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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.

Chapter Text

Gwendolyn Briggs (née Anderson) isn’t prone to hyperbole. She never has been. But then, she muses, if someone had asked her how she expected this evening would turn out, she never would’ve answered that she’d end it kissing Mildred Ratched. Kissing her while she sits on her lap, no less. With her auburn hair tumbling tantalizingly over her shoulders – which are clothed in a too large pair of Gwendolyn’s own pajamas. So she wonders, perhaps, if it’s time to reconsider her sense of her own personality. Because she genuinely feels as though she could sit here, doing this, forever. And that’s definitely hyperbole.

Because she can’t.

And not for the morbid reason anyone else might think, either.

(Not that at all. Not even close. She isn’t letting that reason creep into her consciousness. That’s for tomorrow. She refuses to allow it to undermine their bliss tonight.)

No; her problem now is much more mundane, and much less medical. Because she can tell Mildred’s growing drowsy, and that means they’ll have to stop. Partly for consent’s sake, of course – which is always crucial – but mostly for the sake of practicality. Because her darling needs rest. And, Gwendolyn begrudgingly admits, she does too. So she pulls away (gently) and says (softly), ‘Sleep time, sweets.’

Mildred’s forehead creases in the most adorable frown, and her mouth forms into a moue of discontent with which Gwendolyn has already become more than passingly familiar. ‘Can’t we stay up just a little longer?’ she asks, in a tone that’s clearly meant to sound arch – but Gwendolyn can tell is a cover for anxiety.

She shakes her head and, hoping she comes across as consoling, croons, ‘I can understand why the concept of bedtime might’ve been a difficult one to deal with in your past, Mil. But I’m here. And we’re making a future together. So, starting tonight, you don’t have to deal with those demons alone.’

Mildred blinks, obviously bewildered. ‘But –’

‘But?’ Gwendolyn repeats, wanting to prompt without pushing, and choosing to ignore the deflection for now.

‘I thought you’d prefer me to have the guest room – or even sleep on the sofa – if we aren’t –’

Her heart squeezes as the younger woman breaks off, but she tries to respond calmly. And she succeeds. At first. ‘I want you close to me, my love. That isn’t contingent on –’ She pauses, searching for the right word. One that won’t be charged. And she settles on, ‘anything.’

She worries that might be too vague, and seem empty, but Mildred’s dark eyes light up eagerly as she squeals, ‘You mean we can just – sleep – next to one another?’

Gwendolyn nods, chuckling, although she notes the surreptitious evasion of the word “together”. Then she confirms verbally, ‘We can hold each other.’

Mildred beams, but a shadow soon flits across her face. ‘Are you sure I won’t disturb you? You need rest.’

Gwendolyn wishes she could kiss away the doubt, but she can tell Mildred’s sense of self is too insecure for her to be confident that any consent is willingly given. So she just says, ‘I’m sure. You could never be a disturbance. Besides, you need rest too, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion you won’t sleep at all if I leave you to your own devices. Which means I won’t sleep for fretting over you.’

She winks, and the last sentence apparently has the desired effect, because Mildred tuts. ‘Oh, we can’t have that,’ she says seriously.

Gwendolyn shakes her head. ‘No,’ she agrees, trying to conceal a chuckle at the younger woman’s earnestness. Then she matches Mildred’s serious expression and reiterates, ‘Sleep time, sweets?’, but ends it with an upward inflection to ensure it’s understood as a question.

Auburn hair nods in acquiescence as Mildred mumbles, ‘Mmkay,’ and starts to stand up. But, the second her feet touch the floor, she falls back into the sofa cushions with a shout of surprise. ‘Oh!’

Gwendolyn catches her, relieved her reflexes are still quick, but she’s concerned by the cause. Until she sees the excess material that’s become snagged on the smaller woman’s toes, and curses not reminding her to roll up the pajama pants. ‘Oh, darling, I’m sorry,’ she soothes, smiling into Mildred’s shoulder as she feels her relax into her gentle grasp. ‘I’m not certain you’ll make it upstairs, at this rate.’

‘I’ll roll them up,’ Mildred murmurs stubbornly.

