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it took a blindside hit to show me the right of way

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i keep an arm's length, so i don't fall

Kelley, in herself, was a paradox.

She wasn’t quiet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but she was laid back and reserved. She was analytical, but impulsive. She was a southern belle in her core but Alex had never met anyone gayer. She was horrible with her own feelings but knew exactly what to say to those close to her, whenever the need arose. She was chaotic but functional, friendly, yet hard to get to know, and somehow, with all of this, not confusing to Alex at all.

She was, in a phrase, simply complex.

Kelley was simple. She liked her coffee black, her music acoustic, her opinions straightforward and her girls pretty. Alex knew that.

Yet Kelley was deeper than anyone she’d ever met.

She was Alex’s best friend in the entire world.

Alex adored Kelley with everything she had from the first time they meet. Alex was scared to navigate that new minefield of a game she had always loved, scared of the older legends and older players and really, everyone was just older than her. She had never felt more like a scared little girl than that first day at her first camp.

And then there was Kelley.

Kelley, with her ridiculous bouncing energy that translated into pure, unaltered competitiveness the moment they stepped on the field. Kelley, who seemed to share none of the qualms that Alex had, charming even the most astute members of the team within hours. Kelley, who took everything thrown her way with a blink and a lopsided, half smile that lit up her eyes in a way that made no one question whether it was genuine.

Alex was in awe. She was almost envious of the Stanford player for a whole day before they became friends.

And then, everything changed – but it changed how it was always supposed to. Kelley had always woken up at the break of dawn, even back then, and on the first morning, she brought Alex a coffee.

That was five years ago. The rest was history.

Kelley was Alex’s best friend in the entire world.

She wasn’t sure when the feelings started to shift toward something a little more. Kelley had always talked to her about girls, about who she was dating, about the cute waitress at the café they visited religiously back in LA. Maybe it was LA when Alex first felt that slight sting of jealousy - when she saw Kelley flash that waitress a smile dotted with freckles, and she heard the triumphant noise that slipped out of Kelley when she saw the waitress’s number scribbled across her receipt. Alex always had other things to focus on – the national team, club teams, sponsorships, interviews. But the feeling was there.

Kelley had kind of snuck up on her.

She had snuck up on her in the way that came in fleeting moments. She had this clear memory etched in her mind of lounging in the sand, watching her best friend bob up and down in the water stretched out in front of her, the sun making it glisten serenely. Kelley had caught a wave, probably the tenth of the day, and instead of bailing in the whitewater like she usually did, she rode it in and jogged toward Alex.

Kelley’s words had been lost on Alex as she took in the way Kelley’s hair was falling out of her messy bun, droplets running down the line of her jaw, hazel eyes ablaze in the sunlight and vividly alive. Maybe that’s what Alex had always admired – the way Kelley was more alive than anyone she had ever met.

Halfway through her monologue of the surfing conditions or whatever she had been rambling on about, Kelley’s head had snapped to the side, catching sight of a dog that was splashing happily in the ocean. She dropped her board unceremoniously (Alex had to roll out of the way to avoid getting hit) and sprinted out toward the surf once again, intent on petting the stray.

Maybe that had been the moment she realized. Alex didn’t know. She had never been that good at sorting through her feelings, anyway.

But now, a few months after the disaster of the 2016 Olympics, Alex knew exactly how she felt.

She was inevitably, desperately in love with her best friend.

They were in Kelley’s apartment in New Jersey, and Alex was admiring the skyline over the cup of coffee Kelley had made her. They were both healing, and the comfort of some things that never changed seemed to work the best for both of them. Kelley was in the kitchen, the smell of breakfast hanging deliciously in the air of the pent suite room while an old Taylor Swift song filtered through the sound system when the question was popped.

“Hey, Al, I’m going back to my hometown next week. Club doesn’t start for another month – wanna come?”

Did Alex want to spend her time in the blatant, oppressive heat of Georgia?

For Kelley, she wanted nothing more.

She didn’t say anything right away, looking over to the kitchen to take in the hand towel thrown over Kelley’s shoulder and the Braves baseball tee that shouldn’t have been as attractive as it was on Kelley’s small frame. Kelley smiled softly at her, sliding over a plate of eggs and sausage as a way of persuasion.

The sun finally slid over the buildings, shining through the window and making Kelley’s eyes sparkle greener.

“Yeah Kell. I would love that.”

***

He said the way my blue eyes shined

Put the Georgia stars to shame that night

***

Kelley drove.

Alex didn’t really know why they drove in the first place, considering they both had plenty of money to spend on a plane ride that would be significantly shorter. But Kelley had said something about the principle of it, the road trip home, and the underrated beauty of the east coast – and Alex never really had it in her to disagree on Kelley’s principles. They ran deep through her best friend, and Alex always knew that Kelley felt things on a level she could really only dream about.

