Actions

Work Header

Move Like Grey Skies (Move Like a Bird of Paradise)

Chapter Text

When Tobin’s alarm goes off right by her ear, her first thought is, it’s way too early.

Her bedroom is glowing silver-white through the turned-down blinds, so it must be just mid-morning. Didn’t I turn my alarm off last night? I could’ve sworn…

With a loud groan, Tobin kicks her tangled sheets off her legs and scrabbles her fingers on the bedside table for her phone. She doesn’t register, until she squints at the glaringly bright screen, that the sound she’s hearing is not her alarm. It’s her ringtone. It’s Moe. It’s Moe calling before nine in the morning. On a Saturday.

With another groan, Tobin puts the call on speaker and tosses the phone onto the other side of the empty bed. “Morgan Brian,” she mutters, burrowing herself back down into fetal position under the sheets. “What. The fuck. Is this.”

“Oh, sorry, didn’t wake you, did I?” Moe answers cheerfully.

“Mmmfph.” Tobin responds. Head half-under her pillow, she’s almost asleep again.

Tobin!

Oww, so loud.

“Moe.” Tobin rolls over onto her back, eyes still shut. Her throat aches. Her head is pounding. It’s like she can literally feel the blood pulsing through her temples. “What do you need. What is wrong with you.”

“What’s wrong with me?” It’s too early, Tobin thinks, for the level of exasperation in Moe’s voice. “What’s wrong with you!? Wait, are you actually still in bed?”

The gears in Tobin’s head are very, very slowly starting to turn. There’s a gnawing sense of dread. Why wouldn’t I still be in bed?

Moe continues, “Well, you’ve got fifteen minutes to get here, so, you better skedaddle. Don’t worry about groveling on the phone, you can kiss my feet when you get here. Bye!”

“Here”?

Wait…shit.

“SHIT!” Tobin shouts into the phone, but the line’s already dead.

Tobin’s definitely awake now. She flings herself out of bed, stumbles the few steps to her closet in nothing but her boxer shorts. She grabs the first shirt she sees, a black Nike t-shirt, and pulls it on while jamming her feet into a pair of slides. The clock on the dresser says it’s 8:45 AM. Shit, shit, shit.

Dropping to her knees, Tobin rummages in the red and blue duffle bag she’d dropped by the bedroom door yesterday afternoon. Stuffed in a side pocket, she finds it: a Nike logo-emblazoned folder that’s now bent in half and streaked with dried mud from a dirty shin guard. Oops. Inside the folder are several brochures and talking points, announcing Nike’s new collaboration with the city of Chicago: creating a fund for low-income Chicago students to attend sports camps and be mentored by Nike-sponsored athletes. The Chicago Red Stars had volunteered a few of their superstars to participate, and this morning, Tobin, Moe, and Alyssa are supposed to be at the kick-off event.

At the kick-off event that is starting in fifteen…Tobin glances up at the clock again. Shit, fourteen minutes!

Tobin flips frantically through the stack, scattering papers onto the piles of clothes and crap on the floor all around her, until she finds the address. She plugs it into Uber with one hand as she pulls on a pair of gray sweatpants with another. Am I forgetting anything? Got my keys…no time to brush my teeth…shit, I need to put on a bra. Where is my bra? It’s probably out in the…

Tobin flings the door open and walks smack-dab into a soft, warm body.

“Hey, Tobin.” The girl giggles. Her face looks only vaguely familiar to Tobin from last night. (In Tobin’s defense, it was dark in the club. And in the car home, and then in the apartment.) She’s short and curvy, and she’s got curly blonde hair and…no clothes on. “Sorry, I just went out to use the bathroom. Did I wake you?”

“Oh, uh…” Tobin scrambles for her name. Oh, forget it. No time for this. “No, my friend called. Had a great time last night, but sorry, I gotta go.”

The girl’s face wilts a little, but she maintains her little smirk. “Are you sure? So soon? I was really hoping for a repeat of…”

She’s talking at Tobin’s back already. Tobin’s racing down the hall towards the living room. Aha, bra. She picks up the gray cotton bra from the floor near the couch, where it’s lying near some other conspicuously scattered articles of clothing. She takes a glance around the living room—wow, what a mess. It looks way worse in daylight. Can’t believe I brought a girl home to this last night. “Nice meeting you!” She hollers over her shoulder as she maneuvers the bra on under her shirt. “Can you just lock the door behind you when you leave?”

There’s some disgruntled whining going on from the girl, but Tobin can’t quite make out the words as she rushes on. Whatever. The front door’s slamming behind her already.


Tobin’s late.

But just by an itty, bitty bit, she tells herself as she shouts a thank-you to her Uber driver and books it into Lincoln Park, looking for the event set-up.

As she jogs half-heartedly down the sidewalk, under a gloomy, overcast October sky, she curses herself for dropping the ball yet again. She wants to be annoyed at Moe’s nagging, but honestly, Moe has the right to be worried. They all do. Recently, Tobin’s been late for everything. She’s late for trainings, she’s late for press conferences, and last month, she fell asleep in her car after arriving at the stadium early and was almost late for a game. Rory very nearly murdered her.

She promised herself she wouldn’t be late for this event. Yet here she is, late.

She spies the balloons first, hundreds of colorful orbs tied to trees by the waterside. Then she sees an enormous cloth banner draped over the side of a building, featuring a 15-foot-wide Nike swoop. There’s a gathering crowd, with cameramen and curious onlookers. And finally, she sees Moe and Alyssa, standing on the edge of where the event’s being held. “I’m here!” she yells at them from fifty feet away, drawing curious glances from passers-by.

“I’m here,” she repeats, barreling up to join them, out of breath. “Only ten minutes late, see? Not too bad. Besides, it looks like nothing’s started yet.”

She expects them to look proud of her, or at least resigned, but instead, they both pull back from her in horror.

“What?!”

“Tobin.” Alyssa is already fumbling in her pockets for something. She pulls out a pack of gum and hisses under her breath, “This is an event for children. With children. You smell like booze from ten feet away.”

“And what is THIS?” Moe is staring a little frantically at Tobin’s neck. She reaches her finger out, and then cringes back. “Oh, my god, I’m not even going to touch it.”

“What?” Tobin protests groggily, swiping at her neck. Her palm comes back red with lipstick. Whoa. “Oh, uh, that’s…uh…”

“Stop, I don’t even want to hear.” Moe’s already got a hand on Tobin’s back, shoving her towards the front door of the nearby building. Moe and Alyssa basically drag Tobin into the women’s restroom.

For the first time that day, as Tobin chomps on a piece of spearmint gum from Alyssa and wets a paper towel in the sink, she gets a look at herself in the mirror. There’s no getting around it: she looks like shit. It’s not just her clothes—Moe and Alyssa are dressed in jeans and nice shirts, compared to Tobin’s wrinkled sweats—it’s that her hair is a bird’s nest and her eyes are bloodshot and she’s suddenly aware of the whiskey on her breath and her neck—

Well, it’s covered with glaring, unmistakable lipstick smears.  

Suddenly loathing herself, filled with red-hot shame, Tobin takes the paper towel and scrubs at her neck, hard, feeling the excess water drip down her clavicle and into the front of her shirt as she goes. Moe takes another damp paper towel and starts wiping Tobin’s baby hairs down, as if that could get the stink of stale alcohol out. Tobin goes at it with all her might until Alyssa mildly puts a hand over hers, draws it away from her neck. “No need to take your skin off too,” she says gently, but without making eye contact.

There’s a look in both their eyes that Tobin knows all too well. That she’s seen all too many times this year.

“I’m fine,” Tobin says, a little too loud, a little too harsh, even to her own ears. She just wants to say something, anything, to fill the silence. To get rid of that pitying, worried expression in her friends’ eyes. “I know, I said I wasn’t going to be late. I was just out a little too late last night and slept through my alarm.” (A lie: she had totally forgotten about the event. If Moe hadn’t called, she’d probably still be in bed with the blonde girl.) “You guys know I’m fine, right? It won’t happen again.”

“We believe you!” Moe chirps, just a little too chipper to be real.

Alyssa just leans back against the wall and shrugs, stone-faced.

Tobin isn’t sure which reaction is worse.

But she sucks in a deep breath and wipes her face down with one last paper towel. Her neck is now a little red from the scrubbing, but anything is better than that lipstick. (She wants to die a little, internally, imagining what the Uber driver must’ve thought of her. Or anyone she passed in the park on her way here.) She pulls her damp hair up into a messy bun. She surveys herself in the mirror. There we go. Passable, if still a little grungy.

Still in a bit of a hungover daze, she follows Moe and Alyssa back out of the bathroom and then the building. While they were inside, the crowd had swelled. “So I think there are going to be some speeches first,” Moe’s explaining to nobody in particular, “and then we’re playing some field day games with local kids? And then some interviews, I think?”

“Interviews?” Tobin gets a little panicky, her hand flying up to her still-red neck. “Interviews are the fucking worst. Do we really need to do them?”

“Relax, they came around earlier to ask who wanted to be interviewed, and we told them that we would do it, so you don’t have to,” Moe reassures Tobin, slinging a comfortable arm around her neck as they survey the packed park. Tobin relaxes into Moe’s touch, leaning her cheek on the other girl’s shoulder. Physical touch is definitely Tobin’s love language, and Moe’s little gesture seems like a bit of forgiveness. A little leniency, a little sign that the day is getting back to normal.

“Excuse me, are you all here with the Chicago Red Stars?” An official-looking woman with a clipboard, her mouth set in a stern, straight line, stops in front of them. She gives Tobin and her rumpled clothes a disapproving once-over.

“Uh…” Tobin can feel herself turning a little red, as Moe and Alyssa cluster protectively even closer to her. “Yeah, we are.”

“We need you to come register,” the woman says. “If you could step this way with me?”

Before the sentence is even out of her mouth, the lady is already steering Tobin by the shoulder. Clearly, there was only one right answer to her question. Tobin listlessly allows herself to be dragged, and exchanging raised eyebrows, Moe and Alyssa hurry after her.

They bustle through the set-up of tables and lawn chairs and speaker wires to a folding table, set up under a large tree, with Nike staff sitting behind it. “Last name Heath, Chicago Red Stars.” Tobin tells the woman behind the table. As the woman rummages for Tobin’s nametag and a bag of Nike giveaways, Tobin takes the chance to glance around the crowded park. There are tons of little kids there already, and she spies some familiar Chicago athletes milling around as well. The sun is just starting to peek out from behind the heavy cloud cover. Shake it off, she tells herself. It might not be a bad day after all.

“Morgan Brian, also Red Stars.” Moe pipes up after Tobin gets her stuff.

The woman starts bustling around looking for Moe’s nametag. “You need to put that on,” she snaps brusquely, gesturing at the nametag dangling limply from Tobin’s fingers. Tobin grimaces. She hates nametags. But reluctantly, under the woman’s death glare, she peels off the nametag’s backing and slaps it onto her t-shirt.

“This is actually pretty neat, that the kids will get their training paid for and get to interact with players from all these teams,” Moe says.  As Alyssa gives the woman her name and waits to collect her gear, Moe rifles through some of the promotional material and cards emblazoned with team names that are sitting on the table. “The Cubs, the Bulls, the White Sox…here’s the Red Stars! Cool, the Sky; I thought I saw some of the girls walking around earlier…”

“What’s this?” Tobin pulls a lone straggler of a card out from under a Nike water bottle. “Wait—no fucking way.” She bursts out laughing, and Alyssa and Moe crowd in around her.

“The Chicago Ballet Company?” Moe exclaims, snatching the card away to peer at it. “Get out. No way that’s real.”

“I didn’t realize Nike endorsed ballerinas.” Alyssa wonders, sounding almost impressed.  

“Yeah, that’s because you’d assume they only endorse athletes.” Tobin retorts. Moe cackles, and even Alyssa snickers a little. Tobin does feel a tiny bit bad, especially when she notices the woman working behind the table fix them with a disapproving stare, but when Moe stops laughing long enough to say, “Give us a twirl, Tobs!”, she can’t help the chance to make them laugh more. Better to keep them laughing at me. As long as they’re laughing at me, they’re not worrying about me, right? Raising her arms in a sloppy circle over her head, she adopts a hoity-toity expression and spins out crazily, away from the table, and—

Oof.

She slams shoulder-first into a girl standing in line behind them.

“Shit!” She exclaims, stumbling backwards, a little dizzy. She feels Moe’s hand on her back, supporting her, and hears Alyssa’s voice chiming in with apologies. “Whoa, my bad,” Tobin says. She looks up at the poor victim of her awful dancing—

and immediately loses her ability to speak.

It isn’t just that the girl is beautiful, and oh boy, is she beautiful. She has dark skin, black hair arranged in perfect, gleaming waves over her shoulder, and the greenest eyes Tobin has ever seen. It isn’t just that she’s poised and polished, standing straight and calm even after the collision that had sent Tobin reeling back.

No, it’s the expression on her face that catches Tobin off guard. She doesn’t just look pained or surprised—she looks furious.

Immediately, guilt washes over Tobin. She hates when people are upset with her. “I really…I really didn’t mean—I mean, I didn’t see you there, I’m sorry for hitting you,” she scrambles, cursing herself for being so bad with words, such a bad talker, such a bad apologizer. “Are you hurt?”

Without a word, the girl lifts her chin, side-steps Tobin, and waves Moe out of her way with a dismissive flick of her wrist. Behind her back, Alyssa raises her eyebrows, and Moe gives Tobin a sympathetic, worried shrug. “Rude,” Tobin mouths silently to her friends. I said I was sorry!

“Name and organization?” The woman manning the table asks.

“Christen Press,” the girl says. She doesn’t turn back to look at the soccer players, but her spine straightens higher, if that’s even possible. “I’m with the Chicago Ballet Company.”


“She looks sort of familiar,” Tobin whispers, “doesn’t she?”

After this total disaster of a morning, Tobin isn’t entirely sure how she’s still standing. After the incident by the sign-in table, where Tobin had fervently wished for the ground to just open up and swallow her whole, Alyssa and Moe somehow steered Tobin away into a far corner of the crowd, where they are now. The speeches by Chicago politicians and Nike executives have been going for a while, but Tobin hasn’t been paying any attention. Instead, she’s been staring at the at the beautiful, mean ballet girl.

Standing about forty feet away from the Red Stars players, the girl looks exactly like how Tobin would picture a ballerina in her mind: gorgeous, girly, skinny, fashionable. She’s wearing a floaty black floral dress and wedge heels, a stark contrast to the crowds around her in jeans and sneakers. And she’s standing ramrod-straight, nodding and smiling primly along to the speeches.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Tobin repeats in a whisper, looking at Alyssa and Moe for confirmation. “What did she say her name was? Christen?”

“Just because a girl is hot doesn’t mean she looks familiar,” Moe teases, already dancing out of the way in case Tobin tries to punch her in the arm.

“No, I think she does too,” Alyssa says, “and I think I know from where. Her face was all over the subway this summer when the city was promoting the Chicago Ballet Company. I forget which show it was. Anyway, I’m pretty sure everyone in the city knows her face.”

“Oh yeah, wasn’t it Sleeping Beauty or something?” Moe recalls. Tobin remembers now, too: those enormous, elaborate ads with that girl on them, wearing a white dress and crown of wildflowers and smiling insipidly.

“Yeah, Chicago must’ve spent a fortune on that ad campaign,” Alyssa continues, shaking her head. “I remember seeing the city logo in the corner. Can you imagine if they put half that funding into trying to get more publicity for our NWSL season?”

“We’ll get to the championship this year without their help,” Tobin mutters. And it’s probably true – with the playoffs approaching, the Red Stars are sitting near the top of the rankings. But still, like Moe, she chafes against the idea that the city was choosing to invest their funding in publicity for the fucking ballet instead of soccer. “Seriously, do little girls really need more of that idea in their heads? That they have to be perfect and skinny and wear dresses and literal fucking flower crowns all the time?”

In front of them, an older couple turns and frowns at Tobin.

“Sorry!” Tobin mutters, dropping her voice low again. The three girls back up even further from the nearest bystanders. “Okay, but seriously, come on. If Chicago really wanted to invest in culture they should invest in the NWSL and WNBA.”

“Hear, hear,” Alyssa mutters. “Okay, but on a different topic, we should probably apologize to her.”

“Apologize?!”

“Well, she did literally catch us in the act of mocking her,” Moe agrees, a little shamefaced.

“Okay, first, I wasn’t mocking her, I was mocking her activity.” Tobin makes a point of not calling it a sport. “And let’s be real. Prancing around in a tutu on a stage does not make someone an athlete. I still don’t get why she’s even here. And plus, earlier, when I bumped into her, I said I was sorry.”

The stern look on Alyssa’s face tells her she’s not getting out of this one.

“Okay, fine, I’ll apologize again,” Tobin mutters.

And she does try. Well, sort of.

After the speeches, Tobin halfheartedly edges through the crowd to stand near Christen Press. She’s still self-conscious about whether she smells like whiskey, but at least nobody’s turning around to stare at her in disgust, so she takes that as a win. When she turns and makes eye contact with me, Tobin tells herself, I’ll say sorry.

But Christen is swarmed by adoring fans, and though she passes within a couple feet of Tobin several times, she never once turns her head to look Tobin in the eye. It throws Tobin off, a bit. Why isn’t she looking at me?

Tobin slumps back to Alyssa and Moe. “I tried!”

“You did not try,” Moe snickers. “Standing within five feet of her, staring off into the distance, does not count as trying. You have to say something.”

Take two. After the games with the kids start, Tobin finds herself near Christen again. After the three-legged race, but before the hula-hooping, the ballet dancer is standing near a couple pre-teen girls, laughing at something they’re saying. Tobin reluctantly approaches her. “Hi,” she says.

Christen turns to face Tobin, seemingly surprised. The laugh dies from her face, and is replaced with a cool politeness.

“Hi,” she replies.

Christen’s bright green eyes catch Tobin off guard again, and she falters, unsure of her next move. But she waits a beat too long. One of the little girls says something, and Christen walks away to answer her, and just like that, Tobin finds herself standing alone again.

What the fuck is happening?

She stalks back towards her friends again, a little angrier this time. “Okay, I actually tried this time,” she whines. “I tried to start a conversation and she just walked off.”

“Tobin, you’re hopeless.” Alyssa rolls her eyes, and forges into the crowd herself. Defeated, Tobin watches as Alyssa authoritatively approaches Christen. It’s too far for her to hear what they’re saying, but they talk for a while. Even from a distance, Tobin can tell that Christen’s being all sweet and friendly, and even Alyssa’s smiling a bit.

So it’s just me, Tobin grouses internally. She just hates me, she’s nice to everyone else.

“I really tried,” Tobin sighs plaintively, resting her head against Moe’s shoulder again. Being around her friends always made her want to act like a little kid. “I wanted to say something, but I got all tongue-tied because she looked so mean, and then she left.”

Moe pats Tobin comfortingly on the top of her head. “It’s okay, Tobin. I know you tried. You can’t make someone like you if they’ve decided they’re not going to.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Alyssa returns to them, with the comforting affirmation that Christen was not mad at all about the encounter at the sign-in table. Tobin squirms, not quite believing that Christen wasn’t just a tad bit mad at her—but she lets it slide. She’s never going to see the ballet dancer again. And anyway, this day is about the kids, after all. They spend the rest of the morning playing some beach volleyball with some of the Chicago Sky players and a group of elementary school kids, as Nike videographers and photographers capture the event. Tobin loves kids, and she has them laughing and shouting the whole time. Even the judgmental sign-up lady from earlier seems pleased when she comes by to scope out the scene.

Towards the tail end, as people are already starting to trickle out, Alyssa and Moe finally get the heads-up that the crew is ready for their interviews. Tobin slouches along behind her friends as they head over to the building, where the interviewers are using the fancy stone siding as a backdrop. A bunch of athletes are lined up, answering a few questions on camera.

And there—just my luck, Tobin whines internally—is Christen Press, getting interviewed. As the girls approach, she smiles a little and waves at Alyssa.

She does not make eye contact with Tobin.

It’s fine, Tobin tells herself, though in actuality it’s really starting to grate on her. Why is she being so rude? I really did try to apologize. At least I said hi.  

Alyssa and Moe go off for their interviews, just a few paces away. Tobin drops down onto a nearby bench and tunes out a little, wishing she had a soccer ball to juggle right now. But then she starts to notice: Christen’s interview has been going on way longer than the others. Whereas the other celebrity athletes are coming and going pretty rapidly, it seems like Christen’s dozens of questions deep, and the guy moderating her interview is standing super close to her, adoringly. More often than not, when he says something, Christen giggles, and Tobin barely manages to not roll her eyes. Considering how unfriendly the girl was earlier, the giggle is probably fake. Also, the moderator’s eyes seem to constantly drift suspiciously low – definitely not on Christen’s face. For some reason, this irritates Tobin to no end, especially when Tobin thinks about what Moe had mentioned about the city’s funding disparities that morning. Seriously, she’s getting more speaking time to represent her organization because the moderator thinks she’s hot, and she’s flirting with him?

“Okay, last question here before I let you go, Christen,” the dude says, sounding breathless. “Can you talk to us a little bit about the beauty of sport?”

Jesus, keep it in your pants, dude.

“Yes, of course,” Christen responds sweetly, pivoting expertly from the guy to face the camera. “That’s one of the things I love most about dancing. I get to be not just an athlete—” Tobin swears she isn’t imaging that Christen pauses and glances slightly in Tobin’s direction “—but also, an artist. It’s been shown time and again that the discipline and creativity of dance has really positive benefits for young children. And so one of the things I’m most excited about, with the Chicago Ballet Company’s participation in Nike and the city’s efforts, is to introduce some of that beauty and creativity into a program where it otherwise might not be present.”

At this, Tobin raises her head, indignant. Alyssa and Moe glance over from their interviews just in time to realize that something’s about to go down.

But it’s too late.

“Where it might not otherwise be present?!” Tobin exclaims loudly. Heads turn. “What, like, basketball and soccer don’t have any beauty? Or creativity? Seriously?”

The nerve of this girl. Saying she’s the only one bringing “beauty” into the program? As if there’s no beauty in other sports? How dare she.  

Christen has the decency to at least look a little flustered. Her perfect, smooth skin creases a little between the eyebrows. But her interviewer is already defensively rolling his eyes at Tobin. “Excuse me, ma’am, we’re trying to film here,” he snaps. “Christen—sorry about the interruption!”

“Oh, don’t worry about it at all! Thanks for having me!” Christen chirps, with a sweet smile.

As soon as the guy gathers his stuff and turns away (looking a little disappointed to be parting from Christen), the cute expression drops off of Christen’s face. Without the sweet mask, Tobin doesn’t think she’s ever seen someone look so haughty and frigid. With her nose in the air, Christen’s about to sweep off down the path when Tobin jumps to her feet.

She hadn’t been planning on saying anything. She was going to let this all go. But maybe it’s the indignance Tobin still feels from Christen’s dumb “beauty of sport” comment. Maybe it’s the last remnants of her splitting hangover headache, or annoyance at the panicky babysitter stares Alyssa and Moe are shooting her way. But as Christen starts to head by her, she snaps, “You know, I said I was sorry, so what’s your problem?”

Christen turns on her heel to face her. “Excuse me? Come again?”

Just like it did earlier, Christen’s poise and dignity and sheer condescension are starting to get Tobin a little rattled. But she pushes on.

“I already said I was sorry, for earlier. Just feels like you’re still holding it against me, that’s all.”

Christen raises her eyebrows. “Let’s see. Earlier, you said, and I quote, ‘I’m sorry for hitting you.’ You and I both know that’s not the apology I’m looking for. And then you sent your friend over to apologize for you. Smooth.”

Tobin can’t think of a good response, so she plows on with her original point. “You’re being rude.”

“I’m not being rude at all,” Christen says defensively, though her frosty demeanor is betraying her very words. “Every time you’ve greeted me, I’ve greeted you back. I haven’t said anything insulting or impolite. Where have I been rude? Or is it…” a smirk is growing on Christen’s face. “Is it that I’m not falling all over myself trying to impress you?”

“What?” Tobin is flushed. She can feel her heartbeat pounding, indignant and frenzied, below the surface of her skin. She was not expecting the conversation to turn in this direction. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think you do know what I’m talking about,” Christen says, in a silky-smooth way that indicates that she knows she has the upper hand here. “I know your type. You literally can’t handle one person—one single person—not drooling all over you, trying to get in your pants. That’s why you’re interpreting my basic manners as rudeness. You don’t want people to be polite to you. You want people to worship you. Which I am not doing.”

“That is…so…fucking inaccurate.” Tobin is mad now. She may have flaws. She may have a lot of flaws. But she knows her flaws, and arrogance is not one of them.

She hates this girl. She hates the snooty tip of her chin, and her girly designer clothing, and the way she’s clever enough to run conversational circles around Tobin, making Tobin feel so fumbling and stupid.

Most of all, she hates the smirk that’s currently resting on Christen’s face. Christen knows she’s won. “Well, goodbye,” she says, light and breezy, her gaze already lifted over Tobin’s shoulder towards the road. “I wish I could say it was nice meeting you, Tobin Heath.”

Still desperate to end on a high note, Tobin leans back on her heels with a smirk to rival Christen’s own. “So, you say you don’t worship me, but somehow you knew my name?”

Christen’s smile is condescending and slick. “No, honey.” She reaches out, taps Tobin’s shoulder twice with a perfectly manicured finger. “It’s on your name tag.”

Before Tobin’s utter mortification can fully set in, Christen is already sauntering off down the sidewalk. Tobin can do nothing but stare, jaw hanging slightly open, at Christen’s retreating figure, her gauzy black dress blowing in the wind like she’s in a perfume ad.

“Wow, Tobes, that was…really something.” Moe pops up at Tobin’s shoulder. Alyssa’s only a couple steps behind.  

Tobin groans out loud. “Please tell me you guys didn’t just see that whole thing.”

Moe only grimaces, but puts her arms around Tobin’s shoulders comfortingly. “Tobito, you know we love you, but…I can’t say you didn’t have that coming.”

“Tobin Heath 0, Christen Press 1,” Alyssa mutters under her breath. And the three girls stand together and watch as Christen gracefully tucks herself into a gleaming chauffeured car, which slides silently away from the curb and out of sight.

Chapter Text

Tobin loves her morning runs along the lakefront – in fact, it was one of the reasons that she had paid such a premium to live closer to the lake. This October morning is balmier than Tobin had expected it to be, and fifteen minutes into the run, she’s already sweating through her lightweight Nike jacket.

She had tried to convince Moe to come with her this morning, but Moe had begged out, noting that Fabrice would be over early to make brunch for her before practice. Tobin tries not to think too hard about the sensation of wanting someone running in companionable silence next to her. I don’t get lonely, Tobin reminds herself, picking up her pace a little as she follows the curve of the wide lakeside sidewalk. I love my alone time. The independence, the flexibility. I don’t need someone to run next to me. Or to come over in the morning and make brunch for me.

Half an hour later, the sidewalk is finally starting to fill with other runners and bikers and dog-walkers, and Tobin has to turn her music down and start paying attention to her surroundings.  A couple on a tandem bike whizzes by to her left, followed by an older man chugging slowly along, and to her right, a girl with a small brown dog on a leash overtakes her and leaves her in the dust. Tobin chuckles to herself at the dog’s enthusiasm, at the way its ears and tongue flop in sync as it keeps up with its owner.

Maybe that’s what I need, she thinks, a dog to keep me company. Definitely not a human.

Ahead, the running trail takes a sharp ninety-degree turn around the water. Tobin’s still squinting at the cute dog when the dog and its owner take the turn and Tobin gets a good look at the owner’s face.

It’s Christen Press.

Tobin almost stumbles on the sidewalk, but manages to catch herself just in time. (Although she does earn herself a disgruntled, passive-aggressive sigh from the guy running behind her, who pulls up short and swerves around her just in time to avoid a collision.) Tobin waves a distracted apology at him, staring at Christen as the other girl flies down the sidewalk in matching forest green leggings and a sports bra, sleek black ponytail waving jauntily in the wind, with her dog by her side.

Of course she’s here, Tobin thinks grumpily as she gets back in her running rhythm. She hasn’t seen the other girl since the Nike kick-off event, which had been two weeks ago. She knew that there’d be follow-up events, that she’d probably have to see her around here and there, but on her normal running route, too? Insufferable. I’m running through Gold Coast right now; I bet she lives in one of these super bougie apartments. Of course she’s one of those girls who works out in perfect, pretty, matching exercise clothes. And now I’ll have to run behind her for the rest of this stretch. Tobin stares sullenly at Christen’s running figure. Although I gotta say, she looks great in those leggings—I mean, WHAT?

“Stop it!” Tobin accidentally snaps out loud to herself, clearly startling a nearby woman on a bike. She tries to look anywhere but at Christen, but weirdly, keeps failing. Do not look at her butt. Do NOT look at her butt, she instructs herself. DO NOT look at her – the biking woman turns and gives Tobin a scandalized, angry stare, then speeds up and shoots away from her down the sidewalk. Shit, was I saying that out loud!? “Sorry! I wasn’t talking…about you…” she calls weakly, even though the biker is now too far to hear.

Christen’s not even a real athlete, Tobin tells herself, firmly, this time making SURE she isn’t talking out loud. Just speed up; you could pass her if you wanted to, so you won’t have to have her in your line of vision. There’s no way she can last for long.

Except—

Except that the plan does not quite go according to plan.

Except that even as Tobin reaches the end of her usual route, the spot where she’d normally turn around and head home, Christen still remains frustratingly far away, and in fact, actually seems to be inching further and further from Tobin.

With Christen still ahead, turning around would feel strangely like admitting defeat. I’ll keep going until I catch her, Tobin decides, picking up her pace to what feels like a near-sprint.

At her new blistering pace, Tobin feels like she might actually pass out and die. But she doesn’t gain ground on Christen.

Fifteen minutes later, Tobin finally concedes defeat. She pulls up under a tree, soaked in sweat and panting for air. Christen runs on out of sight, her waving ponytail seemingly to sway mockingly at Tobin as she goes.

Shit, what is the matter with me this morning? I must be slower than usual, Tobin decides. She finally drags her body upright after a long breather. She turns and starts running back towards her apartment. I can never tell Moe and the others about this, she thinks, as she lopes along, already feeling the ache in her quads. I’ll just pretend it never happened when I see them at practice.

Tobin freezes.

…shit! Practice!

She has practice today; she’d timed her day so that she’d head there right after her run. Except—she didn’t mean to go over a mile past her usual stopping point. She checks her watch. Shit, shit, shit. Even if she Ubers back to her apartment, she’s barely going to make it on time. I’m such an idiot, she thinks, and then to make herself feel a little better, she also thinks, but this time, it’s also Christen fucking Press’s fault.

Her day just keeps getting better and better when she shows up to practice late and Rory assigns her an extra five laps around the pitch as punishment.

“Rory—listen—” Tobin attempts to protest. Her legs are still screaming at her from that morning’s futile, one-sided race against Christen Press. “I already said sorry that I was late—I already ran this morning, so much, you don’t even understand—”

“What you do on your own time has nothing to do with this team,” Rory growls. “You’re late to MY practices, you run for ME. Get going before I change my mind and make it ten.”

It’s not Rory’s anger that Tobin minds, really. The worst thing is the way her teammates scuff their cleats awkwardly into the grass, and clasp their hands behind their backs, and refuse to make eye contact with her. They’re all used to the routine now: Tobin screws up, Tobin gets yelled at, Tobin pathetically attempts to fight back. Only a few of the girls—Alyssa, Moe, Casey—dare to look her in the face. And even their glances are weighted down with pity. Unable to stand the shame for another moment, Tobin sprints off on her laps without another word.

She’s quiet all through practice, and when the other girls finally filter off the pitch in little groups of twos and threes, still avoiding eye contact, she stays. Alyssa comes up to her in her comforting, silent way, but Tobin waves her off, muttering that she’s just going to practice a little longer.

Under a blanket of gray clouds getting darker by the second, Tobin weaves and spins her way across the pitch, ball at her feet, for another hour. Alone on the pitch, just herself and the ball—it’s therapeutic. It’s calming. She dances up into the box and fires a shot into the upper third. The familiar way the ball whooshes against the back of the net is satisfying.

Something’s missing, though, something the game used to bring her, something stronger than just calm or satisfaction: joy. Tobin hasn’t felt joy on the soccer field in months. She picks up the ball, grasps it in her palms, squeezes her eyes shut, and tries to will herself towards happiness.

It doesn’t work. She knew it wouldn’t. She still feels heavy, as heavy as the looming gray thunderclouds overhead. As the first droplets start to dot against the crown of her head, she gives up and heads back inside.

Bursting into the locker room, she’s surprised to see that there are a few people still there. It’s her friends, clustered around one of the benches. They jump when the door slams behind Tobin. Something’s off.

“What’s up?” Tobin asks, but even as the words are coming out of her mouth, she sees what they’re looking at.

Julie’s sitting on the bench, in the middle of the circle. She’s grinning. She’s holding the captain’s armband in her hands.

Tobin’s captain’s armband.

Not mine anymore, I guess.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh. Well, congrats, Julie.” Her voice is leaden, robotic. She doesn’t even recognize it as her own.

Julie has the tact to look remorseful. “Listen, Tobin, I’m sorry. I swear, I didn’t ask for it or anything.”

“No, don’t apologize. You deserve it.” Tobin swings her locker open—does the metal door clang more loudly than usual in the silent locker room, or is it just her? She stares, unseeingly, into the crumpled, crowded mess of belongings inside. “Congrats. Seriously.”

“Rory told us to tell you he wants to see you in his office,” Casey says hesitantly. Her eyes are sad and uncertain. So are Alyssa’s and Moe’s. Not for the first time, Tobin hates herself even more for putting her friends in situations where they have to feel so awkward, have to do damage control for Tobin. “Do you want us to wait for you?”

“No, don’t wait.”

“Do you want one of us to go with you?” Moe offers cautiously.

Tobin slams her locker door shut. This time it’s definitely too loud—all the girls flinch. “So you can sit there and listen while he demotes me? Nah, man, I’m good.”

Moe opens her mouth to respond, but a warning hand on her shoulder from Alyssa holds her back. Tobin turns on her heel and leaves the locker room.

In a numb haze, she winds her way through the back hallways of the complex until she reaches Rory’s office. The door’s standing open, and she lets herself in without knocking. She slumps down into the familiar chair in front of Rory’s desk, back slouched and legs splayed wide.

Over a year ago, she perched on the edge of this very chair, grinning until her cheeks hurt, as Rory named her captain of the Red Stars. That felt like a lifetime ago. Like a different person entirely. More recently, she’d found herself in this chair over and over for disciplinary reasons. Tardiness to practice. Lack of leadership. Bad attitude toward the rookies. Unnecessary fouls. She’d known that it was only a matter of time until she was called in for this very reason.

“Tobin, thanks for coming. Listen—”

“I saw Julie already,” Tobin interrupted. She kept her eyes trained underneath the table, on her boot laces. “I know you’re making her captain.”

“Well, okay,” Rory said. It looked like neither of them was going to beat around the bush. “Tobin, I’m sure you understand why. This pattern of negligence—it can’t go on. If you weren’t Tobin Heath, I’d be trying to trade you. As it is, it doesn’t make any sense to keep you on as captain. What kind of example are you setting for the rookies? Where’s your sense of personal responsibility?”

There was that phrase, personal responsibility. Tobin had heard Rory use it before, though he didn’t know it. On a flight to an away game over the summer, Tobin had been sitting with her eyes closed, one aisle ahead of Moe and Rory.

“I know she’s not at her best right now, but I think she’s going through something. She won’t tell us any details, but I think something happened around her birthday in May.” That was Moe’s voice. Tobin kept her head leaned against the window, pretending to be asleep. “I know you’ve been upset with her, but I think if you offered to talk to her—if you just gave her a chance to explain what she’s dealing with right now, it would mean a lot to her.”

“Morgan, Tobin is a fully grown adult,” Rory had responded. Tobin’s stomach sunk as she listened to his callous answer. “Her behavior recently has been unacceptable. If she’s dealing with personal issues, she needs to come to me directly to talk about them. That’s part of being an adult. It’s part of taking personal responsibility.”

“I’m just saying, I think she’d appreciate if you let her know you’re here for her—I mean, you’re her coach—” Moe had tried again.

The tone in Rory’s voice was final. “She can come see me if she needs me.”

He had never reached out to Tobin, other than to yell at her. She had never brought any problems to him—after all, to do so would be to admit that any problem existed. And she refused to do that. And so they had continued in a downwards spiral, leading to this very moment.

“Okay, well,” Tobin rises to her feet. “If that’s all…”

Rory raises an eyebrow. “I’ll be honest, Tobin. I thought you’d want to fight for this at least a little. Isn’t this a wakeup call for you?”

“Whatever. I agree with you. I don’t care. I don’t deserve captain,” Tobin snaps. She’s just exhausted, suddenly. A tight-gripping, headache-inducing, bone-deep exhaustion. She just wants to curl up on her couch and nap, or maybe drink an entire handle of vodka by herself. The fluorescent lights and weird plasticky smell of Rory’s office suddenly seem intolerable. She just wants to get out.

The look on Rory’s face is exasperated and condescending. He’s not concerned about Tobin, he’s just angry. “All right then, if it’s fine with you, it’s fine with me. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, Tobin. Don’t say I didn’t give you any chances.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Tobin mutters sarcastically. As she leaves, she slams this door, too.

The locker room is empty when she gets back. She doesn’t know whether she’s disappointed or not that her friends didn’t wait around. After snapping at Moe like that, though, she knows she deserves it.

In the shower, she carelessly turns the knobs all the way over, the water growing hotter and hotter until it’s almost painful against her skin, until she has to gasp through the steam to draw breath. This way, when she feels a pounding in her head, and a few stray tears leak of her eyes, she can blame it on the physical pain. She’s good at this, this deflecting. She always had been, and she’s gotten much better at it in the last few months. But when she feels deeper sobs, the heaving, uncontrollable kind, building low in her chest like a hurricane, she doesn’t let them out. She grits her teeth and swallows deep into an empty recess of her body, to deal with later. She refuses to cry in the locker room shower. That’s some stereotypical baby shit. When she finally turns the water off, her skin is red and raw. She stands silent in the little stainless steel shower, listening to the sound of water drops falling off the ends of her hair, with hollow plunks that echo through the empty locker room.

That handle of vodka is sounding pretty good right now.

But when she gets to the parking lot, to where she’d left her car double-parked across two spots in her haste to get into the stadium (wasted haste, since she was late anyway), she’s surprised: Alyssa’s car is parked next to hers. She can see Alyssa and Casey sitting in front, and when she draws closer, she can’t help but crack a tiny smile to see Moe sprawled across the backseat, fast asleep.

Casey rolls down the window as Tobin approaches. “Hey girl. What were you planning on doing tonight?”

Tobin shrugs. “Probably just sleep. Hard chill a little. You know.”

Alyssa raises her eyebrow.

“I know, I know, last time I said that I…” She doesn’t have to finish the sentence, and she knows that her friends won’t let her spend the night on her own again.

Last time she’d been in a foul mood and promised them she’d go home and sleep, she’d meant it. She really had. But then halfway home she decided to take a detour, and then she’d gotten wasted at a bar by herself. A blurry picture of her had ended up on Page Six. Granted, it was a tiny picture, since most people didn’t exactly care about women’s soccer stars. Plus, to add insult to injury, they’d spelled her name wrong: Toni Heath. Nevertheless, Rory had been livid. That had been one of the worse fights. Honestly, she’s surprised he’d even kept her on as captain after that.

It was probably because Moe or Alyssa had worked on her behalf behind the scenes, pleading for Rory to give her a second chance. As Tobin opens the back door and slides in beside Moe, she gives the other girl’s hand a little squeeze, wordlessly apologizing for earlier. Moe squeezes back. Always nicer than I deserve.

They end up at a little dive bar they love. It’s nestled in an area of town that’s gotten swankier and glitterier over the past ten years, but the bar has stuck to its guns, refused to sell, stayed the course. Contrasting with the five-star restaurants with valet parking surrounding it, it’s just the homey, comforting environment Tobin needs. She drinks several IPAs and cuddles into Casey’s side and listens to her friends talk about anything but soccer, to her great relief.

As her mind starts to fuzz around the edge, she thinks, I don’t deserve these friends. She thinks, I need to treat them better; do better by them. She always thinks like this when she’s drunk, or when she wakes up in the dead of night and can’t get back to sleep.

It’s funny, she thinks, that most people get less rational when they drink. But I get more rational. I think all the thoughts I’m too cowardly to think by the light of day. But before I can act on anything, I’m sober again, and the cowardice hits. One day. One day I’ll be brave enough…

Perhaps noticing that Tobin’s eyes are getting a little misty, Casey proposes walking back to her apartment nearby to eat ramen on the couch. Which is obviously the ideal way to spend any night. Tobin’s grateful for the out, and the girls tumble out of the booth. As Moe and Casey settle up at the bar, Alyssa and Tobin stand out in the chilly night air. October nights in Chicago are pretty frigid, and Tobin’s regretting the fact that she left practice in only a t-shirt and shorts.

“You don’t like bars, do you, Alyssa.” It’s not really a question, just a statement of fact.

Alyssa shrugs in acknowledgement.

“Well, thanks for coming. Just for me. Sorry you always have to take care of me.” Tobin is grateful that Alyssa is so much taller than she is. It makes it easier to lean her forehead against Alyssa’s shoulder.

Alyssa relaxes a little. Under it all, she’s a big softie, and Tobin brings it out in her more than anyone else. “We knew it wasn’t a good idea for you to be alone tonight,” she says simply. There’s a pause. “You know we’re here for you, Tobes.”

Alyssa’s words open little floodgates inside Tobin, reminding her of the events of the day. The pain starts trickling in: You’re no longer the captain of the Chicago Red Stars. You’ve lost it. You’ve lost yourself. She grits her teeth, leans harder into Alyssa, trying to shove it back, block it back out.

“I wish you’d talk to us.” Alyssa’s voice is little more than a whisper.

Tobin sniffles. “I know. I…”

Suddenly, Alyssa stiffens, and her posture change jolts Tobin back a little. Before Tobin can react, Alyssa’s looking over her shoulder, eyes wide.

And there’s a surprised, polite voice saying, “Alyssa, hi!”

Tobin turns, and—

It’s Christen Press. Of course.

Two chance encounters in one day? How small is this fucking city?

She’s coming out of a nearby restaurant with a crowd of other people, all dressed to the nines in luxurious peacoats and suits and formal dresses. Just like Tobin remembers, Christen looks formal and stunning and ice cold. Sparkling diamonds hang from her earlobes, and she’s wearing a long coat with a silky fur collar around her neck, a maroon dress, black stilettos—a far cry from Tobin’s messy appearance. Christen must not have registered that Tobin was the person standing with Alyssa, facing away from her, because at the sight of Tobin, her eyes go round, her mouth tightens in displeasure.

Tobin doesn’t react much better. Startled out of a rare moment of real sentiment only to see Christen standing there, she feels her emotions—almost without her, out of her control, as they so often are recently—swinging hard the other direction, overcompensating for being caught vulnerable. She snaps roughly, “What are you doing here?” For a moment, panicky, she thinks there might still be tears standing in her eyes.

But it’s dark on the sidewalk, and the cold Chicago wind is blowing, and Christen doesn’t notice Tobin’s tears. Christen just lets her eyes drift slowly upwards to the sign of the five-star restaurant she’d just exited, then back down to Tobin with a raised eyebrow. “I’ll give you one guess,” she replies sarcastically.

Alyssa clears her throat. Clearly, being stuck in the peacekeeper role without Moe and Casey as backup is her worst nightmare. “Uh, how was dinner? Work event?”

Christen accepts the olive branch from Alyssa graciously, but she doesn’t look in Tobin’s direction when she responds. “Yes, actually. Well, sort of. They announced the cast of the Nutcracker for this winter season today, so the cast is here with the directing team. Sort of a celebratory dinner.”

Tobin knows—of course, she knows, logically—that Christen isn’t meaning to rub in that she’s here for a work victory when Tobin’s here for a work defeat. But it still stings. The cynical jab comes out of her mouth before she can help it. “And let me guess, you’re the lead. Is your face going to be plastered all over the subway again? Who are you playing, the Nutcracker?”

She can feel Alyssa radiating disapproval next to her, and for a second, she almost considers walking it back.

“The Nutcracker’s not even a female role. Christen’s the Sugar Plum Fairy, of course.”

The answer, exasperated and condescending, comes from a girl who steps up next to Christen. Like Christen, she’s dressed up, with glittering earrings and a face full of makeup. And like Christen, she looks down her nose at Tobin disdainfully. But she’s just a kid. Her face is round, and she looks like she can’t be more than fifteen. So—although Tobin wants to snort out loud at the name of the role (the Sugar Plum Fairy, really?)—even Tobin, at her worst, can’t quite bring herself to be mean to a kid.

“This is Mallory Pugh. Mal.” Christen puts an arm around the shorter girl protectively. “She’s our Clara this year. It’s a huge honor. We choose one student from the ballet academy every year to play Clara, and she’s the youngest ever. It’s really her we’re celebrating tonight.”

Okay, well, now Tobin feels a little guilty for her outburst.

“Mal, this is Alyssa and Tobin. They play on the Red Stars. Remember I told you about meeting them a couple weeks ago?”

“Oh, of course I remember.” Mal’s scornful expression towards Tobin conveys, in no uncertain terms, the substance of what Christen must have told her about that meeting.

Suddenly, Tobin feels an overwhelming urge to turn tail and run, to be at home, alone. In the face of such judgment from this kid—judgment she’s too stubborn to acknowledge she probably deserves—the bone-tiredness from earlier comes crashing back over her, rolling her under like an ocean wave. Suddenly, she barely has the energy to stay standing.

“Lyss, I’m going to go,” she mutters, right as Moe and Casey are walking up behind them. “Mal, nice meeting you. Christen.”

“Tobes, are you sure?” Moe asks, and Casey simultaneously protests, “Hey, wait, you didn’t drive here.”

“I’m sure. I’ll take an Uber back to the stadium; I’ll be fine.” Tobin brushes off their concern and jogs off into the night. She doesn’t look back in Christen’s direction—she’s sure the other girl’s face will be filled with nothing but contempt. But she hears Mal’s little voice fading in the distance: “Was it something I said?”

The Tobin of a year ago—a better, kinder Tobin—would’ve rushed back to reassure her, no, it’s not your fault at all. To be real, the Tobin of a year ago wouldn’t even have been in this position to begin with. Wouldn’t have been nasty to near-strangers on a random city sidewalk. Wouldn’t have been on a random city sidewalk because she wouldn't need to be babysat by her friends. Wouldn’t have needed babysitting because she wouldn't have lost the captainship.

The Tobin of today is clear-eyed enough to know she’s done wrong, to feel wretched and miserable—but not strong enough to go back and fix things. So instead, she walks an hour in the freezing wind back to her car: a penance only she knows about, that only she can inflict on herself.

Chapter Text

“So…I have news you might not like.”

Tobin groans and slams her forehead, just a tiny bit too hard, into the front of her locker. The impact shivers, metallic and achy, through her jaw and down the sides of her neck. “My god, what is it now.”

“Well, which do you want first?” Moe continues. “The bad news? Or the…even worse news?”

“Moe, just tell me.” Tobin keeps her eyes closed and her head resting against the locker. Pre-game music is blasting through the locker room. It’s already an awful day: it’s a game day, the first one since Julie took over as captain. The spot where the captain’s armband used to rest on Tobin’s arm feels raw and naked, like an uncovered wound, and the sight of the armband on Julie’s arm sends twists through her stomach. Though she knows it’s not Julie’s fault, she can barely make eye contact with her.

“Remember that night we ran into Christen Press and her ballet friend outside of the bar?”

“Yeah, what about it?” The day had officially just gone from bad to worse—after all, every day Tobin went without hearing the name Christen Press was a win in her book. Had a 9-day streak going, and Moe just blew it.

“Well, after you left, Casey really hit it off with them.”

Tobin groans aloud and rolls her eyes. “Seriously?!”

“Listen, it’s not like we can police who Casey makes friends with,” Alyssa noted dryly from the other side of Moe.

Sure, that might’ve been a reasonable take, but Tobin wasn’t in a particularly reasonable mood. “Fuck. Well, as long as Casey doesn’t like, talk about her in front of me, or make us hang out, it’s whatever. Okay, was that the bad news or the worse news?”

Moe gulps, adjusting the sleeve of her jersey without making eye contact. “Uh, that was the bad news. The worse news is that Casey invited her to the game today…”

What?

“…and to come out with us after the game.”

WHAT?

“Tobin—”

“Okay, so maybe we can’t police who Casey makes friends with, but we sure as fucking hell can police who comes out with the team after games, and Christen Press cannot fucking come out with us after the game—”

“It’s not like Casey knew anything about your history with her,” Moe argues. “Casey wasn’t there with us on the first day. But anyway, I’m sure it’ll be fine! It's not like you have to interact.”

“Yeah, you won’t even see her in the crowd,” Alyssa adds comfortingly, as Tobin angrily fidgets with her shin guards and tugs her socks up and down. “And there’s a big group going out after the game. It’ll be easy for you to keep your distance from her. We’ll run interference, right, Moe?”

Resigned, Tobin trails her friends out of the locker room into the hallway.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have told her,” she overhears Moe whispering to Alyssa.

“No, this is better. Would you rather have her just look up into the stands and suddenly see Christen Press’s face? I think the tickets Casey got her are right behind the bench…”

Usually, Tobin loves the roar of the crowd as they emerge from the tunnel. It’s like you can feel the energy from thousands of people, radiating down towards you, infusing your veins with sunlight and fierceness and pure grit. Today, though, as they troop out in a straight line, the stares unnerve her. She feels like every one of those thousands of pairs of eyes are zeroed in on her, and on the blank spot on her arm.

Hey, why isn’t Tobin the captain today? She pictures thousands of people thinking. It must be because she’s an epic failure at everything she does.

In particular, there’s one pair of green eyes that fills her with a sense of unease. Christen Press, as promised, is sitting in a prime seat a few rows behind the Red Stars bench. The kid from the other night, Mallory Pugh, is next to her. They’re waving at Casey, all cheery and nice, which somehow makes Tobin even angrier.

Tobin grinds her cleats into the grass, tells herself to block it all out—the crowds and the judgment, the empty spot on her arm, the piercing gaze of those jade green eyes—and just focus on the game. The beautiful game. Soccer has been the one thing that brings her some semblance of calm and happiness, but today as the opening whistle blows and all she can manage to feel is misery and nervousness, Tobin realizes that soccer, too, has been taken from her.

She plays okay, but not with any satisfaction. She feels slow, sloppy. She takes two corners, and blames herself when they don’t result in goals. Rather than toying with defenders, she gets nervous and sends the ball back into the midfield again and again. The third time she passes back to Moe, Moe seems almost angry to find the ball at her feet. “Tobin, come on!” Moe shouts after she sends it up to Kealia and they’re all moving up the field. “Press!

Instinctively, without even realizing what she’s doing, Tobin turns and finds Christen Press in the stands. The rest of the crowd seems to fade into a blur of iridescent colors, as hazel eyes meet green for a long, stunned moment.

Then the ball whooshes within inches of Tobin’s face. It flies past her, out of bounds, as she’s caught standing still and looking off into the distance.

The stadium fills with boos.

“What the fuck, Tobin?!” Julie yells.

“Tobin, I meant press!” Moe waves her arms desperately in the direction of the goal. “Like, press, UP, up the field!”

“I thought you meant…” Tobin lets the end of her sentence taper off pathetically, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the dancers in the stands.

“Why the hell would you think I meant ‘look at Christen Press’? In the middle of a game?! Oh, my god!” Even Moe’s angry as Kristie Mewis, from the Houston team, smugly runs over to take the throw-in.

Why the hell WOULD I think that? Tobin screams internally at herself as the minutes tick down until halftime. This is ridiculous. Why is Christen Press getting in my head like this?

Rory’s livid at halftime, and he takes her out—deservedly—at the sixtieth minute. She slouches down on the bench with the hood of her jacket pulled high over her ears for the rest of the game, only rising to her feet to clap and fist-pump a little as Kealia gets a header in the eightieth minute.

At least it wasn’t Julie, she thinks, then immediately hates herself for being so petty.

When the final whistle blows, all she wants to do is sprint off the bench straight into the locker room, take a scalding hot shower, and head home to burrow down in bed. But there are all the obligatory things to do, which she does—because no matter what she tells herself, she knows deep down that at the end of the day, she cares what people think. She cares a lot—maybe too much. So she takes a lap of the field with the other girls, waving and signing autographs. (When they approach the section where Christen and Mal are sitting, she jogs over to chat with one of the trainers, then catches up with the team after they’ve moved on.) She congratulates Kealia on her goal. As the crowds start trickling out, she sits in the grass with Alyssa for a while. They lift their faces to the sun, side by side, palms buried in the grass. She’s grateful for Alyssa’s silence.

She almost leaves for the locker room, almost, when she sees Casey inviting Christen and Mal down onto the field. They’re laughing and joking together like old friends, and Tobin feels a surge of irrational jealousy at the ease with which Casey—warm, smiley, enthusiastic Casey—is able to gather new friends around her. Christen and Mal are laughing, their faces lit up in a way that Tobin has never seen before, as Casey tries to instruct them on how to kick a soccer ball.

Casey positions the ball on the grass for Mal, who screws up her face in concentration, hands planted on her hips. If Tobin wasn’t determined to hate Christen Press and everything to do with her, including her friends, Tobin might’ve even admitted that Mal was kind of adorable. Mal misses entirely on her first attempt, and she doubles over laughing at herself.

Christen’s first attempt, however, goes sailing from the midfield…into the goal.

Tobin glares. She doesn’t even need to look at Alyssa to imagine the impressed expression on her face.

“That was far. Her legs must be really strong,” Alyssa says.

Tobin grumbles, “It’s not like there was a goalkeeper, anyway.” As Casey and Christen exchange high fives, she turns to lie on her back, face to the clouds, so she doesn’t have to watch anymore.


When Tobin was little, her parents and her pastor used to say that alcohol was a sin. And so now, though she’s already a full-fledged adult, Tobin always still feels a little sinful when she enters a crowded bar. It’s the same way she feels a little dirty and queasy inside when she walks into a fluorescent-lit liquor store, like God is watching, and He knows you’re going to be shit-faced in two hours, and He’s going to be very disappointed in you, you dirty little sinner.

Pushing those thoughts aside, Tobin breathes in the faint smell of sawdust and liquor as she follows the girls to the back room. It’s comforting to sit in a dark corner booth, lit only by the colorful Christmas lights twinkling overhead, with a Top 40 song playing just loudly enough overhead. Plus, Alyssa was right—it’s quite a crowd tonight. The Dash girls definitely know how to bring a party. And big parties—where Tobin can fade off into the darkness without anyone noticing—are quickly becoming her favorite.

Sandwiched between Moe and Kristie Mewis, Tobin’s already several beers in when Casey suddenly shows up at the end of their table. And right behind her—ugh—is Christen Press.

“You guys have room for two more here?” Casey asks, all chipper as usual, already pulling up chairs. “Sorry we’re late, we had to drop Mal off at home. She’s not 21 yet.”

The word no is on the tip of Tobin’s tongue, but she doesn’t want to cause a scene, so she sinks back in her seat and tries to keep her expression neutral. (Moe looks over at her and mouths, Be nice. Clearly she needs to work on her neutral face.) And then suddenly Kristie, eyes wide at the sight of Christen, is loudly saying, “Yes, yes, of course there’s room.”

“Who the hell is she?” Kristie demands as soon as Casey and Christen walk off to get their drinks. “No, seriously, who is that, and why have I not been informed of her presence until now?”

“She’s a ballerina we met through a Nike thing,” Moe laughs. “Sorry, Kristie, but she’s based in Chicago.”

“Who says I’m looking for a long term thing? I’m newly single; I’m on the hunt for a rebound. And a ballerina, huh? That’s hot.” Kristie sinks back in her seat and takes a swig of her beer.

“She doesn’t seem like much of a one-night stand person,” Moe adds, still laughing.

“Well…” Kristie just smirks. “As you know, I like a challenge.” Her eyes drift towards the counter where Christen and Casey are waiting to order.

“Anyway, she’s straight, isn’t she?” Tobin blurts out. Something about the way Kristie’s keen blue eyes are raking up and down Christen’s body makes Tobin feel, all of a sudden, like she’s about to throw up all the beer she just drank. Why is everyone throwing themselves all over her? Why is everyone admiring her? She’s not admirable!

“…no, she’s not straight,” Alyssa said slowly. “Have you looked her up? There are a bunch of articles about her, and what it’s like to be out in the ballet world—”

“Yeah, there’s a ton of press about her in general,” Kristie pipes up, scrolling eagerly on her phone. “Dang, look at these pictures. Oh, my god, she’s so hot.”

Tobin breathes a sigh of relief as Casey and Christen head back to the table, and thankfully, all conversation about how hot Christen Press is is cut short. But she relaxes too soon: the conversation quickly turns to the Nike program, and how all the other girls have been looking at kids’ applications already, to choose their mentees. Are we already supposed to be doing that? She fumbles with her phone underneath the table, trying to open the web portal in Safari to take a look, but getting stuck on her password.

“I’ve got 10 kids on my queue, and it’s so hard to choose just one,” Moe laments. “I know that they’ve already made it into the program so they all get the funding, but I also want to like, hang out with all of them, you know? They’re all so cute!”

“Well, that’s what the group activities are for, so at least there’s that to look forward to.” Christen chimes in. “I get what you’re saying, though. I’ve been reading all the applicants’ files that are uploaded so far. A lot of them are promising, but I feel like I’m still waiting for the one, you know? The one with the special spark. I think I’m going to give it another week or so before I mentally commit to anyone.”

Moe and Alyssa are agreeing, and Tobin’s squirming. Clearly, everyone else has done their homework, and she’s way behind.

Casey turns and says, “What about you, Tobin? I bet the kids are dying to be matched with you.” She turns to Christen and explains, cheerily, “You always see kids wearing Tobin’s jerseys around town. She’s like, the most popular player on our team!”

“Oh,” Christen says, frigidly polite. “Really?”

Crazy, isn’t it, how she can make two simple syllables sound so insulting.

Tobin hastily slams her phone face down on the table, wishing she wasn’t so many drinks in already, trying to think fast. “Um…what?”

“Have you been looking at the kids’ applications yet?” Casey repeated.  

“We got an email a few weeks ago saying that the screened applications are online,” Moe chimes in. “You have to pick someone, Tobin.”

“I know,” Tobin says, a little snappishly. With Christen Press sitting there all cold and judgey, the last thing she wants to do is admit to how scatter-brained and incompetent she is—even if it’s true. “I…uh…I’ve looked already,” she lies.

“And?” Moe says curiously. Every eye at the table is on Tobin.

“Um, well, I think…” Tobin clasps and unclasps her pint glass. Panicking a little, she blurts, “Um, it’s…it’s like what Christen said. I agree. They’re all really interesting, but there’s not really one that sticks out, you know?”

The conversation carries on. Tobin sneaks a glance at Christen out of the corner of her eye. The other girl is looking away from Tobin, but with pleasant surprise still evident in her face, her green eyes softened and sparkling with the reflection of the lights overhead. She probably hadn’t expected Tobin to agree with her. And honestly, if I hadn’t been totally cornered by Moe, I never would have, Tobin thought grumpily.

As the music grows louder and louder, the area immediately around their table starts turning into more of a dance floor. Eventually, the girls escape, scattering to various corners of the room. Tobin and Alyssa find themselves lounging by the pool table. “Nice, extending the olive branch with Christen earlier,” Alyssa says approvingly as she racks up the pool balls.

“I didn’t mean to extend an olive branch.” Tobin glares across the room at where Christen and Kristie are leaning against a wall, sipping on girly little cocktails and dismissively waving off guys that are hitting on them. “I didn’t want to. She doesn’t deserve olives.”

 Alyssa snickers. “Okay, I’m going to say something you’re going to find controversial.”

Tobin braces herself. “If this is about Christen Press—”

“Tobes. Come on. She’s really not that bad.”

“Not that bad?!” Tobin asks incredulously, fingers clenching involuntarily around her cue. “She’s a total bitch!”

“She’s a little on the…formal side,” Alyssa admits. “I think you guys just got off on the wrong foot.”

“Did you hear her earlier when Casey said that I was the most popular player?” Tobin demands.

Alyssa pauses. She clearly does not recall. “Uh, what did she say?”

“She said…” Tobin pauses for dramatic effect. “Really?”

Alyssa stares for a second, then bursts out laughing. “Tobin, that’s a normal, generic response.”

“No, she was skeptical, and her tone was rude,” Tobin insists. “And okay, fine, but on that first day at the park, she literally said that soccer wasn’t art.”

“When did she say that?”

“That interview she gave!”

Alyssa neatly knocks a ball into a pocket and straightens up, sighing. “Tobin, she didn’t say that in her interview. I found it online after that event, since you got so worked up over it. She just said that she hoped ballet would bring some beauty into this Nike youth program. I didn’t think that was a particularly vicious thing to say.”

“Listen, it sounded worse when she said it,” Tobin fights back stubbornly. “Maybe it was that snotty expression on her face.”

Alyssa lets out a long sigh. “Whatever you say, Tobin. But whatever it is you have against her, I think you should figure it out. For your own good. If she and Casey get closer, she’s going to be hanging out with us a lot more. And, also—that thing with her during the game today? What was that all about?”

Tobin has really been hoping that nobody would bring that up. She downs the rest of her beer—there’s a lot, so it takes a while. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She examines the pool table, looking for her next shot.

She glances up. After all that, Alyssa’s still looking at her, patiently waiting for an answer. Tobin sighs. That’s the thing with Alyssa. She never gets distracted.

“I don’t know, okay?” Tobin mutters. She sneaks a glance across the room, to where Christen and Kristie have been joined by Moe and Casey. They’re turning down yet another pack of dudes. “Moe said ‘press’ and…I don’t know. I guess Christen was at the front of my mind, because I didn’t like that she was there, watching. So when I heard Moe say it, I just thought that’s what she was talking about.”

“Okay, well…” Alyssa sounds worried. “If this is actually going to affect your game, maybe we should talk to Casey inviting her in the future after all. We can’t have you distracted like this.”

“No, it’s fine,” Tobin says loudly—maybe a little too loudly. She’s finally starting to feel the combined effects of all the beer she’s had that night; the room is a little fuzzy, and there’s a familiar, pleasant, tingly heat rising in her neck, her ears, her spine. No matter how much she dislikes Christen, she doesn’t want to drag sweet, happy-go-lucky Casey into this mess. “It’s fine. I’ll figure it out. I need to stop letting her get in my bed.”

Alyssa barely manages to stifle a laugh into a strange cough. “Do you mean…in your head?”

“Yeah,” Tobin says, confused and a little irritated, “that’s what I said.”

Across the room, Christen and Kristie are turning down a third set of guys. Tobin doesn’t want to watch anymore. “I’m going to get another drink. Want anything?”

“Nah, I’m going to catch up with Jane and the other Dash girls. Come find us, okay? I think they’re in the side room.”

But Tobin never makes it to the side room, because weaving through the crowded dance floor on the way to the bar, she’s accosted by several girls with suggestive, sultry stares. She’s used to this happening at bars. A few hands linger on her shoulders, her arms, and it doesn’t take much to convince her to stay. Tobin’s a naturally good dancer, all smooth moves and effortless swag. The dance floor is dark and loud and packed with bodies; just the way she likes it. It makes it easier to blend in, lose herself in the heat and the crowd and the thrumming bass, and pretend she’s invisible. Well…invisible to everyone but the few girls flitting around her like scantily-clad little vultures.

Maybe I’ll call it a night with the team, take this one home, Tobin thinks, closing her eyes and swaying to the beat as one girl with a glossy brown bob, getting bolder, backs into Tobin and starts grinding her ass on her. How clean is the apartment right now? Definitely still a wreck. But hey, the girls never seem to mind. No food in the fridge—ugh, I need to make a grocery run—but there’s beer. And no practice tomorrow, either, so we can keep at it all morning

Something’s a little off tonight, though. Normally, by now, she’d probably be making out with this girl with abandon, ready to wrap an arm around her waist and whisper, low and hot in her ear, “Let’s get out of here.” But tonight, she feels frustratingly clear-headed, and strangely uneasy, and definitely not turned on. She had wanted to fade out of sight and melt into the darkness, the way she normally did on a dance floor. But tonight she felt strangely visible. Like there were discerning eyes out there, eyes on her.

“I’m, uh…” Tobin disentangles herself from the girl’s arms, which are now thrown around her neck. She shouts, “I’m going to get a drink. Want anything?”

The girl’s lips are moving, and Tobin can’t hear a damn thing, but she nods and flashes a thumbs up and worms her way out of the crowd.

She draws a long, soothing breath as she reaches the edge of the dance floor. The bartender is busy with a group of girls perusing the menu, so she boosts herself onto a barstool, tapping her toe against one of the legs and whistling to herself.

Without even thinking, her fingers dip into her jacket pocket for her phone. She winces at the brightness of the screen in the dark bar—she almost closes it—but then, even though she knows she shouldn’t, her fingers wander over to Twitter. Then she opens it.

It takes a second for her eyes to process, but of course, there it is. The very first tweet she sees from a prominent Chicago sports journalist confirms it:

Of course, the question everyone is asking: Why wasn’t Tobin Heath wearing the captain’s armband today? Combined with her sloppy play—literally turning her back to the ball and letting it out of bounds—you have to wonder if something is going on, off the field.

There’s no air in Tobin’s lungs. She blinks hard, but when her eyes open, there are the words again, taunting her. Why wasn’t Tobin Heath wearing the captain’s armband? Sloppy play. Something going on.

Just put your phone away, screams the last scrap of self-preservation in her brain. But she doesn’t, of course. Tobin’s never been good at self-preservation. She scrolls on. The next tweet is a post-game interview with Julie. Julie, Captain Julie, beautiful good-girl Julie, somehow managing to talk a mile a minute all while maintaining that toothy, beauty-queen smile. Her finger drifts over the play button. Maybe she’ll click on it. Just to hear a little bit of it. Just to see if she talks about how great it is to be captain. Just to hear if they ask her, hey, what the fuck is wrong with Tobin Heath

“Um, hey.”

Tobin’s still staring down at her phone, biting her lip, warring with herself on whether or not to watch the cursed Julie video. It takes her a beat to realize that someone’s talking to her. She looks up.

It’s Christen. She’s standing there with her hands in her pockets, her posture a little cautious.  

“Oh, it’s you.” Tobin’s too surprised, and a little too tipsy, to come up with an answer that’s cleverer or politer than that.

Seemingly undeterred by Tobin’s short answer, Christen slides onto the empty barstool next to her. While Tobin’s slouched so far down on the stool that her butt is in danger of sliding off the edge, Christen perches gracefully, back ramrod-straight and legs primly crossed. She’s wearing the most casual outfit Tobin has seen on her—dark jeans and a tight white sleeveless crop top. Large silver hoops sway against her silky, dark hair as she reaches over to pick up a menu.

“Where’s Kristie?” Tobin asks sarcastically. “She’s into you, you know.” The alcohol is making Tobin snarkier, and chattier, than usual. She doesn’t know what she’s expecting—maybe for Christen to look down and get all shy and blush and stutter. She just wants to get a rise out of this perfect, poised ballerina.

But instead, Christen smirks, self-assured and a little risqué. Her confidence catches Tobin off guard, and for some reason, Tobin finds herself having some difficulty drawing her next breath. “Oh, I know,” Christen says, raising an eyebrow. “She wasn’t trying to be subtle.”

“And…?” Tobin’s really not sure why she’s following up on this, but it’s like her mouth has a mind of its own.

Christen takes her sweet time answering, absentmindedly perusing the menu with the tip of her tongue sticking out between her teeth as she thinks. “Maybe I’ll get a…Glitterati.”

Tobin snorts. Of course she’d choose that drink.

She continues, still smirking, “Not in the cards tonight, I’m afraid, but I think we’re going to be good friends. And I gave her some names at the Houston Ballet so she can look a little closer to home.” She places the menu neatly down on the counter. “Good game today, by the way. I thought you did well.”

“Really?” Tobin snorts derisively. “Well, that makes one person in all of Chicago.”

Christen’s green eyes flick downwards, towards Tobin’s glowing phone screen. Too late, Tobin turns her phone off and shoves it back in her pocket. She hopes that tweet wasn’t visible. She doesn’t want to talk to this picture-perfect ice queen, of all people, about all her professional failures.

“I can never go on social media after a performance,” Christen muses, almost to herself, as she looks around for a bartender. “It’s so easy to let the haters get in your head.”

“Haters?” Tobin hears the sarcasm dripping from her voice as she drums her fingers idly on the counter. “Surely you don’t have any haters, with your little, you know, ballet slippers and dancing, and the whole…” She waves her fingers in scornful little air-circles around her head and then in bigger circles around her waist. The way Christen’s spine stiffens up and her expression grows cold, she’s obviously picked up that Tobin’s scornfully gesturing towards a flower crown and tutu. She flinches forward, as if about to rise from the chair and leave.

“You know, Tobin,” she says stiffly, “Casey keeps going on and on about how great you are…” she trails off, and her silence speaks volumes about exactly what she thinks of Casey’s opinion.

“Wow,” Tobin retorts, “I’m surprised you even know my name without a nametag on.”

Tobin means for it to come out snarky, but it just sounds sad. In fact, it must sound way sadder than she intended, because Christen’s face takes on an uncomfortable, guilty expression. It’s almost pity, and Tobin can’t stand that. I didn’t feel hurt when you told me you didn’t know my name, she wants to shout. You didn’t make me feel hurt. I don’t hurt.

Luckily, the long, awkward moment is interrupted by the bartender. He slides up, places a peachy, fizzy cocktail on a napkin in front of Tobin, and nods towards the end of the bar. “From that girl over there.”

Tobin doesn’t look over. As he zips away, Tobin pulls the cocktail towards her. She gives it a disinterested swirl, then hands it over to Christen. “Here.”

Christen’s fingers close automatically around the glass as it’s shoved at her, but her face is indignant. “Tobin, that girl just bought you this drink! You can’t just turn around and hand it to another girl!”

“Why not?” Tobin asks bluntly, already trying to wave the bartender down for a beer.

“It’s just rude!”

“This is the one you wanted,” Tobin explains exasperatedly, “the Glitterati. It’s got, like, rose syrup and passion fruit puree in it. There’s literally rose petals. Do I look like a rose petal person?! Clearly whoever sent this is a bad judge of character.”

“Well, maybe…” Christen’s smirking again, and Tobin finds herself momentarily distracted from finding the bartender, “…maybe she knows you’re secretly a softie on the inside who loves rose petals.”

While Tobin’s opening her mouth to protest this totally inaccurate and insulting characterization, Christen adds, “Also, if I take this, that girl is for sure going to murder me in my sleep.”

Tobin finally turns. It’s the girl from before, with the short brown hair, the one she was dancing with. And she is, indeed, staring daggers at Christen, who’s still holding the drink in her hand.

Christen gives Tobin a pointed look, raises an eyebrow, and holds the drink out. “Don’t be rude. She’s into you. You’re not going to go for it?”

Tobin groans. Okay, fine. She’s had enough of this night, and of Christen’s know-it-all attitude and little arching eyebrows and bright green eyes and infuriating smirks. She wants to stop talking. She wants to stop feeling. She just wants her goddamn beer.

“Fuck it, whatever, I’ll drink it.” Tobin takes the drink from Christen, fishes out two soggy rose petals with her pointer finger. “And Casey’s wrong, you know.”

“Wrong about what?”

“I’m not great. She’s wrong. So you can feel free to go back to hating me.” Tobin tips her head back and chugs the entire frothy, sugary monstrosity in one go. She slaps the glass onto the counter and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’s disgusting,” she informs Christen as she hops off the barstool, “You should order something else.”

Without looking back, she marches over to the end of the bar. The girl, who’s been watching, gives Tobin a self-satisfied little smirk as she approaches.

“What’s your name?” Tobin asks abruptly.

“I’m Lisa,” she says. “I’m—”

“Lisa. Great. Let’s get out of here,” Tobin interrupts. “My place?”

The girl’s eyes widen in surprise, but then her face settles into a smug, victorious expression. “Or mine? My apartment is just around the corner.”

“Fine,” Tobin says distractedly. As the girl and Tobin saunter towards the door, Tobin sees her cast a triumphant glance back in the direction of the bar, where Christen is sitting alone. It’s clear that this girl thinks she won: she thinks she lured Tobin away from the hottie fighting for Tobin’s attention at the bar. She doesn’t know that Christen had basically given Tobin a condescending pat on the head and sent her away.

But Tobin wants to feel like she’s won, too, at something, at just one thing. So she makes a show of putting her arm around the girl’s waist as they walk, and she doesn’t look back.

But inside, she knows better.

Long past midnight, as she slips, naked, out from between the girl’s sheets and picks up her clothes from the ground, silently, so she won’t wake her up…as she dresses in the dark kitchen and lets herself out of the apartment…as she realizes, sitting in her Uber, I don’t think I even told her my name…as she takes a scalding hot shower back in her own apartment…she knows better. It was not a win; like seemingly every other interaction she’s ever had with Christen Press, it was a loss. And she knows it was a loss because of the way it leaves her feeling strangely hollow inside. Uneasy—almost exposed, like someone had shone a searchlight into her messy, awful, comforting darkness and said, judgmentally, “Oh, there you are.”

She slips into her own bed. In the darkness, she picks up her phone. The screen tells her it’s 2:54 AM. She’s about to head back to Twitter, but it’s like she hears Christen’s voice from before in her head, It’s so easy to let the haters get in your head.

Her fingers hover over the screen. Go to sleep, that self-preserving part of her brain pleads.

Instead, her fingers find the search bar and type, Chicago ballet company Christen Press.

Chapter Text

One bleak, gray November morning, Tobin finally takes a look at the kids she has to choose from for the Nike program. That day, Tobin had been—at least by her recent standards—remarkably productive. She’d gone on a long lakeside run, an hour earlier than usual. (Her body roared complaints about being roused at 5 AM, but her brain roared louder that it did not want to run into Christen Press again, on a breezy, smug, unfairly fast run with her fancy puppy and fancy Lululemon workout clothes. In a rare show of strength, her brain actually won.)

She’s back in her apartment by 8 AM. In that self-righteous glow that accompanies a productive early morning, she settles on the couch with a mug of coffee and an actual breakfast (okay, just yogurt, but that’s more than usual) and damp post-shower hair, ready to finally tackle her list of Nike mentees.

Tobin scrolls through an impossibly long list of applications, skimming plaintive personal statements about soccer-loving elementary school kids. Kids who love the game, but can’t afford it. Kids who go hungry night after night to afford a new pair of cleats. Kids who saved up for a year to afford a single ticket to a Red Stars game.

As she reads, acid grows in her throat and her head starts aching, until she finally slams the lid of her laptop down. She stares out the windows at the dark, low-hanging storm clouds and picks anxiously at her hangnails, biting at the inside of her cheeks until it starts stinging.

Who is she, to be a mentor to any of these kids? Who is she to mentor anyone? She’s no role model. Her own life is in shambles—personally, professionally, mentally, emotionally, whatever, spin the wheel, take your pick. These kids already sound twice as driven, twice as inspiring, twice as noble as she is.

If anything, I should try getting some mentoring from these ten-year-olds, she thinks bitterly.

Things would be different if she were a bubbly, sweet, happy-go-lucky girl like Moe. Like Casey.

Or like Christen Press. Now there’s a cookie-cutter role model for you.

The other night, Tobin had scrolled through Christen Press’s social media accounts for hours, until she was shocked to see the sky gray-tinged with morning haze outside her window. Of course, it wasn’t because she was particularly intrigued by the ballerina—of course not. It was just a morbid fascination with how some people presented themselves on social media, all perfect and shiny, Tobin told herself firmly.

She’d been amazed to see that the ballerina had three million Instagram followers—probably what happens when the city of Chicago plasters a hot girl’s face all over the subway for an entire summer. And each Instagram post glowed with this hazy pinkish-beige hue, like Christen Press spent her entire existence under an effervescent mist of a sparkly VSCO filter.

Teaching my weekly Friday pointe class at the Chicago Art Academy! Watching you girls develop brings me so much joy, on a group photo with a bunch of mini-me’s in pink leotards and high buns, all laughing merrily together. (So staged, ugh, Tobin thought.)

Autumn in Chicago, with a black heart emoji, on a picture of the lakefront. (Oh, she’s one of those basic girls who stops to take a trillion photos on her runs, isn’t she?)

Even as a morning person, sometimes I get so busy that it just feels like there’s not enough time to get ready! On those days, love my La Mer SPF foundation for tackling my complexion and my sun protection in one easy step! #ad, on a cheery selfie, holding up a bottle of foundation. (Okay, thanks for the humblebrag that you’re a morning person—holy SHIT, this foundation is $140!)

All the Instagram stalking had cemented one conclusion in Tobin’s mind—Christen Press was a superficial princess, and they couldn’t be more dissimilar.

But to be honest, though she had hated the insipid cheeriness of Christen Press’s Instagram with every fiber of her being, it had all made her feel a little guilty about her own shitty excuse at a social media presence. She usually posts one lame photo a month on Instagram, and can’t even remember her Twitter password. For a second, she had lain there in the rapidly-lightening bedroom, thinking about posting a new picture to Instagram. Maybe she’d go extra creative with the caption and throw in an orange heart next to the usual shaka sign-soccer ball combo.

But suddenly that tweet from earlier that night rose to the forefront of her mind—sloppy play, something’s off, no longer captain—and the thought of posting any picture of herself in the Red Stars jersey made her want to vomit.

(Or, hm, maybe that was just the effects of the copious amounts of beer she had drunk. Probably both.)

Whatever. Tobin had tossed her phone, dangerously low on battery from her Christen Press-stalking, into a pile of dirty laundry across the room, and proceeded to sleep the rest of the day away.

Today, she’s got a similar idea on how to while away the hours until their afternoon practice. The bitterness of looking through the applications has promptly crushed her short-lived good mood. She’s heading back towards her bed, bemoaning the fact that it’s too early in the day for a beer (or is it?) when her phone pings.

Casey: Moe, Fabrice, Cody, and I are going out to brunch. Want to come? It’ll be fun!

For a split second, it’s heartwarming. Maybe what she needs is to get out of her apartment, see some people. But it only takes that split second to read the names and do the math.

Fuck no, I’m not about to fifth wheel this couple’s brunch.

Tobin: No thx, have fun tho!

Casey: You sure? I’ve invited Christen and Mal as well, so it wouldn’t just be you and the lovebirds, if that’s what you’re worried about!

Tobin laughs outright, cynical and harsh, and so loud in the silent apartment that it even shocks herself a little.

Of all the things Casey could possibly have said, nothing could have been less effective in convincing Tobin to go.

Tobin: Busy today, sorry! See you at practice

The thought of Christen Press, laughing and chatting with Tobin’s friends over brunch, settles heavy and horrible over her like the dark storm clouds outside. She knew that Christen had been spending more and more time with Casey recently, but she didn’t need the gut-punch of a reminder. Her day has promptly gone from okay, to bad, to worse.

This girl has hundreds of her own friends! She has her whole ballet crew! She has millions of Instagram followers! Why can’t she just leave MY friends alone?

Tobin checks the time on her phone before tossing it to the side. It’s past 11 AM. Fuck it, if it’s late enough for them to have mimosas, it’s late enough for me to have a beer.

She drinks a first beer in bed while watching Sportscenter clips on her phone.

And when she sees on Instagram that Casey and Moe have been tagged in a gag-worthy, impeccably beautiful brunch tablescape posted by Christen Press (caption: Love supporting Chicago small businesses while exploring new brunch spots with new friends!), she drinks a second.

It all catches up with her at practice, of course, where she’s miserable and surly and sluggish. But hey, she’s all those things on a daily basis anyway, so it’s not like anyone can really tell the difference. It’s almost a blessing, really, when she goes down hard on a late tackle that leaves her with a bloody gash on her shin. She gets to hobble off the field, away from her teammates’ furtively judgmental stares, to hang out with her favorite team medic, Shannon, who’s been patching her up for years now.

“Don’t worry, Tobin, it’s worse than it looks,” Shannon announces as she sponges off all the blood. “I’m just going to use this antiseptic—hold on, it might sting a little—”

It stings a whole lot, and Tobin lets out a long, pained hiss and clings to Shannon’s arm.

“Oh, you poor baby,” Shannon teases, gently placing a huge white band aid over the wound. “You’re all set. Maybe take it easy for the rest of the day.”

“Perfect,” Tobin breathes out, leaning back on the examination bed. “Maybe I’ll just take a little nap right here…”

“Or…” Shannon says firmly, giving Tobin a little kick on her good leg, “You head on out there and watch the rest of practice like a good captain.”

Tobin opens her eyes and glares. “You know I’m not captain anymore, Shannon.”

“Not with that attitude, you aren’t.” Shannon’s known Tobin since her rookie days, when the girl was bright-eyed and eager and sweet. It looks like she’s about to continue her pep talk, but she looks down at the dead eyes and drooping figure before her, and pauses, then changes tack. “Just get back out there, okay? It’ll win you some easy brownie points with Rory. You can take a hot water bottle and blanket with you. And some extra bandages.”

Tobin makes it to the door before she remembers her manners. “Thanks, Shannon.”

“You know we all love you, Tobin,” Shannon responds. But Tobin can’t maintain eye contact with the worry in Shannon’s eyes, so she flees.

Unfortunately, it’s not like she can flee very far. She bundles up in a blanket on the sidelines, reporting to Rory that Shannon told her to stop practicing. (It was a bit of a stretch, from “maybe take it easy,” but Tobin felt like she had earned the right to not move for the rest of the day.)

For forty-five minutes she watches the girls scrimmage, and the only thing she can think, in a kind of dull daze, is that they look pretty damn good out there without her. Without her messing things up, slowing things down.

Moe, Casey, and Alyssa come crowding around her after practice to check on the leg. “It’s fine,” Tobin insists, “Shannon said it was just a scratch. How was brunch?”

“It was great—!” Casey starts to say.

Moe cuts in. “It was fine, I guess. Want to hang out tonight?” An unsuccessful lie to avoid hurting Tobin’s feelings. It’s too late; Tobin’s already seen the Instagram stories from brunch—all of them laughing together, sharing each other’s food.

“Not sure I should really be out partying with this leg.”

“Why don’t we come over to your place?” Alyssa suggests. “We used to hang out there all the time.”

Tobin had almost forgotten that her apartment used to be the go-to spot for the girls to gather, before she’d become the current version of herself. It’s large and close to the stadium and has that huge, comfy sofa. “I don’t know…” she hedges. “It’s a mess. I don’t have any food or anything.”

“Well, why don’t we give you a couple hours’ head start to clean, then. And we don’t really care about the food, do we, girls?” Alyssa says. Her voice was firm and decisive. “See you soon!”

Tobin groans as her friends walk off. This is, without a doubt, an attempt by Alyssa to pull Tobin out of her funk. Force her to clean her apartment a little, have a semblance of a social life.

Well, sucks for you, Alyssa, because I’m not going to clean, and I’m not going to have food, and I’m not going to pull myself together, Tobin snaps internally, even though she knows how petty and stupid she’s being.


Somehow, though, she finds herself at the grocery store on her way home.

She scans the aisles on auto-pilot, picking up Casey’s favorite banana chips and tea, the yogurt Alyssa likes. She detours to the produce aisle to pick up avocados, tomatoes, and onions, to make her guacamole recipe, the one that Moe is obsessed with. Tobin used to keep these things in constant rotation in her kitchen, ready for the girls to swing by on a moment’s notice. The familiar, bright logo on the banana chip bag makes her feel weirdly hollow. She hasn’t seen it in so many months.

I’ll just grab some groceries for myself, too, while I’m here. And maybe Febreze or something, she thinks, shuddering to think of her friends walking into an apartment that reeks of sex and beer. It might not. It probably doesn’t. But just in case.

Tobin wanders over into the next aisle and stops short.

There’s a little Black girl, about six years old, in a tutu and soft pink ballet shoes, twirling dreamily around in the aisle, her head tilted back to the sky. Tobin stops and watches in amusement as she sways between the pasta boxes on one side of her and canned soup on the other, pointing her toes and spinning in circles. I still hate ballet dancers, she tells herself, but even I gotta admit, this is cute.

She’s turning away to grab a box of penne when she hears a crash and a shout.

“Watch where you’re going, girl!”

Tobin whirls around to see that the little girl has tripped over a basket left in middle of the aisle. Other shoppers turn to stare, too. The contents of the basket have tipped out onto the tiles, and cans are rolling around everywhere. An angry woman, hands on her hips, is towering over the girl.

