Toni knew that this day would come. She’d hoped that it wouldn’t, had hoped that she was just being paranoid because of everything she’d been through, had hoped that this time, just this time, it wouldn’t all fall apart.
But she should’ve known better than to hope. After all, hoping had only led her to disappointment in the past.
Like when she’d hoped that her mother would really stay clean this time, or that Regan had meant it when she said she’d stay, or that the Dawn of Eve retreat might actually be fun.
Everything ended up ruined in the end. Everyone ended up leaving.
Still, she’d hoped that Shelby wouldn’t.
Shelby Goodkind was literally the last person in the world that Toni had expected to fall for. She was a Christian from the South whose favourite restaurant was The Cheesecake Factory and whose favourite genre of music was country. Not exactly Toni’s type.
At first Toni had fucking hated her. Hated her blonde ponytail, and her accent, and the way Martha loved her, and the way that Shelby seemed to have a smile for any situation.
But then after several events, including Shelby kissing her out of the blue, Shelby having sex with her under a lychee tree, and Shelby admitting that she actually had feelings for her, Toni’s opinion on her had changed.
And after getting stuck on a fucking island in the middle of nowhere, and then getting rescued, only to find out that the rescue was fake, and that they’d been part of a sick experiment the whole time, Toni had thought that maybe, life was going to do her a solid.
Maybe she’d get to live together with Shelby Goodkind, and she’d get to wake up every morning and see her, and she’d get to eat breakfast with her, and talk with her, and Shelby would be her girlfriend, and that’d be perfectly fine with Toni.
It had been like that for three months, actually.
Three months after the trial where Gretchen and her henchmen were put away for good, and Toni had finally felt like she could breathe properly.
She’d treasured those months, this time with Shelby, this time where she was allowed to be happy, and she’d promised herself that she wasn’t going to let it go.
She wasn’t going to let her temper get the best of her, and she wasn’t going to be a dick to Shelby, and she wasn’t going to be her mother, or her father for that matter, and she was going to be enough for someone, finally.
The worst part was, Toni was pretty sure that she’d done all of that. As much as she wracked her brain, she couldn’t find a reason for it.
A reason for why Shelby was going to leave her.
Granted, it hadn’t happened yet, but Toni wasn’t a fucking idiot. She knew the signs.
It had all started this morning. Toni had woken up early, because she had to get to one of her 8am classes. Why she’d signed up for that class, Toni really didn’t know, because she seriously was a slow starter.
But she’d woken up early, had smiled down at her still sleeping girlfriend, and before slipping out of bed, she’d pressed a quick kiss to her forehead, just because she could.
She’d even left a note, because, well, she knew that even when they had an established routine, sometimes the island left its mark, and Shelby could get worried that something had happened.
It had happened before, and so Toni had decided to leave a note every time she woke up early to go somewhere, or to go anywhere when it wasn’t planned.
This morning the note had read,
Hey Princess, I’m off to that early class, and then I’m meeting up with Martha for coffee. I’ll be back about midday, but please feel free to text me, you know I’ll miss you.
It was a pretty standard note, but she knew that Shelby would smile when she saw it.
The class had been boring, of course, but Toni had stayed awake through it all. She knew that Shelby’s alarm was set to 9am, even if she had the day off today, so when that time arrived, she started checking her phone for a good morning text.
When none came, that was her first sign that something was wrong.
She’d brushed it off, and had gone to coffee with Martha. They’d talked about classes, and about how Martha’s family was doing, and that cute boy in Martha’s Art class that she totally needed to ask out.
Shelby didn’t text at all.
Toni thought it was weird, but she didn’t really think too hard about it. For all she knew, Shelby had turned right over and had gone back to bed that morning.
When she arrived back at the apartment, she’d opened the door and called out,
“Hey Shelby, I’m back.” The room had echoed with silence, and Toni frowned. Shelby always called back, that girl had amazing hearing, so it was weird that there was nothing. Surely, Shelby wasn’t still asleep?
And she wasn’t. The bed was empty, although clearly slept in. Shelby hadn’t bothered to make it, which was weird, because she always did.
When Toni investigated the kitchen, she found that her note from early was gone, and had been replaced by a hastily scribbled note that said,
Went for a walk.
It was so short that Toni frowned. Shelby’s notes always read like she’d spoken the words aloud, and she’d add in a pet name and a love heart for extra decoration.
That was Toni’s second sign.
