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That's It, I've Got You

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‘No! Please! Edmund! I don’t want to!’

Mildred wakes to the sound of her own screams, and a sense that she’s shaking uncontrollably. Then she registers that she’s been propelled upright by the force of her fear. Her first instinct (now she’s aware, if not fully awake) is to leap out of bed and create some physical distance between the scene in her mind and her real surroundings.

But she’s forgotten, for a moment, that she isn’t alone.

And, before she can act on the impulse to flee, a voice floats past her ear. A real voice. A voice she hasn’t known for much time at all, really (and not nearly as long as the one in her nightmare). But it’s a voice which nevertheless feels familiar. And with which she has only positive associations (now the negative bits of their beginning are – mostly – behind them).

Gwendolyn’s.

‘Mil –’

Gwendolyn’s voice, grounding her with her new nickname.

One she’s never had.

One that isn’t tainted.

‘Mil –’ Gwendolyn repeats, softly, as she adds, ‘It’s just me, my love. Gwen. May I put my arms around you? It’s fine if not, if you aren’t ready for touch right now, I just wonder if it might help.’

Mildred is ready for touch. If Gwendolyn’s words are grounding, she’s sure her arms will feel even more so. (It’s the only thing she’s sure of in this moment, she muses wryly.) But she isn’t ready for speech, so she just nods numbly. Thankfully that’s apparently enough for the taller woman, who wraps her arms around her waist. The movement makes the smaller woman notice they’re both sitting up, and guilt churns in her gut. But she still can’t speak even to verbalize that, so she sinks silently into the embrace.

And it seems Gwendolyn understands she needs quiet around her as well, because she doesn’t say anything else.

Not even the phrase they’ve been bandying back and forth as a shared comfort.

That observation makes Mildred smile.

A small, shy, smile – but a smile nonetheless.

And the movement of her mouth at last allows her to follow it with a word.

‘Sorry.’

She hears Gwendolyn huff out a sigh as the hush between them is broken, and she realizes the older woman was holding her breath. The development increases her guilt by a manifold amount, but she’s unable to draw attention to it, because the strawberry-blonde murmurs, ‘You don’t need to apologize, darling.’

‘I do,’ she insists, desperation compelling her to use two words this time, and then to emphasize them with a nod. Her hair falls about her face, and she’s at once glad of the shield formed by its auburn curtain, and furious that it may have impeded her point.

Gwendolyn seems to sense her frustration, because she tuts in sympathy, and asks, ‘May I push your hair back, my love?’

Wary of nodding again, Mildred whispers, ‘Yes.’

Her touch firm yet tender, Gwendolyn tucks her long tresses behind her ears, taking time to comb through the tangles – and accompanying the caress with some speech. ‘You don’t have to be sorry, darling. Not for things like this. Same as saying “thank you”.’

Mildred wants to revolt at this reminder, and run away, but she contents herself with muttering, ‘It’s important to acknowledge when you’re wrong.’

She doesn’t think Gwendolyn will be able to argue with that, and she’s pleased when the older woman agrees. Or appears to. ‘It is,’ the strawberry-blonde starts, ‘but you aren’t wrong now, so there’s nothing to acknowledge. Or to apologize for.’

She shakes her head violently, no longer caring if her hair gets in her eyes. ‘But I am wrong. It’s the middle of the night and I woke you up. You need to be resting, not looking after me.’

Gwendolyn doesn’t answer immediately, but turns to glance at her alarm clock. Then she turns back, and Mildred thinks she might drown in the pools of her blue eyes, which are gazing at her more lovingly than she could ever have imagined anyone would. ‘No,’ the older woman observes, and something in her voice tells the younger nurse she’s channeling her prowess in politics. ‘It’s morning now, and I’m an early riser, anyway.’

Mildred scoffs. ‘Not this early. Even I don’t get up this early.’

Gwendolyn chuckles. ‘You’re up now, aren’t you?’

There’s a challenge in the question, and she rises to it. ‘I am. But I’ll be leaving for the hospital soon, so I’m not missing out on that much more sleep. You are. And that isn’t okay.’

‘It is, sweets, I’m supporting you,’ the strawberry-blonde says, and her voice has shifted to such a soothing tone that Mildred feels the fight melt out of her.

Now she’s not frustrated – just sad. So she lets her auburn hair create a curtain again, and whimpers, ‘But I should be supporting you.’

Gwendolyn leaves her hair where it hangs this time, and she’s oddly grateful. All the more so when the older woman responds, ‘We support each other. Reciprocity.’

It means she can hide her very unattractive snort of derision. ‘No-one actually does reciprocal things.’

(Unless, she thinks, revenge counts. Then a great many people do.)

But Gwendolyn doesn’t laugh along with her, and simply says, ‘They do, darling. That’s what strong relationships are founded on. And I want ours to be strong. All right?’

‘Okay,’ she agrees, awkwardly, and then adds, without further hesitation, ‘I want ours to be strong too,’ as she pushes her hair back.

Gwendolyn beams, as though she’s said the best possible thing. ‘Well then, my love, will you let me help you?’

The joy in Mildred’s favorite face and voice is too delightful to resist, so she nods – although she does whisper, ‘Thank you.’

Gwendolyn’s brows furrow at the words, but her eyes are alight with playfulness as she whispers back, ‘Mildred Ratched, you are incorrigible.’

