There was nothing before.
Then something after.
A voice breaking through the darkness, bringing with it consciousness, and a flaring pain in her back.
It’s all wrong.
She exhales out, opening one tired eye to find the culprit that has disturbed her sleep:
Digging through her handbag and talking to herself.
Deborah blinks open both eyes, registering the room, Nina occupying the chair on the other side of--
Blinding sunlight flashes across her mind, concrete and metal crunching in her ears, memory and comprehension meeting in the middle as her eyes find…
Broken and bruised, bandaged and so, so beautiful.
Her fingers still hold hers on the bed.
Gratitude fills the muscle between her lungs.
She’ll be okay.
You’ve seen it now.
She’s strong and she’s stubborn, and she’s gonna be okay.
Her back is aching something shocking.
She sits forward in the chair, pain shooting down the back of her legs, making her hiss out loud.
She is too old for bedside vigils.
“Oh, heavens, I woke you,” Nina says, her frantic searching ending as she finds Deborah's gaze. “I can’t find my blasted pen for my find-a-word book, I’ve been working my way through it while Ava’s been…"
Deborah tunes her out as she notices the book resting on Ava’s legs. The missing implement is tucked behind Nina’s left ear.
Of course it is.
She reaches up to her own pointedly.
Nina gets the hint, surprisingly, visibly relieved; all at once looking like Deborah imagined her days ago on the phone, voice breaking when she’d reiterated that Ava would already be on her way to surgery; that the redhead was being looked after.
It was a car accident. An error in judgment from both of them. Ending differently than the one--
“Your hair is different,” Nina says.
Deborah nods politely, rolling her shoulders, biting the inside of her lip as her body continues to announce its displeasure.
“Ava shouldn’t have visitors this early.”
There’s a look in Nina’s eyes, something questioning there in them, that makes the last vestige of sleep leave her body.
Her chair is as close to Ava’s bed as she could get it, moved there last night, once she’d remembered herself and shot up from Ava’s damaged chest.
She looks up at the clock on the wall, finding it’s just after seven.
Only hours ago.
But Nina is here now, watching her closely, looking for something from her, some answer to why she’s here.
Visiting hours are in the afternoon, she knows. Immediate family are permitted earlier in the day, as long as they adhere to hospital rules.
Kiki’s told her each time she’s called. Nina mentioned it on Sunday night.
The two nurses she’d each handed a grand to had made a point of telling her as well.
She’s here because…
“I needed to see her.”
Her voice is scratchier than she intends -- no doubt affected by her poor sleep schedule and the morning’s crying -- and the strain of it makes her words heavier, weighted with their true meaning. Much too direct for how little she knows Nina.
She’s asking for you, the woman had said down the phone. The silence had stretched out, until Deborah had cleared her throat and said she’d be in when she had a moment.
The tour needed to be sorted. Those TMZ photos...
A whole set of excuses to cover up her fears. To explain away this...
She looks away, down at her and Ava’s hands, trying to ground herself, worry slipping into her gut. She’d managed to dampen down most of those fears -- sitting on the couch behind her -- before Ava had woken, the two of them fighting to find something familiar, but without Ava’s input now…
That wonderful girl had offered her a tired, watery grin, asking her to stay, and Deborah hadn’t thought twice about it.
Hadn’t considered how her back would go, or what the day shift nurses might say, or what Ava’s own mother would--
“We nearly l-lost her.”
Nina’s voice cuts through her thoughts, Deborah hearing the dread in her tone, the way she stumbles over her words.
She looks up toward her. Sees how this wayward woman has stilled, how her eyes have darkened on Ava’s face, hand resting on the blanket at her hip.
Deborah needs to say something.
“This hospital is the best in the state, Mrs. Daniels. I assure you Ava will be okay.”
Nina shakes her head, eyes never straying from Ava. “Not now. When she was a baby.”
“W-what?” Deborah’s heart races, mind conjuring up the worst, never meeting Ava, never loving--
“That goddamn camera of his nearly…” Nina stops, and Deborah watches as she takes two calming breaths, the weight of memory upon her. “He was supposed to be watching her in the tub, but he wasn’t and she was…” She wipes her eyes with the pen in her hand, Deborah seeing a blue mark on her nose. “I just drew on myself, didn’t I?”
