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you look at me and the darkness leaves

Chapter Text

Emma Nolan was not looking forward to the first day of junior year. If it was up to her, summer would never end.

It wasn’t that she was particularly fond of getting pit stains on all her button ups, or her grandmother chasing her around with sunscreen, or battling their AC unit armed with only desperation and YouTube tutorials. In fact, maybe summer was her least favourite season. But she would put up with all of that and more to not have to go back to James Madison High School.

The building itself was fine, nothing special. Just the standard block of brick and cement masquerading as an institution that actually fostered learning. Come to think of it, the regular inhabitants of the building weren’t all that notable either. It was the same as any other high school, in any other middle-of-nowhere small town in America. The same jocks dominating the hallways and the football fields. The same high achievers shining in every class, club, and committee possible. The same class clowns coasting on charm and parental bailouts. The same social outcasts.

That last one was Emma.

It hadn’t always been like this. Her freshman year, she was, by and large, average. She did fine in her classes, talked to the same kids at school, and generally flew under the radar. Every day looked the same as it always had, but she wasn’t complaining. Not much changed ever in Edgewater.

That was, until sophomore year. She blamed herself, really. She had been stupid enough to believe she could trust her closest and oldest friend. There wasn’t exactly much competition for the role, but she and Kaylee had known each other their entire lives, thrust together by their mothers who had grown up in the same 10-mile radius and never left. It wasn’t like the movies, they were not built in BFFs, but they got along perfectly fine. They sat next to each other when they could choose seats in class, picked each other as project partners, commiserated when their moms would talk too much, and shared the occasional sleepover.

It was at one such sleepover that she made her fatal error. After being asked every time they hung out since Kaylee discovered boys, Emma finally opened up about a crush. A crush who was a girl. Kaylee was the first person in real life Emma had told. She was also the last. Kaylee had always had a talent of spreading information, and in a town like theirs, secrets were never secret for long. It was a cliché, but it was true.

Kaylee told her mom, who told Emma’s mom and their entire church. She told Shelby and, in doing so, cemented her friendship with the cheerleaders. Between the parents and the popular crowd, it was only a matter of days before all the kids at school knew to avoid the big, scary lesbian, lest they catch her gayness. Then they decided that ignoring her wasn’t enough, and they began to torment her. Emma’s parents kicked her out, saying they couldn’t support her lifestyle. She moved in with Nana Betsy and got used to the bullying.

After winter break, things had mostly calmed down. Sure, Emma got sneered at and found less-than-kind messages on her locker, but the worst was over. The school administration liked to believe it had something to do with the anti-bullying assembly they’d had the first day back where they were reminded to be “upstanding citizens” and to “treat others how you wanted to be treated”. And who knows, maybe they were right. But Emma also knew that while the school technically had a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment, they couldn’t very well suspend or expel over half the school’s population. The school’s population knew it too, as did their parents, and most of the teachers. This was just her new normal.

Emma had never been more grateful when summer break rolled around. All she needed to do to avoid the harassment was stay away from the mall, the Applebee’s, and the pool at the Y. Sure, there wasn’t much else in town, but she was happy to hide away every day in the library with the books or in her room with her guitar.

Unfortunately, she was legally required to attend school now that it was back in session. But she had survived last year, she could survive the next two. And then she would leave Indiana and never look back.

Emma entered homeroom and joined the line of students waiting to get their seating assignments. She studied the desks, arranged in groups of four around the room. Students were milling about, sitting on the tops of desks, chatting about their summers. Emma knew every face with the kind of familiarity that came with over a decade of unwilling exposure.

She reached the front of the line.

“Hi Ms. Kinnunen,” she mumbled with a weak smile.

“Hello, Emma, how was your summer?” she replied warmly. She was one of the few teachers who wasn’t disgusted at Emma’s sinful existence. Or at least, one of the ones who hid it well. Either way it was appreciated.

“It was good, I guess.”

“Good! Well, let me see where I’ve placed you”

Emma hoped she got sat next to one of the art kids who would ignore her in favour of their sketchbooks, or a stoner who would barely show up to class anyway. She’d settle for anyone who wouldn’t go out of their way to make her life any more of a living hell than it already was.

“Ah, here we are, E. Nolan. You’ll be in that next corner, next to Alyssa.”

