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Natural Attraction

Chapter Text

The first thing Debbie learns after the heist is just how lonely New York can feel.

“You’ll barely notice I’m gone,” Lou had said, slinging a bag over her shoulder. “This is NYC, baby. Everything you could possibly want is already here.”

Except you, Debbie didn’t say. “Be safe,” she’d replied instead.

Lou gave her a fond look. “You too. Remember what we agreed?”

“No contact with Daphne at all, and no direct or written contact with you or any of the others for three months,” Debbie recited. “Phone calls only, and no Toussaint talk. I know.”

“And?”

Debbie affected a quizzical expression that didn’t fool Lou for a second.

“What else, Deborah?”

Shoulders slumping, Debbie expelled an aggrieved sigh. “No stealing shit,” she grumbled.

“No stealing shit,” Lou repeated. “Stay out of jail. I expect you to be here when I get back.”

“Which will be…?”

For weeks, Debbie had been trying to wheedle an estimated time of return out of Lou, but the question was always deferred. This time, Lou pursed her lips and said apologetically, “No fewer than ninety days.”

“Okay,” Debbie mumbled, feeling small and sad and pathetic. She folded her arms around herself.

“C’mere, jailbird.” Lou didn’t give hugs often, but when she did, they were very good. Debbie melted into it, buried her face in Lou’s neck, tried to think of a way to get her to stay. There wasn’t one, of course – not one that would be fair to Lou, and not one that would ensure Debbie’s continued emancipation. But she tried anyway.

“I’ll miss you,” she said into Lou’s shoulder.

Lou squeezed her close once more, then let her go and stepped back. “I’ve got to get on the road,” she told Debbie. “I’ll see you around.”

The door clicked shut behind her, and Debbie crawled onto the couch.

The first two weeks passed in a haze of binge-watching Netflix and eating takeout Chinese and sneaking into Lou’s bed to “sleep,” which usually involved dicking around on her phone for a while and then going downstairs to watch more Netflix before passing out in the living room for three or four hours. Debbie was well-acquainted with the “heist hangover” phenomenon, but this was worse than the worst one she’d ever had; far worse than her worst actual hangover; definitely worse than her worst breakup. It wasn’t, at least, worse than prison – but it was close.

Fifteen days in, Tammy called when Debbie was several glasses of whiskey deep and snacking on old Halloween candy. “Are you eating your vegetables?” she wanted to know.

“Yes, mother,” Debbie said, unwrapping a Tootsie roll one-handed.

“I don’t believe you, but whatever. Have you heard from Lou?”

“No,” Debbie mumbled, shoving the Tootsie roll savagely into her mouth. “You know she hates phone calls. Why, have you?”

“She texted the other day to – to say hi.”

It suddenly seemed deeply unfair to Debbie that everyone but the felons in the group (i.e., her) could text each other. She distracted herself by seizing on Tammy’s stutter. “What did she actually text you about?”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Did she ask you to check up on me?”

More silence.

“Fuck her, and fuck you,” Debbie snarled, hanging up and throwing the phone to the other side of the couch.

The next day, Debbie woke up with a splitting headache. She dragged herself off the couch anyway, chugged three glasses of water, and went on a run. She called Tammy back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was… not sober.”

“Oh, Deb,” Tammy sighed, in her usual mom-like way that Debbie both loathed and appreciated. “I really hope you’re taking care of yourself.”

“I am. I mean, I wasn’t, but I will. Starting now.”

For the next four weeks, Debbie did a lot of yoga. She ate at least one salad per week, and even cooked a couple of simple meals (all with very specific instructions from Tammy over the phone, but still). She called Lou several times, and wasn’t surprised to get her voicemail all but one of those times, and was shocked when Lou did pick up and talked to her for seven whole minutes before making an excuse about needing to go get food before the only restaurant nearby closed. It was almost midnight in New York, and Lou was in some rinky-dink town just outside of Yosemite, so her story was plausible.

“I wish –“ Lou started to say, just before she hung up.

“What?” Debbie prompted, when Lou didn’t finish her thought.

“Nothing,” Lou mumbled. “I was just thinking – it would be fun to do a trip like this together sometime.”

If Debbie hadn’t already been sitting down, she would have fallen over.

“But parole’s a bitch,” Lou continued, sighing dramatically. “Anyway. Hope you’re good. Bye, Deb.”

That night, for the first time, Debbie managed to hold a handstand for more than ten seconds.

For the next five weeks, Debbie started working through Lou’s extensive book collection, when she wasn’t busy attending classes at the bougie gym a few blocks away. She sought out tattered volumes with worn spines and devoured them, keeping an eye out for the rare but always delightful instances of annotation by Lou. As in all things, Lou’s taste was eclectic, but Debbie liked most of what she read, and made sure to set aside the ones she wanted to discuss.

After a Pilates class during week eleven, one of the other students – a tall, rugged fellow who was Debbie’s type in every way except the man bun – sidled up to her and struck up a conversation. She indulged him as she gathered her things. He was funny, sort of, and toed the line between confident and conceited in that way she usually enjoyed, but when he smoothly extended the invitation for a drink sometime, Debbie said no.

“No?” he repeated blankly, as though he’d never heard the word in his life.

Debbie rolled her eyes. “I’m not interested,” she said. “But have a good day.”

She told Amita about it on the phone later that week, and Amita squealed in all the right places, and groaned when Debbie reached the punchline. “Why?” she demanded to know. “He sounds so hot! And you’re, you know, lonely…”

“Hey! Who says I’m lonely?”

“…Tammy,” Amita admitted. “And Lou didn’t say it, but she texted me the other week asking how you’re doing, so I assume she’s worried about you too.”

“Well,” Debbie huffed, not quite sure who to start in on first.

“But I guess – I don’t know, is Lou the reason you said no?” Amita offered, before Debbie could say anything else.

“No,” Debbie snapped. Then, softer: “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Have you two been talking much?”

Debbie slumped back on the couch, snagged a Tootsie roll from the bag on the table. “Lou hates talking on the phone.”

“What about FaceTime? Does that work any better?”

“Face what?”

“Oh, Debbie,” Amita sighed, in her usual kid sister way that always made Debbie feel like a dinosaur, and not a person who had been incarcerated for over half a decade and therefore had an extremely valid reason for missing out on any number of major technological developments. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do…”

Now, eleven and a half weeks in, Debbie has managed to resist temptation for four full days, but can’t help herself after polishing off a bottle of wine. She pulls up Lou’s contact and taps the little video icon under her name. The phone vibrates with that strange, echoing buzz for almost a minute before – wonder of wonders – an anemic chiming sound signals that Lou has answered. The connection isn’t great, and Lou’s face swims into view as a mess of pixels, but the sight of her is so relieving that Debbie almost bursts into tears.

“Deb?” Lou asks worriedly, forehead creasing. “Is everything okay?”

“Hey,” Debbie croaks. “Everything’s fine. I just wanted to talk to you, and I thought video might be better than audio.”

Lou’s smile is blurry but genuine. “It is,” she affirms. “I like being able to see you.”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Debbie says. To her horror, a choked sob forces its way out of her throat without her permission. “Sorry, I just – I wish I could be on the road with you. I miss you.”

Lou sighs and nods. “I know,” she replies.