The younger woman is powerless to prevent an unexpected giggle at this teasing use of a term that, when she’s heard it before, has only ever been connected to exasperation – and not of the fond kind. She’s learnt a lot about tone in the time she’s spent in the older woman’s company. And the different connotation makes her daring enough to tease in return, ‘And what are you going to do about it, Gwendolyn Briggs?’

The taller woman chuckles too, holding out a hand and extending her finger in what is evidently a non-verbal request for consent to touch Mildred’s face. The smaller woman nods, intrigued, and is pleasantly amused when her nose receives a gentle tap, paired with a somewhat gruff, ‘Anderson. My maiden name is Anderson,’ which is in turn followed by a more playful, ‘I’m going to –’ There’s a pause, and Mildred is only just able to stop herself panting in sudden anticipation before Gwendolyn goes on, ‘make us both breakfast in bed before your shift.’

Mildred feels a grin, if a bemused one, quirk up her lips at the generosity. She doesn’t recall ever having breakfast in bed, much less being made it by someone else. But the niceness of the gesture is swiftly nudged from the forefront of her mind by a far less sweet set of thoughts.

She’s going to leave you on your own.

She won’t be here if you start panicking again.

She might not come back at all.

So, hoping she doesn’t come across as rude, she replies, reticently, ‘That’s very kind of you, but could I come downstairs too?’ Then, thinking humor might help her cause, she quips, ‘I’ll roll up the pajamas so you don’t have to carry me.’

Gwendolyn laughs, but the sound is hollow, and her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. ‘Is this because you think I’m sick?’ she asks, her tone reminiscent of the sarcastic defense Mildred commented on when they sat in her car.

‘No, no,’ Mildred murmurs immediately, meaning it – but realizing as soon as it’s said that she’ll have to come clean about her real concern. A task that still fills her with anxiety, since it’s reliably led to rejection (at best) and punishment (at worst) in the past. But it doesn’t make her as anxious as the idea of waiting upstairs without Gwendolyn. She therefore continues by confessing, ‘It’s because I’m too scared to stay here by myself.’

The strawberry-blonde’s whole posture softens. ‘Oh, sweets,’ Gwendolyn croons, ‘then of course you must come with me.’

The response is sincere, and Mildred tries to be relieved, but her mind is stuck on playing its malicious early morning games. Games that lead her to doubt everything, and everyone, but herself most of all. So she says, softly, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to be a nuisance.’

Gwendolyn regards her for some seconds without speaking, and the intensity of the older woman’s stare is such that the younger would be skittish – were it not for the fact that the light has remained in the eyes that are set so beautifully beneath a wild crop of red and gold curls. So Mildred can sit still and smile, instead of worrying for the whole time (almost, anyway) until Gwendolyn whispers, ‘What’ve I said about apologies, my love? And you could never be a nuisance.’

She just giggles sheepishly, suddenly feeling even shyer. ‘I’m not sure about that.’

‘Well I am,’ Gwendolyn reinforces, her voice husky, suggesting she’s holding back tears. But before Mildred can check in, the older woman coaxes, ‘Come on then, my love, let’s make our way to the kitchen together.’

Together.

The last word sends a thrill through the younger woman’s body – literally, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes – and she finally feels fully present in the present again.

Enough that she can purr, ‘Okay, my love,’ and marvel at the flush this seems to set off across the strawberry-blonde’s cheeks.

Then Gwendolyn clicks her teeth, saying a second time, ‘Come on,’ and moving to slip out of her side of the bed as she murmurs, ‘or else you’ll distract me, darling, and I think we’re both too sensible to imagine we can survive solely on kisses, hmm?’ Mildred attempts (discreetly) to draw a hand to her mouth and muffle the moan that’s inspired by the image, but she doesn’t quite manage it. And Gwendolyn – beautiful, but oh so infuriatingly belligerent Gwendolyn – bores into the depths of her soul with those bright blue eyes, before playfully yet purposefully batting her hand away. ‘I want to hear you always, remember, my love?’

Mildred moans again at the pet name, and knows she’s turning pink. ‘Mhmm,’ she mutters, noncommittally.

Standing up, Gwendolyn chuckles, but says nothing as she steps around the bed. Or even when she reaches Mildred’s side, merely stretching out a hand in invitation. Mildred takes it, although she can’t quite join in with the humor. And Gwendolyn appears to notice her remaining apprehension, because (when Mildred gets to her feet as well) all she whispers is, ‘It’s all right, sweets, I’m just teasing you. I’m in no rush. And I don’t think either of us has the energy this morning.’

The younger woman – who has been feeling very young indeed since she woke – lets out a relieved sigh. Then she feels guilty for feeling grateful, since this is a sign Gwendolyn might not be feeling good. So she asks, ‘Are you tired?’

But strawberry-blonde hair shakes, assuaging that anxiety. ‘No. Hungry, though.’ Gwendolyn grins. ‘What’s your opinion on pancakes?’

Mildred’s mouth falls open at the query – as much at being asked her opinion on anything as at what the opinion is required for. Then she clamps it closed again briefly, before answering, ‘Positive, I think?’

Blue eyes widen opposite her. ‘You think?’

‘I never really had many opportunities to make them, and buying either breakfast or dessert as a meal out has felt far too extravagant for most of my life,’ she explains, deciding to be direct with her words, even if she’s now unsure where to look.  

‘May I hold you, my love?’

The gentle question makes her meet Gwendolyn’s gaze; but it also makes her giggle. ‘Why, because pancakes aren’t part of my staple diet? You know I bounce between bologna and peaches, Gwen.’

