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(Happily) Ever After

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Looking back, Christen should have been suspicious from the very beginning. Sure, she loved her younger sister and it wasn’t uncommon for them to hang out and get dinner. What was uncommon was for Channing to insist that it happen on a Tuesday night, and to graciously insist that she would get the bill.

“So how are things at the rescue?” Channing asked, smiling at the waiter as he placed their margaritas in front of them. Christen’s heart warmed, thinking of the adorable dogs she spent her days with.

“It’s great! Jenni got us in contact with a local high school, so now we have all kinds of volunteers to come and spend time with the pups. Really, if we keep getting the word out like we have been doing, we might be able to get more funding and be able to take in more dogs.”

“That’s awesome.” Channing licked at the salt decorating her rim. “And what about things outside of the rescue?”

“Khaleesi and Morena are great! I actually just got them new matching collars-”

“I was actually asking about your social life,” Channing laughed.

“Oh.” Christen gave a little shrug. “I mean, it’s fine.”

“Just fine?”

“Well I’m busy, Chan. I spend every day at the rescue, it’s not as if I can spend Friday night out on the town when I have to be up at 6.”

“Except Jenni could always take the early shift.”

Christen hit her with an unimpressed eyebrow raise. “Jenni? Please. She hates getting up early more than you do.”

“True. But she would do it if you told her why.”

“Eh.” Christen stirred her drink, watching the ice spin around the glass. “There’s not anyone I’m really interested in.”

“Okay, but are you looking?”

“Yes!” she replied defensively.

“Where?”

“Just…” Christen floundered for a moment then sighed. “I’m busy Channing. Not to mention, I’m happy! I like my life exactly how it is.”

“But Chris, you’re like… old.” Christen threw a chip at her younger sister, who batted it away with a laugh. “You’re 32!”

“Yeah, not exactly menopausal yet.”

“I’m just trying to point out that you’re entering the time of your life when most people settle down and get married, pop out a few kids. Your biological clock is ticking!”

Christen swallowed the large sip of margarita she had just taken. “That’s unfair and sexist,” she started immediately. “No one ever questions a man’s timeline-”

“I know, I know.” Channing swirled her chip through the bright green guacamole. “Are you on the apps?”

Christen wrinkled her nose. “No way.”

“Why?”

“Because! It’s…” She sighed. “It just seems so impersonal. Matching up with someone the same way you hire a moving company or order take out. I hate it.”

“So you like to spend time with the person first?”

“Yeah!” Christen picked up her silverware to make room for the plate of fajitas the waiter had just shown up with. “You have to see if there’s that spark.”

“So there was a spark with Antony Alvez?”

Christen rolled her eyes with a laugh. “I was seventeen, I wasn’t thinking about sparks I was thinking about prom dates.”

“Did you see that his little brother went into the navy?”

And just like that, the conversation slipped blissfully away from Christen’s dating life. Or so she thought.

It was after they had finished their meals and the plates were cleared away that Channing reached across the table for her hands. “So… I have something to tell you.”

Dread filled Christen’s stomach. “Oh god. Tell me you’re not pregnant.”

“What? Ew, no.”

“Oh.” She gave her head a little shake. “Then what is it?”

Her little sister gave her a nervous smile. “I… Well I might have taken things into my own hands.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well I was hanging out with Auntie Rae and Vanessa and we were talking about you, and then it was right there on the TV-”

“Channing, just spit it out.”

“You know the TV show Ever After?”

Christen’s head spun a bit. “Um… I guess? It’s the dating show, where they have the like twenty girls-”

“Thirty-”

“And they’re all dating the same guy and he keeps sending girls home until he finds his one true love.” Christen batted her eyelashes for effect. “What about it?”

Channing gave her a nervous smile. “We… we submitted you for it.”

“What?” Christen’s voice rang our across the little Mexican food restaurant, making a few other tables turn to look at them.

“It’s a great opportunity!”

She brought her hands to her temples. “You signed me up for a reality show without mt knowledge or consent?”

“It was Auntie Rae’s idea,” Channing offered weakly.

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Chris-”

“How pathetic do you think I am that I need to go on national TV to find a partner?!”

“Well maybe if you didn’t bury yourself in your work, we wouldn’t have needed to.”

Christen grabbed her purse from the back of her chair. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m saying yes to this.”

“Just think about it! Think about the exposure it’ll get the rescue!” This made Christen pause. It really would be nice to get word out across the nation about her business. With more money they could improve their facilities, take in more dogs, maybe even hire another employee. She shook her head, knowing that’s exactly what Channing was wanting her to think.

“No.”

Channing grabbed her hand before she could storm away. “Just think about it okay? You were chosen out of thousands of applicants, and who knows, maybe you would fall in love with him! At the very least, you would have some fun. And you don’t have to decide right now! You have until the end of the month.”

“I don’t need until the end of the month. I have my answer: no.” And with that, Christen was sweeping out of the restaurant, groaning at her family’s inability to leave her be.

X

Four days later she found herself unexpectedly home early, Jenni having kicked her out of the office after her fourth yawn. Christen had picked up some Indian food on the way home along with a bottle of wine. She settled in on the couch with Morena and Khaleesi on either side of her. She grabbed the remote and began to scroll through the TV guide. She scoffed upon seeing that Lifetime was playing a marathon of the TV show she had been doing her best to forget existed: Ever After. She jammed select on the remote and picked up her curry, ready to hate watch an episode or two before falling into bed.

Except suddenly it was 3 am and she was watching the finale. The dogs had left her to it hours earlier, unamused by her talking at the TV, giving her opinions and reacting to the drama that was unfolding.

She pressed her lips to her empty wine glass, watching with bated breath as one of the two remaining suitor, Zach, got down on one knee in front of the princess, Brianna. If anyone had been around to witness, she would have insisted that the tears in her eyes were because of the entire bottle of wine she had consumed, or the late hour, loathe to admit that she was actually a little touched by the earnestness in his voice as he spoke.

“Brianna,” he whispered through the TV. “I’ve spent the last two months getting to know you, and slowly but surely falling in love with you. I never thought this could happen to me, but here I am, and I just want to ask, from the bottom of my heart, if you would do me the immense pleasure of becoming wife, and living happily ever after.”

Christen sighed, caught up in the romance. Of course Brianna would choose Zach. He was the obvious choice! Sure, Daniel J had the whole tall dark and handsome thing going for him, but Zach was such a sweet guy! He would make an incredible husband. She couldn’t help but idly wonder if Zach was as good in bed as Brianna had made it seem in her talking head.

On screen, Brianna took a shaky breath. “Zach… I’m so glad you came on this season. I feel as if I’ve really had the chance to look into your soul during this time, and I feel so lucky to know you. And there have been times that I couldn’t help but dream of a future with you. That being said… I have to say no.”

Christen audibly gasped.

“I just, when it comes down to it, I think that Daniel is the person I’m supposed to be with.”

“Are you crazy?” Christen asked her darkened living room. “Who picks Daniel J over Zach? No way!” She placed her wine able on the coffee table, her heart aching at the way Zach slowly got to his feet with a stunned expression, somehow finding it in him to wish her happiness even as he was being broken up with.

Christen glanced at the clock, shocked to see that it was so late. She grabbed her phone, intending to go straight to bed, then paused. While the TV went to commercial, she searched Zach’s name on Instagram, pulling up his page. What she saw made her bring her phone closer to her face, making sure she was really seeing what she thought she was.

Was… Zach Ertz the new suitor?

His posts certainly seemed like he was, all picture of his smiling face, a rose in one hand, a crown in the other.

Was this the man she had the chance to date if she did this dumb reality show?

No, she reminded herself, it wasn’t really dating. After all, Christen would be one of thirty girls. And she wasn’t going on the show, so it really didn’t matter.

She let her phone go dark and stood up from the couch with a groan, stretching her limbs. She let the girls out to use the bathroom one last time while she brushed her teeth, then slipped into bed. She would never admit if as she drifted off her mind slipped into some elaborate fantasy where she and Zach rode off into the sunset and lived in matrimonial bliss.

X

“I mean, can you believe her?” Christen dragged the bag of dog food down the hallway. “She didn’t even ask me first!”

Jenni, her best friend and business partner laughed, following along in the wake of Christen’s indignation. “Of course she didn’t, you would have said no.”

“Of course I would have!” Christen ripped open the top of the bag and retrieved a scoop, handing the other to Jenni so they could begin the process of feeding the dogs.

“Because you’re basically a hermit.”

“Right, I- Hey, I am not!”

Jenni shrugged. “I mean, be honest Christen, when is the last time you went on a date?”

Christen opened her mouth to retort but paused, her mind furiously trying to remember how long it had been. Surely it hadn’t been… she’d someone since…

Jenni put her hands on Christen’s shoulders. “Hey. I know things were rough when you broke up with Lena. You took it really hard.”

It had been a few years since she had last seen her ex-girlfriend, but the name still soured something in Christen’s stomach. “I went on some dates after her,” she mumbled.

“Not really. I mean, yes, you physically went to dinner or drinks with a few people, but mentally and emotionally you were completely shut down. And I’m not saying you didn’t have the right to be, at the time. But it’s been two years, Chris. You deserve to put yourself back out there.”

Christen busied herself with pouring food into one of the dog’s cages, a scrappy little mutt named Mikey. “So I have to put myself out there on live tv?”

“I mean hey, nothing like jumping into the deep end to teach you how to swim,” Jenni grinned.

She shot her a look. “I know how to swim,” she quipped back.

“Yeah, but you’ve been out of the water for too long.”

Christen straightened up. “I would just embarrass myself.”

“Have you seen some of the girls they bring on? You’ll be fine.”

“But it really doesn’t matter because I have responsibilities here. It’s not like I can just take a six week vacation.”

“Um, yes you can. What else is being the owner good for?”

“What, and just leave you here to run the rescue by yourself?”

Jenni knelt down to scratch the ears of an elderly black lab named Mocha. “You were just saying the other day that we were getting more volunteers than we had work for. So the high school kids will be having to do some actual chores rather than just play with the pups, so what?”

Christen shook her head. “But what about Khaleesi and Morena? Who would take care of them?”

Jenni rolled her eyes. “Oh no, if only you had a best friend who loved your dogs more than life and was willing to watch them. Or a younger sister. Or an older sister. Or a dad-”

“Okay, okay I get it.”

Jenni put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, if you really don’t want to do it then don’t. But if part of you is… I don’t know, interested or intrigued, at all considering it, then I say go for it. Why not? You deserve a chance at happiness, Chris. We all do.”

Christen shewed on her bottom lip. “And it won’t be like… completely ridiculous and cringey? I won’t be a total laughingstock?”

Jenni screwed up her face. “Mm… I didn’t say that- hey!” She dodged Christen’s smack with a laugh. “I’m kidding. But for real, Chris: if you want to give it a go, I’ll cover for you here at the rescue. Don’t let that be what’s holding you back.” She shrugged. “And really, the whole thing would give the rescue some good, nationwide press. Do it for the dogs!”

“No,” Christen said firmly. “If I do this, I’m doing it because… Because he seems like a really great guy. He’s sweet and charming and funny. No other reason.”

Jenni smiled. “Well I know I’m not the one who went to Stanford here but,” she handed her scoop to Christen, “It sounds like you just answered whether or not you want to do it.”

Christen groaned as Jenni walked away. “There’s still a lot of reasons as to why I shouldn’t do this!”

She watched as her friend continued to walk towards he front office. “Yup, and I’ll be here to listen to those excuses until I’m off at six!”

X

Christen found herself sitting at her dining room table, staring hard at her laptop. She took a deep breath then picked up her phone, scrolling through her contacts until she found the one person she knew she could depend on to give her an honest, logical answer.

“Hello?”

“Tell me not to do this.”

“Not to do what?” Tyler asked.

“Not to say yes to going on Ever After.” There was a pause. “Tyler?”

“Well… do you want to do it?”

“Ty, are you serious?”

Her older sister sighed. “When Channing told me I thought it was a joke. But then she explained her reasoning and… I don’t know, Chris. What do you have to lose?”

“My dignity?”

Tyler laughed. “Chris, you’re hot and smart and kind and a great person. You’re not going to embarrass yourself. That’s just not who you are.”

“But I’m gonna get dumped on national TV.”

“You don’t know that! Maybe you and Zach will hit it off. Or maybe you won’t, but you’ll get picked to be the princess next season.”

Christen rolled her eyes and let out a huffy chuckle. “No way.”

There was a muffled noise on the other side. “Listen, Kam and I are headed out to dinner so I’m just going to come out and say it. If you truly don’t want to do it, you don’t want the chance to get to know Zach, then stay home and let yourself get replaced by some mediocre white girl. But if there’s a part of you who thinks that you might find happiness, or even just have fun… I think you owe it to yourself.”

Christen sighed. “I’m scared,” she admitted in a murmur.

“I know. But… life is scary. Doesn’t mean you should spend the rest of your life holed up in your house with your dogs. Unless that’s what you want.” There was more muffled noise. “Okay, we’re going to be late for our reservation. But Kam and I love you, and we support you, whatever decision you make. Okay?”

Christen groaned. “You were supposed to make the decision for me.”

Tyler laughed. “It’s your life.”

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Goodbye, Chris.”

Christen mumbled her goodbyes and hung up the phone. She placed it facedown on the table and took a deep breath, staring at the Ever After contract she had been emailed. She turned to where the dogs were laying on the rug.

“Khaleesi? Morena? Any advice?”

They blinked sleepily at her, Khaleesi’s tail lightly thumping against the wall behind her.

Christen sighed, wishing, not for the first time, that her mom was around so that she could ask her advice. Although, if she was being honest with herself, she already knew what her mom would say.

Life’s too short, baby. You have to risk a little in order to live big. She could practically smell her perfume in the air as her warm voice echoed through her mind.

She gathered all of the courage she had, along with whatever little ‘fuck it’ attitude she possessed, and quickly filled out the contract, signing her name electronically and hitting send before she had a chance to talk herself out of it.

Her computer chimed, signaling the email had sent, and she smiled. “Alright. Decision made. I’m going. I’m going to be a contestant on Ever After,” she said aloud. Then the enormity of what she had just said hit her in the stomach, making the smile slip away, replaced with a look of panic.

“Oh fuck.”

Chapter Text

Hollywood was chaos.

Hollywood was chaos, and bedlam, and high energy and at the end of the day sometimes you got entertainment out of it.

Jill Ellis, the EP of Ever After, strode through that chaos like it was nothing more than a casual spring stroll and Tobin could do nothing but jump out of her way.

“Let’s go, people!” She bellowed. “If I paid you to stand around and be pretty you’d be in front of the camera.”

Tobin hadn’t thought it was possible for the set to look more hectic than it already did. She was wrong.

“Producers and camera crew with me!” Jill’s voice trailed over the noise of the set. She stopped in front of the door to the production room and pointed sharply at one of the set designers. “I want more tower candles around that pool,” she said.

As the set designers erupted in a flurry of activity to make that possible, Tobin and a handful of other camera operators followed Jill into the production room. Inside the room was no less chaotic than outside, it was just more organized about it and Jill didn’t have to yell as loud when she demanded something.

Tobin slid quietly into her spot next to Emily as Jill pushed her way forward to stand in front of the wall and a half of monitors on display in the room. Most of them were filled with images, already-running static cameras in strategic places around the mansion, as well as the ones in the contestants’ rooms. The only dark ones were for the camera ops themselves. These were labeled with hastily scrawled notes on tape - Thorns #1, Spirit #2, Pride #2, Reign #1 - that designated the steadi-cams Tobin and her fellow camera ops would be using.

Jill spun on her heel to survey her kingdom. Tobin slid farther down in her chain to remain unseen, but Jill glanced over her corner anyway. Her eyes lit on the whiteboard against the far wall filled with this year's contestants. Thirty women, thirty headshots, divided neatly between producers and camera teams, labeled with little dots that indicated which team was assigned to follow them. Tobin’s own camera team, the Thorns, were designated by little grey dots.

Tobin let herself look them over again. She already had them memorized: had already put a name to the insanely pretty faces on the headshots, no doubt airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. Small and fierce Crystal, tall Sydney with a tilt to her chin that spoke of stubbornness, blonde Becky with a smile that was half a stern scowl, Hayley with a ribbon in her hair, calm and calculating Heather, Olivia with the slightly manic smile, and green-eyed Christen.