“It just sucks,” Debbie continues, the words spilling out of her unchecked. “I felt like – during the job, we were together all the time, but it was never just us, you know? Lou and Debbie. And then, as soon as everything was done, you left. And I know it was to make sure we didn’t get caught, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect you to stick around and babysit me just because I can’t travel like you can – and I mean, even if I could, there’s no reason to expect that you would take me along – but I just hate being trapped in this damn state, and I hate not being with you, and I wish–”

Mercifully, Lou interrupts her rambling before she can embarrass herself further. “Debbie, I’m on my way home.”

“–I just wish that – wait, what?”

Blurry Lou nods in the affirmative. “I’m in Colorado. It should take me three or so days to get back from here, barring any weather issues.”

“Oh.”

“No fewer than ninety days. No more, either.”

Debbie drops her forehead onto her knees. “You fucking asshole,” she groans.

“It’s so nice to be missed,” Lou says, sounding very pleased with herself.

“Forget everything I said. I’m changing the locks. You’re dead to me.”

“Don’t be too hasty,” Lou warns her. “I have a surprise for you.”

Debbie scowls at the screen. “Is it my self-respect? Can you get that back?”

“Even better,” Lou promises. “I’m still working on it, but it’ll be ready when I get there.”

“Okay. Get here soon.”

“Night, Deb.”

That night, Debbie holds a handstand for a full minute and a half.

Chapter Text

Lou drags herself through the door just after midnight on a Sunday. She’s moving stiffly – Debbie knows she must have ridden long days to get back by her self-imposed deadline, especially if she was using back roads – but when she sees Debbie, her whole face lights up.

“Hey stranger,” Debbie says, unfolding herself from the couch and leaving a well-loved copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas behind. “Welcome home.”

Lou dumps her bag on the floor and collapses into a chair at the kitchen table. “God, it’s good to be back,” she groans. Debbie moves to walk past her, intending to grab a couple beers from the fridge, but finds herself being pulled onto Lou’s lap and folded into a sweet (if slightly awkward) embrace. “S’good to see you,” Lou mumbles into her shoulder.

Debbie runs her hands through Lou’s hair, which is matted and flat from her helmet, and then smooths her hands down over Lou’s shoulders, pressing hard into the muscles she knows must be tight and sore from overuse. Sure enough, Lou moans helplessly, pressing her forehead into Debbie’s sternum. Debbie swallows and tries not to squirm, but it’s no easy task with Lou making those noises. “Let me get you a drink,” she offers, giving Lou’s neck one final squeeze and sliding to the ground.

Lou gives her a bleary smile, already looking much more relaxed, and remarks, “You’re being very nice to me.”

“Maybe I’m just buttering you up so you’ll tell me what my surprise is.” Debbie sets an IPA in front of Lou and takes a swig of the porter she selected for herself. “Any hints?”

Lou narrows her eyes playfully. “You don’t waste any time,” she teases. “Isn’t the joy of my company enough for you? I seem to remember you saying something about how much you hated not being with me…”

“Goddammit,” Debbie growls. “What are the chances you’ll ever let me live that down?”

“Slim to none,” Lou replies, sipping her beer. “But to your original question, no, no hints. You’ll know by tomorrow.”

Debbie fixes Lou with a halfhearted glare. Lou gazes back serenely. “Fine,” Debbie grumbles. “Why don’t you tell me about your trip, instead?”

Two hours and six beers later, Lou looks about ready to pass out where she sits. She says as much. “No way,” Debbie insists, holding her hand out and tugging a very reluctant Lou to her feet. “C’mon, you’ll feel so much better in your bed.”

Lou leans on her heavily as they climb the stairs. “You’re so fit,” she mumbles, gripping Debbie’s waist. “Have you been working out?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Debbie says. “I’m practically a Barre instructor at this point.”

“Well, you look hot,” Lou slurs. Debbie pushes open Lou’s bedroom door and propels her toward the mattress. She collapses onto it facedown. “I’d hit that,” she adds, speaking mostly into her pillow.

“You are welcome to hit this any time,” Debbie tells her, emboldened by Lou’s near-catatonia. She tugs at the covers trapped under Lou’s legs. “Provided you can stay awake for it.”

“Mmkay,” Lou murmurs, shifting obligingly as Debbie tucks her in. “S’good.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” Debbie says, kissing Lou’s forehead. “Sleep tight.”

The only response she gets is a gentle snore.

 

Lou sleeps in the next day and sneaks out of the house while Debbie is at the grocery store, presumably to work on her surprise. When she returns, Debbie is three quarters of the way through a fast-paced Vinyasa flow in their living room, dripping sweat on the mat and trying without success to regulate her breathing. Lou stops in her tracks, shopping bags still hung over her elbows, and stares.

“Fifteen more minutes,” Debbie grunts, dropping into Chaturanga and pushing smoothly to Upward-facing Dog.

“Uh, yeah, okay, cool,” Lou replies, sounding a little flustered. Debbie hides her smirk with an extra breath in Downward-facing Dog.

The fact that they’ve never fucked is truly a miracle, she reflects at the end of her practice, laying flat on her back on the mat. That, or a crime against humanity, depending on how you look at it. In all their pre-heist jitters and post-heist highs and non-heist-related binges, with all their chemistry and all their obvious mutual attraction, one would think… but no. Debbie breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth. Thinks about the way Lou couldn’t seem to look away from her the first time they met, and so many other times since. Pictures Lou naked and panting underneath her. Wonders for the millionth time why the hell they’ve never been able to go there with each other.

Her phone chimes, signaling the end of her meditation, and she sits up. Lou is sprawled on the couch across from her, reading a magazine (or at least pretending to). Her usual cool self-possession has mostly returned, but she still looks a little flushed around the collar. “Namaste,” Debbie coos.

“You’re good at that,” Lou observes. “Been practicing?”

Debbie shrugs and adjusts the strap of her sports bra. “Needed to fill my time somehow,” she replies. “And I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of my friends, so…”

Lou ducks her head. “You must have been really lonely,” she mumbles.

“I was,” Debbie says. She doesn’t see any point in lying. “But, you know, I got through it.”

“I’m really sorry I didn’t call more.”

Debbie waves her away, shifting off her mat and starting to roll it up. “I know how you feel about all that. Besides, I didn’t want to interrupt your solo time.”

“Solo time might be overrated, I’ve decided,” Lou says. “I wasn’t kidding when I said it would be more fun to do that trip with you.” She clears her throat again and reaches behind the couch for something, then adds: “That’s why I’ve decided to take you with me this time.”

Debbie looks over sharply. Lou holds out a bag. “I know you can’t leave New York, at least not until things cool down a bit,” she continues. “But it turns out this is a pretty big state, and there are some nice places to go, especially if you have the appropriate gear.”

“Gear?” Debbie repeats, taking the bag from Lou and peering inside. It’s a brand new pair of hiking boots. She lifts them out to get a closer look.

“I’m not suggesting a big trek or anything,” Lou hurries to clarify. “I know neither of us has a particular affinity for the great outdoors. But I figured it might be nice to get out of the city, head north, spend a few days in the Adirondacks. Just the two of us, you know? Like you said. I found a cabin on a lake up there, and it’s pretty remote but it looks really nice, and I thought a change of scenery could be good for both of us. Plus, I know your family –“

“My family used to vacation up there,” Debbie interjects. “We went whenever things were getting too hot for my parents in the city. Danny and I loved it.”

 “Yeah, I remember the stories,” Lou replies with a tiny, hopeful smile. “That’s what gave me the idea.”

