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Live a Little

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It was a good idea at the time.

Actually, no it wasn’t. Alex was the one saying from the beginning that she didn’t want to go to the party. Sydney was the one who insisted, telling Alex “it’s your senior year! Live a little!”

It’s true, Alex’s college experience up till now has been atypical of your average sorority girl. For one, she isn’t much for parties. For another, she had a high school sweetheart across the country in California, at least until two months ago. Somehow, she and Servando had made it work long-distance since graduating and going their separate ways for college.

Communication was key, and they were good at that, but it was far from effortless and required much more of Alex than of Serv. It’s not that he’s selfish, but Alex is a giver, and she thought of Servando first in almost everything she did, even when it stood in her way. She had left far more than her fair share of frat parties and socials early, skipped grab-a-date functions with guys who were friends because of how Servando might feel (not that she ever broached the topic with him), and turned down road trips with friends to away games in favor of visiting Serv or being able to Skype him privately.

She was dreading going home for the summer where usually she would have been thrilled. When she showed up to his house to have dinner with him and his family (which had become like her second family), they both knew it was over. They dragged it out another few weeks before finally breaking it off. Just because it was mutual didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Alex still cries herself to sleep some nights missing him, but those nights have become few and far between.

Sydney was a supportive friend throughout the summer as Alex dealt with the breakup, but when they started talking about plans for the new year, Syd was all business.

In their group messages with Tobin, Alex’s best friend from freshman year and their third roommate in the suite they'd be sharing at the ADPi house, Syd expressed her unwillingness to let the two of them and their “hot asses” be “lame” and “antisocial” all year long.

In reality, Tobin and Alex are anything but antisocial, just not in the way Syd likes. She had been co-socials chair for two years, and now she is on the executive board for the sorority. Tobin, on the other hand, had to be forced into taking a leadership role when the intramurals chair stepped down last year after being called to standards for inappropriate behavior at a social function. She is a natural leader, but sometimes her humility makes her less likely to just go for it instead of letting others step up.

From the beginning, Alex’s favorite part of Greek life has been philanthropy, so her role as philanthropy chair has her heavily involved in not only ADPi’s annual charitable events, but also recruiting girls to participate in other fraternities’ events.

Syd secretly relished Alex’s role because it forces her to communicate with boys, but the nature of the role typically means the boys she communicates with are the nice guys who have long-term girlfriends or who would never try anything with Alex for whatever reason, no matter how stunning, smart, and hilarious she is (Syd doesn't judge).

This year would be different, Syd vowed. And she wouldn't waste any time making it so.

Which is why, against her will and every cell in her body screaming at her to stay in and watch chick flicks at the house with the usual non-partying suspects, Alex is standing in the foyer of Alpha Tau Omega, sipping a mostly cold Corona as Syd flirts her ass off with guys who know they don't stand a chance and Tobin gets recruited to a game of beer pong.

“Hey, Alex, right?”

She looks up to see a guy she faintly recognizes, but she can’t place him. An ATO, she feels safe guessing.

“Hey, uh—”

“Derek,” he says. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be creepy. I’m the president of ATO, so it’s kind of my responsibility to know your name. You do, uh, philanthropy stuff, right?”

“You got it,” Alex says, smiling. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” he says, shaking her hand firmly. He looks around, sticking his hands in his pockets. Alex notices his thumbs are sticking out, and she thanks her psychology classes for the knowledge that such body language says that he’s confident, not that she’s surprised. “I take it you don’t come to these parties often.”

“What gave it away?”

“Well, for one, you’re drinking a lukewarm beer,” he says. “And you haven’t budged from this spot since your friends left you.”

“This is all I could find,” she laughs, lifting the bottle.

He takes it from her, shaking his head. “That’s because the good stuff is upstairs. Come on, I’ll hook you up.”

She follows him upstairs, where she sees Tobin killing it on the pool table, apparently having already kicked enough guys’ asses in beer pong to move on to the next.

“Do you want me to make you something?” he asks, loudly over the speakers blasting the latest from Selena Gomez. He walks behind the bar as she slides onto an empty stool. “I know you’re not supposed to let guys you don’t know do that, but I mix a killer drink.”

“How about you make enough for two and we can split it?”

“Sounds good,” he says, smiling. She watches as he pours a mixture of vodka, rum, gin, and triple sec over ice. “Hey, where’s the tequila?”

“You know my secret, then,” he says.

“Come on, it’s a Long Island iced tea. I’ve known how to make that since I was 15.”

“Fifteen, huh?” he asks, shaking in the sour mix before finally adding tequila and covering the shaker to mix it all up. “Not exactly what I expected from you.”

“And what did you expect?”

“From the girl who’s had a boyfriend since high school?” he asks, pouring the cocktail into two tall glasses.

“I never told you that.”

He reddens, but he doesn’t falter. “I might have bent the truth a bit,” he says. “It is my job to know a lot of the girls, but I take an interest in some more than others. Like the Preview staffer I had the world’s biggest crush on my freshman year.”

“No way, you were in my group?” she asks, laughing. She had been an orientation leader the summer before her sophomore year, which meant for at least the first few months she had to wave and make friendly conversation with freshmen she had no recollection of, but who felt like they knew her intimately. It made for a lot of Facebook friends whose names she still doesn’t recognize.

“I was,” he says. “My session was toward the end of July, but I definitely don’t expect you to remember.”

“Yeah, I don’t remember anyone really,” she says. “But I’m sure I would have been more than fine with you crushing on me.”

“Lost cause,” he says, pouring a tiny bit of Coke into their glasses before passing it across the bar. “You know, boyfriend and all.”

“You? Or me?” she teases. “Because mine’s out of the picture.”

“You, definitely you,” he laughs. “I don’t have—no boyfriends for me either.”

“Lucky me, then,” she says, lifting her drink to clink against his. “Cheers.”

~

It only takes one drink for Alex to feel warm and tipsy, due partly to low tolerance and partly to the fact that she rarely drinks more than a glass of wine or a beer here and there. She and Derek talk about Greek life, majors, and their upcoming class schedules, and what she finds most amazing is none of it feels like small talk. He asks questions and listens to her answers, reacting appropriately.

His body language is flirty, but he doesn’t pull any of the typical frat guy moves to find reasons to touch her or make her feel small. He’s being—dare she say it?—respectful, and to Alex, that’s more enticing than anything else he could say or do.

That’s why she feels totally confident and comfortable doing what she does next, lifting herself onto her toes and placing a perfectly manicured hand on his neck as she whispers in his ear. “So, you’re president, right? Does that mean you have some sort of presidential suite around here?”

“I might,” he says. “But isn’t this the part where your friends drag you away because I’m bad news?”

“I don’t think you’re bad news,” she says. “They’re busy anyway. I can take care of myself.”

“I can see that.”

“But I don’t see why you can’t help,” she teases.

He finally smiles, showing his perfect white teeth, which glow against his perfectly tanned skin. In any other situation, Alex, Syd, and Tobin would have made fun of him for being a living, breathing Ken doll, but now all Alex can think about is how those teeth would feel biting her lip.

Derek takes her hand, leading her up the stairs another level to where the guys live. They walk to the end of the hall, and he opens a door to reveal the nicest room in any fraternity house she’s ever seen—not that she’s seen too many firsthand.

She doesn’t have time to take it in before he’s closing the door and pushing her against it, his lips on hers. Her hands quickly find his hair, and she opens her mouth, granting his tongue entrance. His hands grip her hips, and he lifts her easily so her legs wrap around his waist, her back pinned to the door.

“Bed,” she manages.

“Are you sure?”

“Are you going to question it?”

“I guess not,” he says, setting her down. Alex removes her tank top, and Derek seems to lose his breath.

“Been a while, has it?” she teases.

“Yeah, uh, no,” he says, not seeming to even register her question. “I mean, kinda. Your body is just. Wow.”

Alex blushes, resisting the urge to cross her arms over her chest. Servando had always appreciated her body, but after several years, he wasn't making those comments anymore. It feels good to know Derek won't be taking this for granted.

Derek comes to his senses and steps forward to kiss her again, this time reaching to unbutton her shorts.

“Wait,” she says. “Do you have something?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” he says, scrambling to his dresser, where he pulls out a box of condoms. “Good?”

“Perfect,” she says, shimmying her shorts down her legs. She perches herself on his bed, ready for Derek to make the next move. He carries the box to his nightstand and climbs on top of her, taking his time to kiss her everywhere he can reach.

Alex lets herself relax, closing her eyes as she takes it all in. She's liked sex for as long as she's been having it, but her only experience has been with Serv. When they broke up, she thought whoever came next would feel like a betrayal, but this feels right.

From what she's heard from friends about one night stands, they usually don't make you feel this way: sexy and appreciated and even empowered. For a split second as he removes her underwear and rips open the condom package, she lets herself entertain the possibility that this could be more than a one-time thing, but that thought gets lost when he slides in suddenly and she moans out loud, getting lost in the heat of the moment.

The first thing Derek does after finishing is make sure she finishes as well. Check one for the gentleman. Then, he kisses her and offers her a T-shirt and boxers to sleep in, telling her she's welcome to stay the night. She hadn't really considered that not being an option, but she smiles and agrees. Then, he goes to the bathroom.

When he's gone, Alex grabs her phone from the pocket of her shorts, long forgotten on the ground. She shoots a quick text to her group chat with Sydney and Tobin, saying “I'm fine, won't be home tonight. Just had random meaningless SAFE and surprisingly really good sex. Proud Syd? See you tomorrow :)”

Neither one of them seemed to notice she had gone missing judging by their lack of texts, but she assumes once they do, they'll appreciate her presence of mind to text them. She was an orientation leader, after all, teaching the freshman girls about the buddy system and not taking drinks from random frat guys. There are exceptions to every rule, she tells herself.

She doesn’t know when she fell asleep, but when she wakes up, it’s to light streaming in through the window and harsh vibrations from a phone. The shower is running in Derek’s en suite bathroom (she imagines it’s the best perk of being president). She reaches for the phone, eyes barely open, and slides it to open her texts.

At first, her brain can’t process what her eyes are reading, but eventually she realizes she’s not looking at her own phone. She doesn’t even know a Kelley (what the hell is the second ‘e’ even for?), and she certainly doesn’t know one who would be sending her good morning texts and calling her “babe” and wishing her sweet dreams and saying “I love you.”

Suddenly, it hits her. If it’s not her phone, it must be Derek’s. And she needs to get out of here now.

Chapter Text

Alex thanks God for non-judgmental Uber drivers as she slips in through the side door at the ADPi house, but if she thought she could sneak in unnoticed, she was dead wrong.

“Alex!” Amy exclaims, looking stressed beneath the poised exterior of her green Lilly Pulitzer dress. “Where have you been? What are you wearing? You need to get ready!”

Alex cringes, her head pounding. “I'm sorry, A-Rod, I know I'm late. I’m going to shower and I promise I'll be ready.”

“Okay,” A-Rod says, taking a breath. “Sorry, I'm sorry. I'm a little overwhelmed.”

Today is not only the last day of summer before school starts, but it's also the third round of recruitment, and the last one before prefs. Amy is the perfect recruitment chair, but the position requires a great deal of organization and girl-wrangling, which can be difficult when you're dealing with more than 100 girls. Amy’s sanity and best friend, Lauren, isn't even around to help because she's acting as a Panhellenic counselor (also known as Pi Chi) for the girls who are rushing.

In order to be unbiased and offer all the girls the best advice and a shoulder to cry on, Lauren, along with the other Pi Chis from ADPi and every other sorority, had to temporarily disaffiliate from the sorority. That means she's being completely quartered away from her sisters in a hotel on campus, not allowed to wear any letters or even text them. Amy’s not handling it well.

“Alex, are you okay?” A-Rod asks.

“Yeah, great,” Alex says, not even really convincing herself. She hugs A-Rod, who still looks concerned, but she has too much else going on right now to worry about Alex.

She walks into her room to Beyonce playing and six girls getting ready. Every head turns when she walks in, and Sydney narrows her eyes. “Okay, everyone out!” she announces. Because it’s Sydney, everyone obeys. “Okay, spill,” she says once it’s just her, Alex, and Tobin left.

“I met this guy,” Alex says. “His name is Derek.”

“Derek Smith or Derek McDonald?” Sydney asks.

“I don’t know,” Alex says. “We didn’t quite get that far.”

“Alex!” Tobin laughs, shocked.

“He’s the president of ATO, I know that much.”

“Okay, Derek McDonald,” Syd says.

“Okay, whatever, him,” Alex starts. “It gets worse.”

“I thought you said it was good,” Syd says. “He wore a condom, right?”

“Yeah,” Alex says. “It was really good, and he was really nice and sweet. Like, I knew it was a one-time thing, but I just thought he was a good guy.”

“So what happened?” Tobin asks.

“He has a girlfriend,” Alex says, cringing. “I accidentally grabbed his phone thinking it was mine, and she was texting him. She wasn’t there last night because she was sick. He texted her to feel better and that he loved her literally right after we had sex.”

“Oh my God, I thought they broke up!” Sydney exclaims. “What a dick.”

“You know her?”

“Yeah, Kelley O’Hara,” Sydney says. “She’s a Kappa. I met her on the ATO road trip to New Orleans last year.”

“Oh my God,” Alex groans. “I feel so horrible.”

“Why?” Sydney asks. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know he had a girlfriend. You didn’t know, right?”

“Not till this morning!”

“Al, don’t panic,” Tobin says. “But A-Rod is going to kill us all if we aren’t downstairs in ten minutes, so you need to get in the shower now. We’ll talk about this after, okay?”

Tobin also feels the effects of Lauren’s absence. She never would have even gone through recruitment if it weren’t for Alex, but she met Lauren during prefs, the last round of recruitment, and after that, she was sold. Lauren became her big sister in the sorority a few weeks after she joined, and they’d been inseparable ever since. Nobody really knows what Tobin or A-Rod will do when she graduates at the end of this semester.

Alex rushes to shower and dry her hair, ignoring the way Tobin and Syd stop talking as soon as she gets back in the room to change into her “classy casual” overpriced sundress that probably cost the company $5 to make. When she finally gets downstairs, she slips into line next to her little, Lindsey, who is as encouraging as ever.

“You look like shit,” Lindsey whispers, handing her an index card with Alex’s potential new member on it.

“You should see the other guy.”

“What happened to you last night?”

“One night stand gone wrong, tell you about it later.”

“Alex!” Lindsey exclaims, and all the girls turn their heads from their individual conversations to see the commotion. She lowers her voice to a whisper. “Dude, are you okay?”

“Fine,” Alex says.

“It’s just, except for Serv, you never—”

“I know. It was fine. Drop it.”

“Sex isn’t supposed to make you cranky.”

“Ladies, listen up!” Amy announces. “The PNMs are going to be here any minute. Make sure you look over your cards and get ready to greet them with smiles! Stay positive. After this, we just have prefs and then it’s bid day!”

Alex doesn’t actually mind recruitment usually, but today she has other things on her mind. She takes a glimpse at her card and rolls her eyes at the gold star sticker on it, knowing it means she has to try extra hard to recruit this one. Her name is Rose, and Alex can tell why she’s a “top girl” right off the bat. She graduated high school with a 4.5 GPA and has the most extracurriculars you could possibly fit on a card. She probably was placed with Alex because she played soccer in high school and all in all seems like a goody two-shoes.

“I love your girl, by the way,” Lindsey says. “I have K-Mew’s sister, but I’m obsessed with them both.” Kristie’s actual little sister is going through rush, and she’s a shoo-in for ADPi even though technically they’re not allowed to promise bids to anyone.

Alex almost misses Rose when she walks in because she’s tiny. Not blonde suburban mom who just “bounced right back!” from pregnancy thanks to yoga and intensive personal training tiny, but “how are you even old enough to be in college?” tiny. She already has a strike against her because no way will even a fake ID help her get into bars.

“Hi, I’m Alex!”

“Rose,” the tiny girl says. Her voice doesn’t much match her appearance, but Alex gets that all the time. Good, common ground.

They make small talk, covering the usual bases of what she’s majoring in, what she likes to do, and why she’s rushing, but Alex finds herself enjoying the conversation, nearly forgetting what’s on her mind.

After twenty minutes, all the women gather in the large chapter room to watch a video presentation about their sisterhood and philanthropy. Alex features heavily in the video, and she blushes when she shows up on the screen, but what really catches her eye is the video clip of last year’s ATO philanthropy. She sees Derek, all blindingly white teeth and Clark Kent haircut, giving a girl a piggyback ride in the background. She looks happy, blissfully so, and Alex knows it must be Kelley. She can’t take her eyes off her, and she suddenly feels sick to her stomach.

The clip ends just as soon as it began, but Alex can’t stop thinking about the girl’s smile. She only got a quick glimpse of her, but the smile is engraved in her mind, the smile just as white and sparkling as that of the man she loves, stretching all the way to her eyes. She knows she’ll probably regret her next step, but she has to do it.

~

Alex practically sprints to her room when recruitment is over, galloping up the stairs to beat Syd and Tobin. Unfortunately for her plan, they follow right behind.

“I’m going to tell her,” Alex says, taking her laptop from her desk. She sits on her bed and opens it, but Syd slams it shut and take it away.

“Stop,” she says. “This is a sucky situation, but you can keep it from getting suckier. We’re the only ones who know about this, right? What’s the point of telling her something that’s just going to hurt her?”

“What’s the point of not telling her and just letting her be in a relationship with a douchebag?” Tobin asks. “Even if she’s upset for a little while, she’d be saving her in the long run.”

“It’s not Alex’s relationship to interfere with,” Sydney says. “She’s done enough—no offense, Al.”

“Wouldn’t you want to know if someone slept with your boyfriend?”

“That’s why I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yeah, that’s why,” Tobin rolls her eyes.

“Guys, stop, I’m right here!” Alex exclaims. “I’m the one with the decision to make.”

“No, he is,” Sydney says, sitting down on her own bed to face Alex. “You’re a good girl, you always have been. This doesn’t make you a bad person, but breaking an innocent girl’s heart might.”

“Don’t manipulate her like that!” Tobin exclaims. “Alex, whatever you decide, you aren’t a bad person. Syd is being a touch dramatic, but what can we really expect from her?”

“You are both terrible with advice,” Alex says. It feels like she has an angel and a devil sitting on each shoulder, but she can’t figure out which is which. “I need a break. I’m going for a run.”

They don’t bother arguing with her, knowing that Alex needs to be alone to clear her head. There are no apologies necessary between Sydney and Tobin, as their relationship is practically founded on the basis that they will butt heads and call the other one out when necessary (and sometimes when not necessary).

Alex takes a different route than usual, perhaps consciously to avoid passing the Kappa Kappa Gamma house and runs until she can’t feel her legs, but she can’t shake the guilt and stress of the weight on her shoulders. She runs through campus and sits by the lake for a while before turning around and going back, having made no groundbreaking decisions.

It’s dinner time when she gets back to the house, which means the house is full of loud, boisterous girls, and there’s little to no chance of Tobin and Syd cornering her again. As soon as she gets in, the house mom, Christie, spots her.

“Alex!” she says. “I need to talk to you.” Alex follows her into the study. She immediately assumes she’s in trouble, and her face must show it, because Christie laughs. “You’re not in trouble,” she says. “I just wanted to see if you could help out with something. The hospital is doing its fundraising kickoff Saturday, and every organization is sending a few representatives to go and meet the kids and help out however we can. Lauren and Amy usually go, but I want to give them a break after recruitment ends, and considering you’re the philanthropy chair…”

“Yes, of course!” Alex says. “Absolutely.”

The biggest philanthropic event of the year is a university-wide event called Dance Marathon, in which students stay on their feet for 26.2 hours to raise money for children’s hospitals like the one in their own backyard. In the past, Alex has participated in the event as a dancer and as a family relations captain, meaning she got to work one-on-one with the families of “Miracle Children,” as they’re called.

“Perfect,” Christie says. “I’ll leave it up to you to round up another girl or two. Thanks so much.” She stops to take a look at Alex. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“You don’t have a very good poker face. Anything I can help with?”

Alex looks down at the ground, debating whether she should tell her. On one hand, Syd was right, not everyone needs to know. But on the other, it’s Christie. And she needs an unbiased opinion. “I might have made a mistake.”

“At recruitment?”

“No, no, don’t worry, nothing like that. I just—I did something I shouldn’t have last night. With someone I shouldn’t have.”

“Oh,” Christie says. “Uh, were you safe?”

“Yes,” Alex says. “It’s just that I found out this morning he has a girlfriend.”

“That’s not good.”

“Yeah.”

“And now you can’t figure if you’re in a position to tell her.”

“Exactly.”

“Take it from someone who’s been on both sides of that situation,” Christie says, and Alex can’t help the look of surprise that graces her face. “Don’t look so shocked, I was in college too once. It’s better to rip off the band-aid. That relationship is going nowhere fast if he’s the type of guy to do that. If I were her, I’d want to know. But you’re not obligated to do anything.”

“Yeah,” Alex sighs. “I’ve gotten nothing but contradictory advice.”

“I’d imagine as much. But at the end of the day, what does your heart tell you?”

Alex shrugs. “To think about it more.”

“That’s your brain, Baby Horse,” Christie teases, using a nickname Alex got from her big sister, Abby, on their first sisterhood retreat. It had stuck, but only because Abby called her that exclusively. Now that Abby has graduated and moved away, it’s almost a comfort to hear the nickname again. “One day you’ll learn to listen to your heart. Practice makes perfect.”

~

Sydney and Tobin decide to go on a last-minute Target trip to buy all the school supplies they hadn’t yet bothered to pick up. Naturally, Alex already has everything she’ll need (and then some), so she elects to sit this one out, opting to finally do what she wanted to earlier.

She pulls up Facebook and types in “Kelley,” noting the second ‘e.’ They have plenty of mutual friends so her profile pops up quickly, and Alex immediately starts clicking around like the seasoned expert she is. Her “about” page first, filled with info and little tidbits that most people forget they ever even included on their profiles.

Her birthday is August 4, making her a Leo. A bit concerning. She’s an environmental engineering major. Smart. And there it is, in black and white, under the “family and relationships” tab. She’s in a relationship with Derek McDonald. Alex’s heart sinks when she sees their basically matching profile pictures, both professional-looking headshots, cementing their role as a clear power couple in the Greek community.

Alex clicks through the rest of her profile pictures, the only part of her profile that’s available for her investigation. Before she knows it, Kelley O’Hara becomes a person. A girl her own age with hobbies and friends and a family who makes goofy faces in pictures that say she doesn’t take herself too seriously and that she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks (even though she still looks great). A real, smart, beautiful woman whose only determinable flaw is that she’s dating a cheater. She can do better, Alex thinks, getting angrier at Derek by the second.

Almost as if her fingers have a mind of their own, she’s typing a message.

“Hey Kelley, sorry if this is weird. I know you don’t know me, but I’m the philanthropy chair for ADPi and I was hoping we could get lunch or coffee sometime this week. The sooner the better. I have a pretty open schedule this week so just let me know :)”

She knows it’s a bit misleading to start off that way, making it seem like some official business, but she doesn’t know how else to approach it. It doesn’t take more than five minutes before she has a friend request from Kelley O’Hara as well as a response to her message.

“Hey! Not weird at all :) That sounds great. My schedule is packed (recruitment, school, work, boyfriend, you know how it goes), but I could do coffee earlyish Wednesday. Like 9:30? On campus or off? You pick!”

“Wednesday at 9:30 is perfect,” Alex types, her stomach sinking when she sees the b-word in Kelley’s message. “I have class at 10:40, so can we do Pascal’s across from campus?”

“Yesssss, I love that place! I look forward to meeting you. Hope prefs goes well for y’all! Aren’t you glad it’s almost over? ;)”

Every smiley face and exclamation mark feels like a shooting pain in Alex’s side. She can’t bring herself to carry on this conversation under whatever false pretenses she set herself up for, so she shoots back a quick message. “Same to you, see you Wednesday”

“See you then! :)”

Chapter Text

The first week of classes is always the worst time to find parking, so Alex forgoes her baby blue scooter in favor of walking from Sorority Row to the coffeeshop, thinking the whole time about how she’s going to break this news to Kelley. Over the past two days, she’s looked through the past four years of Kelley’s Facebook and scrolled all the way to the very beginning of her Instagram (miraculously never accidentally double-tapping a picture), and she’s started to feel like she actually knows Kelley, like maybe it’s okay that Alex is going to be the one to tell her her boyfriend is a lying, cheating scumbag.

At the same time, she doesn’t know Kelley, which she quickly remembers when she walks into the busy coffeeshop and sees Kelley at a stool by the counter, chatting with a blonde barista. Alex walks up to her, and gives a sort of awkward wave to get her attention.

“Oh, hi!” Kelley exclaims, turning toward her with a smile so wide and genuine Alex is again convinced that they have been friends for years. “I’m Kelley. Duh. This is my friend, Ashlyn. She works here.”

“Oh, cool,” Alex says. “I’m Alex. Are you in Kappa?”

Ashlyn laughs. “No way,” she says. “But I’m a big fan of them.”

“She’s friends with a lot of us,” Kelley says. “She hangs out at the house a lot.”

“My girlfriend is a Kappa,” Ashlyn explains.

“Oh,” Alex says. “Oh! Gotcha! That’s cool. Yeah, very cool.”

“What are you drinking?” Kelley asks, attempting to smooth over the awkwardness.

“Um, a London Fog please,” Alex orders, naming her favorite Earl Grey latte.

“And I’ll have a cortadito,” Kelley says. “Have you ever tried that? It’s amazing.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You’ll have to try some of mine,” Kelley insists. “And I’m paying for both,” she tells Ashlyn, waving her credit card and her frequent customer punch card.

“You don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Kelley says. “Potential new friends and first impressions and all that.”

“Thanks,” Alex says. She considers telling her she’ll get it next time, but she has a feeling after this conversation there won’t be a next time.

Kelley eyes a table in the corner that two girls are getting up from and makes a beeline for it. She smiles at the girls and sits down before anyone can even think about taking the table.

“It gets cutthroat in here,” Kelley laughs. “Only the strong survive.”

“No kidding,” Alex laughs. Ashlyn brings their drinks, and Alex smiles her thanks before taking a sip. “Hot.”

“Smells amazing,” Kelley says. “So, what was it you wanted to talk about? How is philanthropy planning going? Is it like pulling teeth to get girls to participate?”

“Um yeah, sort of,” Alex says. “Who's your chair?”

“It's me!” Kelley says. “I figured you knew that.” She looks confused. “Isn't that why you wanted to meet up?”

“Oh,” Alex says. “No, it's not. That's cool though. I'm really passionate about ours.”

“Me too! Well, in general. Have you done DM?” she asks, referring to Dance Marathon. “I've danced every year. It's my favorite thing.”

“Yeah, I love it,” Alex says. “Are you going to the hospital Saturday?”

“Wouldn't miss it!” Kelley says. “Those kids are so sweet.”

Alex’s throat tightens when Kelley mentions the kids. She thinks about her Miracle Child from last year, Aiden, and his family and all they've gone through. She thinks about the birthday parties and family gatherings she was invited to and what they would think of her if they knew what she was about to tell Kelley.

“Listen, there's another reason I needed to talk to you,” Alex says. “And I really don't know how to say it.”

“Okay…”

She lets out a deep breath, looking anywhere but at Kelley. “I was out the other night at ATO for their, like, kick-off party thing, and there was this guy who was flirting with me and making me drinks, and I never do this but I just broke up with my boyfriend and my friend was like ‘it's your senior year, live a little!’” She can hear herself rambling, and Kelley looks more confused by the second, till a look of realization dawns on her. Alex hangs her head, staring at her lap.

“Oh my God, did something happen to you?” Kelley asks, her hand flying across the table to steady Alex’s, which is shaking. “Did someone slip you something? Oh my God. Who was it? My boyfriend is the president, he can—oh, of course you know that, that's why you needed to talk to me, so I could talk to him. Alex, you need to tell someone.”

“No!” Alex exclaims. “Nothing happened. Nothing like that, anyway. I'm okay. It was… consensual. And I had no idea he was—”

“What?”

“It was Derek,” Alex says.

“Derek Smith?”

“Derek McDonald.”

Kelley stares at her blankly. “Is this some sort of joke?”

“Why would I joke about this?”

“I don't know, why would my boyfriend sleep with a random slut at a party?”

“Kelley—”

“What do you want, a thank you card?” Kelley asks.

“What?”

“Oh, thank you so much for taking time out of your precious morning to ruin mine.”

“Please listen to me,” Alex says. “I would never do that to another woman, not on purpose. I had no idea he had a girlfriend until the morning after.”

“Did you use protection?”

“Yes,” Alex breathes. “His—the condoms he keeps in his dresser.”

“He doesn’t—new box?”

“What? No, I don't think so.” Alex tries to remember. “No, definitely not new. Why?”

“Does this make you feel like a good person?” Kelley asks. “Bringing me here and sitting me down to tell me this in public? Does it make you feel less guilty about sleeping with my boyfriend to know that now at least I know? Is this all just so you can get a good night’s sleep?”

“No, of course not. I feel terrible about this! Telling you doesn't change that. I just thought—I’d want to know. And I wouldn't want to find out from someone else.”

“Who else knows?”

“Nobody!” Alex exclaims. “I mean, my roommates. But that’s all.”

“Oh great, your blabbermouth roommate Sydney, you mean?”

“She’s my best friend! You would have told your best friend, and you can’t even deny that.” Alex can’t even feel smug about the fact that Kelley must have researched her just as extensively, she’s too busy rushing to her friend’s defense.

“What makes you think you and I are similar at all?” Alex runs through the list in her head, but she knows the question is rhetorical. “What, because we’re both into philanthropy? I can tell you we are nothing alike, because I would never fuck another girl’s boyfriend, and I would definitely not try to ruin their relationship even more after the fact. So I hope you sleep well tonight, Alex. You completed your mission. Well done.”

Alex feels like she can’t breathe as Kelley gathers her things and leaves the coffeeshop quietly, not causing a scene. She catches Ashlyn’s eye, and Ashlyn gives her a smile and a wave as if she didn’t even realize anything had happened.

~

Kelley has a million things to do, yet she’s lying in her bed, numb, staring at the ceiling. She hasn’t cried. She won’t. She refuses. She hasn’t told anyone either.

It’s funny the way your brain works when you get bad news. The stages of grief aren’t exclusive to the death of a loved one; they can also be applied to a breakup or losing a friend or the cancellation of your favorite TV show. And yet, when Alex told her Derek cheated on Kelley, her brain skipped the denial part and went straight to anger. When she steps away from herself and analyzes it from a purely objective standpoint, she thinks maybe it wasn’t a complete surprise.

Kelley’s freshman year was rough. After a week of blood, sweat, and tears (those high heel blisters are no joke), she found out she had been dropped from her first (and really only) choice sorority the night of prefs. The only reason she even went to Kappa that night instead of dropping out entirely was because of a girl in her recruitment group who was terrified to go to prefs alone. She had become Kelley’s friend quickly, her shy personality balancing out Kelley’s loud and unmissable presence.

Kelley and Christen both pledged Kappa, and Kelley learned to love it, but she struggled to come to terms with the feelings of rejection and homesickness and fear that she wouldn’t be as good at this whole college thing as everyone expected her to be. She ended her fall semester with decent grades and a life that looked perfect from the outside, but she spent her winter break coming up with a list of reasons she shouldn’t go back.

In the end, her parents told her “sorry not sorry,” but that wasn’t an option, and back to school she went. Christen convinced Kelley to fundraise with her for Dance Marathon, and Kelley went along with it because it was Christen, and nobody can say no to her. She was way behind—some girls in her sorority had been fundraising since summer—but when Kelley puts her mind to something, she achieves it. She went to fundraising mixers and events and fell in love with the cause, the kids, and the feeling of purpose. She ended up in the top 10 fundraisers for Kappa as a freshman, and she danced the day (and night) (and day) away at Dance Marathon alongside 800 of her closest friends, feeling more bonded to everyone she met in those 26.2 hours than people she’d known for years.

It was only fitting, then, that she’d have met someone who’d make such an impact on her life at a DM event. Derek never knew the Kelley who cried in her dorm room because she was so lonely despite being surrounded by so many people. He knew the Kelley who would stand on a table and do the chicken dance because someone promised to donate $5 to her fundraising page if she did. He knew the Kelley with fire in her eyes and a spark in her heart to make a change and to do something that matters.

And Kelley knew Derek as a preppy, determined fraternity man who had high aspirations for his life and his future. Derek wanted to be a lawyer or a senator. She used to joke that he could charm the pants off anyone. It doesn’t seem so funny now. He was the guy she was supposed to end up with, at least the version of herself she had created out of necessity.

Since her bike ride home from Pascal’s, she’s been trying to negotiate with herself. First, she shamed herself for not even doubting Alex. She doesn’t know this girl, why should she trust her over her boyfriend of nearly two years? Why should she trust the striking brunette who probably stole her spot in ADPi freshman year over the loving, sweet man who flew to Georgia to surprise her for her birthday a few weeks before classes started?

And yet, she does.

In a way, she’s almost relieved he isn’t as perfect as he seems. She loves him, but it’s exhausting trying to live up to the expectations everyone has of them as the perfect couple when she constantly feels like it’s an act. It just seems to come so naturally to him. Couples aren’t supposed to be so put together and perfect, are they? It feels almost forced sometimes. Maybe it is for him and it affects her. Maybe this whole relationship is a sham, a cruel prank she, queen of all the pranksters, somehow fell for.

Numb. That’s the only word for how she feels. It’s not the same sharp pain from high school she felt when she and her best friend, Ann, had a falling out right before graduation, the one she still feels every February on her birthday and every summer when she goes home and drives by her house, seeing her car in the driveway like nothing has changed, only everything has. It’s not the crushing hurt of wanting to fit in somewhere so bad and then finding out it didn’t want you back. It’s more like the numbness she felt after those things were over, the emptiness of the question “what’s next?” The hopelessness of realizing she doesn’t have an answer for every question.

The numbness doesn’t affect her instinctive excitement upon hearing the text tone set for Derek alone, and she hates herself for how quickly she reaches for it, holding her finger to the home button to unlock it.

“Hey pretty lady. Hope you’re having a good day. If you haven’t already eaten, want to meet me at the house? It’s mac and cheese day! Love you.”

It’s code for “I have a break between classes and we should have a quickie.” Before today, she would have been on her bike in a heartbeat for him. Now, she throws her phone against the wall. It doesn’t even have the decency to fucking break. What a sick metaphor for her heart right now. Numb.

“Dude, are you okay?” Carli asks, bursting into the room. Kelley stares at her blankly. The room she shares with Christen shares one wall with Hope and Carli’s and the other wall with Ali and Heather.

“Fine,” Kelley says. “I’m sick.”

“Still? I thought you were feeling better. Why don’t you go to the infirmary?”

“Great plan,” Kelley deadpans.

“Suit yourself, but stop throwing shit at the wall, and if you must, throw it to the other side.”

“Noted.”

Carli rolls her eyes, closing the door behind her as she leaves. She rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but at the end of the day, her no-bullshit style is one of the most refreshing things about living at the house. When Kelley needs a break from the drama and pettiness, she retreats to Carli and Hope’s room, separated from her own by a (very thin) wall, yet a completely different world.

Kelley’s sense of time isn’t incredibly trustworthy right now, but it seems like Christen walks in barely seconds after Carli leaves. She can sense immediately that something is off, partially due to her particularly keen Kelley senses, but in part because of her freaky photographic memory which has a clear snapshot of Kelley’s Wednesday schedule.

“Don’t you have leadership right now?” Christen asks, referring to the class for which Kelley is a teaching assistant.

“Derek cheated on me.”

“He what?” Christen exclaims, rushing to Kelley’s side, sitting on her bed.

“Remember how I told you that girl from ADPi wanted to meet for coffee? Yeah, turns out she fucked him and wanted to ruin my favorite drink in the process. You’ve been trying to get me to cut down on those since freshman year. You should shake her hand, because she successfully did it.”

“She told you she slept with him?”

“Yep. But don’t worry, he wore a condom,” she says drily. “Out of the open box he keeps in his dresser, apparently!”

“But you—”

“I’m on birth control? I haven’t made him wear a condom since sophomore year? Yeah, fucking news to me too.”

“What did he say?”

“He wasn’t there.”

“I know, but didn’t you confront him?”

“I haven’t talked to him.”

“Oh,” Christen says. “Well… are you going to?” Her voice is as gentle as her hand on Kelley’s knee, desperate to say the right thing, the thing that will help her friend, the thing that won’t rub salt in the wound. Whatever that thing may be.

“I don’t know,” Kelley says. “I’m thinking of just never talking to him ever again.”

“Kel,” Christen sighs. “You are so much better than him. You really are.” She squeezes Kelley’s hand, imploring Kelley to look up and meet her eyes. When she does, her own are filled with tears. “You are so smart and capable and full of life and passion and happiness. You’re my hero. I look up to you every single day. I mean, God, when you took Emma as a little, I was jealous of her that she got you as a mentor. You’re so much better than him.” She hugs Kelley, rubbing her back in soothing circles.

“Chris,” Kelley says, pulling away from her embrace. She wipes her tears with the back of her hand. “Why—why didn’t you ask me if I’m sure she isn’t lying?” It’s the one thing she thought she could count on Christen to do: give him the benefit of the doubt. Give Kelley just a tiny glimmer of hope that there’s no way could Derek ever do something like that.

It takes Christen a second to figure out what Kelley is asking, but when she does, the pitying look on her face is the only answer Kelley needs.

Chapter Text

When Alex pledged Alpha Delta Pi, she was most excited about getting a big sister. All throughout recruitment, she had heard that your big is the girl who you can call at 2 a.m. and who will drop everything to be there for you when you need her. It sounded amazing to Alex, but she always wondered how realistic it was.

Now, three years later, Alex doesn’t have to wonder, because the answer is right in front of her.

“She called you what?” Abby exclaims. They’re sitting criss-cross applesauce on Alex’s bed as Alex rehashes the story for the third time (the first was to Syd and Tobin, the second to her actual big sisters back home).

Abby had been Alex’s first call after leaving the coffeeshop Wednesday. Something in her voice told Abby that it wasn’t as “not a big deal” as Alex made it out to be, and she hopped in the car that afternoon and booked it five hours up the turnpike, her big girl job in Miami be damned. She showed up an hour ago, just as the bid day madness calmed down. They had welcomed sixty-four new sisters “home” that afternoon, and between the screaming and smiling and constant camera flashes, Alex wasn’t sure how anyone felt up to going out and drinking, but such is tradition.

Alex opted out of the party portion of the evening, and even Sydney couldn’t blame her. She almost cried when she saw Abby, though, her headache fading away immediately.

“A random slut,” Alex says.

“You’re the least random slut I know,” Abby says. “Who even says slut still?”

“I guess she does.”

“Well you aren’t.”

“I know.”

“But if you were, I’d still love you.”

“I know.”

“You did the right thing, you know,” Abby says. “You’re a good person.”

“What is with that?” Alex asks. “That’s all I’ve heard lately. Good person, bad person, good girl, random slut. This, like, dichotomy of right and wrong. Why can’t I just be a person? Why do I always have to fit perfectly into one category or another? Why can’t I be a person who does good things and makes mistakes and does shitty things just like everyone else? Why can’t I just be me?”

“Is that why you slept with Derek?”

“What?”

“To prove to yourself that you aren’t just the token good girl?”

“That’s ridiculous. No. I did it because I wanted to.”

“Well it doesn’t matter why you did it,” Abby says. “You handled it with grace, and it isn’t easy to do what you did. And as far as Kelley goes, I can’t imagine her taking it much better. And it’s not like you really know her. Your paths hadn’t even crossed up to this point, and it’s been three years. I think you just spent so much time obsessing over her because of the guilt that you had this whole idea that you could be friends. But you haven’t lost a friend. You just told the truth and looked out for another woman, and I’m proud of you for that.”

“I still feel awful.” Alex’s eyes well up with tears.

“Let it go. What happens next doesn’t concern you. She’s going to go back to living her life, and you’ll go back to yours. Hopefully Derek rots in hell or loses his dick in a freak yachting accident.”

“Or both,” Alex suggests between sniffles.

“Or both.”

~

For two years, Friday night has been date night for Derek and Kelley. Their first date was the Friday after they met, and they’ve gone on a date every single Friday since, even if it’s just a quiet night in watching a movie at the Kappa house or from hundreds of miles away through FaceTime. It ends tonight, Kelley decides.

She hasn’t seen him since Tuesday night when he walked her home from the ATO house (no sleepovers on school nights is her rule). He had kissed her on the porch, neither one of them really feeling like facing the girls who would drool over him and cover it up as joking around with their sister’s boyfriend. It makes her sick to think about any of them having been on the receiving end of one of the condoms in that box. It also makes her sick to think that his lips had been on Alex’s three nights prior. And God knows where else.

It’s not unusual for Kelley not to answer texts throughout the week, especially when she’s having a busy week. So Derek still texts her at 5:30 saying he’ll be there at 7, and Kelley still prepares for his arrival.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Christen asks from her bed, watching Kelley walk around the room.

“What else is there to do?” Kelley shrugs. She still hasn’t cried as far as anyone knows. But crying in the shower doesn’t count, she tells herself. She looks in the mirror and puts the finishing touches on her face. “How do I look?”

“Perfect,” Christen says. “He’s not going to know what hit him.”

“That’s exactly what I was going for.”

“Kel!” Hope calls from downstairs. “Visitor!”

Kelley grabs her bag and walks downstairs, Christen behind her. Derek stands in the foyer, dressed in a blue and white checkered button-down and khakis, hands in his pockets with his thumbs sticking out. It’s one of those little things that’s always stuck out to her ever since she learned about body language in some freshman psychology class.

The look on his face when he sees Kelley is priceless. His initial reaction is to check his watch.

“Sweetie, it’s 7,” he says. “Do you need a few more, uh, minutes?”

Kelley’s freshly washed hair is wrapped in a towel on top of her head, and she’s wearing a bathrobe and slippers. Her face is covered with some face mask Ali, Christen, and JJ had been experimenting with in the bathroom. The perfect final touch.

“No, I’m fine,” Kelley says. “Thanks for coming by. Here are all the shirts and things I’ve borrowed.” She tosses the bag at him.

“What’s going on?”

“You mean besides the fact that you cheated on me with some skank?” Kelley asks. “And that’s only the one who told me about it.”

“I—what?” he asks, flustered. “I didn’t—babe, can we talk in private?”

“Don’t call me babe,” Kelley says. “There’s nothing you can possibly say right now that would make me change my mind about this.”

“I don’t—Kelley, please.”

Kelley wordlessly walks toward the study, and he follows. “What? What do you want?”

“I want to talk.”

“There’s nothing to talk about unless you just want to lie to my face some more.”

 

“I don’t,” Derek says. “What I did was wrong. It was a mistake. And I’m so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you.”

“A good place to start would have been not sleeping with other girls.”

“I know,” Derek says. “I promise it was just the one time.”

“Just the one time? When was that again?”

Derek’s eyes widen, surprised at being held accountable to his words. “Um—”

“That’s what I thought,” Kelley says. “If you can tell me the girl’s name and the month and day, I might believe it was only once, but you don’t seem prepared to do that. Even if it was just once, that doesn’t make it better. You’re still a shitty boyfriend, but luckily you aren’t mine anymore.”

“Kel, listen, we can work this out.”

“No we can’t!” she exclaims, tears filling her eyes. “Fuck you, I’m not crying over you.”

“Please.”

“What’s the point? Why do you even want a girlfriend? Clearly you’re able to get some on the side without a problem. Why bother with the fancy dinners and presents and bullshit when sex was all you really wanted anyway? Because I’m fucking amazing in bed, and if you supposedly love me, why even bother with other girls?”

“Do you love me?”

“What?”

“Do you love me?”

“I’m not answering that.”

“You can love me and still break up with me,” Derek says. “I won’t use it against you. I’m asking because I don’t think you do.”

“We’ve been together for two years, at least one and a half of which I’ve told you I loved you pretty much daily.”

“Saying you love me doesn’t mean you do,” Derek says. “Maybe you were in love with the idea of me, or in love with the idea of a relationship. I think you like things to be easy, keep up the appearance that everything’s perfect, but I think you’d be way happier with something that’s real.”

“Don’t turn this on me.”

“I’m not,” Derek says. “I should have ended things when I realized it, but I didn’t. I’m just as much to blame here.”

“You’re the one who cheated on me!”

“And that was wrong,” he says. “But so is faking your way through an entire relationship.”

“So what, you slept with other girls because you needed to feel love you weren’t getting from me?” Kelley explodes, walking closer to him as she speaks. “Yeah, I’m so sure they gave you real, authentic, genuine, heartfelt love. But maybe you’re right, maybe I never loved you. Maybe if I did it would be harder to do this.” Kelley maintains eye contact with him as she slaps him across the face as hard as she can. “Get the fuck out.”