That’s how she woke up at 5:30 to get on the road by 6, Peachtree City at 9. Kelley whispered promises of driving the entire way as she roused a grumpy Alex from the guest room with the smell of coffee. Alex nodded, but knew she would be taking the wheel at some point, anyway, and crawled into the passenger seat of Kelley’s car, content on pulling her blanket around her shoulders and drifting back off to sleep.

She awoke to the sun coaxing her eyelids open, Kelley’s latest favorite sports podcast playing quietly through the speakers. And Kelley hadn’t been wrong about the east coast – the rolling mountains of the Appalachians weren’t the size of the Rockies, but they had a calming grace that the west couldn’t quite manage. Alex let herself take in the view before turning to look at Kelley, who was focused on the road, but smiled when she felt Alex’s eyes on her.

“Top of the morning to you,” Kelley said, reaching out to turn down her podcast. Alex’s eyes flicked lazily over Kelley’s hair, down and soft, and the loose, relaxed grip she had on the steering wheel. She checked the dashboard clock and saw it had been an hour and a half since they departed.

“Where are we?”

“Just past Philly. We’ll be in Maryland soon.”

Alex hummed and watched as Kelley swerved toward an exit, taking it at a hairpin angle that had Alex grabbing onto the handle by her head for dear life. She shot Kelley a hard look before losing her resolve and giggling slightly when the car lurched back into line as Kelley merged onto the next highway.

“You’re a wreck, Kell.”

“You love it.”

Alex blushed a little at just how true the words were. Kelley was a train that seemed like it was going to derail at any minute with a conductor that knew exactly what he was doing. Alex poked fun at the near derailment often, but she had a feeling Kelley knew just how much she respected the driver for keeping train on the tracks.

They reached Maryland, then D.C., and Alex had changed the audio from the podcast to a playlist filled with Kelley’s acoustic tracks before her stomach growled loud enough to be heard over a well-loved Lumineers song. She didn’t even have to say anything – Kelley broke the easy silence by turning on her blinker and asking Alex where she wanted to stop.

It was around ten, and Alex looked around at the charming town they had wandered into off the last exit. Alexandria. Being a west coast girl, she didn’t know much about D.C. or the surroundings, but the cozy feel created by the strung-up lights and old buildings reminded her a lot of the girl sitting next to her.

Simple, yet with an unexplainable gravity that stemmed from a sense of belonging.

Alex pointed out a small café, perfect for a late morning brunch. Kelley parked to car and climbed out, stretching and popping her joints as her Sky Blue tank rose and revealed a sliver of her toned stomach.

She flashed Alex a cocky grin when she caught her looking. Alex rolled her eyes and followed Kelley’s lead down the sidewalk of the town, still quiet at almost ten in the morning.

Kelley took her hand as they walked. Alex thought of all the times she had seen Kelley do that with their teammates – Tobin, Christen, Pinoe. She thought about all the times she hadn’t seen it, too. She liked the latter thought better.

The café was quaint, and a bell chimed to announce their arrival as Kelley pushed open the heavy, peeling green door. Kelley dropped her hand to wander up to the register, and Alex desperately wished they had time to explore this unknown place together, instead of just getting takeout.

She wanted to explore a lot of unknowns with Kelley. Just about all of them.

They got their food in a heavy to go bag, which Kelley carried dutifully back to the car. She only protested mildly when Alex beat her to the driver’s seat, snatching the keys out of Kelley’s free hand before she could stop her.

“Come on, Al, I said I’d drive.”

“You did drive. You’ve been driving. Let me take it for a few hours.”

“Fine. But I get the wheel back by Charlotte, at the latest.”

Alex nodded her approval before messing with the seat to accommodate her longer legs while Kelley muttered about Alex not being that much taller. Alex sipped at her coffee and fiddled with Kelley’s playlist, queueing the songs she had reluctantly started to like as the years had gone by.

They were back on the highway, Kelley was munching on her carrot sticks, the sun was fully in the sky and lighting up the ridges of the tree covered mountains, and gentle guitar riffs from the Lumineers somehow made Alex feel like she, too, was headed home.

***

She’ll tear a hole in you

One you can’t repair

I still love her, I don’t really care

***

Alex wondered if Kelley knew.

It was almost an unbearable thought – Kelley knowing and doing nothing about it, not making a move to express reciprocation of the feelings that grew more permanent in Alex every minute she spent with her best friend. She felt like Kelley had to know – Alex was caught looking over to admire the way the wind whistling through the cracked windows blew Kelley’s hair around more than enough times to give anyone an inkling on what was going through her head.

But Kelley, with all her depth, her speculation on music and poetry and the universal laws of physics – she was one of the most oblivious people Alex had ever met.

