Jane is standing in the driveway, halfway between the gatehouse and the main house; they turn a corner and the lights catch her pacing figure just beside the trees, lifting both arms to wave them down. Sloane inhales sharply as she slows to a stop, caught off-guard, her right hand falling to grab Riley’s on the divider between them. Riley watches the sudden blanching of Sloane’s face from the side, the way it craters as she clearly bites down on the inside of her cheek, and then Sloane removes her hand, places it back on the wheel. Sloane’s knuckles are white; the air over Riley’s own knuckles is cold where it registers the sudden absence of warmth.
“Sorry,” she says, the word riding an exhale.
“Don’t apologize,” Riley whispers.
“I want to apologize,” Sloane says, her voice low but insistent, firm, and she looks at Riley now, lit only by the blue and green features of the dashboard. Like stars of two colors where they cluster in her pupils. “I do.”
It’s the first time they’ve addressed each other since the ride back began; as they’d left the gas station parking lot, Sloane had turned on the gentle voice of a public radio announcer, a classical music show dipping in and out of service, and thus in and out of Prokofiev, then Bartók, and Riley had stared out the window into darkness, her eyes occasionally resting as the static came and went. She remembers looking over at Sloane as the music had ended, the announcer returning. That was ‘Romanian Folk Dances for Orchestra.’ Thank you for joining us on this very late night. Next we have -- Sloane’s eyes were on the road, her face impossible to read.
Now Jane hurries across the path of the headlights, tapping softly at the driver’s window. She’s wearing the beach blanket around her shoulders like a shawl, her eyes red from what might be exhaustion or the rare encounter with marijuana or both. Sloane rolls down the window, and Jane stands on her tiptoes to peer into the backseat: Abby is still sleeping, wrapped in the jacket where Sloane had earlier bundled her.
Sloane nods. “Yes. How did things end up?”
“Everyone’s asleep. Passed out, essentially, though they’re back in the cottage or the house, hopefully on mattresses and not the floor. No guarantees, though.”
Jane’s mouth tightens into a neutral line, a similar expression to her older sister. “I’ve never seen her this drunk. I put her to bed an hour ago.”
A sharp inhale through Sloane’s teeth, her knuckles stirring on the wheel. “Christ.” She sighs, then, and gestures behind her. “Get in and we’ll give you a ride back up to the house.”
“No, I walked down here to catch you. Drive around to the cottage instead - there’s no guest room available and she should be with her friends in the morning, I think.”
“I see.” Sloane turns to Riley, eyebrows knitted. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” And Riley nods in return, attempts to look reassuring.
Jane makes an extra effort to close the door quietly as she sits down. “Mom and Dad and everyone else seem to have slept through it all. No stirring from their wing or elsewhere. Hopefully they aren’t up at the crack of dawn, but I’ll take care of it if they are. Those two will need to have time to talk before everything starts up.” She looks behind her at sleeping Abby, smiling sadly. “Poor thing. Is it weird that I feel responsible?”
Sloane shakes her head. “I understand.”
“I love Harper. I mean, she’s our sister, of course I love her.” Riley watches Sloane’s face as Jane speaks, though nothing is revealed there. “But after everything this winter and spring, after everything that happened with you, Sloane, maybe I should have…well...” Jane falls silent.
“There isn’t anything we could have done.”
“I love Abby, too, you know. She feels like a part of our lives now.” Jane is still watching her, leaning over the back of her seat. “Poor thing,” she whispers again, and then they are taking the next turn down another dirt road, all of them quiet.
When Sloane stops the car behind the cottage, Riley gets out and opens the door on Abby’s side, gives the sleeping woman a gentle nudge on the shoulder. “End of the line,” she whispers, and Abby opens her eyes in the dark, letting out a long exhale as her lashes flutter.
“Are we back?”
Riley nods. “We’re at the cottage. Surprise sleepover.”
Abby makes a sleepy noise, her throat clearing. She rubs at her face. “Is Harper, um…”
“She’s pretty out of it. If you want us to take you up to the main house, we can, but we thought you might want to wait until morning.”
“Oh.” Abby sits up with Riley’s help, slides out of the car. “Yeah, shit. I’ll stay here. Okay. Just give me a second, sorry.” She stops mid-walk to the cottage door, bending over. “I have to throw up again.”
And it’s Sloane now who is suddenly at her side, rubbing at Abby’s back, as Jane holds her jacket and Riley holds her arm. “That’s alright, do what you have to do,” Sloane whispers. “Let’s get you into bed and we’ll find you a bucket, too.”