 “Look what you’ve done!” The woman yells. The girl sits up, dazed, her lip trembling.

“This is a grocery store, not a playground—where’s your mother? You heard me! Where is your mother!?

Enough of this.

“Whoa, whoa, okay.” Tobin marches over, fueled by indignation and adrenaline. “Ma’am, are you hurt?”

The woman turns around, startled. “No, of course I’m not hurt—”

Didn’t fucking think so, so please shut up. Breezing past the woman, Tobin crouches down so she’s eye-level with the little girl. “How about you, baby girl, are you okay?” She can see a little blood on her stockings, probably from scraping up against the side of the metal basket. “Looks like you’re a little scratched up. Does it hurt?”

“She needs to watch where she’s going—” the woman repeats, feebly, the wind taken a little out of her sails.

“Accidents happen,” Tobin says firmly. Shoppers have already gathered around, helping to right the basket and shove its contents back in. “No harm, no foul, okay? And next time, maybe don’t leave your basket in the middle of the shopping aisle; it’s a bit of a safety hazard. People could get hurt.”

The woman’s round mouth opens and closes, like a gasping fish. But under the judgmental gazes of the shoppers around her, she wilts. “Her mother should be watching her,” she says snappishly, before storming off down the aisle. “People these days…”

Tobin rolls her eyes in the direction of the receding woman. Before the woman’s even out of sight, she’s already dismissed her from her mind. “Where are your parents?” she asks the girl.

“I’m not sure.” The girl looks to the left and to the right. “I think I went farther than I thought…”

“That’s okay, we’ll find them,” Tobin says soothingly. Next order of business: the scratch is small, but the stockings are torn pretty badly, and there’s a little blood. “This doesn’t look too bad, does it? Does it hurt?”

The girl is looking up at Tobin with her huge black eyes. “A little,” she says, sadly. “I think I need a Band-Aid.”

“Well…” Tobin rummages in her duffel bag. “Good thing I have one!” She yanks out one of the enormous white patch bandages she got for her scrape-up earlier. It could probably wrap twice around the girl’s calf.

“Hm, I’m not sure…” she fakes concern, scratching her head and squinting at the bandage. “Do you think this is big enough?”

The girl is laughing now, head thrown back. “It’s too big, probably!”

Tobin’s laughing too. This girl is too fucking cute. Why can’t all interactions be as easy as they are with kids? Tobin wonders

“Well, I think you’re exactly right. It’s probably a little too big,” Tobin says, and the girl grins bashfully, pleased to have an adult agreeing with her. “But better too big than too small, am I right?”

Tobin surveys the stockings. Frankly, they’re torn so badly they don’t look salvageable. So she peels the sticky backing off of the bandage and gently wraps it around the injury, stocking and all. The way it overlaps on the back of the girl’s skinny calf makes the girl laugh, which makes Tobin laugh.

Her cheeks almost feel funny—it’s strange, using those laughing muscles again.

“Are you a doctor?” the girl asks, staring at the medical supplies bulging out of Tobin’s bag.

“Nope, I’m a soccer player!” Tobin says cheerfully. “And soccer players get hurt sometimes, so sometimes I have a lot of extra Band-Aids with me, just in case. It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Tobin.”

“I’m Faith!” The girl jumps to her feet, just as a tall man in a button-down and slacks comes dashing frantically around the corner of the aisle.

“Faith!” he calls, jogging up to them, eyes growing wide when he sees the huge bandage on his daughter’s leg. “Oh, my god, what happened—”

“It’s just a tiny cut,” Tobin reassures him, scrambling to her feet. “This was just the only bandage I had on me.”

Relief shows on the man’s face. “Thank you, thank you so much. Okay, Faith, what did you do?”

The way the girl squirms and hides her face from her dad is unbearably cute. This is clearly not the first time she’s gotten in trouble for the same thing. “I…was dancing.”

 “And let me guess, you tripped and fell over something,” her dad finished, clasping her hand in his own. “Well, you’re very lucky this young lady was here to help you. Is there anything you want to say to her?”

“Thanks for helping me!” Faith says shyly. Overcome with embarrassment, she scampers down the aisle again.

“Stay where I can see you this time!” her dad calls after her. Then he turns towards Tobin. “Seriously, thanks so much, ma’am. I was just looking at the vegetables and suddenly she was gone…”

“Oh, I’m not…I’m not a ma’am,” Tobin corrects him hastily. “I’m just Tobin.”

“Well, thank you, Just Tobin. I’m Nathan.” The man puts his hand out for a shake. He’s young, Tobin realizes. Not much older than Tobin herself, probably.

“Your daughter’s super cute. She’s into ballet?” Tobin asks. For some reason, the next question on the tip of her tongue is, does she know who Christen Press is? But she restrains herself. Why would she ask something like that?

“Oh, she’s obsessed. Lives and breathes it, as you can probably tell,” Nathan chuckles.

“Are you just getting back from a dance lesson or something?”

Tobin thinks her question is pretty innocuous—after all, Faith is in full costume—but the way Nathan’s face falls, she realizes maybe it’s not a safe subject after all. “No, we’re not coming from a lesson, she just wears the tutu all the time.” He pauses, sighs, continues in a low voice. “I had to cancel her lessons a couple months back. Just can’t quite make ends meet enough to afford them right now. I think she thinks that if she gets all dressed up, it’ll change my mind. Breaks my heart, you know?”

“Oh, man. That’s rough…I’m sorry.” As she so often does, Tobin finds herself frustrated that she can never find the right words to say in a situation. With kids, she’s totally fine. But as soon as there’s another adult in the room, it’s like she just can’t translate the rush of thoughts and emotions in her mind into full sentences.

If I were Christen Press, I’d be able to say the right thing right now.

Luckily, she’s saved from answering when Faith barrels back into the conversation, holding a box of Lucky Charms. “Daddy, Daddy, can we get this?”

“No, baby, if it’s not on sale, I don’t think so. Go on and put this back on the shelf, okay?” Nathan gives her a little pat on the back to send her off. “Tobin? Nice to meet you. Thanks again for helping Faith out.”

“Yeah, of course, no worries,” Tobin says. She turns distractedly back to face a wall of groceries, but her eyes skim, unseeing, over the display. There’s something right at the edge of her mind. Something she should do.

And then it clicks.

“Nathan!” she calls. Uncaring that everyone around turns to look, and forgetting her basket of groceries on the ground, she dodges through the aisle in case. Nathan turns around, surprised.

“Wait,” Tobin says, skidding to a stop in front of him. “Here—I should’ve thought of this earlier, but—” She rummages in her duffel bag as she talks, and finally finds what she’s looking for. It’s a Nike youth program flyer. She shoves it into Nathan’s surprised hand. “There’s this program. Nike’s doing this thing with kids who live in Chicago. It’s like, a sports thing? With funding.”

Nathan’s looking at the flyer, hopeful, but confused. His gaze skims over the photo of Tobin holding a soccer ball, then down to the website address. “A sports thing? Unfortunately, usually they don’t include dance in programs like this—it’s a damn shame, really.”

“Yeah, a damn shame,” Tobin echoes, feeling red-hot guilt in her stomach. If it were up to people like me, I guess they still wouldn’t. “But actually, this program does. If you just take this website address down here—” she’s found a pen in her bag, and she takes the paper back. She scribbles out her own name in the URL, Tobin-Heath, and carefully writes in above it, Christen-Press. “If you put in this URL with this name, instead of mine, it should bring you to an application page that’s for ballet dancers. The application is open until this Saturday.” Thank god she was looking at the website just this morning, so the deadlines are fresh on her mind.

Nathan’s eyes go wide as he takes the paper back. “Oh, boy. Christen Press is involved in this? Faith is obsessed—I mean, she’s her hero. Posters in her bedroom and everything. Not too many famous Black ballerinas out there, you know?”

“Yeah,” Tobin forces out. “Anyway, I think you should give it a shot. Just a thought.”

“Thanks, Tobin.” Nathan looks a little dazed as he pockets the flyer. “I appreciate this a lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” Tobin says with a little wave, already backing away. But then she catches herself, turns back around. “But actually—if you don’t mind, could you not mention I was involved? Not sure why it would but if it ever comes up?”

Nathan looks a little confused, but he nods. “Sure thing, Tobin. If it does come up, I won’t mention you.”


There’s a bit more of a spring in her step by the time Tobin gets back to her apartment. There might be a good chance Faith gets into the Nike program—she seems like the perfect candidate, and she was super cute and sweet. Though she’s got questionable taste in role models.

Tobin unloads the food and lights a candle she just bought at the grocery store, “Fresh Linen and Sand.” Not sure what sand is supposed to smell like, but whatever. (She doesn’t think the apartment smells like sex and beer, after giving it a sniff, but…just in case.)

She sits and glances wearily around her apartment. It’s pretty clean, right?

Well, it’s not awful.

Well…it’s not the worst it’s ever been.

But it’s close.

After a few more seconds of internal struggle, Tobin drags herself off the couch and straightens up just a little. She transfers a sinkful of dirty dishes into the dishwasher and turns it on. She kicks a pile of dirty clothes down the hallway into her disaster zone of a bedroom and slams the door shut behind it. Then—okay, okay, fine—she opens the door again, actually throws the dirty clothes into the hamper. She makes her bed and straightens up her dresser tops. She makes halfhearted passes in the kitchen and bathroom with a handful of Lysol wipes. She even vacuums for a few minutes. Good enough, right? The girls know what they’re getting into. Besides, when they invite themselves over, they shouldn’t expect too much.

She’s in the kitchen, mashing avocados for the guacamole, when she catches herself. She looks around the apartment, cleaner than it’s been in a long, long time. A candle is burning on the coffee table; the fridge is full of groceries. She looks at herself, wearing the old canvas apron she used to love, making real food for the first time in weeks.

“Okay, fine, Alyssa, you win,” she mutters aloud into the silence, grudgingly half-impressed.

As she moves on from the avocados to the tomatoes, she glances at the stove clock. It’s been about two hours, right? Where are the girls? Come to think of it, where’s her phone? She’s just wiping her hands down on her apron and looking around when there’s a knock on the door.

She lets Alyssa and Moe in, both looking more anxious than they should.

“Calm down, it’s pretty clean, see?” she starts to say, but Moe interrupts, speaking in a rapid, low voice.

“Tobin, where’s your phone? We’ve been texting you!”

“It’s…I don’t know, I never know. Why?”

“We were trying to warn you that—”

Wait, hold up. Alyssa and Moe are already in the apartment, but there are still voices coming down the hallway, closer and closer. Voices—plural. Tobin looks at Moe and Alyssa’s nervous faces, and oh, of course, of FUCKING course, Casey invited Christen, didn’t she?

“In her defense,” Alyssa whispers, sneaking a glance over her shoulder to make sure they haven’t caught up yet, “Christen tried to beg out, she really did—you haven’t been very subtle about not liking her—but Casey was really insistent.”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Christen Press is going to be hanging out in my apartment? “It doesn’t smell…weird… in here, does it?!”

“What?” Moe asks, crinkling her nose, as Alyssa says, “No, why would it?”

And then Casey is at the door, all smiles and hugs, and a step behind her is Christen, hesitation written all over her face.

“Tobes, I hope you don’t mind I brought Christen!” Casey says cheerfully. “Christen and I had already made plans to hang out tonight, which I totally forgot about, like an idiot, of course. I felt so bad about cancelling, but then I realized, you guys already know each other—it’s okay that she’s here, right?”

“Yeah, it’s totally fine,” Tobin forces out. She wants to feel anger, but actually, the only emotion she can muster up is relief—thank god I cleaned up. Thank god the apartment does not, apparently, smell like sex and beer.

“See?” Casey turns back towards Christen, who’s still leaning against the open doorframe, half in the hallway. “I told you, it’s fine! Tobin is literally the nicest, most chill human in the whole world. One time, Moe showed up here with five drunk friends in tow, at 10:30 PM, and Tobin let them all stay.”

“I got the date of her party wrong!” Moe defended herself.

“I remember that. You let them play Mariokart and made them nachos for hours, didn’t you, Tobin?” Alyssa recalled.

Tobin raised her eyebrows at Alyssa, hoping her expression conveyed, Please stop telling embarrassing stories about me.

“Well…thanks,” Christen says, uncertain. The other girls scatter through the apartment with familiar ease, but she’s still standing by the door. She’s wearing skin-tight, high-waisted jeans and a mock-neck cashmere sweater, and her hair is gleaming in silky-soft waves around her shoulders. Tobin finds herself wondering, inexplicably, if Christen’s got $140 foundation on today.

Tobin’s also suddenly, painfully aware that in comparison, she’s wearing a tomato-stained apron over an old gray muscle tank and sweatpants.

“Tobin!” Moe shouts from the kitchen. “You’re making my favorite guacamole?!”

Relieved at the interruption, Tobin wordlessly gestures for Christen to follow her, and they join the others. Alyssa’s already rummaging in the fridge for her yogurt.

“It’s not a big deal, it’s not like it’s hard to make,” Tobin says, as if it’s not the most complicated thing she’s made in weeks.

Casey’s rummaging too. “Oh, my god, Tobin, you picked up the banana chips that I like?! Christen, these are the ones I was telling you about the other day! Tobin, I can’t believe you remembered!” Casey exclaims, literally picking up and hugging the chips, and then hugging Tobin. “And—oh my god, my favorite tea, too!”

“There’s hot water in the kettle already,” Tobin mumbles, embarrassed, as she turns back to her tomato-chopping. “And the honey’s in the usual cabinet. Oh, and there’s wine on the rack.”

“You are the best. Seriously, Tobin Heath, you are an angel.” Casey smacks an affectionate kiss on the side of Tobin’s head as she heads towards the cabinet. Tobin elbows her off good-naturedly.

In all the hubbub, Tobin sneaks a glance at Christen out of the corner of her eye. The girl is leaning against the refrigerator, eyes flickering between Tobin and the other girls, taking it all in. The expression on her face is inscrutable.

For some reason, her presence in Tobin’s kitchen feels outsized and intimidating, putting Tobin on edge. It’s probably because I spent too damn long on her Instagram the other night. Now it feels like there’s a celebrity in my apartment, judging me.

She clears her throat. “Can I get you anything, Christen?”

Christen pauses, as if it’s a trick question. “Do you have sparkling water?”

“No, I just have normal water. Water for plebes.” (Once again, Tobin can feel herself being an asshole like it’s an out-of-body experience.)

“That’s fine. I suppose I can have plebe water once in a while without dying.” (And once again, Christen seems entirely unfazed.)

The night ends up being not as bad as Tobin had dreaded, especially after she gets a couple beers in her. Christen’s quieter than Tobin expects for a social media starlet. She sits cross-legged on the carpet near Alyssa, and they let Moe and Casey carry on the conversation, which gets increasingly raucous as the girls get more drinks in them. If Tobin turns, strategically, so that Christen isn’t in her line of sight, she can almost pretend she doesn’t exist.

In fact, it feels almost good, almost like the old days, when Alyssa, Moe, and Casey used to spend all day here, even sleep over.

But it’s still only almost good, because it can’t be like the old days. Not anymore. Tobin feels like an entirely different human being now. And also, Christen Press is here, an outsider, an intruder.

Originally, Tobin plans to kick them all out after an hour. But then the two-hour mark passes, and then the three. Around the three-and-a-half hour mark, Moe drunkenly demands more guacamole, and Tobin rolls her eyes, but she’s already on her feet. She leaves the girls loudly reminiscing about some national team camp drama or other.

She enters the kitchen, sees Christen, jumps. Christen turns and flinches too.

“I’m just…uh…Moe wants more guac, so I’m just going to make some,” Tobin says, immediately hating herself for it. This is your kitchen! Why do you feel the need to explain yourself to her?

“Oh. Sure.” Is it just Tobin, or does Christen sound a little antsy, too? “I wasn’t like, snooping around or anything. Just looking at these photos.”

Tobin nods, uncomfortable, as she reassembles her ingredients and gets to work. It’s odd to have Christen observing her belongings, because it forces Tobin to look too, to consider what the room says about her. There are so many things in her apartment that have been up for so long, they’ve faded into invisibility for her—like the photo prints hung in neat white frames on the wall, which Tobin’s sister helped her pick out, once upon a time.

“These are nice,” Christen says absentmindedly. She’s still looking, and not leaving, and Tobin doesn’t know what to make of it. “Where did you buy them?”

Tobin looks over her shoulder to check what Christen’s looking at. They’re large black and white photographs, off-kilter and almost abstract. “Oh, uh, those are mine.”

“Yours?”

“I took them.” The admission makes Tobin nervous, like she’s going to get called out for showing off.

“Oh.” Christen leans in for a closer look. “Wow. They’re good.”

Tobin knows, she knows, she could just keep her mouth shut. But instead, she says, all sarcastic, “Don’t sound so surprised.”

Christen lets out a long sigh and pinches the bridge of her nose. Tobin imagines a substitute teacher being driven to her wits end by a class of third-grade hooligans. Tobin’s the third-grade hooligan in this situation, of course.

“I just want you to know, I really tried to get out of coming tonight, but I swear, Casey wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“She kept saying it was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other.”

“Yeah.”

“You know, if you just told Casey you hate me, she’d stop trying so hard to bring me around.”

Tobin freezes, mid onion slice. Christen’s doing that thing again, the thing where she catches Tobin totally off guard, calls Tobin out like nobody else ever does, makes her feel like she’s squirming under a microscope.

Tobin knows she’s pathetic. She wants to be mean all she wants, but she doesn’t want to get called out for it.

“I don’t hate you!” Tobin protests feebly.

“Tobin…” Christen says wearily. She’s meandered over to the fridge now, and she’s looking at the photos that are plastered all over its front. She edges one photo out from under its magnet, holds it up, studies it. “I’ve tried, over and over, to bow out of hanging out with the group, but Casey is insistent. I’ve even told her that I get the sense that you don’t like me, and you know what she says?”

Tobin stays silent, refusing to look up from her chopping board.

“She says I must have it wrong, because Tobin loves everyone, and everyone loves Tobin. But clearly, I’m the exception.”

That’s not right, really, Tobin thinks miserably. The dichotomy, the gaping divide, isn’t between everybody and Christen. It’s really between the old Tobin and the new Tobin.

Old Tobin did truly love everybody. New Tobin…well, that’s what Christen’s been getting the brunt of.

But how can she say that out loud? She can’t. So she doesn’t.

The snick-snick-snick of onions being diced is the only sound in the kitchen.

“You don’t like me, and you’re not even trying to pretend,” Christen finishes. She doesn’t sound mad—maybe just tired, resigned. “And that’s fine. But hasn’t this been painful enough for both of us? You just need to say the word, and they’ll stop hanging out with me.”

Tobin chops harder. There’s a lurking horror somewhere under those words that she can’t quite place. All she knows is that even if she wanted to, she couldn’t open her mouth to give an answer. Her teeth are gritting themselves together so hard, she can feel the ache in her temples. Her eyes feel dry and pinchy.

“You know that’s true, right?” Christen is approaching, with soft steps. Tobin tenses up. “You know that if you just tell Casey, it’d be fine. You know you don’t have to be scared they’re going to replace you with me. Choose me over you.”

And there it is.

It hits her all at once, a tsunami wave of realization, out of nowhere. She’s been hating Christen, so determinedly, so viscerally, with every fiber of her being, since that first day they met at the park. And maybe on that first day, it’d been a mutual dislike, between equals. But it’s not that anymore.

What this is really about is that, Tobin realizes, is that Christen isn’t a bad person at all. In fact, she’s good, too good. She’s superior to Tobin in every way. More put together, more mature.

More talented, more accomplished.

Funny, outgoing, stylish, cosmopolitan, charming.  

Beautiful. So fucking beautiful she almost hurts to look at, like the sun and all the stars.

And maybe if Tobin said to Casey, “Hey, I want you to choose between me and your new friend Christen,” Casey might reply, “That’s easy. I choose Christen.”

Christen, who shines like the sun and all the stars, versus Tobin, a dumpster fire of a human being. It wouldn’t be a hard choice.  

And Tobin would know that, after all she’s put her friends through, she would deserve it.

“I’m not scared of that,” Tobin lies, and her voice sounds thick and choky, and she’s mortified at herself. At some point, she doesn’t know when, she’d laid the knife down and started gripping the edge of the counter for dear life. “I’m not.”

Christen stops, about an arm’s length away from Tobin. Gently, wordlessly, she lays down the photo she’d taken from the refrigerator.

Like the other photos, Tobin has almost forgotten about its existence. It’s an old candid shot from their rookie year. Moe’s cuddling her arm around Tobin’s shoulder, and Tobin’s laughing hard, head thrown back, at something Casey is saying, and Casey’s eyes are wide and her hands are mid-gesture, dramatically raised in the air. Alyssa is looking straight into the camera like Jim on The Office, deadpan and desperate to be rescued.

We were so young, is her first thought, and then she thinks, would they choose me anymore? And then, maybe they wouldn’t.  

She’s crying before she realizes she’s crying, just a few silent tears rolling fast down her face. When she feels them, she dashes her forearm brusquely, angrily, against her eyes.

“Onions,” she lies feebly, to nobody in particular. She doesn’t dare look in Christen’s direction. (Somewhere, in the far recesses of her mind, a dramatic announcer’s voice is informing her that she is crying in front of Christen Press, and that this is a new lowest-of-the-lows for her. Maybe tomorrow morning, she’ll wake up and feel deeply mortified by this. But right now, she’s just trying to hold her own heart together in her hands.)

“Maybe you were right, last week, when you said that you’re just a horrible person. Or maybe—and after tonight, I’m leaning this way—you were wrong,” she hears Christen say softly. “But either way, they love you. They would choose you,” she adds, as if she’s reading Tobin’s mind.

Tobin doesn’t realize Christen is gone until she hears the soft click of the shutting front door. She looks up to an empty room.   

“Tobin? Christen?” voices call from the living room. She’s not the only one who’s heard the door. She hurriedly dabs at her eyes.

“Where’d Christen go?” Moe is the first one around the corner, with the other two on her heels.

“You two were in here for a while. I thought you might be bonding!” Casey says. She looks around, as if Tobin’s hiding Christen under a cabinet or something.

“Uh, she had to go, all of sudden. Something must’ve come up.”

“So, what do you think? Do you like her?” Casey says hopefully. Moe and Alyssa, too, look like they’re waiting with cautious optimism for an answer.

Christen, who shines like the sun and all the stars, versus Tobin, a dumpster fire of a human being.

“I think she’s fine,” she hears her own voice say. “I don’t mind you inviting her at all.”

She can’t ask them to choose. She knows how the choice would go.

Chapter Text

“Come on, Fina!” Tobin shouts, racing down the side of the field, playfully shoving Moe aside as the other girl tries to angle in front of her. “You got this! You got this—YES!!” She throws her arms into the air as her mentee streaks across the finish line, having successfully dribbled around her practice cones faster than any of the other girls’ mentees.

Tobin gives Fina a congratulatory high-five. Then, when she thinks nobody else on the field is looking, she scoops the eight-year-old, all sweaty and jubilant and giggling, into her arms and whirls her around in a few circles.

In that moment, she feels more at home and at peace in the stadium than she has in months.

“Tobin, I’ve been practicing around the worlds, the way you taught me last week, you wanna see?!” Fina says eagerly as soon as Tobin sets her down on the grass.

As the other players and their kids scatter to do their own things, Tobin settles cross-legged on the grass to watch, grinning as Fina chatters on.

The mentoring is going okay. Better than okay, honestly—pretty great. After the Red Stars players settled on their mentees, the kids have been coming to the tail end of Red Stars’ practice to see what it’s actually like and even play-scrimmage with the team. After the rest of the team leaves, the Nike mentors hang around for another couple hours, like they’re doing now, for more practice and bonding. The first couple practice sessions, Nike sent their PR people with cameras, but now things have settled down into a nice, private routine now, just the way Tobin likes.

And then there’s Fina. When Tobin had finally bit the bullet and dove back into the applications, she was intensely moved by Fina’s story—her father and older brother had been killed in a car crash two years ago. Her brother had been the one to teach her to play soccer, which she loved, and she still wore his hand-me-down cleats and jerseys. I want to play soccer all the time, she had written in her scraggly, round handwriting, but I also want to help Mama at home more. She comes home very late after work. She makes my food and helps me wash my hair. She says soccer is good because she smiles when I smile, but I want to smile because she smiles sometimes, too. She doesn’t smile a lot.

I mean, talk about ripping your heart out and tearing it up into little, tiny pieces.

Before their first meeting, Tobin was almost more nervous than Fina was. What if I’m the worst mentor ever? She wondered, nervously cracking her knuckles till her fingers ached. What if she hates me and asks to switch? But when they met, Tobin felt immediately at ease around the laidback girl. And to Tobin’s delight, she was an obsessive, determined little player totally in love with the game, just like Tobin had been at that age. Seamlessly, naturally, they just fit.

Tobin knows some of the other girls on the team, particularly the rookies, think it’s disingenuous. “Look how nice Tobin can act when her little Nike girl is here,” she’d heard one of them muttering from the other side of the locker room last week. She knew Casey, changing next to her, had heard it too, knew from the way Casey’s mouth flattened into a straight line. “Don’t, Casey, it’s not even worth it—” she’d whispered wearily, but Casey was already charging across the locker room to give the rookies a piece of her mind.

More team discord, all my fault, as usual, Tobin thought, watching the rookies shrink under Casey’s scolding.

At the end of practice, the Nike shuttle bus comes to pick up the mentees—an added perk, so parents don’t have to alter their work schedules in order for their kids to participate in the program. Fina and Tobin continue their intense conversation about the last Arsenal game until the bus driver literally slams the door shut in Tobin’s face, while Fina giggles. By the time Tobin jogs back onto the field, her friends are already congregated on the sidelines with their water bottles. Guilty for making them wait, she picks up her pace to join them.

“Tobes, how do you feel about dinner Thursday at Casey’s?” Moe asks.

Tobin hedges, picking some dirt out of her cleats, not meeting the other girls’ eyes.

Odd, isn’t it? A couple of weeks ago, she would never have guessed that the absence of Christen Press at any gathering would bother her.

But Christen’s been totally MIA since the night at Tobin’s apartment. She must know, based on Casey’s constant invitations, that Tobin has still been too chicken to act on the conversation they’d had that night.

So clearly, Christen’s just taking the high road. Taking herself out of the equation.

And at every hang-out where Christen is conveniently missing, and Casey and Moe and Alyssa worry, Tobin feels guilt gnawing violently at her insides.

Even though Christen’s the one who’s gone, Tobin’s the one who suffers the weight of the truth. Christen is always doing the right thing, and Tobin is always doing the wrong thing.

And thus the truth remains that even when Tobin’s winning, by getting to be the one to hang out with their friends, she’s somehow still losing.

“Sure,” Tobin finally says, and out of the corner of her eye she sees the girls exchange sighs of relief that she hadn’t put up more of a fight.

“I’m guessing Christen can’t come, again?” Moe asks Casey, a bit of a worry line appearing on her forehead.

“No, I haven’t seen her once since that night we hung out at Tobin’s,” Casey frowns down at her phone, tapping the screen, as if a text from Christen would’ve magically materialized. “She keeps saying that Nutcracker rehearsals have picked up and she has to be rehearsing, like eight hours a day. I’ve told her that she can come hang out with us afterwards. But I guess she’s just tired and wants to head home. I’m starting to get a little worried. You guys haven’t heard from her recently, have you?”

Tobin shakes her head along with the others, though it feels like shame is engulfing her ribcage in fiery flames.

“Tobin!”

The girls turn to see Rory walking up to them. Tobin’s heart sinks. These days, whatever Rory has to say to her, it can’t be good.

“Tobin, walk with me,” Rory instructs. He eyes the rest of the girls and adds, “These little kids are cute, but the championship game is coming up. So far it’s been fine, but make sure you’re not losing focus by spending too much unnecessary time on them, got it?”

Tobin has to bite her tongue to prevent herself from retorting, already fired up in Fina’s defense. Instead, after a warning look from Alyssa, she grabs her stuff and obediently trots after Rory.

“Got a call from Nike,” he says, hands in his sweatshirt pockets, not looking at her, as they exit the field. “They said you didn’t do an interview at the kick-off event last month.”

“Well, Alyssa and Moe said I didn’t have to—”

“Apparently, Alyssa and Moe are wrong. Nike wants you in more of their publicity materials, and you’re to go downtown to film something on Thursday. They’ll email you the details.”

“Rory!” Tobin’s voice rises to a whine.

“Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are that they want you for the face of this thing. But hey, not my call, and not your call either, apparently. Be there. Your little girl will be there too.”

So three days later, Tobin finds herself trudging down the sidewalk towards Nike’s Chicago HQ. She’d seriously contemplated coming to the interview straight after practice—sweaty kit, straggly ponytail—just to prove a point. But knowing that Fina’s going to be here, she feels a strange pull to be a better example. Under her enormous puffer coat, she’s wearing a nice (well, nice for her) white sweater and black skinny jeans. Her hair is washed and blow-dried into silky waves, and she even has some mascara on.

And miracle of miracles, she’s a little early. She loiters in the lobby, waiting for Fina. The sooner she and Fina can get out of here, the sooner she can get to Casey’s for dinner. Secretly, she’s hoping that there’s enough of a gap that she can nap on Casey’s couch for a couple hours.

She’s checking her watch when she hears the door open and feels the accompanying sweep of icy Chicago air.

But when she looks up with a wide smile, ready to welcome Fina, the figure that runs shivering through the door is Christen Press.

Teeth chattering, Christen rubs her hands together for warmth as she walks forward, her eyes scanning across the lobby. Her hair is in a high bun that’s starting to come loose, and she’s wearing a silky green-gray scarf that brings out her eyes, her nose is red from the cold, and—maybe because it’s been so many weeks since Tobin’s seen her, but something about the sight is making it a little hard to breathe.

Then Christen looks her way.

“Oh!” she skids to a stop, eyes wide, when she sees Tobin standing there. “Tobin? Hi.”

“Uh, hi, Christen.” Tobin doesn’t know where to look.

“You’re here for the interview? Are we being interviewed together?” Christen asks. Tobin shrugs, scrambling for something to say. Did I just look super creepy, standing in the middle of the lobby as if I was waiting for her? Was I staring at her in a weird way? Shit, am I still staring at her in a weird way?

The pause is just starting to get painfully long when the door opens again.

Breathing a sigh of relief at the distraction, Tobin turns to greet Fina—

But yet again, it’s not Fina.

…it’s Faith and Nathan.

“Christen!” Faith shouts, launching herself forward into Christen’s arms.

Tobin’s first reaction is glee—Faith made it into the program! And she must be Christen’s mentee!

But it immediately fades into horror. Shit. Faith and Nathan are here. I’m here. What if they acknowledge that they know me? Should I hide? Is it too late to hide?

Behind Christen’s back, Nathan stares from Christen to Tobin, and gives Tobin this panicky eyebrow-raise, as if unsure of whether they should greet each other. Clearly, he’s remembering Tobin’s request not to mention her involvement in connecting Faith to the program.

Well, if he’s looking for Tobin to take the lead on this, they’re all screwed, because it feels like her brain has decided to spontaneously shut down on her.

No thoughts head empty, Tobin thinks.

Then she mentally berates herself for devolving to describing her life in memes in this moment.

Then she mentally berates herself for wasting time mentally berating herself when she should be figuring out how to get herself out of this mess.

Snap out of it. Maybe Faith won’t quite recognize me? And then I can attempt to pass it off like we’re meeting for the first time?

But then Faith is turning around in Christen’s arms, and looking straight at Tobin, and saying shyly, “Hi, Tobin!”

Shitshitshitshitshitshit—

“Wait—what?” Christen says. She blinks. She blinks again, harder. She gives her head a little shake, as if she’s trying to disperse a hallucination.

“Tobin, my leg is better!” Faith continues, casual and almost absent-minded. “Want to see?”

Christen and Tobin eyes meet and lock on each other for an endless moment. Christen looks a little like someone just dropped a sledgehammer on her head. Tobin can feel a red-hot blush creeping upwards from her neck, threatening to engulf her whole head in flames.

But Faith is putting her arms out for her, expectantly. So in one quick stride, Tobin walks forward and lifts her out of Christen’s frozen grasp. She adjusts Faith so she’s sitting more comfortably in Tobin’s arms. “Here, let’s see, show me.”

Faith reaches down and proudly pulls up the hem of her leggings. It takes her a second, which gives Tobin a moment to close her eyes and attempt to refocus. Just pretend Christen’s not standing three feet away, staring at you. Just pretend it’s just you and Faith. Just focus on Faith, don’t let her think anything’s wrong

“See? It’s better!”

Tobin immediately sees the tiny scar that remains from the fall. But she wrinkles her nose dramatically, furrows her brow, and squints at the leg from just inches away. “Huh? Where?!”

“Right there!” Faith points out eagerly.

“I don’t see anything! Am I blind? Are you sure it’s not on the other leg? I think it must be.” Tobin moves as if to check the other leg.

Faith’s howling with laughter. “No, Tobin, no! It’s definitely this leg!”

“I see it, I see it,” Tobin finally relents. “Gee, it’s tiny! You healed so fast! Are you sure you don’t have magical healing powers?”

“I don’t!”

“You’re not a magical fairy or anything?”

“No!”

“A witch? Are you Hermione Granger?”

“No!”

“A mermaid, then?”

“Mermaids don’t even have legs!” Faith shrieks, delighted.

“You’re right, you’re totally right,” Tobin slaps a hand to her forehead and shakes her head as Faith giggles. “I forgot, there’s no such thing as a ballerina mermaid, is there?”

As soon as Tobin sets Faith on the ground, she regrets it. Faith runs off back to Nathan, leaving Tobin without armor. With nothing between her and Christen. The jovial moment is gone, and the ice-cold reality of the situation comes rushing back.

Christen’s standing frozen, staring at Tobin as if it’s the first time she’s ever seen her face. “How do you know my mentee?”

Nathan’s looking towards Tobin again, the poor guy. Tobin scrambles for an explanation. “I, uh, happened to run into Nathan and Faith. In a grocery store. A couple weeks ago.”

That could be an okay cover. It could just be a weird coincidence, right, that Faith is also Christen’s mentee?

“Tobin helped me when I got hurt in the grocery store!” Faith pipes up.

Okay, so far so good—

“And she’s the one who found you for me, Christen!”

Christen’s eyes fly open wide.

Aaand, busted.

At this inopportune moment, the door opens again, and this time, it’s finally Fina, with her mother Sarah in tow. Tobin has never had to hit the on switch on her fake smile so quickly, and she’s grateful that nobody in the room knows her well enough to tear her façade to shreds. A staff member appears in the lobby to herd them to the interview, and after a quick, chaotic flurry of introductions—through which Tobin can still feel Christen’s piercing eyes on her—the whole group is ushered along.

As they pass through a narrow hallway, Tobin finds herself beside Nathan. “Hey, great to see you again! What do I say?!” Nathan whispers, gesturing to where Christen and Faith are walking ahead of them. “She asked me a few weeks ago how I found out about the program for Faith, and I said I found the flyer in a grocery store. I didn’t realize you two knew each other!”

Tobin lets out a long sigh and gives Nathan a wry smile. “Yeah, we…uh…run in the same crowd. Don’t worry, I’ll tell her everything. It was good while it lasted, huh?”

“You know,” Nathan says thoughtfully, “I know you were probably just too modest and chill to want to take credit, but I gotta say, maybe it’s good the truth is coming out. You deserve some recognition for making the connection. Just look how happy Faith is! When she got the call that Christen Press had chosen her for a mentee, she couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so happy.”

Tobin’s insides twist as she watches Faith and Christen walking hand in hand, Faith staring adoringly up at her idol. “Yeah, maybe it is a good thing,” she lies. But Christen shoots a questioning look over her shoulder at the sight of Nathan and Tobin talking, and Tobin gulps. Shit, I’m in for it.

They reach a room that’s set up with couches in front of a white backdrop, with lights and microphones and wires everywhere. Fina and Faith stare around with wide eyes, inching back towards their parents in the unfamiliar environment. The Nike staffer says cheerfully, “Fina, Faith—and Nathan, Sarah—this must be so new and exciting for you! Come over here, and I’ll walk you through what we’re going to be doing today.”

Instead of following the crowd towards the couches, Christen lingers near the door, shrugging off her long puffer coat and hanging it on a hook. Tobin’s distracted for a second, surveying her from head to toe: that loose, high bun, a soft pink wrap sweater knotted loosely over a black leotard, black leggings, white legwarmers, Ugg boots. She looks a little more tired and thin than Tobin remembered. There are dark circles under her eyes, and a bit of a droop around her mouth. But she’s still jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Tobin works to keep her jaw from dropping accordingly. Her mouth feels a little dry. She doesn’t let herself think about why. 

Instead, she comes up next to Christen under the guise of hanging up her own coat, and says under her breath, “If you’re going to be mad, be mad at me. It’s not Nathan’s fault. I’m the one who asked him not to say anything.”

“Nathan told me that he found the flyer at the grocery store,” Christen says. Her tone is hard to read. How angry is she? “He made it sound like it was in a stack by the checkout counter or something.”

“He did get it at the grocery store,” Tobin rambles defensively. “I mean…we were in a grocery store. When I handed the flyer to him. I was grocery shopping, and Faith was wearing a tutu, and Nathan and I got to talking, and I just…I don’t know. I don’t know what came over me. And then I told him not to say anything to anyone. So just be mad at me.”

Christen’s turning as if to say something, but they’re interrupted by a Nike rep who comes up behind them. “Tobin, Christen, hi! Thanks for making the time today. We were supposed to have a basketball player from the Chicago Sky here today, but unfortunately, their flight back from an away game was delayed, so she wasn’t able to make it with her mentee. Looks like it’ll just be the two of you and your mentees. Do the two of you know each other?”

Tobin and Christen stare awkwardly at each other.

“We’ve been acquainted,” Christen says, as Tobin stutters out, far less eloquently, “Uh, sorta.”

I’ve only insulted her multiple times and then cried in front of her in my kitchen, no big deal.

“Okay, well,” The Nike rep muses. “Try to really play up the friendship in front of the camera, if at all possible. The girls are going to pick up on your mood, so you really need to set the tone. Try to be relaxed and funny with each other.”

Jesus, this is going to be a nightmare, isn’t it? I already suck at interviews even when I’m trying to be myself. Now I have to try not to suck at an interview while pretending like Christen Press and I are best friends? While she’s mad at me? I hate this. I hate this so much.

Fina and Faith are already seated on the sofas, bouncing up and down and laughing with each other.

At least our mentees are getting along.

Tobin’s squaring her shoulders, trying to internally pump herself up to join them, when Fina’s mother Sarah intercepts her. Tobin lights up, gives her a quick hug. She’d met the young woman a few times early on. Sarah is fiery and jolly and incredibly hard-working, and Tobin can see where Fina had picked up a lot of her characteristics. “It’s so great you’re here! I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I took the afternoon off of work!” Sarah says. “It took some wrangling, but the diner manager finally let it happen. It’s not every day your baby girl gets to appear in a Nike interview.” She smiles fondly over at where Fina is gabbing with Faith on the sofa. “How incredibly special is this, right?”

“Right. So special,” Tobin echoes. She immediately feels a low-simmering shame for complaining about the interview. Why am I such a shitty person? She wonders as she takes her seat next to Fina, pensively observing Fina and Faith’s excited little faces. Just suck it up. Do it for the girls.

As soon as the cameras are rolling, she puts on a smile and turns on the charm.

She’s not the only one in interview mode, and she’s certainly not the best at it.

Immediately, Tobin is reminded her of her first impression of Christen Press the day they met. The way she sits ramrod straight, crosses her ankles, angles her chin, smiles at the camera—it’s all so natural. Even in her practice clothes, without makeup on, she’s regal. Electrifying.

Watching her, Tobin self-consciously scoots herself up into a slightly less slouched position.

With Christen in the driver’s seat of this interview, it goes so much more smoothly than Tobin expected. She’s so good at media. She’s got a way of pivoting the conversation to include everyone, opening up space for others to do and say interesting things—but gently, inconspicuously, as if she’s barely there.

Add “potential talk show host” to the list of Christen Press’s skills, Tobin thinks.

She catches her gaze drifting down the angle of Christen’s jaw, lingering on the soft skin on the side of her neck, under her ear, until she remembers—Shit, there’s cameras.

Tobin feels frozen and fake with a smile on her face for the first few minutes, but then she finds herself relaxing and joking too. It’s hard not to smile, for real, when Faith gets up and demonstrates the foot positions in ballet, her little face all serious as she explains her moves. Then Fina wants to try, and they get a long, hilarious segment of Faith teaching her, of Fina wobbling and falling down trying to hold fifth position and laughing at herself.

“Hey, Faith, don’t try to steal my mentee!” Tobin teases. “Fina, hey, you’re here for soccer, remember?”

“Why don’t you guys show us some moves?” Christen laughs, and it’s the perfect pivot. They bring out some soccer balls. Fina shows off her around-the-worlds, chattering about how Tobin taught them to her last week. With a ball by her side, Tobin feels more at home, and she executes a perfect rainbow. Then Fina has to try one too, of course, and sends the ball ricocheting off-screen as Christen and Faith dramatically duck for cover. There’s a crash as it knocks over a floor lamp.

“We’re working on that one next week,” Tobin deadpans to the cameraman.

When they finally settle in for the actual question-and-answer portion, Tobin finds herself less nervous than she would’ve been. She usually feels tongue-tied and foggy-brained during interviews, and then in the shower that night, she’ll suddenly think of perfect answers to all the questions after it’s too late to give them. But it helps today that the girls are totally into it now, and they chatter on and on, barely giving Tobin and Christen time to get a word in edgewise. 

“Fina, what’s it been like having Tobin as a mentor?”

“It’s been amazing!” Fina says, shooting Tobin a huge smile. “I was a little nervous at first, because she’s, like…THE Tobin Heath. But she’s so nice, and funny, and she explains things so well. And she’s so encouraging. Whenever I look over at her during practice, when I think I make mistakes, she’s always smiling at me.”

“Am I really?” Tobin wonders, before she realizes that she said it out loud. She feels herself blushing under the weight of all Fina’s praise.

“Yeah!” Fina exclaims. “You’re always smiling. You’re always giving me high fives when I try something new, even if I don’t do it right. It makes me want to try again even when I mess up.”

From the other end of the set, Christen is studying Tobin, attentive and contemplative.

The questions and answers pivot towards the dancers for a while, to Tobin’s relief. They ask Faith a bunch of questions about what she likes about dancing, and then they talk to Christen about the program. There are dance-specific terms that Tobin’s not quite following, and she’s just starting to daydream a little, planning what she wants to teach Fina during their next practice session, when one of Christen’s answers catches her attention.

“Another unspoken benefit of this program is that even the mentors have a lot of learning to do,” Christen is saying thoughtfully. “I know that I have. For example, I’ve gotten to be friends with the Red Stars players—”

She nods towards Tobin’s end of the couch with a smile that’s wide and beautiful, and god, it’s such a smile, and Tobin has seen it before directed at others, but never directed at her. It hits her full force, like a tractor beam. It takes her breath away.

She finds herself wishing—achingly, bewilderingly—if only it were genuine, and not just for the cameras.

“—and they’ve invited me to their games,” Christen is continuing, “And in the process, I’ve learned so much about soccer. It’s such a spectacular sport. Of course, everyone knows how physically grueling it is, but I truly didn’t recognize, at the outset of this whole adventure, just how much of an art form it is.”

“Really? An art form, like ballet is?” the interviewer injects.

And then Christen says, “Yes, absolutely. I mean, to recognize the inherent beauty, and artistry, in soccer, all you have to do is watch Tobin play.”

Tobin sits, stunned and gratified. Her body feels like it’s on fire. Holy shit. Did she just say what I thought she said?

“So you’re saying Tobin’s an artist on the field,” the interviewer says, all casual, as if Tobin’s world hasn’t just shifted on its axis. “And Tobin? What do you say to that?”

Was it just for the cameras? Or did she really mean it?

“I…uh…” Tobin stutters. “Yeah, I definitely think of soccer as an art form. And when I’m out there on the field, I’m not just there to win, I’m also there to entertain. And to use my imagination. It’s never just about the scoreline, for me, it’s about all the beautiful little skills in between.” And suddenly, out of nowhere, her mouth is just rambling by itself, and she adds, “And you know, it goes both ways. Christen’s a ballet dancer, but that means that she’s an athlete. I mean, I’ve never seen her dance, but I’m sure it requires an insane amount of athleticism. When she came to visit us at our game, all the Red Stars players were impressed with how fast and far she could kick a ball. She was making shots from midfield on her first try.” Tobin laughs, “And I mean, she can literally run circles around me—”

Then—all of a sudden, in a red-hot flush—Tobin remembers that she’s never told anyone about the day Christen left her in the dust on that lakeside run. Not even Christen. Especially not Christen.

Shit.

She clams up immediately, and the interviewer is exclaiming something about how cool it is that they’re leaning from each other, but it’s too late.

Over the girls’ heads, their eyes meet, and there’s something new in Christen’s gaze—something curious and puzzled, heated and sparkling.

Tobin tears her eyes away, utterly mortified.

She manages to hang onto her facade for the rest of the interview, laughing at Fina’s antics and providing hopefully coherent answers to any question that’s specifically directed towards her. But as soon as the cameras cut, the last bits of small talk are finished, and the girls are bundled up and gone with their parents, Tobin sprints to the bathroom. She rests her elbows on the shining porcelain sink and groans out loud.

“She can literally run circles around me?” Why the FUCK would I say something like that? Does that make it super obvious that I’ve seen her run before? Like a stalker? Holy shit, Tobin, you idiot.

She splashes some icy-cold water on her face and on the back of her neck, remembering the words Christen had said. The way she’d glanced at Tobin, all confused and inquisitive, and—

Tobin shakes her head until her neck aches, as if her brain is an old-fashioned Etch-a-Sketch she could just shake clean. It’s fine. It’s all fine. The statement about running, that could just be passed off as a general observation of Christen being in shape. The things Christen said about Tobin being an artist, that could’ve just been for the interview. She might not have meant it. Anyway, she’s probably still mad about the Faith thing, and was just playing up the friendliness for the cameras. It’s fine. They can just go back to never seeing each other again, and Tobin can forget this mortifying ordeal ever happened.

She hangs around in the bathroom for a few more minutes to make sure everyone’s gone, before heading back to the room for her coat. She opens the door into a now-dark room. It’s empty, and all the camera equipment and lighting has been removed. She turns towards the hook where she hung her coat earlier.

It’s gone.

“Ahem.”

Tobin whirls around to see Christen, leaning against the wall, Tobin’s coat in her arms.

“Jeez!” Tobin leaps backwards. “Fucking hell, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” Christen says, but Tobin can see the smirk on her face even in the dark room, and she doesn’t look very apologetic.

“Uh, that’s my coat you’ve got there.”

“Yeah, I wanted some insurance to make sure you didn’t try to sneak off.”

“Why would I try to sneak off?!” Tobin protests, offended, as if she wasn’t just caught trying to sneak off.

Christen hedges for a second, biting down on her lip, before saying, “Before you left, I just wanted to make sure I had a chance to say thank you.”

 Tobin blinks. “What for?”

Instead of answering, Christen just tips her head to one side. “I’ve been wondering—why did you tell Nathan not to mention that you were the one who told them about applying?”

Tobin doesn’t have an answer.

“Did you think that I’d be biased against her if I knew that you were the connection?” Christen prompts. “Because you know, I wouldn’t have been. Even if I’d known.”

“No, that’s not it!” Tobin protests vehemently.

Honestly, she can’t even put her finger on why. Why it had felt so overwhelmingly important for her to stay out of the picture.

Nathan had it wrong earlier, though. It certainly wasn’t modesty that had prevented her from sharing the truth.

Christen had it wrong, too. It hadn’t for a second crossed her mind that Christen would torpedo someone’s application just because Tobin knew the applicant.

It’s simpler than that, she realizes: she isn’t a good person, so it feels fake—deceptive, almost—to try to claim credit for doing good deeds. Connecting Faith to Christen was an act so out of the realm of normalcy for her that it would feel disingenuous to even claim it as her own.

So she just shrugs half-heartedly in response to Christen’s searching gaze, and reaches out and grabs her coat back. “Honestly, I don’t know. Just felt…weird, I guess.”

Christen’s face falls, almost imperceptibly. She pulls back a little, and her voice takes on a more formal tone again. “I suppose maybe you thought that if I knew, I’d try to reach out and contact you about it or something. Don’t worry. I’ll keep staying out of your way, out of everyone’s way. But I wanted to say thank you, just once. Faith is a dream—she’s incredible. I really appreciate you setting this up.”

I didn’t set it up, Tobin wants to protest. You’re the one who chose her application out of a pool of dozens.

She doesn’t quite get up the courage to form the words, though, before Christen is giving her one last sad smile on her way out the door.

Tobin stands in the dark room for a long moment, clutching her coat to her chest.

The distant ring of a phone jolts her out of her stupor, and she emerges into the hallway. Christen has trudged halfway down the hallway already, and it’s her phone that’s ringing. Tobin watches from a distance, unbeknownst to Christen, as she reaches into her pocket to answer it.

“Casey? Hi.”

Tobin freezes.

“Yeah, I got your text. Texts. Sorry I didn’t respond. Dinner tonight? I…” Christen’s voice falters. “No, I can’t go. Yeah, I know, I know, I’m so sorry. It’s just…I’m busy, and…” She slows to a stop in the middle of the hallway, and Tobin watches as she closes her eyes, tips her chin up towards the ceiling, places one balled-up fist in the middle of her forehead as if she’s desperately trying to conjure up an answer.

“I know, I’m sorry, and I miss you all too. Tell Moe and Alyssa I said hi. I know I said last time that I’d try to make it this time, but, uh, something came up…and—no! Casey, there’s nothing wrong, I swear, it’s not anything you’ve done, I’m just so busy…”

Is Tobin just imagining it, or is Christen’s voice wobbling a little?

Her legs are moving before she knows it. She takes one slow step towards Christen, and then another, and then she’s suddenly sprinting.

“I really will try to make it next time, I promise—” Christen is saying as Tobin gets closer and closer. Christen turns, confused, at the sound of pounding footsteps, just as Tobin gets to her and whisks the phone out of her hand.

“Case? It’s me.” Tobin gasps into the phone, trying to catch her breath.

Tobin?” Casey exclaims.

“TOBIN?!” Several more voices in the background shriek.

Oh, Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?

“Yeah, listen up,” she continues, before she can chicken out, “Christen will be coming to dinner. We’ll be there. See you in a bit. Bye.”

Tobin tosses the phone back to Christen, who catches it with her mouth slightly agape.

“What?” Tobin mumbles defensively, scratching her elbow with her other hand as she looks down at the ground. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” Christen says. There’s a grin creeping up the edges of her mouth. “Thanks.”

Tobin bites her lip, glances up at Christen’s face through her eyelashes. “I don’t know what you’re thanking me for.”

Christen just smiles—this absolutely breath-taking beam. And this time, Tobin knows that it’s for her. Really for her. Christen’s eyes crinkle and her whole face lights up, and Tobin feels her whole body lighting up with it.

“I do need to go home first, actually,” Christen says.

“Oh, yeah, your dog, right?” Tobin says absentmindedly, overlapping with Christen right as she’s finishing her sentence, “I really need to get another hour or so of working out in.”

“Wait—how did you know I have a dog?” Christen’s eyebrow quirks. She waits.

Tobin scrambles for an answer. A non-stalker answer. An answer that doesn’t imply that she follows Christen on lakeside runs. “Uh, Instagram?” Every dog owner posts a lot of dog pictures. Right?

“Oh.” Christen seems to accept the lie at face value. She looks back down, but then lets out a confused little chuckle.

“What?” Tobin asks defensively.

Christen looks up, brow a little wrinkled, the edge of her mouth curling up into a smirk. “I just don’t remember the last time I posted anything about Morena on Instagram. You must’ve scrolled way back.”

Shit, shit, shit. How had the lie become even more embarrassing than the truth?

Mercifully, Christen takes pity on her and changes the subject. “What are you going to do between now and dinner?”

“Uh, I’m not sure.” Tobin should say that her plan was going to be napping on Casey’s couch, but for some reason, she hesitates. “Casey’s place is close to here, so it’s not really worth heading home. I might try to find somewhere to grab a coffee…or something.”

“Yeah. I live pretty close to here as well.”

Christen pauses.

“You could, uh, come back to my apartment with me? I mean, it’s going to be kind of boring for you. But there is coffee there that you wouldn’t have to pay for.”

Ah. That’s the reason, Tobin realizes, as a giddy warmth spreads through her chest. She didn’t know it until the words were out of Christen’s mouth, but this is exactly the outcome she wanted.

“Sure,” she hears herself saying. “I’d love to meet your dog. And drink your coffee.”

(She hopes she sounded nonchalant, instead of enraptured.)

They meander down the sidewalk together in shockingly companionable silence. Out of the corner of her eye, Tobin sneaks a glance at Christen, all bundled up with her scarf around her face, the hood of her puffer coat pulled up tight over her head, and still very obviously shivering in the stiff Chicago wind they’re walking headfirst into.

She feels a sudden, strange urge to wrap her arms around the other girl and shelter her from the wind and maybe tease her for being such a little wimp.

Where is this coming from?! Get a fucking grip, she chastises herself, forcing herself to turn away and look across the street.

“Hey!” She exclaims, tapping on Christen’s arm to get her attention. There’s a huge billboard across the way, advertising the Nutcracker.

Christen glances over, and her eyes light up. “Look, it’s Mal!” she gasps, pointing. The poster features a close-up of Mal holding a nutcracker in her arms. Christen fishes her phone out of her pocket and snaps a couple pictures. “She’s going to be so excited to see these!”

“Isn’t that you, too?” Tobin asks, pointing to the smaller figure in another part of the poster, in a pink and white tutu.

Christen rolls her eyes and keeps walking, and Tobin has to jog to catch up. “Yeah, I wish they hadn’t put me on it at all. I asked them not to. Anyway…it’s Mal’s first poster ever! I’ll have to get her out here to take a picture in front of it soon.”

As they walk on, Tobin remembers with chagrin all the shit she’d given Christen for those Sleeping Beauty posters over the summer. She doesn’t even like them herself.

When they get to Christen’s apartment, on the 20th floor of a skyscraper near the lake, Christen unlocks the touchpad door, and Tobin hesitantly follows Christen in.

Based on Christen’s Instagram presence, Tobin had been expecting a girly, basic space. Some carefully coordinated throw pillows, a fluffy rug, maybe a Live, Laugh, Love sign. Instead, the space is large, sparse, and industrial, all clean lines and warm wood and minimalism. The front area, clearly intended to be an open living and dining space, is actually empty. The walls are entirely made up of windows that provide a glorious, panoramic view of Chicago, sparkling in the dusk, with the lake in the distance. The wooden floor gleams in the low light. There’s a huge mirror propped against the wall, five or six jar candles in the corner, and a yoga mat unrolled near the wall with other workout gear lined up neatly nearby.

At the sound of their entrance, Christen’s little brown dog comes bounding to the door. Its tail wags wildly around as it sniffs at Christen’s knees, and then it jumps over to Tobin.

“This is Morena,” Christen says apologetically, reaching down for Morena’s collar. “Sorry, she’s a little excitable around new people.”

“No, she’s super cute,” Tobin murmurs, getting down on her knees to scratch behind Morena’s ears. She takes the opportunity to linger behind Christen and glance around a little more. Against an exposed brick wall on the far side of the huge room, there’s a bed, low to the ground and covered in an enormous, fluffy, woven white comforter. There’s no other furniture to be seen. It smells like coffee and cedar and sage.

I love this. She hates to admit it to herself, and the very thought seems to scrape uncomfortably against the insides of her chest as it blooms inside her. But as she turns slowly from side to side, mesmerized, she can’t deny it.

When was the last time she had walked into a space and felt it speaking to her? Like it’s telling her, you’re home? She can’t recall. And the feeling—and the fact that it’s Christen Press’s apartment—terrifies her.

“Want anything to drink? Coffee, right?” Christen has taken off her shoes and hung her coat and purse up near the door. Shuddering at the thought of herself accidentally tracking Chicago slush over those gleaming floors, Tobin quickly ditches her shoes as well and trails Christen into the dark kitchen. Christen’s got the door of the gleaming silver fridge open, revealing organized rows of three different expensive brands of sparkling water, kombucha, yogurt, and a jug of cold brew.

“Um, anything,” Tobin responds, trying to keep her voice light and casual, trying not to reveal how strangely affected she is by Christen’s home. “Nice place. No furniture?”

“Well, there’s my bed. And there’s a desk and chair over around the corner, you just can’t see them from here.” Christen pulls out a can of Pellegrino for herself and pours a glass cup of cold brew for Tobin. Then she flicks a switch on the wall, and lights come on in the apartment. They’re recessed spotlights, dim and rosy, and they fill the space with even more magic—pools of light like honey, and wavering, soft shadows in between. “I keep this front space open. It’s good for practicing on days I don’t make it into the studio.”

An image of Christen in a sheer white dress, drifting through the pools of light and shadow, floats unbidden to the front of Tobin’s mind.

She pushes it aside.

“Good for dance practice, but less good for entertaining,” Tobin quips, accepting the glass that Christen holds out. “Guess you don’t have guests over very often.”

She means it as a joke—surely Christen is a social butterfly, a queen of society, with hundreds of friends—but as Christen’s face falls and she turns away under the pretense of scratching her dog’s ears, Tobin realizes in shock that she might have accidentally hit too close to home.

“So, uh, what did you have to come back to do before dinner?” Tobin asks, awkwardly changing the subject.

“I need to take Morena for a walk, and then I need to work out a little. Preferably two hours, but I might only have time for one. I cut my usual afternoon routine short to get to the interview on time.” Christen puts her hands on her lips and purses her lips as she thinks.

Tobin says the first thing that comes to mind. “If you need to work out for two hours, why don’t I take Morena for the walk? I’m good with dogs.”

Christen raises one eyebrow. “I barely know you, Tobin Heath. You think I’m going to trust you with my dog?”

Tobin’s about to protest when she realizes that Christen’s kidding.

“I mean, you’re right to be nervous; she’s definitely cute enough to kidnap,” she teases back, looking down at Morena, who’s now sitting obediently right next to Tobin, staring adoringly up at her.

Christen contemplates. “That actually might work. If you’re sure you don’t mind, that is. It’s weird…” she looks slowly from Morena to Tobin. “She’s usually not this good with strangers, but she seems to really like you. But are you sure?”

“Yeah. Can’t risk having you go outside again; you looked like you were going to blow away earlier.”   

Christen rolls her eyes as she hands Tobin a leash and a dog poop bag. “Ha, ha, very funny. As soon as Nutcracker season is over, I’m heading home to California for a month. No money in the world is worth staying the entire winter in Chicago.”

So she’s from California. Tobin tucks this tidbit away in her mind. As she winds through nearby sidewalks with Morena trotting obediently beside her, she thinks through all the other new information she’s learned about Christen in the last few of hours.

Christen Press has got dope taste in interior design.

Christen Press doesn’t like being on promotional posters.

Christen Press doesn’t have as many friends as I thought she did.

…Which means that it must have been even harder for her to cut herself off from Casey and the rest.

…Which she did for my sake, even while I was being a total bitch to her.

Christen Press said that soccer was an art form today.

And Christen Press is weirdly adorable when she’s cold.

But get a grip on whatever this weird, sudden fascination with Christen is, Tobin adds to herself as she gets back in the elevator with Morena after an hour-long walk. Because whatever you want to happen, it’s not going to happen. She’s perfect. She’s not going to be your girlfriend. She might not even be your friend. Right now, she’s just a friend of a friend. She’s made it perfectly clear, over and over, that she’s only trying to be civil with you for Casey’s sake.

Tobin lets herself into the apartment with the passcode Christen had told her. Once again, the apartment has her in its strange, emotional grip at once. It’s warm. Classical music is playing loudly, the lights are dimmed, and all the candles in the living room are burning.

Tobin rounds the entryway corner slowly, lingering halfway in the dark hallway. Christen comes into view in the candlelit room, dancing in the center of the wooden floor, clad in a black leotard and pointe shoes. Her arms and legs are long and thin and perfectly muscular. Her hair is up in a high bun, and a sheer glimmer of sweat covers her skin as she executes a series of spins.

She ends, frozen in place, balanced on one toe with her other leg extended out behind her. Her ribcage rises and falls with her heavy breath. Her eyes are sharp as she carefully studies her own form in the mirror; adjusting the positioning of her arms and shoulders ever-so-slightly.

Tobin watches in a daze. Her mouth has gone dry, making it hard to swallow. The whole darkly glowing room seems to ebb and flow around her. Like Christen’s movement is the ocean, and Tobin is in a little raft, lost at sea.

The spell breaks when Morena dashes up to Christen for kisses, her toes scrabbling on the hardwood floor and her collar clanking loudly. Christen drops down from being on pointe and glances around. When she sees Tobin, she sends her a shy smile.

“Did you have a good walk, baby girl?” she coos at Morena, bending down as Morena snuffles at her face. She settles down cross-legged on the ground and puts her arms around her dog. “Did you have a good walk with your new friend Tobin?”

Tobin’s heart is pounding out of her chest, and she feels like she’s in sensory overload, and a new line appears on Tobin’s mental checklist before she can stop it:

I think I might be a little bit in love with Christen Press.

Chapter Text

“So what is up with you and Christen?” Moe asks one day.

Practice has just wrapped up, and Tobin is idly juggling a ball on the field. She had it balanced on her forehead when Moe speaks up. At the sound of the question, she twitches involuntarily, and the ball goes bouncing off her head.

Great.

“Nothing,” Tobin says firmly, chasing after the ball, which is conveniently rolling far away from Moe.

When she gets back, though, Moe hasn’t let it go.

“You literally answered the phone for her and told us that she’d go to Casey’s dinner the other day. And then you showed up together. But then you sat across the room from each other and didn’t talk to each other all night. What’s up with that?”

“I told you already—we ran into each other at the Nike interviews,” Tobin groans. “That’s the only reason I even heard her on the phone with you guys.”

Moe shrugs. “I’m just saying. She’s like, really pretty, isn’t she? Since you seem to have decided not to hate her that much…”

“Is she pretty? I hadn’t noticed,” Tobin lies blatantly. “And just because I’ve decided not to hate her doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to love her. I’ve just decided she’s tolerable.”

In truth, the day of the dinner, Tobin had been so terrified by the sudden onslaught of the realization that she had a crush on Christen Press that she’d spent the rest of the night dodging her. But it wasn’t like that had hurt Christen’s feelings. In fact, Christen had barely seemed to notice. As soon as they’d arrived at Casey’s, she’d gotten swept up by the other girls immediately, and had spent the rest of the night animatedly catching up with them while Tobin—as usual—lingered silently in the background.

Of course she’s not going to tell the other girls that, every hour of every day since then, when she closes her eyes, she sees Christen, dancing in that black leotard in that candlelit room.

The silver lining is that it’s been great motivation. Tobin has pushed herself harder at practice than she has in months. When those dim images start spiraling into more scandalous territory, reminding her of everything she wants and can’t have, Tobin runs faster, lifts more, fights harder for the ball, until her chest and legs are on fire with fatigue. The pain is a refreshing distraction from her thoughts.

Even Rory has noticed. Just that day, after practice ended, he had said, “Not bad, Tobin.” It’s the nicest thing he’s said to her in months.

“Are you going to Kealia’s party this weekend, Tobin?” Casey asks.

“Is Christen going to be there?” The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.

Moe rolls her eyes. “Yeah, she’s invited. But won’t worry, it’ll be a huge party, so you won’t have to talk to her if you don’t have to! Besides, I thought you guys were getting along better?”

Tobin just shrugs again. “Like I said, I tolerate her.”

When she emerges from the shower a while later, Alyssa’s the last one left in the locker room, packing up her bag. She looks up as Tobin enters the room. “Hey. Earlier, why’d you ask if Christen was going to be at Kealia’s party?”

“Why does everyone want to talk about Christen Press all the time?!” Tobin exclaims. “I just…want to…avoid her.”

Alyssa’s smirks are the worst, because they’re so rare, but so lethal.

“Okay, sure, whatever you say. So now that you know she’s going, you’re not going to go, right?”

Tobin rolls her eyes. “…I’m still thinking about it.”

Really, she shouldn’t go. She needs to get over this weird Christen crisis. She even deleted Instagram off her phone, after her phone had snidely told her that she’d spent three hours on Instagram in one day. She’d filled in the blanks, knowing that she’d spent most of that time scrolling through Christen’s profile. (The last time Christen had posted about Morena had, in fact, been ten months ago. When Tobin saw the date stamp, she had screwed her eyes shut and wished for the floor to swallow her whole.)

But of course, now that she knows Christen’s going to be at this party, she’s going to go, of course. She knows she should try to fight it. But she knows she’s going to fail.  

In the end, she compromises. She tells herself that she should be at the party, just to support Kealia, just to make a good-faith showing of trying to get to know all the other Red Stars players who will be there. She tells herself that she’ll show up to the party late; leave early. She tells herself she’ll greet Christen like the casual friends-of-friends that they are; that she’ll avoid being in the same room as Christen if she can help it.

She doesn’t put any extra thought into her outfit. Okay, fine, maybe she changes once. (Or four times.) Maybe she ends up in tight black ripped jeans and a low-cut white henley shirt that more than one girl has informed her makes her look like Sex on Legs. Maybe she puts on more mascara than usual.

Picking up snacks at the grocery store, she wanders—totally coincidentally, for sure—into the aisle with all the sparkling water. Seltzer makes for a good drink mixer. She’ll just get one kind. Maybe two. All right, fine, three. (It’s a big party, after all.) And it’s just a coincidence that these happen to be the same three brands she glimpsed in Christen’s fridge last week.

After not-so-subtly watching Tobin lift three boxes of seltzer into her shopping cart, wearing her Sex on Legs outfit, a girl in the grocery store asks for her number on the spot. Instead of texting her without a second thought, which is her typical modus operandi, Tobin turns the girl down firmly. For no particular reason, she tells herself. She’s just not in the mood. She just needs to focus on the upcoming NWSL championships.

The party is in full swing by the time Tobin shows up. She ducks through the crowded house, keeping an eye out for Christen (purely for avoidance purposes, of course). Her first stop is the kitchen, to drop off the seltzer and other snacks on the crowded counter, where she runs into Casey. But Casey’s talking to some of the rookies, who don’t look too pleased to see Tobin, so she bounces as fast as possible. She spots Alyssa, Moe, and Fabrice leaning against the wall in the hallway, far from the living room where music is blasting.

“Tobin, you made it! And you look great!” Moe cheers when Tobin joins them.

“You look suspiciously great,” Alyssa adds under her breath.

Tobin rolls her eyes. “I’m slightly insulted that you guys don’t think I look great all the time.”

“I didn’t realize you were a seltzer person,” Moe says, gesturing at the can in Tobin’s hand.

Tobin looks down at it, shrugs, takes a sip. It’s actually not bad. “Well, championship game coming up, you know. I figured I’d lay off the beer for a while.”

She doesn’t know quite how to feel about the approval evident in Moe and Alyssa’s eyes. It makes her feel kind of pitiful, that they’re clearly keeping track of all her horrible decisions.

But at the same time, it also feels…kind of great.

To be doing one thing right for once, even if it’s a tiny thing.

“Oh, hey.” Moe looks over Tobin’s shoulder towards the door. “Christen just got here.”

All the hairs on Tobin’s arms are suddenly standing on end.

She feels Alyssa’s observant gaze on her, so stubbornly, she doesn’t turn to look. She leans against the wall and tries to distract herself by playing an old familiar game, trying to pinpoint the face of the hottest girl in sight.

It doesn’t work. Everyone standing in her line of sight might as well have potatoes for heads. There’s a tight sensation in her chest, like she’s deep underwater and suddenly Christen is the only oxygen in the whole house. If she could just get close to her—if she could just lay on eyes on her, or hear her voice—then she could breathe.

“Christen!” She hears Casey squeal from the kitchen.

“Casey, hi!”

It’s a little burst of oxygen. Totally tuning out whatever Moe and Fabrice are talking about beside her, Tobin takes a deep breath, strains to hear more over the ruckus.

“Should I just put this wine with the rest of the alcohol here?”

“Yeah, I think that’d be fine with Kealia and JJ. You want me to ask for a corkscrew to open it?”

“No, thanks. I have early practice tomorrow, so I shouldn’t be drinking too much—I’ll just have one of these. Hey, this is my favorite sparkling water brand—actually, this one is too! What are the odds?”

“Oh, that’s funny…”

Tobin knows Casey well enough to be able to tell, just from the tone of her voice, that the gears are starting to turn in her head.

Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it—

“Actually, Tobin brought…all of those,” Casey says.

There’s a long beat of silence.

And since Tobin’s a fucking coward, she makes a run for it.

“Uh, I’m going to find a bathroom,” she announces, interrupting poor Fabrice in the middle of a sentence.

“It’s over by the kitchen,” Moe starts to say, but Tobin is already charging in the other direction. The living room is dark and loud and packed with bodies—perfect. She winds her way into the fray, not stopping until she reaches the far windows, where she plops down on one of the wide window seats.

There’s now a roomful of darkness and bodies between herself and Christen Press, and she simultaneously feels relieved and wildly bereft.

She can already see multiple girls eyeing her down, but she just pulls out her phone and angles herself so she’s facing out the windows. She watches the cars pass below and wishes she was inside one of them. Coming tonight was a mistake. I’ll just stay for fifteen more minutes and then peace out. Maybe with one of these girls.

“Um, Tobin!!”

She turns, and groans when she sees that Moe, Alyssa, and Casey have found her. She checks over their shoulders instinctively.

“No, Christen’s not with us,” Casey says, reading Tobin’s mind. She crosses her arms and smirks. “When were you going to tell us?”

“Tell you what?!” Tobin fights back feebly, even though she knows the ruse is useless.

“Tell us that you have a massive crush on Christen Press!” Moe chimes in.

“Moe! Jesus Christ, keep it down!” Tobin hisses. “And I told you already, I do not!”

“So you just buy three different kinds of party drinks specifically tailored to any random girl on the street?”

“You shouldn’t have told her that I brought them, Casey,” Tobin grumbles.

“Why not?!” Casey’s incredulous. “Come on, it was sweet! How did you even know what she likes?”

“Well, I saw them in the fridge in her apartment—”

“When were you in her APARTMENT—?!”

“Guys, shut up!” Tobin pleads again, more urgently this time. “Please, can we just stop talking about this?”

“I don’t get what’s wrong,” Moe protests. “She’s perfect.”

Well, Moe’s right—she is perfect.

And that’s exactly what’s wrong.

For fucks sake, just look at her, and then look at me, Tobin wants to say.

Instead, she says, “Listen, I’m just not…I’m not in a dating headspace right now.” Three mouths frown in unison at her. “I know she’s hot, okay, but can we leave it? I’m not looking for anything long term. You all know that. I’m not in the market for a girlfriend.”

What she really means is, I’m not capable of being a good girlfriend.

Casey sighs. “Okay, sorry, we’ll stop bugging you about it. If you really don’t want to date seriously, then maybe you’re right. Christen’s definitely a girlfriend-girl. If you’re not in the market for a girlfriend, you should leave her alone.”

What she really hears is, If you’re not capable of being a good girlfriend, you should leave her alone.  

Dark clouds move in over Tobin’s head.

“For the record,” Alyssa pipes up for the first time, “Tobin, we think you could be a girlfriend-girl too.”

“I…” Tobin feels suddenly like she’s suffocating. “I…uh…think I’m going to get another drink.”

She slinks through the dark crowd away from them. Great. Now, instead of having to dodge one person at this party, she has to dodge four. As she rounds the corner into the kitchen, she wonders if she should actually make the new drink, or if she should just toss her empty seltzer can and run for the hills.

But then—there’s Christen.

Christen’s leaning up against the kitchen counter, chatting with Kealia’s husband JJ. When Tobin enters the room, many eyes turn and lock on her. That’s fine; she’s used to that.

What she’s not used to is having so many eyes on while she’s standing there trying to remember how to breathe.

Christen is wearing black jeans, and they’re tight, really tight, and Tobin has to fight to keep from ogling her ass in front of a roomful of people. And she’s wearing a tight white tank top, through which the faint outline of a black bra is just barely visible, and Tobin has to fight to keep from ogling her boobs in front of a roomful of people.

And then there’s the hair. Tobin’s never seen Christen’s hair like this before: free-flowing and natural, spiraling in long, unruly, glorious curls down her back. The sight makes her mouth go dry. She tips what’s left of her seltzer into her mouth and crumples up the can, glad to have something distracting to do with her hands.

How can she leave now?

She’s got her back turned and is busy mixing a drink when she feels Christen come up beside her.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey.” Tobin thinks her voice just cracked. She winces. She reads the label on a bottle of vodka with much more concentration than is necessary. If she looks over at Christen, she’s afraid she might faint.

“I hear we have the same taste in sparkling water.”

In spite of herself, Tobin looks up. Christen’s smirking at her. She wants to die.

“Yeah, funny coincidence, that,” she says faintly.

Christen smells like flowers. Her eyes, with their ever-changing colors, are a soft, muted gray-blue tonight. She finds herself staring at the soft pink swell of Christen’s lips, and suddenly she hears a refrain in her head: If you’re not capable of being a good girlfriend, you should leave her alone.

She clears her throat and clears her head. She steps back. (“Steps” is generous. She stumbles back, really.) “I’m, uh, hogging all the space here,” she says. “You probably want me to get out of the way so you can make a drink or something. Um. Okay, bye.”

Before Christen can respond, she flees the room.

She goes back to her perch near the living room windows. The music is good, but Tobin doesn’t like dancing where people can see her, and this room is way too small for her comfort. Just sitting is fine. Great, actually. From across the dark room, she can inconspicuously observe Christen, who’s now leaning against the wall talking with Casey, just casually, absentmindedly being the most beautiful creature on earth.

Just glancing occasionally at her from across a room feels like enough for Tobin. Like small gasps of oxygen.

Unfortunately, though, her Sex on Legs outfit is doing too much work for her tonight. The fact that she’s sitting alone, moodily staring off into the distance, doesn’t stop multiple girls from trying to claim her. Twice she gets pulled up onto her feet by girls with dark, suggestive expressions, but she always manages to wiggle off of the dance floor after a few minutes and return to her seat. Worse is when girls try to squeeze onto the window seat with her, which is unfortunately large enough for two to sit together, if they huddle close.

After a couple girls attempt this, Tobin pivots on her butt and plants her feet, in their heavy combat boots, across the cushioned ledge. Sorry, Kealia. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.

Half an hour in—or maybe an hour, who’s counting?—Moe swings by to check on her and refill her drink. Tobin finally puts her feet down to let Moe sit beside her. “I think some people are going to play a drinking game in the dining room. Christen too, probably. Want to come? You’ve just been sitting here on your phone.”

I’ve actually been sitting here trying not to stare at Christen talking to people, but potato, po-tah-to.

“No, thanks,” she says.

“Tobes…” Moe puts a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Listen, if you don’t want to date her, don’t date her. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid her entirely. I saw you basically sprint away from her in the kitchen earlier.”

Tobin ducks her head, embarrassed. “It’s fine, Moe, really. I’m fine. I should head home soon anyway.”

“Okay, suit yourself. Find me before you leave, okay?” Moe pecks a kiss onto Tobin’s head as she rises. “Love you.”

Tobin scans the room as Moe walks off. Christen’s nowhere to be seen. She’s probably already with the group in the dining room. Tobin’s slightly tipsier than she was planning to be, so she’s on her phone, pulling up Uber, when a girl drops down in the vacant space beside her.

Shit. She’d forgotten to reclaim it after Moe left.

“Hey, you want to dance?” the girl slurs. She’s clearly had much more to drink than Tobin has.

She’s cute. She’s got long, reddish-blonde hair. Her mascara has run a little.

Tobin looks at her and feels nothing.

“Uh, no thanks.” Tobin tries to scoot away, but it’s hard to, on the narrow window seat.

The girl presses her thigh up against Tobin’s, tries again.

“You’re Tobin Heath.”

“Yeah, and you’re…” Tobin leans as far away from the girl as she can without literally toppling off the seat, “…drunk.”

“I’m not that drunk. I wanna dance.”

“Well, I do not, so it looks like we are not compatible.”

The girl pouts. “What do you want me to be compatible with? Just tell me. I’ll do it. Anything you want.”

“Uh, anything I want? Okay. Get up, walk to the kitchen, drink some water, and count to, uh, six hundred.” Ten minutes should be plenty of time to call an Uber and get the hell out of here.

The girl just giggles and clutches at Tobin’s arm. “You’re so funny.

Ugh, my best snark, wasted on someone too drunk to appreciate it.

“Listen, I’m going to get up now,” Tobin says firmly. “Stop leaning on me and sit up, or you’re going to fall over.”

“Noooo,” the girl moans.

“Hey, someone needs you over there.”

Tobin looks up at the sound of the new voice.

Christen is standing over them, staring unsmilingly down at the girl.

“Who are you?” the girl stares hazily up at her. “Hi, you’re pretty. Did we meet earlier?”

“Someone’s asking for you,” Christen repeats, arching an eyebrow.

“Who?”

“That girl, uh, there.” Christen points towards the packed kitchen. “Now. It’s urgent.”

Shrugging, the girl uncoils herself from the window seat and strolls in the general direction Christen’s pointing. She looks over her shoulder towards Christen for further instructions, but Christen’s already settling down in the newly vacated spot with her arms crossed.

Tobin can’t breathe.

After resigning herself to far-off glimpses of Christen for the rest of the night—and for the rest of her life—the sudden proximity is overwhelming. The seat is just narrow enough that when Christen sits, their legs are pressed up tight against each other. Tobin can feel the curling ends of Christen’s hair tickling her neck and arms, like little sparkles against the surface of her skin. The smell of her floral perfume is heady and sweet.

“Hey.” Christen picks at an invisible piece of lint on her pants.

You should run. You should leave her alone. No, wait, maybe you should stay. She sought you out, not the other way around! Hell, who are you even kidding. You don’t have the capacity to walk away from Christen Press. Now or ever. 

“So, who was asking for her?”

“Uh…” Christen glances up at Tobin, then towards the kitchen. “Uh, just this girl. In the kitchen.”

She’s a terrible liar, and Tobin loves that about her.

Tobin leans in closer. In a low murmur that barely rises over the loud thrum in the room, she breathes in Christen’s ear. “Could it be possible, Christen Press, that you engineered all that just to save me from that girl?”

It's dangerous to be so flirty, Tobin knows, but Christen's beauty is literally taking Tobin's breath away. Her insides feel like a tightly wound spring. Like Tobin has to lean towards Christen, breathe in that smell, tell her how beautiful she is, lest she explode.

“Well…” Christen shrugs a little, which Tobin can feel against her shoulder. “I guess that depends. Did you want to be saved from that girl?”

Tobin drops her voice even further. This time, when she leans in, her lips graze Christen’s earlobe ever so slightly, sending her dangling earrings swinging. “By you? Definitely yes.”

They’re sitting so close to each other that Tobin can hear the breath hitch in Christen’s throat.

“Good,” Christen says. Her voice gets a little pouty, a little irked. “Maybe I should’ve stepped in, like, eight girls ago.”

She’s been watching me. Tobin can feel the realization pulsing through her bloodstream. She’s been watching me like I’ve been watching her.

“You look really fucking good tonight,” she blurts out without thinking.

Christen stares at her, wide-eyed, for a long second, and then bursts into one of her signature beautiful smiles.

Tobin should really stop talking, but she can’t help herself. Maybe it’s the vodka in her system, or maybe it’s just the dam breaking after a whole night of restraint. The only thing that seems to matter in that moment is to get Christen to smile at her like that, again and again and again. “Your hair. You don’t usually wear it like this.”

Christen touches her curls a little self-consciously. “Yeah, some people tell me it’s unprofessional.”

“Well, fuck those people,” Tobin declares, and there it is again, that smile. “It’s amazing, just like this.”

It seems like Christen doesn’t know quite where to look. She smiles down at her hands folded in her lap, then up at the ceiling, and finally over at Tobin.

“I’m glad I finally got you alone. I wanted to ask how you’re doing. The other night—you got kind of quiet at Casey’s dinner.”

So she did notice. Once again, Tobin is caught off guard that Christen is paying her any attention.

“Did I?” she feigns ignorance. “I didn’t realize.”

Something in the knowing little expression on Christen’s face tells her that Christen sees right through her.

She sees her.

And that, in and of itself, is terrifying.

“I had never seen you dance before,” Tobin muses. It sounds like a non sequitur, but of course, Tobin’s not going to say out loud that she went from “I was quiet at dinner” to “I was struggling to process these feelings about you” to “I think watching you dance that night—just for a moment—broke something in me and healed something in me all at once.” 

“Yeah, you mentioned that in the interview. That you’d never seen me dance.”

“Did I?” She’s feigning ignorance again, and this time, Christen actually rolls her eyes and chuckles.

“Give me your phone.”

“Uh…what?” Tobin feels her hands go clammy, but already, she’s reaching into her pocket, utterly powerless to resist anything this girl asks for.

“I’m going to text you a time and place.” Christen is already taking Tobin’s phone, texting her own number. “I’d like you to come.”

“Are you going to bring me somewhere to murder me?” Tobin makes an attempt at humor, even though her heart is beating a mile a minute. “Because I could take you.”

Christen shoots her the ghost of a smirk as she drops the phone back into Tobin’s palm with pointed, delicate fingers. “No, I really don’t think you could.”

Tobin looks down at her phone, which suddenly seems like a new, precious thing with Christen’s number saved inside. “Okay,” she says faintly. “I’ll come. Wherever. Whenever.”

Utterly powerless to resist.

Christen smiles and pulls out her own phone and starts drafting the text to Tobin. The illumination lights up her face in stark shadows, and Tobin sees a spot of lint in her hair. Half-entranced, she reaches out a hand to brush at the long curl lying over Christen’s shoulder.

It’s just a coincidence, of course, that her knuckles brush softly against the underside of Christen’s jaw as she does it.

In an ideal universe, this would be terribly romantic, and Christen would look up with wide, sultry eyes, and they’d stare breathlessly at each other and then suddenly start making out, and one thing would lead to another…

But this is not an ideal universe. And Tobin fucks up everything in her life. So when she touches Christen’s jaw, Christen lets out a little shriek and flinches away, batting her hand through the air. Tobin jumps backwards, startled, and their knuckles crash against each other’s, bruisingly hard.

Both girls gasp and wince. Everyone’s looking at them.

Smooth, Tobin, fucking smooth.

“There was something in your hair!” Tobin says by way of apology, going after Christen’s phone where she’s dropped it on the carpet.

“Sorry,” Christen gasps, cradling one hand in the other, wincing in pain. “I thought it was a bug!”

“Let me see your hand,” Tobin urges, even though her own knuckles still feel like they’re on fire. Christen holds her hand out, but grits her teeth and lets out a hiss as she tries to unclench her fist.

There’s a crowd gathering around them, and in a second, Kealia whisks them away to the kitchen for ice. Nothing is less romantic, Tobin decides, than watching from across a packed kitchen as Kealia and JJ ice Christen’s knuckles with frozen peas. A gaggle of concerned busybodies crowds around, walling Tobin off from Christen.

“Good going,” Alyssa chuckles, from where she and a bunch of other Red Stars players have appeared behind Tobin. Apparently the commotion has pulled in the entire group of people from the dining room.

“She thought I was a bug!” Tobin moans plaintively, burying her face in Alyssa’s shoulder in shame.

“It’s okay, she knows it was an accident,” Casey says comfortingly, though she’s clearly trying not to laugh as well. “Oh, Tobin. Only you.”

From behind Casey, Julie snickers. “What were you trying to do, anyway? Impress her? It’s not like it would’ve worked out anyway; I mean, she’s out of your league.”

Tobin’s face falls. Julie doesn’t even notice. She sashays her way out of the kitchen, still munching on a snack.

Casey edges closer to Tobin’s side, gives her a comforting squeeze on the arm. Under the cover of the party’s overlapping chatter, she whispers, “That’s not true, Tobin. You know that, right? You’re in everyone’s league, girl.”

Tobin purses her mouth, trying not to let her roiling emotions show to everyone else in the room. “No, she’s right,” she whispers back, her words edged with harshness. Across the room, Christen’s giggling and chatting as she’s surrounded by adoring admirers. “She’s totally right; Christen’s out of my league.”

If you’re not capable of being a good girlfriend, you should leave her alone.

“Tobes—” Moe protests sadly.

“I think I’m ready to leave now,” Tobin interrupts, with finality. “I’m going to call a car.”

“Want to sleep over my place? I’ll drive us home,” Alyssa offers.

