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say it out loud (i see right past you)

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Toni's hated Shelby Goodkind for as long as she can remember; she honestly can't even recall how it started, if Shelby had made some rude comment about her sexuality or her laziness or the way she slouched in her seat in class, or if she's just always hated Shelby because Shelby has always seemed like the kind of person she should hate.

Toni moved to bumfuck Texas with her sister-via-adoption Martha and Martha's mother at age ten and has never enjoyed it there, most of all because she's never fit in with uptight religious bigots like Shelby and her boyfriend and her best friend and all of the future pageant queens and frat bros Shelby seems to surround herself with. Martha, frustratingly, can fit in anywhere and get along with anyone, but Toni's short fuse has always made it impossible to be passive-aggressive with her in that condescending "bless your heart" way that Shelby's ilk seem to be so fond of, and so when they fight, it always goes from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive pretty quickly, with Martha trying valiantly to mediate between her best friend and a girl she, in her own words, thinks is "sweet but sometimes misguided, kind of like you, Toni".

Toni's not sure when it all went to shit this hard, though, to the point of screaming matches in the parking lot over something as mundane as a fucking English project, and yet here they are, only a struggling Martha standing between Shelby Goodkind and an early meeting with the God she loves so much, because Toni's pretty sure she's going to fucking kill her.

"Just walk away," Martha pants into her ear as she frog-marches Toni away from Shelby's cold, razor-sharp gaze, and it's only the worry she can hear in Martha's voice that makes Toni oblige her. "If you get another suspension they'll expel you."

It's fucked up, Toni knows, that she can let such a fake-sunny vapid Jesus freak pageant girl get under her skin, and when she really thinks hard about it--though she often tries not to think of Shelby at all--she muses that it's the fakeness of it all that gets under her skin, because there's something there, something she can't quite place, that burrows itself into her and gnaws at the back of her mind. She feels it when Shelby's got Andrew's hands all over her in the halls at school and she's trying to make him move them away because she's a Good Christian Girl and apparently can't show any sign of sexual desire for another human being. Sometimes she feels it when Shelby's stare burns a hole in the back of her head during English class, where they're unfortunately seated diagonally from each other and occasionally made to work in groups. Most of all she feels it when Shelby walks by while she's making out with Regan in the halls and Shelby can't seem to even fucking look at them because they disgust her so much.

But they're juniors, are barely a month into the school year, and that means Toni's doomed to at least another four semesters of sharing space with her, so she does her best to minimize it and keep a wide berth when she can, and Shelby has always seemed to want to do the same. Which is why Toni's so stunned when Shelby shows up at Fatin's birthday party, of all places, given that Toni and Fatin have been open about their past hookups and there's obviously going to be drinking and general debauchery; it's Fatin, for fuck's sake.

Toni's pretty sure Shelby's breaking her curfew or something. She's got Andrew all over her again and seeing a couple being couple-y makes Toni wish she and Regan weren't currently in the "off" stage of their regular cyclical relationship drama. They've been doing this for nearly a year now, and Regan's so sweet, most of the time, and it's the best sex Toni's ever had aside from maybe one particularly good time with Fatin herself, and there are definitely real feelings there on both sides, but Toni can't remember the last time she committed to anything other than basketball and she isn't sure when the best time to start is.

Anyway, Fatin's party is where everything with Shelby starts going completely off the rails, and in the last way Toni ever expected it to.

She's drunk, she knows, and she can tell because her usual cynicism is gone and she's actually starting to enjoy the company of some of these people she usually hates calling her classmates. Rachel and Nora, who are sisters and have nothing in common to show for it, are giggling drunkenly nearby as they watch some of Andrew's friends crash and burn while attempting a keg stand, and Leah, the best English project partner Toni's ever had to Shelby's worst, is swaying drunkenly in the corner with swollen, red-rimmed eyes as she glances repeatedly at her phone. Dot's doing shots with Fatin and a few other girls, and Martha, much to Toni's frustration, is talking to Shelby.

It's time to cut that off, Toni thinks, and so she downs another drink and chases it with a shot borrowed from Dot's group. She grabs a new cup of something that smells like cleaner and then stumbles over to Martha, placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. "Need me to take out the trash, Marty? It kind of stinks over here."

"You threw your pee at a girl during a game last year," Shelby bites out with a roll of her eyes, and okay, Toni can admit she kind of set herself up for that one. "I don't think hygiene is your best avenue if you're tryin' to offend me."

"Where's Andrew?" Toni asks her, taking her advice and changing the subject. "Dot told me he's cheating on you. Might wanna check up on him before he sneaks away with someone who might actually put out."

That does it; Shelby's face screws up in quiet fury and she leaves. Martha sighs at Toni. "Do you have to do this with her every time? It's not her fault her boyfriend's an asshole. She's under a lot of pressure from her dad, you know."

Toni fixes her with a confused look. "Since when do you and Shelby discuss personal shit? You know she just keeps you around as her token res friend, right? You're just an extracurricular on her college application."

Martha shakes her head at Toni, looking hurt, and suddenly she's gone, too, and Toni's alone with her drink and feeling like kind of a dick. She sighs to herself and chugs it.

Sometime later, she's borderline wasted and shooting pool in Fatin's basement with a couple of guys from the boys' basketball team when an arm slides around her back and Fatin settles beside her, too close to be here for anything other than to flirt. "Nice pole," she says, stroking the end of Toni's pool cue with a finger like she's trying to seduce a boy, and it does nothing for Toni, who blinks blankly at her until Fatin huffs and rolls her eyes. "C'mon; it's my birthday. You and Regan are on a break, right?"

Toni vaguely registers the boys watching them from the corner of her eye. "I'm pretty sure, like, every guy at this party and a few other girls would be down--"

"I'm not stroking your fucking ego for you," Fatin cuts her off, her eyes flashing, but there's a smirk on her lips and that look, that's what might actually do it for her. "You know why I'm asking you." Fatin's told her often--sometimes just texts it to her out of the blue when she's bored enough and has recently hooked up with someone new--that Toni's tongue still hasn't been surpassed and that she wishes it were attached to someone she could actually stand to be around for longer than the time it takes for both of them to come. Toni doesn't get offended by it; she knows that's Fatin's sense of humor, and there's very obviously still a compliment in there.

"Now?" she asks, glancing back to the pool table.

Fatin steps closer, runs a finger purposefully down Toni's neck to the cleavage above her top, and Toni blinks at her again, wondering idly if this tends to work well on Fatin's usual targets. "Yep," is all Fatin says, and then she just tilts her head and looks.

Toni wants to mess with her, to say that she needs to finish the game first, but it is her birthday, and going down on Fatin isn't exactly the worst thing in the world, to put it mildly, so Toni sighs and sets her cue aside and lets Fatin pull her up to the main floor, and then up another set of stairs and into her bedroom.

When they're alone, Fatin yanks her close by her shirt and barely bothers with kissing her before she starts pushing on Toni's shoulders, and Toni can't help but laugh as she drops to her knees. "Dude," she says, openly judgmental, and Fatin tangles her fingers in Toni's hair as Toni works open the button of her shorts.

"I can't miss half of my own party for foreplay with you," she points out, and Toni makes a quick sound of concession and yanks down her underwear.

She only goes down on Fatin for a few minutes before Fatin yanks painfully on her hair and comes, and then they extricate themselves and Fatin's at least polite enough to wipe at Toni's mouth for her with her thumb. Toni's severely turned on from it but she doesn't complain, just picks up Fatin's underwear and shorts for her and offers them up to her.

"Almost forgot what that felt like," Fatin says, breathless, as she pulls the clothing back on. "Regan's a lucky girl."

"I'm not sure if it's just a break," Toni admits, and Fatin shoots her a knowing look.

"Yeah, right. You guys do this shit all the time. It'll work itself out."

She kisses Toni shortly before she goes, just once, and Toni gathers herself for a moment once she's alone, the alcohol and her arousal making her head spin. Finally, she leaves.

When she gets downstairs, it takes her about ten minutes to realize that Shelby is drinking. No, not drinking; Shelby is fucking drunk. She's swaying in place and chugging back something in a red solo cup, and it's the first time in a while Toni's looked at her and not gotten the urge to punch something. She can't help but get a front-row seat to this; it's just too damn good.

She goes to Shelby, who is standing by a table stocked with sodas and alcohol, and sidles up beside her under the guise of pouring herself a new drink. "Alright, Shelby?" she mocks, and Shelby shoots her a look of malice but it's missing it's usual edge.

"I'm fine." She's slurring. Shelby Goodkind is slurring her words hard, and Toni only wishes she had an Iphone to film this with instead of the cheap flip-phone she could barely afford.

"You don't sound fine." Toni's slurring, too, but she chugs her drink and doesn't think too hard about how plastered she is. She's never done a single thing drunk that she regretted in the morning and just like any other night, it isn't a concern now.

Shelby scoffs and pours another. "Like you care."

"Did you catch Andrew with his dick somewhere it wasn't supposed to be?" Toni prods, and Shelby sucks in a breath and then spins to face her like she's ready for another screaming match. But then they're looking at each other and their faces are clearly closer than Shelby anticipated, because her words die in her throat and she swiftly averts her gaze and turns away again. "I'll take that as a yes?" Toni smirks, very much enjoying that Shelby's clearly been sent into a little bit of a panic just from close proximity to a lesbian.

"He's with Becca, actually," Shelby bites out, still not looking at Toni. "She got sick so he's drivin' her home."

"Is that what they're telling you?" Toni jokes, not really meaning it, and this time when Shelby faces her again she doesn't back down.

"Seriously, what is wrong with you?" she snaps, and it catches Toni off-guard enough that now she's the one moving imperceptibly away. "You're, like, obsessed with my relationship." She storms off, and oh, no, Toni is not leaving things like that, not with Shelby getting away with that kind of implication.

"Hey!" she calls out, maneuvering through the crowd with an eye on Shelby, who disappears around the corner into a hallway. Toni stumbles out of the throng of teenagers just in time to see a door slam shut behind a blonde ponytail. She doesn't think before she marches right up to the door and throws it open.

Shelby's inside the guest bathroom alone, dousing her face with water, and when she turns off the faucet and rounds on Toni, her eyes still look angry. "What?" she asks loudly, and Toni glances back out into the hallway and thinks about it only briefly before she steps inside and locks the door behind herself, not wanting anyone to overhear this, because God forbid if anyone even thought for a second that there was even a chance she--

God. The thought is humiliating. Even momentarily entertaining it makes her sick to her stomach.

"I don't care about you and your stupid boyfriend," she says, "so whatever you're trying to, like, insinuate--"

Shelby's eyes go wide and she looks offended. "I'm not insinuatin' anythin'; you're the one who won't stop pickin' on me--"

"I pick on you? You can't be serious. Your boyfriend's fucking monkey-brained friends literally call me a dyke on the regular--"

"And that doesn't have anythin' to do with me, Toni."

"It does when you share their beliefs--"

"I never said I did, did I?"

"You never said you didn't and you're plenty rude to me anyway--"

"You're rude to me! I don't have any issues with you or Regan or anyone else--"

"Could've fooled me."

"Jesus Christ, Toni!" Shelby spits out, her voice an octave higher and her hand gripping the sink so hard her knuckles are white. Toni notices her face seems flushed, probably from the alcohol, and she looks like she might cry as she finishes, "All I want is for you to just leave me alone!"

Toni looks away first, trying her best to hide how unsettling it is to see Shelby losing it in such close proximity. For a moment, she actually feels sorry for her; her dad's a nutjob, from what Toni's heard, and her boyfriend sucking isn't technically Shelby's fault, even if she could just dump him, and maybe, if Toni digs deep and really tries hard enough, they can at least call some sort of truce--

And that's when everything Toni thinks she knows stops making sense. Because Toni's too lost in her own thoughts and isn't paying close attention to Shelby, and Shelby suddenly launches herself at Toni and crashes their mouths together hard, which goes over about as well as a nuclear bomb going off. Toni shoves her back before it's even a proper kiss, her eyes wide with shock and horror as she blurts, "What the fuck, Shelby?"

She isn't drunk enough for this. There might not be enough alcohol in the world to make Shelby Goodkind kissing her okay. Her mouth hangs open, frozen, as Shelby stares back at her with a swollen bottom lip, injured from her gross miscalculation. She's breathing hard and Toni doesn't know what the fuck is going on or what she should even say to that. Jesus Christ.

And Shelby just blinks, stares, and then fucking goes for it again, swollen lip and all.

Toni's ready for it this time, but she doesn't really want it, even if she's usually down for most things; still, she's so stunned that it's happening at all that she just sort of takes it, lets Shelby's lips find hers and then Shelby's kissing her and it's mostly one-sided: Toni's eyes are open and confused and she's still kind of horny from the whole Fatin thing, but no, no fucking way, that's definitely not happening. Not with Shelby, even if she is, momentarily, too shocked to do anything but let her have her one kiss.

Except it's kind of a long kiss. Shelby's definitely kissed Andrew, Toni knows, and apparently that's enough experience to make her, like, passably aware of what she's doing, and so Toni forces her eyes shut and tries not to think about the fact that it's Shelby working Toni's mouth open and slipping her tongue inside. Toni finally kisses her back and the ache between her thighs starts to get a little stronger. She tries not to think the sentence Shelby's turning me on and immediately sort of fails on principle.

No, this will not do.

She pushes Shelby away with less force and less shouting this time, but they're both breathing hard, and shit, Shelby actually looks fucking hot like this, all fucked up and unfocused and with her messy ponytail and her lips swollen from actual kissing now instead of the mishap. Shelby runs a hand over her hair, a little self-conscious, but her eyes never leave Toni's and Toni's mind is chugging along at a snail's pace, working through a fog of drunken arousal to try to make sense of this.

There's a chance she could fuck Shelby Goodkind in this bathroom and Shelby would just let her.

And that knowledge is what changes her mind, ultimately, because she isn't even sure if she's technically attracted to Shelby, and certainly Shelby isn't her type, and yes, she kind of loathes her, but Shelby seems to have gone temporarily insane or maybe the alcohol just finally has her unleashing sixteen years of sexual repression on the first person to come within a foot of her, but she's looking at Toni like she wants to kiss her again and Toni's gotten that look enough to be able to read it. And she can't help but think about tomorrow, about what it would be like to make Shelby lose her goddamn mind against the sink of Fatin's guest bathroom and then have them both know it happened regardless of how quickly Shelby slips back into her perfect little church girl routine.

Alright, she's one-hundred percent gonna fuck Shelby Goodkind in this bathroom, Toni decides, and then she pins Shelby hard against the sink and the whole thing is frantic, the way she touches Shelby as they make out, but also the way Shelby touches her, too. It's unexpected, the feel of Shelby's fake pageant nails scratching at her hips and the hem of her shorts, and it has her groaning into Shelby's mouth, but as horny as she is there's no way it's happening like that; this is going to be one-sided if Toni has anything to say about it. She tugs Shelby's top up and Shelby lets her, and it shocks Toni how so incredibly hot that is, hotter than getting a girl out of her clothes has ever been. Shelby's bra is plain and pink and Toni wants to take it off too but decides to prioritize Shelby's shorts instead.

Shelby doesn't really give her permission but doesn't stop her, either, just keeps on trying to taste the inside of Toni's mouth, which thankfully has been made a clean slate after Fatin by the alcohol, but it makes Toni feel like a fucking boss anyway, going down on Fatin and then winding up here with Shelby just fifteen minutes or so later. Shelby seems like there isn't much she'd mind, now, anyway; Toni feels up her chest over her bra once Shelby's shorts are off and she moans into Toni's mouth like it's the first time she's ever been touched there. There's a chance it is, but Toni certainly does not entertain that idea beyond a fleeting thought, and besides, Shelby's so down for this that it seems unlikely.

"Let me touch you," Toni demands more than asks, her hand skating down to toy with the edge of Shelby's underwear, but she waits for approval anyway and gets it in the form of Shelby literally reaching down and pushing Toni's hand into her underwear. Shelby's so wet, and fuck, Toni's so gay, she could be with any woman in the world and she'd still lose her breath every time at the first touch; it always feels intimate regardless of the person or the position, but even more so this way, with Shelby gripping her waist hard and whimpering directly into her mouth. "Fuck," she groans, fingers stroking quickly over Shelby until the other girl's a shuddering mess in her arms, and Toni eases off in case Shelby's already close to coming, pulling away from her mouth to get a good look at her.

She's fucking wrecked, her chest heaving and her eyes darker than the deep flush to her cheeks, and Toni keeps touching her gently while they look at each other. Shelby's eyes struggle to stay open and she moans when Toni's fingers draw circles around her and then slide down to tease at her entrance.

"Should I stop?" Toni asks her lowly, mostly because hearing Shelby egg her on might make her come on the spot, and Shelby must be sobering up just a little because she at least looks a little embarrassed to be shaking her head no. "Sorry, what was that?"

"Toni," Shelby warns, but it's breathy and completely nonthreatening, and it only turns Toni on more to hear Shelby sigh out her name. The reality of the situation washes over her not for the first time and she feels a wave of heat travel through her abdomen. She might be wetter than Shelby but she'd never tell her that.

It does make her take slight pity on Shelby; maybe this whole thing seems so utterly insane because Shelby doesn't usually do these kinds of things with anyone, let alone Toni, or maybe everything about her had felt so fake to Toni because she was actually a massive whore or something and she's just now finally getting around to Toni; but in case it's the first one and Shelby hasn't slept around much, Toni takes things slowly, pressing into Shelby with one finger and watching her eyes flutter shut as she gets used to the feeling. They're pressed too close for it to not feel intimate, but it's strange nonetheless for Toni, who's pretty sure they've only been this close once before and only because things were about to come to blows. That fight had happened a day after she'd caught Shelby's dad in the parking lot looking at Toni and expressing disappointment to Shelby that a school in the great state of Texas had so many students filled with sin.

The memory fuels her and she adds a second finger, but Shelby's breath hitches and she lets out a whispered "Ow" and Toni freezes, suddenly mortified.

"Fuck, I'm sorry--" she starts, but Shelby shakes her head and kisses Toni on the cheek, her breathing only a little shaky, and it's oddly sweet of her, Toni thinks.

"It's okay. Keep goin'."

Toni starts slow again, listening to Shelby's mouth by her ear for signs of discomfort or any sort of displeasure at all, but there are none; Shelby pants and moans and sighs and it isn't long before Toni picks up the pace, pressing into her hard and fast while Shelby gasps and whimpers into her ear and clutches at her sides to hold her close, her nails digging in with a little bite. Toni pins her more securely against the counter and tilts her head down to bite and suck at Shelby's neck, no longer being gentle with her, and Shelby's quiet moans climb higher in pitch until Toni's verifiably railing her against the sink like she'd hoped she could, and she can feel Shelby trying to hold back more sounds until suddenly she stiffens and comes, squeezing so hard around Toni's fingers that for a moment it hurts. Toni burns the memory of Shelby's head tilted back, neck exposed, body shuddering, into her mind so that she'll remember it forever.

Shelby's eyes are searching hers uncertainly when she refocuses, like she's waiting for Toni to say something but thinks it could wind up being literally any combination of words Toni knows. Toni swallows hard, ignoring the throbbing between her thighs, and with tens of thousands of words to choose from and an infinite number of ways to combine them, she settles on, "So that was weird." And then, because really, how much worse could it get, she adds, "I should probably go."

Then she extricates herself from Shelby and legitimately fucking dips without saying anything else, intent on leaving the party once she convinces Martha to come with her. As soon as she's home she knows she's got a memory to relive--she kind of just fucked Shelby's brains out and she feels like she should be given, like, a Presidential Medal for it or something.

It's a one-time thing, but God, she already knows she's never going to forget it.

Chapter Text

It’s not a one-time thing.

Shelby doesn’t even look at Toni for two weeks, let alone speak to her, and Toni is fucking over the moon about it. It’s so fucking perfect, the way Shelby can’t even acknowledge her; it’s exactly what she envisioned, because Shelby still hates her and she still hates Shelby, only now they both know what happened and she can tell it tears Shelby apart that she got her fucking world rocked not just by another girl, but by Toni of all people. It so obviously fucking kills her and it makes Toni giddy even thinking about it.

She’s on cloud nine, especially when she gets back together with Regan and the makeup sex is everything it always is.

Then at about the two-week mark Regan’s watching Shelby, Becca, Andrew, and the rest of their school’s FCA have a meeting across the cafeteria one day, and she just kind of asks out of nowhere, “You think any of them are gay?”

Toni gives a start and follows her gaze, hating the way her eyes are drawn to Shelby first. Andrew’s arm is slung around her shoulders but she’s talking to Becca and she looks happy. “Why?” she asks, and Regan shrugs.

“Just seems like it’d fucking suck. They’re all probably like Shelby, with crazy parents and all that. I’d never come out.” She says it all like it’s nothing, and Toni’s chest caves in on itself a little.

“Oh. I guess,” she agrees, and tries to stop looking at Shelby and thinking about Shelby, about the lust in her eyes when she’d had Toni’s fingers inside of her and her constant public brush-offs of Andrew that Toni had for so long attributed to general Christian prudishness.

There’s something deep in Toni that acknowledges that obviously there’s nothing stopping Shelby from being gay. Like, lesbians can be blonde feminine uber-Christians from Texas who do pageants and have parents that run Bible spin classes, but at the same time, it’s Shelby. Toni hasn’t ever considered that they’d ever have anything in common, let alone their sexualities, and she’d written off their encounter as Shelby being drunk and maybe feeling rebellious or caught up in the moment or something. Maybe Andrew had hooked up with Becca after all and Shelby had just been after literally whatever was available to make herself feel wanted. Or maybe she was just mad at her dad that day.

Toni doesn’t jump straight to “tortured closeted lesbian” because she hates Shelby too much to see her as a victim.

She tries to start being a little nicer, just in case it’s true. When Shelby’s pencil runs out of lead in English class, Toni haphazardly tosses her an extra and watches it slide across the desk and into Shelby’s lap. Shelby looks confused and then a little uncertain, and Toni doesn’t smile at her, but she doesn’t scowl at her, either.

When Martha mentions that she has plans to hang out with Shelby one afternoon and that Shelby will be picking her up, Toni doesn’t make any comments about charity cases and even hangs out with Martha in the driveway up until Shelby arrives. They have plans to see a movie, and when Martha takes it upon herself to invite Toni along last-minute right in front of Shelby, Toni sees on Shelby’s face that she’s mortified and so she turns it down.

She tries to be nice—she really does. But Shelby gives her nothing back, and slowly the weeks crawl by, and Shelby seems to be genuinely happier with Andrew than before, laughing loudly at his jokes and even kissing him back with some enthusiasm in the school hallway. Toni wonders fleetingly if he’s stopped cheating on her, but she buys that they’re happy together.

Soon she and Shelby are back at each other’s throats again, poking and prodding even if it doesn’t escalate into yelling anymore, but Toni can feel the power she has now and can tell Shelby can feel it, too. Shelby accuses Toni of drawing a lewd image in the condensation of Shelby’s car window one morning and Toni just says, “Wasn’t me,” even though it was, and Shelby’s eyes flash and she looks like she wants to start an argument, but Toni just smiles at her and Shelby clenches her fists and storms off instead.

Toni stares at Shelby’s body as she walks away and tries to fight the filthy images that swim around in her head, because as much as she hates to admit it, there’s something so incredibly sexy about Shelby now that Toni knows what she looks like when she comes undone. Her personality still sucks, of course, but yeah, Shelby’s definitely hot in like this uptight, pressurized-and-waiting-to-pop kind of way, and even though she’s with Regan again Toni’s gotten herself off a lot recently thinking about making Shelby completely lose it around her fingers. And also thinking about Shelby’s long legs in the shorts she’s always wearing, how her boobs had looked in that pink bra, what she might do if Toni just tugged her into a closet or something one day and bent her over—

Anyway, Toni knows she’s definitely won already; it’s exactly why she kissed Shelby back in the bathroom in the first place. Even if the war with Shelby will never really end, Toni’s already the victor anyway, will always have the upper hand. So, really, there’s absolutely no reason to get within five feet of Shelby and her homophobic friends and family ever again, because every battle has already been won.

The second time happens at Toni’s house.

Martha’s got detention for the first time in her life and it also happens to be one of the three days a week that her mom works a second job and it’s the day that Shelby’s meant to come over to help Martha study for a math test, and Toni doesn’t know about the Shelby part until the doorbell rings and she’s the only one home to get it. Shelby’s on the other side and they just stare at each other.

“Marty’s not home yet,” Toni says, finally, once Shelby explains why she’s there. “She’ll be another half hour or so.”

Shelby looks past Toni and considers what she’s said for a moment. Toni knows from Martha that she lives about ten minutes away, so there’s not much point in her going home and then coming back. “I guess I’ll wait.”

Toni lets Shelby in and then kind of hovers by the door once she’s closed it, watching Shelby settle awkwardly onto the couch in the living room and start removing school supplies from her backpack. She gets a textbook, a notebook, and a folder full of worksheets out before she notices Toni staring at her, and Toni gives a start and clears her throat, moving to go take a seat on the opposite end of the couch from Shelby. She’s been watching television and the Takis on the couch and the episode of Glee on the screen make it obvious, so short of turning the TV off, grabbing her Takis, and leaving to head to her bedroom, there isn’t much she can really do. Besides, leaving feels a lot like losing somehow.

She turns the volume up and Shelby’s focus shifts from the work in front of her to the television. Toni hears her give a short, maybe slightly derisive laugh, but when she doesn’t say anything, Toni turns to her and asks sharply, “What?”

Shelby looks like she’s holding back a smile, but she still can’t quite look Toni in the eyes. Instead, her gaze drifts back to her math textbook and she says, “I guess I just didn’t take you for someone who liked that sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing?”

“You know… singin’ and dancin’. This happy-go-lucky stuff. You’re all broody all the time.”

“I’m not broody,” Toni shoots back, defensive, and when Shelby arches an eyebrow at her she scoffs and sits back in her seat, crossing her arms. “Whatever, Shelby.”

“I’ve never seen the show,” Shelby offers, and Toni thinks for a moment that it might be Shelby’s way of cutting her some slack.

Maybe the least Toni can do for Martha, she decides, is to have her arrive to some peace and quiet instead of having to break up yet another argument. “Want some Takis?”

Shelby actually snorts and then shakes her head. “God, no. Those things are disgustin’.”

Toni sits up and stares at her. “What did you just say?”

“They’re like worse Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. And also super bad for you.”

“Fuck off, Mom.” Toni rolls her eyes but takes a swig from her water bottle, washing the spice from her mouth until she can’t really taste it anymore. “Have you ever even tried one?”

“Don’t have to. Becca has.”

“Oh, right, Becca. I guess if she says it, it must be true.”

“Have you decided to arbitrarily hate her, too?” Shelby asks, sarcasm etched into every syllable, and Toni can sense things are going south fast. Well, at least they’d lasted a whole few minutes. Sort of. She can at least tell Martha she tried.

“I have plenty of reasons to hate you,” she says.

“Likewise.” Shelby’s eyes flash.

Shelby’s made a mistake, though, picking a fight while they’re alone. Toni likes to think of herself as somewhat morally upright; she has no issues holding their hookup over Shelby’s head, but ultimately, she knows she’d never ruin Shelby’s life by revealing it in front of her friends or family, provided Shelby never manages to find a way to do something of equal gravity to her. But there’s no reason to hold back here, with no one around.

“You know, I think I’ve been nice to you these past few weeks,” she says. “Actually, I’ve been great to you. Lent you pencils—” Shelby scoffs at that one, “—tried not to insult you, made you feel really, really good—” She emphasizes the word so much that she almost sounds like she’s moaning it out herself, and instantly Shelby’s packing her things up, her cheeks going beet red, and it’s a better reaction than Toni’s expecting; she hasn’t brought it up at all since it happened, not once, not even to hint at it; she’s been content to let their shared knowledge of it be enough, but she’s absolutely delighted to see Shelby flushed and unwilling to look at her. “You’re ditching Martha?” Toni asks her, feigning surprise, and Shelby shoots her a venomous look. “Thought she needed your help.”

“The test’s in a week. We’ll do it some other day. When I don’t have to deal with you.”

“You’re always gonna be dealing with me, Shelby,” Toni says with a cocky grin. “I’m in your head now.” She doesn’t think it’s possible initially but Shelby flushes deeper, like it’s all true, and when she’s got her things and is almost out the door, Toni taunts her, moans out, “Mmm, keep going, Toni!” and Shelby slams the front door shut hard behind herself.

She’s left her purse on the coffee table. Toni waits.

Shelby’s still got the rest of her stuff with her when she storms back in a few seconds later, and when she heads for her purse, her cheeks still aflame, Toni kind of feels bad for her for about two seconds. Then she thinks of Martha. “Okay, fuck, wait,” she says hastily before Shelby can leave again, rising to get between her and the door. Shelby pauses and meets her eyes at last to glare at her. “I’m sorry. You should stay here for Martha. I’ll shut up.”

It works, much to Toni’s surprise.

Toni sits down, and Shelby sinks back onto the opposite end of the couch again and doesn’t say anything, just gets her stuff back out and then sits uncomfortably with her hands in her lap, her attention split between the textbook and the television, and now that they’ve sort of talked about it and Shelby’s right there, Toni can’t help but think about the details—Shelby trembling against her, moaning into her ear, breathing out her name—

“…Hello?” she hears Shelby ask, and it pulls her back into the present. At least a few minutes seem to have passed.

“Huh?” Shelby’s staring at her strangely, visibly unsettled, and Toni wonders, a bit embarrassed, if her face has given her away.

“I asked if we could turn somethin’ else on.”

Toni looks at the TV and sees Kurt and Blaine pulling away after a passionate kiss, and something in the look on Shelby’s face breaks her, and she’s officially had it with the bullshit, with Shelby’s hypocrisy and her constant insistence that she has nothing against Toni and her sexuality when it’s so obviously not true.

Or at least that’s what she tells herself. She’s a little turned on, too.

She turns the TV off and tosses the remote aside, then moves to take a seat next to Shelby and promptly closes the textbook in front of her.

“What are you—?” Shelby starts to ask, turning to face her, and Toni grabs her by the back of her neck and crushes their mouths together.

Shelby’s shocked for all of two seconds and then seems to consider pretending she’s not into it for another few after that, but soon she’s pressing against Toni and they’re kissing deeply and Shelby’s hands are on her and Toni feels victorious again, because maybe Shelby’s gay and maybe she’s not but she’s sure as hell hiding something from everyone else who isn’t Toni.

She slides her hands over Shelby’s thighs after just a few seconds of heavy kissing to gauge her interest, and when Shelby gasps and spreads them a little right away, Toni curses against Shelby’s lips. Shelby’s so practiced and careful and perfect everywhere else but that’s twice now with Toni that she’s just fallen apart immediately, so fucking ready and willing, and Toni’s a little bit of a slut anyway—so much so that she doesn’t think about Regan at all and only remembers later that they were fighting again anyway and so this thing with Shelby is technically fine—and knowing that maybe there’s a part of Shelby deep down that’s kind of a slut too is such a huge fucking turn on. And the alternative is that she’s only this willing for Toni, anyway, and God, that’s even hotter.

Toni’s half on top of Shelby now, feeling her up under her shirt and enjoying watching Shelby squirm and pant against her between kisses. She pushes the coffee table back with her foot when she gets a moment, then slips off of Shelby and kneels in front of her. Shelby’s eyes go wide.

“If you want,” Toni answers the unspoken question, and Shelby swallows hard and lifts her hips to wriggle out of her shorts on her own. Toni drags Shelby’s hips to the edge of her seat and helps her out of her underwear. Shelby seems shy for all of two seconds before Toni tells her, “Lie back.”

Fatin talks a lot, and gossip and sex are two of her favorite topics, so Toni knows she has somewhat of a reputation for being good at this, but something tells her the information hasn’t made it around to Shelby’s neck of the woods. She watches Shelby’s head hit the back of the couch when Toni tastes her for the first time, her hands clutching the edge of the cushion on either side of her knees. She starts moaning right away and God that’s quickly becoming one of Toni’s favorite sounds in the world, it’s so fucking hot.

Toni starts to notice patterns now that they’ve done this twice. Shelby isn’t loud but she isn’t super quiet or anything, either, and she gets into her own head enough to smother her noises seemingly by force of habit, because she does it when Toni’s tongue pushes inside of her even though there’s no one around to hear them.

Shelby shudders and trembles early on but it doesn’t mean she’s about to come, just that whatever she’s feeling is driving her body crazy. She doesn’t get aggressive unless she’s really turned on; Toni learns that one when her hips start rocking forward and her moans get a little louder and then she finally puts a hand on Toni’s head and tries to tug her closer by her hair. She likes pressure more than she likes speed, and she likes when Toni makes noises, too. Speaking counts.

“You taste really fucking good,” Toni tells her, somewhat reluctantly meaning it, because of course perfect Shelby Goodkind has a heaven-sent vagina. She barely has to touch Shelby again before she tenses against Toni’s tongue and gasps and shudders her way through an orgasm, still holding Toni close by her hair all the while. When Shelby settles down, Toni twists around halfway to check Shelby’s phone on the coffee table for the time, and when she sees it, she hides a smile, a little proud of herself, and then turns and looks up at Shelby from between her legs. Shelby just stares back at her, open-mouthed and still breathing hard, very frazzled.

Toni abruptly leans in again, content to start all over, and Shelby gasps out a weak, “Wait, Martha’s—”

“Not gonna be here for a while, Shelby,” Toni interrupts, urging Shelby’s thighs even further apart. “You lasted, like, a whole four minutes.”

“What?” Shelby sounds startled, but then Toni’s eating her out again and the word fades into a moan, and Shelby’s hand is back in her hair, gentler this time, and Toni’s trying hard not to think about how much she’s actually enjoying this.

It can’t happen again. She doesn’t even like Shelby.

The third time it happens is only a week of ignoring each other later, when there’s a substitute gym teacher and Toni’s class is combined with Shelby’s for the hour. Most people don’t bother to shower afterward, especially because it’s the last class of the day, but Shelby looks at Toni and then lingers in the locker room as their classmates begin to trail out, and something tells Toni she should stay.

As soon as they’re the last two left, Shelby drags her to the showers and starts peeling Toni’s clothes off. They both see each other naked for the first time under the hot spray and Toni tries not to acknowledge how completely stunning Shelby is, just pins her to the wall and makes her grind on her thigh until she comes, then ignores Shelby’s shy attempts at insinuating she wants to return the favor and drops to her knees, spreading Shelby’s thighs apart with her hands.

They hardly say anything to each other, and when Shelby comes the second time, she moans out Becca’s name. Toni would normally be pretty offended but this time she almost laughs, it’s just so unexpected. Shelby practically flees from the shower and doesn’t even say goodbye, and Toni realizes she knows Shelby’s big secret now.

It takes her a bit to wrap her mind around the fact that Shelby definitely must be attracted to girls on some level and not just into letting Toni make her come because she’s good at it. It makes Shelby even hotter. Toni still shovels a few handfuls of dirt through the slots of Shelby’s locker after Shelby doesn’t defend Toni when Andrew calls her a dyke, though—and honestly, even better than defending her, Shelby should’ve been going the extra mile to thank her, Toni thinks, because “I’m fucking your girlfriend, bro,” is virtually the comeback to end all comebacks, and yet Toni just tries to fight him and lets Martha hold her back instead of using it. The same dirt prank had been played on a couple of characters during that Glee episode that’d been on back at Toni’s house, so Toni knows Shelby will realize it’s from her.

Plus, it’s not like it’d be from anyone else, so maybe the reference isn’t necessary.

The fourth time it happens is nearly a month later, after Toni comes home slamming doors following another argument with Regan about her anger issues. Shelby’s hanging out in Martha’s room and they both see Toni storm by, yank her door shut, and lock it.

“Do you want to go check on her?” she hears Shelby ask distantly through the walls as she throws herself face-down onto her bed.

“It’s probably Regan issues. I’m gonna give her some time to cool off,” Martha replies.

Shelby excuses herself to go home an hour later, and a few minutes after she’s gone Toni hears a tap on her window, and Shelby is there, looking almost shy as Toni crosses to open it. “What the fuck are you doing?” Toni asks her, alarmed.

“Thought you might want some company,” Shelby suggests, like maybe they might sit around and fucking drink tea together or something.

Shelby comes around her fingers with her face buried into Toni’s neck to keep Martha from overhearing her moans, and as soon as Toni pulls out of her, Shelby grabs Toni’s wrists and rolls half on top of her, kissing her hard in what’s clearly an attempt to take the reins from Toni for once. Toni’s stronger than her and pulls her wrists free rather easily, and Shelby gets even more frustrated, bites at her lips and scratches Toni’s thighs through her capris and growls, “I wanna freakin’ touch you.”

Her words and lips and hands send heat to Toni’s groin and Toni pretends they don’t. “Why, so you can pretend I’m Becca or something?” she asks, just because she knows it’ll get Shelby to leave, and in seconds Shelby’s searching for her clothes.

Toni lies on her back and watches the ceiling afterward, thinking of Regan giving up on her for the tenth time or so now after she’d accidentally elbowed her during a fight with several men who reminded her too much of Andrew and his friends. She’s pretty sure it’s over for real now; this time felt more final than the others.

She thinks about Shelby, too, and about how much it must suck to be in love with your best friend knowing she’ll never love you back. She considers what she’d do if she were in love with Martha and immediately envisions herself drowning in a sea of girls just like Fatin in hopes of forgetting. It takes her an extra thirty seconds to realize the irony.

They’re both pretty fucked in the love department, she thinks, but at least Shelby seems to have the right idea about how to cope with it. There’s not much Toni’s really getting out of this thing with Shelby and she’s not sure why it’s still happening on her end.

Chapter Text

The fifth time it happens—well, it’s more like the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and on and on, but Toni prefers when things are simple—is another few weeks later, during Christmas break. Martha and her mother take a two-day trip to visit Martha’s dad, who Toni has virtually no relationship with given Martha’s parents’ early divorce, so she stays behind and has the house to herself.

At school, she and Shelby still act like they hate each other—or maybe they really do, Toni doesn’t fucking know anymore and with basketball season finally in full swing she can’t be bothered to focus too much on anything else.

But when Shelby comes over to visit Martha and it’s just the three of them, sometimes she and Shelby sit in the same room together for hours, and though they don’t speak to each other a lot, they don’t really argue, either. Toni’s wary of how perceptive Martha might be and barely looks at Shelby when they’re all together, but it’s different somehow, even if it’s not by much. She isn’t sure how to feel about that, because it’s not like she and Shelby have had some big come-to-Jesus moment and talked out all their problems; they’re just kind of fucking occasionally.

She gets a text from an unfamiliar number early in the morning on the day before Martha and her mom are due to return. It says: “Martha says she’s away with her mom?”

Toni stares at the message sleepily and tries to figure out who it’s from. Martha has a few friends Toni doesn’t really talk to. “Yeah,” she replies, too eager to go back to sleep to bother asking who she’s texting.

Then her phone starts ringing, and it’s the same number. She groans and eyes it, considering letting it go to voicemail, then sighs and answers it just to get whoever it is out of her hair. “What?” she answers flatly by way of greeting.

Shelby’s voice is on the other end. She sounds out of breath. “Sorry, I’m on my mornin’ run. Forgot not everyone gets up this early.”

“Jesus, Shelby,” Toni mumbles, burying her face in her pillow. “Why the fuck are you calling me?”

“My daddy reads my texts even if I delete them,” Shelby explains.

“That’s fucked,” Toni tells her, but she still isn’t sure why it’s relevant unless Shelby has something inappropriate she wants to say, which she literally never does, not even curse words, not even when Toni’s deep inside of her trying to coax them out.

“I guess. It’s always been that way.” Shelby’s still breathing hard and Toni can distantly hear her feet hitting the pavement. They both seem to be waiting for the other to say something, and Toni’s just about to bite out that Shelby called her when Shelby asks, “Are you doin’ anythin’ today?”

It’s a bizarre question, coming from Shelby, and Toni is very confused. “Shooting hoops with Rachel.”

“After that?” Shelby presses, and Toni gives a heavy sigh and pulls the comforter over her head.

“What do you want, Shelby?”

Shelby takes a moment to answer again, but when she does, Toni’s sleep-addled brain finally gets it. “To come over. Is one o’clock okay?”

“Yeah, but just say that next time instead of trying to have a fucking conversation with me,” Toni complains, already halfway to hanging up. “You’re so fucking shy about it.” She ends the call and rolls over to go back to sleep.

She showers after she gets back from unmandated practice with Rachel, who by her own admission joined the team to boost her college applications. Normally that kind of thing disgusts Toni, given her own love for the game, but Rachel’s really athletic and really fucking good, actually, and she also kind of hates everyone in the same way that Toni does, so they’ve become fairly close for teammates in the past month. Not enough to like, actually bond or anything, but Toni doesn’t feel like blowing her brains out when it’s just her and Rachel, and that’s kind of nice.

Shelby shows up right when she said she would and Toni’s already prepared to pull her inside and press her against the nearest wall when she opens the door, but Shelby’s holding what looks like takeout and Toni just winds up staring at her instead, wondering what the fuck she’s doing.

“Are you hungry?” Shelby asks her, and Toni realizes she hasn’t eaten today. It’s weirdly thoughtful of Shelby, Toni lets herself think, but she doesn’t want to linger on it.

She scarfs the food down mostly to avoid making conversation with Shelby, who she still doesn’t really like very much even if she sort of understands her a little better now, because the praying and the refusal to curse and the whole goody-two-shoes routine all seem to be genuine so far, secret attraction to girls aside. Their whatever-it-is, which might be the only thing she likes about Shelby, seems to be a slight detour from the path that is Shelby’s personality rather than an indicator of some whole other secret road to someone Toni might actually get along with.

Shelby doesn’t offer much in the way of conversation either, thankfully, and Toni finishes eating first and then sits back and watches her. They’re on the living room floor together with the television off, and there’s not much else to distract herself with. Shelby slurps the last bit of a noodle into her mouth and it swings around a little and sauce splashes off of it, leaving a spot on her cheek. “That’s so hot,” Toni snarks, and Shelby looks around for the napkins and doesn’t meet her eyes. “So, are you gonna admit that you came here to get laid or nah?”

Shelby colors behind the napkin she’s using to wipe at her cheek and stutters, “That’s—I thought you shouldn’t be alone on Christmas—”

“It’s the 21st,” Toni deadpans. “Also, we can’t stand each other, so you definitely didn’t come here to fucking hang out and talk out of holiday pity, Shelby.”

“I brought food, for eating,” Shelby tries half-heartedly, and Toni laughs genuinely at that, hoping Shelby meant it to be as funny and pathetic as it sounded and that she’s laughing with her instead of at her. Shelby purses her lips to suppress a smile and Toni feels relieved.

“Can’t you just say it?” Toni asks.

“I don’t know how to talk about that stuff,” Shelby admits. “It’s not—I was taught it’s not very ladylike. Not that I should be with anyone other than my husband, anyway, but obviously that ship sailed a few months ago.”

Toni stares hard at her, an uncomfortable flutter in her stomach, because that timeline checks out with Fatin’s party. “Because of Andrew?” she asks hopefully, and Shelby suddenly looks somewhere between a deer caught in headlights and a prisoner being interrogated.

“We don’t have to talk about that,” she mumbles, and Toni sits up straighter and looks Shelby up and down, really studying her.

“The party wasn’t your first time having sex,” she insists, more to herself than to Shelby. Shelby won’t look at her. “Shelby. Was it?”

“Does it really matter?”

“Yes, it fucking matters. It really fucking matters, Shelby.” She pauses, her stomach dropping, when Shelby still refuses to deny it. “Who else have you slept with?” she asks, shifting the goalposts, and again Shelby doesn’t respond, just looks at her and then looks away.

In hindsight, Toni would later think, this shit was probably a huge fucking neon sign that everything was going to wind up fucked up one way or another.

She looks at the food anew, taken aback, and asks, “Okay, Shelby, what the fuck is this?”

“Would you relax?” Shelby finally bites out, and Toni listens for once. “Nothin’s changed. I’m just only doin’ this with you. There’s nothin’ wrong with that, Toni.” Toni opens her mouth to argue but Shelby goes on anyway, “Do you want me to tell you you’re not special? Would that help? You already know too much, so can you just shut up and stop pushing? You already know how I feel.”

“About Becca,” Toni clarifies, just to check, and Shelby swallows hard and goes noticeably silent again, visibly uncomfortable. “Okay.” Toni tries to make herself relax, but it’s different, knowing that she’s taken Shelby’s virginity in what was ultimately a really fucked up way and that everything they’ve done together is also everything Shelby’s ever done.

“I’m here because,” Shelby starts suddenly, and it takes Toni a moment to realize she’s trying to do what Toni asked, that her cheeks are pink now not because of Becca but because of Toni, “…because you’re.” She pauses, lets out a breath. “Good at things, and I like that you’re good at them.”

It’s a pretty pathetic attempt, Toni thinks, but maybe not half bad for Shelby.

“Why do you keep sayin’ yes?” Shelby asks her suddenly, and Toni blinks at her and tries her best to act like she hasn’t been asking herself that question since the second time, especially given that she hasn’t even gotten off once with Shelby, and in fact has actively prevented it on more than one occasion.

“I like watching you come,” she finally says, unsure if it’s the reason—maybe it is, and this is all really that simple—but it’s definitely a reason—and it certainly gets Shelby to shut up and stop asking questions. Toni watches her turn red with the calmness of watching paint dry and suddenly Shelby seems interested in browsing the food laid out in front of them again. “Not happening, Shelby,” Toni warns her, done fucking around, and then she’s sweeping the paper boxes and Tupperware aside and practically mounting her on the living room floor, and Shelby, as always, seems content to just go along for the ride.

Toni should probably feel bad that they kind of have sex all over the house, but she doesn’t. They start out on the floor, where Toni takes pity on Shelby and tries to teach her what to say to girls during sex, but it all just makes Shelby blush and she can’t bring herself to repeat any of it, though she comes pretty hard to descriptions of how wet she is and how much Toni loves touching her and Toni files that information away for the future, then mentally berates herself for being so sure they’re going to do this again sometime.

Shelby has carpet burn after that and so they make out for a while in the shower and then Toni goes down on her for a couple of minutes but doesn’t finish it, so Shelby’s still trembling a little by the time they’re back in the kitchen and Toni’s raiding the fridge for chocolate syrup. She’s long since decided that this day may have been Shelby’s idea but it was still a really fucking good one and she’s going to make it as memorable as possible, so she puts a towel out on the kitchen floor and makes Shelby lay down on it, and they both kind of laugh their way through Toni licking chocolate off of Shelby’s stomach and ribcage. It’s less funny when Toni puts some on her chest and her inner thighs, and they have sex on the kitchen floor, too, and then once on the couch and again during another shower, and finally three more times in Toni’s bed, and it’s Shelby every time, arching her back and shamelessly moaning out Toni’s name instead of Becca’s, clearly worn out but keeping up with a determination that reminds Toni of some of her favorite times with Regan. Toni gets the sense that Shelby had known what she was signing up for when she invited herself over for the full day, and part of her is flattered by the high expectations.

Shelby kisses her hard after the third time in her bed and Toni feels her hand sliding over Toni’s abs, between where Toni’s clothed in a sports bra and underwear, and she isn’t sure what to make of Shelby then; it’s physically impossible that she isn’t exhausted and it’s been dark for a while now. She should really be getting home, and instead she’s pushing for more in a way that seems to indicate she really means it.

Toni isn’t sure what to make of herself, either; she’s pretty sure she wants Shelby to touch her, because who wouldn’t in this state, but this whole thing between them started out as a weird power play and the idea of falling apart beneath Shelby’s hands and mouth feels alien to her, like something she’d only witness herself do as part of an out-of-body experience. Shelby Goodkind fucked Toni Shalifoe sounds horribly wrong to her, like it’s against the nature of things, like Shelby having any sort of hold over her would be unnatural and she’d be weak for giving in and letting it happen.

She places her hand over Shelby’s to stop it and Shelby pulls away from her mouth with an abruptness that startles her, her voice sharp and firm. “Toni,” she huffs, and she actually sounds a little angry.

“I’ll just masturbate later,” Toni suggests, and God, she would, so much, to all of it, just like she has to memories of everything else they’ve done, but this time Shelby isn’t having any of it.

Toni visibly sees her change tactics; Shelby kisses her neck instead, slow and teasing—she really has been learning quickly, Toni realizes—and while Toni’s trying not to react Shelby kisses up to her ear and mumbles, “I wanna feel what I did to you today,” and fuck, it shoots through Toni like lightning and goes straight to where she’s so ready, and Shelby’s clearly trying so hard and doing so well. It almost physically hurts to turn her down.

She swallows hard and tries to throw her a bone, turning onto her side and pulling Shelby’s thigh between her own, then rolling her hips into Shelby’s, letting her feel everything against her thigh with only the material of her underwear between them. Shelby rocks back into her and buries her face in Toni’s neck. “Feel it?” Toni asks her, breathing hard with the effort of not grinding her hips against Shelby again, and she feels Shelby nod against her and then lips brushing across her neck.

“Can I touch you?” Shelby whispers, and when Toni doesn’t answer right away, Shelby’s hand slides around to her back and pulls her closer, and Toni feels Shelby’s teeth scrape the shell of her ear. It almost makes her shudder. “Please. I want you to feel good.” Shit, there’s something about that one that hits Toni right in the chest and between her thighs all at once, and she lets herself fantasize about at least fucking Shelby while she grinds on her thigh, like maybe it might be an acceptable compromise, but then Shelby adds, “You can trust me, Toni,” and Toni realizes Shelby’s solved it before she could solve it herself.

She doesn’t trust Shelby for a damn thing other than to keep this all a secret for her own sake. She doesn’t even trust her to not scowl at her the next time they see each other, because however casual this is, even basic acknowledgement of it dies the instant they’re back in public, where Shelby’s beholden to her father and her peers and her pageant judges and the FCA and whoever the fuck else—all the other people Toni can’t name because to be fair she still doesn’t really know all that much about Shelby beyond the basics that had made them enemies in the first place and what she likes in bed.

It’s not that sex has to be meaningful for her to want it, because it absolutely doesn’t; Fatin’s always a welcome partner and Toni’s never had more meaningless sex than that in her life, because even with Shelby at least there had been some kind of goal there the first time outside of having an orgasm, and with Regan it had been about feelings and orgasms, especially because Regan was her first. Still, there has to be some standard, Toni thinks, and drawing the line at expecting her sexual partners not to stand back and watch a bunch of her friends call Toni a sinner or a dyke seems like a fair bar to set. The idea of Shelby seeing her at her most vulnerable and then laughing at her for liking girls the next day makes her stomach turn. No, she does not trust Shelby not to do that to her at all, no matter what she might be claiming in bed.

It makes her so angry, even imagining it, because although she can’t recall Shelby ever saying anything directly about Toni’s sexuality and she’s not stupid; Shelby likes girls and certainly doesn’t judge Toni for it deep down, her standing by and doing nothing and even cracking a smile at Toni’s misfortune if she thinks other people are watching is a very real and fairly frequent occurrence.

“Stop talking, Shelby,” Toni orders, sitting up to look down at her, and Shelby looks disappointed but says nothing. Toni flattens her to the mattress, kisses her roughly, and fucks her hard and fast until she’s calling out Toni’s name like a prayer and clawing at her back—with her real nails now, her fakes for her pageants done away with, and Toni tries not to think too hard about that without feeling a little disheartened on Shelby’s behalf, because God, she can tell Shelby really wants to be inside of her so badly, even if just to have the experience with another girl before her dad expects her to marry some boy from her church like Andrew.

They haven’t talked details about Shelby’s sexuality, but it’s actually so fucking sad if she’s a lesbian, Toni thinks, and it’s also sad that Shelby has to hide anything about herself at all, whatever it may be—Toni can certainly have empathy for that even if they don’t get along, she just wishes it didn’t have to come with a thinly homophobic front to it. When Shelby’s recovered enough to go again, Toni works her up much slower and when Shelby comes it’s with Toni whispering to her that she’s so fucking gorgeous, and it’s probably the last time Toni’s honest with her for a while, because her feelings about Shelby and her situation are very quickly becoming too complicated for her to want to sort through, especially when she’s still got so many issues of her own to deal with.

Shelby confesses sometime later that she told her parents she was spending the night at Becca’s and told Becca to cover for her because she’d be at Andrew’s, and it sounds really fucking messy but it isn’t like it’s Toni’s problem, so she just shrugs and doesn’t ask Shelby to leave her bed; Martha and her mom won’t be back until the early afternoon anyway.

Shelby falls asleep first and Toni goes for her fourth shower of the day; it takes thirty minutes and she works herself over four separate times before she feels even a little bit sated. She towel-dries her hair and pins it up before she slips back into bed, naked now, and Shelby shifts a bit but doesn’t stir. Eventually, Toni falls asleep.

She wakes up the next morning cuddled up to Shelby, her arm thrown over Shelby’s midsection and her face buried in Shelby’s neck even though Shelby herself doesn’t seem to have moved all night, which means that all of this is on Toni.

And in hindsight, if Shelby’s whole secret virginity thing was a neon sign that it was all going to go horribly wrong eventually, then this shit, Toni imagines, may as well have been a fucking five-alarm fire.

Chapter Text

Toni’s kind of spooked a little by the whole cuddling incident and is content to take a break from Shelby for a while, and so naturally when Martha drags her out to the nearest mall an hour away on December 31st, wanting to spend her Christmas money and pick up some stuff to celebrate New Year’s, they run into Shelby shopping with a woman who appears to be her mom.

“Martha!” she gushes before Toni can get Martha the hell out of the Nordstrom, and instead Toni’s left standing there awkwardly with Shelby while Shelby’s mother hugs Martha. Shelby is very interested in their surroundings and not at all interested in looking at Toni, and Toni’s pretty much on the same page as Shelby for once.

Shelby’s mom finally acknowledges Toni and her smile falls a little as she takes her in; her eyes say I think this may be a homosexual and Toni makes a mental note to step up her game in that department because clearly the vibes she’s giving off aren’t quite as strong as she’d like them to be. “And who is this?”

“This is Toni,” Martha says, and Mrs. Goodkind sort of purses her lips uncertainly and glances to Shelby, who still hasn’t said anything and won’t even look in Toni’s general direction.

“Ah, I do think I’ve heard a little bit about a Toni.”

Toni imagines Shelby storming into her house in the afternoon and ranting to her family about how much Toni drove her nuts that day and can’t help but feel the corners of her lips turning upward. “All good things?” she can’t help but ask, and Mrs. Goodkind gives her a thin smile and doesn’t answer her.

Martha notices bags in their hands and asks if they were on their way out, and Toni gets fed up with watching her make small talk and wanders off to look at band tees nearby, which turns out to be a huge mistake, because she winds up losing veto power and when Martha returns to her, Shelby’s mom is gone but Shelby is still with her.