“Who do you think goes tonight?” Kelley, the producer for the Spirit, dropped against the wall next to Tobin. “My bet is on the single mom.”

“What a feminist,” Tobin drawled at her.

Kelley shrugged. “Feminism doesn’t exist here,” she shot back, deadpan. “Welcome to Ever After.”

Emily, the camera operator for Thorns #2, cackled. “I’ll drink to that,” she said, lifting a water bottle into the air. Kelley knocked her flask against the plastic.

“Let’s go, people,” Jill’s voice cut over them. “First limo will be in place in ten minutes. If I paid you to stand around and look pretty you’d be in front of the camera.”

Tobin stood up straight, grabbed Emily by the arm, and dragged her over to where the producer for their team was standing by the contestant board. Lindsey frowned at them as they settled next to her.

On reality TV, a producer’s job was to create moments. On Ever After, those moments were usually filled with drama and tears. Lindsey was good at her job. She had a knack for making someone feel comfortable with her, and her guileless blue eyes and dimples made them never suspect her as the culprit behind all their problems in the mansion.

“Pinoe’s team has the villain,” she told them.

“Fuck,” Tobin grumbled. In another corner of the production room a smaller whiteboard stood, filled with bets from the production staff. Who would stay longest, who would leave first, who would get into a cat fight, who would cry during their first one on one date... “There goes our extra 100 for longest contestant.”

“We don’t know that. One of our girls could be a wildcard and stay until the final rounds,” Emily protested.

Lindsey waved her off. “Everyone knows the villain stays as long as possible. We’ll have to work a different angle. Dawn, what’s the dirt on our girls? Anything I can use to get them a step up during introductions?”

The psychologist hired by the show flipped through her files until she came to the ones Tobin could see she’d labeled ‘Thorns’ in neat, meticulous letters. “Probably not,” she told them with the blunt honesty that Tobin always admired about her. “Zach’s into sports and one of the other teams has a former Laker Girl.”

Lindsey smacked her hand against her leg. “Son of a bitch!”

“Who has eyes on Limo One?” Jill asked at the top of her voice.

“Five minutes out,” Pinoe, the Reign producer, yelled back at her. “Reign One and Two are already in position.”

“Reign cameras rolling,” a staticky voice confirmed over all their radios.

“Good,” Jill said, somehow still with a frown as if she hadn’t just said a positive word. “I want fairy lights up, I want a sweeping shot of the fountain in front of the mansion. I want...someone from hair and makeup on Zach please, his skin looks shinier than a Turkish oil wrestler.”

A hair and makeup girl wandered into shot on one of the static cameras and started to apply foundation to Zach’s skin. Tobin wasn’t surprised he was sweating. It was a humid California night, with barely a cool breeze, and while he and the Ever After host Alexi stood underneath an absolutely gorgeous trellis of red roses at the end of a long, twisting driveway that finished with a picturesque fountain, they also stood underneath the dozens of bright lights that reality TV needed for its ‘natural’ lighting effect.

Zach was a good guy. Tobin had also worked with him during the previous season of Ever After, where he was one of the suitors instead of the Prince. She hoped he found someone he could tolerate at the end of all this.

“Limo One beginning ascent,” someone announced over the radio.

Jill spun back to look at the screens. “All static cameras rolling, Reign One on Zach, Reign Two on the car.” She barked into her headset before turning to fix her eyes on Pinoe. “First limo up is always wife material. You better give me a good one.”

Pinoe relaxed back into her chair, the screens casting her purple hair into iridescent colors. “Don’t I always?” She said with the confidence of a producer who knew the game.

The limo pulled to a smooth stop in front of the trellis of roses and someone in a suit stepped forward to open the door. On the screen for Reign Two, Tobin caught the steadi-cam sweep up from high heels and long, toned legs to a perfect body encased in a dark blue dress with triangle cuts on the sides to show even more flawless creamy skin. The camera continued up as the picture perfect face of contestant Julie Johnston filled the camera screen, long blonde hair spilling over one shoulder and blue eyes popping even more against her dress.

The production room erupted into hoots and wolf whistles. Pinoe fist pumped as Julie glided forward on those ridiculous heels to hold her hand out to Zach. Good guy Zach was already blushing as he took her hand and placed a gentle kiss across her knuckles.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Jill crowed. She walked over to the contestant board and picked up a ‘wifey’ label from the bottom. She stuck it next to Julie’s headshot.

“Pinoe had a girl next door,” Lindsey whined. “That’s not fair.”

“All is fair in love and reality TV,” the producer for the Pride team reminded her.

“Shut up, Ali.”

“Spirit team!” Tobin saw Kelley practically leap to attention across the room, where she’d had her head tucked into a little huddle with her two camera ops. “Your limo is next. Get ready. Thorns on deck.”

Lindsey started to walk towards the door without saying anything to them. Tobin and Emily followed. “Get in positions,” she ordered them, her eyes fixed on some far off point as she ran scenarios through her head. “Em on Zach, Tobs on the contestant.”

“Who are we showing first?” Emily asked, earning a glare from Lindsey.

“I haven’t decided yet.” Lindsey pushed them both out the door and closed it in their faces with a solid thunk.

Emily continued to blink at the closed door for a long moment. Tobin rolled her eyes and grabbed Emily by the back of her hoodie, guiding her over to tech where they were quickly set up with their steadi-cams. Anyone not in TV had no idea the amount of equipment and expertise those long, live shots cost. There was a constantly moving camera operator behind all of them, loaded down in equipment and expectations like a glorified donkey. They were joined by the Spirit ops, Andi and Aubrey, and together they were all fitted into their harnesses, their power packs and microphones hooked into their utility belts.

Andi and Aubreyleft before they did, needing to catch Limo Two as it made its way up the driveway, so Tobin and Emily had a little bit more time to get into position. Tobin knew what kind of shot Jill and Lindsey would want of their contestant. The same kind that Julie was subjected to.

America wanted their reality TV stars presented like cattle, a slow upward drift to show off every single one of their attributes, so that by the time the camera focused on their faces they will have already made a decision on whether or not they liked this person.

Their radios crackled to life in their ears. “Limo Two unloading, Limo Three ready to ascend.”

“Load with Christen,” they heard Lindsey order.

Christen. An image popped into her head, a headshot of dark curls and a nice smile tinged with nerves.

“Not our Instagram fitness model?” Tobin asked as they trekked over to the rose trellis. Andi and Audrey were already busy following Kelley’s first choice for introductions back towards where the cocktail party would be held: an actual real model named Ashley.

“Zach was too overwhelmed with Kelley’s choice,” Lindsey’s voice explained in their ears. Tobin eyed the angles where she could stand to be able to get the low pan money shot that Lindsey wanted. Emily set up closer to the trellis, cracking some muffled joke at Zach that made him laugh at her. “He responded way better to Julie. We don’t have a girl next door but Christen is down to earth and she’s got a sweetness he might like.”

“Down to earth and sweet?” Tobin scoffed. “I give her two episodes, tops.”

“So cynical,” Lindsey chided her.

“Just a realist.” The sound of tires on gravel interrupted them. Tobin immediately crouched into a catcher’s stance, trusting the aerials to catch the shot of the limo rounding the bend. Like Julie’s and Ashley’s before them, the limo pulled to a stop with a quiet hiss and a man in a suit reached out to open the door. Everything was smooth, nearly flawless. Impeccably coordinated in a way real life could never replicate.

Christen started to step out and Tobin began her practiced slow pan. The tanned, healthy skin of someone who spent time in the sun and not a tanning bed met her camera lens. She glided the audience’s eyes up sculpted legs and a dark green dress that shimmered in the overhead lights, with a slit up to the knee and thin straps over delicate shoulders. Christen Press’s impeccable bone structure would catch the eye of anyone not already looking, and her eyes - so light green they were almost grey - were wide as she stepped into a fairytale.

They were also looking directly at Tobin’s camera.

“Cut!” Everyone heard bellowed over their headsets. Tobin winced. “Lindsey!” Jill continued in all of their ears, “Get everything reset. We want her looking at Zach and not at the camera. Let’s go again.”

Movie magic, Tobin thought as Christen was ushered back into her limo for her to do another take of coming out of it. Never quite as magical as it looked.

Chapter Text

Her stomach was a ball of nerves as she sat in the back of the limo. It was taking all of her self control not to chew on her perfectly manicured nails as she felt it come to a stop. God, what was wrong with her? She hadn’t even wanted to come on this silly show, why did she feel like she was going to throw up?

A shadow passed in front of the tinted car window and she took a deep breath. Nerves or not, it was go time. The door opened and she stepped out, trying to mold her face into a smile that didn’t let on to the nerves underneath-

Holy shit.

The lights were overwhelming. Watching the show, she never would have guessed that just out of view, something like thirty lights were beaming down on the contestants. They were hot on her skin, already making sweat prickle on her skin, but worse, they were nearly blinding. 

She was so caught off guard by the lights that she forgot the very simple instructions she had been given before she was shuffled into the limo: 

Don’t look at the camera.

But how could she not, when it was looming in front of her, big and black, its shiny lens reminding Christen unnervingly of a giant insect?

“Cut!”

Suddenly there were people coming out of seemingly nowhere, and Christen was being ushered back into the limo.

“Sorry.”

Lindsey gave her a bright smile, her dimple deepening. “No worries! Just remember, eyes on the prize. Your eyes can’t be anywhere but on Zach. I don’t care if a hurricane hits as you walk up: eyes on Zach. Besides,” she leaned in conspiratorially. “Zach was talking earlier about how you have the most gorgeous eyes. Make sure he gets to see them in person.”

“Wait, really?” It was stupid, really, the little swoop in her stomach at Lindsey’s words. She didn’t consider herself vain, but after all she was human. And the idea that Zach had seen her picture and had seen something he liked…

She wasn’t exactly mad about it.

“Yes really!” Lindsey paused, listening to something over her headset. “Okay, we’re going again. Where are you going to look?”

“Zach. Nowhere else.”

“Go get ‘em babe.” Lindsey slipped from the other side of the limo, and Christen felt it reverse, then start forward again. She carefully adjusted the straps of her dress as she waited for the door to open.

Her second try was… well, the lights were still bright. She was still aware of a camera almost directly in front of her, hovering, but true to her word, she kept her eyes glued to Zach as she made her way forward, her heels clicking on the stones.

Zach was taller than she had realized. That’s the only thought that somehow made it to the front of her spazzing out mind. Christen was at least 5’ 10” in her heels, and as she extended her hand she realized that he was still at least half a foot taller than her.

He gave her a wide smile. “Hi there.”

She couldn’t help but smile back. “Hi, I’m Christen.”

He ducked his head and brushed his lips across her knuckles, and she couldn’t do anything to stop the blush fanning across her face. Had anyone ever kissed her hand before? The action made her feel special and dainty and feminine and all kinds of words that she didn’t have time to unpack at the moment. 

“It’s so nice to meet you.”

“You too, you’re so… tall.” When the word fell from her lips, she wanted to slap herself. Tall? My god, Christen, you went to Stanford, what is happening to you?

Thankfully he laughed. “Yeah, sorry, I kinda tower over everyone.” He rubbed at the back of his neck in a self conscious way, and without thinking, she reached out for his elbow. 

“I didn’t say it was a bad thing.”

He stared at her for a moment, then gave her an eye crinkling smile. “I’ll see you inside, Christen.” He put a hand over hers, squeezing, and then she was whisked away, just as quickly as she arrived.

Inside the Ever After castle was gorgeous. It wasn’t really a castle of course, just a ridiculous, over the top mansion in northern California that had been rented out for the duration of the show, but someone had gone to great lengths to make sure it looked the part. Christen spotted all kinds of tapestries and art on the walls as a tall brunette who looked like she should still be in high school led her down several winding hallways. Part of her hoped she wouldn’t get sent home tonight, if only so she would have a chance to poke around.

When they reached the main living room, a glass of champagne was shoved into her hand and then she was alone. No, that wasn’t right. As she took a sip to steady herself, she realized two girls were already here, they were just sitting in silence.

Christen looked quickly back and forth between the two of them before taking a seat next to the blond in the blue dress. “Wow! It’s crazy out there, right?”

“Yeah! It was overwhelming for sure,” she answered.

“I once did a shoot with a girl who was here on season five, so she was able to warn me before I came,” the other girl said.

“Shoot?” Christen asked.

“Yeah! I’m a model. I’m Ashley.”

Christen took in her glossy brown curls and her brown eyes that almost seemed too big for her perfect face. Model. Makes sense. “Christen.”

“And I’m Julie.”

“Nice to meet you guys. I… can’t quite believe that I’m here.”

“It’s crazy!” Ashley squealed.

“You can take a seat in here.” All three of them turned around to see a beautiful blonde in a one shoulder sequin dress be handed a glass of champagne. 

“Oh I’m actually fine-” But the PA walked away before she could finish her sentence. She turned to the other girls with a raised eyebrow. “Ooookay. Not big on consent around here, I see.” She took a seat next to Ashley the model. “I’m Kristie. Who are you guys?”

The evening passed with more of the same, girls coming in, one at a time, beautiful and decked out in the most incredible gowns Christen had ever seen. Once the room was full enough, Christen began to notice cameras lurking on the perimeter of the room, focusing in on different groups as they formed.

All of the girls seemed to be sizing each other up, and Christen was really no different. These girls would be her competition, sure, but they were also the people she would be living with for the next eleven weeks. Hopefully she would find a couple friends, or at the very least someone to hang out with. 

As she had predicted, the room was overwhelmingly white. She was able to pick out just eight other women of other color in the room of thirty women. She couldn’t help but wonder what that meant for her chances.

“I watched last season and just kept thinking about how hot he was, but in person?” The brunette next to Christen- Abby? Ellie?- fanned at her face. “Holy fuck!”

Christen nodded. Holy fuck indeed.

“And so big and tall!”

Christen leaned in. “Do you know that’s the first thing I said to him?” She rolled her eyes with a laugh. “I psyched myself up to say something, I don’t know, witty or charming, and instead I was just like ‘You’re so tall!’”

The other girls laughed, but not unkindly. A very petite black girl on Abby/Ellie’s other side put her hand on Christen’s arm. “Girl how do you think I felt? I’m 5’1”, I should have worn stilts with my dress!”

The Ever After host, Alexi, seemed to appear out of thin air. He smiled toothily at all of them. “Ladies, welcome to Ever After. I’m so happy to say that this is our most diverse group of women that Ever After has ever had the pleasure of hosting.” Everyone gave a polite smattering of applause against their champagne glasses, but Christen could detect a few barely concealed eye rolls from some of her fellow contestants. “But now for the man I know you all really want to see, this year's Ever After Prince: Zach Ertz!”

Christen stood up with the other girls as he came in, and was once again struck by how dashing he looked. He gave them all a boyish smile.

“Good evening ladies. I just wanted to say, first and foremost, how much I appreciate you all coming. I know first hand how hard it is to put your life on hold to come here and leave your friends and family behind. That being said, I trust in this process, and I truly, honestly, one hundred percent believe that my future wife is standing in this room.” Was he looking at her? Was he talking to her? “This is where the fun begins, where the magic starts. And I cannot wait to get started. Cheers.” He lifted his glass and they did the same.

A woman with her dark hair up in a bun stepped forward. “Can I steal you first?”

He offered her his arm and led her through the French doors, leaving twenty nine girls in their wake with nothing to do but drink more champagne and give the cameras something to film.

“Yeah, I run a summer church camp for at-risk girls, so I would say that my religion is really important to me. I just want to give them a good role model to look up to.” Christen watched the girls around her nod at Julie, even as a few of them narrowed their eyes judgingly. She turned her head the other way, just in time to see a short producer with brown hair pulling one of the girls over to the side. She was talking with her hands, whispering something excitedly. She brought her to a side table and handed her a shot glass of amber colored liquid. The girl- god there were so many, how was Christen supposed to learn everyone’s names?- stared at it apprehensively, then took it from her, tossing it back. Her face pinched, and she coughed a bit, but before Christen could cross to her and see if she was okay, someone was pulling on her elbow. She turned to find her producer, Lindsey.

