Actions

Work Header

adult talent shows and other mortifying ordeals

Chapter Text

Jimmy, Deborah decides, is a dead man. And Marcus is on thin fucking ice.

And Marty, well, Marty is never crawling his way back into her bed again.

She tunes back in just in time to see the wannabe juggler performing on the makeshift stage in front of her drop two of the three bowling pins he’s brought. Kendra squeals from Deborah’s right, and Deborah can’t hide her grimace.

At the very least, it’s three Xs across the row, and the juggler knows better than to push his luck with trying to swing two of them to his side.

A PA rushes into the room once he’s gone, offering them fresh pens and new notebooks in case they’ve somehow managed to make their way through the first ones. (Deborah’s has a short to-do list in her untidy scrawl that says nothing more than ‘Kill Jimmy.’) She glances at the other two judges, the show’s “regulars”—Jared, some former boy band member, and Kendra, a model-turned-choreographer. Kendra’s doodled a few hearts across the first page of her notebook, while Jared’s seems to consist entirely of his own name in blocky graffiti-style lettering.

“Can I get anyone a coffee refill? Water?”

“Could I get a Diet Coke?” Deborah asks, trying to remember that this sad 20-something in ill-fitting jeans and a company polo is not the one to blame for the three hours of hell she has just suffered through.

The PA nods rapidly. “Is Pepsi okay?”

Deborah wrinkles her nose. “No.” After a moment, she waves him back. “Would you be a dear and pass a message along to Marcus? You’ll find him back in my dressing room.”

“Of course!”

“Tell him he has ten minutes to be back with a Diet Coke. From the fountain.”

The PA glances at her, then the other judges. “Um, okay.” Seeing no joking smiles, he takes off at a run.

Jared spins his chair towards her and wiggles an eyebrow. “Marcus your new intern?” There’s a laugh in his voice, like they’re in on some kind of shared joke.

Deborah offers him a wan smile. “My COO.” A COO who’d gone and told Jimmy that of course she’d be happy to fill in as a celebrity guest judge for this godforsaken adult talent show. (She has seen no talent yet, and she doesn’t have high hopes for the future.) Marcus has already texted her a dozen reminders of the show’s demographics, assurances that this is the best way to keep her Friday and Saturday shows. As if there is any world in which they should have been threatened in the first place.

“We’re back in five,” one of the cameramen yells, and Deborah watches as Jared and Kendra sit up and direct their perfected Hollywood-fake smiles at the cameras.

The door swings open, then, and Deborah braces herself.

“Hi there, I’m Shayla!” The girl flashes them an overly white smile. “Today I’m going to be singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’”

Oh good. Again.

---

Deborah feels like she’s already been through eight of the circles of hell by the time Jared nudges her with an overly tanned elbow. “This one’s all you,” he whispers, flashing her a wink he probably thinks is charming. As if she hasn’t seen him wink at every blonde co-ed that’s walked through that door today.

Deborah glances down at the call sheet in front of her and sees “stand up” listed in the talent box. God, she is really and truly going to kill Jimmy.

The door swings open, and that infernally chipper host whose name she still hasn’t learned is showing a young woman into the room. She hoists the straps of her backpack up on her shoulders and gives them a smile that looks closer to a grimace.

And then she’s going for it. No introduction to the audience. No attempt to read the room. Just barreling in like a bored waiter reciting off that night’s soup specials.

“You know last night I had a nightmare,” she says, chimneysweep boots scuffing at the floor. “I dreamt that my phone was ringing.”

It goes downhill from there. There’s no room for laughter. No attempt at connection. Nothing particularly humorous, even though Deborah swears she can see the spark of something darkly funny buried deep, deep under that painfully awkward exterior.

Deborah finally interrupts after a painful couple of minutes. “What the hell was that?” She catches sight of one of the producers perking up at that and can already see him banking on her becoming the asshole judge, the resident Simon Cowell that will make them millions in memes or whatever the hell is popular these days.

The woman blinks back at her, crinkles her brow. “My stand-up routine.”

“You look like one of Charles Dickens’ sad little orphans.”

“Thanks, dude.”

Jared barely stifles a laugh in the crook of his elbow. Deborah glares at him before turning her attention back to the girl—Ava, according to the call sheet in front of her. “That wasn’t stand up. You have to bring your audience with you when you’re on stage, and instead you’re acting like we’re strangers bumping elbows at a funeral. At least try to seem like you’re happy to be here.”

“Well, I’m not, you…” Ava mutters something under her breath as she turns around. Deborah can’t quite make out the specifics, but she’s been on the receiving end enough to have three good guesses.

“What was that? You wanna say that to my face?”

“Look, you’ve been pretty fucking rude.”

Deborah arches an eyebrow and gives a minute shake of her head to the security guard stepping forward. “Have I now?”

“Yeah, I mean, I dropped everything to be here for this audition.”

“Did you want a gold star just for showing up?” Deborah scoffs.

“Kinda, yeah. I woke up at the asscrack of dawn to fly here in the middle seat on Spirit fucking Airlines, just to audition for a stupid show I don’t even want to be on.”

“So then why the hell are you here, taking up time moping across the stage and making me contemplate homicide? Or suicide. Either one, really.”

Ava takes a deep breath, looks up at the ceiling. And for the first time Deborah feels like she’s getting something honest. “You want to know the truth? It’s the only thing my shitty ass agent could get me, and that’s just because it’s an open fucking call for anyone who’s willing to stand out in that line for hours.” She shakes her head. “I used to write scripts. Good scripts. But I tweeted a joke about that closeted senator from Mississippi who’s sending his son to conversion therapy camp or whatever. And then everybody freaked out. And then some other asshole dug up shit I said when I was, like, 20 years old, and I lost my deal. Got totally fucking cancelled.” She lets out a half-hysterical laugh. “And now no one will hire me. Or apparently choose me over some dude I saw reading Juggling for Dummies out in the parking lot.”

“We actually passed on him,” Deborah says.

“Great. Well, I’m so glad we’re the same, him and me.” Ava picks up her bag from the ground and turns to go.

“Wait,” Deborah calls after her, ignoring the mouthed “No!” from the producers.

Ava pauses, turns halfway back around, and gives Deborah a wary look. “What?”

Deborah props her elbows on the table, rests her chin in her hands and leans forward. She runs her tongue across her teeth. “Tell me.” She can hear that voice she uses with Marty sometimes, the one guaranteed to have him falling at her heels, coming out of her mouth, but she can’t be bothered to care. Not when she’s having fun for the first time all day. She drops her voice even lower, lets the room narrow to just her and Ava. “What was it?”

Ava tilts her head, her eyebrows drawing closer together.

“What was the joke that ruined your life?” She grins, teeth flashing under the overly bright fluorescent bulbs. “I gotta hear it.”

Ava tips her head back before looking Deborah head on. “Senator Rogers is upset because he found out his kid is gay. Apparently, he heard it from one of the guys he was sucking off in the Senate cloak room.” She shakes her head. “I don’t even do jokes like that! I was just trying to call him out for being such a fucking hypocrite because he was the one caught with a male escort. But apparently I crossed a line or something.”

“Oh, honey, no, you didn’t.”

Ava snorts. “Tell that to a million people on Twitter.”

“There is no line in comedy. Your sad little tweet didn’t go ‘too far.’ It’s just not funny.”

“Thanks. Super fucking helpful.”

Jared lets out a forced chuckle. “Well, I guess we’re following the funny lady herself’s lead here, huh?”

Deborah ignores him entirely as she turns back to Ava, pen tapping insistently against her notebook. Her thoughts are racing a mile a minute, and she feels the thrill of coming up with something entirely new for the first time in years. “Sending your son to the woods with a bunch of other horny, gay teens? The only thing you’re gonna convert him from is a top to a bottom.”

Kendra lets out a high-pitched giggle. Ava opens and closes her mouth. “What?”

“Wait. No, no, gotta keep the focus on the dad.” Deborah’s foot is tapping in rhythm with her pen. “Oh, uh, Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, his wife keeps trying to donate him to Goodwill.” She holds out her hands.

Ava’s put back down the backpack she’s apparently brought straight off the plane, like some unaccompanied minor. “Okay, just to be clear, these are all incredibly problematic.”

Deborah waves her hand. “No line. Not if you’re funny enough.”

“Agree to disagree. But what if it’s something like… Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, all his friends are mothballs?”

“Mothballs!” Deborah snaps her fingers. “Yes.” She grins back at Ava. “Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, he shits mothballs.”

Jared makes a quiet eurgh noise, but Ava lets out an involuntary snort of laughter.

Deborah nods, taps her hand against the table. “Yup, that’s it.”

“Alright, uh, can I go now? Really need to start looking for somewhere that might hire me.”

“Sorry,” Kendra coos, marking a little red X on her call sheet.

“Why?” Deborah glances between Ava and the other judges. “We’ll see you back here next week.”

“What? I said I didn’t even want to be here!”

“Yeah, well, you could use feedback from somewhere other than Twitter and whatever chatroom you millennial comics spend your days in brainstorming maudlin ‘jokes’ with no punchline. Now write a new act by this weekend.”

Chapter Text

No matter how many times Jimmy insists this is a “good thing,” Ava refuses to be happy about moving on to the next round of a talent show for adults still chasing the thrill of playing Conrad in their high school theater club’s shitty production of Bye Bye Birdie.

Still, the latest response—a simple, “Stop texting me, I won’t risk my show like that”—from the last supposed “friend” Ava had in the industry was enough to send her out to an open mic night that weekend before flying back to Nevada for callbacks. The new material didn’t earn her any raucous laughter, but it’s an LA club for christ’s sake, not some Vegas casino full of middle-aged couples from Florida. Laughing out loud is so passé, but Ava’s pretty sure she saw a few people nod, maybe even an ironic snort of laughter or two, which is basically a golden seal of approval.

At least it is among the people she wants to impress. Who are, she realizes during the second round of auditions, nothing like the judges Jimmy keeps telling her she really needs to impress.

Kendra and Jake or Jeremy or whatever his name is both turn to Deborah fucking Vance when Ava finishes her set to absolutely no laughter (or approving nods). And seriously, who made the QVC muumuu lady who burned her husband’s house down the arbiter of good comedy?

“I thought I told you to write new material.”

Ava feels her spine stiffen at that. “I did.”

“Sorry, I should have clarified: I wanted you to write funny material.”

“Just because it’s not funny to you—”

“Have you ever watched someone read a New Yorker cartoon?” Deborah interjects.

“Um, sure.”

“How many times have you seen someone actually laugh at one?”

“I mean, sometimes—”

“No,” Deborah cuts her off again. Ava folds her arms over her chest and glares. “No one laughs at them. Maybe a smile. A self-congratulatory little pat on the back for actually understanding the joke. Your act’s the same way.”

“Look, some of us aren’t out here trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

Deborah arches a brow back at her. “Guess what, honey? No one pays to hear a New Yorker read aloud to them for half an hour.” Ava’s actually pretty sure there was a performance artist who did that in West Hollywood last year, but she doesn’t think Deborah really cares. “And hating your audience is never going to get you…un-cancelled, or whatever the hell your generation is calling it. You need your audience as a comic.”

Jared cuts in before Ava can point out that she’s not a fucking stand-up comedian; she’s a writer, and even if she were, she wouldn’t want to be some two-bit hack. “As much fun as this has been, we’re gonna have to move on to our next act, Anna.”

“Ava.”

“Right.” He gives her a smile that’s all teeth and no emotion. “It’s gonna be a no from me.”

Kendra hums into her mic, looks as if she’s actually considering something other than a resounding no before adding, “You know I totally dig your style, and it’s so great having a comic make it past the first round this year, especially with Debbie here!” Ava catches the purse of Deborah’s lips before she forces herself to offer a bland smile to the camera. “But with Drew moving on already, I just can’t say yes in good faith. You should totally watch his act when the show airs, though. Bet you could pick up some pointers!”

“Cool,” Ava mutters, already grabbing her notebook to get the hell off the stage. “Thanks, or whatever.” Maybe she can find a job slinging burgers at an overpriced Hollywood diner until some Kardashian does something culturally insensitive enough to drive her name out of everyone’s memory.

“Wait,” Deborah calls out

Ava can see the camera man drawing his finger across his throat. Deborah ignores him entirely. “You’re my golden stamp or whatever.”

“What?” Jared snorts.

“Your golden ticket?” Kendra asks. “Already? For her?”

“What the hell is a golden ticket?” Ava chimes in.

“You’re through to the next round even though you bombed harder than Jared here’s first solo album.” Deborah holds Ava’s gaze. “You get one last chance. Do better.”

---

That night, Ava glances down between old SVU reruns and finds four missed calls from Jimmy. She texts him back: “What’s up?”

Her phone lights up with an incoming call.

Groaning, Ava answers. “Hello?”

“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all afternoon, Ava!”

“Wait, do you have a real gig for me? An interview? A resume drop? Anything?”

“You have a meeting tomorrow afternoon.”

“Oh my god, I love you. God, I’m so sorry I talked all that shit about that time you tried a goatee, I totally didn’t—”

“No, girl, you were so right. That goatee did not work,” Kayla chimes in. “And why hide that cute little chin dimple of his?”

“Kayla!” Jimmy huffs. “Get off the phone.”

“Roger that.” A beat. “I’ll totally vote for you if there’s no one cuter, Aves!”

“Kayla!”

“Bye!”

Ava hears Jimmy’s loud sigh. When nothing more seems to be forthcoming, she clears her throat. “So…who’s the meeting with? A late night show? Miranda’s show? I heard it got picked up for a second season, and I’ve got such good—”

“Deborah.”

“Deborah?”

“Vance.”

“What? The muumuu lady? No. Why?”

“They’re kaftans. And apparently she stuck her neck out for you today.”

“I didn’t ask her to.”

“Yeah, well, be grateful she did. Because no one—and I mean no one—is picking you up. The board’s only letting me keep you on as a client because you’re on to the next round.”

Ava’s pulse thuds in her ears. For a moment all she can hear is the rush of blood and her mother’s voice reminding her of what a horrible career choice she made, how unstable it is, how she’s going to end up moving back home in her 30s with no degree and nothing to show for her years in LA and no bedroom even left to sleep in anymore. Ava manages to tune back into the conversation in time to hear Jimmy rattling off some address and telling her she has to push back her return flight to LA and spend more time in this godforsaken desert.

---

To say Ava is pissed about the delayed flight and the $50 Uber ride out to a palatial mansion that looks like it got plucked out of an interior design special on how the tackiest members of the 1% live would be an understatement.

Her mood improves not at all when she’s greeted not by the woman forcing her to stay in Las Vegas for an extra day, but by some other woman who seems hella judgy about Ava’s choice in water. She shows Ava to some kind of sitting room, and Ava forgoes the velour couch with more tassels than she can fathom in favor of snooping around the photographs lining the shelves. She finds a younger Deborah performing. A candid of her with a little kid. A few of her with some old dudes, only one or two of whom Ava recognizes as some of the comedy greats. Then there’s a photo of Deborah, sans glitter and kaftans, sitting at what looks like some kind of congressional hearing. It’s jarring enough to have Ava picking up the frame and trying to figure out what it’s from.

“If you’re done pawing through my things…”

Ava nearly fumbles the photo before managing to get it propped back up with just one or two extra thumb prints on the glass. “Wasn’t sure if I could sit, or if you needed that couch in pristine condition when you send it back to the Liberace exhibit it’s clearly on loan from.”

Deborah snorts, and Ava can’t quite help the tiny flare of pleasure at it. “I knew you could be funny somewhere under that horrendously awkward exterior of yours.” And there it goes again, just as quickly.

“Did you make me come all the way out here to your museum of Antiques Roadshow rejects just to insult me?”

“I brought you out here so that you’d stop embarrassing yourself on national television.”

“Believe it or not, I’m proud of the shit I write.”

“Wonderful. I’ll get you a participation trophy for putting words on the page.”

“Wow, that joke’s as old and tired as your act.”

“Oh, you’ve seen it, have you?”

Ava rubs at the back of her neck. “I’ve seen, you know, clips.”

“Clips. Right.” Deborah takes in a deep breath. “Why are you here, Ava?”

“You told me to be here. Or you told my agent to get me here.”

“Please, I have better things to do. One of my employees told Jimmy he had eight hours to get ahold of you. But I mean on the show.”

“I told you—”

“Yes, yes, you’re cancelled over a failed joke. But what I fail to understand is just what you think you’re accomplishing by showing every potential employer how deeply unfunny you are.”

“This is the kind of humor they want.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Um, yeah, it is.”

Deborah sighs and turns on her heel, pacing across the room. “Any writing room worth its salt wants someone adaptable. Someone who’ll meet the show and its audience where they’re at. All you’re showing them is that you’re a stubborn little shit who refuses to take constructive criticism from your own target audience.”

“When’s the last time you changed your act?”

“When’s the last time I needed to? I got where I am now by reading the fucking room.”

Ava can feel herself digging her heels in, and she knows Jimmy’ll kill her for it if he ever finds out, but she can’t bring herself to stop it. “Yeah, and I’ll get where I need to be by knowing what people who aren’t retirees wanna see.”

“Fine. You want to lose to Drew fucking Higgins and show every aspiring young comedian that he’s the future of comedy? Go ahead and be my guest.”

“Who?”

“Oh, you don’t already know him?” Deborah taunts, her voice lilting over the words. “Here I thought you knew everything.”

Groaning, Ava pulls her phone from her back pocket and taps out his name. She clicks on the first YouTube video to pop up and fast-forwards through the intro material. When it reloads, he’s talking about Tinder. “I mean look, we all know there’s a triangle when it comes to women. They can be hot. They can be single. They can be sane. But never all three at once. But guys, I’m here to tell you, looking for that golden trifecta? You’re missing out on the best sex of your life. She’s ugly? Best blowjobs of your life. She’s—”

Ava closes out of the app before he can get any further. “How the hell is this guy my competition?”

“He’s the only other comic left, and unlike you, he’s got Jared and Kendra on his side.”

“And you?”

“What? You think I want to see that fucking guy go any further?”

Ava shrugs. “Apparently he knows how to cater to his audience.”

“No, he knows that he can walk into any comedy club and have 60% of the audience already on his side with shitty jokes recycled from the 70s.”

“So what? Now you’re gonna be a feminist by telling me I have to work twice as hard as him?”

“You do!” Deborah snaps. “Jesus, Ava, this can’t be a foreign fucking concept to you. Maybe you’re smart and funny and talented, but that’s the baseline. And it is never going to be enough. You are always going to have to work really fucking hard and claw your way to a place where you can maybe make it a little better.”

“And what? That’s what your golden stamp on me was? Your way of so generously giving back from your giant Cheesecake Factory house?”

“No, that was me giving you a leg to stand on since you keep cutting off your own. Giving back is this.” She gestures between the two of them. “I’m giving you a whole fucking day with me if you can shove that overinflated ego of yours into that backpack you carry everywhere long enough to learn something.”

“And what am I supposed to learn from you? That it’s super progressive to tell jokes about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus, so long as I’m shitting on men instead of women?”

“Fine, then go home. Get the hell out of my house and humiliate yourself on television. That’ll really show me.”

Ava rubs at her forehead, remembers Jimmy’s warning, pictures all the phone calls she’ll endure if her mother sees her getting voted off of American Talent after a scant three weeks. “Alright. I’m listening. How are you teaching me?”

At that moment, someone comes bustling into the room. “I’ve got us a meeting with Marty to talk about Fridays and Saturdays—” He glances up then and spots Ava.

“Marcus, this is Ava. The one I was telling you about.” He grimaces, then looks over at Ava and offers her a half-smile.

“Ava, change of plans. I need to take this meeting. You’ll come to my show tonight instead.”

“But my flight—”

“Marcus will handle it.” And then Deborah is off in a swoosh of fabric.

Ava blinks over at Marcus. “Look, you really don’t have to do this. It’s not like I need to see the show. YouTube’s a thing, ya know?” Marcus doesn’t smile back at her. “She’s a, uh, real kick in the ass as a boss, huh? But seriously, I know that’s not your job.”

“You’re not my job. She is.”

“Um, right. Yeah. Okay.”

“Why don’t you just give me your flight information so that I can do my job better than you’ve done yours?”

There doesn’t seem to be any good response outside of AirDropping him her ticket. He ignores her questions about what the hell she’s supposed to do for the next three hours because she’s sure as fuck not spending another 50 bucks to Uber back into the city.

So she spends the next half hour scrolling through Twitter and debating a text to Ruby and peering at the pictures in the living room before Josephina catches her vaping inside. Then she spends another couple hours outside skirting around the edge of the pool and vaping and getting a horrible sunburn that’ll make her look even worse on television. Great.