“Shelby’s gonna hang out and go shopping with us,” Martha says excitedly, and Toni blinks at Shelby with disbelief because certainly she should have vetoed this herself, but Shelby still won’t make eye contact with her.

They walk around and browse for a while, Martha chattering away with Shelby about clothes and makeup while Toni fantasizes about being anywhere else but here, and when they go to grab food and Martha decides she’s craving a smoothie and wanders off into a different line, Toni fixes Shelby with a glare and asks, “What the fuck, Shelby?”

Shelby rolls her eyes and looks a bit defensive. “I can’t hang out with a friend?”

“We aren’t friends,” Toni knee-jerks, and Shelby gives her a strange look.

“I meant Martha.”

Well, fuck, that’s embarrassing. Toni tries to save it by biting out, “Aren’t you a little worried that someone’s gonna see you hanging out with the big scary lesbian you’re always fighting with?”

“Not really. Everyone knows Martha and I are close, so obviously I might have to tolerate you sometimes,” Shelby says, and Toni has to admit she’s got a point, but it’s still beyond weird hanging out outside of school or her house for the first time, especially now, given what’s been happening between them. “She invited me over for New Year’s.”

“Your mom was cool with that? Doesn’t she know it’s my house, too?”

“We don’t shun sinners at my church, Toni; we embrace them and help show them the Lord’s light,” Shelby says, and Toni knows it’s just an explanation, that she isn’t actually calling Toni a sinner herself, but it still gets her a little heated, thinking about Shelby being given permission to be around her only because her parents think Shelby can help indoctrinate her or something.

“Oh, you embrace us, all right,” she mumbles, and Shelby stiffens beside her and glances behind them in line to see if anyone’s standing too closely to overhear. “We don’t even know these people, Shelby.”

“Let’s not make those kinds of comments in public,” Shelby says shortly anyway, and Toni rolls her eyes and counts the seconds until Martha returns.

They go clothes shopping after they eat and Toni takes like ten seconds in the fitting rooms because all she’s grabbed are a few cheap tank tops and one of those band tees, and she’s waiting for Shelby and Martha to get finished when she hears a frustrated, “Dang it!” from Shelby’s room, and then a huff and a, “Martha?”

“Everything alright?” Martha calls back from one room over.

“I think they marked this shirt the wrong size… it’s too tight.” Shelby sounds concerned. “I might need you to just come pull it up for me.”

“Toni, you there?” Martha checks, and Toni immediately knows where this is going.

“Nope,” she says, even though she’s totally not opposed to going into a fitting room with Shelby and messing with her a little; in fact, it sounds like a lot of fun.

“Can you help Shelby?” Martha asks, and Toni snorts at what Shelby says next.

“I might be able to do it myself.”

A few seconds pass. Toni watches the door with raised eyebrows.

Shelby finally admits defeat. “Do you think you’ll be done soon, Martha?”

“Toni—” Martha starts again, and Toni laughs and stands up.

“Don’t worry, Shelby, I won’t feel you up,” she says from outside the door even though she thinks it’s probably a lie, and she hears Shelby huff again from the other side.

“That’s not—Oh, fine.”

Shelby opens the door and Toni slips inside and lets Shelby lock it behind her. When Toni rounds on her, her cheeks are pink and she looks like she’s hating every second of this. She lifts her arms over her head, the shirt visibly tight around her ribs and shoulders, and looks at Toni expectantly.

“You guys alright?” Martha checks in.

“Shelby’s trying to seduce me in here,” Toni says, and Shelby blushes harder and narrows her eyes. “She’s not even wearing a shirt. It was all a clever ruse.”

“Shut up, Toni.”

“Can I be the Maid of Honor at your wedding?” Martha asks, because unlike Shelby she actually has a fucking sense of humor, and Toni laughs as she settles in front of Shelby and grasps the hem of the shirt.

“We’re actually eloping,” Toni replies casually, really committing to the bit, and as she pushes the shirt halfway up Shelby’s stomach she’s not shy at all about letting her hands wander a little, which just makes Shelby’s cheeks get darker and her eyes get angrier.

“What do you do about last names when two girls get married, anyway?” Martha wonders.

“It varies,” Toni explains; Shelby’s abs are actually fantastic and Toni gets distracted for a minute, but then she adds, “Some people hyphenate, some just choose whichever last name they think sounds cooler, some have other reasons.” She slides the shirt up over Shelby’s bra and openly checks her boobs out, and Shelby’s starting to look a little less angry and a little more embarrassed. “Shelby would take my last name though, wouldn’t you, Shelby?"

“I absolutely would not,” Shelby interjects, unable to help herself, and Toni grins and winks at her. She sees the start of another eye roll from Shelby but pulls the top up past her neck and over her face before she can complete it, then works it up higher until it’s almost off, until the bottom half of Shelby’s face is exposed but her eyes are covered, and Toni pauses and just looks at her mouth and then down at her body, suddenly overcome with the urge to tell Shelby how hot she is—mostly to get a reaction out of her, but Martha’s right there and can hear virtually everything they’re saying.

“Maybe you could do the hyphen thing, then,” Martha suggests.

“For sure.” Toni releases the shirt and lets one of her hands fall to Shelby’s waist, which is warm and bare beneath her palm, and she watches Shelby swallow hard and her lips part and her breathing pick up as Toni’s hand slides across her abdomen and over her ribcage, then back down to her waist.

Toni cups her cheek and moves in close, lets Shelby feel her breath and the heat from her body so that she knows what’s happening even with her eyes covered, and when Shelby still doesn’t move away, Toni gently fits their mouths together. Shelby’s lips close around hers and kiss her back carefully, barely applying pressure, and there’s no movement; they can’t make noise, so they just stay like that for a moment until Toni pulls away slowly, and there’s the barely-there smack of their lips separating but Toni knows right away it’s not loud enough for Martha to hear.

She steps back and tugs the shirt up past Shelby’s eyes, which are a shade darker than usual and look right back into Toni’s with such an unexpected intensity that it makes Toni’s stomach flip. She gets the shirt off of Shelby’s head and lets her finish the rest, slipping out of the dressing room without another word.

“You guys get it?” Martha asks.

“Mhmm,” Toni hears Shelby say, and she sounds about as distracted as Toni feels.

When they get home, Shelby and Martha decide to bake New Year’s themed cookies from scratch, and Toni lazes around watching them and taste-testing their concoctions, which mostly range from inedible to mildly decent.

“Does Andrew not have plans tonight?” she asks Shelby eventually, wondering why the hell Shelby’s spending New Year’s with them instead of literally anywhere else, preferably somewhere decently far away from Toni.

“One of his friends is throwing a party but I didn’t want to go. Which,” and Shelby sighs, then, looking a bit disappointed, “he called me a killjoy over, and now he’s mad at me.”

Just with that information alone Toni’s 500% sure Andrew’s going to make out with someone else tonight, but she can’t really bring herself to feel sad for Shelby because—well, c’mon.

“Becca?” she asks next, and Martha turns and gives her a look telling her to shut up, like she knows exactly what Toni’s doing.

“I’m glad we’re hanging out, Shelby,” Martha says, and they exchange smiles before Shelby opens the oven and withdraws another batch of cookies. Both Martha and Shelby start coughing and smoke rises past them and into the air, setting off the smoke alarm.

“I’m not eating that,” Toni declares over the beeping.

Martha’s mom lets them share one bottle of champagne and goes to bed early herself because she has to work in the morning, and around ten o’clock they all go downstairs to the two-room basement and start drinking. Martha puts on these cheesy glasses she bought for the occasion and hands out party horns like there’s any chance Toni will actually use one. Shelby looks thrilled, though, and Toni winds up sitting in a chair in the corner with the champagne bottle while Shelby and Martha chatter incessantly, stopping only to look at the New Year’s coverage on the television every now and then or to steal the champagne from Toni.

“I don’t know anything about football, Shelby,” Martha giggles out when Shelby tries to talk about her dream wedding to Tony Romo, so Shelby pulls out her phone to show her a picture and then her smile fades at something she sees on the screen. She stands abruptly and moves to the other room to make a phone call, and Martha sighs and wobbles back on over to Toni for more champagne.

“This is thrilling,” Toni tells her.

Martha takes a swig of the bottle and then says, “You know, you might like her if you actually gave her a chance. She’s nice.”

“She’s not nice to me.”

“You’re not nice to her.”

“Her friends all think I’m a freak, Martha.”

“But she doesn’t.”

“Okay, so if I were friends with some racist pro-colonization asshole you wouldn’t have a problem with me?”

Martha blinks at her sadly, like maybe she thinks Toni has a point, and then admits, “I guess I would.”

“Exactly.”

“But I would still be nice to you.”

“Well,” Toni sighs out, “that’s because you’re a nicer person than me, Marty.”

Shelby returns from the other room looking upset, and she’s swaying slightly, too: less than Martha, but enough that Toni can tell she’s feeling the champagne a little. Toni rolls her eyes and lets Martha deal with what is almost certainly Shelby’s Andrew drama, tunes them out and waits for the ball in NYC to drop on the television.

Eventually Shelby and Martha curl up on the loveseat next to Toni’s chair to watch with her, and not long after that Martha commandeers the rest of the champagne. At eleven o’clock, she sighs and drunkenly slurs, “Guys, I wish we all had someone special to share a New Year’s kiss with. Doesn’t that sound so perfect?”

“Sure, Marty,” Toni says, very determined not to meet the pair of green eyes she can feel on her face.

By eleven-thirty, Marty is passed out and cuddling the empty champagne bottle.

“You owe me five bucks,” Toni tells Shelby, who scoffs and rolls her eyes.

“I did not take that bet.”

“Whatever.” Toni yawns and stretches, tells Shelby, “Alright, I don’t actually give a shit about any of this, so if Marty’s out cold, I’m done too. You have fun.”

“You seriously aren’t even gonna stay up until midnight? Isn’t that the whole point?”

“No, the whole point was to make sure Marty had a good time.” Toni raises an eyebrow at her. “Tony Romo, huh?”

“Hours of time spent with me today and that’s what you got out of it,” Shelby says. “Somethin’ to make fun of me for.” But she’s smiling, like maybe she’s only teasing, and Toni decides to try to thaw a little bit for once.

“I guess I can’t really talk; my childhood crush was Dora the Explorer.”

She almost regrets admitting that when Shelby laughs so hard she snorts and covers her mouth with her hand to keep herself quiet—Marty rolls over on the couch but thankfully doesn’t wake up—but something about watching Shelby’s whole body shake with laughter makes her keep going.

“I would like, scoot right up close to the screen to watch; Little Toni was thirsty.”

“Sounds like you needed a map to her house,” Shelby chimes in, still giggling.

“She would be like, ‘Hola amigos, do you see the big red chicken?’ and I was like, ‘The only thing I see is you, girl.’”

Shelby bursts into laughter this time and Martha stirs next to her, blinking awake.

“Shit, sorry Martha,” Toni apologizes, but she can’t stop smiling and Shelby can’t, either. “Do you want to go upstairs and sleep?”

“Mm-mm.” Martha blinks slowly at her and shakes her head, and Toni realizes she’s still not fully awake. “’m gonna sleep here.” She closes her eyes and in seconds she’s unconscious again.

“She’s gonna have a horrible hangover,” Toni supplies, wrinkling her nose sympathetically at Martha, and Shelby doesn’t say anything, just walks over and takes Toni by the wrist and drags her back toward the basement steps, away from the couch, then pulls her in and kisses her hard, and that’s how the sixth time happens—with Toni’s neighbors setting off fireworks out in the street to ring in the New Year.

Toni lays in her bed with Shelby for a while afterward, turned on and unsated, her heart racing in her chest as her eyes roam across the bedroom ceiling she’s studied hundreds of times before, trying to pretend she can’t feel Shelby’s eyes on her from one pillow over.

She turns her head, finally, and Shelby blinks slowly at her and doesn’t say anything, though she looks like she wants Toni to. Shelby’s hand reaches out and her fingers curl around Toni’s bicep, thumb gently sliding over her skin, and Toni’s chest feels tight. She thinks of last time, of waking up just over a week ago pressed into Shelby like they’d done this a hundred times before, like she and Shelby are—like they—

She says, “You should probably sleep in Martha’s bed tonight.”

The soft look in Shelby’s eyes vanishes and she releases Toni and rolls onto her back, and suddenly there is tension between them that didn’t exist a few seconds ago.

“Wouldn’t want to get caught,” Toni adds, trying to ease it, and Shelby nods her head, already reaching down to lift up the comforter.

“Yeah,” she says, and dresses herself and leaves.

Toni promises herself this is the last time.

Chapter Text

Their next semester starts up and between the upcoming SATs, basketball, and regular school bullshit, Toni lets Shelby slip to the back of her mind for a while. They still don’t talk except to argue, most of the time won’t even look at each other, and Toni swears she doesn’t even really miss the sex beyond a faint desire to feel wanted. Valentine’s Day is a bit of a bummer, but she honestly spends more time thinking about Regan that day than about Shelby; she catches her ex-girlfriend looking at her sometimes and wonders if maybe there’s still some hope for them somehow. Regan had told Toni she was too angry and temperamental, and Toni’s genuinely been working on it, channeling her emotions into basketball instead of fighting with people who make derogatory remarks about her. Soon she starts waking up a little earlier to run in the morning, which does wonders to help her blow off steam, and she doesn’t acknowledge at all where she got that particular idea from.

Eventually she notices Shelby seems a little more tense and uptight than usual—even catches Shelby shouting at Andrew in the parking lot one evening over something stupid that wouldn’t even bother Toni on most days, and Toni actually doubles over with laughter, which confuses the both of them until Toni suggests, in passing, “You need to get laid, Shelby,” and Toni doesn’t really expect a reaction from Andrew but then he’s laughing too like he isn’t an asshole to Toni 99% of the time, which makes Toni wish she hadn’t said anything at all. Shelby’s cheeks are red and her eyes are stormy, and Toni knows for sure then that she’s right even though she knew already; Shelby’s sexually frustrated and Toni’s apparently the only outlet she’s got access to.

Toni tries not to think about what that says about Shelby’s sexuality, because obviously she has access to Andrew, too—as much as they both pretend to care about abstinence and are both definitely cheating on each other off and on—and clearly she hasn’t been utilizing it. That night Toni shoots free-throws in the gym until her arms don’t work anymore; she has a game coming up and it’s really fucking important, more important than this Shelby bullshit.

The seventh time it happens is after they win; the school throws a bonfire to celebrate and keeps a little side-building with the weight-lifting room and a set of bathrooms unlocked so that students can pee. Martha’s busy with her other friends that night, but Rachel gets access to a six-pack of beers somehow and she, Toni, and Nora split them two apiece and watch the fire from a distance. Nora catches Toni staring at Fatin, who’s running around wasted in a lacy bra, swinging her shirt over her head and screeching something to Dot about school spirit, and she asks quite brusquely if Toni’s turned on, which earns her a slap on the arm from Rachel and makes Toni choke on her beer.

They talk about sex for a little while, and Nora says she’s only had one sexual partner, this guy she met online named Quinn who’s their age and kind of a nerd, and Rachel says that phone sex doesn’t count before admitting that she’s too focused on school and basketball and diving to bother with relationships. Nora asks Toni how many sexual partners she’s had and Toni says five, then looks alarmed when Nora starts listing, “Regan, Fatin, Chandler, that girl who plays basketball for Bakersfield, and…?” She thinks for a moment, falls short of an answer, and Toni stares at her.

“You’re fucking creepy sometimes, Nora,” she says, and Nora seems unbothered but Rachel gives Toni a look as she finishes up her last beer.

“Imagine sharing a womb with her.”

Toni runs into Shelby in the bathroom minutes later and it’s been so long that Toni isn’t even sure if them doing this is a thing anymore, but she’s a little tipsy and it’s just too fucking convenient to not at least try for it and see if Shelby’s still down, because she really is starting to miss it now and the alcohol has her resolve totally shot. She settles next to Shelby by the sinks as Shelby washes her hands, rests her palm against the edge of the counter and just looks at Shelby, feeling a little bit like Fatin on the prowl at a party.

“Hey, Shelby,” she says, and Shelby suddenly seems very interested in what her own hands are doing; washing them is fascinating and what Toni’s doing is not interesting at all, clearly.

“Hello, Toni,” Shelby replies, very politely, but there’s a stiffness to her tone that Toni is highly familiar with and recognizes as thinly-veiled dislike. That checks out; Shelby’s been glaring at her more often lately, ever since the comment about her needing to get laid, which was also the last time they spoke to each other.

“Maybe I was offering, you know,” Toni teases, and Shelby’s eyebrows knit together in confusion for a moment, but then it clicks and she pauses, looking at Toni.

“You weren’t.”

Toni shrugs. “Am now.”

As it turns out, Shelby is still down.

Toni drags her into a utility closet by the weight-lifting area and Shelby looks so ready to go before they’ve even got the door shut, practically shoves Toni’s hand straight down her shorts as soon as it’s closed and yanks Toni close by the front of her jersey, panting out, “You look freakin’ sexy in this,” and the way Toni’s heart and ego inflate it’s like she’s just been called to a UN meeting or something and handed the official award for hottest girl in the world.

The angle’s horrible with her wrist trapped against Shelby’s tight shorts and Shelby accidentally hits her head against the edge of a shelf while she’s focused on popping the button open for Toni, and Toni stops just short of entering her and goes, “Shit, are you alright?”

“Like you care,” Shelby says, pushing on Toni’s wrist, and Toni feels bad but lets it go because it seems to be what Shelby wants, fucking Shelby a little more carefully until Shelby wraps a leg around her and urges her closer, hips rolling forward in a way that makes it clear she’s getting a little impatient.

Shelby’s quiet this time when she comes; Toni can’t see her face well in the dark but can hear her catching her breath. She doesn’t offer to return the favor, just fixes herself up and then leaves without saying anything, and Toni tries not to wonder whether it’s because Shelby knows asking’s a waste or because Toni’s finally pissed her off enough over the past few weeks that she doesn’t want to touch her anymore. She feels a bit used, for the first time, which is so silly because she’s the one who initiated things in the first place and what did she fucking expect anyway; obviously Shelby’s not going to stick around to make out when they both have friends who expect them back soon.

She leaves the building seconds apart from Shelby and they go their separate ways without looking at each other, which Toni senses might be a mistake when she spots Nora watching them from behind a beer, her eyes sliding from Toni to Shelby, back and forth again, her expression giving nothing away.

Toni doesn’t wind up rejoining them.

Two weeks later, she’s playing some one-on-one at the park with Rachel, and when they take a break to drink some water, Rachel grins at her and asks, “Want to hear something hilarious?”

“Sure.”

Toni’s chugging from the bottle when Rachel tells her, “My sister’s, like, convinced that you’re fucking Shelby Goodkind,” and Toni wheezes out half of the water in her mouth and coughs around what little of it goes down, and it sends Rachel into hysterics when some of it even comes out of Toni’s nose. “Right?” Rachel says in agreement, and Toni wipes at her nose and turns away to cough some more.

“That’s messed up,” she finally forces herself to say, her voice hoarse from choking.

“I bet she makes Andrew, like, put a halo on or say a prayer or something before they go at it, though,” Rachel says, “assuming they’re even having sex. I don’t know; it’s always the ones who pretend they’re so much better than everyone else that wind up being into some fucked up shit, you know?”

“Probably,” Toni agrees, and then picks up the basketball at her feet, eager to stop talking about it.

Martha’s birthday happens a couple of weeks after that and she decides to throw a slumber party, of course, and Toni tries not to roll her eyes at it all and just helps Martha shore up the guest list with a nod and a smile. Shelby makes the list, which Toni’s a little frustrated by, because now she’s probably going to have to spend the night wondering if they’re going to wind up hooking up again instead of focusing on making sure Martha gets everything she wants out of her party. Martha does let her veto Regan, though. Worst of all is that Nora makes it.

The final draft includes Rachel and Fatin, because Toni and Martha like them both, Nora and Dot by association, because Rachel and Fatin rarely go anywhere without them, Shelby, obviously, and Leah, whose addition baffles Toni until Martha explains that she caught her crying in the girls’ bathroom over some older guy yesterday and thinks she could use the distraction, and besides, Martha’s spoken to her every now and then in their shared Spanish class.

Martha has a few other friends she invites, and on the night of the party there are eleven of them in Martha and Toni’s basement, drinking coke with the several bottles of rum Fatin’s managed to smuggle in and watching Dot press Fatin’s face into her chest on a dare. Toni thinks it’s one of the most fucking hilarious things she’s ever seen, Fatin borderline motorboating Dot, and she doesn’t have to look across the circle they’ve formed to know that Shelby’s probably uncomfortable; in fact she’s barely looked at Shelby all night and is quite proud of herself for it.

Their group’s pretty open-minded overall aside from Shelby and so the whole game’s getting pretty fucking gay; they have to either do the dare or down their drink and when Dot dares Toni to make out with Martha since they’re not technically blood-related, Toni chugs without even thinking about it and then says, “Some things are too sacred.”

Dot jokes, “Holy shit; we’ve finally found a girl Toni won’t hook up with: her adopted sister,” and Toni’s jaw drops as the other girls laugh.

“Hey, I have standards!” she insists.

“She’s gotta have boobs,” Fatin supplies helpfully, and then gives Toni a thumbs up like she’s done her a solid by chiming in.

“Toni says she’s only slept with five people,” Nora says, and Toni is terrified for a moment that she’s going to say something about Shelby, but she just adds, “I think that number is lower than yours, Fatin.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna need to add a one to that,” Fatin admits, and Dot rounds on her, astounded.

Fifty-one?”

Fatin nearly spews her drink laughing and Leah says to Dot, “I think she meant fifteen.”

Toni tries not to look at Shelby during all of this and fails this time; she’s frowning a little, looking very much like she doesn’t want to be here.

“Who are the virgins here?” Dot goes on, and Toni isn’t anywhere near sober herself but she can still tell Dot’s wasted. “Marty?”

“Yes,” Martha agrees, even though they all already knew.

“None of your business,” Rachel says preemptively when Dot looks at her, and so Dot grins past her to Shelby, who has shifted uncomfortably and pulled her knees up to her chest.

“Shelby! Have you done the deed with Andrew yet?”

“Of course not. I’ve made a promise to God to wait until marriage with Andrew and I take that very seriously,” Shelby says stiffly, and Christ, Nora is looking directly at Toni with the subtlety of a freight train and Toni can feel her face getting warm.

“Anyway, guys, the game?” she says, trying to get them back on track, and when everyone’s finally settled down, Toni decides, in her drunken state, that maybe getting Shelby in on the fun a little will help her start to enjoy herself more “Okay. Shelby, I dare you to… take a shot off of Fatin.”

It’s a softball in comparison to some of the other stuff they’ve all had to do, and Fatin throws her hands up and asks, “Why am I always the fucking guinea pig?” and everyone laughs again. Shelby seems reluctant, but willing, and they pour some of the rum into a shot glass and Toni’s given the honor of deciding where it goes. Fatin lays down flat and wiggles her eyebrows at Toni, purring out quietly enough for only Toni to hear, “You can put it wherever you want, babe,” and again, it’s a line Fatin’s clearly used to using to seduce boys, but Toni’s just drunk enough that it kind of turns her on.

She decides to be lame and pulls Fatin’s legs up until her knees are bent and then puts the glass between them, and Shelby takes the shot from between Fatin’s knees without much fanfare and then dares Martha to tell one secret about herself that none of them know, which is kind of a truth, but they let it slide. Martha tells them her first sex dream was about Justin Bieber and they all think that’s hilarious, most of all Toni, who’s shocked Martha’s never told her before given the rundown Toni’s given her of her most unfortunate in-dream hookups, minus the newer ones that keep cropping up about Shelby, of course.

Martha’s so in tune with Toni that of course she caught her moment with Fatin during Shelby’s dare, and she shoots Toni an amused look and then says, “Fatin, I dare you to give Toni a lap dance.”

“Can I pick the song?” Fatin asks when the oohs and wolf-whistles and laughter have died down, and Martha nods and helps Fatin connect her phone to the Bluetooth speakers in the basement. Dot gets Toni a chair from the other room and then practically drags her into it, and Toni laughs a lot as she’s placed in the seat, really fucking drunk now and amused by the whole situation. The circle of girls on the floor kind of dissipates as they all use the downtime to refill their drinks and find a spot with a good view, and finally Fatin settles on Khalid and Normani’s “Love Lies” and sets her phone aside, turns to Toni from across the room, and bites her index finger overdramatically as she tosses her hair in what is clearly an attempt to be funny rather than sexy.

“You’re so hot,” Toni says to her over the music, pretending to be into it, and Fatin crosses slowly to her, every step too deliberate and purposefully over-the-top to be genuinely seductive; Fatin isn’t even really trying, but she does tug her top off on the way over and tosses it to Dot with a big wink at her, and Toni can’t stop laughing until Fatin reaches her and straddles her, grasping at Toni’s hands and pressing them firmly to her hips. She rolls her body slowly to the music, her eyes on Toni’s mouth, and Toni isn’t sure this is funny at all anymore; she swallows hard, her smile fading a little, and Fatin runs her hands all over her own body, across her stomach and over her chest and into her hair, and Toni can tell she’s trying for real now because it looks effortless and it’s working. Fatin reaches out to grasp Toni by the back of her neck and then pulls her close, pressing their fronts together until Toni’s mouth is at the column of her throat. Toni can feel Fatin still rolling against her, and from this angle she can hear her breathing a little quickly, too.

Toni’s drunk enough that she just does the first thing her mind thinks to do, which is to press a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss to Fatin’s neck. She feels Fatin’s fingers press a little harder into her skin and then Fatin’s letting go, getting up and spinning around and she’s right back in Toni’s lap a moment later, directing Toni’s hands to her hips again and pressing her own hands onto Toni’s thighs, and they’re just blatantly grinding now, Fatin looking over her shoulder at Toni from beneath her lashes while heat coils low in Toni’s abdomen. Toni’s hands slide across to Fatin’s bare stomach and then up to her ribcage and it’s Dot who hastily intervenes before Toni winds up copping a feel in front of an entire room of Martha’s friends.

“Alright, alright, get a fucking room,” Dot shouts to them over the music, tugging Fatin up, and Toni sees Fatin stumble a little, shaky on her feet for just a moment before she recovers and reaches out wordlessly for Toni’s hand.

The song is over by now and the whole room hears Fatin declare, “We’ll be right back,” and Toni’s a little relieved to hear so much laughter as Fatin drags her to the basement steps, because at least it’s gone over well enough that they don’t seem to have ruined the night. Toni doesn’t even look around as Fatin pulls her along; Fatin’s still not wearing a shirt and she has a lower back tattoo she had to have gotten illegally. It’s new.

“Need your mouth on me,” Fatin pants against her lips once Toni’s kneeling over her on her bed, across the house from where Martha’s mom is sleeping and a whole floor above everyone else, and Toni can sense already that Fatin’s going to be loud; she’s really worked up and her hands keep moving all over Toni’s body like she wants to touch her everywhere all at once.

Fatin lets Toni go first, and Toni doesn’t even realize how long it’s been until she’s moaning much louder than usual and coming hard and fast—intrusive thoughts of dark green eyes and fanned-out blonde hair and quiet moans and a southern accent swirling around in her head—and Fatin quirks an eyebrow at her as she’s trying to recover.

“Don’t say anything,” Toni warns her, and to her credit, Fatin just takes off the rest of her clothes and lets Toni take charge again.

Toni’s almost embarrassed, the way Fatin moans like a porn star now that she feels uninhibited enough. Fatin says things like “fuck, harder, Toni” and “right there, that feels so good” and Toni hears the headboard smacking the wall a few times as Fatin grips it and then she comes with a drawn-out moan.

They make out for a minute or so afterward and then Fatin hops up like she’s been revitalized instead of exhausted, blows Toni a teasing kiss as she pulls her clothes back on, and then flits away to go rejoin the others.

Toni takes a little longer to make her heart stop racing, but soon she gets dressed and exits. She pauses when she sees that the light is on in the bathroom that she and Martha share, and she pads the few feet down the hallway, away from the stairs to the basement, pausing outside of the door when she hears what sounds like someone puking inside. She tries to remember if the light was on when Fatin was tugging her to her bedroom and can’t; she’d been too distracted. The thought of having been overheard makes her cheeks burn.

She considers that maybe it’s Fatin inside, but she’d been well enough to have pretty active sex and Toni feels like she’d have known if Fatin was seconds from puking. She knocks on the door. “You alright in there?”

Whoever’s inside doesn’t answer, and Toni’s a little concerned, so when she tests the door to see if it’s locked and finds that it isn’t, she pushes it open and peers in.

Shelby’s sitting on the floor by the toilet, her face hanging over the open bowl, and just as Toni enters she vomits again. “Shit, Shelby,” Toni says, and then fumbles for the cup she uses to rinse her mouth out when she brushes her teeth. She fills it with water and kneels on the floor next to Shelby, and when Shelby finally looks at her, Toni sees her eyes are red-rimmed and she looks sick, but also disgusted. “Try some water,” Toni suggests, and pretends she doesn’t know why Shelby’s looking at her like that. If Shelby’s been here for even five minutes she definitely heard the worst of it with Fatin.

“Leave me alone,” Shelby slurs, knocking her arm away so roughly that water sloshes out of the cup and all over Toni’s legs, and Toni swallows hard and sets it on the ground. Shelby’s hair isn’t in its usual high ponytail tonight and Toni has a hair tie on her wrist, so she slides it off and reaches for Shelby again.

“At least let me tie your hair back,” she tries, and she notices her own hands trembling before Shelby knocks them away again and Toni deflates.

“I said I don’t want you here,” Shelby snaps, nothing but fury in her eyes now, and Toni knows this is all unfair, she and Shelby aren’t—They’ve had sex a few times, but it’s only been one quickie in the past two months, and Shelby loves Becca and is dating Andrew and Toni misses Regan and they don’t even really get along when they aren’t having sex, sometimes not even then, either, but she feels guilty anyway. As far as she knows she’s still the only person Shelby’s ever given herself over to in that way and even if there’s no emotional attachment there, it makes sense for it to still hurt to overhear her so graphically with someone else. Toni gets mad at Fatin for half a second, wanting to blame someone other than herself, but she just winds up staring at Shelby and feeling like shit when she realizes that the whole stupid drunken lap dance display and Fatin dragging her out of the basement had taken place in front of Shelby, too, and Toni hadn’t given her a second thought, had maybe assumed on some subconscious level that Shelby just wouldn’t be bothered.

“Fatin’s just like that sometimes,” Toni says, finally, “it has nothing to do with me or—”

“Toni, I really don’t fuckin’ care,” Shelby cuts her off, and it’s the first time Toni’s ever heard her curse. “Please just go. Stop actin’ like we’re anything.”

Toni feels heat flare up inside her, and this time it’s anger, the kind that used to make Regan threaten to break up with her. She tries to rein it in and thinks she succeeds a little. “What the fuck are you talking about? You’ve gotten off in like half the rooms in this house; I know what you fucking taste like, Shelby.” It doesn’t have to mean they’re in love or anything, but fuck, Toni does not do well with being dismissed and discarded when it’s not on her own terms. Not when the first two people she ever loved and trusted tossed her aside for drugs and left Martha and her mother to pick up the pieces. There’s a middle ground between declaring themselves soulmates and pretending nothing ever happened at all.

Shelby’s face twists and then she turns and pukes again, and okay, maybe now isn’t the best time to start yelling at her. Toni reaches out and rubs at her back, and instead of pushing her away Shelby just blinks out a few silent tears and doesn’t look at her.

Toni ties her hair up and this time Shelby lets her, and then she just sits cross-legged beside Shelby on the floor and strokes her back while she vomits up all the alcohol she drank, and Toni feels something odd in her chest when Shelby reaches down and grasps shakily at Toni’s arm, squeezing it hard while she gets sick into the toilet again. Toni kisses her right above her ear, says tentatively, “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” and just holds her lips there while Shelby cries, and it feels like the most intimate contact between them yet.

It’s weeks later that Toni finds out from an offhanded comment from Dot that “Shelby’s prude ass can’t even handle a lap dance”, and that’s how she learns that Shelby got the hell out of there with a whole bottle of rum pretty much the instant Fatin was in Toni’s lap and went to go get wasted in Martha’s room instead, which meant that she’d definitely overheard every second with Fatin in Toni’s bedroom.

Toni feels like complete garbage even though she doesn’t owe Shelby anything, and she doesn’t even know where to begin with unpacking it all, but the state championship game is a week later and preparations need to be made, so she numbs her brain to anything that isn’t putting balls into baskets and doesn’t even try to think about Shelby. She can’t think about her anymore, she finds, without her chest aching a little, without remembering the way her hair had smelled like citrus and vanilla as they’d sat together on Toni’s bathroom floor.

Chapter Text

They lose the championship game and Toni spends almost every weekend of March depressed and in bed; she gets off to thoughts of Regan’s eyes and Fatin’s tongue and most of all Shelby’s moans and wonders how she managed to fuck up so many good things: she’d called Fatin a whore at a low point and had gotten a stunned laugh and a “And what do you think you are, Toni?” in response, which wasn’t really all that fair because she hasn’t even been having much sex since the final breakup with Regan, but now Fatin’s pissed off at her, and of course Shelby doesn’t even like to acknowledge her at school most of the time so she’s always a bit of a question mark, and Regan had hated her last time Toni checked but now she seems to be waiting for something, judging by the way Toni always catches her staring. Nora stares, too, and Toni decides that’s who she hates most in all of this, because being accused of sleeping with Shelby still feels like an insult for some reason even if it’s true.

With basketball done, Toni busies herself with exercise. She runs every morning for a couple of miles, and when Shelby finally thaws a little around Toni again and invites Martha to her Bible spin class with an offhanded comment about how Toni can come too, if she wants, Toni thinks oh, why the fuck not, figures it’ll probably be hilarious and decides to tag along, a little curious to find out what the hype is all about—plus Toni’s seen what it does for Shelby’s body and wouldn’t exactly hate looking like that herself.

Becca is there, too, and she seems a little surprised to see Toni but doesn’t question it. Martha winds up on the bike behind Becca while Toni’s stuck looking at Shelby’s perfect ass and annoying high ponytail, and Shelby knows exactly what’s she’s doing, too; when her sociopathic father makes them rise from their seats and pedal, Shelby’s back arches just a little bit more than everyone else’s and it’s impossible not to look at her butt. Toni has to do the whole session turned on but she manages to stop staring about halfway through, when Martha outright catches her and shoots Toni a confused—if not somewhat amused—look, as if to ask, "Really? Even Shelby?”, and Toni breathes a sigh of relief that she’d taken a few spare minutes of her time to complain to Martha about how sexually frustrated she’s been without Regan around.

Shelby’s dad recites Bible verses and preaches the whole time and it’s physically, mentally, emotionally, and—thanks to Shelby—sexually torturous, and Toni knows pretty early on that coming here was a mistake and she’ll never do it again. When it’s finally over, Toni stands in the corner of the studio and dries her forehead with an offered towel and Martha looks at her and giggles like they have a new secret. “You were checking out Shelby,” she whispers, and Toni rolls her eyes, unable to deny it because it’s clear that Martha noticed.

“It’s a body,” she says, and tries to not think about how many angles she’s seen that body from.

“Yeah, but it’s Shelby’s body, and you hate her,” Martha points out.

“I’m allowed to hate hot people,” Toni blurts, and ignores the way Martha looks taken aback by Toni openly calling Shelby hot, but then soon they’re both distracted by Shelby’s dad approaching them. Toni thinks back to the day he called her a sinner in the parking lot and wonders if he remembers. He’s all smiles now, but there’s a pamphlet in his hand and Toni glances down to it but can’t get a good look.

“Always glad to have some newcomers,” he greets them. “It’s important to fit the Lord into your life wherever you can, even if it’s just into your daily exercise routine.”

Martha smiles politely at him and Toni forces herself to try to do the same, but it comes out more like a grimace. “Sure,” she agrees half-heartedly, because Shelby invited them there for a free session as a gift to Martha and the least Toni can do is get through it without causing a scene.

“We all have our demons,” he says next, and Toni’s not sure where any of this is going. “I hope you’re able to find help with them here. Our doors are always open.” He says most of this to Toni, almost ignoring Martha completely, and then offers Toni the pamphlet in his hand and goes to schmooze some other cycler.

Toni stares at the pamphlet as she and Martha join Becca and Shelby in the parking lot, who are waiting for them and talking about getting lunch. The front says something about a summer camp called “God’s Path” and Toni doesn’t glean anything from it other than that it seems like a stupid Bible camp before Shelby takes one look at it and snatches it from Toni’s hands, her eyes wide.

“You don’t need that,” Shelby blurts, tucking it away into her purse before Toni can even ask what it was, and Becca looks uncomfortable for a moment but doesn’t say anything.

They go out to eat at Chick-fil-A, because of fucking course, and Toni gets a small drink and an entrée to minimize her spending there, then winds up stealing a couple of Martha’s fries.

Becca talks a lot while they eat, more than anyone else does, and Toni and Shelby don’t talk directly to each other at all, seamlessly slipping into the roles of two people who clash but are trying to coexist peacefully today for their mutual friend—or maybe that’s just what they actually are, even with the whole sex secret, given that it’s now only happened once in the past three months. Toni can still feel the sexual tension there, though, especially after the shit Shelby just pulled in spin class, and she doesn’t know how she feels about the fact that maybe it should feel like this thing between them is tapering off and dying but instead it’s just felt like the tension has been building and building and the floodgates are about to burst open.

Toni watches Shelby stare at Becca. Shelby’s so fucking into her it’s hard to watch and impossible to miss when she’s looking for it; she almost wants to pull Shelby aside later and warn her how obvious she is for her own good, and is still considering the best way to do this when Becca suddenly looks at Toni and asks, “Do you ever go bowling?”

Toni wants to laugh and say it’s lame, but Shelby and Becca and Martha are all looking at her and she notices they almost seem hopeful, even Shelby. She recalls Martha talking about bowling excursions with Shelby in the past and lies, “Yeah. Bowling. Totally.”

So they go after lunch, and Toni mostly sticks to Martha but watches Shelby every now and then, laughing and lighting up most of the time Becca says anything and cheering when she hits more than seven pins, and when Shelby leaves for the bathroom, Toni makes an excuse a minute later and goes, too.

Shelby’s washing her hands when Toni enters, and Toni knows right away that they’re alone because Shelby shoots her a questioning look and then stares at her in the mirror, and Toni recognizes what that look means, knows Shelby is remembering what happened the last time Toni found her alone in a bathroom. It’s such an irrational thing for her to consider with Martha and Becca expecting them back soon, and Toni knows it’s proof that Shelby has not been waiting for this thing to die either, but waiting for when it can happen again.

Toni doesn’t want to think about the future implications of that, about what it means for really trying to end this permanently at some point. New Year’s was supposed to be the last time and it’s the end of March now and they’ve only slipped up once for five minutes in a utility closet. It really should feel like it’s dying, not like it’s brewing.

Toni leans against the wall and says, “You’re really obvious, you know.”

“Obvious?” Shelby echoes, turning the faucet off and then drying her hands with a paper towel.

“Becca,” Toni elaborates, and Shelby blushes.

“I don’t—” she starts to protest, but then she thinks it over and says, “Okay,” instead, like she thinks maybe there’s some advice coming once she acknowledges it.

“Can I ask you a question?” Toni asks her instead, reddening a little herself, but she can’t not, now that she’s seen firsthand for fucking hours how much Shelby likes this girl, and Shelby nods and stares back at her. “When we’ve, you know… did you still, like, think about her?” She isn’t sure what she’ll do if Shelby says yes, but she thinks it might crush her a little to know she was an afterthought to someone even when they were tangled up in Toni’s sheets together.

“Just the one time,” Shelby mumbles, shy, and she reaches for her purse and starts to leave, then thinks better of it and asks, “Did you?”, and Toni isn’t sure if she’s asking about Fatin or Regan or anyone else in general, but the answer’s still the same regardless.

“Never,” she says truthfully, and keeps the rest in her own head—I think about you when I’m with other people.

Shelby chews on her lip and then glances to the door, and Toni realizes that they’re really not standing all that far apart right at the same time that Shelby steps forward and reaches out, tangles her fingers in the material of Toni’s shirt and eases her closer almost tentatively. Toni’s stunned for about two seconds and then is more than happy to come the rest of the way on her own. The kiss is simple and sweet—Shelby’s got her other hand on Toni’s cheek and is caressing the skin there with her thumb—but Toni’s still on edge from spin class and she has to actively hold herself back from turning it into something more.

Shelby pulls away first with another glance to the door and then whispers, “I’ve been wantin’ to do that,” like she’s embarrassed by the confession.

“Me too,” Toni says, and Shelby kisses the corner of her mouth and slides her thumb over Toni’s bottom lip. Toni forgets how to breathe for a moment.

“I just… think about you a lot,” Shelby says, so quietly, and Toni doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be sexual but her body certainly reads it that way. “More than I…”

Toni wants Shelby to finish it, shuffles through options in her head like want to, expected to, should, but she doesn’t. Toni feels all of those things, so she just says again, “Me too,” and lets it really sink in that this is absolutely not ending soon; this is just the beginning of it.

Toni hears footsteps outside near the bathroom entrance and Shelby abruptly pulls away and exits before Toni can read her expression. Toni’s heart races.

The eighth time it happens, it’s April 2nd and Shelby cracks first and takes a risk, lies to her parents about an FCA meeting and gets Toni alone just long enough to tell her she’ll pick her up after school. Toni sneaks out to meet Shelby under the guise of homework and basketball with Rachel, and soon they’re off at some make out point Toni doesn’t know the name of, writhing together in the backseat with Toni straddling Shelby’s thigh, which every now and then has been brushing against where Toni needs it, and she’s so wound up and excited after months of not doing this that when Shelby moans underneath her and grasps roughly at her breast and her thigh presses up harder between Toni’s legs, seemingly on accident, Toni chases the contact with her hips, grinds down just twice and then comes, crying out with surprise into Shelby’s mouth.

Shelby feels Toni’s body start spasming against hers and pulls back a little immediately, realizing, watching, her eyes dark and wide and sliding hungrily all over Toni’s face and body to study how her abdominal muscles tense and contract and how Toni’s pupils are blown out and how her mouth has dropped open and is gasping for air and how her thighs tremble and flex over Shelby’s.

Toni sees Shelby take it all in and is so embarrassed when it’s over, mostly because their clothes aren’t even off yet aside from Toni’s shirt and this was certainly not how she’d expected this to happen if it ever happened at all. She starts to sit up, but Shelby yanks her back down by her neck with so much force that when their mouths collide Shelby’s teeth make Toni’s lip bleed. Shelby jerks away from her, then, looking stunned at herself, and blurts out, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, Toni.”

Toni’s honestly too fucking blissed out from her orgasm to even feel it, but she licks her lip with her tongue and tastes blood, then raises her finger to her mouth to double-check and barely comes away with anything. “It’s fine,” she says, then wipes her finger on her pants and kisses Shelby again.

Shelby gets away with a little more this time, Toni notices—a lot more if she counts the unintentional orgasm—and maybe it’s the fact that Toni’s loosened up a little already that makes her let Shelby touch her bare breasts and run her tongue over Toni’s nipple, just for a few seconds, and when Toni gets Shelby’s underwear off a couple minutes later and presses into her it’s with three fingers because Shelby’s so fucking wet. After Shelby comes, she wraps her arms around Toni in a tight hug and holds her there on top of her, and they just breathe for a while, their bodies pressed together. Toni tries to turn her brain off so that she doesn’t have to think about how fucking intimate the whole thing is and how soft and warm Shelby’s body feels under hers.

When they’re dressed again, Toni asks Shelby to turn the car on so she can roll the windows down, and then she fumbles through her backpack for a moment. When Shelby rejoins her in the backseat, her eyes widen at the joint in Toni’s mouth and the lighter in her hand. She glances out the open window at the area around them, which Toni is well-aware is deserted, and still asks, “What if someone sees you?”

“Relax, Shelby. Jesus totally would’ve been a stoner.” Toni inhales once she’s got the joint lit and ignores the burn in her lungs. Drugs make her a little uneasy, so she doesn’t do this often, but it’s only weed and she kind of likes the idea of introducing Shelby to something else that’s new. Shelby watches her, wary, as she turns to blow the smoke out the window.

She offers Shelby the joint, who says, “I have to drive.”

“Your parents aren’t expecting you for, like, a couple hours,” Toni points out. “I know, drugs are bad, but maybe you should live a little. It’s just pot.”

“It’s a gateway. You’re at a greater risk for addiction,” Shelby argues, and she sounds so fucking lame, like a health class textbook, that Toni can’t help but laugh.

“Not with my parents, I’m not,” she blurts, because she knows there’s no way in hell she’ll ever let herself end up like them. She takes another drag to hide that she’s said something too revealing, but Shelby catches it anyway.

“You’re adopted, right?”

“Fuck off, Shelby,” Toni warns, and Shelby just stares at her.

Finally, Shelby says, “Sometimes I wish I’d been adopted into a different family.” Then she plucks the joint from Toni’s fingers before Toni can really consider her words and takes a huge puff from it. And immediately starts coughing so violently that Toni’s worried she might make herself puke.

“Jesus, Shelby,” she says, reaching out to pat her back, and Shelby’s eyes are watering when she finally straightens up and composes herself.

“That was awful,” she chokes out, and presses the joint back into Toni’s hands like she wants nothing more to do with it.

“You’ll feel something from that,” Toni tells her, mostly to warn her, and then she smokes most of the joint herself and tries to keep blowing the smoke out the window so that Shelby’s car doesn’t smell like weed. The joint’s almost gone when Shelby gently takes it from her fingers and tries again, and Toni watches her and thinks it’s kind of hot, Shelby being a little bad, even if it looks unnatural on her. Shelby coughs less this time but her eyes still water.

Toni takes one last drag and then puts it out and hides the nub away in her backpack, and she knows for sure she’s high when she tries to get out of the car to move to the passenger’s seat for a moment and she stumbles a little. Shelby starts giggling at her and then Toni starts laughing, because Shelby’s definitely high too and that’s so fucking funny to her for some reason.

She manages to get into the front and turn the car back on enough to get the radio working, hooks Shelby’s Iphone up to the Bluetooth, finds a Spotify playlist suitable for being stoned and lets it play at a reasonable volume.

She collapses into the backseat with Shelby when she’s done, and Shelby stares at her for a long moment, her eyes unfocused and dark. Shelby’s leaning forward on her hands with her legs tucked underneath her, and Toni relaxes back against the seat and just breathes and looks back, her mouth open in a little bit of a smile at the look on Shelby’s face. “You’re baked,” she says, and Shelby leans over and starts kissing her.

It’s the first time Toni can remember making out with Shelby without this underlying feeling that sex was next on the schedule; maybe it’s because they’ve both already come or because of the high or both, but she’s just content to let Shelby’s lips brush over her cheeks and jaw and neck for a while, to listen to Shelby’s uneven breathing and let her hands roam across Toni’s waist and up her sides over her shirt. Shelby kisses Toni’s neck slowly for a bit, until Toni pulls away and leans down and makes Shelby kiss her lips again.

It deepens, Toni’s fingers tracing Shelby’s jawline and settling against her neck, and she can feel Shelby trying to press closer, sighing into Toni’s mouth and tangling her hand in Toni’s hair. Toni tastes the inside of Shelby’s mouth with her tongue and wonders idly if Shelby’s ever going to tell her what the retainer’s all about, and Shelby moans, but it’s quiet and not too needy at all, and a moment later she withdraws from Toni’s lips just long enough to breathe out, “This feels good.”

Oops, Toni thinks to herself, because as soon as her brain registers Shelby’s breathy voice saying those words she’s very abruptly turned on again, and it doesn’t seem like this was supposed to be like that.

She exhales hard against Shelby’s chin and tries to push it back down, kisses Shelby again and makes sure it’s slow, but Shelby’s hips feel almost insistent against her even if they’re not trying to be, and Shelby’s hand is warm at her side. Shelby’s tongue sweeps over hers again and Toni moans for real, then wonders, baffled, what kind of monster she was in a past life that she’s been cursed now with Shelby fucking Goodkind being the one person who turns her on so much more easily than anyone else ever has. She’s pretty sure if it’d been Shelby giving her that lap dance at Martha’s party instead of Fatin, same choreography and all, she’d have just come from the grinding alone. Even imagining Shelby moving the way Fatin had is such a huge mistake because of the amount of heat it sends rolling through her body. Maybe she’s just partial to blondes.

Shelby knows what Toni’s moan means; Toni can tell because Shelby’s lips smile a little against hers and then she tugs on Toni’s lip with her teeth and makes Toni moan again. When Shelby pulls away, her eyes still look unfocused and she stares at Toni’s mouth.

Toni digs deep for some kernel of self-control and finds it. “Let’s just make out, Shelby,” she says, her voice hoarse, and to her credit, Shelby just nods and kisses her again, and it’s deep and so slow and Toni feels arousal twisting and coiling inside of her and it’s almost worse than it ever has been even though they’re just kissing. She feels warm all over.

It was all definitely the weed making her feel so much, she’ll tell herself later, even though she has no idea if it can even fucking work like that.

That day’s a Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Shelby actually offers her a small smile when Toni passes her in the hallway at school.

Something’s starting to change between them, little by little, and Toni doesn’t know how to feel about it.

Chapter Text

They sleep together several times in April.

The ninth time it happens, Shelby kicks it off with a pink sticky note in Toni’s locker. Toni recognizes Shelby’s meticulously neat and overly feminine handwriting right away and doesn’t dwell on when she started paying so much attention to the little things.

My daddy has a family trip to the zoo planned this Saturday, but unfortunately I will be feeling a little under the weather that day and I imagine that means I’ll have to stay home by myself with no one to keep me company. They should be heading out around ten, but if there are three cars in the driveway it means they’re still home.

She’s left an address at the bottom of the note. Toni stares and feels her cheeks burn, then wonders when the fuck Shelby learned how to be sexy on purpose.

Shelby’s a little bit on her way to having Toni functioning like a walking vibrator, Toni knows, between last semester and this past time and now this request for Toni to come over to her house. Toni’s just sort of immediately ready to go whenever Shelby feels like having an orgasm badly enough to ask for it, and she doesn’t even consider not showing up, spends the next two days daydreaming about having another day like the one they had over Christmas break, even though she knows they’re going to be way more pressed for time and it’s actually going to be a little risky in some ways, given that Shelby’s family could always come home unexpectedly early.

Shelby’s taking bigger risks the longer things go on, maybe even getting a little sloppy just so she can have Toni’s hands and mouth on her, and Toni lets that thought bounce around in her head for the rest of the school day until she’s practically aching; that really does it for her.

She drives by on Saturday just before eleven o’clock to make sure there are only two cars in the driveway and then parks a little bit down the street. She doesn’t bring food but she laughs to herself on the way over, pictures showing up with takeout and dropping a line like, “I heard you were sick and didn’t want you to spend today alone”, thinks about how Shelby would probably blush and laugh a lot at that because Toni still hasn’t let her forget about how much of a fucking awkward dork she was that day.

Shelby’s house is unsettling—Toni gets Affluent White Conservative vibes right away, imagines they might have a maid or housekeeper of some sort because everything’s so pristine, and tries to ignore the religious décor as Shelby drags her into the kitchen and practically force-feeds her a ham sandwich and a glass of orange juice and some weird baked chips made for health nuts, like maybe she’s trying to make sure Toni has enough energy for what’s coming next.

“What am I, sexy Hansel and Gretel?” Toni asks through a mouthful of it all as she eats at the kitchen table, and Shelby just rolls her eyes.

“Don’t chew with your mouth full, Toni. I know you don’t eat breakfast.”

Shelby’s right: Toni’s lowkey hungry, anyway, and hasn’t eaten today, so she stops complaining—except about how shitty the chips are.

Shelby gives Toni a tour of the house like Toni actually cares, with the exception of her dad’s office, which stays locked, and when they get to Shelby’s bedroom Toni stands in the doorway and looks on, because Jesus, this is the girl she’s—she’s fucking semi-regularly, that’s all, and there is a fluffy pink beanbag on the floor and a couple of stuffed animals on the bed.

Shelby follows her gaze to the bed and flushes deep red, immediately darts over to grab the stuffed animals and says, “Sorry, I could’ve sworn I—those aren’t always there,” and then tosses them into her open closet.

There are also a shit ton of pageant trophies and crowns everywhere, and several aesthetic photos of what look like a mixture of fashion models and nature shots taped to the wall. It’s… well, it’s certainly not what Toni would’ve done with the place.

“Looks like you win a lot,” Toni finally says, because she’s trying to find something they have in common and that’s about all she can pick out. “Dope trophy collection.”

“Thanks,” Shelby replies, and she’s standing too far away at the center of her room, kind of looking around along with Toni and fidgeting with her own hands. There’s a long silence when neither of them can think of anything else to say.

It’s Shelby’s room and Shelby’s house, so Toni just looks at her and raises her eyebrows, waiting for her to do something, and Shelby swallows and moves to sit on the edge of her bed, then gestures to the flat screen TV on her wall.

“Want to watch somethin’?” she asks, and Toni suppresses a laugh and tries not to respond with her first thought, which is along the lines of no, what the fuck.

“Like what?” she says instead for some stupid fucking reason, and even Shelby seems surprised, but like it’s in a good way.

“I have movies.” Shelby pops right up off her bed and heads into the closet, and Toni slips onto the bed herself and cranes her neck to see what Shelby’s doing, hears the sound of plastic knocking against plastic as Shelby shuffles through DVDs.

Sweet Home Alabama, She’s All That, Heaven Is for Real, Pretty in Pink, The Notebook, 27 Dresses, Ella Enchanted, God’s Not Dead,” Shelby calls back, and Toni doesn’t know what a good half of those are.

“Are any of those, like, not about watching white heteros make out?” Toni asks, and then hastily adds, “Or weird Jesus freak movies?” She hears Shelby pause like she’s thinking about it.

“Nope,” Shelby finally says, “but The Notebook is my favorite.”

Toni sighs. “Congratulations, Shelby, you’ve truly out basic-white-girl’d yourself.”

Toni lets her put it on anyway because she hasn’t seen it herself and then sits with her on the bed, tries to ignore the way Shelby’s arm keeps brushing against hers, also tries not to question why the hell they aren’t just having sex already, and then successfully gets distracted when Ryan Gosling hangs from a Ferris Wheel to ask Rachel McAdams out on a date.

“What the fuck, that shit is literally so fucking manipulative and toxic,” she rants, and then proceeds to explain to Shelby exactly why the leading couple of her favorite movie is actually super fucking shitty and shouldn’t be together right from the jump, and Shelby just listens like she doesn’t hate hearing Toni speak but also like she isn’t sure whether she’s being convinced of anything either. “That kind of shit makes me so mad, like, it makes men think women actually like being pressured into shit they’ve already said no to,” she finishes, then huffs and settles back against the pillows.

