The first day of sophomore year is definitely easier than the first day of freshman year, Deena thinks, as she strolls down the halls of Shadyside High. Entering the high school social ecosystem hadn’t exactly been an easy ride, even if she had known a number of these kids since elementary school, but once she’d joined a couple of extracurriculars - as suggested by her best friend Kate - Deena had settled into a somewhat comfortable position amongst the cliques and the hierarchy of the school.
Debate club hadn’t worked out in the end; Deena had found herself a fraction away from decking a smug, smarmy white boy in the face once too often to make it a viable option, but she likes drumming in the marching band, and she likes contributing the bare minimum to the woodworking club (she stands in her own corner and makes the same little box over and over), and it’s enough to keep her occupied and out of the house, which means the constant sight of her dad’s numerous beer cans are pushed to the back of her mind.
Deena floats her way through her first day of classes only half paying attention after a whole summer of not having to pay attention to much, and by the time the final bell sounds, she knows she hasn’t retained a whole lot. She’s not exactly bothered by this, but she knows she’ll have to actually focus in her classes if she even wants a chance in hell of getting out of this place.
(Although, with each passing year in Shadyside, she wonders more and more if she’ll ever leave.)
“Deena, guess what?!”
Deena starts, almost slamming her locker door closed when she hears the voice almost in her ear, but relaxes immediately once she recognizes the voice as Kate’s.
“What?” she asks, playing along as she shuts her locker more gently and leans against it. Kate’s got this look on her face like she might just burst if she doesn’t share whatever news this is.
“I made the cheer squad!” Kate squeals, bouncing up and down on the spot, her high ponytail swinging with the movement.
Here’s the thing. Deena’s been wary of cheerleaders for as long as she’s known they exist in the real world. Cheerleaders are usually mean, and judgemental, and a couple of them had outwardly made comments about Deena’s sexuality at football games last year. But Kate is her best friend, and Kate doesn’t care that she’s a lesbian, and Kate has wanted to be a cheerleader for ages. So, after a moment of consideration, Deena decides that this is a good thing. Besides, Kate isn’t going to change for anyone, and maybe she can keep some of the mega-bitches in line. She’s fearless that way.
“That’s amazing,” Deena says with a grin, Kate’s good mood becoming infectious despite Deena’s go-to pessimism. “Now you’re not gonna be lonely on Friday nights while I’m stealing the spotlight from the football team at half time.”
Kate rolls her eyes. “Please. I always came to the games for you and Simon even before I got on the cheer squad.”
“Yeah, you’ve been our personal cheerleader-in-training for the past year,” Deena says, “so it makes sense that you’ve been promoted. How many newbies did they take?”
“Not a lot, and no freshmen again,” Kate says, perhaps still a little bitter that she hadn’t been successful in her tryout last year. “There were a few juniors, and then me, Charlotte Scott, and Sam Fraser.”
Deena can’t put a face to Charlotte’s name immediately, but maybe that’s because as soon as Kate says Sam’s name, that’s all who’s in her head. She’s known Sam for years - well, known of Sam for years - and she thinks that Sam Fraser might have one of the best smiles she’s ever seen. Not the biggest smile (those are often the fakest), not the most dazzling smile (those are a little much for Deena’s comfort level), but just… the best smile. Sam has a dimple in her cheek that comes out when she smiles, not that Deena’s stared at her enough to notice that in detail, and sometimes she snorts when she laughs, which always makes Deena smile to herself in class.
Sam being a cheerleader now takes Deena a little by surprise; for the little she actually knows about Sam, it doesn’t really seem like her thing - not to the extent that it’s Kate’s thing - but fair enough. And if she’s good enough to make the team, then who is Deena to question her motives?
“Cool,” is all she says to Kate, who’s too happy to care about Deena’s no doubt underwhelming reaction.
“I’m telling you, Deena, this is gonna be our year,” Kate tells her, and there’s so much confidence in her voice that Deena can’t help but believe her just a little bit.
Sam Fraser is the most beautiful girl Deena has ever seen, bar none. And it’s not the cheer uniform (as good as she looks in it). It’s watching her be weird with Kate and a couple of the other girls on the sidelines when they think nobody’s looking at them. It’s the way she smiles and claps for the band’s halftime performance, looking like she genuinely enjoyed it. It’s her meeting Deena’s eyes and miming a drum solo as she tries to gather up her pom-poms only to drop one on the grass.