The cottage is pitch black when they get in, the door to John’s room closed. Riley knows the couch in the small parlor folds out and assumes that’s where they can put Abby, but is surprised to find that the bottom bunk of her bed is empty, Jayce nowhere to be seen. She comes back into the kitchen where Abby is sitting in a chair with a chore pail between her knees, Sloane’s protective hand on her spine. Jane’s filling a glass of water at the sink, the blanket still over her shoulders.
“Looks like we have a vacancy,” Riley gestures towards the hall. “Good news. We can be bunkmates. Like gay little sailors.”
And so that is what they do. Abby falls into the bottom bunk with a stuttering exhale, and Sloane kneels next to her, pulls the covers over Abby’s curling limbs. Riley hands her the pail, which they set on the floor next to the fresh glass of water Jane deposits along with a hug and a sad smile and a wish for very good dreams until she sees her in the morning.
“Riley will be right above you if you need anything,” Sloane says, and pats Abby’s arm as she stands up. “Try to sleep some of this off.”
Abby’s hand shoots out from beneath the blanket, grabbing Sloane’s. “Sloane,” she whispers. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Sloane pauses at the door. “You won’t lose us, Abby. Jane and I aren’t going anywhere, no matter what happens. I just want you to know that.”
Abby’s quiet, no response beyond a stilted sniff, and then there’s a sound like a sigh. “Okay,” she says, her voice small, and flips over onto her other side.
In the kitchen, Jane gives Riley a tight-smiled goodnight before going outside, the door closing behind her. Riley stands next to the table, watching Sloane shift her weight from one foot to the other. The other woman is stalling.
“Are you going to sleep now?” Sloane asks, and Riley shakes her head.
“Don’t think I could after all this. I’ll probably just stare at the ceiling, given it’s only an inch away from my nose.”
“Well,” Sloane says, hands briefly finding her own hips, forming fists there. “You should sleep.”
“Thanks.” Riley waits, not knowing what will come next, only knowing that she wants many things she can’t have at this minute. Fills the gap out of nerves, more than anything. “And thanks for driving.”
“Of course.” Sloane is biting the inside of her cheek again. “Thank you for the popsicle.”
“Half a popsicle. Nothing special.”
“The unbroken popsicle is two full popsicles, so one half is actually one full popsicle.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I think the definition of a popsicle is dependent on the presence of the stick, so the presence of two sticks indicates two popsicles.”
This, finally, breaks Riley, and she can’t help but smirk. “The defense rests, Your Honor.”
Sloane looks slightly flustered, but that jaw of hers is beginning to tighten again. The tell. “I know you’ll look after her, but text me if anything happens, okay?”
Sloane finally takes a step toward her, then halts again. “I meant what I said earlier, about not objecting if you want this weekend to have been the end of it. I don’t want you to feel you owe me an explanation. With everything going on, you can make a clean break and I will honor that, I promise.”
“Is that what you want, Sloane?”
Sloane is quiet, staring at her in that way of hers, as if Riley is the only thing here, the rest of the universe declared uninteresting. Sloane’s chest rises in the dim light with more effort; she is breathing harder. Riley can see it from here. “Please don’t ask me what I want,” Sloane says, her voice so low it is nearly a whisper, but each syllable is sharp, taut as a rope.
Still, Riley finds herself wanting to tie it around her neck.
But Sloane shakes her head, lips sealed. The door suddenly opens, and Jane is there, smiling again, a whispered apology.
“Everything okay?” she asks, looking between the two of them.
Riley nods. “Goodnight, Sloane.”
And Sloane stops before she follows her sister out the door, nods back. “Goodnight, Riley.”
Abby is gone when she wakes up, the bed remade with new sheets, the bucket cleared away, the cottage silent and humid. The forecast had predicted cool weather, but it’s muggy as ever, the sky swollen grey with heat. Jayce eventually slinks in, Blythe’s wide-brimmed sun hat crookedly hanging off their head, their overalls half-undone; they give Riley a tired wave and then collapse in their bunk without a word, almost immediately producing snores. In another half hour, John has returned to the cottage with a plate of brunch items that he offers to Riley just as she’s headed for the shower.
“Breakfast buffet from hell,” he says, leaving it on the table for her. “I’ll tell you more when you’re clean.”
Under the water, hands in her hair, she feels her fingers touch each other, the sensation of one palm brushing against the other. Can’t help but think of Sloane’s palm falling onto Riley’s knuckles, then of the insistent press of Sloane around her hand, a pulse, pulling her deeper.