Shelby bites back a smile and watches her fume, then says, “You’re so angry. Maybe you just need to get laid,” and Toni exhales harshly through her nose but doesn’t say anything confrontational, because she knows she probably deserved that one.

“Whatever. You know I’m right.”

Shelby considers it for another long moment. “I guess I never really thought about it that way.”

Toni suffers through about three quarters of the movie before she gets up to go to the bathroom, and when she comes back she flops down on her back next to where Shelby’s sitting up, thinking maybe she’ll at least have herself a nice nap on Shelby’s very soft and probably very expensive mattress until this shit is over. But after a moment, Shelby does something very unexpected: she shifts to lie down on her side, puts an arm over Toni’s stomach, her head on Toni’s chest, and bends her knee and rests it across Toni’s thigh so that her leg is mostly on top of Toni’s. Then she just resumes watching the movie like all of that’s completely fucking normal.

It feels a little bit like a challenge to Toni, because Shelby has to know that them cuddling is weird, that it’s something they’ve barely done, and only, like, directly after sex, and not for very long. Toni knows her heart is racing and that Shelby’s ear isn’t that far from it, so she probably knows she’s freaking Toni out a little, and it’s that realization that makes her calm down and take stock of the situation.

Shelby left her a sexy note and now they’re cuddling on her bed and watching The Notebook. It’s pretty fucked up.

Toni’s right arm is in an awkward spot and she needs to put it somewhere, so she surveys Shelby for a moment and then rests it against Shelby’s back. Shelby withdraws the arm that’s slung across Toni so that it’s her hand on Toni’s abdomen instead, and when her fingers start stroking the skin right above Toni’s hipbone through her shirt Toni’s pretty sure Shelby’s fucking playing games with her. Shelby’s fingers drift lower, past where Toni’s shirt is riding up, and Shelby runs her thumb over the curve of Toni’s hipbone and then Toni knows she is.

“Never noticed how soft you are,” Shelby tells her quietly, and then her hand is exploring Toni’s abs and ribcage under her shirt like it’s nothing and Toni’s heart is going wild inches away from where Shelby’s ear is pressed against her.

“You’re having the time of your life right now,” Toni says, because it’s obvious, and Shelby at least has the decency to laugh a little instead of denying it. “Did you want to finish the movie or keep feeling me up?”

“Kinda wanna do both,” Shelby says. Her fingers skate down so low and tease the skin just above the button of Toni’s pants, and Toni pictures Shelby’s fingers sliding lower and then in. She blinks the image away and shelves of Shelby’s pageant trophies are there to replace it.

Shelby only touches her for another minute before she backs off to focus on the movie, and in a way that’s worse, because then Toni’s just left to think about the things that are still happening: Shelby’s head on her chest, Shelby’s toes against her ankle, and everything in between. She swallows hard and then her hand lifts like it has a mind of its own and her fingers rest lightly on Shelby’s head and then stroke through her hair. The rhythm of Shelby’s breathing gets a little off for a few seconds—Toni can feel her chest rising and falling against Toni’s side—but she says nothing and soon it goes back to normal. She sighs when Toni scratches her scalp, like it feels good.

When the movie’s finally over, Toni hears Shelby trying to keep her sniffling quiet. Toni looks down and sees her wiping a couple of tears away like she’s embarrassed about it, which Toni thinks is fair because she should be. “Seriously?”

“I just think it’s nice that they grew old together,” Shelby insists, like she needs to defend herself. She shifts off of Toni and adds, “It’s romantic, that’s all.”

“The more I get to know you, the more you and Andrew make so much sense together,” Toni says with as much sarcasm as she can possibly inject into a single sentence, and she’s had enough now, she did her time with the movie and the food when they could’ve had sex like, at a minimum of four times already, and Shelby’s very recently spent five minutes or so winding her up a little; she rolls onto Shelby and straddles her, barely catches a glimpse of Shelby’s half-lidded eyes and long lashes before she’s pressing their lips together like they’ve done so many times that it’s second-nature by now; they know how they fit together and it’s just instinctual and easy.

Shelby’s fingers slide into her hair and Toni keeps herself propped up with one hand and rests the other on Shelby’s cheek, feels Shelby’s jaw working under her fingertips as she opens her mouth to let Toni taste her, and Toni really tries to be patient, but she’s been thinking about getting to do this again for days. She wants to groan when she tries to kiss harder and faster and Shelby’s mouth just won’t keep up, just keeps moving slowly and languidly under Toni’s like she’s teasing her, except she isn’t; Shelby just really wants to kiss like this, apparently, all deep and sensual and intimate, and Toni goes along with it until she can’t anymore, until she’s pulling away and sucking and biting a path down Shelby’s neck while Shelby holds her close and arches into her a little.

Shelby’s panting shallowly when she asks, “Toni?” and Toni doesn’t even hear her, is too laser-focused on what she’s already deemed foreplay in her head while her hand slides across Shelby’s ribcage and her fingertips dance along the edge of what she can feel beneath Shelby’s shirt is her bra.

“Toni,” Shelby says again, and this time Toni listens.

“Hmm?” she asks, her mouth busy on the spot where Shelby’s neck meets her shoulder, and Shelby gasps a little when she uses her tongue, her hips shifting instinctively against Toni’s to try to get some friction.

“This is, um… this is real nice, but—” Toni’s hand slides up, cups her breast and Toni can picture Shelby when she moans a little, knows just what she’ll look like, her eyes closed and her teeth sinking into her bottom lip, but to Shelby’s credit she keeps going, “—but I was thinkin’ we might,” and her back arches a little again, betraying her, “…talk?”

“Talk?” Toni repeats lowly, and she’s surprised that Shelby’s suddenly bold enough to ask for something dirty like this, and also way more turned on by it than she thought she’d be. She kisses her way back up to Shelby’s ear and husks into it, “What do you want me to say to you?”

“Oh,” Shelby says quietly, suddenly sounding very, very shy, and also still a little distracted by Toni’s thumb sliding back and forth across her breast, “I meant—like, actual—”

Toni feels the arousal get spooked right out of her and she immediately pulls back and asks, “Oh, like, talking talking?”

“Yeah,” Shelby says with flushed cheeks and swollen lips, and she seems to be trying to be casual, Toni thinks, but she looks a little embarrassed by the way Toni’s staring down at her uncertainly.

“About what?” Toni asks, and then it occurs all at once to her that Shelby hasn’t exactly seemed eager to have sex today, has maybe expressed a little interest but then outright put either a complete stop to it or pressed the pause button, so maybe there’s something wrong here. She blurts, “Us?” before she can help herself, immediately hates that she used that word and stiffens when she sees the way Shelby’s eyes widen.

“Oh,” Shelby says again, and Toni can see her swallow thickly, “I mean, or whatever, if that’s—if you think we should—”

“No,” Toni cuts in immediately, and now it’s just awkward again. “I’m fine.”

“Me too,” Shelby agrees hastily. “Totally fine.”

“With not talking?” Toni checks, getting more and more confused and staring at Shelby’s neck like she might just start attacking it with her mouth again.

Shelby stutters out, “That’s not—I meant—”, looking like she’s aware she’s on borrowed time with Toni eyeing her hungrily, “Not… entirely.”

Toni shakes her head at Shelby and her nervous eyes and her flushed cheeks and asks, “Shelby, what the fuck are you even saying?” because now she’s officially lost, and Shelby looks up past Toni to the ceiling like it’s killing her to have to explain herself.

“What I meant is that, maybe, you know, we could... hang out.”

Toni stares at her. “We are hanging out.”

Shelby huffs and gives up on being subtle. “Jesus Christ, Toni, I’m askin’ you if we can talk now, a little.”

Toni groans and hangs her head, realizing that they’ve managed to go in circles. “Oh my god, about what, Shelby?” she asks again, expecting it to actually be something important, maybe some news that’s like, tangentially relevant to her, like that Shelby thinks Becca might like her back or that she’s actually considering dumping Andrew, and so Toni digs deep for some patience and waits to hear it, prepares herself to listen and at least try to be somewhat supportive and attentive, given that she knows she’s the only person Shelby can be fully honest with about this shit.

“I don’t know,” Shelby says defensively, instead. “Just, if there was somethin’…” and then she spitballs, “Like, what’s your favorite movie?”

Toni’s lips part and her eyebrows furrow and for a moment she’s speechless, her stomach churning uncomfortably as she blinks down at Shelby, whose cheeks are very blatantly turning red again the longer Toni stares at her. “Fury Road,” Toni finally says, licking her lips. “Now I’m gonna go down on you, okay?”

“Okay,” Shelby agrees immediately, not even daring to ask another question, and Toni buries her face back into Shelby’s neck and practically tears Shelby’s clothes off, tells herself don’t think don’t think don’t think because it seems like Shelby’s trying to fucking like, bond or something and Toni doesn’t even want to begin to consider why.

She goes home early because they’re both paranoid about getting caught by Shelby’s family, and gets bored and throws on The Notebook again (“Oh, I love this movie!” Martha says when she notices, and joins her) just to check and see if she missed something the first time, comes away with the same feeling that it’s a shitty cheeseball movie that doesn’t age well, then wonders what the hell Shelby’s doing with Andrew or with Toni, anyway, if that’s her idea of love.

Toni would never own a fucking journal, and she’s pretty sure Andrew barely knows how to read.

Chapter Text

Martha gets sick the next Friday night with some sort of stomach bug and spends a lot of time kneeling by the toilet, and Toni’s a little tired the next day from staying up with her until three o’clock in the morning, but Martha’s mom has had a rough week at work so Toni wakes up early to bring Martha some soup for breakfast.

“Are you going to the mall with Fatin and Dot today?” Martha asks her while she eats. “I know they were wanting to go.”

Toni shakes her head. “Nah, I’ll just hang with you. We can binge the last Schitt’s Creek season; I know you haven’t seen it yet.”

“Toni,” Martha complains at her. “You don’t have to take care of me all day like we’re little kids again. Go do something fun.”

Toni stays with her until she falls asleep anyway and is just considering whether to text Fatin back or to just go take a nap of her own when the doorbell rings. Toni’s still in her pajamas, but she goes to answer it and sees blonde hair through the glass. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Toni mutters, because she’s really not trying to deal with Shelby today; they’ve spent a little too much time together lately, and she’s been really hoping for some distance because things were starting to get weird.

Shelby looks a little amused by Toni’s pajamas—namely the reindeer pattern on the bottoms Toni got from Martha’s mom last Christmas, and Toni immediately regrets answering the door at all when Shelby says, “Cute pants. Real festive.”

“Martha’s sick,” Toni deadpans, and Shelby’s smile falls.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Shelby bites her lip, looks past Toni almost suggestively, like she wants to be invited inside, and when Toni just blinks at her, she says, “Well, we were supposed to drive out to this fair today, just outside of Austin. It’s just under a couple of hours away. I guess I don’t have anyone to go with now.”

“Bummer,” Toni says.

“Yeah, it’s a real shame. I don’t really see the point in goin’ alone…” Shelby looks off up into the air with a heavy sigh, leadingly.

“You could go with your boyfriend,” Toni suggests, a little amused by this game they’re playing.

“Andrew’s busy with his family,” Shelby explains.

“Becca?”

“Chemistry project.”

Toni’s eyes narrow. “You have other friends.”

“Yeah, but I’m already right here with you.”

“Hmm.” Toni tries to think up an excuse and comes up empty. “Well, I’m busy too, so I guess life just be that way sometimes.”

“Toni,” Shelby groans, and Toni rolls her eyes and folds her arms across her chest.

“Shelby, if we have to spend a whole day hanging out one of us is coming home in a body bag. I’m not going to the fair with you.”

She goes to the fair with Shelby.

She tells herself it’s because Shelby made, like, a dozen promises to her in exchange for her company—Toni gets radio control the entire drive there and back so that she doesn’t have to listen to Luke Bryan or Tim McGraw or whatever the hell Shelby would put on, and Shelby also has to buy her lunch and one cotton candy, and Toni gets veto privileges on all fair rides, plus gets to decide when they go home as long as they stay for a minimum of four hours. Toni thinks cotton candy is the shit so that’s the real kicker; all she has to do is put up with Shelby’s personality for a few hours, and Shelby’s at least been annoying her considerably less lately—it’s probably the sex—so honestly, the whole deal feels like kind of a steal in Toni’s mind.

Shelby tries valiantly to hold a conversation with her on the way there, but Toni turns up the music to drown her out and ignores her offended look, then eventually passes out and gets some well-needed sleep.

“Alright, I want my cotton candy, bitch,” she says when they arrive, so they stand in line at one of the stalls and Toni tries not to feel a little odd watching Shelby pay for her, suddenly overly aware of what exactly they’re doing today. Behind them in line there’s a couple holding hands, and Toni glances around and sees a girl carrying a small stuffed bear and gushing to her boyfriend about how sweet he is for winning it for her. Toni’s uncomfortable because she’s with Shelby and wonders if Shelby’s uncomfortable because she’s with a girl—but they’re also right near Austin, which is very liberal, so Shelby really has nothing to worry about if that’s the case.

She tries to shift her thinking. Shelby spends so much of her time on edge, hiding a part of herself, and today she doesn’t have to. If she were here with Becca and they were sleeping together, Toni would hope she’d take advantage of the opportunity to let loose a little. Unfortunately, she’s stuck here with Toni instead, and Toni’s torn between not wanting to be too encouraging and not wanting Shelby to waste an opportunity for herself.

“Here you go,” Shelby says brightly, handing over the stick of cotton candy, and Toni takes it and immediately tears off a large chunk with her teeth as they step out of line.

“Totally worth it,” she moans.

“It’s literally fluffy sugar,” Shelby tells her, but she’s beaming and Toni can’t help but voice what she’s thinking aloud—Shelby just looks so comfortable already and she wants to see if the idea unsettles her.

“You’re functionally my girlfriend today, you know. Driving me to the carnival, buying me shit, letting me—”

Shelby interrupts her but only to say, “It’s a fair.”

“You actually are though,” Toni goes on, anticipating her saying something else entirely, and then she falters and says, “Oh. Well, whatever.”

They move along, taking in the stalls and games and food and rides around them, and Toni’s a little thrown off by the lack of an argument. “No one from school is gonna be here, anyway,” Shelby points out to her, and Toni thinks of the mall back in December, just under four months ago.

“That hasn’t stopped you from being uncomfortable before,” she says, and instead of responding to that Shelby points out the swinging ship ride with enthusiasm.

“Wanna go on that one?” she asks. “It’s always been my favorite. When I was a kid, my daddy would do this pirate voice the whole time… Lord, it was awful.”

“I have to finish my cotton candy,” Toni says, and then peels off a chunk and aggressively shoves it into Shelby’s face. “Here, help me out.”

“You’re sharin’?” Shelby seems surprised but plucks it out of Toni’s hand anyway—Toni had been trying to force-feed it to her and not even in a romantic way, but apparently there is a line somewhere after all—and then pops it into her mouth.

“No feeding you, got it,” Toni notes, teasing her, and Shelby rolls her eyes and changes the subject again as they settle by the swinging ship to watch, avoiding the line for now.

“Did your parents ever take you to fairs?”

“I haven’t seen my parents since I was seven, Shelby,” Toni tells her somewhat flatly; it’s the second time Shelby’s asked about her parents now and she figures she might as well just get it over with. “I bounced around foster homes for a while but basically lived at Martha’s anyway, so eventually her mom worked her ass off to make adoption happen even though she could barely afford to take care of one kid. I’m lucky it worked out at all.”

“I’m so sorry, Toni,” Shelby says, like she isn’t sure whether or not she regrets asking in the first place. Her hand twitches toward Toni’s but Toni notices and immediately reaches for the cotton candy again instead.

“Maybe I like it so much because it’s such a novelty,” she muses as she eats, and then adds, desperate to ease the tension between them somehow, “Kind of like you and orgasms.”

Shelby blushes and scoffs all at once. “What makes you think I don’t—Those are not new to me.”

“Do you use stories from the Bible to get off?” Toni asks her, wiggling her eyebrows. “Like that one about those sirens luring sailors out to sea? It’s kind of sexy if you ignore the death.”

Shelby sighs. “Toni, that’s The Odyssey, not the Bible.”

“So you’re familiar?” Toni recovers, and Shelby rolls her eyes again but she’s smiling as she shoves Toni away by her arm a little.

“I don’t indulge in… in pornography, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.” Shelby pauses, shakes her head, and then clarifies, “Not that The Odyssey is pornography and not a very interestin’ piece of literature full of allegories and—”

“Alright, alright, no more English class,” Toni interjects, waving her off. “I get it; sexy things make you uncomfortable.” Shelby looks offended and opens her mouth to argue, but Toni goes on, “Let’s talk about something else. Eat more cotton candy.” She offers her more, nudging Shelby’s fingers with her hand, and this time Shelby clears her throat neatly like she has something to prove and then takes hold of Toni’s wrist and draws her fingers up to her mouth instead. Her lips close around the cotton candy and also around two of Toni’s fingers, and the way she eases them out of her mouth slowly without breaking eye contact is so incredibly unexpected—it’s virtually almost as shocking to Toni as the first time Shelby kissed her—that Toni doesn’t even to know what to say, can only stare at Shelby while heat rushes to her cheeks and her abdomen.

“You uncomfortable, Toni?” Shelby asks like she knows exactly what she’s just done, and they’re in public, it finally occurs to Toni when her mind starts working again—Shelby’s just done that in public, something that would’ve been inappropriate even if one of them were a boy, and she isn’t even walking it back or being shy about it now.

Toni abandons the nearly-finished cotton candy and the ship ride to drag Shelby to a mirror maze instead, and when they’re significantly lost inside, away from other people, Toni pulls Shelby close and kisses her with fervor, aware that they can’t take it very far but still heated enough to want Shelby’s tongue in her mouth. Shelby laughs against her lips and says, “You’re so easy, Toni,” but kisses her back anyway.

She doesn’t correct Shelby, but she’s not, normally—so easy to get riled up, that is—it’s just that Shelby’s so oddly skilled at it in a way no one else has ever been.

On their way back to the ship ride their hands drift together, and Toni tries not to think about it when her pinky and ring fingers tangle with Shelby’s. “What do you want to do after the ship?” Toni asks just to make conversation, pretending not to notice the way Shelby’s cheeks are a little pink. No one pays them any mind as they weave through the crowd together, sort of half holding hands, and she suggests, “We could get lunch?”

“Number one rule of going to a fair or an amusement park,” Shelby tells her. “Ride everythin’ nausea-inducing that you want to before you eat a meal.”

“Did you learn that the hard way?”

“Daddy got a lap full of hotdog once,” Shelby informs her, and Toni gives her a bitter smile.

“You almost make him sound human.”

“He is,” Shelby replies, but her voice sounds faraway and a little sad, like she’s thinking about something else now, and they walk in silence for a moment, Toni searching for something else to talk about to distract her.

“Hey,” she finally says, “wanna know a fun fact about me?”

It works: Shelby gives her a teasing look and asks, “Can I try to guess it first?”

“Like I’m gonna give you the opportunity to roast me.” Toni shakes her head. “I give a pretty dope piggyback ride.”

“Hmm.” Shelby considers it for a moment, and Toni lets go of her hand and cuts her off, then turns her back and bends her knees a little, wiggling her fingers.

“C’mon. I’m solid.”

She hears Shelby laughing and then feels fingers curling over her shoulders, and in an instant she’s scooped Shelby up under her thighs and Shelby’s arms are wrapped around her, and it feels really fucking odd, doing this with Shelby like she’s done it so many times with Regan, but Shelby’s still giggling in her ear so she just commits to it, and they travel like that all the way back to the ship ride, still with no one paying them any extra attention because it’s the outskirts of Austin and nobody cares here. It’s really nice, even for Toni, and so she can’t imagine how it must feel for Shelby. She decides then that she’s gonna try not to be a dour bitch and just really give Shelby a good day today, because they’re having fun for once without needing to bring sex into the mix, and it’s not like it’d kill her to have a good time with Shelby anyway. What can it hurt?

They ride the swinging ship and then this spinning thing that sends them sliding across their seats and into each other while Toni laughs her ass off and Shelby screams during the more intense parts, and then Shelby spots a booth with a basketball hoop and a bunch of stuffed animal prizes and of course she has to drag Toni over to it because that’s like, Toni’s thing.

“Seriously?” Toni asks when Shelby offers her a dollar, and Shelby just nods at her expectantly, very obviously suppressing an amused grin.

“Pretend I’m your date. Impress me.”

“Alright,” Toni sighs out, and hands the dollar to the man running the game.

He drones, “You get three shots, one basket means you win one of these,” he points to a small collection of keychains and other lame prizes, “two baskets for these,” and there are average-sized stuffed animals of every mammal under the sun, “and three baskets for the big ones here.”

Toni eyes the hanging collection of gargantuan teddy bears and puppies and then turns to Shelby. “What do you want?”

Shelby looks unprepared for the question. “Me?”

“Do I look like I collect stuffed animals, Shelby?” Toni asks, raising a brow, and Shelby looks her up and down like she’s actually considering it for a moment.

“Maybe secretly.”

Toni lifts a middle finger and Shelby purses her lips like she’s trying not to smile again.

“What if I said I wanted one of the big ones?”

Toni rolls her eyes, turns, and sinks the first shot, and the man goes to retrieve the ball. “Do you?”

“Maybe,” Shelby says, like she’s taunting her a little.

“Don’t play with me, Shelby,” Toni warns. She concentrates for the next shot and honestly, she knows these things are supposed to have a little bit of a trick to them, but she spends what feels like a quarter of her life just shooting hoops; the ball goes in easily.

When Toni looks to her again, Shelby’s smile wavers a little and she says, “The big ones might be a little hard to carry around…”

“Oh?” Toni bounces the ball once, looking back and forth between Shelby and the basket suggestively, and Shelby grimaces.

“Two is probably fine…”

“Three?” Toni asks, pretending to mishear her, and Shelby shakes her head, but her eyes are alight with obvious amusement.

“Just two.”

“But maybe three? You kind of sounded like wanted three earlier.”

“Two, Toni!” Shelby reiterates like she’s ready to burst into laughter, and Toni tucks the ball under her arm and rubs thoughtfully at her chin.

“Or maybe—"

“Can you just shoot the ball, ma’am? There’s a line.”

“Oh, fuck off, I’m flirting here,” Toni snaps at the man behind the counter, and then tosses the third shot underhanded just wide of his head and points at this little stuffed kitten with a halo. He shoves it into her hands with a glare and she warns him, glancing down to his name tag, “Don’t make me come back here later and clean house… Rogelio.”

“Lucky shots,” he sasses, and Shelby has to pull her away before Toni gets into an argument with a fair employee.

“Thank you for the angel kitten,” Shelby says while they wander toward a few other rides, and Toni examines it with Shelby as Shelby turns it around in her hands.

“It’s oddly fitting, you know,” Toni says, and then offers Shelby a sly grin. “Got a couple things you like.”

“I’m not even gonna indulge your very obvious joke,” Shelby huffs, shaking her head, but Toni can tell she’s trying not to smile right back. “And to think you were doin’ so well.”

“Hey, if I were Becca, you’d be having a great time right now.” Toni takes her hand, a little more comfortable with the contact now that it’s been a couple of hours of them settling into this weird thing they’re doing for the day, and while she looks around she misses the way Shelby glances fleetingly at the side of her face.

“You’re you and I’m havin’ a great time right now,” Shelby ventures a little quietly, and when Toni looks at her she’s already looking away, way too overly fascinated with their surroundings for it to be genuine.

“Well,” Toni starts, choosing her words carefully, “that’s good, because you’re still buying me lunch, and it won’t be cheap. I like funnel cakes almost as much as I like cotton candy.”

Shelby lets out a laugh that sounds a little bit like an exhale, like she’s releasing tension from her chest, and Toni smiles and then points out a ride she doesn’t even really want to go on just to get them onto another subject, because she definitely feels the same tension Shelby seems to be feeling, except short of leaving Shelby’s side entirely she’s not sure how she’s going to be able to get rid of it.

Shelby tugs her along by the hand toward the ride and Toni lets her.

Chapter Text

They stay at the fair until it starts to get dark out and Shelby finally points out the Ferris Wheel, which has felt inevitable all day, but Toni still scoffs and says, “You’re such fucking cliché,” then lets Shelby take her there anyway and ignores that she was promised veto power—she hasn’t used it, not once, not even when a ride definitely wasn’t her thing, because it wasn’t a big deal anyway and Shelby seemed excited to try everything.

Toni hasn’t asked to leave yet, either, even though she could’ve done that about three hours ago. It’s almost seven o’clock now and Shelby’s parents think Shelby’s here with Martha and expect her back by ten, so Toni knows they’ll be leaving soon given the two-hour drive. The Ferris Wheel is probably their last ride of the day.

They slide into the seat together and wait for the ride to start, and Toni keeps her hands to herself, thinking back on the day with an odd feeling in her chest. They hadn’t argued once, not really—maybe a few jabs here in there, maybe a couple of barbs that got a little awkward when they were a little too real, but they’d still mostly just been jokes that hadn’t really landed, like Toni telling Shelby not to eat too much funnel cake or else she wouldn’t fit into her next pageant dress, or Shelby suggesting Toni could use an intervention when one of Toni’s more alcohol-intensive partying experiences came up in conversation. It’s clear to Toni that they don’t quite know how to maneuver around each other perfectly, but the day has gone so much better than she could’ve ever anticipated—she doesn’t regret coming, not at all, not even if she’d had to pay for her own lunch or listen to Tim McGraw all the way over. Not that she’d tell Shelby any of that.

Tomorrow things would go back to normal. Maybe they’d even be better; Shelby's still visiting Martha every now and then, hanging out with her in Martha’s bedroom or the living room or other places Toni could avoid, and Toni's beginning to think that maybe she won’t need to avoid those places quite as much. Maybe that was a good enough reason to bond a little—so that they could genuinely coexist peacefully for Martha.

“This was a good day,” Toni decides aloud, matter-of-factly, and then looks to Shelby for affirmation. “No body bags, after all.”

“You’re surprised?” Shelby asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Aren’t you?”

Shelby laughs and shakes her head. “No. We get along fine. We’re just victims of circumstance.”

Toni screws her face up trying to decipher that one. “I don’t know, it always felt like… victims of being bitches to each other, to me.”

“You never wanted to be nice to me because you assumed I hated you for who you are,” Shelby says, and she’s being strangely honest, for once, so Toni just stays quiet and watches her speak. “And then I couldn’t be nice to you because everyone around me would wonder why I’d want to be, with you bein’ the way you are—likin’ girls—and you hatin’ me anyway. I never got the chance to correct you, all these years. I just didn’t like the way you treated me, is all.”

“Maybe I took the first shot,” Toni admits, although she really doesn’t remember, it’s been so long, “but you were always happy to dish it out too.” She’s got a memory strong in her mind of Shelby red-faced and shouting across the parking lot at her near the beginning of the school year, and Shelby presses her lips into a small smile.

“Well, like I said: I didn’t hate you. But I am guilty of strong dislike sometimes.”

“Semantics,” Toni laughs out, looking away, and they both fall silent for a moment as the wheel rotates, sending them higher into the air.

“It’s just hard not to dislike someone when you feel like they have all this anger toward you without ever havin’ given you a chance,” Shelby says quietly, after a while. “That’s all.”

“It’s hard not to dislike someone when most of their friends and even their dad talk shit about you right in front of your face and they don’t do anything to stop it. Not even when they were in your bed a week ago.” Toni pauses. “You might not ever open your mouth, but sometimes they say shit and I see you smiling, Shelby. What am I supposed to do with that?”

She looks over and sees Shelby biting her lip and looking out at the park below them—bright lights flash in every direction and Toni can hear children and people on rides scream-laughing and Shelby’s suddenly got a tear running down her cheek.

“My friends aren’t like your friends, Toni,” she says. “You have to understand. They know that bein’ gay is wrong like they know that the sky is blue.” She takes a shaky breath. “There’s only one reason anyone would ever try to justify it or defend it.” Shelby turns and looks at her and Toni thinks about brushing the tear away, then decides against it; it feels too intimate, here, now, with Shelby blinking slowly at her, her gaze on Toni’s eyes and then on her lips. “Believe me, I wanna help you, wanna make things right with us,” she says. “There’s so much I wanna say to so many of them. I wish I could say everythin’ I feel.”

“Maybe you should start with the girl you like,” Toni tries to joke, offering her a small smile, because she knows that Shelby is thinking of the things she hides from Becca, too, and Shelby leans in and kisses Toni slowly, lifting a delicate hand to her cheek.

Toni’s always considered Shelby a good kisser, but it feels like more somehow this time, like something warm is pouring into her and filling her and it isn’t the heat of arousal, it’s just all… more, she wants more of it, to just keep going until they have to stop, and so she scoots closer and rests a hand on Shelby’s thigh and feels the heat of her mouth and tastes her tongue, sweet with sugar and apples from the slice of pie they split earlier. Shelby makes the smallest noise of satisfaction and her other hand joins the first on Toni’s cheeks, and Toni tugs at her bottom lip a little and it’s all slow passion between them; Toni reaches out past Shelby to place her hand on the edge of their seat instead, which gives her leverage to lean over further and get even closer, and Shelby’s hands shift down to her neck instead as they angle their—

“Uh, excuse me?”

Shelby jerks away from her and Toni leans back almost as hastily and then looks. The college kid running the ride is staring a little wide-eyed at them and there’s an entire line of people waiting for them to get out.

Shelby’s face is a deep red as she rushes to say, “I am so sorry, sir, we were—I’m so sorry,” and then she hurries out of the seat and past the crowd toward the exit, leaving Toni behind for a moment.

“I’m not,” Toni mumbles to the operator as she exits and sidles past him.

When she catches up to Shelby and sees how embarrassed she is—she has a hand over her mouth and her eyes are wide and her face still hasn’t cooled off—Toni can’t help but start laughing.

“That was real bad,” Shelby says, and Toni grabs her wrist and leads her in the direction of the parking lot.

“C’mon, Shelby, let’s get you home before your car turns back into a pumpkin.”

“Oh, wow, you’re really flatterin’ yourself with that comparison.”

The drive back is mostly silent at first, but then Toni concedes the last rule she had left to take advantage of for the day and lets Shelby put on some Taylor Swift, which Shelby belts out at the top of her lungs, surprisingly on-key, until Toni has to ask, “You can sing?”

“It’s my pageant talent,” Shelby says, grinning over at her. “Can you?”

“Fuck no.”

“We could try a duet,” Shelby suggests anyway, but she says it like she thinks it’s a hilarious idea. One of her hands fumbles for her phone and she asks, “Do you know—?”

“I’m not singing, Shelby,” Toni insists.

“Aw, c’mon, it’s fun. Becca and I do it all the—”

“Well, I’m not Becca,” Toni snaps, and then the car is totally silent. She turns and stares out her window, a little surprised at herself for getting so heated so suddenly, and she sees Shelby glancing at her out of the corner of her eye.

“I know you’re not Becca, Toni,” she says, with the seriousness of someone who thinks this is A Thing, and Toni wants so badly to tell her it’s not and to chill out a little, she really just didn’t want to sing, but Shelby keeps going, thankfully sounding a little more casual, “You two are very, very different. Trust me.”

“Yeah, obviously; I’m not a Bible-thumping asshole,” Toni snarks, and she knows it isn’t fair at all—Becca’s actually literally the only friend of Shelby’s who hasn’t ever said anything insulting to her—but she makes the comment anyway and then lets it hang in the air uncomfortably between them.

“Don’t be mean,” Shelby says, finally. “We had a good day.”

The unspoken don’t ruin this is there, loud and clear, and Toni actually does feel bad for a moment, so she just turns on the first song on the duets playlist Shelby’s pulled up, mumbles “I couldn’t if I tried” and then “baby, you’re not that kind,” under her breath half-heartedly when it’s her turn, and Shelby seems so excited on her parts that it almost feels worth it. It crosses Toni’s mind what Rachel and Fatin and the others would think if they could see her now, and the thought makes her flush harder than getting caught kissing Shelby in front of a line of people had.

Toni expects Shelby to drop her off right away when they get back into town, but they head to the spot they got high at before instead, and as soon as Shelby’s got the car parked she shuts it off and unbuckles her seatbelt, then leans over the center console and grabs at Toni’s neck to pull her in for a kiss. “Backseat, we have an hour,” she mutters against Toni’s lips, and Toni doesn’t need to be told twice.

She unclips her seatbelt to wriggle into the back with Shelby and immediately Shelby straddles her and tugs off Toni’s shirt. There’s a streetlamp nearby providing faint light for them in the car, just enough that Toni can see Shelby’s torso shrouded in shadows as Shelby shifts back to pull her own shirt up and off. Her hair has been down all day, for once, and Toni watches it cascade down her back and around her shoulders and over her bra. She rakes her eyes down over Shelby’s chest to the expanse of smooth skin over her ribcage and the subtle muscles she can see shifting beneath her abdomen, all stretched out while Shelby’s leaned back to make room to remove her shirt, and her mouth feels incredibly dry.

“I am so fucking gay,” she says dumbly, and Shelby laughs shortly on the way back to her mouth to kiss her. Toni reaches up to hold her close while they make out and feels the heat in Shelby’s cheeks, and she knows without Shelby having to say anything that she’s incredibly flattered.

“I think you’re beautiful, too,” Shelby tells her, and Toni wonders when Shelby started learning her—apparently well enough to decipher meanings in her words and actions in a way that only Martha usually knows how to.

It’s their tenth time doing this—Toni’s still counting—and so she doesn’t expect anything to be new about it. Shelby wriggles out of her shorts and underwear and then she’s right back to straddling Toni, and she gets Toni out of her bra between kisses but then settles for that because they only have so much time, and from the way she’s moaning just from having the small of her back and the tops of her thighs touched Toni can tell she’s raring to go.

It’s normal enough at first—Toni murmurs, “You’re wet,” without feeling her and Shelby pants into her mouth and nods a little, temporarily shameless in her arousal. Toni has her lean back and then exclusively pays attention to her breasts for another five minutes until Shelby’s squirming above her and her hips are rocking forward a little even though it won’t do anything for her in their current position. Toni kisses her again, and as wound up as Shelby is it’s still slow, and the warmth is back, making Toni feel dizzy and like she’s not in total control of herself; there’s just too much she wants to do to Shelby and they don’t have nearly enough time.

She slides her hand down Shelby’s body, from her chest to her abdomen, and doesn’t break their kiss even as her hand slips between Shelby’s legs and rubs purposefully through wetness—Shelby gasps into her mouth and her hips react, but then they go right back to kissing until Toni enters her with two fingers, and then Shelby’s grasping hard at her shoulder with one hand but the other is still cradling her cheek. Their noses are nearly touching, and it’s different, maybe.

Toni’s rhythm isn’t slow but it isn’t fast and harsh, either, and she has her free hand wrapped around Shelby’s body to hold her close by the small of her back while Shelby’s hands twitch against her shoulder and the curve of her jaw, and it’s a little different. Shelby’s body is moving up and down in her lap, Shelby’s thighs working in tandem with Toni’s fingers, and Shelby’s eyes are trying so hard to stay open and she’s blinking heavily at Toni and that’s not something they really do, the prolonged eye contact thing, so Toni guesses that’s different too. Shelby’s eyes close when she leans in to kiss Toni with that pouring warmth that’s also different, and when she’s not kissing Toni, she breathes hard against her mouth, breath hitching into a moan when Toni’s fingers or palm hit just right, and it’s actually incredibly intimate, and fuck, it’s different, it’s so different from every other time, somehow, and Toni can’t look away from the shadows across Shelby’s face and her darkened green eyes and her citrus-vanilla-scented hair, and Shelby’s hand is holding her close by her cheek like it’s the only contact anchoring her to the earth, and when they kiss again Toni can still taste sugar in Shelby’s mouth, sweet like cotton candy, sweet like the pineapple juice Shelby had mixed with her vodka on the first night they’d done this, and Toni wonders again when the details started coming to her so quickly, just like Shelby’s handwriting—when all of Shelby’s little things started getting lodged in the back of her mind and worming their way under her skin.

“Toni,” Shelby pants into her mouth, and she sounds like what she wants to say next will scare her, or maybe scare them both. “I think I—I’m—”

Toni can feel it building in Shelby, knows what it means when her thighs start to tremble and her fingers start to squeeze hard enough for her fingernails to sting, and she pulls Shelby close with the hand on her back and pushes into her harder, faster, until Shelby’s hips are snapping sharply and whatever she’d wanted to say has died in her throat. Shelby breaks eye contact, finally, tips her head back a little and works her hips until she clamps down hard on Toni’s fingers and comes with a quiet cry, and Toni counts three heavy breaths from her before her lips are back on Toni’s, kissing her hard through the aftershocks until she finally stops twitching, and then they’re kissing slowly again and both of Shelby’s hands are cupping Toni’s cheeks.

“I don’t want you to be anyone else,” Shelby whispers against her lips, and when she breaks their gentle kiss Toni wraps her arms around Shelby and holds her close, tucking her face into Shelby’s neck. Shelby hugs her back and when Toni blinks she’s surprised to feel tears leaking out of the corners of her own eyes, sliding down her cheeks and dripping onto Shelby’s collarbone, and she thinks of everything and everyone that has been chosen over her—drugs, foster money put toward flat screen TVs and new purses instead of clothes and food, Regan choosing not to be with her, everything Shelby has chosen and continues to choose. And she doesn’t believe Shelby for a second, knows she can’t trust her when she says things like this in the thick of it, because even Becca aside she would rather Toni be virtually any man on earth, if she could only make herself feel those feelings for one.

“Please take me home now,” is all Toni says, and Shelby slides off of her, looking a bit confused and forlorn as she touches her hand to the wetness on her collarbone, and then she does what Toni has asked.

When Toni gets home her eyes are dry and as she pads by Martha’s room, exhausted and ready to shower off the day—ideally she’ll forget about it entirely by the time the water’s cold, because it’s inevitable, it’s what she and Shelby always do until the next time Shelby’s horny, basically—Martha calls out to her, “Hey, were you at the mall all day?”

Toni thinks on it for only a second before she decides to be honest. “Actually, you forgot to tell Shelby you were bailing on her, so I went to the fair with her in your place. Surprisingly, we both made it back without killing each other. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

Martha looks amused. “You really spent the whole day with Shelby?”

“Yeah, and now I need a fucking Nyquil and a long shower so I can wash her Christian stink off of me, pass out, and pretend it never happened,” Toni says, and she’s about to depart when Martha speaks up again, casually.

“I did tell her I was feeling too sick to go, though.”

“After I’d already agreed to take your place,” Toni laughs out, assuming, and Martha shakes her head, only half-paying attention to Toni now as she watches something on her television.

“Nah, I texted her last night,” she says, and Toni wants her heart to drop but instead it skips a beat.

“Oh,” she replies, and she’s fortunate that Martha doesn’t get a good look at the expression on her face before she leaves to go shower, to go scrub hard at every inch of her skin like somehow it'll rid her of the memory of Shelby's eyes staring so deeply into her own.

Chapter Text

Shelby comes over one evening to watch a movie with Martha in her room, and Toni avoids the both of them, for the most part. Shelby seems uncertain about how to behave around Toni now, Toni’s noticed—probably because of the frosty way their last night together had ended.

Toni does homework in her room until she gets hungry and then peeks into Martha’s room to ask them, “Hey, I’m ordering takeout, you guys want anything?”

“We ate leftovers earlier, but thanks,” Martha says from beside Shelby on the bed, and Toni tears her eyes away from where Shelby’s blatantly staring at her to look at the television instead.

“Oh, okay.” She doesn’t recognize the movie, but it seems to be coming to an end—these two awkward teenagers are swaying together on the dance floor, the boy’s hands resting at the girl’s ribcage with a foot of space in between their bodies, and Toni wants to laugh. “That’s not how you dance with a girl,” she says, and then leaves.

Her food comes half an hour later and she’s almost done eating when there’s a soft knock on her bedroom door. Shelby’s on the other side when she opens it, and Toni takes a step back instinctively, having expected Martha; Shelby’s curfew is in half an hour and so Toni had assumed she’d left by now.

“Martha’s asleep,” Shelby tells her, and she seems a little shyer than usual. “Can I come in? I don’t have to leave for another twenty minutes.”

Toni sighs and looks toward her bed, then decides maybe it’s a good idea; after last time they both could probably use a quickie: something hard and fast and detached to remind them both of what this is supposed to be, to show that whatever the fuck that was before was just some fluke, just a strange way to end a strange day. She opens the door wider and lets Shelby slip past her, but almost immediately Shelby says preemptively, “I wanted to ask you somethin’, I guess.”

Toni thinks oh, more talking, but remains silent and just stares at her, an anxious pit forming in her stomach and a sense of foreboding washing over her as Shelby fidgets and looks everywhere but at Toni, because the longer the silence stretches, the more she’s sure that Shelby wants to ask about the very thing Toni is trying so hard to forget.

“Um, is everythin’—? Are we—?” Shelby inhales sharply. “Are you upset with me?”

Toni blinks at her. “No.”

“Oh.” Shelby licks her lips and she’s very obviously nervous. “I just thought that maybe I’d… I don’t know, if maybe I’d said or did somethin’ wrong, before—”

“We’re fine, Shelby,” Toni says in a way that makes it very clear she doesn’t want to talk about it, and Shelby looks a little disappointed and also a little relieved all at once, somehow. Toni can tell Shelby wants to ask her something else, or maybe to just say something more on the topic, but then she exhales and Toni can see her letting it go, at least for the time being.

“Okay.” She offers Toni a small smile. “Well, in that case, would you like to teach me how to dance with a girl?”

Toni’s so thrown by the request that she almost asks Shelby to repeat it, just to make sure she hasn’t imagined it entirely. “Dancing?” is what she ends up blurting out instead.

“It’s not like I can learn anywhere else,” Shelby says, which is a fair point, but Toni’s still stuck on the initial request.

“You want me to dance with you.” At Shelby’s nod, Toni narrows her eyes suspiciously, wondering how this can possibly be turned around on her or used against her. “Well, I don’t have music.”

“I have a phone.” Shelby digs it out of her purse and Toni takes it from her immediately. “Hey!”

“You’re not choosing the song ‘cause I can’t handle any more Taylor Swift.” Toni scrolls through the current hits until she finds a song from The Weeknd she recognizes, and it’s a little fast but it’s fine enough, so she puts it on and tosses the phone onto the bed. “Alright, come here,” she sighs out, pulling Shelby close by her wrist, and Shelby seems more than content to settle right in front of her and let Toni guide her arms to Toni’s shoulders. “It’s not hard.” She places her own hands on Shelby’s waist and moves in closer, and then their noses are almost touching and Toni feels like she’s just been manipulated a little, maybe, and that Shelby’s probably at least here to make out.

Shelby’s fingers interlace themselves behind her neck and Toni’s hands shift to hold her by the small of her back, and they move in slow circles together while Toni waits patiently for Shelby to make a move. She does, eventually: smiles and brushes her nose against Toni’s and then kisses her, and it’s gentle and a bit lazy, like she’s doing it just because she can and not because of any deep burning desire to take things further. Toni’s hands press instinctively against her back to force her closer and when their bodies meet Shelby makes a soft noise into her mouth and Toni thinks of the bed again.

Instead, Shelby eases out of it, tucks a strand of Toni’s hair behind her ear affectionately and then moves her arms down and rests them against Toni’s ribcage, pressing her palms flat to Toni’s shoulder blades and leaning in to place her head beside Toni’s, and then they’re hugging, ear to ear, still swaying to the music. Toni’s eyebrows furrow when Shelby suggests, “We should play a game.”

“What kind of game?” Toni asks, and doesn’t think of anything sexual, this time; Shelby’s voice had sounded almost friendly, and not at all like she’d been trying to seduce her. Toni decides she’ll consider this line of conversation a win—they’re not in her bed, washing away last time with something more lust-driven and less terrifying, but at least they’re doing something fairly normal that Shelby would also do with Martha… aside from the intimate dancing, maybe.

“I’ll tell you somethin’ about me, and you tell me somethin’ about you.”

“I don’t know that I’d call that a game,” Toni muses. “More just, like, you trying to squeeze more Toni fun facts out of me.”

“They don’t have to be fun,” Shelby says. “Mine is that there are foods I’m not allowed to eat. Like, a lot of them.”

“In an allergy kind of way?” Toni wonders, admittedly a little intrigued.

“No, in a ‘my daddy tosses anythin’ with sugar in the garbage’ kind of way.”

“You had a sweet tooth at the fair,” Toni remembers, thinking of the cotton candy and the funnel cake and the apple pie. “No wonder. What an asshole.”

She feels Shelby swallow thickly and then say, “Now you go.”

Toni makes an effort to indulge this, trying valiantly to ignore the way they’re still swaying, the way Shelby’s body is pressed tightly against hers. She shuffles through a few pointless factoids in her head that don’t seem like enough, given what Shelby’s told her, and then thinks of her own family, the one that left her behind, and before she knows it she’s blurting out, “Marty and her mom are the only two people who have ever loved me.”

They come to a stop together and Shelby pulls back a little to look her in the eyes. “I don’t think that’s true, Toni. What about Regan?”

Toni laughs a little and shakes her head. “Nah, Shelby. When people really love you, they don’t just leave you.”

Shelby’s eyebrows furrow. “Sometimes people have to make hard choices.”

“Well, that’s the thing about leaving me,” Toni says. “It’s never really been a hard choice for anyone.”

Shelby studies her for a long moment, like she’s seeing something in her for the first time, and then she kisses her again and murmurs, “I don’t see how it couldn’t be,” and Toni feels the warmth from the night of the Ferris Wheel ride all over again. It makes her heart pulse and ache.

Martha goes on a date with a boy Toni doesn’t know enough about a few days later, and she has to keep herself busy to avoid thinking about what she’s going to do to him if he breaks Martha’s heart or pushes her to do something she doesn’t want to. Martha’s never even kissed anyone, and Toni’s been overprotective of her for as long as she can remember.

They’re due to come back in three hours or so and Toni decides after the first half hour to go out and distract herself, so she texts Rachel and Fatin and makes them go bowling with her because she can’t think of anything else to do in this shitty small town, and whatever, bowling is fine, she’s come to learn. They both roast her a little for the idea but agree to meet her there, though Fatin takes some extra texts apologizing for calling her a whore because she’s probably rightfully still not over it.

Fatin uses fucking bumpers and when she rolls a strike she actually gives Toni and Rachel a cocky smirk like she really thinks she did something, makes a comment about magic fingers and wiggles hers with a wink, and Rachel makes a joke about leaving so that Toni and Fatin can have their date night. “What makes you think I was talking to Toni?” Fatin asks, giving Rachel an overdramatic once-over, and Rachel punches Fatin in the arm on the way up to take her turn while Toni laughs at them.

“Wanna go somewhere after this, just me and you?” Fatin asks her casually while Rachel’s bowling, for once not pulling her usual seductress act, and Toni considers it for a moment and then thinks of Martha—and also of blonde hair and of green eyes staring darkly into hers in the backseat of Shelby’s car, but it’s Martha she makes herself focus on; she’s still been trying very, very hard to forget that the latter ever happened and hasn’t managed to erase it from her memories yet; in fact, quite the opposite: sometimes it’s all she thinks about.

“Can’t. I have to get home when Martha does so we can decompress together and shit. I need to know if I should go beat this guy up.”

Fatin laughs and says, “Martha’s all grown up, Toni.”

Toni snorts. “Since when?”

“Since this year. Haven’t you noticed you two aren’t always attached at the hip anymore? Hell, she threw a party and let me bring alcohol; that’s pretty badass. She’s becoming her own person and I’m sure she’d want you to respect that even if she does get hurt.”

Toni considers it, wondering if she’s really missed it all like Fatin’s suggesting she has. “I guess I didn’t notice,” she admits.

“I think you’ve been distracted,” says Fatin. “Seems that way, anyway,” and then it’s Toni’s turn to bowl.

She finishes her turn and when she returns to her friends she sees them talking to Becca and Shelby, of all people, who seem to be settling into the lane beside theirs and will be sharing a ball rack with them.

“I’m not used to seeing y’all here!” Shelby’s saying excitedly when Toni reaches them.

“Well, we’re not usually giant dorks,” Toni says like bowling wasn’t her idea, and Shelby rolls her eyes at Toni but she’s still smiling. Toni tries to ignore the way her gaze lingers.

“There’s this massive pizza Shelby and I like to get when we come here and we always have leftovers, if you guys are up for splitting it,” Becca suggests, and they all agree. They mostly stick to their different groups after that, because they all only really know Shelby through Martha and don’t really know Becca at all, but they do wind up eating pizza together as they bowl.

It’s Rachel’s turn in their lane, Becca’s turn in the other, and Fatin’s flirting with the cute guy sweeping up the empty area on their other side when Shelby takes a bite of a slice and accidentally pulls too much cheese off of it with her teeth, and even after she manages to get it all into her mouth, she winds up with sauce on her chin and it reminds Toni of the time with the noodle, only worse.

They’re sitting far apart and it’s pretty loud in the bowling alley, so Toni just looks at her and points suggestively to her own chin when she catches Shelby’s eye, and Shelby looks embarrassed and reaches for a napkin, but when she wipes it’s the wrong side and Toni shakes her head and laughs a little, mouths, “other side,” and finally Shelby gets it.

When Toni breaks eye contact with her, Fatin’s leaning against the end of the seat Toni’s sitting on, a few feet away, watching the both of them. Toni just swallows and tries to act natural, but she knows Fatin realizes that was weirdly friendly for the two of them, and can only hope she’s just not perceptive enough to figure out anything more than that.

Fatin never pulls Toni aside to accuse her of anything, never even comments on it at all, actually, and Toni considers it a narrow escape.

She beats Martha home that night by a while but doesn’t really regret turning Fatin down anyway, and once Martha gets back, Toni asks about her date. Martha says that he was sweet and cute but not really her type once they actually started getting to know each other. Toni wiggles her eyebrows anyway and asks if they kissed, and Martha blushes and shakes her head.

“You should’ve gone for it anyway if he was cute, Marty,” Toni teases.

“I really want the first one to be special,” Martha says, and Toni knows she’s only talking about kissing but she thinks of Shelby anyway, wonders if Shelby felt special during her first time up against a bathroom sink. Toni feels like she already knows the answer.

The thought gnaws at her brain until she finally can’t stand it and corners Shelby in the parking lot, for once not paying attention to the fact that they’re in plain view of several other students—no one they really know, and none of them are in earshot, but still. “Can I ask you something?” she blurts, and Shelby looks past Toni warily, at the other students walking out to their cars.

“Can it wait?”

“Until when?”

Shelby hardly even looks at her, just keeps looking past her. “I don’t know, Toni,” she says dismissively, like she can’t wait for Toni to go away, and Toni doesn’t want to be affected by it, but it actually really fucking hurts to be proven right this time. Shelby is still a completely different person here than she is in their cars or their bedrooms or two hours away on a Ferris Wheel.

Shelby stiffens suddenly, her gaze sharpening, and when Toni turns she sees two of Andrew’s friends walking out to their cars together. “Yo, Shalifoe!” one of them calls out, spreading his index finger and his middle and licking between them once he has her attention, and Shelby actually presses two hands to Toni’s shoulders while she’s distracted and shoves hard enough to make her take a couple steps back, clearly trying to make it look like they’re fighting.

She gets into her car and drives away before Toni can confront her about how much of a dick she’s being, and Toni feels a surge of anger rush through her as she thinks of her tears on Shelby’s collarbone and remembers what Shelby had murmured into her mouth in her bedroom—yet you make it look so fucking easy, she thinks, and what she says is, “Fuck you, Shelby!” even though she knows Shelby won’t hear it. The two boys in the distance exchange looks and start laughing.

Toni runs home instead of riding with Martha so that she expends her energy in a way that isn’t punching or throwing things, because she really doesn’t handle rejection well and it feels like that’s what this was: Toni trying for once to care a little and then having the door slammed in her face as punishment. She and Shelby don’t even look at each other for nearly a week until one day Toni finds a note in her locker that says “I’m sorry, I know I messed up” and even then it’s a few more days before the pit in Toni’s stomach starts to go away.

She doesn’t get the chance to ask Shelby anything until the night of the eleventh time it happens. Toni goes back and forth on whether this time counts—she knows Nora would count it and Rachel wouldn’t—but in the end she agrees with Nora for once and decides it does, even if she doesn’t actually touch Shelby herself or anything.

Her phone rings just after midnight and she’s not asleep but she’s getting there; still, she fumbles for her phone and sees Shelby on the caller ID, which is so rare an occurrence—this is literally the second time—that she knows she has to answer it.

“Hello?” she mumbles, and at first all she hears is Shelby’s breathing.

“Were you asleep?” Shelby eventually asks her.

“Not totally.”

“Oh.” Toni hears a gulp and starts to wonder if something’s wrong; she doesn’t really think of herself as someone Shelby would ever contact in an emergency, and they’re still not on the best terms after the incident in the parking lot, but maybe if something happened with Becca—

“You okay, Shelby?” she asks, adjusting her pillow and sitting up a little to try to wake herself up. She hears Shelby’s breath hitch in this way that’s…odd, and also familiar, if Toni could just place it—

“Yes, everythin’s fine.” Shelby’s southern drawl is a little stronger than usual, like Toni’s started to notice it gets when Shelby’s really—

Toni realizes, and what she feels then rattles her, because Shelby is here to get off and that should be exciting—it is, in some ways, but also Shelby is just here to get off, not to apologize in person or to make any promises that what happened in the parking lot won’t happen again, and what Toni mostly feels is disappointment.

She goes with it anyway, because it’s Shelby and Toni is weak and perpetually sexually frustrated. “Shelby?” she asks, and knows Shelby hears the drop in her voice because her breath hitches again.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Shelby warns her, and Toni switches the phone to her left hand and sticks her right hand down her pajama bottoms.

“That’s okay. I can lead by example,” Toni offers. She’s done this with Regan a few times.

“You’re goin’ to—?” Shelby asks with unmistakable excitement, like Toni’s just hinted that they might be taking a trip to fucking Disneyland or something, and Toni’s honestly watched Shelby fall apart between her legs so many times that she sometimes forgets that the reverse has barely happened once for Shelby. This is for sure something she can give her in spades. It’s not as good as being in person but it’s still a game-changer.

She knows dirty talk isn’t Shelby’s forte, even if it turns her on, and so Toni tries to bring herself down to Shelby’s level so that Shelby doesn’t feel pressured to get filthy; just says, “Slow down and let me catch up,” and lets herself breathe into the phone while she touches herself.

“It’s only been a couple minutes,” Shelby defends herself, and Toni laughs into the phone.

