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Tell Me When the Walls Come Down

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It was a simpler time really. (As if life could have ever been uncomplicated, she thinks.) Hasn’t hers always operated with some level of chaos, on ground that many others would have trouble standing up on because it has never failed to not move? Or Deborah made it move in order to prove everyone was wrong.

As much as she would like to consider herself as someone who transcends generations, she knows that her shows attract more of a certain demographic—the older kind. (Well, that is until she shows up.) And even a certain level of transcendence can’t erase the decades she’s got stacking, even though she’s smearing every anti-aging serum on her skin and stuffing her body with enough vitamins to power a factory. (Well, that is until her and then Deborah feels a certain type of way, like the years just kind of fall away) 

Once, a house, an entire abode, cost a person nine grand. Deborah’s spent more on her eyelids than that. She can’t even fathom only making a third of that a year either, but times were different and it’s the only kind of life people knew before. 

Deborah came roaring into the world in ‘51, ending the era knowing just enough about what made it the peak of American life and living. So many good things, great things even, that left an indelible mark on the world. 

So it’s of little doubt that she eventually shares that with someone, even if it is unintentionally. That she has a reminder of ‘back when’ becoming a small part of who she is, at least the beginning of her anyway. 

Lucille Ball was one of the originals. Someone who charted her own waters and led a show about her mix-ups and follies. Not afraid to get a laugh, whether it was in a chocolate factory or schlepping bottles of tonic that were really packed to the gills with alcohol and getting three sheets to the wind.

Ava stops the channel one night, a night where rehearsing the tweaked show has long ended, but she stays on. A night where Deborah could have told her to move her ass in the opposite direction, to go back to her migrating bra bucket and matcha paste in her own hotel room.

(There are closets everywhere back home. Of every size. It’s a mansion, for chrissake, and yet despite Deborah’s vehemence that those items would not be moving like its owner, somehow it all still made the trip. She wanted to have Josefina fold Ava’s underthings and put them into drawers like someone normal would do. But maybe disheveled, hobo couture is Ava’s brand)

But she doesn’t. She lets Ava order sushi without much of a fuss, without doing some ridiculous rock, paper, scissors scenario where she ends up having to swallow her pride along with the mouthful of fish anyway. It’s easier to just go the seaweed-wrapped route from the get-go. 

She lets her stay when there has been more than a reason to send her on her way for good, to tell her to take her shit and find another part of the world Deborah doesn’t exist in because that email and all the toxic shit she unleashed when she sent it was almost enough to make Deborah drown.

But she didn’t. Somewhere along the line, Deborah decided that walking around with a chunk of her heart missing was still better than having it ripped out and gone forever. So the mantra of ‘never forgive, never forget’ has turned to just the last part, with Ava beside her, right next to her, instead of out of her life completely. 

The familiar theme song starts up as Deborah fluffs the pillows behind her back, so she stops and nudges Ava with her shoulder while pointing. “You familiar with this? You know, since you do most of your research and learning from a website named after a bird?”

Ava looks like she’s sprouted horns or grown a third eye, an incredulous type of expression gracing her very youthful features. “I haven’t been living under a rock. I know who Lucille Ball is.”

Deborah snorts, crossing her legs and her arms on the bed. Because that’s also another thing that happens with this confounding and infuriating woman: they migrate toward the lush pillows and downy comforter. And she just lets it happen. Like her brain is short-circuiting and she’s lost all ability to reason, or admit that her bed hasn’t really seen much action for more years than she cares to admit. 

Oh, sure, there’s been Marty, but that probably isn’t going to be happening anymore—fucking snake. So yeah, she’s been really reluctant to let anyone near since that happened a few weeks ago. 

Ava scoots closer. Her shoulder brushes Deborah’s. Totally a thing now too. “And my relationship with Twitter is emotionally conflicting as of late,” she continues. 

“Can you even call it a trigger if you did it to yourself?” Deborah says wryly. “A therapist would have a field day with you explaining how you caused your own PTSD.”

(Or maybe their shared trauma. They’ve yet to officially process that fucking email. 

Deborah had cried like a fucking teenager for a week over it. Had Marcus draw up the itinerary to the first leg of tour dates, and both email Ava the information and fax the list to Jimmy with a post-it that had probably killed Marcus to write since Deborah’s eyes were never clear of tears to pen: have her fucking be there or there is no tour. 

Ava had shown up, solemn with red eyes, while Deborah had breezed by her without so much as a word, sunglasses covering her own agony. If Deborah could swallow her pride and a bunch of Xanax, all to go on tour to make back the hefty amount she had to pay some British fuckwits not to send the contents of that email to the fucking Daily Mail, then Ava could keep her mouth shut and her laptop charged for rewrites.)

“Hey! Post-traumatic stress disorder is nothing to joke about,” she responds with a slightly raised voice. 

Deborah turns, her face expressionless. “You literally get paid to write jokes and I get paid to tell them. Everything is a joke.”

Ava winces. “Right? You did try to get me to write a joke about progesterone and the Russian roulette of it causing ovarian and breast cancer.” Her eyes go wide. “Why am I surprised you’d mock anything?”

“Life is really fucking bleak if you can’t take the things that are awful and put a raucous spin on it,” Deborah reminds then points to the television. “Speaking of which, you’re really ‘harshing the vibe’ here, Ava, so shut up and listen to the comedic timing of one of the early greats.”

The silence of their own voices wraps around them and Lucy takes over. It’s a bit campy but classic and Deborah finds herself chuckling anyway, Ava joining in eventually too. 

“You know, I’ve never actually sat and watched this. I’ve only tuned in to clips on YouTube of her best bits and famous scenes,” Ava admits. 

“How embarrassing for you to say that out loud,” Deborah offers sympathy and mild disgust from her own secondhand shame. “But are you really watching it now if you’re flapping your jaws?”

Ava purses her lips but settles. Deborah can’t help herself though as the episode continues. “She really was before her time. I’m not saying that she always had the best material, but damned if she didn’t try to sell it.”

“Wasn’t there some sort of hubbub around this show?” Ava waves at the screen. 

Deborah turns to her, an eyebrow raised. “Really? You’re a writer and you use the word ‘hubbub’?” 

“I’m pretty much a walking thesaurus,” Ava smiles proudly. “But seriously, wasn’t he kind of a raging asshole to her? Stepping out on a ‘dime’ like Lucille-freaking-Ball? Wanting to be top-billed when clearly she was the star?” 

“He was a man,” Deborah says by way of explanation. Like it’s a condition that happens, sometimes rather unfortunately. She’s met her fair share of lovely gentlemen. She’s also experienced a heap of the opposite. “It’s the plight of four billion people.”

“So he gets a pass because he had a dick between his legs?” Ava sounds personally affronted and Deborah rolls her eyes.

“He got a pass because, in 1951, no one wanted to even think of Lucy and Ricky sleeping in the same bed, much less having sex. Her real-life pregnancy being put into the show was the scandal of the time a few years later. Like it was her fault she had allowed herself to get that way and mess up that puritanical ideal she represented.” Deborah held a finger up, jabbing toward the dashing Cuban. “And with looks like that, he was Hollywood’s ‘It’ boy.”

Vegas embraces a person in a way that Hollywood does not. Or so it seems. She’s always had a decent time in the Golden State, but sometimes even glitter won’t turn to what California has used as their moniker. Deborah had to work harder there than she had anywhere else since. The stint at the Palmetto was a no-brainer really. 

Especially since there’s a lot of this ‘Me Too’ stuff going around and doesn’t every woman have a story about a man who had looks, power, or a combination of them? She does, but Deborah is certainly not to the point of sharing any of that with Ava when she’d rather not relive it all over again in the telling of it. 

“Try Hollywood’s douche-canoe,” Ava yells at the television, her hands cupped around her mouth and projecting her voice like she’s at a WWE match instead of sitting beside Deborah in her swanky bedroom.

Deborah winces and watches in a mixture of amusement and confusion, still not quite understanding this conundrum to her right who can come up with some of the most brilliant jokes and completely undo it by uttering something epically off-the-wall the next.

“Is that what you’re calling your Diva Cup these days?” she tilts her head, face deadpanned. 

“Ho-ho, that’s a knee slapper,” Ava answers sarcastically and flops back onto the excessive amount of pillows that make her look like a cherub floating on clouds. 

Or perhaps a puckish sprite. Deborah can’t be bothered to think about Ava for longer than a few seconds or things begin to feel off-kilter, so she prefers to spend as little time as she can thinking of her at all.

(There are simply some lies we tell ourselves. Deborah Vance has a few.) 

Ava wriggles a little and crosses her arms, eyes still fixed on the screen. “The point is,” she continues on as if she never stopped. “I would never cheat on Lucille Ball and all of her red-headed, comedic glory.”

There are several jokes Deborah could line up here. One, how kind of suspect that it is she finds a ginger-hued, funny woman hot, which is almost kind of meta. The other being that Lucille Ball was forty when I Love Lucy started and does she secretly harbor a thing for MILFS? 

The last requires more of that thinking and Deborah would rather not spiral out of control, something a little too on the nose about it even though Ava has never uttered a word about her preferences in either gender. The other niggling little jab Deborah might even take—if she were so bold—is if maybe that ‘M’ should be a ‘G.’

Deborah clears her throat, placing a hand against it. She glances down at her well-manicured nails and quickly looks away because thoughts are intrusive as fuck sometimes and no, she’s not going there. 

“Alright, calm down, Anne Heche,” Deborah throws out.

Ava huffs out a laugh. “Wow, no wonder you needed a writer. That cultural reference is a deep pull. Can you seriously not think of another bisexual woman at all?”

Deborah shrugs, not really worried about correcting her statement or getting offended by the idea of her needing Ava. As a writer. Only as a writer…

Ava bolts upright, turning both of her palms up and pointing them to the sides. “Uh, hello, Angelina Jolie?”

“The day you resemble Angelina Jolie is the day I admit that all of those fans were right calling me a power top.” It comes out. Deborah feels like something has broken loose without her aiming for it, too. 

Thankfully, Ava just laughs, grabbing a cup full of something that looks like liquified lawn clippings in a cup. She holds it up to Deborah like a toast. “To me one day being Angelina Jolie and you being gay.” She fights with the straw and then takes a loud slurp, exactly something an annoying zennial would do. “Which is never gonna happen, am I right?”

Deborah wants to ask why she thinks that, why she assumes that there is no truth rooted in this joke when every single one Deborah tells is just a hyperbolized version of something that actually did happen. That maybe, if they were both to dig a little on this one, they might both be surprised. 

She’s not sure if it’s a rhetorical question or not, but she leaves it as such. They watch the rest of the episode, punctuated with laughter here and there, but Deborah, somehow, still feels off. 

Some commercial takes over the screen and Deborah presses mute. Nothing hits the way her own infomercials do, so she really doesn’t want to listen to someone else try their hand at what she’s been kicking ass at for years. 

Silence isn’t something that needs to really happen between them, not since they’re still on the first third of the dates (the last of the third, sure, but there’s a lot of touring left to do) Deborah senses the mood shift because Ava is looking at her in this silence.

“Deb…”

She stands as quickly as she can, She begins to pace. 

“I was thinking about taking out the bit around minute nineteen.” Her hands go to her hips. “The whole story about my cosmetics surgeries—yes, plural—isn’t tracking tonally as we’d hoped. The entire country right now has an ‘aversion’,” here she makes air quotes, “to anyone that’s higher-earning but also in a higher tax bracket. Even if I’m admitting to them and saying I was trying to attain a very deeply patriarchal sense of beauty to gain acceptance.”

Ava shakes, her body and facial expressions having trouble keeping up with the whiplash. Deborah barrels on because, well, silence. 

“Maybe you can punch it up a bit.” She motions to Ava’s computer on the desk.

“We’re not doing that anymore,” Ava whispers and Deborah stops pacing. She looks small and god, so incredibly young. When her head jerks up, Deborah dodges her eyes. “I mean, not right now anyway.”

Deborah purses her lips and does some sort of motion as an act of dismissal. When Ava speaks again, her voice has gained a little strength. 

“I sat in a comedy club in Sacramento, watched you say you were tired of being the butt of a joke and at having to beat people to the punchline. Don’t you just want to take a second? Don’t you want to be able to rest for a while?”

Deborah whirls, the repressed anger of what she’s had to stuff somewhere dark threatening to boil over. She and Ava need to have it out, a good and dirty verbal tumble, but she’s not ready to talk about the thing that could have ruined both their lives. Should have ruined Ava in Deborah’s. 

But you can’t let go.

Her voice is hoarse when she speaks. “I set the pace of this.” 

She punctuates her sentence by stabbing a finger downward. Means every date she has to stand on a stage and suck the very soul out of her body, hoping the audience decides to not send her off in a tomato shower. 

Ava seems to remember her place again, the slightly skittish and appeasing role she’s told herself she has to play and the one she thinks Deborah expects me to see. “Right. Yeah, of course.” She nods vehemently.

Where’s that spine, kid? Deborah wants to say. The old Ava would have risen to the challenge. The new one acts like she’s grateful to influence anything Deborah says to anyone.

She watches her walk to the desk, grab her laptop, and open it to begin. Her fingers hover over the keys in wait. Waiting for Deborah to make a suggestion, waiting for lighting to strike. Her eyes flicker over to Deborah. 

Weighing what to say, she finally decides. Shrugs. “What would Lucille Ball do?” 

Ava’s lips quirk, amused by the question and perhaps glad for it. “The show must go on?”

Deborah rubs her hands over her face and groans, letting herself ebb back into this thing they’ve been creating together for a while. It’s easier to do that than think about the other thing that they’ve maybe started that’s even older. 

“Alright, keep the story. Let’s try for a smoother transition though. I can’t handle the quick change anymore. Feels like I’m dragging my ass across rocks when I tell it,” Deborah waggles a finger, hoping Ava has pulled up the outline.

As she listens to the pecking of keys, Deborah tries not to focus on all the ways that she’s putting off the inevitable everything

Ava never once mentions Frank. Of the similarities. Blissfully, she gives Deborah a break from her own heartache.

Chapter Text

The first time she really allows herself to think of Ava as definitely something other, it’s in a dressing room in a place called The Meme Team (seriously. Deborah can’t make this shit up) that looks like what she imagines the inside of an office in Silicon Valley does.

With flexible seating that would keep the interest of small children and teenagers and other spots looking too low to the ground to offer lounging, the place is all bright colored wall abstracts, industrial style lighting, and dark hardwood floors. While quite possibly both the nicest and weirdest place she’s ever had a gig, Deborah decides very quickly she’s in millennial hell.

“Would it have killed them to add a back to one fucking chair?” she fingers the upholstery on something that the makers got halfway done with and just…stopped. 

Ava smirks. “We are furthering the whole ‘generation Z has crippling anxiety, the worries of the world on their shoulders, and fucking awful posture’ stereotype.”

“If ever there was a time to get into orthopedics, it’s now,” Deborah shakes her head and follows the club owner through Willy Wonka’s tug-boat nightmare.

The green room is one of the better ones but still an acid trip. It almost hurts Deborah’s eyes and she thanks whatever luck she’s had that she is partially visually impaired. 

Ava makes sure everything is squared away while Deborah gets her notebook out of her purse. Checks that her list of requests has been fulfilled and her team can arrive to start doing hair and makeup in the next little bit. 

As her wig is fitted then styled and her face reversed by ten years by the wonders of heavy foundation and good eyelashes, Deborah finds her attention drifting. Not over the process occurring in front of her or the outline for the show like she should be doing. 