The third came shortly after that. Toni had felt hungry, so she’d eaten one of the bananas they had in their fruit basket. When she’d gone to put the peel in the bin, she saw a bit of scrunched up paper sitting on top of the other waste.
Normally, she wouldn’t have even checked, but something wasn’t sitting right in her chest, so she did.
It was the note she’d written that morning.
That made absolutely no sense. Shelby always kept Toni’s notes. Either she put them in a box, or she’d tuck them into a pocket so that she could be surprised by it later. When Toni had discovered an old note of her in one of Shelby’s jacket pockets, she’d been unable to keep the grin off of her face, even when she went to kiss Shelby.
Now though, she couldn’t keep the frown off of her face, and she couldn’t get rid of that sinking feeling in her chest.
Something was definitely wrong.
Trying not to panic too hard out of the gate, Toni had sent Shelby a quick text.
Toni: Hey Princess, haven’t seen you yet this morning, missing you
It didn’t exactly warrant a response, but Shelby was one of those people who thought it was horribly rude to leave a text unresponded to.
So, when she didn’t get a response, Toni sort of felt like screaming.
Instead, she just worked on the homework she had from her morning class, and tried to stop her brain from freaking out too much.
The fourth sign that something was horribly wrong, came at about 1pm, when Shelby finally walked back into their apartment.
Toni looked up from her work immediately, and even if she was kind of freaking out internally, she still smiled when she saw Shelby.
Hey, she was in love, it was allowed.
Shelby on the other hand, avoided Toni’s eyes, and seemed very occupied with taking off her shoes, and making herself as small as possible.
“Hey, Shelby, I thought you disappeared, I was worried,” Toni said, getting up and making her way over to Shelby. With every step, she felt that pit of worry in her stomach churn even more.
Eventually she just slowed to a stop a metre or so away from Shelby.
“Shelby? You okay?”
Shelby looked up, and nodded furiously, giving Toni one of her famous pageant smiles.
“Oh yeah, I’m great, don’t worry.”
So, all that combined meant that something was horribly wrong. And Toni was not about to just let it slide.
“You’re being weird. What happened?”
Shelby was continuing to make a great effort at looking at Toni but not making eye contact.
“Nothing happened, I’m just, uh, just a little tired is all, I didn’t sleep too great last night.”
Shelby should’ve known that wouldn’t work. It was Toni, after all, she could read Shelby like a book, and she knew when something was really badly wrong.
This was one of those times.
And when Shelby was like this, usually if Toni just gently applied some pressure, she’d snap out of it, and they could talk about it.
She reached out, to gently wrap her hand around Shelby’s wrist, and to also lift her hand to nudge Shelby’s head up to look at her, like she’d done so many times before.
Except this time, Shelby reacted, and she did so violently.
She jerked her wrist away from Toni’s grasp, and practically backed herself into the wall trying to get away from Toni’s touch. As she did, she snapped,
“Don’t touch me!”
It was like the words had been yanked out of her, and Toni was so startled that she flinched back. Shelby was never sharp with her, she was always soft, and she never yelled. When they had fights, Shelby could get passive aggressive and frustrated, but she was never like this.
She never made Toni feel scared, even if it was only for a second.
Shelby’s green eyes blinked up at her, like she hadn’t even realised where she was. Toni thought for a moment that she was going to apologise, and Toni’s Shelby would be back, and everything would be okay.
But Shelby just shook her head, pursed her lips, and said quietly,
“I’m going to the bathroom. Sorry.”
And she just fucking left Toni standing there, hands frozen where they had been when Shelby had jumped back.
That was the moment that every single old insecurity pulled themselves to the forefront, making themselves uncomfortably known.
Shelby was never like that with Toni. She hadn’t been like that with Toni since the island, when they hadn’t known each other, when they had been strangers.
Suddenly Toni felt like a little kid again, watching her mother acting so weirdly, and wondering what had happened to the woman that bought her glow in the dark stickers because she knew how much Toni hated the dark and loved outer space.
Toni felt that cold feeling, the one that stuck in her stomach, and slithered up her throat, making her feel like she needed to cry and throw up at the same time. But instead, she just went back to the table where she’d been doing her work, and she stared at the screen of her laptop, and her blinking cursor.
For the rest of the day, Shelby acted like that. She didn’t speak to Toni, hell, it was like she didn’t even want to look at Toni. All she did was pace around the apartment, like she was looking for something, and sit on the couch, typing on her laptop.