Debbie looks down at the boots she’s cradling. They’re leather, good quality – more utilitarian than her usual footwear, but no less well-made. She wants to say something – to tell Lou that this is the sweetest surprise she can imagine, that she can’t believe Lou remembered, that no one has ever made her feel so special – but she feels overwhelmed and shy, and so instead she nudges her half-rolled yoga mat into the corner and, impulsively, slides her bare feet into the new shoes. “When do we leave?”

 

They’re on their way in under an hours, rolling through backroads wilderness in less than five. Debbie clings tight to Lou’s waist as the bike roars around tight turns and over steep climbs. Every twenty minutes, the trees break open to reveal a new vista – gorgeous lakes sparkling in the sun, mossy clearings lined with ferns, picturesque cabins nestled together in small clusters. The scenery feels surprisingly familiar, given that Debbie hasn’t been here for nearly thirty years, and yet somehow completely new.

The Oceans’ car rides up to the Adirondacks always started tense – Debbie and Danny crushed in the backseat with swim towels and other haphazardly packed outdoor gear, their parents tense and quiet in the front; a parody of a happy family vacation. Usually, there was a reason for their departure – a job gone bad, an important associate arrested, a close call with law enforcement – and Debbie could always feel that reason chasing after them, clinging to the windows of their vehicle and blocking out the light. But as the scenery disappeared past their car windows, Debbie remembers, so too did the gritted teeth and the bickering and the worry, and by the time they reached the lake, their happiness almost felt real.

She feels that same stripping away now, all her fear of being caught and the loneliness of the last three months falling to the wayside with the wind whipping past them. She grips Lou tighter, wishing she could to tell her what a gift this is. Lou slows as though she can hear what Debbie’s thinking, but doesn’t stop; instead, she turns, guiding the bike onto a dirt road and expertly steering them through a maze of rocks and potholes.

After about fifteen minutes, Debbie sees a red roof come into view, and then the rest of a tiny, beautiful cabin nestled within a stand of huge, old-growth trees. She gasps; hugs Lou’s waist even tighter as Lou guides the bike down the gentle slope of the driveway and kills the engine. They remove their helmets, and Lou glances over her shoulder. “What do you think?”

Debbie doesn’t move to get off the bike. “Lou,” she whispers, completely enchanted. “This is unreal.”

Lou laughs. “C’mon, you haven’t even seen the inside.”

They leave the bike under a small overhang and Lou unlocks the back door with a key extracted from beneath the faded welcome mat. The door leads directly into a sweet, sunny kitchen, separated from the rest of the living space by a short counter. The wood-paneled walls are mostly bare save for a striking painting of a heron in flight; two pairs of binoculars are nested together in the middle of the coffee table like a centerpiece. Behind the couch, a ladder leads up to a partially enclosed loft.

“It’s a one-bedroom,” Lou says, rummaging through some papers on the counter. “But the renter assures me the couch is very comfortable, so you can take the bed if you want.”

Debbie gives her an incredulous look. “Don’t be stupid,” she scoffs.

Lou shrugs, but Debbie can see that she’s pleased. “There were some tradeoffs involved in finding a place this far out of the way,” she explains unnecessarily. “Everything fills up so fast in the summer here.”

“Lou, I don’t mind,” Debbie insists. “I love it.”

“There’s a great view of the lake,” Lou continues, now in full real estate mode. Debbie almost rolls her eyes, but decides that if Lou is so intent on selling her on the place, she won’t interfere. They walk over to the glass sliding doors that separate the living room from the small deck and look out over the quiet cove. “There are kayaks down by the water,” Lou adds. “And I think that little outbuilding over there is a sauna. There probably isn’t enough space with all these trees to make any additions to this structure, but the lot is big enough for a separate guest house.”

Debbie eyes Lou sideways. “Thinking of making a more permanent investment?” she asks.

Lou smiles enigmatically. “We’ll see,” she murmurs, more to herself than to Debbie, before slinging her arm around Debbie’s shoulders. “Have to occupy the next three years somehow, jailbird. And it just so happens that I recently came into some money…”

Debbie pinches her hip; Lou yelps, but doesn’t try to wriggle away. She stays pressed against Debbie’s side, solid and warm. “I’d have to go down to the city once a week to meet with my parole officer,” Debbie warns.

“I’ll need to check up on the club, so it works out,” Lou replies, not missing a beat.

“What about your place in the city?”

“I could sublet to one of the girls,” Lou muses. “Or just leave it. Not like we need the rent money.”

“Is the owner of this place even selling?” Debbie asks, turning to face Lou directly and looping her arms around Lou’s waist.

The gleam in Lou’s eyes is more attractive than it has any right to be. “When she hears what I’m offering, she will be.” She catches Debbie’s eye and winks. “But don’t worry, city girl, this is just a trial run.”

“Oh, okay then, city girl,” Debbie pinches Lou again and gets another shriek for her trouble. “Do you want to go hunt for our dinner, or should I?”

“I’m an excellent shot, I’ll have you know,” Lou responds, grabbing Debbie’s wrists and pinning them behind her. “But now that you mention it, I should probably take a trip to the grocery store sooner rather than later.”

Debbie struggles halfheartedly against Lou’s grip but gives up after a moment, mashing her face into Lou’s neck. Lou’s collarbone is sharp against the bridge of her nose, her chest rising and falling steadily below Debbie’s chin. She tightens her arms around Debbie so that their bodies are flush against each other. Debbie opens her mouth, thinks about biting and licking and sucking and seeing what happens, and instead says, “Get that wine I like.”

“Bossy,” Lou complains. Debbie can feel her shifting her weight from foot to foot; knows she’s turned on, too. Their yearning for each other fills the room like a sudden blast of hot air. They don’t usually let it get this far, and Debbie wonders if, finally, maybe – but then Lou steps back, cuffs her awkwardly and affectionately on the ear, dons the leather jacket she’d dropped carelessly over an armchair. “I’ll be back in a bit,” she promises.

“I’m expecting premium Adirondack venison,” Debbie replies, wiping her palms on her thighs. A swim in the lake would be nice right now. “Bag me a buck, baby.”

“You got it.” Lou winks, and is gone.

 

Being alone in the cabin, Debbie finds, is much less overwhelming than being alone in the loft. She’d thought she’d had her fill of small spaces after prison, but evidently not. Even when she hauls their bags up to the bedroom, she finds a light, surprisingly airy space, furnished sparsely but tastefully with an oak dresser, a wicker chair, and a low bed covered in a gorgeous, blue-patterned quilt. The roof is high enough that she can stand fully upright in the middle of the room – far from the claustrophobic crawlspace she’d expected.

Trying to avoid the temptation of a nap, Debbie sets to work putting away her clothes in drawers, then does the same for Lou’s belongings, amazed at the economy with which Lou has managed to pack for this trip. There’s no animal print or velvet in sight (with the exception of one outrageous thong, which features both), and only a small handful of jewelry. Then again, she has limited her own luxury to sleepwear, and there is an unprecedented dearth of designer labels lining her side of the dresser.

Such fucking lesbians, she imagines Lou muttering.

Inspired by that thought, she reaches back into her drawer and draws out a worn flannel – unearthed from a box buried deep in her closet in the loft – and pulls it on over her t-shirt. She grabs the Annie Dillard book she’d brought along at Lou’s suggestion, heads downstairs, and collapses on the couch.