At some point, Josephina shows up with a plate of food for her. It looks suspiciously like what Deborah’s corgis are eating, but it’s still ten times better than the lukewarm chicken parm she ordered from room service last night was, so she can’t quite bring herself to care that she’s getting the dogs’ leftovers.

She’s nearly done eating when Deborah comes storming outside, looking angrier than Ava’s ever seen her. “Get in the car.”

“I—okay.”

Ava ends up bringing her plate with her and ignores Marcus’s glare and the wrinkle of some other guy’s nose. He, at the very least, seems to put Deborah in a slightly better mood. Something about making eBay his bitch and getting her some old-ass rug. Ava wonders if he’s the one who’s got a hard on for too many tassels.

When they arrive, Ava is swept up in the momentum of it all, shuffling her way through the back hallways, plate still in hand because really, there hasn’t been a good place to put it.

“Not back here,” Marcus says, stopping Ava before she can follow the rest of Deborah’s team into the green room. “Go watch from the wings. Try to learn something.” He closes the door on her.

In a fit of frustration, Ava hands Deborah’s fancy plate off to some PA or other and stomps over to the wings, sending Ruby few carefully curated emojis in response to her latest Insta story. And then finally—finally—Deborah’s strolling out on stage in a glittery pantsuit that would put the wardrobe of every Hillary Clinton drag queen Ava’s ever seen to shame.

---

“Learn something?” Deborah asks once they’re back at the Cheesecake Factory and Marcus and the eBay guy apparently named Damian have been sent home for the evening.

Ava has spent an agonizing half hour reading through every rejection message she’s gotten back from her industry contacts, trying to remember that this woman is in charge of the sad existence she now calls a career. “I, uh, you definitely have stage presence.” She pats herself on the back for managing something both complimentary and true. “I could probably up my game ten points just from copying your posture.”

Deborah arches an eyebrow. “You’ll notice my audience was also laughing.”

“Right. Yeah. Yeah, you, uh, read the room, I guess.”

“What aren’t you saying?” She takes two steps forward until she’s barely a foot away from Ava, who is suddenly realizing just how much shorter she is than Deborah in heels.

“Look, it’s not my kind of humor.”

“Because it has punchlines?”

“No. I…” Ava rubs at her forehead. “What do you want me to say?”

“You haven’t held back yet. Why start now?”

“This shit was tired 20 years ago, but now? I mean, it’s like watching Friends. You know at some point someone thought it was funny and maybe even a little progressive, and lots of people are still laughing, but you can’t think too hard about it.”

“Is that all?”

Ava should shut up. But every bullshit thing Deborah’s said about her is running through her mind, and nothing in the world could get her to stop now. “Beyond all the gender essentialism, there’s so much about gay people. I mean, shit, are you a lesbian?”

“Are you?” Deborah shoots back. “’Cause you dress like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.”

“There you go again! Seriously, you’re a little fucking obsessed for a straight lady. And half those jokes would get you more cancelled than I ever was. So by all means, go for it! Keep at it. Maybe your new viewers will be young enough to know how to Google you, and then you’ll be the one in the spotlight, and I can go get my old goddam job back.”

“Get the hell out of my house.”

“Gladly!”

Ava storms out in a flurry of righteous indignation before realizing she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere without a car to be found.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

The only good thing about having endured this many weeks of American Talent auditions is that by now, there are fewer acts that make Deborah actively want to claw her eyes out. Sure, there are still the stray wishes for an earthquake or a freak tornado to come and kill them all, but it’s a vast improvement from those early open casting calls across the country. There are precisely zero jugglers and pickup artists left in the pile these days. And Deborah has not suffered through another off-key rendition of “I Will Always Love You” in weeks.

Of course, in exchange, her home base is about to be relocated to a suite in some LA hotel, since apparently no expenses are to be spared once they’re down to the final 20.

The network has finally begun airing those early audition episodes, much to Marcus’s delight, and the producers have explained that they’ll condense the material from the callback rounds into episodes that will air during their first few weeks in LA before live filming begins. The producers have explained she and the other judges are meant to mentor the contestants in the meantime—something about community bonding that makes Deborah gag. Damian has also gone on and on at length about how they’ll use those weeks to film “behind the scenes” segments about each of the contestants, get some sob stories and interpersonal drama to really spice things up. Deborah wants no part of it and has made Marcus swear he’ll book her as many QVC gigs as he can.

“Welcome back, Cynthia!” Jared calls out, and Deborah jerks back into the present moment. She blinks up at the young woman striding across the stage with a too-wide smile on her face. Deborah vaguely remembers being unimpressed last time, but Jared had swayed Kendra to push her through.

She attempts a Beyoncé song this time and misses enough high notes that all three judges send her packing.

The contortionist that follows tells them he’ll be “attempting something never been seen before on the stage of American Talent.” They let the EMTs pass along the bad news about his future in the competition.

Even the tap dancer Vivian can’t get her act together enough to make it through, and the assistant producers on set that day are starting to look panicked at just how many people they’ve sent home.

It is at that moment, of course, that Ava strides through the door. Deborah plasters on her best professional smile when the camera pans to her, letting it fall only when Ava glances in her direction.

“I’ve, uh, I’ve got some new material that I hope you guys are gonna like,” Ava says, flashing a smile at Jared.

The jokes have punchlines—mediocre punchlines, but punchlines nonetheless. They appeal to the audience. There’s a whole bit about the boybands of Ava’s youth that has Jared preening. Deborah swears she even sees a few of her own signature expressions thrown in for good measure. And she hates every goddam second of it.

Jared and Kendra both clap when Ava finishes. Traitors.

“Ava,” Jared says, arms spread wide, “you blew me away! I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold on you the first two times, but you’ve really turned it around this week.”

Kendra nods rapidly, grinning at the relieved-looking producers. “You keep working this hard, and America’s gonna have a hard time picking between you and Drew!”

Ava’s already gotten her two yes votes, but the cameras are lingering on Deborah. Ava lifts her chin. “It’s a no from me,” Deborah says.

“Really?” Jared spins to look at her. “A no to your own golden ticket?”

Deborah shrugs. “I could have cobbled this act together from any faceless YouTube comic’s bits. Getting a laugh is the bare minimum. This wasn’t Ava Daniels getting a laugh. This was a few words strung together in the right order landing well. Like monkeys managing Shakespeare.”

“Wow, fuck you, dude.”

“Oh look, there she is. Surly and sullen, but at least there’s a personality behind it, unlike that act of yours.”

“And what’s the personality behind yours? Hates men? Or just hates sex with men?” Ava scoffs. “I’m starting to see why your ex-husband left you for your own sister.”

Deborah’s eyes go wide, but she spots the cameras still on her, remembers those early years post-divorce when all anyone wanted was to set her off, see if she’d burn something else down. She pulls that anger back inside, crushes it into something small and hard, lets the corners of her mouth curl up into something cold and cruel. “At least I had someone to leave me. From the industry gossip I’ve picked up, no one will go near you with a 10-foot stick.”

Ava practically storms out the door, and Deborah ignores Kendra’s questions until the next performer walks through the doors.

---

LA is everything Deborah loathes. It’s just as fake as Vegas with none of the self-awareness. Every restaurant has its own “home-brewed” no-brand colas. Her coffee costs ten dollars and takes half an hour to prepare, apparently with nothing but the weight of gravity helping it along. And around every goddam corner is some reminder of the years she’d spent here with Frank, thinking they were happy, that they made each other better, funnier.

“You’ve got drinks with the top 20 at 7, followed by dinner,” Marcus tells her, reading from his iPad as she surveys the suite she’ll be calling home for the next couple of months while Josephina keeps her house in order and Penta-fucking-tonix takes over her stage during her “voluntary leave of absence.” Voluntary her ass.

“Surely you’ve found something better to get me out of that,” Deborah scoffs.

“You’re contractually obligated to attend, but,” he continues, cutting off her objections, “you just need to stay long enough for them to get footage of you. No after parties required.”

Deborah sighs.

Before she knows it, she’s flashing a practiced smile at the American Talent producers and accepting a glass of a mediocre red wine that she can only hope will make the evening tolerable.

Still, Deborah didn’t get where she is by sulking in the corner—precisely what she spots Ava doing with a glass of wine in one hand and her phone in the other—so she holds her head high and lets the other contestants flock to her. She bites her tongue and doesn’t tell them to get the hell out of this industry while they still have the chance, doesn’t point out that talent and a decent nose job and shiny hair can only get you so far, that it’s designed to leech every last drop of creativity from you before tossing you aside for someone newer, fresher, younger.

Grabbing another glass of wine from a passing server, Deborah lets out an airy laugh at some comment Kendra’s made and subtly glances down at her phone to see if there might not be some text from Marcus or Damian or DJ, a legitimate D’Jam that could get her out of here any earlier than her contract stipulates.

“Gotta get back to the Cheesecake Factory before last call?”

Deborah purses her lips and glances up to find Ava hovering behind her. “Spent enough time socializing with the windowsill? Ready to move on to real people?”

Ava hums and tilts her head to the side. “Idk, it might ruin my cool, brooding vibe.”

“Speaking an acronym aloud already did that, honey.”

“Ooh, is that sick burn gonna make it into the show? Some totally original schtick about young people to stick into your chain email of an act?”

“Mm, no, I think you’ll manage to humiliate yourself without any extra help on my part.”

“Ladies,” Jared interrupts, darting a glance between them. “Dinner’s starting.”

Deborah flashes him a smile that fades as soon as she realizes there are only two seats left. Side-by-side at the far end of the table. Wonderful.

For a brief moment, Deborah lets herself believe the night will breeze by easily enough. Cameron, one of the producers, stands up from his spot at the head of the table and begins rhapsodizing about the show and how wonderful it is to see so many talented, creative individuals at a single table. It’s a lot of the same self-congratulatory bullshit Deborah’s long since inured herself to, and she’s content to let it wash over her. At least until he turns it over to Quinn with some ominous words about “community building” and “group cohesion.”

Sure enough, Quinn suggests they all go around the table to introduce themselves, give the group a sense of their “biggest dreams” and something “fun” about them.

“Jesus fucking christ,” Deborah mutters under her breath, barely loud enough to be heard by those closest to her. It earns her a scandalized glare from Jade, some singer-songwriter from one of the flyover states, and a snort from Ava.

The cameraman rushes to the other end of the table, and Deborah pulls her phone back out and texts an SOS to Marcus. As she slips it back into her clutch, she notices Ava carefully pulling a small tin from her own bag—some pleather monstrosity that’s barely better than the backpack. She squints over at her. Are those…gummy bears? God, she’s been reduced to working with literal children.

“Can’t wait 10 minutes for dinner?” Deborah scoffs.

“First of all,” Ava whispers, “it’s gonna be way longer than 10 minutes. Second of all, they’re medicinal.” She wiggles her eyebrows at Deborah.

“No wonder none of your jokes have punchlines.”

Ava holds Deborah’s gaze and arches an eyebrow back at her. “No wonder you seem like you’ve got a stick shoved so far up your—”

Jade clears her throat. Loudly.

Ava just grins and holds the tin out to Deborah.

“Absolutely not.”

“Alright. Enjoy your unbearable evening.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Deborah darts her hand out and grabs one.

Ava looks delighted. Deborah still wants to strangle her. But maybe just a little less.

---

Deborah offers an almost genuine smile to the cater-waiter as he places a small plate of salad in front of her, followed by a basket of warm bread for their corner of the table. With the cameras gone for the evening, she thinks she might just indulge. The steam wafting off of them smells almost indecent.

“Shit, which of these forks do we use?” Ava asks, running her fingertip along the length of her soup spoon.

“Far left. Though by all means try with the spoon. I’m sure the editors would be grateful for any footage of people laughing at you.”

“Funny,” Ava huffs.

Deborah stops. Blinks twice. “Are those your hands?”

“Uh, yeah?” Ava holds one of them up in front of her face, and Deborah reaches out to grab it.

“Jesus, they’re enormous.”

“Thanks, I’ll be sure to list you as a reference on my Her profile.”

“What?”

“Sorry, it’s one of those gay jokes that didn’t come out of the 80s, so you probably wouldn’t get it.” Deborah narrows her eyes at Ava, who simply shrugs in the face of her annoyance. “Well-endowed, ya know?” She makes an obscene gesture, and Deborah can’t help cackling at Jade’s look of pure horror.

“Like fucking E.T. Positively extraterrestrial.”

“I’ll be sure to call Katy Perry.”

Jade angles her whole body away from the two of them, loudly inserting herself into the boring conversation happening to her right.

“Buzzkill,” Deborah mutters, earning a delighted laugh from Ava that has Deborah scooting her chair just a little closer.

“Want a roll?” Ava offers, holding one out to her. “Still warm.”

“Get your catcher’s mitts off the food.”

Ava rolls her eyes, but she reaches out for the basket anyway, holding it out in front of Deborah. “Fine. Pick your own.”

“I shouldn’t.”

“Um, why?”

Deborah arches an eyebrow at her. “Haven’t you heard? A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.”

“Haven’t you heard? Apps don’t count. They’re, like, negative calories, just getting you ready for dinner and shit.”

“Good luck with that when you hit 40.” Deborah picks at her salad and tries not to notice how many breadcrumbs have landed in Ava’s lap at this point.

“C’mon, are you seriously gonna deprive yourself of everything delicious for the rest of your life? It’s warm bread! And it’s free! That’s the best kind of food.”

Deborah snorts.

“Well, I hate to say it,” Ava sighs, “but that’s some disordered eating right there.”

“It’s a classic for a reason.”

“Look, I’m just gonna leave this extra roll on your plate. Some just in case bread.”

“You carry a lot of that around with you?”

Ava makes a little noise in the back of her throat. “Tragically, it leaves a lot of crumbs in the purse. But I do keep my just in case granola bar next to my just in case condoms and DivaCup. Different ends of the spectrum, but good to be prepared, ya feel?”

The return of the cater-waiters saves Deborah from having to ask what the hell a diva cup is and why Ava can’t just carry a water bottle around like a regular person.

During dinner, Quinn and Cameron go over more announcements that Deborah barely hears over Ava’s snarky running commentary. Deborah isn’t sure if it’s the pot or if it’s just the lack of a stage, but somehow Ava’s actually funny like this.

There’s something about mentorship; she vaguely recalls Marcus’s having told her there might be work outside of the regular show. And then reminders to the contestants to sign up for a slot for filming with friends and family. It’s the first time all night Ava’s fallen silent, and Deborah nudges Ava with her foot.

“What? Got a soft spot for all those sappy backstories?”

“Oh, you know,” Ava says with a shrug, “formative childhood stuff. Watched too many Lifetime original movies when I stayed home from school to skip gym class.”

“That’ll do it to you.”

Still, high or not, it doesn’t escape Deborah’s notice that Ava visibly freezes when the sign-up sheet comes her way. She scrawls her name in the very last available slot before practically throwing the clipboard at Jade.

---

Two days later, Marcus sits down across from Deborah and gives her the same look he did the first time DJ arranged to have TMZ photograph her.

“What now?” Deborah sighs.

“Remember when I mentioned that the show has a coaching and mentorship component built in?”

Deborah hums around a sip of her coffee. “They bring in some ‘leader in the field’ for everyone, right?”

“Right. Usually, yes.”

“Oh god. Don’t tell me. Who’d they get for Drew? Dane Cook? Louis C.K.? That man-child Tish or Tosh or whatever made-up name he’s using these days?”

“No!” Marcus pauses and glances back down at his iPad. “No, none of them.” He glances back up at her. “This is actually about Ava.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve been assigned as her mentor.”

“That can’t be right.”

He shrugs. “She signed off on it.”

“It’s a conflict of interest.”

“Jared and Kendra both have a contestant as well.” He shakes his head. “Something about trying to integrate the judges more into the community.”

“Integrate, sure.” Deborah snorts. “More like Jared wanting more chances to fuck a contestant.”

“Well, either way, you now have the next several weeks to spend helping Ava ‘improve her craft.’”

“Great. Maybe I’ll just get her high before the first show and see what happens.”

Marcus’s brows draw together. “What?”

“Oh, nothing.”

---

The first week of mentorship is largely spent flinging barbs back and forth and snapping at one another. Deborah shows up each day with something for Ava to work on, and Ava, arriving at least half an hour late, gets defensive and lashes out.

It isn’t until Friday morning, when Deborah offers to workshop a piece with Ava, that things begin to change. Not all at once. No, nothing is ever that easy with millennials, Deborah thinks. But Ava sulks a little less. Seems more amenable to some of Deborah’s suggestions when she, in turn, gets to point out all the little things that don’t work in a bit Deborah’s pulled out of her ass about her hysterectomy that Ava deems “raw” and “honest.”

By the following week, Ava’s even showing up at Deborah’s suite on time (vape still in hand, but, well, she’s a work in progress, not a polished final act). She’s started bringing the notebook Deborah forced into her hands back on their first day of mentorship instead of trying to tap things out on her phone (and inevitably getting distracted), and Deborah finds herself actually laughing at some of Ava’s material.

It’s going well. Well enough that Deborah invites Ava to come along to the grand opening of some pizza place out in the suburbs that Marcus assures her is paying “LA money” for her to show up and sign a few menus, make a few jokes, take a few pictures. She lets Ava pitch her some material on the way over and catches Ava’s look of surprise when she actually uses one of the jokes.

Really, things are going as smoothly as these kinds of things do until the manager, some middle-aged balding man who’s about as Italian as Pizza Hut asks her to soot up for a couple of photos. That old gag. She flashes him a smile that’s all teeth and agrees. But then Ava—fucking Ava—is grabbing her arm and pulling her away.

“You don’t have to do this.”

Deborah catches Marcus’s look of surprise and annoyance, and a tiny little part of her—that part that still clings to hope, to some naïve fucking optimism that should have withered up and died years ago—wishes he’d ever thought to look for whatever it is Ava thinks she saw. “It’s fine,” Deborah manages through her clenched jaw.

“It’s not. It’s degrading.”

Anger flares from somewhere deep inside of Deborah and she rounds on Ava. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand. It’s not degrading when I’m the one who made the bit.”

“It is when—”

“Wait in the fucking car, Ava.”

Ava shrugs out from under Marcus’s guiding touch and storms off. Deborah grits her teeth and bares it as her hair is mussed, her face begrimed, a whole chapter of her life that she’d rather forget dredged up yet again.

Deborah ignores Ava the whole ride back to the suite—and god, she longs for her own home on a day like this. The fact that Barry and Cara are there to greet her when she walks through the door isn’t nearly enough, even if she delights in watching Ava’s face fall when she realizes Deborah has started talking to the dogs, not her.

Finally, Ava tries her luck. “Look, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, and—”

“How innovative. Why don’t you write a think piece about what you’ve learned?”

“What I was saying,” Ava grits out, words getting louder and louder, “is that I fell, like, ass-deep into a rabbit hole on Little Debbie stan Reddit.”

“What the hell is that? No, I don’t want to know.”

“There isn’t even any forensic evidence to suggest arson. It was a, like, run-of-the-mill small appliance fire. Not even anything cool, like illegal fireworks.”

Deborah swallows hard. “And?”

“Did you even burn his house down?”

“No.” As if it’s ever been that simple.

“Jesus, Deborah, then why are you letting people think you did?”

“Who’s going to believe me, Ava? Hmm, I’m the crazy ex-wife, who went mad with jealousy after my husband and the father of my child decided that the idea that I might be more successful than him was too much to handle, that my ambition had become…unattractive.” She bites her tongue and forces back down everything else she’s ever wanted to say over years and years with no one there to listen.

“I do! I believe you.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” Deborah sighs. She doesn’t care to sort through the jumble of emotions roiling somewhere deep inside of her at Ava’s frank declaration. As if it’s easy. As if Ava isn’t the first person in decades to look Deborah in the eye and take her at her word.

“There’s actually, like, hundreds of people on the internet who believe you. There’s even a big conspiracy that Frank planned it to ruin that Tonight Show host gig you were all set to land. And, like, I’m gonna be honest with you: I know I’m kind of an easy mark for conspiracy theories with how often I’m stoned off my ass, but this one sorta rings true, Deb.”

“What a novelty. Something true actually sounding true.”

“Shit.” Ava drops down into a tassel-less chair. “What a fucking prick.”

“May he rot in hell.”

“And for your sister?”

Deborah shrugs, like the question isn’t a knife to the gut. “What? Like your family’s perfect?” It’s a low blow, and she knows it.

Ava visibly flinches. That cold, cruel part of Deborah savors every second of it.

“Tell me, what are we all going to learn about the great Ava when a camera crew goes knocking at the Daniels’ door?”

