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the closest to heaven that i'll ever be

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With a big yawn, Cheryl stretched out to wake herself up, moaning quietly in relief as her joints popped. She ran a hand through her tousled red hair and slid her stylish black-framed glasses onto her ears, glancing around. "God, what time is it?" she quietly grunted out loud into the empty bedroom, stretching a bit more as she reached for her iPhone.

June 26, 2015 11:03 AM

A bit of a smile crossed her face as she shook her head, glancing down at the goofy photo of herself and her fiancée on her lock screen. Toni must have turned her alarms off this morning before leaving for the airport early this morning. The brunette knew how much Cheryl loved sleeping in, but she also knew how often she didn't allow herself to do so. She must have done it while Cheryl was saying her half-asleep goodbyes to her in bed this morning. She was used to Toni traveling by now. As much as she hated to be away from her, she supported her and her photography career more than anything. She would be back in the semi-gothic comfort of Thornhill in two days.

With one final stretch, Cheryl sighed and climbed out of bed, reaching for Toni's old grey Riverdale High t-shirt that had been carelessly tossed aside last night and pulled it on, inhaling the unique and familiar combination of cucumber melon and Chanel perfume that clung to the worn out fabric. That was Toni. It had been for pretty much as long as Cheryl knew her. And it brought her more comfort than she thought possible.

She pulled on some clean underwear and slipped out of the bedroom. Thornhill had only been her home for a short while when she was a teenager before leaving for college, but it had been her home every summer for the past 20 years. She could find her way around the estate with her eyes closed if she tried. Even after a whole year away, she knew that the seventh and tenth steps creaked loudly on your way down from the second floor. Toni, while she had lived here for just about as many summers as she had, wasn't quite as familiar. The creaking steps still managed to take her by surprise, much to Cheryl's amusement.

"This place is so fucking spooky, Cher, how can you live here?" Toni whispered as they crept out of Cheryl's bedroom. Despite being rather old and senile, Nana Rose was pretty strict on 'lights out' times at Thornhill. And nine at night was just too early for two teenage girls to go to bed during summer vacation. Especially the summer before college. That time was too crucial for a nine pm bedtime.

"Don't tell me you're scared of a couple harmless ghosts, TT," Cheryl turned back to her and giggled quietly as they tip-toed down the red patterned rug towards the stairs, flashlights in hand. Holding onto the railing with her free hand, she started moving slowly down the stairs with her girlfriend behind her. The air was eerily silent, as it always was in the old mansion, until Cheryl's foot gently hit the seventh step down, the creaking wood sounding like a gunshot in the silent house.

"Jesus!" Toni nearly shrieked, but only managed to get through 'Je' before Cheryl whipped around and covered her mouth with one hand.

"I thought you were the master of stealth, Topaz," she whispered and quirked an eyebrow from behind her large glasses as her painted red lips curled into a smirk.

Toni didn't even get a chance to answer before those lips were on her own in a searing kiss. Her eyebrows raised to her hairline in surprise. This bold and reckless side of Cheryl didn't come out often, but it was always fun when it did. She wasn't a total wild child, but sneaking out to go to a bonfire at Sweetwater River may as well have been illegal to the redhead. And here she was, breaking that law with no pressure or persuasion from anyone else. She was proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone, though her rebellions back in junior year were far more risky than this. But that didn't stop Toni from thinking that Cheryl's random bursts of mild teenage defiance were a major turn on.

"Fuck, I love you," she breathed deeply, pulling back from the kiss. She could see the mischievous twinkle in Cheryl's eyes and the way she playfully scrunched up her nose in the dim light from their flashlights before she turned back around to lead her down the rest of the stairs.

Once she reached the bottom step, Cheryl sighed rather dreamily as she sauntered to the kitchen in search of something to eat for breakfast. After placing some bread in the toaster and starting up the Keurig, she unplugged her iPad from where it sat on the counter and set it up on the island, getting it ready for her 'morning scroll' once she was settled with her breakfast.

Once her toast was buttered and her coffee was made just the way she liked it, Cheryl sat down on a stool at the island, pulling her iPad a bit closer.

[Betts]: Check the news!
[Betts]: Now!

She furrowed her brows in confusion at the incoming texts from Betty. She couldn't help but worry as her fingers fumbled for the news app on her phone. And while it wasn't an emergency like she had originally thought, what she saw was enough to make her heart nearly stop in her chest.

"I'm standing here, outside the Supreme Court here in Washington D.C., and this colorful crowd behind me is celebrating the Court's five to four decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide," the newscaster in the video smiled, gesturing to the large crowd of people gathered behind her.

Cheryl could feel her palms starting to sweat as she fiddled nervously with the ring on her left hand. This was good news. This meant that she and Toni could finally get married officially. So why did she feel so uncertain?

[Betts]: Did you see?!

She bit her bare pink lip anxiously as she looked down at the text from Betty, unsure of what to say.

[Cher]: Yeah, really exciting!

After adding an excited emoji to her text and sending it, Cheryl placed her phone face down on the counter before leaning her forehead into her hands. Toni was still 30,000 feet in the air on her way to Texas for a photoshoot right now, so Cheryl doubted that she had heard the news. And as much as she hated to admit it, part of her didn't want Toni to see the news at all, because she just knew that she and the brunette weren't on the same page when it came to the conversation they were going to have to have.

"So what do you wanna do?" Toni's voice broke the comfortable silence of their Thornhill bedroom. Pink-streaked hair was sticking uncomfortably to the sweaty back of her neck, but her fiancée as of a few hours ago was laying in her arms, spent and satisfied after hours of pleasure.

"Hm?" Cheryl picked her head up slightly to look at her with her brows knit together in confusion.

"For the wedding," Toni chuckled, wiping a bit of smeared red lipstick from the side of Cheryl's lips, "Do you want something big, something small and low key? I mean, we can afford either, and if we do something big we can always-"

"TT, we...just got engaged like, four hours ago," Cheryl sat up on an elbow, trying to keep her face natural, "It's not even legal for us to get married..."

"I'm not saying we have to do it tomorrow, babe."

"I know, I just...need to get used to being engaged before I start thinking about a wedding," the redhead bit her lip, looking nervous and guilty.

"Oh. Okay."