She hasn’t moved from that spot an hour or so later when Lou shoulders her way through the door, carrying two plastic sacks. Debbie moves to stand and help her put groceries away, but Lou waves her back onto the couch without looking up. “I’ve just got one more load,” she says, and disappears back through the door.

Debbie half-listens as Lou comes back inside, kicks the door shut, and sets the provisions down on the counter, unloading various items into the refrigerator and cabinets. Only when the rustling of bags stops abruptly does Debbie look up from her book. Lou is staring at her, seemingly mystified. “What?” Debbie asks.

Lou shakes her head and grins. “Sorry,” she replies. “For a moment, I thought the Ghost of College Girlfriends Past had showed up on my couch.”

Debbie looks down at herself and raises an eyebrow. “Really? I thought your tastes ran more toward sorority babe than dirty hippie back in the day.”

“Angela was a very clean hippie, thank you very much,” Lou responds, starting to place cans in the cupboards again. “And I’ll have you know that my tastes have always been very diverse and cosmopolitan, even ‘back in the day.’”

“Oh, sure,” Debbie says dryly. “’Diverse and cosmopolitan’ is exactly how I would describe that rotating cast of hot brunettes who drank all my wine coolers in the ‘90s.”

“Well, that’s on you for drinking wine coolers,” Lou sasses. She opens the fridge and leans down to put away something green and leafy. “Anyway, there’s only one hot brunette in my life now.”

It’s not one of Lou’s better lines, but Debbie feels her cheeks go red anyway. “Daphne, you mean?” she asks, keeping her voice light.

Lou stands up again, a pensive expression on her face. “Good point,” she says, straight-faced, after some consideration. “Two hot brunettes.”

Debbie scowls, but Lou just laughs and brandishes a packet of meat. “You okay with steak for tonight?”

“That sounds divine.” Debbie stands up and stretches. “Did you get that wine I like?”

Lou pulls two bottles out of the last bag and shows them to her. “Want to open it up for us?” she suggests.

Debbie is already getting the corkscrew out. She gives them both a healthy pour, then lifts herself onto the counter. “So, sneaky girl,” she says, kicking her heels against the cabinets below her and taking a sip of her favorite Malbec. “Tell me more about how you plotted this little getaway.”

Lou obliges, describing the moment that initially sparked the idea – browsing a thrift store in San Diego for vintage items; coming across a ragged-looking memoir in their book crate; flipping idly through the first few pages and then camping on the linoleum floor for the next two hours, unable to tear herself away from the story of a fierce, determined woman living on her own in the wilderness of upstate New York – as she prepares their food.

“Do you think you could do that?” Debbie asks. “Live up here, all alone?”

Lou gives it some thought, tapping her fingers on the counter. She slides her spatula under one of the steaks and flips it. “I don’t know,” she muses. “This lady, she was doing it when this whole area was still completely isolated. If something bad happened, you were really fucked. I don’t think I’d have the skill for it, honestly – all that survival shit.”

“And now?”

Lou flips the other steak, adjusts the temperature of the stove. She shrugs. “I could,” she says. “But realistically, I probably wouldn’t want to.”

She peers at Debbie through her fringe – not coy, just bashful – and Debbie feels another flare of desire so strong that she sways forward, her upper body pitching toward Lou like a ship in a storm. Lou, already turning to dress the salad she’s put together, doesn’t notice. “We should be about ready,” she tells Debbie. “Want to set the table?”

Debbie slides down to the floor, but can’t resist wrapping her arms around Lou’s waist and squeezing before turning to the silverware drawer.

“What was that for?” Lou asks.

“No reason,” Debbie replies, folding two squares of paper towel into napkins. “I’m just happy to be here. With you.”

Lou can’t shake her shy, sweet smile for the rest of their meal.

 

By the time dinner is over, the sun has set and Lou is drooping. “I don’t know why I’m so tired,” she complains, standing to carry their dishes to the sink. “I slept so late today.”

“I don’t think one night of rest is enough to make up for three and a half back-to-back days of being on the road,” Debbie reminds her. “And stop that. You made dinner, I’ll clean up.”

It is a sign of how exhausted Lou must be that she doesn’t protest, just hands Debbie the plates and drains the rest of her wine. “You mind if I go brush my teeth?” she asks.

“Of course not,” Debbie insists, turning on the tap. She listens to Lou pad away, smiling to herself. The domestic routine isn’t new for them, not after being roommates on and off for the better part of two decades, and it feels good to sink back into it – for Lou to cook and for her to wash up and for the two of them to dance around each other in a tiny kitchen, trying not to spill wine or hot food on each other. It’s like their old apartments – those shoeboxes in Brooklyn and Queens where they paid rent with small cons and avoided their neighbors at all costs and stayed alive on ramen, which Lou always did her best to fancy up with frozen vegetables and exotic spices.

That’s why, she realizes, the cabin feels so good – homey, not claustrophobic. It feels familiar; has that same incredible sense of nearness they shared for so long until they started making enough money to move into places with more than one bedroom. And for the thousandth time that day, she feels overwhelmed by gratitude – for Lou, for her sweetness, for the life they’ve lived together.

By the time she’s finished with the dishes, Lou has already dragged herself up to the loft. Debbie takes her time brushing her teeth and washing her face before heading up herself. The lamp is on upstairs, but Lou is dead to the world, laying on her side and breathing deeply. Debbie isn’t particularly tired, but she crawls into bed anyway, turns off the lights, and curls herself around Lou’s body. She stays awake for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

When Debbie wakes up the next morning, the other side of the bed is empty. Lou is nowhere to be found downstairs either, but there’s fresh coffee brewing on the counter, and Debbie makes a beeline for it. Lou, sainted angel that she is, thought to bring a bag of Stumptown beans and a hand-grinder with them from the city, and the rich, caramel smell wafting up from the carafe is divine.

Debbie is helping herself to a second cube of brown sugar when a flash of movement catches her eye through the window over the kitchen sink. Cradling the mug in her hands, she leans against the counter and watches as Lou’s lithe form darts down the path from the road to the lake. Apart from a dark patch of sweat where her shirt clings to her lower back, she looks as fresh as though she just started out, bounding through the woods with long, confident strides.

At the water’s edge, Lou slows to a halt, shaking out her limbs and lifting up the hem of her shirt to wipe her forehead. She glances up at the house and grins when she catches sight of Debbie in the window. Debbie unwraps her fingers from her coffee mug and offers a little wave; Lou blows her a cheeky kiss, and then turns and springs onto the dock.

As she saunters across the weathered wooden planks, Lou sheds her running clothes – first her sneakers and socks, then her sweaty t-shirt and sports bra, and finally her shorts. Debbie takes a sip of her coffee and holds the hot liquid in her mouth, rolling the flavor around and considering the clean, curving muscles of Lou’s back, the slight flare of her hips, the sharp jut of her calves as she bounces up and down on her toes. She’s seen Lou from every angle and in every state of dress, and still, after all these years, the full effect of her physical beauty is almost unbearable sometimes. She doesn’t look away, though – not until Lou has bent her knees, swung her arms back, and launched herself from the dock, sailing out in a glorious, perfect arc before slicing into the glassy surface of the water below.

Debbie busies herself putting away the dishes from the drying rack next to the sink until Lou enters the cabin ten minutes later, re-dressed in her shirt and shorts but dripping everywhere. “How was it?” Debbie asks, trying hard not to notice that Lou did not put her sports bra back on post-swim.

