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Deborah doesn’t decide consciously to keep caressing Ava’s hand with her thumb, as they sit in a thick but safe silence on Ava’s childhood bed. She doesn’t even realize she’s doing it at first; she’s distracted in her appreciation of Ava’s features.

At some point along the way, Deborah’s digs at Ava’s aesthetic (or lack thereof) turned into her only avenue for expressing a nameless but growing attraction to the young writer. Now, though, as her eyes drop from Ava’s pretty face to their clasped hands, Deborah registers the softness of the skin she touches and notes the heat rising to her face.

The fact that she is still capable of feeling like a teenager comes as a terrifying and humbling surprise, but she’d promised herself she would not run, no matter what happened. So she brings her eyes back up to meet Ava’s and holds them while she graces her thumb slowly over this tiny patch of skin. Ava’s fingertips move with deliberation against her wrist, and Deborah can’t hide that she’s affected.

Deborah pulls her hand from Ava’s reluctantly. Now is not the time, and this is not the place.

“So.” Ava breaks the silence. “What’s the plan?”

“Well, there isn’t much of one yet,” Deborah admits plainly.

“Ah.”

“First thing I need to know is when you’d like to start.”

Ava raises her eyebrows. “Me?”

“You have up to two weeks’ bereavement leave.”

“Oh, right.” Her eyes dart down, and she says, “I’d like to get the fuck out of here stat, so it’d be ideal if you didn’t mention that around my mother.”

“Understood.” Deborah pauses. She tries to sound casual: “You could fly back with me.” She legitimately can’t remember the last time she contended with nerves like these, laced as they are with arousal.

“When?”

“Day after tomorrow?” she suggests.

“Is that a question?”

“We can wait till Saturday or Sunday if that’s better for you.”

The way Ava looks at her—surprised and touched—makes Deborah’s heart hurt. Ava has every reason not to expect flexibility and consideration from her. Deborah had made sure she’d feel that way: insignificant. She could spend the rest of her life atoning.

“Friday’s good.”

Deborah nods. “It’s settled then.” She stands, and Ava follows suit. “I’m gonna go down and make sure I visit with your mother a bit before I go.”

“Okay.”

“Any chance you can meet me for a drink later?”

“What? Oh, uh—.” A sudden blush rises to Ava’s face, and she smiles seemingly in spite of herself.

Something inside Deborah breaks. Breaks not in half or into pieces but breaks open. A bud of hope in the center of her chest.

“Yeah,” Ava manages. “Yeah, I would love that, actually.”

“Good,” Deborah says. She leans down and kisses Ava lightly on the cheek before pressing her own cheek against Ava’s for a moment, closing her eyes. She wonders how many moments like this would add up to the equal and opposite reaction of a slap. Then she pulls back and makes eye contact with Ava one last time before, like flipping a switch, she straightens into character and moves to leave.

She’s nearly to the door when Ava says her name softly. She turns expectantly.

“In case I forg—.”

“Don’t,” Deborah hushes her. They share a long look, nervous and bewildered and, yeah, somewhere in there, grateful. “I know.” She exits the room and heads downstairs.

<> 

The first voice always defends her behavior, and it does so with such certainty that Deborah rarely hears the second, third, or fourth. The fifth voice might have actually died; she thinks she might have killed it herself.

After slapping Ava, that first voice drips with disdain and spits with fury, and, for a moment, she agrees with it: the ungrateful fucking brat deserves it. But the look in Ava’s eyes… After the sheer shock. Not so much pain as despair. The acceptance of something she’d been trying not to believe. That look silences the first voice, and Deborah has not felt so immediately wrong—and still so fucking angry—since, well, since she ruined DJ’s birthday. So, not very long ago. Which confirms for Deborah she has, in fact, fully become the ice cold bitch she wants people to assume she is.

Except she isn’t cold. She isn’t a tundra, terrifying in its blank and muted stillness. She is a volcano: molten lava churning within a hard unmoving shell, sparking and crackling, waiting to blow. Wanting to blow. Yet mostly (mostly) never blowing.

The second voice urges her to apologize, but the third voice interjects to argue self-protection by all means necessary.

Deborah watches Ava walk away, her bones and brain weary with the work of calming that subdermal lake of fire.

The fourth voice is indifference hiding an undercurrent of contempt: knew you’d fuck it up; you always fuck it up. The oddest combination of resolve and regret settles in her chest.

She quiets the voices. She has a show. This will all await her on the other side.

She goes through the motions, having trained herself to accept betrayal and loss under a vast array of conditions. (Ava wants truth? This, too, is Deborah’s truth.)

After shooing everyone out of her dressing room and dismissing Jimmy and Kayla, she notices Ava’s gift lying on the small table. If she weren’t in show mode, she may have still been angry enough to throw it in the trash without opening it. But she is in show mode, where, quite honestly, very little can touch her. So, curious, she opens it.

And it pierces through to touch her. It is perfect. Surprisingly, painfully perfect. It distills the question she’s been struggling with for the past twenty-four hours into its most basic essence. She slips into the stilettos.

From there, everything until like half an hour into the after party is a blur of noise and color and activity. Deborah’s post-performance high reliably energizes her. She bombed. Hard. But it felt good for the stage to have stakes again. She bombed, and she hasn’t been this turned on after a show since [REDACTED].

At the after party, Deborah performs her part to perfection, but on the inside, she’s all over the place. By now, of course, part of her brain is busy reviewing the night and reworking the show. Another quite sizable part is fixated on Ava, wondering where she is and when they’ll speak again, wishing she’d been there, fearing she doesn’t deserve Ava’s forgiveness. Yet another is asking why she cares so much, pushing at Deborah’s impulse to dismiss the importance of her heart.

She pings back and forth between thinking she should let it lie (because Ava’s better off without her) and thinking she should go find a bathroom stall in which to cry while she types the longest only apologetic and grovel-y text message she’s ever sent (because neither of them is better off without the other).

Deborah manages at one point to slip out a side door and take a quiet moment to herself, and that’s when she feels the shift. Her feelings regarding Ava go through a change of state, theory solidifying into knowledge, and she accepts what she wants with an embodied conviction. Ava was right. They are in a relationship. It might be a work relationship, but the work is intimate; the work is creation. Their hearts are its center. Butterflies flitter through her midsection, and the fifth voice says its piece: you love her.

Sleep doesn’t visit her that night. Later, after climbing into bed, she drops all pretense, relinquishes all control, and sobs into her pillows. It’s just Debbie and the fourth voice now. She fucked everything up. All she ever does is hurt people and push them away. She deserves to be alone, to spend her final act miserable and bitter, collecting antiques and bringing ghosts home for companionship.

