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we only know this light deep in the woodwork

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It starts with a party. 

The invite comes on a Tuesday, during lunch, when Maya’s frowning and pushing her plate towards Riley because Riley’s only picking at her salad and Lucas is competing with himself to see how many tater tots he can manage to stuff his cheeks with and Zay’s keeping score while Farkle and Smackle argue about astrophysics. 

Darby’s making the rounds in the cafeteria and sort of avoiding Yogi’s table near the food line, but not really because they broke up three weeks ago and this party is one of those carefully constructed events that are meant specifically to make an ex-partner know you’re doing just fine without them.  Riley’s stealing a handful of fries off from Maya’s lunch when Darby makes it to them.

“Hey guys,” Darby greets, forcing a smile like she has been for the last twenty minutes.  “My parents are going out of town this weekend and I’m throwing a party on Saturday.  You all in?” 

Lucas is the first to agree, nodding and saying around his mouthful of tater tots, “For sure.”  Zay’s quick to follow, agreeing as he reaches across the table to try and snag a fry from Maya only to have his hand slapped in response.  Farkle’s next, conferring with Smackle briefly before he agrees as well.

Maya leaves the decision to Riley, like always.  She cedes it silently with a blind nod shot in Riley’s direction, with a quick squeeze of their joined fingers even as she continues staring Zay down, just daring him to try for her fries again.

“Why’d you let Riley steal some?” he finally asks, indignant. 

“She’s prettier than you,” Maya deadpans.

Riley fights down a blush, a shiver.  Maya says stuff like that all the time and she needs to just get over it; she locks it down, the wave of warmth at Maya’s words, and accepts Darby’s invitation with grace.  “We’ll see you Saturday!” she chirps, offering Darby a bright smile that the other girl tries her best to match.  She falls short, of course – Maya’s said on more than one occasion that the only thing that could outshine Riley was the sun and even then, she was doubtful.

And there it is again, that inconvenient flutter that starts in Riley’s stomach and spreads to her chest at the very thought of something sweet Maya’s said to her.  She buries it again, shoves it away because Maya’s moving on to pregame plans, then to tagteaming with Zay to explain what pregaming is to Farkle and Smackle.

“—no, it’s like—?” 

“—you drink to, like, prepare to get drunk—.”

“—it’s a tradition for dumbass teenagers!”

Excuse me, I am not a dumbass!” Smackle snaps.

“No, you’re not,” Maya sighs, rolling her eyes fondly in Riley’s direction, oblivious to the way it sends her pulse racing.  “But as a collective species, teenagers are dumbasses.  Therefore, pregame.”

And then she’s smiling at her again, beaming at Riley the way that Maya reserves just for her – a little less guarded, a little less careful.  Riley basks in it.

She’s not always able to name the feeling she gets when she’s the sole recipient of this version of Maya; honestly, she’s not sure if she needs to be able to.  For now, Riley thinks it’s enough to press a kiss to Maya’s shoulder and grin at the way Maya relaxes under her touch.

 

. . .

 

There’s a slight chill in Riley’s room, cool October air blowing in the window that Maya left open when she slipped in.  Riley wraps herself tighter in her comforter and watches with interest as Maya dumps out the contents of her backpack on her floor.

“Are you Kondo-ing your school supplies?” Riley asks blearily, having only woken up eleven minutes ago, when her phone went off with a series of texts from Maya, announcing her impending arrival.

“No,” Maya huffs, rolling her eyes half-heartedly.  “Ah, fuck, I forgot it.”

“Forgot what?”

“I saved one of Jack’s origami dollars for you, but I think I left it in my room.”

Last night was the first Friday night in a while that they hadn’t spent together, Maya getting pulled into a Hunter Family Dinner and Riley electing to stay late to help finish the final layout for the school paper before it got sent to the printers. 

It had been weird to be without her, set Riley’s teeth on edge the way they always were when Maya was gone, but there had been the string of snaps that Maya had sent – one of her and her new baby sister, one blurry shot of Maya sneaking a beer from the cooler on Jack’s patio, a blurrier shot of her running away from her laughing parents, beer in hand, and one of the moon, to wish Riley goodnight – and that had almost been as good.

And right now, Riley doesn’t want to examine why she felt so wrong without Maya or why she got all nervous before opening each snap.  Right now, it’s ten thirty on a Saturday morning and all the new things she’s been feeling lately feel foreign and intimidating and Maya feels warm and familiar, always remembering how stupidly excited Riley gets over something as small as a dollar bill folded up into a butterfly or an owl or a sword. 

And she’s not cuddling with Riley.  That’s a travesty.

“Mayaaaaa,” Riley whines, opening up the side of her comforter cocoon. 

Maya doesn’t even really look up before she’s moving, abandoning her backpack and her pile of notebooks and pens, answering Riley’s request before she’s even really made it.

And – there it is again: the swoop in Riley’s stomach when Maya crawls up beside her, the way her body warms to match the heat of Maya’s skin as she settles in beside her.  Where once she was cold even under the comforter, she reaches an equilibrium – the cool of the room around them, the warmth between them.  Riley thinks she’s about twenty seconds from falling asleep again, the world set to rights.

