fuck it to all her reservations and confessing to Toni that despite all of her own insecurities and warped views on relationships, created by a childhood with a mom who faked being in love with her father where the only “real” love she ever witnessed was the fictional kind on TV where everyone is perfect and never missteps, all she wants is to be with Toni. Because to hell with taking it slow, to hell with the fear of unrequited feelings—that doesn’t matter, none of it does.

All that matters is Toni, and that if she wants it too, Shelby wants to risk it all with her. She’ll risk the arguments and the missteps and imperfections for something real with her—something good.

She knows that at first, the way she felt for Toni felt like butterflies fluttering in her stomach. Then, somewhere around the second sleepover, it turned into a fire that burned in her lungs and sparked through the rest of her body. When she received Toni’s belated birthday present for her—a CD by her favourite artist full of love songs as a nod to Shelby’s nickname for her, the most perfect gift she’d ever received on a birthday—it turned into something metaphorical about feeling golden and seeing daylight with her even when it was nighttime outside.

Somewhere between then and now, it turned into something indescribable.

Shelby could search through every dictionary and learn every word in every language for the rest of her life, she could try to make up her own words for it, her own language, but the attempts would be futile; there isn’t and never will be a way to put into words the way Toni makes her feel, or the way she feels for Toni.

All she knows is that this could be something good, and that she’s willing to fight for it.

She’s going to fight for it.

===

Six hours of endless panicking, a lot of pacing, and even more staring at the ceiling with her phone clutched to her chest, the device finally buzzes.

Toni: i’m in minnesota

Toni: martha is in a medically induced coma. she was trampled on by a horse at the ranch

Panic automatically fills Shelby’s lungs at the knowledge of her friend’s state, but she quickly swallows it down because she knows that she has to have a clear mind in order to stay strong for Toni.

Shelby: I’m so so sorry

Toni: it’s not looking good

Shelby: Is there anything I can do?

Toni: no it’s okay

Toni: thank you

Shelby: Let me know if you think of anything. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.

There’s no reply, but Shelby never lets her phone leave her sight.

===

Toni doesn’t text her for several days after that, even though Shelby makes a point of messaging her once a day, just to check in on her. It’s hard to find a balance between overbearing and caring, but the last thing she wants is for Toni to feel alone, especially after she’d made her feel that way right until the very second she had to depart for Minnesota, and she’d rather be there for her too much than not at all.

She texts Martha every day too, even though she obviously can’t reply, but she hopes that soon she’ll be awake and able to read all the well wishes. Sometimes she scrolls through their messages, looking at the photos Martha had sent her of her at the ranch where she volunteered at, and wonders why the worst things happen to the best people.

She prays every night, too.

She prays for Martha to make it through, she prays for her mom to have the strength she needs, and she prays for Toni.

And each time, she finishes it the same way she has been for months: by thanking God for bringing Toni to her.

Leah finds out first, when she comes back to their dorm to find Shelby curled up into a pillow while crying. She sits beside Shelby all night and brings her dinner, because “I know you’re worried but you still need to eat.”

Fatin finds out from Toni, who asks her to tell Dot and the Reids for her because she’s not sure she can bring herself to repeat it three more times. 

She still doesn’t answer Shelby’s texts, so she doesn’t push.

===

A few days later, on the last week of term, Shelby’s walking out of one of the final cheer practices when she runs into the basketball team— among them is a girl she sort of recognises from the party she’d attended with Toni a while back.

“Hey,” the girl says, approaching her. “You’re Toni’s girlfriend, right?”

Shelby’s eyes widen in surprise. “Excuse me?”

The girl lets out a small chuckle and adds, “Sorry, hi, I’m Amelia, I’m on the basketball team with Toni. I thought you guys were, um… anyway, you know her right?”

All Shelby can do is nod; she’s still very surprised by the assumption, although given the way the two act around each other, it really shouldn’t come as a shock that people assume ‘Shoni’ (as Fatin calls it) is a thing.

“Well, she’s been missing practice loads and coach has been trying to reach her but she doesn’t answer her emails or the phone. Do you know why?”

Shelby pauses before telling her: “Somethin’ real serious happened back home and she had to rush off.” 

“Well, tell her to at least send an email ‘cause coach isn’t happy at all,” Amelia says, but there’s still empathy in her voice and eyes. “And tell her I hope she’s okay.”

“I will. Thanks for telling me.” 

Shelby leaves her with a small smile before rushing off back home, a plan already beginning to form in her head.

===

Less than two hours later, she’s back at the sports hall, this time dressed in more weather appropriate attire than her cheer outfit. She slips in just as the basketball team is leaving, giving a polite smile to Amelia as she passes before making a beeline straight to the coach.

“Um, excuse me?” she calls from several feet away to the woman who’s clearing up a bunch of cones. “Sorry, hi.”

The coach looks up, but doesn’t stop clearing up the cones. “Can I help you?”

Shelby takes a few tentative steps forward. “Hi, sorry, I’m Shelby Goodkind, I do cheer here. I’m, uh, Toni Shalifoe’s friend.”

The woman’s eyes narrow and she stands up straight, leaving the cones on the floor. She doesn’t say anything, just stands there looking all intimidating and coach-like, so Shelby continues, “I just wanted to tell you that the reason she’s not been showin’ up to practice is because somethin’ real bad happened to her sister back in Minnesota, so she had to go there.”

There’s a tense silence where the two stare at each other.

“Well, if she’s not here on Thursday, she’s gonna lose her scholarship,” Coach states flatly, breaking the silence, and the blood in Shelby’s heart runs cold.

“What, why?”

“She can only miss a certain number of sessions per term if she’s to keep her scholarship, it’s part of the conditions.”

Maybe Shelby should’ve seen this coming—after all, her own cheer scholarship might not be a full ride like Toni’s, but there’s still conditions attached to it. But regardless, she keeps pushing, “Aren’t there exceptions for special circumstances?”

“In some cases we hold places for people, but it’s rare and 99% of the time it’s for minor medical issues.”

“This is technically a medical issue.”

Coach presses her lips into a flat smile and looks at Shelby with a mixture of empathy and pity in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Miss Goodkind. There’s not much else we can do.”

“Please?” she pleads, feeling herself getting desperate. “She can send you medical evidence and everythin’, her sister is literally in a coma on the verge of d—”

“Miss Goodkind,” Coach says firmly, shutting her up. “I’m sorry, but it’s not in my control. I’m sorry to hear about her sister, but again, there’s not much we can do if she doesn’t attend on Thursday.”

===

Shelby had decided it was best if Fatin delivers the news; it would probably upset Toni further if it came from someone she had just argued with.

“There aren’t even any flights because of the fucking weather!” Toni yells over the phone’s loudspeaker, making both Shelby and Fatin wince. “What am I meant to do, not be here when Marty—” She pauses, unable to say it out loud. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” she says, and she sounds so defeated and tired that Shelby has to stop herself from breaking into the NCAA offices and hacking them herself. 

“Look,” Fatin starts, “what if I pay for a private jet—”

“Now’s not the time for jokes, Fatin,” Shelby snaps.

“I’m not joking!”

“If commercial flights aren’t flyin’ cause of the weather do you really think a tiny jet would deal with snowstorms? We don’t want her to risk her freakin’ life over this.”

“Hey,” Toni pipes up from the phone, “I’m still here, y’know.”

Shelby sighs in exasperation and stands up abruptly, pacing the space between Fatin and Toni’s beds. “Surely there’s, like, rules for exceptional circumstances. I could look into them and speak to—”

“No, Shelby,” Fatin interrupts. “Let me do the talking. My mom is literally besties with people who work for the NCAA, I’ll see what strings she can pull.”

“Yeah, but, I wanna help,” Shelby says quietly, tucking her hands into the pockets of her jeans. For some reason she feels guilty about all of this, even though deep down she knows there’s no reason for her to, and so all she wants to do is to help to fix this for Toni as much as she can.

“You already told Coach for me,” Toni points out, and there’s a warm layer of gratefulness in her voice, which somewhat relaxes her.

Fatin adds to the reassurance: “Trust me, it’s better if I do it.”

“I don’t want you or your mom to get into trouble though,” Toni says.

“Nah, I’ll find a way to pin it on my dad if it goes south. Pretty sure someone in the admissions board here owes my mom a favour.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Toni, stop. I’ve got nothing to lose, you do. Even if I did, I’m not letting them kick you off, I don’t wanna get stuck with a roommate like Shelby or something.”

Shelby scowls at her as Toni leaps to her defence, “Hey, Shelby’s a better roommate than you are.”

She feels kind of warm at the sincerity with which Toni says that.

“Oh yeah? Name one thing she can do that I can’t.”

A silence falls over them, and even though Shelby can’t see her she knows that Toni is blushing furiously right now, because her own cheeks are red with thoughts she shouldn’t be having immediately after such a serious conversation.

“Not kick me out of my own room two weeks into knowing each other,” Toni states blankly in response, and Fatin goes “hey!” as Shelby bursts into laughter. “Anyways, I gotta go make dinner, Mrs B and I are kinda sick of hospital vending machine food.”

The tone immediately shifts; Shelby and Fatin exchange saddened glances at each other, before Toni speaks again. “Fatin, thank you and, uh, keep me posted. I’ll text you soon, Shelby. Bye.”

The other two say their goodbyes, and when the line goes, Shelby tries to not get caught up in the word soon.

She begins to make her way to leave but Fatin stops her, holding onto her wrist to pull her down to sit on the bed.

“Are you okay?” she asks, and something in Shelby breaks; she collapses into Fatin’s arms and sobs wordlessly as she holds her. The pent up stress of practice and studying and everything going on with Toni and Martha being hospitalised all comes out, spilling over as tears that soak into Fatin’s top.

After a few minutes Shelby pulls away, a little embarrassed as she wipes her face with her sleeve and stutters, “Um, I’m sorry, I’ve no clue why on earth I just did that.”

Fatin shakes her head, smiling lightly. “You probably needed that,” she says, and Shelby can’t disagree. “Do you know what else you need?” When Shelby just stares at her blankly, she clarifies, “To talk to Toni.”

“No,” Shelby rejects the idea rapidly. “Not right now, she’s under way too much stress.”

“I don’t mean now. But, like, you should soon.”

She shrugs noncommittally. “Yeah, but only when she wants to.”

“Just don’t wait for her to come to you,” Fatin tells her, and Shelby friend quizzically at her. “I mean, you know her well enough to be able to tell when she’s okay enough—and besides, this is something she needs too. It’d probably make her feel better.”

And so Shelby lunges forward and envelops Fatin into a tight hug, making her yelp in surprise. “Bitch I’m old, you can’t knock the wind outta me like this you’ll give me a heart attack.”

But Shelby just giggles and murmurs, “Thank you, you’re the best.”

Fatin sighs dramatically. “I know.”

===

There’s a text for her later that night, and every part of it breaks her heart—for Toni, for Martha, for their mom.

Toni: i know i’m not religious but can you pray for her?

Toni: please?

She bites back tears as she types her reply, because this means nothing is improving, or that Martha’s state is worsening.

Shelby: I’ve been praying for her every night.

Toni: thank you

Toni:  promise we’ll talk soon but every moment i’m not with marty i’m helping out mrs b and it’s just a lot right now i’m sorry

Shelby: Please don’t apologise, Toni. Take all the time you need, I promise I’ll be here when you’re ready. I can wait.

===

Two days later, Shelby receives two pieces of news.

In the morning, Fatin tells them both that her mom has spoken to several people, both at the NCAA and the university’s admissions board, and that they’re currently holding Toni’s space while they do some “investigation” into their policies. It’s better than a no, so Shelby lets herself breathe out a little when she finds out.

It somewhat relieves Toni, Shelby can tell, but she’s still not letting herself believe that her place in the team—and subsequently at college—is completely, definitely safe, so although her stress levels waver, they’re still at an extreme.

In the evening, all of those worries get sidelined by the second piece of news, one Shelby hoped for but didn’t expect so soon.

Toni: she’s awake

The biggest sigh of relief that Shelby has ever let out escapes her lungs as she darts to send a reply.

Shelby: Oh thank God. I’m so happy to hear that! Xx

Shelby: How is she doing???

Toni: she can open her eyes and breathe on her own but movements are too hard. the doctors are hopeful, said she’s doing much better than expected

Shelby: This is the best news ever!! Thank you for telling me and please tell her I send her all my well wishes  

Toni: of course

Toni: talk soon? i’m gonna go sit with marty for a bit

Shelby: Okay. <3

===

One week later, Martha is fully awake although her motor functions are still not the best and so that means that she has to send all her messages via speech-to-text, which leads to some hilariously misfortunate typos. 

Christmas day is in less than two weeks, and so most of her friends have already left the campus. Dot went to stay with the Rilkes along with Fatin, whose family doesn’t care much for Christmas and only expects her there on the day itself. Shelby was invited too, of course, and Nora offered to let her stay with her and Rachel in their family home in New York. She thanked both families, saying she already had plans.

She doesn’t; she just doesn’t want to burden anyone.

Even though she’s only ever told Toni and Dot (and somewhat Leah) about her family, or lack thereof, she quickly figures out that everyone else has gathered she doesn’t really have a home back in Texas, hence all the invitations. She’s grateful, she really is, but for some reason she feels like she deserves the loneliness of it, as some sort of karmic revenge for leaving Texas, despite the fact that her guilt over it lessens every week.

She spends a lot of time reading: a lot of medical journals on the aftermaths of medically induced comas, some random pieces of fiction she picks up from the library, and this book about a bisexual actress who married a bunch of men that Rachel said was the only book she’s ever read within the space of two days.

Sometimes her and Toni text and it’s always updates on Martha’s condition, but now she’s awake it’s lighter and more humorous stories about something funny she said to the doctors rather than the state of her injuries, and it ends up being the highlight of Shelby’s day.

Finally, she gets the text she’s been waiting for, and her stomach flutters with anxiety and excitement and nervousness and everything ever all at once.

Toni: Can we talk?  

Chapter Text

Toni: Can we talk?  

Her heart races as she presses send. She’s nervous, even though she’s had plenty of time to prepare for this talk she still doesn’t feel prepared enough—between hospital visits and the looming threat of losing her scholarship, Toni hasn’t exactly had the most amount of time to think about what she wants to say.

She’s so nervous that she even uses correct grammar; Toni never usually uses capital letters unless it’s for emphasis, and she’s not really sure where this capital ‘c’ came from, but it makes her sound doubly serious—something which she’s not sure is a good or bad thing.

A text comes through from Shelby reading ‘Sure! Call me? Xx

Toni’s heart begins to work in double time as she glances around the room: it’s empty, Bernice is still at the hospital and so she’s got the house to herself. Regardless, she decides to retreat upstairs to Martha’s sister’s old room, which sort of became her own after the older Blackburn moved away. She sits on the edge of the bed tentatively despite being completely home alone, and hits the call button below Shelby’s name.

The line is picked up immediately.

“Hi,” she mumbles shyly.

“Hi there,” Shelby sighs, sounding almost relieved, and lord has Toni missed her voice. 

“We need to talk,” she states firmly as a way to force all those warm fuzzy feelings that kicked into full force the second she heard that sweet, southern drawl.

“We do.”

Heart working in triple time, Toni takes a deep breath in, then exhales shakily. There’s so many words she wants to—has to—say to her, but the only two she manages are: “I’m sorry.”

She can practically hear the shake of Shelby’s head along with the soft smile that is definitely accompanying it. “You’ve nothin’ to be sorry for, Toni.” There’s a moment of silence, and then because Shelby knows, she says assuringly, “None of this was your fault.”

“I know,” Toni responds quietly, and for the first time she starts to believe it. “You know, Marty and Mrs B thought I was dumb to fly out here so early before Christmas and I haven’t even mentioned the scholarship stuff yet. Martha’s totally fine, like, she’s in no pain, only in the hospital for monitoring and all she can talk about is how excited she is to go back to the ranch, like, seriously?”

Shelby laughs softly along with her; the sound is angelic, even despite the context.

“I mean yeah, but I’d do the same as you did,” she says, and it reminds Toni of the time all those months ago that she’d tearfully admitted to her that the only reason she’d go back to Texas would be if anything happened to her siblings.

Another moment of silence passes through them, making Toni wish she could be with Shelby right now to see her, to hold her. She knows they could turn on the video chat option, but it’s not the same and it honestly feels a little scary right now. So, she finds herself lying down on her side, curling into her own sweatshirt as she wishes she was cuddling into her favourite girl instead.

“I’m sorry for assuming that you were sleeping with someone,” Toni admits, a bit embarrassedly.

She hears Shelby chuckle on the other side of the line at the sudden topic change, but the response that follows is serious. “I’m sorry for creatin’ a situation that allowed you to think that.”

Toni pauses, taking the moment to think, because that’s not what she expected to hear. 

“You didn’t,” she says eventually.

“But I did,” Shelby insists. “I avoided you without tellin’ you why, I didn’t treat you right and you really didn’t deserve that.”

And Shelby’s right, but she seems so truthfully apologetic that Toni’s ready to discard this conversation topic and move onto better things—except she knows the correct, healthy thing to do is to discuss it so that nothing is left unsaid, because that just leaves room for more misunderstandings. She wants to do things properly with Shelby; Shelby deserves that. They both do.

“It wasn’t just because of exam stress,” Toni states gently—she’d mean to phrase it like a question, but judging by Shelby’s quiet “yeah”, the answer would’ve been the same anyway.

