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only bought this dress so you could take it off

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"Inescapable, I'm not even gonna try
And if I get burned, at least we were electrified
I'm spilling wine in the bathtub, you kiss my face and we're both drunk
Everyone thinks that they know us, but they know nothing about
All of this silence and patience, pining in anticipation
My hands are shaking from holding back from you"

Taylor Swift, “Dress”

---

“And this year’s Grammy for Best Comedy Album goes to…” There’s a long pause as they drum up the suspense, the cameras zooming in on the five nominees, broadcasting their faces on the large screens set up throughout the arena. Personally, Ava’s always found that part a little cruel. Making sure the whole audience sees the moment of hope on everyone’s face before they crush it for all but one of them. “Deborah Vance!”

“Oh, shit!” Ava practically yells.

The guy seated beside Ava shoots her a confused look. “What?”

“Nothing—it’s just, I worked on that album.”

“Then shouldn’t you be down there with all of them?”

“Oh, it was more of a secondhand, in-the-past kind of—” He’s already looking away, and Ava doesn’t feel like spilling her guts to a stranger. Not tonight. Well, at least not to him.

She claps along with the crowd and lets out a loud whoop, as if somehow it might get all the way to Deborah from her spot in the nosebleed arena seats.

As Deborah steps out onto the stage in a black dress that makes Ava’s breath catch, Ava is swept up in a wave of memories. Those early weeks on tour together, spending long days on the road and even longer nights holed up in hotel rooms after Deborah’s set, hammering out the shape of the act, tweaking the bits that were almost there, pitching ideas at each other and throwing out whole jokes that just wouldn’t land. Even as panic about the email and the impending shitstorm Ava knew was coming had clawed at the edges of her very existence, Ava had never felt happier. Almost like she finally got what people meant when they said they were fulfilled by their work, which is total capitalist bullshit propaganda, but admitting that her happiness was about something other the work itself still leaves Ava feeling stripped bare in ways she’d rather not deal with. Especially not now. Not after everything that had come later.

--

Marcus had been the one to deliver the news. A letter of termination for breach of contract. Notice that she had two hours to be out of the hotel. A warning that she was not to try to contact Deborah at any point in the future and that, were she to break her NDA a second time at any point in the future, they would not hesitate to pursue legal action. Ava had expected him to gloat; instead, he’d just looked angry and resigned.

Hurrying back upstairs, Ava throws the few things she’d ever bothered unpacking back into her suitcase. With Marcus’s warnings still ringing in her ears, she paces back and forth across the small room she’d hardly spent any time in at all. She should leave. She should listen for once in her goddam life and get out of here and book a flight back to LA and hope some of the goodwill she’d earned from lying low these past few months would get her a foot in the door somewhere.

But the idea of leaving without seeing Deborah one more time is unfathomable. She just needs to see her, apologize to her, explain what had happened.

A few minutes later, Ava finds herself standing outside of Deborah’s door, pounding her fist against it until it finally swings open.

“Get out.” Deborah’s lip curls up as she spits the words at Ava.

“Please,” Ava pleads, sticking her foot in the doorway and praying her clunky Doc Martens will keep Deborah from breaking her foot if she tries to slam the door shut on her anyway. “Please, let me explain.”

“I think you explained plenty in your little email.”

“Deborah, I sent that so, so long ago. It wasn’t—I don’t feel that way about you.”

“Of course not. Not now that your paycheck’s on the line.”

“Deb, please”

Deborah practically snarls as she shoves the door closed.

Ava yelps; the Docs helped, but they are not, apparently, bulletproof.

“I was hurt, Deborah!” Ava yells through the crack in the door at her retreating figure. “My dad had just died, and I hadn’t even gotten to see him first, and you were standing there telling me you didn’t believe me. Acting like that’s the kind of thing you thought I’d lie about. Like you couldn’t see that I was fucking hurting.”

Deborah spins on her heels and stalks back to the door. “I wonder why I wouldn’t have believed you. As if you had ever given me any reason to trust you.”

“Jesus, I told those British hacks who were willing to pay me fucking triple what I get working for you, by the way, to go fuck themselves, that I wasn’t about to sell you out or talk shit about a woman they’d never hope to be as good as.”