This has been happening more and more lately and even though Deborah loathes the idea of therapy, this line of thinking deserves her a lobotomy. About all those little details she’s been noticing about Ava. About all the contrasting large details she’s been ignoring about herself. 

(No one wastes a week crying their eyes out over someone who doesn’t matter. Deborah had taken Ava’s betrayal with the finesse of a Mexican soap opera star, ugly bawling until her pillows had their own raccoon eyes. Then she had gotten up the day to leave for tour and just…turned it off)

“So I’ve been thinking about I Love Lucy,” Ava announces as the hairstylist goes about curling Deborah’s blonde and faux locks.

“What?” Deborah makes a face. 

“Yeah,” Ava shuffles in her chair, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Putting her arms this way and that. There’s no comfort to be had, so she finally gives up. “And it had me thinking about what other cool shit happened the year you were born.”

“I broke the mold, really,” Deborah says sardonically. “Everything before or after September really pales in comparison.”

“You’re absolutely fuckin’ right,” Ava agrees. “But I got to looking up all of the other stuff that couldn’t even hold a candle to your awesomeness entering into the world and guess what?” She waits with the patience of a gnat. “With the way women’s rights have been under attack in the news recently—and don’t even get me started on the vile abortion laws…” she stops and smiles. “The birth control pill came out in 1951! How rad is that?”

“And here I was thinking I would receive top billing,” Deborah responds dryly. 

“You’re always on top with me,” Ava smiles wolfishly, and are they really going to acknowledge the tension that has been working its way into everything lately? 

(Since almost the very beginning? Nothing says soulmates like the “I can’t stand you, so let me leave you in the desert and when you return with a vintage pepper shaker like it’s the holy grail, I might then consider you my friend and potential love interest” trope. If life were a story…) 

“Of course I would,” Deborah rolls her eyes

Like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, further confirmation of what the gays have been telling her all along. Like it doesn’t shoot straight to somewhere troublesome just by thinking about it.

“Uh,” Ava finally chokes. She’s done this to herself. Deborah feels amusement, sure, but that flicker of the hotter something lingers. “About 1951.”

“Do share how this rad achievement of the ’50s has really revolutionized the way you live your life, allowing you to hook up with anyone and anything.” Deborah wiggles her hands to bid her to elaborate since she still can’t move her fucking head. She hopes her hair looks flawless. 

Ava tilts her head and shoots Deborah a look. “For the record, most of my sexploitations have been with women, thank you very much.”

With every comment about how she’s invited women to her bed or gotten them somewhere in between, Deborah likens it to Ava pressing her thumb into her skin. Trying to get her to squirm or balk or show any kind of distaste for anything other than heterosexuality because she’s a ‘boomer.’

“For the record, I’ve also been alive long enough to be pretty much as old as the Kinsey Scale, so there’s that,” Deborah throws out, completely forgetting someone else is listening to the trajectory this conversation is going. Deborah looks out of the corner of her right eye to the hand moving about. “You’ll have to excuse us. My bisexual writer is often twitterpated over her bi-cycle.”

“I’m a 4, by the way,” Ava offers with a hint of that piss and vinegar she gets sometimes. Not one bit ashamed or embarrassed but a proud peacock with a puffed-out chest. 

“As if you’re anything other than a 5,” Deborah disagrees. “I mean, have you ever taken birth control before?”

“Have you forgotten the time you asked me, fucking point blank, if I was a lesbian and I overshared that I still needed a dick from penetration to come sometimes?” Ava’s face looks like Deborah may have suffered from short-term memory loss. 

Deborah has done no such thing, and that conversation is pretty much seared into her mind.  

“Is it always like this?” the voice behind Deborah asks and she does finally turn this time, assuring the poor stylist that the tete-a-tete happens with more frequency than ought to be healthy. 

She eventually goes on her way, (honestly, poor thing. Deborah knows they can make a rather jarring pair) leaving Deborah and Ava alone, the latter smirking. 

“Oh, don’t be so damn smug. As if you haven’t made an art out of making people uncomfortable,” Deborah stands then, checking her watch for the makeup crew. Maybe fifteen in between the two.

“I live to achieve ‘uber’ level of awkward wherever I go,” she crosses her heart then holds up her hand like a fucking Boy Scout. 

Deborah walks by and slaps it down. More in a ‘get out of here with that shit’ kind of move rather than the kind of right to left that burns across a cheek and tells someone the exact degree of your hurt and anger when they refer to you as a “fucking hack who delivers tired shit.”

Ava leans forward again in a conspiratorial manner, her hands pressed together in front of her. She whispers even though it’s only the two of them in the room. “But in the future, I will try to refrain from talking about any dicks that may get close to my vagina and the glory of the birth control pill I may or may not take after a night of wild and raunchy sex.”

Of course, the makeup crew comes in at the tail end of her vow, enough to hear the pill and raunchy sex bit. Deborah cocks an eyebrow at them, shrugs, and then turns back to Ava. 

“You’re practically neanderthal,” she shakes her head, going back to the chair and sitting down. 

“I’ve certainly got the hands for it,” Deborah hears from behind Philippe, the best at making up a person’s face this side of the Pacific. She lets out a guffaw and he shoots her a severe look. 

“I know, I know. Resting canvas,” she tries to be conciliatory.

Soon, she’s looks as good as she can get and it’s time to round out the look with the stylish ensemble she has picked for this evening, something just as gaudy as this fucking hipster club.

With her suit in hand, she tries to make her way to the door of the bathroom when Ava rises abruptly. She stands oddly, seeming to lose track of what she is doing. Her hand moves a strand of red hair out of her eyes. 

“Do you uh, like, need help or something?” she frowns after she says it, knowing how asinine the question is. 

“Getting dressed?” Deborah says, both amused and confused. She absolutely does not think about Ava seeing any part of her uncovered. No, not at all. “I haven’t had surgery. I should be fine.”

“Yeah, whew, sure. I just thought with,” Ava makes a wild gesture over her face and hair, indicating Deborah’s stage look. 

“Somehow, I’ve managed to do this for eight other shows. And a whole four decades before you,” Deborah reminds. 

“In you go then!” Ava claps much too enthusiastically and Deborah gives her the satisfaction of disappearing. 

Behind the door, a hand goes absentmindedly to her chest. Beneath her fingers, it drums a frantic tempo. Bouncing around at a speed Deborah hasn’t felt in years. 

“What in the actual fuck,” comes through the door anyway and Deborah can’t help but chuckle and grip her chest even harder. Damn this confounding woman.

Deciding to work through it, she gets dressed and begins to focus. She’s going over the set in her head, the unfunny stuff that she’s been doing for eight shows. The sequins on her jacket jangle a bit once she settles it on her body, shimmering in the lights screwed into the mirror. Part of her thinks she looks like a walking disco ball and she fucking loves it. 

After a once over in the mirror, she buttons the clasp on her blazer and feels that adrenaline-pumping energy flowing through her veins, the kind she gets before every show. The kind that puts her on edge until she gets to the stage where it all falls away and she finds her groove. 

She opens the door to see Ava puffing away on something, squints, and then realizes she’s sucking with the power of a Hoover on a dab pen. The sight shouldn’t jar her, but somehow it does. 

Ava just smiles and deposits it back into her pocket. She plops down again and points to her phone. “Just going to look at everything. Give it the ol’ once-over.” She ducks her head, hunching her shoulders to stare at the screen of her phone. 

Shaking a little of that out, Deborah paces and says nothing. Tries to get in the right mindset. A slight turn of her head puts her looking at the only other thing in the room that commands attention. Demands it? Even just sitting there? Deborah isn’t sure. 

She studies Ava who taps away on her phone, legs crossed and leaning forward in the seat. Even though it has no backing, it’s still terrible posture and Deborah wants to tell her to sit up before she does permanent damage to her back. Speaking of permanent damage…

“Do you need rehab?” Deborah delivers it with the tact of an oncoming freight train. Ava’s body stills. Deborah squints and purses her lips. 

Ava’s head pops up from her scrolling, looking nonplussed. As she should be. This really is from nowhere. And everywhere at the same time. “What?”

Deborah looks off, messes with a flake of mascara under her eye that isn’t really there. Something to deflect with in order to not have to hit Ava with this.

“I crack jokes about DJ’s overdose all the time.” Finally, she turns back to Ava again. Her face is serious, she knows. “But it’s not funny. Not at all. I make those jokes to keep myself from breaking down over it, from really having a good cry that creates all types of wrinkles. The kind that would fuck up all of this maintenance.” She swirls her hands around her semi-recently retouched face. 

Ava is shaking her head in disbelief and her mouth hangs open. Still, nothing comes out. Deborah takes this as a chance to continue. “We’ve got a few shows under our belt. The material seems to be working well. You could take some time…”

“No,” Ava holds up a hand and her jaw works overtime, flexing. Her green eyes eventually make their way back to Deborah, some type of resolve present in them. “I don’t need time at some clinic.”

Deborah rolls her eyes and looks around the room. “I know this lifestyle is kind of conducive to ‘sex, drugs, and rock n’roll’ but…”

“None of which you are doing nor are you currently living like that.”

“No,” Deborah says forcefully but then works to calm her tone. She plays with the clasp of her bracelet. “But you are. Sometimes, I feel like I’m in a fucking episode of Euphoria .”

“It’s recreational, Deb, nothing full time,” Ava tries. 

“Did I ever really tell you about her overdose?” Deborah is gaining a knack for cutting off sentences. Her hands go to her hips. She needs something to hang on to, anything other than Ava who she wants to grab ahold of and never let go as she shakes some sense into her. “How I found her convulsing and aspirating? How her eyes were rolled so far into the back of her head…”

The strength goes out of her words and she tries to quell the rising lump in her throat. She can’t cry, not with fifteen minutes until the start of her set. Closing her eyes, she tries to take a few calming breaths.

“I had no idea,” Ava says quietly. 

“No, you wouldn’t, would you? Because I’ve never told anyone other than Marcus.” She raises her glassy eyes to Ava now, feels sucker-punched in the gut. “I can’t…not you too.” 

Ava makes to stand up, but Deborah closes her eyes again, shakes her head, and holds up a hand to stall her. They don’t need to bring proximity into this. It’s already been hard enough to say this as is.

“Nothing,” Deborah gathers herself and throws her shoulders back, inhaling. “Nothing stronger than pot.”

She’s given Ava little in the way of rules or regulations, and maybe that’s been the entire fucking problem. Ava believes she can do whatever she wants as long as the jokes still pack a punch. As long as Deborah succeeds. 

But somewhere along the way, what Deborah didn’t want to do without her because it wouldn’t be fun has turned into not wanting to do it without Ava because she doesn’t want to do anything without Ava ever again. In order for that to happen, there has to be some groundwork to circumvent Ava’s ‘Appetite for Self-Destruction’ tour that she’s been running concurrently with Deborah’s life. 

“What, are you going to drug test me?” Ava laughs like it’s the craziest thing she’s ever heard. Like Deborah won’t do exactly fucking that. 

“Yeah,” Deborah nods seriously. To save you. “I will.” She crosses her arms and sighs. “If it has to come to that. If I can’t trust you.”

They’re circling back around to the thing Ava won and then ripped away by key smashing the alphabet onto an electronic letter to some twatwads she didn’t really know. But Ava doesn’t look apt to start hashing this out now ten minutes before Deborah’s set. Deborah isn’t either but…

“Hey, ladies. We’ve got curtains up in eight,” the stage manager pokes his head inside and smiles brightly. Without waiting for an answer, he goes the way which he came. 

That leaves Deborah and Ava in silence for approximately three minutes before she needs to be standing behind the curtain, waiting for it to go up. She clears her throat. “Right, so then…”

“I won’t,” Ava shakes her head, pierces her gaze into Deborah’s very insides. 

She’s making a promise with her eyes. It’s probably the most honest thing she’s ever done as far as Deborah can tell and she knows this is no lie. Right from the get-go.

“Good,” Deborah nods matter of factly and checks her earrings. Again, to have something to do. “Because I don’t know if I could live with…”

“Let’s go!” a voice calls from the hall and Deborah thinks the last half hour has been nothing but fragments and half-formed thoughts. 

I don’t know if I could live without you is the absolute batshit insane thing she was going to say if the fucking stage director hadn’t interrupted her. She looks at Ava and knows it’s for the better really. Ava thinks she’s ready to hear it, but she’s not. Not yet anyway.

“Break a leg?” Ava tries for levity, the room too thick with things left unsaid. “I’ll be out front, like always.”

“Oh, honey, at my age, it’s more like break a hip.” She makes the joke because Ava never does. 

Ava never once points out that she’s very over a certain hill. Never tells her that she’s “old” or past her prime. Instead, says shit like they have “generational” misunderstandings and that Deborah is in her “Vancaissance.” It’s all so fucking ridiculous and absolutely wonderful, to maybe not be seen as something less than. 

She can’t help touching Ava’s cheek before she leaves, holding her hand there. Feeling the warmth of Ava and her own palm is more steady than her heart feels. “And I know.” 

So many things run through Deborah’s head, things about more time and being braver , but she hears the announcer begin her show spiel, so she leaves to give attention to her first love while the perhaps budding one makes her way out to the tables and shitty seating. 

Maybe Deborah kills it in a room full of Seattle college kids and people who probably drink that oat milk crap too in their lattes. Maybe she feels younger at having been a part of their sweeping energy and rawness. Maybe she’s learned to walk the bridge between the gap because of a certain someone. Maybe she keeps her eyes locked on Ava the whole time, like she’s the only damn one under thirty in the room.

Chapter Text

Deborah can’t help it. With all the talk since they’ve been on tour about the formative years in which she was growing up, it rustles something inside her that she didn’t even know she had the proclivity for. It has her yearning for an experience she never really got to have.

The ambiance of that nostalgia paired with being in the great American southwest, Albuquerque at that, has her finding a car aficionado with some insanely beautiful pieces of property that look almost as good as they did when they were made. 

He seems a little perplexed as to why Deborah Vance is showing up at his place, even though she had Marcus specify that she would be chauffeured over at a time suitable for his convenience for a business proposition. She stands in front of the one she wants, hand sliding across the hood. 

“I want this one,” she tells him. “For the night. Fully detailed, back on your doorstep and looking like it never left by lunch tomorrow.”

The man rubs the back of his neck with his hand, clearly in a conundrum, because here stands a celebrity with a large disposable income who he knows he could drag if she messed up a piece of his precious collection. On the other side, lending something to the Deborah Vance? This shit doesn’t happen to people from here. The best they can hope for is a C-list actor running around in his underwear and outrunning a motor home.

Really, her Breaking Bad knowledge begins and ends with the one scene. She also knows that these days, Bryan Cranston is certainly not C-list, but everyone’s star only shines for so long, her own included.

Which is why she is standing here, seizing this shit by the day. “So do we have a deal?”

The question is rather perfunctory. She wouldn’t have made the journey if she thought she had any chance of not getting what she wants. Which she’s made happen over and over again since she’s had enough clout and money to do so. People tend to be very persuaded when you offer them something hard to refuse.

Which leads to Deborah taking the keys and putting them in the ignition, waving out of the open window as the owner of a piece of history watches it drive away. 

She makes sure to ease into the feel of it, noticing the way it handles and how it wants to be treated. Something doesn’t get this old without a lot of time and care, so Deborah doesn’t try to speed race it for limits.

Albuquerque passes her by, but she waits to internalize it, to really take it in. She wants the full experience of this, so she grabs her phone out of her purse at a stoplight and texts Ava while she waits for it to turn. 

Be dressed and downstairs in 15. 

They’re staying at the Hotel Andaluz, a Hilton property, and even though she’s not exactly a fan of him, she is a sucker for luxury. Around here, that constitutes this place. 