While tucking into artisanal bacon and very cold eggs, Riley receives more intel on the situation at the big house, and it’s fairly predictable: Tipper Caldwell pacing the halls like a determined phantom, looking to exact paranormal levels of vengeance; family and friends milling around without much purpose, some having taken to sunbathing next to the altar where the light is particularly good; a few spontaneous games of croquet and volleyball that have been stretched out for hours; the handful of children in attendance having banded together in some kind of loose association involving face paint. John, an endearingly hyperbolic person, it turns out, makes it sound as though everyone is on the verge of ferality and complete anarchy is only hours away.
“Did you see Sloane up there?”
“Sloane?” John finishes his coffee. “I think she was fixing plates for her kids at one point. Haven’t seen her otherwise.” He pauses, giving Riley a careful look. “Heard you two drove Abby around last night while she was going through it. Good call.”
“More or less.”
Jayce emerges, still in their overalls, yawning and collapsing into the chair closest to John. Riley is still eyeing the straw hat, now crookedly arranged on Jayce’s head. “Where were you last night?”
“Where was I?” Jayce taps their chin in feigned deep consideration. “Difficult to say. A little here, a little there. The veil between the realms of the mundane and the ecstatic was thin last night.” Their smirk falls, their tone shifting to something more somber. “Never mind me, though.” They look at John. “You walked Abby up to the house this morning, yeah? Anybody have updates?”
John and Riley both shake their heads.
“Fuck, what a situation. Poor Abby.” They pause, clearing their throat. “And Harper, of course. Poor Harper. All the rest of us can do is wait.”
John raises his eyebrows. “Luckily the maid of honor provided three pages of suggested activities in the back of our packets.”
“Sloane is a trip, man. Very hot, but she is a trip.” Jayce’s eyes fall on Riley. “Abby mentioned you had history with the Caldwells, I’d forgotten that. You and Sloane dated in high school or something.”
Riley snorts into her food. “Oh god, no.”
“Really? I would have guessed, you know, with last night and everything.”
“It was Harper. Not Sloane.” Well, not back then, at least.
“Harper?” Jayce leans forward, clearly intrigued. “You dated Harper?”
“No, no, just the history part. We have history. We never dated.”
“But you something’d.”
“No, we didn’t.” Seeing Jayce’s expression, Riley makes a face in return. “I’m serious, we didn’t. It’s complicated and takes a long time to explain.”
“Well, we do have a whole lot of time and not much else right now, at least until the inevitable.” Something appears to occur to Jayce, and they fish around in the front pocket of their overalls, finally producing a blunt. “Ah, there she is, isn’t she just gorgeous. Wanna take her out to the porch? Show her the sights?”
Though things do briefly slow and dilate and cosmically center themselves on the porch, the rest of the day avalanches as Riley worried it might. Within another hour, they are called up to the site of the ceremony for an announcement: when Riley and company arrive, there’s a small crowd of guests and family, Sloane and Jane standing awkwardly to one side, the twins nearby, sporting coordinating butterfly face paint and oversized nets. Riley stares at her, studies her. Today has been a blur of exhaustion and strangeness, everything tilted now that the purpose for the entire weekend is up in the air, the cause for celebration declared to be rotten at its core and likely dissolved, and Riley would be lying if she said she hadn’t spent every empty minute of this morning thinking about the talk with Sloane last night, thinking about all of those words spilling out of Abby as they crouched between the trees, thinking about the way Sloane had looked in the dim kitchen, the way she’d looked at Riley with the kind of intensity that ought to start fires, that ought to raze cities.
She’s got to make up her mind. Riley’s got to decide what she wants, she knows this, and this is probably the worst time in the world to decide what you want to do with some murky little situationship - at a wedding that is no longer a wedding but has yet to cease being a technical wedding - but she’s got to do it. She has to know.
Sloane makes brief eye contact, her expression veiling an emotion beyond recognition, acknowledgment, and then she steps up onto the platform, wearing the most serious of frowns as she gazes out at the assembly, half of them looking exhausted already.
“Harper and Abby have asked me to extend their deepest apologies as well as their gratitude for your attendance this weekend.” Sloane squints at her phone, apparently now reading a message. “While they have made the difficult decision to ultimately not get married—” A few gasps release from the crowd, but worth noticing, too, are those who seem to barely bat an eye, nodding with tired approval. “They do not want the weekend or your time here to go to waste. Even though there is to be no wedding today, they have decided to hold a reception regardless, as they already paid for the DJ and catering and cannot get out of those contracts anyway.” Sloane raises an eyebrow at her phone, then continues. “So, in celebration of the rest of us being together, no matter the occasion, they invite you to dress up for the reception this evening and enjoy yourselves.” Sloane scrolls through her phone as if she expects there to be more, pauses, and then puts it down. “That appears to be their main message.”