"I'm sorry," her voice was meek and mild like it had been all the time in high school. And she really didn't miss the little mouse she used to be.

"Hey, don't be sorry. I just wanna make you mine as soon as possible," Toni kissed her knuckles with a bit of a smile, lingering over the diamond on her ring finger.

"I'm already yours, TT," Cheryl blushed fiercely, but she still looked at Toni like she was her whole world, "Always have been, always will be."

Cheryl's lip was practically swollen from however long she'd been chewing it nervously. She wasn't sure how long she had been sitting at the kitchen island wringing her hands, lost in thought, but the grandfather clock in the family room chimed twelve times, signaling the start of the afternoon. Toni was scheduled to land in Austin soon.

Clearing her throat, the redhead dumped out her half-drank coffee and rinsed off her plate after throwing her cold, untouched toast away. She was far too nervous to eat anything right now. For once, she didn't have a whole day planned out for herself. She had no plans whatsoever. Figures that would happen on the one day she needed the distraction.

Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, Cheryl just sighed and went back upstairs, throwing on a pair of leggings and some sneakers. She needed fresh air. They had the air conditioning system updated at Thornhill a few years ago, but she felt like the whole mansion was stuffier than ever before. So after a quick brush of her teeth, she threw her long hair up into a ponytail and went out to her car. The cherry red Impala was still in good condition despite being driven across the country a few times. She only ever drove it during the summer. Since her first book was published, she'd gotten a newer car for herself at their home in Los Angeles and decided to keep her grandfather's old car in his former home.

She took a deep breath as she backed out of the garage, feeling a bit more liberated as she took off down the long cobblestone driveway. Where she was headed, she had no idea. All she knew was that she needed to think.

She drove aimlessly as she cleared her mind, letting her instincts take her wherever. It seemed like hours before she found herself in the driveway of her former home, staring up at the vine-covered brick house in front of her. It was deserted and run down, finally appearing on the outside as it had felt on the inside. For years, Cheryl remembered that despite how nice and well put together her parent's house was, it never felt nice and put together. Not even when she was a child. And her heart clenched when she remembered the last time she'd been inside.

She unlocked the door slowly, almost afraid to be back on the other side. But Toni squeezed her hand gently, reassuring her that it wasn't the house that hurt her. The house didn't beat her black and blue, the house didn't hold her under scalding hot water, the house didn't lock her in the hall closet for hours. It was all her parents, and they couldn't hurt her anymore.

"You don't have to do this, you know. Maybe it's better if you don't..." Toni muttered quietly, still holding tight to her hand. Ever since it had been written in the Riverdale Register that her father had confessed to hoarding documents and a stash of illegally made money in Jason's old, abandoned bedroom, Cheryl just had to see what was left. It was eating away at her for days.

"I know, I just..." she whispered, her bottom lip trembling slightly as she averted her eyes to the photo of the grinning nine year old boy on the wall.

Toni pulled her into a tight hug and kissed the edge of her hairline, rubbing her back. "Hey, it's okay, I understand," she whispered, feeling her girlfriend's body practically vibrating in her embrace, "Do you want me to come with you?"

"J-just...upstairs...if you don't mind...I-I'll go in alone," Cheryl's voice quivered, trying her hardest to be brave.

"Okay," Toni kissed the spot just above the bridge of her glasses gently, squeezing her hand again as she waited for Cheryl to lead the way up.

After a few moments of hesitation, the redhead took a shaky breath before leading her up the stairs. The first door on the left seemed to get farther and farther away with each step she took towards it. Sunlight from the open window peeked out from under the bottom and Cheryl bit her lip as she watched the specks of dust float around in the orange glow. She didn't know what she expected to see behind the door, but she had a feeling that she would be leaving the house in tears regardless of what she saw.

"I'll be right here, okay?" Toni whispered, leaning against the doorframe to Cheryl's former bedroom just across the hall. She watched as her girlfriend nodded with a little sniffle before disappearing behind the wooden door. She kept silent, admittedly a little creeped out by the family portrait beside Jason's door. The ginger family of four all stared at her in the oil painting, their expressions blank and stoic. Even in a ten year old oil painting, Toni could see the pain and sadness in Cheryl's eyes as her father seemed to grip tightly to her shoulder, like he was warning her to stay still or else she would be punished.

"Asshole," she whispered out loud, tearing her eyes away from the portrait. But the anger bubbling in her chest faded when she heard a little cry from behind the door. She knew Cheryl was probably going through a wave of emotions in that room. And as much as she wanted to go in and comfort her, she didn't want to invade on her private moment. But each sniffle and whimper of sadness she heard, she found herself stepping closer and closer to the door. Biting her lip, she wiped a stray tear from her cheek. It hurt her to hear her girlfriend so devastated, though this was far from the first time. But it didn't make it any easier to listen to.

The sound of glass smashing to bits sent Toni into a state of shock, panic flowed through her veins at the speed of light as she entered the room without hesitation. She almost couldn't see anything through the hazy sunset light, but when her eyes adjusted, her heart broke even more. The room was almost nothing like what it looked like the one and only time she'd been inside. The dresser drawers were open, clothes strewn about, toys and random knick knacks were scattered on the dusty floor. The small twin-sized mattress was flipped and seemingly ripped open. As she suspected, it looked as if the room had been completely torn apart and raided for evidence. But all that mattered to her was the distraught girl curled up on the floor, shoulders shaking with heavy sobs, muffled by her arms.

"Cher..." she knelt by her side, rubbing her back in an attempt to console her. She was going to ask if she was okay, but she knew better. Anyone with eyes could see that she wasn't okay.

Cheryl had wanted to do this. She wanted to see what was left of Jason's room after the evidence had been collected. Perhaps it was naive of her to assume that they would be gentle with her brother's belongings, that they would respect his space. He was an innocent nine year old boy. He loved his sister, baseball, and his teddy bear more than anything. Toni noticed the fluffy cotton filling around Cheryl's knees, and she could only assume that the bear had been ripped open. The investigators really left no stone unturned.

"The one thing..."

Toni's brows furrowed at Cheryl's muffled, weak voice. She kissed the top of her head and brushed her hair back as she held her tightly, carefully pulling her into her lap. "What?" her voice felt entirely too loud for the quiet, desolate room. But Cheryl had her beat in volume before she could even react.