“Hey! Ready to make your move?”

“Uh, yeah I just,” Christen turned, trying to crane around and see where the girl went, “There was a girl that I wanted to talk to-”

“Christen, listen. You are an awesome, caring person, and I love that. More importantly, Zach is going to love that! But first he has to see that, and for that to happen, we need to get you some one on one time.”

“But-” 

“You can talk to anyone you want afterwards. But right now we need to go.” Christen reluctantly followed her, readjusting her dress and trying her best to keep up with Lindsey’s long legs.

She was led outside to where Zach was talking with a pale brunette. Lindsey did all but shove her forward, so she gave her best smile. “Hi, I was wondering if I could steal Zach for a second?”

They both stood up and she smiled. “Sure.”

He gave her a hug. “I’m glad we got to talk, Rose.” As she walked away, he extended his hand to Christen, and they began to walk along the stone path.

“So tell me a little about yourself.”

She took a deep breath, wondering where to start. “Well, I’m Christen.”

“I remember that much,” he joked.

“Good sign! Um…I’m thirty two years old, and I’m from here in California.”

“Just like me,” he smiled. “That’s awesome, where?”

“Palos Verdes, it’s this beautiful little city right outside of LA.”

“What was that like?”

“Honestly? It was amazing. I grew up with my two sisters-”

“Woah, three girls?”

She rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Ugh, I know, I know, people always talk about how it must have been a nightmare-”

“No way, if anything I’m jealous. Do you know what kind of money I would have paid to have a sister instead of three brothers? It would have been nice to have one sibling that wasn’t, I don’t know, farting on me or stealing all of my stuff.”

“Well we still had that.”

“For real?” He shook his head jokingly. “Way to ruin the illusion. But seriously, what was it like, being one of three?”

“It was really awesome. I idolized my older sister, Tyler, I did anything that she did. And my little sister, Channing, she’s three years younger, so even though sometimes she drives me up the wall sometimes, I still love her more than life. She’s actually the person who submitted me for the show.”

“Wait so you didn’t-”

“Nope.” She gave a nervous laugh, brushing her curls out of her face. “She took it completely upon herself, with help from one of my aunts, to put together the whole thing. I actually didn’t know anything about it until I was offered a place, and I was… oh I was so mad.”

“Really?!”

“Yes! I just… I had never really watched the show, And I assumed that she was just being annoying and poking her nose where it didn’t belong. And I told her that I absolutely was not going to do it.”

“What changed?”

“Uh… you?” She gave him a nervous smile. “I ended up watching a marathon of last season, and I just kept watching this amazing, charming, sweet, goofball of a guy, and when I got to the end and realized that you were the new Prince…” She gave her head a little shake. “I don’t know. Some optimistic, romantic part of me took over. And so I said yes.”

He reached out and took her hand. “I’m glad you did.”

“Hi, so sorry, do you mind if I jump in here?” They both looked up to find a girl with curly brown hair.

“Of course.” They stood up and Zach squeezed her waist before turning to face the new girl. Christen shuffled away somewhat awkwardly to where Lindsey was waiting. She gave her a thumbs up and a big smile.

“That was awesome! That was an incredible answer.”

“It was just the truth.”

“Yeah, but still.” Lindsey handed her another glass of champagne and led her through a different door than they had exited through. Lindsey sat her down on a velvet armchair before taking a seat on the ottoman across from her. It was only then that Christen realized that a camera had followed them.

“We’re just gonna take a sec to grab an In The Moment interview. So Christen. You just had your first bit of alone time with Zach. Tell me everything.”

“Well I mean, you saw!”

“But tell me how you’re feeling! What’s your first impression of Zach?”

“Zach is… wow. I mean I knew he was wonderful, but then to meet him in person and experience him firsthand?” She gave a happy shrug. “He was even better.”

“Did you feel a spark?”

“I think so.”

Lindsey leaned in slightly. “Sorry, can you answer more completely? Like, ‘I definitely felt a spark between Zach and I.’”

“Um, sure. I think I felt a connection between us. I would like to think that this is the beginning of something amazing.”

Lindsey smiled. “Great. Thanks. We’ll take you back to the girls.”

She had honestly forgotten about the girl she had seen earlier, and it wasn’t until she saw a couple of empty shot glasses on the side table that she remembered. She began to look around, then heard a ruckus in the room behind her. She turned the corner to find the girl standing on a coffee table, holding the train of her gold slip dress in one hand, and a nearly empty bottle of champagne in the other. Cameras were lurking nearby, capturing everything, and a black girl with a sleeve of tattoos was trying to talk her into coming down.

“Sweetie-”

 “I’m having a great time! I mean, I was so nervous, but now I feel awesome, I just feel-” She flung the hand holding the champagne bottle out to the side, nearly smacking Christen in the face. She caught her arm, and gently wrestled the bottle away from her.

“I think maybe you need some water,” she said quietly, not wanting to cause even more of a scene.

“No! Not water, more champy!” She turned to the other woman, no doubt to demand more booze, and then her face paled considerably. “Oh god,” she managed to get out before scrambling down with the other woman’s help and dashing away, presumably in search of a trash can.

They both followed her into the nearest bathroom, watching as she fell to her knees in front of the toilet. Christen did her best to hold back the girl’s hair as she vomited violently into the bowl.

“That’s right, Mal. Just get it all up, you’ll feel better.” The woman rubbed circles on her lower back as she turned her eyes to Christen. “What was your name?”

“Christen.”

“I’m Sydney, you can call me Syd.” She lowered her voice as the girl- Mal- began to heave again. “I can’t believe she got trashed this fast.”

“Well to her credit I saw one of the producers giving her shots of what looked like whiskey. And I don’t know about you but I haven’t eaten since lunch.”

“True,” Syd sighed. “Liquor on an empty stomach, a rookie mistake.”

There was a soft knock on the door and a woman with long blonde hair poked her head in. “How’s it going? Does she need anything?”

“Honestly? Water, and some sort of food to help steady her stomach. Otherwise she’ll never make it through the rose ceremony.”

The woman nodded, all business in her one shoulder blue gown. “Right.” She turned and seemed to conjure the baby faced PA out of midair. “I need a bottle of water and a granola bar. Or some bread if you can find it.”

The girl looked at her with wide eyes. “Um, I’m not really supposed to… there’s going to be food afterwards…”

“Um, do you know how much legal trouble you’re going to be in if she has to go to the hospital with alcohol poisoning? It could shut down this entire show. Do you want to be the one to explain that to your boss and your boss’s boss?”

The girl shook her head and disappeared.

“Is that true?” Syd asked.

The woman smiled humorlessly. “No way. With all of the NDAs and contracts we had to sign she wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court. But there’s no way that nineteen-year-old knows that. I’m Becky by the way.”

The girl reappeared with the demanded items and Becky took them then shut the door in her face. Mal slumped backwards to sit on the floor and Christen wiped the tears from her face with a piece of toilet paper, trying to preserve her makeup.

“Man. What a shit show,” Becky said, her face deadpan. Sydney laughed.

“You can definitely say that again. Okay sweetheart, can you take some sips of water for me? We need to sober you up as quickly as possible.”

Christen was unsure of how long the four of them spent crammed into the little bathroom, slowly bringing Mal back to the land of the living- or the land of the standing, anyway. It could have been hours before a loud knock on the door startled them all from their conversation. Christen opened the door to find a woman with her hair in a high bun smiling at her. 

“Hi. Can I come in?” Christen opened the door wider and she stepped inside. “Great! We’re getting ready to go into the rose ceremony, we need to get the four of you out onto the veranda.” 

Sydney and Becky helped Mal to her feet and she put her hand over her eyes. “Oh god, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t want to go out there.”

“Hey, every single person here has gotten a little too drunk too fast. We’ve all been there,” Christen soothed. 

“And anyone who hasn’t is a fucking dweeb,” Syd joked. 

“No more crying.” Christen wiped underneath Mal’s eyes again, hoping that some sort of make up artist would be around to help her do some touch ups.

The producer’s walkie crackled to life. “Krieger, if you could get that sweet ass back here, we’re trying to complete the line up.”

She rolled her eyes and brought the walkie to her mouth. “I’m working on it, Ashlyn.” She gave them all a too bright smile. “Shall we?”

Christen couldn’t help but feel a little like a sheep as she and the others were herded down the hallways to where they were needed. They rounded a corner to find most of the other contestants already standing on risers, waiting. Christen was maneuvered into the third row, next to the blonde she met at the beginning of the night, Kristie. She couldn’t help but notice that she was already holding a rose. One rose down, twenty one to go. She felt the nerves return, humming low in her stomach. Twenty two girls would get to move into the castle tonight, while eight went home. She felt like Zach had liked her, but was it enough? Was she enough?

No. She wasn’t thinking like that. She had never let herself be defined by whether or not someone was attracted to her, and she wasn’t going to start now. She took a deep breath. 

Alexi stepped into the room, and the whole atmosphere seemed to shift. Every girl’s eyes were on him, waiting for everything to begin. He gave that sly smile that Christen had seen so many times through her TV.

“Ladies, welcome to your first ever rose ceremony.”

Chapter Text

It was almost sunrise and, like the witches from Hocus Pocus, Jill was anxious about it. 

 

“If that sky starts to change color before the rose ceremony I’m going to fire each and every one of you.” 

 

Emily scoffed at her side as she started together close up shots of their girls standing anxiously waiting for the ceremony to start. “She can’t fire us because the sun rose.” 

 

Tobin shot her a look. 

 

“Okay, she probably can but not in the middle of shooting.” 

 

“Oh you sweet summer child.” Tobin shifted her shoulders back to try to redistribute the weight across them. The harness and the camera equipment were damn heavy and she was suddenly glad for her gym sessions. 

 

“Why are three of our girls missing?” 

 

If it was possible to jump while wearing cameras the size of a small child Emily probably would have done it. Tobin tried to hide her laugh by coughing into her shoulder. Lindsey stood behind them, hands on her hips and blue eyes alight with fury. 

 

Tobin glanced over where the rest of the potential winners were standing. She’d been paying so much attention to getting good shots she hadn’t realized Christen, Rebecca, and Sydney were missing from the line up. 

 

“I don’t know,” she said as she adjusted some of the settings on her camera for the rapidly approaching sunrise. 

 

“You don’t know?!” 

 

“It’s your job to keep track of them!” Tobin argued back. “I just point a camera at them!” 

 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Lindsey angrily pulled her hair out of her bun and re-did it with a few quick twists. “It’s like you two don’t even care about having a job. You know a job is what pays for all the weed you smoke Tobin.” 

 

Tobin opened her mouth to respond but Emily beat her to it, scrambling to answer with a blush high on her pale cheeks. “One of Kelley’s girls got wasted. Last time I saw them they were heading to the bathroom with her.” 

 

“You couldn’t have mentioned that?” Tobin and Lindsey asked at the same time. 

 

“Calm your tits Horan. They’re here.” 

 

Ali had come up behind them while they were arguing and nodded her head to the side. A quick glance over showed that’s where their missing girls, plus a young and queasy-looking girl who could only be Kelley’s drunk, were taking their places for the ceremony. 

 

“Lose something?” Ali asked when they looked back at her, the slant of her smile and her lifted eyebrow somehow calming and unbearably smug at the same time. 

 

“Shut up Krieger,” Lindsey grumbled. She snapped her fingers at Tobin and Emily, who quickly resettled themselves as Alexi stepped up with that stupid, practiced charming smirk. 

 

“Ladies, welcome to your first ever rose ceremony.” 

 

“Thorns one, wide on the girls.” Crackled through their earpieces. 

 

Tobin swung to focus on a wide shot of all the girls, some starstruck and unable to look away from Alexi and Zach, others trying to slyly look at their competition. 

 

“Pride two, on Zach. Thorns one, switch sides.” 

 

As Alexi was walking them through the rules of the rose ceremony, Tobin did a sweeping circle around behind him and Zach, catching the way the overhead lights made his light hair shimmer gold. Zach was the pinnacle of a reality TV Prince Charming, all blonde hair and blue eyes and a smile that made several of the girls in her camera lense weak at the knees as he flashed it at them. 

 

“Ladies,” he stepped forward and picked a rose up off the podium. “Each and every one of you are special in your own ways. I know what you’re feeling. I know how nervous it is to stand there and wait for a rose. And now I definitely know how tough it is to give them,” he winked at them, eliciting chuckles and at least one love-struck sigh. 

 

“I just want to be clear,” he continued as his smile dropped in a solemn look and he clenched his jaw, highlighting the sharpness of it. Tobin almost laughed - she’d used that trick before. “If you don’t get a rose tonight, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t a wonderful person and I wish each and every one of you so much happiness.” 

 

“That being said…” Alexi prompted. Tobin noticed his nervous glance at the skyline, which was debating whether it wanted to start shifting into early morning. 

 

Zach cleared his throat. “That being said, Alex?” A tall brunette with striking blue eyes stepped forward. He held the rose out to her gently. “Will you accept this rose?” 

 

“I’d love to,” Alex answered. Tobin wondered if her voice was naturally husky or if that was just an effect for the camera. 

 

Jill kept the rest of them buzzing around like enormous insects as he went through the rest of the ceremony. As Tobin switched sides again she heard Lindsey close to her ear. “Focus in on Christen,” she ordered. 

 

She shifted her focus immediately. She hadn’t gotten this far in the industry without paying attention to the instincts of her producer. Christen had looked away from Zach when Tobin focused on her. She was standing next to the girl from earlier, Kelley’s baby-faced one who couldn’t hold her alcohol, and the already pale girl kept getting paler the more Zach didn’t call her name. Christen stepped just a little closer and put a hand on her back, rubbing in reassuring circles. 

 

She’s got a sweetness he might like, Tobin remembered Lindsey telling her. She was glad her camera was on them when the younger girl looked over at her and Christen winked and mouthed ‘you’re okay’. It was the most adorable attempt at a wink that Tobin had personally ever captured on her camera and she fought to keep her laugh inside. 

 

“Mallory.” The pale young girl jumped, and Christen laughed with everyone else. She gave Mallory a playful shove towards Zach with the hand that had been rubbing her back, and she smiled wide enough to show a charmingly crooked front tooth when Mallory stumbled through accepting the rose. 

 

Zach’s eyes were gleaming with good humor as he grabbed another rose. “Christen,” he said. Christen blinked in what looked like surprise, as if it was beyond the realm of possibility that Zach had called her name. Her smile came back full force when he grabbed her hand as she walked up to him. “Your honesty and good humor made such an impression on me,” he admitted candidly. “Will you accept this rose?” 

 

“I will,” Christen nodded. “Thank you.” 

 

Zach laughed. “Thank YOU.” He said, and winked. “And a big thank you to your sister.” 

 

“Reaction shots,” Jill ordered at them. “Some of the girls look pissed about that.” 

 

Tobin swung her camera from Christen walking back to her spot to the girl standing just behind them, a strawberry blonde who’s pageant girl smile had faded into something ugly and calculating before she managed to get it back under control. 

 

The sky had just started to lose its fight with the dawn when Zach handed out his last rose, leaving eight girls fighting tears as they hugged him goodbye. 

 

“CUT.” 

 

Everyone on the crew relaxed, even if the cut contestants looked confused. They didn’t stay relaxed for long when Jill came barreling out of the production room to grin at the contestants, just slightly maniacally. 

 

“Excellent job ladies. Truly spectacular. This is going to be a season unlike any other, I can smell it.” 

 

Lindsey caught her eye and pointed to her own nose. ‘Smell?’ She mouthed, acting like she was snorting something off her hand. Tobin stomped hard on Emily’s foot when she started to laugh. 

 

“Ow, Tobin, fuck!”

 

“Zach, you were flawless,” Jill kissed him on both cheeks and he rubbed at his arm bashfully. “Ladies, I’m sure you’re all exhausted. Our staff will show you to your rooms in the house. We’ve already gotten your bags settled.” Her smile slipped as she faced her crew. “Chop chop! We’ve got an episode to finish. What do I pay you for?” 

 

“The money shots,” Tobin muttered to Lindsey. 

 

“Right idea, wrong kind of show.” Lindsey murmured back. 

