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Coming Home

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Where do we start?
How ‘bout right here where we are?
You’ve been carryin’ this weight around,
Walk in the door and lay it down.

What comes next?
We don’t know, we’re not there yet.
But I bet it’s gonna shine
Brighter than all we left behind.



January 1, 2027

Emily stands in the entryway, watching as Kelley moves about her condo. Careful, like she doesn’t belong. Hesitant, like it all feels unfamiliar.

Even though it’s Emily, it’s not. There are plants, but not as many. Artwork, but it’s sparse, not as bright, it’s missing the eclectic vibe she always had. The place is almost cold and clinical, definitely not anything that could be called homey. Other than an old, worn photograph of Emily and Lindsey stuck haphazardly on the fridge with a take-out Chinese food magnet, and a pair of Emily’s running shoes by the door, there’s nothing personal that would distinguish it from someone’s vacation home that spends most of the year rented out on Airbnb.  It’s grown up. It’s sophisticated. It’s a place befitting a World Champion. But it’s not her. 

The warmth that always defined Emily is gone, and it’s been replaced by something that’s more like what society would expect of a woman her age.

Emily at Waffle House was the Emily she spent years loving. Her eyes were full of hope and that smile, when it finally came, it lit up her whole face, and it was easy for Kelley to convince herself that her ex-wife had somehow come out of all of this unscathed. With that knowledge, it was even possible for Kelley to convince herself that maybe there was a chance for them, because if Emily wasn’t broken, well… Kelley could pretend like she wasn’t, couldn’t she? But Kelley also sat with bated breath as Emily chewed on huge bites of her waffle, knife and fork still in hand like had been told thousands of times not to do, waiting for that laugh. That laugh she would give her own heart for just to hear one more time. It never came.

If that wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t because Kelley made the mistake of coming back here with her, the subtleness of how Emily’s decorated her space proves she’s not the same person. And all that serves to do is remind Kelley that this is her fault. There’s no ignoring the wound when it’s surrounding her, bare walls closing in to remind her. She steps up to one of the large windows, staring out at Atlanta, trying to breathe. The skyline of her city has changed, but it’s still familiar enough. Just like Emily. New skyscrapers, razed factories… more freckles, deeper lines. But Atlanta’s not home anymore and neither is the woman whose every feature she committed to memory so long ago.

Emily’s hand on the small of her back startles her, causing her to jump away like she’s been burned.

“I’m sorry!” Emily pulls back in shock, as Kelley stares at her, eyes wide and terrified. “Kell, I-” Emily hesitates, reaching out like she wants to touch Kelley’s shoulder, but she stops herself. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Kelley lies, and as she rubs her face to try to hide the lie, Emily backs away from her until she’s sitting on the sofa. “I’m just not ready…” Another lie. It’s not that she’s not ready; it’s that she found a clarity she wasn’t searching for when she went out trying to spot Emily last night. She can’t do this. She’s not going to hang around and bear witness to all the ways she destroyed the beautiful spirit that was Emily. Her wife. The love of her live. The purest soul she’s ever met.

Because she can’t. If God does exist, he sure didn’t make her strong enough for that, too.

Emily pats the cushion next to her. “Ok. I’m sorry. Will you just come sit with me?” Kelley shakes her head. “I won’t touch you, Kell. J- j-ju- just come sit down.”

Kelley stays put. “I’m really proud of you, Em,” she starts in a shaky voice. “I’ve wanted to tell you so many times. I wanted to call you when you won another gold, but…” she trails off, unsure of how much Emily knows of Lindsey stepping in.

“But Lindsey told you to stay away from me,” Emily finishes for her. Kelley nods.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t tell her to do that.”

“Someone had to tell me to stop calling, right?” Kelley says with a sad smile as she turns to look back out the window. Make her stop is more like it, though. “Anyway, all of this, the car, the condo, the sponsorships, the medals, you deserve it all. You’ve had an incredible career. I’ve watched every minute of it.”

“Because you had to,” Emily mumbles, embarrassed, and Kelley doesn’t get it, because she earned every bit of this.

“No,” Kelley shakes her head sadly. “I mean, yeah, I had to study you like I have to study every player, but I never missed a game you played. I wanted to see you do well.” Even after their relationship dissolved, Kelley was never able to shake the nerves she felt when Emily stepped out onto the pitch, the same nerves she felt when Emily played in the first Olympics without her. She was never good at watching. It hurt so bad to see her every time the camera panned to her on the field, but the pain couldn’t stop her heart from swelling with pride. Even when Emily was playing her own team, she always wanted her ex-wife to do well. She doesn’t know if Emily realizes that, that her love for the younger woman never died, never even began to fizzle out and always trumped her own competitive spirit when nothing or no one else could. She doesn’t know if Emily would believe it anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t as simple as Emily wants it to be. This isn’t as simple as whether or not she is still in love. “All I ever wanted was for you to be great, Em, and you were better than great. Are better than great. You earned all of your success, and I just need you to know that I’m proud of you.” 

There’s a finality to it, Kelley’s choice of the word need that Emily seems to pick up on. It makes her a little more desperate when she asks this time. “Kell, please come sit down with me.”

“Will you take me home please?” That, ignoring the desperation in Emily’s voice, takes a strength Kelley didn’t know she still had in her.

“Kelley…”

“I can get Erin to pick me up after work if you don’t want to. I know it’s far.”

“If I say it’s too far, you’ll stay longer?” Emily’s voice breaks.

“Em…” Kelley finally makes her way to the sofa, but leaves a sizable gap between them. It feels necessary, even if she does see the pain on Emily’s face when she makes that choice. “I’m sorry. I was wrong to think this could work. I just got all caught up in everything this morning and-”

You came looking for me. Don’t tell me now that you didn’t mean it,” Emily interrupts.

“I did mean it. I meant everything I did. I meant everything I said. I will love you until the day I die. But,” Kelley looks up at the ceiling to stop the tears. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to do this.” She can’t say the words she means - I don’t think I’m strong enough to see all the ways I broke you, and there’s not much of a point anyway. Emily would just argue like she always argued… except for that one time she didn’t.

“We don’t have to do anything. We can just be, baby.”

Kelley doesn’t know what to do with this familiarity that aches so bad. She’s waited so long to hear Emily call her that again, to hear that soft voice, always a little bit hoarse because Emily sometimes seemed to only have one volume and that volume was a recipe for what is probably permanent vocal cord strain now. That sweet, sweet name that always made Kelley melt. That’s all it ever took to calm her in her most fiery and scariest moments, could make her believe that everything would be ok because that name meant Emily loved her. 

What she’d give to go back to that lie, before the world ripped off the blindfold and showed her that love was never going to be enough. She remembers the first time Emily called her that: “It’s ok, baby, just play something for me.” It meant more to her than the first time Emily told her she was in love with her, because Kelley always had a little bit of suspicion that Emily did love her. She remembers the last time she heard it, one of the many voicemails Emily left when she was trying so desperately to get back home to her from Portland: “I’m coming, baby. Just hang on. Everything’s gonna be ok. I’ll be there soon.”   And then nothing was ok.

She feels like she’s on the verge of a panic attack. All the talk earlier about just going back to the way things were - of skipping dating, of love and another proposal, of being in the same city as each other and moving in together, of kids - swirl around in her mind.  Now it feels like all that was was the ridiculous daydreaming you do as a child that’s for fun, whispering with a friend about this perfect life you’re going to build for yourself. Except perfect doesn’t exist and this isn’t fun anymore. It’s too much.

She looks up to see Emily’s cheeks redden, this fear that she shouldn’t have called Kelley by a pet name filling her and the space between them, but it’s not enough to stop her. “You kissed me back this morning. I felt every bit of you in that kiss. I know you want this as much as I do.” 

Emily’s voice helps her refocus, the tunnel vision slowly dissipating and Emily’s face, beautiful and broken, comes back into focus. Wanting something and it being right are two different things. Maybe they’re still not mature enough to know the difference. Maybe kissing her was a mistake. Maybe all of this was a mistake.  “I don’t know how to just be. I don’t even know where we’d start.”

“Why do you tell me how you’ve been, what you’ve been doing?”

“I don’t really think small talk is the way to go, Em.” But Emily’s looking at her so expectantly that she feels like she has to try, even if she doesn’t put a lot of effort into it. “I’m coaching. I’m good at it. Laura and I work really well together, but I hope one day I’ll get to be a head coach. I hike a lot, when I have free time. It clears my head,” she lies again. It doesn’t clear her head at all, but there’s something about being out in nature that makes Kelley feel closer to her, the beauty of it making her think, even for a moment, that she doesn’t have to suffer because their daughter’s spirit surrounds her in those hills. She looks for those brief respites anywhere she can get them now that she can’t use alcohol to hide from her life. “I’ve fostered some cats. They’re easier to leave for a couple of days than a dog is. I still like pizza. And peanut butter cups. I don’t really know what you want to know. This is dumb.” 

“How are you though?”

What kind of question is that? What’s she supposed to say to it? “Fine.”

“Kell…” It’s so unlike her, or what Emily remembers of her, to be closed off. She did that. She made Kelley put all these walls around her heart.

“I try not to cry, and most days, I do a good job. I listen to your Spotify playlists when I need to cry. According to my watch, I never get a good night’s sleep, but I think it’s bullshit because sometimes, it says I only slept for an hour and a half.  I learned a long time ago, it doesn’t matter if I sleep for three hours or twelve, I feel the same kind of tired when I wake up, so there’s no point to staying in bed for too long. I forget to eat sometimes. Other times, I remember, but there’s not much point in getting up and making something. I do my job. I do it well. As long as I’m not failing there, I really can’t ask for more. Is that what you wanted to hear?” She leaves it at that. There are more details she could go into because that’s just the surface. Her life is way worse, but she’s not going to burden Emily’s already heavy heart with it, not going to give her one more reason to blame herself for something that wasn’t her fault.  “So like I said, I’m fine. ‘Bout how you are doing, I’d expect,” Kelley continues, because she knows now, “you just hide it better. So we… I don’t hate you… but… we’d be a mess together again.”  Two sad, broken people can’t heal each other any better than two angry, broken people can. When she looks up at Emily, she sees the tears about to spill over and it takes all of the self-control she’s learned over the years to not reach up and try to comfort her. 

“We’re the same people, deep down. It’s just you and me. Nothing’s changed,” Emily sniffles. 

Kelley turns again to the ceiling, trying to keep her own tears from falling. She’s changed. She’ll never be the same. It’s sweet that Emily thinks she can look past that, can tell herself she’s ok and is willing to give her another chance. “You’re not the same. You don’t shine like you used to. I took your light away.”

“It’s still there, Kell. I just need you to help me make it burn bright again. We were great together. We weren’t a mess. But we can be better this time.”

Kelley laughs, this sad, wistful laugh. “How do you propose we even get back to fine?” Better seems so impossibly far it’s out of reach.

Emily’s fingertips crawl across the cushion until they’re so close enough to Kelley’s hand that a piece of paper would hardly fit between them, and Kelley can feel the warmth of her hand. “What if we just let go of everything? All the pain, all the hate, all the anger, every bad memory.”

“I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget her.”

“I don’t mean forget. I mean put it all in a box and put that box under the bed. Somewhere safe. Somewhere you can always find it if you need it. It’ll be there if you need to feel, to remember, just somewhere you don’t have to see it everyday.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know,” Emily says honestly. “We try to be happy? We just let whatever happens happen? I really don’t know. All I know is your lips are the only thing that have made me feel alive since…” Emily lets her fingertips fall over Kelley’s hand. It’s cold and small, and she wants to cover it completely with her own, but doesn’t want to smother her. “How about one step at a time?”

Well at least Emily still has her ability to hope; Kelley’s relieved to know she didn’t ruin everything that was good about her. But the unknown all but seals it for Kelley. She can’t do uncertainty. She’s glad Emily’s strong, has faith, or whatever it is that she has, but she doesn’t. “Will you take me home, please?”

This time, Emily doesn’t argue with her. Doesn’t try to convince her to stay. Just brushes her fingers across the back of Kelley’s knuckles a few times, stands, and helps her up. They’re silent the thirty minute drive back to Peachtree City. There’s nothing to say, really, the way their morning devolved so quickly seeming to portend what would have happened if they really had decided to jump in headfirst and try again. 

When they pull into the driveway at Kelley’s parents’ home, Emily asks if she can walk Kelley to the door.  Kelley has neither the heart nor the desire to tell her no. Emily catches her hand right before it settles on the doorknob, pulling Kelley back and forcing the older woman to look at her. For a moment, they stare at each other, slipping back into silence, and Kelley swears she can see Emily’s heart breaking all across her face all over again. Better now than later, she keeps repeating to herself. You’re not strong enough, for this. You can’t know what you did to her or you won’t be able to function. And that’s what it comes down to, really. If it were as easy as herself, she would take a risk, let herself swallow down the punishment of what she did through the pain of watching Emily navigate the world as a different person, but it’s not about just her anymore; she has a team to coach, and that means she has to be able to get out of bed every morning. She’s never wished she had a purpose less than she does in this moment.

Emily rubs Kelley’s arms as she shivers against the cold, and it reminds Kelley that she’s wearing her UVA sweatshirt. She starts to take it off, but Emily stops her. “When you left, probably the hardest thing, besides how empty and cold the place was without you, was knowing you left this. It felt like it was your way of telling me there was never going to be another chance for us. I don’t want it. I want to think of you in it. I want to believe that we still have a chance, even if you don’t think so. I’m not giving up on loving you. In our hearts, we’re still the same people. We still love each other. And maybe you don’t think so, but I think it’s all that matters. So I’m not giving up.” She doesn’t give Kelley time to formulate a response, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek and then jogging down the slick porch steps. 

Kelley feels like she doesn’t even know herself anymore. She thought all she wanted was another chance, and now her chance is walking away all over again because it turns out she’s too fragile to risk her heart. All these years she could have become more resilient were just wasted. She wants so bad to call after her, but her voice catches in her throat. As she turns to go inside, her mom is already coming out onto the porch. When she sees Emily about to leave, Karen calls her name, and Kelley watches the blonde bun pop back out of her car. “Momma, what are you doing?”

Karen wraps her robe tighter around herself and starts down the steps. “She was my daughter, too, Kelley. I love her. And I haven’t gotten to talk to her in years. So maybe you can let her go, without telling her that you love her too, but I’m going to go tell her that I do, and miss her, too. Sometimes, that’s all people need to know.”

Leave it to Karen to eavesdrop. Always. “Momma, I did tell her, but it’s not enough. Stop-” but Karen doesn’t pay her any more mind than Emily does when she has her eyes set on something. Kelley watches for a few minutes, her mom and her ex-wife talking, hugging, until she can’t bear to watch that anymore either and she chooses to go inside so she doesn’t have to look at what should have been.

 

 

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I keep telling myself I’m moving on,
But I’m stumbling.
Believin’ my heart was strong enough,
And now I’m wondering.
Cause every step I take that leads me away
Just circles back to your door.
Wishing that I didn’t love you anymore.
But sometimes,
There’s those times,
It’s gotta be you.

 

January 1, 2027

Kelley’s setting the dining room table, complaining about her mother’s insistence on a fancy meal. She’s not in the mood, exhausted from her horrible sleep last night, from her almost with Emily, from life which never seems to give her a break for very long anymore. Her mom’s sing-songy voice coming from the kitchen is making her headache worse as Karen blames her for going out on New Year’s Eve and postponing their family dinner. And Kelley doesn’t get it, because she hasn’t been home on New Year’s Eve for a few years now and no one’s ever said anything to her about missing some important family gathering. They’ve never had to make up for some missed celebration, and right now, if this is a thing she didn’t know about, she’d rather it just continue without her.

“Go get dressed, honey. And please look nice.” Kelley rolls her eyes at the ridiculousness of having to dress up for her parents and siblings when she’s not in the mood to eat or even sit with them. “Oh, and make sure you shower.”