The crowd dissolves into smaller conversation, trickles into groups before most start leaving for whatever new activity will hold them over until tonight - Riley thinks she overhears someone saying “that was not exactly a surprise” to a hearty agreement - and John lets out a long sigh.
Jayce shrugs. “Well, it’s gonna be a weird night, but it could still be a fun night.”
“What are we going to do for the rest of the day? Nap?”
Riley gestures towards the house. “There’s a lively game of croquet over there.”
John makes a face. “What kind of old queen do you take me for, Doctor?”
Jayce subtly leans over, sniffs their own underarm. “I should shower. I smell like--”
“Blythe,” John says, giving them a look. “You smell like Blythe, honey.”
Jayce grins, searching the crowd over their shoulders. Riley turns in time to see Blythe near the big house, giving Jayce a small wave before going inside.
“I’m going for a walk,” Riley announces, the idea having only just occurred to her. It’s not a very good idea, it might even be an idea planted there by a desire to repeat certain actions until the desired result is achieved, but it seems like the best thing to do until everything wears off and she’s content to face the evening. So many things tied up in the assumption of this event, so many people, a few people in particular she isn’t sure how to be near.
“That’s very enterprising of you,” John calls after her, smirking under his sunglasses. “Look out for the moon.”
Halfway down the path along the water, Riley encounters what she assumes is the remains of the child confederacy John had so enthusiastically described, all of them in facepaint with balloons tied to their wrists, some of them with little butterfly nets and walking sticks. She pauses as though she has come across a group of feral animals, and they glance at her without much interest, disappearing again into the underbrush.
When she reaches the lakeshore, it appears two of the children have been left behind, and once she comes out from under the trees it’s clear that they are two children familiar to her: the twins.
The girl has the net over her shoulder; her brother is sitting on the ground, tapping his own net against a rock. “Hello,” they say, and then the girl - Christ, what are either of their names, Riley did unspeakable things in front of their bear - cocks her head. “You’re our mom’s friend.”
“Yes,” Riley says. “I’m Riley.”
“This is Magnus,” the girl gestures to her brother. “I’m Matilda.”
You’re kidding. But Riley nods, aware her own name is ‘Riley’ and Sloane is called, of course, ‘Sloane’, and smiles. “I just saw your friends down the trail.”
“They’re not our friends,” Matilda says.
“We just met them yesterday,” Magnus chimes in. “And they aren’t very nice.”
“They won’t allow us in the group anymore.”
Magnus taps a little more furiously with his net. “And we didn’t even do anything.”
“They said we look funny.”
“Because we chose butterflies for our faces.”
Matilda scowls, hands on her hips. She looks like her mother. “But we like butterflies best.”
“And there isn’t anything wrong with butterflies.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Riley remembers herself at this age, perhaps one of the last years of being socially accepted, never having to consider that a person might not be friendly, that someone might not approve, that she might someday be on the outside, always looking in. “Butterflies are really fantastic. They’ve definitely got the wrong idea about butterflies.”
“Yes,” Magnus says, getting to his feet. “We agree.”
“Can you take us down to the water?” Matilda points at the shore, a small beach in between the boulders that is merely three or so feet away. “We aren’t allowed to go in without a grown-up.”
“Take your shoes off please,” Matilda instructs, removing her own and staring intensely at Riley until Riley steps out of her loafers, places them on the ground. “We want to catch minnows.”
“With your nets?”
Matilda blinks as though Riley’s grown a second head. Of course she means with their nets. “Yes.”
“Right, the obvious choice.”
“Can you help?”
Riley stares at the net in the girl’s hand, held out to her now with great expectation. She can see Sloane in that probing expression: the tiny narrowed eyes, her frown firm and unforgiving, her brow furrowed.
“Yes.” She takes the net, rolls up her pants, and steps into the shallows. “I can absolutely help with that.”
“Matilda! Magnus!” It is unmistakably Sloane’s voice echoing through the woods, and unmistakably Sloane who emerges, breathless, and gasps at the current events just offshore: Magnus holding a jar heavy with water and a cloud of minnows, Matilda crouched next to Riley with her net poised, Riley absolutely soaked from having fallen not once but twice while trying to catch the glimmering flickers of fish. She gets to her feet, slapping hopelessly at her wet clothing, and Sloane cocks her head, mouth twitching. “You had me scared. I thought you were with the other children.”