“Frigid,” Lou replies, but she’s beaming, joy spilling out of her shining eyes and off her wet, glowing skin. Debbie can feel that wild, buzzing energy washing over her from half a room away, squeezing around her chest and lighting up her senses.

“Do you want some breakfast? Granola or fruit or something?” she asks, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

The look Lou gives her is almost offensively dubious. Debbie rolls her eyes. “Believe it or not, I can handle cutting up a banana,” she says.

Lou smirks. “You do make a mean bowl of cereal.”

“The milk to Cheerios ratio is key. You always overpour.”

“Mmm,” Lou responds, nodding sagely. “Thank you, senpai. But tell me: how far outside of your wheelhouse are scrambled eggs these days?”

Debbie waves her hand dismissively and starts moving toward the refrigerator. “Oh, well within it.” The dubious look returns. “Seriously, I’ve been practicing!”

“Practicing?”

“Mhmmm,” Debbie says. “In your loft, with your frying pans and your state-of-the-art fire alarm system.”

“Jesus,” Lou groans, covering her eyes. “I leave you alone for a few weeks and you start risking life and limb and all our worldly possessions for breakfast food.”

“Guess you shouldn’t have left me alone,” Debbie replies. She means it as a joke, but it comes out oddly heavy and flat – noticeably so, if the way Lou’s forehead creases is any indication – so she pushes ahead quickly. “Honestly, Lou, let me make you eggs. You’ll love them.”

Lou hesitates, but then sighs a very resigned sigh. “The fire extinguisher is right by the porch door,” she points out.

“Already noted,” Debbie says. “Now go take a shower and stop leaving puddles all over the hardwood.”

Lou pulls a face but obeys. Debbie sets the carton of eggs on the counter next to the range and pulls out a mixing bowl. “Alright, Ocean,” she mutters to herself. “Don’t fuck this up.”

 

When Lou makes her way down from the loft fifteen minutes later, dressed in a jeans and a simple white tee that looks distressingly good on her, Debbie is just turning off the stove. “Have a seat,” she tells Lou, using a spatula to split the eggs between two plates.

The toaster pops up, and Debbie butters a slice for each of them. There are small bowls of yogurt already sitting on the table with slivered almonds, sliced bananas, and blueberries mixed in, along with two tall glasses of orange juice. Debbie tops off her own coffee and pours another healthy amount into the “#1 Dad” mug she selected specifically for Lou.

When she turns around, Lou isn’t quite gaping, but she can’t hide the extremely gratifying look of astonishment on her face as Debbie shuttles everything over to the table. “A girl could get used to this,” she drawls, leaning back in her chair. “This looks amazing.”

“You’ve made me literally hundreds of dinners,” Debbie points out. “It’s about time I start paying you back.”

Lou shrugs and hums approvingly with her first bite of scrambled egg. “Delicious,” she murmurs, washing it down with a slug of orange juice “Deb, this is blowing my mind.”

Heat flares in Debbie’s cheeks, and she pokes at her yogurt. “It’s just eggs.”

“The last time you tried to cook ‘just eggs,’ you almost got us evicted from that place in Bushwick,” Lou points out. “I could barely trust you with a microwave.”

“I made Tammy teach me,” Debbie admits. When Lou’s impressed look shifts to concern, she rushes to add, “Not in person. Over the phone. She said the trick is to hold back some of the egg mixture and then add that in at the very end. Keeps it from drying out too much.”

Lou blinks, waits a beat, and then says “Oh.”

She seems placated by the knowledge that Debbie hasn’t actually been contravening her very clear directives vis a vis team contact, but there’s still some tightness around her mouth that makes Debbie feel defensive. “She just talked me through it a couple times,” she tells Lou.

“That’s fine,” Lou responds.

“Should I not have called her?” Debbie asks, hating the passive aggressive whine she can already hear creeping up in her voice.

Lou piles some eggs onto her slice of toast and says, “Look, we agreed phone calls were okay, so it’s all good,” before biting down and chewing. She swallows. “How is Tammy, anyway?”

“Good, I think,” Debbie replies cautiously. “I have to be honest, though, by the time she gets to talking about the third travel soccer game of the week, I kind of tune her out.”

Lou snorts with real amusement, and Debbie relaxes slightly. She finishes her yogurt and starts in on her own scramble. “Have you heard from any of the others?” she asks.

“Not really. Got a few texts from Nine Ball and Constance while I was on the road. Daphne asked if I wanted to meet up with her in LA.”

A mental image of Lou and Daphne sitting in a dimly lit bar, leaning close together, swims to the front of Debbie’s mind, and she puts her fork down. “And did you?” she asks, clearing her throat.

“Nah, she had to leave to shoot a movie in Toronto before I got down there.” Lou glances at her sideways. “I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Too risky with her being so high-profile.”

Debbie thinks about the way Lou did a double-take at a Vogue spread featuring Daphne in some very revealing lingerie while they were conducting their due diligence before the heist, and shoves the final corner of toast into her mouth.

“Plus, I hate LA.”

Debbie raises an eyebrow. “That is absolutely not true,” she says, still working on half a mouthful of bread. “You’re always talking about how you live for those beaches.”

“Rude,” Lou scolds, wrinkling her nose when Debbie sticks her tongue out in response. “Anyhow, I like New York better.”

Debbie’s not sure she’s telling the truth, but takes the peace offering for what it is. Lou is here, after all, sharing a breakfast that Debbie made in this little backwoods cabin instead of hitting clubs in Los Angeles with Daphne Kluger and her pack of young, gorgeous, famous friends. Surely, that must count for something.

 

Somewhere along the way, Lou talks Debbie into going on a hike that afternoon instead of doing her usual yoga routine. It’s been decades since the last time she willingly walked up the side of a mountain, but she finds that she doesn’t hate it as much as she’d thought she would. The woods are peaceful and cool as they trudge uphill, and the dappled sun makes beautiful patterns on the trail.

“I don’t know why I stopped doing this stuff,” she remarks, flinging her leg over a log in their path with little grace, but making it to the other side unscathed. “Danny and I used to have so much fun up here.”

Lou jumps over the log using the heel of her hand as a pivot, making it look easy. “What did you guys get up to?”

Debbie shrugs. “Swam. Canoed. My mom got really into plant identification for a few years, and she always dragged us on her nature walks.”

Your mom? Are you serious?”

“Eleanor Ocean was nothing if not full of surprises,” Debbie affirms.

Lou, who never met Debbie’s mother, but has nonetheless heard enough stories from both Debbie and Danny to form a clear opinion of her, clucks her tongue disbelievingly.

“What about you?” Debbie asks. She, too, has heard countless tales of Lou’s misspent youth, but can’t recall any at the moment that explain the fluid way Lou moves through these woods, the ease she seems to feel surrounded by nothing but trees and mountains and lakes. “Where’d you get your nature fix?”

Lou squints thoughtfully. “I spent a lot of time outside as a kid to get away from my dad,” she muses. She doesn’t need to elaborate on that point – Debbie is as well-informed on Lou’s dad as Lou is on her mother, and she knows it’s a topic better left mostly untouched. “But that was just a lot of playing in scrubby backyards and empty lots.”