 

“Pride and Spirit, I want you doing the outros and ITMs. Reign and Thorns, you’ll follow our lovely group of ladies into the house to get B roll footage of them settling in. Ignore them,” she said to the contestants, who were milling around like they weren’t sure what they were supposed to do next. “They’re basically high-tech overpaid wallpaper.” 

 

“Overpaid my ass,” AD complained to them as she and Shirley came over to join them. 

 

“They pay your ass?” Emily smirked, “they only pay my arms.” She flexed under the harness and Tobin didn’t miss the way her eyes flicked to Lindsey afterward. 

 

“Let’s GO, people.” 

 

The four of them started up their cameras again as Pinoe and Lindsey shepherded the contestants that weren’t cut and weren’t pulled aside for talking head interviews towards the house. Admittedly, calling it a ‘house’ was underselling it. It was really more like a manor, on a sprawling estate rented just for the filming of Ever After. The grounds with carefully cultivated gardens and luscious green rolling lawns looked like something out of a regency film - or Bridgerton. The inside was much more modern, all marble and dark hardwood. It had a movie room, an exercise room, two pools, an absolutely enormous kitchen, and enough rooms for all the remaining contestants to double up in the softest queen beds that Tobin...definitely had not caught naps on before. 

 

Almost instinctively Tobin wound up following the group containing Julie, Rebecca, Mallory, Sydney, Crystal, and Christen. It was always easy to tell who had been in a house like this before and who hadn’t. In this case all of them looked slightly overwhelmed by the sheer size and opulence of the house. 

 

“Rebecca and Christen, you two are right here,” Pinoe opened the door to their room with a flourish, ignoring the glare she got from Lindsey for taking over her job. 

 

“Becky,” the tall blonde corrected. 

 

“With the good hair?” Pinoe shot back without missing a beat. 

 

Any remaining tension drained like the air out of a balloon as everyone burst into laughs, even the camera ops. Tobin caught Christen looking at the two of them with interest and apprehension as she followed her and Becky into their room. Emily started to follow the group moving on. 

 

“Can we help you?” Becky asked. 

 

“You could give me good B-roll footage,” Tobin requested without looking up from her camera. “Just ooooh and ahhhhh over your room and I’ll be on my way.” 

 

“This has got to be some sort of invasion of privacy.” 

 

Tobin shrugged as much as she could under the straps of her harness. “What’s privacy?” She asked. 

 

Christen’s laugh caught their attention. She had sat on the edge of her bed and removed her heels, pulling her foot into her lap and rubbing carefully at the ball in a way that made Tobin grateful she never wore heels. “You’re funny,” she said. 

 

“That’s me,” Tobin finally gave in under Becky’s glare and shut down her camera, shifting it down to rest against her chest so she could look them face to face. “Regular class clown. I also do interpretive dance on weekends.” 

 

Becky snorted and Tobin winked at her. 

 

“Relax and get some sleep if you can. Hopefully it’s going to be a long eleven weeks for you.”

 

Tobin was getting ready to move on and Becky had made her way into their en-suite when Christen spoke up again. She’d been so quiet Tobin had almost forgotten she was still on her bed. 

 

“Do people really find love that quickly?” Christen asked. 

 

She looked up at her, ready to make another quick quip and move on, but something in the way she looked younger and more vulnerable without the harsh lights and cameras stopped her. “Yeah, maybe,” she said finally. “Isn’t finding that out what everyone is here for?” 

 

“Yeah, maybe,” Christen said back. 

 

Tobin smiled as wide as she could, something warm and reassuring. “Just enjoy your castle, princess,” she said with a wink. Christen smiled at her, eyes shifting green to grey and back in weak dawn light creeping in from outside. Tobin tapped her camera. “I’ll see you later.” 

 

“Bye,” she heard quietly float after her. 

 

It took another hour and a half to finish collecting their footage, turning in their camera equipment, and getting their film orders for tomorrow. By the time Tobin and Emily had clocked out and were leaning outside Emily’s beat-up old Honda Civic the sun was well and truly over the horizon. 

 

“Move your ass, Horan!” Tobin hollered at the line of trailers that Lindsey had disappeared into. “I don’t want to get caught in early morning traffic.” 

 

Lindsey leapt down the stairs and sauntered over to them, all long legs and completely blown pupils as she got closer. She shoved a bottle of half-drunk whiskey into Tobin’s hands. “Here!” She said. “I stole it from Kelley. A drink! To an awesome start.” 

 

Tobin handed the whiskey off to Emily, who immediately twisted off the cap and took a deep drink. “To a winning season!” She said, lifting it up towards Lindsey. They both looked at her expectantly and Tobin grabbed the bottle back to take a quick shot. The alcohol sent warmth shooting straight to her toes. 

 

“Can we go home now?” She asked when her head had cleared. 

 

“Yeah, party pooper,” Emily opened the passenger door for Lindsey and left Tobin to fold her limbs into the cramped back seat on her own. She was so tired she nearly nodded off even as Lindsey loudly recounted the night in the front and Emily switched the radio every five minutes. 

 

They dropped Tobin off first. She’d barely shut the door before they were off again, and Tobin knew sleep wasn’t on the agenda for them like it was for her. The old, rickety elevator was broken again and so Tobin trudged up seven flights of stairs into her hot, muggy apartment. Now that the adrenaline and coffee had worn off all she had the energy to do was crank her dinky window air conditioner to its highest setting, strip to just her boxers and bra, and flop bonelessly into bed. 

 

Sleep came quickly and easily, and on its heels was one final flash of memory from the night - Christen smiling at her lackluster attempt at charm, and the way for one of the first times that night she saw the smile make it to her eyes. 

Chapter Text

The women had all been assured that they could sleep in the next day as penance for being kept up all night, and Christen had intended to take full advantage. What she hadn’t taken into consideration however, was that her body’s internal clock was still set to be up and taking care of her dogs. 

Her eyes cracked open and she peered blearily around the room, needing a second before she even remembered where she was. Then her headache hit and she snapped them back shut. 

That’s what you get for drinking like a college freshman all night, she grumbled to herself. 

She rolled over onto her stomach, trying valiantly to go back to sleep, but found herself annoyingly awake even though her eyes were itching with the need for just five more minutes. After tossing and turning with no success, she finally sat up, rubbing at her face. 

It really was an incredible room. The walls were covered in pale pink wallpaper sporting delicate white and blue flowers. The dresser on the far wall was a beautiful antique- or at least, a near perfect rendition. The polished wood perfectly matched the two beds that took up the majority of the room, decked out in luxuriously soft white bedding. 

Speaking of beds, her roommate, Becky, was still asleep. For some reason, Christen hadn’t anticipated sharing a room with someone, although she probably should have. In any case she was glad that she had been put with Becky. The other woman seemed to take no shit while also being kind and funny, which Christen respected. From her vantage point, she could see Becky’s black sleep mask blocking out the morning sun, and she mentally kicked herself for not being more prepared. 

She eased out from under the heavy down comforter and padded into the en-suite bathroom. This room too was lavish and well decorated, the white marble countertops gleaming beneath the vanity lighting. She brushed her teeth and pulled her hair into a low pony before pulling on a tank top and leggings and venturing out into the rest of the house. 

She made her way downstairs and tried to pick her way down the winding halls, eventually finding her way to the kitchen. It was quiet, only the nearly full pot of coffee letting her know that someone else was awake. She poured herself a cup and began to poke around in the fridge. Someone (probably the baby faced PA that Becky had threatened the night before) had gone to great lengths to stock it with all kinds of fruits and vegetables, along with some eggs and meat. Christen wondered how much cooking would really be happening. She began wandering through the rest of the house.

There was the living room she had been shown into last night, the wide room where the rose ceremony had taken place, the bathroom where Mal had spent most of the night puking. She also came across what looked like a room that could be used as some sort of chapel, and a small library that Christen mentally bookmarked to come back and explore later. 

She walked through a set of french doors into the bright California sunlight. At first she thought she was alone, but then she spied one of the other girls at the far end of the lawn, dumbbells in hand.

She approached. “Good morning!”

She jumped slightly, turning to look at Christen. “Hey! Sorry, I thought I was the only one awake.”

“Yeah, I think it’s just us.”

“Christen right?” She nodded. “I’m Carli.”

Christen yawned. “How long have you been up?”

She shrugged, bringing the weights above her head. “Not long. Twenty minutes? My internal clock wouldn’t let me sleep any later.”

“Same.” She took a sip of her coffee.

“This is… crazy. I mean, it’s great obviously. And I’m happy I’m still here! But still. Crazy.”

“I know what you mean. I still can’t quite believe that I’m here.” She spotted a stand of yoga mats and spread one out on the ground. She began to lead herself through the series of poses that were so familiar, feeling the stretch in her muscles as her breathing began to deepen and her body relaxed. She and Carli did their respective workouts in silence, before eventually heading back inside.

Christen had just picked up an apple from the dish on the counter, when a door flung open and the pink haired producer from the night before swaggered in. “Good morning, early birds!” She gave them both a wide smile. “What are you doing up already?” Christen started to reply but the woman kept talking. “Actually, you guys are lucky. We’re about to go wake everyone else up. The first date scrollis coming in an hour and a half, so we need everyone out of bed and into the showers.

“I thought you guys said we could sleep in,” Carli reminded her.

She shrugged. “You can nap afterwards if you’re not on the date scroll. Anyway, chop chop!” Behind her, other crew members were making their way into the house, so Christen did as she was told, heading back upstairs to wake up Becky and get ready.

When all twenty two girls had been primped and plucked and shined, they were all ushered into the living room, where the pink haired woman told them to act natural, like they weren’t expecting anything to happen.

Crystal gave Christen a highly amused look. “Like we all just woke up this morning and decided to put on fake lashes for the hell of it.”

She smirked back. “Obviously. Isn’t that what all women do?”

“Alright ladies, look alive, look alive. The brunette producer clapped her hands, getting everyone’s attentions. “The first date scroll is about to be delivered. Rose, when you hear the bell, go grab it. If your name is called, I need to see how excited you are! I need the smiles, the squeals, the thrills, the orgasmic bliss!”

Christen watched her producer, Lindsey, barely smother a snort.

The crew took a few steps backwards and then a loud chime sounded through out the house. Rose, the brunette who had spoken to Zach before her last night, stood up and walked out of the room.

“Who do you think it’s gonna be?” A wide eyed brunette asked.

“I mean, it could really be anyone.”

Christen agreed with Carli. At this point, they were all on equal footing. They had all more or less spent the same amount of time with Zach.

Rose returned and slid the ribbon off the scroll in her hand, unfurling it then reading the names aloud.

“Morgan.” A girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes smiled. “Allie, Julie, Abby.” All blondes, all giving tiny squeaks to help vocalize their pleasure at being chosen, receiving a double thumbs up from the brunette producer. “Crystal.” Christen couldn’t help but laugh as she gave a little dance of celebration in her seat. The names continued on: Ellie C, Jaelene, Heather, Lynn, and Carli. Rose gave a tight lipped smile before reading the message. “’My quest for love is not pretend, let’s start my search with some special friends… Love, Zach.’”

“Special friends?” Lynn asked. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Like, are we hanging out with his guy friends?” Abby suggested.

“No way, not this early in the season. They never bring in people from home until at least week four.” Christen couldn’t help but wonder how many seasons of Ever After Alex had watched if she felt confident enough to predict the date making structure.

The girls whose names had been called all gathered to go upstairs and change yet again, as if they hadn’t just gotten ready, and Christen found herself sitting with an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment and… was that rejection? Just as quickly she felt foolish. Sure, she wasn’t on this date, but there would be other dates. From her admittedly casual knowledge of the show, she was pretty sure that in addition to another group date, there would be at least two one-on-one dates. So what if he didn’t ask her on this one? Her time to spend time with Zach would come.

A weight flopped down next to her, and she turned to find Mal. It was a testament to her skill with makeup that she was managing to cover up what could only be a hellacious hangover.

“Hey there.”

“Hi,” the younger woman croaked out. “Is it awful that I, like, am a little glad that my name wasn’t on that scroll?”

Christen smirked. “No I think that’s totally fair. How are you feeling?”

“Like if I had to go on a date right now I would probably throw up on Zach’s shoes.” She slapped a hand over her eyes. “I’m mortified. Last night was…”

Christen gently knocked their shoulders together. “Don’t even worry about it. We’ve all been there.”

“I just, I was so nervous, and I hadn’t eaten, and…” She took her hand away from her eyes and glanced furtively around. Apparently deeming it safe she looked back at Christen. “Kelley said it would help me come out of my shell.”

Christen furrowed her eyebrows. She couldn’t remember which contestant was Kelley, but she didn’t like the idea that one of the other women had pressured Mal to drink. “Kelley?”

Mal squirmed in her seat before pointing out the short brunette producer who had been talking to them earlier.

“Ah.”

Mal began to shake her head, before wincing and seeming to think better of it. “I mean, she was just trying to help me out. I’m not any good at talking to guys to begin with, that’s the whole reason I came on the show. And then I got here and everyone was so beautiful and I just felt…” She trailed off, biting her lip.

“Hey.” She waited until Mal turned to look at her. “You’re just as beautiful as the rest of us. I’m serious.” She gave a small smirk. “I mean, you wouldn’t have been chosen if you weren’t.”

Mal smiled, her cheeks flushing slightly. “Thanks. It, I mean, I’ll be fine.” She took a deep breath, seeming to steal herself. “It’ll all be fine.”

“Of course it will. Especially because you’re what, twenty five?”

Mal laughed. “Twenty three.”

There was a groan from the doorway, where some of the girls going on the date had just come downstairs. Carli was putting in a pair of earrings as she looked at Christen and Mal. “You’re an infant. I’m a full fifteen years older than you.”

Allie laughed from behind her. “Oh my god. One unlucky, hormone fueled tryst in the back of a car and you could have been her mom.”

Julie gave her a look. “Don’t say that.”

“What? It’s true!” Allie insisted with a grin. “What, you never play the ‘You could have been my baby’ game? I think about it every time a group of shitty high schoolers come through my museum. I look at their scowling, acne riddled faces and thank God that Greyson Norwalk didn’t knock me up on that debate trip junior year.”

“Alright girls, into the van, we’ve got to go.” The producer with the bun gestured from the hallway and the group date girls dutifully followed her out, leaving twelve girls behind to do nothing but stare after them.

No one said anything for a moment, all of them lost in their thoughts, then Jess clapped her hands. “Alright, who wants a drink?”

X

Christen spent that first afternoon becoming acquainted with the odd waiting game that was being an Ever After princess. On one hand, she was edgy and restless, anxiety seeming to color everything she did. She couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening on the date. What were they doing? Was Zach making connections with some of the women? Had he already forgotten about her? Was this whole process going to be over before it even began? The other girls must have been feeling the same way, because even as they all tried to talk about other things, the conversation kept circling back to what could be happening.

“What did it say? New friends?” Parker asked.

“Special friends,” Syd repeated, glass of wine in one hand, scroll in the other.

“Special friends…” Kristie mused before giving a low laugh. “What if it was like, vibrators or dildos?” The women all sniggered, and Christen couldn’t help but wonder upon spying one of the cameras out of the corner of her eye whether or not they would have to bleep the word dildo out of this episode when it aired.

The other side of the waiting game was boredom, plain and simple. Christen wasn’t used to having this much down time. Her work at the rescue kept her busy, constantly making sure the dogs were in good health and good spirits, personally pouring through the adoption applications they received, making sure that her pups would go on to get the loving, safe homes they deserved. Here though, there was nothing but time and not a lot to fill it. They had been stripped of their phones and laptops, prohibiting them from having any contact with the outside world. They also didn’t have access to Netflix or Hulu, which Christen didn’t really understand. If she couldn’t talk to her friends and loved ones, she felt like the least the show could do was give her the opportunity to rewatch all of The West Wing.

She wandered back to the small library she had found, but had a hard time focusing on any of the books she picked out. It was like her mind was short circuiting somehow, flipping endlessly between wondering about the group date, missing her family, and longing for something to do.

The one thing she had more than enough of though, was company. She made an effort to get to know all of other girls she would be living with over the coming weeks.