“I was scared. I am scared, Toni. And it’s—it’s nothin’ that you did, it’s just—” she gulps and takes a deep breath. “My whole life I never thought I could have somethin’ so good, until all of a sudden you came along and showed me that I could, I could have more than good. So I got scared. I wanted to hold on to you so tight that started holdin’ back, I convinced myself that we needed to go back to basics and take it real slow but now I’ve realised it was way too slow.”

Shelby lets out a small laugh with that last sentence, making Toni laugh, and then she’s full on giggling in her ear and Toni knows she would gladly dedicate the rest of her life to making Shelby laugh that way: carefree and light, even during such a weighted conversation.

“I mean, I probably didn’t help considering I was too much of a coward to even hold your hand these past few weeks,” Toni says in a joking tone which disappears as she assures, “But if that’s what you want, I’m good with taking things slow,”, nervous at the implication of the word things. “I’m good with whatever you want, really.”

“Well, I don’t wanna take things that slowly.” 

Toni smiles at the admission. “Yeah?”

“But at the same time, I don’t want to run the risk of losin’ what we already have. You’re so important to me, Toni, you have been pretty much since I met you.”

That sends Toni’s mind spinning in about a million different directions. 

“You’re my best friend, and I don’t want to lose this friendship that we have because it’s so special to me.” Toni takes in a shaky breath, screwing her eyes shut as she continues, reciting the words she’d been told before: “But the best relationships are built on a strong foundation of friendship.”

“So,” Shelby fills in, slowly and tentatively, “we’re not takin’ that away, we’re just… addin’ more.”

“Yeah.” Toni repeats, “Yeah.”

Even though Shelby isn’t next to her, the silence that lingers between them is so charged that she might as well be; Toni’s body feels every single second of it so acutely that she might implode and cause a supernova at any given moment.

But then, suddenly, Shelby’s tone changes as she casually says, “I don’t think we should be havin’ this conversation like this.”

Toni’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Huh?”

“Can we carry on talkin’ about this later?” she asks. “I really do want to carry on, there’s a lot more I want to say but… not like this.”

Still confused, Toni asks, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, no,” Shelby rushes out. “I’m great. I just… could we talk about this tomorrow? I’m real tired right now and I wanna pay attention properly.”

Oh okay, that makes sense, Toni thinks.

“That’s fine. I’ll call you tomorrow?”

“No,” Shelby answers, before quickly correcting, “I mean, yeah, but don’t go yet. Well, you can if you want, but—” Her voice changes into a saddened whisper, faltering as she adds, “I’ve been so lonely without you.”

Toni’s heart melts and breaks at the same time. There’s a dull burning ache at the pads of her fingers as she whispers, “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be, you’re the one goin’ through stuff right now.”

“So? Just because you weren’t about to lose your sister it doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about your own situation.”

She listens to the quiet as her words sink in.

“Lord,” Shelby says with a slight chuckle, “why are you so perfect?”

Toni flashes her a grin—or rather, she just smiles at the wall because they’re several states apart right now. Then she’s reminded of the video chat option, prompting her to ask Shelby if she wants to video call instead, and she’s met with an immediate yes.

The screen changes from grey to an image of Shelby—unfairly gorgeous Shelby, without makeup or good lighting—lying sideways with her head smushed into the pillow. She grins widely at her, and Shelby returns it with a smile so wide that her eyes sparkle. Except, her eyes are bloodshot and glassy, and Toni’s face falls the second she notices that.

“Are you okay?” she asks again, and this time Shelby shakes her head as her bottom lip quivers.

Toni wants to catch the next flight to California and kiss it away.

“I’ll be fine, I just—I miss you.”

It’s then that Toni has an idea, and maybe it’s a stupid one but it’s an idea nonetheless, and so she suggests, “You could get one of my sweatshirts from my room and wear it if you like, maybe it’d help?”

A small smile worms its way onto Shelby’s lips. “Won’t Fatin give me so much crap for it?”

“Yeah, well, who cares?”

So with her phone, still on the line to Toni, clutched to her stomach, Shelby feels like she’s on a heist or something as she hurries down the halls to Toni and Fatin’s room—where, sure enough, Fatin and Leah are “hanging out” on Fatin’s bed (no, really, they're just silently sending each other text posts on their phones). 

“Sorry y’all, I just need to grab somethin’ for Toni,” Shelby tells them as she rummages through the wardrobe before quickly pulling out an old black hoodie that says ‘Hopewell Lake Basketball Captain’ on the front and Toni’s surname on the back in gold lettering.

“For Toni or for you?” Fatin smirks, earning her a kick from Leah and a scoff from Shelby’s phone.

“Oh hey Toni,” Leah pipes up, making Fatin snigger, thus earning her yet another kick. “Be nice.”

“I am! You know I’m the number one Shoni shipper.”

Leah crumples her face up and says, “I still prefer Goodfoe.”

“True, but I feel like that’d be more appropriate for an enemies-to-lovers ship. Oh my god, that’d actually be perfect; Leah, write that down for your next play.”

Shelby sighs melodramatically. “Goodbye Leatin,” she calls as she exits the room, putting extra emphasis on the bye as she shoots Fatin a glare and Leah a smile.

“They’re so annoyin’,” Shelby mumbles, unlocking her own door and retreating back into her room before pulling on the hoodie that still kind of smells like Toni, and that’s good enough for her.

“You look cute in that,” Toni comments when Shelby brings the camera back up to her own face.

Shelby blushes furiously and ducks her head, shyly accepting the compliment. “Thank you.”

There’s a beat where they simply look at each other, and it’s comfortable and quiet and everything they both need. 

“I miss you too, you know,” Toni says after a while. “You’re kind of my favourite person.” Her heart flutters at her own admission; she watches Shelby’s smile widen impossibly, and her fall begins all over again.

“Just kind of?” the Texan retorts, and Toni finds herself too smiling helplessly as she shakes her head.

“I’ve got a reputation to uphold, Goodkind, don’t make me go soft for you.”

“Well, considerin’ that you just told me to go into your bedroom to borrow one of your jumpers ‘cause I miss you and I’m currently wearin’ it and sat beside a tiny cuddly giraffe you won for me at the arcade…”

It’s Toni’s turn to blush furiously now. “Hey, be quiet.”

“I still haven’t got a name for her. Leah suggested Leah but, y’know, it’d be a bit confusin’ to have two roommates with the same name.”

“Name it Toni.”

“Um, no thank you.”

“How about my middle name?” she suggests.

“What is it?”

“Airini.”

Shelby smiles at her through the camera. “That’s gorgeous, is it Māori?”

Toni nods. “Yeah, it means ‘peace’ which is kinda ironic.”

She’s given a sort of half smile half puzzled look from Shelby. “I know you’re a bit of a hothead but it’s not that ironic. I feel really at peace with you—well, at least when you’re not givin’ me insanely crazy butterflies which is, like, always. I dunno, I guess even though they’re opposites you make me feel both of those things at once: peaceful yet like my heart’s gonna explode.”

Shelby looks almost embarrassed at her little speech, but Toni is staring at her wide-eyed with her lips parted, body on fire. “Fuck, Shelby,” she just about manages to say. She’d always struck Toni as the romantic type, but Toni clearly hadn’t gauged the full extent of it—and god, if she isn’t left wanting to see just how much of a romantic Shelby really is.

And as if she didn’t just drop a bombshell, Shelby goes onto say, “My middle name is Faith, which is nowhere near as nice as yours.”

“Nah, I like it. It suits you.”

“Cause I’m a Christian?” she asks playfully. 

“Well, yeah, but also you’ve been handed some pretty shitty people in your life so you’ve got every reason to be cold and shut off, but instead you’re this outgoing human embodiment of sunshine that still has faith that there’s good in people. So, yeah, it really suits you.”

There’s something else on the tip of her tongue, and unbeknownst to Toni, it’s on Shelby’s too. And Shelby almost says it. Almost. But instead, she tells Toni that she’s speechless, making them both blush.

Another minute of comfortable silence passes between them, where they just keep looking at each other. Toni’s eyes trace the shapes of Shelby’s face: the slope of her nose, the curve of her lips, the freckles dotting her nose which have almost faded now that it’s deep into winter time.

“I have to go get ready for tomorrow,” Shelby whispers after a while.

“Where are you going?” Toni whispers back.

“Out for lunch with Nora.”

“I thought she was in New York already?”

Shelby’s eyes widen, but she answers, “No, um, she’s going later.”

“Okay. Why are we whispering?”

“I don’t know, it’s nighttime.”

“You’re so weird,” Toni says in a normal but still very quiet voice.

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow?” she says hopefully.

Toni grins at her. “Yeah, tell me when you’re free and I’ll call you. G’night, Shell.”

Shelby loses the fight of trying to hold back her own smile at the nickname. “Sweet dreams, Toni.”

===

The next afternoon, Toni is bundled up in some blankets in the living room, alone because visiting hours are over and Mrs B is at work. It’s already getting dark outside (but there’s still a bit of light), and so the knock on the door startles her; she knows Mrs B isn’t done with her shift yet, and obviously it can’t be Martha because even though she can walk now she can’t exactly drive, especially not in the snow. 

She glances out of the icy window, and no fucking way is that the silhouette of who she thinks it is.

But it is. So she swings the door open.

“Hey, lover. It’s freezin’, you gonna let me in?”

Chapter Text

“Hey, lover. It’s freezin’, you gonna let me in?”

Toni doesn’t know if it’s the nickname she hasn’t heard in weeks or those green eyes that make her feel so warm despite it being 29°F outside. Regardless, whether she’s frozen because of Shelby’s presence or the temperature, Toni is rendered incapable of saying anything.

So Shelby rushes to fill her in: “I don’t know if this is a little much, Martha gave me the address, she invited me actually, and I’m gonna book a hotel but I had to run straight here from the airport ‘cause—”

“That’s expensive,” Toni blurts out, interrupting her, because she can’t understand why somebody would want to spend that much money on seeing her, especially when she’s going to be back in California so soon—and also she hasn’t felt the scent of that red fruits perfume in what feels like forever so her head is too foggy to compute much else.

But Shelby understands, of course she does because she’s perfect, and so she smiles and says, “Well, y’know, trust funds are for important things… like buyin’ a house, and gettin’ a car, and seein’ you for Christmas.” She sounds so positive and nonchalant about it that Toni doesn’t even doubt that—to Shelby, at least—she really is worth it. It’s a nice feeling. A really nice feeling.

The hand that isn’t on the suitcase handle and boarding pass goes to rest on Toni’s waist, green eyes drifting down her body—and when Shelby glances back up at her, Toni has her eyebrows quirked as if to say ‘so that’s what you came here for’. So, to play along, her own hand reaches for Shelby’s hips but the taller girl is too quick for her and swats it away with the boarding pass and passport (which she’s still clutching because in the nervous rush out of the airport, she forgot to store them in her backpack). 

“I meant it in a sweet way, you dipshit.”

Toni draws out a long whistle. “You say your prayers with that mouth?”

Shelby scoffs and tugs on her waistband. “Shut up and kiss me.”

So Toni does, and it feels like coming home.

She has to stand on her tiptoes because she’s only wearing socks while Shelby has trainers on, and it almost makes her lose her balance but Shelby wraps her arms around her to keep her in place, bodies flushed together, as they giggle into the kiss.

And it’s perfect.

Shelby crouches a little, never breaking the kiss, and lifts her up by her thighs; Toni immediately wraps her legs around her waist and lets Shelby carry her into the house, burying her hands into her hair, but she stumbles and Toni finds herself crashing into the back of the sofa, making her yelp in surprise.

Still, when Shelby says, “Oh crap, sorry, are you alright?” Toni simply pulls her back in for another kiss—and it’s heaven, the way Shelby’s bottom lip slots perfectly between her own, the way she tastes a little sweet from her chapstick and entirely like herself.

“Baby, my suitcase is still outside,” Shelby sighs into her mouth, and Toni knows she should pull away and so she does, but then she changes her mind at the last second and envelops her in a tight hug, burying her face into the puffy material of Shelby’s pink jacket.

She’s needed that. They both have.

It takes Shelby a second to hug her back—she’s initially taken aback a little—but when she does, she holds her so tightly against her that she’s scared Toni may suffocate.

“You’re not booking a hotel,” Toni murmurs into her shoulder, hugging her impossibly tighter. “You’re staying here.”

“Oh, thank you,” Shelby says, ever so politely, “but I really don’t want to burden y’all.”

That makes Toni pull back, or at least as much as she can because she’s still pressed against the back of the couch. “If Marty invited you for Christmas she wasn’t giving you permission to fly to Minnesota to visit us for a day, she meant for you to actually stay here. You’re staying here.”

Shelby furrows her eyebrows and asks, “Are you sure?” to which Toni intensely nods.

“I want to wake up to your irritatingly pretty face, okay?”

And if the smile that Shelby gives her isn’t the most radiant thing in the world, Toni isn’t sure what is.

The suitcase finally gets dragged inside, and Toni invites Shelby to join her on the couch; “I was just about to put a movie on, wanna watch it together?” The pink jacket comes off, revealing Toni’s old basketball hoodie, the one Shelby had borrowed just last night, and it makes Toni’s stomach flip when she sees her own surname written across Shelby’s back—and then Toni finds herself daydreaming about walking hand-in-hand across campus, Shelby wearing her basketball jersey with Shalifoe on it to tell everyone that she’s hers, and—

The blonde flops down next to her and curls into her side immediately. “Minnesota is real freakin’ cold,” she says, teeth chattering, and Toni chuckles softly.

“The heating’s on full blast and this blanket is super warm, what more do you even need?” She puts an arm around her shoulders and rubs her hand up and down, trying to create heat with friction. “I can get another blanket if you want?”

But Shelby’s response is a sleepy incoherent mumble, so Toni switches off the TV and moves them into a more comfortable position where Shelby’s practically lying face down on top of her, and Toni’s got her hands clasped and resting on Shelby’s back.

Shelby falls asleep immediately, completely passed out from minor jet lag and the tiring nature of catching a flight, and Toni purely basks in it: having the literal girl of her dreams asleep in her arms, her entire weight pressing her down like an anchor keeping her at bay.

She dozes off soon after, and it’s the best sleep she’s had in a long time.

===

The morning arrives with a smell of scrambled eggs and toast, and a blanket tucked all the way up to her chin. Toni’s head peeks up from behind the sofa cushions as she looks over to the kitchen, where Mrs B is cooking up some breakfast.

“Morning Toni,” she greets cheerfully. “Shelby’s in the shower, in case you were wondering. You wanna help me set the table?”

Yeah, she’s too disoriented for whatever the hell is going on right now to sink in.

She stumbles out of the couch and pads her way to the cutlery drawer to get out some forks and knives, and meanwhile Bernice tells her, “I came home last night and my first thought was: since when did Toni dye her hair blonde?” She laughs and Toni blushes in embarrassment, ducking her head. “Don’t worry, I think you two are very sweet together. It was actually my idea to invite her over in the first place, and when I mentioned it to Martha she got all ecstatic and messaged her right away.”

“Wait, you guys planned this all out?” Toni asks in bewilderment, eyes wide; she’s definitely more awake now.

Bernice frowns in confusion. “Did you not know she was invited? I thought she would’ve told you.” Toni blinks once, then twice. “Well, that’s so cute that she wanted to surprise you. She’s very different from your past girlfriends but you know, I think that’s a good thing; you need someone as bright and cheerful as her.”

There’s a lot to take in, so Toni just stutters out, “She’s, uh, she’s not my g—”

“Mornin’!” a bright and cheerful Texan accent comes from up the stairs, and it’s embarrassing how quickly Toni’s head snaps in that direction, a wide smile on her face (something which she never has on in the mornings). “Somethin’ smells real good, Mrs Blackburn, you need some help?”

“No thank you dear, just take a seat, it’ll be ready in a minute.”

The sounds of a sizzling pan and a spatula on its surface fade into the background when Shelby turns to Toni and skips towards her. She’s wearing her own sweatshirt now, which is disappointing, plus some leggings and boot slippers with stars all over them, because cold feet is a no.

“Good mornin’ lover,” she murmurs against the side of Toni’s head as she briefly presses her lips to it. “Did ya sleep well?”

Toni grins at her. “Yeah, you?”

“Sure did.”

“I’ve never heard you be this yeehaw before,” she points out as they both took a seat at the table, referring to the thickness of her accent and how she’s doubled down on the Southern charm (that Toni has to admit is actually quite charming), which earns her a puzzled look from Shelby.

“Yeehaw is not an adjective, Toni. I thought your vocabulary was more… how’d you put it last time? Extensive?”

It’s a dig at what she had told Shelby on one of their first times hanging out, and it’s honestly a surprise that Shelby still remembers it—and even though it’s meant to be a joke there’s a fond look in those golden green eyes that makes Toni smile at her in a dumb, love struck way, because as if she couldn’t be more gone for this girl, now she has to go and remember little details and all that cute attentive stuff that makes Toni’s heart flip.

“Actually, was it extensive or expansive? I can’t remember.”

Toni’s about to say something stupid, like “it was extensive” or “I’m in love with you”, but then Bernice is serving them their eggs on toast and asking Shelby about how college is going and Shelby’s lapping it all up, excitedly answering everything in extensive detail.

“My roommate, Leah, she’s just the best!” Shelby tells her after swallowing a bite of buttered toast. “She’s very smart and reads a lot, and she’s also datin’ Toni’s roommate which is how we became so close.”