“Look, I didn’t mean—”

“Will it be a grand televised coming out? The moment you reveal you dropped out of college to pursue the least stable career in the world? Or are dear mom and dad—”

“Stop it!” Ava’s chest heaves with the words as she stands toe-to-toe with Deborah, glaring and refusing to back down.

“Why? We only get to pick apart my life?”

“I—I’m sorry, okay?”

Deborah sniffs. “Surely the gay thing can’t be a surprise with those hideous shoes of yours.”

Ava lets out a slightly watery laugh. “Fuck off. First of all, I came out to them in high school. Second of all, I’m not gay; I’m bi. That’s very monosexist of you.”

“Please,” Deborah scoffs. “I was sleeping with women before you were even born.” (It’s true, if a bit of an exaggeration. Just one woman, a fling she let go on until memories of the years the press had spent hounding her after Frank had her shutting things down within a single look back. Ava doesn’t need to know everything, though.)

“What?”

“Surely it hasn’t escaped your notice that I’m older than you.”

“No, but—”

“So what is it with the parents, then?”

“Wait. Can we just circle back to—”

“They do know you’re a comic, right?”

“Deborah!”

“Hmm?” Deborah allows herself a quick glance over at Ava, who looks ready to explode with questions, her face nearly red with the effort of trying to get a word in edgewise. Deborah can’t bite back the smirk then.

“Oh, screw you. Were you just fucking with me with that whole hooking up with women thing?”

“No, no, every so often the truth is plenty.”

“Okay, but do I know them? Can I guess who they were? Was it just two? More than two? Twenty questions! Are they still—”

“Make it to the finals, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

Ava pouts.

Deborah rolls her eyes. “Please, I’ve had corgi puppies. You think that look’s gonna work on me?”

“You feed them steak from Whole Foods. Have you really ever said no to them?”

“They don’t sleep in bed with me, now do they?” (They do on cold nights or after trips to the vet, but Ava doesn’t need to know that either.)

“Gotta leave room for all those other famous sapphic stand-ups, right? Was it Wanda? Margaret? Oh my god, was it Lily?”

Deborah shakes her head and abandons Ava for the kitchenette where she’s had Marcus set up her soda fountain. By the time she makes it back with a fresh Diet Coke in hand, Ava is nearly through listing every queer-leaning female comedian she can think of. “How are the rewrites on your act coming?”

“So not cool to just cut off conversation like that. We were really vibing, D.”

“Never call me that again.”

“Ugh, fine. They’re…coming.”

“Great. We’re going to an open mic night to try them out tomorrow.”

“Uh, I’m pretty sure our contracts say we can’t perform on anything but American Talent. Not that I really care about that, but I kinda need this job to pay for the townhouse ten blocks over that Marcus has informed me I way overpaid for.”

“You’re telling me you live ten blocks away?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“You were an hour late for our first meeting and told me it was because of the ‘killer traffic.’”

Ava shoots a shit-eating grin up at her. “Would you believe me if I told you there were killer lines at the coffee shop? I mean, honestly, you wouldn’t have wanted to see me before my matcha latte.”

“You’re insufferable. Tomorrow: be on time.”

“Okay, but, like, I really can’t get thrown off another show in scandal.”

“Relax. We’re driving up to Sacramento.”

“Ugh, why the fuck would we do that?”

“Because of that attitude right there.”

Ava tilts her head to the side.

“No one’s gonna look twice at you in Sacramento, and no one from LA would deign to go looking for you there.” She holds Ava’s gaze. “So, you ready to get your ass handed to you by crowds that couldn’t give a single shit about how ‘in’ disaffected irony is these days?”

---

Ava bombs. Well, she doesn’t bomb like she did at her first audition. But half the jokes don’t land, and the half that do aren’t exactly getting the same reception here they might have with whatever hipster vegan café crowd Ava’s got in mind as her dream audience. Still, there are a few bits that have the crowd whooping along with her, and Deborah makes a note of them.

But none of that is what sticks with Deborah.

Because on the drive up, Ava had oh so casually suggested Deborah actually take some of the scattered bits she’s been workshopping with Ava to keep her on target and turn them into something of their own—some brand-new honesty hour.

Deborah had scoffed at the very idea of it. Everyone had made it perfectly clear decades ago that they’d rather laugh at her than believe her, and the idea that people might somehow do both? Her brain stutters to a stop before she can let herself contemplate how it might feel. She’d waved Ava off, insisted that nothing was less funny than the truth.

And Ava—goddam Ava Daniels—had looked over at her with something almost like respect in her gaze and said, “You can make anything funny.”

The words, unfathomable a mere few weeks ago, dripped with the kind of earnest sincerity Ava normally reserves for reusable cups and her search for the perfect breakfast burrito.

Deborah shrugged them off then, but they stick with her. Come back to her at night when she’s trying to fall asleep. During Marcus’s morning updates. When she’s meant to be listening in on a call about some new QVC shapewear line.

She shouldn’t even contemplate a whole new act. It’s the kind of career-ending decision that she just knows would give Marcus an aneurism if she so much as mentioned the thought of it. Besides, the whole point of being on this godforsaken show was to prove to Marty that she can attract a younger demo, that she deserves to keep her shows and her stage and everything she’s gotten by doing her act exactly as it is now.

No amount of telling herself that can keep the stray thoughts away. She finds herself scrawling notes here and there, leaving them around the suite like breadcrumbs for her millennial Gretel.

Ava, who may or may not have learned a few things working with Deborah, hasn’t brought them up directly, but she’s begun ordering the post-its and bits of scrap paper, stacking them up with her own penciled-in additions and leaving them where she knows Deborah is bound to see them. They don’t talk about it, but Ava pushes harder than ever when they workshop Deborah’s material, pulling stories from Deborah that she’s had walled up behind locked doors for years and years and somehow, impossibly, helping her to craft them into something that almost seems funny. The kind of thing that holds the potential to elicit more laughter than pity, at the very least.

It has Deborah preoccupied enough that she nearly misses Ava’s breakdown in the corner of her living room.

Ava sometimes paces while she writes, and Deborah hadn’t noticed the frantic speed of her steps until Ava had blurted out, “What if I got into an accident—just a little one! Like, Marsha Brady ‘my nose!’ levels of injured instead of Regina George getting plowed down by a bus?”

“What the hell are you on about now? Is this some new bit? I told you, what you have is good.” Deborah doesn’t think she’s necessarily supposed to be as deeply involved in her coaching as she is, but fuck if these producers have given her clear instructions, and she’s not going to leave Ava out there flailing next to Drew fucking Higgins.

“If I was under, like, concussion observation, surely they wouldn’t make me get on a transcontinental flight, right? That would be total madness. A lawsuit in the making. Oh! What if I just threaten to sue them?”

The pieces slot into place. The visit home. The behind-the-scenes filming. Ava sets off tomorrow for Massachusetts with filming scheduled for all day on Wednesday, then a long flight back on Thursday morning. “It’s one day.”

“And two nights.”

“One day. I think you can handle it.”

“I mean, fuck, what if I can’t, dude?” Ava seems to be in enough distress that Deborah lets the nickname slide. “I can just see how they’re gonna spin it.” She shakes her head and starts pacing again. “All reality shows have the roles, ya know?”

Deborah hums. She doesn’t actually watch enough of these shows to really know, but she can guess.

“I’m obviously not the superstar who came outta nowhere. And I don’t have big enough tits to be the bitchy girl stirring up drama. And I don’t get to be the chill guy, ’cause that’s always a dude. No matter how much weed I smoke. But there’s always the sad sob story. The underdog who isn’t that great but gets votes because everyone feels so goddam bad for her. And that’s gonna be me.”

“Hey, you don’t know that people’ll vote for you.” It’s Ava’s particular brand of asshole banter, and normally it’d be more than enough to pull her out of this mood, but today she’s far too deep.

“My dad, he…” Ava runs her fingers through her hair and shakes her head. “He had a stroke. A bad one. And he—he’s fine, you know? But he didn’t, like, totally recover. And they’re gonna want to put him on camera and turn it into this whole big thing. And then my mom, jesus fuck.” Ava whirls on her feet, and Deborah sees pure panic flash in her eyes. “The whole world’s gonna hear my mom talk about how she warned me against this career, and it’s so unstable, and I already got fired once—not that I’ve even told them that—and why am I even trying again? I’m just gonna embarrass them and burn out and crash so hard that I have to come home and move back into my old bedroom even though now there’s apparently some cat that lives there, which, like, what the actual fuck? Mom’s never even liked cats, and they make me sneeze, and—”

“Ava.” Deborah steps in her line of movement and clasps her shoulder. “Breathe.”

Ava takes in a shuddering inhale.

“What if I promise you that I have some of the most litigious, overpriced attorneys on this side of the Mississippi who would be more than happy to make sure nothing that goes against your father’s wishes is aired?”

“Really?”

Deborah shrugs, looks away from the naked appreciation shining in Ava’s eyes. “You might’ve signed away your right to dignity with the show, but he didn’t.”

“And you…you’d do that? For me?”

“Consider it one for your dad. Besides, how would I ever know if I’d actually made you funny if I had to worry that America was only voting for you out of pity?”

Ava’s body practically crashes into Deborah’s in a hug that feels more like a linebacker’s tackle. Ava disentangles herself before Deborah can really comprehend what’s happening, and she’s muttering a hundred apologies as she stumbles over her feet and to the door, excuses dropping from her lips as she books it to the elevator.

And that, well, that could have been it.

Chapter Text

The two layovers—one in Seattle and another in Chicago, and really, what sort of cheap-ass deal did the producers get for her anyway?—mean that the flight is long enough that Ava’s Xanax has completely worn off by the time she lands in Boston. She trudges over to the rideshare area and tries to find Bryon in a silver Kia amidst the sea of cars and bodies jostling her. Eventually she spots him and tries to offer him something like a real smile when he gets the door for her.

As they make their way out of the packed airport in fits and starts, Bryon asks if she wants music or a water bottle. She shakes her head, tells him he can play whatever he wants. All she really wants is her vape, but the last time she did that in an Uber, her rider rating had dropped a whole fucking star overnight—asshole; the unwritten rules are clearly 5-stars for a driver who doesn’t crash on the trip and 5-stars for a passenger who doesn’t barf in the back.

Instead, Ava drops her head to the back of the seat, closes her eyes, and fights the compulsion to fling the door open and sprint back to the airport. Hell, she’d even take a bus terminal at this point; she’s not picky.

Sooner than she’d like, they’re rolling to a stop on the same quiet block that still features in too many of Ava’s nightmares. It’s not like she had the worst childhood or anything. Just run-of-the-mill shit. Some bullies. Not many friends. No one that really understood her. But her dad’s always been in her corner, and she can’t— She shakes her head. No need to think about heavy shit.

“Ava!” Her dad greets her in the doorway with a broad smile and open arms, and she lets herself melt into it. Pretends she doesn’t notice the plastic cannula, the air being fed to him. Doesn’t let herself think about what it means that he needs it, whether her mother might not be so off base in some of those paranoid hypotheticals she’s always rattling off at Ava over the phone.

“Dad.” It’s muffled in his shoulder—enough that she hopes he can’t hear the way her voice cracks over the single syllable.

“God, kiddo, it’s been too long.”

She pulls back, sniffs back any tears. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s been…” She shakes her head. “Super busy, but I’m here now!”

“And with a whole camera crew tomorrow, I hear.” He throws an arm around her shoulders as he guides her inside. “I always knew you could do it.” Ava feels her throat go tight. “Though I have to say, didn’t expect you to be the one telling jokes on the stage. Not after your eighth-grade talent show.”

Ava cringes and lets herself laugh. “Maybe we don’t tell the producers about that one.”

“I can’t make any—”

“Ava!”

Ava glances up to find her mom hovering in the doorway to the kitchen.

“Dennis, you were supposed to tell me when she got here!”

“Well, she’s here now,” he offers with an easy smile.

“You really didn’t give us any notice, Ava.” And there her mother goes, off and running. There’s talk of the cat who is, apparently, named Mr. Creampie. Ava shoots her dad an incredulous look at that, but he just smiles and holds his hands in the air—the kind of “what was I supposed to do” gesture she’d gotten all too familiar with over the years. There’s something about boxes in her room that she shouldn’t touch. A million questions about the producers and what they’ll expect of them all, as if Ava has somehow perfectly orchestrated this inconvenience to land at exactly the wrong time.

“Why didn’t you just stay at that writing job, sweetie?” her mom finally asks. “Really, reality television? Comedy’s already so unstable, and now you want to put your fate in the hands of a bunch of viewers when you know—”

“Nina,” her dad finally cuts in. “I bet Ava’s exhausted. Kid’s been on a plane all day. Why don’t we let her shower and sleep?”

“She needs to eat. I’ve always warned you not to eat airplane food. You didn’t eat the meal they served, did you? I told you not to.”

“No,” Ava sighs, not bothering to point out that she didn’t actually get dinner on any of her flights anyway, just a bag of stale pretzels on the last leg of the trip.

“I made casserole. Are you still a vegan?”

“No.” It had been an ex-girlfriend she’d made the mistake of bringing home who’d been a vegan, not her, but she can’t care.

“You always did have trouble committing.”

Ava lets out a deep breath. “I’m gonna shower, then I’ll heat up some of the casserole to eat before bed, okay?”

“Okay, and don’t—”

“I’ll be careful of the boxes. And I’ll make sure not to disturb the cat.” She trudges up the stairs, letting the thud of her boots against the carpeted wood drown out anything else. There’s a cat curled up on her pillow, so she’ll have bloodshot eyes to look forward to on camera tomorrow, amidst everything else. And the whole room smells like a fucking litterbox.

Ava drops her bag on the ground and kicks off her shoes. The towels—hell, everything in the whole house—are still exactly where they used to be, and she grabs one and heads down the hallway to the bathroom.

She perches on the edge of the toilet and finds herself pulling up her texts with Deborah while she waits for the water to warm. Old houses and shitty pipes and Massachusetts winters never did mix too well. There’s no reason to unload on Deborah, even if she might be, sad as it is, the only real friend Ava has these days. But her fingers start tapping out words before she can even contemplate putting her phone away.

Ava: fucking shitshow. Stuff of nightmares, really

Ava: I’ve been here less than an hour, and I wanna throw myself out the tiny bathroom window.

Deborah: That bad, huh?

Ava: worse

Ava: mom’s already made it clear I’m a huge fucking burden just being here and not that talented and also pretty stupid for thinking that I might convince enough Americans to vote me through to next week

Deborah: Americans are notoriously bad at voting for the right people

Ava: was that a compliment?? A genuine Deborah Vance stamp of approval??

Deborah: Don’t get carried away, Al Gore.

Ava: too late, I’m having visions, presidential ambitions

Deborah: See, you’ll be fine. Just let that outsized ego shine through.

Ava: it doesn’t…idk it doesn’t work with her. Like I just turn into this surly 14-year old stomping around the house and snapping at her

Deborah: And that’s different how?

Ava: Ha. Ha.

Ava: And then my dad’s so fucking proud, but they’re gonna tell them I got fired, like, I just know it. And what’s he gonna think then? And my mom’s gonna go off the rails obvi, but like jesus

Ava: and now he’s got that plastic thing in his nose, and like I don’t even know why he has that bc aren’t those only for people in really bad shape?? Like totally fucked health-wise? and now even if I can keep my mom from talking about the stroke, they’re def gonna ask about him cause god knows we don’t have any orphans this season to turn into the sad sack

Deborah: Ava. Breathe.

Ava: I am

Deborah: Are you alright?

Ava: no

Ava: I mean it’s whatever

Deborah: Look, just get some sleep and trust that things will be okay. Worse come to worse, it’s 10 hours of your life. Shorter than labor with DJ was.

Ava: 10 hours is a long fucking time

Deborah: Tell me all about it after you’ve spent twice as long shoving a baby with a comically oversized head out of your vagina.

Ava: is that why you pulled the total vanity move and named her Deborah Junior?

Deborah: Please, shouldn’t you be defending me? Crying out about the sexism inherent in a system that only lets men pass down their names to make juniors and little Richard the Ninths?

Ava: Props, Deborah Senior

Deborah: Call me that again and die

Ava: :D

Deborah: Well, I can see you’re doing better if you’ve reverted to emoji speak. Now some of us have things to do

Ava: oh right yeah of course

Ava: um thanks for listening and all

Ava: have fun at your thing

Ava is not at all disappointed at the total lack of response when she gets out of the shower. Not even a little.

---

Ava’s plan to linger in her bedroom until the camera crew arrives is thrown out the window with a loud knock at her door at 7 in the morning. And no amount of explaining that it’s only 4am in her body’s internal clock could ever be enough to deter Nina Daniels, who’s now convinced that Ava’s on drugs. (She is, of course, but that’s not why she’s tired.)

Breakfast is a mess of trying to be mature and lay out some guidelines about what to talk about and what not to talk about, and falling back into childhood patterns as Ava hurtles closer and closer to her breaking point.

There’s no makeup or costuming crew—not yet. Apparently she’ll have to endure that for the live television performances, but the producers are striving for “raw authenticity” or some shit with the home visits. Ava throws on a pair of black jeans and a red shirt that Ruby once told her was “good on camera.” It’ll have to do.

The knock at the door still makes her feel like all of her internal organs are about to fall out her asshole, but at least she might not look like total shit on camera.

Her mom’s already yelling at Ava for something as she jogs down the stairs, and she girds herself for the next 10 hours, repeating, “Still not DJ’s head coming out my vagina,” like a mantra.

Taking a deep breath, Ava plasters a smile on her face and pulls the door open. “Welco—Deborah?”

“Miss me?”

“What…”

The rest of the production crew bustles in from behind her.

“Did you… Is this because I freaked out?”

Deborah waves her off. “Please, I had a pitch meeting about a new line of handbags out this way, and the producers talked me into making a detour. Bring a little glitz and glamour to Waltham. God knows it needs all the help it can get.”

Ava shakes her head, all of her breath leaving her in a rush. “Yeah,” she laughs. “Probably could use a hand with that.”

She’s half-convinced she’s dreaming as she watches Deborah Vance, whose very first interaction with Ava had been telling her she looked like an impoverished Victorian orphan, charm the shit out of her mother. Her father is delighted, of course, joking back and forth with Deborah, and her mother, for perhaps the first time in years, seems content to sit back and let someone else bear the burden of the limelight.

Ava glances up in time to notice that the cameras are already rolling, panning around the living room and taking in what appears to be a perfectly well-adjusted family that’s all just a little bit starstruck over the Queen of Sin City herself.  

The day passes by in a far less painful blur than Ava had prepared herself for. Deborah talks about mentoring Ava, speaks about her as if she actually thinks Ava’s someone with talent. It’s enough to spur Ava’s dad into talking to the cameras about how he’s always believed in Ava, how she’s always been the funny one. He tells the story of the humiliating eighth-grade talent show, but somehow, with Deborah there to laugh, joking about “how far Ava’s come from that,” it feels less soul-destroying than usual. When the producers prod her mom into speaking, Nina frets about the instability of it all, but she doesn’t tell them she’s sure Ava will fail. There’s no mention of putting down Mr. Creampie if Ava has to move back into her childhood bedroom—all because she’s allergic to cats (another thing that is, somehow, Ava’s fault). Instead, all the cameras see is Deborah making sympathetic noises and letting Nina vent her fears, easily spinning them into normal maternal worries and not a total lack of confidence in her failure of a daughter.

They spend the early hours of the afternoon filming around town and then in Boston proper. Ava takes them past her high school and the Starbucks where she worked as a barista because she’d gotten it into her head that it was the best way to meet other queer teenagers. (It was not. Mostly she’d dealt with a lot of parents who tipped nothing and bitched at her over the cost of drinks they were willingly ordering.) They eat a late lunch in some restaurant the show’s clearly being paid to showcase because Ava’s definitely never been here before, no matter how many times the producer calls it a “family favorite.” Her mom keeps checking in on her dad, asking if he’s okay, if he needs to go home, but the one time Ava caught the camera crew trying to get a mic between them, Deborah had effortlessly stepped in between her parents and the sound guy, talking loudly enough to be the only thing the mics picked up.

Somehow, soon enough, they’re back at the house, and the crew is packing up their shit and thanking the Daniels for hosting them, and the end of the world hasn’t arrived after all.

While Deborah says her goodbyes to Ava’s parents, Ava walks the crew outside. “Hey, thanks for inviting Deborah. I mean, I know it’s just cause I have a, like, pathetically small number of people on my interview list, but I think the footage was great.”

One of the lower-level producers, some guy she’s seen trailing behind Quinn, shoots her a confused look. “We didn’t invite her. She worked out some deal with the higher ups. Let us fly over in her jet for editorial control or something. Real last-minute shit.”