Actually, that sounds pretty wonderful. Tobin leans on Alyssa’s shoulder again and nods. “Let’s go.”

“I’m going to grab my stuff,” Alyssa says. Then she gives Tobin a pointed look. “And you’re going to go over there and say good-bye properly to Christen.”

“Lyss, no, please—look at all the people—let’s just go; she won’t even notice I’m gone—”

The look in Alyssa’s eyes is somewhere between sympathy and exasperation. “Tobes, do it, or I’m not driving you.”

Tobin groans. Weaseling through all these people, in this bright, packed room, to speak to Christen in front of a crowd, is her worst nightmare. But as she’s biting her lip and just starting to squeeze her way through, Christen looks up and sees her. With a dismissive wave of her hand, the crowd disperses, and Christen beelines toward Tobin.

“How’s your hand?” Christen asks softly. Before Tobin can properly react, Christen is lifting Tobin’s hand in hers, examining her knuckles carefully. They’re a little red. “You should probably be icing too.”

Christen’s touch is soft and delicate and cold.

I may never wash this hand again.

“I’ll ice when I get back to Alyssa’s. We’re heading out now.”

Christen’s smile droops, just the tiniest bit. “Oh.”

“I’ll see you around, okay?” Tobin resists the totally irrational urge to flip Christen’s hand over in hers and kiss her cool, smooth palm. Instead, she drops her arm, and after a moment of resistance, their fingers break apart. “Take care of yourself. Sorry again, about, uh, the hand,” Tobin stutters out before making her escape.  

Back at Alyssa’s place, Tobin’s settling down in her usual couch spot with Alyssa’s spare blanket and pillow when Alyssa pokes her head in the door. “Tobes, I just wanted to say, what Julie said at the party earlier—that was incredibly mean of her. And she wasn’t right. You know that, right?”

“No, she was right,” Tobin insists. Her tone is mellow, weighed down by sleepiness and vodka. She’s resigned. The harsh pain of Julie’s insult has faded a little, leaving her with only a deep, gray sadness sitting in the pit of her stomach. It feels heavy. It feels like truth. The sad truth that Christen Press is completely, unalterably out of her league.

“I do want to be a girlfriend-girl, Lyss,” she admits suddenly, staring up at the dark ceiling. “I want to be her girlfriend-girl.”

“I know, Tobes, I know. And you can be.”

“No. She thought I was a bug earlier. When I touched her. And she’s right. I’m a bug.” Tobin mutters, her eyes starting to drift shut. She snuggles herself down under the blanket, and readjusts the throw pillow beneath her cheek. She thinks about the way Christen always smells like flowers.

“A bug?” Alyssa asks.

“Yeah, a bug. Who’s in love with a garden. But it’s not like the garden will ever love it back, right?”


Definitely a bug.

Tobin cringes under the judgmental gaze of the receptionist at the front desk of the Chicago Arts Academy, who’s scanning Tobin from head to toe. Tobin imagines that the woman has just stepped on a bug on the ground, and is lifting her shoe to examine the smushed wreckage. Yeah, that’s the exact expression.

“You can’t just walk in without a door pass,” the receptionist says snidely. On cue, the door opens behind Tobin, and a group of women walk in. Without a door pass.

Wordlessly, maintaining icy eye contact with the receptionist, Tobin stretches out her arm and points in the direction of the passing women.

The receptionist just sniffs. “Like I said. You need a door pass.”

Tobin knows what this is all about. If she’d known earlier, she would’ve changed before following the address and instructions that Christen had texted her the other night.

2:30 PM on Friday. An address, for the Chicago Art Academy. And an extra note, Bring two iced hazelnut coffees with oat milk.

Hanging out at a ballet school on a Friday afternoon does not sound like Tobin’s idea of a good time. But the idea of drinking coffee with Christen definitely does. And then there’s the whole utterly powerless to resist thing she has going on with Christen.

If she’d known that the receptionist would take one look at her oversized sweatpants and battered leather jacket and orange snapback and deny her entry, she would’ve changed.

Then again, she might not have had anything to change into, anyway. The students streaming in and out of the doors are all in leotards and legwarmers. The adults are in suits.

Tobin does not own any of these articles of clothing.  

“Listen,” she huffs, exasperated, but stubborn. “Christen Press told me to come meet her here. I’m just following orders. Are you going to let me in or what.”

Tobin used to think it was just a figure of speech, but the receptionist quite literally turns her nose up. “I have tried the number we have for Ms. Press on file, and she didn’t answer to confirm that she knows you." The clear, unspoken undercurrent of the receptionist's remark is, Someone who looks and acts like you must surely be lying about knowing Christen Press. Tobin hears the judgmental tone in her voice and thinks of bugs and gardens. "If you don’t have a door pass and I can’t reach your host live, I can’t let you in. Please don’t make me call security.”

“Fine.” Tobin rolls her eyes. As a large group of people—wide-eyed parents and prospective students on a tour—comes in the door behind her, she picks up her cardboard coffee cup carrier from the counter and slinks backwards towards the set of glass doors that lead further into the building.

As soon as the receptionist turns her back to greet the new crowd, some students come through the doors from the other side. Quick as a wink, Tobin slips through the doors before they shut.

She finds herself in a gorgeous atrium. Dashing away from the doors as fast as possible, in case the receptionist (and her threatened security force) comes after her, she takes the stairs two at a time. This building is so different from the Red Stars’ training facility—a high ceiling painted with frescos, from which an enormous chandelier hangs, arches high overhead. The winding staircase she’s heading up is carpeted in lush forest-green fabric.  Ballet dancers bustle up and down the steps around her, pointe shoes in hand and tote bags draped over their shoulders.

She winds up on the second floor. Practice room 4, Christen’s text had said, and she follows the bronze gilt signs on the wall. As she takes a right and enters a hallway lined with practice rooms, things get a little more basic. There are cubbies up and down the hallway stuffed with duffle bags, and water bottles are littered across the floor, which she’s sort of used to. Different songs, blasting at full volume, echo out of each door she passes. The first and second rooms contain whole groups of dozens of dancers, the third room has just five or six guys stretching at the bar, the fourth room…

Tobin’s steps slow as she approaches. It doesn’t help that there’s actually a crowd of younger students gathered outside the glass door, whispering intensely to each other.

“Oh my god, look at her adage, it’s so perfect…”

“Did you see their pirouettes earlier? Totally in sync, it was creepy.”

“Imagine trying to synchronize your pirouettes with Christen Press, while she’s judging you, I’d be so nervous I’d just fall…”

“Uh, excuse me,” Tobin finally says, clearing her throat.

The little huddle of young ballet students breaks apart as she approaches. Tobin can’t help but notice that their judgmental little stares mirror the expression of the receptionist below. Ignore it, you’re here for Christen, not for anyone else, Tobin tells herself firmly as she picks her way through the crowd and slips through the glass doors.

The practice room, like all the others, is large and pristine and airy. A series of skylights flood the room with natural light, and the mirrors that cover all the wall space make the room seem even bigger and brighter. Classical music, vaguely recognizable, emanates from a surround sound speaker system. In the middle of the room, Christen is standing with her back to the door and her hands on her hips. She’s wearing a white leotard today, long white stockings, black legwarmers, and pointe shoes, and there’s a sheen of sweat across her neck and back.

And she’s not alone.

“Watch your piques, Mal, you’re tottering a little on your right leg,” Christen instructs. At that moment, Mal glances quizzically over Christen’s shoulder to check who the intruder is, and she and Tobin immediately make eye contact.

“What are you doing here?!” Mal spits out, barreling to a standstill.

Christen turns. “Oh, Tobin!” She exclaims, using a little clicker in her hand to pause the music. “Hey!”

“You knew she was coming?” Mal whispers to Christen, glaring in Tobin’s direction.

Tobin withers a little under Mal’s glare. Okay, okay, I know I deserve it, she thinks. I’ve treated Christen like shit for a while now. In front of Mal.

“Yeah, I invited her,” Christen says simply. “Wow, Tobin, you brought us coffee? You shouldn’t have!”

Well, you literally commanded me to, Tobin is about to say, but there’s an amused warning look in Christen’s eyes. So she pivots accordingly. “Uh, yeah, figured you guys would…need a break? Iced hazelnut coffee with oat milk?”

So much for a coffee date with Christen.

Mal still looks suspicious, but she uncrosses her arms. “That’s our favorite, isn’t it, Christen?”

“What a coincidence,” Christen says. Her eyes are dancing with mirth. “That was so considerate of you, Tobin.”

“Yeah…” Mal says reluctantly, taking a cup from Tobin’s outstretched hand. “Thank you.”

“You should’ve gotten one for yourself too,” Christen adds as Tobin hands her the other one, a wicked grin spreading across her face.

Fuck you,” Tobin mouths. But she smiles when Christen smiles. She can’t help herself.

“How’s your hand?” Tobin asks. If she were braver, she’d pick up Christen’s hand to give it a close look.

“How’s yours?” Christen retorts. She picks up Tobin’s hand to give it a close look. Tobin stops breathing.

“Looks like I got off a little better than you did,” Christen chuckles, angling Tobin’s hand back and forth in her own a little, observing her mottled red-and-purple bruise.

“My fault, probably. I forgot to ice it that night.” Tobin takes a deep breath, flips over Christen’s hand in her own. “Yours looks great.”

They stand there for a moment, pretending to look at each other’s knuckles with purely scientific curiosity.

“Ahem,” Mal says, and they flinch apart. She takes a long sip of her coffee and gives them an amused, knowing stare that makes her look older than her years. “Are we practicing, or what?”  

“Yes,” Christen says briskly, reaching up to tame invisible fly-aways into her high bun as she takes a large step back. “Tobin, you said you wanted to see some ballet, so I thought you might want to come hang out with us as we practice today. This is the Chicago Art Academy, which is the Chicago Ballet Company’s affiliate dance school. Mal’s a student here. Did you get in okay?”

“The woman at the front desk gave me a hard time, but I guess that was my fault.” Tobin shrugs. “I didn’t have whatever paperwork she needed for a door pass, or whatever.”

“What paperwork?” Mal asks, confused. “I’ve had guests before, and there’s no paperwork.”

Tobin shrugs nonchalantly. “I just snuck past when she threatened to call security. No harm, no foul.”

Christen’s face hardens for a moment. Then she shakes her head and continues, “We’ve started full Nutcracker rehearsals, of course, but on the side, I also come here to help Mal with the Clara routine.”

“Some productions of the Nutcracker cast little kids as Clara and the Prince,” Mal explains, warming up to Tobin a little, “But CBC uses a teenagers, so we have our own full routines to learn. And they are hard.”

“And Mal is the youngest ever Clara cast, as I’ve mentioned!”

“Stop, Chris, you’re embarrassing me,” Mal whines, but she’s grinning.

“Why don’t we take it from the pirouettes,” Christen says, fiddling with a remote control to cue the music. “Tobin, you can hang out on the bench over here.”

Tobin settles down, more intrigued than she’d like to admit to see this behind-the-scenes glimpse of Christen’s life.

And it does not disappoint.

Several minutes in, her mouth is already gaping open at Mal’s routine. When she executes this insane jump—Christen’s rattling out the names of the moves in French, but Tobin doesn’t quite catch it—Tobin thinks it unbelievably impressive. Gravity defying, even. But Christen’s not happy with it. “You’re stiff in the shoulders, Mal,” she says, stopping her. “And remember to keep your hip low. Again.”

Mal goes again. When she moves, balancing on the tips of her toes, Tobin can see the muscles straining in her legs and neck. Christen claps to the beat and calls out the moves, and by the end of the piece, Mal is wiping pools of sweat off her face.

“I thought that was dope,” Tobin marvels.

She’s surprised when Mal shakes her head and wrinkles her nose. “It was shit,” Mal says plaintively. “I’m going again. Chris, can you show me from the arabesque croisee again?”

Tobin catches her breath as Christen executes one of the moves Mal just did, lifting her back leg up into the air and balancing on her front. Mal copies her, and though Tobin’s new to all this, she can see the difference—the way Christen doesn’t wobble at all, the way her foot arches more dramatically in the back, the way she keeps her chin up with an easy, effortless smile. Mal pulls the move off, but you can tell she’s concentrating hard on getting it exactly right. Tobin shudders to think what she’d look like if she even attempted to join them.

There’s a million little things to get right, Tobin realizes as she watches. Every time she thinks Mal’s got something down perfectly, every time Mal does a move that seems so difficult it’s inhuman, the dancers identify something wrong with it. “Too high in the hips,” or “Get your weight off that back leg,” or “Your hands are a little stiff, just try to soften the third and fourth fingers.” They go for over an hour.

At one point, Mal stops and leans her hands against the mirror, chest heaving. “Hold on. Hold on. I think I’m going to puke.”

Christen doesn’t look nearly as alarmed as Tobin thinks she should.

A moment passes, and then Mal looks up, beads of sweat running down her temples. “Okay, just kidding. False alarm. Let’s go again.”

“Isn’t that a sign that you should stop?!” Tobin exclaims.

Christen and Mal exchange amused glances.

“When Christen danced the lead in Sleeping Beauty this past summer, she threw up behind the scenes in the middle of the show like, every night. Right, Chris?”

Tobin can feel herself gaping like a fish. In her mind, she sees that poster of Christen over the summer. With that fucking flower crown. The flower crown she mocked Christen for, repeatedly.

“You what?”

Christen just shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of gross, but that’s how far you have to push your body for Aurora. It’s physically, technically, emotionally demanding. It’s non-stop. At the end of the show every night, I literally couldn’t feel my legs, and my whole body would shake.”

And I was mocking her for the fucking flower crown. I can’t believe she’s still deigning to speak to me.

“That doesn’t sound healthy.”

Mal lets out a belly laugh. “Oh, sweet summer child. Who told you ballet was healthy?”

(It feels weird, but somehow humbling and entirely appropriate, to be called a sweet summer child by a literal fifteen-year-old right now.)

“Okay, come on Mal, leave her alone,” Christen chides, sending Tobin an apologetic smile. “Okay, start from the adages. Faster this time.”

They go again, for another half hour, until Mal is literally drenched in sweat and her legs are shaking with exertion.

Tobin thinks back to when she was fifteen, playing soccer, and she honestly doesn’t know if she could say she worked this hard.

“Okay, I think that’s good for today,” Christen finally says, as Mal leans on the barre, panting up a lung. “What’s next for you?”

A nice hot shower, Tobin thinks, or a million years of sleep, or—

“I’ve got Pilates with Rose for the next hour, then quick dinner, then my online math class, then pas de deux practice with Freddie until 10 PM,” Mal rattles off.

“You’re not done for the day?!” Tobin exclaims. “That’s insane.”

“It never ends,” Mal laughs breathlessly, tossing her sweat-soaked towel into a bin in the corner. “Christen’s got it even worse.”

“No, no, I don’t have homework to do like you do,” Christen brushes it off. “Make sure you and Freddie practice your bourrée en couru; you guys still weren’t in sync last time.”

“Christen guest-teaches a couple classes here, and they’re like, the most popular ones. All the students want to sign up for them,” Mal explains to Tobin. “And of course, she has rehearsal with the company at the downtown theater every day from 10-2. Individual rehearsal and group rehearsal. It’ll be all day soon, with the Nutcracker coming up.”

“Your rehearsals must be really interesting to sit in on,” Tobin pipes up. Her only big regret of the day is that Christen only danced in bits and pieces, showing moves to Mal. It’s not enough. She’s aching to see Christen actually dancing.

Christen and Mal exchange an inscrutable look, and then Christen rolls her eyes. “Trust me, you don’t want to come to company rehearsals. They’re more boring than you’d think, especially with the Nutcracker season coming up. A lot of sitting around and waiting and staging. You should come to the Nutcracker, though, when we open.”

A girl around Mal’s age pops her head into the room. “Ready for Pilates?” she asks.

“Yeah, let’s go! Tobin, this is my classmate Rose Lavelle,” Mal introduces. Tobin’s gratified to see that Mal seems to be totally at ease around her now. Christen’s coffee ploy really did the trick. The two high school students whisk their way out the door, and it’s just Christen and Tobin.

Tobin laughs as she leans her head back against the wall. “Rose Lavelle. With a name like that, could you really end up as anything but a ballet dancer? If I were writing a teen novel about a ballet dancer, I would name my main character Rose Lavelle.”

Christen chuckles too. “She’s good. Really good. Understudying Mal for Clara, actually. So…” she spreads her arms at the now-empty room. “What did you think?”

“I think you guys are insane,” Tobin says honestly. “That was—wow. When she did that thing, where she was just walking on her tiptoes across the room—it looks like she’s walking on clouds.”

Christen laughs, then grimaces. “That’s the bourrée en couru. Feels more like walking on needles, actually, but making it look easy is all part of the art.”

Couru, like…running?”

Christen’s eyebrows fly up towards her hairline. “You speak French?” Then she catches herself, and blushes scarlet, and picks at the strap on her pointe shoes. “I mean—sorry, I didn’t mean to act surprised—it’s not like I expected you not to speak French—”

“It’s fine,” Tobin hastens to say, a little bewildered. “Seriously.”

Christen frowns. “It’s just that last time, when I said I liked your photographs, in your kitchen, you know, you said…”

Don’t act so surprised.” Tobin remembers now. She draws in a deep breath. Wow, why do I suck so much? “About that. I mean, that wasn’t you. That was really just me, being an asshole. And listen, I, uh, I know I owe you an apology. I was really a bitch to you. About your profession. And sort of in general.”

Christen smiles down at her toes, then looks up at Tobin with a quirked eyebrow. “Well, you acted like one. But I’m not really sure you ever were one.”

Tobin just ducks her head in shame. There’s a broader conversation to be had here, but right now, she can only focus on the specifics. “I was so wrong about ballet. You guys are athletes. Obviously. Looks like everyone knew it but me.”

Christen just shrugs, playing with one of her leotard straps. “No, you certainly weren’t the only person who thinks so. But it means a lot to me that you’re one of the few who has apologized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me that my job is ‘cute’ or ‘easy.’” She lets out a frustrated laugh. “They have no idea how hard we work. They have no idea that at any point in any day, some part of my body is hurting.”

“Well, I’ll spread the word from now on. I’ll be the number one evangelist that you’re a badass.”

Christen grins. “You haven’t even seen me dance yet. For real.”

“No…” Tobin’s voice trails off. “But I really want to.”

Christen’s eyes flash, dark, for a second. “Well, we’ll make that happen soon.”

“When? Rehearsal?” Tobin asks hopefully. She’s hoping Christen will extend an invitation to watch her rehearsals at the theater downtown. She’s not sure she can stand waiting until the Nutcracker productions start.

Besides—she doesn’t want to be one of thousands of people adoring Christen at the same time. She wants it to be private. Personal. Just her own singular adoration.

But Christen just wrinkles her nose, then starts to pack her stuff up. “Nah, you don’t want to come to rehearsal. It’s boring, and I’m not at my best. I’ll get you Nutcracker tickets. Good tickets. For you and Casey and the others as well.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tobin deflates a little. “The others as well, for sure.”

They wander their way down to the lobby. “Where are you heading now?” Tobin asks.

“I’m off for a massage,” Christen says cheerfully. Tobin swallows hard at the mental images that raises. “There’s a spa near here that contracts with the Company, and their masseuses are just incredible. They do these foot massages that are to die for. The foot cream is so good that I bought it to use at home, though I’m pathetically bad at doing it myself.” Christen’s laugh is light and cheery. “You could probably use a foot massage too.”

“We have trainers that work on our muscles,” Tobin says, “but I’m not sure it’s the same experience.”

Christen glances at Tobin out of the corner of her eye. “Well, feel free to come with me sometime.”

They’ve made it to the lobby, and to Tobin’s chagrin, the same receptionist is still at the front desk. She slouches down behind Christen to hide a little, but Christen’s so tiny that it doesn’t do much—besides, when Christen moves through the halls, the students all stare and giggle and whisper. It doesn’t look like they’re about to make an inconspicuous exit.

Then, blowing that idea out of the water entirely, Christen suddenly grabs Tobin’s arm with purpose and drags her right up to the shocked receptionist.

“Sheryl, hi,” Christen says loudly. Heads in the lobby turn and stare.

The receptionist stares up with wide, slightly terrified eyes, staring between Christen and Tobin. “Yes—Ms. Press! Hello! What can I do for you today?”

“Sheryl, I just wanted to introduce you to my friend, Tobin Heath. I believe you two met earlier.” Christen drapes one arm across Tobin’s shoulder in an exaggerated motion, then winds her other arm around Tobin’s waist, so she’s cuddling into Tobin’s side like a koala. After a beat of stunned stillness, Tobin feels her arm rising automatically to encircle Christen’s waist and pull her in even tighter. She gives the receptionist a polite smile, waiting for her next cue from Christen.

“I understand she had some difficulties with entry today,” Christen continues. Her voice is light and lilting, but her eyes are hard as steel. Seemingly for emphasis, she snuggles her cheek into Tobin’s shoulder. Tobin feels her own smile growing wider and more smug. “Next time Tobin’s here, and she’s asking for me or for Mallory Pugh or anyone else, you’re going to let her in just like you do with other visitors. Are we crystal clear?”

The entire lobby is silent. All eyes are on the receptionist.

“Yes! Of course!” The receptionist babbles. “Ms.…Heath, was it? Of course, of course. So sorry for the mix-up earlier today. Anything for a personal friend of Ms. Press. Of course.”

“Thank you, glad that’s understood,” Christen says archly.

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” Tobin echoes.

In front of the receptionist and everyone else in the room, Christen reaches down and conspicuously takes Tobin’s hand, winding their fingers together. The receptionist literally gets up out of her seat as if they’re visiting royalty as, lifting her chin proudly, Christen leads Tobin out of the building into the night.

As soon as they get out the doors and down the few steps onto the sidewalk, Christen drops Tobin’s hand and places her fingers over her reddened cheeks. “Sorry for all the dramatics.” Christen gasps out a little laugh. “And sorry I was, uh, all over you. I just hate when people around here are such snobs. Someone like Sheryl doesn’t get to treat you like shit just because you’re not dressed like she’s used to.”

“That was…” Tobin wants to say, that was the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. She settles for, “That was the most bad-ass thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Really?” Christen laughs, looking more than pleased with herself. “Not too much that I was all over you?”

“Not too much,” Tobin says.

And then she can’t help herself, and she adds, “You can be all over me any time you want.”

There’s a long beat of silence, and Christen just stares.

“Uh, not too much?” Tobin winces. Shit. Too much. Of course. You’re a bug, she’s a garden, remember? She wishes she could take it back. She opens her mouth to apologize, profusely, to get on her proverbial hands and knees in front of this fucking goddess who she’s just insulted and—

Christen leans in, places her mittened hand against Tobin’s jaw, and gives Tobin a lingering, feather-light kiss on the cheek. 

The night brakes into slow motion, the gold stars of distant lamp lights swirling against the hazy blue backdrop of twilight around them.

“No, not too much,” she murmurs as she pulls back.

Tobin stands dazed for a second. The she bites her lip, and an enormous, dopey smile spreads across her face.

Christen is walking backwards on the sidewalk, slowly, placing one foot carefully behind the other as if she’s walking a tightrope. She sticks her hands in her coat pockets as she grins at Tobin.

“What?” Tobin challenges—childlike, exhilarated.

“What, yourself?” Christen twirls back and forth a little, sending the hem of her coat flaring out around her knees. Her hair billows in the wind.

“Nothing. Enjoy your massage.” Tobin feels like she’s floating. She feels like she’s seventeen years old and high on life.

Christen finally gives up on walking backwards. She turns slowly on one heel. She’s still smiling. “Good night,” she calls to Tobin over her shoulder.

“Good night yourself,” Tobin shoots back, and Christen laughs. With one last twinkling glance at Tobin, she vanishes into the crowd.

Tobin stands in startled disbelief, staring into the night. The spot on her cheek sparkles. The whole night is singing around her. The air smells like snow.

And for a moment—just a brief, fleeting moment—Tobin finds herself believing that she could start again.

Chapter Text

“You are enraptured.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Captivated.”

“No. Stop.”

Besotted—”

“Okay, now you guys are getting into words I don’t even understand. Can you please snap out of the 18th century?”

“Fine,” Moe huffs on the other end of the phone. Tobin can hear Casey laughing in the background. “How about enchanted. I can’t believe it! Our little Tobin, all grown up and on her way to being a girlfriend girl—”

“Bye!” Tobin says with finality, dropping the call. Perfect timing. The barista is calling out her name, and she goes to collect the iced hazelnut coffee with oat milk from the counter.

Okay, fine. Her friends might be right that going across town to bring Christen coffee, just because she mentioned in a text that she was tired that day, might be overkill.

But maybe Moe’s actually right. Maybe Tobin is enchanted.

There’s just so much Tobin hasn’t expressed to them. How can Tobin describe, in words, the way it feels to watch Christen smile at her? The way Tobin had felt, protective and affectionate, watching Christen walk with her head bent shivering into the wind? The way that Christen had snuggled cozily into Tobin’s shoulder in front of that receptionist, their faces so close that if Tobin had turned just the slightest bit, her lips would’ve been on Christen’s forehead?

The way Christen’s lips had felt on her cheek?

It’s indescribable, of course. So Tobin doesn’t even try. When her friends tease her about her burgeoning crush, she just rolls her eyes and shoves them away and tries not to smile too big when another text from Christen comes in.

Christen had texted Tobin first, the night after practice. Just a screenshot of her text thread with Mal. Mal had sent Christen a picture of her empty coffee cup and the accompanying text, Fine, you were right, Tobin’s pretty cool.

Tobin had been brushing her teeth when she got it, and she smiled so widely that when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she barely recognized herself. She’d stood there with her toothbrush limp in her hand, just staring at her phone. Christen’s texting me?!

And she texts back, You told her you thought I was pretty cool? and Christen texts back instantly, Don’t let it get to your head and Tobin retorts, Actually I’m insulted that you think I’m just “pretty” cool, and it spirals from there.

Christen’s texts are funny, and maybe flirty, and definitely frequent.

As the thread between them grows longer and longer, Tobin finds herself scrolling all the way up, disbelieving, watching the little blue and white bubbles blur before her eyes. It makes her almost giddy, seeing the sheer volume of their words. These are words she wrote to me. And words I wrote to her. That she read. And that she took the time to respond to. What kind of fucking magic is this?!

(Suck on that, Julie!)

Stayed up super late last night sewing my pointe shoes, Christen had texted earlier when Tobin asked how she was doing. Might not make it through my one-on-one rehearsal today. With a little crying emoji.

Reading the text as she packed up in the locker room after practice, Tobin had realized: she has all the information she needed. She knows Christen’s favorite coffee order. She knows where the theater is, downtown. She knows the practice schedule; Mal had said 10-2, every day.

It’s so easy. She’ll surprise Christen with coffee at the tail end of practice. It feels weirdly effortless, Tobin muses, to trek across town, to do this nice thing. She’s so used to dragging her herself, limbs heavy and head heavy and heart heavy, from obligation to obligation in her life, that it’s weird to have something feel so simple. Easy. Maybe it’s just because there’s the promise of Christen’s smile at the end of the journey.  

Whistling, Tobin leaves the warm coffee shop, and her bare hands around the cup of iced coffee immediately freeze. Luckily, it’s just a short trek through the fanciest part of downtown to the theater, and she arrives just when she wants to, about fifteen minutes before 2. Tobin slows down as she approaches the imposing glass-fronted building. She’s passed it on the street, but she’s never been inside before. Through the towering doors, you can see chandeliers sparkling in the dark, and marble floors, and sumptuous red carpets. The lights are dimmed low on this random weekday afternoon. Tobin pauses at the front door, remembering the mean receptionist from the ballet school.

Is there a receptionist? Shit, are the doors even unlocked?

If all else fails, she can text Christen that she’s here, wait at the back entrance for her, or something.

But she tries the doors, and miraculously, they’re open. There’s not even security. Tobin chuckles under her breath as she finds herself wandering through the echoing, lavish lobby, with its red carpet and huge marble pillars. She feels like that scene in Cinderella, when she arrives late and meanders all by herself down the palace hallway.

What the hell, this is where Christen works every day? This is some fancy ass shit.

The sound of classical music, playing in the distance, is coming from somewhere. She pauses, then tentatively tries a pair of double doors nearby. Hm, locked. Spying a nearby staircase, she takes it up to a dark mezzanine. The music increases in volume.

Aha. There’s a door halfway down the mezzanine, propped open with a metal folding chair.

She slips through the door and wanders into the dark second-story balcony. Music is blasting from the speakers, obscuring the sound of her steps. Even Tobin, who never listens to any classical music, recognizes the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy from the Nutcracker. She picks her way between the theater chairs, sinks down into one a few rows back from the railing.

And there she is—Christen. Dancing on stage, alone, in the dark auditorium, and it takes Tobin’s breath away.

Christen looks so blissfully happy, so calm and floating, that Tobin almost feels guilty for sneaking in to witness what feels like a very personal moment. She pirouettes effortlessly across the stage in a white leotard and white legwarmers, a sparkling, translucent skirt billowing around her legs as she spins. She arches her arms and smiled cherubically up into the rafters, first in one direction, then in Tobin’s direction—Tobin quickly sinks back into her seat so that she blends into the balcony shadows. Christen doesn't see her. She lets herself get lost in the music and in the way that Christen floats from one side of the stage to the other, balancing on the points of her pale pink shoes.

As the music builds up louder and louder, Christen leaps into the air, her right leg extending out straight in front of her and her left leg behind her back, so high that they almost form a U-shape in the air. With her arms stretched above her head and a sweet smile on her face, she seems to hang suspended there, in midair, for longer than humanly possible, a magical white figure against the black velvet curtains behind her, before dropping softly back down to the floor and starting to execute a series of complicated-looking turns.

“STOP!”

A man’s voice interrupts, so loud and harsh that Tobin leaps to her feet. What’s the emergency?!

Except Christen doesn’t react like Tobin does. Instead, she wearily stops turning and lowers herself back down onto her heels. As if she was expecting an interruption; as if she's resigned to it. The music switches off abruptly. All at once, the magic is gone. In the silence, the sound of heavy footsteps echoes through the dark theater until a large man storms down the aisle into Tobin’s line of vision.

Who the fuck is that? Tobin leans forward in her seat, on edge at this new intrusion. He must’ve been sitting in the back of the auditorium the entire time. I just wasn’t able to see him from this angle on the balcony.

“How many fucking times, Christen, do I need to CORRECT YOUR FUCKING FOUETTES?” The man screams, standing by the front row of seats with his hands on his hips. His dark beard shakes as he yells, and Tobin can actually see spit spraying from his mouth. “Hello? Can you even fucking hear anything I’m saying?”

Tobin’s frozen in horror. Her grip on back of the seat in front of her tightens until her knuckles turn white.

Christen stands calmly with her hands folded in front of her, shoulders straight, features expressionless as she meets his eyes. “I can hear you, Mateo.”

“Well then how about you do what I fucking say for once in your life?” He says sardonically. “Go again from the grand jete into the fouettés, and this time, try not to make it the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

The worst thing he’s ever seen?!

As the man paces and mumbles veiled insults, Christen turns calmly to walk back to the center of the stage. She strikes a pose at center stage as if nothing has happened. Tobin watches her take a deep breath. Then that sweet, blissful smile appears on Christen’s face again.

(But this time, Tobin isn't fooled. It's not natural. It's fragile, so porous that Tobin can see right through it.)

Christen performs the same flying jump, smiling the whole time, and floats back down into the spins as she lands. To Tobin, it looks just as magical as the first time, even without the music.

But Christen’s spins are stopped by the man again. “No, no, no, NO, Christen, darling,” he says, somehow making the word “darling” sound both sinister and insulting. “You’re just shit today, aren’t you?”

And then—“Maybe you’d be able to get the height you need on that if you weren’t getting to be such a fucking cow.”

Tobin literally gasps. She rises to her feet without even realizing. She can feel her fingers shaking against each other. She’s ready to throw herself off the balcony at this man.

But right as she’s trying to muster enough composure to do something, anything, there’s a hand on her arm, dragging her backwards.

Shit!” she whispers, whirling around in shock.

It’s Mal. Tobin’s not sure when she arrived—maybe she, too, has been here the whole time—but she’s not messing around. Her little face is angry and serious. Her grip tightens almost painfully on Tobin’s arm, and she drags her silently back down into a seat in the shadows. “Don’t fucking say anything,” Mal hisses, low and urgent. “You’ll get her in trouble.”

Helplessly, Tobin looks back down at the stage. Christen’s face is back to being expressionless. She's standing there with her hands folded neatly in front of her, her chin lifted high and proud. “Thank you, Mateo,” She replies in a clear, calm voice. “Will that be all?”

“If this shit is all you can give me, then yeah, that’ll be all,” he responds, already storming back up the aisle out of Tobin and Mal’s line of sight. “I’m not going to stay here and waste my time, but you better spend the rest of the day on the treadmill. If you’re not better by opening night, Christen, it’s not going to be pretty,” he yells back down towards the stage at her. The sound of his footsteps echoes farther and farther away, until they hear the creak and slam of the door as he finally exits.

Even from the balcony, Tobin can see the sudden rise and fall of Christen’s chest in the newfound silence. Like she’s breathing for the first time in hours.

She places her hands over her face, looking as if she’s about to burst into tears. Tobin and Mal both freeze. But instead, Christen just stands as still as a statue for several endless moments. Then she lowers her hands, straightens her shoulders, and leaves the stage. The curtains whisper in her wake, and the sound of a door slamming in the distance signals that she’s left the auditorium.

Mal lets out a long, slow breath. She and Tobin stare at each other for a moment.

“What are you doing here?” Mal demands.

“I just…” Tobin faltered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. She said she was tired, and…”

“And you thought you’d drop by her rehearsal. After she specifically told you not to.”

“She said she didn't want me to come because it would be boring,” Tobin protests feebly. “I didn’t think…”

“Yeah,” Mal rolls her eyes. “You didn’t think. Clearly.”

They stand there in silence for another moment. Tobin wants to run. She wants to flee out of this fancy, horrible, toxic building and vanish into thin air like she was never here. Old Tobin might have. But something grounds her here now. She says, falteringly, “I’m guessing I shouldn’t just…go.”

Mal shakes her head. “No. I mean, you shouldn’t have come. But now that you’re here, you need to tell her you’re here.”

Tobin knows that’s right. She knows she has to face the music. It doesn’t make it any easier.

They start heading downstairs. Tobin feels deflated, dazed. Furious. “Who the fuck was that man?” she demands.

“Mateo.” Mal rolls her eyes. “The artistic director.”

“And he’s always like that?”

“Always.” Mal sighs. Some of the anger seems to seep out of her body, and she gives Tobin a pitying look. “Listen, Tobin, I know this was also a bit of bad luck. If this had been a full cast rehearsal day, you might’ve been fine. Or if it’d just been on a better day for him. But this is why she never lets anyone stay for her private rehearsals with him, except for me. Not even the rest of the cast. Because she knows this happens—too often.” Mal lets out a long sigh.

"She's going to be mad, right?" Tobin's voice sounds haunted and strained even to herself.

Mal doesn't answer. She just ducks her head away as she walks, unable to even make eye contact.

Miserable, Tobin shuffles along after Mal. Her mind is swimming with the scenes she just witnessed. No wonder she kept telling me not to come to rehearsal. I should’ve picked up on all the hints. But I came, of course, uninvited and wanted. Like the fucking idiot I am. Silently, side by side, they make their way through a thicket of black velvet stage curtains, past a large backstage area filled with lights, crates, and electrical cords, then down a quiet hallway to a door with a large metal sign hanging on it. The name Christen Press is etched into the metal.

Tobin feels a sudden dread. She glances wide-eyed at Mal. “Are you sure—” she whispers. “Maybe I shouldn’t go in—”

“Mal, that you?” Christen calls from inside.

Shit.

“Um…Christen?” Mal responds weakly, pushing the door open a little. She glances apologetically towards Tobin. “We’ve…got a...guest.”

As they enter the room, Christen lurches upright from where she was leaning against the wall. 

Surprised, almost pleased, recognition flashes across Christen’s face first. Just for the briefest moment.

Then it shifts to shock. Then something dark and ashamed. Then anger.

“What are you doing here?”

Her voice is like ice.

“I…” Tobin stutters. “I was, uh…”

“How long have you been here?”

“Um…”

Mal finally answers, when Tobin can’t find the words. “Long enough.”

Mal gives Tobin a look that’s almost encouraging. Christen isn’t having it. “Mal,” she says, clipped and biting. “Why don’t you head back to school now.”

It’s a command, not a question.

Biting her lip and casting one last sympathetic look Tobin’s way, Mal slips out of the room and vanishes down the hall.

Wordlessly, without looking at Tobin, Christen takes a long sip of water. Tobin sneaks a glance around the dressing room. Besides a clothing rack hanging with costumes and workout clothes, a couple cases of Gatorade and Pellegrino, and a row of neatly laid-out pointe shoes, there isn’t much else in the room.

She sneaks a look at Christen, too. And what she sees worries her, deep in her gut, deeper than her surface panic about the current circumstances. Christen’s face looks pallid and worn; there are purplish dark circles under her eyes. She finishes her sip of water and coughs—a deep, hacking sound that shudders through her body from her shoulders downwards.

“So,” Christen finally says, pulling on a baggy cardigan and lowering herself into the rolling chair in front of a vanity. “Why are you here?”

“I just…” In a flash, Tobin realizes that the coffee is still up in the balcony somewhere. Forgotten in all the chaos. “I was in the area, I guess, and remembered that you’d be at rehearsal, and I just thought I’d pop in and see what was going on. I didn’t think…sorry, I’m rambling…uh…”

“I asked you not to come.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Tobin has never felt so wretched.

After a little pause, Christen shrugs and meets Tobin’s eyes. “Well, now you’ve seen it,” she says, reaching down to unlace her shoes. “The life of a ballerina, in all its glory.”

Tobin pauses. She wants to say something like, maybe it’s not so bad that I saw. Something like, I don’t want you to feel like you need to hide any part of your life from me. But in that pause, she happens to look down as Christen slides her silky pink pointe shoes off her feet.

And then she forgets their topic of conversation altogether.

Tobin isn’t really sure if she’s ever actually gasped from shock before today, but now she’s done it twice in one day. First when Mateo called Christen a cow, and now…this. Every single toe on both of Christen’s feet is bandaged and bloody. Her heels, too. Tobin watches in horror as Christen, not even wincing, begins yanking the bandages off and discarding them in the trash. 

“What the fuck, Christen? Are you okay? Is this—what is this?! Is this normal?” Tobin knows she’s babbling, but she can’t help it.

As Christen finishes unwinding the bloody bandages from her toes, Tobin actually has to avert her eyes. She looks for the nearest trash can, in case she has to throw up into it. (That would really be the icing on top of an already excellent day.)

“This is…normal enough.” Christen responds evenly. Tobin recognizes in her voice the robotic tone as the one she’d used with Mateo earlier. “These shoes are on the new side and I pushed myself a little harder today than I’d usually go in new shoes, that’s all.” Tobin sneaks another peek in horror as Christen swipes at her cuts and blisters with baby wipes and slaps on some new bandages. As Christen pulls on her socks and sneakers, she glances up at Tobin with a cold, quizzical raise of an eyebrow. “So, before I go, did you need something?”

In addition to being miserable and shocked and self-conscious, Tobin’s all off-kilter now. With a start of guilt, she realizes why. She’s used to being the irritated, difficult one. She’s used to Christen being patient and amenable, even when Tobin sucks.

Shit, why have I been such a dick? She thinks suddenly, frantically. Is this what Christen’s life is really like all the time? I can’t believe I’ve been giving her even more shit on top of this.

“No…” she says, falteringly. “I guess not.”

“I really did not want you to see this. I don’t want anyone to see this,” Christen says, her mouth tight with anger. She tugs her jacket on and swings her duffel bag over her shoulder. “That’s why I specifically told you not to come to rehearsal.”

“I know. I know, I fucked up. And I’m sorry. But—” As Christen heads back out into the hallway, Tobin trails along behind her, scrambling for courage. “Maybe it’s not so bad. That I saw? I mean, I really didn’t mean to intrude, but you’ve seen me in a few pretty fucked-up moments, too. Everyone’s got some fucked-up moments in life, and maybe now that I’ve seen, we can talk about it if you want to, and—”

“Tobin.” Christen barrels to a stop in front of a heavy silver exit door. She whirls towards Tobin with ice-cold anger lining her face. “We don’t even know each other.”

It hits Tobin like a hammer in the gut.

“You shouldn’t have seen what you saw today. That was private. My boundaries are my own, and you don’t get to try and justify, after-the-fact, why you didn’t respect them.”

Another hammer in the gut.

“And anyway, I don’t need to talk about it. Everything’s fine. Nothing’s wrong. So why would I need to talk about anything? With anyone? Especially with you?”

Christen’s voice picks up steam as she goes, getting faster and higher.

But Tobin thinks she knows what this is now.

She’s good at recognizing brokenness. She’s good at recognizing a person desperately trying to hold her own heart together in her hands.

She’s good at it because she is that person, all the time.

“Christen…” she tries again. Softer this time. She reaches out a tentative hand. “Come on. I came here to bring you coffee, because you said you were tired. I forgot it in the theater like an idiot. But let me buy you a coffee, or a meal, or something. I’m sorry, okay?”

Christen flinches backwards, hands gripping tightly on her bag straps, not meeting Tobin’s eye. “You heard Mateo earlier. I’m spending the rest of the day on the treadmill.”

Tobin’s heart cracks open a little. “Chris, no—”

“Goodbye, Tobin.” Christen says. Her tone sounds terrifyingly final. She leans hard against the door, and they find themselves on a quiet sidewalk on a back street.  There are a few sleek black sedans parked by the door, and the sun glinting off their burnished hoods stings Tobin’s eyes after the darkness of the theater. Still avoiding eye contact with Tobin, Christen steps up to one of the sedans and lets herself in the back door. “Hi Scott; just home today, please,” Tobin hears her say in her usual tone of voice—soft, pleasant—as she settles her bag on the seat and slips inside.  The car door slams, and an instant later the car pulls smoothly away from the curb, leaving Tobin standing dejectedly on the sidewalk.


Christen, I’m sorry. You were right, I shouldn’t have shown up at the theater uninvited, and I shouldn’t have tried to justify overstepping that boundary. I hope you’re doing okay and that you’ll let me make it up to you.  

“Add that you miss her,” Casey pipes up from over Tobin’s shoulder, examining the draft text. Moe, whose chin is propped on Tobin’s other shoulder, nods.

I miss you.

“No,” Tobin changes her mind hastily, backspacing it out. “I want the apology to stand on its own. Saying I miss her will just muddle the waters, right?”

“I agree,” Alyssa says. “Send it without saying you miss her.”

Tobin presses send. Then, with a groan, she flops over on her couch to rest her head in Casey’s lap. “Why. Am I such. A fuck up?! Why did I treat her like shit for so long?” She buried her face in her hands. “I fucking knew it. I knew it’d be too good to last. Nothing good ever lasts.”

“Tobes, it’ll be okay,” Casey croons, smoothing her calming fingers through Tobin’s tangled hair. “Your heart was absolutely in the right place yesterday. You were just trying to bring her coffee and get to know her a little better. You were trying to do the right thing.”

Tobin just groans again and buries her face in her hands.

“It can’t be easy…” Alyssa adds, in her soft-spoken, thoughtful way, “for someone like Christen, who always seems to have it all together, to have someone witness her being treated like that. Especially if she knows, deep down, that the treatment is intolerable. And especially if the person who witnesses it is someone she really wants to impress.”

“And we still believe that, Tobes,” Moe pipes up earnestly. “She was definitely into you. Is definitely into you. Just give her some time to cool off.” 

Tobin looks around at her friends. “I don’t deserve you guys.”

“Nope, you definitely don’t!” Moe teases. “But we’re here for you regardless. And Christen will come around.”

As if on cue, Tobin’s phone lights up, and all four girls leap at it.

“Oh my god, look at it for me, I can’t,” Tobin whines, thrusting her phone into Alyssa’s hand.

Alyssa looks down at the screen. She frowns, sighs, looks up at Tobin.

"Is it from Christen?" Tobin demands.

Alyssa nods.

"And?!"

“She says it’s fine.”

“But what does she say?” Tobin prods impatiently.

“No, that’s it.” Alyssa hands over the phone with an apologetic look.

Tobin looks down. That’s the whole text.

It’s fine.

“Shit!”

“Give her some time,” Casey consoles. “I’ll talk to her, okay? And I’ll talk to Mal, and Mal will talk to her too. Come on, put it out of your mind for a while. Let’s go to practice.”

Tobin lets her friends drag her off the couch. Slouching against the passenger seat window, she listens to them chatter on about their Thanksgiving plans next week. They’re all scattering to the winds, or at least to the Chicago suburbs.

“You’re going to Florida to see your family, right, Tobes?” Moe asks.

Tobin pulls the hood of her sweatshirt further over her head. She checks her phone as if, magically, a new text from Christen would’ve appeared in the last few minutes. No such luck. It’s fine, her phone screams up at her, acerbic and cold and unforgiving.

Except nothing’s actually fine.

“No,” she says dully. “I’m going to stick around here.”

Practice is unrelenting, with the NWSL championship against the Courage coming up in a few weeks. Tobin doesn’t mind the grueling pace, though. It gives her something else to concentrate on. And remembering the nightmare of Christen’s rehearsal, the way her feet looked in her pointe shoes…Tobin shudders as she sinks another curling ball into the upper 90. Nothing here seems as bad. In fact, she feels like a whiny little baby for ever slacking at practice in the first place.

“Good work, Tobin,” Rory says, in pleasant surprise, as she ducks by the sideline for a sip of water. “Really great, actually.”

Tobin responds with a grunt and a wordless lift of her water bottle in acknowledgment. The praise feels good. Not because it’s from him—she’s still not a fan of Rory—but because she knows it reflects the fact that she’s doing something right.

The rookies, too, look at her with something like renewed respect as she leaves the field that day, sweaty and exhausted, but satisfied with herself.

Shannon, the trainer, squeezes her arm as she passes on the way to the locker room. “Baby steps, Tobin,” she whispers. “I’m proud of you.”


A few days later, it’s the last practice before Thanksgiving. No word from Christen in days. The sky is as cold and gray and roiling as Tobin’s heart. But she tries to put on a strong face. The mentees are there, and Tobin’s hanging out with Fina on the field, in the freezing cold.

“Don’t you want to call it a day?” Tobin asks. All around them, the other players are slowly starting to pack it in. She’s shivering despite her mittens and beanie. “Weather forecast says it’s about to snow.”

“No,” Fina says, with fiery determination. “I want to take ten more shots with each of my feet.”

Tobin grins in spite of herself. “Atta girl.”

“A girl on my soccer team at school…” Fina starts to say. Her tone is deceptively light, but there’s a troubled look in her eyes. “She said yesterday that I should just give up. That I’m not good and I never will be.”

In a flash, Tobin is on her knees in front of Fina. She places two hands firmly on her shoulders and looks her in the eye. “Hey. Fina, listen to me. Never let anyone else define your worth for you, okay? You hear me?” In her mind’s eye, she sees that Mateo guy, screaming at Christen, spit flying everywhere. Telling her she’s fat, worthless, untalented. “You’re a rock star. You’re absolutely incredible. I’m in awe of you every single day.”

Fina looks up, a tentative smile on her face. “Really?”

“A hundred percent. Don’t let anybody talk down to you like that. Don’t ever let anyone treat you like crap. And if they do, fu—I mean…uh…ignore them.”

Fina giggles. “I know what word you were about to say!”

“Do you?” Tobin opens her eyes, wide and innocent. “What word?”

“The F word!” Fina whispers dramatically.

Tobin lowers her voice and looks around. “You’re right!” She says conspiratorially. “I was going to say, if they do, fuzzy kittens will make you feel better.”

“That’s not what you were going to say!”

“It totally was! Okay, go line up your shots, and I’ll play goalie,” Tobin instructs, laughing.

Alyssa’s still lingering near the goal as she runs up to it. She has this look on her face that makes Tobin halt in her tracks. “What?”

“Hm?”

“I know you want to say something, so spit it out.”

The corner of Alyssa’s mouth quirks. She waits for a moment, watching Fina lining up a precise row of balls in the penalty area. “I know there’s no word from Christen yet, and I know you really want to apologize to her.”

“…yeah?”

“But in the meantime,” Alyssa nudges gently. “I can think of a few other people you could maybe apologize to. If, you know, you’re getting into the business of making amends.”

“Who?”

Tobin follows Alyssa’s gaze towards a group of the rookies, who are heading their way across the field.

“I heard what you just said to Fina,” Alyssa says. Her tone is gentle and non-judgmental, but firm. “And don’t you think that—maybe just sometimes—you’ve been on the giving end of, I don’t know, treating some people like crap?”

Tobin groans and grits her teeth. She thinks of all the shit she’s given these rookies this year. She really has been at her worst since May. She’s sent them snide comments under her breath; she’s ignored them when they’ve asked for help; she’s raged at them for minor mistakes until Rory or Moe or Casey have had to grab her by the elbow and pull her away.

“Hey!” she calls out, right as the rookies are passing them.

They freeze, eyes wide, skeptical and perhaps a bit terrified.

“Uh, great scrimmage today. Sophia, that footwork was sick. And uh, Bethany, your vision is getting better and better.”

There’s a moment of stunned silence. The rookies, Alyssa—even Tobin’s a little shocked at herself. It’s not quite an apology, but it’s a start. And she waits with bated breath, hoping they’ll accept it.

And then one of the rookies, Bethany, is grinning. “Thanks, Tobin,” she says, simple and friendly. “That means a lot to us.”

They walk on, and Tobin lets her shoulders sag. She glances over, and Alyssa’s looking at her with honest admiration.

“What?” Tobin mutters, self-conscious.

Alyssa just shakes her head. “You’re really something, you know, Tobin? I could never have done what you just did. That’s something I really appreciate about you. You could’ve just gotten mad at me, or defensive, but you just…heard me and turned around and started fixing things.”

“Yeah,” Tobin mumbles, scuffing her cleat against the grass, embarrassed at the praise. “That’s because I know I suck.”

Alyssa starts to say something, but then Fina’s calling out that she’s ready, so she bites her lip and gives Tobin a smile instead. “Yeah, yeah, I don’t buy it, but we’ll talk about this after we get back from Thanksgiving. You sure you don’t want to head home? You’ve been killing yourself. You should give yourself a break. Go see family.”

“Nah,” Tobin says. “I think I’m going to stick around here. I need to get some more training in; make up for all the slacking over the last few months.” Something hits her forehead, and she looks up at the sky. Fat, white flakes are falling from the roiling gray storm clouds overhead. Something beautiful, out of something desolate.

She puts on a brave face as Alyssa jogs off, but she tosses and turns in bed that night.

All her friends are out of the city, back with their families. Christen’s not speaking to her.

She thinks about the way she feels every day, when she wakes up alone in bed every morning. When she doesn’t join her friends for dinners. When she slouches home at the end of the day, knowing there’s no one waiting up for her. No one expecting her to call and check in on them.

She used to call it freedom. But now, she wonders, perhaps it’s just loneliness after all.


The morning after Thanksgiving, she gets an ad on her phone for the opening night of the Nutcracker.

(She knows it’s those damn algorithms, picking up on the fact that she visits Christen’s Instagram five times a day.)

The ad has got Mal’s smiling face on it, and Christen’s smiling face, and it reminds her of everything she’s done wrong recently.

So she hops on her stationary bike and pedals until the burning ache in her quads overwhelms every other emotion. She toils and sweats and thinks about what to make for lunch. Salad, maybe. Sweet potato. Chicken breast. Iced tea. (There hasn’t been beer in the apartment for weeks.)

When her phone rings, she reaches automatically for it. Some part of her heart harbors a desperate hope that it’s Christen, or a friend, or family member, calling to check in. But her heart sinks when she realizes that it’s a call from a number she doesn’t even recognize. Spam, she thinks, tossing the phone to the side as she cranks up the resistance even higher.

But just a minute later, her phone lights up with a text. She reaches for it. It’s from the same number, and—bewilderingly—it says, Is this Tobin’s number? It’s Mal.

Tobin’s got the phone to her ear, dialing, in a heartbeat.

“Mal?”

“Tobin?”

There’s a tremor in the younger girl’s voice that’s got Tobin worried. She stops pedaling, breathing still heavy. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Mal speaks in a hushed, troubled voice, and it reverberates a little, as if she’s in a large space. “It’s Christen.”

Tobin nearly falls off the bike. “Is she okay?!”

“She called in sick to dress rehearsal this morning—and with opening night tonight, that’s obviously really worrying—so I came over to her apartment to see how she’s doing, and it’s bad, but, um…” Mal’s voice wobbles a little and trails off again. “She doesn't want me here. She says she can’t get me sick, and I tried to stay but she got upset...and...but—but I didn’t want to leave her alone—and everyone’s out of town for Thanksgiving, and I didn’t know who else to call—”

“I’m coming, Mal, don’t worry. Okay? I’m on my way. Hang tight and wait for me.” Tobin is already scrambling around her apartment. She throws her down jacket on straight over her sweaty sports bra, checks her pockets for keys and wallet, and is sprinting down her apartment hallway before the end of the sentence is even out of her mouth.

Chapter Text

In record time, she’s at Christen’s apartment door. Before she even raises her hand to knock, Mal’s opening it and stepping into the hallway—she must’ve been ight by the door, listening for Tobin’s footsteps. Her eyes are red-rimmed, as if she’s been crying. The sight of her downturned face breaks Tobin’s heart a little, and before she can stop to second-guess, she’s putting her arms out for a hug, and Mal’s burrowing into them.

“Sorry to bother you…” Mal says as she finally pulls back, whispering even though they’re standing in the hall.

“Hey, don’t be sorry. You did exactly the right thing.” Tobin glances over Mal’s shoulder into the dark apartment. “Fill me in. What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine,” Mal reassures Tobin quickly. “It’s Christen. She hasn’t looked great for the last couple of days, but she kept saying it’d pass.” Eyes teary and red, standing slightly hunched in on herself, Mal looks her young age for the first time since Tobin’s met her. “Honestly, I should’ve seen it. I should’ve tried to get her to rest sooner, but I thought…” Mal pauses, looking a little abashed. “I thought maybe she was just really upset after your fight, so I didn’t want to pry.”

Tobin winces too. “That’s not your fault at all, Mal. That’s mine.” What if my showing up at the theater upset her so much that she got sicker?!

Mal continues, soft, under her breath, as they step into the apartment. “But then she called in sick this morning. And everyone was freaking out, because tonight is opening night, and she’s the celebrity, you know? She’s the headliner, the person that everyone comes to see. Mateo was furious. I mean, you’ve seen what he’s like. You know. So as soon as we were done rehearsing my parts I came over to check in on her, and—”

As if to fill in the blanks to Mal’s story, there’s a sudden fit of hoarse, hacking, phlegmy coughing from the back of the apartment. Tobin’s eyes go wide, and Mal grimaces.

“…yeah, I know, bad, right? But she got really upset when she saw me, and she said I had to leave in case she got me sick. I tried to fight her on it, but she got really insistent, and…” Mal shrugs helplessly. “She was so worked up I thought it was best if I left. But I couldn’t just leave her alone, and it seems like everyone’s gone for the holidays…I’m so sorry about bothering you…”

“No. Listen to me, Mal. Don’t apologize,” Tobin says firmly. “Christen’s right. You can’t be getting sick right now, either. You head back to the theater, and I’ll keep you updated on how she’s doing.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure. If I need anything, I will let you know, okay? I promise.” Tobin shrugs off her coat and hangs it up on the rack. When she turns back towards Mal, the girl’s got a funny look at her face.

“What?”

Mal looks like she’s trying not to laugh. “You’re not wearing a shirt?”

“Oh.” Tobin glances down at her sports bra, feels her face coloring. “Oh, man. Um, I was working out when you called, and—I mean, I just got really worried, and I wanted to come right over, and, uh…”

Mal chuckles. “Wow, you really committed, huh? This is weird to say, but somehow, that makes me feel better about leaving her with you.”

“Shut up,” Tobin growls, crossing her arms, trying and epically failing to maintain a sense of decorum and dignity as she stands there without a shirt on. But her voice softens as Mal gathers her things. “Seriously. Don’t worry about a single thing except performing well tonight, okay?”

Mal nods and takes a deep breath, and Tobin can tell she’s nervous for her big night. Even more reason she shouldn’t stay and have the weight of this extra stress on her back. Tobin gives her one last quick hug, and then the girl is off.

But when Mal’s gone, and the rush and hubbub is over, the reality of the situation starts to sink in. Am I really qualified to take care of someone who’s sick? I can barely take care of myself when I’m healthy. If Christen’s still mad at me about showing up uninvited to the theater, is she going to be even madder that I’m in her apartment right now?

Her thoughts are interrupted, as another round of hacking coughs fills her ears and breaks her heart.

Why am I even deliberating over this? She has to get better. That’s what I’m here to help with. Nothing else matters.

She looks around, trying to orient herself. The apartment looks just like the last time she saw it, dreamy and spotless. In the daytime, it’s even more magical, with sunlight pouring through the glass walls. Normally, it’d be lovely, but right now, it just seems too bright, too glaring.

Morena’s skidding around her feet, whining. “I’ll take you out in a sec, girl,” Tobin whispers, giving her a scratch behind the ears. Leaving the open front room, she wanders around a corner into the open back area of the apartment, where she hadn’t ventured last time.

The white blankets on the bed are rumpled, and Christen’s curly hair can just be seen peeking out from the top of the pile. Tobin heads first to the windows and pulls down the blinds one by one, bathing the room in cool, relaxing dimness. Then she sits gingerly on the edge of the bed next to Christen and places a slow hand on Christen’s forehead, peeking up above the rumpled blankets.

God, she’s burning up.

Christen turns over, and her face comes into full view—flushed red, eyes shut, sweaty, yet somehow still stunningly beautiful. “Mal,” she croaks out, agitated and raspy. “I told you, get out. You need to go—”

“She left, okay?” Tobin murmurs soothingly. “Don’t worry, Mal’s not going to get sick. I’m here now.”

Christen ceases her struggling. Her eyes flicker open just a crack, as if even small action requires exertion. “Tobin?” she whispers hoarsely. “What…what are you doing here?”

“Mal gave me a call,” Tobin whispers back. “I hope it’s okay that I’m here. Well, I guess it has to be okay, because anyone else who you’d probably prefer over me is out of town, so you’re stuck with me—” Tobin catches herself rambling nervously. She sucks in a quick, steadying breath.

Focus on Christen. Focus on Christen.

“You’re okay. Hear me? You’re going to be okay.”

Christen sniffs, and her hands flutter up by her face for a second before losing strength and dropping down on the comforter. Tears start running fast and thick down her cheeks, staining the pillowcase. “Tobin. I’m…I’m missing opening night,” she whispers, hoarse and low.

“Don’t worry, Christen, that’s what understudies are for.” The sight of Christen crying is literally making Tobin’s heart ache. “Everyone knows it’s not your fault.”

“I’m missing—” Christen pauses to cough. “Mal’s debut—”

“Mal will be great, you’ve trained her so well. And there will be more performances.”

“Mateo will—”

Fuck Mateo,” Tobin snaps. She realizes, too late, that she probably shouldn’t be shouting anything in the direction of someone as sick as Christen. Focus, damn it, focus!

“Let me get you some water and juice. Try to sleep a little—”

“Wait.” Christen reaches out and catches one of Tobin’s hands in both her own. She’s probably so out of it she doesn’t realize what she’s doing—whose hands she’s holding. Her hands are hot and clammy, but Tobin grips tight. Christen’s chapped lips move a little, and Tobin leans in to catch what she’s saying. “Faith. Faith and Nathan have tickets tonight…I’m supposed to be meeting them…”

“Okay, I’ll just call them and tell them,” Tobin soothes, rubbing her thumbs in calm circles over the back of Christen’s hands. “I’ll handle everything, okay? There’s not a single thing you need to worry about it.”

Christen nods, just the tiniest bit, and her grip on Tobin’s hands loosens. She coughs again, turning her face into the pillow, and Tobin can see the way it racks through her body, curling her stomach and quaking her shoulders. Tobin pulls the comforter up higher, tucking it in under Christen’s chin. She stands and draws the curtains over the blinds so the room is even darker.

First order of business: she rummages through the kitchen for water, juice, anything. There’s no juice to be found. She stands for a while in front of Christen’s refrigerator, frowning, with a deep ache building in her chest. Why, for the love of God, hadn’t she noticed the first time she’d visited that Christen’s refrigerator was basically empty? You can’t survive on sparkling water and yogurt. Tobin slams the refrigerator door shut with just a smidge too much force. For now, she leaves three bottles of spring water on Christen’s nightstand, cracking the seal on the lids first so that Christen won’t have to struggle with them later. Christen seems to be sleeping already, so—

Second order of business: she takes Morena out for a walk. For the first few minutes, Morena frisks around Tobin’s ankles, lunging at every passing piece of litter, until she finally settles down.

Third order of business: as she walks Morena, she texts Mal that everything’s under control. Do you know the contact information for Christen’s Nike mentee, Faith? She adds.

Sorry, I don’t, Mal texts back instantaneously.

That’s fine. Fourth order of business: call every Nike contact number she has until she finds someone with Nathan’s contact information. Then, call Nathan. When she conveys the news, he understands. “I hope she gets better soon,” he says, worriedly, and Tobin can hear Faith in the background, teary, asking, “Is Christen sick? Is she okay?”

“Here, why don’t you put me on speaker,” Tobin suggests. “Faith? Faithie, you there?”

“Yeah?” Faith says, and you can almost hear her downturned face through the phone.

“Christen is just fine, okay? She’s just an itty bitty bit sick. She’ll be super healthy in no time!”

Faith sniffs. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m a hundred percent sure. A thousand percent. Ten million percent.” Faith’s sniffles on the other end die down a little, and morph into something like a giggle. “I’m going to stay with her at her apartment, and she’s going to drink lots of orange juice, and lots of water, and take some bubble baths.”

“And chicken soup? Daddy makes me chicken soup when I’m sick.”

“Oh, totally, chicken soup! Great idea, Faith. You are so good at this. With your help, she’s going to be up and running in no time.”

“And we can watch the Nutcracker another night?”

“Yes, absolutely. How about we invite Fina, too? And I’ll come, and we can have a little play date, and we can all watch Christen in the Nutcracker together another night.”

“Okay!” Faith perks up. “Daddy, can we? Can we play with Fina and Tobin again?”

“Okay, okay, of course,” Nathan’s voice comes back on the line, loud and clear. “Tobin, thanks for calling with the update. Faith would’ve taken this so much harder if it’d just been some generic Nike staff member.”

“Yeah, of course,” Tobin says.

“So…” Nathan’s voice takes on a sneaky edge. “Thought you and Christen just ran in the same circles? That wouldn’t explain why you’re at her apartment right now, feeding her chicken noodle soup?”

“Shut up!” Tobin sasses back. “We’re friends! Just friends.”

“Okay, okay, whatever you say, Tobin,” Nathan teases before the line goes dead.

…fifth order of business? Guess I should make her some chicken noodle soup.

When Tobin drops Morena back off at the apartment, the dog races to the corner and snuggles into her enormous, poufy dog bed. After checking on Christen—still sleeping, but still burning up—Tobin decides to make a run to the grocery store. She’s glancing around the desk for paper to leave a note for her, telling her where she’s gone, when a familiar piece of paper catches her eye.

Christen’s planner is open on the table. Tobin doesn’t mean to peek at it, but she catches a glimpse of the neat, color-coordinated rows, each day charted out minute by minute, hour by hour. But lying on top of the open planner is a flyer for the Nike program.

It’s not just any flyer, Tobin realizes. It’s got Tobin’s face on it. She picks it up, smooths out the creases. It’s the flyer Tobin gave to Nathan and Faith in the grocery store. With her own handwriting at the bottom, crossing out her own name and writing in Christen’s.

She must’ve gotten this from Nathan and Faith at some point. But how? When?

And why is she using it for a bookmark?

Distracted by the thought of the flyer, Tobin’s in the grocery store by the time she realizes she’s still only wearing her sports bra under her puffy winter coat. Sweltering in the zipped-up coat, she dashes around the store buying everything that looks like it might be appetizing to a flu victim. Tea, bananas, saltine crackers, orange juice, bread. A bunch of medicine.

Then she starts in on chicken soup ingredients. There’s this soup that her mother always made for her when she was sick. The very thought of it makes her mouth water, to this day. But what was the recipe? What were the special ingredients her mom used to add to it? There was a little tomato, for sure. Garlic, maybe? But how much?

She squeezes her eyes shut, and can almost make out, in her mind’s eye, the familiar writing on that worn recipe card in her mom’s handwriting. But it vanishes into gray smoke before she can get a handle on it. She knows she’ll never be able to get it right, off the top of her head. She balls up her fists in frustration.

So she pulls out her phone and Googles, best chicken noodle soup recipe.

Back in Christen’s apartment, she unpacks all the groceries, smiling with satisfaction at the sight of the filled shelves in the refrigerator and pantry. As she starts on the soup, she realizes that the downside of the open floor plan is that she has to chop super softly, scared that the sound of the knife against the cutting board will wake Christen. A couple times, she sneaks over to Christen’s bedside to check, but she’s still sleeping. Her face is still flushed, and her forehead is hot to the touch. Tobin strokes her curls back from her sweaty hairline and aches for her.

As dusk settles over the city and the soup is left to simmer for a couple hours, she checks the time. It’s nearing six. Mal will be backstage by now, getting into costume. Tobin shoots her a text that things are going well here, and wishing her luck.

Pacing around the darkening apartment, listening in anguish to the tiny, pathetic coughs Christen is letting out in her sleep, she wonders what else she can do. Should I try to get Christen to eat a little dinner? Take some medicine?

Tobin tiptoes her way into Christen’s fancy bathroom. Like the rest of the apartment, the ceilings are high and industrial. An enormous mirror looms over a long marble countertop, which is lined with impeccably organized bottles and tubes. There’s a fancy rainfall shower, and—

Aha—a huge, gleaming white jacuzzi tub.

A bath would help, right?

She twists the taps on and fiddles with the knobs, and the tub starts to fill with hot water. There are more bottles and bags lined up along the edge of the tub. She picks up a fancy little brown paper bag, with a spa label on it. There’s a bottle of foot cream with the same fancy label next to it. This must be the spa she was telling me about the other day. She glances at the label, and then inside. Bath salts? That sounds healthy?

Tentatively, she takes a tiny pinch of it and sprinkles it into the water. More of it ends up sticking to her damp fingers than making it into the tub.

(How do bath salts work, she Googles.)

When she finally figures out the right amount, it froths up, clean and cheery, in the tub, and she looks on with an odd sense of satisfaction.

She probably wants fresh clothes, Tobin thinks. For a moment, she wonders whether it’d be too invasive to go through Christen’s drawers, but then she shudders at the sensation of putting on sweaty old flu clothes after a nice warm bath, and she goes for it. A fluffy towel from the shelf, an oversized t-shirt from a drawer, a pair of simple black underwear from yet another. She sets them all on the edge of the tub.

Then she returns to Christen’s bedside. Christen has tossed the blankets aside, and she’s tossing and murmuring as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The sheets are sweat-damp and rumpled, and it looks more uncomfortable than restful, which is why Tobin doesn’t feel quite as bad rousing her.

“Hey,” she says softly. “Hey. You awake?”

As Christen tosses and turns again, Tobin rests one hand on her shoulder, and uses the other to steady her neck. Through her hot, damp skin, she can feel Christen’s heartbeat racing.

Christen groans a little. Her eyes flutter open, dark and dazed in her flushed face. It seems to take her a second to adjust. “Tobin,” she grates out in seeming disbelief. “You’re still here?”

“You bet I am,” Tobin whispers. “Listen, I ran a bath. You feel up for it? I think it’d be good for you.”

Christen nods, just the tiniest butterfly-wing of a movement. Tobin braces an arm behind her and lifts her to a seated position, and then gets under her arm. “Nice slow steps, okay?” she murmurs, as they rise together from the low bed. Christen wobbles a little, and Tobin puts both arms around her. She tries her best to ignore the fact that Christen’s wearing these tiny, loose flannel sleep shorts, that her skin is petal-soft under Tobin’s fingertips. (And that she herself is only wearing a sports bra, so Christen’s arms are locking around her bare skin, pressed up tight against her abs.) You’re here to take care of her, she scolds herself internally, she’s an invalid! Get your mind out of the gutter!

Thankfully, for purposes of keeping Tobin’s mind of the gutter, Christen seems to have enough strength to undress herself in the bathroom. Tobin leads her across the threshold and shuts the door behind her. She stands outside in the dark for a few minutes, making sure she hears Christen getting into the tub without falling or asking for help, and then gets to work. She turns on all the lights, and cracks the windows for a little air. She strips the sweat-damp sheets and pillowcases off the bed and replaces them with fresh ones. She washes out the glasses and mugs that have accumulated on the bedside table, and pours new ones. She figures out where Morena’s dog food is stored, and refills her bowls.

“Tobin?” she finally hears Christen’s weak voice murmur from the bathroom.

She scrambles to turn off the lights first, and then inches the bathroom door open a crack. Christen is dressed in her fresh clothes, sitting on the edge of the tub.

“Hi,” Christen whispers. She pushes herself up to standing, blinking slowly, her head swaying to the side a little. “Can you walk me back to—”

She sways a little harder, and one hand reaches back to grasp at the edge of the tub as her knees buckle a little. In a flash, Tobin’s at her side, holding her up. The way Christen’s head lolls down towards her chest, as if she can’t even get up the strength to lift her chin, worries her.

“Sorry,” Christen says in a barely audible, raspy whisper, leaning into Tobin’s side. Her face is flushed, maybe a little from embarrassment, but mostly from her fever.

Tobin stands for a second, deliberating. She could try to walk Christen back to the bed again, but why even bother?

“Hold still for me, okay?” Tobin whispers. She braces her legs, and then in one swoop, lifts Christen up into her arms and carries her out of the bathroom.

Christen seems to weigh nothing in Tobin’s arm. She shivers, leaning her hot forehead against Tobin’s shoulder. There’s an unsteady thrum through her entire body. Tobin sits her down on the freshly made bed and together, they coax a few pills down Christen’s throat. Tobin checks her temperature with the thermometer she found in the bathroom—still 101.8, not great. Christen’s so out of it, her eyes barely open at all. Every time Tobin glances back at her, she’s slumped lower and lower on the pillows, until she’s completely under the covers, passed out. Unlike earlier, though, she’s completely still. At rest.

Guess that rules out waking her up again for dinner.

So Tobin has some of her own soup and sticks the rest of it in the fridge. She borrows an oversized t-shirt from Christen’s closet and takes a shower. (She borrows Christen’s shampoo and conditioner, too, which leaves her hair silkier and softer than it has ever felt.) She runs a load of laundry.

She checks Twitter to see if there’s any Nutcracker news. Most of the articles mention Christen’s absence, and Tobin’s heart sinks, knowing that Christen will be reading those soon, blaming herself.

But the reviews also mention Mal. And they rave about her. And that makes Tobin beam, and it fills her with a strange, righteous, giddy emotion that it takes her a while to identify. It’s pride for Mal, she suddenly realizes.

She hasn’t felt pride in a long time.  

Finally, around nine o’clock, she checks on Christen again. Still sleeping soundly, thank God. She refills the cups on her nightstand—water and orange juice and tea, so she has options. Morena is whining and pacing around at the foot of the bed, so Tobin sits cross-legged and gathers her into her lap, hushing her.

“Christen’s going to be okay,” she whispers, half to Morena and half to herself.

Christen’s bed is so low to the ground that Tobin can rest her arm on the top of the mattress—and then her head atop her arm—and then she’s out like a light.


“Tobin.”

Tobin flinches up to a seated position. It’s pitch black in the room. Her tailbone aches from resting against the hardwood floor; her arm is all pins and needles; the crook of her elbow is wet with drool.

“Tobin,” the raspy whisper comes again.

Suddenly wide awake, Tobin scrambles to her knees, then her feet, wiping sleep from her eyes with the insides of her wrists. Christen is still huddled under her puffy comforter, her eyes blinking open and shut in slow, listless drags.

“What do you need? How are you feeling?” Tobin whispers, resting the back of her hand against Christen’s hot forehead. Shit, she’s still burning up. “Do you feel a little better, babe? Do you want to try eating—”

Tobin freezes.

“Babe.” Fuck, “babe”?!? What is wrong with me?

Christen doesn’t seem to have noticed anything. She coughs, hoarse and hacking. Her eyes drift shut again. “…cold.”

“You’re cold?” Tobin looks around a little helplessly. She hadn’t seen any more blankets around earlier. She’s not sure where the thermostat is, either. Using her phone as a flashlight, she takes another turn through Christen’s closet. A sweatshirt seems like a harder maneuver than it’s worth right now, but she grabs one anyway, and then a beanie and socks.

Back at the bed, she tugs the beanie snug onto Christen’s head, then feels her way to the foot of the bed. She can tell from the way that Christen’s entwining her feet with each other, burrowing them into the mattress, that they’re cold. She reaches out and touches the arch of Christen’s foot. It’s like ice.

“Jesus Christ, your feet are freezing!” she whispers.

Half-asleep again, Christen doesn’t respond, just lets out a half-lucid mumble.

Tobin only hesitates for a moment before the obvious solution comes to her. She’s great at giving foot massages; she used to give them to her family all the time. She retrieves the foot cream from the bathroom, and sitting cross-legged at the end of the mattress, she puts a dollop on her palm.

She strokes her hands over Christen’s ice-cold feet. They’re hard to the touch, covered with callouses. Tobin kneads her knuckles into her calloused arches; drifts her fingers over the scars on her heels and toes. As she does, she’s reminded of the last time she saw Christen’s feet. The blood and bruises, hidden under the perfect façade of those spotless ballet shoes. All torn up and ragged and—Tobin has to pause, dabbing at her suspiciously damp eyes with the back of her hand. When she runs her thumbs hard against Christen’s arches again, it’s almost reverent.

Please, please, please get better, she prays desperately.

(She thanks God that Christen probably won’t remember any of this in the morning.)

At first, she worries that Christen will grow restless and start kicking around. Luckily, she does the opposite. As Tobin works, she settles on her back and her breath evens out in her sleep. She looks more peaceful than she has in hours.

When Christen’s feet are finally warm to the touch, and Tobin’s hands are hot and tingling and aching, Tobin slips on the pair of fuzzy socks she found. She washes her hands and is just resuming her original spot on the floor when she looks up and sees that Christen’s eyes are open.

Uh…shit.

“Why are you…on the ground?” Christen mutters, half awake.

Now would be a bad time to make fun of her again for having no furniture, right?

“Uh, I like the ground?”

“Just use…the bed.”

Tobin just stares. But before she can ask, “Are you serious?”, Christen turns over on her side and appears to be out like a light again.

Tobin sits in the dark for a few long moments, staring at the king-sized bed, reasons and wishes and excuses flashing one after another through her head.

Inappropriate?

She could make sure to keep on the far side of the bed, with acres of space between them.

Healthy?

The far side of the mattress, with the sheets and pillowcases she just washed, wouldn’t get her any sicker than all this exposure probably already has.

Comfortable?

Please get in the fucking bed, her tailbone screams at her.

The sound of Christen’s breathing has eased out, shallow but steady. Tobin tiptoes to the other side of the mattress and lays herself down on the furthest possible edge. Christen’s got the entire comforter bundled around her, but Tobin drapes Christen’s spare sweatshirt across herself and is out like a light within minutes.


It could be minutes later, or hours, when Tobin wakes.

It’s still pitch black. She’s so utterly comfortable and warm. The mattress is cushy and smooth under her, the pillows fluffy, and there’s this sweet, floral smell surrounding her, and—

And—

And Christen is pressed into her side, fast asleep, their limbs entangled.

Tobin stiffens, and her breath suddenly feels like it’s beating a warpath through her lungs.

They’re entwined together. Under the comforter. Christen’s face is buried in the crook of Tobin’s neck, and Tobin can feel her breath, in and out, tickling her collarbone. Christen’s arm is thrown over Tobin’s stomach, and her hand has somehow come to rest on Tobin’s taut, warm stomach, under the hem of her t-shirt. Their legs are tangled in each other’s, and god, Christen’s skin is soft and warm and perfect. Tobin can feel Christen’s two feet, in their fuzzy socks, pressing against Tobin’s calves.

She doesn't even think about getting sick. All she thinks about how lucky she'd be if, somehow, this was real.

What a beautiful dream, a groggy part of her brain protests. Go back to sleep. Enjoy it.

She gulps down a deep breath. She can’t.

This feels like taking advantage.

She should never have slept in the bed in the first place.

Moving in increments of centimeters, barely daring to breathe, she disentangles herself limb by limb from Christen. First the arms. Then the torso. Then the legs. When she eases herself out from under the blanket, Christen stirs slightly, frowns in her sleep, shivers a little. Tobin makes sure to tuck the blanket securely around her again. As she does, she notes that Christen’s breathing has even out, that she hasn’t coughed in a while, that her forehead feels just a little warm.

Her phone says it’s four in the morning. She makes her way into the front area of the apartment again, where Morena lifts her head and greets her with a little whine.

“Hey, girl,” Tobin whispers. She sits down next to Morena on the dog bed—it’s enormous, honestly, like a twin sized mattress—and rests her back against the wall. Morena squirms around so that her head is resting, heavy and warm and soothing, on Tobin’s lap, and Tobin runs her hands through her fur, scratching behind her ears, until sleep overtakes her again.


The rustle and shift of Morena jumping off the dog bed wakes Tobin up in the morning.

She sits up, disoriented. She’s squinting through the sunlight, barely registering her surroundings, when she hears the keypad on the door beeping. Mal comes tip-toeing through the door, a backpack on her shoulders. She spies Tobin in the dog bed and lets out a giggle before catching herself and glancing guiltily in the direction of Christen’s bed.

“Hey,” Tobin mumbles groggily. She stretches a little. Her shoulders are a little sore, but otherwise, she’s feeling okay. “What time is it?”

“Almost noon,” Mal whispers. “I can stick around until tonight. How’s Chris?”

They wander together over to Christen’s bed. Sometime in the night, she’s shed the hat and socks. Her forehead is dry to the touch, and warm, but not scalding. The expression on her face is almost a smile. “She seems a lot better than yesterday already,” Tobin whispers. “I think she’s turned the corner. But I guess if she’s still sleeping, we should let her sleep.”

They creep back towards the kitchen. “Want some soup?” Tobin offers.

“Oh, sure, yeah. I’m starving, but Chris never has any—whoa.” Mal’s eyes go wide as Tobin opens the fridge to reveal all the groceries she bought yesterday. “What’s all this?”

“Just…” Tobin shrugs as she starts to reheat some of the soup in one of Christen’s fancy bowls, in Christen’s fancy microwave. “Just some stuff I got at the store. I don’t really know how to take care of sick people, so I just got a little of everything.”

Mal looks pleased, which gives Tobin just the nudge of courage she needs to forge forward with another question. “I, uh, I heard Mateo saying to Christen the other day, the thing about…her weight…”

She feels the tendons in her neck clenching up, just at the shred of the memory. She can hear his voice in her head, saying, “…if you weren’t such a fucking cow.”

“And now…” she grits out through her teeth, trying to push the memory aside enough so that she can function like a normal human being. “Now, I noticed, uh…she doesn’t…have any food in her apartment.”

“Oh, no, she’s not—” Mal’s eyes go wide, and she shakes her head firmly. “No, I know what you’re thinking, but she doesn’t have an eating disorder. I mean, she doesn’t cook at all,” Mal chuckles, “And she could definitely stand to eat more calories than she does. But don’t worry.”

Tobin lets out a long, relieved breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. “Oh. Okay.”

“I mean, a valid point, though,” Mal says. “Eating disorders are rampant in ballet. Always good to keep an eye out. Not Chris, though. And not me.” Mal eyes the bowl of soup that Tobin slides in front of her eagerly. “And this smells amazing.”

Tobin watches with some trepidation as Mal takes her first spoonful.

“Is it bad?” Tobin asks in a hushed voice. It’s not my mom’s recipe, so it’s probably bad. “You definitely don’t need to have it if you don’t want to. There’s bananas, too, and uh, toast—”

“It’s so good,” Mal proclaims, eyes wide. She drinks a second spoonful, then a third. “Holy shit, Tobin. I would pay you to make this soup for me.”

A strange, fierce joy runs through Tobin’s body. Weirdly, she feels like she might cry. But she just shrugs, and smiles, and says off-handedly, “Have as much as you want. I bought enough ingredients yesterday; I’ll make another batch for Christen.”

She putters around the kitchen again, grabbing all the ingredients. She feels Mal’s careful eyes on her. “You surprise me, Tobin,” Mal says. “I can’t believe you went out and bought all this food for her, and—”

“It’s nothing more than what you or Casey or anyone else would do,” Tobin deflects smoothly. “So. Um…you and Christen seem so close. How do you guys know each other? How did you meet?”

Mal chuckles down at her soup bowl. “It’s a little embarrassing.”

“More embarrassing than how I met her?”

Mal laughs out loud, then claps a hand over her mouth. “It might be close. Christen was guest teaching one of the classes at school. I had just moved here and enrolled in the boarding school, and it was my first time ever living away from my family. Everything sucked, and I was really stressed. I was even thinking about quitting. After class, Christen pulled me aside, and she complimented my jumps and said I had a lot of promise.” Mal smiles fondly at the memory. “And then…I burst into tears and cried all over her for like, half an hour.” 

“No!”

Yes. It was awful, and I was mortified, but she took it all in stride, of course, like the queen she is. She asked me if I wanted to get coffee with her every week, and the rest is history.”

“Why do you think you had that emotional response to her compliments?”

Mal pauses. She looks a little surprised at Tobin’s thoughtful question, but she considers it. “Well, ballet is hard. You know how hard it is to make it in this industry? It’s solitary. It’s isolating, it’s competitive, it’s vicious. I’ve made friends at school since then, but at the beginning, I was just so lonely. And on top of that, I mean, there was really no one who looked like me but her. I think even looking at her that day, in person, for the first time, got me kind of emotional. Christen is so important to girls like me. Like Faith. Did you know that Christen is the person who taught me how to dye my pointe shoes?”

“Dye?”

“Yeah, well…” Mal shrugs. “The pink shoes don’t match our skin tone. And they don’t sell them in other colors. It doesn’t matter as much during practice, but for performances, Christen colors hers with makeup, and she taught me how to do it the same way.”

Tobin sits, absolutely floored. I had never thought of that. I had never really needed to think of that.

“I honestly don’t know if I would still be dancing today if it weren’t for her,” Mal continues, a faraway look in her eyes. “Back when Christen was a teenager, unless you were in a dance company like Alvin Ailey, or the Dance Theatre of Harlem, there just weren’t any Black dancers. There are some now. But still not enough. Christen always says that the art we love was not created in our image. If we want it, we have to work twice as hard to make it ours.”  Mal dabs a tear from the corner of her eye with her pinky, and stares down at her wet finger as she continues in a slightly wobbling voice. “And she’s paved the way for me. For so many others. She’s had it so hard, and she’s done it alone. You have no idea.”

For a moment, the only sound in the room is the clank of Mal’s spoon against the side of her bowl.

“You’re right,” Tobin admits miserably. “I have no idea. I’m so clueless about all this.”

But,” Mal adds, giving Tobin a smile. “You’re learning and growing. We all are. That’s what counts.”

Am I learning and growing? Tobin wonders, scraping a bunch of chopped vegetables off the cutting board into the pot of chicken stock. I think I am. I want to be.

“How are you so wise?” Tobin teases.

“Well, I spend a lot of time with Christen.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

The sound of stirring in the distance catches Tobin by surprise. She and Mal both crane their heads to look. Christen shifts around under the comforter a little and lets out a weak little cough.

“Um, well, since you’re here, I guess I’ll get going,” Tobin says, suddenly jittery. A flood of memories from last night suddenly overwhelm her. She thinks of carrying Christen in her arms yesterday, and giving her a foot massage, and calling her babe, and freaking waking up in her arms in the middle of the night.

She’s not sure she has the courage to be here when Christen wakes up. She reaches for her coat and keys. “The soup just stays on a low simmer for two hours. The rest of the food I got is in this cabinet over here—”

“You sure you don’t want to wait until she wakes up? I’m sure she’d love to say thank you.”

“No, no,” Tobin says hastily. She looks over at the bed. It looks like Christen might not be awake after all, but Tobin decides that she should make her escape before that happens. She racks her brain for a plausible excuse. “I, uh, I promised some of my teammates that I’d pick them up from the airport, so I really should get going.”