 

She doesn’t know what she expected to come downstairs to, the happy sounds of her siblings and their spouses milling about and chatting, their kids playing with Grandpa. What she didn’t expect was to hear that voice as her foot was midair on the landing of the staircase. She almost trips in her heels, but she catches herself at the last second. It’s enough of a ruckus for Emily, who’s been talking to Dan at the bottom of the stairs, nervously running her hand through her hair, to look up and bound up a few stairs before she realizes that Kelley’s ok and doesn’t need her. There’s a little pang in Emily’s chest, a wish to be needed again, to be given another chance to do something right, to be able to help her one more time. Instead, she backs away, scared she might get yelled at for even thinking about helping now when she couldn’t when it mattered.

“What are you doing here?” Kelley tries to keep her voice steely, but Emily is gorgeous, and those eyes, with mascara and eye shadow and hope, threaten to break her down the longer they hold hers.

“Um,” she rubs the back of her neck and stares at Kelley, silently pleading for Kelley to blow up at her, “your mom said she wanted me to come over for dinner, and…” she hesitates, trying to find the words to explain, “well, I could have said no, and I know that’s what you would want, but I didn’t want to say no. I miss them. I miss you. I told her I don’t want to give up on us, and she told me I shouldn’t.”

“Ok,” is all Kelley says, because this isn’t Emily’s fault. She brushes past her without another word and storms into the kitchen to confront her mom. 

“I haven’t had all my kids under my roof in years,” Karen says before Kelley even has the chance to speak. It’s not until she pulls the roast out of the oven and sets it on the stove that she fixes her gaze on Kelley, and if Kelley weren’t so angry, she’d know exactly where she gets her own displeased glares from.

“Momma, she’s not-”

“She is, Kelley. She was your wife. She’s my daughter. She’s part of this family and I miss her. You broke her heart and she’s here, trying to win you back because she thinks she broke yours and this is just ridiculous. I know how stubborn you are. I guess she’s stubborn, too, but how long are you going to make her keep trying? How many times does she have to drive back out here? Some people never get a second chance and she’s all but begging you for one.”

Karen doesn’t get it, just like Emily doesn’t. “I don’t deserve a second chance.” God how Kelley wishes she realized that before she went to Marietta last night and started all of this.

“I don’t disagree with you, but it’s not up to you if she wants to give it. You have never been so in love with someone in your life. I have never seen you happier than you were when you were with her. You both went through the most traumatic experience possible, but now you need to heal together. Let that woman love you, and stop trying to convince yourself that you don’t love her. It kills me to see you like this.”

“Momma-”

“No, Kelley. I wanted to step in and try to help fix this when you were getting divorced. But you left and you wouldn’t pick up the phone and your father told me it wasn’t my business, to leave it alone.  Seeing you miserable these past three years, I’ve regretted my decision everyday. So I’m not going to mind my own business. I’m going to tell you what you should be doing, and what you do with that? Well then it’s up to you, but she’s your soulmate.”

“I don’t believe in soulmates,” Kelley mumbles, resigned to her mother’s interference.

“That’s sad, because a few years ago you did and she was yours. I know you thought you’d never find love, but you found her, and I’m sorry that the universe took that away from you. Both of them away from you.  I’m sorry that you couldn’t find some peace in knowing that God has a plan. We didn’t raise you to give up on Him when things got-”

From behind them, Emily clears her throat, trying to stop Kelley from having to listen to a sermon. Trying to stop the fight over God between mother and daughter that she sees building. The same fight Kelley tried to have with her countless times because there is no “greater plan” when an innocent child is taken from this world. Kelley spins around and her face immediately falls because she didn’t need Emily to hear all that. “Um, Mrs. O’Hara, I can just go…”

“Nonsense,” Karen says like they weren’t on the verge of a blowup, and the way she glares at Kelley makes it clear she’s disappointed in her for even trying to have this conversation in the house with other people around. “Supper’s ready.”

By the time Kelley splashes some water on her face and has recovered enough to join her family, they’ve all claimed seats and left her next to Emily. Kelley pushes the food around on her plate and cringes as the conversation becomes almost solely focused on Emily. Emily casually attempts to divert it away from herself, to Erin and Jerry, their spouses, children, anything not her because she hates talking about herself, but for whatever reason, be it a subconscious fear that talking about those happy things will upset Emily or Kelley, or simply the fact that they’ve missed out on years of Emily’s life, the conversation keeps coming back around to her. And while Kelley’s thankful that no one’s asking her questions for the distinct purpose of helping Emily fill in the gaps in Kelley’s life that she’s missed, Kelley is also very aware of how much Emily hates talking about herself. She senses the stress permeating out of her as her brother starts talking about the last Olympics and the upcoming World Cup. Emily’s close enough to her that she can feel the reverberations of her knee bouncing under the table through the floorboards and into her own chair. Maybe it’s out of habit, maybe it’s that innate instinct to calm the younger woman that she always had and apparently never lost, but Kelley’s left hand finds Emily’s right knee under the table. And that’s it. That’s all it takes for the tension to melt from Emily’s jaw and shoulders. For the room to feel lighter. For Kelley to believe again. And she hates it. But she hates it a little less this time, and that? That’s scary.

 

“Emily,” Karen says within earshot of Kelley as they are clearing the table. Her voice is that sicky sweet tone that Kelley recognizes immediately as the same one she’d use when she expected the three siblings to do exactly as she said without any complaint. “I fixed up the guest bedroom for you. There are clean towels in the bathroom, and I’m sure you can borrow something of Kelley’s to sleep in.”

“Ma’am, I’m not spending the night.”

“You're not driving back home in this weather. Not when it’s dark out.”

“But-” Emily starts.

And Kelley knows then that this was a bigger set up than she ever imagined. “Mom, you can’t do this,” she protests, partly on Emily’s behalf, but mostly for herself.

“She has to take the highway to get home. I’m not letting your brother or sister leave either. It’s not up for discussion,” Karen holds up her hand. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to you. Girls,” she kisses both of them on the cheek, “we’re going to bed. We’ll clean this in the morning. Goodnight.”

Kelley holds in her loud sigh until her parents are out of the room. She leans over the sink, trying to work through everything for a moment, takes a deep breath, and goes back to cleaning the kitchen. The silence of the house, with her siblings in their rooms putting their own kids to bed, is deafening until Emily breaks it because she can’t ever just leave well enough alone.

“Kell, I didn’t-”

“I know. I’m sorry my mom’s like this. I’m sorry you have to stay,” Kelley cuts her off, but she doesn’t turn around, doesn’t stop working. “You know where my room is. Go get whatever you need and you can shower.”

“I showered before I came, I’m fine. But,” Emily hands her another plate to rinse off, “do you wanna maybe talk?”

Kelley doesn’t know what all there is to talk about. They did all the talking they needed to earlier, as far as she is concerned, so she says so.

Emily’s quiet for a moment, and then she sets a plate down on the counter, loudly enough to startle Kelley. “You think you’re the only one this is hard for? You think I wanted to come here tonight? To know I’d have to sit at a table next to your dad when he hates me? To have your siblings staring at me? To have to look back into the eyes of the family I was supposed to be part of? This isn’t easy, and I’m trying anyway. I’m trying the only way I know how. He hates me. You hate me. I hate myself. You don’t want me here. What am I supposed to do? Why can’t you just meet me in the middle?”

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, but it would be really great if you’d stop with the ‘woe is me’ act. No one hates you. My dad especially. You have no idea the amount of shit I got from him about how they didn’t raise me to commit adultery.”  

“I hate…”

“Go ahead. Say it,” Kelley almost dares her. Say you hate me, she silently pleads , because maybe that will put an end to all of this.

“I hate that you’re so clueless or that you think I’m so selfish you’ve really convinced yourself that that’s what it’s about.”

How easily after all these years they’re able to slip into a place where they’re comfortable enough to fight surprises Kelley, but even fighting doesn’t really hurt right now. Maybe the problem was that they didn’t fight for each other last time because this feels like a small success. Now Emily’s fighting - fucking yelling at her in her parent’s kitchen, something she’d never do - and Kelley doesn’t even have the wherewithal or the energy to feel shame about the other people in the house who can probably hear every word. So she yells right back.

“What? That you want attention? Sympathy? Because you didn’t get enough when she died? Because everyone was worried about me? Because I almost died?” Why is it that everyone in her life tries to make these things that are hard for her about them?

“Fuck you, Kelley.” But Emily doesn’t run away like she did back then, like Kelley was trying to get her to; she closes the space between them.

“What? You don’t want to hear that? I could have died, Em,” Kelley continues pushing.

To Emily, it feels like progress, too. Getting Kelley to shift the focus away from what she thinks is her role in everything. Getting Kelley to be angry with her instead of with herself, even if it is just scratching the surface of that rage. “You think I don’t know that? I watched you almost bleed out. I watched you almost die. In those minutes it took them to stop the bleeding, all I could think about was losing you. I didn’t even remember she existed then. I hated myself too much after to be there for you, and now I’ll fucking hate myself forever for that.”  By the time she finishes, Emily’s face is red with anger? Passion? Frustration? Kelley isn’t sure which, but all she feels is the beginnings of relief. Until the space that remained between them shrinks to nothing.  “Tell me not to kiss you.”

“What?” The break in the tension takes Kelley by surprise.

“Tell me not to kiss you. Because if you don’t, I’m going to.”

Kelley just blinks back at her, unsure of what to say because what is right and what she wants don’t match. Those two things never match.

“And if you tell me not to, I won’t. I won’t even try again until you tell me I can, but…”

She brackets Kelley’s hips with her hands, walking her back against the counter, but it’s more Kelley choosing to stay there than anything else. Emily’s hands are light on her hips and Kelley doesn’t feel trapped. She feels in control, but she doesn’t want to be, so she doesn’t say no, doesn’t put a stop to it when Emily leans in. This time, when Emily kisses her, it’s not hesitant and soft. It’s rough and forceful, desperate. There would be tears, but Emily is bound and determined not to cry in Kelley’s home and Kelley is bound and determined not to cry in front of Emily again like she’s weak and seeking sympathy. So Kelley kisses her back, equaling the roughness, her wet hands pulling Emily’s face closer to hers. When Emily bites down on her lip, it hurts, but not enough to even begin to provide the kind of pain Kelley seeks out everyday.  

Emily has no idea how much she can take, but Kelley wishes she did, wishes Emily could read her mind like she used to. Since that’s not possible, not anymore at least, Kelley does the next best thing and ends it. Breaking their kiss, she clears her throat to help keep the tears at bay, announces she’s going to bed, and she’s gone, heels in hand, scrambling up the stairs to the sanctity of her cold, dark bedroom where she can pretend that the layers of blankets are enough to protect her from the outside world.

 

She’s almost fully immersed in her nightly ritual of fantasizing about what her life would be like if she hadn’t fucked it up. Almost to that place where she can snuggle into her covers and pretend Emily’s arm is around her like she does any time life gets too hard and sleep becomes her escape because she’s all out of other options. Sometimes it’s a few minutes of happiness. Sometimes, it takes hours before she drifts off. She knows it probably makes her crazy, to lie there and feel like her ex-wife is still holding her. It’s hard to care how crazy it is when it’s the only peace she feels outside of her time spent on the sideline. Eventually, it puts her to sleep every night. It can’t keep her asleep, but it’s enough. 

Tonight, the sound of the doorknob brings her back to a reality she doesn’t want. “You can’t be in here,” she hisses before she can even see Emily. And when she can, she adds as Emily passes into the light from the window, when she realizes the younger woman is still in her outfit from earlier. “I left pajamas in your room so you could change.”

“I didn’t go to my room.” Her room. The guest room was her room as long as they dated, Dan refusing to let them share a bed even after they moved in together. They even joked about it when they spent the night there after they were married. They always called it Emily’s room like she always belonged.

“What have you been doing this whole time then? Did my mom talk to you again?”

“No, I was finishing the kitchen.”

“Why?” Kelley’s frustration grows. She doesn’t need help. Doesn’t need someone taking care of her. Trying to make her life easier. And she knows that’s what’s about to come out of Emily’s mouth, this sympathy that makes her sick to her stomach.

“I knew you’d get up early and do it. So now you don’t need to.”

She’s almost about to start bitching about it, but Emily drops down to the floor beside her bed, leaning her head back onto Kelley’s mattress, and it gives Kelley something different to complain about. “What are you doing?”

“Sitting, Kell.” She sounds so exhausted, so small.

“Why? Go to bed.”

“I’m gonna sit here with you.”

“Stop pushing, Em.”

“I’m not. I’m just here. To sit with you.”

“All night? Emily, I’m going to sleep. You need to leave.”

“So sleep then.”

“You’re not sitting on my floor all night.”

It’s the least she can do. The absolute bare minimum. To sit next to Kelley now when she couldn’t when it mattered. “I just- I need to be near you. I won’t touch you.”

“Em…”

“I just want you to know I’m here.”

That… that hits Kelley in the chest. Less than a dozen words have the ability to break down a wall she spent years building. “Will you please go change? You can’t possibly be comfortable.” But Emily doesn’t make a move to get up. “You can come back,” Kelley adds reluctantly. 

She watches Emily’s silhouette in the darkness. She can barely make out the slope of her shoulder as she faces away from Kelley to slip into whatever she fumbled around in her drawers and found in the dark, but it’s still her, and for the first time in years, she allows the thought of touching Emily to bloom in her brain. A massage when she needed help releasing all the tension she carried there. A dance because they danced in every room of their house, her arms looped loosely around the taller woman’s neck. Softly curling her fingers at the nape of Emily’s neck absentmindedly as she watched her favorite show. Kisses to the dimple on the top of her shoulder any chance she got - in the shower, the kitchen, in bed when she’d wrap Emily up in her arms, after training when no one was watching.

It’s over too soon, the warm memories shattered, and Emily’s back down on the floor beside her. “You can sleep in the bed, Em. You can’t stay on the floor all night,” Kelley says with a heavy sigh that she doesn’t mean, because she doesn’t want Emily miserable all night.

Emily ignores her. “I don’t know what you know about my life without you, who you asked, who told you what. I don’t know if you even care. You leaving felt the same as you dying. It made me want to die. I tried to, but fucking Lindsey wouldn’t let me. The first time she dragged me into the shower, I didn’t get off the bathroom floor for 18 hours. But eventually I had to come back here, and then your leaving felt worse maybe, because you were gone, like she was gone, but you weren’t . Once I packed up everything in the nursery, repainted it, moved out, I could pretend that she never existed some days. And that got easier, because all I had for her were dreams. But you? I had memories of you. That were real and that were of the best days of my life. I thought moving would make them go away. It didn’t. The reminders of you were always there. I’d brush my teeth and wait for you to bump my hip and grin with your fucking toothpaste dripping down the corner of your mouth. I’d make dinner and call out to you to come eat, and I’d be met with silence. I’d taste my coffee, and it wouldn’t be exactly like yours and then I’d think of all the coffee shops you dragged me to in all the places, and I’d cry all over again. Your ghost followed me when it wasn’t supposed to. And then there was the reality of it. You were still everywhere because of our jobs. I tried to forget you. I tried to stop loving you. I spent so many nights praying to God, begging him to stop me from loving you,” Emily adds hesitantly, knowing how slippery this slope is.

Kelley can see the tears streaming down Emily’s face in the light coming from the Christmas decorations still outside her window. She listens as Emily struggles through sniffles, her tone becoming more nasally the longer she cries. Kelley’s heart breaks every time Emily clears her throat to press past the way it breaks. She drops her hand off the side of the bed and finds Emily’s, and there’s nothing more familiar in the world than that hand.  

“I tried everything to forget you. Therapy, self-help books. Alcohol,” she admits, voice shaky and meek. “The alcohol was never enough, I don’t know how it was for you. No therapist understands. And He ignored every plea, every time I screamed and cried and begged and punched holes in my drywall. But you know what? He knows better than we ever will. He answered my prayers by not answering them, because he knew . He knew that even when my words were saying I hated you and I wished I had never met you, all I wanted was to be able to touch you again. Now I can,” Emily brushes her thumb over the back of Kelley’s hand, “so I’m going to.” 