She pointed, and Emma gave a quiet thanks and nod as she made her way to her seat. She knew who Alyssa Greene was. Everyone did. She was a classic beauty who managed to be on the cheer squad, debate team, and honour roll, all while being one of the most well-liked girls in school. She was exceptional. Basically, everything Emma wasn’t.

And on top of all that, she didn’t suck. They had never really spoken, but she was one of the few people who, not only didn’t actively bully Emma, but had even stopped her friends from bothering her a few times. It could be much worse.

As Emma approached her new desk for this year, she saw Alyssa, writing neat notes in her pink planner. She looked even more breathtaking than she had last spring. Her tan skin practically glowed, her dark brown curls cascaded over the shoulder of her floral top. She looked up as Emma pulled out her seat, brown eyes meeting hazel in a way that sent cartoon stars dancing around her vision. They both smiled, tentative but kind.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

Chapter Text

Emma was asking for trouble. She knew that. It’s not that she wasn’t aware. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to care. In the few weeks since school began, Emma Nolan had fallen deeply, and irrevocably in love with Alyssa Greene.

Okay, maybe that was a little bit dramatic, but she certainly had the biggest crush she’d ever experienced in her nearly 16 years of life.

When she had locked eyes with Alyssa on the first day, of course her heart immediately tried to escape her chest. She was looking at a literal goddess, after all. Even so, Emma thinks she could have survived if that were the end of it. If she never spoke a single word to her. The problem that sealed her fate was that Alyssa was just so damn nice.

Every single morning, when Emma arrived Alyssa would look up from her planner with her meticulous notes and greet her. Even on days when she’d sneak in just seconds before the bell, she was always met with a smile and a few words they’d share.

“Hey.” “Hey.”

“Hello.” “Hello.”

“Good morning.” “Good morning.”

On Friday, they had their first conversation. As Emma packed up her things to make her way to math, Alyssa leaned over with a low voice.

“Uh, Emma? You don’t happen to have an extra pad, do you?”

Emma was shocked that type-A Alyssa was capable of being caught unprepared in any situation. She flustered a bit, the hushed tones feeling strangely intimate.

“Um yeah, sure, of course.”

She reached into her bag and grabbed two pads. As she handed them to the other girl, their fingertips brushed. She tried to ignore the tingle from the contact and the blush creeping up her face.

“Oh my god, thank you so much,” she whispered. “Shelby only ever has tampons. Not that you needed to know that! God, sorry. But, uh, thanks.”

She rambled when she was nervous. Emma thought she couldn’t possibly get any cuter.

“Yeah, no problem. Do you need a Midol or something?”

“No, I’ll be fine. But thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She smiled and swept out of the room, leaving Emma a bit dazed. Her heart was still racing at the compliment and the brief contact of their hands.

She had tried to talk herself down and temper her feelings, she really did. But on Monday, Alyssa had asked how her weekend was. The day after that, she joked about her mother’s obsession with The Bachelor. Emma was curious at their growing connection. Didn’t Alyssa have better things to do than talk to her? She supposed since there weren’t any other cheerleaders in their homeroom, she was as good as anyone else. Soon, Emma found herself getting up earlier and earlier to try and maximize her morning chats with Alyssa.

They began to acknowledge each other when they passed in the hallways. Just with eye contact, maybe a smile or a nod. Even saying a few words if Alyssa was alone.

Alyssa was surprising, to say the least. She had a dry, deadpan wit that you could easily miss if you didn’t know her well. Emma liked to think she was getting to know her well. She knew Alyssa liked watching romcoms and period dramas with her mom. Her best class was world history. She loved animals even though her mom refused to get her a dog. She had a club or team every day after school. Her favourite colour was purple. She liked making pizza dough from scratch. 

The thing that surprised her most was that she actually thought Alyssa liked her. Obviously not in the same way that Emma did, but sometimes they almost felt like real friends.

The biggest surprise of all came about a month into the semester. Alyssa approached Emma at her locker at the end of the day on a Thursday. Startled, she let the books she was trying to shove into her backpack fall onto the floor. Alyssa apologized and helped her pick them up.

“Hey Emma. I have something to ask you.”