“Okay, but you’re not exactly known for your stamina, Shelby,” and she can almost see Shelby’s blush on the other end.

“Not my fault you’re…” Shelby whispers, trailing off, and Toni strokes her fingers down lower and feels herself getting wetter.

“I’m what, Shelby?” she presses, and Shelby’s silent for several seconds on the other end. Toni hears her swallow again.

“I didn’t really think this through,” she admits.

“It’s just me,” Toni reminds her. She slides one finger inside of herself and can’t help but sigh into the phone.

“What are you doin’?” Shelby asks her abruptly.

“Thinking about you,” Toni says, skirting the details.

“Do…” Shelby pauses, tries again, “Do you do that often, when you…?”

“Yes,” Toni confesses as she adds a second finger, and it comes out more like a moan. “A lot.”

She’s beginning to feel like she’s being quizzed on a test when Shelby immediately questions, all business, “How much is a lot?”

“A lot, Shelby,” she laughs out. “Jesus. You want me to start keeping a tally?”

“Sorry,” Shelby says, sounding embarrassed, and Toni rushes to fix it.

“Ballpark… like, eighty percent of the time?” (It’s more than eighty percent.) When Shelby’s silent on the other end save for a few quiet breaths, Toni can feel herself turning red. “Look, there are a lot of good memories to work with. You should take advantage, too.”

“Who says I don’t?” Shelby replies a little shyly, and Toni perks up right away, because that is certainly something they can talk about.

“Oh?” she asks, a smile pulling at the corners of her lips. “Which times made the highlight reel?”

“All of them,” Shelby says, and Toni wants to laugh.

“No copouts, Shelby. Tell me which one you use the most.”

Shelby’s quiet for a while and Toni wonders if she’s too embarrassed to say, but then finally she admits, “Before, it was the last time on that day over the break.” Toni thinks back, remembers working Shelby up slowly and gently and then telling her she was gorgeous as she fell apart. She isn’t sure how she feels about the fact that Shelby gets off to Toni being sweet to her over anything else. “Now,” Shelby goes on, “when I got to watch you…” Of course, Toni can remember the intense focus in Shelby’s eyes as she’d rushed to take in everything, “…and… last time.”

That one’s dangerous. Toni isn’t sure whether to address it at all—because they haven’t, really, other than Shelby’s brief attempt in Toni’s bedroom—or to try to move past it and talk about something else, and eventually decides maybe the best route is to make light of it, but before she can say anything, Shelby continues, and Toni senses right away that this is something she badly wanted to express the other night before Toni shut down the topic, “Everyone always taught me that as long as I waited until I got married, sex was goin’ to be this big magical thing with someone who—between two people who… cared about each other, and it would feel like I was whole…”

“Shelby,” Toni warns, because this is so, so dangerous, but it comes out more like a breathy sigh.

“I can’t tell if it was special,” Shelby goes on. “I’ve only ever been with you. I just don’t know how to tell.”

There’s a silent question in there that Toni doesn’t have the guts to answer, because she very much can tell; she’s never felt anything like that with anyone and only Regan has come anywhere close. Her fingers have stilled entirely between her legs and her arousal has ebbed, and she isn’t sure how they got here so suddenly but she’s very much starting to wish she hadn’t taken this call after all.

“What do you want me to say?” Toni asks eventually, and she’s a little bit terrified of what the answer might be.

“I just want you to be honest,” Shelby whispers.

“I can’t,” Toni says, and hears a quiet intake of breath on the other end because Shelby knows that’s enough of an answer in itself; they both do.

“I wish I was there with you right now,” Shelby tells her, and it’s such a perfect comment; Toni loves her for it, because it’s appropriate here but it’s also something Toni can use, and she knows Shelby’s smart, knows she’s sensed how difficult this is and is throwing Toni a bone, letting her steer this back on course if that’s what she decides to do with it.

“Yeah?” Toni husks, slowly starting up a rhythm with her fingers again, and she can feel Shelby’s disappointment on the other end of the line but she pushes forward anyway, silently begs her to play along and let this moment between them pass. “What would you do?”

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Shelby says after a moment, and she sounds extremely embarrassed. “I don’t know what I’m doin’.”

Toni lets her thoughts wander. “You knew what you were doing in spin class that one day.” Shelby doesn’t deny it, and Toni thinks she hears her breath catch. She’s immediately relieved; they’re back on track. “Marty caught me staring at your ass and I had to lie about not wanting you, but you had me so wound up.”

“Oh,” Shelby breathes out, and Toni knows she’s learning when she teases, “So you want me?”

“Ask me how,” Toni advises, and it takes Shelby a moment.

“How?”

Toni eases out of herself and draws her fingers higher in tight circles, then decides she’ll just come from this; she’s too eager to listen to Shelby fall apart, too. “Next time my bed’s available, I’ll take everything off and we can use your thigh, so you’ll feel it all.” Detour aside, Shelby’s earned it just from having the guts to make this phone call, Toni decides. She adds, “I’ll get you off at the same time; it’ll be easy. You always get really wet from turning me on.”

She’s lost the plot a little at some point when it comes to keeping things tamer, she knows, but Shelby’s breathing hard and Toni figures if it’s working, might as well. She can feel herself teetering on the edge and she thinks of other things they can do, imagines Shelby doing them.

She remembers Shelby’s mouth around her fingers at the fair and decides, “I’ll touch myself and you can taste it after, if you want,” and Shelby’s still not saying anything yet but now she’s panting.

Toni hears her whimper and then she whispers, “Okay, Toni,” and Toni immediately comes, breathing hard into the phone, and she can tell from Shelby’s quiet moan that she knows. Toni listens to Shelby touch herself for another minute or so and then it’s clear when she comes, too, and for a long while they both just lay together and don’t say anything, and Toni listens to Shelby breathe.

“I want to ask you something now,” she says eventually, because Shelby owes her one and she’s been waiting for a while. Shelby sounds tired when she makes a noise that tells her she can go on. “Why did you kiss me?”

She can hear Shelby breathing and knows she’s still there, but she doesn’t answer right away. Finally, she asks, “Which time?”

“At Fatin’s,” Toni explains, even though she’s pretty sure Shelby already knows and is just buying time. “In the bathroom.”

“Because,” Shelby says quietly, “I thought you looked hot.”

It catches Toni so off-guard that she laughs, and she’s not sure whether or not it’s actually a joke, so she says, “Okay, Shelby,” with a little sarcasm, like she doesn’t believe her.

“I was drunk. I wanted to,” Shelby says, and it’s not really what Toni wants to know anyway, it’s mostly just a lead-in, so Toni lets it go.

“Did you expect everything else?” she asks, and then modifies it, “Did you want the rest, too?” She wants to ask if Shelby felt special at all that time or if she felt used and discarded and hated how it had all happened, but that’s all much too close to a topic Toni doesn’t dare revisit now.

Shelby reads her immediately, Toni knows, because she skips right to the end and just says, “I don’t regret it.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Toni presses.

“It’s what matters,” Shelby says, and finally Toni lets it go again. She feels like she has her answer: that it wasn’t ideal, but that Toni’s made up for it since, and that’ll just have to be enough.

They don’t say anything else but they don’t hang up either, and Toni listens to the sound of Shelby’s breathing until it seems to grow slow and even. Toni checks her phone battery and sees it’s close to dying.

“I have to charge my phone,” she tells Shelby, and when she doesn’t get a response, she knows Shelby’s fallen asleep. She closes her eyes and listens for just a little bit longer and then says, “Night, Shelby,” before she hangs up.

Toni lays wide awake for a while afterward, thinking of Shelby’s smile and Shelby’s laugh instead of her lips and her moans, and she finally acknowledges to herself that somewhere along the line this became about something more than just sex, that Shelby has been slowly chipping away at her for a while now and at last Toni is starting to crack.

When she dreams, it’s of Shelby’s hands pressed to her shoulders in the parking lot, of feigned looks of disgust in the halls and of Andrew’s arm around Shelby’s waist.

Chapter Text

Right when Toni’s finally beginning to sort through her own feelings about it, this whole thing with Shelby starts coming apart at the seams.

Shelby starts actively avoiding Toni the day after the phone call with a determination she’s never had before—she even skips the class they share—and Toni assumes right away that it’s because of Toni’s non-confession: the one that Shelby had pressed her to make. Through the bitterness and resentment caused by that assumption, Toni wonders if maybe it’s finally sank in for Shelby that there’s something deeper going on here like it’s finally sank in for Toni, and she’s decided she wants nothing to do with any of it after all. There are no notes in Toni’s locker apologizing this time, but every time Toni catches a glimpse of Shelby there’s so much less brightness in her green eyes than there used to be, and Toni has no idea what to make of that.

It all hurts more than Toni wants or expects it to—she spends some time crying in her room about it one afternoon while Martha stands outside her door asking what’s wrong; Toni makes something up about hardcore PMS—but she’s also barely surprised. Aside from Martha and her mom everyone always leaves her eventually, and Shelby Goodkind is certainly the last person Toni would ever bank on to stick around.

She corners Fatin by her locker after a week of getting the cold shoulder from Shelby and tells her, “You should come over today,” and Fatin raises both eyebrows.

“I would, but this whore’s got cello practice.” It sounds like an excuse and Toni isn’t convinced. Fatin tries to leave but Toni presses a hand to the wall beside her and stops her, and Fatin looks surprised and a little intimidated, but also like she thinks Toni’s aggression is kind of sexy, too.

“You don’t have to do anything,” Toni promises. “For hours.”

Fatin looks intrigued by the idea for a moment, but then she bites her lip and shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know, Toni. There’s someone I’m kind of into.”

“Really?” Toni asks, genuinely taken aback, because it hasn’t been that long since Fatin was the one offering or since she was flirting with a random janitor, and Fatin rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, it’s not exclusive, but I’m hoping it will be eventually, so I’m trying to curb some bad habits. And no, I won’t tell you who it is.”

“Why not?” Toni knee-jerks.

“Because it’s none of your business. I don’t know who it is you’re sneaking around with all the time.”

Toni pulls back and then blinks at her. “What?”

“We’ve had sex twice since junior year started,” Fatin reminds her like it’s no big deal. “And you turned me down the other day, which you literally never used to do unless you were seeing Regan. You’re obviously getting it somewhere else; I’m not an idiot. What, is she currently unavailable so suddenly I’m hot shit again?” Toni averts her gaze and Fatin laughs at her, beaming. “You sneaky bitch. Do I know her?” She gasps. “Is it Dot? She says she’s into this really hot older guy and swears she’d tell me if she was into girls, but I don’t know, man, those cargo shorts—”

“It’s not Dot, and we’re not doing this,” Toni insists, wondering when the hell her booty call request had turned into an interrogation.

“Are you in love?” Fatin teases, giving her puppy dog eyes and clasping her hands under her chin, and Toni’s fists clench.

“No,” she snaps, storming off, and Fatin looks after her with alarm.

“Toni, c’mon,” she calls out, “I was kidding!” Toni hears her pause, and then add, evidently shameless, “You can go down on me!”

Toni pauses and waits for Fatin to catch up to her, suppressing an eye roll when every boy in the hallway looks at them and a few of them hoot and holler. It’s her least favorite thing about Fatin, how much she seems to crave male attention, but at least she hasn’t asked for a threesome with a guy yet, and Fatin’s also pretty liberal so at least the guy she’s into won’t be one of the psychos Shelby’s always hanging around with.

She goes down on Fatin for over two hours that evening and tries to wipe her mind clean as she does it, to just lose herself in someone else who’s clearly enjoying her company, because Fatin’s honestly as vocal and responsive as ever—well, as much as she can reasonably be, with Martha in her room right across the hall—but Toni feels like she’s phoning it in herself, like something’s missing. After Fatin comes for the fourth time she actually offers to get Toni off even though that hadn’t been part of the deal, but Toni turns her down and then doesn’t even touch herself after Fatin eventually leaves. She feels empty.

She wonders if maybe she should try with Regan instead, because Regan’s always been able to make her feel something, but she’s only just starting to think she might be over her for good, and she isn’t sure the potential heartbreak is worth opening that wound all over again.

She passes Shelby and Fatin in the hallway a couple of days later and when she’s stopped at her locker she overhears Fatin asking Shelby to be her partner for an English paper, “because it’s either you or Toni at this point and as of two days ago Toni’s tongue is still fucking magical; we’ll never get anything done—” and Toni doesn’t see Shelby’s reaction but then Fatin goes on, “Fuck, sorry, Shelby, I forgot that shit freaks you out. Anyway, partners?”

Toni gets stuck with a girl she’s barely spoken to and a few days after that Shelby approaches Toni and Martha in the school parking lot and doesn’t even look at Toni, just ignores Toni’s cold stare, asks how one of Martha’s tests went that day like Toni isn’t right there having the worst two weeks of her life in a long fucking time, and makes plans to hang out at Shelby’s house, just the two of them. But then when Martha’s not looking and Shelby’s turning to leave, she brushes past Toni and presses a folded note into her hand as she goes.

Toni waits until she’s alone in her room to read it. It says: I forgot to delete our phone call and my dad saw it when he was going through my phone. He’s been asking why I was talking to you so late at night.

Toni sets the note aside and chews on her lip and then she feels tears welling up in her eyes; this is all such a mess and if these past two weeks have reminded her of one thing, it’s how fragile the whole situation truly is, how quickly it can all fall apart.

It’s probably all fallen apart already, Toni knows. Shelby’s been so detached. She won’t even look at Toni anymore and her note had been so short and to the point. No apology, nothing about wishing things were different. Just a cold explanation to keep Toni in the loop. Toni thinks on it for a while and realizes she still feels tossed aside—it just isn’t for the reason she’d spent two weeks thinking it was. Shelby is in full damage control mode and that means Toni has to get out of her life until further notice, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Prom’s been scheduled for early May for a while now and Toni’s spent the better part of the year post-Regan sure she isn’t going to go, but Martha talks her into it and says they’ll be each other’s dates, and Toni’s kind of embarrassed when she exits her room in a cream-colored dress and Martha’s mom gushes over how pretty they both are. She takes a bunch of pictures and then sends them off, and Toni takes a deep breath as she drives, wondering if Fatin will be there with the guy she likes, if Andrew is planning on trying to pressure Shelby to sleep with him tonight, if Regan will be there at all.

Fatin has gone to Prom with Dot and they’re both wearing matching suits; Fatin’s doesn’t fit her at all and it mostly seems like the whole thing’s a joke to her—it probably is, given how rarely Fatin takes anything seriously and how feminine her wardrobe typically is. Toni tells her it’s a waste, that she’d look sexy as hell in a suit if she actually tried, and Fatin laughs and wags a finger at her in warning, says, “Not tonight, Shalifoe”, and Toni laughs too.

Shelby’s on the dance floor with Andrew, her face tucked into his neck as they sway to a slow song, and it’s actually kind of intimate-looking. Toni sees the glint of something on Shelby’s finger and thinks it’s probably a promise ring when she sees Andrew wearing one too, and Toni knows that those are new and that they are a sign of some sort of deeper commitment that’s been made over the course of the past few days. Shelby is retreating back into her old life. Her father has spooked her. Toni can take a hint, and this is one of several; she knows then that things are over between them for good.

Toni tries to numb her mind and heart to it like she’s been doing off and on all year, and it’s easier than she thought it would be this time, now that she’s had a few weeks to be eased into the idea—she’s always kept Shelby a little bit at arm’s length anyway, has never even let Shelby touch her properly. There’s been so little trust on Toni’s end from the very beginning, and maybe this is always kind of how she’d expected it all to wind up, deep down. Maybe she’s known all along that if she ever let Shelby in Shelby would turn around and hurt her for it. Shelby’s just not ready to come out and may never be, and Toni won’t force her. So this is only its natural conclusion; how it was always going to be eventually between them.

Toni spends about half an hour feeling like she might be on the verge of tears before she processes everything and forces those feelings back, and then she thinks about how she can move on as quickly as possible.

Regan is sitting by herself at a table near the dance floor, sipping at a drink and looking very lonely, and she’s who Toni winds up staring at for half the night; Regan hardly moves, doesn’t even dance, and Toni’s not sure why she’s here at all given what she sees. Toni dances fast with Martha and the girls she’s beginning to try to call their friends instead of just Martha’s friends, and Dot spins her around and dips her at one point, presses a hand to Toni’s mouth and then stage-kisses the back of her own hand, and it’s the kind of thing Toni would find utterly hilarious drunk and mildly amusing sober, but now she laughs hysterically at it, maybe feeling a little drunk on the atmosphere and the fun she’s having, maybe trying to overcompensate for the things she’s burying deep down inside of herself.

When she goes to get a drink from the punch bowl, Regan’s still alone nearby and still looking miserable, and Toni can’t fucking take seeing her like this anymore.

A slow song starts up and the floor clears for couples. Toni finishes her punch and then approaches Regan, setting the empty cup on the table and then looking down at her. They stare at each other and then Toni takes a deep breath and offers her hand.

“Toni,” Regan starts gently, like she’s tempted but might still turn her down, but Toni cuts her off with a soft smile.

“C’mon. Just one.”

Regan’s fingers slide into hers and Toni leads her out onto the dance floor, and they’ve only been swaying together for a moment before one of Andrew’s friends slides past them and laughs at them, barks out “Dykes!” before he moves on, and Toni feels her fists clench at Regan’s waist.

But Regan is watching her warily, and so Toni takes a deep breath and tries to relax, swallowing down her rage and focusing on the good part: Regan is with her, and she looks so beautiful tonight, and soon her thumb is stroking across Toni’s cheek as she looks at her fondly.

“You’re different, Toni,” she says, and Toni stares at her mouth.

“I run now,” she blurts, and Regan smiles.

“Yeah, you have killer legs.”

“It’s cool that you noticed,” Toni jokes, and she feels a bit awkward, like she’s with someone she doesn’t know all that well and isn’t sure what to say. She wonders when Regan started feeling so much like a stranger, more than Shelby, even. “I mean that it tires me out. Don’t really have the energy to fight people.”

“Yeah, I noticed you’ve mellowed out,” Regan agrees, and Toni wonders what that means for them, Regan basically admitting that Toni’s fixed the problem Regan dumped her over. Toni wants so badly to feel something with someone, someone who doesn’t—someone like Regan, who is willing to take what she wants, anywhere, in front of anyone.

“You’re always looking at me.” Toni moves closer, looking into Regan’s eyes and then at her mouth again.

“You’re nice to look at,” Regan flirts back, a little breathless, and Toni kisses her gently, cupping her cheek, and it’s like everything else around them fades away for a moment. They kiss slowly, and Toni’s a little uncertain when she pulls away, wondering if she’s pushed Regan too far, but Regan just licks her lips and blinks at Toni.

“Let’s try again,” she says, like it’s as simple as that, and Toni kisses her for a second time.

When she finally pulls away, she feels eyes on them and looks past Regan, and Shelby is there, watching them from over Andrew’s shoulder. Shelby breaks eye contact as soon as Toni spots her, and Toni watches her abruptly pull Andrew in close and kiss him.

She tears her eyes from Shelby and kisses Regan again.

Regan goes home with her, which is a little awkward because Martha’s there too, and when they arrive Toni takes Regan to her room and undresses her slowly, kissing across her shoulders when Regan shrugs her dress off and then turning her around in her arms and pressing her lips to her jaw and then to her neck. Regan holds her close and breathes quietly into Toni’s ear, then helps Toni out of her dress too.

Toni hates the phrase make love but she thinks maybe it’s kind of like that with Regan on Prom night; the way they touch each other feels new and it’s quiet and slow, and right after Regan comes she breathes into Toni’s mouth that she missed her and Toni suddenly feels like she’s been a puppet with the strings cut this whole time, free-falling and confused, maybe a little more independent but with no clue how it’s all going to end or where she’ll land, and now suddenly the strings are reattached and she knows how to move again. If how she feels with Regan now isn’t love—so safe and secure and wanted—she doesn’t know what is.

Regan urges her onto her back and presses inside of her and Toni gasps out Regan’s name when she comes and then begs her to stay the night, to please not leave her, and when Regan promises she won’t Toni can hear that she means it this time.

After Regan falls asleep, Toni lies awake and wonders how Shelby’s night went.

She doesn’t wake up cuddling Regan, but Regan’s still there in her bed in the morning, hasn’t left and won’t have to sneak off anywhere or lie about where she was and who she was with, won’t pretend not to care or act like they’re nothing, and Toni tells herself that this is enough.

Chapter Text

It isn’t long before Toni fucks it all up again.

Martha’s the one who shows her the video that ruins everything. It’s the third week of May and Toni has confirmed that this thing with Shelby is beyond over. Whatever her father has said to her about talking to Toni late at night has very clearly scared her off permanently, and eventually Toni feels a bit stupid for putting even an ounce of value in any of it at all; they’ve gone right back to ignoring each other at best and snipping at each other when the occasion calls for it, and it’s amazing, Toni realizes, how little progress they’ve ultimately made across so many months. It all really was so fragile, and it’s too easy to bury the real feelings Toni knows they tiptoed around and go back to genuinely hating Shelby—or at least whatever version of it this is now, where they never get along but Toni keeps Shelby’s secret anyway.

She’s with Regan now, and she’s been feeling a little lighter since Prom, has been occupying herself with sex that makes her feel warm and loved with someone she trusts to stick around this time, and it’s right as Martha’s telling her that she seems so much less on edge lately that Shelby walks up to Martha’s locker and asks, “Hey, are we still on for today, Martha?” She ignores Toni, and for a moment, much to Toni’s surprise, Martha looks like she might ignore Shelby. But then she sighs and turns, and her body language is stiff.

“I don’t think so, Shelby,” she says, and Toni stares and wonders what the fuck is going on.

Shelby’s smile dies and she glances from Martha to Toni, bites her lip, says, “Oh, okay,” and then leaves.

“What the fuck was that?” Toni asks, and Martha looks hesitant.

“She’s just not the person I thought she was,” Martha says, and it’s way too vague, so vague that Toni begins to suspect she’s missed something big.

“What’s going on, Marty?”

Martha pulls her into the girls’ bathroom and explains that Shelby was in some uber-Christian pageant over the weekend, then opens a text from Fatin that reads “This bitch. And she actually WON,” followed by a whole host of emojis Toni can’t be bothered to decipher beyond that they look angry, and then Fatin’s sent a video below it and Martha presses play and then hands the phone to Toni. Toni watches the video—recorded in mediocre quality from the front row of the audience—with a lump in her throat.

Shelby’s on stage in a pink dress when one of the judges asks her, “What are your views on the homosexual lifestyle choice?” and Toni watches her take a deep breath before she answers, a wide, pageant-friendly smile on her lips.

“Oh, I’ve been raised to know that that kind of behavior is sinful,” she says, her southern drawl a little more pronounced than usual, and it’s obviously being put on for the benefit of the judges but it sounds just like it does when Toni’s really turning her on. Toni hates the stupid fake smile on her face, wants to crush Martha’s phone in her hands already but keeps watching anyway, trying to ignore the way the betrayal feels like a knife to her chest. She knows Shelby’s selling this for a reason, that her dad is definitely watching and now more than ever Shelby probably wants to distance herself from Toni and anything gay, but it still hurts to hear her finally say the words herself. “There are a lot of good people of God who’ve used their faith to help those strugglin’ with same-sex attraction find their way back to the Lord and live healthy, fulfilling, heterosexual lives, and I urge anyone with those struggles to seek help. Givin’ into earthly temptations just isn’t worth missin’ out on an eternity in Heaven.”

And now Shelby’s unrecognizable. Toni isn’t sure she knows who this Shelby is, if maybe something has changed in her after all since they last spoke on the night of the phone call, because this is going too fucking far, feels so completely and utterly cruel and… just, unnecessary. The crowd gives her a standing ovation and she waves back politely, still smiling as the judges nod amongst themselves and take notes on the papers in front of them. The video comes to an abrupt end and Toni feels like she can’t breathe.

“I didn’t want to show you,” Martha admits, sensing she’s upset, but she doesn’t know the half of it. Toni turns and stalks out of the bathroom and Martha follows her down the hallway at first, calling after her, but then she loses Toni in the crowd of bustling students.

Toni finds Shelby by her locker with Becca. Becca sees her approaching but doesn’t have time to warn Shelby before Toni reaches out for her shoulder and pulls back on it, twisting Shelby sideways and sending her back into the lockers behind her with a slam that has several students in the hallway falling silent and turning to look at them.

The impact is loud and it shocks Shelby without hurting her; Toni sees no pain on her face but her eyes are wide as they find Toni’s, inches away and staring coldly back at her. Toni doesn’t say anything at all at first, doesn’t need to, because she can tell that Shelby immediately knows why Toni is there, that she knows Toni knows what she has said and done. Toni sees that knowledge clearly in the guilt that stretches across Shelby’s features once the initial shock has faded away, but then Shelby’s eyes flicker to their audience and rage makes Toni's chest burn hot at the reminder that Shelby is still more concerned with what other people see and think than about how she makes Toni feel.

“Cmon, Shelby,” Toni dares her, just lowly enough for only Shelby to hear. “People are watching.”

For half a second Toni thinks Shelby might burst into tears, but then instead she lunges forward and shoves Toni by her shoulders, and Toni can feel her holding back, but it’s enough; the angry spark inside of Toni has been given tinder and as soon as she’s recovered she steps back in purposefully toward Shelby, but Becca is there, wide-eyed and surprisingly strong, getting in between them and separating them with both arms and a sharp, “Hey!” Shelby stands her ground anyway, Becca’s arm to her chest, as though she’s still willing to fight back—though the fury in the way she holds herself doesn’t seem to quite reach her eyes the way it reaches Toni’s.

And then Martha is there, too, catching up and wrenching Toni away by her arm with an alarmed, “What are you doing?”

Toni looks around and sees everyone watching; some of them are even holding up their phones to record it all with giddy anticipation. Toni’s fists clench and then her gaze falls back to Shelby, who is turned away a little with Becca’s hand on her back, getting what sounds like a quiet lecture from her. Toni hears, “—can’t let her get to you like—” and she shakes herself free of Martha and storms off in search of the nearest exit.

“Toni!” she hears Martha calling after her again, and then the door to the parking lot slams shut behind her and she’s rushing off to her car.

She drives home and it’s not until she’s back in her own driveway that she realizes her hands are shaking—with what, she isn’t sure, maybe rage, still—and that angry tears have left a couple of streaks on her cheeks. She wipes them away aggressively and then goes inside and buries herself under the covers of her bed, taking deep breaths to try to calm herself like Martha’s always told her to do when she loses her temper.

She’s so angry at Shelby, at herself; her life hadn’t been great before Fatin’s party, because it’s Texas and so many of the people fucking suck and she and Regan had been dealing with Toni’s issues, but at least that hadn’t been like this. This cuts so deep, this completely hypocritical rejection of who Toni is as a person, and Toni tells herself right then that she’s never fucking doing this again with anyone if she can’t make it work with Regan this time, won’t ever make a mistake like Shelby ever again.

The doorbell rings half an hour later and Toni sees blonde hair on the other side, and for a moment she thinks she’s going to be sick.

At first she decides she won’t answer, will just retreat back to her room until Shelby gives up and goes away. Then she pictures herself flinging open the door, maybe saying something like get the fuck out of here, I don’t want to speak to you ever again with so much fury that Shelby won’t have any choice but to listen and walk away. The anger in her wins out and she decides she’ll go with this idea.

She wrenches the door open and Shelby just looks at her with wide eyes, almost like she’s shocked Toni’s actually answered it, and the words die in Toni’s throat at the sight of her, because Shelby looks absolutely crushed: her eyes are puffy and her makeup is smeared and she looks unsettled and frazzled and everything Toni feels on the inside too, only now there’s no sign of any anger in Shelby. For the longest time they just look at each other.

“Can we talk?” Shelby finally ventures, shy and quiet, and Toni looks at her with disgust.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard enough.”

“I didn’t mean those things, Toni,” Shelby whispers, and it barely does anything to ease the fire in Toni’s chest, because Shelby still said them, still sold them with a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye and was perfectly happy to accept her standing ovation and her crown in exchange for them, to reap the rewards of making Toni hurt so much more than anyone else has in a very long time.

It really doesn’t matter, Toni decides, and so she chooses to tell a lie, to push Shelby away and make her leave however she can rather than to argue over intent and impact, because discussing impact means discussing how much Toni has let Shelby hurt her. “I don’t believe you. You should go.”

But it has the opposite effect: Shelby looks taken aback for a moment, and then Toni’s words seem to really sink in and there’s suddenly a stormy intensity behind Shelby’s eyes, almost like anger, but there’s determination in there, too, and Toni realizes that she can read Shelby here, that she’s so incredibly insulted by what Toni’s just said. The why of it all, Toni isn’t sure about—because it means that Toni thinks everything between them has been a lie, maybe, or because it means that she thinks Shelby could actually hold the opinions she shared onstage instead of the ones she murmured and panted into Toni’s mouth, and maybe the second one circles back around to the first, in the end, so maybe Toni does know why Shelby’s like this, actually.

None of it matters. Toni starts to close the door.

Shelby slams her hand hard against the wood to impede its progress, and Toni’s still stronger than her but she hadn’t been expecting any pushback, and so it swings back open and suddenly Shelby’s in Toni’s house and Toni’s being kissed with so much force that she takes two steps back and only finds her balance by throwing her hand out behind herself to place it against the wall.

There’s so much Toni wants to say, again—you don’t get to do this; I’m with Regan now; please just leave me alone—but Shelby’s hands are on her neck and everything about her is so intoxicating, always, especially her mouth, and Toni is falling back into it again, rushing to grasp at her hips and to feel and taste her tongue. But the anger is still there, simmering beneath the passion, and when Shelby’s hands reach down to tug at the hem of Toni’s shirt, Toni realizes what will help ease the anger and the pain, what she suddenly wants so badly out of this encounter: she’ll channel her rage into something else, just like she has with running, and then she’ll show Shelby what this feels like, how hurt she’s been making Toni feel since their phone call. She’ll take and take from Shelby and then end this on her own terms—because that’s what this is; she can feel it in the way Shelby’s already kissing and clutching at her so desperately. This is one last goodbye before Shelby returns to her old life for good. This is Shelby taking what she wants and then leaving. Toni bites at her lips a little and Shelby’s nails scratch against her stomach as she keeps tugging Toni’s shirt up. Toni pulls back and lets her remove it.

Shelby is taking control of this and Toni lets her—lets her drag Toni toward the bedroom, open front door forgotten, lets her stop them three different times to press Toni up against the wall and kiss her again, and Toni has never seen her this aggressive and uninhibited; Shelby can come from anything Toni does to her but she usually prefers to be touched tenderly, to be kissed slow and deep, and it’s not like that at all now, it’s like she feels like she has something to prove this time. Toni has insinuated something that has hit a massive nerve deep inside of her.

They collapse on the bed with Shelby on top—it’s the first time, ever—and Toni thinks about being her dirty little secret for the past eight months. Toni knows she got off on it early on, but the more she looks back on it now, the more she’s just bitter that she could never have her when she wanted her, that she had to wait until Shelby’s schedule was clear or the stars aligned properly or Shelby decided that Toni was worth the risk, worth anything at all, and most of the time in between they were either ignoring each other or treating each other like shit. As much as she hates to think of it this way, she’s basically been on standby for Shelby for the better part of the entire school year, getting ragged on by Shelby’s friends and then crawling back to her to make her come again for hardly anything in return anyway, so maybe she was never really winning their war after all.

Toni’s still kissing Shelby when she slips her hands down to pop open the button on Shelby’s shorts, and immediately Shelby uses the hand that isn’t propping her up to knock Toni’s arm away. “You,” she breathes shortly into Toni’s mouth, and Toni gets the message right away and pulls back, defiant.

“I won’t let you touch me,” she says, and when Shelby only looks a little bit upset—seems mostly unsurprised, honestly, if not a little disappointed—she twists the knife and adds, “I was fucking right not to trust you.”

Shelby’s lip quivers a little and she pulls back, sitting up, and for a moment Toni thinks she’s going to get up and leave but instead she just tugs her own shirt over her head and then goes right back to sliding her tongue over Toni’s, and Toni can’t help it—she groans at the unexpected passion in it and rocks her hips into where Shelby’s thigh is resting between her own. She thinks of what they’d talked about on the phone, lets visions of herself using Shelby’s bare thigh dance behind her eyelids.

She rolls them over before Shelby can stop her and races for the button of her own jeans, and now she has a plan, and it’s simple but it feels effective: to get off and then tell Shelby to fuck off, to make her feel used and discarded and forgotten like Toni has been made to feel. “Take your shorts off,” she says as she moves off of Shelby to get undressed, and Shelby immediately reaches down and removes them.

As Toni discards her clothes piece by piece Shelby looks at her body like she’s a work of art, and Toni does everything she can not to focus on that as she straddles Shelby again, to instead watch her own bare hips shift and then sink down and then roll. She closes her eyes and thinks about the pleasure and not who she’s here with, but Shelby sits up and mouths at her chest and Toni can feel Shelby’s breathing intruding into her thoughts, reminding her that she knows that voice, knows exactly who it belongs to, and it only serves to make her wetter; Shelby can still get her there no matter how upset Toni’s with her, and she can tell she’s driving Shelby absolutely crazy too, because Shelby’s getting zero friction from this herself but every now and then she moans a little anyway.

They’ve hardly said anything to each other yet and initially Toni thinks it’s better that way, but she remembers what Shelby said on that stage again and she thinks about pushing her, about making her show Toni how much she likes this “sinful” behavior she so publicly disparaged. Her eyes find Shelby’s left hand and she reaches down and grabs her wrist, then slips the promise ring off of her finger and tosses it off of the bed and onto the floor; it’s a fucking lie, they both know it, and Toni doesn’t want to look at it. Shelby doesn’t even flinch, just uses her hand to pull Toni’s face down to hers and kiss her again.

“Is this good?” Toni asks when they part, and Shelby isn’t shy about it, just nods and whimpers when Toni slides against her again, her fingers skating down and digging into Toni’s hips to help her along. Toni knows the level of experience Shelby’s working with, knows she can only do this so well because Toni’s made Shelby come grinding against her thigh before, but fuck, it’s working; she can feel it building so quickly already and she kisses Shelby roughly to distract herself, genuinely worried for her own stamina, and it turns out that Shelby’s tongue in her mouth and Shelby biting and tugging at her lips isn’t actually helping.

She puts her hands over Shelby’s, stopping her, and then Toni rolls her hips at her own slower pace, taking some control back, and that’s a mistake—Shelby slows down their kiss, too, to match the new tempo, and her grip softens beneath Toni’s fingers, holding her instead of grasping at her.

All at once it’s different again, and Toni knows it right away, can feel it in the way Shelby’s hands slip out from beneath hers to touch her gently on her ribcage and then her chest. One hand slides into Toni’s hair and urges her closer to deepen their kiss, and this is Shelby taking, again, Toni knows, Shelby having sex the way she likes it, but Toni’s so soft for her; deep down, she knows she likes it too like this, and when she rocks her hips just a little faster and Shelby’s thigh firms up against her it only takes a few seconds before she’s clutching at Shelby and moaning into her mouth. This time Shelby doesn’t pull back to look at her while she comes but Toni can tell anyway that it’s so completely fascinating to her, can feel it in the way Shelby’s hands slide up her back to feel her muscles twitching and to hold her close.

Shelby’s southern drawl is stronger than it’s ever been before when she breathes out, “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” and Toni just gets wetter and thinks about riding Shelby’s thigh a little longer, tries to ignore the emotions that come with replaying Shelby’s words in her head, with replaying their time in Shelby’s room, in Toni’s room, in Shelby’s car, tiptoeing around having real feelings over a phone call, holding hands at the fair and kissing on the Ferris Wheel, smiling at each other over a pizza, over takeout, staring across a crowded dance floor and then kissing other people. It’s time for this to end now. They were bound to hurt each other eventually.

Shelby’s hand slides from Toni’s waist and onto her lower abdomen and she’s trying again, even though Toni’s already told her exactly why it’ll never happen, is more certain now than she ever has been that she was justified in keeping her emotional distance from Shelby both in bed and out of it, because it’s clear that Shelby will go to any extreme to distance herself from Toni and anyone like her as soon as they’re no longer in bed together. “Remember that night in the bathroom?” she asks Toni, who nods when Shelby looks up at her. “I still think about how you felt in me the first time.” Toni’s mouth goes dry and for a moment it looks like Shelby’s going to move her hand lower, but she doesn’t without Toni’s permission. “I wanna make you feel like that.” And it’s there that Toni sees her opportunity. She goes for it.

“You can’t, Shelby.” Her voice sounds distant even to herself, like it’s coming from a stranger. She tries to cut straight to the bone right away, to just rip off the Band-aid. “You’ll never make me feel like that, because I already had the perfect first time with someone else.”

Shelby blinks at her like she can’t process Toni’s words at first, like the sudden cruelty in the middle of their moment has crossed the wires in her brain, and then she looks incredibly hurt and her hands move off of Toni entirely and her body language goes cold and distant, just like Toni’s voice. Toni’s chest is tight but she thinks of the inexcusable things Shelby said, of the way Shelby was so quick to toss her aside, and she knows Shelby’s intention today was to get off one last time and then fuck off forever anyway—probably would’ve been to just never acknowledge Toni again instead, had Toni not confronted her in the hall—and so Toni pushes herself to keep going, to hurt her even worse.

“And I don’t think it could ever compare, honestly,” she says. Shelby’s not looking at her anymore; she’s staring down at her own lap, inches from where Toni’s still straddling her. “Because I love Regan, and none of this means anything.”

“That’s not what you said on the phone,” Shelby says quietly, and Toni swallows thickly, but she knows she has to keep going, has to lie here.

“I didn’t say anything. You just assumed what you wanted to.”

Shelby’s eyes shift to her and now she looks furious, like she’s sure Toni’s full of shit and knows that Toni knows it, too. “If you love Regan so much more than me, why are we here?”

“Because I figured I might as well get something out of this before it’s over for good,” Toni bites out, throwing as much venom as she can into every word even though it’s another lie; they’re here because Toni can’t ever seem to resist her. “Before you go back to pretending nothing ever happened. Maybe you can join in on mocking me with your friends next time now that you’ve upgraded to pushing me around.” She can tell Shelby believes her anger, that Shelby knows there were feelings before, but that she’s buying that they’re gone now. “I mean, you wouldn’t want to risk not being convincing enough, and I’d hate for someone to confuse you for a decent human being, you know?”

Shelby surprises her by shoving her back so that she collapses sideways off of Shelby’s thigh, and when Toni gets a good look at her, there are angry tears in her eyes. “You’re no angel either, Toni. And you don’t know anythin’ about what goes on in my life.”

Toni doesn’t want to hear it. “I’m sorry, did you miss the part where you got on a fucking stage and said I belonged in conversion therapy?”

“You can’t honestly think I believe that,” Shelby says, dumbfounded. “I practically threw myself at you that first night.”

“Then say it,” Toni challenges, and Shelby explodes at her.

“I’m gay! I like girls! I just like girls, yes, Toni, is there anythin’ else I need to say or do to make that clearer? I have a family to think about.”

Toni swallows hard and her voice sounds weak even to herself when she says, “You went too far. What you said—that shit hurts people, Shelby. It really fucks them up, and you sold it hard—like, fucking turned it up to eleven when all you had to say was some phoned-in bullshit about how you don’t agree with being gay, and it would’ve sucked and I would’ve been upset and hurt but at least I would’ve understood.”

“It’s not about you, Toni. That wouldn’t have been enough,” Shelby says, and then she blinks and tears are streaming down her cheeks.

Toni stares at her, confused. “I don’t get it, Shelby. You always have a choice.”

Shelby rolls her eyes. “No, I don’t. I don’t have a choice.”

She gets up and starts looking for her clothes and her purse, and Toni watches her find her promise ring. “You do have a choice, Shelby,” she insists, and tries to have some sympathy, just for a moment, because Shelby’s right, there are things about her life that Toni isn’t privy too, even if she thinks she gets it, even if she thinks there’s nothing that makes the shit she said and did okay. “I know things are hard now, with your dad, but eventually—”

Hard? You have no idea, Toni. I don’t have a choice,” Shelby says again, and Toni is silent as she watches Shelby finish getting dressed. She digs something out of her purse and tosses it to Toni, and Toni sees it’s the pamphlet from before, the same one Shelby’s dad gave to Toni. “I lied to my dad about you, I got promise rings with Andrew, I said that stuff on stage, but I don’t think he believed me, or maybe he just doesn’t wanna take the risk either way. I’m going for the summer. Nothin’ I can do about it. No choice. I was just tryin’ to get out of it.” She pauses, and Toni watches her lips tremble as she reaches up to wipe her tears away. “Not that any of this matters to you, I guess; you’ve made that very clear. I’m glad you got what you wanted from me. Bye, Toni.”

She leaves quickly and Toni rises from the bed to try to go after her, but the front door slams shut and Toni realizes she’s still naked. Instead she looks at the pamphlet, finally, opens it up and scans the details inside. It makes Toni feel like she can’t breathe. “God’s Path” isn’t just some Bible camp like Toni had thought. Shelby’s dad is sending her away to fix her.

Toni can’t hold back her tears and they fill her eyes and stream silently down her cheeks, blurring her vision until she can’t read the words on the pages anymore.

She feels like such a fucking asshole, and the realization of everything horrible she’s just said and done to Shelby only makes her cry harder.

Chapter Text

Shelby goes off the grid for the entire two and a half months of summer—Martha and everyone else think she’s at some outdoorsy hunting and camping thing, because that’s the story her parents apparently tell, even to Andrew and Becca—and Toni thinks of her every fucking day, even the ones that she spends with Regan.

She feels like she’s let them both down; she knows she’s cheated on Regan now, and she wants to tell her, knows she should, but can’t bear the thought of losing both Shelby and Regan at the same time.

She never really had Shelby, she knows, but it still feels like she lost something somehow. Maybe because she’s worried that when Shelby comes back she won’t be herself anymore.

Toni does research on the camp and doesn’t find anything that’s nightmare fuel, like electroshock shit or manual labor, but it’s all twisted up in these stock phrases like “finding the Lord” and “purifying the soul”, and Toni doesn’t know what the hell that’s supposed to mean; Shelby’s definitely already big on the Lord and as much as Toni’s had issues with her in the past, she’s usually very sweet to most people.

She goes to a basketball camp for the first two weeks of June and it’s barely a distraction. When she gets back, Regan’s at her house to greet her, all smiles, and Toni breaks down and tells her that she slept with someone else just before the start of the summer. Regan almost slaps her, she’s so destroyed and betrayed; Toni wishes she had, she knows she deserves it, and the more she thinks back on the past year the more she’s convinced that Shelby had been right: she’d said “you’re no angel” but Toni thinks “you’re a bad person” would’ve been even more accurate.

“You’re so dumb sometimes, Toni,” Martha tells her while they’re hanging out on Martha’s bed, Toni still crying off and on a little, and Martha sounds genuinely angry with her for the first time in a while. “Who was it? Fatin?”

Toni shakes her head and then thinks she maybe just should’ve said Fatin when Martha presses for a name. “Nobody,” she says, and Martha lets it go for the time being.

She plays a little bit of basketball with Rachel to make the days go by faster, and one day Nora tags along, staring mostly at the sky like a few clouds are way more interesting than Toni bouncing the ball through Rachel’s legs and then nailing a lay-up, and when Rachel goes to the bathroom and leaves them alone for a few minutes, Toni tries her best to make conversation.

“How’s your summer going?” she asks Nora, who just blinks at her and gives her a pitying smile.

“I bet yours hasn’t been fun.” She tilts her head up to the sky again and Toni watches her with confusion. “Shelby’s been gone a while.”

Toni bites at her lip and considers throwing the basketball in her hands at Nora’s head. “Stop pretending like you know everything. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I don’t know everything,” Nora says, still looking at the sky, “but I see things sometimes.”

Toni chucks the ball at her half-heartedly and Nora leans to the left so that it sails past her and down an embankment, where it rolls until it reaches the street. A car drives by and runs right over it, popping it, and Toni sighs at the flat orange mass in the distance, never having related to a basketball more.

“You’re in pain, Toni,” Nora says to her, and Toni’s suddenly so tired of being so angry and defensive about it.

“Don’t talk to me about her again, Nora.” It’s a little bit of a confession, but they both know that Nora knows anyway, and Toni doesn’t say it unkindly even though she kind of wants to.

“It makes it worse,” Nora fills in for her after a moment of thinking about it, and Toni’s relieved that she gets it.

“Where’d the ball go?” Rachel asks when she returns.

Toni says, “It’s useless now,” and goes home.

She gets this idea from the internet, and it’s basically supposed to be a gift, maybe for someone sick or someone who just needs a little more love in their life—writing notes on little strips of paper every time they enter your thoughts and then rolling them up and storing them, keeping track until eventually you’ve amassed enough to hand them all over, and Toni knows it’s silly but winds up using it as a coping mechanism over the summer anyway, with absolutely no intention of ever showing them to Shelby; God, Toni’d rather die.

She gets some scissors and a bunch of printer paper and cuts out strip after strip and then puts two boxes under her bed: one for the blank strips and one for the strips she’s written on, and for the rest of the summer, when she thinks about Shelby, she writes it down and it cleanses her mind a little, like now that she’s gotten it out she can move on for the day instead of wallowing in it for hours. It works, but because she thinks about Shelby so much, the second box fills quickly; she does twelve strips in the first three days:

Thinking about how you’re doing again, mostly worrying you won’t come back as you. You suck sometimes and you’re kind of a dork, but you were better than most of the losers I’m stuck here with.

You’re supposed to be at some wilderness thing and Marty guessed you’ve probably killed like seven deer by now because she thinks you’re heartless. I told her I thought maybe you said that stuff because of your dad and not because you actually believe it, but I kind of had to play it off like it doesn’t matter either way. I hope you and Marty can go back to being friends.

Now I’m thinking about going camping with you and how hilarious that’d be. Or imagine the two of us on, like, a deserted island or something. We’d fight so much, at least in the beginning.

Kinda depressed right now. I wish we’d talked more because I could use more friends. I know you were trying. Like that day at the fair. That day was nice.

Fatin texted me a picture of herself in a bra today to cheer me up so I guess she finally heard about Regan and I breaking up again. We lasted five weeks and I was gone for two of them. I’d rather have one of you.

Why am I so horny today when I can’t get off, tried drinking and it made it worse, really miss you. Feel guilty thinking about you like this when you’re going through so much but I can’t help it.

Writing this with one hand thinking about that time you got mad and pinned me down because you wanted to touch me. Update: That worked. I can’t decide if I regret saying no. Maybe I should’ve let you, or maybe this would all hurt even worse now.

I can’t stop thinking about that night in your car and the way you looked at me.

I’m gonna try to be more positive. You seem way too sure of who you are to let these people change your mind. You said those words out loud and I think that means something.

Your dad scares the shit out of me now, like there are homophobes who just kind of make faces at you or yell slurs and then there are like the ones that try to mindfuck you while being all nice about it, and you have to live with one of those every day. I didn’t realize he was this bad. I don’t know how you’re still sane.

Fuck I hope you’re still sane and I hope you’re still you. Now that you’re not around I’m starting to think I liked you.

I actually liked you so much, Shelby.

Martha drags Toni out of the house and to a party after a couple more weeks of wallowing and Toni gets really drunk and pretty much tells everyone who will listen how much her summer has sucked and how depressed she is. Fatin has pity sex with her in one of the bedrooms, which makes her forget about Shelby during but then makes her feel like she’s betrayed her after. Later Leah suggests a book on existential depression, to which Toni slurs out that Fatin already cheered her up, and then Leah leaves abruptly and sometime afterward Toni sees her and Fatin shouting at each other in the driveway while Dot tries to keep them apart.

Toni fucks up everything she touches and everything that touches her, is apparently how her life’s just going to go. It’s been this way for as long as she can remember, so why she ever expected things to change, she isn’t sure. She thinks of Shelby—Shelby, who knew she was going to be subjected to conversion therapy in just a couple of weeks and went to Toni one last time but then didn’t even get to have a nice time or an orgasm because Toni was such a fucking dick, who told Toni naked and on top of her that she’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen moments before Toni completely shit on her, who thinks Toni doesn’t even care about what she’s going through over the summer because that’s just how horrible of a person Toni came across as, and Toni drinks until she can barely remember her own name and tries not to cry into her cup.

Dot comes inside at some point and as she passes Toni, Toni hears her murmur, “Love is fucking messy, man.”

I don’t understand why you kissed me. I know you think I’m hot but I’m nothing, no one should want anything to do with me. You risked so much for someone who’s nothing.

I wish I knew how to be more sure about stuff. You seemed so sure about Becca. Gonna need you to explain to me sometime what being in love feels like. I thought I had it figured out.

I’m so fucking sorry Shelby I just feel so bad I’m so sorry, I’m sorry I said those things I’m sorry I answered my phone. It was always good with you, it would’ve been good with you and I was never using you.

July gets hotter the longer it goes on and that means frequent trips to the pool. Toni gets a nice tan and wonders if Shelby’s getting one too, if they even let her go outside all that often or if it’s mostly an indoor thing even though it’s technically called a camp.

She hasn’t thought much about Regan, she realizes at some point, and chalks it up to the fact that Regan’s probably not having the best summer of her life but it can’t be as bad as Shelby’s, and so of course Shelby is the more pressing concern. She wonders if Shelby gets freckles in the sun. She writes that one down the next time she can.

Do you get freckles when you tan? It seems like something that would happen to you.

I’m thinking about you too much for it to be healthy. No one should think about anyone this much. I’m drunk right now by the way.

Sometimes I think about you marrying Andrew and it fucking hurts a lot, like I wouldn’t wish that on anyone and I’m not trying to be funny either even though he sucks.

It does matter to me what happens to you. You meant something.

August finally arrives and soon they’re a week out from senior year starting. Toni goes shopping for supplies with Martha and sees a children’s backpack with seashells on it and her mind goes seashells -> shell -> Shelby and really, it’s getting out of hand. They buy folders and notebooks, and the female cashier is extremely hot and flirts with Toni a little, and she doesn’t even register it until they’re out in the parking lot and Martha—who knows, like, a negative amount about sex and flirting and relationships—points it out to her.

“Okay, seriously, who is she?” Martha blurts on the drive home, and Toni shoots her a confused look.

“The cashier? How should I know?”

“No, whoever ruined everything with Regan. You’re obviously hung up on someone and I haven’t heard you even mention Regan’s name since you guys broke up, so I’m assuming it isn’t her you’ve been so upset over. Why don’t you just talk to her? Or at least talk to me; I’m your best friend and you’re obviously going through something.” When Toni doesn’t offer up anything, Martha asks, “Can you at least tell me when it started?”

“September,” Toni blurts; she knows the exact date because it was Fatin’s birthday but there’s no way Martha’s getting that much out of her. Martha looks at her like she’s just confessed to being married.

September? Like, almost a year ago, September?”

“Is there a more recent one?” Toni asks, rolling her eyes. “Yes, that September.”

“What about Regan?”

“It didn’t happen while I was with Regan. Until the last time.”

Martha mulls that over for a moment, and then she looks at Toni knowingly. “This is about Fatin and Leah.”

“It’s not Fatin,” Toni insists. “I told you that.”

“So,” Martha begins, slowly, “what you’re telling me is that while I was being a total loser who had just one date with a boy all of junior year, you were sleeping with three different girls on and off the whole time and I didn’t even know?”

“You’re not a loser, Marty,” Toni says. “And Fatin hardly counts; it was only three times.” She pauses. “And I didn’t even speak to Regan for like, half the year.”

She realizes she’s said too much when Martha says, knowingly, “So your mystery girl was all year, a lot of times?”

“That makes it sound like something it wasn’t.”

“You’re in love,” Martha counters, and Toni nearly loses control of the vehicle, she’s so caught off-guard by the very notion.

“Don’t say that,” she says. “You’re gonna make me throw up.”

“You think about her all the time,” Martha lists, a slow smile forming on her lips as she counts off on her fingers. “You’re super depressed because you aren’t with her—”

“I’m super depressed because Regan dumped me,” Toni deflects.

“Then maybe you should go try to win her back,” Martha suggests, “even though you literally haven’t said a word about her since she broke up with you. I can tell you’re real torn up about it, Toni.”

“I am,” Toni knee-jerks, and it’s a little true, in a way; she still remembers all of the nice feelings that’d come bubbling back up to the surface on Prom night and the weeks that followed, the way Regan had made her feel safe and loved. She misses feeling that way. But it’s not the same as what she feels with Shelby: Shelby doesn’t feel safe at all, she feels intense and terrifying, but Toni feels so much more with her.

Marty thinks I’m in love with you but I feel like I don’t know you well enough to be. I used to feel like I knew everything about Regan. I’m still learning you.

I guess I know things about you that no one else does, but I don’t know the basic things. I just know that living with your family makes you feel trapped and how you sound in bed and that you like girls. I legit can’t think of anything else right now, but I’m also high. Will check back.

This shit is actually so hokey; I can’t believe I’m still doing it. I know you like bowling and pizza, that’s another thing I know about you. I’m trying to make a list.

More for the Shelby facts list: Your favorite fast food is Chick Fil-A, your favorite movie is The Notebook, your favorite fair ride is the swinging ship, you like to wear shorts and they make your legs look so good, you used to want to marry Tony Romo, you only curse when you’re, like, really really mad and sometimes not even then, you always wear a retainer, you’re an amazing singer, you hate Takis but you’ve never had them (this is an objectively wrong opinion), and you have a pretty smile and eyes and face (this is an objectively right opinion).

Still waiting on you to explain love; Fatin’s no fucking help. Guess what she just texted me? “She’s not as good as you in bed yet but it’s better with her anyway.” A lot of fucking help that is when you’ve never actually fucking touched me. Not that this is about you, I just mean, like, generally. A lot of girls haven’t touched me.

I thought love was supposed to feel, like, warm and safe and comfortable, but Dot says the guy she loves makes her feel like she’s going to have a heart attack. Guess my research continues. God I’m turning into such a loser, I can’t believe I just wrote that. Fuck.

I think I could fall in love with you, and that’s all these stupid papers are getting out of me. I think I could fall in love with you. But I don’t think you would ever love me back. I wouldn’t deserve it.

Shelby comes home.

Chapter Text

Shelby comes home and she doesn’t look at Toni at all, not once, not even in either of the two classes they share, and one of them is with Andrew, too, who Shelby practically drapes herself all over with newfound enthusiasm until the starting bell rings, and Toni sinks down in the back row and has to pretend like she’s not devastated by this display clearly meant for her, meant to show her exactly where they stand now, because Martha’s sitting right beside her.

“I wish she’d apologize to you, at least,” Martha says, watching Shelby too. “I know she was away all summer, so she couldn’t before, but if she doesn’t really believe all of that stuff she should say it eventually.”