Deborah nods, and watches as Nina digs through her bag, pulling out a crumpled up tissue, rubbing at her skin.
She suspects she needs the distraction.
Deborah shifts in her seat, and her back pain registers again. She busies herself with caressing her thumb along Ava's splint.
The girl sleeps on, unaware of the heavy conversation.
She survived, Deborah tells herself.
That’s what’s important.
Forget about the what-ifs.
She’s here with you now…
She continues to silently calm herself down, one eye on Nina as she rubs the blue line into a red blemish. “It’s gone,” she tells her, watching as the younger woman’s hand drops, her shoulders sagging as well. “I’m assuming she was okay, after...”
“Eventually. We raced her to the hospital and she was there overnight.” Nina drops the pen onto the book, where it rolls into the crevasse of Ava’s legs. “She was…she was such a small thing when she was born, came three weeks early, always…”
Deborah watches as Nina is taken somewhere else. Knows that the woman is reliving a memory, a set of memories, she does not wish to have.
Then she is back, blinking out of her daze, setting her bag on the floor, and latching onto Ava’s bandaged hand.
“I took her in the shower with me after that, never let her near a pool or the Charles River back home.”
This is pretty triggering for me cos I’ve never learned how to swim.
Ava had cracked a joke in the next breath like it was nothing.
Like she hadn’t known there was…
“She doesn’t know,” Deborah says quietly.
Nina sniffles and shakes her head. “She asked me about it the other day. She wanted me to be honest with her.”
Deborah takes this information on board. Is keenly aware of how unfiltered Ava wishes the world would be. Of how brutally honest she herself can be.
No one’s allowed to communicate honestly with you and if they do, you either shut them out or push ‘em away or…
Deborah pushes the memory away.
“She’s told me some things, Ms. Vance.”
Deborah taps her thumb three times against the splint, as softly as she can. Tries to breathe her way through her…
That Doctor had printed out a list of symptoms yesterday and shown them to her. It had summed up everything she'd been feeling in regard to Ava.
The tension is with her now, her mind tripping over the fact that Ava may have told her mother about...
Nina's eyes are conveying more than that.
Ava has said something.
It’s her that needs a distraction now.
“Please call me Deborah, Mrs. Daniels.” It sounds absurd the moment it leaves her mouth. She huffs. “That sounded ridiculous."
Nina smiles, remarkably like Ava in the moment. “Only if you call me Nina.”
Silence finds them for a long moment, Deborah paused, wondering if she’ll have to defend herself, defend her love for Ava, try and explain how she could possibly fall in love with someone four decades younger.
She barely understands it herself.
But it’s happened.
She will not apologize for it.
She waits for Nina to take the lead, eyes drifting to Ava, the both of them watching her sleep on, undisturbed.
Deborah thinks she’d sleep through a hurricane.
Pictures her asleep on the other side of her bed, her warmth and presence comforting, the space no longer--
“She leaps headfirst into things,” Nina states. “Doesn’t think beforehand. Dennis used to do the same—I mean, you heard Stanley say they were stupidly drunk the night before his wedding. It wouldn’t have occurred to him not to do that, for fear he’d nearly upend Stanley’s big day, or look like a hungover fool. After what happened with Ava, he changed. I blamed him for it, and he…he never forgave himself. He watched her like a hawk after that, we both did, but then other things got in the way, and…we did our best. But she’s her father’s daughter. She jumps before she thinks.”
Deborah stays quiet, thinking about all the different ways Ava herself has proved Nina right.
From the very beginning.
“She asked me to be honest with her, and I’m hoping that since you came to Dennis’ funeral, since you saw me at my worst, you’ll be honest with me as well.”
Deborah breathes through it but finds she can’t look Nina’s way. Can’t look anywhere but at Ava.
Her voice doesn’t sound like her own when she asks, “What would you like to know?”