If Kelley was ever going to know, Alex was going to have to tell her.

That thought was almost scarier than the first one. Almost. The minutes ticked by as Alex’s thoughts swirled, but every time she let herself glimpse the freckles specked across Kelley’s nose, she felt a little braver.

Alex had been driving for around two hours, and her neck was starting to get stiff – she had never mastered Kelley’s relaxed posture while driving, opting instead to sit on the edge of her seat with her back straight and both hands on the wheel. So what? She was from California. People drove like animals there, it was best to be prepared.

Kelley looked up from her phone at the sound of Alex’s neck cracking and clicked it off. She reached over and ran her hand through the baby hairs at the base of Alex’s skull, digging her thumb right into the place that had been giving Alex trouble. Alex groaned softly at the touch, and her cheeks reddened when she realized it had been audible.

“You know, you’d be a lot less stiff if you relaxed. You’ve been driving for what, ten years? You’re probably pretty good at it by now,” Kelley commented, not stopping the slow circles of her thumb.

“Yeah, and these people have apparently been driving for about a week,” Alex grumbled, laying on the horn as a car cut into their lane without bothering to signal. Kelley laughed and brought her hand back to her lap – Alex immediately missed the touch.

“Loosen up, hotrod.”

“I’ll loosen up when I’m old,” Alex whined, which pulled another laugh out of Kelley, bright and clear.

“Yeah right. You’ll be 80 and yelling at me to take off my shoes before walking into your apartment.”

“You’ll love it.”

Kelley’s eyes met hers, wide and sincere.

“Of course I will.”

If Kelley noticed Alex’s lovestruck eyes, she didn’t say anything. She just went back to her phone, singing quietly to the Maggie Rogers song she had put on as they drove as fast as Alex was willing, toward Georgia, and toward, just maybe, something bigger.

***

And all along the highway, there's a tiny whispering sound
Saying I could find you in the dark of any town
But all that I am hearing in the poem of my mind
Are silent twisted words finding their way in every line

***

Alex kept her end of the deal, pulling into a parking lot at a run-down gas station barely north of Charlotte. The air had grown heavy with their descent south, and the late afternoon was just starting to turn into the early evening, making it even heavier.

Kelley popped into the gas station to prepay for gas and grab some food for the two of them. Alex stood by the pump, taking in new scenery. An American flag hung, battered but intact, from the window of the old gas station built to look like a small cottage. The Appalachians rolled languidly behind it, and she could see Kelley through the window, talking animatedly with the older lady at the register, a jug of sweet tea and Corn Nuts lying forgotten on the counter. A John Mayer song crackled through an unseen, but undoubtedly old, sound system.

So this was the south.

It was gritty, yet somehow charming. Alex was sweating just from standing by the car for five minutes, but the grin that was painted across Kelley’s face as she bounded out of the gas station made her forget about the heat.

“Alex! You have to try these!” Kelley thrusted out the bag of Corn Nuts, and Alex eyed them wearily before suspiciously placing one in her mouth.

The texture was terrible but the taste was nice. They grew on her the more she ate them, Kelley smiling proudly as if she had just introduced Alex to the world.

***

And I wonder sometimes

About the outcome

Of a still verdict less life          

Am I living it right?

***

Sunsets in the south had a nostalgic effect, even for someone who had never even been to the south.

Kelley drove steadily as the road started to become more bridge than road – Alex had no idea how many lakes existed between South Carolina and Georgia. The sun lit up the water so that it glowed green, and Alex had to look away because the color reminded her too much of the green eyes she had been living in for the past few years.

As they got deeper into the south, Alex noticed a subtle change in Kelley. The first tip was the music – it went from her most recent playlist to older songs, a lot of them bordering on country. When Lady Antebellum started playing, Alex turned down the volume and looked questioningly at Kelley.

Kelley had the decency to look embarrassed.

“Look, it’s what I listened to growing up, okay? We’re deep in my culture now,” Kelley explained defensively.

“You’ve never played country music in front of me.”

“You’ve never been with me to Georgia,” Kelley countered. Alex gave in and turned the radio back up, noticing how Kelley sang along to every word.

They crossed the border into Georgia from South Carolina, Kelley letting out a loud whoop and cranking up the volume of a song by a group called the Zac Brown Band, and Alex closed her eyes and listened to Kelley trying to imitate the lead singer’s twang.

“Hey Alex?”

Alex hummed.

“Thanks for making this trip with me. I know – I know it’s a pain to drive, and I’m really thankful you didn’t even question it.”

Alex smiled softly, searching for the words to express her thoughts.

“I’ve learned not to question you too much, Kell.”

“Is that why you’re putting up with the country music?”