Toni kept trying to think of conversation starters, of literally anything that she could say, but she was too scared to say anything. Because what if Shelby snapped at her again, what if Shelby was really angry at her?
Toni didn’t think she could handle that.
The first time Shelby actually spoke to her was at 4pm, when she stood up, and announced,
“I’m gonna go meet Dot.”
That was it. No ‘goodbye’. No ‘I’ll be back at 5’. Just that one sentence.
And that was where Toni was at now, sitting alone in the apartment that her and Shelby shared, trying so very hard not to scream, because Shelby had been gone for about an hour at this point, and her brain was very good at coming up with horrible ideas.
Which was how she’d settled on the realisation that Shelby was going to leave her.
You could argue that Toni was jumping to conclusions, but it made sense. Shelby was being cold, and distant, like she was trying to pull away from Toni. She’d literally pulled away from Toni earlier, she wasn’t showing any of the love that she usually showed, she kept acting like she didn’t even want to be in the same space as Toni, and now she was off to meet Dot.
Dot, Shelby’s best friend. If Shelby was planning on leaving Toni, it made sense that she’d tell Dot. Yeah, she would tell Dot that she was tired of Toni, and that she just couldn’t do it anymore, and Dot would nod understandingly, and she’d tell Shelby that she’d let Martha know ahead of time, so that everyone was prepared for Toni’s big blow-up.
The thing was, if Toni hadn’t been in this exact situation so many times, she might not have ended up at the conclusions she did. But she had.
Her mother hadn’t done this the first time, but Toni remembered the time she’d come back, promising that it was for good. Everything had been fine, but then she’d gone away for longer and longer, and she’d stopped smiling at Toni, and she’d mentioned that Toni might need to stay over at her grandmother’s place soon.
Then of course, there were all the foster families that had grown tired of her. They’d start tiptoeing around her, unable to look at her, like they were guilty. Then she’d get pulled into the living room, and they’d sit her down, and without meeting her eyes once, they’d tell her that she wasn’t the right fit for the family, and that she needed to leave.
It had even happened in her last relationship, with Regan. After the incident where Toni had let her anger get the better of her, Regan had withdrawn. She’d stopped sending texts, she’d stopped spending time with Toni, she’d stopped looking for her in every room they were in.
They’d all followed this exact pattern, avoiding Toni because they were about to leave. They did it because they were guilty about leaving, or they were worried that if they made a clean break that she’d blow up, so they tried to ease her into it.
She’d never thought that Shelby would do that. Fuck, she’d never thought that Shelby would leave her, but she’d thought at least that Shelby wouldn’t make her play this game.
It fucking sucked. Toni could barely stop herself from crying or throwing up. She didn’t, but only because she promised herself that she’d save that until after Shelby had trampled all over her heart.
Shelby came back at 5:30pm, and Toni had started making dinner. She hadn’t texted Shelby asking what she wanted, she’d just started cooking, and hoped that Shelby would at least wait until after they’d eaten to do it.
Toni wasn’t a great cook, but she’d had to learn the basics so that she didn’t starve in some foster families. Tonight, she was making some simple mac and cheese.
Shelby didn’t announce her presence as she came in, in fact, she almost snuck into the house, leading Toni further down that path in her mind. She was scared that Toni was going to be mad, she was literally tiptoeing around her.
Suddenly, that pit in Toni’s stomach churned into anger, and for a moment she forgot how to breathe. Because, fuck, she was pissed. Shelby had basically ignored her all day, she’d been jumpy, and a complete jerk.
And she was going to just abandon Toni, even though she’d promised Toni that she wouldn’t. Even though she’d promised that she’d never hurt Toni like that.
Toni ran through the mindfulness exercises that her therapist had taught her, and she managed to work herself back into a standard breathing pattern.
Shelby waited at the dinner table, and Toni served up their dinner. The two of them ate in silence, and even though Toni could feel Shelby’s gaze on her—for the first fucking time all day—she refused to make eye contact.
When they’d both finished, Toni heard Shelby clearing her throat, and she realised that this was the moment.
And she wasn’t fucking ready for it.
No. No, she wasn’t fucking ready to say goodbye to Shelby.
So, she stood up, her chair scraping against the wooden floor, and Shelby followed her, eyes wide at Toni’s sudden movement.
“Uh, I’m feeling like, really fucking tired, so I’m gonna get an early night tonight, actually.”
Shelby turned to look at the clock hanging next to one of their windows.