There was Mal, of course. Christen’s roommate Becky, who just further confirmed Christen’s first impression of her. Syd mentioned that she had two kids, Cassius and Roux. Jess M, or JMac as she said to call her, also had a son, and the two traded kids stories; the good, the bad, and the ugly. She bonded with a girl named Parker over coming from a family of all girls, although Christen couldn’t imagine being the youngest of five. Rose turned out to be just as scathingly funny as Sophia was sweet. Hayley was a wedding planner, and helped Christen whip up a basic dinner for everyone. That just left Alex, a stunningly beautiful girl with sharp blue eyes and Kristie, the recipient of the first impression rose.

Christen knew that it was really too tell about anything, but she had a feeling deep in her stomach that if she wanted things to work out with Zach, then these two would be some of her main competition. There was just something about them. Perhaps it was because Christen could see quite objectively how attractive they were, or maybe it was a confidence with which they carried themselves. Whatever it was, she made a mental note to keep an eye on what was happening between them and Zach.

By the time the other ten came home, Christen felt oddly exhausted for not having done anything all day. She found herself barely able to keep her eyes open as Crystal excitedly recounted the petting zoo they had gone to, the special friends turning out to be a host of baby animals. Finally, she couldn’t fight it any longer and slipped up the stairs to her and Becky’s room. She crawled into bed and stared up at the ceiling. She smoothed her fingers over the soft, soft duvet as an unexpected pang of loneliness hit her full in the chest. She forced herself to take a few deep breaths, not wanting to sink into it, and closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to come and claim her.

Chapter Text

Lindsey waited until she was rolling her second joint to spring it on her. 

 

“You’ve gotta wake up early tomorrow.” 

 

Tobin peered at her blearily, cross-faded to all hell and almost positive she didn’t hear correctly. “Spirit are on point tomorrow,” she murmured. She lifted the joint to her lips and inhaled deeply. She let the calm and smoke seep into her ones before she blew the smoke out at Lindsey, who rolled her eyes and waved her hand through it. 

 

“Yeah well a couple of the girls get up early to work out and I want you there to get some really good shots. Like, might convince the male viewers between 18 and 25 to watch with their girlfriends.” 

 

Tobin leaned back into Sonnett’s couch and scoffed. “That’s what the static cams on the workout area are for.” 

 

“They don’t have the right angles,” Lindsey grouched. “I already checked.” 

 

“I didn’t get a degree in cinematography to frame shots of women’s asses.” 

 

“No, you got a job in reality TV to do that.” Lindsey snatched the blunt out of her fingers when Tobin lifted it for another drag. “I’m not asking you, Tobs. I’m telling you. Set an alarm. Maybe go to bed now.” 

 

“Are you fucking serious?” Tobin glared at her. 

 

“As a heart attack.” 

 

Tobin shoved herself to her feet. “You’re a bitch, Linds.” 

 

Sonnett roused herself enough to kick at Tobin’s calf. Tobin grabbed the nearest throw pillow and smacked her in the face with it. She was stopped from going for a second hit by Lindsey sitting herself in Sonnett’s lap. 

 

“I’m sorry Toby,” Lindsey made her eyes as wide and sad as possible, and Tobin dropped her pillow into their laps. “I really genuinely forgot. Today was busy and it slipped my mind.”  

 

Tobin remembered the way Lindsey had ushered her away from their shared trailer earlier in the day and showed back up an hour later with one shirt button undone. She bit her tongue to stop herself from making a cutting remark about Lindsey not being too busy to have Sonny slip into her pants. She was just a little drunk, and a little high, and a lot annoyed that she now had much less sleep in front of her. 

 

“When do I have to be up?” She asked, slumping her shoulders. 

 

Lindsey leapt up and threw her arms around Tobin, showering the side of her face with loud, exaggerated kisses. “You’re the best and I love you.” 

 

“You’re acting like I had a choice.” Tobin tried to shove her off but was half-hearted about it, especially when Sonnett rolled to her feet to join the hug from the side. 

 

“You didn’t. I love you anyway.” 

 

She let go and Tobin ducked under Sonny’s arm, kicking her in the butt to send a high, sleepy, docile Sonnett careening gently towards Lindsey. She laughed when Sonnett nuzzled into her neck with a content sigh. 

 

“Have fun dealing with that,” Tobin said. 

 

Lindsey made a face at her. “Have fun waking up at five,” she said over her shoulder as she herded Sonnett towards the bedroom at the end of the hall. 

 

“FUCK you, Linds,” Tobin shouted back at her. Her only answer was a slamming door. 

 

— 

 

Tobin loved the magic and beauty and pure artistry of west coast sunrises. She loved them less when she HAD to be up to see them. She preferred her appreciation of the sun painting the sky in broad strokes of color to happen on a voluntary basis. 

 

The set was less busy at this time of the morning. That definitely didn’t mean it was devoid of people, but she didn’t have to fight anyone for a cup of coffee from craft services and that was always a plus. It did mean that there was no one in the production area to hand off her equipment to her. 

 

No one except Shirley, who lifted her own disposable coffee cup in the salute of the barely awake. “Good morning.” 

 

“Morning,” Tobin drawled, unwilling to call it good yet. She’d need more caffeine in her for that. 

 

“Oof.” Shirley smirked at Tobin over the top of her cup. Dark eyes glittered in amusement at her. “Long night, Tobs? Someone keep you awake?” 

 

There was a time that would have been asked in a much different way. It would have been seeded with hurt and doubt, the smile would have been twisted at the corners into something small and sad. They were past that now. They’d both made the mistake of getting too deep into whatever they had and the subsequent breakdown of the relationship had nearly ruined their friendships and their jobs. Now they were friends; really and truly friends, not in the fake keeping-it-together-for-the-job way. And Tobin had learned a lesson - romance on or off the screen was never a good idea in Hollywood. Only friendships survived. 

 

“Just Lindsey,” Tobin sighed and took another long drag of coffee. “She didn’t tell me she wanted me to get some early morning slice of life shots until like midnight last night.” 

 

“Sounds like Horan. She keep Sonnett up too?” 

 

Tobin’s shoulders rolled back protectively. She shot Shirley a look that made her hold up her free hand as if to say ‘never mind, forget I asked’. “Where’s Emma?” Tobin asked instead of answering. She leaned up on her toes to peer into the tech area. 

 

“In bed if she’s smart. Here,” Shirley rolled to her feet and set her coffee aside. “I’ll do yours if you do mine.” 

 

Together they set each other up with harnesses, cameras, and batteries. The way Shirley’s hands lingered over her shoulders and hips as she adjusted and tightened the straps of her camera harness reminded Tobin of just how long it had been since she’d had a little stress relief - and how much of their friendship was still blowing off steam together every once in a while. 

 

All that meant her skin was buzzing with more than caffeine when she strolled into the workout area on the side of her house and caught Christen Press mid-pose doing yoga. 

 

Tobin skidded to a stop, her heart cranking to three times it’s normal pace, her eyes drawn to lean legs and the most perfectly shaped ass she’d ever seen. She didn’t have words to announce her presence. She barely had the mind to turn on her camera to get the footage that Lindsey clearly wanted her to capture. 

 

It wasn’t even objectification at that point; it was appreciation of art. Because if you asked Tobin at that moment to describe Christen: skin glowing burnished copper and gold in the warm morning sun, natural curls piled high on the top of her head, moving slowly and fluidly from pose to pose in a way that made her muscles shift and stretch like water, the only word that could do that image justice was be art. 

 

An almost unknown peace settled over her as she hovered as unobtrusively in the background as possible. Somehow just the thought of interrupting this practiced morning routine put a pit in her stomach that had nothing to do with only having coffee for breakfast. 

 

What might have been five minutes, or ten days, or twenty years, Christen finally settled with her eyes closed facing into the sun. Tobin watched through her viewfinder as the camera picked out the brushing of freckles across her nose. When she opened her eyes and looked directly into Tobin’s camera she could see the clear gold in her eyes and the way it made the green look like sea glass. 

 

“Your footsteps are very heavy.” 

 

The fragile moment shattered. “Sorry,” she said as she stifled a laugh. 

 

“You’re not,” Christen argued, but the corner of her mouth was lifted in the most charming half-smile that made Tobin want to smile along. 

 

“I am.” She turned off her camera and settled it against her chest. She’d gotten the shots that Lindsey had made her wake up at the crack of dawn to get. “I’ll work on the footsteps thing.” 

 

“Thanks Cam.” 

 

Tobin cocked her head to the side, still smiling but confused. “My name’s not Cam?” 

 

Christen ducked her head. The prettiest blush spread across her cheeks as she started to tug at her shoelaces. “I don’t know your names,” she offered after a moment. “So I started to just call all of you Cam. For camera.” 

 

That made Tobin laugh. An actual head thrown back belly laugh. Christen flicked a tiny rock at her. It bounced harmlessly off Tobin’s shoe. 

 

“Don’t laugh at me,” Christen whined. She was smiling along though. “There’s you, and blonde cam, and tattoo cam…” 

 

“My parents called me Tobin when I was born, if that helps.” 

 

Christen glared at her for a moment, but then her eyes softened. “Nice to meet you, Tobin.” 

 

Tobin pretended to tip a cowboy hat, which got her another smile. They stood for a moment looking at each other in the morning sunlight, until a door slamming somewhere brought her back to herself. “Well, I should…” she shrugged so her camera equipment moved with her shoulders. 

 

“Of course. You're done being a voyeur for today?” 

 

It was a joke, clearly, but something about the way her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes twisted guilt into Tobin’s stomach. Guilt that hadn’t been there since the first season of Ever After she’d ever been a camera op for. 

 

“I can lose the footage,” she heard herself say seemingly without permission from her brain. “Fake a problem with the SD card.” 

 

“It’s okay.” Christen lifted herself to her feet, all gentle grace and soft smiles. “It’s what I signed up for, right?”

 

Tobin was saved from having to answer that when the sliding glass door opened and one of the other girls came out. She offered Kristie a smile and a wave as she beat her retreat back to the production area. 

 

She didn’t get far. Ali sauntered around the corner almost before she was out of earshot of the two women who were now chatting on the back patio. 

 

“Good morning, Tobs. Production meeting in ten.” 

 

Tobin started to loosen the straps of her harness as she walked. Ali fell into step beside her, occasionally reaching over to pull at a piece she knew Tobin would have trouble reaching. 

 

“Thanks,” Tobin said. She handed her kit off to Emma, who was finally in the tech area setting up the Spirit team with their equipment for their off set excursion for the day. 

 

“No worries,” Ali waved her off. “God knows I’ve had enough experience taking that stuff off someone.” She said with a wink. They walked in companionable silence for just long enough for Tobin to relax and get comfortable. She was so relaxed, in fact, that she almost answered honestly when Ali asked seemingly out of nowhere: “Have a good morning with Christen?” 

 

She wished she had enough control over her body that her feet didn’t falter a little when Ali asked that. Tobin stretched her fingers lazily, trying to shake out the off-kilter feeling. “It was kind of boring,” she said with a slow shrug. “Yoga isn’t my thing.” 

 

“Pretty girls are your thing.” 

 

Tobin stopped walking and twisted to face Ali. “Would you just say what you mean, please? It’s too early for this.” 

 

“Jill has her rules for a reason.” Ali frowned at her. “I don’t want to see you fired or blacklisted for not following them.” 

 

“Nothing happened.” Tobin resisted throwing her hands in the air in exasperation. It was entirely the truth and yet somehow, bizarrely, the words felt like a lie falling off her tongue. 

 

“Okay.” 

 

“Ali.” 

 

“Okay.” Ali held her palms up. “I was just checking in on you.” She spun quickly on her heel and started to power walk towards the production room, making Tobin jog to catch up. 

 

“Why?” 

 

“Why, what?” 

 

“Why were you checking on me?” Tobin huffed. 

 

Ali stopped just outside the door and glanced around. Everyone in earshot was too preoccupied with whatever they were doing to pay attention to them. “Someone on one of the other dating shows got a contestant pregnant. Jill called the meeting to bring down the hammer. I just noticed you getting a little cozy with Christen and…” 

 

“It was a conversation over yoga.” Tobin squeezed Ali’s shoulder. “But thanks for having my back.” 

 

They slid into the production room and it became clear they were some of the last few to do so. Tobin ambled over to Lindsey and Sonny. Lindsey caught her eye and raised her eyebrow, a clear question about whether or not Tobin had done what she asked. Tobin gave her a thumbs up. 

 

All conversation stopped when Jill walked in and stood in front of the wall of screens with her hands on her hips. 

 

“Do any of you know why I hire mostly LGBT women?” She asked. “Anyone?” 

 

Everyone glanced at each other, each of them wondering if the question was rhetorical or not. 

 

“General good taste?” Kelley offered finally. 

 

“None of you can do what happened on Love Getaway,” Jill answered. “Not a single one of you can add to the population while you work on this show. Several of you shouldn’t ever.” 

 

“Rude,” Sonny muttered. 

 

“But,” Jill continued, eyes cutting over to Emily like she’d heard anyway, “let me be perfectly clear. If they are on camera they are off limits. Bottom line. End of discussion. When Zach sends them home you can have marathon weekends of lesbian sex, I don’t give a single solitary fuck, but if they’re still a contestant on MY show they are not in YOUR bed. That PA spent thirty seconds getting his rocks off, and now he made a whole human he’s got to take care of for the rest of its life and his career is over. Nothing is worth that. Nobody is worth that.” 

 

The silence in the room was oppressive as Jill stopped to make eye contact with every single one of them. 

 

“Am I being perfectly clear? O’Hara, you had a lot to say earlier, am I understood?” 

 

“Yes ma’am,” Kelley answered with a gulp. 

 

“Excellent. Now everyone get back to doing their damn jobs.” 

 

Tobin and Sonny followed Lindsey back out of the production room, where the air felt lighter and held less threats of bodily harm and destitution. 

 

“Phew,” Lindsey stretched her arms out and took a deep breath. “Sucks to be whoever that was. You get the footage?” 

 

Tobin crossed her arms trying to still her desperately fluttering heart. Nothing had happened. Everything about this morning had been friendly and professional, and yet she had felt guilt and panic and fear all in the same instant, like an icy finger down her spine. 

 

“Tobs?” 

 

“Yeah.” Tobin shook her head, trying to clear it. “Yeah I got it. Emma’s loading it up for you.” 

 

“Awesome. Sonny why don’t you suit up, I want some footage of the girls getting their group date invites today. Tobin, take an hour, maybe go snag a nap in the camera op trailer. You look beat.” 

 

“Wonder why,” Tobin snarked at her. She dodged Lindsey’s swat at her and took off at a jog towards the small and dark trailer the camera ops had claimed as their own. It was close to the house in case one of them needed to be on set quickly, but at this time of day it would probably be pretty isolated. Lindsey was right, she could definitely use the nap. 

 

She went up the steps to the trailer in one big leap and tugged the door open without knocking. Shirley turned in surprise midway through pulling off a stained shirt and smiled when she saw who it was. 

 

“Oh, hey,” she greeted, and continued to peel the wet fabric off. She tossed it to the side of the trailer with a slow, purposeful arc of her arm. 

 

Her skin was still buzzing and crawling - from caffeine? from Christen? it was unclear - and now her clothes felt tight and itchy against her skin. Tobin wanted to go back to waking up this morning, back to when she didn’t have this maelstrom of uncomfortable feelings battering at the inside of her chest. She wanted to drain the guilt and the confusion and the tension directly out of her bones. 

 

She took two big steps forward and pinned Shirley hard against the side of the couch. She swallowed Shirley’s gasp of surprise and delight with her lips, her hands clutching hard enough at her hips to probably leave finger-shaped bruises against the skin there. Shirley’s hands went immediately to the back of her head to pull her closer and she matched Tobin’s quick movements, tugging at her hair and biting her lip. She flipped them around and pulled Shirley on top of her as they fell onto the couch together. Shirley groaned against her neck as Tobin unbuttoned her jeans with one hand. 

 

Tobin let herself get lost in the heat and the sweat and the way her muscles relaxed into the pleasure. She let her jumbled thoughts drift away.



Chapter Text

Someone had come by and told Christen that all of the women needed to get mic’d up in preparation for the next date scroll being dropped off, so she had dutifully walked towards the booth where the tech equipment was stored and administered. It was really just chance that she had even chosen the route that would take her by the production staff trailers.