“Okay, but you know she wouldn’t care if you stayed—”

“Let me know if you need me to come back tonight, okay?” Tobin says, hastily jamming her feet into her sneakers. “Or, actually, Casey will be back in town by tonight, and Christen will probably prefer her over me anyway, so uh, maybe just let Casey know.”

Tobin—” Mal tries to interject again. She looks equal parts amused and exasperated.

“There’s juice in the fridge and all the medicine is on her nightstand,” Tobin says as she flees out the door into the hallway. “And, uh, great job last night!”

Mal’s just laughing at Tobin’s panic, and Morena whines for Tobin at the crack in the door as it swings shut.

Then she stops short, stares at the closed door before her. Some part of her wants to immediately knock and head back in. She wants to hang out with Mal and hear her talk about ballet, and she wants to check Christen’s temperature and feed her soup and watch her smile.

She wants it all so strongly it scares her. But she knows she can’t. Your job here is done. Mal is there for her, and her real friends are coming back into town. The last time you saw her, she said, “We aren’t friends.” The last time you saw her, you had just trampled all over her boundaries. Don’t make the same fucking mistake again, Tobin.

Anyway, she probably won’t even remember anything that’s happened in the last 24 hours.

Resigned, Tobin rips her eyes away from the closed door. She shoves her hands into her coat pockets and takes off down the silent apartment hallway.

Chapter Text

“…It’s such a spectacular sport. Of course, everyone knows how physically grueling it is, but I truly didn’t recognize, at the outset of this whole adventure, just how much of an art form it is.”

Really? An art form, like ballet is?”

Yes, absolutely. I mean, to recognize the inherent beauty, and artistry, in soccer, all you have to do is watch Tobin play—”

Pause.

Rewind.

I mean, to recognize the inherent beauty, and artistry, in soccer, all you have to do is watch—

“Tobin, are you watching the interview again?”

Tobin flinches and rips her earbuds out of her ear.

“No,” she lies feebly, bolting up right on Casey’s couch, getting her fingers all tangled in her earbud wires.

“I could tell,” Casey continues smugly, totally disregarding Tobin’s obvious lie, “because your face was doing that thing it does.”

“What thing?”

Moe pipes up. “That dumb, wistful, ‘I’m in love with her but I’m also ignoring her so all I can do is watch this video of her saying nice things about me fifty times a day’ face.”

Tobin glares at them and makes a big show of shoving her earbuds back in, even though there’s nothing playing.

“How many times has Christen texted you in the past three days?” Moe demands.

“Zero.”

Lies. There was a text from the day after Tobin left her house, that said, Hey, Tobin. That was followed up the next day by another one that said, I believe you absconded with one of my shirts.

Tobin was already in a tailspin, trying to figure out whether Christen was mad about the shirt, when the third text arrived the day after that. Seriously, thanks for all the food and stuff, that was really above and beyond.

The words above and beyond had thrown Tobin into a blind panic—shit, I was totally right, it was too much, it got weird. She had been about to text back, but what would she say? Sorry? You’re welcome? I’ll give your shirt back?

In the end, her anxiety had taken over, and she hadn’t answered at all.

So, not quite zero.

Moe, Casey, and Alyssa all shoot glares her way.

“Okay, zero plus three.” Tobin says defensively. “So?”

Casey rolls her eyes. “Oh my god, Tobin, you’re being so silly. Before Thanksgiving you were all mopey because you were texting her and she wasn’t texting you back. Now she’s trying to get in touch with you and you’re ignoring her.”

“I’m not ignoring her.” (She hasn’t told them yet, but there’s a text from Mal on her phone, too, from yesterday, and it says, You complete dummy, why are you ignoring Christen? She then compounded her sins by ignoring Mal’s text too.) “I’m going to answer. I’m just…waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” Alyssa sighs.

“Waiting for the Christen to forget the fact that Tobin, like, saved her life?” Moe says sarcastically, everyone laughs but Tobin.

“You guys, it’s too weird,” Tobin whines. “I think I was weird. What if she’s calling to tell me that I overstepped my boundaries?”

“Why would she think that?” Alyssa asks, truly starting to look annoyed now. “You made her soup and bought her groceries and walked her dog. You literally nursed her back to health.”

“Yeah,” Tobin mumbles under her breath.

I also gave her a foot massage and slept in her bed with her, and carried her around her apartment in my arms. Oh, yeah, and that was after she yelled at me and told me, “Tobin, we don’t know each other.” I just haven’t told you those things because they’re too embarrassing.

After her friends thankfully settle down in silence with their books and phones again, she surreptitiously pulls out her phone as well and heads back to the video.

Since Nike posted the joint interview, it’s racked up hundreds of thousands of views. Most of the fans must be here for Christen, Tobin thinks. I mean, I’d be here for Christen. She pauses the video and zooms in on Christen’s face, observing the way it lights up with radiant laughter, the way that her cheekbone catches the light.

She watches it to live in a little escapist fantasy world for just a moment, to hear all the nice things that Christen says about her in the video, each little comment a shot of serotonin straight to the brain. In an alternate universe before she had made the series of idiotic choices leading to where she is today. Though at the time of the interview she had questioned whether Christen’s compliments were genuine, she thinks, now, that they were. Especially when she sees the way Christen sneaks stray glances—hesitant, almost shy—towards Tobin between questions, then glances away quickly when Tobin looks over. And Tobin had been doing the same thing, quite obviously, like a lovestruck idiot. It’s all captured right there on camera, painfully obvious.

Before I went and fucked it all up.

But Tobin also studies Christen’s face in the video with new discernment behind her eyes now. All that charm, all that cheer. All that glitter, that peachy-perfect sheen over her Instagram that Tobin had derived so much vicious pleasure in mocking, early on. But behind all that, what? An empty apartment and an abusive director? Awe and respect from everyone on the peripheries of her life, but so few real friends that Mal had resorted to calling Tobin when she fell sick, even with full awareness that Tobin and Christen had just had a massive fight?

Again, Tobin pauses and zooms in close onto Christen’s face. It was during a lull between questions, and Tobin wonders if she’s imagining that Christen looks a little haunted. A little empty. A little lost.

Maybe they’re more alike than Tobin had ever dreamed.

And irrationally, but so strongly it almost knocks her onto her back, Tobin feels a desperate longing to put her arms around Christen one more time. To check in on her and bundle her up in blankets and ask if she’s okay and never let her go, to let her know that she’s not alone.

“Tobes?”

“Hm?” Tobin flinches and drops her phone again.

Casey smirks at her reaction, but mercifully, lets it slide this time. “What are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know, I guess whatever you guys are doing tonight.”

“Alyssa’s sister’s in town, and Moe and I are going to dinner….”

“Well, I’ll just go too.”

“With our husbands.”

Tobin just shrugs. “So?”

“Tobes, you don’t want to fifth wheel our date; isn’t that your least favorite thing to do?” Moe laughs.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem so bad now. Fabrice and Cody are cool guys. “Why not?” Tobin says hopefully.

Casey just laughs. “We’re not going to let you crash, Tobes. Why don’t you go out and do something you used to do? Didn’t you used to love going to the art museum?”

Tobin perks up at the idea. True. She’s a member of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she used to spend hours wandering around the museum. She hasn’t been since May. She glances out the window. It’ll be a snowy, freezing weekday night, which means that the place will probably be deserted of tourists. Perfect.

“Thanks, Casey,” she says, mind spinning as she mentally rearranges her night to accommodate the new plan. “I think I will.”


By the time she arrives at the steps of the museum, huffing into her freezing hands and stomping fresh snow off of her boots, the snow that’s flurrying out of the night sky is just starting to turn into fat flakes. But when she slips through the entrance, she stops short, chagrined.

There’s some event here tonight. There are more crowds than normal, and people are milling around in ball gowns and suits. A passing couple, glittering in their finery, gives Tobin in her beanie and worn-out coat and clunky boots a judgmental once-over.

Nevertheless, the museum is clearly still open to the public—Tobin spots a few families in hoodies and sneakers, pushing strollers around—so she feels okay slipping in and out of the crowds with the hood of her jacket pulled up around her ears. With the snow coming down, she suspects she only has a little bit of time until the museum closes early. So she skips some of her usual spots and heads straight for her favorite exhibit—Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” 

There’s something about the huge, lit-up stained glass panes; the blue that’s the bluest blue you could imagine, so blue it makes her heart hurt in a weird way; the perfect imperfection of the shading and the lines, that always makes her feel like she can stand there and breathe that piece of art in forever. When the room is dim and devoid of other guests, and she’s standing there bathed in blue-green light, she feels as if she’s floating, as if through water at the bottom of a pool, through time and space, tranquil and free.

She winds her way through the crowds, but she isn’t thrilled that as she gets closer to the room, the museum-goers seem to thicken and cluster around her. What is going on here?, she grumbles internally. Finally, she spies the back of a temporary event sign hanging at the end of a hallway and takes a detour to investigate.

When she crosses over to the front of the sign and gets a good look at it, her jaw drops.  

The minimalistic black and white poster reads, “Paintings En Pointe: Celebrate the opening of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Degas exhibit with the principals of the Chicago Ballet Company.”

“Shit,” Tobin says, much louder than she intended to.

Christen’s here, somewhere in the museum, isn’t she?

Fucking Casey!

“Shit!” She mutters again. Fancy people are glaring in her direction. She ducks away from the sign and the art and the crowds, into a side nook. She whips her phone out of her pocket.

“Casey?!”

“Hey girl!”

There’s the sound of voices and restaurant hubbub in the background, and Tobin almost feels guilty for interrupting dinner, almost, until she hears Moe and the husbands laughing in the background. 

“Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and I’m sorry, but don’t leave, please don’t leave,” Casey begs, and Tobin can hear Moe chiming in in the background, “If she leaves, I’ll murder her!

“So you knew this event, this stupid things with the ballerinas, was happening.”

“Hell yeah, I knew. In fact, Christen told me about it and asked if I could get you there. We’ve been talking, Tobin. You know she’s been really upset these past few days that you’ve been ignoring her.”

Tobin feels an odd pang in her heart at the thought that Christen isn’t happy, and that Tobin is the cause of her unhappiness.

But at the same time, she’s a bit in disbelief that she has that sort of power. Over Christen. Over anyone.

“Are you sure?” she hedges. “She’s probably just being polite…”

Tobin!” Casey huffs. “I’m so sorry to scold right now, and I love you, but you’re being so stupid.”

So stupid!” Tobin hears Moe yell in the background.

“I don’t even have words to describe how stupid you’re being,” Casey continues. “Don’t you dare step foot outside that museum tonight without talking to her, Tobin. If you do, she’ll be crushed. Do you want her to be crushed?”

There’s silence on the line for a second. Of course I don’t. Tobin’s heart wrings in her chest.  

As usual, Casey can read her mind. “Okay, so don’t crush her. Go find her, okay? Text her right now and tell her you’re there. Say whatever you need to say to her, but say something. We love you, okay?’

“We love you!” Moe and the husbands chorus in the background before the line goes dead.

Tobin shoves her phone in her pocket. She takes a deep breath, the kind that pushes out against your ribs and feels like it’s filtering out through every blood vessel in your body. She stands for a second, glancing from the event sign to the crowded hallway. She ought to go home. She can come back at any time, when there aren’t crowds, and certainly when Christen’s not here.

But something stops her from leaving.

It’s the possibility—the exhilarating, heartbreaking, terrifying, unreal possibility—that she matters enough to Christen that if she left, Christen would be hurt.

Crushed, Casey had said.

Tobin steps back out into the hallway. She could be anywhere in this building, she reasons to herself. I’ll just sneak a look at America Windows first, and then I’ll text her. She knows she’s stalling. But honestly, she thinks the art might just give her the extra boost of courage she needs.

Dodging through the gathering crowds, she soldiers back into the hall and towards the America Windows room.

And as Tobin turns the corner into the room, there—as she somehow already knew would happen—there is Christen.

The lights in the America Windows room are turned up bright, and the room is packed. A crowd is gathered right in front of the wall that houses the panoramic stained glass windows, watching and clapping as some older man—probably some wealthy patron of the art museum—finishes a speech at a little podium.

Beside him, wearing a tiara and a white tutu that glitters blindingly under the sharp exhibition lights, is Christen, clapping along politely.

The very sight of her makes Tobin’s throat go absolutely dry. It’s the first time she’s seen Christen in her full ballerina get-up, and the effect is astounding. Her hair is slicked back into a bun, laced with subtle sparkles and held up in a delicate tiara—a swirl of crystals and silver flowers. Her tutu is covered with gems that catch the museum lights and send tiny rainbows scattering out on the wooden floor around her. Her green eyes look especially bright, and her cheekbones especially sharp, enhanced by her makeup.

And most importantly, she looks better, healthy. She looks like she’s back to normal. At the sight, Tobin feels a loosening in her chest of an anxiety she hadn’t realized she’d been carrying for days.

“And of course, we’re so grateful that the principal ballerina of the Chicago Ballet Company, Miss Christen Press herself, is here to join us.” The man is saying. “Christen, would you care to say a few words?”

“Well, thanks so much, Frank,” Christen says as she steps gracefully behind the podium amidst raucous applause, “but I can’t let you get away with saying that I am the principal ballerina when I’m just one of many. I’m sure my colleagues would murder me if they heard that!”

The audience laughs along with her, all wide eyes and admiring smiles.

She’s stunning. She’s…unreal. Unearthly.

Blinking in the lights as if she’s just laid eyes on a goddess, Tobin falters at the back of the room and loses her courage again. She shoves her chapped hands in the pockets of her coat, which suddenly seems particularly tattered and ill-fitting, and stares self-consciously down at her boots.

“To be honest,” Christen addresses the crowd, all winsome and natural and charming, “while the Art Institute is right in my backyard, I don’t get to visit as often as I would like to, with all the training and touring that we do. But every time I come, I am inspired. I believe that art, in all forms, changes people for the better.”

As Christen speaks, Tobin finds her head rising to stare at her.

“For me, it changes the way I see myself—it makes me realize that there is beauty out there that makes my individual worries and qualms seem small—and I’m lucky to be in a line of work where, when I see art, I can be inspired and galvanized to work even harder to produce better art myself.”

Tobin listens, spellbound, at Christen’s words. That’s exactly it, she thinks. That’s exactly how Tobin feels herself so often: the rush of inspiration and emotion derived from art, and then the resulting rush of obligation to go out and do something with that inspiration, to create art for others. To make something of her own artless life, however paltry.

“To try and inspire others the way that these paintings inspire me, to convey that same sense of…something greater,” Christen is saying.

Tobin finds herself weaving steadily through the crowd as Christen speaks, as if she’s under a spell.

And then suddenly, she finds herself near the front of the crowd.

And Christen is looking over, and then staring right at her, eyes wide—and Christen is opening her mouth as if to continue—and then she’s smiling, huge and joyful, like she can’t help it. She pivots towards the man and says, rather abruptly, “And that’s why I’m so thankful to the Samuels family and so many others for their generous contributions to the Art Institute. Please, everyone, join me in thanking them!”

As applause rises, the man looks sort of surprised that the speech is suddenly over. Tobin’s surprised too—it seemed like Christen had just been getting into it, and honestly, she could’ve listened for hours—but she immediately tamps down the hope that rises in her chest. There is no way she cut a speech short because she saw you, she tells herself.

The applause dies down and the crowd begins to disperse left and right. Christen is immediately swarmed by onlookers who want her autograph, who want to take pictures with her. Tobin doesn’t mind: America Windows is finally left alone, and she stands before it for a long stretch to enjoy it in peace and gather her courage, just as she’d been intending.

But right as she begins to forget that Christen is somewhere in the room, and to get lost in the haze of lines and colors, she feels the light touch of a hand resting on her shoulder.

“Hi, uh, Chris – um, Christen.” Tobin curses herself internally as she immediately stumbles over her words.

Faced suddenly with Christen standing less than a foot from her, those green eyes inscrutable and uncertain, Tobin fumbles around for something to say and lands on the first thing that comes to mind. “Your, uh, shirt. Sorry. If I had known you’d be here, I, uh, would’ve brought it.”

You fucking idiot, she’s already screaming internally at herself, halfway through her sentence.

“Um…” Christen seems a little taken aback by Tobin’s choice of introductory topic, but there’s a gleam of something like amusement behind her eyes. “You could keep it. If you wanted to.”

(Tobin had only slept in it for the last three nights.)

Okay, but it’d be weird to tell her I wanted to keep it, right?

There’s a long beat of silence.

Casey, I’m going to murder you.

“Sorry.” She makes a vague gesture around the room, to accompany her vague apology. “I was just looking at—I mean, I got a little distracted with the, uh…”

“Lost in the painting?” Christen turns so that they were standing side by side, both facing the art. Tobin breathes a sigh of relief. Please, let’s talk about art. I can do art. “It’s funny, I’ve come to the museum so many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in this room before.”

“This is actually my favorite piece in the museum,” Tobin offers.

“You know the funny thing?” Christen says softly. “When I first got to the room, and I saw this painting, I thought of you.”

“No way,” Tobin says. “You, uh, you…you think about me?” Shit. “Uh, I mean, you…thought of me…when you saw this?”

“Well, I mean, I’ve been thinking about you pretty much non-stop.”

It’s like the whole world stops spinning for a second.

And then it picks up in double time, and the people around them are just colorful blurs in the background, and Christen is already turning a little pink, turning away from Tobin, stepping away.

Tobin hesitates, wondering if Christen’s actually just leaving. But then she turns over her shoulder and gives Tobin this bashful smile and says, “Come on, don’t you want to see some of the other exhibits?”

Tobin’s heart surges, and she really hopes she’s not smiling too big as she jogs to catch up.

“You look much better. Really great.”

“Well,” Christen arches an eyebrow, back to her normal confident self. “You would know I was feeling better if you answered any of my texts…”

Tobin bites her lip and curses herself internally. She casts her eyes down at her feet again, until she feels a soft elbow against her arm.

Christen smiles gently at her. “But I’m glad you’re here now.”

They wander together through the museum, with Christen getting stopped regularly for photos and autographs. Tobin doesn’t mind ducking out of the way every time, watching Christen surrounded by fans. It must be nearing closing time, as the docents begin to herd straggling museum-goers around them towards the entrance. Tobin figures that they aren’t included in the herding because Christen is clearly one of the guests of honor in her full ballerina get-up, tiara and all. Tobin has a hard time keeping her eyes off of her.

They meander along—silently, with soft eyes flickering hopefully between each other and the art around them—until they finally make their way to the wing where the new temporary Degas exhibit is.

“Here’s the reason for all the hoopla,” Christen announces as they enter the now-empty room. It’s a gorgeous space—all shining wooden floors and cream-colored walls and a ceiling lit softly with chandeliers high, high overhead, with long windows framing the snowy night outside. It’s hung all around with Degas’ famous oil paintings of ballet dancers. “I guess it’s actually kind of a cool idea, having a collaboration with the Company at this opening. They had us take a bunch of photos around the museum earlier, and I have to say, having the dancers in front of the Degas paintings probably came out really cool.”

“Which one of these is your favorite?” Tobin asks.

Christen tilts her head thoughtfully, then wanders across the room to stand before one painting in particular. “This one is called Deux Danseuses,” she says. “The two dancers.”

Tobin studies the painting. It isn’t as glamorous as the others: just two girls in tutus, sitting on a bench in a sort of dingy-looking, yellowish hallway, sort of slouched over and exhausted.

“And…” she glances at Christen and jokes, “you like it because they look like they’re about to throw up?”

Christen doesn’t laugh. Instead, she meet Tobin’s eyes, thoughtfully, calmly. “I like it because, as you saw last week, dancing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and I think that’s what he’s capturing here.” She tears her eyes from Tobin and steps closer towards the painting, leaving Tobin standing sort of behind her left shoulder, and takes a deep breath. “Listen. I owe you an apology. That’s why I’ve been texting.”

“What?” Tobin says, bewildered.

“I’m sorry about how I reacted the other day. When you came to the theater. You were trying to be nice, and I was a bitch to you.”

“No! I mean, it was my fault,” Tobin protests immediately, “You’re right, I wasn’t paying attention to what you wanted from me, and I didn’t respect your boundaries—”

But Christen raises her hand slightly, signaling that she isn’t finished talking, and Tobin stills.

“In hindsight…” Christen takes another deep breath, as if she’s saying something she had rehearsed pretty hard, “You weren’t being rude or overstepping. You were just checking in on me. My reaction was as rude and selfish and immature as it could possibly have been, and I’m ashamed of myself.”

“Chris…” Tobin whispers. She wants to say, you never have to be ashamed of yourself. Not with me. But Christen’s not done.

“And then…and then after all that, after I yelled at you, and told you we didn’t even know each other, and ignored you afterwards…” Tobin is startled to see tears starting to build in Christen’s eyes, shimmering green and gray. “Even after all that, as soon as Mal called you, you came. Mal said you didn’t even stop to put a shirt on. You dropped everything and took care of me. Better than anyone has ever taken care of me in my life. I still can’t believe everything you did for me that day. What I can remember of it—it’s like a beautiful dream. And I didn’t deserve it. These past few days, I started wondering if you were just there out of obligation, and if you still wanted nothing to do with me after how I acted at the theater. And if that’s true, I mean, that’s fine…” Christen’s voice falters. “But I just wanted to say thank you, in person, just once…”

“Chris.” Tobin finally steps up beside her, even as Christen ducks her head away, embarrassed. But Tobin—with a sudden bravery, out of nowhere—reaches out and gently tips Christen’s face towards hers. With her other hand, she gently thumbs an errant tear off of Christen’s soft cheek. “You did deserve it, okay? It mattered a lot to me that you got better. It wasn’t just an obligation.”

She wants to apologize for dropping off the face of the earth for a few days, wants to give some explanation of her stupidity. “I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you. I thought I might’ve been…” She looks searchingly, pleadingly, into Christen’s eyes. Her voice is raw and open. “It wasn’t…too much? What I did? …Did I make you uncomfortable?”

“Oh, Tobin.” Christen looks over with eyes brimming again. Her breath catches in her throat, and she doesn’t say anything else, but that look on her face—awed and affectionate and sweet—says it all.

Under the soft glow of that look, Tobin feels the little scratches and tears in her heart start to mend.

“And you never have to be ashamed of yourself,” she adds, suddenly emboldened. “Not with me. Not about this, or about what happened that day at the theater, or anything. And my offer that day still stands. You can talk to me about anything, you know, if you want to.”

Christen gives Tobin a nod and a tremulous smile and turns her eyes back towards the painting. They study the two exhausted ballerinas for another long moment.

Then Christen says, thoughtfully, “Being a dancer has its good days and bad days, and I think I like to emphasize the good days in my mind, to help me get through it. Or, I guess to be honest, I need to emphasize the good days, otherwise, I won’t get through it.”

She turns around, meets Tobin’s eyes. “And you being there, and witnessing how horrible it was…I guess you were sort of forcing me to see it like you do, how bad that rehearsal actually was. And I mean, I know your life isn’t the charmed fairy tale that sometimes Casey makes it out to be…”

“You’re right,” Tobin swallows. “It’s not. I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

The words are out before she’s even processed the thought. She freezes. No. I didn’t mean that. I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. Or would I? Christen’s eyes are all tender and concerned, and for a second she wonders—Would I? …could I?

She coughs; rouses herself from her stupor. No, I couldn’t. “Anyway, uh. Go on.”

Christen waits a moment, as if hoping for Tobin to continue. But when it’s clear she won’t, Christen shrugs and finishes her thought. “I think that’s why I overreacted. Tobin Heath, the phenom, the prodigy, who everyone worships, watching me get bullied like that. I was just…humiliated, I guess.”

“You? Humiliated? You should never have to feel that way,” Tobin says fiercely, so fiercely that Christen seems to believe it. A faint glimmer of hope spreads over her face. “If anyone should feel humiliated it should be that man,” Tobin spits out. “What a dick. Did you really go home and spend the rest of the day on the treadmill?”

Slowly, a smile begins to creep over Christen’s face. “No,” she puts her hand up over her cheek, chuckling a little, “I spent the rest of the afternoon sulking in bed and eating fries that I ordered on Uber Eats.”

Tobin’s laugh rings out, loud and relieved, in the echoing room. “Honestly, sounds like an ideal way to spend the afternoon, minus the sulking.”

“What I really should’ve done was accept your invitation to get coffee,” Christen says softly, meeting Tobin’s eyes. With a start, Tobin realizes how close they’re standing to each other—so close that she can still see some tears clinging to Christen’s ridiculously long eyelashes and sparkling around her gray-green eyes. “Probably would’ve done a little less sulking then, right?”

“Uh, yeah, definitely less,” Tobin responds, sounding a little breathless even to her own ears. For some reason, banishing that sadness still lingering at the corners of Christen’s eyes feels like the most important mission of Tobin’s night. Then her minded lands on it—the perfect segue. “And if you’d said yes to coffee, I would’ve gotten to ask you this question I’d been dying to ask you!”

“Uh…what question?” Christen’s eyes turn very round.

“That day, you did this crazy thing, this jump,” Tobin says. As she turns around, she misses the fleeting twinge of disappointment on Christen’s face. “I thought it was super badass, and I wanted to ask you what the move was called.”

“Super badass, huh?” Christen’s grinning. “What did it look like?”

“It looked sort of like a…” Tobin moves back towards the center of the cavernous room. “Like a…this thing?” She jumps up into the air, right leg out in front of her, left leg behind. Christen’s laugh rings out in the room at Tobin’s scrunched-up, flailing attempt. “It was like a…midair split? You jumped super high and your legs went like, all the way up in front and behind you?”  

“I think what you’re talking about,” Christen says through giggles, circling around Tobin to get closer to the center of the room as well. “Is it a grand jeté? Was it this?” Taking a deep breath, she leaps into the air and performs the split effortlessly, arms extended gracefully overhead.

“YES! That was it. Like I said, super badass.” Tobin exclaims. “And then you did these spins, where you were like, kicking your leg out around you?”

“Yeah, those are fouettés. Really difficult—that’s actually what Mateo was yelling at me about,” Christen wrinkles her nose. Tobin stills a little, terrified that bringing the rehearsal up has killed the mood, but Christen is already breezing past the mention. “So you kick your working leg, kind of like—out and around? So that it circles back and touches your supporting knee? Man, it’s been so long since I’ve actually deconstructed the move that I don’t even know if I’m explaining it right.” Christen giggles and performs a few of the spins; again, making it look as easy as walking.

“That’s totally it.” Tobin says enthusiastically. “Okay, so let me try again.” She steels herself, then leaps into an awkward midair split. “Grand jeté—ouch, I think I just pulled something—and some fouettés.” She spins a few times, stumbling over her feet, and ends with a dramatic pose, arm outstretched towards Christen.

Christen is doubled over in laughter, her hands on her knees. “You know, I really think you’re getting there,” she teases. “Just need to remember to keep your shoulders down and you’re basically perfect.”

“Shoulders down, huh?” Tobin tries another grand jeté. Part of her brain tells her to stop making such a fool of herself. The other part—the much stronger part, at the moment—of her brain egged her on to keep doing something, anything, to make Christen smile one more time. “All right, enough embarrassment for the night, I think,” Tobin finishes, matching Christen’s giggles with a radiant smile of her own.

“Not too embarrassing for a beginner,” Christen jokes, still laughing. “Honestly, you know, it’s all in the calves, and with calves like yours, you should be a pro in no time!”

“Ha, ha,” Tobin retorts, feeling her face get a little red. 

She’s looking at my calves, her mind registers, and something burns bright and hot inside her.

She turns slightly from Christen to hide her blush, under the pretense of stretching out her sore inner thigh. “All of these ballerinas in all these paintings are judging me so hard right now. Teach me something easier.”

“These are some of the hardest moves,” Christen admits, tapping her finger on her bottom lip in thought. “Honestly, the easiest move would be…” Her voice trails off, and Tobin watches as a range of subtle emotions plays across her features: a little wondering, then some doubt, a start of embarrassment (and a tiny flick of a glance toward Tobin), followed by a little more doubt.

“Oh my god, tell me,” Tobin says eagerly.

Christen clears her throat a little; brushes some imaginary fly-aways back into her bun with both hands. Her go-to nervous gesture, Tobin’s realizing. “I was, uh, I was thinking that the easiest thing would be a pas de deux move,” Christen says, not quite making eye contact with Tobin. “A pas de deux is just, um, like a duet. And sometimes my partner will, you know, hold my arms, or my waist, to steady me, or to let me lean into a move that would be hard to balance on my own. That would probably be the easiest.”

Tobin’s brain had short-circuited for a second when Christen said the words “hold my arms or my waist,” but now it’s back online and felt like it’s whirring in double-time. “Well, what are we waiting for?” she says, trying to keep her voice light and teasing as she steps closer to Christen. “Come on, I need a chance to redeem myself from that grand jeté. What’s step one? What’s the move?”

“Step one.” Christen takes a deep breath. “Um, I guess we could try the pirouettes from Sleeping Beauty. Step one of the move would be for me to go up on pointe.” She raises herself up onto the toes of her pointe shoes. “And you would, uh, stand behind me and hold me around the waist.”

“Okay, like this?” Tobin steps up behind her and wraps her arms all the way around her waist, the way she sometimes does to Moe when they’re bored in team pep talks. But this is not Moe. Tobin’s suddenly overwhelmed by the closeness, the way the baby hairs around Christen’s neck tickle Tobin’s face, the way she smells of jasmine, the way Tobin can feel Christen’s rapid, hummingbird heartbeat through her back.

The hem of the tutu is rough. Rougher than she expected. It crushes into the front of her stomach, and between her spread legs, and she feels a little light-headed.

“Uh, not like that, actually,” Christen laughs out loud, although Tobin notes that she makes no effort to pull back. “It’s not like a hug, it’s just your hands, and they go on either side of my waist. Arms straight.”

“Oh, okay, gotcha.” Tobin hastily steps away from Christen—feeling the little space between them like a sudden gulf—and settles her hands on the small of Christen’s waist as directed.

“All right, the worst of your job is over! Now normally the guy will give me a little push around, but the important thing is that I hold my center and support my own weight. So I’m going to turn, and every time I spin back around to face front, just catch me around my waist, okay? Lightly.”

“Okay,” Tobin says, not quite sure she’s breathing.

Christen pirouettes around, and carefully, Tobin grabs her by the small of her waist after she completes one rotation. Christen peers over her shoulder with a cheeky little grin. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I got you,” Tobin says breathlessly.

“Your hand position is great,” Christen instructed. “It helps if you keep your thumbs strong on my back, with the rest of your fingers in front—let’s try again.” She pirouettes again, and Tobin does a better job of catching her this time. Tobin’s hands are warm and steady against Christen’s tiny waist.

“You can also catch me while we’re facing each other.” Christen spins again, just a half turn, and Tobin puts her hands out and grabs her just in time. Their faces are just a whisper away from each other, and Christen’s chest is rising and falling, and their hips resting against each other’s through a cloud of tulle on Christen’s tutu, and Tobin literally can’t breathe; her whole body’s on fire, she might die on the spot.

As if in slow motion, Christen leans back from her waist. Tobin leans a little with her, watching in a daze as Christen bends almost in half, her fingers drifting gracefully along the ground, her body one boldly curling line, before she raises herself up again, her hands landing gently on Tobin’s shoulders for support.

Her forehead brushes against Tobin’s, and her eyes close. Tobin steadies her grip on the narrowest part of Christen’s waist. They stayed frozen in that position for a long, heated moment.

My god, this is freaking intimate. What am I doing?! Am I doing this right? Tobin thinks suddenly. She tries not to let her internal panic show, but her hands must have started shaking a little, because Christen sinks back down to flat feet with a little giggle.

“How was that?”

How was that? How am I still alive after that?

“I think it was good,” Tobin hears her own voice say. She can’t believe how steady it sounds. “What do you think?”

Christen smirks. “You’re a natural.”

Tobin can’t believe she can even form words when she can’t force herself to draw breath, but apparently, there’s a part of her brain that’s still semi-functional; even flirty. “Let’s try it again with music.”

Christen’s brow crinkles up, and it’s the most adorable thing Tobin has ever seen. “With music?”

Tobin raises an eyebrow and whistles a few bars of the Sugarplum Fairy music.

Christen laughs delightedly. “Wow, that’s actually pretty impressive. I can’t even whistle a single note, let alone a song.”

Tobin rounds her lips, and whistles a little cadence, and it’s probably a little offbeat and out of tune and imperfect. Christen doesn’t seem to mind.

She rises on pointe again. She spins.

Tobin whistles and rests her palms, lightly, worshipfully, on Christen’s body.

She can feel the heat of Christen’s skin through her tutu. It burns against her fingertips.

Christen spins again. Her head is back, she’s laughing. She’s so close. She’s so beautiful. Tobin has to concentrate on the whistle; she’s getting too overwhelmed; she’s losing the thread of the song.

Christen does another half turn, so they’re facing each other again. Her hands come up to rest on either side of Tobin’s neck. Tobin can’t breathe. It’s just for balance, she tells herself. Still, the whistle dies on her lips.

Then Christen’s gone, out of Tobin’s space. She’s doing that back bend again, and if Tobin watches the way Christen’s body curves, she’s going to die. She’s going to combust, and drop through the floorboards into hell, right on the spot, she just knows it. So she takes the moment apart to breathe. To try to breathe, despite the fact that her hands are still on warm and shaking on Christen’s waist.

She closes her eyes, she wets her lips a little, she takes a deep breath and puckers her lips and goes to whistle again—

Christen kisses her.

Christen leans in and kisses her—light and hesitant and airy—on her still-puckered lips.

After a moment, Christen pulls back, eyes warm and searching. “Tobin?” she whispers.

Tobin’s eyes slowly blink open. Her entire brain is short-circuiting.  

Chris?” Tobin says, strangled and hot and pleading.

She can’t breathe; it’s like she’s suddenly underwater—everything fading into blue-greens, dark and slow-moving. She captures Christen’s waist in her trembling arms and says the first thought that pops into her mind. The only thought her mind can handle right now. The answer she needs to hear confirmed, aloud, tangible, more than anything.

“Do…do you like me?” she manages to stutter. Or is this a dream from which I’ll wake alone, as usual?

Christen lets out a soft little laugh, and her eyes shine like stars as she places one warm hand on Tobin’s cheek and leans in. The second kiss is warm and long, Christen’s lips soft and sure and coaxing against Tobin’s. Her tongue runs gently along the seam of Tobin’s lips, and Tobin opens willingly, and Christen tastes like snow and jasmine and art.

“What do you think?” Christen whispers. She pulls back just the tiniest bit, so their cheeks are still brushing against each other’s, breaths hot on each other’s mouths—

And Tobin laughs, amazed and bewildered and thankful, and she winds her arms around Christen’s shoulders and pulls her back in.

Tobin has kissed girls. A lot of girls. Nameless, faceless swirls of liaisons, in and out of dark places. Maybe she used to pretend that those dim approximations of affection made her feel anything.

Now she knows they made her feel nothing.

Nothing, compared to this kiss. Nothing, compared to the taste of Christen’s mouth, how smooth her soft shoulders are under Tobin’s rough fingers. The way they settle into a hot, earnest rhythm almost immediately, like they’ve been doing this their whole lives. Like they’re meant to be doing this. The way that Christen’s body arches up against Tobin’s, the way that their hands find each other’s, their fingers intertwining for a heated moment before dropping to explore each other’s bodies, with leisurely abandon.

They’re standing entangled in one another, hands roaming over necks and shoulders and hips, lips and tongues moving fiercely against each other’s, when footsteps sound in the doorway.

“Ahem.”

One of the night guards is standing over at the entrance. If possible, he looks even more mortified than Tobin feels.

“Uh…sorry to bother, ladies. We’re, uh, we’re closing now.”

Tobin is stepping backwards, face aflame, apologies tripping over each other on their way out her mouth. But Christen, totally unbothered, just reaches out and takes Tobin’s hands in her own. “Yeah, thanks, we’ll be right out,” Christen calls distractedly at the guard before leaning over and capturing Tobin’s mouth with her own again.

Tobin makes a soft, surprised noise, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything else with Christen’s lips on hers, with Christen’s soft, probing hands on her biceps—falling to her hips—drawing in her by the small of her back.

The next time they break apart, and Tobin looks over, the poor guard has fled.

Christen presses one last, lingering kiss on Tobin’s jaw, right under her ear, then brushes along its angle with her fingers.

“I’ve wanted to do that for so long,” Christen murmurs.

Tobin lets out a long, incredulous chuckle. She’s still got Christen tangled in her arms. She can’t seem to let her go. “You’ve wanted to make out in front of a security guard at the Art Institute of Chicago for so long, you little exhibitionist?”

“No,” Christen says, totally unbothered by Tobin’s teasing. She traces her hands over Tobin’s jawline again, leans in, slowly moves her lips once more against her skin. “I’ve wanted to kiss you, right here,” her lips find that spot under her ear again, “for so long.”

A shudder runs through Tobin’s entire body, down into her toes.

“Well,” she swallows around a sudden lump in your throat. “I’d let you do that anytime.”

“Yeah?”

“I’d let you do anything anytime,” Tobin blurts out, and it’s true, the truest thing she’s ever said, but she wishes she hadn’t said it when she sees the faint flush on Christen’s cheeks. No. This isn’t like the others. This has to be slow. This has to be utterly intentional, thoughtful, serious, special. The way Christen is special.

“Okay,” Tobin says reluctantly, drawing back from Christen a little, looking towards the now-empty doorway. “Let’s get you home. Where’s your coat?”

“It’s in, uh…” Christen looks around, a little dazed, as if she’s just woken from a long dream. “It’s in…some room, somewhere. Probably locked already.”

“Take mine,” Tobin’s already shrugging out of hers. When Christen shakes her head no, Tobin is incredulous. “Are you kidding? You were literally just sick!”

“I won’t need it,” Christen explains. “There’s a car here to take me home.” She stops, almost shy. “Do you, uh, do you want a ride? Home? I mean, uh, to your home.” Christen’s cheek redden, embarrassed and adorable. “Obviously.”

Obviously. Tobin bites her lip and chants internally to herself, This has to be slow, this has to be slow, this has to be slow.

“Yeah, I’d love a ride home.”

As they leave the room, she reaches over and straightens Christen’s little tiara, which has come a bit askew after all the making out. “I still think you should take my coat. It’d be very selfish of you to be sick again, because you’d be depriving me of watching you in the Nutcracker, and that would be a shame.”

“It would be very selfish of me,” Christen agrees cheerfully. They’ve reached a side door, and Christen peers out at the sidewalk. Snow is gathering already, deep and fluffy, but as promised, a black car is waiting at the curb just steps away. “Maybe I’m trying to get sick on purpose so you’ll give me another foot massage.”

Tobin trips over her own feet and falls against the door.

Fucking smooth.

“You remember that?!”

“Tobin.” Christen rolls her eyes affectionately. “I was sick, not dead.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“I have vague memories you doing many sweet, wonderful, considerate things that night.”

“Hm.” Tobin looks down at her feet, in her boots, and Christen’s feet, in her silky pointe shoes, and then out at the snow. It’s not like she’s trying to change the subject because praise makes her insides crawl (okay, fine, she’s trying), it’s just that she’s also simultaneously problem-solving their current logistical problems. “Well. Anyway. Um, let’s get out of here. I think I should carry you out to the car.”

Christen looks like she’s melting. “Really?”

“Otherwise, your shoes are going to get ruined.”

“Yeah,” Christen agrees instantly, nodding, all serious. “True. We wouldn’t want that.”

Tobin peeks out the door, and then in one smooth swoop, lifts Christen up into her arms. It’s just a few steps, but the wind is blustering and the snow is deep, and by the time Tobin deposits Christen into the back seat and clambers in after her, they’re both shivering. If the driver is surprised that he dropped off one girl and is picking up two, he’s too professional to let on.

Tobin gives him her address, and they’re off. They ride in silence for a little while, both suppressing shy smiles, looking out their respective windows. But then Tobin’s hand inches towards the middle seat. Then Christen’s does. Then Tobin’s, a little more. When their fingers finally drift against each other’s, and then intertwine, Tobin feels the shockwaves run right through her body and settle, hot and churning, in her core.

“So, uh, what are your plans for the rest of the night?” Christen asks, a little breathless.

This. Has. To. Be. Slow.

So she doesn’t do what she really wants to do, which is to run one hand, very slowly, up Christen’s stockinged thigh, and watch Christen’s face while she does it. Driver be damned.

Instead, she lifts Christen’s hand to her mouth, lets her lips drift chastely over each knuckle, one by one. “I still need to eat dinner, actually. I should probably work out a little too. And maybe…” she glances shyly, hopefully at Christen from underneath her thick fringe of eyelashes. “Maybe I could call you? Before I go to sleep?

“Yeah.” Christen’s got the softest smile on her face. She looks incandescent, like she’s glowing from the inside. “Yeah. I would really love that.”

See? Tobin tells herself. She’s happy. Do things right. Take things slow.

They pull up to the front of her apartment building. The wind is whipping the snow in sheets across the wide sidewalk; it looks absolutely miserable out. Tobin frowns, thinking of how Christen’s going to get inside later. “Are you sure you don’t want my coat?” She asks, worried. “Are you going to get dropped off far from your front door? Here, you should take my coat—”

“Tobin, I’m going to get dropped off in the parking garage. I won’t even be outside.”

“Oh.” Tobin feels a little foolish as she scrambles out of the car. “Okay. Just checking.”

She’s halfway across the sidewalk, head bent against the swirling snow, when she hears a car door slam behind her.

She turns. Christen, in tiara and tutu and pointe shoes, is running at her through the storm.

“Chris, what’s wrong—”

Christen flings her arms around Tobin’s neck, catches Tobin’s mouth in her own. Tobin stumbles back a step, but then surges forward, kissing Christen back.

“We didn’t say good night,” Christen murmurs against Tobin’s lips. The wind is freezing against her cheeks, but Christen’s mouth is warm and soft, and she forgets herself for a second.

She forgets herself until she looks down and sees Christen standing ankle-deep in the snow.

“Chris!” she wails. “You’re going to get sick! And your shoes!”

“I should’ve told you earlier, I go through like five pairs of these a week,” Christen says. Her teeth are chattering but her smile is brilliantly bright. “I just kind of wanted you to carry me.”

“You’re going to get sick—get in the car—god, just take the damn coat—”

“Okay, fine, I’m going, I’m going.” Christen disentangles herself from Tobin reluctantly. “Hey,” she adds with a soft grin, leaning forward to press one last kiss against Tobin’s jaw, in that spot (Christen’s spot, Tobin thinks, it’s already Christen’s spot, it’ll be Christen’s spot forever,) “you better fucking call me tonight.”

She scampers back to the car, climbs shivering into the back seat. As the car pulls away, Tobin can see Christen blow her a kiss through the dark glass. She's left standing in the middle of the deserted sidewalk, the snowstorm gusting around her, laughing to herself in disbelief. 

Chapter Text

Tobin grins from ear to ear as she pulls up in front of Faith and Nathan’s house and spies Faith’s tiny, eager face through the window.

They’re here!! She can see Faith shriek as she dives out of view. A moment later, the door of the little brick house flings open, revealing Faith in a fluffy white tutu, complete with tiara and a sparkly star wand.

“Uh…” Fina leans forward in the backseat and whispers to her mom, in the passenger seat, “should I have dressed up like that?”

“No…” Sarah says, but she glances over at Tobin as she says it. Her eyes say, No, right?

“No, definitely not,” Tobin says hastily. “Hey, look at me! I’m not dressed like that.” She motions down at her gray plaid pants and black blazer. “What do you think? Do you think I'd look good in a tutu?”

Fina gives her a critical up-and-down. “Um...no.”

Tobin and Sarah both burst into laughter. Kids, Tobin thinks, waving to Fina and Nathan as they come jogging down the sidewalk towards the car. At least they keep you honest.

It’s been a long afternoon of picking people up for the Nutcracker—up to Albany Park to grab Fina and Sarah, then down into Englewood for Nathan and Faith. Nathan and Faith scramble into the backseat of the car, and the girls are immediately talking a mile a minute. The adults attempt to have a separate conversation over the noise, but eventually Sarah and Nathan start talking about something to do with…laundry schedules? Or how long it took Fina and Faith to choose what they wanted to wear tonight? And Tobin blissfully zones out of the kid-centric conversation, instead imagining what it’ll be like to see Christen again.

It’s only been a few days since That Night, and Tobin’s been floating.

She called Christen that first night, teeth brushed and face washed and lying in bed like a good girl, feeling all floating and tingling. She was nervous at first, staring at the phone in her hand like it was going to come to life and bite her. But the memory of Christen’s kiss, of her smile, of her saying, “You better fucking call me” with that sexy little smirk, rushed over Tobin, and she had dialed without a second thought.

Christen had picked up after the first ring, and from her first soft, “Hey, you,” accompanied by a little giggle, Tobin was a goner.

She was awkward at first, she knew it; she hates phone calls. They give her terrible anxiety. But Christen was laughing and murmuring and sweet, and she was so good at asking the best questions, like what’s the best thing in your line of sight right now (it’s my phone screen, showing me that I’m talking to you) and what’s your favorite thing to make for dinner and what's your favorite soccer game you're ever played, and Tobin somehow felt right at home, and they whispered about everything and nothing to each other for hours, until they both fell asleep on the line.

Even though their schedules haven’t aligned to see each other since—with Tobin in training all day, and Christen busy with Nutcracker rehearsals and performances all night—they’ve been in contact non-stop. And tonight, they’ll get to see each other again. In person. Finally. An anticipatory shiver snakes through her body, and she reaches up and touches Christen's spot on her jaw.

“Tobin, are you okay?”

Tobin looks over her shoulder at Fina, who’s head is tilted to the side curiously.

“Do I not look okay?”

“You look kind of hot,” Faith chimes in, and her lisping little-girl voice is all worried and earnest.

“Maybe we should turn down the heater," Fina adds.

It makes Tobin laugh in spite of herself. “Me? Hot? Nah, I’m chill, Fina,” she says easily.

The girls return to their gabbing. Nathan leans forward and asks, under his breath, “So, how’s Christen?” Tobin flushes bright red as Sarah bursts out laughing, with her head thrown back.

“I can’t believe you two are ganging up on me!” Tobin whines. She hopes that Nathan and Sarah don’t notice that she hasn’t acknowledged the question. “Don’t make me toss you guys out into the snow. Hey, Fina, Faith—your parents are bullying me. Should I kick them out of the car?”

“NO!” The girls shriek in unison.

Despite Tobin’s threats, they make it to the theater with all car inhabitants intact. They’re an hour early, so that the girls get a chance to hang out with Christen for a bit before the crowds really pick up. But even as the girls ooh and ahh their way around the fancy lobby, Tobin’s nervous in this space now, glancing around for any sign of Mateo.

She’s worried about running into him, worried about how he might treat the girls, worried about whether she can contain her rage at him. She's worried, even though last night, Christen had sworn up and down on the phone, “Don’t worry, he never gets in until just before curtain on performance nights. I wouldn’t let you—and definitely wouldn’t let Fina and Faith—run into him.”

So early in this fresh, thrilling, terrifying thing between them, Tobin was almost scared to raise anything that might rock the boat. But she almost couldn’t help herself when she said, gritting the words out from between her teeth, “I can’t even stand the thought of seeing him for one night—I hate that you have to see him every day.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line, then a resigned sigh. “I know. I hate it too.” Christen laughed a little. “I almost just said, ‘No, everything’s fine, he’s not that bad.’ But it is bad. And I’m trying to be real. Because it’s you.”

A slow warmth bloomed deep in Tobin’s stomach when she heard Christen say that. It propelled her on to ask, tentatively, “Have you ever thought of…doing anything about it? Saying something to someone?”

“I…I don’t know, Tobin. It’s complicated. Ballet is a small world, and it’s opaque, and it can be very subjective and vindictive, and…he is technically my boss, and…” Christen’s voice had faltered a little. Tobin could just picture her, sitting with her brow furrowed, chewing her bottom lip as she thought. “I’d love to talk with you in depth about it sometime,” Christen had finished. It was a clear indicator that she didn’t want to discuss it any further at that very moment. And Tobin had let it slide.

“Woooowww…” Faith gasps as they step into the theater. The little girls gape up at the chandeliers above, the rows and rows of plush red seats around them. Nathan and Sarah stare around too, almost as awestruck as their kids are. Tobin doesn’t care about the fancy theater, though. All her attention is immediately focused on the beautiful girl alone on the stage, standing amidst a backdrop of pine trees and falling snow.

“Faith! Fina!” Christen calls, waving her arms excitedly. “Come on up here!”

The girls squeal with excitement as they race each other towards the stage. “Careful!” Sarah calls anxiously after them, and Tobin jogs ahead to make sure they’re okay. The steps leading up the side of the stage are steep, so Tobin scoops Faith up in her arms and takes Fina by the hand as they climb. Christen’s there to meet them at the top of the steps, her eyes warm and shining as she takes in the sight of Tobin carefully guiding the two little girls onto the stage.

They’re suddenly within a few feet of each other, and Tobin can’t quite breathe. It looks like Christen can’t either. But with Faith and Fina between them, all they can do is stop and stare.

Christen’s eyes drifts from Tobin’s boxy black blazer down the front of the low-cut black shirt she’s wearing underneath, then over the gray pants she has on. It’s the first time Tobin’s ever been in a semi-dressy outfit in front of Christen. Christen’s eyes go a little dark, and she all but licks her lips. “You…look great,” she says, her voice a little hoarse.

Before Tobin has a chance to answer, Faith is bounding into Christen’s arms, and Fina’s already starting to drag her by the hand around the stage, and their parents have caught up. Christen immediately takes on the role of the gracious host, giving the girls a little tour.

And now it’s Tobin’s turn to stand and stare.

Christen’s got a simple white leotard and pointe shoes on, and her hair and stage makeup aren’t done yet. Her hair flows freely down her back in a huge, glorious mass of curls. Tobin has brought her fancy camera tonight, and she snaps a few candid photos of the girls running around wide-eyed, staring at everything.

“We’re having a bit of trouble with the snow tonight, so we’re testing it out right now,” Christen explains to their guests, gesturing around at the stage hands bustling in the background.

“Snow?” Faith asks, jumping up and down on her toes. “Is it going to snow in the building?”

“It’s going to fake snow in the building,” Christen explains. “Here’s what happens: we’re going to fill a big bag full of this fluff, and then we’re going to lift the bag up to the ceiling and shake it, and all the fluff will come down and look like snow!”

“Is that really how it works?” Nathan asks curiously, squinting up into the hot stage lights. “That is fascinating.”

“You’re just in time, they’re going to test it out in a second,” Christen points to the guys behind them, grappling with a huge burlap sack. “For the first few performances the girls were complaining that there was too much of it, and it was getting a little dangerous, sliding around underfoot. You should see Mal—she has to dance in it for a while, and when she comes off stage, her hair is literally covered in it. And speak of the devil…”

“Hello!” Mal calls, running onto the stage. She’s already in full get-up, hair and makeup done; Tobin figures that’s because she’s in the very first scene of the show, whereas Christen doesn’t show up until the second act. She’s wearing her costume, a white, empire-waist dress that flares out around her in a wide circle when she turns. Tobin notices, now, how her shoes are dyed brown to match her skin.

Faith and Fina latch onto Mal immediately, chattering a mile a minute to her. They gasp and squeal as the fake snow begins falling down around them. Christen raises her face and smiles into the light, and Tobin can’t resist. She lifts her camera and captures a few quick candid shots in succession. When she glances down at the screen, her eyes go wide. “Wow.”

“Hm?” Christen turns and gives her a breathtaking smile.

“Um…” Tobin glances around to make sure that their guests are still preoccupied with Mal, and then she shyly turns the camera so Christen and see, and says softly, “You just...look really beautiful.”

Christen looks down at the camera. In Tobin’s photo, her smile is brilliant and her eyes look particularly green, matching the blur of green trees in the background. Snow is drifting down all around her, imbuing the scene with a soft, magical quality. But the real stand-out is the hair. Backlit by the stage lights, wild and uninhibited, it frames her face and glows around the edges, like a cloud with a silver lining.

Tobin knits her brow as she looks at Christen look at the picture, with an unreadable expression on her face. “You don’t like it?” Tobin asks. “Sorry, uh, should I delete it?”

“No,” Christen says quickly, putting a comforting hand on Tobin’s shoulder. The contact glows through Tobin like a candle’s just been lit there. Christen shrugs, staring at the photo for another moment, and then says, “It’s just not often that I see myself in this setting without my hair straightened and up in a bun.”

“Do you ever dance with it down?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Christen frowns. “In Romeo and Juliet, when I play Juliet, it’s not in a bun. It’s just always straightened.” She fidgets for a second, and then adds, “Mateo hates when it’s not straightened, and he always makes sure that I’m not featured or photographed with my natural hair. I feel like he thinks it detracts from…I don’t know, the beauty or the elegance of the costuming.”

“Um..." Tobin says before she can stop herself. "...that's pretty racist.”

Christen’s silent for a long moment, still staring at the photo on Tobin’s camera. She swallows hard, then nods. “Yeah,” she says slowly, "Yeah, it definitely is.”

“I love your hair. I mean, I love it all the time, but I especially love it like this. You had it like this at Kealia’s party, and…” Tobin’s mouth literally goes dry at the remembrance. “Oh, man. When I walked into the kitchen and saw you for the first time, I thought I was going to die. On the spot.”

Christen laughs, her cheeks coloring. She glances sideways at Tobin and looks like she’s about to say something. But then Mal’s leading the whole crew back towards them, and she’s sending them a sly smirk and asking, “So, what are you guys chatting about over here?”

“We’re talking about how beautiful Christen’s hair is,” Tobin blurts out.

Mal’s smirk widens as Christen blushes, and Nathan and Sarah exchange a very obvious amused glance.

“I love your hair, Christen!” Faith shouts.

“Yeah!” Fina agrees. “You look like a lion.”

Christen touches her hair self-consciously, and her smile wilts a little. “Oh. A lion?”

“Yeah, and I love lions, they’re my favorite animal!” Fina continues.

“Oh yeah?” Tobin eggs her on a little. “And what do you like about them?”

“They’re fast and they’re powerful and cool, and pretty,” Fina ticks off the attributes on her fingers.

“Fast, powerful, cool, and pretty, huh?” Tobin glances over at Christen with a teasing little smile, and adds under her breath so only Christen can hear, “Sounds pretty accurate to me.”

“They’re my favorite animal too,” Faith says, immediately latching onto whatever the older girl says, and the adults have to laugh.

Christen manages to tear her heart-eyes off of Tobin just in time to answer. “Well, I guess they have to be mine, too,” she laughs.

“Christen,” Faith asks suddenly, staring wide-eyed at the ballerina in her tutu. “Are you the first Black girl to play the Sugarplum Fairy, ever?”

“Here in Chicago? Ever,” Christen confirms, her smile proud, but tinged with sorrow.

“Ever, ever?” Fina gasps. Christen nods her confirmation. The adults look somber.

Faith wheels around to face Mal. “Are you going to be the second, Mal?” she demands.

“I hope so, one day!” Mal says uncertainly, glancing at Christen.

Christen reaches out and gives Mal a squeeze on the shoulder. “Definitely, Little Mal,” she says, with all the confidence in the world, and Mal’s wide smile in response makes Tobin’s heart ache with pride.

“Okay.” Faith stares up at them with a fiercely determined look on her face. “Then I’m going to be the third.”

Christen and Mal look like they’re about to cry.

And everybody else doesn’t seem too far behind, either. “Yeah, you are, huh, baby?” Nathan says. He sounds suddenly like he’s got a head cold, and he swipes at suspicious moisture in his eyes.

Tobin tears her eyes away and focuses on a faraway curtain. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry—

“Yeah!” Faith says excitedly, bouncing up and down on her toes, her chest puffing out with pride. “And I’m going to look just like Christen, with lion hair!”

Don’t cry, don’t cry—shit, I’m going to cry—

Christen sinks to her knees, eyes wide, until she’s eye level with Faith.

“Thank you, Faith,” she says, her voice wobbling. “Thank you so much.”

Faith responds by leaping forward and throwing herself into Christen’s arms.

Okay, forget it, I’m totally crying, it’s happening.

Christen turns her head so that her face is hidden in Faith’s curls, but Tobin can see her fingers trembling. Faith just beams up at her dad, thrilled to be hugging Christen, blissfully unaware of the emotion she’s just wrought—what a precious gift she’s just given Christen. Tobin rests a comforting hand on Christen’s shoulder and blinks up into the blinding stage lights, trying her best to will her tears to stay in her eyes.

“Mama,” Fina whispers, sidling up to her mom with an uneasy look on her face. “…why are we all crying?”

The tears turn into laughter. Christen lets out a sniffling little chuckle, letting go of Faith. “Oh, nothing, honey,” Sarah says. She shakes her head quickly, dabbing at her eyes. “Just happy tears.”

Faith looks confused, too, and she glances towards Fina for an explanation. Fina just shrugs, glancing skeptically around at the grown-ups as if they’ve all gone insane. “Grown-ups are weird,” she whispers.

Christen finally rises to her feet. Tobin’s hand, which was still resting on Christen’s shoulder, skims down the back of her arm and drifts near her wrist for a moment—then retracts, cognizant that they’re still in public. Her fingertips tingle where they made contact with Christen’s smooth skin. At the sight of Christen’s eyes, still teary and soft, all she wants is to wrap her arms around her. But with so many people around…

As if reading Tobin’s mind, Mal glances between the two of them, and then clears her throat. “So,” she says loudly. “Faith, Fina, I guess neither of you would want to see my dressing room?”

“I do! I do!” The girls squeal immediately, and with a wink thrown over her shoulder at Christen and Tobin, Mal leads the guests off stage.

As soon as they’re out of sight, it’s like Christen can’t wait a second longer. She clasps Tobin’s hands in hers and pulls her backwards, towards a dark corner of the stage, halfway obscured by the sweeping black curtains. Tobin sneaks a few looks back and forth, and when she’s confirmed they’re alone, she lets Christen tug her all the way in, nearly stumbling the last step in her desperation as she throws her arms around her girl.

Christen leans into her embrace, lets out a long breath. Their bodies fold perfectly into each other’s, and they just stand there for a minute, their chests softly rising and falling against each other. Tobin nuzzles her face into the side of Christen’s neck, breathing in the already-familiar smell of Christen’s shampoo.

“Christen?”

“Yeah?”

Tobin pulls back a little, suddenly shy. She rubs the back of her neck with one hand. She thinks she knows what the answer is going to be, but still—with this thing between them so new and undefined—she wants to be sure. “Could I—um—would it be all right if I kissed you?”

“Oh, Tobes.” Christen giggles, and Tobin’s stomach does backflips at the sound of the nickname. “As if I’ve been thinking of anything else for the last three days.”

Tobin’s stomach backflips even harder.

She takes her time, leaning in, letting the tip of her nose drift against the shell of Christen’s ear, her breath hot on Christen’s jaw. She peppers the side of Christen’s face with kisses, loving the way she can feel the growing smile on Christen’s face under her lips.

And when she finally connects their lips—god. It’s magical. It’s somehow even better than she had imagined, than she remembered, those fervent kisses under the hazy golden glow of the dim museum lights. This kiss is real. It’s sure. Cognizant that they’re semi-in public, though there’s nobody around at the moment, the kiss stays chaste and slow, but it still grounds Tobin.

This is what I’m meant to be doing, she thinks, as their lips move gently against each others, and then she finds herself thinking, I could do this forever.

But when she hears the distant voices of stagehands approaching, she flinches back, glancing around nervously. Christen gives her a soft smile, running a hand up and down her arm to soothe her. “It’s just the set guys,” she reassures her. “They’re going to start setting up soon.”

Tobin chuckles under her breath, trying to regain her composure. “I just don’t want to get you in trouble. It’s your workplace, and…”

“Don’t worry,” Christen says, glancing over her shoulder. “We won’t get in trouble. It’s sweet of you to worry, though,” she adds with a smile.

“Sweet? Don’t spread that around, wouldn’t want to lose my street cred,” Tobin retorts, an impish smile returning to her face.

Christen rolls her eyes and shoves Tobin away playfully. But then, just before Tobin’s out of arm’s reach, Christen reaches out with a serious expression on her face, pulls her back in by the lapels of her blazer. Tobin lets herself get tugged in, waits patiently for Christen to speak.

“Hey, um,” Christen finally says, her vision trained on the wall behind Tobin, seemingly lost in thought, but her fingers still gripping firmly to Tobin’s blazer. “Can you stick around after? Can you come meet me backstage after the show?”

“Sure. Yeah, absolutely,” Tobin promises instantly, one hand coming up to stroke the side of Christen’s cheek. “I’ll ask Alyssa to take Fina and Faith home. Is everything okay?”

“Yes. Yeah, everything’s great.” Christen nods, and though her words are reassuring, the way she nervously worries her lip between her teeth gives Tobin pause. “Everything’s more than okay. I’d just really like to see you afterwards.”

“Cross my heart, hope to die, I will be here,” Tobin says. She steps to the side, just a tiny bit, to bring herself back into Christen’s line of sight. Their eyes meet. She can’t quite discern that look in Christen’s eye, which worries her. She wants to believe that Christen’s right—that everything’s more than okay—but if it is, why that haunted expression?

“Good luck out there tonight, my little lion girl,” she says, and just like that—like a candle sparking to a flame—the smile is back on Christen’s face. “Break your legs, or whatever they say,” she adds, and there it is, that laugh. Tobin feels her soul settle a little. She presses one last kiss to the side of Christen’s head, burying her face in that sweet, glorious hair, presses—okay, fine, one last last kiss to her temple, and one more on the high arch of her perfect cheekbone, and—

A crash of moving set pieces jolts her back to reality, and she pulls back. Christen glances over her shoulder too. “I better go get ready,” Christen says. Tobin watches as she walks off into the maze of swaying curtains, running her fingers through her curls.

Suddenly feeling out of place backstage without Christen, Tobin ducks back through the heavy curtains and makes her way back down the steep side steps into the audience, which is just starting to fill with theater-goers. She wanders up the aisle until she finds a row hung with neat Reserved signs, and sinks down into the seat labeled Tobin Heath, between Faith Wilkins and Fina Morales. She watches as the seats fill up with people around her. Alyssa, Casey, and Moe arrive, and then Faith, Fina, Sarah and Nathan return from visiting Mal’s dressing room just as the chandeliers above begin to flash their warnings.

“I’m excited!” Fina whispers to Tobin as the lights dim.

“Me too!” Tobin responds. The thrum of anticipation in the air around her, in the faces of all the wide-eyed kids in the audience, is contagious. Faith and Fina bounce up and down in their seats, and Tobin almost feels like bouncing too. The familiar notes of the overture begins to play, and she feels an odd, tingling exhilaration, the kind she felt when she was a little kid and the family was about to set off on vacation, or that feeling she got when she woke up on a snow day. She hasn’t felt such childlike anticipation for anything in so long.

“Whoa…” she whispers under her breath as the heavy red and gold curtains sweep up, revealing the glorious, sparkling set. There’s a hallway, and a ballroom beyond a locked door—and there in the middle of the stage is Mal. She and the boy playing her little brother roughhouse around the hallway door, pushing each other out of the way to try and peep through the keyhole into the ballroom.

Faith and Fina both squeal in delight at the sight of Mal, and it makes Tobin catch her breath, too. It’s like it hits her, all of a sudden, how special and talented Mal and Christen are—how they’re stars. How they’re adored, revered, in this space. She finds herself glancing over her shoulder to survey the hundreds of people hanging onto Mal’s every move.

It’s already so surreal to see Mal on stage in full costume—Tobin thinks she might combust when Christen finally comes out in the second act.

Despite Christen not appearing in the first half, Tobin still finds herself incredibly entertained. The ballet opens with a party scene, at which Mal is gifted a Nutcracker doll. She flits back and forth across the expanse of the stage with the Nutcracker, pirouetting around as the audiences oohs and ahhs. She seems to float. She makes it look easy. (Tobin knows better now, though.)

The real excitement begins, though, when her brother smashes the Nutcracker to the ground. After the party guests leave, Mal tenderly patches the doll up and falls asleep on the couch next to the Christmas tree—then everything goes dark, and giant mice characters come darting out on stage.

Shit!” Tobin flinches and mutters to herself, before guiltily checking on either side of her to make sure the girls hadn’t heard. She had not been expecting that. The Nutcracker pops out as a life-size dude, and as the mouse wage a battle against the Nutcracker and his men, all the little kids in the audience shriek. Faith is hiding her face in Nathan’s shoulder as he tries not to laugh. Fina sits on her hands, staring wide-eyed, trying to pretend she’s not scared.

The battle is finally won when Mal throws her shoe against the Rat King’s head, knocking him out. Then Mal and her prince do a dance together—a pas de deux, Tobin knows the term now—and it’s perfect. Tobin feels a glorious rush of pride as the audience roars with applause for the young students. Tobin looks down at Faith and Fina’s shining eyes as they cheer for Mal, and then looks out at the sea of other children in the audience. I can't believe I ever thought that ballet dancers were bad role models, she finds herself thinking, ashamed. These kids couldn't ask for better role models than Christen and Mal.

The first act wraps up with the dance of the snowflakes—they get to see all that falling snow in action—and Mal and her prince floating off in a sled to the Land of Sweets.

As the lights come on, Moe leans over and whispers to Tobin, with a smirk, “So, are you sold on ballet yet? Still think it’s not a sport?”

“Shut up,” Tobin shoves her off a little, but can’t contain the dopey smile on her face. “I know, I know, I’m an idiot. Let’s stop revisiting it.”

During intermission, Tobin and her friends stretch their legs in the lobby. Tobin’s phone dings, and they all laugh watching the video that Mal just sent of herself standing backstage, surrounded by stagehands frantically picking all the fake snow out of her hair before the second act starts.

They’re in line for some hot chocolate when Casey elbows Tobin and points over her shoulder. Tobin turns and—

Whoa. Her breath literally sticks in her throat as she cranes her neck to take in an enormous banner of Christen hanging from the lobby ceiling, alongside other banners for other Chicago Ballet Company dancers. Christen’s is by far the largest, though—the banner probably spans two stories, and her head is about six feet high. There are little kids posing for pictures in front of it.

“Holy shit,” Casey says, “How does it feel to be dating a real-life celebrity, Tobes?”

“Stop it,” Tobin whines, trying not to make eye contact with her friends, all standing there with their Cheshire-cat grins on.  “We’re not even officially dating. I don’t know what we are. We’re just…”

“Don’t you dare say you’re just friends,” Alyssa warns.

“I wasn’t gonna!” Tobin protests. “We’re just feeling things out. I don’t know what she—well, she hasn’t said anything yet. And I haven’t either.”

“When are you going to ask her to be your girlfriend?!” Moe demands.

“I probably will soon,” Tobin says, trying to sound casual, trying to deflect, trying not to sound like it’s the only thing in the world she wants right now. It works, and her friends turn to start chatting about other things.

But she falls a step behind them and finds herself staring up at the banner, with Christen’s piercing green eyes and her otherworldly-gorgeous smile. Christen Press, Chicago Ballet Company Principal Dancer, the poster announces in fancy font. And Tobin loses her courage a little. “At least, I think I will…” she adds, so softly that she knows her friends can’t hear. “…I want to.”

Soon the lights blink, and her friends head back in, but Tobin glances over her shoulder one more time—still looking up at Christen’s banner, still feeling a little overwhelmed. Christen’s bright eyes, her confident smile, her fame and her fancy title…what do I have to offer? What do I bring to the table except a bad attitude and a ton of failures and baggage and trauma—

“Tobin?”

Startled, Tobin glances over. Her friends haven’t gone in like she thought. They’re standing by the double doors of the theater, waiting for her.

“Lest you forget,” Casey says, “you’re a fucking catch, my friend.”

Tobin feels a rush of gratitude. She gives the intimidating, perfect girl on that banner one last glance, then lopes towards her friends, hands in her pockets. “Yeah, yeah.”

“Somewhere out there, there are also giant posters of you—”

“Not this giant—” Tobin interrupts Moe.

“And lines of little kids waiting to take pictures with posters of you.” Moe finishes her sentence cheerfully, as if Tobin had never cut in.

Alyssa doesn’t say anything, just nudges her shoulder comfortingly against Tobin’s as they head back down the aisle. Tobin nudges back. She shoves her anxieties and inhibitions aside as sidle their way back into their row. It’s not about you tonight, she reprimands herself. It’s about Christen. Don’t let your own stupid thoughts get in the way of watching Christen’s performance.

“Are you excited?!” Faith exclaims as Tobin lowers herself into the plush velvet seat just as the lights go all the way out. “It’s almost Christen!”

“That’s right, it’s almost Christen!” Tobin echoes, shooting Faith a grin. “I’m super excited. And just think, Faith, one day that’s going to be you up there.” She sees Nathan send her a grateful smile from other Faith’s head.

“Christen! Christen! Christen!” Fina starts to chant, slapping her hands on her thighs to the beat.

“Fina!” Sarah starts to scold. “We’re at the ballet, not at a soccer game!”

Too late—Faith has already picked it up. “Christen! Christen!” she chirps along with Fina, and beyond Nathan, Moe and Casey join in—“Christen! Christen!

It starts like a flicker of a wildfire, spreading out from their row, and suddenly it’s like the whole theater is shouting along:

CHRISTEN! CHRISTEN! CHRISTEN!

“Oh, my…” Sarah sighs, with a resigned laugh, staring around at what her daughter has started. Tobin looks around, too, in awed wonder. The chants are echoing off the gilded balconies and bannisters, trembling the crystal chandeliers overhead.

The orchestra swells, the red velvet curtains open, and as the audience noise swells to a roar—Tobin’s heart almost bursts with pride to hear it—there is Christen.

She’s alone on the stage, posed gracefully up on pointe, in a sparkling white tutu—

And her natural hair.

Tobin hears a gasp go up, and she doesn’t know if it’s from her or Faith or Fina or the hundreds of people around her. Christen’s hair is twisted up on top of her head, tucked behind a glittering crystal tiara, but it’s not straightened and slicked back into her usual tight, round bun. Instead, the natural texture and volume of her curls is obvious, even from the audience.

The crowd’s still cheering. Christen’s smile is huge—it’s real.

She shines like the sun.

Tobin feels her throat tighten as she just stares in awe. She can’t tear her eyes from Christen even as the rest of the plot begins to advance, as the sled bearing Mal and her prince arrives on stage. She finally shakes herself from her reverie when she sees Mal. She and Christen are greeting each other with neat little curtsies on stage, as the plot demands, but even from the audience, Tobin can see the suspicious shine in Mal’s eyes. She’s trying not to cry, and that’s what finally makes Tobin cry.

As Tobin blinks her damp eyes, trying not to let the tears fall for the second time that night, she glances down at Faith. The six-year-old is so tiny that she’s kneeling up in her seat to see Christen better. In her wide, dark, wondering eyes, Tobin can see the lights reflecting.

“Look, Daddy!” Faith whispers in awe, tugging at her dad’s arm. “Look at her hair!”

Tobin blinks rapidly up at the ceiling, but to no avail. The tears come down.

The second act flies by in a blur, until Christen’s big moment, the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. The opening chords of the song, haunting and familiar, fill Tobin with a sort of dread—she almost glances around to see if Mateo is in sight, even though she knows it’s silly. But something about Christen’s performance that night supersedes the memory of Mateo. It’s so lovely, so real. She floats from one side of the stage to the other, pirouetting, doing all the moves Tobin is slowly learning the names for—grand jetes, fouettes. But there’s something even more magical about her tonight. It’s the way she smiles out into the audience, catching the eye of little kid after little kid, like she’s smiling right at them.

And Tobin remembers, with a proud pang in her chest, what Christen said about art. That it changes people for the better. That she tries to use her art to inspire others. To convey that sense of…something greater.

Tobin feels it tonight. That something greater. That magical feeling. That inspiration and ambition and appreciation for beauty, settling like fairy dust over every enraptured child in the audience, and over Tobin, too. And she thinks about what Mal said that Christen had taught her: the art we love was not created in our image. If we want it, we have to work twice as hard to make it ours. Tonight, this is Christen, claiming her space. Claiming her art. Making it hers. Tobin feels grateful just to be one of the masses, bearing witness to her.

She’s awestruck, being here, with Christen and her dancing and her audience and her genius and her hair. It’s like watching Michelangelo paint, or Serena Williams play tennis. It’s the feeling of watching someone and just knowing, deep in your bones, that this is what they were put on this earth to do. As the ballet ends, and the cast comes out for their curtain calls, ending with Christen, Tobin rises to her feet with the rest of the audience and claps until her hands are red and aching.

Amid the uproar, the bows, the flowers, the waves of acclaim—Christen looks out into the crowd, and their gazes fix on each other, and Christen smiles just for her. It sends a rush of happiness, like a wave, through Tobin’s body, so strong it almost scares her.


“I don’t wanna go…”

“I know, baby, but it’s past your bedtime.”

“I’m...” (Yawn.) “…not sleepy…”

“Sure, sure,” Nathan soothes, shooting Tobin, Alyssa, and Sarah an amused glance from over Faith’s head, which is lolling down onto Nathan’s shoulder as he carries her through the parking garage towards Alyssa’s car. Fina is clinging to her mom’s hand, eyes drooping and feet dragging, a yawn splitting her face open every few steps.

The girls had known that they wouldn’t be able to see Christen and Mal afterwards, since they’d be in a post-performance cast meeting. It’s probably for the best, Tobin thinks, these babies need to be in bed. Like, an hour ago. She helps bundle them into Alyssa’s car and waves as they drive off.

She hasn’t received any texts from Christen indicating when and where they should meet, so she takes her time wandering back up into the theater, which is emptying out. Dodging through families and couples streaming in the opposite direction, Tobin peers around at the darkened lobby. It feels like an empty stadium after a big game. There’s that sudden cliff—that anticlimax, after days of build-up. The game is won, the dance is done, the seats are empty, the lights are off.

In the empty lobby, as the lights start going down, Tobin finds herself wandering up to the foot of the enormous poster of Christen. It seems even more imposing now: Christen up in the sky, confident and glorious, looming over Tobin, who’s standing tiny and fragile and uncertain down on the ground. For a moment, she feels overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour.

Christen, the girl in the limelight, the genius, she thinks, versus me, the girl on the ground. Not even on the ground—underground.

But then, as she stands there, staring up at the banner, another thought starts to form in her mind:

But maybe that’s not Christen.

The perfect, hard, glittering girl staring confidently out at the world from the banner—it’s not Christen, is it? There’s no need to be intimidated. She doesn’t need try to measure up to, or to earn the attention of, this unattainable goddess on the poster. Christen, the real Christen, is loving and uncertain and porous and sweet. Christen puts on a mask; a cover for the rest of the world.

And if Tobin lets herself get scared off by the facade, then she’ll never be able to be there to support the Real Christen underneath.

And that’s all Tobin wants, really. Just to be there. Just to be with her. The real her. She just wants to hold her and sing praises into her skin until she shines.

Suddenly, she feels antsy. She checks her phone. Still no texts, and it's been over an hour since the curtain call. Where is Christen? Is she all right? She looks over at the theater doors, which are still standing wide open, though the lights inside are off. The gaping doors leading into the darkness suddenly look ominous, like an open jaw, and she feels a shudder run down her spine at the thought of Christen in there alone somewhere. She feels a sudden, irrationally strong urge to get to her, backstage, wherever she is.

She starts towards the doors, her rapid walk picking up into a jog as she passes over the threshold into the darkened theater. She dashes down the aisle of the now-empty space, where ushers are moving, slow and zombie-like, between the rows, picking up stray theater programs.

“Hey! Excuse me!” One of them calls out as Tobin flies by, taking the path that she and Mal had taken to get backstage the first day. “We’re closed now!”

“I’m with someone!” Tobin yells over her shoulder. She takes the stage steps two at a time. All the ushers are staring, and some of them are moving towards her.

Hey!” The first usher protests, starting after Tobin. “You can’t go back there!” But they’re no match for her speed—she whisks her way behind the curtains and charges through the backstage area, hopping speakers and wires and lights. She bursts through a metal door into a brightly-lit fluorescent hallway, and stops to catch her breath. She feels like she used to when she was a little kid, going downstairs for water in the middle of the night and leaping back into her familiar bedroom, safe from the monsters.

Except, she realizes as she looks around the empty hallways, in this case, I’m running towards a monster, not away from one.

She can already hear distant yelling.

Fucking Mateo.

This is why Christen had needed her to stay.

She picks up into a run again, heading down the endless corridor, but the far-off yelling seems to be echoing in all directions. The hallways twist and intersect, and at one point she can make out specific words, like what the fuck is wrong with you and without my permission and useless shit. Frantic, she picks up her pace. But without Mal there to follow as she had last time she was back here, she suspects she might be going in circles. The yelling fades as she jogs on again. Finally, worn out, she pauses at a crossroads she might have already passed before.

From behind her, she hears footsteps, and she turns to see an older woman, with gray upswept hair and a fancy blue gown on, looking just as confused as Tobin. “Land’s sakes, it’s a labyrinth back here, isn’t it?” she says in that way that older people sometimes do, where you can’t tell if they’re talking to you or talking to themselves.

Tobin pauses awkwardly, not sure whether to respond.

“Yeah,” she finally says. “I’m, uh, also lost.”

The older lady is peering around, eyebrows furrowed. “Who are you looking for, child?” she asks. Tobin’s about to answer, but then she pauses—if she’s not allowed backstage, would saying Christen’s name get Christen in trouble?

And then she’s distracted all over again as the distant echo of yelling fills the air like a fog—did Tobin really just hear him say, they’re not here to see a girl from the ghetto?! She feels her hands form fists.

The lady beside her is squinting around, seemingly unable to pick out the words, but she does mutter, “What is that racket?” under her breath, fretfully. She finally lifts her hands to her mouth and trills out, with surprising volume, “CHRISTEN, DARLING!

Tobin jumps. From far away, the yelling abruptly cuts off.

“Yoo-hoo! Christen, it’s Petra!”

From a long way down a hallway, there’s the sound of an opening door. Tobin and the woman—Petra?—both turn to see the distant figure of Christen, already in sweatpants, stepping out into the hall. At the sight of her, Tobin lets out a long breath.

“Mrs. Parrington?” Christen calls. She turns the other way down the hallway first, and then looks over—she’s still far away, but Tobin swears that her eyes flicker past the woman and land on Tobin. And Tobin swears that Christen starts to smile, like she can’t help herself.

“Christen, darling!” Petra bustles off down the hall, all smiles again. Tobin hovers awkwardly in place for a moment before trailing after her, not sure whether she’s supposed to be here for this conversation, but feeling highly protective of Christen. She pauses about twenty feet back.

Mateo steps out the door behind Christen, and Tobin sees a forced smile take over his face. “Why, Mrs. Parrington! What a lovely surprise,” he booms, cutting forcefully in front of Christen and opening his arms wide in greeting. “What is our most esteemed patroness doing backstage?”

“I was just here to see Christen!” Petra eagerly sidesteps Mateo’s arms—Tobin can’t help but snicker—and gives Christen a warm embrace. “Darling, I just wanted to say—your hair! It is so beautiful, and as soon as I saw it, I just knew I had to find you tonight. Did you hear the audience? They were in love!” (You can say that again, Tobin thinks.) “The critics, the audience, they loved it! I have just been on the, oh, what’s it called, the twits, dear me…” she’s fumbling with her phone. “The tweets, that is, and people are so excited! Journalists, art directors, company owners, all over the country are talking about how lovely you looked.” She gives Christen’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “I just thought you should know! Aren’t you excited?”

With slow fingers, as if she can’t quite believe it, Christen takes the phone Petra passes her. She scrolls slowly as she reads, and Mateo elbows in to read over her shoulder. As Christen’s face gradually lights up like a sun, Mateo’s gradually dims until he’s scowling.

“This is excellent for you personally, my dear, but also excellent for the Chicago Ballet Company,” Petra says, beaming. Is it just Tobin, or does the woman fix Mateo with a particularly stern stare? “It’s a step in the right direction, I say. A step into the future.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Parrington,” Christen says. Her voice is soft and carefully neutral, but her eyes are shining. “Your support means so much to me.”

Mateo’s scowl deepens even further, and without another word, he spins on his heel and storms away down the hall, out of sight.

Petra looks after him with some consternation. “What’s the matter with Mateo this evening? He’s not upset at you, surely?”

“He wasn’t pleased that I didn’t consult him about the hair before I went on,” Christen admitted as they began walking back down the hallway towards Tobin.

Petra gives Christen a long, probing look, and then says, “Well, you know, these artistic directors can be such prima donnas,” with a twinge of unease still coating her voice. As they walk up to Tobin, she says politely, “And you, dear, are you still lost? Did you find what you were looking for?”

Christen looks from Petra to Tobin in surprise. “Oh! Do you…do you know each other? Mrs. Parrington, this is Tobin, my—”

“Tobin.” Tobin offers her hand politely. “I’m, uh…”

She pauses, and then in a rush of words, adds, “I’m a friend of Christen’s—” just as Christen’s starting to say, “Tobin’s with me—”

They pause, awkwardly avoiding eye contact, blushes starting to paint both their faces.

Petra looks back and forth between them, a knowing smile starting to form on her face. “Ah! Well, in that case, I will leave you to it. Lovely to meet you, Tobin. Christen—anything you need, you know where to find me.” With that, she sashays glamorously down the hall and disappears around the corner, leaving the two of them alone.

As soon as she vanishes out of sight, Tobin lets out a long sigh. “God, sorry. I’m so awkward. I—I didn’t want to get you in trouble, and she’s clearly very important, whoever she is, and—I kind of ran from some ushers to get backstage, so I don’t even know if I’m allowed to be back here, and—”

Without a word, Christen steps up and folds herself into Tobin’s arms, and Tobin shuts up. Tobin rests her chin on the top of Christen’s curly head and cuddles her in close. She can feel her heartbeat slowing, steady, syncopating with Christen’s. “You were so amazing tonight,” she murmurs. She can feel Christen’s torso rising and falling as she takes a few deep breaths.

“Thank you for waiting. Thank you for coming back here to find me,” Christen mumbles into Tobin’s neck. “I just…didn’t want to end the night with the yelling.”

“Of course I waited,” Tobin says. I would do whatever you asked me to do, she wants to add, but then she thinks, that’s too much, too soon, for fuck’s sake, you haven’t even asked her to be your girlfriend yet.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks softly.

She can feel Christen shake her head. “No. Not now. I’m okay. Really. But thank you.”

“Of course. So what do you want to do now?”

She can feel Christen shrug.

“Do you want me to go?”

Christen’s arms tighten like a vice around Tobin’s torso.

Tobin chuckles. “Okay, I didn’t think so, but just checking. Um, have you eaten?”

Christen shakes her head.

“I think you need some R&R,” Tobin declares, a plan forming in her mind. She puts the topic of Mateo on the back burner for now. “After how amazing you did tonight, you need to be spoiled. Let’s go back to your place, and I’ll make you dinner and give you a foot massage.”

Christen draws back. Her eyes are all lit up, which is all the answer Tobin needs, but she still says, “Aw, come on, Tobin. You don’t have to do all that just for me.”

Tobin winks. “Honestly, it’s not really about you. It’s all a cover. I just want to see Morena again.” She laughs at the joy of making Christen laugh, and she ducks out of the way as Christen goes to slap her on the arm.

And it’s not like she doesn’t want to see Morena—she lights up when the dog tackles her at the door as soon as she enters, ears flopping and eyes shining—but of course, it’s all for Christen. Citing her need for Morena-time again, she convinces Christen to go shower and get ready for bed while she takes the dog out.

She wanders down the snowy street with Morena snuffling absently at her shoes. She texts Nathan, then Sarah, then Moe and Alyssa, to make sure everyone made it home safe. She texts Mal to tell her what a great job she did.

She still can’t believe she’s here. In front of Christen’s apartment. With Christen’s dog. With Christen. When she closes her eyes, she can still see Christen on that stage. Floating, alive, ethereal.

When Christen dances, it’s like Tobin feels the earth shift on its axis. Everything falls into place.

“Your mom is fucking dope,” she informs Morena, and the dog stares up at her with adoring eyes and wags her tail so hard it’s a blur, as if she agrees.

When Christen pads into the kitchen with a towel around her wet hair, wearing a big t-shirt and fuzzy socks, Tobin is busy cooking some salmon and broccoli she’d found in the fridge. She means to just shoot Christen a grin over her shoulder—but then when she catches sight of her, she loses focus. The wooden spatula goes limp in her hands as she surveys Christen with a goofy little smile.

They both just stand there for a second, taking each other in. Tobin can’t quite believe that—all of a sudden, like falling headlong into a dream—she’s here, and Christen’s here, and it all feels so natural and effortless. And the way Christen leans her elbows on the kitchen island, staring back at Tobin with a sweet, shy smile, it appears she’s thinking something similar.