The pepper shaker. Ava had done the impossible, and she’d hit her and sent her away. She wants to blame it all on generational differences, but she knows it’s more than that. And maybe she’d lied to that journalist. Maybe all she’s ever done is pretend.

Ava’s rhetorical “Who slaps people?” plays on repeat in her head.

<> 

They meet at a bar in Waltham not too far from Ava’s mom’s house. Deborah is grateful to see Ava out of her mourning attire, even if she is mixing patterns in ways that would get one blacklisted in the 90s. For her part, Deborah has also changed. Gone are the fur stole, heels, and done-up hair. She wears flats, trousers, a black v-neck shell, and an open collared shirt. Her hair is natural and barely styled.

“You look cute,” Ava says, giving her the once-over.

Deborah’s eyebrows shoot up, and she laughs. “Cute?”

“Don’t like ‘cute’?” Ava asks. “Okay. Good, then.” She pauses and levels her gaze. “You look good.”

Ava’s flirting is usually more witty and biting. This compliment hits different, serious and grief-faded as it is.

Deborah’s eyes are soft when she says, “Drinks are on me. What’ll you have?”

“Um, whatever you’re having is fine.”

Studying her carefully for a moment, Deborah asks, “You okay? You know, aside from the obvious?”

“Yeah, just tired,” Ava intones.

“Go sit down,” she instructs with care. “I’ll get the drinks.”

She earns a small smile from Ava, one that is so fucking sad Deborah makes it her mission to help her feel better tonight, even if only briefly with some groan-inducing punchlines.

When Ava turns, Deborah’s eyes drop to her ass and watch as she walks away. She feels a little lecherous. It’s not like Ava would be the first pretty young thing Deborah has taken to bed with her.

Ava’s different, though. Deborah wasn’t even sure her affection for Ava had a sexual or romantic element at first. She just knew she’d made a huge mistake and didn’t want to lose her, that she wanted her in her life and wanted to keep working with her. By now, however, the multifaceted nature of her desire has begun to set in.

But Ava is grieving, and tonight of all nights, Deborah wants only to be there for her. To be her friend. To give her a break from her mother and get her away from the house where she feels alone. To make her laugh. To take care of her.

<> 

She wakes around 10:00am with a pounding headache. The last time she remembers looking at the clock was 7:02am. She thinks of Ava and picks up her phone to see if she has any text notifications. There aren’t any. She wasn’t expecting any. She feels like shit, and this is not a booze hangover. It’s a crying-herself-to-sleep hangover.

It’s Sunday. Deborah sighs and gets out of bed. At least no one is here to witness her feel like shit in just about every single way possible. She takes a quick shower, throws on some undergarments and a robe, and heads downstairs to let Barry and Cara out into their run and make herself some coffee.

She’d imagined Ava would be here with her today.

While the coffee’s brewing, she takes a quick drive to the main gate and collects the papers that have been delivered. If nothing else, having to do everything for herself today will make her put one foot in front of the other.

She waits to read the papers until after she’s caffeinated, hydrated, medicated, and fed. Her headache has mostly abated, so she decides to put on a suit and get some sun.

Lying on a chaise by the pool in a wide-brimmed hat, she skims the reviews of the show. They’re actually not too bad. Better than she would have expected, if she’s being honest with herself. Despite feeling like a garbage human, reading them actually brings her hope. The one in the Vegas Tribune borders on flattering. It mentions the attention she received going off-script in Sacramento and predicts a post-Palmetto Deborah Vance renaissance.

She’d been toying with the idea of a tour last night, and now, she thinks today is the day to set things in motion. Of course, she wants to call Ava, but she won’t. It’s too soon.

When she was younger, she would’ve found it impossible to wait. It would’ve driven her a mad; she would’ve obsessed over it and ended up drunk by two o’clock in the afternoon. But over time, she came to accept that giving and taking space were necessary elements of any healthy relationship, especially during conflict. She knows how profoundly she hurt Ava, so she knows Ava doesn’t want or need to hear from her right now.

She will funnel the energy of the part of her that doesn’t want to wait—all of its passion and excitement and impulsivity—into step one: a plan to get Ava back on board. She picks up her iPad and starts taking some notes for a call she will make to Marcus.

An hour or so later, Kiki calls.

“Kiki,” Deborah says cheerfully in lieu of a greeting.

“Hi, Deborah. So… I wasn’t sure if I should call or not because I know you and Ava had a falling out, but she didn’t say not to call you, so…”

“What happened?” Deborah’s heart rate picks up.

“Well, um, her dad passed away late last night,” Kiki says softly.

“Oh my God.” Deborah feels it like a punch in the gut. “Oh, no.”

“She put it in her Insta story, so I called to check in.”

After a moment of hesitation, Deborah asks, “How did she sound?”

“Honestly? That’s part of why I called. I know her dad just died and everything, so I didn’t expect her to be, like, happy. But I’ve never heard her sound so… I don’t know, flat? I’m a little worried.”

“Fuck,” Deborah sighs. “Thank you for calling me, Kiki. I really appreciate it.”

There’s a pause, then Kiki asks, “You two are gonna make up, right?”

“I hope so,” she replies.

“Okay, because she said something about not coming back to Vegas, and I almost cried.”

Deborah exhales heavily. “I’m going to do my best.”

They end their call, and Deborah's head falls into her hands.

<> 

After two drinks, Ava asks, “Can we go somewhere else?”

Deborah has managed to make her laugh a few times, but Ava’s just really low and the bar vibe isn’t working. The last thing Deborah wants to do is end the night, so she asks Ava over to her rental, a townhouse near Brandeis that Marcus worked some connections to keep on the DL. Pretty impressive considering Deborah gave him two days’ notice, and anyway, who knows someone with an extra place in Waltham? They stop off to buy a bottle of wine.

As Deborah unlocks the door and shows her in, Ava remarks, “I figured you’d be downtown at the Charles or something.”

“Didn’t know how long I was going to be here,” Deborah explains as they walk into the kitchen. “I wanted a space I could live in that was close by.” She starts opening drawers in search of a corkscrew.

Ava furrows her brow. “Huh?”

“A-ha!” she exclaims, holding up a corkscrew. She brings it over to the counter and cuts the foil seal on the bottle. “What if you’d kicked me out of your dad’s funeral?” Deborah watches Ava’s expression soften. “What if you wouldn’t speak to me at all?” she continues, twisting the screw into the cork. “What if you’d said no to coming on tour?”