There’s a low-hanging branch in their way, and Lou grabs it, holding it to the side of the path so that Debbie can pass unobstructed. “I don’t think I really spent any time in places like this til we were in the States,” she continues. “And then I solo hiked part of the PCT during a summer in high school.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Debbie exclaims, stopping in her tracks. Lou bumps into her from behind, grabs her around the waist so she won’t go sprawling. “Did you say you solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail when you were a teenager? How have I never heard this story?”

“Just part of it!” Lou protests, laughing. “Not the whole thing.”

“Okay, Cheryl Strayed…” Debbie mutters.

Instead of continuing up the path, Lou detours to sit on a nearby boulder and slips off her small pack, gesturing for Debbie to join her on the rock. “I don’t know,” she says, digging through the bag. “It was a really long time ago. We were near Bakersfield at the time, and I was so fucking done with being in that house…”

She draws out a Nalgene and pours a stream of water into her mouth before offering it to Debbie. It’s odd to see her like this, hair tied back and face bare and neck free from the encumbrance of five million necklaces, but she looks good. Really good. Debbie gulps down a few mouthfuls from the bottle.

“We didn’t live too far from Kennedy Meadows,” Lou continues. “I hitchhiked there, and then just followed the first people I saw carrying backpacks. I made it as far as Echo Lake, and then caught a bus down from Sacramento and started filling out paperwork to be emancipated as soon as I was back.”

“Jesus,” Debbie mutters. “Talk about full of surprises.”

Lou takes the water bottle back with a wink and slides it into the pack again. “The day I can’t shock you, Deborah Ocean, is the day you should walk away from me forever.”

She hops up gracefully, ready to start off again, but Debbie doesn’t follow right away. “I could never do that,” she murmurs, staring at her toes.

Lou’s eyes soften, and she extends a hand. Debbie takes it, lets herself be pulled to her feet. “Well then,” Lou replies, “Guess I’ll have to keep blowing your mind.”

As they continue up the path, the soft, narrow path gets rockier and rockier, until eventually it gives way to a field of boulders. Blazes painted directly onto the rock point the way, but as Debbie looks up the last face, which is particularly steep and relatively sheer, she questions whether it’s really the best route. “C’mon,” Lou says, sensing her hesitation. “You go first. I’ll catch you if you fall.”

Debbie slides past her, but pauses again at the foot of the climb to consider her options. Lou steps close and runs soothing hands over her back and shoulders. “It won’t be as bad as it looks,” she says.

“I know,” Debbie replies with more confidence than she feels, leaning back so that Lou can wrap her arms around her completely and eyeing the first handhold. “I’m just making a plan.”

She feels Lou shake with laughter against her. “Trust you to turn a day hike into a heist.”

Debbie smiles, wrapping her hands around Lou’s wrists at her waist and squeezing gently before stepping forward again. Lou’s arms fall away, and Debbie reaches out for the face of the boulder. The surface is rough and notched, easier to grip than she expected. She starts to climb.

It’s not so bad once she gets started, and she only falters once, near the top of the face. As she’s reaching for a divot in the rock above her, one of her boots skids off its toehold, and her stomach drops. It’s only a moment of panic, though, before her foot is steadied, and she looks back to see Lou bracing her ankle with a free hand. She huffs out a relieved laugh, and Lou grins. “Told you I’d catch you, jailbird,” she says. “Now, grab that handhold.”

Less than a minute later, Debbie heaves herself over the edge, pressing her face into the cool, mossy rock until she feels Lou land beside her. “You okay?” Lou asks, only slightly out of breath.

“Yeah,” Debbie says, rolling over and burying her face in Lou’s leg instead. “Just processing this newfound fear of heights I’ve never had before.”

“Aging makes cowards of us all,” Lou opines. “I think you’ll find the view is worth it, though.”

At that, Debbie lifts her head, gasps, and says, “Oh my God.”

All around them, the Adironack wilderness spills out like a rumpled, verdant bedspread. From the base of the mountain they’ve just scaled, a river winds south, flowing down to a lake that glimmers bright blue in the sunlight. The crowns of evergreen trees sway thick and green around the perimeter of the rocky ledge where they’re perched, giving the impression that one could simply step out from the boulder and walk across them, like a soft shag rug, to the next mountain peak. Debbie’s feels her eyes fill with tears. “Oh, Lou,” she murmurs, sitting up.

“Pretty nice, eh?”

“Unbelievable.” Debbie scans the horizon in every direction, craning her neck to look behind them. “Where’s the cabin?”

Lou points at the lake. “See where the shore curves in, there? We’re on that cove.”

Debbie slides closer to Lou. “This is one of the loveliest sights I’ve ever seen,” she says quietly.

Lou wraps an arm around her. “Can’t steal every beautiful thing,” she remarks, sounding almost apologetic.

Debbie leans her head on Lou’s shoulder and hums, quiet and content. “Wouldn’t want to.”

 

The hike is, blessedly, a loop, and so they descend a much gentler grade on their way down from the summit. Lou isn’t very talkative, but she stays near, looping her arm through Debbie’s whenever the trail widens enough to allow it and offering her hand whenever there’s a big step down. It’s completely unnecessary – Debbie has always been sure-footed, even if she won’t make a career of professional rock climbing – but still, she takes it every time.

The sun is setting by the time they get back to the cabin, and they pause at the dock to appreciate the colors of the clouds.

“I could never walk away from you,” Debbie says, admiring a streak of pale lavender smeared above the dark trees across the cove. “Not for good. You know that, right?”

If Lou is startled by the abrupt return to their earlier conversation, she doesn’t show it. “I know,” she says, taking Debbie’s hand and squeezing gently.

They’d talked about it during the heist, after their horrible fight – talked about Claude and prison and everything that had driven them apart before that. Debbie believes that Lou mostly understands, as much as anyone possibly could, why she needed to do what she did; believes that Lou isn’t just waiting for her to bail again. But she can’t forget the way Lou’s voice curdled with fear and anger on the beach; can’t unsee the wild, panicked look in Lou’s eyes.

“I am not going to leave,” Debbie insists. She is struck by a sudden and bizarre but vivid mental image of the two of them in wedding attire, standing on this dock and reciting their vows. She pushes it away, tries to focus. “I promise that I will not do that again.”

It’s hard to tell in the growing dusk, but she thinks Lou’s lips tremble a little. Debbie tightens her hold on Lou’s hand, and Lou works her jaw. “You don’t have to make that promise,” she says finally, staring out at the lake. Debbie opens her mouth to protest, but Lou continues before she can get a word in edgewise: “I don’t want you to make that promise.”

Debbie shuts her mouth. Lou turns toward her. “I just want you to promise that you’ll be honest with me,” she says, completely serious. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” Debbie sees a spasm of pain cross her beautiful face. “Don’t disappear without letting me know why, or where you’re going.”

The only response Debbie can manage is a nod. It seems to be enough for Lou, who pulls her into a hug. They stand on the shore like that as darkness falls around them, rocking together like boats in a harbor until the first stars appear in the sky above them.

 

When they finally make it inside, Lou heads straight for the fridge and starts pulling out ingredients for dinner. Debbie wanders into the living room and tries to resume her book, but finds herself right back at Lou’s side less than a minute later, unwilling to let the lovely closeness of the afternoon fade.

Lou doesn’t object to her being underfoot, just hip-checks her gently out of the way of the cutting boards and suggests that she pour them some wine. Debbie obliges, then settles back against the counter with her glass in hand. “Can I help at all?” she asks after a moment.