In her mind, she could imagine the conversation playing out like a movie. The hallway filled with a soft pink haze. Alyssa’s hair was gently rustling in the wind-machine's breeze as she spoke.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m gay too, and I’m in love with you. Will you go out with me? I want to be with you forever.”

It felt like a dream…because it was. Even so, Alyssa’s actual words felt just as fantastical.

“Do you want to join the cheerleading squad?”

Emma’s bubble burst. She was taken aback with shock.

“Sorry, what?”

“We’re trying to fill out the team since a lot of our members graduated last year. We’re in desperate need of a new base.”

“I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know the first thing about cheerleading.”

“That’s ok, I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

Emma was still stunned. She was the polar opposite of the stereotypical cheerleader type.

“Why me?”

“I saw you in the band room after school the other day. You were lifting tubas and cellos and the biggest drum I’ve ever seen, all like it was nothing. We need that strength.”

“Aren’t I, like, not pretty or popular enough to be a cheerleader?”

“Emma, you’re beautiful,” she interjected, so quickly it felt like maybe she had thought about it before. “If you’re worried about the uniform, though, there’s a pants option. You don’t have to wear the mini skirt. I know it’s not really your style.”

Emma was grateful Alyssa understood some of her hesitancy and tried not to fixate on the compliment. A teasing smile formed on her lips.

“But you’re saying I am unpopular.”

Alyssa burst out a shocked laugh before she could stop herself.

“No! I didn’t mean— They just need to get to know you.”

An alarm began chiming from Alyssa’s phone. She frowned and silenced it.

“Ugh, I’ve got to get to debate club, but promise me you’ll think about it? Here’s my number. Text me if you have any questions.”

She handed her a sticky note where her phone number had already been neatly written.

“Okay, sure. I’ll think about it.”

“Great!”

Alyssa smiled so brightly that Emma felt the dark edges of her soul lightening just a little. She watched as the other girl turned and disappeared down the hallway.

Staring down at the pink square of paper in her hand, she found herself incapable of rational thought. She added the number to her contacts and slipped the note safely into the side pocket of her bag. She told herself she would talk it through with her Nana before texting Alyssa.

But her unruly heart already knew how she’d respond.

Chapter Text

Emma didn't know what the hell she was doing.

As soon as she had fulfilled her P.E. requirements, she swore she would never step foot in the school gymnasium again. The only exception was mandatory school assemblies and pep rallies, but those hardly counted.

She hated that place. Her head had connected with enough sport projectiles, whether due to her general lack of coordination or targeted attacks from her peers, to last her a lifetime. And yet, here she was, making her way down the hall to the girls’ locker room.

She had considered texting Alyssa her apologies, that she actually just wasn’t the slightest bit interested in cheer, about a billion times since their talk at her locker. But, every time, a vision of the cheerleader’s excitement when she promised to think about it made her chest ache. She couldn’t let her down. She’d told Alyssa she would be there.

When she had gotten Nana to sign the consent waiver, she received a dubious, yet knowing look. Emma hated how her heart had a habit of singing so loud, everyone around heard her every emotion. Or maybe that was just Nana.

The last step was to dig out her old gym class gear from the bottom of her drawer. She stuffed the clothes, along with the waiver and a water bottle, into the bottom of her backpack before school. She would die if anyone saw her carrying a gym bag and asked, or more likely teased, her about it.

As she finally approached the changeroom door, she heard the unmistakable hum of gossip.

“Who invited her anyway? I know we’re trying to fill out the team, but we’re not that desperate.”

“I thought lesbians were into, like, softball, not cheer.”

“She probably just wants an excuse to grope our asses.”

“Better hurry up, we don’t want her watching us change.”

Emma opened the door, keeping her eyes firmly on the ground. The abrupt end to the chatter was deafening. She heard the other girls begin to file into the gym.

“See you out there, lesbo.”

She thinks it was Shelby who said it, but she wasn’t sure. She refused to look up, lest she get accused of being a predator.

As the changeroom emptied, she shuffled her way to the nearest wall and set her bag on an empty space on the bench. She began to take a few calming breaths, but tensed up as soon as she heard the door open, indicating someone entering from the gym.

“Hi.”

It was Alyssa. She turned and was met with her typical, glowing smile. Emma relaxed.

“Hi.”

“I just spoke with Coach McCalla. She said I can work with you one-on-one today while she runs practice. So I can show you the basics and you don’t get overwhelmed or injured or anything. Sound good?”