Toni wants to scream but she fucking covers for Shelby anyway, still pretends they’re nothing. “Is she supposed to do the rounds with everyone, Marty? Fatin and everyone in school who’s applicable? Rachel’s never had a boyfriend and Dot dresses like the biggest lesbian in the world so how about she just apologizes to everyone, just in case.” Toni snorts and rolls her eyes. “Just because I was the only one who called her out on her bullshit doesn’t mean I’m special.”

“You’re in a bad mood,” Martha notices.

“I’m always in a bad mood,” Toni says, and Martha doesn’t even argue it.

Shelby’s always been great at pretending not to be aware that Toni exists when she really wants to, to the point where Toni’s resorted to a little bit of pigtail-pulling in the past just to get a rise out of her, but over the summer Shelby has ascended from Professional to Grandmaster of ignoring Toni, and Toni runs five miles every morning and tries not to cry angry tears over it. On a day she wakes up late and only runs two miles, she comes home a little early, screams into her pillow a bit and then whips it across the room as hard as she can, where it knocks a lamp to the floor and shatters the bulb.

The anger issues are definitely back—probably compounded with the abandonment issues and the feelings of worthlessness. The worst part is that she doesn’t feel like she can really tell anyone about it and it all feels so stupid, they were just sleeping together and barely went on one date where things got a little too close to starting to be more. On paper, that’s all it was. It makes sense to feel terrible for Shelby after what she’s been forced to endure over the summer, but this amount of utter heartbreak feels so unearned and unexpected. Toni hadn’t realized it would hurt this much.

She’s both devastated and helpless, because she knows she can’t approach Shelby first without risking outing her or causing some sort of scene that will hurt Shelby more than Toni already has, and Shelby refuses to make the first move.

But she feels like a needy child, the way she craves Shelby’s attention, or even just her acknowledgement, and she gets desperate eventually, lashes out and straight-up keys a tally-mark-sized line into Shelby’s car after two weeks of Shelby acting like nothing ever happened between them—the exact kind of shit she did after she got dumped by Regan last year, just in case she needs any more evidence that she’s regressing. It’s Andrew who catches up with her while she’s heading into school the next day; he grabs her arm roughly and holds her tight, telling her through gritted teeth, “Hey. You stay away from my girlfriend.”

“I haven’t gone anywhere near your girlfriend,” Toni shoots back, and Andrew, to her surprise, looks a little uncertain.

“Well… she said to tell you to stay away from her. And that you’re lucky she’s not pressing charges for—whatever you did.”

Toni realizes Shelby’s barely told him anything. He looks at her for another moment, both visibly confused and also trying to be intimidating, and then stalks off, and Toni rubs at her arm where he grabbed her and bites the inside of her cheek. Even committing a literal crime has only gotten her a warning from an uninformed messenger, and Shelby’s message doesn’t indicate to her that things will be changing between them anytime soon.

Martha and Shelby don’t go back to being friends, either; Shelby has mostly just gotten the axe from the friend group that attended Martha’s birthday party, because all of them gave her the benefit of the doubt when she was just enabling her shitty social circle and none of them want to be friends with a legitimate bigot, and Toni wants so badly to tell some safer version of the truth about the pageant so that Shelby will at least be around every now and then via their mutual friends, but there’s no good explanation for why that information would come from Toni, so she has to just shut up and watch it happen.

Shelby doesn’t seem interested in hanging around any of them, anyway; she’s firmly embedded into her FCA group with Becca and Andrew, and Toni can tell that’s her plan, if she has one. Just stick to her religious crowd and bury everything because it just never fucking happened. Toni knows the camp changed her somehow, she’s just not sure how deep it goes, if Shelby literally thinks she’s isn’t a lesbian now and wholeheartedly wants to marry Andrew or if she’s just faking all of this until she’s eighteen or until graduation and it’s killing her on the inside, or if the answer is somewhere in the middle. Toni thinks it’s unlikely that it’s either of the two extremes, but there’s no way to gauge anything further without talking to Shelby herself, which is obviously not happening because there’s no convincing Shelby to give her the time of day.

Toni feels so fucking stupid when it takes her a full three weeks after school starts back up to realize she has leverage; she actually sits up in her bed at two in the morning, still thinking about Shelby, and says aloud, “Oh my fucking God,” and shakes her head at herself.

The next day, she stuffs a note into Shelby’s locker that says, “I’ll tell everyone everything Shelby, I swear. 5 pm at the spot where we hooked up twice, today.

She would never make good on the threat, not in a million years, but as bad as she feels about using it, she knows it might spook Shelby into showing up. She takes Martha home and makes up a vague excuse about going for a drive, then heads out to the make out spot where they’d gotten high and sits on the back of her car and waits.

Shelby pulls up at five on the dot and aggressively throws open her car door, and Toni feels relief wash over her; they’re finally going to talk.

“What are you doing, Toni?” Shelby bites out before she’s even out of the front seat, and Toni’s a little taken aback by how angry she is. She slips off of her car and Shelby marches right up into her personal space, the note crumped in her hand, and for a second Toni thinks Shelby might slap her like Regan almost did. “You need to stop,” Shelby says instead, and her voice is surprisingly even now. “No more of this.”

“What are you doing?” Toni asks her, her jaw going tight, and Shelby just stares angrily.

“I am livin’ my life,” she says, firm. “And you are gonna stop makin' this difficult and let me do that.”

Toni knows right away that she has lost her; she’d assumed as much already, but a tiny part of her had held out hope that Shelby still held some sort of grudge over what Toni had said to her back in Toni’s bedroom, and that that was at least a part of why she’d been so intent on ignoring her. But Shelby is different now, and it makes Toni so sick to her stomach to even look at this new version. She holds it together for the sake of having this conversation, because it’s looking like this is the only one she’s going to get.

“They fucked you up,” Toni accuses, and Shelby closes her eyes and sighs, and it’s condescending, the way she looks at Toni and smiles, like she knows something Toni doesn’t. Toni watches her gather herself, watches the way Shelby’s anger fully dissipates.

“No, Toni. I understand that there are things I am gonna have to deal with and that that is a part of me, and my daddy understands that, too. I don’t deny any of that. But that does not mean—” Shelby holds out a finger, like she’s giving a lecture, like maybe she’s trying to convince herself, too, “—that I have to live a life of misery and loneliness. So I cannot talk to you, do you understand?”

“Why can’t you talk to me, Shelby?” Toni asks sharply, wanting to make her spell it out, and Shelby gives a nervous laugh that she tries to play off and then glances down to Toni’s mouth, like she’s just realized how close her face is to Toni’s. She licks her lips and moves back just a little, just enough that Toni notices.

“Because,” Shelby answers, and she seems embarrassed to continue, but she gathers herself and inhales, then says, “you are… a temptation. So, it’s best that I don’t subject myself to that.”

“Of course,” Toni says sarcastically, nodding, and Shelby sighs.

“I don’t expect you to understand, Toni. But there’s nothin’ for you to gain by doin’ this.” Shelby holds up the note in her hand. “However, if that’s what you decide, I’ll just…” She takes a breath, looking troubled. “My daddy knows about what we did on the phone now, but I’ll just… have to deal with him findin’ out about the rest.”

“I’m not gonna out you, Shelby,” Toni confesses, and Shelby looks visibly relieved. “I just wanted you to fucking talk to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Shelby says, and she really sounds like she means it. “Everythin’ that happened, it was all because of my choices, not yours. I kept encouragin’ you. I see that now.”

“Shelby, I’m not a fucking victim; I wanted—” Toni starts, but Shelby holds up a hand and Toni lets her continue.

“I’m not sayin’ that you didn’t—” she starts, struggles for a moment, says, “and that I didn’t—” and then she stops again and swallows, and for a second Toni thinks she might be watching Shelby let her guard down a little. Her own chest is tight and she feels like she has to keep blinking so she doesn’t cry in front of Shelby, because yet again this all actually hurts so much more than she thought it would. It feels like Shelby’s ripping her heart in half and like she still can’t even be that mad at her for doing it, because Shelby is clearly suffering here too.

Shelby finally finds the words, looks Toni right in the eyes, and says, “I love my family, my community, my church, and my God,” and her voice trembles a little on the last word and Toni can see tears forming in her eyes, but she takes a deep breath and finishes, “more than I love the way that you make me feel.”

It’s a fucking dagger. Toni feels her own nails digging into her palms, but the stinging pain does nothing to distract her from the way her heart drops into her stomach. She forgets how to breathe.

“And that’s it,” Shelby adds, and then smiles at Toni like she hasn’t just crushed her, like they both don’t look like they’re about to start crying. “And I’m sorry that I ever dragged you into it. But it’s over now, and we both know it never meant anythin’ more than what it was. So you go live your life the way you want and I’ll go live mine.”

She turns and starts to head back to her car, and Toni stares after her, trying to find something to say—she knows there’s so much there that she can poke and prod at, that Shelby is getting away with at least one lie because they were something, it meant something—but Shelby’s said so much that her brain feels scrambled from it all. “Shelby,” she blurts, and she sounds pitiful even to herself when she finishes, “…don’t leave.”

Shelby pauses with her hand on the door handle and she doesn’t turn around, but Toni watches her inhale deeply. “I can’t stay any longer,” she says, finally. “Please just don’t come near me, Toni.”

Toni thinks of Becca, then, who she knows has meant something to Shelby for a long time now; they’ve been glued at the hip lately and certainly if Toni should stay away then Becca should too. It doesn’t seem fair. “Does your dad know about Becca?” Shelby shakes her head. “Isn’t she a temptation, too?”

Shelby turns a little, glances over her shoulder, and says, “Not like you, Toni,” and Toni thinks about the sadness she sees in Shelby’s eyes then for a while after she’s gone.

Fatin turns eighteen and Shelby doesn’t come to the party this time. Toni isn’t sure if Shelby even has the freedom to come to parties, anymore; she’d almost certainly had to lie to her dad to get to go last year and so she could always just lie again, but something tells Toni he has her on a tighter leash and doesn’t really let her go anywhere. Toni hasn’t seen her outside of school in several weeks, not even at the bowling alley.

Toni pours a drink that’s like 90% alcohol and tucks herself away against the wall in the guest bathroom, on the floor with her knees pulled up to her chest, and just kind of listens to the music and watches people walk past the open door. Some of them judge her, which makes sense; she looks fucking crazy and probably is at this point. She feels like screaming or crying or hitting something most days and right now she just feels like not feeling anything at all, so she drinks and drinks and drinks and by the fourth refill she’s just pouring straight alcohol in.

Fatin finds her in the bathroom with silent tears streaming down her cheeks and closes the door, then sits on the toilet lid and tells her, “Toni, you are the biggest fucking mess I have ever seen in my entire life. And not just tonight. Like, consistently, for a while now.”

“That checks out,” Toni croaks, taking another long sip of vodka from her cup and staring blankly at the closed door. Fatin waves a hand in front of her face to make Toni look at her instead.

“How drunk are you right now?” Fatin wrestles her cup away from her and looks inside. “Jesus, Toni. Are you sure you’re not crying vodka at this point?”

“Can you grab me some more?” Toni asks her.

“No,” Fatin says, like it’s the easiest question she’s ever answered. “I know this is about your girl. Rachel says it’s not her and Martha told me it’s not Regan. We’re worried about you.”

“You sound like Marty,” Toni slurs, and closes her eyes, rests her head against the wall. She answers, “It’s you, Fatin. I love you so much. Let’s get married.”

“A girl from the basketball team?” Fatin asks, and it sounds like the start of several guesses.

“Don’t do that,” Toni warns, opening her eyes to glare. “Seriously.”

“It’s really not Dot, right?”

“Fuck off,” Toni says. She leans in and tries to swipe the cup back from Fatin, but Fatin holds it out of her reach. She remembers it’s Fatin’s birthday and says, “Shouldn’t you be fucking Leah or something?” She lowkey resents that Fatin’s decided to become unavailable at the worst time, that she won’t just drag Toni off somewhere and distract her for a little while anymore—Fatin has made it plenty clear that she learned her lesson after last time and that it’s not going to happen again.

“I’d love to, but if I leave you might drown in your own puke and tears on my bathroom floor, so unfortunately, I’m stuck doing this.”

“I’m sorry I’m such a burden. I’m a burden on everyone,” Toni mumbles, her head lolling to the side, and Fatin looks at her with mild disgust.

“Stop; we all fucking like you. It’s not Nora, right?”

“No.” Toni’s straight-up willing to admit that one.

“Who the fuck else do you even talk to?” Fatin goes on. “I mean, you’re shallow, but I have to assume you’ve had a conversation with this bitch. It’s someone who blew you off all summer.” Fatin stares into space for only a moment and then just sighs and says, “Shit, Toni,” pretty calmly, and Toni knows she knows. “Yeah, that’d do this.” She gestures kind of half-heartedly to where Toni’s still being a mess on the floor.

“Wrong,” Toni says, shaking her head, and she finally snatches her cup back while Fatin’s a little distracted. She cradles it for a moment and then downs the rest of the vodka inside while Fatin talks to her.

“I haven’t even said her name yet, bitch.” Toni finishes the drink and then motions for her to continue. “It’s Shelby.”

“Wrong,” Toni lies again, more pointedly, and Fatin rolls her eyes and clearly doesn’t believe her. “It’s not Shelby.”

“It very obviously is,” Fatin tells her, still so calm. “Like, for many reasons, including the fact that you didn’t immediately vomit just now at the idea.” Toni doesn’t say anything, but she can admit Fatin has a point there. “I should’ve fucking guessed her ass first; we did that English paper together last semester and she couldn’t even hide how much she can’t stand me. I mentioned I’d like, just fucked you that week and I thought she was just being a prude.” Fatin sits back, thinks some more. “Fuck, it’s so obvious. Who else knows?”

Toni’s eyes fill with tears all over again and she gives up, just says, “Her dad,” and then starts full-on sobbing, which she almost never does, and Fatin goes stiff as a board and just sort of looks at her like Toni has genuinely shocked her for once. Fatin’s not stupid, and Toni can see the moment she realizes why Shelby was really gone all summer.

Toni drops the empty cup and buries her face in her knees, and she hears Fatin shuffle to the floor in front of her and then feels Fatin’s hands rubbing her arms.

“It didn’t mean anything,” Toni forces herself to say, and she’s very very drunk now; her words are sliding together and her voice is muffled but she thinks Fatin can understand her anyway with how close she is. “I just miss having sex with her because it was really fun.”

“Okay, Toni,” Fatin says, and Toni knows Fatin doesn’t believe that lie, either.

Chapter Text

Toni wakes up the next morning with a massive hangover, slowly goes over the night in her head and then panics, but she has a text waiting from Fatin promising not to tell anyone, and it calms her down just a little.

She knows Shelby should be the only one scared to be found out. Like, what the fuck does Toni even care, honestly; she’s openly gay and she’s been hooking up with a girl she argues with a lot, big deal. That’s how Toni should think of it, anyway, but in reality it’s so much more complicated than that, firstly because she genuinely feels for Shelby, doesn’t want her secret exposed against her will and her entire community turned against her, not to mention the people who will mock her for being a hypocrite. Even if things stay the same with Shelby’s family after the full truth comes out, Toni doubts she’d survive the whole ordeal with a single friend left. Maybe Becca, but only if Shelby’s lucky, because her family is probably shitty too. And who knows what Shelby’s church would do, if they’d even let her stay, and Toni knows that’s important to her, plus there’s her pageant career, which in Shelby’s case seems largely religiously oriented. Almost every aspect of Shelby’s life would completely fall apart.

On top of her being concerned for Shelby—and Toni doesn’t like to consider this one as much—it’s kind of embarrassing that it is Shelby. She’s a far cry from girls like Regan and Fatin, that’s for sure, and that’s okay enough, but everyone will say that Toni’s head over heels for someone so—just, for someone like Shelby, who lives the life that Shelby does, who clearly wants nothing to do with Toni now, and she can’t handle the vulnerability that would come with everyone knowing that she fell for Shelby Goodkind a little bit and then Shelby chose to have nothing to do with her in the end.

Fatin hadn’t laughed at her for it, though. Fatin had spent most of her night hugging Toni, trashing Shelby’s dad, and making jokes about how Shelby’s actually really fucking hot now that Fatin knows she likes girls and isn’t a bigot. They hadn’t spoken about Shelby’s summer at all and honestly Toni’s thankful for it because she still feels like it’s partially her fault that Shelby’s fucked up now and she usually starts tearing up if she thinks about it too much.

Toni feels bad about the whole night, though, given that it was Fatin’s birthday, so she sends Fatin a text apologizing, and of course Fatin eventually replies to tell her to shut the fuck up, because unlike Toni, Fatin’s a nice person.

She knows she should probably tell Martha, now that Fatin knows, but she just can’t. Fatin might not bring Shelby up ever again as long as she senses Toni genuinely doesn’t want to talk about it, because there’s kind of a healthy emotional boundary there between them, but she lives with Martha and Martha will want to do what Toni probably should do, which is to sit down and talk about everything and figure it all out, and Toni is so completely not ready for that, would literally rather up her running to ten miles a day and spend every evening punching walls than spend therapy sessions with Martha sorting through all the things she feels about Shelby.

Who, apparently, ultimately can’t stand to be around Toni because she’s a temptation. Toni hates that Shelby fucking told her that, basically just said “I literally can’t be near you because I’m worried that I’ll want to have sex with you too much” and then just expected Toni to fucking live with it, to have that in the back of her mind all the time to fuel her own desire but then she also gets to feel like a worthless reject because Shelby simultaneously wants her too much and doesn’t want her enough, apparently. Like that isn’t a mindfuck to have to sit on until further notice. Fuck Shelby for that one, and for making it clear that Toni isn’t even her second choice, is more like her fifth, judging from the list she’d given, as though Toni needs any more evidence that her lack of any sort of sense of self-worth is justified.

She drags herself through school for another week and then her History teacher announces a new project they’ll be doing in groups of three and Fatin grabs Toni with one hand and Shelby with another, and Toni decides right there and then that actually, Fatin is worse than Martha, and her drunken admission is potentially about to cost her in spades.

At first, she thinks there’s no way that Fatin’s plan to force them into spending time together is going to work, because certainly Shelby is going to find some way out of it.

Except it does work, and Toni figures out pretty quickly that it only works because Shelby doesn’t know that Fatin knows. Shelby has a few avenues of escape that Toni’s aware of: she can drop out of their group to work alone, she can request a swap, maybe she can even have her dad write a note saying she’s not to work with Toni, but doing any of those things probably leads to Fatin asking questions, and Fatin’s super excited to work with her friend and the girl who helped her get an A+ the last time they had to do an assignment together, and so she certainly would ask plenty of questions if Shelby dropped with no explanation, and besides, it’s maybe a couple meetups of work over the next two weeks, tops, so that’s that.

They use Fatin’s house to work on the project, which is a historical PowerPoint presentation about a landmark coupled with a replica of that landmark they actually have to build themselves. They wind up with the Eiffel Tower, which Fatin thinks is funny because it’s apparently a sex position or something, too.

Shelby barely acknowledges Toni, still, but she does say to Fatin as they work in Fatin’s basement, “I thought you hated me now,” and she sounds kind of shy about it even though according to Fatin Shelby isn’t her biggest fan either.

“Give me some credit, Shelby,” Fatin says, and Toni has her back to them both, gluing popsicle sticks and toothpicks together on top of a wooden base while Fatin and Shelby handle the PowerPoint, so she rolls her eyes, because Fatin’s lying through her teeth when she adds, “I figured most of that shit you said came from your dad. We all do things for our parents we don’t want to. It just sucks that you said it at all.”

Shelby’s quiet for a moment and then Toni feels eyes on her back. “You’re doin’ that wrong,” Shelby accuses suddenly.

Reflexively, Toni says, “No I’m not.”

“It’s gonna fall apart.”

Her thinly built tower suddenly sags and half-collapses, and Toni throws the popsicle stick in her hand down onto the table in front of her, frustrated. “You fucking do it, then.”

“I can handle the PowerPoint by myself,” Fatin offers leadingly, and Toni wants to strangle her.

Shelby slides into the chair next to Toni’s a little hesitantly and says, “It needs a stronger base,” and Toni can feel Fatin watching them now; Toni really wants to spin around and give her the finger, let her know that she’s not doing Toni the favor here that she fucking thinks she is, that this isn’t the time to play matchmaking games, isn’t some stupid fucking romcom where Toni just needs to try a little harder, fight a little more. It’s not that she wants to just give up, either, but Shelby’s been through something traumatic, her mind seems very made up about all of this, and it’s not like Toni’s going to just be able to casually talk her out of two and a half months of family-backed brainwashing, so this is basically just torture for the sake of torture.

Shelby won’t look at Toni but Toni can feel the warmth of her body heat as Shelby makes her watch how she thinks it should be done. They’re sitting less than a foot apart from each other and Toni stares at Shelby’s fingers, watches them work with an elevated heartrate and thinks of them pressed to her abdomen, ready to slide lower if only Toni would just say yes.

Fatin says, “Are you guys hungry? I’m thinking about picking up some food,” and this time Toni does manage to turn around and sneak her a venomous look.

“Say something,” Fatin mouths to her before Shelby turns around too. Toni shakes her head subtly but Fatin can’t reply without Shelby seeing.

“Like, goin’ out?” Shelby asks, and she sounds a bit uneasy, but Fatin’s already on her feet like it doesn’t matter whether they say yes or no, and Toni supposes that’s the point.

“Yeah, I’ll be back in like, twenty. Any requests or should I surprise you guys?”

“I don’t care,” Toni mumbles, and then decides, “Might as well go to Chick-fil-A,” because she knows it’s Shelby’s favorite, and she feels Shelby’s eyes on her cheek.

Fatin gives a short laugh. “Doesn’t really seem like your style, giving money to bigots.”

Shelby stiffens and turns away to focus on their project again, and Toni shrugs her shoulders.

“Talk,” Fatin mouths to her, and then she leaves.

Toni jumps out of her seat the second they’re alone like it’s electrocuted her, takes a deep breath and then walks around a little, getting some distance from Shelby and shaking her arms out. “Fucking Fatin—” she mumbles angrily, and she sees Shelby glance at her.

“Are you alright?” Shelby offers quietly, and Toni glares at her.

“Why would I be alright, Shelby?” she snaps. “This blows.”

“It just needs some work,” Shelby says, eyeing the mess on the table beside her, and Toni narrows her eyes at Shelby, trying to decide if Shelby’s really obtuse enough to believe Toni’s talking about their stupid replica or if she’s just pretending to be because she doesn’t want to have the conversation they’d be having if she acknowledged the truth.

Toni sits down in Fatin’s old seat and doesn’t say anything, keeping her distance, and Shelby puts her back to Toni and focuses on her work, but the air is thick between them. Toni realizes this is almost entirely unprecedented and maybe that’s why it’s so uncomfortable; when Toni and Shelby are alone and physically capable and they know they have the time, they have sex, and that’s just how it’s been. There isn’t an exception, aside from maybe the one time they’d danced in Toni’s room. Five months ago, they’d have been lunging for each other the instant Fatin was gone, and Toni really can’t think too much about what exactly they’d do after that without her whole body getting warm. She really misses it—misses Shelby.

“So does your dad trust you now?” she finally blurts, just to say something. “I mean, since you’re here.”

Shelby seems receptive enough to the topic, at least, but she doesn’t turn around as she says, “My phone has a trackin’ app and I told him it’s only Fatin and had to show him the homework assignment to prove it was real, and he doesn’t know Fatin likes girls or I wouldn’t be allowed here.”

“Oh.” Toni bites the inside of her cheek, thinks about other things they can talk about, because at least if they’re talking it’s a distraction from the sexual tension between them. She pushes the envelope a little, just to see if Shelby will let her.

“What did you do when you—over the summer?” she asks. “What did they teach you?”

Shelby turns around in her seat and almost looks like she wants to talk about it. Almost. “I already told you,” she says instead, evasive.

“Not everything.”

“Why does it matter?”

Toni stutters over an answer, trying to find one that doesn’t amount to just saying because she fucking cares about Shelby, okay, and winds up with, “Feels like I should know my enemies, I guess.”

“They’re not your enemies, Toni,” Shelby says, and Toni senses she really believes it. “That’s one thing they taught me. They just have different values.”

That sounds like code for something, and Toni feels anger rising in her chest. “So I have no morals. Good to know.”

Shelby’s cheeks go pink. “That’s not what I said. It’s just… a different way of viewin’ the world. An alternative.”

“An alternative to being yourself,” Toni fills in, and Shelby sighs.

“No, it’s a choice—a choice to walk the path of the Lord. Havin’ feelings versus actin’ on them. I really don’t wanna argue with you about this, Toni.”

Toni keeps pushing anyway, unable to keep the anger inside of herself from boiling over. “The Lord didn’t do a lot of things that I bet your dad expects you to do to Andrew someday.”

Shelby’s lips press together and Toni sees her fist clench around the popsicle stick in her hand. She’s still wearing her promise ring. Toni remembers the way she’d taken it and tossed it aside and Shelby hadn’t even cared, had just kept reaching for her and kissing her. “That’s enough, Toni.” She feels like that Shelby might still be in there, somewhere, but she also feels like she might be the wrong person to dig deep enough to reach it. Shelby had told her herself the last time they’d spoken that Toni just isn’t good enough, that Shelby just doesn’t feel enough for her.

Shelby needs someone she loves—someone worth giving everything up for, who can make all the right promises, and Toni feels like the poster child for being given up on, she’s so good at it. “Someone’s gonna get through to you eventually, Shelby,” she says. “Convince you to leave behind this hateful church bullshit. You can only fake it for so long.”

“I’m not lyin’ to myself, Toni,” Shelby snaps. “I know who I am, and I also know who I wanna be. And you can stop pretendin’ like any of this actually bothers you. I know it’s just some crusade to prove you’re right and that bein’ a Christian—”

Toni can’t help it; she says the part she didn’t want to say aloud, “Are you kidding me?!” Shelby just blinks at her like she’s stunned by her outburst, like maybe deep down she knew her own accusations were bullshit but she didn’t expect Toni to have the guts to push back, just expected her to leave Shelby’s lies untouched like she had last time. Toni keeps going, “I’ve been a huge fucking mess since you left, Shelby. My appetite’s fucked, I cry all the time, I go back and forth blaming myself for getting you into this shit and it kills me that I can’t get you out of it. Fuck, I never would’ve said or did any of that horrible shit that day if I’d known. It was all bullshit. All of it.”

Shelby looks like that’s the last thing she ever expected to hear Toni to say to her and like she has no idea what to do with the information. Finally, she lowers her gaze and says, “I don’t think you should tell me those sorts of things,” and she sounds very small and very much like she’s choosing her words carefully.

Toni’s so fucking frustrated; she’s the closest she’s ever been to pouring her heart out here and she’s just hitting a brick wall. “Yeah, fuck my feelings, right?” she bites back, and Shelby closes her eyes.

“I didn’t think—”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Shelby’s eyes open and she looks angry that Toni cut her off. “I didn’t think you cared so much.”

“I thought about you every day,” Toni makes herself admit, and Shelby goes very quiet and retreats into her head, and she won’t look at Toni at all. Toni’s suddenly so incredibly embarrassed, and she begins to think that they’d have been better off spending the whole twenty minutes suffering through the tension in silence instead.

Finally, Shelby turns away, and Toni watches her gather her things. “Are you seriously leaving?” she asks, dumbfounded, and Shelby walks quickly to the stairs and disappears from view. Toni hears her feet hurrying up the steps and thinks she maybe hears Shelby start to cry, too, and then the basement door is slamming shut and she’s gone.

Fatin comes back maybe ten minutes later and immediately sets the food and drinks down when she sees Toni sitting alone with tears on her cheeks. She’s too nice about it; goes to Toni with a sigh and makes her stand up, then wipes Toni’s tears with her thumbs and asks, “What happened, Toni?”

Toni presses her mouth hard against Fatin’s without any warning at all, just to try to feel anything else, and Fatin’s lips kiss back a little but the rest of her body stiffens, and she won’t look at Toni when she pulls away.

“You should go, Toni,” she tells her like she hates that she has to say it but Toni has given her no other choice, and Toni gathers her things and thinks maybe it’s a good thing, maybe if she can make enough people give up on her there will be no one left to stop her from self-destructing completely.

Chapter Text

Martha finds out about Shelby in the worst way; it’s an utter fucking nightmare.

Toni starts going for evening runs too sometimes, partly to tire herself out even further so she’ll pass out earlier and partly just so she can be alone for a little while longer, and a week after she and Fatin and Shelby all get a B+ on the project Fatin finishes alone, Toni pushes herself so far that she loses track of where she is until she sees the sign for Shelby’s dad’s Bible spin class building. Their session with some female instructor doesn’t seem to be ending soon and she knows they have water bottles in the lobby and she’s really fucking dehydrated from all the running and sweating.

She ducks inside when the receptionist leaves for a moment, swipes a bottle from the mini fridge and then turns and runs front-first into Dave Goodkind.

“We have a thief,” he says evenly, looking down at her with his arms crossed, and Toni sets her jaw and tries to seem unaffected, not wanting him to see that she’s actually pretty afraid of him.

“I’m thirsty,” she says shortly, and opens the bottle and drains half of it without breaking eye contact. He doesn’t look away either.

“I hope you’re here to get the help you so desperately need.” His voice is calm and his eyes are cold. “The Lord can’t save you if you don’t ask for His guidance.”

“I’m good.” Toni tries to brush past him, but he catches her by the bicep and pulls her back a little roughly, and it actually hurts but Toni just grimaces and doesn’t say anything.

“Then I won’t see you around here again,” he says, and it’s not a suggestion.

Toni rips her arm away and escapes with the water bottle, then clutches her throbbing shoulder once she’s out of sight.

When she gets home, Martha’s not in the living room and her bedroom door is shut, and Toni knows her mom is working late again, so she sets a pot of water on the stove and gets out everything she’ll need to make spaghetti for herself and Martha. While she’s waiting for the water to boil she locks herself in the bathroom, strips down and gets the shower running, then looks at herself in the mirror, rubbing at her shoulder and rolling it a little.

Her body has changed over the past few months; she’s leaner now and her abs and legs are even more killer than they used to be, but she knows she should eat more, it’s just that her appetite’s been inconsistent for a while and plus Martha’s mom has been strapped for cash for as long as Toni can remember, so she’s not home often to cook a decent meal, and Toni usually makes sure Martha’s fed before she eats something herself.

She’s never felt like she deserves to be a part of their family, and she hates the financial burden she knows it puts on Martha’s mom. It’s part of why she throws herself into basketball so much; they’re going to start applying for colleges soon and Toni needs that athletic scholarship. She wants to play Division II so that basketball isn’t literally her whole life, even her career, but she has to fucking kill it with the scouts this year; she knows a few have had their eyes on her since last year but there’s no way they’re coming to these small-town games, so that means their team needs to win enough to reach the post-season.

She gets dizzy in the shower, knows she’s overdone it today, and is shaky on her feet when she’s finally out and has gotten changed in her bedroom. Toni normally keeps her door closed and it’s wide open when she enters, and she imagines Martha probably must’ve ducked in briefly to grab something at some point while she was out on her run.

She finishes up the spaghetti, puts it onto two plates and sets them on the table, then goes to knock on Martha’s door. “Marty, I made dinner,” she says, and then pushes the door open in time to see Martha scrambling around on her bed, fistfuls of unrolled little strips of paper in her hands and the box that belongs under Toni’s bed sitting on her comforter.

Toni takes it in for half a second, looks at Martha’s guilty face and then doesn’t think, just sees red and lunges at her.

They wrestle on the bed, all of Toni’s little messages to Shelby scattering everywhere. The box winds up knocked onto the floor, spilling the few inside that Martha hasn’t read yet, and Martha cries out, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what it was!” while Toni’s pinning her down and grasping at her wrists.

She slams Martha’s arms down against the comforter several times and there are tears in her eyes blurring her vision as she sobs, “You had no fucking right, Marty, you fucking bitch,” and then she punches the pillow next to Martha’s head and clambers off of her to leave, splintering a short line down the center of Martha’s door with her fist on her way out. One of her knuckles starts bleeding but she doesn’t even feel it.

She wants to get out of the house but barely gets to the living room before her head swims again, and Martha finds her seconds after she’s dropped to the floor. Toni registers that Martha’s panicking and hears her suggest something about 911, and it gives her the strength to reach out and grasp her leg and shake her head no, because she’s been falling apart lately but she knows she’ll be okay with a little food, and she also knows that they can’t afford it, and so Martha just gets her some water and a breakfast bar, props her up with her arm and holds Toni up while she gets something into her stomach.

Martha sounds a little angry when she says, “She’s not worth this, Toni,” and it’s the last thing she expected Martha to say about Shelby, as much of a romantic as Martha is, and on the one hand she feels so relieved, like finally someone’s saying something fucking honest for once instead of trying to pretend she’s in some fairytale guaranteed to have a happy ending when Toni feels like she’s trapped in a nightmare. But on the other hand, she knows if Martha—who knows her and Shelby and has seen them together more than anyone else—thinks it’s probably irreparable, it really must be.

“She’s hurting too,” Toni tells her quietly, and Martha just rubs her back and looks down at her with concern.

“You have to take care of yourself first. This is too much.”

“I know,” Toni mumbles, and clenches the fabric of her own shirt tight directly over where her heart is beating fast in her chest. “I don’t want this.”

Martha hugs her tight and says, “So let’s just burn them,” and everyone’s surprising Toni lately, first Fatin and now Martha—everyone but the person she wishes would the most.

Toni sits on the idea for two weeks, like a part of her is still holding out hope that Shelby will suddenly approach her one day and say all the right things, but of course that doesn’t even remotely happen, because Shelby has long since made her position clear and even as much as Toni’s confession seems to have shaken her, it just isn’t enough. Toni knows she isn’t enough.

So they make it a whole thing; they take both of the boxes that used to live under Toni’s bed out to the driveway one evening, past the jack-o’-lanterns and other Halloween decorations Martha’s mom has put up, and Toni reads them silently to herself while Martha watches, transferring them from one box to another as she reads until she’s done with them all, like she’s saying goodbye to them, maybe goodbye to Shelby, too. She hasn’t looked at any of them since the summer, and God, she feels so fucking pathetic reading them back. Shelby would’ve thought she was insane if she’d ever gotten the chance to see them.

Martha hands her the gas can and Toni pours out a little swirl onto both boxes, then lights a match. When she hesitates, holding the open flame out over the boxes, Martha lets her know, “You don’t have to if you really don’t want to, Toni,” like it wasn’t her idea in the first place.

“Bye,” Toni says, and drops the match and watches the flames turn the box and the slips of paper black.

Fatin apologizes to Toni before Toni can apologize to her. She’s waiting at Toni’s locker one day, looking a little shy for once in her life, and when Toni reaches her she says, “I’ve decided I fucked that up more than you did.”

“Really?” Toni asks, because she thinks she fucked it up pretty badly, personally, but Fatin just nods, wrinkles her nose and tilts her head, like yeah, definitely, and walks with Toni to her next class.

“I’ve been watching her,” she says. “She’s in pretty deep. I shouldn’t have forced things; it just made everything worse and hurt both of you.”

“I’m done with it,” Toni promises, more to herself than to Fatin. “I mean, I wanna be, anyway.”

Fatin just nods at her again, doesn’t seem to think it’s her place to question it after what happened before. “Fair enough.” She pauses when they reach her classroom, points back at Toni as she moves to enter, and adds, “Just don’t go crazy on me again.”

October turns into November and basketball’s back on Toni’s schedule, which is perfect. Toni puts her head down and just like last year, it’s all she focuses on, practices and exercises and winning games, and Rachel winds up frustrated with how much Toni forces her out to the court, just the two of them, even as athletic as she is.

“I’m starting to miss when you were turning me down to go cry-run for an hour,” Rachel huffs against her back one evening while she’s trying to guard Toni one-on-one, and Toni can almost laugh about it, but not quite yet.

“Fuck off,” she says instead, drives Rachel out of the way with her arm and lays the ball up into the hoop, and she knows she’s in the best shape she’s ever been in, has even gone back to shoveling down food at every opportunity under Martha’s watchful eye. She feels good; there’s a tight little ball in her chest, always, keeping her aware that Shelby isn’t in a good place and that there’s nothing Toni can really do about it without Shelby being open to receiving her help, but it’s manageable and getting easier to distract herself from, especially when her friends are around. She sneaks a note into Shelby’s locker one day that says, “If you’re ever ready, I’m here for you” and leaves it at that, because it’s all she can do. Shelby never acknowledges the note, but she does skip the afternoon class she has with Toni that day, and Toni gets the message; she tries harder to let go.

Everything gets easier and easier aside from the two classes she has to spend trying not to stare at the back of Shelby’s head, but aside from those two hours a day she’s out of sight, out of mind, as much as Toni can help it, anyway. It’s an improvement.

She hooks up with the girl from the Bakersfield basketball team again during a weekend trip for an away game, and it feels good, but what feels even better is when she racks up the most points in the game against them a day later and wins the whole thing on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, making herself essentially the star of the night. Bakersfield’s a bigger school closer to the city and Toni sees a man in the stands wearing a suit and taking notes on a clipboard and Toni can’t stop smiling the whole bus ride back home.

Shelby turns eighteen, making her free in a lot of really important ways, but nothing changes. Toni watches her hang all over Andrew in the hallway and maybe get a little giggly with Becca, too, and one of those makes Toni much more jealous than the other.

It’s late November when Fatin and Leah break up, and Fatin’s pretty upset about it so Toni offers her some emotional support, because it’s what Fatin did for her, but deep down Toni feels guilty; she’s selfish, and she knows this is really, really good for her, so she’s a little bit maybe not that sad that it happened beyond not liking seeing Fatin so broken up about it.

Fatin’s got the high sex drive of someone who’s used to getting laid regularly and Toni knows she’s not the only person in Fatin’s rotation, but she’s still called upon pretty frequently. It’s the best distraction ever, because they’ve always been great together in this way and they have a really healthy understanding of exactly what this is and what it means, but one day Toni gets a little too into a fantasy that doesn’t involve Fatin and moans out Shelby’s name while Fatin’s going down on her.

The second it slips out she clamps her hand over her mouth, so, so embarrassed just like Shelby had been when she’d said Becca’s name over a year ago now, and Fatin just lifts her mouth off of Toni, looks up at her with raised eyebrows, and says, “Oh, hell no.”

“Dude, I’m so sorry,” Toni moves her hand away from her mouth to say, and Fatin just looks at her expectantly, blinking pointedly at her like a teacher waiting for a scolded child to admit what they’ve done wrong. “I’m sorry,” Toni says again, and pulls Fatin up and then rolls them over, sliding down her body until they’ve fully switched positions so that she can make it up to her.

She licks at Fatin for a moment and then Fatin arches her back dramatically and gasps out, “Oh, Leah!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Toni mumbles into her, and Fatin laughs until it fades away into a moan.

Things are okay. Not anywhere near perfect, but Toni starts to think she’ll survive.

By December, she’s so practiced at keeping her mind off of Shelby that she doesn’t even notice when Shelby’s eyes start to seek her out again.

Chapter Text

They get snow early on in December, which is rare in their part of the state but not unheard of, and Toni and Martha take a trip out to the park, where there’s more room to roam among the flurries. There are a few other people around enjoying the rare cold weather, too, and Toni watches Martha catch snowflakes on her tongue. They make snow angels and have snowball fights until Toni runs headlong into someone while she’s trying to get away from Martha, and when she blurts out a “Fuck, sorry!” and looks around to try to find the person she’s nearly knocked over, she finds Shelby straightening up a few feet away from her, her cheeks flushed pink from what Toni thinks is probably the cold weather.

“Uh, I—” Toni starts, trying to find some words to say to her, any words, really, and Shelby gives her a small smile from under the adorable Winter beanie she’s wearing. It’s got a pom pom and strings.

“Hey, Toni,” she says, a little shyly, and Toni just blinks at her and remains silent, still so surprised to see her. Shelby tilts her head. “Everythin’ workin’ okay up there? You didn’t bang up anythin’ important, did you?”

It sounds good-natured, like maybe Shelby’s feeling a little more relaxed than usual with no one around to overhear them, but Toni can’t be totally sure given how long it’s been since they’ve spoken—things are different now in that they don’t really fight anymore, just completely ignore each other instead, and she has absolutely no clue what Shelby thinks or feels about her now, if they’re on bad terms or if she never crosses Shelby’s mind at all or if they’re meant to be fine by their standards but just not talking—so she stiffens a little and says, “I’m fine.”

“I really hope so,” Shelby tells her, like she’s not talking about their collision, and then she looks over her shoulder. Toni can see Andrew in the distance, pulling money out of his wallet by a snow cone stand, of all things. He’s getting them snow cones in the Winter. Why the fuck is there a snow cone stand?

Toni shakes her head, watching him, says, “That’s fucked up”, and Shelby laughs a lot at that, quietly, but like it’s very, very funny, and then she gives Toni a shy wave goodbye and leaves to go join him. Toni’s heart aches as she stares at Shelby’s back.

“You okay?” Martha approaches her to ask after Shelby’s gone, and Toni doesn’t tell her but she’s secretly glad Martha kept her distance and gave them a moment.

“Yeah,” Toni replies, but she watches Shelby for a few seconds longer anyway—Andrew hands her a snow cone and she kind of half-heartedly licks at the ice shavings before pulling a face when he’s turned away and then letting them fall from her mouth, which Toni would find utterly fucking hilarious if she weren’t just so busy looking; God, Shelby is always so beautiful—and then Martha pulls her away to continue pelting each other with mounds of snow.

December feels a little weird—like something in Toni’s world has shifted without her noticing and she isn’t quite sure why.

Their school throws a Winter Formal right before Christmas break and Toni goes dateless, not even with Martha, who gets asked out by a boy she’s been shyly flirting with in one of the classes she doesn’t share with Toni. Toni tries to get Fatin to go with her, but Fatin recoils from her like she’s just asked her to be her girlfriend and says, “‘Winter Formal’ better be code for something sexual I’ve never heard of,” and Toni just sighs, rolls her eyes, and pulls Fatin’s shirt off.

She’s not sure why she even wants to go—maybe it’s just another nice distraction, because the alternative is likely dribbling a basketball around alone in the slush or just hanging out with the television at home. Or maybe, just a little bit, it’s the hope of running into Shelby again outside of school hours, even if it won’t be the same with their classmates around as it was at the park.

She really dresses up for it, actually goes all-out more than she even did for Prom, and it’s different from the months of dragging herself around in public looking like she’d just rolled out of bed and also wants to crawl right back into it. She pins her hair up with the help of Martha’s mom and then rubs anxiously at her own neck in the mirror, which looks a little longer with her hair the way it is, and she kind of knows a little about how to do her own makeup, but she lets Martha’s mom help her out anyway. She doesn’t quite look like herself at the end of it all, she thinks, but she does look really good, and maybe a little bit of change isn’t the worst thing just for the night.

Martha’s date picks them up and drives them there, which Toni realizes too late is probably a mistake because it means that if the whole thing blows Toni won’t be able to leave early. Their school’s gym is all decked out in Winter-themed décor, snowflakes and fake ice sculptures and white trees, and Regan is there with Chandler of all people, a girl Toni hooked up with a couple of times near the end of sophomore year while she and Regan were on one of their many breaks, so that’s a little weird, but they look content dancing together and Toni’s genuinely happy for them.

She scans the crowd for someone she actually speaks to regularly, hoping to see Rachel or Dot or hell, she’ll even take Nora and maybe even Leah—as awkward as that’d be, it’s less awkward than just sort of standing alone in the corner by the punch bowl, which is what she actually ends up doing, using one hand to sip at her drink while the other fiddles anxiously with the edge of the tablecloth. Toni realizes pretty quickly that coming without a date was definitely a mistake.

She hears a gasp nearby when her embarrassment is at its peak and she’s just considering going and waiting for Martha in the parking lot for a couple of hours, and then someone kind of stage-whispers, “Wow, Toni looks so pretty!” and when she looks to her right Becca isn’t that far away from her, and she’s nudging Shelby with an elbow, who’s busy staring off at the crowd on the dance floor. Toni looks at Becca and smiles politely—the compliment actually feels really good, and she’s happy to know that at least Shelby’s best friend still seems to not be a dick, unlike her boyfriend—and Shelby turns and looks at her, too, and Toni sees her eyes widen a little and her throat move when she swallows. She offers Shelby the same smile Becca got, and Shelby just sort of blinks at her a few times and then hastily looks away, and Toni probably should’ve seen that coming; they’re surrounded by people who matter, now. She really wishes the punch were alcoholic.

Becca isn’t the only person who notices her, though; about a minute passes—Toni spends most of it drinking punch just to do something and ignoring the eyes she keeps feeling on her cheek—and then one of Andrew’s friends—Nick the Dick, Toni sometimes calls him in her head—comes over under the guise of getting punch and whistles a little at her. “Damn, Toni. You’re out here lookin’ like a waste tonight.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” she asks, hostile by default given their history, and he laughs and licks his lips, leaning back a little like he’s trying to get a better look at her whole body.

“I knew you were a freak, but I didn’t realize you were a hot freak. Now I’m kinda sad you’re into chicks.”

“Great, you can fuck off now,” Toni bites out, a little crushed on the inside that she has to deal with this here, now, with Shelby watching, standing by and doing nothing like always, and it almost feels worse this time now that she’s being made to feel like a piece of meat.

Nick laughs and says, “Aw, c’mon, you sure I can’t change your mind?” and then he’s reaching out like he’s going to grab her. Toni almost goes to hit him, but then she takes a breath and slips away from his arm instead, which unfortunately places her up against the wall on her left side. He turns and presses a hand to the brick beside her head and traps her there, and for a moment Toni’s actually a little scared; he’s so close that she can’t see anything past him. “I know people that can help you, Toni,” he says lowly, his eyes on her cleavage, and she’s running through ways to get away from him that don’t involve violence when a hand grabs his shoulder and tugs him back a couple inches.

“Just leave her alone, Nick,” Toni hears Shelby say, and it’s her hand on Nick’s shoulder, and Becca’s kind of in the mix, too, hovering not far behind Shelby like she doesn’t really like what she’s seeing, either.

“Seriously?” Nick asks Shelby.

Becca chimes in, “I’m pretty sure if Toni was interested, you’d know by now,” and that makes Nick laugh and shake his head.

He steps away, says, “Not my fault she’s messed up,” and leaves, and Toni doesn’t even look at Shelby even though she can feel Shelby’s eyes on her, just hurries away and leaves the gym, madder at herself for freezing up than anything else. She knows if she’d hit him she’d have probably been suspended, but it still feels like she failed herself somehow, especially if it’d looked so bad to Shelby that she’d felt the need to bail her out for the first time in her life.

There’s a hall from the gym to the parking lot exit, and Toni waits for Martha in the doorway, where the doors have been propped open, and just shivers a little in the cold air, staring out at the parking lot and wishing she were at home in bed, or at Fatin’s home in Fatin’s bed. She feels so fucking lonely, she realizes, even with the distractions, and wishes she just had someone who would let Toni cuddle up to her at night, would make her feel safe and warm and cared for without Toni having to worry that she’s going to fuck it all up. Martha’s the only stable relationship she’s ever had and unfortunately it’s too platonic to feel like enough.

Shelby shows up a few minutes later, settles against the other side of the doorframe from Toni, and Toni asks, “Where are Andrew and Becca?” like she isn’t completely stunned to see Shelby here, which she is; stunned is an understatement, in fact. It’s been five months since the summer and not once has Shelby approached her on her own terms until now.

“Andrew flew out to visit his grandparents in Utah yesterday,” Shelby tells her. “Becca got asked to dance.” Toni doesn’t know what to say now that her question’s been answered. She’s still looking out at the parking lot but she can feel Shelby looking at her. “I know where I’m goin’ next year,” Shelby says, out of the blue, and Toni has no clue why Shelby’s suddenly willing to talk to her now, but she fixes her gaze to her and watches her offer Toni a small smile. “Got in early to Texas A&M.”

“Congrats, Shelby,” Toni says, meaning it. She’s surprised for some reason, and then realizes she expected Shelby to go to some weird uber-Christian private college that like, bans kissing on campus or something. “Do you know what you’re gonna study?” Her stomach flutters with nerves as she waits for Shelby’s reply; they’re really doing this, they’re talking, and it almost feels normal, in a way. Toni doesn’t know what that means, doesn’t know if something has changed without her knowing or if Shelby is getting braver, or if she’s reading too much into it and Shelby just feels bad for her after the Nick thing, would start picking a fight again if anyone else were to interrupt them.

“I applied as an Early Childhood Education major,” Shelby says. “But I think I’m actually undecided. Any idea where you’re goin’ yet?”

Toni starts to shake her head, then changes her mind and shrugs. “There’ll be more scouts at the post-season games,” she says, and almost sits on the next part, but decides to tell Shelby anyway, “I have somebody I’m talking to, and they’re willing to wait a while for a commitment, which is perfect, but I always kinda wanted to go out of state if I could. Get away from this shithole, you know?”

“Where do you want to go?” Shelby’s staring at her like she thinks this is the most interesting conversation.

“California would be nice. I think learning to surf could be cool.” She pauses, a memory playing in the back in her head, and she considers whether or not to share it, almost doesn’t, but Shelby’s looking at her so intently. She’s never told anyone about it before, not even Martha. “There’s one really good memory I have with my parents. The only really good one. I must’ve been four years old, maybe five, and we took this trip to the beach—I don’t remember what beach, but I had on those little arm floats, you know?”

“Floaties?” Shelby supplies with a small laugh, and her eyes are so bright when Toni nods at her.

“Yeah, and a boogieboard. A Spiderman one. We spent all day in the water and I just paddled around on that board like I belonged on it. I want to go back there.”

“I hope you get what you want,” Shelby tells her. Toni thinks about telling her that the school interested in her is Texas A&M but then doesn’t.

“Maybe.” Toni shrugs. “Can’t always have everything I want.”

Shelby exhales and it’s visible in the chilly air. Toni just looks at her and watches her look back. “You look really beautiful tonight, Toni,” Shelby finally says, a little breathless. “I’m sorry Nick ruined it.”

“You saved it,” Toni says easily, like Shelby’s compliment hasn’t made her heart clench and her stomach flip. “And me. Thank you.” It means a lot, given their issues during junior year, but Toni doesn’t want to get into it, so she gives Shelby a once-over and makes sure it’s obvious what she’s going for when she half-jokes, “You look hot.”

It works; Shelby laughs shortly, but Toni sees her blush a little too, remembers enough of her mannerisms to know that when Shelby runs her hand over her hair like she’s doing now it’s because she’s feeling self-conscious and nervous. “Hot, yeah… don’t know if that’s a word I’d ever use for me.”

Toni leans forward a little, cocking an eyebrow in disbelief. “Have you gone eighteen years without looking into a mirror?”

“Toni…” Shelby rolls her eyes, blushing harder, and Toni just grins at her, has about two seconds where she wonders what the fuck is going on because it’s weird enough that they’re talking like this and now they’re definitely flirting, and then pushes those thoughts aside.

“I hope you don’t marry Andrew’s bitch ass, because you’re wasted on him,” she says, and maybe that one’s a little too real, because Shelby’s smile fades a little and so does her blush, and then she won’t look Toni in the eyes. Toni changes the subject; it seems like a good time and there’s still something she’s wanted to ask Shelby for so long but never got the chance to. Maybe she won’t get another. “Can I ask you something?”

“What?” Shelby’s voice is quiet, like she’s afraid of what the question will be.

“What does being in love feel like?” Toni blurts before she can lose her nerve, and Shelby’s eyes widen a little, back on Toni’s again. “I know you’ve been there, and I just—I want to know. Fatin’s and Dot’s answers sucked and were also totally different.”

Shelby bites her lip and stares at Toni for a long time, like she’s thinking about it, and then she swallows hard and says, “Like… this painful, wantin’ ache, right in my chest. Like things will never be right. ‘Cause it’ll never be like I want.” Shelby blinks and Toni thinks for a moment she sees tears in Shelby’s eyes. “I hate it. I wish I didn’t feel it at all.”

Toni presses her lips together tight and doesn’t say anything at first. Shelby looks a bit sick in front of her and Toni knows her description has been very helpful. “It sounds like it sucks,” she makes herself say, and Shelby forces a laugh.

“Yeah, don’t ever feel it unless you’re already sure you can be with her.”

“I’ll be sure to ask first,” Toni agrees, smiling thinly. “You know, before I go off being stupid and like, feeling emotions and shit.”

Shelby nods emphatically, playing along with the joke, and says, “Those damn emotions,” like she’s banishing them to hell, and Toni wants to laugh, but she gets on board instead, is more forceful than Shelby.

“Fuck emotions.”

“Fuck ‘em,” Shelby curses in that endearing southern drawl, and Toni can’t help but crack first, just laughs at Shelby like they’ve been close friends for years, like this isn’t the longest conversation they’ve had in over six months. Shelby beams at her with the widest grin on her face, and Toni wants to kiss her so badly.

Becca finds them like that, still giggling a little, and seems surprised to see them together, let alone getting along so well. “Hey, there you are!” she says to Shelby, a little breathless from what Toni suspects is a few dances with the guy Shelby mentioned. She acknowledges Toni after a second, seems to remember what happened back in the gym, and says, “Sorry about that, Toni. I know we don’t always—” Her eyes flicker over to Shelby, and then she apparently changes her mind and finishes, “Well, Nick’s just an asshole sometimes.”

Toni shrugs and says to the both of them, “You guys should go dance. Marty’s probably gonna wanna leave soon, anyway; she doesn’t like to stay too long at these things.”

“You sure?” Becca asks, and Toni nods and looks at Shelby, and can tell she’s reluctant to go. It makes Toni really happy, given what she’s competing with, but she tilts her head suggestively towards Becca anyway.

“Have fun,” Toni says to Shelby, trying to not make it sound like the double-entendre it kind of is, and Becca laughs suddenly, right when it looks like Shelby’s about to take the first step away. Toni sees Becca grinning, pointing at a plant taped to the top of the doorframe, right above Toni’s and Shelby’s heads.

“Mistletoe!” she says, and then she pulls Shelby away by the hand obliviously, completely missing the deep blush on Shelby’s cheeks. Toni sees it, though, and settles for feeling a bit satisfied that the idea of kissing her flusters Shelby a little. They’ll never be anything again, but it’s been all these months and she can still make Shelby blush so easily, and that knowledge alone makes Toni’s heart feel a little bit lighter—or maybe she’s still riding the high of making Shelby laugh and grin that big grin at her.

Toni thinks on that alone in the doorway for a while longer, but she knows without having to do much soul-searching that she’s never felt so happy just to see someone else smile at her before.

Martha has her first kiss that night, and it’s taken Toni way too long to finally realize it, but Toni is in love for the first time.