"The one thing they didn't touch in here was that stupid fucking picture!" Cheryl picked her head up, and pointed across the room at the large, nicely hung photo of Clifford and Penelope, smiling as if they were as perfect as they pretended to be. Any normal person would find comfort in the sight of their parents smiling, but Cheryl never could. A smile from her parents meant lies. They charmed the public and deceived everyone with those perfect white smiles and she hated them.

Toni's eyes fell from the cracked glass of the photo frame to the baseball on the floor surrounded by a bit of broken glass. Suddenly the noise she heard outside the door made a lot more sense. "Do you wanna leave?" she whispered, still holding her close, her nose brushing against the plastic of her glasses as she nuzzled her temple soothingly. And it didn't take more than the feeling of Cheryl nodding her head against her to convince Toni that it was time to go. "Come on, babe," she cooed, helping Cheryl to her feet.

"Hang on," the younger girl sniffled, wiping at her eyes under her fogged up glasses. Toni watched as she cradled the torn teddy bear to her chest and reached for the signed baseball from on top of Jason's dresser, perfectly encased in plexiglass from the Yankees game they'd attended for their eighth birthday. Cheryl never liked baseball, but she loved her brother. She remembered feeling so bitter that day. She had wanted to go see the New York City Ballet for her eighth birthday. It was all she had wanted. But the show she wanted to see conflicted with the time of the Yankees game. She was used to Jason getting what he wanted. But to this day, she could still feel the warmth that spread through her body when she saw Jason catch a foul ball before having it signed by his favorite player. The bitterness had melted away so quickly and all she could feel was love, happiness, and pride at the sight of her brother so happy.

"You okay?" Toni's voice broke her from her memory before she nodded at her with a slight sniffle. Placing the bear under her arm and the baseball in her hand, she reached for Toni's extended fingers and held her hand tightly, taking one last glace at the torn remains of Jason's bedroom.

With the soft convertible top down, Cheryl stared at the decaying house in front of her. Nothing in there brought her joy anymore. It was all in the past. Jason's teddy bear was sewn up and repaired by Vera, Nana Rose's nurse, and the baseball from Jason's dresser was placed at the base of his headstone on Thornhill's property, still encased in plexiglass. While everything in his room had memories tethered to it, nothing else held as much importance to Jason.

The car hummed and vibrated under her, stalled in place as she wondered why she came here. The only noise was the thrumming engine and the lively birds chirping in the surrounding trees. But the soft guitar intro to "Wonderwall" nearly made Cheryl jump out of her skin. Normally the ringtone she had set for Toni sparked excitement in her if it didn't bring her an immediate sense of comfort. But she still had no idea what she was going to say to her fiancée.

"H-hi, baby," she smiled a bit as she put the phone to her ear, unsure of why. It's not like Toni could see her.

"Hey, cutie. I just landed in Austin. Did you sleep okay?" Toni's voice made her feel like warm honey was running through her veins as a shiver ran down her spine. It amazed Cheryl that she hadn't stopped having little reactions like that in the twenty years they'd been together.

"I'm quite well-rested since someone turned off my alarms," she smiled, leaning into the phone as if it would bring her closer to her. She missed her like crazy and she'd only been without her for six hours.

Toni just chuckled on the other end, making Cheryl's mind feel a bit fuzzy, "You've been exhausted since we got back to Riverdale, babe. You need sleep."

"Says the woman who kept me up til three in the morning," she smirked.

"Maybe I kept you up, but at least I made sure you caught up on the sleep you missed,"Toni laughed in her ear, "Besides, are you complaining?"

Cheryl bit back the wide grin that threatened to spread on her face, "No, of course not," she mumbled, almost forgetting why she was nervous to talk to Toni in the first place. She must not have heard the news yet. She knew the brunette well, and it would have been one of the first things out of her mouth if she had heard. "How was your flight?"

"Long, boring as they always are when you're not with me. I miss you like crazy already."

"I miss you too," she whispered, chewing her bottom lip nervously again.

"Everything okay?"

She let out a quiet sigh, wondering what she should say and how she should say it. She never expected this to happen. Maybe that's why it was easier for her to be excited about marrying Toni in previous years. It was like a fantasy. A fairytale that she could live out without having it be completely real. In all aspects aside from legally, she and Toni were married. They did everything married people did. And they were happy the way they were.

"Cher?"

"Hm? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking," Cheryl rubbed her eye under her glasses. She couldn't do it. She just couldn't talk about it right now. Not when her mind was so jumbled about the whole thing.

"Babe, tell me what's up, you know you can tell me anything."

"It's nothing, TT, I'm just...stressed out, I feel like I'm falling behind on my deadline," she lied, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks as a result.

"Oh...are you sure that's all?"

"Mmhm."

"Okay, well...if you need to talk, I'm only a phone call away, baby. I'm getting in the car now. Probably gonna crash when I get to the hotel. I'll talk to you tonight?"

"Okay."

"Don't forget I'm an hour behind. Love you."

"Love you too," a tear slipped down her cheek before she hung up, leaning down against the steering wheel in frustration.

xxx

Toni hung up with Cheryl and thanked the driver of her town car for opening the trunk for her. She didn't really feel comfortable with anyone else handling her equipment case. Despite buying the most sturdy and reliable travel case known to man, she still felt a twinge of anxiety when she had to check it as her luggage. But she got it safely into the town car with her small carry-on suitcase and thanked the driver again. Growing up in the Sunnyside trailer park for most of her childhood, Toni never thought she would have people even doing things as simple as opening doors for her. And she certainly never thought that she would ever be able to afford a luxury town car from the airport to an equally luxurious hotel. Hell, she never thought she'd ever be able to afford a plane ticket.

But she leaned back against the leather seat and tried to relax. She'd landed, she was here to do her job, and then she could be back home with her fiancée. She was worried about Cheryl. She sounded so distant on the phone, and she knew that the redhead, to this day, had a bad habit of labeling herself as a burden and not wanting to bother other people with her problems. And Toni had learned by now not to push her. Cheryl always ended up telling her how she felt eventually, she just had to adjust to her own feelings first. Cheryl grew up in a place where feelings weren't discussed. She had a "smile and wave" family. And if you felt anything you pushed it down as far and as fast as you could. But Toni hoped that she would be ready to talk about whatever it was when they talked later on tonight.