“Tell me: how long did that last? A day? Or were we still under 24 hours?”

“I know. I know I screwed up, okay? I don’t even—I didn’t even remember sending the email the next day. I was so fucked up, and it wasn’t until Jimmy called—”

“And just when did Jimmy call? How long have you been—” Deborah’s breath catches, and she cuts herself off. Purses her lips and glares at Ava, bright blue eyes shimmering with unshed tears.

“Please, Deborah. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“You never mean to,” Deborah says, her voice taunting and cruel. “You’re always sorry the second one of those things you didn’t fucking think about has repercussions.” Deborah steps forward, gets close enough that Ava can feel the warmth of her breath ghosting across her lips. “I warned you. Never forgive. Never forget. Now don’t ever let me see you again.”

--

Ava swallows hard as Deborah accepts the award and steps up to the microphone, gives her thanks to everyone—her team, DJ, the audiences across America who made sure she knew what worked and what didn’t. She pauses for a moment. “I’d love to be able to say this album—this act—has been a long time coming. And in some ways it has. It’s the kind of shit you can only say when you’ve already made it. But, well, at that point you have a lot to lose, too. And taking risks this big?” She tilts her head, gives the audience one of those private little smiles that always made Ava feel like the room had narrowed to just the two of them. “They don’t always work out in such a major way. So I suppose my last thank you is to a writer I worked with who assured me I could make anything funny.” Ava’s heart seems to stop for a long moment, then rocket into triple-speed. “And now I have a Grammy to remind me that I’m good enough to get people to laugh at hysterectomies and motherhood and overdoses.” It earns her a chorus of laughter as she waves her way off the stage.

Ava barely listens to the rest of the show, caught in her head as she tries to figure out if that thank you to a crowd that Deborah has no reason to believe Ava is in might have been Deborah’s way of accepting the apologies Ava’s been sending her for over a year.

Ava had spent the first month angry at Deborah. Angry at her for refusing to listen, for refusing to believe Ava, for refusing to let her try to show Deborah all the ways she wanted to make it up to her.

It wasn’t until one night—somewhere around the 3am region, when Ava gets all of her best ideas—as Ava stumbled upon an old interview Frank had given a couple of years after the divorce that Ava started to get it. They’d asked him about Deborah—about a woman he’d spent years of his life with only to leave when she’d threatened to surpass what he could credit himself with giving to her—and he’d been cruel and cutting and all the things he had no right to be. It had sent Ava down a rabbit hole, and she’d spent the whole night reading interviews and watching clips of Frank, trying to imagine what it must have felt like for Deborah to have swung from feeling totally abandoned to having her name dragged through hell. She’d fallen asleep to a clip of Who’s Making Dinner and woken up a few hours later with a crick in her neck and a sinking feeling in her stomach. Because somehow, somewhere along the way, she’d become Frank. Not really. But the pieces are starting to slot into place. Little realizations that add up to why Deborah, who’d never so much as apologized to Ava for humiliating her on a tour bus full of Vegas tourists, would have taken Ava’s betrayal so hard.

After that, Ava’s phone calls and apology texts had gone unanswered for two days until she found her number blocked entirely.

She’d tried getting put through to Deborah’s hotel room line with a series of increasingly convoluted fake identities, from a luxury kaftan salesman to a producer at QVC.

Hell, she’d gone to an office supply store and tried fucking faxing an apology letter to what she hoped was Deborah’s suite when she was performing down in DC. (It was not.)

In a last-ditch attempt, Ava had flown out to Salt Lake City and bought tickets to Deborah’s show and hid herself away in the back corner of Wiseguys Comedy Club, waiting until after the show—she wasn’t gonna be a dick and ruin Deborah’s night—to try to talk to her. On the bright side, Deborah hadn’t tried to run Ava over with her car. But she’d sighed, looking more sad than angry, shaken her head, and offered Ava nothing more than a quiet: “Go home, Ava.”