Maya shuffles up to rest her head on the pillow and Riley follows, tucking her head against Maya’s shoulder.  Maya’s hand rests on her stomach and Riley reaches for her, lacing up their fingers together, finding some other point of contact.

“I missed you last night,” Riley hums, a little too sleepy to feel the normal hot flush of shame at how quiet the admission is or how she really, truly means it.  Something’s shifted in the past few months, made it so that Riley gets a little off-kilter, a little wild-eyed when she’s left to her own devices.  She can’t name what that is either, always struggling to put the creeping dread to words.

She thinks that maybe she shouldn’t depend so much on Maya, that she should be a little sturdier on her own feet.  But Maya’s always so steady for her – well.  Riley can’t help but lean on her.

Maya twists to kiss Riley’s forehead.  “I missed you too, honey.” 

Half-asleep again – she’s always so tired now – Riley asks, “When’s pregame start?”

“Farkle said we could come over after five.  He’s ordering dinner, I think.”

“M’kay,” Riley hums.  “’m going back to bed.”

Maya tenses minutely beside her, beneath her, around her.  They’re so tangled up, Riley’s not sure where exactly Maya is. 

“Riles, it’s almost eleven.  Don’t you want to grab lunch or something?”  Her voice is gentle, but there’s miles of worry beneath the surface.

Riley’s too tired to prickle at the concern and the insinuation that she can’t just sometimes want to sleep in and – besides.  It’s Maya.  She’s always worried for Riley.

“In a bit,” Riley compromises.  “I just want to stay here with you a little longer.”

She can feel the fight drain out of Maya, her resolve weakening as she settles in completely beside her.  “Okay,” Maya says.  “But just an hour or two.”

“Whatever you want, Peaches.”

 

. . .

 

“What are you wearing tonight?” Maya asks from the closet, rooting through the section that’s made up of more of her clothes than Riley’s.

“Probably a dress,” Riley tells her.  “Maybe the gold one?”

“Oh, that’s a good one.  I like that one.”

Which wasn’t the reason that Riley was planning on wearing it, but maybe it was a part of the reason she had chosen it – even now, she can feel her heart pound a little harder remembering how Maya’s face had lit up when Riley stepped out of the dressing room at Demolition in it. 

Riley rolls onto her stomach, propping her chin on her arm.  “What are you thinking for tonight?” she asks, gaze lazily tracing the curve of Maya’s jaw in the bright sunlight streaming in through the window beside her.

Maya hums in response, her thinking noise, and it warms Riley through that Maya brings her in for this, that she fills the silences out of instinct because she knows that Riley gets nervous when it’s quiet too long.

“Jeans, probably.  Maybe my leather jacket?”  Maya sets her hands on her hips and glances back at Riley.  “Thoughts?”

Caught staring, Riley flicks her eyes back to the closet and hopes Maya can’t tell the difference between a late afternoon post-nap flush and an honest-to-god blush.  “You should wear that shirt with it,” Riley points to a band shirt tossed on the window seat.  She’s pretty sure it used to actually be Maya’s at some point, but Riley’s the one that’s worn it soft, washed so many times that the wording is faded and the hem is a little frayed.

Maya scoops it up and examines it quickly, smiling.  “Good eye, thief,” she teases.  “Do I get to keep it afterwards?”

“You can have it back if I can have my blue sweater back.”

“Touché,” Maya says, narrowing her eyes playfully.  “You’ll get that sweater back when I’m dead.”

“Then I expect that shirt back tomorrow.”

Maya crosses over, hand held out to shake.  “You drive a hard bargain, but deal,” she agrees easily, holding Riley’s hand just a minute too long.

Long enough to fluster her just the slightest.  Long enough to draw heat to her cheeks.  Long enough for Riley to feel like she’s burning from where Maya’s touching her, burning from the inside out.

Still – Riley doesn’t pull away.  She doesn’t think she can, at least not anymore.

And then there’s something there, words poised on her tongue.  She could say them if she knew what they were or what they meant or how they might change things.  She could say them if only she were a bit braver, a bit bigger, a bit bolder.  They’re words she knows, Riley thinks – words that she knows with some old familiarity, like the deep ache she feels sometimes when she watches Casablanca or wakes up in the middle of the night to see Maya beside her, silver in the moonlight. 

In the daylight, Maya’s the sun, shining and burning up the world around her with joy, no matter how hard she might try to deny it.  But at night, she’s something infinitely more precious to Riley, something only Riley gets to share in.

It hits then, all at once.  God – it hits like a brick wall.

Riley loves Maya, that much she’s always known.  How or why or when never mattered – they don’t matter now, not in the face of the sort of love she feels. 

But maybe it does matter how, just a little. 

Maybe if Riley can nail down the how of it, she can put a name to the possessive flare of anger she feels sometimes when she watches people at parties sidle up and try to get behind Maya’s walls.  Or explain how her fingers will twitch when Maya’s nearby, already seeking out contact and comfort, or how it feels like something to mourn when Riley wakes up on mornings that Maya hasn’t slept over, when she can’t hide away from the rest of the world for just a minute longer, tucked into the safe circle of Maya’s arms.

“Okay,” Maya sighs, breaking Riley’s narrowing focus.  She squeezes Riley’s hand gently before letting go.  “We should eat.”

 

. . .