Toni nodded, hoping that she looked halfway convincing.
“Yeah, the early class was a lot, and then like, I’ve been doing work all day, and like…” and I’ve been completely ignored by my girlfriend, and it turns out that freaking out over a potential breakup is very tiring, wouldn’t you know?
Toni decided against saying that last bit out loud.
“Okay, well, that’s alright. Um, I hope that you sleep well.” Shelby sounded just as awkward as Toni felt, and now she was back to not making eye contact.
Great, so they were at the ‘awkward interactions where it’s clear that you’re trying to figure out how to explain that you don’t want me anymore’ stage of this.
Toni turned to go, but then Shelby stood up as well.
Toni tensed, and slowly turned to face Shelby, hoping and fucking praying that she really wasn’t about to do it now, not after Toni had just embarrassed herself with that excuse.
“If you’re that tired, you’ll probably be out by the time I get in and, uh, well,” Shelby paused, and looked at the ground. Toni just stared at her. When she stayed silent, she prompted,
“Yeah?” She knew that she probably sounded annoyed as hell, but she really needed out of this fucking room, and every moment spent here with Shelby’s, whatever this was, made her feel like screaming.
Shelby sighed and looked up.
“Can I kiss you goodnight?”
Toni faltered at that. She hadn’t been expecting that, hadn’t been expecting that Shelby would want any sort of physical contact.
Until it hit her that this was probably some sort of sympathy kiss, once again to soften the blow.
Toni had half a mind to refuse, but Bernice’s old advice of how you should ‘never go to bed angry at your partner’ stuck in her head, and maybe she was mad, but she couldn’t just completely burn this to the ground.
Besides, she’d really missed Shelby, and even if it was a pity kiss, it would still be her.
So, she walked over to Shelby, and kissed her softly, careful not to reach out for her, because, well, Shelby hadn’t wanted that earlier, and Toni really didn’t know if that had changed.
When Shelby reached out to hesitantly grasp at Toni’s waist, she almost reached back, but that pit in her stomach stopped her, and she pulled back, but she didn’t leave immediately.
Shelby seemed to be waiting for something, so Toni just nodded and forced a smile.
“Goodnight, Shelby,” she whispered, realising that if she rose her voice any higher, it’d break with the emotion churning in her.
Later that night, as she lay in bed, trying to sleep, she heard Shelby come in after completing her nightly routine. Toni had tried to fall asleep, but she just kept thinking, trying to figure out what she’d done wrong, what it had been that had finally made Shelby decide that she wasn’t enough.
Shelby slipped into bed next to her, and Toni didn’t move, trying to make her breathing sound slow and even. She’d gotten pretty good at it in various foster homes over the years, so she was pretty sure that Shelby didn’t suspect a thing.
She could feel Shelby hovering next to her, and she wondered if she was going to say something, perhaps a quiet apology meant for no one, or a confession of some sin.
But instead, Shelby just pressed a featherlight kiss to the top of Toni’s exposed shoulder, and whispered,
“I love you.”
It took everything in Toni to not break right then. But she held it together, even if she stayed awake for hours after Shelby fell asleep, wondering what was going to happen tomorrow.
Toni, after getting about three hours sleep, woke up early to go to the gym. Or, at least, that was sort of why. Mostly it was because she didn’t think she could face Shelby.
She still left a note behind, although it was less expressive than usual.
Just went out to the gym. Might be out a bit today.
Toni went to the gym, and she tried to get all her negative emotions out through the exercise, pushing herself further than she usually did. It almost worked, and then she flicked on her phone, saw the background photo of her and Shelby, and she was right back to the edge of despair.
She showered at the gym, because she knew that going home meant a chance of running into Shelby, and that conversation that she was desperately avoiding. The gym showers weren’t as nice, and they didn’t have that lavender soap that Shelby loved so much, the one that Toni had started using, just because the smell reminded her of Shelby.
Once again, that thought nearly made her cry.
She held firm though, and dressed herself in normal clothes, before going out to do some of her uni work in the nearby coffeeshop.
Honestly, Toni hadn’t noticed how long she’d been out until her phone vibrated with a new text message and she picked it up to check.
The first thing she noticed was the time. 12:47pm.
The second thing she noticed was the text.
Shelby<3: Can we talk?
Three fucking words, and Toni was breaking her promise to hold firm, and to save her tears until after the breakup.
Because that was it.