Deena ducks her head to hide a bashful grin, unsure why her cheeks feel like they’re on fire just because Sam noticed her during the performance at the first game of the season. Sure, she knows Sam is pretty; she’s always thought of Sam as sweet, and beautiful, and an actual decent human being, so what’s changed? Maybe it’s seeing Sam outside of class for maybe the first time since they were eleven years old. Maybe it’s her new social standing as a new cheer squad member. Maybe it’s just that her hanging out with Kate has led to Deena noticing her more.
Whatever it is, Deena isn’t naive. She knows what the sudden butterflies in her stomach every time Sam makes eye contact with her means. She knows she’s developing a crush on her.
But as much as Deena isn’t ignorant of her own feelings, she’s also not ignorant of the fact that nothing short of a miracle is going to lead to Sam returning her feelings. It’s fine, really. People like Deena are few and far between around here, so the odds aren’t exactly in her favor. She’s content with admiring Sam from afar. She’d be content even if they never spoke more than five sentences to each other. It’s fine.
Kate, ever the optimist, has other ideas.
“So, you totally have a crush on Sam, right?” she asks, out of the blue, one movie night in mid-September.
Deena chokes on her popcorn. “What?”
“She doesn’t even know she does,” Simon tuts, using the opportunity to scoop as much popcorn out of the bowl as he can while Deena’s distracted.
“Shut up.” Deena snatches the bowl away from him. “I’m aware, dingus. How did you know?” She turns her attention back to Kate.
Kate just grins at her. “Deena. You’re my best friend.”
“Ouch,” Simon mutters.
“Plus, I don’t think you’ve taken your eyes off her at a single game,” Kate continues, firmly ignoring Simon’s interjection. “And here I thought you were being so supportive because I was on the team.”
Deena snorts under her breath, before a sigh escapes her. “Yeah, I have a crush on Sam. A stupid, hopeless crush which isn’t gonna go anywhere, but that’s okay.”
“You should talk to her,” Kate suggests, like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“And say what, exactly? ‘Hi, Sam, I know you don’t know me very well but I think you’re super cute, do you wanna make out?’ I don’t think so.” Deena scoffs at the very idea.
“Obviously don’t lead with that, moron,” Kate says. “But what’s the harm in getting to know her better?”
Deena just stares at her for a moment before answering carefully. “Because that makes it… complicated. Right now, it’s safe, because she has no idea I like her. If we start hanging out, and she gets to know my tells, then she’ll eventually figure it out, and then she runs for the hills. That’s just what happens.”
“But what if—”
“—What if what, Kate?” Deena interrupts. “What if she likes me back? Sam Fraser liking girls? Not even winning the lottery would be that lucky.”
Kate frowns sympathetically. “Sorry. It was just a suggestion. And, for what it’s worth, I still think you should at least talk to her.”
“Maybe when pigs fly.”
At the very next Friday night football game, Kate grabs Deena’s arm as soon as the final whistle blows on Shadyside’s latest loss, and almost drags her away from the rest of the marching band. Deena’s so confused at the intensity of the gesture that she doesn’t realize where she’s being frog-marched to until she’s face to face with Sam.
“Sam, this is my best friend, Deena,” Kate says cheerfully, while Deena can only splutter. “You know, the one I was telling you about?”
Oh, Deena is going to murder Kate for this.
“Deena, right, hey!” Sam’s voice is soft, and much nicer to listen to than anyone in the marching band. “You did really great tonight.”
“You too,” Deena manages. There’s a pause, then, as Deena scrambles for something more to say. “If only cheer squads won the games instead of the useless jockstraps out on the field.”
It’s not her best work, but—yeah, there’s the dimple in Sam’s cheek.
“They really do suck, huh?” she agrees.
Kate watches them with an expression Deena can only assume is that of a proud parent.
“So, uh, how long have you been drumming?” Sam asks, gesturing to Deena’s band uniform. Deena becomes very aware that she’s still wearing her stupid uniform hat that the wires of her headphones keep getting caught on when she’s trying to listen to her Walkman.
“Coming up on four years,” she says. “But the first time I played in front of people was when I joined band last year.”
“Yeah, I feel like I would’ve remembered you in a middle school talent show,” Sam says, and Deena can’t tell if she’s joking or not. She laughs a little unsteadily.
“Yeah, I would’ve probably crushed it. Been a local celebrity. The biggest thing in eighth grade.” God, where are these words coming from? She needs to shut her mouth, like, yesterday.
Kate’s eyebrows are nearly in her hairline. Deena doesn’t know what she expected, given the sneak attack of this introduction. There’s only so much a fifteen year old lesbian can do when she comes face to face with the most beautiful girl in the world with no warning whatsoever.
Luckily, Sam’s either very good at hiding her disdain, or she genuinely thinks Deena’s funny, because she’s still smiling at her for some reason.