The taller woman laughs softly too. ‘Well, I’d really like to kiss your forehead, but I don’t want to do something we haven’t spoken about already, Mil.’

Mildred giggles again. ‘I’d like that. Thank you for checking. May I kiss yours?’

‘If you can reach,’ comes a cheeky comment from above her head.

She gasps theatrically. ‘Rude! No forehead kisses for you!’

Gwendolyn pouts. ‘Not even if I teach you how to make pancakes perfectly?’

Mildred’s love of methods makes this offer impossible to refuse, and she squeals. ‘Oh, would you? Please?’

‘Of course,’ the older woman says, smiling. ‘But you need to roll up your pajamas before you take another step.’

Leaning into the fact that her younger self is still present in her periphery, Mildred sticks out her tongue… and then nearly chokes with coughing through laughter when Gwendolyn does the same.

This response seems to cause the strawberry-blonde to snap out of their silliness, because she asks, ‘Do you need me to pat your back?’ The auburn-haired nurse nods, surprised, and allows herself to be gathered in close; although she covers her mouth to minimize the impact of her cough. Gwendolyn tuts, but doesn’t try and move Mildred’s hand – merely patting the center of her upper back. Then she suggests, gently, ‘Breathe with me.’ Mildred’s medical mind is amused, but she stops a laugh before it starts, and does as instructed. Her effort gets effusive praise, as Gwendolyn purrs, ‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Well done, darling.’

Her knees nearly buckle as she swoons slightly, though whether it’s from the approval, her physical exertion, or the reappearance of the familiar phrase, she can’t be certain. It could even be a combination of all three of those things. Either way, strong hands shift to steady her, and she mumbles, ‘Sorry,’ into the taller woman’s shoulder.

‘No apologies,’ Gwendolyn replies, stepping back – and Mildred is glad to see the sternness in her voice isn’t reflected in her expression. Far from it, since the older woman smiles, and leans forward to press her lips lightly in the middle of Mildred’s forehead.

It’s such a perfect fit for how young she’s still feeling – but so at odds with how she was treated when she was actually at that age – that Mildred can only mewl in contentment.

‘Oh, Mil,’ Gwendolyn murmurs, ‘what a delightful noise. I think we’ll be finding more ways to hear that, my love, don’t you?’

Now she can only giggle giddily. At least at first. Eventually she says, practically, ‘I think I need food.’

Gwendolyn nods. ‘I think we both do.’

They grin at each other without speaking for a second or two, but the silence is broken by the gurgling of one of their stomachs – soon followed by whoops of laughter.

‘Careful,’ Mildred counsels, once she’s caught her breath, ‘or I’ll start coughing again. I honestly don’t remember the last time I laughed this much. I think my body’s getting confused.’

She watches a flicker of sadness cross the older woman’s face, but then sees it swiftly replaced by resolve. It’s a transformation she knows only too well from her own thought processes, and she’s disappointed that Gwendolyn’s adopted it so quickly. Until she realizes that the strawberry-blonde has likely had plenty other reasons to perfect it, and so she feels less need to take on this particular burden. Any comment is prevented, anyway, as Mildred hears her say, ‘We’re going to change that. Now it doesn’t hurt my chest to laugh, I intend to do so multiple times each day. I hope you’ll assist with that goal, my love.’

‘I’ll assist you in any and every way I can, Gwen,’ she answers earnestly, pondering on how they’ve already shared more humor and hilarity than she’d thought was feasible for a lifetime, never mind a day.

The taller woman grins again, leaning to press another kiss to her forehead, which floods her with warmth. Then her words make Mildred feel even fuzzier. ‘I know you will, Mil. You already do.’

The smaller woman is suddenly (and possibly irrevocably) pleased by their height difference. It means – after holding up her arms in a clear, visible request for consent – she can wrap them around Gwendolyn’s waist, and reciprocate the gentle hold. Because she hardly knows what to say, and she’s learning (gradually and gratefully) that touch can be a useful substitute for speech.

And a meaningful one at that.

But her stomach rumbles, breaking the silence yet again, and prompting them both to step back, snickering. Then, rolling up her pajamas after a look from the older woman, Mildred allows Gwendolyn to guide her downstairs – although really she needs no encouragement to leave the room that’s made her feel so frustratingly young and vulnerable.

The kitchen does precisely the reverse.

She’s surprised (rooms like it are more specifically and overtly associated with bad memories than bedrooms are, ironically).

But something about the spaciousness and light in this one seems to stop her from sliding into the past when she steps over the threshold. And, she remembers now, a similar thing happened last night, when she begged Gwendolyn to let her help with washing their plates. She’d thought it was a fluke, that the excitement of the evening had been so overwhelming that it’d overridden any other more difficult emotions, but it appears she was wrong.

Because she feels like her adult self this morning, too.

And her adult self is totally at home here.

That is in itself a foreign feeling, true, but not enough to throw her. Not yet, anyway. For now – for the first few minutes that they’re in the kitchen – she’s able simply to bask in being. Most particularly being with Gwendolyn, of course, but also just in the sense of being somewhere safe.

And in the fact that she has that sense at all.

‘Mil, my love?’

The gentle address cuts across her contemplation and she chuckles coyly, returning it. ‘Gwen, my love?’

The older woman guffaws, and continues her questioning. ‘All okay?’