Those were the words that meant that Toni couldn’t avoid this conversation anymore, and they were the words that lead her to her doom.
Can we talk?
That was what her mother asked every time she made it out of rehab, before she relapsed and left again.
That was what foster families had asked, with a smile on their face, before telling Toni that she was out.
That was what Regan had asked, before meeting up with her in her car, and promptly breaking her heart.
You didn’t have to be a genius to know what those words meant.
Toni barely remembered gathering her stuff up to leave the coffeeshop, everything was blurred in a haze of tears. Suddenly, she was sitting on a bench in the nearby park, and she was calling Martha, the phone ringing in her hand as she muffled her sobs with the edge of her sweater.
Thank God she hadn’t picked out one of Shelby’s to wear otherwise she might be a complete lost cause right now.
Martha picked up on the third ring.
“Hey Toni, what’s going on?”
Toni couldn’t speak. Her throat was completely closed up with tears and bile and that sick slimy feeling, and fuck, Toni could not do this.
Toni let out a whimper, a fucking whimper, and then she was sniffling and sobbing audibly, and she knew Martha could hear. She knew that it said enough without her needing to explain.
“Toni, oh my god, are you okay? Did something happen, do you need me to come over?”
Toni shook her head, before remembering that Martha couldn’t see her. She forced the words through her broken throat.
“No, it’s fine Marty, but um,” She swallowed, “I think Shelby’s gonna break up with me.” She said it conversationally, but then another wave of tears came rushing out.
Fuck, this hurt so bad.
It was like someone had pushed a knife into her gut, and was intent of touching every inch of her chest with the sharpened edges, leaving every part of her aching.
“What? Toni, what’s happening?”
Toni lifted her knuckles to her mouth and bit down, trying to gain some control over herself. Slowly, the pain, pain that she controlled, brought her back, and she was able to get some words out.
“She’s doing it Marty, she’s—fuck she’s pulling away, and, and—I don’t think she loves me anymore, but I—I don’t know what I did wrong, I don’t know what I did wrong Marty, why does everyone leave, what did I do wrong?” She was back to crying by the end of that, and she knew that anyone sitting near her was probably watching her with concern.
On the other end of the phone, she could hear Martha breathing, probably trying to think of anything to say. Toni didn’t even know what she wanted Martha to say.
“Toni. I need you to breathe, okay? We can talk about this, and you can tell me exactly what happened, and how to fix it, but first you need to breathe.”
Toni swallowed, noting that her throat felt sore. Distantly, Martha walked her through the steps that she always did to calm Toni down when she was breaking down, and she followed them through using muscle memory alone.
Slowly, her vision cleared, and she was just sitting on a bench, Martha’s voice coming through the phone asking her if she was okay.
Toni sniffled. “Yeah, Marty, I’m good.”
Over the phone, Toni heard the sound of a door closing, and another voice.
“Marty, who’s that?”
“It’s Dot, she just got home with the groceries.”
Fuck, Dot, who Shelby had talked to yesterday, Dot, who probably knew all about this, who probably knew everything.
“Toni? What’s wrong?”
Toni heard Dot’s voice in the background after Martha’s.
“Is Toni alright?”
Martha’s voice was quieter when she responded, but Toni still heard it.
“No, I’m not really sure what happened, but she thinks that Shelby’s breaking up with her? I don’t know if she actually did, or if Toni’s just worried, I haven’t really had a chance to—”
“Toni’s worried about Shelby?” There was a pause and then, “Oh for fucks sake, Martha give me the phone, I need to talk to Toni.”
Toni’s stomach dropped. If Martha gave the phone to Dot, then Dot would probably just tell her that her fears were right, or that she was pissed off at her for whatever it was that Toni had done to make Shelby stop loving her.
“Toni, Dot wants to speak with you.”
“No,” Toni nearly shouted. Her voice broke, and she could feel her hands shaking.
“Martha, give it here, I’ll—” Dot’s voice cut out for a second, and Toni heard sounds of movement, before Dot started speaking again, far clearer.
“Toni, you with me?”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Toni responded with immediately, her free hand lifting to her mouth so she could bite her knuckle again.
“Tough luck, I need to talk to you. Tell me, right now, what do you think is going on with you and Shelby?”
Dot’s tone left no room for any bullshit, so Toni told her the truth.
“I think Shelby’s going to break up with me.” She paused, and then in a quieter voice she asked, “Is that what she went to talk to you about? Did she want to know what to do, and like, how to—”
“Toni, I’m going to stop you right there. Question number two, has Shelby texted you?”