“They aren’t very nice.” Riley says, and Matilda straightens, too, revealing what is in her net before depositing it in her brother’s jar.
“But it was okay because we found a grown-up,” she says, giving Riley a clear assessment and then nodding, smiling. “Riley has been helpful.”
Sloane’s arms fold across her chest, but she smirks a little, eyeing Riley. “I can see that. She’s clearly been very enthusiastic.”
“Riley doesn’t have very good balance,” Magnus says, but his grin is cheerful as he taps the jar. “But she is good at catching fish.”
Sloane’s mouth continues to flutter: her teeth appearing briefly to graze her bottom lip, each corner teasing at a smile before receding. “An admirable skill.”
“And now we can eat these for dinner,” Magnus says, holding the jar aloft, only for Sloane and Riley to simultaneously cut in with a resounding no.
“We need to get ready for the reception,” Sloane says, gesturing to the twins, and they let out big childish sighs, stepping up out of the water and onto the shore in exaggerated movements befitting their age.
“But Aunt Harper and Aunt Abby aren’t even getting married,” Magnus says, the jar still sloshing between his hands until Riley delicately takes it from him.
“Yes, but Aunt Harper and Aunt Abby understand the value of a contract.” Sloane sees the jar in Riley’s hand. “Are we going to let the fish go home to their families?”
“We’re going to eat them,” Magnus starts, but Matilda cuts in.
“No, we’re going to put them back.” She stares at Riley, small hands on her hips. “Riley, you have to pour them out, you can’t keep them.” Then, unexpectedly, she smiles and pats Riley on the arm. “It’s okay, Riley. They have to go back to their friends. Don’t be sad.”
“Oh.” Riley summons up a morose expression, feigning indecision before crouching in the shallows, turning the jar over to release the water and captive minnows. “Thank you for that advice, Matilda. I feel less conflicted about it.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Matilda says, and then reaches out her hand. “Please hold my hand now. I’m tired.”
Sloane is watching them, raising her eyebrows at Riley with the most natural of smiles, and then turns to take the lead behind Magnus. And Riley takes Matilda’s hand and follows behind, her shoes squelching with each step, dripping down the trail.
It’s certainly not as awkward as it could be.
Abby finally answers everyone’s texts, saying she’ll probably spend the night in town and needs some space but feels good, really good and relieved, and tells them to enjoy themselves, honestly, seriously, don’t let the DJ go to waste, and this does feel like permission to not be weird about it even if they all still feel weird about it. Riley calls her as she’s getting ready and they joke about how this is very strange and fucked - “dude, I’m literally doing my hair right now to go to your wedding reception and you are straight up sitting on a hotel balcony because you will not be attending” - and there are moments Riley can’t miss when Abby sometimes sounds more strained, a little soggy, and she tries to distract her with humor, relating how Jayce is still wearing Blythe’s hat and John has taken thirty minutes to put on one sock.
“Listen,” she says, just as she senses the conversation slowing down. “If you don’t want to be alone, we can still come over. Me and the queerios or whoever you want to be there. Whatever you need, you just ask, okay?”
And Abby is quiet for a moment, not filling the gaps with nervous chatter like she usually does, and then sighs. Riley can picture her sucking in her bottom lip, fiddling with her mouth and chewing her nails as always. “I love you guys. I’m okay, though, really. Sloane and Jane have me set up in this ridiculous suite, and I kind of like the silence right now. I just...you know how it is there, I can’t get far enough away from anything to think about what comes next.”
“We could always drive you to another gas station. One with better ice cream selection.”
Abby snorts. “Yeah, I’ll let you know. Go dance or something.”
“I don’t dance, Abby.”
“Pretend I have asked you to dance as a favor to alleviate my suffering. And don’t tell me to fuck off, dude, because I am definitely the champion of going through it right now, no other contenders. Go dance.”
So she does, sort of. There is a whole lot of alcohol and an open bar and beneath the finest quality tent that had been erected around noon and occupied by eight, what starts as slightly strange vibes devolves into people getting their uncertain feelings fully exorcised, and in time, even with the Caldwell patriarch and matriarch absent, even with the former brides gone, which is surely the best thing for them, the party might even pass for fun. Riley has another cocktail whose romantic Abby-Harper-centric name has been replaced with a numeral assignment - this is the Number Six, though it was probably previously something foul like ‘Pittsburgh Date Night’ - and Jayce yanks her out onto the floor with the rest of the ‘friends of the brides’ and leads them all in a lot of gyrating to Robyn. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Sloane in some kind of intense conversation with the DJ, and slowly, subtly dances in that direction, making her way towards them without a lot of grace but decent intent.
