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Sometimes Christen gets anxious. It happens in the middle of the night, or on the morning of a big match, or amid the quiet of a long coach trip. Her leg will start to bob or her hand will start to tap, or she’ll find herself biting the inside of her mouth. All of the worries that she keeps boxed up inside her brain find their little ways to escape, the nerves running through her body in search of an exit route. 

It’s worse at night, her worries emerging unbidden, left free to roam the wild fields of worst case scenarios. She can convince herself of anything in the pitch black of the middle of the night. The very darkest of thoughts feel rational at 1am the night before an important game.

She’ll stare up at the ceiling, her eyes tracing the patterns of plaster above her.

And then there’s Tobin lying in the bed next to hers. Out-like-a-light Tobin, who’s all hard chill and unshakeable cool. It’s the very opposite of everything Christen has learned to live with. That’s why she’d never thought to talk to her friend about it all; she could never understand. How could she? They’re similar in a thousand ways, their bond strengthening with every moment spent together, but in this one crucial way they’re polar opposites. So Christen hides her worries. She locks them in a box – the same one she’d hidden from Kelley, from everyone. 

Then comes a night that takes it out of Christen’s hands, when the wave of anxiety washes over her head and threatens to swallow her whole. It’s the night before a must-win game, with Pinoe injured and Christen sure of a spot in the starting XI. It’s been a likely scenario ever since Pinoe limped off during their last game before the Christmas break, but that has only given the anticipation more time to build. 

As she lies awake, it’s so dark and quiet, it feels like the rest of the world has fallen asleep without her. She can hear the gentle, comforting rhythm of Tobin breathing – not quite snoring – beside her, as if to prove it. It’s the soft, sweet melody of a deep sleep. She had drifted off sometime in the middle of an anecdote about Sweden and bad refs and yellow cards, while Christen had been so caught up in correctly recalling the details of the story, determined to get it absolutely right, that she hadn’t noticed for a few minutes. Not until she’d turned her head to see Tobin lying on her side, eyes closed and face pressed into the edge of the pillow. 

The half-told story prompts Christen to think of others. It leads her thoughts to memories of missed chances and mistakes, fixating only on those that are her own. Nobody else would’ve remembered, she’d admit any other time, but they linger painfully in her mind. They are the ghosts of games past come to haunt the next match, creeping into her mind with the potential to taint every touch of the ball with doubt. 

Tomorrow, she’ll be on the left wing. She’ll be needed in lieu of Pinoe. 

On the right, Tobin will be deftly collecting defenders only to humiliate them. She’ll be making plays and creating opportunities, for herself and for Alex and Christen and Rose and Lindsey. But what about the left? 

The thought, the question she keeps asking herself, blows up in her mind the longer she stays awake. What about the left? The left wing, where she had fumbled the pass against Switzerland, where she overshot the finish against Brazil, where she lost her footing before the lay-off against Chile. She can feel her chest tightening, her mind filled with visions of shooting a ball so far into the sky that it’s closer to flying out of the stadium than into the net. Her breath gets faster, thinking still of how none of it had mattered in the end, every one of those games a win, but what if it does tomorrow? 

Her thoughts become frantic, the repercussions of a bad match and of letting her team down racing through her mind until she can’t breathe for crying so hard.

“Chris,” she hears in an urgent whisper, jolting her back to reality, and then there’s a hand on her back, silently commanding her to turn over. But she can’t, her cheeks too dampened with inexplicable tears to dare show her face. Undeterred, Tobin tries again, this time more directly: “Chris, talk to me.” Her soothing hand sweeps the length of Christen’s back.

“Can’t,” is all Christen can squeak out, her throat so tight that it hurts to breathe.

“Has something happened?” Tobin asks, panic setting into her voice. 

Christen has to press her face into the pillow before she can shake her head.

“Do you need me to get someone? Or do something?”

“No,” Christen manages to reply in a sob.

That’s when she feels the comforter lift a little behind her and a weight shifts against the mattress. Tobin’s legs brush against Christen’s as her friend settles in the bed with her, warm arms coming around her waist to squeeze her middle. Tobin feels so solid behind her, strong and still, seemingly unfazed by the scene she’s woken up to. And then, her voice so certain, she whispers, “I’m here, okay? Unless you want me to back off, Chris, I’ll be here.”

Christen can’t say how nice it is to hear; she can’t speak at all. She can only cover Tobin’s hands with her own, holding them against herself like treasure. 

And when the feeling gets worse again, her tears coming out in sobs, Tobin holds her even tighter, even closer, until Christen lets herself roll over and be held. She buries her face in the shoulder of Tobin’s t-shirt, tears sinking into the cotton against Tobin’s skin, until eventually the steady rise and fall of her friend’s chest lulls her to sleep.

 

*

 

Christen’s had a crush on Tobin as long as she can remember. 

She’s used to it now. It sits in the background of their every interaction, a gentle throb of pain that Christen has grown accustomed to, almost fond of. It’s a bruise she likes to poke, a scab to pick. She’ll seek Tobin out just to remind herself of all the reasons why: the broad, gleaming white smile that lights up Tobin’s whole face, the casual way she pushes her disheveled hair around, the unshakeable competitiveness that comes out even when they’re just playing card games to kill time, the sound of her laugh as she taps the ball through everyone else’s feet, the whistle that always means she’s coming around the corner. 

It’s not as important as their friendship; Christen had long decided that. Nothing is.

Tobin had been the first to welcome her into the fold once she’d received her first call-up to the national team. Kelley had been running late, and there Tobin was with that bright smile ready to ease her into this new and exciting unknown. Christen barely slept the night before but it hadn’t mattered for all the adrenaline pumping through her body. The first scrimmage proved to be a little choppy owing to the nerves and excitement of the newcomers, but it was an assist from that very same Tobin Heath, kicking big from midfield, that gave her her first goal as part of the group. They had all come charging over to celebrate as though she’d been a part of it all forever. Then, after everyone else peeled away, Tobin jogged over – a lazy, casual run that had her hunching a little – and said, “Thought you’d wanna get that first one out of the way early. Sick finish.”

For the rest of the day, she had been chasing that feeling. It wasn’t the goal, she realizes only with hindsight, but impressing Tobin. The same Tobin who’d beaten her to an NCAA championship once upon a time, but someone new, too: a friend.

She became the one to show off for. Never with ball tricks, because there’s no matching Tobin for those, but Christen’s sprints would find a little extra speed, her tap-ins a little more purpose, her fancy finishes an extra flourish. At first she had been showing off to impress a teammate, then a friend – eventually, eternally, a crush.

She’d hated attention all her life, and then suddenly all she longed for was Tobin’s.

One of the first things Christen had learned about Tobin is that she laughs more generously than anyone she’s ever met. It’s a delicious chuckle, slow on delivery but warm on arrival. Whether for a dry aside or a long-winded anecdote, the encouragement of Tobin’s reliable laughter carries any punchline with it, never allowing room for doubt or insecurity. It’s what makes Christen such a passionate storyteller, desperate to hold her friend’s keen gaze, eyes bright and wide as Tobin listens actively for every detail. Though steely on the outside, at least during their games, the warm curiosity of Tobin’s nature off the field is where Christen finds kinship. 

It feels miraculous to Christen that Tobin, who has long since proved herself on the team, always takes such an interest in her. Tobin roots for her during practice, cheering when she makes her shots and offering a consoling low five for a miss. She seems to sense the fragility of Christen’s confidence as though perfectly tuned in to the frequency of it, covering Christen’s tapping hand with her own or offering a thinly-disguised pep talk on the bus back to the hotel.

They have come to belong to each other, in a sense. Halves of a pair. 

Most of the team have their factions, often pairings, and Tobin had once given herself to Christen as though by reflex. The closeness between them had only deepened further as Tobin’s more established circle had begun to fall away amid the natural changes and evolutions of the team, leaving Christen the opening she’d needed. It had become Christen with whom she shared a secret handshake, and Christen whose legs she’d tap the ball through first in training, and Christen who got to be her bus buddy on those long trips to the next game.

It now goes unquestioned, as much as JJ and Crystal or Ash and Pinoe. If anyone were to approach either one of them, a space would instinctively be left for the other. 

It is Tobin who belongs in the empty space beside Christen.

 

*

 

The morning after Tobin gets into her bed and holds her until she falls asleep, Christen accepts that she doesn’t have a crush on Tobin. She’s in love with Tobin. 

There was liking her from afar as she settled into the national team, but this is knowing her, knowing how kind and supportive she is, knowing how it feels to be locked inside her arms, wrapped in the feeling that nothing can touch her. This is real, its roots buried deep inside the foundations of their friendship. 

Tobin is still asleep when Christen wakes up, her friend’s arm stretched out across her waist. Christen can feel every point of contact with searing focus, her imagination pulling her mind in daring directions. It’s dizzying to see Tobin so close-up, to notice lines that she never had before and the sharpness of her jawline and the little trail of barely-there freckles scattered over her nose. Her chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm and they’re lying so close that Christen can feel every breath, her own syncing in time. 

While she’s staring and wondering what to do, Tobin suddenly begins to stretch out. The motion of it brings their bodies flush together, heat bleeding through at every point of contact. Tobin’s eyes blink furiously awake, adjusting to the morning light that’s streaming in at the edges of the curtains, as Christen makes a pretence of waking up just at the same moment. Feeling like the lie of it is written all over her face, Christen looks away quickly – at nothing, at anything – before glancing back at Tobin, who meets her gaze with eyes big and curious. There’s a question there: are you alright or talk to me or what happened.

Whatever Tobin’s asking in silence, Christen resists. 

She pulls away abruptly, the motion prompting Tobin to instinctively lift her arm enough to let her up. Flustered, Christen rushes to find her clothes for the day, searching through her bag and making a mess of its contents just to avoid Tobin’s gaze. The fresh embarrassment of what has passed between them, of having looked into Tobin’s eyes to find that what’s reflected there is something different now, makes her feel utterly exposed. She’s always been the zen one, the one who meditates before a match and listens to quiet, acoustic music to counter the blaring rap of the locker room. That’s the person Tobin has known her to be all along, and now that version of herself has been stolen away. She’s been left bare, a wreck of the person she was: messy, unsteady, needy. So she hides. She retreats in on herself.

She waits to hear Tobin’s deep, steady voice above it, calling to her in the background of her morning routine and restoring normality, but only silence passes between them. Despite the suffocating shame wrapping itself around her one thick layer at a time, she still finds herself flashing back to their bodies pressed together and the feeling of safety inside Tobin’s arms. There had been so much comfort there, it had teased the potential for all of Christen’s humiliation to be relieved if only Tobin would just hold her again. Hold her and love her. 

Without saying a word, Tobin soon follows Christen’s lead and goes about her own morning routine, lacing in a few small game day superstitions that Christen has observed: she ties her hair up twice (throwing it over her head both times in the process), she presses her hand to the bible on the nightstand, she gulps down exactly one mouthful from her water bottle.

It’s a routine that Christen enjoys noticing. She likes knowing that something is going to happen and then watching it play out; it becomes her own superstition. 

On this particular morning, however, the sequence feels off. The rhythm between them, as they move around the small hotel room to get themselves ready for the day, doesn’t play out naturally, the way it always has before. They’ve room-shared more times than not over the past few months and it’s only ever felt easy to share the same space – until now. Tobin stays quiet, not even whistling or humming, offering none of their usual chatter about breakfast or training. 

It’s not until Christen realizes she’s left her phone in the bathroom while Tobin is brushing her teeth that their eyes meet in the mirror and Christen finds herself pleading, “Please don’t say anything about last night.”

“Are you… okay?” Tobin says, the words muffled by the toothbrush hanging out of her mouth. She asks like she’s been dying to ask all along, relieved to finally have permission.

“Don’t say anything, Tobin.”

Tobin spits into the sink before replying, more clearly, “I’m–of course I won’t. I won’t say anything. But are you gonna, like, talk to me?”

“I just–I get anxious.”

“I know,” Tobin says, calm as ever as she turns to face Christen. She knows. Of course she does. 