Chapter Text

Having an answer chills Toni out a little, like part of what was ripping her apart inside for a while was the uncertainty of it all—what she was feeling, what Shelby was feeling, how things were going to be between them, and now she has answers to all of those questions. Toni’s also pretty sure she was kind of going through the five stages of grief or something about it all for a while—she can pick out pretty much all of them here and there even if the order isn’t exactly right—so maybe it’s just that she’s exhausted herself and finally hit acceptance.

The point is, she has an answer. She loves Shelby, still feels that she has so much more to learn about this girl she loves and like it’s super embarrassing that out of all the girls in the world it’s this one, but there’s no mistaking that Shelby takes up space in her heart and mind like no one else ever has, even when she’s doing her best to not think about her. Toni loves Shelby, and Shelby loves Becca, and it’s all hopeless, but Toni thinks Shelby might finally be beginning to suspect that Toni’s legitimately into her, the way Shelby starts to catch her staring, and as it turns out, if she’s obvious enough that Shelby might have a clue then she’s definitely obvious enough for Fatin and Martha to notice.

“What are you doing,” Fatin asks her about it flatly while they’re hanging out in Fatin’s bed together, and Toni shrugs her shoulders.

“I think I’ll be fine.”

“She drove you nuts,” Fatin reminds her.

“It’s different now,” Toni says, and spreads her arms like she’s hugging the air. “I’m embracing the good vibes.”

“What good vibes can there possibly be? Are you getting good vibes from watching her kiss Andrew like he’s her grandmother?”

Toni can’t help but laugh at that, because God, as sad as the situation is, it’s so true sometimes.

“Does this mean you’re not gonna go down on me anymore?” Fatin continues worriedly, even though she just did, and Toni snorts.

“No, it’s not like anything’s ever gonna happen with her anyway. We barely even speak to each other.” It used to be never, which means this is actually an improvement, but Toni doesn’t let herself get her hopes up at all, because it’s like Fatin had said a while ago: Shelby’s in deep, has way too much work to do to claw back up out of the hole she’s in, and even if she did, it wouldn’t be for Toni, anyway.

“I don’t get it,” Fatin admits, but shrugs her shoulders and then pulls Toni on top of her.

Martha’s more worried for her than Fatin is, but Toni just says, “I’ll be fine, Marty. There are literally no expectations this time.”

Even before Christmas break Toni had started to feel her days getting longer, had been a little fidgety and eager to fill the hours with something, and so the open hours during the break make things even worse and she decides to get a job waitressing at the local diner to give herself something to do. The job… has its downsides.

“Do you guys have any of the, uh… fish tacos?”

Toni blinks at Nick, pad and pencil in her hand. He’s here with Andrew, Shelby, Becca, and two other boys, and Toni watches the boys try to hide smiles behind their menus like they think they’re actually being slick. Shelby’s frowning down at the table and Becca doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, maybe thinks it’s a legitimate order.

“Not on the menu for you, Nick,” Toni says with a little bite, “but I think you should be used to that.”

The other guys “ooh!” at that like she’s just metaphorically dunked on him and Nick sits back in his seat a little, smiles like he can respect it, but then goes back to his menu, pretending to read it and making Toni wait on him. “How about the clam? Any good clams lately, Toni?” Beside him Andrew’s body is shaking, he’s snickering so hard, and Toni just sighs and rolls her eyes.

“I’m goin’ to the bathroom,” Shelby blurts out right around the time Becca finally gets it and shoots Nick a disgusted look. “Order for me?” she says to Andrew, who isn’t really paying attention to her, but Shelby just scoots out of the booth with her purse hanging off of her shoulder without waiting for confirmation.

Toni takes their orders, including Andrew’s order for Shelby, which is a burger even though Toni has legitimately never seen Shelby eat a burger in her entire life, so she brings out chicken fingers instead.

“That’s not what I ordered for her,” Andrew says, which is pretty comical when Shelby’s right next to him looking all excited about the chicken finger already on the way to her mouth.

Toni quirks an eyebrow at him. “I think she’ll live.”

Later, after Shelby and the others have departed, Toni takes a bathroom break and finds a sticky note pressed to the mirror with Shelby’s familiar neat script on it.

I miss you.

It’s so unexpected and Toni’s heart races at the sight of it; she feels a little bit hopeful and a little bit like she’s being jerked around and given whiplash, but she takes the note and tucks it into her pocket for safekeeping anyway.

Andrew and his crew become regulars because they like fucking with Toni, and Toni gets a note on the bathroom mirror every time. She resents them in a lot of ways, resents that Shelby can’t just say the words aloud, but after months of not communicating with her at all, her heart can’t help but leap every time she sees Shelby and her friends walk through the door. She’s taking what she can get and trying to think of it as progress even though it’s probably just a way for Shelby to let loose and be a little gay for a few minutes, given the constant exhausting front she has to put up, and Toni feels pathetic for hanging onto Shelby’s every little word on a sticky note in a dingy bathroom but she can’t help but start to get sucked back in again the second Shelby's ready to offer her any amount of attention.

I’m sorry that they’re treating you like this.

I noticed you gave me extra fries. You’re so sweet.

I think you look so good in your uniform. Shelby had written two other adjectives and then scribbled over the both of them before settling for “good”, and Toni spends several seconds trying to decipher them and finally manages to make out “adorable” and then “cute”.

Toni gets an idea after the fourth time it happens, buys some sticky notes of her own, and the next time they come in she heads off to the bathroom first before she serves them, writes I’m not sure what to make of these but I like them and sticks it to the mirror.

She checks the note again after Shelby and her friends have left, and Shelby has written beneath Toni’s words.

I like being able to tell you the things I’m always thinking.

Toni continues to wonder if maybe something is changing in Shelby, if maybe she’s starting to reject the things she learned six months ago, but she doesn’t dare let herself hope too much because she knows it would crush her all over again to be let down by Shelby yet another time.

Two things happen near the end of January.

The first is that the high wears off a little and Toni kind of starts to feel like shit again. It’s not as bad as it was before, but she starts thinking a little too much about Shelby’s eyes and lips and naked body, gets off a few too many times to memories from a year ago and then starts feeling a bit pathetic for being hung up on a girl she has no shot with, because Shelby might like her but she certainly doesn’t love her, and even if she did she probably still wouldn’t choose Toni anyway.

“I’m such a fucking loser,” Toni barges into Martha’s room to say one day, tears already streaming down her cheeks, and Martha sighs and beckons Toni onto her bed, listens to her go on, “I just want to be someone’s first choice for once.”

“You’re my first choice,” Martha says, cradling Toni’s head against her chest.

“You literally have a boyfriend,” Toni reminds her, and Martha laughs.

“Yeah, but I would dump him if he ever said anything bad about you.”

“Dude must be walking on eggshells,” Toni jokes, and Martha laughs again.

“No, he likes you. He’s scared of you, but he likes you.”

“That’s the ideal relationship for me to have with him,” Toni says, and they sit and talk about a lot of things, and it cheers her up for a little while.

The second thing that happens is devastating.

Fatin finds out first before anyone else Toni talks to, and Toni gets a call from her on a Friday night. Toni’s up late, watching a movie with Martha, and considers not answering because she’s not sure she’s up for making the drive to Fatin’s for a booty call and she kind of wants to know how the movie ends, but when it rings a second time she sighs and answers it, motioning for Martha to pause the movie.

“Yes, hello, this is the Bargain Booty Bin. We only have one in stock and she’s currently not operational at the moment, so you’re gonna have to shop elsewhere tonight.”

“Toni,” Fatin says, and even in that one word alone Toni can hear she’s upset, which is immediately nerve-wracking because Fatin’s almost never upset. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” Toni asks, and Fatin tells her about Becca.

Toni almost drops the phone, her pulse thundering in her ears. She knows Fatin’s still talking but she doesn’t register the words, can’t hear them over the sound of her own pounding heart. Martha scoots close and takes the phone from her and Toni just stares at Martha, trying to make herself process it. Martha starts talking to Fatin and Toni watches Martha’s face go slack, too, for a moment, and then Martha starts crying.

None of them had known Becca all that well, but it still feels so horrible, like a punch to Toni’s gut. Toni stares at the wall and can’t stop thinking of Shelby, who must be feeling more grief right now than Toni has ever felt in her entire life. Becca was the only person from Shelby’s religious group that Toni ever thought might support Shelby unconditionally, and now she’s gone.

Toni starts crying quietly, too, wishes she had known Becca just a little bit better, could’ve seen the signs, if there were any, could do anything for Shelby now that it’s happened, and Martha wraps her arms around her after the call ends and listens to Toni say, hoarsely, “I can’t do anything.”

She feels powerless. She can’t even call Shelby.

“She has her family,” Martha says, and Toni knows she’s just trying to be reassuring but it doesn’t work.

“She hates her family,” Toni replies, and she knows it’s not entirely true—Shelby hates her family, but she also loves them, because they’re her family—but Martha gets what she means.

“We’ll see her Monday,” Martha points out, and Toni counts the hours.

Becca’s funeral is on Sunday and Toni drives out on her own just because she has to check, has to make sure Shelby’s still standing, and she hovers at the edge and looks around but doesn’t see any of the Goodkinds at all. She goes home feeling sick. Something is very wrong.

She makes Martha call Shelby even though they don’t talk anymore and the phone rings and rings and rings and then goes to voicemail, where Martha can’t even leave a message because it’s full already, and so Toni has to wait until the next day and hope to see Shelby at school.

It’s about the worst it could be, short of Shelby being dead herself, because Shelby is completely fine. Like, completely fine, pretending it didn’t happen fine, acting like she never knew Becca fine. She walks down the halls hand-in-hand with Andrew—who is actually more noticeably down than Shelby is—like she doesn’t even notice everyone staring at her, goes to her locker and then kisses him goodbye before she heads off to class.

Shelby has perfected the art of going numb, Toni realizes, and thinks of her onstage during that pageant video, smiling and delivering her statements on conversion therapy with the knowledge that she was likely about to be subjected to it herself. Shelby’s whole life is a pageant. Her best friend who she loved is dead and buried and Shelby is doing the real-life version of her perfect pageant smile.

Toni watches Shelby walk away and thinks that they are opposites now: Toni feels too much and shows too much of it and Shelby doesn’t let herself feel anything when she’s not around Toni and doesn’t show it when she does. Toni’s fists clench at her sides and she waits for things to change, but they don’t. A week goes by and Shelby is fine, looks fine, acts fine. Toni gets angrier, thinks of the day she went bowling with Becca, Shelby, and Martha, when Shelby couldn’t stop staring at Becca. This feels insulting to Becca’s memory.

The next Monday morning, as Toni and Martha pull into the school parking lot bright and early and find a space near the doors, she happens to catch Shelby getting out of her car across the lot. There are a few other cars scattered around but no one else is outside.

“Go inside, Marty,” Toni says gruffly, and Martha catches her tone and looks at her, sees Toni watching Shelby get her backpack out of the backseat of her car.

“Don’t do anything dumb, Toni,” she warns, but gives her space anyway, heading inside with only a worried glance backward.

Toni stalks over, and it’s not until she’s feet away from Shelby and Shelby is closing her car door and turning her head to look at Toni that she realizes she has no plan.

“Toni,” Shelby says with alarm, and then glances around them to make sure they’re alone, and Toni feels herself get angrier, both at Shelby and at the whole shitty situation, and this time she lets her emotions take over.

Her hands find Shelby’s shoulders and she pushes her back; Shelby’s still standing inches away from her car and immediately Toni has her pinned to it, and though the force of the impact isn’t strong it still seems to shock Shelby enough to make her drop her backpack to the ground beside her. Toni knows her own jaw is tense and thinks she probably looks disgusted as she stares at Shelby, because it’s certainly how she feels.

Shelby blinks at her, wide-eyed, for a moment, but Toni watches the mask slip on and then she’s just looking at Toni evenly, waiting.

“Shelby,” Toni says shortly, and Shelby swallows and stares but gives nothing away. Toni takes a deep breath, decides to just go for it, to just start pushing. “Becca’s dead,” she says, and the corner of Shelby’s mouth twitches but otherwise she doesn’t react at all.

“I know, Toni,” Shelby says simply, like it’s nothing, and Toni fumes.

“Becca killed herself, Shelby.”

“I’m aware.”

“Then act like it!” Toni explodes, raising her fist and slamming it down against Shelby’s car, far enough away from Shelby’s head to make it clear she wasn’t aiming for her, but Shelby jumps a little anyway, startled.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” Shelby says, but her voice wavers a little, the façade cracking for a moment, and Toni stares hard at her, wills her to break.

“I want you to feel something.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not!” Toni pushes back from Shelby, breathing hard, wanting to hit her car again, but her hand is still throbbing from last time. “Nobody would be. Feel something, Shelby. Scream. Cry.” She looks down at her own body, fleetingly, and offers, “Hit me, if that’s what you need to do. Anything. I want you to let me fucking help you.”

“I’m not gonna hit you, Toni,” Shelby says like it’s a stupid idea, but Toni licks her lips and thinks about it, starting to like the idea the more she rolls it around in her head. It feels like the only thing she has to offer.

“No, you should. You never got to tell her how you felt, did you?” And she knows she’s pushing too far now, crossing a line, but Shelby’s lips press together tight and Toni just wants any emotion she can get from her, she’ll take anything. “That’s my fault, Shelby. I got in the way.”

“You don’t know anything,” Shelby blurts, and it’s working, Toni knows, so she keeps going.

“I got you outed and sent away and it spooked you so badly that you never got to tell her how you felt, she died not knowing and now she’ll never know—”

Shelby slaps her and Toni’s stunned for a moment, but through the stinging pain she sees tears streaming down Shelby’s cheeks. Toni licks her lip and tastes blood; Shelby’s promise ring had caught her there.

“Good,” she says, because at least it’s something, and Shelby just looks at her with fury, like she might slap her again.

“You still don’t know.” Shelby shakes her head and looks so angry.

“I know plenty,” Toni snaps, but really, she has no clue what Shelby’s talking about now.

“I always have to spell everythin’ out for you.”

“You don’t have to always do anything with me, Shelby; we hardly talk—” Toni starts to say, but Shelby grabs two fistfuls of her shirt and yanks her close and then Shelby’s mouth is on hers, and it’s rough, all biting and tugging on Toni’s already-injured lip and before she can process what’s happening she’s whimpering against Shelby and kissing her right back.

Shelby’s angry and this isn’t sweet; she forces her way into Toni’s mouth with her tongue and puts a hand on her neck to hold her in place, and Toni feels Shelby’s nails sinking into her skin until it stings. Toni’s hands grasp at Shelby’s sides, holding her against the car, and she moves in closer until their bodies are pressed tightly together. Heat and want roar through Toni like a freight train and Shelby bites on her lip again, and they both ignore the way it bleeds a little more.

And then Shelby tears her lips away and pushes Toni off of her, wipes at her mouth and snatches up her backpack and rushes off without a word, leaving Toni open-mouthed and panting as she watches her go.

Chapter Text

Shelby avoids Toni after and for once Toni doesn’t fault her for it, given what she’s going through, but she still thinks about their kiss for most of the next month; ignores Fatin’s booty call texts until Fatin straight-up tells her that fine, she’s cut off anyway, and Toni ignores that text too, plus the ones from Rachel asking about extra practice and a request from Dot to come to a party with her, all of which are normally the exact kind of things Toni would be all about.

She watches Shelby carefully, watches her start to let herself get upset in class sometimes and have to ask to step out for a moment, watches her take deep breaths at her locker when she has a moment to herself, and knows that Shelby is letting herself feel things when she’s safely out from under her own roof.

She spends a lot of time thinking about the past year of Shelby’s life: between the back-and-forth with Toni, summer, having to pretend with Andrew all the time, and now Becca, she’s been completely put through the ringer and Toni doesn’t know how she’s still standing. She wants to help however she can, wants Shelby to just fucking talk to her, somehow, but Shelby seems to have retreated into herself for now—even the notes in the diner stop entirely and so do the visits there—and Toni knows this isn’t the time to push anything or to ask about the kiss, even if she could manage to find a way to have a conversation with Shelby somehow. She wants to let Shelby grieve her best friend, however she decides to do it, as long as she does do it. So she keeps her distance and waits.

She thinks about what their kiss means, because she thinks it might just mean that—it probably means that—She doesn’t want to think too much about what it means, in case there’s a chance she’s wrong. Shelby had kissed her on a whim in the midst of going through one of the most traumatic events of her life and gauging something from that without having a conversation with her about it feels like doing a trust fall off of a cliff and hoping Shelby’s holding a net at the bottom. And Shelby hasn’t exactly been reliable in the past. Toni has always felt like a bit of a placeholder for Becca, but the longer she thinks about it, the more she realizes that she’s always put that label on herself and that Shelby has even gone as far as to outright correct her on at least one occasion.

It’s scary, to have been given so much hope, because things were actually way easier when Toni felt like she knew where she stood.

At first, Toni doesn’t know how Shelby manages it, or how it happens, or why it happens, but the third weekend of February, Dot finally calls in the raincheck for going to a party and drags Toni out to what looks like some kind of old plantation house, which makes Toni super uncomfortable, but Dot feeds her a shot and she settles, and that’s when Toni sees Shelby there. Shelby is out at a party, she isn’t even with Andrew, and she appears to be drinking heavily.

Toni wanders away from Dot almost immediately, who calls after her and sounds a little annoyed, but disappears off in a different direction when she sees someone else she knows.

“Shelby,” Toni says, touching her arm to get her attention, and Shelby is flushed and honestly pretty noticeably plastered when she turns, to the point where she doesn’t even immediately recoil from Toni and check their surroundings.

“Wow,” she slurs, blinking at Toni curiously, “Toni’s here.”

“Shelby’s here,” Toni echoes, and can’t help but acknowledge again that Shelby is utterly wasted.

Shelby leans in close and murmurs to her, like she’s telling the biggest secret ever, “I’m bein’ a rebel.”

“Okay.” Toni doesn’t know what else to say to that.

“Left my phone at a 24-hour library so it looks like I’m there instead.”

“Won’t it get stolen?”

Shelby shakes her head and fumbles for the wall beside herself when she gets a little off-balance. “Nope. Hid it behind the Bibles.”

“That’s… ironic,” Toni finally says, and then looks at Shelby with concern. “Don’t you think you might have some trouble getting back home?”

Shelby frowns, decides, “I had not thought this through,” but doesn’t seem all that bothered.

Toni looks around. Dot has vanished completely now and as far as she knows there’s no one else for her to hang out with; even Fatin’s missing a party for once, and Toni doesn’t feel particularly committed to hanging around and trying to talk to a bunch of half-drunk acquaintances, so she says, “Maybe we should get you out of here.” Because really, Shelby looks a total mess—worse than she had at the party that started it all, back when Fatin turned seventeen, and maybe even worse than the one where she puked into a toilet for half an hour, too.

“Oh?” Shelby laughs and wiggles her eyebrows at Toni, and it’s truly a metric of how absolutely way too much to drink she’s had when she flirts, “You wanna get me out of here, Toni?”

“Not like that,” Toni huffs out. “You’re trashed. Let’s get some air.”

Toni texts Dot to let her know she’s changed her mind and is heading home, then waits around in Shelby’s car for a few more minutes for the shot she took to wear off. Shelby’s got a drink in her hand in the passenger’s seat that she’s refused to let Toni take away from her, and Toni’s pretty sure it’s mostly alcohol, so Shelby’s actually going to get even drunker before all of this is over. Toni glances at her and heaves a sigh, wondering what the fuck she’s gotten herself into and how much puke she’s going to wind up having to clean up.

She drives them to their go-to spot at the make out point, which Shelby makes many slurred jokes about, then takes Shelby out of the car after she’s finished with her drink and makes her sit on a blanket in the grass. They’re up on elevated ground, side by side and overlooking a park different from the one Toni usually meets Rachel at for basketball, and the weather’s still pretty cold, but Shelby tells Toni she gets hot when she drinks and Toni’s the same way, so the wind doesn’t bother them too much.

For a while, they don’t say anything, and Toni marvels at how they got here, thinks about Fatin’s party again and wonders what the Toni at that party would’ve thought if she’d known everything that’d come out of just trying to do something kind of shitty to Shelby. She looks at Shelby, who’s leaning back on her elbows and letting the wind blow her hair around, her head tipped back and her eyes closed while the moon casts shadows across her face. Toni wishes she’d done it all differently.

She faces forward again and ruminates on all the missed opportunities until she hears Shelby shifting beside her, and then a hand is on her cheek and forcing her face to turn and suddenly Shelby’s lips are on hers, and it’s sloppy and hungry; Shelby’s so fucking drunk, and Toni ignores the heat that rolls through her and pulls away a little, barely recognizing her own voice when she whispers, “Shelby.”

“I can’t make you go away,” Shelby slurs, and she’s completely undeterred—just leans in further and holds Toni close with the hand on her cheek, kissing her again, tongue pushing desperately into her mouth, and Toni groans and listens to her body for a moment; every muscle is screaming at her to give in, and so she does, just lets Shelby do what she wants and matches her messy movements as best as she can. She’s missed this so incredibly much, making out with Shelby, but she can feel that it’s off, that Shelby isn’t all here, and the thought of what Shelby might think about this when she’s sober has Toni pulling away abruptly again.

“Shelby,” she warns a second time, her heart racing, and Shelby lies back next to her and looks up at Toni heavily from under her lashes, her hands sliding across her own abdomen and then down. She pops open the button on the front of her jeans and Toni gives a start, alarmed. “What are you doing?”

“’s not what ‘m here for?” Shelby asks, barely comprehendible between the alcohol and her accent, and Toni knocks her hands away from her pants and buttons her back up, her cheeks hot. She slides away when she’s done, keeping her distance.

“Not when you’re like this,” Toni says firmly, and Shelby just stares up at the stars, and it would almost be funny, her drunkenly lying spread-eagled next to Toni, if it weren’t Shelby and if tears weren’t starting to leak out of the corners of her eyes.

“I know Becca never wanted me, but I thought you did,” she mumbles, and Toni feels her throat get tight at that. She doesn’t know what the stuff about Becca’s supposed to mean, if there’s something Shelby knows that Toni’s missing and they’d had a conversation at some point after all, or if Shelby’s just making assumptions, but Shelby blinks out more tears and Toni can’t help but reach out and take her hand, even though there’s still a ridiculous amount of space between the rest of their bodies, so both of their arms wind up fully extended. Toni knows they look stupid but she doesn’t care.

“She loved you, Shelby,” Toni says to reassure her, even though she knows it’s not the same as what Shelby means, and wonders if she’s said something wrong when Shelby starts crying harder.

“I’m not a good person,” she sobs, shaking her head. “No one should love me.”

It feels like the wrong time to have this conversation, with Shelby clearly not in her right mind, so Toni says, “That’s not true,” and then tries to take a break. “Let’s just sit here and breathe, Shelby. It’s gonna be okay.”

Shelby cries quietly for a little while and Toni squeezes her hand until eventually she falls silent. When Toni looks over, Shelby’s unconscious and drooling a little, which is at least preferable to puking, Toni supposes. Toni sighs again and moves back to her, lifts the corner of the blanket and wipes at Shelby’s mouth a little, then sits at her side and watches her, traces the curve of her nose and her lips and her jaw and says quietly, her chest aching, “You are so beautiful.”

Shelby’s passed out, drunk, and drooling, and Toni knows she’s staring at her like she’s the fucking Mona Lisa or something, it’s so fucking pathetic.

“God, I’m so fucked,” she adds half-heartedly to herself, shaking her head.

Eventually, Shelby wakes up, smacking her lips, and sits up and looks around with a little bit of alarm, evidently not immediately remembering where she is. Toni gives her a small smile and a wave in the dark from where she’s still sitting nearby, her knees drawn up to her chest.

“Morning, beautiful,” she jokes. “How do you feel about cicadas? ‘Cause I’ve been listening to them screech at us for like, two hours now, and I’m starting to think that they fucking suck.”

“I’ve been out for two hours?” Shelby wonders.

“I thought it could wind up being longer,” Toni says. “You were plastered.”

Shelby grimaces and rubs at her head. “Did I say anythin’ stupid?”

“Yeah,” Toni tells her, smiling. “Nothing that didn’t sound a little like me when I’m sober, though.”

Shelby looks kind of carefully at her, and Toni can see the worry in her eyes, even in the dark. “Did I… do anythin’ stupid?” she asks, and Toni can tell she genuinely doesn’t remember.

“You’re fine, Shelby,” is all she says. “Let’s go get your phone and then I’ll drive you home.”

The radio display in the car reads just after 1:30 when Toni pulls into Shelby’s neighborhood, and Shelby’s looked like she knows she’s in trouble pretty much ever since they got her phone back, is all sick and anxious and finally puts a hand on Toni’s when they’re still one street away from her house and says, “Wait.”

Toni presses the brakes and looks at her.

“He’s not gonna let me go anywhere anymore,” Shelby tells her. “I could tell he only let me go out to the library tonight because he felt sorry for me. After Becca.”

“He didn’t even let you go to the funeral?” Toni wonders, recalling that none of Shelby’s family had been there, and Shelby shakes her head.

“I didn’t even find out until the day before. And I couldn’t even—” she pauses, presses her lips tight, and her voice cracks a little, “I couldn’t show him I was upset.”

Toni shifts the car into park and stares at her. “What happened, Shelby?”

Shelby shakes her head and then tears are spilling down her cheeks. “It was all my fault. I said horrible things to her, but I was so—I was so scared and I didn’t want him to ask me to go back to that place—”

“Shelby,” Toni breathes, reaching out to wipe at her tears, but Shelby pulls away, still shaking her head.

“I don’t deserve your sympathy, I really don’t. If you knew what I said—the things she trusted me with.” And then Shelby’s turning away, covering her face with her hands, crying into her palms. “I was so stupid, I thought I loved her for years and then… there was you, and I just wanted to see if I could make it go back to how it was before with her. She always felt so safe. You’re terrifying, Toni.”

It’s too much for Toni to take in at once; she’s still stuck on Shelby’s feelings for Becca, what she’s insinuating about her feelings for Toni.

“I was upset and I wasn’t thinking,” Shelby goes on. “She told her parents that I kissed her and they told my parents, and then I had to make her hate me so they’d see that I was tryin’—”

“Fuck, Shelby.” Toni reaches for her shoulder this time, but Shelby shrugs her hand off.

“She did what she did because I made her feel that way. I killed her. I’ve just become this… this monster, ever since last summer. Sometimes I look in the mirror and it’s like I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I hate what I see.”

Toni’s jaw goes tight with anger as she pictures Shelby’s dad’s cold eyes and his hand grabbing her arm in the lobby by the water bottles. “The bullshit your dad and that camp hammered into you is what made you say those things, Shelby,” she says. “You’re not a monster. What you went through would mess up anyone.”

“But I have a choice, remember?” Shelby says, raising her head to look at Toni, and her cheeks are red and tear-streaked. “I always have a choice. That’s what you said. I didn’t have to say any of it. I didn’t have to kiss her.” She takes a shaky breath. “She’s the only person who ever loved me without expectin’ me to be perfect.”

“No, Shelby, she isn’t,” Toni says, and looks at Shelby’s puffy eyes and cheeks and disheveled hair and smeared makeup, thinks of Dot coming back inside after Fatin’s fight with Leah mumbling about how love is fucking messy. “Nobody who loves you should expect you to be perfect. They should just look at you and think that you are.”

Shelby exhales through her nose and rolls her wet eyes a little weakly. “I am definitely not perfect, Toni.”

“Yeah, but you’re you.” Toni rests her head against the seat and offers Shelby a small smile. “That’s close enough, right?”

Shelby just looks at Toni for a long moment, and Toni’s a little surprised when she sees tears filling her eyes again, because really, she’d been trying to cheer her up. Shelby’s lip trembles and she sighs, “Toni,” reaches out almost like she’s going to touch Toni’s face but then catches herself and takes her hand back, holding it tight against her chest. Her eyes are so wide and sad. “I wish so many things had gone differently for us.”

Toni stares, feels her heart clench as she watches more tears slide down Shelby’s cheeks. Her throat tightens and she blinks, forcing herself not to cry here, when she’s trying to be so strong for Shelby. “Shelby, they still can.”

“You should go to California,” Shelby tells her, and Toni sees her trying to smile, but her lips are still trembling and she can barely force it. “I can picture you on the beach already.” She closes her eyes. “And when I see it in my head, you’re so much happier there.”

***

Toni spends some extra time with Fatin for the next week because she’s always great at cheering Toni up without making her get too into her feelings. They don’t have sex, though, which Fatin turns into a whole thing, even though it’s been hardly any time at all since Fatin was the one trying to pull the plug.

“You’re such a fucking buzzkill, Toni.”

Toni blinks when she feels a popcorn kernel nail her right in the back of the head. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of Fatin’s bedroom, watching a movie with her back against Fatin’s bed while Fatin’s stretched out across the mattress behind her, and Fatin is being a whiny little bitch.

“At least when I won’t fuck you it’s because I’ve gone temporarily insane and committed to a relationship with someone. At this point Shelby could fucking snail mail a heart sticker to you, tell you it’ll be there in three months and you’d be like, ‘Sorry, Fatin, my heart and vagina are taken indefinitely.’ It’s fucked up.”

“That’s literally not true. I’ve been fucking around with you for months.” Toni rolls her eyes and feels another kernel pelt her in the head. “Stop that. Go be horny somewhere else or I won’t even keep your lonely ass company next time. Where’s Dot?”

“Probably getting laid. Makes one of us. She basically told you to fuck off into the sunset with me, you know.”

“Huh? Dot said that?”

“Shelby, moron. I’m going to UCLA?”

“That’s a little out of context.” Fatin hits her with another kernel and Toni tenses her jaw.

“What does Martha think about it?”

“She says that as long as I’m still taking care of myself, I should follow my heart.”

“God, she would.” Toni hears Fatin heave a sigh. “What if your heart’s headed right for a meat grinder, huh? Ever considered that?”

It very well could be, Toni thinks.

“I have to try anyway,” she decides aloud. “I know she loves me back.”

“Has she actually said that?” Fatin asks like she already knows the answer.

“Not… literally,” Toni says carefully. “But she does. I can tell.”

Toni really can; she can see it now, in the way Shelby’s been stealing glances at her for months, in the way she made herself be brave enough to have that conversation at the dance, to start writing notes again for a little while; she can feel in the way Shelby kisses her so desperately, like she’s spent forever longing to do it again, and Toni wonders how long she’s been missing the signs for, how she could be so stupid to have missed it all in the first place. She’s spent so much time certain she wouldn’t deserve it that she never bothered to wonder if she had it anyway.

Fatin rolls her eyes. “So, did Shelby tell you how much she loves you before or after she asked you to fuck off to California?”

Toni turns to glare at her. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Well, she hasn’t said it. I’ll do you one better. I love you, Toni.” Fatin spreads her legs and points. “In my vagina. C’mon, I even douched.”

“You are fucking sad,” Toni laughs out, and Fatin cracks, starts laughing alongside her. “Seriously, did the whole roster bail on you at once or something?”

“Last week, this guy was going down on me,” Fatin begins, “and he literally bit—”

“No!” Toni interrupts, clapping her hands over her ears. “Stop, stop, stop.”

When she finally lets her guard down, Fatin’s watching her with amusement, wiggling her eyebrows. “So, has Shelby at least got oral skills? You never gave me details. I have this theory that accents matter. Something about the way your tongue moves when you talk, you know?”

Toni goes red and doesn’t want to answer, knows Fatin will judge her, but says it anyway, “Things were a little one-sided.”

“Toni!” Fatin gasps out, throwing a pillow at her this time. “No! That is a red fucking flag, dude. I would’ve never encouraged this if I’d known.”

“She tried,” Toni elaborates, and Fatin’s eyes widen in horror. “That’s not what I mean! I didn’t want her to, so I always said no. We were still being dicks to each other at school, so… look, I just didn’t want to. It’s complicated. And it’s my fault, not hers.”

“Has she even touched your vagina?” Fatin pries, and Toni grits her teeth and faces forward again. “Toni. You’re in love with a girl who has never touched your vagina.”

“Things happened in a weird order,” Toni decides. “Sex first, and then… I don’t know, maybe love and like at the same time, not really sure about those, and we’re still working on trust—”

She pauses, realizing it actually feels really good to explain this all out loud to someone, even if Fatin’s roasting her for it. “Do you really think I should just give up and leave?” she asks.

“I think it’s a lot to ask someone to throw away everything for you,” Fatin says, sounding serious for once. “Especially when it sounds like she’s worried she’s not gonna be able to.” She frowns and adds, “By the way, you know a lot of these schools are Division I, right? Texas A&M, too. I thought you were shooting for somewhere smaller.”

“I was. I thought I’d go for something less intense for once.” Toni considers it for a moment. “And I guess maybe a part of me thought I wouldn’t be good enough.”

Fatin feigns a gasp. “No! Toni Shalifoe, selling herself short? Never!”

Toni rolls her eyes. “Well, it’s not like any of this is an actual dilemma yet. I can’t go to California unless I get an offer. Texas blows, but it doesn’t six-figures-in-student-loan-debt blow.” Plus, Shelby’s going to Texas A&M, too, but Toni doesn’t mention that part.

Another week later, Toni gets an offer from a scout from UCLA.

Now it’s a dilemma.

Chapter Text

Toni really fucking agonizes over it, like, a lot; wants to talk to Shelby but literally can’t get a word in between Andrew sticking to her at school and her father keeping her at home outside of school hours, maybe with the exception of religious activities and pageants, and it’s not like Toni could get anywhere near those either and get away with it, so there’s actually just nothing she can do, and the deadline to figure out where she’s going to school is approaching very, very quickly. Everyone else already has it locked in; Martha’s staying local and Rachel got scouted to Texas A&M too, but for diving; Dot and Nora and everyone else in their social circle also knows where they’re going and what they want to major in.

Toni’s the only one dragging her feet. One day, she’s sure she’ll follow Shelby and Rachel; it’s not where she wants to be at all but the who of it all certainly matters. And then the next day she’s picturing Shelby crying in her car, telling her to go to California and be happy, and Toni knows at least she’ll have a friend there in Fatin as well.

If it weren’t for Shelby, the decision’s a no-brainer, but Toni’s not sure she can be happy if she doesn’t pursue this thing, if she doesn’t try as much as she possibly can, and she knows that if she goes to Texas A&M, it’ll all continue. It may not go the way she wants it to, but at least she’d still be trying, and maybe things could be different, with Shelby out from under her parents’ roof.

Toni thinks of Shelby living in a dorm on the same campus as her, able to do whatever she wants, just like at the fair, and she knows that Shelby’s behavior now is partially self-sustained, that just because her dad isn’t around doesn’t mean Shelby won’t still believe that she should marry Andrew because she’ll be lonely and family-less if she chooses Toni, but at least she’d be physically free to make that choice, to talk to Toni about making it. They’d hang out, maybe get a little tipsy together, slip up, fall into bed, and Toni would show her how perfect it could be, and there would be a chance. She decides she’ll go to Texas A&M.

But for every time she thinks about that scenario, she also thinks about herself showing up to Shelby’s dorm room, Shelby tearfully telling her that she loves her but she just can’t, and then Toni having to see her around campus constantly afterward. It would be utter torture; maybe Andrew would visit and Toni would see them kissing, too, and it’d just be high school all over again, and she’d wish she’d fucked off to California where girls would be, like, fighting to get onto her tongue (Fatin’s words). Plus, the thought of spending her days on a beautiful, sunny, liberal campus and her evenings and weekends surfing and running on the beach makes her chest feel so light. So, she decides she’ll go to UCLA.

She gets desperate and shows up at Shelby’s house at one in the morning on a Friday night like a crazy person, fights through way too many bushes, scales a trellis like she’s in a fucking Shakespeare play and slips onto the balcony outside of Shelby’s bedroom. She taps on the glass door as quietly as she can, and eventually Shelby stirs in her bed and rolls over. Her sleepy eyes take in Toni and then go impossibly wide and Shelby jolts fully awake. Toni holds her finger up to her lips, warning Shelby to be silent as though she actually needs it, and Shelby just stares at her for a moment like Toni’s definitely as crazy as she feels right now. She’s really fucking doing this.

Shelby goes to the glass door and cracks it open, hisses, “Toni, what the f—What on earth are you doing? Do you have any idea what’ll happen if my parents—?”

“I know,” Toni whispers, and her cheeks are hot; she’s very embarrassed that she’s doing this, but she’s just out of options. “Please, I just need to talk to you.”

“I can’t,” Shelby starts to say, but Toni reaches out and grabs her wrist, holds her in place and makes Shelby look her in the eyes.

“Please, Shelby. It’s the last time.”

Shelby glances over her shoulder nervously, and then tells Toni, “You have to be real quiet.”

Relief floods Toni as Shelby cracks the door wider and lets her slip inside. She sees a pamphlet from the “God’s Path” camp sitting on Shelby’s dresser as she settles beside it, right next to the kitten with the halo that Toni won for her at the fair.

Shelby sits on the edge of her bed and looks at her, and they talk in whispers. “What is this about, Toni?”

“I have two options for college,” Toni starts, and Shelby looks taken aback, like she can’t believe that this, of all reasons, is why Toni has snuck into her room in the middle of the night and risked so much, and Toni rushes out, “Just hear me out. They’re at Texas A&M with you and Rachel, and UCLA with Fatin.”

Shelby blinks at her, stunned. “You got into Texas—”

“Yeah.” Toni swallows hard. “Rachel’s already agreed to be my roommate if I go.”

“Or UCLA,” Shelby says slowly, “in California.” She bites her lip, looks down at her lap, and says, with thinly-veiled bitterness, “With Fatin.”

“Who has also agreed to room with me if I go,” Toni admits, and she feels like she’s playing dirty a little, but she knows it’s a factor, knows it would bother Shelby and deep down is hoping it will make enough of a difference.

“What do you need from me?” Shelby asks her, like it isn’t obvious, and Toni sucks in a breath, psychs herself up and then makes herself say it.

“I want you to tell me to stay.” She pauses and swallows again while Shelby stares at her. “If that’s what you want.”

“I—” Shelby looks lost for a moment; she can’t make eye contact with Toni when she says, “I already said—”

“No, Shelby, I’m serious,” Toni interrupts, shaking her head. “Think about it. I want you to tell me if there’s a chance.” She closes her eyes, takes a breath. Then reaches for the pamphlet on the dresser and holds it up. “Do you believe in this or do you believe in me?”

Shelby just blinks at her, looking more lost than Toni’s ever seen her. “Toni, I… I don’t know how—” She pauses, and to Toni it looks like she’s in physical pain for a moment as she runs her hands through her hair. “Why are you leavin’ this up to me? It’s not my life, I don’t want—”

“Because I trust you,” Toni tells her, and steps closer, sets the pamphlet aside. “If you tell me that if I stay, you think there’s a chance you can get out from under this bullshit, I’ll do it. I’ll stay.”

“Why?” Shelby asks, and Toni’s laugh is quiet.

“Shelby, you know why.”

Even in the darkness, Toni can see the flush in Shelby’s cheeks and the tentative warmth in her eyes. “I can’t make this decision for you, Toni.”

“Not asking you to,” Toni says. “Just asking you to give me all the information.” She swallows hard, knows what she’s about to unload is going to be difficult to get through, but somebody has to take the first step, so she crosses to Shelby and sits next to her on the bed, looks her in the eyes and goes on, “Let me tell you what I want.”

“Okay,” Shelby says, very quietly.

“I want us to be able to talk. And to be honest. And… fucking actually get somewhere without you ignoring me afterward, and I want you to tell me how you fucking feel, Shelby, just say it and we’ll go from there.” She swallows hard. “If I tell you, will you tell me?”

Shelby closes her eyes and bites at her lip, and Toni can see the dilemma written all over her face and knows exactly what’s going on now, because it’s exactly what she’s feeling, too—they can’t take this back, once it’s finally out there.

Toni doesn’t get any promises from her, but she pushes forward anyway. “The way that I feel is like everything that you said when I asked you what love felt like. I feel exactly like that, like you’re always there and I can’t get you out even if it hurts to let you stay. And if that’s how you feel about me too then I just want to know so—”

“Yes, Toni,” Shelby murmurs, and she almost sounds like she can’t help herself, like she’s too frustrated to keep it all in anymore. Toni feels like air’s been breathed into her lungs for her, like she can inhale a little more easily now. “It’s been you since—for so long. I almost told you after we got back from the fair that I thought I was falling in love with you.” Toni’s head spins. That was so incredibly long ago. “I thought of you every day over the summer, too. I even wrote you a letter the first week.” Shelby pauses, thinking something over. “An angry one, but I remember saying how stupid I felt for thinking you might love me back.”

“I didn’t get a letter,” Toni says, and feels dumb when Shelby forces a laugh and rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, well, they found it in my suitcase and took it, then said if I did it again they’d show the next one to my parents. They said not to write about you at all, even if it was negative.”

Toni doesn’t realize she’s been leaning in closer, hanging onto every word until Shelby’s eyes glance down to her lips. “I wrote notes to you over the summer,” Toni says, and makes herself keep looking into Shelby’s eyes, watches them widen a little in pleasant surprise.

“Really?”

Toni nods. “Every day.”

“How many?”

Toni looks away and shakes her head, purses her lips because she knows she’s about to get shit for this. “Well, I did it for most of the summer and there were at least three a day, so you do the math.”

Shelby doesn’t look like she wants to tease her at all, though; she looks somewhere between completely fascinated and incredibly touched. “Where are they? Can I read them?”

“Burned.”

Shelby nods shortly, like she’s not that surprised that Toni would totally light something on fire to try to make her feelings go away, and Toni has to hide another smile at the thought. “Can you tell me what they said?”

Toni sits back on her hands and thinks, trying to remember. Some of the more memorable ones come to her right away. “That I missed you. That I hated your dad. That I thought I could fall in love with you.” She pauses, watches Shelby watch her, and then tilts her head and adds, “Some of them were inappropriate.”

Shelby smiles at that and Toni goes on.

“I tried to make a list of things I knew about you. I wrote to you about love. I said—” She pauses, feels heat in her cheeks. “I said I maybe regretted not letting you touch me.” She sees Shelby’s chest rise as she inhales sharply, and then Shelby just stares at her, and things are too tense, so Toni pushes past it. “I said you had a pretty smile.” Shelby blinks rapidly at that and looks away, like something’s wrong, and Toni’s eyebrows furrow. “What?”

“There’s a lot you still don’t know about me, Toni,” Shelby murmurs. “I don’t have a pretty smile.”

Toni thinks of the retainer she knows is always in Shelby’s mouth, looks confused for a moment and then just assumes this is something else someone’s lied to Shelby about, maybe preyed on her insecurities somehow. “You really do, Shelby. Your teeth will be fine if you take your retainer out during the day.”

“It’s not for that,” Shelby admits. “I’m missin’ two teeth. They never grew in after my baby teeth fell out. I have to wear fake ones until I can get surgery.”

“That’s not a big deal to me, Shelby,” Toni tells her.

“In the pageant world, it makes me ugly,” Shelby says, and Toni looks around her room again, sees how obvious it is that Shelby’s so entrenched in that world, where every little thing needs to be perfect.

“Your dad and that camp told you you’d be miserable and lonely with me?” Toni recalls. “This looks miserable and lonely.” She pauses. “It sounds like they just make you feel like shit in exchange for a cheap trophy.”

“What if I threw everythin’ away for you and then we broke up?” Shelby asks suddenly.

“Then you’d find another girl, and it’d still be better than fucking your life up with Andrew,” Toni says. “And I’d rather stick around here and break up in a year than leave here and let you keep pretending to be someone you’re not.” She shrugs her shoulders. “Sorry, Shelby. I’m committed now. So it’s up to you: Does everything we’re saying to each other mean anything or not?”

She looks over and Shelby’s hand is at her chest, clutching at the cross necklace she’s always wearing.

“There are gay Christians,” Toni tells her. “They’re happy.”

“Do they have families like mine?” Shelby whispers, and Toni watches her blink and sees a tear roll down her cheek.

“Some of them. They find new families. Better families.” Toni smiles at her. “Kind of like adoptive families.” Shelby laughs a little at that and lets Toni reach up to wipe at her cheek. “You’re really fucking beautiful,” Toni murmurs to her, just because she’s looking at Shelby and it’s true, and Shelby’s smile fades and their faces are inches apart. Toni looks at her lips. “Why did you kiss me the first time, if you had so much to lose?” she asks, because Shelby never gave her a real answer before.

Shelby’s head dips, but her eyes look up at Toni’s, almost shyly, and she says, “I know we didn’t get along, but I did always think you were real brave. I guess I thought if I showed you that I could be too, just a little bit, you might understand. Might not… think so horribly of me.” Her mouth is so close, Toni can feel Shelby’s breath tickling her lips. “But then I sobered up and I got scared again. But I still wanted to—wanted that feelin’, that I got with you.” Toni can’t help the smile that pulls at the corners of her lips, and Shelby blushes, reading her mind. “Not that, or maybe sometimes it was that—but I just mean feelin’ like I was bein’ myself. I wanted to feel like me. And I felt like me with you.”

Shelby’s lips are so close to hers, like she’s actually thinking about kissing her again, and Toni feels her own heart beating hard in her chest, whispers, “What else do you want?” and knows that she’s willing to give it, whatever it is, if there’s a chance it will change Shelby’s mind. She can feel Shelby’s hands trembling as they settle uncertainly on her neck, and it’s like Shelby’s forgotten how to do this, will have to relearn it all over again. It’s been over nine months since they’ve really touched each other.

“Be quiet,” Shelby pleads, ghosting her lips over Toni’s, and Toni nods almost imperceptibly, knows her own breathing is heavy and audible already and immediately tries to slow it down. She knows what Shelby’s asking for is so much more than that, knows exactly what she’s implying.

“Yes,” she agrees, and lets Shelby press her down into the mattress.

Chapter Text

They’ve put the comforter over their whole bodies to help keep their noises insulated, just in case, and though there’s a small opening just past Toni’s head for air and a little bit of moonlight it makes Toni’s body feel too warm and it’s nearly impossible to see anything.

Shelby’s mouth is soft and hot and wet on Toni’s neck and Toni’s just trying to breathe, in, out, in, out, tells herself don’t be loud, don’t make any noise at all, and Shelby’s hands are slow on her body, touching her waist and sliding over her ribcage and barely brushing her chest and they scorch Toni’s skin even through the shirt she’s still wearing, and she’s deeply worried that she’s made a promise she won’t be able to keep, because those fingers are meant to be inside of her soon and she can barely handle them on her body at all.

Shelby’s never laid down fully on top of her like this for longer than a few seconds, and it’s a lot, having Shelby’s body pressed up against her in all the places Shelby chooses, having her own body straining up for more contact when it isn’t exactly what Toni would’ve chosen, being the one with her hands sliding over Shelby’s shoulder blades and down her back, tracing her spine through the thin tank top she’d worn to bed.

“Slow down,” she whispers, and Shelby nuzzles into her neck and stops kissing her, breathing a little harshly herself.

“I can’t go any slower, Toni,” she mumbles, but Toni feels her hips shifting a little over Toni’s thighs and has to bite her lip to make herself not react.

It’s not a turn-on to be doing it like this; there’s a genuine fear, and Toni feels it, too, deep in her chest and her gut, thinks about what Shelby would feel if the door suddenly swung open and they were caught like this, or even worse, if they were caught after things had progressed further, and even running through the scenario in her head kills Toni’s arousal a little, but there’s just so much want running through her—and through Shelby too, she knows—in the first place that it feels worth the risk.

She’s also worried that this will wind up being goodbye, is terrified that it just won’t be good enough, that Shelby will weigh this night and decide that the sex is okay and the feelings are there but it’s just not enough, so Toni should take off to California and never look back. Toni’s stuck wanting everything about this to be perfect and also knowing that it can’t be.

She knows she blew it last year; they had so many opportunities to do everything they wanted, to spend time together alone and talk and get to know each other more and to be loud during sex, and now this is what they’re left with, is all the time they can manage to scrape up to do this, and Shelby has to do it ready to slip her hand over Toni’s mouth.

Shelby moves her head up, kisses Toni sweetly on the jaw and cups one of her cheeks while she presses a kiss to the other, and Toni can’t help but smile, because God, she’s missed her so much, and it’s just so Shelby to kiss her on the cheek during foreplay, to even think about doing something like that when her mouth and neck and ear are right there. Shelby’s mouth moves to cover hers and Toni melts into their kiss and lets her hands drift lower, onto the material of Shelby’s pajama shorts and over the curves of her body.

They have rules for this, tonight. No sudden touches. No quick movements. No rolling around or doing anything that would make the bed creak or the headboard hit the wall.

So Toni’s hands are gentle and she waits until she’s sure Shelby knows what she’s doing before she guides her down into a slow grind against Toni’s hips, and Shelby’s breath is hot and heavy against her mouth but she’s quiet, and they both just seem content to keep kissing and enjoy the light friction for a moment. Toni feels like her head is spinning and for some reason she thinks back to Shelby at the dance in December, saying she wouldn’t call herself hot, and Toni wants to laugh it’s so utterly ridiculous.

Toni’s incredibly turned on and ready to burst and she can’t help but breathe out, “You’re perfect, Shelby. You have no idea how into you I am.”

They’re still grinding and Toni can hear Shelby’s breathing getting more labored.

“I always thought you were so—” Shelby starts lowly, and then seems to change her mind and goes quiet.

“Frustrating?” Toni guesses, only half-serious.

“Yes,” Shelby says, but Toni can tell there’s more, and Shelby buries her face in Toni’s neck like she’s shy about it, kisses her there for another long moment and then finishes, “Tempting.”

Toni’s chest tightens a little at the word because of the memories it brings back, but the heat that rolls through her body is unmistakable.

“I use the jets in my jacuzzi when I’m alone,” Shelby says abruptly, and Toni blinks wide at that mental image, is very glad they can’t see each other in the darkness, suddenly. “One time you popped into my head and I promised myself that would never, ever happen again.”

“Oh,” Toni whispers, and she wants to ask if it ever did happen again, but given where they are now she thinks she knows the answer.

“That was freshman year,” Shelby adds so shyly and quietly, like it’s the biggest secret she’s ever told, and Toni actually moans a little and earns an immediate hand over her mouth for it.

“Fuck, Shelby,” she whispers when Shelby’s hand finally moves away. “You can’t say shit like that.”

Shelby kisses her shortly on the neck again, and Toni can feel the slight frown on her lips. “I’m still not good at this.”

“You’re so good at it,” Toni corrects.

“I—” Shelby starts again, like she’s hesitant but she wants to try anyway, and then she confesses, “I tried to get rid of you this year, but I couldn’t. I tried to think of boys instead, but it wasn’t workin’.” It takes Toni a moment to realize they’re still on the jacuzzi, and her whole body feels so tense and warm, suddenly. She feels Shelby’s breath on her ear. “When I thought of you it was always so quick.”

“Shelby,” Toni groans quietly. “Please touch me.”

Shelby kisses her again and it’s a little insistent, but her hips slow to a stop over Toni’s and her hand slides down to Toni’s waist, thumb sliding over her hipbone in warning before she curls her fingers around the hem of Toni’s shirt.

It’s a little difficult under the comforter, but they sit up, letting some welcome cool air in, and Toni helps Shelby get her shirt off. “Just get rid of all of it,” Toni whispers, and Shelby’s fingers slide to the clasp at her back and unhook her bra. Toni peels it away for her; hears the shifting of material in front of her and feels Shelby moving.

“I took mine off, too,” Shelby murmurs, and Toni fumbles for her hands, feels the tank top Shelby’s grasping and collects it, then lifts the comforter enough to dump their clothes off the side of the bed. When she pulls Shelby back down on top of her, Shelby straddles her thigh this time, and her whole upper body is so warm. Toni just wants to hold her close and touch and kiss every inch of her exposed skin, but she knows it’s not what Shelby wants tonight and it’s also not something they can afford to spend time on here.

“Is this still okay?” she whispers into Shelby’s ear, and Shelby shifts so that her mouth is pressing against Toni’s neck again.

“Yes,” is all she breathes out, and it washes away Toni’s fears and doubts for a moment—deep down she’s worried that the turmoil she knows exists inside Shelby will suddenly manifest itself in her panicking and calling this off at any moment, because technically nothing has changed at all since the summer, if anything her life’s gotten so much worse, and Toni can’t find a reason for her to suddenly change her mind and be brave other than because Toni’s practically begging her to. Tonight’s supposed to be a motivator, but if Shelby struggles at all to get through even that, starts questioning it while they’re in bed together, Toni thinks it might crush her heart into tiny little pieces.

Shelby lifts her body a little to fit her arm between them and Toni feels Shelby’s fingers at the edge of her breast and Shelby’s lips sliding down over the opposite side of her collarbone, and immediately Toni focuses on her own breathing again, and she’s so fucking paranoid that when she feels Shelby’s mouth on the swell of her breast anxiety balls up in her stomach, because they’ve done this part before and it always does so much for her, but she’s supposed to be quiet through it.

Shelby’s tongue is slow and gentle and so is her hand, and Toni reaches out for her, tucks her hair behind her ears and slides her fingers over her jaw and down her neck to her upper back. She traces a path down Shelby’s sides and skims her thumbs over the sides of Shelby’s breasts, and Shelby lets out a hot puff of air and her hips cant into Toni’s. It’s too much; Toni feels a moan bubbling up and smothers it with the back of her own hand. When she’s sure she’s got a hold on herself, she moves her hand and whispers, “I’m wet,” not sure what pace Shelby intends to move at and not wanting her to take longer than she wants to, giving the pressing nature of their situation.

Shelby groans quietly against her nipple and shifts her mouth to the other side, and Toni closes her eyes and bites down on her lip, rocks beneath her and knows it’s good for Shelby too when Shelby’s breathing picks up against her breast. Maybe it’s better, even—Toni’s in thick pants but Shelby’s just in her flimsy pajama shorts, and none of this occurs to Toni until Shelby’s mouth falls open against her and she starts panting heavily, her hand twitching oddly where it rests against Toni’s ribcage. Toni’s whole body suddenly feels hotter.

“Tell me to stop,” she warns, and feels Shelby shaking her head and her hand working between Toni’s body and her own face to rest over her mouth, and immediately once it’s in place she starts moaning, like she’d been struggling to hold it back before.

They’re grinding against each other and Toni can feel it, too, but she grasps at Shelby’s hips and tries to ignore her own arousal, helps Shelby find a rhythm and it only takes seconds before she’s clutching at Toni’s shoulder with her free hand and shuddering against her, her hips snapping forward desperately, and Toni can’t see her face but she knows her body well enough to know right away what’s happening as soon as it starts, and knows right when it ends, too. She eases her hands off of Shelby’s hips as they slow to a stop and then runs her fingers gently through Shelby’s hair while Shelby catches her breath. It’s almost too hot under the comforter now; they’re both damp with sweat and Toni can’t help but reach up and air it out a little.