After a short pause, with just the sound of the salmon sizzling in the background, Christen says, “You know what this reminds me of?”

“Hm?”

“That night at your apartment. When you were making guacamole for Moe.”

“Oh.”

Tobin deflates a little. She looks back down at the salmon. Under the guise of doing something with her nervous fingers, she fiddles with the stove knobs.

“What’s wrong?” Christen asks, perceptive as ever.

Tobin sneaks a glance up at Christen. She knows she doesn’t have to feel nervous and wretched, because Christen is better than that—but she still does. “I treated you like shit that night,” Tobin mutters. “It’s not a good thing that you’re being reminded of that, right? Your main memory of that night must’ve been me treating you like shit.”

Christen pauses, like she’s treading carefully around Tobin’s edges, which are still a little rough, still a little uncertain. Tobin watches as Christen walks over to the fridge and pulls out a can of seltzer, and then boosts herself up to sit on the marble counter a few feet away. Christen traces a careful finger around the rim of the can, and then takes a deep breath, and says, “Actually, my main memory of that night was being jealous.”

“Jealous?” Tobin is bewildered. Of me? Surely not. No, I was jealous of HER. That was the big revelation of the night. “Why?!”

Christen takes a second. She studies Tobin carefully. Then she says, slowly, gauging Tobin’s reaction, “Well, I was jealous of the other girls.”

Tobin stills. She’s having trouble tracking that logic. “What?”  

“You know, in the beginning,” Christen says, thoughtfully, with a little chuckle around the edges, “I kept telling myself that it didn’t bother me that you weren’t very nice to me. I know we’d gotten off on the wrong foot, and I also said some things, that first day we met, that weren’t kind—”

“Okay, let’s not even pretend the first day was anyone’s fault but mine,” Tobin adds hastily. She recalls the way they met—the way she’d been making fun of ballet. She recalls the way she had accosted Christen after her interview. And what if she saw me that day when I had just arrived? A shitshow, reeking of stale beer, with lipstick stains on my neck…A torrent of shame floods through her.

Christen reaches her leg out, gives Tobin a little poke in the thigh with her toe. It makes Tobin smile a little, and she lifts her head, and when she sees the wide smile on Christen’s face, her misgivings melt away a little. “For the record,” Christen says, with a little sideways smirk, “just so you know…I could’ve been better. I’m usually not that rude, I swear, but I saw you making fun of ballet, and I just got so…goaded. I wanted to be petty. I never told you this, but you know, I purposely ignored you when I saw you lurking around to apologize. And I was trying to make ballet sound superior to soccer in that interview you overheard. And…” A pretty little blush tinges her cheeks. “And I did know your name. Even without your name tag. But I lied to you about that, because I wanted to…I don’t know, I wanted to win the encounter, I guess. I thought you were such an asshole. I wanted to knock you down a few pegs.”

Tobin has to laugh. “Well, it worked. But it’s not like I didn’t deserve it.”

Christen sighs a little. “I guess I ended up thinking thought it worked a little too well. I was so ready to just hold this grudge against you forever, but then after I got to know Casey, the girls just kept talking about you. And then you fascinated me. Baffled me, really. Like some weird legend, everyone was always saying how perfect and wonderful you were, when you weren’t around.”

Tobin turns slowly from the stove. “No. No way, like Alyssa, and Casey, and Moe?”

“You seem surprised.”

“I…” Tobin’s a little lost for words. And why do I feel like I’m about to cry? “I am surprised. They said things like that?”

Christen nods, tipping her head to the side, studying Tobin carefully. “Yeah. They’d say these amazing things, and my curiosity was piqued, and I’d tell myself, maybe I misjudged. Maybe I was too harsh on that first day. But then I’d see you…”

“And I’d act like a little shit,” Tobin finishes the sentence.

Christen chooses a more diplomatic tack, with a wry smile. “…and it would be like they’d been talking about an entirely different person. At first, I thought—well, maybe I deserved it, because I was so rude to you on that first day. So I tried to be nicer to you, like at the bar that night—” Christen looks down at her hands, a little self-consciously. “And honestly, I don’t usually go out of my way to get to know people—I’m really introverted, and I always feel kind of awkward in new situations, but I really tried—and I was shocked, truly shocked, that you still seemed to hate me. In hindsight, I think it’s because I’m used to, you know, people sucking up; being super nice to me if I was nice to them.” Christen laughs a little awkwardly, as if she feels like she’s bragging about herself with that simple statement. “But you weren’t. It was such a blow to my ego!”

“Listen, you of all people don’t have an ego—” Tobin sputters. It almost pains her to hear this from Christen’s viewpoint. “It was all me. It was me being a shitty human being. Seriously.”

“But you aren’t a shitty human being. That’s my point.” Christen looks Tobin dead in the eye. “I wanted to think you were. I tried so hard to convince myself that Casey and the others were just totally off about you, because that made it hurt less. But then, that night, at your apartment. I could see. I could see you. I could just see what a good person you were—no, let me finish,” she says quickly, as Tobin opens her mouth to protest. “The way you always had your friends’ favorite foods prepared when they were over, and the way you took care of them, and the stories they told about you and all the photos on your refrigerator. And it hit me all at once—I was jealous of them. I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to be in your inner circle, one of the people you’d buy food for and hang out with and tell all your secrets to. But I could tell that I wasn’t. I just felt like you didn’t want me around, not just around you, but even around the people you loved.” Christen clears her throat and looks down at her hands. “And that’s when I started thinking, there must be something else going on.”

There’s a long moment of total silence. Tobin grips the spatula extra hard in her fingers, and flips the salmon even though it doesn’t need flipping.

Christen seems like she bites back something else she wants to say, to ask Tobin about, and instead she continues, “And then we had that talk. In your kitchen.”

“And you called me out on my bullshit, which no one ever does, and then I cried,” Tobin says. She ducks her head in embarrassment, remembering the way that Christen’s words had blindsided her. Your friends would choose you, she had said. And Tobin hadn’t believed her.

“What are you thinking?” Christen asks softly.

Tobin sighs. “I guess...I guess I was just thinking that you weren’t the only one with a realization that night. Did you know that until that very moment you cornered me in the kitchen, I really had convinced myself that I just disliked you. But when you started talking, I realized I didn’t. I think you were so perfect that I was scared of you.”

“Scared of me?!”

“I mean…” Tobin scratches the back of her neck in thought. “Maybe not of you, but I was scared of what you represented. Like, because I was such a fucking train wreck, and you were this perfect, funny, smoking hot dancer who was also kind and disciplined and, oh, did I mention smoking hot?”

Christen’s laughing. “Well, if you’d given me five minutes to talk to you, you would have known that I thought you were smoking hot. Whew, that day. I mean, I did want to have a deep, meaningful conversation in the kitchen. But I just also wanted to admire what your arms look like when you cut onions.”

Tobin bursts out laughing too. “Oh my god, I was so embarrassed to be wearing that dirty apron and sweats when you got there…” She gives the salmon a taste test. Perfect. She slides it from the pan onto a plate, beside the already-finished broccoli, and scoots the plate over the counter towards Christen. “I felt like such a bum!”

“Mm…nope. That tank top you were wearing,” Christen’s eyes almost glaze over, “The way it showed off your arms…I thought you were very sexy that day,” Christen takes advantage of the fact that Tobin has finally left the stovetop and leans over to drag her by the hand, so Tobin’s standing in front of where Christen is perched on the countertop. She loops her arms around Tobin’s shoulders and brings her close, so their foreheads are brushing.

“So are you still scared of me?” Christen whispers.

“No.” Tobin pauses. Then she lets the honesty take over. “But I still think you’re perfect.”

Christen lets out a little laugh. She leans her forehead against Tobin’s a little harder. “I’m far from perfect, Tobin. Some days I’m really a wreck. As you’ve seen.”

Tobin winds her arms around her even tighter. “I’m sorry I ever made you sad,” Tobin whispers into the side of her neck. “I’ll always be sorry.”

“Oh, Tobes,” Christen says, and the little nickname settles Tobin a little, makes her feel warm and seen all the way down to her toes. “All is forgiven. You’ve brought so much light into my life.”

Light. What a concept, me bringing light into someone else’s life, as if I have any to offer. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters. She bites her lip and looks down at the floor and pulls away a little. “Okay, eat up so I can give you a foot massage.”

“Hey.” Christen’s voice suddenly gets a little sterner. She reaches for Tobin, pulls her back in, tilts Tobin’s chin up with one steady finger so Tobin has to look her in the eye. And her gorgeous gray-green eyes are compassionate and loving as she says, “Listen to yourself. In one breath you deny your own goodness, and in the next, you tell me to eat the dinner you literally just made for me so that you can give me a fucking foot massage. Tobin, you are just so good. You give so much of yourself. You are so full of light. Don’t you see it?”

Here’s Christen again, doing her Christen thing, making Tobin feel exposed. Seen. Known, which is a terrifying feeling. For a moment, she thinks fleetingly again of bugs and gardens. She thinks of that saying, the one about turning stones over and revealing the bugs hiding in the dark underneath. She thinks of Christen overturning a stone in her garden and staring down at Tobin, wretched and afraid and wriggling back into the dirt where she belongs.

“Don’t you see it?” Christen repeats, pleading.

Then she thinks, Christen doesn’t want me to think of myself as a bug. She doesn’t want me to run off into the darkness.

“I’m trying to.” Tobin whispers. She has to whisper, because if she speaks any louder, she’s afraid her voice will break with tears. But she means it, really means it, with every ounce of her being. “I’m trying, Chris. I’ll try harder. I promise.”

Christen pauses. “If something's wrong, you'd tell me, right? It doesn't have to be right now, but soon? Eventually?”

The longing in Christen’s voice makes Tobin’s heart clench, makes her lungs close up.

“I know. I will. I promise.” Tobin clings closer to her, leaning her closed eyes against Christen’s shoulder. “That’s part of the trying.”

They stand like that for a long moment, until Tobin’s arms start to tingle a warning that they’re going to fall asleep soon. Reluctantly, she disentangles from Christen, then reaches over to slide the plate closer. “Come on, eat up. The food’s going to get cold.”

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Christen accepts the plate Tobin holds out. “This is amazing.”

“It’s nothing,” Tobin colors a little. “It’s probably not even good, you don’t have to eat it—”

Christen shoots her a little look.

“I mean…” Tobin swallows and laughs a little. Practice not being a bug. Come on, you can do it. “Thank you…?”

“You’re welcome,” Christen says with a cheeky smile. She leans in and gives Tobin a sweet, lingering kiss on the cheek before starting to eat. “Here, you want to split this with me?”

“Nah, I ate before picking the girls up.”

“Can you do something else for me?” Christen asks as she places a small forkful of salmon into her mouth. “Oh my god, this is delicious.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. Just like that soup you made when I was sick—holy shit, that soup was so good.”

Out of instinct, Tobin pushes the compliment off again. “Are you serious? Nah, that was just some random recipe I found online. If you want to talk about good chicken noodle soup, my mom used to make this one for me when I was little.” She sighs. “I wanted to make it for you that day, but I just couldn’t remember the recipe.”

“Why didn’t you just call your mom for it?”

“The Internet just seemed faster, I guess. I was already standing in the grocery store when I realized I didn’t remember the recipe. I’m glad it still turned out edible. Anyway—what were you asking for?”

“Oh, yeah. Can we look at those pictures you took earlier?”

Tobin feels a rush of shy pride that Christen has any interest in looking at her photos. She reaches over to grab her camera. Flipping the screen of the DSLR towards Christen, she clicks through the photos. The most recent ones come up first, and Christen chuckles at the shots of Faith falling asleep on Nathan’s shoulder at the end of the night, and then beams at the pictures of Faith and Fina in front of her banner in the lobby. Then they cycle through some candid and posed shots of Moe and Alyssa, Faith and Nathan, Fina and Sarah, sitting in the theater before the performance started.

And then they get to the pictures on stage with Christen.

The first few are of the whole group—the girls with Mal, the girls with Christen, the girls with Christen and Tobin.

“These are so cute!” Christen coos, zooming in on one where Christen and Tobin are kneeling, and Faith and Fina are cuddled up between them. “Why don’t you post one of these?”

Tobin stares at the photo for a second. She’s not used to seeing her face like this anymore, with her eyes all alight and her blinding smile. It’s a candid photo, and Faith and Fina are laughing at someone off-camera, and Tobin and Christen are beaming at each other over the girls’ heads.

Just looking at the picture fills her with joy. But she loves it so much she doesn’t want it out there—under the scrutinizing eyes of the world. The thought of other people staring at it, dissecting its meaning, makes her stomach twist up into sudden knots.

She hastily clicks onwards, and then they get to the ones Tobin took up Christen, close-up, under the snow.

Tobin suddenly finds herself torn between looking at the photos on the camera—with Christen’s smile lighting up the whole world, with snow falling around her and cresting on her glorious curls, with lights forming rainbow-tinged halos around her head—or at the girl next to her, as she tips her head to the side and looks at the photos of herself. Tobin ticks slowly through shot after shot, almost embarrassed to admit how many she had taken.

“You like them?” she asks uncertainly.

Christen looks down at her empty plate, then over to the camera, then finally up at Tobin. “You’re good at everything. You know that? How are you so good at everything?”

“Stop…” Tobin blushes.

“Tobin, I love them.” Christen promises, fervently, leaning forward to press a reassuring kiss to Tobin’s cheek. “Can I keep some?”

“Yeah, as many as you want. Here, you can just take the memory card, put it in your laptop,” Tobin suggests, popping the card out of the bottom of the camera.

“Thanks.” Christen takes the little piece of plastic from Tobin and holds it carefully in her fingers. “Um…” she adds. “Also, do you…well, it’s late.” She fidgets in her seat a little. “Were you thinking about…heading home? Or did you want to stay over?”

Tobin’s head spins.

Yes, yes, yes, I want to stay over.

“I’d love to.”

The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.

But then she recalls the day Christen has had—the performance, the big decision about her hair, the yelling, the insults Mateo had rained down on her—and she thinks, No, not tonight, you’re taking it slow, remember? So she adds, hastily, “But, uh, for like…sleeping?” Not for the first time, she curses how bad she is with words. “I mean, we don’t have to…I mean, what I’m trying to say is, we could—we should—we should take it slow.”

“Okay,” Christen says with an easy, teasing smile. “I still want that foot massage, though.”

And Tobin lets out a long sigh. And it’s that easy. It always seems to be that easy with Christen.

Christen lends her some sweats, and she showers and changes. On her way out of the bathroom, she remembers to grab the foot massage cream from the ledge of the bathtub. But then she finds herself barreling to a halt, leaning against the door of the bathroom, taking in the sight before her.

Christen is lying on her stomach on her bed, propped up on her elbows, like an angel resting on a cloud. An angel in a ponytail and oversized t-shirt, looking down at her phone. She’s so picture-perfect, at peace. She looks bright and innocent, kicking her feet in the air, but somehow simultaneously positively sinful—the edge of her shirt riding up to reveal the black underwear she’s wearing underneath, the long, smooth curves of her legs. Tobin feels her mouth go dry.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? At all the girls’ apartments Tobin’s been in over the past months—so many she’s lost count— she’s basically sidestepped every piece of furniture and only touched the bed. And it meant nothing, moving drunk and fumbling in the dark, in a beeline from the door, to the bed, and back to the door.

But in Christen’s house, the only piece of furniture is a bed, and Tobin is almost scared of it. Scared of what it means. Scared of pushing Christen too far.

Taking a deep breath, Tobin shakes off the spell and walks over. As Christen glances up and gives Tobin a little smile, Tobin lowers herself to sit near the foot of the bed. Feather-light, she runs a finger up the curve of Christen’s calf, then bends down to press a lingering kiss into the crook of the back of Christen’s knee.

“Ready?”

Christen’s just looking over her shoulder at her, her eyes dark and wide and kind of glazed-over.

“Huh?”

“For the foot massage?”

“Oh. Yes. Yeah.” Christen clears her throat. Casting her gaze around as if embarrassed, she flips herself over, and then sits up.

Tobin crosses her legs and gently eases Christen’s feet into her lap. She can feel herself blushing, from her neck to her cheeks, as she slowly takes one sock off, then the other. (She’s amazed, again, that after all she’s done, with all those girls, somehow this feels like the most intimate thing in the world.)

“I’m so excited to actually remember it this time,” Christen jokes.

Tobin’s grateful for the distraction. She chuckles. “I was scared you were going to kick in your sleep last time, to be honest.”

Christen’s eyes widen. “I didn’t, did I?”

“No, no,” Tobin reassures her. She carefully runs a finger along the arch of Christen’s foot. “You’re okay, right? You don’t have any cuts or blisters or anything?”

“No, I don’t.” Now it’s Christen’s turn to reassure Tobin. Catching the anxious look on Tobin’s face, Christen repeats. “I seriously don’t. I know you’re probably thinking about what you saw that day at the theater, with all the blood, but that wasn’t normal. I swear.”

So Tobin begins.

And the funny thing is, she’s never associated massages with anything particularly romantic. Being a professional athlete will do that to you. Massages have always been associated with trainers and plasticky mats and fluorescent lighting and painful stretches, and sure, Tobin has given foot massages to her family and friends before, and sometimes Casey or Alyssa will give her a little back rub, or she’ll give them one—

But this is different. So, so different.

This is a darkened room. A king-sized bed. This is Christen letting her head tip back, and closing her eyes, and biting her lip, and letting all sorts of indecent noises slip out as Tobin works—

If you had told me three months ago that today I’d be on a bed, with the most stunningly beautiful girl I’d ever met in my entire life, and she was making noises like thatI would NOT have guessed “foot massage.”

Tobin feels her whole body heating up. She has to talk to distract herself.

“You were so good tonight, you know?”

Christen opens her eyes a crack. “Yeah? What did you think? I'm so curious.”

“I think…” Tobin tries to find the right words to deliver all the feelings she’s feeling, but it’s hard. She digs her thumbs into the arches of Christen’s foot and listens to the little moan that Christen makes, and tucks that sound away in her heart. “I think that you were made for this.”

Christen’s eyes fix on Tobin’s, wondrous and luminous.

“I think that it’s your calling. I don’t know if I believed in callings before, but after seeing you tonight, I do. It took my breath away. It made me feel like…it was I suddenly remembered something that I’d lost. Or found something that had been gone from me.”

“Really?”

“Really. And I thought you looked so happy—so free.” Tobin pauses. “Did you feel that way, too?”

“I did.” Christen says softly. She touches her hair, as if subconsciously. “I mean, you know, now, that the way I look doesn’t always match the way I feel. I think that’s just a luxury you don’t get as a dancer. Nobody can ever know how much you suffer, because it’s never your story you’re telling. But I truly do love performing. I love the audience. And especially the Nutcracker, because you get all these kids in the audience.”

“And you got to show them yourself tonight.”

“Yeah.” Christen touches her hair again. This time, it’s thoughtful. She cradles a bunch of her curls in her hand and just stares at it for a moment. “Yeah. I was so scared backstage. I had managed to avoid Mateo so he wouldn’t see my hair before I went on, but I was terrified. I already knew he was going to hate it, but more importantly, what if the audience hated it? What if critics hated it? But then I heard you all chanting my name, and it gave me so much strength. And I just thought, even if people think my natural hair is a flaw—it won’t matter, because I’ll be free. I’ll be myself.”

“You’re so beautiful.” It slips out before Tobin can quite stop it. Her hands fall still. She crawls up the bed and falls into Christen’s side, wrapping her arms around her, burrowing in closer to her. “And it’s not a flaw, Chris. It’s your strength. You should never have to hide it.”

“I don’t want to hide it anymore,” Christen agrees, and she lets herself sink into Tobin’s embrace. Tobin can feel as she takes a deep breath, and then Christen adds, “Can I ask you something?”

She picks up her phone from the bedside table. Tobin moves in behind her, wraps an arm around Christen’s waist, rests her chin on Christen’s shoulder. She can’t resist pecking a few kisses on the side of Christen’s warm neck.

“Could I…could I post this one on my Instagram?” Christen asks, her voice suddenly a little timid. She holds her phone up. It’s one of Tobin’s photos from that night. In fact, it’s the very photo Tobin had showed her while they were standing on stage. Christen is smiling blissfully up into the lights, her eyes shining pale green, the stage a soft, pastel blur behind her. And her hair is wild and glowing. Like it’s lit up with silver fire from within.

Yes,” Tobin breathes out. “Please. I would love that.”

“Do you want me to like, tag you, or—”

“No,” Tobin says firmly. “No, don't. This is not about me. It’s not about anyone but you.”

Christen turns her head, and their lips meet. The first touch is soft, tentative. But then Tobin leans into it, and Christen responds, confident, free. Their mouths move hungrily against each other’s, and Tobin feels herself settling. Growing roots, sinking into the bed, into the kiss, into this warm, steady feeling. This feels so right, Tobin realizes, thinking back on their conversations that night. This could be a really good thing, couldn’t it? We could be so good for each other.

Christen gives Tobin a few last, lingering kisses, then reaches for the lights. Tobin snuggles in behind Christen, spooning herself in around the other girl as Christen opens the picture on Instagram. The dim blue light of the screen illuminates both their faces in the dark. Tobin admires, again, the glorious way the hair lights up in the picture. Then she buries her face in Christen’s curls, takes a deep whiff of the smell of Christen’s shampoo, and thanks god that she’s lucky enough to be right here, right now.

“What are you going to write in the caption?” she murmurs, her eyes already starting to droop a little.

Snuggled up against Christen’s back, she can feel Christen’s little laugh ripple through their bodies together. Christen tips her screen so Tobin can see. She’s already posted it. And in the caption is a single emoji of a lion.

Chapter Text

“Last one to the pier buys dinner!”

“Okay, that’s not fair.” Tobin whines. Her legs are on fire as she tries to keep up with Christen’s long strides, flying down the lakeside running path. It’s been snowing like crazy, and snow is piled up three feet deep on either side of them. But the sun is out and the path is shoveled and the lake shimmers blue and beautiful, and Tobin is happy.

“First, you’re faster than me. Second, I had training this morning and I’m tired. Third—” she has to stop for breath. “Third, you know I’d buy you dinner anyway, babe.”

Christen stumbles, loses a step. She turns towards Tobin with wide eyes. “Wait, what did you just call me—?”

“Ha!” Taking advantage of Christen’s momentary distraction, Tobin is off like a bolt of lightning. She hears Christen shriek with indignance behind her, then hears the rush of incoming footsteps. She pushes her legs faster, but it’s too late. Christen barrels into Tobin’s back, wrapping her arms around her and wrestling her down. In a tangle of limbs and peals of laughter, they tip over into a fluffy snowdrift.

“You cheater!” Christen whines after she finally catches her breath and stops giggling. She sits up and brushes snow out of her eyes with a mittened hand. “I cannot believe the first time you ever called me babe was to cheat me out of winning a freaking race!”

“Well…” Tobin admits. She leans back into the snow, feeling the cold seep delightfully through her sweaty post-run skin. “Not my fault you’re too fast for me to beat fair.”

“I know,” Christen says smugly. “Oh, I know.”

“I should never have you told you about that time I couldn’t catch up to you on my run,” Tobin groans. She can’t bring herself to feel any regret, though. Not while looking at the massive smile on Christen’s face. “Also,” she adds, “Actually, I don’t know if you remember this, but I accidentally called you ‘babe’ that night you were sick.”

“Aw, man, what?! I don’t remember.” Christen pouts.

“Yeah, you were pretty out of it.” Tobin chuckles. “And I was relieved. Like, what if you heard me?”

“What if I had?” Christen smirks. “Probably would’ve started dating even sooner.”

Even sooner? Tobin freezes. The words burrow through her lungs, reminding her that she hasn’t asked Christen out yet. Are we dating? Is this dating? Are we…DATING, dating? She has to ask Christen out, she thinks, feeling antsy and uneasy. Eventually. Soon. What’s holding her back?

She’s not sure if Christen has noticed her sudden silence, but she pushes the thought out of her mind as Christen quickly changes the subject. “Okay, fine. It’s cute that you called me babe when I was sick. I forgive you your wicked, cheating ways.”

“I’ll buy you dinner anyway. As penance.” Maybe I’ll ask her out over dinner?

“Deal.”

Christen leans in, as if for a kiss, but Tobin sits up and glances around. The sidewalk is pretty crowded that afternoon, and she sees more than one curious set of eyes on the two girls still sprawled out in the snow.

Christen’s stature as a mini-celebrity in Chicago is beyond the attention that Tobin is used to. They’ve been out in public together a few times now, and people have stopped to ask Christen for her autograph, and people whisper and stare, and Tobin has started to feel like there are always eyes on them. It makes her skin crawl with unease, though she can’t quite put a finger on why.

Come on, snap out of it, she urges herself, you’re a public figure, why aren’t you used to this by now? But it never works. She tenses up every time, and she knows Christen feels it.

Sensing Tobin’s discomfort, Christen pulls back a little, with a wistful expression on her face. But then she seems to brush it off. She pops to her feet and puts out a hand to help Tobin up. “Are we still up for the Christmas market?” She asks.

“Still up?!” Tobin gasps, pretending to be offended (but secretly delighted that she’s successfully skated past the awkward moment unscathed). “That was literally the only way you convinced me to come out running—with the promise of the Christmas market afterwards—and now you’re acting like it’s optional? It’s not optional.”

It’s a quick drive from the lakeside to the annual Christmas market. Tobin loves the market every year, but this year, the lights and buzz, the crowds and the towering Christmas tree, seem to fade into blurred sepia tones in the background. The only thing she sees in detail is Christen.

Between Tobin’s insane schedule for the upcoming championships, and Christen’s insane schedule for peak Nutcracker season, they haven’t been able to build in a lot of time to spend together. Even today, they’ve had to squeeze this time together between Tobin’s morning training and Christen’s performance at night (and they spent half of it working out, on the lakeside run, because cardio never ends).

If Tobin had it her way, she would never opt for so much time apart. She would spend all day basking in Christen’s beauty. She’d spend all night curled around her, like they had on that first night after the Nutcracker, warm and satisfied and feeling like she belonged somewhere at last. But she tells herself that the schedules are for the best. That it’s fine that they haven’t spent a night together since then, or barely a day, for that matter. She tells herself that this helps her take it slow and special, like Christen deserves.

Christen pauses at a booth to examine a delicate pair of black and gold earrings, and Tobin instinctively imagines her wearing them, makes a mental note to come back and get them if Christen seems like she really likes them. It’s crazy, she thinks, how easy it is to anticipate every little thing Christen could want, to think ahead about how to take care of her, how to make her happy. She thinks: Maybe Alyssa and the girls are right, after all. Maybe I am a girlfriend-girl.

“Did you like those?” Tobin asks as they start to walk off, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Yeah, they were beautiful,” Christen says, and Tobin puts a mental green checkmark next to the stall’s location.

And though she knows they shouldn’t, because it’s not a cheat day, she buys Christen a churro when she sees Christen’s face light up when they pass the churro cart. And then she gets them a little cup of steaming hot, spicy Mexican hot chocolate, because it’s her favorite every year, and Christen has never tried it. After all, we just ran a lot, she rationalizes to herself.

And for Tobin, watching Christen’s eyes light up when she takes her first sip is somehow even more warming and satisfying than actually drinking it herself.

“I can’t believe I’ve never come to the Christmas market before,” Christen marvels as they wind their way through the crowds and stalls, each step in perfect sync. 

“What, all Christmased out by the Nutcracker every year?”

Christen tilts her head back and laughs. “I mean, you’re joking, but it’s kind of true. Nutcracker season is so exhausting, and I usually just spend the entire holiday season sleeping between performances and dreaming about going home.”

There’s a slight lull in the conversation, and Christen adds, “Home is California for me.” Tobin just nods. There’s an odd, squeezing pang in her heart as she starts to count the weeks in her head. Just a few more weeks before Christen is home for good, away from Chicago, away from Tobin—for how long?

“God, I miss my parents,” Christen says dreamily. “And my dogs. And the weather! I never actually get to spend the holidays with my family, because the Nutcracker performances run from Thanksgiving through early January. But then I get to go home, for a while.”

Silence descends again. It’s on the tip of Tobin’s tongue, to ask how long Christen will be gone—but she can’t. There’s a strange lump in Tobin’s throat, all of a sudden, and she can’t quite get enough air around it to open her mouth and say something.

“And what about you?” Christen asks, finally, after a few prolonged moments of quiet. “Are you going home for Christmas? And where’s that for you?”

Tobin freezes. Instead of answering Christen, she fidgets, looking up at the Christmas lights winking and sparkling above them. “I guess it’s Chicago,” she finally says.  

Christen peers at Tobin with curious, discerning eyes over the rim of the cup of hot chocolate. “Is this where your family’s from?”

“Nope.” Tobin glances around. She tries to remember where they parked. It’s starting to get a little cold—maybe they should head back soon. “Uh, I’m originally from New Jersey, actually.”

“Is that where your family is now?”

“Um, no.” Tobin rubs her hands together, blinks hard. She realizes, in an out-of-body way, that she’s biting down so hard that her jaw aches. “My parents are in Florida now.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

Tobin fights down the irritation that’s rising in her chest at the line of questions. “Yeah, I have one sister,” she says. “Younger. By just a year.”

“And where’s she, also in Florida?”

“Yeah. She’s married; has a kid. She lives pretty close to my parent’s house,” Tobin explains. “But I think Chicago’s home for me,” she adds, firmly.

“Is that why you were here over Thanksgiving when everyone else was gone?”

Tobin glances over at Christen, biting her lip, fighting the annoyance—then she grins. “Nah, that was just because I knew you were going to get epically sick and need someone to nurse you back to health and call you ‘babe’ when you weren’t listening.”

She thinks that Christen is going to take the bait—take the joke and run with it, let them leave this strange, awkward stretch of conversation behind. But Christen doesn’t. Instead, she keeps looking at Tobin with that soft, perceptive stare, until Tobin has to force an unconvincing smile to her face and tear her gaze away.

“Tobin—”

“Was there anything else you wanted to see?” Tobin asks abruptly, pivoting back and forth. “What about the tree?”

“Uh…sure,” Christen says softly, clasping her hands uncertainly around her now-empty cup. Tobin’s already off, heading in the direction of the tree, which looms above the thatched roofs of the shopping stalls around them. Tobin glances over her shoulder to check that Christen’s with her. Christen hesitates for another moment, then tosses the cup into a nearby trash can and jogs to catch up.

As they approach the tree, with her hands free now, Christen reaches over and takes one of Tobin’s hands in hers. Tobin’s decided to forego mittens—she hates the way they make her fingers feel clunky and itchy—and her hands are red and stiff with cold. She sighs in relief as Christen cups both of her warm, mittened hands around Tobin’s fingers as they walk. Their fingers interlace, and their hands swing between them, clasped, as they walk up to the bottom of the towering tree.

“Probably not as cool as the one you guys have on stage at the theater,” Tobin admits, scratching her head with her free hand. “This one doesn’t magically expand.”

Christen shrugs with a smile. “Well, this one is real. And you can only watch a plastic tree grow to double its height so many times before it gets old.”

“Why don’t you have a tree at your place?”

“I always want to, but then I get so busy around the holidays…and then I think about what a pain it would be to clean up all those pine needles…” Christen trails off. “What about you?”

“I usually have one, but not this year.” Tobin shrugs. “But I spent a lot of time at Casey’s or Alyssa’s, anyway, and they both have one.”

They fall into silence, watching the sky beginning to fade into shades of pink and orange behind the tree. From where it’s intertwined with Christen’s hand, Tobin feels her hand start to itch a little. Tiny little shivers of discomfort seem to spiral out from her fingers, up her wrist, her forearm, her elbow, like a noxious weed is tangling its way up her skin. She looks over and sees a few people glancing in their direction. They’re staring at her, at Christen, at her hands. The discomfort intensifies. It radiates into her chest.

She squirms a little. “Do you think they’re looking at us?” she asks Christen under her breath.

Christen glances around, seemingly unconcerned. “Sorry—who?”

“No one. Never mind, ignore me.” Tobin puffs out a breath, tries to shake it off. Christen doesn’t even notice anymore, see? You just need to get used to it.

She does her best to fight it—she grits her teeth and wills her arm to stay still—she clings tight to Christen’s hand—

But then she looks over, and there’s an older woman, and she’s staring at them and she turns and whispers to a friend nearby, and—

Tobin jerks her arm away from Christen, so fast and flinching that Christen lets out a shocked gasp.

Tobin glances up in Christen’s direction from where she’s now standing a good two feet away. She can’t even remember jumping back so far. She can’t bring herself to look into Christen’s eyes. Rubbing her arm with her other hand, shaking out the last vestiges of that weedy, itching feeling, she scrambles for an excuse. “Sorry, uh, my arm was falling asleep.”

Christen just stares at her, her gaze surprised and troubled, and Tobin feels like her stomach is dropping down into a deep well.

“It’s just…” Tobin tries to begin again, but she’s still hyperaware of the crowds around them, bustling, curious, staring, and she falters.

They stand in silence for another moment, and then Christen takes a deep breath. She doesn’t approach Tobin, but she gives her a comforting little nod. “Should we go back?” Christen suggests.

They make their way in silence to the car, forging their way through the thick crowds. The car feels punishingly silent to Tobin as they slide into their seats and start the drive back. Tobin doesn’t know if it’s just her, though.

At one point, when they cruise to a stop at a red light, Tobin glances pleadingly over at Christen. Christen catches her eye and gives her a brief smile.

Tobin can’t quite pinpoint it, but it’s not quite Christen’s usual smile.

Her stomach hurts a little. She feels like she’s operating in a daze. What’s she thinking? Is everything fine? Am I overthinking things? She grips the steering wheel so hard her fingers start shaking. “Listen—listen, Christen—it’s just, the people, the staring—I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Christen says soothingly, the first words she’s said since they left the market. “You don’t have to apologize.”


But back at her apartment, Tobin still feels a chill lingering in the air that has nothing to do with the weather as they walk side by side down the long hallway towards her door. She’d like nothing more than to crack a joke, change the topic, move on—but there’s something about the way that Christen’s carrying herself, the way her gaze is trained on the ground, that makes Tobin feel like she should apologize. Even though she’s not sure exactly what to say or how to say it.

Her keys clank loudly as she drops them on the kitchen counter. She flicks the lights on as they walk in. But then she squints and shivers under their glare. It suddenly feels bright—too bright, painfully bright.

She flicks most of the lights off again, leaving them standing in the navy-gray, post-dusk gloom of the Chicago night.

If Christen thinks it’s weird that Tobin just turned the lights off on them, she doesn’t let on. She just walks towards Tobin’s little dining table, where she had left her things earlier that day, and starts packing up her bag for the performance tonight. Tobin’s gotten used to observing the way Christen methodically stacks her pointe shoes, her athletic tape, her bandages, her water bottle, her toiletry bag.

Say something, say something, say something, she berates herself internally as she stands awkwardly by the wall, watching Christen. She clears her throat. “So where do you want to get dinner later? Remember, my treat,” she forces herself to say. Her voice sounds dry and hollow to her own ears.

She recalls how earlier, she was thinking about asking Christen out over dinner.

And like earlier, the antsiness, the unease, rise in her chest.

Christen slowly zips up her bag. For a moment, Tobin thinks she’s just seriously contemplating their dining options, but as the seconds tick on with no response…

“Nike reached out to me about pictures for their social media,” Christen says, and the non sequitur jolts Tobin a little.

“Oh?” She answers cautiously, not sure where this is going.

Christen nods. She’s still fiddling with her bag zipper. “Yeah, they asked if I wanted to give them any photos to post, of me with my mentee. You didn’t get the same email?”

Christen’s tone is even and calm, not accusatory at all, and yet Tobin feels strangely accused. “I might have,” she says defensively. “I’m not great at keeping up with my emails.”

“I was thinking about giving them the one of the two of us with Faith and Fina that you took at the theater the other day.”

“Oh.” Tobin’s mouth goes dry. “Um, are you sure? And are they okay with it?

“Yeah, Sarah and Nathan both said they’re totally fine with it.”

“I don’t know if—wait, you—” Tobin pauses. “You asked Sarah and Nathan already?”

She can’t quite put a finger on why she feels betrayed, but standing there in the rapidly darkening room, staring at the back of Christen’s head, she does.

“Yeah, sorry, I figured if they said no, I wouldn’t even bother asking you.” Christen turns, and they finally make eye contact. Again, though Christen looks calm on the surface, something about her gaze puts Tobin on edge. “Is that a problem?”

“I mean, no.” Tobin says. And it’s not, it’s not a problem; she knows rationally it’s not a problem, so why does it feel like one? “It’s fine. It’s just, it’s just that…you should just use the one of you and Faith.”

“I like the one with the four of us.”

“Yeah, but we’re at the ballet, so like, you and Faith are the ones that are like…on theme. You know? You’re the dancers. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.”

“But the four of us did that interview together, so…” Christen’s voice trails off.

She wants to say yes to Christen. But she suddenly finds that she can’t. “No,” she says feebly, helplessly. “I just…I really don’t want to.”

Silence descends.

Okay, I’m definitely not imagining things. Something is up. She’s upset. What have I done?

“Christen, what’s wrong?”

Christen blinks. “Nothing,” she says, immediately, as if on instinct.

She’s not telling the truth.

Tobin’s not quite sure what to say. She feels horrible, uncomfortable creepy-crawlies starting to wind their way up her spine, up the back of her arms, up the back of her neck. She doesn’t want to snap at Christen—she couldn’t, she doesn’t feel capable of raising her voice at Christen. She swallows hard instead, shakes her head a little, trying to cut the ringing in her ears. “I thought you said you were trying to be honest with me about admitting when something’s wrong,” she bursts out, pleading, a little rough around the edges. “It’s clearly not nothing. Just tell me. Please. What am I doing wrong? Is it the picture? What do you want to say?”

“It’s noth—” Christen cuts herself off before she can finish her sentence. In rapid succession, she places her hands on her hips, then crosses her arms, then reaches up to smooth imaginary stray hairs back into place.

The darkness is falling fast—standing stock still, about five feet away from Christen, Tobin is struggling to make out her features.

“What is it?” she repeats again. She needs to know, she needs Christen to answer her, because she can’t figure it out herself—she can’t make herself form thoughts, not through the haze in her mind, not through her growing sense of panic. It’s the picture, she thinks frantically. She’s mad about me not wanting to put up the picture. Or maybe it’s about the hand-holding. I know, I know, I need to work on being comfortable with all the publicity. I need to get better. I need to get better or else she’s going to realize that she’s way too good for me, that she’s out of my league, and she’s going to leave me. “Did I do something?” she rambles. “I’m sorry—I’m sorry about letting go of your hand earlier—or—what is it? Tell me. Just tell me and I’ll do it.”

“Tobin, I don’t—” Christen cuts herself off yet again, this time following it up with a shaky intake of breath. “I don’t want to just make you do things. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Tobin still feels like she’s fumbling in the dark for the thread of this conversation, this argument, this…whatever this is. The ringing in her ears is getting louder. “I don’t get it, Chris,” she finally says, feeling stupid and wretched and cornered. “I’m sorry, I’m just not following. Whatever it is, you need to tell me.”

At least she’s not the only one feeling awful, because honestly, Christen doesn’t look much better. Her fingers are trembling a little, and her eyes look haunted. Her eyes flicker down towards them, and then she crosses her arms to hide the shaking. “Okay. Fine,” Christen says. She takes a deep breath, and across the gaping, invisible chasm between then, Tobin watches her chest rise and fall.

“When I said it was nothing, I meant…I meant that you’re not doing anything wrong,” Christen finally says.

Her words delicate and eloquent and carefully chosen, as they always are—but her voice shakes.

“But like I said, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do. And I didn’t want to bring this up because…because…” Her fingers clasp tightly around each other, as if she’s trying to grip her voice back into steadiness. “Um, it’s not like I haven’t noticed. That it makes you uncomfortable to, uh, be seen with me. Or to talk about anything personal. And I just wanted to say—I know we haven’t talked about this—”

Christen blinks hard, a few times, staring up at the ceiling. Tobin’s mind is whirring; she’s not sure she’s following. What haven’t we talked about? What a shitty human I am? How she’s not willing to have to babysit my emotional incompetency forever?

“—so it’s fine, it’s really fine. Whatever you say. Honestly, it’s my fault for having jumped to conclusions too fast. But I really like you, Tobin. I really like you. And if you’re not—” Christen takes another deep breath, and she’s definitely on the verge of tears now. “If you’re not looking for anything serious, if this is just a temporary fling for you, please just tell me now. Please just tell me, because then I can, um, I can…” Christen sniffs and turns her face away to hide her trembling chin. “Then I can adjust my expectations.”

Tobin stands frozen in shock, unable to process the words coming out of Christen’s mouth.

She can’t mean that.

She must mean that the other way around. She’s got it backwards. Christen is my dream girl, not the other way around. She’s way too good for me.

In the face of Tobin’s extended silence, Christen lets out a miserable, self-loathing little scoffing sound. “I know, I know. I must sound insane. And I’m sorry if I’m just insecure, and I’m reading too much into this. And again, if you’re not looking for a relationship, that’s fine,” Christen continues. Her voice cracks, and it’s very clearly not quite fine. “Like I said: I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. We haven’t even talked about expectations or anything. You don’t owe me a thing. But I guess I just…would like to know where we stand. On the front end, before…” She shakes her head, and adds under her breath, almost to herself, “I should never have said anything.”

Tobin feels herself shattering.

The ringing in her ears has risen to a fever pitch.

“No,” she whispers, finally finding her voice. “No,” she repeats, louder, almost indignant. “Christen, no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all. Why would you think that I think this is casual?!”

The silence that settles after her question is deafening.

And before the question is even out of her mouth, she knows the answer.

It plays before her eyes like a film reel of a horror movie she can’t look away from:

The way Christen makes little conversational forays into deeper topics, and the way Tobin steers them away just as quickly.

The way she avoids the questions that Christen asks about her family. The way she avoids discussing future plans, discussing going home for the holidays, discussing anything relating to the long separation coming up, even though she knew that Christen was waiting for her to broach the topic earlier.

The way she had flinched away from Christen’s kisses backstage at the Nutcracker, when she thought there might be someone around to see.

The way she hates posting any photos on social media that could link the two of them. The way she wouldn’t let Christen tag her in anything.

The way she had cut in and told Petra that they were just friends, when Christen had clearly wanted to say that they were together.

Not to mention the way I’ve been an asshole to her from the very beginning.

Christen is brilliant. Christen is observant. Christen must have noticed every little thing.

I’ve been breaking her heart, haven’t I?

“Chris,” she chokes out. “How long?”

Christen blinks through her tears. “What?”

“How long have you been worrying about this?”

How long have I been breaking your heart?

Christen fidgets, shrugs. “I just…I don’t know. It comes and goes. You know, when I notice how jumpy you are about being seen together. Or when you don’t want to talk about where you’re from, or your family, or anything. And then this morning, just…not talking about how we’re about to not see each other for a few months. I just find myself thinking, you’re such a private person, and maybe you’re starting to realize that it’s actually not worth it, to always have to be with me, to always have to wonder if people are looking at us, to have your family dragged into this…and it’s not just the PDA, because I mean—I’ve seen you with other girls, in public. So I started thinking, maybe it’s just me.”

“It’s…no. No. You’re right, I have been doing all these things wrong.” Tobin grasps for coherent thought, frantic to set it right, frantic to wipe that miserable, lonely look off of Christen’s face. “I’ve been fucking up. It’s not crazy that you thought—” That she thought I wasn’t serious about her. “But listen, it’s not you at all. It’s me, okay, Chris? It’s me.”

Christen is turning towards her a little more, her face more open now, attentive, listening.

‘It’s me,” Tobin says, firmly, looking Christen right in the eyes. “And I don’t know why—”

No.

The realization comes out of nowhere.

No, I do know why. Don’t I? I know exactly why.

What is it about me that makes me want to run and hide, that makes me not want to talk to her about my family, that makes me so terrified of being seen with her in public?

Of course I know what it is.

And suddenly: there it is in front of her. The truth, looming like a monster above her head, about to hammer her down into the ground, and she feels her senses fail.

So here it is. So we’ve come to it.

She can feel the blood draining from her face. She feels light-headed. She thinks her whole body is trembling.

It must be obvious, because Christen’s expression changes immediately, entirely. Her eyes go wide, and she reaches out towards Tobin almost instinctively, her hands soft and open. “Tobin?” she says slowly. She edges forward, cautiously, with one hand outstretched. Tobin thinks she must look particularly feral and cornered for Christen to be staring at her like that. “Tobin. Hey, I’m here, okay? Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Talk.

Talk to her, Tobin, talk to her, damn it.

“Remember when you asked me whether I’d tell you if something’s wrong?” she hears herself say.

Christen nods slowly. “Yes.”

Tobin pauses. Bile is rising in her throat. “I…”

She feels her conviction slip, like water through her hands.

Fight or flight kicks in.

“Hold on,” she chokes out. “Wait—wait here. Hold on. I need to—I just need a second.”

Before Christen can respond, Tobin spins around and walks into her bedroom on shaky legs.

In the darkness, she slams the door behind her, barely registering the bang. She stumbles to the bedside and grabs up a pillow and buries her face in it. The familiar smell, the silence, calms her down just enough to register what’s happening.

She’s right. Everything she noticed is right. Of course she noticed. Of course it hurt her. Of course I’ve fucked up

She’s spent so many months in denial. She’d been running from her demons so long, it’d become second nature. She had still been running, she realizes. She thought she’d stopped when she met Christen, but she hadn’t. If anything, she’d just run harder, pushed faster, buried herself even deeper in denial.

Months and months of obstinate, angry, passionate denial—they’re suddenly all swept aside. And it leaves her so naked and vulnerable in the face of the truth that she’s having trouble staying on her feet. She sinks down to sit at the foot of her bed, her head in her arms.

An insidious voice inside her head slithers around and whispers, But you don’t need to tell her anything. You don’t owe her anything. You don’t need to figure this out right now. It’s safe here, in the dark. Just stay here.

She almost gives in.

But that haunted look on Christen’s face—the tears, the way she’d said, if this is just a temporary fling for you, please just tell me now.

The thought of Christen thinking that, even for a second, breaks Tobin’s heart.

The thought of Christen currently standing out in the living room, alone in the dark, thinking that, breaks Tobin’s heart.

Then a horrible vision crosses her mind—what if she leaves the room too late, and runs out into the living room, and finds it dark and empty?

Okay, it’s time.

And before she knows it—before she’s quite steadied herself—she’s dashing out of her room again, back towards Christen. She runs out into the living room and lets out a wild, relieved breath to see Christen still standing there, exactly where she left her a few minutes ago. She flings her arms around Christen, who lets out a little gasp at the impact. Together, they stagger a few steps back and land on the couch. Christen’s arms come up around Tobin’s shoulders, gripping her tight.

It’s time to say something.

For a moment, she grits her teeth together so hard that her jaw twinges with a sharp pain. She’s terrified, she realizes. She’s not sure she can handle facing the demons that have been lurking in the corners of her mind for so long. She’s not sure her heart can take what’s coming.

But then she thinks, it’s either Christen’s heart or mine.

“Chris,” Tobin says, mumbling the words into Christen’s shoulder, forcing them out quickly, before she loses her nerve. “Christen, I need to talk to you—I need to explain—”

“Tobin,” Christen says, and she’s worried almost to the point of panic, Tobin can tell. “Listen, you don’t have to—there’s no pressure. I never meant to give you any sort of ultimatum.” Christen pulls back and grips Tobin by the shoulders. A single angle of golden light arcs into the living room from the hallway beyond, illuminating Christen’s face, and Tobin can see the truth of her words in her eyes. “You don’t need to force yourself to say anything you don’t want to say. Okay?”

“No. No, I want to. I mean, I need to. I just need you to know, okay, I’m very serious about this—”

“Okay, Tobin. I know.” Christen’s voice is soothing and soft, but it sounds far-off from Tobin, like she has to strain to hear through a strong wind.

“I’m serious about you, Chris,” she repeats.

“I know,” Christen says, and it comes to Tobin again in that far-off way.

Tobin takes a deep breath.

Do it, Tobin, say it. You can to tell her. You can handle it. She can handle it.

Her breath gets stuck in her throat again. She wrenches herself up from the couch, paces to the wall, leans her forehead against it, paces back. Her fingers are shaking; she clenches her fists.

“…Tobin?” Christen leans forward on the couch. She sounds desperate with worry. “Listen, I hear you. You’re serious about this. Don’t feel like you have to prove it right now, okay? Please, don’t do anything you don’t want to do, okay? I didn’t mean to push you, I swear. I just thought…”

“You just thought I was acting like a little shit, because I am one—I’m so fucking useless—”

Don’t—” Christen pleads, teetering, agitated, sitting on the edge of the couch. “Don’t call yourself those names, Tobin. Please. Please come back here for a second.”

“Okay.” Tobin forces herself to take a deep breath. She heads back in the direction of Christen’s voice and sits herself back down on the couch. Her fingers clench against the cushions. She screws her eyes shut, trying to dredge up a bit of courage from somewhere, anywhere. She can feel her heart beating violently, like it’s about to implode in on itself.

“You’re really important to me,” she hears herself say, and she means it, with every fiber of her being. “And I want you to know you’re really important. I never want you to feel like you’re not important to me. And…and so there’s something I need to tell you.”

She’s lightheaded. She feels like she might throw up.

“Tobin?” Christen’s voice comes, again sounding like it’s echoing down a tunnel towards Tobin. Tobin feels Christen’s soft fingers brushing against the back of her clenched hand, and instinctively, she grasps at them.

The feeling of Christen’s steady hand in her own anchors her, and there’s suddenly a little crack of light in the hurricane of anguish and indecision battering down around her.

And before she can think again, she throws herself at it. At that little sliver of light.

“Remember when you asked me why I didn’t just call my mom for the chicken soup recipe?”

Christen goes very still.

“Yeah,” she breathes out. “Yeah, Tobin, I remember.”

“I didn’t call my mom about the chicken noodle soup recipe because she wouldn’t have picked up my call.”

Once the first bit of truth is out, the storm clouds stop swirling and hang suspended in place.

Christen’s hand tightens around hers.

She doesn’t know how long it takes her, how long she sits there with her own words ringing in her ears, before she’s able to continue speaking.

But when she starts again, from here, it’s just a matter of gravity.

And then words begin to fall, fast and inevitable, like rain.

“My family disowned me,” she says.

She hears Christen’s breath catch in her throat.

“In May. I was at my parent’s house in Florida. I went down to surprise them for my birthday.”

She doesn’t know when she started crying. She doesn’t know when Christen’s arms had come around her shoulders, but she finds Christen’s hands again in the dark, clings to them.

“I came out.”

She feels Christen’s arms clench tightly around her. Like armor against the coming battle. It gives her the strength to continue.

She takes a deep breath. She can feel her lungs rattling in her frail ribs.

“I told my parents over dinner. My birthday dinner. I told them, and they just sat there and looked at me for a while, and then they told me they wanted to sleep on it. I thought it was fine. I thought that was a great sign, that they didn’t cry or yell, you know? And all my friends had been telling for years that one day, when I did it, it was going to be fine. Moe, Casey, they all said, ‘They’re your parents, they love you, they’ll always love you.’ And then…”

She thinks Christen is saying words. She thinks Christen might be saying, “Shh, it’s okay, I’m here, I’m here,” but she can’t quite make out the exact words.

Why is it so loud? What is that noise?

Oh, wait—that’s the sound of me, crying, isn’t it.

“The next morning,” she chokes out through the tears, “they sat me down at the kitchen table and told me that if I didn’t take it back, they’d never speak to me again.”

“Tobin…” Christen whispers, and her voice breaks.

“And they said…” Tobin has spent so many months trying to forget every detail of that morning, but now it all comes rushing back. Every tiny point, every scene, every moment. The smell of the pancakes for breakfast, the hard painted wood of the kitchen chair beneath her tightly gripping fingers, the way that the sun had shone bright through the window on the teacups and plates on the brightly patterned tablecloth. Like it was mocking her. Like it was a garish nightmare she couldn’t wake up from.

The way that every torturous word had landed as if like a blow to the head, leaving her beaten and ruined.

“My mom said she regretted ever letting me play soccer, because playing soccer had made me gay somehow?! And my dad wondered how they had sinned, what sick shit they possibly could’ve done that God would choose this as their punishment, like it was the worst possible shit that could ever have happened to them, like I was some plague—and—”

The worst of it is coming back now.

“And I was holding my baby niece in my lap and they—they took her back. My sister snatched her out of my arms. Like I was…contagious—”

She has to choke out the words through her sobs, but she keeps going. “And my friends. Casey, Moe. I know they’d just been trying to encourage me, and that they would never really want to hurt me—but…they said it would be fine.” They said it would be fine. That statement had pounded in Tobin’s head for months, driving her deeper and deeper into darkness. “I was always nervous, but they were so supportive, so positive—so one day I just went down to Florida all optimistic—and they were so wrong. They were so fucking wrong. And I couldn’t look at them for months. For months, I could barely look at Moe and Fabrice, or at Casey and Cody. I was just so angry at them, and I just kept thinking, you don’t know what it feels like. You never understood. You underestimated. You fucking set me up for this.”

She thinks for a fleeting second that Christen probably can’t even make out what she’s trying to say anymore, through all the crying and gasping for air.

“And then I came home and I just—I just fucked up my entire life.”

It hurts.

She’s spent half a year trying to bottle it all up, shove it all aside.

That morning, she had stood up, walked out of her parent’s kitchen in a numb haze, packed her bag, and called a car to the airport. In an hour flat she’d booked herself on a flight back to Chicago, departing immediately. She’d gotten wasted on airplane liquor, stumbled into her dark apartment, slept and drank on and off for four days straight, and then woken up to a slew of frantic texts from her friends.

She hadn’t even told them she’d made the last-minute decision to go home to Florida. All they knew was that she hadn’t responded to calls or texts in a week. Then she’d shown up at the first practice back, gaunt and hungover and squinting in the sunlight, and promptly gotten into a screaming match with Rory in front of the entire team, so bad that Alyssa had to hold her back and walk her off the field. She can still remember Moe and Casey’s stunned faces; the way that the rookies had whispered to each other behind their hands.

And that was the beginning of the end.

Half a year in that numb haze that never really seemed to go away. Half a year growing accustomed to the slow, constant simmer of agony, corroding at the corners of her consciousness. Half a year making all the worst choices, but somehow not feeling like she was making any choices at all, but rather than the choices were making her.

She had thought, stupidly, that there was a point to all the denial. That maybe one day when she had to revisit the pain again, it would have gotten better.

How wrong she was.

How badly this hurts right now.

It’s not better at all. If anything, it’s worse. It’s debilitating. It’s not like the ripping off of the metaphorical Band-aid. It’s more like she’s submerged, like she’s down at the bottom of an icy well, like the ice is burrowing into her, like every inch of her body is bruised, and the tiny circle of light from far overhead is starting to blur out into darkness.

She recognizes, vaguely, that at some point she had lain down on the sofa. She’s curled in fetal position in the dark, with her head in Christen’s lap, her tears soaking through Christen’s sweatpants. And there are words, a soothing cadence of words coming from somewhere overhead, I got you. I got you. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.

“I just feel like everybody is miles away from me,” she thinks she’s saying through her sobs, but she can’t be sure.

And she thinks she hears Christen saying, “I’m right here, okay? I’m right here.”

She’s not sure how long she lies there. At some point, though, the suffocating pressure on her shoulders is gone, and the knot in her chest loosens up a bit. She’s able to take a few deep breaths, and she starts to feel the light, soothing, repetitive trace of Christen’s fingers along the curve of her spine.

After a long while, she realizes she’s not at the bottom of a well after all.

She’s here on her couch, soft light coming in from the hallway, with her cheek resting on Christen’s lap. With Christen’s hand in hers, holding tight.


“Anyway, if you wanted to run for the hills, now’s your chance,” Tobin tries to joke, her voice still hoarse and scratchy.

It’s a feeble joke, and she knows it even before Christen shoots her a good-natured eye roll.

The lights are on. When Tobin had finally settled, Christen had gently gotten up from the couch and flicked all the switches, bathing them in a bright, warm glow. Tobin had blinked a few times against the lights—she hadn’t been conscious of when dusk had faded into proper night. But after a few seconds, when Christen had come back to the couch with a blanket and a huge glass of water, Tobin had been grateful for the light. It’s comforting to be able to look into Christen’s eyes, bright and clear, and see the lack of judgment, the peace there.

She knows that her own eyes are red and swollen from crying, but as she takes a sip of water and cuddles against Christen under the blanket, nuzzling her face into Christen’s warm shoulder, she thinks there’s probably a little peace there, too.

More peace than there had been in a long, long time.

“No running for me,” Christen says softly, firmly, even though Tobin had clearly been making a joke. They sit in silence for a little while longer, Christen’s fingers playing softly through Tobin’s tangled hair.

“There’s something I think you need to hear,” Christen finally says. She mumbles it into Tobin’s hair, punctuating her words with a long kiss planted on the side of Tobin’s head. “You know it’s not your fault, right? None of this is your fault.”

Tobin fidgets. “I mean, some of it is. I’ve been horrible. For months. I’ve been a horrible person to everyone. To my friends, my team. To you…”

“You’re not horrible,” Christen corrects. “You’ve been hurting.”

Tobin sits in thought, lets the words sink into her consciousness.

“If your family loves you, they should accept you. Even if it’s hard, or confusing, they’re family. They should always support you. They should always be there for you. That’s on them, not on you.” Christen’s voice is starting to waver a little, but she pushes through. “I’m so sorry you’ve been going through this alone. And I truly hope that your family comes around, soon. But please remember never to blame yourself. And in the meantime, you have this found family all around you. Alyssa, Moe, Casey. Faith, Fina. Me.”

“You?” Tobin whispers.  

“Me.” Christen’s arms tighten around Tobin, and she plants a line of soft kisses along her flushed, teary cheeks. “Me, of course, Tobin.”

“Thanks,” Tobin says. It sounds like such a frail word to say in such a moment, but she hopes it’s enough to convey everything she’s feeling to Christen. “I’m sorry, Chris. For not being prouder to let everyone know we’re together. For being scared, to be open about dating you. And I’m going to work on it, I swear—” The tears are still close to the surface, and she feels some of them welling up again, threatening to spill.

“No, it’s okay,” Christen soothes. “It’s okay, it’s hard. You’re working through so much hurt. If anything, I’m sorry I pushed you. You’re so brave, you know that? You were so brave for telling me.”

“I don’t know if I’m brave,” Tobin says. She can’t quite bring herself to look at Christen as she admits, “I think it’s something I need to work on. I just think that since that morning in May—in that split second, I learned everything I knew about how to love women.” She falters a little, and she says, bitterly, “Alone in the dark, like it’s a thing to be ashamed of.”

“Oh, Tobes…” Christen’s voice breaks.

“But I’m going to be better. I promise, I swear. You deserve someone who’s proud to be with you—”

“No—you deserve to be proud of yourself,” Christen says fiercely. “And I’m proud of you. You’re amazing.”

Tobin’s still not great with the whole taking-compliments thing. She pauses, glances around the room—and her eyes land on the clock in the corner.

“It’s late!” Tobin bolts upright on the couch, then scrambles to her feet, scattering the blanket onto the carpet.

“It’s fine—”

“It’s past six! I’m—I’m going to make you late for the show. You’re going to be late because you were taking care of me.” For some reason, this hits Tobin hard again, and she feels tears rising.

“Hey, baby, it’s okay,” Christen says, rising to join Tobin, cupping Tobin’s teary cheeks in her warm, soft palms. The word baby sends a little smile to Tobin’s face in spite of herself. It nestles inside her chest, a warm, glowing nugget.

“Huh? You like that, baby?” Christen repeats, with a cheeky smile, and Tobin gives a half laugh through her tears, in spite of herself. “It’s seriously okay. I can call in; I can cancel tonight. I have understudies. Honestly, it would make their night. I want to stay with you.”

“No,” Tobin says obstinately. “You shouldn’t. Mateo’s already mad at you.”

 “I don’t want to leave you here alone…”

“I’ll be fine. Please. Please, I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

Christen chews her lip, clearly torn. Maybe she can see in Tobin’s wild eyes that Tobin can’t quite handle the thought of adding one more burden to Christen’s plate that night, adding one more reason for Mateo to come down hard on her. Maybe that’s why she says, slowly, “What if—and this is just an idea—why don’t I call your friends? How about Alyssa? We don’t need to tell her why, if you don’t want to. We can tell her you’re not feeling well. I just want someone around to take care of you.”

Tobin sniffs. “Our friends.”

“What?”

“You said your friends. Our friends, Chris. And…I think that’s a good idea. But what if Alyssa’s busy? I don’t want to bother her…”

“Why don’t I just call and check with her?” Christen’s smile is gentle and glowing. “She can come over, you guys can watch a movie or something, and I’ll be back tonight before you know it.”

Christen leaves to make Tobin some tea, and Tobin can hear her soft voice on the phone in the kitchen. She comes back with a steaming mug and a report that Alyssa will be over soon. “She said she was just reading, and she can read as well here as she can at her place,” Christen chuckles.

“What did you tell her?”

“I didn’t give her any details,” Christen promised. “I just you weren’t feeling too great, and I thought you could use someone around to keep an eye out.”

Tobin nods, settling curled into Christen’s side again. She might have dozed off a little, and before she knows it, there are footsteps sounding in the hall.

It sounds like more footsteps than expected, accompanied by low voices and laughter.

And when Christen opens the door, Tobin’s heart just about bursts to see not just Alyssa, but also Casey and Moe, crowding through the door with their arms full of grocery bags.

“Tobes, Alyssa said you’re not feeling well?” Casey calls out, concern etched on her forehead. “We stopped and got all your favorites! Extra lemon tea, and sweet potatoes, and—”

“And every flavor of Sour Patch Kids in the store!” Moe chimes in.

“I told them that if you were sick, we shouldn’t be feeding you Sour Patch Kids,” Alyssa adds, rolling her eyes.

As she watches her friends stop to empty the bags and greet Christen, Tobin can only sit in awe, a couple stray tears dropping down her face. She lets out a sniffling, disbelieving little laugh. They’re here. They’re all here for me.

“If she doesn’t want the Sour Patch Kids, I’ll have them,” Casey tells Alyssa.

“Dude, hands off my Sour Patch Kids!” Tobin manages to call out, rubbing her tears off on her sweatshirt sleeve. In a second, her friends have collapsed around her on the couch, bags of junk food rustling around them.

With all her stuff packed up, Christen lingers by the door for a long moment, a soft smile on her face. As Moe and Casey argue over which flavor of Sour Patch Kids to open first, Tobin looks over, and they make eye contact.

“You okay?” Christen mouths. Tobin gives her a warm smile and thumbs up in response, and with that final reassurance, Christen slips quietly out the door, leaving the friends piled together on Tobin’s couch.

“So,” Alyssa finally says, in that soft, mild-mannered way of hers, about twenty minutes later. “What’s up, Tobes? Everything all right?”

Here’s her chance. Tobin pops a watermelon Sour Patch kid into her mouth and looks around at her friends’ faces, and it would be so easy to say, “Yeah, I was feeling kind of sick earlier and Christen was just worried. It’s nothing. Want to watch a movie?”

After all, why would she want to invite the storm clouds back in?

But as she looks around—at the way Moe drops her bag of candy and takes Tobin’s hand, the way Casey’s giving Tobin those encouraging little head bobs she always does, and Alyssa, who’s clearly trying to seem less worried than she actually is—she realizes, maybe the storm won’t be so bad.

After all, she survived the first one, with Christen by her side. What’s another, with friends like these?

She sucks in a deep breath. “Well, uh. Actually, now that you’re all here, there’s something I want to tell you,” she says. “It’s about what happened back in May.”


Four hours later, Christen’s key turns softly in the lock. The door cracks open, revealing Tobin sandwiched on the couch, Alyssa and Moe on one side, Casey on the other, the second Harry Potter movie blasting.

“I’m just saying, Fawkes is such a deus ex machina. How can a phoenix even get that far underground? Through the pipes? That’s unrealistic.”

“Alyssa, you’re such a killjoy,” Tobin whines. “The point is that he’s a badass.”

“And he couldn’t have shown up to save the day any earlier? He had to wait until the most dramatic possible moment?”

“Well, it’s not like anyone at Hogwarts died in the meantime—”

The sound of a happy bark from the door distracts all the girls, and they turn to see Christen standing at the door, Morena at her side.

At the sight of the dog, the movie is all but forgotten. The girls swarm Morena, who basks in the attention, flopping down on the rug with all four legs pawing at the air. In the hubbub, Tobin drags Christen by the hand into the kitchen and envelopes her in a fierce hug.

“How are you?” Christen asks, rubbing a hand soothingly up and down Tobin’s back. “Hope you don’t mind that I brought Morena. I thought I’d stay over and that you could use the pick-me-up—hey, are you okay?” Christen cuts herself off as Tobin lets out a few errant tears into her shoulder. “Tobes? Baby?”

Tobin lifts her head, and she’s beaming through the tears, and Christen lets out a sigh of relief.

“I’m okay. I’m better than okay.”

Christen gasps. “You told them? And it went well?”

Tobin can only nod, afraid that if she speaks, she’ll cry.

She’s been doing a lot of crying tonight. They all have. Good tears, though. Only good tears.

“Oh, Tobes,” Christen whispers, “I’m so, so, SO proud of you.”

Morena chooses this very moment to lead the parade into the kitchen, and Casey and Moe promptly invite themselves into the group hug. After a brief, reluctant tussle, even Alyssa, who’s smiling at them from the doorway, allows herself to be drawn in. Morena leaps around the group, barking. Tobin’s unable to hold back a few more happy tears, but when they finally all disentangle, laughing, she’s gratified to see she’s not the only one.

“Not you crying too, Alyssa?” she teases as they all troop together back to the living room.

“Shut up,” Alyssa retorts, dropping down into the corner of the couch as Casey and Moe settle on the carpet with Morena between them.

“Chris, you’ve seen this, right?” Casey asks, unpausing the movie. “We’re close to the end, but the third movie’s better anyway.”

“What have I gotten myself into?” Christen teases, smirking at Tobin. “Is this going to be a seven-movie night?”

“This is what happens when we let Tobin choose the movie,” Moe deadpans, while Tobin gasps, “Chris, there are eight movies!”

“Oh, even better!” Christen rolls her eyes, but can’t contain the wide smile on her face. “Eight movies; that’s just what I was hoping you’d say!”

As the movie plays, Tobin can’t help but stare at Christen instead of the screen. She feels so grateful that she might burst. Her eyes feel dry and tight from crying, and her jaw hurts from clenching—but she feels light. But it’s like the world is tinged brighter now; like there’s a sparkle around the edges of things. She looks around at her friend’s faces, at Christen’s face, and she thinks, They know. They finally know. And they’re still here with me, and I’m here with them. There’s such a weight off her shoulders, she can’t even describe it.

Slowly, deliberately, she reaches over and takes Christen’s hand. On top of her knee, in the full light of the room, she interlaces their fingers firmly.

It’s not quite in public, but it’s a step.

Christen’s crying again. Tobin is, too. But only good tears.

Chapter Text

“Tobin?”

“Mrfghhh.”

“Tobes?”

Silence.

“Tobin, baby?”

Tobin stirs from her half-sleep and bolts upright.

Her back hurts a little. It’s morning. Why’s she on the couch?

Then she looks up, and sees Christen smiling down at her, and all those other thoughts fly out of her mind.

“Hi,” she says, voice rough with sleep. Instinctively, she reaches a hand up and pulls Christen down onto the couch next to her. Christen’s already dressed, in a loose sweater over a leotard and leggings, with her hair and makeup done, but she giggles and willingly folds herself against Tobin’s body as Tobin tugs her closer. “Good morning, beautiful,” she whispers.

“Good morning,” Tobin mutters, still half-asleep. And then—oh, yeah. Her slowly-waking mind begins to piece together the scraps of the previous night, piece by jagged piece.

She braces herself for tension. She braces herself for shame, for mortification. But to her great shock, her body doesn’t tense up. Her mind doesn’t falter. She takes a deep breath against Christen’s jaw, nuzzles into the crook of Christen’s neck, and realizes: she feels calm. Calmer than she has in months.

“How are you doing?” Christen asks softly, pulling back a little. The words are more loaded than usual, as is the way she cups Tobin’s jaw gently in her hand and peers into Tobin’s eyes.

“Not…too bad,” Tobin says, honestly, and the truth of the answer makes her smile, and her smile makes Christen smile, and they just lie there for a while, smiling at each other like two dopes.

“Good. I’m glad,” Christen finally whispers. She leans in and presses a long, steady kiss against Tobin’s lips. Tobin reciprocates happily, letting her hands roam up the back of Christen’s sweater to press flat against her soft, taut back.

“What am I doing on the couch?” she finally asks, reluctantly pulling back a little.

“Well, we all fell asleep during the fourth movie. Casey and Moe woke up around 2 and headed home. Alyssa and I tried to move you to your bed, but that was useless.”

“I’m surprised Lyss even tried,” Tobin says wryly.

“So Lyss took the bed, and we slept on the couch. I got up early to do yoga, and I’m off to rehearsal now.” Christen smiles fondly and tucks a straggly hair behind Tobin’s ear. It doesn’t do much for her general bedhead. “Just wanted to see your pretty face before I left. And, you know.” She ducks her head, almost bashful, “and make sure you’re good.”

“I am good.” Tobin says. She rubs the back of her neck self-consciously, and a few more memories from yesterday sneak in— the way she had broken down, the way she cried until she couldn’t draw breath. What a mess I was. What a load for Christen to handle. “Thanks. For yesterday. I’m sorry if I…scared you, or anything.”

The slightest frown emerges on Christen’s face. She cradles Tobin’s face in both her hands and studies her carefully. “Tobin. I wasn’t scared, okay?”

“Okay,” Tobin mumbles.

“I wasn’t scared. I’m not scared,” Christen says, emphatically. “I’m just…I’m proud of you, you know? I’m proud to know someone as brave and amazing and resilient as you are. And I’m honored that you chose to confide in me.”

“Of course I did,” Tobin replies. “I trust you.”

It’s the best thing she could’ve said, because the smile on Christen’s face is brighter than the sun rising outside.

Christen’s phone pings with an alarm, and she pulls back with a sigh to check it. “Well, I should be off.”

Tobin whines and pulls Christen in closer again. She presses her lips against the smooth, warm curve of Christen’s shoulder. She thinks that she could stay like this forever. “You’re leaving? When are you going to be out of rehearsal?”

“It’s straight into performance today, I’m afraid. But it’s a matinee performance, so I’ll be out around 5.”

Tobin ends up following Christen all the way to the door, chasing her down with kisses as Christen giggles.

After Christen’s gone, Tobin leans up against the back of the door, puffs out a long, steadying breath. She drinks some water and meanders into her own room, where Alyssa is dead asleep in the middle of the bed. Tobin flops down next to her, and she jolts awake, staring at Tobin with reproachful, surprised eyes.

“Tobin?”

“What do you wanna do today?”

Alyssa groans and checks her phone. “Well, for the next two hours, I would’ve liked to be asleep. Practice isn’t until 11.”

“What time is it?”

“It’s six thirty.”

“What?!” Tobin exclaims, and Alyssa winces at the volume. “Well, it doesn’t feel that early. Chris just left for rehearsal. What do you want to do? Do you want to go train before practice? Let’s go train.”

Alyssa’s groan is muffled in the pillows.

“Come on!”

“You know, up until now I would’ve said that Christen’s influence on you is all positive, but this is insane…”

“Come on!”

Tobin wins, of course, and they end up out on the field by 7:30—first running, then taking shots. Even in the dreary, freezing weather, Tobin’s spirits are flying high. She dances with the ball at her feet, trying trick after trick just for the fun of it, Alyssa watching her with patient, satisfied amusement. She feels something like joy in her limbs, flowing down through her toes.

It’s from the soccer, she realizes—the joy of the game is starting to come back to her. She tips her head back and sends a silent prayer of gratitude up to the clouds.

After they’d been out there for about two hours, Tobin sees Alyssa’s brow furrow as she looks across the field. Tobin glances over her shoulder. 

In the distance, Rory is cutting across the corner of the field to get to his office. Seeing them, he does a double take, then stands there with his arms crossed for a while, watching Tobin take shots.

“Uh, do you think he wants to talk to you?” Alyssa says under her breath.

Tobin shrugs. “If he wants to talk to me, he can come over here and talk to me.” She fires another rocket into the back of the net, just out of the reach of Alyssa’s stretching fingers. Then another.

“Well, he’s coming over now,” Alyssa says, brushing off her knees as she rises from the ground, “so brace yourself.”

Tobin glances over her shoulder as Rory approaches. “Hey, coach.”

Rory sticks his hands in his pockets and surveys them. “How long have you two been out here?”

Alyssa checks her watch. “Two hours?”

Rory lets out a low, impressed whistle. “All right. Just make sure you save some of it for team practice.” He looks at the both of them again, with something like curiosity, then adds, “Tobin?”

Tobin braces herself, on instinct. “Yeah?”

Rory pauses, then says—seemingly almost in spite of himself—“Your form looks great. Really good work out here today.”

A snarky response is on the tip of Tobin’s tongue, and it’s just so tempting; there are so many options. “No thanks to you,” she wants to spit out.

But instead, she reins it in.

“Thanks, Rory,” she says. It comes out easier and lighter than she would’ve imagined. And Rory gives her something almost like a smile as he turns to go.

“Um, wow,” Alyssa raises her eyebrow as Rory passes out of sight. “What was that?!”

“That was me trying out my new leaf.” Tobin scuffs her cleat into the grass and shrugs. “Rory’s actually not so bad, you know.”

“He still needs to apologize to you. He was totally in the wrong, he mishandled this whole thing, as a coach.”

“Yeah, for sure. Dude definitely needs some training on how to handle players better,” Tobin agrees. She scratches the back of her neck. She sees herself through Christen’s eyes. She thinks that Christen would be happy with the way that she just handled herself, and that makes her happy. “Not as bad as Mateo, though.”

“Listen, that’s too low of a bar to set for incompetent men,” Alyssa scoffs. But she still looks at Tobin with pride bursting in her eyes. “Look at you, though, Tobin. I’m proud of you.”

Tobin rolls her eyes reflexively. “Listen, people need to stop telling me they’re proud of me—” Then she bites off the end of her sentence, abruptly.

What would Christen say to that if she were here?

“I mean…” she forces out, practicing the words, so foreign on her tongue. “Uh, thank you.”

Alyssa gives her one look, then bursts into laughter.

“What?!” Tobin protests, blushing. Alyssa never laughs like this. It’s almost weird to see. She turns and sinks two more shots while Alyssa’s preoccupied.

“No—no, it’s good laughter,” Alyssa protests, finally getting ahold of herself. “I just—wow, I’m just so impressed. This is all Christen, isn’t it? Like, I could see you hearing her voice in your head just now.”

“Yeah,” Tobin replies immediately. She doesn’t even feel embarrassed. It’s just true. It is Christen. “She keeps telling me that I need to learn how to hear good things about myself without automatically fighting it. I always try to tell her how much I suck, and I think it bothers her.”

“Well, I think she’s absolutely right, and it should bother her,” Alyssa says contemplatively. She picks at her gloves for a moment, and then adds, “But Tobin. Can I tell you something straight?”

“No, but you can tell me something gay.”

Now it’s Tobin’s turn to guffaw while Alyssa gives her an exasperated look. She can’t help it, though. Everything feels good and funny today. It feels crazy to her, that she’s even in mindset where she’s able to joke about her sexuality instead of it sending her into a dark shame spiral.

Alyssa’s still giving her that look, though, so she swallows the rest of her giddiness and tries to stand at attention. “Okay, sorry, I’m calm. I’m serious. What do you want to say?”

Alyssa takes another moment to put together her thoughts, and Tobin starts juggling a ball.

“The conversations you’re having with Christen sound amazing,” Alyssa says slowly. “The way she’s been able to hear you, and shoulder your pain with you—she seems really incredible.”

“She is,” Tobin cuts in earnestly.

Alyssa nods. “Like I said, the conversations sound great. They…they also sound like maybe the kind of conversations that would really help you going forward if you had them with a therapist.”

Tobin fumbles the ball she was juggling, and it rolls off away from her until Alyssa stops it under her heel.

“A therapist?”

Her voice sounds a little hoarse, a little croaking. It’s not like she hates the concept of therapy. She has friends who’ve gone. But…for herself?

“You’ve been hurt,” Alyssa says, in that deep, calm way she has, “And it isn’t going to go away just like that. Your friends are all here for you, and Christen, of course, but that’s a lot to ask of Christen, emotionally. It’s a lot of emotional labor for her to shoulder.”

Tobin bites her lip so hard it stings. She remembers, with a sharp pang in her stomach, that look of haggard worry in Christen’s eyes after Tobin had completely come apart, sobbing in her lap on the couch. She remembered her own sense of wild panic when she realized she’d made Christen late for her performance. And then her own worry about it all, even just this morning.

“Yeah,” she says, so softly even she can barely hear it, “I know. It’s a lot.”

“Listen—I’m not saying it’s too much for her, and I’m not saying you’re a bad person for confiding in her. I mean, she’s made it crystal clear that she wants to be there for you. But why not also talk to someone who’s, you know, professionally trained to do it?”

“Yeah, but I mean, I don’t even—I’m not even sure what that means, or how I would…” Tobin can feel herself starting to spiral a little. “I mean, does our insurance even cover it? And I don’t know any therapists. Or how to find one. And…”

“Tobin.” Alyssa comes over, puts her hands on Tobin’s shoulders, and Tobin feels herself sag a little in relief. “You don’t have to figure this all out today.”

“Okay.” Tobin breathes in. Breathes out. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“And if you want, I like my therapist, and I know she’s covered by our insurance.”

Tobin’s eyes go wide. “I didn’t know you saw a therapist.”

Alyssa nods. “Yeah, I started going recently. I read an article in the New Yorker about how it’s good for everyone as a healthy preventative measure.”

Classic Alyssa.

“Anyway, I got her name from our trainer, Shannon, who said she was really good. I’ve liked our sessions so far. I think you would like her too.”

Okay, well, there goes all my excuses. Tobin takes a deep breath. Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt. Alyssa and Shannon go to therapy, and it’s not like it makes me think less of them. And they both like this one, so I guess I could go in and talk to her. Once. And see how it goes. “Okay,” she says. “Text me her contact information.”

She lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and fires another shot into the back of the net.


After practice, she texts Christen. Do you have dinner plans later?

By her estimate, Christen’s still probably backstage during the first act, and that’s confirmed when Christen texts back almost immediately. Nope. Already starving!

Well then, let’s get dinner, Tobin texts back. Meet at your place after you’re done?

Okay :)

Do you want me to walk Morena first?

How are you so great? That would be wonderful, I bet she’d be antsy by 5 PM.

Tobin swings by Target on the way to Christen’s and arrives, laden down with grocery bags, to a faceful of kisses from Morena. As always, the feeling of being home hits her hard; sinks deep into her chest as she takes a deep breath and looks around the space, with its high ceilings and gleaming wooden floors.

It doesn’t terrify her anymore, though. As she puts the groceries away, and walks the dog, and hums under her breath to herself in the kitchen, and waits for the sound of Christen’s footsteps in the hall, she feels deep in her bones that she’s in the right place. That she’s doing the right things. At last.

She sets her phone alarm for 4:30 exactly to give herself enough warning, and when it sounds, she kicks into high gear, running around the wide-open living room area, making sure everything is plated perfectly. By five o’clock, everything’s ready, and she’s tapping her fingers against the kitchen counter, antsy, listening for footsteps. The timing is perfect, as if God is particularly on her side today—outside of the floor to ceiling windows, the sun is just starting to set in a glorious wash of red and pink, casting a golden glow all over the inside of the apartment.

Her first sign comes from Morena. Before Tobin can hear anything, she sees, out of the corner of her eye, the dog’s ears perk up. Then the dog rushes for the door, whining in front of it, and Tobin can hear footsteps from outside. She skids towards the door and opens it a crack.

Christen is adjusting her various bags and boxes in her hands, trying to free up her fingers to work the keypad. Even the sight of her standing there in baggy blue sweats, no makeup on, with her hair up in a messy bun, sends delightful shivers down Tobin’s spine. And when Christen looks up to see Tobin peeping through the door, and smiles that huge, happy smile, Tobin feels her whole body light up.

“Hey!” Christen says. “Sorry, I’m a little late—dinner was such a great idea, I’m starving. If we want to go out, though, I might have to shower first, because I’m kind of gross—”

When Tobin doesn’t move, and doesn’t open the door past a couple inches, Christen pauses. “Um. Are you going to let me in?”

Tobin’s so eager, she’s bouncing up and down on her toes. “I want you to close your eyes.”

Christen’s already beaming as her eyes flutter closed. “Tobin, what are you up to?”

“Here, let me take your bags…” Tobin lifts all the stuff off of Christen, drops it in a heap in the corner of the kitchen for now, and returns to where Christen’s standing, smiling. She can’t help leaning forward and pecking a kiss on Christen’s lips. “Okay,” she says, taking Christen’s hands in hers, “Eyes closed, right? Follow me.”

She leads Christen carefully into the apartment, with Morena panting and sniffling around Christen’s slow steps. They stop right where the entry hallway opens up into the empty front room.

“Okay, you can open your eyes now.”

Christen’s eyes flutter open, and she gasps. The breathtaking sunset fills the window. The room is bathed in gold. And in the middle of the floor, surrounded by lit candles, is a picnic blanket, dotted with plates of food. Colorful salads, grilled salmon, quinoa, carefully cut-up fruit, and a bottle of champagne with two glasses.

“Tobin…” Christen breathes out, turning from surveying the scene to see Tobin standing with her hands in her pockets, glancing hopefully up at Christen.

“Do you like it?”

“Tobin, it’s amazing.” Christen peppers the side of Tobin’s face with kisses. She can’t stop looking between Tobin and the picnic set-up. “How did you—why? How?”

Blushing with pleasure, Tobin shrugs, rubs the back of her neck with her hand. “Well, I wanted to say thank you. For yesterday.”

“Oh, Tobin, you really didn’t have to…” Christen clasps her hands and beams. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

And before Tobin can lose her nerves, she presses on. “And another thing. Uh, I wanted it to be special…”

“Wanted what to be special?”

“Uh…” Tobin bites her lip and looks up at Christen, and Christen smiles, so Tobin has to smile, and so she’s nervous and shaking but smiling when she says, “I wanted it to be special…when…I asked you to be my girlfriend?”

Christen’s smile is brighter than the sun. “Baby…”

She squares her hips with Tobin’s, leans in, running her fingers along the sides of Tobin’s neck and spearing them up into Tobin’s hair. With a little tug, she tilts Tobin’s chin up, and then they’re kissing. Tobin’s arms twine around Christen’s waist as their tongues move softly against each other’s. Christen’s tongue licks into Tobin’s mouth, and Tobin groans, her knees buckling under her. She lowers them onto the blanket, and they break apart, gasping and laughing.

“Is that…” Tobin lets out a hoarse laugh from between her swollen lips. “Is that a yes, then?”

Christen smirks a little. “I’m sorry, what am I saying yes to?”

Tobin throws back her head and laughs. She clutches Christen close to her. “Christen Press, my dream girl, will you be my girlfriend?”

“Baby…” Christen murmurs, “Yes, yes, yes. Of course, yes.” She settles back, looking around them in awe. “I still can’t believe you went to all this effort, Tobes. This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. How did you even think of this?”

“Well…” Tobin says, reaching behind her to grab the champagne and glasses (before Morena can tip them over). She pours as she explains, “I was at practice today, thinking about how I wanted to ask you out, and how I wanted it to be, you know, special. And I was thinking that normally, I love hanging out right in the middle of an empty soccer pitch. It’s so calming, you know? And I thought that if the weather was nicer, I could’ve brought you to the pitch and done a little picnic there.” She hands Christen a full glass, and then gestures around them. “But then I thought, actually, your place is pretty perfect for a little indoor picnic, so…I did it.” She glances around. The salads suddenly look a little smaller and wiltier in her eyes, and maybe she didn’t get enough fruit— “I know it’s pretty simple, but…”

“But nothing.” Christen leans forward again, clinks her glass against Tobin’s. “It’s perfect, Tobes. It’s so fun. It’s so you.”

“Yeah?” Tobin has to grin.

“It’s so us.”

The next time they kiss, Christen tastes like champagne, and Tobin doesn’t think she’ll ever get enough. Only the growl of Christen’s stomach, which sends them giggling, convinces her to draw back from the kiss, lips wet, breath high in her chest.

Slow, slow, slow, she chants to herself. You definitely cannot sleep together tonight of all nights. What if she thinks that you only asked her to be your girlfriend so you could get her in bed? What could be less romantic? What could make her feel LESS special?