There’s a dull pop and the sound of liquid being poured. She slides a glass to Ava.

“You were gonna just chill here for an indefinite period of time? For me?”

“I’ve waited decades for you,” Deborah says softly. “What’s a week in Waltham?”

“Okay, first of all: What?” Ava asks, her voice cracking and tears coming into her eyes. “And secondly”—she tries to sound offended—"you think it’d only take a week to get me back?”

“Honey, as it is, it took hours.” Deborah’s tone is one of gentle reminder, her eyes conveying amusement and adoration.

Ava smiles, blushing, and looks down.

Deborah takes her by the hand. Gesturing with her head for Ava to follow, they go into the living room and sink into the couch.

Once settled in, she sips her wine and angles her body toward Ava. “What we have—our chemistry, our connection, whatever you want to call it—it’s special. Most people are lucky to find it once in their lives. It especially doesn’t come along very often for people like me who survive by freezing others out and refusing to forgive.”

Ava gives her a rueful half-smile.

Deborah averts her gaze and says, her voice low, “I would be a fool not to fight for you.” She hears Ava’s quick intake of air and raises her eyes. “To choose my pride over you—this whip smart woman who keeps me on my toes and encourages me to take risks and makes me laugh more and harder than I have in years.”

“I make you laugh?” Ava asks through watery eyes.

“You know you do,” Deborah replies with sincerity. “You make me better.”

Ava crumbles into tears. Deborah takes her wine glass from her hands, places it on the coffee table, and opens her arms. She holds her as she cries, rubbing her hands up and down her back and murmuring soothing words. Ava cries off and on in spurts for over an hour, with Deborah offering tissues, water, wine, and her warm embrace.

She’d sort of anticipated this, knowing Ava hadn’t really cried since her father’s death, suspecting her mother’s grief has sucked up all available oxygen. Deborah remembers what it was like, and she’d been even younger than Ava when her father died. It’s easy for Deborah to be patient and attentive. She wants to hold Ava as long as she needs to be held. To give her a space where her grief can breathe.

Sometime past midnight, Deborah suggests, “Why don’t you stay here tonight?”

The way Ava’s eyes shoot up to meet hers sends a small bolt of arousal through Deborah, and she wants to kiss her. But she won’t. Not yet. Instead, she brushes hair from her face.

“Why?” Ava croaks out, her voice scratchy.

“Because you can cry all night here if you need to.”

Through bleary eyes, she says, “I’ll be okay.”

“Okay.” Deborah nods slightly, hating that part of her feels rejected. “But, you know… the offer isn’t entirely selfless.”

“No?”

“No,” Deborah breathes out. “I don’t want to let you out of my sight.”

Ava’s mouth falls open a little. The air begins to thicken. A whole series of emotions cycles through Ava’s eyes, and she pulls her bottom lip between her teeth.

“I know, I know,” Deborah says, waving a hand a little, as if she can waft away the tension. “It’s creepy and clingy and unattractive and most likely illegal for your boss to say something like that.”

“You’re more than my boss, Deborah,” Ava says, voice raspy from crying. “I don’t know what you are, but you’re more than my boss.” And with that, Ava moves in to kiss her.

Deborah inhales sharply when she realizes what’s about to happen. There is no doubt; she will return this kiss. It’s sweet and soft and lingering, and it leaves her breathless.

Ava pulls back and looks up into her eyes. “You feel it, too,” she whispers, more realization than question.

A flash of fear, a fraction of a second of panic, accompanies Deborah’s affirming nod. She swallows, and, for once in her life, has no words at the ready. All she can think about is how loudly her heart is beating in her chest, how easy it is to get lost in Ava’s earnest hazel eyes, how very unaccustomed she is to letting anyone see her insecurities.

“Don’t say anything.” Ava reaches up and cups Deborah’s cheek in her hand. Her thumb runs the length of Deborah’s lower lip. “Just kiss me.”

Deborah brings a hand to her face and kisses her, willing herself to breathe, thinking only of being good to Ava. Their lips part, and their tongues begin a tentative dance. Ava shifts herself more upright, giving herself more leverage, and holds the back of Deborah’s neck as she deepens the kiss. Deborah is the first to moan. Ava starts making these soft little whimpering noises. At some point, Deborah ends up beneath Ava, sliding her hands under Ava’s shirt to run them up her back. Ava’s hands skim Deborah’s sides, her waist, her hips, her face, her neck.

Neither woman has the energy for much more than making out and some heavy petting, but they’re wrapped up in each other for a long while on that couch in Waltham, feeling as if this night, this place, for once, together… There is calm.

Ava stays the night.

<> 

“Were you able to reach your contact in Boston?” Deborah asks Marcus first thing Monday morning.  

“Yes,” he confirms. “She’s got feelers out. Sounds like it should work.”

“Good,” Deborah says. “Good,” she repeats. “The service for Ava’s father is late Wednesday morning, so I’ll fly back east tomorrow evening.” She pauses. “How’s it going on clearing the schedule?”

“In progress. Waiting to hear back from some folks,” Marcus replies. “Still sure you want two weeks?”

He’s trying very hard to pretend it doesn’t make him want to scream that she’s willing to do all of this for a pretentious little white girl. Deborah can see it. She will thank him later for his efforts.

“Yes.”

He nods. “Anything else?”

“No, I think that’s it. For now, at least,” she says with an apologetic look. Marcus’ expression doesn’t change, which she maybe should’ve expected. She stands and slips seamlessly back into business mode. “Can you let me know if your people find a place?”

“Of course,” he says.

“Thank you.”

She leaves his office and heads into the living room to read the papers. But the papers are not holding her attention. Not today. She laughs wryly to herself. If she hadn’t already realized how important Ava is to her, this inability for her head to be held by anything—things that matter, things that don’t, things she likes, things she loathes—unrelated to Ava and herself is a giant flashing neon sign.

Picking up her coffee mug and putting down her specs, Deborah rises and walks to the window. She is unsure how long she’s standing there, lost in thought, when Marcus taps lightly with his knuckles on the doorframe to catch her attention. She turns with her brows raised in question.

“Have a minute?” he asks.

Deborah’s stomach drops. From the tone of his voice alone, she knows it’s bad.

“Yeah,” she says, and walks over to sit on the love seat. Marcus sits carefully on the sofa across from her, his back straight.

What is it?” she asks.