“That’s embarrassin’,” Shelby finally says, and Toni doesn’t even understand what she means for a moment because they’re so not on the same page about it.

“I came on accident in the backseat of your car once,” Toni reminds her, and feels Shelby shift up her body a little and press her lips to Toni’s ear.

Shelby’s voice is low when she murmurs, “That was different.”

“Yeah, it was actually embarrassing,” Toni says with a quiet laugh. Shelby kisses the shell of her ear and then starts using her teeth, and Toni closes her eyes and swallows thickly. “Do you want me to take the rest of my clothes off?”

“Please,” Shelby mumbles, and they take the comforter off for a moment to get rid of Toni’s pants. Shelby tugs her own shorts down and she isn’t wearing any underwear, and Toni gets distracted staring for a moment until Shelby grasps for the comforter and pulls it up over herself, then shifts over Toni and presses her onto her back again, fingers reaching for the edges of her underwear. Toni lifts her hips and lets Shelby work it off of her, and Toni hears her breathing audibly again as her hands roam up Toni’s thighs. She tugs Shelby back down on top of her and spreads her legs, hyper-focused on the press of Shelby’s fingers against the inside of her thigh—Shelby’s come close but has never touched her there before, so high up, and Toni’s surprised at how fast her heart is racing already. Her chest feels tight but for once it’s in a good way.

“Slowly,” she warns again, afraid she’ll make too much noise otherwise.

Shelby’s breathless and very obviously distracted, “Uh huh,” is not reassuring.

“I’ll fucking blow this, Shelby,” she pushes, because she knows herself, and Shelby’s fingers slide higher, meet slickness on her inner thighs and Toni can hear that Shelby’s breathing is uneven.

“Use your hand,” Shelby reminds her, and Toni legitimately has no clue what she’s talking about, she’s so focused on Shelby’s fingers, until Shelby seems to notice she hasn’t moved and adds, “To keep quiet.”

Reluctantly, Toni drags the back of her hand back up to her mouth and clenches it into a fist, feels the harsh exhale of her breath against her hand and then Shelby’s fingers slide upward and part her, and yeah, without her hand they’d have at least found themselves frozen and listening for movement in the hallway.

“Toni,” Shelby’s voice sounds thick with something as her fingers slide up and press harder and Toni’s hips roll, and she tucks her face into Toni’s neck again, groans, “I love this. I love you,” and Toni’s heart clenches even tighter in her chest at the sudden admission and she understands why Dot says love is like a heart attack; Shelby’s fingers fumble over her a little uncertainly and she understands why Fatin says love is when it’s not the best sex she’s ever had but it’s the only sex she wants to have.

“Me too,” Toni chokes out against her hand, too distracted by Shelby’s fingers to realize she’s fucked it up a little at first, and she rushes to correct, “I love you, too,” and Shelby moves Toni’s hand away and replaces it with her lips, so that Toni’s moaning into her mouth instead while Shelby’s fingers work over her and slide through her, and Toni knows right away she can come from this, she’s so wound up and so into letting Shelby touch her.

“Is it—?” Shelby starts to ask, and Toni knows right away that they’re on the same wavelength, immediately rushes to reassure her.

“Yeah. Keep going.” She remembers tonight’s for Shelby and corrects, “Unless there’s more you want—”

“I want everything,” Shelby breathes out, and then slants their mouths together to swallow the moan from Toni she seems to have known was coming. She feels Shelby’s fingers sliding lower, pressing in a little, and Toni feels like she’s about to burst at the seams, like every nerve ending in her body is on edge and on fire.

There’s an expectation she knows Shelby has, because it’s her first time doing this and they’re telling each other they’re in love and it’s been so sweet and intimate, and Toni feels a little guilty, deep down, because she’s a complete hot mess at the moment and she really wants nothing more than for Shelby to slip inside of her and really just thrust into her hard and fast, honestly; Shelby turns her on so much and she wants it so badly that she’s on the verge of suggesting it, but she has no idea how Shelby will react and it’s so risky in her house anyway, so when Shelby’s fingers rub at her and Toni feels like crying, she bites down hard on her lip to get ahold of herself and just strokes Shelby’s upper arm in silent encouragement.

Shelby slides gently into her with one finger, gives a breathless, “Oh, wow,” and Toni can’t take it.

“Two or three,” she whispers into Shelby’s mouth, and then nips at her bottom lip, just because it’s there.

“What else?” Shelby asks, and Toni feels the words on her tongue, can’t help but roll her hips into Shelby’s hand as a second finger joins her first and they’re still so slow.

“I’m just, so.” She swallows and changes her mind. “It’s good.”

Shelby kisses her gently but she seems distracted, almost thoughtful, and when they part she asks, “Faster?” and Toni gives up, clutches at her back and nods.

“Literally whatever we can do, I swear to God, Shelby. You have no idea what this is doing to me.”

“Me too,” Shelby whispers.

Shelby’s fingers start thrusting faster and Toni’s back arches as she moans, and it’s bad; Shelby claps a hand over her mouth so quickly that it hurts a little, and her fingers still. Toni’s arousal fades immediately, replaced with fear, and she stifles her breathing and listens with Shelby. When they haven’t heard anything after a minute, Shelby breathes out, “I don’t think this is workin’.”

“It is,” Toni insists, crushed by the dismay in Shelby’s voice. “We’ll slow down.”

“Where’s your car?” Shelby asks abruptly, and Toni feels so dumb for not thinking of it before.

“Do we have time?” she tries anyway, but Shelby’s already easing out of her and looking around for their clothes. “What if they check and you’re not here?”

“Better than them checkin’ and findin’ us like this,” Shelby says, and Toni blinks at her, realizes how right she is, and then fumbles for her underwear.

Toni doesn’t expect them to go anywhere once they’re in the car, but Shelby takes the keys and says she’ll drive, and ten minutes later they’re back at Toni’s house and Toni’s under Shelby in her own bed, moaning approvingly into her mouth while Shelby feels her up over her shirt. She’s still throbbing and her cheeks are still flushed, but everything feels lighter now, even the air around them, and when Shelby struggles with taking Toni’s pants off this time around Shelby gets the giggles and then can’t seem to stop them, until Toni’s sure it’s about something else.

“What?” she breathes out, tugging Shelby back onto her once they’re both naked, and Shelby’s body shakes with quiet laughter even as she cups Toni’s cheek and presses a kiss to her mouth.

“We had to go somewhere else,” she starts, and then grins and kisses Toni’s jaw, “because—”

“Because I got so insanely turned on and couldn’t handle turtle speed, yeah,” Toni agrees, and then Shelby’s laughing against her again, and it’s too contagious; Toni has to chuckle at it, too.

Shelby reins herself in and pulls away a little to look at her, and it’s so much better like this in so many ways, Toni thinks; she can see Shelby’s face now and they can take until right before sunrise if they want, make all the noises they need to to a certain extent, as long as they aren’t loud enough to wake Martha up. Toni’s turned the fan on in the bathroom to provide a little bit of white noise and hopes it’s enough.

“I want it to be good for you,” Shelby says, serious now, and Toni smiles at her.

“Shelby, I felt like those teenagers in horror movies who have sex while the killer watches them from the shadows with like, a chainsaw, and it was still amazing back there. This is perfect.”

Shelby chews on her lip and strokes her thumb across Toni’s cheek, and Toni can tell something’s concerning her. “So it wasn’t—” Shelby starts, hesitant, and Toni really studies her, sensing that Shelby’s trying to play something off that matters so, so much to her. “You’re sure it measures up to—”

“Shit, Shelby,” Toni interrupts, her gut twisting. “Yes. Fuck, yes. I only said that stuff back then because I was hurt and I wanted to hurt you. You know that. There’s no comparison to anyone.”

“Fatin and Regan know what they’re doin’,” Shelby starts, leadingly.

You know what you’re doing. My body’s like, we see Shelby reaching out to touch us, we get turned on. There are little minions in there like in Inside Out flipping the horny switch.”

Shelby snorts and shakes her head, but she’s grinning. “You’re so freakin’ stupid sometimes.”

“You,” Toni says pleasantly, and sits up to press a kiss to Shelby’s jaw, “are gonna touch me again,” she kisses down her neck, next, and feels Shelby’s hands settle on her waist and her head roll to the side, “and I’m gonna make a bunch of embarrassing noises, and it’ll be because I think you’re perfect and so, so good at it.”

“Lord, I wish we could stay here forever,” Shelby says faintly, and then kisses Toni hard.

It’s less than a minute later that Shelby’s carefully working two fingers inside of her again and Toni’s gasping for breath and angling her hips to speed up the process. She’s just thinking that Shelby feels so good when Shelby murmurs the very same thing into her ear, and Toni feels so vulnerable out in the open like this, all splayed out with Shelby on top of her and so intimately connected to her, and this is the only thing she feels like she has left to give but she lets Shelby take it over and over again, Shelby’s breath hot on her cheek and her fingers sliding faster until Toni’s panting hard beneath her.

Shelby doesn’t know when to curl her fingers or how to angle her wrist to get her palm bumping the right spot on every instroke, but God, just her touch alone is great anyway and her palm still kind of goes where it needs to every now and then, so that’s amazing too, and Toni scrambles for purchase on Shelby’s back to anchor herself, happy to let her know exactly how good it is with moans and plenty of very inappropriate words. “Don’t stop,” is one of the tamer things she says, and she can feel that she’s so close; her hips strain toward Shelby, trying to keep up with her rhythm, and it feels so, so good in so many ways, from the warmth in her chest all the way down to the numbness in her toes.

Shelby slows down just a little but presses in harder, and Toni blinks wide and goes, “Wow, that’s better,” surprised because she didn’t think it would be, and immediately she bears down with her hips and feels herself starting to tighten, her breathing growing shallower. “Shelby,” she warns through a moan, hoping Shelby will understand what’s happening, and Shelby bites a little roughly at her neck and it’s unexpected but it immediately sends her over the edge with a gasp into Shelby’s ear, and she can feel herself crushing Shelby’s fingers but she can’t stop her muscles from clenching around them and holding them in place.

It takes several seconds for it to end, for her to sink back down to the bed and let her arms fall weakly from Shelby to her sides, and it’s a moment before she’s aware that Shelby’s breathing heavily into her ear and there’s wetness smeared all over Toni’s right thigh.

“Did you come?” she breathes out, turning her head to try to look at Shelby’s face, which is beet red, as it turns out.

“Almost,” she says, and immediately Toni’s hand moves toward Shelby’s thighs, but Shelby pulls out of her to hastily intercept her wrist and then looks mortified when Toni grimaces a little. “Oh my gosh, Toni, I’m so—”

“It’s alright,” Toni laughs out. “Why are you stopping me?”

Shelby sits back and looks at her and thinks for a moment, like she’s not sure how to word what she wants to say next, and then dips her head and presses a short kiss to Toni’s shoulder and says, “I wanna use my mouth.”

Toni can feel her body rebooting instantly, waking itself back up again. “Are you sure?”

“You have no idea how much I think about it.” Shelby’s eyes are dark on hers and she’s already shifting down a little, her mouth on Toni’s collarbone and then her ribcage.

Toni’s head tips back and she exhales deeply. “Fuck.” Shelby laughs, short and quiet, and Toni recovers enough to glance down at her with raised eyebrows. “Oh, now you’re cocky? It just took one?”

“Is the horny switch on?” Shelby teases, and Toni rests her head but lifts her arm to show her a middle finger. Shelby’s next laugh is buried above her hipbone, and Toni’s heart feels so light; it’s like they never stopped doing this together at all, this rapport between them has so quickly redeveloped and then blossomed into something that’s both loving and a little playful.

“That’s the last time I inflate your ego,” Toni promises, but Shelby licks slowly at where her thigh and abdomen meet her vulva, focused intensely on what she’s doing now, and Toni immediately breaks it. “This is not gonna take long. Just so you know.” She pauses, and then admits, “I really missed you a lot, Shelby. You have no idea.”

“I missed you,” Shelby murmurs, and kisses her a little lower. Toni’s hips strain up again and she feels Shelby’s smile. “I remember how good this feels. It was four minutes, the first time.” Shelby’s head dips and Toni feels her breath, warm and heavy and right there, so close. “Can you beat four minutes?”

“No,” Toni says, and she spends the next three and a half minutes rambling instructions to Shelby and telling her how amazing it feels and how great Shelby is at this every time she follows them. Shelby’s eyes blink up at her and Toni takes one look at them and then doesn’t make it to four.

“You’re kinda sweet,” Shelby tells her afterward, while she’s kissing back up her body, and Toni thinks of all the nice compliments she’s just given Shelby as she catches her breath.

“Only with you and Marty,” she replies, and Shelby bites her lip but it does nothing to hold back the smile she’s trying to suppress.

She leans in close and kisses Toni’s cheek, then whispers, “I wasn’t talkin’ about your personality,” and Toni’s toes curl.

Toni discovers a lot about how they fit together that night when the sex is actually mutual—most importantly, that she can definitely confirm that her body really likes Shelby’s hands and mouth and also her voice, when they can fit that into the picture, too, and most surprisingly that Shelby kind of likes to take charge when Toni actually lets her—like she’s been waiting so long to finally get to unleash this side of herself—and also that Toni kind of likes letting her do that. Shelby makes a comment to her about halfway through the night, something like “you’re so gorgeous when you’re on your back, all red and breathin’ hard like that,”, and something about the way Shelby says “on your back” makes Toni tingle all over even though she knows Shelby doesn’t mean for it to be dirty.

So, that’s all pretty new.

“Are you sure you can climb back up?” Toni asks Shelby between kisses once she’s pulled back up to Shelby’s house, and Shelby tugs her a little closer and smiles against her lips.

“I climb trees all the time huntin’ with my daddy, Toni; I’ll be fine.” And it’s such a strange reminder of what Shelby’s like, how different they are, because Toni’s best friend is obsessed with pretty much all animals and the idea of going hunting is as foreign to Toni as something like signing up for a pageant—which, of course, Shelby also does—and yet it doesn’t make Toni like her any less.

Toni watches Shelby scale the trellis and go back inside, and then she waits for just a minute or two, still a little worried deep down that something is going to go wrong, but nothing does: the house is silent and the sun is rising on the horizon, and Toni feels like she just had the best night of her life, like she’s been in pieces for longer than she can remember and now she’s whole.

She’s nearly back home when she remembers that Shelby never gave her an answer about college, but she makes a mental note to check in one last time before she accepts Texas A&M’s offer.

Chapter Text

Shelby doesn’t ignore her this time; in fact, she looks at her a lot, and in class it’s distracting, the way Shelby can’t stop glancing over her shoulder just to make sure Toni’s eyes are on her like they always are, and it takes Martha about five minutes to notice.

“Uh, why does Shelby keep looking at you like that?” she whispers to Toni, and Toni goes beet red and stares down at her textbook, pretending to soak in the information on the pages they’re supposed to be reading.

“We had a talk,” is all she says, and Martha, in all of her innocence, takes her at face value.

“Did you really finally figure out stuff with her?” she asks. “What did you guys talk about?” Shelby glances back again at that moment, biting at her lip and giving Toni a once-over, and Martha spots it and then notes the way Toni swallows and shifts a little in her seat. She sighs. “Oh. A talk, huh?”

“It’s all figured out,” Toni promises.

A day later, she sees Andrew in the hallway, slamming his locker door angrily and storming down the hallway in a little bit of a temper tantrum, and Shelby is nowhere to be seen beside him like she usually is. Toni feels giddy because she’s pretty sure she knows what it means.

A day after that, Toni learns it’s not all figured out.

She catches up to Shelby in the parking lot after school, and this time when Shelby notices her she takes her by the wrist and kind of hurries her into her car, looking around the whole time to make sure that no one spots them. She drives Toni home and seems relieved that Martha’s not there yet, then says, “We can talk for a bit, but I don’t want Martha to see me here with you.”

Toni looks at her, confused. “Shelby, Marty knows.”

Shelby freezes and then looks worried. “You told her?”

“No,” Toni rushes to say, and then wonders why it’s a problem in the first place. “She saw the stuff I wrote to you.” She hesitates and then admits, “Fatin knows, too; she figured it out. So did Nora.”

“How many people know, Toni?” Shelby asks her sharply, and she looks so upset that Toni starts to feel defensive.

“That’s it. Why does it even matter? None of them will tell anyone else, and—and this is all working out, so—”

“What’s working out?” Shelby asks, and Toni just blinks at her, a knot starting to form in her stomach.

“…Us? I thought?”

Shelby’s worry fades into sympathy and she says, “We need to talk.”

“No,” Toni sighs out in horrified understanding, and then she turns and wanders away, putting her hands on her head. “Fuck, don’t do this.”

“Just listen to me, Toni.”

“No, I really won’t, Shelby,” Toni snaps, rounding on her furiously, and she hates herself for already getting teary-eyed, for being so weak with Shelby, always. “I’m not standing here and letting you crush my fucking heart again. Just go; give up on me like everyone else I’ve ever loved has. I should be used to it by now, especially from you.”

Shelby’s lips quiver and she says, “I’m not givin’ up on you. I’m askin’ you to give up on me.”

Toni goes stiff and just stares at her, watches Shelby blink tears out of her eyes until they roll down her cheeks.

“I broke up with Andrew,” she admits. “I told him I knew about the other girls. I told my daddy that was why I did it.”

“That’s a good thing,” Toni says, and for a moment she feels hopeful despite herself. “That’s a huge step, Shelby—”

“And it’s the only one I could make myself take, Toni,” Shelby explains. “And my momma’s gonna be bringin’ up new boys, and I can only turn those down for so long—maybe for a year a most while I get settled in at college, and then if it’s any longer after that they’ll figure out that I haven’t fixed what—that I never fixed me. And when they figure that out, they’ll never speak to me again; I won’t get to watch my little brother and sister grow up, I’ll lose people from church I’ve known since I was a kid, my grandparents, my whole family. So I don’t know how long it’ll be like this, Toni, sneakin’ around with you, pretendin’ I don’t even like you. Maybe in a year I’d be brave enough, maybe twenty, maybe never. I just can’t promise you anythin’ and you deserve better.”

“But if we go to college together,” Toni blurts out, racing for a counterargument, “We can have more time, we can be happy together there and figure it out somehow—"

“It wouldn’t be like the fair, Toni,” Shelby interjects, shaking her head. “My momma has legacy at a sorority there so I’ll be expected to join that, and I’ll have a roommate. My parents will visit and meet those people, so none of them can know about us. We wouldn’t be walkin’ around campus hand-in-hand; we’d be doing junior year all over again, and I know how much that would kill you. I know how much these past two years have hurt you.” Shelby’s lips tremble. “I don’t wanna hurt you anymore.”

“But—” Toni opens her mouth to keep arguing—it’s her first instinct, always, to get angry or passionate and start fighting with words and then with fists and… this time she can’t find anything to say. Nothing has changed, and if nothing has changed, then Shelby is right. “You’re hurting me now,” she says, because it’s all she can say.

“I know.” Shelby looks as crushed as Toni feels. “I’m so sorry.”

“The other night. That meant nothing, everything I—” Toni starts, heartbroken, and when she asks, “Did you know then?” Shelby actually sobs and looks incredibly frustrated all at once and reaches out to grasp hard at Toni’s wrists.

“Stop,” she demands, and Toni blinks out tears of her own, feeling lower than dirt. “Stop doin’ this. Of course I didn’t know; I would never use you like that, Toni. I only decided today.” Shelby lets out a shaky breath. “Listen. You mean somethin’ to a lot of people, especially to me. You are worth somethin’. That’s why you need to go to UCLA, because it’s actually what’s best for you and there are so many amazin’ opportunities for you there. You can’t stay here just for me.”

“I don’t,” Toni starts slowly, and wrinkles her nose and shakes her head, a little disgusted. “I don’t like being left behind; I don’t want to be with anyone else—”

You’re leavin’ me behind,” Shelby says. “You’re gonna go to California, and so many people are gonna love you, and in a year I’ll be… just this girl from high school.” She laughs a little, but she sounds so choked up, like it’s hard for her to speak. “You’ll hardly remember me.”

“No, I’ll think about you every day when you’re not around, just like I always fucking do, Shelby,” Toni argues, and Shelby pulls her close and kisses her, right there in the driveway, and even though there’s nobody else around it feels like a sign to Toni; Shelby is getting braver and it’s possible that she doesn’t even realize it.

She kisses Shelby hard and cups her cheeks, wiping her tears away with her thumbs, and Shelby keeps her eyes closed and rests their foreheads together when it’s over. Toni hears her sigh and then start crying again. Shelby’s arms wrap around her and hold her tight.

“You’re braver than you think you are, Shelby,” Toni tells her, squeezing her back and kissing her temple. “You spent a whole day holding hands with me in public last year. You kissed a girl who hated you. I could’ve told everyone.”

“You didn’t,” Shelby points out. “Maybe I knew you wouldn’t.”

“Or maybe you didn’t and you did it anyway,” Toni says, and rests her chin on Shelby’s shoulder, listens to Shelby breathing into her ear. “I love you, so I won’t leave you. I told you how I feel about that.”

“Do you remember what I said to you right after?” Shelby asks her quietly, and Toni thinks back to the night they’d danced, remembers sometimes people have to make hard choices and shakes her head.

“This isn’t hard for me. I’m choosing you over nothing.”

“Toni,” Shelby says gently, and pulls back to look at her with furrowed eyebrows. “If you stay here, you’re choosin’ me over you. It just feels like nothin’ because you think you don’t matter.”

Toni blinks at her and it takes a second for her to process that. Shelby uses the time to stroke at her cheeks, a patient, sympathetic look on her face, like she’s waiting for Toni to get it.

“Yes?” Shelby presses, nodding at her, and Toni shakes her head again on instinct, feeling fresh tears prick at the corners of her eyes.

“Yeah,” she says anyway, because she knows the truth, deep down, and Shelby kisses her again like it’s a reward, like she still isn’t ashamed of doing it right here out in the open. It’s not going to take Shelby twenty years to be herself, Toni knows; not even close. “When you tell your parents,” Toni says, finally, “whatever happens, you have me. I don’t care if we haven’t spoken in forever and I’m on fucking Mars. Find me; I’ll have a couch and a massive fucking tub of ice cream ready.”

“Okay.”

“Promise?”

“Okay.”

Toni closes her eyes and feels more tears leak from them, and it hurts so fucking badly, she wants to start sobbing and trembling in Shelby’s arms but she makes herself save it for Martha instead; Martha is so used to picking up the broken pieces of Toni that Shelby keeps leaving behind and Toni feels so guilty for it.

Shelby extricates herself, finally, then cups Toni’s cheeks in her hands and just looks at her for a moment. “Lord, this is so hard,” she sighs out.

“It doesn’t have to end now,” Toni says quietly, even though what she wants to say is that it doesn’t have to end at all. “UCLA will want me to start training there over the summer, but we still have another couple of months before graduation. To…” she swallows hard and then makes herself say the words, “say goodbye.”

Shelby considers it for a moment, runs a thumb over Toni’s bottom lip and stares. “Alright, Toni.”

“But you have to promise me something else,” Toni says, and when Shelby just keeps looking at her, she makes herself hold it together, forces a smile and finishes, “If I come back here for the holidays and see you wearing an engagement ring from some Bible-thumping asshole with cousins for parents, I’ll lose my shit. I want stories about girls. Hookups, flirting, one-night stands, whatever you can manage without your parents finding out. Your life doesn’t have to be perfect and I know that we can’t—that you can’t date anyone like this, but it would kill me to see you still miserable.”

Shelby furrows her eyebrows. “You really want me to promise you I’ll hook up with other girls?”

“No one as hot as me,” Toni amends, and her heart aches so badly under the joke. “But yes, definitely.”

“It wouldn’t be as good as it is with you,” Shelby says, and kisses her again. Toni wonders how she can say that and still stand there and ask Toni to move on when they both so obviously feel the same way. It’s never going to be like it is with Shelby. But Toni is going to make the best of the time they have left.

They’d started with sex so long ago and that’s how it ends, with the both of them skipping classes to hook up during school hours or sneaking out at night to have sex in Toni’s car or Toni’s bed, because those are the only times they can do it without Shelby’s dad knowing, and “I love you” gets sort of tacitly taken off of the table, but Toni likes to think she says it in the way she works Shelby up gently with her hands or her mouth and then holds her close when she’s coming down. As time goes on Shelby actually gets better than Toni about keeping the feelings locked away and just having sex—intense, quick, aggressive, and with a lot of orgasms—which isn’t always the worst thing in the world but makes Toni wonder how many girls will be falling over themselves to turn inevitably mind-blowing one-night stands with Shelby into more, because Toni’s pretty sure that it’s not just her being attached; Shelby’s actually really good at this stuff now that she’s finally gotten a chance at it. Toni gets jealous at the thought and has to keep crushing it so that she doesn’t dwell on it, because she really does want Shelby to live as much of a real life as she can while she’s stuck under her parents’ thumb.

Prom happens in the middle of it, right near the end of the school year, and Toni goes with her friends and sees Shelby has been allowed to go and also that she’s alone—Becca is gone, she’s not dating Andrew anymore, and as it turns out, the rest of her friends were really just Andrew’s friends—and they sneak out through the back together thirty minutes in and slow dance alone in a dark section of the parking lot, holding each other tight, and Shelby has an early curfew but Toni still spends ten minutes slowly pressing inside of her in an alcove where there’s no one around to see them, and that night’s the only night where they tell each other they love each other again.

Fatin thinks Toni’s insane for keeping it all up, warns her about twenty different times to cut and run and give herself some time to get unattached before she winds up having it end abruptly with a flight to California. But Martha understands; Toni thinks Martha doesn’t seem to be the biggest fan of Shelby after the mess she’s made of Toni over and over again, but she just tells Toni that she’s in love and so it makes sense that it’s hard to let go.

The night before Toni’s flight is the hardest. She’s already said her goodbyes to almost everyone—Dot and Rachel and the others—and her so-long-for-nows to Fatin and of course Martha is seeing her off to the airport, plus has plans to drive the car they’ve always shared up for her in a couple of weeks—Toni needs it more than Martha—and then fly back to Texas from California. Only Shelby is left.

They make plans for Toni to pick Shelby up outside of her house after her parents have gone to bed, and then Toni drives them out to the grassy area above the park where they’ve had sex and fought and cried and held hands, lays a blanket down just like she did on the night Shelby first told her to go to California, and they undress each other in the warm summer weather and Shelby sheds a few silent tears after her body finishes shuddering and spasming under Toni’s. Toni is bitter for just one moment, but then kisses her tears away and whispers, thinking of stories Martha’s told her about the stars and the night sky, “I’ll think of you every night, so just look up and think of me back, and it’ll be kind of like we’re together, okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Shelby tells her, and Toni isn’t sure whether it’s for the tears or for the way this is all coming to an end now, but she tells Shelby it’s alright anyway, and Shelby rolls them over and brings Toni over the edge again and again until the sun’s nearly up, and Toni watches her sneak back into her room at the end of it all and knows they’re supposed to move on now, but she can’t help but think to herself maybe someday.

Toni hugs Martha and her mom tight at the airport the next morning and then she’s on a plane, and Fatin was right—it does hurt so much more this way.

Chapter Text

Martha comes up for her visit two weeks after Toni arrives in California and she brings a small cardboard box with her.

“What’s that?” Toni asks her warily when it’s the only thing Martha carries inside with her, and Martha sets it down on Toni’s desk and then looks at Toni guiltily.

“Don’t be mad,” she warns, “but I did something without asking you.”

“Marty…” Toni joins Martha by the box and pulls the flaps back, and inside is a stack of papers—and judging from the one on the very top, there are a couple of pictures printed out on each one.

While Toni’s lifting the top paper to get a closer look, Martha rushes to explain, “Remember how we burnt that stuff you wrote, but it took you a little while to decide to do it?”

Both photos are of two different slips of paper against the backdrop of what looks like the desk in Martha’s bedroom. One says I feel like I’m in limbo waiting to hear if you’re okay, and the other says Well, this can’t be love because I don’t think love is supposed to feel like being run over by a Mac truck, and Toni immediately feels her face flush with embarrassment and her heart ache faintly in her chest.

“I thought,” Martha explains, “that maybe it would be better if you did both, you know. Burn them if you needed to let go, and then had backups in case you ever regretted it.”

“I don’t think I said I regretted it, Marty,” Toni points out, only a little frustrated with her; looking at them again brings back a lot of painful and humiliating memories but she also can’t deny that there were a couple times when she’d wished she’d still had them, like the night in Shelby’s bedroom.

“Well, I’m your best friend and I know you. So you should keep them here and if you want to burn them a second time, that’s up to you.”

“And you’ll still have copies on your phone or your computer or whatever,” Toni points out.

“I can delete them,” Martha offers, and Toni sighs.

“Why now? Shelby and I are done. Looking at this shit still hurts.” Maybe a little less, she can admit, because more time has passed since she wrote the notes themselves, but the emotions where Shelby is concerned are still very raw and will be for a long time.

“Because this time you can handle it, and I thought you should have something to remember her by,” Martha says, “even if it hurts. You don’t have anything else.”

She’s right; Shelby hadn’t given her a single thing. Toni closes the box up and hides it under her bed, then says, “Let me teach you how to surf.”

They head out to the beach and it clears Toni’s head and cheers her up like it always does, and Martha doesn’t take to surfing even remotely, just keeps slipping off the board and wiping out while Toni cackles at her from where she stands calmly on her own board. Surfing had come naturally to her in a way only a few things had, things she’d felt like she was born to do—like the first time she’d dribbled a basketball, or the first time she’d kissed and touched a girl.

The ocean feels like a home away from home, and as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, Toni’s actually so fucking happy in California already, spending her summer days playing basketball and her evenings in the water. There’s a Shelby-sized hole in her heart but when she’s doing other things she’s passionate about she can forget about it for just a little while. She knows, deep down, that California had been the right decision, that Shelby had been right. If she’d gone to Texas A&M either they’d have started fully ignoring each other again or they’d be hooking up in secret and then still ignoring each other—high school with Shelby had been so incredibly painful and while it isn’t a relief to be away from her, it certainly is to be away from the whole situation, without a daily reminder right in front of her of what she wants so badly but can’t fully have.

Martha leaves three days later, and Toni makes new friends during summer training. A lot of the girls are gay and it’s a bit of a culture shock for Toni, because while she’d certainly had Fatin back home to gay up her friend group, and there’d of course been moments where they’d all gotten a little wild, that was still nothing like this; there are so many lesbians that the girls Toni spends her days with have to clarify that they’re straight more often than the other way around.

There’s a lot of temptation there, but Toni doesn’t feel tempted. She goes out and parties with them, an amused bystander to all of the very messy relationship drama they all get into with each other, and then always leaves early to go back home, lies on the beach and looks up at the stars and thinks about Shelby, and she knows it’s not healthy—she’d made Shelby promise to move on with other girls and so certainly she should take her own advice—but she can’t help it, she knows she’s still so incredibly in love and she’s not sure if those feelings will ever fully go away. Regan feels like barely a footnote in her dating history by now and it had still taken months for the feelings Toni’d had for her to fade. Maybe Shelby would take years.

Toni spends her summer in what feels like paradise with a side of heartache, and later finds out that Shelby spends hers waitressing at the same local diner where Toni used to work. Shelby uses the money she’s saved up to start paying for her own phone plan.

Toni doesn’t hear from her at all until August, which isn’t unexpected, given their limited means of contacting each other, but when she gets a text from a new number a week before classes are due to start that says, “Hey, it’s Shelby. I can text now,” she looks so dumbfounded that Fatin notices from where she’s arranging the desks in their new dorm room.

“Is everything okay?” she asks, and Toni just tosses her the phone instead so she can read it herself. “Oh, shit.”

“What should I say?” Toni asks, and Fatin points the phone’s camera at her.

“Say hello.”

“Fatin, don’t—” she starts. She’s only wearing a sports bra and tight shorts, because it’s super hot in California, and she pretty much has the best body she’s ever had in her life, tanned everywhere and muscled in places Toni didn’t used to know could be.

Fatin snaps the picture before Toni can even move to stop her, and then cackles as she sends it to Shelby. “She’s gonna get off to that, trust me.”

“You are the worst friend.”

“Or am I the best?” Fatin wiggles her eyebrows and tosses the phone back to Toni.

Shelby texts back a moment later. “Is this Fatin?

Sorry. Not anymore,” Toni sends.

Shelby explains the situation with her phone—her parents had bought some story Shelby’d sold them about starting to take on more financial responsibility for herself—and Toni considers that that means they can call each other, too. She isn’t sure if it’s a good idea, but a part of her tosses phrases around in her head like long distance, taunting her with fantasies of texting Shelby every day and getting off with her over the phone. She doesn’t pursue it, too afraid that Shelby will reject her and then say something about how maybe it isn’t healthy for them to stay in contact.

It really isn’t healthy—not for getting over Shelby, at least, but Toni compromises by just sticking to texting, which Shelby seems content with as well. They don’t cross any lines; it’s friendly and safe and Toni enjoys it, likes hearing about Texas A&M’s campus and their more interesting goings-on even though Rachel’s been keeping her in the loop a little, too. Shelby talks about her classes and her new part-time job and occasionally mentions a pageant or a church event, but she never mentions her family, aside from telling Toni once that her parents are starting to trust her more now. Toni knows from conversations with Shelby toward the end of their senior year that Shelby’s sexuality isn’t some huge secret with them—she and her dad talk openly about whether or not Shelby’s “struggling” at the moment, if they need to adjust anything about her life to help with temptation, and it’s too fucked up for Toni to think about so she’s glad Shelby doesn’t bring him up.

Toni tells her about basketball and her own part-time job teaching kids to surf—she fucking hates children but it’s a way to make money in the water, which is nice—leaves out the stories about the girls who flirt with her on her team and at the beach, and complains about how her classes are all just a rehashing of high school so far. Toni’s changed her major two times by the end of September and has no idea what she wants to do with her life, but her guidance counselor says she has basically until around her fourth or fifth semester to figure it out.

"Be an architect," Shelby suggests to her eventually, and then sends, "You can draw straight lines and you’re good with your hands,” and it’s the closest either of them has come to flirting.

Toni sends back, "You’ve obviously forgotten my shitty attempt at the Eiffel Tower,” but she thinks about that text from Shelby for a while.

“Hey, you trust me, right?” Fatin asks one Saturday while they’re lounging around in their dorm room together, Toni fresh off an exhausting basketball practice and considering texting Shelby to ask what she’s doing. Fatin’s scrolling through Instagram on her phone.

“That’s a loaded question,” Toni begins, and Fatin rolls her eyes and sets her phone aside, then sits up and lets her feet hang off of her bed. “Why?”

“Let’s have sex.”

Toni laughs, sure she’s kidding given how long it’s been, and then says, “Yeah, and let’s bring back leg warmers and scrunchies while we’re at it.”

“I’m serious. What’s stopping us?”

Toni studies her, still trying to discern whether or not she’s just fucking around. “Do you actually want me to answer that question?”

“Not really; you’d embarrass yourself.”

Toni sits up, smirking. “Are you jealous, Fatin?”

Fatin guffaws at her and then laughs so hard she winds up having to wipe a few tears from her eyes. “Oh, God. Never mind. Fuck me for trying to do some charity work.”

“Oh, fuck off, like you wouldn’t be getting something out of it,” Toni complains, and Fatin grins at her and then goes back to scrolling through her phone.

“Fair. I can’t sleep when you’re up late masturbating to Shelby’s texts every night. Figured it was cheaper to sleep with you than to buy ear plugs.”

“I do not—” Toni starts to argue, honed in on the Shelby part, but then she colors and mumbles, “Shut up,” and sinks down into her bed a little, because the rest of it is true; she does get off pretty regularly after she thinks Fatin’s gone to sleep.

A week later, Fatin’s off getting laid somewhere and Toni’s up late doing homework alone in their room when her phone buzzes. She looks down, half-expecting a text from Fatin about how Toni needs to come get her because she’s too cheap to pay for an Uber and too drunk to drive herself back, but instead it’s a picture. A picture from Shelby.

Toni’s homework is momentarily abandoned and she thanks her lucky stars she was finally able to get a real phone over the summer, because it’s so much easier to see pictures this way and to take them, too. Shelby is in the hallway of what looks like a Greek house—Toni can see other college students all over the place in the background, red solo cups in their hands—and the photo is a close-up of just Shelby’s face and neck. Toni hasn’t seen her since May and she looks so different now: her hair is still the same bright blonde and seems to be the same length, but it’s been meticulously straightened, and she’s wearing pageant levels of makeup and red lipstick. Her lips are slightly pursed, her eyelashes are long and covered in mascara, or maybe they’re not her real lashes, and there’s one hand in the frame, her fingers bent like she’s waving with them.

She looks like a true sorority girl, like she’s fitting right in, and Toni feels a little ashamed of herself that she’s so attracted to Shelby like this, all dolled up and—not necessarily fake, because Shelby’s never said anything about hating getting dressed up, but Toni associates it with the pageant perfection she does know Shelby resents. She looks mind-blowingly hot, though, and Toni stares at the image for a while before she wonders what the fuck she’s supposed to do with it. Shelby’s eyes are glassy in the photo and it’s clear it’s a drunk text; she’s probably at a frat party.

Toni types out several responses and deletes them, from “you look nice” to “sexy 😉” to “having fun?” and finally just sighs and takes stock of herself. She’s in her basketball jersey, still—she practically rushed from practice back to her room to work on this assignment she’s got due on Monday and forgot about until the last minute—and she’s basically a total mess.

It’s going to be embarrassing, she knows, but she sighs anyway and turns the camera on herself, throws up a peace sign and snaps a photo of herself from the chest up. She studies it after, notes that her head is still noticeably shiny from sweating earlier and her hair is in a messy ponytail, but sends the photo anyway because it’s Shelby; it’s not like she’ll be mean about it or judge her for it or anything. She goes back to her homework, expecting things to end there.

Five minutes later, her phone buzzes again. Toni stares down at her assignment, chewing on her pencil anxiously, because this shit with Shelby is really not a good idea right now, but then she looks at her phone anyway and her heart starts racing. Shelby has taken a picture of her neck at an angle that makes it look temptingly long, and at the bottom of the photo her fingers are pulling one side of her top down enough to reveal the swell of her breast and half of the cup of her bra. Toni can’t tell where she is in this photo and to be quite honest that’s the furthest thing from her mind.

She swallows thickly and then tugs her own jersey up until her entire stomach and the bottom few inches of her sports bra are exposed, then stands up and takes a picture of her body and sends it before she can second-guess herself.

Shelby sends a picture thirty seconds later of her own chest and stomach, but she’s only wearing a bra now and her fingers are curled against her chest, sort of half-cupping herself. Toni immediately tugs her jersey off entirely and then scrambles to lie down on her bed. Shelby sends her another photo, and in this one her fingertips have slipped under the skirt she’s wearing, just barely, and Toni can see the way the clothing sits low on her hips, below her sharp hipbones and toned stomach. “Fuck,” she groans; she only knows one way to one-up that without outright sending nudes, so she shrugs her shorts off and slides her hand into her underwear. She’s really wet, and gets genuinely distracted touching herself for a moment before she remembers to snap the picture of her hand in her underwear and send it.

She’s still working herself up to an orgasm to Shelby’s other photos when the next one comes in, which takes a while—another five minutes or so, Toni would guess, and this time it’s a full-body image of Shelby in a bathroom mirror with her hand fully down her skirt, her face flushed and eyes dark and lips parted, and this is so unbelievably dirty, but Shelby seems so unabashedly confident in doing it and Toni can’t stop thinking about what they’d do to each other if she were in Texas.

It feels like a little bit of a competition now, so Toni slides her hand out of her underwear for a moment and takes a photo of her wet fingers resting against her lower abdomen, then goes back to touching herself. Shelby sends one right back of her eyes staring darkly into the camera, two wet fingers in her mouth, and within seconds Toni comes staring at the photo.

You win,” she sends, and Shelby doesn’t text her back.

This is going to get messy again, Toni thinks, because it seems like they really can’t stop coming back to each other eventually—but at least it might be a little less painful this time, because the worst Shelby can really do to her now is to just leave her on read.

Chapter Text

“Shelby finally got an Instagram account,” Fatin says one morning while Toni’s using the microwave they co-purchased to defrost a couple of breakfast burritos, and when Toni turns to look at her, Fatin’s lounging on the bed, scrolling through what Toni supposes must be Shelby’s Instagram photos. Fatin laughs and then promptly launches into a dramatic reading with a put-on voice much deeper than her own, “Jeremiah 29:11! ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” She drops the voice and turns her phone around to show the screen to Toni, who’s too far away to really get a good look at it. “And then there’s, like, a black and white photo of a tree. You couldn’t pay me to follow her—no offense. I will stalk her occasionally, though.”

“I don’t have that shit,” Toni dismisses, and Fatin’s jaw drops like she’s only just remembering.

“Oh my God, I totally forgot we were gonna make you one. We should do that today.”

“I won’t use it.” The microwave beeps and Toni takes out a burrito and tests it, finds it’s still a little icy and shoves it back in.

“Why not? It’s just, like, where you put cool pictures and shit. I bet Shelby would follow you… unless her parents are up her ass on her social media too. Which, on second thought, judging by these pictures, they might be.” Fatin wrinkles her nose at something she sees on her phone. “I literally can’t find her in this photo with her sorority. They definitely turn girls down based on hair color. It seems racist when you need to be blonde to get in.”

“I don’t have cool pictures,” Toni says, ignoring the rest, and Fatin shifts to grab Toni’s phone off of the nightstand between their beds.

“Sure you do. What’s your passcode?”

“2002.”

Fatin raises her eyebrows. “Your birth year, really?” She types it in anyway.

Toni’s about to check the burritos again a few seconds later when she realizes and her eyes go wide. “Wait, Fatin, give me that.”

“Why?” Fatin taps something on the screen and then her jaw drops, and Toni freezes halfway to her, aware that it’s too late. Fatin blinks wide and lets out a shocked laugh, then says, “That is fucking filthy, what the fuck,” and then shows Toni the photo Toni saved of Shelby with her fingers in her mouth.

“Just give me the phone,” Toni mumbles, her face red, but Fatin just stares at the photo again, completely taken aback.

“This is your Shelby, right? Like, the actual Shelby Goodkind from high school? Not a sexy pod person?”

“Fatin—”

“Holy shit, that’s hot.”

“Just give me the fucking—”

“I can’t make fun of you anymore; I’d masturbate to that, too. Is she single?”

“You’re not funny,” Toni says, and Fatin grins and finally offers her the phone.

“So, what, are you two—?” Fatin pauses, then smirks. “Wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess: You sexted on a whim and now you’re not talking about it at all, maybe even ignoring each other completely, and you’re a little bit anxious about the situation but you’re not willing to cut her off, either.”

“Fuck off,” Toni snaps, wrenching the burritos out of the microwave, and Fatin just sighs and shakes her head.

“Look, man, I offered to break the cycle. It helped you get your mind off of her last year for a while. The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”

“How convenient for you.”

“Life just seems to work out for me that way,” Fatin plays along, shrugging her shoulders.

Fatin’s not exactly right about the whole thing, but she’s pretty close—Shelby’s friendly, as always, but they don’t talk about what happened and her texts get a little sparser and her replies to Toni get a little briefer—she’s pulling away, and finally Toni feels it starting to hurt a little again. So, one weekend, after they’ve spent a night out at a frat party and Fatin’s attempts at crawling all over half the boys there have resulted in Toni dragging her home early before she accidentally has an orgy or something, Toni pulls Fatin on top of her and tries not to think about Shelby. The girls one room over complain about the noise.

Toni feels guilty about it for a while, but then in late October she wakes up late one night to her phone buzzing with a text from Shelby. It’s a picture, and Toni squints at it in the dark and then finally realizes what she’s looking at: a pillow with long, dirty-blonde hair too dark to be Shelby’s strewn across it. She can’t see a face or even a head but the message is clear, and Shelby sends another text to clarify anyway: “Promise she’s not as hot as you.”

Toni’s heart drops into her stomach and she sucks in a breath, trying not to let her emotions take over. She’d asked for this, and it hurts, but it also means that Shelby’s expressing some part of who she really is at college, even if she can’t at home. That’s a good thing.

A third text comes in. “Sorry. I’m kinda drunk.”

“I slept with Fatin,” Toni sends back, while they’re being honest with each other, and Shelby doesn’t reply. They don’t text much that month, and Toni stays in California for Thanksgiving, thinks about staying for Christmas as well. She misses Martha but she doesn’t know what she’ll do if she runs into Shelby back home.

Toni thought she’d be okay this time but it’s all getting too painful again. She can feel the old habits cropping back up; she’s throwing herself headlong into basketball, numbing her brain so that she doesn’t have to think about anything else, and it’s even easier to do than it was in high school because everything about Division I is so much more intense and practice-heavy than high school ball was.

“I just think you should say it,” Fatin tells her on the last day of classes before Christmas break, after Toni comes back from an early morning jog. Toni looks at her, confused. “Like, we both know it, right? For like a year we’ve known it. Or I have, at least.”

“Don’t be cryptic,” Toni huffs, sitting down her bed and pulling off her shoes.

“Shelby’s bad for you.” Fatin shrugs like what she’s just said isn’t incredibly insulting.

“What the fuck are you—” Toni starts, but then she changes courses and instead she says, defensive, “She doesn’t want to be.”

“I didn’t say she did. She told you to come here for a reason. She knows it, too.”

“This is the right place for me no matter where Shelby is.”

“Yeah, and you were fucking thriving until this shit with her started up again.”

“You know what, Fatin,” Toni bites out, resisting the urge to throw one of her shoes at her, “has anyone ever told you that you need to learn how to stay out of other people’s shit?”

Fatin looks at her coldly for a moment, and then dismisses her with a shake of her head. “Fine. Fuck me for trying to be a good friend.”

“What do you want?” Toni swallows thickly and throws her hands up, shrugging her shoulders. “What do you want me to do? Go fuck a bunch of strangers like you do? ‘Cause that’s healthy.”

“If you’re actually asking, I think you should give her an ultimatum. She told you to get over her, right? Then she texted you first. She sent the first photo. Now she’s the one backing off. Just tell her to fucking make up her mind before you lose yours again. It’s been over two years of this shit. Aren’t you tired?”

Toni can feel tears welling up in her eyes the longer Fatin stares at her. She is, God, she so is, but she knows what pushing Shelby will lead to, and even a little bit of having Shelby off and on feels preferable to nothing at all. “She won’t choose me,” she says, and Fatin sighs and moves to sit next to her, then throws an arm around her shoulders.

“Maybe you should choose yourself.” Fatin lets her sit on that one for a moment and Toni thinks of Shelby crying in her driveway, telling her the same thing. Finally, Fatin adds, “Check her Instagram,” like she didn’t want for it to have to come to this. “I have to go to class.”

Toni waits until half an hour after Fatin’s gone to pull up Shelby’s page. She sees the photo right away, up at the top: Shelby’s standing on the bleachers in Texas A&M’s football stadium, grinning wide at the camera along with five other people: two girls from her sorority, two guys that are unmistakably their boyfriends, and a third guy who is coupled up with Shelby, standing behind her with his arms around her waist. He’s got sunglasses on and a baseball cap and everything about him screams that he’s from some frat. He has his head turned like he’s about to kiss Shelby’s cheek.

Toni sprints all the way to the beach instead of hitting something and then takes a seat in the sand and cries silently for a little while, trying to psych herself up to do what she knows she should, because Fatin is right, she can’t do this again, and there are so many girls around her that are so kind and willing and she has so much in common with them—she’s turned down three outright requests for a date and one of them had been from her closest friend on the team and she’d felt horrible about it.

She takes out her phone and types out the text to Shelby: “I’m sorry, I love you but I can’t watch you do this again. I’m done now,” and then her thumb hovers over her screen. She blinks the tears out of her eyes and sends the message, then blocks Shelby’s number. She’s not sure that she’s ready to completely let go, to never talk to Shelby ever again, but some distance will do them both some good—maybe at least until the summer, until hopefully Shelby’s done doing whatever it is she’s doing now.

Fatin goes home for Christmas but Toni doesn’t, much to Martha’s disappointment. She calls Toni on the 23rd and says, “I mailed our presents to you but they’re gonna be a little late; you’ll get them by New Year’s, though.”

“That’s alright, Marty. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”

“I was starting to think she might actually show up here,” Martha tells her. “She even called me the other day asking if you were back.”

“Really?” Toni’s caught off-guard by the news. “Did she say why?”

“Just that she wanted to talk to you if you were. She sounded upset. She didn’t give me a message to pass on or anything.”

“I’m sorry you’ve been dragged into this.” Toni feels herself tearing up again and preemptively wipes at her eyes. “I hate this shit. Please tell me things are going better with you. Let’s talk about something good.”

She hears Martha let out a sigh and then she says, “He’s so sweet. I never thought I’d be a high school sweetheart kind of girl, but…”

Toni can’t help but laugh. “Marty, you are like, the most that kind of girl out of literally everyone I know. You’re gonna wind up being one of those couples that’s been married for like 80 years or something nuts like that.”

“I hope so.” Martha pauses. “You’ll find someone, too. Fatin told me there’s a girl there that really likes you. From your basketball team.”

Toni’s thrown for a moment; she hadn’t realized Fatin and Martha kept in touch. “Oh, that’s—I mean, Sam’s nice, but—”

“What, but not Shelby?” Martha laughs, and Toni heaves a deep sigh. “Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you need something that’s just nice.”

“Probably,” Toni admits. “It feels more like I just need to stay the fuck away from girls for the rest of the year. There’s always Fatin for when things get frustrating.”

Martha laughs again and says, “Alright, I’ve gotta go. Mom’s having some people over from work soon and we’re doing white elephant gifts. She says to tell you she loves you and hopes that we can see you soon.”

“Me too,” Toni says, and hangs up.

Her smile fades once she’s alone, and she looks around her tiny dorm room and at Fatin’s empty bed, feeling very, very lonely. The price she’s paying to avoid Shelby.

Fatin had gotten a text from Shelby too about four days ago, asking to speak to Toni, and Fatin had promptly and very aggressively told her to fuck off and not to text her again and then blocked her number anyway for good measure, which had upset Toni enough that now things are a little icy with Fatin—she understands where Fatin’s coming from, absolutely, and had agreed with shutting Shelby down, because both Fatin and Toni know that if Toni lets Shelby get a word in she’ll be sucked right back in again. But she still hadn’t wanted Fatin to be cruel about it.

There are a couple of girls on her hall who’ve stuck around through the break as well, and later that day Toni runs into one of them and chats with her for a little while, just to pass the time, but it’s been a pretty isolating week overall, and so by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, Toni almost wishes she’d just gone back to Texas, seen all of her friends and braved a visit from Shelby—maybe hidden in her bedroom and recruited Martha to just tell her to go away. She has one present from Fatin and one from Sam under this lame plastic mini-tree Fatin had bought and placed in one corner of their room, and she doesn’t even have anyone to open them with. Fatin had opened hers early, just because Toni’d had to be there to see the look on her face when she unwrapped a foxtail butt plug.

Toni laughs a little to herself at the memory, alone on her bed in her dorm room: Fatin had said, “Ah, I see, it’s funny because you think I won’t actually be willing to use it,” and Toni had nearly spat out the water she’d been drinking.

It’s evening and she’s just trying to decide between going for a run or taking a nap when there’s a knock on the door. “Wrong room!” Toni calls out, and there’s a long silence. And then more knocking.

Toni huffs as she slowly gets to her feet and weaves through the mess she’s made over the past week. “Yeah, so, unless this is Fatin back early,” she starts, reaching for the handle and pulling it open, “you have the wrong fucking—”

Shelby is blinking back at her from out in the hallway and she has a rolling suitcase resting next to her and three small presents tucked under one arm. She’s chewing on her lip nervously and she’s so much more beautiful in person than Toni had remembered.

“—dorm room,” Toni finishes quietly.

Shelby smiles weakly at her and says, “I thought you shouldn’t be alone on Christmas,” and Toni just stares.

Chapter Text

Toni lets Shelby in—of course she fucking does, like there was ever any question—and she’s just dumbfounded to see her really here, live and in the flesh, looking around at Toni’s messy shithole of a dorm room because she’s been wallowing in it alone for about a week.

“I—I wasn’t—” Toni stutters out, taking it in herself.

“That’s okay, Toni.”

“Sorry, it’s…” Toni starts, and then trails off and watches Shelby spot the tiny tree near the door and then kneel down and place the three presents beside it. “You’re here,” she finally says, unable to come up with anything else. She stares at the presents and then adds, dumbly, “I didn’t get you anything.”

“Well, now I’m offended.” Shelby turns and smiles at her and Toni can’t help but take her in. She’s wearing a little more makeup than she did in high school—probably out of habit at this point more than anything, Toni guesses—and she’s not quite so pageant-thin anymore; Toni has to actively try to prevent her eyes from sliding down to the curve of Shelby’s hips. She looks a little more mature and holds herself with noticeably more confidence, and when she tilts her head like she’s hoping Toni will speak, Toni’s almost a little intimidated.

“You came to California.” Toni’s still trying to wrap her head around it. “Did you fly here?”

Shelby nods shortly. “I had some money saved up.”

“For me?” Toni blurts, because she still can’t grasp that this is actually happening, and that makes Shelby smile.

“Well, actually, this is just a brief first stop, so—”

“Shelby,” Toni breathes out, dumbfounded. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have—”

“Blocked my number?” Shelby finishes for her, and though her smile only dies a little, Toni can see the flash of pain in her eyes when she says the words. “Well, we can’t change that now. I’m here. Can I sit?”

“Of course, uh…” Toni’s eyes scan the room and there are a couple of desk chairs and her bed, Fatin’s bed, and God, there’s just crap everywhere—trash, empty fast-food bags, plastic cups—and Toni rushes out, “Let me just—”

She moves quickly, trying to gather as much as she can and pile it all on top of the overflowing trash can by the door, which she tries to compress with her hands but it won’t sink any further, and the room is just a mess because she’s been such a mess and Shelby is right here to see it now, all of the evidence of exactly how much it fucked Toni up to send that text to her—

She doesn’t realize she’s breathing a little quickly until Shelby’s hand enters her vision and grasps at the trash bag. “Let me take this down. Is there a dumpster out back?”

Toni closes her eyes as she nods. “I’m sorry.”

“Toni, it’s okay. I’ll be right back.”

Shelby ties the bag and slips out, and Toni immediately starts rushing around the room, shoving things into a new trash bag and then tidying up as best as she can; she even makes Fatin’s bed alongside her own, her mind still going a million miles a minute all the while. She’d cut contact with Shelby for the first time, finally given her some form of an ultimatum, and now Shelby has flown out to California to see her because—because something, and she’s about to find out what that something is.

