Toni’s thoughts explode into a mess of sensations and colors and clipped words—she hears Shelby’s voice in her head: a fleeting, half-moaned, “I want—” before she’s distracted by the desperate heat spreading out to her fingertips and her toes, and then there’s the overwhelming urge, again, to press herself into Shelby until they’re impossible to separate, to be inside of her, and the last part isn’t even intended to be sexual until Toni’s brain thinks the words over and then it very much is; it’s all she can think about.
“I heard that,” Shelby pants into her mouth even as she pulls Toni closer, and Shelby’s voice sounds so low and so unlike Toni’s ever heard it, and there’s something so incredibly thrilling about discovering something new about Shelby after so many years of knowing her inside and out.
“Good,” she blurts, and they kiss again, fast and frantic at first like they need to get it out of their systems, and when it finally slows a little Toni tries to take in everything and finds that it’s too much, that her senses feel overloaded: she can hear longer sentences in her head now, phrases like “we should be on the bed”, and she can feel Shelby’s annoyance at the fact that she wants her hands on Toni but also needs them to take her pants off, and Toni’s skin burns in all the places she’s being touched but also in the same places she’s touching Shelby’s, and most overwhelming is the love; it fries her brain once she acknowledges it and it makes her feel like her body alone isn’t strong enough to contain it. Shelby loves her and she can feel the strength of it, like it’s been held back for so long and the dam has finally been allowed to burst.
She steers Shelby toward one of the beds and for half a second her mind goes to Regan, wonders about Regan and Shelby and if they’d ever—And she doesn’t even complete the thought before a confident denial echoes in her head and she feels a desperate longing pouring out of Shelby’s heart into hers, telling her nonverbally that it’s always been her, that Shelby’s always wanted it to be her and that she’d only kissed Regan because it was the closest she could get to Toni.
Toni says the words aloud because she thinks they need to be said, lowers Shelby onto the bed and murmurs, “I’m sorry,” against her lips, thinking of that overwhelming sadness on the night she’d lost her virginity, and of how she’d felt it over and over again after every time with Regan and had taken so long to put a stop to it anyway. “I just wanted you too. I’m sorry I didn’t wait.”
She feels a dozen regrets sweep through Shelby, too, and she can feel that Shelby wants to voice them but she knows right away that they both know Shelby doesn’t have to, because Toni’s spent too many days under the Goodkind’s roof, so happy to have a real family for the day but so sad with the knowledge that they’d never accept the real Shelby.
They communicate everything in seconds, through fleeting, frantic emotions and broken, silent phrases, and Toni’s mouth stays pressed to Shelby’s all the while, still kissing her intensely and trying to hold herself back from moving too quickly even though the instant she has that concern everything in her mind and body screams at her in response that Shelby wants her to keep going.
She gives a brief, half-second thought to how quickly they can both communicate like this and how easily she can feel what Shelby feels, and what that might mean if they really went through with this, if she unbuttoned Shelby’s pants and then knew just how—And she doesn’t finish that thought, either, because Shelby arches into her and whimpers and then Toni is frantically peeling clothes away and Shelby is helping her, and Toni is right; it’s surreal and mind-blowing and almost magical, touching Shelby and feeling what she feels—both the touches and the emotions—and everything about it is so raw and unfiltered.
They don’t speak because they don’t have to, because Toni knows everything and feels everything without having to be told about it, and it doesn’t last long at all but Toni feels sparks below her navel as it ends, so much more intense than when they’d done this alone with several states between them. Toni doesn’t count the seconds when it’s her own turn, but by the time Shelby rolls them over and touches her, she can hear Shelby’s thoughts loud and clear like they’re her own, and the running mental commentary about her own beauty combined with half-finished, carnal thoughts about how exactly Shelby feels about doing this with her leaves Toni pretty certain that this time it’s even more short-lived than Shelby’s turn had been.
They stay pressed together beneath the covers afterward, and Toni feels overwhelmed with Shelby’s mouth at her neck and Shelby’s voice murmuring, “again, again, again,” in the back of Toni’s mind. More haphazard words and phrases toss themselves around and Toni catches “taste” and it feels harder for her to breathe, suddenly. Shelby’s mouth dips lower, to her collarbone, and then lower again, and Toni doesn’t stop her; in fact she’s certain this is going both ways, that Shelby can hear every fleeting thought she has too and knows exactly how Toni feels about this, because her cheek feels hot when Toni reaches down a minute later to gently cup her jaw.
Eventually they pass out sometime before midnight, tangled up in each other with their hearts still thrumming in tandem, and as Toni falls asleep she doesn’t think at all about what might await them in the morning, far too focused on the girl in her arms and the way Shelby’s eyes are so dark and warm and soft when they look into her own.
They have a few more days before classes start and no plans the following day beyond a vague commitment to hang out with Fatin and Leah again at some point, so neither of them has set an alarm. Toni wakes up sometime just before noon to Shelby adjusting her position at Toni’s side, and feels a gentle hand run through her hair and settle at her cheek as her eyes start to flutter open.
