Late in the afternoon, when everyone's home and settled, after school and extracurriculars and work but before dinner, there's the briefest, most blessed of windows when the house is (relatively) quiet. Cory calls it 'the homework lull,' because that's what the kids are supposed to be doing, and Topanga often uses the time to review depositions or to look over the books from the bakery while Cory makes inroads on his never-ending grading. The kids, being kids, aren't always doing what they're supposed to be doing, but Topanga doesn't mind if Auggie plays an hour of video games if it means a bit of peace, and they all know better than to try to separate Riley and Maya for very long.
The homework lull doesn't happen as regularly as they'd like, some new shenanigans always spilling over to disrupt any kind of reliable schedule, but Topanga learns to treasure the time she does get, curled up next to her husband on the couch, a big mug of tea within reach. Sometimes it's wine - well, sometimes she wishes it were wine, but she saves that for special occasions, after dinner and when the kids are asleep.
When the girls traipse down the stairs not ten minutes after disappearing into Riley's room, Topanga can tell it's going to be a 'wishes it were wine' day. Riley's mouth is pressed so tightly into a thin line that even her dimples look stern, and she's towing Maya by the hand. The latter trails behind her with eyes so wide and a face so pale that Topanga wonders if they need to set better boundaries on balcony traffic. Minkuses tend to have pushy streaks.
But no. "Mom, Dad," Riley announces, "we need to tell you something."
She sounds so serious that Cory doesn't quip, just sits up and laces his hands primly atop his knees, echoing Topanga's posture. "You know you can tell us anything," he replies with equal gravity.
Riley takes a deep breath. "I need you to not freak out, okay?" Topanga links her arm in Cory's just in case she has to keep him in his seat. Riley continues, her words starting to tumble and tangle, "because I know how protective you get, and that I probably should have told you sooner, but it's not actually like I really know when it started anyway, but now that I get that I'm dating someone, and that's the kind of thing you usually want to know..."
"Pumpkin," Maya says, "you're babbling again."
"You're dating someone?" Topanga asks, once she's sorted out the message from the nervous chatter.
"...you're dating someone?" Cory echoes, and sure enough, Topanga has to yank him back down to the couch by his elbow. He turns to her. "She's dating someone, Topanga! I thought she got it out of her system the last time!"
The Last Time involved a tearful goodbye at the airport, two weeks of increasingly brief and sad skype sessions, finally culminating in three pints of ice cream in as many days (one Cherry Garcia, one bubble gum, and one generic chocolate that Cory ran out to get from the corner store at eleven pm). The next time Topanga sees Lucas Friar's parents, she's going to bill them for damages, as soon as she figures out what her little girl's broken heart is worth. Her current estimate (twice the national deficit) seems a bit low.
"When do we get to meet him?" Topanga asks, trying for 'cheery and upbeat' and probably hitting closer to 'tensely interrogative.' Shit, her lawyer voice is coming back.
"Um," Maya says, mostly hidden behind Riley. She gives a half-hearted little wave and a faltering smile. "Not a him?"
When the penny drops, Topanga gets her game face on real quick. Whatever they say next is going to echo in their little girl's head for the rest of her life, so they better not screw it up.
"You're dating Maya?" Cory asks Riley. Her face is pink, but she nods so fast that it's mostly hidden behind a bouncing curtain of hair. "That's great!" He sounds genuine, thank god, and maybe a little... manic, actually? "Topanga, did you hear, Riley's dating Maya!"
"I heard," Topanga says smiling right back at him before holding out a hand to Riley, who takes it cautiously. "Thank you for telling us. I know it had to be hard for you, and I'm so, so proud of you for being so brave." Riley nods again, a little less skittish now. "Does her mom know?"
"...she kind of guessed," Maya says, her voice muffled. Topanga looks over to see Cory hugging their daughter's new girlfriend, beaming and petting her hair like she's a puppy. "Um, Mr. Matthews? It's getting kinda hard to breathe."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I just," he steps back only to immediately envelop both girls in his arms. "I'm just so happy."
"Okay, honey, let go," Topanga says, standing and helping the girls extricate themselves. "Maya, I'm probably going to be calling your mom later so she and Cory and I can all talk about whether we need new ground rules for you coming over, but even if things do have to change a little, we still love you and consider you family, no matter what happens, okay?"