“I wanna know what your intentions are with my daughter. Is this a mid-life crisis – a late one, or a work affair, or whatever it is? Because if this is just some fling for you—"
“It’s not.” Deborah gathers up her courage and looks her way. She will not be confrontational. But she has to say it. “I love her. I tried not to; you have no idea how hard I…” She stops herself, knowing she’s wasted enough time already. “Do you know about my daughters' overdoses?”
Nina’s eyebrows raise, but she nods. “I read a story or two. I’m glad she’s better.”
“Me too.” Deborah swallows down the lump that’s suddenly in her throat. “They scared me very badly, and I’m not one to frighten easily.”
She will not think of her parents again, dying together on a cold, foggy, Californian morning.
She will not.
She will not.
“Seeing Ava in her car like that, after…”
Deborah closes her eyes and zeroes in on her pain. Tries to hold herself together emotionally, the way she’s managing to physically.
The pain will ease if she gets up and walks it off.
If she accepts its presence.
If she admits it.
To herself at least.
She opens her eyes. Nina is staring right back at her, all at once a carbon copy of Ava this morning, quietly awaiting the truth.
It's rather alarming, and she knows Ava will absolutely admonish her for the mere suggestion of it.
Ava had known though. Had guessed at her feelings. Had simply wanted it confirmed by Deborah.
Nina’s knowledge of the situation is secondhand, based on her daughter’s account. Nina doesn’t know her outside of her public persona, or the few minutes they’d spent talking about Dennis in the Daniels’ front doorway. Doesn’t know her away from the stilted phone conversations they’ve had.
But it’s enough.
Something about the moment, or this hospital room, or the stillness of Ava, the importance of her, is…
It’s enough to have her spilling it.
“I knew I loved her by how much it scared me.”
She pulls her eyes from the older Daniels woman toward the one she loves. The one she’d almost lost. Almost let go of. Eyelids and cheeks bruised from her damaged nose. Bandage still hiding the extent of it. Ava breathing steadily in and out through her mouth, kept away from her pain by exhaustion. By the hour they’d spent fighting and forgiving one another, too early, too late, too much of everything all at once.
She’d watched her fight to stay awake in their bubble, and had all but collapsed into sleep herself once Ava’s eyes had shut.
“I guess she frightens both of us,” Nina says.
“Yes. I suppose she does."
There’s no supposing about it at all.
Ava scares the living daylights out of her.
“I like it like that,” Nina says suddenly.
Deborah’s brow furrows. She shifts to look at Nina, muscles twinging. Finds her brown eyes lighter, the heaviness in them gone.
“Your hair…it suits you.”
“Oh…thank you.” She smiles and decides to stay with the change of subject. “I figured a Remy wig wasn’t really hospital couture.”
“The one you wore to…” Nina trails off, Deborah understanding. “It was fantastic. I’d never have guessed it wasn’t your real hair.”
“Well, I guess I’m two for two in appraisals from the Daniels’ women, then.”
Nina smiles politely as Deborah’s words take on a deeper meaning, as her mind catches up with the fact she doesn’t really know if Nina supports her and Ava. Whether their difference in age will be too much for Nina to get her head around.
“Or maybe I’m still one for two,” she adds quickly, trying not to…
Trying not to…
Be Deborah fucking Vance for once.
But her mind goes there anyway, to the thought that Nina Daniels is, or at least will be, her mother-in-law.
She chuckles before she can stop herself, its briefness leading into a long laugh, stretching further as Nina smiles and laughs along with her.
“It’s absurd, right?” Deborah says. “I should be getting put out to pasture, not falling for your twenty-five-year-old daughter.”
Nina nods, still giggling. “I should hate you for that, but…” Her laughter peters out, and she sighs instead. “Dennis would’ve loved you. He absolutely would’ve loved you.”
Deborah quietens down in surprise, eventually offering Nina a small smile. “I meant what I said that day about him. Ava is…”
Kind. Wonderful. Funny. Smart. Amazing…
“She’s incredible.” Deborah taps her thumb three times against Ava’s splint. “I’m grateful to the both of you.”
Silence slips in between them for a long time, long enough for Deborah to start counting the freckles along Ava’s arm.
“I miss my husband, Ms--Deborah.”