“Yes, well, I can’t pretend Toni hasn’t told me all about you and your, uh… friendship.” Bernice gives them both a smile; Toni blushes and looks away, but Shelby keeps her eyes trained on the older woman.

“All good things, I hope?” she says, and that has everyone laughing.

There’s a real sincerity in her voice when Mrs B says, “Oh, definitely. I don’t think Toni could say a bad word about you even if she tried.” And if Toni had been less shy, she would've looked up to see the adoration filling Shelby’s expression.

When the meal is over, Shelby insists she help with the dishes, but Bernice points a foam covered spatula at her face and tells her to go upstairs and hang out with Toni because she’ll be damned if a guest does any work. So Shelby eventually gives in—there’s no saying no to Mrs Blackburn and her spatula—and skips upstairs with Toni in tow. Once the bedroom door is shut behind them, Toni stares at her and blinks once, then twice, then asks, “How long did you have this planned?”

Shelby bites back a smile. “Well, Martha invited me a while ago and I said I’d think about it. I wasn’t even plannin’ on followin’ through but then she messaged me again and, well, I had to say yes.”

Someone wants to spend Christmas with me, Toni’s mind chants, someone wants to spend Christmas with me, someone wants to—

“Toni?” A hand waves in front of her face, snapping her out of it, and Toni blinks again, because she doesn’t know what else to do or say.

So she hugs Shelby.

And she never wants to let go.

The tour around Toni’s room is brief; there isn’t much stuff of hers around, just some clothes dotted here and there and a few old basketball trophies from middle and high school on top of the dresser, along with a framed photo of her and Martha from when they were around nine. They have matching braids in the photos, and mini Toni is wearing a red and black striped t-shirt with jeans, something which she tells Shelby was basically her uniform until she discovered what solid colours are at the beginning of high school. Every joke and remark makes Shelby smile or giggle and it’s the nicest thing in the world; the Blackburn’s house had always felt like home but it feels infinitely more so when Shelby is there.

Somehow they make it onto the bed at some point, initially just to chill out and chat, but then Shelby or Toni—or maybe both—lean in and they stay there like that, lazily making out, hands gently moving along each other’s bodies and occasionally slipping beneath fabric. Toni’s leg ends up between Shelby’s but it all stays soft and chaste, even when Toni swipes her tongue like that or Shelby’s fingertips brush against her ribcage. The whole time Toni feels like her body might catch fire at any second, and judging by the little whimpers and quiet moans Shelby lets out, she feels the same too.

Reluctantly, they pull apart when Mrs B calls from downstairs, telling them she’s going to drive to the hospital and that Shelby should come too to meet Martha, and Toni isn’t even offended by how quickly Shelby rolls off the bed and rummages through her suitcase to get changed. She keeps her back turned to her dutifully as to give her some privacy, but then Shelby steps behind her, lips hovering over the shell of her ear, and whispers, “You don’t have to look away anymore, lover.” She nips at her earlobe, sending a shiver down Toni’s spine. “You never did.”

===

Shelby and Martha talk like they’re childhood best friends. If it wasn’t for Shelby’s extremely excited exclamation of “It’s so great to finally meet you!” then nobody would’ve assumed that these girls have never seen each other in real life up until this moment. 

And Shelby’s brought cookies. Homemade cookies she made right before her flight.

Toni is just a little bit overwhelmed, and very much enamoured.

The three of them play Uno until they get bored; Martha wins most of the games, Shelby coming in at a close second, and usually Toni is a bit of a sore loser but she can’t complain when the reason she lost was because she was too in awe of Shelby and her unconditional kindness, and the way she got along with her sister so well that things just seemed too good to be true. But what Toni doesn’t know, is that Shelby is slowly but surely teaching her that sometimes, when things seem “too” good, it doesn’t mean that they’re not real.

Martha has a physio appointment, the type where she has to carry out a bunch of different light exercises to test how her motor functions are coming along, and Shelby bats her eyelids and pleads enough with the doctor to let her and Toni in even though they’re not technically family. So, thanks to her, they spend an hour playing catch with some beanbags and watching as Toni tries and fails to balance herself on an exercise ball, despite Martha being able to do it perfectly even despite her limitations. 

“I’m a basketball pro, okay? Not a… big grey round ball pro.”

“Every ball is round, Toni.”

“Shush, Marty. Footballs aren’t.”

“Does that technically even count as a ball then?”

Even the doctor cracks a smile, telling them and Marty’s mom that Martha is making exceptional progress and might even be cleared to go home for Christmas. 

The next day, on Christmas Eve eve, Toni sprints down hospital corridors and out the door, pushing a giggling Martha along with her on a wheelchair. Shelby trudges behind them, lugging the hospital bag with the help of Bernice who thoroughly scolds Toni for making a guest carry things, but Shelby explains that she insisted with Toni to carry it anyway—which is true—because she feels bad that she isn’t helping when the Blackburns have been so kind as to let her into her home. Bernice understands that okay yes, this is something Shelby needs to do because of ingrained southern hospitality and all that, so she makes a compromise: Shelby gets to help out with preparing the dinner for Christmas Day, but apart from that she is not allowed to help. “Not even the dishes,” she tells her.

“But—”

“Not even the dishes, Shelby.”

===

With the pair of crutches the hospital provided, the first thing Martha decides to do when they arrive back home is to show Shelby the animals. Toni gives them some space, choosing to go upstairs and shower and change. 

Just a few hours later, after dinner time, she finds herself alone with Shelby again under the covers. Last night they were too tired to barely even talk, just moved around in each other’s silence comfortably. They’d fallen asleep side by side, arms pressed together, hands intertwined. Tonight, though, both of them are slightly more energised, and so Toni finds herself lying down in between Shelby’s legs with her back pressed to her front and head on her chest as they talk. Shelby kisses the crown of her head, because that’s a thing they can both do now, and Toni tries and fails to hide the way she completely melts into her.

“Toni?” Shelby says softly, in the sweetest voice the girl above her has ever heard.

Toni shifts so that she’s propped up on her elbow her side. “Yeah?”

“You know if at any point you feel uncomfortable with how things are progressin’ just say the word and we can slow it right down, okay?”

She shivers—whether from the way Shelby is gently rubbing her arm or the kindness in her voice, she doesn’t know. “Yeah, I know you’ve sort of taken the lead here with the pacing which is—which is what I want, I want you to do that, but… the same goes for you.” Toni starts to ramble a little as she continues, “Just because we’re progressing things doesn’t mean you, like… owe me anything. Nothing’s expected of you.”

Toni watches as Shelby gulps, green eyes never straying from brown, and notices the way she curls her lips inwards. “I’ve never, um, been with a girl before,” she virtually whispers. “I’ve kissed a few, but it… it ended really badly once.”

“You can talk about if you like,” Toni says quietly, but Shelby tells her maybe later, so she nods in understanding and lets her continue.

“I had this one boyfriend in high school, Andrew. He wasn’t the worst, although he used to try to grope me and he cheated all the time… so okay, yeah, maybe he was the worst. I thought that I didn’t enjoy kissin’ him and whatever because we weren’t married, I was always real big on savin’ myself for marriage and all that, but then I realised that there had to be a reason why he never gave me butterflies but brushin’ my hand against Lucy’s from math class did. Then in the summer before college there were a few girls who were camp counsellors with me who I just wanted to shake and tell them to be who they wanted to but we only made out once or twice, maybe, just because it was convenient. Basically, what I’m tryna say is that I’ve never… I don’t know how to do this properly. But I want to, I want everythin’ with you, Toni—I want it so bad that I don’t know what to do with myself. And you’re perfect, you really are, but this is still all very new for me, so I’m sorry if- if at times I’m goin’ too slow or too fast or anythin’ like that.”

“No, Shelby.” Toni reaches out to take her hand. “I want everything with you too. Any pace is good with me, I swear; to be honest, I was originally the one tryna put the brakes on things. I was terrified that I’d mess things up between us by making a move, but fuck did I want to.”

Shelby smirks at her, teasingly asking, “Are you sayin’ you had a crush on me?”

Flustered, Toni rushes out, “I, um… well—”

“I did—I do too.”

And because it’s a huge shock that nobody could see coming, Toni’s eyes widen and her jaw drops. “Wow, really?”

“Shut up.” Shelby unlocks their hands to shove her playfully, giggling in a way that makes the corners of her eyes crinkle and Toni’s heart summersault. “It’s been pretty freakin’ obvious to everyone except you that I’ve had a crush on you since day one.”

Toni’s impossibly more flustered now. “Listen, I wasn’t… I didn’t exactly expect to be your type.”

“Don’t worry,” she says, trailing a finger along her chest, “I can assure you that you’re very much my type.”

Like a switch has been flipped, the energy in the room suddenly changes; Shelby grabs a fistful of Toni’s shirt, tugs her closer so that their foreheads are touching, and lets her hand trail down Toni’s front. Her index finger slips under the gym shorts that she wears to bed, hooking itself over Toni’s briefs—and god if Toni isn’t already ridiculously horny from this. Her legs begin to squirm, seeking some sort of friction and—

The elastic band snaps hard against her abdomen, making Toni yelp in surprise.

“Goodnight, Toni,” Shelby whispers in feigned innocence, but the smirk on her face is anything but. 

“I’m gonna get you back for that,” Toni grumbles, flipping the light switch before flopping down onto the pillows.

Shelby cuddles right up to her, and Toni planned to stay as stiff as a board in revenge, but she can feel Shelby exhale through her nose against the skin of her neck and her hand is tugging Toni’s arm towards her so the plan goes out of the window one second later; Toni holds her against her side, smiling at the content sigh that escapes Shelby’s lips.

And she almost says it to her. Almost. But, by the time she’s worked up the courage, she notices the way that Shelby’s breathing pattern has evened into that slow rhythm of sleep. 

Tomorrow, Toni promises herself. She’s going to tell her tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Toni does not say it tomorrow. 

She wakes up to a warm smile, a kiss on the cheek, and a, “Ah, finally, I was waitin’ for you to wake up so I could go downstairs. Somethin’ about you wantin’ to see my—and I quote—irritatingly pretty face when you wake up. Merry Christmas Eve, I’ll see you in the kitchen!”

She stares up at the ceiling, blinking through her tired daze, and raises her fingertips to the spot on her cheek that met Shelby’s lips. It doesn’t feel real.

When she goes downstairs, Shelby is in some red flannel pyjamas and making pancakes for breakfast for the two of them. Martha is at a mandatory physio appointment and Bernice is at work, so they’ve got the house to themselves all morning. 

And boy does Shelby plan on taking advantage of that.

“Hey lover,” she says, grinning up at Toni, whose eyes are scrunched up in a scowl at how annoyingly bright everything looks in the morning. “Sit yourself down, I’ll serve you in just one minute.”

Toni has just about enough energy to grumble a good morning, and Shelby’s well aware of how much Toni is not a morning so she’s not offended in the slightest—instead she makes her a cup of warm caffeinated tea and in return gets a smile that’s warmer than the mug that she gives her.

There’s a moment where one of the dogs stands on its hind legs, its little paws on Shelby’s side as it tries to greet her, and she laughs and scratches its head before sliding the last pancake out of the pan and onto the plate that’s already stacked with a pile of them. Toni gazes at her, wondering if this is what it will be like a few years down the line, when her and Shelby have their own little place together, living happily, a gemstone on each of their ring fingers, maybe with their own dog and a—

Wait, what?!

Toni shakes her head, trying to snap herself out of the fantasy, but when Shelby lays out the breakfast on the table and gives the top of her head a kiss when she passes by, Toni realised that maybe it’s not too naive or unrealistic to think that the fantasy might eventually become her future. Their future: hers and Shelby’s.

She’s kind of screwed when Shelby asks, “What’cha thinkin’ about?”

“Um…” Toni fumbles around for an answer, panicking over if she should tell her the truth or a lie, but eventually settles on the half-truth of: “You.”

Shelby rolls her eyes. “Alright, smooth talker.”

Breakfast is quickly finished and cleared away. Shelby scrubs at the dishes rather hastily, seemingly trying to get it all done as quickly as humanly possible. Toni’s about to ask her if there’s something up when Shelby puts down the final plate and grabs her by the waist.

“Bed,” she whispers hoarsely. “Now.”

Oh. Toni gulps. “Okay.”

The two of them rush up the stairs, and the second they enter Toni’s bedroom, Shelby is shoving her backwards onto the bed, straddling her because yeah, that’s a thing they can do to each other now—it’s a thing they could’ve been doing for a really long time if either of them had been a little less useless, but we digress—and her mouth wastes no time in attaching itself to Toni’s neck as her hands find the hem of her shirt and take it off in a swift motion. 

Toni’s not wearing a bra underneath, and even though Shelby should’ve logically known this because who sleeps with a bra on, the primitive part of her brain makes her eyes go wide and her pupils blow. Shelby takes off her own top, leaving her in nothing from the waist up too, and Toni can’t do anything but stare because fuck. It inflates Shelby’s ego a little; she knows she’s good looking but she feels it on another level beneath Toni’s gaze, especially when she whispers, “You’re so fucking perfect.”

Shelby’s index traces down the middle of Toni’s abs. “You’re one to talk.” Her hands slide up Toni’s sides and onto her chest, grasping both of her breasts firmly to massage them. She experiments for a minute, finding that swiping her thumb over her nipples elicits a certain noise from Toni’s throat that shoots straight beneath her legs. 

Toni curls her hand around Shelby’s back to pull Shelby towards her so that their chests are pressed together. 

“Oh,” Shelby sighs, “that, uh, that feels good.”

“Yeah?” Toni nips at her earlobe. “I wanna make you feel good.”

They’ve never had a discussion about when or when or how they’re going to do that, Toni figured it would all just happen naturally when they both felt it was right, but she knows this could probably be a big deal to Shelby because she’s never gone all the way before, so she goes to ask, “Shelby, can I—”

“You can do anythin’ you want,” she replies airily. “I want you to do everythin’ you want to me.”

The heat between Toni’s legs grows impossibly stronger. “Are you sure?”

Shelby presses their lips together briefly, then pauses. “I’m sure.” 

Toni kisses just beneath her ear, then along her jaw, then begins to suck on a spot on the side of Shelby’s neck—one that has her squirming above her, whining into her shoulder—before soothing it with her tongue. She repeats the sequence a few times, and with each one Shelby gets louder and louder and her hands get rougher in pulling Toni impossibly closer.

Shelby’s hips find a rhythm on her thigh, but Toni reaches out and stops her, hooking her fingers over the waistband of her trousers and whispering, “Take these off.”

Shelby’s immediately removing them before repositioning herself back onto Toni’s thigh. Her hand finds Toni’s crotch over the boxers she wore to bed last night and she begins to slowly—torturously—move her fingers up and down.

“Can you, um—” Shelby says, a hint of shyness in her voice. “Can you talk? Like, uh, say… things.”

Leaning back so that she can face Shelby properly, Toni smirks at her and says, “Are you asking me to talk dirty?”

She expects a small laugh, maybe, or an eye roll, or maybe a playful shove, but Shelby looks her dead in the eye and says, “Please,” in a voice so low and so hoarse that Toni becomes dizzy.

“Um, fuck,” she sighs as Shelby’s hips begin to rock back and forth, trying to find something to say when oh, she feels it: there’s a streak of wetness on her thigh now, and Shelby’s underwear is visibly soaked through already. “God, Shelby, you’re so wet already.”

Green becomes hidden as Shelby screws her eyelids shut in concentration. “Mhmm.” 

“You feel so fucking good, baby. You like this, don’t you, getting yourself off on my thigh?”

Shelby nods, moving her hand harder against Toni—and maybe it’s on purpose or maybe it’s totally by accident but she presses a finger right up against Toni’s clit, and the sound that leaves her mouth is unholy.

“You’ve no idea what you do to me,” she whispers, but Shelby seems to disagree because her free hand grabs one of Toni’s and shoves it against herself, so that Toni can feel the warmth between her legs even through the fabric of her underwear.

“If it’s anythin’ like this,” Shelby says breathily, “then I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

Toni swallows back a moan and kisses her roughly, her hands sliding up Shelby’s sides and onto her chest. She knows Shelby can be confident but she has never been this forward, and bossy Shelby who knows what she wants and gets it kind of does something to her (kind of is an understatement), and makes her want—no, need—Shelby to just take her there and then.

“Can I take these off?” Shelby asks in a voice that is so sweet that Toni gets whiplash because how does this girl have the ability to be so sexy yet so endearing at the same time.

“Yes, Shelby, please I’m—”

The sound of the front door opening downstairs makes both of them jolt backwards, startled. They hear the sounds of Martha and Bernice talking as they freeze in place. 

Then the stairs begin to creak.

Practically leaping off of Toni’s lap, Shelby scrambles around for her clothes as Toni dives to the floor to do the same. Toni’s half into her sweatshirt when there’s a knock on the door.

“Girls, are you decent?” calls Mrs Blackburn.

“Just getting changed, Mrs B,” Toni replies in as normal a voice as possible, but it still comes out slightly pitchy.

“Okay,” she says from the other side of the door. “Martha and I are going to the mall if you want to join?”

“We’ll be right there!”

The sound of footsteps dissipates down the hallway, and the two girls just stand there, totally paralysed, until Shelby catches Toni’s eye and Toni begins to snigger and Shelby’s giggling and then they’re having a full-on laughing fit, shoulders shaking and Toni clapping her hands once in front of her face.