‘All okay,’ Mildred affirms, pairing the repetition with a wry grin, but adding sincerely, ‘There’s so much space – so many cupboards.’

Gwendolyn laughs again, the kindness in her eyes reassuring Mildred she’s laughing with her instead of at her. ‘May I hold you, darling?’ the taller woman asks, and the smaller woman nods, shifting to slot herself between the strawberry-blonde’s arms. Then she feels a soft kiss land on the crown of her head, and giggles – which sound is followed by Gwendolyn apologizing. ‘Sorry, sweets, I should’ve checked.’

Mildred shakes her hair, glad it’s still loose, because that will increase the impact. ‘No, no. I liked that. You’re showing me spontaneity is safe. And even fun. Sometimes.’

Gwendolyn laughs a third time. ‘Sometimes? Well, I can work with that. But the rest of the time you like plans, yes? And order?’ Mildred nods now, not feeling the slightest bit judged. Only validated. And that grows when the taller woman goes on, asking, ‘Is that why you like cupboards?’

She giggles along. ‘Partly. But also because they’re places to put things. To put things and to close the door. To put things and close the door so they’re safe and private. And you put things in them when you’re staying somewhere a long time.’

She stops, aware of all she’s said, and worried it might be too much.

Too soon.

Too much too soon.

But Gwendolyn kisses her head again, grounding her, and whispers, ‘You may stay here always, my love, and use as many cupboards as you need. And you may even organize them to your preferred specifications, if you wish.’

She thinks she hears a smirk in her favorite voice, but she doesn’t mind.

(Much.)

Because the idea of Gwendolyn not just being happy for, but encouraging, her to rearrange the cupboards in this house is even more comforting than the fact they went out to buy bologna.

And she didn’t think that was possible.

But it is.

Because food can be shared with guests, but you share storage space with people it belongs to.

People who belong in a house.

A home.

Mildred has never belonged anywhere. Not properly. Not that she can consciously remember.

But somehow, for reasons she still can’t fully comprehend (and probably never will), the universe – and Gwendolyn, but they’re one and the same in Mildred’s estimation – has decided she belongs here. Standing in this kitchen, encircled by Gwendolyn’s strong arms. Bare feet, tousled morning hair, too-long pajamas and all.

She belongs.

It’s so significant, so startling yet soothing, that she could cry. But she doesn’t want to, for fear it might make Gwendolyn think she’s said something wrong. And she hasn’t. She’s said something right. So right. Like yesterday, when she first whispered, “That’s it, I’ve got you”. And all the times she’s said that since then.

Thankfully, Mildred’s thoughts – and consequently the risk of crying – are diverted when her stomach rumbles.

‘Oh dear, darling,’ Gwendolyn murmurs with a chuckle. ‘Time to get to the serious business of pancake preparation, I’d say.’

She laughs too, but then feels the taller woman start to shift position (by loosening her grip) and she gets scared. So she finds some courage in the fact they’re still close, still touching, to ask (albeit falteringly), ‘Is there, uh, is there a way we can make it work while you hold me?’

Gwendolyn hums, evidently thinking, and the vibration sends a very pleasant shiver passing through the top of Mildred’s head – which also tells her the strawberry-blonde hasn’t moved very far away. ‘There is, actually,’ Gwendolyn confirms when she speaks at last, ‘I can stand behind you like this, sweets, and put my hands over yours to show you what to do. It might even be easier all round, especially when we come to flipping them.’

Flipping them?’ she breathes in awed bewilderment.

‘Mhmm.’ Gwendolyn hums again, and Mildred wonders whether the taller woman knows what happens to her insides when she does it. But there’s no opportunity to ask, because Gwendolyn adds, with an air of magic, ‘Up, out of the pan, into the air, and down.’

The explanation renders her totally and utterly incapable of acting her age (even here, in this room she’s so recently – and positively – attached to the concept of adulthood), and she shrieks, ‘But how!?’

‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ Gwendolyn deadpans above her head.

‘Oh stop,’ Mildred mutters, flushing, and pleading desperately with her younger self to vanish now they’ve crossed the line – with that line, which she can tell was very deliberately chosen – back into more mature territory. ‘You’re going to use food as a seduction technique a lot, aren’t you?’

‘Why, did it have an effect on you, my love?’ she hears, in an apparently innocent reply.

‘You know it did,’ she snarks playfully, half wanting to turn around, but needing the security of their current position in order to cope with their tone.

‘Noted for the future,’ Gwendolyn says softly.

‘Clearly,’ Mildred observes, adding obstinately, ‘and you’ve used it in the past, and now the present too.’

She intends to sound teasing, but the older woman seems to take her seriously. ‘Oh sweets – I hope you don’t think I’m pushing.’

The younger woman gasps, and both her child and adult selves are mortified at having been so grossly misunderstood. ‘No! I just – nobody’s really seduced me before, that’s all. Or even tried. Not that I would’ve let them if they had.’ She pauses, puffing out a hollow chuckle, and then continues shyly, ‘But it’s different with you.’

She thinks she hears Gwendolyn gasp, but the sound is quickly covered by speech. Albeit of a quiet, contemplative kind. ‘That means more than I can say, my dearest darling.’

Mildred is a little choked – by the sentiment, and the new pet name that appeared with it – so she stumbles over her response. ‘It – it – means more than I can say, too.’ Then she endeavors to make up for her inadequate communication skills with a familiar, and thus far failsafe, phrase. ‘I love you, Gwen.’