“It’s why I put up with you.” Kelley shoved her playfully with the hand that wasn’t resting on the steering wheel, and Alex flicked her on the ear. Kelley changed the music a few minutes later, getting rid of the guitar strings in favor of piano ballads as the sun sank lower in the sky.

Kelley carried her roots with her in her bones – to Alex, driving through Georgia was driving through a whole lot of nothing. The roads were more cracked than they were smooth, and it seemed like every car they passed was a truck. But Kelley pointed out landmarks excitedly, dropping in stories about fields she played at or colleges they were passing. Alex wasn’t listening too hard. She was in awe of the way Kelley had such a vivacious love for a mostly overlooked state. The way there were things about Kelley that she still didn’t know, after all these years.

They got to Atlanta when darkness had already overtaken the sky. The city was lit up in a breathtaking way, but Alex focused on hanging on for dear life as Kelley took on the famed traffic of the city. If Alex though California was bad, it paled in comparison to the overhead junctions and obnoxious amount of lanes that was Atlanta.

“Hey, Alex, see that tower over there?” They were somehow stopped in traffic, even in the late evening, so Alex willed herself to let go of her handle and look to where Kelley was pointing.

“That’s the Tech Tower. We’re right by Georgia Tech, actually. A lot of my old high school buddies went there.” Kelley’s voice strained a little, as if she was pained by something. Alex looked over and saw that her eyes were contemplative, remembering people that had been out of her life for almost a decade now.

Kelley didn’t really love lightly. She loved with everything she had in her, and Alex knew that letting people go, even at the right time, was hard for her.

“You miss them.” It was a statement. Alex knew Kelley well enough to not present her with an emotional question she could dodge around.

“Is that weird?” Kelley asked. Alex reached over to squeeze her hand.

“Not at all.”

“Promise me I’ll never have to miss you.” Kelley’s voice was quiet, emotional in a way it so rarely was.

“I promise, Kell.”

Kelley rolled down the windows completely once the traffic started moving forward again. The humidity immediately coated Alex in a layer of moisture, but she dealt with it to watch Kelley stick her entire arm out the window and breathe in the city with deep, calming breaths.

Kelley was every math problem Alex had ever had to solve mixed with every piano ballad she had ever heard.

The brake lights of the surrounding cars and the bright ones of the city lit up her face with a soft glow, and Alex could tell that Kelley was almost home.

***

Steady as preacher, free as a weed

Couldn’t wait to get going, but wasn’t quite ready to leave

She grew up good, she grew up strong

Like American honey

 

***

They reached Peachtree City exactly on time.

Kelley had made Alex hold off on getting another meal on the road, promising delicious, southern homecooked food awaiting them. Alex chowed down on Corn Nuts with barely a mutter, accepting Kelley’s plans with significantly less pushback than she had with other people. Kelley gave her an appreciative look, showing that the sentiment wasn’t lost on her.

Kelley’s hometown was quaint. Quiet. It was only a little past nine, but the so-called city was far from abuzz. Alex watched Kelley’s face as her eyes traced over familiar buildings and street signs, growing big and soft and fond in a way that Alex had only seen happen around Stanford and - and well, around her.

They pulled into the driveway of Kelley’s old house slowly, Kelley hesitating to switch off the headlights. It all screamed ‘southern hospitality’ – a large enough house with a big yard and a fence around green grass. Two flags hung proudly out of the top windows, one American, one Navy. Alex didn’t miss the golf cart sitting in the driveway.

When Kelley spoke, her voice was vulnerable.

“So. This is it.”

Alex realized that showing people her hometown, a place that she carried with her surely but silently, was hard for Kelley. It was opening up a part of herself she cherished, and Kelley sat stiffly, waiting for Alex’s judgement.

“It’s beautiful. I see why you love it.”

You’re beautiful. I think I might be falling even deeper in love with you.

Kelley beamed at her openly just as the door opened to reveal Kelley’s parents. Alex had met them before, at games and World Cups and most recently, the Olympics. But this was different. This was them welcoming her into their home, and Alex gave each of them a warm hug that she hoped showed how grateful she was to be there.

Kelley talked in a slight southern accent when she was home. Alex didn’t catch it at first, intent on woofing down the chicken and mashed potatoes set in front of her, but she couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her face when she heard the unmistakable, yet so foreign, twang in her best friend’s voice – the same twang that came out when she sang along to those God-awful Zac Brown Band songs she apparently only liked when she was deep in the south. A fondness so strong swept over her that she had to put her fork down and look over at Kelley as she spoke excitedly about her life in New Jersey, deep thoughts making her drift from the current moment.

Kelley was a long, early morning bike ride mixed with an ill-advised, late night cup of black coffee.

Kelley caught her staring and flashed her a half grin as she kept talking. Alex blushed and went back to her chicken. They both helped clear the table after everyone was finished eating, and Kelley’s parents retired to bed.