“It’s stupid stuff. But once it gets into my head, it just sticks there. You know, it’s not normally so bad. But it’s fine. It’s fine. I get worked up about things, dumb things, and then in the morning it’s fine,” Christen explains, looking anywhere but at Tobin as the words stumble out. “See, I’m fine now.”

“Chris,” Tobin says, like she’s exhaling. “You didn’t tell me you were–”

“I don’t want you to make it more than it is.”

There’s a hurt in Tobin’s eye at the implications of her words, a momentary glimmer of something that breaks Christen’s heart. It makes her want to open up, to give something more of the truth so that Tobin knows how much she means to her.

“Tobes–”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone. Of course I wouldn’t.”

It gives her the perfect opportunity to explain herself, with all the promise of privacy she needs. But telling Tobin the truth about her anxiety would only be half of it now, a loud echo in her mind that says, all too desperately, I love you. I’ve fallen in love with you. The secret is too big, even if she trusts Tobin’s word to keep it. 

“Thank you,” is all she can say, though the expectant look in Tobin’s eyes begs for more. 

 

*

 

The day doesn’t get much better when they leave the hotel room. While they go down to breakfast together as normal and sit in the same seats on the bus, the atmosphere between them is strained. It’s strained in a way that feels impossible to pinpoint precisely. Tobin’s there with her like always, but there’s a performance to it, to the way she talks and smiles.

Christen feels unable to say anything; she had been the one who’d asked for Tobin’s silence.

In the locker room, she finds herself watching as Tobin messes around with Alex and Allie. They’re laughing uproariously at Sonnett’s expense is all she can tell. But she’s on the outside now, quietly pulling up her socks at the other end of the room before Ash gives her a nudge. “You good?” she asks, and Christen presses her lips together as she nods. 

However out of sorts she feels and despite the absence of their lucky handshake, the scoreboard ends up telling a different story when they finally get out on the pitch. She lays on the perfect assist for Alex before stretching out the defense of the opposition to help Rose to a goal too. The celebrations mask the self-doubt that’s ruled her day thus far, players on players piling up to congratulate one another while Tobin keeps a moderate distance. She lets herself get stuck between Lindsey and JJ, never fighting her way through to reach Christen. She doesn’t even reach her hand across to offer a proud head pat.  

That’s how Christen learns that wins don’t feel like wins when her best friend isn’t celebrating them with her. 

She feels the tension of it all day long, like perhaps she’s ruined the best thing that’s ever happened to her. They eat dinner together, side by side as normal, but the usually comfortable silence is an uneasy one. Tobin isn’t off with her at all, and yet Christen yearns for one of those sparkling moments to occur, the ones that she can bottle up and reflect on long after they’re over: an in-joke, a silly prank, a shared secret. Something private and perfect that ties them together. 

Tobin spends most of the meal talking to Allie. The back and forth of their playful ‘Harry’ banter feels excluding in a way that it never has before. 

When they go back to their room and get into their respective beds, the day plays out in her mind over and over in the silence. She should be tired, physically drained from playing a full 90. Instead, she thinks and thinks, the thinking like a wind turbine powering her brain into overdrive and thwarting any hope of sleep long into the twilight.  

Christen feels herself building to something, a wave of worry coming up like bile in her throat.

She’s just opened her mouth to speak into the dark when she hears shuffling. Her eyes having adjusted to the pitch blackness of the room, she can see Tobin fumbling out of bed, hair even more unkempt than usual and pajamas twisted from sleep. She continues to move closer without hesitation, making eye contact without shying away. It’s then that Christen realizes that they haven’t really looked at each other all day, not since this morning in the bathroom, and her heart beats a little faster now that it’s happening. The look Tobin gives feels a little like she’s asking for permission, or forgiveness. Christen can’t quite make it out, granting both without a second thought, watching carefully to see whatever impossible thing happens next. And then Tobin begins lifting the corner of the comforter. 

Christen keeps the rush of emotion at bay, blinking hard to hold it together, but she shifts over in the bed instinctively, letting Tobin settle into the space beside her.

Once they’re lying still, she hears a delicate whisper above the whir of her thoughts: “I’m sorry.”

“What?” Christen’s voice comes out small, a fragile syllable that breaks on her lips. 

“I was shitty earlier. I didn’t mean to, like, ice you out, or react badly. I was being a dick.” 

“No,” Christen replies, almost breathless in her hurry to reassure Tobin. “No, umm, no, I–”

“No, seriously. I just… I want you to trust me. You can, you know?”

Christen feels a rising tide of tears, the gentle tone of Tobin’s words too much to take when all she wants is to bury herself in their embrace again. She edges back a little, studying all she can see of Tobin’s expression in the grayscale darkness, the whites of her eyes glistening just barely as they hold eye contact with each other. “I didn’t mean to make you feel like I don’t trust you. I do; it’s not that. I promise I do, I just… I didn’t know how to explain it so that you can understand.” She resists the urge to look away, clenching her fist in the bedcovers just to hold her nerve. “I hate the idea that people might find out and judge me for it. I don’t want it to seem like I can’t... handle all of it.”

“I’m not gonna think differently about you,” Tobin promises, shifting to prop herself up on her elbow so that she’s looking down now. She runs a hand loosely through her hair to move it out of her face, absently flipping the parting from one side to the other. “Honestly, it makes you more badass to fucking… like, go out there after you were feeling like that all night and play like that. You played your ass off today, Chris.”

There’s a fire in Tobin’s eyes now. They’re so wide and alive, as if the game is playing back in front of her but it looks totally different through her lens, and she’s smiling wide right in front of Christen. Christen, who is so busy taking in every detail of Tobin’s face that the darkness affords her that she doesn’t immediately realize that Tobin isn’t speaking anymore, just looking back, curious. Christen smiles then too, blinking away the wetness that sits heavy on her eyelashes. 

“You’re gonna keep playing like that. And if you miss a shot, you’ll score the next. If you lose the ball, one of us will get it back. Don’t, like, think you’ve gotta do it solo. We got you. I got you.” Tobin seems to relax then, settling back against the mattress to lie level with Christen.

“Yeah?”

“Pinky promise,” Tobin says, giggling at herself as her hand emerges from under the sheet with her pinky pointing out. “I’ll do whatever it takes to help you not feel so… so stressed before the game, okay? Like, whatever you need.”

“Tobin–”

“I’m serious. I mean it, Chris.”

“You don’t have to do this. You need your hard chill, right?” Christen resists, a nervous laugh carrying her words. Because it’s Tobin. Beautiful, brilliant Tobin, lying beside her and making promises that mean more to Christen than she could possibly realize.

“I sleep pretty good here too, though,” Tobin argues back, a disarming smirk pulling at her lips. She gestures out with her pinky again and Christen relents, offering her own. 

“How old are you?”

Tobin only laughs in response, locking their little fingers together to affirm the promises made. They leave their hands twisted like that between them against the mattress. 

“You’re a good friend,” Christen says, desperate to offer up a little of the overwhelming gratitude and love she feels. Tobin laughs again, this time only a single bubble of laughter, and then she looks away with a sober expression dampening her smile; Christen feels self-conscious about it, about the adoration in her eyes being utterly unfiltered like this and the way Tobin seems to shy away from its glare. 

When Tobin’s eyes meet hers again, her smile rallies. “Now get some sleep, okay?” she says decisively, earning an obedient nod that fluffs Christen’s curls against the pillow.

Shifting a little to make herself comfortable, Christen then turns onto her side to allow Tobin to lay behind her, parallel. She smiles to herself, safe from Tobin’s view, as they fit together. 

With her breath teasing the back of Christen’s neck, Tobin whispers, “Philippians 4:6. ‘Be anxious for nothing.’”

It’s then that Christen feels warm, solid hands press against her back. Tobin’s fingers move against the tight, tense muscles at her shoulders, massaging them gently, her hands urging Christen to relax just a little. A gasp escapes, rising up from somewhere deep inside of Christen and bursting out at a touch. She turns her face into the pillow to muffle any further responses – mortified, but much too into it to pull away.

Tobin continues, not saying another word, unaware of the trail of goosebumps that she leaves in her path. She kneads at Christen’s shoulders until they slacken against her hands; she moves to her upper back, then goes lower, eventually reaching her hips, the pressure of her thumbs digging gloriously deep until she alternates by using the heel of her hand.

Before long, Christen sinks heavily into her pillow. She finds herself lost to the deepest sleep she can remember, filled with the kinds of vivid dreams she hasn’t had in years. 

She doesn’t remember when she falls asleep, but it’s with the firm touch of Tobin’s hands pressed into her skin. It’s with the warmth of Tobin’s body wrapped around her like tissue paper folded around precious bone china. It’s with her anxious stream of worries finding an estuary, the tide of something bigger washing them all away.

 

*

 

Soon, without a word of discussion, it becomes habit that Tobin sleeps in Christen’s bed when they’re together at camp. They are magnets to each other: joined at the hip all day, lying beside each other through the night. 

While they’re separated by their respective club duties, Christen manages to find a new peace in the familiarity of her surroundings at home. Even without her friend for company and comfort, she finds herself calmer in the knowledge that they’ll be reunited before long. During travel for away games, she creates little routines to help calm her anxiety; mostly, she steals from Tobin’s routine. She likes to perform these rituals in an effort to replicate the cool composure of a pre-game Tobin, as well as meditating with renewed focus and frequency. It’s not that her friend doesn’t get nervous, it just seems as though she is better able to channel it into something productive. So Christen channels Tobin.

Always, without fail, there’s a pre-game notification on her phone. It’s a text from Tobin with words of support, filled with quotes and cliches that Christen clings to every word of until the next. Or, if she’s playing the Thorns, it’s simply, “Can’t wait to see you later,” which offers more comfort than any quote ever could – even if ‘later’ means winning and losing respectively.

But when they’re called up to the national team for the camp after, and the camp after that, they form a new routine together. It starts once the glow of the bedside lamp is the only light left and the exhaustion of a long day has settled heavily in their bones. There’s a shift in the mood as the sky goes dark, as the anticipation of their sleeping arrangements settles over the room. They don’t talk much then. Tobin always waits for Christen to tuck herself in first, keeping to her own corner while Christen pulls back her sheets and rearranges her pillows and lays out everything she needs on the nightstand: phone on charge, a paperback borrowed from Becky, an extra hair tie, her beads.

Christen settles beneath the covers, signalling the invitation purely by occupying only one side of the bed. They have sides before they know it, and Tobin’s is always left empty.

Tobin brushes her teeth last and takes her time about it, like she knows the low buzz of the electric toothbrush echoing through to the bedroom is sweet torture to Christen. Then she carefully creeps over, as though someone is going to overhear and admonish them, and pulls up the covers to climb in. 

“Don’t think, just sleep,” Tobin whispers. “Be anxious for nothing.”

There’s a moan of contentment between them, and then Christen turns on her side and brings Tobin’s arms around herself: the big and little spoon.

Sometimes, if there are things to say, they talk for a while as they lie together. Tobin will say, “What are you worrying about?” if she can feel tension in Christen’s shoulders again. She will listen to Christen deconstruct the day, only offering advice where it is welcome. Tobin tends to stay quiet to hear the laundry list of worries that Christen has accumulated in a matter of hours. And then, just when she has tired herself out, Tobin mumbles something profound and philosophical that Christen fumbles desperately to remember when she wakes up the next day. 

By morning, she usually finds herself lying on her back with Tobin resting half over her front. It is always Christen who stirs first; it’s Christen who gets to enjoy lying in Tobin’s arms as if there’s more to it than there is, as if something more than friendship exists. 

The bright sun peeking from behind the curtain can’t compare to the warm, lazy smile Tobin offers when she looks up for the first time in the morning, like she’s surprised by what she finds again and again. “Hello,” she croaks out, usually chuckling a little, before setting her cheek against Christen’s shoulder as if determined that they both go back to sleep. 

“Tobes!” Christen laughs, giving her a playful nudge.

“It’s too early still,” Tobin groans, having not so much as glanced at a clock. 

Christen glares at her with stern raised brows, but there’s a smile creeping into her expression that can’t be helped as she looks back at Tobin, whose hair is falling every which way but the right one, her smile all mischief. “We’re gonna be late.”