Emma was relieved she wouldn’t have to deal with the rest of the squad for now.

“Yeah. Sounds good.”

“Cool okay. Well, I’m gonna start warming up. Get changed and come grab me when you’re ready.”

“Okay.”

And with that, Emma was alone again. The thought of Alyssa's encouraging smile bolstered her as she quickly readied herself for one of the dumbest things she had ever agreed to. Still, maybe she could do this.

That brief feeling of confidence disappeared the second she stepped into the gymnasium. All the girls were in little pockets, stretching and chatting. She counted at least three in full on splits. She was so not cut out for this.

It wasn’t just her lack of ability that marked her as an outsider. She saw everyone was in skin tight workout clothes. Leggings, tank tops, and sports bras were on full display. Emma, on the other hand, was in a pair of baggy basketball shorts and a faded old T-shirt featuring a cartoon wheel of cheese exclaiming “Kiss My Dairy-ere” that she got on a trip to Wisconsin in junior high.

She searched for the one person in the room who didn’t hate her. Unfortunately, she locked eyes with Kaylee first, who was sitting with her legs spread wide in front of her, mirrored by Shelby. They were holding each other’s forearms, pulling in turns to deepen the stretch. She saw her sneer, say something, and snicker.

Alyssa, who was in some yoga pose next to them, straightened up, turned around, and jogged towards Emma with a gentle smile on her face.

She could feel every pair of eyes on her as Alyssa led her in some basic warmup stretches. Every so often, she would correct Emma’s form, lightly using her hands to reposition her body, and Emma thought she would probably combust any second now.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the coach called everyone in to start practice and the higher demand of focus diverted the attention away from her. Emma felt ever so slightly more comfortable as Alyssa walked her through the end of their warmup. She then demonstrated some simple jumps and poses, all while explaining the importance of a cheer team for the morale at a game and the competitions that the squad had in their own right. Emma didn’t understand much of the how, what, or why for any of it, but she could see how much pride the other girl took in this, so she tried her best to absorb the mountains of information.

“Okay, let’s start getting you comfortable with lifts and partnering for stunts. This is where those big muscles of yours are gonna come in handy.”

She reached out and squeezed Emma’s bicep, causing her mind to go blank for a second. She thought she might die on the spot.

Alyssa talked her through the drill. As the flyer, she would count out the timing and jump. As the base, Emma would briefly lift and lower her on the beat. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, standing behind the other girl and hovering her hands over her waist.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma tentatively went through the prep, raise, and lower motions as instructed. Alyssa spun to face her, beaming.

“That was a great first go. You’ve got a good feel for the timing of the takeoff. Now we just need to get that for the landing.”

She took Emma’s hands as she turned back around, placing them firmly above her hips. It took all her effort to keep her breathing steady and her focus on Alyssa’s words, not the contact of their skin or the muscular yet soft curve of her body.

“So, I give most of the power for takeoff, but once I’m in the air, you’re in control. It’s your job to slow my descent so I land safely and at the right time. When we get to more complicated moves it’s super important to get this right so no one gets hurt.”

She looked over her shoulder, but seemed unable to actually meet Emma’s eyes. Still, she sensed the need for reassurance.

“I know it’s a bit nerve wracking but we just need to trust each other. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Their eyes met for a second and Emma felt warmth rush over her. Alyssa turned back and counted out their cue. Emma held her in the air for a moment before gently placing her down. Alyssa nearly knocked her over with a hug.

“That was perfect! Okay, let’s do that a few more times to get it into muscle memory.”

The rest of the practice passed similarly, with Alyssa teaching Emma different drills, Emma stumbling through them, and Alyssa cheering her on with warm encouragement. Emma was able to keep her clumsy awkwardness at bay for most of the practice.

Most, not all.

Alyssa was teaching her a balance exercise while holding her leg above her head in a way that Emma couldn’t believe was humanly possible. She had tried to perform a modified version of the pose when she came crashing into Alyssa, basically tackling them both onto the mats.

They were a tangle of limbs and laughter. Somehow, Alyssa had landed on top of her.

