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This Night's A Perfect Shade Of (aka The Brandt Exposition)

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And I wonder if I ever will find a language to speak of the things that haunt me the most.

- Bao Phi, Thousand Star Hotel

 

There were two reasons I was scared to let people in; the damage they could do, and the damage they could find.

- Chris McGeown

 

It’s the blinding sun on the grill of Kiki’s Rolls that Deborah remembers first.

It comes out of nowhere as the blue of Ava’s rental car violently skids right, out of its path.

(Nothing had ever shone that brightly to her.

Except perhaps DJ, the moment they’d placed the squawking newborn in her arms. Every moment of her since.)

(And perhaps Ava, now that she’d wormed her way inside.)

So blindingly bright that she’d been in the process of squinting when the sound of crunching metal and breaking concrete had pierced the quiet confines of her car.

Her heart had stopped then.

Ava was in that blue.

She'd slammed to a stop, the car skidding, blindly pulling on the hand brake as her other hand went for the door handle and missed. Missed once more before she’d ripped her eyes away from--

Then she’d been running, entirely too slow, unable to make her body move faster, as fast as the blonde racing toward Ava’s driver side door.

Blake had gotten there first, had already been crouching into the car by the time Deborah’s older legs rounded the blue, her mind repeating only two things:

Please not Ava.

Not like this.

The small, wispy girl of 1962 -- the one who’d screamed for her parents until they’d sedated her, the very one who’d discovered her older self’s daughter in a pool of vomit, deathly pale -- had taken one look inside that blue, and shattered again.

Red.                                                                                    

Red hair and blood.

Coating Ava’s face.

Blake had been barking instructions to Kiki, she’d comprehended later, emergency services contacted and kept on the line, but Deborah’s universe had shrunk down into the space between her and an unresponsive, then briefly conscious Ava; hearing only her pounding heartbeat in her ears, trying desperately to catch the sound of Ava’s shallow breathing instead.

She’d held that damaged hand, fighting a losing battle against her own trembling ones, and prayed to a God she’d forsaken more than half a century ago.

Please.

Not Ava.

Please --

But something is different this time.

Something has changed.

There’s something in the corner of her left eye that should not be --

Deborah looks in the backseat.

Her parents are huddled together, sleeping peacefully, scratchy Royal Stewart tartan blanket from the couch over their legs.

It’s the last memory she has of them together, before --

Deborah jars awake, breathing hard into the darkness.

In.

Out.

In. Out.

In, out, in, out.

Calm down.

It’s just a --

No. It's not a dream.

It’s two memories fused together.

A consequence of therapy.

(Her anger and a well-intentioned fight response had been no match for Doctor Emily Walters and her calming, considerate words. She hates the woman, and appreciates her, and keeps going, to--)

Deborah sucks in a deep breath and lets it out in a whoosh, rubbing at her eyes as she checks the time.

02:08

She’s in bed and the room is --

Too quiet.

Her body is rolling back towards the middle before she even--

The other side is empty.

Empty, where a familiar, snoring form should be.

("I do not snore. I breathe heavier during the night, that's all." Ava presses at the tip of her nose. "Things got moved around in here, remember?")

Deborah stares at the space, her hand sliding towards it, to comfort herself.

She has therapy every Friday now.

Seven months’ worth of seeing Dr Walters, initially fitting it around the tour, and now around her relationship with Ava.

Sometimes she's lighter afterward, mind eased, looking forward to the weekend.

Other times it wears her out, dragging her down into a mood she can't shake.

The consequence of this had bitten her in the ass six weeks ago, when she'd fired three employees for what she'd considered to be unforgivable sins at the time: squeaky shoes on her tiles; a groundsman near her pool unnecessarily; and her bedsheets slightly askew.

Marcus had rehired them by the end of the weekend at her request, knowing she'd gone too far, but stubborn enough to let him do the dirty work. A significant pay rise had been offered to everyone; Deborah acutely aware that if she didn't curb this then TMZ would have another Deborah Vance scoop in their filthy, bottom-feeding hands.

Today had been disastrous though, in much the same way.

DJ and her parents discussed. Her shrink pushing for clarification, delving, and delving.

Too close to the bone. To things she's avoided for years.

This time, thankfully, there'd been no staff around to get in her way.

Marcus had seen the future six weeks ago, and implemented some change. All MC gigs and store appearances were strictly during the week now, as well as QVC and her business meetings. The house staff finished at 2pm on Friday, before she returned, and had Saturday off as well. The grounds staff and security guys were to keep their distance. Daniel, her longest-serving driver, was the only one to drop her off and pick her up. The divider between them was to be closed at all times, affording her some privacy as she fought to find her peace. To find some kind of equilibrium by the time the weekend finished and she had to keep up with this…

Life of hers.

Back to normal.                                  

Back to being brilliant and ballsy and funny and fine, and getting prepared to do another round of shows.

She just needs space.

Minimal interaction.

Marcus and Josefina stay, because they understand this. Because they’ve both seen her puffy eyes and blotchy face when she’s returned. They’ve been with her long enough to counteract any fury from her with calm patience. With a willingness to forgive and forget.

The sticking point is Ava, who is still learning this particular skill set.

She bites back. Meets anger with harsh indignation. Gets frustrated when Deborah can't bear to talk. Insists on working through a joke when the moment strikes, even when Deborah isn’t in a laughing mood. Asks to know what she and Emily have discussed when it’s clear all Deborah wants is a drink.

She's let her frustration boil over with the redhead before. Can't seem to stop herself from saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment, when her walls are up and Ava is swinging an imaginary sledgehammer in an effort to keep them down.

(“It’s because you trust her to still be there when the dust settles,” Doctor Walters says. “It means you have a tremendous amount of faith in her. But we need to retrain your brain into accepting that the emotion you’re covering up with anger is okay to feel. To let it out. Anger is the protector of our raw emotions.”)

Christ, what a total quack.

It's all true, Deborah knows.

She’s told Ava more about her life than anyone else. They’ve worked and reworked the circumstances and events of it into an increasingly successful set. Ava knows about Frank and Kathy and the shit she dealt with to work her way here.

But she doesn’t know anything pre-Berkeley. She doesn’t know the circumstances of her parent's deaths. How she and Kathy had been left alone, shipped off to an abusive cousin of her mother, whose wife and kids were glad he was distracted. How Deborah fought to get good grades and save enough money to get her and Kathy back to the West Coast and the fuck away from them.

Tooth and nail, every goddamn day to make sure Kathy wasn’t--

Deborah shivers.

She needs to save it for Emily, because she doesn’t want Ava to know.

Doesn’t want Ava to see that scared, wispy girl, who’d had to toughen up quickly and still barely made it through.

Sometimes, though, it’s all she wants Ava to see.

She’s woken in the night and rolled over, and been on the verge of shaking the redhead awake. She’ll look up from her desk, glance across the room to where Ava has settled, close by in silent support, and want to open her mouth and speak that little girl's truth.

Instead, she thinks of something else.

Closes the door on that chapter of her life, just as she’s always done.

She moves forward.

Always has.

(“What a giant waste of time this all was…”)

Deborah shakes the memory away. Sits up and leans over for her remote, increasing the bedroom lights slowly, letting her eyes adjust.

There’s no illumination from the alcove where Ellen Andrée is with her plum brandy and cigarette. Ava is not in the bathroom.

She’ll be raiding the fridge. Getting into that matcha ice cream of hers Deborah hates.

Maybe wandering the halls, the way she does when her anxiety is high. When swimming laps of the pool in the late afternoon hasn’t quite settled her.

("I need to get a little waterproof whiteboard for the jokes I think of when I'm in the pool," Ava says, breathing hard by the edge, poking Deborah's leg underneath the water.

"You mean you're not going to try for the waterlogged phone trifecta?"

Ava drops her face into the water, blowing a series of bubbles before surfacing. "Last week wasn't my finest moment, but that bit about Timothee Chalamet and kiwi fruit was worth it. Who knew exercise could be so beneficial to the comedy process?"

Deborah kicks half-heartedly at her, mystified. "I did, you idiot."

Ava dismisses the jab. "And here I was thinking you getting up before the birds to get on your little rowing machine was because you're vain as fuck."

"Which you've benefited from." Deborah leans closer, lowering her voice to say, "You think I could've fucked you last night with the strap on if I didn't get my daily leg work in?" She tsks. "Please."

Ava hums appreciatively and drifts closer to Deborah's legs, her smile just as wicked as the night before. Deborah kicks at her again, feeling Ava latch on, slipping those fingers up her calf to the spot behind her knee. She squirms, but lets Ava's body weight part her legs.

"We are not having sex in the pool, end of.”

Ava pouts in reply, and Deborah can't help but laugh, as a second-hand caresses her skin. Her orange wrap, already bunched up so she could dangle her legs in the water, is getting dripped on.

"Will you at least consider one of your twenty-six fireplaces then? There's an air mattress in the basement we could--"

Deborah leans in and kisses the request away, getting wet in more ways than one.)

Ava will be making a circuit of the house, now that she and Deborah are miles away from that memory. Now that Emily's probing has left Deborah too frayed. Too on edge for anything other than three scotches and an hour-long bath.

An early night.