Gwendolyn hums noncommittally, aware this is about more than the practicalities posed by an oversized outfit. ‘Or I could carry you?’ she offers. ‘That’d make the journey quicker and a little less daunting.’

She thinks she hears a gasp, and wonders if it’s a sign of a positive or negative reaction. Thankfully Mildred doesn’t keep her waiting – although she does answer with a question. ‘Can you?’

Gwendolyn is affronted for a moment that her ability isn’t immediately obvious. ‘Excuse me?’

She hears a giggle, then, which suggests Mildred has heard her mortification. ‘Oh, I don’t mean generally,’ the younger woman says shyly, ‘you seem very strong. I meant more – should you – I suppose. Now that –’

‘Now that nothing, Nurse Ratched,’ Gwendolyn returns wryly, ‘I didn’t even know I had it until yesterday, it can’t – won’t – have sapped my strength so fast.’

Mildred makes a sort of snuffling sound, and Gwendolyn guesses she’s about to scoff at the display of such inadequate medical knowledge; but the snuffling swiftly grows into something that can only be called a yawn. Then Mildred mutters, ‘Fine,’ her tone only slightly mutinous. ‘You may carry me to bed, Gwen.’

Gwendolyn muffles a laugh in the smaller woman’s neck, and whispers, ‘Why thank you, Mil.’

Then they’re laughing together, and loudly, while they adjust their positions so Gwendolyn can pick Mildred up. She resists the urge to give Mildred a playful bounce as she settles her in her arms, wary of startling her sweetheart, and instead asks, ‘Happy?’

The younger woman chuckles at the question, and Gwendolyn wonders if she chose the right – or rather wrong – word, because Mildred takes a second before saying anything more in reply. But then an answer arrives that causes Gwendolyn’s stomach to flip in awe as opposed to anxiety. ‘Happier than I’ve ever been in my life,’ Mildred whispers, her eyes shining with a sincerity that more than compensates for the softness of her voice and her decidedly skittish expression. It’s as though she can’t believe she spoke aloud. But her frankness is followed by a further statement. ‘I’m not being flippant,’ she adds, sounding awkward.

‘I know, my love,’ Gwendolyn breathes, barely able to contain the catch in her own voice.

Because she does know. Or, at least, she’s beginning to understand. And the truth of what she’s just been told is at once a deeply touching and terrible thought. But she’s distracted from too much distress by Mildred giggling. ‘You have so many pet names for me,’ the younger woman murmurs, in obvious awe. ‘I’ve never had even one before, and now you’ve given me more than I can count.’

Gwendolyn chuckles, even as her heart clenches at the bittersweetness of this comment. ‘You like them?’ Auburn hair nods. ‘Well then,’ she continues, ‘I’ll have to find a new one for you every day.’ Mildred turns the most adorable shade of red, so Gwendolyn goes on by returning to a practical topic. ‘But tonight we need to head for bed.’

Auburn hair nods again, and the strawberry-blonde starts off in the direction of the stairs. She steps carefully, and then takes the climb slowly – for both their sakes, although she’d never admit her own anxiety. She’s so acutely aware of the nerves hidden behind the formidable nurse’s stalwart effort to smile that she refuses to let anything else get in the way of securing Mildred’s sense of safety.

And she gets further evidence of how shaky that sense is when they reach the bedroom and the smaller woman whispers, ‘You drew back the covers already?’

Gwendolyn nods. ‘I did. I was acting on the hope that you would be all right to be carried, and thinking I’d lower you down and tuck you in. Then I can lie next to you and we can face each other. How does that sound?’

Mildred’s lip quivers, and she nearly panics that she’s way off the mark, but then the younger woman says shyly, ‘It sounds perfect. Thank you.’

Holding back a tut at the gratitude, Gwendolyn grins, although she does give a reminder. ‘You don’t need to thank me, darling. Not for things like this.’

Mildred blinks up at her. ‘But – you’re so kind.’