Toni swallowed back an angry demand for answers.
“Can I ask what her exact text said?”
“She just said ‘can we talk’?” Toni frowned, wondering why the wording was important.
She heard Dot sigh and mumble something about ‘fucking idiots’. Then her voice became clear again.
“Alright Toni here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to hang up, you are going to go home, and you’re going to talk to your girlfriend, because you two have managed to completely misinterpret each other, and literally one conversation will fix this.”
The thought of talking to Shelby about this made Toni want to hurl into a bush. Especially when she knew that talking to Shelby would mean the conversation she’d been trying to avoid would suddenly be happening.
“Toni, I can hear you spiralling. Look, yes, Shelby did talk to me—”
Toni’s heart stopped and she nearly dropped her phone as she waited for Dot’s next words.
“—but I swear to you, as far as I’m aware, Shelby does not want to break up with you.”
Hearing those words made Toni feel like everything had just paused, with a full record scratch and everything.
“What?” Her voice was barely stronger than a whisper.
“Yeah just—I’m gonna hang up now, but Toni, seriously, go home, talk to Shelby, I swear that this conversation is not the breakup you’re expecting.”
Before Toni could ask for any more information, the call ended, and she had the feeling that Dot would not be answering to Toni until she’d talked to Shelby.
Toni looked up from her bench, and for some reason, the world seemed a little less pale than it had before. Her heart was beating in her chest, and she could feel hope awakening deep inside of her heart.
Hope was a dangerous emotion.
So, Toni held it nervously at bay, and she made her way home.
Toni opened the door to her and Shelby’s apartment, and the moment she stepped inside, Shelby was there, looking at her.
It looked like she’d been pacing in the kitchen and fiddling with her necklace, and when she saw Toni, her face lit up with relief. Then the relief faded into something cautious and concerned.
That didn’t exactly fill Toni with relief herself, so she just shut the door behind her, and walked a little further into the apartment.
“Um, did you, uh, did you get my text?” Shelby wasn’t fiddling with her necklace anymore; she was just playing with her fingers. Toni was the one who bought her that necklace. It had been a present, a way for Shelby to connect to her faith and not to have to relate it to her parents.
Shelby had looked at her with such love, and Toni had felt proud. She’d never been very good at gifts, had never had enough money to get good ones, but she’d felt certain that this one would be good, and it had been.
She blinked, and remembered that Shelby had asked her a question.
“Yeah, yeah, I did.” She chose not to mention to panic attack the text had sent her into.
Shelby nodded. “Good, that’s good.” She kept nodding, and Toni could feel that awkward tension stretching between them again. And even though Dot had told her that Shelby wasn’t going to break up with her, Toni wasn’t sure.
It never paid to believe that something was going to happen when it hadn’t happened yet.
Shelby sighed, and Toni saw exhaustion and regret on her face.
Just like her mother, and her foster families, and Regan.
Her hands tightened at her sides, and her whole body tensed, waiting for the blow.
“I’m really sorry Toni.”
Toni swallowed. “For what?”
Shelby gave her a look. “You know what.”
Toni tried very hard to keep her tears in then. Because this felt like confirmation. Shelby had to know what Toni had figured out. She had to know, which meant that she was basically telling Toni that she was sorry for doing it like this, and she was sorry for leaving her, and she was sorry for lying to her, and she was sorry, and everyone was always sorry, and Toni was always sorry, and—
“So, that’s it then? You’re just fucking sorry?” Toni was scared, and she was upset, and the only way she knew how to handle that was with anger. So, she broke.
Shelby chewed her lip. “I didn’t mean to, it just sort of happened, and, well, I didn’t meant to hurt you but—”
“Right. You didn’t mean to hurt me.” Toni bit her lip and tasted blood. “You know, I thought you were fucking different than everyone else, but you’re not, you’re a liar, and a coward, and you’re fucking leaving me.”
Toni didn’t notice it then, but Shelby’s worried expression flickered into confusion, as she started to realise that they were having two very different conversations.
“You said you wouldn’t fucking leave, and that you loved me, and that I couldn’t push you away, but I guess that was all bullshit, right? So, what was it? What made you decide you didn’t want me anymore? Because I have spent so long thinking about it, and I—I didn’t let my temper get away from me, and I didn’t hurt anyone, and I didn’t think I was too much of a burden, but I—fuck.” Tears broke free, and Toni turned away from Shelby, not wanting to cry in this moment.