Emily doesn’t care what brings them back together - Kelley’s need to see she was ok one more time, Karen’s meddling, God, or that familiar comfort that can’t be denied when their hands touch - all that matters now is that she holds on.

Chapter Text

 

I’ll be begging you baby, beg you not to leave,
But I’ll be left her waiting with my heart on my sleeve,
Oh for the next time we’ll be here,
seems like a million years
And I think I’m dying.

So when she calls you to go,
There is one thing you should know,
We don’t have to live this way,
Baby, why don’t you stay.



January, 2027
Kelley’s eyes flutter open to the gray light of early morning.  She wakes to Emily, still sitting on her floor, back against the nightstand with what must be the uncomfortable handles of the drawers digging into her flesh, head tilted in an awkward position to lean on her mattress. To the quiet sounds of her breathing through a slightly stuffy nose. And to a warm, soft hand still wrapped around hers, like it was there all night, and maybe it was. Like she won’t let go. She wakes feeling rested for the first time in as long as she can remember, despite their fight. With her heart feeling like it’s going to beat out of her chest. And to a hope that she didn’t ask for but doesn’t know how to escape.

Emily stirs a little, gripping Kelley’s hand tighter, and Kelley holds her breath, not wanting even the slight sound of an exhale to ruin this moment. She wants to watch Emily sleep in the light of day, her face peaceful and free of worry. She just wants this a little longer, so she can pretend a little longer, that everything she saw in Emily’s eyes last night was real and that this reality she’s suspended in is possible. But like everything else good in her world, this moment doesn’t last.

“Mornin’, beautiful.”

And Kelley cringes internally at that, though she tries to breathe through how it feels so her face won’t belie her internal battle. She tries to keep it in, a soft “Morning, Em,” finally spoken into the long silence, but she can’t, a “Will you just not?” quickly following.

“But you are beautiful,” Emily reaches up to pat Kelley’s hair back down, and this time, Kelley does flinch under her touch, but Emily ignores it. She must feel it. It must hurt her. But she lets it go and presses forward. “So beautiful. Missed your messy morning hair.”

And Kelley can’t help but chuckle as she looks up at the absolute mess spilling over onto her forehead while Emily’s bun is near-perfect. “You stayed.”

“Course I stayed,” Emily says, stretching her neck to the side a little to try to work out the kinks.

“You held my hand.”

Emily just looks at her like she doesn’t understand as she presses into the knots at the base of her skull with what is still her only free hand. “I said I would.”

“All night, though. You stayed all night. You held my hand all night.”

“Kell, I don’t ever plan on letting go.”

Kelley reaches over with her own free hand to take over for Emily, at first, lightly tapping over her traps just behind her collarbone. It's all so familiar. Emily hums into it a little bit, because her neck and shoulders are so stiff. The way she closes her eyes, so relaxed, like they never stopped touching, the way Emily has absolutely no reaction when Kelley finally pushes the collar of her tee out of the way to touch her skin, Kelley could get lost in it all. She could if… “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Yeah, about that.” Emily slowly opens her eyes. “What if we cancel that flight?”

“And do what?” Kelley’s surprised she even gives that idea any play. “What am I supposed to tell my parents?” Because one other thing, amongst the whole litany of things that Kelley won’t allow is for her family to get hurt in this process.  For them to think Emily is back in their lives only to lose her again. She’s already afraid it might be too late after last night, though that’s her mom’s fault.

And Emily seems to get that, that this isn’t as simple as she wants it to be. “Tell them you’re going to come spend the night with me tonight so I can take you to the airport in the morning. I’m closer anyway.”

“Em-”

“I’m not done sitting by you," she cuts Kelley off.

“How much longer do you need?”

“A lifetime? But I guess I’ll take what I can get.”


Kelley never was good at saying no to Emily. Not when it came to the little things, like breakfast for dinner again, a scary movie when she wanted something light, or staying in bed when a sunrise hike was calling. Certainly not when it came to the big things either. Not the house or the timing of their potential family, not the nursery color or the name. Not the rushed way she was asked to leave things in the middle of the night. Anyone who knew them and thought Emily Sonnett worshipped the ground Kelley O’Hara walked on - well, they weren’t wrong, and Kelley did get her beach wedding and surfing honeymoon - but that’s not exactly how things played out for them over the course of their relationship. A flash of a grin, a glimpse of that dimple, sad puppy dog eyes, even the start of a whine, in mere seconds Emily could have her way with the older woman.

So it doesn’t surprise Kelley when Emily reaches for her phone off the nightstand and types in her password - still the same, still Emily’s birthday - and looks up at her one more time with those pleading eyes and gets a nod to cancel her flight out in the morning. It doesn’t surprise her that what was to be her last full morning in Atlanta is spent with Emily next to her at her parents’ breakfast table eating oatmeal and drinking coffee. That she packs afterwards and lets Emily load her luggage into the back of her SUV. That when she gets restless, pacing around Emily’s apartment because she doesn’t know why she agreed to this or what she’s supposed to do, the run she meant to go on alone turns into a walk together. A walk where their knuckles brush for milliseconds and Emily’s pinkie sometimes touches hers for longer, and the stolen glances, well they aren’t so stolen after a while.

 

She takes her time showering, letting the cold water chill her to the bone, while the scent of Emily’s shampoo, conditioner, soap - all still the same - surrounds her, and then slips into some of Emily’s old sweats. Cancelled flight or not, she’s not sure how long she’ll stay - she’s not even convinced that she’ll stay past the morning - so when Emily offers up her own clothes, she gladly takes them so she doesn’t have to unpack and repack.  She does manage to say no to sharing a bed with her ex-wife, and to taking the bed whilst Emily offers to sleep in the living room. But she doesn’t say no, doesn’t even protest, when Emily slides in behind her on the sofa, because that’s the first bit of normalcy she’s known in so long, the shape of a body that might be a little sharper in spots, but hasn’t really changed in all these years. A promise of lasting comfort she doesn’t deserve but can’t push away, until Emily’s sleepy yawn signals the end of her long, slender fingers running through Kelley’s hair. But when Emily’s arm drops heavily across her waist, Kelley can’t handle that. Not there. Not now. Maybe not ever. Because the last time Emily's hand rested on her stomach, there was a life that they had created together beating beneath. And she could get up, maybe she should, but instead, she chooses to lift Emily’s hand and shift it down to her hip. Emily’s hand on her stomach is way too much for her still, but here, where she feels less vulnerable, she l still gets some semblance of security. 

“I love you, Kell,” Emily’s voice quivers as she says it into Kelley’s hair. “You don’t have to say it back. I know you love me, too. But I’m gonna tell you everyday until you believe me. Or until it’s enough, at least.”

The whole thing is a moment she should say no to because she’s still unsure she can do this, and it seems so obvious that someone could end up hurt, but that’s not enough to overpower the warmth she's surrounded by that she could live in forever. 

Or at least until the morning.

*****

It takes her a minute to get her bearings in the dark, to remember where she is because it doesn’t feel like her room. It’s too warm. Too easy to breathe. It’s missing the heaviness and the permeating sadness that has followed her everywhere since she ran away.  Sometime in the night, she managed to turn over into Emily, her face now tucked under the younger woman’s chin. And Emily’s holding on tight, keeping her from falling off the sofa, maybe keeping her from fleeing again.

It’s too perfect. Too familiar. Too good and she can’t have any of it. Before she realizes it, before she can stop herself, hot tears are flowing onto Emily’s neck, threatening to wake her up. And that’s the last thing she wants, because she is so undeserving of Emily’s forgiveness and she doesn't want to stay in it any longer.  Carefully, she lifts Emily’s arm off of her and slips off the sofa. She doesn’t bother changing, just quickly runs her hand through her hair in the bathroom. She stares at herself in the mirror for a minute. The bags are still under her eyes, the worry lines probably won’t ever fade, she thinks, but she looks less like shit this morning than she has in a long time. But she also feels more sure about leaving this time.

Her duffle is slung over her shoulder and her hand is on the handle of her suitcase. She takes one look back at Emily, who looks perfectly peaceful under the blanket, so blissfully unaware that there were still seats on a flight back to Utah this morning. It’s the way she wants to remember her always.

Some would call it purposeful, that she silently crosses the floor and lays a soft kiss on the hollow of Emily’s neck, tasting the remnants of her own salty tears there. Some would call it one last desperate attempt, a cry for help, a plea to be stopped. And maybe it is, but it’s also the fact that she didn’t get to say goodbye last time. She didn’t get to press her lips into the skin of the woman who was her entire world that night. Didn’t get to tell her one final time that she loved her. She needs this, this weak attempt at closure. “I love you, too, Em,” she whispers, staring down at her ex-wife for what certainly feels like the last time.

Emily’s fingers graze her own. “Stay,” comes a soft, pleading whisper. 

It’s the one word she wanted to hear so badly back then that never came, the slamming of a door echoing through their house instead of Emily’s sweet voice.

“That was a goodbye kiss.”

Kelley drops to the sofa, not knowing what she should feel about being caught, and Emily’s hand rests gently on her knee.

“I didn’t sleep last night,” she chokes out, swallowing down the lump in her throat. “I thought if I fell asleep, I’d wake up and you’d be gone. Like having you, holding you, would just be a good dream, and I’d wake up to the same harsh, cold reality I wake up to everyday.  I spent all night breathing you in so I wouldn’t forget this time. Trying to memorize the rise and fall of your chest so that way if you left, at least I could fall asleep breathing the same as you, even if it is from the other side of the country. Every minute that passed just felt like I was one minute closer to losing you. So I prayed,” Emily adds carefully. She knows it’s likely to trigger Kelley, likely to start another fight, but it’s the truth.

“Em-”

But Emily doesn’t even give her a chance, because sometimes, in the worst moments, someone has to be the bigger person and actually say something, not silently give in. “I know you don’t believe. And that’s fine, you don’t have to. But believe in us. Believe in this. She was the best parts of both of us. And you cannot honor the one breath she did get to take by giving up.” 

“You gave up first," Kelley says without hesitation, and it knocks Emily back for an instant.

“Fine,” Emily rubs her eyes, “You’re right. We can’t honor her like this. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I never should have… but you don’t have to now. Because if you walk out that door, Kell,” and it takes her a full minute to compose herself and be able to speak again without breaking down, “it feels like I won’t ever see you again. It feels like I will die all over again.”

“That’s not fair.”

“It’s not. But it’s also not fair that she’s not here, and I am. I’m still here. I’m right here in front of you and I love you and I just want you to love me back. I’m alive still. I’m not a ghost. I’m not a memory. I’m not a dream. I’m not a should have been.  I want you to love me more. I want you to love me more than you love her. Whatever I have to do to make you love me, I’ll do it.”

“There’s nothing you have to do, Em,” Kelley says wearily.

“I will get down on my knees and beg you. I’ll quit playing. I’ll move to Utah. I’ll do anything you want, Kelley, please. She was the best of us and you know she wouldn’t want this for us. To look down on us from heaven and watch us break all over again.”

“Stop bringing her into this.”

“But she’s in it. She’s here. She’s in your heart. She’s in your mind. You won’t let her go, but you don’t get it. I’m here, too. You think she keeps calling you away, like you can’t have me because of what happened to her. You think you can’t have anything good. Or I don’t know, it’s like you look at me and I remind you of that day, but it’s not fair either. Because I got left behind that day, too. You were gone in that moment. We both would have traded places with her without even having to think about it.  It wasn’t just you who hated that He took her instead. But He did, and I can’t change that no matter how many times I begged Him to let me switch places with her. I’m here. I love you. I want that to be enough. And I just want you to stay.”

Kelley finds herself contemplating what would take more strength: letting Emily go again right now or staying with the prospect of getting her heart broken again. Because she will - she’s sure of that - once the mask is gone and Emily sees who she is now. She starts to find a little more clarity as the bluish hue of the impending sunrise makes the sadness in Emily’s eyes unavoidable. And she decides it doesn’t take much strength to stay if the eventual collapse of her world that will come - again - can be her penance.  If she pays that, she may finally find the peace she's been so desperately searching for.

“Ok.” 

“Ok?... like?...”

In that moment, Kelley is forced to make a choice. A choice, at least for now, to let go of their daughter and try to choose her ex-wife, her ex-wife who seems to be fully choosing her even if she doesn’t believe it. She doesn’t have to let go of her pain or her guilt or her anger, but she does have to free up some space in her heart to try to give Emily what she wants. And if that hurts, unbearably bad, then that’s exactly what she deserves.  “Ok, I’ll stay. I’ll stay… a few more days.” She doesn’t know how long that is or what it means, but she can’t say no now any more than she could then. She knows Emily wants to ask exactly how much longer or what they’ll do after. She can see it on her face and in the way her lips start to move, but nothing comes out for a tick.

“Ok. Do you wanna go back to sleep until it’s light out and then I’ll make you breakfast? Maybe you can come train with me? I haven’t worked out in a couple of days.”

Soccer. Should be easy enough.

“You mean shag your balls for you?”

Emily grins, like really smiles all the way to her eyes. “Figured I’d let you throw some to me for volleys and headers. I wasn’t planning on missing many shots.”

“I don’t have cleats,” Kelley protests, as Emily pulls her back down beside her.

“You’re scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Kelley tries to sit back up to argue with her.

“Scared,” Emily’s lips graze her cheek. “That I’m better than you.”

Kelley shivers against her. She is scared, but not about what she can do with a ball.

*****

From the edge of the box, Kelley serves a ball into the path of Emily’s run towards the top of the six. What she sees happens in slow motion. The cleats on Emily’s plant foot fail to make solid contact with the ground beneath her, slipping on the frost-covered grass. Kelley watches as Emily flies into the air, whiffs the ball completely, and slams into the ground. And then she collapses where she is in a fit of laughter which doesn’t subside until Emily’s stunned silence grabs her attention. She turns her head and makes eye contact with Emily across the field and they burst out into laughter together this time. Emily gets up to her knees and crawls towards Kelley, but when that proves too much effort she rolls the rest of the way there, and that leaves Kelley laughing until her sides ache and tears are flowing freely from her eyes. By the time Emily reaches her, her clothes are covered in frost and bits of grass pepper her face, and she’s crying too, and Kelley figures at least some of those tears have to be back pain from the impact. But her smile is wide and her eyes are playful. She rests her head on Kelley’s thigh and they lay together, their laughter slowly fading. 

“Professional athlete,” Kelley mutters.

“Hey now…”

“God, I wish that had been in a game so I’d have the footage forever.”

“I kinda wish so, too,” Emily chuckles. “That would have been so good.”

“Gifable.”

“Gifable,” Emily repeats proudly, rolling onto her side so she can look at Kelley. “So I said wouldn’t miss much. Didn’t say it would be perfect.”

So far from perfect,” Kelley teases her. “We won’t even worry about marking you on corners this year.”

“I’m going to make you regret saying that,” Emily shoots right back, and her eyes sparkle at their easy banter. “Thank you, Kell,” she says after a few minutes, and quite earnestly. 

“For what?” Kelley reaches down and brushes a blade of grass of Emily’s nose.

“For throwing a thousand balls for me today. And shagging a few misses,” she adds sheepishly. “It’s nice not having to train by myself.”

“I’m training the enemy. You know that, right? Feels like… illegal. Treasonous.”

And Emily could tease her, about someone seeing them, telling Laura, Kelley getting fired. She could tease Kelley about how much she must love her to risk her job. Instead, her sincerity continues. “I appreciate it. I appreciate you staying.”

“Welcome,” Kelley mumbles.

“You wanna get out of here?”

“I was thinking of maybe going for a run. I can take an Uber back.”

“I could use a run,” Emily pipes up hopefully.

“Em…”

And she wants to argue, wants to point out that she knows Kelley’s probably almost soaked through her clothes by now from laying in the grass with her because she is, and the wind is making the chill in the air worse. And Kelley looks so frail, like she has nothing left on her bones to insulate her from the cold. But she knows not to push. “One more cross. Gotta end on a finish,” she hops up, forcing a winsome grin.

“Fine,” Kelley reaches her hands out for help. “At least try to stay on your feet this time.”