Finally, at the end of Ava’s first full month in a writing room for a new show and after several months of talking through all this shit in therapy, she wrote Deborah a long letter—by hand and everything—and sealed it up with the photograph she’d stolen from that Sacramento club. She added a small note on the brown paper she’d used to wrap it up: “That guy didn’t deserve you on his wall, but maybe I don’t either. Figure it’s about time you got to decide where this went.” Having seen what became of all of Kathy’s packages and letters, Ava gave a last, desperate appeal to Kiki, who had, after much cajoling, agreed. (“Only because I still kind of think you should have gone for it with Deborah, and you can’t really do that when she won’t take your calls.”) Kiki wouldn’t tell Ava what Deborah said, only that she’d opened the package. She’d left Ava with an overly wise, “Look, girl, I don’t think your story is over, but you gotta give her space.”

So…space. Nearly a year of space after that.

But when Ava had heard about Deborah’s nomination, she couldn’t resist the temptation to try to be there. She doesn’t even want to think about the number of favors she’d called in, but Ruby had a friend Danny working the event who promised Ava that if she showed up and there was anyone in the absolute shittiest seats who still hadn’t checked in by the time they’d given out the first award, he’d let her in. So she’d put down a whole paycheck on a new dress and let Ruby do her makeup and waited awkwardly outside until Danny finally waved her in.

And, well, if Ava had also driven up to Vegas more times than was eco-friendly over the past few months to go axe-throwing with DJ until she forgave her with a loud, “Ugh, I guess I can’t stay mad at my maid of honor forever, just ’cause she was a total cunt about my mom,” and if she happened to have gotten the lowdown from DJ on where Marcus had made reservations for after the awards show, it wasn’t creepy. It was just being prepared.

Ava let Deborah have her celebratory dinner in peace while she scarfed down a chicken sandwich that Deborah would most certainly have frowned upon. But after, she followed Google Maps to the address of a swanky bar whose name DJ had semi-reluctantly sent her and waited, hoping desperately that Marcus wouldn’t decide that Deborah absolutely needed to show up at QVC to sell some diamond-encrusted marble toilet seats or whatever the fuck.

She’s been sitting in a bar with drinks that cost more than a bottle of what Ava thinks of as the “fancy wine” she takes to dinner parties for over an hour when the door swings open, and Deborah, Marcus, and Damian walk in with a group of people Ava’s never met before. Damian is talking faster than Ava’s ever heard him talk, and he snaps about a dozen photos that Ava assumes will end up on Deborah’s carefully cultivated Insta at some point in the near future. Marcus actually seems relaxed for a change, and Deborah looks…satisfied. Like a woman who’s finally gotten the world to see her for who she is instead of who they’ve always wanted her to be.

Like a coward, Ava stays perched on her seat at the bar, peering over at Deborah’s table a few too many times to be inconspicuous, though the team seems lost enough in the celebratory toasts not to notice her.

At least Ava assumes.

Until a drink or two in, when Deborah glances up just in time to catch Ava’s gaze. Her eyes widen, and Ava’s heart thunders. And then Deborah is forcing a smile back onto her face and laughing at something Damian’s said and refusing to look in Ava’s direction again.

Clearing her throat, Ava grabs the attention of one of the bartenders. “Hey, um, could I send a glass of champagne over to that woman back there?”

He looks her over and, as if deciding Ava’s not a threat—or at least not one that can’t easily be dealt with—agrees. Ava tries not to throw up at the price and smiles at him as she adds on a large tip. “Just tell her it’s from her biggest fan, yeah? And, um, if possible, maybe make sure she’s the only one that hears it?”

He glances down at the tip scrawled on the receipt. “Whatever you say, honey.”

Ava watches from the bar as he makes his way back to their table, timing his arrival with another one of the servers and leaning down to whisper in Deborah’s ear as he hands over the champagne flute. Deborah’s eyes flicker up to Ava again, and Ava feels like her legs have turned to lead, her whole body going hot and heavy.

After a few minutes, Deborah excuses herself and walks to the restroom across the way. Taking the long route to avoid being spotted, Ava finally slips through the door and finds Deborah standing in front of the marble-countered sinks—and fuck, this is a fancy bathroom. Her arms are folded across her chest, but she doesn’t look angry. Not exactly. “Why are you here, Ava?”

“DJ, um, mentioned you might come here to celebrate.”

“See if she gets my diamond tennis bracelet when I die. Might have to go to Cara instead.”

Ava snorts with laughter, and for half a second, Deborah grins back at her. Like this is still the before times.

