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That's It, I've Got You

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Mildred Ratched has never placed much store in words. Her own or those of others. That’s not to say she doesn’t know how to use them – the opposite, actually, because she can come up with a cutting remark or trade barbs as well as the next person. Better, even. She can make words work. Make them productive. Meaningful. But that’s not the same as making them matter.

She thought it was. And has done most of her life. All of her life that she can remember, really. But she knows now that there’s a difference. That she was simply following the example she was given, over and over and over, whether she wanted it or not. The example she learnt to mimic, that taught her to mean yet not mean, as nothing more – nothing less – than a defense mechanism. And she knows it because she’s stopped.

(Entirely without meaning to – it just happened – but, now it has, she’s certain she’s never meant anything as much as she meant – means – this.)

She’s stopped. Stopped lying. Stopped pretending. Stopped hiding.

Not just about Edmund. Or her preference for women. Not even about her feelings for Gwendolyn. About the deepest of all the fears she holds. The fear that an important person – an indispensable person – will leave and she will be alone. Again. Because she has said that aloud. She was open, and honest, and vulnerable enough to voice it. She made her words matter when it counted. And she’s thrilled. But she's terrified too. So she’s perversely glad that, since she said it, they’ve been preoccupied by kissing. Because she’s totally unsure what she’ll say when they stop. Or if she’ll be able to speak at all.

As it turns out, when they do, she bursts into tears.

She’s mortified, and pulls away, but the strength of her sobs is such that she feels powerless to prevent them – even with the space. So something in her surrenders, giving over to the overwhelm.

Although part of her is panicking about how Gwendolyn will respond. Of course. Crying isn’t usually considered a comprehensible response to kissing. Not these sorts of tears, at any rate. She’s therefore extremely surprised when she sees the older woman simply hold out her arms, raising an eyebrow in an unspoken but clear request for consent. But the unexpected gesture gives her courage to take the offered comfort, and she leans into the embrace – only to be even more surprised when she hears Gwendolyn murmur, ‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Let it out.’

The first two phrases give her pause. She’s heard them fairly often – close to daily, during childhood – but they’ve usually been said separately, and with very different punctuation.

(“That’s it!”, with the emphasis decidedly on the second word, has frequently denoted frustration or annoyance. And “I’ve got you” is almost always followed by “now”, which doesn’t suggest a nice intention in the slightest.)

But, the way Gwendolyn says them, they’ve got a completely contrasting quality. And she wants to be grateful for the kindness, she really does, but the dissonance is disconcerting. She doesn’t know what to do with it. Her heart’s been through so much hurt, for so long, she’s unsure it has space for any softer treatment from someone else. She definitely doesn’t give it to herself. She isn’t convinced she deserves it. And that doubt makes her draw back.

Gwendolyn glances up (her head having been bowed, too, as they hugged) and her brows are now furrowed in concern. ‘Did I say something wrong?’

‘No, no,’ she rushes to reassure, despite deciding not to admit that precisely the reverse is true.

And the problem.

“You said something right,” would sound utterly ridiculous.

So she covers with an apology. ‘Sorry – I just – it’s your diagnosis. I should be supporting you.’

Gwendolyn tuts, asking, ‘May I take your hand?’ She nods, nonplussed. The strawberry-blonde smiles, and cradles her palm, tracing circles over the skin. ‘There are no “shoulds” in this situation, darling. You’re allowed to be upset too.’ Then she pauses, evidently pensive. ‘But that isn’t why you’re crying, is it?’

She hears her own breath catch in disbelief at being discovered. She is dumbfounded, and can only stare. All she can even think is “How do you know!?”

Gwendolyn seems to have developed psychic skills and be reading her mind, because she smiles a second time, saying softly, ‘I can see her, you know. That frightened little girl who’s in agony at the thought of being abandoned. Again. And I want to be clear that she’s welcome to verbalize her worries whenever she needs to. And that I understand that might feel hard. I accept that. I accept her. And, if it’d help her to hear, I’m here now. I won’t say I’ll always be here, because that’d be a futile promise to make. But I intend to stay for as long as I can.’