“But this track is from their playlist, too,” Sloane is saying as Riley approaches, gesturing to the DJ’s laptop. “And at this point we don’t want to hear any of that. Do you have some sort of generic mix you just throw on in case of...suddenly generic events?”
“Ying Yang Twins.” Riley leans across the DJ booth, grinning at Sloane and the DJ. “Only play Ying Yang Twins. If you must branch out, only Dirty South rap for the rest of the night.”
The DJ shrugs. “I can do that.”
Sloane puts an arm out across Riley’s chest, although the expression she’s making twists it into a playful gesture, one that is willing to give in a little. “Please ignore her.”
“But I really can do that.”
Riley gives him a thumbs up. “Excellent, carry on.”
“No,” Sloane cuts in. “Do not carry on. Please play something else. Whatever you play for weddings.”
“I play a lot of things for weddings,” he says.
“Like I said, generic, genre-spanning, generation-hopping wedding reception playlist. That is all I ask.”
In another minute, as Riley has retreated towards the bar with that heat in the pool of her stomach and the DJ hunched over his computer again, Sloane catches up to her, brushes against her briefly, just long enough for Riley’s elbow to register the warm clench of Sloane’s fingers.
“You’re very unhelpful, Bennett,” Sloane says, and even though she’s frowning and her eyebrow is raised, Riley knows Sloane well enough by now - which is not to say well at all but also very well, really very well - that she can see the smirk in her eyes, the playfulness in the way her cheek has been sucked.
“I’m only helpful where fish are concerned.”
“So I’ve learned.” Sloane looks her up and down, a gesture not lost on Riley. “You’re bonding with my kids now, is that it?”
“They roped me into it.”
“They’re very good at that.”
“The apples don't fall far from the tree, I think.” She orders her drink, pauses so Sloane can tell her what she wants - a drink, that is - and then allows her expression to fall into more serious territory. “How are you?”
“How am I?” Sloane snorts. “I’m currently attending the alternate universe version of the reception I planned, all for a wedding that will never happen, which is for the best, certainly, but does not make this process any smoother.” She accepts the cocktail from the bartender - Number Five, probably ‘Love Wins’ or something awful - and takes a sip. “And I’m supposed to be enjoying myself because I was specifically asked to, but I’m terrible at pretending.”
“Yes, Bennett.” A pointed look. “I am.”
Riley glances around the crowded tent, finally ridding itself of its previously nervous energy. “Your folks aren’t here.”
“No, they’re not. This may actually be the thing that pushes them over the edge and into therapy.” Sloane raises an eyebrow. “Either that or Tipper climbs up to the attic and never comes down. She might be there now, wailing out the window.”
“Stranger things have happened, I guess.”
“They have indeed. We’re standing in one of them now.” She balances against the nearest chair, the tables still decorated with the approved decorations, the favors still lined up at each seat. Sloane opens one of the bags up and pulls out a selection of truffles, offering it to Riley. “Ignore that a personal message from the brides is embossed on the back of the box.”
Riley holds up her free hand. “I’m good. These souvenirs are going to be worth a whole lot on eBay next week.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, this feels like a world first, right? Cancelling the wedding on the day of the wedding but still holding the reception.”
Sloane’s expression shifts, her gaze drifting towards the rest of the tent. “I doubt this is a first of any kind. Last minute departures are common in love.”
Riley asks the question before she can regret it. “Do you think they were in love?”
Sloane looks at her, eyes narrowing, but her mouth is pulled into an unfamiliar line, not quite a frown. “Yes, I think so. Not now, maybe, but at some point, they were in love.” Sloane blinks. “Do you not believe in love, Bennett?”
“I believe in love.” She downs the remains of her drink, which is actually more than half of her drink, a long swallow that deprives her of air but feels necessary all the same, and then nods towards the back of the tent. “I’ve got to, uh...use the...”
“Sure,” Sloane says, shrugging, but she’s watching her with that intensity again, everything else fading, and Riley has to turn away to break the gaze, the only way.
Behind the tent she goes, the crickets singing beneath the thud of bass, the night outside the reception cooler and lit only by the far lamps of the porch, a brief respite. And then she sees her.