“You’ve been quiet, Al,” Kelley observed as they lounged on the couch. Alex was sleepy, her stomach full and the long road trip weighing on her. She shifted so she could look at Kelley.

“I’ve just been taking it all in.”

“Do you like what you’ve seen?”

Alex’s eyes traced over Kelley’s face, open and earnest, that half smile never fully leaving her lips.

“Yeah, Kell. I told you – I love it.”

***

When I close my eyes I see you
No matter where I am
I can smell your perfume through these whispering pines

***

Kelley’s childhood room had apparently not been touched by her parents since she moved out all those years ago.

Alex let out a soft ‘awww’ as her eyes roamed over trophies, medals, posters of old USWNT champions, and pictures of a life left long ago. She recognized Kelley’s siblings and parents in some of them, and what she assumed were high school friends in another. Kelley leaned against the door frame and watched as Alex trailed her finger over the book shelf.

“Harry Potter?” Alex questioned, eyeing the only complete series on display. Kelley grinned at her, slightly chagrinned.

“It was my favorite,” she admitted. “Ginny Weasley was probably my first crush, honestly.”

Alex laughed lightly, wandering over to the bed and bouncing on the blue comforter. “That’s adorable.” She laid down, sighing in relief at the comfort of the pillows from Kelley’s childhood.

“You know, my parents made up the guest room for you,” Kelley said, moving to sit down on the other side of the bed. “It’s got its own bathroom and everything.”

Alex shut her eyes and exhaled – she had no idea how to tell Kelley that the last thing she wanted to do right now was move three rooms away. She figured there probably wasn’t a good way to tell her without sounding suggestive, but she didn’t want to move just yet.

“Okay, Al. I’m giving you ten minutes before I kick you out.” Kelley shuffled around her nightstand drawer until she pulled out a small wireless speaker, pressing play on her phone to continue the soft piano ballads they had listened to through the last hour of the drive – Alex recognized BANNERS, another one of Kelley’s favorites.

They laid side by side as the music filtered through the room, and Alex tried to will herself to take Kelley’s hand, to roll over and admit how deeply she felt in that moment, how much she wanted Kelley to love her for the rest of her life.

But she didn’t. She let her thoughts simmer under the surface until Kelley nudged her gently, signaling it was time for Alex to go.

It wasn’t easy to leave Kelley, even for the night. It never was. Alex threw a look over her shoulder as she walked through the door, only to find Kelley already rolled onto her side, likely fast asleep.

Alex stood for a moment to admire Kelley’s sleeping form before heading down the hallway.

***

I would walk down an empty street like a ship into the storm

No surrender, no retreat, I will tear down every wall

Just to keep you warm

Just to bring you home

 

***

Kelley wanted to run the next morning.

And normally, Alex would roll over, insisting that they had the whole day to run and there was no point in doing it hours before she wanted to wake up. But it was Kelley. So she bit out one annoyed comment before sitting up in bed with bleary eyes to a fully awake and vigorous Kelley, half grin and all.

Kelley was her signature, happy half grin paired with her rarer, aggravating half smirk.

Her eyes were an early morning, hometown run, but also late nights drinking in LA, admiring the stars.

And they ran. Kelley drove out to a park, navigating roads that she knew by heart while Alex struggled to stay awake without coffee. The paths for those obnoxious golf carts people drove crisscrossed the city, and Kelley had a 10k route already planned out, much to Alex’s despair.

But Alex’s mood lightened as the sun creeped out over the horizon, bathing Kelley in a soft glow. They were running to a more upbeat playlist, and Alex took in the gentle grace in Kelley’s stride that matched the rhythm of the Harry Styles song – and then her sloping collarbones so evident in her tank top - and felt breathless for a reason entirely apart from the pace they were going.

The path Kelley had mapped out was a loop, and when they got back to the park, Alex collapsed onto a bench, chest heaving. She was gratified when Kelley collapsed next to her, equally exhausted. She flashed her best friend a tired smile.

“Glad to know I can at least keep up with you in the off season.”

“Oh please, it’s barely the off season. I’ll be able to kick your ass in like, two weeks.”

Alex was in the midst of coming up with a witty retort (that would end up being only half as witty as she would have liked) when a girl that had been previously watching the sunrise from a golf cart a couple yards away decided to approach them.

“Kelley? Do my eyes deceive me or is that really you?” Alex eyed the girl wearily. She was cute – short and brunette, dark hair and eyes, and a nice body shown off in her tight tank top. And from the way Kelley was giving her a dashing smile, Alex could guess she found her cute as well.

“Lauren! Hey, it’s been ages,” Kelley said, getting to her feet. Alex groaned inwardly. “Sorry I’m all sweaty for this unexpected reunion.”