Their faces were so close, Emma could feel the heavy breath on her face as they stared at each other. From this distance, she noticed so many features she hadn’t before. Like how Alyssa’s eyes, while a deep brown, had little flecks that were almost golden. How she smelled like lavender and mint and cinnamon. How she had a small beauty mark on her cheek near her chin that was maybe the cutest thing ever. She saw an expression she couldn’t decipher pass over Alyssa. If she didn’t know better, she thought it looked almost like the yearning she was trying to hide on her own face. But that was just a wishful fantasy.

Anyone who looked at Alyssa Greene could see she was a massive heterosexual.

Alyssa cleared her throat with a cough and climbed off of Emma, both of their cheeks turning deep pink.

“Sorry, are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

Emma felt so bad. She had probably made things super awkward by gawking at the other girl. She took the offered hand to help her to her feet.

“No, I’m okay. Don’t apologize, it was my fault anyway.”

She tried to focus as Alyssa led them through a cooldown, but her head wouldn’t stop spinning. She wished she could blame it on her head hitting the floor. She knew it hadn’t.

Chapter Text

Emma felt happy after practice, but she knew it was too good to last.

When they finished up, she and Alyssa hung back to help their coach put the gym back in order for classes the next morning. More than just being a teachers’ pet, Emma often used this tactic to avoid hordes of other students. She wasn’t sure if Alyssa realized this motive, but she enjoyed the company regardless. They talked about classes and clubs, family and friends, song writing and secret poetry.

It felt easy.

When they finally entered the changeroom, the last few squad members were packing up and leaving. Emma breathed a sigh of relief as she made her way to the cubby she’d claimed in the corner of the room. She was thankful to not have to worry about her gaze being scrutinized, she could just get changed and go home in peace.

However something, or rather its absence, caught her eye.

“Where’s my bag?” she asked the room. It was a pointless question. Alyssa was the only other one there and she had been at Emma’s side since she left the locker room for practice.

“It’s not where you left it? Maybe someone moved it because it was blocking their stuff,” Alyssa offered.

“Oh, I bet someone moved it,” Emma confirmed bitterly, “but I doubt that’s the reason.”

“You think someone stole it? We’ve never had an issue with stealing before.” There was a tone of anger growing in her voice.

“You’ve never had a lesbian try to join before either,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to accuse anyone of anything or get any pity. It’s just, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me.”

“Why are you saying sorry? I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at whoever took your shit. We have to go tell someone. We have to find out who did this. We have to get your stuff back.”

“I don’t want to make a big deal of it. It’s probably just hidden somewhere to stress me out.” Alyssa didn’t look convinced. Emma conceded slightly. “Let’s just do a search and if we can’t find it, then we can tell a teacher.”

Alyssa agreed and began scouring the room. The girls checked every cubby, got down on their hands and knees to look below the benches, and climbed up to see above the shelves. When those efforts were fruitless, they moved to the adjoining washroom. Emma opened the door to the first stall and froze.

Sitting in the toilet was her backpack, half submerged in the water. There was a note on top, fastened with one of the many pins that adorned her bag, but she couldn’t read it through the tears that filled her eyes.

Alyssa, who had started at the opposite end of the row, sensed the lack of movement and came to stand behind Emma.

“Oh my god,” she said when she saw, springing forward to yank the bag out of the water. She held it out, letting the excess water drip back into the bowl.

“What does the note say?” Emma asked, surprised she could get any words out.

Remember where you belong,” Alyssa read aloud. “What kind of ‘stick to the status quo’ bullshit? This isn’t High School Musical.”

Emma almost laughed, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t cry either. She just stood there. She saw Alyssa look back at her, place the soaked bag on the floor, and rush to pull her into a hug. She lifted her arms to hold onto this girl like she was a lifeline. The tears finally fell.

She thought she was done with all of this. Done with caring what the rest of the school thought about her. Done with the threats and destruction of her things. Done with crying in school bathrooms alone.

At least she wasn’t alone this time.

While she was comforted by the friendly presence, her face flushed at the thought of Alyssa witnessing her humiliation. It somehow made it feel so much worse. That people this cruel could exist in a world with a person so kind.

She worried that this would finally break the spell. That Alyssa would suddenly see her for what she truly was. A freak. A loser.

A liability.

What if other kids picked up on their friendship? If they finally saw that Alyssa didn’t just tolerate her because of seating charts or cheer squad numbers, but was actually her friend? Would they turn on her too? She couldn’t stomach the idea.