“Well, I totally would’ve worn one of those buttons with your name on it.” Sam quirks her lips to the side as she says it, cheeks tinting just a little bit pink (although Deena’s half sure she imagined that under the artificial glow of the floodlights).
“Um, th-thanks.” It’s a miracle Deena only stutters once.
Sam ducks her chin slightly. “Yeah, it’s… anyway, you crushed it out there tonight.”
She turns to Kate before Deena can even begin to come up with a reply.
“Uh, my mom is picking me up soon so I’d probably better go get changed,” she says quickly. “I’ll see you at practice?”
Kate nods. “See you then.”
Sam glances back at Deena, flashing that dimple Deena already knows is going to ruin her life one last time. “It was really nice officially meeting you, Deena.”
“Yeah, uh, same,” Deena manages.
She’s still staring helplessly after Sam long after she’s left for the changing rooms.
“Did you see any flying pigs?” Kate asks smugly.
Every game, Kate insists on socializing, which basically means she drags Deena over to talk to Sam, and sometimes Simon joins in on the fun by ostensibly talking to Kate so that it just leaves Deena and Sam together. And, against her better judgement, Deena’s starting to get to know her beyond the surface level. It’s dangerous waters the further out she goes, but there’s something addictive about Sam telling her things about herself, like the scar she still has on her knee from when she was seven years old and thought she could fly.
By the time Halloween is drawing near, Sam even starts sitting with them at lunch. Kate and Simon on one side of the table, Deena and Sam on the other. So what if Deena makes sure to keep her arms folded on top of the table so her elbow won’t accidentally brush Sam’s?
Impossibly, Deena begins to relax a little around her. Sam still makes her head spin and her heart race if she thinks about her too much, sure, but now that she knows Sam won’t judge her if she says something weird, it gives her the opportunity to just… coexist with her. And it’s nice.
She would still crawl through molten lava for the chance to kiss Sam, even just once, but she can do this whole ‘friendship’ thing, too.
Sometimes guys on the football team will come up to their table to ask Sam out, and every time Sam will unconsciously lean into Deena’s side, away from whatever dudebro is shooting his shot, and Deena feels a protective instinct surge up inside her alongside the customary jealousy that these sorry excuses for men get to freely ask Sam out while she’ll never be able to. Kate will send each guy on his way with a cutting remark, and Sam will sigh in relief when he leaves her alone, and Deena will remind herself of the way things are in the world.
Occasionally, she’ll catch Sam staring back at her, and it always leaves her breathless as she allows herself to consider the possibility, for a split-second, that Sam could ever be interested in her as something more than a friend. But that spark gets swept aside as fast as Deena can manage. Luckier than winning the lottery, she reminds herself.
The first time Sam comes to a group movie night, Deena doesn’t know how she makes it out the other side still breathing. Sam hits it off with Deena’s brother Josh, which is a relief, and the five of them settle into watching some horror movie that Simon insists on watching. Somehow (Deena has her suspicions) Sam ends up squished next to her on the old couch, pressed into Deena’s side, and from her shoulder down to her thigh, Deena’s skin feels like it’s on fire. She doesn’t dare tear her eyes away from the screen, even as characters get murdered in increasingly brutal and creative fashion, because she doesn’t want to risk catching Sam’s eye. She doesn’t even eat any popcorn in case their hands brush while they both reach for a handful.
“Deena?” Sam whispers, about three-quarters of the way into the movie.
“Hmm?” Deena turns to look at her, and realizes immediately what a mistake that was, because Sam’s face is so close to hers that she thinks she might be able to count her eyelashes. She swallows roughly.
“I really hate horror movies,” Sam confesses quietly, eyes wide.
“Do you need to stop?” Deena asks, “Because I can come up with an excuse for you or something.”
Sam shakes her head. “No, I just… do you mind being a human shield?”
Deena absolutely, categorically shouldn’t let this happen. But she does. Because it’s Sam, and she’s not sure if she could ever deny her anything.
She shrugs. “I’ve been told I’m pretty tough. I don’t mind.”
Sam nods, jolting slightly as the score of the movie reaches a discordant, sudden crescendo, and grips the sleeve of Deena’s navy sweater. Deena takes a deep breath, forcing her eyes to stay on the tiny screen as Sam briefly squeezes her forearm during another jumpscare. This is torture, but a tiny part of Deena is selfishly savoring the contact, because Sam’s initiating it, so it’s okay, right?
After Sam gets picked up by her mom and Deena meets Kate’s smug gaze, all she can do is weakly flip her off.
“Kate, for the last time,” Deena all but growls, “stop meddling. Sam does not have a crush on me.”