‘And I love you, Mil.’ She feels the taller woman bend, and press a quick to her head, before standing upright again. ‘So I’m going to show you how much by feeding you as many pancakes as you can eat.’

They both burst out laughing after that, and have to take a moment to compose themselves. But then they walk together to the stove – literally, because Mildred lets her movements be guided by Gwendolyn so they can stay close – and the cookery lesson commences.

Or it almost does.

They’re stalled by the taller woman tutting, and then saying, ‘Oh dear, I’ve forgotten the mixing bowls are stacked on top of one of the cupboards. That might be the first thing you want to rearrange, sweets.’

The smaller woman uses the fact they can’t see each other first to roll her eyes, and second to take advantage of their light flirtations. ‘I’ll just get you to fetch them down for me – I’m sure it’s a sight to behold.’

Gwendolyn sounds as though she gulps, but Mildred can’t believe she’s caused that kind of response. So much so that she blushes hotly until the older woman whispers, ‘We won’t be moving them, then, if it means that much to you.’ She bites her lip to stop a moan, although it turns into a squeal of outrage as Gwendolyn adds, ‘It’ll do you good to focus on a different variety of peach.’

Then Mildred scoffs, ‘You’re as bad as the boys I nursed in the Pacific.’

Hey!’ comes an immediate objection. ‘You’re the one angling for opportunities to ogle me.’

Mildred giggles, and dares to say unabashedly, ‘I am. But I think the real point of contention is whether you’re going to provide me with one.’

‘Oh I will,’ Gwendolyn returns huskily, ‘if only because you getting flustered is fast becoming one of my favorite sights to behold.’

She giggles a second time. ‘I guess I deserved that.’

‘Yes,’ the older woman agrees in a low voice, ‘because you deserve to have fun. And good food. Like pancakes.’

The younger parts of Mildred’s psyche want to take exception to this analysis, but they want pancakes more – and so, truth be told, do the adult parts. She therefore doesn’t argue, and instead says, ‘Okay?’, if phrased as a question and not the statement that Gwendolyn would probably most wish it to be.

She still gets a kiss to her scalp for her struggles, though, which makes the concession almost worth the effort – and suggests that the strawberry-blonde understands she’s trying her best. As is reinforced by the praise she receives. ‘I’m so proud of you, Mil.’

Another kiss lands on the crown of her head. ‘So proud. That’s a very big thing to voice out loud. Brave, too.’ There’s a pause, punctuated by a third kiss. ‘My brave, brilliant, beautiful darling.’

Mildred is at a loss as to how such simple sentences, and such comparatively chaste touches, can leave her feeling so… much. Her medical knowledge (however haphazard and gleaned on the job it might be) and her natural preference for logic both want her to rebel against the vaguest possibility that she could be so profoundly affected by something (some things) so prosaic. But, she reasons, her experience of similar scenarios is as piecemeal as her professional understanding.

Especially when it comes to willing consent and – how had Gwendolyn put it? – mutual enjoyment.

Pleasure?

The word that flashes briefly behind her forehead feels almost unknown to her, particularly in this context. She’s far more familiar with its opposite. Its antonym.

Pain.

And a close cousin of that: panic.

Yet neither of those negative emotions are encroaching on the sensation of bliss she’s surrounded by, that’s totally and completely enfolding her, simply through being in Gwendolyn’s embrace. So, she supposes, by a process of elimination, what she’s experiencing must be pleasure.

Pleasure.

The reappearance of that word behind her eyes makes her whimper.

No, she muses, it isn’t a whimper.

It’s a keening sound of the kind she’d not thought herself capable of producing.

It’s soft, but significant.

And it catches them both by surprise, if the inhale of breath from Gwendolyn is an accurate indication of the impact it’s having on her, too.

‘All right, sweets?’ the older woman asks, and the younger thinks she hears a slight waver under the superficially calm question.

What it springs from, she can’t be sure, but it’s a comfort to have confirmation that they’re equally affected. It gives Mildred the courage to murmur in reply, ‘Mhmm. It’s – those words – I – when you –’

Oh.’ There’s a pause after Gwendolyn’s initial response, and she can almost picture the cogs turning as the taller woman ponders what she’s revealed. But Gwendolyn’s voice is confident when she continues. ‘That’s noted for the future as well, then, my love. But presently I’ll try to keep you concentrating on us making breakfast. Pancakes take priority over hanky-panky.’

Mildred giggles at the phrase, and hears an unspoken query in the silence that descends after it, so she comments, ‘You sound like Louise.’

Gwendolyn barks out a laugh behind her. ‘I hope I’ll never give you cause to draw that comparison again.’

‘I’m fairly certain you won’t, don’t worry. Louise wouldn’t dream of offering me pancakes before a shift. Did she lecture you about the ice dispenser when you checked in?’ She asks this playfully, but the remembrance rankles, so she’s relieved when the strawberry-blonde has a comparably curt response.

‘She did, yes,’ Gwendolyn grumbles. ‘But I never needed ice anyway.’

‘None of us did,’ Mildred mutters malevolently. ‘I’ll bet no-one ever does.’

‘You’re probably right. But Louise doesn’t deserve to infiltrate her way into our domesticity, darling,’ the older woman reminds, and the younger is grateful for the pet name. Its use reassures her she isn’t being reprimanded. And it gets followed by a more humorous observation. ‘Although, you can always think of her as you beat the batter.’