(“I’ll come to bed with—”

“Christ Ava, just leave me be.”

Ava had.

The bed had dipped later, the blankets shifting with Ava’s movements, but Deborah had stayed glued to her side, facing away. Feigning sleep as she waited for Ava’s breathing to deepen, knowing Ava was waiting for the same.)

She aches from the guilt.

It’s familiar and nothing new.

She's had a lifetime of it with DJ. With the trying and trying, and doing too much and not enough, and burying her head in the sand.

The feeling worsens on Fridays like these, when Ava is present but still a million miles away.

Reminds her of the week before the accident, when Ava had wandered and Deborah had found her asleep downstairs most nights. Unable to do anything other than place a careful blanket over her. She’d watched her endlessly, trying to get up the courage to wake her, to bridge the chasm that was widening between them.

The one she’d caused with her words and detachment.

In the end, she’d let her fear control her – knowing she was falling for Ava, that it was just as profound as it had been with Frank, that she could be absolutely destroyed by it. Terrified and underprepared, she’d cut at Ava, and the result had been…

Deborah lets out a shaky breath.

She’d known.

At that moment, when the wispy girl had broken forth to shatter again, in the blue amongst the red, she’d known.

Loving Ava hurt already.

She’d done this to her.

Caused this accident.

By the time the medics had asked if she was coming in the ambulance, she’d made her decision:

Let her go. Before she sees the damage inside. Before you hurt her anymore.

And she’d begun to.

Distracted herself with getting Ava’s mother to Vegas and the TMZ news report and lawyers and seeking to destroy something else.

The LVMPD.

That piece of shit police officer.

Herself in the process.

(Marcus had offered her a phone number on a slip of paper, somewhere in between.

It had stayed in her pocket for days, as if she were expecting herself to call.

Just another number to dial, as she phoned Nina for an update and rang her PR firm and contacted her new tour manager.

Being forced to cancel the show had been the last straw. She'd sped away from her moron PR’s office, anger negating her sense of care, panic setting in until she'd found herself crouched in front of her car, willing herself to breathe.

Unable to stop reliving the first time the wispy girl had shattered. Seeing Ava now amongst what she imagined the wreckage had been like, broken glass and twisted metal in the retreating fog...

She'd called from that spot outside of town, dirt on her pants, the sun hitting the shine of her grill and reminding her of all the things she'd lost.)

("You're scared for your friend, Ms. Vance, that's the reason behind your anxiety. Behind your panic attack."

"That is not what happened." She glares at the brunette, trying to shield herself still, trying to--

“That is most certainly what happened,” the woman says, poised on the edge of her seat and looking at Deborah with an unnerving resolve. “This combative mood you're in is not going to help you today.” She waves her hand toward the couch opposite her. “Will you at least take a seat?")

Ava’s text later that day -- four words long and a clearly defined endpoint – had only deepened the wound inside of her. Words that cut the same as four others had, written in that unique scrawl of hers.

Because she hadn’t wanted it to be over, at either interval.

Not with the resounding slap of a cheek repeating in her ear, or with the feeling of Ava burned into her fingertips.

She’d sat frozen at her bathroom vanity, once again refusing to acknowledge her reflection, until Kiki’s call had come through.

(“I promised I’d help smuggle her out of the hospital tomorrow so she can Jerry Maguire your ass. Now you know I’m ride or die with her, but girl is looking Mary-Louise Fried Green Tomatoes ending bad. She can’t be running to you with that Springsteen song playing in the background or holding a boombox over her head. So if you love her -- and I know you do, because I know you and saw you in that car…”

Deborah hears Kiki’s anguished breath, her own held, waiting --

“You need to be Tom Tom and show her the gesture, so me breaking a promise is worth it. Alright?”)

And she’d known it just as much as she'd known everything else, that Ava would die trying.

The idiot.

("Yeah, but I'm your idiot, remember?” Ava smiles that huge, ridiculous grin of hers. “No take backs!")

Deborah chuckles into the silence at the memory, momentarily relieved.

Ava had a way of doing that too, sometimes.

A good amount of the time.

A substantial amount of the time.

She needs to start recognizing that.

She needs to go find her now.

Actively make a change, as the doc was so fond of saying.

---

She realizes she should’ve put some socks on as the coolness of the stairs changes to the actively cold tiles.

The sensor lights perform their task, giving off a gloominess that hides her sins, that she's accustomed to.

There's a light on in the back of the house.

The kitchen, perhaps.

Deborah will make her way there, she just needs--

She walks the short distance into the living room, in the direction of the gold embossed cabinet, where the house staff keeps a blanket for the room.

Ava's blanket, now.

Knitted dark blue, with a tassel fringe.

Deborah opens it up and wraps it around herself, careful to keep it off the floor, and away from her feet.

She doesn't need to add broken bones to this.

The light is from the kitchen, but the space is empty, bereft of Ava’s singular brightness.

Deborah opens the freezer door.

The ice cream is gone.

Inevitably thawing out on some hard surface in the house.

Deborah’s shoulders slump, a hard exhale escaping her.

She will not let it bother her.

She cannot let it bother her.

She doesn't have time for it.

---

There's another source of light.

The basement.

Of course.

Amongst the ice cream eating and lap swimming, Ava had finished tidying the space; categorized every recording by month and year; freshly labeled every existing storage box with a detailed description of contents in her rounded handwriting, while replacing the damaged ones; taken the entryway doors off their hinges and moved the shelves back against the walls to open the space up. Everything had a place now, structured to accommodate Ava’s additions.

(Deborah throws a pool noodle at Ava, the redhead abruptly caught off guard mid-stroke, surfacing from the water and finding her.

"Can I help you with something or are you just throwing things at me for fun?"

“Why is there an Ikea van in my driveway?”

Ava stands up in the pool. "Jesus, they're here already? They said three."

Deborah grabs her towel and watches as Ava swims toward her and lifts herself out of the pool. The blonde wraps the material around the girl, water flying everywhere, speckling Deborah's camisole.

"I'll go sort it," -- Ava begins drying herself off, lightning quick-- "Figured I could set up the basement as an office for me, you know, get the creative juices flowing again for the next tour, draw inspiration from the room and its contents.”

“You hung that portrait of me up, and wanna get a particular body part flowing, don’t you?”

Ava sputters out a rebuttal, Deborah laughing at her embarrassment briefly before reaching to squeeze her arm.

“You know they make their meatballs out of people that can't find the exit, right?”)

Deborah smiles as she continues forth, beginning to hear the sound of her own voice.

…horrific things happen during the summer, didn’t we? Rebecca Schaeffer was shot in her doorway by a looney fan. United Airlines killed one hundred and twelve of its customers the very next day in Iowa. Beetlejuice’s Michael Keaton became Batman…

The Pat Sajak Show. 1989. A terrible four minutes she’d rather forget.

She suspects Ava probably knows it word for word. Likely knows all of her jokes by heart. She's seen her on her laptop enough, mouthing along, laughing. Knows very well that the accompanying hard drive -- one of many, all treated like precious cargo -- means Ava is on the hunt for that one joke, that one pause before the punchline -- when punchlines counted -- to reimagine. Looking for that indeterminate moment so Deborah can sail high.

It's intoxicating, knowing Ava strives for this.

Ava also knows how much that eighties video collection portrait of her drives her mad. It's hanging yet again in the landing when she rounds the corner, light in her younger self’s eyes, as if she's in on the joke too.

Deborah had snuck down one night to replace it with a sign that said Ava’s Man Cave, considering it to be polite revenge.

They've been to and froing it ever since, her sign migrating to Ava’s desk when not in play, always able to be found.

A physical manifestation of their one-upmanship.

Deborah leaves the portrait there for tonight, stepping down the stairs, destination nearly reached.

Despite the shelves and shelves of Deborah’s work, Ava's made the space her own.

Desk in the middle of the room, backing onto a light grey loveseat couch. Both angled to face the flat screen in the corner, between the two large entryways. Ava had gotten Ron and Randy, two of her groundsmen, to attach it to the wall there, bonding with them over Archer and Superstore. Deborah’s tape players are underneath, on top of a gorgeous black sideboard cabinet that Deborah had admitted she liked. Next to them is Ava’s record player, regularly used to play the vinyl she'd kept of her father's. She'd categorized his videotapes as well, the six boxes now housed in their own section of shelf space nearby.

Ava's laptop is there in the corner, a red hard drive keeping it open. Cord looping up towards the back of the tv.

...why I'm surprised, CBS does employ Pee-wee Herman and Candice Bergen...

The ice cream is there on the desk, a folded-up dishcloth underneath it. The corner of her mouth turns up at Ava's attempt to look after the furniture, now that it’s her own.

Her eyes drift to the photos there; her, nervous at the Ha Ha Club, stolen and now openly displayed; Kiki, Luna, and Blake looking cooler than cool by the pool in their matching sunglasses; and Ava’s parents and her, circa high school, red hair monstrous and acne prominent.

(“To remind me of how very, very, very far I’ve come.”

“I mean…I love you, but this one does not spark joy.”)

She chuckles to herself, the joke still funny to her.

The Deborah on screen says goodnight to stilted applause, and Sajak bundles over to thank her, just as awkward in the late night spot as he always would be.

She could've done so much better than him.