Ava blinks at him once. Then twice. “What?”

He shrugs. “Look, I gotta review this footage. Take care, alright?”

Ava watches as they drive off in some rental car. Her gaze flickers over to Deborah’s own rental. Which she drove herself. Because Marcus and Damian are most certainly not here.

She feels like she’s in a trance as she makes her way back inside to where Deborah is still standing with Ava’s mother, her smile looking more and more strained by the second.

“Hey, I just need to borrow Deborah real fast, okay? Show stuff.”

“Oh, of course,” her dad says. “We’ll get dinner started. Did you want to join us, Deborah?”

“Oh, I couldn’t. I’m in town for a meeting and just had to meet the people who raised Ava.”

“It’s so nice of you to take time out of your busy schedule for Ava,” Ava’s mom chimes in.

Ava’s head is still reeling. “Right. Really busy,” she repeats, voice echoing in her own ears. “Deborah?”

Ava leads Deborah up the stairs to her childhood bedroom because there’s nowhere else to go in this fucking house, and she isn’t about to try to parse through whatever just happened outside when it’s cold enough for her tits to freeze and fall off.

“This is…” Deborah casts her gaze around the room, taking in the slightly graying blue wallpaper barely visible beneath the taped-up posters. “Really something.”

“Yeah, they didn’t change much of anything when I left.” She pauses, rubs at the back of her neck. “Well, the cat shit smell is new. Guess there weren’t any better spots for the litter box.”

Deborah hums, her nose wrinkling a bit as she notices the litter box perched on the shelf by Ava’s pillow.

“How…” Ava trails off. “Why are you here?”

“I told you, I have a—”

“But you don’t.” Ava swallows heavily and drops down to the bed. “That producer guy, Brad or whatever… he said something about you flying them all out here in exchange for final say?”

“I think Brendan doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“You told me to trust that things would work out last night, then went totally MIA.”

“You were panicking. And family is…hard.” Deborah carefully perches on the edge of the bed beside Ava, reaches a hand out and lets it settle on top of Ava’s. “If anyone out there can understand how messy this shit can be, I think you’re looking at her.” She gives Ava one of those casually disaffected shrugs. “If I could make your life a little easier by adding a couple hours to my trip, well, it’s still cheaper than the Rolls-Royce I gave Kiki when she needed a backseat for Luna’s car seat.”

“Who’s Kiki? No, wait.” Ava shakes her head. “Not the point.”

“My blackjack dealer.”

“You gave her a Rolls-Royce?”

Deborah shrugs. “I’d used it for a couple of months first.”

“Okay, that’s, like, hella generous, but Deborah, you don’t have a meeting in Boston. Marcus gives you those long-ass schedule updates while I’m there, and you had nothing on the books today. Also, he and Damian definitely would have been here if this were a business trip.”

“Ava.” There’s a note of warning in Deborah’s voice, and her nails dig into Ava’s hand just enough to draw her attention to the fact that they’re sitting in her childhood bed and basically holding hands. Which is further than she’s gotten with anyone in here since her mom had walked in on her topless and making out with Peter McCarthy sophomore year of high school.

Ava’s heart thunders in her chest as she slowly flips her hand over, lets her fingers lace together with Deborah’s, tries not to think about what they’d feel like curled around her waist. She’s fairly certain there’s a Tiger Beat cover taped to the wall behind her, which might actually be the least embarrassing thing in this time capsule of a room, but she can’t even bring herself to care—not now, now when she’s noticing for the first time how impossibly soft Deborah’s hands are.

Deborah, of course, takes that moment to pull away. She stands and turns her back on Ava, pulls the fur coat that came straight out of some Carol-inspired fantasy a little tighter around herself. Leaning over, she takes in the pictures and trinkets strewn across Ava’s old desk. After a moment, she picks up a framed photo and turns around, a smirk curling up the corners of her mouth. “You’re telling me you’ve had this on your desk your whole life and never noticed how giant those hands of yours are?”

Ava doesn’t know what it is. If it’s the smirk. The confusing mix of emotions from the past 36 hours. The way Deborah swooped in to save her, to be in her corner in a way no one else ever has. The fact that Ava’s just now putting words to how hot Deborah Vance is in fur—and, god, that vegan ex-girlfriend would really hate Ava now. But something has her stepping forward and curling one of her—fine, yes, totally gigantic—hands around the back of Deborah’s neck and pulling her into a kiss.

For an agonizingly long moment, Ava is met with nothing but stillness. Then, she feels Deborah exhale, the warmth of her breath ghosting across her lips, and suddenly Deborah is kissing her back. And for several glorious seconds, Ava gets to feel what it’s like to kiss Deborah Vance, learn how that expensive lipstick she wears tastes, get lost in how soft her skin is and the way she shivers when Ava runs a finger along the nape of her neck.

Then Deborah jerks back.

Ava, eyes still closed, follows after her on pure instinct, only to be met with a hand to the chest (and not in the fun way).

Ava watches as Deborah’s expression closes off into something cold and distant. “Hey, don’t do that.”

“You’re confused, Ava. It’s been a long couple of days.”

“Deb.”

“I’m glad I could help stave off your televised humiliation until you get to do it on your own terms.”

“It’s more than that, and you know it.” A thousand and one thoughts are racing through her head. “I haven’t seen my dad since—since…” She swallows heavily, tries not to flash back to the hospital room with its overly sterile white walls, the constant beep of monitors.

“Enjoy your night together, Ava.”

---

Ava had expected a bit of distance from Deborah when she got back to LA, an attempt at putting back up those professional boundaries Ava’s always been told she’s bad at maintaining.

She did not expect radio silence.

She did not expect to be sent to voicemail again and again.

She most certainly did not expect Marcus to meet her at the door to Deborah’s suite and send her away with a scowl when she finally tried the in-person route.

Of course, it all starts to click into place when she finally listens to those voicemails from her mother and Jimmy about the episode of American Talent that had apparently aired during her flight back to LA. The episode from the last round of callbacks when Deborah had decided to go all in on shitting on Ava’s act and her career. When Ava had gotten a little cross-faded—okay, maybe a lot cross-faded—and let herself be talked into a behind-the-scenes interview where she’d vented every frustration she’d ever had with Deborah.

Her mother tsks at her, asks why she couldn’t just be nice about the woman who’d been supporting her. “You do this, Ava. You ruin relationships.” Ava’s heart sinks.

Jimmy is far more blunt. “What the hell were you thinking, Ava? Trashing my highest-earning client on national television? Calling her words that I most definitely am not allowed to say? They can bleep things out, but we all still see your mouth moving, Ava!”

Ava sends a series of increasingly desperate apology messages to Deborah, all of which are summarily ignored.

So, yeah, things are going really fucking well.

Chapter Text

Deborah deletes another voicemail from Ava, ignoring the garbled transcription attempt her phone has provided. She counts “sorry” too many times for it to mean anything anyway.

She puts her phone back down. It was her own fault for allowing someone who readily admits to being selfish at her core to get this close.

There’s another apology voicemail from Jimmy. Fucking Jimmy. Apparently the same dumbass who sent both her and Ava to this godforsaken show in the first place.

Pulling herself out of bed at 5 in the morning, Deborah lets herself get lost in her old routine. She’s hired a new LA-based personal trainer for the duration of the season, and she’s instructed an eager Marcus to line up pitch meetings all weekend. With no coaching responsibilities, her schedule has officially cleared up.

It’s good. Work has always been good, the glue that holds her life together, that fills in the gaps when everyone else inevitably disappoints her.

If she finds a certain redhead appearing in her dreams more often than not, well, she’s always been prone to nightmares.

---

Deborah is no stranger to performances. So the fact that she feels something almost like nerves on Tuesday morning before they start filming the live episodes is absurd.

With 20 contestants still left, they’re scheduled for a three-hour slot that has Deborah missing the rhythms of her show at the Palmetto, of being the one to set the schedule instead of following it. Still, Damian assures her that her social media numbers are “through the roof,” and Marcus has been in talks with a few of the other Vegas clubs with Deborah’s permission. If Marty’s so wedded to sucking Pentatonix’s dick, she’s got no reason to negotiate in good faith with him.

“Close your eyes,” Cindy, one of the show’s make-up artists, instructs Deborah.

She does so and hopes Cindy isn’t giving her the same treatment as Kendra over there. Deborah isn’t exactly hurrying her way to the grave, but she’s not pretending she’s still 30 either.

Cameron strolls in just as Deborah’s getting a final coat of lipstick.

“We’ve grouped the contestants based on their stage needs to cut down on transition time,” he explains, tapping a finger against the clipboard in his hand, “but you’ll still need to stick to strict time limits on your feedback. This isn’t the top 10; we’re giving America the baseline they need to cast their votes and not much more.”

He rattles off the order—musicians and singers with instruments will go first, taking up more than half the show; the two comics will follow; they’ll bring out the floor covers during a long commercial break and shift over to the dancers; and they’ll close with the “miscellaneous” category (aka: the magician and the acrobat that Deborah’s fairly certain won’t be long for this competition).

A whole team of PAs gather to shuffle the judges out to their seats, getting them settled with notebooks and drinks and anything else they might need. Deborah takes in the stage, the bustle of the crew still working in the wings, the crowds of people seated behind her.

No matter how many times Cameron and Quinn have hinted that Deborah is exactly the kind of judge they’ve been looking for, she doesn’t have even the slightest interest in continuing on with American Talent after her guest season is up. Still, the rumble of energy coming from the crowd behind her is a welcome reminder of what it is she’s been missing. There’s something about being in front of a live audience once more that lets her feel alive again, no matter how scripted half the shit here is, little cue cards held up for applause and laughter as if they’re automatons instead of people.

Soon enough Lance is strolling onto the stage in overly polished shoes and waving out at the cheering crowd. “Welcome! Welcome to our first week live from LA with our final 20 contestants. Can I get a round of applause for them?”

The crowd roars, presumably in response to some big cue card being held up behind Deborah’s head.

“Our intrepid judges have traveled all across the country to find the very best performers America has.” Deborah takes a sip of her Diet Coke to keep from snorting at the idea that somehow this ragtag group of millennials is the best America has to offer. “And starting tonight, their fate is in your hands.”

Deborah tunes out the spiel about how to vote and when to text in that she’s heard too many times in the clips Marcus had made her watch before she started here. Finally, the jazz group is being introduced, and Deborah forces herself to pay attention enough to offer them feedback. Not that she’s qualified to critique a saxophone player. Not that any of them are.

The musicians breeze by quickly enough with only minor hiccups in stage transitions and one broken mic.

After an underwhelming performance from Jade, Deborah gets a deep scowl for telling her that she needs to take more risks with her performances. For a moment, Deborah’s first instinct is to text Ava before she’s hit with memories of Ava’s petty tirade. Ungrateful little shit.

If Deborah is a bit crueler than is, strictly speaking, necessary to their next group—a country music trio whose twangy tunes make her want to throw her phone across the room—well, the producers have been nothing but encouraging of that sort of behavior.

In exchange, Deborah lets herself be nearly effusive in her praise of Ria, who not only hits high notes that Deborah’s heard far too many wannabe contestants shriek their way through, but who also has the kind of stage presence some performers could only dream of.

By the time Michelle strolls onto the stage in a short, shimmery dress and flashes a wink at Jared, Deborah once more finds herself wanting to text Ava and collect on that bet they had going because Michelle and Jared have most certainly fucked already (none of that waiting ’til the top 10 crap Ava had gone on and on about). But then Deborah’s flashing back to kissing Ava, wondering if she even has the moral high ground on Jared anymore. Not that she kissed Ava. She just…kissed her back. But then it’s her turn to say something about Michelle’s perfectly adequate performance, and she drives all thoughts of Ava to the back of her mind.

Those stray thoughts actually stay there this time around. At least until Lance calls out Drew Higgins and tells the audience they’ll be treated (ha!) to back-to-back comedy performances.

Drew starts out with some new bit that is of absolutely no interest to Deborah, no matter how much unearned laughter it gets him. She doesn’t pretend to laugh herself. Hell, she doesn’t even fake a smile—not even when he holds her gaze. (Later, she’ll wonder if he made the decision to go where he went next at that moment. She always did know how to dig her own grave.)

He widens his stance a little, gives the audience a smile that verges into sneering territory. “Those of you keeping up with the show know I have a little bit about men’s search for the perfect women. The one that’s single, sane, and sexy. But that’s searching for wife material, mother of your kids material. And me? I’m looking for a good time.”

He flashes a wink at the audience, and Deborah hopes the cheers and whistles are the result of cue cards, not further proof of America’s idiocy.

“You’ve heard me talk about all the perks of being a married chick’s thing on the side, but lately…well, lately I’ve been thinking about giving up that sane side of the triangle instead. Now, you might ask, Drew, what’s got you thinking like that, huh? Well, I spend my days next to the queen of unhinged ex-girlfriend behavior, Ms. Deborah Vance.”

Deborah’s spine stiffens, and she feels the muscles in her face twitch.

“For a woman to burn her ex-husband’s house down?” He lets out a long, low whistle. “Well, I’m just saying, fiery personality like that in the bedroom… Shit, man, sign me up, am I right? A night you’ll never forget and that sweet, sweet insurance payout once she finds out it was a one-and-done kinda deal.”

The words wash over Deborah as her gaze bores into a spot on the stage wall in the general direction of Drew and his obnoxious pleather hoodie. She tries to remember that cameras are on her from every angle, that everyone in America who just last week heard her own fucking mentee tell the world that Deborah Vance is a talentless hack will be watching her now.

By the time the cameras all pan to the judges for their reactions, Deborah has run through every calculated risk. She knows that Cameron and Quinn and everyone watching at home want her to be the mean judge, but only when it’s “fun.” With the same gut-deep certainty that she knows no one out there wants to see her set off on some honesty tour, she knows that if she tears Drew the new asshole he deserves it’ll be because she “doesn’t know how to take a joke,” never because he doesn’t know how to tell one.

So she lets the other judges go first, fumes at their moments of praise, resents their barely-there critiques.

“Drew,” Deborah says, her voice saccharine sweet, when the cameras finally turn to her. “Telling a joke about one of the judges right here? That’s a risk.” He nods and gives a cocky grin out at the audience, like any of what she’s said is a compliment. “Now, risks can be good, but you have to know you’re good enough to pull them off.” She pauses, tilts her head to the side. “I suppose it’ll be up to the voters to decide if you pulled it off, but you saw my reaction. I think you know where I stand.” She holds up a single finger. “Actually, I did see that viral tweet from one of your ex-girlfriends.” She lowers her voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “Guess knowing if a woman’s having a good time isn’t really your strong suit, so I’ll spell it out for you: it didn’t work.”

Of course Jared immediately undercuts Deborah, chiming in with a: “But we’ll leave it up to our voters to decide for themselves. Might be harder to get the joke if the joke’s about you, huh, Deb?”

Deborah grinds here teeth together hard enough to risk her veneers.

And then, because the universe has always known how to kick her when she’s down, Lance is introducing Ava as she strolls out onto the stage in clothing that’s actually tailored and mascara that’s made it onto all of her eyelashes.

Ava takes the mic and looks out at the crowd. There’s a long moment of silence—long enough that Kendra and Jared cast concerned glances over at the producers.

Finally, Ava starts to speak. “You know, I had a whole bit ready to go. A funny one and all. Rehearsed it and practiced it, pretended like I was a kind of kid who did her homework for a change.” It gets a couple of loud laughs, and Deborah pushes down the surge of pride. “But I was in the wings for Drew’s, uh, are we calling that an act now? Or just your average straight dude on Twitter?” She shakes her head and pulls the mic out from its stand as she paces across the stage. “And you know what sucks? I mean, besides that act.” A low oh rumbles forth from the audience. “It’s that I’m stuck up here after it. Stuck up here pretending like I’m okay with what he said, like we exist on the same plane at all.”

Deborah’s whole body feels rooted to the spot. She can’t look away.

“But now I sound all judge-y. The big buzzkill that’s never gonna get voted onto the next round unless I just keep you laughing like what he said was okay. Because that’s what he wants. He wants us all to have to play the game on his terms. But the thing is…me? I’m never, ever going to win on his terms.”

Deborah can hear the echoes of a thousand things she’d said to Ava over their weeks of mentorship. Catches glimpses of herself glimmering through the cracks in Ava’s confidence, the moments when her breath catches, when she stumbles at a word, when her fingers ball up into giant fists at her side but she forces herself to keep going.

“Cause if I get up here and talk about wanting to bone Deborah Vance, I don’t get every guy out there watching in his living room automatically on my side. I don’t get the knee-jerk reaction laughter. I mean, you know, maybe a couple hundred queer girls on Twitter will give me a ‘hell yeah, shoot your shot, girl,’ but that doesn’t get me to the next round.” She purses her lips and shoves her free hand into her pocket. “But we’re here now, and it is what it is, so in that signature awkward Ava style that Deborah loves to give me shit about, I guess I’ll hit ya with a little of the material I actually prepared until the producers cut the mic on me.”

Deborah barely hears it. Not that it really matters. She’s heard these bits a hundred times, remembers when they were barely kernels of ideas—shitty and unshaped and nothing close to funny yet. Once upon a time she might have been gratified to hear the audience laughing behind her. Tonight, everything seems to be shifting in and out of focus without much conscious control on her part. All she can think about is the message Ava sent her after she’d walked out on Ava in Waltham: “I don’t think you’ll ever know how much it means that you showed up when I couldn’t do it myself.” Deborah wonders if Ava’s little speech just now was meant to be that—putting her own future on the line to say what Deborah couldn’t.

By the time Ava is unceremoniously cut off mid-joke, Deborah still hasn’t quite wrapped her head around anything. All she knows is that she feels something fissuring inside of her, her anger at Ava cracking apart. It’s still there—all jagged edges and hard lines—but the solidity of it has given way, leaving her adrift.  

Kendra and Jared both turn to Deborah when the applause dies out, and the cameras follow suit.

Deborah plasters on that easy showbiz smile she’s perfected over the years, looks at the camera instead of Ava. “In comedy, you don’t often get to choose who you follow, and if you don’t share a sense of humor with your opener, well, it can be jarring—for you and the audience. So we adapt, we work on the fly to try to smooth out those transitions. But it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally, and seeing a young, amateur comic working through it for the first time on live television is to be commended.” Deborah lets her gaze flicker to Ava. “Mind, I’ve been dealing with this for longer than you’ve been alive. Next time don’t waste half your time trying to defend someone else when you’ve only got five minutes to try to prove to all these people out here that you’re actually funny when they’ve seen a whole lot of evidence to the contrary.”

She doesn’t look back at Ava after that, just puts on a performance of intense interest in whatever Kendra and Jared have to say until Ava shuffles offstage and Lance comes back out to remind the viewers at home that they’ll be back in a few short minutes with the dancers.

And Deborah sits and watches them reassemble the stage and doesn’t let herself think about a goddam thing.

---

That night, Deborah dreams of Drew and Ava and men she hasn’t thought of in years. She tosses and turns through trips back to seedy clubs and shitty owners and headliners who promised her a leg up in the business in exchange for just one little thing. She dreams of Drew taunting her through a set of all that new, “honest” material Ava keeps trying to get her to perform. Imagines herself getting to tell him off in front of an audience that might applaud her for it instead of writing her off as another overly sensitive woman who can’t take a fucking joke.

And through it all, Ava’s waiting in the wings.

Sometimes she comes out on stage and stands behind Deborah, a reassuring hand on her back and cruelties whispered in her ear. Other times she takes Deborah’s place, becoming the woman getting a hand to the ass as she tries to make her way to the stage. Deborah watches her freeze up and shine in turn.

Once—just once—she comes to Deborah in the green room and drops to her knees. Spreads Deborah’s thighs. Makes her clothing melt away with the caress of a hand. Touches her like she wants to be there, like there’s nowhere she’d rather be. Kisses up and down Deborah’s legs until Deborah’s practically trembling with it. Takes Deborah into her mouth like she wants to devour her. Holds Deborah’s gaze from between her thighs—never wavering, never blinking, never looking away.

Deborah wakes up sweaty and confused and more turned on than she’s been in years.

She decides to start her day at 4. Everyone else can catch the fuck up.

Chapter Text

Ava deleted Twitter from her phone after what she’s come to think of as “the incident,” which is still progress from not being able to think about it at all.

Since making it through the early rounds of American Talent, she’s begun tip-toeing back into the social media waters. She has a time limit on both her phone and computer (that, yes, she definitely manually overrides half the time, but still), and she’s trying really hard not to get sucked into the shit hole all the way this time. She just…checks in. Sees what her old contacts are up to. Looks out for any mentions of new projects in the works that might be hiring. Searches her name to see if people are still tweeting about how cancelled she is.