He takes a deep breath and decides to give it all to her in a single sentence: “Ava sent an email to those British show writers detailing all the ways she believes you are a nightmare boss and a monster person.”

Her nostrils flare in anger for a moment, her jaw shifting, but then Deborah’s eyes shutter and she goes to that place where she can think without quite feeling. Her gaze meets Marcus’ only briefly before dropping down. Shaking her head, she releases a heavy sigh, literally deflating.

When she looks back up at Marcus, he’s barely hiding his contempt.

“I’m assuming I should call the lawyers?”

“Yeah,” she murmurs, bobbing her head slowly as she continues letting it sink in.

Marcus stands and starts to leave the room but turns around after just a few steps. “To be clear, we are going to sue her, right?” he asks.

Deborah’s eyes dart up. “We aren’t going to do anything.”

“Deborah—."

“Don’t,” she cuts him off. “Tell them I want to discuss options.”

He stares at her incredulously. Then he pulls out his phone, taps and swipes a couple times, and offers it to Deborah. “Maybe you should read what she wrote.”

She doesn’t even look at the device. “I’d rather not.”

He scoffs.

“I want it buried,” she instructs.

“So there are just no consequences?”

“I slapped her, Marcus. Hard. Across the face,” Deborah spits out. She is angry. Just not at Ava; at herself.

He sits slowly back down across from her. “Oh.”

“That email is the consequence,” she tells him. Then, quieter: “Of my behavior.”

Marcus nods, his mind spinning to catch up.

“You could’ve been coming in here to tell me assault charges had been filed,” she adds under her breath. After a few long moments of silence, Deborah sits up a little and asks, “When did she send it? Can you tell?”

“Uh... Lemme check,” Marcus answers, unlocking his phone. “Saturday at 8:42pm.”

Deborah’s heart breaks imagining Ava’s state of mind at that time, and she realizes she’d forgive practically any transgression made in those minutes and hours (maybe even days) after she’d hit her.

“She must’ve been drinking,” Deborah mutters, more to herself than to Marcus.

After a beat, he notes gently, “There were an excessive number of typos and punctuation errors.”

“Fuck,” she exhales, and drops her head into her hands. She mutters a string of ‘fucks’ with a few ‘shits’ sprinkled throughout then says something Marcus can’t decipher.

“Hmm?”

She raises her head just a little. “I wonder when in this timeline she found out her dad was dead.”

Now it’s Marcus who says, “Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a lengthy silence before he excuses himself to call the attorneys.

As much as Deborah didn’t want to tell Marcus what happened, she’s relieved he knows. At least he can understand one good reason she won’t sue Ava, and maybe even why she’s going to such lengths to make amends.

When she had called him Sunday to inform him of her plan to take two weeks off and fly to Massachusetts, he’d been understandably perturbed. Marcus knows her well enough to know there’s more to the story, but he won’t pry. He might ask later, after the storm has passed, but certainly not now when she’s behaving so unlike herself.

Once he’s gone, Deborah walks upstairs, kicks her shoes off, and climbs onto her bed. It’s not even noon. She doesn’t pull back the covers; she won’t sleep. She’ll just lie here berating herself. She’d felt like the world’s worst person even before she’d found out Ava’s dad had passed away. At least she can surmise hitting send on that email happened while Ava was deeply hurt and rightfully angry and probably very drunk (if not also otherwise fucked up). After all, it wasn’t a particularly calculated or well-considered move.

She smiles a little at the thought of saying that to Ava’s face someday.  

<> 

In the morning, Deborah runs out to get Ava a matcha latte and brings it to her in bed. Then she goes down to the kitchen and starts making breakfast. Ava pads down the stairs after a little while, hair in a lopsided top knot, eyes a little swollen from last night’s cry, and looking ridiculously adorable in one of Deborah’s silk pajama shirts and her own magenta, blue, and purple striped boxer briefs.

“Smells delish down here, D.” She perches on a stool at the small countertop.

Deborah glares at her. “You do realize it won’t always be the day after your father’s funeral, right?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” There’s a playful sharpness in her tone.

“Call me ‘D’ tomorrow and find out,” Deborah retorts, keeping her expression cool.

Ava laughs. “Oh, you’re threatening me.”

Deborah finally smiles, and it is both genuine and teasing. “No, Honey. I’m indulging you.”

“There’s an expiration date on that: good to know,” she mutters under her breath.

“I hope you don’t expect chocolate chip pancakes every morning once we’re back to work,” Deborah remarks, grabbing a bag of fucking expensive-ass chocolate chips from the counter and showing it to Ava before tearing it open.

Ava’s eyes get that puppy-dog look. “You’re making me chocolate chip pancakes?”

She says it like it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for her, which makes Deborah wonder how close to true that could be.

“I’m making us chocolate chip pancakes.” She dumps a bunch into the batter by eye and folds them in.

“You’re gonna eat some too?” For some reason, it brings tears to Ava’s eyes.

Deborah decides not to comment, chalking it up to the whole parental death thing. Instead, she says, “You’ve taught me a few things, kid,” and turns to the stove. She begins pouring batter onto the griddle. “And one of them.” She pauses as she finishes making the last of six nearly identical sized rounds. “Is the importance of letting ourselves have what’s good sometimes.” She turns back around, wiping her hands on a towel. “If for no other reason than it’s good.”

Ava’s small smile grows into a big toothy grin. “That makes me happy,” she says.

A wave of warmth rushes through Deborah. “And that makes me happy.”

They hold eye contact for a long moment before Deborah turns back to the stove to prevent breakfast from burning.

Ava comes and stands next to her, leaning back against the counter. She watches as Deborah carefully flips each pancake at, like, the exact right time. “Solid chip-to-cake ratio, Deb.”

She chuckles. “Glad you approve.”

After flipping the sixth, she angles her body to face Ava, spatula in hand. Ava shuffles a little closer and tilts her face up. Deborah’s free hand settles on Ava’s hip as if it has always belonged there, and their lips meet.

“Thank you for doing all of this.” Ava’s voice hitches.

“You deserve it,” she replies, a simple statement of fact. 

Ava gives her a peck on the chin and says, eyes shiny, “I’ll set the table.”

Deborah finishes cooking and brings the plate of pancakes to the table along with some fresh fruit and hash browns. Ava uses an ungodly amount of whipped cream, while Deborah uses none. She smiles, though, at how happily Ava is eating. She can’t recall seeing her take a single bite of anything yesterday.

Trying not to be obvious with how closely she’s watching, Deborah puts her glasses on and scans the news on her iPad while sipping coffee and taking the occasional bite of food.