Mildred chuckles, and their homely harmony is restored.

Reinforced, even.

She feels so secure in it that she hardly flinches when Gwendolyn steps back from their hug to stretch up for the bowl – and actually, rather than watching the taller woman go about her task, the smaller busies herself by walking to the sink to wash her hands. As she dries them, she returns her gaze to Gwendolyn, who’s getting the ingredients out of their relevant places.

Evidently sensing Mildred’s eyes on her, the strawberry-blonde turns, a sly smile on her lips as she says, ‘I won’t tell you where things are kept. You’re going to move them anyway, so it seems more expedient just to let you loose on it all in your own time.’

She scowls, then smirks. ‘More expedient than this pancake-making process?’

Blue eyes glare gently as her own dark ones crinkle at the corners with a laugh. ‘It’s hardly my fault. Someone refused to let me let her go.’

‘Did you want to?’ she drawls, deliberately drawing out the third word.

‘No,’ Gwendolyn replies, flashing a gloriously dazzling grin, ‘but that same someone’s stomach also kept announcing how hungry she is, so perhaps she ought to practice listening to her body a little better.’

Mildred bites her lip, endeavoring to pay no heed to the flush she feels creeping up her neck, and responds in the third person as well. ‘She may need some advice on how to do that.’

‘Advice which will be freely given, my love,’ the older woman promises.

(Mildred’s child self can tell it’s a proper promise. But her adult self remains reticent.)

So she hedges, asking, ‘May I have advice on how to make pancakes first, please, Gwen?’

‘You may, Mil.’

Back to being excited again, Mildred resists the temptation to clap, wary, both of bringing her child selves back, and of Gwendolyn thinking her childish regardless of whether they reappear. But she permits herself to say, shyly, ‘So you’ll show me?’

Gwendolyn grins. ‘I will, Mil. I’ll just wash my hands, too, and then I’ll guide you through the recipes for American and French pancakes, or crêpes.’

She’s stumped by this. ‘There’s more than one kind of pancake?’

‘Mhmm,’ Gwendolyn grins again. ‘As many kinds as there are countries in the world, I’d wager. But I only know how to make ours, and a poor approximation of the ones Trevor and I ate almost every day in Paris.’

She’s even more amazed, now. And awestruck. ‘You’ve been to Paris?’

It comes out more squeakily than she meant it to, but Gwendolyn smiles at what she appears to take as enthusiasm. ‘Yes. And we can go too. Someday.’

Mildred nods reflexively, her imagination suddenly running away with her for a nice reason instead of the terrible ones it usually chooses. ‘Oh, that would be wonderful. Europe might do you good, actually. I haven’t traveled there – I haven’t traveled anywhere, really – but I’ve read about people taking time to convalesce in the Alps.’

Gwendolyn looks at her with such undisguised adoration that even she has to acknowledge it as adoration (despite still feeling undeserving of anything close to that). But then the taller woman pairs her gaze with some words, and the intensity of the combination is nearly enough to make the smaller woman’s knees buckle. ‘You’re such a good nurse, Mil. We can definitely talk about that as an option.’

She giggles coyly, deciding to deflect the praise by paying a compliment in return. ‘I’m only a good nurse to patients I care about.’

This gets a scoff from Gwendolyn. ‘I know from experience that that isn’t true. Your kindness to Betsy at the dance didn’t come from care for her. It might do now, but it didn’t then.’

She replies with a scoff of her own. ‘Betsy wasn’t my patient.’

Gwendolyn simply flashes a sly smile. ‘Neither am I.’

‘No,’ Mildred agrees, removing any artifice from her voice, ‘you aren’t. But I do intend to look after you.’

‘And I appreciate that more than I can articulate, my love,’ the older woman says softly. ‘But you can’t look after anyone if you haven’t got energy. So we need to eat now.’

‘Yes, I guess we do,’ the younger woman allows, suddenly aware she’s been stalling, though it hasn’t been conscious, because she isn’t even sure why.

Or she isn’t sure until she notices she’s been doing it. Then the cause is only too clear, and she feels the blood drain from her face.

‘Mil? Mil? Mil?’

Gwendolyn must have observed that she’s turned pale, because Mildred registers the strawberry-blonde repeating her name. She probably isn’t saying it over and over with no pause, but that’s how it sounds as it ricochets around the brain beneath Mildred’s auburn hair.

And all she can think to answer is, ‘Gwen –’

‘It’s all right, my love. Whatever it is, wherever you’re going right now, it’s all right.’

The gentle guidance makes her want to wail, but she doesn’t have the strength, so she whimpers, ‘It isn’t! I was so excited about pancakes, but –’

‘But?’ Gwendolyn prompts, still unfailingly (yet unfathomably, to Mildred) patient.

‘But I can’t make them while you hold my hands – I’ll feel too much like a puppet,’ she forces out, anxious and ashamed.

‘Oh my dearest darling,’ she hears through the haze of fear that’s filling her head. ‘That’s all right. I mean – it’s all right that you can’t, not that our plans have made you panic like this. I’ll teach you some other time, when you don’t need to be held. Today we can get dressed, and maybe go out for breakfast, on the way to the hospital?’

Mildred smiles at the idea, and the response to her explanation. She doesn’t deserve it – she doesn’t deserve anything as nice – but she needs to get out of the house. So she nods, letting her grin get wider, and says, ‘I’d like that.’