“Lord, Toni,” Shelby sighs with a smile. “Let’s carry this on later?”

Toni gulps as she nods; Shelby kisses her cheek and goes to fetch actual clothes for the outdoors, and Toni just stares at her with a dumb, lovestruck grin on her face. 

So, between the hours spent in the shopping mall being dragged around from shop to shop by her sister and best-friend-slash-sometimes-roommate-slash-crush-slash-lover, and then dinner and then a trashy movie afterwards, they’re all pretty tired and crash the second their heads hit the pillow, meaning that no, Toni does not say it that day—but between the “are you sure?” and the way she rested her palm on Shelby’s back as they walked along a dress store, there was no doubt that Toni showed her.

===

Toni does not say it the next day, either; it’s Christmas Day, it’s pretty heavy already and there’s a gift exchange and dinner and everything, so the two of them don’t even get much time alone, if any. Martha’s older sisters are spending the night and Mr Blackburn has a rare day off work, so there’s noise and chatter and everyone’s quizzing Shelby about California and how she knows Toni, and Shelby is so excited because as much as she loves meeting new people, nothing beats meeting people who are important to Toni. 

Toni is assigned the role of running around and passing ingredients to Shelby and the Blackburns as they cook, because Toni herself has as much experience with a potato peeler as Shelby has with basketball (aka none). Martha sits up on a stool and does some culinary thing or another, Toni’s not really sure what because she has no idea what goes into making the vegetarian ham that Martha is eating as an alternative, so she just sort of watches on as she chops a carrot here and there.

In a spare moment, Shelby teaches her how to fold up the cloth napkins into the shape of a flower—something which she used to do with her mom every Christmas. There’s a saddened expression in her face as she tells her that, so Toni places a steady hand over Shelby’s shaky ones and says to her quietly, “You have a family, still,” and motions her head towards where Martha and Bernice are laughing beside the fridge. Maybe it’s still a little bit early to insinuate anything like that, but there’s a feeling somewhere deep inside of her that Shelby isn’t a temporary fixture in the Blackburn household, so the words don’t scare her as much as they should. And Shelby’s smile, her damned smile that could melt all the snow in the entire state of Minnesota, tells Toni that there is no reason to be scared.

Dinner goes by smoothly, as do all the gift exchanges. Shelby made a point to get everyone a card and a small present (aka magnets shaped like California), but Martha, Bernice and Toni get slightly nicer things. As everyone chats amongst themselves, Shelby takes the opportunity to turn towards Toni, with whom she’s sharing an armchair with, and give her the present she got for her. It takes her a moment because she’s caught up in staring at her face underneath the warm yellow light from the ceiling lamp, watching how the flames from the fireplace flicker behind her eyes. Eventually she snaps out of it and hands her two oddly shaped, neatly wrapped gifts.

“Merry Christmas,” she says, smiling widely and so warmly that Toni melts.

“Thank you,” Toni returns quietly. “Here’s, uh, here’s your stuff.”

There’s three small, horribly wrapped mismatched shapes, but Shelby immediately knows it’s going to beat every single present she’s ever received, even the huge swing set she received aged seven that she used to play on every single year until high school started.

Both unwrap their respective items at the same time, and both are equally as delighted. Shelby receives a pair of fuzzy bed socks patterned with little rainbows, a multicoloured (several stripes of grey and brown) rock that’s kind of shaped like a heart (“I found it on a walk the other day and thought of you,” Toni tells her, like she’s not always thinking about her), and a bracelet with two charms on it: a shell, and a bee. “Get it?” she says. “Shell, bee. Shelby.”

Toni worries that the presents might be a little cheap and stupid, but they’re all so Shelby, and the Texan seems to think so too; it takes everything in Shelby to not lean in and kiss her senseless. “This is the best present ever,” she whispers, although it’s not entirely true; she just feels like saying “actually, the best gift is getting to spend this time with you”, is a bit cliché, even if it’s entirely true. 

Toni’s two items are related, actually. “I thought I’d get you somethin’ useful,” Shelby explains, watching Toni carefully unwrap the first one. “I know your hair routine is like, sacred, so maybe this would make it easier for you?”

There’s a corner shower shelf that you can easily attach and detach to the corner of a shower cubicle, and on it are some serums and oils and things that are specialised to take care of curly hair. The accompanying gift is a micro fibre towel, (“I read that they’re the best for curly hair,” Shelby tells her), and maybe Shelby doesn’t think that her gift is anything but practical—but Toni thinks that it is, it’s meaningful because it shows that Shelby listens to every little thing and remembers what’s important to her, and it’s so fucking cute and thoughtful that Toni doesn’t stop beaming.

“I love you,” she almost says.

===

Does she say it the next day? Almost.

“Toni,” Shelby groans, tapping her foot as Toni takes her time to sit up (she was about to have a nap, but was disturbed when Shelby gasped at all the snowflakes falling). “I wanna go in the snow, c’mon.”

Toni looks her up and down from where she’s sat on the bed—still in pyjamas—noticing the thin puffer jacket and ripped jeans, then says, “No way are you going out in that, you’ll freeze to death.”

So Shelby finds herself wrapped up in one of Toni’s old winter jackets, her own pink knit hat sat atop her head with a little silver pompom on top. She looks stupidly adorable; Toni doesn’t want to go out into the snow anymore, instead she’d like to be wrapped up in Shelby’s arms and never be let go of (when does she not want that), but she knows how badly Shelby wants to go out, so they both find themselves in a huge empty field right by the house.

Shelby really tries to build a snowman; she makes a little snowball and begins to roll it but keeps tripping over herself, unable to trudge through the snow properly. So Toni shows her how to make one properly—over a decade in Minnesota has made her kind of a pro at snow related activities—and Shelby does pay attention, just not to what Toni’s doing. It’s not like she’s doing it on purpose; Toni has a very nice face and a very, very distracting low voice.

Their snowman (read: Toni’s; Shelby just fetches the sticks for the arms and helps smooth out the snow) stands almost as tall as Toni herself, and Shelby insists that they do this properly and so wraps her scarf around its neck and places her hat atop its head. “Do you think if I put my gloves on the sticks that they’d hold?” she asks, but Toni shakes her head.

“Nah, probably not. It’s fine, I don’t think it can feel cold in its fingertips or anything.”

Shelby lets out a puff of air as a laugh, and it forms a small wisp in front of her. “What should we call it?”

Toni shoves her own gloved hands into her pockets and rocks back and forth on her heels, creating a satisfying crunching noise beneath her feet on the snow. “He’s kinda giving me Derek vibes.”

“Derek?” Shelby laughs. “Where’d you get that from?”

“Like that brain surgery dude in Grey’s Anatomy.”

Shelby’s mouth falls open. “No way do you watch Grey’s Anatomy.”

Rolling her eyes, Toni admits, “One episode, okay? Marty’s, like, obsessed.”

Sure. Sure thing.”

The sun begins to set so they decide to walk back home, and as they do, snow starts to fall from the sky. Shelby huddles closer to Toni for warmth, and the brunette rests her head on her shoulder. It’s comfortable. 

“I’m regrettin’ the fact that I put my scarf and hat on Derek,” Shelby tells her as they walk together, “it’s all cold and snow-covered now.”

Instinctively, Toni wraps an arm around her for warmth. “Better?”

Shelby smiles warmly at her. “Yeah,” she says, kissing the side of her head. “Way better.”

And there’s that almost: the moment where Toni thinks she’s about to say it but then her tongue gets tied in knots and nothing comes out, nothing but a smile—and though she may not be saying it, she’s showing it in the way she rubs her hand up and down Shelby’s arm for friction, in the way she presses a kiss to her shoulder through the thick winter jacket. It’s in the way she interlocks their hands; it’s in the content sigh that escapes her lips when Shelby rests the side of her head on hers; it’s in the way Toni looks at her as if she’s the only thing worth looking at, because she is the only one worth looking at.

===

Back at the Blackburn’s, Martha suggests they do Secret Santa, even though Christmas is technically over already.

“Marty, there’s four of us,” Toni tells her.

“It’s a little late but we could do it with all the Cali girls?” Shelby suggests, and she’s answered twice at the same time:

“Sorry, the what girls?”

“That’s a great idea, Shelby! I’ve always wanted to get to know more of Toni’s college friends.”

And that’s how Martha’s added to the group chat. She’s met with a barrage of welcomes along with questions such as: “what’s your favourite book?” (Leah), “how’s your love life?” (Fatin), “do you play any sports?” (Rachel), and “did you know that bees can sting each other?” (Nora). She answers them all gleefully, typing away to each of them and saving all their numbers so that she can add an emoji next to everyone’s names. 

Nora suggests they use a website that can email everyone a different name for Secret Santa, and maybe it’s a little strange that it’s so late and they have such a long deadline that the gifts are due at the end of January, but nobody cares; they’re happy, they all are. 

===

It’s in the shower on the day before New Year’s Eve that Toni decides she’s finally going to say it.

The house is finally quiet after a busy day of doing next to nothing except hanging out as a trio in the snow all day; Martha had decided sledding despite being unable to walk unassisted more than a couple of steps was a great idea, so the pair had spent all day dragging Martha up the hill before hurtling down it at breakneck speeds. Shelby had never been sledding before, so on her first go down the hill, Toni was sat behind her on the little blue plastic sled, holding onto her tightly as they plummeted down the steep hill. (Shelby’s laugh, Toni decides, is a sound she would kill for, if she had to). It was fun, but it was tiring, and Toni finds herself missing the warm water the second she steps out of it.

There’s a towel waiting for her on the radiator, something Shelby did for her, and when Toni envelops herself in the warmth she feels relaxed and very much in love. 

This is it, she thinks. This is finally it.

She tiptoes across the dark hall, the only thing covering her body being the towel she’s wrapped in, and begins to mentally prepare herself almost like she’s hyping herself up for a game.

‘Say it’, she thinks as she approaches the door. 

She turns the handle. ‘Say it.’

The door opens. ‘Say it.

The door shuts. ‘Say it.

Shelby is laying on the bed, back propped up against some pillows, and smiles up at her in a way that makes Toni’s knees buckle.

Say it say it say it say it say it say it say it say it—’

“I love you,” Shelby says.

The towel drops to the floor.

“Damn it!”

Over the nervous pounding in her ears, Toni hears Shelby giggle as she rushes to pick up the towel. 

“If it was this easy to get you naked I would’ve done it a long time ago,” Shelby teases, a playful smile on her face, and Toni huffs in embarrassment. 

“I—” she stutters. “I was literally just—”

The words don’t come out, because of course they don’t, and Toni’s left a speechless, towelled mess while Shelby looks at her with raised eyebrows and kind eyes, watching as beads of water drip from Toni’s wet hair and onto the towel. Toni has her mouth slightly parted, and there’s a light in her own puzzled eyes that can only be described as completely and utterly enchanted.

She doesn’t know why Shelby loves her. And yet somehow—maybe because of how she says it, so meaningfully and so adoringly, or maybe because of how she never stops showing it—Toni believes her.

They’re not words Toni gives out lightly; almost everyone’s she’s given them to has left her. Saying them involves vulnerability—something Toni avoids at all costs, because life taught her that she’ll just tear open her own wounds by letting herself be open. But she wants to give Shelby everything she has and ever could have, and so with her wet hair framing her face and water droplets on her skin, Toni says it.

“I love you, Shelby.”

Chapter Text

Toni sleeps the best she ever has that night.

She falls peacefully asleep to Shelby holding her close and stroking her hair, running her hand up and down her back soothingly, murmuring sweet nothings into her ear, and when she wakes up, Shelby is still there, holding her just as tightly, loving her just as deeply, and Toni is even more gone for her—if that’s even possible.

“Morning,” Toni mumbles into the skin of her neck.

“Hey there,” Shelby whispers back. “You sleep well?” The smaller girl grunts affirmatively in response, making Shelby smile into the crown of her head. “Good.”

Toni grunts again and it kind of sounds like, “You?”

“I always sleep well when I’m with you, princess,” she says, and Toni’s heart completely melts at that.

“I thought I was distractin’,” Toni grumbles. The last word was meant to have been said in a Texan accent, but she is still pretty terrible at impersonating Shelby no matter how much she tries, so she sounds a little silly, which makes Shelby laugh—and that’s fine by Toni because honestly her order of priorities are: one, make Shelby laugh; two, nail a Texan accent, not the other way around.

“You’re distractin’ before we go to sleep.”

Toni furrows her eyebrows. “How?”

“You stand there lookin’ all pretty which makes my heart race and then I can’t go to sleep ‘cause all my mind can think about is how bad I wanna kiss you.”

Oh. “Oh.”

Shelby giggles. “Yeah.” She pulls her in closer, and Toni hugs her tightly, burrowing her face into her neck.

“Guess I’ll stop looking so good so we can sleep together more often,” she murmurs against her skin.

“No, I’d rather stay awake and look at you forever.”

It’s a good thing that Shelby can’t see her face right now, because Toni’s entire face has turned a deep shade of pink. And because Toni is such a skilled, smooth flirt, she says, “Babe, I don’t want you to die of exhaustion.”

Sighing, the blonde rolls her eyes. “C’mon, let’s get some breakfast,” she says, but before she can even sit up she’s being pulled back down into Toni’s arms.

“No,” she whines, “you need to sleep more cause I kept you up all night looking all pretty and shit.”

“M’kay, if you say so.”

So they stayed like that for god knows how long, and Toni basked in it: the sound of Shelby’s heartbeat beneath her ear and her quiet breathing, the long slender fingers running through her hair. Neither of them slept, they just lay there in each other’s company, allowing time to glide by—until Toni’s stomach makes a loud growling noise and they both surrender to their hunger and skip downstairs for breakfast.

===

They spend New Year’s together with the Blackburns, just hanging out and talking and eating and drinking, and when they kiss at midnight it all feels so right and so perfect that Toni can’t believe that this is real: she’s really in her hometown with the girl of her dreams celebrating the new year, and for the first time in her life she feels like maybe, just maybe, this something good isn’t going to end anytime soon.

It turns out that Shelby has booked her flight back to LA a day before Toni, which is annoying and upsetting—but also it’s less than 24 hours so they’ll be fine. They still help each other pack; Toni is horrible at folding clothes because she’s so used to not having drawers/closets to put things away in and she’s never owned a suitcase in her life, so Shelby takes her through it step-by-step. 

“Bernice taught me this right before I went to college but I forgot everything,” Toni mentions as she successfully folds up a flannel shirt.

“That’s alright, my mom taught me how to cook all through my childhood but a year out of practice and I’ve forgotten how long you should leave soup in the microwave for,” Shelby says with a laugh that’s half amused, half sad, and Toni reaches over to hold her arm comfortingly.

“You should see my cooking skills,” Toni jests, “I make killer buttered toast. Gordon Ramsay has nothing on me.”

That makes Shelby laugh, and it’s all Toni wants to hear.

“For real, though? I make really good pasta—and I’m not just talking, like, your basic spaghetti and tomato sauce. Anytime I try to put anything in pasta it just works, I don’t even know how it happens, but ask Marty and Mrs B and they’ll tell you I should own my own Italian restaurant or something. Pretty sure I was born with a natural talent for making pasta dishes.” 

Shelby laughs again, but then there’s a moment where, all of a sudden, her face and demeanour turns serious as she turns to Toni and says, “It’s a good thing we’ve got each other then, right?”, then lightens up again as she continues, “I mean, uh, I can teach you how to fold clothes and you can help me… boil pasta.”

Flashing her a grin, Toni turns to her. “Guess we’re made for each other, then.”

She says it so casually and yeah, it’s too early—way too early—to be thinking about the concept of soulmates, but Toni keeps noticing all these little things that prove her statement, from making pasta versus folding clothes right down to the fact that they’ve got matching moles on the left side of their hips (which is probably just a coincidence, but still). She writes it off to the fact that she’s got an overactive imagination, but things like this really make her think that if this works, then maybe the universe is bigger than it seems.

Shelby steps right up to her and presses a soft kiss to her lips, and the way they slot together so perfectly like two pieces of the same puzzle only proves Toni’s point even more. 

“I guess we are, lover.”

===

That night is their last together in Minnesota (for now), and Toni wants to take full advantage of it, with Shelby, in bed. She even considers buying some flower petals to put on the bed—just for a split second, she’s down bad but not that bad, plus it seems too cliché and too much like a romcom, and also very not them; yeah, both Shelby and her are hopeless romantics at heart, Shelby more explicitly than Toni, but it’s not to the level of a 2000’s Hallmark Christmas special. But Martha wants to take full advantage of it too, so she takes them both to the cinema and then shopping. 

Shelby and Toni hold hands throughout the whole movie, obviously, and only pay attention to each other, obviously, and Martha remains completely oblivious for the whole movie, gladly stealing popcorn from a distracted Toni’s lap.

They’re all pretty tired when they get home, and so after a delicious home cooked meal from Bernice, Martha retreats upstairs on her crutches (she’s no longer in pain, thankfully, she’s just not allowed to put weight on her ankle yet), and Toni trudges upstairs to the shower. When she emerges, Shelby’s sat on the edge of her bed—their bed now, technically—looking a little teary-eyed with a reddened nose and pink puffed eyelids.

“Shell, what’s wrong?” Toni immediately rushes to her side, closing the door behind her before dropping to the floor in front of her to take her hands in hers, not caring about her dripping hair and how a towel is the only thing covering her.