After the last episode, Ava couldn’t bear to check Twitter. She already knows she was a total fucking cunt about Deborah, and she doesn’t really need to see how badly the internet is taking it.

After this most recent episode, though…well, she can’t quite resist the temptation to look. Not when she’d woken up to a dozen or so texts from people she’s barely talked to in the last year who suddenly think she might be worth checking in on.

She expects some light praise for standing up for another woman (not that it’s why she did it, for a change), maybe mixed in with some criticism about how shitty she herself was to Deborah the week before.

She also expects hordes of Drew’s friends and fan-boys attacking her for everything from her act to her looks.

And they’re both there in droves.

But there’s a third group she didn’t expect. She scrolls and scrolls and scrolls, all the way through the #Vaniels tag that’s far more popular than it has any right to be. (Sure, Deborah showed up for her when she most needed someone, and yeah, they kissed, and fine okay, Ava’s had a few sex dreams about Deborah, but it’s not like any of them know that.)

Sure, Ava had joked about lesbian Twitter cheering her on in her crush on Deborah (and that’s all it is, stupid and inconsequential and the kind of thing that’ll go away soon enough, right?), but she didn’t think there’s be a whole portion of them convinced that she and Deborah are actually a thing in the making. It’s flattering, honestly, though a little part of her shrivels up and dies at the idea that somewhere out there Deborah is reading these tweets, too. Or having them read to her by Damian, more likely.

It’s enough to have Ava picking up the phone—not even texting, but full on calling Deborah again. It rings three times before she’s sent to voicemail. And that, well, that’s that.

---

Ava makes it through to the next round. The acrobat and one of the dance crews go home. Drew sneers at her from across the stage, and Ava flips him off the second the cameras are gone. Not lingering to socialize with the others, Ava tries to find Deborah backstage, but clearly Marcus had whisked her off the second the credits rolled. It’s whatever. Totally fine. Ava can give her another day to chill out.

Only one day passes. And then two. And still nothing.

Deborah doesn’t show up to their contractually-obligated mentorship meetings all week. Not even when Ava texts her reminders with locations and times, going so far as to send her Google Calendar invites that Marcus might approve of. Instead, Ava gets stood up at a series of coffee shops and drinks matcha lattes alone with her notebook, jotting down ideas and playing with the ordering of her act. She tries to treat it like the show she worked on, like Deborah’s material—something far enough removed from herself that she can actually admit when shit isn’t working. She thinks it helps. Maybe.

The next American Talent live show goes better. Ava’s slotted to perform before Drew this time, and she reworks what was meant to be her set from the previous week to decent effect. The audience laughs when they’re supposed to (and once when they’re not), and Kendra and Jared give her pleasant enough feedback. Deborah refuses to hold Ava’s gaze and immediately narrows her harshest criticism in on the one bit that gave Ava trouble all week. Twenty seconds in a five-minute act, and Deborah fucking destroys her for it. Ava holds her tongue and doesn’t point out that she should have had a mentor to talk to about this shit—maybe then it would have worked.

Lesbian Twitter blows up again. Half of them think she and Deborah fucked after last week’s show, and Deborah’s being as harsh as ever to prove that nothing’s changed. (Ha! As if. Fucking everything has changed.) The other half think the whole problem is that Ava and Deborah still need to fuck, and the whole country is now witnessing what happens to sexual tension strung out too taut over long weeks. (Like, fair, maybe, but that’s only on Ava’s part. And it’s nothing she and her vibrator haven’t been able to deal with on their own.)

On Wednesday night, Ava and 15 other acts make it through another round. Some fancy concert pianist gets sent home along with Jade. For half a second after Jade’s name is announced, Ava’s and Deborah’s eyes meet, and Ava dares to let herself hope that this is the moment when things will shift back to normal. But then Deborah’s expression shutters closed, and Ava is left smiling alone, probably looking like a total jackass on national television. Again.

Deciding nothing can get worse, Ava shuffles along with the rest of the remaining contestants to some tourist trap of a bar where they pay too much for rounds of mediocre tequila shots. She ends up standing next to George, some singer that she’s fairly certain is getting voted through for his looks more than anything else. (Not that she can talk. She’s pretty sure there’s some kind of queer voting bloc that’s pushing her through from week to week, just waiting for confirmation that she and Deborah are a thing.) Still, George is charming and seems genuinely happy to talk to Ava, and it’s enough of a change from the past six months of her life that she lets herself get swept up in it. They do another round of shots and a line of cocaine in the bathroom. Soon enough she finds herself flush against him on the dance floor, and when his lips find their way to her neck, she takes him by the hand and leads him out the door and back to her place. If she’s picturing someone else while he’s inside her, well, it’s not like they promised each other anything beyond the one night anyway.

(As it turns out, he didn’t have more than one night to offer. The next morning, Ava wakes to her house surrounded by FBI agents and watches as George gets arrested—elder fraud, apparently, because Ava really knows how to pick ’em—and taken away in handcuffs. There’s a whole exposé in the New York Times the next morning, detailing his crimes, listing out the dozen aliases he used over the years, outlining the long months the feds had spent tracking him and gathering evidence. It’s so fucking shitty, and somehow all Ava can think is: Deborah reads the New York Times every morning. That night, the show issues a statement. TMZ publishes photos of Ava standing in her doorway in nothing but George’s oversized shirt as she watches him be taken away. Twitter goes balls to the walls with speculation. And somehow, still absolutely nothing from Deborah.)

Ava spends several days after that alternating between just a little too drunk and very hungover. She leaves several regrettable voicemails for Deborah. She’s fairly certain at least one of them is her attempt at turning the George thing into a bit. If Deborah can make getting publicly left by her husband funny, well, maybe Ava can get a few laughs out of sleeping with a guy arrested for scamming old people out of their life savings.

The following week, Ava doesn’t quite bomb, but she’s not good. She’s sluggish on stage, stuck in her head, and the words come out garbled, her cadence all wrong. Some of the jokes land. Others don’t. Deborah pulls no punches in her criticism. Jared tells Ava he’s seen what she can do and expects better of her these days. Kendra coos, “You’ve had a rough week,” and Ava hates the pity most of all.  (She’s pretty sure that’s the only reason she survives the Wednesday results show, too; well, that and the fact that only one person has to go home this round. Apparently you can’t compete from prison or whatever.)

That weekend, after another few days of moping and dealing with increasingly frantic phone calls from her mother wanting to know if Ava was part of George’s senior center pyramid scheme, Ava catches sight of Deborah’s face on her Twitter feed—some interview she’d done with a local morning show hours before Ava had even pulled herself out of bed.

Because Ava has a sadistic streak a mile wide, she clicks on the link and listens as Deborah talks about the “new opportunities” the show has afforded her and the “challenges of dealing with a group of young contestants.” (Bullshit. As if she’s even working with the contestants these days.) Deborah shakes her head and lets out a put-upon sigh. “These kids—they think they can have the world after a single afternoon of work. They write a few jokes, get a few laughs, and suddenly they think they’re the next Leno.”

Honestly, fuck that. And fuck Deborah.

Running on anger and adrenaline, Ava shows up at Deborah’s suite what feels like minutes later in jeans and a tank top that she maybe slept in, but it’s fine; it smells fine. She’s barely even sweaty from her run over here.

She runs into Marcus in the hallway. (She’d hoped he might have left for the night already, but of course the dude’s fucking married to his job.) He glances back at the door. “She’s not—”

“Bullshit,” Ava spits out. “Unless you want me to tell the producers she’s been violating her contract for the past three weeks and refusing to mentor me.”

After a moment, he lets out a long exhale. “It’s on your head.” And then he disappears into the elevator.

Ava knocks again and again until Deborah swings the door open. She’s wrapped up in some silky robe, hair wet and slicked back from the shower, and she’s dictating a message to her phone. “What’d you forget?” she asks before glancing up, expression hardening in an instant. “No.”

Ava throws a hand out against the door. “Not up for discussion.”

“This is my suite, not yours.”

“Yeah, and you don’t show up to any of our meetings outside of this room. And guess what? Your contract says you have to mentor me.”

“No, it says I must fulfill mentorship duties as assigned. You made it very clear that you found nothing about me worthy of respect, and I’d say that voids the mentorship agreement.”

“Jesus, I was angry, okay? You’d fucking trashed me. You compared my act to monkeys with typewriters.”

“And you managed far worse in your little tirade. No wonder no one wants to hire you.”

It lands like a physical blow, an echo of all the worst things Ava thinks about herself confirmed by the only person she’s let close to her in ages, but Ava tries to shake it off. “Yeah, fine. You’re right. I did. And it was super fucking shitty of me. I’m owning up to that, which is more than you’ve ever done. But that was before I got to know you, okay? Also, you know they edit the shit out of those things.”

“They can’t make up words, honey.”

“And as I’ve said in about a billion voicemails, I’m sorry. I never would’ve said that shit knowing you the way I do now. But you…” Ava trails off, shaking her head. “You know me, and you’re still out there dragging me on talk shows and shit.”

“Of course you’d assume everything I say or do is about you.”

Ava scowls. “It’s not that hard to read between the lines and figure out which ‘young comic’ you’re trashing with Kelly and the gang.” She can’t quite keep the hurt from her voice as she asks, “Is that what you think of me?”

Deborah lets out a huff of air. “I don’t really think of you at all.”

“Yeah right, lady.” Ava forces her way through the doorway, steps closer to Deborah. “You do think about me.” Before Deborah can cut her off, Ava forges on. “And I think about you. It’s called a human relationship, and guess what? We have one.”

“The only relationship we have is contractually obligated and will end the second America comes to their senses and votes you off.”

The words are enough to have Ava wincing, but she tries not to show it. She steps a little closer, barely a hair’s breadth left between them. “Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?”

“You flew across the country for me. That’s not in your contract.”

“We all make mistakes.”

Ava shakes her head. “No. No, I think you just like to call the things that scare you mistakes so that you never have to deal with them.”

“Oh, but you’re so brave? Getting up on stage and cloaking yourself in enough hipster irony to avoid ever having to admit when a joke doesn’t land?”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got one judge so far up my ass about every little word I use that I’ll always know just how profoundly unfunny I am.” Ava can feel her voice rising with every word, breath coming out harder and faster.

Deborah, in turn, grows colder, the edges of her words sharpening into weapons. “Clearly a total waste of my time. Which, by the way, is a hell of a lot more valuable than yours.” She tosses her head. “I’ll leave you to Kendra and Jared next time. See how much some Justin Timberland wannabe improves your comedic timing.”

“Timberlake!” Ava feels half hysterical, yelling at Deborah about boy bands from a decade she barely remembers. “But you know what? You’re right. Bet I could ask the show to assign me a new mentor. Who knows? Maybe Jared’s interested in me these days.”

“Don’t you dare,” Deborah practically snarls. A mask slips back down over her features then, as if she’d let something slip. Hope—dark and dangerous—surges from somewhere deep in Ava. “Or do,” Deborah shrugs. “Quit another thing the second it gets hard. Abandon this just like I always knew you would.”

Ava’s heart pounds. She can feel a thousand bad decisions pulsing at her fingertips. One of her hands winds up on Deborah’s hip, fingers curling possessively around her. “Then show me you want me.”

Later, Ava won’t be able to say who moved first. Just that, for a split second, she thought she might end up getting thrown out of Deborah’s suite, until suddenly they were crashing together—all teeth and nails and grips hard enough to bruise.

It’s miles away from the kiss they’d shared in Ava’s bedroom, but Ava can’t bring herself to care. She doesn’t want soft and sweet anyway. Not now. She fists her hands in the smooth silk of Deborah’s robe and yanks her closer, sucking Deborah’s lower lip between her teeth.

The sound of Deborah gasping is enough to have Ava pulling at the ties to her robe until it falls open, revealing expanses of soft skin, broken up only by black satin. Nothing all that fancy in Deborah’s book, Ava assumes, but it’s still enough to send her heart racing as she pushes the robe down and off Deborah’s shoulders.

“Fuck.”

Deborah’s gaze hardens into something challenging, and Ava strips her own top off. Meets vulnerability with vulnerability.

Deborah arches a brow at the blue and white polka dot bra, looking thoroughly unimpressed.

Two can play that fucking game, Ava thinks, reaching behind herself to unhook her bra and letting it fall to the ground.

Deborah no longer looks unimpressed. No. She looks like she could devour Ava, and Ava is more than happy to offer herself up.

Catching the moment when Deborah’s gaze flickers down the hall, Ava kicks off her shoes and heads in the direction of Deborah’s bedroom.

“I didn’t invite you back there,” Deborah huffs.

“Oh, sorry.” Ava spins on her heel, rolls her shoulders back and holds Deborah’s gaze after weeks of not being able to catch it. “Should I leave?”

She finds herself unceremoniously dragged down the hallway until they’re both in Deborah’s bed. As Deborah props herself up against the pillows, Ava kicks off her own pants, desperate to feel Deborah against her.

“Eager are w—” Deborah cuts herself off with a gasp as Ava cups her through black satin.

Ava uses her free hand to grope at Deborah’s chest. She doesn’t bother trying to get the bra all the way off, just pushes it up until she can get at Deborah’s tits with nothing in her way.

“Oh.” Deborah lets out a shaky moan, her head dropping back to the pillows as Ava licks and sucks at her, leaving marks where no one will see but Deborah will feel—every day, a reminder of just who had done this to her, who had reduced her to this.

Deborah must sense some of what Ava feels because suddenly, Ava finds herself on her back. And then Deborah is nipping and sucking at her skin, and Ava just knows she won’t be careful, will let herself mark Ava plain enough for the whole world to see. The thought—fucked up as Ava’s sure it is—is enough to have her hips bucking up against nothing.

Deborah smirks down at her, runs the tips of her fingers along soaked cotton.

“Not—not with those nails,” Ava manages, even as she’s already shimmying her underwear down and over her hips.

Deborah holds up a hand. Wiggles her fingers. Shows off nails that are, as always, perfectly manicured, but short. Shorter than Ava’s ever seen them. For a delirious moment, Ava wonders if Deborah’s planned this, if she’d spent weeks thinking about having Ava beneath her, all around her.

But then Deborah is leaning over and opening the nightstand, pushing aside the standard issue King James Bible that seems to come with every hotel room—as if that’s what people go on vacation to do—and pulling out a vibrator that’s easy access enough for Ava to assume it’s gotten as much action as her own has these past few weeks. And fuck, now all Ava can think about is Deborah alone late at night, sliding those fingers inside of herself, clenching around them and making herself come to fantasies that Ava is determined to pull out of her one by one.

The vibrator rumbles to life, and Deborah tilts her head, waiting until Ava nods before leaning back over her.

Ava cries out at the first touch of the vibrator against her. Deborah wields it like a weapon, coaxes pleasure from Ava only to deny her release. Again and again until tears are prickling at the corner of Ava’s eyes, and she’s more worked up than she’s ever been.

“Please, please,” she pants, the words slipping out without any conscious control.

And then finally—finally—Deborah brings it back to her clit, whispers, “Come.”

For the first time in her life, Ava does exactly as she’s told, curling in on herself and crying out loud enough to wake Barry and Cara from their fancy little matching dog beds.

Deborah opens her mouth, but before she can say anything—cutting or cruel or, god forbid, remorseful—Ava surges up and kisses her again.

She kisses Deborah until all the anger at the interview, the weeks of abandonment, seeps out of Ava and leaves her with nothing but need. The need to make Deborah feel as good as she does. To make Deborah understand just how good they are together—in bed and out of it.

She nips and kisses and teases Deborah until she’s trembling beneath Ava’s touch. Strips black satin from her body and tosses it over the edge of the bed until she can touch every inch of Deborah.

Only then does Ava let her kisses migrate further south, down and across Deborah’s chest, her ribcage, the curve of her hip. Up and down her thighs until Deborah is panting for it, one hand fisted in Ava’s hair and hips canting up towards Ava’s mouth.

Finally, Ava lets herself give in. Takes Deborah into her mouth like communion and worships at the altar of her body.

She loses all sense of time. Loses herself in the taste and feel of Deborah beneath her tongue, the desperate, little sounds she’s making in the back of her throat. The way she cries out and clenches around Ava’s finger when she carefully slides one inside her. The way her whole body freezes in the moment before she comes. The way Ava’s name slips from her lips like a benediction as she trembles through her orgasm.

Ava kisses her way back up Deborah’s body, then. She cradles the back of Deborah’s head with her hand and kisses her—long and slow until they’re both dizzy with it.

“Don’t leave me,” Ava whispers against Deborah’s shoulder. “Not again.” After a few long moments she admits, “I can’t do this without you.”

Deborah makes no promises, just strokes her fingers through Ava’s hair. Finally, she says, her voice thick with exhaustion, “You’re too good to quit.”

Chapter Text

For the first time in ages, Deborah wakes not to an alarm, but to a dog yipping at her. There’s an oversized hand splayed out possessively across her chest, and Deborah pushes down all thoughts of last night. What matters is getting up and taking the dogs out and shoving Ava out of this hotel room before Marcus can show up and demand to know what the hell she was thinking—not that he’s expected here on a Sunday morning, but she suspects he has a way of sensing when she’s doing anything that might put the brand at risk.

“I’m coming, darlings,” Deborah coos down at Barry and Cara, neither of whom have been particularly enthusiastic about their stay in LA.

“Wha’ time’s it?” Ava slurs, yawning around her words.

“Too late already,” Deborah answers, pushing Ava’s hand away and ignoring the frisson of pleasure as she sleepily gropes at Deborah before obliging and pulling back. “I need to take the dogs out.”

“Oh, yeah, course.” Ava pushes herself up and out of bed, and Deborah allows herself a moment of resentment at how quickly and easily she bounces up—no twinges to her knees from a lifetime spent in heels. “Lemme throw on clothes, and I’ll take one of ’em.”

It’s a bad idea for a hundred reasons, but Deborah hasn’t had her coffee and tells herself it’ll be good. She can get Ava out the door and send her on her way. So she keeps her mouth shut as Ava shimmies back into the jeans she’d shown up in yesterday and pads around the suite searching for her bra and shirt. Deborah takes the time to wash her face, putting on enough makeup to be comfortable taking the risk of being photographed. It’s one thing when she knows it’s coming on a walk from her car to DJ’s; it’s quite another to be ambushed by the far more aggressive paparazzi she’s found in LA.

By the time Deborah’s ready, Ava is fully dressed and has Barry and Cara in their collars with their leashes clipped on and ready to go. She grins at the sight of Deborah, and Deborah tamps down the surge of fondness at it.

“See that, Pupperoni and Cheese? I told you your mom was almost ready.”

“They have names,” Deborah sighs.

“Uh, yeah, but nicknames are, like, top-tier bonding activities. Right, D?”

Deborah rolls her eyes and swings open the door to the suite. “Let’s go, asshole.”

“It’s a start!” Ava calls after her, hurrying to catch up.

If Deborah is surprised by how competent Ava is with the dogs, she tries not to show it. Apparently she’s not all that successful, given Ava’s overly casual, “I used to dogsit for one of the producers at my first gig in LA.”

As they walk, Deborah listens to Ava talk more about her first year after dropping out of school to pursue writing full time. She asks questions, pokes and prods until kernels of jokes begin to appear in the stories. Because this is what she is to Ava—what she should be—a mentor, no more, no less.

“Now go turn something from there into a new bit for Tuesday’s show. You can’t coast your way through the competition on pity votes just because your one-night stand got arrested.”

“So, uh”—Ava drops her voice, a grin curling up the corners of her mouth—“no chance you’re getting picked up by the feds today? Some casual insider trading funding that Cheesecake Factory lifestyle?”

Deborah just arches an eyebrow at Ava until she relents with an easy laugh.

“Alright, alright. All straight and narrow for you. Understood. I’ll be sure to tell the agents that,” she adds with a wink.

“Go. Get to work. Surely we’re close to that home of yours.”

“Yeah.” Ava points ahead of them. “Few more blocks that way, then over two.” She shrugs, tries and fails to look casual. “If you, uh, wanted to come over sometime?”

“I’ll pass on the crime scene.”

“Damn. With all the Law & Order you watch, I was sure that’d be a big draw.”

“I live in Vegas, honey. Whole town might as well be an active crime scene.”

It pulls a real laugh from Ava, and Deborah relishes in it—these quiet moments where joking comes as easily as breathing, collapsing the years of distance between them with a shared smile, a shared sense of being in on the same joke while everyone else passes by, oblivious to their pleasure.

