It had been nine days. With the exception of friends of DJ’s from college many years ago, no one else had stayed in this enormous mansion for so long. But there was Ava Daniels, helping herself to Diet Cokes from the fountain, walking around fresh from a shower with wet hair, and making her acutely aware of how much work the facial muscles do when you laugh or smile.
They had been inseparable since Ava had come to stay. The work required it. From morning until late in the evening they wrote and bounced ideas off each other, and in between they would take breaks together to eat and watch stupid videos Ava would find online. It was an intense schedule, but it didn’t feel that way; Deborah was fuelled by the new material taking shape and woke up each morning eager to get back into it. She could tell Ava felt the same. It was invigorating.
That evening, Deborah had decided to make dinner. She found cooking relaxing, plus she wasn’t about to lose rock, paper, scissors to Ava a third night in a row. They were going to eat what she wanted tonight.
And that was going to be herb-crusted salmon with a warm salad of griddled zucchini, tomato and feta. Quick and fresh.
The salmon had just gone in the oven when in wandered Ava, who had, on Deborah’s instruction, been sitting out by the pool to get some vitamin D.
“Looking healthy and smelling good, D,” Ava remarked as she took up a seat by the island.
She shot Ava a glare in lieu of the usual reprimand.
“I’m hoping this meal will bring the number of vitamins you’re deficient in down to just half a dozen. Do you know what this is?” she asked, holding up a zucchini.
“I know what it’s good for if you’re in a pinch,” Ava responded, eyebrows raised suggestively.
Deborah rolled her eyes and got on with cutting the vegetable into long strips.
The rest of the meal was prepared in a comfortable silence. Ava flicked idly through a copy of the New York Times, looking up occasionally to watch her as she moved around the kitchen. This was something Deborah had noticed the past couple of days; she’d feel Ava’s gaze linger on her a little longer than it had before.
The oven’s timer pinged and dinner was ready to be served along with an suitable bottle of chilled Chardonnay.
“This is crazy good, Deborah,” Ava said between forkfuls. “I’d never have thought you could cook like this.”
“Well, there’s plenty you don’t know about me.”
Ava nodded thoughtfully. “I do feel like I learnt a lot during my exile to the basement, though.”
“Oh, did you?” Deborah put her fork down and crossed her arms. “Go on.”
There was the briefest of hesitations.
“You’ve made a lot of problematic jokes about lesbians over the decades. Like, a lot.”
“And yet weren’t you telling me just yesterday that I have a whole cohort of young lesbian fans who are into, what did you call it, femme tops—”
“High femmes, but actually—.”
“—so are they really all that ‘problematic’?”
“I mean, they absolutely are, but maybe they could also sort of be interpreted as giving off a bit of a vibe?”
“Well, yeah, do you realise that pretty much every joke you’ve ever made about sex is about how it’s a chore or how terrible men are in bed?”
“I’m just saying—all those jokes about lesbians, plus jokes about how bad sex is with men…”
“What, I must be secretly gay? That’s a new one.”
Strictly speaking, that wasn’t true. Many years ago, a slightly drunk Marcus had clumsily made a joke in a similar vein, which was met with a reception that had sobered him up quickly enough. It was never brought up again.
“Don’t worry, you’re throwing people off the scent with that manicure anyway.”
Deborah scoffed and finished off the last of the wine in her glass.
"Coming back to those jokes though, they also kind of, I don't know, make me fucking sad? Like, there should be consent—enthusiastic consent—and active participation on both sides, right?”
"Look, I’m not going to sit here and have some 25-year-old school me on sex. Don’t make assumptions about my sex life based on my routines.”
“But it's just tragic,” Ava pressed on, “the idea of having sex with someone who's oblivious to—or even just doesn't care—how not into it you are. It’s so one-sided. I don't like thinking of you in that situation.”
The annoyance she had felt quelled very slightly. Ava’s concern was close to touching.
"So, you're telling me you've never had bad sex? You know what they say about people who think they're all that in bed—"
"Hey. No, of course I have—and I didn't make any claims about being great in bed. But, for the record, I absolutely am."
Deborah cocked an eyebrow and made a dismissive noise.
"What I'm saying is—is it right to sort of normalise it and just laugh it off? Don’t you think it gives men a pass?"
"So, in your expert opinion as a college dropout sex therapist, what should I be making jokes about instead?"
"The new show is about you taking control of your own narrative, right? Those old jokes where sex is always framed as an obligation or a disappointment don’t fit into that. Don’t you think there’d be something so powerful about standing up there and, like, asserting your sexuality in a really positive way?”
“Come off it, Ava, an audience doesn’t want to hear a woman my age talking about actually enjoying or wanting sex. And anyway, as I keep having to remind you, this isn’t some sort of monologue, it’s a stand up show—it’s supposed to be funny. You get clouded by this incessant need you have to try and be subversive all the time.”
“It’s not about being subversive for the sake of it, come on. I’m here to help, remember, and I just think this is an area we can work on to fit in more with the rest of the material, okay?”
Unconvinced, Deborah shook her head and poured herself another glass of wine.
"Anyway,” Ava said after a minute of quiet, “you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a joking about lying there under some guy who can’t make you come one moment and then about being a power top the next.”
Deborah snorted, nearly choking on her wine.
Ava put her hands up. “Lean into the power top stuff, that’s all I’m saying!”
After dinner it was back to work, as per the daily routine.
They had been working solidly for several hours and it was starting to get late, but they were on something of a roll with a bit about the early days of the Vegas residency. Tiredness was setting in, but they pushed on, aided by caffeinated soda.