She does, pounding a beautiful header right back where it came from into the bottom corner and proceeds to slide on her knees into the corner like a real goal celebration. “Don’t mark me when we play y’all,” she smirks as she jogs back to Kelley, and for a moment, Kelley sees the same, radiant woman she always saw after a game. Well, after every win at least. 

“You’re gonna come back, right?” Emily asks quietly, taking Kelley’s gloved hand in hers. The worry is back on full display in her voice and on her face.

“My wallet’s at your house. I can’t very well fly without my license,” Kelley tries to reassure her, and that seems to be enough to relax her for the time being, enough for her to let Kelley go. Not that Emily has much of a choice, balancing on this tightrope between holding Kelley so tightly she can’t leave and making sure she can still breathe.

 

But when she walks through the unlocked door of Emily’s condo a couple of hours later, the instant relief she sees on Emily’s face, the too-tight hug she gets, make it obvious that even with the realistic impossibility of her escaping Georgia, Emily still had some deep-seated fear that she would find a way to.

“You’re back,” she whispers, letting her lips linger against Kelley’s rosy cheek. “I went to the store and made you soup. Are you hungry?”

“Starving,” Kelley lies, not having the heart to disappoint her. “Smells good.” She doesn’t have the heart to turn down the second bowl Emily shoves into her hands when she sits down on the sofa after her shower. And it is good. And warm. And Emily taking care of her like she did when… when she was pregnant… it makes her so uncomfortable. But she sees what it does to Emily to be able to feel useful, and she doesn’t have the heart to tell her to stop. 

*****

“Do I have to stay awake again tonight?” Emily asks later that evening as the light outside her condo fades and the glow of the TV becomes brighter.  She doesn’t have the strength to look at Kelley, choosing instead to fixate on their hands on the sofa cushion where she’s been playing with Kelley’s fingers for over an hour.

“No.”

“You’re gonna stay?” Kelley nods.  “I don’t want to wake up and you’re gone.”

“I won’t leave without telling you.”

“Promise?”

“I promise,” she gives Emily’s hand a little squeeze because she can see the insecurity written all over her face and she hates it. “You know I didn’t leave you, Em. I wasn’t the one… I’ve never left you.”

And that’s true, technically. She wasn’t the one who abandoned the relationship emotionally first. She tried to get Emily to talk to her. And she was forced to leave, which is different than running away. She’s not trying to blame Emily, rather trying to reassure her that logically, if she didn’t then, and she didn’t this morning, she won’t now.

Emily blinks back tears. “I know,” she admits hoarsely, “but it felt the same.”

“I know.” Kelley lets out a heavy breath. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Can we sleep in the bed tonight then?”

That, she’s not ready for, to sleep in a bed that’s not theirs. “Not tonight, Em.”  Emily nods in agreement, or at least recognition, but Kelley sees the pain on her face. “If the sofa doesn’t hurt you too bad, you can hold me here again?”

 




And as their first day goes, so does the rest of the week. It’s a week of Kelley feeding more balls to Emily’s left foot than her right because her left is still weaker. Of her tosses coming while Emily’s mid-backpedal to force a quick change of direction before she controls it with her chest. Of services that push her to hit a ball on the half-volley instead of heading it into the back of the net even though it means a whole hell of a lot more shagging for Kelley. Of Emily cooking for her twice a day even though she hates how well her ex-wife is taking care of her. Of evenings sitting awkwardly beside each other and nights with Emily clinging to her like her life depends on it, and that fearful question so evident in her eyes before she drifts off every night even if she doesn’t ask again: are you really going to be here in the morning ?

And Kelley is. Every morning, no matter how much her brain screams at her to sneak away in the dark, she lays silently next to Emily until her eyes open and that soft smile graces her face when she realizes Kelley stayed, and they can do it all over again. That smile every morning is the only thing that gives Kelley any certainty in this.

 




“You’re leaving tomorrow,” Emily’s voice cracks as she rubs circles into Kelley’s back, and Kelley has to wonder if, at least on some subconscious level, the pattern is more for Emily’s comfort than her own.

“I have to. We go back to work for real in two days. It’s not forever,” she adds quietly. “We’ll play here. And you’ll come play there.”  But two and a half months seems so unbearably long, like a lifetime almost, after so many years apart. So tonight, before turning away from Emily, Kelley kisses her. It’s quick, not even lasting ten seconds, but it’s calm and easy, and in that brief moment, they both feel their lips falling into sync like they used to. It’s ten seconds of hope, and even though Kelley still can’t stand Emily’s hand resting on her stomach, when she snuggles her back to Emily’s front and laces their fingers together to pull their joined hands just under her chin, it feels like a leap of progress.

*****

“You stayed,” Emily’s voice is heavy with sleep as her alarm wakes them up on their final morning together, but her smile is every bit as bright as it is every morning. It crosses Kelley’s mind that it could be the last time she sees Emily smile like this, if the younger woman comes to her senses once she’s gone. 

“Of course I stayed. You’re my damn ride to the airport.”

*****

“I want you to know I’m sad about this,” Emily looks straight at Kelley but Kelley refuses to meet her gaze, fixating her stare out the windshield. “I mean, my parents are pissed I missed Sunday super, but I couldn’t exactly…”

“You couldn’t exactly bring me and let them know we’re…” Kelley doesn’t know how to finish that sentence, because she doesn’t know what they are. “We need to figure that out first before you even think about telling your family because-”

“I’m going to tell Emma when I see her,” Emily interrupts her.

“Em,” Kelley warns, because out of everyone, Emma’s anger was second only to Lindsey’s when Kelley cheated.

“She’s my sister, Kell. She has to understand this wasn’t all you. I’ll make her understand.”

Kelley doesn’t think that’s possible. Not after the email Emma sent her when she found out. 

It’s like Emily can read her mind. “I know she was nasty to you. It’s ok, you can say it. She was awful. I mean, I was awful, too, but she was unacceptably awful.”

“No, I deserved it. It was acceptable, for sure,” Kelley faces her. It’s not that she’s afraid of what Emma will say when Emily tells her; Kelley’s afraid of what impact Emma’s words will have on Emily. She may be unsure about what they’re doing, but it doesn’t make her want it any less, and Emma seems almost guaranteed to put an end to it.

But Emily doesn’t seem to recognize that. ”I know you’re not working everyday. You can come back for a weekend. If you want. I’ll be here,” she adds lamely, because it’s not like she has anywhere to go between now and preseason.

“We’ve got a draft to prepare for. I can’t just…”

“I know. Just… if you have time. If you want. I’ll be here.”

Kelley leans across the console and kisses her cheek. “I know you will be,” she lies, more determined than ever to stay strong. “I’ll call you when I get home.”

They both get out of the car to get Kelley’s luggage, Kelley letting her help again even though she doesn’t need it. Emily pulls her into one more hug. “Utah’s not your home, Kell,” she says softly. “It never was. Your home’s here. With me. With us.” And with that, she hurries back around the car so Kelley doesn’t see the tears about to spill over onto her cheeks.

Chapter Text

 

I wanna be the bottle,
You’ve been drinkin’ with your eyes,
Or the road you run away on,
You’ve been runnin’ all your life.
The third-row pew that you last knew
As a child in church.
I wanna be the one you reach for first.

 

She knew the knock on her door wasn’t Amazon; they don’t knock. She only knows a package has been delivered because of the telltale bum-bump of a toss from a few feet away, a box hitting her door and then the ground. This knock was a soft, almost hesitant. It could have been the neighbor kid upstairs selling Girl Scout cookies; she knows Kelley will buy her out of nearly all her boxes. It could have been the little old lady next door whose cat frequently hops from her balcony to Kelley’s and won’t go back home. She almost went to check there before she opened her front door, but she needed to get to the office.

It wasn’t supposed to be Emily standing at her door, looking a little disheveled, a little worse for wear than when Kelley left her a few weeks ago. Kelley knows that look, the same look that she saw when she first met Emily in camp all those years ago - the sleep deprivation, the worry, the anxiety of a fresh-faced newbie just trying to hang on. All sorts of memories she thought were gone forever come flooding back, a reminder of how much Emily overcame, a lot of it with Kelley by her side. They got so good at managing all her big feelings together. And now, undoubtedly because of Kelley, all the fear and self-doubt has returned.  All those emotions are standing at her doorstep now, and there’s nothing else to do but let them – let her – in. “How did you-” she starts, even though she knows that the blonde is standing in front of her is aching for a hug, for acceptance, not an interrogation.

“I know people who know people,” Emily shoots her what she intends to be one of her charming grins, but it comes out as a half-smile, a forced one, and she can even force a wink.

“What are you doing here, Em?” she asks. They don’t play each other anytime soon. She shouldn’t be here. Then again, she knows Emily well enough that she should have known better than to truly believe she’d stay away.

“I thought I was losing you.” The words are as raw as her voice, and it knocks the wind out of Kelley, how she cuts to the chase like that when she typically hems and haws and twists her fingers as she toys with the words in her head.

That’s how Kelley knows this is serious, not because Emily is a few feet in front of her instead of a few thousand miles away like she should be, but because she doesn’t bother to hide how scared she is, how much she’s hurting. She steps aside and lets her wheel her suitcase into the entry. It’s there Emily stops, choosing not to go any farther because everything about Kelley’s reaction is, unfortunately, what she expected, and nothing about it says she wants Emily there. “What are you talking about? You’re not losing me,” Kelley sighs, too tired for this and whatever it’s about to turn into.

“We don’t talk as much anymore.”

“We talk literally every day. We talked last night. And you can text me anytime you want to,” Kelley sucks in her bottom lip and bites down out of frustration because she knows what Emily’s getting at and she knows the younger woman is right.

“And get a one-word response from you? Feels like I’m losing you. Or that I lost you already. Thought I should come check either way. Because if I am, I want to hear it from you in person.”

She could have just called. She could have just asked. Kelley would have told her.

Probably.

Maybe not.

Ok, probably not.

She would have said what she just said - you’re not losing me - nothing more, nothing less, and Emily wouldn’t have believed her because she couldn’t see if the little tells on her face were there and maybe because she’d be able to hear the uncertainty in her voice like she can right now. They would have ended up exactly here, with Emily asking her in person so she has nowhere to hide. 

There are things to hide though, perhaps most importantly, the deep hurt she’s been dealing with because of Emma’s reaction. Predicting exactly what it would be did nothing to lessen the impact it had on Kelley. This was never going to be easy, but she held onto a little hope that some things wouldn’t go wrong. Hope is a dangerous thing, often leading to even greater disappointment. It’s only ever brought her pain. The Olympics. Their baby. Their marriage. This reunification. She doesn’t want to keep doing this if the person closest to Emily - who is basically Emily - thinks this such a horrendous idea.

Emily toned down the version she passed on to Kelley when Kelley asked how it went with her twin. Kelley knows this because she got the version straight from Emma first. It started with “I already told you to stay the fuck away from my sister,” and ended with “You ruined her life once. Wasn’t that enough for you?” and there was a bunch of yelling and a whole lot of shitty truths in between. So no, Emily hasn’t lost her, per say, but Kelley’s also too beaten down to fight for their relationship, to fight off her own demons, and to fight Emily’s family. So she didn’t mean to push her away, but she guesses she’s been unknowingly creating some space between them over the last week. It’s hard to see them going anywhere like this. To see a future without Emily’s family in it. It’s easier to fathom the rest of her life without Emily if she slowly extricates herself from this slowly-repairing bond now, not later.

She’s younger, but she’s not stupid. She knows. Or if she didn’t, she figures it out in that moment, waiting for Kelley to say something. “Give her time. She’ll come around. She’ll see.”

She used to love how perceptive Emily was. Maybe one day, if they make it, that will serve them well again because there are a lot of things she needs Emily to know that she can’t begin to fathom saying aloud. But right now? Right now, she wishes Emily couldn’t see right through her. “She’ll see what, Em?”

“That we’re still us. We can forgive and we can love and if we were meant to be then, we’re meant to be now. That not everyone has this ideal, straight-forward path to forever. Not everyone’s love story is like hers and it’s ok.”

“It’s not ok. Nothing that happened was ok.”

“I just mean it’s ok that we’re not perfect. Kell, trust me that she’ll come around. She loves me. She doesn’t have a choice.”

But she does have a choice, Kelley wants to scream. She has a choice and she has the right to make it, to feel all the anger in the world towards her former sister-in-law, and honestly, Kelley doesn’t think Emma will ever come around. But she doesn’t have time for this argument. “I’ve gotta go to the office. Can you just…” And what’s she going to do? Ask Emily to leave? “Just stay here I guess?”

“Can I come with you?”

Once again, how fundamentally different Emily is breaks through whatever brave front she’s tried to keep up. She’s never been needy. She’s never looked so small. And Kelley hates it. “To my work? Like… you know what I do, I can’t have you there.”

 

Five minutes later, they’re in Kelley’s car on the way to the stadium because Emily promised she’d spend the whole time in the weight room, out of the way and away from any confidential draft and trade talk. Kelley couldn’t say no to the childlike hope in her eyes that belied the apprehension never present before. Both leave a desire to protect her, to give her everything she wants, surging through Kelley. And she’d be lying if she if she said there weren’t some butterflies in her stomach at that thought of someone flying across the country for her. Wanting her. Needing her. Needing her with the same intensity that she needs Emily right back. At the thought of someone worrying over her, as twisted as she knows that is. Emily showing up on her doorstep makes her feel fought for in the way she was desperate to feel before. It makes her feel worthy for the first time in a long time. Right now, better late than never could be enough. “Your hand’s cold,” she grips tighter around slight fingers slid against her palm.

“Your city’s cold. Should come back to sea level.”

“You’re dumb. Atlanta’s not sea level.” Kelley steals a glance at her at a stoplight. She’s really here, flesh and blood and lemon shampoo mixed with a lavender lotion. Even with the grounding nature of Emily’s hand in hers, it still feels surreal. Without warning or fanfare, or much planning judging by the hurriedly packed suitcase Kelley saw her open on the tile of her entryway as Emily rushed to change into workout-appropriate clothes. She flew across the country in this gesture that she’s trying to downplay now. It was borne out of uncertainty, but it feels grand nonetheless, now, with Emily beside her. Maybe it’s the way it reminds her of their one season together in Atlanta. Of traveling to the stadium together holding hands, just like this. Kelley making fun of her, just like this. Emily beside her feels like… well it feels like what her life was supposed to feel like.

“What?” she grins, almost totally at ease now, like the fact that it took such little effort to talk her way into Kelley’s car, into her work life, and into her home, permits for a little confidence. Kelley doesn’t have to answer her for her to know that Kelley realizes it too.

It’s hard to remember that this is just temporary – today only, perhaps – when it feels like it should be forever.

 

Laura hugs Emily before Kelley, before Kelley can even offer up an apologetic justification for why the enemy is in her office. It’s not a small hug, either; it’s a full-on Laura Harvey bear hug, the kind that crushes your ribs and lungs all at once and leaves you gasping for air but never wanting it to end. The kind that she reserves for Kelley when she hasn’t seen her in a while – like now – or when Kelley needs to know there’s someone who still loves her hanging out in her corner every day just in case she ever decides she needs them. “Bloody hell, what are you doing here, Sonny? I’ve missed you!”

“And me?” Kelley pipes up.

“I saw you a couple months ago,” Laura turns to Kelley, but keeps her arm around Emily.

“Yeah, which is about when you saw her last.”

“Ah, c’mere, O’Hara,” Laura grins, throwing her other arm across Kelley’s shoulders. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Son?”

“I just came to visit her for a few days. For her though, not to spy. Promise,” Emily nods to their draft board, already slinking away. “Kelley says I have to stay in the weight room.”

“Ah, yes. Always takes the job so seriously, this one,” Laura says with a wink. “Make yourself at home, Sonny. Pitch is looking pristine if you want to have a go.” And with that offer, Emily’s gone, and Kelley’s left with Laura staring her down, a twinkle in her eye. “Something you want to tell me, O’Hara? You two friends again?”