At first, Mildred can still only stare – or rather blink, in bewilderment. Because this is so far beyond anything she’s dared hope for. But she knows she’s got to find something to say in return. So she combines two strategies. One old, and one new. Humor (which is as comfortable and familiar a costume as any of her nursing uniforms) and honesty (which leaves her feeling as exposed as if she were nude, even though she’s always known it to be intrinsic to her nature).

‘To quote a wonderful woman I’ve come to love and respect a great deal,’ she starts, shyly, ‘I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say to that.’

Gwendolyn grins ruefully, her beautiful blue eyes glinting with her own unshed tears. ‘And anyway,’ she whispers back, ‘you don’t believe me?’

The upward inflection clearly designates the reply as a question, which it wasn’t before. And it is accompanied by a slightly stronger grasp on her wrist. This grounds her, and she giggles, even as she shakes her head in shame. ‘I just – I can’t comprehend why you’d want to –’

She breaks off, and lowers her gaze, feeling guilty. But Gwendolyn coaxes, gently, ‘Look at me, Mildred.’ She does as asked, and is greeted with a wider grin. Then the older woman chuckles, continuing, ‘To quote a wonderful woman I’ve come to love and respect a great deal –’ Gwendolyn pauses, presumably because Mildred is narrowing her eyes (playfully) at this blatant appropriation of her technique. ‘I love you, do you hear me?’

‘And you will not lose me?’ she asks, in awe, with a nervous giggle.

‘I will not,’ Gwendolyn confirms, her voice quiet yet confident.

‘But –’ Mildred whimpers, aware she is being whiny, and behaving as childishly as if she were still that “frightened little girl” Gwendolyn said she could see.

‘But?’ Gwendolyn prompts, somehow prepared to be unfailingly patient.

‘But – I’m not worth staying – I’m not worth anything.’

She looks away again, too anxious and awkward to make eye contact as she waits for the rejection she’s sure, in the depths of her soul, will come as a reply. She’s being too much of a burden already, after all.

Yet Gwendolyn continues to confound her expectations. ‘Mildred Ratched,’ she murmurs, seeming not to mind the evasion of sight this time, ‘you, my love, are worth everything.’

This makes her look up, as Gwendolyn probably predicted it would. Even if it’s only to disagree. ‘I’m not, though. I’m manipulative, I lie, and – you said it yourself – my lies have cost you everything.’

Gwendolyn holds her gaze, and her tone is measured as she answers. ‘I said that before I knew I still had you. And yes, you’ve lied, but you did it because you were scared, and that fear convinced you that you had no other choice. So that’s no different to my own decision to marry Trevor. Not really.’ Mildred wants to bark out a mirthless laugh, but she stops herself. The situations couldn’t really be more diametrically opposed, in her opinion. Although she does briefly consider the fact that they were both founded on desires for love and protection. However, before she gets too far down that avenue of thought, Gwendolyn goes on. ‘Look. We’ve both made mistakes. We both have regrets. But now we both have each other. And we can work on being better people together.’

She’s still too surprised by the sensitivity of the other woman’s replies to manage a comparatively lengthy speech, so she opts for hiding a hope behind humor again. ‘We can work on getting you better together.’

Thankfully Gwendolyn grins, although what she says is serious. ‘We can. But you don’t owe me anything, all right? This is a circumstance that requires mutual support. It isn’t a transaction. All I ask is that we keep trying our best to communicate. And that we’re sensible – and sensitive – about pacing.’

Mildred senses, somehow, that the last sentence signals a diversion of the discussion; and that it’s no longer to do with Gwendolyn’s diagnosis. So she responds to what she thinks to be the newer undertone; despite hardly believing the depths of the strawberry-blonde’s apparent understanding of her character. ‘You mean that?’