Ava hands Barry’s leash back to Deborah. She pauses, glancing at the crowds of people around them, then drops down into a squat to pet the dogs. “I’ll miss you two, huh? But maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?” She glances up hopefully at Deborah.

Deborah lets out a put-upon sigh. “I suppose I should set aside my whole day just to get that act of yours whipped into shape.” (The truth is, she’s missed this, missed working on something, creating something new with someone that makes her better.)

Ava beams at her, scratching behind Cara’s ear. “Hear that, guys? We’re gonna spend the whole day together tomorrow. And maybe, if we’re lucky, it’ll be just as fun as last night.”

“Ava.” Deborah tries to infuse as much of a warning into the two syllables as she can.

“Alright, alright, work first. Hear ya loud and clear!”

Deborah doesn’t think she does at all, but it’s a problem for another day.

At least it was supposed to be.

But over a late breakfast Marcus texts that he’s in the lobby, and Deborah barely has time to race into the bedroom and pull the duvet up and over the rumpled sheets, shoving the vibrator back into the nightstand and behind the Bible where it belongs.

Then Marcus is knocking at the door. Deborah takes a deep breath and pulls it open for him. He gives her a long look, and Deborah has to remind herself that she’s showered and changed, that there’s nothing visible to betray the way she feels inside—untethered and sated and guilty in turn.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she says, sweeping into the kitchenette and cleaning up the rest of her eggs. She finds she no longer has an appetite for them.

When Deborah glances back over her shoulder, she finds Marcus in the small living room area, sitting too stiffly to be here for regular business.

“What is it?”

She watches the conflict play out over Marcus’s features before he takes a deep breath. “Whatever you’re doing with Ava needs to stop.”

Were Ava here, Deborah just knows the jig would be up in a second. She has no poker face, and she blushes like a virgin. But Deborah, well, she’s spent half her life lying to everyone around her. She just furrows her brows and holds Marcus’s gaze. “I know, I know. I’m contractually obligated to mentor her and haven’t been. We talked. I’ll be meeting with her tomorrow. So you might as well clear my schedule now.”

Marcus glances up at the ceiling, then back at her. “Did you know I ran into Ava last night?”

Deborah hums. “Did you now?”

“In the hallway. She was on her way to see you.”

“She was. And as I’ve told you, we worked things out.”

“I have to assume so, given the photos of her leaving the hotel with you this morning. Wearing the exact same outfit I saw her in last night.”

Deborah feels her eye twitch, but she waves off Marcus’s comments. “She has about four equally unflattering outfits in her wardrobe. I’m not surprised she’s been reduced to repeating them.”

Marcus drops his head into his hands and rubs at the bridge of his nose. “Deborah, I’ve worked for you for a long time. I’ve put my life on hold because I believe in you. But this? Lying to me? You’re going to jeopardize everything we’ve ever worked for over some girl.”

Stepping forward, Deborah lets her voice go hard and cold. “Think very carefully about what you’re accusing me of, Marcus.”

He stands, meets her gaze without backing down. “What I’m accusing you of? Why don’t you check social media? Have Damian read out more of those tweets he loves following. Tell me where those marks all down Ava’s neck that they’re zooming in on came from.”

Hiding a grimace, Deborah lets out a haughty sniff. “We all saw the photos of her with George. God only knows who else she’s—”

“Talk to me when you two have your story straight,” Marcus cuts in. His gaze drags back towards the edge of the couch, where Deborah spots the silk robe Ava had stripped off her—the same robe Marcus had seen her wearing when he left—crumpled on the floor. “You might consider tidying before housekeeping gets here.”

Well, fuck.

---

By the time Ava arrives on Monday morning, Deborah has done social media cleanup with Damian, scheduling a casual tweet about how gratifying mentorship has been with a weeks-old photo of her, Ava, and Marcus—that necessary third party perfect for breaking up accusations of untoward behavior—all gathered around her table with takeout from what Ava had declared the “best sushi place in town.”

Deborah has even managed to smooth things over with Marcus—a single moment of near-honesty and a promise that whatever happened was a one-time thing, a mistake she regrets. (And she should. She will. She’s just waiting for her body to remember it.) She recommits to the brand, promises to reconsider some pitch Marcus had made for a new QVC line that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to care about. The promotion and salary bump she offers him probably don’t hurt either.

Now, all that’s left to handle is Ava. Ava, who strolls in with a coffee and a scone for Deborah and a notebook full of material as if she is, as she once put it on stage, the kid that did her homework. Ava who, upon realizing they’re alone, leans in to steal a kiss.

Deborah steps out of her reach and tries not to grimace as she explains, “We should keep things professional. I am your mentor and a judge. I could most certainly be fired for this, and it wouldn’t look good for you.” It’s everything Marcus had told Deborah—repeatedly—distilled and delivered as quickly as possible to Ava.

“Okay, but no one’s here. It’s not like anyone knows.”

“Apparently half of Twitter does.”

“Dude, first of all, it’s like, maybe one percent of the tiny fraction of Twitter users that even give a shit about American Talent that think this. Second of all, they’ve thought that for literal weeks now. No one believed them then, and they’re not gonna start now.”

“Well, they might when they have photos of you strolling out of my hotel, walking one of my dogs like we’re Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson.”

“God, I’m living the fucking dream.”

“Ava,” Deborah snaps.

“Right, right. Point is: no one’s gonna think anything of it. Trust me, lesbian invisibility’s a thing, and for once it’s working in our favor. The papers’ll gal pal us and run that story into the ground.”

“Not when you’re walking around with hickeys all over your neck!”

“You’re the one that gave them to me!” After a moment, Ava shrugs. “Tbh, that totally works in our favor. No one having some clandestine affair would be stupid enough to do that.”

Deborah purses her lips, but for once, Ava seems content enough—smug enough, Deborah’s mind grumbles—not to push the issue further, hunkering down in the sitting area with her phone and notebook and getting to work.

(Deborah should have known better.)

Ava emerges triumphantly several minutes later, her phone held high. “Know what the big story they spun those photos into is?”

“Let me guess: a late-in-life lesbian love affair?” Deborah drawls.

“No,” Ava says, drawing it out into far too many syllables for this early in the morning. “It’s all about American Talent, how we, like, overcame our feud to put up a united front against Drew.”

Deborah lets out a little huff of air.

“Some other female comics are coming out with statements about how important it is that we all support each other.”

“Great. Now let me support your imploding career by hearing what you’ve got for me.”

Ava wiggles her eyebrows and steps closer. “I can think of some other ways we supported each other this weekend.”

Deborah closes her eyes and tries not to replay the image of Ava, eyes hooded and pupils blown wide with want, looking up at Deborah from between her legs. When she opens them again, Ava is even closer. “No,” Deborah manages, only the slightest quaver to her voice. “Unless, of course, you were hoping to get sent home and leave me with Drew?”

Ava groans and spins back in the direction of the sofa. “Major boner killer, D.”

“So’s that nickname, asshole.”

---

Ava makes it through to the top 12 after a decent showing on Tuesday night. The material is there, but it needs a few more tweaks—the kind of thing they might have hammered out before the show if they’d had more than a single day of prep. Still, what matters is that Ava’s still in this thing, and Deborah still has a reason to be near her. A professional reason to be near her. Not that she should want this—hell, a part of her still clings to her anger at Ava, pushes back against the forgiveness that has been so readily—too readily—bestowed. But there’s something exhilarating about working together. Something soothing in carving the shit life’s handed them into a bit—small, manageable, funny, the kind of thing that might just be survivable.

The next week finds Ava spending even more time with Deborah than before, practically falling asleep in the sitting room each night and shuffling to Deborah’s door again every morning. They trade stories back and forth, mining trauma for comic gold. They watch shitty TV for breaks from their writing and take turns calling dibs on choosing where they’ll get takeout from for lunch. They spend long hours sprawled out on the too-small couch, making edits to each other’s writing and practicing bits on each other. (They’d tried working in the bedroom once, but Ava’s eyes had darted over to the nightstand a few too many times—Deborah wasn’t falling for the excuse that she was “contemplating religion”—and neither of them managed anything close to productivity for the rest of the day, too jumpy and unsettled.)

Damian, who’s waved away Ava’s earlier rant as “obviously wrong about you, but so good for your social numbers,” gets along with Ava like a house on fire. They spend their days distracting each other from work and giggling over inane TikTok videos and viral tweets. More than once, Deborah’s had to threaten to send Damian back to his own room to work unless Ava can manage to focus on the notebook in front of her.

Marcus, on the other hand, is perpetually annoyed by Ava’s presence. But with how many scribbled bits have been left strewn all around the suite, he seems to have accepted that what they’re doing is professional. Mentorship and writing, nothing more.

Deborah isn’t quite so cruel (or stupid) as to point out that this feels at least as intimate as fucking Ava had.

Once upon a time, she thought she’d found the perfect partner in Frank. He hadn’t been put off by her loud laughter, the way she could be brash in the face of social niceties, cutting and incisive when so much of society was still telling women how best to please their men. He’d loved her not in spite of it, but for it. He’d pulled jokes from her, laughed along with her, thrown material of his own right back at her.

And this…it’s not the same. (Deborah wouldn’t want it to be.) But it’s close. Where Frank had balanced Deborah out, the sitcom voice to her willingness to strain at the limits of what audiences would accept from a female comic, Ava is all irreverence, driving Deborah not just to strain at those old, internalized limits, but to plow straight through them and dare the world to come after her for it.

They’re meant to be focusing on Ava’s act, but they haven’t stopped working on Deborah’s either. (That she hides from Marcus. He might have gotten over a single sexual indiscretion—and that’s all it is, no matter how many times since then Deborah has made herself come with Ava’s name on her lips—but jeopardizing the Deborah Vance brand like this would be unforgivable.)

Deborah jokes once or twice about poaching Ava for herself—about telling Marty to keep the Palmetto and go fuck himself and taking this new act out on tour with a fresh young writing partner and, if Ava’s amenable, an opening act to boot. (She couches the offer in laughter and means every goddam word of it.)  

By the time they get to the following Tuesday’s show, Ava has new material—more polished than before, but just as irreverent and as deeply her as ever—and Deborah lets herself take pleasure in hearing the studio audience clap and laugh for Ava.

Of course, during judging, Deborah still points out the moments that didn’t work as well as they could have, the places where Ava’s timing was a second or two off from perfect. She respects Ava’s humor too much to give her some generic compliment when she could be even better. And Ava, in turn, rolls her eyes and pushes back like the little shit she still is at the heart of it.

On Wednesday, Deborah, who swore she would never be invested in drivel like American Talent, watches with bated breath as Lance draws the results announcement out for far too long.

Eventually, one of the many singers still left in the competition is sent home, bringing them down to 11 acts with one still to go that night. Deborah glances up at Ava when Lance jokes that America might have “had the last laugh” for one of the comics. Ava is, objectively speaking, better than Drew. Her jokes are funnier, her timing better, and her material fresher. But Deborah learned long ago not to trust that being good or even better is ever enough.

After yet another commercial break—and jesus, Deborah should have demanded more money for how much they must make on advertisements alone—they finally get to the results.

“Our second act going home this week will be…” Lance pauses, surveys the audience. Deborah bites her tongue and doesn’t yell at him to hurry the fuck up. “Drew Higgins!”

Deborah’s gaze finds Ava’s immediately, both of them beaming at each other through the crowd. Deborah barely hears Lance’s blathering on about how much they’ll miss Drew—she sure as hell won’t, at any rate. All she cares about is seeing Ava mouthing, “We did it,” at her from the stage. (Ava will, in a few days, blushingly admit that this moment has been gif-ed and shared a few thousand times on Twitter by Ava’s small but vocal queer fan base. Deborah’s still not sure what half the words Ava uses mean, but if it’s getting her through another round over Drew, she thinks it must be good.)

Slipping out before she has to see Drew and offer him an insincere farewell, Deborah makes it through the back hallway to where Marcus is waiting for her.

As he walks her to the waiting car, he sighs. “Top 10… I guess all those hours of coaching paid off.”

Deborah scoffs. “Please, as if I do anything halfway.”

“Well, Marty seems impressed,” he tells her as they slip into the backseat.

“Marty can go fuck himself.”

It earns her a confused look. “The whole point of this is getting your dates back, maybe a nice apology salary bump.”

“I know,” Deborah sighs. “It’s—we’ll talk about it later.”

“Deborah.” There’s a note of warning in his voice that itches at her skin.

“Leave it, Marcus.”

The rest of the ride passes in an uncomfortable silence, and it’s a relief to finally make it up to her suite and have a moment to herself.

Of course, she’s barely had a drink and gotten her heels off when there’s a knock at the door. Already bracing herself for a fight with Marcus over what the future of the Deborah Vance brand will look like, she swings open the door.

Only, it’s not Marcus.

It’s Ava, cheeks pink and eyes glinting with bad ideas.

(She should have expected this.)

Ava holds up a bottle of cheap champagne. “Celebrate?”

“Your career picking up now that you’ve made it to the top 10?”

“Fuck no. Well, maybe,” Ava admits. “But we’re drinking to that sexist pig going home.”

“He’ll still have a career,” Deborah sighs, even as she pulls the door open enough for Ava to slip inside.

“Yeah, but a fuckin’ magician made it longer than him in the competition.”

It brightens Deborah’s mood even more than hearing Drew’s name called aloud tonight did.

She lets Ava pop the cork on the champagne and pour it into glasses that weren’t made for it. Hell, the swill in that bottle probably doesn’t deserve champagne flutes anyway. Then they’re drinking together, making toasts that get more and more outrageous, collapsing into the couch and giggling at things that most certainly wouldn’t be this funny any other time.

It’s a dangerous, heady combination, and Deborah can’t bring herself to care.

“To your new act,” Ava offers, nearly smashing her glass into Deborah’s in her exuberance. They’re nowhere near drunk, but there’s something intoxicating about being this close to each other.

Deborah just barely manages to salvage the glasses, pulling back enough that they merely clink together.

“Eye contact!” Ava yells.

Deborah holds Ava’s gaze as they toast a second time. “Better?”

Ava licks her lips, lets her gaze drop to Deborah’s mouth. “Yeah,” she murmurs, already leaning forward.

“Ava.” It’s as much a warning as it is a plea.

“Am I…am I misreading things?”

Those giant hands are rubbing up and down Deborah’s thighs, and Deborah can feel her breath growing shallower and shallower. “My interest,” she manages, her voice catching slightly, “doesn’t change the fact that this is a bad fucking idea.”

“Was it really so bad the first time?”

“I said it was a bad idea, not a bad time.”

“Good.” Ava’s mouth quirks up into a cocky little smile. “Cause I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”

“That so?” Deborah’s voice has gone breathy, and Ava’s cheeks flush pink at the sound of it. They’re playing with fire, but Deborah’s spent a whole lifetime getting burned. At the very least, this time she’s going to do it on her own goddam terms. “Tell me.”

“Fuck,” Ava groans. Holding up a single finger, Ava pauses the action to place her mostly empty cup on the coffee table, then take Deborah’s from her and set it back there as well. Once they’ve been taken care of, she throws a leg over Deborah’s hips, urges her to sit back. “What do you wanna know?”

“You’re the one that apparently can’t stop thinking about me. So what is it? Or no, don’t tell me, I’m the only one you try to force into that radical honestly bullshit.”

“You want radical honesty?” Ava’s eyebrows lift, and she holds Deborah’s gaze, a challenge in her eyes. And fuck, Deborah should have known better. Ava marshals the truth like a weapon, drops words like bombs designed for maximum impact. “The truth is that I go home every night from your hotel room and barely make it through my door before I’m touching myself. Somehow laughing with you is better than any porn I’ve ever watched.”

It’s enough to have heat rushing through Deborah’s body, an electric current of want prickling at her skin. She keeps her voice even as she manages a dry: “I’ll be sure to make that the blurb for my next show.”

Ava snorts. “It’d probably sell out.” She leans forward, lowering her head and peppering teasing kisses all along Deborah’s jaw. “I think about what a fucking shame it is that I didn’t even get to ride your fingers last time.” The kisses turn more heated then, and Deborah’s heart races, one of her hands moving instinctively to curl around Ava’s hip. “I think about getting you over to my place. Getting out the strap on.”

“What? You think you’ll get to fuck me?”

“Only if you ask nicely,” Ava taunts.

It’s enough to have Deborah roughly tugging down Ava’s dress—some red number that she might call pretty if she didn’t worry about giving Ava the wrong impression about what this is, what it can be—and pulling the cups of Ava’s bra away from her skin. She takes one of Ava’s nipples between her lips and drags her teeth along it until Ava’s hips are bucking into her.

“Want you to wear it, too,” Ava gasps.

And that. Well, that’s enough to have Deborah’s brain short-circuiting just long enough for Ava to pull back and get her dress over her head. She dives for Deborah’s blazer—a gold, sparkly number—and throws it to the ground with no regard for wrinkles or how carefully that’ll have to be dry-cleaned.

As revenge, Deborah runs a single finger along the waistband of Ava’s underwear, dips down and along damp cotton.

“Deb.” Ava’s voice cracks over it as her hips chase after Deborah’s touch.

Deborah teases Ava through the cotton until she’s practically falling out of Deborah’s lap in her rush to get the last of her clothing off. Resettling herself on Deborah’s legs, Ava takes Deborah’s hand in her own and guides it between her legs. She whimpers as Deborah finally feels just how wet she is.

Deborah slips one finger inside her, then a second, lets Ava adjust as she starts a maddeningly slow pace.

Impatient as ever, Ava rolls her hips into Deborah’s palm, taking what she needs before Deborah’s decided to give it to her. Deborah arches an eyebrow, but Ava just grins at her. Of course, she’s not grinning for long, mouth dropping into an almost comically exaggerated “O” as Deborah crooks her fingers just so.

“Fuck,” Ava pants, leaning back to give Deborah easier access. Deborah takes the added space to bring her free hand up to Ava’s chest and palm at her breasts until she’s gasping and grinding against Deborah’s hand. “More.”

“More?”

“Inside me. Please.”

Ava sounds utterly wrecked, and it’s enough to have Deborah shivering. She carefully slips a third finger inside of Ava, watches as she pulls her lower lip between her teeth before relaxing into it with a quiet whimper.

“Good,” Deborah murmurs, feeling as Ava pulses around her fingers.

“Just—just like that.” Deborah watches as Ava sucks two of her own fingers into her mouth before bringing them to her clit, rubbing fast circles as she chases her own pleasure.

Deborah thinks she could have managed it just fine on her own, but she’s not above enjoying the show. So she sits back and watches, curls her fingers and fucks Ava harder and deeper until she’s clenching around Deborah and coming with a choked-off moan.

Deborah’s careful as she slides her fingers out, watching as Ava shudders at the loss. But then all coherent thought deserts her as Ava ducks her head forward and sucks Deborah’s fingers into her mouth, one by one.

“Think you can make it to the bedroom?” Ava asks as she finally releases Deborah’s fingers, one hand already unbuttoning the black slacks that are now stained enough that Deborah will simply have to burn them. (God, she shudders to imagine sending Damian off to the dry cleaners with them.) “I have plans, and I don’t think my knees would survive the wood floor for how long I want to spend eating you out.”

And really, who is Deborah to say no to such an offer?

Chapter Text

Ava is the first person to admit she’s not, like, great at checking her email. It had gotten her into a metric fuckton of trouble during her time at college—apparently not opening an email about a deadline isn’t a good excuse for not turning shit in. But it’s stressful, and anyone who needs to get ahold of her that badly can probably just text.

Generally, that policy has served her fine. Not great, but fine. So long as she was showing up at work every day and throwing funny jokes out there, no one really gave a shit if she missed an email about chipping in for Kristen’s birthday cake. (Okay, it turned out they cared a lot, but no one fucking told her that until it was too late.)  

This week it means she’s in for a deeply unpleasant surprise when she shows up to Deborah’s to workshop material on Friday morning after a full day off and finds out that each week once they hit the “Top Ten” is themed.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Deborah asks, frowning at Ava from across the sofa.

Ava catches sight of Marcus looking smug over at the kitchen table he’s claimed as his work area for the day, and she hates herself a little for letting him hold something else over her.

“It just seems like the kinda thing they should announce, you know?”

“And spoil the surprise for everyone watching at home?” Deborah deadpans.

“Fine, fine. How’d you find out?”

“The weekly email, Ava.”

“Right. Yeah. Of course.” Since when have they sent out one of those? She unlocks her phone and hides the giant red number at the corner of the email icon from Deborah. Fuck. There’s a ton of these emails. “Family friendly?” Ava practically chokes over the words, and she hears Marcus let out a snort of laughter. “Deb, the only family friendly thing about me is that I have a thing for MILFs!”