She blinks until her vision comes into focus, and they’re still pressed together tightly in the same way they’d fallen asleep, Shelby’s slightly longer legs tangled with Toni’s, an arm that belongs to Shelby’s body thrown over a waist that belongs to Toni.
Toni looks at dark hair and brown eyes and squeezes her own eyes—Shelby’s eyes—shut immediately, feeling her own sense of hopelessness mixing with Shelby’s emotions. She feels her own lips pressing against the forehead of the body she’s now stuck in for the day, and her own raspy voice murmuring a quiet, “Let’s just stay here for a while, Toni.”
Shelby’s thoughts still echo faintly in her head after last night and Toni listens to them for a while, hears her wondering if anything will ever fix this and cycling through every concern about how this will affect them if it goes on forever. Shelby gives a fleeting thought as to whether or not it’d be strange for them to kiss when they’re swapped like this, and when Toni gives a short, dry laugh at that, Shelby seems to remember that her thoughts aren’t entirely private anymore, and Toni watches her close her eyes and hears her trying not to think at all.
“I don’t think you can hide it like that,” she murmurs, and when Shelby opens her eyes Toni studies them for a moment, stares at her own face and finds it’s already starting to feel like it’s their face now, after doing this daily for a while—or maybe it’s just that she’s cynical enough to already be on her way to accepting that things aren’t going to change. “I don’t know if it’d be weird,” she murmurs, addressing Shelby’s earlier concern. “After a while won’t it start to feel like we’re both just us? I mean, we’ll always know where we started and where we spent more time, but by the time we’ve graduated we’ll have spent two years in each body. We’re probably close to six months total right now and we’re already like this. It’ll just get stronger.”
“You’re already talking about it like it’s a foregone conclusion,” Shelby notices.
“What else is supposed to fix it?” Toni wonders.
“I don’t know,” Shelby replies, but Toni hears her thinking about them having a repeat of last night when they’re like this, like maybe it needs to happen both ways for some reason. Shelby doesn’t seem thrilled by the thought.
“Hey,” Toni says, and when she earns Shelby’s focus she gives her a sly grin, trying to cheer her up. “Do you think it’d technically count as masturbation?”
Shelby huffs and slaps her on the arm. “I’m gonna hate having you in my head, aren’t I?”
They don’t try it, not at first, and everything gets even more difficult when classes start the following week. Toni has practices too, and right away she feels the impact of their situation on Shelby’s life—Shelby doesn’t say anything aloud but Toni hears enough broken thoughts about a Christian sorority on campus to put together that Shelby’d considered joining it at first and then had decided it’d be too much to add to their plate.
“Join it anyway,” Toni insists at the end of their first week, and Shelby just smiles sadly at her and shakes her head. Toni joins it for her the next time she’s in Shelby’s body, and they have their first big fight over it: Shelby shouts at Toni out in the parking lot that she doesn’t get to choose for the both of them, that they have to discuss things like this now and make a joint decision, but then she doesn’t quit the sorority, either.
They both make friends—mutual ones, like Fatin and Leah, but also separate ones, like the girls from Toni’s basketball team or the girls in Shelby’s sorority. Except they aren’t really separate, of course, and Toni dislikes some of the basketball girls Shelby gets along with, and actually likes a couple of the sorority girls Shelby doesn’t tend to speak to.
They take turns attending each other’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday classes every other week, but it’s not as difficult as Toni thought it’d be. There is some part of their minds that has become shared, or maybe has always been shared and has just grown stronger now. Toni knows things sometimes she only could’ve learned in Shelby’s classes even though she’s confident she hadn’t attended the relevant session.
It feels strange calling Shelby her girlfriend, but they go out together too, on days when they’re in the right bodies. Fatin barges in on them making out on Toni’s bed one night and gives a sharp gasp as they break apart, then beams at them and goes, “Oops. Shocker, the twins are also both into each other. Have fun!”
Toni looks at Shelby once they’re alone and asks, “Was that okay?”
Shelby gives her a reassuring nod. “It was bound to come out eventually. I can hardly keep my hands off of you.” Toni gives a stray thought to Shelby’s parents and Shelby clarifies right away, “I don’t know when I’ll tell them. But I feel safe here. And I don’t expect them to do much visiting.”
“Okay,” Toni concedes, and then she thinks back to Fatin’s words and adds, “I always thought we were really different.” She feels like something’s shifted that she’s missed, lately.
Shelby kisses her and then says, “Yesterday I was eating lunch and I burped so loudly it turned heads. Didn’t even put my hand over my mouth.”
Toni laughs and recalls, “I don’t hate everyone like I used to. And I don’t get angry nearly as easily.”
“I think that could be a good thing,” Shelby replies, cupping Toni’s face in her hands and kissing her again. “Maybe it’s not all bad.”
Toni reflects on the past few weeks with a slow exhale, letting her eyes dip to Shelby’s soft smile. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve been making it work. And she’s so quickly gotten used to having Shelby as such a constant part of her body and mind that she starts to think she might feel incomplete without her. “I don’t hate it,” she agrees. “I wake up sometimes and know about most of your day without you having to fill me in.”