Harper is crouching there, awkwardly digging through the box of wine. She is wearing some kind of loungewear, her hair up, her makeup off: as un-Harper as she could be.
“Oh,” she says, straightening to her real height, looking down at Riley. Riley recalls why she has never dated anyone taller than her since.
“Sorry.” She takes a step backwards, but Harper reaches out her hand, gesturing for her to stop.
She smiles in awkward acknowledgment. “Hey Harper.”
“Am I a bad person?”
Oh Christ. Riley pauses the automatic response her face wants to make. She holds very still before shaking her head. “Yeah, look, I’m just not really the one to —“
“I’m sorry for everything I did to you. I’m sorry that I'm like this.”
“I hear you, but not right now, okay?”
“Do you forgive me?”
“Oh boy.” She sucks air in through her teeth. “Honestly, I feel like it’s been more than a literal decade and we are both better off just moving on.”
“No, it’s not about moving on. I want your forgiveness, Riley.”
“Forgive me, Riley. Please.”
“I don’t care about all that anymore. If anything, I came out of it feeling sorry for you.”
Harper sniffs, only for her brow to curdle in clear confusion. “You feel sorry for me?”
“I mean, right now, definitely. But even then, yeah.”
She sighs. “You cut a pretty pathetic figure. All that fear you bottled up. Hurting me didn’t make you happy.”
“I don’t think I was that pathetic.”
“Okay.” Riley holds up her hands, taking another step back. “Look, I can’t imagine how difficult this is right now--”
“Really fucking difficult, Riley.”
“Right, exactly. Dredging up this ancient shit won’t help, Harper.”
And now Harper does something fairly unexpected: she lets out a gasping sob, her face crinkles, and she begins to silently cry, tears descending to her open mouth.
“Oh dear,” Riley says, calculating the best way to exit this scenario, but Harper’s shoulders are shaking violently and she’s covering her face, now twice as pathetic as Riley had earlier intimated, and Riley is struck by the memory of Harper across a classroom, deep into the days of pretending not to know her, glancing at Riley when she thought she wouldn’t notice, turning red when she did, and at the time, Riley had thought Harper was only finding a new way to be cruel, but now she thinks that Harper was regretful and ashamed and had never been taught how to apologize, and while it doesn’t make any of it right, while it remains so very wrong, she thinks it’s very sad. And so she steps forward, shaking her head before she does it, and gives Harper a tight embrace. “I will give you one single hug, okay? And then I’m going to step away, but I will give you this hug. I’m just stating my boundaries here.”
Harper continues to cry in her arms, a bleak physical thing, and Riley counts backwards from ten, and then steps away. She bites her lip, continuing to not quite know how to stand as witness to this spectacle, settling on her arms crossed at her chest.
“You’re not a bad person, Harper, because no one is a bad person, everyone can choose to do good things even after they’ve done bad things.” She sighs. “But you should really be fucking nicer to Sloane."
Harper sniffs, the crying currently exhausted, wiping at the wet of her face. She blinks at Riley. “Okay.”
“Can I...can I do anything for you?”
“No,” Harper says. She is staring intensely at the wine bottle in her fist before finally rubbing at her face again. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything for me. That’s not fair.”
And then there’s Jane ‘Deus Ex Machina’ Caldwell coming around the other side of the tent, taking in this scene with a generous heap of confused expressions, her smile changing to a frown before warping to a slightly open mouth, brows constricting to match each new revelation of emotion. “Harper,” she starts, and her tone is that of someone coming across a toddler who has gotten into the paint. “This feels like a bad idea, Harper,” she says, removing the wine bottle from her sister’s hands and setting it back into the box. She glances at Riley, gives her an apologetic look before turning her sister towards the house.
Riley watches them disappear around the corner, her stomach slightly sour. “Fuck,” she says to absolutely no one, or perhaps to herself, perhaps it’s with Riley Bennett that Riley must converse. She is reminded again of the need to decide what she wants. Feels the question rushing up her spine before she shakes it off, goes in search of what are probably excellent portapotties.
The night progresses, peaks around midnight, everyone thoroughly sloshed and enthused by the occasion they are so actively trying to forget. And through this Riley watches Sloane sometimes appear, never to dance, rarely with a drink in hand, seemingly only to check in on certain things, or to sit at the tables, staring into the crowd. Jane joins her at times, but then she, too, is pulled into the group and Jane’s smiles are infectious and it’s easy to see how the rest of the tent ripples with the after effects of her laughing presence, everyone relaxing a bit because Jane Caldwell is having a good time, and so should they. And the hours pass like this, charged but tiring out, until people disperse and return to their beds, and the tent begins to empty out, and finally it is only these friends of the bride spinning and sometimes falling onto the dance floor, pushing into the early hours.