Emma loosened her grip and the girls pulled away.

“Okay, so tomorrow we go to Principal Hawkins to report this,” Alyssa spoke definitively. Panic set Emma’s heart racing again.

“No, it’s okay. My stuff wasn’t stolen. We found it. I don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it is.”

“This is a big deal, Emma. It’s fucked up.”

The indignation in her friend’s voice made her feel even more ashamed in her cowardice, but she knew that the school couldn’t help. They hadn’t been able to in the past. It could only make things worse.

“It’s fine, I’m used to it,” she replied, looking down at her shoes. She felt a firm hand on her shoulder as the other girl responded.

“You shouldn’t have to be.”

They stood for a moment before Emma could lift her eyes. Alyssa’s face was filled with more emotions than Emma knew was possible. Fury and comfort and sadness and steadiness.

And there was something else too. Something neither girl could name if asked. But there was connection there. Like how Emma could always track a stray yarn ball back to her Nana. It tugged at her gut and told her everything could be okay as long as they stayed here forever. As long as Alyssa kept looking at her like that.

But she wouldn’t, and they couldn’t, and dreaming of possibilities would only end in her getting hurt.

“I really don’t want to go through a whole process. They’ve made it very clear they don’t want me to join the squad, so I won’t, and everything will go back to normal.” Alyssa looked unconvinced, so she added a quiet, “Please?”

She sighed in response, choosing her words carefully.

“I don’t like this. But I respect that this is your decision. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to.”

She knew that Alyssa was champion of the debate team and had a charisma so effortless it had to be in her DNA. She rarely had trouble getting anyone to do what she wanted and having them think it was their idea. Emma wondered why she conceded so easily.

“Thank you,” was all she could say. She looked over at her bag, thinking of all the notes that were now destroyed.

“I have my hair dryer with me,” Alyssa offered, reading her mind. “Maybe we can save some of your things from too much damage.”

“That’d be good.”

They laid out the contents of her bag on the floor and began methodically blasting pages to dry them off. When Alyssa’s phone rang, she grimaced, turned off the blower, and answered.

“Hi Mom… I know I’m so sorry I kept you waiting… Well one of the girls had an accident— no not that kind of accident. A, um, leak. And I was helping her get cleaned up… Uh, just one of the new girls… Yeah, a freshman… Okay I’ll be right out… You too. Bye.”

She took a deep breath before turning back to Emma with an apologetic smile.

“That was my mom, I have to go. She’s kind of pissed.”

“It’s cool, I think we managed to dry most of it. We should probably get out of here anyway before they lock us in.”

The girls hurried their way out of the school, Alyssa meeting her mom out front and Emma slipping out one of the side doors to the street where her Nana picked her up.

Later that night, Emma received a message from Alyssa, checking in on her. She didn’t know what quite came over her, maybe it was the stress of the day or the fact that she hadn’t had anyone to talk to other than her Nan for so long, but she spilled her soul through long bursts of blue bubbles. She kept worrying she would scare the other girl off, but all she received back was support. Her heart lightened as she shared and reciprocated when it was Alyssa’s turn to vent over her supposed friends’ less than kind digs.

When it was far too late to get enough sleep for school the next day, the girls reluctantly signed off. Emma went to brush her teeth and returned to one last message on her phone.

It was a single red heart.

She tried to tamp down the fluttering in her chest. She knew straight girls were just normally this affectionate with their platonic friends. She sent a heart back and willed herself not to overthink it.

She was never very good at telling her emotions what to do.

Chapter Text

Emma ended her cheerleading career the day after her first practice. When she did, she was almost certain her friendship with Alyssa would end with it. Now that the popular girl finally saw her for the social pariah that she was, she couldn’t expect her to stick around.

It was therefore completely unexpected when Alyssa continued to text Emma. If anything, the incident had brought the girls closer. While their friendship grew stronger, it also changed in other ways.

As they spent more time together, Emma’s affections continued to grow. She cherished their friendship as it was, she didn’t need anything more than platonic love. But her heart still fluttered at every touch of their hands, every catch of their gazes, every secret shared with none other. Once or twice, she even thought her feelings could be reciprocated, but she shut down those thoughts quickly. Their friendship was already so improbable, a relationship was impossible. And anyway, Emma cared too much about their friendship to ruin it by scaring off the straight girl.