When she first heard the rhythmic thumping, she had barely registered it. But when her brain fully processed it, her eyes went wide.

Someone was definitely fucking inside.

Her first instinct was to get far away- and fast. If someone was getting laid then it was none of her business.

But then she thought about the fact that she was currently dating a guy with 21 other girlfriends. What if he was the one inside? What if he was having sex with one of the other girls? Wouldn’t she want to know? Didn’t she kind of deserve to know?

There was really no way of knowing how long she stood outside the trailer, debating over what to do, except in the end, it was too long. She had been so deep in her own mind that she hadn’t registered the sound stopping, and had no warning before the door swung open.

She watched with wide eyes as one of the camera ops, Headband cam, came stumbling through the doorway, her body loose and wearing an extremely satisfied smile. Christen barely had a moment of relief that it wasn’t one of the other contestants before the other person followed Headband cam and her eyes nearly fell out of her head.

Abs. Defined abs. Abs that still looked like they might be covered in a light sheen of sweat, the kind that you can only work up by getting between someone else’s legs. Abs that were briefly visible below a Calvin Klein sports bra before a white tee shirt was pulled down to reveal Smiley cam.

Tobin. That was her name. Not Smiley cam, not anymore. Tobin. A unique name that really seemed to fit the other woman. She should have known that her name wouldn’t be something super popular, like Haley or Anna. Tobin. 

Tobin, who was currently staring at her with a weird look on her face.

Christen did a quick about face, her face flushing a brilliant red as she realized that rather than her catching them, she had somehow been the one who was caught. She hurried over to where Emma was handing out mics and tried to put the whole thing out of her head.

Except she couldn’t.

Her mind kept replaying the way that Headband cam seemed to be a little clumsy on her feet, like she was still getting the feeling back into her legs after an incredible orgasm. She couldn’t seem to forget the noises that she heard, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop her mind from trying to recreate what had been happening inside the trailer. No matter how desperately she tried, she couldn’t blink away images of the two, against the wall, on a table, was there maybe a bed inside?

She took a deep breath as Emma got her mic situated. This was fine. Fine! She was just horny and bored. She didn’t have anything to keep her mind occupied and due to having a roommate, no real way to relieve any pent up stress she was feeling. That’s why she couldn’t stop thinking about Tobin fucking the lights out of Headband cam. That’s why she could feel a distinct slickness in her underwear as she settled onto the couch beside JMac.

“You okay?” the other woman asked.

Christen nodded fervently. “Yeah! Just, in a weird mood I guess.”

Crystal sent her a sympathetic smile. “Nervous?” she mouthed.

She swallowed. Yeah. That’s all this was. It was just all of her nerves cropping up.

She felt like she was barely present as Carli stood up and read the date scroll, something about competition and trophies. When her name was called she managed to conjure a smile as several cameras swung in her direction. As soon as cut was called, she allowed herself to be herded upstairs with the rest of the group date contestants. She was fine. Everything was going to be just fine.

X

Everything was not fine. For starters, the outfits they had been given to wear? Not fine. Any hope of this date not being a weird exercise in attracting the male gaze was quickly dashed as Christen pulled on her all white crop top jersey and form fitting booty shorts. She couldn’t imagine that this outfit had been selected with any consideration for the contestants’ comfort or ease of movement. 

Because movement would definitely be happening. That much was clear as they all loaded out of the van and into a stadium that was currently set up for what looked like a junior high field day.

After they took their places, Zach came out. He was wearing a white jersey with a red one on the front, and smiling bashfully as he tried not to outright ogle them.

“Ladies, thank you for joining me today for your very first group date. Looking around, you probably already have an idea of what we’ll be doing. Growing up, I was super active, always on my way to a practice or a game. Playing sports taught me a lot, like how to be a part of a team and how to take responsibility for myself. So today, we’re going to be seeing how you measure up in the first inaugural Ever After Games. First, we have something you all probably remember from elementary school, a three legged race. Then, we’ll go a little more advanced with a relay race and water balloon volleyball. “ Ah, that explains the white uniforms, Christen sighed internally. “And finally we’ll all revisit our college days with a little beer pong.” He gave wide grin and clapped his hands loudly. “Let’s get to it!”

Christen was teamed up with a therapist from Chicago, Heather. Blonde cam, the one who always seemed to be in the midst of Lindsey and Tobin, helped tie their legs together.

“Remember, think as one. Get a game plan right now.” Christen couldn’t help but giggle at her serious tone, momentarily distracted from thousands of thoughts whirling around her head.

“We’ll keep that in mind.” She looped her arm over Heather’s shoulders, receiving one around her waist for stability.

“Some outfits, huh?” Heather murmured once Blonde cam had gone to the next duo.

“Oh yeah. Super practical.”

“At least neither of you are pasty white!” They turned to see Rose looking down at herself distastefully. “I look like a fucking ghost!”

Zach held up an airhorn. “Alright, on your marks, get set.... Go!”

Somehow Christen managed to get out of her own head and have fun with the activities that had been planned for them. She had always been an avid runner, and her relay team, consisting of her, Syd, Sophia, and Parker, had won without contest, Christen serving as the final leg and running through the red finishing ribbon. It felt great to be moving and active again, not to mention Zach had given her a congratulatory hug. The smell of his skin and his closeness made the zing she had so recently pushed away go zipping up and down her spine once more.

Water balloon volleyball had even managed to redeem itself. The girls were divided into teams and quickly tried to come up with strategies to use the sheets provided to keep the balloons aloft and not splattering all over them. Of course, it didn’t work, and the air was soon full of shrieks and laughter as they all did their best to stay dry.

Beer Pong was never something she had been exceptional at, as was proven when she tried to chug a beer and choked on it, somehow sending beer up her nose and all over her face.

Laughing, Zach came over, paper towels in hand. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes good naturedly. “I never quite got the hand of chugging beer in college.”

“Where did you go?”

“Stanford.”

His entire face lit up. “Wait really? Me too!”

“What? How did I not know that?”

“Go cards,” he grinned, and Christen felt her cheeks warming up a bit under his gaze.

“Zach!” They both turned to see Parker batting her eyes at him. “Come be on my team.”

He turned back to Christen, touching her lightly on the elbow. “Let’s compare notes on the campus housing sometime, ‘kay?”

“Yeah, of course.” She watched him go, then turned to find Lindsey just inches away. “Woah.”

“I can’t believe I missed that connection! I would have had you bring it up so much sooner.”

“Yeah, well-”

“Do you mind stepping over to do an ITM? Just really quick.” Before Christen could answer, Lindsey’s fingers had threaded through hers and she was being tugged to the side so that hair and makeup could do touch ups. 

She answered Lindsey’s questions to the best of her abilities, giving in to her gentle prodding to gush about Zach. After she was satisfied, Lindsey gave her a big dimpled smile and practically skipped away to find her next target. 

Christen hadn’t even realized that Tobin was behind the camera until she lowered it and gave Christen a grin. “So. Did you really go to Stanford?”

She tilted her head slightly. “Why would I lie about that?”

“No! I didn’t, didn’t mean to like…” She sighed and rubbed at the back of her neck. “I just didn’t know that you had. And generally there’s not a lot that we don’t know about contestants.”

Christen arched one eyebrow. “Well maybe there’s a lot you don’t know about me,” she replied, a little cooler than she had intended.She brushed past, intent on rejoining the rest of the girls.

“Christen- wait.” She turned, looking at her expectantly. “I, about earlier, what you saw… Shirley and me-”

“Tobin.” She waited until Tobin turned back to face her. “It’s none of my business.”

“We’re just friends,” she blurted out. “We aren’t, she’s not like my girlfriend or anything. I mean, we used to kinda be, but now-”

“Even if she was, it’s still not my business.” Christen gave her a tight lipped smile then turned, jogging back over to stand next to Crystal.

X

That night, Christen couldn’t sleep. It didn’t matter what configuration of blankets, sheets, and pillows she tried, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was too hot or too cold, her skin crawling the wiry legs of anxiety. Finally, afraid that she would wake up Becky, she climbed from her bed and slipped into the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind her.

She flipped on the light and examined her face in the mirror. She needed to get some sleep otherwise she would look like shit tomorrow. But how was she supposed to sleep when she was so uncomfortable? Not having a ton of options, she turned on the faucet over the tub, deciding that a soak might help her wind down.

And it did- to some extent. The warm water pulled a soft sigh from her lips as she settled into the clawfoot tub.It did wonders for the tightness in her shoulders and back from being on edge all day. She brushed her hands through the surface of the water, watching the ripples lap at the porcelain.

She thought back to her date, how she’d had that moment of connection with Zach. the way his blue eyes had been bright in the sunlight.

She didn’t even realize her hands had dipped fully beneath the water until she was dragging her nails lightly up her thighs. Maybe a bath wasn’t the only way she could calm her nerves.

When her fingers first swiped between her legs, a very different sigh filled the bathroom. Slightly embarrassed, she bit down on her lips, reminding herself that she needed to be quiet.

Her mind had absolutely no problem supplying daydreams for her to fuck herself to. There was her old fallback, her ex Lena, and the time in the bathroom at the Mexican food restaurant. There was her teen crush on Justin Timberlake. There were any of the beautiful girls she was currently living with, or even Tattoo cam and the way her arms flexed as she was collecting footage.

And then there was Zach. Tall, handsome Zach. As she eased first one, then two fingers inside, she thought back to how good he smelled, to how solid his body had felt when he hugged her. 

As her back began to arch,she thought back to what the last princess had said after the overnight dates. What word had she used, athletic?

Athletic. Defined abs underneath a Calvin Klein sports bra. 

Her mind was just as happy to picture Tobin between her legs, maybe pinning her hands above her head, fucking into her over, and over, and over, and over until-

“God,” Christen whined into the largely silent bathroom. She gasped for air as she rode out her orgasm, her whole body suspended in its electric currents. After several moments she pulled her hands away, instead gripping the sides of the tub as she caught her breath.

Then she thought about what she had just done.

“Fuck,” she growled under her breath. She hauled herself out of the now lukewarm water, pulling out the stopper so it could drain. She roughly toweled herself off, silently berating herself.

She wasn’t here to date Tobin. She wasn’t here to fuck her either. She was here to date Zach, and no one else. Why did she do this? Why was she constantly drawn to people who either weren’t interested, or clearly weren’t in a place to commit? 

She wasn’t doing this. She had a sweet guy right in front of her. Sure, he was dating 21 other girls, but she had known that going in. And- despite what Tobin had said earlier- the brunette camera op was pretty obviously involved with Headband cam, whether she wanted to admit that or not.

Christen slipped back into her bed, sleep already rushing at the corners of her mind. No, she wasn’t going to get involved with Tobin. Absolutely not.

Chapter Text

Production meetings were run of the mill at this point, and when the rest of the camera ops and PAs filtered out Tobin remained behind. She restlessly bounced a ball so it ricocheted off the floor and wall and back into her hand. Emily was her ride home, and Emily wouldn’t leave without Lindsey, and Lindsey was locked into an animated conversation with the other producers about the best way to ruin someone’s day.

Jill had stalked out of the production room with a single instruction of “drama” and the producers, like fish to the sea, were taking to the task with gusto.

“We haven’t had a screaming match yet,” Kelley pointed out in the same tone someone would use to add their opinion on what to eat for dinner.

“Ooooh, yeah,” Pinoe turned around to write ‘bitch fight’ in her wide, looping handwriting on the empty white board the producers had commandeered for their shark tank session.

“Do we have any, like, diametrically opposed personalities?” Ali asked. Tobin, who had never used the word diametrically in a sentence in her life, was impressed.

“You guys are missing the most obvious target.” Everyone looked at Lindsey as she walked over to the board with the headshots and removed one - Jaelene Hinkle, who had the dubious honor of having Jill’s ‘villain’ label pinned under her name. She taped it to their idea whiteboard instead and snagged the marker out of Pinoe’s hand (“Hey!”) to circle it twice.

“Who’s team is she on?” Kelley asked.

“Moi.” Pinoe held up her hand, which Lindsey absentmindedly pushed the marker back into, having made her point. Pinoe collapsed into one of the rolling chairs nearby and stuck the marker in her mouth as she looked at the board, apparently in deep thought.

“What’s she like?”

“Annoying.” The word curled out of her mouth around the tip of the marker before she plucked it out to point at the picture of Jaelene. “Gets on the other girl’s nerves for sure. Not enough to spark a fight, though.”

Lindsey struck a pose, hands on her hips and chin lifted in triumphant smugness. “Then we provoke her instead. What's most likely to trigger her?”

“Everything,” Ali snorted. She had Jaelene’s file in her hands and was flipping through it slowly. “I think it would be a shorter list to say what isn’t likely to trigger her. ‘People who eat only organic foods’ under notable dislikes?”

“To be fair, that annoys me too,” Kelley said.

“Enough to be a notable dislike?”

Kelley wiggled her hand back and forth in the universal ‘eh’ gesture.

“Cat dander, complicated coffee orders, taking the Lord's name in vain, immorality,” Ali listed off. “What does ‘living life in an unfortunate way’ even mean?”

“Wait.” Pinoe snatched the folder out of Ali’s hands (“Rude!”). “Does she mean gay? Tell me she means gay. C’mon baby, give me homophobia.”

“First time you’ve ever said that in your life, huh Pinoe?” Kelley smirked.

“Yes!” Pinoe did a little dance and shoved the folder back Ali’s hands. She didn’t even react when Ali immediately smacked her leg with the folder, instead upcapping her marker to write ‘gays’ on the board and then put a circle with a line through it around it. “She had some strong opinions on the marriage equality decision, to start us off. Dawn marked her as ‘having slightly ignorant or anti views’.”

“Why is she even here?” Tobin couldn’t help blurting out. “Everyone in this business does nothing but live their life in an unfortunate way, according to her.”

“Zach is a blue eyed, blonde haired, good-natured Christian boy,” Lindsey answered flatly. “He’s practically a wet dream for someone like that.”

“I don’t think people like that get wet dreams,” Kelley offered up. “It would be too much fun all at once, they’d get overwhelmed.”

“Can I butt in here to be the voice of reason, please?” Pinoe interrupted.

“I don’t know, can you?”

“So what if she’s a homophobe? That just means she’s gonna get real uncomfortable, real quick with just about everyone in the crew when she finds out. It doesn’t really help us spark a breakdown.” She rolled her eyes. “If anything she’ll probably tweet something about us when the show is over.”

“Surrounded and outnumbered,” Sonny said to Tobin under her breath, nudging Tobin’s shoe with hers. “In the trenches, I fought for God amongst the ungodly. Only I could triumph. Only I could tread the path of righteousness to reach the ultimate end goal: boning a straight man.”

Tobin smothered her laughter into her t-shirt.

“Well, Kristie is bi.”

Every head of someone even remotely attracted to women whipped over to Ali as if she’d just started spouting Latin.

“Really?” Sonny asked with just enough eagerness in her voice that Lindsey sent her a withering glare.

Kelley and Pinoe traded wounded, almost betrayed looks at each other. “Is our gaydar broken?” Kelley asked. “Why are you just telling us this now?”

“Do none of you read the briefs of people who aren’t on your team?”

“I’d read her briefs,” Tobin heard Tierna of all people mutter from behind her.

“Nobody get any ideas,” Ali reminded them all sternly. Her eyes swept the room, pausing briefly on Tobin, which Tobin thought was slightly unfair. Kristie Mewis wasn’t even her type.

An image buzzed around in the back of her brain about what her type actually was, but Tobin mentally shooed it away like an irritating bug. She nudged Sonny with her knee as the four producers started spitballing ideas for setting up animosity between Hinkle and Mewis.

“Bar?” Tobin mouthed when Sonny looked at her. Sonny’s eyes flicked momentarily to Lindsey and Tobin bit her lip to keep a comment in check. “She can meet us.”

Sonny nodded and Tobin unfolded herself off the floor. None of the plotting women even noticed them disappearing out into the night.

“I wish I didn’t like her so much.” Sonny moaned into her third drink.

Tobin, who’d been on the receiving end of this complaint about twice a week for the last year, patted her back sympathetically.

“It just makes me feel like there’s nothing else to me, y’know?” She continued. “Like the end all be all of my existence is trying to get her attention and the rest of my life doesn’t matter.”