“I like you best like this, I think,” Ava remarks. “I mean, I like you a lot in all your different manifestations, but when you don’t have a lot of make-up on and you’re not wearing a wig, and you have those sexy fucking glasses on? Mmm.”

“‘Mmm’?” She raises an eyebrow in judgment.

“Ugh, and you insisting on being unimpressed and reminding me of my place while peering at me over the rim of those glasses? Hot.” Ava takes a giant bite of pancakes. “Like, unbearably hot,” she says while chewing.

Deborah guffaws but still blushes a little. She looks at Ava, who isn’t laughing but is looking awfully proud of herself.

Then, after a few moments: “You really mean that.”

Ava moves to occupy the chair next to Deborah. She scoots as close as she can get and gently removes Deborah’s specs. “I really mean it,” she whispers and leans in to kiss her.

It only takes a second for one of them to release a heavy sigh and deepen the kiss. Deborah’s hands find Ava’s face, her neck, her shoulders, and without realizing, the top button of her pajama shirt. A tightness deep in her core makes Deborah pull away, exhaling, and rest her forehead against Ava’s.

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

Ava’s phone rings, breaking the tension. “It’s my mom.”

“You should take it.”

“Yeah.” Ava nods and answers.

Not wanting Ava to feel surveilled, Deborah starts clearing the table of their breakfast detritus and cleaning the kitchen. As she works, she lets herself worry a little over the surge of protectiveness she feels when it comes to Ava's mother. It doesn't feel appropriate to be wary of Nina, yet it's not as if Ava hasn't said things to suggest theirs is not the best relationship.

She’s rinsing the dishes when Ava comes into the kitchen and says, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Deborah replies, turning off the water and drying her hands on a dish towel. “How’s your mother?”

“She’s, ya know…” Ava sighs, eyes focused on a random spot across the room. “I don’t know.”

“You should go home and be with her.” It’s not a question or a directive. Deborah says it so Ava doesn’t have to.

“Yeah.”

“Want me to come with you?”

“You’d do that?” Ava looks up at her.

“Of course.”

“Weird.” Ava states. “I humped you like a middle schooler last night, and it’s still scary when you’re nice to me.”

“I’m here for you,” Deborah says, ignoring Ava’s quip. “You’ve spent the past few days taking care of your mother with no one here to support you.” Ava’s gaze shifts down and to the side. “I get the feeling it’s been a long time since anyone has taken care of you, and I don’t like that.”

After a lengthy pause, Ava asks, “But why?” Her eyes are big and open and innocent-looking.

Deborah inhales. The simplest answer might also be the last complication Ava needs right now. So she just says, “You know why,” and turns back to the sink. “I’m gonna finish loading these into the dishwasher.” She looks at Ava and gives her a reassuring smile. “You should get dressed.”

Ava stays watching Deborah for a moment, a curious look on her face. Then she nods and heads upstairs.

<> 

Deborah stands in her kitchen feeling small. Barry and Cara eat away happily. But the sandwich Deborah made for herself remains untouched. She doesn’t even know why she bothered. It's wheels up in two hours, and she’s been eating like a bird for three days. Nerves have taken up the space where her appetite usually lives.

She’s already packed. And probably right at this minute, people are stocking the place she’s renting with the groceries she’d requested. She’ll have a chance to settle in at the townhouse later tonight before pretending to sleep. And by this time tomorrow,  she’ll know if she even has a chance at Ava’s forgiveness.

Marcus has seemed to downgrade his irritation every few hours in reaction to Deborah’s continued strangeness. This morning he seemed almost repentant. He has never seen her like this—so quiet, so still, so distant.

For Deborah, it’s almost like she’s been occupying a world that’s a half-step to the left from the one everyone else is living in. The places she has been going—in her mind, in her heart, in her memory—are the very cruxes of her self. Places she hasn’t visited, some she hasn’t so much as given a nod of acknowledgement, in so very many years. And, living in those places, parts of herself she hasn’t allowed to be free since maybe even before Kathy’s and Frank’s betrayals.

Ava.

Ava Fucking Bernie Bro Daniels. Of course she would be the person who found a way in somehow. Outsmarted Deborah’s defenses. Upended her expectations. Ruined almost every assumption upon which she has built this stable life that revolves around and depends upon yet often feels absent of her at the same time. Ava found her way in and found… her. Debbie.

She’s lived most of her life without her parents, but she can still hear their voices saying her name. Kathy’s voice, too. The laughter lacing her father’s tone. The gentle care of her mother’s. The admiration in her baby sister’s. Somewhere deep down, Deborah knows that this choice to go with honesty (and thus, with Ava) will lead inevitably to contact with Kathy.

She goes to stand before her collection of antique tableware. Skimming the shelves, she is proud and disgusted. This is what she’s chosen to learn about and pursue—stuff—things other people say have value—objects that can’t let her down, betray or use her—stuff that will never make her feel alive. She has tried so hard to live her life without regrets, and yet.

She can see now she’s made disappointment and deceit into self-fulfilling prophecies. Ava had told her so, and she’d been right: she’d lied about the interview because Deborah would have been a bitch about it. Deborah creates conditions that set everyone up to hurt or disappoint her in some way, at some point, eventually. It’s how she gives herself what at least feels like a justifiable reason (but is more like a manufactured opportunity) to push them away.

She could’ve just asked Ava. Confronted her about going to the interview and lying about the doctor. She had ample opportunity. Could’ve asked her the night before the show when she’d come to the house. And maybe they would’ve argued, but maybe she wouldn’t have ended up here.

Deborah has the sudden urge to take a baseball bat to one of these glass cases. Her rage really is never very far beneath the surface, but it’s especially accessible right now. You’d never know just by looking at her. At times like this, Deborah truly frightens herself.

Her eyes wander to the pepper shaker Ava managed to procure. They are quite rare, these two pieces of pink Jean Royère tableware. The salt shaker had sat there alone for such a long time, it’d taken Deborah over a week to get used to seeing the pair together. Then it was so natural they’d be together, she stopped really seeing them at all.

She can’t help but think through the metaphor—Ava as the pepper shaker for which Deborah, the salt shaker, has been waiting. They’re a pair, a matching set. Cut from the same cloth, yet filled with such different content. Each potent on their own. Together, perfect complements. An almost elemental coexistence. What Deborah had been looking for when she drove out to Primm that day—something rare, lonely, and worth a fight.

That’s how she needs to think of Ava. As her matching pepper shaker. They can exist and be whole on their own. They can even be good and well and right in the absence of the other. But they are so much better, can do and be so much more, when they’re together.