So they eat the salad, the sandwiches, the fruit. Christen tries to feed Tobin a strawberry and Tobin rolls her eyes and tries to say, “Chris, that’s so lame,” but she can’t get through the sentence because she’s smiling too big, and Christen is laughing at her.

And the strawberry from Christen’s fingers is the best thing she’s ever tasted.

Maybe only second to the hint of champagne she can taste on Christen’s lips.

And the feeling of Christen leaning back against her, the privilege of getting to bury her face in Christen’s curls as they talk softly under their breaths, the soft wash of Christen’s warm breath against the side of Tobin’s neck when she turns—it’s enough. It’s almost too much.

They talk about everything and nothing, as the sun dips low, skimming the horizon, and they drink their second glasses of champagne, and they sit in their little ring of candles. Christen asks about how Tobin feels about the upcoming championship, and Tobin realizes she’s excited, anticipatory, for the game. The loss of the captainship doesn’t even sting anymore. There’s a sort of gray sadness round it, but a resignation that her actions led to a natural consequence, and she’s okay with that. Tobin makes a point of asking about Christen’s family, and she loves the way Christen lights up when she describes her parents’ antics, their dog, their house on a cliffside in California, the way they miss her when she’s gone.

And finally, when Christen mentions her training went that day, how the performance went, Tobin gets her courage up. “Um,” she says softly. “Could I ask about Mateo?”

Christen’s still leaning back against Tobin’s chest, and Tobin can feel her take a deep breath in, then out, before answering.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, let’s talk about him.”

Tobin decides to start with an easy question. “Did you see him today?”

Christen nods. “He wasn’t at rehearsal, but he’s always at the shows. I saw him from a distance a few times.”

“Did he approach you? Try to say anything to you?” Tobin has to fight against her body’s urge to tense up. She can’t stand the thought of that man within fifty feet of Christen.

Christen lets out a dry little chuckle. “No. I think he’s still enraged about the hair, but with Petra being on my side, he can’t really say anything about me keeping it.”

“Petra.” Tobin lets out a little laugh, remembering the way the woman had bulldozed all over Mateo. It had felt great, even standing there watching it happen. “She seems really nice. What’s her role, exactly?”

“She’s on the Chicago Ballet Company Board of Trustees.”

“I’ve never really understood what Boards of Trustees do, exactly.”

“Yeah, me neither. I think they’re just rich retirees who want to give back to the community and have something that resembles a job,” Christen laughs. “They weigh in on the management, the employees, and such. I can’t bash them too much, though, because a lot of them are really kind. Like Petra. She’s also one of the biggest donors.”

“And she likes you a lot.”

“I mean…” Christen shrugs. “I hope so.”

“No, I could tell,” Tobin says earnestly. “I could tell she was genuinely happy for you that day.”

Christen smiles. “Really?”

“And worried about you.”

The smile falls from Christen’s face. “Oh, god, did she hear?”

“I don’t know.” Tobin feels her whole body tightening up, with the memory of the abuse she’d overheard echoing through the halls that night. “I think she heard the noise, but not the words. What would be so bad about her hearing, anyway?”

Christen bites her lip as she thinks. “Put it this way—I think that if the Board finds out that there’s a conflict, it’s the artistic director who gets to stay, and the dancer who has to go.”

Tobin wants to fight back, wants desperately to fight back, but unfortunately, it might be the truth. Just like in soccer. In an ideal world, an abusive coach would be kicked out immediately—but more often than not, the player gets the boot.

“How…” Tobin has been dying to ask, so she finally lets herself. “How do you stand it? How have you dealt with it for so many years? The way he treats you?”

Christen goes silent for a long while. Then Tobin feels her shrug, just the tiniest movement. “I don’t know. I think that ballet is this really insular community, and I’ve always had this personality where I just put my head down and work as hard as I can and try to earn everything on merit. When I got to the Chicago Ballet Company, I was so excited—and when he got meaner and meaner to me, it took me a long time to admit it even to myself. I think I kept telling myself—it’s fine, all coaches in all sports are hard on their players, maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was—shit like that.” Christen lets out a little huff of breath, as if she’s frustrated with herself.

“And when did you start realizing it was more serious than that?”

“I think it was…” Christen tips her head to the side as she thinks. “It might’ve been when I finally started guest teaching at Mal’s school.” Christen’s voice gets a little softer, a little wistful. “I started teaching there part time because I was…I guess it was because I was lonely. It’d been so long since I’d had any significant contact with anyone not in the Company, and when I saw Mal, and her classmates, and the way that their teachers treated them with dignity and respect, it just hit me, like—this is how it should be. And it also struck me how much the classes felt like an escape. When it’s just me and my students, it’s like a load is lifted. I felt so happy and free when I was there—but then, of course, the contrast is so obvious. I had to reckon with how unhappy I felt, how trapped, at my own rehearsals, at my own job. I don’t know if you’ve noticed…” she says falteringly. “But I don’t have a ton of friends in Chicago. Any, really. At first, when I came here, I was just shy. I was the youngest principal dancer, and competition in the industry is fierce, and I kind of kept to myself as I was getting my bearings. But then, when Mateo started coming after me…he just got in my head, and I’d get really panicky and nervous during rehearsals. When I’m with my coworkers at rehearsal, and Mateo is there, I just kind of shrink into myself. It’s hard to relax and be genuine when I’m constantly worried about the next thing that’s going to make him snap and come after me the next time we have a one on one rehearsal.” She shrugs, despondent. “I don’t know. I think the other dancers think I’m a snob.”

“If they knew you, they’d never think that,” Tobin says fiercely.

“I’m not so sure. Mateo is…” Christen runs a hand through her hair and lets out a frustrated sigh. “He’s sneaky. He can be nice to me in front of the others, almost too nice, as if he wants to make them think I’m a teacher’s pet—like he wants them to resent me. For example…” Christen bites her lip. “Last summer, there was this thing that the Chicago Ballet Company did, with the city. These ads.”

The ads, of course, the ads. The ads that Tobin had given Christen shit for. It felt like decades ago, another life, but it still filled Tobin with guilt.

“For Sleeping Beauty, right?” Tobin asks. “I saw them, yeah.”

Christen nods a little, a frown painting her face.

“You didn’t like them?”

Christen lets out a long sigh. “I wanted to. And I was excited about them at first. The city’s Art and Culture Council reached out about a collaboration, and I was honored. Aurora is a dream role. It’s so difficult, so incredibly demanding of a dancer. I was thrilled when I heard the city was backing the ad campaign for it, but…” She shakes her head, and her tone takes on a hard, enraged edge. “I’ve spent years—decades—perfecting my art. I was really excited that the ads would capture some of that technique. But when I got to the studio, all they were interested in doing was caking makeup on me and getting close-ups of my face. They put that flower crown on me—I don’t even wear a flower crown like that in any of the scenes in the ballet. I finally convinced them to take a few pictures of me actually dancing. But when I went to Mateo, tried to get him to lean on them to use one of the more technical shots…”

Her voice peters out. Tobin braces herself.

“What did he say?”

“He said…” Christen’s jaw clenches, and she stares down at her hands for a moment. “He just looked at me, and he sneered, and he said, ‘They’re using your face because sex sells.’”

“What?!” Tobin spits out, almost upsetting the plate of orange slices in her lap as she bolts upright. “I swear, if you want me to murder him…”

Christen just lets out a sad little laugh. “Trust me, I felt the same way. But then in front of the other dancers, he took credit for the whole thing. Made it sound like it was his idea to feature me, even though it had been the Art and Culture Council’s. And he said a bunch of other shit like, ‘Christen’s a star, and if the rest of you worked as hard as Christen, you’d deserve it too.’ And I just had to stand there and pretend like nothing was wrong. I’m sure they all hate me.”

“I’m sure they don’t,” Tobin says firmly.

She hears what Christen’s saying. She knows that it must feel impossibly hard, impossibly hopeless, impossibly lonely. It must feel like Mateo is holding all the power, and she’s holding none. But Tobin hates, so much, to see that desperate, painful tinge in Christen’s gray-green eyes.

“Don’t you think about…doing something about it one day?” she asks.

The pause this time is longer.

“I think about doing something about it every day.” Christen finally says. She’s got a far-off, despondent look in her eyes. “But it’s complicated. What if he’s able to get me blacklisted?” She swallows hard. “What if I can never dance again?”

“Do you really think that would happen?” Tobin says, worriedly. “I mean, you’re so incredible. You’re a total star. He wouldn’t be able to do something like that, right?”

“He could if he poisons people against me. Tells them I’m a diva, you know, or I’m hard to work with, and I’m the one who’s lying.” Christen sighs. “He’s a big deal, you know. If you Google him, you’ll see all the articles about how he’s this awesome, cool, innovative artistic director who revives flailing ballet companies and restores them to glory.” She lets out a cynical laugh. “He’s more powerful than me. He’s more valuable than me. I might be a temporary star, but companies don’t know how long that’ll last. He’s the money-maker”

“He’s trash,” Tobin retorts. “He’s dog shit in human form.” She knows it’s not very eloquent, but she has to get her feelings out somehow. As her brain pinwheels from side to side, trying desperately to come up with a solution, the word money-maker sticks out in her mind. “Petra,” she says, suddenly. “What about someone like Petra? Wouldn’t she back you up?”

Christen pauses, pursing her lips as she thinks. “I don’t know…”

“I think she would,” Tobin says earnestly. Her brain is whirring along, her words spilling out of her mouth almost faster than her brain can catch up to. “I think that she heard him yelling at you that night. I think she would be horrified if she knew what was going on right under her nose. She said to you that night that you could go to her with anything you needed. I think she really cares about you, and if you went to her with a request that she back you up on this, she would. What if you had Petra on your side? What if you were able to get out ahead of him and tell the real story, so he wouldn’t be able to badmouth you to the Board or to other companies? You could give an interview, or—” She snaps her fingers excitedly. “You could post an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, or something. Maybe Petra could co-author with you to give it some more…oomph.”

“Like, gravitas?” Christen has perked up.

“Yeah, gravitas,” Tobin echoes, flushing red that she couldn’t come up with the right words. “Oomph?” Come the fuck on.

“And what do you think I would say in the article? How would I frame it?”

Tobin freezes.

“You’d really want my opinion on something like that? I’m not sure I’d be…uh…”

I can’t even think of the word “gravitas,” she thinks.

“I just don’t know if I’m smart like that,” she blurts out.

“You are smart.” Christen says simply.

Christen—

“You are smart and wonderful.”

“Listen, I know you don’t like to hear me say bad things about myself, but in this case, come on, Chris. I just don’t know if that’s true. You should talk to Alyssa about what she would write. She like…does crosswords for fun. You don’t have to tell me I’m smart.”

Christen shrugs. She leans back on one arm and takes an orange slice from the plate in Tobin’s lap. “Look, it’s not like my saying it that makes it so. You just are. Like,” she gestures out the window, to where the last streaky pink remnants of the sunset hang low in the indigo sky. “Like the way the sunset was so gorgeous while we were eating. Even if I wasn’t sitting in this room thinking, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’ it would still go on being beautiful, just the way it is. You aren’t wonderful just because I say you are. I didn’t decide it, I just acknowledged it. That’s what I mean when I say, “You’re smart and wonderful.” Okay?”

Tobin can’t quite breathe.

Christen turns and takes a bite of her orange slice, as if she hasn’t just shaken Tobin’s entire world.

‘“So anyway, what do you think I should do?”

“I think you should get over here and kiss me.”

Christen looks up, mid-bite, with a smirk quirking at the side of her mouth. “Oh?”

“Well, I think you should write a long tell-all about how Mateo is abusive and manipulative, how he calls you names, how he’s a racist, misogynistic pig, and how he should never be allowed within a hundred feet of a theater again,” Tobin ticks off the points on her fingers. “But yes, also, I think you should kiss me.”

“Okay, we’ll think about that first one,” Christen says. “As for the second…I think I could oblige.”

She sits up, tosses her orange peel aside, brushes her hands off. Then—and Tobin’s mouth goes dry and her mind goes blank—she crawls, on her hands and knees, crawls the few steps towards Tobin and settles herself into Tobin’s lap. Like it’s nothing.

Oh, my god,” Tobin manages to gasp out before her mouth is captured by Christen’s.

And she’s still trying to be respectful, still trying to be slow, slow, slower, but it’s hard. It’s hard when Christen’s lithe fingers are tugging her hair a little, just the way she likes, and Christen’s mouth is insistent and hot and wet against Tobin’s lips, and Christen’s winding her legs around Tobin’s waist, and Tobin can feel every shift of Christen’s hips, hot and rolling up against her own—

And Tobin responds, naturally—compulsively—rolling her tongue into Christen’s mouth, tugging her lower lip between her teeth, drowning in the little whining noises Christen makes in response.

She can hear her own breathing getting ragged as Christen kisses her way up the side of her neck, and then there’s a strangled, guttural, warm moan, and—oh, it’s her. She’s the one making those noises.

And that’s what snaps her out of it.

“Wow,” she stutters out, placing her hands on Christen’s shoulders, bracing herself. She’s still panting. Her whole body feels hot. “Um,” she lets out an awkward laugh. “Here, uh, let me clean up. I don’t want to leave you with a mess in your living room when you probably need this space to practice tomorrow.”

Christen doesn’t fight it, just lets herself fall gently out of Tobin’s lap onto the picnic blanket, a self-satisfied little smirk on her face. She leans back on her hands and watches as Tobin stacks up the empty plates and deposits the champagne glasses in the sink.

“Tobes, baby?”

“Yeah?” Tobin can’t help but look over with a grin at Christen, who’s rising to her feet. She doesn’t think she’ll ever get over the way that that nickname feels like sunshine. She squints down into the champagne bottle and tips the last dregs into her mouth. When she lowers the bottle again, Christen is standing with her back to Tobin. She bends over from her waist in those skintight leggings—deliberate and slow and downright evil—and slowly gathers the picnic blanket up in her arms.

It’s the best view that Tobin has ever seen.

And Christen, giving Tobin a ghost of a smirk over her shoulder as she straightens up and starts casually folding the blanket, knows it.

“Yeah?” Tobin croaks out a belated response.

Christen wanders up right into Tobin’s space, casually folding the blanket up in her hands. She stops right in front of Tobin. “Hi,” she says softly, her eyes wide and dark and glimmering with amusement. “Whatcha thinking?”

“I’m thinking…” Tobin fumbles. Shit, shit, shit. “I’m just—”

Christen leans in close, whispers low and hot in Tobin’s ear, “You’re thinking you want me, don’t you?”

No!” Tobin blurts out, panicking, and she sees Christen’s face grow just a tiny bit confused. “No, I mean, yes. Yes…I mean, I'm thinking—I'm looking—I am looking respectfully,” she concludes. Fan-fucking-tastic job, Tobin. The verbal equivalent of tripping over your feet and running face-first into a wall.

“Tobes.” Christen slowly reaches behind Tobin to set the blanket down on the counter, and the action brings her even closer into Tobin’s face, so they’re almost nose to nose. On instinct, Tobin’s hands come up to rest on the small of her waist. “And what if I don’t want you to be looking respectfully?”

With Christen’s body pressing up against hers, Tobin has to fight to keep herself under control. “You—don’t?” she breathes out. “Are you sure?”

Christen lets out a low little chuckle. “Have I seemed unsure?”

“No, you haven’t, I just…” Tobin laughs a little too, but she wants to be careful. She wants to be sure. “I’ve been trying to take it slow. On purpose. I want you to feel like you’re special. Because…in the past, I guess I…”

Christen’s eyebrows rise a little, but she nods, calm and supportive. “Yeah?”

Tobin shrugs. She doesn’t want to kill the mood, but she wants to be honest. She grabs one of Christen’s hands in hers, tracing comforting patterns over her palms, her wrists. “I don’t know. It’s just that…I’ve slept with a lot of girls. Since May. And I knew while I was doing it that it wasn’t the right choice.” Tobin grits the words out. “I shouldn’t have given myself away so freely.”

“There’s nothing wrong with sleeping with people, Tobin. It’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.”

Tobin has to smile at how insanely wonderful, and loyal, and open-minded Christen is. But she still says, “Well, I know that in theory, and I would never judge other people for it. But I just know that for me, it wasn’t the right move. I was trying to hide from something—well, I think I was trying to hide from myself. I was trying to tell myself that nothing meant anything. I knew that I was using all those girls as a crutch. I didn’t even know most of their names.” Her voice drops a little. She’s ashamed, even if Christen is telling her not to me. “But sometimes it’s nice to just feel wanted. Even if you wake up the next morning and you’re left holding nothing in your hands.”

Christen’s nodding again. At some point, their hands have shifted, and now it’s Christen’s turn to run her fingers over Tobin’s hands, soft and warm and sympathetic.

“And it’s just…you’re so special to me. I know you’ve seen me treat girls like they’re not, and I didn’t want you to think that I was trying to rush things.” She looks up at Christen with pleading eyes, hoping Christen can sense her sincerity. “I want this to last, so bad. I want you so bad. So…yeah. I want to make you feel special.”

“Oh, Tobin.” Christen says. “I want this to last, too.”

She lifts their intertwined hands to her mouth and kisses the tips of Tobin’s fingers.

“Yeah?” Tobin feels herself starting to smile.

“Yes, of course I do. And I so appreciate how thoughtful and wonderful and considerate you’re being about all this. But you know what?” Christen’s voice drops, and her eyes grow dark.

“I also want you.”

Tobin gulps so hard it hurts.

“I really want you.” Christen leans forward and kisses the spot on Tobin’s jawline—slow, intentional, wet and hot and with a little bit of teeth and tongue.

“…and I can think of a few other ways you can make me feel special.”

Christen pulls back. Now she’s smirking again as she takes in Tobin’s dark, sultry eyes, the way her mouth is hanging slightly agape, the way her breath is high and fast in her throat.

“Chris,” Tobin rasps out.

“Hm?” Christen raises her eyebrows, all innocent.

Tobin moves forward, grabs Christen’s hips in her hands, and kisses her.

It’s hot and slow and deliberate; Tobin’s tongue is licking up into Christen’s mouth; it feels like their hands are everywhere at once. It’s not that they haven’t kissed before, and it’s not that it hasn’t been glorious—it’s just that every other time before, Tobin has been reminding herself to take it slow, fighting with herself, holding herself back, overthinking, nervous.

She’s not holding herself back anymore.

“God, babe,” Tobin gasps out between kisses, as Christen’s hands lock around the back of her neck, pulling them hard against each other. She meant to start out controlled and teasing and methodical, but with the sounds Christen’s making and the way her mouth moves, she already feels herself unraveling a little. She pushes up against Christen, a little desperate. A little uncoordinated.

“I’ve been thinking about this so much,” she admits, between kisses. She lets her mouth roam, luxurious and slow, over the ridge of Christen’s collarbone.

“Yeah?” Christen moans as Tobin’s mouth trails downwards, over her jaw, down her neck. “Tell me how much, baby.”

“Every day. Like, every time we’re together, and you look at me, like...” Like you want me. “Every time you dance. Every time I think about you dancing.” Every time I think about you.

Christen groans, and then she’s the one surging forward, pressing into Tobin, backing her up out of the kitchen, towards the hallway wall. Tobin stumbles backwards a little; she holds onto Christen’s hips for stability with one hand, the fingers of her other hand wind their way through Christen’s curls, tugging. Their lips still interlocked, hot and messy and fast, she feels herself tripping over the sneaker she’d left lying in the middle of the hallway. Not looking down, she kicks it aside. The back of her head hits the wall with a soft thud.

Christen pulls back for a second, eyes wide, giggling, her long fingers wrapping around Tobin’s head to caress at the spot. “Oh, my god, I’m so sorry, did that hurt—”

Tobin interrupts her with another soul-baring kiss, winding her fingers deep into Christen’s curls, scraping them over her skin, tugging until Christen is moaning through their kisses. Pulling her closer, closer, closer. Feeling every curve of her body molding against every curve of Christen’s.

She’s been with girls. She’s slept with lots of girls. Nothing has ever felt like this. Like a technicolor movie after years of black and white. Like the taste on your tongue of a wine that’s only ever been described to you.

Being with girls had never meant anything to her. But this, what she has in her arms right now—it means so much. It means everything.

Chapter Text

The girls know, somehow; they know as soon as she walks into the locker room the next morning. Alyssa looks at Moe, who looks at Casey, who looks at Tobin, and suddenly they’re all screaming and lunging at her (or just lunging, in Alyssa’s case), and dragging her into the hallway, under the curious eyes of their onlooking teammates.

“Moe—god, get off of me—” Tobin whines, trying to get out of the stranglehold Moe has around her neck.

“You did it!” Moe declares, hushed, as soon as the locker room door slams behind them. 

“Did what?” Tobin says innocently, but she can’t help the giant Cheshire-cat grin that spreads over her face.

The screaming starts again.

When they finally calm down, Casey smirks. “Hope you’re not going to be running funny at practice today.”

Moe gives Casey a weird look. “Wait, why would she be running funny at practice?”

“Moe…” Casey’s eyes go wide, and she lets out an incredulous laugh. “Do you really need me to teach you about the birds and the bees?”

“The birds—” Moe cuts herself off with a shriek. “Casey! Get your mind out of the gutter, I was asking Tobin if she asked Christen to be her girlfriend!”

“Oh?!” Casey glances towards Tobin, eyes wide, mortified. “Oh—is that what we were talking about? Shit, Tobes, I thought we were talking about…you know.”

“I also thought we were talking about, you know,” Alyssa offers.

Three pairs of demanding eyes turn towards Tobin for clarification.

Just then, Sophia and Bethany emerge from the locker room and cast curious glances over at them. Breathing out a sigh of relief, ignoring her friends’ expectant, pouting faces, Tobin seizes the distraction and ducks through the door into the safety of the locker room.

But then she caves, and she takes out her phone and texts them,

C: All of the above.

She can hear their screaming through the door, and it makes her laugh harder than she’s laughed in a while.

She flies like a meteor all through practice; she flies like she has wings on her feet. She can’t keep the smile off her face.

(She hopes she’s not running funny. Her thighs are a little sore. She’s also operating on very few hours of actual sleep.)

But even though it’s freezing cold out, she can barely feel it. She feels like she’s so happy, she’s floating.

Last night was the best sex she has ever had, in her life, hands down.

And it’s probably because, for the first time in a long time, it really meant something to her. Because for the first time, she wasn’t trying to run from something, but to run towards something. Or maybe it’s because she’s falling a little in love.

(Oh, but it’s also definitely because of the many, many ways that Christen can bend.)

She feels a shudder run through her body, just recalling some of the many creative ways that—

“Tobin!” She hears Moe shout to her, as the cross comes in. It snaps her out of her reverie. Blushing, she gathers herself just in time to collect the ball with one touch and drive it past Alyssa’s outstretched hands into the back of the net, to the sound of her teammates’ cheers.

As the practice wears on, out of the corner of her eye, she can see Rory staring her down, probably bewildered and confused as to why she’s in such a good mood. Let him wonder, she thinks gleefully as she megs Julie and sinks another shot into the side netting. They end the practice in the early afternoon with a 6 v. 6 scrimmage. First team to three wins. Tobin gets two goals and an assist to Bethany in the first fifteen minutes, to the thunderous groans of the opposing side.

After practice, when she walks up next to Casey to grab her water bottle, Casey’s looking at her with a funny smirk on her face.

“What?” Tobin asks suspiciously, squirting water onto her face and the back of her neck as she turns to grab her stuff.

Casey points up into the stands, and Tobin looks.

Christen’s standing there, hands in her coat pockets, smiling.

Tobin can’t stop the sound that comes out of her mouth, high-pitched and delighted, like a little kid at a carnival. She doesn’t even care that her friends are laughing at her, imitating the sound. She sprints over to the railing as Christen hops down the concrete steps to meet her.

“Hi!” she exclaims, a wide grin spreading over her face, wishing she had not just dumped water all over her head.

Christen doesn’t seem to care, though, as she puts one mittened hand on Tobin’s wet cheek.

“Hey,” Christen says softly. A smile that’s almost shy spreads over her face, and there’s a hint of a blush on her cheeks—is she mentally reliving last night, too? Cognizant of Tobin’s teammates still milling around on the field and the sidelines, Christen respectfully doesn’t move any closer, doesn’t try to push Tobin beyond her comfort zone. But it’s Tobin who reaches out and grabs Christen’s hand first, like a lifeline. She looks around, and then she looks up at the soft gray sky overhead, and then she leans in and kisses Christen.

Christen makes a surprised little sound when their lips meet, and when Tobin pulls back, there’s a soft, proud smile on her face. Tobin glances over her shoulder again. Nobody’s laughing, nobody’s staring, nobody’s angry or confused.

It just is what it is. Just a little kiss, in public, in the bright light of day. And it wasn’t terrifying.

In fact, it was perfect.

“Hi,” Tobin repeats again, feeling a dopey smile spread across her face.

“Christen!” Moe shouts over at them, waving her arms around wildly. “Get your cute ass over here and meet everyone!”

Okay, now everyone’s staring.

But the rush of discomfort that Tobin braces for never quite hits. Instead, as she puts a hand out to help Christen step over the railing, she realizes that she’s feeling another emotion—pride. She wants all the girls to meet Christen. She wants to show her off, wants her to feel appreciated and loved and accepted.

As Christen lands on the other side of the railing, she goes to let go of Tobin’s hand. But as they start walking towards the team, Tobin reaches out purposefully, clasps Christen’s hand in hers.

Christen’s smile lights up the stadium.

“Hi,” Tobin announces awkwardly, clearing her throat. “Uh, Christen, this is everyone. Everyone, Christen—”

“Hi,” Christen adds shyly.

“—my girlfriend,” Tobin finishes, and she can’t contain her grin.

The squealing and cheering starts again, and this time, it’s not just Moe and Casey. Christen laughs, her cheeks turning a little pink under all the attention.

The hubbub doesn’t die down for a while, and Christen gets a little swarmed by curious players wanting to get to know her better. Tobin hangs back, watching with an enormous, proud grin on her face, as Bethany exclaims to Christen, “I was just at the Nutcracker last weekend! You were amazing!”

“Thanks!” Christen replies, her face lighting up.

“How did you and Tobin meet?” Sophia pipes up eagerly.

“We met at this event that Nike hosted for their mentorship program,” Christen explains.

“Yeah, Christen looked like an angel, and I looked pretty much like…” Tobin gestured down at her sweaty kit and mud-covered cleats, and the girls all laugh.

“Stop,” Christen says affectionately, elbowing Tobin. “Don’t listen to Tobin,” she adds to the other girls, “She’s the one who’s out of my league.”

Awwww,” everyone choruses.

And Tobin doesn’t think she’s imagining the pointed way that Christen looked towards Julie when she said that. Or the way that Julie draws back, with a guilty, surly look on her face, before departing the field for the locker rooms—the first one to go.

The rest of the team hangs out for a little while longer. Christen fits right in with the banter and jokes, and Tobin spends a few minutes just staring around, smiling, filled with gratitude. She can’t remember the last time she just hung out with the other girls on the team like this; casual, relaxed, no agenda. I’ll have to do this more often, she thinks, these girls are all pretty dope.

But the girls finally starts trickling in towards the locker room in ones and twos, and soon it’s just the few of them again. “How long have you been here?” Tobin asks Christen.

“Long enough to see you score twice,” Christen grins. “Can’t believe I’m dating such a superstar.”

Tobin rolls her eyes, “Okay, okay, calm down. It was just a scrimmage.”

“You’ll see Tobin score in a real game soon enough,” Casey pipes up, coming up next to Christen for a hug. “Like the championships! You coming, girl?”

Christen lights up. “Oh, my god, yes! I need to go. I can’t believe I’ve only been to one of your games.”

“Well, we’ve only been to one of your shows,” Tobin points out.

Christen rolls her eyes. “It’s not the same. Every game is different! So when is it?”

Tobin winces. “I mean, it’s on January second. But it’s not the when that’s the problem.”

“Oh?”

Moe grimaces sympathetically. “It’s the where. It’s in North Carolina.”

Christen’s face falls. She squints and bites her lip, calculating in her head. “That’s a Saturday? That’s…” her forehead furrows. “That’s our last Saturday performance. I mean…I could use an understudy. I’m technically allowed to use my understudies eight times, and I’ve only used them twice so far—the last Saturday is kind of a big deal, but I could make it work—”

Tobin sighs. She would love nothing more than to see Christen in the stands, watching her, cheering for her. Wearing her jersey. Now that would be hot. But the way Christen’s straining to make the pieces work, she can already tell it’s not going to be possible.

“It’s okay,” she says easily, brushing a few curls out of Christen’s face. “Next season.”

Christen pouts, and it’s so adorable that Tobin has to grin. “I really want to go. I want to see you play. It’s the freaking championship game!”

“I know…”

“It’s the championship game, and it’s my girlfriend playing in it…”

Alyssa pretends to gag, and Tobin has to laugh. “I know. I know. But look. I’m not the captain anyway,” Tobin says, and those words don’t even sting anymore, not with Christen here beside her, calling her her girlfriend. Not with her newfound peace. “I know you’ve got some free passes left, but you said it yourself, you’re on thin ice with Mateo. I don’t want you to do anything that’ll stress you out, okay? There will be more games.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, we plan on making it to the championships every year.” Tobin smirks.

“Hell yeah!” Casey chimes in.

“Guys, knock on wood!” Moe whines.

Alyssa seems to be looking over Tobin’s shoulder, and Tobin glances in that direction too, wondering what’s up. Sophia, already dressed in street clothes with a backpack slung over her shoulder, is emerging onto the field from the locker rooms.

“Hey, Tobin!” she calls. “Rory wanted me to come out and tell you he wants to see you in his office!”

“Thanks!” Tobin calls back.

Sophia turns cheerfully to go, but Tobin’s voice is suddenly weak and worried.

Christen freezes, eyes wide. She must be thinking the same thing.

“Oh, no. Oh, my god. Did I get you in trouble by coming here in the middle of practice?”

“No!” Tobin protests, vehement in trying to make Christen feel better, even though that’s exactly where her mind had just gone as well.  

No, I mean, I didn’t talk to her until practice was over, Tobin reasons.

But then she realizes, But Christen has been here for a while. She was here while we were scrimmaging.

“I can’t believe it,” Christen frets. “I can’t believe I got so mad at you for no reason when you visited me, and now I’m here, actually getting you in trouble by visiting you, like an idiot—”

It couldn’t possibly be. Players have visitors over all the time. Right? She was sure Fabrice had shown up to drop things off for Moe before, and Zach had definitely swung by to see Julie. In fact, she had a specific memory of seeing Zach lean over the railing and give Julie a kiss during practice over the summer, in her dark days, because her brain had immediately started screaming at her, That’s what a relationship should look like, That’s what would make your mom happy, That’s the kind of Nice Wholesome White Christian Boy you need to find before your family speaks to you again.

And then she’d felt nauseous and awful and had picked an extra fight with Rory after practice, just for kicks.

Well, she thinks then, I guess I wouldn’t put it past Rory to be come down harder on me than he does on anyone else.

“You’re not an idiot, okay? I’m sure it’s fine. You stay here with the girls, and I’ll go see what this is about,” she says to Christen, trying to exude far more confidence than she feels. “Seriously,” she adds, seeing the worried look still etched on Christen’s face, “it’ll be fine.”

It’s a weird tug of war on the way to Rory’s office. She wants to go slow, to postpone whatever discipline is facing her. But then her feet keep speeding up into a little jog, anxious that the longer he’s kept waiting, the more fed up he’ll be when she gets there. All too soon, but not soon enough, she finds herself in the hallway outside his office.

“Tobin, is that you?” Rory calls from inside the office.

With trepidation, Tobin steps into the office. She sinks down gingerly on the chair in front of Rory’s desk. She tucks her hands under her thighs. “Hey, Rory.”

Rory just looks at her, his face expressionless.

Tobin can feel her leg nervously jittering against the ground of its own accord. She forces it to stop.

Rory’s still just looking at her.

“Listen, I’m sorry about my girlfriend visiting.” Unable to stand the silence for one second more, Tobin just blurts it out. “She didn’t know the rules. Uh, I didn’t know the rules either, I guess, which is why I didn’t tell her the rules. But I’ll tell her. It won’t happen again. I swear. Sorry.”

Rory’s still looking at her, and she thinks she’s about to implode with awkwardness.

Just as she’s about to ask if she should leave, Rory leans forward. He rests his elbows on the desk.

“Tobin,” he says, “I’m sorry.”

She stares.

“What? Sorry—come again?”

Rory lets out a deep sigh. Now that his first words are out, he seems to relax a little, leaning contemplatively back in his chair. “I called you in here so I could apologize to you, not the other way around.”

The words are pinging around like fireworks inside Tobin’s brain.

“I’ve recently come around to recognize that you were going through a very difficult time this summer. You were not in a good space, and I was not a good coach to you, was I?”

“No,” Tobin responds, though she still can’t quite believe the words coming out of Rory’s mouth. “No, honestly, you weren’t, sir.”

Rory nods. “I realize that now. There’s a lot I did wrong. I should’ve checked in on you, and I should’ve worked with you, instead of against you. I hurt the whole team by doing that, but most importantly, I hurt you.”

“Honestly, sir, I’m surprised you finally noticed,” Tobin says, with a bravery somewhere outside of her body.

Rory grimaces at the critique, but nods again. “Well, I don’t know that I would have, at least not on my own. Tobin, you’ve got some very good friends on this team. They’ve been trying to get me to see the light since May, and frankly, I dismissed them. I remember one conversation on the plane with Moe—” Rory trails off, lost in thought, then shakes his head with a guilty, regretful expression on his face. “I thought you were just being rude, lazy. Now I see that I was wrong. They sat me down again earlier this week, and they pointed out all the ways in which you’ve improved and fought your way back, and I finally took it to heart.” He takes a deep breath. “I can’t undo the damage I’ve already done, but I can apologize to you, and I can promise that I’ll take mental health much more seriously, as a coach, in the future. Shannon has already offered to partner on leading mental health trainings and consulting with me if any other players go through something similar in the future.”

“I think that’s a good idea, sir.” Tobin takes a deep breath. “And I accept your apology.”

Palpable relief showed on Rory’s face.

“But,” Tobin adds, raising an eyebrow. “you sure as hell better be sticking to that promise. And I’ll be watching to make sure you do.”

Rory chuckles. “There’s the Tobin I know. Don’t worry. You have my word.”

Tobin is jogging down the hallway, back out in the direction of the field, when she hears voices. Detouring down the hall, she picks out her friends’ voices echoing from the direction of the locker room. They must’ve come back inside from the cold since the meeting took so long. As she gets closer, she can hear Christen’s voice above the rest.

“I’m such a fucking hypocrite,” Christen’s saying. “I got so mad at her for no reason when she stopped by my practice, and it’s not even like she got me in trouble. And look how sweet she’s being about me getting her in trouble.”

Tobin grins to herself as she picks up her pace. If only you knew, babe, if only you knew.

She rounds the corner into the locker room and sees Christen, Casey, Moe, and Alyssa clustered around one of the benches. They look up when she enters, and Christen ricochets to her feet.

“What was it, Tobes?” She demands. “Do you need me to go to your coach and tell him it was my fault? Because I’ll go right now.”

Tobin shakes her head. She can’t quite find the words to speak, so with a silent smile, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out the item that Rory had handed to her as she left his office.

She holds out the captain’s armband so they can see it.

It takes a second.

And then the screaming starts.


“I’m really proud of you, you know that?”

Tobin glances down at where Christen’s leaning against her shoulder. Tobin has changed into a baggy gray tank top, and the feeling of Christen’s warm cheek against her bare skin is enough to make her giddy. Christen turns and places a soft kiss on her shoulder, and smiles. “My girlfriend, Captain Tobin Heath.”

From Tobin’s apartment kitchen, Tobin can hear her friends laughing hysterically at something or other. She hopes they’re almost done with the celebratory dinner they promised to cook her—it’s late, and her stomach has been growling for a while. It sounds like they’ve done more joking in there than actual cooking. But how can she be anything but proud and grateful, with friends like these?

“Thanks, babe,” she murmurs, slinging her arm around Christen’s shoulder, drawing her closer before tumbling down to lie on her side on the couch. After the long practice today, and the emotional roller coaster ride of the afternoon, she’s all tuckered out.

Christen snuggles a little closer. “How are you feeling?” she asks softly. “Are you happy?”

Tobin tips her head to the side, considering. Christen didn’t say, you must be so happy. She said, are you happy. She feels a rush of gratitude that Christen has this knack for creating space for Tobin to consider. To decide. To be, without any pressure.

“I think I am.” Tobin says slowly. “But I’m also a little nervous, I guess.”

“Nervous?” Christen adjusts slightly so that she’s peering up at Tobin’s face. “You were captain for a year previously, weren’t you?”

“I guess. Yeah, I mean, I was. Almost a year, before…before Rory took it away a couple months ago.” Tobin shrugs. “But I don’t know if I even took it seriously back then. I think I might’ve gotten it because I was good, or because I was popular, but I don’t know if I got it because I was actually a good leader. I don’t remember putting much thought into the role. I just don’t think I took anything seriously back then. I just kind of…floated along. Everything seemed easy.”

“Rory wouldn’t have chosen to give it to you if you didn’t deserve it,” Christen says, her eyes serious. “He doesn’t seem like the type to just…hand out favors.”

Tobin has to laugh, and it does make her feel better. “No. No, he’s definitely not, you’re right.” Her hand seeks out Christen’s, and she laces their fingers together as she continues. “I guess I feel the weight of it more now. What if the other team members don’t forgive me for the shit I’ve put them through? What if I’m not the leader they think I am?”

Christen sits up straight on the couch and crosses her legs so she’s sitting facing Tobin. She takes Tobin’s hands in hers. “I don’t think that’ll happen, Tobin. I saw the way they all looked at you today. I don’t think there was any resentment there.” She reaches up one hand to tuck a loose strand of hair behind Tobin’s ear. “They might not know the details, but they know that you went through a hard time, and you bounced back. If anything, doesn’t that make you an even better captain? Someone who’s able to recognize when your team is struggling, and to help them through it?”

Tobin responds by leaning forward and hugging Christen so hard that they tip over. Christen laughs as she lands on her back on the couch, Tobin catching herself on her elbows so she doesn’t topple right onto her. “You’re pretty great, you know?” Tobin says, nuzzling into Christen’s neck. “How are you always so smart?”

Christen’s still giggling. “Maybe you just inspire me.”

“Mmm.” Tobin she relaxes down into Christen’s embrace. “Well, thanks for the pep talk. And yes, to answer your question, yes. I am happy.”

She catches Christen’s radiant smile through her eyelashes as her eyes start drifting shut.

“Hey,” Christen teases, “Don’t fall asleep before dinner.”

“Me? Fall asleep?” Tobin’s jaw splits open with a yawn. The room is so warm…and Christen smells so good…and she’s so happy. “Never…”

Of course, Casey chooses that exact moment to shout, “Dinner’s ready!”

Tobin reluctantly lets Christen bounce up off the couch, drag her up to standing.

“How are you so peppy?” Tobin asks as Christen drags her by the hand towards the table, where Casey is placing an enormous bowl of salad, and Moe is setting out plates loaded with stir-fried mushrooms and what look like chickpea-stuffed sweet potatoes.

“Yeah, didn’t you have rehearsal this morning?” Moe asks, as the four of them settle down in their seats.

Christen clears her throat, looking a little self-conscious, as they all dig in. “Actually, I didn’t have rehearsal today.”

Tobin glances up, surprised. Doesn’t she always have rehearsal?

“I called in sick. I also called in and asked to use one of my understudies for tonight.”

Tobin’s eyebrows furrow, and she reaches over to cover Christen’s hand with hers. “Chris, are you feeling okay? Is everything okay?”

Christen nods. She flips her hand over so she can interlace her fingers with Tobin and give her a reassuring squeeze. “I’m fine, really. I was actually on my way to rehearsal this morning, and I realized that I wanted to have one clear day, with no ballet in it…kind of as a palate cleanser, I guess.”

“What for?” Alyssa asks, curiously.

Christen glances sideways at Tobin. “Tobin and I talked last night. About Mateo.”

The girls around the table all go still.

“Tobin was encouraging me to think about…” Christen shrugs, fiddles with her fork for a second. “About not being passive anymore, not just sitting back and letting him treat me like shit. To be honest, I was touched by how much Tobin cared…” she flashes Tobin a smile. “But I’m just so used to putting it out of mind. I think I just suppressed it, as usual, and was going to carry on. But I was just walking to practice this morning, and suddenly, the conversation from last night sprung into my head again and I just…I just stopped right there, on the sidewalk.” Christen shakes her head, her eyes cloudy and troubled. “I felt this dread, all of a sudden. It was like it just hit me, all at once, how terribly he’d been treating me and how I’d been feeling, and I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t physically take one step closer to the theater. I turned around and went back to the apartment and called in sick.”

Tobin scoots her chair closer to Christen’s, tightening the grip on her hand.

“Tobin asked me earlier why I showed up to your practice. I went because I was feeling kind of fragile, if I’m being honest, and I just wanted to see Tobin. But I actually also went because I wanted to tell Tobin something. And this is perfect, because I’d love to hear what you all have to say about it, too.” She took a deep breath. “When I got back home this morning, I couldn’t get myself to relax, until—I called someone. I called a member of the Board of Trustees—Petra Parrington. To talk.”

Tobin lets her fork fall through her limp fingers, and it clanks against her plate.

“You did?!” She demands, bursting with pride and worry and nerves. “What did you say? What did she say?”

“Who is she?” Moe cuts in.

“She is one of our wealthy donors, and Tobin had the great idea, last night, that maybe I could reach out to her to gauge how much she would support me. If I spoke publicly about the way Mateo has been treating me, maybe wrote an article about it or did an interview.”

“That’s an amazing idea, Tobin,” Alyssa says, serious, and Tobin breathes an internal sigh of relief to have Alyssa’s stamp of approval.

“And?” Casey asks.

Christen takes a deep breath. “I called her, and I know it was the right thing to do, because as soon as I called, I felt myself settle, you know? It was like my body was telling me that I had to take action, and as soon as I did, it just calmed itself down. But then when I heard her voice on the line, I got nervous again, and I just kind of lost my nerve and asked her generally how she was.” Christen laughs. Tobin finds some solace in the fact that Christen’s laugh is still merry and light, if a little nervous. “Anyway, I think she picked up on the fact that I was calling about something important, and she invited me out for brunch. I was so nervous, I think my hands were shaking on the silverware—Tobin told me last night that she thought Petra would be in my corner, but I just wasn’t sure, you know? And the power dynamic between us seems so extreme. If a donor doesn’t like a dancer, I feel like she could just get me booted from the company entirely. And between her and Mateo, if they ganged up, they could get a dancer effectively blacklisted from dancing anywhere.”

The girls all nod solemnly. They’ve all seen the power imbalance between female soccer players and male coaches, male administrators, male trainers, firsthand.

“But…”

And Christen’s eyes start shining, and Tobin knows it’s going to be good news. She clasps Christen’s hand even tighter in hers.

“As soon as we sat down, she leaned in and said, ‘Whatever you want to tell me, I want to know that my concern is always for you.’” Christen beams. “And so I just said, there’s something I think that the whole Company should be concerned about, and that you as a Board member and donor would probably want to know, and it’s about a way a certain staff member has been treating me.”

“And?!” Moe and Casey both chorus together, leaning in.

Christen’s smile lights up her face. “She said, ‘It’s Mateo, isn’t it?’”

“Oh, my god!” Tobin fist pumps. “I knew it, babe! I knew she suspected.”

“She said she had heard rumors about it before, but every time she observed us, it seemed like everything was great, so she thought maybe she’d just heard wrong,” Christen admits. “But then—and you were totally right, Tobin—she said she went home that night, after she came to find me backstage, and she said to her husband that she thought something was very wrong, after all. She said that if I hadn’t come to talk to her, she would’ve found me before the spring season started.”

“So is he going to get fired?” Alyssa asks bluntly.

“We hope so,” Christen says, biting her lip. “This is the decision we have to make, and what I wanted to get your opinion on. Petra could get him fired behind the scenes, if she tries hard enough. She has enough clout, and if I join with her, he would be privately ousted.”

“Behind the scenes?” Casey wrinkles her nose. “But wouldn’t that make it really easy for him to get another job somewhere else if he wanted?”

“Exactly. So the other option…” Christen glances towards Tobin again. “…is what Tobin suggested last night. Going public with it. Writing an op-ed, or a blog post, or doing an interview about it. The downside is that it’s going to be bad for the Company. People will demand an investigation, and donors will pull out, and…” Christen wrings her hands. “So Petra’s worried about that, obviously, but she’s also worried that it’ll be hard for me.”

“Hard for you?” Tobin says, her voice rising in worry.

“Yeah. People might not believe me. Or they’ll say I’m lucky enough to have a job, and I should put my head down and work. Or they’ll say I’m a diva. You know, the usual.” Christen shrugs. “Petra says she’ll take whatever path I ended up deciding to choose.” Christen looks up, looks right in Tobin’s eyes. “Tobin,” she says, and she squeezes Tobin’s hand encouragingly, “What do you think I should do?”

Tobin resists the immediate urge to freeze up and call herself stupid and punt the question to Alyssa, who’s sitting right there with that brain of hers.

What do I think she should do? What do I think? I don’t fucking know!

“I think…” she starts slowly, twisting her fork between her fingers, buying time.

And then gradually, the picture grows clearer in her mind.

It’s not important to think about what you know or don’t know. Or how smart you are, or aren’t.

What would Christen want? What would be good for her? What’s the right choice for her?

“I think that…you already know which one you’re going to choose.”

A ghost of a smile is starting to play around Christen’s lips. “Oh, yeah? And?”

“And it’s the public route,” Tobin says. She feels in her bones, as she says it, that this is right. “You don’t just care about yourself. It won’t be enough for you to just get this man out of your own orbit.” Her voice starts to pick up strength and speed. “If you saw a news article, a couple of months from now, announcing that he just got a new gig at some other ballet company somewhere else—you wouldn’t be able to stand that. You wouldn’t be satisfied knowing that he’s just moving somewhere else to terrorize and abuse some other girl. Someone like Mal. Or Faith, someday.”

Christen’s smile has started to grow as Tobin speaks. By the time Tobin gets to the girls’ names, she’s positively beaming, and bright tears are standing in her eyes.

“So you’re going to go public,” Tobin finishes. “You’re going to do the op-ed, with Petra, and you’re going to blow this shit wide open.”

They all laugh at Tobin’s phrasing, but the other girls are nodding along, and Christen’s eyes are soft and wondrous, and she’s nodding too.

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Yeah. You’re right. Hearing you say it…that is what I’m going to do. I knew you’d know.”

“A toast!” Casey declares, holding up her glass of orange juice. The other girls follow suit. “A toast to Christen Press, our excellent, brave, talented friend, who is about to, and I quote, blow this shit wide open.”

“And to Tobin Heath,” Alyssa adds, “or should I say, Captain Tobin Heath, who is about to captain the Chicago Red Stars straight to a championship.”

“To our perfect power couple,” Moe adds, with a smirk. “And—I will acknowledge this only once, ever, for five seconds, before going back to making fun of you—the cutest, sweetest, cuddliest couple in the universe, second to only me and Fabrice.”

“I’ll drink to Tobin being cute and cuddly,” Christen laughs, as they all clink their glasses.

“Nope! Gross! Five seconds over!” Moe pretends to gag.

Tobin watches, a bit in awe, like she’s in slow motion, like she’s underwater, at the way Christen laughs. She’s vibrant and carefree. Her hair frames her face, powerful and gorgeous, like the lion she is. She leans forward as she laughs at something else Casey is saying, clutching her stomach in mirth.

I was so close to depriving her of this, Tobin realizes. I was so close to cutting her off from this group of friends—the best, truest friends I could imagine—because I was insecure. Because I was in a bad place. I was so close to cutting us off from each other. Ruining all of this for all of us.

“One more toast,” she hears herself say.

The table goes silent.

“One more toast to the best, truest friends I could imagine,” Tobin raises her glass. She remembers what Rory said earlier that day: you’ve got some very good friends on this team. “Who did not give up on me. Even when it would’ve been easy to. Who fought with me. And for me.”

Her voice is starting to quaver around the edges, but her hand, extending her glass, is steady and sure.

“To you guys, and to Chris,” Tobin says. “Thanks. Thanks for saving me.”

For a moment, the only sound from around the table is sniffling.

Then Moe leans over and grabs Tobin’s hand on one side, and then Tobin reaches for Christen, who reaches for Casey, and then they’re all sitting there, holding each other.

Casey finally breaks the circle to grab her napkin and wipe her nose. “Jesus,” she jokes. “I can’t believe we made Alyssa cry twice in a week. We’ve used up her quota for the next decade.”

Alyssa rolls her eyes and stoically pretends she’s not crying at all. “You saved yourself, Tobin,” she says simply, shaking her head. “We were beside you, but nobody could’ve saved you but yourself.”

The girls around the table all nod.

“I know. And on that note, I guess that there’s one more piece of news that I think we could maybe celebrate.” Tobin takes a deep breath. “I called a therapist this morning, that Alyssa recommended to me. And I have my first appointment this weekend.”

Alyssa beams.

Moe clasps her hands together, and Casey immediately bursts into tears again, and Christen just looks at her, with an affection so deep, so proud, Tobin can feel it running through her veins.


Alyssa stays after dinner to help Christen and Tobin think through what to write in a hypothetical op-ed. They settle down on the couch, and Christen worries her lip between her teeth, anxiously rubbing her hands from the tops of her thighs to her knees.

“I don’t know…” she hedges, hesitation starting to take over in her eyes again. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Maybe you should start out with your worst story about him,” Alyssa suggests. 

“I don’t know, do you think that might make me look melodramatic?”

“No, I don’t think so, not if your language is straightforward and clear.”

“Tobes, what do you think?” Christen adds softly. A smile tugs at the edge of Tobin’s mouth. She’s still wrapping her mind around the fact that Christen actually values her opinion—around the fact that her opinion actually has value.

“I…” Tobin hesitates. Something Alyssa just said has reminded her of a saying she’s heard before. “I think you have suffered working for an evil boss, like millions of other people out there. And I think you’re brilliant and thoughtful and articulate, and if you write from your heart about the things you’ve experienced, it’ll resonate. Naturally. Like that quote—” she tips her head to the side and tries to recall it, hoping she’s getting it right. “Write hard and clear about what hurts. Right?”

Christen’s face shines. “Yeah. Hemingway.”

Tobin shrugs. “I don’t know who said it. But I think that’s all you need to do. Write hard and clear about what hurts. The rest will follow.”

Christen nods, her face settling into a new determination, and they get to work.

After a while, as Christen and Alyssa start getting into a steady rhythm, tossing phrases back and forth, Tobin leaves the room and comes back with mugs of tea for them. Then she begins to tidy up, refusing to let them help with the clean-up. Her friends did all the cooking, Tobin reasons, so she should at least pull her own weight around here, in her own apartment.

Tobin whistles under her breath as she cleans up the kitchen first, taking her time. Then she gives the plates and pots a quick rinse and dumps them in the dishwasher. When she shuts off the water, the kitchen is suddenly silent.

She can hear Alyssa and Christen talking in the living room.

But they’re not talking about the article anymore.

“What was she like?” Christen’s voice is asking.

“She was…” Alyssa pauses. “She was this vibrant, funny, crazy kid.”

Who are they talking about?

“She was always laughing to herself, like sometimes, I’d turn around and just see her staring off into space, chuckling about something. She was always cheering other people up, helping other people out.” Alyssa lets out a low laugh. “She used to run around the field and try to nutmeg every person, including the training staff, at least once per practice.”

It’s me.

Tobin freezes, halfway through drying her wet hands on the dish towel.

That’s me.

“That sounds amazing,” Christen says, a wistful glimmer in her voice. “You guys must have had so much fun as rookies.”

“It was an amazing few years.” Alyssa pauses. Tobin takes an uncertain step in the direction of the living room, but stops again, unable to stop herself from listening, as if in a trance. “We were doing great, the Red Stars were doing great. I think we felt kind of invincible. And then in May…”

Her voice trails off, and the pain in it wrenches Tobin’s heart into pieces.

“Watching over her the past half year—watching the light go out of her eyes, watching her as she was drowning and not letting anyone help her—it’s been so hard.” Alyssa’s voice is low and scratchy. “It was like…like…”

When Alyssa’s voice fails, Christen’s pipes in, soft and understanding. “Like she was strangling on her own life.”

“Yeah,” Alyssa says. “Yeah, that’s exactly it. So…thank you, Christen. You know, she saved herself, but you were a big part of that.”

“So were you. So were all of you,” Christen replies earnestly. “You all sustained her through the darkest days of her life. I just wish I had been around sooner, somehow.”

There’s a silence, and Tobin can just imagine Alyssa nodding in that serious way she has. “In some ways, I also wish you’d been around earlier. I wish you’d gotten to experience Tobin as that silly, carefree kid,” Alyssa says. “But even though she won’t be that happy-go-lucky person again…is it weird to say I feel like you’ve arrived for what I feel like is going to be the best season of her life? She’s fully herself. She’s finally embracing who she is. She’s coming into her own, and I’m so excited for the person she’s going to be.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Christen says dreamily. “Just the other day, I was thinking what an honor it is to be around as Tobin’s blossoming, like a garden.”

Tobin stops breathing.

What did she just say?!

“Wait—what did you just say?!” Alyssa says.

“Oh, I said, she’s like a garden,” Christen repeats. “Like a garden coming into bloom, little by little. But you just know when spring comes, it’ll be the most brilliant, beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”


She’s Christen’s garden.

I’m Christen’s garden, she thinks, and for the next few days, it feels like she thinks it once every five minutes, and every time she thinks it, she bursts into an uncontrollable smile. And then Christen looks over at her and laughs, and Christen’s laughs just makes her smile harder, and—

It’s the perfect upwards spiral.

Tobin has a hard time letting go of her now.

By night they fall asleep curled around each other, Tobin counting Christen’s soft, soothing breaths until she drifts off herself, sleeping sounder and deeper than she has in months.

By day, Tobin can’t stop her fingers from trailing over Christen whenever they have a spare chance. She leans her cheek against the warm back of Christen’s neck as Christen brushes her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. She rests a hand on the small of her waist as they weave around each other in the kitchen, making breakfast. She’d almost be self-conscious about it, if it weren’t for the way that Christen’s face lights up every time they touch.

And when they’re not around each other, when Christen’s in rehearsal and Tobin’s at practice, Christen’s still there, sparkling pleasantly at the corners of Tobin’s mind. Tobin finds herself mentally logging every funny little thing that happens, picturing the best way to retell it later, picturing the way Christen will react. She finds herself expectantly wondering about every detail of the upcoming evening; what they’ll make for dinner, what movie or TV show they might watch in bed on Christen’s laptop together. (Christen has really been on a nature documentary kick recently. Tobin never thought of herself as a nature documentary girl until she found herself animatedly recounting a particularly thrilling gazelle chase to a very amused Alyssa one morning in the locker room.)

She’d gotten used to thinking of relationships as a noose. She used to think of this bond, this constant presence of another person in her consciousness, as some sort of weird invasion of her own sacred space. But now she knows it’s not that at all.

It’s light, it’s easy. It’s the most natural, effortless, beautiful feeling in the world.

With Christmas looming in about a week, Tobin decides to swing by the local plant shop to pick up some greenery. She loops by the theater late at night to pick up Christen after the Nutcracker, and Christen’s face lights up as she lifts herself gracefully into the passenger seat. “Mm, what’s that smell?”

“Check out the backseat,” Tobin grins.

Christen turns around and gasps. “A Christmas tree?! Baby, you shouldn’t have.”

“It’s just some holiday stuff,” Tobin says, peeking into the garlands that fill the backseat. “You said the other day that you always plan to put a tree up, so I thought I’d get some things for your place and some for mine, since neither of us have decorations up yet.”

“That’s such a good idea!” Christen exclaims, reaching for Tobin’s hand with a huge smile. “But I’m sorry, I’m about to be no help at all with putting any of this stuff up.” She grimaces a little. “I’m not very handy.”

“Leave it all to me,” Tobin smirks, casually flexing a little, which makes Christen roll her eyes and cough and turn a little red all at once.

Back at Christen’s apartment, Christen heads to the bathroom to shower and get ready for bed, and Tobin wrangles the tree and the garlands up. The tree goes up with no problem in the little stand Tobin bought from the plant shop. The garlands present a tad bit more work—after all, it’s a bit tricky figuring out where to put them since there’s nothing but an empty room. She ends up festooning them across the tops of the windows and across the ridge of the enormous mirrors, and when she flicks on the Christmas lights that she’s wound around the tree and the garlands, the entire room is bathed in an ethereal, cozy glow. She feels that sudden lift in her spirits, the kind you only feel around the holiday season when you see all the lights aglow.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Christen exit the bathroom wrapped in a towel and barrel to a halt. “Wow, Tobin,” she says dreamily. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, you like it?” Tobin says. She steps aside and reveals Morena, sitting obediently beside her with a giant red bow on her neck. “Looks like everyone’s getting into the holiday spirit around here!”

Christen coos and opens her arms, and Morena bounds across the room and launches herself onto Christen’s bed.

By the time Tobin has gotten ready for bed herself and joined Christen and Morena, Christen has changed into an oversized t-shirt and is sitting propped up against her pillows on the bed, with a bunch of pointe shoes and other supplies spread around her on top of the blankets.  

Tobin settles in, sitting cross-legged near the foot of the bed, facing Christen. Instinctively, absentmindedly, Tobin draws one of Christen’s feet onto her lap and starts massaging it. She doesn’t want to keep her hands off Christen for one second longer. She’s more than rewarded when Christen looks over at her with a grateful smile.

She watches over the top of her glasses as Christen carefully snips and lays out on the bed several different kinds of ribbons. Christen places the cut ends against the edges of the shiny new pointe shoes—squints, sizes up, adjusts, squints again—and begins sewing with rapid, expert stitches.

“What are you doing?” Tobin asks curiously, working Christen’s heel with her knuckles.

Christen makes a face. “I’m sewing my pointe shoes. I sew these ribbons onto the sides, and then I tie the ribbons up around my ankles for support.”

“Looks like that takes forever.”

“Yeah.” Christen rolls her eyes. “Like, half an hour a pair, maybe? And I go through four or five pairs a week?” She snips off the end of a thread and tugs at the ribbon to make sure it’s secure. “Luckily the company pays for them all—I’ve got boxes of new ones in the closet over there—but it still takes ages.”

“Wow, and you dye all of them, too?”

“No,” Christen’s mouth twists to the side, and she shakes her head. “The dying takes so long that it’s not really worth it for these practice shoes, when you go through them so fast. I usually dye the ones I’m going to use for performances.”

“Sorry if this is stupid, but can’t you just buy them with ribbons sewn on in a way you like?”

Christen sighs down at the materials arrayed before her. “No, it’s not stupid at all. But unfortunately, no. Everyone sews their pointe shoes differently, based on their own preferences. I already have a bit of customization, in the sole, here, see?” She holds one up as an example. Tobin squints at the shoe and nods supportively, even though she has no idea what she’s supposed to be looking for. “And I’m lucky to have that because I’m a principal dancer, and a big name, so the shoe companies think it’s worth the investment. But now…” she gestures at the set-up of ribbon and thread and scissors before them. “My mom used to do some of the sewing for me when I lived at home and had to make pointe shoes last, like, for weeks at a time because they were so expensive. Now I just do them by myself.” She lets out a little laugh. “At least I’ve gotten past the phase where I was so bad at it that my fingers were constantly sore from stabbing myself with a needle.”

Tobin scoots closer. “Tell me about your mom.”

A soft smile grows on Christen’s face. “She’s amazing. She and I are really close, and she’s always been my biggest supporter. We have all these home videos of these long dance recitals I used to put on in my living room and force her to sit through when I was like, five years old, and she sits there and claps and throws fake flowers on the carpet when I’m done.”

“I would pay to see those.”

“Well, I’m sure my parents would love to show them to you.” Christen rolls her eyes and places one completed shoe down beside her. “They love nothing more than embarrassing me in front of my friends.”

Suddenly, Christen’s phone lights up over on the bedside table. Christen leans over to grab it, and her eyes go wide. “Wow, her ears must’ve been burning—it’s my mom. Is it okay if I take this?”

“Yeah, uh, of course.” Tobin rises, but realizes that there’s not exactly anywhere she can go in the open apartment to give Christen some privacy, unless she wanted to sit in the bathroom. Or the closet. And besides, Christen’s hand is already tugging on Tobin’s sleeve, urging her back down onto the bed.

“It’s fine, you don’t have to go anywhere,” Christen reassures her, before picking up the call. “Mom? Hey!”

Tobin settles back down, a little uneasily. Christen’s leaning against her pillows, and Tobin makes sure to sit a respectful distance away so that she can’t see the screen, and they can’t see Tobin.

“Hello, darling!” Tobin can hear loud and clear. “How are you doing? We’ve been counting down the days until your flight gets in!”

Feeling somehow like she’s intruding, Tobin picks up the pointe shoe that Christen just put down, examining Christen’s tiny, methodical stitches against the pale pink satin. She traces her fingers over the smooth edges of the ribbon and imagines Christen stitching away, day in, day out. Maybe as she sews, she thinks about her mother.

Maybe some days, she calls her mother to catch up while she sews, and they reminisce about how her mom used to do some of the sewing for her.

Tobin called her mother to catch up, while she cooked. She used to. They would Facetime with their phones in the corner of the kitchen, so that they could see what the other person was up to, and her mom would tell her to chop the vegetables more finely or use more butter or choose a bigger pan, and her dad would make guest appearances, sneaking and out of frame to nab little bits of food that her mom was cooking—

She gives her head a little shake, as if to physically wring out the pain that comes rushing in with that memory. She forces herself to come back to the present.

“Yeah, I’ve already been in touch with the owner of the dance studio in North Hollywood, they said I could go in and practice whenever there’s not a class in session,” Christen is saying.

“I’m surprised you can’t find a closer studio to your apartment, honey. North Hollywood is such a long drive.”

“I know, I know, but I love that studio! Lily is such a sweetheart, and you know, she could use the extra income.” 

Tobin’s fidgeting, wondering if she should go find something to clean. Maybe the garlands left pine needles on the floor that she should sweep up.

Then she hears,

“And what about that adorable girlfriend of yours? Tobin? How is she?”

“Mom—” Christen chokes, as Tobin’s head snaps to attention.

“I know, I’ll stop teasing you, but my gosh! My little girl, all grown up and dating.”

“Mom, okay, first, I’m 26,” Christen rushes to say, looking wide-eyed towards Tobin, her face going bright red, “And second, stop—please—”

“What is it?” her mom says, oblivious.

Tobin has to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep the laughter in.

There’s a long pause.

“Oh, honey, she’s right there, isn’t she?!” Tobin can hear Christen’s mom gasp on the phone. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I couldn’t get a word in!” Christen protested. Tobin finally releases her hand and lets a few giggles out. “Yes, Mom. She’s right here.”

“You told your mom about me?” Tobin whispers, grinning.

“Is that her?” Christen’s mom says eagerly.

Christen glances from Tobin to the screen, then back to Tobin. “Uh…yes. Tobin—I mean, no pressure, obviously—”

“Oh, no, no pressure at all, goodness—” her mom cuts in, flustered.

But Tobin is already crawling over, settling down next to Christen. She can see Christen’s mom come into view on the screen, sitting out on what looks like a patio. Tobin can immediately see where Christen gets her bright smile from—and her gorgeous hair.

“Oh, Tobin! Hello!”

“Hi, Mrs. Press,” Tobin says, hastily taking off her glasses, suddenly shy.

“Oh, please! Call me Anna,” Christen’s mom says, clasping her hands together and beaming into the camera. “Tobin, we hear you’re a soccer star!”

“Mom…” Christen moans.

Tobin chuckles. “I play a little soccer.”

“Christen says you’re playing in the national championships soon? How exciting—”

“I didn’t tell them like, everything about you, I swear,” Christen cuts in, still beet red.

“Oh, no,” Her mom agrees cheerfully. “Some things we saw on your Instagram. You’re even prettier in person than you are in the pictures!”

“Mom!” Christen shrieks, but her mom is already blithely getting up from her chair.

“Ben! Ben, come here, it’s Tobin!”

As Christen’s mom disappears off camera for a second, Christen turns and scans Tobin’s face, biting her lip. “Sorry you just got dragged into this—I didn’t mean to introduce you so fast if you didn’t want it to—”

“Nah, it’s all good,” Tobin says. She doesn’t mind meeting Christen’s parents like this, not when they’re so kind and welcoming. She winds her fingers through Christen’s and strokes the inside of her wrist with her thumb, in slow, soothing circles, and Christen breaks out into the cutest smile, just in time for her mom and dad to scramble back into view.

“Tobin!” Christen’s dad, a big, jolly-looking man, booms. “It’s so wonderful to meet you! Now, tell me honestly—what lies did this daughter of mine tell you to get you to date her?”

“Dad!” Christen whines, mortified, burying her face in her free hand. Her other hand clutches tightly to Tobin’s as Tobin laughs. “Stop it!”

“Are you kidding, sir?” Tobin replies. “Listen, I’m the lucky one here. Christen is…” She looks over at Christen, half trying to think of a joke, but then finds herself distracted at the sight of Christen giggling into her hand. She feels her heart throbbing in her chest at the mere sight. A silly little smile spreads over her face. “Christen’s…the great one,” she ends lamely, suddenly finding herself at a loss for words.

She looks back towards the screen to see both of Christen’s parents beaming, fond and knowing, through the screen.

“None of this ‘sir’ nonsense, Tobin, just call me Ben,” Christen’s dad instructs. “So when are you going to come visit us in LA, Tobin?”

There’s an odd twisting inside her stomach that she can’t quite place. But at the same time, there’s a rush of warmth, too.

“Dad,” Christen hisses, and her dad takes the hint.

“Well, just know you’re welcome anytime!” he backtracks.

Her mom adds, “Christen speaks so highly of you, we can’t wait to get to know you better.”

“Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad,” Christen says.

“Yeah, thanks, sir—I mean, uh, Ben. And Anna. Thanks, seriously,” Tobin says, hoping her smile is making up for the simplicity of her words.

“Well, it’s late here,” Christen says, “So we should probably sign off. Love you guys!”

“Love you! And you, Tobin, great to meet you!” Her parents chorus one last time before the screen goes dark.

Christen immediately groans and buries her face in her hands. “Oh, my god. Tobin, I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, what are you sorry about?” Tobin says casually. Even though there’s still that twisting feeling in her stomach.

Christen shrugs. “I don’t know. I just feel like they can be a lot. They’re really the nicest, I swear, but like, the Instagram stalking, and asking you when you’re going to visit them in LA…”

Tobin chuckles a little. She reaches over to flick the lights off, and then in the dark, pulls Christen down into her chest. The feeling of Christen snuggled up against her, her warm breath against Tobin’s neck, is a sensation Tobin hopes she’ll never get used to or take for granted. “I didn’t mind, Chris. Really. I liked it.”

And she didn’t mind. That was true. She wasn’t lying when she said that.

But what about, “I liked it”? Was that true?

There’s that twisting feeling in her gut again. Instinct tells her to shove it aside, bury it, and go to sleep, but as Tobin feels Christen shifting in her arms, she allows herself to let out an audible sigh. “I guess…” she wonders aloud in the darkness, trying to untangle the feeling. “I don’t know. They’re so nice, Chris. I love how much they love you. I just…”

Christen leans up and gives Tobin the gentlest kiss on the tip of her nose, then another one on her lips. “Are you thinking of your parents?”

And she hadn’t yet put the pieces together, at least not consciously.

But as Christen says the words, it all comes clear.

“Yeah, I guess am,” she says slowly. “I guess…I guess I wonder if my parents will ever look at me like your parents look at you.” She shifts around again in the dark, putting Christen closer to her. “Or if they’ll ever be able to say the word ‘girlfriend’ while smiling. Or if they’ll ever know how grateful they should be that you’re dating me. Or how much of a loss it is, for them, that they don’t get to meet you or get to know you.”

And she’s endlessly gratified, and relieved, and soothed, when Christen doesn’t immediately say, “Oh, of course they will one day!” or, “They’ll come around!”

Instead, Christen takes a deep breath in, then snuggles deeper into Tobin, intertwining their legs, letting the soft, smooth, freshly-showered planes of their skin press against each other’s.

“You’re incredible, Tobin,” she says, finally, soft and sure. “And I think we’re incredible together. And I hope your family will get a chance to see that one day.”

Tobin lets her hand mold along Christen’s jawline and draw her in. Their kisses are tiny little touches, just soft brushstrokes of lips against lips. But that’s enough for Tobin. That’s all she needs to feel like she’s at rest—at home.

They pause, smiling like idiots. Tobin can already feel her eyelids drooping, her heartbeat slowing to a sleepy pulse.

Christen whispers, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’m thinking about how you’re the sexiest person on earth.”

Christen laughs. “Seriously.”

“Seriously, you are!”

“Okay, tell me something else you’re thinking.”

Tobin settles herself down into the mattress and considers the question. “I was thinking…about Florida.”

Christen rests a hand on the dip of Tobin’s waist, as they lie facing each other, and waits.

In the darkness, Tobin can see her parents standing in their bright kitchen. She can see in her mind the palm trees in the backyard. The clear, hot sky overhead, the sun pounding down, the blue of the sky and the blue of the water. The vibrant flowers and ferns that grew out of every surface. “I always kind of liked being in Florida for Christmas. I mean, New Jersey was great because you’d get really classic, solid four seasons. Christmas-card, white snow holidays. But I kind of love Florida around wintertime, too. I think I just love the tropics. The flowers, the kind of rain that you can smell all around you.” She pauses. “And my family. And just being around them around the holidays. I think it might be hard this year.”

Christen eyes are filled with concern. “What can I do?” she whispers. “How can I help you?”

And for once, Tobin knows the exact right answer, immediately.

“You’re already doing it. You’re here.”

Chapter Text

Tobin wakes to the sound of water running in the bathroom. She gropes with one floppy, half-asleep hand at the sheets beside her, half hoping to latch onto Christen there, but only finding a pile of empty blankets. Disgruntled, she cracks open her eyes and squints around, just as Christen is walking out of the bathroom, already dressed in a black sports bra and leggings.

“Hey,” Tobin tries to say, but the sound that comes out of her mouth is little more than a hoarse whine.

Christen smiles, circling around the bed to perch on the side where Tobin’s busy wrapping herself up into the blankets like a burrito.

“You’re cute when you’re half asleep like this.”

Tobin wakes up just a tiny bit more. She squints up at Christen, glowing in the pale morning light. “Cute, huh?”

Christen’s smile grows. “You like that?”

Tobin snuggles back down into the blankets. “I do, actually.”

Christen leans down to place a soft kiss on Tobin’s forehead. “Go back to sleep, baby. I’m just going to do some yoga.”

With the sensation of Christen’s kiss drifting across the surface of her skin, and the smell of Christen all around her, Tobin is more than happy to oblige.

An hour later, Tobin pads into the kitchen on bare feet, rubbing her face in her hands. Her eyes go wide as she rounds the corner and sees Christen in the living room, in a downwards dog position.

Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be Christen Press’s girlfriend.

In a half-asleep daze, not able to tear her eyes off of Christen’s ass, Tobin fumbles for a mug, then for the coffee pot. She stares at Christen as she pours a steady stream into the mug, and—

“Ouch!”

Tobin hisses and snatches her hand back from where it had been resting on the counter. She looks down. The mug was upside down. She had just poured hot coffee all over the bottom of a mug, the counter, her hand.

Christen twists around to glance her way. “You okay?”

“Uh…yes.” Tobin is scrambling around for a paper towel, suddenly wide awake. “I…uh…I missed the mug.”

Christen smirks. “That’s what you get for ogling.”

“One little coffee burn for that view in the morning?” Tobin retorts, not able to stop the matching smirk creeping over her face. “Small price to pay.”

She loves how easy it is to make that little blush rise on Christen’s cheeks. How easy it is to make Christen smile. The smile lingers on Christen’s face all through breakfast, as they drink their coffees and eat their avocado toast standing side by side in the kitchen.

“I should get some stools,” Christen says absentmindedly. “I usually eat at my desk, but that’s kind of juvenile anyway, and now that you’re here in the mornings…”

The smile on Christen’s face grows a little shy.

“Yeah, we could go furniture shopping,” Tobin suggests, her insides warming at the thought of how domestic that sounds. “This weekend?”

“I’d like that.” Christen pops the last bite of toast into her mouth and slides her plate and mug into the dishwasher. “You’ve got practice this morning, right?”

“Yep,” Tobin confirms, tipping the last dregs of her coffee into her mouth. “And I’ve also got my first therapist appointment this afternoon.”

Christen’s eyes go a little wide. “Exciting! How do you feel?”

Tobin shrugs. “Okay, I guess. I’m not nervous.” She chuckles a little. “Maybe that’s because I don’t know what to expect. Maybe I should be nervous.”

“It might be hard,” Christen says, and again, Tobin feels a glow of appreciation that Christen didn’t just say, oh, it’ll be fine. “But you’re so honest with yourself, Tobin, and so open-minded about things, that I think it’ll come more naturally to you than you might think.”

Tobin reaches for Christen’s hand for a little bit of extra strength, squeezes it in her own.

“Who knows, maybe therapy days will become your favorite days of the week,” Christen teases.

Tobin rolls her eyes, draws Christen in by her waist. “A day with an extra hour away from you? No thanks. Not my ideal day.”

Christen leans in for a little kiss, and then sighs, wrinkles her nose. “I’ve got five hours of practice today, three of them with Mateo. Not my ideal day, for sure.”

“What is your ideal day?”

Christen tips her head to the side in thought. “Hmm. Maybe a morning run around the lake, with a nice empty sidewalk, and just a few flakes of snow falling around me. And then I’d get home and have a nice shower coffee.”

Tobin raises her eyebrows. “What’s a shower coffee?”

Christen giggles and ducks her head a little, and it’s the cutest thing Tobin has ever seen. “It’s just drinking coffee while I’m in the shower. It’s like, my happy place. And, um…eating French fries for lunch. And then reading in bed with a good book, with Morena curled around my feet.”

“That sounds like a great day,” Tobin confirms.

“And, uh…” Christen adds, her hands winding up around Tobin’s neck, her smile still shy, but hopeful, “And doing it all with you.”

Tobin’s answering smile is so wide, she’s sure she looks like an idiot.

“I mean, yeah, I could go for a shower with you.”

Christen bites down on her lip. There’s a slight blush creeping up from her neck. “Oh?”

“I mean, ahem, a shower coffee,” Tobin corrects herself, coughing self-consciously. “Whatever that is. Pretty sure you just made it up.”

“Just because I made it up doesn’t mean it isn’t real!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tobin leans in for one kiss, then two, then three. She doesn’t want to think about letting Christen out of the warm, comforting circle of her arms, to go out into the cold gray city and have to spend hours and hours in the presence of that monster, Mateo. Thank god the article is in the works, Tobin thinks, otherwise I’d never want to let her go. Instead, she only feels a little wistful, a little achy, watching Christen disappear out the front door to head to rehearsal.  

They agree to meet for a quick, early dinner back at Christen’s before she has to go back to the theater for her nightly Nutcracker performance. Tobin gets back first. When she hears Christen’s footsteps at the door, she looks up from where she’s sitting on the dog bed with Morena dozing beside her, with her phone on speaker. She scrambles to get up, shoving everything that had been in her lap haphazardly into her backpack.

Christen enters the apartment, weary, with her shoulders sagging. Though Christen’s motioning to her to continue the call, she says hastily into her phone, “Oh, Chris is home—I gotta go, Becky, but thanks, this was super helpful. Let’s talk again soon?”

“Who was that?” Christen asks as Tobin tosses her phone onto the counter, freeing up her hands so she can give Christen a little shoulder rub. “Ooh, that feels amazing,” Christen adds appreciatively.

“That was Becky—Becky Sauerbrunn,” Tobin adds. “She’s the captain of the national team, and I gave her a call to see if she had any advice for me on captaining the Red Stars.”

“And did she?”

“Yeah, a ton—Becky’s super nice, and like, the wisest person I know. You’d love her.”

“It was a great idea to call her.”

“Actually, it was my therapist’s idea.”

“Oh?” Christen twists around, curious. “How did that go? Well?”

“It was good, I think?” Tobin shrugs. “We talked a little about how I was nervous about doing a good job as captain again—I guess I was thinking about it because I had to give a little pep talk at training this morning, and I suck at those—and she said, is there anyone you can talk to for advice about it? And suddenly I thought, I could ask Becky for advice. Duh.” Tobin shakes her head regretfully. “You know, I probably could’ve gone to her for advice last year. Before…everything happened. I just didn’t even think of it as an option. But that’s going to change. I’m going to really earn it this time.”

“You know,” Christen teases, “You’re pretty sexy when you get that determined little scowl on your face.”

“Sexy, huh?” Tobin leans in with exaggeratedly puckered lips.

Christen rolls her eyes and pushes Tobin away with a single finger in the middle of her forehead. “Yeah, yeah, don’t let it get to your head,” she chuckles. But then she turns serious. “That sounds like great advice, though. And I’m happy Becky was helpful! So you think therapy was good, overall?”

“Yeah, it was chiller than I expected it to be.” Tobin chuckles. “I think she was tossing me some softballs at the beginning, just random questions about me, and then she stopped me and said, ‘You’ve apologized to me twelve times in the last ten minutes.’”

Christen’s eyes widen. “Wow, she was counting?”

“Yeah, and then she said, ‘Your disdain for yourself permeates your speech.’ And I got really excited and told her, ‘That’s exactly what my girlfriend tells me!’”

“Maybe not quite so eloquently.”

“And then she said, “Your girlfriend sounds very wise.’”

Christen tips her head back and laughs out loud. “You’re just making this up now.”

“No, I swear. And then I rambled about you for like, twenty minutes, and then I apologized to her for rambling, and she said, ‘You did it again.’”

Christen cocks her head to the side and observes Tobin’s smiling face for a long moment. “You seem happy. Are you happy?”

“I…I guess I am happy.” Tobin shrugs a little bashfully. “I think I ended up getting more nervous about the first session. What if it was weird, you know? What if I hated her and then I’d have to go through a whole thing with finding a new therapist? But it was good.” Her voice drops a little lower. “I really want to keep working on this, you know. I want to make sure I don’t, you know…” She purses her lips in thought. “I want to make sure I’m not a burden on you. Emotionally. Or in any way.”

Christen’s eyes grow soft, and she leans over to cup Tobin’s cheek in one hand. “Baby, I appreciate that. I do. I don’t want you to worry too much about it, though, okay? You know I want to be here for you.”

“And I want to be here for you,” Tobin says softly. She lets herself lean into Christen’s hand for a long, soothing, moment, and then turns a little to press a kiss onto Christen’s palm. “And how about you?” she murmurs against Christen’s hand. “What’s got you looking so worn out? Mateo?”

“Mateo,” Christen confirms, with a long, pained sigh. “I felt so tense the entire rehearsal today. I felt like he could somehow read my mind and tell that I’m actively planning to blow up his entire career, like he was staring into my soul or something.” Christen shudders a little. “And I don’t think I was making this up; it felt like he was being even more of an asshole than usual.”

“Is that even possible?!”

“Don’t tempt fate by asking.” Christen lets out a little laugh that’s maybe supposed to sound cheerful, but just sounds thin and strained. “I think he gets worse every year around this time. He knows I’m about to head home to California for a couple months and will be out of his clutches, so he really lays on the abuse before I go. Just to get his fix.”

“I hate him,” Tobin spits out, viciously, “And if you weren’t writing this article already, I’d…I’d…kick him in the shins, or punch his front teeth out, or something, I don’t know.”

“Please do not physically attack Mateo; I like my girlfriends non-incarcerated so I don’t get too lonely.” Christen teases. She leans forward and pecks a little kiss on the tip of Tobin’s nose. “But thank you for the mental image; I’ll think about it when the going gets rough, and it’ll keep me from punching his front teeth out.”

“Bummer, I think I could’ve really rocked an orange jumpsuit,” Tobin says begrudgingly. The little giggle that gets out of Christen makes Tobin feel a little better about Mateo, but not much better.

They make dinner together side by side, Christen chopping the veggies for Tobin to grill in the oven. After Tobin finishes popping the tray into the oven and fiddling with the oven controls, she looks over to see Christen standing in the other room, with her arms crossed, in front of the windows, staring out over the city.

No glorious sunset today—a fog has settled, and the tops of the skyscrapers vanish into the low gray mist. The usual view of the lake is totally obscured, and the dim grayness seems to press right up against the windows. The clouds roil, gray and stormy, right overhead.

Tobin comes up behind Christen, rests her chin lightly on Christen’s shoulder, wraps her arms around Christen’s waist. She feels her heartbeat settle into a comforting rhythm as soon as their bodies come to rest against each other’s.

After a few minutes of silence, she murmurs, “It’s un temps de chien.”

She can almost feel Christen’s smile, rather than see it. “What does that mean?” Christen says softly.

“It’s just like, a dreary, gray day.”

“Did you learn that when you were playing in France?” Christen says absentmindedly.

“Yeah,” Tobin says. Then she pauses; racks her brain. “Wait, how did you know I played in France? Did I tell you that?”

“Uhh…”

She feels Christen shrug. She pulls back a little so she can see Christen’s face, and there’s a goofy, embarrassed little smile spreading across it. “I might have seen it on your Instagram,” Christen giggles.

Tobin bursts out laughing, pulling Christen in tighter, burying her face in her neck. “Wow, babe, you must’ve scrolled way back!” she teases, echoing the words Christen had said to her, what feels like forever ago.

“Shut up,” Christen laughs.

“Do you like me or something?!”

“Shut up!” Christen’s shaking her head, but she’s still beaming. “Fine. I might have Instagram stalked you. A little. Maybe a lot. Way back when. It didn’t take very long; you don’t post a lot.”

“When was this?” Selfishly, Tobin wants to be able to place the day that Christen decided she was interesting enough to look up online.

Christen looks a little coy. “Actually, it was the night of the Red Stars game that Mal and I went to. And we went out to the bar as a group afterwards, remember? And the two of us talked at the bar…”

“And I was really mean to you, and then I went home with that other girl.” Tobin groans aloud. “Oh, my god, that’s right.”

“And after you left, I ordered one of those girly cocktails that you said you hated—”

“—I lied, it was actually really good, I was just trying to look tough—”

“And then I went back to hang out with all the other girls, and they were all going on and on and on about how great and cool Tobin is, and I was like, what the hell is happening? Am I living alone in some alternate universe? And then I came home and scrolled through your entire Instagram to try and figure you out.”

“No way.”

“What?” Christen tilts her head expectantly when she sees the dumbstruck expression on Tobin’s face.

“I just realized—I lay in bed that night and looked through all your photos on Instagram too.” Tobin throws her head back and laughs. “We were probably doing it at the same time.”

“My main takeaway from the scrolling exercise was that your calves were great even if your personality was not,” Christen smirks.

“My main takeaway was this weird fixation with how expensive your foundation was,” Tobin admits.

“It’s a sponsorship, I get it for free.”

“Get me some for free, would you?”

“You don’t need foundation; your skin is perfect.” Christen wrinkles her nose. "I don't know if anyone has ever told you this, but you actually glow. It would be irritating if it weren't so hot."

“Are you kidding me? I’m not going to use it, I'm going to sell it online as a side gig.”

When Christen's chuckles eventually subside, Tobin bites her lip, deep in thought. “That was a weird night,” she recalls. “I remember feeling weird when I was on the dance floor. Like I was being watched. But I convinced myself I was just in a strange mood from the game earlier.”

A smirk grows on Christen’s face. “Oh, that might have been because I was watching you dance.”

Tobin can feel her eyes growing wide.

“What?”

“I was watching. I was definitely watching.” Christen shrugs, an eyebrow raised. “What can I say? I’m a dancer. I appreciate a girl with rhythm. At that party at Kealia’s house, I thought I was going to get to watch you dance again, but then you just sat in the window and sulked all night.”

Tobin chuckles, self-conscious. “Oh, I was just trying to avoid you because I was being a little drama queen, trying to hide that I had a massive crush on you.”

“Uh, Tobin?”

“Yeah?”

Christen’s laugh is glorious, chiming like a clear bell. Tobin revels in the sound. “Buying the three different types of my favorite seltzers was already a bit of a giveaway.”

“Well, that shouldn’t have been as obvious as it was, either, but Casey couldn’t keep her mouth shut!”

Christen shakes her head affectionately. She turns back towards the windows, staring out at the darkening city. Golden flecks of light from far-off skyscraper windows are just starting to peek through the gloom, making it feel like they’re alone in an ethereal, floating wonderland. “Say that phrase again.”

Un temps de chien?”