“Something like that,” Kelley mumbles, knowing there’s no way Laura’s going to let her off the hook and no way they’re going to get started on their actual work until she knows everything. Laura turns the kettle on so she can make tea for both of them. By now, Kelley would normally be on her third cup of coffee; by the looks of it, and the way she’s cracking her knuckles, Laura decides she doesn’t need another today.

 

“So, we’re trying,” Kelley finishes her flyby summary of their reunion. It feels good to recount it aloud to someone. She feels oddly lighter – optimistic even – after telling it. “We’ll see.”

“Sounds like she’s trying. A lot.”

She is, Kelley realizes. She’s trying and Kelley’s not and it’s not really fair to Emily, to let her believe she’s in when she’s got one foot out the door, just waiting for it to fail, looking for any excuse to end it before it has even the chance to take flight.  Emma’s an excuse. Being scared is an excuse. Being apart is an excuse. She’s fought through a lot of it before. She could now if she’d just choose to. “She is,” Kelley confirms aloud. “She joked about coming here to play.”

“Do you think it was a joke?”

“I think she thinks if she’s not all in, it’s not going to work. I think she doesn’t know how to do anything half-assed, so she wants to pick up like nothing changed. I think she’s better at forgiving than I am. And it’s not that I don’t forgive her, I do, I just…”

“You don’t know how to forgive yourself.”

“Exactly.”

“Have you told her?”  Kelley shakes her head. It’s not a conversation that she’s ready to have. Maybe she’ll never be ready to have it. Maybe she can do without having it. “You know she’s not the only person who doesn’t know how to do anything halfway. You’re two peas in a pod. Wanna work out what picks we’re going to trade to get her?” Laura knocks her on the shoulder. And it’s a joke, but it’s a half-joke, and Kelley knows Laura would do It if she asked her to. She loves Kelley like her own daughter and she’s not even keen on building up rookies. “She’s terrified, Kelley. That’s why she’s here.”

Maybe Laura’s right. It’s going to kill her if it doesn’t work, whether that happens now or later; there’s no protecting her heart at this point. But if she can do one thing right, it’s give every bit of everything she has left to make Emily feel safe again.

She needs to figure out if she can be all in.

But she’s certain all in can’t include living in the same place.

They’re not there yet.

Yet.

Yeah. It’s a not yet, not a never.

*****

Kelley leans against the wall that leads down the hallway to her bedroom, watching Emily sprawled out on her couch, chucking lightly at SpongeBob. She’s been there like that for over an hour while Kelley cleaned the kitchen and tidied up a bit around her. She asked if she could help; she listened when Kelley said no.

She’s not pushing, patiently letting Kelley’s walls crumble instead of trying to tear them down. Her presence changes everything. Her laugh changes everything. Kelley closes her eyes and she can hear that laugh echoing through elevators and hallways, busses and airplanes, on fields and in change rooms. That laugh filled their kitchen and their screened-in porch, their bathtub and their bedroom. It interrupted every TV show Kelley ever tried to watch. It was there on the good days and the not-so-good, when she didn’t think she could get out of bed and when she was laughing right alongside her. A constant, until it wasn’t. That laugh changed her life forever, as much in its absence as in its presence. She never thought she’d hear it again, but by some miracle, it’s here now, bringing a sense of peace and joy to her home. It’s quiet, but it’s the same, and it’s the sweetest music Kelley has ever heard. It’s the soundtrack to their life – their love – just in reprise.

“Come here,” Kelley says softly. For this woman who flew all the way here, who came without even being asked to because she knew she needed to, the least she can do is not make her spend a night - several nights, perhaps - on her couch. Maybe Kelley will have to remind herself of what’s right in front of her for a long time going forward. Maybe she’ll have to remind herself of it forever, that this woman has no intention of giving up on her. If that’s what it takes so she doesn’t let her thoughts slip towards the darkness, to all the things that could go wrong, she’s going to try her best to do it. To make an effort to focus on the belief that if something could go wrong, it could also just as easily go right. The way Emily’s eyes light up when she says it proves that her decision is absolutely worth it.

Besides, her couch isn’t comfortable for sleeping like Emily’s is. She’s spent enough nights on it to know. And her living room gets cold at night. Emily never liked the cold.

 

Reaching across the bed to find Emily’s hand feels like reaching across a chasm and falling, but falling into a safety net below.  It shouldn’t be scary; this isn’t the first time. Emily squeezed her hand into Kelley’s in the car this morning. Emily held her hand all night a few weeks ago. But it feels terrifying being the one to initiate the contact instead of waiting for Emily to. “You gonna stay all the way over there all night, or?” she questions, bravado filling her voice to hide the way she’s trembling in her chest.

“I thought you’d kick me out when I got here. I didn’t want to push my luck.”

“But I didn’t kick you out, Em,” Kelley rolls onto her side, putting them just a little closer.

“I- I- I can hold you?” she asks timidly.

“You holding me for those few days back in Georgia was the best thing I’ve had in my life in years.” And she means that. It took her so long to learn how to fall asleep alone again when she moved across country years ago. Emily’s arms instantly felt like coming home, no adjustment period needed. And she missed them just as much after a few days as she did when she lost them after years. “I want you to more than… well more than almost anything. What’d you think? That I don’t want you to?”

“Dunno,” Emily mumbles before seeking more clarity. “If you had to choose between your NWSL Championship or me holding you, what would you choose?”

Kelley holds her breath, waiting as Emily scoots just a little bit closer. “You. I’d choose you over that even if it was only going to last a minute.”

“What about if you could win one as a player instead of as a coach,” she presses, because it’s the only team award Kelley never won and Emily knows how much it bothers her, “or have me hold you for a minute.”

“Still you,” Kelley whispers, nestling her head under Emily’s chin and letting the familiar weight of an arm drop over her shoulder. “Always you.” It’s muffled against Emily’s breastbone. There’s part of Kelley – a small part – that hopes she didn’t hear it. There’s a bigger part of her that hopes she did and “always” will ring true forever.

*****

“Your last World Cup medal or me holding you for two minutes?” Emily asks with a sleepy grin as Kelley opens her eyes.

She’s run, showered, and come back to bed just to get a few more minutes of snuggle time, but judging by the bright light streaming through her windows, she seems to have fallen asleep again. And that’s the thing – her body knows even if her mind is racing and still so uncertain. Her body knows peace with Emily beside her. Her body has always been the most trustworthy part, knowing when she could push harder, crying out to her when she was injured. She’s not exactly been good at listening to her body ever, letting the thoughts in her head overpower the signals of pain, letting the wants in her heart overcome the truth right in front of her in bruising and scarring and attrition. “Still you. Em, there’s nothing I have in this world that I wouldn’t give up to feel your arms around me even if it were just for thirty seconds.”

“You know you don’t have to give anything up, right?” Emily brushes Kelley’s hair out of her face, the sincerity suddenly making her feel guilty for continuing this game. “I meant it when I said I’d stay forever.”

Kelley doesn’t feel like getting into the fallacies of forever again. “Yeah, but you do. You have to make a choice and I don’t want that. I’m not going to let- ”

“Is this about my sister again?” Kelley nods silently. Emma’s words fueled her pre-dawn run, pushing her every stride, farther than normal, faster than normal, until every time her foot pounded against the pavement, the white-hot pain blocked out any memories of those words for the duration. “You know I’m all grown up, right? I know you’ve always looked at me like I’m a child, but I’m not. I can make my own decisions.”

“Yeah, I know you’re not. But I’m not going to let you choose me over her. And your whole family. I’m just not.”

“Ok, first of all, since when do you let me do anything? And secondly, relax. She just needs time. I told Sam and Rose and they didn’t freak out.”

There’s a part of Kelley that’s shocked Emily would tell anyone else because she’s not ready to tell anyone outside of her family, who thanks to Karen, weaseled their way in, and Laura, but that’s Emily’s fault. There’s a bigger part of her that hones in on the fact that one of the people she told isn’t Lindsey. “What’d they say?”

“Sam said we should go to couples counseling, and I think she’s right.” Kelley can’t stop from glaring at her after couple’s counseling is exactly what she suggested years ago when she knew they needed it. “Rose said ‘fucking finally,’ which is kinda shocking considering how cynical she is about love. But…” Emily’s voice trails off and she shrugs.

But it is kinda big. It’s not Lindsey big. It doesn’t fix the fact that there’s a reason – a glaringly obvious reason – that Emily won’t tell Lindsey and she will tell the other two. They don’t know everything. They never saw Emily at her worst. But it’s something. People on their side. People who aren’t biased.


If Kelley thought she could make a habit of sneaking back into her apartment in the quiet darkness every morning, she was wrong. The third morning, Emily catches her hand as she passes in front of her couch. “Fuck!” Kelley jumps back, her chest heaving in panic. Her eyes adjust to the shadowy figure with her legs tucked under her. “You fucking scared me, Em!”

You scare me,” Emily says, completely serious, and she grips Kelley’s hand tighter. “Do you always run this early in the morning, or is it because I’m here?”

“I always do. There’s a marathon coming up and…” her voice fades. “I just need to get my day started.” She was never very good at lying. What she means by that is there’s no point in staying in bed. What she means by that is she can’t sleep. What she means by that is she needs to feel this pain daily as a reminder that she’s still alive.

“While it’s still dark outside?”

“Yeah, so?”

“So anything could happen to you. You could get hit by a car. Attacked. It’s not safe.”

She’s terrified. Kelley hears Laura’s words clear enough that the older woman could be right next to her.

Emily reaches into the waistband of Kelley’s yoga pants and pulls out her phone. “Share your location with me.”

“What?”

Emily pulls Kelley down into her lap, pressing their foreheads together. “Share your location with me,” she repeats slowly. “I’m not going to stalk you, Kell, I don’t care what you’re doing when I’m gone. I just need to know you’re not dead in a ditch somewhere if this… if this is your thing now.”

It takes her a minute to add Emily back as family, but she does and then tosses her phone onto the cushion beside her. She’s left staring at Emily, not that she can make out much except her light eyes. And there’s not much left to do except…

Kiss her. Deeply.

To show Emily that she knows. To thank her. For coming, for caring, for trying, for knowing, for hoping right alongside her, for loving her all over again. For being who she always was and what Kelley needs her to be right now. Exactly what Kelley needs her to be because she’s always known just how much to push and just how much to support, when to be quiet and when to be loud. She’s always been the perfect complement to Kelley, and better able to read her than anyone else.


“What’s wrong with me touching you there, Kell? You let me hold, you but every time I touch your stomach, you move, or you move me, you flinch. What’s wrong?” Every night since she arrived, Kelley has welcomed Emily’s arms around her and her hands on her – provided they’re in places that Kelley considers safe. Around her shoulder on the couch is harmless, Emily knows, because Kelley buries herself deeper into Emily’s side when she pulls her closer. On her hip is fine. Kelley jumped the first time Emily touched her there as she was cooking, but she apologized, needlessly, and put Emily’s hand right back where it was, and as she watched, Emily dug her chin into Kelley’s trap until Kelley pushed her away with a happy chuff so she could move about the kitchen freely again. Enveloping her, slowly scratching her back over her shirt as they fall asleep with Kelley’s cold nose tucked into the notch her neck is perfect. But the minute Kelley turns over and Emily drapes her arm across the older woman’s midsection, Kelley can’t handle it.

“Nothing,” Kelley mumbles.

“Please don’t do this,” Emily pulls softly on Kelley’s shoulder, asking her to roll over, and when she does, she pulls Kelley into her chest so the older woman doesn’t have to make eye contact with her if she decides to open up. “Please talk to me. I know I didn’t listen when it mattered, but I’m trying not to make that same mistake again.”

“Em, this isn’t a big deal,” Kelley can’t hide her exasperation. “It’s not something we need to talk about.”

“You flinching when I touch you is a big deal. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. But I also want to know the why.”

“The last time you put your hand there…”

Kelley can’t finish her sentence, but luckily, she doesn’t have to. Emily gets it. The last time she put her hand there, Kelley was pregnant. The last time she put her hand there, the life they made together had a heartbeat and little fluttery kicks. The last time she put her hand there, they had shared dreams, and now they have none of it. “Ok,” she says softly. “Ok. I get it.”

But Kelley doesn’t think Emily gets it. Not all of it. “I’m not the same,” her voice breaks.

And that, Emily knows isn’t possible. She wasn’t far enough along to have had permanent changes to her body, but all these years later, she still feels the physical difference that only existed for those precious, but fleeting months. “Will you try with me?” Not for her, Emily knows the difference. The progress they make – if they’re going to make any – has to be together, under both of their hands.

That feels like something so impossible, a vulnerability so unattainable, that Kelley hasn’t even allowed herself to dream of it. “I can’t.

“Because you don’t trust me.” It’s not a question when Emily says it.

“I don’t trust that you’ll stay forever. I don’t trust that I won’t push you away.”

“I don’t trust that I won’t push you away again if things get hard,” Emily finally admits, and it’s to herself as much as it is to Kelley. Maybe she shouldn’t, maybe contributing to Kelley’s doubt is just going to knock them down a peg or two, but she also feels like she owes the woman in her arms complete transparency.

And Kelley seems to open up to it. “Well if you do, how bout you come find me this time.”

“Would that have made a difference if I had done that last time?”

“I don’t know. I would have come back, probably. But it wouldn’t have worked,” she continues definitively. “We were too broken. We needed to work on ourselves.”

“What if we take our time?”

“I don’t think there’s enough time in the world, but what’d you have in mind?”

“There’s plenty of time,” Emily kisses her hairline. “There’s the rest of our lives, Kell.”

“You’re not going to wait that long.”

Emily squints at her. “This isn’t about sex. Is that what you think this is about?”

Kelley just shrugs. “What’s it about then?”

“I want you to fall asleep in my arms and know that I'm going to be there in the morning so you can actually sleep, not toss and turn all night. I want you to feel my arms around you and believe me when I say that I love you with every fiber of my being. I want you to believe me so much you don't have to ask why anymore. I want to feel your skin on my skin, your heart against my heart with nothing in between us. No walls. No fabric. I want the rhythm of my heartbeat to be strong enough that it eventually calls you home, because this isn't your home. I want to feel like we’re one person again. I just want to lay with you. I want you to trust me enough to lay with me. That's all I want.”

“How?”

“What if we just keep moving forward? Little more each day. Maybe every day, you’ll learn to trust me more because you see that we’re working out. Maybe you’ll force yourself to take a leap of faith and trust me blindly.”

“So what do we do tonight?”

“Turn over.” She lifts her arm so that Kelley can readjust, then finds her hand and covers it with her own, lining up their fingers. She sets their joined hands down over Kelley’s stomach. Kelley’s entire body tenses under her, but this time, Emily doesn’t move. “I’m not touching you. Breathe, baby. I’m just here with you. Next to you. Breathe, Kell.”

“But this isn’t enough.” Kelley’s voice is panicky and anguished, her breathing shallow.

“Enough for who?”

“I can’t even let you touch me and I’m supposed to let you love me. You’re just going to get tired of dealing with all my problems, my scars. You’re going to leave.”

Emily sits up and turns the bedside lamp on, shocking Kelley not just with the brightness but with the sudden realization of how much she doesn’t want Emily to let go of her. “I’m never leaving you, Kell. Ever.”


Night after night, they work towards a common goal, Emily propelling them forward, Kelley with barely enough wherewithal to breathe through the resistance her body tries to put up. The promise Emily made to her is on her lips. Emily can’t see her – her back to the blonde’s front – as she silently mouths the words with every gasp in. “She’s not going to leave.”

From her hand directly atop Kelley’s, to her fingers splayed, filling in the gaps between the older woman’s fingers. In those small spaces, Emily’s fingertips make contact with the fabric coving Kelley’s stomach, and she survives.

From fingertips barely touching her shirt, to her hand flat against Kelley’s stomach, and Kelley’s hand now covering hers as an anchor that also doesn’t let her leave.

From her hand over Kelley’s shirt, to the pads of four fingers finally touching Kelley’s skin. Her thumb stays tethered to safety, hooked around Kelley’s t-shirt. But Emily’s fingertips on her skin make her feel like she’s floating away.

From fingertips, to her entire hand flat against Kelley’s bare stomach, where she’s most vulnerable, emotionally and physically.