Shelby shakes her head. “I’m fine, really,” she says quietly, sniffing a little as a small smile forms on her face. “It’s just Mrs, um, Mrs B is just… she’s a wonderful woman, isn’t she?”

Toni smiles sadly back up at her. “Yeah, she’s the best there is.”

“She said that… she really likes me,” she tells her shyly, widening Toni’s smile. “And that I’m good for you, that she’s never seen you so happy before.”

A blush creeps over Toni’s cheeks. “Yeah, she’s not wrong.”

“She also said that, um…” Shelby trails off, letting her eyes wander away from Toni’s kind ones as she gazes aimlessly at different parts of the wall before she continues, “I’m always welcome here, and that I’ve always got somewhere to stay in Minnesota and—fuck, it’s so stupid to cry over this but I’ve never… I’ve never felt welcome anywhere before until now.”

The only thing Toni can do is climb into her lap to wrap her arms around her, and Shelby quickly reciprocates, throwing her arms around her and holding her tight. “She’s right, Shelby, and it’s not dumb to cry, this is a pretty emotional subject,” Toni says softly to her. “I get you, this was the first place I felt welcome too, y’know. You’ve got loads of places now, you’ve got here and both our dorm rooms and… well, that’s three places, but—”

“And you,” Shelby whispers, so quietly that Toni almost misses it. “Wherever you are, I feel… I don’t know, like myself? I know it sounds dumb but you’re—you’re my favourite place, Toni.”

Her breath catches in her throat and she forgets to breathe for a minute until she sighs out, “You’re mine too.”

A warm, real smile graces Shelby’s lips. “Yeah?”

And all Toni can do is lean in to kiss her stupidly beautiful grin away, but it doesn’t disappear; Shelby smiles into the kiss and pulls her closer, just to hold her for a moment because she can’t believe this is actually real: she has a home and a girl who is so unbelievably perfect for her, and Toni feels the exact same way, she can’t believe that out of all people she’s fortunate enough to have Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, loving her and being at home with her.

“I’m so lucky,” she whispers.

“And I’m so freakin’ wet right now.”

Toni’s eyes fly open in shock at the words. “What?”

“Not like that, silly!” Shelby laughs. “Your hair’s been drippin’ all over me this whole time and your towel’s all damp.”

Oh. “Oh.”

“Yeah, dumbass, now get off me so I can go shower myself.”

The smaller girl rushes off of her to let Shelby stand, cheeks totally red with embarrassment. Shelby scoops up a change of clothes and her own towel, but before she can move towards the door, she reaches out her spare hand to cup Toni’s cheek softly, leaning in to press their foreheads together. “And Toni?” 

“Yeah?”

She kisses the corner of her mouth with a touch so gentle and reverent that Toni’s knees almost buckle. “I love you.”

=== 

The goodbye at the airport the next night is bittersweet, even though Toni is seeing her in less than a day. Martha is visibly upset to part with her, and Shelby herself sheds a few tears as the two girls cling to each other and promise to call and text all the time. Shelby never stops thanking her and Bernice for their hospitality and how kind they’ve been to her, and Toni doesn’t quite hear what Bernice says back to her but from Shelby’s face, she can see that it’s something that means the entire world to the Texan.

When it’s time to say goodbye to Toni, the two kind of just stand there awkwardly, not really knowing what to say or do until Shelby holds out her hand and Toni legitimately high-fives her.

“Oh my lord, Toni, I confess that I’m deeply and madly in love with you and yet you’re still useless? Come here.” She opens her arms and Toni falls into them immediately, hugging Shelby back with a crushing strength.

“I’m gonna miss you,” she mumbles sadly into her hoodie.

“You’re comin’ home real soon, don’t worry.” Shelby squeezes her tighter. “I’ll miss you too.”

Toni very reluctantly pulls away earlier than she’d like, but it’s because an idea pops into her head: she shrugs off the jacket she’s wearing—her mom’s old jacket that’s got her earphones in the pockets as well as a paper clip, a receipt for Takis and Gatorade, and a glasses wipe (yes, Toni wears reading glasses, no she never actually puts them on)—essentially everything that Toni owns—and drapes it around Shelby’s shoulders.

“This is your mom’s jacket,” Shelby says in a quiet awe. “Are you sure?”

Toni nods. “I’m sure.”

The final boarding call for Shelby’s plane sounds over the speakers. “I—I gotta run.” She turns to the Blackburns, who are stood a good few feet away to allow them privacy. “Bye y’all! Thank you so much again!” They wave back and Shelby begins to sprint off, but it only takes a second for her to skid to a stop and run back, crashing into Toni’s arms. “I love you, Toni,” she says breathlessly, “so so so much. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And then she’s darting off, running in that strange way she does with her arms looking like a t-rex’s while Toni’s head spins because even her fucking run makes her smile and she’s so overwhelmed and gone that she completely misses when Bernice asks when Shelby can come over again.

===

Back at home, Toni drags out an old mattress to Martha’s bedroom floor so that they can have a sleepover the way they used to when they were kids, and when Toni desperately needed a place to crash.

“I actually love Shelby,” Martha says casually at the ceiling. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend I would totally steal her from you.”

Toni shoots upright. “You have a what?” Her fists and jaw are clenched in an overly-protective-sister manner, which makes Martha laugh.

“No, no, I don’t, don’t worry,” she says giggling, making Toni sigh exasperatedly as she collapses back onto the mattress. “There is this one guy though, from the ranch? Marcus? We’ve been texting all holiday, he was so super worried about me.”

“Hmph,” Toni grunts. “How old is he?”

“Nineteen.”

“Is he a feminist?”

“Duh.”

“What’s his star sign?”

“Sagittarius.” 

Toni frowns. “I don’t actually know what that means.”

“It’s the same as Taylor Swift,” Martha explains. 

“Oh, that’s fine then. Favourite band?”

“Queen.”

“Does he treat his mom well?” 

“Super well, they’re like best friends.”

“Okay, he’s got the Toni Shalifoe stamp of approval.” Toni grins and looks up at her sister, who’s lying on her back in bed. “Aww, Marty’s got a crush,” she teases in a singsong voice.

“Oh shush, Toni.” Martha rolls her eyes. “You’re down bad on a whole other level to me.”

“Well, yeah—” Toni stutters. “But tell me more about this guy.”

“Why don’t you tell me more about Shelby?”

Toni frowns. “You literally just spent a week with her.”

“Yeah, but I mean more like about your relationship. Have you had sex?”

She gasps at Martha’s forwardness. “You can’t—no! I’m not answering that,” she tells her firmly, crossing her arms.

“Oh, good, I was worried about the headboard on the bed.”

“Martha Blackburn!”

They break out into fits of giggles, and that’s how they stay the whole night, laughing and sharing jokes and reminiscing on old stories. It’s always so comfortable with Martha, always so light and everything always feels so homely. It makes Toni feel peaceful, so peaceful that she’s about to drift off to sleep when her phone buzzes. 

Shelby: Finally touched down in LAX! Say thanks to Marty and Mrs B again from me, please!! Xxx

Shelby: Wait actually, can I call you real quick? I gotta tell you something.

Toni finds her heart racing as she glances over to the bed, where Martha is sleeping peacefully and deeply. 

Toni: gimme just one sec babe

It’s amazing how easily she types out the pet name, and how she doesn’t feel at all embarrassed by it; she knows it’ll make Shelby do that little smile where she averts her eyes from the screen because she’s blushing too much, she’s seen her do it when Toni calls her that in real life, and the thought of it is too cute for her to not call her that, even if two years ago she swore off of pet names because they’re “cringe”. (Shelby’s really turned her into a huge softie, hasn’t she?) She dashes into her own room as quietly as humanly possible, and the second the door shuts she rings Shelby, but Shelby requests to turn to video chat though, so Toni confirms and a smiling face pops up on screen.

“Hi there!” the Texan greets enthusiastically. “Look who I’m with!” The camera pans to reveal Fatin, Dot and Nora, all waving at her and saying things like, 

“Hi Shalif-hoe.” (Fatin). 

“Hey.” (Leah).

“Hello, Toni.” (Nora).

“What’s up, loser?” (Dot).

Shelby turns the phone to landscape mode so that all the girls are in shot, and Toni waves back at them. “So,” Shelby continues, “we’re on our way out of the airport to the shops, and we were wonderin’ if you think us makin’ signs for your big game on Thursday is too much? Cause if not, we’re gonna have to buy markers and all that. What d’ya think?”

There’s an immediate sinking feeling in her heart. With all of the holiday celebrations and happiness from being with Shelby and the Blackburns, she had completely forgotten about how she’d breached the rules of her scholarship and is therefore no longer eligible to play as a collegiate athlete. Her heart sinks even more when it finally hits her: she’s going to have to find a new college, one away from her best friends and, worst of all, away from her favourite girl in the universe. They’d been so sad about leaving each other for just twenty-four hours, how are they supposed to part for every semester?

Toni’s chest feels so tight that she can barely breathe.

She’s going to be alone again. Everything with Shelby is going to come crumbling down.

“Toni?” Shelby’s voice snaps her out of it. “Why’d you look like you’re about to cry? Are you alright?”

It sounds distant, maybe because of the distance between the microphone and the voice or because Toni is slowly slipping out of it, but she hears Fatin say, “Girl, give me that. I haven’t told her yet, she doesn’t know.” Fatin very lovingly snatches the phone from Shelby and turns it to face her.

“Shalif-hoe! You missed my face?”

“Get to the fucking point, dipshit,” Dot, perhaps, Toni can’t really tell, says.

“Darling, you are still very much the shining star of the UCLA collegiate basketball team.”

Toni blinks. “Huh?”

“I told you, my mom was owed a favour by the head of the NCCA or or UCLA admissions or something,” she says casually.

“Actually,” Nora chimes in, “It’s the NCAA, it stands for the National Collegiate Athletic association.”

“Okay, correction, my mom was owed a favour by the head of the—”

She watches the image go blurry as the phone is snatched back into Shelby’s hands. “You’re still in, Toni!” she tells her excitedly. “You’re still a student athlete! Fatin’s mom talked to a bunch of people and it’s all sorted, we’ve all got free tickets and everythin’. We’re gonna pick you up from the airport so you can go straight to practice, so maybe sleep on the airplane? We don’t want you tired now, do we?”

Toni can hardly believe it; she’s rendered completely speechless. So she starts laughing in complete disbelief as Shelby continues casually, “Also, I was thinkin’ of goin’ all out, face paint and all. What’s your number again, three?”

Toni finds it in herself to nod.

“Great! I can do the zero in yellow and the three in blue. Wait, maybe I could do it on both cheeks, but have them swap colours, what do you think?”

Everyone’s staring at her expectantly from behind the phone screen, and Toni feels so light as if she’s floating and it’s such a stark contrast to several minutes ago to when she thought her entire life was about to come crashing down—but she’s so happy and relieved and so fucking grateful for Shelby and all of their friends, especially Fatin, that she say manages to say, “Yeah.”

“Yeah?” Shelby grins at her, and Toni can’t help but return it so widely that her cheeks ache.

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

A disorientated Toni walks along some huge airport corridor. She squints around, trying to find where Shelby and the rest of their friends are, but she can’t see them anywhere; her vision is blurry and hazy from the nap she took on the airplane and the insurmountable tiredness she still feels. She’s about to let her duffel bag drop to the floor so she can sit on a chair and call Dot to come and carry her out fireman style, but then she feels a body slam into her and a pair of arms wrap tightly around her.

“There’s my favourite girl,” someone says with a comforting southern twang.

Shelby.

Toni drops her duffel bag to the floor, not so that Dot can carry her out, but so that she can properly return the embrace. She breathes in the smell of cranberries, and though she just flew away from Minnesota, she feels like she’s just come home.

Green eyes flicker down to Toni’s lips as Shelby pulls away, but then she looks behind her to the rest of the group and decides to drag Toni over to them instead, not before picking up her bag from the floor for her because she can tell how tired she is.

The whole group crashes her into a group hug, one that Dot drags Shelby into, and slowly Toni begins to reawaken, especially when Nora—whose face is crushed into Fatin’s side—informs them that to get to the court on time, they should leave pretty soon.

Toni manages to squeeze in a quick power nap in the car, mostly thanks to the way Shelby holds her hand and traces her thumb over the back of her hand in slow, soothing circles. She’s gently shaken awake by her soft hands; when she grumbles incoherently and Shelby shoves a gatorade into her hand, drops a duffel bag onto her lap and says, “Go on, go make me proud,” she has never felt more awake.

===

Toni is like a fucking beast on the court.

Yeah, she’s a little rusty from several weeks without practice but that’s all quickly ironed out, and within the first hour she’s back to playing at her best. She steals balls effortlessly, a pro from being so short, and when she jumps and scores every time she gets the opportunity, her teammates cheer her on loudly.

The coach ends practice early—she doesn’t want her team to get tired out before their first big game—and gives them a long speech about how they’re the best and going to win and all of that, and at the end when she throws in a “nice to have you back, Shalifoe”, Toni can’t help but to beam.

After a quick shower to wash off the post-practice sweat and airplane remnants off of her, she makes her way to leave the changing room when Amelia runs up to her. “Hey, Shalifoe, you did amazing out there.”

Toni gives her a smile as they begin to walk out together. “Thanks, you too.”

A beat passes, then Amelia stops them both and says, “Y’know, I can tell that Shelby really cares about you.”

A blush covers Toni from head to toe; Amelia’s eyes are so sincere that she has to look away from them, because otherwise she might just sink into the stone below their feet.

“Yeah,” she mumbles. “She really does.”

They begin walking again, and Amelia has a bit of a step on her heel as she giddily asks, “So, you two are finally dating then? The whole team’s been placing bets, if you didn’t already know, I have a whole ten dollars riding on this.”

She can’t say she’s shocked, but Toni still fumbles for some words, which end up being: “Um, well, we’ve never been on a date.”

A pause.

“…But you have asked her out, right?”

Toni stays silent. Amelia looks at her questioningly.

“Right?”

Another pause.

“Toni!”

“I’m sorry!” Toni laughs. “I’m working on it.”

“Oh my god, Toni, you are so stupidly ridiculous.” Her teammate spots some of her friends up ahead and adjusts the duffle nat on her shoulders to get ready to walk away, but first, she adds, “Look, I’m not here to tell you how to live your life or how to deal with your relationships—but girl, I’ve never in my nineteen and a half years of living seen someone look at you the way that Shelby does. That girl loves you, you know that, she knows that, all your friends most definitely know that, so what are you waiting for?”

The blush on Toni’s cheeks grows impossibly darker. Amelia has a point, she knows that, but at the same time, their relationship started off slowly with both parties wanting to take things one day at a time—albeit sometimes that led to mixed messages and confusion on both sides to what the other girl was feeling, but considering the amount of romantic things they’ve done by now, that doesn’t really matter anymore. Even then, Toni still has that lingering instinct to take everything one day at a time, to keep everything slow and steady, and it seems to be working for now; when it feels right, she’ll ask Shelby to be her girlfriend. Officially her girlfriend, that is, because the way that they act around each other and the things they say… it’s not exactly platonic.

“I’ll do it when I’m ready,” she says, somewhat confidently.

Amelia raises a questioning eyebrow. “Promise?”

Toni sighs, rolling her eyes. “I promise.”

“Okay, good. See you tomorrow, Shalifoe!” 

And with a flash of a smile, Amelia skips away, grinning to herself. She’s seen the way Shelby waits for her after basketball practice, the way she does her homework on the bleachers instead of going home like the rest of the cheer squad, the way her eyes would never stray from the number three jersey—the whole team has. It’s only a matter of time before they make it official; she can only hope that they get their act together soon.

===

Fatin, for once in her life, decides to get ready to go to bed early in order to let Toni sleep. She crashes out pretty quickly from practice and jet lag, but not before Fatin can grill her on all the “Shoni Minnesota content, I need it.”

“Go away, Fatin,” Toni grumbles into her pillow. “Let me sleep.”

“I can’t, it’s only six. Shelby says you can’t go to sleep earlier than eight because otherwise you’ll wake up too early tomorrow, then you’ll be too tired by the evening.” 

Toni groans as Fatin plops herself down onto the basketball player’s bed. “Well? Spill, please.”

“No, fuck off.”

“Rude, I’m literally the reason you two got together.” 

Even though Fatin can’t see it, because Toni’s face is still burrowed into her pillow, she frowns. “Um, no, we literally got close by ourselves.”

“Sure, but like I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, where would you be without me and Leah hooking up?”

Toni’s head lifts a little so that her voice is clearer when she says, “Then I have Leah to thank ‘cause she was the one who let me stay in her room and is actually willing to put up with your ass.”

“Rude.” She hears Fatin huff, then feels her rise from the bed. “Fine, I’m not going to peer pressure you. If you don’t want to let your poor old roommate live vicariously through you, that’s fine. I’m fine.”

A moment of silence passes through them as Fatin shuffled around doing god knows what—dancing, maybe, Toni’s blurred mind thinks, even though in reality she’s just laying out tomorrow’s outfit on her desk chair. 

Eventually, Toni rolls over onto her side to face the wall. “Minnesota was… good.”

Fatin scoffs. “Good? C’mon girl, you can do better than that.” 

“Fine, Minnesota was fucking fantastic. Her and Marty are, like, besties already, Mrs B loves her, the whole family does—even the freaking dogs—she’s perfect and I’m in love with her and so what?”

“Sorry, could you repeat that last part?”

Maybe Toni can’t see the shit-eating grin on Fatin’s face, but she can definitely hear it. “Fuck. Off.”