Marcus shuts right up at that, and Ava has to push down the impulse to stick her tongue out at him. Deborah just purses her lips, and Ava shoots her a beatific smile.

“You better figure it out unless you wanna lose to an adult who files taxes as a magician.”

“Fuck,” Ava groans, rubbing at her forehead.

“None of that this week.”

“They have us on a five-second delay for a reason.”

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna bet that no one who getting bleeped out sails through family fun week.”

“God, I hate it here.”

“Surely you can think of something.”

“I mean, whose family are they even talking about? I offend probably 70 percent of the people who use the phrase ‘family friendly’ just by existing.”

“Try 80,” Marcus chimes in.

“Wow, really thought I might get some LGBTQ solidarity, Marcus.”

He arches an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, is a white girl really going to lecture me about solidarity? What do you think that percentage is for a Black gay man?”

“Okay, fine. Fair enough.” Ava drops her gaze back down to her notebook and taps her pen against it again and again. The page remains frustratingly blank as she shoots down idea after idea.

Before long, she feels Deborah’s fingers—cool and soft—curl around the back of her hand, stilling her pen. She can’t quite help the shiver that runs through her at the touch.

“Get up. Before that vein in Marcus’s forehead explodes with the incessant noise.”

“Okay, okay, I’m leaving. But I could, like, seriously use your help this week.”

“I’m aware. I can see the blank notebook page. We’ll walk and talk.”

No matter how comfortable the sofa is, Ava’s not gonna shoot herself in the foot by saying no to time alone with Deborah far from Marcus’s judgment. Like, fine, yes, she was kinda shitty about Deborah to his face the first time she met him. And then went on national TV to tell the whole world how horrible Deborah is. But still. Deb’s clearly mostly over it. Ava’s pretty sure, at least. Hell, she jokes about taking Ava out on the road with her, which she definitely wouldn’t do if she still hated Ava’s guts.

“You coming?” Deborah yells over her shoulder, already halfway out the door.

Ava practically leaps over the back of the sofa to catch up. She’d learned the hard way that Deborah waits for no one after getting stuck on the wrong side of the closing elevator doors that time she ran back for the half-eaten muffin she’d left on the counter.

Soon enough, they’re outside in the sun and traffic, and Ava feels herself relax just a little bit. A car horn blares from the intersection, the noise washing over her like a calming ocean breeze. “Home sweet home.”

“Hell on earth,” Deborah scoffs

“Um, I’m pretty sure that’s Vegas. And Florida’s America’s armpit.”

“Yeah, well, they’ve got a shit ton of viewers tuning into American Talent and voting every week.”

“You’re the one that pointed out that Americans are terrible voters.”

Deborah hums. “Obviously. You’re still in the competition, aren’t you?”

“Ouch.”

“But you won’t be if you blow it this week. C’mon, do some brainstorming. Family, let’s start there.”

“Family…” Ava chews on her lower lip, glancing around her as they walk. “Um, parents. Growing up. Uh, funerals and weddings and shit.”

“Wow. It’s like watching Picasso sing.”

Ava tilts her head. “You mean paint?”

“No.”

Ava rolls her eyes. “Look, I don’t—I don’t like talking about this shit. I don’t wanna drag my dad into this, and I could probably make a dozen solid jokes from all the batshit voicemails my mom leaves me, but then she’d leave me a thousand more.” She shrugs. “What else am I supposed to talk about? The time I got drunk on maraschino cherries as a toddler at my Aunt Linda’s wedding and passed out on the dance floor? The time I brought a plus-one to my Uncle Rocco’s funeral and let him finger me upstairs during the wake?”

Deborah lets out a long, loud sigh. After a moment, she says, “You could maybe make the toddler story work. Spin it the right way, make it a cute thing, not a pattern for future behavior problems.”

“This week is gonna be so easy for the singers,” Ava whines. “Pick a Disney song. Literally any Disney song. What am I supposed to do? Get up there and talk about how Maleficent and Prince Philip were my kinky childhood OTP?”

Deborah shrugs. “Maybe.”

“What?”

“Not like that. But, sure, why not joke about the same shit everyone else on the show will be singing and dancing to? Poke a little fun at something that everyone knows about. Then your act’s accessible without giving up that part of you that just has to be a contrarian little shit.”

It’s…smart, really. And Ava doesn’t hate it, which is the first time she’s been able to say that since reading the email. “Maybe I could rank kids’ movies… How important they were for my queer awakening.” She can feel the bit on the tip of tongue, a sketch of it slowly taking shape. “Technically fits the brief without alienating my fan base.”

“Why don’t you come over tomorrow to workshop what you have?”

“Oh.” Ava feels her face fall and tries to cover it. “Uh, yeah, okay.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Ava.”

“No, I just, you know”—she kicks at an old cigarette butt on the sidewalk—“shit’s funnier when we can bounce ideas off each other.” Deborah’s face flashes with something Ava can’t identify. “It’s fine. I’ll write alone. See you tomorrow, kay?”

“No, I—I can stick around.”

“Really?”

“Marcus can work somewhere else if the noise gets to him that much.”

Ava’s pretty sure he’d be able to work through a nuclear explosion no problem, but she keeps that to herself. “We could work at my place?” This look Ava absolutely knows how to decipher. “I promise, hands to myself!” Not that Deborah had minded having Ava’s hands all over her a couple nights ago, but it’s fine. Totally chill. Ava hasn’t been, like, thinking about it all the time or anything obsessive like that.

“Oh really?”

“Scout’s honor.”

“Is that even a thing?”

Ava shrugs. “Wouldn’t know. I got kicked out of the girl scouts in third grade.”

Deborah lets out loud cackle that warms Ava from the inside out. “Of course you did.”

“Fuck off. I found better uses for my freakishly long fingers than holding them up to say some weird pledge.”

“Let’s leave that out of your family friendly act, hmm?”

Ava heaves out a put-upon sigh. “If you insist.”

---

Ava really had intended to stick to her promise about just working. She’s got a whole new bit to come up with and polish in just a few days, and she can admit this theme isn’t exactly her strong suit. It was just that she’d insisted Deborah come and watch a clip to prove to her once and for all that Ava was right and Scar was totally gay. And then Deborah had been so close, one hand resting right there on Ava’s shoulder. And Ava was barely even thinking when she brushed a faint kiss across the back of it. So anyway, it’s so totally not her fault that they’re stretched out on Ava’s bed trading kisses and groping at each other.

“You feel so good,” Ava murmurs against the soft skin of Deborah’s neck, and she feels Deborah’s fingers flex and tighten around her hip.

“Ava, you should—you should go work. Write.”

“I’m brainstorming.” She finds that spot at the corner of Deborah’s jaw that makes her whole body shiver.

“Oh really?”

Ava hums, pressing one of her legs between Deborah’s thighs.

“Anything family friendly?” Deborah asks, sounding surprisingly unaffected for a woman grinding herself against Ava.

“Maybe I’m planning for future bits.”

“That so?”

“Mm, aren’t you the one always suggesting we hit the road together? Gonna need enough material to keep up with you.”

There’s that look again, but Ava doesn’t have much time to consider it before Deborah’s mouth is on Ava’s again, hard and a little desperate, her teeth pulling at Ava’s lower lip and making her groan.

They don’t end up doing much more than making out and feeling each other up, but they do that for what feels like hours, Deborah holding Ava close—Ava might call it clinging if she didn’t think Deborah would murder her for it—and kissing Ava like her life depended on it.

It’s only when Deborah’s phone rings from across the room that they finally pull apart.

It’s Marcus—of course it is—and Ava watches as Deborah’s expression morphs from something like incredulity to anger and resignation.

“What, uh, what was that about?” Ava asks when Deborah hangs up and throws her phone back in her bag.

“Nothing. Vegas business.”

“Oh. You just look a little…annoyed.”

“Yeah well…” Deborah trails off, looking a little lost for the first time since Ava’s met her. She shakes it off quickly enough. “I need to go deal with a few things. Try to get some writing done. We’ll workshop your shit tomorrow, then we have that TV Guide photoshoot on Sunday.”

“Wait, what?”

“Jesus, Ava. Read your fucking email.”

Ava groans, but she still stands up and finds her phone among the tangled mess of the sheets. She follows Deborah down the stairs but stops her before she can beeline straight for the door.

“What?”

“You, um, might want to fix your hair. And lipstick. And clothes.”

Deborah’s cheeks flush a light shade of pink as she pats down the hair that is most certainly sticking up in more places than it should be. “If you didn’t insist on having your hands in it the whole time,” Deborah grumbles under her breath, even though she’s literally never complained about it in bed. Ava tries for a contrite expression that no one’s buying as she shows Deborah to the downstairs bathroom.

By the time Deborah leaves, she looks decidedly more like the Deborah Vance that could be photographed out on the streets out for a professional business meeting, and all Ava wants is to drag her back to bed and mess it up again.

To keep from reaching out and doing just that, Ava shoves her hands in her pockets until Deborah’s out the door, then settles in on the couch with her vape to finally sort through her inbox.

There’s about a billion spam emails that she deletes en masse. The publicity requests from weeks ago join them in the trash not long after that. She grimaces at an old email about show headshots, realizing that was why she was the only one to show up in workout clothes and nowhere near “camera ready” that day. Whatever, she can delete that shit now.

The email about the TV Guide shoot is, at the very least, only a few days old. She skims it and adds it to her calendar, already grimacing at how much time they’ve asked them all to block out for the photos and “group interview,” which sounds like the producers scripting a bunch of lines for them to feed to the magazine.

There’s another message from an address Ava doesn’t recognize, but the subject line sounds real enough that she opens it in case. She skims it. Then reads it more slowly, heart pounding a little faster with every word. It’s an offer for a job interview. A real interview. With the producers of The Bitter End, which is only one of Ava’s favorite shows. She reads it one more time, even googles the restaurant where they want to meet her on Friday afternoon to make sure she’s not being punk’d or some shit, before sending back a quick reply assuring them that she’ll be there.

Dropping her head to the back of the couch, Ava covers her face with her hands and lets out a bark of half-hysterical laughter. Apparently being on this show actually did it—made people forget about her stupid fucking tweet. She makes a mental note to send Jimmy a fruit basket. Or maybe just a photo of a fruit basket. She hasn’t actually gotten the job yet, after all.

---

The photo shoot is, in a word, awful. Ava’s only just now getting used to being the one up on stage, but at least there she’s moving and talking. If she’s doing things right, people should be focused more on her words than whatever weird thing her chin is doing. But here she’s being poked and prodded and moved into awkward position after awkward position. It’s like junior prom all over again, only they’ve got all the time in the world to look too closely at her instead of 30 seconds to get her in and out after one overly rigid pose.

The pictures with the full group aren’t the absolute worst. Between the dance crew and the jazz band still left in the competition, they’ve got way more than 10 people, and Ava lets herself believe she’ll just…blend into the background.

She even lets herself relax and enjoy watching the judges get their photos taken. Deb’s a total fuckin’ pro, but Ava can still pick up on her annoyance with the photographer, with how close she’s being made to stand next to Jared in some of the photos.

But then they’re onto the solo contestant shots, and Ava contemplates calling an audible and getting the hell out of there as soon as she watches how long even Michelle with her picture-perfect smile is kept in front of their backdrop to get the “perfect” shot.

As if she can sense when Ava’s about to bolt, Deborah sidles up behind her and says, her voice low with that rasp to it that makes Ava’s whole body burn with want, “If you make it through this, I’ll let you see the outtakes from the photoshoot they did for my Christmas album back in ’99.”

“You did a Christmas album? You sing?”

“Comedy album, dumbass.”

“Oh.” In retrospect, that makes a hell of a lot more sense. “How embarrassing are the outtakes? I might need more than just the promise of your humiliation to keep me here.”

“Oh, honey, they’re not embarrassing at all.”

Ava glances back over her shoulder and catches the slight curve of Deborah’s mouth that says she’s beyond pleased with herself. “Then what…”

“Why don’t you pull out that phone you’re always glued to and look it up?”

It takes a minute for Ava to manage it, and suddenly she’s looking at a younger Deborah in a very revealing Mrs. Clause outfit, sitting astride a Santa that’s a hell of a lot younger and less…jolly than any of the ones Ava’s ever seen at the mall.

“I’d offer you the outtakes from this past year’s homage to that cover, but, well, they’re a bit less revealing. Perils of aging and all that,” Deborah murmurs from behind Ava.

“Fuck whoever told you that. I’ll pay you everything I have to put that outfit back on for a night.”

“Sweet talker. Tragically, it’ll take more than four dollars to make that happen.”

“Ava Daniels,” one of TV Guide’s people calls out.

“Go knock ’em dead. And try to lose the glazed-over look, hmm?”

It’s easier said than done, but, at the very least, the first few poses pass by in a daze.

---

If Ava thought Sunday’s photoshoot was bad, it’s nothing compared to the absolute disaster that is Tuesday’s live show. Like comparing the Titanic to fucking Armageddon.

Ava had spent all day Saturday and Monday writing and workshopping her material. It wasn’t the best, but it was fun, lighthearted, the kind of thing that felt right for the theme. Sure, she wasn’t gonna be Michelle out there belting out some Little Mermaid tune in a full costume, but she’d felt fine about what she’d prepped. Deborah was still fighting her over how gay a lion could really be—the correct answer: very—but she’d laughed when Ava did a full run through, and her laughs were always hard won, never a guarantee.

Of course, neither of them had counted on the network’s “fun” surprises.

So no one had prepared Ava for the possibility that the studio would, in fact, be full of real live families. Families with kids.

And here’s the thing. Ava isn’t some kind of monster who hates children. She doesn’t love them, and she sure as fuck doesn’t want one of her own, but they’re fine. Tiny little weirdos, which she can totally vibe with as a lifestyle. But she isn’t writing her stand-up routine for an 8-year-old’s sense of humor, and no one fucking warned her that there existed any world in which she should have.

Ava watches from the wings as they shriek and applaud for the Disney princess routines, for the performers that wow them like any good children’s media might, for the magician who barely has to change his act at all.

And then she goes out there and fucking bombs.

It’s bad from the very moment she strides out onto stage with no costume—not even any bright colors to make her pop. She can imagine dozens of little kids whispering too loudly to their parents and asking them what a comedian even is.

It only gets worse from there. She tells them she’ll be talking about Disney—fine—and queerness—not fine. She sees more parents than she’d like to believe sweeping out of the studio at that. Ava bites her tongue and doesn’t call them out the way she would in a club, doesn’t ask what family friendly might mean for some gay kid in the audience, for some gay parents sitting there with kids that know better than to be offended.

There’s some polite laughter, but the jokes are flying right over the kids’ heads, and she’s absolutely certain that the mics and cameras sweeping the audience are picking up on their impatient chatter and exaggerated yawns. It’s enough to throw Ava so off her game that she misses half the beats for her own punchlines, stumbling over her words and forgetting her sequencing.

The judges give her pitying looks, and Ava goes home alone and drowns her sorrow in the half-empty bottle of vodka she finds in the back of her freezer, drinking enough to know she’ll look like total shit on camera tomorrow but not so much that there’s any chance of her puking on live television.

All Wednesday, Ava ignores Deborah’s texts and calls. She has no interest in talking or sitting there and listening to insincere reassurances or valid but unwanted criticism.

By the time she’s in the studio for the results show, she’s a ball of nerves. She barely hears half of what they say; hell, she even closes her eyes for the recap that they play on the screen behind her. Then finally—finally—Lance is pulling out that envelope that Ava swears is empty, just there for dramatic effect.

“This week,” Lance announces, “just one contestant will be leaving us.”

Awesome. Doing the walk of shame alone. Love that, Ava thinks.

“I’m going to call forward the two acts who received the lowest number of votes this week. One will be going home. The other will be staying by the skin of their teeth.” He pauses and surveys the audience as he slowly opens the envelope. “Will Ava Daniels and All About That Sax come forward?”

At the very least, Ava thinks, she’ll have company at the front of the stage. A whole jazz band standing there with her. Maybe they’ll even play her off when she leaves.

“This is the end of the road for one of these two acts.” Another overly dramatic pause. “And I’ll tell you who…right after the break.”

“Jesus fuck,” Ava mutters just as the cameras cut.

The trumpet player standing next to Ava snorts. “No wonder you’re down here for family week.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason they don’t really have kiddie comedy.”

“Believe it or not, kids aren’t that into jazz covers of songs from old children’s movies they’ve never seen either.”

“Imagine.” Ava shakes her head and manages something like a grin. “Kids today. No damn taste.”

Before Ava can really settle into enjoying herself for a single moment, the crew is calling them back to action and counting them down.

Ava does some breathing exercises she saw on self-care TikTok. She’s not positive she remembers all the things she’s supposed to do, but she’s fairy certain it’s the thought that counts. The point is, she’s braced for impact and ready to hear her name.

So ready that she barely even registers Lance’s announcing that All About That Sax will be leaving them tonight while Ava is safe for another week. Nothing sinks in, and Ava stands there blinking at the camera like an idiot until the trumpet player nudges her back to the rest of the group.

It isn’t until she’s listening to the jazz group playing for the final time on the American Talent stage that Ava really starts to believe that she’s safe. The rush of relief she feels is as overwhelming as it is unexpected. She already has a job interview lined up—real proof that her career isn’t over forever. And she doesn’t actually give a shit about being on this show or winning it, even if the grand prize money would be nice. It’s only when she looks out at the audience and catches sight of Deborah at the judges’ table, smiling and swaying along with the band, that it hits her—why she’s so goddam relieved. It’s not that she has another week on this show. It’s that she has another week with Deborah.

Fuck.

---

After spending all day Thursday a little hungover brainstorming ideas for the much easier to handle “getaway” theme with Deborah, Ava calls it an early night and wakes up on Friday at what Deborah would probably deem an “acceptable hour,” but that Ava still thinks of as the asscrack of dawn to dig her lucky Fenty Pumas out of the boxes she still hasn’t gotten around to unpacking. She gets herself a latte and spends a couple hours watching clips from her favorite episodes of The Bitter End and taking notes. Jesus, it’s like somewhere along the way she actually became the kid that did her homework. But she doesn’t have time to dwell on that revelation if she wants to be on time. She just throws her notebook into her bag and grabs her keys, already pulling up directions to the restaurant.

Her phone buzzes just as she’s getting it set up in her car. Deb. Her heart gives a happy little flutter that she tries to tamp down on.

Deborah: I know you said you’d be late today, but post-lunch feels excessive. Where are you?

Ava pulls her phone back down from the dashboard mount and quickly types out a reply: “Didn’t want to jinx it, but I’ve got a job interview! Wish me luck! See you in a couple hours!”

(Deborah still hasn’t answered by the time Ava gets to the restaurant. She tries not to let it get her down. It’s fine. Deborah’s a busy lady, and Ava shouldn’t delude herself into thinking she’s her number one priority or anything like that.)

What matters is that there’s a table just over there with two British writers who actually want to talk to her, maybe even hire her.

Smiling broadly, Ava strides over and finds the two of them. They smile at her like they’re happy to meet her. They wave off her acknowledgment of the tweet that had, at least temporarily, ended her career like it’s nothing. They tell her they’ve been watching her on American Talent and love her work, then smile at each other while Ava gushes all about The Bitter End.

It’s only when Ava starts talking about the kind of plotlines she could envision for the show that they stop her.

“Oh, Ava, this is for a new show,” Freddie says.

Simone nods and gives Ava an encouraging smile. “We want you on the writing team from the ground up. We’ll even be filming locally.”

Freddie wiggles his eyebrows. “We’re renting a bungalow right here in Santa Monica.”

Ava can’t help the quiet, “Holy shit,” but no one’s there to bleep it out, and they look delighted.

“Our producers would probably kill us for giving up leverage here, but we absolutely loved your sample.”

“Loved it!”

“And in our minds, you’re already hired.”

“Wait, seriously?”

“Seriously,” Simone confirms, reaching out and grabbing Ava’s hand.

“Oh my god, thank you. That—that’s amazing! I have so many ideas. I don’t know how far into development you are, but I’m so ready to jump in.”

“We cannot wait to hear more of your stories.”

“Oh, awesome, because I have so many. I mean, growing up with a weird family and coming out and losing my job only to find myself on this show and—”

“Oh, no,” Simone cuts in. “We mean about that coach they assigned you.”

“Deborah,” Freddie adds, in case Ava’s somehow forgotten.

Ava feels something twist uncomfortably in her gut. “Um, what do you mean? Are you making a show about a lifelong comedian?”

“Don’t be silly. We’re making a show about a bitch PM. Prime Minister.”

Ava’s stomach drops.

“In all this rah-rah feminism, I think we’ve forgotten that some women can be cunty monsters. And true feminism is being able to admit that!”