The outside isn’t much to write home about. The inside, however, is where the charm lies. Good enough to almost remind Deborah that she has millions of dollars in the bank (well, fewer millions now, thanks to Ava).

All dark wood paired with white paint, the vaulted ceilings with iron fixtures, a mixture of rustic and fine furniture, and a small but tasteful fountain in the middle of the entrance area had been pleasant surprises to Deborah and her crew. 

And even though she’s got her glam team here, even though Marcus is probably looking dully out across the balcony of his room, Deborah is still going to do this. Disappear for a night with Ava, all because she feels like it. 

She sees Ava standing by the small bistro tables with the umbrellas folded down. It is fall after all, but it seems as if Ava has misjudged the season’s temperate climate by wearing an old t-shirt and jeans that flare out, only hitting her mid-shin. Where she usually wears hideous tube socks up to where her pants end, this afternoon she has chosen to forgo them and her toes poke out from a rather chunky pair of Birkenstocks. 

Scrolling away on her phone, a rather bored look plastered across her features like everyone her age when they’re glued to their device, she doesn’t notice Deborah approaching on Copper Street. When she pulls up to the curb and calls out the window, she sees Ava do a double-take. 

“You’re already planning for St. Patrick’s Day when autumn has just begun,” Deborah calls out the window on the passenger side. The one she had to manually roll down. Ava startles and dips with a look of shock on her face through the open window. “Or maybe a precursor to Thanksgiving.” 

She points downward and Ava shuffles, backing up a little to show off the Birkenstocks she’s chosen to wear. “Those shoes are positively Pilgrim in nature.” She’s not sure why the lesbians latched on to that particular brand. “You’ll never get on WikiFeet like that.”

Ava barks out a laugh and crosses her arms, the small duffle at her back sliding a bit on her shoulder. She pushes it up again and looks at what Deborah has commandeered—a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, cherry red with white tail strip and the epitome of an era. America rolled up into a car. 

“I’d probably have better chances of getting on Mr. Skin than on WikiFeet. They are proportional to my hands after all,” she smiles, leaning down again.

“What the hell is Mr. Skin?” Deborah frowns.

“It’s this website where they watch movies and tell at what point nudity occurs in the run time? It’s got like…screenshots of tits and sex scenes for all of these female celebrities and…” Ava trails off, looking at Deborah’s blank face. “You know, it doesn’t matter. I’m not an actress, just a lowly writer…”

“And those Tyson chicken…” she tapers off, pointing toward the general direction of Ava’s chest.

“Anyway!” Ava cuts in. “Tell me what all of this is about?” It’s her turn to make a gesture over the car and then toward Deborah. 

“Get in, loser. We’re going driving,” Deborah motions with her head. 

She leans over and pops the handle, pushing on the door to open it for Ava. The compulsion to exit the car, round it, and hold it open for Ava had been strong. Luckily, her own insecurity suppressed that particular desire as too much, so she settled instead. 

Ava hops in, closing the door and running her hands along the restored leather seats. Deborah lets Ava’s wonder warm the inside of her and she puts on a blinker, entering the traffic of Albuquerque at 6 pm. 

The breeze from the windows being rolled down whips Ava’s hair about a bit when Deborah has to pick up speed on the main streets, but soon they’re off and driving toward their destination. 

“So the last time you took me to the desert, you left me for dead,” Ava says as they pass through the city and into sparser populated areas. “Is that what’s happening now?”

Deborah does have a reason to kill her, truly. That fucking email still hasn’t been addressed by either of them, but she doesn’t want to do that tonight. Maybe not ever, judging by the way her chest burns when she thinks about the confrontation. Moreover, if she hasn’t killed Ava yet, she isn’t going to.

“How much do you know about Route 66?” Deborah asks.

“Uh, just that it was this really long-ass highway back in the day that was meant to ‘connect the east to the west.’ Now, it’s sort of run down and obsolete,” Ava answers. 

She knows it isn’t a metaphor for herself, but somehow it stings a little. Hearing about something that has an age difference less between it and Deborah than Deborah and Ava makes her feel a little like Ava’s description. She doesn’t want to have Ava think the same of her, but she’ll never say that.

“Parts,” Deborah tries not to croak. “Yes. But some areas have worked on preserving it since it was decommissioned in 1985.” 

Another year that Ava still wasn’t born. Deborah tries to get past the fact that it was another decade before she came into the world. 

“And this place used to be on the way?” Ava hedges.

“There are two routes, really. The pre-1937 one runs along Fourth Street, but the post ‘37 one down Central Avenue is the most popular,” Deborah tells her. “I was thinking we could check them out, see a bit of a bygone era. Maybe get something to eat from a diner since you do love french fries.”

Ava’s face breaks into a smile, finally seeming to have it hit what Deborah has gone to the trouble to plan. She nods enthusiastically and turns toward the window, leaning both elbows on the edge of it and gazing out at the Albuquerque afternoon fading into evening.

The day starts to slip into darkness as they pass signs aged and like nothing anyone has anymore. Markers for places called the El Camino Motor Hotel and the Red Ball Cafe claiming its roots since 1922. UNM sits along the route and Deborah wonders if Ava ever regrets not having the typical college experience. After all, the young people that mill about as they drive by aren’t that much younger than her.

She ends up taking them to another eatery, a diner converted from a World War II-era Phillips 66 station retitled the 66 Diner. In the retro style, she and Ava exit the vehicle and go inside which is a blast from the past. 

The white tiled floors and turquoise stools remind Deborah of places she used to visit as a kid. Before everything absolutely went to shit. But she sighs, not wanting to have that damper hanging over them, so she ghosts her palm over the small of Ava’s back, encouraging her to move toward the counter to order. 

She orders a burger, Ava does the same but with the green chilis and something called the Route 66 Pile Up, both of which make Deborah coil internally from the sheer amount of calories. Whatever. 

Deborah picks up their order and they head to a park area she saw along the way. Taking the bag from the front seat, it’s truly twilight as she puts their food down on the hood of the car and points. 

Ava’s eyes go wide. “You want us to eat up there?” She seems wary, clearly judging just how either of them will manage to sit atop it.

“I’m old, not dead,” Deborah rolls her eyes and manages to climb up with only a little trouble and Ava hovering with those fly swatters of her. Really, she is her own walking Allstate commercial. In good hands. 

“See?” Deborah says triumphantly from her perch, shaking her shoulders in a back and forth motion to gloat a little.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s all fun and games until you get a Life Alert at your next birthday.” She watches as Ava struggles too, breathing heavily as she looks at Deborah. 

“Your birthday we are talking about, is it?” Deborah observes wryly. 

“Just give me my carbs so I can wallow in my lack of athleticism. Not all of us were pole vaulters during high school,” Ava’s sarcasm bleeds through as she grabs the bag looking for her food. 

“You might have been good at it considering how much surface area of the stick you could have commanded,” Deborah’s lips twist at the corners. It really is the joke that keeps on giving.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but poles aren’t exactly my preference these days,” Ava’s smile is downright sinful. “Imagine how popular I would be if I did.”

Deborah is always thrown for a second when this happens even though she laughs. It would be so easy to forget about Ava, to ignore the wild beat of something in herself, if not for the reminders. There had been that guy the one time, but Deborah is reminded that most of whom she’s heard Ava talk about are women. 

Whom she has deeper sexual experiences with and mast…Deborah clears her throat. Right then. 

“I do keep up with all of your talks, even though not so long ago you were arguing the merits of a pill that causes cancer.” Oh, the irony. “But your personality would most assuredly cancel out the deal. Anyway, it’s probably for the better on the dick thing though. It’d be over in five minutes like it always is.” She shrugs and begins to unwrap her burger. 

“Not a swimming recommendation for the male sex there,” Ava shoves a french fry into her mouth covered with…something. 

“You’ve heard my set.” You know, the one that makes me a tired old hack? Okay, she doesn’t say that, but it does pop into her mind again. Thankfully, Ava doesn’t seem to be interested in reminding Deborah of the amount of sad dicks she’s encountered in her life. Both literal and metaphorical. 

“This is so cool,” Ava smiles after a while, her hand going again to the hood and her burger mostly destroyed. “What was your childhood like?”

“Shit, like everyone else’s,” Deborah grumbles, glancing over at the sadness that has taken over Ava’s face. She waves it off. “I hear it’s a good reason to turn to comedy.”

Ava’s sympathy is like a wave, encompassing and hard to deal with. Deborah sure doesn’t want her pity, but she finds herself wanting to share something. To have a thing between them that’s only theirs. 

“I don’t talk a lot about it,” she tacks on.

“No,” Ava shakes her head. “Most of what’s in the show is from your twenties on. The stuff with Frank and being a mom and your wonderful ups and shitty downs in showbiz.”

“No one wants to hear about unpopular and depressive childhoods,” Deborah shakes her head now. “Especially when their own causes unreasonable amounts of therapy.”

“Hey,” Ava stops her, taking her hand in hers and looking at her with a sincerity that staggers Deborah. “I always do.”

They hold one another’s gaze for a while. Deborah breaks it finally, looking down at their entwined hands. She can’t help the squeeze that occurs.

“Tell me about the ’50s then,” Ava tries to compromise. “At least what you remember of them.”

This is easier. Not as personal or deep as what she could keep hold of Ava’s hand and wade through. 

But then Ava scoots closer, presses her shoulder and leg into Deborah’s, hesitant as she brushes her hair aside and leans onto Deborah’s waiting one.

Deborah almost forgets to breathe. This is closer than they’ve ever been and she’s sure her palm is sweating like a virgin inside of Ava’s. Her heart is doing that annoyingly loud thumping again and she can smell the herbal earthiness of Ava’s shampoo in her auburn tresses. 

You can be this close to her without it meaning something. Tell the fucking story. 

So she tells what she can recall from the recesses of her memories. Good things. Happy things. The moments that seem small or insignificant when they are happening but that manifest in a person’s mind years later as something worth keeping forever.

That Christmas she got Horsman’s “Debby” doll, with chubby cheeks and two extra dresses. How she used to try on her bike again and again, skinned knees be damned, until she was peeling down the street to her neighborhood with a Lone Ranger whoop. Yes, even remembering when Kathy had come along. Before. When the bond of sisters meant something. 

Ava laughs, Ava nods. Ava is absolutely wonderful through it all, even the tougher but still good times to tell. When everything ends, they’re still holding hands and it’s as if the inside of the woman’s palm is the only place it was ever supposed to sit. Ava’s head may or may not fit perfectly into the curve of Deborah’s jaw and sloping neck. 

Fuck

That last thought barrels through her, even though she’s tried to stop thinking about this shit. It’s doing neither of them any good. It raises the ire inside of her, at her own inability to deal with it in a healthy way. 

“Is there a particular reason you’re spending the prime years of your life and your uterus with me?” Deborah blurts, apropos to nothing. It’s slightly jaunting hearing it out loud. Her lips flatten into a thin line. She cannot look at Ava when the answer comes. 

A scoff comes first, then Ava moves away. More incredulity as she disentangles their hands. “What?”

God, why must this be one of the conversations that the two of them have that needs a deeper explanation? Why can’t Ava just get it so Deborah doesn’t have to try to figure out where in the fuck that came from inside of her?

She waves her hand around then reaches to grip the hood. She’s doing it way too tightly. Her knuckles have to be white. Oh, hell.

The gesticulating continues, forgoing the risk of keeping that death grip that would lead to arthritis. “You’re 25, for fuck’s sake. Isn’t there some rave you could be attending or the arm of another pretty young thing you could be draped on?” She hates herself for asking it. “Notice how I didn’t specify gender there.” Deborah smiles saccharinely. 

Ava does that thing she does when she’s thrown for a loop and can’t use humor to disarm the situation. Or vitriol apparently. That’s sort of gone by the wayside these days too. Her mouth opens wordlessly, a fish flopping on a dock. Her jaw looks like it wants to unhinge.

“I’m where I want to be.” 

Somehow, the response angers Deborah even though she planned this, picking Ava up on her own freakin’ doorstep like a gentleman caller with greased back hair and a disarming smile. 

Ava shouldn’t want to spend the best years of her life keeping an approaching septuagenarian company. To help stave that quiet loneliness that Deborah has always tried to outrun. Everything catches up to you when it’s quiet, time to get lost in your own thoughts. It’s either outrun this or nip it in the bud. 

“Agency over your own body or something like that?” Deborah says sarcastically. 

“Will you stop being a humongous asshole for five seconds? Jesus,” Ava shakes her head in exasperation. “Moreover, this isn’t agency. I’ve never sent you nudes.”

“Why not?” She must be having a stroke or something akin to it because Deborah absolutely did not mean to ask that at all. 

Ava gulps, quite noticeably. Deborah supposes it’s an appropriate response. “Do you want me to?” It comes out as a squeak.

“Now who’s being the asshole? No. I mean why is it not agency?” Deborah tries to focus on the park in front of them, really, but Ava’s doing that intense face thing that feels like she’s burning her down to her very soul. “You’re making a very deliberate choice to be with me. A lot.”

‘Be with me’ could have a few meanings. A) to be present in the same space, at the same time B) to romantically and emotionally link yourself to another individual which sometimes includes C) something Deborah can’t think about for a long period of time, or her brain will mushroom cloud and she’ll be left with drool on the side of her mouth for a couple of reasons.

After a few moments, Ava speaks again. “Do you…is it too much? Are you needing some space?”

To make a living off the words that come out of her mouth, Deborah is fucking up monumentally and she knows it. “I don’t need space,” she snaps. She sighs heavily. “I just…want you to be happy.”

There. She can say that safely. Right?

“You think I’m not?” The challenge comes out a little more self-assured. She watches Ava tuck her right leg under her other one, sitting squarely on top of the car now. 

“Look, I thought I had life figured out at 25 and see what happened?” She pauses, awash in the sense of failure all over again. 

They both know what she’s talking about because Ava has seen the tape. Knows that Deborah tried to be a trailblazer like Lucille Ball was in the ’50s. She had been so ready for late-night in ‘76. Late-night hadn’t been ready for her though. She still feels gutted from it, forty years later. 

“Normally I’m good for overwhelming and sometimes uncomfortable honesty…”

“That’s the understatement of the century,” Deborah rolls her eyes.

“But…” Ava begins, her voice steady and measured. “I think what you need to hear is that maybe that is what was always supposed to happen? That you needed to fail that time to not ultimately fail in the end. It would have changed the course of your life and made you different from who you are today.”

“Wow, I’m having a hard time swallowing after wading through that load of bullshit I was just forced to ingest,” Deborah says in awe. “Having a wildly successful talk show wouldn’t have cemented me in the annals of history forever or anything. Nor would I have enjoyed the dump truck of wealth at my door from it.”

“Why, so you can have even more money for an even bigger mansion? You’re borderline crossing from that to a compound.”

“I may have millions, honey, but I’m not able to wallow in it on a bed with silk sheets,” she quirks her lips, knowing full well that she’s being elitist. “Tell that whole spiel to Jay Leno.”

“His obsession with cars is definitely not healthy for the earth and his carbon footprint must be enormous, the asshole,” Ava frowns. “And you could literally do all of that if you wanted.”

“I’m not that shallow,” Deborah finally admits, waving it off. She forces herself to say the next thing. “I suppose what you said was nice. Or something.” 

So thanks, she wants to tack on. But this is Ava here and she doesn’t want the woman getting too comfortable with something that borders on a sweet nothing coming from Deborah’s mouth. Despite the other fact that has become too glaring—that they’re on a date. Or what would have served as one ‘back in the day.’