She can never tell any of this to Ava. Because for Deborah, it’s not a joke. It is a framework. She smiles a little to herself.

The shape of the vessel evokes feminine curves, and Deborah thinks of Ava’s hips in that little dress she was wearing when she ran into her in the basement of the Palmetto. She conjures an imagined Ava, standing behind her, reflected in the glass, in the process of unbuttoning that red dress. And then, when she turns, Ava, nude, sat upon the island, bathed in sunlight, her legs spread apart, ready and waiting for Deborah’s attention. If only this were her lunch.

Barry’s bark breaks Deborah out of the fantasy. Her cheeks feel hot, and her mouth has gone dry. Fuck. She really has lost it. She’s getting turned on by a pepper shaker.

You’re getting turned on by Ava, you asshole. (It’s the second voice. Very honest; rarely kind.)

“Oh. Shit,” Deborah mutters. This love is not sexless.

Deborah has no idea what it will cost to get her back. She hasn’t allowed herself to imagine beyond the funeral because she doesn’t know how Ava will be. If she’ll even speak to her. If she’ll be receptive. Not so much to the work (though that is what they do best together) (so far) (fuck) (yes, hopefully that, too) but to letting Deborah earn back her trust and respect.

She’s been going with her gut on all this. Listening to Debbie, the small vulnerable child at the center of who she is, and defending her needs. She needs and deserves love, too. Just because Deborah hardened herself into believing she’d never click with anyone else again doesn’t mean she can’t choose to fight for it now that it’s happened. The best things in life aren’t always the most convenient, nor the most expected. She and Ava don’t just get each other’s jokes. They care for each other, and they believe in each other. They are worth the time, the effort, the compromise… This is worth making right.

<> 

They spend the day with Ava’s mother, staying through dinner and coffee. Deborah finds satisfaction in acting as bridge and buffer between Ava and Nina. They’d talked about Ava’s childhood, and they’d shared memories of her father. There were tears, but there was also plenty of laughter.

Under the guise of talking about some work stuff, Deborah asks Ava back to the townhouse. She’ll sleep at her mother’s tonight, but first, a reprieve.

Ava is quiet in the car, which isn’t unexpected, and she’s quiet through their first glass of wine. Deborah’s ready to break the silence but doesn’t want to talk about death or family or parents. And she’d promised herself she wouldn’t bring up show rewrites until they’re back in Vegas.

Deborah’s phone, sitting on the coffee table next to a half-empty bottle of wine, dings with a text. They both glance at it. It’s fucking Marty.

“Ew,” Ava says, watching Deborah clear the notification. “You’re not gonna respond?”

“No.” What she doesn’t tell Ava is that she’s been ignoring all of his calls and texts since the show. What she does do is change the subject: “Hey, I never asked how you got Gurley to sell you the pepper shaker.”

“Gurley?” Ava looks confused for a moment. Remembering, she smiles and lets out a chuckle. “Oh shit, I haven’t thought about that in a minute.”

“Well?” Deborah asks, eyes eager.

Ava narrates the story of driving the Rolls back to Primm at 15 miles per hour; giving an Oscar-worthy performance of a sob story; and ultimately threatening to take out one of the most valuable pieces in the store like she was a fucking bank robber surrounded lawmen and the urn her innocent defenseless hostage.

Deborah vacillates between laughter and open-mouthed shock, and she’s practically hooting by the time Ava’s finished.

“You shoulda seen his face.” Ava sighs. “Priceless.”

Deborah can’t stop cackling almost gleefully. She brings her hands to cover her face and says, somewhat muffled, “You called him ‘Lemony Snickett’,” amidst her laughter. She’s got a full belly laugh going, and she’s out of breath.

“It was probably the most badass thing I’ve ever done, tbh,” Ava remarks, smiling proudly.

“Oh, shit.” Deborah wipes wetness from under her eyes, trying to pull herself together. “Ohmigod, I can’t.” Little spurts of laughter keep bubbling up when she tries to envision the scene.

Ava looks at her, smiling in that way only Deborah’s laughter provokes. They’ve moved closer on the couch, mirth the gravity always pulling them toward one another.

When Ava’s smile flickers and fades a little, Deborah places her hand atop one of the younger woman’s. “You okay?” she asks, her own expression softening with worry.

“I’m okay,” Ava replies, flipping her hand and lacing their fingers together. “It’s just a weird juxtaposition.”

“What is?”

Ava hesitates a little. Her eyes fall down to their linked hands, and she says, “Feeling so safe and comfortable here with you while the house I grew up in brings me nothing but anxiety and pain.”

Deborah nods, studying Ava’s face, feeling grateful Ava feels safe with her despite everything. She pulls her hand out of Ava’s to lift her arm, inviting her closer. Ava curls up against Deborah, who wraps her arm snugly around her.

After a minute or so, Ava says, “Can I ask you something?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Were you really worried I wouldn’t speak to you when you showed up?”

“Yeah,” Deborah breathes out. “I was.”

“Why?”

“Because I wouldn’t have spoken to me,” she explains.

Ava lets out a little sigh, then, as her fingers draw patterns on Deborah’s thigh: “Good thing I’m not you, huh?”

Deborah smiles a little. “Very good thing.” Her hand caresses Ava’s shoulder and upper arm. There’s a lengthy silence as Deborah collects her courage.

“You were right,” she says. “About us, about this. I do think about you. All the time.” Her voice falters, and Ava goes still.

“The work we’ve been doing—and doing it with you…” she trails off, shaking her head. “It has me looking at myself in ways I’ve avoided for years.” Tears rise in her eyes, and Ava tilts her head to look up at Deborah. “At times, it’s felt like everything I am is out on the table where even I can see it. And it’s so ugly.” A small sob escapes. “It’s all so ugly, Ava.”

“No, Deborah,” Ava interjects, shifting to kneel next to her and taking her hand. “It’s beautiful. You are beautiful.”

“I’ve been horrible to you. I’ve been cruel.” A handful of tears fall from her eyes.

“We had a rough start,” Ava says gently, wiping the wetness from Deborah’s face.

“That’s a fucking understatement.” Deborah’s glassy eyes come to meet Ava’s concerned ones.

“Well, yeah.” Ava just shrugs. “But we’re beyond that now.”

Deborah holds Ava’s gaze for a moment and says, “You’re letting me off the hook too easily.”

“Really?”

“I hit you.” Deborah’s eyes shift away to rest on some painting hanging across the room.