Gwendolyn fights off a grimace at the incredulity in Mildred’s tone, and answers evenly, ‘So are you. You’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Most of your actions are motivated by a desire to ease other people’s suffering. And you deserve kindness in return. Starting with some snuggles, and then a good night’s sleep, in a warm bed of your own. Our own.’ The younger woman blinks again, but nods, so the older woman is satisfied it’s safe to ask, ‘Ready to lie down, my love?’

Mildred giggles. ‘Yes. And I think I like that pet name the best.’

Gwendolyn grins, relieved they are back to joking, and (as she walks over to place her precious cargo on the bed) whispers, ‘Excellent. I plan on using it a lot.’

This is met with an arched brow. ‘You already have,’ Mildred murmurs, before flipping onto her side as soon as she’s settled on the sheets.

Gwendolyn doesn’t address the impertinence as the covers are drawn up around her darling. She doesn’t say anything at all until she herself is lying on her side, and their faces are level. Then, though, she tugs the bedclothes up over her body as well, and clarifies with a chuckle, ‘A lot more, in that case, my love.’

She’s gratified when Mildred not only giggles but lets out a soft moan. Watching her blush again, Gwendolyn is about to say something soothing, but the smaller woman speaks first. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers, chewing her bottom lip, and clearly anxious. ‘I just – it makes me feel good when you call me that.’

The strawberry-blonde stops herself smirking at this confirmation of a suspicion she’s harbored for some time now – and which has only strengthened throughout their interactions this evening. She doesn’t dare risk shaming Mildred for what is an unequivocally positive response. So she replies readily, ‘Never apologize for feeling good, my dearest darling. I only ever want you to feel good.’ The dark eyes opposite her blue ones widen, and Gwendolyn swears she sees their pupils dilate a little; but she isn’t convinced this is the correct point to push. She therefore doesn’t act on the assumption of Mildred’s arousal, and simply smiles, prompting, ‘All right?’

‘All right,’ Mildred repeats, her voice husky with oncoming sleep.

Gwendolyn hums thoughtfully. ‘D’you think you can try closing your eyes, sweets? I’m right here.’

Auburn hair nods determinedly, although the younger woman’s anxiety remains palpable as she asks, ‘Could you hold me, please, Gwen?’

‘Of course, Mil,’ Gwendolyn coos, reaching to wrap her arms around Mildred’s waist, but keeping the gap between them so they can maintain eye contact. And so she can check that the smaller woman is, in fact, falling asleep. Which she seems to be, because her eyelids droop. ‘That’s it,’ the taller woman praises softly, ‘I’ve got you. Let yourself drift off.’ Mildred mumbles something incomprehensible, but shuffles closer, so Gwendolyn gathers her against her body – tucking her head into the crook of her neck. ‘I love you,’ she whispers, ‘so very much, my love.’

Mildred moans quietly, suggesting that she heard, which in turn suggests that her journey to sleep isn’t proving totally successful. Then she mutters, ‘Gwen –’

‘I’m here, Mil. You’re safe,’ Gwendolyn purrs.

‘Safe,’ Mildred echoes dreamily, causing Gwendolyn to shiver pleasantly at the sensation of warm air passing over the small patch of bare skin above her pajama shirt collar.

‘Yes,’ she reassures, ‘safe, sweets.’

Then she goes quiet, listening intently for the subtle shift in the younger woman’s breathing pattern that will be a telltale sign of her slipping into slumber. It doesn’t arrive immediately, but – with all the horrors that lurk in the marshes of Mildred’s mind – Gwendolyn knows she would’ve been far too hopeful (at best) and naïve (at worst) to think it could. So she’s prepared to wait patiently. It isn’t as though she’s got anything else to do.

Anything except lie awake herself, that is.

Mildred would throw a tantrum if she got the slightest inkling of her hypocrisy. Gwendolyn guesses she could probably pass it off as protectiveness – but even that would probably irk the fiercely independent nurse. Despite the fact that taking care of others is clearly one of her strongest strategies for self-preservation. Because Mildred would be mortified at the implication that Gwendolyn doesn’t feel safe enough to share her struggles. And that mortification would undermine all the progress they’ve made in coaxing Mildred to share hers.

Rightly so.

No, Gwendolyn muses, her mouth forming into a grim line, the only fair and honest thing to do is to open up about her fears. No matter how scary that might be in itself.