 

Riley’s not sure when it changed – when what she felt for Maya became something world shaking or when she started to chafe at the idea of ever loving someone else like she loved Maya.  She’s not sure when the hazy vision of her future sharpened so clearly to show Maya in the bed beside her, soft and warm from sleep, automatically reaching out to pull Riley back to her.

They’re in their favorite spot at the café.  Katy’s working the register today, filling in for one of the part-timers who called out, and she sends cursory concerned glances their way every once in a while, checking on the pair of them as they split a box of pastries and pass their respective drinks back and forth.

Riley wonders if she can tell something’s different or if it’s just normal mom worry that’s fueling Katy’s looks.

Maya starts in on a maple bear claw, her eyes drifting shut as she lets out a pleased hum.  Riley takes the moment for all that it’s worth, leaning her head on the back of the couch and just studying Maya, mapping the slope of her shoulders and the curve of her jaw, wondering how she ever thought she could love someone else.

She’s been ruined from the start, Riley thinks.  Ever since Maya came in through her window.

“You need to eat, too,” Maya hums, one eye cracked open to convey her playful disapproval.  She opens both eyes, reaching out with her free hand to smooth the furrow of Riley’s brow.  “What’s got you so serious, Riles?”

It’s weird, existing in a world with their positions reversed.  Maya, always with a quick smile and careful hand, always trying to pick Riley up and set her to rights again.  Riley, always a little off-kilter now, always stumbling to find her balance.  It’s weird and foreign, unfamiliar in a way that slicks Riley’s chest with unease, but it’s also Maya.  And Maya would never let Riley fall.

“I’m just thinking,” Riley answers.  “Got a little distracted.” 

By you, she tacks on silently.

Maya glances back at the counter, flashing her mother a smile before she lowers her voice and leans closer to Riley.  “You’re my best friend and I love you,” she says seriously, oblivious to how Riley’s heart twists at the words.  “But I will absolutely sideline you tonight if you don’t eat something.” 

Riley can smell her conditioner at this distance, a warm and familiar scent that loosens the knot of nerves behind her sternum and distracts Riley even further, her eyes glazing over briefly before she remembers herself.

“I’ve been eating!” she protests weakly, flushing at Maya’s pointed look towards her half of the pastries, half-untouched.

Maya softens – though she’s never really anything but soft for Riley – and she shifts closer still, lining them up from shoulder to hip to knee, her ankle brushing against Riley’s.  “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asks quietly, open concern in her eyes.

And there aren’t really enough words to explain this in any way that will matter, in any way that will make sense to someone that isn’t in Riley’s head.  Riley thinks that even if she tried to string an answer together, it would ring hollow.

Riley also knows that no matter what, Maya would try to understand as best she could.

And maybe that’s enough?  Maybe knowing how Riley loves Maya isn’t as important as knowing that Maya loves her back in whatever way she can.  Maybe that could be enough to help patch up the pieces of Riley’s personality that are starting to rust, fracture.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be so hard.

Instead of saying anything, Riley reaches for her half-finished croissant, eyebrows raised in challenge.  She takes a bite.

“Better?” she asks around her mouthful, warmth spreading through her at Maya’s answering smile.

“Much.”

 

. . .

 

The sun is starting to set outside Riley’s room, the pink-orange light filtering through her window and setting Maya ablaze – Riley’s trying so hard not to look at her, trying so hard to just focus on finding her dress or brushing her hair or whatever it was that she was doing before she caught sight of Maya in the reflection of her mirror, but the line of her shoulders, the swell of her hips in the dusky light is almost too much to bear.

As it is, Riley finds herself transfixed.  Finds herself wondering how she couldn’t have noticed this feeling before, how she couldn’t parse it out from the rest of the new things she’s felt bubble up within her.

A beat too late, she realizes that maybe the reason why she couldn’t separate it as something new is because it isn’t new at all.

Once, when they were small – maybe eight or nine or so – Maya was sleeping over.  Riley, as tired as she was, couldn’t find rest.  She remembers this part so clearly.  It was like a lightning bolt, even if it shed light on something she wouldn’t be able to identify for years.

Maya had been asleep for hours, it had felt like.  And there was this simmering, unmoored hurt that was born out of irrationality – Riley wasn’t mad at Maya necessarily, but being awake that late and being that young made her feel very alone.

Then she rolled onto her side and the moon caught Maya at the right angle and Riley was caught, trapped there, her hurt and her loneliness and her exhaustion set aside for a moment.

Oh, Riley had thought, caught halfway to wanting to reach out and touch her, brush her hair back.  She was a child, wanting something she didn’t necessarily have words for – wanting the assurance, at least, that Maya was there.  Oh, her husband is going to be so lucky to see her like this one day.

It feels silly and heteronormative now, but Riley was young when she thought that, young enough that she knew that there were girls that liked girls, but she didn’t think about it that much, content to flit from crush to crush, Maya always a steady presence beside her.  She didn’t dare think that maybe – just maybe – girls that didn’t have crushes on their best friends may not have stared for the better part of the hour at their sleeping friend, memorizing her face in the moonlight, terrified that they might never see her like this again.

Looking back, it feels so obvious.  But it was a slow-roll of a realization, even if it feels sudden now.  Riley has been stumbling a little further into this sort of love each day, she thinks, letting it bleed into all the other ways she loves Maya accidentally until there’s no distinction between them all anymore.