Maya shrugs, looking away. "Yeah, sure," she says, a little too quick to be nonchalant.
Topanga gives in and steps forward to give Maya a hug of her own, quick but real. "I mean it," she says quietly before stepping back.
"Okay," Maya says, sounding more like she believes it. "Can we go back upstairs now? I think I've filled my quota of awkward coming out for one day."
"Yeah, go on," Cory says, and quick as a shot, they're off again.
"Leave the door open," Topanga calls after them.
"They'll be fine," Cory says magnanimously, settling back down on the couch and reaching for the report he'd been reading. Faintly, from upstairs, comes Riley's distant yyyaaaaaay! and Topanga suppresses a smile.
"You seem awfully agreeable about this," she says, sitting next to Cory. "Do you maybe want to talk about it?"
"What's to talk about?" he says, glancing up and then doing a double take, frowning. "You honestly didn't think I was going to have a problem with--?" He gestures, clearly unsure of what term to use. Labels can come later, when Riley's ready.
"Well, no, but," Topanga chews on the inside of her cheek, "you almost seem like you're overcompensating? Maybe a little?"
Cory shakes his head. "No, look, all I want is for our little girl to be happy. And I know that besides us, Maya's one of the only other people in the whole world who considers that a priority, too. We've seen them fight and make up a thousand times, and I really don't think she'll ever hurt Riley in any way that she won't try her hardest to fix again."
Topanga settles back against the couch, resting her head on Cory's shoulder. "You're right. Plus, we've known her for years and we know her family and her grades and everything else about her..."
"Right," Cory says. "She's not some unknown quantity like some people." He doesn't say the name 'Lucas Friar' if he can help it. He'd refused to say the word 'Texas' in the same room as Riley for three months after The Last Time ended, which had made the lesson about the Alamo super confusing, by all accounts. "Besides, there's no reason to think this is serious, it could just be, y'know, kid stuff."
Topanga laughs. "Right, kid stuff. Like you and me kid stuff? They're practically old enough to drive."
"Don't remind me." Cory shudders. "But no, they don't remind me of us; it's not the same thing. They could just be figuring stuff out. It'll all be fine."
Topanga shifts away, staring at him. "You don't think they could be serious? What, because it's two girls? Or because they remind you more of--"
Halfway to outrage on their daughter's behalf, it's almost like whiplash when her train of thought trips over a growing suspicion. "They never reminded you of us, they always reminded you of you and Shawn." Either the paper he's reading is really good or Cory's trying extra hard to pretend he doesn't notice her staring at him. "Did you and Shawn ever..." she can't say it, she can't, "...'figure stuff out'?"
He ventures a cautious, sidelong glance at her, and that tells her all she needs to know. She pushes all the way back to the other side of the couch, crossing her arms over her chest. "This whole time-" she starts, the air thin in her lungs, "-this whole time, for years, you never told me? You never said a word. Why would you think that's okay?"
"It wasn't serious," he tries, dropping the paper to spread his hands wide, palms up and open. "It wasn't important, it was just-"
"Kid stuff," she finishes for him. "When was this?"
Cory shrugs. "I don't know, years ago. Not while you and I were dating though, if that's what you're worried about." His expression is earnest and open, and she wants to trust him, but.
"How am I supposed to believe you?" she asks.
"Come on, Topanga, that's not fair," he protests.
She arches an eyebrow at him. "Do you really want to talk about fair, right now?"
"...no?" he says.
"Didn't think so." Topanga gets up, paces a few steps back and forth, trying to get the jumble of her mind in order. She has a thousand questions, and they're all log-jammed in the back of her throat. She doesn't know which she wants to ask first. She doesn't know if she wants to know the answers to half of them.
She gives up. "I need some wine," she says, and just as she reaches the kitchen, the front door opens to an all-too familiar sing-song voice. Inevitably, the sound of Auggie's excited shout follows as he thunders downstairs to meet Ava.
Topanga grips the edge of the sink and sighs. "Ugh," she mutters. "Guess the lull's over."
If things are strained between Cory and Topanga at dinner, the kids don't seem to notice. Riley's too busy trying to explain to Auggie how she and Maya are dating now, and Maya's eyeing the exits.