Lou raises an eyebrow and chuckles. “You sure? Risotto is a lot harder than scrambled eggs.”

“Well, good thing you’re a lot better at cooking than Tammy is.”

The flattery goes over well, Debbie is pleased to note, and Lou preens a little before handing Debbie a wooden spoon. “I hope all that yoga’s been paying off,” she teases. “Get ready for some endless stirring.”

“Baby, if you wanted tickets to the gun show, all you had to do was ask,” Debbie replies, rolling up her sleeve and flexing.

“Oh my,” Lou murmurs, fluttering her eyelashes. Debbie swats her with the spoon, hard, and she shrieks, “Debbie! Respect your chef!”

“Sorry, chef,” Debbie says, straightening up and biting her lip against a smile. “Whatever you say, chef.”

The tips of Lou’s ears turn pink. She gestures at the stove and tells Debbie, “Turn that burner on medium and heat up some oil.”

Debbie complies, and a minute later, Lou tips a pile of diced onions into the pot. They sizzle. “Measure out two cups of risotto and stir those in.”

“No broth?”

“Not yet – toast it first.”

“Yes, chef.” Another blush, this one bleeding across the crest of Lou’s cheekbones. Debbie smirks.

After another minute, Lou adds two cups of broth to the pot. “Stir continuously,” she instructs. “When it seems like most of the broth has been soaked up, add another cup or two and keep going.”

It’s a boring job, but one that even Debbie can handle, and it gives her the opportunity to watch Lou at the cutting board. She chops with confident, economical movements, carving a zucchini into paper-thin slices and rocking her blade back and forth through a pile of sundried tomatoes. Her eyes are hidden behind her bangs, but Debbie can see her lips, pursing and opening almost imperceptibly as though she’s singing along to a song in her head as she works. Lou’s relentless competence is one of the things Debbie has always found most attractive about her, and it’s on full display here – a master effortlessly executing her craft.

Lou looks up and catches Debbie staring. She pauses, knife hovering over the cutting board. The cabin is silent except for the hiss of the gas stove. “What?” Lou asks, cocking her head.

“Nothing,” Debbie says, then stops thinking and leans forward and kisses her.

For something they’ve actively avoided for twenty or so years, it feels shockingly natural – the sound of Lou setting the knife on the counter; the coolness of her fingertips on Debbie’s face and then threading into Debbie’s hair; their matching sighs when Debbie steps closer, pressing their bodies flush against each other. There’s no abruptness, no hesitation, just a rush of new energy that blooms between them like a welcome change of subject in a long conversation.

After a long moment, Lou pulls back. She smiles, rubs her thumb over Debbie’s cheek. “Stir continuously,” she murmurs, in a voice so low and gravelly that it makes Debbie tremble, and gestures at the pot.

Debbie takes a deep breath and turns back to the risotto. Her skin feels hot and tight, and her hands shake as she grips the spoon again, but she can’t resist a cheeky, “Yes, chef.”

Behind her, Lou splutters and drops something on the floor. Debbie grins.

 

Dinner is predictably torturous, although less so than it could have been, largely thanks to the delicious risotto and Lou’s skill as a professional charmer. By the end of the meal, she has Debbie in stitches over a story about a man she met in San Jose who tried to sell her a pet raccoon, and Debbie has almost forgotten to be painfully turned on. Almost.

“…so he holds up a finger and tells me to wait just one more minute,” Lou says, straight-faced, while Debbie howls with laughter. “Mind you, I went into that store to buy a pack of gum, so I’m really not sure where I went wrong…”

Debbie lays her head on the kitchen table, shoulders shaking.

“And then he wraps this thing around his neck like a goddamned mink stole – you know, if mink were roughly the same size as a small toddler – and capers off into the back room, and then just moments later, he’s back with a new cage, and he asks, ‘But can I interest you in an opossum?’”

Debbie cackles helplessly.

“Beastly thing,” Lou concludes. “You know, we Australians get a bad rap for our contributions to the animal kingdom, but you lot really screwed up with that one.”

“I think they’re kind of cute,” Debbie admits. “Those little pink noses get me every time.”

Lou gives her a scandalized look. “You can’t be serious.”

“You should have brought it back. We could have named it Oscar and kept it in Constance’s old room.”

“Wow, you’ve officially lost it.” Lou stands and starts clearing the table. An intense rush of anticipation burns through Debbie’s chest.

“Wouldn’t you love a little road mascot?” Debbie continues, trying to keep things light. “Riding on the back of your bike, wearing a tiny helmet…”

“I already have a road mascot,” Lou argues. “And you’re a lot better-looking than Oscar was, so I think I’ll stick with what I’ve got, thanks.”

“You say the nicest things to me.” Debbie taps her fingers on the table. “Are we doing dessert tonight?”

Lou throws a smoldering glance over her shoulder. “I don’t know; do you want dessert right now?”

Just like that, the attraction that has been simmering between them all evening blazes back to a full boil. Debbie shakes her head slowly, keeping her eyes trained on Lou. “That’s not what I want,” she replies.

Lou’s heated gaze gets a notch more scorching. Debbie rises on wobbly legs. They stare at each other across the small space like boxers in a ring.

“This is happening,” Lou murmurs. Her voice is steady, but her hands are clenching and unclenching at her sides.

“Yes,” Debbie says. She takes three steps forward so they’re only inches apart, and Lou’s breathing grows ragged. “Finally.”

“Good,” Lou says, and like choreographed dancers, they fall into each others’ arms.

 

In a distant, rarely used corner of Debbie’s mind, she ponders the nature of corporeality. She also tries to remember what causes retinas to detach, and wonders if an orgasm could generate the necessary level of force, since her vision has blurred to the point where she can’t make out the ceiling fan anymore. There’s a faint, rhythmic thumping at the base of her skull, and while she assumes it’s her own heartbeat, she can’t be confident, since last she checked it felt like her chest was about to burst wide open.

“You with me, jailbird?” she hears a far-off voice say.

“Hnnghmfgh.” Her tongue weighs twenty pounds.

The voice laughs – the most beautiful, sparkling sound Debbie has ever heard – and then a shadow clouds the vague outline of what Debbie used to be able to perceive as a light fixture. She blinks, and the shadow takes shape: an eyebrow, a cheek, the loveliest jaw in the world. “Lou,” she manages to groan, although it still sounds garbled.

“Hey baby,” Lou replies, brushing some hair away from Debbie’s eyes. “How are you feeling?”

Debbie closes her eyes, swallows. “Motherfucker,” she croaks.

Lou laughs again. “That bad, huh?”

“Terrible,” Debbie mumbles, swinging what she hopes is her arm upwards and pulling Lou down on top of her.

“I’ll try harder next time.”

Debbie shivers. “You’ll kill me,” she says into the crook of Lou’s neck. “The only way I could possibly come harder would be if I literally died.”

“Well, I don’t want that,” Lou replies, nosing along Debbie’s jaw. “Maybe I should dial it back.”

Debbie uses the appendage that she is now 80% is her hand to smack Lou’s shoulder. “Don’t you dare.”

She feels more than hears Lou’s self-satisfied chuckle, a gentle vibration against her sternum. Closing her eyes, she focuses the feeling of Lou’s skin against hers; the way the tips of Lou’s hair are brushing against her collarbone; the throbbing in her cunt where Lou’s fingers are still buried. They’d landed on the couch in the end, once it became clear that climbing the ladder to the loft simply presented too much temptation to be a tenable option, and Debbie is glad of it. The narrow cushions force some necessary closeness, and Debbie relishes the way Lou’s body brackets her own, pressing her into the soft fabric of the blanket they laid out beneath them.