She nearly dozed off on the thirty minute drive, just keeping her headphones in as she leaned against the window, watching the cars and buildings pass. Tomorrow was the wedding she was shooting for, and the morning after was her flight back. Today was just her day to relax and get situated. The car came to a slow stop in front of the tall hotel and before she knew it, she was checked in and face down in the fluffy pillows on the queen sized bed, passed out within a matter of minutes.

After two hours of deep, dreamless sleep, she rolled over onto her back, groaning at how stiff she felt. With her eyes squinted in the sunlight, she glanced at her phone, groaning at the time. She hadn't meant to sleep so long, but after the lack of sleep she got last night plus the exhaustion that came with traveling, she really needed it.

The brunette sat up against the pillows, and cleared her throat, unlocking her phone to listen to voicemails and read the texts she'd been ignoring since she landed. There were a few from clients, some scheduling, some thanking her for her work. Nothing really interesting. She texted one back asking if they wouldn't mind being listed as a testimony on her website. That took care of business. As for her personal texts, she had three missed texts from Veronica.

[Ronnie]: Congrats in advance! ;)
[Ronnie]: Dibs on maid of honor!

Toni's brows knit together as she clicked on the attached link to the New York Times website. And after just reading the headline, she found herself sitting straight up, jaw slacked as she scrolled and skimmed the article.

"Holy shit," she gasped, a smile breaking out on her face as she scrambled for her iPad in her backpack. Her fingers shook with excitement as she clicked Cheryl's name, watching the screen light up with a video of her own face, anxiously waiting for her to answer.

The slight whirring of the connection noise made her heart beat even faster before she saw the bespectacled redhead on screen, in the living room, from the looks of it.

"Three in the afternoon is a little early for a goodnight call, isn't it?" Cheryl's voice came through the small speakers with a small chuckle.

"Did you see the news today?" Toni asked with wide eyes, ignoring her question. And she watched as her fiancée's face fell slightly, her eyes averting elsewhere in the room.

"Yeah...Betty texted me this morning," she muttered. Even through the screen, thousands of miles away, Toni could tell she was tense and hiding something.

"Baby, why didn't you say anything when I called before?" Toni offered her a bit of a sad smile. She wasn't mad, just confused, "I mean, I was bound to find out, right? It's national news." Cheryl placed her iPad farther away from her, propping it up on the coffee table so Toni could see her curling into herself with a couch cushion tucked defensively in her lap, something she often did when she felt uncomfortable. "Cher, I know I can read people well, but I'm not an actual mind reader," the brunette let out a hint of a chuckle, smiling solemnly at her through the screen.

"I just...I didn't know how you would react. I mean, I knew you would be excited, but I was worried that you would be...more excited than I'm ready for," her voice trailed off a bit towards the end as she averted her eyes again.

"Do you not wanna get married or something...?"

"No, I do, TT. I do. I...I don't know, ever since I found out, I've just felt...strange. I can't figure out how to explain it even if I knew how I was feeling. When you called earlier, I was sitting in the driveway of my old house just kind of...thinking about how scary things were when I lived there. I guess I wanted to give myself some perspective and convince myself that my life is nowhere near as horrific as it used to be. But...that made me feel worse. Because how could I be so brave at seventeen when everything was so scary and risky, but here I am now, almost thirty-seven with nothing to fear and cowering away from something that's supposed to make me happy?"

Toni's excitement died down, trying to process what Cheryl was saying. "So you want to get married, but you don't want to get married...?"

"I don't know, Toni," the redhead covered her flushed face with her pale fingers, "I don't know what to think or what to do. I just know I love you more than anything...but..." That 'but' nearly made Toni choke on her own breath, as she tensed up, almost afraid to hear what Cheryl had to say. "But the whole thing just has me freaking out, wondering what everyone would think. Like my parents, or people we went to high school with."

"Well, fuck your parents, they're behind bars, they can't hurt you. They can't even say anything to you," Toni snapped, her heart racing with nerves as she contemplated where this conversation was going, "And as for people from high school, why do you care what they think? It's no secret that we're together. It hasn't been a secret since senior year."

"No, I know, it's just...I don't want people to think I'm crazy or unstable or something for marrying my high school bully," Cheryl seemed to freeze as she thought about what she had just said, meanwhile Toni's heart dropped to the pit of her stomach as her eyes landed in her lap. "No, TT, I didn't mean it like that, I-"

"I think you need some time to figure out what you want and how you feel, Cher," Toni interrupted her, trying not to show how obviously hurt she was.

"TT, I didn't mean that. You know I don't think of you like that," red hair waved in her face as she shook her head desperately.

"But you're letting other peoples' opinions affect your life. Our life. Opinions they might not even have, especially after twenty years of me trying to prove that I'm not that snobby cheerleader anymore."

"Toni, I'm sorry," she could see her fiancée's face flush even more as her eyes welled up with tears, "I don't know how I feel, but I know I don't feel any regrets or any negative feelings about you. I love you, I wanna be with you."

"Just...take some time to think about it and how you feel. Whatever you want, I'm in it. But...this isn't a conversation we should have over a video chat," Toni bit the inside of her cheek, her eyes getting glassy with tears. "Maybe talk to Betty or something. But we'll talk about it for real when I get home, after we've both cleared our heads a little." She tried to ignore the gasping whimper Cheryl let out when she brushed a stray tear from her bronze cheek. "Just think about what you want, okay?"

"I want you," Cheryl's voice quivered.

"You've got me, baby, I'm not going anywhere. But I think we need to take advantage of these next two days and just gather our thoughts and be ready to talk about it when I get home...okay?" She bit her lip as her girl nodded with a sniffle and staggered breaths. "I love you, Cheryl."

"I love you too," the redhead nodded, wiping at her eyes under her glasses before they both hung up, confused and hurting more than they should have been.

As the day dragged on into night, no matter how much Toni tried, she couldn’t get what Cheryl said out of her mind. It repeated back in her head like a broken record. It stuck with her as she went out to explore the city, it stuck with her when she sat alone in her hotel eating her dinner, and it stuck with her now as she settled in to try to sleep.