Un temps de chien,” Christen repeats slowly, and her accent is near-perfect, of course. “I actually love this kind of weather.”

“Yeah?” Tobin peers out through the fog. The storm clouds hang low overhead. “Grey skies?”

“Yeah, I think it’s beautiful. The way the sky seems like it’s ebbing and flowing. I think that’s why I don’t mind Chicago in the fall, in the winter. It has the most beautiful sky. It’s so moody, the weather. And every single day, the clouds make me very happy.” A contented little smile appears on Christen’s face as she talks, her eyes fixed dreamily on the clouds outside. “So that’s how I pass a lot of the time. Just looking out my windows at the beautiful sky.”

As Christen’s eyes fix on the sky, Tobin’s eyes fix on Christen. It strikes awe into her heart, the way that Christen sees the world, the way that she can reframe every little thing into a blessing. The way her beautiful soul makes everything around her beautiful.

Without a second thought, Tobin leans in and presses a kiss to the corner of Christen’s smiling lips. Christen turns and kisses Tobin harder, lets Tobin back her softly against the cold glass window with slow, languid steps. Bathed in the silver-gray half-light of dusk, Tobin feels almost as if the glass of the window has vanished, and that they’re floating up and out, over the city, just the two of them, floating off into the clouds that Christen loves so much, intertwined—

Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

Christen lifts her head and lets out a groan as the oven timer starts going off.

“Leave it,” Tobin murmurs, her hands wrapping hungrily around Christen’s waist, pulling her closer—

The sound of Morena’s barking joins the insistent beep of the over timer.

Christen pulls back with a resigned little laugh. Then she squints over Tobin’s shoulder at the oven clock, and her face falls, and the moment’s over. “Tobes, I have to run. I need to be at the theater in half an hour, and if I’m late, Mateo will…” she shudders. “I’ll take some dinner to go.”

Tobin’s heart aches at the uncertainty and fear in Christen’s eyes. “You want me to go with you tonight, babe?”

Christen sighs, shakes her head. “They don’t let guests backstage during performances, anyway.” She leans in for one more kiss, slow and soothing. Christen clings tightly to the Tobin’s shirt, bunching up the neckline with her fists, as Tobin draws calm circles over her back.

“Just you being here tonight when I get back will be enough,” Christen murmurs into Tobin’s lips.

Tobin chases for one last gentle kiss. “Always,” she says, and she means it.


She’s antsy without Christen in the apartment.

She’s antsy thinking about Christen out there tonight, trapped alone with her anxiousness and doubts despite the crowds bustling around her, dealing with Mateo.

She takes Morena for a long walk, until rain starts falling in fat, heavy drops around her, and then she comes back into the warm, glowing apartment and shoots Mal a text: Sorry I hung up on you so fast earlier. How’s it going there tonight? Chris holding up?

Mal sends back a frowny face. Rough night. Glad she’ll be going home to you.

Tobin’s just resisting the urge to throw on her coat and fight her way to Christen’s side, backstage rules be damned, when her phone lights up with another text from Mal.

Is it ready?

Tobin bites her lip. You think I should give it to her tonight?

I think it’ll be good for her tonight.

Okay I’ll finish it now.

Cursing under her breath, Tobin checks the time. She has two hours, which should be plenty, honestly, if all goes well. She puts on some Hozier at a deafening volume, turns all the lights in the apartment up, and gets to work.


She’s sitting cross-legged in bed, with dry eyes and aching fingers, putting the finishing touches on the little bundle wrapped in white tissue paper on her lap, when she hears the door click open. Quickly, she leans over and places the bundle on wooden floorboards, secreted behind the far side of the bed. By the time she’s straightening up, trying to look innocent and inconspicuous, Christen has entered the apartment. Tobin hears the thump of bags dropping onto the ground, then the sound of shoes being kicked off, then a pattering of feet. She looks up to see Christen, still in her puffy overcoat, jogging over to the bed. She barely sits up and puts her arms out in time before Christen launches herself, coat and all, into Tobin’s embrace.

Tobin pushes her nose into the crook of Christen’s neck, pressing her lips into her soft skin, not even caring that the rain on Christen’s coat is seeping slowly into her white t-shirt and leaving freezing droplets on her arms. “Hey,” she murmurs, brushing Christen’s hair behind her ears gently. “How was it, babe?”

Christen just groans. She sits up, sheds her coat—she’s wearing nothing but a black leotard underneath—tosses it on the ground, and then promptly burrows into Tobin again, as if she’s desperately to connect as much of their bodies as humanly possible.

Tobin sighs, drops kisses on Christen’s curly crown, strokes indistinguishable patterns into her bare shoulders. “It’s okay not to be okay,” she says.

Christen doesn’t say anything, and that’s okay, too.

“I’m happy you’re here now,” Tobin lets her voice meander on, soothing and absentminded, saying whatever comes to mind. “I missed you. Nowhere feels like home without you anymore, you know? Is that weird to say? I was jealous of all the little kids in the audience tonight. Everyone who got to see you dance for the first time. There’s nothing like it, you know? That kind of magic you can create—I kind of wish I could go back and relive that first performance over and over.”

Halfway through Tobin’s soft little monologue, Christen had started to look up, with a tiny smile. By the end, she squirms around a little and readjusts herself, curling up in a little croissant-shaped blob on the blankets, with her head on Tobin’s lap.

“He had a bad night.”

Tobin nods, her hands finding Christen’s shoulders, her thumbs rubbing circles across Christen’s impossibly soft skin.

“He kept me after the performance to yell at me about my hair,” Christen says. Her voice is slightly muffled because she’s basically talking right into Tobin’s thigh. “I’ve been wearing it curly in most of the performances, but I had it straightened last time just coincidentally, and I think he might’ve thought that I was going back to it for good. So when he saw me tonight, he sort of…flipped.”

Christen visibly shudders. Tobin feels her jaw clenching so tightly it aches. It aches with anger.

She moves her massage from Christen’s shoulder to her scalp, burying her hands in all that glorious hair—the most beautiful hair in the world.

“Your hair is perfect,” she says, reverently, and she means it with every fiber of her being. She lets her fingers drift through the soft curls. The crown of a queen, and she gets to touch it. How lucky is she?

A bit at a loss for words, she leans down, presses a hard kiss on Christen’s hairline, hoping it expresses everything she’s feeling.

She thinks it works a little, because Christen’s eyes seem to brighten.

“Thanks, Tobes,” she says softly. She takes a deep breath, and then continues. “He threatened to put one of the other leads, one of my understudies, on instead of me. He said, I bet Jackie Groenen would love to go on tonight, and her hair never looks like a bird’s nest.”

Tobin lets out a vague, enraged sound.

“Please, please, let me kick him in the shins. Just once. I won’t break any bones. At least not any important ones.”

Christen laughs weakly. “Honestly, I was this close to doing it myself. But actually, Jackie was passing in the hallway and overheard him say that, and she actually came in and checked on me to see if I was okay.”

“Did she fight him?!” I would’ve fought him. I would’ve punched him right across the mouth—try calling my girlfriend’s hair a BIRD’S NEST one more time, I fucking dare you—

“I don’t blame her not fighting him. We’re all terrified of him, I think. And he’s our boss. But she did what she could, which was that she came in the room, and she made up some excuse to get me out of the situation, and in front of Mateo, she said, ‘Hey, you look really great today, Christen.’” Christen chuckles. “That takes some nerve. Anyway, I think that’s what they teach you in bystander training anyway, right? De-escalate the situation, and then resolve.”

“That sounds nice…” Tobin says. She thinks, in a vague way, that she’d probably be pretty bad at de-escalation. Then she remembers how Christen had said she didn’t have many friends at the company. It would be great if she felt like she had someone in her corner. “Did you talk with her afterwards? Jackie?”

“Yeah, she asked if I was okay, and I said I wasn’t, really.” Christen gives Tobin a ghost of a smile. “I never would’ve been so honest before. I would’ve hidden it. But I think you’re the one who’s been teaching me how to be more vulnerable with myself. So thanks, Tobin.”

‘“I don’t think I really did anything, Chris—”

Christen sits up, fully, and her face is suddenly so close to Tobin that Tobin can feel her breath on her lips as she says, “What was that, baby?”

Tobin chuckles, and even the tiny movement as she laughs is enough for her lips to brush up against Christen’s. “I meant, you’re welcome,” she quips, and Christen giggles triumphantly, and rewards Tobin with a soft kiss.

“So Jackie and I talked, and it was weird, but nice—I think it was the first time I’ve had a real, honest conversation with one of the other girls, as strange as that sounds.” Christen snuggles into Tobin’s side. “And you know what’s crazy?”

“Hm?”

“I think that I almost want the abuse to be worse, and I want people to overhear.” Christen bites her lip, and her brow creases as she thinks. “Every time Mateo does something, it’s like, yes, this is as bad as I thought. I haven’t been making this up. Maybe I can put this in the article. And when he lashes out at me, and insults me, and it’s overheard like it was tonight, I think, when the article’s published, maybe Jackie can vouch for me with the other dancers.” Christen shakes her head. “Isn’t that delusional? That I’m in a position where I’m like, wishing to be verbally abused?”

“If you’re asking me if you’re delusional, the answer is no, you absolutely are not,” Tobin says firmly. “I mean, I’m no psychologist or anything, but it feels normal that you’re looking for reasons to validate what you’re thinking, you know?”

Christen leans her head on Tobin’s shoulder, eyes staring off into the distance, at the rain that’s lashing against the dark windows. Tobin settles a steady, heavy arm over her shoulder. They just breathe together for a few minutes.

“I just…I just love dancing,” Christen finally says. “It’s what makes me, me. It’s like with you and soccer, right?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Tobin nods. “There’s no time I feel more alive than what I’m taking my position before a game. It’s like…colors are brighter, lines are sharper.” As she speaks, she can almost smell that sharp, sweet smell of freshly-cut grass, hear the roar of the crowds, feel that low, steady, grounding sound of her heartbeat in her ears. “And if you asked me in that moment what else I would be doing with my life, I just wouldn’t have an answer. It just couldn’t be anything but this.”

“Yes. That’s it. That’s exactly it.” Christen smiles. “That’s exactly how I feel right before the curtain goes up. Like the colors are brighter. Like everything couldn’t be more…right. Maybe I should work that into my article draft.” She glances up at Tobin with adoring eyes. “Baby, thank you for pushing me to write this article. For so long, I thought I could just put my head down and tough through Mateo’s treatment, but now that there’s suddenly this light at the end of the tunnel—I just can’t imagine going through it for any longer. Every second of it seems more agonizing. I just want it to be over.”

“How’s the article coming along right now?”

“I emailed the second draft, the one you read the other day, to Alyssa and Petra. After another round of edits, Petra’s going to send it to her contact in the Opinions office of the Chicago Tribune. They’ll accept it or reject it, and maybe they’ll want extra revisions.”

Tobin’s arm tightens around Christen’s shoulders. “And how are you feeling about it?”

“Good. Good, I think.” Christen’s fingers twist around each other, the way they do when she’s anxious. “I’m nervous. But—this is my career, my art, my passion. I need to take it back. I feel like I’ve been letting him strip it away from me, piece by piece, for years.”

“It’s not his to take,” Tobin said fiercely. She remembered her lowest period over the summer, when soccer stopped bringing her that same joy it always had, when her feet and heart felt leaden and cold every time she stepped out onto the field. She hated, hated the thought of that happening to Christen. “Don’t let him take that joy away from you. Fight for it. This art is yours, you hear me? This joy is yours.”

“This joy is mine,” Christen echoes.

Her voice is soft, but there’s no tremor in it.

“Um, speaking of which…” Tobin says. She suddenly feels shy, for some reason. “I’ve got something for you.”

“Really?!” Christen’s eyes go wide. “Something else?”

“What do you mean, something else?” Tobin asks, her forehead wrinkling in thought. “I haven’t gotten you anything yet.”

“Are you kidding?” Christen ticks off on her fingers as she counts. “The Christmas tree. The picnic. Um, the food you bought us at the Christmas market. All the food you cook for me. The foot massages…”

“Okay, okay,” Tobin relents, rolling her eyes. “Those don’t count, though. They’re not a…a present. A thing.” Tobin reaches down behind her, where she’d placed the package on the floor earlier, and picks it up.

The wrapping is simple—just a silky brown ribbon wrapped around a white tissue-paper bundle. It sits heavy in Tobin’s lap as she looks down at it. She wonders if it’s worthy. It’s not even a real present. Maybe she won’t like it. Maybe she’ll think it’s weird.

“I don’t know when I was thinking about giving this to you,” she hedges, trying to buy time, trying to get up her nerve to hand it over. “Maybe at Christmas, or before your last Nutcracker performance, or something. But Mal said it should be today.”

Christen’s eyes, already luminous and soft, grow even softer. “Mal is in on this?”

“Yeah,” Tobin grins. “I might’ve told you a little white lie earlier. I wasn’t on the phone with Becky. Well, I had called Becky for captaining advice after I left therapy—but when you got back to the apartment, I’d been on the phone with Mal.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Tobin chuckles. “She was super weirded out when I called her Becky and hung up on her.”

“And what part did Mal play in this gift?” Christen asks curiously.

“Well, she helped me…well, it’s not really a gift. I guess. It might be. But it’s not like it wasn’t already…well, okay, just—here.” Tobin thrusts it out towards Christen, her face already starting to heat up a little. “Take it.”

As it passes from Tobin’s hands into Christen’s, Christen hefts it in her hands, tracing her fingers around the shape inside the tissue paper.

“Hey, don’t cheat like that,” Tobin whines, antsy. “Just open it.”

Christen’s fingers trace teasingly along the edge of the ribbon. She looks up at Tobin. “Are you nervous?”

“Maybe,” Tobin admits, her face burning even brighter. “I just feel like I’m not a great gift-giver. It doesn’t come natural and…I just want you to like it, I guess. That’s all.”

“I’m absolutely sure I’ll like it,” Christen says, shooting Tobin a reassuring smile as she tugs at the ribbon. It falls gracefully out of its bow, and with careful fingers, Christen smooths the tissue paper aside.

When she sees what’s inside, her eyes go wide, and she brings her hands up to cover her mouth.

“Tobin—” she gasps. “Did you do this?”

Tobin scratches the back of her neck with one hand. “Yeah. Mal helped.”

In awe, Christen picks up the pair of pointe shoes. They’re finished to perfection, the ribbons carefully sewn on with Tobin’s tiny, meticulous stitches. And on top of that, as a finishing touch—and maybe this is why Christen’s eyes are filling up with tears—they’ve been carefully dyed brown, to match Christen’s skin. The satiny sheen of the fabric shines under the soft golden light of Christen’s bedroom.

“You said the other day that you kept a bunch of new shoes in your closet, and you said you don’t really like sewing them, and that your mom used to do them for you, and—I don’t know if you knew this, but I can sew, and I don’t mind doing it, so I just thought I’d do a pair for you,” Tobin rambles. “I looked at one of your other pairs, to make sure I was getting it right. And then I remembered how Mal said you taught her how to dye her shoes, so I called her up and asked her how to do it.”

Christen’s still not saying anything, so Tobin chatters on nervously. “And sorry, I know, it’s not actually a gift or anything. I’m not actually sure why I wrapped them. I mean, they’re your shoes already, and I just took them out of your closet. But I just thought that, if you thought I did okay—you know, if I didn’t really fuck up the sewing, or the dyeing, or anything—well, I could sew them for you from now on, whenever you need them—”

“Tobin,” Christen interrupts.

Tobin looks up, finally. Their eyes meet.

The intensity of emotion in Christen’s eyes makes Tobin shiver.

Christen leans forward, catches Tobin’s mouth in her own.

“I love it,” Christen murmurs through her kisses, edging closer, folding herself up in Tobin’s lap, wrapping her legs around Tobin’s waist. “I love it. I love it so much—god, Tobin, it’s the best thing anyone has ever given me—”

Tobin feels light-headed, like joy is running in quick, silvery electric currents through her body, and she doesn’t know if it’s the kissing or the words or both—

“They’re just your shoes,” she protests weakly, and Christen kisses her so fiercely that they tip backwards onto the bed, Christen falling on top of Tobin, her hair tickling the sides of Tobin’s neck.

“But you made them,” Christen insists. She pecks another kiss on Tobin’s lips, then across her cheek, then on her spot on Tobin’s jawline, and ends with a smattering of kisses along the side of neck before she buries her face in Tobin’s collarbone and snuggles in, resting one hand gently just above Tobin’s heart. “You created them, in a way. So they’re yours, too, now.”

“I guess they are.” Tobin grins. She can feel her heart racing against the light pressure of Christen’s fingertips. “I wanted you to have them tonight. I know you were having a rough day, at practice, and the performance, and…” Tobin squeezes Christen harder against her. “I thought that this could be a good reminder. That you belong in this space. That this art is yours.”

Christen’s eyes light up, and her smile does too, and her whole face, and it’s the most beautiful thing Tobin’s ever seen.  All of a sudden Christen’s scrambling back up, reaching for the shoes still sitting on the bed beside them. “I want to dance in them.”

“You don’t have to do it right now,” Tobin says, even though it suddenly feels like the only thing that matters in the entire world is seeing Christen with these pointe shoes on. Their shoes. “It’s been a long day—you’ve been dancing for hours.”

But Christen is already pulling off her socks, examining the shoes, slipping her feet into them. The color of the shoe matches her skin perfectly, and Christen lies on her back and arches her feet in the air, admiring the long, unbroken line it creates with her legs. Then she sits up and finishes tying the ribbons.

“Did I sew them okay?” Tobin says, still worried.

Christen responds by leaning over and kissing her, firmly, fiercely, curling her tongue against Tobin’s for one long, tantalizing second. Then suddenly she’s gone again, up on her feet, whirling towards the front room. Tobin, as if led by a string tugging her after Christen, propels herself up off the bed and follows.

In the front room, which is dark except for the candles in the corner and the glint of far-off city lights, Christen is standing in front of the mirrors—in the middle of that vast expanse of empty hardwood floor, in her black leotard, in the new shoes. She’s arching her feet, bobbing up onto point and then back down, testing out the shoes, as she pulls her hair up into a loose ponytail. Tobin plugs in the Christmas lights on the garlands, which bathes the entire space in a dark, ethereal, golden glow, and settles cross-legged against the wall to watch. The rain is still pouring down, lashing ferociously against the glass windows, half-obscuring the gold-and-silver spots of distant skyscraper windows.

“I remember the first time I saw you dance,” Tobin says dreamily.

Christen glances over. “At the theater?”

“Nope. It was actually right here.” Tobin lifts her eyes and looks around the room. It feels sacred, somehow. “It was that first night, when we came back here after the Nike interview, and I took Morena out for a walk. When we came back in, you were practicing by yourself. You were wearing a black leotard, just like now, and the lights were low, and the candles were burning, and…god, I think I felt my life change, watching you.”

Christen’s smile has grown a little shy. “Felt your life change, huh?”

She twirls on one foot, the planes of her dark skin shining under the lights, and Tobin feels it again.

Feels herself go light-headed. Feels the world shift under her feet.

Tobin swallows hard. It doesn’t feel scary, somehow, to say the truth out loud. “Yeah. Felt my life change.”

Christen puts on some music. Something classical, something vaguely familiar to Tobin. It’s haunting and slow. It mingles with the distant clamor of the raindrops outside.

And then Christen moves. She goes up on pointe, her eyes flutter closed as her arms lift slowly up into the air, as if they’re being lifted by the notes floating around them. She leans with the music, she spins. The curves in her muscular legs flex, every sinew reflected in the dim glow of the lights. There’s a dreaminess in her eyes, and a freedom, as she sways and whirls to no particular choreography.

Tobin sits silent, almost afraid to breathe, as Christen twirls, around and around, her arms drifting gracefully behind her, her chin lifted proudly. She goes up on one pointed toe, her other leg arcing high in the air above her, and floats there, still as a statue, for a breathless moment. The way her back bends, her toes point, the way she leaps in the air, suspended in stillness. It’s like she’s becoming the notes she’s hearing. The kind of movement where she’s moving until she’s melding into the music itself. Art incarnate.

In Tobin’s eyes, she seems to be moving in the slowest of motions in the whirl of golden lights behind her. Her hair drifts like a wave behind her, like it’s floating through water.

And suddenly this is all there is. Christen, and her movement, is all there is. As if this darkened room is the entire universe, and Christen is the god that sets the darkness into motion. It makes Tobin feel restless, hungry, desperate with some undefinable longing. Like there’s something ethereal and fleeting that she needs to capture.

All reason and logic in the world is wrapped up in the flex of Christen’s thighs, in the curve of her neck.

She doesn’t know how long she sits there, trancelike and dreaming, just watching Christen move.

Slowly—almost in a daze, like she’s hypnotized—she feels herself rising to her feet. She feels like she’s not breathing, not thinking, as she takes one step towards Christen, then another.

Christen looks over her shoulder just in time to see Tobin coming up behind her. She’s barely paused from her dancing when Tobin crashes into her, kissing her frantically, desperately, as if the only air she can survive off of is the air in Christen’s lungs.

Christen turns, squaring their hips, and Tobin worships Christen’s mouth with her own, her rough hands skimming up the sides of Christen’s arms, to her shoulders, to rest on her neck, and then to cradle her face in her hands. Tobin molds herself up against Christen, as tight as she can. Their lips move against each other’s, unrushed and sensuous, and Tobin groans at the feeling of Christen’s lithe, smooth fingers skimming the waistband of her sweatpants, creeping upwards to palm against her flexing abs. 

At the touch, her kisses grow a little rougher—she bites down on Christen’s earlobe, starting to leave a trail of kisses back behind her ear, making Christen arch her back and gasp. Her hands press hungrily down the glistening planes of Christen’s back, then flit even lower.

“Oh, god, Tobin…” Christen whimpers through their kisses. Teeth clash, tongues curl insistently around each other. “I…I’m all sweaty,” she sighs, as if self-conscious.

“Even better,” Tobin rasps out, and she tongues a wet, insistent line up the column of Christen’s neck, as if proving her point. Christen groans in response and snakes her fingers through Tobin’s hair, tipping Tobin’s chin back, kissing her back with equal fervor. The soft tugs on Tobin’s hair make her moan aloud. Make her grab at Christen’s waist and pull her closer. Make her hips grind up rhythmically, over and over, against Christen’s, which elicits the sweetest sounds in the world from Christen’s throat.

Tobin’s planting a string of urgent, hot kisses down Christen’s neck, over her collarbone, then further down, and is easing the straps of her leotard off her shoulders when Christen seems to rouse herself from her daze again. “Baby, oh—oh, my god—” she cuts herself off with a groan. (Tobin has successfully gotten the leotard off her shoulders.) “I still need to stretch—”

Tobin smirks up at her. “Oh, don’t worry, babe, I’ll stretch you.”

“Tobin!” Christen throws back her head and laughs, but her eyes begin to smolder as Tobin sweeps her up into her arms in one smooth motion. As she carries her towards the bed, the lights twinkle. The music plays on.


Afterwards, in the warm haze...

Tobin can’t wipe the tired, warm, satisfied smile off her face,

She traces a reverent line down Christen’s back with a fingertip. She admires the sheen of her skin in the low light. She kisses her way up Christen’s spine, savoring the sensation of Christen’s silky soft skin under her lips, inch by inch until she can bury her face in Christen’s hair.

Christen turns around with a soft laugh, and she kisses Tobin, and Tobin feels herself blossoming.

Christen tries to leave the bed, and Tobin tries to pout in protest, and fails miserably. She can’t stop smiling.

“I have to get ready for bed,” Christen whispers, and Tobin’s already starting to doze off, so she only puts up the slightest resistance, only grabs a little, teasingly, at Christen’s waist, her wrists, before dropping back down into the nest of blankets.

(She almost combusts at the view of Christen’s body from behind, silhouetted against the light as she saunters slowly towards the bathroom.)

(Christen turns in the doorway and arches an eyebrow as her eyes meet Tobin’s, and Tobin doesn’t even care that she was caught ogling, that she was clearly set up to ogle.)

The rain outside has eased down into a faint drizzle. The room is warm. It smells like the almond lotion Christen uses before bed. She’s already started to drift off to sleep, but she’s roused again when Christen slips into bed a little while later, dressed in an oversized t-shirt. Christen snuggles down into the pillows, and almost unthinkingly—like it’s the most natural motion in the world—she reaches out a hand in the dark and finds Tobin’s.

Chapter Text

“Tobin, baby.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re making me a little dizzy.”

“Oh.” Tobin plants her feet on the ground, and the stool lurches to a stop. The furniture store is spinning before her eyes. “Yeah, I think I made myself a little dizzy too.”

Christen steps into her line of sight, and it takes a while for her to come into focus, but through the haze, Tobin can see she’s smiling.

“You’re cute,” Christen says.

You’re cute,” Tobin retorts. The room’s still spinning. She reaches out a hand to grab Christen’s cheek, so she can pull her close, but her dizzy fingers close around thin air as Christen throws her head back and laughs.

“You’re just a couple feet off, baby,” Christen says, reaching over to reposition Tobin’s hand. “Were you looking for me?”

“I was looking for you,” Tobin confirms, a dopey smile spreading across her face as Christen brings their intertwined hands up against her cheek.

“Sooo…I think that’s a no to these stools,” Christen chuckles, pulling Tobin to her feet with a little tug.

“Aw, man, really?” Tobin laughs, still a little unsteady on her feet, giving the plush suede seats one last pat. “I thought they were a winner.”

She follows along as Christen checks a list on her phone and starts to make her way out of the store. One thing she’s learned this morning is that Christen is a no-nonsense shopper when she’s on a mission. Tobin wants to flop down on every bed and pretend to eat at every dining table she passes. Christen indulges her with sweet smiles and good-natured eye-rolls, but her eye is on the prize. They came for bar stools, and she’s bar stool shopping.

Still, Tobin is more than happy to follow along, to admire the adorable concentration in Christen’s eyes, to say, “Yes, babe, that looks great,” whenever Christen seeks her confirmation.

(It gives her little chills down her spine that Christen cares what she thinks. As if they’re buying these bar stools together. For a space they share.)

Everything has been going well, Tobin thinks, as they make their way down the freezing, windy street to another store, their fifth of the morning. This is really good.

Too good to be true?

The thought blazes through her consciousness before she even realizes, before she can stop it.

She immediately tamps it down. She knows it’s not true. She knows there’s no basis for any pessimism.

But she's feeling a little...off. She’d woken up this morning with her head pounding, with a bit of a strange, emotional ache in her chest that she couldn’t quite place. As if she’d lurched awake from a bad nightmare that she couldn’t remember having. It feels…well, it feels like the way she used to wake up earlier this year, before she met Christen. The recollection of those dark summer days, head pounding, heart heavy, solitary and groggy and vaguely nauseous in her apartment, sends a visceral shudder down her spine.

She wonders vaguely if her body is trying to self-sabotage this good thing that she and Christen have.

As Christen pauses at the door of the next store, she smiles over her shoulder at Tobin.

Nothing’s going on. Why ruin the day over something so weird and trivial? You’re feeling a little under the weather for no reason; you’ll get over it. Don’t put a damper on this cute, domestic furniture-shopping adventure. Not when Christen’s so excited about it.

So Tobin smiles back and follows Christen through the door.

This next store is ostentatiously fancy and nearly empty, with dim, recessed lighting illuminating furniture that looks stiff and unwelcoming. Somehow, it feels colder inside than it does outside.

“I’m going wander a little,” Christen says, her soft voice echoing a little off the dark surfaces and high ceilings, and Tobin nods absentmindedly, checking the price tag on a nearby armchair.

Her eyes pop out of her head. “Holy shit,” she murmurs to herself. $4,599 for an armchair?

She starts to laugh, starts to make a comment about it to Christen, but she looks up to see the tail of Christen’s fancy forest green peacoat already disappearing around a corner, beelining towards the stools.

Tobin lets out a chuckle at the sight of her cute girlfriend on her single-minded shopping mission. Still smiling a little, she pulls her ragged beanie down over her head and sticks her cold hands in the pockets of her puffy orange blazer as she wanders through the imposing displays. She passes a set-up of a living room, with dark leather couches and a fancy dark wood coffee table. There’s a tray on the coffee table set with a couple candles and empty wine glasses. Tobin flops down on the sofa and pulls out her phone. The screen is dark, no calls or texts. She swipes the screen on to double-check, anyway.

Nope, nothing.

She reaches for one of the wine glasses on the tray and absentmindedly twirls in her hand to check the price tag.

Her eyes go wide. $170? For a fucking wine glass?

Well, I suppose Christen does spend $140 on foundation, so who knows, maybe this is her kind of—

“Ma’am?”

Tobin’s head shoots up, and she jumps when she sees a silver-haired man in a suit looming ominously over her. She flails upright so that she’s sitting properly instead of lounging, nearly dropping the wine glass as she does.

“Is there anything with which I can assist you with finding today?”

“Uh…” Tobin quickly sets the wine glass down, but she fumbles it, and it knocks precariously into one of the nearby candles, and that topples. She breathes out a sigh of relief that it doesn’t break, and she hurries to straighten it all up.

The whole time, the man is staring down his nose at her, stone-faced.

As soon as she sets the display aright, Tobin shrinks back from it as if it’s burned her. “I…uh—”

“Are you planning on purchasing anything, ma’am?”

“What? I mean…maybe.” Tobin can feel herself flushing red. At the question, she feels strangely guilty about her very presence in the store. The man hasn’t said anything rude. Not exactly. But he’s lingering strangely close to her, with that look on his face, like he just caught a whiff of something rotten.

Suddenly, what little fun was left in the shopping adventure has seeped out of her. Her spirits have gone from only hypothetically bad—a level of bad that could plausibly be denied—to really, really, undeniably shitty. Self-conscious, head pounding, under-dressed, tongue-tied, she stammers, “Yeah, I’m, we’re, looking for st—”

“If you’re not planning to make a purchase, ma’am…” the man interrupts, a weary, condescending expression on his face. He doesn’t finish his sentence, but the sentiment is clear: If you’re not planning to make a purchase, ma’am, then stop knocking over our expensive things and get the fuck out, please.

She stops; she almost says sorry. But there’s an undercurrent of righteous indignance—the feeling that she doesn’t have anything to apologize for—and maybe that’s why she doesn’t apologize, not yet, though the word sorry is drifting towards the tip of her tongue as she looks frantically around for—

“Tobin? Where are you? I just got a call from Petra—” There’s a rush of footsteps, and Christen suddenly rounds a corner. In her long peacoat, pristine leather boots, and designer purse, she sends a very different first impression than Tobin. The salesman turns towards her, straightening his shoulders, a suddenly winsome smile on his face.

Christen stares in confusion from him to Tobin, who’s still sitting shrunken and uncertain on the couch, and recognition begins to blossom on her face.

“Ma’am!” The man says, and he’s all smiley and sweet. He had greeted Tobin with the same word just a minute ago, but his pivot from scornful to obsequious could not have been more apparent. “And how may I help you today? Are you looking for anything in particular?”

Christen steps up next to Tobin, laying a protective hand on her shoulder as she fixes the man with a stare. “How can you help us today, you mean. We’re together.”

“Oh!” The man says. He’s got a good poker face. He bobs his head in an eager nod. “Yes, of course. How can I, uh, help you ladies today?”

Christen opens her mouth to reply, but then glances again at Tobin, who’s still staring awkwardly down at the floor, trying to make herself as small as possible. “Actually,” Christen says, brisk and certain, “we were just leaving.”

Tobin’s head shoots up, surprised. “Chris, you didn’t want to look around more?”

“No, I’m not interested in looking around here anymore,” Christen says firmly, and right in the man’s forlorn face, she turns towards Tobin with a smile and an outstretched hand. “Ready?”

“Yeah.” Tobin takes Christen’s hand as she stands. She feels Christen’s fingers soften—conscious and considerate, always, of the fact that Tobin might still be uncomfortable holding hands in public—but Tobin needs the extra reassurance just now, and she continues to grip Christen’s hand, tight, like a lifeline. She feels Christen squeeze back, comfortingly, as they march away from the salesman and out of the store.  

“Are you okay?” Christen asks as soon as they emerge into the bright sunshine. As they wander a few steps down the sidewalk, she turns to face Tobin, and their hands slip from each other’s.

“Yeah.” Tobin says automatically. She doesn’t realize it’s a lie until it’s out. The word hangs false and heavy in the frigid air between them.

Christen tips her head to the side. “Tobin, talk to me. What did he say to you?”

“He didn’t say anything. He…it was nothing. It’s fine.”

Tobin—

“What did Petra want?” Tobin interrupts. “You said she called?”

She’s mad at herself, she realizes, almost subconsciously. For being in a weird mood to begin with. For letting that man get into her head. She’s mad at herself for making a big deal out of nothing. She just wants to forget about it.

The look in Christen’s eye says the opposite—she’s not going to let Tobin forget about it.

“We can talk about Petra later,” Christen says dismissively.

“You said she called. It must have been something important,” Tobin insists. “Was it about the article? Did they accept it?”

Christen doesn’t answer, and she doesn’t have to; Tobin can tell by the look on her face that she’s just hit the nail on the head.

Well, if Tobin wasn’t fixated on shoving her own feelings aside before, she is now.

Frustration courses through her. At herself, but also at Christen, for letting Tobin’s nothingness sidetrack her from things that are actually important. “Come on, Chris, just tell me what she said on the phone.”

Christen huffs out a breath, then begrudgingly says, “Okay, well, Petra called. While we were in the furniture store. She says…” Christen bites her lip between her teeth. “She said she wanted to get lunch. That she had news. I think it’s about the article—”

“That’s good! That’s important. Go to lunch,” Tobin says incredulously. There's an edge to her voice. “What are you still doing, standing here talking to me?”

Christen’s jaw drops open in disbelief. “What do you mean? I just want to make sure you’re okay. You’ve been acting weird all day.” (Tobin’s heart drops into her stomach at the words. Guess I wasn’t being as subtle as I thought.) “You really think I’d just skip off to lunch after what just happened in the store?”

“Nothing happened!” It’s not quite a straight-up denial of the truth, Tobin reasons to herself, because it is nothing, nothing compared to the monumental, life-changing decision that Christen’s about to have to make. “Chris, stop deflecting—”

“Oh, I’m the one deflecting?!”

Now they’re both standing with arms crossed, expressions icy, tones low (after all, they’re in the middle of the downtown sidewalk) but clipped and scoffing. Tobin feels her dormant frustrations and anxiety, building and building since this morning, starting to swell inside her, about to burst at the seams.

Then Christen laughs.

Her expression softens, and she chuckles down at the sidewalk, then glances up at Tobin—all the anger out of her eyes, in an instant. As Tobin watches—as she drinks in the sight of that smile she loves so much—she feels her own frustration deflate a little. It’s as if Christen’s found a safety valve, turned the knob, let out the heightened emotions through a vent just in time to save them from the inevitable explosion.

What?” Tobin says, but her voice cracks a little, and she feels herself softening. “Chris, what’s so funny?”

Christen bites her lip, still chuckling a little. “I was just thinking—our first real fight, and it’s because we’re both trying too hard to take care of each other."

With that, any ounce of remaining anger leaves Tobin’s body.

“I mean, you’re important,” she protests, but she has to laugh a little too. “This is important for you, Chris. This is like, a pivotal, super important moment for you, and you're not paying enough attention to it!”

“You’re important too.” Christen reaches out and grabs Tobin’s hand. “Okay, I promise, I wasn’t trying to minimize this call from Petra. I’m going to go lunch, I’m going to take this conversation with her seriously. But can you blame me for checking in on you? I do want to make sure you’re okay. If you can look me in the eye and swear you’ve been totally fine all day, I’ll let it go.”

Tobin looks Christen dead in the eye, soft and earnest and serious.

“You know I haven’t been fine,” she finally concedes. “But…I don’t even know what it is. I didn’t want to talk about it right now because I wouldn’t even know what to say, and we’d just stand here on this fucking sidewalk all day and talk in circles straight through lunch. But we’ll talk, okay? After?” she pleads.

“Okay.” Christen nods, and her smile takes on a hopeful curl around the edges, and Tobin can tell that she’s just dying to lean in and give Tobin a kiss on the cheek, but she’s resisting the urge because they’re still on the sidewalk—

So Tobin leans in instead, brushes the softest of kisses against Christen’s cheek, then another on her jawline right under her ear. When she pulls back, Christen’s smiling her most brilliant of smiles, the kind that makes her eyes crinkle up into little half-moons. She winds their hands together as they head off down the sidewalk, their steps in perfect sync.

“Hey, look at us: alittle speed-run from fighting to mature communication, in two minutes flat.” Christen laughs. “That fight could’ve been so much worse.”

“Um, first, I think you’re giving me too much credit here,” Tobin counters. “I was literally three seconds from imploding before you started laughing. And second, was that a fight? I feel like there’s a minimum threshold for a fight, like it should last for at least five minutes before it counts.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t a fight,” Christen concedes. “But I was mad at you. And you were mad at me, weren’t you?”

“Eh…” Tobin jokes, and gets an elbow in the ribs for her sass. “Okay! Fine, yeah, I was mad for a second. I just…I just felt like you weren’t taking the lunch seriously. It just feels like so much more of a big deal than whatever’s going on with me.”

Christen’s eyes soften, and she leans her cheek on Tobin’s shoulder as they walk. “Do you want to come with me?”

Tobin misses a step on the sidewalk. “Uh—to lunch? With you and Petra?”

Christen nods. “The restaurant she suggested was right around the corner from here. And she asked if you were free as well, and I said I’d check. But—you should only go if you want to. Knowing Petra, it’s going to be fancy, and I know you don’t love that scene, or making small talk with strangers, and—”

“Yes.”

Christen stops. “You sure, Tobin?” Christen reaches out a cautious hand and touches her fingertips to the spot on the underside of Tobin’s jaw. Christen’s spot. Even through her stress, and the strange, impending sense of doom she feels, the gesture melts Tobin’s heart.

“Yes.” Tobin repeats. She reaches up and clasps Christen’s hand in her own, then presses a firm kiss on their intertwined knuckles. “I’m sure, babe. I’m a hundred percent sure. Just tell me what you want me to do. I can weigh in on whatever she tells you, or I can just sit there in silence and nod a lot—whatever you need, okay? If you want me there, I’m there.”

Christen stands there and stares at Tobin for a second, an expression of wondrous disbelief on her face. She leans in—she looks like there’s something on the tip of her tongue—but then she just smiles. “Thanks, Tobin,” she says softly. “I’d…love it if you came.”

“Anything for you,” Tobin says, and as she says it, she realizes she means it, quite literally. And that should terrify her, but it doesn’t.

They walk hand in hand the rest of the way to the restaurant.

She feels her resolve wilt just a tiny bit when they arrive. The inside of the restaurant is sleek and dark, all gold finishings and velvet booths. The kind of place that makes you want to talk in a whisper, and walk around with your pinkies up, even if you’re not holding a cup.

The kind of place just like the furniture store they were just inside.

Christen gives Tobin’s hand an extra squeeze as they pause a few steps from the hostess’ station, but Tobin makes the first move. She said anything for you, and she means it. “Uh, reservation under Parrington? For…three?” she guesses. The hostess gives them a nod and a gracious, welcoming smile, and she breathes a long sigh of relief as they walk behind her towards their back booth.

“Here you are,” the hostess says, gesturing them into the booth. “I’ll be right back with your water and menus. Please let me know if you need anything.”

Under the tablecloth, Tobin grasps Christen’s hand in her own, rubbing her thumb comfortingly over Christen’s, over and over. “Are you nervous?” Tobin asks.

Christen lets out a long, anxious breath. “Yeah. Not about the lunch, but more…in general. About the decisions to be made.” She smooths her hair back, once, twice. “I think I’m going to go to the restroom real fast,” she murmurs. “I’ll be right back, baby.”

In Christen’s absence, Tobin examines the bewildering array of utensils on the table—geez, how many forks does a person need?—and then at the crystal glasses that shimmer under the dim light. She remembers, almost with affection, that night that she and the girls were leaving the dive bar, and they had run into Christen and Mal on the sidewalk after their fancy business dinner. They’d probably been in a restaurant just like this. Petra might have been there that night; probably Mateo, too.

Back then, to her, Christen had just been the mean girl in the flower crown, the one on all the billboards.

Standing there in the freezing night air, she had snarked at Christen and Mal about their glamorous, over-the-top dinner, and then she’d walked home in the freezing cold, as penance.

How times have changed, she thinks fondly. Who could have predicted, on that day, that Christen and Mal would soon be two of her favorite people in the city? The only constant is that I still have no idea how to handle myself in a restaurant like this. She picks up a tiny spoon and is squinting closely at it, examining the silver filigree work along the edge, when she hears Christen’s returning footsteps behind her.

“Chris, we’ll have to order the same thing so I can copy which forks you’re using,” she jokes, and then she looks up into the face of Petra Parrington.

“Oh, shit!” she adds, dropping the spoon into her plate with a loud clatter.

Everyone’s staring now. I repeat: oh, shit.

Petra sinks into the seat across from Tobin, observing her with keen, discerning eyes. Tobin sits in total mortification, trying to think of something redeeming to say.

“So, uh.” She coughs. “Hi? I’m Tobin.”

Petra purses her lips. There’s a long moment of silence. Then she leans in. “Can I let you in on a little secret?” she says calmly, unfurling her cloth napkin with a flourish, “Only the snobs care which fork you use, darling.”

Tobin lets out a breathy, relieved laugh. “Oh. Okay, yeah. I’ll remember that.”

Petra winks. “But also, should you one day, heaven forbid, find yourself caring what the snobs think, the rule of thumb is to work from the outside in.”

“Ah.” Tobin looks down at the array again, and somehow, it looks less intimidating now. “Outside in. Gotcha.”

“I expect you’ll one day be accompanying Christen to many a snob's event.” Petra leans back in her chair and give Tobin another one of those discerning looks. “I’m very glad she’s found someone like you. From everything she's told me about you, you're someone with a good head on their shoulders. Who cares about Christen, as a person, more than any accompanying fortune and fame.”

“She's talked to you about me?” Tobin says hesitantly. She’s not used to receiving such praise. “Well, uh, thank you. That's very kind of you to say. I hope I can live up to that.”

“She can. She does.”

Tobin feels a hand on her shoulder as she hears the words. She turns to see Christen standing over her, smiling softly. “Hi, Petra,” Christen adds, as Petra rises to her feet in greeting. They exchange breezy air kisses on both cheeks. Christen looks all sweet and gracious, and you would never guess for a second that she was nervous, Tobin thinks in admiration. “Thanks again for calling. And I see you’ve met my girlfriend, Tobin.”

Tobin feels pleasant shivers down her spine at the word girlfriend. She knows she’s introduced Christen as her girlfriend to the other Red Stars, but it feels different, more weighted, when it’s an authority figure on the receiving end.

They make it through their appetizer on small talk—holiday plans, TV shows. Tobin finds herself relaxing a little. Petra is dressed to the nines in a dark dress and a floral suit jacket with that dim sheen of luxury, and every strand of her silver hair is perfectly coiffed, but her demeanor is affectionate and casual. Tobin had always written herself off as being bad at meeting new people, especially older folks, but now she’s wondering if she’s just been hanging out with the wrong older folks.

And then, as their entrée plates arrive, Petra’s face takes on a serious expression. “So, Christen,” she says, “as I mentioned on the phone, I’ve heard back from the Chicago Tribune.”

Christen gulps audibly. “Yes?”

Tobin looks over and sees that Christen’s hands are shaking on the napkin in her lap.

“I’ll start by saying, your editorial is extremely well-written. It’s convincing, it’s fluid. It showcases Mateo’s brutality clearly.”

Tobin reaches over under the tablecloth and rests one hand on Christen’s, just the lightest touch to signal her support. Immediately, Christen grasps Tobin’s hand in both of her own and clenches on tight.

Petra’s face is a mix of pride and worry. “The Tribune loves it, and they want to publish as is, with no revisions.”

“Oh.” Christen nods. A pleased smile crosses her face for a second, rapidly replaced by an expression of shocked realization. Worry lines begin to appear on her forehead. “Oh. Okay. What now?”

“Now…you choose.” The words are simple, but they settle like a loaded weight around the table. “Now that the newspaper is fully on board, the ultimate decision is in your hands. As soon as you give the go ahead, they’ll move towards publication.”

“Oh,” Christen repeats. For once, she seems stunned speechless. She glances down at her lap, then back up to Petra, then over to Tobin.

Tobin can’t bear to see the worry on her face. “Chris, it’s up to you,” she urges softly. On instinct, she scoots her chair closer to Christen’s. “You don’t have to answer now.”

“Tobin’s exactly correct,” Petra says with an affirming nod. “In fact, you shouldn’t answer now. I want you to take time. Think hard about it. Think about the factors.”

Christen nods almost imperceptibly. “Yes, the factors.” She gulps. “I know. I know it’s the right thing to do—”

“It needs to be not only the right thing to do, but the right thing for you to do,” Petra says, and Tobin feels relief wash over her. It’s not just relief, it’s…safety. Hearing Petra's advice, she feels sure that Petra is on their side. That Petra’s got Christen’s best interests at heart.

But at the same time, the full weight of the decision hits her, and she’s more frightened for Christen than she’s ever been. The factors, Petra had said. For a second, Tobin lets herself dwell on the factors. What if the article comes out and people are vicious? What if they attack Christen? What if it’s more than Christen can handle? What if I won’t know how to support her?

As if reading Tobin’s mind, Petra gives them both a fond, reassuring smile. “Christen, I’m proud of you,” she says. “You’re a brave, brave girl. You’ve already endured more than you ever should have. I know we’ve talked about this previously, and we’ve agreed that it is the right move, but I want you to go into this decision eyes wide open. Think on it. Let me know when you decide.”

Tobin’s nodding along earnestly, and it takes her a second to realize that her name is being said aloud.

“Tobin, I’m proud of you too.”

Tobin blinks. She stares from Petra to Christen, then back. The sight of Tobin’s absolutely dumbfounded face seems to break Christen out of her worried stupor, and she lets out a giggle.

“You’re proud of me?” Tobin asks. Her head spins. She can’t remember the last time she heard an authority figure, a parental figure, say those words. Especially not someone like this intimidating, regal, stately, intelligent woman. Proud. Proud. It rolls around in her head, foreign. “You’re proud of me? You’re proud of me?”

Petra leans back in her chair. “You know, I was worried about Christen—I still am,” she admits. “But seeing you two together today, and knowing that you’re here to take care of her…it gives me great comfort. Ballet can be a lonely sport.” In her peripheral vision, Tobin can see Christen nodding vehemently. Petra reaches out her hand, and Christen takes it with a shaky little smile. “I know it has been for you, darling,” Petra says. She turns back to Tobin with that piercing gaze. “What Christen needs is to know that there’s someone on her team. And she can know that with you, right, Tobin?”

“Yes,” Tobin says immediately. “I’m her team, ma’am. We’re her team.”

Petra’s smile is wide and satisfied.

“Good,” she says simply. “Girls—whatever choice you end up making, wherever your careers take you, this?” She gestures between them. “This is the crucial thing. The team is the thing. Your tribe, your people. So you hold onto each other, you hear me?”

The moment feels solemn and weighty. Christen clings tight to Tobin and Petra’s hands.

“We hear you,” Tobin answers for both of them. “We’re not letting go.”


This is the crucial thing, Petra had said.

You hold onto each other, you hear me?

As they clamber back into the car after lunch, Tobin thinks on these words, and she reaches for Christen’s hand, and she holds on.

They sit for a while, Christen not making any move to turn the engine on.

“Sorry for being a brat earlier,” Tobin says, soft as a thought, into the stillness of the bitterly cold air. Her breath makes little clouds.

Christen takes a second to crank the heat up. She runs her thumb across the back of Tobin’s hand and turns to sit cross-legged in the driver’s seat. “Do you want to talk about you now, Tobes?”

Tobin lets out a long breath. She thinks of the way Petra’s words in the restaurant had pierced right through her: proud of you, don’t let the snobs get to you, you have a good head on your shoulders, I’m proud, I’m proud of you, Tobin.

 “Tobin?” Christen repeats, gentle, but insistent.

You should practice speaking your feelings into the light, her therapist would say. Just a couple sessions in, and her words are already starting to stick in Tobin’s head. You should think of them having worth. Being worthy.

“I guess I was…” Tobin bites her lips, thinks a little more. She's not quite sure where to start, so she decides to backtrack a little. “You remember that day when I visited the dance school for the first time, and the receptionist treated me like shit?”

There’s a black flame blazing at the back of Christen’s eyes. She nods. “Yes. I remember.”

“The store today…I guess it made me think of that again.”

“I’m sorry,” Christen says, and there’s pain laced through her words. “People are shallow, and judgmental…”

“But you’re not,” Tobin says. “And that day, at the school, I couldn’t believe the way you reacted. When you charged up to that receptionist afterwards, and announced to her that I was actually your friend? That I wasn’t lying about being your guest? I was just…”

Tobin feels her throat tightening up. She has to stop and look up, praying for the tears to stay in her eyes. They’ve felt suspiciously close to the surface all day today. Even before the store. Maybe that’s why the guy’s treatment of her suddenly made her feel so worthless, out of nowhere, like a cannonball.

“It was like…you weren’t ashamed of me.”

“Of course I wasn’t ashamed of you,” Christen says, and it’s immediate, and she says it with such burning conviction that Tobin immediately believes her. And that feels good. It feels incredible.

“And Petra, just now. She wasn’t ashamed of me either.”

“Of course she wasn’t.” Christen whispers. “Tobin, why would we be ashamed?”

A minute passes, and Tobin rubs her palms on her knees, which is one of her nervous tics.  

“Well, the guy in the store,” she hedges. “It was like there was something to be ashamed of.”

It was the way he’d looked at her, that strange mixture of horror and pity and condescension and disgust. The way Rory and her teammates had looked at her over the summer—when she was depressed because she was fucking everything up, and she was fucking everything up because she was depressed. Like the way the receptionist at the ballet school had looked at her.

Like my mom and dad looked at me that morning in the kitchen in Florida, her brain suddenly supplies.

Like everyone wants you gone, like everything would be better if you weren’t around.

There’s something there, rankling, right below the surface. There’s a reason why she woke up on edge today. Why she’s felt strangely close to tears, all morning, even though she was putting on a bright face as they meandered through store after store.

But she turns her head and stares at her phone sitting on the dashboard, dark and silent.

She sees her mother’s face in her memory again.

And she suddenly hears herself saying, “It’s just a few days until Christmas.”

Christen makes an affirmative little hum in her throat. She leans over to put her arms around Tobin. Her hands draw patient circles across Tobin’s arms.

“I guess I just—I just…”

Her voice wavers. The tears in her eyes blur the edges of the phone she’s staring at.  

“I don’t even think I realized that I was holding out hope for this until now…but I guess I thought they’d call.” Her voice cracks on the last word. “I really thought they’d call and ask me to come home for Christmas. After all.”

She turns her face into the crook of Christen’s shoulder and lets the tears fall. Under the current of the pain and disappointment, she’s also frustrated with herself. “I’m trying to get past this,” she sniffs. “I thought I was past this.”

But Christen doesn’t seem to mind. She’s holding tight to Tobin and whispering sweet, comforting little things in her ears.

“Hey, baby, it’s okay,” Christen says, barely more than a whisper. “You’re doing okay. You’re doing so great. Progress isn’t linear.”

And Christen's words give Tobin a little more strength—to sit up a little, to wipe her nose, to give herself a little grace.

“I dreamed about Florida last night,” she says.

She'd just remembered: she'd woken up this morning to fragments of the dream. Just sensations, really: the heat of the tropics against her skin. Flowers, pink and orange, bursting and blooming as far as the eye could see. Palm trees overhead.

She’d woken to a cold Chicago morning, and as she started getting ready for the day, she’d shoved the dream aside, forgetting it almost immediately.

But now that she’s struggling to recall it, it’s coming back to her, like a vision.

“Remember how I told you before, how I love Florida around Christmas? I dreamed about the sun. I was surrounded by flowers, and it was sunny and warm, and—” Tobin cuts herself off. The car is warming up. She presses her fingers to the vents and lets the blast of hot air wash over them. “I didn’t even remember dreaming it. At least consciously. But I think it’s been sitting with me all day.”

“And then the guy in the store reminded you…” Christen trails off.

“Yeah, that I’m worthless.”

“That people can’t see your worth,” Christen corrects. She leans over and looks deep into Tobin’s eyes. “Don’t break my heart by calling yourself worthless, you hear me?”

“Okay,” Tobin says meekly, wiping her face with her sleeve. She wants to say sorry, but she’s supposed to be working on that, too.

They sit there wrapped in each other for a little while longer, and then Christen sits up a little.

“Come on,” she says, “let’s get out of here.”


“Okay, see, this is un temps de chien,” Tobin says.

They’re standing side by side in front of Paris Street; Rainy Day, which takes up an entire wall to itself in the gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Tobin loves this painting. She loves the size of it, like if you stand right up close to it, it’s like you’re in the scene itself. She loves the lavender haze of the fog in the streets, the way you can almost feel the drizzle on your face and the chill in your toes.

“And they’re in Paris, so they’d even be saying it right,” Christen laughs. Through her laughter, Tobin can tell, she’s glancing sideways, checking on her.

And Tobin does feel better. She does. Christen always seems to know the right thing to do, the thing Tobin needs. And what Tobin needed today was a change of scenery. Some art. And some friends.

“So,” she says, glancing around the exhibit room. “Where to next? Who’s your favorite artist?”

Christen takes a moment to cast her eyes around at the masterpieces on the walls, but then her gaze falls back on Tobin. A smirk plays around the corners of her mouth. “I’m looking right at her.”

“Chris—” Tobin sputters, charmed speechless.  

Luckily, she’s saved by Casey.

“Christen, I like these!” Casey calls out. They look over to see Casey on her phone, zooming in on a picture of bar stools. “You should get these!”

“Casey,” Mal whines, popping up beside her, rolling her eyes. “You’re at an art museum. I can’t believe you’re looking at pictures of furniture on your phone.”

“One day, when you’re in your late twenties, girlie, you’ll discover how fun furniture shopping is.” Casey teases.

Mal makes a face. “Literally never. Okay, come on,” she says, tugging Casey’s elbow, “I wanna see the ballet exhibit.”

They round up Alyssa and Moe from the other side of the room and head off, with Mal in the lead.

Tobin and Christen bring up the rear of the group. They pause together in the doorway of the Degas exhibit room, and the memories of the first time they were there come rushing back to Tobin. Then, it had been an empty, sacred space, that felt like it was meant for just for the two of them. Today it’s bustling with other museum-goers. Then, Christen had been decked out in all her ballerina glory, in a tutu and tiara that sparkled with jewels. Today, she’s in a coat and boots.

But to Tobin, the moment feels no less magical than it did that night.

Slowly, she reaches over and nudges the back of her hand against Christen’s. Christen glances down at their hands, then over at Tobin, and a huge smile spreads across her face as Tobin interlocks their fingers, deliberately, one by one.

“You sure?” Christen says, hushed and careful, as Tobin leads her by the hand through the room. “I know there are people—I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”

In response, Tobin tugs them to a standstill, then whirls Christen around to face her.

“I’m sure,” she says, and kisses her.

It’s soft and chaste and quick, but Tobin can feel flowers bursting into life in her stomach, across the surface of her skin. She pulls back with a soft smile. There might be a few people staring. She doesn’t care.

“Right here, I think right on this very spot, is where we had our first kiss.”

“Hm, yeah, I think I remember,” Christen says, her smile radiant.

“We have to make it a tradition. We have to come back here for a kiss on our anniversary every year, or something.” Tobin’s face lights up as she thinks. “Or we have to kiss in a different museum, somewhere in the world, on our anniversary every year.”

Christen reaches up and brushes a loose strand of hair out of Tobin’s face. “You are such a big softie. You know that?”

“Only for you. Don’t blow the illusion of my street cred.”

“Okay, says the girl who buys her friends’ favorite foods for them, and is the best person with kids that I’ve ever seen, and who sews her girlfriend’s ballet shoes for her—”

“Hey, I already said it was an illusion,” Tobin laughs.

"—and dreams about flowers," Christen finishes her sentence. She gives Tobin a cheeky grin. "Don't lie, you love flowers, don't you?"

"I totally do. The brighter, the better," Tobin laughs. She imagines the pink and orange flowers from her dream again. Then she happens to glance over Christen’s shoulder to a distant corner of the room, and her eyes go wide.

“Hey, Chris—look over there.”

Christen turns. Mal had been standing with the other girls in front of one of the largest paintings. Behind them, there’s a little girl standing wide-eyed, clutching a museum brochure in her hands. She glances over her shoulder at her mom, who gives her an encouraging smile and a “go on!” hand gesture. Christen’s eyes go wide, and she takes Tobin’s hand, and they creep a little closer.

“Excuse me. Are you…Mallory Pugh?” The girl asks in a barely-there voice.

Mal turns around and her eyes go wide. She nods. “Hi,” she says, grinning, kneeling down so she’s eye-level with the girl. “Yes, I’m Mal Pugh. And what’s your name?”

The girl’s eyes go wide, and she claps her hands over her mouth. She looks over at her mom again, and then back at Mal, bouncing up and down on her toes, too overwhelmed to speak.

“I’m so sorry,” the mom says, finally swooping in to rescue her daughter. “This is Lily. We went to see the Nutcracker a few weeks ago, and she’s been obsessed ever since.”

“You want to go over?” Tobin whispers.

Christen shakes her head. “No, I don’t want to interrupt! I think this is the first time Mal’s been recognized outside of the theater. And she’s only sixteen!” Christen clasps her hands together like a proud mom. “I can’t believe it.”

“And you know who got her there?” Tobin gives Christen a gentle jab on the shoulder with her finger. “You.”

Christen glows. “Well, I like to think I helped, but it’s really all her.”

“She told me once that she was thinking about quitting before she met you,” Tobin points out.

Christen’s eyes soften. “Yeah. Yeah, she’s mentioned that to me before too.” She sighs. “It’s like what Petra was saying earlier. It’s not an easy profession. Physically, but also psychologically, you know.”

“And you’ve been there for her. Not only as a mentor and a friend, but also as a role model. She sees herself in you one day.” Tobin glances over again. The little girl is now taking a photo standing beside Mal. Mal looks almost as excited as the girl.

“Yeah.” Christen tips her head to the side, lost in thought as she watches the little girl thank Mal again, her eyes shining like stars. As the girl departs with her mom, Mal turns side to side, eyes wide, seeking out Christen. As soon as she spots her, she squeals and gallops across the room to launch herself into Christen’s arms.

“Did you see that?! Oh my god, did you see that?”

“I saw it!” Christen laughs, picking Mal up off the floor for a second as they hug. “I’m so proud!”

“I can’t believe someone recognized me!”

“The first time of many,” Tobin chimes in, and Mal laughs, and before Tobin knows it, she’s being pulled into the hug too.

“Thanks, Chris,” Mal says, eyes shining. “It’s all you. Seriously, I wouldn’t be here without you. Oh, my god,” she adds, fishing her phone out of her purse, “I gotta call my mom!! She won’t believe it.”

As Mal dashes off again, Tobin shakes her head and laughs affectionately. “Dang, that’s a big moment,” she comments. “I can’t remember the first time I was recognized in public, and it still doesn’t happen very often, but it was definitely not when I was a teenager.”

“Yeah,” Christen says, contemplatively. She chews on her bottom lip as she watches Mal on the phone in the corner, chattering excitedly to her mother on the other end of the line.

They can hear her saying, “I know! Her mom said that she’s been keeping the Nutcracker program under her pillow, and she’s signing up for ballet lessons this spring! Isn’t that amazing?”

Christen suddenly reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out her phone.

“I’m going to text Petra now,” she says. “I’m going to do it.”

Tobin can’t find the words. She just puts her arms around Christen’s shoulders and holds her close. She watches over Christen’s shoulder as Christen pulls up Petra’s contact information, taps out, Petra, please tell them to proceed with publishing. Thanks again for all your support, and without hesitation, presses send.

Tobin looks searchingly into Christen’s face, bracing for any sign of fear or second-guessing or trepidation, but all she sees is calm.

“It was the right thing to do,” Christen says simply. She shrugs, dropping her phone back into her pocket as they stroll slowly into a quiet corner of the room. “Thanks for giving me the space to process earlier. But I knew all along that this was the right answer. And that—” she gestures across the gallery. “That was the reminder I needed. This sport is not for people like Mateo. It's for people like Mal.” Christen's voice is firm with conviction. "And it's high time I used whatever privilege I have to reclaim it for her."

They stand side by side for a second, watching Mal’s shining eyes, her brilliant smile, the way her hands flutter excitedly in the air as she talks on the phone.

“You’re amazing. You know that?” Tobin shakes her head in awe. “You make everything around you better in every way.”

Christen dips her head modestly. “Thanks, baby.”

“Seriously.” Tobin turns to face her, her face taking on a serious expression. “I don’t how you do it. From things as big and important as this article, to little things, like earlier today—thank you for taking care of me today. Today could’ve been such a disaster, and you saved it. You saved me.”

“Oh, Tobes,” Christen melts.

“I was not handling anything well this morning. I was just trying to fake my way through it. Thanks for giving me space to talk about hard things. Thanks for taking me out and surrounding me with friends. Thanks for always knowing the right thing to do.”

“Tobin, you’d do the same for me, always,” Christen says. And it’s not just the fact that that’s true, but the fact that Christen says it with such confidence, that settles Tobin’s heart a little.

And she doesn’t quite know how to put it into words, so she leans over, places one soft finger on Christen’s chin to tip her head up a little, and kisses her again.

When she pulls back, she’s unable to stop herself from laughing a little in wonder that this is the life she’s lucky enough to get to live.

Christen’s laughing too, and then her eyes go a little shy, and she suddenly says, “What are you doing after the season’s over?”

Tobin bites her lip as she thinks. She hadn’t really spent that much time thinking about it, beyond feeling that sharp ache of knowing that she won’t be seeing Christen for a while; that duller, repressed ache of knowing that she won't be seeing her family, either. “I guess I’ll just stick around here for off-season. I have January Camp with the national team for a few weeks. Afterwards, maybe I’ll try to go somewhere and do a trip with one of the girls on the team—Pinoe, or Ali and Ashlyn. You’d really love them.” Tobin perks up a little. “Maybe I can convince them to go to LA for a bit. To meet you.”

“I’d love to meet your friends,” Christen says. She bites her lip. “Or—okay, this is maybe a lot, and feel free to say no…” She shifts nervously. “Listen, you know I’m going back to LA for a few months, after Nutcracker performances end the first week of January. My family’s there, and the house is big—there’s actually a guest house out back, where I usually stay—and you’re more than welcome to come stay.”

Tobin blinks. “For all of off-season?”

Christen blushes. “I mean, not if you don’t want to. And definitely not for the whole time if you don’t want to—I know it’s a while. But my parents suggested that I ask you…and I mean, any plan that gets me as close to you for as long as possible is a win in my book.” Christen glances down at their feet, then up at Tobin with a shy hope in her eyes. “I know it’s a lot, though. So…no pressure.”

Tobin pretends to think for a second. “So is there furniture in the house, or…?”

“Shut up!” Christen breaks into giggles, clearly relieved that Tobin’s still in the mood for joking around. “There is furniture, thank you very much. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you sleep in a dog bed in LA.”

Tobin cards her fingers through her hair with one hand, reaches out with her other hand to wind their fingers together. “Chris, babe…” she starts slowly, and she can already see the disappointment growing behind Christen’s eyes, even from the tone she’s starting with. “Chris, it’s so kind of you to ask. And your parents. Seriously, be sure to thank them for me. But I just…I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Christen nods slowly, understanding in her soft eyes.

“It’s not that I don’t want to spend more time with you. Of course I do. I’m going to miss you like crazy. It’s just… I can’t yet. I’m sure your family is great, but it feels weird, like I’m replacing my own family, you know? I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

“I understand, baby,” Christen whispers.

“And I still want to see you,” Tobin says fervently. “Maybe a shorter visit? Or maybe we can take a trip somewhere together?”

“I’d love that. Maybe a little cabin, somewhere in Big Sur? Or the Pacific Northwest?”

“You’re reading my mind,” Tobin says dreamily, imagining a few weeks alone with Christen in some cabin on a rocky coast, with the ocean beyond reflecting the blue-green of Christen’s sparkling eyes. “It’d have to be somewhere you could practice, though.”

“Yeah, we could look for Airbnbs with big enough empty spaces.” Christen shrugs. “I could make do. I just want to see you. I just want to be with you. That’s all that matters.”


When it’s time to leave the museum, they congregate by the front door where they had met up to go in a few hours ago. Tobin’s yawning into the back of her hand; the emotional exertion of the long day and the gray storm clouds overhead have got her hankering for a nap. A nice, warm nap, buried in fluffy blankets, with Christen curled in her arms, and Morena snoring by their feet…

But Mal has other plans.

“I want to get coffee,” she announces. “Let’s get coffee.”

“It’s 4 PM,” Moe protests. “Some of us elderly folks can’t drink caffeine so late.”

Mal pouts. “But there’s a really good coffee shop I saw on Instagram and it’s right near here…”

Christen loops her arm across Mal’s shoulders. “All right, Mal, let’s go. Where is it?”

“It’s this way!” Mal chirps, and she takes Casey and Moe by their reluctant hands and leads the charge down the sidewalk. Nobody wants to let Mal down, so after a second, Alyssa jogs after them.

Tobin, at the back of the pack, swears that she sees Christen make this weird face at Mal.

“Hey, what was that?” she whispers, tugging on Christen’s arm to drag the two of them towards the back of the herd.

Christen turns, her face the very picture of innocence. “Hm?”

“You just, like, blinked at Mal funny.”

“It wasn’t a blink, it was a wink—” Christen protests, indignant, before realizing that she’s given herself away. She claps a hand over her mouth as Tobin snickers. “I mean, it wasn’t anything. It was just my face. That’s just how my face looks.”

“Oookay,” Tobin says, skeptical, watching as Mal checks the crossing signs and then drags Alyssa, Casey, and Moe across the street, like a tiny puppy trying to herd some large sheep. As Tobin and Christen hustle to catch up before the light changes, Tobin adds, “I’ll play along, but there’s something fishy going on with Mal, isn’t there? Did you have some ulterior motive for herding us all to the museum today?”

“Fishy? Don’t be so suspicious,” Christen teases. “Mal just wants coffee.”

“Coffee,” Tobin scoffs.

Christen chuckles under her breath. “What can I say? You’re not the only one who gets secrets with Mal, baby.”

Four blocks later—after they’ve passed four coffee shops—Tobin’s not the only one who’s feeling a like something’s fishy.

“Where did you say this place was again?” Casey says hesitantly as Mal peeks around another street corner.

“We’re almost there,” Mal says, jittery with excitement. She shoots a huge grin towards Christen. “Thirty more seconds.”

“You guys are terrible liars,” Alyssa comments.

“No, it’s true, we’re almost there,” Christen promises, as they cross yet another intersection. “In fact, I think I see it. Look, over there.”

Tobin follows the direction of Christen’s pointing finger, and her jaw drops.

There on the street corner is an enormous billboard. Right in the middle of the billboard is a huge picture of Tobin, holding a ball in her hands, her smoldering gaze cutting right through the camera. On Tobin’s arm is, unmistakably, the captain’s armband. She’s flanked on one side by Moe and Kealia, the other by Casey and Alyssa, all with their arms crossed, looking properly intimidating. Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championships, it says in huge letters, with the broadcast channel and game time beneath it.

“What—?” Tobin whirls around and grabs Christen by the shoulder as Casey and Moe fill the air around them with screams. “You did this, didn’t you?! How?”

Mal’s jumping around them, clapping her hands with delight. Christen’s got that huge, fond smile on her face, the one that makes her eyes crinkle up on the sides. “I might’ve put in a few asks.”

“She called the city arts council and told them that if they had enough funding for the ballet, they had enough funding for soccer!” Mal blurted out. “The billboards all over the city!”

“There are fifteen of them up in different locations,” Christen confirms with a shy smile. “It’s not as many as there were for Sleeping Beauty last summer, but it’s a start, right?”

“It’s more than a start,” Tobin gasps. She looks back up at the billboard. She can’t believe it’s real. “It’s…it’s amazing. Christen, I can’t believe you did this for us.”

Christen shrugs, abashed, as the other girls chorus their thanks as well. “Honestly, it was the least I could do. It was about time you guys got the recognition you deserve.” She looks up wistfully at the poster. “I just wish I could be there to support you in person.”

“Me too,” Mal pouts.

Tobin wraps her arms around both of them. “Next year, I promise. We’ll win it for you this year and every year.”

She looks up again at the poster. It’s surreal, seeing her face larger-than-life like this. The look on her face in the picture is fierce and confident and bold. A leader. A captain. And for the first time in a long time, she feels like it might reflect the person she really is, once again.


Maybe a four-course meal is going slightly overboard, but hey, Tobin’s in the mood to spoil her girl tonight.

They’ve returned to Tobin’s place because she wanted the convenience of her own kitchen to cook in—also, there are chairs and a dining table, which is a plus. As Tobin’s finishing up the food, tucking the chocolate mousse into the fridge to chill until it’s time for dessert, Christen is flipping through a furniture store catalogue with an absolutely adorable look of intense concentration on her face. Tobin takes a break from stirring the soup to sneak a video of Christen snuggled on the couch in her oversized sweatshirt, muttering softly to herself under her breath, her fingers moving through the air as she tries to imagine various bar stool configurations. When Christen glances up and sees Tobin with her phone in her hand, she rolls her eyes and laughs. “What?!”

“Nothing.” Tobin slips her phone in her pocket, a cheeky grin on her face. “You’re just cute, that’s all. How’s the bar stool hunt going?”

“I think I want these ones.” Christen leans over to show Tobin the catalogue page. “What do you think?”

“I like all of them, babe,” Tobin responds. “I like whichever ones you like.”

The cooking, the furniture shopping—it’s all so domestic. It sends pleasant shivers down her spine. Even a few months ago, the thought of a long-term relationship would have terrified Tobin. But now it’s the thought of life without Christen that terrifies her. She’s pretty sure that this is the only life she wants now; the only life that makes any sense.

She’s just finishing up all the plating, arranging the dishes and cutlery neatly on the dining room table—only one fork each this time, thank you very much—when her apartment door buzzer sounds.

She glances up in surprise. It can’t be any of their friends; the girls would call or text instead of using the doorbell.

“Who could that be?” she asks Christen, her brow furrowing.

Christen stares back at Tobin, green eyes wide-open and innocent, and shrugs. “I don’t know,” she says, in the most obviously knowing of voices. “Why don’t you go check?”

Tobin’s already laughing as she heads to the door. “Just full of surprises today, aren’t you, babe?”

Wiping her hands on her apron, she pauses in front of the closed door and squints out the peep hole. She doesn’t see anyone; just the empty apartment hallway.

But when she opens the door and looks down, she sees the delivery.

It’s flowers.

“…Chris?” She gasps, kneeling down to get her arms all the way around the absolutely enormous bouquet. She carries it back into the apartment, sets it on the coffee table, and just stares at it in awe. “You bought these for me?”

Christen smiles, a little shyly. “Yeah, you like them?”

“I love them,” Tobin says fervently, and she means it with every fiber of her being. She settles back on the couch, letting herself fall into Christen’s arms as she gets a good look at the flowers.

It’s a huge, stunning arrangement. Larger than Tobin’s torso. And it’s not just your standard roses or tulips. It’s a profusion of strange, gorgeous tropical flowers, glorious and iridescent, absolutely exploding with color from inside a ring of glossy green stems. Hibiscus and amaryllis and dozens more that Tobin can’t name, in yellows and reds, pinks and oranges. Their heady, sweet scent fills the entire apartment.

As Tobin’s eyes drift over the flowers, she notices a small white card tucked into the middle of the bouquet. Plucking it up out of the flowers with careful fingers, Tobin leans in and reads the message Christen has included.

Baby,

you are

the strongest

flower

that ever

grew.

Remember that

when

the weather

changes.

Tobin sits there for a long moment, leaning her cheek against Christen’s shoulder, feeling her heart pounding out of her chest. She stares at the card until the tears in her eyes start to blur the words before her. Then she squeezes her eyes shut and clutches it to her chest, as if she can infuse the words straight through her skin into her heart.

Baby.

You are the strongest flower that ever grew.

Remember that when the weather changes.

When she can finally trust her voice not to waver, she turns towards Christen and gives her a long, lingering kiss. “Babe, thank you, thank you, thank you,” she whispers. “They’re beautiful. And this note—it’s—it’s just what I needed today.”

“Of course,” Christen says softly. “You told me earlier today that you missed the weather in Florida—the sun, the flowers. I know I can't bring you back to your family there, no matter how desperately I want to. So I just thought I’d bring a bit of the tropics to you.”

Still in awe, Tobin leans in and buries her face in the flowers. She traces her fingers up the sides of the silky-smooth petals, laces them through the forest of stems.

Amidst the rainbow of colors, she notices one flower that she’s never seen before. It’s stunningly beautiful, in a strange, spiky shape that almost reminds Tobin of a crane’s head. It glows with blinding hues of orange and pink and blue.

She lets her fingers drift over it, and turns towards Christen in wonder. “Chris, I love this one. What is it?”

Christen’s smile grows even wider. “Oh, I thought you’d like that one. It’s called a bird of paradise.”

Chapter Text

Christen requests that the Chicago Tribune op-ed article is published on her birthday.

As the clock tips over into midnight on December 29, just as they’re snuggling down into bed, Tobin rolls over and looks Christen in the eye and whispers, “Happy birthday, babe. How are you feeling?”

Christen’s smile is small, but steady. “I’m feeling…ready.”

Tobin winds her fingers through Christen’s and clutches tight. “You sure?”

“Yeah.” Christen nods. “It’ll be published by the time the sun rises. It’ll be painful and hard…but good. A rebirth, of sorts.” Her green eyes are soft and introspective. “What better day than my birthday for a rebirth?”

Tobin gazes at Christen with admiration so ardent that in her eyes, the very air seems to sparkle around her girl. “Have I ever mentioned that I’m proud of you, you brave, brave, wonderful human?”

Christen giggles sideways into her pillow. “Only every day for the past few weeks. But once more doesn’t hurt.”

“Well, then: I’m proud of you.” Tobin leaves a string of soft kisses on Christen’s forehead. “Do you want me to hide your phone on top of the refrigerator tomorrow?”

Christen and Tobin both laugh a little, thinking of Christmas.

Their Christmas day had been slow and languid and wonderful. They’d woken late, with the sun streaming through the windows. They made themselves a sumptuous Christmas lunch, complete with Tobin teaching Christen how to make the now-famous chicken soup. But in the afternoon, noticing that Tobin was repeatedly fidgeting with her phone—tapping the screen to check for texts, picking it up off the coffee table and then putting it down, putting it in her pocket and then taking it out again—Christen had gently pried the phone from Tobin’s fingers and placed it under a cereal box on top of the refrigerator.

When Christen had turned back to Tobin, Tobin had just shrugged a little, bashful. “I know,” she had admitted in a soft voice, solemn but steady. “I know my family’s not going to call or text. I’m sorry, I just—I don’t know why I keep checking—”

Christen had silenced her with a kiss. “Don’t apologize,” she had said softly, “to me, or to anyone else. Not when you haven’t done a single thing wrong.”

Tobin realized that removing herself from the knee-jerk temptation to check for family contact was the best thing she could have done. They never reached out. She felt at peace with that, she realized. She spent Christmas afternoon in bed with Christen, sweet and slow and perfect. Afterwards, she looked out at the way that the sunlight painted a golden square on the gleaming wooden floors. Morena was snoozing in the middle of the patch, curled in on herself with her four little paws pointing towards Tobin. Christen was asleep in her arms, warm and soft and perfect.

And Tobin had felt a sweet settling in her soul. It was one of those moments in life when you stare around yourself with startling clarity and realize—Wow. I’m happy. I’m lucky to be here.

But to Tobin’s offer to hide Christen’s phone on top of the refrigerator this time around, Christen shakes her head and laughs. “Hopefully it won’t come to that,” she says, “but we’ll see how I’m feeling about it tomorrow.”

They flick the lights off, and as usual, Christen snuggles into the crook of Tobin’s arm. But Tobin can tell that Christen is awake and alert, a little stiff in her arms.

“Hey,” Tobin whispers, “babe, what are you thinking?”

She feels Christen shift, uneasy. For a long pause, Christen doesn’t say anything, and Tobin’s about to let it drop when Christen finally stirs and takes a deep breath. “You know what’s weird?” she asks. “I said I was feeling ready, and I do mean that, but…you know what I’m actually the most nervous about?”

Tobin makes a soft humming sound to show she’s listening.

“Just…imagining my parents reading it.” Christen twists and shifts against the sheets, as if trying to shake some creepy-crawly thing off her spine. “I mean, they know it’s going to be published. But they always raised me to work so hard and be so strong. And I just picture them reading it and…how awful it’s going to be for them. They’re going to be so heartbroken and enraged at what happened to me, and I feel like they raised me better, you know? They raised me to stand up for myself, to be outspoken for justice, and I didn’t. I failed. I hurt myself and that’s going to hurt them.”

Tobin takes a moment to digest the weight of the words. Concern and empathy well up within her. Then she responds softly. “You know what I think? I think they’ll be proud of you.”

She can feel, more than see, the way that Christen turns to look up at her face.

“I think they’ll read it and think, this is our daughter standing up for herself. They would never read what you wrote in the article and think of you as a failure.” As Tobin speaks, her voice picks up steam and fervor. “They’ll look at the existence of the article—the bravery it takes to write something like this, to speak truth to power like this—and they’ll be so happy and proud. Just like I am. Just like we all are.”

She feels the slow drip of Christen’s tears on her neck, and her arms wrap even more tightly around her girl, as if she could hug all her fear and uncertainty away.

“Whatever happens, you’ll have made this world a better place, Christen,” she whispers into the darkness. “You’ll save Mal, and Faith, and so many other girls like them from working with monsters like him.”

Christen nods again. “I know. I know, and I don’t regret doing it, and I am proud of myself, and I would never stop it from happening.”

Tobin senses a silent cliffhanger, another worry left unspoken. She makes another little humming sound, encouraging Christen to go on.

And because they’ve already gotten so good at reading each other, Christen takes a deep breath, continues. “When the doubts fill my mind, I can’t stop thinking of worst-case scenarios,” she says in a small voice. “What if I lose my job—my art?”

Tobin feels her own heart beating faster in trepidation, but she keeps her voice low and calm and soothing. She keeps her thoughts positive. Chris has been so strong for you. Now it’s your turn to be the strong one. You can do this. “We can go exploring the world. How does Paris sound? We could go to Paris and find us some real un temps de chien days. I know you love those.”

Christen lets out a small laugh, the most perfect sound that Tobin has ever heard. “I’ve always wanted to dance at the Paris Opera House. Or at the Royal Ballet in London.”

“London sounds great. They’ve definitely got some grey skies in England. I could move there to play for a British club. Manchester United is pretty cool.” Tobin smiles up at the ceiling.

“Wait.” Christen rolls over and props herself up on her elbows, her megawatt smile lighting up the darkened room. “You’re factoring you relocating to Europe into this hypothetical scenario where I need to find a new job?

“I mean—” Tobin stutters, retroactively realizing what she’s done. It had just been so easy, so seamless, to imagine them traveling the world together, picking up, having new adventures, and most importantly, being by each other’s side. “Uh…yes? Only if you want to—I mean, only if hypothetically, in this hypothetical, not-real situation, you would want us to be moving together—if you’d want me to be moving—” Her voice peters out and she lets out a weak chuckle. “Uh…so, too much, huh?”

Christen leans over and captures Tobin’s mouth in a searing, passionate kiss. “Not too much,” she whispers between breaths. “Never too much.”

And Tobin feels it again, that settling in her soul.

“Okay,” she says, pulling Christen close, letting Christen snuggle down against her side. This time, the tension had seeped from Christen, and their bodies molded softly against one another. “In that case, here’s the game plan in the highly unlikely, hypothetical, not-real, worst-case scenario that you lose your job: we’ll move to Europe. We’ll get a little flat overlooking the river, and drink tea in bed, have the best sex in the world, light candles, learn new things about each other every day.”

“Mmm,” Christen murmurs. “I love that. Keep going.”

“We’ll…” Tobin says dreamily, letting her imagination spiral out. “We’ll take trips into the countryside. I’ll watch you dance in the tall grass. In a white dress. The wind blowing around you.”

“That sounds lovely.” Christen’s voice is drowsier, more at peace. She’s drifting off to sleep already.

“And people will come from all over Europe to watch you dance,” Tobin continues in a whisper. “And everyone who sees you will fall a little bit in love with you. But I’ll get to watch you dance every day, so I’ll be the luckiest human in the world.”

“Yeah?” Christen whispers, her voice now barely more than a scratch in the throat.

“Yeah.” Tobin swallows. “I’m already the luckiest human in the world.”

Christen’s eyes are fluttering shut, a contented smile on her face.

“And don’t forget,” Tobin adds, “No matter what happens, I’m always right behind you, okay? I’m always with you.”

Christen’s asleep, her breathing soft and even.

“Happy birthday, my beautiful girl,” Tobin murmurs. She presses one last kiss to her hair before drifting off to sleep.


"The first time Mateo Vincent called me a “worthless bitch,” I cried.

I was 23 years old. I had just moved out to Chicago, and I was a shy, uncertain young dancer, new to the Chicago Ballet Company. He was the Artistic Director, a famous, formidable presence in the industry. I had read so many articles about him and his artistic genius before I arrived in Chicago. I had been so excited about working with him.

He kept me after practice one day. I was uncertain of what he wanted and surprised he even knew my name. For the most part, I thought of myself as invisible, as someone who during my first few months with the Company had flitted around the corners of rooms, did what I was told, spoken when spoken to.

After making sure that nobody else was in the room, he said my dancing was the ugliest he’d ever seen. He threatened to have me fired if I didn’t do everything he demanded of me. Then he called me a worthless bitch.

I made it back to my apartment, and then cried for hours.

But even through the tears, I told myself that maybe this was normal—maybe this was just the real world, and I just had to grow thicker skin, be more of an adult. Maybe my dancing was the ugliest he’d ever seen. I reminded myself that I was a nobody.

And he reminded me of that too. Every hour of every day, for years.

It would take longer than an article, longer than a newspaper, to recite the litany of insults he hurled at me when he thought the doors were closed—when he thought nobody was listening. When they were especially terrible, especially unconscionable, I’d come home and scribble them down in a notebook: “Christen, I didn’t realize the Chicago Ballet Company had hired a cow—tomorrow I’ll bring in a bell to hang around your neck.” “Christen, if only your dancing was as sexy as that face of yours.” “Christen, fix your hair, nobody’s paying to see a bitch from the ghetto.”

In the early years, I cried constantly. Never in front of him—but daily, after I returned home from practices. I cried so often that I had to constantly hide the skin around my eyes and nose, rubbed red and raw, with makeup. Like many survivors of abuse, whether verbal, physical, or otherwise, I withdrew from my family and my colleagues, ashamed that I couldn’t take control of the situation somehow. 

In the later years, I hardened. I told myself that I just had to work harder, to earn my worth. Each time I hit a milestone—the first time I received a front-page rave review, or the day I was finally appointed a principal dancer by the company—I thought, “Surely, now, Mateo will see my worth. Surely, now, Mateo will stop.”

He never did. Abusers never do. Because in the end, of course, it was never about me or my dancing or my attitude—it was about the power Mateo wanted to hold over me. So as I ascended through the ranks of the Company and gained international recognition, his insults only worsened in volume and severity. The better I became, the worse he became, because as I rose higher and higher, it became more and more difficult for him to push me down into the dirt.

For years, Mateo made me doubt my worth. To this day, as I put these words to paper, he’s still trying. But I know my worth now—and he knows it, and the Company knows it. They know it for every season I headline, every millionth Instagram follower, every billboard I appear on. It’s not vanity to say so. It’s not vanity to claim my worth.

I didn’t speak up sooner because, frankly, I was terrified. Our system privileges the voices of those already in power. Individual dancers are treated as disposable. Our careers are precarious, they come and go. The system remains. Power brokers like Mateo Vincent remain. I feared being excommunicated from the system, from the art that I hold so dear.

I didn’t speak up sooner because Mateo gaslit me—a tried and true tactic by abusers—and it worked. He told me that I needed to toughen up, that this sort of treatment wasn’t a big deal. He told me that nobody would care about my whining—and that nobody would believe me, anyway. He told me I should just be grateful it wasn’t any worse.

I didn’t speak up sooner because I told myself nobody was hurting but me, and that I could take it. In fact, I needed to take it. There are painfully few Black women in this profession, and even fewer out LGBTQ women. I lay awake at night and thought: Isn’t it my duty to stay? My duty to matter?