“Um. No.”

Exasperated, Toni huffs. “Why. Not.” 

“I need. Dinner.”

“Get it. Then.”

“Come. With me.”

“O—kay.”

During dinner, Toni doesn't stop thanking Fatin for what her and her mom did for her, because as much as she likes to (affectionately) bully her, she truly is grateful for everything she does for her. Fatin tells her it’s really all just her mom, she’s just the one with the connection, and so Toni takes the opportunity to tell her, “Your mom is kind of a milf.”

“Ex-fucking-scuse me?”

“Yeah, I saw her on your Insta,” she says through a mouthful of pasta. “Total milf.”

“Fuck the fuck off away from my mother, fuckface.”

“Hey, it’s a compliment! I bet you’ll turn into a total milf when you’re older too, it’s in your blood.”

Fatin sighs dramatically, dropping her cutlery and looking up at the ceiling. “Please, for the sake of my poor, withering sanity, never say that ever again.”

===

It’s one minute to eight, and Toni’s about to break the no sleeping before eight rule that Shelby has set for her because she’s so damn exhausted, when—speak of the devil—her phone buzzes.

Shelby: Good luck for tomorrow baby, not that you need it!! Xxxxxxxxx

Shelby: I’m SO proud of you already. Xxx

There’s an abundance of heart and basketball emojis following her text, and Toni finds herself grinning. She’s actually grinning at stupid little emoticons on her stupid little screen because she’s got a stupid little (huge) crush (that’s an understatement) on Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all.

Toni: thank you :) <3

Shelby: (:

Shelby: I’ve got a sign and everything, look out for it in the stands! We’re sort of in the middle I think?? We’re all gonna be sat together and cheering for you!

Toni dismisses the pull of sleep as she types,

Toni: did fatin make that “i’m a shalifHOE for shalifoe” sign?

Shelby: Hahahah… maybe……. Don’t worry, I won’t let her hold it up!

Shelby: Mine says “I <3 Shalifoe” because I <3 you. It’s all glittery, see?

Attached to the message is a photo of a huge cardboard sign written in thick, blue and yellow glitter pens. There’s little stars and hearts drawn everywhere, plus a messy rendition of what looks like a stick figure shooting a hoop, but Toni isn’t completely sure. It’s so stupid and loving of Shelby to do that, and so to show that she reciprocates the sentiment, she sends Shelby a rolling eyes emoji along with “lol ur a sap”, but then she adds,

Toni: (i <3 u too)

=== 

Toni wakes up to the smell of a breakfast pretzel roll and hot chocolate, and the sound of, “Mornin’ lover! I brought you some breakfast. There’s some protein bars in here too, maybe you could have one now and the rest later to keep up your energy? I can go grab you some extra Gatorades if you’re runnin’ low, or—”

Shelby.” Through her blurred sleepy vision, she sees Shelby blush.

“Yeah?” she says in a small, shy voice. 

Toni smiles up at her, all warm and enamoured as she pulls the covers up to her chin. “Good morning.”

Somehow, Toni coaxes her into bed, insisting it’s good for player morale or whatever to be next to a pretty girl right before a game—and, well, Shelby wants Toni and her team to win, so who is she to say no? Shelby also brought her own breakfast, so the two pull plates up under their chins and eat their respective meals. 

Shelby laughs at all of Toni’s jokes, her face scrunching up in that adorable way that Toni can’t take her eyes off, and it feels so calming: she’s eating her favourite roll in peace and making her favourite girl in the world laugh, and everything is so right.

Well, it’s calming until she’s in the locker room, a bundle of nerves and all jittery after warmup. She’s just starting on the bench, but she knows coach is going to pull her in at some point towards the middle of the game, and the thought of that makes her heart pound in her chest.

“You okay?” Amelia asks her, but Toni just nods in an unsure way and wrings out her hands. “Toni, you’re fine. I get it, I was just like this on my first game, but trust me, you’ll be fine once you get out there.”

Toni still doesn’t answer, so her teammate frowns at her for several moments before saying something like, “be right back”, and rushing off. And she does come right back in a matter of minutes, which is good considering the team is due to go out very very soon, bringing a certain blonde along with her.

“Toni?” a familiar voice coos. “You okay?”

She lifts her head to meet worried green eyes, and like magic, her nerves begin to wash away. “I’m good,” she responds, voice still a little shaky. Her eyes flit over to Shelby’s painted cheeks, one with a yellow zero and a blue three, the other with a blue zero and yellow three. It makes her smile like an idiot. 

“You’re gonna do amazin’ out there,” Shelby reassured her, taking her hands. “I know you are. You’re one of the greatest players UCLA has ever seen.”

That earns a slightly nervous chuckle from Toni. “They haven’t ever seen me yet.”

“Yeah, well, they’re not gonna know what’s hit them when they do.” Shelby leans forward to press a light kiss onto her lips. “You’ve got this, yeah?”

Toni nods. “Yeah.”

“More enthusiasm, please.”

She rolls her eyes, but does what Shelby asks of her anyway. “Yeah.”

“Yeah!”

Yeah!” 

They burst out into laughter which draws attention from the rest of their teammates; they’re all looking at them like they just saw a cute tiny kitten, some even go ‘awww’ and Toni flips them all off. “Yeah yeah, you’re all just jealous.”

“Well duh,” number twelve says, sending the room into more laughter.

Amongst the commotion, Shelby squeezes Toni’s hand and says, “Remember, Marty and Mrs B are watchin’ at home, all our friends are here to support you… and, well, I’ll be holdin’ that sign up the entire time. Break a leg, Toni!”

And then she rushes off, and Toni doesn’t have the heart to tell her that “break a leg” is only a theatre thing, not a sports thing, and that it would probably be very bad luck for Toni to break a leg in basketball—but then she starts wondering why it would be lucky in the theatre world because last time she checked, Romeo and Juliet didn’t have casts on their legs, then she remembers it’s just a stupid saying that is actually really weird without context so she makes a mental note to look up its origin later. 

===

Toni knows she should focus on watching the game from the bench, but the whole time she can’t take her eyes off of Shelby, who’s holding the sign reading ‘I <3 Shalifoe’ tucked under her arms, waiting for the opportunity to wave it around like a proud… whatever-the-heck-their-relationship-is-labelled-as. It does wonders for her anxieties, and soon she can’t even feel anything other than an adrenaline-infused excitement.

Barely twenty minutes into the game, the UCLA point guard gets thrown to the floor with an audible cracking sound, and gasps fill the room. The coach and medics rush to her; turns out she’s almost totally fine, but a bit bruised and roughed up, so when Coach turns to Toni, she knows exactly what’s going to happen. 

“Shalifoe,” she calls, “you’re up.”

A fresh wave of nerves wash over her, replacing the calm that Shelby had instilled in her. Point guard is her favourite position, it’s what she always plays as because they’re usually always the shortest player on the field, but she’s never played it with such high stakes.

She stands up and takes a few steps forward, shaking, but then she looks up to the stands and sees it: all her friends, leaping out of their seats and clapping and cheering, Fatin waving her “I’m a ShalifHOE for Shalifoe” sign, Shelby waving hers animatedly above her head. She watches as the person behind her taps on the blonde’s shoulder, asking her to lower the cardboard so that they can see, and sees the way Shelby flushes in embarrassment before holding it out in front of her instead, but then she accidentally whacks the person in front of her in the head which makes her apologise repeatedly until she settles for clutching it right beneath her chin and jumping up and down. 

And like magic, Toni’s nerves wash away again.

She doesn’t play very well at all. She plays close to perfect.

She darts around the court, whizzing like an arrow to steal balls and score point after point, and she feels like she’s on top of the world. Half-time sounds and she’s lifted into the air by a couple of her six-foot tall teammates, and her heart swells into the size of a basketball or something—Toni’s not very good at metaphors.

She stays on the court for all of the second half, playing as amazingly as before, and when the buzzer sounds and the board shows that they beat the guest team 74-68, the crowd erupts into roars, and Toni is crushed into a group hug. 

For once, she thinks, she deserves this; Toni deserves to feel happy. Gone is the soul-crushing feeling of loneliness she’s carried with her for most of her life, being replaced by a lightweight happiness and a feeling of belonging—and that happiness grows impossibly larger when she runs out of the locker room and crashes into the arms of the girl she loves the most in this world.

Chapter Text

The team wants to celebrate their first big win, and don’t get her wrong, Toni does too, but not in a diner surrounded by a dozen rowdy, sweaty girls. 

“Shalifoe, hurry up!” one of her teammates calls, but Toni doesn’t answer; she’s too busy burying her face into Shelby’s neck, breathing her in. She can feel the cardboard sign poking into her back, and the reminder of it and what it says makes her hug Shelby even tighter and pull her closer.

“You should go,” Shelby murmurs into her hair. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Toni shakes her head. “No, I wanna stay with you.”

“But your team—” Shelby protests, but she’s quickly cut off.

“We’ll have loads of celebrations every game we win, Shell,” she tells her, pulling away to look into her eyes. “I just wanna celebrate with you today.”

Ohhh. A sly smirk comes over Shelby’s face. “Celebrate, huh?”

===

Fifteen minutes later, they’re walking down a road packed with restaurants and cafes and such, looking for a place to eat, until Toni points one out that she knows is good because she’s been there with Dot and Fatin before. 

The diner isn’t too busy but it isn’t too packed; Toni chose the one that she knows where the team will not be going because she just wants a little alone time with her best girl, because cheesy as it is, that’s the greatest celebration she can ask for.

They slide into the last available booth together, opting to sit side by side instead of across from each other. They’re right next to a jukebox as well, and so while they’re waiting for their order to arrive, Shelby decides to check out the song selection. It turns out to have a very wide range of old classics and more modern stuff, but there’s one particular song that catches her eye. She pays a few cents, presses a couple of buttons, and an acoustic guitar fills the air, accompanied by slow drums.

We can leave the Christmas lights up ‘til January.  

Shelby slips back into the booth, wrapping an arm around Toni with a knowing smile. It’s so fucking cheesy that she rolls her eyes, but she still can’t help the kiss she leaves on Shelby’s cheek. 

Have I known you twenty seconds, or twenty years?  

“I love this song,” Shelby says, ever so casually, picking up the menu and browsing it. “Reminds me of my ex girlfriend.”

Toni scoffs, eyes wide. “Sorry what?”

“I’m kidding!” She laughs at Toni’s shock and offence, because she’s so obviously joking too. “Don’t worry,” she says, tracing figures of eight on her shoulder, “this is our song.”

Something about the way she says our makes Toni’s heart do three little flips in her chest. “This is a song about marriage, it seems… very relationship-y.”

Then there’s a pause, because again, they’re still very much unlabelled and Toni still doesn’t know how and when to ask her because she wants it to be perfect when they do finally make it official if they even do which she hopes they will because she really does want to be with Shelby and they’re practically together anyway and—

“It does,” Shelby says with a wink, and suddenly Toni’s mind is quiet again. 

Oh. ‘Shelby winked at me,’ her flustered mind manages to realise, as if there wasn’t something far more important for her brain to catch onto.

The waitress comes round to take their orders and returns with their food promptly. It takes them ages to get through the meal because they’re constantly talking and giggling together; Toni tries to explain basketball rules to her and Shelby just doesn’t seem to get it, but that’s because she’s more focused on staring at her, gazing at the strands of hair falling loose from her braids, damp from the post-game shower. 

Every so often, Shelby will get up to replay ‘Lover’ on the jukebox, and each time she does, Toni rolls her eyes but moves closer and closer to her so that their legs are pressed together.

Toni has listened to the song before, obviously, and it’s probably in her top ten most listened to songs on Spotify now because of Shelby’s nickname for her, but she’s never truly understood the lyrics until now, listening to the song with her in this little diner, curled up in a booth and sharing a milkshake. 

Can we always be this close forever and ever?  

She decides it’s her favourite song.

=== 

“This was fun,” Shelby tells her as they near Toni’s door. “Though I’m pretty sure the entire diner is sick of that song by now.”

Toni lets out a laugh. “Nah, it’s a beautiful song.”

“Yeah, it is,” she says quietly, looking almost shyly for some reason. “So… see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you.” 

And for a second Toni lets her walk away, but then she remembers she’s Toni Shalifoe and has got moves now, so she spins Shelby back towards her to press their lips together. “G’night, Shelby.”

It makes a blush appear brightly on Shelby’s cheeks; her eyes are cast away from Toni’s as she says, “Y’know, I still get butterflies when you do that.”

Toni takes it as an invitation to do it again, and Shelby is more than happy to wrap her arms around her to pull her closer. “I do too,” she says softly, meaning it completely. 

And when they finally let go of each other and Shelby waves her off, Toni feels a swarm of butterflies fluttering contently around her stomach.

===

A week later, Toni finds herself with a late shift at the empty library, shooting little paper balls into a makeshift hoop she’s crafted for herself above the waste bin. Nora is studying at the nearest desk, while Leah is sat with her even though she’s not supposed to be behind the desk, but she’s probably at the library more than Toni herself so it doesn’t really matter at this point.

It’s pouring outside so nobody’s made the journey to the building that evening, and Toni frankly doesn’t blame them; she has no idea how she’s going to get home without an umbrella, plus she’s starving. “This is so annoying,” she grumbles. “We have those stupid fucking meal plans yet some of us get given shifts during meal times.” 

“That’s true,” Leah agrees, nodding. 

“It’s so students don’t starve themselves,” Nora pipes up casually, never lifting her head from the book she’s reading. “Some colleges force you to take them because otherwise students don’t eat to save money and it ends up being really bad for them.” 

“Maybe if they didn’t give us so much freaking debt then.” 

“You’ll be fine, you’re gonna become some millionaire WNBA player the second you step out of this place. You think I’ll ever even start paying my debt with my plays?” Leah looks at Toni, a dead look behind her eyes, and Toni purses her lips as an answer.

“Just commit tax fraud,” Nora tells them, like she’s just suggested that they all hang out at the park tomorrow. 

Two pairs of brown and blue eyes respectively blink at her. 

“Nora, what the actual fuck?”

The curly haired girl shrugs. “What? All the billionaires do it.” 

Toni looks at Leah as if to say she’s got a point, when the sound of the door opening makes everyone’s heads turn.

Clad in a leopard print poncho, leather pants, and high heels, Fatin walks over to the three girls, clutching a plastic bag close to her chest. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there,” she declares in a god-awful British accent like something out of a period drama acted out by actors who thought they were above accent coaching. “Absolutely pouring down.”

“I told her to stop watching British television,” Leah mutters to Toni as she watches her girlfriend come closer. “But she said ‘but Leah, darling, it’s much too good for me to give it up.’ It’s been like this for a week now, she thinks it’s charming me.”

“Is it?”

Leah sighs. “I’m not down that bad, Toni.”

“Hello my dear,” Fatin says to her, making Leah visibly blush, and Toni has to choke back a laugh because what a liar. “I have brought you a chicken sandwich from the canteen.” She turns to Nora, declaring that she comes bearing a pasta bowl, and Nora just blinks at her. 

“Thanks?”

“And for you, dearest Antonia—” Fatin turns to her and sighs. “Fuck it, I can’t keep up with that stupid accent anymore. Shelby told me to bring you these,” she says, dumping a packet of Takis on the desk, which Toni immediately snatches before Fatin can put down her actual dinner.

Her heart warms at the thought of Shelby’s thoughtfulness, so she makes a point of not wolfing them down like usual, instead taking the time to appreciate each individual chip, while using her spare hand to shoot her a quick text.

Toni: you’re the best :)

Shelby: I know. Xxx 

Fatin’s already eaten in the cafeteria so she sort of just swivels around on a spinny chair, pushing herself up and down the aisles until she gets bored and calls out, “Leah, push me.”

“No.” 

Leah ends up pushing Fatin down the length of the library, propelling her extremely long legs at extremely dangerous speeds. Toni, as the only librarian in the room right now, should tell them to stop, but then she’s sat on Nora’s lap clinging onto her arms for dear life as the two of them are sent whizzing past tables and rows upon rows of bookshelves, laughing loudly and praying they don’t break a bone or a computer.

“I swear if I lose my fucking job—woah!” Toni and Nora crash sideways into a table. “Jesus, that stung!” She grasps the part of her arm that made contact with the unnecessarily sharp table corner as she clambers off of Nora, who appears totally unfazed. 

“I think we should stop,” Nora states.

“Yeah,” Toni says blankly. “You don’t say.”

===

Another week later, Toni decides she hasn’t seen Shelby enough lately—and it’s true, the pair have been so caught up with classes and practice that they haven’t seen each other properly. 

So, Toni picks up her phone to send Shelby a text, but right as she hits the first letter, a message from her comes through.

Shelby: Hey Toni, Leatin just showed up in my room to play cards?? Like, actual cards? Anyway they said I could join them but I’m in the mood to see you instead and took a rain check. Can I come over? Xxx

Toni: please

It takes less than a minute for Shelby to knock on the door, and Toni promptly opens it.

“Did you just knock to the rhythm of Lover?”

Shelby’s eyes widen at being caught, but then her expression is overtaken by a flirtatious smirk. “Maybe, lover.”

The two fall into an easy groove, laying beside each other and talking about what colour they prefer on kitchen countertops and how they both thoroughly enjoy going to IKEA. 

Eventually the conversation simmers down, and Shelby turns to face Toni.

“Hey,” she says so quietly it’s almost a whisper.