‘I’m glad, sweets,’ Gwendolyn croons, and Mildred marvels at how the soft speech feels close to a caress. Then the strawberry-blonde offers the comfort of physical touch, too. ‘May I hold you, Mil? Just an ordinary hug.’

She nods, grateful for the clarification, even as she cringes at needing it. ‘Please, Gwen.’ Gwendolyn nods in reply and, crossing the small space between Mildred and the kitchen counter, gathers her in her arms. The smaller woman buries her face in her shoulder, whispering, ‘I’m sorry.’

She feels the taller woman lean down, and then a kiss lands in her hair. ‘No apologies, my love. I don’t need them. All I do need is for you to tell me when things are tough. And you’re making an excellent start.’

‘I don’t want things to be tough when I’m with you,’ Mildred mumbles petulantly.

Another kiss lands in her hair. ‘I know. I don’t want that either. But life often doesn’t care what we want, and we’ve already come through a lot together. So I’m glad we can be here to help each other when things are tough.’

‘I’m glad, too,’ Mildred says genuinely, raising her head and grinning.

‘Mil?’ the older woman murmurs, her eyes bright with apparent amusement.

‘Yes, Gwen?’ she asks, giggling.

‘How would you feel about me kissing your nose?’

‘Good, I think?’ she replies, hoping her uncertainty isn’t taken as unwillingness.

But Gwendolyn just nods, seeming to understand that it’s an unknown. ‘Shall we try, sweets?’

‘Okay.’

The taller woman leans in, stooping slightly, and presses her lips to the bridge of her nose. The smaller woman sighs happily, musing that she’s about as surprised by how many kinds of kisses there are as she was by the fact that it’s possible to make multiple types of pancakes.

But she thinks kisses are better.

Especially the sort Gwendolyn gives.

And she says so, commenting, ‘Good,’ as she’s fixed with a questioning, but kind, stare.

The strawberry-blonde smiles, echoing, ‘Good.’

Mildred smiles too, saying, ‘It made me warm inside. Do you like nose kisses as well?’

Gwendolyn chuckles. ‘I like any kisses from you, my love.’

‘That’s made me feel even warmer,’ Mildred breathes, blushing. Gwendolyn chuckles again, and she shivers – but not for a sensual reason. The early morning chill, and the fact she’s not wearing a robe, has finally caught up with her.

And she must be shivering visibly, because Gwendolyn asks, ‘Are you cold, darling? Do you need a gentle nudge to dress?’ She nods, biting her lip, and blushing more. Gwendolyn grins. ‘All right. Go on then. You get yourself ready for work, and I’ll get ready to drive us to breakfast.’

She grins, grounded. ‘Thank you, Gwen.’

The taller woman tuts, and the smaller woman thinks briefly that she’s going to be told off, but Gwendolyn just says, ‘Thank you, Mil. For letting me in. I know it’s hard, and must be all the more so after a difficult wakeup. But we can tackle those together, now. No matter how many trips for pancakes it might take.’

Mildred laughs – at the joke, of course, but also at how Gwendolyn seems to have grasped, instinctively, how helpful humor is. Then she rolls her eyes as a finger is wagged gently, playfully, in front of her face. An attempt to stop her talking, which she allows to succeed, before turning on her bare heel and heading to find her overnight bag for a change of clothes.

When they reconvene in the lounge, she watches the taller woman’s eyes widen, presumably because she’s elected to wear the outfit she arrived in the day before. ‘No uniform?’

She shakes her head. ‘I shouldn’t really wear it outside of the hospital – except for when I’m driving straight to work – so I decided I’ll change again when I get there.’

Strawberry-blonde hair nods. ‘Sensible. I’ll drive you there, if you like, and fetch you so I can help with packing up at the motel?’

‘I’d like that,’ she answers, squashing down her anxiety about leaving her car parked outside someone else’s house by rationalizing that, soon, she will live there – here – properly too. And by trying to recall the feeling of homeliness she found in the kitchen.

‘May I take your hand, Mil?’ She nods immediately at the query, in simultaneous gratitude and disbelief at Gwendolyn’s intuition; both of which emotions only grow as the older woman says, with a soft squeeze through their gloves, ‘We can take your car if it’s easier.’

She shakes her head, quipping wryly, ‘Your car’s where we were after I had my last major mind muddle, so I might find it comforting.’

Gwendolyn groans dramatically, but offers no further comment, save for a second hand squeeze. Then they walk out together, and slide into their respective seats, for the older woman to drive. The radio fills their companionable silence with songs Mildred doesn’t recognize (but she rather likes that). When they reach their desired destination (which Gwendolyn describes as a tiny diner, as though any establishment in Lucia could be called anything but tiny), they slide into a booth in the back. And, after their orders arrive, Mildred laughingly consents to being fed bites of pancake across the table. Their spot at the oyster bar was much less secluded, and nobody had looked askance there. So she feels safe to be silly. And she’s glad of the support while she tries another food that’s, if not exactly new, then mostly unfamiliar.

Particularly because, as they eat, she comes to comprehend precisely why she hasn’t had pancakes often.

Not because she doesn’t like them.

(They’re delicious, in fact.)

Not even because she hasn’t had the opportunity.

(She has, in her meal breaks when she worked as a server after being discharged.)

But that’s the problem. Or it has been before.

The smell of them, and many other fried foods, reminds her of resentment.