Tobin stopped patting her back to pinch the back of her neck instead, a silent reproach for talking bad about herself. “You’re brilliant, Son.” She said. “You’re smart, and you’re funny, and you’re not gonna spend your life working the camera on some run of the mill dating show forever.”

Sonny ducked her head into her drink, smiling bashfully in a way that lit up her whole face. “Neither are you,” she shot back, apparently unwilling to let the conversation stay on her for too long.

The rest of her beer burned going down in one gulp and Tobin caught the bartender’s eye to order another one. “Sure,” she answered noncommittally.

“She’s smart and funny too,” Sonny said wistfully. Her eyes tracked the soccer players on the TV in front of them but didn’t seem to actually see them. “And so determined. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so determined in my life.”

“Determined to do what, exactly?”

“Don’t be so hard on her Tobs,” Sonny muttered. “She’s trying her best.”

As if she had been summoned by them talking about her, Lindsey burst into the bar at that moment. A gust of balmy Southern California wind followed her. She sat on the stool next to Sonny and Tobin looked away at the blush that crossed Sonny’s cheeks when Lindsey curled a strand of her ponytail around her finger. She focused again on the game.

“That could have been me, you know.” Lindsey told them. When Tobin looked back at her she was pointing at the TV and had Sonny’s drink in her hands. Sonny rolled her eyes and stole her drink back.

“Producing the game?” Tobin asked.

“Playing it.” Lindsey got a far-away look in her eyes and it was at that point, awash in the red and blue lights from the neon signs above the bar, Tobin noticed how blown her pupils were. She wondered what the producers sparked their ideas with after she and Sonny left, then decided she was better off not knowing.

Memories rushed to the forefront of Tobin’s brain. She’d loved being on the field, loved the way the ball had felt at her feet.

“Why didn’t you?” Tobin asked, pushing the memories away.

“Fucked up my knee.” Lindsey took Sonny’s drink back and downed it in one go, motioning the bartender for two more. “Junior year of high school. Then I decided to go to UCLA instead for TV and film production. And now I’m here.” She thanked the bartender and took a sip of her own drink this time, offering Sonny some of hers as a wordless apology. “Living the dream.”

Her voice was so tired when she said that; so downtrodden and almost sad. It was the first time in the couple years that Tobin had been working with her and Sonny that Tobin heard her refer to her time at Ever After with anything other than a sickening amount of boundless enthusiasm.

“This isn’t the dream?” Tobin asked.

Lindsey and Sonny scoffed at the same time, then looked at each other and burst into laughter.

“Yes, Tobin, this is my dream,” Lindsey snarked around the rim of her drink. “I want to spend the rest of my life manipulating people into falling in love with one person and being yelled at by Jill even if I do it right.” She took another sip, her eyes glued to the screen. “Who wouldn’t want that as a dream job?”

Tobin turned in her stool to face the two of them. Sonny looked less than shocked by this revelation, which told Tobin maybe they spent more time talking than she thought. “Why don’t you quit?”

“What?” Lindsey raised a single eyebrow.

“Why don’t you quit? You’re a talented producer, Linds. You could get a job somewhere else.”

Lindsey was quiet for so long after that that Tobin was almost positive she wasn’t going to speak up again. Finally she let out a sigh that seemed to draw her shoulders down with it and she leaned her head onto Sonny’s shoulder. Tobin’s heart constricted when Sonny turned her head but hovered her lips over the top of Lindsey’s head, as if unsure if she was allowed to press a reassuring kiss there.

“I did.”

Tobin blinked. Then blinked again. Then, when it seemed like Lindsey wasn’t going to break into a grin and shout ‘just kidding’ she blinked a third time for good measure.

Lindsey glanced at her flabbergasted face and laughed grimly. “Yeah. Halfway through my first season of Ever After. This one girl...her dad had a stroke partway through the filming of an episode. She was on my team and Jill made me keep it from her until the day was over.”

“What happened?” Tobin asked, even though she was sure from the way Lindsey’s mouth had gone hard and straight that it wasn’t good.

“She didn’t make it in time to say goodbye. I got the phone call and she was screaming and I could hear how hard she’d been crying and I...I quit. Walked right up to Jill and told her I wasn’t coming back and walked all the way home.”

“But you’re…”

“Still here?

“Yeah.” Lindsey finished her drink and took Sonny’s again, and this time Sonny let it happen without complaint. “Jill showed up at my apartment and told me a list of every single producer who’d worked for her who are now being nominated for awards, and that I had to stick around through the tough stuff if I wanted to make it there too. Then she told me if I walked off her set again then she’d have me blacklisted. She left my set badge on my doorknob and walked out.”

Lindsey waved at the three of them with a slightly shaky hand. “And here we are.”

There was no response to that. How could there be? All three of them were nowhere near where they wanted to be. Lindsey wanted to produce award winning TV, Sonny was a talented writer who wanted to write scripts that moved people, Tobin wanted to catch beautiful, unscripted moments on her camera…

“We’ll get there somebody,” Sonny said quietly, solemnly. “All of us.”

“Or die trying,” Tobin muttered, eyeing the way Lindsey swayed slightly on her stool.

But the words stuck with her the rest of the night: as they paid up their tab, as Tobin took over driving Lindsey’s car back to her apartment, as she crashed on the couch to avoid having to call a car home.

What stuck with her more was the image of Lindsey giggling, leading a starry-eyed Sonny with a blush high in her cheeks into her room. For some reason she couldn’t name her mind brought her back to that morning. Less than twenty four hours ago she’d stumbled out of the camera ops trailer, pulling her shirt back on, and the moment her foot had hit the ground her eyes had met Christen Press.

She’d tried to push away the confusing assault of emotions that getting caught by Christen had swelled over her. Shock, annoyance, shame; all of it roiled around inside her chest that morning but, above all else, was guilt.

Tobin rolled over, punching Lindsey’s couch pillow into shape, and buried the part of herself that asked why.

Chapter Text

Another rose ceremony, another rose, another moment of saying goodbye to girls she had just started to befriend. It shouldn’t be a shock; wasn’t the whole point of this to make it to the end where there were just two left? In order for Christen to go forward, others had to leave.

“A date scroll just arrived!” JMac called up the stairs. Christen and Becky shared a look. This was hardly a surprise. Producers had come around over an hour prior to get them all into hair and make up. Christen abandoned the book she had been trying in vain to focus on, and followed her roommate down the stairs.

Once all eighteen of them were gathered and paying attention, JMac cleared her throat.

“Crystal, Alex, Syd, Carli, Allie, Rose, Lauren, and Sophia:

Love is in the air, but so are your fears,

Time will only tell who you hold near.

Love, Zach.”

“Oh God,” Syd deadpanned. “There’s definitely going to be spiders involved.”

This made everyone laugh, breaking the slightly apprehensive mood that had taken over.

“Cut,” Lindsey called. “Really good ladies, now let’s get you upstairs and changed into your outfits, vans are rolling out in twenty.”

The eight girls who had heard their names popped to their feet and were herded upstairs. The rest stayed on the couch. Christen caught Pinoe’s arm (see, she was finally getting a handle on everyone’s names!) as she walked past.

“What’s up?”

“Is there, or do you… it’s so boring here,” she said with a sheepish chuckle. “There’s nothing to do.”

Pinoe gave her a tight smile, the one that naturally comes from hearing someone complain about their vacation while you’re working overtime. “Well I think some of the other girls were going to lay out by the pool today, maybe join them?” She quickly slipped away, giving commands to both of her cam ops to follow her.

Christen sighed then mentally chastised herself. Spending your day lounging by the pool was nothing to sulk over. This was probably the only time in her life that she would have this much time with absolutely no responsibilities. She should take advantage of every moment, because the reality was that Zach could send her home at the next rose ceremony.

Changed into her bikini, she settled onto a lounger next to the pool. Lynn and Julie were playing one on one water volleyball, having dragged a water hose across the pool to act as a net. Christen looked over at where Becky was sitting.

“What are you reading?”

The blonde laughed and held it up for her to see.”I don’t even know, it’s some ridiculous romance novel. I’m sure they put it in the library to help us sink into the fantasy,” she fluttered her eyelashes for effect. “Or at the very least drop the reader’s IQ.”

“Yeah, The library doesn’t provide much in way of stimulation.” Becky quirked her eyebrow and Christen flushed, rolling her eyes.”That’s not what I meant.”

“Mm hm, sure,” Becky teased. Christen laughed and turned away, intending to lay back and soak in some of the mid morning rays. But then her eye was pulled to the French doors, where Kristie was coming out to join them.

Speaking of stimulation.

Christen was not blind. This much was obvious. But more than that, Christen was firmly queer, she experienced attraction to both men and women. And so it was only fair that she be allowed to notice how… well, how hot her fellow contestants were. Well, she amended in her mind, thinking of Tobin, her fellow contestants and the crew that was taking care of them. The phrase ‘taking care of them’ spun through her mind, leading her on a deliciously naughty little day dream.

“Chris!” She snapped back to attention, realizing that she had been staring at Kristie, “You okay?”

“Yeah!” She gave her head a quick shake. “Sorry, spaced out.” She stretched her arms out over her head with a low groan, feeling the muscles along her spine whine along with her. A shadow passed in front of her, and she opened her eyes to find Tattoo cam smirking down at her.

“Thirsty?”

Her cheeks warmed slightly. “Sorry?”

Tattoo cam handed her a bottle of water. “I thought you might be thirsty.”

“Oh thanks.”

“Also, they want you for an ITM, I’m supposed to walk you over.”

“Alright.” She stood up and grabbed the cover up she had brought down. She followed Tattoo cam around several turns, suddenly stumbling upon one of the interview set ups, Ali already speaking in a low voice with the baby faced producer. Her face lit up when she saw Christen.

“Christen! Hi.Why don’t you have a seat, we just want to get your feeling on some things happening around the house.”

“Okay.” She started to pull on her cover up but Ali waved a hand.

“Don’t worry about that, the shot will be super close cropped.” Christen got the strangest feeling that a, that wasn’t true, and b, she was being offered up to America like a piece of meat. Either way she swallowed down her complaints and let herself be poked and prodded by the on set makeup artist.

Ali was different from Lindsey. Lindsey was so enthusiastic and excited about everything that you couldn’t help but talk to her, her dimple doing wonders to pull things out of you that you didn’t even know you thought. Ali was softer, making you almost forget you were talking into a camera and anything you said would be broadcast to millions.

She started off by asking about Zach, asking if Christen was missing home, and they talked about dogs for a few minutes.

“What about your fellow contestants? How are you getting along with everyone?”

“All the girls are great,” Christen offered. “We haven’t had any major drama in the house yet, which has been really nice.”

“Of course,” Ali smiled. “But tell me some specifics. You’re rooming with Becky?”

“Yeah. I really like Becky, she’s awesome, super smart and funny. I feel really lucky that we were put together.”

“What about Kristie?” She resisted the urge to run her hands nervously through her hair. What was this, she had one sexual thought about the girl and suddenly everyone around her knew? It was like puberty all over again.

“Ah, she’s great too. Funny too.”

“Sorry, can you restate that with her name?”

“Sure… Kristie is great. She’s funny, she has lots of great stories about growing up in Massachusetts.”

“Wonderful.” Ali looked back down at the ist in her lap. “And what about… Jaelene?”

Christen gave a little shrug. “I don’t know Jaelene that well to be honest. She’s kind of been quiet. Well,” she said without thinking, “She’s quiet about some things. She has lots of hard opinions on things that I personally don’t care about, and can be really… fastidious.” She watched a slight gleam come into Ali’s eyes. “But, like I said, I don’t really know anything about Jaelene herself.”

Ali gave her a wide smile. “Excellent. I think we got everything we needed. You can head back to the pool.”

Christen smiled back, but once she was back in the hallway, she decided to head upstairs. On the stairs, she nearly ran face first into a camera.

“Woah!”

“Sorry!” The camera veered over to reveal Tobin, grinning sheepishly. “I should pay attention to where I’m walking.”

“Especially on the stairs,” Christen teased back.

“Yeah, last thing I need is to slip and fall on my ass.”

“Yeah.” They had a strange moment where they were just staring at each other. “Well I should-”

“Not going for a swim?” Tobin asked at the same time.

“What?”

“Your, your suit.” Tobin waved a hand vaguely at Christen’s body. “Why aren’t you headed to the pool like everyone else?”

“Oh. I was already there, then I got pulled for an ITM. Then I just kind of started walking.”

“Right.”

“I could head back down if you need me. Or, I mean, if the royal you need all of the girls by the pool.” She could feel herself blushing, what was wrong with her?

“No! No that’s fine. You can do whatever you want.” Again, with the strange pause. “I should get out there though.”

“Right!” They carefully stepped around each other. “I’ll… see you around, I guess.”

“Sure.” Tobin gave a little wave and disappeared around the corner, leaving Christen to slip upstairs and wonder when exactly she had lost all of her brain cells.

X

Christen was on the next date scroll, and it didn’t have a lot of clues other than dealing with the past. The girls talked it over in the van, laughing as they decided it was going to be an AP History exam to prove that they were smart enough to be Zach’s mate.

The reality was somehow way worse.

“Ladies,” Alexei called out with his wide smile, “Welcome to the Broken Hearts Bonanza. For those of you that watched last season, you already know about Zach’s last partner. But now we want to know about yours. You will each be given a pen, some paper, and ten minutes to tell us something about one of your past relationships.”

Zach took a step forward. “I know this seems scary, but I want you to be honest with me. I’m looking for a soulmate, and I don’t want her to feel like she has to hide the bad parts from me. Love is all encompassing.”

Christen could feel her heart thumping in her throat. She knew immediately who she had to write about, but she didn’t want to. The memory of how things went down with her ex still made her stomach ache, and she didn’t want to seem pathetic, not in front of Zach, but especially not in front of the whole damn world.

Still, Zach had asked them to be honest, and he deserved that. 

“And, time! Ladies, everyone come and sit in the seats. One at a time, we’re going to bring you up and have you read what you have written.”

“Remember, there’s no judgements here,” Zach reminded them, and Christen pressed her lips together, hoping that was true.

One by one they were brought up. The other girls talked about cheating and being cheated on, about growing apart from someone you thought you knew, about the profound heartaches that always accompanied love.

When Kristie got up, she shook her blonde hair back from her face. “My ex and I… We had some real problems. I loved Ray, I really did. I thought that we would get married someday… but then she cheated on me.”

Whispers swirled around Christen, and it took her a moment to realize why. She hadn’t necessarily clocked Kristie as gay, but she definitely wasn’t surprised. The same didn’t go for other people.

“She?” Alexei clarified from the edge of the stage where he and Zach were sitting.

She nodded, cool as a cucumber. “Yeah. Rachel and I were together for nearly three years before I found out that she had slept with someone else. At first I thought I could maybe forgive and move past, but the trust was gone. It felt like everytime she went out with her friends or went home to visit her family, I was wondering if it was happening again. And so in the end we had to call it off. We work together actually, so it was wicked awkward for a while-” this got a small chuckle from the assembled women, “But in the end, it was for the best.”

They all clapped and she came back and sat down. Abby went, and then it was Christen.

Her hands were shaking as she stood at the podium. She generally didn’t have a problem with public speaking, but this was different. This was personal.

“Like Kristie, my story is also about a she.” She took a deep breath. “I was with my ex Lena for nearly two years. I liked her so much but she… she always held me at an arm’s length. It felt like everything was one step forward, two steps back. She refused for the longest time to commit at all and I…” Tears rushed her eyes and she blinked them back, embarrassed. “I held on. For some reason, I was convinced that she was the greatest I would ever have. Everyone around me, my friends, my family, they all told me that I deserved more, but I couldn’t see it. And that’s not…” She shook her head, exhaling shakily. “I do deserve better. I deserve someone who wants to be with me. Someone who isn’t afraid, someone who not only sees me for the great parts of me, but also the not so great parts, and still chooses me. All day, every day.” She took another deep breath. “I’m never settling again. I deserve better.”

The girls started applauding, and cheeks pink, Christen sat back down. Alexei stood up with a wide smile. 

“Thank you for your candor, ladies. Zach?”