“In this relationship, even if I weren't your employer, I am the one with power,” she continues. “And I hit you because, in that moment, I hated you for showing me myself.” She pauses, her eyes going to some faraway place. She swallows. “It’s one of only a handful of things in my life I truly, deeply regret. You were on your way home to a dying father, and I behaved like an abusive selfish asshole.”

Ava doesn’t say anything at first. Then she puts her fingertips under Deborah’s chin and turns her face until their eyes meet.

“A few things,” Ava begins. “First and foremost: I forgive you. Everyone makes mistakes, and yours wasn’t made in a vacuum. Secondly, we’re gonna have to do something about that employer thing because I like kissing you and don’t plan to stop.”

Deborah full-on blushes. She bites her bottom lip to keep herself from commenting.

“And third,” Ava says with a big inhalation. “D, you’re legit the best friend I’ve ever had. No one has ever listened to me the way you do. Like, when I’m with you, you’re really right there with me. Kinda like you’re here with me now, in Waltham, Mass, of all fucking places, when we both know you could’ve just called.”

Deborah scoffs. “I couldn’t have just called.” She glances down at her lap. “I needed to show you.”

“Show me what?” Ava asks quietly.

“That I’d fight harder to get you back than I did to push you away.” A tear escapes, and Ava reaches up to brush it away. Deborah meets her eyes.

“You’ve more than showed me.” Her voice is thick with feeling. “I’m not gonna let you hold me at arm’s length because you think you don’t deserve my forgiveness or my love.”

Deborah nods and lets out a shaky breath before leaning in and capturing Ava’s lips with her own.

Ava pulls away and brings a hand to Deborah’s cheek. “I’m gonna fight for you, too.” She kisses Deborah again, this time with the hint of a demand.

Lips parting to accept Ava’s tongue, Deborah touches Ava’s face, shifting her body for more access. Her tongue traces the inside of Ava’s bottom lip. Ava’s small moan is relief and arousal. Ava deepens the kiss, opening her mouth fully to Deborah and swinging a leg over her lap to straddle her. 

Welcoming Ava’s body onto her own, Deborah slides her hands down Ava’s back and over the curve of her waist. She caresses her thighs before slipping around to hold her ass. She pulls Ava closer, and they are both making little noises of want. Their kisses are becoming more passionate, more urgent, and Ava’s hips start rolling.

One of Deborah’s hands is on the small of her back, encouraging her, and the other finds its way up Ava’s shirt to cup her breast. When Deborah pinches her nipple gently through the material of her bra, Ava pulls out of the kiss with a small gasp. Their eyes meet.

“I want so badly to take you upstairs,” Deborah says, her voice husky. “But we should wait.”

Ava licks her lips. Her hips keep wriggling against Deborah. “I thought you were here to take care of me.”

Deborah raises one eyebrow, her pussy pulsing at the suggestive tone. She bites the inside of her cheek. “Ava,” she warns, with a hint of a silent plea: Don’t make me say no to you.

“Deborah.” Ava’s voice is quiet, and Deborah goes still. Ava’s eyes are completely open to her. The bareness of her truth, the depth of her feeling, the unutterable ache of her loss, lying out in the open for Deborah to see. The corners of her lips twitch a little. “Please?” Tears rise in her eyes. “I need to feel something else.”

Deborah’s eyes are wet, too, as her hesitation turns into realization, then motivation. Her head starts nodding and she says, “Yes, Honey.” Her hands rise to Ava’s face and bring it to her own. “Yes, of course,” she whispers just before they kiss.

The way Ava’s entire body relaxes into the kiss erases any lingering doubt Deborah had that it’s too soon. Ava has needs, and Deborah is the only one who can meet them. She wants to meet them, to be an oasis in the desert of Ava’s grief.

The gift of Ava’s forgiveness is Deborah's emergence from the deep well of self-loathing and shame she’s been living in for nearly a week. She has needs, too. Deborah needs to take care of Ava tonight. To see and feel and taste and touch and accept she deserves this. That she is worthy.

Ava’s mouth moves to Deborah’s neck, where she kisses and nips and licks. One of Deborah’s hands buries itself in Ava’s hair and grabs a fistful. Deborah inhales sharply when Ava’s hand rises to cup one of her breasts, her thumb running over her nipple through too much fabric.

“Bedroom,” Deborah says with some urgency.

Ava moans and pulls herself away from exploring Deborah’s neck and shoulder and chest and jaw with her mouth. She licks her lips and stands.

They walk hand-in-hand up to the main bedroom.

Deborah walks Ava to stand near an armchair in the corner. Without a word, she begins removing Ava’s clothing. First her hoodie, then her t-shirt, then her bra. Ava’s face and chest flush as Deborah’s eyes take her in. Deborah licks her lips, her nostrils flaring, and sits down toward the front of the chair. She parts her legs for Ava to come stand between them. Deborah’s hands rise to Ava’s breasts, and she watches her nipples darken and pucker into hard little peaks before leaning in to kiss and nuzzle Ava’s abdomen. Her hands slide around to Ava's back and run over its expanses. Then Deborah unbuttons and unzips Ava’s pants and tilts her head up to look at Ava, whose chest is heaving. She tugs her pants and underwear down over her hips and says, “Take them off.”

Ava steps back and strips off her pants, then comes to stand between Deborah’s thighs again. Deborah senses Ava’s nerves and brings her hands to her waist, sliding them down over her hips with gentle appreciation.

As Deborah moves one of her knees to part Ava’s legs, one hand comes back to play at her nipples. Ava moans and her hips roll a little. A hand drops to Ava’s inner thigh then rises to begin exploring her sex. Ava gasps.

“Fuck,” Deborah breathes out, resting her forehead against Ava’s belly. “You are so wet.” She swipes a finger over Ava’s clit then slides her middle finger inside and marvels at the slick heat of Ava’s pussy.

Ava whimpers.

“Come here,” Deborah says, sitting back into the chair and guiding Ava to straddle her.

Once Ava is settled over Deborah’s lap, she bends down and kisses her with passion. Deborah’s free hand slides up her back to hold her close, and she meets Ava’s passion with her own. The finger inside Ava moves slowly and smoothly in a come hither motion, and Ava’s pelvis starts rocking. Their tongues are licking into one another’s mouths, their teeth are biting at lips, and they are becoming bolder with their moans and pleas and oaths.

“You feel so good inside,” Deborah gasps out between kisses.

“More,” Ava pants.

Deborah obliges, adding a second finger. Ava starts riding her fingers, her perfect little tits giving Deborah a show of their own.