Shelby stepped forwards, her eyes bright with worry and concern.
“Toni, please just—”
“Why wasn’t I enough Shelby?” She spun back; eyes wild. “Why am I never fucking enough, why does everyone else get to be happy, but I don’t? What did I fucking do wrong? Why don’t I deserve it?” She was completely sobbing the words by the end, and it was starting to become clear to her that this was about a lot more than just Shelby breaking up with her.
When Shelby was suddenly by her side, wrapping her arms around her, and pulling her into her chest, Toni didn’t fight it. She just let herself be held. Even though she must be so pathetic, having to be comforted by the girl literally breaking her heart, she let it happen.
At least she wasn’t breaking a window this time.
“Toni, hey. it’s okay, it’s alright, I’m so sorry for scaring you, I didn’t—Lord, I didn’t realise, and I should have realised, but you’re okay. We’re okay, Toni, we’re okay,” Shelby whispered, and Toni shook her head.
Shelby just nodded and said, “I’m not breaking up with you, Toni.”
Toni didn’t register the words for a moment, but when she did, she pulled back from Shelby, looking up at her with eyes blurry with tears.
Shelby shook her head.
“I’m not, and I am so, so, sorry for making you think that I was going to do that. It really wasn’t my intention, I never meant to hurt you.”
Toni frowned. “But…but you were acting like they always do.”
Shelby gave her a sad and confused frown.
Toni shrugged, noticing that Shelby was still holding her, just a little.
“Everyone. My mother, and the good foster families, and Regan. They always pulled away when they were going to leave, and I thought…I thought you were doing that.”
Shelby sighed, but she didn’t seem disappointed, just, well, sad.
“Come on, let’s go sit on the couch.”
Toni followed without any resistance, settling in next to Shelby, and resting her head on Shelby’s shoulder, feeling like if she stopped touching her, this moment would disappear, and she’d be back in the nightmare from before.
“Okay, why don’t you tell me what you’ve been going through for the past day or so. Because, well, I think I can explain.”
So, Toni told her. Told her about all the little signs that Shelby was pulling away from her, and how when Shelby had flinched away from her, she’d thought that she’d done something wrong. She detailed the spiral she’d been through, even how the text had affected her.
Shelby didn’t say anything, but Toni heard her breath hitching in certain places, and she could feel Shelby’s tears dropping down onto her from time to time.
When she finished, she looked up at Shelby, waiting.
Shelby sighed. “I know I’ve said sorry already, but I am truly sorry. I really didn’t think about what you might assume, I was so stuck in my own head, and I just…fuck, I’m really sorry for hurting you.”
Toni nodded. “Can you…can you tell me what happened? Because I know everything wasn’t okay, but I don’t know what…” she trailed off and just waited.
Shelby swallowed nervously.
“Yesterday morning, I woke up from a really bad nightmare. One of the ones when it just felt so real, and when I woke up, I couldn’t shake myself out of it. I kept thinking that it was real.”
“What was the nightmare about?” Toni wondered why Shelby hadn’t just called, although, now that she thought about it, Shelby never really told Toni about her nightmares if Toni hadn’t been present for them.
“I dreamt that Gretchen was still watching us, still recording footage, and she was going to use it against us, to hurt us. And when I woke up, I couldn’t shake it, and you weren’t there to tell me that it wasn’t real, and I didn’t want to call you, so I just…” Shelby shook her head, looking embarrassed. “I started acting like it was real.”
Realisation started to creep across Toni’s skin as Shelby continued to explain.
“I sort of got it into my head that this was just another part of the experiment, and she was going to try to use all this footage against us. Lord, I even had myself convinced that my father was somehow involved and I suddenly I was back in the mindset I had before the island where I just, I just felt like I needed to act a certain way, and I could hide it all, and there’d be nothing for her to use against me.”
The pieces fell into place.
Shelby hadn’t texted because that’d be evidence that they were together. She’d left the apartment because she’d thought she was being watched. She had thrown away Toni’s note because it was evidence.
And then when she’d come home…
“When I got home and I saw you, I just, I was right back there, like on the porch with Becca, and you after that first kiss, and my head was split in two, half telling me to let you in, and the other half telling me that I needed to push you away, otherwise they’d hurt me.”
Shelby stopped speaking then, her tears cutting her off, and Toni sat up, watching her quietly. Shelby shook her head, wiping at her tears, and giving Toni an apologetic smile.