She looks up to find Nina looking down, a whole section of her grey hair falling across her face.
It’s some time before she brushes it behind her ear and looks up, tears in her eyes. Squares Deborah with an unwavering stare. “I loved him. A little too much sometimes. Whenever he got an idea in his head that he wouldn’t let go of. Like wanting to go to Vegas.” Nina sniffles and swallows, wiping at her eyes. “Ava could’ve seen her father one last time if I’d...if I’d loved him a little less.”
Deborah understands what she means.
She’d held onto DJ too tightly, and the result had been disastrous. A mountain of pain could’ve been avoided if she’d…
Deborah looks down at Ava’s hand, thumb put back in place and held still by thermoplastic, foam, cotton, and Velcro. A protective measure.
She’s so young. You have no business being with--
“She’s twenty-five and she knows what she wants,” Nina interrupts.
Deborah glances up--
“And despite my concerns about your intentions, even though I want to protect her from the world, from being hurt,” Nina audibly exhales, “I have to love her a little less.”
--and her eyes widen.
“She told me she felt like she’d finally found where she was meant to be, and I know she didn’t mean Vegas. She meant you.”
Relief floods Deborah’s senses, dulling her back pain, brightening the world just that little bit more.
Nina chuckles unexpectedly. “I’m going to have a daughter-in-law that’s older than me.”
Deborah smiles. “You and DJ can bond over it – her aunt is her stepmom, and her new one will be twenty years younger than her!”
Nina laughs louder, eyes watering, pleasing Deborah, who laughs heartily back.
“God, what’s this noise?” A gravelly voice suddenly says from the bed. “Can’t you see I need to regenerate my nose through the cumulative power of beauty sleep and silence?”
Nina laughs louder, standing to kiss her daughter on the forehead. “Hi, honey,” she says, wiping her eyes.
Deborah feels the tips of Ava’s fingers dance quietly along her palm as the redhead answers Nina’s quickfire questions about how she slept and what level of pain she’s in.
She taps her thumb against the splint three times, watching as Ava’s attention turns to her.
She mouths the word I toward her.
A third time.
The word you.
She watches as Ava comprehends it, hazel eyes beaming, before Nina grabs her attention once again.
“Mom, you’re giving me…” Ava pauses, Deborah seeing the redhead school her face into something less judgemental. “I have a headache; can you get the nurse to give me something?”
“Oh Ava, you need to drink more water, you never—"
“I know that Mom, but it’s too late now, you and Jack Nicholson over here,” --Ava looks Deborah’s way-- “have seen to that.”
Nina shakes her head but steps away. “Alright, but you’re eating the breakfast they serve you, no arguments this time. The food is not that bad.”
Ava huffs, but nods. Waits for her mother to leave the room before, “I beg to differ.” She turns Deborah’s way with a sharp intake of breath. “Hi.”
“Hi. How bad is your head?” she asks softly.
“Like, a three? I mean, if breakfast is yet to be served then I’m probably working on a few hours’ sleep, right?”
Deborah nods. Feels guilt slip into her gut. “I promise that’ll be the last late-night call I make.”
Ava pouts. “I dunno--that Batman impersonation you did was kinda hot. And it’s not like you don’t have the money to bribe the rest of the hospital staff.”
“That is true…although that new nose of yours is gonna be in the five-figure range, so maybe ease off on the hospital stays? Two in two months seems a bit excessive, even for you.”
“Copy that, boss.”
They settle into silence, content simply to watch one another.
Deborah suspects her heart will beat at a quickened pace from now on, now that it knows what it wants. Now that Ava is near.
“Thank you,” the girl whispers all at once, drawing her attention.
“For what?” Deborah whispers back.
She feels a tap on her palm, barely there.
“For staying,” Ava continues.
A second tap.
Deliberate now, and delicate.
“For being brave.”
Ava taps again and leaves her pinkie there, sealing the message forever in the simplest of touches.
“I don’t feel like that,” Deborah tells her, choosing honesty. “It was sink or swim.”
Ava smiles tenderly at her. “Well, I have a pair of floaties you could borrow. Can you believe some crazy lady gave them to me thinking she was being funny, and they turned out to be the sweetest gift anyone has ever gotten me? Like, I legit nearly cried.”