Some nights, they’re stuck in quicksand. Some nights, they sink deeper into that near-deathtrap. But with patience, and faith, they find a way out, even if they have to go backwards to go forwards. Kelley still sneaks out of her arms every morning, but every run along the dark access road of the highway by her apartment feels easier when she gets to wake up feeling rested each morning.

*****

“Preseason’s starting soon. You gotta get back to Atlanta.”

“Preseason can start without me,” Emily didn’t even bother looking up at her from where her head was in Kelley’s lap, Kelley’s fingers running through her hair. Before a complaint could escape Kelley’s lips, Emily cut her off. “I don’t care how unprofessional it is.” No one knows where she is. She told them she needed time. They can take it or leave it for all she cares.

“I’m not gonna let you- ” Kelley stopped herself. “We’re not gonna do this. You’re not just gonna not go back and not play.”

“I’ll go back,” Emily finally rolled over and looked up at her. “I’ll go back when we’re ok. When we’re ready. I promise I’ll go back.”

“You can’t keep coming up and using our facilities. We’ve got players arriving day after tomorrow. You can’t be there. I can’t-”

Emily knew what she’s going to say: no one can know. “That’s fine. But I’m not ready to go home.”

“There’s a time limit to this, to you being here. You know that, right? You have to be back in-market. I can outlast you.” Kelley didn’t mean for it to come off as a challenge – it’s more her own frustration with how slowly their progress is plodding along – but it did nonetheless.

Emily pushed herself up enough to wrap her hand around the back of Kelley’s neck, pulling the brunette down towards her. “You never could,” she whispered, closing her eyes and meeting Kelley in the middle.

Kelley didn’t know how they were supposed to know when that was, or how Emily could just feel that it would be anytime in the foreseeable future, but she supposed that trusting this woman meant trusting her gut again too. She shook her head, let out a huff, and went back to rubbing Emily’s head.  


When Kelley steps out of the bathroom, Emily is sitting on the edge of the bed, nervously bunching the sheets in her hands. She watches Kelley dry her hair, trying to muster up the courage she needs. “Do you trust me?” She doesn’t have to ask; she can feel the answer. It’s not the same as before – nothing may ever be again – but the trust is there between them, growing under the surface. It holds them close every night. Stops Kelley in her tracks every time she considers pushing Emily away. Keeps Emily’s thoughts of Kelley leaving at bay. Still, she needs to hear the words, the uncertain yes that falls from Kelley’s lips as she steps between her legs and rests her arms on the tops of Emily’s shoulders. Kelley looks down at her with this mixture of curiosity and faith, much less fearful than she has been.  And Emily nervously plays with the hem of her own tee for a beat. “Do you want to…” she starts, raising her eyes to meet Kelley’s. But Kelley quickly shakes her head. Do you want me to?” That, she gets a single, firm nod to.

Kelley’s eyes don’t leave Emily’s face as she lifts her shirt over her head; they don’t need to. She knows every inch of this woman’s body. Every line. Every freckle. As she runs her hands along Emily’s neck, her shoulders, her clavicles, everything is the same. Same soft, warm skin. The way Emily closes her eyes under Kelley’s touch, the way her breathing slows, is the same. For someone who was – is – known for being so high, she’s been able to steady herself in Kelley’s presence since their beginning. “What are we doing, Em?”

They may be out of the quicksand, but they’ve only worked their way to the thick undergrowth of the forest. Cutting their way through it isn’t easy, but there’s a glimmer of light up ahead.

“The next thing that feels right.”

That’s all they can do.

Kelley sink her knees into the mattress on either side of Emily, her hands now solely focused on running down the tight, stringy muscles of Emily’s neck, and Emily digs her thumbs into the creases of Kelley’s hips. For a moment, they hold eye contact, and then the force of her lips on Emily’s topples them both back into the mattress.

There’s just a quarter millimeter of fabric separating their hearts now. Half as much as yesterday.

The next right thing.


Kelley watches her sleeping so peacefully in her bed and she can’t stop her heart from aching for Emily to stay. She belongs. And Kelley belongs with her. To her. There was no way she was ever going to move on, that wasn’t some lie she told Emily to make the younger woman feel guilty or better. She ducks back into her bathroom, hangs her towel on the rack, and returns to watching Emily. There’s a part of her that wishes Emily would feel her eyes boring a hole into her bare back in her sleep. Would stir. Would stop her. She wonders if there will ever come a time when her wishes and what’s best for her line up so she can feel more settled. She pads over the hardwood to the edge of her bed, staring down at the pale, freckled expanse of Emily’s skin, the sheet draped haphazardly over her bottom half. The rise and fall of her lungs is mesmerizing. Comforting. Familiar.

Kelley lays down on Emily’s back and it’s enough to rouse her from her slumber. A satisfied hum escapes as her lips curl up into a smile. Kelley’s robe is soft and warm. The weight of her body is safe. “Mornin’, baby.” Emily’s voice is low and scratchy from sleep, but so content.

“Hi.” Kelley leans forward to kiss her cheek. She thinks about apologizing for waking her, but the longer she hesitates, the less sorry she is.

Emily reaches back, her thumb finding the dimple in Kelley’s thigh, and when she does, her hand brushes the robe’s sash. She hesitates, grabs the end, and pulls. She didn’t really expect anything. Certainly not Kelley pushing herself up just enough with her left arm that the tug unties the sash. Not her robe falling open and their skin finally meeting as Kelley rests back against her.

Their fingers intertwine against the mattress above Emily’s head.

Their breathing syncs.

Their hearts line up.

Nothing physical separates them anymore.

Feels a lot like nothing can stop their love anymore.

Kelley runs the fingers of one hand along Emily’s side, hesitating over each rib, taking her time, feeling Emily shift under her. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” Emily chokes out.

“Em…” Kelley breathes her nickname into her ear and Emily shifts again. “Do you want me to move?”

“No. God no, don’t. Stay. Forever.”

“I wanna know what you’re thinking about.”

“I can’t… I can’t tell you,” Emily stammers.

“You can tell me anything.”

Emily knows this, or at least knows she has to. She can’t hold back when she’s asked Kelley to trust her. She owes that to her. “I- I don’t want you to think this is about sex,” she rushes out. “I told you it wasn’t about sex and- and it’s not. I just…”

“It’s ok. Tell me.” For once, Kelley gets to be their calm.

She wishes there were another exercise in trust she could participate in right now. Anything else seems preferrable because she’s thinking of Kelley in a strap-on, the silicone pressed against her ass. “Fuck,” she mutters into the pillow, and she forces out a hard breath through her nose. “I was thinking about you wedging you knee between my legs,” she starts and then hesitates, wondering if Kelley will stop her right there. She doesn’t. “Slowly spreading them apart. Enough for your other leg to fit and spread me wide open.” She squeezes her eyes shut and bites down on her lip, waiting for what feels like will be an inevitable freak out that never comes. Instead, Kelley presses her knee between Emily’s tightly closed legs, separating them, spreading Emily’s legs wide enough that she can fit between them. It takes a second for Emily to reconcile the disbelief in her mind with the reality that is between her legs, but when she does, she continues, more turned on, and more sure of herself. “I’m thinking about you inside of me. Filling me. I wouldn’t be able to see you, but you’d be so close. Like you’d never let go of me. Swirling inside of me.” As Emily speaks Kelley slides down her body, just enough. Just enough that if she was wearing a strap-on, she could do exactly what Emily is describing. By now, she can feel Emily moving beneath her more consistently, rubbing herself against the bed, and it turns her on to know that she has a hand in this. That she can still do this.  “So close.”

“I don’t have one…” Kelley says, because she doesn’t want Emily thinking that she doesn’t want the same thing, that she wouldn’t. Maybe now tonight, but she would. It’s not a never; it’s just another not yet.

“No! I know. I don’t- I didn’t mean… I just… ohhhh,”

“Em…”

“I just want to be next to you, Kell, I’m sorry.”

Kelley can tell that Emily is on the verge of hyperventilating. “Em…”

“I know we’re not there yet. I’m not trying to pressure you. I don’t even need-”

“Baby.”

“I could go my whole life without-”

“Emily, stop talking.” Emily rolls over under Kelley, afraid of what she’s going to find on her face. Afraid that she’s ruined everything. “I love you, too,” Kelley kisses her softly.

Emily removes her hand from the small of Kelley’s back and intertwines their fingers. She places Kelley’s hand on her heart. “Yours,” she whispers, letting go and pausing to see if Kelley will leave her hand there. She does. She slides her hand over Kelley’s hot skin, up between her breaths, careful not to touch them, and stops on her heart. “Mine.” There’s no ours for them anymore, but this is enough for now, hearts racing against each other’s palms.

They could get drunk on the power of the love flowing between them. It’s addictive, the heat between them, like Icarus and the sun. Except maybe this fire flowing from Emily to Kelley and back again won’t be their downfall if they continue to let it build slowly, and burn even slower, fighting off the instant gratification calling to them.

“I can go back now,” Emily brushes Kelley’s hair out of her eyes, finally tucking it behind her ear because it won’t stay back. “We’re gonna be ok. We are ok.”

Emily's finally ready, and it's the last thing Kelley wants. 

Chapter Text

 

I used to believe in us
When times got tough.
Lately I’m afraid
That even love is not enough.

But if you can look in my eyes,
And tell me we’ll be all right,
If you promise never to leave,
You just might make me believe.

 

April, 2027

“Kelley!  Kell, wait up!” Emily trots behind, trying to catch up to the shorter woman’s lengthened and purposeful strides.  Kelley’s on a mission, to get as far away from the cluster of offices as she possibly can. She headed straight out of their therapist’s office, letting the door swing shut behind her instead of holding it for Emily as she all but raced for the parking lot, ignoring Emily’s pleas to stop, to slow down, to talk to her. She isn’t able to grab Kelley’s hand until she’s almost made it to the car, but when she does, she tugs the brunette back towards her, a little forcefully, because it’s the only way to break her singular focus on escaping. “Hey,” she says softly, trying to get her to cool down. One hand offers the pressure Kelley needs, a reminder that she’s still here, they’re here together and she doesn’t need to run. The other provides steady, soothing strokes along her forearm.

It doesn’t work for more than a few seconds, just long enough for Kelley to take a deep breath that doesn’t calm her any more than Emily can.

“Take me home,” Kelley rips her hand from Emily’s grasp, and before Emily can stop her, she’s slammed the car door behind her. By the time Emily is in the driver’s seat, Kelley’s arms are crossed tightly over her chest and she’s staring out the window.

Emily knows she’s already shut down, but she tries anyway because she promised she’d never stop trying again. “Kell, she doesn’t know us. She-”

“She said we jumped back into this too fast.” Even more worrisome than Kelley’s typical fire, her affect is flat now, and she doesn’t even bother turning towards Emily as she speaks, seemingly preoccupied by the clouds. “She said we’re going to fail again. She said-”

“I don’t care what she said. She’s not us,” Emily interrupts her, and that – the interruption, not the actual words – is enough to get Kelley to finally look at her. “She doesn’t know how much we love each other. She doesn’t get it.” No one does, not the way that she loves this woman so deeply and so completely, with all of her scars and walls and insecurities.

“Will you drive, please?” Kelley asks, resting her head against the window and closing her eyes in a way that says she’s done, done – with the conversation for sure; with more, possibly.

All the progress they’ve made over the past two and half months of preseason seems to have washed down the drain in an instant – again – this time thanks to the words of someone who was supposed to help make them whole. One small step forward, one giant leap back - over and over, like a viscous cycle they can’t escape. Emily wonders how many more times they can do this. She’s not worried about herself, but rather about when Kelley’s going to realize that they’re so far back from the place they started that she’ll just give up, for real this time. The repetition of their fear-driven mistakes isn’t even all Kelley’s fault. Their eyes met in Marietta Square, and then their lips, and Emily panicked. They went to breakfast, talked about forever too soon, and then something changed for Kelley. Emily kept her from physically running away in Atlanta only for the distance that grew between them while they were apart to feel as wide as the Pacific Ocean. And all the work they did taking their time to relearn each other's bodies and hearts just came unraveled in a single session. “We’ll find a new therapist. She hasn’t lost a child. She doesn’t know-”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Take me home.” Kelley sinks lower in her seat.

Home.

The most powerful word in the English language.

Emily stares at her, completely lost. Home like her parents’ house? The hotel where she has a room with the team, her uneasiness with this, despite Emily racking up the most frequent flyer miles of her career going out to see Kelley every single weekend up until their season officially kicked off, causing her to keep one foot out the door? Or home home? Is it possible that she’s calling Emily’s condo home? She’s almost too afraid to ask.

But she doesn’t have to.

“You know what?” Kelley sits straight up and glares at Emily with that familiar fire behind her eyes. “You want this to work? Or to try to make this work?” she angrily challenges, because in her heart, she already believes the answer to her demand is going to be a no. “Take me to the cemetery.”

The place Emily refused to go with her. When Kelley needed her wife the most, she stayed in the car. Claimed she didn’t need closure. Left her to bear it alone – with family, technically – but none of them mattered to Kelley that day; Emily was the only one that mattered.  There was no coming back from having to live through that day without her wife to help bury their child.

But this time, Emily isn’t about to let some stranger come between them or any amount of pain dictate their future. If this is what it takes to prove to Kelley that their love is strong enough to overcome everything, she’s not about to hesitate. She turns the key in the ignition, checks over her shoulder, and puts the car in reverse.

 

The car’s barely stopped, two tires off the gravel road and onto the grass, before Emily’s seatbelt is off and she’s around to the passenger side, opening Kelley’s door for her and offering a hand. That hand acts as a lifeline that always seems to appear for Kelley lately, just in case she needs it, and always exactly at the right times. Today, Kelley needs that hand more than ever, but she almost doesn’t take it. The betrayal from years ago that mixes in with the relief and support she’s being offered now washes over her and makes her lightheaded.  But when she finally pushes past the uneasy feeling in her stomach and gives in, that hand is as familiar as ever: warm, a little rough, the strong grip that she needs to give her the strength to walk up the grassy hill.

“It’s not like I haven’t been here,” Emily says quietly, barely over the sound of a persistent red-headed woodpecker tap-tapping away at the tree that branches out over their daughter’s headstone. “I come here a lot.”

Kelley doesn’t quite know what to make of that. Emily couldn’t come the one time Kelley needed her to, yet on her own, she seems to have made peace. And Kelley’s happy for her because her ex-wife needed to, at some point, but it stings to find she did it on her own. They should have done it together.

“I come on the day we conceived her. What should have been her birthday. Christmas. Thanksgiving, because I’m thankful you got to witness her take a breath and because I’m thankful you were holding her when…” Emily’s voice cracks, “… so she wasn’t alone. I come on your birthday, because I can’t be with you, and she’s the closest I could get. I come here on the anniversary of the day we lost her. And anytime I’m having a bad day. I talk to her when I feel lost or hopeless. I know it’s dumb...”  She notices Kelley’s eyes fixated on the flowers in the cone vase.  “I’m sorry they’re fake. The cemetery won’t allow real flowers because they… because they die,” she continues. “They said people don’t keep up with them. I would… I would have if they’d let me, but…”

“It’s ok, Em.”

But it’s not. The longer she stands there, the more rage builds up inside her. Kelley still hates her, even though she was able to bury it for so long, focusing all of that hatred on herself and her sins. She’s hated Emily for years. Never forgiven her for shutting her out when she needed her the most. For putting her in the position she eventually found herself in. Never moved past the idea that yes, she was the one who cheated, but that day, the day that they – that Kelley – buried their daughter, all Emily had to do was get out of the car. She had the chance to stop their implosion, to make the choice that would have saved their marriage, and she didn’t. Said it was too hard. Said she didn’t need to. Couldn’t care enough in that moment to do something for someone else. That was their point of no return, not that day in the hospital, and not that night in their bedroom. Yet she’s had the nerve to come back here over and over and over. Too late. Alone. Because she eventually realized she needed it. Kelley can’t hold her fury in any longer, her screams piercing through the pleasant springtime sounds of a beautiful Georgia day. “Fuck you. Fuck you! Fuck you fuck you fuck you!” Her pain mixes with her words, and her words mix with hot tears, and her tears mix with rage as her fists pound into Emily’s chest.