“Wow,” Ava breathes, mirroring Deborah’s words from a few minutes ago. She turns and the creep of a smile on her lips is unmistakable. “What’s next, you tell me let’s finish this in the back seat?”

There are too many facts stacking up for anything to be comfortable anymore, which seems to be their modus operandi these days. Another being that Deborah is no square and has visited quite a few back seats in her life. 

She’s almost positive she could give this one a run for its money too, (thanks, progesterone!) something good and scandalous that would take the purity out of the 50’s and from this vehicle. Deborah can handle a good backseat debauchery, but even the mere insinuation of it happening with Ava is dangerous. Kids these days know everything and this Z’er might have something to show a woman who lived through the fucking hippie era. (Pardon her generation for not being exceptionally ‘woke.’) 

When Deborah looks up, Ava is close again but not resting her head on a shoulder close. More like almost breathing the same air in proximity. Suddenly, this isn’t about drive-ins, sock-hops, or that life Deborah used to live. 

It’s about the one where on an Albuquerque night, underneath the New Mexico stars, Ava Daniels is moving in to kiss Deborah Vance. To turn wondering into knowing for the both of them. 

A hand to Ava’s shoulder stops her forward progression and fuck, she’s already got those hazel eyes closed and her lips are wet and pink and plump. It would be so easy to erase the distance and become someone else. 

Ava’s eyes flicker open, beautiful in the lamplights. Her breathing is erratic and with how close she’s gotten, Deborah can feel it whipping across her own open lips. She’s got to say something, anything…

“Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls,” comes out of her mouth, a desperate attempt to warn and connect back to Ava somehow. 

“The fuck?” Ava makes a face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know! You’re the one who grew up with that song, not me!” Deborah cries. She tries to work past one of her hands being on Ava’s shoulder and the other carding through her hair at the base of her neck. Christ

“So, let me get this straight.” Ava begins and Deborah shoots her a look. “Fine! Kinsey Scale 5 then. I try to kiss you and you throw a TLC lyric at me?”

“It wasn’t my finest material,” Deborah shrugs and concedes. 

“I was in diapers when that song came out.”

“I don’t know, Ava. ‘Creep’ was also a jam,” Deborah quips and severs whatever stilted tension that has arisen from the botched kiss attempt. Until it doesn’t. 

Ava rubs her cheek and then the back of her neck with her hand, looking embarrassed. “I just thought…it felt like something was going on here.” She looks like she wants to cry. “Tonight. With this.”

Maybe Ava is right. Maybe Deborah is a huge fucking asshole because she knows she has to tamp this down with more than 90’s songs. Because they’ve still got so much to talk about before, no if, this could ever happen. If a kiss between them could be anywhere outside of a dream. 

“We do have a human relationship, Ava. A complicated, fucked up, wonderfully beautiful relationship. And while we have both had our missteps, this one would be mine. If I allowed it to happen.”

Deborah feels gutted like she did to that fish the night Ava got back from her interview in LA, ( god, just how much shit do they have to work their way through?) and she knows that she’s both revealing something good and getting ready to mangle the rest. 

“So I was fucking wrong.” Ava looks stricken.

“I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ here,” Deborah shakes her head. Oh, how rotten she feels on the inside. “I think with us, it’s always going to be a shade of gray.”

A splatter lands on Deborah’s hand and she curls her fingers into a fist. Ava is crying, even though her lips are twisting into a pained smile. 

“But not the fifty kind?” She stutters out a gulp, snorting at her own joke. Still trying after what must feel like a wallop of rejection. 

“You’re incorrigible,” Deborah sighs softly. Fondly. So there is no room to hear anything otherwise. It’s not chastisement. It’s just another thing in a long line of things she’s having more trouble resisting when it comes to Ava. “You ready to go back?”

“No,” Ava echoes with her own exhale. “But yes. I just need some time to…process.”

That night when Ava sits with her head ducked, waiting to get out of the car and walk into the hotel, Deborah knows what she’s thinking because it’s the same one she’s having. They’re both gnawing on the what-ifs and why nots, chewing on them in their minds in enough self-castigation to keep them in bed for a week. But it’s wheels up and on to the next one at 3 pm tomorrow. 

“Night, Deb.” Ava turns to her and damned if there isn't something hopeful hanging onto her aching visage. 

Deborah meets her halfway between what she wants and what she needs. Scooting across the seat, she maneuvers the best she can and brings her lips to Ava’s cheek, gently caressing the side her lips aren’t touching. She lingers because she’s meeting herself halfway too. Want/need.  

“Goodnight, Ava.”

The car door opens, closes. Deborah is still leaning over, breathing in the mild scent left behind. In the vacated space where the warmth is dissipating. She’s not sure how long she stays there. She isn’t exactly sure how long it takes to move again.

Chapter Text

She’s not really one to understand these things. But looking at Ava, maybe this is somehow its own type of story with sprinkles of romantic ambiance. Maybe a person can feel some incredibly deep and confusing things for a person who literally chooses what words come out of their mouths sometimes.

And for these reasons, because this could be that l-thing or something like it, everything comes to a head in Houston three weeks later. The simmering magma beneath finally spills over. Turns them into a George Strait song. Deborah gets why all of his exes live in Texas. It feels like she’s got one there too. 

They land at George Bush Intercontinental and Deborah has to listen to Ava chitter about red states and she’s going to burst a vein in her head or faint if she stops one more person and offers her condolences on their civil liberties.

“I’m sorry that someone else is dictating the course of your uterus, but just know that I stand with you in solidarity, sister,” Ava tells one woman in line at their Starbucks. She holds up a fist. 

By the fifth? Seventh? Deborah has had enough and is grabbing her hand roughly, tucking it into her arm tightly. “You’ve got to fucking stop doing that. You’re embarrassing me,” she hoarsely whispers. 

“What? Their governor and constituents are idiots,” Ava tries. 

“I’m here to talk about me, not political morons who haven’t got anyone’s best interest at heart other than their own.”

“Their senator went to sun-shining Mexico while half the state was buried in snow and ice.” She’s still trying to argue her case. 

“You just made my point for me,” Deborah grumbles and pulls Ava along. “But change comes slowly. He will probably be on the docket next go-around. I mean, look at the name of the damn airport.”

Ava broods through the Houston show which, if Deborah were giving scores, would land at a nice 7. She doesn’t do as well as Seattle or some of her smaller venues, bizarrely. But all in all, it’s a solid night and Deborah feels like she gives Space Town all she’s got. 

Said brooding, however, continues even after the show. Deborah is pulling off her clip-on earrings, listening to Ava sigh rather dramatically when she can’t take it anymore. 

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Haven’t we established it? ‘So much,’” she repeats her words from the refresher retreat where Deborah and her eyelids left perkier than they had come in. But tonight, Ava is decidedly not. 

“I mean, this is more petulant than usual.”

“I just hate this state, okay?” Ava sounds like a brat and really, what the actual fuck is her deal?

Deborah throws the earrings on the vanity and whirls around. “Half this state probably hates being here too now. Maybe you’d prefer to be somewhere a little more liberal for your tastes. California perhaps? No, I know. Maybe London?”

She doesn’t know why she says it, but she does. They’re long past overdue for this shit anyway. 

“Oh, come on. Are we really fucking going there again?” Ava gets a frustrated look on her face, closing her eyes and shaking her head. She buries her face in her hands. After a second, they part enough to let her lips peek through. “It was one fucking job interview which I turned down.”

Deborah moves Ava’s hands away from her face. “And one fucking email that I had to pay hush money for because you couldn’t keep those paws of yours from typing out my state secrets.”

“So we are finally going to talk about this, huh?” Ava nods sagely. Crosses her arms. “I was wondering how long it would take.”

“Damn right we are going to talk about this!” Deborah growls. “I trusted you! Confided in you!” Mount St. Deborah is erupting. The Daniels Volcano is bubbling right behind her. 

“I trusted you too!” Ava stands abruptly, getting closer to Deborah. “Not to bring a hand across my jaw. You’re the one person I didn’t think would hurt me like that.”

“I’ve been punching holes in you verbally since you walked through my door. My choice was shitty, sure, but hardly surprising.” Deborah is just getting warmed up, acid boiling. Venom rising. 

She’s already apologized for that grievous error in her judgment, flew across the damn continent practically to sit on Ava’s childhood bed with the smell of cat shit wafting into their noses (seriously, who names a cat Mr. Creampie? God, the lack of foresight there. Deborah hardly thinks Ava’s mother is capable of such a nuanced joke) and posters of vampires and scantily clad women behind their backs.

Ava has her own list it seems, so she keeps going. (They’ve been writing their complaints in sorrow, penned onto their souls)

“What about my rewrites on the material you’ve been doing on tour? I’ve fine-tuned this shit with a comb and you’re not even taking the changes into the live act. Again, I’m working for nothing!”

“People don’t want to see me as a person, I’ve told you. They want to believe I’m the crazy bitch who burned down her ex-husband’s house…”

“A lie you’re still letting them believe!” Ava cries.

“They’re going to think whatever they want, no matter what I tell them,” Deborah deflates a little. “The same goes for you.”  

We have a human relationship , Ava had once told Deborah. Words she had echoed less than a month ago. She’s about to show her how human they are. How much that, even in just a short amount of time, they’re threaded into one another completely. 

“Come again?” Ava is hugging herself tightly, slightly trembling.

Deborah looks upward, eyes rolling, a grand sigh heaving out. She licks her lips and then turns her blue eyes to Ava. “Why?”

“Why what?” Ava asks, confused. 

“Why…why everything ,” Deborah sags, her shoulders feeling pulled forward. The burden, the weight of it all dragging her down. Ava cried last time things got too real. Deborah supposes it’s her turn now. 

“Why do you always manage to fuck everything up? Why do I, somehow, always forgive you? Why, when I screw up, do you do the exact same?” Deborah feels the steam building. “Why aren’t you writing in LA and why do I hope no one ever hires you again because I am perfectly fine and completely torn apart thinking about you helping me with jokes until my career ends?

“Why do you never go for the jokes about my age or how we don’t speak the same life language? Why do we somehow manage to speak exactly the right one when we work though? Why did you do the one fucking thing that would hurt me the most and then turn around a few months later and try to kiss it all away?”

Deborah folds into a chair, drained and bone-weary. She feels like her knees have been taken out from under her and every part of her body shakes from the things she’s said. She’s not composed. She’s losing it for the first time in a long time. For what feels like the first time in forty years. 

“God, Deborah, where do you want me to start?” Ava queries, sounding overwhelmed. 

“Find a thread and go with it,” Deborah spits out, the hurt coming back up with the tide. 

“We wouldn’t be here having to hash everything out if you’d just stop and talk like an adult when things bother you!” Ava throws her hands in the air. “I told you this last time before it all went to…”

“Oh, so now it’s my fault for the shit we are in the midst of?” Deborah scoffs.

Ava pinches the bridge of her nose. “That’s not what I said.”

“How profound of you. When you need your words most, they’re failing you too.”

“I’m not three! Fuck! You seem to want to point out the age gap between us every chance you get.”

“And once again, you never do. You have to notice.”

“Of course I do! I may not know who fucking Alan Alda is or why anyone would actually have patience with a rotary phone, but you don’t understand direct deposits or ASMR or practically anything from the past ten years. Did it ever occur to you that none of that matters to me though?” With this Ava is on her knees, her hands on Deborah’s thighs. They burn through the cloth of her slacks. 

“It should,” Deborah says forcefully. She can’t even find it in herself to think of Ava’s larger-than-life hands, how the woman’s thumbs brush back and forth across Deborah’s body.

“It doesn’t,” Ava leans up, pressing Deborah back into the chair with her swift motion. Deborah can only lean back in an effort to escape. To not have them nose to nose. “I respect you so damn much. Your wisdom, your humor.” Deborah lets out a sarcastic burst of air from her lungs at this, the kind that tingles the nose too. 

“I’m old enough to—”

There are a lot of ways Deborah can finish that sentence. (if she were going to be able to ever finish it. Ava’s face tells her that she was never going to) She knows what the world sees when they look at them, what she should see when Ava is standing behind her and they’re both gazing at one another in a stage mirror. 

But she just…doesn’t. Ava is different and Deborah, for the life of her, can’t figure out just why that is. It’s just another one of those things that’s developed in her life and she can’t quite explain it or find rhyme or reason to it. What has come between them isn’t anything Deborah expected, wanted. (No—she won’t use need yet, even after everything.)

“Don’t,” Ava lunges forward, bringing a finger up and pressing it to Deborah’s lips. Practically with her legs on either side of Deborah’s knees as she hovers over her slightly. 

She sits with her finger there, unmoving, and Deborah’s mouth poised to say something else. It puts Deborah in a conundrum really. If she doesn’t move, holding this position will get tiring and Ava’s finger will remain caressing her gently. If she does, she runs the risk of a touch she absolutely can’t control toward Ava. 

Deborah swallows, causing her lips to brush against Ava’s pointer finger. Fuck, it even goes a little inside her mouth and she inhales sharply at the sensations. And Ava? Ava lets loose a whimper that’s like an arrow plucked from a quiver and shot to pierce. To destroy. 

“Don’t reduce us to something less than we are,” Ava pleads. She looks ruined. Deborah is too. 

Ava, what are we? she wants to whisper in her ear as she holds the red strands of her hair in her hand, kissing along the curvature of her porcelain neck. To both do her own shooting to shit of their human relationship but also expanding it to something more than it is. She wants to know more than she does, but it aches to understand that. To know it and have to live with it without saying a word. 

“Get your finger off of me,” Deborah grounds out. Ava jumps, the tone eviscerating her well and good. It does little to quell what’s been boiling in Deborah’s belly though, the remnants still remaining. 

She slowly retracts her finger though and her brows furrow, but her eyes go soft. Pleading. Don’t do this, her silence practically screams. Something so readable, so easy to discern, and Deborah does it anyway. (Because she tells herself she has to.)

“Take the next date off,” Deborah almost chokes on her own words, is frightened by the hardness of them when she speaks. “Baton Rouge is in two nights and then we have a break before Memphis.”

“Deborah…”

“No,” Deborah responds firmly, holding up a hand. “You will do this. There’s no room for haggling or bartering. Take some time to deal with whatever is going on. We can meet in Tennessee six days from now.”

Ava’s gritting her teeth, Deborah can tell. She stays over to within inches of her and lowers her voice. “Fine, but if I agree, will you handle your shit too?”

“What shit?” Deborah responds haughtily. 

“Whatever the fuck is making you send me on a tour sabbatical so you don’t have to feel actual emotions. So we don’t have to talk about what’s going on between us.”

“Oh, there’s nothing going on between us.”

(There are things that neither of them know—about the chaos they’ve wrought on their own insides, of the things they’ve done in the wake of one another. 

While Ava had seen her own influence that had Deborah dishing out 1.69 million, she isn’t sure Ava understood that it was a response to her words. It happened again on the heels of the slap-heard-round-the-world, out of fear of having knocked contentment to loneliness with the movement of her hand. Deborah had elevated Marcus to CEO in addition to giving him a 10% raise. A small price to pay for loyalty. For not having to slip into solitude.

Deborah will never know that right after she had walked away from telling Ava’s companion about her deeper sexual experiences with women, Ava had kissed him with the raging of everything inside her veins she could never say. Better than the coke in her system, the Deborah Vance effect had her catapulting herself into locking lips with a man named George, who would fall from the sky like Icarus, all while thinking about the woman who had just walked away. About what it would be like to grab her by her antique tapestry and hold her in her hands)

“Yeah,” Ava nods. “So you keep saying. But you know what I think?” Her voice goes deadly. Quiet. Deborah watches the way Ava looks at her lips. She leans in like a kiss but then abruptly stops, catching Deborah’s eyes fluttering closed and her mouth parting. “I think you’re full of shit.”