‘I do.’ Gwendolyn nods smartly, although her voice remains gentle. ‘You don’t owe me anything. And you definitely don’t owe me what I think you’re thinking. I shouldn’t have used the word “transaction”, even though I wanted to make my point as obvious as possible.’

Mildred wishes she could be glad – and she is, in a way – but what they’re alluding to is one of the only things she knows. It might not be comfortable, or enjoyable, but even those negative feelings are at least familiar. No matter that they send her spiraling into self-hatred. Consequently, this concerted attempt at care on Gwendolyn’s part is oddly crushing, and she chokes out, ‘So you don't want to…?’

The older woman must’ve spotted her fear, because she soothes, ‘Oh, sweets, no – I absolutely want to. I have since I first saw you. I just want us both to be ready.’

She’s not sure which makes her heart lighter – the many endearments that are scattered about when Gwendolyn speaks, or the reassurance they’re wrapped around – but the combined effect is enough that she can mumble, ‘Oh. Okay. Thank you.’

Her hand gets a squeeze as Gwendolyn whispers, ‘You don’t need to thank me, darling.’

She disagrees with that statement so vehemently that she insists, ‘I do!’

Gwendolyn hums, and murmurs, ‘I understand why you think that, but I’m going to work to show you it’s not true. Because consent is crucial. And you aren’t ready, are you? Not yet.’

She’s thrown, and wants to deny it, but hears herself agreeing. ‘Well, I want to, but – no, I don’t think so.’

Gwendolyn paddles two fingers in the middle of her palm. ‘That’s all right, sweets. You’re all right. We’re all right.’

She can only whisper, ‘Really?’

Strawberry-blonde hair nods. ‘Yes. This is a promise I can make without reservation. I’d never forgive myself if we rushed things and you didn’t feel safe. Even for a second.’ Mildred is almost giddy with relief, and she realizes she hadn’t registered quite how petrified she was. She smiles, swaying slightly as she does so, and watches Gwendolyn’s eyes widen while the older woman asks, ‘May I hold you?’

She nods, perplexed, and strong arms rest either side of hers in a kind of half-hug. She’s grateful both for the grounding and being given space. She didn’t know they were possible at the same time until now. ‘Thank you,’ she says reflexively.

Gwendolyn tuts, but notably doesn’t comment further, merely observing, ‘I won’t let you faint – I don’t have sufficient stocks of bologna to revive you.’

Mildred opens her mouth in mock-outrage, and quips back, ‘Do you have any?’

Gwendolyn giggles like a much younger woman, clearly caught out, and says, sheepishly, ‘No; but I’ll get some very soon. I can’t invite my favorite person to stay without being sure I have plenty of her favorite food.’

She hardly knows which part of the sentence to focus on; so she chooses the second. ‘You want me to – stay?’

‘If you’d like to?’ Gwendolyn’s voice is soft, and shy.

Mildred giggles girlishly too, at how they’re answering questions with questions, and adds a third for good measure. (Well, she reasons, it might not strictly be called a question, but she turns it into one with her tone.) ‘I will if you will?’

Gwendolyn guffaws, her shyness obviously banished, and counters by repeating the words as a statement. ‘I will if you will.’ Mildred just giggles again; then grins when Gwendolyn gives in, asking directly, ‘Will you check out of the motel and move in here? I know it’s sudden – but I think we’ll both feel safer if –’

Mildred cuts her off with a cough. ‘I’d love to. If it’s really okay.’

Gwendolyn grins. ‘It’s more than okay, my love.’

Mildred nods, satisfied she won’t be trespassing, and starts to plan. ‘May we drive to fetch a bag from the motel? Just for tonight – I can fetch the rest of my things after my shift tomorrow – but I’ll need my uniform – and pajamas.’

Gwendolyn matches her nod. ‘Of course. We can take my car, and make a quick getaway.’

Mildred falters. ‘I thought – I should drive us.’