“Don’t be,” Lauren said, her eyes trailing Kelley’s sweat soaked body in the least subtle way possible. “I see you’ve kept stellar care of yourself. Not that I expected anything else – professional soccer and all.”

“I’m Alex,” Alex jutted in, reaching out to shake the girl’s hand. Lauren’s eyebrows shot up into her hair at Alex’s rather possessive stance.

“Alex Morgan, yeah, of course. I didn’t know you and Kelley were - ”

“We’re not,” Alex cut her off, forcing the simple sentence out of her teeth. “Kelley’s a friend.”

“Gotcha,” Lauren nodded, turning her attention back to Kelley, who had gone from confident to slightly uncomfortable. “Well, in that case, I never gave you my number back in high school, and I’ve regretted it ever since – think I can try again now?”

“Better late than never.” Kelley had her confidence back, already handing the girl her phone, flexing her arms in a way that might be subtle if Alex didn’t know her so well. Lauren typed her contact information in and handed it back with a smile.

“I hope I’ll see you later,” she said, winking at Kelley, before nodding at Alex and going back to her golf cart.

Alex was seething.

Kelley’s grin was shit-eating and her words were already tumbling out. “Oh my god, Al, Lauren was like, the hottest girl at my school. I didn’t even know she way gay! This is insane. Like actually, insane,” Kelley rambled as they made their way back to her car. “Dude, my old high school friends would throw a fit if they knew what just happened. I’m going on a date with Lauren. Alex?”

Kelley must have noticed that Alex hadn’t said a word, grinding her teeth slowly, just bracing herself to get through this inevitable conversation. And the next thing – well the next thing just kind of slipped out.

“I don’t want you to go on a date with Lauren.”

Kelley paused, her hand on the driver’s side door handle, mouth slightly open with whatever comment about Lauren had been coming next. She tiled her head to the side, eyebrows scrunched together. Alex looked down at her own feet, heart hammering in her chest.

“You don’t?”

Alex chose not to answer the question, instead slipping into the passenger seat, out of Kelley’s intense stare even if just for a split second.

Kelley followed her eagerly, much to Alex’s despair.

“Alex. What the hell?”

And Alex knew – she knew this was her chance, to own up to everything she felt painfully in her chest, every time Kelley looked at her. Every time that agonizing smirk was sent her way after a hard workout. She had already taken the first step, even if completely by accident.

But Alex wasn’t Kelley.

She wasn’t brave in that boisterous, competitive filled way, or even in the quiet, sure one that came from Kelley’s deep-rooted sense of self.

“It’s just – we’re only here for the weekend. Could you maybe do it another time? I really want to spend time with you in your hometown.”

Alex stared at her lap as she said it, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. She felt Kelley’s gaze back on her, roaming around her face, searching for something.

Alex was somewhat terrified that she’d find it.

“Yeah, Alex, of course. I’m sorry I didn’t consider that. I’ll hold off on Lauren.”

Alex glanced up to meet Kelley’s eyes, which were soft and alight, the question still slightly present, and felt like she was sinking in her own guilt.

One day, she’d be brave like Kelley. Hopefully one day soon.

 

***

There's not a drink that I think could sink her
How would I tell her that she's all I think about?
Well, I guess she just found out

***

They spent that evening with Kelley’s family, all sat around the small campfire her dad had built in her backyard.

There was an awning over the seating, soft lights and family pictures strung up around it. Kelley picked thoughtfully at a guitar, not quite skillful but not untrained, either. Alex watched her fingers move over the strings and sipped at her drink, trying to dispel her own thoughts.

The sense of home that hung in the air in suburban Georgia made Kelley’s movement slower. Maybe more relaxed. The soft indie song Kelley was attempting her way through rang loud in Alex’s head, the notes slow but sure. Kelley’s eyes were concentrated fiercely on the strings, and Alex had to fight to tear her gaze away.

“Sorry, I’ve been attempting to get better for like, four years now,” Kelley said, placing the guitar next to her seat. “Minor distractions like soccer keep getting in the way.”

“I thought it was lovely, Kelley,” Kelley’s mom said. She had reached over to take Kelley’s dad’s hand, her thumb stroking methodically. Alex’s chest ached at the domestic scene under the soft fairy lights. “But would you look at the time! Your father and I are old now, it’s about time for us to leave you two to it.”

Kelley’s mom sent Alex a look that knew way too much with her words. Alex blushed – did Kelley’s mom know? Did Kelley know? Had she told her?

Probably not. But it was only 9 – the sun had just set over the trees. Alex took another sip of her drink, allowing the liquid courage to flow through her body as Kelley’s mom pulled her husband inside with a quick goodnight.

“And then there were two, huh?”