She opens the door to the study, and all the girls in the common area quickly go back to pretending they weren’t listening. Kelley doesn’t want to make him feel comfortable by walking him out, so she storms up the stairs instead, not caring about the scene she’s making. They’re her sorority sisters, they’ll either love her anyway or gossip about her behind her back anyway. This won’t change a thing.

~

The first knock on her door comes a few hours later. Christen had gone with JJ and some of the new pledges to bar-hop in Midtown, the last place Kelley would be caught dead these days. She prefers downtown, mostly because it’s usually not overrun by freshmen who literally just have to cross the street to get there. But tonight, she certainly prefers her own bed and solitude.

She can’t stop thinking about what Derek said, no matter how hard she tries. Part of her knows it’s a somewhat fair assessment, but she can’t go back in time to remember how she felt before Alex dropped the bomb. Was she in love with him before then? Did hearing about his transgressions change everything immediately?

“Come in,” she says. Hope peeks through the door, carrying a bag from the CVS down the road. “What’s that?”

“Reinforcements,” Hope says, dumping the contents onto Christen’s perfectly made bed. “Gummy worms, Reese’s cups, and pretzel M&Ms. The most important food groups for a breakup.”

“And I assume we’re supposed to talk while consuming them.”

Hope shrugs. “We can talk. Or we can just eat. We can throw darts at a picture of him… or the—how’d you put it again? Skank?”

“It’s not her fault,” Kelley says immediately. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Good,” Hope says. “Then I don’t have to be the one to tell you that. You’re better than that. So. Talk or snack?”

“Both.”

“Do you feel better or worse?”

“Both.”

“I get that,” Hope says. “It’s good to be done with it officially, but it sucks that it had to happen.”

“Yeah. And it sucks that I’ll have to see him around. And her.”

“But it’s not her fault, I thought.”

“It’s not, but I’m not going to be able to see her and not think of him.”

“You weren’t in love with him, though,” Hope says matter-of-factly.

“No, but it still sucks,” Kelley says, catching herself too late. “I mean, yes. I was—I am.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Your relationship was political at best,” Hope says. “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it was only a matter of time.”

“Till he cheated on me?”

“No. Till you ended things. He should have done it if he wanted to sleep with other girls. I thought he’d be smarter than that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”

Hope shrugs. “Not my place. You were happy. I mean, at least content. Just because something isn’t going to last forever doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits while it lasts.”

“Benefits like sex.”

“Like sex,” Hope says. “But also friendship. Someone you can rely on. In Greek life, recognition and power. Sex is easily replaceable. You can give yourself orgasms more often and more efficiently than he could, I’m sure. And trust me, plenty of other people would be glad to help out there. But I know that’s not what you were in it for.”

“I guess,” Kelley says, looking down.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Hope says. “To date someone you aren’t in love with. Like, being in love is really cool. And when you are, you’ll know.”

“I know. I’ve been in love. Just not with him.”

Hope smiles. “Sorry. I always forget there’s life before college. I’ve just only known you single or with Derek. But just because you weren’t in love doesn’t mean you deserved him screwing other girls. Your relationship was still real. He still should have been faithful unless you had some sort of agreement to the contrary.”

As Hope speaks, Kelley nods along. She’s able to put Kelley’s feelings into words far better than Kelley thinks she could. Kelley’s never been the best with words, often just speaking straight from her heart without vetting it through any process. Hope, on the contrary, is deliberate with her words, eloquent when she speaks as well as when she writes.

She’d gotten in trouble freshman year, being called to standards for things she had said and done that reflected the sorority poorly. She was on probation the rest of the year, but in that time she made a complete turnaround. She’s still the same brash, strong-willed Hope, but now she knows how to say things tactfully and resist reacting so quickly. Now that she’s a senior, most of the upperclassmen who held it against her are gone, and she has sort of a clean slate, becoming someone a lot of the girls even look up to, including Kelley.

“Kelley, are you listening?”

“Sorry, yeah.”

“I said this is going to be the best year of our entire college lives,” Hope says. “No stupid boys holding us back, just limitless potential. Look, if breaking up with him is the hardest thing you do all year, then first of all it's over, and second of all, the rest of your year is going to kick ass.”

“You sound like Press.”

“Press is right,” Hope says. “Listen. Be sad, eat crappy food, do whatever you need to do. But when you’re ready for what’s next, I’m right next door.”

Chapter Text

Morning comes way too early after a night spent talking well into the wee hours, but Alex wouldn’t trade the past two days with Abby for the world. She’s heading back home today after she runs herself ragged around town trying to catch up with all her friends, but that’s just the kind of person Abby is. She puts herself last every time.

Sydney groans when Alex’s alarm goes off, and Alex shuts it off, gently nudging Tobin awake. “Hey, we have to be at the hospital in an hour,” she whispers. Tobin nods, but rolls back over to sleep. Alex rolls her eyes, but Tobin really only needs enough time to brush her teeth and throw her hair into a ponytail to be ready. She texts Lindsey to make sure she’s up and running as she steps into the bathroom for a shower.

When she’s finished, she wraps a bathrobe around herself and goes downstairs for breakfast, where Lindsey and Tobin are sitting at the table, eating bagels in silence.

“I’m so proud!” Alex exclaims. “Two of the worst morning people I know are ready to go before 8 a.m.”

“And you’re still naked,” Lindsey says drily.

“Shut up, I’m grabbing a banana and changing.”

“Take your time, princess,” Lindsey teases. Alex sticks her tongue out as she runs back up the stairs. She does her best to prepare herself for the day, not just in what she wears (sometimes the hospital can get cold, so it’s always good to bring a light cardigan), but in her whole mindset. This is about the kids, not about Alex or any of the many things making her anxious about today. This is about Gracie and Kendall and Charlie and all of the amazing kids she’s met over the years.

Her perspective is fresh and positive when she steps through the familiar doors, greeted at the front by Tara, one of her favorite receptionists.

“Alex! How was your summer?” she asks, beaming from behind the desk where they check in for their guest ID badges.

“Great,” Alex lies politely. “And yours?”

“Wonderful,” Tara says. “Saw a lot of kids leave, which is always hard, but it means all the fundraising you guys have been doing is working, right? Plus I get to see them when they come back for check-ups.”

“That’s amazing,” Alex smiles, ignoring the knot in her stomach. Kids leaving the hospital is a wonderful thing, but she can’t help but think of the ones who never do.

“If you go up to the fourth floor, you’ll find the group,” Tara says. “Have fun, girls!”

Alex feels uneasy as soon as they step off the elevator. She isn’t sure why until her eyes land on the reason. Kelley O’Hara is talking animatedly to a blonde and a brunette, presumably both Kappas. She has to call her by her full name in her head as a way to distance herself, make her seem like less of a real person who Alex casually asked to grab coffee earlier in the week.

If Tobin and Lindsey notice, they do a great job of hiding it, ushering Alex to a second check-in by last name.

“Heath and Horan, you are in Group 2,” the girl at the table says, handing them each a folder. “These have maps of the hospital and a bunch of pamphlets about what Dance Marathon is raising money for this year. Morgan, you’re in Group 4, though I know you already know all of this and then some.”

Alex smiles tightly, looking around to see who else has a purple folder. She’s not sure if her eyes were headed there the whole time, but the first purple folder she sees is attached to none other than Kelley O’Hara.

“Oh shit, Al,” Lindsey breathes.

~

Kelley knew the second Alex walked in, though she did her best to look as if nothing were amiss, chatting away with Christen and Whitney, using her hands probably more than she should have been. Press is in Group 4 as well, considering it’s sorted by last name, but Whitney is in Group 2, along with Alex’s two friends, judging by their yellow folders. She’s glad she’ll have Christen with her for sanity’s sake, but there aren’t quite as many people as she thought there would be, and she knows avoiding Alex will be difficult.

They split into groups before heading off on their respective tours, and Kelley notices how Alex stays at the very front of the group as if she’s leading the tour herself.

“Just talk to her,” Christen whispers. Kelley thinks she might be even more stressed than Kelley is about the situation. She hates turmoil, even when it doesn’t directly affect her.

“And say what?” Kelley hisses. “Feel free to sleep with my ex, I dumped him?”

“Well, no, but you could apologize for what you said to her.”

“Maybe later.”

Kelley has been on the tour countless times for DM, but she enjoys it every time, especially the part where they get to go see some of the kids who can leave their rooms and be around strangers. They’re doing arts and crafts this morning, and when they walk in, the kids brighten up, some running to hug them and others who can’t showing their excitement in other ways. She sees Alex scoop up one little boy and give him a quick kiss on the forehead as his mom greets her.

“Look, it’s our friend Kelley!” one woman says to her daughter, and Kelley turns to see one of Kappa’s Miracle Children from last year, Lucy.

“Hey, Luce!” Kelley says, squatting down. “What are you working on?”

“We’re painting flowers,” she says, showing her the painting. “Well I am, but some people aren’t following the rules.”

Kelley laughs. “That happens sometimes,” she says. “But your flowers are beautiful, and I’m sure whatever everyone else is working on will be beautiful too.”

“Where’s Derek?” Lucy asks, and Kelley smiles softly.

“He’s not here today, but I’m sure he’ll come see you guys soon.”

“Good, I miss him!”

Kelley clears her throat, looking around. Lucy’s mom has distracted her with a new paintbrush, and Christen has started her own painting with a group of kids at another table. It’s not like she’s looking or anything, but she can’t help but notice Alex slip out of the room quietly. ‘If not now, when?’ Kelley asks herself, standing up to follow her, figuring she’s going to the bathroom or something.

Instead, she follows her a little farther down the hallway, where Alex ducks into the chapel at the end of the hall. Kelley’s eyes narrow as she continues to follow, watching as Alex lights a candle reverently and takes a seat in a pew, hands folded and head bowed. This is definitely the last thing she expected to find. She doesn’t realize she’s let go of the door till it closes loudly behind her.

Alex sits straight up and whips her head around, and even in the dim lighting Kelley can see the tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t—” Kelley starts. “I’m really sorry.”

“You’re allowed to be in here,” Alex says softly, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Not for that.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll let you be. I didn’t mean to interrupt your… whatever this is.”

“I should get back anyway,” Alex says.

“Okay.” It’s awkward, but Kelley doesn’t know what she expected. She isn’t sure whether she should leave and let Alex follow or stay and wait for her, but she doesn’t end up having much of a choice.

“It’s okay, by the way,” Alex says. “I mean, like, I forgive you. Not that you need my forgiveness. But if you’re really saying sorry—”

“I am.”

“Me too.”

“I broke up with him.” Alex is silent. “It’s a good thing.”

“Good, then.”

“What I said to you was wrong,” Kelley says. “You aren’t… what I said.” She considers saying the word but then realizes she’s basically standing in the house of God. As shitty as the week has been, she doesn’t want to add getting struck down by a holy bolt of lightning to the list.

“I can see how you’d think that, though.”

Kelley opens the door, motioning for Alex to go ahead. “Well, we’re good. No hard feelings.”

“Except for the fact that I’ll always be the girl who slept with your boyfriend and broke your heart by telling you about it.”

“You didn’t break my heart,” Kelley says. “Trust me, he never had that kind of power over me. And I don’t think I would have been able to do what you did. You know, tell me about that. That was gutsy. Sorry I was a bitch about it.”

“I can’t say I blame you. If I had found that out about my ex while we were dating, I probably would have lashed out at whoever was closest. It’s okay.”

“It’s not. But thank you anyway.” Kelley closes her eyes quickly, almost like she’s looking for guidance from whatever god Alex was praying to earlier before she says what she thinks she might want to say next. “What are you doing after this?”

“What?”

“My friends and I were going to go to Flying Biscuit.”

Alex laughs. “It’s a Saturday, are you really going to wait in line for two hours?”

“Of course not,” Kelley says. “My friend Whitney’s boyfriend is a manager, he can get us to the top of the list.”

“Friends in high places,” Alex says. “Um, my roommate and my little are here too.”

“Tobin,” Kelley says. “Yeah, we played intramural soccer together.” She cringes. “I guess I owe your other roommate an apology too.”

“I didn’t tell her you called her a blabbermouth.”

“No?”

“Why hurt her for the sake of hurting her?” Alex shrugs. “You didn’t mean it anyway. I mean, you’re right, she’s chatty as hell, but she wouldn’t gossip about someone’s personal stuff.”

“I know,” Kelley says. “I feel bad though.”

“You’ve had a rough week, you have enough to worry about,” Alex says. “Stop worrying about us. But if you really want, you can treat me to brunch.”

Kelley grins, opening the door to the playroom for Alex. “Deal.”

~

It takes a bit of convincing for Lindsey and Tobin to realize Alex is serious about getting brunch with the Kappas, but they agree, especially when they hear it means skipping the always-insane line at one of the most popular breakfast places in town.

Alex feels like she has to pinch herself a few times when she realizes she’s having coffee—again—with the girl whose boyfriend she slept with just a week ago. She’s Kelley in her mind now, no last name needed, and in her phone too when Kelley programs in her number. She realizes she was right about Kelley. They could be great friends. They order the same meal, and Kelley remarks that they must share similar tastes. She and Alex are the only ones who find it funny; everyone else just shifts uncomfortably in the booth.

When the waitress asks if they’d like separate checks, Kelley insists on fulfilling her earlier promise to treat Alex to brunch, despite Alex’s protests.

“Now we’re even,” Kelley says. Alex tries to work out the math on that one and comes up short, but she thanks her graciously and insists on leaving a tip.

They part ways under the mutual promise that they’ll brainstorm philanthropy and fundraising ideas and definitely come up with something their organizations can do together to fundraise for Dance Marathon. Derek doesn’t come up (at least not explicitly) once during the meal, and while both girls know this isn’t necessarily the start of a beautiful friendship, they both feel a weight lifted off their shoulders now that the air is clear. Even Christen is considerably more at ease than she was this morning, and Kelley teases her that she worries more about her friends’ well-being than her own. It’s probably true, to be fair.

When Kelley gets home, she knocks on Hope’s door to tell her the whole story.

“That’s crazy,” Hope replies when she finishes. “So what does it all mean?”

“I don’t know, it just feels so good to not have Derek holding anything over me anymore, even her,” Kelley says. “I guess it means I’m ready for what’s next.”

~

At first, what’s next is pretty boring. It’s waking up in the morning and not texting Derek, going to classes and not thinking about meeting him in between, it’s re-learning how to do everything she’s been doing for the past two years on her own. Kelley’s always considered herself to be a pretty independent person (she learned a lot about being dependent on others before college, and when she moved away, she swore she’d be different), but being in a relationship with someone for so long sometimes means you can’t even see that person becoming almost a part of you.

What’s next is hanging out at the library and in coffee shops alone because she could call or text a friend to meet her but she doesn’t want anyone feeling bad for her. So of course when she goes to Pascal’s, it might partially be because Ashlyn is working. But when she sees she’s not behind the bar, she can’t just turn around and leave, so she goes upstairs to find a place to “study” while she waits for her next class to begin.

As usual, all the inside tables are taken. Nobody ever bothers to go outside because it’s way too hot in Florida in early September, not to mention the annoying glare on computer screens makes it hard to see, but Kelley’s wearing a tank top and shorts and wasn’t even really planning on studying anyway, so she takes her iced cortadito outside to the balcony to find the only table out there is taken: by Alex Morgan.

“Hey,” Kelley says. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Alex looks up from the book she’s reading and smiles. “Hey! Wanna sit?”

“Oh, sure,” Kelley says, setting down her backpack and sliding into the open chair. “What are you reading?”

Alex blushes. “Um, I just picked it up from one of the shelves inside,” she says. “It’s called The Problem of Pain. It’s by C.S. Lewis. You know, he wrote the Narnia books and all that.”

“Yeah, I know who he is,” Kelley says. “Is it any good?”

“Yeah,” Alex says. “Really interesting so far.”

“I had no idea you were religious.”

“What?” Alex asks, flustered, and Kelley almost regrets mentioning it, knowing it can be a sensitive subject.

“I mean, the book, the other day at the chapel in the hospital when you were praying or whatever.”

“I’m not really,” Alex says. “I mean, I just don’t really know what I believe. The chapel—I’ve spent a lot of time in there, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Kelley says, not wanting to press. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“It’s okay,” Alex says, putting a bookmark in her book. “Last year I did family relations for DM. I spent the whole year with this one family, the Corcorans. Seriously the nicest people I’ve ever met. Their little boy, Aiden, was going through his third round of chemo and radiation, and he was still the happiest, most loving kid I’ve ever seen. His mom was pregnant with a baby girl, and it was just amazing how they always stayed positive. Like, when I would come visit, the first thing they would ask is how I was doing and what they could do for me. Can you imagine?”

“That’s awesome,” Kelley says softly.

Alex looks around, biting the inside of her lip nervously. “He passed away two days before Dance Marathon,” she says. “It was horrible. I’d never felt that much pain in my life, and I can’t begin to imagine what his family went through. His mom had her baby a week later in the same hospital. I went to meet her, but Saturday was the first time I’ve been back there since.”

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Kelley says. “That must have been excruciating.”

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Alex says. “They do so much good, and it was so good to see the kids who are getting better and to hear about the ones who get to go home even though their prognosis was bad at first. It just got a little overwhelming to be with all these people who knew and loved Aiden, and to see him missing out on it was awful. So I went to the chapel. His mom did that a lot, she would go light candles for all the kids who had passed or who needed extra prayer. They’re Irish, Catholic or something. And she would always light a candle for me, too.”

Kelley reaches out her hand to squeeze Alex’s as her tears fall. Kelley feels her heart clench as Alex’s hand tightens around her own.

“I don’t know who I was talking to in the chapel. I guess I just wanted to talk to Aiden somehow, wherever he is. Because he can’t be gone, you know? He was five.”

“What were you talking to him about?” Kelley asks gently, pulling her hand away. She pushes her napkin across the table at Alex in lieu of a tissue.

“You,” Alex laughs. “I mean, the whole thing. I told him I did something bad. I didn’t want him to be disappointed. It sounds so stupid, I know.”

“It doesn’t,” Kelley says. “I write letters to people from my past, family members I’ve lost, whatever. It helps.”

“I told him I hoped he would still love me,” Alex says, picking up the napkin to dab at her eyes. “Really I asked him for a sign that he forgave me for letting him down. And then the door slammed and I turned around and you were there.”

Kelley smiles. “That’s really cool. I’m glad I was there.”

“Me too. And here you are again.”

“Here I am.”

“As terrible as the situation is, I’m kind of glad our paths crossed,” Alex says. “Like, I wish more than anything I could take it back, but we keep running into each other and we have so much in common. Too much to have gone all four years of college without ever meeting, you know?”

“I wouldn’t want you to take it back,” Kelley says. “He would have kept doing it, and I would have kept being completely unaware. Let me know what that book says about pain, because from my point of view, sometimes it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

“How are you?” Alex asks. “I’m so terrible, I’ve just been talking about my own things, and you’re—”

“Going through a shitty breakup,” Kelley finishes. “Turns out the relationship was shittier, so things could be worse.”

“Well, if you ever need to talk, I’m here,” Alex says. “I mean, not physically here, though I do end up here a lot. I know it might be weird, but sometimes it’s hard to talk to your friends about stuff. So if you ever need just someone else or whatever, you know where to find me.”

“I’m sure I will.”

“Crap, what time is it?” Alex asks, looking at her watch. “I’ve gotta run, I have class all the way across campus. I’m sorry for being a bummer.”

“I’ve only had like three real conversations with you, and yet if someone gave me a dollar for every time you said sorry, I’d be rich,” Kelley says. “I don’t know who taught you to apologize all the time, but you don’t have to.”

Alex blushes and opens her mouth one more time before closing it. Kelley smirks, raising her eyebrows. “See you around.”

“With the way things have been going lately, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.”

~

Alex spends the entire almost-sprint to class kicking herself for pouring her heart out to Kelley. She had just been asking to be nice and pretend to be interested, and Alex had probably freaked her out. Sad stories about a little boy with cancer are not the way to make friends. Alex knows this, for God’s sake, she's the best recruiter in ADPi. Polite conversation that remains strictly surface-level is her specialty.

She spends the majority of class on her computer, iMessaging Tobin and Syd about her dilemma and whether she should address it or leave it alone (Tobin’s response: “whatever you want dude”; Sydney’s: “Why are you obsessing over this? It's not like you're trying to date her”). Considering how little help her friends are, she has to fly solo, eventually settling on a noncommittal text.

“Sorry about before. I know that conversation was a bummer. I think I'm about to start my period.” She cringes as soon as she hits enter. Who says that to someone they don't know?

“Haha, it's that time of month at the Kappa house too,” Kelley responds a few minutes later. “But remember what I said about apologizing? It's honestly cool, small talk is overrated anyway. :) I’ll take real talk over rush week BS any day. BTW I started reading that book you were reading to kill time before class. I didn't quite catch up to you, but it’s pretty good. I can see why it would interest you now :)”

“You better leave my bookmark! I'm coming back after class.”

“We’ll just be missing each other. Lame.”

“Oh so you liked seeing me cry, huh?”

“No, but now I'm prepared. Joke book at the ready.”

“I'll have to take you up on that another time then.”

“I'll be back tomorrow,” Kelley says. “My friend Ali and I are coming around 12:30 depending when our class gets out. She's the one with the real hook-up for free coffee (sleeping with the barista is an option I haven't tried, but apparently it's effective).”

“Sleeping with someone else’s boyfriend isn't typically how I make friends, but apparently that’s effective too.”

It takes Kelley a while to respond, and Alex panics, trying to figure out a way out of this one. When she glances back at her computer after forcing herself to focus on her notes for a minute, she sees Kelley’s typing bubbles.

“Lol. Good to know you aren't making a habit of that. Might not work with everyone.”

“But you’re the exception?”

“Looks that way,” Kelley says. Another message pops up a few seconds later. “Or maybe you are. I’ll have to give it some thought.”

Chapter Text

“You know it’s like really not normal to be friends with the girl who slept with your ex, right?” Ali says as if she’s the first one to make such an observation. She’s painting her toenails on Christen’s bed, leaning on Ashlyn for balance as Kelley gets ready to go to the gym with Alex.

“Hoes before bros, Krieger,” Heather—better known as HAO—says. “I think it’s awesome.”

“I do too!” Ali insists. “And Alex is really cool. It’s just like… doesn’t it weird you out?”

“At first, yeah,” Kelley says, lacing up her sneakers. “But like you said, she’s cool. And we have a lot in common.”

“Doesn’t hurt that she’s smoking hot,” Ashlyn says, and Ali shoots her a dirty look. “What? For Kelley, I mean.”

“We aren’t all interested in that,” Kelley says, probably coming off more defensive than she intended. “I don’t choose friends based on how attractive they are, I mean.”

“She knows that,” Ali says, jumping to Ashlyn’s defense. “She’s joking.”

“That’s how I chose you,” Ashlyn says. Ali rolls her eyes, but leans into Ashlyn’s side anyway.

“If you guys want to keep being gross, you can take it to your room,” Kelley teases.

“Okay, but if they do, can I stay here?” HAO asks.

“Do whatever, I’m off to play racquetball,” Kelley says.

“Weirdest friendship ever,” Ali says again.

“If you guys would ever agree to do fun stuff with me and if Press ever went to the gym for anything other than yoga, maybe I wouldn’t have to be friends with the girl who Derek cheated on me with,” Kelley retorts. “But for the record, can we agree to just call her Alex? Come on.”

Ali puts her hands up in surrender. “Easy, I’m messing with you,” she says. “Be friends with whoever you want.”

“It’ll be a great story to tell the grandkids one day,” Ashlyn teases as Kelley walks out, flipping them the bird behind her back.

~

Kelley wipes a towel across her forehead, putting her racquet under her arm to free up her hand to slap Alex’s. “You’re good.”

“Not used to getting beat?”

“Not really, no,” Kelley says, drinking water as she tries to catch her breath. Alex sits down to stretch her legs, and Kelley follows suit. “Are your friends weird about me?” she asks.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, do they give you shit because of how we met?”

“I guess,” Alex says. “Syd, mostly. Tobin couldn’t care less, she thinks you’re cool. Syd thinks you’re going to pull a Heathers and kill me.”

“I haven’t counted that out.”

“Fair enough. Syd would like you a lot if you two hung out though.”

“Why don’t we?”

Alex raises her eyebrows. “I mean, I guess I don’t see why not.”

“Except you think it would be weird.”

“Maybe a little,” Alex says. “Maybe at first.”

“You hung out with me and Ali.”

“You can hang out with my friends, I won’t stop you.”

“Perfect, then what are you doing Saturday night?”

“Isn’t there a football game?”

“It’s in the afternoon,” Kelley says, rolling her eyes. “Cantina will be 21-plus, we won’t have to deal with freshmen.”

“Midtown?” Alex asks, crinkling her nose.

“Don’t be that girl,” Kelley groans. “What, are you too good for Midtown?”

“You said it, not me.”

“Snob.”

“Child.”

“Not to bring this back up, but you went to a frat party a few weekends ago. Tell me how going to a bar that actually cards and keeps freshmen out isn’t better than that.” Alex still looks skeptical. “I’ll buy the first round?”

“First two rounds.”

“Deal.”

“Fine, you win,” Alex sighs, dramatically throwing her hands up. They hear a knock at the door to the court, and Alex looks at the clock on the wall. “Oops, guess we’ve overstayed our welcome,” she says, standing up and extending an arm to Kelley, pulling her up. “So what’s the game plan for Saturday?”

“We can pregame at Ashlyn and Whitney’s apartment.”

“Oh my God, how many of you will there be?”

“You know them both!” Kelley exclaims, opening the door to let Alex out. “Just them and Ali. And Press, obviously. Maybe mine and Ali’s littles, too.”

“I’m going to have to bring a whole crew to balance you guys out.”

“Stop,” Kelley chides, following Alex to her scooter. “Bring Tobin and Sydney and Lindsey and whoever else. The more the merrier.”

“The more hair to hold back over toilets.”

“Debbie Downer.”

“Realistic.”

“Party pooper.”

“Whatever.” Alex sticks out her tongue.

“Great comeback.”

“Too bad I can’t say the same for you in that game,” Alex shrugs.

“Trust me, you really don’t want to start the trash talk with me,” Kelley says. “I’ll make you eat those words so quick.”

“Do you want a ride or not?” Alex asks, nodding to the back of her scooter. Kelley grumbles the whole way home about a rematch, and Alex just laughs and shakes her head. “Bring it on, O’Hara.”

~

Kelley and Alex exchange a subtle fist bump in the back of the Uber they split with half the girls. The pregame at Ashlyn’s went off without a hitch. Sydney and Press are a dangerous team in beer pong, and Lindsey, Emma, and Ali’s little, Sunny, have been making fun of the older girls for being “elderly” ever since Kelley made a face when she saw the cheap vodka they were doing shots with.

“It gets the job done,” Sunny had said with a roll of her eyes, throwing it back like it was nothing.

“That’s my girl!” Ali cheered, and Ashlyn scoffed, reminding Ali that she can’t do a shot of Malibu without holding her nose.

“So who was right?” Kelley asks. “Totally normal.”

“You’re still buying the first three rounds.”

“You said two!”

“Thought I’d get you on that.”

“Nope, sharp as a tack,” Kelley says, dropping her phone on the way out of the car to completely negate her words.

“Hand-eye coordination really isn’t your thing, is it, Kel?” Alex teases.

“We still have a rematch scheduled for next week, Al,” Kelley says, mocking her tone.

“Uh-huh, whatever you say.”

They reconvene with the rest of the girls on the curb. Ali is wearing Ashlyn’s jacket even though it isn’t even close to being cold, it’s just one of her tipsy habits. Sydney pulls everyone in for a selfie before they flash their IDs one by one to the bouncer who is too distracted by their short dresses to even possibly check every date of birth. Ashlyn places a protective hand on Ali’s lower back, and her point is quickly taken.

“Kel, you look hot!” Christen shouts over the music when they step inside, moving through the crowded bar to get to the outside bar where the fun really happens.

“Chris, you’re drunk!” Kelley teases.

“You need to buy Alex a drink,” Christen says, throwing an arm around Kelley’s shoulders. “As a thank you for getting you the hell out of that awful relationship.”

“I’m pretty sure she was going to do that anyway,” Alex says. “First round?”

Kelley steps up to the bar and flashes her American Express at the male bartender, who rushes over to start her tab and pour two shots of tequila.

“Let’s get right to it, then,” Alex laughs, raising her eyebrows. Kelley pours salt on the back of her hand, and Alex holds her own hand out, Kelley sprinkling the salt on it as well.

“Cheers,” Kelley salutes.

“Wait, what are we cheersing to?”

 

“New beginnings.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Fine,” Kelley groans. “To unusual friendships and staying true to yourself, no matter what other people think.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Alex says, smiling genuinely as she clinks her shot glass with Kelley’s. She licks the salt from her hand and throws her head back to down the liquid, wincing and grabbing a lime wedge from Kelley to bring to her mouth as quickly as possible. “Awful.”

“That was top shelf!”

“Doesn’t change a thing about how disgusting it is.”

“Yeah, but now it’s over. Like ripping off a band-aid.”

Alex rolls her eyes, but she can’t help but smile at the comparison. Telling Kelley about Derek was like taking a shot of the strongest tequila. The more she thought about it, the less she wanted to do it, but once she did and the bad taste finally left her mouth, its more pleasant effects start to work their way through her system. She knows there’s more to the analogy, but she stops thinking it through when her head starts buzzing and Lindsey and Syd pull her to the dance floor.

She feels safe and happy surrounded by these girls, even the ones she’s just met, and she’s okay with Kelley being right in this one instance. Not that she’ll ever admit it. When she feels a hand graze her waist, she whips around, ready to tell off any guy who’s come near her, but she just finds Kelley, grinning drunkenly. “Ready for that second round?” she asks, and Alex nods, following her to the bar, where she slides into a seat.

Kelley leans on the bar, and the bartender comes back almost instantly.

“Instant service,” Alex whispers. “He wants you.”

“Shut up.”

“He does! Who wouldn’t?”

Kelley blushes, and Alex takes the drink she slides her way, this one some combination of whiskey and something sweet and sour.

“Cheers!” Alex says, but Kelley isn’t lifting her drink. She’s not even looking at Alex. “What—” Alex turns to follow her gaze, and then she sees him. “Derek.” Hearing his name seems to shake Kelley from her own little world, and she comes back to reality. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “Fine.” Her hand is shaking when she lifts her plastic cup to Alex’s, though. Her gaze follows Derek as he approaches the bar on the other side, directly across from them. It’s only a matter of time before he sees them.

Alex thinks fast, or maybe she doesn’t think at all. It’s too foggy for her to know, really. All she knows is the next thing she does is set her drink down and take Kelley’s face in her hands.

“Kiss me,” she says.

“Wh—what?”

“Let him eat his heart out,” Alex says, pulling Kelley’s face toward her own.

Kelley’s lips, which were previously numb from the alcohol, tingle and burn when they connect with Alex’s. Alex’s arms snake around her neck, and it’s really Alex leading the way, her lips massaging Kelley’s, her head turning to the right as she parts her lips to run her tongue across Kelley’s teeth. Kelley is sure she can feel every last one of her nerve endings from her eyelids to her toes, and she’s never felt more drunk and sober at the same time.

When Alex pulls away, Kelley—embarrassingly enough—whimpers, and Alex smirks, seeing Derek and his friends gawk out of the corner of her eye. They aren’t the only ones, to be fair. Most people sitting at the bar seem to be enthralled by the two chicks making out, though the rest of the area seems blissfully unaware.

Kelley starts to turn her head toward Derek, but Alex grabs her face again, kissing her once more. Alex stands, pulling Kelley by the hand and giving her no choice but to follow as she walks toward the bathroom.

“You can’t let him know we wanted him to be watching,” Alex hisses. “Sorry, I know that was a bit much, but trust me, I did you a favor.”

“Yeah, you don’t have to tell me that,” Kelley says.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Alex asks. “I can get all the girls.”

Yeah, Kelley thinks. But she doesn’t want any of the girls to come along. “No,” Kelley says. “It’s fine. He can’t ruin our fun.”

“That’s the spirit,” Alex says, brightening. “Wait, you’ve got a little—” She licks her thumb, wiping her lip gloss from the side of Kelley’s lips. “Maybe I should have left it.”

“I think he got the picture.”

~

Derek is gone by the time they return to the bar, and Kelley isn't sure if she's relieved. If he were there, at least she knows Alex would be too.

She “shakes it off” with the help of the other girls and Taylor Swift (who, she's relieved to learn, Alex also loves) until Sydney and Press decide they're over it and want to go dancing for real at a club downtown. The younger girls immediately jump on that bandwagon as well. Ali and Ashlyn already retired back to Ashlyn’s place, not that that’s unusual for the pair. Whitney and Tobin vote to head home and go to sleep, and Alex looks to Kelley for a verdict.

As much as Kelley doesn’t want the night to come to an end, she has felt out of sorts ever since seeing Derek, so she opts to go home. There is confusion with the ride situation, because Whitney’s going to her boyfriend’s house on the other side of town. Alex just keeps reiterating that she’s too drunk for this as she alternates between resting her head on Tobin’s and Kelley’s shoulders. In the end, Ryan picks up Whitney, and the other girls take an Uber.

It isn’t until it pulls up to the ADPi house that Alex realizes Kelley is the only one yet to be dropped off. “Stay here!” she says. “I don’t want you having to go home alone.”

Kelley looks at the house, her heart beating wildly as she tries to come up with any excuse not to go inside. Last time she was inside the house was the second to last round of recruitment, when her heart became set. ADPi or die was her mindset. Till they dropped her. Alex was there for prefs, of course. Who wouldn’t pick Alex?

“There are plenty of girls at the house,” Kelley says. “It’s right down the road, it’ll be fine.”

“Don’t be silly,” Alex says. “Syd will probably end up crashing in your room anyway, might as well make it a fair trade. You can borrow my PJs and everything.”

Kelley can’t come up with any reasons to say no, or maybe she just stops looking for them when Alex makes her case, but one way or another, she ends up inside the house. It’s nothing like she remembers. Her memory had the house built up as some magical fantasyland of which she would forever be on the outside looking in.

In reality, it’s not much different from the Kappa house. It’s clean and spacious, but there’s nothing particularly special in it, nothing that makes it better. The girls are the same, some friendly, some standoffish, some obscenely beautiful. It’s like a glass wall has been shattered in front of her eyes, one that just barely obscured her vision. Or maybe that was Alex. When Kelley started viewing Alex as Alex, a friend, she stopped viewing her as Alex, the girl who has everything Kelley ever wanted. And maybe she stopped viewing the things she wanted as determining factors in her happiness.

“Do you want something to drink?” Alex asks, leading Kelley to the kitchen. Tobin goes straight upstairs to go to bed, but Alex doesn't seem particularly tired, and now that they're alone, Kelley isn't either. “Non-alcoholic, of course.”

“Water would be good,” Kelley says.

“You okay?” Alex asks, sliding her a bottle from the fridge and hopping up on a barstool. “You seemed kinda shaken after seeing… you know.”

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “Though to be fair, you kissing me twice was a bit alarming too.”

Alex laughs, turning red. “I'm sorry,” she says. “I just reacted, I guess.”

“I'm not complaining,” Kelley says. “I mean, it freaked him out clearly.”

“Clearly.” Alex pauses, and there's an awkward silence between them. “I'd never done that before.”

“Kissed someone to make their ex jealous?”

“Kissed a girl.”

“Oh.”

“I had a boyfriend for so long, I just never—”

“You could have fooled me.”

“What?”

“It didn't seem like it was your first time,” Kelley says. “That's a compliment.”

“Kinda the same technique as kissing a guy, don't you think?”

“I guess,” Kelley says. “I guess it doesn’t matter if it’s just for show.”

Alex shrugs. “I appreciate the compliment either way.”

Kelley turns when she hears footsteps on the stairs, and two girls she doesn’t recognize tumble into the kitchen, laughing. “Oh,” the smaller one says, stopping short when she sees Alex and Kelley. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“You’re not,” Alex laughs. “Come in. Kel, this is Morgan and Meghan.”

“You can call me Kling,” the shorter one says.

“And you can call me Moe,” the other says. “We’ve heard so much about you!”

“Guys,” Alex groans.

“All good things, I hope,” Kelley says, smirking at Alex.

“Oh my God, she won’t shut up about you,” Kling says. “She said if you weren’t a Kappa she’d want to give you a bid.”

Kelley clears her throat uncomfortably. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m glad she’s found it in her heart to like me anyway.”

“Shut up,” Alex says. “Did you guys need something?”

“We were just going to grab a midnight snack,” Moe says.

“Well we were just going to go to bed,” Alex says. “Kel? You’re more than welcome to hang here with them.”

“No, I’ll come with,” Kelley says, hopping off the barstool and grabbing her water.

“Sorry about them,” Alex says, leading her up the stairs.

“There you go again with the apologies,” Kelley says. “What makes you feel like you have to say sorry for everything?”

“I don’t know,” Alex says. “It’s a reflex, I guess. Ever since you pointed it out I notice a lot more, though.”

“It bums me out,” Kelley says, following Alex into her room, where Tobin is asleep on her top bunk over Alex’s bed. Her voice drops to a whisper. “You’re awesome, and I don’t think you realize that.”

“You think too highly of me,” Alex says. “Don’t worry about her, she could sleep through an atomic bomb.”

“Maybe you don’t think highly enough of yourself.”

“Maybe not.”

“Did your boyfriend?”

“What?”

“Sorry,” Kelley says, then she laughs at herself. “Look, now I’m saying it.”

“He loves me,” Alex says quietly. “Loved me. Before.”

“I know,” Kelley says. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, you’re right,” Alex says. “Just because he loved me doesn’t mean he always treated me perfectly. He was great, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade our time together for the world. And he was the best first love I could have asked for. But I outgrew him. I think some part of me knew it was time to move on and I could do better.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was insecure sometimes,” Alex says. “I know it wasn’t my fault for going away for college, you know, I always wanted to do that. But it was hard. I met people, and he didn’t always like that. So yeah, maybe I always had to explain myself and reassure him. Maybe I’m not over it yet.”

“I get that,” Kelley says. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sure he’s wonderful.”

“He is,” Alex says. “Was. Whatever. But for the record, you can do better too. Way better.”

“Yeah,” Kelley says, then she sighs. “Can we talk about something other than boys? Like literally anything.”

“Yeah, of course,” Alex says. “Let’s start with what you wear to bed. I’ve got T-shirts, pajamas, tank tops. Anything has to be more comfortable than that.” She nods to Kelley’s tight dress. “Take your pick.”

“I’ll take a T-shirt and pajama bottoms,” Kelley says. Alex crinkles her nose.

“I can give you running shorts,” Alex says, shimmying out of her own dress and throwing on an oversized tank top. “I can’t wear pants to bed. I hope that doesn’t weird you out.”

“Of course not,” Kelley laughs. “We both live in sorority houses. Honestly I don’t wear pants to bed either usually, but if I’m going to be sleeping in your friend’s bed and I hardly know her…”

“Oh, you’re not sleeping in her bed, you’re sleeping in mine.” Alex tosses her a T-shirt, which Kelley gladly accepts before letting her words sink in.

“Wait, what?”

“No! Not like that. I mean, like, I’m sleeping in Syd’s bed. Sorry, she’s super weird about that. God, first I stick my tongue down your throat and now I’m asking you to sleep in my bed, after tonight you’re never going to want to talk to me again.”

“I’ve had far worse propositions.”

“Me too,” Alex laughs. “Although I guess one of them led me to you, so maybe it wasn’t so bad in the end.”

“Was it that bad?” Kelley asks, not wanting to know the answer, but also desperately needing to know.

“Kel…”

“No, I want to know,” she says, almost convincing herself.

“It was fine,” Alex says. “At the time. Before I knew.”

“Did you…”

“Yeah,” Alex says, and she thanks God for the dim lighting so Kelley can’t see how red she is.

“Okay,” Kelley says. “Well, good.”

“Good?”

“I mean, if you were going to fuck my boyfriend, I’m glad you at least got something out of it I never did.”

“Never?” Alex gasps.

“Okay, that’s not fair, I did a few times,” Kelley says. “Not consistently.”

“For two years?”

“I mean, I could do it myself,” Kelley says, shrugging. Years of sorority life made her immune to embarrassment when talking about sex stuff.

“Did you have boyfriends before him?”

“No,” Kelley says immediately. “I never—no.”

“Was he your first?”

“No.”

“Oh,” Alex says, knowing better than to dig. When Kelley wanted to share, she would. Alex knows that much by now. “I mean, hopefully the next guy will carry his weight.”

“It wasn’t his fault, he tried,” Kelley says. “I just faked it a lot.”

“You poor thing.”

Kelley laughs. “I learned my lesson, trust me.”

“I bet,” Alex says, pulling back Syd’s blankets and crawling into bed. “Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m okay,” Kelley says, gingerly slipping beneath the sheets of Alex’s perfectly made bed. It’s one of the coziest beds she’s ever been in, and it’s warm, as if it hasn’t been empty all day. It’s pretty much the bed equivalent of Alex herself.

“Hey, Kel?” Alex whispers.

“Yeah?”

 

“I meant what I said way back the first time we met. I really don’t do that usually. Hook up with random guys, I mean.”

“I know, but it would be okay if you did.”

“Yeah, but still, I’m—”

“Don’t say it,” Kelley warns, and Alex stops. They’re silent for a few moments before Kelley speaks up again. “Hey, Al?”

“Yeah?” She’s sleepier now, Kelley can hear it in her voice.

“If anyone had to be the catalyst in ending my relationship, I’m glad it was you.”

Alex smiles. “In that case, I’m not sorry at all.”

Chapter Text

October in Gainesville isn’t like October anywhere else. The good things are there, like pumpkins and corn mazes and hayrides, but so are the bad things: like midterms.

“Are you sure you can’t go?” Alex asks again, and Kelley can hear her desperation through the phone.

“I would if I could, you know that,” Kelley says. “You’ll be fine, all your friends are going to be there.”

“Well yeah, but they’re all bringing dates,” Alex whines. “I don’t want to be the awkward one out. And I’m scared.”

ADPi has its annual grab-a-date event to a haunted corn maze tonight, and Alex has been trying to convince Kelley to join her all week. To be fair, Kelley sort of agreed at first before becoming completely overwhelmed with everything on her plate. She didn’t want to tell Alex no, but Alex was understanding. For the most part.

“Aw, does the wittle baby need someone to protect her from the monsters?” Kelley teases.

“Shut up.”

“Just get a date, there are at least a hundred guys who would jump at the chance.” She can imagine the way Alex’s nose is crinkling in disgust.

“They’re all pervs who will use any opportunity to get in a girl’s pants,” Alex says. “I went to one formal freshman year, and I will never do it again. Other people bring girls as dates all the time to avoid that.”

“You’re going to have fun. And I’m going to see your Instagrams later and hate my life and make you feel sorry for me, so just be ready.”

“This is going to suck,” Alex groans.

“Not as much as it’s going to suck when I fail all my midterms because you’re keeping me on a study break way longer than I intended.”

“You called me!”

“Not the point. Go have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Do we have plans?”

Kelley thinks about it. “Oh, I guess not. I just figured we see each other like every day.”

“Yeah, except today,” Alex reminds her. “God, why do we have to be so codependent?”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Like I said, you had fifteen minutes for a study break and you spent them calling me.”

“And getting coffee!”

“My point remains.”

“Fine,” Kelley concedes, desperate to get off the phone. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

~

Alex really does consider her options. Sydney offers to hook her up with some guy who’s “like, decently cute but also maybe gay,” and Tobin offers to go with her instead of playing her weekly game of pick-up at the soccer fields, but Alex turns them both down. Syd accuses her of just wanting an excuse to complain (not that she can talk, being queen of the divas and all), and Alex shrugs and accepts that maybe that’s it.

She resigns to her fate of being a lone wolf on what’s supposed to be a fun night out with apple cider (spiked) and fall festivities, and decides to make the most of it by picking out a cute fall-themed outfit of a flannel top, jeans, and boots that she’s going to sweat her ass off wearing. But despite everything she does to psych herself up, when the bus leaves, Alex can’t bring herself to get on it.

She tries Skyping her parents (eating dinner), FaceTiming Abby (busy), cleaning her room, watching a movie, and eventually even doing homework, but nothing sticks. Finally, she throws her study materials in her bag and jumps on her scooter, making her way to the library.

Kelley’s on the second floor, she’s sure of it. It’s a quiet floor, but not completely silent to the point that it’s creepy, and Kelley likes sitting by the window, so it only takes Alex one right turn coming off the escalator to find her. She has her headphones in, and she’s biting her lip in concentration, so she doesn’t see Alex till she’s standing right over her.