Stupid fool, she thinks.

It deserves no further thought when there's a scarred bare foot protruding from the end of the couch. It has her tightening Ava’s blanket around --

Suddenly something shuffles on the couch.

Deborah freezes, temporarily caught out until she comprehends the smacking of lips and short exhale of breath, alongside Ava's well-known snore:

Barry.

Deborah rounds the couch and finds him and Cara tucked up beside a sleeping Ava. Her white tank top has ridden up against his weight at her hip, while Cara rests her head along Ava's ribcage. There's a protective arm over the two of them.

Something bursts forth inside Deborah's chest. Something that makes her eyes water. Something that eases the hurt from the day. She suspects that it is love, resituating itself inside her heart, inside her bones. Fighting to fill the parts of her that had emptied in Emily's room. The parts that were rarely even acknowledged.

This is her little later in life family, and she loves them ferociously.

She blinks the moisture away and watches as Barry's eyes open, tricked into thinking the new-old Deborah on tv -- nineties hair and waxing rhapsodic about Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water -- is real. He spots her instead, on his way to disturbing --

Deborah rushes forward to pat him on the head, his body jostling Ava’s arm, excitement tempered by her direct attention.

"Ava might let you on her couch down here," she whispers, "but don't get any ideas, Mister."

He tilts his head at her, seemingly understanding.

Deborah smiles. "Good boy. Stay there now, hmm? Good boy."

He settles back on Ava's hip, and she keeps patting him carefully, bent over the couch in a position she knows is going to hurt eventually.

Ava is snoring, her chest rising and falling the way Deborah has memorized it.

(5:00am every day, alarm clock beeping, Ava either dead to the world or racing back toward the land of nod.

Fifteen minutes to marvel.

A kiss to her forehead sometimes. A touch along her arm. A caress over her shoulder.

Window shutters closed for another two hours.

All done without acknowledgment.

All done in the name of --

Done, to express a feeling.

To convey it to the world.)

(“I’m done hurting you.”)

She’d meant it with her whole heart at the time.

But she’s turned it into a lie.

Her hand stills against Barry's head, an inch from Ava's, the girl a million miles away.

She should wake her.

She should wake her and tell her how the wispy girl gets in the way sometimes. Tell her how she's affected every decision Deborah has ever made. Been the reason for every fiery jab, every utterance in hate, anger, and indifference. How the girl has created this tension between them now, because Deborah's walls were built to protect that girl, not just keeping the bad out but the good as well.

She knows that scared girl saw something forlorn, something equally bereft in Ava, in her own poster-covered, baby blue tomb. Perhaps even before then.

Deborah eases her hand from Barry, watching carefully as he breathes, on his way back to --

Duraflame. Light them up and enjoy. I know I will.

Christ.

She grabs the remote by Ava's side and presses the mute button.

Then there is simply a short breath ‐- Barry's -- a higher-pitched, nasally one -- Cara's -- and Ava's distinctive, raspy snore in the otherwise silent room.

She bends to leave the remote on the mahogany rug beneath her feet, and pulls the blue from around her shoulders. Slowly settles the material over Ava's feet and legs, hips, and chest, avoiding Barry and Cara's faces, tucking the blue around their bodies and the warm arm over them.

It's not until she feels a burning in her chest that she realizes she's holding her breath.

Ava does not stir.

She's still, and safe, and Deborah cannot wake her.

(Short. Nasal. Raspy.)

All she can do is drop softly to the floor beside Ava's knees. Stretch out her legs and lean there against the solidity of the couch. Be as close as she can to this sleeping, infinitely beautiful, and essential woman she loves.

All she has is this.

("Why did I do that? What kind of psycho insults the woman she…"

Deborah lets the sentence go, ashamed of her words but too full of pride to look away from the composed face of this woman, who has caught her implication.

"Ms. Vance...Deborah." The psychiatrist leans forward and sets her iPad and stylus down on the coffee table between them, taking a moment to clasp her hands together, elbows on knees. "This is a safe space for you. You're allowed to say what you wish to say. Right now it seems as if simply verbalizing your feelings will do you a world of good. So let's get back to them…")

(“I think we’re done. I’ll see if I can shake off this anxiety you’ve heaped on me because you can’t deal with your feelings like a fucking adult.”)

She can be an...

She can do this.

She can verbalize it, even if Ava isn't awake to hear it.

(Short. Nasal. Raspy.)

"I love you."

Quietly spoken.

The truth.

A beginning.

She will have to keep her voice down if she’s going to do this. Whisper soft.

"I looked at my Wikipedia page the other day."

(Short. Nasal. Raspy.)

"Those little Debby's of mine are a dedicated bunch. There are all kinds of details there. Thorough. Things I'd totally forgotten about--things I've said and done. You probably could've skimmed it on your Spirit fucking Airlines flight and found enough to wow me with."

There's a new Deborah on screen now, shag haircut, pointing purposefully into the crowd, wildly affronted by a heckler.

Maybe early '78.

She can feel the bitterness seeping from her younger self; see the resentment in her face. It's directed at the heckler, and at the room, but it's also at the world, at Frank and Kathy for doing this to her.

(Short. Nasal. Raspy.)

"The early life section is pretty succinct, though. A bit of mystery there. Nearly came unstuck during my divorce when Frank hired a private investigator to find something, anything that would back up his…”

Deborah drops her chin and looks at the rug. She's still talking around it. Using Frank as a shield.

(Short. Nasal. Raspy.)

"Emily uses the word internalize a lot when it comes to me, which is pretty stupid because I'm a comedian and talk all the time…"

Stop bullshitting.

Stop deflecting.

Just stop.

Deborah crosses her legs at the ankle, cold skin on skin racing a shiver up her spine. She rolls her shoulders inward in response, slipping her hands into the gap between her thighs, missing the blanket now.

"It says Vance has been reluctant to provide details of her childhood. The first concrete proof of me existing is my attendance under my maiden name at Bertlans Junior High in Lincoln, Nebraska."

(Short. Nasal.)

"I don't know if it's the fact that it was the sixties and the clowns that invented the internet weren't born yet or if having my surname changed from Brandt to Elliot right after...right after my parents died meant no one has found out more."

Shaggy-haired Deborah is bowing to the crowd in mockery, and...yep, there's the middle finger to the heckler.

Ira and his buddies never did anything about the hecklers.

She thinks she might’ve snorted a line or two that night, with DJ asleep across the room.

(Short. Nasal.)

"We lived at Moss Beach, just a little down from San Fran. Lovely coastline there. My Daddy repaired boats...loved the water. Kathy wasn’t a fan, neither was my mother really, but I loved being with him, out in the dinghy. We went fishing every weekend down at the Pier. A lot of the time we'd see a Cessna come across the bay towards the airport. I'd stand up in the dinghy, nearly lose my fishing rod and my balance, I was so excited. Watch it as far as I could. I think if…"

Yes. She would've. She absolutely would've.

"I probably would've looked into becoming a commercial pilot, if things had turned out differently."

(Short. Nasal.)

"There's a lot of fog in Moss and the surrounding area when it's cold. I remember Dad was working long hours with his co-workers trying to get this man's yacht fixed. He was a hard worker--dedicated to doing a good job. I think that's why Mr. Lewis called him. Knew he wouldn't say no to weekend overtime."

There's moisture prickling in the corners of her eyes again, and a slow tightening in the back of her throat. She draws her legs up and wraps her arms around them, comforting herself against a well-known and painful truth.

(Short. Nasal.)

"I remember being annoyed with him for deciding to work. More planes flew in on Saturday than on Sunday, and I didn't want to miss them. Didn't want to go shopping with Mom and Kathy and then be bored at home. But he knew me. Knew I was a sensible kid. Knew if things were explained to me that I'd understand. There were bellies to fill and bills to pay."

She lifts a hand to her face and brushes at her eyes. Sniffles a bit, swallowing hard.

"We'll go fishing on Sunday, he told me. And then he said what he always used to say when he made a promise: Cross my heart and hope to choke, catch a crab or come up broke."

Deborah chuckles, surprising herself as the memory of him holding one brightens in her mind.

(Short. Nasal.)

"I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and one to Mommy too, no longer upset."

Deborah sniffles again, roughly wiping at her nose, making sure to avoid her pajama sleeve.

"A blessing, I suppose, in all that…"

Horror.

Grief.

Upheaval.

"I woke up in the night for some reason. Needed to pee, I guess. The lights downstairs were on. I snuck down a bit, just enough to see into the living room. Mom and Dad were asleep under the blanket--"

Deborah stops, listening to the room's sounds.

Something is--

The blanket.

Short.

Nasal.

Nothing.

Nothing--

Deborah snaps her head to the left, finding Ava regarding her, tired eyes widening, now that--

"H-how much did you hear?" Deborah stutters loudly, wiping at her face, getting up, to get some distance--

But Ava is moving as well, the dogs whining their displeasure as she gets up, a tangle of arms and legs and blanket, much too fast--

Then she's falling, Deborah reaching for her--

A nose smacks into her collarbone, a pained cry sounding as Deborah winces, hands fumbling to lift, to straighten--

"Av--Jesus, are you okay? Let me s..."