And it is at this time that Riley sees Sloane leave the tent, and so Riley follows, as she was always going to do tonight, as she probably knew when she woke up this morning.
Sloane has entered the back room where caterers and bartender were previously occupied, a flap of canvas between this space and the dancefloor. She’s not actually doing anything - her back is to Riley, her hands are on her hips, and then they are going to her face, rubbing at the sides of her head, kneading her temples.
“Hey,” Riley says, and Sloane gives the smallest, mousiest sound, so incredibly unlike Sloane, as she turns.
“Jesus,” she says, palm pressed flat to her collar. Riley hasn’t told her yet, and maybe she won’t, maybe that will cross lines they keep trying to remap, but Sloane looks beautiful tonight.
“Is everything alright?”
“Then what are you doing, Bennett?”
What is she doing, really? She runs her hands through her own hair, pushes it back as she takes a deep breath. “Do you want to dance?”
“Do I…” Sloane’s mouth remains open even as her words fade, her tongue visible as it rolls, and then she holds out her hand, expectation lit across all of her features. “You lead.”
So she does, or at least she tries to, and it’s easy enough to dance to the tracks the DJ has left for this final hour, sappy tracks that are probably reserved for wedding dances, but here they are, circling each other to the Bee Gees of all things, trying not to internalize the lyrics - Riley decides it is not the time to contemplate how deep their love is, or to bring that word into it at all.
The music slows and grows steadier, Riley making a face as it transitions into an old Nat King Cole standard she has no idea how to dance to - quizas, quizas, quizas, indeed, as in “quizas she can’t move to this”. But Sloane holds tight to her hand, Sloane’s hips switch with professional precision to the tempo, and they fall into a loose cha-cha, if Riley was going to call it anything at all. The warmth of Sloane’s waist under her palm, the feeling of her weight pressing into Riley’s grip before swaying to the other side: Riley looks down at her and feels foolish for even entertaining the idea that they could just tie things up here and move on to the level of acquaintances.
“I want us to be friends.”
Sloane’s hip pauses in its pendulum, delayed within the other woman’s curved fingers even as the beat continues without them. “Oh.”
“I think if we choose to be friends, we take the pressure off everything else.” She lets her fingers fan over Sloane’s waist, pulling her slightly closer. It’s an automatic gesture she barely notices until it’s too late. “What do you think?”
“I think that’s an acceptable proposal.” The muscles in Sloane’s neck tighten; Riley can see the shadows elongate against the orange light that has settled on her skin, knows how it would feel to press her hand there, the tendons rippling beneath. “Yes. Fine. We can be friends.”
“Friends without benefits, just to clarify.”
Sloane’s mouth twitches into a frown. “That’s an unnecessary clarification. I think making this platonic would be the whole point of reducing it to a friendship.”
“Is it a reduction?”
Sloane makes a soft sound in her throat. “Fine. Poor wording. Relegation or reassignment.”
“If anything we might see more of each other because it won’t just be about…” She is now hesitant to even say the word in the wake of this decision.
“Was it previously only about sex?”
Riley swallows. “I don’t know.”
“Well, it might be wise to have an answer to that question now that we are entering this new stage. I’d hope you have enough evidence to form one.” Sloane steps forward again, leaning into the dance as the music picks up, Riley following even as she is leading. “Alright, you and I are just friends. Let’s consider that commenced.”
“Maybe I should find something to drink and we can toast to it.”
“Oh, there is so much surplus alcohol, you wouldn’t have to look far.”
And they don’t - just behind them is a crate of very good quality Scotch and Riley fills an empty champagne flute with it, rules for glassware be damned. Sloane extends her own flute without even the slightest hesitation, allowing Riley to top her off, and then lifts her hand.
“To an uncomplicated friendship.” She downs her flute in a single swig, swallowing the urge to slightly choke. Looks Sloane in the eye as she winces, immediately banishing the flood of additional thoughts that accompany the act of looking at this woman, and smiles. “We can do this.”
“We can.” Sloane’s voice is lowered to a whisper, barely audible above the music, but she is smiling with her eyes, that rarest of expressions as she closes the space between them, drops her head onto Riley’s shoulder for this last dance. “We can have an uncomplicated platonic friendship.”
Reader, they could not.