As a consequence, she’s strangely relieved when Mildred stirs, shifting back a bit on the bed – and she hears herself whisper, ‘Hey.’

‘Hi,’ the younger woman replies just as quietly. ‘I can’t sleep.’

Gwendolyn feels her lips shifting into a small smile. ‘Isn’t it funny, then, that I can’t either?’

She watches Mildred’s eyes narrow pensively, and wonders if she’s thinking back to their dinner before the dance. But, if she’s bothered by the purloining of her phrasing (admittedly a paraphrase of it), she doesn’t show it. Instead she asks simply, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

Gwendolyn considers for a while, and eventually answers, ‘I don’t think I can yet.’

She’s frustrated with herself – isn’t this why she wanted them both to be awake!? – but Mildred just nods, unquestioningly accepting. ‘At your pace,’ the smaller woman quips, an impish smile appearing on her face, and the taller woman chuckles at the knowledge that they’re each using the other’s words to their own advantage.

‘I suppose I set myself up for that,’ she observes wryly.

‘Mhmm,’ Mildred murmurs, seeming inordinately pleased with her cleverness.

And deservedly so.

Gwendolyn contemplates how sweet she’d taste if she stretched to kiss her – but she doesn’t have consent to do so and, since Mildred can’t sleep, she’s wary of reawakening anything additionally difficult. But she recalls how lost the younger woman had looked after her outburst at the puppet show, and wants to shoulder some of that burden. So she returns Mildred’s question. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

She’s fully expecting this advance to be rebuffed (because that isn’t without precedent and, for all that’s changed between them, the topic she thinks might be most relevant is a tough one). But she sees auburn hair nod, and hears a soft voice say, ‘I think so, actually. It’s a relief to have someone who knows – except for Edmund, of course –’

Mildred breaks off, obviously feeling she sounds silly, so Gwendolyn repeats, ‘Of course.’ Then she asks, ‘Is he on your mind, my love?’ Auburn hair nods a second time, so she poses a second query. ‘From before or now?’

Dark eyes widen, and Mildred seems taken aback. Gwendolyn curses herself for being so gauche – but then the smaller woman responds slowly, ‘Both – I think – although I don’t entirely understand how that can be possible –’

‘I do,’ Gwendolyn interjects, immediately and involuntarily.

‘You do?’ Mildred echoes, her expression wary but her tone intrigued.

‘I do,’ Gwendolyn affirms, thinking of their conference with Dr Hanover and Governor Wilburn, and the centrality of Charlotte Wells’ case. It’d been doomed before it started, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t listened; or that she didn’t care. The reverse, in fact. It’d taught her a lot about trauma and its effects. Not that she’d mention any of these musings to Mildred. Even after the puppet show. All she says, in the end, is, ‘Minds can play strange tricks.’

‘Yes,’ the younger woman agrees, ‘they can.’

Gwendolyn knows such ready assent is borne of the convenient distance Mildred is afforded by being someone who works with patients – as opposed to an admission from someone who acknowledges she needs (or even deserves) to seek out help herself. But this conversation is a start and, for that, the strawberry-blonde can only feel resounding gratitude. Gratitude that guides her to go on, and provide a further prompt. ‘Can you tell me what tricks yours is playing, sweets?’

Mildred huffs out a sigh, and Gwendolyn wonders if this will be the end of this line of enquiry for tonight, but it’s apparently a pause for thought. ‘I think –’ Dark eyes dip downwards as the smaller woman falters for a second, but then auburn hair bobs up again, and Mildred makes a request, her tone determined. ‘Could you hold my hand, please? Like you did earlier? I want to stay here as I talk; not go off somewhere else.’

Gwendolyn smiles at the strategy – although the need for it makes her heart ache – and reaches to do as asked. ‘Of course, my love.’

Any heartache is not just eased but banished when Mildred locks their fingers together and answers, ‘Thank you, my love.’ The strawberry-blonde is rendered briefly speechless at the reciprocity, and her delayed reaction seems to make the auburn-haired woman anxious, because she babbles, ‘I’m sorry – I shouldn’t’ve – I didn’t mean – is it okay if I call you that?’