This response isn’t received well at all. ‘I’m not an invalid, Nurse Ratched,’ Gwendolyn reprimands with a pout.

She can’t help chuckling at the misunderstanding. ‘You most certainly are not, no. I just – I like driving. It helps my mind settle.’

‘Oh,’ Gwendolyn breathes, beaming. ‘I understand.’

‘Yes,’ she concurs, ‘you’re very good at that.’

‘I try,’ Gwendolyn sounds uncertain, and Mildred wants so much to shout “You succeed!”, but she’s stopped by some more speech. ‘I’m not doing very well now, though; I haven’t even offered you a Kleenex.’

Mildred chuckles again. ‘How very chivalrous of you. Am I a mess?’

‘You’ve never been more beautiful.’

There’s the hint of a laugh behind this phrase, and she pouts. ‘Oh, please. Now you’re just being silly.’

‘I’m being perfectly sincere, sweets,’ Gwendolyn returns smoothly, breaking their contact to reach the nearest end table and pluck a tissue from a box, ‘I just know you prefer to look pristine in public.’

She smirks, taking the proffered tissue, and saying sardonically, ‘I’m beyond caring what Louise thinks of me, and we likely won’t see anyone else.’

Gwendolyn claps slowly, seeming genuinely proud. ‘Brava, Nurse Ratched,’ she replies, emphasizing each of the three words, before adding, ‘I meant more when we stop off to stock up on bologna.’

She can do little more than grin, now, but squeaks after a second or two, ‘Gwen –’

‘Yes, Mil?’

Gwendolyn’s answering use of a nickname illustrates her implicit acceptance of the one she’s been given, and Mildred is grateful (since, though this isn’t the first time she’s used it, she was unsure Gwendolyn had been present enough to hear it before). Mildred is so grateful that it gives her the strength to flirt back, if rather more reticently, by referencing a comment from earlier in today’s conversation. ‘You’re my favorite person too.’

‘Oh, Mildred –’

Gwendolyn breaks off, and they laugh quietly together, until Mildred mutters, ‘We’ve come full circle.’

The strawberry-blonde smiles almost wickedly, and whispers, ‘We have. But if I follow it how I did the last time I said it, I’ll get lost in your lips again and we’ll never leave this house. And you need clothes and food. So we must both be patient. Even for kisses.’

Mildred is unavoidably flustered by this, and glad of the façade she’s afforded by her foundation. It’ll go some way, at least, to hiding the sudden flush of heat she feels creeping across her face. And she can find the words to respond by talking about their next task. ‘Okay, purse, with my car keys in it, and, uh, a warmer layer for you, I guess? Do you need anything else?’

Gwendolyn bites her lip, and Mildred wonders if she might be holding back a laugh – but realizes she doesn’t mind. Because she knows she’s being awkward, and obvious, and she couldn’t help it if she tried. But then the older woman answers her question, and she feels like she could choke on the emotion that rises in her throat at the reply. ‘I just need you.’

Her jaw drops of its own volition as she fumbles around for something equally profound to say; but all she comes up with is a feeble joke. ‘Have I told you recently that I love you?’

Gwendolyn hums, as though she’s thinking it over. ‘Not for a minute or so, no. But that means I’m slacking too. I love you, sweets. And now I’m going to show you how much by buying you all the bologna you can eat.’

Mildred hears an unbidden laugh bubble from her throat now, in amazement at how easily Gwendolyn seems to sense her insecurities and act accordingly. But she responds be retaining her focus on practicalities. ‘You are not. I won’t let you spend a cent on me. It’s a source of great pride that I’m self-sufficient. And you’re being generous enough by opening your home to me.’

Our home,’ Gwendolyn corrects, so quietly that Mildred isn’t sure she heard right. Before she can get clarity, though, the taller woman coughs, turning in the direction of the front door. ‘We should go,’ she goes on. ‘Try and beat the traffic.’