Her voice dies as Ava's face comes into view. Her eyes are watering, and there’s blood already leaking from her--

"Owwwww, ow, I just got that fixed man, fuck!"

Deborah's heart races, mind falling back seven months, to the red in the blue and--

Hazel.

There’s hazel now and Deborah realizes it's Ava's eyes, the girl seeing something cross her face--

A large hand is suddenly there smudging the red, and she’s saying, "It's just a bloody nose, D. Hurts like a motherfucker, but nothing like...that was beyond. I’ll be okay, this isn’t--”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Ava, I keep hurting you." Her eyes flood with tears as she reaches up to pinch her sleeve to the--

"Not your 'jamas--" Ava starts, but it's too late, because the blood is on the fabric already, just as it was on her sleeve when Ava's thumb bone had broken through her beautiful skin, and Deborah hates that memory and hates dreaming of it and hates talking about it and she--

“Hey,” --Ava draws closer, caressing Deborah’s cheek with her pinkie and ring finger-- “right now you’re reminding me of my mother and that is one thousand percent more Freudian than I ever want us to be.”

Ava offers her a grin at the end of it, and it's ridiculous how much Deborah loves that expression. She lets out a watery laugh, allowing herself to calm down a little. “Fucking Sigmund,” she exhales, and Ava does her best to wipe at her cheeks.

Then she’s kicking her way out of the blanket. Moving from Deborah's arms and leaning back over the couch, ignoring the dogs, and reaching for the dishcloth.

And Deborah can see that she's hurt, holding that ice-cream-stained material to her upper lip, but she's still coming back to stand in Deborah's presence, to be close, to be comforted, despite Deborah's misdirected anger towards her and her callous brushoff tonight.

And Deborah decides, right then:

No more.

"Ava, I'm sorry--for saying the wrong thing, for not saying enough…"

The redhead pauses and looks up from dabbing at her nose, eyes softening, that eyebrow furrow of hers slipping away.

There’s a red mark starting to form across the bridge of her nose.

It'll bruise for sure.

Deborah needs to--

“Can you taste any blood?” she asks, wiping at her eyes. “Any dizziness? What was the other thing Bob said?”

Ava snickers, “Well, not to call him Bob, for starters—although you do call your shrink by her first name so I think you might have boundary issues with people with PhDs.”

“And definitely with my comedy writer who loves P and D's.”

Ava nods in approval, wincing at the movement. "Clever."

“Hey, how ‘bout you sit down? Bob’s orders.”

Ava rolls her eyes, but does as she's told, barely avoiding Barry and Cara, who are already trying to clamber their way onto her lap to inspect what she's doing.

"Okay you two," -- Deborah reaches for Cara -- "that's enough couch time for today," -- setting her down on the floor, before doing the same with Barry. "Off you go."

They give her a look, brief, before padding off.

"You'll be in the doghouse now," Ava says quietly.

Deborah reaches for the blanket, flicking it out. "Lean forward, honey," she coaxes, dragging the blue around Ava as the girl acquiesces. She makes sure it's tucked right around her before getting down on her knees to face her. "I’m already in it."

Ava looks at her through her lashes, tilting her head to the side. Deborah lifts her right hand to brush at the moisture that's made its way to Ava's cheek. There's still a bit of sleep grit in the corner of her eyes.

"Yes, you were." Hazel eyes darken. Deborah drops her hand. "I've seen better communication skills from Luna's new friend Jess who meows at people."

"Wait, Jess girl, or Jess boy? Because one'll grow up to be a cat lady and the other will be the next Zuckerberg."

The dishcloth is in the way but she can tell by Ava's eyes that she's trying not to smile.

"Irrelevant info, Deborah. And thus kind of proving my point." She reaches a hand out from the blue to take Deborah's. "Just be kinder to me," she says quietly. "Wake me when you want to talk. I don't want it to be like it was before..."

The accident.

Deborah never wants to go back to that.

Not ever.

She watches as Ava’s attention shifts to the red stain. "You need to soak this."

"I've got six more pairs," Deborah counters. "Much more important things to fix," she adds while squeezing Ava's hand.

The redhead sighs, pulling the cloth away from her nose, trying to assess the damage. "God, I would've never heard the end of it from Perla if I'd broken it a second time. You break nose again, darling? Chin need fix Miss Ava, not nose. Ugh.”

“She said that?”

“I would nod, but I’m kind of bleeding out of an orifice I shouldn’t be bleeding out of.”

Deborah hums softly. "You sure it's not broken?"

“Yeah. My optimism about it actually matches the facts, unlike Perla’s life and her perception of it.”

She smiles at the zinger.

You’re my funny lady, she thinks.

Ava’s nostril is still dribbling red though, so she gestures for her to lift the dishcloth again. “Pinch it now.”

Ava does. "I always knew you had killer collarbones.” There’s a moment of quiet, before she continues, “Thanks for saving me again. Not quite as momentous as the pool, but at least my diva cup didn’t come flying out this time.”

Deborah snorts. "I thought you twenty-five year old’s were supposed to have good pelvic floor muscles."

It's Ava's turn to snort, hissing a little in pain. "Don't make me laugh when I'm injured."

Deborah squeezes her hand. "Sorry."

The moment settles. Deepens.

Ava half yawns and Deborah remembers it's late.

No, too early now.

She knows she has to say it.

She draws her other hand up and sets it just above Ava's knee.

Hazel eyes find and hold her gaze.

"I'm used to…" Deborah pauses, thinking about the words she needs. "I'm used to being alone. There was Marty and a few others along the way, but no one…"

She exhales.

Ava squeezes her hand, encouraging her.

"No one like you. No one that really understood me. No one to consider, in terms of partnership."

Deborah looks down at Ava's hand, remembering the bandage that had splinted those fingers together.

Those injuries.

That night in the hospital -- not knowing if it was late or early either -- when the wispy girl had broken wide open against Ava's damaged chest.

"Deb," Ava says her name softly, like it’s a prayer.

She lifts her eyes to find the girl looking at her with tired eyes. But there's a willingness there, to know where she's coming from. The dishcloth is drawn away. Deborah can see her properly.

"I fall back into self-reliance mode when I'm hurting, because it's all I've known for forty years. I'm used to burying it, instead of hashing it out with Emily. She says I've internalized a lot of my guilt about DJ, and what happened when I was younger with my parents and... afterward."

Ava is listening intently, distracted from her nose. Deborah slips her hand from hers, reaching for the cloth with both hands, and searches for a fresh spot. Lifts it to her love's nostrils and holds it there.

Deborah can see that furrow return to Ava's brow, betraying her worry.

But she's in it now.

She has to continue.

Her eyes stay on the task at hand.

"I set up shop in Vegas for a residency, but it was also for the climate. It's hot all the time. Doesn't have much poor weather. No wind patterns and ocean currents to…" She pauses and chuckles. "I should totally hit up the KTNV studio and be a weather girl for--"

"Deborah."

Ava's voice is patient but concerned, and when she looks up into her eyes she can see that willingness to listen, but there's also a desire to keep her on track. Ava knows she needs to do this.

For herself, as well as the relationship between them.

"Sorry. That was Vance deflection 101: Make it funny."

Ava reaches out to hold her elbow, her hand warm. Deborah's mouth turns up as she drops her eyes again, fiddling with the cloth.

"It's rare to have fog here. It happens on occasion, but nothing like…"

"Moss Beach?"

Deborah nods. Ava heard that bit, then. "Yeah. Nothing like the coastline there."

She fiddles some more, pulling the material down to see how Ava's nose is faring. The skin underneath is a little stained, but the blood is mostly coagulating in Ava's nostrils.

The bruise has come up.

"How's the nose feel?"

Ava sighs. "Vance deflection 102: worry about others before tending to yourself."

"No--that's just my maternal instincts kicking in."

Ava laughs. "Still too Freudian, D."

Deborah hums in agreement, dropping her head.

Verbalize it, Emily's voice in her mind says.

She doesn't look up from Ava's lap. "My parents only had one car--a '57 Ford Fairlane. It was cream and light blue." She blinks back her tears, knowing she needs to say the rest of it. "My mother always did the food shopping on Saturday morning before Daddy and I went fishing. Better meat at the butcher on Saturday morning. They left early so Mommy could be back before Kathy and I woke. But…"

She feels a tear slip down her cheek.

"My father was most likely driving too fast in the fog. No, not most likely. He was. He took a corner too fast on Sunshine Valley Road and hit a tree." Deborah tsks abruptly. "The irony of dying on a road called Sunshine fucking Valley."

Her mind flashes back to the wispy girl being woken by Mrs. Johnson, their neighbor whom Mommy and Daddy trusted with a key. Whose eyes were red behind her glasses. Who'd sat them down in the living room among the strange men in uniform, with Doctor Johnson there as well.

(He'd patched her up a year before when she'd broken her wrist falling from her bike--)

Kathy's smaller hand in hers.

Then the screaming--

Something touches her face and she flinches from it, the world racing back to her as she looks, Ava's hand the culprit, her stained skin, her bruise, her wet eyes--

"It's me, Deb, it's just me."

And Deborah's heart aches, because there has never been anything just about Ava Daniels. Not ever.

She's turned Deborah's whole world upside down.

No.

Turned her life the right way up.