Gwendolyn’s heart aches again, but this time the sadness is coupled with a seething sense of rage that Mildred would ever feel she has to ask. She voices none of this, though, saying only, ‘Of course, my love. I’m sorry I went silent. It – it makes me feel good too.’

Mildred’s eyes grow round, and Gwendolyn thinks she hears her gulp, before breathing, ‘Really?’

‘Really,’ she repeats, pairing the word with a gentle rub over the smaller woman’s wrist.

‘Wow,’ Mildred whispers, biting her lip, and clearly overwhelmed by the confession.

So Gwendolyn grips her wrist just a little tighter, and murmurs, ‘But it’s all right, sweets, we won’t do anything other than talk tonight. And we don’t even have to do that, unless you want to.’

‘I do,’ Mildred says decisively, ‘or else I won’t sleep at all.’

Gwendolyn grins, dazzled by her darling’s tenacity in the face of terror. ‘All right, my love. I’m here for whatever helps.’

Mildred moves closer again, and mumbles, ‘You help.’

The strawberry-blonde is grateful for the chance to conceal the tears threatening to brim over at the innocence in the auburn-haired girl-woman’s statement. Because it’s abundantly obvious that Mildred’s younger self was the one who said it. But, yet again, Gwendolyn doesn’t draw attention to any of this, and gushes instead, ‘I’m so glad, gorgeous. I only ever want to help you. And you help me, you know.’

Mildred pulls back, and Gwen sees her cheeks have flushed pink. ‘You – you think I’m gorgeous?’

‘I do, darling,’ Gwendolyn says with a nod, ‘and I’m hoping to help you think you are, as well, in time.’

Mildred giggles, and dives forward, so her face is hidden from the strawberry-blonde once more – by Gwendolyn’s own shoulder. Then she gabbles, just about audibly, ‘I – I – I – think you are also.’

It takes all of the older woman’s resolve not to bend and press a kiss to the younger’s precious head nestled so perfectly beneath her own. But she restrains herself, not daring to breach a boundary they haven’t discussed, and says a soft, ‘Thank you, sweets. I’m not sure you’ll still think it when my hair starts falling out if I have chemotherapy.’

When you have chemotherapy, you mean,’ Mildred mutters, raising her head and arching a brow. ‘And I will, because it’ll be yet another sign of how strong your spirit is. Not to mention an excellent excuse for me to buy you several new scarves to add to your already impressive collection.’

Gwendolyn stifles a gasp. Not at the certainty in what’s fast becoming her favorite voice –that sureness is almost her favorite of its features, even if she can’t trust so easily herself. Nor at the practical focus. But at the description of her spirit as “strong”. Because that’s an adjective she’d far more happily apply to Mildred’s spirit. For having come through so much and still being here.

But then, Gwendolyn supposes sardonically, surviving a near-fatal shooting only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer is probably a comparable amount of “so much”.

So she doesn’t disagree, and says, ‘Thank you, my love,’ but then deflects by asking, ‘You like my scarves?’

Auburn hair nods. ‘I do.’

The strawberry-blonde feels herself blushing. ‘But you’re much more stylish than I am.’

Mildred shakes her head. ‘I steal clothes, it doesn’t count.’

The statement is said so simply and easily that Gwendolyn blinks. But she pulls herself together enough to repeat two words. ‘You steal –’

She can’t complete the sentence, unsure if it was going to be a question, or what she hopes to gain from getting clarification, regardless. She can at least rationalize that, in the grand scheme of all the younger woman’s past behaviors, this is a comparatively insignificant one.

But, when Mildred speaks, it seems she’s given it far too much thought – because the nurse smirks, and says, ‘Yours, you silly thing. I’m wearing your pajamas, aren’t I?’

Gwendolyn smirks in return. ‘You are, yes. But I lent them to you. That’s different.’

Mildred’s mouth forms into a thin line, and she watches her thinking. ‘No-one’s lent me anything before. Especially not clothes. And I wasn’t going to tell you at first, and try and get out of it by being funny, but you should know I used to steal clothes. I had to.’