And on a breeze, she’s gone, picking up her bag from a chair. She slings it over her shoulder and Deborah hears the door shut roughly. It’s then she decides to open her eyes. 

The room is empty again like so many other nights before. Like before before, when there was no Ava who came in like an angry little hurricane. Before before when Deborah hadn’t had to clutch at her sides in laughter from the way Ava affected her. In a life where she hadn’t gone to sleep with Ava’s leveled breathing in her ear after a Law and Order marathon that only Deborah made it through. Where they have shared sushi, increasingly frequent small touches, their hopes or fears or dreams, and all of the secrets that go with that. Parts of their own fucking hearts. 

A part of her can almost kid herself that it’s just like old times. But then the other part of her has to face reality: she didn’t pull away from Ava’s approach. If Ava had tried to do what she did before, Deborah wouldn’t have retreated from them finally coming together. 

She knows she has no right to look forlornly at the door, but she does. Knows that she will do the same in Baton Rouge when hair and makeup leave, when she exits the stage after the show and it’s only the quiet that comes. 

No matter what the world believes, she has feelings. Ones that she has to work incredibly hard to keep tamped down because no one can hurt you more than another human being. How much has she lost before to someone else? (Frank, Kathy…never Ava, she vows)

Deborah has dreams too. She dreams that there are no emails in the world, every computer and technological device ceasing to exist. She dreams of how she and Ava never lost that closeness they had begun to cultivate before it all got fucked.

It’s the longest six days she has lived in six decades. 

Chapter Text

The story should go like this: be one of the longest-running comedy show acts in the country. Still be selling tickets to shows, but let those ticket numbers slip a little. Just enough to have a couple of big wigs question things like viability and resonating factors.

Have them make a suggestion that the shit you’ve been writing for years by yourself could use a punch up—nothing big, of course. More like a little nip/tuck scenario where no one knows about the behind-the-scenes and everyone only sees a million bucks. 

Let the words come in with clomping boots that would rival Nine Inch Nails and pants better suited for David Copperfield. Have every single fiber tethered to emotion feel apprehension, hostility, and aloofness at being cornered into looking at something that the cat dragged in.

But then, have it reconstruct the very nature of that first and what felt like an ill-fated meeting. Observe. Listen. And oh, then laugh. 

Laugh like it’s not been something that’s been a part of every day for the last forty years. Have some of it crack or chip or crumble away, never cognizant of it because there’s just some unimaginable happiness filling the gaps of whatever slipped away. 

Stuff loud moments with it and the ones that would have been quiet too. Let it come between every one until everything is endless and whatever has been, whatever came before, ceases to exist. Listen, for once, to the yelling of your fucking heart.

Because this is how stories are written. Nothing is given away in the exposition. The characters don’t wave to the audience and speed toward the resolution, depriving the narrative of the best bits, the ah-ha’s! and the oh-no's. 

At least, that’s how Deborah thinks it should transpire. How she thinks it all should go. 

Because there’s not an exact moment that she falls for Ava Daniels. More like a lot of little moments she dismisses until they wallop her like a fucking mallet to the sternum. 

And when those feelings crack into ribs and expose heart, take the leap—even if it’s during a tits-out scene in Titanic on a night when promises were made to revisit some of the highlights of the ’90s.

All in good humor and acquiescence, of course. Deborah supposes it was residual from both the fun and equally frustrating night she had decided that getting a classic car to tote Ava around constituted as anything other than what she now knows it was.

About, consequently, having to tell Ava that the air between them was too thick to breathe and she needed to rest a little while. That she would be fine in Baton Rouge without her and that perhaps Memphis was a better place to join up with one another.

There are things you can and can’t say to a person after they’ve tried to kiss you, after you’ve pushed them away, after you’ve almost touched the forbidden part of yourself that you swore you would never let them have because it would be wrong. Almost throwing everything out of the window because it’s so damn hard to ignore now. 

Instead of sending someone to pick Ava up at the airport, Deborah had done it herself, holding one of those shitty handmade signs that you see in corny movies. She’d thought it clever and just the type of thing that would make Ava burst out with a disbelieving laugh. 

And she might have, well, before. But she didn’t then as she left the terminal and saw Deborah standing there. The fire usually in her green eyes had looked dimmer somehow. Ava looked weary in general.

Hugging her arms, she’d mostly looked from the sign to her feet. “I’m surprised you came.”

That’s about all it had taken for Deborah to hear the hurt still lodged in the woman’s throat. Little sign forgotten, Deborah had let it fall to the floor as she’d pulled Ava to her in a hug that left no room for anything else between them. 

Holding her there with a hand to the back of her head and gripping her tightly around the waist, Deborah had tried to say what her mouth could not. That the almost week they had been apart felt like a lifetime of grief. Thankfully, when she pulled back, the forgiveness had been there too. 

So began the routine again, the flow of them as close to the way it had been. In Wisconsin, Ava mentioned it—the thing that would bring irrevocable change. 

“Let’s do a ‘Say Yes’ night,” she said at the end of one of their writing sessions where changing out anecdotes had been on the agenda. 

“You really need to get a hobby and to stop binging Netflix until that sad little notification pops up that asks ‘Are you still watching?’ Or a cat. I hear lesbians love cats.” Deborah’s lips tugged upward. 

“I think you’re transposing the word ‘cats’ where ‘pussy’ should go, but I’m going to let both those suggestions slide and the fact that I know you know that I’m bi. Because you’d never dismiss someone’s sexuality,” Ava shot back, as dry as ever. 

“Still…”

“Don’t pretend you haven’t seen every season of Grace and Frankie and aren’t anxiously awaiting the final episodes,” Ava warned rather benignly. 

She had seen every season of Grace and Frankie because Ava made her watch it, despite Deborah’s protestations that Lily Tomlin was her arch-nemesis in the ’70s. Despite the fact that Lily had over a decade jump start on Deborah, who would eventually end up getting canned from her own endeavors. 

Well, guess who got the Time cover first? Suck on that, Lily. 

Deborah removed her glasses and sighed. “Where is this going?”

Ava shook her head. “Fine. If you have an aversion to stealing a page from the annals of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, then what about a 90’s night?”

“With airplane pants and a starter jacket? I get it, you’re bi. Let’s not go wild,” Deborah told her, finally closing her notebook with scribbles and rewrites. 

Ava frowned and Deborah continued. “I am old enough to remember the 90’s quite well, as I was suffering from every mid-life crisis known to exist.”

(Except a decidedly omitted one. A grand, existential event where coping involves mooning over a barely post-pubescent woman. Deborah knows the head cannon is all wrong, but it’s helped her fucking survive Ava since she came into her life)

“Let me plan it,” Ava’s voice was one step away from actually whining. 

A staredown ensued, Deborah idly wondering which one would back down first since they both had BDE when they wanted to, at completely inopportune times that pitted them against one another. 

And it would have just been a power play with someone else but with Ava it was something—the kind of shit that had Deborah not waiting for her to fold, per se, but being able to look uninhibited on the smattering of something like freckles across Ava’s nose and how the tip turned red when she was feeling something intensely. (Righteous indignation, side-splitting humor, belly-scooping grief)

Or how she had these little lines around her mouth when she moved it just so. How her eyes had specks of brown swirling around in the green which were so pale when lighting hit them sometimes, it was almost translucent. How that same light made her skin look as if it were practically glowing…

“Fine,” Deborah looked away, flexing her fingers in and out of a fist. It was an acquiescence she had not intended to make. 

She still doesn’t like to give Ava many wins because it might make her head as big as her hands. But still, she had given in. (Because there’s little she can say ‘no’ to anymore where Ava is concerned)

Which has led them to here, in Michigan, Ava sitting cross-legged like a toddler on a playtime mat, three deep into a 90’s movie marathon of selections Deborah is pretty sure Ava had to Google to come up with— Forrest Gump and Home Alone being the first two selections. When she pulls out the Titanic blu-ray, Deborah can’t help but groan.

“You’re going to make me watch an improbable romance framed around a historical tragedy with Leonardo DiCaprio’s annoyingly boyish face?” she says irritatedly. “I’d almost rather go out and see what the city of Grand Rapids has to offer rather than sit through his squeaky voice period.”

Of all the places to have a day off, this is it? Deborah makes a mental note to chastise Marcus about it. She’s sure if they had been anywhere other than here, she wouldn’t find herself in the situation she’s in.

“So you can handle Gary Sinese with no legs and Tim Curry as a concierge man, but you can’t handle Leo wooing Kate Winslet in his Oscar-worthy performance?”

“I know where to draw a line, Ava,” Deborah says and then stills a little. Perhaps that particular topic is still too fresh: the divide she’s created between them. 

Emotional divide. Because they’re still together as much as ever, if not more. Deborah had put the breaks on anything past friendship that night in Albuquerque, hadn’t she? Had let it fester until she couldn’t deal and had to have Ava run because she couldn’t. 

Let’s spend every waking hour in one another’s company and yes, I suppose it’s alright if you fall asleep in my bed sometimes when we are both very tired from a long day of shows or writing. Oh, and throw in some of our deepest, soul-rumbling secrets along with some kindness in the form of touches—but absolutely don’t call it what it is! No feelings!  

That’s when it hits Deborah full and complete, as they sit and bicker over whether or not she will actually sit through another 90’s film of mediocrity. Suddenly, it’s knocking her in the gut like a ton of bricks. 

She loves this woman. Probably in that awful, soul-ringing kind of way too. 

Deborah can’t retrace her steps and see a definitive point where it happened either. There’s not an exact moment where she’s fallen in love with Ava and that pisses her off as well. It’s been gradual and absolutely freaking ridiculous considering their Mariana Trench of an age gap. 

But even Ava’s youth, even when it’s grated on her a little, has never mattered all that much when it comes down to it. They meet in the middle a lot, Ava bringing out the young in Deborah and her pulling forth some old part of Ava’s soul. 

Deborah looks at Ava’s beat up Reebok’s that have seen better days. She pinches the bridge of her nose. By god, it’s somewhere in there, Deborah knows. Just maybe covered over exceptionally well or hidden so deep, no one goes looking for it or knows to check in the first place. 

After all, what other twenty-five-year-old would go apeshit on a dick of an antiquities salesman, all to get vintage salt and pepper shakers? None, that’s who. And Ava has been doing it since the beginning. 

“You draw a line at good cinema? Hmm, no accounting for taste then,” Ava’s eyes goad, but the expression also lets Deborah know she hammered that one in on purpose. Which Deborah guesses she deserves. 

“Start the damn movie,” she responds, a mix of snideness and annoyed appeasement bending her words. 

Deborah watches her smack her Fruit Stripes gum like a valley girl and she has to wonder where Ava found all of this in a pinch. There’s no way a Goodwill or a thrift store had the whole nightmare of a look, is there? Deborah decides that maybe since she refused to participate tonight, she could offer Ava an olive branch when they’re back in Vegas. Show her some solid 90’s fashion when she had her own penchant for shoulder pads. 

It’s been a long time since she’s seen the movie, so she and Ava do exchange some back and forths while the story is being set up. Gotta love a good exposition. The true moment the movie hits is when Rose DeWitt Bukater walks onto the screen and stuns. Deborah has to hand it to her—Kate Winslet knows how to command the screen.

“Just…fucking chef’s kiss,” Ava makes smacking noises with her lips as she squints her eyes and motions with the end of her fingers. 

Her hair bobs as she does, barely restrained on the side of her head with a scrunchie and the movement making her fanny pack squeak. She really did think of fucking everything. 

“Of course you’re in love,” Deborah shoves out a loud breath of air. “Catherine O’ Hara in Home Alone , Robin Wright and Sally Field in Forrest Gump . I should have known.”

“Homina, homina, am I right?” Ava shimmies her shoulders and plasters on an almost lecherous grin. 

“If this is how you act with her walking on the boat, I can’t imagine how you’ll act later on.” They both know the scenes that Deborah is referring to. 

“It’ll be nothing less than a coronary. If I flat line, do you know CPR?” The grin stays in place. So much for boundaries. It seems Ava has gotten past the rebuff as well as the week apart and is now doing what the both of them do best: poking fun at it.

“You little shit,” Deborah mutters under her breath. Knows that Ava is gunning to get as lucky as Jack Dawson’s boat ticket. But everything looks really good until it’s sinking, doesn’t it?

Ava’s eyes flicker back to the screen. “Can you believe, in the year of 2k21, Kate Winslet is not only still relevant but like…owning that shit? And by shit, I mean everything,” Ava swipes her hands about, much like Deborah has seen gamblers at the Vegas tables do when they win big, raking their chips toward them. “OMG, don’t even get me started on her role in Ammonite !” 

“What’s Ammonite ?” Deborah frowns.

“You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya!” Ava’s eyes roll back in her head, she holds up a hand to the sky and clutches her heart. 

Deborah watches the act in astonishment. “Did you just make an obscure reference for a fetus of your age?” Deborah squints, suspicious. “How have you heard of Sanford and Son ? You didn’t even know who fucking Alan Alda is.”

“I’ve brushed up on my late 70’s comedy,” Ava stops her carrying on. But she’s up on her knees and back to being even more animated when she remembers their topic of conversation. “But Deb—Ammonite? Truly a cultural masterpiece as far as queer fiction goes.”

“And this would be why…?”

Her face goes deadly serious. “Two words: face sitting.” She holds up a finger with each word, making a peace sign. Or something else. Ava’s not the only one that’s been brushing up.

“Oh, Jesus,” Deborah makes a face. She can’t look at Ava’s. “I share something nice and wholesome like I Love Lucy. You are wanting me to watch something that would show up on that Mr. Skin website you were talking about.” 

The button on her top becomes much too interesting at the moment. She doesn’t want to slip even further down the rabbit hole/Jabberwocky hell of a life or dreamscape where she’s even remotely wondering whether Kate Winslet is on the giving or receiving end of this face sitting and how exactly one would go about knowing which they’d prefer. 

“Next movie night, we are 100% watching it,” Ava turns back to the flatscreen and to chomping her gum. 

“Zero percent chance we are doing that. In fact, life would have to turn into a Robert Frost poem before I would do that at all.” Deborah hears the strain in her own voice. She’s still thinking about bare thighs, hands gripping at things to just hold on…

“The Road Not Taken?” Ava uses that piercing wit of hers to pin Deborah behind the shoulders.

“Fire and Ice. Do try to keep up.”

“Not everyone is a wanna-be Rhodes scholar, Deborah.” 

The banter goes back and forth, heightens everything by degrees just like it always does. Except it’s not the same at all. 

Deborah knows that in their normal life, within the parameters of the microcosm of Las Vegas, she would not have put herself into situations where the world seems to halt. Where another microcosm is created and there’s only she and Ava. 

This tour type of living has done a number on her social construct. Like putting together dates. Like dropping Ava off at the front steps of the hotel and wishing they could have given that 57’s backseat a story, a secret and beautiful one of them not being able to hold back anymore. Of Deborah taking more than she ever thought she could want or actually have. Of thinking about that in every waking moment since. 

They end up watching more of the movie than talking through it. Deborah would prefer for Ava to keep rambling on, but she hugs one of her legs with an arm and bites at the nail on her thumb while the other stretches out. Her eyes are glued to the screen because, well, the drawing scene is coming up.

Deborah can’t help but huff to herself, a smile gracing her features now. Ava and her inability to be subtle. 

Sure enough, Rose and Jack start to look at the behemoth diamond she’s been gifted and Deborah looks over to make sure Ava hasn’t turned into a pile of goop on the floor already. 