Surely she knows this. Surely she--

"I crashed my car," Ava suddenly says, voice straining with the truth. "And you had to relive that."

And then there are tears falling from hazel eyes and a painful sob escaping Ava, and Deborah can't think of anything other than dragging this wonderful woman forward into her arms, feeling the weight of her drop onto her lap as she holds on for life.

"Don't you think that, okay? It was me. It was me who caused you to do that, because I couldn't tell you I loved you, that I was f-falling so quickly it scared…"

She's crying, feeling it overwhelm her, the blue of the blanket blurring, always a reminder, always a sign of her shortcomings, of how she couldn't--

But she has to.

She has to...

She draws herself back. Hazel eyes look into hers, watery, weighed down by a guilt that doesn’t belong to them.

"I love you. Even when I'm angry--or in a mood, and pushing you away so I can lick my wounds." She sniffles. Leans up to caress the tip of Ava’s nose with hers, brief, as soft as she can. "You're inside of m-me now. You wormed your way in and I am better for it. I will always be better for it."

She swallows against the tightness of her throat and sniffles again. Slips back a little to regard this wonderful woman, fingers reaching to brush those tears away.

“My beautiful fire hydrant.”

Ava snorts, then winces, laughing anyway, because it’s a joke that always hits. She drops forward, and Deborah kisses the space between her eyes, once, twice, and once more.

Breathes her in.

"I am profoundly yours."

Four whispered words, encompassing it all.

Ava looks at her, watery eyes searching for clarity.

Deborah does not shy away.

Nor does the small, wispy girl of 1962.

She’s laid bare.

Deborah knows Ava sees her.

Then Ava’s lips are grazing hers, soft, barely there before she pulls back.

"That okay?" Ava whispers, a breath between them.

Deborah sighs. "Don't pull away. I've done enough of that toni--"

Ava kisses her purposefully, and Deborah sinks into it, hands reaching up into her hair, along her neck, anything of her she can wholly touch.

There's a weight on Deborah's chest that is lifting, that is feeling lighter as Ava opens her mouth, her tongue sliding along Deborah's, her teeth gnawing gently at her lips.

A hand snakes between them, slipping over zebras to press in, to squeeze her breast, and Deborah moans.

She needs this. Needs to make up for the emotional distress she's caused, love Ava the way she deserves to be loved.

Openly and honestly and earnestly.

Deborah's hand drops from the back of Ava's neck and catches on thick material. She grabs the blanket and pulls it down, feeling it tug on square shoulders briefly before the blue gives way.

There'll be no more passive comfort offered tonight.

Deborah's mouth eases down over the curve of a chin as her hands seek to mirror Ava's actions. She brushes her hand over the swell of Ava's chest and chuckles as Ava inhales sharply.

"You drive me wild," Ava murmurs, and Deborah smiles, teeth dragging against the soft skin of Ava's neck.

There's a hand in her hair, scratching her scalp, fingers nimble, the sensation warming through her body to the center of her.

She wants this.

Wants Ava's skin on hers--

The hand in her hair stills.

Ava stills in her lap, and Deborah draws back to look, confused--

Ava's attention is on the tv screen behind her.

Frozen, breath held, eyes...

Mesmerized comes to mind as Deborah's own ones widen at the sight.

She is utterly transfixed, the quick upturn of her lip signaling a punchline, the crinkling of that bruised nose an indication that the joke is worth her pain.

And Deborah knows.

Knows it's the unaired pilot, with her in that flowy pink dress, naivety about to be stomped right out of her in the coming weeks.

Her heart about to be ripped clean from her chest.

The scared, wispy girl had shattered then too.

"Deborah."

She blinks, and she's back in the room, Ava in her lap, peering down at her with eyes that have not changed.

That are still full of wonder.

For her, now.

It's unnerving and beautiful all at once.

"Why do you watch them?" she asks softly.

The corner of Ava’s mouth slowly turns up.

"Because they're you. Different parts. Different jokes. Different hairstyles." Ava smiles fully for a brief moment before the levity dissipates. "They help me remember you're you. Especially when you're getting in your own way. When the walls go up and there's less of you to see."

Her chest aches at the sincerity, reasoning laid out like a blanket providing warmth.

"I should've woken you," Deborah states emphatically.

"Yes." Ava reaches a hand up to her nose and presses at it, wincing. "Could've saved me from the horrifying realization that I'm not as far away from Perla as I think I am."

"It really is a terrifying fact," Deborah quips, smiling.

Ava hums her agreement. "Least it stopped bleeding. Bloodplay might be a step too far for us."

"I'm sorry, bloodplay? That's a thing?"

"Everything's a thing, D. Rule 34. No, hang on...Rule 36."

"My google history hasn't been the same since I met you."

Ava smiles. Kisses her softly. "I have an iNote dedicated for things you say," --Ava kisses her again-- "that I google when I'm alone." Again, for good measure. "Alan Alda was kinda cute back in the day."

"He really, really was." Deborah leans in this time, sucking lightly at Ava's bottom lip. "What about me? Was I pretty back in my heyday?"

Ava's eyes lift towards the tv. She chuckles unexpectedly. There's a humorous light in her eyes. "You were alright, I suppose. Certainly no Farrah."

Deborah huffs out a laugh. "No one was. I auditioned for Charlie's too."

Ava's eyes snap back down to her. "You did not."

"I did. Tanya Roberts got it instead. They said I was, and I quote, bad publicity in a blonde nutshell."

Ava is horrified. "Those motherfuckers."

"The show was tanking by that stage anyway. I was more pissed off about having to sign an NDA, to be honest. I was still trying to get back on my feet after…" Deborah exhales, changing the subject. "I thought about doing a bit about it for my show, but I knew ABC would've sued me into the ground. I had DJ to take care of."

Ava says softly, "You never told me."

Deborah shrugs. "It was two weeks somewhere in 1980. I was coked up for most of it. Not a lot was getting through the haze."

All of a sudden Ava looks heartbroken, like the world has fallen out from her feet. "I would've...I would've helped you through that."

Deborah knows this. Has known it since the wellness center, when Ava had been ready to desecrate Frank's grave in her honor. "I know you would've. Time works in mysterious ways."

"I love you." Ava drops her head, nose brushing Deborah's.

"I love you too." Deborah leans up to peck her lips. "You need to clean that nose of yours. The more I look at it, the less attracted to you I am."

Ava looks down and around, searching for--

Deborah watches as she grabs the dishcloth, poking the material up one nostril, and then the other, leaving it hanging from inside her nose.

"How about now?" Ava says, her voice affected by the blockage. "More attracted to me?"

And Deborah can't help it:

She cackles, long and hard.

This woman...

This woman has eased the darkness in her, covered it with joy and love.

With laughter.

Their own secret little language.

Deborah owes her.

She will never stop owing her.

("One day I'm going to wear you down, and we are going to have the most gloriously romantic sex we've ever had, like we're in some Nicholas Sparks Duraflame advert. Just you wait.")

Of course.

Ava's request.

It's not like she has to waste time building up the fire.

One button. Instantaneous.

And, Jesus, she has fucking Marty to thank for it...

("Yeah, they can refit it into any standing fireplace, I know Bernadita has the guys number…")

Jesus fucking--

"Alright, spill," Ava suddenly says, eyes narrowed.

Deborah will tell her, but not with...

She reaches up for the dishcloth, "May I?"

Ava nods, and Deborah slowly removes the material from the redhead's nostrils.

The coagulated blood comes away with it, Ava's nose still bruised, but no longer a complete disaster.

No longer a reminder of one of their worst moments.

"It has to be our bedroom one. Josefina will be here in," --Deborah reaches for Ava's left arm, turning her father’s watch to read the time-- "an hour and a half, and I'd rather not have you traumatize her again."

"Actually, she complimented me the next day and said my arms were coming along nicely."

Deborah breathes out a huff. "Just because she decided to make you feel good about yourself doesn't mean you should be making trips to the kitchen naked."

"It was a Sunday, and I had your silk camisole on."

"It's the nothing else that was the problem, Ava."

The girl shrugs. "Alright, alright. Point made. What were you on about before your wonderfully forgiving house manager who deserves a hefty bonus was mentioned?"

Deborah rolls her eyes, but says, "Sex with me in front of the fire, since those Duraflame ads have rotted your--"

Ava kisses her soundly, the sentence dying as her lips are devoured.

It lasts only a few seconds before Ava is up out of her lap, slipping the blanket over her shoulders once again and holding a hand down to her.

"Come on, my funny lady." Ava snorts at her own joke and winces again.

Deborah lets herself be lifted up, biting her lip to hold in a laugh.

"Don't think I don't see that," Ava tells her, hazel eyes bright.

Deborah squeezes her hand. "Take me upstairs before I change my mind."

---

The blanket is slipped over her shoulder as Ava pulls her close, Deborah grabbing the edge of it as she snakes her other arm around Ava's waist.

The house is quiet, their soft footsteps the only sound as they make their way down halls and through this magnificent place.

It adds depth to the anticipation.

Deborah's heartbeat drums along at a quickened pace, her mind falling through a kaleidoscope of memories of her and Ava together in a state of bliss.

The ways in which Ava makes her come undone is…

Well, it's ludicrous.