She didn’t mean it, Toni, she’s just confused.

Her hands came up to cover her tired eyes as guilt flowed through her, leaving an uncomfortable prickling of electricity in her veins. She wasn’t that insecure girl who brought others down to bring herself up. Not anymore. She’d worked so hard to prove that to Cheryl, and spent years groveling even though the redhead insisted that she didn’t need to. But it still pained her to think about how awful she had been, and it never ceased to amaze her that Cheryl had given her that very undeserved chance. She didn’t even deserve for Cheryl to give her the time of day back then, but the quiet, kind-hearted girl had given her that and so much more. And over the last twenty years, Toni had made sure that she didn’t take that for granted for even a second.

But even if Cheryl didn’t see her as the girl who made her miserable in school, she was worried that other people still did. Toni knew that the insecure teenager inside Cheryl sometimes took over. She would get quiet and distant and Toni would always do whatever she could to send her inner demons packing. But now she didn’t know what to do or say, knowing that she was part of the problem..

Maybe she had put too much pressure on Cheryl to be as excited as she was. But why wasn’t she more excited? They’d been engaged for eight years. They’d been craving news like this since they were teenagers when they would stay up talking for hours about what they wanted for their futures. Or at least Toni thought they both had been.

Things were as easy as they could be for them back in Riverdale. At the beginning of senior year it seemed like Cheryl would be the center of the town’s attention for the rest of her life. The daughter of deceitful criminals dating the daughter of the Serpents who killed her brother in a car accident? It was the biggest scandal the town had ever seen. But at least at school, the whispers slowly became less about Cheryl and Toni and more about Midge Klump’s surprise pregnancy with three possible fathers.

And when they left for college, things changed. They weren’t a scandal, they weren’t a spectacle. Things weren’t perfect in California, but they were much more open minded than their small hometown on the east coast. Though there were some moments that managed to take them by surprise.

“Do you want kids?” Toni mumbled sleepily as she laid on her side, playing idly with Cheryl’s fingers in the silence of the redheads dorm room. Thankfully Evelyn, her roommate, was away for the week on some mission trip with her dad.

“TT, we’re only eighteen,” she barely smiled back at her, worn out from their weekend getaway to San Francisco. Neither of them had ever been to a pride event before. And while she had fun most of the time, she couldn’t get the angry shouts of the loud groups of protesters out of her head. They had been ruthless, spitting hateful words at them as they walked by. Toni was brave. Much braver than she had been. She had simply turned up her middle finger at them and told them to kiss her ass while Cheryl just kept her head down, holding tightly to her hand. But she just couldn’t shake the fear that flew through her at the looks on their faces when they walked by their picket line. She knew that look. It was the same look her parents gave her almost every day.

Disapproval.

“I know that, I don’t mean now,” Toni giggled, leaning over to kiss her gently, “I mean when when we’re older. When we’re grown up and...maybe married?”

Cheryl was silent as she swallowed thickly, unsure of what to say. How could Toni be so eager to talk about marriage after what they heard today? It didn’t seem like they would ever be able to get married. Not for real. Not with people like that out there calling them ‘abominations in the eyes of the lord’. She’d heard it all before from her parents, but somehow it hurt more coming from strangers. “I don’t know.”

“Hey,” she whispered, watching as Cheryl lifted her gaze to meet hers, “You know what those people said means nothing, right? They’re just miserable people who wanna make everyone else miserable too.”

Cheryl just stared up at her, searching her eyes for insincerity. But Toni seemed to have no doubts. She exuded a confidence that the redhead could only dream of having. “Okay,” she whispered, a small smile coming to her face as Toni’s lips met her forehead.

“So what do you want?” she asked after a few beats of silence, running her fingers through red hair slowly as Cheryl let go of her hand to wrap an arm around her waist and tuck her face into her warm neck.

“You.”

The brunette just breathed a light laugh through her nose, running her palm over her girlfriend’s T-shirt covered back. If that’s what she wanted, that’s what she would get.

“You got it.”

Until now, that was the first and only time Toni had ever seen Cheryl hesitant to talk about marriage and their life together. All the other times, she was like a giggly fairytale princess planning her wedding to her prince. Or in this case, her fellow fairytale princess.

[Cher Bear]: I love you, Toni. I really, really do. I didn’t mean what I said at all.

The brunette smiled a bit sadly at the text that came through with a quiet ding.

[TT]: I love you too. More than anything. I know you didn’t mean it, and I’m not mad.
[TT]: Don’t stress out, baby, okay? You’re still my everything.

She watched as the typing bubble appeared and disappeared a few times. She knew her fiancée was struggling. Ever since they were teenagers, the redhead was paranoid that upsetting Toni even a little bit would start the downfall of their relationship. Like when Toni had (wrongfully) ignored her for days before the junior year ski trip, leading Cheryl to believe that they had broken up.

[Cher Bear]: Promise?
[TT]: Cross my heart. We'll work through it on Sunday when I get home.
[Cher Bear]: Okay...
[TT]: Night, babe. Love you.

After she Cheryl said goodnight and wished her luck on her photoshoot tomorrow, Toni set her alarm and laid against the pillows, willing herself to stop thinking and just sleep.

xxx

Toni tipped the driver once they came to a slow stop at the end of the long cobblestone driveway. "Thank you again, sorry for the short notice," she smiled and got out to get her own bags, setting her equipment case down carefully. It was the middle of the night, but after the wedding, the brunette just wanted to get home to her girl. One night away was long enough.

She watched the car drive away as she made her way up the steps, unlocking the large wooden door as quietly as she could. Kicking her shoes off and setting her suitcase aside, she yawned and rubbed her tired eyes, climbing the steps. She strategically avoided the extra squeaky ones and shed her black hoodie on her way down the hall to their bedroom, biting her lip as she opened the door.

The two AM moonlight was coming through the sheer curtains, illuminating the room just enough for her to see Cheryl curled up in bed with her arms wrapped around what Toni assumed was her pillow. She kept her adoring laughter inside as she stepped closer and sat on the edge of the bed. Her heart clenched a little when she saw the black box of Cheryl's old walkman beside her pillow, black wire leading up to the cushioned headphones that covered her ears. She didn't need to check to see what she was listening to. There was only one cassette tape in existence in this house and it never left the little retro device.