He nodded and stood up as well, a rose in his hand. “Thank you. I asked for your full honesty, and that’s what you gave me. I really appreciate it, more than I can express. And… I know that normally the group date rose is given towards the end of the night, but I already know, so I’m just gonna…” He cleared his throat. “Christen?” 

She got to her feet, slowly walking over.

“Christen, will you accept this rose?”

She nodded, a shy smile on her face. “I will.”

He handed it to her and pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek, making her blush deepen even further. 

Throughout the rest of the night, she would periodically look down at the rose in her hand and remind herself that being vulnerable didn’t have to end with being taken advantage of. Sometimes it could lead to something sweet.

X

She had been so wrapped up in her own romantic thoughts, that she didn’t even know about the rumblings until the next day. She walked into the kitchen to grab some lunch and smiled at the inhabitants. 

Instead of smiling back, Jaelene rolled eyes with a scowl, slipping from the room.

“Uh, what’s that about?” Christen asked confused. 

JMac and Abby shared a look. “It’s, um…”

“What? Is she mad about the rose?” She didn’t remember Jaelene reacting this way when other girls had received roses.

“No, it’s not that,” Abby said awkwardly.

JMac turned to her. “It was what you shared yesterday. Well, you and Kristie, to be specific.”

Christen froze for a moment, then narrowed her eyes. “You’re not serious.”

“Serious about what?” Allie asked, coming into the room.

Christen turned to Jaelene’s roommate. “Is Jaelene… upset that Kristie and I are queer?”

This earned her a heavy eye roll. “I don’t even want to get into it. As soon as everyone got home from the date yesterday, she was huffing around our room, talking to herself under her breath, doing her devotional and reading her bible. And listen,” Allie held up a hand, “I read my bible every night. I have never done so as angrily as she did last night.”

Christen sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. She wanted to retort, to say something, to be as nasty and petty in response, but she was aware of the ever present camera in the periphery, Tobin’s friend blonde cam hovering near the doorway. She chose her words carefully.

“Look, it’s 2021. If she wants to be small minded and bigoted, I can’t stop her. I didn’t realize that this would be a problem, but,” she shrugged her shoulders, “I can’t force her to accept me.”

Allie’s eyes were still narrowed in contempt. “She needs to pull her head out of her ass.”

“Does Kristie know?” Abby asked from the counter.

The rest of them shared a look, unsure of the answer.

X

It turned out that the answer had been no, and when the answer became yes…

Kristie hadn’t taken it quite as stoicly as Christen.

“What the fuck did you just say?” Kristen snarled.

“Not me, the bible says-”

“The bible also says that you can’t get tattoos, but that certainly didn’t stop you,” Becky pointed out.

“It’s wrong!” Jaelene insisted. “It’s wrong, and it’s especially wrong since you apparently can be attracted to men, or you wouldn’t be here!”

“It’s not a choice, you fucking asswipe! I’m attracted to both men and women, it’s a thing, it’s always been a thing-”

“Don’t be mad at me because you’ve chosen the side of Satan-”

“Satan? Satan?!” Kristie gave a disbelieving laugh. “Bitch, Satan is about to be the least of your problems.”

She took several steps forward, but Syd and Carli stepped in between, keeping Jaelene just out of Kristie’s reach. “Hey, calm down, she’s not worth it,” Syd barked.

“Seriously, don’t waste your time on her,” Allie agreed.

Kristie relaxed slightly, and for a moment it looked like the confrontation would stay verbal instead of physical. ”Fucking bitch,” she spat.

Jaelene crossed her arms. “It’s just basic biology. How are two women supposed to have children and make a family?”

“Um, maybe I don’t want kids? And even if I did, it’s called science you dickbag.”

Jaelene scoffed. “All the science in the world couldn’t help, because any kid with you for a mom is going to be seriously demented.”

For a moment they all watched as Kristie looked at her, face slack and disbelieving. And then, before anyone could stop her, she had launched herself at the other woman, punching her in the face, and all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

Tobin spun on a dime to aim her camera at the action the minute she heard the word ‘demented’ and she knew she had the shot in focus just in time to see Kristie’s fist connect with perfect precision and a surprising amount of force. Jaelene stumbled backwards before losing her balance entirely and going ass over teakettle over a nearby ottoman and Tobin followed. Her heart raced, and the quickest glance away from her viewfinder showed the gobsmacked look on every producer in the vicinity. 

 

“Holy SHIT,” someone blurted loudly from the lighting pit. 

 

As if that was the cue she was waiting for, Jaelene surged up from the floor and went for what could only be described as a rugby tackle on Kristie. Tobin took several long and quick steps back, both to get a better view of the action and to move out of the line of fire. She had the perfect vantage point to see the producers and PAs finally start to react but - surprisingly - it was Becky and Jessica who got there first. 

 

Tobin took another step back to catch the way Jessica caught Jaelene on the apex of her lunge and hauled her bodily backwards with a display of upper arm strength that only came from regularly carrying a toddler around; at the same time Becky was using her whole body to make Kristie move backwards. Tobin leaned back even farther and leaned right into somebody. 

 

Normally she wouldn’t have even apologized let alone looked behind her. But that person made a small sound when she hit them, a sound she somehow heard over all the hubbub, and it was a sound that transported her right back to a cool California morning and green eyes that went grey in the sun and Tobin, in the downfall of everything, looked over her shoulder. 

 

Christen looked back, those very same grey-green eyes big and just a little wild as she saw past Tobin to the chaos unfolding behind her. Her chest was rising and falling quickly, like a startled bird, and it was the slightly pleading way she turned her eyes to Tobin that made her react. In a motion against everything she was paid to do, Tobin turned her camera off and loosened the steadi-cam so it hung low on her hips. Without a single word she took Christen gently by the elbow and led her away from all the lights and sounds, nudging wordlessly past Tierna, who was so focused on everything happening Tobin wasn’t even sure she felt them move past. 

 

She couldn’t tell if the hallway was dark or if the scene behind them was so brightly lit that it seemed dark but Tobin led them down it anyway. Christen was overwhelmed, and if she didn’t want to be caught panicking on camera then there was only one place she’d be completely safe from having a lens focused on her. 

 

After all the chaos and bright lights, the bathroom Tobin led them into seemed like a calm and muted oasis in comparison. The moment the door closed behind them and the sounds went with it, Christen said, “I’m sorry! I just got so overwhelmed and suddenly you guys and your cameras were everywhere and...” 

 

“It’s all right.” Tobin unclipped the quick-release on her harness and slowly lowered the whole rig to the ground. “No cameras in here, see? Relax, you’re okay.”

 

Christen’s eyes went to Tobin’s arms, to the camera on the ground, to her face. Tobin gave her a slow smile and held up her hands to show they were empty. The relief of seeing Christen close her eyes and take a deeper breath took more weight off of her shoulders than unhooking the camera harness did. Tobin internally gave herself a pat on the back for a job well done. 

 

“Better?” Tobin asked. 

 

Christen looked like she had sunk into meditation for a moment, the way she leaned back against the counter and her fingers tapped in a rhythm against the obnoxiously expensive marble countertop. The next time she looked at Tobin her shoulders had relaxed and her eyes - now more grey than green under the bathroom lights - were bright and clear. 

 

“Better,” she nodded.  

 

“Good. Great. Awesome.” Now that it no longer looked like there was going to be another crisis on their hands, Tobin had the thought suddenly hit her how close they were. This wasn’t one of the upstairs ensuite bathrooms with enormous showers and long mirrors along one wall. This was a much smaller half-bath on the ground floor, and with Tobin’s large rig crowding the floor behind her she was now pressed up to the point where if Christen wasn’t leaning against the counter they’d be in a VERY compromising position. 

 

“I’m sorry, again,” Christen said. Her voice pulled Tobin’s eyes to her face from where she’d been thoroughly examining the grout in the tiles. “For freaking out and for...everything.” 

 

She ran her hands through her hair and Tobin’s eyes were caught by the way her straightened hair was starting to curl at the ends from the heat and frizz a little. It brought a sense of humanity to her that Tobin didn’t want to examine. It was always better to view the contestants on a pedestal. Tobin didn’t know what to do with someone who was human. 

 

“I just don’t know if I belong here!” Christen bit her lip like she hadn’t meant to admit that, but she continued now that it was out in the open. “Zach is so sweet, and so handsome, and I guess I feel something? But twenty other girls will tell you the same thing!” 

Tobin leaned back when Christen pushed off to pace the literal inches of space that existed in the bathroom. She pressed her calves against her rig and even then Christen’s arm brushed her whole side when she moved. 

 

“What’s wrong with me that I thought I could make a guy fall in love with me in front of cameras and twenty other girls?” Christen asked. Tobin kept quiet, because she was pretty sure she wasn’t actually part of this conversation. “No friends, no contact with family. Just these people I don’t know and the thought that six weeks from now what if he tells me he likes me and I don’t feel anything more than I do right now?” 

 

She could tell that Christen was working herself up again from the way her voice kept jumping up a little and the way her hands went everywhere. She talked with her hands. It was cute but also dangerous in such a small space. Tobin caught her wrist as her hand flew dangerously close to Tobin’s face and pinned it gently but firmly against the counter. 

 

Christen came to a swift and still halt, face inches from Tobin’s. 

 

“Sorry,” Tobin croaked out. She swallowed against her suddenly dry throat. “It’s just - you were getting all worked up again.” 

 

Christen’s eyes went dark. The air was thick between them. She knew why her own feet were stuck to the tiles, but Tobin couldn’t figure out why Christen hadn’t moved away yet. 

 

“Tobin?” 

 

“Yeah?”  

 

Christen used her pinned hand to leverage herself up and press her lips against Tobin’s. It was so quick, and so soft, that if Tobin kept her eyes closed she could almost convince herself it hadn't happened at all. When she did open her eyes (when had she closed them) Christen had barely moved away, her breath puffing hard and hot against Tobin’s lips, her free hand having somehow found the spot on Tobin’s waist where her jeans met her shirt. The tension in the air stretched between them. 

 

“No?” Christen asked. 

 

No , her logical brain shouted at her. No, you idiot. Say it! What are you doing? Stop thinking with your pants and say it! 

 

“Yes,” Tobin breathed. 

 

The tension broke with an almost audible snap. Christen’s lips were back against hers, and Tobin found herself quickly becoming addicted to the little breathless noises she made when Tobin bit at her plush button lip. The hand on Tobin’s hip started to travel up her back. Tobin grabbed it to pin it to the counter as well, her whole body pressing Christen’s hips into the marble. The way Christen reacted, pulling her lips away from Tobin’s to throw her head back with a moan that was maybe a little too loud, told Tobin she was going in the right direction. 

 

“Quiet,” Tobin hummed, dipping her lips to mouth along Christen’s neck. She was careful not to leave any marks. “You have to be quiet.” She pulled back to look up in Christen’s eyes. “Can you do that?” 

 

Christen nodded. 

 

“Good.” Tobin said, and dropped to her knees. 

 

This time when Christen moaned as she felt Tobin’s fingers start to unbutton her jeans it was more subdued. Tobin felt her through her lips as she pressed a kiss to Christen’s hip while she tugged her jeans down. She snapped the elastic of the dark blue panties a little with her teeth and it made her grin when Christen slid one leg out of her pants to kick her gently in the side in retaliation. 

 

She grinned harder when Christen wrapped that leg around her back. 

 

“Impatient?” She teased, moving instead to press open-mouthed kisses against her thighs. 

 

“Tobin,” Christen whined. She dug her heel a little into Tobin’s shoulder blade and Tobin took pity on her and moved her mouth to kiss right where Christen wanted her...just over the panties instead. 

 

This time Christen’s whine didn’t contain any words but Tobin, who could already see how damp Christen’s underwear was, had pushed herself to the line as well. Before Christen could complain again, she hooked her fingers into the waistband and pulled them down just enough so that Tobin could get her mouth on Christen without the fabric between them. 

 

Tobin swiped her tongue through Christen in one long, broad stroke and Christen’s hips jerked up in an attempt to get Tobin’s mouth impossibly closer to her. Christen’s complaint had turned into wordless, breathy moans that zipped electricity all the way down Tobin’s spine. She paid close attention to the way Christen’s hands dropped to her hair when Tobin focused her tongue around her entrance and the way those hands TUGGED when she wrapped her mouth around her clit and sucked. 

 

She was  aching between her own legs and she wished she had the free hand to give herself some relief but she was greatly enjoying the way Christen had gasped when Tobin grabbed on her ass to control her hips and the way they rolled up into Tobin’s mouth with increasing desperation as she got closer and closer. Christen’s whole body tensed and Tobin looked up, not wanting to miss a thing as Christen threw her head back hard enough that it had to hurt hitting the mirror and she came, muscles in her abs clenching and biting so hard on her hand to stifle her cries that Tobin wouldn’t be surprised if she drew blood. 

 

She stayed where she was for a moment to let Christen relax and when she stood to her feet Christen’s eyes - green now, instead of grey, somehow swapping in a way that Tobin wanted to keep studying - looked up at her under heavy, satisfied eyelids. 

 

Tobin buzzed all over with that look but before she  could do anything about it someone walking down the hallway accidentally banged loudly against the closed bathroom door and it was enough to bring her slamming back into reality. She’d just slept with a contestant. She’d just full on fucked a contestant in the bathroom of the Ever After mansion and she’d enjoyed it so much she couldn’t even find it in herself to regret it. 

 

Christen reached out to touch the spot she’d found earlier, the bit of skin that showed between her pants and her shirt, and Tobin’s whole body shuddered. But she stepped away, instead moving over to the sink, hoping that washing her face would hide what just happened. 

 

“We need to get you back.” Tobin told Christen as she patted her face dry with a towel. 

 

Christen nodded, pulling her pants up and smoothing her hands over her shirt, even though it hadn’t come off during the last fifteen minutes. Thankfully she seemed to realize that time was of the essence, because instead of standing there and demanding that they stay and talk about what happened she instead moved over to Tobin’s camera rig. “Do you need help with this?” she asked. 

 

The scene Tobin escorted her back out to was as different from earlier as night and day. Everything was moderately calm as the set gophers scuttled around making sure furniture was back in place and only a few of the contestants remained loitering in the area. Jaelene, Kristie, and a lot of the other girls were nowhere to be found. 

 

Christen immediately broke off to go join them, and Tobin vaguely heard someone ask where she’d been, but she had her own problems to handle - namely Jill barrelling down on her. 

 

“Boss.” Tobin greeted as calmly as she could. 

 

“Can you imagine something for me, Tobin?” Jill asked. She didn’t wait for Tobin to answer. “Can you imagine my surprise when I learned that the Thorns crew had the best views of the fight and that we just straight up couldn’t find one of them.” 

 

She stayed looking at Tobin for long enough that Tobin realized she was supposed to answer, but she wasn’t quite sure what the question was. 

 

“I got the fight,” Tobin said, hoping that was what Jill was looking for. 

 

“You got the fight.” 

 

“I got the fight.” 

 

“And then you...took a casual stroll?” 

 

Tobin winced. It took a monumental effort to stop herself from looking over at Christen. “One of the girls looked like she was going to have a panic attack,” Tobin said as calmly and evenly as she could. “Everyone else was busy doing something else and I was closest so I led her away so she could calm down. I figured we didn’t want to add calling an ambulance to everything else tonight. It was an instinct thing.” 

 

The fifteen whole seconds of silence that greeted that held more words inside them than any speech Tobin had ever heard, and every single one of them called her an idiot in a different language. Eventually Jill hummed, which was such a relief from the silence that Tobin didn’t even have time to worry about what it meant. 

 

“Which one?” 

 

“Press.” 

 

“Good instincts,” Jill said finally. Tobin felt some tension start to drain from her shoulders when Jill told her to turn in her footage for the day and go home for some rest before the night shoot. 

 

“Tobin?” Jill called when Tobin was almost completely out of ear shot. Tobin turned immediately. 

 

“Next time let me tell you that your instincts are good before you act on them.” 

 

“Yes ma’am.” Tobin contained an enormous sigh. “I’ll be sure to run individual thoughts past you and Lindsey from now on.” 

 

“Good. I don’t pay you to think.” 

 

Well then , Tobin thought to herself as she headed to hand her camera kit off to Emma, why the hell is my brain going so fast?