“Mm, I like it here,” Tobin insists, her face nuzzling into Christen’s shoulder. Her lips brush against the exposed skin there and it tingles alive. The sensation goes deeper and lower but Christen suppresses her response, sighing only a little. 

“You like the pitch best of all though, huh? Let’s not get fired today,” she says, summoning all of the focus and restraint she can.

Tobin looks thoughtful for a second, but plays it off with, “No fun.”

The early morning back-and-forth between them – Tobin’s resistance competing with Christen’s obedience – is as much a part of the routine as their sleeping arrangements. They play their roles like it’s a warm-up for the rest of the day. Added to that, the physical comfort that burgeons at night begins to permeate their everyday rapport: little touches, tactile gestures, silent communication peppered into every interaction. They disappear into each other sometimes even when they’re with the team, creating their own private bubble, which Christen only ever notices when it gets burst by one of their teammates catching her eye. Allie, Pinoe, Alex, Kelley, Ash. Always the ones who know them best, the ones who knew them before they became this way.  

The bond between them even begins to translate on the pitch, producing goals that don’t feel quite possible. It’s as though sheer intention can will the ball right to the magic spot of Tobin’s boot, or across the goal line. The hyper-awareness that Christen has of where Tobin is at all times comes in handy when she’s zooming down the field and looking urgently for backup. It’s like a sixth sense. She can feel the seam as it forms, instinct sending the ball from one to the other to the back of the net. 

It’s Christen Press on a breakaway run, threading the ball through to Heath wide on her right who’s got defenders crowding her as quickly as they can get there, then a little one-on-three by Heath to get a quick ball straight to Press at the back post. She shoots it above the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms and the place erupts.

“Thanks for the assist today,” Christen says later, with her chin rested over her hands on the pillow, the pleasant aches in her body now a satisfying reminder of the win. Somehow, lying there in bed with Tobin, she feels only the rush of endorphins – perhaps butterflies. There is no replay of the game’s mistakes in her mind, no second guessing herself this time. She finds herself at peace. 

Tobin turns to face her, her smile slanted by modesty. She gives a shrug. “It’s what I’m here for.”

 

*

 

The problem with relying on a routine is that, inevitably, there comes a time when it will be disrupted. 

Christen knows what’s coming straight away. She’s watching the Thorns play the Courage from her couch when it happens, when Tobin hits the grass clutching her foot with her face screwed up in agony. She rolls from side to side before the medic comes over, the way she does only when it’s bad. It’s enough to pull Christen to the very edge of her seat, watching intently through her hands, wishing she could shift a little closer, and closer still, until she’s stepping into the television itself to hold Tobin until the pain goes away. Just like Tobin always manages to do for her. 

Instead, she’s forced to watch as her best friend limps off the field, half-carried by the medic. Her face is pale, a wisp of hair that’s escaped her ponytail blowing over her eyes, and a pained grimace plain to see. 

It’s happened before, Christen thinks, a crisp memory of an old championship final playing out in her mind. Tobin can stretch it out, run it off, bounce back onto the pitch as though nothing happened. But she doesn’t, and there’s Raso warming up at the sideline, and Christen’s thinking, no, no, no, Mark. Just wait. And then there’s another glimpse of Tobin, sprawled out just meters from the bench.

There’s nothing to wait for, she realizes.

National team camp is only a few days away and she’s not bouncing back.

Tobin had made every effort to ensure they were room-sharing for this next camp, too. They’d initially been paired off with Allie and Mal, a perfectly acceptable alternative by any standards, though it had taken Christen a little while to adjust to the idea. She hadn’t complained, hadn’t said a word to Tobin, and then there came a text: “Bribed Mal and Allie to buddy up. Think you can put up with me as your roommate again?”

“I can make do,” she’d shot back. 

And so, they were meant to have days together, whole long days that rolled from one to the next. Christen needs days. She’d been counting down till she sees Tobin again, trying to play it off in her mind as no big deal, all the while imagining their reunion with a vignette border around it, no one else in focus but Tobin. 

A text comes only 10 minutes after the full-time whistle. It starts with, “I’m so sorry, Chris,” and it takes a moment for Christen to blink her eyes clear to read the rest. She feels an ache, almost physical, at how much she wishes Tobin’s apologies away, at how much she hates the news that’s about to follow, at the thought of Tobin sensing how much Christen relies on her.

“I’m out for at least a couple weeks so off the roster for camp. It sucks how much I want to be there but score big, CP. And call if you need me ok? Be anxious for nothing. T,” she finishes.

Christen holds her phone to her chest, letting her thoughts settle.

“Don’t be sorry for a second. I just want you to be ok and hope it isn’t anything to worry about. Do you know exactly what the injury is and how long you’ll be out? I’ll miss you,” Christen replies after mulling it over, trying not to give too much of herself away but allowing room for a little honesty. She’s typed and deleted several alternative drafts by the time she settles on the response. Nothing’s ever the same without you is erased just before she hits send. 

“Twisted ankle. Not as serious as it first seemed but need to rest it. Will be back to steal the clothes you wanted to wear and leave the cap off the toothpaste before you know it,” the text after that says.

It’s teasing enough to be a comfort, prompting a few hasty messages back and forth.

But when she locks her phone and lays it down on the sofa beside her, she’s left alone with the stark reality it. It’ll be her first camp without Tobin. With Pinoe still not fit to start, it’ll mean a completely different attacking lineup, with only Alex in her usual position. It’ll place even more pressure on Christen’s shoulders to adequately fill the void. It’ll give her the opportunity to prove herself, to prove that she should be a starter no matter who’s on form.

And she’ll have to do it all without Tobin. 

 

*

 

The hotel room without Tobin in it is eerily quiet. It’s the quiet that sets her off more than anything else, the stillness of it all compared to the chaos of being with the team. She’d ended up without a roommate at all this time. It had felt like a relief when she’d realized, but now that she’s settled into the cold, empty space, the juxtaposition is almost too much. This kind of rare quiet during camp is usually a welcome relief, an opportunity to meditate, to center herself. Now it allows every thought to echo, with no white noise to swallow the sound of her thoughts, and her doubts begin multiplying to fill the silence.

She tries to think instead of Tobin as she lies in bed, her steadying words: “Be anxious for nothing.”

Feeling still so awake, she decides to reach for the small red bible in the drawer of the hotel nightstand, thumbing through to the verse that Tobin had mentioned: Philippians 4:6. There on the page, she finds Tobin’s precious words printed in black and white. And beneath them, it continues: “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.”

She hears Tobin’s voice sounding out every word, slow and careful with each one, the way she had been when she’d said only, “Be anxious for nothing.” She wonders if Tobin had known these lines just as well, if by mentioning the first part she had been intentionally planting the seed for Christen to discover the rest on her own. Perhaps in a moment just like this, when she’s all alone with no one there to calm her worries and remind her to think only of the good. If there is any virtue or if there is anything praiseworthy.

It’s as she’s sitting up in bed, reading and rereading those words, that she hears her phone vibrate against the hardwood nightstand. There’s a photo from Tobin waiting for her, no message. She taps to open it, holding her breath and then sighing out as the vibrant pink and orange sunset appears before her, taking up the whole screen. She recognizes the view as the spot on Tobin’s balcony; they’d sat there together quietly watching a sunset just like it only a few weeks before, but this one seems more dramatic somehow, more spectacular. The cloud patterns sprawl out across the vast sky like something from a painting.

Christen imagines Tobin beneath a sky like that. As beautiful as the picture is, when she imagines it, she knows that Tobin would draw all of her focus the way she had out on that balcony. It had been after a match – a fortuitous draw. Tobin had made them both dinner and they’d sat outside in the evening sun for so long it went down on them as they were laughing and talking, about nothing and everything. It was as the sky changed colour overhead that Tobin had gone back inside for her camera, only to reappear with it seconds later, a serious look in her eye as she adjusted the settings just right and lined up her shots. Christen had watched quietly, noting the way she’d bitten her bottom lip as she focused. Tobin always made her feel so seen but, just for a moment, Christen hoped to disappear; she wanted to be a fly on the wall, carefully taking in Tobin at work, crafting the pictures that she would send to a lucky few, or perhaps just cherish to herself. It worked only briefly, a couple of camera clicks, and then Tobin had the lens turned in her direction, capturing nervous giggles that trickled out. Suddenly, without consciousness, Christen threw her arms out and beamed, so scared of being caught in her silent admiration that she had to burst into a pose. 

Christen lies in the hotel bed wondering if all that had gone through Tobin’s mind when she’d looked up at the sky. The hope of it is enough to persuade Christen to tap ‘call’. It rings for barely a second before Tobin’s familiar voice is there, that lazy drawl of hers sounding sleepier than usual, reaching through the tinny phone speaker to envelop Christen in its warmth. “Chris? Hey,” she starts, and it sounds like a smile. 

“Hey,” Christen replies, her voice dancing delicately over the single syllable. Not knowing quite what to say next, the silence a little less easy to navigate on the phone, she adds, “You got a sunset.”

“Dope, right? It was just like that one when you visited, back a while, you know?”

“I remember.” Christen can’t help but smile to herself, closing her eyes to the thought that her cherished memory had also made an impression on Tobin. “I wish I’d been there to see it.”

Her voice a little dry, a little bitter, Tobin remarks, “All I want is to be at camp, so I guess we’re even.” 

“I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it’s–whatever. It is what it is, right?” 

She sounds sad, Christen thinks. Maybe she’s just tired, but it’s hard to hear the dejection in her friend’s voice without saying more than she should. “It sucks, Tobes.”

As if not wanting to dwell too long, Tobin asks, “How are you feeling, about tomorrow?”

Christen hesitates.

“Chris,” she hears, soft but sobering. It begs for the truth. “Honest answers only.”

“I’m terrified of choking.”

“You won’t choke.”

“I might.”

“You won’t,” Tobin insists, adamant and certain of herself. 

“How do you know?” Christen teases back, a playful lilt to it, not quite as serious as Tobin’s firm tone demands of her. 

“Because you’re Christen fucking Press,” Tobin replies quickly, her words carrying a laugh like it’s funny how simple and obvious it is. “You’re gonna win and you’re gonna score. I believe that, Chris, and you should too.” 

Christen realizes then that she’s never had a friend so good, but she’s also never had a crush so big. It’s so intense it overwhelms her. She can’t find much of a response to Tobin’s encouragement, the certainty of her friend’s voice overpowering any argument she might consider making. It’s a forcefield against Christen’s own neuroses.

Sinking lower into the bed, Christen smiles to herself as Tobin adds, “Knowing you, you’ll probably give away a few goals to the team first, hand out a few assists, and then get your goal too. There’ll be a moment so undeniably yours that you’ll just have to take it. You gotta take the shot when it comes.”

“Okay,” Christen agrees, her voice coming out coy and quiet.

“You believe me?” 

There’s a silence where Christen’s reply goes unspoken. Usually, Tobin can wait out any pause; she’s never in a hurry, always careful and patient. But when Christen doesn’t affirm her reply, Tobin adds, “I wish you’d believe in yourself as much as I do.”

It brings tears to Christen’s eyes instantly, the softness of both Tobin’s sentiment and the sound of her voice making Christen yearn desperately to have her there. There’s so much empty space in the bed without her; it feels cold and vast. The feeling tightens her throat as she manages to say, her voice a little strangled with emotion, “Can I tell you something else?” 

“You can tell me anything,” Tobin reassures her, breezy as you like, but there’s a weight buried in it. As soon as Christen hears it, her stomach drops. It’s too much. It’s too much and not enough, and she can’t stop herself from saying–

“I... miss you.” The other end of the line is quiet, but there’s a crackle of static that reassures Christen that she’s still listening. “I wish you were here, or that I was there. I wish–”

“–Me too.”

“Yeah.”

“If I was there–”

“Yeah,” Christen cuts in, not quite able to hear the end of her sentence. “I don’t want you to worry about me, though, Tobes. I’ll be okay.”

“So, I won’t worry about you and you won’t worry about me,” Tobin says, and Christen's both relieved and disappointed at her tone, still warm but businesslike, stepping outside the fragile intimacy built by the words that have just passed between them. “Is that a deal?”