Fists that will leave bruises for Emily’s teammates to see in the dressing room tomorrow when she pulls on her jersey. Bruises that will be worthy of not just a questioning look from a few of them, but a question from one, and Emily will brush it off as various knocks and elbows she took in training without ever blinking. She’ll walk out into the tunnel before anyone presses her further, because this? These fists responsible for what will soon be faint bluish-purple orbs on pale skin, stretched thin across her breastbone, feel like the very least she deserves. So she stands there and takes it, eyes closed, unmoving, and without a word, with no thought of grasping Kelley’s wrists to stop her. She could easily end the onslaught, but she doesn’t want to because she couldn’t stand there three years ago. Couldn’t hold her wife up. Failed at the worst possible time.  The force coming from Kelley pounding against her chest is nothing more than a reflection of the hatred Emily has for herself. It’s hard to tell if the pain is her flesh or the deep cuts to her heart from the sound of Kelley’s own agony finally out in the open in the daylight.

Sometime after the searing pain numbs, Emily realizes Kelley is leaning against her chest, breathing hard and sobbing uncontrollably through a string of mumbled apologies. Emily pulls her clenched fists from her pockets and wraps her long arms around the smaller woman, hugging her tightly against her aching chest. “It’s ok. Kell, it’s ok, baby.”

“It’s not,” Kelley sniffles, a blubbering mess.  “This is why she said we shouldn’t be together. It’s not enough that I love you. Look at us.”

“No, baby. This is exactly why we should be together. We’re doing the hard work in our own way.”

“I can’t. This is… no,” Kelley continues, inconsolable, because anything that brings out that kind of unforgivable response can’t be right.

“Kell, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.” Kelley pulls away from her, eyes bloodshot and forehead creased. “I’ve been waiting for you to get your feelings out. To stop trying to bury them. To admit that this wasn’t all your fault. This is what we needed to be able to move on. We don’t need some crappy therapist. We need us. We need to love each other enough to promise we won’t give up just because it gets hard like this. You feel deeply, too intensely, but it’s who you are, who you’ve always been. It’s why I fell in love with you. This is how you’ve been needing to get your feelings out – for years – and you finally did. You let me take some of the blame, let me have some of the burden today. This… this is what we needed,” Emily wipes at her own eyes.

“Can we please go home? Please?” Kelley begs through tears, refusing to acknowledge any of Emily's logic.

Emily doesn’t have to wonder this time what home means.

Her condo is their home.

Kelley has two homes now, and while it’s not the same as having one shared one, it’s progress. There’s a place in Georgia she considers hers again. A few months ago, that was inconceivable.

*****

“I’m sorry,” Kelley mumbles, and Emily can feel warm, wet tears on her neck again. Kelley’s been crying off and on since they got home earlier in the afternoon, and while Emily doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, she also can’t get past the ache she’s had behind her own eyes all day because she can’t stop thinking about how Kelley has been constantly suffering.

“Sweetheart, I’ve already told you it’s fine,” Emily runs her fingers through long, thick, brown hair, wet around the temples from new tears.

“No, but I’m sorry,” Kelley continues, lightly tracing an already-faint bruise on Emily’s chest. Most are covered by her sports bra, but a few are peaking out from the edges of the fabric, impossible to ignore. “You don’t need all this to deal with. You’ve got a game tomorrow.”

“You have a game tomorrow too, so stop apologizing and let’s finish the movie.”

“It’s not like I have to do anything. I just sit there. You have to play,” the older woman mumbles.

Emily snorts because she knows that’s not true. Kelley doesn’t sit the entire game unless Laura gets off her cooler and she’s forced to, and that’s rare. She’s the same way on the sidelines as she was on the field. Loud. Obnoxious. Arms flailing. Face not hiding any of her many emotions. Screaming at officials, but still able to talk herself out of a card most times, so there’s that saving grace. Emily knows this because she watched it all, every game that Kelley’s coached. The camera only cuts to her on the sidelines every once in a while, but Emily can still read her every emotion, even when she’s nothing more than a blurry figure in the background. It’s brought laughter in low moments, tucked under the covers in the dark, watching Kelley talk mad shit to officials, her face getting redder and redder by the second. She replayed the video of Kelley’s red card enough to be responsible for a several hundred of the views on Twitter. Emily knew instantly that it was tactical, done to inspire a comeback from her team, and it worked, but it didn’t make the situation any less funny. “Do you want me to make more popcorn?” she changes the subject. Kelley shakes her head and instead rolls the taller woman half on top of her like she’s a weighted blanket. “Wanna turn the movie off and go to bed then?”

Kelley looks up at her with these astonished, almost grateful eyes, like despite the fact that Emily hasn’t left her side all day, she still has serious doubts that the blonde would want to share a bed with her tonight. She had every intention of curling up on the sofa alone for the remainder of her trip. “I’m so sorry, Em, I-” she starts again, only to be cut off.

“I don’t care. I don’t know how to get that through this thick, thick skull,” Emily grins, knocking lightly on Kelley’s head. She pushes herself off the couch and begins dragging Kelley down the hall towards her bedroom. “I don’t care if you need to rage over and over again. I just need you to get it out – all of it – so we can move on. I’m not trying to rush you, I don’t care how long it takes for you to stop hating me-”

“I don’t hate you,” Kelley stops her.

“You did though.”

“I did for a long time,” Kelley admits. “But I don’t anymore.” She means that. She feels something beyond exhausted now. Defeat. Maybe like a failure, the same way she felt when she lost their baby, and again when she lost Emily. But she doesn’t feel hate.

“Well good,” Emily kisses her forehead. She doesn’t believe it, but she needs Kelley to think she does. “Can you stop hating yourself now, too?”

That’s so much harder than finally forgiving Emily

“Because I don’t, baby. I don’t hate you even a little bit. So I feel like if I love you, you can love yourself.” Kelley nods in agreement, against Emily’s chest to hide her doubt. Emily doesn’t believe that either, but she’s no choice but to go along with it.

 


 

When Kelley returns from her early morning run, the scent of coffee fills her nose, keying her in on the fact that Emily is awake only seconds before she hears the quiet strumming of a guitar coming through the open French doors leading out to the balcony. She toes off her running shoes and silently slides across the hardwood. Emily’s sitting in the near-dark, the only light coming from the sun peaking out above the horizon in the distance and her dimmed laptop screen beside her. There’s a cup of coffee on a small table in front of her, a guitar across her lap, and sad tones leaving her lips. It takes Kelley a minute to process the situation because the Emily she knew couldn’t play an instrument to save her life, but here she is, sitting cross-legged, and at least managing chords.

“Blades of grass on tiny bare feet. I look at you and you’re looking at me,” Emily continues, her voice still rough from sleep, or crying, or both. “Could you beam me up? Give me a minute, and I don’t know what I’d say in it. Probably just stare, happy just to be there, holding your face. Beam me up. Let me be lighter, I’m tired of being a fighter. I think a minute’s enough. Just beam me up.”

Kelley lets her finish, but it feels like reading someone’s diary, standing in on a private moment like this. She can’t stop herself though, can’t back away and head for the shower, Emily’s voice pulling her in and holding her there like a hand around her throat, aching and making it hard to breathe. Emily doesn’t notice her until she drops her hand to her shoulder a few lines into another song. She spins in her seat, incomprehensible stuttering replacing lyrics.

“Don’t stop,” Kelley says softly, “I just didn’t think it was fair to keep listening without you knowing I was home.” But Emily makes no move to continue. “Why this?”

“Huh?”

“Why this song? You have to know bunches of songs, so why this song?”

Emily shrugs and looks away like she’s not sure if she wants to answer, but she really just needs time to gather her words. “I thought about it back then. I think about it still. What if I hadn’t destroyed you and you had been able to fight me when I told you to leave? Or if you thought we were still worth fighting for? What if instead of telling you to go, I had been the reason you stayed? Because the truth is, you already had one foot out the door when I walked in that night, and so did I. You should have. I deserved that. But you didn’t deserve what I did. And now… now I can’t stop thinking what if I could be good enough that you could be all in? Doesn’t matter to me that it’s three years later. I feel like I’m failing you. All over again.”

“You’re not failing me. I feel like I’m the one giving you all the reasons in the world to give up on us. Like, I should just make this easy for you. I don’t mean to make it hard, I really don’t. I just can’t. I don’t know how. But you deserve easy.” Emily reaches out and takes Kelley’s hand, but stays silent because there’s no point in trying to convince her that’s she’s wrong. And maybe she’s not wrong. “You wanna play it again?” she asks, giving Emily’s hand a squeeze.

Emily just shakes her head, embarrassed.  “No,” she finally says. “I’m not good. I can’t even play… I just miss- miss- missed you playing.”

“You were doing just fine.”

“No, I can’t. I just thought… fuck…” Emily shakes her head. “I thought what if I adopt kids, you know? I want them to have music in their lives. I want them… I wanted them to have what you could give them… but,” she rubs her face and bites down on the inside of her index finger – hard – in frustration, “but I’m not good. You play.” Emily tries to hand the guitar to Kelley.

Kelley moves the coffee mug to the floor and sits on the table, studying Emily intently for a moment before shaking her head. She hasn’t played in years, and the callouses on her fingers have long-since healed. “Please? I’ll sing it with you.” She reaches out and grabs the capo off of Emily’s guitar. “But that’s too low for me.”

Emily takes a deep breath and clears her throat, starting the song again, much slower than before, like she’s unsure. “You’re givin’ me a million reasons to let you go.”

Kelley closes her eyes, taking in Emily’s raspy voice and the words that are already breaking her heart.

“You’re givin’ me a million reason to quit the show. You’re givin’ me a million reason, give me a million reasons.” Kelley leans forward and touches Emily’s knee as she sings, and opens her eyes as she finishes the line. “Givin’ me a million reasons, about a million reasons.”

“If I had a highway, I would run for the hills,” Kelley’s voice blends with the final note that Emily hangs onto. “But if you could find a dry way, I’d forever be still. You’re givin’ me a million reasons, give me a million reasons. Givin’ me a million reasons, about a million reasons.”

“I bow down to pray, I try to make the worst seem better. Lord, show me the way to cut through all her worn-out leather.”

The sounds of the guitar fade in Kelley’s mind and all she can hear is the pain in Emily’s voice as she continues. The reality. Of how much she time she probably has spent on her knees since their reunion, begging the God she still believes in to help her find a way through all of Kelley’s messiness and well-fortified defenses. “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away. But baby, I just need one good one to stay.”

“Head stuck in a cycle, I look off and I stare. It’s like that I’ve stopped breathing, but completely aware. ‘Cause you’re givin’ me a million reasons, give me a million reasons. Givin’ me a million reasons, about a million reasons.”

Kelley clears her throat before she comes in again. It’s harder than she thought it would be, and even more impressive that the blonde is managing to sing and play without breaking down. “And if you say somethin’ that you might even mean, it’s hard to even fathom which parts I should believe. ‘Cause you’re givin’ me a million reasons, give me a million reasons. Givin’ me a million reasons, about a million reasons.”

“I bow down to pray, I try to make the worst seem better. Lord, show me the way to cut through all her worn-out leather. I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away. But baby, I just need one good one to stay.”

“Oh baby, I’m bleedin’, bleedin’.” This time, Kelley can’t stop her voice from cracking.

“Stay.” It’s long and painful and it takes everything Emily has to not stop.

“Can’t you give me what I’m needin’, needin’.”

“Every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith.”

“But baby, I just need one good one, good one, good one, good one, good one, good one.”

Emily’s voice grows with the intensity as she strums harder, getting lost in it all. “When I bow down to pray, I try to make the worst seem better. Lord, show me the way to cut through all her worn-out leather. I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away. But baby, I just need one good one, good one.”

“Tell me that you’ll be the good one, good one.”

“Baby, I just need one good one to stay.” They finish the last line of the song together, Emily’s eyes closed, Kelley looking directly at her, waiting.

Emily takes a deep breath and slowly opens her eyes to meet Kelley’s gaze, and Kelley bursts out laughing. Emily stares at her for a few stunned seconds, but can’t hold her own laughter in at the sound of Kelley’s, no matter how hard she tries and how much she doesn’t understand it. “What?” she manages as she catches her breath.

“Your,” Kelley laughs again and a snort escapes, “your accent comes out when you sing and I don’t get it.”

“I don’t have an accent.”

“I know. You don’t. Your family doesn’t. But then you sing and,” Kelley chuckles again, “you’re like… you’re like somebody whose grandparents have been raised here. Real Georgia.”

“Fuck off,” Emily shakes her head at Kelley biting her lip to keep from smiling too big, but soon, they’re both laughing again. “I am real Georgia. Minus the accent. Come here,” her voice turns quiet, and she leans the guitar against the wall, moving her laptop, and patting the seat beside her. Kelley slides over and lets Emily tuck her under her arm. They watch the sky gradually turn to hues of orange and pink for a while in silence before Emily speaks again. “That time I was in Utah and I told myself I was going to apologize to you…”

“When you asked Laura where I was?”

“Yeah. I um, I had our wedding rings. It was stupid, I don’t know what I was going to do with them. With yours. I just… I wanted you to have it back. I wanted to know if you’d take it back. Felt like if I could give it back to you, there’d be a chance, like you weren’t rejecting me completely. But then you weren’t there, and that,” Emily looks up at the ceiling and wipes her eyes, “that, that was rejection enough. So the next morning, I got up early. Well, I hadn’t really gone to sleep, but I left the hotel early before our flight and I took an Uber to that place we used to hike. I climbed up, as high as I had time for. I was gonna throw our rings off the side of the mountain.”

“It’s not a mountain.”

“It fucking feels like a mountain when you hike it. Every fucking time, it’s like my lungs were on fire and there you’d be, pushing on ahead like nothing. I hated you every time we hiked it,” Emily jokes. “Anyway, I carried those rings in my fist the whole way and I cocked back my arm to just chunk them as far as I could, and I couldn’t. Fucking white knuckles, hand cramping, couldn’t do it.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because. If me telling you I love you isn’t enough, well maybe that can be enough. It’s enough for me. It’s always been enough for me. That moment, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to move on. Wouldn’t matter how much I wanted to or how hard I tried. And I shouldn’t have tried. I hurt someone in the process. I fucking knew, Kell. And I still know. So you can push me away all you want, and you can keep looking for all these reasons that we shouldn’t try again or this isn’t going to work, but if you want a reason why it will work… there it is. I have never been able to let go of you, not when I wanted to, not when things were the worst ever, not when all I had to do was throw the last piece I had of you off the side of a fucking cliff. So you should know that means I never, ever will. You don’t have to be scared. Please let it be enough. I don’t care if we have to deal with the repercussions of what I did for the rest of our lives, Kell. I don’t care if your rage comes in waves that crash around us forever. I should have said this then and I didn’t, so I want to be clear now. I want you to stay. And I want that to be enough of a reason for you to stay. I want to be enough.”

It’s enough. And Kelley doesn’t have to say it for Emily to feel the change in her, to look in her eyes and see all the way to her soul and know that Kelley wants to stay every bit as much as she does.

“Wanna go inside?” Kelley asks softly, wiping away the single tear falling down Emily’s cheek.

Emily shakes her head. “Not yet. I missed your voice.” She reaches for the guitar and holds it out towards Kelley again.

Kelley sits up, narrowing her eyes at Emily. “What?”

“Play me somethin’.”

“Seriously?”  Emily nods enthusiastically. “I haven’t touched a guitar in ages.” But it does little to dissuade Emily, who continues to look at her with expectant eyes.  “You can play something else. You only kinda suck.”

Emily flicks her off. “I only know sad songs.”

“Clearly. We’re just destined to have a sad morning I guess,” Kelley scoots to the other end of the bench seat, giving Emily room.

“Ugh, fine!” she groans. “All the things I felt and never shared. All the times that she was lonely with me there. The tears I wouldn’t let fall from my eyes. And I let her go without a fight.”