Mildred smiles in spite of herself – clearly she’s not alone in using planning as a strategy. ‘Good idea,’ she agrees, grinning, ‘but you need another layer.’

‘I don’t if you don’t, Nurse Ratched, and you didn’t have one when you arrived.’

She huffs, stumped, as Gwendolyn smirks. Then she says, timidly, ‘I was too wound up to notice the temperature.’

She doesn’t add that she saw the husband – ex-husband – leave wearing a coat. A light one, but a coat nonetheless. Because, as much as that would contribute to her argument, she has little desire to mention him in this moment.

Or at all.

She therefore has no witty reply ready when Gwendolyn’s smirk widens and she whispers, huskily, ‘You were, were you?’ She can only gulp, transported instantly to their table in the oyster bar, recalling the comparable tone of that talk. So she sighs with relief (albeit tinged with the barest hint of disappointment) as the taller woman takes pity, cooing contritely, ‘I’m just teasing, darling. Let’s go, and I’ll fix you a sandwich when we get back.’

She nods, still in awe of – and amused by – Gwendolyn’s willingness to waive her own distaste for bologna out of kindness and consideration. ‘Thank you,’ she says automatically, dropping her eyes to the floor.

She’s surprised when she hears a simple, ‘You’re welcome,’ in return, and looks up, realizing as she does so that that was Gwendolyn’s goal. Then the older woman giggles. ‘I was teasing you that day, too, you know.’ Mildred feels her eyebrows lift in a silent question. ‘Over lunch. I don’t eat bologna, but I wasn’t really talking about it. I was flirting with you, to gauge how you’d react.’

Mildred’s filled with mortification at having missed something so crucial – and all the more so because she’s still missing it. Her voice wobbles as she asks, ‘Y-you were?’ Gwendolyn nods, grinning, and waves her hand in a clear query over whether it’s okay to offer grounding through touch again. Mildred nods, too, but waits for the gentle grip on her arms before adding, ‘So what were you talking about?’

‘A different – kind – of meat.’

She thinks she sees a brief blush feathering Gwendolyn’s cheeks, although that may be projection, because she flushes at this response. And she can only summon a squeaky, ‘Oh,’ as things click into place. Until she follows it (first) with ‘Fuck.’ (A word as unstoppable and instinctive in this moment as “God damn it” had been earlier.) Second she manages a coy chuckle, and finally a fuller sentence. ‘I’m so naïve.’

She doesn’t know what she expects in reply – she wonders if she knows anything anymore, frankly – but it isn’t Gwendolyn almost growling, ‘You’re the opposite of naïve, Mil. You just weren’t given the opportunity to learn things at the proper pace. Your own pace.’

The intensity of the statement makes her shy, so she jokes, ‘You’ve mentioned pacing a couple times now.’

‘That’s because it’s important,’ Gwendolyn insists, gently yet firmly. ‘We won’t do anything you’re not comfortable with – and we won’t do anything at all until you tell me you’re ready.’

This confuses her. ‘What if I don’t know how to tell you?’

‘You’ll know,’ Gwendolyn whispers, her voice soft but sure. ‘It doesn’t have to be in words.’

She nods, despite not fully understanding – the older woman’s experience, and efforts at empathy, are enough to help her feel safe. ‘Okay.’

‘Okay,’ Gwendolyn repeats, squeezing her arm, and then stepping back a little. ‘If that’s settled, sweets, we really should get going.’

She giggles, grounded by the pet name almost as much as she was by the physical contact, and nods for what feels like it must be the millionth time. But, scolding herself inwardly for the sentimental exaggeration, she agrees with the practicality. ‘We should.’