“Hmm…” Christen says, mostly teasing, and it’s worth it for the laugh that Tobin gives. It’s loud and true, a rich chuckle that sounds just as she remembers. It paints a picture of her smile, of the way her eyes crease when she laughs like that and the way her smile stretches from ear to ear, white teeth bared as the sound bursts from her lips. Wanting to tease a little more, she adds, “I’m mostly worried you’re gonna fall asleep on me.” 

“I wouldn’t dare,” Tobin laughs again. This time it’s that distinct low giggle that barely carries over the line, little catches of breath all in a row. 

“You wouldn’t dare, huh?”

“You have no faith in me.”

“I’ve roomed with you enough times! I know you, Tobin Heath. Soon as that head hits the pillow, you’re done for the day.”

“You know me so well, huh?” Tobin teases, not realizing the effect she has, not realizing that knowing her so well is the dangerous part; it’s exactly the problem. 

Christen recovers herself to reply, “I don’t doubt your intentions.”

“My intentions!” Tobin bursts out laughing on the other end of the line.

“Yes. But as soon as I start talking about my day or whatever it is, you’ll zone out and I’ll be left with the sound of your snores.”

“I don’t snore.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Do I snore?” Tobin suddenly questions.

“No,” Christen laughs, really curling her lips around the vowel to drag it out. “Not really. But my point stands.”

“I don’t think it does,” Tobin argues, but it sounds fond. There’s a little rustling, as though she’s moving around to settle – as though preparing to fulfil Christen’s prophecy. She imagines Tobin shifting back in her bed in her cozy little apartment in Portland, trying to find a comfortable position against the pillows so that she can sink into them and the conversation all at once. 

“You getting comfy there?”

“Maybe,” Tobin concedes. “You’re lying in bed too, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Christen admits, turning onto her side to curl up. “It’s been a long day.”

“So tell me about it. I promise I’ll stay awake.”

Christen thinks she’d happily let Tobin fall asleep on the phone, but acquiesces anyway, recalling the hijinx of the team’s latest training session: Sonnett and Lindsey doing their best Tobin Heath impressions “because we know you’re missing her”, Kelley and Alex nearly breaking one of the benches, the kids of the group begging to show off their latest choreographed dance routine after cool-down. She talks for what feels like ages, with Tobin offering agreeable little noises every now and then to prove she’s still listening. In the end, Christen cuts to the heart of it: “It was mostly the same as always, really. Except for you not being there.”

“Who’d you sit with on the bus?” Tobin asks, sounding a little unsure of herself for once. 

“Oh, Allie. She just came and sat with me, no pranks involved,” Christen says with a laugh. “Did you tell her to keep me company?”

“No, that’s all Harry.” 

The wrong one, Christen thinks a little wistfully, though she’d been grateful for the company. She’d been grateful for the way Allie had elected to take the spot beside her, and for the way she’d fallen asleep on her shoulder. It felt like they were both perhaps trying to reach out for their absent friend by reaching out for each other, not that Christen would ever posit as much to Tobin herself. That would be far too sentimental.

“She loves you,” Tobin says as if reading her mind, “and that goes for, like, everyone on the team. I’m only worried someone’s gonna steal my spot and not give you back.” 

It makes Christen feel a little like she’s floating, like she’s dancing through the air suddenly, unable to come back down to earth. Tobin has a habit of making her feel this magic, this dizzying, heart-stopping feeling. Eventually, she finds her words. Only a few, but simple and true. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Yeah?”

“What is it you always tell me? ‘Be anxious for nothing.’”

Chris,” she hears, her name sharp and urgent the way Tobin says it now. “When I went down on my ankle, all I could think about was not getting to be with you. It fucking sucks. It’s empty without you, as lame as that sounds. And I know it does sound–”

“No,” Christen rushes to say, her heart hammering in her chest. “I know what you mean.”

“I miss, like, holding onto you,” Tobin admits, if Christen isn’t hallucinating the conversation. “When it’s like I can feel your whole body as you breathe in and out.”

Encouraged by Tobin’s honesty, Christen summons the courage to say, “I always feel so safe with you. Your arms wrapped around me, like all the bad stuff in my head… It can’t get to me anymore.”

“It can’t. I won’t let it.”

“I know,” Christen says, taking in a deep breath that catches her tears just in time. Because a part of her really believes it, really believes that Tobin could make it every little worry disappear. She’s magic like that. “Sometimes I just worry that my… anxiety,” she dares to say it, putting a name to the thing that she so rarely feels able to acknowledge, “makes you more anxious or worried, or whatever. You’re so chilled but lately I feel like you worry about me.”

There’s a soft scoff of a laugh on the line. “It’s not your anxiety that makes me more anxious. I just… love you. More than, like, everyone else. So I worry about whether you’re okay because it’s important to me that you are. It’s like the most important thing.”

“Oh,” is all Christen can utter. Oh

“Too much?” Tobin says with a nervous laugh.

“No,” Christen whispers, gently, barely loud enough for the phone to catch the sound. “I just don’t ever want to make you feel worse. I worry about that sometimes.”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Tobin reassures her, her voice sounding relaxed again. “You make me feel better. You only ever make things better, Chris.”

I love her flashes in Christen’s mind before she can steady herself, a swell of emotion rising up, but she knows it means something different than when Tobin says it. She turns onto her back, her free hand coming up to rest over her chest, as though trying to command her heart to beat a little slower and her lungs to breathe a little easier. 

“You know, before you, uh, told me… or before I knew about it, I felt like there was something between us.” Christen feels her heart somersault in her chest before Tobin continues: “Like a wall. Not like a big deal. But you’re kinda my best friend and I felt like sometimes you wouldn’t talk to me about stuff. But it feels nice to be trusted, Chris. I like it better to know you like this, not just the edited version, the bullshit clean version that everyone gets. I wanted to know all of you, and maybe I still don’t, but the more you give, the better it is. I wanted to say that. Sometimes I don’t think you know that.”

“I’m really glad you know,” Christen realizes as she says it, tears gently spilling out across her cheeks. “I didn’t want you to, umm, see that side of me, but now that you have, things are okay still. I think I imagined something terrible would happen. I guess I just thought, it doesn’t make any sense in my head so why would it make sense to someone else?”

“Just because anxiety isn’t always logical doesn’t mean it isn’t, like, totally real for you.”

Christen wipes her eyes, biting down on her lip as she nods to herself. “Yeah.”

“Will you tell me how you feel now?”

She takes a deep breath. “I’m okay.” 

“I’m gonna need more than that,” Tobin replies with a soft laugh. “I’m gonna need it on some kinda scale, or a colour chart, or a star system. ‘Okay’ doesn’t fly with me.”

“Tobes! ‘Okay’ means... blue, like a still sky on a clear afternoon, and seven out of ten, and maybe four stars. Certified fresh.” 

“That’s good,” she decides.

“That’s you. That’s you making things okay for me.”

“You should get some sleep now,” Tobin tells her, shying away from taking any little piece of the credit.

“Okay,” Christen says again, this time because it feels possible. 

There’s a long pause between them afterwards, and Christen realizes she’s not quite ready to say goodnight and maybe Tobin isn’t either. This is the moment when they’d usually shift closer, aligning their bodies so that almost every inch is touching. They’d let the silence wrap them up like a blanket and drift off inside the comfort of it. It’s when Christen would think only of savoring the last few seconds before sleep takes her. 

They let the quiet breathe a while, and then Christen disturbs the silent impasse to tentatively ask, “Will you stay with me?”

“Nowhere I’d rather be,” Tobin replies – so easily Christen falls asleep dreaming of the smile she imagines for those words. Asleep, she builds a world for them to thrive in, a whole lifetime together caught up in a single REM cycle. It’s a dream of literal proportions and abstract ones, of Tobin’s smile for every occasion it belongs, and of pink and orange skies. 

When she wakes, she sees that the call time in her phone had stretched long past her waking hours. And there’s a text waiting for her that says, “Goodnight Chris”, with just the ‘zzz’ emoji next to it. 

 

*

 

It’s one long month before they see each other again in person. Texts, calls and even a Sunday afternoon Facetime tide them over in the meantime, but the calendar keeps them on the road, travelling to every city but each other’s. Tobin provides encouraging updates about her ankle, soon turning her attention back to venting about terrible calls or nasty plays once she gets herself back on the pitch. It gives Christen the opportunity to show Tobin support, to return the encouragement Tobin had always readily given to her. Christen makes sure she’s always there on the other end of the line to hear about how physio went, to boost morale through the setbacks, to make Tobin laugh at the end of a long day. 

It’s not until they’re scheduled for a Nike event in New York, alongside Pinoe and Alex, that they get their chance for a reunion. Christen arrives first, fresh from a commanding 3-0 win against Sky Blue, which affords her plenty of time to get ready at the hotel. 

It’s a fairly casual event, though you wouldn’t know it from how long she spends deciding on an outfit. She’s fumbling for that perfect balance, the ensemble that’ll catch Tobin’s eye. Most of her suitcase ends up spread over the bed as she vacillates between the many different combinations. Deep V with the skinny jeans? The casual top with the mini-mini skirt? LBD with a blazer? 

Eventually, Christen settles on a set of smart but comfortable black co-ords, adding a swipe of red lipstick to offset the monochrome. To downplay her efforts, she decides to wear her natural curls loose, feeling a last-minute wave of self-consciousness that she’ll look overdressed – or, worse, that Tobin will sense that the effort is entirely for her benefit. Her concern doesn’t diminish when Pinoe knocks on her door and gives her melodramatic, eye-popping seal of approval: “Oh, daaaamn!” 

Christen laughs it off and chooses instead to focus on the considerable effort she knows Pinoe has made herself: slicked-back hair, a pink velvet blazer and her favorite designer slip-ons.

With a last minute glance at her phone (no messages since Tobin had texted about a flight delay), she grabs her clutch and follows Pinoe down to the lobby. They make easy conversation on the cab ride over to Nike HQ, only teasing each other a little about their recent NWSL fixture, but Christen can’t stop thinking about seeing Tobin. She’s thinking about her in the car, she’s thinking about her as she makes small talk about cleats with strangers, she’s thinking about her when Thierry Henry walks in and Tobin’s not there to lose her cool over it. She should be here by now, she keeps thinking, and perhaps she’s thinking it so hard that Pinoe can hear her. She gives Christen a look like she knows what’s got her eyes darting to the door every now and then, like it’s written all over her face. 

Christen should’ve known that she needn’t have been glancing over there all night. She should’ve known that the moment Tobin arrived, she would feel it. She would feel the temperature in the room change, the oxygen disappear. 

And there it goes.

When their eyes meet, Christen sees Tobin’s smile light up. She sparks to life in an instant.

Christen takes her in, glued to the spot even as Tobin starts moving quickly towards her. It isn’t fast to Christen, it isn’t fast enough. It’s 48 frames per second slow motion as Tobin glides effortlessly through the crowd, faces disappearing in Christen’s periphery, the tight aperture of her gaze trained only on Tobin. She’s wearing a long, black, sleeveless knit dress, with a high neck but sides low enough to reveal she’s not wearing a bra. The thought of it sends a heady jolt of arousal through Christen. It’s the most dressed up she’s ever seen Tobin, though the ensemble is completed with a bespoke pair of Jordans and her artfully disheveled hair, which somehow feel like the most perfect parts. It’s that laidback, unstyled hair that Christen wants to run her fingers through; she’s watched Tobin push it around every which way while daydreaming about being the one who gets to mess it up. 

As soon as Tobin reaches her, she instantly wraps Christen up in a hug, a flurry of I-missed-yous and how-are-yous volleying from one to the other. Christen squeezes tighter than she means to but she can't ignore how good it feels to see her best friend again. She doesn’t want to let go of her now that she’s here – her smile, her touch, her voice, her smell. 

Tobin pulls back all too soon, her eyes appraising the outfit that Christen had so carefully assembled. It feels slow, like every meticulous detail Christen had agonized over is being noted, the heavy gaze making her feel both self-conscious and self-confident all at once. She watches the hint of a smile pull at Tobin's lips, though her eyes are serious, and then her gaze darts back up to meet Christen's and she says, her voice a little deeper than usual, “You look amazing."