Kelley regrets pushing her to play something else, and she can help but join in on the chorus, but as soon as Emily starts the second verse, she can’t take it anymore. She sits up laughing so she won’t cry again, and pushes her foot into Emily’s lap to stop her from playing. "That was great and all, I’m glad we can still harmonize, but I can’t with that song. It’s too much.” Kelley reaches for Emily’s coffee mug and takes a sip, smiling to herself at Emily’s frown. “Ok,” she acquiesces, handing the mug to her and moving back to the table. “I’ll play something. Just no more sad shit. What do ya want?” Emily just shrugs and Kelley rolls her eyes. Well, Kelley tells herself, she had the chance to pick a song

“No, no, no,” Emily throws her head back cackling almost immediately. “Not that. I can’t think of anything but the TikTok with the cats. No.”

“Well I don’t know anything new, so you’re stuck with all our old shit. I seriously haven’t played anything in years.” But Emily keeps staring at her, waiting patiently, and she has no other choice; Kelley never got quite good enough at saying no. “Felt the thrill of a wave on the coast in California,” Kelley croons. It’s not her first choice, but she’s not really sure what is, it’s just the first thing that she remembers, and from the beginning chords, the way Emily closes her eyes and rocks back and forth in time with the music, she can tell that the younger woman remembers it. “Felt the warmth of a Georgia breeze on a summer night. There ain’t a feeling out there that could ever compare to what a girl can do with just her two grey eyes.” She looks up into Emily’s, the way they’re shining in the glowing sunrise, smile lines evident as she gets to that line and changes a word for her, just like she used to.

“I love this song,” Emily interrupts her after the chorus, huge smile spreading across her face.

“Yeah, ok. I don’t want to sing the next verse. How about…” Kelley hums to herself for a minute as she taps her chin. “Yeah, I got it,” she winks, inspired by the way she remembers how much Emily always liked it when she rewrote lyrics of songs to fit her or their relationship. Besides, they need something more upbeat.

“My baby she’s Northwest Georgia, a Dixie land delight. Kissin’ me like molasses, slow and sweet, mmhmm just right. She’s an endless August summer, sunshine 365. When she forgets the punch line, it still gets me every time. ‘Cause I love every little, every little, every little thing about her love. Just a little, just a little, just a little ain’t enough. Gotta get a, gotta get a, get a little more of all she does. ‘Cause I love every little, every little, every little thing about her love. Yeah she’s Portland and Hiawassee, runs on coffee and red wine. Easy like Sunday mornin’ and wild like Saturday night.” Emily bounces to the song as Kelley sings, thankful the muscle memory allows them to have this impromptu jam session because it’s the most fun, and most healing thing they’ve done since they got back together.

When she finishes the song, Kelley sets the guitar against the bench seat and leans forward, hoping to meet Emily’s lips. She only gets a quick peck before Emily’s begging her for just one more song. She about to protest because she wants a shower and coffee more than just about anything right now, but then a smirk spreads across her face and she picks up the guitar one more time, strumming a long C chord. “Oooh that body’s like music to my ears.” She can barely get through the intro without laughing at how happy Emily is, so she skips to the second verse because suddenly, something else seems more important than coffee.

“You want me,” Emily gloats before Kelley even finishes the song.

“Stop flattering yourself,” the older woman says with an eyeroll as she shoves the guitar back into Emily’s hands.

“You want me. Look at me and tell me you don’t,” Emily shoots back, her confidence growing.

“I want… to take a shower.”

“That’s not a denial.”

“I’m going to take a shower,” Kelley stands, hovering over Emily for a few seconds too long and giving her a bigger opening.

“You want me to join you.”

It catches Kelley off-guard. “I- I- I-”

“You what, Kell?” Emily asks seductively, standing and leaving exactly no space between them. “Come on,” she leans into Kelley to whisper in her ear. “It’s just a shower.”

It’s just a shower.

Nothing more than Kelley closing her eyes as the warm water runs down her front and Emily washes her hair, scratching and massaging her scalp the way she used to. The way that would make Kelley involuntarily moan because it almost felt as good as other things.

Nothing more than Emily behind her, sliding soapy hands over her stomach and slowly working her way up to Kelley’s breasts, careful not to linger.

Nothing more than Emily pressing her up against the shower wall, setting Kelley’s arms over her head and taking her time as she washes her shoulders and back.

Nothing more than Kelley pushing back against her every time Emily’s hands dip to her ass or her thighs.

Emily wasn’t wrong - and both of them are painfully aware of that. Kelley wants her.

But it’s just a shower.

And Emily’s careful not to ever move in front of her, where eye contact might be too intense, where her wandering eyes might be too much, where Kelley would definitely get a clear look at the bruises across her chest and this would be over before it started.

It’s just a shower.

And then all the contact is gone and Kelley’s left feeling cold against the tile, despite the steam filling the enclosed glass area. “You can finish,” Emily turns around to lather up her own body, away from Kelley’s eyes, and giving Kelley the privacy she needs until she’s rinsed off and ready to be wrapped up in a fluffy towel.

Because it was just a shower. And they’ve got plenty of time for brunch, a pre-game nap, and maybe to finish the movie before they face each other tonight.

*****

Emily slings her duffle over her shoulder as she makes her way through the parking garage towards the elevator. Her body aches and her team lost, but all she wants is to get up to her floor and walk through the door to Kelley because the arms of that woman are more important than the outcome of any game. It’s been years since she’s been able to chase the bitter taste of a loss with something strong enough to make her forget about how poorly she played. But before she can even get to the stairwell, Lindsey’s face appears on her phone. She doesn’t even get out a “what?” before Lindsey starts in on her.

“Why was she there?” Lindsey asks, setting her jaw in defiance before Emily even has a chance to respond.

“Who?” she asks innocently.

“You know who, Son.”

“Because it’s her job?”

“It’s been her job for fucking ages. She’s never been at one of your games. Why was she there tonight?”

It’s a level of demanding Emily isn’t used to for Lindsey. “How’m I supposed to know, Linds,” Emily asks with a tired sigh.

“She didn’t try to talk to you?”

Emily doesn’t answer right away. She doesn’t know how to without either admitting what’s going on or lying. And just like she predicts, Lindsey doesn’t do well with the silence.

“Is that why you played bad?” she keeps pushing, reaching for a reason to blame Kelley.

“I didn’t play bad,” Emily protests.

“Well you didn’t play good. Not good enough to get back into the National Team mix.”

“Linds,” Sonnett rubs her forehead in frustration.

“And Mal said you didn’t stay after for the post-game meal.”

“I’m getting off the phone, Lindsey,” Emily snaps without addressing that either as she approaches her door.

“Why?”

“Because I’m going inside?”

“So take me with you,” Lindsey suggests.

“No!” Emily shouts, and immediately regrets it.

“Why not?”

“Maybe I have someone in there,” the older woman replies coyly, trying to play her annoyance off.

“Who?” Lindsey asks, a hint of happiness mixing with the disbelief in her voice.

At least she doesn’t suspect Emily’s ex-wife. “No one you know.” It’s not a lie, Emily reasons. Lindsey doesn’t know Kelley, not anymore. Not the person she’s become and not how broken she is. She only knows what Emily wanted her to know all those years ago. Besides, if she has to lie, she will lie to her best friend to protect the woman she loves. The last thing Kelley needs is Lindsey coming at her.

“So? Let me meet her.”

“No!” Emily shouts again before reining it back in. “What if she’s naked? You don’t need to see that. And she doesn’t need to see me talking to you.”

It’s enough to make Lindsey back off, the possibility of her best friend finding happiness again, so she lets her go with the promise that she’ll get details soon. Soon is relative, Emily figures.

“Honey, I’m home,” Emily calls, locking her door behind her. “Where are-” She stops short and breaks out in a fit of laughter. Kelley’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged in a t-shirt and as far as Emily can tell, no shorts, staring up at her TV. She’s chewing on a pen and has a notebook in her lap, and she doesn’t even react to Emily’s voice at first. “Babe? Hey, sweetheart,” Emily drops her bag and sits beside her, knocking their shoulders together, “what are you doing? Can’t you and Laura do this later? Or does she give you homework?”

“Shhh, hang on,” Kelley leans away, furiously scribbling something on the pad of paper before she turns to meet Emily’s raised eyebrows. “No, she doesn’t give me homework. I… this…” she looks down sheepishly at the notes scattered everywhere, “this is about you.” Emily narrows her eyes. “I know I shouldn’t, it’s just… Em… T’s not totally healthy and… especially if you could convince your coach to move you to center back… there’s just some things you could work on I think to get back.”

“Get back where, Kell?”

“You know. Into a National Team camp.”

Emily lets out a long, slow breath. The two most important people in her life have unknowingly ganged up on her in the same evening. Her first reaction to say they’ve been over it, except they haven’t been over it. She’s been over it with Lindsey. She’s been over it with herself. She’s made peace with it, but it seems like she’s the only one who has, so she leaves it. “Why’re you so close to the TV?”

Kelley glares at her for a second before huffing out an answer. “I took my contacts out and couldn’t see.”

“Come on, babe,” Emily pushes herself up to her knees. “That’s a sign. Let’s go to bed.”

“You should,” Kelley strains upward and purses her lips for a kiss.  “I’ll be there when this is over.”

Emily rolls her eyes and drops a hand to Kelley’s shoulder. “Your treachery is deepening,” she smirks.

“Hush.”

“Well I don’t know what to think about it. It’s kinda hot.”

“No, literally. I need you to stop talking, I can’t concentrate.” Emily grabs the remote from the floor beside Kelley and pauses the game. “Hey!”

“Couch,” Emily offers a hand that Kelley takes. As the older woman settles in, she heads to the bathroom to retrieve her glasses. Kelley grumbles as she puts them on. “What was that, baby?”

“Nothing.”

“You look sexy in your glasses,” Emily says with a loving look.

“I look old,” Kelley pouts. “And I was fine on the floor.”

“You look like a hot teacher. I like it,” Emily runs her fingers teasingly across the back of Kelley’s neck.

“Stop it.” But Emily doesn’t miss the slight crinkle of Kelley’s nose, the one that tells her the brunette loves the reassurance that Emily offers. “What are you…” Kelley says incredulously as Emily lays down in her lap. “Em, I’m trying to work.  For you, in case you forgot.”

She sits up a few inches, nods to the arm of the couch so Kelley knows she has a perfect perch to write on, and threads Kelley’s left hand through her hair. She wants to tell her that she doesn’t have to study film, that it’s a waste of time and they both would be better served going to bed, but she also knows this is Kelley’s way of showing her exactly how much she loves her when words are too hard. Instead, she tucks one hand under her chin, rests her other lightly on Kelley’s knee, and manages a “thanks, baby,” that she doesn’t know if Kelley even hears over the volume of her own internal thoughts.

 


“Hmm,” Emily hums, stirring as Kelley runs her fingers over still-taut abs under her shirt.

“Wake-up, baby. I gotta go,” Kelley whispers

Emily rubs her eyes and blinks away the blurriness.  “What time is it?”

“Almost 11:00.”

“Kell, your flight!”

“I’ve got an Uber that’ll be here in 10 minutes.”

“No, I’m taking you,” Emily protests. “Just- just lemme change.”

“Em, I can’t. I don’t want to say goodbye to you at the airport.  I want to say bye to you right here. Like this. Without you getting up,” Kelley strokes her cheek. “You look so comfy.”

“But…”

“I can’t do this at the airport,” Kelley lets her hand drift to Emily’s breast, smoothing over the fabric of her t-shirt.

“No, you can’t,” the defender agrees, barely able to choke the words out.

“I can’t do this at the airport,” Kelley smirks at the satisfied sigh that escapes Emily’s lips as she shifts her weight on top of the blonde and wedges her thigh between Emily’s legs. “Or this,” she buries her nose, puffing warm air into the crook of Emily’s neck. The sound of the younger woman giggling abruptly stops at the touch of Kelley’s lips on her neck.

“Fuck, Kell,” Emily’s hips jerk up off the couch.

“Thank you for breakfast yesterday.”

“Brunch.”

“And for the nap.”

“And the shower,” Emily reminds her.

“And the shower. I gotta go,” Kelley squeezes Emily’s hip as her phone dings, signaling her approaching ride.

“But-” Emily protests weakly. They’ve had lots of goodbyes over the past few months, but this one seems especially hard.

“I love you, Em.”

“I know.”

“Stop being so cocky,” Kelley chuckles.

“It’s not cocky,” Emily says with enough sincerity that Kelley believes it. “I know. I know you loved me when you hated me and I know you loved me when you were scared. I know because I never stopped loving you either. Because I couldn’t and you couldn’t.”

“So we’re going to do this? Like really do this?”

“We already are. We’re all right, Kell.”

“But… that means I’m your…” Ex-wife is out. Finally. Girlfriend doesn’t seem near enough.

“Lover?” Emily tosses out with a wink, and Kelley spurts to stop her laughter at how awkward that sounds, especially when they've still ended everything just shy of making love. “You’re my life. My person. My Kelley. But I guess we gotta grow up and use the word partner, huh?”

Partner. That’s new for them. Emily’s been her girlfriend, her fiancé, her wife. But now their responsibilities to each other, strangely, seem to run deeper. Partner feels ok. For now.

“Ok, for real, I’ve gotta go,” the brunette rolls off her, and stops her from getting up. “Stay. You’re cute like this,” Kelley smiles down at her… partner… and tucks her under a blanket thrown over the back of the couch. It’s going to be awhile until they’re able to be in the same city again; these sleepy eyes and that soft smile are what she wants to see when she closes her eyes and thinks about Emily.

“Lemme walk you to the door,” Emily tries to sit up, but Kelley’s firm hand on her chest convinces her otherwise.

“Uh-uh,” Kelley perches on the edge of the couch, leaving her hand on Emily’s chest, over her heart, before leaning down to kiss her softly one last time. “Til next time.” When she says it, it feels like there will definitely be a next time this time. “Love you.”

Emily fights every fiber in her body telling her to get up, to follow her, help her with her luggage at least, kiss her one last time, but she knows one last time will never be enough. She waits for the click of the door before letting herself fully relax, realizing she’s been holding her breath at the slim possibility that Kelley would ditch her flight and come back to cuddle for a few more hours. This living on opposite sides of the county will never work past this season, she knows, but she doesn’t know how to rectify the situation so they can end up in the same place. She groans, rubbing her eyes, and pushes herself up. Making her way into the kitchen, Emily digs around in the pantry for a few minutes before giving up and turning to the fridge. Inside are individual portions of chia pudding Kelley’s left for her. When the older women put them together, Emily is unsure, but it’s cute that she found the time to do it. With a smile, she grabs one and turns to lean against her island while she eats. It’s then she finally notices a stack of paper with rough edges, clearly torn out of a notebook, on her counter. She recognizes Kelley’s handwriting even before she leans over to pick the papers up. It’s Kelley’s notes from last night. Every wrong step she took, every time she was an inch out of position, is detailed. There are time-stamped notes about balls she played forward and the angles she took, offensively and defensively, complete with sketched out diagrams, and drills she needs to work on. As she makes her way past the first few pages, she realizes that she’s looking at notes over the last couple of games Tierna’s played in, also timestamped and every bit as detailed. This is why Emily woke up squeezed in next to Kelley on the couch; she stayed up all night analyzing old matches. At the bottom of the last page is a note written in Kelley’s perfect cursive, not her scratchy, rushed print.

 

You’re not done yet. I see it in your eyes still, the same way I saw it in your eyes four months ago that you weren’t done with me. You want to get back there, Em, and I want to help you. I know you’re scared to say you want it because you’re afraid you won’t achieve it. I know how much you fear failing, but I believe in you with my whole heart, and you’ve taught me that some risks are worth taking. Maybe it’s time to take your own advice. I’ll be with you every step of the way if you’ll let me. If that makes me a traitor, well, I guess we’ll just have to find our way to the same city next season so I can stop giving the enemy private lessons and film sessions.

I love you,

Kell

(Now call me and tell me yes.)