Kelley’s voice cut through Alex’s thoughts. She was lounging in her chair, feet propped up on the firepit, her hair impossibly soft in the low light.

“I guess so.” Alex’s voice was raspy, which only made sense. Kelley always made her words a little harder to get out.

Kelley leaned forward, fiddling with her phone, and music filtered softly through the overhead speakers. It was folk country, something Alex hadn’t actually heard before. But it was fitting for the scene.

They sat there, for a while. Alex listened intently to the lyrics layered into the guitar, hoping for a secret message. Anything to give her more courage for what she knew she had to do.

For the possible rejection. For the possible loss of the best friend she had ever had.

“Al. You’re lost in your head again.”

And Kelley was scooting her lawn chair closer, a hand reached out for Alex’s, curiosity and a bit of concern on her face. Alex’s own heart beat picked up a notch. Thump. Thump. Thump. She stared at Kelley, searching, searching for what she could possibly say to capture how her heart seemed to beat toward the woman that had become everything to Alex.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I-” Alex cut off, taking a deep breath to steady her shaking voice. She reached out for the hand Kelley had offered, squeezing it tightly. Kelley’s thumb immediately started stroking the back of her hand.

“Is this about the whole thing with Lauren?”

Alex closed her eyes to gather her thoughts before looking at Kelley. Kelley’s eyes were glinting, a shred of knowledge clearly evident in them.

Alex felt like crying.

“You know, don’t you?” Alex whispered. Her voice wasn’t quite working. Panic rose in her throat, just a bit, and she blinked hard to try and suppress her own emotions from Kelley’s piercing gaze.

Kelley knew. But maybe it didn’t matter, in the end.

Kelley didn’t respond for a few seconds, but they stretched out like years.

“Al.” Kelley started quietly, her words reserved yet sure. “I never want you to go on dates with other people, either.”

The panic turned so quickly to hope that Alex had to pause and catch her breath.

“You don’t?”

“I really don’t. Actually…” -and Kelley leaned just a bit closer, using her free hand to push a stray hair out of Alex’s face – “actually, I would’ve asked you to go on one with me, ages ago. If I thought there was a single chance you’d say yes.”

“There’s a lot of chances I’d say yes,” Alex managed to breathe. And Kelley’s face was so close now, hazel eyes blocking out her surroundings. Alex almost found it funny, how fitting that was.

Almost. But Kelley was close enough that Alex could lean forward to close the small distance remaining and catch Kelley’s bottom lip between her own.

It was a magical first kiss. The angle was awkward, and the arms of their chairs were in the way, but Kelley kissed her just the way Alex had thought she might, all these years. She kissed slowly but surely, with burning passion but easy care, and she tasted like vanilla chapstick and Coors Light.

She kissed like a paradox. It set fire to Alex’s veins, while also grounding her in the moment.

Kelley pulled away first, eyes alight as always, and stood up. Alex only questioned it for a moment, before Kelley offered out a hand, pulling up Alex with her.

Letting Kelley spin her slowly around her parent’s firepit to the guitar strum in the speakers felt better than any medal Alex had ever won.

It was in the obnoxious Georgia humidity, her hands wrapped around Kelley’s shorter shoulders, that Alex first felt all her pieces fit together.

And when Kelley pulled her down into another kiss, hands gripping at her waist, she didn’t hesitate to sink into it, eager to let them all fall apart under warm lips and green eyes.

***

I've seen my share of trouble
And I've held my weight in shame
But I'm baptized in your name
Lovely Lady May

***

They didn’t need to talk about it, at first.

It was easy, the rest of the weekend, holding Kelley’s hand as she drove the golfcart, taking turns on the course way too fast. The wind whipped through Alex’s hair, and she laughed easily, with a lightness that had taken over her entire body.

In the morning, Kelley tasted like coffee and a hint of mint toothpaste. She tasted like the horizon and new beginnings.

In the evening, Kelley tasted like her dad’s good whiskey and cherry pie. She tasted like a promise, spoken through that late night slow dance and fingers intertwined on the road.

Leaving Georgia was hard, for the both of them. Kelley’s parents watched them go, arms wrapped around each other as Alex and Kelley climbed into the car at an ungodly hour. As the house disappeared in the rearview mirror, Alex reached out for Kelley, needing reassurance of an existence outside the southern sunrise.

“I’ve wanted this for a long time, you know.” Kelley’s reassurance came immediately as she leaned into Alex’s touch, which was brushing low on her neck. “I just never thought it was something that was realistic.”

“Was it hard to get over me?” Alex meant it as a tease, but Kelley met her eyes with sincerity.

“I never did. You were an impossibility I couldn’t let go of.”

Alex blushed deeply at that, in wonder at the way Kelley could spin words to carry the weight of everything she had ever felt.