Gwendolyn’s new habit of hyperbole makes her wonder if her heart might melt at this honesty; and at the progress it signifies. But she’s uncertain how best to respond, so she steals a strategy herself, and jokes, ‘Well, darling, I think I can let that one slide – if you’ll consider having bologna less frequently.’ Then she winks, gauging the younger woman’s reaction as she did when they first met at Lucia.

Mildred blushes beautifully, but fires back, ‘For you, my love, I could be persuaded never to touch it again. And it likely wouldn’t take much – your metaphor’s already started ruining my appetite.’

They giggle together like schoolgirls, before Gwendolyn decides she ought to make a serious point. ‘I’ll never stop you having something you enjoy, sweets.’

‘I enjoy you,’ Mildred whispers, and the older woman questions whether she heard correctly, until the younger woman continues, visibly embarrassed. ‘I can’t believe I said that out loud.’

Gwendolyn replies with a gentle tease. ‘I think you said it quietly, darling,’ she drawls, before taking pity. ‘That was very brave of you. I’m flattered – and flustered – because I enjoy you, Mil.’ She hopes that will be comforting, but she sees worry in a pair of dark eyes, so she prompts, ‘What is it, my love?’

Mildred whimpers, but whispers, ‘I haven’t let you yet. Enjoy me, I mean.’

She bites back a protective growl at their return to this topic, and responds, ‘You have. I’ve been enjoying your company since you said “I know exactly who you are,” and your personality since you told the Governor not to put his hand on you. But that gives me a good opportunity to remind you – you are in control of your body during our interactions, and I only ever want to touch you if you want me to, too. Enjoyment of that sort isn’t enjoyment unless it’s mutual, and we’re already enjoying each other in so many ways that are much more important. And much more intimate. Does that make sense, sweets?’

Auburn hair nods. ‘It does. I don’t fully believe it, though,’ Mildred admits, her voice wavering. ‘And I don’t really know how to respond to it – so I’ll try – by trying to talk about how I’m feeling. Like I said I would.’

Gwendolyn’s face hurts from how wide she grins in pride at her beloved’s bravery. But she offers another reminder. ‘Only if it’ll help. You’re under no obligation, all right?’

‘Okay,’ Mildred confirms, mirroring her smile, if somewhat more timidly. ‘But I think it’ll help me sleep. And, if it doesn’t, it’ll pass the time while we’re awake.’

Gwendolyn chuckles adoringly at the pragmatism in this approach, and murmurs, ‘It will, my love.’

‘Okay,’ Mildred says again, drawing in a deep breath before adding another single word. ‘Edmund. He, uh, did things –’

The smaller woman breaks off, and the taller woman tuts sympathetically. ‘I’ll understand if you find it too hard to be specific, sweets, you don’t need to put yourself through that.’

She’s surprised to hear Mildred laugh. ‘No, I, uh, not with me. With Dolly. It got reported by a guard, so I went to speak to him, and he said if he couldn’t have a normal woman then I’d have to do. He took my hand through the bars of his cell and –’

Mildred breaks off again, her voice shaky, and Gwendolyn muses that this tiny snippet of a story might be more than enough for her to commit murder, were she not a liberal sort of person who didn’t believe any other human deserved to die. But she only says, ‘You can stop, sweets.’

Auburn hair shakes. ‘No. I need to say this. Because I was so scared. I dug my nails into his wrist, and spoke firmly to him, but I was so scared. Like we were children again and we were going to have to – so I couldn’t – and I found an opportunity for him to be with Dolly. But since then I’ve been frustrated with myself, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how different things might be if I’d given him what he wanted. Because he and Dolly wouldn’t have – and you wouldn’t have been shot –’ Mildred pauses, and then murmurs plaintively, ‘I feel so guilty, Gwen.’