“What are you doing here?” Kelley asks, probably a little too loudly for the library. She takes an earbud out, realizing she might have been a bit loud.

“I came to study.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be at your grab-a-date?”

“I didn’t have a date to grab.”

“So you’re studying instead? I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

“Shut up, I study,” Alex says, sticking her tongue out as she sits down in the seat across from Kelley. Kelley tries to clear the desk off, realizing she’s spread out all over it. “I’m here to help. But truth be told, I kind of missed you.”

“So sweet.”

“I’m serious! After you pointed it out that we see each other every day, it started to feel weird that I hadn’t seen you. And I know you’re stressed, so I brought desserts. Stressed spelled backwards, of course.” She pulls her computer out of her bag, followed by a package of double stuffed Oreos.

“Yes, my hero!” Kelley says, ripping it open and taking out a cookie. “Oh my God, you’re too good.”

“If you would have been patient I would have gone downstairs to Starbucks to get us milk,” Alex says, rolling her eyes. “I’ll be right back. Watch my stuff.”

“No, I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder,” Kelley teases.

“I’ll kill you,” Alex says, pulling out her phone as she walks toward the escalator. A picture of Abby fills the screen as she gets a call from her. “Hey! What’s up?”

“Oh, I saw you tried to FaceTIme me,” Abby says. “I can’t FaceTime, but I can talk. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, of course, just bored,” Alex says. “But it’s fine, I’m at the library now.”

“Why?”

“Um, it’s midterms?”

“Isn’t grab-a-date tonight?”

“Well yeah, but I didn’t have a date.”

“So? When has that stopped you?”

“You were always my unofficial date when you were here!” Alex reminds her. “I was going to be all alone. Cheney and A-Rod have boyfriends, Syd has a boy toy situation, Lindsey has some like double date thing with Rose, so it would have been super awkward.”

“So you’re at the library alone instead?”

“I’m not alone, I’m with Kelley.”

“Is insurance going to cover that surgery?”

“What?”

“To separate you two. You’re practically conjoined.”

“Funny,” Alex says. “She has a hard major, so her midterms are really stressful. She was going to come with me tonight, but she had to study. She has an exam tomorrow and two the next day, so she’s really overwhelmed.”

“And you showed up with candy of some sort and a willingness to help.”

“Oreos,” Alex says, slightly annoyed at how well Abby knows her. She hates being predictable.

“So close.”

“I need to go pretty soon,” Alex says. “Is everything good with you?”

“Yeah, perfect,” Abby says. “What about you?”

“All good.”

“Can I say something and you promise you won’t get mad at me?”

“When has that ever stopped you from speaking your mind?”

“Fair enough. I haven’t met Kelley, and I don’t know anything about her except what I hear from you which is obviously all great, I just want you to be careful.”

“Of what?” Alex asks defensively.

“Not be careful of her!” Abby exclaims, realizing how her words could have been misconstrued. “Careful of yourself. You’re such a giver, and you pour so much of yourself into the people you love. You did it with Serv, but you were so busy pouring out that you forgot to let yourself get filled back up. I just don’t want you to run dry again.”

“I know,” Alex says. She’s had this conversation with Abby so many times it’s practically ritual. “She’s a really good friend, though. She would do the same for me.”

“I believe you,” Abby says. “And I’m excited to meet her next time I’m there. But she better be prepared to share you with me.”

“Don’t be silly,” Alex says. “Listen, I have to go. I’m in line at Starbucks. I’m glad I got to talk to you though!”

“Me too,” Abby says. “Tell your girlfriend I said hi.”

“Ha ha,” Alex says sarcastically. “Talk to you later.” When she hangs up, she sees a text from Kelley (who programmed a dancing woman emoji next to her name in Alex’s phone, of course).

“Can you get me a water please while you’re down there? You da best!” She caps it off with a kissy face emoji, and Alex makes a note to herself to tell her the funny thing Abby said about being her girlfriend, but by the time she gets back upstairs, she’s talked herself out of it, not sure Kelley would find it quite so funny.

~

Kelley passes her midterms with flying colors, as Alex always knew she would. The first thing she does on Friday when she finishes her last midterm is come straight to the ADPi house and pass out in Alex’s bed. That wasn’t her plan, of course. The plan was to come over and lay by the pool and maybe go for a run or something—anything that would relax Kelley before a weekend filled with parties.

Alex tries to move about the room quietly as to not disturb Kelley, but eventually, her nap looks too good to pass up, and Alex joins her, curling into a ball in the space Kelley leaves open. It’s well past dusk when they finally wake up, and the room is completely dark. Sydney and Tobin must have each come and gone at some point, because things are moved, but Kelley and Alex were so knocked out they hadn’t noticed.

“I don’t want to move,” Kelley groans.

“Me neither,” Alex agrees, stretching her body down the bed, her muscles tight from sleeping so hard.

“I’m sorry, I was totally hogging your covers,” Kelley says. “Here.” She lifts the comforter off of her to allow Alex to get under the blankets.

“It’s okay,” Alex says, but she is too sleepy still to resist the coziness of her bed, which is warm from both of them having slept in it for hours.

“Are we lame if we don’t go out tonight?”

“We’re seniors, we can do anything we want.”

“You’re so smart.”

“Okay, little miss environmental engineer.”

“Whatever.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Probably, but going downstairs seems like so much more trouble than it’s worth.”

“This is why we’re best friends.” Kelley turns to Alex, and it’s still dark, but Alex can see her smile. “What?”

“You said we’re best friends.”

“Well duh,” Alex says. “The only other people I hang out with as much are my roommates, and I don’t even see them as much as you.”

“I know, Christen has been giving me so much shit about how Tobin and I ought to trade places with how much I’m here and she’s there.”

“Does it ever blow your mind how two months ago we were complete strangers?”

“All the time,” Kelley says. “Especially when I think about how much I hated you on that first day.”

“And how you called me a slut.”

“Stop,” Kelley whines, burying her face in Alex’s pillow. “I know that was horrible.”

Alex stretches her arms over her head, her bones cracking, and she lets out a sigh. “I think the weirdest thing is how we know so much about each other, like you know all about Serv and I know all about Derek, but we weren’t even in each other’s lives when those relationships were going on. And they were such huge parts of our lives.”

“Yeah.”

“I know it sounds weird, but in a way, I feel like I’m just in this brand new chapter of my life, and Serv was like the main character, or at least the main supporting role up until this summer, but now it’s like my girlfriends are taking that place.”

“Like Taylor’s squad?”

“Exactly.”

“Real talk, though, it’s awesome to have supportive people in your life, but what happens when you graduate?” Kelley props her head up, leaning on her elbow to face Alex.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you have to learn how to be your own person. I think breaking up with Serv was probably a huge step in the right direction, but when we have to go out in the real world and be on our own, it’s really hard if you’re always relying on the people around you.” Kelley lays back down, her hands folded on her chest as she thinks about the thing she never lets herself think about anymore. “When I was in high school, my best friend, Ann, and I were inseparable. And, well, long story short, we had a falling out at the end of our senior year, and I was completely miserable.”

“That’s horrible,” Alex says. “What happened?”

“We just got into a big fight. And there was like a whole month between the fight and graduation where I was in hell. I would just go to school and come home. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t have any extracurriculars, I literally just counted down the days till my sister would be home from college, and I just hung out with her and my family until I finally left for college.”

“Kel, I’m so sorry that happened,” Alex breathes. “I think I did a little bit of that this summer after the break-up. I was alone a lot, but when I came back to school I instantly felt more comfortable having those people around. And of course meeting you and having you as, like, my person.”

“Your person?” Kelley laughs.

“You know, that person you go to when you’re happy or sad or stressed or worried and you know that they’ll know what to do, whether they need to cheer you up or just let you vent or distract you.”

“That’s me?”

“Duh,” Alex says, tilting her head so it’s on Kelley’s shoulder.

“You’re that person for me too,” Kelley says. “But that means holding each other accountable to not relying on each other too much, right?”

“Does that mean not hanging out every day?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Does that mean getting out of bed at any point in the near future?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then I’m in,” Alex agrees. “Pinky promise.” She sticks her pinky out, and Kelley links hers around it.

~

When Kelley wakes up the next morning, she’s pleasantly surprised that she slept well, given she and Alex shared a twin bed. Such a feat usually requires plenty of maneuvering and kicking and blanket stealing, but they managed to sleep soundly.

When she becomes more aware of her surroundings, she realizes Alex is still fast asleep, arms around Kelley’s waist and head nuzzled in the crook of her neck. Kelley’s arm hangs comfortably around Alex. Kelley can’t tell where her legs end and Alex’s begin because they’re all tangled up together and oh, Kelley thinks. That’s why this is so comfortable. They’re cuddling.

Kelley suddenly realizes her urgent need to pee, and she tries to gently extract her limbs from Alex’s, but Alex stirs, blinking her eyes open.

“Hey,” she says, her voice even raspier than usual.

“Good morning,” Kelley says. “I have to pee.”

“Okay,” Alex laughs, stretching her limbs.

Kelley practically runs to the bathroom, her legs shaking with how full her bladder is, but she can’t figure out why she’s still shaking after she flushes. She washes her hands and gauges it must be pretty early for nobody to be in the bathroom yet. She splashes her face with water and brushes her teeth with one of the spare toothbrushes in the toiletries cabinet before returning to the room, crossing paths with Alex on the way.

“If you’re hungry, there are muffins and bagels downstairs,” Alex says cheerily. “Just make sure you save me some.”

She is hungry, especially after skipping dinner last night to extend her nap with Alex, apparently all the way into the morning. She thinks back to what they talked about last night, but more importantly, what they didn’t talk about. She’s been avoiding the topic like the plague, but now the guilt weighs on her. Alex is the person she’s supposed to be able to tell anything, and Alex has told her some of her deepest secrets and struggles, and yet Kelley’s keeping one of the biggest things from her.

“You didn’t have to wait for me!” Alex says, bouncing into the kitchen. She shakes Kelley out of her thoughts. “Are you still tired after sleeping…” She checks the time on the clock on the wall. “Almost 15 hours?”

“No, I feel fully rested,” Kelley says honestly, grabbing a muffin from the basket on the table. “Can we eat outside? It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, of course,” Alex says, taking two bottles of water from the fridge. “Fresh air probably would be a great idea after our marathon nap. If napping were an Olympic event, I’m pretty sure we’d get a gold.”

“Synchronized napping? I think it’s a great idea.”

“Yes!” Alex exclaims, clapping her hands together as she sets her breakfast on the table and sits on the wicker couch on the sun porch outside. Kelley sits next to her, curling her feet underneath her, and Alex sighs with contentment. “It really is beautiful.”

“Lucky us,” Kelley says, only half-paying attention. “Okay, listen, I need to talk to you about something. And it’s probably something I should have told you a long time ago, but I was scared and—”

“Kel, relax, it’s me,” Alex says. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. I just haven’t been completely honest with you, and I want that to end now.”

“You’re freaking me out a little,” Alex says, the concern on her face evident.

“You know how I told you about how my best friend and I had a falling out in high school?”

“Yeah, Ann,” Alex says, nodding to prove she was listening yesterday.

“Right. That wasn’t the whole truth.” Kelley takes a deep breath, looking anywhere but at Alex.

“Hey, look at me,” Alex says gently, touching Kelley’s hand with a softness and warmth that gives her bed a run for its money. “What’s happening?”

“We didn’t have a falling out,” Kelley says. “It was more like… like a break-up.”

“Yeah, that’s what it sounded like.”

“No, I mean—it wasn’t like a break-up. It was a break-up. Ann was my girlfriend. My first serious relationship.”

“Okay,” Alex says, her eyes still narrow with worry. “So what’s going on?”

“That’s all,” Kelley says. “I just thought you should know.”

“Do you want to talk about it? The break-up, I mean.”

“Not really, it’s in the past,” Kelley says. “She was my first love, but I wasn’t ready for it to be real. Like, to come out. My family, I guess they knew, but I was scared to tell them. You know, we went to church every Sunday and all that.” She laughs. “That’s where we met, actually. Sunday school when we were really little and I had just moved there. She lived right down the street, and we just grew up together, we were best friends. I don’t remember a time before I knew Ann, honestly.”

“So you broke up because you didn’t want to come out?” Alex asks, her voice soft.

“I guess. Kind of,” Kelley says. “She wanted to go to prom together. It’s not like it would have really shocked very many people. We spent all our time together and neither of us ever had boyfriends or anything. I wanted to go to prom with her, just not like that. And she kind of gave me an ultimatum, go as dates or not at all. It was hard for her because she wanted to tell people, tell her parents, stop living in secret, but she cared about me too much to do that before I was ready.”

“That must have been really hard.”

“It was. Like I said, the end of my senior year was the hardest time of my life. She was so happy because she could finally tell her parents, who knew all along. She didn’t tell anyone else, to protect me, but she wanted to live openly and honestly in college. I guess part of me wanted the same, but I was confused and terrified. My parents suspected, but it wasn’t until Erin came home from college that she convinced me to tell them.”

“But they’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “My mom was mostly upset because she could see what a hard time I was having and she felt like she couldn’t do anything to help because I didn’t tell her what was really going on.”

“I’m so sorry you went through that,” Alex says. “And I’m glad you felt like you could tell me. But is there a reason you didn’t feel like you could tell me before?”

“I haven’t told anyone here really,” Kelley says. “Ali and Ashlyn know, of course. A few girls in Kappa. Press, obviously, Hope, Emma, but that’s really it.”

“So what happened between high school and college that made you change your mind about living openly?”

Kelley can tell Alex is nervous about these questions, so she smiles to put her at ease, but breaks eye contact before answering. “I don’t know, really.”

“Yes you do.” Alex’s eyes are big, pleading. “That’s your tell. When you’re not telling the truth, you can’t look at me and you hold onto your wrist like that.” Kelley looks down, and sure enough, her fingers are wrapped around her wrist. “Did something happen?”

“I don’t think I ever told you this, but when I was rushing, I decided on like day one that I wanted to join ADPi. I just felt so welcomed and I connected really well with all the girls I talked to, and I don’t know, I felt like I belonged or something.” Alex smiles sadly, and Kelley knows she’s thinking about her constant declaration that she wishes they had met so long ago. “Anyway, it was the round before prefs, and the girl rushing me was super open about a lot of things, and I felt really comfortable, so I told her about Ann. And two days later I found out I didn’t get asked back for prefs.”

“Kelley,” Alex breathes.

“It’s okay, everything happens for a reason,” Kelley says. “I just—I couldn’t help but think that had something to do with it.

“I guess it would depend who you talked to,” Alex says. “Who was it? That’s horrible.”

“I don’t even remember her name,” Kelley says. “But it’s okay. Like I said, everything happens for a reason.”

“Yeah,” Alex says. “So, you kind of did your own thing for a year, but then you started dating Derek. So are you, like—”

“Bisexual?” Kelley offers. “Honestly, I don’t know. That was part of why I didn’t want to come out back then. Ann was so sure that she was a lesbian, and I felt like I couldn’t be sure if I’d never even dated a guy.”

“So you gave Derek a chance, and it worked. Well, at least for a while.”

“I don’t know,” Kelley sighs. “I never felt with him anywhere near what I felt with Ann. And the sex was so different. I mean, obviously, but—” She pauses, taking a deep breath. “When you said you, you know, had an orgasm when you hooked up with him, all I could think was ‘why can he get some random girl on a random drunken hookup to that point and not me?’ And then I realized maybe I was the problem.”

“Kel, you can’t think of it that way.”

“I can,” Kelley says, nodding. “I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out, and it starts with taking responsibility instead of blaming other people. If I was with him for so long knowing deep down that it wasn’t real—at least not as real as I know it can be—then it’s partially my fault.”

“He was the one who cheated.”

“I know, and that was awful of him,” Kelley says. “And of course I loved him, and of course I was hurt, I just don’t know how much of it was romantic. I can’t explain away the relief I felt after we broke up without considering that maybe I’m just not into guys.”

“That’s okay if you aren’t,” Alex says. “You don’t have to be. You were in love and you know how it can feel, and you deserve to feel that way all the time.”

A wave of calm washes over Kelley as she realizes how easy it is to talk to Alex, and how foolish she had been to wait so long to be honest with her. The last time things had come this easily in a relationship, the last time she had fallen asleep and woken up feeling inexplicably warm, safe, and loved, the last time she had a “person” like the one Alex described last night was when she was with Ann. And it feels unbelievably good to have that again.

“Promise me you’ll never waste your time with someone who makes you feel any less than that.” Alex holds up her pinky finger for Kelley.

“Pinky promise.”

Chapter Text

The thing about going to a football school is even when you don’t care all that much for football, it doesn’t matter because the world revolves around it anyway.

The only thing Alex can find remotely worth getting excited about for homecoming weekend is the amount of money parents and ADPi alumnae donate to Dance Marathon and philanthropy when they’re in town. Her parents have only visited a handful of times, and being that homecoming is so close to Thanksgiving, when she’ll go home, it’s never during this weekend.

Kelley’s parents are coming for the game, and Kelley has informed her that they’re both expected to be at their tailgate at 8 a.m., limiting their ability to get too wild and crazy Friday night, but not completely eliminating it. No class on Friday for the parade means the party really starts Thursday night, anyway, which is how Alex finds herself pregaming at Ashlyn and Whitney’s apartment with Kelley, Syd, Tobin, Press, HAO and Ali. There are more girls coming, apparently, but Alex would be surprised if there is enough alcohol for them, given how much they’ve already consumed.

Ali laughs as she Snapchats Kelley and Syd dancing to Beyonce, but the music is suddenly interrupted by an incoming call on Alex’s phone, which was providing the music.

“Boo!” Kelley yells as Alex answers the phone, rolling her eyes.

“Abby!” Alex says. “What’s up?”

“Where are you?” Abby practically yells, and Alex can tell she’s somewhere loud.

“At my friends’ apartment, where are you?”

“I’m at Pike! I went to the house and they told me you’d left already!”

“You’re in town?” Alex exclaims. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Duh, it was supposed to be a surprise,” Abby says. “Get your ass over here!”

“We’re coming soon,” Alex says. “I’m with Tobin and Syd and some of the Kappas.”

“Like Kelley?”

“Yes,” Alex sighs. “So you can finally get off my back.”

“Sorry!” Abby laughs. “It’s just weird for me that you’re always be hanging out with people I don’t know!”

“What can I say? New year, new me.”

“You’re so drunk,” Abby says. “See you soon!”

When Alex hangs up, Kelley is right behind her, leaning her chin on Alex’s shoulder. “Can we have the music back please, Queen Alex?”

“Just a few more songs, then can we leave?” Alex asks.

“We’re still waiting for Crystal and Sunny,” Ali says. “But if you guys want to go ahead, we can meet you.”

“Whatever you want,” Kelley says to Alex, who nods.

“Yeah, let’s go,” she says.

“I can’t believe you can’t even make decisions with consulting each other,” Syd teases.

“What can you expect from the girls who went for Halloween as Mary-Kate and Ashley?” Press asks.

“Hey, that was awesome,” Kelley retorts. “Alex rocks boho chic.”

“We know, you told us like 80 times that night,” Ashlyn says.

“Okay, the Uber is two minutes away, so anyone who’s coming with us, now or never.”

Sydney downs the rest of her drink, setting the cup down on the coffee table with a sense of accomplishment. “Done! I’ll go.”

“Me too!” HAO says. Her boyfriend, Dave, is staying at his old fraternity house for the weekend, which is really the majority of the reason they’re even going. Pike is nobody’s favorite house, mostly because it’s composed of 90 percent tools and douchebags, but Press is the reigning Pike “Dream Girl” (a fact Tobin will never let her live down) after winning their ridiculous philanthropy pageant last year, so the Kappas still do social things with them to support her, and everyone else goes for the free booze.

Tobin and Press, ever the homebodies, hang back with the other girls. The reason they’ve hit it off so well, Alex and Kelley have determined, is because they’re both adventurous introverts who like people. Both have to be practically forced out of the house for parties, but they have no problem waking up at an ungodly hour to hike (well, as much as you can hike in Florida) Payne’s Prairie to see the sunrise.

The difference is that Tobin will count down the minutes till she can leave a party if she’s bored, but once Press is out, she’s never bored. Luckily, they get along so well that if Press is having fun, so is Tobin, which makes Alex and Kelley’s jobs as their extroverted best friends a lot easier.

“Ali probably just said that to get us out of the house so they could make out,” HAO says when they get into the car. “Too bad the other girls didn’t get the hint.”

“When has that ever stopped them?” Kelley laughs. “Last year at formal they snuck off to the bathroom together at least three times. Not even subtle.”

“Don’t even lie, you’d do the same if you were gay,” Syd says, missing the sly smirk between Kelley and Alex. “Speaking of, so excited Abby’s here.”

“Wait, how is that speaking of?” Kelley asks.

Alex looks at her, eyes wide. “You didn’t know my big is gay?”

“Uh, no, I think I would have remembered that.”

“For as much as you stalked Alex on social media, you’d think you’d have figured that out,” HAO laughs.

“I mean, I’ve seen her, I just don’t jump to conclusions!” Kelley insists.

“She’s awesome, you’ll love her,” Syd says.

“She’ll love you,” Alex adds.

It isn’t hard to find Abby when they get to the party, considering her 5’11” stature and recently bleached hair, so Alex runs up to her, more like a gallop in her wedges and short dress.

“Baby horse!” Abby greets, picking her up and swinging her around. She always teased Alex for the way she runs, especially when she’s been drinking.

“You need to start telling me when you’re coming!” Alex says.

“But it’s so much more fun to surprise you. Syd!” she exclaims, hugging Sydney, who’s come up behind Alex.

Alex turns to see Kelley and HAO, who are both already holding a drink in each hand.

“Got you a vodka soda,” Kelley says, handing her a cup.

“You’re the best,” Alex says, taking a long sip. “Abby, this is Kelley, and this is HAO. Well, Heather, but everyone calls her HAO.”

“Nice to meet you, HAO,” Abby says, hugging HAO. “And Kelley, God, I’ve heard so much about you!” She hugs Kelley tight, and Kelley’s eyes seek out Alex’s over Abby’s shoulder.

“Okay, let her breathe,” Alex laughs.

“Are you guys going to be on my flip cup team or what?” Abby asks.

~

Abby and Kelley bond a little better than Alex wanted them to, mostly because it results in her being kicked off their team when it comes time for beer pong. She occupies herself in other ways, though, mostly by doing shots and taking selfies with Tobin and Press on the couches downstairs.

When Kelley and Abby finally finish their reign of dominance and retire from the pong tables to locate their friends, Alex is well past the point of tipsy, and her Snapchat is well past the point of acceptable. She’s in the middle of taking a selfie with Ashlyn while wearing Ashlyn’s Snapback backwards when Kelley intercepts, grabbing her phone.

“How many drinks?” Kelley asks, and Alex holds up four fingers sheepishly. Kelley shakes her head, pulling open Alex’s Snapchat and deleting the pictures she wouldn’t want the standards board of ADPi to see. “You’ll thank me later.”

“Come here, take a selfie with me,” Alex whines, pulling Kelley, who’s had even more to drink but has a higher tolerance, down onto her lap. She holds the phone, but Kelley steadies it with her hand as Alex kisses her cheek, Kelley squeezing her eyes shut and laughing. “Put a cute caption.” Kelley takes the phone back and adds the dancing twins emoji before posting it.

“That’s enough snapping for you,” Kelley says, taking the hat off Alex and giving it back to Ashlyn.

“Hey there, sloppy,” Abby teases, sitting next to Alex. “Kelley and I are best friends now.”

Alex pouts. “No, you can’t replace me.”

“Like you replaced me?” Abby says, faking offense.

“You’re both my best friends,” Alex says, wrapping an arm around Abby’s neck to pull her close. “But like, Kelley’s my best friend.”

“Your person,” Kelley adds.

“Right, my person,” Alex slurs, turning back to Abby. “And you’re my best friend. And so are Tobin and Syd and everyone else.”

“Everyone?” Press asks.

“Yes, even you, Presi,” Alex says. “Even though you always wake me up way too early when I sleep over.”

“I try to be quiet!” Press whines. “Tobin and Kelley just sleep so soundly that I forget you’re a light sleeper.”

“How often do you stay there?” Abby asks.

Alex shrugs. “I don’t know, a few nights a week. It’s better than staying at the house because Kelley has a full bed.”

“We do make the twin thing work though,” Kelley notes. “But a full bed is obviously more comfortable for two.”

“Yeah, in my experience that’s the case,” Abby says, looking between the two. Alex’s head is resting on Kelley’s shoulder, reading over her shoulder as she clicks through Snapchat. “I have to pee, do you want to come with?”

“Yeah, Kel?” Alex asks, getting up.

“Yeah,” Kelley says, following after them, clearly missing the fact that Abby wants to talk to Alex alone.

They take turns in the single-stall restroom, and when Kelley is inside, Abby takes her chance. “How long have you been in a relationship with her?”

“What?” Alex asks. “What are you talking about?”

“You stay at her place a few nights a week, you can’t even go to the bathroom without each other, and you’re obviously head over heels.”

“You’re insane.”

“I know you, and I know what I see,” Abby says. “I’m not upset about anything except that you didn’t tell me.”

“Because there’s nothing to tell! We’re friends—best friends.”

“Alex, you’re my best friend,” Abby says. “And you know when I was with Sarah, she was my best friend too. But she was more than that.”

Kelley emerges from the bathroom, bringing their conversation to a halt.

“I think I’m ready to go home,” Alex says, suddenly feeling the last vodka soda catch up to her.

Kelley’s brows knit together in concern. “Do you feel okay?”

“Fine, I just—I should go. You can stay if you aren’t ready.”

“No, I’m ready,” Kelley says. “Abby, coming with?”

“It’s cool,” Abby says. “I want to hang for a while. You guys go ahead.”

“I’ll get an Uber and see who else wants to split,” Kelley says, heading back to the common area.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Abby says. “I just thought you were keeping something from me, and I didn’t like it. It’s weird to be gone all the time and not know what’s going on in your life. I just—I want updates. And she’s a big part of your life and I barely know anything about her.”

“I know,” Alex says, head still spinning from the alcohol. “I love you for that. But I promise, when anything happens in my love life, you’ll be the first to know.”

Abby nods, hugging her. “Text me when you get home safe.”

“I will, are you staying at the house?”

“Staying at Cheney and A-Rod’s,” Abby says. “Too many alumnae in town. See you tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Alex says. “I’ll be the most hungover one at the parade.”

“I don’t know, I’ll have a few hours on you, I might give you a run for your money.”

“You’re on,” Alex says, smiling.

“Al, car’s here,” Kelley says, walking back to the bathroom to find they haven’t moved. “You ready?”

Alex nods, and Abby follows them out. Because she’s a good friend and because she knows Alex is drunk, she resists the urge to comment on the way Kelley’s arm wraps around Alex’s waist and the way she gets her into the back of the car before they drive off, but she notes it as a told-ya-so moment for “when” anything happens.

~

Alex has stayed over at Kelley’s so many times by now that she doesn’t need help finding pajamas or a toothbrush or a phone charger or anything, so by the time Kelley is back with the water bottles she grabbed from the kitchen, Alex is already all set in her bed, covers pulled up to her chin.

“Comfy?” Kelley teases, tossing her a bottle as she kicks off her shoes and struggles to unzip her dress.

“Here, I’ve got you,” Alex says, sitting up and beckoning Kelley over. Kelley moves her hair so Alex can reach the zipper.

“Thanks,” Kelley says. She unhooks her bra and grabs a T-shirt from her drawer, throwing it on before turning off the light.

“That’s mine, you know,” Alex says when Kelley gets into bed.

“Is not,” Kelley says, looking down. Sure enough, the ADPi letters are emblazoned across her chest. “Dammit.”

“You look cute in it, it’s fine,” Alex says.

“That means a lot coming from you,” Kelley teases. “You feel okay?”

“Yeah, great,” Alex says. “The water helped, thank you.”

“Were you surprised Abby came?”

“Yeah, she’s the best,” Alex says. “I hate surprises, but I always let her get away with it.”

“I really like her, she’s cool.”

“What did you guys talk about?”

“Not much, really, mostly small talk and just general getting to know each other stuff.”

“So did you talk about, like—”

“You? Of course. All good things, I promise.”

“Obviously, I’m a treasure,” Alex says, pressing her palms together under her head as she turns on her side to face Kelley. Her head spins again, and she lies on her back. “I’m still drunk.”

“I can tell,” Kelley laughs. “It’s okay, so am I.”

“So we’re in this together.”

“Would you have it any other way?”

“Nope.” Alex is quiet for a minute, listening to the fan whirl overhead. “I have to ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

“It’s serious.” Alex props herself up on her elbow to prove it, but the way she can’t really focus her eyes or balance might ruin her seriousness. “That night we went out and saw Derek at Cantina, remember that?”

“Yeah.”

“When I—when I kissed you, obviously I didn’t know about you…”

“Liking girls.”

“Right. But ever since you told me, I can’t stop thinking about that.”

“Okay,” Kelley says, not sure where this is going. Her heart starts to race. This is it, she’s sure of it. This is where Alex asks if she has a crush on her and their entire friendship falls to pieces.

“You said you couldn’t tell it was my first time kissing a girl, and I was wondering what that meant.”

“Um, I don’t know,” Kelley says. “It was—you’re a good kisser, I don’t know.”

“So when I kissed you, did you feel anything?”

“Alex,” Kelley sighs. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you. Every time I tell someone it turns into this big thing. Like, a straight girl finds out you like girls and suddenly they get all weird and think you have a crush on them and everything. I just figured you didn’t feel that way, I mean you still sleep over and get changed in front of me and… like, not that I look, I—”

“If the answer’s no, just say it,” Alex says. “I don’t have a problem with you being gay, not even a little bit. It doesn’t change anything between us, that’s why we can cuddle and have sleepovers and whatever and it’s not weird.”

“Some people probably think it is.”

“Fuck them,” Alex says. “All I want to know is if you felt anything when I kissed you.”

“Surprise, mostly,” Kelley says. “I think I was so caught off-guard I didn’t even have time to register that it was happening till it was over.”

“But I kissed you again.”

“And I was still really shocked. And drunk.”

“Well I did.”

“You did what?”

“I liked it. Kissing you.”

“Did you?”

“I don’t know,” Alex sighs. “I’ve just been thinking about it a lot. Do you really not remember?”

“Of course I remember,” Kelley says. “I just don’t—I wasn’t thinking about it being you.”

“What if you were thinking about it being me and you weren’t caught off-guard?” Alex asks.

“I don’t know, Al, why?”

“Because I want to know,” Alex says. She leans forward, capturing Kelley’s lips with her own, her hand caressing Kelley’s face.

Kelley pulls back abruptly. “You aren’t doing much for the not being caught off-guard thing.”

“I’m going to keep kissing you until you get used to it, then,” Alex says, leaning back in.

The kiss begins with soft pecks, both women adjusting their angles to get accustomed to the other. Alex opens her mouth slightly when she goes in for a long, slow kiss, prompting Kelley to open her own. Alex’s hands move to Kelley’s hair, and Kelley’s go to Alex’s hips, pulling her body close, their legs tangling unceremoniously, mirroring their tongues.

Kelley pulls Alex on top of her, and Alex’s hands slide underneath Kelley’s—no, her own—T-shirt, cold against Kelley’s warm stomach and waist. Alex pulls away, her lips moving to pepper kisses along Kelley’s jaw line and neck. Kelley takes the opportunity to breathe and take in what’s happening

“Wait, stop,” Kelley says, taking Alex by the shoulders and pushing her off gently. “You can’t. We can’t.”

“We already did,” Alex says breathlessly. “So, did you feel anything?”

“We’re drunk.”

“I’m not.”

“You are,” Kelley says, pushing hair out of Alex’s face gently. “And remember what happened last time you hooked up with someone drunkenly?”

“What, do you have a secret girlfriend I don’t know about?”

“No, but I don’t think you would have made the same decision sober.”

“Yes or no?” Alex asks. “Did you feel anything?”

“Of course I did,” Kelley says quietly. “But let’s sleep on it.”

She rolls over, lying just inches away from Alex, breathing heavily as she tries to settle her racing heart. She’s still not totally convinced this isn’t just a dream. She had been so busy actively denying any potential feelings for Alex, knowing she’s completely off limits and their friendship is far too important to Kelley to ruin like this. She makes up her mind before she closes her eyes. And then, she sleeps on it.

Chapter Text

Kelley wishes she could say she’s surprised when she rolls over to an empty bed, but she can’t. Alex and all her things are gone, and Kelley groans. “Fuck,” she swears under her breath. Christen’s bed is still perfectly made, so she must not have come home last night, but Kelley knows better than to be worried. Not to mention she has a text from her letting her know she stayed in Alex’s bed at the ADPi house.

She throws her hair up in a bun and goes downstairs, not bothering to put on a bra or pants because why would she? She only thinks about the fact that she’s wearing an ADPi shirt when she gets to the bottom of the stairs and sees a bunch of girls in the kitchen, eating breakfast. She crosses her arms across her chest when Crystal and Steph look up, grunting their hellos.

“Nice shirt,” Carli says between sips of orange juice.

“Alex,” Kelley says, as if it requires explanation.

“Right here,” Alex says from behind her. Her hair is wet, and she’s wearing running shorts Kelley knows she got out of her dresser and the tank top she wore to bed last night. “Sorry, I woke up early so I took a shower and had some breakfast with the girls.”

“Oh, I thought you left,” Kelley says.

“Of course not,” Alex says. “But Crystal might have replaced you as my new favorite Kappa.”

“Not possible,” Kelley says, wondering if this is real, if Alex is really acting this normal the morning after… whatever that was. “Can we, uh—” She nods toward the door to the porch. Alex nods and follows her out.

“Listen, I’m so sorry,” Alex says. “Last night, that was completely unfair of me.”

“No, you were drunk,” Kelley says. “You didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Right,” Alex says, an unreadable look on her face.

“So we’re good,” Kelley says. “All is well. Did you still want to go shopping today?”

“Um, actually, I thought maybe I’d kind of do my own thing today.”

“Oh,” Kelley says, trying to mask her surprise. “Yeah, okay.”

“I just—a little space can’t hurt us, right?”

“Yeah, I need to study anyway,” Kelley says. “See you tonight?”

Alex cringes. “Tomorrow morning? At the tailgate? I just told Abby I’d hang out with her tonight.”

“Sure,” Kelley says. “Tomorrow.”

~

“Shit, how much did you drink last night for the hangover to last all day?” Abby asks Alex when she walks up to the table at Bento, their favorite casual sushi place.

“I look that good?”

“Better,” Abby says. “I ordered for you because the line was getting long.”

“Perfect,” Alex says, trusting Abby completely to know what she’d order herself. When the waiter brings over her favorite spicy roll with tuna, crab, sriracha, and avocado, she knows her trust is perfectly placed. “How did last night end up for you?”

“It was fine, I hung out with Syd and that girl Crystal, who’s a hoot. All those Kappas you’re hanging out with are really cool, I only wish I had spent more time with Kelley, considering how close you two are.”

“Yeah,” Alex says, taking a big sip of water. “About that.”

“I know, I’m sorry for saying all that yesterday,” Abby says. “I was drunk, and it was uncalled for.”

“Drunk minds,” Alex says. “But actually—”

“Secretly I just always thought you’d be a great lesbian.”

Alex laughs, nearly choking on her sushi. “I appreciate that,” she says. “But I kind of wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Alright,” Abby says. “What’s up?”

“I told you I’d tell you if anything happened, and it kinda did last night.”

“Oh my God, what?”

“We… kissed. More like made out, actually.”

“She kissed you?”

“I kissed her.”

“Because of what I said?”

“Maybe,” Alex says. “I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s a little bit because of that. But also I think I really wanted to.”

“So how did she react?”

“Well, she kissed back,” Alex says. “And it was really good.”

“Okay, set the scene. Give me some context, was this in the Uber?”

“In her bed.”

“Damn, you went right for it.”

“Yeah, and she stopped me.”

“Presumably because you were drunk.”

“Or because she didn’t want to kiss me.”

“Any self-respecting lesbian would want to kiss you.”

“Wait, did I tell you that?” Alex asks, eyes wide. “Oh my God, please don’t tell people that, she’ll kill me, she trusted me with that!”

“No, she did. Last night. And don’t worry, I didn’t ask about you, she was just asking me things about dating and my whole college experience.”

“What’d you tell her?”

“Mostly that women are heartbreakers,” Abby says. “But when you find a good one, you have to go for it no matter the risk.”

Alex smiles sadly. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Abby says. “Things are great. I’m more interested in you. This is kind of big. Not in a scary way, just in, like, a do you want to talk about it kind of way.”

“I don’t, really.”

“We don’t have to,” Abby says. “But do you like her? Do you like girls? Or is it just a little post-breakup girl crush?”

“Do those happen?”

“I mean, I’ve had it happen to me,” Abby says. “I dated a girl over the summer who had just ended a long relationship. It lasted a few weeks, lots of sex, some talking, but in the end her heart wasn’t really in it. It’s okay, she wasn’t trying to hurt me, and I don’t think you’re trying to hurt Kelley, but what is it?”

“I don’t think Kelley’s the one in danger of getting hurt,” Alex says quietly. “And this morning she said it’s okay because I didn’t mean anything by it, but like, what if I did?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know!” Alex says, throwing her hands up in frustration. “That’s what today was supposed to be about figuring out. I went for a run and journaled and prayed and spent a lot of time alone just not talking to anyone, and nothing.”

“You prayed?”

Alex shrugs. “I tried, I don’t think I did it right.”

“I don’t think there’s a right way to do it,” Abby laughs. “But hey, whatever works.”

“I just wish it were a little easier to figure out,” Alex says. “I haven’t dated anyone ever. Servando was my only relationship, and I don’t remember even having a crush on him. He was there and he was attractive and liked me, so I dated him. I almost feel like the friendship was what kept me hanging on for so long.”

“So have you ever liked a girl before?”

“I don’t know, when I was with Serv it’s not like I was really looking for anyone, and before that—well there wasn’t anything before that, not even boys when I was younger. My sisters always thought I was a late bloomer because I just never had any interest in boys. I had a lot of friends, though, boys and girls, and I just liked playing with them. I wasn’t into anyone sexually until I was like a year into my relationship with him, and even then, it was mostly just a nice thing we did sometimes. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, I just never thought about it much.”

“So Derek was—”

“I thought he was attractive and I wanted to have sex with him,” Alex says.

“And it felt… good?”

“Until the next morning, yeah,” Alex laughs. “But it was missing the connection I had with Servando. It was basically like doing it myself. Like, physically it felt good, but it wasn’t magic.”

“And with Kelley?”

“We just kissed,” Alex says.

“Still,” Abby says. “How’d it feel?”

“Amazing,” Alex admits. “It was doing something super intimate physically with someone I feel super intimate with emotionally.”

“Yep, you’re gay,” Abby says, and Alex’s jaw drops in shock. “I’m kidding—I mean, I’m not, but it’s your call. I’m just telling you, you like her. My feelings on sexuality are that you can be gay or straight or neither or something in between, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter too much how you define yourself. I’m gay, but it doesn’t mean I feel what you felt with Kelley or what I felt with Sarah about every woman I meet. And if I met a guy who made me feel that way, him being a guy or having a penis wouldn’t stop me. It’s just never happened, and I can’t imagine it ever happening, but did you ever imagine you’d find that with a girl?”

“No, not really,” Alex confesses, wringing her hands. “But if I like her, and if I want to do more of that with her, I don’t want to lose her as a friend.”

“That’s the beautiful thing about being in a relationship with another woman,” Abby says. “I mean, that should be the beautiful thing about any romantic relationship really, getting to be best friends with that person. I know I’m not the best person to advocate relationships at the moment, but just ask Ali and Ashlyn, they seem to have a good thing going.”

“But relationships end.”

“So do friendships, but that doesn’t stop anyone,” Abby says. “Both are incredibly painful, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth going for it.”

“And if she doesn’t feel the same?”

“Your drunk self took care of that by sticking your tongue down her throat,” Abby says. “That ship has sailed, my friend. You can pretend it never happened, you can address it and agree that it’ll never happen again, or you can agree to go for it. The worst thing she can say is no. And if she gets freaked out and runs away, maybe she wasn’t the person you thought she was.”

“That’s easier said than done.”

“Don’t I know it,” Abby says. “Trust yourself, kid. Trust your gut, your heart, God, whatever you’re into these days.”

“I trusted my gut and ended up sleeping with a guy who was in a relationship.”

Abby smirks. “Congratulations on proving my point,” she says. “If you hadn’t done that, there would be no Kelley. At least not in your life. Imagine that.”

~

Alex tosses and turns for a stupidly long time that night, unable to sleep even after a goodnight text exchange with Kelley that she feels ridiculous for feeling calmed by. She’s not sure she ever even entered REM sleep because when she wakes up at 7, she’s alert, but she doesn’t feel fully rested at all.

Tobin and Syd agreed to come to the O’Hara tailgate, but neither one wanted to get up at the crack of dawn, so Alex drives herself to campus on her scooter, glad she had the foresight to wear Spandex shorts under her orange and blue gameday dress. She knows she’s wearing the proper attire for a sorority woman on a gameday, ADPi button and all, but she can’t help but feel slightly out of place among all the families and fans wearing jerseys and jean shorts.

When she sees Kelley, though, that discomfort fades away entirely. Kelley—and a girl she knows is Kelley’s sister, Erin—are wearing similar dresses, and her dad is dressed in a blue polo shirt and seersucker shorts, ever the preppy Southern gentleman.

“Al!” Kelley exclaims, brightening visibly as she walks over to greet Alex. “You’re here!”

“You sound surprised.”

“Just that you’re here so early. I thought that was just when I was going to be dragging you straight out of bed.”

“I said I would be, so of course,” Alex says, smiling as Kelley leads her over to her family.

“Guys, this is Alex,” she says. “Alex, this is my family. Mom—Karen, Dad—Dan, Jerry and Erin.”

“We’ve heard so much about you,” Karen says, greeting Alex with a hug. “I’m sure you know Kelley’s a social butterfly, but even I didn’t think she could possibly make another best friend this late in the game.”

“Kelley also lives to prove us wrong,” Dan says, shaking Alex’s hand firmly. “Would you like something to drink?”

Alex looks to Kelley, who already has a champagne flute filled with champagne and orange juice for her, and she smiles. “Mimosa,” she says. “My drink of choice for 8 a.m.”

“My kind of girl,” Erin says. “You’re going to fit in just fine here.”

And fit in she does, teaming up with Kelley against Jerry and Erin in beer pong and talking about school with Dan and pretending to gossip with Karen about the “inside scoop” on what Kelley’s been up to and hasn’t been telling her family. By noon, the family is ready to make Alex an honorary O’Hara, and Alex couldn’t feel more at home.

“This is making me really ready for Thanksgiving,” Alex says, handing Kelley another drink before sitting in the lawn chair beside her. “I miss this with my family.”

Kelley pouts. “Yeah, but that’s five days we won’t see each other.”

“FaceTime, duh,” Alex says. Kelley grabs her hand and squeezes it quickly, smiling sadly. “Don’t pout, I’ll get emotional.”

“You’re an emotional drunk.”

Alex cringes internally, but tries not to let it show. “I know. I’m sorry.” Kelley raises her eyebrows in a challenge. “I mean, I’m not sorry.”

“That’s better,” Kelley says. “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but just know with me, you never need to apologize.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Did you have fun with Abby?”

“Yeah, lots,” Alex says. “She said she might stop by, but she’s probably drunk by now and will totally forget.”

“We can see her later,” Kelley says, and Alex feels a familiar flutter in her stomach at the word “we.” It carries a sense of comfort, some familiarity for Alex, acting almost as some sort of reassurance that things are right between them. She doesn’t want to rock the boat anymore, so she puts Abby’s advice on the back burner.

~

The game is a blowout, typical of a homecoming game, and the girls are all decently tipsy throughout, so the most stressful part for Kelley is arguing with Alex over who’s going to post which Instagram picture of them overlooking the field and holding up both of their sorority signs together or hugging and trying to figure out a clever caption for each. Kelley eventually decides to post a picture with her family, saving the one with Alex as her lock screen instead.

Then begins the constant battle of where to go next. By merging their friend groups, Alex and Kelley had unknowingly made it both harder and easier on everyone each night of the week. On one hand, it’s harder to reach a consensus, but on the other, two groups can typically form for one option or the other, making everyone happy.

Tonight, the factions are a bit more splintered. Ali, Ashlyn, Kelley, Alex, Tobin, Christen, Whitney, and Ryan just want to get a bite to eat and some drinks, and the rest of the girls and their significant others want to go to various pubs. Kelley feels down after leaving her family, despite knowing she gets to see them again in just two weeks, and Alex looks after her like a mama bird taking care of her baby, constantly touching her and making sure she’s drinking water because she’s had a lot to drink.