“I know, I know, it’s completely stupid, and I had no right to act like that but I just—”
“Shelby, it’s okay.”
Shelby shook her head harder.
“It’s not. Because of my inability to just think, I hurt you, and I never wanted to hurt you, I told myself I wasn’t going to hurt people like that again, I promised myself, and then I fell right back into it, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe.” Shelby might not realise it, but Toni could hear her starting to hyperventilate.
“Shelby, hey, listen to me. We all have our traumas, and even though we try really hard, sometimes they’re going to hurt us again. But we just need to keep going, and we can’t—we can’t blame ourselves for those things, we can’t let it bring us down.”
Shelby gave Toni a smile, eyes still stinging with tears.
“When did you get so wise?”
“Therapy. Should probably listen it myself, right?”
Shelby sighed, and leant into Toni.
“After spending all afternoon pacing around, thinking I was going insane, I called Dot, because I knew she’d be able to help.”
Shelby laughed. “She definitely knows how to give a wakeup call. Snapped me right out of it and made me realise I’d completely spiralled. It took a little bit of time for her to stop me panicking, but she helped. And then when I got home…”
“I was being cold, and I was refusing to talk to look at or talk to you,” Toni finished, a sick sense of realisation settling in her gut.
Shelby sighed. “I knew you were mad, because I’d shut you out, and I was honestly a little scared that you were going to think that I was completely insane. When your note was so cold, I knew I’d really messed up, so I called Dot, and she told me to text you, so I did.” She gave Toni another apologetic smile. “Sorry for freaking you out.”
Toni shrugged. “Yeah, turns out that I have very simple trigger words.”
Shelby sighed, and for a moment, they were both quiet.
Toni took a moment to just think, and to realise that while Shelby spiralling into all of that seemed strange, she’d done the exact same thing. Both of them had invented a reality, and had lost themselves into it.
Shelby lost herself, terrified that she was still being watched, like she had been before the island, like she had been on the island, without her even knowing about it.
Toni lost herself, terrified of abandonment, because that had always been what she’d had to fear, losing the people she loved.
“I messed up,” Shelby said finally.
“We messed up,” Toni corrected. When Shelby went to argue, Toni said, “If I hadn’t jumped to the worst conclusion and assumed that you’d hurt me, even though you’ve made it clear that you would never, then we could have figured this out sooner. We’re both to fault for this.”
Shelby slowly nodded and then asked, “How do we stop this happening again? Because I can’t promise that I won’t slip back into that headspace, and you can’t promise that you won’t jump to the worst conclusion again. So, we need to find a way to be better.”
Toni thought for a moment. “We should have a code word.”
Shelby frowned. “What?”
“Yeah, like, if you ever start slipping into that headspace, or I start spiralling, we should have a code word so the other person doesn’t freak out. Something that no one else would know, so that if you’re worried about being watched, it’d be something safe.”
Shelby’s eyes filled with understanding, and she nodded, smiling a little. “Yeah okay. So, like, if I’m starting to feel like that, I can say something, and you’ll know what’s happening, and you can like, snap me out of it.”
“And if I’m feeling like you’re pulling away and I’m scared of like, actually asking because I think you’re going to leave, I can say something, and like, if you aren’t actually leaving, you can tell me that you’re still here.”
Shelby’s eyes filled with sadness again. “Okay. But Toni, I promise, I’m not just going to leave at the drop of a hat. I know you’ve been hurt, and I get that, I really do. I know what that’s like. But I’ve seen you are your worst, and I’ve stayed. You can’t scare me away, and you can’t ever make me stop loving you. You’re the only one who has ever made me feel at home, and I don’t ever want to lose you either.”
Toni wanted to ask a million what ifs, wanted to run through every possible scenario, because Shelby couldn’t possibly just know that she’d never leave. But she didn’t. Because she trusted Shelby, and she didn’t want to live in fear, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So, she just nodded.
“Okay, I trust you.”
Shelby smiled, and leaned in to kiss her. Toni kissed back, sighing as she did so, because she’d missed Shelby so fucking much. It hadn’t even been two full days, but it had felt like she was missing a vital organ.
Kissing her made her feel whole, made that sick slimy feeling dissipate, made her feel safe, liked she was wanted and that she'd finally found a place where she belonged.
Shelby made her feel all of those things.
And even in the hard times, Toni would never give that up.
So, she'd just keep trying. And they'd be alright.