“You okay?”

And before she can give herself a chance to second-guess herself, Shelby blurts out, “Do you wanna have sex?”

Oh. That wasn’t something Toni was expecting. 

The answer is an easy: “Yes.”

“Okay.” Shelby moves to hover over her.

“Wait, right now?” 

The blonde pulls back to sit on her ankles, and Toni props herself up on her hands to level with her. “Um, only if you want to, obviously, but you don’t have to, obviously, I really don’t mind, I just—”

Shelby.” Toni kneels so that she can cup her face in her hands, gently stroking the worry away with her thumb on her cheekbone. “I want to, but only if you do, too.”

She watches her throat move as she swallows hard before Shelby says, “I really do.”

The energy between them flips immediately like a switch; Toni pulls her in and Shelby moves to straddle her, eagerly returning the kiss, and she moans when Shelby’s tongue slides against hers. It feels amazing, being pressed against her like this, being so connected, that the sensation shoots right between her legs and right up into her chest.

This is what all of her daydreams have consisted of for months: being close to Shelby, holding her tightly in her arms, feeling the warmth created from her body against hers.

“Wait,” Shelby mumbles against Toni’s lips. “Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait.”

Toni hums, her hands wandering up and down the small of Shelby’s back, causing her to shiver. “Yeah?”

Shelby gently takes a hold of Toni’s wrists, fearing that if she lets her go any further she might just have to let Toni take her there and then, which would foil her plan. “I have an idea.”

A mischievous glint flashes across Shelby’s eyes, paired with a smirk that Toni wants—needs—to kiss away, but she wants to she just glances up at her and cocks her head. “I’m listening.”

=== 

Minutes later, the pair are crashing through the door of Shelby and Leah’s room, lips moving excessively quickly against each other’s, hands moving wildly and frantically over and under clothes as they stumble onto Shelby’s bed. 

Fatin practically screams, clasping a hand over her eyes and urging Leah to do the same (although Leah dives for her Russian playing cards first, almost like she’s protecting them from the sight). “What the fuck, you two?”

Giggling, Toni pulls back slightly from Shelby, who immediately moves her mouth to Toni’s neck. She has to swallow back a moan because fuck Shelby is making her stupidly turned on right now, but there’s no way she’s about to make those sort of noises in front of Leatin. “Sorry, not used to roommates,” she says, repeating the words Fatin told her back in early September. “Oh well.” She shrugs as she tangles her fingers into Shelby’s hair. “Room 196!”

The door slams shut and the two girls on the bed burst into giggles. Shelby throws her head back as Toni tells her that she’s “evil, Goodkind, you’re evil, but a freaking genius.”

“Had to pay ‘em back somehow.” Shelby grins and throws her a wink, and that’s when the two realise their predicament: Shelby is currently sat on top of Toni, straddling her, lips completely swollen and wetted by saliva. 

Toni feels dizzy.

They look at each other for a moment, eyes darting everywhere as if they’re trying to memorise each other. Toni’s expression is so soft and sweet, she’s looking at Shelby like she’s the only thing worth looking at in the universe—and to Toni, it’s true, she is the only thing she wants to look at, ever.

Then, overwhelmed by it all, Shelby turns shy all of a sudden. “I don’t know what I’m doin’ up here,” she says with a slight nervous laugh. “I don’t… I mean, I know how this works, but I don’t really know what to do.”

“I can go first if you want,” Toni offers in a soft voice, and Shelby nods but Toni can still sense how timid she feels, so she goes to assure her:

“We can just make out for a little bit, yeah? It doesn’t have to be anything big. We’ll take off our clothes, kiss a little bit more. I’ll touch you wherever you want me to, kiss down your body…” Her hand trails down Shelby’s front as she speaks. “I’ll tease you a little bit first, then I can put one finger in, so you get used to it, then if you want I’ll add another, use the palm of my hand on your clit. We’ll only do things that make you feel good. And I can hold your hand the whole time, too.”

Shelby’s completely red, her pupils are completely blown, and the look that she’s giving Toni is so full of adoration that Toni might genuinely burst into flames beneath her gaze.

“I’d like that,” she admits quietly. “All of it.”

They kiss again, and it’s so different to before: their lips move slowly in tandem, making soft noises as they do, and Toni can practically feel the way that confidence surges into Shelby. 

She puts her hands beneath Shelby’s thighs to lift her up; Shelby squeals, laughing when she’s gently dropped back down onto the bed. 

“Off,” she huffs, tugging at Toni’s sweatshirt as the brunette crawls on top of her. Toni immediately lifts up her arms, happily obliging, before leaning down to kiss Shelby’s neck because if she keeps looking at her then her head’s going to end up spinning and she’s never going to be able to make it stop.

She finds the spots that make Shelby whimper and writhe beneath her and spends extra time on those, sucking at the skin before soothing it with her tongue, tasting it.

“Feels so good, baby,” Shelby breathes out. “You feel so good.”

“I love you,” Toni mutters into her skin, because she really really does; she loves Shelby in every way but there’s something special about her the way she is right now, holding her waist beneath her t-shirt while Toni’s pleasuring her. “I love you.”

“I love you too, princess—oh fuck, Toni please,” she moans audibly as Toni massages her breast with one hand.

She can tell from the noises coming from Shelby’s throat and the way her hips buck upwards into her own, but still Toni asks, “You like that?”

“Yes, God yes.”

And Toni keeps her promise: they make out, take off their clothes, kiss a little bit more before Toni moves her mouth down to worship the rest of Shelby’s body, kissing every inch of skin she can reach—then her fingers run up and down above the cloth of her underwear before she takes it off slowly, allowing her full access to show Shelby just how much she loves her. They laugh when Toni almost slips off of the bed and Toni finds herself grinning into the skin of Shelby’s chest, completely blissed out. When Shelby climaxes, repeating Toni’s name like a prayer, Toni helps her ride through it with their fingers interlocked the way they have been the whole time, holding her hand just like she said she would.

Minutes later, Shelby’s flipping them over so that she’s the one on top now. She too takes her time to leave kisses all over her body—some gentle and warm, others with teeth and heat—and murmurs about how gorgeous Toni is, because she truly is beautiful and Shelby wants her to feel it, before she moves her head down to where Toni needs her the most. Toni, for the first time in her life, as Shelby’s tongue works between her legs and her fingers curl inside of her, feels beautiful.

It ends as quickly as it begins: Shelby pulls out slowly and with care, mindful not to hurt her. She collapses into Toni’s arms, but accidentally bangs her forehead into Toni’s chin in the process, and the two yelp in pain.

“Owww,” Toni whines, “why would you do this to me?”

“I’m sorry!” Shelby apologises through her own laughter and pain. “I’ll kiss it better.”

“You better be paying for my replacement jaw,” Toni grumbles in mock indignation. “Plus the plastic surgery, I still wanna look this good after.”

Shelby hums distractedly in agreement, taking the opportunity to leave another kiss on Toni’s cheek just because she feels like it. She feels Toni pull her closer, wrapping her tightly in her arms, and her eyes fall shut in contentment. “I’m so tired,” Shelby says through a yawn. “Like, physically, but mentally I’m not tired at all.”

“Yeah, same.” Toni’s hands move to play with hair hair, twirling strands around her index finger. “Sex kinda tires you out, huh?”

She can practically feel Shelby rolling her eyes. “You don’t freakin’ say.”

Much to Shelby’s initial chagrin, Toni shifts beneath her so that she’s left lying on the mattress instead of Toni’s very comfortable chest, but then she adjusts a few pillows and brings Shelby closer so that they’re laying facing each other.

They take the moment to just simply admire one another again, and Toni attempts to process the fact that that really just happened, she really just got to do that with Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all, the girl that she’s madly in love with. It feels like a dream.

“Was that… okay?” Shelby asks quietly, and Toni legitimately has to laugh, because the answer to that is so obviously,

“No, Shelby, are you kidding? That was way more than okay.” She returns her small smile, before all of a sudden going shy herself. “Was it… okay for you?”

And Shelby legitimately laughs too. “Toni, that was perfect.”

“But I basically fell off the bed,” she says, blushing, making Shelby laugh in that way that Toni would legitimately kill for—(although to be fair, Toni would for any of her laughs).

“Still perfect, Toni.”

“You’re perfect.”

That earns her shoulder a shove. “Flirt.”

They end back up with Shelby resting on Toni’s now-clothed chest (it’s too cold to stay naked, much to both of their annoyance), Shelby tracing patterns idly on Toni’s stomach as she goes back to playing with her hair. For all the fire that Toni usually carries in her, she feels exceedingly calm here in Shelby’s arms, gazing at the ceiling with a permanent lovestruck smile gracing her face.

“I’m sad I never got to show you the stars in Minnesota,” she says after a long, gentle silence. “You would’ve loved them.” 

“I would,” Shelby agrees. 

“Next time we‘ll go stargazing; I’ll tell you stories about galaxies and constellations and stuff.”

Shelby bites her tongue so that she doesn’t say something stupid like, “I’m in love with your voice, please tell me every single story you know,” and instead says, “Next time, huh?”

Toni chuckles. “Babe, Marty and Mrs B are dying to have you back, they probably wish you could move in.”

“Well, only for them.” She pauses thoughtfully before adding, “And the dogs and cats and rabbits and goldfish.”

Toni scoffs. “Hey, what about me?”

“Oh, sorry, who are you again?”

And Toni can’t help but to lean forward and kiss the sly grin away, even if she breaks it with her own smile, because she’s so happy and so in love that she’s not sure anything could change it.

Chapter Text

Toni’s away for pretty much most of the last half of February and first half of March for basketball, and it sucks. She misses her own dorm room, her classes, the library desk, game nights at Nora’s where she gets to see Rachel through the computer screen. She misses Fatin’s late night jokes and Leah’s cynicism. She misses hanging out with Dot in the evenings and always seeing Nora at the library.

She misses Shelby. 

She misses Shelby so much that on the first night, she clutches the sweatshirt Shelby gave to her before they parted, doused in the red fruit scented perfume that smells like home, and cries herself to sleep. She thinks she’s being silent, but the next night, her roommate, Amelia, gives her a sad look and says, “You miss her, don’t you?” All Toni can do is give a small nod and hope it gets easier.

And it does, kind of.

During the game, Shelby sends her a live commentary via text, mostly about how good Toni looks and how proud she is of how she’s doing—although sometimes they’ll actually be about the game, things along the lines of,

Shelby: Omg!!! Number 10 stole the ball from 05!! This is getting real tense with only 3 minutes left!  

or,

Shelby: 03 SCORES ANOTHER GOAL!!!!!!!!!! GO SHALIFOEEEE Xxxxx <3 <3 <3 

The texts are always lined with emojis and hearts and x’s, and Toni never tells her that it’s actually quite uncommon for people to call points “goals” because it’s cute when Shelby says that. Toni uses these as motivation to play as well as she possibly can, knowing that when the game is over she’ll be met with a stream of congratulatory messages from Shelby which is better than any other post-game celebration.

Still, she misses her favourite girl like hell.

They FaceTime pretty much every single night, and Amelia is gracious enough to slip out of the room to hang out with other friends, but it’s not the same because she’s not actually there, Shelby can’t just hold her in Toni’s own bed.

She really misses her bed; Shelby’s too.

It gets so bad that when, around the four day mark, the scent of the perfume on Shelby’s sweatshirt wears out, Toni shoots her a quick text.

Toni: hey babe what perfume do u wear

Shelby sends her a link five minutes later.

Shelby: I have loads of spare bottles though. Xxx

Toni: oh i know. i just wanted some for myself

Shelby: Simp.

Toni: i love you princess

Shelby: Ugh. I love you too.

Half an hour later, Toni’s at the mall with Amelia, who is super excited to finally spend some time with Toni, but who is also very confused when she’s dragged over to the perfume section of the department store.

“Uh, Toni, I thought you wore cologne? That section is just over there next to the Tom Ford stand—”

“No, just… can you help me find this?” she asks, holding up her phone to show the website that Shelby sent her. “I can’t read French, I took Spanish in high school. What the fuck is an eau?” she says, pronouncing it like ‘ee-ooh’ which is definitely how ‘eau’ isn’t pronounced.

Amelia laughs, shaking her head. “Toni, that just means perfume, you idiot. It should be over here, c’mon.”

And that night, when Toni tries to be secretive about trying (and failing) to put it onto Shelby’s sweatshirt (the poor girl didn’t realise that more than two sprays in the same area is way too much), Amelia chooses not to say anything, because she understands the feeling of needing to be close to home; it’s a human thing, after all.

Towards the end of the first week, Shelby can tell it’s really getting to Toni, being away from home. They both knew it would be hard, obviously, but nobody was expecting Toni to have permanently bloodshot eyes and slumped shoulders the whole time—there’s clearly something beyond just her missing home, but neither of them can quite put a finger on it.

“You okay?” Shelby asks that night. “You don’t seem to be having fun there, what’s wrong?”

Embarrassed at being caught, Toni looks away from the phone screen and rolls onto her side. “It’s nothing, just a little homesick.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem like nothing. You know you can tell me anything that’s on your mind, right?” And of course Toni knows that, because Shelby is perfect and so caring and kind—and that just makes it worse, if anything. 

“Yeah,” Toni says tentatively. “I just don’t exactly enjoy moving around this much.”

The instability reminds her too much of times in her life that she’d rather forget: the instability, never staying in one place for too long, sleeping on different beds every few days. She should be used to it by now after a lifetime of it, but recently everything has been so perfectly stable that she was caught off-guard and lost balance all of a sudden. Shelby seems to pick up on this fact, telling her that, “Then you should distract yourself. Go out with your team, have fun, lose yourself in practice—but not too much, obviously, rest is important. But we can’t be havin’ you sad in your room every day, that’s not good for you or for the team.”

“But you’re not here,” Toni says melodramatically, pouting at the camera, prompting Shelby to roll her eyes. 

“Toni, baby, you have to try and keep yourself busy,” she tells her with an added level of sincerity to her voice. “This is a real fun opportunity for you, I want you to be takin’ advantage of that.”

Unwanted tears begin to well up in Toni’s eyes. “It’s harder than it looks.”

“I know, but—”

But Toni breaks. 

“I want to go home,” she sobs. “I want to go home.”

Her voice cracks on the last word while she clutches a fistful of covers for dear life. The phone drops out of her hand but she can’t bring herself to care, not when her chest feels like it’s about to split into two pieces. It sucks because she’s practically a grown adult, yet here she is, crying her eyes out because she’s homesick, feeling like the little kid who had to sleep in the CPS office again after her third move of the month. 

It hurts because, just like when she was a kid, there’s nobody there to hold her. She’s in a cold, unfamiliar room, sleeping on a mattress that hurts her back, which is way too reminiscent of her childhood. She hates this: the weakness, the vulnerability of it all, the way she falls apart too fucking easily at these things.

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Toni sniffles, picking the phone back up to find Shelby there with an unreadable expression. “I thought I’d gotten over this childhood shit, thought I was strong but guess not.” It’s so clear that she’s trying to simply shrug this off like it doesn’t matter when it really does, but Shelby isn’t having it.

“No, Toni, you are strong—if you weren’t you wouldn’t even have gone in the first place,” Shelby tells her firmly. “You‘ve been playin’ amazingly in all your games, you wouldn’t be able to score so many goals if you weren’t strong.”

The use of the word ‘goals’ makes Toni chuckle a little, bringing a smile to Shelby’s face. “I guess you’re right.”

“You know I’m right. What’s everyone else doin’ now?”

Toni looks up, digging around her brain for the answer to remember the last thing her teammates had told her. “Um, probably getting dinner or something.”

“Go join them then, keep your mind busy.”

Toni raises an eyebrow suggestively. “You could keep me busy.”

That makes Shelby scoff loudly. “If you’re askin’ me for what I think you’re askin’ me for, then the answer is no.” Toni pouts, and Shelby, well, “Fine, but only if you go out to dinner.”

“But what about you? I don’t want you to be alone.”

“I’ll be fine, I’m thinkin’ of bargin’ into Fatin’s room to play with those Russian card thingies Leah has.” 

Toni huffs because she knows that even though she could convince Shelby to stay on the call with her if she really wanted to—and she does want to—deep down, they both know Shelby’s right; Toni needs to get out of the hotel room and keep herself busy if she’s ever going to get out of this emotional spiral.

So, albeit reluctantly, she bids Shelby goodbye and hangs up, but not before Shelby reminds her of how much she loves her.

Obviously, Shelby’s advice works, because it’s Shelby and she’s always completely right, and slowly but surely Toni finds herself not being as emotionally affected by all the instability as she was at the beginning. But still, sometimes she still has moments where she’ll look up at the ceiling at night and feel tears prickle at her eyes at memories of the backseat of a CPS car or foster parents arguing about how it’s just not worth it to keep a vulnerable ten year old girl in their warm house and to feed her substantial meals, all because she once got so distressed that she accidentally toppled a vase. She remembers her own sobs, the pleas of I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I promise I’ll be good, and the looks exchanged between the two adults.

Every time those thoughts come, she finds herself reaching for her phone and dropping Shelby a message.

Toni [00:07]: i’m sad

Toni [00:07]: can we play cards online

Shelby [00:08]: Of course! Xx

And usually Shelby beats her—she got practice in, like she swore she would a while back, determined to win every game. Toni still slips in some wins here and there, of course, she’s Toni Shalifoe after all; her high score in rummy still remains undefeated by a mile.