Ava’s eyes look desperate. “Can I touch myself?” she asks.

“Oh, no, Honey,” Deborah drawls. “Not quite yet.” She pulls her fingers from Ava slowly.

Ava groans at their absence and whines, “Why?”

Deborah gives her an indulgent smile. “Lie down,” she says, gesturing to the bed.

“Take this off, and I will,” Ava says, tugging at Deborah’s shirt.

Deborah lets Ava pull it off over her head and tries not to feel too self-conscious while Ava’s gaze washes over her. Then Ava takes a finger to each of her bra straps and slides them over her shoulders. She leans down to kiss and bite at Deborah’s neck while one of her hands sneaks behind her to unhook her bra.

Ava pulls away to tug the bra the rest of the way off and look at her. “Fucking beautiful, Deborah,” she says, grazing her fingers over each nipple. Deborah makes this noise, almost like surrender. Then Ava is taking her face in her hands and giving her the most appreciative, sultry kiss. It nearly takes Deborah’s breath away.

Their arms wrap around one another, their bare torsos touching for the first time, and they moan in pleasure.

The rush of arousal refocuses Deborah. She breaks their kiss and says, “Lie down,” into Ava’s ear, punctuating it with a playful swat on the ass.

Ava rises from Deborah’s lap and walks to the bed. Deborah watches her the entire way, her own body moving in tandem to maintain the views she wants. Once Ava’s lying against the pillows, Deborah slips off her pants.

“Damn, D,” Ava says. “Those fuckin' legs.”

Deborah climbs onto the bed, smiling with this combination of shyness and pride and… love? (Ava dares to think so.)

“You never show them off.”

“I do sometimes,” Deborah replies.

“Rarely,” Ava counters.

“Are we really going to do this right now?” Deborah kneels between Ava’s legs and looks down at her with a raised eyebrow.

Ava presses her lips together, accepting the reprimand with a little smile.

“Let me take care of you.” Deborah kisses her then moves down to lie between her legs. She wastes no time, wanting so badly to see Ava’s pleasure, to taste it and feel it. She slides two fingers back inside and brings her mouth to Ava’s cunt, making her gasp and start whispering, “Ohmigod, yes. Yes. Fuck that’s good. Fuck, yes.”

Deborah’s eyes have turned a deeper shade of blue, possessed by Ava’s sex, drunk with lusty power. Ava starts telling her she wants it harder and faster. Deborah adds a third finger. She comes fast and greedy writhing against Deborah’s face and grinding down onto her fingers.

Deborah pulls her mouth from Ava’s pussy and moves up to kiss her. She starts fucking her again, and Ava sits up a little, clinging to her and meeting Deborah’s thrusts.

“Ooh, Baby,” Deborah coos. “You like that?”

“Mmmhmm,” Ava hums. “Yeah, that’s good.”

They’re face to face now. Deborah is entranced by Ava’s pleasure. The way it makes her move. The way she gives herself over to it. She has never been this turned on. Her own pussy is throbbing, and her panties are beyond damp. When Ava comes again, her mouth is latched onto Deborah’s shoulder, and Deborah doesn’t even care if it leaves a mark.

When Deborah pulls her fingers out, Ava groans and lifts her head.

They kiss.

“Stunning,” Deborah whispers when they part, pushing fallen locks of hair off Ava’s face.

Ava’s eyes get a little wet. She brings a hand to Deborah’s cheek. “That was so good.”

They grin at one another and kiss again. Then Deborah tosses the throw pillows aside so they can actually lie down. She sighs with satisfaction when she drops onto her back next to Ava.

Ava comes to curl up against Deborah, still hazy. She picks up one of Deborah’s hands. “No nails.”

“Oh, so you did notice.”

“Not until you were three fingers deep,” Ava admits, chagrined. They laugh.

Then Ava’s hand slides between Deborah’s legs, making her gasp. Ava is on her knees removing Deborah’s panties in the next second. Once the underwear is discarded, Ava parts Deborah’s legs. “Fuck,” she exhales upon seeing her cunt literally glisten.

Ava sinks two fingers in, making some low growly sound that sends chills through Deborah. She hooks one of Deborah’s legs over her shoulders and leans down.

They kiss, and Ava starts curling her fingers and thrusting. Deborah moans and makes noises of approval and says, “Yes,” and “Fuck yes” and “Ohmigod yes” and “Don’t stop” and “Just like that” under her breath.

They shift so Ava is sitting up, and Deborah rides her fingers.

Deborah moves her hand down to her pussy and starts playing with her clit.

Ava’s gaze turns even more intense. “Yes, good girl,” she encourages. “You’re so hot like this. So sexy when you feel good.”

When Ava grasps at one of Deborah’s breasts and starts tweaking and twisting and pinching her nipple, Deborah jerks and moans.

“Can I come?” she asks, almost coming just from the thrill of seeking Ava’s permission.

Ava’s eyes go three shades darker, and, in a low husky rumble, she answers, “Come for me. Yeah, that’s my girl. Oh fuck, Deb, you feel so fucking good.”

Her climax hits somewhere among Ava’s words. She throws her head back and cries out, “Oh fuuuck.” And she’s flung into space, riding out one of the best orgasms she has had in, well, more years than she cares to calculate.

Ava holds her, fucking her, and watches her peak with an expression of pure amazement.

When Deborah begins coming back to Earth, she pulls Ava with her and tumbles backward onto the bed. They kiss for a while, relishing their time here, learning one another’s body, its curves and responses.

Deborah rolls onto her side and reaches back for Ava, who moves to spoon her. When her arm wraps around Deborah’s middle, when her breasts press into her back, when Ava’s breath is warm and moist on her shoulder… A few silent tears fall from Deborah’s eyes. This place has been special and perfect and just what they needed—neutral territory, refuge—and part of her wishes they could stay here in this bubble.

“You okay?” Ava asks when her breath hitches the tiniest bit.

“Yeah,” Deborah replies, wiping her fingers over her cheeks. “I just thought I’d never feel this again. But here I am feeling it, and here you are.” She reaches back to caress Ava’s thigh behind her own. “Feeling it with me.”

Ava chuckles. “Can you believe it?”

“Fuck no,” Deborah laughs. After a moment, she goes quiet. “Guess the joke was on us.”

“Guess so.” Ava slides her hand down the back of Deborah’s thigh and urges it up toward her chest. “But, D,” she purrs, seeking out her heat and slipping a finger inside, making Deborah almost mewl. “The joke is so good.”