And yet her body is responding already to the memory of Ava's skin, to her bruising kisses, to those glorious hands of hers.

Deborah can feel her pajama top catching against her nipples, a delicious sensation she needs more of.

They're at the stairs now, climbing together towards the second floor.

Deborah picks up the pace, Ava matching her after a second, a smirk appearing. She doesn't say anything, even though Deborah can see it on the tip of her tongue.

"I swear if you quote Austin Powers to me again..." Deborah starts, hoping the message is clear.

Ava simply grins.

Deborah feels it warm her insides.

There's a wetness between her legs already.

She takes the stairs quicker, eliciting a laugh from Ava, who hurries to catch up anyway.

"This house is ridiculous," Deborah tells her.

"You're the one who bought it," Ava counters.

"That was before I had a girlfriend who knew how to operate her gigantic hands."

Ava huffs. "My initial thought when I drove up that first day was that a wealth tax needs to exist, so I guess my morals and your very clear arousal have found common ground."

Deborah laughs quickly, drawing closer to Ava's side. "I was unaware you millennials had any."

Ava tsks. "Well, all I know since I'm Gen Z is that my age bracket have to contend with carrying not only our own moral compass but also the Boomer generations one too, since they decided their retirement funds were more important than the state of the world today."

Deborah smiles. Makes sure she's looking directly into Ava's eyes when she says, "Huh. My vagina can dry up that quickly."

Ava reddens, and Deborah laughs.

"There's my favorite--"

"--Fire hydrant, yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. You'll be screaming my name soon enough."

"We shall see."

The rest of their trek is silent. Deborah slips from Ava and takes the blanket with her as she heads directly for the fireplace.

One press of the remote on the mantel and the flames spring up.

"What a bunch of cheaters you all are," Ava says from her side of the bed.

Deborah watches her grab two of the smaller square pillows, and says, "Would you prefer I start an actual fire?" She chuckles. "I'm quite well known for that."

Ava pulls a face that is not unkind, but it's clear it still bothers her, now that she's aware of the truth.

("If I ever retire," Deborah starts, taking a sip of her scotch. "Do a last show, whatever…I'll tell the audience then." She holds up a fisted hand, pretending there's a microphone in it. "So, for the last forty-five years, I've been lying to you all. Let me tell you three things. One of them is true. Two are not. I'm straight...I burnt down my ex-husband's house...and I'm Caucasian! Goodnight everybody, I'm still Deborah Vance!"

Ava laughs beside her on the living room couch, a little tipsy, but happy. "Needs work, but we've got time. Well, I mean, I do. You're positively Jurassic at this point."

Deborah raises her glass to the air. "That was good.")

"You need lube for that dry pussy of yours?"

Deborah throws the blanket on the couch. "Just come help me with this."

Ava dumps the pillows there and they both bend to shift the coffee table out of the way.

And then Ava is there, waiting for Deborah's next move.

She slips her arms slowly around the woman, their foreheads meeting softly.

"Your nose okay?"

"Yeah. What about you? You kind of...offloaded a lot tonight."

Deborah feels...

Lighter.

Less…

Blocked.

"I'm okay." She closes her eyes, centering herself. "Just make me feel good."

"That I can do."

Ava kisses her gently, so soft Deborah's not even sure--

No, there she is, her lips a little closer now, Ava kissing her top one.

Deborah leans in, connecting them better, opening her mouth and letting her tongue out just enough, just so the tip connects with Ava's bottom lip.

She feels Ava smile, then her mouth is opening, Deborah delighted as Ava licks at her lips, tongues soft as they explore.

Ava's hand has slid under her pajama top, those deft fingers of hers tracing an aimless path across her lower back, drawing a shiver from her. Her other hand squeezes her hip, and Deborah sighs into their kiss.

She can feel the fire warming up her right side. Imagines Ava above her on the floor, their bodies moving together, the flame flickering in her eyes--

Ava's tongue slips past hers into her mouth, and Deborah moans in response.

What a deviously good idea this was.

Ava is smiling again, tittering with laughter in the spaces between.

"What's so funny?" Deborah asks in amongst their kisses.

"Just love you," Ava gets out.

The moment sweetens for Deborah.

She tightens her hold on Ava's body, drawing herself in, reaching for the end of Ava's white tank top, sliding her fingers underneath, warm skin there.

A soft exhale escapes Ava, her tongue rolling into Deborah's mouth, enticing.

The night's been leading here since Ava kissed her.

From the moment of her four-word declaration, her parental grief still lingering at surface level.

She cannot think of that now.

Their deaths are a fixed moment in her life, unable to be changed, or altered in any way.

Her love for Ava is just as unyielding.

A balm to that wound.

A flower blossoming in the dirt.

Just as sure as the fact they have too much clothing on.

No more thinking, she tells herself.

Deborah grips at the sides of Ava's top and pulls it up, Ava breaking from her just long enough for it to be removed, the material slipping from her hands as Ava surges back in, mouth searching for hers.

There's enough space between them now for Ava to be popping her buttons, Deborah concentrating on feeling skin, feeling warmth, feeling for Ava's bra strap. She unhooks it just as her pajama top is opened and dragged from her shoulders.

Ava shifts back and lets her garment fall as Deborah does the same to her zebras.

The pure want in hazel eyes as she looks down at Deborah's chest sends an ache of desire right through Deborah to the apex of her legs. Makes her reach forward and palm Ava's right breast, drawing a moan from the young woman.

"Do that again," Ava says, and Deborah greatens the pressure, feeling the nipple perk.

She wants to--

She will.

She pulls Ava close and latches her lips around the other nipple, Ava hissing with delight, as she continues palming the other one, slipping sideways so her thumb can, so her thumb--

"Fuck," Ava moans out.

There are fingers sliding into her hair, encouraging her as she rolls Ava's delicate bud around her tongue, sucking on it intermittently, grazing the other one left to right, round and round, and it's so delicious, so very delicious--

Deborah slips her other arm down and around to Ava's ass, squeezing her through her tracksuit pants.

Hips cant toward her and Deborah grins, pulling her lips away, standing to--

The redhead kisses her quickly, fire on her tongue. Pulls her hair gently as the kiss deepens, as the top halves of their bodies meld together.

The ache is beginning to thrum inside of her.

There's a hand on her waist, warm, inviting. Ava's breasts against her own are a goddamn miracle, hitching her breath as Ava's lips steal the rest of the air.

She pulls away from the searing kiss, breathing hard, Ava sucking in air as well.

Draws herself away from Ava's grip, stepping back.

Holds her gaze as she hooks her thumbs in her pajama bottoms. Pulls them down her hips, and lets them fall the rest of the way. Kicks gently, discarding them.

And then she is as naked as the day she was born.

Ava's eyes drop from hers slowly, roaming here and there over her body. Deborah sees her desire, sees the way her lips part, how blown open her pupils are.

That fire light there.

"Eighth wonder of the world," Ava whispers.

Deborah feels water gather in the corner of her eyes.

Sees the moment Ava realizes she's said it out loud. "Well, that's...the truth."

Deborah's mouth is suddenly dry. "Yeah?"

"Of course. You think the Taj Mahal could be this sexy? Pff."

Her heart skips a beat, because of course.

This smooth-talking worm of a woman.

She runs her thumb along the pad of her index finger.

"Take those pants off."

Ava grins that stupid grin of hers and practically falls over getting them off.

Then she's naked.

Deborah's seen her body changing slowly under the regiment of regular exercise these past four months, muscles steadily defining, the softness still there, but her strength starting to show.

It hurts in a muted way, the realization she'd had that her own body would never return to something of the same caliber.

At least she knows she can partake in loving that body before her.

"Like what you see?" Ava teases.

Deborah nods. "Come here."

Ava does so, seeking out Deborah's lips immediately, their arms lacing their bodies together.

Ava's lips kiss down her chin, down her neck, and she arches backward to give her access, hands finding their way into Ava’s hair and locking in.

Guiding her downwards.

Ava leaves a wet trail where she kisses, licks, nips.

Deborah moans deeply when that mouth seizes her left nipple, teeth tugging, tongue soothing. Ava’s hands roam her back as she teases that bud, as she switches to take care of the other one.

Then there are hands slipping down over her buttocks, lifting her legs up, Ava taking her weight, Deborah momentarily shocked before she loops them around that flourishing body.

"You sure you're not doing secret leg presses when I'm not here?"

Ava chuckles and shakes her head, kissing her soundly. She eases them down to the plush rug underneath their feet.

"Wait, you need a--"

Ava sits back on her knees, reaching for the bed pillows. She leans in, tucking them underneath her head.

"Too high, Av, just one," Deborah tells her, and the redhead amends the situation.

They both breathe in as Ava settles her body along Deborah's, arms bent, fingers brushing along her temple.

Deborah holds her gaze as she spreads her legs open, pitching them up.

The rug is soft against her feet.

Ava smiles that wicked smile of hers.

"You haven't got the cream yet, darling."

Ava hums, "They can see your wetness from space."

"I think NASA has bigger concerns than the state of my pussy."

Ava chuckles as she kisses Deborah's cheek. "Yes--but those pesky Russians love a good fish dish."

Deborah smirks. "I thought you said this would be romantic."

Ava kisses her chin and deliberately rolls her hips forward.