Deborah feels her chest ache at Ava’s sincerity. Knows she needs to meet her halfway.
“I do need the help to stay afloat,” she responds, not looking away.
“Consider them yours.”
Deborah needs to make sure. Properly. “You need to look before you leap, Ava. There’s still time to get off the diving board--time to change your mind. I have a limited amount of years left on this earth, and--"
“Nope, you are not rain-checking me on this.” Her face is resolute. “I need you to get in the pool Deborah, and swim with me. I’m already in it. I know how to, okay? No more excuses. No more bullshit. Share the damn floaties with me and be with me.”
And God, her heart positively soars right out of her body, her back pain fading away.
“Good, ‘cos I’m gonna need you to help me eat my disgusting hundred dollar scrambled eggs.”
“Nope,” Deborah tells her, “I’m staying in my mother-in-law’s good graces and not doing that.”
“Traitor.” The resigned sigh Ava gives her is topped off with a slow, gentle smile. A soft chuckle.
Three taps to her palm.
Sunlight is cascading through the open window, already warm against her exposed back.
Deborah knows it won't be long before the dry Vegas air overtakes her temperature-controlled bedroom.
She should get up and remedy the situation.
Ava’s chest expands and deflates underneath her head, the rhythm of it holding her there, content, as she plays with the edge of her pajama top.
Maybe it's Ava’s now.
Now that it has her blood on it.
Now that she’d laid the girl down on their bed, kissing her chest as she’d loosened buttons, on her way further south. Found her room remote in Ava’s underwear, those red socked heels digging into Deborah’s back as she’d teased and licked Ava into oblivion.
That Peter Gabriel song is still in her head.
Gentle fingers slip in and out of her hair, lazily now, opposite of how they’d pulled, of how they’d held her head right where Ava needed her. Tongue lashing, swirling, dipping inside.
How she’d gone this many years without tasting another woman, she’ll never know.
And not just any woman.
The best one of all.
Deborah smiles to herself, turning her face towards Ava’s skin, kissing it.
She hears the redhead hum, as fingers move in to scratch her scalp.
She really should be getting up.
Marcus will be expecting her to discuss the color scheme of the Summerlin South flip house with him. Finalize that Church’s Chicken appearance this Wednesday.
Josefina will be wanting to straighten her bed. Run the vacuum over the floor. Mop her bathroom.
But Ava is breathing.
Ava is wearing her silk and is naked everywhere else and Deborah just wants--
“Your empire’s going to crumble if you lay here with me all day.”
Ava’s voice, soft, languid, conflicts with the words she speaks. There’s no urgency to them; no determination behind them.
But it's spoken nonetheless, so Deborah knows that if she herself wants to, needs to, then she can go.
Just another way this woman understands her. Knows her.
“I’d let the world burn,” she whispers, kissing Ava’s chest again.
Watches as Ava’s left arm comes up, hand reaching for Deborah’s. Marvels at the way those fingers line up with hers, longer in length, Ava’s palm wider as well.
“You sure you’re not White Mamba’s illegitimate child? Cos if the basketball fits...”
Then she is sighing deeply, much too heavy for the joke, and Deborah knows that something has shifted in the redhead’s thoughts, something seismic and unwanted.
Deborah slips her fingers in between Ava’s and pulls their hands down toward the mattress, shifting herself up onto her elbow so she can see Ava.
Hazel eyes find hers. Ava smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach the rest of her face.
“I didn’t mean for you to—"
“I know, D, it’s a good joke, it was just…”
“On a bad day.”
Deborah shifts up further and pecks her on the lips, as softly as she can. Stays there, allowing Ava to take what she needs from the moment, from their kiss.
When the redhead draws back, Deborah opens her eyes to find her a little calmer, the weight of grief lessening.
Ava’s hand is still in her hair, caressing gently.
“I love you,” she tells her, watching as Ava’s lips lift into a smile. “How ‘bout I make you some breakfast, and bring it upstairs, hmm?”