She wants to tell her.  Riley’s never kept many secrets from Maya – she can count them on one hand – and when she does try and hide things, they rarely stay hidden for long, her lips always a little too loose when Maya’s looking at her with those soft eyes, that unguarded little smile that’s reserved for Riley alone.

Riley wants to tell her, wants to share this with her because the promise of those eyes on her and that smile directed her way is almost enough to push past the fear that’s choking her. 

Almost.

Because the other side of this is that it might ruin everything.  It might mean that Riley doesn’t get those eyes or that smile anymore.  It might mean that Maya will leave.  That’s the worst-case scenario, Riley knows, and she knows that she’s catastrophizing because really – in what world would Maya just leave?

But the thought is there, lurking close by now that Riley’s acknowledged it.  She wonders if maybe she’s always known it was there, if maybe its existence has anything to do with how long it took her to recognize what was staring her straight in the face.

Too late, Riley realizes she’s staring at Maya again, her eyes naturally settling on her even as she internally spirals through her own misgivings.

“Honey?” Maya calls.

Riley snaps her gaze away guiltily, focusing with a renewed intensity on – uh, something?  “Yes, Peaches?” she answers, her voice reedy even to her own ears.

“Can I borrow some lip gloss?”  Maya fluffs her hair and straightens her jacket in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of Riley’s door, oblivious to how Riley’s face heats up, her brain screaming secondhand kiss! like a feral preteen.  “I’m just about ready, otherwise.”

“Uh – yeah, of course.”  Riley pulls open a couple drawers of her vanity at random, blanking on where she keeps her lip products stashed.  She can feel Maya’s eyes on her, can practically picture the raised brow.  “Which one?”

And then Maya’s right there at Riley’s shoulder, leaning close with her hair slipping over her shoulder and brushing Riley’s back and arm, sweet-smelling and familiar.  “Forget how you reorganized for the thousandth time?” she asks, a teasing edge to her tone as she reaches over Riley to open the far-left compartment.

She’s right, of course.  About both the whereabouts of Riley’s lip products as well as her penchant to reorganize when she can’t sleep, and then her habit of promptly forgetting where she moved things after she eventually does sleep.

“Which one do you want to borrow?” Riley asks, her focus narrowed down to the warmth of Maya against her, her hand on Riley’s shoulder, the ends of her hair brushing Riley’s cheek.  Any free headspace is being funneled towards keeping her voice even, Riley thinks.

“Hmm,” she hums thoughtfully, the sound vibrating through Riley as Maya scans the contents of the drawer before finally pulling one out.  “Okay?” she asks, showing Riley her choice – Nars, peachy and sun-warm, shimmering in the light of her bedroom. 

Riley feels superheated, knowing exactly the shade, the name, remembers Maya painting the color onto her lips before turning her around in the mirror at Sephora, smiling softly at her and telling her that if she was going to buy anything, it should be this gloss.  How something unreadable passed over Maya’s face as Riley preened under her praise, puckering her lips in the mirror, blowing playful kisses.  It had been a good day at the end of a good week, a bright spot in a string of bad weeks.

“Okay,” Riley squeaks out before she ruins her own life in her panic, spilling out some secret or another if only to just keep Maya right there, warming Riley through with her nearness.  “Sure, yeah, sounds good.”  Don’t think about what that would look like on Maya, don’t think about what that would look like on Maya, don’t – !

“Riley.”  Maya’s hand slides over her shoulder, resting on the nape of Riley’s neck, her thumb pressing in slightly to ease the tension held there.  “Is there – is something going on?  You've been kind of...out of it today.”

She’s so concerned, her worry written into every line of her body – worry for Riley, about Riley, worry over the thought that Riley’s keeping something from her.  Riley so badly wants to tell her, assure her that it isn’t anything bad, at least Riley doesn’t think so.  She wants to promise her that this is only a temporary weirdness, that once she internalizes this new – or old? – information, she’ll be fine.  She’ll be fine, or at least as close to it as she’s ever been.

“Maya, I – !” 

Both of their phones light up and sound off at the same time, texts from the group chat breaking the spell, the thread of tension that has wound its way around them, binding them together in this moment.

Riley turns away first, unable to hold Maya’s gaze in the mirror, mourning the warmth of her as she steps away, going for her own phone on the bed.  Instead of focusing too much on how cold she feels now, how exposed, Riley swipes open the chat thread.

 

From: 2nd smartest person
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:23pm
hey!  you guys can come over whenever, Smackle and I are just hanging out.  lmk when you’re close and I’ll head down to the lobby to let you in.

From: old town road
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:23pm
z n i are heading into the subway now, eta abt 15??  maybe???

From: 2nd smartest person
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:24pm
is that a NYC 15 or TX 15, cowboy

From: old town road
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:24pm
RUDE

From: z-man
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:24pm
he’s sad now, yall.  you made my boy SAD

5:24pm
you will PAY for your EVIL DOING

5:24pm
(NYC 15, btw)

From: old town road
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:25pm
[betrayal.gif]

From: [knife emoji] [blonde princess emoji] [knife emoji]
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:26pm
we’ll be heading out in just a bit

5:26pm
SOME of us are ready

From: z-man
To: THE MOD SQUAD
5:26pm
[eye emoji]

 

Riley looks up to see Maya on her phone, thumbs flying as she smirks down at her screen.  Her phone buzzes in her hand again.