The taste, though (as the pieces are placed tenderly into her mouth by someone who seems repeatedly determined to offer her absolution) is now nothing but nurturing.

A shift that makes her smile until the very last scrap is gone from her plate.

As she finishes her final mouthful, she sees Gwendolyn smiling too, with an expression on her face that Mildred still finds foreign but is becoming steadily more familiar.

Pride.

The older woman says nothing, however – probably being circumspect as their crockery, cutlery and cups are cleared away. In fact, neither of them says anything for a few minutes, and Mildred thinks yet again how comfortable, and comforting, it feels to sit in shared silence.

It might be one of her favorite activities.

But then whatever she does with Gwendolyn is her favorite thing to do.

Her thoughts, and the quiet between them, are disturbed by the check being brought – although they return to being silent as they stare each other down in a wordless debate over who will pay. Finding this hush much more awkward, Mildred hums, and suggests, ‘We could split it?’

And the taller woman replies, with a smirk, ‘Compromise? I’m impressed, Nurse Ratched.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘Negotiations with stubborn people are my specialty.’

Gwendolyn’s smirk just spreads into a proper grin. ‘I guess we both have a lot of that written on our resumés.’

‘I guess we do,’ Mildred concedes, getting an idea. ‘Please let me pay? I don’t want you to be out of pocket now you aren’t working.’

The older woman’s expression becomes a grimace. ‘You’re sweet, Mil, but it’s just as much a matter of pride for me to be self-sufficient as it is for you. So let’s split it, like you said, all right?’

The younger woman nods, deciding not to be churlish – or childish. ‘All right. And then we should go, however much I’d prefer to spend the day with you, Gwen.’

Gwendolyn smiles again, and Mildred is glad. ‘I’ll be waiting in the car the second your shift ends.’

Having driven them to the hospital in the last of the lingering dusk, Mildred sees Gwendolyn wait to wave her inside before it starts, too – and she holds off from turning her back on the sight for as long as she can, using it to fill her with strength for the day ahead.

It gets her through to lunch, when she knows Betsy won’t be busy (except with eating other people’s food, of course), and when she can broach a similar topic to the one over which she last spoke with Gwendolyn.

Although not exactly.

She plans to be rather more direct than she was when she hinted, shyly, about preferring to spend the day together.

Because she hopes to make that dream a reality.

But it means raising the potential medical necessity of such an arrangement, and she hasn’t asked Gwendolyn how much detail is okay to share.

And, specifics notwithstanding, she doesn’t want to say anything in front of the other staff.

So she proceeds delicately to begin with, calling quietly across the central lounge, ‘Nurse Bucket, do you have a moment?’

The imposing older nurse merely quirks a brow, before standing up and striding over to take Mildred’s arm, saying smartly, ‘Come with me, Nurse Ratched.’ Still not fully comfortable with her colleague’s propensity to touch her without warning, Mildred nevertheless allows herself to be steered to the break room. Betsy shuts the door, but keeps her voice so low it almost resembles a hiss as she asks, ‘What are you playing at, Mildred? I knew you were up to something.’

Biting back a laugh at this initial response, Mildred calms the slight flutter in her chest with the humorous thought that they’re making something of a habit of having significant conversations in this room. Then she whispers back, ‘I’m not up to anything, Betsy, honestly. I just wanted to let you know I may need to take a leave of absence for a few weeks. You may remember my friend Gwendolyn –’

She breaks off when the older woman is rather less successful at stifling a chuckle. ‘You think I could forget her after the dance?’

Mildred is half comforted that their thoughts have traveled to the same place and half disturbed by the almost casual reference to such a traumatic event. She tries to take the comfort and discard the disturbance, and continues nonchalantly, ‘I guess not. Well, she’s, uh, had some unfortunate medical news, and may need my support while she starts treatment. Nothing’s been decided yet, but –’

Her attempt to keep it together is thwarted by a guttural bark from the back of her colleague’s throat, and a quiet query. ‘But you want me to book you in for some joint sessions of hydrotherapy?’

Mildred’s jaw drops briefly, although she retains the wherewithal to hiss (hoping the horror is plain on her face), ‘Betsy!’

This seems to tickle her friend (if Mildred can call her that) even more. ‘I’m just messing with you, Mildred. Now I’m in charge I won’t countenance the continuation of any treatments that aren’t totally humane.’

The younger woman finds she still can’t quite fathom what she’s hearing, and endeavors to be ever so slightly more explicit in her next line of questioning. ‘You mean you know?’

Betsy takes a breath, as though buying time to think, and then says, her tone thoughtful, ‘I saw how you looked at each other when you were helping me that night. And how distraught you were after –’ There’s a tiny pause as another breath is drawn, followed by (Mildred muses) more kindness than either of them are accustomed to exchanging. ‘Give her my best, won’t you? She’s been through more than one person should have to bear. But then so have you.’

Mildred is mortified to discover her eyes are blurring with unbidden tears, and she blinks. But she wants to express her gratitude, so she affirms, ‘I will. Thank you, Betsy. From – from the both of us.’

Brown hair nods gently, but when the older woman raises her head, it is clear “Nurse Bucket” has returned. ‘You’re welcome, Nurse Ratched. Now, is that all?’

Hiding a smirk at this sudden transformation behind her hand, Mildred nods with all the meekness she can muster, letting Betsy lead them in a brisk walk back to the main ward areas.

This allyship is too fragile for her to have a handle on its nuances yet, and she dare not do anything to endanger its foundations.