When Alex was quiet, Kelley turned up the volume of an acoustic song that was on her early morning playlist, content to just drive with Alex really next to her, for the first time.

But Alex wasn’t about to miss her chance to finally say what had been stuck in her head for the longest time.

“You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”

And when Kelley smiled, Alex could see tears forming in her eyes, and she leaned over to press a kiss against Kelley’s temple. For once, she could understand exactly how Kelley was feeling.

Sunbeams started to trickle through the car window, and Alex could finally admire Kelley’s glowing profile in peace.

 

***

My girl's a switchblade
A bright light on the cityscape
Wherever she goes I'm gonna chase

***

They did talk about it, though. Slowly but surely.

Alex talked about the jealousy she felt, whenever Kelley had been seeing other people – she talked about it with a firm, borderline possessive grip on Kelley’s thigh as they were driving through North Carolina.

“And you’d better delete Lauren’s number from your phone,” she quipped, causing Kelley to tilt her head back and laugh.

“Are you sure? Maybe I should shoot her a thank you text for tipping me off about you.”

Alex didn’t laugh. “That better not start an ongoing chat with ‘the hottest girl at your school’.”

“Oh, Al. She’s got nothing on the hottest girl on the National Team, aka America’s heartthrob.”

Alex pinched Kelley’s thigh, but couldn’t stop the self-satisfied smirk that spread across her mouth. Kelley caught it and pinched her right back.

“Don’t let your head blow up about that one.”

“Too late.”

“Good, cause I’m only taking you out for bragging rights.”

“If bragging rights means I can kiss you at the next stop, I’ll take it.”

Kelley drove just a little bit faster.

And she did kiss Kelley at the next stop, outside of Greensboro, pressing Kelley up against the car and kissing a little dirtier than they had dared to in Kelley’s parents’ house. She pulled away when another car meandered into the offbeat gas station, and the sight of Kelley’s swollen lips made her bones throb with want. Kelley’s eyes wandered to the skyline, then back to Alex, in a hard, meaningful way.

In Virginia, Kelley talked lightly, with a new kind of smile on her face.

“You were always unattainable. And every time I would wonder, wonder why you always turned down everyone under the sun, or why I could count the amount of first dates you had in two years on one hand, I always told myself that. You were just waiting for the guy that would really knock you off your feet, or something.”

“I was actually just busy,” Alex replied quietly, taking a second to admire how good Kelley looked in just sweatpants and a faded Vans Surf tee.

“We’re all busy, Al. That can’t be what was holding you back.”

“Mmm. But I was busy falling in love with my best friend.”

And it was Kelley’s turn to blush – her freckles stood out across her cheeks when she did.

“That couldn’t have been that time consuming.”

“You’re a lot to admire, Kelley O’Hara.”

Kelley’s hand found hers, and the horizon stretched out in front of them. Alex flipped through her music until she found what Kelley might pick for the moment.

It was cheesy, but Alex reveled in the lyrics, and what her life might look like from this point on.

***

Take my hand
Take my whole life too
For I can't help falling in love with you

***

Falling into a new routine with Kelley felt a lot like falling backwards, for some reason.

It was just exactly how Alex had always wanted their routine to look like. It looked a whole lot like how her heart had felt for years.

Alex could now count on Kelley’s hand pressed firmly to her stomach, her breath ghosting on the back of her neck, every night. She could forget about her separate room, and liked to throw on one of Kelley’s old Atlanta United shirts before wandering out to the kitchen, where Kelley always had her cup of coffee waiting - now accompanied with a soft kiss placed perfectly on Alex’s lips. As club grew closer, and separation was inevitable, she relished every second spent with Kelley, from date nights at nice restaurants to afternoon naps to her name on Kelley lips, and the look in Kelley’s eyes as she came undone under Alex’s fingers.

But Alex wasn’t worried. Not a single bit.

Not when Kelley would swing her around the kitchen, as alive as ever, but now with more of her life force aimed toward Alex than before. It was enthralling, and Alex wasn’t sure if she’d ever get over the exhilaration of being with Kelley.

Kelley was every misplaced dance step paired with the sure hand placed on her waist. Kelley was her awful taste in country music, and her slowly improving guitar skills, and her masterful tackle on the soccer field. Kelley was the heavy feeling in Alex’s chest and the impossibly light one in her head.

Kelley was everything.

And as green eyes crinkled around an ever-present smile, Alex looked forward to a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets and stargazing with a now familiar hand pressed into hers. For now, she held Kelley close, swaying to the slow ballad Kelley was playing as the clock struck one in their small New Jersey apartment.

Alex felt every word in her soul. She knew Kelley did, too.

***

And I got a feeling, deep in my bones
I can't sit still when there's a space up in the road
Oh, there's a fire coming on you in your lane
And it burns for you babe

***