“Fine,” Syd announces. “All the boring old married couples can go out for dinner and drinks and the rest of us will barhop, sound good?”

“Fine by me,” Ashlyn says, unfazed by Syd’s snark, but Kelley feels slightly ruffled.

“Is she talking about me and Alex?” she asks Ali, who’d heard all about the night before. “Do you think Alex told her?”

“It’s Syd, don’t take her too seriously,” Ali says. “She’s including Tobin and Press in that too.” Kelley turns to see Tobin giving Christen a piggyback ride as she chats with Alex, and somehow that doesn’t make her feel a whole lot better. “If you’re concerned, just ask her.”

“Syd?”

“No, Alex,” Ali says. “For what it’s worth, though, I think you’re overreacting. Unless you’d like to be an old married couple with Alex.”

“She’s straight,” Kelley hisses.

“Didn’t seem that way last night,” Ashlyn mutters, knowing it’s not her conversation to butt into, but unable to resist the joke.

“If you tell anyone about that, I swear I will kill you,” Kelley says, and Ashlyn raises her hands in surrender before wrapping an arm around Ali’s waist.

Kelley still isn’t sure what to do about it or what she should even think about it, but she’s following Alex’s lead, and if Alex wants to pretend nothing happened, Kelley will play along. She remembers everything that happened with Ann far too vividly for her liking, from the tears to the unbearable searing pain in her heart, and as far as Kelley’s concerned, nothing is worth going through that again.

Chapter Text

Thankful isn't the word that comes to mind when Kelley thinks about the five-hour drive she has ahead of her to get home for Thanksgiving with her family. She considered just going home the Friday before and skipping her Monday and Tuesday classes, but the thought of not seeing her friends for a whole week was unbearable. Most of them are doing the same thing, of course, but Alex has a midterm on Tuesday evening (what kind of monster could her professor be, Kelley wonders), and Kelley can't imagine leaving her on her own.

She spends all weekend and all day Monday and Tuesday in the library with Alex even though she doesn't have anything to study for herself. She's mostly there for moral support and to force Alex to take breaks for coffee and fresh air. She stays up till 10 p.m. at the ADPi house with Alex when the answer key is posted and insists on celebrating her 92 with a drink at The Top before going back to the house and helping her pack.

“What time do you leave tomorrow?” Alex asks, folding a sweater she probably won’t need and placing it in her suitcase.

“I don’t know, I should leave really early to avoid traffic, but I’m dreading the drive.”

Alex pouts. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound fun.”

“You know you could still ditch your family and road trip with me,” Kelley says. “You won’t have to deal with your lame layover in Atlanta, and I’ll have a friend.”

“And we won’t have to deal with separation anxiety.”

“That too.”

Alex smiles. “I wish. But I’m really excited to see my family even though the traveling part is going to be rough. Time zones and all.”

“That’s going to make life way more difficult,” Kelley says. “How am I going to know when to FaceTime you? I’m going to be waking up and you’ll be going to bed!”

“Kel, it’s three hours,” Alex laughs. “I promise we’ll figure it out.”

“How are you getting to the airport?”

Alex shrugs. “Taxi probably.”

“What? No,” Kelley says. “Let me drive you.”

“I have to be there at 5 a.m., you so don’t want to drive me.”

“I do,” Kelley says. “That’ll make me get up early to get on the road. The airport is on my way to the highway. Come on.”

“If you really want to,” Alex says.

“Good,” Kelley says. “Because I’ve been putting off leaving here for like an hour, but it’ll be better if I know I can see you in the morning.”

“Why don’t I just stay over?” Alex asks. They haven’t had a sleepover since the one over homecoming weekend, and neither one of them has addressed why that is.

“Um, yeah, sure,” Kelley says. “Press is already gone, so you can stay in her bed.”

“Okay,” Alex says, turning back toward her suitcase. “Well, I’m done, so we can go now.”

~

Alex doesn’t sleep in Christen’s bed, of course. She falls asleep in Kelley’s as Kelley finishes packing her own bags, and when her alarm sounds to wake her up and Kelley is in Christen’s bed, she can’t tell if she’s relieved or disappointed. She goes to the bathroom to wash her face and put on leggings and a tank top for her flight. She goes back to wake Kelley, but runs into her on the way out instead.

“Hey sleeping beauty,” Alex says.

“You’re one to talk, it took you like five minutes to fall asleep last night.”

“Sorry,” Alex says, and Kelley doesn’t have to say anything, the look on her face says enough. “I’m trying to break the habit. Now I feel like I have to apologize for saying sorry.”

“I’ll be ready in ten minutes,” Kelley says, yawning.

“Okay, I’ll get us a bite for the road from downstairs.”

Alex gets them both a cup of coffee to go and an almond croissant for Kelley (her favorite) and a bagel for herself. They ride to the airport in relative silence, both a little too tired to do anything but sip their coffees and listen to the crap on the radio.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Alex asks sleepily. “Any fun traditions?”

“Just dinner with my family and hanging out with my sister,” Kelley says.

“No seeing high school friends?”

“What friends?” Kelley jokes. “I don’t know, maybe. Probably not. I usually stick to home. Christmas is usually when people from high school try to get together. Speaking of, you should fly out of Atlanta to get home. Flights out of Gainesville are crazy expensive, and I’m already going that way. It’s only like half an hour from my house, and I wouldn’t hate the company on the trip there.”

“That’s not a bad idea, actually,” Alex says. “I’ll talk to my parents while I’m there.”

“I’m going to miss you,” Kelley says as she brings the car to a stop in front of the airport. She unbuckles to get out, beating Alex to the trunk to grab her suitcase. She sticks out her lip as Alex reaches for it. Alex sets it down on the curb and wraps her arms around Kelley in a tight hug.

“See you tomorrow,” she says quietly, her face buried in Kelley’s neck, and Kelley smiles tightly.

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

~

Alex texts Kelley when she lands safely in Atlanta, but Kelley is home and eating dinner with her family by the time Alex gets to LAX after a long layover and even longer flight.

Kelley smiles when she gets a text from Alex, who predictably unpacks her suitcase as soon as she gets home. Kelley had slipped a package of Oreos into her suitcase when Alex fell asleep the night before, along with a card that says “I’m thankful for YOU. So proud of you for working so hard. I miss you already! :)”

Alex’s text says “I’m thankful for you too, KO :) Especially for that ride this morning and letting me sleep over last night. I missed that. Love you, mean it!”

“I’m watching a movie with my family, but let’s FaceTime after,” Kelley replies. Even though she saw Alex today, it feels like it’s been ages.

“You got it!”

When the movie’s over, Kelley wastes no time cleaning up the popcorn bowls with Erin and Jerry and heading to her room. They both have significant others to see, but she has an Alex to FaceTime.

“Hey stranger!” Alex answers, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot going on around her.

“Is it a bad time?”

“Not at all,” Alex says. “I can introduce you to my family. Mom, Dad, come here, talk to Kelley!”

“Hi Kelley!” Alex’s dad says, popping up behind her. “Nice to kind of meet you.”

“Hi Kelley,” her mom says. “Thank you for offering to drive Alex to the airport this morning! I can’t imagine she’d be able to get up and at ‘em on her own.”

“She was the one dragging me out of bed,” Kelley laughs. “But yeah, any time. I told her she could come with me to Georgia at Christmas, that way she can fly straight out of Atlanta instead.”

“Really? That would be amazing, Ali Cat!” her dad says. “Those tickets out of Gainesville are so expensive.”

“Sounds like it’s a plan,” Alex says. “Okay, I’m going to my room now, Kel.”

“Bye Mr. and Mrs. Morgan!” Kelley calls. When Alex gets to her room, she closes the door and flops on her bed. “Give me a tour, I want to see your room.”

Alex groans in exhaustion. “How about a rain check? I’m so tired, I’m probably just going to take a bath and go to bed after this.”

“Well don’t let me keep you from such a thrilling evening.”

“Shut up, baths are amazing and you’re just jealous.”

“You’re right,” Kelley says. “I might have to do the same.”

“How was your drive?”

“Fine, I just listened to that playlist we made like five times.”

“I did the same thing on the plane,” Alex laughs. “So in sync.”

“Always,” Kelley says. “So, Saturday? What time do I pick you up?”

“You don’t have to,” Alex says. “My flight gets in at like 4, and I know you’ll be tailgating and traffic will be crazy.” The Saturday after Thanksgiving is the last game of the season and the rivalry game against Florida State.

“Well you’re crazy if you think I would make you take a cab to campus,” Kelley says. “Drinking isn’t as fun without you anyway. We’ll just go extra hard when you get here.”

“Are you sure?”

“I woke up at 4 a.m. for you today, do you still doubt me?”

“I guess not,” Alex says. “Thank you. I’ll text you my flight info.”

“And then you can have a sleepover.”

“A real one?”

“As opposed to what?”

“Last night.”

“Was last night not a real sleepover?”

“I don’t know,” Alex says. “You slept in Christen’s bed.”

“Well yeah, she wasn’t there, and you fell asleep in mine. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Is that the whole reason?”

“Al,” Kelley sighs. “What are you getting at?”

“Are you sure you’re not avoiding sleeping in the same bed as me because I kissed you last time we did?”

“So now we’re talking about this? Now that you’re across the country?”

Alex shrugs. “I guess. It didn’t occur to me till last night.”

“Liar.”

“You’re no better!”

“Fine, we’re both stupid and bad at talking about things, happy?”

“I mean, not particularly. Not as long as things are weird between us.”

“I don’t think they’re weird.”

“Three weeks ago you were down to sleep in my twin bed, and since I kissed you, we haven’t even spent the night till last night. And you’ve never stayed in Christen’s bed, even when she’s not there.”

“I was just trying to make you comfortable, Lex.”

“I kissed you!” Alex says. “I’m the one who should be walking on eggshells.”

“I’m the one who told you I’m into girls.”

“So’s Abby.”

“Have you ever tried to kiss Abby?”

“The thought has never really crossed my mind, honestly.”

“Then I’m honored,” Kelley laughs. “I don’t remember much of that night, aside from the kiss. I know you initiated it, but I know I kissed back. And I know we were both drunk.”

“And we’ve been drunk plenty since, but we’ve never kissed again.”

“We haven’t slept in the same bed either.”

“Which makes things weird because we used to do that all the time. Everyone does that. Tobin and Press, me and Tobin, me and Syd. It’s weirder to be consciously avoiding it, don’t you think?”

“I really haven’t been,” Kelley says. “Maybe I have. I don’t know. I just didn’t want you to be uncomfortable. You didn’t seem like yourself the morning after.”

“I didn’t want you to be uncomfortable!” Alex laughs. “Can we please just go back to normal now?”

“And agree to actually talk about our feelings in the future?”

Alex pauses. “Yes,” she says. “Of course.”

“Alex!” a voice off screen calls, and Kelley hears a knock at Alex’s door. Alex rolls her eyes before yelling back.

“Yeah?”

 

“Jeri and I want to go to the store to get stuff for face masks, are you coming?”

“Um, I’m busy, Jen,” Alex says, lifting her phone so Kelley is facing her sister. “This is Kelley, by the way.”

“That’s okay, it’s kind of late here, you go ahead,” Kelley says. “I have to be up early to help my mom cook.”

“You’re going to cook?” Alex asks in disbelief. “That’s amazing. I need pictures.”

“Oh, don’t worry, there will be plenty. Talk to you tomorrow.”

“Nice to meet you, Kelley!” Jeni calls before Alex ends the call.

Before Kelley changes into her pajamas and goes to bed, she gets a face mask from the bathroom she shares with Erin, rubbing it into her skin as she runs a bubble bath. She snaps two pictures, first a selfie, then a picture of the bath, and sends them to Alex with the caption “with you in spirit!”

~

Alex’s Thanksgiving consists of food, a Christmas card photo shoot with her sisters, food, football in the backyard, and more food. Kelley’s consists of food, fielding questions about Derek from insensitive and out of the loop relatives, and of course, more food. Her mom shoots her a look every time she touches her phone around family, so she keeps it in her room, sneaking away every so often to respond to the group text with her main crew of Kappas (and Alex, Syd, Tobin, and Ashlyn).

Aside from a sappy text from Alex about how thankful she is to have Kelley as a friend and an equally sappy text back, Kelley doesn’t have the chance to talk to Alex much, but she doesn’t let it bother her, focusing instead on her cute little cousins and the movies they insist on watching over and over.

“What’s on your mind, kiddo?” Erin asks, sitting next to Kelley as she colors at the coffee table.

“I’m not that much younger than you,” Kelley says, rolling her eyes.

“True, but you’re still coloring and the kids have been passed out on the couch for an hour.” Kelley looks up to see she’s right. She must have been more wrapped up than she thought. “Want to escape? Mom and Dad are distracted, we can make a run for it.”

“Dairy Queen?”

When Kelley gets into Erin’s car, she feels like she’s been transported back to high school, when they’d make these ice cream runs at least once a week, the two of them and Ann. They haven’t talked about her in a long time, but her name hangs in the silence as they drive past her house, taking notice of the lights on inside and the cars in the driveway indicating a happy family reunion.

“So, things at school are good?”

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “Finals are going to be hellish, but next semester should be easier. I’ll be fine. Just have to get through the next few weeks.”

“You’re the smartest person I know, you’ll do great,” Erin says. “And Christen, she’s good?”

“Perfect as always.”

“And Alex?”

“Wonderful.”

Erin raises her eyebrows. “Mm-hmm.”

“What?” Erin shrugs. “Erin, what?”

“I really liked hanging out with her when I was there.”

“She liked you too.”

“And you?”

“I have to like you, you’re my sister.”

“Don’t play stupid. I meant her.”

“What is this about?” Kelley asks, turning in her seat to face Erin.

“Nothing, I just think she’s a great girl. And I want you to be happy.”

“Ever since Ann you just really want me to be with a girl,” Kelley says. “You hated Derek, and now you’re all interested in my new best friend. Are you sure you aren’t projecting?”

“I hated Derek because he was a pretentious dick,” Erin says. “And maybe you should entertain the idea that I know you better than anyone, so I knew you weren’t happy. I helped him plan your birthday surprise, and you weren’t even that excited. It was like it was a burden having your boyfriend here. I felt horrible.”

“It was fine,” Kelley says. “I just don’t love surprises.”

“I haven’t seen you smile like you did homecoming weekend in a really long time, Kel,” Erin says. “Not since that time you came home and told me about Dance Marathon and you had that passion in your eyes. It’s really nice to see, no matter what’s causing it.”

“She slept with Derek.”

“What?” Erin exclaims. “Who?”

“Alex,” Kelley says.

“Wait, back up, what? Like recently?”

“No, like she was the girl I told you Derek cheated on me with.”

“The one who told you about it in a coffee shop?”

“Exactly.”

“And now you’re like… besties?”

“We are,” Kelley says.

“Wow. How’d that happen?”

“I’m not entirely sure. But it’s a good thing. She broke up with her boyfriend in June, I broke up with mine in August. We’re helping each other.”

“So there’s nothing going on between you two?”

“Nothing,” Kelley says, holding out her pinky to Erin. She feels guilty for leaving out the part about the kissing and cuddling and confusion, but it would just make things more complicated for Erin to understand. It’s already too complicated for Kelley herself.

“Fine,” Erin says, locking her pinky with Kelley’s. “But just so you know, I’m still cool with it if there ever is. Or if you got back together with Ann or if you dated a guy or anyone at all. As long as you’re happy and they treat you well. You know that, right?”

“Of course I do,” Kelley says, but the truth is it hasn’t come up in years. When she was dating Derek, she thought it would last forever (whether she wanted it to or not), and she acted accordingly, making everyone think the same. Nobody asked her about her sexuality, feeling like it was some taboo subject or something that just went away when she was in a relationship with a guy, and she never brought it up. So even though she kind of knew—or thought she knew—she had her family’s support, it’s still nice to hear it again.

“Small brownie batter blizzard?” Erin asks, pulling up to the drive thru.

“I’m feeling feisty,” Kelley says, raising her eyebrows. “Medium cotton candy.”

“Don’t get crazy,” Erin teases.

“What can I say?” Kelley asks. “I swing both ways, after all.”

~

Staying sober on a game day isn’t the hardest thing Kelley’s done in her four years of college, but it’s certainly not the most fun either. She intended to have two or three other girls with her, but they’re all too drunk by the time she needs to leave for the airport, so she goes by herself.

She’s happy she did when Alex walks out of the airport—well, stumbles, more like—and bursts into tears upon seeing Kelley.

“Are you okay?” Kelley asks, catching Alex as she almost falls over the curb.

“I just missed you a lot,” Alex sobs into her neck.

“Oh man, they don’t cut you off when you drink on the plane?” Kelley laughs. Alex shakes her head. Kelley pulls back, wiping the tears from Alex’s face. “I guess I’m going to be pretty behind when we get to the tailgate. Luckily I have water in the car.”

“I didn’t mean to get drunk,” Alex slurs once Kelley has her loaded into the car. “I was nervous.”

“About coming back?”

“And seeing you,” Alex says. “I missed you.”

“You said that,” Kelley says. “I missed you too.”

They aren’t even on the road before Alex is fast asleep with her head against the window and Kelley’s hand gripped loosely in her own, and Kelley turns their playlist on quietly, driving with one hand the whole way home, afraid to move the other and wake the peacefully sleeping girl in the passenger seat. And even if it’s not quite the reunion she had expected, she’s thankful nonetheless.

Chapter Text

The invitation comes on a Monday morning, and Alex should have known it was coming, but it still rocks her world nonetheless when Katherine, Aiden's mom, calls her out of the blue.

"Hello?" she answers breathlessly, slowing her run to a walk.

"Hi sweetie, are you busy? Should I call later?"

"No!" Alex says. "You're fine, I always have time for you."

“Great,” Katherine says. “How’s school? How’s Dance Marathon stuff going?”

“School is great,” Alex says. “I have one B+ and the rest are A’s so far, so it’s been a pretty easy semester.”

“No, you’re just a smart girl who works hard.”

Alex laughs. “Dance Marathon fundraising is going well. I’ve been to the hospital a few times, but it’s going to really kick into gear after break. We have a lot of cool events planned, I’ll make sure to put you on the Facebook invitations.”

“That would be wonderful.”

"How are you? How's Kieryn?"

"She's wonderful," Katherine says. "Sitting up and crawling around and everything. I can't believe how fast she's growing."

“I need to come see her soon.”

“You do!” Katherine agrees. “That’s actually sort of why I was calling you. You know Aiden’s birthday is coming up.”

A lump lodges in Alex’s throat, and she nods even though Katherine can’t see her. She does know, but she had forgotten, and the thought of that fills her with guilt.

“You know how much he loves his birthday, so we’re having a little party for him Sunday. A few of his friends from Shands are coming, but it’ll be mostly family. And we absolutely couldn’t celebrate without his very best friend, so we were hoping you could make it. I know it’s kind of last minute and you’re probably leaving for home soon, but—”

“No! Of course I’ll come. I’m not leaving till Monday because Lauren graduates on Saturday and my friend is driving me and has an exam, and—not important. Yes, I’ll be there. Definitely.”

“Excellent,” Katherine says. “You can bring anyone you’d like, I know some of your sisters are big fans of Aiden, so the more the merrier. We’re donating all his presents to the kids at the hospital, so don’t feel like you have to bring anything, but if you want to, that’s the plan.”

“Okay!” Alex says. “Great, I’m excited!”

“I’ll let you go, but we’ll see you Sunday, okay?”

“Wonderful, see you then,” Alex says, ending the call. Katherine can’t be more than ten years older than Alex, but she cares for her like she’s Alex’s own mother, and her bright spirit and outlook on life always lift Alex, even on the hardest days.

Alex doesn’t even have to think about her next call, because of course it’s to Kelley to ask what she’s doing after class, and of course the answer is, essentially, “I don’t know, you tell me.” Her next calls are to Lauren and A-Rod, who are both more than happy to tag along, having gone through Aiden’s loss with Alex in April. It didn’t hit anyone quite as hard as Alex, who was inarguably the closest to the Corcorans, and Aiden in particular, but she wouldn’t have gotten through it without their support.

Alex stops at the Kappa house to grab Kelley’s car and pick her up at campus. Nobody even questions it when she walks through the door anymore, welcoming her as one of their own. When she gets to Kelley’s room, Tobin and Christen are watching a movie—well, Christen is watching, Tobin is napping—and Christen just points to Kelley’s desk when she sees Alex looking for her keys.

Kelley and Alex go to Target and tear apart the toy aisle, looking for anything the kids at the hospital might like, which ends up being pretty much everything.

“This kind of makes me feel bad for not participating in the ATO philanthropy,” Kelley says when they’re checking out.

“Don’t,” Alex says sternly. Derek’s fraternity hosted its annual philanthropy last week in which they dressed up and donated Build-a-Bears to children in need. It used to be one of Alex’s favorites to take part in, but this year she recruited a group of mainly freshmen and sophomores to participate, knowing Kelley wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it.

Rose and Lindsey’s brainchild, a frat bro teddy bear complete with fake Raybans, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and jean shorts won for most creative, so ATO donated money to ADPi’s DM fundraising efforts, but Alex is still glad she spent the day hammocking, kayaking, and paddleboarding at Lake Wauburg with Kelley, Ali, Ashlyn, Crystal, Morgan, Kling, Kristie, and some younger Kappa girls she hadn’t gotten to hang out with yet, including Steph and Sam, Kristie’s actual little sister. The latter three with their loud Boston accents and wry sense of humor made Alex almost sad to be graduating and not getting the chance to hang out with them more.

“Look, you’ve been kicking ass with Dance Marathon fundraising. Kicking my ass, in fact. And this is going to make a lot of kids very happy this Christmas, so stop,” Alex says. “You have such a good heart, and I can’t believe you’re even entertaining the idea that you should have hung around them, but it’s adorable that you are.”

“Yeah yeah,” Kelley says. “You better step up your fundraising game because my whole family knows that I only accept donations for Christmas.”

“What do you want to bet?”

“On me out-fundraising you?” Kelley asks. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“You have no idea how competitive I can get. Bring it on.”

“Okay,” Kelley says, thinking as she pushes the cart toward her car. “If I win, you have to fly me out to California after graduation. Whenever I decide.”

Alex pretends to think about it, but her mind is made up. “Fine,” she says. “And if I win, what do I get?”

“A visit from me,” Kelley teases. “It doesn’t really matter, because you aren’t going to win.”

“If I win, you fly your own ass out to California,” Alex says.

“And if we tie?”

“Not going to happen,” Alex says, rolling her eyes. “We’ll battle to the very last penny.”

“Okay, but if.”

“Then we go on a trip together somewhere fun and celebrate the fact that we’re both hard-headed and obscenely competitive.”

“Perfect,” Kelley agrees. Alex loads the last bag of toys into the trunk and takes the cart from her to put away.

“Now the fun part,” Alex says, clapping her hands together as she gets into the passenger seat. “Wrapping all the presents. It has to be birthday paper, not Christmas, though. Aiden would be very upset if his birthday presents were wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s a sensitive subject.”

“You know, I’m starting to think we have very different ideas of fun.”

“What if we listen to Christmas music and I make hot chocolate and we recruit some of the other girls to help?”

“Depends, does the hot chocolate have marshmallows?”

“Don’t insult me like that, O’Hara, of course it does.”

~

The only thing that keeps Alex from crying at Lauren’s graduation is that A-Rod is on one side of her, weeping, and Tobin is on the other side, biting her lip so hard Alex swears she’ll break skin, and one of them has to stay strong. All the new girls from Cheney’s recruitment group are there, even the ones who didn’t end up in ADPi, and it warms Alex’s heart to see how much of an impact she had on everyone she met during her four (and a half) years here.

Kelley and Christen come, too, even though neither one has anyone in particular to cheer for, keeping themselves entertained by taking bets on how badly the announcer will butcher each name despite the fact that everyone writes the pronunciation on the cards they hand him before stepping on stage. Also, Alex may or may not have promised Kelley that she’d buy dinner at The Top afterward, including whatever she wants to drink (even if it’s one of those stupidly expensive cocktails that Kelley never even ends up finishing). She may or may not have left out the fact that the Cheneys are footing the bill anyway.

After one drink at dinner, though, Alex becomes mysteriously quiet, and Kelley is thrown off. Typically at this point, they’re both giggling over something stupid and taking selfies and annoying everyone else, but Alex just keeps fidgeting and checking the time on her phone mindlessly.

“You okay?” Kelley whispers, and Alex shakes her head before changing her mind and nodding instead.

“Yeah, just tired,” she says, taking another sip of her mojito.

Kelley doesn’t believe her, but she knows Alex enough to not push in front of a bunch of people, so when Alex nudges her to slide over and let her out of the booth to go to the bathroom, she follows. Nobody is in any of the stalls, so when they wash their hands, Kelley breaks the silence by asking again.

“Do you not feel well?”

“I feel fine,” Alex says, avoiding eye contact as she dries her hands with paper towels, the fingers on her right hand circling her left wrist as if she’s measuring it.

“Al,” Kelley says warningly. “If you don’t want to talk, it’s okay, but don’t lie to me.”

“I don’t want to talk,” Alex says. “I just don’t.”

“That’s fine,” Kelley says, trying to live up to her word. “That’s okay. Do you still want to go out tonight?”

“I don’t know. What are you doing?”

“Not allowing you to make your decisions based on someone else,” Kelley says, folding her arms across her chest. “We talked about that, remember?”

 

“I don’t want to go out, but I don’t want to be alone,” Alex says quietly.

“Well fancy that, I’m in the same boat,” Kelley says. Truthfully, she still kind of does want to go out, but not more than she wants to make sure Alex is okay. “Let’s go home after this.”

“Which one?” Alex asks. “There are too many girls at mine.”

“Well, that’s going to be the same at mine,” Kelley says. “We could go to the movies or go for a walk or something.”

“Let’s go to Lake Alice,” Alex says, referring to the lake on campus she runs past every day. “I can breathe there.”

“Whatever you want,” Kelley says, not questioning what she means by that.

Alex seems to be in slightly better spirits for the rest of dinner, but she is the first out the door after thanking Lauren’s parents profusely for dinner. When she gets into Kelley’s car, though, she’s quiet again, plugging in her iPhone and playing music so Kelley won’t ask. It isn’t until they’re lying on the huge blanket Kelley keeps in her car and looking up at the stars from the dock of Lake Alice that Alex even says a word.

“I’m not ready for this,” she says. Kelley doesn’t ask, knowing that Alex will give more detail on her own timeline. “The whole going away from here, popping this bubble thing.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Kelley agrees.

“When Abby graduated, I just felt this overwhelming sadness,” Alex says. “And it’s selfish, I’m so happy she’s onto bigger and better things, I just—will we ever live in the same place again? We’ll never be able to recreate this, this thing we have going on here.”

“No,” Kelley says. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing things ahead.”

“I think that’s what made me break it off with Servando.”

“Abby graduating?”

“Everything’s just so fleeting, you know? What if I didn’t want to just go home and settle down with him and get a job and have kids and have that be all I amount to in life?”

“That’s good that you broke up with him, then.”

“But what if it was a huge mistake?” Alex asks, and Kelley’s heart drops into her stomach. “He was the only thing I knew was going to be stable, he was always going to be there.”

“You wouldn’t have been happy.”

“I could have been, if I didn’t know my life was missing something more.” Kelley’s heart, still in her stomach, speeds up as she tries to find the words to ask Alex what she was missing. “I guess I just expected to find it by now.”

“Oh.”

“I felt like if I broke up with him all this fuzzy stuff would just become clear, but it all just got fuzzier. And I still don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, and as much as I want to just stay here in this comfortable bubble with you and Tobin and Syd and all the girls, it’s going by so fast and I feel it slipping away from me. Like, when we’re out at a party or something, I could be having an amazing time, and suddenly it all just hits me, like this is going to end so soon, so I better seize the day, but that makes it so much harder.”

“Would you feel better if you knew what you were doing next?”

“Maybe,” Alex says.

“Well, what if you make that your goal?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want tough love?”

“I guess,” Alex says, taking a deep breath. “Hit me.”

“You spread yourself too damn thin. I know I’m not one to talk, but you have fifty million things going on, but most of those things aren’t going to last after graduation. Focus. Use this break to make some goals. Not goals to achieve before graduation, but goals to achieve before the end of next year, to achieve within five years. They don’t have to be crazy, like find a cure for cancer. Make them realistic and achievable, but still challenging. And then map out a game plan for what you’re going to do right now to make them happen.”

“How do I do that if I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years?”

“That’s the point,” Kelley says. “You don’t believe you have control over that, but you do. Tie your future to these goals that you’re going to make happen, and the path will follow. You have to take the first step into the dark, and you’ll light the rest of it yourself. I’m going to miss the hell out of this place and these people, but I can’t tie my happiness to people and places I’m eventually going to leave behind. Not anymore. And neither can you.”

“How’d you get to be so smart?” Alex asks, turning her head to face Kelley.

“Lots and lots of mistakes,” Kelley says. “Learn from mine and maybe you won’t make as many.”

“If making mistakes is what got me a friend like you, I feel like I should make more.”

“You try that and let me know how it goes,” Kelley says. “You’re a smart cookie. You’re going to do awesome things. Just don’t forget me when you do.”

“Never.”

~

Alex isn’t sure if A-Rod has stopped crying since Cheney’s graduation, because her eyes are still red as she gets into Kelley’s car when they pick them up the next day for Aiden’s party.

“You know parties are supposed to be fun, right, A-Rod?” Lauren teases, sliding into the backseat beside her.

“Shut up, you’re the one who’s leaving me like a jerk,” Amy replies. “Thanks for driving, Kelley. Clearly I’m too fragile.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Kelley says. “I don’t think all four of us would have fit on Alex’s scooter.”

“I could have put you in the storage thing under the seat,” Alex says. “You’d probably fit.”

“Easy with the short jokes, I’m sensitive,” Kelley whines. Ever since the night before, when Alex couldn’t resist making a comment about Kelley being a little spoon even when she’s the big spoon, Kelley has been touchy about the subject, which of course makes Alex just want to instigate even more.

They pull into the driveway marked by bright balloons indicating that this is a celebration and nothing else, and Kelley is the first to the trunk. “How on earth are we supposed to get all this inside?” Lauren asks, dumbfounded.

“Duh, I got a big sack like Santa,” Alex says, shaking it open like a pillow case. “But you guys are going to help.”

Somehow, it only takes them one trip to bring it all to the front door, where Aiden’s dad, John, greets them all with a huge smile and hugs. “This is madness!” he says when he sees all the gifts. “Katie, come see what the girls brought!”

Katherine comes to the door, carrying a baby on her hip. “Oh, Alex, you shouldn’t have!” she gasps, pulling her into a hug. “Lauren, congratulations on graduation! I saw your pictures, you looked beautiful. Amy, gorgeous as ever, let me see that ring!” Amy’s boyfriend, Adam, proposed over Thanksgiving break, and anyone who ever met the two of them is overjoyed.

“Katherine, this is Kelley,” Alex says.

“Oh, I know you!” Katherine says, hugging Kelley. “I see you all over Alex’s Facebook, I can’t believe we’ve never met.”

“We just met this year,” Alex laughs.

“Well, anyone with as Irish of a last name as they come is always welcome here,” Katherine says. “Oh, and this is Kieryn.” She lifts the little girl’s hand to wave, and she turns away shyly, burying her face in Katherine’s neck. “Kieryn, this is Alex, who you’re named after, remember?”

“Kieryn Alexandra,” John says to clarify for Kelley, taking the baby off Katherine’s hands. “She was as close to a sister as Aiden had, and she was there through it all, so it only seemed fitting.”

Alex had cried when she learned the baby’s name, the first happy tears she’d cried in the weeks since learning Aiden wasn’t getting better. It’s hard to see John and Katherine without Aiden, but the love they have for each other and for Kieryn makes the space seem a little less empty.

Aiden knew what was happening at the end, and even though he was in pain, he told Alex a million times how much he loved her and all about the things they could do together in heaven. Alex told him not to wait for her to start having fun when he got there, and he pinky promised, making her swear that she wouldn’t stop having fun without him here.

She fell back on that promise for a while after he passed, but Katherine and Abby both gently reminded her from time to time. “He’s having fun like he said he would, so you better hold up your end of the bargain,” Abby said.

“Don’t let that love you have for him go to waste,” Katherine had said as she hugged Alex tight before she’d left to go home for the summer. Those were the words Alex mulled over for her entire flight home and for the weeks following before she broke up with Servando.

All these memories and more flood back as Alex eats chips and dip and plays with the kids who did get better and watches Kelley having competitions with one of them to see who can swing higher on the playset outside.

“What’s the story?” Katherine asks, sitting in a folding chair beside Alex. Kieryn makes grabby hands for Alex, feeling considerably less shy than earlier, and Katherine passes her over.

“What story?”

“That one,” Katherine says, nodding toward Kelley, who seems to have become the unlucky monkey in the middle with a soccer ball. “She’s pretty.”

“Um, yeah, she is,” Alex says, suddenly fascinated by Kieryn’s toes.

“We never really got to talk about Serv,” Katherine says. “I didn’t realize you two weren’t a thing anymore till I stopped seeing pictures.

“I did it,” Alex says. “Broke up with him.”

“I kind of figured. I think he was a smart enough guy. He knew he couldn’t do better than you.”

“Someone’s better for him,” Alex says, smiling sadly.

“For you too,” Katherine says. “Alex… I know I spent a lot of time with you and Aiden talking about God and heaven and everything happening for a reason, and I really believe that. But I just hope that doesn’t make you nervous to share things with me.”

“You’re like the tenth person to suggest something like that to me,” Alex says. “What is it? Seriously.”

“Other than the way you look at her?” Katherine says, smirking. “Alex.”

“She’s my best friend. I just—I’ve never had anyone I relate to like I do to her. And she is kind and caring and everything good about people.”

“And you like her.”

“So much.”

“Does she know? Or does she look at you like the stars are in your eyes because the feeling is mutual?”

“Neither,” Alex says. “Friends.”

“When John and I were in college, everyone knew but us. When he asked me on a date, I told my roommate, and she said she was glad we finally discovered we were dating.”

“I think it’s a little different when it’s two girls,” Alex says. “Girls are supposed to act like this.”

Katherine raises her eyebrows. “Lauren and Amy are as close as they come, if you ask me, and never once have I thought they could be together.”

“They both have boyfriends.”

“They still hug and take best friend pictures together,” Katherine says. “I’m a cool mom, remember? I have Instagram.” Alex smiles. “Listen, I’m not trying to pressure you or stress you out, I just wanted to make sure you know I support you no matter what. And I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything you’re keeping from me because you weren’t sure about that.”

“I know,” Alex says. “Thank you.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” John says, walking up behind Katherine to put his hands on her shoulders. “Are you ready for the cake, honey?”

“Oh, yes!” she says, standing. “Alex, would you like to help?”

“Of course,” Alex says, picking up Kieryn, who’s playing with her hair. “Come on, sweet girl.”

“You rang?” Kelley jokes, walking up behind her.

“Yeah, definitely you and not this angel.” Kieryn turns to look at Kelley and couldn’t be less interested in Alex anymore, squirming and reaching for Kelley.

“Hey look, she likes me better,” Kelley says, taking her from Alex’s arms.

The cake is actually a bunch of cupcakes arranged to look like Cookie Monster, Aiden’s favorite character. He had almost fainted when “Cookie Monster” came to visit him in the hospital for his birthday last year when he certainly wasn’t allowed to eat any cookies. The guy in the costume was actually a senior from Delta Upsilon, which tends to be seen as one of the lower-tier fraternities, but Alex was so touched by his willingness to spend a Saturday afternoon hanging out with Aiden to make his dreams come true that she made sure ADPi would pair up with the fraternity for this year’s Dance Marathon, and it’s been a dream situation.

Each sorority pairs up with a fraternity to fundraise together and get more dancer spots to split between the organizations. After three years of doing this with various top tier fraternities, Alex had seen the worst of it, so she’s inspired by the hard work of the DUs to actually fundraise and keep the focus on the kids rather than on appearances and who they’re paired with. When Alex first raised the option, a lot of the girls sneered, but the ones who mattered (namely, Amy, Lauren, and Syd, who could get anyone to back down with a single meaningful look) stuck by her to make it happen, and everyone else ate their words.

Everyone sings happy birthday, including Kelley, who dances along to it with Kieryn, making her squeal, and John and Katherine invite everyone to blow out the candles together. There’s a projector set up, and John goes to his laptop to start a slideshow of Aiden’s birthdays and special moments over the years as happy music plays (mostly by Taylor Swift, who was his favorite—he and Alex had many a dance party in his room, much to the disdain of some of the more crotchety nurses).

Alex smiles and laughs at the video clips and pictures, some of which she’s in, but it starts getting hard when she can see him getting sicker. It feels like reliving it all over again as it progresses, and even though the music is upbeat and joyful, her chest feels like it’s caving in. By the time it gets to a picture of her holding him at one of the last Dance Marathon fundraisers at the ADPi house in March as he sleeps against her chest, she can’t take it anymore, and she has to leave the room.

Nobody notices, because she was in the back and everyone is too absorbed in the slideshow, but she ends up in Aiden’s room, sitting on the “big boy bed” he was so proud to get when he turned 4. She hugs his pillow to her chest and breathes it in, unable to stop the tears that fall when she can’t smell his familiar scent. When she stays away, sometimes it’s easy to pretend he isn’t really gone, that she just hasn’t seen him in a while and should stop by sometime soon. But when she’s here, surrounded by nothing but memories of him and people who love him, it’s impossible to pretend.

She hears a quiet knock on the door, which she didn’t really close all the way, and she looks up to see Kelley, who’s carrying a plate with one blue cupcake on it.

“Hi,” she says quietly, and Alex’s lip quivers before she loses it again. Kelley sets down the plate on his dresser and rushes to her side, putting an arm around Alex’s shoulders and wrapping her tight in a hug. “I’m here,” she whispers into her hair. “You’re going to be okay. I’m right here.”

She doesn’t say “it’s okay” or “I know,” which speaks volumes to Alex. Because no, it’s not okay. It’s not okay or fair that a family had to say goodbye to a little boy with a college fund, a little boy who brought them so much joy and who they had so many hopes and dreams for. And no, she doesn’t know. Nobody can know without going through it themselves, and Alex wouldn’t wish that upon her worst enemy.

But she’s here. That much is true. And Alex isn’t okay, not right now, but she will be. Because Kelley’s right here.

Chapter Text

If Alex went to jail and had only one phone call to make, now she knows for sure it would be to Kelley. Not that there was much doubt to begin with. After finding her at the birthday party, Kelley had consoled Alex until she stopped crying, practically force-fed her the blue cupcake, wiped the frosting off her nose, and helped her touch up her makeup without so much as a playful tease.

Alex had packed the night before and put her stuff in Kelley’s car already, so she went straight to Kappa after the party, where she helped Kelley packed and they teamed up to make a brand new killer playlist for their drive to Georgia. When she wakes up on Monday morning, Kelley is nuzzled into her side, clinging to her like a koala to a eucalyptus tree. Alex can’t resist the urge to Snapchat a selfie with a koala bear emoji, but when the front flash goes off, Kelley scrunches up her nose and whines.

“I trusted you.”

“That was your first mistake.”

“I don’t wanna get up.”

“Too bad, because we’ve gotta.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Unless you want to fail Biochem for Geniuses or whatever the hell exam you’re taking today.”

That wakes Kelley right up. “Don’t even joke.”

“You could never fail, don’t be silly. But your test is in 45 minutes, so you better brush your teeth or you definitely aren’t getting any bonus points.”

Alex drops her off with a fist bump for good luck before heading to the store for a “yay your exam is over and now it’s time for Christmas and a road trip!” care package, which she thinks is probably just as difficult as Kelley’s exam probably is for Kelley, who she’s learned is freakishly smart and doesn’t even realize it. Still, when she picks her up after the exam, she can tell by Kelley’s face that Alex is going to be doing most of the driving.

Kelley spends the first hour or two venting about certain problems on the exam that Alex couldn’t follow if her life depended on it. But she nods along anyway, offering input where she can, knowing that Kelley won’t relax until her grade is posted (which, thank God, is at about hour three, and is an 87, giving Kelley an A- in the class).

“You know, it’s kind of unfair that you’re meeting my parents a second time and I haven’t met yours once,” Kelley says once they’ve stopped for gas and snacks and she’s switched to the driver’s side.

“Unfair to whom? I’m the one who has to impress your parents a second time.”

“Oh please, you’re a gem,” Kelley says. “They’re obsessed with you.”

“I was so drunk last time!”

“Yeah, but you’re an endearing drunk and you held it together.”

“I’m an endearing drunk?” Alex asks. “Is that why you kissed me back?”

Kelley is silent. “Let’s not.”

“Why? Because we’re actually in person now?”

“We already talked about it.”

“Yeah, barely.”

“We sleep in the same bed, we cuddle, everything is back to normal. What more is there to say?”

“You kissed me back!” Alex repeats, laughing. “That’s the one thing we haven’t addressed.”

“Um, have you been having conversations with me I don’t know about? Because I still haven’t determined why you kissed me to begin with.”

“Because I wanted to try it for real,” Alex says. “At the bar didn’t count.”

“I don’t want to be your experiment,” Kelley says, her knuckles turning white as she grips the steering wheel.

“Geez, okay, sorry I brought it up,” Alex says, turning back to face the road. Kelley reaches over to turn the music up, and they drive on in silence. After a few songs, Alex can’t take it anymore. “I’m really sorry,” she says. “I know I’m not supposed to say sorry, but I can tell I struck a nerve, and I didn’t mean to. So let me say it.”

“Thank you,” Kelley says.

Alex searches for something more to say, but comes up empty. So she changes the subject to an idea she had for a DM fundraiser over break where she’s going to donate $10 to two of her sisters’ fundraising pages and tell them to pay it forward to two more sisters within 24 hours and see how far it spreads and how much money they can raise between now and New Year’s Eve.

“Mind if I steal it?” Kelley asks.

“What’s mine is yours, but I’m still coming for you with the fundraising,” Alex says. “The Corcorans gave me $250, and Katherine is going to share my link on Facebook.”

“What? I’m adding her.”

“She likes me better,” Alex teases.

“If Kieryn had a credit card, I’d win for sure.”

“It’s a shame you can’t base your life on what an 8-month-old thinks of you.”

“You’re a bitch, you know.”

“You love me,” Alex says, pinching Kelley’s cheek.

“Maybe,” Kelley says. “No promises.” She’s quiet for a minute before turning quickly to glance at Alex. “I really wish I’d gotten to meet Aiden. He seems like a cool kid.”

“He is,” Alex says. “Was. Is. Shit. I can’t say that, it doesn’t feel right.”

“Say it however you want,” Kelley says. “I know everyone has their own personal Dance Marathon story about why it’s so important to them, but yours and Aiden’s really inspires me.”

“Yours inspires me,” Alex says. “I think it’s amazing that it gave you purpose. And selfishly, a little bit because in the end it all led you to me. And for what it’s worth, Aiden would love you. You’re a goofball. He’s into that.”

“Charmed you, too,” Kelley says, a teasing glint in her eye. “Hey, look at that,” she says, pointing to a sign. “Welcome to Peachtree City.”

“Oh, it’s so cute,” Alex gasps. “Kel, I feel like I’m in Pleasantville!”

“Too much color for that,” Kelley laughs. “I never appreciated it till I left. It’s like a giant community, so pretty much everyone is my neighbor.”

“That’s so cute,” Alex says. “Oh my God, can you just drive a golf cart anywhere?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Kelley says. “We used to cruise around late at night before we could drive and cause trouble.” She doesn’t have to clarify the “we” to which she’s referring. Alex can tell from the way her tone changes.

“Did you drive a golf cart to school?”

“No,” Kelley laughs. “But we can drive one to Dairy Queen tonight if you want.”

“Yes!” Alex exclaims. “Can I drive?”

“Only if you’re less reckless than you are on your scooter.”

“At least I wear a helmet!”

“Gold star,” Kelley teases, slowing the car as she pulls into a subdivision. Alex looks out the window at the perfectly manicured lawns and kids playing as the sun goes down. It’s December, but it’s still warm, and this place is just so perfectly Kelley.

“This is really freaking cute, Kel,” Alex says, squeezing Kelley’s knee in excitement. “Holy shit, that house is enormous!” she exclaims, and Kelley doesn’t have to look to know which one she means. “Is that a house or some sort of clubhouse or something?”

“It’s a house,” Kelley says. “Ann’s.”

Alex takes her hand off Kelley’s knee and shuts up. If she opens her mouth, she knows she’ll just apologize, which she’s trying hard not to do.