Until one day, I looked around and realized: My duty is not just to exist in this space, but to exist in this space with purpose. What good are the accolades, the power, and the visibility if not to leave my beloved industry a better place than I found it?

This realization was not mine alone. I attribute it to the powerful and brave women that surround me in my life:

I think of the women who come after me, for whom I would give everything. I teach weekly classes at the Chicago Art Academy, and my pupils are bright and diligent and optimistic, and deserve the world. Mallory Pugh, our Clara in this year’s Nutcracker, is just one of the many brilliant young talents I’ve had the privilege to observe. When I think of young dancers growing up in a profession that allows such cruelty and abuse, I realize that I am not the only one hurt by my silence.

I think of the women who came before me. The supporters and benefactors of the arts, the women in positions of power who are willing to use that power for good. If they are brave enough to support me, then I should be brave enough to support myself.

I think of the women beside me. I think of the people in my life who were willing to take me by the hand and say, “Christen, no more.” Who opened my eyes to the stark reality that Mateo’s behavior is utterly unacceptable, who saw strength in me before I saw it in myself, and who stayed by my side through my struggle, even though I sometimes fought to distance them out of shame and denial. Everyone needs such supporters in their lives, and I know I would be nowhere without mine.

Our industry needs a reckoning. I have survived years of such abuse at the Chicago Ballet Company, but I would stake my life on the fact that it is happening at other companies around the world. I am a principal dancer at one of the best ballet companies in the world, and one of the best-known faces of the industry, and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. If even I was scared and doubting and gaslit, then others certainly are as well. This is a problem that requires not just the removal of individual abusers, but systemic change. We can no longer allow bad actors to operate in the dark until it’s too late. Who knows how many aspiring, talented, brilliant artists have been driven out and forced to relinquish their dreams in the face of such abuse?

I know I can’t change the system on my own, but I can do my part to begin the crucial conversation. For too long, Mateo has tried, with vicious cruelty, to strip away my career, my art, and my passion. But it’s not his to take, nor anyone else’s. This art is mine, and this joy is mine, and I am here to stay."

By Christen Press.


In the morning, Tobin is woken by the incessant buzzing and beeping of Christen’s phone on the nightstand.

Christen, too, stirs in Tobin’s arms and reaches instinctively for her phone. But her hand freezes in midair, and she turns towards Tobin, eyes suddenly round and wide-awake.

“I got it,” Tobin says soothingly, reaching around Christen to grab the phone. With one hand drawing soothing circles on Christen’s back, she scans through the influx of texts and missed calls, trying to parse the necessary from the unnecessary. Most are unnecessary.

“Your parents called and your mom sent a long text saying how proud they are of you,” she announces, and watches as a peaceful smile overtakes Christen’s face. She scrolls a little more. “Alyssa, Moe, and Casey all texted. And Petra. Looks like there’s a long voicemail from Mal, and another from Faith. And there are a lot of encouraging messages from your colleagues, too, like Jackie.”

“Really?” Christen’s face radiates with pleasure as she sits up and reaches for the phone. She thumbs through a few of the messages, smiling softly. “Wow. I really didn’t think so many of them would say something.”

“They’re proud of you; they believe you; they’re here for you.” Tobin says like a mantra, squeezing Christen’s shoulder, almost overwhelmed at the bravery of the girl beside her.

As Christen wanders into the kitchen to call her parents back, Tobin pulls up the article on her own phone. It’s surreal to see it live on the Chicago Tribune website. Accompanying the article, they’ve used a photo of Christen from the opening of the museum exhibit. Christen is standing straight and tall in her tiara and tutu, staring confidently into the camera, with her favorite painting—Deux Danseuses—in the background.

Sneaking a glance over at Christen to make sure she’s still occupied, Tobin decides to check out the public response to the article. As she scrolls through Twitter, she feels a smile growing on her face—tentative at first, and then wider and prouder until she’s beaming. The buzz is nearly all positive: commentators and major media outlets all siding with Christen. There’s even a hashtag trending, #MateoOut. She notices that the Chicago Ballet Company has already issued a statement, along the lines of: Christen is obviously an integral and irreplaceable member of the Company, the issues she raises are concerning, we will be conducting a full and thorough investigation.

Christen pads back towards the bed on bare feet, a glowing smile on her face, wiping away a few stray tears. Morena is right on her heels, panting happily up at her. “They said they’re proud of me,” she announces to Tobin, falling back onto the bed and into Tobin’s arms. Morena leaps up onto the blankets as well, settling herself down around their feet. “You were totally right. I had nothing to be afraid of on that front.”

Tobin cuddles her girl close. “What are your plans for the rest of the day? Are you going to go in for the performance tonight?”

“Hell, yes.” Christen nods emphatically. “If he’s there, he’s there.” She shrugs. “It’s my space, and I won’t be scared away. I don’t mind a confrontation if necessary. But personally, if I had it my way, I would never see him again.”

Tobin raises her eyebrows. “Really, honestly? Not even to punch him in the face, just once? Just one tiny punch?”

Christen laughs. “Really. Honestly. I mean, ideally, he’d be fired. But I know what’s in my control and what’s not. I don’t need anything else for closure other than this article. And I really would prefer to just never have to see his face again in my life.”

“Well, credit to your meditation,” Tobin grumbles. She can’t help but think that she herself wouldn’t be such a pacifist. But she admires Christen’s maturity and restraint, all the same. “Well, I’m going with you tonight. I don’t care if guests aren’t allowed backstage. I’ll fight anyone who tries to keep me away from you, I swear to god.”

Christen beams. “Don’t worry, baby. I’m sure that tonight of all night, they’ll make an exception for us.”

For the rest of the day, Tobin endeavors to keep Christen occupied, to keep her mind off of the avalanche of commotion and discussion and press that awaits. They take Morena on a long walk, and they cook lunch, and they watch some old Grey’s Anatomy re-runs. Petra has taken charge of all the official communications on the PR front, and she sends Christen and Tobin occasional texts to let them know the state of things: “Things are looking good, darlings,” and “I’m told that Christen has gained 100,000 new followers on the Instant Gram!

Early in the afternoon, Christen’s phone buzzes with a call from Petra, the first of the day. She picks up, eyes wide, and Tobin hovers around.

“Great news, my dear,” Petra says over the line, and Tobin swears that her voice is shaking, as if she’s crying. “This will hit the news within the hour, but I wanted you both to be the first to know. The Company has suspended Mateo’s employment effective immediately, without pay, and they’ve committed to conducting a full investigation. He won’t be at the show tonight. He won’t be at any of the shows anymore.”

Christen’s standing stock-still, her eyes wide. Her mouth falls open a little, and she seems unable to form words. Tobin comes up behind her and wraps her arm around her waist, gently chimes in when Christen continues to stay silent.

“That’s amazing,” Tobin says. “Seriously—that’s incredible. Thank you for letting us know. And thank you for all you must’ve done behind the scenes to help this happen.”

“No, no, not at all,” Petra says, and Tobin can just imagine her waving her wrist dismissively, her eyes kind. “It’s all thanks to Christen. You wonderful girl. How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling…” Christen’s voice falters, and Tobin cranes her neck around a little to kiss the tears off of her cheeks. “I’m feeling like…I can’t believe it’s real. I can’t believe I never need to dread another practice with him, that he’s never going to be able to scream at me before another performance. I feel…I just feel free.”

Well, now we’re all crying, Tobin thinks, as she buries her face in the crook of Christen’s neck and lets out a few tears there.

When they hang up, Tobin continues clinging to Christen’s back, pressing their bodies closer and closer to each other. “I’m so proud of you,” she whispers. “I know you’re going to hear the same thing a thousand times today and every day for a while, but it’s true. I’m so proud of you, I feel like I’m going to explode every time I think about you.”

Christen spins herself around in Tobin’s arms and rests her arms on Tobin’s shoulders. “I could never have done it without you.”

Tobin feels herself blushing in spite of herself. “Like Petra just said, it was all you—”

“No, I mean it,” Christen insists. Her eyes are shining. In Tobin’s eyes, she already looks freer—like she’s standing taller, with a weight off her shoulders. “I meant what I said in the article about you. You acknowledged my own worth when I didn’t. You fought for me and took care of me when I tried to hide. I mean it.” She lifts her hand and caresses Tobin’s jawline, brings their lips together for a soft, sure, firm kiss. “I would be nowhere without you,” she whispers.

Tobin struggles to find a way to put the enormity of her feelings into words, but she can’t concentrate on anything but the startling green of Christen’s eyes, the feeling of Christen’s steady arms around her, so she finally chokes out, “Same,” and kisses her.

She kisses her deep, and slow, and purposeful, and hopes that it can convey even a fraction of what she’s feeling for Christen. She’s backing up again, a gasp of breath on her lips, when Christen grabs a fistful of her t-shirt and pulls her back in. Tobin moans, allows herself to stumble forward, pressing Christen up against the edge of the kitchen counter, letting her hands skim over the back of Christen’s shirt and graze along the hem. Then she effortlessly lifts Christen up onto the counter. As she licks into Christen’s mouth, Christen groans and winds her hands through Tobin’s hair.

“Here?” Christen gasps out as Tobin leaves a trail of kisses down her neck. “Or bed?”

Tobin smirks up at her and works her teeth against Christen’s collarbone just the way she likes, pulling a stuttering groan out of Christen’s throat. “Here, then bed,” Tobin says.

Christen’s eyes are fluttering shut and she leans back, giving Tobin better access to the sensitive side of her neck, which Tobin takes full advantage of. “But—the performance tonight,” Christen still manages to have the coherency to say. “We need to leave soon—”

“Guess we’ll need to make it fast enough,” Tobin breathes out, letting the tip of her nose run from Christen’s collarbone down to the edge of her sports bra where it’s peeking out underneath her shirt. Her breath is hot and sensuous and teasing against Christen’s skin as she adds, “But do you want me to stop?”

Christen rolls her eyes and tangles her fingers in Tobin’s hair, and Tobin knows the battle is won. “Don’t you dare stop,” she commands, before leaning in for a bruising kiss.

Spoiler alert: they did not make it fast enough.

Forty-five minutes later, they’re scrambling around the apartment, Christen throwing things into her duffel bag, Tobin hunting for her keys.

“I think I’m going to be late!” Christen wails.

“I think you mean you’re just not going to be half an hour early like you normally are,” Tobin teases. “And hey, I could’ve stopped after your second, but you’re the one who said you wanted to try it on your hands and kn—”

“Okay, that’s enough out of you,” Christen interrupts, barely suppressing an abashed grin and turning away as she stuffs a sweater into her bag. Tobin loves the way that Christen still blushes like an innocent kid, even after everything they just did.

“Hey, wait,” Tobin says suddenly as they’re rushing past each other in the hall. She reaches out and grabs Christen’s hips, pulling them both to a standstill in the middle of the hall. “Stop for a second. You know what’s really amazing?”

“Yeah, what?”

Tobin smirks. “That thing you do, you know? With the underside of your tongue—”

“Oh, my god,” Christen groans, laughing in spite of herself, shoving Tobin’s shoulder as she steps away. “I thought you were about to say something serious.”

“Okay, but babe,” Tobin laughs too, reaching out for Christen’s hand, reeling her back in. “I’m actually very serious about you doing that thing with your tongue again next time—okay, okay, fine,” Tobin relents as Christen fixes her with a reproachful pout and starts to tug away again. “I wanted to say—isn’t it really amazing that this is the first time you will ever have to step foot in that theater and not worry about seeing him?”

The tension falls away from Christen’s shoulders, and her eyes shine. “Yeah,” she breathes, letting herself internalize it for the first time.

“And from now on, this is how it will be.” Once again, Tobin feels herself bursting at the seams with affection as she surveys the way that Christen lights up. “This is the way it always should’ve been.”


They walk into the theater hand in hand.

Tobin lifts her chin and stares up at imposing red velvet staircase, at the arching gold-trimmed ceilings and the sparkling chandeliers, and she feels peaceful in this space for the first time ever.

It’s different, knowing that there’s no longer a monster waiting in the wings.

She can’t imagine how much better it feels for Christen.

They cut through the still-empty theater, hands clasped tightly. Tobin watches the way Christen lets her other hand drift gently over the seat backs as they walk past, the way she lifts her face peacefully towards the blinding lights overhead, the way she takes in a long, deep breath with a steady smile.

“How does it feel?” Tobin whispers. “All the bad juju gone?”

Christen chuckles. “Might have the sage the place later just for good measure, but yeah.” Her back straightens, and her smile grows even wider as she looks around the theater. “Yeah, it’s gone. He’s gone.”

They wind their way backstage and make their way down the now-familiar fluorescent hallway. In the distance, Tobin can hear the hustle and bustle of other dancers preparing for the show, and for the first time, she she feels a little bit of tension in Christen’s hand. She lifts their intertwined fingers to her lips and gives the back of Christen’s hand a soft kiss, which is also a question.

In response, Christen lets out a soft sigh, barely audible. “I know I got really sweet texts from some of the other dancers, but this is the first time I’m going to see them—I feel like some of them got along pretty well with Mateo, and it’s not going to be easy to plan for the next season without an artistic director, so what if it’s awkward now—”

Tobin’s opening her mouth, about to say something comforting, as they round a corner in the hallway.

The next thing she hears is deafening cheers.

All of Christen’s colleagues, in various stages of costuming, are gathered in the hallway, cheering and clapping raucously. Tobin spies several snowflakes, a rat, and some Christmas party attendees among the crowd, fist pumping and whooping with their hands cupped around their mouths.

She never thought a sight like this would bring her to tears, but she’s coming close.

Christen barrels to a halt, open-mouthed and amazed, as Tobin enthusiastically joins in on the clapping.

When the noise dies down, one of Christen’s colleagues—the young blonde girl, Jackie Groenen, who Christen had mentioned the other day—steps forward with a beaming smile. “Christen, we just wanted to say, we are all so proud of you,” she says affectionately, placing a hand on Christen’s shoulder. “And we’re so sorry that you’ve felt that you’ve been going through this alone, and sorry for not realizing and speaking up sooner. We hope you’ll let us make it up to you?”

Christen brushes a tear off her cheek and offers her colleagues a tremulous smile. “Thanks—seriously, thank you all. I…” she hesitates. “I feel like I should’ve talked to you all about it sooner, but…”

“No, no, no, it’s not your fault at all!” Jackie exclaims, and the other dancers all chime in. As they sweep Christen into their midst, offering her encouraging words and shoulder-taps and hugs, Tobin lingers back by the wall, beaming with pride. She feels a calm, a peace, emerging in her soul. If there were any doubts about how Christen was going to navigate her workplace after this—if there were any doubts about whether her fellow dancers would be anything but supportive and grateful—this enthusiastic reception washed all those fears away.

And during the second act, after Tobin gives Christen a long, sure kiss in the midst of all the backstage bustle before she takes the stage, Tobin stands among the billowing black velvet curtains and watches Christen dance on stage, truly free, and flying, for the first time. The roar of the audience accompanies her every move. Her art is hers again, free and clear, Tobin thinks. And she’s brought to tears once again.

I’ve gone soft, Tobin jokes to herself, as she surreptitiously brushes tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand. Christen has made me soft.

And right on the heels of that thought comes the realization: No, Christen has made me open. Open to feeling, the good and the bad. Christen has given me so much to be grateful and blissful for.

She’s changed my life.

“Hey, I see those heart eyes.”

Tobin turns at the sound of the whisper to see Jackie, in a sparkling blue tutu, coming up beside her. Jackie gives Tobin a friendly nudge in the elbow as they stand side by side, watching Christen work her magic on stage.

“Did you see the latest?” Jackie continues in a low voice, pulling out her phone. “The famous author, Glennon Doyle, retweeted Christen’s article.”

Tobin craned her neck over Jackie’s shoulder to read the tweet: Now THIS is a goddamned cheetah, @ChristenPress. You’ve done this hardest of things for yourself and for all the rest of us. We love you for it.

“You’ve gotta show this to Christen later,” Tobin marveled, “Glennon is like, one of her favorite authors.”

Jackie’s face lights up. “Okay! I’ll definitely show her. Actually, I was thinking of having some of the girls in the company over to my apartment after the show.” Her voice drops, low and guilty. “As I read Christen’s article this morning, I realized just how little we know of each other outside of work. Maybe Mateo had subtle ways of keeping it that way. But I think enough is enough—we should’ve noticed what was going on with Christen. We should’ve stopped it, somehow. I think the first step is getting to know each other outside of work a little better.”

“I mean, Christen would definitely not agree with the idea that it was your fault. But I think that’s a great idea, to have people over, to get to know each other better,” Tobin says encouragingly. Again, she feels a rush of gratitude that at the end of the day, Christen will have these girls in her corner.

“Will you come?” Jackie adds hopefully.

The yes is on the tip of Tobin’s tongue when she remembers—she’s leading a team conference call for the Red Stars later that night, as captain, as part of preparations for the big championship game coming up. “I can’t,” she says, feeling real regret. She remembers Christen showing up to Red Stars practice and mingling with the other players, and she makes a mental note that she’ll put in just as much effort to get to know Christen’s colleagues. “Unfortunately, I have a work thing tonight. But next time for sure, okay?”

After the show—after the five curtain calls for Christen, after the now-routine chants of Christen, Christen, Christen, after the roars of applause that shake the chandeliers above—Tobin finally gets Christen back in her arms.

“I missed you,” Christen sighs, folding herself into Tobin’s embrace.

Tobin chuckles. “We were like ten feet apart this entire time!”

“But it’s not fair that you can stare at me the entire time but I can’t stare at you.”

“I mean, you could certainly attempt, but I think the audience might find that a little strange.”

As Christen laughs, Tobin feels a sudden presence at her elbow, and she turns to see Mal squirming her way into their hug. The three of them embrace for a long time, feeling contentedness seep into their bones, before pulling away.

"Are you guys going to Jackie's?!" Mal asks hopefully, bouncing up and down on her tippy-toes. "Chris, you'll definitely go, right? I'll go if you go."

Though at first Christen is hesitant about heading to Jackie’s without Tobin, Tobin insists.

“I feel bad heading off to a party without you, after you came with me to the theater just to support me,” Christen sighs. “And you heading back home all alone.”

Home. The word, used so nonchalantly by Christen—without a second thought—sends a thrill down Tobin’s spine.

“I won’t be alone, I’ll have Morena,” Tobin teases, just to see Christen smile. Then she’s hit with a stroke of genius. “Okay, what if I invite the girls over—Alyssa, Moe, Casey? We can all do the team call together from the apartment, so you know I won’t be alone. And then when you get back from Jackie’s, we can all hang out.”

With that promise, Christen heads off to Jackie’s with Mal under her wing. Tobin watches them affectionately as they go.

On the way back to the apartment, she gets the girls on the phone and arranges for them to come over. She figures she’ll have just enough time to talk Morena on a quick walk and tidy up the apartment before they arrive.

When she gets back into the apartment, she steps quietly across the threshold and through the empty space, taking it all in. The way the floors gleam in the low lights. The mirrors and candles, the high industrial ceilings, the breathtaking view of Chicago skyscrapers at night through the windows. She remembers the way that the apartment had spoken to her the first time she had ever walked through its doors. The sense of belonging—of rightness—had terrified her. It had terrified her because she wasn’t used to belonging anywhere. And it had terrified her because she didn’t feel like she deserved to belong anywhere.

And now, just a few months later—this is home.

Tobin is standing in the middle of the living room, turning slowly on one heel, a whirl of gratitude and awe and affection starting to rise in her chest, when there’s a knock on the door.

Tobin’s first thought is, It’s too early for the girls, isn’t it?

It comes again. It’s a heavy knock. It pounds on and on. The doorknob rattles.

Morena is up on her feet, pivoting towards the door, teeth bared and snarling.

And that’s when Tobin knows.

White hot rage floods down her spine, up into the crown of her head, down through her fingertips and toes. She strides towards the door, which is still being pounded, still shuddering under the force, and whips it open.

Mid-pound, Mateo stumbles forward into empty air, catches himself just in time.

He’s drunk, Tobin thinks. His face is mottled and red and unhinged. His tie is loose and his stained shirt is untucked. He tips toward, then back, squinting at her. Or maybe he’s not drunk. Maybe he’s just always like this. Wouldn’t put it past him.

Observing him up close for the first time, she feels nothing but revulsion. But for Christen’s sake—for the sake of the person who really matters, not Tobin or Mateo or anyone else—she tries to contain herself. She feels a sudden rush of gratitude that Christen is not here, that Christen’s wish to never see Mateo again can live on. She’s glad that she’s here to defend Christen against this trash human.

So what would Christen do?

“Get the fuck out of here, you fucking piece of shit,” she snarls.

Okay, so maybe Christen wouldn’t do that. Whatever, I’d really like to punch him in the nose, so it’s a compromise.

He stares at her through bleary eyes. “Who…the fuck are you?”

“Get the fuck out before I call security,” Tobin repeats, pointing towards the elevator.

Recognition begins to seep over Mateo’s face. “Ah.” He sways again, catches himself. “You’re the little girlfriend, aren’t you? The little girlfriend who convinced our little princess to grow some—” he hiccups, “fucking balls? The girlfriend who convinced our little princess to get me fired? To ruin my career?”

I could kick him in the face, I could kick him in the face right now—god, if only I had my cleats on—

“She’s not your little anything,” Tobin fights to keep her voice low, but her tone is so venomous that Mateo actually takes a frightened step back. “I don’t know how you found out where she lives, but you’re going to leave now, and if you ever come back here again—”

“I know where she lives. I know everything about her. I controlled everything about her: her career, her future. She thinks she’ll get anywhere without me? She can think again,” Mateo sneers. And even though Tobin knows he’s drunk and desperate and lying, an insidious fear creeps up her spine at the words.

She steps forward. She’s actually taller than him. She raises herself to her full height, glares down at him. “If you ever come within a hundred feet of Christen Press, ever again,” she says, ice in her voice, “If you ever try to contact her again. If you ever try to interfere with her again. I will strangle you with my bare hands. I swear to god.”

Mateo is wide-eyed, dripping sweat.

But maybe he’s too drunk to fully internalize Tobin’s threat, or too desperate, or too evil, so he shoulders up to her, peering into the apartment behind her, even as she tries to shut the door. “Christen!” he bellows. “Christen, I know you’re in there!”

Tobin throws her arm out to block his entry. She’s strong, but he’s a bulky man, and she feels her arm giving way for a moment before he backs up. With her other hand, she’s got her phone out, desperately trying to dial the front desk for security.

“Get the fuck back,” she snarls. “Christen’s not here.”

“Like hell she’s not. CHRISTEN!” Mateo’s screaming now. “I fucking invented you, and I can fucking destroy you—

He lunges forward again to try to get by Tobin. This time, he knocks Tobin’s face sideways into the edge of the door. She stumbles back, head ringing, disoriented, startled to taste the metallic tang of blood on her lip. She’s about to wind up for a sucker punch—hell no, this monster is not stepping foot into this apartment, this safe space, this HOME

There’s a whir of motion behind her.

And sure, maybe she could’ve done something. Maybe she could’ve reached out and tried to stop the shape whizzing by, or tried to shut the door, or something…

But she doesn’t.

She leans back, and opens the door, and gets out of the way.

And watches as Morena launches herself at Mateo’s face.

There’s a tornado of black and brown fur, a shrill, prolonged scream, and Tobin finally shakes off something like a daze and reaches out, snatches Morena back. The dog wriggles in Tobin’s arms, still snarling and snapping at Mateo.

Mateo’s got a long, brutal gash down the side of his cheek, extending onto his neck.

“I’ll kill you—” he gasps. “I’ll fucking kill you, you bitch, and Christen after you—”

“Wow, so you, um, maybe should not be saying things like that if you want to stay out of prison.”

Tobin whirls around to see Alyssa, Moe, and Casey standing in the hallway.

Casey’s holding a cell phone upright, the red light blinking. Tobin doesn’t know how long she’s been recording.

She feels the arrival of these reinforcements—these irreplaceable, amazing friends—like a tidal wave of relief, and suddenly her knees feel weak under her, and she finally feels the sharp pounding in her head from where it hit the door, and she sags against the doorpost.

“Now who the fuck are you?!” Mateo shouts, bewildered, one hand clasped to his bloody cheek.

Moe shrugs sweetly, pointing at the phone in Casey’s hands. “Just the people with video evidence that the former artistic director Chicago Ballet Company illegally obtained Christen Press’s address and stalked to her to her apartment to threaten her life and the life of her girlfriend.” She smirks and glances at the other girls. “Should be enough for at least a restraining order, don’t you think? And that’s gotta be some kind of crime?”

Don’t goad him, Tobin wants to plead, but in her suddenly limp state, she’s a beat too late. She sees Mateo lunge towards Casey as if in slow motion. She hears herself shouting a warning, stepping towards them, trying to put Morena down and shake off her ringing headache and get down the hallway all at once.

Alyssa gets there first.

One well-placed fist, one resounding crack, and Mateo’s stumbling backwards, clutching a broken nose.

Alyssa shakes her fist out nonchalantly. She towers over him, and for the first time, Tobin sees real fear in his eyes. “Get out,” Alyssa says, low and calm. She gestures towards the elevator.

Mateo casts a panicked glance towards Tobin.

“You heard her,” Tobin says. “Get out of this building; get out of Christen’s city.”

“You step one foot out of line, and this video hits primetime,” Casey adds, she and Moe sidling along the hallway towards the safety of the apartment.

“And we got that last bit where you tried to attack us, too!” Moe shouts, "So never contact her, or anyone she knows, or her dog again!"

With that parting salvo, Casey and Moe duck into the apartment.

Mateo opens his shaking mouth as if to say something, but Tobin takes a step forward, and Morena snarls, and Alyssa looms, and he caves. With one last spiteful, defeated glare at the whole group, he stumbles towards the open elevator, his hands cupped around his bleeding face and broken nose.

He vanishes out of sight.

Tobin lets out a long groan and finally releases her death grip on Morena. Squirming, Morena gives Tobin a faceful of kisses before scampering into the apartment, unbothered and sweet again now that the big bad man attacking Tobin is gone.

Tobin closes her eyes and drops back against the doorframe, sucking in deep breaths. “Moe, ‘Never contact her dog again?’ Smooth.”

“It was a high pressure moment, and I panicked!” Moe protests.

“We got the full video starting from when he physically attacked Tobin, and that’s what’s important,” Casey reminds them. “I’m sending this to all of you now so we have backup copies.”

“You’re a rockstar, Casey. And Lyss—” Tobin turns towards the taller girl, gratitude on the tip of her tongue, but when she sees her friend standing there, words fail. She pulls Alyssa into a fierce hug.

After a minute, Alyssa says, deadpan, “Your face is getting blood on my shirt.”

“Well, you got to punch Mateo, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do, so you still win,” Tobin mumbles into Alyssa’s shoulder. But she pulls back, grips Alyssa by the shoulders. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Alyssa brushes it off with a trace of a smile. “Come on,” she says in response, “Let’s get you cleaned up. We’ve got quite a story for Christen when she gets back.”

“What would we do without you?” Tobin asks.

Alyssa slings her arm over Tobin’s shoulder as they enter the apartment. “Luckily, you’ll never have to find out.”

 

Chapter Text

“Remember, you have to be back at six today, okay? Six on the dot.”

“Six on the dot,” Tobin echoes, rubbing a towel roughly across her dripping, post-shower hair as she rummages in her locker.

“For the surprise, okay? Six? You promise?”

“Six,” Tobin promises, and she has to smile at the edge of giddy anticipation in Christen’s voice. “Don’t worry, babe. I will be there at six, and I’ll have these goons in tow.” she raises her eyebrows at Alyssa, Moe, and Casey, to let them know they’re being discussed.

“Perfect,” Christen says on the other end of the line, and Tobin can feel the smile in her voice. “All right, see you at six!”

“I’m sorry, what was that time again?”

Tobes—”

“Six!” Tobin laughs as they end the call. She turns and reminds her friends, “Remember—it’s a surprise. We’re going to act surprised.”

(It’s maybe not so much of a surprise.)

The other night, when the girls were hanging out at Christen’s—when Christen had arrived back at her apartment shocked to find Tobin holding an ice pack to her bloody lip, after they’d given her a full retelling of the way they’d run Mateo out of the building, after they’d cajoled Christen out of calling 911 to check Tobin’s lip and Alyssa’s knuckles—the girls had settled down in a loose circle on the floor on a blanket. That’s when the lighthearted ribbing about the lack of furniture had begun.

“I hear Tobin has spent more than one night in Morena’s dog bed,” Casey teased.  

Christen had laughed a little ruefully. The banter was lighthearted, but there was something wistful behind her eyes as she shrugged and said, “Well, I have been thinking of getting some real furniture for this front room…”

Tobin blinked, surprised. “But it’s your practice space, right? It’s important for you to practice.” She gestures towards the wide-open space, the shining wooden floorboards, the mirrors. She recalls the indescribable magic of watching Christen dance in this space. The other girls sat silently, sensing that this conversation was about something bigger than just furniture.

“Yeah,” Christen said. She was sitting on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her, back ramrod straight, toes perfect pointed, as usual. She took a deep breath. “It is my practice space. But it’s more than that. It’s a space for me, for my friends. It’s a space that you all just protected on my behalf.” Christen had leaned over and pressed the lightest of kisses to the side of Tobin’s cheek, careful not to disturb the cut lip or the newly forming bruises. “So I think it’s important for this space to reflect some balance.” Christen smiles around at them all. “Balance in the form of, oh, I don’t know, having a couch that my friends can sit on when they come over. Or a dining table where my girlfriend and I can entertain guests. I think I could fit those pieces in and still have more than enough room to practice”

The conversation had moved on to other topics, but Tobin had realized what a big symbolic step this could be for Christen—to create a space that’s welcoming and social, that’s built for more than one solitary person.

And she couldn’t have been prouder.

Then, when she was puttering around in the kitchen yesterday morning, she had accidentally spotted the screen of Christen’s laptop, which was open on the counter. Christen had clearly been furniture shopping—a sofa, a dining table. And then this morning, Christen had called Tobin with firm instructions to return to the apartment with their friends at six PM for a “surprise.” Not a minute sooner, not a minute later.

Tobin had zipped her mouth and tried to forget the afternoon delivery window she’d seen on the furniture site’s order confirmation page.

“Okay,” Casey says. “So we’re going to walk in, and see the couch, and go like—” She dramatically slaps a hand over her mouth and raises her eyebrows up into her hairline.

“Stick to playing soccer, I don’t think your acting career is going anywhere,” Alyssa says dryly, earning herself a shove in the head.

At 5:59 on the dot, they’re exiting the elevator on Christen’s floor and making their way down the long, luxe hallway towards her apartment. “I think I can stay until…nine?” Alyssa says to Tobin as they drag their tired feet down the hall. “Don’t forget, our flight out tomorrow is pretty early. I think I’ll come pick you up at 5 AM.”

Tomorrow. Tobin can’t quite believe that they’ll be flying out tomorrow for the NWSL championship game in Cary, North Carolina. She can’t quite believe, either, that tomorrow will be the last she sees of her girlfriend’s beautiful face for a while.

It’s only a few weeks, she reminds herself. Tobin’s already booked her flight to LA for a visit soon.  And they’ve made plans on plans on plans, plans for where to eat in LA; which days to go to the beach; plans for Tobin to meet Christen’s family; plans for Christen to meet Tobin’s friends. And so it’s with a tired but peaceful smile on her face that Tobin pauses at the door. “Remember,” she whispers to her friends as she unlocks the door and ushers her friends in. “We’re surprised.”

The apartment is dark and silent, but a warm, flickering glow draws the girls deeper into the space. They emerge from the entryway to see a cluster of tapered candles burning on a shining new dining table, next to the enormous bouquet of tropical flowers that Christen had gifted to Tobin. The candles don’t shed light very far, and the corners of the room are still immersed in darkness, but they dimly illuminate the four velvet chairs surrounding the table, and what looks like a large, plush gray sofa beyond.

Tobin stops stock still and just admires. Even though she was prepared for the sight, she wasn’t prepared. She wasn’t prepared to be struck by the way the furniture transformed the apartment into a homey, warm space. She wasn’t prepared to see the delicate touches that subtly announced Christen’s presence and excellent taste, like the flowers on the table, the elegant chairs, the new rug underfoot: stately, graceful, lovely, but warm and inviting.

Her reverie is broken by Moe’s dramatic gasp and Casey’s totally unconvincing exclamation, “Oh, wow, furniture! What a surprise!”

Yeah, definitely stick to playing soccer.

“Chris? I fucking love it!” Tobin calls out, whirling around to face the dark apartment. “Where are you?”

There’s a beat of silence as Tobin squints into the dark, the flickering, inverted ghosts of candle flames still staining her vision, and then—

“SURPRISE!!”

The lights blast on overhead. Dozens of voices are shouting. Moe lets out a piercing shriek and ducks behind Alyssa’s back, and Tobin realizes she’s also screaming a little—

“Surprise!” Christen giggles, stepping up towards Tobin, a sweet, satisfied laugh on her lips. Tobin is still gasping for breath, half-cowering into Alyssa’s shoulder. She has trouble picking her jaw up off the floor. She looks over Christen’s shoulder to see Fina, Faith, Sarah, and Nathan jumping out from the far corners; Mal, Rose, and Jackie popping out from behind Christen’s bed; Fabrice and Cody graciously boosting Petra up from where they had been crouching behind the new couch.

“Babe—” Tobin stutters, still blinking in the lights.

Heartwarming chaos is exploding all around them—Casey is already cackling at Moe’s terrified reaction; the kids are jumping up and down; Petra is chatting animatedly with the young dancers; Morena is prancing in circles and barking—but Tobin only has eyes for Christen.

Christen, wearing a smile that lights up her entire face, a smile directed at Tobin alone. Christen, who’s wearing a glorious floor-length dress, bursting in floral patterns of reds and purples and blues. (The way it matches the bouquet on the table seems too exact to be coincidental.) Christen, who has somehow organized an entire surprise party right under Tobin’s nose.

“Surprised?” Christen giggles.

Words fail Tobin. She takes one giant step towards her girlfriend, wrapping her up in her arms and kissing her.

“So surprised,” she finally gasps, laughing, as she pulls away. She cups Christen’s warm, soft cheek in her hand and just beams at her, letting the rest of the world fade into black and white around them. “What—how? I thought the furniture…”

Christen raises one sly eyebrow. “Well, that was one part of the surprise. And I…may have strategically left that laptop in the kitchen for you to find. Throw you off the scent a little.”

“Well, my brilliant girlfriend, consider me thrown.” Tobin leans in for one more gentle kiss. She looks around to see that food is emerging from the oven and drinks from the fridge, that she had totally missed the pots simmering on the stove, and that there’s a large cardboard poster hanging from the window with the words GOOD LUCK RED STARS! written carefully with multicolored markers. “How did you manage this?!”

“Oh, just with a little help from the tribe,” Christen says, as Faith and Fina run towards them giggling. Christen scoops Faith up into her arms, and Tobin catches Fina for a huge hug. “Everyone brought some food and helped set up, and Fina made that beautiful poster, and Faith helped a lot with the cooking, didn’t you, Faithie?”

“I stirred the soup,” Faith announces proudly.

“Yes, and she was an excellent soup-stirrer,” Christen beams.

“It’s chicken noodle!” Faith adds, “my favorite!”

“I made your chicken noodle soup recipe,” Christen whispers under her breath to Tobin, “I hope it turned out as good as yours.”

Tobin lights up from the inside. YOUR recipe, Christen had said. The one that she had found when she could no longer grasp the last smoky figments of remembrance of the recipe that her mother used to make. The one she made for Christen when Christen was sick—the one that Faith had suggested—the one that Mal had loved.

New faces. New memories, she realized. New traditions.

Tobin’s moment of soft realization is interrupted by hubbub from the direction of the kitchen, as Petra unveils some dessert she brought, to general fanfare. She blinks a bit and sees Christen fixing her with a soft, knowing look. Christen leans in and brushes the softest of kisses onto the spot on her jaw.

“Later, I want to know what just made you send those heart eyes to the universe,” Christen whispered. “But for now, we’ve got some houseguests to entertain.”

And entertain they do. With her arm resting securely around the small of Christen’s waist, they make the rounds, making sure that everyone has enough to eat and drink. The apartment radiates with light and life in every corner. It only takes minutes for Tobin’s cheeks to start hurting from smiling, for her abs to start hurting from laughing.

She listens as Faith and Fina animatedly describe their playdates, which they’re now having weekly, dancing and playing soccer and doing everything in between. She gets lost in a long conversation with Fina about her new training regimen, and listens with glee as Fina informs her that they’ve successfully converted Faith into a soccer fan. “She doesn’t really get all the rules yet,” Fina shrugs, “and I’m trying to make sure she’s cheering for the Red Stars, but she says she likes Angel City.”

“They’re pink like my tutus!” Faith protests with a pout.

“Yeah, but Tobin plays for the Red Stars!” Fina reminds Faith in an exasperated, big-sister voice. “That’s more important than pink.”

“Hey,” Tobin says, winking at Christen over Fina’s head, “Let’s not rule out Angel City quite yet; Faith might be onto something there. LA could be dope, one day.” And Christen sends Tobin a look so affectionate and blazing and wondrous that it makes Tobin’s breath catch in her throat, thinking of the possibilities, the futures, the one days for them.

Later, Tobin looks on as Fabrice and Cody show off the pictures they’ve taken of their wives standing in front of the Red Stars billboards, she bursts with pride as the two men shower praise on Christen for making it happen.

Later, they all drink a toast to the demise of the North Carolina Courage in three days, and it feels fucking great.

Later, she overhears Nathan in the corner, tearily thanking Christen for the article—for changing his baby girl’s life—and she has to furtively dab her eyes on the dish towel as she’s ladling out soup for everyone.

(Petra doesn’t miss it. She doesn’t seem to miss a thing. She slips over and hands Tobin an actual silk handkerchief, whispers, “Keep it. I have the feeling your girl will move you to tears for years to come.”)

Later, Tobin joins in the sighs of relief as Petra informs the dancers that the Chicago Ballet Company is searching for a new artistic director to replace Mateo. “Would you ever do that, Christen?” Mal asks, with Rose and Jackie nodding along enthusiastically, “Would you be an artistic director? Or a choreographer?”

“You’re already the best teacher at school!” Rose chimes in.

Christen’s smile grows a little shy as the group pauses to hear her answer. “I mean, it’s a long way off, and it’s a competitive field, but maybe after I retire…” her voice trails off, Tobin sees that now-familiar hopeful, determined glint in her eyes. That look can only mean good things.

“I hear there are some magic pointe shoes around here somewhere…” Jackie adds, raising her eyebrows and looking around. “Some magic customized pointe shoes…”

“Magic pointe shoes?!” Faith gasps.

A blush stains Christen’s cheeks as she glances towards Tobin, takes her hand. “Want to show them, baby?”

“You can show them,” Tobin mumbles, almost too self-conscious to stay in the room. But Christen’s warm hand in hers keeps her tethered and happy, and she forgets her own awkwardness at the sight of Faith’s awed face as Christen carefully unwraps the shoes from their white tissue paper.

“I haven’t worn them for a performance yet,” Christen admits, as oohs and ahhs fill the room around them. “I’ve been saving them for a special occasion.”

“You don’t have to save them, I can just make you new ones whenever you need them,” Tobin mumbles happily.

Awwww!” Everyone in the room choruses together.

“Baby, I think we may have made a mistake introducing all these hooligans to each other,” Christen adds under her breath, murmuring the words into Tobin’s neck and making her laugh.

As Faith takes the pointe shoes with careful, eager hands, Mal examines them over the little girl’s shoulder and whistles under her breath. “They came out great, Tobin.”

Tobin feels herself turning a little red under the smiles of everyone in the room. “Yeah, well, it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t walked me through the dying process.”

“And your sewing looks amazing!” Jackie chimes in. “Damn, if you retire from soccer, you could do this for a living. Can you do my shoes too, Tobin?”

“Get your own girlfriend, Jackie!” Christen teases to uproarious laughter.

“Can I try them on, Christen?!” Faith asks, scrambling onto the new couch with the shoes firmly in her grip.

Her dad laughs gently. “I think they might be a tad bit too big for you, kiddo.”

“Here,” Christen suggests, sitting down next to Faith and hoisting her up into her lap in one easy motion. “They might be too big for you to dance in, but you can put your feet in them and see what they look like.” She helps Faith set her tiny feet inside the brown pointe shoes.

Mental note, Tobin tells herself, buy Faith some brown ballet slippers for her next birthday. Pulling out her phone, Tobin captures a quick candid shot of Christen pretending to lace up the ribbons as Faith giggles and stares up at Christen with wide-eyed adoration. She can’t imagine anything more adorable.  

Then she feels a sharp elbow in her side and looks over to see all their friends smirking at her.

“These are some serious heart eyes,” Jackie whispers.

“The most serious, right?!” Casey exclaims.

Alyssa smirks. “You look like your heart is bursting.”

Mal stifles a laugh. “More like her ovaries—”

“Okay, thanks, please shut up now.” Tobin grabs Mal into a fake headlock and covers her mouth with her hand. “Should never have introduced you guys.”

Leaving her friends laughing and teasing—and still laughing to herself under her breath—Tobin slips off to the kitchen for more water. But when she enters, she’s surprised to see Petra there, already with her long fur coat on.

“Are you leaving so soon?” she asks, disappointment evident in her voice.

Petra turns from where she was studying the smattering of photos on the refrigerator. “Unfortunately so! I so appreciate the invitation, and it’s been wonderful, but these old bones can’t do such late parties anymore!” she says apologetically. Then she tilts her head towards the photos and gives Tobin a knowing smile. “But I see that I am leaving Christen in good hands here.”

Tobin glances towards the refrigerator herself and feels an involuntary grin spreading across her face. Where Christen’s refrigerator used to be a sterile expanse of silver metal, they’re starting to grow a little garden of memories. There aren’t that many photos yet. Not as many as she hopes there will be in the future. There’s a still shot from the Nike interview of Christen and Tobin just staring at each other, their expressions betraying the fact that they were falling hard, long before their heads had caught up with their hearts. There’s the note that accompanied Christen’s flowers, the message that still makes Tobin tear up when she sees it: Baby, you are the strongest flower that ever grew. Remember that when the weather changes. There are fun backstage shots of Tobin and Christen with Fina and Faith; of Christen with Mal; of Christen and Tobin in front of the Red Stars billboard.

But most of the photos are candid shots of Christen dancing, taken by Tobin. Christen on stage, Christen at practice, Christen in the living room. A verb in motion, moving without moving.

Tobin tears her eyes away from the photos to find Petra giving her a knowing look.

“Um,” Tobin collects herself; reminds herself what they were talking about. “Yes. She is in good hands.”

Petra’s eyes look a little faraway tonight. “Christen’s always been near and dear to my heart,” she says. “Since she started at the Chicago Ballet Company four years ago, she’s always been sweet, but…shy. Withdrawn. At first I chalked it up to her youth and inexperience, but as the years wore on and her fame skyrocketed, she never really opened up.” Petra stares down at her hands, troubled. “I can’t believe that truly, all this time, she’s been subjected to this abuse from Mateo. Our own artistic director! I just wish I had noticed sooner. I wish I would’ve been able to do something sooner.”

“I know Christen said that the trustees don’t have many chances to see what practices and rehearsals are really like behind the scenes,” Tobin pipes up. She hates to see the old woman looking so crestfallen and guilty, after everything she’s done for them. “So it would’ve been hard for you to see. Christen knows that.”

Petra nods, a determined expression on her face. “That’s one of the many things we need to change. We need to have more oversight into what’s going on at these rehearsals.”

“Your support of her means more than you know, Petra,” Tobin says softly. She thinks of the way Petra has backed Christen up on the article. On Mateo’s ousting. “I know she’s so grateful for you. I know that your support gave her the courage to go forward.”

Petra looks up with a grateful smile as they begin to meander towards the door. “Well, I’ll be spending this off-season thinking of the many ways we need to improve our structures. And come spring, I hope to see more of the two of you going forward. Maybe you and Christen could come over to my house for dinner with me and my husband.”

The words make Tobin feel warm. “I would love that,” she says as they pause in front of the door, and she means it with every fiber of her being. “And I’m sure Christen would too. Thank you, Petra. For taking care of Christen. And of me.”

Petra gives her a fond smile, takes Tobin’s hands in both of hers and gives them a soft pat. “Remember what I said at the restaurant, before the article was published, about teams? Whatever happens in your careers, the team is the thing. I’m on your team—both of yours.”

“I remember,” Tobin says softly.

Just then, there’s a burst of laughter from the living room, and Tobin glances over her shoulder.

Fina is messing around with a soccer ball with Sarah and Nathan watching, and Christen’s trying to copy the trick with her own soccer ball, and she’s laughing, in that full-throated way she does sometimes—head back, mouth open, carefree, childlike.

In the corner, Jackie is talking animatedly to Alyssa, with energetic hand motions and that infectious, eye-crinkling smile, and Alyssa’s chuckling and laughing along.

Mal and Casey are sitting on the couch with Faith between them, and Faith is cradling Christen’s pointe shoes in her hand and rambling on about how one day she’s going to have shoes the color of her skin, too, and Mal and Casey are nodding along seriously, understandingly.

In Tobin’s eyes, the whole scene, with Christen at the epicenter, seems to be bathed in a hazy, golden glow.

And it hits her.

There’s suddenly the weight of unshed tears behind her eyes. She looks around. This is home, right here. She doesn’t need to keep waiting to be summoned back to a house that’s not a home anymore, waiting for a call that might never come. Home is here with Christen, with this found family they’ve gathered around themselves.

“I remember. And we are a team, all of us here,” Tobin repeats, her voice gaining strength now. She turns back towards Petra, who’s standing there, regarding Tobin with a soft, knowing smile. The worry slips off of Tobin’s back, and suddenly she’s confident, electric, surer of this than she’s ever been sure of anything. “More than that—we’re a family.”  


When the last guests trickle out, and it’s just the two of them, Tobin braces for that lonely post-party feeling. But it never comes, because after all, Christen is still there, and they’re still together, and that’s what matters. With music playing softly in the background, they weave around each other in perfect rhythm, doing dishes and straightening furniture and wiping down counters.

Tobin’s pushing a broom around the floor in the kitchen, bopping around to the beat, tapping her feet and shimmying her shoulders a little, when she feels eyes on her. She looks over and sees Christen leaning her elbows on the counter, staring at her with a soft smile.

“Excuse me ma’am,” Tobin jokes. “Is there something you need?”

“Yes.” Christen straightens up and makes her way toward Tobin, eyes shining. “I need you to dance with me.”

“Ha, ha.” Tobin does another little move with the broom, spinning around on her heel and throwing in a jazz hand for good measure. “Okay. You want the broom for the living room? I’m done here.”

“No, baby,” Christen whisks the broom out of Tobin’s fingers and leans it against the wall. “I want to dance.”

“Ugh, not my forte,” Tobin protests affectionately, though she already knows how this is going to end. “I am not a dancer.”

“Well, lucky for us, I am,” Christen says with a coy smile. “And oh, come on, I know that’s not true,” she adds sweetly, running her hands from Tobin’s shoulders down the outsides of her arms, leaving goosebumps in their wake. “Remember, I’ve seen you dance, and as I recall, it was very sexy.”

“But I’m not a dancer dancer,” Tobin makes one last half-hearted attempt to protest, though her arms are already coming to rest around Christen’s waist.

“I’m not taking no for an answer.” Christen takes Tobin’s hands with a glorious smile on her face. “Come on, dance with me. The night is young. The earth is spinning. Come on, what do you have to lose? What do you have to prove? Dance with me.”

Tobin lifts her arm and gives Christen a whirl around, and Christen’s laughing, and they’re dancing.

As it always does, Christen’s touch makes her feel like she belongs some place, for the first time in a long time. The feeling of Christen in her arms sets her unfurling, like flowers in the sun.

The music plays on in the background, some acoustic song from the party playlist Christen had put on earlier, a man’s soft voice drifting between piano keys, over the familiar hum of the traffic far below.

I never understood before, I never knew what love was for.
My heart was broke, my head was sore, what a feeling.

Tied up in ancient history, I didn't believe in destiny.
I look up, you're standing next to me, what a feeling.

The apartment is quiet, peaceful, glowing. Morena’s already asleep on the dog bed in the corner, her little face resting on her crossed paws. The bouquet on the table catches Tobin’s eyes every time they spin around. Tobin twirls Christen under her arm. She can feel the hem of Christen’s silky dress brushing against her ankles.

Let the rain fall, I don't care. I'm yours, and suddenly you're mine.
Suddenly, you're mine, and it's brighter than sunshine.

They settle into a slow sway. Tobin rests her hands on the small of Christen’s back and presses their foreheads together. Their noses brush against each other’s, their breaths mingle, their hips slot together perfectly as they rotate slowly around and around.

“Did you have fun tonight?” Christen murmurs.

Tobin lets out a little hum of satisfaction. “It was perfect. Thank you. It was incredible—you’re incredible.”

She did this for me, Tobin knows. The furniture, the party. She wants me to feel like I have a home here. 

The song plays on in the background, low and sweet: I didn't have the strength to fight, but suddenly, you seemed so right…me and you, what a feeling…

Christen takes a deep breath. Pressed up close to each other like this, Tobin can feel the rise and fall of her chest. “I could see us doing this together for a long time,” Christen says softly.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Making dinner. Hosting parties. Gathering our found family.” Christen lifts one gentle hand to cup Tobin’s cheek. “Making a home.”

Tobin inhales a sharp breath as the word home sends shivers down her spine.

“Me too,” she says. “Me too. I…I can’t think of anything else I want more in this world.”

She realizes the truth of the words as she says them. The echoes of the sentiment drift like a blanket of stars around them. Christen’s eyes go a little wide with surprise, then go soft and starry.

“Not an NWSL championship?” Christen says.

There’s a teasing lilt to her voice, but Tobin answers seriously, her breath sharp, almost ragged, at the enormity of the realization. “Not even close, Chris. Not a World Cup, or an Olympics, or…or anything. Not without you by my side.”

She can hear the way that Christen’s breath catches in her chest. She splays her hand across Christen’s back, feeling her heartbeat there, feeling the warmth of her as they draw in for a long kiss. A kiss that is also a promise—a kiss that feels like the safest place on earth. Fingers drift softly across skin, palms cup against necks. Their hearts aren’t racing; they beat slow and steady, they beat in perfect time.

Love will remain a mystery,
But give me your hand, and you will see.
Your heart is keeping time with me.

Tobin’s eyes drift open, and she smiles, and she knows, all of a sudden: she can’t wait around forever, waiting to be loved. Waiting for someone else to designate her worth for her—even if that someone is her own family.

“Hey, Chris?” Tobin murmurs between kisses.

“Hm?”

Tobin pulls back a little so that she can look into Christen’s emerald-green eyes. “The invitation, to go to California with you?” she says. “Is that…still on the table?”

And even though she already thinks she knows what the answer will be, it still hits like a wave of relief and joy to see Christen light all the way up, to see the way she takes Tobin’s face in her hands, and looks deep into her eyes, and says, “Baby, it’s always going to be on the table. Wherever I am, I would love you to be.”

Tobin turns her face a little to press a kiss against Christen’s palm. As Christen’s soft fingers continue to stroke comfortingly down her jaw, down the side of her neck, Tobin murmurs, “I can’t keep thinking about how great it used to be with my family. I can’t keep idealizing it and waiting for my life to go back to that, because that’s just…not the situation anymore. I can’t just sit around and wait. It’s not fair to me.”

“I agree,” Christen says solemnly.

“They’ll come around when they come around.” Tobin shivers a little, and feels Christen’s warm palm press more firmly on her cheek in response. “If they come around.”

“The absence of you, Tobin, in any life, is a tragedy,” Christen says softly. “I’m hopeful they’ll come around. But in the meantime, yes, you are more than welcome to stay. My parents will be thrilled.”

“And you?”

Christen answers with the softest of kisses. And she whispers, “To be home with you? I can’t think of anything else I want more in this world either, baby.”


Her suitcase is by the door, her coat is on, and Alyssa has just texted that she’s five minutes out.

After one last scan around the apartment, dark in the early morning hush, Tobin tiptoes over to crouch by Christen’s side of the bed.

“Babe?” she whispers, stroking Christen’s tousled curls back from her face and planting a soft kiss on her forehead. “Chris? I’m heading out.”

Christen rouses herself, blinking at Tobin as she props herself up on her elbows. “Tobes?” she whispers, with that hoarse, early-morning edge on her voice that Tobin loves. “You’re going already? I thought you were going to wake me up when you got up.”

“We were up so late making travel plans, I just wanted you to get a little more rest.” Tobin brushes a few more kisses against Christen’s soft skin. She can’t stop. She doesn’t want to stop. She has to stop, though, if she’s going to make her flight.

“You—you’ve got your coat on and everything.” Christen wipes sleep from her eyes and throws the covers off, swinging her feet around to touch the ground. “Here, at least let me walk you to the door.”

It’s a little hard to walk when they’re so tangled up in each other—Tobin throws her arms around Christen, and Christen buries her sleepy face in Tobin’s neck, and in a soft jumble of limbs and stumbles and whispers, they make their way across the apartment to where Tobin’s suitcase and sneakers are waiting.

“I can’t wait to see you at home,” Christen murmurs, letting her cheek rest on Tobin’s shoulder, neither of them willing to step out of the hug first, “with a big trophy.”

Tobin chuckles at how adorable Christen is when she’s sleepy. And the hairs on her arm stand up, thinking about coming home to Christen. About this routine, forever. About always having an end destination: Christen, home, wherever she is.

“There’s actually just one trophy, and the team gets to keep it,” she laughs, and Christen pouts.

“Damn, you don’t get to pull captain’s privileges?”

“I’ll see what they’ll let me get away with. Maybe the trophy won’t mind taking a little detour through LA.”

Christen beams, stroking one hand through Tobin’s tousled hair. “I can’t wait to see you in LA, baby. It’ll look great on you. The sun. The salt water. The wind in your hair.”

“Next time I see you, it’ll be there,” Tobin promises. She’d called the team to change her flights last night; she’s flying straight to LA after the championship game now. “You’ll pick me up from the airport?”

“Got all your flight info in my email,” Christen promises. “I’ll miss you like crazy.”

“I’ll imagine you in the first row of the stands, cheering,” Tobin whispers, clutching Christen close to her.

“I’ll be watching on TV,” Christen promises with a laugh. “Mal’s coming over, and we’ll live text you through the whole thing. My parents will be watching too. I had to talk my mom out of buying your jersey.”

“You talked her out of it?!”

“Now that she’s over the moon about you coming to visit, she’s probably going to try again, and I won’t be able to stop her,” Christen laughs. “Maybe you can you bring one to her as a present, she’d love that.”

“Giving someone a jersey with my name on it as a gift? Doesn’t that seem weirdly egotistical?” Tobin laughs.

Christen raises an eyebrow. “Does that mean that I won’t be getting a jersey with your name on it as a gift one day?” She pouts a little. “That’s such a bummer…I was really thinking of wearing it during…”

“Babe…” Tobin groans. “You can’t put those images in my mind, not when—”

As if on cue, her phone starts ringing insistently.

“It’s Alyssa,” she groans as she picks it up, “Hey, Lyss, thanks. Yeah. I’m coming right down.”

“I…” Christen says, leaning in, punctuating her sentence with soft kisses, “will see you…in LA…in no time.”

Tobin keeps her fingers interlaced with Christen’s for as long as she can. She steps out into the hallway, pushing her suitcase along in front of her, and turns to give Christen one last look. She’s standing framed in the doorway, hugging her elbows to her chest. Through the distant windows behind her, warm city lights are twinkling through the periwinkle blue haze of dawn. Her hair is a halo around her head, her eyes are soft and wistful, her smile is the most perfect thing Tobin has ever seen in this world. “Travel safe, baby,” she says softly, leaning her head against the door, unwilling to let it shut.

This is the view Tobin wants to see every time she leaves home from now on.

This is the view she wants to come home to, forever.

It’s the view she keeps at the forefront of her mind as she and Alyssa ride in companionable silence towards the airport, as they herd dozens of sleepy girls with bursting suitcases and duffel bags through the bustle and glare of airport security.

When they’re finally settled at the gate, Tobin reminds herself of what Becky Sauerbrunn, the national team captain, had talked through on the phone. Instead of settling down with her own friends and dragging a snapback down over her face to take a long nap, as she might’ve done in the past, she makes the rounds to the different groups of girls, making sure everyone’s feeling settled, that no one is feeling left out.

She spots the rookies, Bethany and Sophia, sitting apart from the other girls by the windows. Sophia is reading, but Bethany is curled up into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest, eyes blank and glassy. Tobin knows that this immensely talented rookie has been struggling with anxiety for a while, so she drops into the empty seat next to her with nothing but a smile. The three of them sit in companionable silence for a minute, and then Tobin says, “You know, before my first NWSL championship game, my hands were shaking so hard that Allie Long had to tie my shoelaces for me.”

Bethany and Sophia both let out a surprised little chuckle. “Wow, really? You?” Bethany’s grip around her knees loosens a little. “I mean, you just always seem so confident. Like you know exactly what you’re doing.”  

“Yeah, I mean...” Tobin stretches out in her seat, shaking her head at the memory. “It gets better. I mean, the nerves don’t ever go away, but it does get better. You get better at handling it over the years.” She stretches out some more and adds casually, “Like, my therapist probably knows more about the NWSL than she ever thought she would. I’ve been talking her ear off about this game for weeks.”

Sophia nods understandingly. Bethany’s eyes widen, and she lets one leg slide away from her chest so her sneaker is resting on the airport carpet. “Oh man, mine too. Like, if you’d told me two years ago that I’d be sitting in a therapist’s office trying to explain corner kick rules to her so that she has the full context for my nightmares…”

“I feel that so much,” Tobin chuckles along with the girls. “Hey, you guys want to grab a coffee from the Starbucks kiosk over there? On me. We can exchange pre-game nightmare stories. Or not, if you’d rather talk about literally anything else.”

Sophia and Bethany exchange glances, then nod eagerly. “Yeah,” Bethany says shyly, fully uncurling from her previous position and rising to her feet alongside Tobin. “Yeah, thanks, we’d like that a lot.”

And it’s crazy, by the time they board, how much more at ease Tobin feels—how she feels that she’s accomplished in that one-hour window than what she would’ve gotten out of a nap or a game of Monopoly Deal.

Maybe I can do this captain thing after all, she told herself, maybe Christen’s right. Maybe I can handle this.

They only make a pit stop at the hotel after they arrive, to change for a quick practice that night. Then it’s on to training, then to team dinner, then a film session. After the film session, she makes a round through all the rooms, knocking on each door to check in on the girls. When she finally gets back to the room she’s sharing with Alyssa, Alyssa is passed out in the dark. Tobin sneaks out of the room to call Christen, but she can’t stifle her yawns, and Christen shoos her off to bed.

The next day—the day before game day—nerves are running high. They get in some light training in the morning, and the afternoon is reserved for team huddles, for meetings, for Tobin to run in circles between chats with Rory and the training staff to check-ins with all the girls.

She’s leaving a good conversation with Sophia and Kealia about the concept of hard chills before game days, and finally heading up to the room, when she runs into Alyssa in the hallway. They detour into Casey and Moe’s room to spend one last night together before the big day.

“Hey,” Alyssa observes from her seat in the armchair by the window, as Tobin splays out across Casey’s bed. “You know, you’re good at this.”

“This?” Tobin rolls over onto her stomach and looks over at Alyssa.

“This captain thing,” Alyssa clarifies.

“Yes!” Casey agrees with a grin. “Captain Tobin Heath is an excellent leader.”

Tobin lets out a long breath. “Okay, I’m glad you guys think so, because—I don’t know, it feels really different. Like, it feels good. But maybe a little unnatural? Like I’m faking it?”

Moe shakes her head. “Nah. You really are good at this. You’re just a good human, and you understand what it is to have ups and downs, and that’s the kind of leadership you’re bringing now.”

“Someone who just…notices and empathizes,” Casey chimes in. “Someone who acknowledges the ups and downs. That’s what this team needs.”

“You’ve come really far,” Alyssa adds gently when Tobin stays silent. “And you’re bringing us all with you. So, thanks.”

Guys.” Tobin takes a deep breath, rejecting that now-identifiable instinct that bubbles up to say, No, that’s not me, I can’t do this, it’s just a fluke, I suck. In the absence of using deflection as a crutch, though, she can’t make up her mind about how to react. Does she give in to the urge to cry? Does she agree? Does she say thank you awkwardly? Does she—

Moe flops onto the bed and tackles Tobin in a bear hug, and Casey and Alyssa piles on, and that solves Tobin’s predicament in the best way possible.

She takes it as a good sign that later that night, sitting cross-legged in the wide hotel hallway whispering into her phone so as not to disturb the sleeping Alyssa, she can repeat these compliments to Christen without getting flustered or embarrassed.

“That’s amazing, Tobin,” Christen says softly on the other end of the line. “And I think they’re exactly right. Nobody wants a cookie-cutter leader who never has any doubts. Any leader who thinks they’re great is probably not that great.”

“What was that term you used the other day that was kind of like this?” Tobin asked.

It’s a vague question, but there’s a warm, satisfying feeling when Christen knows what she means immediately. “Toxic positivity, right, baby?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Like, I’m trying to follow your example. I just hope I’m doing it right. I’m trying not to just say everything’s going to be perfect and beautiful when it’s not.”

“Yeah,” Christen says. “Everything’s not always going to be that way. Sometimes things just fucking suck, with no explanation. That’s what a good leader acknowledges, though.”

“Yeah.” Tobin leans her head back against the wall. She lets out a short laugh that she hopes doesn’t sound too sad. “I guess I know a thing or two about everything being fucked up.”

“You also know a thing or two about putting fucked-up pieces back together,” Christen whispers on the other end of the line.

Tobin finds herself smiling. It’s late, and the hallway is so quiet that she can hear the shift of the carpet beneath her when she moves; can hear the air flowing out of the vents overhead. “I should go,” she whispers back reluctantly. “Big day tomorrow, and all that. I miss you so much, babe.”

“I miss you. Too much for words. Call me tomorrow when you’re hard chilling, okay?” Christen asks. “And you might want to be on the lookout for a certain delivery in the morning.”


Tobin’s phone starts ringing early the next morning.

She hears it on the sink counter just as she’s stepping out of the shower, wrapping herself up in a fluffy white hotel towel. She brushes steam off the screen with one hand to check the caller before picking up. “Moe,” she says cheerfully, “What’s up?”

“Good morning!” Moe’s voice rings through the line. “Just thought I’d check in to make sure that you and Alyssa are up and running.”

“Yep! Alyssa is all ready to go, and I just got out of the shower. Want to meet downstairs for breakfast in fifteen minutes, at…” Tobin checks the time. “8:30?”

“Yeah, works for me and Casey. How are you feeling?”

Tobin bounces up and down on the balls of her feet a little. How am I feeling? “Pretty great, actually. Some nerves, but that’s normal. Gonna make the rounds to check in on all the girls again after breakfast, and then hard chill until game time.”

“Okay, perfect,” Moe says cheerfully. “Have I mentioned you’re the best captain ever?”

“Okay, okay, no need to suck up, you’re already a starter,” Tobin teases.

When she emerges from the steamy bathroom, clean sweats on and hair damp, she notices that Alyssa, sitting by the window with a book in her lap, has a funny smile on her face.

“What’s up?” Tobin asks, toweling off her hair.

Alyssa points towards the corner of the room by the door, and Tobin whirls around to see an enormous bouquet of tropical flowers sitting on the desk. “Special delivery while you were out.”

“No fucking way,” Tobin breathes, a huge smile spreading across her face as she pads barefoot towards her flowers.

The flowers are stunning. It’s the same theme as the first bouquet: wildly colorful, strange and beautiful, bursting with fragrance. But the flowers are more than flowers now—they’re a reminder that Tobin told Christen she loved flowers, and then Christen immediately started sending them. They’re a reminder that Tobin is the strongest flower that ever grew, so remember that when the weather changes. They’re a reminder that Christen constantly has Tobin on her mind, that she’s constantly working on creating a home for Tobin and reminding her that she belongs, even when they’re apart.

“Holy shiiiit!” Moe’s proclamation, as she pokes her head into the room, jolts Tobin out of her thoughts. “Those are gorgeous! Christen?!”

“Who else?” Alyssa says dryly as they make their way out of the room for breakfast.

Moe pouts, makes sure to snap a picture of the flowers as they depart. “I’m texting this to Fabrice.”

“Subtle,” Casey laughs. “Listen, Fabrice is going to be there in person today. Let Tobin have her flowers.”

Tobin lets the other girls precede her into the room for breakfast. She ducks into the fancy hotel lobby and drops down on an armchair, Facetiming Christen. When Christen picks up, she’s already got a knowing smile on her face.

“Babe, I love them,” Tobin says immediately. “Thank you. Thank you for always taking care of me so well.”

“Of course,” Christen murmurs, “It was the least I could do. How is everything there? How’s the weather for the game today?” She visibly shivers. “I bet it’s warmer there than here.”

“Actually,” Tobin cranes her neck to look out the hotel lobby windows. “It’s a little un temps de chien right now. It might rain later.”

Christen’s brow furrows. “Is that going to be an issue for your game?”

“As long as there’s no lightning, the game won’t be delayed or anything.” Tobin shrugs. “And if it’s just a little rain, well, I don’t mind. Ever since what you told me about watching the clouds…” She pauses, recalling the magic that Christen had imbued into day of grey skies. “I kind of like it. Maybe it’ll be a good omen.”

“Are you nervous?” Christen asks softly.

“I’m ready.” Tobin sighs. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Christen whispers.

“I MISS YOU TOO, TOBIN!” a third voice shouts, and Tobin freezes.

It takes her another moment to realize that Christen’s sitting in an unfamiliar chair, with the corner of a cabinet and a poster Tobin’s never seen before in the background.

“Uh, where are you? Who was that?”

Christen’s cracking up as she tilts her phone to the side. Mal comes into view, sprawled out on a tiny futon in what looks like a dorm room. “I’m at Mal’s! She invited me over for breakfast before rehearsal.”

“TOBIN!” Mal scrambles over the edge of the futon and hangs her chin over Christen’s shoulder, waving at the camera. “We miss you!” Mal grabs the phone and angles it down so that Tobin can see Morena lounging on the ground under Christen’s chair. “Morena says hi too!”

“I miss you all!” Tobin echoes. Her heart aches a little.

“Tobin, I want to show you something!” The screen tilts and goes a little blurry as Mal swivels around, and Tobin takes the opportunity to carry her phone into the dining room and set it down on the table so the other girls can crowd around. Mal steadies the camera on her end and zooms in on a wooden frame hanging on the wall. As the picture comes into view, Tobin breaks into a proud smile. It’s Christen’s op-ed, and Mal has got it framed in her apartment.

“I got my favorite writer, Christen Press, to autograph this for me just now,” Mal teases, turning the camera back on Christen, who’s got her head buried in her arms in embarrassment, but then looks up with a sweet smile. But then Mal’s tone turns serious, and she adds, “I have it here to remind myself to be more like Christen. To stick up for myself and for other people, and to take no shit.”

Language, Mal,” Christen attempts to joke, but Tobin can tell from her too-bright eyes and the little wobble of her bottom lip that Mal’s words have hit home in the best way. Not for the first time in the last two days, she wishes more than anything that she could just reach through the screen and put a comforting, congratulatory arm around her girlfriend.

There’s a deafening crash several tables over, and Tobin glances around to see that Sophia has, in a fit of nerves, spilled an entire bowl of oatmeal all over herself.

“Sounds like you guys have to go?” Mal sighs.

“We—yeah, we probably should—” Tobin half-stands, watching in alarm as all their teammates, some more helpful than others, swarm Sophia’s table.

Christen’s mouth twists to the side in disappointment. “Honestly, we should probably go too. We’ve got rehearsal for the next…” she checks her watch, “…six hours, and we’ll need to head out soon if we want to make it on time. Mal’s dorms are farther from the Company than my apartment.”

Tobin doesn’t want to hang up, but chaos is reigning in the dining room, and she can already see Christen and Mal clearing up the breakfast dishes on their end of the Facetime call, and then the screen goes dark.

Seven hours until the game. Tobin helps her teammates clean Sophia up, and she makes the rounds from table to table, urging the girls to eat up even if they’re not hungry.

Six hours. Tobin sits in on a meeting with Rory and the assistant coaches and trainers, trying to keep her leg from nervously jittering against the floor. She feels ready, she tells them, and she means it, but maybe she’s also starting to feel a little like she’s about to throw up.

Five hours. She makes another round to check in on each member of the team. She spends a little extra time sitting with Bethany and Sophia on a bench by the hotel pool. (“I’m scared,” Sophia says, and Bethany nods along mutely. “It’s okay to feel that way,” Tobin says, “but even while you’re feeling that, I want you to also remember that you already have every single tool you need to succeed today, and this team would be nothing without you two.”) She ends up with Alyssa, Moe, and Casey back in her own room. She leans back against the pillows and tries to hard chill. She’s not quite sure she succeeds.

Four hours. Alyssa is reading, Moe is napping, Casey is fidgeting. Tobin calls Christen, then calls her again, just to hear her voicemail message on the other end of the line. Hi, you’ve reached Christen. She feels some tension drain out of her shoulders at the mere sound of the voice. Hi, you’ve reached Christen. She’s reached Christen. She puts on her headphones and listens to Après un rêve on repeat. It’ll always remind her of Christen, dancing in a dark, glowing room. She sits down on the bed and starts to dismantle the bouquet, stem by stem. She weaves it a flower crown. She puts it on Casey’s head and tells her to stop fidgeting, that she’s the strongest flower that ever grew. Casey laughs at her, but she also stops fidgeting. Tobin weaves three more, one for each of them.

Three hours. “Lunchtime” in the dining room, during which no one lunches. You could cut the nervous anticipation with a knife. Even the least ruffle-able members of the team are having trouble choking down their food. Tobin wears her flower crown and ignores the amused stares from the hotel staff. “I love your flower crown!” Bethany says. Tobin extracts an orchid from it for her. Bethany wears it in her hair.  

Two hours. They’re on the bus. She takes the last of the bouquet she’s saved—two pristine birds of paradise—with her. She cradles them in her hands like an amulet on the bus side. She clutches them as she exits the bus into the familiar swarm of cameras flashing and clicking.

One hour. They’re warming up on the field under a grey sky and blinding stadium lights. Fans are already starting to trickle in; a North Carolina home crowd in their navy blues. Tobin tunes out the blur of faces and the white noise of the crowd chatter, but she has to admit: she kind of loves the venom, the animosity that comes with playing on other people’s turf. It fuels her.

She trails her team into the locker room with a smile on her face. It stays on her face through the last hazy minutes of dressing, of Cardi B blasting through the locker room. She ties Bethany’s laces for her. In the final minutes, she looks around the room and tries to press every last detail into her brain for safekeeping: the pressure of the captain’s armband around her arm, secure and snug. The affirming nod that Rory gives her. The way the rookies look like they’re about to lose their lunch. The smiles of her friends.  

Seven months ago, she’d been knocked askew. She’d found herself falling through the floorboards of her life into the darkness and dirt below. But she’d never been down there alone like she thought. Her friends had been there all along, with ladders and sustenance and searchlights. Searchlights that had blinded her at first, that she had hidden from—fleeing into the darkest corners, shielding her burning face and tearing eyes.

The same lights that eventually led her to start climbing, to start clawing her way back to the surface.

And then Christen had found her halfway up the climb, bloodied and bruised, she had put her hand out and said, “Let’s do this together, shall we?”

And when she’d emerged into the clear air, the floorboards were gone; the whole house was gone; all the dust and dirt and ruin. Instead, she found herself standing in a garden of flowers, under blinding light, as far as the eye could see.

“Tobin?”

Tobin startles out of her reverie to find that she’s the only one left in the locker room. Alyssa, Casey, and Moe are standing in the doorway, soft smiles on their faces, waiting for her.

“It’s time, Cap,” Casey says. “Let’s go win this thing.”

As the teams march out onto the field, the roar of the crowd is deafening. Tobin can feel the eyes on her under the sharp white stadium lights, though the crowd is nothing more than a sea of color. Unlike games in the past, when the spotlight felt like it was trapping and cornering her, she doesn’t mind it now. Instead, it feels empowering: the way it scatters the shadows, lights up the determined planes of her teammates’ faces.

The lights reflect off the captain’s armband on Tobin’s arm, which seems to glow as she takes her place on the field. It’s a sigil of sorts. A piece of herself that she lost, but that she found again—that she earned back again.

Heavy grey clouds are settling in overhead, darkening the afternoon into a false dusk. But the way the clouds billow above the stadium lights feels gentle. Not only gentle, but natural. And not only natural, but inevitable.

She feels confident. Steady on her feet, one with the grass and the grey sky overhead, with the deafening din of the crowd around her and the lights from overhead, and with the ball, which she feels drawn to in that old way, connected by an invisible thread. She looks around the field at all the girls in their positions—Moe, Casey, Alyssa—determined and ready to go, and feels a sudden swell of pride. What a team. What a fucking team. What a family.

The whistle blows, and they’re off.

The first half is a gritty slog for both teams—four yellow cards, but not a single goal. North Carolina’s defense is just as strong as they expected, and while Tobin gets behind their line with a few masterful touches more than once, the Red Stars are unable to convert to many shots on goal. Thankfully, the Red Stars’ defense is putting in just as much work today, and Tobin finds herself screaming elated encouragement to Casey and Alyssa across the field as they impede shot after shot.

Still, with only two minutes of stoppage time left in the first half, the game still feels like it’s hanging in anticipatory suspension, just like the heavy grey clouds overhead. Tantalizingly close—feeling like it might give, any minute—but just out of reach.

Tobin has just sprinted forward, trying to get open on the left side, when Sophia is dispossessed of the ball in North Carolina’s half. Cursing under her breath, Tobin doubles back, but even as she’s chasing, she knows she’s too far up to be of use.

She can only watch, in slow-motion despair, as Lynn Williams streaks past Moe, cuts around Julie, and curls an absolute banger past Alyssa’s outstretched fingers into the upper ninety.

Shit.

The North Carolina home crowd goes berserk, a blur of hazy, elated faces all around her. Tobin tangles her fingers in her hair, plants her feet, bellows a profanity or two at the sky. Still, she tells herself to take a deep breath. She’s the captain. She can keep it together.

1-0, we’re still in this, she tells herself.

“1-0, we’re still in this!” she tells the other girls as they’re jogging back into the locker room at the halftime whistle. “Soph, great work this half,” she adds, slinging an arm around the younger girl.

“I gave it away!” Sophia whispers, her voice low and shaky. “And then they scored—” She leans into Tobin’s arm for much-needed comfort, but turns her face away as if to hide the inevitable tears.

“Hey—don’t you dare blame yourself,” Tobin whispers back, pulling Sophia off to the side of the hallway and planting her hands on her shoulders. “How many times have we said that this is a team sport? There were nine girls on the field between you and that goal—myself included—it is not on you. Don’t you dare think so, okay? We are in this. Put the first half behind us, and let’s go score some bangers of our own.”

Tobin’s still new enough to giving pep talks that she’s shocked to see them work. But it does seem to be working. Sophia perks up, wiping her eyes and giving Tobin a brighter smile. They enter the locker room side by side, and Tobin hands Sophia off to Bethany, who continues the barrage of encouragement as they pivot to join the flurry of instruction-giving and pep-talking from Rory and the assistant coaches.

When they troop out to take the field again, there’s a shift.

Tobin’s not sure what it is, but she can feel it. The clouds have gotten even darker, stormier. Squinting up at the sky, it looks almost as if they’re brushing against the rim of the stadium.

“It’s going to downpour!” Casey notes, a tinge of dread on the edges of her voice.

Tobin’s vibrating through her skin, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet in excitement. “Excellent.”

The girls around her turn, raise their eyebrows. “Excellent?” Moe asks, brow creasing.

“Excellent,” Tobin repeats. “it’s good. It’s a sign. The rain is on our side, I can feel it. I can feel it in my bones.”

“Pretty sure that’s just your arthritis kicking in, you old lady,” Bethany teases.

Tobin roars with laughter—not just at the joke, but at the fact that Bethany, who’ll probably be subbed in soon, is feeling good enough to joke around. “It’s a sign,” she repeats. “It’s a sign, girls, I can feel it. Un temps de chien!”

As Christen says, she finds herself thinking, there’s a beauty in the storm. “We’re going to murder it out there. This half is ours.”

Tobin can tell that they don’t quite pick up on what she’s so excited about, but as she bounces up and down and beams up at the sky, her energy is infectious.

It doesn’t take long for the energy to translate.

The second half is a different game—the Red Stars on the offensive, constantly in their attacking half. In the 65th minute, Tobin runs down a bouncing ball out of midfield, touches it to the left, into the box, trying to get enough on it to get a shot off—

She feels the painful impact before she realizes what’s happening, and then she’s sprawling across the grass, falling hard on her shoulder, her shin on fire. She realizes even as she’s falling that it’s not going to be too serious, but cleats to shins are never fun, and she rolls face down into the grass to bury her scream, clutching blindly at her leg. As the Red Stars come swarming and the stands explode in jeering and protest, North Carolina’s number 15 stalks off, trying to argue with the ref that it shouldn’t be a penalty.

At the sound of her teammates’ anxious flutterings above her, Tobin finally wrenches her eyes open—just in time to see the slo-mo replay on the jumbotron. At the sight, she has to laugh. The defender had gone straight for Tobin’s shin, with the ball miles away. It’s too obvious of a penalty to ignore.

“It’s fine; I’m fine,” she says with a wince, rolling up onto one elbow, then sitting up. She winces again when she sees all the blood—why does seeing the blood always seem to make it hurt more?—but the ref is calling for the penalty kick, and the crowd is livid, and that makes it all worth it.

As Shannon and the other medic start to walk her off the field to get it wrapped, she motions for Bethany to walk with her. “How is it?” Bethany asks, as Tobin slings an arm around her shoulder for support, Shannon on her other side.

“It’s fine; Shan is going to slap a band-aid on it and I’ll be back on in a minute, right?” Tobin says.

Shannon rolls her eyes, but nods. “Lucky it wasn’t worse, Tobin, but yeah, it should be fine.”

“Bethany,” Tobin says then. She turns and looks the rookie in the eye. “I want you to take the penalty.”

Bethany almost stumbles, taking Tobin down with her, but she rights herself just in time. “What? Not you, or Kealia, or…” she says, trepidation in every tremor of her voice. “Are you sure?”

“I am a thousand percent confident in this,” Tobin says, and she means it. She feels one drop on her face, then another, and there’s suddenly a fine mist falling around them, settling on their baby hairs and eyelashes, bathing the backs of their necks with welcome coolness. “Are you?”

Bethany looks up into the drizzle, then down at Tobin with a sudden fire in her eyes. “I’m sure if you’re sure, Cap.”

And Tobin is sure.

She sends Bethany off with a firm hug and a slap on the back, watching anxiously from the bench as Bethany lines up at the penalty mark. She can’t keep still even as the medics sop up the blood and dirt from her leg. “Tobin—” Shannon grunts in exasperation as Tobin bounces her leg up and down, upsetting the bandage she’s trying to wrap. “Hold still—”

“Sorry—” It takes all of Tobin’s willpower to bring herself to a standstill. “Sorry, here, wrap fast, I gotta get back out there—”

There’s a moment of total silence as Bethany steps back—as she surges forward and swings—as the North Carolina goalkeeper dives—

—in entirely the wrong direction, and Bethany’s shot sinks beautifully into the lower left corner of the goal.

“YES!!!” Tobin roars, punching the air. The bench is up off their feet, going crazy, and Tobin leaps to her feet—not a moment too late, as Shannon finishes off the bandage and dives out of the way, laughing. The echoing groans around the stadium as the scoreboard flashes to 1-1 are the most beautiful sounds Tobin has ever heard. Bethany peels herself from the celebratory huddle and leads the charge of the on-field players towards Tobin, and they swarm again with the team on the sidelines. Rain is starting to fall harder now, a blanket of white noise in the air above which the clacking of dozens of cameras can be heard documenting the celebration.  

“I knew you could do it!” Tobin roars, shaking Bethany by the shoulders as the rookie just laughs and laughs, rain running in rivulets down their faces and necks. “I knew you had it!”

As the players start dispersing back to their positions, Tobin, still laughing, turns to take in the defeated faces of the home crowd. She’s still fist pumping, still throwing a celebratory arm across Casey’s shoulders—

Christen.

“Christen!?” Tobin gasps aloud, and she surges forward a few steps, wiping rain out of her eyes, and there she is.

Through the silver blanket of rain, it’s unmistakable.

Christen is standing there, up in the first row of the stands. Her smile is radiant, brighter than the stadium lights. She’s looking right at Tobin, her eyes shining.

Tobin spins, dumbfounded, to stare at Casey, who’s just laughing, to look for Moe and Alyssa out on the field—they’re laughing too, of course they were all in on it—and then back to Christen. She’s too far. She’s too far to run to, too far to grasp, too far to hold—the ref is already signaling for Tobin and Casey to get back in their positions.

“Christen! Christen!” Tobin shouts, waving wildly, even as she lets a laughing Casey pull her back onto the field. She stumbles, walking backwards across the rain-soaked grass, not wanting to let Christen out of her sight, drinking in the sight of Christen leaning up against the railing, laughing, with heart eyes that are impossible to miss even from far away. “She’s here!”

“She’s here,” Casey confirms with a grin.

“But her show tonight—”

Casey shrugs, grinning. “She said that understudies were invented for a reason.”

“She was—she was in Chicago just now, though—”

“She was only at Mal’s to drop off Morena before heading to the airport,” Casey laughs.

Tobin’s jaw drops. “Everyone on that call this morning knew but me?!”

“We’re all good liars, aren’t we?” Moe teases as she runs by them. “And we thought you’d never notice! Took you until now?!”

“You know I never look into the crowd; you should’ve warned me—” Across the field now, Tobin turns again to check, to make sure it’s not a dream, to make sure that Christen is actually here. It’s real. It must be real, because Tobin could never dream up a sight as cute as Christen with a towel over her head under the enormous hood of her yellow raincoat, bundled up against the downpour, with that brilliant smile on her face.

Tobin blows a kiss, and watches from across the field as Christen’s smile grows impossibly broader, her eyes scrunching up like half-moons.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. You don’t always get what you wished for just because you wish hard enough. The happy endings don’t always write themselves. Tobin knows these hard truths—she knows them more than most.

But tonight, life does work out.

Tonight, Tobin plays with wings on her feet, with the rain battering down into her eyes, with the widest smile on her face. Tonight, she gets to look over at every pause in the game and seek out Christen on the sidelines. She gets to feel like she’s flying every time their eyes meet.

Tonight, Moe threads Tobin a gorgeous through ball in the 87rd minute, and Tobin cuts inside one defender, then around another, sending the defender sliding to her knees. She looks up, takes a touch, and rockets the ball into the back of the net through the goalkeeper’s legs.

Through the muffled groans that fill the stadium, she thinks she can hear one precious voice in the stands screaming her name. She manages to turn in that direction, point, blow a kiss, before she’s tackled into the mud by her teammates.

When the final whistle blows, she’s tackled again. She lies in the muddy grass in a pile of sweaty arms and legs, the stadium lights blinding in her eyes as their beams cut through the rainstorm, listening to the screams of her teammates, and she thinks it might be the happiest moment of her life. She’s caught up in one hug after another—Alyssa, Moe, Casey, then Sophia, then Bethany. The rookies try to dump a cooler full of ice water on her head, but they miss by a mile. And anyway, it’s pouring rain; her hair and jersey are dripping with water, she couldn’t have been more soaked even if they’d gotten her.

When the last pair of arms lets her go, though, when the final congratulatory tap on the head comes, when she’s done her duty and shaken hands with the North Carolina captain—

Then the whole world narrows to a single focal point.

Tobin turns and finds Christen in the packed stands. She’s in the front row, standing with her hood pushed back, rain soaking through the braids in her hair, and she’s beaming.

Tobin takes one step towards her, then two, and then she’s running, ducking and weaving through people on the field. She sees a whole swarm of cameras out of the corner of her eye, tracking her, and she doesn’t care at all. She grasps the metal railing, plants her feet on the concrete wall, and vaults herself up and over so they’re standing face to face.

Over the din of ten thousand souls, the only thing she can hear is her own heartbeat. The only thing she can see is Christen’s face. She wraps her arms around Christen’s waist and pulls her close.

“You’re here,” she says, their faces a breath apart from each other.

Christen beams. “Always.”

Tobin winds her hands through Christen’s hair, and pulls her in, and kisses her.

Cameras flash wildly. The crowd roars. Light pours down all around them.