Ava blinks across the table at them as they nod at her like she’s right there with them.

“When we saw that interview you did, we knew you were the one. You weren’t afraid to say the truth, and we think you’ll be a veritable goldmine for stories about the kind of unhinged, bitchy behavior we’re looking for.”

“Um… So wait. Is that it? It’s a show that’s just about some shitty woman?”

“No, it’s a well-formed character study,” Freddie says, that charming British accent suddenly sounding smarmy and all wrong. Their laughs ring hollow, and Ava misses Deborah’s loud cackle.

“Of a shitty woman in a position of power,” Simone finishes for him. “And who better than you knows what that looks like?”

“You don’t know Deborah at all.”

“But you do! And that’s why we need you in this writing room.”

“Look I…I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think this job is for me.”

“Hold on. You’re going to pass on this offer to do…what exactly? Get voted off of American Talent in another week or two and hope some hack like Deborah Vance takes pity on you? Maybe hires you to follow behind her and walk her dogs?”

“She’s not a hack,” Ava says, voice rising on every word as she ignores the stares from everyone around her. “She’s actually really fucking good.”

“Doesn’t she have a whole bit about not remembering what all the letters in LGBTQ stand for?”

“It was the difference between bears and otters and twinks, but we’re working on it, okay?” Ava thinks about telling them all about the new stuff—the absolutely amazing raw material that Deborah’s been workshopping for weeks now—but decides they don’t deserve it.

“We stuck our necks out for you, Ava,” Freddie tells her.

“The network didn’t want us to meet with you, but we did.”

But Ava’s not even listening anymore, too busy throwing her phone and notebook back in her bag. “Enough with the guilt trip, okay? Fuck you and fuck your show. If you really need stories to know what assholes look like, why don’t you try writing your own fucking autobiographies?”

Ava would love to be able to say she feels good, but she just feels shaky and untethered from everything, her whole world swaying all around her as she pushes back from the table and stands up. It was the right thing, and she’d have never forgiven herself for selling Deborah out like that, but the perennial fear that she’s destroyed her own career all over again still hangs over her.

She trips on the way out of the restaurant, but she can’t care about that. All she wants is to get into her car and get back into the city and get back to Deborah. And it’s Deborah above all else. Just…just seeing her. Finding her balance in Deborah’s orbit once more. Once she’s there, she can deal with everything else. She just needs to get back there.

Chapter Text

Deborah glances down at her watch again, frowning as she sees the hour hand inching closer and closer to 11. Ava had told her she’d need a late start today, but this is getting excessive.

Sure, Deborah’s blocked out larger chunks on her own calendar for calls and meetings, but this is Ava who gags at the concept of phone calls and shudders at the idea of meetings that last for more than half an hour. And, well, there might be a small part of Deborah that doesn’t want to be alone with Marcus when he wants so badly to celebrate the new contract he’s worked out with Marty and the Palmetto—slightly fewer dates but more money and guaranteed promotion for her celebrated return just in time for her 2,500th show.

It’s good. Technically. It’s exactly the kind of contract they’d dreamed about getting from him when Deborah agreed to this season-long stint on American Talent. Her numbers and name recognition are up across all the demographics Marty cares so damn much about, and he’s learned the hard way that putting Pentatonix up on the main stage doesn’t magically solve everything.

But if Deborah goes back there, she’ll be expected to put on the same act she always has. Sure, she’ll update it, add material from her time on this adult talent show, joke about current events the way she always has. But there will be no space for the growing stack of post it notes littered with ideas. No space for the imagined set list she and Ava have been workshopping for weeks. No space for honest, for emotional, for her side of the story to finally make it out into the world.

“I’m taking the dogs out,” Deborah announces, watching as Barry bounds forward, eager as ever. Cara follows a minute or two later at her own goddam pace. She’s always been the diva of the two of them, and a diva knows better than to show all her cards at once.

Walking them helps to clear her head. Deborah doesn’t experience the same zen-like bliss from the dulcet sounds of LA traffic and crowds that Ava does, but she appreciates the sun and the air all the same. And if a little part of her hopes that by the time she gets back Ava will have magically appeared with a grass-green latte in hand, well, that can be her little secret.

Of course, Ava is not back when she returns.

Ignoring the pang of worry that absolutely should not be there, Deborah sends Ava a message and settles in with her laptop.

She does not expect the near immediate response.

She most certainly does not expect the content of the response.

Anger washes over her—white hot and potent and as surprising as any emotion that’s been a near constant in her life can be.

It burns at her—this rejection, this abandonment. She’d thought, in quiet moments late at night, that she might be stumbling her way into something new, something she hadn’t let herself imagine ever finding again after Frank. Little did she know it was Frank all over again, ready to build her up right until he found something better, younger, fresher.

It prickles at her skin, chokes her until the air feels all wrong around her.

“I’m taking the afternoon,” Deborah manages, striding across the suite and into her bedroom. “I’m not to be disturbed. You’re dismissed.”

She can’t care about the confused looks Marcus and Damian exchange behind her back, can’t care about what they’ll think, what they’ll say, what they’ll ask the next time they see her.

Deborah paces back and forth in her room, feeling the anger build like something tangible inside of her.

She wants to storm over to Ava’s, demand to know what the past month has meant to her. Thinks of spurning her, scolding her, leaving her behind once more. Imagines pinning her hands over her head and fucking her into the mattress, reminding her just who she’s leaving.

The surge of possessiveness, this need to hold Ava closer and closer, to claim Ava as her own, flares inside of Deborah—hot and razor sharp and gone as fast as it had appeared, leaving her cold and shaky. In its wake, shame claws at the back of her throat. She has no claim to this girl. Has no right to think of her this way. Fuck, she barely even has a right to the anger that’s kept her safe for so many long, lonely years.

Deborah drops down to the edge of the mattress and buries her head in her hands.

It’s too much. Everything is too goddam much. It’s been weeks and a whole lifetime all at once. And suddenly it’s anger and fear and panic all winding their way around her throat, strangling the life from her.

She props herself against the pillows and forces herself to breathe deeply, slowly, until she feels like she’s getting enough oxygen.

A plan. That’s what she needs. Something concrete in front of her.

Which is how she finds herself parked in front of Ava’s house waiting for her when she gets back home.

“Deb?” Ava asks, looking equal parts incredulous and scared and something Deborah can’t identify.

“Inside. We need to talk.”

“Are you, uh, gonna kill me?” Ava asks, a laugh to her voice that doesn’t seem totally authentic.

“It’d be a real rookie mistake to tell you that before we even got inside.”

It earns her a real laugh, and she feels something inside herself calm. Just a little. But enough.

By the time they’ve made it to Ava’s living room, Deborah isn’t even sure which one of them is more unsettled.

“Look,” Ava says at the same time that Deborah begins, “Ava.”

“Let me go first,” Deborah says. “I need to.”

“Um, okay.”

Deborah swallows hard, presses her fingertips against the outsides of her thighs. “I was angry when I got your message. Livid, actually.”

“I’m—”

“Please.” Deborah hates the way she sounds so needy. “I need to get this out.”

“Okay,” Ava whispers, rubbing at the back of her neck while Deborah paces.

“I was angry, but I don’t—the anger wasn’t at you.” She tilts her head to the side, considering. “Well, it was. But it shouldn’t have been. This time.”

“Oh?”

“I realize that there are things I’ve been thinking about but haven’t been telling you—not in a way you’d get. It’s always a joke because, well, jokes are safe.”

Ava nods at Deborah like she understands, like she doesn’t need her to unpack the dozens of layers hiding beneath that sentence. And fuck, Deborah might have finally found someone who simply gets it.

“I didn’t want you to do that interview because I don’t want you to find another job.” Ava’s brow crinkles, and Deborah takes a shuddering inhale. “I was serious. About the tour. I…I have a shiny new offer from the Palmetto to make more money than God for less work than ever.”

“Oh, shit,” Ava breathes out. Because of course she knows at this point—knows that a new contract was the whole fucking goal of Deborah’s stint on this show. Because somehow she’s slipped into Deborah’s life more quietly and easily than should be possible for someone as loud and brash as she can be.

“And I don’t want it,” Deborah admits, saying the words aloud for the first time. “I want to do this new material, and I think you know as well as I do that some cushy Vegas residency isn’t the place to try it. You gotta take it on the road, take it to places like Sacramento where no one gives a shit that the Queen of Sin City just walked out onto the stage. They won’t laugh if it’s not good.”

Ava nods and smiles up at Deborah. “It’s good, though. Good enough for Sacramento or anywhere else you wanna take it.”

“It will be. But I…” Deborah trails off, runs her tongue along her teeth and debates the merits of showing all her cards. It’s a terrible move in Vegas—Kiki wouldn’t believe she’s even contemplating it—but she thinks, just maybe, the risk could be worth it. “I want you there with me.”

“Me?”

“You said it the other day: this shit’s funnier when we’re together.” After a beat, she adds, “We make each other better.” It’s a level of vulnerability she hasn’t let anyone else have in decades—stripping herself bare for Ava to see.

Deborah watches as hope flares on Ava’s features and is chased away just as quickly with a self-deprecating little laugh and a wry grin. “So you want me to, like, hang out with you on tour?”

“Writing partners, Ava.”

“Wait. Seriously?”

Deborah shrugs and tries to seem nonchalant. “I think I pull enough weight in comedy circles to choose my own opener, too. If you’re up for it.”

Ava opens her mouth, then closes it. Shakes her head as a smile curls up the corners of her mouth. “It’d be pretty shitty of me to leave you stuck with a bunch of Drew Higgins wannabes to set the scene.”

“I know how to handle the Drews of the world.”

“Fair,” Ava admits with a shrug. “So…are we doing this?”

“I am. Whether you are or not is up to you.”

“But…you want me there?”

“It might be more fun.”

Ava pulls her lower lip between her teeth and takes one step forward, then another. She cradles Deborah’s jaw with her hand, lets her gaze flicker down to Deborah’s lips. “Yeah. I think it will be.”

“Ava,” Deborah warns, pulling back just enough to hold Ava’s gaze. “I can’t promise you anything more than that. There are things that are possible for me to do as your mentor. Doors I can open. Requests I can make. But the second I’m something else to you, some of that shit starts closing down all over again. Do you get that?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I’m serious, Ava.”

“I’m not asking you to marry me, Deb.”

“Jesus, we’ve fucked twice. I sure as hell hope you’re not asking me to marry you.” It pulls a loud laugh from Ava that has Deborah thinking about a third night together. “I’m talking about any kind of public commitment. At best, there’s a glimmer of a maybe in some vague, amorphous future.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

“You’re still so young.”

“Yeah, I am.” Ava stands a little taller. “So I’ve got a hell of a lot of time left in front of me if it turns out this isn’t what I want. Hell, a year ago I’d have told anyone they were batshit if they said I’d end up doing stand up on national television. Why try to bet on the future when I know right now that I wanna do this tour with you? And, you know, I’m down for whatever else we stumble our way into along the way, too.”

Deborah’s heart thuds a little faster in her chest. “This is real? We’re doing this?”

“And you’re telling Marty to go fuck himself?”

“I will,” she agrees with a smile that’s all teeth. Telling Marcus will require care. Telling Marty will be the best present she’s given herself in years. “And you?” she adds, turning back to Ava. “Do you need to go void a contract or pull out of some lucrative new writing deal?”

Ava just grins at Deborah and slides an arm around her back. “I already told ’em to go fuck themselves. They could never be as funny as you are.”

It might just be the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to her, and this time Deborah’s right there meeting Ava halfway when she leans forward.

While Ava’s tongue has been cutting and cruel in the past, tearing Deborah to pieces for the whole world to see, here she is nothing but healing, almost gentle as she parts Deborah’s lips and loses herself in the feel of her.

Deborah hasn’t lived like a nun since Frank—she’s had Marty in and out of her bed more times than she’d like to admit over the past decade—but the heady rush of desire at the first touch of Ava’s hands on her still feels new. It makes her brave and stupid all at once, rational thought giving way to an insistent pulse of need. Need to touch and take and claim. She’s fisting her hand in Ava’s hair and kissing her harder before she even realizes it.

Then Ava’s mouthing along Deborah’s jaw and down her neck, and Deborah marvels at the force of her own desire, swelling up from somewhere deep inside of her.

“Bedroom,” Ava gasps, her voice cracking over the word as Deborah reaches down to pop the button on her jeans. Ava tangles her fingers with Deborah’s and pulls her in the direction of the stairs.

They manage the trip with only a few detours. A stop for Ava to finish unbuttoning Deborah’s top and slide it off her shoulders. Another for Deborah to get Ava’s jeans the rest of the way off, leaving them in a pile on the stairs along with those hideous sneakers that Ava had seemed far too protective of. One last pause after Deborah had swatted playfully at Ava’s ass on the landing, which had earned her a searing kiss and lost her the lacy black bra she’d been wearing.

By the time they actually make it to the bed, a pink flush has crept all along Ava’s chest and up her neck, and she’s looking at Deborah like she’s the best thing she’s ever seen.

The rest of their clothes disappear quickly enough, and then it’s nothing but the two of them, the whole world reduced to nothing but two bodies, skin against skin, the press of Ava’s body the only thing still tethering Deborah to the earth.

“Want you inside me,” Ava says between heated kisses.

Deborah slips her hand between their bodies as Ava lifts her hips, and then her fingers are sliding through wet heat as Ava’s breath comes faster against her throat. The angle won’t work—at least not without breaking her wrist—but Deborah isn’t about to admit defeat this early. Not when Ava sounds and feels as good as she does.

“Would you—fuck,” Ava gasps, clenching around Deborah’s fingers as she hooks them forward, forearm screaming at her. “Deb,” Ava whimpers. “Wear the strap on? I wanna feel all of you.”

Deborah’s breath catches in her throat as she nods, watching as Ava rummages around her bedside table, pulling out boxes and bottle and bags. Apparently she’s as meticulous about her fucking as Deborah is about her skincare routine.

She accepts the proffered harness with a gracious smile, hoping Ava can’t see the nerves. It’s not as if she doesn’t want this—ever since Ava mentioned it, it’s practically all she can think about late at night. Still, it’s something new, and the threat of failure looms. Then again, if all the men she’s slept with could manage it, surely it can’t be that hard.

“Do you, uh, want a hand?”

“Why?” Deborah snaps, defensiveness flaring from somewhere deep inside of her.

Ava shrugs. “You never mentioned using one before, and the straps can be a pain.” It’s a studied kind of casual, but Deborah finds herself relaxing slightly anyway.

“Fine.”

Ava holds out a hand. “Easier if you’re standing.” Her smile turns almost predatory once Deborah’s up, and then Ava’s sinking to her knees in front of her.

Deborah practically trembles at the visual.

In a moment, it’s nearly ruined. The awkwardness of being directed where to step has Deborah’s walls climbing up, and an overly solicitous offer on Ava’s part to let Deborah use her shoulder for balance has Deborah scowling.

But then Ava’s sliding cool leather up the length of Deborah’s legs, chasing it with feather-light kisses up the insides of her thighs. Once the straps are mostly tightened, Deborah decides she can sacrifice her pride and take Ava up on the offer of a shoulder, clinging tight enough to bruise as Ava kisses right up to the juncture of her thighs, murmurs a pleading, “Can I?” before losing herself in the taste and feel of Deborah all around her.

Eventually, Ava pulls back, chin wet and eyes dark with want. “God, I’d eat you out all day if you’d let me.”

Deborah swallows hard and shivers at the thought. It’s enough to have her clenching around nothing as Ava turns around and comes back with a silicone dick, rattling off facts about it like she’s on some late-night QVC special hawking them to the masses. Deborah nods along and hides the flash of shock at just how endearing she’s come to find Ava’s rambling. She tunes back in when Ava’s slipping it into the harness, murmuring about something that should feel good for Deborah “though don’t worry if it doesn’t! Everyone’s anatomy’s different, and that’s totally…” Deborah tunes back out again, wonders if they could get right to the action if she pointed out that just fucking Ava is enough to get her halfway there, “soft ridge” or no.

She’s opening her mouth to say so when Ava squirts lube into her hand and strokes up and down, pushing the base back into Deborah with every other movement. “Oh,” is all Deborah manages, her knees buckling slightly.

Ava grins, her eyes twinkling with glee. “Nice, huh?”

“Yeah.” Apparently being jacked off is all it takes to reduce her to a monosyllabic vocabulary. Between that and the visual, she can practically feel her eyes glazing over.

“God, I want you inside me,” Ava whines.

“On—on the bed.”

“How do you want me?”

Any way. Every way. A hundred thoughts race through Deborah’s mind.

Apparently the silence goes on long enough that Ava decides to take charge, leaning back against the pillows after sliding two under her hips. “Start simple.”

It isn’t until Deborah’s kneeling between Ava’s legs that she remembers that she’s never actually done this before. She’s on the verge of a joke—something crass enough about first times to break the tension—but then Ava’s guiding Deborah—silicone or not, it’s her fucking Ava, and she’ll die on that hill—inside of her, and no part of her is laughing now.

“Start slow,” Ava murmurs, drawing Deborah down to her and curling her fingers around Deborah’s hips to set the pace, letting go once Deborah’s gotten the hang of things.

Awkward as it is, it’s not rocket science, and she sends up a silent thank you to her personal trainer as she feels her muscles burn.

“Fuck,” Ava whines as Deborah drops her head to kiss along her neck. “Harder.”

Deborah obliges, thrusting harder, then faster into Ava, watching as Ava’s eyes go wide, then slam shut, her fingers fisting in the sheets around them. That ridge Ava had gone on and on about in her little sales pitch rubs up against her clit, and Deborah groans, chasing her own pleasure as much as Ava’s with every hard thrust.

“Deb, fuck. So good. So good.”

Deborah’s arms tremble as Ava holds her closer, locks her legs around Deborah’s waist and draws her in even deeper.

“Vibe—can I? Can I?”

Thoughts beyond fucking Ava and making Ava come seem to have deserted Deborah, and it takes her a long few seconds to make sense of Ava’s question.

“Fine.” She shakes her hair out of her face. “I want you to come for me.” She can feel Ava clenching hard around her, making her work to pull back and thrust in once more.

Ava gropes around the sheets for a while before emerging with a triumphant grin and an electric blue contraption in her hand. She slides it between their bodies and pulls Deborah down even closer to hold it in place before clicking it on.

And fuck, Deborah can feel every rumbling vibration from it, too.

“Please. Please don’t stop.” Ava’s trembling in her arms, looking up at her like she might just die if Deborah stops, and Deborah swallows down her own arousal, tries to focus on Ava, on fucking Ava, making her feel good, making her— “Fuck. Yes. Yes, yes, harder.”

Deborah’s dizzy with it. There’s nothing beyond this bed, this point where their bodies connect. It’s just them, rebuilding the whole world anew. Everything is slick—all sweat and lube and come—and Ava’s body is going rigid, her back arching off the bed as her mouth drops open. Time seems to slow down, the world freezing around them until Ava comes with a sharp cry, crashing back down to the bed and curling in on herself.

Everything Deborah had been holding back comes rushing at her at once, her body shaking with the force of it.

“Oh god,” Ava gasps, looking up at her with wide eyes. “Can you come like this? God, fuck, come for me. Please. Wanna feel you.”

The words wash over her like a chorus of pure sound as she rocks forward again and again. Then Ava’s slipping the vibrator into the harness, and Deborah’s a goner, pleasure rocking through her body as she collapses into Ava’s chest, sobbing with the force of it.

“I’ve got you,” Ava murmurs, wrapping one arm around Deborah and pulling the vibrator out from the harness before pleasure can give way to the sharp sting of too much. “I’ve got you.”

And, god help her, Deborah can’t help but trust Ava.

---

American Talent Season 14: Where Are They Now?

… Speaking of Vegas, fan favorite celebrity judge Deborah Vance went on to celebrate her 2,500th show at the Palmetto with the debut of a brand new act. Rather different in tone and substance from the Vance brand of comedy we’ve all known and loved for years, the new tour, “Still Deborah Vance,” has attracted a new generation of Little Debbies. Among those new fans is none other than American Talent’s own Ava Daniel. Daniels made it to the top 8 before being voted off, but she certainly managed to make an impression on one of the judges! For the past six months, Daniels has been touring with Vance as her opening act and writing partner—a first in Vance’s decades-long career. Local papers suggest the dynamic duo are as inseparable as ever. They’ve been spotted out and about making each other laugh all across the country in bars and restaurants and even over early morning walks with Vance’s beloved corgis. Executive producer Cameron Anderson retweeted one such photo of the pair, noting, “This kind of mentorship is exactly what American Talent hopes to foster.” Cheers to that!