~

“Thank you so much for dinner, Mrs. O’Hara,” Alex says for the fourth time since finishing her spaghetti and meatballs.

“It’s Karen, sweetheart,” she says, clearing off the rest of the table. “Another glass of wine?”

“That’ll be enough,” Kelley says. “Alex is driving us to Dairy Queen in a bit.”

Alex sticks her tongue out at Kelley playfully. “Yeah, I’m okay,” she says. “This is amazing.”

“What’s really amazing is you putting up with Kelley for five hours in the car,” Erin says. “She’s miserable on road trips.”

“She was great besides whining about school for half the time,” Alex says.

“I’m never bringing you home again if you two are going to get along so well at my expense,” Kelley grumbles.

“Poor baby,” Alex teases. “Erin, are you coming with us?”

“Negative,” she says. “Going to the movies with my boyfriend.”

“Boo,” Kelley jeers. “We’ll just have to have fun without you.”

“Whatever you do, don’t let her backseat drive,” Erin warns Alex. “She’ll grab the wheel and flip you over.” She gestures to her forehead, where Alex can see a tiny scar. “Ten stitches because she didn’t like the way I wanted to go.”

“Luckily Alex has no idea where anything is, so she’ll have no choice,” Kelley says. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Ten stitches,” Erin mouths, and Alex giggles before taking the keys Kelley throws her way.

~

The whole way to Dairy Queen, Alex laughs as Kelley recounts stories about growing up here, pointing out landmarks where she sledded on the rare occasion it ever snowed and where she threw a tantrum because her mom wouldn’t let her have candy at a street fair.

“Do you think you’ll come back here?” Alex asks, turning the key to the golf cart and pulling it out of the ignition… or whatever you call that part of a golf cart.

“I don’t know,” Kelley says. “It’ll always be home, but I don’t think it would be the same to come back here and be a grown-up. Maybe one day when I have kids of my own. I think it would be a nice place to raise them.”

“What do you want?” Alex asks, opening the door for Kelley. “I’m so boring, I always get the same thing.”

“What?”

“Cookie dough Blizzard,” Alex says, blushing. Kelley always teases her for her go-to snack, which is raw cookie dough. She tried making cookies for a midnight snack once and Alex ate half the dough before it made it to the cookie sheet.

“I’ll have that too,” Kelley says, reaching for her wallet, but Alex stops her.

“Nope, my treat,” she says. “As a thank you for bringing me with you and driving me to the airport tomorrow.”

Kelley rolls her eyes, but doesn’t protest. When Alex hands her her ice cream, she slings an arm around Kelley’s shoulders, their height difference working in her favor as she leans her head on Kelley’s, turning them around and back toward the door.

Kelley’s eyes widen when she sees who’s coming through the door, and Alex feels her stiffen, moving away from her half-embrace.

“Kelley!” a pretty brunette says in a raspier voice than Alex would have expected. Then again, she gets that a lot too. “I didn’t know you were home!”

“Ann,” Kelley says, and it’s Alex’s turn to feel shock. “Uh, yeah. For Christmas.”

“Well, duh,” Ann says, hugging her. “It’s been forever, huh? Oh hi, I don’t mean to be rude!” she says, holding out her hand to Alex. “I’m Ann, Kelley’s friend. From high school.”

There are plenty of things Alex wants to say, but she settles for a smile and a handshake. “Alex. From college.”

Ann laughs like it’s the funniest thing she’s heard all day. “Of course! Well, enjoy your time here. Kel, my family is going to die when I tell them I saw you. You’ve got to stop by while you’re in town. I’ll text you, okay?”

“Okay,” Kelley says blankly. Ann passes by on her way to the counter, and Alex has to practically push Kelley out the door.

“Oh my God, Kel, you’re shaking,” Alex says, taking the Blizzard from her hand to put in one of the cupholders. “Talk to me. What was that?”

“Just drive, please,” Kelley says. Alex obliges, steering with one hand while her other rests on Kelley’s and going back the way she came, glad she has an excellent memory. “It’s like she has absolutely no memory of anything that happened.”

“Maybe she was nervous.”

“Maybe,” Kelley says. “She called herself my friend. Who’s she kidding?”

“It’s over,” Alex says.

Kelley laughs wryly. “Told you it’s a small town.”

“Are you okay?” Alex asks, pulling into Kelley’s garage, which they left open when leaving.

“I guess,” Kelley says.

“I feel terrible that I don’t know how to calm you down after you were so good with me yesterday,” Alex says, her thumb rubbing the back of Kelley’s hand.

“Are you kidding? I had no idea what to do.”

“You were perfect,” Alex says. “But this isn’t about me. Hey, you force fed me a cupcake. Eat this ice cream. It’ll help.” She lifts the spoon from Kelley’s Blizzard and moves it toward Kelley’s lips.

“Sugar helps everything,” Kelley says.

“Makes sense, because you’re the sweetest,” Alex teases. “Come here.” She pulls Kelley in for a hug, rubbing her back in small circles.

“I really don’t want to be without you for three weeks,” Kelley mumbles.

“The feeling is mutual,” Alex says. “It’s really only 19 days, though.”

“So 19 FaceTimes, right?”

“At the very least,” Alex promises. She takes a deep breath, pulling away from Kelley. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“That’s okay,” Alex says. “I have other things I’d rather talk about anyway. But I think I’d rather be in pajamas first if that’s alright.”

~

They take their ice cream to Kelley’s room, where she was never really allowed to eat as a kid. Now that she’s grown up, her parents just roll their eyes and tell her to make sure she cleans up after herself. Kelley wishes Alex’s idea of pajamas was more than just an oversized tank top and boy shorts, but she focuses on her ice cream instead as Alex drapes a blanket over her lap, sitting cross-legged on Kelley’s bed.

“You said something in the car earlier that I haven’t stopped thinking about,” Alex says. “And I just—I need to know what you meant by it.”

“I’m not usually that complicated,” Kelley laughs. “I was probably just exhausted from my exam.”

“I don’t think so,” Alex says. “When we talked about the… other night, you said you didn’t want to be my experiment. What does that mean?”

“That was probably a little meaner than I intended,” Kelley says. “I’m sorry.” Alex’s face makes it clear that she wants more of an answer. “I get it, I do. You and I got really close really fast. And we’re both single, and things can be confusing. And it’s something Ann said to me before we broke up, and at the time it hurt me a lot, but now I kind of get it.”

“What do you get?” Alex says quietly.

“I get how much it sucks when you like someone and they don’t feel the same.”

“Kel—”

“It’s not your fault,” Kelley says. “But I know how Ann felt because she wasn’t convinced I was really in it. And I’ve spent a lot of nights crying myself to sleep and struggling with who I am and coming to terms with that. And I love you a lot, and I value your friendship more than you could possibly imagine, but when you kiss me just to test something out and see how it feels, it fucks with me. And when you eventually figure out that what you’re feeling isn’t… that, I’m the one who has to deal with the hurt.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling this way?” Alex asks.

 

“Because I didn’t want to make something out of nothing.”

“It wasn’t nothing to me,” Alex says. “I wasn’t being completely fair to you, springing that on you, but I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been thinking about it—a lot—for a while.”

“Kissing a girl?”

“Kissing you,” Alex says. “And then I did it and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.”

Kelley can’t breathe, suddenly aware of how close Alex’s face is to her own. “If you’re going to do it again,” she exhales slowly, staring at Alex’s lips. “I need it to be for real.”

“If I’m going to do it again, I need you to kiss back.”

Kelley doesn’t say anything, just nods once before Alex’s lips are on hers. Kelley holds up her end of the bargain, tilting her head to deepen the kiss immediately. Her hands find the back of Alex’s head. Her hair is silk in Kelley’s hands, and her lips are velvet against Kelley’s.

It only lasts a few moments before Alex pushes Kelley onto her back, her hands making fists in Kelley’s T-shirt. Kelley’s hands slide under Alex’s tank top to grip her hips, bringing Alex’s body as close as it can get to her own. When Alex pulls her lips away, she immediately brings them back, placing small pecks on Kelley’s lips as they both catch their breath.

“Was that real enough?” Alex asks, smiling as she runs her fingers through Kelley’s hair.

“I don’t know, I’m still not convinced this is really happening.”

“You’re not an experiment,” Alex says. “I would never do that to you. I’ve never felt as good about kissing someone as I do right now.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Kelley says.

“I’m absolutely not,” Alex says, kissing Kelley one more time. “Does this mean everyone was right?”

“You tell me.” Alex rolls off of Kelley, sitting beside her. Kelley sits up to face her. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Alex says. Kelley leans forward to kiss her again. “As much as I want to keep kissing you, I think we need to be smart.”

“How so?”

“For starters, we’re about to be apart for 19 days.”

“So let’s enjoy it while we can.”

“I want to be with you,” Alex says. “I want to go out and hold hands and have movie nights and cuddle and kiss some more.”

“That’s all?” Kelley teases.

“For now, yeah,” Alex says. “I don’t want to move too fast and then crash and burn.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we probably shouldn’t have sleepovers anymore,” Alex says. “Not for a while. I—” She racks her brain to figure out how to say what she’s thinking. “I wouldn’t have done that in the same situation with a guy, and I don’t want this to be different just because we’re both girls.”

Kelley nods. “Okay. That sounds fair.”

“I need to tell my parents,” Alex says. “At least about me. Before we can be anything official.”

“I’m all for it.”

“When we get back to Gainesville, we can go on a real date.”

“As opposed to all the fakes ones we’ve had so far.”

“Basically.”

“And tonight?” Kelley asks. “I can sleep in Erin’s room. If that makes you more comfortable.”

Alex thinks, looking around the room before her eyes land back on Kelley. “I think tonight can be an exception,” she says, pulling Kelley in for a slow kiss that ends with Alex on her back and Kelley’s hands begrudgingly behaving themselves over the fabric of Alex’s tank top.

~

It’s harder than ever before for Alex to get out of bed the next morning, forcing herself to pull out of Kelley’s warm embrace to shower and get ready for the day. Kelley is still asleep when Alex is ready to go, so she wakes her up with a quick kiss on the lips, hardly expecting Kelley to reach out and pull her back into bed. But she’s learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Kelley O’Hara.

“You’ve got everything? Phone? Wallet? Boarding pass?” Kelley asks for what must be the fifth time today as she rolls Alex’s suitcase to the curb where they’ll have to part ways.

“Almost everything,” Alex says, leaning down to kiss Kelley, making her blush furiously. “The fact that you’re so shy about PDA makes it almost irresistible.”

“Almost?”

“If you were completely irresistible, I’d have to stay here for the next 19 days,” Alex says. “And that’s not an option. Trust me, I’ve considered it.”

“If 19 days is all that stands in the way of you being my girlfriend, I guess I can bear it,” Kelley says, sighing dramatically.

“I like the sound of that,” Alex says. “Remember, 19 FaceTimes.”

“At the minimum.”

Alex sticks out her pinky for a promise, and Kelley rolls her eyes, standing on her tiptoes for a goodbye kiss. “Those pinky promise days are over, Morgan.”

Chapter Text

The first thing Kelley used to do when she woke up was pee. Now, the first thing she does (yes, even before that) is think about Alex. To be fair, she’s been doing that for a while, but that’s not the kind of thing you admit when you’re secretly in love with your best friend. Now that it’s not so secret, she can fully admit it. To herself and Alex at least, because they’ve decided not to tell anyone until things are officially official.

She sends Alex a good morning text, which immediately gets a peppy response. The time difference isn’t quite as difficult as they thought it would be given that Alex tends to be an early riser.

“Kelley, up!” Erin calls, bursting in through the door. “It’s Christmas Eve brunch time!”

“It’s too early for family,” Kelley groans.

“It’s never too early for your favorite sister.”

“My only sister.”

“As far as you know,” Erin says. “Dad was kind of a stud in college, you know.”

“Ew, Erin!”

“There we go, that got you up,” Erin says. “The family isn’t coming over till tonight, so it’s sissy brunch. My treat.”

It doesn’t take any more convincing to get Kelley up, into the shower, and into a booth at Mimi’s, their favorite breakfast place. They chat while waiting for their drinks, but as soon as their mimosas arrive, Kelley is distracted by her phone.

“So Alex got to California alright?” Erin asks, clearing her throat.

“Yeah,” Kelley says, putting her phone face down on the table. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Erin says. “I understand. Long distance is hard.”

“Yeah,” Kelley says, not registering her words. “Wait, what?”

Erin smiles. “I am so good at getting your attention. First of all, be less obvious when you’re grinning at your texts. And secondly, turn off the text previews on your phone. She texted you like six times while you were showering. I wasn’t even looking on purpose, it was just there.”

“Whatever you say,” Kelley says, blushing. “I’m kind of glad you know.”

“I was the one who told you!” Erin says. “So what happened?”

“We just… talked about things finally.”

“After Thanksgiving?”

“When she was here a few nights ago,” Kelley says. “We went to get ice cream, and we ran into Ann there.”

“Wait, you saw Ann?”

“Yeah, she was coming in as we were leaving.”

“Oh my God, did you say anything?”

“She did,” Kelley says. “I was so caught off guard I didn’t know what to do.”

“That must have been awkward. Have you even seen her since—”

“Not since graduation,” Kelley says. “Other than driving past her house or seeing her on Facebook or whatever.”

“Did Alex know who she was?”

“Yeah, of course,” Kelley says. “I think she was kind of thrown off, but she was super focused on making sure I was okay.”

“So you made out with her and became girlfriends.”

“More or less,” Kelley laughs. “No, we came home and talked about it and talked about our feelings for each other, and we decided to… give it a go.”

“So is she…”

“She likes me,” Kelley says. “She’s telling her parents.”

“About you? Or about herself?”

“Both, I guess.”

“I’m happy if you are,” Erin says. “And for what it’s worth, I really like Alex.” She pauses, and Kelley knows there’s something she isn’t saying.

“But…”

“But,” Erin continues. “You just got out of a decently long relationship.”

“With Derek, who you hated.”

“He was a skeeze,” Erin says. “But more than that, you just weren’t happy. I wanted to support you, but it wasn’t right. And I genuinely think the greatest guy—or girl—in the world could have come into your life at the time he did and it wouldn’t have been right.”

“Why?”

“Because you weren’t the same Kelley when I came home from college the summer you graduated,” Erin says. “When you and Ann broke up, you were a mess, and I don’t think you even realize the extent to which you were broken. Like, Mom and Dad were scared.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you were a stick because you weren’t eating,” Erin says gently. “And you wouldn’t talk to them about what was going on, but they knew. And you spent so much time in your room, and you never smiled or laughed about anything. When I came back, I was the only one you’d talk to, but you still weren’t normal. And I don’t think you ever let yourself heal from that.”

“Stop psychoanalyzing me,” Kelley says, pushing the eggs around her plate.

“I’m just telling you what I’ve seen,” Erin says. “I saw you come back a little bit toward the end of your freshman year, but when you came back home and were reminded of all that old not-so-great stuff, you changed again. Then you started dating Derek, and you were the same Kelley I know and love, but he didn’t make you light up.”

“I’m never going to be the same person I was when I was in high school,” Kelley says. “I’ve changed a lot.”

“Of course you have, and you should,” Erin says. “But seeing you with Alex was the closest I’ve come to seeing that person again.”

“Then why are you worried about me rushing into a relationship?”

“Because I think the same things that stood in the way of you having a remotely decent relationship with Derek will come back to haunt you in any other relationship until you sort them out.”

“Like what?”

“Like your unresolved feelings about Ann.”

“I don’t have feelings for her anymore.”

“Not your feelings for her, just your feelings about the whole situation. If you don’t come to terms with those, they’re going to screw with all your future relationships.”

“I don’t have unresolved feelings,” Kelley says. “My feelings are very much resolved.”

“Then why did it freak you out so much to see her the other day?” The look on Kelley’s face proves Erin’s point, as far as she’s concerned. “Take my advice or leave it, I’m just your big sister, so I know you’ll do what you want anyway, but you need closure. And what better time to find that closure when you’re both in town for the last time for God knows how long. You’re both graduating college soon, what are the chances you end up back here?”

“I can’t,” Kelley says. “I can’t imagine facing her, let alone talking to her, having a real conversation or whatever.”

“It’s up to you,” Erin says. “But I might have an idea that would make it a lot easier. If you’re up for it.”

~

“Almost time,” Alex texts Kelley, including her favorite nervous emoji, the monkey covering its eyes.

“You’ve got this,” Kelley replies quickly. “Proud of you!”

Alex puts her phone down on the counter and finishes setting the table for her parents. Jeni and Jeri are at friends’ houses tonight, and even though she wants to tell them as well, it’s a little less scary to tell them two at a time.

Her mom was pleasantly surprised when she offered to make dinner tonight, so she offered to make a dessert to go along with Alex’s tacos—the only things she felt comfortable making in her nervous state. She spent the evening in the kitchen with her mom, cooking and baking, and it felt like she was a kid again.

“Oh, Ali Cat, this smells delicious,” Mike says. “Whatever you're trying to butter us up for, you've got it.”

Alex laughs nervously. Last time she had done something like this was when she was begging to go to Spain to study abroad, which they happily allowed. “I don't want anything,” she says, but she doesn't do a convincing job, not touching her food.

“Is everything okay?” her mom asks.

“I need to talk to you guys about something,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper as she stares at her lap.

“Of course,” Mike says gently. “You know you can talk to us about anything.”

“What's going on?” Pam asks, no longer touching her food. “Honey, are you alright?”

“Yes,” Alex says. “I'm great, actually.” She takes a deep breath. “I know it doesn't feel like long ago that I broke up with Servando, but I'm actually… I'm in a new relationship.”

Her mom laughs, breathless and relieved. “That's all?” she says. “Oh, Alex.”

Her dad can tell there's more. “Are you… happy?”

“Very much so,” Alex says. “It's kind of new. I mean, we were friends first, so I guess it's not that new, but--”

“Of course we’re happy for you,” Pam says. “When can we meet him?”

Alex’s eyes well up with tears, and her dad reaches out to grab her hand. “Alex, talk to us.”

“It’s Kelley,” she sobs.

 

“Oh honey,” he says. “If she lets a boy come between you two, she’s not the friend you thought.”

Alex laughs amidst her tears, unable to help herself. It’s just so absurdly funny. Of course he would think that, he had no reason to think anything different. In the most ironic twist of events, the boy that had originally been between them, so to speak, was actually the catalyst that brought them closer together. And then even closer.

“What am I missing?” her mom finally asks.

“There’s no boy,” Alex says. “It’s Kelley. She’s—we’re together.”

Mike freezes, his hand tightening around hers. “Like… together?”

“Yes,” Alex says.

“You’re… gay?” her mom says slowly.

“Bisexual. I think,” Alex says. It’s the first time her mouth has spoken that word in conjunction with herself to anyone but Kelley.

“Is that why you and Servando broke up?” Mike asks.

“No, of course not,” Alex says. “I haven’t told anyone. You two are the first.”

“You’re one amazing young woman, Alexandra,” Mike says. “I’m very proud of who you are.” He reaches for Pam, who sits in stunned silence, with his other hand. “This might take some… getting used to, but we love you so much.”

Tears stream down Alex’s face, and she buries her head in her hands.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” Mike asks. “It’s okay. It’s all okay.”

“I love you guys so much,” Alex says. “I was so scared to let you down.”

“Let us down?” Pam says suddenly. “You could never. You thought—I can’t believe—Alex, you are a good person. You are smart and strong and motivated and kind. Your heart is so big, and that’s all I ever wanted as a mother.” She wraps an arm around Alex, pulling her in tight to her bosom, where she so often found comfort and sustenance as a child. “The one thing that upsets me about this whole thing is that we haven’t met Kelley. Not for real.”

“Would you like to?” Alex asks. “It’s not the same as in person, but I’d like you to meet her. As more than my friend.”

“Of course,” her dad says. “I have to make sure her intentions are pure, after all.”

Alex stands up to get her phone from the counter, unlocking it to FaceTime Kelley, who answers almost immediately.

“Hey, is everything okay?” she asks, and Alex responds by smiling and turning the camera on her parents, who wave. “Oh. Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan!”

“Mom, Dad, this is Kelley. My girlfriend,” Alex says.

~

“I still can’t believe they thought a boy came between us,” Kelley laughs, rolling onto her side. She’s been fighting sleep for the past twenty minutes, but talking to Alex is always worth it.

“Get some sleep,” Alex says, yawning. “Santa’s coming.”

“Who needs Santa?” Kelley says. “I already have the best present.”

“Oh gag me,” Alex says. “That was so bad.”

“It’s true! Just keep that in mind when I give you your present.”

“Which will be when again?”

“When we’re back in Gainesville,” Kelley says. “We’ll do second Christmas.”

“Presents and second Christmas? Sounds like a killer first date.”

“I’m still working on that,” Kelley says. “I take dating very seriously.”

“Oh yeah? What are you planning?”

“Can’t tell you. But speaking of planning…”

Alex groans. “No, I haven’t planned out my next five years yet. I’ve been a little busy if you haven’t noticed.”

“Step one: Date the incomparable Kelley O’Hara.”

“Oh, it’s that easy?”

“Al,” Kelley says warningly. “I promise you’ll feel so much better when you do.”

“I know,” Alex says. “I’m thinking about it. I really am. What’s yours?”

“My what? My five-year plan?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Kelley teases. “How about this? I’ll tell you mine when you tell me yours. In the car on the way back to Gainesville. Got it?”

“Fine,” Alex agrees. “Now go to bed.”

“I’m already in bed.”

“Pedantic.”

“Merry Christmas.”

“And to all a good night,” Alex says with finality. “Sweet dreams. Merry Christmas.”

They finally end the call, and Alex sighs in contentment as she hears the sound of her sisters arriving home and coming up the stairs. She takes a deep breath and sits up, preparing herself for the ensuing conversation. While Kelley’s night comes to an end on the other side of the country, Alex’s has only just begun.

~

Kelley doesn't think she's ever been quite so uncomfortable at a party, and she's only just stepped through the door. Erin pulls her straight to the kitchen, a path Kelley knows like the back of the hand, and pours her a drink before she has to really see anyone.

When Erin suggested going to Ann's New Year's Eve party, Kelley fought like hell as hard as she could against the prospect. After a whole week of back and forth, Erin finally asked Kelley what could possibly be stopping her. When Kelley thought about it, she wasn't sure. Ann had been friendly when they ran into each other a few weeks ago. It's been almost four years since the huge blowup, and if Kelley's honest with herself most of the bad feelings she harbored toward Ann were rooted in her love for her—the love which now is, as far as Kelley can tell, gone.

Kelley turns to ask Erin for a lime and almost runs directly into Ann.

“Um, hi,” Kelley stammers.

“Hey,” Ann says. Her voice is gentle, just like Kelley remembers everything about Ann can be. “I'm glad you came. I tried texting you, but—”

“I changed my number,” Kelley says.

“I hoped you'd come,” Ann says. “I haven't stopped thinking about you since seeing you at Dairy Queen.” She notices the perturbed look on Kelley’s face and clarifies. “Not like that. Just like about us. That doesn't make it sound better.”

“Do you want to, like, talk?” Kelley asks, surprising herself with her boldness. She fidgets with her phone in her hand, not wanting to look at it and be rude, but desperately seeking the comfort Alex provides.

"Sure," Ann says, looking around to see where they can talk in private. "My room okay?"

"Not really," Kelley says. Ann nods in understanding.

"Outside, then," she decides. There's nothing too damning about the sun porch, Kelley guesses, but she has memories in every square inch of this house, so it would be impossible to go anywhere completely safe. "Can I get you anything?"

"I have my drink, I'm fine."

"Diet Coke and Malibu?" Ann smiles in a knowing way that irritates Kelley. She always teased her for her sweet drink of choice at parties, but always stole tiny sips anyway. When they'd return to one of their houses afterward, Ann seemingly couldn't get enough of the taste remaining on Kelley's lips.

"I haven't been able to stomach that for a while," Kelley says. "Vodka cranberry."

"Just as bad," Ann laughs. "Are you still dating that guy?"

"We broke up," Kelley says.

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"No, it's better," Kelley assures her, not sure why she feels the need to let Ann know she's okay.

"So that girl I met at Dairy Queen..."

Kelley isn't so sure met is the right word, but she nods. "My girlfriend."

"Good for you."

"You?"

"Single," Ann says. "Not looking. I've been having fun. The dating scene at Stanford is way better than it would be here. For me, anyway."

"Sure," Kelley agrees. Ann had been so excited to go somewhere she'd be able to find more people like her and her liberal-minded parents, something Georgia couldn't provide.

"I'm happy for you," Ann says. "I only wish this was the Kelley I had back then. Maybe it could have worked."

"Maybe we had to go through it," Kelley says. "I don't know if I ever would have come to terms with my feelings if I hadn't felt the way I did when you broke up with me."

"It sucked for me, too. Ending things with you was the hardest thing I've ever done, I think."

"We have that in common," Kelley says, sipping her drink. "Erin was right, this is a little easier with alcohol."

Ann laughs, sipping her own drink. "I miss you so much," she says. "I miss having someone who knew me so well, inside and out."

"Literally."

"There she is," Ann says. "That's a joke my Kelley never would have passed up."

"I'm not—" Kelley starts.

"I know," Ann says. "I think sometimes I just forget how much fun we had together, all those times we laughed until we cried and all the mornings I woke up holding you because all I think about is the bad stuff. Even the old stuff before we were together, like that time we went to Disney with my family and after the first day you got so sick so we just stayed in the hotel and watched movies while my parents went to Epcot and drank everything in sight."

“That could have been so awful, but it’s still one of my favorite memories," Kelley says. "When I dated Derek I never told him about any of it. I told him I had my heart broken in high school, but I just let him assume whatever he wanted. I don't know if he ever really even asked me about it."

"Men."

"No more of those for me," Kelley laughs. Ann picks up on it quickly.

"Never?" she asks.

Kelley shrugs. "I don't think so. Not that I can foresee."

"You can change your mind, you know," Ann says gently. "Nobody's forcing you to decide and settle on that as your only option forever."

Kelley laughs, but this one is less pleasant, more biting. "Funny you should say that."

"I know," Ann says. "I was wrong for doing that to you. You weren't ready, and I should have been more understanding. I've been trying to figure out how to apologize for almost four years."

"I've been trying to figure out how to apologize for making you wait," Kelley says. "I know you didn't want to be in that situation."

"But I loved you. And I should have respected your wishes and not put so much pressure on you."

"Yeah. And I shouldn't have been ashamed to love you," Kelley says. "I think we've both learned a lot."

"Maybe we did have to go through it," Ann nods sagely, repeating Kelley's earlier words.

"I think so. For what it's worth, I forgive you."

"And I forgive you," Ann says.

"That feels really good."

"Yeah," Ann breathes. "New year, huh?"

"Fresh start," Kelley says, smiling down at her phone, which is lighting up with texts from Alex.

"Tell me about her," Ann says, nodding to her phone. "You can text back, I don't mind."

Kelley replies quickly to Alex, an appropriate "I would expect nothing less" to her announcement that she had beat her whole family in Monopoly. When she was younger, she told Kelley a while back, she'd play by herself for hours and hours as a toddler to learn the game and get better so she could actually beat her sisters. When Kelley had challenged her to a game, Alex told Kelley she valued her friendship too much to do that to her.

"She's amazing," Kelley says. "We've been friends since August, but we just got together a few weeks ago. Right after we saw you that night, actually."

"You weren't dating then?" Ann gasps. "Wow. The way she looked at you, I was sure."

"We've heard that a lot," Kelley says with a smile, just thinking about everything she's heard from friends and family for the past few months.

"And just based on things on Facebook," Ann says. Kelley hid Ann on Facebook to avoid being the petty girl who blocks her ex on Facebook, but so she wouldn't have to see her footloose and fancy-free life anymore, so she always forgets Ann can still see what's going on in hers. "I'm so happy for you, Kel."

"Thanks," Kelley says. "I can't even begin to tell you how good it feels to be talking to you again."

"Likewise," Ann says. "That drink is looking a little low, are you ready to go back in?"

"As long as you promise to hang out with me some more and not abandon me for all those drunk people," Kelley says.

"Deal," Ann laughs. "We still have plenty to catch up on, I'm sure."

~

Kelley spends her countdown to midnight scrolling through her phone to call Alex.

"3... 2... 1!" Everyone cheers. "Happy New Year!" Erin kisses her boyfriend as Kelley hits the call button.

"Happy New Year!" Alex exclaims by way of greeting. "It's only 9 here, but how does the new year look?"

"Very promising," Kelley says. "I think you're going to love it."

"Oh yeah?" Alex laughs. "I think you're right. Where are you?"

"Party," Kelley says vaguely.

"I can tell from the background noise and your slurring," Alex teases. "Wish you were here."

"I wish you were here!" Kelley exclaims.

"Oh yeah?" Alex asks. "What would you do if I were there?"

"Kiss you," Kelley says. "So much kissing. Touch your boobs, too. If you let me."

"Easy there," Alex laughs. "I think if I were there I'd totally let you."

"Will you call me when it's midnight there?"

"It'll be 3 a.m. for you!"

"So?"

"You'll be asleep. You hate being woken up."

"I like being woken up by you."

"Good to know," Alex says. "Can I get that in writing?"

"Maybe another time," Kelley says. "I'm going to go, but happy New Year, pretty lady."

"Back atcha, cutie," Alex says before hanging up. Her face is red as she realizes her whole family has paused their movie to listen to her end of the conversation.

"So, Al, what would she do if you were there?" Jeni teases, met by a pillow Alex blasts at her face in response.

~

One annoying thing about going to school on the East Coast and going home to the West Coast is that the vast majority of your friends are ringing in the new year ahead of you. Even Press, Alex's fellow Californian, has been in New Jersey with Tobin since the day after Christmas.

And while Alex doesn't mind ringing in the new year with just her family, as is tradition (give or take some friends and significant others over the years), her disconnect from those friends means her final few hours of the year are spent scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, feeling like she's missing out majorly.

She laughs at Kelley's Instagram, a very Kelley picture of her on a couch, arms folded and scowling as Erin and her boyfriend on one side and another couple on the other share a kiss. "I hope it isn't true that you'll spend the year the way you ring it in..." reads the caption, accompanied by the eye roll emoji.

Alex decides to leave a comment. "So hearing my beautiful voice wasn't thrilling for you? #hurt"

After a round of Clue and Scattergories with her family, she checks her phone again to see a comment back from Kelley. "Would have had way more fun throwing popcorn at them if you were here @alexmorgan13," Alex slides open the notification to get to the picture, smiling as she considers Kelley missing her at a party.

Her smile fades when she sees another comment right underneath hers, this one from “@annbanan,” which she can’t imagine is a coincidence. It says “OMG Kel I can’t. Priceless as always, so happy you came!” Kelley had replied “@annbanan missed youuuu! So good to catch up. Don’t be a stranger!” Alex presses her name and is dismayed to find that it’s a private account, and no way in hell is she going to request to follow.

It’s 11:30 Alex’s time, and the comments are from an hour ago. She knows nothing she does between now and whenever she talks to Kelley next will help anyone, but that doesn’t stop her from going to Facebook to look at Kelley’s profile. Unsurprisingly, the most recent tagged picture was posted by Ann, and luckily for Alex, it looks to be from her Instagram.

It looks innocent enough, just a group picture with Erin and Jerry, Kelley’s brother, and his girlfriend, along with some other people Alex hasn’t ever seen before squished onto a couch, but what stands out to her most are Kelley’s arms around Ann’s waist as Ann sits on her lap to make room for the other people, her bare legs draped casually over Erin’s. The caption reads “Ringing in the new year with these absolute babes #HonoraryOHara”

When the clock strikes midnight, Alex doesn’t pretend to be having the time of her life, and she’s in bed by 12:05, unable to shake the thoughts of the comments or the picture. When she wakes up the next morning after a restless night of sleep, if you can even call it that, she has a text from Kelley.

“You didn’t call to wake me up :(“

Chapter Text

Alex spends the final days of her break growing more and more anxious about flying back to Georgia. She’s spending the night at Kelley’s again, but she’d be lying if she said she acted completely normal after New Year’s Eve. She’s been extra careful with her word choice when texting, and they haven’t spoken on the phone or FaceTimed since. Kelley doesn’t seem to notice, though, and she actually seems happier than before Christmas, though Alex could be overthinking things.

Still, when she steps off the escalator to the baggage claim where Kelley’s standing with a big, goofy grin on her face, the smile that spreads across her own is genuine. Alex walks quicker to hug her, and Kelley buries her face in Alex’s hair, breathing in the scent of cucumber and citrus that makes her feel safe and warm.

“You’re here,” Kelley murmurs, and Alex buries her head in her chest, where she stays while they wait for her bag. She doesn’t talk much, letting Kelley ramble about Christmas presents and family visitors as she looks for her Nike duffel, which Kelley spots first, reaching past her to grab it and sling it over her shoulder. She offers Alex her hand as they walk outside where there are considerably more people, but notes her hesitation and smiles tightly. It’s okay that she isn’t quite comfortable with that yet.

When they reach the car and both are in their respective seats, Kelley turns to kiss Alex just as Alex says “why didn’t you tell me about Ann?”

Kelley pulls away, shell-shocked. “What do you mean?”

“You saw her.”

“Yeah.”

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“I thought I—I called you from her house, Al.”

“You said you were at a party. You didn’t say whose.”

“I’m sorry,” Kelley says. “I was drunk, I guess I just wasn’t thinking.”

“That doesn’t make me feel much better,” Alex says quietly.

“We talked. I got some closure.”

“Some?”

“A lot,” Kelley says. “I feel a lot better. There’s obviously some stuff that will stay with me for a long time, but it felt really good to just talk to her. I’m really sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I thought you wouldn’t want to hear about it.”

“I don’t really,” Alex says. “The way I felt when I saw her picture was… I don’t even know how to describe it. I was just sad and missing you and I didn’t like that she got to touch you when I was across the country. And besides, as far as I knew you two weren’t on good terms. But I want to know things about your life, even when it’s stuff about your ex.”

“Tell me how much you want to talk about Servando.”

“That’s not fair, I didn’t see him over break. Especially without telling you.”

Kelley sighs. “What if we agree not to talk about exes in general?”

“What if we agree to just tell each other if something important is going on with us?”

“That sounds acceptable,” Kelley says, taking Alex’s hand as she pulls out of the parking lot. “Speaking of important, how are those goals coming along?”

~

When the morning light streams through Kelley’s bedroom window, Alex squints her eyes, opening them slowly. Kelley is beside her, lying on her stomach with an arm slung over Alex’s waist. She smiles when she sees Alex’s eyes open, her own weighed down with sleep.

“We need to be better about this whole not sleeping together thing,” Alex says.

Kelley kinks an eyebrow. “Trust me, I could have done a lot more than sleep if you’d been up for it.”

“Remember when you said you were just going to lay with me for a bit and then sleep in Erin’s room?”

“Then you started scratching my back,” Kelley whines. “It was easy when you were all the way across the world.”

“I mean sure, you had Ann.”

“Hey,” Kelley says, suddenly serious. “That’s not funny.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kelley doesn’t reprimand her for her apology, she just nods. “It’s really important to me that you know I would never do anything close to what Derek did to me to someone else. But mostly you.”

“Trust me, I wouldn’t be dating you if I thought you would.” Alex rolls toward Kelley to kiss her shoulder blade. “We have to leave soon.”

“No,” Kelley whines, wrapping her arms around Alex’s waist. “Real life can wait.”

“I agree,” Alex says. “But I miss our friends. And as much as I’m looking forward to five hours in the car with you, I think we’d both be awfully annoyed if we got stuck in traffic.”

Kelley groans as Alex rolls away from her and out of bed to get ready for the day. They say their goodbyes to Kelley’s family, and Kelley’s mom cries as she always does. Kelley reminds her it’s one of the last times they’ll do this, but they both know after college will likely be even worse and separate them by even longer distances for longer periods of time.

They start the ride by getting fuel: gas for the car, coffee for the girls, and Alex finally takes out her list of goals Kelley made her write. They start small, things like breaking her personal fundraising record for Dance Marathon ($5,486.23), journaling at least twice a week, and being open about what’s on her mind in all her relationships, particularly with Kelley.

When it comes to the big goals, Alex is shyer. She wants them to be realistic because she knows Kelley will hold her accountable to them, but she also knows Kelley will call her out for setting her sights too low.

“I really want to help people,” Alex says. “And I want to see the world. And I want to better myself.”

“Those are all fine goals,” Kelley says. “I want all of those too. So what are you going to do to accomplish those things?”

“I think I’m going to sign up to run a marathon,” Alex says. “It’s always been one of those things I figure I’ll do one day, but why not sooner rather than later? And I made a list of places I want to visit so I can start saving money to travel.”

“Am I invited?”

“Of course you are,” Alex grins.

“So if you’re saving money, where is that money coming from?” Kelley asks. They’ve talked about jobs after college a couple times, but never at great length, both knowing that there’s little to no guarantee they’ll end up anywhere near each other. Kelley’s major, environmental engineering, is far more specialized than Alex’s, which is economics. Alex’s minor, international development and humanitarian assistance, just gives her more tools in her back pocket to get jobs in the future. And as much as both think they want to stay together, even their friendship is too young to base their lives around one another, and their romance is even younger than that. They have time.

“I applied for a position with this nonprofit,” Alex says. “A few positions, actually. It helps women in countries and areas affected by war and conflict get educations and start their own small businesses, just anything that can empower them economically.”

“That’s incredible,” Kelley says. “What positions? Where is it?”

“It’s in D.C., but they have people working all over the world,” Alex says. “I applied for a few research and development positions and a few other random things. I could be a lobbyist in D.C. or a hands-on consultant in Afghanistan or Nigeria or any of the countries they work with.”

“Wow,” Kelley says. “That’s… far.”

“Well, I won’t know anything for a while,” Alex says. “Who knows if I’ll even take it if they offer.”

“Of course you will,” Kelley says. “These are your goals. That would accomplish all of them, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Alex says. “We’ll see.”

It takes them until the Florida-Georgia border for Kelley to speak up about what’s more pertinently on her mind.

“When we get to Gainesville, what’s going to happen?”

“What do you mean?” Alex laces her fingers through Kelley’s, leaning back in her seat and turning her face toward Kelley.

“Are things going to be different? Weird?”

“It’s all new for both of us,” Alex reminds her gently.

“I just don’t want our friends to be weirded out.”

“Do you want to tell them?”

Kelley pauses. Alex gives her the time she needs to think. “Yes,” she finally says definitively. “I want the world to know. But I don’t want it to change things. I love the way our friends are all friends, and I love being your friend.”

“We can still be friends,” Alex says. “I think you're beautiful, and I want to kiss you like non-stop and wake up beside you in the mornings, but that's not more important to me than having you as my best friend.”

“You might change your mind when we get past kissing,” Kelley teases.

“So let’s be friends,” Alex says. “When we’re with other people, we’ll keep it strictly professional. Maybe a hand squeeze and a kiss hello or goodbye. Nothing we wouldn’t do in front of our parents.”

“Unless we’re out dancing and you look too good to resist.”

“I usually do.”

“And when we’re alone, we can be as coupley and romantic as we want.”

“Like right now,” Alex says, lifting Kelley’s hand to her lips. “And Facebook?”

“I think we tell the people who need to know, and everyone else can assume what they will. God knows they have been already.”

“And Instagram?”

“No making out pictures,” Kelley says. Alex scrunches her nose up. “But everything else is fair game. I’m not going to pass up the likes I get whenever I post something with you in it, Miss Popular.”

“Press is way more popular.”

“Yeah because all the frat guys want to bang her and she’s too nice to tell them she’s not interested and they’re disgusting.”

“Has she ever…”

“With a frat guy? Never. She dated a Pike briefly. HAO introduced them. But he liked her more and she wasn’t interested, so it fizzled pretty quickly. What about Tobin?”

“Not that I know of,” Alex says. “She’s my best friend, but that’s one thing she’s really private about.”

“Press too,” Kelley says. “They’re perfect for each other.”

Alex chews at her lip for a minute before getting an idea. She takes her phone out and opens Snapchat, positioning the front-facing camera as she leans over to kiss Kelley on the cheek. Kelley can see what she’s doing, but she just grins because she can’t take her eyes off the road as she snaps the picture.

“Who are you sending that to?” Kelley asks.

“Everyone who matters,” Alex says, tapping out a caption. “How does this sound? ‘One last hurrah! Let’s do this one right.’”

“Only if you include a kissy face emoji.”

“You love that emoji,” Alex laughs, doing as she’s told. “There, sent. Tobin, Syd, Ashlyn, Ali, Press, am I missing anyone?”

“Uh yeah, me,” Kelley says.

“Don’t worry, I saved it,” Alex says, putting in her Kelley folder. She’s organized to a fault sometimes, but whenever someone needs a specific picture for a throwback Thursday Instagram or a birthday collage, she’s the one they go to. As soon as she’s finished, her phone starts ringing, and she laughs. Ashlyn. “Hello?” she answers, putting it on speaker.

“Um, is there something you wanted to tell us?” Ashlyn asks. Alex can hear Ali laughing in the background.

“I mean, not really,” Alex says. “You mean that we’re on our way back? Do you want to get dinner tonight or something?”

“Are you and Kelley getting it on or what?”

“Ashlyn!” Kelley scolds.

“I’m on speaker, so I’m assuming that’s a yes,” Ashlyn says, more to Ali than to Alex and Kelley. “It’s about damn time, you guys. When’s our first double date?”

“Sometime after our first actual date,” Kelley says. “I don’t need you two giving her unrealistic expectations.”

“Too late,” Ali pipes up. “We’re pretty hard to live up to.”

“But seriously, we’re getting into town around 4 or 5,” Alex says. “We should all go downtown for dinner to celebrate the new semester.”

“And the two of you finally getting your act together and figuring out you’re dating,” Ashlyn says. “Sounds good, just text us.”

“Not you, Kel, you keep your eyes on the road,” Ali says.

“Okay, we’ll see you guys tonight, I gotta get this, Syd is calling,” Alex says before switching the call over. It continues like this for the next half hour or so, their friends calling to make sure their theories are finally being confirmed and shrieking “I knew it!” when they say yes.

They finally find peace and quiet in the final miles into town, Kelley’s hand intertwined with Alex’s in Alex’s lap. Without words, they both appreciate the final moments of “just us” before getting back to the real world.

Chapter Text

Alex tries to get Kelley to give her hints every day leading up to their first official date, but Kelley won’t budge, no matter how many soft kisses Alex places on her neck (and there are a lot when they’re alone together).

All she can manage before Sunday night is that she should wear something casual (“But cute?” Alex asked. “But cute,” Kelley confirmed.) and that there will be food involved. Syd wants to help Alex get ready, but Tobin convinces Syd to go to the gym with her instead, knowing Alex prefers to relax on her own.

She listens to the January playlist Kelley was making when they were in Georgia, a collection of soft, soothing songs that feel like Kelley, while putting on her makeup and straightening her hair, mussing it so it wouldn’t look like she tried so hard. She settles on skinny jeans that hug her hips and thighs just the right way and a soft and slightly oversized long-sleeved button-down flannel.

At 6:54, the doorbell downstairs rings, and Alex rolls her eyes. Kelley would. She slips on the new brown boots Jeri got her for Christmas and swipes her lip gloss across her bottom lip once more.

Kelley is waiting at the bottom of the stairs talking to Christie when Alex appears at the top, and she turns away from her conversation to grin up at her. “You look beautiful.”

“You do,” Christie says. “Have fun, ladies!” She turns back toward the kitchen, but not before giving Alex a wink.

“Do I get to find out where we’re going yet?” Alex asks, taking Kelley’s hand as she steps off the final stair.

“Only because you’ve been so patient and not at all annoying about it,” Kelley says. “In return, I’ll tell you when we get there.”

It doesn’t take long to get downtown and to Alex’s favorite sushi restaurant, Dragonfly. She claps her hands together in excitement when they park, only partly because of how hard it is to find parking downtown. Kelley insists on opening the door for her, and Alex doesn’t hesitate before grabbing her hand, smiling proudly as they walk inside, where Kelley of course has reserved a candlelit table.

“This is really cute,” Alex says, leaning across the table at Kelley, who’s perusing the wine menu.

“I know it’s not much,” Kelley says. “I really didn’t want you to get your hopes up so high because I wanted it to be a surprise.” When the waitress comes by, she orders some sort of cabernet that Alex trusts her on.

“No, I was kind of worried it was going to be too much for a Sunday night,” Alex laughs. “I just wanted a nice, quiet night with you before school starts.”

“Don’t remind me.” The waitress comes back, pouring their wine into two glasses. “Thank you.” Kelley lifts her glass. “To one last semester.”

“And the best one yet,” Alex responds, clinking it against Kelley’s. After she takes the first sip (Kelley was right, it’s good), she tries to remember what they were talking about. “So school. It’s going to be great,” Alex says. “You only have class Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Yeah, but my internship is every other day.”