 

From: [knife emoji] [blonde princess emoji] [knife emoji]
To: [bumblebee emoji]
5:27pm
hurry up, slowpoke

5:27pm
[kiss emoji]

 

. . .

 

Farkle’s home is huge, made bigger by the continual absence of his parents, and there’s more than enough space to sprawl out, enough couches and chairs that no one needs to share.  Regardless, the whole group crams into the den, falling over each other like little kids.  Maya takes up post at Riley’s side, squeezing into a single oversized armchair, legs tangled up.

It’s painfully normal for them, but now Riley’s excruciatingly aware of every place they’re touching, the warmth of Maya through her sleeves, the flutter of her pulse in her wrist beneath Riley’s fingertips.  Every time Maya brings her beer to her lips, Riley can feel the movement telegraphed in the tense of her muscles.

In short – Riley’s in hell.

It shouldn’t be affecting her so much, not to this degree.  Riley’s lost count of how many Saturday nights they’ve spent just like this, drinking and talking quietly, heads close together, sharing space and laughing with their friends around them.  But now that she’s noticed how her heart stutters when Maya leans close or rests her head on Riley’s shoulder, she can’t ignore it.  She wouldn’t want to.

“I’ve got shots!” Farkle crows, appearing in the doorway with a tray of colorful liquors.  He must have worked his magic on them because some feature suspended gradients or shimmering something.  Riley immediately zeroes in on one that glimmers gold in blue and purple.

Maya must notice – why is Riley surprised? – because she slaps Lucas’s hand away from it, snagging it and its neighbor, passing it off to Riley.  She keeps the other one for herself, a bright orange concoction with a shock of deep green through it.

She holds her shot up to the light, eyeing it critically.  “What experiment did these come from?” she asks suspiciously, only half joking.

“None,” Farkle answers, almost too quickly.

“So this isn’t going to be some horrifying flavor combo, like pumpkin and, like, broccoli?”

“It’s peach and mint!  God, you serve a couple questionable pairings once – !”

“Twelve times,” the room choruses, cutting him off.

Grumbling sheepishly, he knocks back a turquoise shot rather than constructing a rebuttal.

Maya gives her shot a single cursory sniff, making a face.  “What?” Riley asks, bringing her own up to smell – something vaguely floral, she thinks – “Is it not peach?”

“No, it’s just very peachy.”  Maya shoots her a sharp smile, raising her glass.  “Bombs away, babe.”

Struck speechless, Riley taps her glass against Maya’s and downs the shot, bright notes of lavender and berry bursting on her tongue, the sweetness chased by the burn of the liquor.

Eyes watering, Riley does her best not to cough.  Farkle must have used absinthe or something equally strong and terrible.  Vodka, Riley could handle.  Absinthe?  Not so much.

Maya’s hand comes to rest between Riley’s shoulder blades, warm and heavy, smoothing down her spine in even, rhythmic strokes.  Always keeping one eye on her, always ready to step in when needed, sometimes even before Riley can think to ask for her.

There’s something humbling about that sort of care and love, something heartrending.  Riley’s not always sure what to do with it or how to respond in a way that gives Maya back even half of what she gives to Riley.  It feels too big, too much.  What Riley feels is too much to define entirely or make tangible.  She thinks she could write a hundred thousand pages on it and barely scratch the surface.  She thinks that she could spend the rest of her life trying to accurately show Maya all that she feels for her and still not have captured the breadth, the depth of it, still not be satisfied that she’s shown it all.

Riley stops half-choking, the burn subsiding, but Maya doesn’t move her hand away, instead letting it slide down, her arm slipping around Riley’s waist, keeping them close and connected.  It’s very good that Riley’s already a couple drinks in – she can write off her blush as a response to the alcohol and not at all brought on by how she feels Maya’s hip pressed against hers or how Maya feels magnetized, drawing Riley in closer.

She mourns the contact when Maya pulls away, lunging playfully at Zay in response to his good-natured jibe.  It must show on her face, no matter how quickly she tries to bury it.  Riley feels Farkle’s eyes on her and when she looks up at him, she sees comprehension dawning on that too-clever face of his.

They lock eyes for a moment, Riley silently pleading that he keep his mouth shut, just this once.

Farkle glances at his phone, looking away first.  “Food’s here,” he announces, catching Riley’s eyes once more when he looks back up.  He jerks his head towards the open doorway of the den, the hall that lay beyond it.  “Help me bring it in, Riley?”

She could pass it off to Lucas, Riley knows.  Could say she’s comfortable or lie and say she’s not sure she’ll be steady on her feet.  Farkle wouldn’t push the issue yet, she thinks, would probably let the night pass without incident.

But Riley is so full of something – love and longing and a dose of guilt or something unnamable for good measure – and she can’t talk to Maya about it, not yet and maybe not ever.

Besides – who better to talk to than someone else who knows how it burns to be in love with Maya Hart?

Heat creeps up her neck as she nods and stands, feeling Maya’s eyes on her back the whole way out of the room, conversations still flowing smoothly even as the intensity of Maya’s gaze feels as though it’s boring holes right through any front Riley could put up.