Christen swallows hard, then straightens up a little. "You too," she offers in return, a polite smile all she trusts herself to give.

It's only then that Tobin notices Pinoe standing beside Christen, prompting Pinoe to clear her throat dramatically. Tobin plays it off with characteristic calm, of course, offering an equally enthused hug, but the considerable delay earns an amused eye-roll from their friend.

"What am I, chopped liver over here?" 

"No way," Tobin laughs, tossing her hair from one side to the other as she does. "Sorry, P. Didn't see you there." 

"My jacket wasn't shiny enough?" Pinoe runs her hands over the pink velvet of her blazer, raising an eyebrow as she looks up again. "How you doin' anyway? Ankle holding up?”

“Just about,” Tobin answers Pinoe, her eyes lingering on Christen. “Missed you guys!”

“I could tell from the hugs, Tobes,” Pinoe says with a laugh. She puts on a little performance, giving a dramatic wince as she touches her stomach. “Nearly cracked a rib.”

Christen's eyes catch Tobin's, just for a flash. Not long enough to get a read on her, though she feels that every little hint of her own body language is giving her secrets away. The rush of adrenaline makes it hard to just stand and be normal; it’s suddenly impossible to remember how to just be

“Al here yet?” Tobin asks, turning back to Pinoe.

“No, she had some... interview today,” Pinoe gestures vaguely, “but I think she’s on her way. When you see her, try not to wind our star forward, hey Tobes.”

“You’re starting to make me wonder why I missed you,” Tobin replies with a broad grin. 

Pinoe plays along with a pout and then wraps her arms around Tobin again for a softer hug. She has her teammate giggling, as Christen looks on feeling fond and grateful that they’re all together like this, despite the way her palms clam up every time she so much as glances at Tobin. The familiar rapport comes easy to them, helped along by a glass of the champagne that’s being passed around. Soon, Alex joins the group, and there’s a little necessary smack talk about the NWSL season to loosen them up before they begin to circle the room.

There’s an obligation to socialize at these things and Christen’s learned how to be good at this. She likes talking to people; she’s interested in them, in finding ways to connect with them. There are soccer fans that want to break down every play, but there are also other athletes to get to know, and brand reps to be charmed, and potential investors to be won over. She navigates the event on her own, taking every opportunity to talk to people who want to talk to her. She poses for her photo ops: a pair of the new Mercurials in her hands for one, a group shot with her teammates in another, fan photos with those who want to take home a souvenir of the evening. 

While it’s mostly fun, it’s also work. It’s also throbbing feet in optimistically high heels as her face aches from smiling so long. It’s never getting to stop for a minute, a moment alone always co-opted by the next Very Important Person. 

She feels Tobin’s presence close, though never close enough. (That would be indecent.) Occasionally they fall into a group together; other times Christen finds herself drawn into one-on-one chats with strangers, but throughout the evening she can always feel Tobin’s presence nearby. Christen wonders if she’s imagining it, she wonders if it’s on purpose, she wonders if wishing has made it so. 

There comes a moment when an agent – name already long-forgotten – pulls on her arm, dragging her into another conversation while she’s still finishing her sentence to someone else. She’s forced to catch herself up to the animated, warp-speed talk that swarms her, with none of her teammates in view – only strangers that think they’re friends, who know her one-sidedly and forget that the experience isn’t shared. She’s a little penned in, and everyone is loud and getting louder. She can feel her heart beating faster, breath not coming easily; it’s like she’s having to hyperfocus just to stay in it, to make sense of everything. And where’s Tobin, Pinoe, Alex?

All of a sudden, she feels the light brush of fingers sliding into hers. A squeeze from a strong, firm hand prompts her to turn and look, and it’s Tobin. She takes a long breath out, her gaze fixed upon Tobin’s eyes and finding equal focus in return.

Tobin gestures her head towards a door that Christen hadn’t noticed. 

Christen hesitates, turning back to excuse herself, but she soon finds herself invisible. The group around her has moved on, their interest in the underinvestment in women’s soccer only fleeting, leaving Christen significantly less concerned about her abrupt departure coming across as rude. She lets Tobin lead her by the hand away from all of it. She would go anywhere, she thinks, with Tobin’s wiry, muscular frame leading her away, toned arms accentuated by the tight handhold hanging between them. Wherever they’re going is where they belong, and soon Christen finds herself hit by a great gust of cool, fresh air. She breathes it in, suddenly able to fill and empty her lungs at an easy tempo. It’s cold out, but it’s a welcome change from the stuffy air inside the party.

They stop just the other side of the door, but Tobin doesn’t let go. Christen looks down at where their hands meet. It is the single source of warmth against her whole body and there’s something grounding about not letting go. Indulging the one thing they haven’t been able to do for weeks, they let the touch last. 

“Hey,” Tobin says, barely loud enough above the sirens and sounds of the city, but Christen can’t miss it. It prompts her to look up. “You okay in there?”

“Yeah, just, umm–it’s a lot. I think I’m just super tired.”

“Sit down a sec,” Tobin suggests, leading her to a spot beside the door where they can sit with their backs against the bare-brick wall. They let go of each other to find a comfortable position on the ground, pulling up their knees to sit the same way side by side, their shoulders brushing.  

Just as Christen goes to speak, they both hear a one-note alert on Tobin’s phone. She shifts awkwardly to pull it out of her back pocket, tapping to see a text from her mom – a simple “love you tobes” that could be the end or the beginning of any conversation – which also reveals the pink and orange sky filling up the wallpaper backdrop. It’s the same photo she’d sent Christen. It feels like something precious and private that is theirs. Christen can’t help but smile coyly to herself at the sight of it.

“I love that picture,” she says, leaning to nudge Tobin’s shoulder.

Tobin turns to smile at her and something about it makes Christen notice her eyelashes for the first time. They look long and soft; Christen imagines the feel of them against her skin, a featherlight brush. 

“Me too,” Tobin replies, snapping her out of the thought, before dropping the phone into her lap. She gives a little shiver, almost imperceptible, and then wraps her arms around herself. 

“You should go back in there,” Christen says, though her voice is too restrained to be truly persuasive. “You must be freezing.”

“Nah, I’m good. You know I’d rather hang out with you than, like, a bunch of… you know… like, brand people or whatever. I think Pinoe and Al can handle it.”

“There are cool people in there too,” Christen reminds her, thinking of the athletes Tobin raves about: basketball players and soccer players whose games she never misses.

“You’re way cooler,” Tobin replies, dragging out the words in that stirring, Californian surfer drawl that’s lost any hint of the Jersey, and then she gives a faint laugh. 

“I’m such a mess,” Christen groans, feeling painfully aware of how utterly incorrect Tobin’s statement is. She leans forward to rest her forehead against her knees, feeling a hot flash of embarrassment at the thought that Tobin has torn herself away from a room full of sporting icons to instead sit on a sidewalk with her fucked up friend. She feels like nothing but a liability, a problem for Tobin to solve.  

Tobin sighs, shaking her head. “You’re like the most put-together person I’ve ever met.” Christen feels a hand, steady and solid, lay flat against her back. “Like, when I have to take, like, business calls, I’ve started just doing my best impression of you just to get through it. Just because you need a breather sometimes, it doesn’t mean you’re a mess.” 

Christen leans her weight on Tobin’s shoulder, settling her head against it, before Tobin searches out her hand and weaves their fingers together once more. It’s a relief to find warmth again where their palms meet, the warmth flooding her bloodstream at the touch. “Thank you for taking a breather with me.”

“Always. You know that.”

“You promise?” 

“Hell yeah.”

Christen laughs, and then Tobin kisses the top of her head and suddenly nothing’s funny anymore. She frees her hand to stroke Christen’s hair, the way she sometimes strokes her back in the middle of the night. It feels overwhelming – the good kind of overwhelming, the kind that fights off the bad kind. 

There’s something charged between them now, the cold air somehow stifling. Christen doesn’t want to move or speak for fear of throwing any of it off, for fear of running out of oxygen. This is enough, she thinks, with Tobin’s hand dancing through the thick, dark brown curls she’d decided to leave loose. She could stay like this forever, even though she can barely breathe through it. 

And it’s then, as she digs deep for her next breath, that Tobin pipes up abruptly: “We still haven’t talked about that corner, by the way.”

“What corner?” she asks, confounded.

“The Portugal game. You and Linds, and then the double meg. I jumped off the couch so fast, I knocked Jeff’s beer over.” 

Christen’s laughing, all the tension released. “Not on the white couch, right?”

“Only you would think of that.”

“I don’t want to ruin your couch.”

“Chris, that goal was pretty fucking sweet!”

Christen gives a modest shrug. “I was just doing my best Tobin Heath impression.”

She feels a little giddy at the motion of Tobin’s body shaking against her as she chuckles. “Then you gotta pull your socks down a bit.”

Christen smiles fondly, nodding. “Yeah, plus I don’t think I’ve got the game rage down yet.”

“Hey. All justified,” Tobin insists, continuing to laugh warmly right in Christen’s ear. The movement of it has them shifting closer, cozy together despite the crisp night air around them.

They sit in silence for a while and it allows Christen to savor every little detail of the moment. It only breaks when she hears Tobin say, “I fucking missed you,” as if she can’t hold it in a second longer. The hand stroking Christen’s hair stills against her shoulder and then Tobin brings her other arm around to hold her in a hug. 

“Me too,” Christen says, turning her face so that her forehead is pressed against Tobin’s neck, her cheek to Tobin’s shoulder. “Hey?”

“Mmm?” 

She feels Tobin shift away, a momentary disappointment fluttering in her gut before Christen realizes that she’s trying to get a look at her. Tobin pulls back just far enough to be able to glance down, with Christen gazing up through her eyelashes to see the serious look in her friend’s eyes. Quietly, feeling a burst of courage, Christen asks, “Will you, umm… Stay with me tonight?” She’s as slow with the words as Tobin usually is, taking care to study every microexpression on her friend’s face as she speaks. 

Tobin stares back at her not saying anything at all, but her hand moves a little higher to settle against the curve of Christen’s neck. It prompts a certainty to swell where the silence alone might’ve made Christen doubt. Eventually, Tobin gives a gentle nod, and then she kisses her temple and lets Christen curl up beside her. 

 

*

 

From the moment the promise is made, Christen feels something change between them. It is changed, she knows instantly, and it cannot be changed back, and a part of Christen immediately wishes she could withdraw her question somehow. Instead of whispers and nods, now she daydreams of a letter written but never sent, something to be buried in a drawer, words soaked into parchment only for private relief.

If she could change time, she would allow herself to live in each moment with Tobin just a little longer. If she could change time, she could find out if the gamble is worth taking. If she could change time. But she can’t.

They sit together, only for a little while longer, and Christen’s thoughts drift to what she’s done, to this terrifying thing that cannot be undone. She has made their nocturnal secret a choice, not an accident. They will not fall together on the cusp of sleep, bursting with unspoken excuses, but instead step toward each other knowingly. There will be one bed, a larger canvas affording them space that she knows – feeling the warmth of Tobin’s hand curling tightly around her own, her hair softly brushing against Christen’s neck – will never come between them; it will be only negative space, framing the shape of a single silhouette.  

There is a sense of anticipation hanging heavy, thick in the air, their only conversation in touch. The feeling of it crawls along her skin, itching for movement just to release the nervous energy. 

The chill of the night air gets the better of them before too long. Not wanting Tobin to catch a cold out there, despite her friend’s valiant efforts to conceal her shivers, Christen is the one to suggest heading back inside, back into the stifling warmth of the party. She smiles to herself as Tobin gives the same reluctant groan that she always gives in the morning when Christen has to persuade her to get up for training, this time without the excuse of not being a morning person. This time it can only be that she’d have liked a little longer as they are: alone together for the first time in weeks, wrapped up in silence and each other.

“C’mon,” Christen has to say before Tobin reaches up for her hands. 