“Really, Ava. What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to congratulate you. You deserved it. So much. And I—I’m just glad that everyone else is finally getting the memo.”

“Is that all?”

“I, uh, I miss you. I know that you needed space, and I get it. I was—what I did was really fucking shitty. And you don’t have to forgive me. But I spent a lot of time wondering how different things might have been if I’d just been honest. And I can’t help wondering…a lot of things, really. And I guess I just wanted to see you. Tell you congratulations”

Deborah sighs, reaches out and tucks a lock of Ava’s hair behind her ear. “Oh, Ava, I think we both know it didn’t matter who told me about the email in the end. The problem was that you sent it at all.”

Ava swallows hard, bows her head slightly. “I know. I know that now. And I’m really sorry.”  

“I know. So you can stop sending the letters and telling every person that interviews you about how influential I was to you, okay? Apology received.”

“Deb, those aren’t apologies.” It’s suddenly vitally important that she understand this. “I mean it. You—you changed my life.”

“You’re young. Plenty of people will.”

“No, it’s more than that. You…” Ava trails off and shakes her head. “Remember what I said to you about why I got into comedy? After the funeral?”

“Another bullied kid with no real friends.”

It lands like a blow, but Ava forces herself to plow on. “Something like that,” she manages through gritted teeth. “But that interview you gave, about what it’s like finding someone who shares your sense of humor, who speaks the same language you do? That’s what I felt with you.” She watches the bob of Deborah’s throat as she swallows. “And even if you never want to see me again, I’m not gonna stop giving you credit for giving me some of the best months of my life, okay?”

“There’ll be many more of those months for you with someone else, Ava,” Deborah whispers. “You’re too good not to find that again.”

Ava lets out a shaky exhale, flashes back to a late night in Chicago, the first time that whole swaths of the new material had really landed. Deborah had sent Marcus and Damian back to the hotel to sleep off the jetlag, let Ava take her out for celebratory drinks. Ava’s hand had wound up on Deborah’s thigh beneath the bar, hitching higher and higher until Deborah had practically dragged Ava into a cab—one anonymous yellow taxi in a sea of them—and kissed Ava within an inch of her life, only to send her back to her own room when they got back, telling her it could never happen again.

Deborah strides forward, lingering at Ava’s shoulder. “You look good in that dress.”

Ava can’t even blame the alcohol for it—not when she’s been slowly sipping at the single drink she can afford all fucking night—as she spins on her heel and crashes her lips into Deborah’s.

For a long moment, she’s sure she’s about to be thrown off of Deborah and served with a restraining order. But then Deborah is kissing her back—hard and desperate, with just enough teeth that it feels like forgiveness and punishment all at once.

Ava lets out a whimper and finds herself pressed up against a wall, her dress rucked up to her hips.

“Tell me what you want,” Deborah orders, the words hot against the shell of Ava’s ear.

“Fuck, everything. Anything. Please.”

Deborah cups Ava over her underwear, and they both groan at how wet she is, the fabric sliding easily against her. Deborah presses the heel of her palm to Ava’s clit. Just holds it there. Looks up with a challenge in her gaze. “Then take it.”

A small, easily drowned out voice in the back of Ava’s head thinks maybe this is wrong, maybe it shouldn’t be enough. But she’s already grinding herself against Deborah’s hand and sobbing into her shoulder as she comes hard enough to see stars.

It takes Ava a few seconds to catch her breath and come back to herself enough to release Deborah’s hand and shimmy her dress back down over her hips. But when she reaches for Deborah, Deborah steps back.

Ava looks up with a question in her eyes and fear clawing at the back of her throat.

“Not—not here,” Deborah manages.

“But somewhere?”

“It’s a bad idea.”

“I don’t work for you. Haven’t in a long time.”

Deborah closes her eyes for a long moment. When she opens them again, Ava can see the naked desire shining through. “I’m staying at the—”

“Can you, uh, I live in town. Have a real house and everything. With walls I don’t share with Marcus.”

For half a second, a wicked smirk pulls up the corners of Deborah’s mouth, and it’s enough to have Ava desperate all over again. “Text me your address. I’ll meet you there soon.”

“You, um, you’ll have to unblock my number.”

“Oh, Ava,” Deborah sighs, leaning in and caressing her cheek. “It has been. For over a year.”