In the hall, out of the warm clutch of the den and out of Maya’s sight, it feels like someone’s doused Riley in cold water, leaving her shivering.

“So,” Farkle’s voice is low and gentle as he falls into step beside Riley.  “Looks like you’ve finally figured it out,” he says, a teasing glint in his eyes.

“’Finally’?”  Riley’s voice breaks over the word.  How long has this been happening?  How long has she been in the dark from her own heart?  And, more importantly, how obvious has she been?

“You’re not, like, lit up billboard levels of obvious, but I’d recognize that –,” he widens his eyes for effect, “moon-eyed look anywhere.  I’m pretty sure I lived in that expression for eight years.”

Riley can’t deny it, so she deflects, flexing a skill that she’s perfected over the last few years.  “What expression did you have for me?” she asks sweetly, smiling at how the tips of Farkle’s ears burn.

She should have known better, though.  Farkle recovers quickly, his smile sharpening.  “The same as Maya’s, I think,” he tells her just as they reach the door.  “Looking at you like you’re the sun.”

And what – god, what’s Riley supposed to do with that?

“That would blind you,” she says haltingly, almost tripping over her words as Farkle pats down his pockets for a tip for the delivery guy.  “If I were the sun.”

Farkle shoots her a knowing look.  “Ah,” he sighs, “but so worth it.”

Maya doesn’t look at her like that, does she?  Wouldn’t Riley have noticed?  Wouldn’t she have felt the difference in the way Maya looks at her or seen the change?  Seen how her best friend, the person she knows better than anyone else, looked at her like she was something special?

Riley accepts the box of take-out that Farkle presses into her arms, accepts the look of smug satisfaction he has at figuring this out, at calling it before anyone else.  He takes the second box, tips for delivery, and closes the door, starting back towards the den quickly.

Frozen, Riley asks, her voice small, “Do you –?”

Farkle stops in his tracks, turning back.  He raises an eyebrow.

Riley swallows hard.  “Do you really think that she – that we – how –?”  She’s not even sure what question to ask or how to say it, how to get the smartest person she knows to assure her that he’s not lying or mistaken, that she won’t be way off base if she ever summons up the courage the tell Maya.

“If I gave you the whole list of reasons why I would be willing to bet my future Nobel on you and Maya being equally hopelessly smitten, the food would be cold by the time I finished,” Farkle tells her, his face softening.  “But anyone can see it.  Why do you think Zay stopped flirting with you?”

“I just – he was always joking.”  Riley’s knuckles are white, the cardboard box’s sides buckling under her grip.  There’s no way.

“I mean, yeah, sort of.”  Farkle rolls his eyes.  “Everyone’s a little bit in love with you, Riley, but that doesn’t matter.  If looks could kill, Maya’d have had him six feet under by now.  Same with Charlie.  And Lucas, for that matter.  Anyone that came within a twenty-foot radius with anything less than sterling intentions for you, really.”

“That’s just – she’s just protective.”  There’s no way.

Jealous, more like it.  It’s funny because she thinks she hides it so well, but even Smackle’s brought it up by now.”

“You guys talk about us?  When?”

“Oh, all the time.”  Farkle adjusts his grip on his box of take-out and leans against the nearest wall, shoulders slumping in mock-exhaustion.  “We have a whole group chat for it.”

They fall silent at that revelation, Riley finding herself less unsettled by the news than she thinks she out to be.  If this were any other day, she would probably have a lecture ready about respecting boundaries and the benefits of transparency.  Today, though –

“What if I ruin it, Farkle?” she asks, so quiet she thinks she might have to repeat herself to be heard.  She’s not sure if she’d even be able to, at this point, too raw to really focus on any one thing, her gaze flitting from Farkle to the wall behind him, to the light spilling into the far end of the hall from the den, to the faint sound of Maya’s voice – siren call, pulling Riley back to her side.  

What if their friends are wrong?  What if they’re right, but Riley says the wrong thing?  What if it’s the wrong timing and Riley loses this – this comfort and security, this promise that Maya will always be there – forever?  She doesn’t think she could survive it, not like this, not ever.

God – Riley’s on the verge of tears, she realizes belatedly.  Too full up of feeling with nowhere to go but out. 

“I think,” Farkle says after several quiet moments.  He purses his lips, the wheels in that big, beautiful brain of his obviously turning.  “I think that you two love each other enough to figure it out.  I think that if anyone stands a chance to be understood, it’s you and Maya.”

And then, like she was summoned, Maya appears, glittering against the city lights streaming in through the wall of windows.  “We started thinking that the delivery guy was an assassin or something, so I’m here for proof of life,” she says lightly, slipping over to Riley without hesitation.  “You good?” she asks, gently hip-checking her, the warm length of her pressed against Riley’s side.

Her fingers brush Riley’s wrist and Riley responds instantly, freeing her hand and lacing their fingers together, her cheeks heating under Farkle’s knowing gaze.  “I’m good,” she promises, leaning into Maya.

 

. . .

 

It takes them a few more hours of lazing around before the group actually makes it to Darby's, rolling up a bit past ten to find the party well underway.  They separated quickly - Lucas and Zay to the keg stand, Smackle and Farkle to the backyard, and Riley and Maya orbiting the dance floor.  Riley convinces her to dance for a bit, moving closer and closer until Riley can't take it, until she thinks she's about to die.