So they do – stopping only to stare each other down as Gwendolyn roundly refuses to fetch a coat, and then when Mildred signals she doesn’t mind (much) by stretching her gloved hand out for a squeeze prior to resting it on the steering wheel. The drive to, and the time inside, the Sealight are uneventful (if one ignores the knowing, smug glances from Louise, which Mildred does, not so much out of determination as tired habit). Then they find their way to a store, where she is adamant about paying for the food they buy, and refuses to be swayed by any amount of wheedling from Gwendolyn. This is made easier through the necessity of being more distant in public, for which she’s perversely grateful. But she’s forgotten about the privacy of the car – and, when they’re back in their seats, all she can see is the strawberry-blonde’s smirk in the mirror. The sight tests her claim about driving settling her mind to its limit.

Once they return to the house – she can’t permit herself to call it “home” just yet – all remaining resolve is banished when Gwendolyn croons, ‘Sweets, go and change into your pajamas, and by the time you’re done I’ll have food on the table.’

She’s caught by surprise. Not at the kindness, or even the offer, although both of those are alien; but by one word. A word she remembers using herself, without thinking, before they left. Despite not actually owning what it describes. ‘Oh,’ she says, scared and small, ‘I don’t have pajamas. Just nightgowns. And robes. I’ve never needed them for anything other than sleep, so they don’t have to be warm enough to sit around in. Not for long, anyway.’

‘Oh,’ Gwendolyn repeats, obviously ruminating. ‘That’s all right, darling, you can borrow a pair of mine. I’ll go and grab some.’

She smiles in thanks, too timid to say anything more, even though she has a lot she wants to say. How her heart feels warmer each time Gwendolyn is nice for no reason. How she can’t comprehend why Gwendolyn is nice. Or where the warmth is coming from. How it’s such a strange sensation and so out of context. And, yet, how in context too. Because it’s Gwendolyn who makes her feel safe enough to sit with the warmth, and stay, and start to hope she could cope with sticking by it until the thawing might be complete. And it’s Gwendolyn whose grin sustains her for the few minutes they’re separated as the older woman heads upstairs.

Because Mildred knows Gwendolyn knows why Mildred couldn’t go up and find them herself.

And Mildred knows Gwendolyn knows Mildred knows.

She wonders (for a fleeting second) about the strain of walking all that way, but that thought is chased from her consciousness by the reappearance of a certain strawberry-blonde, whose eyes are shining with righteous indignation. ‘I know exactly what’s flickering behind the façade of that forehead, Mil,’ Gwendolyn whispers, ‘and I can manage stairs just fine.’ The second part of the sentence is accompanied by an outstretched arm, the hand of which holds the promised pajamas. She takes them and, giggling shyly, gets up. ‘Don’t be long, love,’ Gwendolyn cautions, mirth dancing across her face, ‘or your lettuce will go limp.’

Mildred holds in her laugh until she’s ensconced in the downstairs bathroom, but then she relishes its ripple through her belly, and her many musings on how she ever got so lucky help her move through the motions of changing her clothes. Those same musings are what get her to go out in search of Gwendolyn once she’s decent again, and stop her wilting under the older woman’s gaze when they reconnect around the dining table. (She knows it’s approving, because Gwendolyn is grinning, but she still can’t completely quell her nerves. Until, that is, she notices that the taller woman is also wearing pajamas.) ‘You changed too?’ she asks.

Gwendolyn’s grin widens. ‘I did. Sneaked upstairs again while you were gone. Sandwiches only take a minute to make.’

Choosing to ignore the flutter of anxiety in her gut at the thought of Gwendolyn climbing stairs – twice! – without her watchful gaze, Mildred instead comments on them both having sandwiches. ‘Oh, what’s in yours?’

‘Leftover chicken, lettuce and mayo. So just a different meat.’

Conscious she’s no longer protected by the mask of make-up, Mildred drops her eyes to her plate to hide her blush. When she looks up, Gwendolyn is smirking, but it seems sympathetic. And the older woman simply picks up her sandwich to take a small bite, which means Mildred feels safe to do the same. Then they eat in silence, which makes her feel even safer, because it implies her need to focus solely on her food has been understood and accepted. As she takes her last bite, Mildred is struck by a sudden urge to laugh, like she was in the bathroom. And this time she lets herself, even in company. She laughs long, and loudly. Gwendolyn gazes at her across the table, evidently bemused. ‘What’s tickled you, my love?’