It had been more than fifteen minutes since Ava had disappeared to get her latest Diet Coke refill and Deborah was getting impatient. She had better not be attempting to replace the canister, knowing that girl’s oversized-hand-eye coordination she’d end up with a four-foot-wide hole blown in her cabinet.
She got up off the sofa and made her way to the kitchen.
Which was where she found Ava, standing beside the illuminated display cabinet, shirt unbuttoned and bra exposed, cellphone held above and angled down. The soft glow coming from the cabinet was flattering on her pale skin but having an eye for good lighting wasn’t going to get her off the hook.
“Does it usually take you this long to get a usable picture of yourself?” Deborah called out, irritated.
With no sense of surprise or urgency, Ava turned to look over at her.
“Jesus Christ, Ava, do we have go over the house rules again? You’re on the clock.”
Even for Ava, this was pretty brazen. Why was she doing this here in the kitchen of all places? Why did she seem entirely unperturbed by Deborah’s presence? Why was she wearing very nice lingerie?
And why was Deborah finding herself fighting so hard to maintain eye contact and not let her gaze dip…
“Well? Are you going to cover up or what?” she snapped.
“Do you want me to?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s a serious question.”
“What is this? Are you trying to seduce me?”
“Yeah, maybe. I think you want me to.”
Deborah let out a sharp laugh but at the same time felt her cheeks colour and she hoped to god it wasn’t noticeable.
“This is entirely inappropriate, Ava.”
But those words came out small, she wasn’t convinced by them and by the look on Ava’s face, neither was she.
“Do you want me to cover up, Deborah?”
Ava started to walk towards her, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Her bra was intricately strappy underneath the bust, with lace over sheer mesh, which almost—but didn’t quite—cover up her nipples. Deborah knew this now because there could be no question about the direction of her gaze.
She realised she was biting down on her lip. She was realising a few things in this moment.
“What’s on your mind, D?” Her tone was teasing and a little sultry.
“What have I told you about calling me D?” she said absent-mindedly as she reached out to push Ava’s shirt off her shoulders.
“Let me get a better look at you.”
Her heart was pounding in her chest. It was exhilarating to look and to be turned on by looking, to take in another’s body and desire it.
As she gently traced a finger across Ava’s collarbone, the shirt, which had been left loosely hanging from Ava’s arms, fell to the ground. Deborah looked up to eyes searing with want and felt her breath catch in her chest.
“This is a bad idea,” she murmured, even though absolutely nothing about the way her body felt was in agreement.
“Yeah, I don’t know about that. I think we both need to get this out of our systems before it really becomes a problem.” Ava’s hands moved to her hips and pushed her backwards until she could feel the wall behind her.
”We’ve been working our asses off, we could do with blowing off a little steam.” Those hands started to run up the side of her body and the thought of what else they might do had her thighs squeezing together.
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“I might have some ideas.”
At that, Deborah grabbed her by the belt and pulled her even closer, relishing the sensation of being pinned up hard against the wall by Ava’s body. She could feel her warmth and the movement of her chest against her own as Ava took quick, sharp breaths.
”Well, so do I, honey.”
They kissed, hard and urgent. Hands ran through her hair and a tongue licked at her bottom lip and, again, she momentarily forgot how to breathe. Ava moaned into her mouth as Deborah's fingers slipped under her bra to pinch an erect nipple and Deborah wanted nothing more than to elicit more responses like that.
As nice as the bra was, it was getting in the way, but before she could reach round to unclasp it her arm was grabbed and she found herself spun around and facing the wall, pressed up against it from behind. A knee pushed between her legs, edging them apart.
“I’m going to try and help you get over this fixation you have with my hands,” Ava breathed in her ear.
Deborah closed her eyes and groaned. If anything this would likely have the opposite effect but, hey, she was willing to try.
“Fuck, will you just use those massive hands on me already.”
She wasn’t accustomed to begging, but nor was she accustomed to feeling so aroused she was genuinely worried about her legs’ ability to continue supporting her.
“Ava, please,” she gasped, losing patience she didn’t really have to begin with.
“Deborah?” Ava’s voice was different now and strangely distant.
“Deborah!” Suddenly her body jolted and her eyes opened to see Ava standing above her with a look of mild concern on her face, Diet Coke in hand, and shirt fully buttoned up.
“What?” she fired back, her voice tinged with annoyance. It took her a moment to properly take in where she was and what had—hadn’t—just happened.
“I’m sorry, my mom called and it was a whole thing about how next door isn’t recycling properly so she’s been sorting their stuff for them and now they think she’s trying to commit identity fraud? I don’t know.”
In an attempt to distract from her sudden inability to maintain eye contact and the rising colour in her cheeks, Deborah started to gather up the notebooks and various bits of paper scattered around.
“Hey, are you okay?” Ava sounded uneasy.
“Just great,” she replied tersely. “I think I need to call it a night, I’m exhausted.”
“Yeah, sure, of course. Probably a good idea if you’re falling asleep.”
Ava lingered awkwardly, as if she didn’t know what to do with herself or was on the verge of saying something. But Deborah was intent on making a swift exit.
“I’ll see you in the morning, good night,” she called over her shoulder as she left.
It was only when she was applying her hand cream in bed that she finally allowed herself to replay what had happened downstairs.
It was a dream, that was all. A sex dream, sure, but everyone has them, they don’t necessarily mean a thing. In fact, it was probably even normal to have such a dream about someone you’d spent every waking moment with for over a week.
Except, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a sex dream, let alone one like that.
Had she not felt a flash of annoyance at being woken up? And now, as she was playing through the events of the dream again in her mind, did she not feel an ache between her legs that she was probably going to have to do something about? Was she going to think about Ava as she did so?
”Oh, fuck,” she groaned, as she slid back down into the bed and stared up at the ceiling.
This was not going to become a problem.