“Deena, for the last time,” Kate mocks, matching her tone, “open your fucking eyes! The girl cannot take her eyes off you. It’s beginning to impact our cheer routines.”
Deena snorts. “Yeah, sure.”
“I’m being serious,” Kate tries again. “At practice yesterday she even asked me if you’d ever had a girlfriend.”
Okay, that gives Deena pause for a second. Her brain quickly scrambles to come up with an excuse. “Probably just wants to know if I’m a lesbian-in-training or if I’ve completed the course on kissing girls so she knows how much distance to put between us.”
“Okay, I don’t have time to unpack just how many dumb things you just said,” Kate groans. “But come on, Deena, you know Sam better than that. You know she’s never had an issue with you being gay. Why would she ask that unless she was genuinely interested in the answer?”
“You’re reading too much into things, just like you did with Lord of the Flies in English class.”
“There’s a lot of symbolism in that book, bitch,” Kate says, rolling her eyes. “It’s called being a good student. Besides, I’m invoking the best friend ‘just trust me’ card.”
“That’s not even a thing!” Deena protests.
Kate narrows her eyes, a glimmer in them that Deena isn’t sure she likes. “Well, it is now. And I’m calling it in.”
Because she’s clearly an idiot, Deena doesn’t question it when Simon asks her to get him a triangle from the band closet after school one day. In her defense, it’s entirely believable that he wants to crash the band’s performance at the next football game.
She’s just picked up the instrument and is about to head out when she hears voices behind her. After a moment, she recognizes them as belonging to Kate and Sam.
“Wouldn’t Deena know more about this than me?” Sam asks, and Deena’s stomach flutters at hearing Sam say her name even in the most mundane of contexts.
“Yeah, but she’s gone home and I really need it found today,” Kate replies. “Besides, you seem very interested in the marching band so I figured you’re my next best option.”
Sam stutters for a moment. “Well, I— hey!”
Deena turns just in time to see Kate shove Sam none too gently into the space with her and swiftly step backwards. The door closes.
For a moment, Deena and Sam can only blink at each other. And then, Deena realizes that she’s been set up.
“Kate!” she yells. “Let us out!”
“The door’s jammed!” Kate yells back, not convincing in the slightest. “I’ll go find something to free it.”
Deena steps forwards and rattles the doorknob. It doesn’t budge. “How the fuck…”
“So… what’s happening?” Sam asks, coming up to stand beside her. Deena chances a glance at her over her shoulder, wondering how she’ll be able to explain away the real reason Kate has trapped them in a literal closet together.
“Kate is, uh, pranking us, I guess.”
Sam raises her eyebrows. She doesn’t appear to be freaking out. “Well, at least she’s pranking us together.”
And here’s the thing: Deena swears, for just a moment, that Sam’s eyes flicker down to her lips. When their eyes meet, electricity crackles between them - or at least it feels that way. Deena can’t tear her gaze away.
She is so fucked.
Kate doesn’t seem to be giving up on this ridiculous plan, as by Deena’s estimate their time in the closet together closes in on an hour. She’s determined, Deena will give her that. She’s still dead for this, though.
There’s no chairs in the band closet - there’s barely enough free space for two people as it is - so Deena and Sam sit cross legged on the floor, facing each other, talking to pass the time. It niggles in the back of Deena’s mind that she knows exactly what Kate wants them to talk about, but even if she was right and Sam was looking at her mouth earlier, she’s sure as hell not going to be the one to bring it up.
“How long is she gonna keep this up?” Sam wonders aloud.
Deena forces herself to shrug. “No idea. Maybe she’s trying to starve us. Maybe she walked away and forgot about us.”
(Deena would bet actual money that Kate is sat on the other side of that door with her ear pressed against it.)
“She’s… um, she’s been hinting pretty heavily that I should talk to you about something,” Sam says, her voice so quiet Deena wouldn’t be able to hear her unless she was sitting as close as she is.
A chill goes down Deena’s spine. Surely Kate wouldn’t…
“W-What did she say to you?” she asks, trying to keep her voice casual.
“Nothing!” Sam says quickly. And then her eyes are searching Deena’s, her eyes so blue and piercing that Deena feels like she’s looking directly into her soul. Sam takes a shaky breath, curling in on herself. “It’s actually… I think it’s more what I said to her.”
Deena’s stomach drops. Maybe, despite Kate’s reassurances, Sam does have a problem with her being gay after all, and Kate wants them to talk it out. “Oh.”
“Listen, Sam…” Deena begins, closing her eyes.