She attempts to swallow discreetly before speaking. ‘The bologna,’ she says simply, not trusting herself to use a fuller sentence.

Gwendolyn’s lips quirk up into a smile. ‘Was it good?’

She nods. 'Delicious. Thank you.' She pauses, pushing her plate away a little. ‘It’s just – I can’t think of it in the same way now you’ve –’ she breaks off, bursting into laughter again.

‘Excellent,’ Gwendolyn murmurs as she catches her breath. ‘We can introduce some variety into your diet.’

She’s aware of her eyes widening at the thinly-veiled innuendo, and she splutters, ‘Y-you-you planned this –’

‘Possibly,’ Gwendolyn purrs, winking.

She huffs in mock-outrage, as she did earlier in the day, when the need to buy bologna was first brought up. But then an idea begins to form, and she asks, innocently, ‘Gwen?’

‘Yes, Mil?’

The older woman sounds wary, and it takes all of Mildred’s focus not to laugh as she poses a second question. ‘Did you mean it when you said I could tell you when I was ready?’ Strawberry-blonde hair nods without hesitation, so she says, silkily, ‘I’d quite like a kiss for dessert.’

Gwendolyn giggles, but then visibly steels herself, returning, ‘You would, would you?’ Mildred nods, confident she’s won, until she hears a condition. ‘Brush your teeth and you’ll get one.’

She pouts. This isn’t proceeding how she planned. So she stands up, sidles around the table, and says, plaintively, ‘Please?’

Gwendolyn gets up too, giggling, and backs away. ‘Foul play, Nurse Ratched.’

Mildred grows pensive, pulled out of the game. ‘I guess I don’t really know any other kind, do I?’ she whispers, worrying at her bottom lip.

Gwendolyn gasps. ‘I’m sorry, darling, I didn’t mean –’

‘It’s okay,’ Mildred says, because it is, even if she isn’t.

‘No it’s not,’ Gwendolyn growls, protectiveness plain in her voice and facial expression. ‘You were being brave, and playful, and I spoiled things.’

Mildred shakes her head. ‘You didn’t. I was being silly. Of course I’ll brush my teeth.’

Gwendolyn smiles tentatively. ‘I’ll come with you and brush mine. And then you can have as many kisses as your heart desires.’ Mildred giggles at the phrasing, and is glad when Gwendolyn joins in, because it shows they are back on track. So much so that the taller woman adds, ‘Just be careful you don’t trip. Those pajamas are pretty long for you.’

She scoffs, scandalized at the slight on her height, and says sardonically, ‘You can hold me up.’

‘Only after you’ve brushed your teeth,’ Gwendolyn fires back.

Rolling her eyes, Mildred delays a little longer by insisting on washing their dishes as thanks for the meal. But then she lets herself be guided to the (downstairs) bathroom again, fetching her toothbrush from her bag on the way. Then she’s placated as they try and outdo each other pulling ridiculous faces in the mirror while they brush – and by the fact that Gwendolyn doesn’t seem to mind her taking her time over the task. In fact, when she finishes, she sees that the strawberry-blonde is staring at her open-mouthed. ‘What?’ she asks, bemused.

‘Oh,’ Gwendolyn answers airily, transforming her stare into yet another smirk. ‘Just that you’re so thoughtful to freshen up for me so thoroughly, my love.’ Her knees go weak at the words, and she can’t fathom why, but (whatever the reason) it makes her giggle – because she just might trip up in these pajama pants. Gwendolyn chuckles, and says softly, ‘I think someone needs to sit down, hmm?’ She nods, shy, but glad the suggestion is sitting and not lying. ‘All right, sweets,’ Gwendolyn croons, ‘how would you feel about a cuddle on the sofa?’