Deborah lets out a breathy sigh. "I rescind my comment."

"Good." Ava brushes Deborah's cheek slowly, seeming to revel in the touch.

Dennis Daniels' beloved watch, worn every day by his daughter, glints in the fire.

Deborah reaches up to take that hand, her grip finding the metal. She eases it from Ava's wrist, placing it on the rug beside the pillow, out of harm's way.

"I miss him," Ava states, looking towards it.

Deborah knows all too well how that feeling can run as an undercurrent, or overwhelm.

She's been drowning in it today, and won't let Ava suffer the same.

"Hey."

Ava's attention turns back to her. She sees the second she comes back to the present, taking Deborah in.

"Hi." She drops her head, looking down towards Deborah's chest. "Bit weird talking about him while I'm in between your legs, isn’t it?"

Deborah waits for her to look up, then smiles and nods. "Maybe a little. How 'bout we get this gravy train going…"

Ava snickers. "Speaking of weird, can't say I've ever heard that kind of pillow talk before…"

Deborah reaches up and kisses her, ending the conversation.

And Ava begins to move.

The friction is delicious. Deborah touches any bit of skin she can reach, letting her nails -- long since trimmed, for this very reason -- scratch lightly.

Ava sighs into her mouth, enjoying the move, and Deborah does it again, canting her hips up to meet Ava's.

The redhead breaks from their kiss.

"What would you like tonight--my hand or my mouth?"

Deborah pecks her lips.

"Your strap on."

Ava stills, looking down at her.

("I'm sorry, it's just that if I wanted to be fucked by a phallic object I would've returned Marty's calls. I don't mind wearing it and helping you out when you need it, but…" Deborah exhales a harsh breath, moving to sit up in bed. Looks anywhere but at Ava. "I don't know. Lesbianism in my head is fingers and oral, and God, scissoring if we must."

"Okay," Ava says, laying still on her side.

Deborah looks back at her. "What do you mean okay? Aren't you going to tell me I'm being monosexist, or a crotchety old prude?"

Ava shrugs. Reaches for Deborah's hand, splaying their fingers together. Looks directly at her. "You like what you like. Maybe we try different things. Maybe we don't. I'm happy with anything you wanna offer. Frankly I didn't think I'd ever get anything that wasn't in a dream…"

It takes a moment before Deborah comprehends Ava's words.

"You had a sex dream about me?")

"Deb, did you have one of my edibles? Cos you're spacing out on me a bit, and now you want--"

"God no, my libido is garbage when I'm high. I think Rick Astley gave me up after too many poppers one night. He was young too--probably would've been his first, the square."

"I'm sorry, we've gone from strap ons to you being the first person Rickrolled--am I the one that's baked?"

Ava lifts a hand and waves her fingers in front of her face, checking God knows what.

Deborah cannot believe she's in love with this idiot.

"Are you going to get the strap or are we finished for the night?"

Ava seemingly wakes up, saying right before she manages some weirdly agile spider crawl backward off Deborah, disappearing from sight, the fire Deborah's only company.

"You know," Ava begins, "the missionary you had probably would've been a hell of a lot better for you if they'd changed up the angle." Deborah can hear the tell-tale signs of the box underneath the bed being opened. "It's not rocket science."

"Yes, but that would've meant they had to care if I got off or not," Deborah tells her, rolling her fingers over her nipples. "That was the part that was beyond them. As long as they got their rocks off…"

The sound of Velcro permeates the room.

"Well, you're in luck, because the coital alignment technique is one of my specialties, so get ready to have your world well and truly rocked."

"You just made that up." Deborah smirks to herself, watching the flames as her fingers continue their ministrations.

More Velcro.

"It's on Wikipedia, so clearly I did not."

Deborah stills her hands, and tries not to think of her page, early life section practically empty, devoid of her parents' names.

Ava missed that part.

Stop thinking--

The lights in the room suddenly lower, until the only thing illuminating her is the fire.

Ava appears a few seconds later from around the couch, extra appendage on display, tight on her body.

"Not that we have to do the ol' mish-mish. You can absolutely get on top if--"

"Ava, you have three seconds to shut up or I'm finishing myself off."

"Well, aren't you horny?"

Despite the comment, Ava still sinks to her knees, looking across the expanse of Deborah's body to her face.

Holds eye contact as she bends to kiss Deborah's foot. Traces a gentle finger around the other ankle as she kisses once more. Turns it into a long lick.

Deborah watches her, enthralled. Opens her legs for her.

Ava takes her time, still, lovingly attending to Deborah's legs as she almost always does, well aware of every ticklish spot, every freckle, the way Deborah always lets her linger.

The redhead pecks at the skin beside her knee. Again on the other joint. Fingers delicate as they travel up and down, so featherlight they make Deborah shiver.

Kissing gently, reverently, like she's committing the feeling to memory.

The briefest of kisses is placed on her inner thigh and Deborah arches up for any kind of purchase, Ava practically giggling.

Deborah says her name, the syllables sounding whinier than demanding, more needy than intended.

"Yes, darling?" Ava is full-on smirking.

"Come here."

And Ava does, kissing her on the mouth sharply.

For someone so clumsy, it really is a miracle.

Deborah can feel the strap on between them as Ava drops her weight onto her, lips sucking carefully, Deborah drawing her legs up more.

She hums with appreciation, resuming her finger grazes over Ava’s back.

The kiss deepens, Ava's tongue finding hers.

She scratches a hand down Ava's spine and marvels at the deep moan Ava makes.

The redhead is pivoting her hips, Deborah feeling the--

She wants Ava inside of her.

She bites at the girl's lip, drawing back.

"You better show me that technique before I combust."

The glint in Ava's eye holds true as she slips a hand between them.

She feels Ava enter her, breathing in graciously as the firmness fills her.

"Now..." Ava shifts her body up slightly, shoulders aligned with Deborah's eyes, and Deborah feels it change, and God, feels it at her clit and right there. "Let me work my magic."

Ava rocks her hips downwards and Deborah moans.

Lets the world shrink until it's just them, warmed by the fire, Ava's face half in light, half in shadow.

This is romantic, she muses.

She has space to reach for Ava's tits. Moulds them in her fingers, Ava breathing heavier, her glorious hips working into a steady rhythm.

Deborah lifts into her, feeling wonderful.

"You're very talented at this," she whispers, making Ava smile.

They kiss.

The pleasure builds slowly, Deborah murmuring and moaning her pleasure, communicating her need to Ava to go that little bit faster, pivot just a little bit more.

Seal this love between them.

"I love you," she gets out among burning kisses, hotter than any fire she could ever build or press a button for.

Ava mumbles out you too, concentrating on grinding her hips.

Deborah's started to sweat. Can feel the dampness of Ava's back too, as she caresses, kneads, slips her fingers along skin. Her other hand pinches at Ava's nipple, and Ava breathes in sharply.

"Again," Ava stutters, crying out when Deborah repeats the move.

"Fuck."

The expletive falls from her mouth as Ava looks down, content to watch her, still angling those hips right.

The bruise has darkened across her nose, looking sinister now in the low light.

It will not need surgery.

It will not be permanent.

Not like the scars that mar her body.

Deborah pulls her left hand back, searching for Ava's right, waiting for Ava to get the message, not caring that Ava sinking against her means the shaft's angle changes.

"What's wrong?" Ava stops her movements, letting Deborah slip her fingers into the gaps of hers--

("I saw the bone.” She sets the tip of her index finger against the splint, where Ava’s thumb joins her hand. “Right here.")

Her breath hitches.

Nearly lost, before--

Deborah pulls that scar to her mouth and kisses it, holding it there as her vision blurs.

"Oh, D…"

"I'm just…" She blinks her tears away, swallowing against the rush of emotion. "In my head. It's been a hell of a night." She kisses that hand again.

Ava bends and sets a sweet, lingering kiss on the bridge of her nose. "Let's stop--we'll get some rest and--"

"No, no, I'm--just keep loving me. Keep going."

Ava looks unsure.

"Kiss me, and go from there."

And Ava…

She can see Ava knows it's the right thing for them, at this moment.

"Tell me and I'll stop, okay?" It's whispered, but sincere.

Deborah nods.

Waits quietly as Ava kisses her cheeks, closing her eyes as lips reach them.

Taking away her tears.

Renewing her again.

Soft.

So soft she's cracked wide open.

Ava starts slowly again, the length of her fully inside Deborah, but there's something to be said about the feeling of the rest of her against Deborah's body.

Their breasts together. Skin on skin. The weight of her; comforting; protective. Letting go of that scarred hand to tuck an errant wave of red hair behind an ear.

Perhaps it's the fact that she knows Ava cares for her in the deepest of ways; has loved and laughed with her before now, and will again afterward.

Ava is it for her, and she knows the certainty of that companionship is returned.

Deborah is it for someone, finally.

It sweetens and deepens the moment, once more.

Turns her on.

"More," she moans.

Ava has sunk down, is kissing her sloppily behind her ear, but Deborah feels her increase her pace, rocking her hips upward to meet it, their rhythm sliding the strap on in and out.

She wants it now.

Wants to have it all.

There's been enough build-up.

"Faster, Ava," she says, lifting her legs up, locking them around Ava's hips, scraping her fingernails down her back.