When Tobin comes to her feet again, fingers clenched tightly around Christen’s, she stumbles closer. Their efforts have them almost chest to chest, and Christen thinks, suddenly, about kissing Tobin, imagining what it might be like and not worrying, for once, about all the things it could ruin. She looks beautiful out there, her hair falling loosely across her face as it catches the breeze, the sharpness of her cheekbones highlighted under the harsh lights of the city, eyes sparkling with the reflection. Christen can’t help the way her gaze flickers down to Tobin’s mouth, the protruding bottom lip begging to be kissed until Tobin tucks it under her teeth and, fuck, that doesn’t help at all

Christen’s already asked her to stay the night. She’s got that promise stored away for later. She realizes that she wants the goodnight, the comforting familiarity of it and the thrilling possibility it could lead to more, more than anything. That’s why, instead of gambling on a kiss, she chooses to give Tobin’s hands an extra tug and lead them back inside.

And there’s that strange, optimistic voice inside that says not here, that says later

As soon as they’ve stepped through the door, Christen sees Pinoe’s eyes land on them and then light up with purpose as she comes straight over. In her typical fashion, she cuts straight to the chase: “Where the fuck have you been? I thought you’d made an Irish exit and ditched me here.” 

“Just needed some air,” Christen explains as Pinoe props an arm over her shoulder, providing a little of the warmth afforded from having been inside the stuffy room the whole time.

Tobin adds: “Thought you’d be busy trying to expand the shoe collection.”

“Oh, I think three pairs is a good place to draw the line for one night. We’re good here.”

“I don’t know, P,” Tobin teases. “The night is young.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Pinoe shakes her head and wags a finger at Tobin. “Listen, you know how many people wanna get into it about that Brazil game from 2011? You’d really like to think your career hasn’t come down to one moment but it turns out, no. Swear to god, I am ready to be outta here.” 

“We’re thinking of heading now,” Tobin says on behalf of them both, not looking at Christen. 

We are?  

Christen can’t pretend she’s not relieved but she feels all too aware of the many sports stars they’ve yet to speak to, heroes of Tobin’s that she surely hasn’t had the chance to meet before. And beneath every other thought and every other feeling, there’s the knowledge of that private little promise they’ve made. There’s the part of her that wants to stay as long as possible just so that they can preserve things as they are now, just like this, the two of them as close to the friends they were as they ever will be again. The question has been asked, the answer not quite played out.

“You’re heading? Okay, let’s get a cab,” Pinoe replies decidedly. “A bitch needs her beauty sleep.”

“Should we check on Alex?” Christen suggests, her voice a little meek and lost in the hubbub around them. She chooses not to question Tobin’s ‘we’ aloud.

“I’m pretty sure she’s good here, but I’ll run and ask,” Pinoe offers, craning her neck to take a good look around before heading off to a distant corner of the room. She’s lost in the crowd within a matter of steps, half-jogging through throngs of people. 

Christen turns back to Tobin. “You sure you wanna leave? You didn’t even get to say hi to–”

“I’m good, Chris,” she cuts in, dismissive without being cold. “You didn’t hear me when I said I’d rather hang with you?”

“I know but, umm, Thierry Henry, Tobes,” Christen pushes back, her eyes going wide to really emphasize her point as she nods her head in the direction of the former Arsenal forward. 

Tobin just laughs it off, not even glancing over. Instead, she edges toward the door and looks around for Pinoe’s return. It doesn’t take too long before their friend comes bounding back over to announce, “Alex is staying. She’s working the room, doing her thing.”

With a definitive nod, Tobin immediately starts heading back to the main entrance, forging a path for Christen and Pinoe to follow. They struggle to keep pace with her, getting caught up in a conversation or two on the way while managing to carefully dodge any serious interceptions. But Christen takes each step feeling like there’s a clock ticking away the seconds, or sand falling through an egg timer. It’s falling and falling and she can’t catch it, she thinks, still trailing her friends as though on autopilot. 

When Christen gets out onto the sidewalk, she finds Tobin stood at the very edge of the curb. Tobin steps one foot onto the road as she shows off the volume of her whistle, at least partly for her own amusement it seems, hailing a cab for their journey back to the hotel. 

It proves to be a strange cab ride, with minimal eye contact from Tobin, while nervousness fizzes inside Christen. It’s a short journey but Christen’s hands begin to shake at her sides, the tension bubbling into motion. She doesn’t notice, not really, until Tobin’s hand slips into hers, knitting their fingers together across the middle seat. 

“What are you worrying about?” she leans to whisper in Christen’s ear, against the backdrop of Pinoe’s conversation with their driver. 

You, Christen thinks but doesn’t say. You must know.

Christen doesn’t answer at all, biting her lip and looking distantly out the window, away from Tobin, who only squeezes a little tighter. There’s a look, something flickering in Tobin’s eyes, when Christen dares to glance over. It dances like a firefly through the air, the light floating away in an instant. It’s like she’s so close to seeing it — perhaps she does, but then it’s gone. 

Oblivious, Pinoe keeps the atmosphere light in the front seat, making conversation with their cheery cab driver. After persuading him to change the radio station, she’s now managed to get him onto the subject of soccer, which he claims to know a great deal about. Quick to start explaining the rules, he prattles on, unknowingly digging a hole deeper and deeper as Pinoe relishes every word of it, nodding along. He’s just started to discuss the merits of each Premier League club when they pull up outside the Marriott.

“You enjoyed that,” Tobin remarks to Pinoe after they get out of the cab.

Pinoe preens a little before shrugging. “It was sweet. I think he really helped me get my head around the offside rule.” 

“Shut up.” Tobin bursts out laughing as they walk in stride, and then she turns around looking for Christen, who’s trailing behind them. Christen, who’ll do anything to slow this down, even while all she truly longs for is to speed it up. 

“Right,” Pinoe declares as they get inside the warmth of the lobby, the broad open space empty but for the three of them and a couple of others walking by. It’s a pleasant contrast to the crowds of the party, with no one to pull them into a conversation, no one to pose with, no one to please and entertain. Then, Pinoe finishes, “I’m off to bed. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“What does that even rule out?” Tobin comments bemusedly, sniggering as Pinoe waves her off. 

Christen can’t help the smile she’s wearing as Pinoe calls back to them, “Not a lot. Have fun, kids.”

And suddenly they’re alone. The silence is oppressive, somehow. Because there’s that promise. That promise that has been hanging over them since Christen asked for it, though she could’ve just let it play out. It would’ve happened, she knows, without her words. The request made it something different, and now there’s a strain in Tobin’s voice, not quite as lazy and carefree as usual, when says, “Okay, let me just grab my stuff and we can go to your room.”

It is unmistakable now. It is thick in the air, the inevitability of it all. 

“If you still wanted to.”

 

*

 

“Of course,” Christen had said, tripping over her words just to reassure Tobin, abandoning restraint and perhaps even dignity to make herself clear. Worse than her own rejection is the thought of Tobin feeling any small sting of it. So, she had given a little more of herself away than she’d intended. She’d insisted a couple more times, explaining only that she needed a few minutes to tidy up her hotel room first. 

They’d gone up in the elevator together, standing awkwardly at its far corners – too far from each other to dare even the slightest touch. The slightest touch would be too dangerous now, an electric shock that could start a fire. 

Tobin had given a shy, slanted smile back as she’d ambled out of the elevator onto her floor. She’d said only, “502?” to Christen, barely more than a mumble, to confirm the room number.

Room 502. It is where Christen now hustles to hang or fold every one of the outfits she’d laid out on her bed earlier. The fancier options are hidden away first for fear that Tobin might see some hint of just how much effort she’d considered making, the clues adding up to no great mystery. Each item of clothing is carefully organized in her normal way, before she clears up the makeup around the basin in the bathroom, then straightens out the bed. It’s all swiftly done, the ticking sound in the back of her mind, sand falling through her fingers. 

When she’s finished tidying and Tobin still isn’t there, she decides to take off her makeup. She decides to act like it’s a normal night shared between them, not an occasion for sleeping in mascara or keeping up the pretense that her lips are naturally ruby red. It provides a welcome distraction from all the waiting.

And then she hears the knock. 

True to form, Tobin’s not packed up so much as grabbed a few handful of the things she’ll need and stowed them under her arms. She is stood grinning on the other side of the door when Christen goes to answer it, before hobbling into the hotel room, now in her slides, and dumping everything on the nearest surface. All the newly-cleared space is soon cluttered again and Christen finds she can’t hide her amusement, laughing to herself before Tobin’s looking up at her like she’s trying to understand the joke.

“Everything okay?” Tobin asks, so quiet that it prompts Christen to rub a reassuring hand on her back. It’s instinct, but as she makes contact, the gesture feels unusually intimate. 

“Yeah,” Christen says, realizing it’s true. Something takes hold then, looking at Tobin whose eyes are asking so many questions, whose expression is as open as it is unreadable, whose concern has carried her all these many months. She finds that she needs to say something before they stumble their way through this promise. Tucking her hair behind her ears just to give her hands something to do, she confides, “I, uh… I know I freaked a little earlier but I want you to know, I’ve been doing good lately. I’m okay.” 

“Yeah?” Tobin replies, her eyebrows arching as she studies Christen carefully. 

Christen nods, firm and sure. 

Something in Tobin’s face relaxes. And something in Christen’s body does too, as Tobin warmly tells her, “That’s what I like to hear.”

A hush falls over the room after that as they attend to their nighttime routines. That’s what feels most normal, the nervous anticipation giving way to the familiarity of this ritual. They move around each other easily, taking their turns at the mirror and in the bathroom. It’s a dance they’ve learned together, one they can move in and out of, at ease with each other’s rhythms.

There’s a little more danger to it now, though. 

Christen’s a little less careful about concealing herself as she changes into pajamas, while Tobin’s timing as she draws her dress up over her head allows Christen to catch sight of the expanse of her naked back, smooth and muscular and golden. Her eyes drift from broad shoulders to the long, curved hollow at the center, moving across exposed skin, imagining the gaze is a touch, as though the warm heat of Tobin’s body is pressed against her. Christen thinks about her hands against Tobin’s back: a flat palm running smoothly over her spine, fingers curling over Tobin’s shoulders, nails digging desperately deep into the soft skin. There’s something mythical about this part of Tobin’s body, usually impeded by a dark gray sports bra at the very least – now bare, in the privacy of this hotel room.

The privacy of it hits Christen only then. They are entirely alone, the intimacy of their situation far more intense than anything they’ve done before. It is a different kind of alone this time, one without mandatory room-sharing or the threat of an early start. There is no game to worry about. There is only this – this tension that has become something else, something new and exciting. It is not a tightening in her chest but butterflies in her stomach, a shiver up her spine. It is never quite catching her breath. 

Not knowing exactly what to do about it, she lingers at the foot of the bed, perched, waiting there for Tobin to finish in the bathroom instead of settling into the bed on her own. Though she has always been the one to get into bed first in the past, Christen finds herself reluctant to do it this time. There’s only one bed and it feels presumptuous, despite their arrangement, to prematurely claim it. Some small part of her feels compelled to offer to take the floor, and there’s another part of her urging desperately to simply change the script. So, instead of curling up under the comforter, she sits restlessly and waits. 

Tobin never usually takes too long, her beauty regime notably low maintenance, but now it feels like forever. Christen stays perched on the edge of the mattress, leaning back on her hands, attempting to look something close to nonchalant while feeling anything but. Her wrists begin to ache with the length of time Tobin takes, so she shifts upright, crossing and recrossing her legs while her mind begins imagining the poses she could strike on the bed. She considers something explicit and direct. She could lie there, waiting, her intentions laid out and ready for Tobin’s discovery. She could dispense with her t-shirt and pajama shorts early, or consider a last-minute outfit change to something a little more provocative. 

Every small detail of her body language feels like a critical decision, like all she needs is a series of right moves in perfect sequence. There are a thousand possibilities running through her head, with every measure of good and bad being weighed up, and there are no simple answers.

She feels her leg start to bob as her fingers drum in her lap, and then the sound of footsteps puts an abrupt halt to both. 