Ava huffs, “You know I’m gonna get crumbs in your bed if you do that.”
“First of all, it's our bed, has been for months, and secondly, we need to put the coffee table back anyway, so we can eat on the couch. As if I’d let you anywhere near our bed with scrambled eggs on toast.”
“But you just ate me out, so you kinda did have your breakfast on it, right? Also, you made a goddamn mess of me on your silk sheets, so who’s the sloppy one again?”
“I didn’t hear you complaining at the time.”
Ava grins. “No. You certainly didn’t.”
Deborah laughs quietly, happy her love’s mood is lifting.
It’s been a hell of a night.
“I owe you about a hundred breakfast in beds,” – She lifts herself up, letting go of Ava, moving toward the edge of the bed – “A hundred breakfast in bedrooms.”
She moves to the window and shuts it, once again grateful for her insulated house.
“Nah--just keep…” Ava’s sentence drifts off, and Deborah turns back to her, finding she’s rolled onto her side and has her eyes closed.
Deborah’s brain short circuits at the sight of her mostly naked body, the way it always does. She smiles to herself and moves back to sit on the edge of the bed.
Ava must feel the dip of it, because hazel eyes open, and look up at her. “Part of loving you is wanting to help you when you’re feeling down, so just…help me do that, okay? I don’t need fancy breakfasts or for you to spend another million dollars on me. Just…”
Deborah stretches out her hand on the bed and Ava takes it. “Finish your sentence, honey.”
Ava smiles sweetly at the endearment and chuckles to herself. “Just let me in, that’s all I ask of you. I meant it last night when I said wake me up when you wanna talk. I meant it when I said I’m gonna smash your walls down, but it’ll only work if you want that. If you help me with it.”
Deborah knows it.
Needs to make sure Ava understands that she will do this.
That it will happen.
She needs to start now.
She grabs her pillow and pulls it toward Ava’s head, the girl momentarily surprised before she lifts up to accommodate it. Deborah lets go of her hand and gets back on the bed, moving to share the pillow with Ava, facing her.
Their arms find a way around one other.
Something no one else knows.
“I named Barry and Cara after my parents." She keeps her voice low, the statement heavy enough already.
Ava looks confused. “I thought I read you named them after the Copacabana guy and the Flashdance singer.”
Deborah smiles. Ava's googled them, then.
"I did. But it was a line - a lie I told when I was asked about them during the promotion of my first book. The Debby's took it as gospel, so I had to keep up the ruse."
Ava taps a finger on Deborah's back. "What's a little white lie between a diva and her minions?"
Deborah smiles again. "Luna made me watch one of those movies the other week.”
Ava huffs out a breath. "Yes. Made you." The sarcasm is practically dripping.
Deborah leaves the comment alone, content just to be in the moment.
Content just to watch Ava watch her.
The moment stretches on.
"Those were their names?" Ava asks softly, tapping Deborah’s back once more.
"Middle ones. Jonathan Barry and Elizabeth Cara Brandt. Jack and Betty. Barry's technically Barry the third. He was lonely as a pup so I got Cara to keep him company.”
"You and your pairs."
Deborah thinks of her salt and pepper shakers, gleaming under the cabinet lights. Collection less incomplete because of Ava.
Her life away from the stage is as well.
Ava taps her finger once more against Deborah’s skin, Deborah all at once realizing what she’s been doing.
What she’s saying without words.
They haven’t done that since the hospital.
Haven’t needed to.
Deborah had grown more comfortable in saying it, in letting her love for this woman simply exist, once she’d known it was reciprocated.
She’d offered Ava her care and attention in the weeks after, but she’d verbalized it as well, to make sure Ava knew for certain she was loved.
Deborah shifts her head forward and Ava mirrors her, the tips of their noses touching as their foreheads align.
Peter Gabriel is still stuck in her head.
“That fruit cage of yours is the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.”
It elicits a deep and prolonged laugh from Ava. “Well, you are my honeybee, so I guess I’ll accept that as a statement of love.”
Deborah can do one better.
She leans in to kiss her tenderly.
Taps Ava’s back once.
She feels Ava’s mouth widen into a grin, and kisses her some more.