She’s confused by the question at first – because why wouldn’t she want to snuggle with Gwendolyn!? – but, after letting it rest for a moment, she realizes she actually does have an adaptation to propose. ‘Could I sit sideways so I can see your face, please?’

Gwendolyn grins. ‘Absolutely, darling. You can lay your legs across my lap,’ she purrs, and (were Mildred more inclined consider fantasy as something fun instead of a mere, and often morbid, coping mechanism) she would deem herself in danger of melting into a puddle. A puddle that only gets deeper with the addition of, ‘I’m so proud of you for letting me know what you need.’ She figures she must be doing a passable impression of a beet by this point – a suspicion confirmed by Gwendolyn giggling, and coaxing, ‘Come on, then, Mil. I won’t make you wait any longer for your kisses,’ as she catches up her hand and leads her through to the lounge.

She’s quiet as they get settled, still barely able to believe that she’s here – that they’re here – and this is happening. But, the second they share a smile (a sign they’re both comfortable), she says, ‘Gwen?’

‘Yes, Mil?’

She’s momentarily lost for words. Gwendolyn is even more magnificent to look at this close up. But eventually she manages to squeak, ‘I love you.’

‘I love you too,’ comes a raspy repetition. ‘May I show you how much?’

She nods, and apparently that’s all the answer that’s needed, because the strawberry-blonde dips her head and presses their lips together. Mildred moans softly, startling herself with the sound, and pulls back, knowing her face will be flushed with guilt. Gwendolyn simply smiles and strokes her cheek. Then, though, she whispers, almost pleading, ‘Let me hear you. It helps me know what you like.’

Mildred barks out a wry laugh. ‘I’m not sure I know.’

She means it as a joke, but Gwendolyn must take it seriously, because she says, ‘Well then. We can learn together.’ This is a surprise – Mildred would even go as far as to call it a shock – but, at the same time, it makes her feel so safe that she thinks she might melt again. She hears herself moan a second time, entirely without meaning to. Gwendolyn hums in obvious approval, and the sound reverberates through her shoulder where they sit snuggled. She moans a third time. Gwendolyn chuckles, and whispers, ‘You liked that, my love?’

She nods, overwhelmed by the knowledge that they’ve done so little but she’s already feeling so much, and briefly doubting the reality of her own responses. That hesitation makes her breath hitch for a different reason, so she seeks out the stability of Gwendolyn’s grasp, twining their fingers together as she talks. Or tries to. ‘You really don’t mind? Waiting?’

The older woman’s words are fierce enough that she thinks she’d be floored if they weren’t sitting down. ‘We aren’t waiting. This is just as important a part of intimacy as anything else. Sure, there are things that some folks might say are more exciting, but I’d say they’re only exciting if they aren’t rushed. And even that the –’ Gwendolyn pauses, and Mildred watches, enthralled, as she visibly modulates her pitch before continuing in a purr, ‘preparation is better than the eventual end points.’

Mildred feels her eyes grow round at the plural, despite it being disguised as a euphemism, and repeats, ‘End points?’

‘Mhmm,’ Gwendolyn murmurs, raising a brow to get a nod of consent before nuzzling her neck, and then apparently using their increased proximity to whisper directly in her ear, ‘but that’s for another evening. Tonight my darling’s asked for kisses for dessert, and I have yet to grant her request.’

Mildred hardly knows where to look, never mind what to say, but she summons enough speech from somewhere to breathe, ‘Kiss me, Gwen, please.’

Gwendolyn obliges.

Softly, slowly and sensually.

So sensually that Mildred isn’t in the least embarrassed when she moans again, much louder than any of the other the times. In fact she finds she wants to laugh and, almost before she thinks it, she hears a giggle bubble over. And it’s followed by a second, when Gwendolyn pulls back to offer verbal encouragement to match her physical caress. ‘That’s it. I’ve got you. Let it out.’

So Mildred does, relishing the release that comes with having another – and a novel – association with those words that were once among the very worst to hear.