"Cher, you know Kevin can find a way to convert it into an MP3 or something for you so you can have it on your phone, right?"

"But then it wouldn't be the mix tape you gave me. It would be a...playlist or something. It's not the same."

Toni was surprised that the tape hadn't been completely worn out. Cheryl could probably recite everything she had recorded at the end by heart at this point. The redhead didn't know it, but Toni had Kevin make an MP3 of it anyways just in case. God forbid the tape finally gave out and left Cheryl with nothing left of it.

She gently plucked the headphones off her ears and set the device on the nightstand, biting back a smile at her fiancée's flaring nostrils before brushing hair back from her face. She wanted her to get her sleep, but god she missed her. "Cher Bearrr," she sang quietly, but loud enough to wake her, giggling a little as she stirred with a sleepy whine. Her deep brown eyes blinked open in the cool moonlight, eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she looked up at her.

"Wait..." the redhead sat up confused, looking at her phone, "I was supposed to pick you up from the airport."

"I caught a red eye after the wedding. Figured I'd come home early," Toni muttered, trailing her tanned fingers from Cheryl's ear down to the tarnished gold 'T' against her neck, running her thumb over it gently.

The younger woman was in her lap with her lips pressed to hers before the brunette could even blink. But she didn't mind it one bit. If anything she relished the feeling of Cheryl's arms around her neck and the weight of her body on hers. Cheryl mumbled a desperate, "I love you," against Toni's lips, delicate whispers of desperation escaping her as she fumbled for the hem of her fiancée's loose tank top. But as much as Toni always wanted her, she knew what Cheryl was doing, even if she wasn't aware of it herself. They'd made the mistake of using sex as a band aid before, and it didn't work. Even if they spent a whole day in bed together, hands and mouths roaming, the underlying problems would still be there at the end.

"Babe, come on, we need to sleep," she sighed into the heated kisses, frowning as the redhead trailed her lips down her jaw and neck, scraping her teeth over her pulse point. But she could feel how tense and nervous she was when she brought her pale, trembling fingers to rest against her neck as she kissed her harder.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Cheryl was supposed to pick Toni up from the airport in the afternoon, and they were supposed to come home and make love for hours because they missed each other so much; Because they were so in love that two and a half days was too long for them to be apart. Toni's homecomings were never like this, full of nerves and uncertainty.

"Cher..." Toni pulled back slightly, heartbroken at the sight of Cheryl's eyes shining with tears in the moonlight, "We're okay." She reached up to cup her cheek and swipe a tear from under her eye. After a few beats, Cheryl fell, defeated into her arms, her body shaking with the heavy sobs muffled into her fiancée's shoulder. Toni just shhed her, rubbing her back as she tried to soothe her. She could feel Cheryl's hand come up to clutch the 'C' pendant under her neck, something she often did for reassurance, and she reached her own hand between them to clasp over hers, feeling her quivering under her touch. "We're fine. We're okay. I love you," she whispered against her tousled red hair, kissing her temple and the shell of her ear as she held the back of her hand.

Cheryl just cried in response as Toni ushered her back under the covers, keeping her close and rubbing her side under her t-shirt in the way she knew Cheryl liked. She smiled at the memory of their first date, talking and eating and fooling around in the back seat of her uncle's shitty '82 Corolla, and how Cheryl guided Toni's hands under her shirt to run her fingers soothingly against her bare side, seeking comfort after they got a little carried away. It felt like just yesterday while somehow also feeling like a hundred years ago. Aside from the short break they took in college, they'd been together ever since that cold October night in 1995 with their feet in the icy water of Sweetwater River.

"I-I'm so sorry, TT," the shaken redhead wiped her eyes with a few pitiful sniffles, "I-"

"Hey, shh," Toni held a finger to her trembling bottom lip before kissing the spot between her eyebrows, "We'll talk in the morning, okay?"

Cheryl just nodded and leaned up for one last reassuring kiss before curling up with her back to Toni's chest, allowing herself to be pulled in tight, safe in the brunette's arms once again as she kissed over the mop of red hair behind her.

xxx

The warm rays of the morning summer sun came through the sheer white curtains, slowly rousing the redhead awake. She hummed quietly, reaching up to rub her eyes as she turned around. Warm, limp fingers grazed the skin of her side as she turned, settling back against the mattress as she stared at the sleeping woman in front of her. Toni always looked so peaceful when she slept. She rarely suffered from nightmares like Cheryl did. She never woke up in a cold sweat, desperate for reassurance and comfort. She never wished horrific nightmares on Toni, but there were times that she wished that her fiancée had a harder time sleeping, just so she could be the one soothing her back to sleep for once.

The sun hit the ring on Toni's tanned fingers, catching Cheryl's eye. It had been Nana Rose's and was passed down to the youngest Blossom just before her peaceful passing. Cheryl remembered sitting at the old woman's bedside, watching as she slid the ring off her finger and placed it in her hands. She could still remember the feeling of her trembling hands on top of hers, her skin like thin, wet paper, but still as soft as ever from her expensive lotions and creams. And for some reason, it was all the redhead could focus on as her Nana spoke to her, telling her that she was proud of the woman she'd become and that she had always loved her, and she wished she could have done more for her, especially in her greatest time of need.

But as Cheryl reached up to run a delicate fingertip down the bridge of Toni's nose, she wondered if things had been different, if she had run off to her grandmother's house instead of calling on the brunette to save her from her parents that night, would she still be where she was now? She was madly in love, successful in a career, she was happy. That was all she'd ever wanted.

"Why do you always wake me up?" Toni whined with a sleepy laugh, her eyes still closed as her nose scrunched up.

"Cause I miss you," she giggled and picked her head up to kiss her gently. They had this conversation often over the past twenty years. For the most part, it was practically part of their morning routine.

Usually Toni came up with a teasingly smart remark of some kind, but today she just lingered into the kiss, bringing a hand up to gently tuck Cheryl's copper hair behind her ear before cradling the side of her face. "I love you," she mumbled against her lips.

The younger woman just smiled into the kiss and pushed herself closer. "I love you too, TT," she hummed, "Do you wanna go for a walk before breakfast? So we can talk?" She watched with a nervous smile and her bottom lip between her teeth as Toni rubbed her eyes and nodded.