When Shelby returns, she sits down on Toni’s bed. Toni hesitates and then takes a seat on one of the desk chairs just a few feet away, and Shelby looks at her for a moment, almost longingly, and then swallows hard and says, “You look so good, Toni.” Toni just stares back and doesn’t say anything, worried about what might pour out of her mouth if she opens it to compliment Shelby back. “I thought you didn’t have Instagram,” Shelby begins after a moment, and boy is that a poor way to start things; Toni’s heart immediately drops and she stiffens and averts her gaze.

“Fatin,” she explains sharply, and knows her voice sounds cold and cutting.

Shelby sounds a little panicked when she rushes out her explanation, short and straight to the point: “I think he’s gay.”

Toni’s eyes blink back over to her and her eyebrows knit together in confusion. “What?”

“Henry,” Shelby says. “The guy from the picture. I think he’s gay.” She pauses, and then adds, a little tentatively, “Too.”

“You think he’s gay?” Toni echoes, and Shelby blushes a little.

“I know it sounds silly, but… the night that—when I met—” She’s struggling, and it takes Toni a moment to understand what she’s implying, “The night I sent you that photo, with that girl. I went out and he was there, and he and I talked a little because we have a class together, and I left with her and I think he noticed. After that, he kept wantin’ to hang out. But then one day he said that we had a lot in common. His parents are religious like mine. He’s in a frat.” Shelby pauses again and she’s a little wide-eyed and eager as she explains all of this, and Toni just takes it in with surprise. “He started holdin’ my hand, but he never tries to kiss me on the mouth. So…” Shelby’s hands are fidgeting in her lap. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. I didn’t know you would see before I could.”

“Everyone thinks he’s your boyfriend,” Toni clarifies, finally, after she’s finished processing.

Shelby nods. “It’s been almost two months. My parents think I’m with his family for Christmas. I told him I had someone important I had to go see, so he’s playin’ along.” She sees the disappointment in Toni’s face and sighs, “I’m doin’ the best I can, Toni.”

“Then why have you barely talked to me since October?”

“Because I keep doin’ this.” Shelby swallows hard. “Even senior year, with the Winter Formal, and then with the notes. Even junior year, right before my daddy sent me away. I do this thing where I—I miss you and I want you, so I reach out, but then I know that I’ll hurt you, and so then I try to give you space and let you move on, but then I want you so much again and… I’m just tryin’ so hard not to be selfish now. I was tryin’ but I couldn’t let you think what I knew you thought, so I had to talk to you.” She closes her eyes and Toni can see tears forming at her lashes. “I tried to move on. I did a lot of things these past two months. A lot of… un-Christian things, things I feel… like I can’t wash off. It was one thing for it to just be with one girl, or with someone I love, but this time it was with—with so many girls and it was just empty.” Shelby takes in a shaky breath and when she opens her eyes she looks disgusted with herself, and Toni can’t help but slip off of her seat and sit down across from Shelby on Fatin’s bed. Shelby’s hands are clammy beneath Toni’s.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she murmurs, squeezing Shelby’s hands, but Shelby is blinking out more tears and she looks like this is something she’s been holding in for a while now.

“I’ve been afraid of my parents callin’ me a lot of things for so long, but I never thought I’d be someone they could call a—a wh—” Shelby stops, too upset; she can’t say the word. “I thought maybe if it worked for you before, with Fatin, I could find someone to distract me too.”

“That’s fine, Shelby,” Toni reassures her. “That makes sense. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Shelby’s gaze falls to her lap and she chews at her lip like she’s preparing herself to reveal the worst part. “It’s way more girls than—more than you, back in high school.”

“That’s okay.” Toni squeezes her hands again and ignores the way her chest tightens—it hurts a little, but what hurts so much worse is the way Shelby’s beating herself up over it. “You deserve to have fun.”

“So then you don’t think I’m…” Shelby shrugs her shoulders and won’t look Toni in the eyes. “Used, or—”

“Fuck, no, Shelby. I would never think that about you. I think it sounds like you’re really pretty and there are a lot of girls who are down as soon as they realize you’re down too.” Toni cracks a smile. “I’ve been telling you for years that you’re hot.”

“I had to keep it all separate from my sorority because of my parents. So it was only once, every time, and I didn’t know them.” Shelby looks down at her lap. “Except… there’s a girl in my sorority that’s—well, she’s been open about likin’ both, she’s the only one who is, and they’re nice to her but they make comments when she’s not around, and she and I just…”

“That’s okay, too,” Toni makes herself say. “If you like her—”

“No,” Shelby breathes out, looking back up at Toni and shaking her head adamantly. “No, it’s like you and Fatin.”

“Okay.”

“It’s okay if you’ve been with a lot of other girls too,” Shelby says, but like it’s painful, like it’s not okay at all. “I’m sure you have. I’m sure so many girls think you’re amazin’.”

Toni licks her lips and thinks hard about what she wants to say next, because she’s pretty sure it’s going to hurt Shelby no matter what she tells her. “Um,” she starts slowly, furrowing her eyebrows, and then she takes a breath and says, “It’s just been the one time with Fatin, for me.”

Shelby’s face crumples and then more tears are sliding down her cheeks and Toni’s rushing to sit beside her instead. “I’m so sorry,” Shelby sobs out, and Toni squeezes her hand and rubs at her back.

“Shelby, it’s okay. I’m the one fucking up. You’re doing what we were supposed to do.”

“It’s not helpin’ me,” Shelby says, and when she leans in toward Toni and rests her forehead on Toni’s shoulder Toni holds her close and wipes the tears from her cheeks. “I’m so tired of this, of doin’ this to you. It’s still not goin’ away.”

Toni rubs her back and thinks of how she’s been out since she was fourteen. Since the eighth grade, five years ago now, and of how her life and Shelby’s have always felt miles and miles apart even before one of them moved halfway across the country. She knows how hard Shelby’s trying.

“Shelby, let me wait,” she offers, whispers it into Shelby’s hair and breathes her scent in, and it’s like a weight’s been lifted from her chest now that she’s put the idea out there. Shelby raises her head and Toni smiles easily at her. “I don’t care how long it takes. We’ll call each other every day and send pictures and text constantly. A phone’s all we need, right? Your parents have no way of knowing.”

Shelby looks like she wants to protest. “I can’t ask you to do that, Toni; you could be so much happier with—”

“Shelby, neither of us are happy,” Toni interrupts. “I’m just on standby again. You flew halfway across the country just because I was upset with you. Let’s be good to each other for once.”

Shelby searches her eyes for a moment, like she’s looking for any sign of uncertainty, and Toni wipes the rest of her tears away calmly and then kisses her forehead.

“We tried it, Shelby,” she says. “It failed spectacularly. Like, completely bombed. I love you and you love me and there’s no point in us wasting our time pretending like we’re gonna stop. Okay?”

Shelby’s eyes drop to her lips and Toni knows Shelby’s going to kiss her a second before she does, but it still feels like it knocks the wind out of her after seven months apart, and Toni is torn by the way that she can feel the slight difference in how Shelby’s mouth moves against hers, with just a little more finesse, doing things with her tongue she’s never quite done exactly like that before—it feels so good but Toni can also feel the experience behind it, and it makes her feel like they wasted so much time this semester.

Shelby’s more aggressive now, too, but that is unquestioningly good—she whispers, “Lay down,” and then tips Toni backward and maneuvers on top of her without breaking their kiss, and the confidence that Toni had sensed in her back when she’d first arrived comes back tenfold in the way Shelby’s hands sweep along her sides and across her abdomen, touching her everywhere, and for a moment Toni thinks of high school, when their roles were so blatantly reversed, when Shelby was flushing beneath her and struggling to speak. She thinks of the time on the living room floor, when she’d shown Shelby the kinds of things she could whisper in a girl’s ear. She wonders if Shelby used any of them and her heart pangs a little.

She tastes Shelby’s mouth with her tongue and her retainer is gone. Toni pulls back in silent question and Shelby tells her, “My daddy finally paid for my surgery,” and Toni thinks that it’s one less thing for him to hold over Shelby’s head.

“Good,” she says, and urges Shelby’s mouth back down to hers. Shelby’s hands explore her whole body like she’s scared to miss a single inch, and by the time she’s untying the strings of Toni’s sweatpants one-handed Toni’s panting into her mouth and arching up into her, trying to get as much contact as she can.

It’s not slow, after that; Toni’s missed Shelby so much and she knows Shelby feels the same, but they have time later in the night for sweet and gentle—all night, in fact, and Toni just feels nothing but white-hot relief when Shelby’s hand dips impatiently under the waistband of her pants and into her underwear and slides straight home, rubbing Toni purposefully while Toni clutches at her back. They’re both fully clothed, though Toni’s shirt has been pushed up to halfway up her stomach, and Toni wants access to the button on Shelby’s pants but she’s a little distracted by Shelby’s fingers slipping further down and pressing into her.

Shelby’s long-since learned when to curl her fingers and how to use her palm, and Toni clings to her and quivers around her. Shelby slides deeper right away like she knows Toni’s already close and she’s in a rush to get her there, thrusting a little faster, and she definitely knows, she just knows what she’s doing and it’s actually so hot to Toni that she knows Toni so well and women so well, now. Toni rocks against her until she feels herself tightening and then she’s crying out and Shelby is working her through it, her mouth against Toni’s ear and murmuring, “I’d like it if you went again,” as though she feels like there’s something she needs to make up for, and Toni just nods dumbly and lets Shelby do whatever she wants.

She comes one more time around Shelby’s fingers and then twice under her mouth before Shelby lets her roll them over and work Shelby’s pants down her legs, and it’s Toni who finally takes it slow, who makes sure both of them remove the rest of their clothes before she kisses all over Shelby’s body and works her up with light touches until she’s taut and trembling and weak under Toni’s hands. Her mouth presses kisses up Shelby’s neck and she tells her, “I love you so much,” and Shelby kisses her lips and breathes the words right back into her mouth, and Toni doesn’t want to make her wait any longer. Her fingers slip down and in and soon Shelby comes moaning her name, and when she’s recovered enough Toni presses her right back into the mattress and grinds on her thigh, and they don’t stop even after the sun sets outside of Toni’s window, and not for a long time after that, either.

Toni wakes up briefly on Christmas morning cuddling Shelby in her bed, and Shelby hasn’t moved at all while she’s slept, so it’s all on Toni. She lifts her head to look down at the position of their bodies, taking stock of the situation, and then lets out a satisfied yawn and nuzzles her face back into Shelby’s neck, a smile on her lips. Shelby’s hair still smells like citrus and vanilla.

Chapter Text

Christmas Day starts with Toni being woken up at one in the afternoon by a fully dressed Shelby offering her a cup of coffee from the nearest Starbucks, and Toni sits up and accepts it sleepily without even making a basic white girl joke, then blinks slowly at Shelby while Shelby beams at her and flattens Toni’s disheveled hair with both hands.

“I look okay?” Toni yawns out between sips.

“Beautiful,” Shelby confirms, “and also like you had a very long night.”

“It was the best,” Toni says, not even bothering to be sly about it or to think up a joke, and Shelby peppers kisses all over her forehead and her cheeks and it’s all so domestic, already, and Toni feels almost giddy thinking about doing this every day sometime in the future—but she’s got a reputation to uphold, here, so she wrinkles her nose and pretends it’s all too overbearing and just maneuvers the coffee past Shelby’s hands and lips and up to her own mouth again. Shelby grins and Toni knows she sees right through it.

“You have presents to open,” Shelby tells her, and then kisses her when Toni lowers the coffee. Toni leans in further when Shelby tries to break it, and Shelby’s laugh is muffled against her lips. “C’mon, Christmas is my favorite holiday.”

“Surprised you haven’t had me duet ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with you yet,” Toni mumbles, and Shelby’s eyes widen a little like Toni’s just given her the idea. “That was a joke.”

Toni opens Fatin’s present first. It’s body chocolate with a tag on it, on which Fatin has written, “Take the hint. I’m horny, bitch.” Shelby seems unamused.

“I’ll talk to her,” Toni says, and thinks about using the chocolate before Shelby has to leave tomorrow.

Sam’s gotten her two appropriately cheap tickets to a Lakers game in February and a card that says, “Would love to go together!” which is also a little awkward.

“I will also talk to her.” Toni shakes her head and mutters, “Jesus Christ,” then pauses for more coffee before she starts in on Shelby’s presents.

The first is a Fury Road DVD, and Toni cackles at the sight of it and says, “Oh my God, the fact that you would even want to relive that memory, Shelby…”

“I didn’t know what I was doin’ then,” Shelby admits, a hand on her own cheek, and Toni smirks at her.

“You had such a huge crush on me.”

“We were regularly havin’ sex, Toni. Yes, I did like you.”

Toni wiggles her eyebrows at Shelby like she’s hot shit anyway, then says, “This is dope. Thank you. We can watch it today.” She pauses, then amends that. “We can put it on in the background today.”

The second present is a two-parter: three different types of surfboard wax and then a pack of gay-themed surfboard stickers, and Toni is so fucking excited and so touched that Shelby thought to get her anything like this even though it’s been so long since they’ve seen each other. She wants to tackle her to the bed and shower her with affection but instead she just blushes from behind her coffee and mumbles, “I really like this,” and Shelby beams at her like she knows exactly what Toni’s feeling.

“Okay, last one, but hold on a second,” Shelby says, and then stands up to go retrieve her purse while Toni picks apart the package. In the end she’s holding up a pendant with leather straps and a small shiny tube with light brown liquid in it, and Shelby rushes to say, “Okay, I wasn’t goin’ to tell you, but I have a matchin’ one; I was just goin’ to give you that one because it’s the color of your eyes, but I also have this one.” She shows Toni an identical pendant with green liquid, the exact same shade as Shelby’s eyes. “And now I was thinkin’… we could swap? I know it’s cheesy. We don’t have to. I’ve never done anythin’ like this.” She looks nervous.

Toni watches her fondly, unfazed by her rambling, and knows right away that this is her favorite gift of all, because it’s the gift of a commitment, in a way. “I feel like I’m always learning new things about you, Shelby,” she says, and offers her the pendant in her hand. They help each other put them on and Toni examines herself in the mirror by her sink and decides it’ll look especially fantastic on her out on the beach in the hot weather, but she’ll wear it all the time anyway. “So I guess we’re both gonna walk around with a piece of each other.”

“Do you like it?” Shelby asks.

“Yeah.” Toni bites back a smile as she wanders back over to Shelby and then tugs her close for a kiss, and that turns into them making out for a few minutes until Toni pulls away and asks, “So now that I’m wearing your eye color around my neck, are you gonna make it official, or should I?”

“Official?” Shelby echoes, distracted, her gaze low on Toni’s mouth.

“My girlfriend,” Toni elaborates. “You’ve never actually been, like, mine before.”

Shelby’s eyes soften and she says, “I feel like I’ve always been yours.”

“Never like I wanted,” Toni murmurs, and it’s still not exactly like she wants, even now, but it’s the best it’s ever been, and if Shelby means everything she’s been saying, it’s only going to get better with time. The only question is how much of it, exactly. “You have to say it.”

Shelby’s lips brush against hers as she mumbles, “I’m your girlfriend,” and it sends a tingle up Toni’s spine, because she really does believe her here, knows deep in her gut that Shelby really wants to try this, that they’re going to try this, finally, even if it won’t be perfect. Shelby’s hands dip under her shirt, and she wants to give in and just collapse on the bed and keep going, but there’s something else she feels like she needs to do first, because last night had been perfect and Shelby’s been so sweet today, but there’s so much more left to figure out.

“What’s the plan?” she asks simply, kissing Shelby’s cheek, and she can feel the mood change right away, can see Shelby biting nervously at her lip when she pulls back.

“Me and you,” Shelby starts slowly, and Toni can visibly see her thinking it over, and it’s obvious immediately that Shelby doesn’t really have a plan—and maybe expected, given that Toni had suggested all of this only last night, so for right now Toni’s just glad that she’s trying. “We’ll have our phones, but maybe we can see each other over Spring Break. I can say I’m going somewhere with Henry, maybe come visit again—”

“Henry,” Toni echoes slowly, thinking about it, and Shelby looks apologetic.

“I can tell him everything. But it’s better for it to be him than some other guy who doesn’t know the truth.”

“Because there always has to be some guy?” Toni asks, though not unkindly.

“Not for me. For my parents, just so that they aren’t breathin’ down my neck about boys. Until I can tell them.” Shelby squeezes her hands. “I do want to, Toni. To tell them. I know you deserve that; all I’ve been thinkin’ about since last night is how amazing it could be if it were always like this.”

“Me too,” Toni confesses, and it’s true: she can’t stop imagining being able to kiss Shelby whenever she wants, wherever she wants, being able to cuddle and laugh together and smile at each other instead of all the pretending they’ve been doing in mixed company.

She knows that Shelby is terrified, that she’s facing down a man who has controlled everything about her life up until six months ago and sent her away for that horrible summer, and still, something in Toni tells her that this time is different, that Shelby wants what’s best for the both of them now instead of what’s best for just Toni or just herself.

Toni’s never felt worthy of love, and it’s a leap now, to trust that Shelby disagrees with her, but she takes a deep breath and says it anyway. “I know you can do it. And whatever I have to do after, to prove it was worth it—”

“Toni, you don’t have to prove anything,” Shelby mutters, and she looks a little disturbed by the notion as she shakes her head. “Ever. Okay?”

“I want to show you anyway,” Toni says, and kisses her again, feels Shelby’s uncertainty as she kisses back. “How much I love you.”

“I already know,” Shelby mumbles, and their kiss deepens for a moment but then Toni pulls away and shakes her head.

“Not everything.” Toni slips away from her and goes to kneel down by her bed, slides the cardboard box from Martha out and then lifts it and returns to Shelby. Toni extends her arms, offering the box to her, and Shelby quirks her eyebrows curiously and accepts it. “It’s embarrassing,” Toni warns, but she sits down with Shelby on the bed and watches her open it anyway. There’s a slow change to her expression as she takes in the top sheet of paper and starts to realize, and then she looks at Toni, confused. “Marty took pictures before we burned them. She didn’t tell me.”

Shelby inhales sharply and blinks a few times like she needs a moment to process that, and when she looks back at the box Toni witnesses a sea of emotions on her face and knows she’s retreating back to that summer in her head. Shelby presses her lips together tightly and then Toni notices tears forming in her eyes. “I’m a little scared to look at these,” Shelby admits.

“You don’t have to,” Toni rushes to say, worried she’s screwed up. “I just thought… you might wanna know.”

“I do.” Shelby breathes slowly. “I really do.”

She closes the box, though, and Toni isn’t sure what she’s doing until she shifts on the bed so that her back is against Toni’s pillow. She pats the spot next to her and Toni joins her, sinking down a little so that she can rest her head on Shelby’s shoulder. Shelby takes her hand and squeezes it hard, and for the next hour, she reads the messages that Toni wrote her eighteen months ago.

She cries so much more than Toni expected her to and laughs so much less, and Toni gets a little bleary-eyed herself because Shelby’s body is just wracked with sobs at some of the stuff she reads, and Toni just feels so guilty that all of it happened the way it did in the first place. Toni has never considered her life to be easy, but she looks at Shelby and can’t think of anyone she’s ever met who has it harder, and Toni hates thinking about the fact that she was once a part of that, that she made anything about Shelby’s life more unpleasant or more difficult than it needed to be.

She cries so much that Toni knows it’s about more than the messages, that there are so many issues she has yet to resolve, so many things she’s kept inside. She thinks of the way Shelby’d spoken of herself yesterday after she’d fooled around with other girls for a couple of months, and knows that there will be more of those issues at some point, more of Shelby’s little things that crop up and have to be handled with care. She’s still doing pageants, and that alone Toni is certain takes a toll on her—having so many expectations to meet, needing to be perfect all the time.

“You can talk to me, Shelby,” she says eventually, and kisses her on the cheek. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Shelby sets the box aside when she’s finally done and rolls onto Toni, tells her with determination, “I can do this for you,” and Toni knows right away what she means, that this is a promise; Shelby’s hand is already sliding down her body and she breathes out, “You’re worth it,” into Toni’s mouth, and they spend the rest of the day in bed, sliding and shuddering and gasping out each other’s names again and again and again, and it’s never enough but Toni is the happiest she has ever been.

***

Toni’s most optimistic scenario had involved another twelve to eighteen months of sneaking around with Shelby—she’d prepped herself mentally for another two to three semesters of nothing but phones calls and secret holiday visits, and had even in her more pessimistic moments started considering what it might be like to do it for two more additional semesters after that, or maybe until their college graduations, and then, finally, perhaps, Toni’d come back home and they’d reveal everything and start their lives together, armed with their degrees and their financial independence.

Three and a half years of waiting feels sickening to imagine, but she thinks there’s a chance she could do it if there were a lot of visits and another established ultimatum at the end of it. Eighteen months feels difficult, but manageable with the phone and the holidays. One year feels reasonable sometimes and like a pipe dream other times. Six months only crosses Toni’s mind once, while she’s in bed with Shelby one night over Spring Break and admittedly a bit high on endorphins and the taste of Shelby’s lips.

Shelby makes Toni wait five months. Toni finds out later that she’d started preparing to come out after two.

It’s the following summer when Toni finally returns to Texas, and she hasn’t seen Shelby since Spring Break, since Shelby had spent the week in California learning to surf and being shown around as much of LA as Toni could get around to—she’d been particularly interested in UCLA’s campus, though, and Toni had even snuck her into Pauley Pavilion, the indoor arena where their basketball games are played.

It’s been hard, but not the hardest thing she’s ever gone through with regard to Shelby. They keep all their promises; they talk and text every day, sext and get off over the phone fairly regularly—it drives Fatin nuts, she has to spend her nights away in other beds so often—and Toni knows it would obviously be better in person, but she’s still so happy just to have Shelby and to know that Shelby is hers, even if it does come with the caveat of letting her parents and new college friends think she’s dating some gay guy.

And oh, does Shelby let Toni know that she’s hers—there’s the stuff over the phone, which Shelby is increasingly less shy about, and Toni’s gotten way too much mileage out of having “I’m yours” gasped right into the line during their most intimate moments. Sometimes a love letter shows up for Toni in the mail; Fatin reads the first one without permission after Toni leaves it on the nightstand and then doesn’t let her live it down for weeks, mostly because it’s scented with flowery perfume and written on vaguely pink itinerary. Shelby sends packages a few times, too, and even surprises Toni with delivered chocolates on Valentine’s Day: they come with a note that says, “Guessing you think flowers are a hassle but I can do those too, just text me, XO,” and Toni chuckles at it because Shelby’s completely read her correctly. Fatin steals about a third of the chocolates.

She can tell Shelby’s trying so hard to make up for lost time, maybe to make up for everything, but she’s also just so enthusiastic about all of it, and it takes Toni way too long to realize that Shelby’s never really been anyone’s girlfriend—not anyone she’s actually been into, anyway—and of course she’s just a huge fucking cheesy romantic who loves doing this kind of shit; her favorite movie’s The Notebook, after all. Toni rolls her eyes at most of it when Fatin’s around, but she’s not sure who she’s really performing for, because Fatin sees right through it anyway and mocks her plenty about how obviously into it she is.

By the end of the semester, as difficult as it had been, Toni’s confident that she can manage a couple more of them like this, given that they’re stuck being long-distance anyway regardless of whether Shelby’s out or not—but of course she doesn’t have to.

She’s only staying in Texas from late May to early June before she has to go straight back to California for basketball, but she takes the time to see everyone while she’s there. Fatin plans a get-together for the whole gang, and it’s that evening, as Toni’s in her bedroom thinking about when she should start getting ready, that she gets a text from Shelby that says, “Can you come pick me up in a few? I’m at home.

It’s an odd request, because Shelby has a car—one her parents own and pay for, sure, but she’s the only one who’s driven it in years, to Toni’s knowledge. Even more oddly, Toni showing up at Shelby’s house while she’s still closeted sounds like an incredibly terrible idea.

I can be there in fifteen,” she says anyway. “I’ll park down the street.

Park out front,” Shelby sends back immediately, like she’d been waiting for Toni’s reply.

They might see me.

Toni stares at her phone with confusion, and then Shelby’s response comes in. “I know. I’m telling them.

Martha’s sitting in the living room when Toni blows past her, scrambling to put her shoes on on the way to the door. “Whoa, is everything okay?” she calls out.

“Fuck no,” Toni replies, and then she’s outside and racing to Ms. Blackburn’s car.

It’s normally a ten minute drive to Shelby’s house, and Toni makes it there in six, never feeling more nervous in her entire life—or more surprised and unprepared, because this is so soon, even sooner than she’d ever imagined it could happen.

She half-expects it to be utter chaos when she pulls up, for Shelby to be storming out of the front door with her parents screaming at her from the porch, but instead it’s totally silent. Toni watches from her car until she can’t bear to just sit still anymore—there are a thousand different scenarios running through her head and most of them involve everything going terribly wrong, Shelby getting hurt, Shelby needing backup—and then she throws the car door open and walks up the driveway, onto the porch and stands in front of the door.

Then it occurs to her that maybe everything’s quiet because Shelby’s changed her mind. Maybe barging into her house will completely ruin everything, and even standing where she is right now is risking it all, too.

She checks her phone and sees she has nothing new from Shelby. Then she hears glass shatter.

She’s inside before she can think about it and the first thing she sees is Shelby’s little brother and sister hiding around a corner, side by side and listening in, and they spot Toni and just blink at her, wide-eyed, as Toni hears the sound of Dave Goodkind’s voice, low and gruff and coming from the kitchen. “You don’t know what you’re sayin’ right now, Shelby.”

Shelby’s voice sounds shaky, like she’s crying. “I do, Daddy; my mind’s already been made up for a while now. I know how I feel.”

“Daddy!” Melody shouts, still staring at Toni, and in an instant Dave’s peering out into the hallway, right at Toni and the open front door behind her. His jaw goes tight and he looks at someone to his right—Shelby, Toni knows—and then gestures to Toni.

“So it’s this one, still?”

“What?” Toni hears Shelby ask, and then she’s joining Dave and looking around the corner into the hallway, too, and when she spots Toni her eyes go wide. “Toni.” She starts to slip by Dave and he takes her by the arm and stops her, and Toni feels her entire body go hot with rage.

“I don’t think you wanna do that, Shelby,” Dave tells her at the same time that Toni growls, “Don’t fucking touch her,” but Shelby pulls out of his grip easily and meets Toni halfway down the hall, then presses two gentle hands to Toni’s shoulders. Toni sees that her cheeks are tear-streaked and she can feel Shelby trembling a little.

“Please, Toni, just wait outside,” she breathes out, and Toni looks past her and sees Shelby’s mom joining her husband to stare at them. She knows Shelby senses her hesitance, because she adds, “Please. I’ll be okay.”

“Get upstairs,” Dave snaps at Melody and Spencer, and they hurry off without another word.

“I heard glass shatter,” Toni remembers, and Shelby nods at her.

“It’s okay. My mom just dropped a glass. I’ll be out in a couple of minutes. It’s almost done.”

Everything in Toni’s nature is screaming at her to stay, to stand between Shelby and Dave and protect her, but she lets Shelby guide her out onto the front porch anyway, and then she’s just left standing there in shock, trying to make sense of what she’s just walked in on. Shelby’s left the front door cracked a little and Toni can hear everything that’s happening in the hallway just inside, and she waits with every muscle in her body tensed, ready to intervene if she needs to.

“We spent a lot of time talkin’ about this Shelby; I know you know what this is,” Dave says, and he doesn’t sound as angry as he had before, now. “This is lust, plain and simple—”

“No, daddy, I know what lust is,” Shelby interrupts. “Believe me, I have felt lust, and I was so sure for so long that I would never get to have anythin’ more than that, because if I ever loved anyone it still couldn’t possibly be enough to make me wanna give up everythin’ else just to have it. But I love Toni so much—enough to give you up, and mom, and even Spencer and Mel if that’s what y’all are gonna make me do for it. If that’s not love, then nothing is.”

“Shelby, the Lord will forgive your sin if—”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Shelby says with finality, and then there’s silence on the other side of the door for a long moment.

“If you walk out that door with that girl, there’s no comin’ back,” Dave says eventually. “Not to your family, not to your church, your car, the things we provide for you, the stuff you’ve left in this house…”

“I know, Daddy,” Shelby tells him. “That’s why I started movin’ everything important out in February.”

The front door swings open and then Shelby slips out and takes Toni by the wrist, pulling her along until they’re across the front lawn and heading toward the car.

“What just happened?” Toni breathes out, stunned, and Shelby’s grip tightens on her; Toni can feel her still trembling.

“I’ll tell you when we get home,” Shelby says, and Toni notices right away what she’s said: home, like home is Toni’s house now, for the both of them.

“Okay,” she agrees, and then she drives them there. Martha is visibly confused when they arrive, but doesn’t ask questions once she sees how upset Shelby looks.

The first thing Shelby wants to do is to shower, and Toni doesn’t question it, just goes to find her a towel and then starts to leave her in the bathroom, but Shelby holds her close and Toni understands; she locks the door behind herself and then lets Shelby pull off Toni’s clothes and then her own.

They kiss tentatively under the hot water a little, but that’s it, and Shelby’s been shaking for so long now that Toni doesn’t notice at first that she’s crying. Toni wraps her arms around her and whispers, “I love you so much. You’re the bravest person I know.”

“It was because of you,” Shelby confesses into her neck. “That’s all. I just wanted to choose you.”

“It’ll be good for you, too,” Toni promises, holding her tight. “I’ll make it good for you. You can come up all summer and stay with me, and I’ll come back here for Fall Break and Thanksgiving and Christmas—”

Shelby lets out a watery laugh and pulls away, blinking at her fondly. “Toni, I’m transferring to UCLA.”

Toni stares at her, unable to process that for a moment. “You’re what?”

“I told my parents that, too,” Shelby says, and she’s still sniffling a little but her eyes are so bright now. “I told them I was in love with a girl there, that I have been for years now and that I’m tired of pretendin’ I’m not, and that I wasn’t happy here in Texas. I’ve already been accepted. It’s expensive, but I have enough scholarships that it’s worth it to me if it means we can do this for real.” She reaches up and cups Toni’s cheek, almost shy as she suggests, “If you wanted, we could live together. If that’s not too much.”

“Fuck,” Toni curses, and now she feels like she’s the one about to start crying—she can see it all already, waking up next to Shelby every morning, making out in the kitchen while breakfast cooks, dropping Shelby off at class on the way to her own, coming home to her after basketball practices and throwing themselves into the ocean together on the weekends. She pictures Shelby wobbling on a surfboard and imagines kissing her on the pier without a second thought as to who might see them. “Fuck, yes, I would love that, Shelby. I can’t believe—yes. Yes. Please, let’s do that.”

And Shelby’s just put herself through something she’s been scared for years to face, but she just looks at Toni and smiles and laughs a little like she’s genuinely so, so happy, and when she kisses Toni again Toni can feel the smile still on her lips.

“Are you okay?” she asks, just to check, and Shelby presses their foreheads together and nods.

“I didn’t think it would feel like this,” she admits, “but I’m so much more excited about the future than upset about the present right now.”

And Toni has a feeling that it hasn’t fully sank in yet, because she knows Shelby’s family means a lot to her and that losing her siblings in particular is going to devastate her, but she just nods back and suggests, “We can go to Fatin’s if you want to take your mind off of everything.”

“I think alcohol sounds like a great idea tonight,” Shelby murmurs, “and then we’ll go from there.”

Another two hours passes before everyone meets up at Fatin’s for the party, and Martha rides with Toni and Shelby, watching them hold hands over the center console all the while. Toni can see her smiling at them in the rearview mirror. They’re the last ones to arrive, and Toni urges Martha to go on inside and then stands with Shelby by the car, waiting for her to gather herself.

“We don’t have to say anything to them,” Toni offers, and Shelby shakes her head.

“Half of them think the last time you spoke to me was after I said you belonged in—” Shelby ends the sentence there, disgusted. “I can’t go in there with you without tellin’ them the truth. And I want them to know. I want to start tellin’ people.”

“It’s just a lot for one day,” is all Toni says, but Shelby’s already tugging her toward the front door by her wrist with newfound determination.

Dot answers the door and she’s already wasted; she spots Shelby first and stares, wide-eyed, probably wondering what on earth the homophobe none of them has supposedly spoken to since junior year is doing here. Then she sees Toni standing next to her, and Toni can see the drunken wheels turning in Dot’s head, struggling even more to make sense of that. Then she spots that they’re holding hands, and now she looks like she might be malfunctioning. “What the fuck?” she asks, and suddenly Fatin appears beside her and elbows her out of the way.

“Oh, shit,” Fatin says, only slurring her words a little, and then she looks at their joined hands and then at Shelby and asks, “Did you really? Well, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life to have been wrong about something.”

“Do you have anything to drink?” Toni asks pointedly, and Fatin looks a little sheepish as she opens the door wider to let them in. Shelby enters first and then pulls Toni in behind her, and they’re still holding hands when the other girls turn and get a good look at them.

Dot’s the only one dumbfounded by the whole thing, and it’s maybe because she’s very drunk. Rachel’s eyebrows are raised as she takes them in but she seems otherwise unbothered, and Nora looks at Toni as knowingly as always. Leah seems unsurprised enough that Toni gets a little suspicious of Fatin’s big mouth for a moment.

“It makes no sense, and yet I’m not shocked,” Rachel offers with a shrug, eventually.

“I think it makes perfect sense,” Nora replies.

And it’s that easy.

“Cheers to the new couple,” Fatin says, holding up a red solo cup and then downing its contents. “Well, newly out, anyway. It’s about time. Somebody get them a drink.”

The other girls react like they’ve been shaken out of a bit of a stupor, and when they come closer to hand them both drinks and offer hugs and support, Toni wonders if maybe this is the beginning of Shelby finding a new family.

Chapter Text

Toni’s bartending shift runs late into the night and by the time she can finally escape she’s over two hours late to Fatin’s graduation party.

When she pulls up to her own townhouse, she can hear the music blaring from Fatin’s place two doors down, and Toni laughs a little and shakes her head; the two girls that live between them are giant sticks in the mud and she doubts it’ll be more than an hour before the police show up with a noise complaint. Toni’s going to have to make that hour count.

She changes into new clothes and then makes the short walk over. The front door is unlocked and when she slips inside she’s met with a packed house; people Toni recognizes from various classes and extracurriculars and other parties over the past four years mill about in Fatin’s living room and kitchen area, drinking and dancing together. Toni goes straight for the kitchen because that’s where the alcohol is, smiling and exchanging greetings and waves with a couple of girls from the basketball team on the way over.

She doesn’t see Fatin anywhere as she pours her drink, but Dot is across the living room—she’s visiting to watch them graduate tomorrow—and through the crowd Toni can vaguely see her bouncing around to the music and laughing hysterically, a drink in her hand while her other hand spins someone she’s dancing with. Toni sees a flash of blonde hair, and then Dot shifts backward a little and instead it’s Shelby in her line of sight now. Her head is thrown back and she’s laughing, too, her cheeks flushed from the alcohol, and she’s wearing an Adidas jacket with UCLA emblazoned across the front and a pair of white jeans. Toni hides a smile as she steps back and rests against Fatin’s fridge, sipping at her drink.

“Oh, no, no, no, none of that!” a voice calls out a few feet away from her, and there’s Fatin, who’s spotted her and is immediately heading for her, her eyes on the drink in Toni’s hand. “What the fuck is that?” she asks, stealing the drink away and peering inside. Toni has mixed vodka and orange juice and Fatin looks disgusted with her. “Are we children, Toni? Where’s your shot?”

“I’m not trying to get trashed the night before graduation, Fatin,” Toni says with a laugh, and Fatin rolls her eyes and hands the drink back.

“Fine. But do just one with me.” Fatin grabs a bottle of Smirnoff and opens up her cabinet to dig out two shot glasses, and Toni watches her pour for a moment before her gaze drifts back to the crowd. She can see Dot chatting up some guy now, but Shelby’s nowhere to be found. “Here.” Her eyes snap back to Fatin, who holds a shot out to her. Toni sighs and accepts it.

“Just one,” she echoes, and Fatin clinks their glasses. They’re so going to end up doing more than one; that’s how it always is with Fatin.

“Sure,” Fatin agrees, like she knows it, too, and Toni laughs and shakes her head but downs the shot anyway. The burn makes her cough a little, but Fatin tosses hers back like it’s water. “Alright, where are Dot and Shelby? They need to get in on this.”

“I’ll look for Shelby,” Toni proposes, and then points out Dot to Fatin.

She pushes off of the fridge and Fatin calls after her, “Don’t fuck in my bathroom!”

“No promises!”

Fatin’s townhouse has a second floor and Toni heads upstairs when she doesn’t see Shelby on the first floor. The door to Fatin’s bedroom is closed and when she’s brave enough to crack it open she’s rewarded with the sight of a couple making out on the bed. “Yo, get the fuck out,” she snaps at them because she knows Fatin will appreciate it, and they scramble to their feet and drunkenly fumble their way past Toni and back downstairs.

There’s a guest bedroom upstairs, too, and that’s where Toni finds Shelby, examining the collection of pictures Fatin’s placed on a corkboard that rests on top of the dresser. Toni knocks on the open door to announce her presence, and Shelby turns quickly and then softens when she sees it’s Toni.

“I saw you dancing,” Toni says. “I just had to find out what your name was.”

“Lord, please don’t start,” Shelby laughs, turning away again. She lifts the drink in her left hand to take a sip and Toni looks at her fingers, sees the engagement ring on one of them.

“Shit,” she breathes out as she crosses the room. “Don’t tell me you’re taken.”

“Unfortunately,” Shelby sighs, and Toni presses into her back and wraps her arms around her stomach, then rests her chin on Shelby’s shoulder.

“Twenty-two is way too young to get engaged,” Toni tells her. “I mean, unless you’ve been, say, madly in love with this person since you were seventeen, it just doesn’t seem like enough time to really get to know someone.”

“Love?” Shelby echoes like the concept is foreign to her. “She’s just good in bed.”

“Well, passion is important in a relationship, too… Wait, so you’re into girls?”

“I’m gonna tell Fatin you pull shit like this when it’s just the two of us,” Shelby warns.

“Mmm, I love when you threaten me with a good time,” Toni mumbles into her neck, pressing light kisses down the length of it. “She’ll never believe you.”

“I think you overestimate how cool everyone thinks you are.”

“If you’re gonna be mean to me you can’t wear my jacket.” Toni kisses her neck again, this time with tongue, and she feels Shelby get a little unsteady against her. “Take it off.”

“Behave,” Shelby murmurs, but her hand tangles into Toni’s hair anyway and holds her close.

“What are you doing up here?” Toni asks between kisses, and then she remembers the corkboard before Shelby can answer, pulls away and looks up at the collection of pictures. Toni sees a photo of herself with one arm around a surfboard and the other around a bikini-clad Shelby, and another picture of herself and Fatin dancing together at some party, Toni’s arm slung over Fatin’s shoulder with her tongue out and a drink in her hand. Toni’s all over the board, honestly, and so is Shelby, with photos of Dot and Martha and their other college friends peppered throughout. There are a couple that include Rachel or Leah from their few visits over the years, and even one with Nora from the one time she came along with Rachel. “I didn’t realize Fatin was so sentimental.”

“I’m sad that it’s endin’,” Shelby admits, “but I’m also excited about what’s next.”

Toni thinks ahead, to the jobs they have lined up and the tiny apartment they’re planning on getting together two blocks from the beach. She sees a photo Fatin took the summer after their freshman year, on the night she threw a party at her parents’ house: all eight of the girls Toni’s come to think of as her little Texas family—they’ve been in and out of touch to varying degrees, but Toni knows now that she can come to any of them for anything—are crowded together behind Fatin for a selfie, and even Shelby is smiling widely for the photo. Toni points it out and says, “That feels like a lifetime ago.”

Shelby turns and kisses her face. “Yeah.”

It’s been a long three years. Toni thinks back on college with Shelby and every strain on their relationship that comes to mind has had nothing to do with how they function as an “us” and everything to do with external factors and their own inner demons. There are things they’re still working out. Toni still gets down on herself every now and then and has to check in to ask if Shelby is sure that this is what she wants, because there are so many people out there in the world that are better than Toni and Shelby’s sacrificing so much for this. Sometimes she finds Shelby sitting alone with tears streaming down her cheeks and usually it’s because she’s thinking about Becca or about her family. Shelby flinches sometimes when they revisit their hometown and Toni goes to hold her hand or kiss her. They deal with it, and it’s all getting better the more time they pass together.

Toni leads Shelby downstairs by the hand and they find Dot and Fatin already knocking back shots together in the kitchen. Fatin’s practically giddy as she pours one for the four of them and then hands them out. “To my bitches!” she cries, and they take their shots and then Shelby pulls Toni across the living room with a look in her eyes Toni knows and loves, joining the crowd drinking and dancing and turning her back to Toni. Toni’s hands find her hips and she presses in close as they start to move to the music together, and the alcohol makes her mind foggy but the sensual way Shelby moves against her makes it foggier. College has done wonders for Shelby’s confidence and Toni’s pretty sure that the way she’s always talking Shelby up about how attractive she is probably doesn’t hurt, either.

The noise complaint comes in right on schedule and there are a lot of boos as they all start to file out of Fatin’s townhouse. Shelby blows Dot and Fatin a drunken kiss goodbye as they exit and then she and Toni stumble their way back to their own place. Shelby presses Toni to the wall as soon as they’re inside and she tastes like alcohol and something fruity Toni can’t quite place.

“It’s late,” Toni reminds her, but kisses her back anyway because it’s mostly lip service; they have to get up early tomorrow but the heat in Toni’s abdomen feels like a very pressing matter.

“So no repeat of last Saturday?” Shelby breathes the joke into Toni’s mouth and Toni’s cheeks go red when she thinks of the all-nighter they’d pulled, mostly of Shelby clipping buckles with dark eyes and then gently pushing Toni onto the bed—

Toni thinks of what Fatin would say if she knew and flushes harder.

“You can do whatever you want,” she mumbles anyway, and feels Shelby smile widely into their kiss.

“You’re so cute,” she says, and Toni scoffs and attacks her mouth a little, aggressive and biting. Shelby rewards her with a quiet moan but then says, “You’re still cute.”

“I won’t have sex with you,” Toni threatens unconvincingly, and Shelby just laughs at her and tugs her to the bedroom. Toni’s on her back before her alcohol-soaked brain can process it, Shelby crawling all over her and pressing wet kisses to her lips and throat and collarbone, and she’s still dressed a little bit like a jock in Toni’s jacket, which as it turns out is really doing a lot for Toni. Shelby’s hands pull at her pants and Toni lifts her hips and watches Shelby work them down her legs and then off of her. Her underwear goes next, which catches her a little off-guard because her top half is still fully clothed and so is all of Shelby. “Already?”

“Yeah,” Shelby breathes out, though she slides the jacket off first before she kisses her way down Toni’s body and spreads her thighs apart. Toni knows this is Shelby’s favorite thing to do to her, she’s mentioned it so many times and even if she never had it’d still be obvious given how often she just goes straight for it like she is now. Her other favorite thing is—

Toni thinks of Shelby’s hips rolling into hers last Saturday and then she feels the press of Shelby’s tongue and it wipes her mind clean. It could be over in three minutes flat at this point if Shelby really set her mind to it; they’ve done this so often that they know each other’s bodies like they know their own, but Shelby takes her time and Toni’s hips strain up toward her. She’s wound up from Shelby grinding gently into her at Fatin’s place and the alcohol is making her more prone to impatience, and more prone to vocalizing that impatience.

“Faster,” she gasps, knows Shelby will understand that she can do what she wants with her tongue but that Toni just wants to come quickly, and Shelby’s arm shifts and then she’s easing two fingers into her, and it’s slow just like her tongue but Shelby knows how to crook her fingers and get her off without needing to up the pace. Toni feels them pressing just right and instantly she’s breathing hard and her abs are tensing as her hips bear down on Shelby’s tongue, which is still relaxed and languid against her. It’s so slow it’s borderline teasing, but Shelby’s fingers do most of the work, sliding and rubbing just right, and soon Toni feels herself tightening. Shelby eases her over the edge with care and Toni’s moan is quiet but full of satisfaction; for all their banter she feels like she’s just been worked over with gentle affection, and when Shelby kisses back up her body and finds her lips Toni can feel her smiling again.

“I love you,” Shelby says, but then she pauses and asks, “Now can I do the other thing you still won’t let me say out loud?”

“Every time with you, Shelby, I swear to fucking God—” Toni groans, covering her face with her hands to hide her flushed cheeks, and she feels Shelby’s giggle being smothered into her neck. “Can I at least get you off first before you start in with that shit?”

“It has that spot for the vibrator; I’ll be fine—”

“I know what it has, I’m just saying—”

“Remember what you said last time?”

Yes, I remember what I said last time,” Toni says flatly, and her hands slip off of her face as she recalls moaning into Shelby’s ear how good she is at this and how they should do it more often. “I need to learn how to say no to you,” she decides, and watches Shelby dart off of the bed and dig through their dresser drawer.

Five minutes later Shelby’s on top of her and they’re panting and moaning together and Toni can hear a distant buzz from where Shelby’s hips are rocking into hers, and it’s still kind of new so they’re not totally practiced at it yet but it doesn’t take long for Shelby to start shuddering against her, losing her rhythm, and Toni almost comes from the combination of the stimulation and Shelby’s moans, and then does come the instant Shelby’s hips really get going again.

She uses her hands and mouth on Shelby afterward to make her come again, and when they’re lying in bed together and falling asleep, Shelby cuddling into Toni while Toni strokes her hair, Toni asks a question she’s been putting off for a while because it’s such a sore subject, but graduation is hours away now and she has to know.

“Did you send out any tickets for tomorrow?” Toni had requested two: one for Martha and another for her mother. Dot is one of Fatin’s guests.

“Four,” Shelby says after a moment. “I mailed them and wrote a note. But I haven’t heard anything. Same as always.”

Toni kisses her head. “Okay. We’ll go out to lunch with Marty tomorrow after.”

“That sounds nice,” Shelby says, but like her thoughts are faraway now. Toni holds her close and waits to fall asleep.

Graduation takes hours, even though their university class has been split by college—Shelby and Toni are both in the College of Letters and Science, so they’re at the same ceremony—and when Shelby lines up next to the stage, it breaks Toni’s heart to watch her gaze flicker across the crowd while she waits for her name to be called. But then her eyes lock onto something and Toni watches her stiffen and stare, and she almost misses her name when it’s her turn, even still seems distracted as she shakes hands with the staff onstage. Toni twists around in her seat, trying to see what Shelby sees, and can’t; there are just too many people in the seats behind them.

Martha and her mom cheer for Toni when her name is called, and when it’s all over and they’re released from the building, Toni seeks out Shelby before she looks for Martha. She finds her out in the center of an open grassy area just outside of the building, searching the crowd. “Hey,” she greets her, and moves in for a kiss, but Shelby just bites her lip and tries to look past her, and Toni’s lips awkwardly find her cheek. “Everything alright? Martha and her mom are around here somewhere.”

“You should go look for them,” Shelby suggests, and she finally tears her eyes from the crowd to offer Toni a smile, but she’s very obviously still distracted. “I’ll catch up.”

“You sure?”

Shelby nods earnestly and so Toni kisses her again—this time Shelby leans in and kisses back—and then begins the search for Martha, who she finds standing on top of the edge of a fountain and waving her arms excitedly at Toni.

Toni practically tackles her into a hug and Martha starts crying for some reason. “I’m so proud of you,” she sobs, and Toni feels Martha’s mom’s eyes on them, can already envision the big grin on her face.

She pulls away and says to Martha, “You were so worried I’d drop out and wind up homeless, weren’t you?”

“Not with Shelby around,” Martha replies, and then pauses and amends, “Maybe the dropping out part.”

“Where is Shelby?” Ms. Blackburn asks, scanning the crowd.

“She said she’d meet up with us, but I don’t know. She seemed a little off.” Toni thinks back to the way Shelby’s eyes had frozen on a spot in the crowd and she almost hopes—but it seems so unlikely; Shelby’s family have gone years without showing any signs of give at all, even when Shelby had outright shown up at their front door to try to make peace. The door had only opened for her once; her sister, maybe around twelve years old at the time, had answered it and then mumbled something about getting into trouble before closing and locking it right in front of Shelby’s face. She hasn’t been back since.

But Toni seeks out bright blonde hair for only a few seconds before she finds three sets of it in close proximity, and for a second she doesn’t breathe, because Shelby is standing in front of her mother, and her brother and sister are on either side of her. Spencer looks like he’s probably somewhere in high school now, and Melody maybe is too, or at least close to it. None of them are hugging Shelby or anything, but her mother is saying something that looks very serious to her and Shelby is nodding along quickly, like she’s very eager to take in every word. Toni sees tears on her cheeks.

“Marty,” Toni says sharply, grasping for her arm and gesturing, and Martha gasps a little beside her when she sees. “What should I do? Does she look okay?”

“I don’t know.” Martha’s hand slips into Toni’s. “I think it’s good, right? I mean, that they’re here at all.”

“Not her dad,” Toni notices, finally.

“Yeah,” Martha says.

Toni wonders if she should go over, and watches for a while as Shelby’s mom keeps talking. Shelby reaches up to wipe her tears away with her left hand and Shelby’s mom looks taken aback, then takes her hand and examines the ring on it. Toni sees her lips move to form the words “You’re engaged?” and Shelby nods and starts crying harder and then her mom is drawing her in close for a hug, and Toni feels her own eyes flood with tears as well and then she’s crying quietly and squeezing Martha’s hand hard.

“Go, Toni,” Martha suggests, nudging her, and Toni shakes her head.

“I don’t want to interrupt.” She wrenches her eyes from Shelby and smiles over at Martha’s mom, who is watching all of this with tears in her eyes as well. “Thank you for coming all the way out here,” Toni tells them both, sniffling, and Ms. Blackburn pulls her into a hug. Toni feels Martha at her back, hugging her too, so that she’s effectively sandwiched in between them. “You’re the best family ever.”

They wait around for Shelby and eventually she separates from her family long enough to find Toni, and Shelby starts crying again upon sight of her, which makes Toni tear up all over again too. “I saw,” Toni says before Shelby has to explain, and Shelby hugs her so tightly it’s a little difficult for her to breathe, but Toni doesn’t complain.

“My parents are getting a divorce,” Shelby confesses, and Toni rubs at her back and doesn’t say anything, not sure how Shelby feels about it. “Because of me. My mom wanted to get back in touch. Mel was missing me and crying a lot. My parents fought about it for a year.”

“Are you okay?” Toni finally asks, and Shelby nods against her.

“I’m so happy.” She laughs a little and Toni can feel tears dripping onto her shoulder. “Spencer’s the same height as me now.”

“Go have lunch with them,” Toni urges her, and when Shelby pulls away to look at her Toni wipes the tears from her cheeks. “Get caught up. We’ll be here when you get back.”

“I want us to go together,” Shelby says, and looks past Toni to where Martha and her mom are waiting on them. “We can all go.”

“Are you sure they’re okay with that?” Toni’s nervous, suddenly; the last time she’d seen any of them was on the day Shelby’d come out, and she knows that Shelby’s mother probably only knows her as the terrible girl that drove Shelby up a wall every day, and then later as the girl who eventually tore her family apart. She can’t imagine the woman has a single kind thing to say about her.

“They flew all the way here,” Shelby replies. “They’ll come.”

She’s right. They all go out to lunch together, all seven of them, and Toni is buzzing with nerves the whole time, barely able to look at Shelby’s mother at all, let alone meet her eyes, and her leg bounces so much while they wait for their food that Shelby has to put a hand on her thigh to stifle it.

Melody goes on and on about school and her friends and boys and Shelby listens like it’s the most fascinating stuff she’s ever heard, and Spencer tells them he’s on the football team but mostly keeps quiet, like he’s a little uncomfortable, and Toni recognizes the influence of his father on him right away; he can’t look at Toni at all and when Shelby asks him a direct question his answers are brief and he doesn’t really make eye contact with her. Toni squeezes Shelby’s hand beneath the table and Shelby squeezes it back. Toni can tell she’s in pain but there’s nothing Toni can do about it except to be there for her.

“I do think you’re too young to get married,” her mother declares halfway through their meal, and Toni coughs around a bite of her steak and lets Shelby take this one.

“It’ll be a long engagement. Years. It’s more of a promise.”

“Thought you didn’t think much of promise rings,” Spencer mumbles, and Toni’s fists clench around her silverware when Shelby’s breath catches a little. Martha’s mom frowns from her seat at the head of the table.

“I’ve loved Toni for a very long time,” Shelby says, finally.

“We can discuss the details another time—” her mom starts, but Shelby shakes her head and interrupts.

“You should know. It never changed. It never went away. Even—” Shelby pauses, then, and sits back in her seat like she’s processing something for the first time, and Toni sees the disgust on her face. “You tortured me,” she says, and then she gets up and leaves the table.

“Shelby—” her mother starts, and Toni rises quickly and goes to follow her.

Shelby heads out to the restaurant’s back patio and rests her hands on the fence enclosing it, then closes her eyes as Toni settles beside her and rubs at her back. “It’s just a lot,” Shelby whispers, and Toni holds her hand.

“Just breathe,” she says, and Shelby inhales deeply and tries to calm down.

“Maybe I should ask them to go,” she says anyway, and Toni turns her around and makes Shelby look at her.

“Shelby. I think you should do what you think is best. And I know that she sat back and let a lot of terrible things happen to you. But,” she swallows and glances back into the restaurant, “I also know what it’s like to have parents that don’t give a shit. If she didn’t care, you’d have never heard from her again.” She smiles. “That said, if you want to storm back in there and tell her to fuck off, I won’t be broken up about it on her behalf. But you have a brother and a sister too. It’s up to you.”

Shelby stares down at Toni’s hands, blinking tears out of her eyes, and then looks up at Toni warmly. “I spent a lot of time buildin’ a life without them. I don’t need them.”

“Maybe they need you,” Toni says, and Shelby blinks at her like that’s never once occurred to her before. “I know I did.”

Shelby’s gaze softens and she cups Toni’s cheek with her hand. “I needed you, too,” she whispers, and then kisses her gently, and Toni’s heart feels lighter right away, like Shelby’s touch is enough to make everything feel a little less difficult. She knows without asking that she makes Shelby feel the same way; Shelby’s shoulders relax and she presses in close and sighs into Toni’s mouth, then seems reluctant to part when their kiss comes to an end.

“You can do this,” Toni tells her, and kisses the corner of her mouth, and then her cheek. “Whatever you decide, I’m right behind you.”

Shelby nods and pulls away slowly, giving her one last affectionate glance before disappearing back into the restaurant, and true to her word, Toni is right behind her only a moment later, following her inside.

She knows things are going to be okay.