Ava shifts lower, the tops of her legs pivoting into Deborah's ass, and the move makes her cry out.

"Like that," she whimpers. "Just like that."

Her breath is coming quicker now, punctuated by more moans, Ava's breath hot on her shoulder, hot on her ear--

"Touch yourself, D," Ava says, voice ragged --

Deborah slides her right hand down Ava's side, digging her fingers between their bodies, crying out again as she finds her clit, as Ava glides in and out of her.

"You feel so good inside me," Deborah gets out, groaning with pleasure.

Ava lifts her head, kissing her hard, all teeth and bravado, moaning her delight, Deborah hearing her desire, hearing her depth of care--

She rolls her fingers over her nub, feeling the ache in herself heighten.

Their bodies are making the most glorious of sounds, sweaty and wet, Deborah hearing and feeling it, her senses blending together, Ava's tongue in her mouth.

She tilts her chin down, Ava moving from her lips, quizzical spark in her eyes.

The fire is lighting and darkening them in tandem, illuminating their skin, creating shadows, reminding her of their to and fro, their push and pull.

It burns her deep inside.

"Was I right?" Ava asks, surprising her.

"Yes," Deborah replies, moaning. "Definitely watched too many romcoms."

Ava pouts, and Deborah grins.

Licks into her mouth.

She needs to tell her, though, properly.

"You're brilliant. I hope you know that."

Ava thrusts up and fuck, Deborah swears the world starts and ends with her.

"You know romance," she gets out, panting in and out. Holding those hazel eyes to hers. "You make me feel good--inside and out."

Ava is panting with her, breathing the same breath as her, their lips barely touching, the lightest of grazes for the sake of it, for the sake of--

Deborah speaks it.

"I am profoundly yours."

She watches as Ava hears her words, feels the moment lengthen as their bodies make love, minds on the same page now--

Now.

"Harder," she demands.

Ava is racing her hips back and forth, frenzied, mouth falling across Deborah's cheek, towards--

"I love you, I love you, fuck, fuck--"

Deborah is squeezing tighter around Ava, meeting her thrusts, rubbing furiously against her clit, almost, almost--

Her name is moaned in her ear, and then Ava is all movement, all fury, so close now--

"Fuck, fuck, love you, Deb, love fucking you..."

"I love when you fuck me, so much better than, so good--"

Ava is driving herself deeper, Deborah moaning her name each time she does--

"Oh, fuuck--god, D, D, I'm gonna, I'm gonna--"

Deborah pinches her clit--

"Fuck, fuck, yeah, yeah, agh, uuaaghhhh!"

"Keep going, I'm nearly, ohhhh--"

And then she hits the precipice, crying out, her legs shaking, swearing, feeling her orgasm rip right through her, her walls tightening around Ava as the girl slumps against her, boneless.

Deborah sucks in air, letting it wash over her, her legs loosening as she fumbles her hand away, looping it up around the back of Ava's neck.

That was…

That was...

Ava is breathing hard against her neck, and Deborah listens, lining up their breaths to match as they come down together.

As they even out.

There's something wet against her collarbone.

Something...

Deborah hears the sudden change in Ava's breathing, shaky in a sob, realizing--

"Hey, hey--what's wrong?" Deborah asks, feeling her heart lurch, trying to tilt Ava's head up with her hand towards--

Ava's face is red and her eyes are shedding tears--

But there's this…

Crooked kind of smile there.

With it comes her recognition that those hazel eyes are not pained, or anguished, but bright, in a way that--

They're tears of joy, she realizes.

"I'm okay, I'm okay…" Ava manages, confirming the fact. "Just a bit…in my head." She laughs suddenly, all watery and sweaty, her chin coming to rest on Deborah's sternum. "What a pair we make."

Deborah feels her heart calm underneath, bringing her hands up to Ava's cheeks, wiping at the ebbing flow. "The pepper to my salt."

Ava smiles softly, and Deborah knows at once she's said the perfect thing.

---

A familiar creaking pulls her from sleep, Deborah blinking awake to the quickly brightening room, her hand reaching up to shield--

She is sore.

Muscle weary, like--

She remembers Ava above her, the fire glowing on her skin, as--

Yes.

A wonderful end to--

Her ears pick up on something off in the distance, something that sounds like a--

Flute?

Where the hell would a flute--

She sits up, looking around for her phone, or Ava's, finding she's still on the rug near the fire, its flames now extinguished.

Still very much naked.

The blanket is over her.

She recalls Ava slipping the strap on off and pulling the blue over them, Deborah too exhausted from the day and from their activities to put up much of a fight.

The sound is coming from somewhere--

She hears a set of horns kick in, the unmistakable whack of a drum kit and thump of a bass line accompanying each other, and--

Her mind catches the melody, instantly recognizable to her.

Sledgehammer.

Peter Gabriel.

Coming from outside the windows.

Deborah moves to stand.

Grabbing the blanket and wrapping it around herself, she's almost at the windows when Peter starts in with the lyrics.

You could have a steam train...

Deborah pulls open the curtain, spotting what looks like a familiar figure through the reflective glass of the window.

She rips the window open, surely mistaken, surely a trick of the sun or the window or--

But it is Ava, standing on the roof of her Rolls Royce.

Clad in Deborah's silk pajama top and her own red socks. Bare legs in between, looking for all the world like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

Except she's holding something in her two hands above her head, something else with her phone, something that--

Something that's playing the song.

A speaker.

And she's staring right up at Deborah.

Resolute.

Unwavering.

A John Cusack wannabe, in all her ridiculous, utterly romantic, wildly gesturing glory.

Deborah's heartbeat races.

This absolute idiot.

"You're playing the wrong Gabriel song!" she yells down to her.

"Nope!" Ava replies, yelling back over the music. "This one is right for us! Me to you!" She pauses briefly, Deborah watching as she looks up to fiddle with her phone.

The volume of the song decreases, no less powerful in its meaning.

I wanna be, your sledgehammer...

Ava remains.

"I woke up this morning and you were the first thing I saw, and I realized that I'd forgotten to do something. That I owed you a big, grand, romantic gesture."

“You do know there’s a camera right there,” --Deborah points out the window towards the left corner of the house-- “and one over there,” --she points the other way to the right-- “and one right above the front door.”

Ava pauses long enough for Deborah to know she’s totally forgotten about them.

It makes her giggle.

“Well then, Roger and Alejandro down at the gatehouse are gonna be belly laughing their way to a big bonus from you.”

“Yes. Thank you so much for that.”

“Sorry,” Ava says, her tone letting Deborah know she means it. “And Josefina too, since I can see her poking her head through the living room curtains.”

Deborah rolls her eyes, but feels a warmth settle inside her belly. “I can’t think of a better way to lose thirteen million.”

She watches as a smile appears across Ava’s face. “That much, hey?”

Deborah nods, not caring about her financial situation in the slightest. “You coming back to bed?”

Ava straightens, holding her arms up higher. “I wanna say something more.”

Deborah waits patiently as Peter continues to get into it.

"When I woke up in the hospital the morning after, and you were still there, I made a decision. I was gonna be by your side, for as long as the universe lets us be together. That I was going to take care of you, and fight for you."

Deborah holds her breath, tightening Ava’s blanket around her. Leans against the window frame for support as her throat tightens.

As this crazy girl loves her.

"I don't have any money,” Ava continues, “or anything substantial to offer you. All I have are my witty one liner’s and my comedic genius."

Deborah laughs even though her eyes are watering, and watches as Ava beams with pride.

"I knew that would get you." She grows serious once more. "All I have is my ability and desire to make you laugh. My heart. A whole lot of stubbornness and mental instability from my mother's side. Bravery and determination from my Dad."

Deborah feels a tear fall down her cheek, swallowing down her emotions.

"And if you let me, if you allow me to do so, I'm gonna smash down every one of those walls you've built in your heart, and in your head. Every single one you'll make from now on...as long and as frequently as it takes. I'm gonna be your sledgehammer, breaking through."

Peter Gabriel is reiterating Ava's steadfast certainty, and it is...

All the scared, wispy girl of 1962 needs to hear.

(“It’s because you trust her to still be there when the dust settles. It means you have a tremendous amount of faith in her.”)

It's all she needs.

"Okay," Deborah says. "Smash away."

Ava grins. "Yeah?"

Deborah nods. "Yeah."

She waits a long moment, before:

"You know this song is about him trying to get laid, right? Open up your fruit cage couldn't be more self-explanatory."

Ava shakes her head and drops her arms, phone in one hand and speaker in the other. "Irrelevant info, Deborah."

"Not really, since I figure this big, grand romantic gesture of yours deserves a reward."

Deborah smiles.

There are no cameras facing her windows.

Not one.

No one around this Saturday morning.

The moment will be for Ava, and Ava only.

Deborah inhales a breath and drops the blanket.

There’s some distance between them, but Deborah is sure she can see Ava’s eyes pop out of her head.

“Come and get it, darling.”

Ava nearly breaks her neck rushing off the roof of the Rolls, disappearing from sight towards the house.

Deborah stares down at the glint of the sun against the blue, and knows:

Ava will get through every wall.

And she will do her damnedest to let her.

 

FIN