“Welcome to the real world, my friend,” Alex laughs. “But coffee dates when you’re on campus, right?”

“You bet,” Kelley says. “And you can feel free to bring me lunch at work every other day.”

“Hmm, I’ll think about it,” Alex says. “I do have Fridays off, so you could be in luck. Are you nervous?”

“A little.”

“About what? I went shopping with you, so you’re going to look good. And you know what they say, look good, feel good, work good or whatever.”

“Did you get that from Ali?”

“Maybe,” Alex shrugs. “It’s true, though.”

“I’m just anxious that I’ll get there and I’ll have no idea what I’m doing.”

“You’re just an intern, they aren’t expecting you to know everything. But they also wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t going to be great for the job. You’re smart and capable and hungry to learn, and those are the things that will make you successful. You’re going to kill it and be the best damn intern they’ve ever had.” She takes a sip of wine. “Meanwhile I’ll be slaving away in the library Monday through Thursday.”

“Will not, social butterfly,” Kelley says. “I’m worried you’re never going to study if I’m not around.”

“I guess you’ll have to be around as much as possible, then.”

“You’re going to be hard-pressed to keep me away.”

~

After dinner, they linger at the table for far longer than they should, holding hands over the table and drinking water, neither wanting to start the semester with a wine hangover.

“I was going to take you to the lake to hang out, but it’s kind of late,” Kelley says as she signs the check.

“That’s okay,” Alex says. “We can do that later this week. It’s the thought that counts. Thank you for dinner, by the way.”

 

“Of course,” Kelley says, slipping an arm around Alex’s waist. When they get to the car, Kelley reaches for the passenger side door handle, but Alex intercepts her hand and squeezes it.

“Thanks for tonight,” Alex says, leaning down to press a kiss to Kelley’s lips. Holding hands in public is one thing, but Kelley can’t believe she’s kissing her in the middle of downtown where everyone is milling about celebrating their last night of freedom.

Kelley responds in kind, leaning into Alex so she’s pressed against the car door. Somebody whistles, and Kelley pulls away quickly, her head darting around to find the source.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Alex says quietly. She kisses Kelley’s cheek again. “Let’s go.” Kelley nods and opens the door for her, looking around still as if she’ll magically locate whoever it was.

Alex plugs in her phone to play the January playlist, her hand tracing circles on Kelley’s knee and humming as she drives, but Kelley doesn’t seem amused.

“Did that bother you? That guy whistling?” Alex asks.

“No,” Kelley replies immediately. “Maybe. A little, I guess.”

“Why?”

“Didn’t it bother you?”

“Not really,” Alex shrugs. “That’s why I thought maybe you wouldn’t be fazed. Like, I guess I figured you’d have more experience with that, so I tried to prepare myself.”

“Ann and I weren’t really out,” Kelley says, pulling in to park in the ADPi parking lot, and Alex nods, understanding. “I guess it’s not so bad here, I know a lot of gay people who don’t have an issue. But would they have done that if you were kissing a guy? Or vice versa.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Alex says. “But I don’t care. I do care about you being uncomfortable, though.”

“Maybe it’ll take some getting used to,” Kelley says.

“Maybe you’ll have to kiss me a lot more in that case,” Alex suggests, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Not the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Kelley says, unbuckling and leaning over to place a kiss on Alex’s lips, cupping her chin.

“Come inside,” Alex murmurs.

Kelley shakes her head. “If I come in, I won’t leave. And I need to be well-rested before my first day tomorrow.”

“I’ll scratch your back.”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.” Kelley kisses Alex again, this time firmer, with purpose. “Make out with me.”

“This is so high school,” Alex laughs against Kelley’s lips, but she obliges, gripping Kelley’s hair as Kelley leans over the console, her tongue darting out to gently part Alex’s lips.

“I doubt any of the boys you kissed in high school were this good.”

“Not even close,” Alex says, biting Kelley’s bottom lip. “And I know for a fact I'm a better kisser than Derek.”

Kelley laughs. “That's so weird.”

“What? That I kissed your ex?”

“That,” Kelley says. “And the fact that the last person each of us had sex with is the same person.”

“We’ll have to fix that one of these days,” Alex says.

“Yeah?” Kelley's interest is piqued.

“I mean, how long did you expect me to go without an orgasm? Aside from the ones I give myself, of course.”

“I guess I hadn't really thought about it,” Kelley says. Lies. Thinking about that is how she spends most of her time these days, but she doesn't dare bring it up for fear that the thought will scare Alex away. It's stupid, she's her girlfriend for crying out loud. Isn't that supposed to happen eventually? But the thought of Alex… taking care of herself gets to Kelley in a way she can't explain.

“I'm good taking things slow,” Alex says. “Not to mention we both have roommates. And I'm not screwing you in your backseat. But yeah, I figured eventually we might be intimate. I didn't want to be your girlfriend just for the free dinners.”

“You're treating next time,” Kelley says.

“You bet.”

“Get some sleep, sweetheart,” Kelley says, pecking Alex on the lips, but Alex grabs the back of her head when she tries to pull away. “I could stay out here all night with you.”

“Or you could come in,” Alex tries again.

“Nope,” Kelley says, popping the ‘p’ as she kisses Alex’s cheek. “Have a good first day of school, okay?”

“You have a good first day of work,” Alex says. “Thank you for an amazing first date. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It’s not a question, it never is.

~

When Alex gets to her room, Tobin and Syd are waiting up for her, watching something Sydney must have chosen because Mark Ruffalo is on the screen and Tobin is texting away.

“You look deflowered,” Sydney says.

“Syd!” Alex exclaims. “I lost my virginity when I was 17.”

“Okay, but your lady virginity.”

“Not a thing,” Tobin deadpans.

“It kind of is,” Alex says.

“I knew it! You banged!”

“We didn’t have sex,” Alex says. “But I’m definitely more nervous about when it does happen than I would be with a guy.”

“It’s not that hard,” Tobin says. “I mean, you’ve made out with her, right?”

“Obviously.”

“Well just keep doing that but further south. And you don’t keep your nails long, so you should be fine there.”

“Why would—oh,” Sydney says, looking at her own talons.

Alex turns red. “I know… things.”

“Okay, okay, so in more important news,” Sydney says. “Or at least in news that won’t freak you out. Tell us about the date!”

“We went to Dragonfly,” Alex says, smiling as she takes out her earrings, setting them on the vanity.

“Are those mine?”

“Maybe,” Alex says. “We had a couple glasses of wine and shared a few sushi rolls, then we just came back and sat in her car for a little bit.”

“Made out,” Sydney says.

“We kissed a bit,” Alex admits.

“Is it weird to go from being friends to being more?” Tobin asks.

“You tell me, Mrs. Press,” Alex says, ducking out of the way of the pillow Tobin throws at her from Alex’s bed.

“For what it’s worth, I can tell you’re happy,” Sydney says, pulling Alex onto her bed, squeezing her tight. “And that’s what matters to me.”

“And to me,” Tobin says, jumping onto the bed to join them.

“Just as long as you don’t sexile us,” Syd says.

“You’re more than welcome to watch,” Tobin says.

“Don’t give her any ideas,” Alex says, seeing the wheels in Sydney’s head spinning.

Alex’s phone buzzes on the vanity and she hops up to see a text from Kelley saying “Home! I had fun tonight. Can’t stop thinking about you tonight, but what else is new?”

Followed by that damn kissy face emoji.

~

Kelley’s not sure what she was expecting from the first day of her environmental engineering internship, but she’s barely onboarded before she’s strapped with a project. Well, technically she’s just assisting on the project, but she has tons of research and tasks to complete. She barely breaks for lunch, despite her new boss telling her at least ten times that she can step away to breathe. She loves it, that much is a given, but she’s wiped out by the end of the day, brain fried and neck aching.

Alex texts her while she’s on the way home to invite her over after chapter, but Kelley can’t imagine being anywhere but her bed after today, which she tells Alex. Alex responds with a sad face and a “see you tomorrow then?” and Kelley compromises by asking Alex to come over to her place instead. Truthfully, she wants to see Alex, but she also wants to be in her own room where things are usually quiet. Alex’s is always more of a toss-up, especially considering Syd’s residence five feet away.

Chapter is casual dress, so Kelley changes into her pajamas as soon as she gets home, ignoring the eye rolls she gets from some of the more prim and proper sisters on the executive board. She barely keeps her eyes open throughout, and as soon as she hears buzzing about the room about getting frozen yogurt when it’s over, she’s out of there and up the stairs.

She doesn’t even realize she’s fallen asleep until she feels a dip on the empty side of her bed where Alex is gently sneaking in.

“Hi,” Alex whispers. “If you don’t want company, I’ll go.”

“No, stay,” Kelley says, lifting her head from its spot in the pillow. She knows her face must have lines on it from the fabric, but it feels so good. “I’m just exhausted. How was your day?”

“Good,” Alex says, running a hand through Kelley’s hair. “Syllabus week, so not much learning. I went to the hospital because I had a long break and got some letters of recommendation from the doctors and parents for my job applications.”

“You’re so proactive, I’m proud,” Kelley says, a genuine grin spreading across her face.

“Tell me about the internship! You sounded really distracted when you were texting me.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty full on,” Kelley says. “I’m not just at a desk all day, which is good, but it takes a lot out of you. I missed you.”

“I missed you more,” Alex says. “I’m going to have to figure out some way to spend my days now.”

“You could start training for that marathon.”

“I have!” Alex says. “I ran eight miles today.”

“Damn, maybe you’re the one who needs a massage.”

“Nah, I took a nice bath,” Alex says, but she takes Kelley’s suggestion, leaning over her to rub circles under her shoulder blades with the heels of her hands.

“Oh my God,” Kelley groans. “That’s amazing.”

“I’m really good at massages,” Alex says. “I did them for my whole soccer team in high school after trainings.”

“How did you not know you liked girls?” Kelley laughs.

“Shut up and take off your shirt,” Alex says, poking around Christen’s belongings till she seems to find what she’s looking for. “Do you have a towel?”

“What?” Kelley asks, turning around, but Alex has already grabbed one from her drawer.

“Massage oil,” Alex says. “It’s going to feel amazing, but I don’t want to mess up your sheets.”

“How'd you know Press had that? I didn't even know she had it.”

“Don't worry about it.” She lays down the towel, and Kelley lies on it, face down, dressed only in her underwear: a sports bra and her boy shorts. “This is going to sound like a really bad line from a creepy frat guy, but you should really take your bra off, trust me. It’ll feel way better.”

“Stop trying to get in my pants,” Kelley teases, but she sits up and tugs off her sports bra anyway, smirking at how Alex turns her head so she won’t get an eyeful. “You can look now,” she says when she’s back down on her chest.

“Perfect,” Alex says, adjusting the speakers on Kelley’s desk as she starts the music, Band of Horses gently floating through the room. She brushes Kelley’s hair over her shoulder so it’s out of the way and squeezes the massage oil out, gently drizzling it over Kelley’s back. She sets it to the side and ties her own hair up in a messy bun so she won’t have to touch it after getting her hands all oily. “Take deep breaths.”

Kelley takes a deep breath in, trying to steady her racing heart as Alex just barely touches her back, lathering it with the oil that smells like shea butter and vanilla. She can feel Alex standing over her from the side of her bed, but it doesn’t take long for both girls to realize that this angle isn’t ideal for treating both sides of her body equally.

Without asking permission, Alex straddles Kelley’s thighs, sitting back on her knees as her fingers dig deep into Kelley’s aching back muscles. “Tell me if anything hurts or doesn’t feel good, okay?” Alex says.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Kelley manages, gasping when Alex hits a particularly tight knot. “Right there. Oh my God.”

Alex alternates between light touches and digging in deep with her hands and fingers and knuckles and elbows, making Kelley’s spine tingle. Alex can’t resist when Kelley whimpers and sighs with appreciation, and she leans down to kiss her neck.

“If I had a certain other body part, you’d know exactly what you’re doing to me right now.” Kelley groans. “I’m suddenly jealous of your entire soccer team.”

“Trust me, I’m sure a few of them would be jealous of you if they knew this was happening,” Alex laughs. Her hands massage Kelley’s arms for a bit before brushing the sides of her breasts in a move Kelley can’t figure out was purposeful or not.

Alex’s thumbs dig into her lower back, just under the waistband of her shorts before she moves to massage Kelley’s thighs, too close to where Kelley really would want her if it were the right time. She doesn’t spend too long there, just long enough that Kelley wonders if Alex can tell how turned on she is. Her hands rub what’s left of the oil into Kelley’s neck and shoulders, and her lips come down to kiss right behind Kelley’s ear, a spot Alex knows for a fact is sensitive, and that’s it. Kelley can’t take anymore.

Alex squeals as Kelley turns to flip her over, realizing a bit too late that Alex is fully clothed and she, well, is not. Alex assesses the situation quickly, pulling her shirt over her head and unbuttoning her jeans. “That’s better,” Alex breathes before Kelley assaults her neck with nips and licks and kisses.

“I hope every day at work is that exhausting if that's what I get to look forward to.”

“I have class on Thursdays from 8:30 to 3:45 with like one break in the middle, so you better return the favor.”

“I'm nothing if not fair,” Kelley murmurs, her hands gripping Alex’s sides as she goes back to kissing her, light and soft pecks before Alex holds her head in place to deepen the kiss, her leg slotting between Kelley’s. When Kelley moves to get comfortable, her hips pressing into Alex’s, she feels Alex smile at the friction. She makes a mental note to herself to do that more.

Alex is so busy exploring Kelley’s mouth with her tongue and Kelley’s back with her hands that Kelley isn't even fazed by the fact that she's completely topless and that she's getting more turned on by the second by someone she's supposed to “take it slow” with.

That is, until Christen walks in and turns on the light. Kelley immediately jumps off of Alex, rolling over and covering herself with the towel left over from the massage.

Christen shrieks, covering her eyes. “I'm so sorry!” she exclaims, closing the door probably louder than she should for a Monday night.

“Oh my God, is Kelley having sex?” a voice from outside hisses. Hope. Kelley groans and turns to look at Alex, who is bright red and looks like she's on the verge of tears. Suddenly, Kelley’s embarrassment moves to the back burner as she pulls on a shirt.

“Alex, are you okay?” Kelley asks, searching desperately for Alex’s shirt.

“I'm fine,” Alex says. “Where's my shirt?”

“Here,” Kelley says, tossing it over when she finds it on her side of the bed. Alex slides off the bed and pulls it over her head hastily, but Kelley can't help but taking in her incredible body before it's covered.

“I'm going to go home,” Alex says.

“You don't have to,” Kelley says, looking at the time on her phone.

“I'm not going to keep Press out of her room,” Alex says, having been in that situation one too many times with Sydney.

“That's okay, just stay and we can hang out with her too. She's back now, remember our deal about friends?”

“Kelley,” Alex groans. “I can't.”

“You can't what? This wasn't a booty call. I want to hang out with you.”

“I can't be here with you when that just happened,” Alex says, taking a deep, steadying breath. “I need to go take a cold shower and go to bed.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Kelley laughs.

“I have homework,” Alex says. She leans back over Kelley’s bed to peck her on the lips. “Thanks for the booty call.” She winks, and Kelley pouts, enticing Alex to place another kiss on her lips.

“Can I take you home at least?”

“I have my scooter,” Alex says.

“Do you need me to walk you out?”

“It's probably better if you don't,” Alex says, and Kelley has to admit she's probably right. The girls won't mess with Alex, but Kelley will get plenty of shit if she shows her face. “See you tomorrow.”

When Alex gets outside, it's significantly colder than she remembers it being earlier, and she takes a few deep, shaky breaths. She's not sure what got to her more, getting caught or knowing that if they hadn't gotten caught, Alex would have absolutely pushed it to the next level, no questions asked.

It's something she hasn't let herself think about, not for real, even though the thought of having sex with Kelley sends shivers—the good kind—all over her body. She's not scared, not of sex itself, Sydney's “lady virginity” theory aside, but of not living up to Kelley’s expectations. And, somewhere deep down, not living up to her own.

Telling her sisters had been significantly harder than telling her parents, namely because they know her on a much deeper level. They've talked about boys, fought over clothes, and defended each other against anyone who dared hurt one of the others, and they were real with Alex.

Jeri was the bluntest, asking Alex how she could be sure of her sexuality when sex was the one thing she hadn't experienced with Kelley.

“You knew you were straight before having sex with a guy,” Alex argued. Jeri had shrugged and admitted she was right. Alex didn't mind the questions and concerns, knowing they were just trying to understand and that they had to process it at their own speed. At the very root of the issue was their concern for Alex’s well-being, the safety of her heart in someone else’s hands.

“I just want to make sure you’re not doing this as a rebound,” Jeni said.

“Derek was a rebound. Kelley is not.”

“We’re happy for you,” Jeri had said, wrapping her arms around Alex. “And we’ll support you no matter what.”

Still, Alex couldn’t shake their words. She’s not sure whether it’s nerves about doing something she’s never done before or actual doubts, but back in Kelley’s room felt right, like she would have known exactly what to do had it gotten to that point. She stops halfway through writing her personal statement for her job applications when she realizes she can’t concentrate on anything but the memory of Kelley’s lips on hers, the way Kelley’s body moved on top of hers, the feeling of her fingers digging into Kelley’s back, the sounds that left Kelley’s mouth when she pressed her hips to Alex’s.

She entertains the idea of going back, if only because she misses Kelley’s warmth when she sleeps, but she knows it’s too late and she needs to sleep it off or take a cold shower or something to bring her body and mind back into a neutral state. But when Kelley texts her to say good night, Alex has a better idea.

“Goodnight sweetheart,” Kelley writes. “I’m happy I got to see you and sad you had to go. The massage was heavenly.” She includes an angel emoji and the praise hands.

“I was sad to go too,” Alex texts back. “I’ll make sure Tobin keeps her out later next time.”

“Hahaha,” Kelley says. “Sounds like a plan. Probably a good thing she came back when she did.”

Alex bites her lip, her fingers ghosting over the keyboard as she decides what to say. “Why’s that?”

“I mean…”

“Are you worried you would have ruined my virtue? ;)”

“Oh my Goddddd, you’re a piece of work. Go to bed,” Kelley says, accompanied by five eyeroll emojis.

“I’m serious,” Alex texts. She immediately follows it up with another, just in case her implication wasn’t clear. “Tell me what you would have done if I had stayed.” Then another. “Or do you want me to start?”

Not long after she presses send, Alex discovers that sometimes the best way to deal with your fears is to face them head-on. Or something like that, at least.

Chapter Text

The feeling of waking up on Valentine's Day when you have an actual Valentine who you actually get to see in person is akin to Christmas morning.

Alex has always been a bigger fan of holidays like this, that celebrate more than one person, than things like your birthday, when all the attention is one way. As excited as she is for whatever Kelley has in store for tonight, she's even more excited to spoil Kelley. It’s also technically their two-month anniversary and a Sunday (Alex’s favorite day of the week) and the day before President’s Day, which is giving them a long weekend.

She expects to wake up to Kelley crawling into her bed because she had promised they would spend the whole day together, but instead she wakes up to her phone ringing. She opens one eye just enough to slide it to answer.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, baby,” she mumbles, smiling and stretching out.

“Well happy Valentine’s Day to you too,” says not Kelley with a chuckle.

“Abby?” Alex says. “I’m sorry, I just woke up. I figured you were—”

“Kelley,” Abby finishes. “Sorry to disappoint!”

After her family, Abby was the next person Alex told about Kelley, to which she received an expected “told you so.” But Abby has been nothing but supportive; she's been Alex’s mentor through so many things, it only makes sense that this would be the same.

“So what are your plans for tonight?” Abby asks.

“Well, we’re spending the whole day together,” Alex says. “I'm expecting her whenever she wakes up. Then Lake Wauburg and Pub subs for lunch and a nice dinner out.”

“Then?” Abby asks expectantly.

“Then nothing,” Alex says, blushing. “If anything happens you'll be the first to know.”

“So you want it to.”

“No. Yeah. I mean, kind of! But mostly I want to enjoy the day with her.”

“So what underwear are you wearing?”

“Just this pink set I got from Victoria’s Secret when I went shopping with Syd last week.”

“Ha!” Abby says. “Liar.”

“What?” Alex asks. “It's just like a bra and normal panties.”

“Yes, but you put thought into it,” Abby says. “Oh my God, are you nervous?”

“I am now!” Alex exclaims.

“Don't be, you'll blow her mind,” Abby says.

“I'm hanging up on you,” Alex warns, another call coming through. Kelley. “Actually I definitely am, my Valentine is calling. Talk to you soon!” She switches lines without saying goodbye. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” she answers cheerily.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Kelley says, her voice laced with sleep. Alex smiles, knowing this had to have been the first thing Kelley did upon waking up. “Are you ready for a fun-filled day full of fun?”

“Yeah, but I guess I could hang out with you instead,” Alex teases. “Picking me up?”

“I'll change and be right over.”

“Never change,” Alex says. “Are you bringing a bathing suit? It's kind of chilly.”

“Yeah, hopefully it warms up, I want to paddle board.”

Their bathing suits stay in their bags, and they don't take off their sweatshirts the whole time, but they find other fun things to do at the lake aside from cuddling in Kelley’s hammock and tracing circles in each other’s palms, talking lazily about nothing at all.

Even when Kelley talks about research and conservation and boring internship things, Alex looks at her like what she's saying is the most important thing she's ever heard. That is, when she's not staring at her lips and waiting for Kelley to stop talking so she can have a kiss.

They play beach volleyball, first alone, then with a group of people who arrive at the shore later, and enjoy the subs they picked up at Publix on the way to the lake. They fall asleep in the hammock, Kelley folded into Alex with her head on Alex’s chest and arms around Alex's waist, her favorite sleeping position. Alex gently nudges Kelley awake when the sun begins to set, and they watch it set over the horizon of the lake, holding onto each other for warmth as the air starts to cool.

“Are we going back to your place after dinner?” Alex asks as they walk hand in hand to the car. It’s the only option that makes sense, really, considering Sydney is in town and doesn’t have any real Valentine’s Day plans except to get drunk off free drinks from lonely guys. Tobin and Press, on the other hand, are off on a camping trip alone and isolated from the world, but together, exactly their idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day.

“I guess,” Kelley says. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” That’s a lie. “Do you want to go to yours instead?”

“No, no,” Alex says. “I was just wondering. You don’t have, like, nice reservations or anything, do you?”

“Kinda, I guess,” Kelley says. “Not too fancy.” Another lie. She polled all her friends to figure out the best place to take Alex for Valentine’s Day dinner and decided on a restaurant whose head chef had won the Iron Chef competition. It’s expensive as hell, and she had to all but rip off a limb to get the table, but she knew Alex would be excited. “Why?”

“I’ve had so much fun with you today,” Alex says. “But I’m exhausted and I can’t think of a more perfect dinner than in your bed in our pajamas eating Chinese food and watching a movie.”

“You know what? That sounds perfect,” Kelley agrees. And it does. Because as excited as Kelley is about seeing the look on Alex’s face when she saw the amazing dishes on the menu, she is looking forward to after dinner even more.

She’s not convinced anything will even happen, but their normal alone time has progressed to the point where Kelley has to cut it off before she gets so worked up she might resent Alex if she put an end to it. Not that she could ever resent Alex, she thinks, but they’ve texted far dirtier things than they’ve ever done together, and aside from a great deal of “accidental” grinding and shirtless makeouts, they haven’t come close.

Alex pays for the takeout, which Kelley thinks must have been her plan all along judging by the smirk on her face. None of the usual suspects are around the Kappa house, most on dates with significant others or celebrating being single somewhere with lots of alcohol, so they escape easily to Kelley’s room, where instead of a movie, they decide to watch Kelley’s new favorite show, The 100. Alex has already seen it twice, but she told Kelley she’d watch with her because she’d been bugging her for so long to start it and catch up to the current season.

After two episodes and a few lingering kisses (and far too many questions from Kelley and just as many “shut up and watch the show!” responses from Alex), the food is gone and Kelley’s toes are running up and down Alex’s calf mindlessly.

“I think I’m kinda done with this for now,” Alex says, kissing Kelley’s cheek lightly. She pulls away, biting her lip nervously, and she looks so wide-eyed and innocent that Kelley is concerned about how sexy she finds it.

“Yeah, same,” Kelley says. “I’ll take the food downstairs.”

“You do that,” Alex nods, helping Kelley gather the plates and chopsticks on the night stand. As soon as Kelley leaves, Alex rummages through her bag, moving quickly to rid herself of clothes and change into the lingerie she picked out for this very occasion. She doesn’t know when she got the idea or the guts to do something so bold, but she thinks it might have to do with the nap she took while tangled up with Kelley in the hammock and the dream she had during it.

On some level, Abby had been right about the underwear thing, but Alex had just been prepared for something to happen, not to be the one to initiate it. Does it even count as initiating it if Kelley is the one who makes the first move after seeing Alex in the tantalizing attire she selected specifically for this night? The two will likely argue about it for years to come.

When she hears Kelley coming back up the stairs, she fixes her hair and settles on the bed, propping herself up against the pillows and the headboard.

“Hey, Al, do you—” Kelley says as she opens the door, but she cuts herself off when she sees Alex. “Holy shit.”

Alex giggles, looking down at herself before looking back up, blushing. She waits for Kelley to say something more, but she hasn’t moved from the doorway. “Well are you just going to stand there?” she asks. “Anyone walking by could see me right now, you know.”

“We can’t have that,” Kelley says, closing the door. “Lex—” She doesn’t call her that often, mostly when soothing her during a stressful study session or when showing her appreciation when Alex is biting at her neck.

“Come on, it’s a brand new set,” Alex teases.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I just got it two days ago.”

“No, I mean, about this.”

“Kelley O’Hara, do not tell me you don’t want to have sex with me,” Alex says, sitting up on her elbows. “I can show you your own texts if you’d like.”

“I do,” Kelley says. “So much.” She comes toward the bed and sits at the end, her hand finding Alex’s knee. Alex sits fully upright now, feeling increasingly self-conscious by the second. “I need to tell you something first though. I was going to tell you tonight so I don’t want you to think this—” She nods toward Alex “—has anything to do with it, okay?”

“Okay,” Alex says, her heart picking up in pace. She folds her arms across her chest nervously.

“I love you,” Kelley says.

Alex isn’t sure what she was expecting her to say, but it certainly wasn’t that. “Oh.”

“You don’t have to say it back,” Kelley says. “That’s not why I’m telling you. I just want you to know that you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and I’ve loved you as my best friend for a while now, but I love you on a totally different level now. I just needed you to know before we do this.”

“Do what?” Alex asks, raising an eyebrow. She brings Kelley’s hand to her lips, kissing it before bringing it down so Kelley’s fingers brush past Alex’s collarbones and into the valley between her breasts, courtesy of the best push-up Alex could find for her size. “Show me what you’re talking about.”

Kelley does as directed, leaning over Alex to kiss her, tentatively brushing her sides with her fingers. Her tongue slides across Alex’s lips and into her mouth as her thumbs rub circles underneath the wire of her bra.

Alex tugs at Kelley’s shirt, a loose-fitting tank top that flows over tiny shorts that are barely visible underneath the top. Kelley pulls away, allowing Alex to pull the shirt over her head before tossing it to the side. In an instant, Kelley’s lips are back on Alex’s, applying bruising pressure. Alex’s legs wrap around Kelley’s thighs, and she lifts her hips to adjust her grip on the shorter girl.

.Alex’s fingers fumble for Kelley’s bra clasp, tugging the straps down her shoulders. “I want you more naked,” she says against Kelley’s lips.

“Not my fault you got a head start.” Kelley helps Alex pull her shorts down her legs, and Alex uses the opportunity to take advantage of a distracted Kelley and flip them over so she’s in a position of power. “Lex.”

“Let me do this,” Alex murmurs, her lips pecking their way down Kelley’s jaw. She pulls back as if assessing an appropriate place to find rest, finally settling on a spot at the top of Kelley’s breast that should be hidden from view in public. She bites and sucks at the spot, her hand coming up to caress Kelley’s other breast, smiling to herself as she feels Kelley’s nipple harden under her touch. Instant gratification.

“That feels good, baby,” Kelley breathes, her hand stroking Alex’s hair.

Alex hooks her thumbs underneath the waistband of Kelley’s underwear, pulling them off as she kisses her way down Kelley’s torso until she reaches her hipbones. She drags her teeth along Kelley’s taut stomach, enjoying the short breaths coming from Kelley’s mouth.

When Kelley has just about gotten used to that sensation, Alex switches it up. She sits up to remove her own bra before covering Kelley’s body with hers, completely skin to skin with the exception of Alex’s underwear. Alex palms Kelley’s breasts, rolling both nipples between her thumbs and her forefingers as Kelley bites at Alex’s lips.

The sensation sends a shock straight to Kelley’s core, and Alex seems to know it, because she slides one hand down to where Kelley needs it most, her fingers trepidatiously venturing into Kelley’s wetness, making both girls gasp.

“God, you’re so—” Alex starts, but her face turns pink because she’s embarrassed to go on. The truth is, she feels ready for this. She’s asked Ashlyn and Abby plenty of questions over the past few weeks, hardly being subtle, but she had to make sure this would be as good for Kelley as possible. It still doesn’t mean she feels totally confident and comfortable now that they’re in the moment, though.

“Tell me,” Kelley says, breathing shallowly as Alex’s fingers rub against her. She feels Alex’s hesitance, but she knows if Alex opens up a bit, she’ll get comfortable. She knows that from plenty of late-night texts and “what if?” conversations.

“You’re so wet,” Alex says, kissing her collarbone. She sucks a nipple into her mouth, letting it go with a pop before settling between Kelley’s legs, gently nudging them farther apart. The fingers on her right hand, wet with Kelley’s arousal, settle on Kelley’s hip as her tongue swipes gently over where her fingers just were. She stops at her clit, sucking it between her lips and making Kelley moan, really moan for the first time.

The approval spurs her on, and her movements get sloppier, her lips and tongue exploring more and more. She tastes different than Alex expected, but the sounds coming from Kelley and the fingers in Alex’s hair serve as encouragement she didn’t know she needed to feel more confident in her actions.

“Baby,” Kelley gasps. “Use your fingers.” Alex obeys without question, slipping her index finger between Kelley’s folds. “More.” Alex’s middle fingers joins in on the action, and Kelley squirms underneath her. whimpering. “Yes, God, Lex. Please.”

Alex works her fingers in and around Kelley’s vagina while her tongue explores her clit. When Kelley’s breathing quickens and her hips grind against Alex’s fingers, Alex gives her one final swipe with her tongue before moving up to kiss Kelley’s lips, her fingers pulling out but still rubbing against her lazily.

“I’m almost there,” Kelley breathes as Alex increases the pressure of her fingers against Kelley’s clit. She opens her eyes just enough to be able to see Alex.

“I can see that,” Alex says, pulling away to look at Kelley’s face. “I wanted to be right here with you when you come.”

“Please, baby,” Kelley whines, completely helpless beneath her.

Alex quickens her pace, rubbing quick, solid circles against Kelley’s clit as Kelley’s eyes flutter shut again. “I love you,” Alex whispers, and Kelley’s eyes fly open as she moans out her orgasm, her legs clamping shut as Alex brings her down, rubbing her through it.

“Oh my God, oh my God, fuck, Alex,” Kelley gasps between heaving breaths as Alex watches her in adoration. She pulls Alex down to kiss her while she’s still shaking, and Alex pulls her hand away to grip Kelley’s waist, holding her tight. “Where in the world did you learn how to do that?”

“The internet is an amazing place,” Alex teases. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“You could say that,” Kelley says. “At the end, when you said—did I dream that?”

“No,” Alex laughs. “I love you. I was going to tell you the same thing tonight. Well, I wanted to, but I was scared.”

“What was scarier? The sex or saying that?”

“Probably the sex,” Alex says. “Once I did that, saying I love you was a lot easier.”

“And you knew I loved you too.”

“That also helped,” Alex says, smiling. She kisses Kelley again, rolling over her so she’s straddling one leg. Her underwear is damp from the wetness that formed when she was getting Kelley off, and Kelley feels it.

“Sweetheart,” Kelley says, her hands moving down Alex’s back to cup her ass over her underwear. “These need to go.”

“Take them off, then,” Alex says with a smirk. That’s all it takes for Kelley to flip her over, her lips peppering kisses all over Alex’s neck and chest while Alex shimmies out of her underwear beneath her, kicking it off so they’re both completely naked.

Kelley gets to the point more quickly than Alex did, mainly because they’ve both had time to get comfortable by now. Alex feels different than Ann did, she tastes different and sounds different, though Kelley hesitates to compare them. When she catches herself doing it in her head, she feels guilty, like she’s betraying Alex in some way. And now is certainly not the time to think about Ann.

Alex writhes beneath Kelley, her legs wrapping around Kelley’s shoulders. “Kel, please,” Alex whimpers. Kelley’s fingers twist inside Alex, her thumb replacing her tongue on Alex’s clit as she kisses the inside of Alex’s thigh, heightening every sensation Alex was already feeling.

Alex throws her head back as Kelley reaches her free hand to cup Alex’s breast, her fingertips circling her nipple. She adds pressure to Alex’s clit and breast at the same time, and Alex lifts her hips, rutting against Kelley’s lips and fingers as she tumbles over the edge, her pleasure making her see stars as she squeezes her eyes shut and lets out moans she can’t control. Kelley doesn’t think she’s ever seen or heard anything so beautiful.

Kelley brings her fingers to her mouth, licking them clean as she lies beside Alex while Alex watches in awe, speechless. She’s been curious about Kelley’s body from the start, and she’s taken every opportunity to look and touch and feel and taste, but now that they’re both completely naked, Alex finds herself unable to tear her eyes away from Kelley’s face, beautiful and symmetric and covered in freckles that make it hard to stay mad at her, even when she eats the last Oreo or takes eight hours to text back.

“Whatcha thinking?” Kelley asks, rolling onto her side to look at Alex. She’s suddenly aware of how bare she is, and she kicks back the covers underneath her so she can get under them. Alex follows suit.

“Just that I love you,” Alex says. “And that it was good to wait, but I’m really happy we finally did this.”

“I love you too,” Kelley says, pecking her on the lips. “And I agree. You know what else I think?”

“What?”

“That it’s a damn good thing Press isn’t here, because there are only a few more hours left of Valentine’s Day and I plan on spending every last second of them making love to you and showing you just how thankful I am that you’re my Valentine.”

Chapter Text

Kelley hasn't seen Alex since Monday night, and that was only briefly to drop off a book Alex had left at Kappa. Of course, it turned into a tiny bit of kissing which stopped when Sydney came upstairs, but their weeks have been so busy that she hasn't seen Alex since.

So when Alex texts her Thursday morning saying she misses her and wants to take her out for dinner, she immediately agrees. Dance Marathon is hosting a spirit night at 4 Rivers, one of the most popular barbecue spots in town, to raise money, and even though they both know it's going to be packed, Kelley actually looks forward to spending time waiting in line with Alex. Anything is better than not seeing her.

And just like that, walking up to the restaurant and seeing Alex chatting with some of the families makes all of Kelley’s worries drift away. Alex brightens and excuses herself from her conversation, throwing her arms around Kelley and burying her face in her neck.

“God, I've missed you,” Alex says.

“Sleep over tonight,” Kelley says. She doesn't have to ask her twice, Alex was already planning on it.

Alex introduces Kelley to the family she had been speaking with. Kelley cringes when she says “my friend,” but recovers quickly, not wanting to draw attention to herself. Alex seems to notice, though, because she squeezes Kelley's hand as soon as they get in line on their own.

“They’re nice,” Kelley says.

“They are,” Alex agrees. “Hey.” She tugs at Kelley’s wrist, and Kelley looks up at her. “You gonna kiss me?”

“Am I allowed?”

“Stop,” Alex whines, pecking her on the lips. “Look, we can go back over there and I’ll tell them I’m madly in love with you.”

“I don’t want you to tell people that because you think I want you to, I just want it to come naturally to you. To both of us.”

“For what it's worth, I told Katherine,” Alex says brightly. “She wants us to come over for dinner sometime soon.”

“I'd like that,” Kelley says. “Will it be hard for you?”

“I don't think it'll ever be easy,” Alex says. “But they live with it every day. I think Dance Marathon is going to be the hardest, just the physical exhaustion on top of the mental and emotional stuff.”

“I'll be right there,” Kelley promises.

“You'll want to kill me by the end,” Alex laughs. “When I'm sleep deprived, I'm not fun. Add on sore feet and lots of emotions and being surrounded by people and you get the perfect storm.”

“I think you're the perfect storm anyway,” Kelley teases. “I'm prepared for whatever you throw at me.”

“It might be a shoe,” Alex warns.

“Just as long as you don't aim for my face. Where are you at fundraising wise?”

“Four thousand, two hundred and sixty three dollars and 46 cents,” Alex replies immediately. “You?”

“Something like that,” Kelley says, though she's not sure she's even broken $4,000 yet. Alex smirks like she knows it's a cop-out answer.

Miraculously, when they get their food, there's one empty table for two, which Kelley snags as Alex gets their drinks - a Diet Coke for herself, a sweet tea for Kelley (“you can take the girl out of the South,” she always says).

“And because I'm really nice,” Alex says as she sits down. “I told the girl it was for Kappa when I gave her the receipt.” Spirit nights are a fundraiser for all, but they're also a chance to get spirit points for your organization. The more money spent by each organization would equal more spirit points and therefore a higher total and more dancer spots.

“Too nice,” Kelley says, narrowing her eyes at Alex. “What do you want?”

“Me? Nothing,” Alex says, taking a bite of green beans, but Kelley doesn't let up. “Okay, maybe a teeny tiny something.”

“Go on.”

“The class I'm TAing for has a field trip for extra credit, but it's mostly freshmen who don't have cars, so I volunteered to drive.”

“But you don't have a car.”

“Right…”

“Alex, no,” Kelley groans. “When?”

“Tomorrow.”

“And how do you anticipate I get to and from my internship?”

“I'll drive you!” Alex says brightly. “And I'll pick you up at the end of the day.”

“When did you agree to this?” Alex fiddles with her sandwich. “Al…”

“Today,” Alex says. “I'm sorry! I just couldn't help myself. Nobody else was volunteering and I felt bad.”

“I mean you get why I'm a little annoyed,” Kelley says.

“I do,” Alex says. “I should have asked you first.”

“I mean, now I can’t say no without being a jerk and messing up the grades of a bunch of students I don’t know.”

“You can say no,” Alex says quietly.

“Is that why you wanted to see me tonight?”

“What? Of course not! I texted you before my classes about going out to dinner. I just wanted to see you. I really have missed you.”

Kelley sighs. “Just checking. Yeah, you can take my car. Where’s the field trip?”

Alex mumbles around the fork in her mouth, but Kelley just raises her eyebrows so she knows the games won’t work. “Jacksonville,” she says, swallowing.

“You owe me so big,” Kelley says.

“I’ll fill up your tank and get your car washed and pay you back in sexual favors,” Alex says.

“Tonight?”

“And tomorrow night,” Alex promises. “I hope Press is cool with it.”

“You sure know how to kill a mood,” Kelley laughs.

“If I hadn’t, it would have been killed soon enough,” Alex whispers, looking past Kelley.

Kelley turns around, like an idiot, and sees exactly what Alex means. Derek. He catches her eye as a result of unfortunate timing, and gives a quick wave. Then, because social cues mean nothing to him apparently, he walks over.

“Hey,” he says. “I don't mean to interrupt, just wanted to say congratulations. On the internship, I mean,” he clarifies, noting the way Kelley’s eyes flare protectively. “I saw on Facebook. I'm sure you're kicking ass.”

Kelley is silent. “She is,” Alex says.

Derek looks at her, clearing his throat. “Anyway, I should go grab a seat before they fill up,” he says. “It’s good seeing you. Both of you.”

Alex shifts uncomfortably as he walks away. Kelley stares at her food. Alex reaches her hand across the table to cover Kelley’s, and Kelley flinches, pulling away. Alex tries to cover the hurt on her face, but she knows she’s failed when Kelley’s face falls.

“Al,” Kelley sighs.

“Do you want to go home?” Alex asks. Kelley nods.

They’re quiet the whole way back, except for Alex telling Kelley it’s okay if she doesn’t want her to stay over and Kelley vehemently insisting she do.

Christen isn't there when they get back to the house because she teaches Thursday night yoga at the gym, which should be over soon. Kelley knows they don't have much time, so she pulls Alex onto the bed, hands immediately slithering under Alex’s top without a word.

“Hey, whoa,” Alex says, pulling away from her grasp. “I'm all about this, but what's going on?”

“We've done this before,” Kelley laughs.

“I mean with you,” Alex says, sitting up. “You haven't said a word since we saw Derek.” Kelley cringes. “Yeah, that's what I thought. Talk to me, what's up?”

“No,” Kelley whines, wrapping her arms around Alex's waist and pulling her down. She places a kiss on Alex's cheek. “It's no big deal. I just want to make the most of our alone time.”

“Me too, but it is a big deal,” Alex says. “Did it upset you seeing him?”

“I don't know,” Kelley says. “Things are good with us, and I'm so happy.”

“That doesn't mean you can't have leftover feelings from past relationships,” Alex says. “It just means you should talk to me when you do.”

“Like all those times we talk about Serv.”

“If he did something that made me react like this, we would.”

“It's just weird to see him,” Kelley says. “We used to go to 4 Rivers all the time.”

“I'm sorry, Kel,” Alex says. “You should have told me.”

“No,” Kelley says. “Being there with you was fine. Seeing him was just kind of unsettling, I guess.”

“Do you think it's because he knows about us?” Alex asks.

“He does?” Kelley asks, alarmed. “Did he say something to you?”

“No,” Alex says. “I thought it was kind of obvious, though. Wait, did you want to leave so he wouldn't know?”

“No!”

“It's okay if that's why,” Alex says gently.

“It's not okay,” Kelley says. “I'm trying. I really am.”

“I know. It's not going to happen overnight.”

“But I love you. And I'm proud of you and I'm proud to be with you.”

“I know that,” Alex insists. “That doesn't mean it's not going to feel a little weird to see your ex-boyfriend when you're with your new girlfriend.”

“I just don't want him to think what he did was okay just because I moved on so quickly.”

“So what if he does? You don't have to deal with him anymore.”

“That's true,” Kelley says. “But someone will one day. And when we broke up, he made this comment about how he slept with you because it didn't even feel like I was interested in the relationship anymore, and I feel like now he's going to think he was right because I'm gay.”

“Well honey, he probably was right,” Alex says with a smile. She tries to contain the laugh that threatens because she knows Kelley is genuinely upset, but it's a tiny bit funny. “But cheating is still wrong. He should have talked to you about it or ended the relationship. Maybe both. You didn't deserve to be hurt. Even if it did turn out for the best.”

“The very best,” Kelley says, squeezing Alex’s hand.

“Does he know about Ann?” Alex asks, bracing herself for any answer.

“Yeah,” Kelley says. “Kinda. He doesn't know I loved her. He knows we were something though. That we ‘experimented’ or whatever, according to him. I figured it might be better leaving it like that.”

Alex nods. “Sure,” she says.

~

Kelley forgets she was ever annoyed about Alex volunteering her car when Alex wakes her up with coffee and a kiss the next morning, but she does find herself tapping her foot impatiently while Alex sorts through all of Kelley's and Christen's jewelry to find the best necklace for the blouse she's wearing (stolen from Ali's closet). But again, the annoyance goes away when Alex kisses her and takes her keys, insisting she'll drive so Kelley can rest before work.

As much as Kelley appreciates her alone time in the mornings, she likes doing the drive with Alex, who hums along to the radio and doesn't try to make conversation.

After promising for the fifteenth time that she'll be careful with the car and will call immediately if anything goes wrong, Alex kisses Kelley on the forehead and shoos her out of the car so she isn't late for work.

"I'll be back at 5," Alex assures her, blowing a kiss that Kelley catches, rolling her eyes at the cheesiness.

Kelley can't help but worry when it's 4:45 and she hasn't heard from Alex since lunchtime, so she sends a "hey, you alive?" text.

"Yes, just left Jax," comes her answer.

"Seriously???" she replies. "You're already an hour away and now you're going to be in Friday rush hour traffic."

"I'm sorry," Alex texts back. "Things went long. I promise I'm hurrying. I love you, don't be mad."

"I'm not mad just irritated," Kelley says.

"Same diff."

"K," Kelley replies. She knows she's being immature, but there's no point hiding her annoyance when it's going to become more obvious when Alex actually gets there. She taps her pen against the desk for a few minutes before making a decision. "You know what, never mind. I'll get Christen to pick me up," she texts.

"Fine," Alex replies. "See you later?"