Emma learned that, despite her confident mask, Alyssa was also incredibly insecure. She confided her worries in Emma. That people only liked her for what she did for them, not who she was. That she’d never be able to live up to the expectations of her mother or herself. That if she wasn’t popular, the town gossips would turn nasty about her parents’ recent split. She was hyper-aware of her precarious safety in the school food chain. Still, while both girls knew their association could take Alyssa down, neither could bring herself to end the clandestine friendship. They just got more creative.

Over the following weeks, they found all the locations where none of their classmates were likely to spot them, like the park with the jungle gym that had been broken since they were little. They spent a lot of time at Emma’s house, Nana Betsy quickly adopting Alyssa as she had with her granddaughter before. Today, they had met under the bleachers.

The afternoon autumn chill was setting in as they sat, hidden from view, on the grass under the football field’s metal seats. Principal Hawkins had cancelled Alyssa’s usual student council meeting for a personal emergency. This earned her two whole hours of time to hangout with Emma where she didn’t need to come up with an elaborate excuse for her whereabouts to appease her mom or her friends.

“They’re out shopping for homecoming dresses, but I don’t know if I’m even gonna go this year.”

Emma had never been to a homecoming dance but was not totally unaware of the appeal.

“Why not?”

“Kaylee and Shelby keep trying to set me up to go with Brett.”

Emma’s chest panged with envy.

“And you don’t like Brett?”

“He’s fine. I’d just rather go as a group of friends like we did last year. Instead, they’ve decided we all need dates for pictures, and I’d rather not have to make stilted small talk all night while wondering when he’s gonna try to make a pass at me.”

Emma let herself imagine, for a brief moment, what it would be like if she took Alyssa to the dance. Surely it wouldn’t be like she described. In a perfect world it could be fun, maybe even romantic.

“So, there’s no one you’d want to be your date?”

Alyssa hesitated, seeming to choose her words carefully.

“Well, I didn’t say that.”

All she could say was, “oh?” Her heart sank at the thought of there being an actual person who held the affections this amazing girl. She wished she could be that worthy.

“I mean, it’s not like I could go with the person I want anyway,” Alyssa rushed to add.

Emma didn’t want to know more. She knew hearing about her crush’s crush would hurt so much. But she couldn’t stop herself.

“What’s he like then?”

Alyssa paused, staring at her shoes. It felt like an age before she spoke.

“You’re just gonna assume they’re a ‘he’?”

Emma’s breath caught. It was silent, and yet the pounding of her heart was so distracting. She couldn’t tear her eyes from the other girl’s face.

“Are they not a boy?”

“Um…”

Alyssa trailed off. Her hands fiddled with her skirt, and she looked down at the yellowing grass between them. Emma wondered if that space was smaller than it used to be. It felt like it was. She wanted to get closer to the words and the girl who had spoken them.

“Would you go out with someone who wasn’t a boy?”

Alyssa’s eyes had gone to her shoes. She let one shuffle ever so slightly into the gap.

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

Emma’s converse tentatively mimicked, bringing them even closer, but still with plenty of opportunity to let the other girl play it off or run away.

“Would you kiss someone who wasn’t a boy?”

Alyssa’s gaze was now up, staring in front of her. She moved her left hand out of her lap and let it rest between them. She spoke slowly, as if a secret message could be passed in the space between her words.

“I don’t know.”

Emma placed her hand down, close but unable to surmount that last half of an inch. She examined the face of the girl beside her, trying not to let her optimism or pessimism colour what she so desperately wanted to be true. She felt a light graze on her pinky finger.

“Would you kiss me?”

Alyssa looked at Emma. Her face held fear, but also hope. Despite nerves, she seemed sure of her answer.

“Yeah.”

The word hung in the air for a moment before both girls began to slowly lean in. Emma closed her eyes as she felt her lips lightly brush up against the other girl’s. She briefly held still, wanting to sink into the moment, but worried she was being weird. She rested back on one hand, breaking the kiss but not moving her face too far away. She watched Alyssa’s eyes flutter open and tried to decipher her thoughts.

Their eyes met and she felt the stare in her entire body.