“You okay? Do I need to get you a paper bag to breathe into so you don’t hyperventilate?” Deborah teases. She’s pretty well versed with Ava’s ‘gay panic’ signs, so she starts looking. 

She’s clutching at her leg tightly, her face looking overwhelmed with emotion. “It’s like,” Ava begins, her voice tremulous. “I’ve seen her tits before. I mean, there were even pubes in the…”

“Face-sitting. I got it,” Deborah holds up a hand to halt the progress of her sentence even though she completes it herself. “I’ve not gotten a chance to wash out my brain from that particular memory, so trust me when I say it’s still there.”

“But it’s still special, you know? Kate Winslet truly is the G.O.A.T.” 

So goes Rose’s clothes, as she has requested to be sketched by her soon-to-be lover, and she’s standing completely in the buff. 

“Whew,” Ava looks flustered, even though this is a far cry from anything untoward. Yet. And even when it does get going, it’s fairly tame by 2021 standards. “Those…”

“Yeah, you and your thing for older women,” Deborah chides. She tilts her head, watching Jack be ‘so serious.’ In the spirit of 90’s night, Deborah knows she can be too, so she decides to change that in hopes it can be without repercussions or judgment. “They are good tits.”

“Even though Kate was definitely hitting a lot of marks here, she’s even better now. Like fine wine. Some older women are total smoke shows,” Ava explains. 

It’s then that Deborah realizes Ava could be staring at Kate Winslet’s pert breasts on the screen, yet her focus is fixed solely on Deborah. Those pale green eyes look like sea glass in a foggy sunbeam. 

Deborah huffs and wants to make a joke about how Ava seems to have a rather unhealthy grandma complex, among her other very obvious issues, but fuck . She knows that if she were a man, some absolute skeeze like Marty, having Ava on her arm wouldn’t even cause people to look twice. Because that’s how society works now, with the male gender being able to do almost whatever they want and whomever they want. 

There’s no standard to follow, nothing specific they have to wear or a particular way they have to act. They just get to be and is that really fair? Men get to sleep and fuck their way through life while women have to hang a “closed” sign on their vaginas after fifty like it’s Death fucking Valley. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. 

Rationally? Irrationally? Deborah finds herself fuming at the injustice of it. Of having to fit herself into another box just to conform to a standard society may not even have anymore. If she wants Ava, why should it matter to anyone but the two of them?

“How cliche is it if I kiss you while Kate Winslet’s breasts are on the screen?” Deborah finally gains enough courage to ask. 

Her metaphorical balls are huge right now. She hopes she doesn’t receive a verbal slap here but knows she full-on deserves it, if not an actual one. She’s coming on to an employee. That has to violate some sort of code of ethics or give Ava enough grievance to file a complaint with HR—but since there’s no HR, Deborah assumes it would be Marcus in this case. 

Ava chokes on her gum, it plopping out of her mouth in the ensuing spluttering cough. She beats at her sternum to dislodge whatever else has been thrown into chaos since Deborah’s question. Deborah would roll her eyes if her heart weren’t beating out of her chest.

“Um, yeah, that would be…” Ava stutters then does a motion in front of her face to try and compose herself. “Hah, wow, so, uh, what I’m trying to say here is…”

And god, it’s painful watching her struggle to even form a complete thought, so Deborah grabs her by her ridiculous fanny pack (hmm, they do have good uses) and kisses Ava while Rose and Jack begin to fuck in a car. 

From the second her lips touch Ava’s, it’s like the breath she’s been holding can finally be pushed out. Months and months of restraining the urge, too many hours spent wondering what it would be like if she threw her hands up in the air and let herself feel what has been inside of her for a while.

They glide against one another like skating on ice, graceful and delicate as Deborah’s right hand moves from the fanny pack on Ava’s hip to rest at the base of her skull. As she pushes closer to the woman to take as much as she can get. 

Deborah becomes another person kissing Ava. The old pieces fall away and every touch that Ava makes to Deborah paints another curve or line. This is what it must feel like to have all the power in the world, to feel absolutely effervescent. 

So good is all Deborah can think about as her hand starts to glide past Ava’s nape, up into the almost Pebbles style of hair and pulling the scrunchie out. Due to its elasticity, it falls away easily, and Ava’s hair cascades which allows Deborah’s fingers to thread. 

While part of her is surprised by her own actions, the only thing the other part can seem to think is how inadequate all the words are they create with each other, that they let flow between them. A whole other language passes between them and now, this right here, can’t be described with any of them. 

Now it’s Ava’s turn to do the moving and she wraps her fingers around Deborah’s blouse, pulls her on top of her until they’re writhing against each other on the couch. 

Deborah would liken what she’s doing to Ava to riding a bike, something one pulls from the recesses and just knows how to do. Except Deborah hasn’t ridden a bike in probably fifty fucking years, so this ride she’s warming up for as Ava’s thigh slots between hers kind of scares the ever-loving shit out of her. 

“Ah!” she actually pants when said thigh connects, and Deborah has to jerk her hips away before this all gets incredibly embarrassing on her part. 

Ava looks worried, like she’s been knocked into reality instead of some apparition where Deborah being on top of her, with her thigh grazing where Deborah has been wanting it, is not the type of thing that ever happens. Immediately, she apologizes. (Because that’s what she does these days)

“Shit, Deborah, I’m sorry. I just went all in and didn’t even think to check with you…”

“It’s not that,” Deborah works to calm her breathing because even though Ava is offering platitudes, her thigh hasn’t moved. “At the risk of making a colossal joke out of myself right here, we probably need to slow down.”

The meaning of that doesn’t land. Until it does. Ava’s eyes go wide and the way she looks down at where she’s settled between Deborah’s legs makes Deborah absolutely burn. She splutters out a pained laugh. 

“It’s just…been a while,” Deborah tries to explain. Because the last time she invited someone to her bed was months ago—over half a year. And while it would be completely embarrassing to admit she’s feeling the effects of her caged desires, she probably wouldn’t make it through many more of Ava’s touches even though she also imagines a world where that’s exactly what she gets to feel. “I can’t…it would be too teenage boy I think and that’s just sad.”

“I would go slow, Deborah. We could do other things. Fuck, we can do nothing at all if that’s really what you want.”

“God, no,” Deborah frowns, looking at the sincerity etching Ava’s face. She just has to touch her, so she does. Rubs her hand along the slope of her cheek and the curve of her jaw. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this turned on in my entire fucking life.”

The admission is frank, raw, honest, and so polar opposite to everything Deborah has done so far. She would spend some time wondering what Ava has done to her to have her mounting the woman, but she’s thought about it incessantly. Plus she’s the one who has made the first move.

Ava swallows, brushing at the edges of Deborah’s short hair. Like every other trope, she closes her eyes and revels in it. Loving the way her hands touch her even though she’s poked fun at them from the very first second she met the wonder below her. 

“Not like, ever?” Ava hedges.

“Okay, now who’s fishing?” Deborah furrows her brows then shakes her head. But the cynicism isn’t deep. Her face softens by degrees. She must concede. “But no, I haven’t. Maybe there’s been this whole part of me I’ve been denying for a long time.”

The words shouldn’t choke her up, but they do. To think that the key to unlocking her would be in the form of a twenty-six year old writer whom she didn’t even want to meet in the first place, someone who made the first impression of being a petulant little shit. A person who has become simply everything. 

“Deborah,” Ava lets out on a sigh. Airy but full of emotion. 

“Can we maybe put a pin in this, circle back another time? Heaven knows I don’t want to wait, but also, it’s probably for the best.” 

“I’ve been staring at tits all night. Can I at least get a palm-full of yours?” She smiles, but there is some reservation in it too. There’s the grand split between wanting to break the tension and not being able to let go. To make a quip and mean the words all the same. 

“I take that back. Now who’s being all handsy like a teenage boy? Also, I’m pretty sure my own tits will be engulfed by those things,” Deborah nods toward where Ava holds her neck, her hip. The smirk on her face is goading Ava into doing exactly what she wants. 

“So you’re giving me consent to test out that hypothesis?”

“Ava, just touch me already.” And she takes her hand from resting on her neck to slowly track it down until surprisingly steady fingers are cupping Deborah’s left breast.

She sucks in an inhale, closes her eyes again against the feel of Ava holding her. Don’t miss a second , her mind seems to say, so she opens them and looks down to Ava’s gentle hold. It’s Deborah’s turn to swallow. “Well, will you look at that.”

The woman’s thumb brushes, her voice pure wonder. “I guess we have our answer.” 

Looking at the way Ava’s hand fits around her, Deborah shakes her head in disbelief. “All this time I’ve been making the same old joke.” She lifts her eyes to meet Ava’s green. “And we fit perfectly together.”

Her heart lurches, tumbles at her words. Ava surges up in a frantic kiss, never moving her hand. Another thing in a growing list of perfections, the way they know just how to move their mouths against one another.

“Still so much better than Kate Winslet,” Ava smiles against Deborah’s lips.

Deborah can’t help but let out a burst of laughter, the peal of which bounces around in the air. No part of her can be disappointed that they doze off like this together. That she wakes up with Ava in her arms. 

Chapter Text

He looks at her as if she’s an open book, pages flapping open and easy for the world to read. It’s that same blankness he gets when he has to be around the writer at any point in time, his face devoid of emotion when deep down, he’s screaming into a void. 

At one point, Deborah used to find this amusing. Now, she finds it exasperating. The fact that neither of them can share a room without trying to one-up the other one, more on his part than hers. 

“What?” Deborah crosses her legs and folds her arms across herself. Trying to project an air of aloofness mixed with tepid curiosity. Body language that says yes, I’ll indulge you but only for a little while. 

Marcus looks about as put together as he always does, which means he’s absolutely flawless. But Deborah has had years of learning his tells, however minute. She can see the way he flexes his jaw, a sure sign that what he’s about to discuss is something he wishes he never had to say. 

“We’re coming up on the final leg of your tour,” he starts slowly. 

“Yes, I can count, so I’m well aware of that,” Deborah responds. Not to be an asshole, but to lead this horse to whatever water he’s trying to get her to also drink from. 

“Well, since we agreed to meet here in D.C, I thought we might go over the plan for what comes next.” He holds his hand poised over a leather-bound notebook that’s been flipped open on the hotel desk he’s sitting at. “Where we plan to take the brand.”

“I thought I’d agreed to do P.R. in two weeks up in New York, maybe do a bit of early morning press for the tour as well as tease the follow-up book deal we just inked a month ago,” Deborah goes through her mental Rolodex, thinking of how to allow Marcus to really exercise his abilities best. 

“Promoting the tour could help it gain a bit of additional traction as you get ready to close out,” he nods. “I can see if GMA or The View has a spot open. I’m not sure how I feel about already offering a teaser of the book though. It’s still in the early stages of development, so there are a lot of details to iron out.” He glances at Deborah quickly as he types but then looks down again. 

Deborah knows why he’s hesitant for her to bring up anything relating to the content of a new book. Because it’s not in the same vein as Chelsea Handler or Tina Fey. It’s the unfunny shit that she’s been going up on stage and telling three times a week, truncated but still raw and candid. Aka, her and Ava’s shit. Not her and Marcus.’

“The company agreed to the outline. They put down a hefty advance,” she reminds.

“Yes,” he acts as if he’s choosing his words carefully. As if he doesn’t always do so.”I just wouldn’t want to rush it.”

Deborah waves that off, clearly not wanting to get tangled between another molehill that’s turned into a mountain between her CEO and her writer. Well…

Her writer before Deborah agreed to watch old movies and then decided to throw caution to the wind. Before she had let her mouth collide with Ava’s because it had been all she could think about for months on end. 

But it’s only happened once. A one time kiss, in the  fucking cheese state, of all places, that had led to Deborah applying the breaks because self-doubt rose up and stomped on her courage. So really, Deborah is the queen of not ‘rushing it’ because she’s had the patience of a fucking saint where Ava is concerned. 

None of which she can share with her CEO. Because one mention of Ava’s name has him coming up with any excuse to change the subject or push her under a speeding bus in his mind. Something very Mean Girls, Deborah imagines. 

“Let’s get a meeting with the publishers when we are in Boston then. I’m sure they have a bit of time for us to go over the specifications,” Deborah suggests as a way to assuage some of his fears. 

“Mmm,” Marcus hums, clear dissatisfaction twisting the chords in his throat. So much so, a hand goes up to touch it. “You’re actually booked solid on your Boston date.”

Deborah narrows her eyes, confused. She snaps a little. “I’ve got this evening in Washington, two nights in New York City next week, and a show in Boston the week after. You can’t secure a meeting three weeks out?”

“No, I could,” Marcus says the words slowly. Clearly stalling…something. “But you have no room in your schedule to meet with the publishers in three weeks.”

“Christ, I know I need the occasional pick-me-up with remembering the logistics of every single hour of my day, but I don’t remember having little to no wiggle room.” She pauses, thinking. “I’m doing a straight set that night, no opening act. That won’t make for a late evening, so surely the next morning would be available.”

“Right, so actually…” at this, he finally trails off. He swallows, then shakes his head. Flipping open an iPad case, he pulls up the calendar and shows the blocked off time. 

Leaning over, she studies the Boston date. Arrival at 9 a.m, pre-show interviews at 2. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe begin at 4 with curtain at 7. With a runtime of close to two hours, that puts the show wrapping a bit after nine. She should be back at the hotel within the hour. Except…

Where there should be space and time, there is another chunk taken up, but no descriptors indicate what’s happening. Of what she’s committed to after the show ends. 

“What’s happening here?” Deborah points to the screen, indicating the source of her confusion. 

Just as Marcus opens his mouth to speak, Ava comes through the door with a smile on her face. The one she seems to keep now that she and Deborah have shared something that only the two of them know. Marcus’s agreeability noticeably fades and he gathers his things. 

The iPad cover closes and she shoots him a pointed look at his wanting to suddenly depart. “I can get back with you later, but you’re booked during the Boston date.” 

“What’s going on here?” Ava glances back between the two of them. Deborah is sure the tension is easy to read a mile away. 

“This one here has me ass over teakettle on trying to figure out my schedule for the next few weeks,” she points to Marcus who looks like he’s gritting his teeth, and Ava turns. 

That’s when something peculiar happens. A look passes between them, one not filled with scorn or annoyance, but it flits by so quickly, one not skilled in the art of subtlety might miss it. Ava is almost inconspicuous. 

“I mean, maybe just take him at his word, yeah? How many times has he led you astray?” Ava tries and Deborah reels.

“Are we in backward land or something right now?” It’s a genuinely fine question considering she can’t remember a singular time Ava has ever worked in tandem with Marcus or him with her. “Where’s the vitriol between the two of you?”

Marcus looks Ava up and down, from her well-worn Converse to her button-up top over a fucking t-shirt. Like she’s not been a presence for almost a year and he’s just seeing her for the first time. He rolls his eyes and holds up a hand. 

“I’ve got a call to make,” he announces, looking at the ceiling when he says it. Anything to avoid eye contact. Deborah squints her own as she watches him leave.

“So what’s up with the schedule?” Ava feigns innocence. 

“You tell me since something clearly just happened between you and Marcus,” Deborah lightly accuses. 

“I just thought maybe I should try to placate him every chance I get so he will hate me less,” Ava shrugs. 

Perhaps she truly doesn’t know, but Deborah is on high alert until Ava is glancing back to the door. Deborah knows what’s happening. 

Judging that they’re alone, Ava turns back around and looks actually shy. Timid even. She scoots closer but doesn’t touch Deborah, doesn’t make her way nearer to the chair where she sits. Her voice is quiet when it comes out. 