All of a sudden, in the midst of all this pleasure, Debbie experiences a sharp stab of loss and regret – for the years they could have been doing this but didn’t, and for how close she came to losing even the possibility of it. Lou must sense her stiffening, because she slides to the side and gently draws her fingers out of Debbie, putting her sticky hand on Debbie’s stomach and propping herself up on her elbow. “Tell me,” she urges.

“It’s not important,” Debbie protests, mortified to hear a telltale thickness in her voice.

Lou’s face is softer and more open than Debbie has ever seen it. “Whatever you’re thinking, I’m probably thinking it too,” she says, very gently. “Talk to me.”

Debbie feels tears leak out of the side of her eyes and run down her cheeks, pooling in her ears. “Why did it take us so long?” she asks, just on the verge of begging.

It’s a comfort, at least, to see that Lou’s eyes are welling up too. “I don’t know,” Lou admits. She lays down flat again, and Debbie maneuvers onto her side so they’re facing each other, Debbie wrapping an arm tight around Lou’s waist so that she won’t topple to the floor. “There’s no good reason.”

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want you,” Debbie admits. “But it felt like – we’d get close, and I’d think, maybe, but then –“

“There was always that impossible moment,” Lou agrees, finishing the thought as though it had been her own. She’s crying now, too. “I could never get past it.”

“Me either,” Debbie murmurs. “And I’m not sure why.” She wipes away the trail of moisture running down Lou’s nose and then giggles wetly. “Look at us, crying about our feelings during sex.”

“It’s pathetic,” Lou agrees, dragging her hand across her face and letting out a little chuckle herself. “You can’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

“Mutually assured destruction, I like it,” Lou drawls. She seems to get a bit of her spirit back, pressing close again and nipping at Debbie’s jaw. “Now, not to change the subject, but you did say something about ‘during sex,’ and I was just wondering…”

“On it,” Debbie replies, shifting to straddle Lou’s midsection and leaning down to kiss her. “I’ll be honest, you just set an absurdly high bar, but don’t worry – I have a plan.”

“Always with the plans,” Lou hums, tilting her head so that Debbie can lick and bite her earlobe. “Let’s see some execution.”

And that, well – Debbie has always enjoyed a challenge.

 

Things slow down again, later, after they’ve both had several more mind-bending orgasms and finally relocated to the loft. They’re sitting up in bed and facing each other in a posture that could almost be construed as proper, except for the fact that their fingers are inside each other and they’re both drenched in sweat and come. Debbie flexes her hand, feeling the ache in her wrist, and Lou groans. Her eyelids are drooping, but she keeps forcing them open to look at Debbie.

“Lou,” Debbie whines, rolling her hips.

Lou grits her teeth and digs her fingernails into Debbie’s thigh, which she’s done several times tonight when she’s trying not to come yet. With her other hand, she curls her fingertips and presses hard, and little flashes of light start going off in front of Debbie’s eyes.

“I love you,” Debbie says, panting now and thrusting against Lou’s hand.

Lou moans, probably beyond language by now, but her face is wild and alight with something that Debbie recognizes like she’s looking into a mirror. Debbie leans forward, twists her hand, and that’s all it takes – Lou cries out as she falls forward, shaking, her forehead coming to rest on Debbie’s shoulder and her fingers working manically. It’s not her smoothest performance of the night, but it’s enough to send Debbie over the edge too, and she wraps her free arm around Lou, pulling her close as the room pulses around them.

Lou is still shaking when Debbie carefully extracts her hand a minute later and wipes it on the sheets (which are a lost cause, at this point). It isn’t until they’re laying down again that Debbie realizes she’s crying, weeping, her whole body trembling with the force of her silent sobs.

“Baby,” Debbie breathes, pulling Lou into her arms and cradling her. “It’s okay.”

Lou shakes her head, a fresh wave of tears spilling out of her. “I’m s-sorry,” she gasps. “I don’t know – “

“Hey,” Debbie murmurs, stroking her hair. She repeats Lou’s own soothing words: “Whatever you’re feeling, I’m probably feeling it too.”

That seems to get through to Lou, who takes a deep, shuddering breath and relaxes incrementally as she exhales. She curls tighter into Debbie’s side, sweet and uncharacteristically needy. “I don’t know how to tell you how – how much I –”

“You don’t have to,” Debbie replies, stepping in when Lou’s voice falters. “I already know.”

Lou gazes at Debbie through her bare, pale lashes. “I missed you,” she says. “Everything was wrong while you were gone.”

Debbie squeezes her close. “I’m here now,” she tells Lou. “I came back. I won’t leave again.”

Lou starts crying again, and Debbie can feel her own emotions rising sympathetically. “Hey, why don’t we buy this cabin?” she blurts out, desperate to stop feeling so sad, to untether the past and let it fall away, to have a future she can look forward to. “As soon as we can. Tomorrow. Will you call the owner and talk her into it?”

Lou gives an emphatic nod, face still mostly buried in the crook of Debbie’s neck, but Debbie senses a shift in her energy – a slight stiffening in the shoulders, a new rigidity to her spine. Too much, she thinks. Stupid girl.

“What is it?” she asks, trying to pull back far enough to look Lou in the eye with limited success. “What’s wrong?”

Lou glances up. She looks nervous, and maybe a little guilty. “The owner already agreed to sell,” she admits, watching Debbie’s face closely for a reaction. “In fact, she already sold.”

Debbie frowns, uncomprehending.

“It’s done,” Lou explains, “It’s ours.”

There’s a moment of shocked silence, before Debbie shrieks, “What?!

“It’s ours,” Lou repeats. “I mean, we’ll need to do some paperwork to get you on the title, but that won’t be hard. Assuming you want to.”

Speechless, Debbie scans the loft, which somehow looks completely different now than it did five minutes ago. The mystery of how Lou found a place so perfectly appointed to their mutual tastes resolves itself as it she realizes that Lou must have furnished the place herself – or, at least, paid someone to furnish it to her exacting specifications.

“It’s okay if it’s not your cup of tea,” Lou continues awkwardly, when more than a minute has passed without Debbie saying a word. “I know it’s a big step –“

“Shut up,” Debbie tells her, and Lou stops talking. “Lou – this is – holy shit.” She closes her eyes, tries to find the right language. “You’re so…”

“Impulsive?” Lou suggests, clearly trying to mask her trepidation with a cavalier tone and not doing a very good job of it. “Foolish? Rash?”

“Perfect,” Debbie cuts in. “Perfect, and wonderful, and a huge fucking sap.” Lou blushes as Debbie affects a rather poor Australian accent: “‘I don’t know how to tell you.’ Jesus. I think you figured that one out.”

Lou’s grin shifts from anxious to thrilled. “You don’t hate it?” she asks.

“No, Lou, I do not hate it. I adore it.” Debbie takes a deep breath and looks Lou directly in the eye; tells her, “I adore you.”

Lou surges forward and they roll across the bed together. “You’re the love of my life,” Lou gasps between bruising kisses. “You know that?

“Show me,” Debbie murmurs, cupping the curve of Lou’s ass and tugging her closer.

Lou does.