"Just gimme a minute to wake up," she mumbled through a yawn.

Cheryl just smiled and reached over her for her glasses on the nightstand, pressing a kiss to Toni's cheek. "No rush, I'm just gonna get dressed," she whispered, climbing out of bed after one more kiss. She knew that Toni had a long flight last night and didn't home until just a few hours ago. Guilt settled in the pit of her stomach as she moved to the en suite. She shouldn't have been forcing Toni awake like this, the brunette needed her sleep.

You know Toni, if she didn't want to get up to go for a walk, she would tell you. The two of you need to talk, and she knows that.

When her teeth were brushed and her contacts were in, she pulled her hair into a simple ponytail. Sometimes she missed the versatility of scrunchies, but hair ties made keeping her thick hair back so much easier. Though, she did still have a collection of a few of her old scrunchies tucked away somewhere.

Toni was standing in front of the dresser when Cheryl came out of the bathroom, pulling on a pair of leggings under her loose tank top. Her wavy brown hair was a bit tousled from sleep, but Cheryl still thought she looked flawless. There was never a day she thought Toni Topaz looked less than perfect.

"You almost ready?" Toni smirked at her, making Cheryl blush from being caught staring.

"Almost," she nodded, brushing her palm up and down her pale arm nervously. Her eyes followed the brunette's every move as she walked towards her and dropped a kiss to her shoulder with a mumbled promise to meet her downstairs. With a satisfied smile and nod, Cheryl pulled on a plain t-shirt and shorts, heading downstairs once she had her shoes on. She could already feel her nerves tingling from anxiety. It wasn't often that she and Toni had to set time aside to talk like this. Their relationship wasn't consistently sunshine and rainbows. They were human, they had flaws. But the plus side was that they both understood that. They understood each other and they tried their best to communicate. But this wasn't a "you forgot to bring home milk when I reminded you twice today," kind of talk. This was deeper, more serious. This was their future.

"Cher?" Toni's voice brought her back. Apparently she had been staring out the window behind the kitchen sink for a little too long. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I guess I just spaced out," she turned around with a breath of a laugh, reaching for her fiancée's outstretched hand before they made their way outside. The sun was out amongst the clouds, warming the air around them as they started off slowly down the driveway.

It was quiet. The birds were chirping, pebbles were crunching under their feet, but they weren't talking like they should have been. But Thornhill had a lot of land, Cheryl would walk every inch of it if it meant easing the tension between them. But if felt like hours before she finally got the courage to say anything.

"Have I been-" and "I'm sorry about-" came out at the same time, causing them both to laugh awkwardly, taking a pause in their steps until they got back on the right track.

"You go," Cheryl bit her lip, tucking stray hair behind her ear.

"No, you should go first. I wanna know what's been going on in your head lately," Toni shook her head with a warm smile, tugging on her hand again as they started to walk again. She could feel her pale fingers trembling in her grip, but she just squeezed them reassuringly.

"Um..." the redhead started, unsure of what to say or how to say it, "Well, I was gonna say that I'm sorry for...what I said. I don't think of you as that girl, Toni, I don't. But...sometimes I do worry about what people think. And it's stupid, I know that, because it was years ago. And even if they do think it's bad or weird, that I'm with you, I shouldn't care. They don't matter to me, you do."

Toni bit the inside of her cheek as she looked down at the cobblestones, feeling her chest tighten a little at Cheryl's words. "Who was your biggest defender back in middle and high school?"

"What?"

"When we were in school, and I was...awful to you...who stood up for you the most? Who hated me more than anyone because of how I treated you?"

Cheryl looked over at her, confused, "Betty, I guess."

"Who texts you at least once a week now asking when we're getting married?"

"Betty," she answered immediately with a smile. The blonde had been asking her frequently since they first got engaged at their school reunion, oblivious to the fact that it wasn't as easy as it seemed.

"She hated my guts," Toni chuckled, "But now she's rooting for us more than anyone..."

Cheryl pursed her lips as she thought about what she meant. If anyone was going to judge her for marrying Toni, knowing how mean she used to be, it would be Betty. She had been the one to defend Cheryl against Toni and her friends the most. She saw and heard, first hand, how bad things could get. But she had also been the one to defend them most when they went public with their relationship. Toni had earned her respect by showing that she loved and cared for Cheryl fiercely, proving to her and everyone else that she had changed and didn't want to be the mean girl anymore. To anyone.

"I didn't really think about that," she whispered, her voice nearly getting lost amongst the rustling leaves and chirping birds.

"Have I been pressuring you? Y'know, to...get married?" Toni asked, kicking a pebble across the cobblestones.

Cheryl looked over at her again, eyebrows knit together as she shook her head. "No, TT, not at all."

"Cher..." Brown eyes met as Toni gave her a look of suspicion.

With a deep breath, Cheryl looked ahead again, flicking her tongue out over her lips. "I haven't felt pressured by you, Toni. But I guess since the other day, I've felt pressured in general. But it's not something I feel all the time. Over the past few years, when we talk about getting married, I get so excited because I can't wait for the day that we can make things official. But...I thought about it yesterday and...I think the reason that I got so freaked out was because...now it's real."

Toni looked at her, confused as she continued.

"All this time with you has felt like some kind of dream. Something I never want to wake up from," she explained, trying to choose the right words to explain how she felt, "Ever since college, so much has happened, we've both become successful, and I'm comfortable with where we are and what we have. We're basically married already without the paperwork. But marriage...real, marriage is...scary. Marriage isn't perfect, like what we've had. I don't want it to ruin anything."

Toni nodded as she started to understand. Cheryl's parents didn't have a happy marriage. She was pretty sure that the redhead didn't even know what a happy marriage looked like until Betty and Archie got married, and they had been going strong, sixteen years and four kids later. The brunette, on the other hand, she remembered what a happy marriage looked like. She remembered her parents and how no matter how hard things were, they were there for each other and for her. She may not have understood it then, but she understood now.