“Do you have a chance to talk?” Ava frowns at her word choice, leaning back a little. “Wow, yeah, okay. That makes it sound like we have some sort of problem. For the record, there’s no problem, really…”

“I hear a ‘but’ coming,” Deborah intercepts.

“However,” Ava enunciates the word. 

“Still the same,” Deborah does her own eye rolling and removes her glasses, placing them folded onto the table. “Ava, what’s going on?”

“I just…really fucking miss you, alright?” she whispers.

Deborah can’t help it. She laughs. “We’ve been together pretty much the whole time.

“No, I mean…” she pauses and glances back again to make sure no one is around. Satisfied they’re still only a pair, she tries again. “I miss you, Deb.”

Oh. 

So this is what it must feel like to swallow your own tongue in your mouth. 

The words come out thick. “I know everything has been chaotic, but we’ve been hitting bigger venues, which require more prep time.” What is it she’s trying to say exactly? She sighs, rubbing her face. “It’s not as if I’m trying to avoid you.”

“Hey, I know that too, okay?” Ava reaches forward to hold Deborah’s hand. “We are never alone these days and rather frustratingly, that’s all I want to be.” 

“Me too,” slides out of Deborah’s mouth before she can wrangle it back. Ava gapes. “But with the tour winding down, I’ve had to keep a bigger team to see us to the end.” She plays with Ava’s fingers. “So that maybe we can get to just us for a little while.”

Ava actually groans out loud, squeezing Deborah’s hand. “Geez, how many shows are left?” She sounds in physical pain. Deborah knows a thing or two about that as well. 

“We set out for a 35 date tour.” The way Ava’s face falls reflects some of Deborah’s own inner turmoil. The end still seems so far away.

“We’ll make it though,” Ava tries to boost herself up, Deborah up too. “We always do.”

“We’ve made it through so much worse,” Deborah tilts her head and smiles small.

“Yeah,” Ava agrees. A squeeze. “We have.”

***************

The way life passes in a blur the next few weeks is both astounding and troublesome. Deborah blows through the D.C. show and barrels through New York. All moments are cram packed with events, signings, interviews. 

They’re boarding the plane to Boston and Deborah sinks into the leather seats of her private jet. “I apologize for my carbon footprint at the moment but…” she lets out a long sigh. “I’ve never been more glad to be rich than right now.”

Ava laughs as she buckles the strap across her hips. Deborah thinks about gripping them, about stolen kisses in halfway lighting. But there’s been hardly any time, and they’re still hanging on at the singular. She’s only been able to touch Ava partially the way she wants to, still wants to, in Michigan—almost a month ago. 

Deborah watches Ava unfold a magazine, something mind rotting like US Weekly or the likes. She has no idea why she keeps drivel like that stocked until she shifts her eyes forward and sees the absolute divas sitting in front of her. 

Marcus would argue that she’s keeping abreast of all of the business news while Damien would argue it gives her tips to avoid faux pas that so many other celebrities find themselves in. 

She shakes her head as Ava flips almost idly, obviously not caring about any of the content. Taking this as a chance, with said divas currently going back and forth over the itinerary for Boston, Deborah leans over and lowers her voice. Tries to give them a semblance of aloneness even though they’re with other people.

“Will you visit your mom when we’re in Boston?” 

Ava stiffens a little. Deborah can see the tension in her shoulders as she stills. Just as quickly, she shrugs, nods, and frowns. “Uh, yeah, I guess? I probably need to see her. I’d be a shitty daughter if I went to Boston and didn’t head over to Waltham.” She looks at Deborah now. “Right?” Her face scrunches up. “That’d be asshole of me?”

“You’re wanting me to call you out on your behavior? Since when?” Deborah raises her eyebrows.

“Since,” Ava begins but then glances at Marcus and Damien at the front of the plane. They’re not paying attention. “Fine, since you sort of put your tongue in my mouth.”

“Jesus,” Deborah chokes. 

“But before that too. Look, I’ll visit. Do you think we can get a car for me to go out there?”

“Consider it done,” Deborah assures. Now it’s her turn to glance at Marcus and Damien. Still absorbed elsewhere. “And about that tongue-in-cheek situation…” she wants to reach out to Ava but knows she can’t chance it. Her hand goes to her throat, pushes up a bit past it to cover her mouth. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”

The magazine lands with a plop on Ava’s lap. She whispers in disbelief. “Oh, god…” Turning, she brings the magazine back up, still shit at being inconspicuous. “Are we really doing this? I mean, they’re right there.” 

She makes a jerking motion with her head and Deborah can only find great amusement in it. For a writer, sometimes Deborah thinks Ava would make a great comedian. She’s certainly got the spunk for it.

“So you don’t want me to tell you I can’t get Grand Rapids out of my mind?”

Ava stares at Marcus and Damien, biting the inside of her cheek. It’s like she’s refusing to face Deborah. Like she can’t. “No…” 

Deborah leans over a bit, glad that Barry is in between them so she can use the opportunity to pet him and also get closer to Ava. “Or that I’m wondering what those oh so great hands of yours can do a little lower than on my breast.”

“Hah!” Ava lets loose and immediately Marcus and Damien look up at her, clearly thinking she’s gone mad. She nods and scrunches her nose, turning the shade of a beet. “That’s just fuckin’ great. Really, a good one.”

Deborah glances over to the two at the front of the plane and shrugs, scratching Barry behind the ears. He proceeds to flop on his back, hind legs in the air. 

“If you don’t watch out, the first chance I get, I’ll have you looking like Barry there,” Deborah hears her say and now it’s her turn to laugh. 

There’s the Ava she’s become used to, the one that challenges and has an answer to almost everything Deborah can come up with. Finally, she can admit that this does something to her, the back and forth. That it always has. 

Delicious anticipation rolls through her, making her shiver a little. Her earlier reservations seem miles away, as if she never had them in the first place. 

Deborah may have been born in ‘51, but she hasn’t felt truly living until now. Looking at Ava, she supposes that a beautiful woman can have that effect. That your open eyes can be unfocused until something or someone comes along and gives everything a stark clarity. That just because you breathe doesn’t mean you’re alive. 

In her late sixties, she has no idea who she is anymore and doesn’t care much either. Something that should keep her awake, tossing and turning in a bed that’s going to get fuller. Like that writing isn’t on the wall. Ava doesn’t even have to pen it because Deborah knows she will invite her there soon. It’s just a matter of when.

She hopes that when the time comes, she can make Ava too.

******************

“I’m still Deborah Vance!” she signs off, waving to the crowd and doing her little leg kick to close the show.

She and Ava can rewrite her act a thousand times, but she refuses to let go of the salutation that she’s had for as long as she can remember. Even though the material is a bit heavier in tone and the jokes spread out more, it’s still her life and for that reason, she reminds the crowd too.

She also says it to remind herself. You’re still you even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it. This Deborah isn’t as recognizable because she isn’t going home alone. She doesn’t feel the bottom drop out of her gut or heart anymore. Instead, it feels like she glides along on the wings of butterflies because somewhere, out there in the night, there might be Ava now.

But when Marcus meets her as she exits the stage, she growls a little bit. Right—the previous engagement that she still doesn’t know what the fuck is happening. 

It’s 9:30 and she would like nothing more than to seek out the face she’s been missing the last few hours. To say fuck it and steal a kiss while hopefully no one is looking. Three weeks is too long to wait to feel Ava’s lips, she decides. 

“Might as well tell me what kind of gig I have to do next since you’ve been less than forthcoming on the details,” Deborah enters the dressing room and does a once over in the mirror, tucking a strand of hair here and there, smoothing everything down. When Marcus doesn’t answer, she turns around, ready. “Well, let’s go.”

“Actually,” he appears hesitant, awkward. Not his usual confident self. He glances down to his iPad but doesn’t really look at it. “You need out of hair and makeup.”

Deborah stares at him blankly. “Is this a joke?” She watches as his eyes narrow. “What on earth could you have scheduled for me that I’m supposed to show up without looking like this?” She motions up and down her stage attire, swirls her hands around her face. 

“The request was no frills, so I’m adhering to that,” Marcus says evenly.

“No frills, he says,” Deborah scoffs. “Trust me when I say no one wants to see that.”

“I do,” comes from behind them and both she and Marcus turn around. And Deborah loses her goddamn breath. 

Ava stands in the doorway looking absolutely radiant. Her hair is in soft waves like the night of DJ’s birthday party and she glows. Deborah traces her form down to the tasteful green dress with a tied sash around her slender waist and, the world is truly ending, a pair of nude, pointed-toe flats. Not some combat boots or sneakers. 

Her lipstick is more of a gloss, a pale pink that Deborah immediately thinks about testing the quality of. Wonders how quickly she could smear it. Her gold chains hang around her throat and she’s wearing a heavy watch that doesn’t go with any of it. Deborah knows it’s her dad’s and that she never takes it off anymore. The gleam of its face redraws her attention to Ava’s hands which hold a beautiful bouquet of roses, purple and pale pink. 

Like on her fucking nightstand in her bedroom. A place she had bade Ava never to come in. Almost like foreshadowing. Deborah knowing somehow, right then and there, that she couldn’t bear the thought of Ava in there because of the trust she couldn’t place in herself not to do something rash.

“Ava,” Deborah manages to sound, hearing the stunned quality of her words. She glances to Marcus, then back to Ava. “What’s going on?”

“Can’t you tell?” Marcus sounds rather bored or completely put out. Maybe both. “This one here is trying to woo you.”

Ava just grins at him, shifting the roses in her hand. He meets her gaze, giving nothing away. It’s then that Deborah finally sees what’s going on.

“You’ve conspired with one another to plan this,” she breathes out in utter shock. The two of them can’t be in a room more than five minutes most of the time. How they’ve managed to agree to let Deborah have this time tonight—it’s beyond her comprehension. 

“It was a feat, I assure you,” Marcus anticipates the unspoken thought. He casts his eyes back to Ava, pursing his lips. “So she better not mess it up or you will be doing book signings after shows until you develop carpal tunnel.”

“Then how would I take advantage of this wooing if I couldn’t use my hands,” Deborah twists her hand around at the wrist. 

Wide eyes and a palm go up. “Right. That’s my cue to leave.”

“Oh, please,” Deborah scolds. “You and the water cop probably christened every surface of my house.” She sees he wants to protest but now she holds up a hand. “I think that if I want to show Ava a good time eventually , a gay man would be able to handle that detail.”

Ava looks fairly scandalized and is reaching for Deborah’s wrist on one hand and stuffing the bouquet under her other arm. “What, did you take a page from my book of oversharing? Shit, Deborah.” She lets Ava pull her along. “Goodnight, Marcus!”

It’s much too chipper and Deborah might stop to think about how much she’s just given away, about her wants and desires and things she hasn’t even been able to speak. But Ava is close and touching her wrist where her jacket doesn’t reach as she pulls her behind the door to the bathroom. Deborah is instantly pressing into her, running a hand along her cheek.

“Are we skipping right to the good part?” She leans in, nuzzles Ava’s ear. She feels the woman’s whole body shake as she laughs. Feels a kiss to the shell of her ear before a whisper. 

“No, I was serious about the no-frills part,” Ava reminds, backing away. Her palms hold Deborah’s face in her hands. “I want the nine a.m. and swigging a Diet Coke Deborah Vance. The ‘let’s sit at a blackjack table and have some fun’ Deborah Vance. The zebra pajamas wearing Deborah Vance and the flannel-wearing, pond fishing Deborah Vance. God, Deb. I want the you that the world doesn’t get to see and every version in between.”

And just like that, a month fades into oblivion as Ava leans in and tenderly takes Deborah’s lips against her own. It’s wonderful and fleeting and leaves Deborah sighing in empty air after Ava pulls away. She also maybe lets out a groan. 

“We keep each other on edge for a whole fucking month…”

“So what’s a few more hours then?” Ava waltzes into Deborah’s statement. “I promise to make it worth your while later on.”

Deborah can’t fight the shiver that prickles goosebumps on her skin. So this is what it’s like to be in lust. So this is what it’s like to be in love. God, it’s been a while. 

*****************

Fresh-faced and wig free, Deborah exits the backstage door to the venue, finding Ava waiting like a chivalrous knight. Or graceful maiden. Deborah isn’t sure which role she’s fulfilling in this getting-swept-off-her-feet scenario. 

The car waits and Ava reaches out for her, lacing their fingers together and holding Deborah’s hand as she helps her into the vehicle. Once they’re in, she scoots closer, the silky green material brushing up against Deborah's pants. She moves her hand from holding Ava’s to touch the bare skin of Ava’s knee where her dress has fallen away. She lets her fingers curl, intention pressing into skin.

Ava’s eyes flutter shut, even from the simplicity of the touch. Deborah can’t blame her. They’ve had so little time to be in one another’s presence freely. Something about having Marcus know now, all from Ava’s directive too, lights Deborah up from the inside. 

“So where are you taking me?” Her voice is as silky as Ava’s dress. 

God, the way she wants. It’s overwhelming, heady. She’s not sure what Ava has planned or still what this is even for yet, but she knows tonight is the night. Tonight, she will invite Ava into her bed. 

“So,” Ava begins, covering Deborah’s hand on her knee with her own. She locks eyes with Deborah. “I colossally fucked up your 2,500 show in Vegas. It never should have happened the way it did and…”

“Ava,” Deborah cuts in, placing the hand once on her knee now on her cheek. “You didn’t. If anything, I’m the one who messed everything up to hell.” She’s apologized to Ava all of one time. There’s so much more she needs to do. “I’d take it all back if I could.”

“Hey, shh. That’s not what tonight is about at all. This is about you. And us. Or what I want to be the start,” Ava tries to soothe Deborah’s guilt to smooth lines instead of hard edges.

Deborah raises an eyebrow. “So I should let you woo me like Marcus says?” 

“Something like that,” Ava turns and places her lips on Deborah’s wrist, holding her hand against her cheek. 

They drive out of the city, a sign boasting Waltham popping up not too far along. Deborah assumed Ava had spent the day here as she was noticeably absent from tonight’s show. She didn’t feel she had the right to ask for every detail after she had made sure a car was at Ava’s disposal. 

After all, there’s no time period for grief. It takes as long as it takes. Some days feel heart-wrenching, and others almost pass as normal. Ones where you can almost kid yourself that the one missing isn’t really missing at all. 

When Deborah turns, Ava is looking out the window. Her eyes stay trained on what passes them by, but her hand keeps hold of Deborah’s. She always seems to know the questions Deborah wants to ask before she can speak them.

“Mom’s good. Mom’s…mom,” Ava sighs, shaking her head. “I think her head wanted to explode when I told her I was going to ask you to be my girlfriend.”

Deborah gives Ava a wry look at the terminology. She’s too old for this shit, to be thought of in that way but if they’re looking for the right term to place a name to what’s going on between them, Deborah is at a loss too.

“She gave her blessing, by the way,” Ava smirks. 

“Remind me to send a thank-you note to Mama Daniels then,” Deborah quips, but then the words fizzle out in her throat. 

They’re driving up a gravel path, trees peeking through the foggy Massachusetts night. It’s like something out of a Washington Irving story, a silver pearl moon poking through the haze and casting a spectral glow on the grounds. 

That is until they reach a stone facade with a warm golden glow radiating from the plethora of windows. The electricity bill for the place must be astronomical.

“What’s this?” Deborah asks. 

“You couldn’t be the only one making grand gestures here,” Ava says by way of explanation. “I mean, swooping in to crash my dad’s funeral with a bit of humor was definitely in my Top 3 Deborah Vance moments ever. Not sure I’ll top that, but I’m sure as shit going to try.” 