When Tobin walks back through, eyes fixed on Christen, there’s a heady moment where Christen wonders if maybe she’ll just kiss her – quick and simple, like tearing off a bandaid – but of course she doesn’t. 

Tobin ambles slowly towards her, lifts one corner of her mouth in a smile and passes her by, instead turning out the main light. Following along like she’s just remembered her lines, Christen moves to her side of the bed and shimmies down against the mattress until she’s lying flat. Feeling suddenly awkward, Christen keeps her arms tight to her body, lying like she wants to take up as little space as possible, as if all they have to share is a single camp bed. 

She daren’t look over at Tobin now; there is too much crackling in the air between them. For all that she wants to seek out answers in Tobin’s body language, she knows that to look would only give away her own. Instead, she waits to feel the shift against the mattress, and then she reaches out for the light switch, the snapping click of it sounding harsh and loud against the silence.

The only light left is that of the streetlights outside, creeping through between a gap in the curtains. In the hazy half-darkness, Christen feels every other sense heighten. The scent of her own perfume mixes with Tobin’s smell, the rhythm of Tobin’s breathing seems to get louder, and, most of all, her aching need to be touched deepens. 

She turns onto her side and hopes in the dark: that it isn’t over, this evening or this thing between them. She waits to feel Tobin move beside her, to feel the warmth close in behind her as the mattress dips with them together at its center, to indulge the profound calm that swells in her when Tobin’s arms fold around her body. And, just like always, at a touch, her worries disappear into a blank fog of everything that isn’t Tobin. Tobin, who she dreams of. Tobin, who proves better than a dream.

She feels Tobin’s hands move across her back. The touch stops her breath in her throat, her anticipation rendering her frozen at Tobin’s mercy. It’s just like it was before: the deep rub of her shoulders, the heel of her hand pressing lower and then–

Then the pressure falls away. Instead of pushing into tense muscles, Tobin gently ghosts a hand down Christen’s back. She’s steady as she does it, drawing a line from the bare curve of Christen’s neck, across the crumpled cotton of her oversized t-shirt, down to her lower back. It starts flat, the width of her hand, but as she moves, Christen feels the touch narrow to only the pad of her index finger. 

The tenderness of it takes Christen by surprise. 

And then, just when she can no longer feel Tobin against her at all, Tobin’s forehead comes to rest against the center of her back. Christen then feels Tobin’s touch move to her hips, so light and tender that it has Christen aching for more. 

It prompts her to reach back for Tobin’s hands, pulling them around herself as they lie together, parallel – a big and little spoon, like always. With Tobin’s arms around her, she shifts back, closing the gap between their bodies so that Tobin’s forehead moves up to settle against her shoulder. She’s still leaning against Christen, pressed to her closer than ever, the intimacy of it dancing inside Christen’s chest so feverishly she has to force herself to take a breath. It’s something long and deep that moves through her whole body, and she knows Tobin feels it too, like a shared breath between them. 

Christen’s hands settle over Tobin’s as they lie in front of her. She brings them in, tight to her body, but it takes a little encouragement before Tobin moves her palm to lie flat against Christen’s stomach. The fabric of her t-shirt has gathered from where she’s shifted against the mattress already, leaving a sliver of skin exposed to the touch above her pajama shorts. It’s enough to send sparks through Christen’s body, and enough to invite Tobin’s hands to graze against her again in search of more. Tobin moves her hand slowly, carefully, daring to thread her fingers beneath the fabric of the top. The gentle touch teases across Christen’s skin, drawing out a faint whimper. 

The feeling of Tobin’s hand sliding up under her t-shirt has Christen writhing back, desperate for more, anything more. And Tobin, for her part, shifts closer: close enough that they are slotting together, Christen’s ass pressed tight against Tobin’s pelvis. 

Christen doesn’t know what possesses her in the moment. She’ll flash back to it a thousand times and never know where the boldness comes from. Her hand flat over Tobin’s, whose touch moves down to skate across the bare skin just above her waistband, teasing along the boundary of what’s acceptable between them, Christen begins to realize exactly what she needs. A flash of daring and desperation has her guiding Tobin’s eager touch beneath the line of her shorts, moving lower still – lower and lower until Tobin no longer needs the encouragement, until it’s all Tobin, in fact, until Tobin’s palm is buried at the apex of her legs, the pads of her fingers finding the warm wetness that’s pooled there. 

Tobin moans softly, barely at all, the sound of it so close to Christen’s ear that she can feel hot breath against her skin there. And then a gasp: “Chris.” So broken, desperate, pleading. 

“Tobin,” is all she can reply, and then she feels Tobin move against her folds. 

She hears, “You’re so wet,” and then, breathy and ragged: “Fuck.” Slowly, deliberately, Tobin slides a finger inside her, the relief of it even more intense than she anticipates. 

“More,” Christen rasps out. “I need more.”

Her head is too foggy to know exactly what she means herself, but Tobin seems to read her mind. She shifts until the pressure is just right, two fingers now setting a steady pace as they slide in and out. Christen feels Tobin nuzzle at her neck, and then she’s kissing the back of her shoulder, affection sinking into the fabric of her t-shirt, before it’s sharper and Tobin’s teeth are biting down. The feeling has Christen arching back and moaning out.

As Tobin begins to grind against her, amid the hazy fog of her own pleasure, Christen senses her need for friction. Responding to provide the same relief that she’s receiving, she moves her ass back; she lets herself rub against Tobin, encouraging her as she works Christen up, Tobin’s fingers still buried deep as the pad of her thumb teases at Christen’s clit.   

The motion becomes more frantic, breaths more ragged. In a desperate bid for more still, Christen shifts to turn over so that she’s lying on her back, Tobin suddenly in plain view, sanctified by the faint glow of the city lights illuminating her face, leaning over Christen with a hand buried between her legs. Her plush bottom lip is swollen from where her teeth had sunk down, her mouth slack now as her eyes widen to look back at Christen. They’re both catching their breath, flushed and disheveled. But, as Christen looks up at Tobin, she knows she has to stop – only briefly – to have something to remember it by; she has at least that much presence of mind. 

They stare at each other for a long moment, neither one of them moving an inch.

It is the first time they’ve looked at each other inside the small, private secret that is their hotel room. The first time they’ve really looked at each other – looked like they might never look away. And Christen thinks, now, she finally understands fully what they mean to each other. She has gazed at Tobin a thousand times and thought to herself, I love you, but only now does she feel every part of it at once. It had been only pieces, one by one, before. Now it is a vast picture, brought to life in slow-drying oil colours, with smudged lines and vivid pigment and borders she can’t see beyond. 

And then Tobin moves inside her – ever so slightly, earning a gasp of pleasured surprise from Christen. It sparks a renewed desperation; Christen’s hands hold Tobin’s face as she moves to kiss her, finally, messy and desperate and fucking glorious, Christen thinks, as their tongues move together and Tobin pushes her closer and closer to the brink. Her hands move into Tobin’s hair, roughly carding through it, pulling only when the feeling gets too much and when she craves the sound of Tobin moaning into her mouth. 

When Tobin breaks the kiss, it is only to move her lips lower, her tongue hot and wet against Christen’s neck before teeth bruise against the soft skin there. Christen’s turning into it, writhing against Tobin’s body as it covers her own, her legs encasing Tobin’s in heated desperation. The motion of it allows her sleep shorts to slide lower, giving Tobin better access, and she suddenly feels far more exposed than Tobin.

In heated response, her hands begin to tug at the hem of Tobin’s t-shirt, pulling it upwards with insistent moans until Tobin is sat upright on top of her, the hand buried between Christen’s legs withdrawing to help pull the top over her head until there’s just her naked chest – the delicate curve of her breasts contrasting the marked definition of her abs. And everything in Christen’s mind goes hazy but for the masterpiece in front of her, but for the beautiful dichotomy of this body: hard and soft, in all the ways that Tobin is. The strip of light where the glow of the city breaks through the curtains hits Tobin’s bare skin to create a magnificent chiaroscuro of her body. It begs to be touched, and Christen can’t help but move her hands to the lines of it, guiding them through light and shade, her palm cupping a shallow breast before gliding smoothly over the taut, pebbled muscles of Tobin’s stomach. She’s looking at this body before her in appreciation, memorizing every perfect feature from the sharp, strong line of Tobin’s bare shoulders to her perfectly round belly button, and then her eyes drift upwards to seek out warm, brown eyes. They are unguarded now, wide and cautious, looking down over Christen in search of approval, the sharp edges of Tobin’s face now softened as she waits at Christen’s mercy. 

It does something to Christen, this gaze. It’s vulnerable, but seeking. There’s want there, as though Tobin hasn’t had enough already. It stirs Christen to lean upward to kiss Tobin’s chest, shifting to sit almost upright, pressing enthusiastic affection across the beautiful expanse of skin. Her mouth teases at the soft peak of Tobin’s breast as Christen’s hand moves against the other, gentle at first and then not. 

Though Christen notices Tobin’s breath hitch and her body shudder, Tobin draws back a little to pull Christen’s t-shirt over her head. She’s smoother about it than she had been with her own top, revealing Christen’s upper body in a single motion, before her hands are on Christen again, this time unimpeded by the fabric, her touch slick with Christen’s own want. She trails her splayed hand down in a line in the middle of Christen’s chest, shifting herself back a little to return her attention to where Christen wants her most, to where she needs her. 

“Fuck,” Christen aches out, falling back against the mattress and bringing Tobin with her, changing the angle inadvertently, heightening the sensation all the more. Her clit throbs as Tobin works against her, thumb teasing it as her fingers push deeper. 

Realizing how close she is and needing Tobin to know, needing her to see the effect she has, Christen pulls herself back to look into her best friend’s eyes. There’s something different in the look; it’s a look that says nothing will ever be the same again, and as she moans deeply in the divine release that washes over her, she knows that it’s true. It comes in a wave – heavy, sudden, almost violent – and then ripples of pleasure follow it as though floating through her to convince her it was real. She dissolves, simply, every bit of tension fucked right out of her so that she is boneless and sated against the bedsheet.

I love you, she thinks as Tobin’s bare body presses over hers. And maybe she knows. Maybe it’s in the way Christen’s arms cross limply over Tobin’s back to keep her there. Maybe it’s there in the air between panted breaths. Maybe it’s unspoken as they fall gently to sleep a while later, their bodies entwined like the twisted branches of a tree.

This time, for the first time, Christen falls asleep hoping it is.

 

*

 

When Christen stirs, she moans softly into the pillow, turning onto her side and reaching her hand out blindly for Tobin’s body beside her. It’s unconsciously done, the presence of mind to worry or panic not having quite set in yet. She sweeps across the wrinkled fabric of the cold, bare sheet and the shock of it, of waking up alone even though it’s Tobin, who hates getting out of bed in the morning more than anything, prompts her eyes open to reveal not just an empty bed but an empty room. 

Christen sits up immediately, the covers slipping down against her bare chest to remind her of exactly how the night had gone. She can see her oversized Stanford t-shirt still gathered on the floor at the foot of the bed, her sleep shorts abandoned a few meters away. 

She turns to look for Tobin’s phone on the nightstand. The lightning cable is there but it’s not plugged into anything. 

The bathroom door is open far enough to show that it’s another empty room, and there’s the stillness around her. Everything is so quiet, so fucking quiet that it provides Christen’s mind a silent backdrop to her panicked storm of thoughts. 

And then, just as she’s starting to work herself up, the tightening in her chest beginning, she hears the buzz of a lock. The hotel room door opens and Tobin walks in, coffee in hand and regret written all over her face. Her expression is tight, her complexion pale where it is normally glowing and golden. The surprise prompts Christen to reflexively pull up the sheet to cover herself; something flashes across Tobin’s face and she bursts out, “Fuck.” She sounds hard, cruel even, not a bit like she’d sounded last night, when she’d gasped that same word as Christen had kissed her way down Tobin’s body.

Christen goes to reply, if there is anything to say to that, but Tobin’s not done. She keeps talking while Christen feels too dizzy to make sense of it, unable to break through the fog in her head. She feels so out of sorts, so winded by the prospect that perhaps she’d had it all so wrong somehow that it hits her like a concussion. She hasn’t had many, never having been an aerial target on the pitch, but this feels worse than every one of them. It’s like she’s jumped fearlessly for a ball – a long shot – and instead smacked right into the metal post. The force of it winds her, the shock leaving her breathless.