Slowly, the thoughts start to go away, and the nights are as easy as the days. She processes things, taking the time to remember that her past isn’t her current reality. She is wanted, she is loved; Shelby makes sure she knows that.

Her present is stable. She has a home waiting for her, both in the form of a warm comfy bed as well as shimmering green eyes. She just needs to keep telling herself that.

===

She goes home soon. 

Her team finish fourth, which Toni’s pretty (extremely) excited about, given it’s her first ever big national tournament. It’s not the final three, but four isn’t exactly far off.

Plus, it means she gets to go home.

She loves her teammates, she really does, and Amelia is a wonderful roommate, but there’s only so much she can take of the same people in such close quarters for weeks—eating together, travelling together, sleeping in the same room, etcetera. There’s only girl she wouldn’t mind sharing every single moment and every bit of space with, and that’s—

“Shelby!” she yells, sprinting across the car park and hurtling into the blonde’s wide open arms. Toni’s spun around in the air, and it almost feels like she’s flying. “Hi, Shelby.” She grins like a kid at a toy store, which is kind of how she’s feeling—it’s that same sort of excitement that has her bouncing on her ankles.

“Hi, Toni.”

She hugs her again, because fuck does it feel good to be home.

“You’re wearin’ my sweatshirt.”

“I didn’t take it off,” Toni breathes out before rushing to add, “Well, obviously I did because I had to wash it at some point, but—”

“You really think I ever took yours off either?” Shelby asks, and Toni finally notices that Shelby’s wearing that navy jumper with yellow patches on the elbows that she loves so much.

“You look so pretty in that,” Toni says, looking into the green eyes she’s missed so much. “Keep it, it’s yours.”

“But it’s your favourite,” Shelby protests.

“So keep it, I see you more than I see myself.”

So Shelby kisses her, and the rest of the world falls away.

===

On the last Monday of March, Toni wakes up with a tray being thrust on top of her lap, and lips being pressed to the side of her head. “G’morning, my love.”

This is it, she thinks; this is how Toni wants do die.

“What’s this for?” she mumbles sleepily, pushing herself up to a sitting position.

“For your birthday,” Shelby replies casually with a huge smile on her face—one that, even in her sleepy haze, Toni wants to lean forward and kiss.

But instead, she just frowns in confusion because, “My birthday’s Sunday.”

“I don’t believe in birthdays,” Shelby tells her as if she’s relaying some hugely important information that is necessary for their survival. “I believe in birthweeks. So you best bet we are goin’ to be celebratin’ all week, every day right up until Sunday.”

There’s so much sunshine just spilling out from Shelby right now: her radiant smile that reaches her sparkling green eyes with their hopeful look and the crinkles at the sides, the way she grips the handles of the tray on Toni’s lap so securely, the way she looks so perfect in her oversized shirt and sleep trousers, fresh from her trip to the bakery to get Toni this assortment of breakfast foods. (Toni’s figured Shelby’s love language is giving people breakfast, which is entirely charming). 

“I feel bad,” Toni says, reaching for a chocolate croissant at her growling stomach’s request. “I didn’t do that much for your birthday—I mean, birth week.”

“That’s alright, I wouldn’t expect you to, I’m just real big on holidays as you know.” Shelby moves over so she can sit up against the wall, her legs draped over Toni’s as she swipes a pastry from the tray. “And besides, we weren’t datin’ back then; now that you’re my girlfriend I’m obviously gonna go all out.”

Girlfriend?(!)

A bite gets lodged in Toni’s throat.

“Oh my lord, are you alright?” Shelby hurries to fetch her some water from the desk, which a choking Toni gladly downs. 

Smooth, Toni. Real smooth.

“Since wh—” she tries to speak but chokes again, stopping only when Shelby pats her back. “Let me, um, let me try that again.”

Shelby hums, an expectant look on her face, “Mhmm.”

“Since when were we girlfriends?” Toni asks teasingly, but the affection in her face completely gives her away, especially with the way her voice wavers with nerves and the way her brown eyes are filled to the brim with hope.

“Well, um…” Toni watches the panic streak across Shelby’s face and set in. “I mean only if you want to be, I don’t want to assume of course, I just—um, well, if you want to that is, but you don’t have to, well, would like to be your girlfriend, I’d love to be your girlfriend, I really would, and we kind of act like it anyway and we did before we even said I love you I mean I don’t even know if we’re doing this in the wrong order but I do love you so much Toni, and so if you want, I’d like to—um, ugh. Will you be my girlfriend?”

A wide-eyed Toni blinks at her. Then she blinks again. Then,

“Yes.”

Shelby beams at her, and Toni swears she can physically see the stress dissipate. “Really?”

She’s so cute, Toni thinks.

“You’re so cute,” Toni says.

Shelby gives her another smile—a warm, shy one paired with a blush that makes her look down to her lap and fiddle with the forgotten pastry in her hands. “So are you,” she mumbles. 

A comfortable moment of silence passes between them, both girls nervously picking at their food while trying to tame the butterflies that relentlessly swarm around their stomachs (spoiler alert: they don’t succeed, the butterflies are permanent). It’s only when Toni finally works up the courage to speak that the silence is broken. “Will you be my girlfriend?”

The girl across from her can’t help but to laugh. “Yes, baby, of course I’ll be your girlfriend.”

===

Fatin walks in on them laying in bed together, noses touching, hands caressing each other’s cheeks. Cute, she thinks. 

“Gross,” she says as she rifles through the closet for a coat.

Toni huffs, annoyed at the moment being interrupted. “We’re fully clothed, fuck off.”

“No, it’s gross seeing you all sappy and in love, Shalifoe,” Fatin tells her with a grimace. “I’m happy for you though, Shelby, even if I think you could do a lot better.”

Shelby turns her head to Fatin, smiling. “I really could, couldn’t I?”

“Hey!” 

The door slams behind Fatin, leaving Shelby with a smirk on her face and a huffing Toni inches away from her. 

“We’re breaking up,” the brunette says with her eyebrows furrowed into a frown—but Shelby quickly smoothens it out with a kiss to her nose. 

“No we’re not.”

“No,” Toni agrees with a stupidly big grin, “we’re not.”

===

On Tuesday, Toni wakes up to a text.

Shelby: Birthweek day 2!!! Meet me at the public basketball courts next to the park. Xxx 

Because of course Shelby Goodkind, from Texas, nice to meet y’all—who is now her actual real life girlfriend, by the way—has set up a freaking picnic for brunch, and of course they’re going to play basketball afterwards. Toni uses it as an excuse to stand close to her and give her pointers, and Shelby uses it as an excuse to stand close to her and ask for pointers. It’s a win-win situation, really.

They hang out and laugh and play until the sun sets, and when Shelby walks her to her door and says goodbye with a gentle kiss, eliciting a deep blush that covers Toni’s whole face, Toni feels so giddy and light that every step feels like she’s floating through air. 

On Wednesday, Shelby takes her to the planetarium before cheerleading practice, and recites all the fun space facts she learnt especially for her before this date. Toni finds herself almost welling up at the gesture because nine year-old Toni with her unsigned permission slip, watching her class leave for the planetarium trip without her, would’ve never imagined that someone would love her enough to take her. 

On Thursday, Shelby leaves her a text and something else.

Shelby: I’m going out with Fatin today while you’re at work. Check under your pillow (: Xxx

It’s an actual postcard with an actual love note. An actual love note.

So Toni calls Martha, and Martha squeals, so Martha tells Mrs B, “mom, Shelby wrote Toni a love letter, how cute is that?”, and Mrs B says, “She doesn’t ever need to ask for my blessing, she can have it.”

Dot sees how giddy and love struck she is when she offers to meet up with Toni after her library shift, telling her, “You’re down so bad it’s almost embarrassing.”

The short girl huffs, something she seems to be doing a lot lately. “Yeah yeah, whatever, tiny angry Toni Shalifoe is actually a huge softie, she’s a simp for her girlfriend, I know.”

She’s missed Dot; the two have grown so close so quickly, but between Dot’s own job and the fact that she doesn’t attend UCLA like the rest of the gang minus Martha, it gets hard to see her face-to-face sometimes.

“So… y’all finally made it official?”

Toni nods and stuffs her fists into the pockets of her tan coat, but that does absolutely nothing to hide the smile that helplessly worms its way into her face. “Yeah, we did.”

Dot sighs. “Guess Rachel and I owe each other ten bucks now.” 

“Huh?”

Dot shrugs nonchalantly like it’s nothing. “We both bet you’d get together before April, but then we realised we couldn’t bet on the same thing so we just agreed to trade ten bucks.” Toni blinks in confusion. “Don’t worry about it dude. I’m just happy you’re happy. And I’m happy for Shelby.” 

Dot slows down a little, looking ahead into the distance like she’s pondering something, while Toni turns back to face her. “You good?” she asks, a little concerned.

“Yeah, it’s just…” She pauses, a contemplative look on her face before she carries on walking down the street beneath the orange night sky lit up by rows of lamps. “Well, I guess I was kinda worried about her. I knew moving to a new city would do her good, but I know the pain of losing family. I didn’t want her to go through all of that all while feeling unloved and shit. She seemed pretty happy when we moved but I could tell she was trying so damn hard to keep up this front of, like, artificial happiness; there was still this weight on her shoulders—and I could see it in her eyes, y’know. But then she met you and I swear, dude, it was like the little miss sunshine façade wasn’t fake anymore, she genuinely is like some fuckin’ golden retriever that’s high on sunshine and rainbows or something around you instead of just forcing smiles to survive.”

It’s Toni’s turn to stop walking. “Oh.”

Dot gives her this look that’s kind of like a thank you, and it has so much sincerity and gravity to it that Toni feels its weight on her like a comforting weighted blanket. “Yeah, so um, I’m pretty happy that you finally got your shit together and became official. Actually, scratch that, I’m fucking stoked. Both of you deserve to have each other after the shit you’ve gone through. I thought the honeymoon phase would wear out but it’s been going since day one, so like, I don’t think there’s an end in sight, honestly. I’m so fucking happy.”

Overwhelmed, Toni manages to say, “I, um, thank you,” before Dot gives her a pat on the shoulder. It’s a little awkward, but she appreciates it nonetheless.

“Sorry, I know that was like, a lot to take in, but I just wanted you to know that.”

“No, yeah, thank you.” Toni shakes her head. “I guess I’m just a little stunned that I do that for her. I’ve never been really good at helping people, so.”

Because after being told that all she does is destroy and ruin and break things, she’s astounded by the knowledge that maybe she actually does have the ability to do the opposite. 

“I don’t think it’s that you’ve gone out of your way to magically solve all her problems and shit, she’s still got her issues obviously because of that fucking Dave guy and she’s planning on finding a professional to talk to about it and that, but, yeah, I dunno. It’s more like—God, how do I explain this? Leah would be able to write a whole poem about this I swear—it’s like, you…. you give her what she needs to help herself. Ugh, sorry, I’m horrible with words, but you just… being you makes her happy, and you support her when she needs you and make her feel happy and light and free, and so because of that, she has enough strength to do all that personal soul-searching healing stuff she needs to do on her own. You haven’t given her some magical life-saving advice, but you’ve been you and you’ve been her best friend and that’s what helped her.”

A pause. 

“Does that make sense?”

Maybe it’s extremely out of character for her to do this, but Toni marches one step forward, and hugs Dot. She goes oof at the impact, but quickly wraps her arms around the smaller girl, and Toni stays there, eyebrows knitted together in a frown as she tries to sort through all of the words Dot gave her. Words like ‘happy’ and ‘light’ and ‘free’ and ‘helped’; words that Toni would’ve never thought she’d be able to associate with someone she loves so deeply. She thinks about all the smiles that have graced Shelby’s face and the laughter that she evokes and that shy look that’s reserved for Toni and Toni alone.

Then it hits her: 

This is something good.

“Thank you,” she says, still hugging Dot.

“Just telling you the truth.”

She parts ways with Dot, and the second she does, she’s running to her building and up the stairs, straight to room 120 to knock on the door. The door opens.

“Hi there Toni, how was—oh?”

Toni hugs Shelby so tightly that she’s scared she might crush her, but she doesn’t let go. “I need to tell you something.”

“Okay, sure. Leah’s out so we’ve got the whole room to ourselves.” 

They pull away and there’s that look, the one for Toni, paired with a smile that radiates sunshine. It’s living proof of Dot’s statements.

Before she loses the nerve she’s worked up, Toni blurts out, “I have abandonment issues.”

And Shelby smiles. She fucking smiles because she’s so relaxed and sure of the love they have for each other that she says, “Well you don’t have to worry about that with me, I’m not goin’ anywhere.” She sits down on the bed, gesturing for Toni to sit down beside her. Toni, however, is confused as hell, because she has never got this reaction before; it’s always pity and sadness, sometimes reluctance, like a person scared to pet a dog because they’re scared it’ll bite them. In Shelby’s eyes, there’s only certainty as she takes Toni’s hand and strokes the back with her thumb. “If by some slim chance this all falls apart and we’re not together, you’re always gonna have me. Even if you think I hate you, I’m always gonna love you. It doesn’t matter what happens between us, I will never leave your side until you ask me to. I won’t care if we haven’t spoken in twenty seconds or twenty years—if you need someone, I’ve got you. Always.” 

Toni’s heart feels like it’s bursting out of her chest. “You’re not… put off?”

Shelby shrugs her shoulders. “Well, were you put off by my religious trauma?”

“No,” she says vehemently. “Of course not, that shit’s not your fault, you—”

“And this isn’t your fault either. You didn’t ask to have issues, Toni, you didn’t choose to be scared that people would abandon you. I’m just here to reassure you that this doesn’t have to be the rest of your life, there are people who won’t leave you.”

“But—”

“I’m not leavin’ you, Toni. You’re my best friend.”

Toni hugs her. Again. Because it’s all she can do and all that she wants to do.

She wants to hold Shelby, and Shelby wants to hold her. If you put Toni on one side of a scale, and Shelby on another, it would be perfectly balanced at an 180 degree angle. They even each other out, keep each other on that stable equilibrium.

And they both know that.

“When you said that twenty seconds thing, was that a Lover reference?” Toni mumbles into her neck, then feels her shoulder move with laughter beneath her own neck.

“I didn’t mean for it to be, I just picked a random number. Guess I’ve been listenin’ to that song a little too much lately.”

“Hmm.” Toni’s hands wander up and down Shelby’s back soothingly, eliciting a content sigh. “Can you sing for me?”

Shelby’s too distracted to hear her, though. “Hmm?”

“Can you sing it to me?” she repeats, because yeah it’s a bit old fashioned, but Shelby sounds like an angel when she hums or sings to herself while carrying out menial tasks, and Toni hearing more of it is more of a need rather than a want.

“What, like, right now?” Shelby asks, pulling back.

“Well, no, but… I like your singing voice, it’s really pretty,” she admits, shyly because somehow, despite now being her girlfriend (something that Toni will never ever get used to), she still gets flustered around her. “I’d like to hear you sing someday,” Toni adds. “Specifically that song.”

“You, Toni Shalifoe basketball extraordinaire with the tough reputation, want me to sing you a song about being so in love that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone?”

“Well…” Toni glances around, avoiding Shelby’s eyes, “I do kind of want to spend the rest of my life with you.” Her mouth falls open at her own admission because she’s not even sure if she was supposed to admit that out loud, and it’s so soon and—

“You do?” Shelby’s eyes brim with hope, and for once, Toni finds herself hopeful about the future too. 

“Yeah,” she confirms, “but first I wanna take this one day at a time, y’know. I, uh, wanna do things right with you.” 

“I know, I wanna get things right with you too.” Shelby’s smile widens and fuck if Toni doesn’t completely melt into her jacket. 

“That’s why we’re going on a date tomorrow,” Toni declares decidedly. “I’m taking you out.”

“But it’s not my birthday.”

“Actually, it’s birthweek.” Shelby rolls her eyes. “And secondly, it’s my birth-week and I decide what I wanna do, and I want to take you on a date. A proper one. I even looked up top ten date ideas and picked the best one.”

She rolls her eyes again, but Shelby can’t hide the way a blush warms her cheeks, trailing down to her neck and leaving a welcome heat across her whole body. “And which one was the best?”

Any of them because they would all be with you, she thinks. “Um, dinner date, because you can get to know your date and stuff and talk. And I like talking to you.”

Shelby’s too smitten to do anything but kiss her, and Toni’s too smitten to do anything but kiss back. “I’m so happy you’re my girlfriend,” Toni sighs into her lips.

Shelby presses her smile into Toni’s cheek. “I love hearin’ you say that.” Her mouth moves over to the shell of Toni’s ear. “Say it again.”

“For real?” Toni says, because she’s not down that bad, okay, she’s not going to—

“Please.”

She’s going to. 

“Fine,” Toni sighs, feigning exasperation. “You’re my girlfriend. I’m your girlfriend.”

“Again.”

Weakened by Shelby’s hands touching her sides, she continues, “You’re my girlfriend and I’m in love with you and I’m going to spend the rest of my life wondering how I got so lucky that out of every girl in this world, I get to be your girlfriend. Now can you please kiss me because—”

Shelby shuts her up with her lips, and when Toni melts into the mattress beneath her with the girl of her dreams hovering above her, she thinks she’s seeing stars. 

“Guess now when I call you lover it’s actually true,” Shelby says with a small, genuine laugh.

“No, Shelby,” Toni cups her face in her hands, “It’s always been true.” 

Chapter Text

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.