Sam laughs humorlessly. “That’s never a good start.”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to hang out with me anymore,” Deena ploughs on, determined to get this all out without spilling her heart with it. “If that’s what you want.”
Deena cracks one eye open to see Sam looking at her with the most bemused look Deena’s ever seen on her face.
“Why would you think I don’t want to hang out with you?” Sam asks, nose scrunched in a way that has no right being as adorable as it is.
Deena shrugs, curling in on herself too. “Kate said you asked her if I’d dated a girl. I thought maybe it made you uncomfortable.”
“What?” Sam says again, blinking a couple of times. “No, Deena, of course it doesn’t.”
“Oh.” Deena relaxes a fraction.
“I was worried I’d be making you uncomfortable,” Sam says, barely above a whisper.
“Because I think I…” Sam shakes her head at herself, sighing a little. “No, I know that I like you, Deena.”
Deena’s brain completely shuts down. Like, unable to form words shuts down. Sam nods, grimacing.
“And now you’re freaking out and I’ve gotten everything wrong,” she says, voice wobbling. She stumbles to her feet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything to Kate and I shouldn’t have put you in this position, I’ve just never felt like this about anyone before and for a while I thought that maybe you… but it’s okay. I promise, it’s fine that you don’t feel the same way.”
That’s what finally kicks Deena out of her stupor. What Sam’s saying, and the rising panic in her voice, and the way that she’s misinterpreted this whole situation. She scrambles to her feet too, almost knocking over a rogue cymbal, forcing words out of her dry throat.
Sam pauses, looking stricken. Deena tries to come up with something, anything, to voice what she feels for Sam, but her brain is letting her down big time. The past few months of stupid yearning and convincing herself it was fine that Sam didn’t feel the same way, and the daydreams of what she would say to Sam if she ever got luckier than winning the fucking lottery all fly out the window, and Deena’s left with the most terrifying question she can think to ask.
“Can I kiss you?”
Sam blinks once, twice, three times, her lips parted in surprise. The silence hangs heavy between them. Deena’s heart feels like it’s about to crack through her ribcage. And then, just as Deena’s about to take it back, Sam’s face breaks out into the best smile she’s ever seen.
And Sam nods.
Weak at the knees, Deena reaches out for her hand and tugs her closer. Sam stumbles slightly into her, hands landing on the curve of her waist as she puffs out a breath against Deena’s cheek. Deena’s heart skips an honest-to-God beat. One of her hands finds Sam’s shoulder, the other cups her cheek, and the last thing Deena sees before her eyes flutter closed is Sam leaning in.
In the end, it’s hard to tell who kisses whom. Deena thinks they probably meet in the middle. Sam’s lips are soft, and warm, and perfect. Their kiss is a little bit clumsy as they figure each other out, but Deena wouldn’t change a single second of it. Sam bunches the fabric of her sweater - the same navy sweater, Deena realizes with a jolt, that she was wearing at that one movie night - in her fists, tilting her head and kissing Deena with more intent than the first cautious press of lips. Her cheek is on fire beneath Deena’s palm, and it makes Deena feel less self-conscious about how hard her heart is hammering against her chest.
Deena feels like she might actually pass out if Sam keeps kissing her like this, so she reluctantly pulls back, although she doesn’t go far. She keeps her eyes closed, because she’s scared that once she opens them, the spell will be broken. She and Sam just kissed. Sam… likes her.
“I’ve had a crush on you for months,” Deena whispers into the safety of the starry void behind her closed eyelids.
She feels Sam’s forehead press against her own. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Deena says. It’s terrifying, being this honest with Sam about her feelings after telling herself every day that Sam could never know. But Sam jumped off that emotional cliff first, proving that maybe seven year old her was right about being able to fly after all, and Deena owes it to both of them to tell her.
The way Sam whispers her name, like she’s in awe of it, makes Deena feel like the most important person on the planet. She has no idea how Sam can make her feel like that with one word. It’s what finally makes her open her eyes, to see Sam already looking right at her, this soft look on her face. She looks happy, Deena realizes - truly happy.
Deena can’t help it; she kisses Sam again. On the cheeks, on the nose, on the forehead, and then finally on the lips again. It’s a kiss that they both smile into, and it’s surely the sweetest thing Deena has ever tasted in her nearly sixteen years on this planet. She knows, right then, that she would do anything for this girl.
Deena doesn’t even register the sound of the band closet door opening until she hears Kate’s voice behind Sam.
Right. Deena still has to murder Kate (and probably Simon for good measure) for this. But, she thinks, as Sam breaks the kiss with a giggle that leads to her burying her face in Deena’s neck, maybe she can learn to forgive and forget.