The older woman holds back a groan at the realization of where all this worry has stemmed from – or one layer of it, at least. Instead she insists, ‘You mustn’t, Mil, you mustn’t. It isn’t your fault. None of it. I won’t have you thinking that any longer, do you hear me? I know minds are mischievous, but I won’t let yours linger on that. If you consider it from another angle, if I hadn’t been shot, we may not have found the –’ She stops, suddenly finding she feels unable to speak the word, which strikes her as odd after it’d rushed out so easily when she was so desperate to put distance between them. Perhaps that’s what’s different. It seems too harsh now, as though it might tear their tentatively-constructed closeness apart. Whatever the reason for her reluctance, she lets it pass, and continues as calmly as she can, ‘But that might be too morbid for tonight. So I’ll just say, if either of us should be feeling guilty, sweets, it’s me.’

Gwendolyn hears Mildred gasp, then squeal, ‘You? Why?

The strawberry-blonde is amazed at this response – she’d thought it obvious why, but that’s possibly because she’s been frustrated with herself ever since it happened. So she explains, in simple terms, ‘I made such a fuss about the puppet show.’

Auburn hair tickles Gwendolyn’s arms as Mildred curls up even closer, and she wonders what she might get in reply, before the smaller woman settles and whispers, ‘You didn’t know.’

‘No,’ Gwendolyn allows, ‘I didn’t. But you told me you didn’t want to go, and you were clearly extremely defensive and distressed, so I should’ve read your signals better.’

‘You thought I was defensive about us, though,’ Mildred observes, astutely, seemingly still aiming to absolve any wrongdoing.

‘I did,’ the taller woman admits, ‘but you were always specific that the puppet show was the problem.’

‘I guess I was,’ Mildred mutters thoughtfully, but then adds, ‘I just wanted to make you happy.’

Gwendolyn can hardly cope with this confirmation that Mildred forced herself through something – something so awful and agonizing – purely for her pleasure. She thinks she might faint, or scream, or both. But she does neither, and steels herself, saying, ‘Nothing that hurts you could ever make me happy, my love. But I don’t want you to take that as me blaming you. Because I know you were acting on a survival instinct. But you don’t have to do that. Not now. Not with me.’

She isn’t sure if this will be too much – and the last thing she wants is to overwhelm her darling – so she waits with bated breath for a response. Of any kind. But whatever she expected isn’t what arrives. ‘I don’t deserve you.’

At least she knows what to say in return. ‘Yes you do, my love, I promise you do.’ She pauses, pensive, her heart pounding painfully. ‘I might not deserve you, but by some unknown blessing you’re in my life. And now I’ve found you – now we’ve found each other – I don’t want to let you go…’

She trails off, suddenly lost in the terror of losing her, much like Mildred was earlier in the evening. And she wants so much to stop herself from spiraling. But she can’t – and in fact, it appears, all she can do is cry.

This is excruciatingly embarrassing (she’s supposed to be the one offering support, not the one needing it), but the last of her willpower seems to have washed away with her tears. So she surrenders to the great heaving sobs that are racking her body. Well, almost. There’s a small part of her subconscious that’s fretting over Mildred’s feelings. But, before that bit has a chance to come to the forefront, she hears the voice of the very woman she’s worrying about.

‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Let it out.’

The words are the last she might’ve expected. But, now they’ve been said, she’s grateful. And not just because they’re her own, which makes her laugh. Or perhaps “snort” is more accurate. Either way, they cut through her distress, and she finds the strength to whisper, ‘Hey! That’s my line.’

There’s a muffled giggle beneath her chin, following which Mildred queries, ‘Is it helping?’

She feels her throat relax a little more as she manages a slightly louder, ‘Yes.’

This gets a second giggle. ‘Good.’ But then Mildred’s tone becomes thoughtful as she adds, ‘I only ever want to help you. Like you help me. And I’m going to help you through this. Whatever happens. Okay?’

‘Okay,’ Gwendolyn hears herself repeat.

Raspier and more reticently, but she repeats it nevertheless.

Because, for the first time in the past two days, a flame flickers in her gut. A flame she’d thought was burnt out in the service of others, but which has been fanned back into an approximation of its former fierceness by someone (her most special someone) selflessly deciding to stay by her side.

As she clings to Mildred, she realizes they’re both crying. And she realizes too that – at the crux of it all – this is what they’ve both been craving.

An intimacy more intense than intercourse could ever be.

And she doesn’t plan on giving it up lightly.

Chapter Text

‘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.