“Your face is still the face I fell in love with,” Shelby tells her quietly, “but the more time I spend in your body the more I start to feel like what I actually love is…” Shelby furrows her eyebrows. “Your spirit? Soul? Whatever you believe makes us what we are on the inside.”
Toni thinks it over, pictures something ridiculous like Fatin suddenly being thrown into the mix; she isn’t Toni’s type at all but she imagines Fatin and Shelby in each other’s bodies and knows right away she’d only have eyes for wherever the real Shelby wound up. “Me too,” she confesses. “I love the way you look. I think you’re insanely pretty. But I think I’d love you no matter what.”
“What are we getting at, here?” Shelby asks gently, and her thoughts are guarded and quiet, like she’s trying to keep her mind blank to keep Toni at bay.
“I think we’re thinking the same thing,” Toni confesses. “But I also think that if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to be heartbroken over it.”
Shelby nods a silent agreement, but her eyes skate over Toni’s face and Toni can see and feel that she’s nervous. “Maybe with the lights off, though,” she suggests.
“Yeah.” Toni gives a forced laugh.
They wait until close to midnight but start beforehand, lay out on Toni’s bed and kiss and touch with Toni overtop of Shelby, and when the clock hits 12:00 AM Toni feels the familiar tug at her chest, squeezes her eyes shut and then feels a soft mattress under her back and hands touching her new body where she’d been touching Shelby’s.
“Okay?” Shelby checks, and Toni hears her own voice and thinks very loudly that Shelby shouldn’t speak, gets a wave of amusement in her chest that she knows comes from Shelby but then Shelby goes quiet and just kisses her for a while, and the strangeness goes away much faster than Toni thought it would, especially with it being too dark for either of them to really see each other.
They lay together afterward, like always, and Toni stares up at the ceiling with wide eyes, because it really had been different, but in a way she hadn’t anticipated—Shelby’s body is a little different from hers, feels things a little differently, and she’s just felt something that’s so intimate in the way that Shelby feels it. She can’t stop thinking about it.
“I don’t think I want to fix this,” she whispers, finally, and Shelby’s dark eyes flutter open to look at Toni’s pale cheek. “I don’t want you to go.”
“Whatever happens,” Shelby murmurs, tangling their fingers together, “I’m not going anywhere.”
They have to wait two days to find out, because of course they swap back to their own bodies the next day, and on the morning after that Toni wakes up, turns her head, and sees blonde hair fanned out over her pillow. She feels relief flood her chest and she bites back a smile.
Shelby wakes up a few minutes later and rolls over so that they’re facing each other, and they both stare for a long while, Toni into brown eyes and Shelby into green.
“So,” Shelby breathes out after a long while, “I guess that’s it, then.”
She doesn’t sound disappointed, or uncertain, or afraid, and Toni just nods at her. “I guess so. For now.”
“For now,” Shelby echoes, and then looks thoughtful. “Yeah. Maybe for now.”
“Maybe forever,” Toni wonders, pondering it too. Even after everything they’ve done, all of the days they’ve spent swapping and the things they’ve made happen, there are still no answers. Toni has no clue why this ever started, and why them, and why like this. But she mulls it all over and slowly concludes that they may just never get an explanation.
“I think that’s okay,” Shelby says, maybe responding to Toni’s words or maybe reading her mind.
Toni lifts a hand to her chest, feels Shelby’s heart beating beneath her fingertips like she’s felt it dozens of times before. She hears Shelby’s thoughts, echoing Shelby’s words and confirming that she means them, and she feels a calmness in herself that she knows is reflected in the girl laying feet away from her.
“It’s okay,” she agrees, and means it.
There’s a spot they’d visited during their first weekend on campus, on the rooftop of the university library. Shelby’d found it and taken Toni there on their first official date, laid out a blanket and watched the stars with her.
They go there that night, just before eleven o’clock; there’s a clocktower on campus nearby that they can see clearly from their spot on the roof, and it chimes eleven times while they’re lying together, holding hands with Shelby resting her head on Toni’s chest.
They talk about everything, even though talking’s becoming less and less of a necessity each and every day, given how quickly they can read exactly what they’re both thinking and feeling. Toni wonders about the future, about the basketball career she wants, but makes sure to let Shelby know that she isn’t worried, because Shelby’s always been better at three-pointers than Toni anyway. Shelby talks about being a music teacher and reassures Toni that she’s just as good as Shelby is now at hitting the right notes when she sings.
“I like being called Shelby sometimes,” Toni confesses eventually, her eyes skating over the night sky. “It feels like I’m being confused for something bigger and better than myself.”
“I like being called Toni,” Shelby says, “because it reminds me that I’m not alone.”
Toni bites back another smile and gives a light shake of her head. “You were never alone, Shelby. Ever.”
She feels Shelby squeeze her hand, hears warm thoughts bouncing around in her mind with Shelby’s voice behind them, and feels love emanating throughout her chest in slow, comforting waves.
It’s almost midnight.