"Well you do have my car." Kelley rolls her eyes before dialing Christen.

"Hello?" Christen asks, sounding breathless.

"Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah, sorry, just running errands, what's up?"

"Alex was supposed to pick me up from work but she's still in Jacksonville so it's going to take forever. Can you come get me?"

"Oh poor thing, that's awful traffic," Christen says. "Yeah sure I can, just give me like, twenty minutes?"

"Perfect, you're a lifesaver," Kelley says. "Don't 'poor thing' her, I'm pissed at her."

Kelley can almost see Christen's eyes rolling. "Whatever you say. I'll be sure to remind you of that tonight when you're making out at Kappa Sig."

"Bye," Kelley groans, hanging up.

She uses the time to wrap up her work day and organize her desk until Christen texts her and says "outside!" No surprise, but Tobin is in the car when Kelley walks out.

"Errands are what had you out of breath, huh?" Kelley teases.

"Shut up," Christen laughs. "We have to make a pit stop before going home, is that okay?"

Truthfully, all Kelley wants to do is go home and crawl into bed, but Christen is doing her a favor, so of course she agrees. Part of her feels bad for lashing out at Alex, but the part that actually controls her actions and ability to apologize feels pretty damn justified.

She doesn't pay attention to where they're going till Christen pulls into the parking lot across from Lake Alice.

"What do you have to do here?"

"Oh, the pit stop isn't for me," Christen says. "Come on."

"What are you talking about?" Kelley asks, not tracking much of anything except that Christen wants her to come along.

"You're stressed," Christen says. "And I know this relaxes you. So come on."

"Chris," Kelley whines.

"Kelley, just trust me on this," Christen says, not taking no for an answer as she walks toward the lake, expecting Kelley to follow, which of course she does, shuffling her feet and lagging behind like a petulant child running errands with her mom.

There's already a hammock hanging between the two trees where Alex and Kelley typically set up camp, but Christen stops there anyway, and Kelley realizes she must have run into someone she knows. Tobin pulls Christen away as Kelley approaches, confusion clouding her face when she sees Alex in the hammock, legs dangling over the side and a grin across her face.

"What are you-"

Alex points up, and Kelley looks to see a banner hung between the two trees reading "Don't leave me hanging... Be my date to formal?"

"I'm going to kill you!" Kelley exclaims.

"Is that a yes?" Alex laughs.

"Well now that I don't have to be pissed at you for being late, I guess I might as well say yes."

Alex reaches her arms toward Kelley, who picks her up and squeezes her before placing her on the ground. "Sorry for lying," Alex says. "Was it worth it?"

"You tell me," Kelley says, pecking her on the lips. "Was this planned all along? Wait, were you ever even in Jacksonville?"

"No!" Alex laughs. "I’ve been running around town all day getting stuff for the banner. I was going to decorate a cooler for you, but that seemed like too much work, so I just made you a gift basket instead.”

“What? Where?”

“Well Tobin was supposed to bring it, but clearly she failed,” Alex says pointedly. “I’ll give it to you tonight when you come over. You're so predictable though, we knew you'd run to Christen if I couldn't come through. You ate right out of the palm of my hand the whole time."

“Whipped,” Tobin coughs, and Kelley glares at her.

“Sorry, babe. She’s a little right. Getting your car was too easy and it wasn’t even a good lie.”

“It’s not too late for me to change my mind,” Kelley warns. Alex mimes zipping her lips. “Thank you. I'm sorry for being mean to you earlier.This was really sweet. And I’m really excited for your formal. If it goes well, maybe I’ll even invite you to mine.”

Chapter Text

“Is it weird that we’re doing formal prep together?” Kelley asks from her chair at the nail salon. Alex’s head is back, eyes closed as the chair massages her neck and the pedicurist rubs lotion into her calves.

“Course not,” she mumbles.

“You might be enjoying that a bit too much,” Kelley teases. “I guess my only experience is with you-know-who. I'd get ready with Ali and HAO and Press and wait to see our dates’ jaws drop when they saw us.”

“Don't worry, I'm going to take your breath away,” Alex promises. “If you don't literally gasp and say ‘wow’ when I come downstairs I'm leaving your ass at home.”

“Noted,” Kelley laughs, but she doubts it'll be a problem. Alex never fails to wow her.

~

“I saw Ashlyn’s snap… you better not be drinking already,” Alex texts.

Kelley looks at the Solo cup in her hand and cringes, looking up at Ashlyn. “Busted,” she says. “Ash, Snapchat?”

“Sorry!” Ashlyn laughs, but she doesn’t sound sorry, she just sounds tipsy. “Is the diva ready yet?”

“Doubtful, but she can’t drink at the house, so Kelley’s kind of getting a head start,” Whitney reminds them.

Ryan slips an arm around her waist. “Not to mention we have an early flight, so you should probably do your best not to be hungover.”

“So sensible,” Kelley sighs. “Who decided that was a good idea? Better yet, who decided it was a good idea to schedule this formal right before Spring Break?”

“Your girlfriend on both counts,” Whitney says. “But if you want a ride over, we’re leaving now.”

Christen decided to get ready at the ADPi house, mostly because Syd was desperate to do her makeup, but Alex wanted Kelley to be amazed when she saw her, so Kelley agreed to stay away, perfectly content to get ready (and pregame) on her own. Besides, Whitney was getting ready for a date night with Ryan, and Ashlyn needed some entertainment while Ali stressed at the house about what the hell to pack for six days in Puerto Rico.

Kelley appreciates that Whitney and Ryan aren’t gross and coupley on the way over like she knows she and Alex probably are most of the time.

“You okay back there?” Whitney asks as they pull up. Kelley’s head is falling to the side and she realizes her drink may have been a little stronger than it should have been.

“Better than,” Kelley says. She climbs out of the backseat and into pure chaos with all the girls taking photos with their significant others. She spots Tobin and Christen chatting with Syd and her flavor of the week (though this time he might be flavor of the month), Dom. She doesn’t see Alex anywhere, so she weaves through the crowd, hobbling slightly on her heels.

It’s quieter inside, and she climbs the stairs, clutching the railing till she gets to the top. She knocks on Alex’s door.

“Al? You ready?”

“Don’t come in!” Alex exclaims. “I’ll be out in a sec.”

It’s literally a “sec” before she emerges, dressed in a long flowing gold dress. It’s a halter with a cut-out back that teases the soft skin Kelley traces with her fingertips at night.

“Wow. Hello gorgeous,” Kelley says, head spinning. She’s wearing a black gown that hugs her hips and complements the gold and Alex’s golden skin perfectly.

“You’re not bad yourself,” Alex says, leaning forward to kiss Kelley lightly on the lips. “Lipstick,” she explains.

“You’ll get over that when you have more alcohol in your system,” Kelley says.

“Looks like you don’t have that problem,” Alex teases. “Come on, there will be plenty of time for that, it’s time to party.”

~

There is plenty of time for that, as Kelley proves on the bus to the venue, ignoring the groans all around them as she and Alex escape into their own little world. They try not to engage in much PDA, but when her girlfriend is wearing that, Kelley can’t resist.

The other girls finally start to catch up to Kelley, but never quite get there, as Kelley paces with them the whole time, staying a few steps ahead on the drunkenness scale. She even stays ahead of Kling, who gets drunk easier than anyone.

Alex keeps a solid grip around Kelley’s waist when they take pictures and start dancing, whispering reminders in her ear that they have an early flight and plenty of time once they’re in Puerto Rico to get shitfaced and spend hours in bed together, which is really the extent of their plans.

Kelley listens, because she’d listen to anything Alex said, and she slows down as the music does and the night draws to a close. There are two buses going back home, one tonight and one in the morning for the people who decided to get hotel rooms, but they’ll be on the first one along with the rest of their Spring Break crew, including Tobin, Christen, and Syd.

Rose, Lindsey, Danny, and Kristie (the “kids,” as they’ve become known) are going on a much different trip to New York with JJ, Crystal, Emily, Sam, and Moe, and while Alex entertained the idea of something like that, she and Kelley eventually decided rest and relaxation (and lots and lots of fun in the sun) would be a better option.

“Think we could sneak away for a bit?” Alex asks, nipping at Kelley’s ear, and Kelley is already looking for their best escape route. She finds it in a back door that leads to a garden where a lot of the couples, including Kelley and Alex, took pictures earlier in the evening before the sun went down and they had to resort to flash photography.

Kelley stumbles slightly on the cobblestone, but Alex’s strong arm around her waist keeps her upright till they get to a bench. It’s not quite as private as they’d like, but nobody’s outside, and they’re surrounded by greenery, so if they’re quiet, nobody will even think twice about them. Nothing more than a heavy makeout session could really happen in these dresses, anyway, but Kelley is on cloud nine just kissing Alex and thinking about everything they’ll do this week, which she whispers in Alex’s ear, making her groan with anticipation.

“Kel?” a sweet, familiar voice calls. “Alex? Are you guys out here?” Press, of course. “The bus is leaving in five.”

“No, it was leaving in five,” Syd snaps. “We’ve used four of those five looking for the horny bitches.”

“Relax, we’re coming,” Kelley says, standing and helping Alex up.

“That’s what I was worried about,” Syd deadpans.

Kelley rolls her eyes even though nobody can see and walks into the light with Alex, where they can see Tobin, Syd, and Press, who’s wearing Tobin’s jacket over her short blue dress.

“We seriously have to hurry,” Tobin says, and Kelley jokingly breaks into a run before her heel catches in the cobblestone and her ankle snaps. She goes crashing down, letting go of Alex so she doesn’t bring her down as well.

“Fuck!” Kelley exclaims, clutching her leg in pain. Tears spring to her eyes as flashes of white shoot behind her eyes. She can’t breathe, like the wind has been knocked out of her, and Alex is by her side in an instant.

“Sweetheart, are you okay?” Alex asks. Kelley nods, but it is clear she’s not. “Syd, tell the driver to wait. Tobin, get water. Now!”

Neither girl questions Alex’s command, immediately obeying, and Christen rushes to Kelley’s side as well.

Kelley buries her face in Alex’s neck, sobbing as Alex rubs her back soothingly.

“Breathe, Kel,” Alex says calmly. “I think you just rolled it, you just need to breathe, and the shock will wear off soon.” She’s dealt with her fair share of ankle injuries, and she knows the initial shock is usually worse than the injury itself. When it’s not, it’s obvious to all parties. Kelley’s dress is ripped, and her hand is scratched from the ground, but she’ll be okay as soon as she catches her breath and drinks some water, Alex is sure.

Kelley separates from Alex, and Alex takes the opportunity to wipe her tears and streaking mascara and kiss her forehead. “I’m sorry,” Kelley manages.

“Oh, honey,” Alex laughs. “It’s okay.”

Tobin comes back with a bottle of water, which she unscrews for Kelley as Alex smooths Kelley’s hair. When Kelley takes a few sips and gets her breathing back to normal, Christen stands up, followed by Alex, who grips Kelley’s hand to help her stand to her feet.

“You good?” Alex asks. “Want to take those shoes off?”

Kelley nods, lip trembling, and she holds Alex’s shoulder as Christen helps with Kelley’s shoes, carrying them in her own hand.

Alex holds onto Kelley as they walk back inside, but Kelley starts to lean on her harder, and Alex knows that isn’t good.

“Does it hurt?” Alex asks, and Kelley shakes her head.

“No, I’m fine. Just need to walk it off.”

“Okay.”

They only make it a few more steps before Kelley cries out. “Shit!”

“It hurts,” Alex says, more matter of fact this time.

“Yeah.”

“Come here,” Alex says, bending down to pull her own shoes off and hand them to Tobin, who looks at her in disbelief but takes them as Alex picks up Kelley, bridal style. Kelley’s arms wrap around Alex’s neck, clinging on for dear life as Alex only barely struggles to carry her the rest of the way to the bus, Christen by her side for assistance.

Kelley falls asleep on Alex’s shoulder on the bus ride home. She’s grateful for a fairly empty bus so she can prop her foot up onto the seat across the aisle, but the rest and elevation isn’t enough, and by the time they’re back at the ADPi house, the ankle is swollen.

“I’m okay,” she insists after being assisted to the couch, where she’s pampered with ice and painkillers.

“If you aren’t, now’s the time to say,” Alex says. “We can go to the emergency room. It might suck, but it’s better than having to miss our flight to go in the morning or getting to Puerto Rico and needing to find a doctor.”

“Tobin’s going to be an athletic trainer, she can just look,” Kelley insists.

“I’ve done all the tests I know,” Tobin says. “I’m almost positive nothing is broken, but it could be sprained, and you definitely don’t want anything to be torn.”

“Please, Alex,” Kelley pouts, looking up at her girlfriend. “I promise I’d tell you if it was worse than it is, but I just want to sleep. Please. I’m so tired.” Her eyes are puffy from tears and exhaustion.

Alex had grand plans for a deep sleep and one last night in her own bed, but those all fall by the wayside when she looks at Kelley’s pleading face. The couch it is. She wouldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing Kelley was alone and in pain, anyway.

~

Alex bites her tongue and resists the urge to say “told you so” when Kelley’s ankle blows up like a balloon overnight.

Tobin wraps it and gives her an ice pack, but Kelley is evidently in pain.

“Last chance,” Alex says when she gets downstairs with her bag. “I don't mind getting a later flight or having to catch up with everyone if you need to go to the hospital or urgent care.”

Still, Kelley refuses.

Alex bites her tongue when they get to the airport and Kelley hobbles along slowly, unable to carry her own bag. Well, she mostly bites her tongue.

“Now you're just being inconsiderate,” she snaps as she hoists the bag over her shoulder. But it's a small airport and their group is the only one there so early, so Alex bears with it. The next flight out of the Atlanta airport is the one she's concerned about, especially given that they barely have an hour layover with which to get to their gate and get coffee or tequila or whatever the hell they need by then.

The plane is just big enough to hold their party of ten, and Alex thanks her lucky stars the flight will be short, because otherwise she’d be terrified. She stays with Kelley when the plane lands, letting all their friends off first so Kelley's slowness doesn't get in the way.

“Al,” Kelley says quietly as Sydney moves down the aisle, followed by HAO and Whit. “Please don't be mad.”

“Why would I be?”

“My ankle really hurts. Like, walking is unbearable.”

“Sweetheart,” Alex sighs. “I'm so sorry. What can I do?”

“I think I need a wheelchair,” Kelley says, her eyes filling with tears. The last thing she wants is to be a burden, especially on what's supposed to be a fun trip.

“We’re in Atlanta,” Alex says. “Do you want to call your parents to pick us up and take us to a doctor?”

“No,” Kelley says. “I'm not messing up the plans. Please.”

“Okay,” Alex agrees. “But can you at least call them so they know?”

“Fine.”

Alex helps Kelley off the plane and up the jet bridge, telling the gate agent they need assistance.

“How many in your party?”

Alex looks up to see the rest of their crew waiting. “Well, she's the only one who needs it, and I’d like to stay with her, but there are ten of us altogether.”

The agent says something unintelligible into a walkie-talkie before nodding toward an empty golf cart. “Take that,” she says. “All of you.”

“Thank you so much,” Kelley gushes.

“Your chariot awaits,” Alex teases, helping Kelley onto the back of the cart as everyone else situates themselves, grateful they all checked their big luggage back in Gainesville.

When they arrive at their next gate, they have plenty of time to spare, so Kelley and Alex watch everyone else’s carry-ons while they hunt for food and coffee. The new gate agent, a pretty blonde woman named Leslie who looks barely out of college, brings Kelley a wheelchair and gives her the sympathetic kind of smile that makes Alex narrow her eyes and place a possessive hand on Kelley’s knee.

Alex’s phone rings from an unknown number as Kelley talks to her parents, reassuring them that she’s just fine and Alex is taking perfectly good care of her. Alex frowns and stands up, going toward the corner of the gate where it's a little less noisy.

Kelley watches as she talks, listening intently then nodding and responding. When Alex walks back, she's getting off the phone, and Kelley hears her saying “yeah, of course, thank you. You too.”

A smile spreads across Alex's face as she rejoins Kelley in one of the handicapped chairs they've been allowed to occupy.

“Who was that?”

“Nobody,” Alex says. “Well, not nobody. Just one of the sponsors for philanthropy. No biggie.”

“Calling on a Sunday morning?” Kelley asks.

Alex shrugs.

“Ms. O’Hara?” Leslie says. “I'm sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to check and make sure there isn't anything you need.”

Kelley raises her eyebrows and looks at Alex, a glimmer in her eye when she sees the look of annoyance in Alex’s. She turns back to Leslie and sighs.

“I hate to ask,” she says. “But we just got off a really small plane and it was pretty cramped. This flight is going to be longer, so I was wondering if maybe there were any aisle seats open.”

“We’re pretty booked up,” Leslie says, her face falling. “But let me see what I can do for you.” She goes back to her desk as Alex looks at Kelley, confused.

“All our seats are together, I'm sure Ashlyn or Ryan would switch with you,” she says.

“Oh, I'm sure they would,” Kelley says. “I just want to see how much I can milk this thing.”

Turns out, quite a bit more than either one of them expected. Leslie returns moments later with a smile on her face.

“Unfortunately there are no aisle seats I can switch you into, but two of our first-class passengers switched flights, so I moved some seats around so you two can stay together. It's in first class, though. I hope that's alright.”

Alex's jaw drops in shock. She too has trouble saying no to Kelley, but this is unprecedented.

“Oh, Leslie, you're an angel,” Kelley gushes. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course,” Leslie says, beaming as she bounces back toward her desk.

“Kelley O’Hara!” Alex gasps. “How the hell did you do that?”

Kelley shrugs. “I guess I just have a way with women.”

~

“Why does Kelley get rewarded for getting drunk and making a fool of herself?” Syd grumbles as she walks past Alex and Kelley, who are happily perched in the very last row of first class, free from any screaming kids kicking their seats. “Heterophobia is alive and well, people.”

The flight is mainly uneventful, aside from the free mojitos Kelley and Alex order to take pictures of and show the other girls later. Kelley takes a wheelchair to the baggage claim, but walks on her own to the cab, carrying her duffel bag and Alex’s carry-on, just to prove she can.

All Alex wants to do when they get to the resort is take a nap, but even Kelley can’t be swayed by the concept of cuddling with very little clothing, too excited to be on vacation.

“We only have six days,” Kelley reminds Alex. “And I know you brought at least six bathing suits, so we need to get to work. I know how badly you want to come back with a tan. A real one,” she says pointedly, referring to the spray tan Alex got for formal.

“Fine,” Alex groans, letting Kelley drag her down to the beach, but not before at least attempting to distract her by changing into her swimsuit very slowly.

“How does it feel being the only boy?” Syd asks Ryan as he walks up to their spot on the beach, delivering two trays of drinks.

“I’m a lucky man,” Ryan answers obediently, pecking Whitney on the lips. “How does it feel to be the only single one here?”

“HAO’s my girlfriend for the week,” Syd retorts. “What Dave doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“I didn’t know that was the plan when I agreed to room with you,” HAO says.

“I don’t mind being surrounded by beautiful women, even if I only have eyes for one,” Ryan says. “Besides, someone needs to be able to hold their liquor and carry Kelley around.”

“Excuse me, I did a great job carrying her last night,” Alex protests, flexing her arms.

“I’d like to see you try doing the same after a full day and night of drinking,” Ryan teases.

“She has plenty to celebrate,” Sydney says.

“Syd—” Alex starts to protest.

“Alex, it’s amazing, come on!”

“What’s going on?” Tobin asks.

“Alex got the job she applied for with Women for Women International!” Sydney announces.

Amidst the congratulations and high fives being offered, Alex only sees one face: Kelley’s.

“Can we go for a walk?” Kelley asks, not waiting for a response before she gets up, walking toward the water. Well, walking is a generous word for the limping she does.

“Wait up,” Alex says, going after her to hold her up. “Doesn’t your ankle hurt?”

“Not as much as being the last to know something important going on in your life.”

“Kelley—”

“What’s the job?” Kelley asks. “Where?”

“Economic empowerment consultant,” Alex says. “Basically I'm going to help research and implement new strategies to help these people.”

“Where?” Kelley repeats.

Alex was hoping she wouldn't. “I'm not sure yet,” she says. “There's an orientation at headquarters in DC in two weeks. I guess they'll tell me there.”

“So there's a chance it could be in DC?”

“Maybe,” Alex says. “But Kel, we have to be prepared if it's not. Are you completely okay with it if I'm in another country for a year?”

“No, but are you completely okay with changing your entire life plan for me?”

Alex is silent.

“That's what I thought.”

“Kelley—”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Kelley says. “I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t tell me. Is that who called you at the airport?”

Alex nods, biting her lip.

“What happened to being open and honest? The not knowing still sucks, but realizing you lied to my face might be the worst part.”

“I know,” Alex says. “I was going to tell you tonight. I didn’t want to cause you extra stress with your ankle and everything. I don’t even know if I’m going to take it yet.”

“What are you talking about? Of course you are.”

“I don’t know,” Alex insists. “I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“Being by myself. Going far away. Letting you down.”

“Don’t say that.” Kelley presses a kiss to Alex's cheek. “I'm so proud of you. And if you do go away for a year, I'll be upset, and it'll be hard, but I'll still be proud of you, and I'll love you ten times as much as the number of miles between us.”

“So you love me zero when you're literally inside of me?” Alex teases, making Kelley blush.

“I might need to recalculate that,” Kelley says, wiping a stray tear from Alex’s face. “But my point remains.” She wraps her arms around Alex’s shoulders, squeezing her tight. “I love you.” She kisses Alex’s lips. “You make me proud.” Another kiss. “And I might be out of commission in a lot of ways right now, but when we get back to the room to change before dinner, I’ll show you a few things I don’t need my ankle for.”

Chapter Text

The more Alex tries to hold on to each fleeting day as it passes, the quicker the days seem to go by. It only really occurs to her when she returns from Spring Break and suddenly everything happens at once. In just one day she takes two midterms, applies for graduation, and buys a dress for Kelley’s formal. By the time she gets home, she can hardly think about packing for her weekend trip to DC even though it's the only thing left to do.

Her bed swallows her whole as soon as she collapses on it, and she finally takes a moment to breathe and glance at her phone, which shows her she has five texts awaiting response.

The first is from Katherine, confirming that she and Kelley are still coming over for dinner (which Alex had completely forgotten about), and the rest are from Kelley.

“How did the second exam go? I mean, I know you rocked it, I just like hearing you say it ;)”

“This guy sat next to me and is hitting on me and asked for my number and I hope he can read this right now.”

“He definitely read it but Alex can be a boy’s name so he still thinks I'm straight.”

“Oh, not anymore.”

Alex laughs out loud and texts back. “Come over when you're done, I need to do some serious cuddling before we go to the Corcorans’ tonight.”

“Already on my way,” Kelley replies, and within ten minutes, she's right where Alex wanted her.

“I don't want to pack,” Alex grumbles, burying her face into Kelley's warm neck. “I just want to do this.”

“Wouldn't that be something?” Kelley muses. “Come on, let me help you. If we finish before dinner, we can do this all night.”

Alex begrudgingly gets up, and Kelley helps by folding the clothes and organizing them in Alex’s suitcase as Alex stresses about which black blazer goes best with her black pumps.

“You know you already got the job, right?” Kelley teases. “This part is supposed to be the easy stuff. Besides, you look hot in everything, the real struggle is going to be getting them to pick their jaws up off the floor.”

“Stop,” Alex chides. “I'm serious. I just want to make a good impression on the people I'll be working with.”

“Not too good an impression,” Kelley grumbles.

Alex rolls her eyes. “Should I wear an ‘if found please return to Kelley’ tag?”

“That's not the worst idea you've ever had.”

“On a more serious note, I really hate this feeling.”

“What feeling?”

“Leaving you,” Alex says, and her bottom lip quivers before popping out into a pout.

“You aren't,” Kelley says, pulling Alex into a hug. She knows exactly what's going on, considering they've synced up cycles and Kelley started her period this morning. “You’re just taking the next step toward changing the world. We’ll survive a weekend.”

“And when it’s more than a weekend?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Kelley assures her. “But in the meantime, you need to shower and get ready for dinner so I can have you for dessert.”

Alex crinkles her nose. “First, that was disgusting. Second, you can’t. Because—”

“You’re on your period,” Kelley finishes. “Yeah, same. Don’t worry, we can find something to do.”

“Yeah, like keep your damn hands to yourself,” Tobin mumbles, rolling over to peer over the top bunk. “Napping, guys. Thanks for the nightmares.”

~

Kelley doesn’t remember the last time she felt so nervous about anything as she does this dinner with the Corcorans. They’re as close to parents as Alex has in Gainesville, and even though she met them before Christmas, now she’s meeting them for real, as Alex’s girlfriend. And part of her is even nervous about going back to the house where Alex totally broke down last time.

Dinner is completely painless, though, and in fact, Kelley finds herself enjoying every moment. The baby wakes up when Katherine serves dessert, and Kelley and Alex spend the rest of the night taking turns holding and feeding her.

Kelley can’t help herself from imagining Alex as a mom, and she internally yells at herself for letting her brain go there. They’re 21, for crying out loud, even younger than a great deal of their friends. Even Amy, who’s getting married within the next year, doesn’t want babies till she’s at least 25. Kelley doesn’t either, of course, but she thinks maybe when that day comes she wouldn’t mind having Alex around.

“You nervous?” Kelley asks Alex when they’re lying in Alex’s bed. Kelley takes the side closest to the wall, willing to be a little squished if it means Alex gets a good night’s sleep.

“Yeah,” Alex says.

“About what?”

“You’re the one who asked!”

“Shh,” Kelley says, pointing up to where Tobin is sleeping. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be. Of course you are. But when you know what you’re nervous about, it’s easier to take control of those fears.”

Alex takes a deep breath, thinking about it. “I’m nervous about not fitting in,” she says. “I’m nervous about my future being in these people’s hands and not having control over it. I’m nervous about leaving this.” Alex plays with Kelley’s fingers absentmindedly as she speaks. “Like this is good, this is safe. And I know I’ve done this before, like leaving high school and coming here and knowing nobody and making it work, but adulthood is doing that over and over again.”

“You are the most lovable person I know,” Kelley says, and she might be biased, but it’s genuine. “Your future is in your own hands. Where you go isn’t who you’re going to be, it’s just where you’re going to be that person. For a little while! It’s not forever.”

“No, but it could shape forever.”

“Didn’t college shape forever?”

“I guess,” Alex says. “You did.”

“No, you did,” Kelley says, kissing Alex’s cheek. “And you’re going to keep on doing just that.”

Alex kisses Kelley’s temple. “I love you.”

“I love you more,” Kelley says. “When you went off to college, what gave you the courage?”

“What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t have done it if there wasn’t something inside you saying you’d be okay. What changed?”

“I guess it was Serv,” Alex says softly. “I knew he’d… be there. If I needed him. That sounds bad, right? Like, he was my safety net. Then when I didn’t need him anymore…”

“That doesn’t sound bad, you loved him,” Kelley says. “You broke up because the relationship progressed to its natural end. Sometimes it’s nice having something that tethers you to home. I think you broke up because that wasn’t your home anymore. You didn’t need that tie.”

“You know, you’re smarter than you look,” Alex teases.

“Seriously,” Kelley says, smiling. “If that’s what scares you now, let me be that for you. When you’re homesick, let me be home for you.”

“You are,” Alex says, wrapping her arms around Kelley’s waist. She presses a kiss to Kelley’s lips, which Kelley deepens, parting Alex’s lips with her tongue. Alex breaks it off before it gets too heated, pulling away with a final peck. “I’m still kind of nervous.”

“That’s okay,” Kelley says. “Get a good night’s sleep and you won’t be nervous when you get there.”

~

Kelley was wrong, Alex thinks as she steps out of the car the organization sent to take her from the airport to the hotel where the orientation is being held. She wheels her suitcase to the registration table, where one staff member greets her while another takes her bag to load onto a luggage cart.

“Hi, I’m Stephanie!” the girl says brightly, shaking Alex’s hand.

“Alex.”

“Morgan?” the girl asks rhetorically, already pulling out the packet with Alex’s name on it and a room key. “Here you go! Inside you’ll find your name tag and everything you’ll need for the weekend including meal tickets, drink tickets, all that fun stuff. Tonight is the mixer in Ballroom A, and everything will start bright and early tomorrow in Conference Room 3. If you have any questions, I’ll be here all afternoon as people arrive. You can also contact anyone on the list of phone numbers in your packet.”

Alex nods, taking it all in. She follows the luggage cart and three other women who are making small talk. She’s the youngest one by far, and the thought sends her heart straight into her throat. The woman who interviewed her assured her that plenty of other women come in straight out of college, but now she worries that was just lip service.

She fiddles with her phone, seeing that Kelley has gotten a moment to reply to her “got here safe!” text.

“Good! Go get ‘em, tiger. I can’t wait to hear all about it. I love you!”

She texts back a quick “love you too” on the elevator up before stashing her phone in her purse. She overthinks every move, wondering whether the other women would write her off as a typical millennial, unable to part from her phone for five minutes, or whether they think she’s standoffish because she hasn’t spoken or made eye contact. She glances around, half-smiling and attempting aggressive eye contact with each one. It doesn’t work.

Alex breathes a sigh of relief when she’s alone again inside her hotel room. Before unpacking or showering or changing out of her plane clothes, she sits on the bed and opens her packet, in search of an hourly schedule and agenda. If she can’t be the most confident and charming person in the room, she’ll at least be the most prepared.

Her name tag falls out first, attached to a lanyard that she cringes at, the days of being a Preview staffer and seeing all the freshman wearing them around campus coming back to haunt her. But when she looks at the text on the name tag, her heart nearly stops.

Alex Morgan
Economic Empowerment Consultant: Nigeria

Just like that, the world seems to stop spinning around her. It’s not like she’s upset about it—in fact, Nigeria was one of her top choices—or like she’s surprised, it’s that in an instant, without warning, her next step is laid out in front of her. She doesn’t know what to do with her shaking hands, who to call, what to say.

Kelley, she thinks, but it won’t do any good to call her when Alex is still in shock. She’ll have questions, concerns, fears, and Alex will have the same, only tenfold.

Instead, she lies back on her bed, clutching a pillow and the Kappa sweatshirt she stole from Kelley before leaving, and she does the only thing that feels natural: She cries.

She cries until she falls asleep, eventually waking up with black smudges on her cheeks and on the pillow from her streaking makeup. Her chest still hurts from the gasping sobs, and when she sees a missed call from Kelley on her phone, she feels guilty for reasons she can’t name. She texts her back, some lame excuse about not being able to use her phone at orientation and how she’ll call her back tonight when Kelley will almost certainly be at a party.

The very last thing Alex wants to do is socialize with her new colleagues and their significant others, but it’s the only thing she can do, and she knows Kelley would tell her the same. So she slips into her favorite semi-professional cocktail dress— she errs just on the side of modest, but not at the expense of showcasing her favorite features: her arms and legs—and makes her way downstairs, where everyone seems to be mingling.

She conveniently forgets her name tag upstairs, but that turns out to backfire, because instead, everyone just asks her about her placement instead of reading it for themselves. Every time she says Nigeria, it becomes a little more real, her tongue struggling to wrap around it, and not just because of the glass of red wine making it a bit numb.

She thinks she’d actually like these women (and the few men) if she had had time to process this life change for longer than six hours, two of which were spent sleeping and two of which were spent crying. She meets two other girls around her age who are going to Nigeria, Allie and Kaylyn, and they exchange numbers to meet up for drinks tomorrow night when orientation is over.

The founder gets up to make a toast and welcome everyone, telling the story of how she started the nonprofit when she was 23. Alex feels warm and inspired when it’s over, leaving the mixer with a newfound sense of courage. She knows she’s fully prepared to tell Kelley whenever she talks to her, which probably won’t be till tomorrow night after orientation. After all, she’s probably out tonight and won’t be up till after Alex’s orientation starts in the morning. Alex feels brave as she lies back on the bed and dials Kelley on FaceTime.

Until she picks up.

“Hey, cutie!” Kelley chirps. She’s in her bed, hair up in a messy bun.

“Hi, what are you doing?” Alex asks. “It’s Friday night.”

“It’s not that fun without you and your pink cheeks when you get tipsy,” Kelley says. “Speaking of, it seems like you’re having a good time.”

Alex giggles. “I miss you,” she says. “I’ve had a few glasses of wine.”

“I can tell. It’s cute. There’s nobody in your room, is there?”

“No,” Alex says. “I wish you were here though.”

“It seems pretty silly that you have a hotel room all to yourself and we aren’t making good use of it,” Kelley says. “Meanwhile I have this whole room to myself because Christen is staying at yours.”

“Awfully wasteful,” Alex murmurs. “Take off your top.”

“Oh, you aren’t wasting any time,” Kelley laughs. “Wait, tell me about everything first. When do you find out your placement?”

“Um,” Alex starts. The courage she had when calling Kelley is completely gone, but she can’t avoid the question now that Kelley is asking her directly. “That’s—that’s a good question.”

“You already know, don’t you?” Kelley asks. “Is it going to ruin my night if you tell me?”

Alex’s lip quivers.

“More importantly, is it going to ruin yours? Do you just want to wait and tell me in person?”

Alex can tell Kelley is nervous from the way she bites at her lip.

“But then I’ll be waiting for bad news all weekend and I won’t be able to look forward to you getting back because it’ll mean finding out—”

“Nigeria.”

“What?” Kelley breathes out.

“I’m going to Nigeria for a year,” Alex says, her eyes filling with tears.

“Aren’t you excited?” Kelley asks, blinking away her own. “You’re going to change the world.”

“I want to be excited, but I can’t because I’m so scared and sad,” Alex says, finally dissolving into sobs.

Kelley’s heart breaks watching her, and she regrets even bringing it up at a time when she can’t hold her and rub her back till the tears fade away. She breathes deeply, willing herself to contain the emotion, not wanting Alex to see her cry.

“Kel, what if I just… don’t go?”

That gets her attention. “Not an option.”

“But—”

“Lex, do you remember when we were in the car on the way home from Christmas break? And you told me about applying for this?”

Alex nods.

“You only get that look in your eyes when you’re talking about things you’re really passionate about. Like Aiden and Dance Marathon. And Mexican food.”

Alex laughs. “Kelley.”

“I’m serious,” Kelley says. “Whatever is holding you back, we can talk about that when you get home. But you will never forgive yourself if you don’t take this opportunity. When else in your life can you just pack up and go to a different country—across the world, even—for a whole year? You’re going to have the most incredible experience, and I’m going to be there the whole time. I’ll ask for plane tickets for Christmas, I don’t care. You’re going. And I’m going to be so stinking proud of you before, during, and after.”

“I love you,” Alex says between gasping sobs. “I haven’t cried this much in a long time.”

“Get it out of your system so you can enjoy tomorrow,” Kelley says. “I love you. I’m going to let you go so you can get some rest, okay?”

They say their goodbyes and I love yous, and Kelley hangs up, her hands shaking, before letting her emotions take over her whole body, sobs rocking her from head to toe. She meant every word she said to Alex, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to let her go when the time comes.

Chapter Text

Alex wakes up surprisingly refreshed, given the events of the previous day. She opens her eyes to a text from Kelley saying "Good morning, superstar! Have fun today, make friends, and keep smiling. I love you!"

One of Alex's favorite things about Kelley is her relentless positivity, but it's also the thing that worries Alex most. If Kelley always insists on putting on a happy face even when it doesn't match what's inside, Alex worries she'll never know when something is wrong.

Still, Alex promises she will do her best, and when she reports downstairs for breakfast and Allie waves her over to a table with a handful of other girls her age, her excitement is genuine. These are her new sisters, as far as she’s concerned. They come from different places, they’re interested in different things, some of them are going elsewhere, but they’re all in the same boat now, scared and unsure and up for anything.

Naya, the woman in charge of new hires for Nigeria, comes by the table to pick up Alex, along with the four other girls in the group. She introduces them to the older, more tenured women who have been to Nigeria or other countries before to do the same job. They’ll act as mentors of sorts.

During the first sessions, Alex feels a bit like she’s going through recruitment all over again. They start with get-to-know-you games and a basic overview of the program before diving a little deeper and separating according to placement.

The youngest mentor, Mila, is assigned the task of answering questions from the girls. They go to a private room where she is supposed to feel free from pressure to answer in a way that pleases the supervisors. Alex quickly learns that Mila is 26 and went to Nigeria, Iraq, and back to Nigeria again.

“Most people don’t do consecutive years, but I couldn’t get enough,” she says.

“Didn’t you miss your family?” Alex asks.

“Of course,” Mila says. “I had a few weeks in between trips, and those were nice breaks. And technology is a wonderful thing.”

“Did they ever come visit you?” Kaylyn asks.

“That’s highly discouraged,” Mila says. “It’s distracting, and it’s not exactly the safest. For them, anyway,” she reassures the girls. “We’re very well taken care of. But we only have so many resources. If everyone had just one visitor we’d be spreading ourselves thin. Besides, it makes you homesick. Some people recommend not even Skyping or phoning home till you’ve been there at least four weeks.”

“Did you do that?” Allie asks, chewing on her lip.

“My mom was my main point of contact, so I emailed her when I got in and updated her for the first week, and then I wrote letters mostly.” She looks around the room. “Look, do you want some completely unsolicited advice? It’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s something I feel pretty strongly about.”

“Please,” Alex says, and the other girls laugh nervously.

“How many of you have boyfriends?” Mila asks. “Sorry, I mean significant others. Bad inclusiveness training. There will be a lot more of that this weekend, so get excited.”

It’s Alex’s turn to laugh nervously as she raises her hand along with Allie and Kaylyn.

“End it,” Mila says.

Alex’s jaw must drop to the floor, because Mila looks straight at her when she says the next part.

“I told you, it’s not what you want to hear,” she says. “But I’ve been doing this for three years. I’ve seen girls come and go, succeed and fail, and relationships never end well. This is going to be your entire life for a year straight. You’re living, working, eating, sleeping with your cohort, and of course you’ll have time alone and time to call home and do whatever you need, but not the kind of time a relationship requires.”

“I’ve been with my boyfriend for three years,” Allie says quietly.

“That’s even worse,” Mila says. “Listen, I’m not telling you what to do. I know you wouldn’t listen anyway, and that’s okay. There’s no set rule about any of this, I just want to share my own experiences.”

“Were you in a relationship when you started?” Alex asks.

“I was,” Mila says. “It was a good relationship, but a bad ending. I was homesick as hell, and talking to him only made it worse. Mine was actually a better situation than a lot of women, some of whom went home after just a few weeks. The ones who stuck around were miserable for months before finally ending it, then they were just miserable for even longer over the breakup. Trust me, if you do it now and give yourself time to heal, you’ll be much better off when August rolls around.”

Alex looks down at her folder and flips through the packet till she finds the important dates section. She has no idea how she missed the start date before. Her flight leaves August 4. Kelley’s birthday. All the cards continue to fall exactly how they shouldn’t, and Alex bites back a bitter laugh.

“There are a million things to worry about leading up to this,” Mila says, her voice gentle. “Any baggage you can leave at home just makes the transition that much smoother. And they’re still going to be there when you get back. If they aren’t, that’s another problem entirely, and I’m probably doing you a solid. Naya will kill me if she thinks I spent the whole session talking about boys, but I’d be happy to talk to any of you one on one about it anytime. You all have my number, right?”

The rest of the questions don’t hit quite so close to home, but Alex can’t get the conversation about relationships out of her head. It was the answer she was dreading, but she wasn’t surprised by it. It was the same answer everyone had given her and Serv before she left for college. She knows hindsight is 20/20, but she’s inclined to think maybe they were right back then.

Nobody else seems to be able to let it go either, as evidenced by the lunchtime conversation Allie begins.

“She’s ridiculous, there’s no way I’m breaking up with the guy I’m planning to marry for this,” Allie says.

“Yeah, I mean I’m nervous, but I want to give it a chance at least,” Kaylyn says. “It just seemed kind of cynical. We’ve been together almost a year, and we were friends for ages before then. I don’t want that to go to waste.”

Alex looks at her salad, pushing the lettuce from side to side with her fork.

“What about you?” Allie asks. “How long have you been with your boyfriend?”

Alex smiles to herself. “Girlfriend,” she says, registering the surprise—but not bad surprise—on their faces. “Not long. Since just before Christmas.”

“Oh,” Allie says. “Well that’s great!” She smiles forcefully, but the look she exchanges with Kaylyn bothers Alex. Just because they’ve only been together a few months doesn’t mean her relationship is any less legitimate, that Mila’s advice was any easier for her to consume.

In fact, she feels comfortable asserting that it’s harder for her because Kelley is her best friend, her closest confidant, her secret-keeper, and so much more in addition to being the person she loves. She wants to say so, but she just takes another bite of her salad as they continue to gossip about their love lives and when Allie’s beau will finally pop the question.

She texts Kelley, “FaceTime tonight?”

Kelley responds almost immediately. “I’d love that, BUT I get you all to myself tomorrow when you get back. Go have fun with your new friends tonight.”

Alex knows she's right and just being selfless, but she finds herself wishing Kelley would be a tiny bit selfish this time and make Alex feel needed.

~

That night, Allie scopes out the best bar within walking distance, and Alex sends Kelley a few of the million selfies they take, including one she takes in the bathroom mirror, leaning forward just enough so Kelley can see the cleavage aided by Alex’s favorite push-up bra.

“How drunk are you?” Kelley teases in her text back.

“Shhhh not that much,” Alex replies. “I looooove youuuuu.”

“I bet you love a lot of things tonight,” Kelley says. “Give me your new bestie’s number so I can make sure she takes care of you.”

“You worry too much,” Alex replies. “I’ll be good. Text you when I get back.”

“Okay, no more phones!” Mila announces. “Bonding time.”

Allie rolls her eyes, but all the girls oblige her. After a few more drinks and a lot more dancing, Mila and Allie are swaying arm in arm down the road, any tension forgotten in their second tequila shots.

Alex, on the other hand, stops drinking after the first round of tequila, so she’s the most sober one when they return to the hotel.

“When’s your flight?” Mila slurs as they ride up the elevator. Her room is on the same floor as Alex’s, but the other girls already got off on a lower floor.

“Early,” Alex groans. “Kelley’s been whining about having to get up at 9 to pick me up, but I have to be at the airport at like 5.”

“Oh my God, why’d you come out?” Mila gasps.

“Because I’m bought in,” Alex says. “I was worried about the Nigeria thing, but I believe in this organization and I don’t want to half-ass it.”

“That’s wonderful to hear,” Mila says, hugging her as they approach Alex’s door.

“I really took everything you said to heart,” Alex says. “And I really appreciate you taking all this time for us.”

“Of course,” Mila says. “And it’s okay to be scared and unsure. But if you ever need me, I know what you’re going through.”

“How did you do it?”

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Break up with him.”

Mila shrugs. “Not as well as I should have. Considering the circumstances, I didn’t have much of a choice, so it was over the phone.”

Alex cringes. “Ow.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Do you think there’s anything you could have done differently that would have changed things?” Alex asks.

“Sure,” Mila says. “I think about it all the time.”

“And?” Alex asks, perking up. “I could use all the advice I can get.”

Mila smiles sadly. “Honestly, if I had to go back and do it again, I would have broken up with him before I left.”

Alex’s heart sinks. “But you said things could have changed.”

“Yeah,” Mila says. “If I had broken up with him before I left, I would have hit the ground running in Nigeria, had an amazing and enriching year, and probably come back and picked things up right where we left them. A lot of my friends from my first year did just that, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy them for that.”

“Why did you go back instead of coming home and trying that?” Alex asks.

“Well first of all, the distance did a lot to us,” Mila laughs. “But by the time I finally got to enjoy the experience and fully immerse myself, it was almost over. That’s why I went to Iraq. I went back to Nigeria after that because by after two years, it was all I knew. Even now, all my friends are from here. It’s home to me. Maybe one day I’ll settle down and be ready for another relationship and something a little more stable, but right now is not that time.”

Alex nods. “Thanks again,” she says. “This has been really eye-opening.”

When she gets back in her bed after taking off her makeup and ensuring everything is ready for her wake-up call in just a few hours, she texts Kelley that she's home safe.

Kelley responds with a thumbs up and heart emoji, which probably means she's just tipsy enough to not want to say words in case she messes them up and Alex teases her later.

Alex opens Instagram and sees a notification she missed from way earlier in the day, a tagged photo Kelley posted. It shouldn't hurt her heart as much as it does, but given the day’s events and the thoughts now racing through her mind, her lip quivers and her eyes water when she sees the photo. It's a selfie Alex took with Kelley’s phone on Valentine’s Day, when they were wrapped up in a blanket in the hammock. Kelley’s eyes are closed, her face buried in Alex’s neck, and Alex is kissing Kelley’s forehead gently. The caption reads, “Missing my happy place.”