“Fuck,” Tobin says, and it’s that word again. “Chris, I’m sorry. I’m–I thought you’d still be asleep since we normally don’t get up for, like, another hour and–”

Is it an hour? Christen wonders, the thought loud and clear above the noise in her head. Is it an hour that I spend savoring you in the morning, before you wake up moaning at the alarm? 

“I wanted to explain,” Tobin continues, breaking Christen’s chain of thought. She’s got her face screwed up, her hair pulled up in a lopsided bun, eyes puffy behind her glasses. She looks nothing like she had last night, when Christen had kissed the smirk off her face. When her neck had flushed red under Christen’s touch, before she’d purpled the skin there to match the marks on her own. When Tobin had gazed down, her eyes getting droopy with sleep and a lazy smile pulling at her lips, as they’d said a final goodnight. 

Instead, she looks sorry. Sorry is everything Christen never wanted her to be, and yet, still, Tobin says, “Chris, I’m so sorry. I went to get us coffees from that place you said you liked down the street but then I started thinking, like, fuck… maybe I… umm, ruined everything.” 

She steps a little further into the room, her shoulders slumping more than normal, a smallness in her body language that seems almost fragile. Not quite brave enough to perch at the end of the bed, she settles instead on the edge of the stool at the vanity, her knees tight together – rigid and awkward. One of them starts to bob a little and it reminds Christen of her own nervous habits. 

Tobin places the coffee cup down on the vanity table, freeing her hand to sweep her hair across to the other side, as she explains, “Pinoe caught me in the lobby, and she was asking why I had two coffees.”

Christen pulls up her knees and covers her face. “You didn’t tell–”

“Pinoe. Yeah, she, uh… Yeah. I’m a terrible liar, Chris,” Tobin replies, but it sounds sad and desperate, and the tone of it prompts Christen to look at her again, to watch as she dares to stand up and take a few cautious steps closer. “I’m so sorry. She won’t tell anyone. Well, she’ll probably tell Ash but Ash will only tell Ali. So it’ll just be Pinoe, Ash and Ali. And me, and you.” She seems to wince upon hearing herself aloud, and winces again, her face flushed as she says, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” 

“I–” Christen can’t make sense of any of it. “What did you–?”

“Just that… we were together last night.” Tobin gives a defeated shrug, chewing on her lip before she mutters, “I mean, she knew how I felt about you from before. But...”

Tobin’s words knock the breath out of her, so it takes Christen a second to say, “How you felt about me? What–what do you mean?”

Tobin looks away, not seeming to study Christen’s expression – hope eager in her wide eyes – but instead too lost in her own thoughts. “Chris, I’m sorry. I thought I was picking up on–it doesn’t matter. I’m so fucking sorry.”

Though she’s beginning to piece something together, something that had once seemed impossible but had last night felt undeniable, Christen’s disbelief colours every thought. The apologies sting, every one of them. Christen knows, whatever shape their conversation takes, that she isn’t sorry for what happened; she would hate for Tobin to be sorry. It had not felt at all like a sorry thing, so perhaps it is stubborn refusal to accept the apology that allows Christen to listen and truly hear what Tobin means. 

“I just got to thinking that, like, fuck… I didn’t know, like, what your preferences even are. I didn’t assume anything would happen. That’s not–that’s not why… I don’t want you to think that,” Tobin rambles on, her words coming out faster than they ever have. They scatter into the open space between them for Christen to piece together.

Christen presses her lips tightly together as her hands come up to cover her face. She can feel her shoulders shaking, taking her whole body with them; every inch of her is giving her tears away, and she can’t make herself stop long enough to say–

“I didn’t mean to fall for you,” Tobin confesses first, a guilty look in her eye when Christen dares to glance up. “I’m sorry. You trusted me and I… I took advantage. I should’ve told you the truth about how I felt before anything–” Tobin cuts herself off, shaking her head so that her hair falls over her face a little. “I thought it was obvious. I thought you knew.”

“No. I just… I didn’t know,” Christen says finally, her voice frayed and raw. She swallows to clear her throat and finds that it hurts. She swallows again just to make sure that the words that follow can’t be mistaken, and then she adds, “I hoped.”

Tobin’s eyes spark, flaring a little wider. Her attention is so tightly focused on Christen, the heat of the spotlight burns on her skin. She’s searching for something, as though not quite believing what she’s heard. And then Christen draws her eyebrows together, as if to say, how about it and she laughs at herself, nerves and giddy excitement battling it out. 

“You did?” Tobin asks, the words delicate and breathless.

“Yeah,” Christen says, instantly being swept up in Tobin’s hug. It comes to her fast, Tobin almost crashing into her, perching on the edge of the mattress beside where Christen is sat up in bed. Tobin buries her face into Christen’s shoulder, wet cheeks damp against the curve of Christen’s neck. She fits into place there, Christen finds, as their arms envelop one another. They fold around each other like yin and yang, together a perfect circle, their faces tucked away as though not wanting to be an inch apart, not wanting to allow the love to escape through a single gap. 

When eventually Tobin looks up, every feeling is etched into the expression that greets Christen. It feels impossible to believe: wonder, relief, fear, joy and, most gloriously of all, love. The way she looks now, it seems boundless. Tobin looks exactly how Christen feels, and she finds herself wondering how she could possibly have missed it all along. 

Tobin moves her solid, strong hands to hold Christen’s face, a certain reverence about it. Christen knows that where their skin presses together, Tobin can feel the damp of escaped tears against her palms but she can’t bring herself to care. She knows, suddenly, how Tobin feels, the truth clear and ringing, but still nothing compares to finally hearing her say it.

“I love you,” Tobin whispers, the words scratching out of her throat as their foreheads come to meet in the middle.

Sighing out her relief, Christen replies, “I love you.” Her voice is strong and clear. She feels strong and clear – and brave. Something like courage stirs in her gut as she leans forward and presses her lips to Tobin’s.

They kiss for a while, and then Tobin lets herself fall into Christen’s arms, pulling their embrace down against the mattress until she is stretched out beside Christen. It’s their first real kiss in daylight, soft and slow. Christen tries to pull away after a closed-mouth peck of affection, conscious of her morning breath, but Tobin chases her lips to deepen it anyway and Christen finds it too much to resist. 

“How the fuck did you not know?” Tobin asks, when they come up for air. 

“I could say the same to you,” Christen laughs, her smile never breaking, and there’s a tear at the corner of her eyes still that Tobin thumbs away before she has the chance to. “You’re the one who’s been holding me together.”

“I’ve just been trying to, like, make you happy,” Tobin replies, sounding a little shy.

“Well, you have. Except for those couple of minutes just then, but I’ll forgive you.”

Her eyes serious and imploring, Tobin asks, “Please forgive me.”

“Don’t worry, Tobes,” Christen says, a lightness to her voice that feels strange and new to her own ears. It’s a surreal thing to find herself in the position of reassuring her friend who always seems so self-assured. It comes to her then in a whisper, their mantra, their secret code: “Be anxious for nothing.”

Tobin breathes out. It’s like a great sigh of relief. She closes her eyes to it, then opens them again to smile at Christen. 

“And you?” Tobin asks, leaning her head forward so that their foreheads touch once more, noses brushing together. The flat of her palm smooths over Christen’s bare back where the sheet has fallen lower thanks to the way she’s twisting onto her side to face Tobin now. “If I ask you how you feel today, what would you say?”

Christen hides a smile in her cheek. “Hmm. If you asked me, I guess I’d say… nine out of ten.” 

“Nine?” Tobin protests, a gentle stream of chuckled laughter with it. 

“Room for improvement,” Christen teases, feeling relaxed enough to laugh and joke and be as they usually are. “Your clothes are on, for a start. And why is there only one coffee now?”

“Okay, okay. Pinoe took the other one.” Tobin puts her hands up, her broad grin bursting out as though from behind a cloud. One that drifts further and further away, until all that’s left is the sun, her smile: blinding and beautiful. “But I’ll take a nine. And what colour this time? Like a calm blue?”

“No, not blue.” Christen smiles to herself, looking down between them at a loose thread on the pillowcase before meeting Tobin’s eyes again. “Pink and orange, like a sky on fire,” she says, feeling a little daring. It’s just a colour, a memory, but it feels closer to a confession. “Like that sunset in Portland.”

Tobin’s eyes light up, her voice a little dreamy. “I knew before the sun went down that night that I was screwed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as when you smiled in front of that sky.” 

“Tobin–” 

“I thanked God for you, you know,” Tobin whispers, a featherlight mumble that Christen strains to hear. “When we went off to bed that night, I thanked Him. And I prayed you would fall asleep easy in the other room, like I was hoping for a miracle or something. I just want to take care of you, Chris. Like, I know you got it, you’re a boss. But I want to be the person who takes care of you when you need it.”

“You’ve taken care of me since the beginning,” Christen says, like it’s simple. And it is.

Tobin doesn’t quite look at her. Still mumbling so quietly it drives Christen a little mad, she says, “I hope so.”

“Of course you have,” Christen insists, confused about the resistance Tobin shows her. She leans forward only slightly to press a soft kiss to Tobin’s cheek, still trying to convince her. When a lock of Tobin’s hair falls across her face, she lifts it away, tucking it behind Tobin’s ear. 

“I really felt lost before, Chris,” Tobin admits, suddenly so serious that Christen can’t take her eyes off her and can’t move an inch. “I was lost and then you came along, and I just, like… anchored myself to you. And you never tried to shake me off, you never backed away.”

It had never occurred to Christen that for all that she needed Tobin – and she did, she needed her like she needed oxygen to breathe – that maybe Tobin needed her right back. She needed someone she could call at the end of a long day of physical therapy, and someone who’d smile shyly in her photographs, and someone who could give her a sense of belonging outside of soccer. A lifelong nomad, Tobin’s only true and constant home had been the national team, and at a time when everything had been changing on the roster, Christen had stayed; she had always been there, hanging onto Tobin’s every word and savoring every laugh they shared.

The moments begin to run through Christen’s mind, a flickering montage – private laughs and practicing handshakes and late night phone calls and stealing each other’s clothes and bodies pressed flush together – to prove that it had never simply been about Tobin collecting up Christen’s broken pieces at all. 

They had just loved each other. That’s what that was.

And everything, looking back, feels different with that knowledge. All of the memories she had archived to use as evidence against herself transform into something else. Locked in the safety of her steel trap memory, there is a bank of Tobin – moments with her that are as different upon analysis as her many match highlights had been. They hold truth to her insecurities, illuminating months of uncertainty, because, yes, now that she’s looking in Tobin’s eyes and seeing that smile, she realizes that that same expression has been there all along. 

So, when Tobin says, “I don’t think you know what you’ve done for me, Chris,” Christen begins to realize that it might be true. And that the same might be true in return.

“Tobin, it’s like–” She considers how to say it for a moment, and Tobin allows her time to think; she’s patient and attentive, her eyes studying Christen’s expression up close the way that Christen sometimes had while Tobin dozed a little longer. The feeling of her gaze brushes over Christen’s skin, like a ghosting touch, and Christen can’t quite believe the dazed look in Tobin’s eye as she does it. Christen can’t help but let out a breath just then. A release. “It’s like you taught me how to breathe.”

Tobin smiles a fond, lopsided smile. 

“I just wanted you to be good, you know?” she replies, another little shrug. Like it’s nothing. Like it’s not made up of a thousand gestures and words of comfort scattered across months and years.

The thing is, Christen realizes, “Yeah, I do know.”

They lie together then, their heads resting against the same pillow, both lying on their sides on the same side of the bed. They don’t move but to tuck a hand beneath their cheeks, gazing in silence at one another, staring into this shared new beginning without anywhere else to be. 

Christen knows in this moment that she is loved in all the ways she once dreamed, that she loves deeply in return, that they will take care of each other. Meditate on these things, she reminds herself – and she does. For as long as she can, she does. 

And they have all the time in the world.