"I'm gonna get something else to drink," she yells over the music, nodding towards the kitchen.  "I'll meet up later?"

Maya nods, already shifting away from the throng of the dance floor, scooping up her beer from where she stashed it behind a potted fern.

Riley heads for the kitchen, following the dull chant of shots shots shots! until she finds the doorway in the dim haze.  If she gets another drink in her, she'll probably chill out, yeah?  She'll calm down enough that it won't feel so much like her heart's about to dance out of her chest, dance right up to Maya with the truth of it written plainly for her to see.

And then she makes the mistake of looking up.

It’s sudden, all encompassing.  One minute Riley’s taking a shot and the next she’s dropping the glass back to the countertop with a tiny bang, tequila sloshing over into her hands because Maya’s on the other side of the room, nursing the same beer Riley got her when they walked in and Riley – Riley can’t do anything but falter under the weight of all that she feels for Maya. 

It’s a grounding force, cutting through the heady buzz between Riley’s ears, but it’s filling up all the space within her, pressing into the hollow spots between her ribs and at the base of her throat and in the spaces between her fingers that she has the awful privilege of knowing are perfectly spaced so that Maya’s fingers fit comfortably within them. 

And it’s ruining her – she knows it, knows how she’s pulling back and hurting Maya because the weight of this is too much, is keeping her silent because good god, what if she ruins it, what if she loses out, loses Maya entirely?

She can’t bear that, knows she can’t, but she also can’t keep this inside any longer without just dropping dead.  Today’s proven that a thousand times over, she thinks.

So she ditches the shot in the kitchen, pushes her way through the crowd.  Maya’s obviously been keeping an eye on her because the moment Riley breaks through the final edge of the kitchen crowd, Maya’s carefully cultivated look of bored disinterest melts away, giving way to out and out concern, her brows drawing together as she tracks Riley’s movement through the throng in the living room.

It’s an ocean of bodies, everyone paired off and moving together to the thrumming bass line; Riley feels it echoing in her chest, through her veins.  It feels like she’s vibrating, humming.  She wonders if Maya can tell.  She wonders if Maya thinks about how it might feel to be like that, moving together with the music, wonders if she thinks about it half as much as Riley does on nights like these – if she thinks about being pressed close, thinks about how sometimes it feels like their skin is magnetized, always seeking each other out.

God, she hopes she does.

Maya’s setting her beer down on the mantle when Riley finally reaches her, the low light of the living room throwing her face into shadows, sharpening the cut of her jaw, the furrow of her brow. 

How the hell has Riley gone this long without kissing her?  How on earth has she resisted the urge to cradle Maya’s face between her hands and throw caution to the wind and finally figure out whether her lips are really as soft as they look, as Riley remembers from when they were twelve and stupid and brave and Riley was so upset that she hadn’t had her first kiss yet and Maya fixed it, just like how she took it upon herself to try and fix everything for Riley? 

Maya, with her warm hands and bright, guarded eyes, her lips pursed while she looked at Riley then and now, trying to gauge her reaction to what would come next.  Always so gentle, so careful when it came to Riley. 

Just like now.  She’s already reaching for Riley when she gets to her and Riley thinks she was right about magnets under their skin because it’s instinct, primal; she doesn’t even have to look to know exactly where Maya’s hand will hover midway between them, a little closer to her own body because she’ll never take Riley’s affection for granted, still half-expecting to be shrugged off. 

There have been so few moments that Riley’s done that, when she’s pulled away, but she knows each one hurts the same, scares Maya the same.  She wishes she could take all those moments back.

She can’t.  So, instead, she reaches up immediately, taking Maya’s hand in her own and marveling at the way their fingers slot together so practiced, so at ease.  She steps closer, lets the motion of the crowd propel her forward.  Jesus, they – they just fit, slipping into one another’s space so easily. 

Riley’s heart is hammering and she wonders if Maya can feel it too, if she can tell.  It’s a stupid question, because Maya always seems to tell, always knows before Riley says anything. 

Another wave rolls through the crowd.  They’re pressed so close and Riley feels like she’s burning up, set on fire; Maya’s staring up at her, half concern, half open awe and Riley can’t believe she’s convinced herself this wasn’t meant for them, can’t believe she ever saw Maya Hart looking at her like that and still thought they were just supposed to be friends.

She licks her lips, feels a thrill zip up her spine when Maya’s eyes drop, when she swallows hard, her fingers flexing briefly around Riley’s. 

And then Riley blinks and it seems to happen too fast and in slow motion, all at once.  The crowd pushes them again and Riley feels like she’s going to die if she doesn’t do something, if she doesn’t get closer, somehow, someway.

She kisses Maya.

And it’s – it’s terrifying and exhilarating, the even press of Maya’s lips against hers, the steady pressure until it’s like her body catches up and she starts kissing back, moving against Riley, her hands on Riley’s hips flexing, fingers digging through the fabric of Riley’s dress.

It’s nothing like Riley remembers; when they were twelve, it had been a peck, a quick press of their lips, close mouthed – nothing at all like this, like sharing a breath, like feeling how hard Maya’s chest is heaving against her.  She wants to stay like this forever, wants to keep kissing Maya like this until she dies or the world ends or Maya walks away.