~

Kelley arrives at the airport well before Alex lands, bouquet of daisies in her hand. She was going to bring her an iced coffee, but she worried the ice would melt, so she decided it could wait.

Alex smiles when she walks through the doors and sees Kelley, the smile that makes her nose and eyes crinkle, and Kelley’s face reflects it.

“Hi,” Alex says, her voice raspier than usual.

“Welcome home,” Kelley says, hugging her and taking her suitcase. “These are for you.”

“You're cute,” Alex says, smelling the flowers.

“So tell me everything!” Kelley exclaims when they walk back to her car. “I want to know about the blonde girl kissing you on the cheek in that snap first.”

Alex turns red. “That's Allie. Very straight and very taken.”

“Good,” Kelley says. “How about the actual orientation?” She seems less excited now, and this is not lost on Alex, who smiles tightly and rests a hand on Kelley’s knee when she starts the car.

“It was good,” Alex says. “Very informative. A lot to process.”

They're both silent after that. Kelley doesn't want to prod, and Alex doesn't know what to say. It isn't until they're turning back onto University that Kelley pipes up again.

“We need to talk about this eventually.”

“I know.”

“Alex.”

“I know. Like I said, there's a lot to process. Next weekend is Dance Marathon, and there's a lot to do before then. Can we table this conversation till it's over? Please.”

“Fine,” Kelley sighs. “But in the meantime if you need someone to talk to about anything, I'm here. I can put girlfriend Kelley to the side if you just need a friend.”

“No you can't,” Alex says, smiling as she kisses Kelley on the cheek. “But I love you for trying anyway.”

Chapter Text

The night before Dance Marathon, Alex probably should stay at her own house, but as usual, she winds up in Kelley’s bed. They go to sleep around 8 because they know they won’t be getting any sleep till Sunday morning, and Alex kind of enjoys the early bed time. Christen is still out doing something secretive with Tobin, so Kelley and Alex can kiss without fear of being too loud and gross while Christen tries to sleep.

In the morning, there’s a huge breakfast of bagels and croissants and all the carbs you could ever hope for, but Alex declines (well, save for one bagel that looks particularly fresh) and kisses Kelley goodbye.

“I’ll see you there, okay?” Kelley says. “Find me in the locker room so we can put our things together.”

The way the day starts depends on all the organizations sticking together, which means ADPi and Kappa will be separated at least until the marathon begins. Then, Kelley promises, she’ll come find Alex so they can buddy up and spend their time together.

Tobin picks up Alex at the house, making sure to sneak inside and upstairs to give Christen a quick kiss good morning, which Alex rolls her eyes at before realizing she’d do the same thing. Dancers aren’t allowed to drive themselves to the stadium, so typically there are buses and carpools, but Alex prefers having Tobin take her to avoid chaos after the fact. Alex passes out within moments of buckling her seatbelt every time. Last year, she forgot to even do that, so Tobin had to buckle her in—no easy feat.

The registration process gets slightly better every year, but it’s still insanely annoying to Alex, who just wants to be sitting as long as she can before she has to stand for 26.2 hours. Luckily, she can sit in the locker room, where Kelley is waiting, saving a spot by the wall for Alex to put down her bags.

“Ready, boo?” Kelley asks, greeting her with a kiss.

“As ready as I can be,” Alex says. “I’ve been trying to mentally prepare myself for months.”

“You’ll be fine,” Kelley says. “I’ll be there, and you can recruit Tobin to give you a piggyback ride whenever you need.”

“She and Christen are going to be useless during the hours we most need them,” Alex laughs. “We should have convinced them to take shifts.”

Christen and Tobin are acting as their dancer buddies, meaning they have full access to the floor, even when it’s closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Their main jobs are to bring them food when they want it, give them foot massages, and generally just do anything Kelley and Alex need to remain standing for 26.2 hours.

“Oh please, you know they’re codependent,” Kelley says. “That’s why I recruited Emma and Lindsey to help us out when they’re sleeping.”

“Does that count as hazing?” Alex teases.

Kelley shrugs. “Whatever, we’re out of here in two months anyway.”

“Speaking of,” Alex says, pulling out her phone. “I’m at $5,012.65. Any chance of you beating me by the time this is over?”

“Well,” Kelley says. “Last time I checked, my sister got me to $5,100.”

“Dammit!” Alex exclaims. “Fine. This isn’t over.”

“I would never expect you to admit defeat. I’ll check back in 26.5 hours though.”

The first twelve hours fly by, filled with energy and dancing and an incredibly full floor of people. Tobin and Christen bring Chipotle when the food catered by local businesses just isn’t enough to satisfy Kelley and Alex, but they leave around midnight to get rest so they can be back early in the morning.

Ashlyn is the real MVP when Ali texts her asking for Midnight Cookies at 2 a.m. and she shows up with enough for their whole crew, just when things start to calm down a bit.

Kelley is great at keeping up Alex’s energy when she’s dragging, convincing her to play stupid games and dance with her to whatever band is playing. When the families of miracle children take the stage to share their stories, Kelley wraps her arms around Alex from behind and rests her head on Alex’s shoulder, letting Alex lean against her for a bit.

Miraculously, of more than 40 groups of 10 girls each, Alex and Kelley manage to be in the same one when it comes time for their 10-minute pool and shower break. They had each paid $50 for the other to get a full dancer package, complete with time in a bouncy castle and a swim that would get them off their feet just as they are beginning to feel the exhaustion set in.

They change into their bathing suits quietly in the corner of the locker room, holding onto one another for assistance because they can’t sit even for the sake of balance. The other girls wait in the monstrous line for the bathroom, but Kelley and Alex can’t be bothered with privacy when they’re this exhausted. Besides, if anyone dares to gawk at her girlfriend’s banging body, Alex knows the perfect death glare to put them in their place.

“How are you holding up, rockstar?” Kelley asks Alex as they tread water.

Alex smiles. “This is way more fun with you,” she says. “And this feels amazing. But I don’t even think about my feet hurting when I’m talking to one of the miracle families or listening to their stories.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool what we get to do, huh?” Kelley says.

“How do you feel?”

“Better now. And hey, after this it’s just like eight or nine more hours, right?”

Alex cringes. “Don’t put it in terms of ideal sleep time.”

“My bad,” Kelley laughs. “Your dance moves are pretty killer, by the way.”

“Not nearly as good as yours,” Alex says, swimming forward for a kiss.

“Five minutes!” The volunteer shouts from the side of the pool. “If you want to shower, you should switch now!”

Kelley groans, burying her face in Alex’s wet neck.

“Come on, let’s go,” Alex says. “Not much longer now, and if you’re lucky I’ll shampoo you and give you a scalp massage.”

Alex manages to sneak into Kelley’s shower stall and do just that. The shower attendants are too distracted to notice when they emerge from the same stall, wrapped in towels, but five minutes wouldn’t have been nearly enough for anything fun to happen (not that Kelley didn’t try).

When the sun comes up (presumably, though they wouldn’t know being inside the stadium), people who aren’t dancing start to trickle back in, and the energy picks up a bit. Kelley longs for the time when it was just the dancers and volunteers, though, because it felt so much more intimate—well, as intimate as it can feel with a thousand other people around—but she needs an energy boost, so she’s glad that other people are waking up.

Alex seems to have forgotten their little fundraising bet, but Kelley keeps an eye on it. As of 8 a.m., Kelley is $55.48 ahead of Alex, who took her foot off the gas a bit in the past week or so. Usually she doesn’t have any shame about tweeting and Facebooking her fundraising link multiple times a day, but Kelley assumes she’s been distracted by school and Dance Marathon logistics and of course, Nigeria.

Christen and Tobin arrive armed with hot tea (non-caffeinated, per DM rules) and fresh fruit to give them sugar boosts to get through the rest of the marathon.

Alex immediately utilizes Tobin for a piggyback ride to get off her feet for a bit, and Kelley follows suit with Christen. All relief is temporary, though, and Kelley busies herself by walking laps around the stadium because standing still is unbearable.

When the organizers begin arranging everyone by organization again, Kelley knows it’s almost over, and she makes sure to find Alex, thankful to the powers that be for letting ADPi and Kappa be near each other so they can be together at the end. She takes one last look at hers and Alex’s fundraising pages. Alex is still $34.91 behind, but she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about anything but sitting down at this point.

Kelley’s eyes light up when she gets an idea. She looks at the time: 1:45 p.m. Thank God. It should only be about 15 more minutes, though the grand finale always takes far longer than it should. She quickly taps at her phone to enter her credit card information, donating the difference to Alex’s page. At this point, it’s unlikely anyone else will donate to either one of their endeavors.

“What are you doing?” Alex asks, trying to look at her screen, but Kelley pulls it away.

“Nothing important,” Kelley says, pecking Alex on the lips.

The familiar song indicating a miracle family taking the stage plays, and Alex grips Kelley’s hand. They knew this moment was coming, but Kelley can tell from the way Alex’s pulse picks up that she still wasn’t prepared.

The Corcorans, along with another family, step to the front of the stage, microphones in hand.

John goes first. “Hi everyone,” he says. “I’m John Corcoran, this is my wife, Katherine, and this is Kieryn.” Kieryn, suddenly shy, buries her face into Katherine’s neck. “I just want to start by saying how grateful we are from the bottom of our hearts for every single person not only dancing, but making this possible at all. Even if you gave whatever change you had in your pocket to some girl in your English class, you made this possible. My wife is much more articulate than I am, so I want to pass this to her now.”

He hands over the microphone, and she trades for Kieryn. A lump forms in Kelley’s throat when a huge picture appears behind them. It’s their family, complete with Aiden and Alex, who’s holding him and grinning while wearing a Children’s Miracle Network shirt. She looks beautiful when she smiles like that, even more beautiful than she usually looks, and Kelley squeezes her hand tight.

“A little over five years ago, we had our first baby. His name is Aiden.” Katherine gestures to the screen, smiling sadly as she shares their story.

Alex cries from the moment she says his name, and Kelley holds her as she trembles. When Katherine finishes, there isn’t a dry eye in the stadium, and Kelley hears weeping from people who can’t possibly be feeling even half of what Alex is.

“We’re heartbroken that something as intangible as cancer took our baby from us, but we’re so so inspired,” Katherine says. “We’re inspired by the amazing families whose kids are still fighting, by the kids who kicked childhood diseases’ butts, and by each and every one of you. We would have had a much different experience had it not been for the incredible doctors, nurses, and friends we made through Dance Marathon. We know that however much money was raised this year can’t even begin to show the impact this organization has on so many. Thank you all so much.”

She passed the microphone off to the finance director, who has taken the stage for the final reveal of the numbers. Kelley doesn’t hear anything she says, too preoccupied with making sure Alex is okay. Everyone holds their breath as the final number is revealed, and a huge gasp spreads across the arena when the final number goes up to reveal that they raised more than $2.5 million.

“Oh my God,” Alex says, tears bursting to her eyes as she spins around to hug Kelley tight. The tears that stream down her face now are the happy kind, the kind Kelley feels okay kissing away.

Kelley doesn’t mention the bet, but when they sit down and Alex sees the email about Kelley’s donation, she looks up at her, wide eyes glistening with leftover tears that threaten to spill again.

“Kel, you didn’t.”

“I figured we could both win,” Kelley says, pulling Alex toward her for another kiss.

Leaving the venue is another issue entirely, having to battle through a million girls in the locker room and then fighting through hell and high water to even get out the doors and into the parking lot. They do get to see the Corcorans briefly, but Alex is barely coherent, so they laugh and assure Kelley and Alex that they’ll have them over sometime soon for a catch-up.

Kelley loops her arm around Alex’s waist as they follow Tobin and Christen to the car.

“So, I was thinking.”

“Were you?” Alex yawns.

“I was. You remember our little bet about fundraising? Well, considering we tied, instead of one of us paying for the other’s plane ticket, what if we split a ticket for me to come to Nigeria?”

Alex turns to Kelley, eyes wide. Aside from Alex’s family and Abby, nobody knows about Nigeria yet, but Tobin and Christen are far enough ahead that they didn’t hear.

Kelley looks at her expectantly, a huge grin on her face reflecting how proud she must be to have come up with that idea.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” Alex says quietly.

“Why not? It’s brilliant!”

“Can we talk about it after we’ve gotten some sleep?”

“What’s the problem?” Kelley asks. “I’m not going to go an entire year without seeing my girlfriend. That would be ridiculous.”

“Exactly,” Alex snaps. “So maybe I shouldn’t be your girlfriend.”

“Al,” Kelley breathes, pulling away like she’s just been slapped across the face. In a lot of ways, that would have been less painful.

“You’re right, a year is a long time. It’ll be a lot easier without having to worry about all this.”

“Alex, you’re tired,” Kelley says slowly.

“Goddammit, Kelley, I told you we should just talk about it later.” Alex’s eyes fill with tears, and she isn’t sure if they’re a product of her physical exhaustion or her emotional state.

“Okay,” Kelley says, pain and worry evident in her eyes.

She doesn’t sleep when they get into the car. Alex passes out against the window immediately, and Christen and Tobin probably think they’re just being quiet because they’re so tired. Kelley prefers it that way, nobody attempting to make small talk to fill the air. Silence seems most appropriate right now.

Chapter Text

Classes aren't officially canceled the Monday after Dance Marathon, but a lot of professors don't even bother holding lecture, well aware that their students will sleep for a whole day afterward.

Kelley got the day off from her internship weeks ago, assuming she wouldn't be awake till at least lunchtime, but as luck would have it, she wakes up bright and early with no texts from Alex and nowhere to place her nervous energy.

She spends the morning cleaning her room, then cleaning it again, playing music as loud as she can in her headphones to drown out the thoughts going through her head and all the questions without answers. She's so wrapped up in her own little world that she misses the hesitant knock on her door till she sees Alex popping her head in.

Kelley takes the earbuds out and tosses her phone on the bed. “Hey,” she says, heart rate skyrocketing. “How do you feel?”

“Horrible,” Alex says. “I can't believe what I said to you.”

“It's okay,” Kelley says. “You were tired. I know that.” She walks toward Alex to give her a kiss, but she pulls away.

“Can we go to Pascal’s?” Alex asks. “I'll drive us.”

Kelley clings to Alex on the back of her scooter, chatting mindlessly about school and Dance Marathon, avoiding the one topic that terrifies them both. At Pascal’s, Kelley claims the couch while Alex orders their drinks. It’s emptier than usual, likely because most of the people who frequent the coffee shop haven’t pulled themselves out of their beds yet.

Alex takes a deep breath when she comes back, setting both coffees on the table. She takes a long sip as Kelley watches her, waiting.

“So,” Alex says.

“So.”

“First of all, I’m so sorry about what I said. That’s not how I wanted—it’s not what I meant.”

“Then why?” Kelley asks. “You sounded pretty sure of yourself. If you’ve been thinking about that, why haven’t I been in on the conversation?”

“Because you have work and Kappa stuff, and I’m still trying to process everything from last weekend.”

“Literally none of that matters in comparison,” Kelley says. “I’m doing fine at work, I’m going to graduate, Kappa will survive without me. You’re so much more important than any of that.”

“That’s what worries me,” Alex says. “I shouldn’t be your No. 1 priority. Not at this point, anyway.”

“How about I get to decide what I prioritize?” Kelley offers.

“It’s not fair to you,” Alex says, curling her legs underneath her and leaning against the back of the couch. “I’m going to another country—another continent!—for a whole year, I can’t let you put your life on hold for that whole time.”

“I wasn’t planning to put my life on hold,” Kelley says. “I was planning on working and spending time with friends and family and hearing about all your amazing adventures in Nigeria. Is this because I want to come visit? Because I just meant like one time in the middle of it, once you’re all settled in. If you don’t want me to come, I don’t have to. It was just an idea.”

“It’s not because you want to visit, it’s because I don’t know if I can do long distance for that long. I’m scared you’ll resent me or get bored waiting.”

“Those are reasonable fears,” Kelley says softly, her hand resting on Alex’s thigh. “But nothing is stopping us from trying.”

Alex’s eyes water. “Do you see why I was putting off this conversation?”

“No, I really don’t.”

“Kelley, at the orientation there were people who have done this before. There was a girl who was in a relationship when she went, and it crashed and burned. She told us about other girls who had similar situations or worse. Relationships aren’t supposed to work like that. If we take out that aspect, maybe when I get back we can just go back to this.”

“You can’t cut me out of a huge part of your life and just expect us to pick up where we left off,” Kelley says.

“I don’t want to cut you out,” Alex sighs. “But relationships are so much more work than friendships.”

“So you want to be my friend,” Kelley says, trying to get it all straight. “Dude, you’re going to Nigeria, I don’t expect you to take me on dates or buy me presents. You’re going to have roommates, I’m not expecting Skype sex. What am I missing here? Because that sounds like friendship to me.”

“I don’t know, less pressure,” Alex says. “Can you just cut me some slack? I’m as new to this as you are. I’m just trying to figure everything out, and I’m under a lot of stress trying to even wrap my head around this Nigeria thing.”

“You wanted this.”

“I wanted a new experience doing something important,” Alex says. “You know I didn’t want all this. I don’t like being under the gun and having to make difficult choices, and I definitely don’t like hurting you.”

“You have control over at least one of those things,” Kelley says. “So tell me, what does this mean for us right now? Today? I mean, we’re graduating in less than six weeks.”

“I don’t know what it means,” Alex says. “Doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this while it lasts.” She squeezes Kelley’s hand and kisses her lightly on the lips.

Kelley wants to protest, wants to make Alex choose now, wants to get some sort of answer, but she doesn’t. Her coffee is cold now, but Alex’s hands are warm on her knees, and if she only gets six weeks more of this, she plans on milking every last second for what it’s worth.

~

Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult for Kelley to enjoy every second when so many of them are actually spent apart from Alex, whether Kelley’s at work or in class or studying. And more than that, it’s difficult when they do spend time together to look at Alex as anything other than her future ex-girlfriend.

Kelley holds out hope that Alex will change her mind, that by the time graduation rolls around and it’s time for them to part ways, she won’t be able to do it. But Alex has a strong will, and Kelley knows somewhere deep down that it’s futile. Instead, everything feels final.

When they go for a quiet Sunday morning run around campus, Kelley wonders if it’ll be the last time she gets a chance to beat Alex (she knows she never will). When Kelley turns down Alex’s offer for a mid-week sleepover, she debates about it for hours after the fact, wondering if it’s the last time for such a simple pleasure.

Kelley’s underlying anxiety comes to a head at formal—well, after formal to be exact. She and Alex escape the afterparty less than an hour after it begins, making their way to their hotel room where they can be alone.

Alex is well past the point of tipsy, and her mouth and hands are everywhere on Kelley’s body from the moment they step off the elevator to the moment she pins Kelley to the bed after unzipping both their dresses and letting them fall to the floor. She’s good at this, and she only gets better with practice, but Kelley’s thoughts overwhelm her as Alex’s fingers curl inside her and her tongue laps Kelley’s clit.

Kelley is so distracted that while her body reacts appropriately, moving against Alex, her mind wanders elsewhere. When she comes back to earth, it’s because she realizes Alex has been at it for a while. She doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it, and it only serves to make her work harder, changing up angles and teasing Kelley’s nipples with her other hand.

Kelley’s guilt fills her with a stronger reaction than anything Alex is doing, and she begins to whimper and moan, squeezing her eyes shut. “Oh God, Al, I’m close,” she whines, forcing her hips to buck against Alex’s mouth. She quickens her breathing before bringing it back down.

Alex slowly withdraws her fingers, and instead of licking them off like she normally does, she wipes them on Kelley’s hip. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Fake it,” Alex says. “If it was that bad, you could tell me or help me out.”

“What? I didn’t—”

“Don’t lie. That’s even worse.”

Kelley sighs, propping herself up on her elbows. “It’s not your fault,” she says. “It wasn’t bad. I promise.”

“Then why did you have to fake it? That’s more humiliating than if you had just asked me to stop.”

“I’m sorry,” Kelley says. “I guess I’m not fully here.”

“Okay, then where are you?” Alex asks. “Because you haven’t been fully here for weeks.”

“Me?” Kelley asks. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re already in fucking Nigeria!”

Alex recoils, crossing her arms over her chest, suddenly self-conscious. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know how you expect me to act like everything’s normal when you’ve all but prepared me to be dumped come graduation.”

“Kelley, that’s not what this is,” Alex says, getting up to throw a T-shirt on. She throws one to Kelley as well. She can’t have this conversation naked. “It’s not a breakup, it’s a… hiatus. You don’t stop loving a sport just because it’s in the offseason.”

“Our relationship isn’t a game,” Kelley laughs. “That’s the most ridiculous analogy I’ve ever heard. You know what your problem is?”

“Oh please, enlighten me.”

“You’re desperate to take the easy way out.”

“You think this is easy for me?”

“No, but you get off easy when you make it seem like this is a mutual decision when it’s not. You know I love you and don’t want you hurt, and you’re manipulating that for your own benefit.”

“Are you insane?” Alex exclaims. “How is any of this for my own benefit? How does ending an incredible relationship with someone I’m in love with work out in my favor?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks, and all I can come up with is that you want freedom. From me, from the confines of a relationship, whatever. Nobody breaks up just because they’re going to be apart. They break up because they don’t trust each other with that distance or their relationship isn’t as strong as they think. People facing long distance break up because they want to see other people, or at least have that option.”

“I don’t want that,” Alex says quietly. “Why would you think that?”

“Because you leave for a weekend and some chick gets in your head about how relationships are impossible from that distance for that length of time and suddenly my stubborn, strong-willed, brave girlfriend isn’t willing to try something that might be challenging.”

“She’s not some chick, she knows what she’s talking about!” Alex exclaims. “I don’t want to put you through this, why is that so hard to understand?”

“Breaking my heart doesn’t spare me any pain, Alex. It just spares you the horror of having to take responsibility for it.”

“I’m not breaking up with you!”

“No, you want us to have this mutual parting of ways and then come back and have it be like nothing ever happened, but that doesn’t work for me,” Kelley says. “You want to wear me down with logic until I give in and say that this is the best thing for both of us, but this is a bad choice that you’re making for bad reasons, and I don’t agree with it. So if you want things your way, you can break up with me. I’m not letting you off the hook that easily, because this is the wrong choice and I know it. I think we both know it.”

“Kelley—”

“Say it!” Kelley practically shouts. “Say you’re breaking up with me.”

Alex is silent, save for the small whimpers she tries to contain as tears stream down her face.

“See? You can’t. You’re so willing to break my heart but you aren’t willing to be the bad guy for it.” Kelley’s voice shakes as she scrambles to throw her things into her bag, pulling on the shorts she miraculously happened to bring for bedtime.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” Kelley says. “I’ll find a room where people aren’t having sex. Maybe I’ll get my own room. I just need to be away from you.”

“Please don’t leave,” Alex says, trying to control her voice. “Please, Kel, I’m begging you.”

“You’re really one to talk about leaving,” Kelley says, letting the door slam behind her.

She winds up in Carli’s room, mostly because she knows she and Brian are on a sex ban till Carli takes the LSAT, but also because she knows Carli won’t ask questions like Kelley’s other friends would. It’s only a matter of time before word gets back to Hope, who won’t hesitate to confront Kelley about it, but it gives Kelley at least the night to think about things.

She feels terrible for lashing out at Alex the way she did, but she feels worse about the concept of not being with Alex. Alex says it’s only for a year, but how can she possibly know that? How does she know she won’t fall in love with someone else when she doesn’t have a girlfriend back home? Or worse, what if she doesn’t fall in love with someone else and just decides Kelley isn’t enough of a reason to come home?

Her phone lights up in the dark, and she sees it’s a text from Alex. She opens it against her better judgment to find a picture of the two of them from earlier, all dressed up with fresh hair and makeup. Kelley is saying something that Alex must have found hysterical judging by the way her head is thrown back, and Kelley’s eyes are all lit up, overjoyed to have brought upon such a reaction.

“I know everything feels dark and sucky right now, but no matter what happens, this is what I’ll remember. I love you so much and I miss you already.”

Chapter Text

Just as Alex zips up her suitcase and checks her makeup in the mirror one last time before leaving to meet the bus back to Gainesville, she hears the familiar sound of a key card unlocking the door. She looks out of the bathroom to see Kelley walk in.

“Hey,” Kelley says.

“Hi.”

“I just—I don’t really want to walk down separately and deal with the questions.”

“I understand. Where’d you go last night?”

“Carli’s. She had two queens.”

“Gotcha,” Alex says. “Here, you’ve got—” She reaches out to brush away a stray eyelash from Kelley’s cheek, and Kelley flinches. “Make a wish.” She holds out the eyelash on her thumb. Kelley just looks at it and back to Alex, ignoring her attempt at normalcy.

“Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah. Kel, listen—”

“I don’t really want to right now, if you don’t mind,” Kelley says. “I’m sorry for leaving last night. And I’m sorry for yelling, but I’m not sorry for anything I said. I don’t want things to end poorly, so let’s just leave them here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I love you, and if you aren’t willing to be the one to do it, then I will because I want whatever is going to make you happy.”

“This doesn’t make me happy.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t want to delay the inevitable. The past few weeks have been so incredibly hard, and it’s just going to get harder.” Kelley takes a deep breath, placing her hands on Alex’s waist. “This has been amazing, seriously. The best five months of my life—more than that, if you include becoming your friend, which I do. You changed my life in so many ways, and I’ll always love you for that.”

“After Nigeria—”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Kelley says with a slight smile. “I can’t wait to see you change the world, superstar.”

“I never would have gotten this far without you,” Alex says, tearing up.

“Sure you would have. But I’m glad I got to be at least a small part of that.” Kelley feels her phone vibrate in her pocket, and she knows it’s probably Christen or Ali telling her to get her ass downstairs because the bus is leaving. “One more for the road?” she asks, leaning in for a kiss.

Alex’s lips taste like salt, and it reminds Kelley of the first time they kissed at Cantina after taking shots of tequila. She couldn’t have possibly known then what an impact Alex would have on her life, and she wonders if, feeling the way she does now, heartbroken and in love, empty and full all at the same time, she would have done anything differently. Suddenly, “one more for the road” seems next to impossible, and Kelley finds herself pulling away first.

Pain flashes in Alex’s eyes like she realizes the significance of Kelley’s lips leaving hers for what could very well be the last time ever.

Kelley’s hands drop from Alex’s waist, and she leans over to pick up Alex’s bag off the floor, opening the door for her to exit first.

~

On her first night without Kelley, Alex doesn’t sleep a wink. She tosses and turns to the point that Tobin leaves to go stay in someone else’s room and Sydney throws a pillow at her at 2 a.m.

On the second night, she goes for a run. She knows any one of her sisters or friends (and definitely Kelley) would admonish her for running down the notoriously poorly lit Sorority Row so late at night, but it’s the only thing she can do. She ends up at Lake Alice, where she stays for far too long, lying on the dock and staring up at the stars as if she’s waiting for someone, but she knows nobody’s coming.

On the third night, she almost texts Kelley. She knows she shouldn’t, but she scrolls through her Kelley album till the tears fall, thinking about all the memories she only shares with Kelley, and she wants confirmation that she’s not alone, that the memories aren’t just going to die because she has nobody to share them with anymore.

Every night after that gets a little easier, slowly but surely. Some nights are particularly rough, especially the ones she spends in the library, secretly hoping Kelley will walk in. She gets so preoccupied imagining what would happen if she did that she forgets to actually study till Lindsey warns her she’ll fail her finals.

The first time they see each other is on the night of the last day of classes. They signed up to do the annual Midnight Fun Run 5K along with all their friends way back when registration opened up, but Syd and Lindsey volunteer to run with Alex so she doesn’t have to awkwardly socialize with—or at least around—Kelley.

Of course, that doesn’t last. Ashlyn finds Alex so she can say hi and give her a hug. While she’s asking her how she’s holding up, Kelley passes by behind her, and Alex can’t help but stare. Ashlyn turns around to see what she’s looking at, and they catch Kelley’s eye.

Kelley smiles and waves awkwardly before walking over in an attempt to make things less awkward… which, of course, backfires.

“Hey,” Kelley says. “How was your last day?”

“Yeah, good,” Alex says. “And you? The internship?”

“Good,” Kelley says. “They offered me a job.”

“Oh, wow,” Alex says. Her blood runs cold thinking about how many people must already know about it. Who was the first person she told? A few weeks ago it would have been Alex. “So you’re going to stick around here?”

“The job’s in DC, actually,” Kelley says.

“Oh, wow,” Alex repeats. Is that all she can say now? “Well, that’s amazing. I’m really happy for you.”

Alex runs the fastest 5K she ever has that night, desperate to cross the finish line and get home and away from all this. She practically runs home in addition to that, and when she’s finally showered and in bed, finally feeling clean of the discomfort of earlier, she gets a text from Kelley.

“Hi,” it reads. “It was really good seeing you tonight. I don’t want things to be weird between us, which probably sounds dumb, but it’s true. I have something to give you, so if you have some time to meet up and go to coffee or something, let me know. If you don’t, I’ll just give it to Tobin next time she’s here haha… just let me know :)”

“Okay, I’ll let you know,” Alex replies. Kelley’s back at it with the smiley faces that she started with when they first met, but now they hurt Alex in a totally different way.

~

“You were a lot more fun with Kelley,” Syd grumbles before she knows what she’s saying. She’s four drinks in, but she seems to sober up as soon as the words leave her mouth. “Shit. Alex, I didn’t mean that.”

“Yeah, you did,” Alex says, nursing the same beer she’s been drinking since they got to the party. She knows it’s true, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.

Finals week is over, and it’s pretty much every senior’s last night to party before the town fills up with parents and family members near and far. Syd’s grand idea was to set up a slip and slide on the lawn outside the ADPi house when they get home, and Alex is apparently a buzzkill for shooting it down.

“Shit, we gotta go,” Lindsey says. Alex turns around, half expecting to see Kelley, but it’s worse.

“Alex!” A drunken Derek approaches, beer in hand. “How funny that I’d run into you at both the first party and last party of the year.”

“Hilarious,” Alex says, looking for an escape route.

“Let me get you a drink,” he says. “I’m assuming you could use it. I know how badly I needed a drink when Kelley broke up with me.”

“You cheated on her,” Alex says.

“Yeah, with you. So it was worth it as far as I’m concerned.”

“You know, I think it was definitely worth it,” Alex says, sudden courage taking over her body. “You got to use Kelley as a stepping stone to get where you wanted, and I got the most genuine love I’ve ever experienced. So thanks for that.” She turns to walk away.

“Yeah, and you got to fuck me,” Derek laughs.

Alex spins around, her hand thinking before her brain as she slaps him across the face. “Now you can go fuck yourself.”

“I take it back,” Syd says as they’re leaving the house. “That never would have happened with Kelley around.”

~

Despite Alex’s protests, her family insists on taking her out for a graduation dinner the night before graduation. They tell her she can choose the location and bring any of her friends, but they all have their own obligations with their own families, so it’s just the five of them and the Corcorans at 101 Downtown.

Alex’s dad raves about the free valet service while her mom and sisters order drinks at the bar while they wait to be seated. She wishes she had more excitement to share, but all anyone wants to talk to her about is Nigeria, and she dreads it more and more every day.

“Morgan? Party of eight?” The hostess asks, smiling brightly. “Your table is ready.”

Alex busies herself with her dress as she escorts them to the back, but a familiar laugh makes her head spin to the left. Of course. Kelley and her entire family would choose the exact same restaurant on the exact same night for her graduation dinner.

Alex’s vision gets blurry, and suddenly she can’t breathe properly. “I’m going to go to the restroom,” she says, excusing herself before she’s even sat down.

Once in the restroom, Alex works on her breathing, trying to collect herself. She hunches over the sink, burying her face in her hands. When the door opens, she straightens up, trying to look like everything is fine. She might have gotten away with it, too, if the person walking through the door weren’t Kelley.

“Are you okay?” Kelley asks. “I saw you practically sprint this way.”

“Fine, just a little woozy,” Alex says.

“I heard you slapped Derek silly.”

Alex cracks a smile before shutting it down and shrugging. “I don’t know about silly.”

“He probably deserved it.”

“He’s deserved it since August.”

“You never texted me about when you’d be free,” Kelley says with a smile.

“Sorry.”

“I would have brought your present if I’d known you’d be here.”

“Present?” Alex asks. She had assumed Kelley just wanted to give her something she’d left at her place.

“Now you’re interested,” Kelley laughs. “I leave to go home Sunday morning. If you can come by sometime before then, just text me and I’ll make sure I’m around.”

“You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“I got it… before,” Kelley says, and Alex just nods. That makes more sense. “Listen, I know you’re having dinner with your family, but my family would really like to say hi. No pressure or anything, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable—”

“It’s fine,” Alex says. “I’d like to see them too.”

“Okay,” Kelley says. “So… you good?”

“All good,” Alex lies. She follows Kelley back out to the dining room, passing by her own family’s table with a plastered smile that she manages to pass off as real when she hugs Kelley’s parents and Erin.

They ask about Nigeria as Kelley tenses beside her, and she answers their questions as graciously as possible.

“I should get back to my family, but it’s so nice seeing you all,” Alex says.

“Hey,” Kelley whispers, grabbing Alex’s wrist. “I know I haven’t officially met your family, but can I—”

Alex nods quickly. “Yeah, come over.”

It’s Kelley’s turn to follow Alex to the table. Katherine and John smile warmly at her while Kieryn makes grabby hands for Kelley.

“Everyone, this is Kelley.” She needs no further introduction, of course, and Alex’s sisters exchange a glance, unsure about how to approach this situation.

“It’s wonderful to finally meet you,” Alex’s dad says, standing up to hug her. “I was beginning to think we never would. Congratulations on graduation. That’s a mighty fine accomplishment.”

“Thank you, sir,” Kelley says, her cheeks turning pink.

“And I guess we have you to thank for our Ali Cat going all the way to Nigeria in August,” he continues. “She seems excited, so I guess we can’t be too upset.”

“She’s going to do amazing things,” Kelley says.

“How funny that we’d end up at the same restaurant!” Alex’s mom says.

Kelley smiles. “We seem to have a way of being on the same page a lot of the time,” she says. Alex looks down at her shoes, and Kelley takes it as a hint. “I’d better, uh—” She motions toward her table, and everyone says their goodbyes.

Alex smiles at her, waving a quick goodbye as she goes back to her family. She sits down and pulls Kieryn into her lap, in need of any distraction she can get.

~

Alex has friends in nearly every college in the school, but the majority graduate on Saturday in one of the two sessions. She’s in the afternoon session, so she has plenty of time to get ready, but Syd, Christen and Tobin are all in the morning session, which means sitting in the hot stadium for hours waiting for them to be announced.

She has time for a shower and lunch with her family before she has to be ready and in the stadium. Kelley is in the same session, but Alex knows she’ll drive herself crazy if she thinks about that or looks for her. When Kelley’s name is called, Alex looks up at the big screen and cheers as Kelley beams, blowing a kiss to her family in the stands.

When Alex finally crosses the stage, she hears Kelley’s loud whistle, which she’d recognize anywhere, and a grin spreads across her face. She’s past the point of crying over graduation, but her tears well up a bit at the thought—which has only just occurred to her—of saying goodbye to Kelley for good.

When she gets back to her seat, she has a text from Kelley, a picture of her crossing the stage.

“Thought you might want this. Good job superstar! I’m so proud. And you didn’t trip ;)”

“Thanks, you too,” Alex replies. “Can we meet up after for a pic? I feel like it would be weird not getting one with you.”

“Of course,” Kelley texts back. “It would be my honor.”

~

Given the nature of graduation, their second encounter with each other’s families is even more awkward than the first, this time because their families are forced to interact. Kelley’s mom compliments Alex’s mom’s shoes, because what else do you say to the mother of the girl who broke your daughter’s heart? And why, for the love of God, do they still want to take pictures together after all they went through?

This time they at least get to go their separate ways when the pictures end, but they still refuse to say goodbye. Not like this, not surrounded by hundreds of people all trying to stay out of each other’s way and fighting for the best lighting.

“So, um, the thing you have for me?” Alex says. “Can I come over tonight after dinner with my family?”

“Yeah, of course,” Kelley says. “Actually, I have a better idea. Text me when you’re ready and I’ll tell you where to meet me.”

“Okay,” Alex says, slightly skeptical. She wants their goodbye to be in private, but she knows Kelley has plans with her family, and they will certainly take precedence over Alex, at least now.

~

Alex is surprised when Kelley tells her where to meet her, but she parks her scooter across the street and makes her way down the familiar path to the dock, where Kelley sits, illuminated by the lamps around the lake.

“Hi,” Alex says quietly, as to not startle Kelley.

Kelley looks up and smiles. “Hey,” she says. “I hope it’s okay that we’re here. The house is kind of insane right now with everyone’s families and whatnot.” She hands Alex a small bag filled with tissue paper.

“Yeah, same at mine,” Alex says. “I, um, I didn’t get you anything.”

“That’s okay,” Kelley laughs. “I just ordered this and I was planning to give it to you for graduation, and I couldn’t send it back or anything. If you don’t like it, it’s okay.”

“I’m sure I’ll like it.” Alex gently pushes the tissue paper aside, reaching in to pull out a small black jewelry box. “Oh God, Kel, how much did this cost you?”

“Hush,” Kelley says. “Just look.”

Alex opens the box to reveal two small silver tennis bracelets, laden with emeralds. “Oh, these are beautiful,” she gasps. “Kelley, I can’t accept these.”

“Yes you can,” Kelley says. “You have to. Look. The green is for the Nigerian flag, and I had them engraved.” She shines the flashlight from her phone on the bracelets, gingerly taking the one on top in her hand. “To Nigeria,” she reads, before setting it down and picking up the other. “And back.”

“Kelley,” Alex breathes, her eyes filling with tears.

“The first was supposed to be yours and the second would be mine, but I thought you could take them both,” Kelley says. “Maybe they’ll bring you good luck or whatever.”

Alex picks up the second bracelet, reading the words over and over. “You bought these before?”

“The weekend you were in DC,” Kelley says. “Maybe an impulse buy, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was a nervous wreck that whole weekend. And when I talked to you, you just seemed so scared, and I had never seen you like that. You’ve always been my rock, so confident even when the world turns upside down. And I wanted to be that for you when you needed it. So I thought it would be a symbol, you know? Like you’d go all the way to Nigeria, and when you came back, I’d be here.”

“Why didn’t you try to stop me?”

“From going? Are you crazy? This is an amazing opportunity. I’ve told you this a million times.”

“Yeah, but didn’t you want me to stay?”

“My selfish side absolutely did. It still does. But then there’s the part of me that loves you and wants all the best things for you. And that side had to win out. You know, considering it makes up pretty much all of me, including my selfish side.”

“I didn’t want to leave you,” Alex says, her lips trembling. “I didn’t want this to end.”

“Me neither,” Kelley says softly. Her eyes dart down to Alex’s lips for a split second before she catches herself, but Alex catches her too.

Alex presses the bracelet into Kelley’s palm, wrapping Kelley’s fingers around it. “Keep it,” she says. “I want you to be here when I come back. I want to come back for you. I want to come back to you. Please.”

“Okay,” Kelley says softly.

Alex leans forward to capture Kelley’s lips, audibly sighing when they connect again for the first time in what feels like ages. Kelley’s lips are just as soft as she remembers, and her hair the same.

“God, this is cliche,” Kelley laughs when they break apart, but when she blinks open her eyes, Alex is still close enough to see the tiny tears on the ends of her lashes.

“This is going to be really hard,” Alex says. “But I feel like the last three weeks have been harder than anything I’ve ever done, so maybe it was all just preparation.”

“Did you cry a lot?” Kelley asks. “Because I did. Like every night. Christen would make me hot tea and rub my back.”

“She’s a lot nicer than my roommates,” Alex laughs. “No more tears.” She wipes away her own before wiping away one of Kelley’s.

“These are the good kind,” Kelley assures her.

“The best,” Alex agrees, leaning back in for another kiss.

Kelley cups Alex's face with her free hand, remembering every inch of her effortlessly. “Do you have anywhere else to be tonight?” she asks. “Christen is staying with her sisters. Erin was going to stay with me, but I can kick her out.”

Alex laughs. “Kick her to the curb.” She kisses Kelley again, slow and deep this time, before pulling away, biting at Kelley's bottom lip as she does. “But remember what happened last time? Don't do it again.”

Kelley cringes, remembering the fake orgasms that always worked on Derek. When she couldn't get even one by Alex, she should have known she was the one. “Deal,” she agrees.

Alex takes Kelley’s wrist in her hand, taking the bracelet from her and fastening the clasp. She lifts Kelley’s hand to her lips, kissing it softly.

Kelley returns the favor, interlacing her fingers with Alex’s. “Thanks for coming back to me,” she says.

“Thanks for giving me something to come back to.”

~

Kelley will never take waking up in Alex’s arms for granted, she thinks before opening her eyes the next morning.

“I think maybe you shouldn’t leave,” Alex murmurs, feeling Kelley stir against her.

“I think you’re right,” Kelley says, kissing the first place her lips touch, which ends up being Alex’s chin. “Maybe we should both just stay here forever.”

“Or I could come with you.”

“I wouldn’t hate that.”

“My parents might.”

“I can’t say I’d blame them. They’ve been away from you for four years, and you’re going away for another full year. They deserve time with you.”

“Yeah, but I’ve gone three whole weeks without you,” Alex groans.

Kelley laughs. “Maybe we can work something out where I come out to California for a while before you leave.”

“When?” Alex asks. “Come tomorrow and leave when I go to Nigeria.”

Kelley pecks Alex on the nose. “We could probably use a little bit of practice with this whole long-distance thing.”

~

Any plans of staying in bed all day and ignoring reality go out the window when Kelley’s parents show up to drop off Erin, who’s driving back with Kelley. They seem pleased to see Alex, but certainly not surprised.

Erin is the only one who seems to pick up on the matching bracelets they wear, and she smirks at Alex as she subtly smooths her hair, which still hasn’t recovered from the activities of the night before.

Kelley’s parents hug Alex and wish her well in her adventures before hitting the road, warning the girls not to wait too long and wind up in traffic. Kelley is one of the last to leave the house, so there aren’t many girls to say goodbye to besides Tobin and Christen, who come back to help clean out the room.

Finally, when the room is bare and the car is loaded, there’s only one goodbye remaining.

“I, uh, I think my phone charger is still inside,” Erin says. “Do you want some snacks? I’ll grab some snacks.” They all know she didn’t leave her charger inside, but nobody questions it.

Kelley places her hands on Alex’s shoulders, rubbing circles into her collarbone with her thumbs. “It feels like we’ve been putting this off for a really long time.”

“So what’s a little longer?” Alex asks.

“Every second it gets harder,” Kelley says. “I’m going to be a wreck when you go to Nigeria.”

Alex’s fingers subconsciously find Kelley’s right wrist and toys with the bracelet on it. “We’re going to be fine,” she says. “And when it gets hard, I’ll be counting down the days.”

“And while you’re away I’ll be lobbying the headquarters every day to bring you right back to DC when you’re done,” Kelley says. “Remember when we talked about goals? Look how many you’ve accomplished in so little time. This is just another one to work toward.”

“I love you so much,” Alex says, eyes filling with tears. She places a kiss to Kelley’s lips which leads to another one and another one. They stay like that for longer than they probably should, at least until Erin politely clears her throat from behind Alex.

“I really hate to interrupt,” she says softly.

“If you didn't, we'd never stop,” Kelley says.

“Kinda figured.”

Alex steps back, distancing herself from Kelley, and gives Erin a hug as she takes a deep breath to stop her tears.

“I'll call you when I get home,” Kelley says.

“I'll be on a plane,” Alex reminds her.

“Then you call me.”

“It'll be late.”

“I need to get used to the time difference anyway.”

“I love you.” Alex kisses Kelley quickly on the lips once more.

“I love you more.”

“Not a competition,” Alex says, sticking out her tongue. She opens the driver’s side door for Kelley without taking her eyes away from her, as though if she were to break eye contact, Kelley would disappear.

“Just a fact.” Kelley squeezes Alex’s hand with one hand while revving up the engine with the other. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” Alex agrees tearfully, closing the door. She steps back so Kelley can pull out, waving goodbye until the car is less than a speck in the distance.

She takes a deep breath to collect herself, realizing this is what it feels like to be left behind, that this is how Kelley is going to feel in August—on her birthday of all days. She stops herself from texting Kelley, fully aware that she’s driving and would grab her phone in a heartbeat for Alex.

She thinks back to the night that set the ball rolling on the chain of events that led her to Kelley. For weeks afterward, she regretted sleeping with Derek, but now she knows she wouldn’t change a thing.

Sydney had vowed that this year would be different, and she couldn’t possibly have known how right she would be. When she told Alex to “live a little,” she had no idea how much living there was to do.