"...so if you go to the movies, who buys the popcorn?" Auggie asks, just the latest in a long line of stupid questions.
"We do everything just like we normally do," Maya says through gritted teeth. "Except now we hold hands while we do it."
"You already held hands," Auggie counters.
"Yeah," Riley says, a dreamy note entering her voice as it goes quiet, "but now sometimes we kiss, too." She jerks in her chair as there's a thump under the table like Maya's kicked her, but her sappy expression doesn't change.
"Okay, that's enough, I'm happy for you two but we don't need the details," Cory says, jumping to his feet to clear the dishes. "Not that there are too many details to tell, I hope." The girls give him twin guileless expressions and he sighs. "Okay, I am so not ready for that conversation right now. Let's just stick a pin in it, okay?"
"Sounds great, Mr. Matthews," Maya says with evident relief.
"Let me help you with these plates, Dad," Riley says.
Auggie turns to Maya. "So if you get married-" he starts.
"Riley, if I dunk your brother in glue and cover him with sequins, can I sell him on Etsy?" Maya asks.
Riley considers this. "Mom, if Maya dunks Auggie in glue-"
"No," Topanga says before she can finish.
Riley is too old to need tucking in, but after Auggie goes to sleep, Topanga stops by her room anyway. "Hey kiddo," she says, finding her daughter awake, sitting on the window-seat, staring up at the sliver of inky sky between buildings. Sometimes she wonders if they should have gotten a house with a proper yard for the kids. They wouldn't have (ugh) Ava to deal with - but then, they wouldn't have Maya, either. "Wanna talk? I can't say I'll have all the answers for all the questions you might have..."
"It's okay, Mom," Riley assures her. "I have the internet." Topanga's heart stops for a second. "And Maya still won't let me use it without safe search on, so I'll be fine."
Topanga laughs a little, crossing the room to sit next to her daughter. "Well, I guess that's all right, for now. But I'm here, okay?"
"Yeah," Riley says, leaning back against her. "...actually, there is one question I think only you can answer."
"What's that, sweetheart?" Topanga says, stroking her daughter's hair.
"Were you scared? I mean, when you started dating Dad. Were you afraid you were going to lose your friend and that everything was going to change, or did you just know that it would all be okay?"
Topanga hugs Riley tight, resting her cheek against the top of her head. "Oh, honey. I was so scared. I loved him so much but there's never any guarantees, even if we want to believe there are. We broke up a few times, you know." Nine times, to be exact. She doesn't like to think about it, but she keeps count.
"Really?" Riley sounds shocked.
"Really. Once while we were engaged. My parents had split up, and I didn't want to see what happened to them happen to us. But we aren't them, we're us. And you and Maya aren't anybody but you and Maya. That's what makes you so special. Don't forget that."
"Yeah," Riley says. "We are special."
They sit like that for a long time, listening quietly to the sounds of the street filtering up from below.
Cory's downstairs grading papers when Topanga turns in for the night. She chews on the inside of her cheek for a bit, and then, decided, picks up her phone and closes the door.
You up? she types.
Yeah I'm 3 hrs ahead remember?
Right. She stares at the screen, trying to figure out what else to say.
What's up? Everything ok?
She doesn't know how to answer that. Think so.
Hey my boss wants me to do a series on urbexing, there're a few ppl in NY I can interview. Can I crash w/you?
She knows it's an offer, not Shawn asking for a favor. Anytime. What's urbexing?
If I explain you'll tell me not to.
She laughs. God, it's Shawn. She's supposed to be mad now, but it's Shawn. Going to need a good attorney?
I hope not but I'm glad I have one on speed dial.
V. kind, ty. Tell me about it when you get here.
Gnight, T. See you soon.
Topanga looks at the clock, sees that it's after midnight. She pads downstairs in her pajamas and bare feet, toes curling against the cold floor. Cory's nodding off at the dining room table, stacks of paper in an indecipherable array across every flat surface within arm's reach.
"Sweetie," she calls quietly. "Come to bed."
He startles, blinking owlishly, sleepy and confused. "...wha?"
"C'mon. Sleep now, talk later."
"Okay," he says, gathering everything up in a precise order and tucking it away in his bag before following her upstairs.