The thought is sobering.  Maya walking away, Maya getting scared, Maya thinking that Riley doesn’t mean this, that she’s drunk, that she’s just messing around.  Riley knows – Riley figured it out finally, but this is one of the few things she hasn’t shared with Maya.  She wanted the right words for it, wanted to make sure she could say it the right way, a careful and steady way that wouldn’t spook her, this golden girl.  Maya doesn’t know. 

Shit

Riley pulls away first, staring down at Maya and cradling her face in her hands.  She wants to say something.  Wants to make sure Maya knows, is assured, but can’t quite find the words for it.

“Honey—?” Maya whispers, voice breaking.  The room floods with light for a beat – it takes Riley much longer than usual to realize it’s a strobe light – and she sees Maya’s face then, sees the raw fear, the hurt and the wonder, the anger and the awe.  It breaks her heart and remakes it again.

“I’m completely in love with you,” Riley blurts out, winces at her bluntness, hurries to follow it.  “If you – if you don’t feel the same way—.”  She breaks off, terrified by the prospect.  God, it’ll kill her.  She shouldn't have said - shouldn't have done anything.

The party is still going strong around them, oblivious in all the right ways, but all Riley hears is a dull roar and that small voice in the back of her head telling her that she’s ruined everything.  The crowd pushes them closer, close enough that Riley can see Maya’s pupils dilate and can see, in agonizingly perfect detail, her bitten lip, her heaving chest.

Riley thinks she might be suffocating.  

The crowd surges again, driving them even closer, so that Riley has to feel every agonizing point of contact between them multiplied.  Maya’s still stunned, still staring at Riley with wide eyes.  This might be the only time that Riley can remember when Maya didn’t have something to say.  

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, because this is Maya and Maya’s never really needed words to know what Riley means.  “I couldn’t keep – Maya, I couldn’t—.”

“Riley.”  Maya’s voice cuts through the noise around them, the noise in Riley’s head.  She’s staring up at her, this painful, unreadable look in her eyes as she studies Riley. 

And then she’s in her space, even more so than before, leaning up on heeled tip toes that nearly bring her to Riley’s height, close enough to look her in the eyes, her arms coming up around Riley’s shoulders.  Her expression shifts, evolves into something like wonder, something like awe.  Something an awful lot like relief.

She kisses Riley.

And it’s – better?  Somehow?  Maya’s arms tighten around Riley’s shoulders, holding her close –  as if there were anything on earth that could convince Riley to not be right here – and this kiss is smoother, better choreography now that Maya’s in on it.  God, Riley could die happy, right here, right now.

No one pays them much attention – people make out at parties all the time, and the lack of prying eyes allows some sense of privacy.  Riley wraps her arms around Maya’s waist, letting her lean into her even more, letting what minute space that remained between them melt away.

“I love you,” Maya murmurs, pulling back just enough to be heard rather than felt.  “I love you so much, Riley, god—.”

The pleasant warmth in her chest has spread and now her fingertips are buzzing, dying to find a home tangled in Maya’s hair.  Riley feels like she’s staring at the sun.  Riley feels like everything is fallen into place, at least for a moment.  She pulls Maya into another kiss, and then another.

Some kid bumps into them, sending them stumbling.  Maya actually growls and the kid – some sophomore that Riley vaguely recognizes from passing periods at school – goes running, eyes wide and face pale.  

There’s a break in the music finally, the crowd dispersing enough that the girls can slip into the study down the hall without bumping into someone every few steps.  The partiers haven’t made it quite this far into the house yet, so it’s calm when Maya says, grinning, “So – I mean, I was planning on just swallowing my feelings forever, but I guess we’re doing this?”

Riley answers with a kiss.  God, she gets to kiss Maya now.  She’s not sure she’s ever going to stop.

“We—,” Maya starts in between kisses.  “We should—,” she hums, “we should leave.”

Riley nods, pulling away before leaning back in to kiss the tip of Maya’s nose, just because she can.  “Yeah,” she agrees, enjoying the adorable scrunched up face that Maya makes as she pulls back again.  “Let’s get out of here.”

 

. . .

 

They wind up at Denny’s, because that’s where you go for late night love confession fallout.  Maya stumbles over her order – two eggs sunny side up, sourdough toast; Riley steps in to fill in the blanks – and she blinks at Riley like she doesn’t quite believe this, doesn’t half-trust it.  Like she expects Riley to take it back.

Riley orders pancakes, a side of hash browns.  Kicks out and hooks her ankle around Maya’s.  Slides her hand across and covers Maya’s as she passes their menus to the waitress. 

“I love you,” Riley says, full of the same wonder, the same awe as when she said it an hour ago, the same as every time she’s thought it or whispered it when she’s alone.  She gets to say it out loud now, gets to mean it the way she means it.

“You love me,” Maya repeats.  “And I love you.”  She squeezes Riley’s hand.  “Holy shit.”

Riley can’t help it, a helpless, hysterical giggle bubbling up from her chest, her wonder and joy making a goner of her yet.  “Yeah,” she breathes, happy and warm, the frantic flutter of Maya’s pulse beneath her fingers.  “Ditto.”