Alyssa reached forward, placing her hand on Emma’s cheek, and they pulled together for another kiss. This one was different, much less tentative than before. Emma’s hands found the other girl’s back and held on for dear life. She felt tingles as Alyssa’s hand moved from her cheek to her neck to her hair. It felt like stardust was being traced on her skin. Emma had never kissed anyone before and didn’t even know if she was doing it right, but if Alyssa felt even half of what she did, she must be doing okay. 

Alyssa’s phone began buzzing and the girls sprang apart, despite the fact that the person interrupting could not actually see them. She looked at her phone and grimaced.

“It’s my mom.”

Nothing more needed to be said as she stood and stepped away to answer it.

Her brain was buzzing. She, Emma Nolan, had just kissed Alyssa Greene. It didn’t feel real that Alyssa could like her back in the same way. She wondered if maybe this was actually too good to be true. Maybe this was a giant misunderstanding and she had just ruined her only friendship by misreading signals.

She anxiously looked to Alyssa, who was still on the phone. Her voice hid irritation well to anyone who wasn’t paying attention, but Emma could tell she was stressing out. This was all her fault.

“… I didn’t want to bother you. I just figured I’d study until it was our usual time… Okay… Yes, of course… See you soon.” Alyssa hung up and turned back to Emma. “That was my mom. She heard my council meeting was cancelled so she’s coming to get me early.”

There was a nervous look on her face. Regret? Emma stood abruptly, smacking her head on the bottom of the sloping seats above them.

“Shit!” Emma burst out, “I’m so sorry.”

“Are you apologizing to me for hitting your head?” Alyssa asked, a smirk gracing her perfect lips.

“I’m sorry for kissing you.” Emma didn’t notice Alyssa’s face fall as she continued rambling. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sure you just said yes because you were trying to be nice, and I put you on the spot. And now I’ve made it all awkward and you probably hate me and think I’m some gross predator. But I swear I will never do anything like that ever again. I hope you can forgive me for being so stupid. I just can’t lose your friendship.”

“Emma.” Alyssa cut in when the other girl finally breathed. She took a step closer. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you for so long. I was afraid of how I felt for almost as long, but there’s nothing gross about it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you and your smile and your perfect heart. I like you so much and despite everything I’ve been taught, I don’t see how anything can be wrong with that.”

Emma responded with a cautious smile.

“You like me?”

“Yes! Wasn’t that obvious?”

Both girls bubbled up with joy. Emma couldn’t keep the smile off her face

“I kinda want to kiss you again.”

“Okay,” was all Alyssa said as she closed the gap between them.

They held each other, heart-to-heart, kissing softly, but no longer cautiously. It almost pained them both when Alyssa forced herself to step away.

“I really do have to go meet my mom or she’s gonna freak. Can I text you later? Maybe come over this weekend?”

“Absolutely.”

They were both unable to contain their smiles. Alyssa took a step away but was stopped by a tug from the hand she hadn’t let go of. Emma spun her back around and left a soft peck on her lips.

“Okay, go. Can’t have you getting grounded.”

Alyssa laughed and finally exited the cover of the bleachers. Emma waited a few minutes before she stepped out to make her way home.

She noticed a light drizzle beginning to come down from the grey above, but it didn’t bother her. She held all the sunshine in the world inside her chest, there was none left for the sky.

Chapter Text

Emma Nolan had dreamed of this moment for so long and now it was finally here. She was standing with her girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, and they didn’t have to hide. Their arms were around each other, swaying and spinning slowly. It was even better than she could have hoped, because she was surrounded by kids who were just like her, unruly hearts and all.

She let the music playing over the speakers guide her gently moving body. Her extremely brief stint with cheerleading had not improved her gracefulness, but at least she had the musical ability to keep time.

The song spoke of falling in love in a way that resonated in Emma’s soul. How one person could take a sad, grey life and colour it with a rainbow of love. Every time she looked at Alyssa she felt darkness seep out of her, only leaving space for her smile.

Emma leaned in to tell her girlfriend that she loved her. Alyssa responded the same and kissed her. She felt warmth spark like it did every time, even after so long since their first.

The song ended and an upbeat tune took its place. It was cover of a song Emma would typically hear on the oldies station her Nana loved, but the pronouns were changed to make it queer. The girls smiled and laughed and danced the night away.

Colours covered Emma’s world.