But her parents also taught her that life was short. They would have been so disappointed in her in her teen years, wasting her time with an activity that she didn't even enjoy just for the approval of others. They had always taught her not to waste her life with anything or anyone she didn't love, even though they didn't always follow that mantra themselves. And when they died, ironically, Toni lost sight of their advice. But Cheryl brought it back. She never opened up to anyone about her parents until Cheryl came around. It was difficult to talk about them with her for the longest time, considering it was them who caused the accident that took her brother away. But Cheryl always listened. She liked hearing about them just like Toni liked listening to stories about Jason. It was cathartic for the both of them.

And the more she talked to Cheryl about her parents, the more Toni remembered the advice they gave her. She got a job she loved. It didn't bring in a lot of money at first, but she loved her work and now it provided half of the income that was giving them the luxurious lifestyle that Toni never had. They taught her to go after what she wanted, and she wanted to marry Cheryl.

"I never meant for you to feel pressured, babe," she squeezed her hand gently, "It didn't really cross my mind that you may not have been as excited-"

"Toni, I'm excited," the redhead stopped walking and turned her body to face her, speaking with a confidence that Toni rarely heard, "I've wanted to marry you since before we got engaged. But I always thought that it would never happen. Not for real. I had finally come to terms that things between us were perfect and nothing could change that, and then I saw the news on Friday and I got scared. Because that was just another step for us to take that I never thought would happen. I thought we were just going to live blissfully engaged for the rest of our lives and be fine with it."

Thunder started to rumble over their heads as they felt raindrops on their cheeks. When had the sun disappeared?

"Cheryl, I just wanna understand why you're scared," Toni breathed out in frustration. The rain quickly started to fall harder and Cheryl turned to head back to the house, but Toni pulled her back gently, locking eyes with her again. "What do you think it gonna happen if we get married?"

"I don't-"

"You know. You know or you wouldn't be scared."

Cheryl's eyes started to shine as her face flushed, and Toni couldn't tell the tears from the raindrops on her face. "I don't want it to change anything. It seems like everyone is happy until they get married. Once they're married, things change, I don't want that to happen to us," her voice was small and shaky.

Toni wasn't sure what to say. She couldn't tell Cheryl that nothing would happen to them. She doubted it would, but she couldn't promise her that. "What's number eight?" she asked quietly, but loud enough to hear over the thunder and rain that was pouring down on them.

"What?"

"Number eight. On the tape I gave you...what's number eight?"

Cheryl sniffled and wiped the tears and rain from under her eyes as she looked at her sadly, "That you love how brave I am," she whimpered, bottom lip trembling.

"And what was number ten on your list for me?" Toni stepped closer, reaching up to cradle her face, swiping the droplets away as they fell. But Cheryl crumpled instead of answering, falling into Toni's embrace, both of them soaking wet. "What was number ten, Cher?"

"That w-when we're together, I feel like it's j-just you and me. N-no one else matters," the redhead shook with sobs as she wrapped her arms around her fiancée. She could feel Toni nod against the side of her head as her hands, still warm despite the cold rain, caressed her bare sides under her soaked t-shirt.

"I love you, Cheryl. More than anything," she whispered in her ear, running her thumbs over her damp skin, "I can't promise that we'll be together forever, but I can promise that I'll always do whatever it takes to make you happy. I get if you're not ready. You may never be ready, cause I know that it's scary for you. But just know that no matter what happens, I want you forever. Okay?"

Cheryl just cried for what seemed like ages in her arms. She was just so confused on everything and where she stood. She wanted Toni forever, too. She wanted to get to call her her wife, not just her girlfriend, not just her fiancée. Her wife, meaning they loved each other enough to take that next big step into the future together. But the lingering fear still hung around inside her. Marriage could end in divorce. It could lead to fighting so often that they couldn't bear to even look at each other anymore, and the chance of that happening terrified her.

But this was Toni. Toni who had been by her side for twenty years, unmoving and somehow making her fall more and more in love with her every day. There were days when Cheryl thought it wasn't possible to hold even another ounce of love in her body for the woman, and then the brunette did something that made it possible. Toni said she loved how brave she was, but she was brave because of Toni. She helped bring the brave lion out of the girl who felt like nothing more than a mouse. And she continued to do that to this day. She could be brave.

With a sniffle, she pulled away from the hug, not even noticing the rain falling on her face anymore. Fiddling with the ring on her left hand as Toni cocked her head in confusion.

"Babe?" her voice was quiet as she watched her, and her heart nearly stopped in her chest when she saw her slide the silver band off her finger. "Cheryl, what..." This couldn't be happening. This wasn't what was supposed to happen. They were supposed to talk and everything would be fine. They were supposed to be okay.

"Ask me again," Cheryl held the ring out to her, flicking her eyes between Toni's face and the diamond band between her fingers.

"What?" the soaked brunette looked at her with furrowed brows, her heart beating louder than the thunder in the sky.

"Ask me to marry you again," Cheryl instructed seriously. She felt silly, but she was serious with her intentions.

Toni took the ring carefully and held it between her fingers. "Do you want me to get down on one knee?" she chuckled a bit around the lump in her throat.

"I don't care," Cheryl giggled with a shy smile and watched as Toni sunk down to one knee on the grass next to the cobblestone path. But before she could get any words out, Cheryl was on her knees in front of her, leveling their heights once more.

"What are you doing?" the brunette laughed through a few sniffles.

"We're in this together. Where you go, I go...Ask me."

Toni searched Cheryl's eyes, desperate to know if she was serious. She didn't want her to feel pressured, and she didn't want her to go through with it just because it was what Toni wanted. But even through her tears and the rain, she could just tell that Cheryl was serious. She was ready.

"Will you marry me, Cheryl Blossom?" she held the ring out carefully, her fingers shaking worse than the first time.

"Of course I will," the redhead nodded, watching with a big smile as Toni slid the ring onto her finger once more. Once it was settled back into the spot it had rested for the past eight years, Toni's lips were on hers again, softly at first as her thumbs grazed the apples of her cheeks. "I love you so much, Toni," she mumbled against her lips as the kisses slowly started to heat up, leaving her whimpering wantonly.

"I love you too, cutie," Toni smiled into the slow, passionate kisses before pulling back with a smirk and a quirked eyebrow, "Race you back?" The smile on Cheryl's face grew, giving her fiancée a view of her pristine white teeth before she was gone, darting off in the direction of the mansion and leaving the brunette in her dust.