They come to a stop and Ava slides quickly from the seat, moving much quicker than Deborah would have expected in flats, considering she’s hardly ever worn them a day in her life she suspects. The door pops open with Ava waiting, hand proffered like every expectation one has for being swept along. Deborah isn’t a swooner, but holy fuck…

They walk into the dwelling, rich amber wood meeting her eyes in the form of delicate woodwork. From shelving to ceilings to banisters to floors, the place is a carpenter’s wet dream. In the middle of the room, there’s a small bistro table with a wine bucket, bottle sticking out. Taper candles flicker despite the light and rose petals dust the table—the same color as Deborah’s bouquet. 

“Pretty grand,” Deborah murmurs as she looks around.

“Stonehurst is mostly for uppity bitches who want to tank their lives and have extravagant weddings. I decided since we couldn’t ruin a perfectly fine Chevy, maybe we could debase a post-Civil War estate,” Ava waggles her eyebrows. 

Right. Because that is what they’re barreling toward. Deborah feels the panic rising in her, just like last time she was faced with this. Of how she wants to be good at something she’s not done once in her entire fucking life. That night, Ava had let her stop, but she can’t keep saying no forever out of fear.

“Or…”

“No ‘ors or ‘ands’ or ‘buts.’ If you play your cards right, which you should have learned by now, Jesus, then you should hit your number,” Deborah steps into Ava, placing one finger to her lips to quiet her and the other to wrap possessively around her hip. 

“Oh, fuck, I remember the last asshole to make a ‘69’ joke, but I really want to here,” Ava acts as if she’s in agony by not being able to let loose what she’s thinking. 

“If that guy got 1.69 million out of me—and let’s be honest, he was a huge fucking annoyance—then imagine what I could give you seeing is that I actually have quite a few favorable emotions toward you?” Deborah tries for smoldering seductress. She’s quite shit at it, but Ava looks like she could become a puddle at her feet. 

Ava straightens an imaginary collar around her throat and makes a face. “Oh, shit, Deb. Say less.” Afterward, she throws out a Cheshire grin and begins pouring the white wine from the bottle after she uncorks it. “Would it woo you quicker if I told you I totally paid $58 bucks for this bottle?”

“Wow, what a connoisseur you are,” Deborah pokes a little but takes the proffered glass. She looks out the large window that overlooks the property. Fog rolls across the grounds and Deborah takes a sip. “And is that a hound I hear baying on the moors?”

“Don’t act like you aren’t impressed as shit with this,” Ava shakes her head, takes a less than delicate gulp of wine. Her face goes pensive then. “Is it working?”

Being closer to winter now, the world is getting colder now. She’s surprised Ava isn’t freezing in her lovely dress. 

“Is what ‘working’?” Deborah smiles sweetly over the rim of her wine glass, admiring that dress and knowing damn well what Ava is talking about. While she’s not exactly a mess in her slacks, she’s definitely working on all cylinders, so to speak. 

And it feels both refreshing and peculiar to be experiencing this ‘Vanciassance’—-she might as well embrace it—that Ava keeps referring to. To have lived a whole life, sometimes even enough for multiple lives, and be faced with a brand new prospect. Something that she hasn’t really tried because she’s been lining up at the all-you-can-eat beard buffet.

But maybe that’s all they have been—beards. Frank had felt like something, but he robbed Deborah of a lot by the end. Everyone after was a chalk outline. People Deborah never allowed to get filled in because of the way Frank had ended things, the way Kathy had tried to explain to her that her focus had shifted and he had needed her. 

There’s a concept that Deborah hasn’t picked apart in a long while. There’s always been too gray a line between it and want, so she’s done a lot of the latter because it seemed like a good idea. All because she could. 

Deborah may never understand the intricacies between the two, but she’s beginning to get a handle on her own fucking heart. Setting the wine glass down onto the table, she steps slowly (deliberately) toward Ava, running her fingers from Ava’s shoulder to her elbow. She knows her eyes blaze. Something in her knows that wants and needs don’t exactly matter right now because everything is Ava. Everything is the two of them. 

The kiss she gives to Ava is one that’s been growing in the spaces between the last one and the present. It’s formed and molded from all of the moments that Deborah wishes she’d been able to steal, but couldn’t because of the tour and her own mental and emotional blocks. She answers her own question with her lips. 

It’s not as if she had planned on finally tipping them over into one another, literally, when she followed Ava through the door to this estate. She had assumed she’d have enough restraint to pull them from their final tethers so that they could fall into one another. 

Yet here Deborah is, pulling away from Ava’s lips and encouraging her to tip her head back with her hand behind her ears. Silently commanding Ava to show the slope of her throat so that Deborah can kiss there. Inhaling the scent she’s been chasing in her waking hours and dreams since Albuquerque. Since Houston and Grand Rapids. 

The way Ava sways against Deborah’s lips is akin to dancing in some way, her body having to be held up by Deborah’s hands. “Ava,” she whispers as her nose runs a path between the carotid and shell of an ear. Wrung clean of breath.

“You’re right,” Ava pants, making a strangled noise when Deborah grabs a bit of the fabric on either of her hips. “I wasn’t a cool kid. I didn’t like my life here and I never have.” She backs away from Deborah’s roaming. “This is going to sound crazy but…I think you make me cool though. Like—exponentially so. And if I get to stand here and tell the Deborah Vance that I’m completely in love with her, I think I’ll be in the fucking stratosphere.”

She stops, brushes the blonde hair back from Deborah’s face. Deborah can’t help the way her heart leaps in her chest at the declaration. They really are here, aren’t they?

“I highly doubt I’m giving you ‘cool factor,’ Ava. After all, I’m…”

“Frustrating and hard-headed. You have one of the biggest hearts I know, but rarely let on all you do for other people. Humble to a fault when it matters and bougie as fuck the rest of the time. You’re the brightest star I see in any sky and I’m 100% head over heels, stupid in love with you,” Ava sighs by the end of it, her face holding every ounce of her words. 

They’re not at Deborah’s swanky mansion. There are no silk carpets to fuck on. She knows her back won’t hold out if she lays them down on the lovely wooden floor. Instead, she improvises and leads Ava to the staircase leading up. One she has no intention of climbing. 

Ava watches as Deborah sits on a step, leaning back against another one with her elbows behind her. Something between come hither and this might not be as sexy as I want it to be, but I can’t wait any longer. She hooks her finger at Ava, beckoning her forth. 

She comes to the stair at Deborah’s feet, hesitant. Held back by something. Maybe, Deborah hopes, the command to get nearer. It’s that tenuous sense of control like she’s got all the cards in her hand, waiting to play them at just the right moment.

But even though this is similar to a rush of Vegas adrenaline, this isn’t Deborah sitting across from a blackjack table anticipating Kiki’s hit. This isn’t waiting for that sweet feeling of the space in between a joke and the payoff laugh. Certainly nothing like that right rope line of Deborah’s both soul-wrenching love and absolute irritation with DJ. Of all Deborah’s greatest feelings, this will be beyond anything she knows how to truly handle.

And it’s like Ava knows exactly what to do because she’s walking forward until her knees hit Deborah’s, the swish of her dress whispering across the black of slacks and the creaminess of thighs. 

She watches the whole time, hawklike, as she places first one knee and then another on either side of Deborah, effectively wedging her between her legs. But she doesn’t sink, instead hovering above.

“So much for being a power top,” Ava murmurs, amusement lilting her words.

Deborah would love to take the joke, but she can’t. Part of her is still stuck in some vagary of before, or at least one she took at such when it occurred. Now, it feels a bit like a haunting. Putting a hand on the back of Ava’s knee, she slowly trails up bare skin. She watches her action until she’s holding the back of Ava’s thigh.

Her blue eyes flicker up, her mouth already forming the thought. “The first time you told me you loved me, I was watching you jog out of a theater.” And then you tried to leave for good. Somewhere in her brain, the word ‘me’ also rattles around like a tin can. 

“Oh, D,” Ava sighs softly.

“I can’t,” Deborah begins but then stalls. Tell her. Every other time in her life, she’s been chickenshit. “I don’t want to lose you, Ava.” 

Ava leans forward, her hand resting on Deborah’s cheek and making their foreheads touch. They press into each other, sending everything out of them into the space between. 

She feels her hand levitating, lifted by Ava’s and pulled toward the hem of her dress. Past it. Pressing into Ava for the first time, something that makes both of them gasp because it’s sensations like patterned lace and wet heat that Deborah’s on the outside of and wanting in. 

Deborah doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t know what kinds of touches to give. Her brain feels both heavy and on fire at the same time. Is she really Deborah Vance if she isn’t worried about her performance? 

Usually, she’s well prepared. Has gone over the material until it’s as much a part of her brain as everything else. But as her thumb makes a circle on Ava, she feels out of her element. 

Even though she would admit it to no one, after Albuquerque she had tried to do her research. There have been magazine articles and something called Reddit boards—all of which led to videos. But they’d all left Deborah feeling confused and like a fraud. 

You can’t go sixty years and finally decide that you want to be the best at this. 

But Grand Rapids solidified something though. That she and Ava were on a collision course and she was fine with that. That despite little preparation, she still wants what’s happening anyway. 

Casting her eyes up to Ava’s face, Deborah uses her left hand to pull back some of the material of the green dress to bunch it at a porcelain hip. Now she can see the lace covering Ava and she bites her lip. 

Ava’s hand goes behind Deborah on the stair holding her up and she comes nose to nose with her, touching Deborah’s right wrist softly. “You can touch me.”

Now who’s giving who permission? What happened to being in charge? The thought bolsters her and she separates fabric from skin, dipping under to feel absolutely all of her.

Ava’s wet and warm and starts to cant her hips a little bit in the direction of Deborah’s hand. So with it, Deborah begins to circle and press. She feels until she finds exactly what she’s looking for, taking it between her fingers and rolling it around. No one is going to accuse her of not being able to find the clit.

By this point, Ava is moving in earnest against her, searching, seeking. Chasing something that Deborah desperately wants to give her. She never stops looking at Ava as she drags her underwear down slowly from her hips, letting Ava lift herself up to let them fall the rest of the way down her legs. They end up in a tiny pile on the stairs. 

Soon, she’s back on top of Deborah and their positions have been resumed. Except now, Ava is bare underneath that swishing dress. 

“Can I…inside?” Deborah’s words crack like thin ice. 

She frowns a little, not at all impressed with her own ability to voice thoughts, but Ava is nodding enthusiastically. Deborah barely manages to get situated, two fingers locked together and waiting before Ava sinks down and Deborah is sheathed inside of her. 

“Oh, fuck,” Deborah actually moans and Ava quirks her lips. She leans forward so that both hands are behind Deborah on the wood grain as she swivels her hips in tandem with Deborah’s inconsistent movements.

“Hey,” she breathes. “Shouldn’t that be my line?”

“Whose line is it anyway, anymore?” Deborah wants to roll her eyes, but she can’t do literally anything else than look at the way Ava’s dress has moved slightly out of the way with every thrust of Deborah’s fingers inside of her. Because that’s what they’re doing now—thrusting. 

“Good point,” Ava concedes as she leans in, going back to pressing their foreheads together. One hand leaves its perch and pushes away Deborah’s jacket, sliding across the black camisole. Sliding across Deborah’s very aroused breast. She pinches her erect nipple through the layers. “Sometimes, I don’t even know where I end and you begin anymore.”

It’s ludicrous. It should be easy to know definitively one’s own outline from another. One’s own inside. But no, Ava is right. Deborah’s been thinking of them as a package, a pair, for longer than she cares to admit.

The idea sets Deborah to purpose as her fingers pump, as she tries to pay attention to every part of Ava below. “I don’t know if…I can’t tell if I’m doing this right.” 

“Are you really giving a critique of yourself right now?” Ava is grinding. She shudders. “Well, I’d say the mess I’ve made of your hand says something is going right.” 

Which is true. Deborah can feel moisture moving past where she’s inside of Ava to seeping down to her wrist. “Holy shit.” 

“Yeah, Deb. Holy shit,” Ava begins to really move, beautiful and raw and slightly unhinged. 

It’s here that Deborah kisses Ava, goes inside of Ava with more than her fingers as her tongue explores. The woman tastes like wine and lipgloss and fruition and the headiness of everything leaves Deborah feeling like she wouldn’t need one bit of lube if Ava decided to touch her. 

“Ava, I…” even though she’s knuckle deep inside of her, Deborah still can’t bring herself to say it. Like somehow if she did, it would break the spell of what she’s doing. 

“Yeah,” Ava nods. “I can see it in your face.”

“You little shit,” Deborah pants. It’s her favorite go-to for Ava. She wonders if it’s a pet name now since she’s trying to finger Ava into the stratosphere. “You can’t even let me say it?” 

Deborah wonders if Ava can also see how hard it had been to even get the few words out she did. Maybe she saw something and was trying to give Deborah an out.

“When have you ever not said exactly what you’re thinking?” Ava makes a wry face but Deborah wipes it off with a curl of her fingers. 

Her preparation may have left her feeling mostly inadequate, but the rounded softness of her nails leave her feeling all of Ava. She uses them as punctuation, a dash meaning there is more to come. 

“Except the times I don’t do that,” Deborah explains, dipping further into Ava. (As far as she can go) She ignores the tinge in her wrist. “Just because we think something doesn’t mean all of us ascribe to that overwhelming honesty thing that you young ones do.”

She moves. Ava keens. “But how’s this for honesty? You feel incredible and I’m pretty much the luckiest person on the whole fucking planet if, out of everyone, you’re picking me. You make me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in years. You’ve given me a home inside of a ‘compound’. So, yeah. I suppose I love you too. That I have ever since my last Vegas show.”

It’s not exactly the true earnestness that she could glean from the very fabric of her own soul, but it’s pretty damn close. There will be time for Deborah to add the ‘in’ part to love. She suspects Ava already knows that too. 

There’s little talking after this because Deborah makes sure neither of them can say another word. To be the thing they’ve built their foundation on, there’s not much left to voice. Not when she’s practically glued to Ava in a number of ways—mouth to mouth, Ava’s hand inside Deborah’s black silk camisole gripping a bare breast, Deborah’s fingers inside of Ava as she desperately works at her. 

Life for Deborah seems to begin again as Ava, finally, pulses around her fingers, draws her deeper into her body. Pulls them in and latches on. 

It’s a while before Deborah calms her own breathing, before Ava’s stills to normalcy in her chest. Before she withdraws her fingers gingerly, sees them glistening like dew in the candlelight. 

“I can’t believe we just did that,” Ava shakes her head but the grin on her face is one of pure delight. Her green eyes roam Deborah’s face as she touches her cheek. “I’ve waited for that for so fucking long.”

Deborah feels like she may have been waiting longer—like her whole fucking life. But Ava is staring at her in total adoration with those mint-colored eyes and she can’t find it in herself to try and be competitive.

“Glad I could be of service,” Deborah quips instead, let’s a smile tug the corners of her lips. 

“Oh, so that’s what you are now, huh? Deborah Vance, the service bottom?” Ava’s fingers tap like a spider along Deborah’s ribs as it climbs up a spout. 

“I have a lot of street cred as a power top, so I’d not go around jabbering that out,” Deborah lets her own hand wander. It traces the back of Ava’s thigh, the curve of her ass. Ava shivers. “And like I’m not going to expect you to return the favor.”

“Oh, I can totally do that.” She brushes her nose against Deborah’s, her smile never waning. 

“Then it’s a good thing we have time,” Deborah does her own smile before she wipes it from both of their lips as she kisses Ava slowly, indulgently. 

Simply because, after all this time, she can.