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still on that tightrope

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Ava never does get around to reading the email.

It’s not out of some self-preservation, or even a delayed sense of loyalty to Deborah. No, if there’s one thing Ava has become painfully self-aware about in the last few months, it’s how utterly shitty she can be when she lashes out. She just doesn’t need more evidence of that glaring at her from her Sent Items.

They barely get the first tour dates booked when the bombshell drops. Jimmy, bless his… well, not his heart exactly, but at least his sense of profit, tries to keep the worst of what Ava wrote from Deborah. But in all the legal wrangling it becomes part of discovery and there’s not a second of doubt in Ava’s mind that Deborah pored over every word. This is a millionaire who analyzes the line items on a room service bill, there’s no way a single blistering insult will have been skipped over or undigested.

And it must be every bit as bad as Ava expected because the dismissal--when it comes--isn’t even in person. First time out Deborah just slapped her, but sending Marcus to do the dirty work with that gleam in his eye hurts so much worse. At least he doesn’t make it difficult to get rid of her subletter, so when Ava gets back to LA there’s only a few nights of couchsurfing at Ruby’s before she’s back in her townhouse.

She expects to be blacklisted, doesn’t even unpack because surely selling up is next. But Deborah doesn’t go full scorched earth for some reason. Oh yeah, maybe because she never did that kind of shit in the first place, and her ex-husband was the one who sold a bunch of lies about her. Ava’s on that level now, the Frank and Kathy level of straight-to-voicemail and never to be acknowledged again.

Yeah. It really fucking sucks.

Her karmic punishment, as it turns out, is that the only job Jimmy can get her is the last one she wants. In her position beggars really can’t be choosers, so Ava summons up her game face one more time and drags herself to the interview at CBS. She should blow it, almost does like three times, but somehow still stumbles into the job in a late-night comedy room.

For James. Fucking. Corden.

The worst part is that Ava knows she doesn’t deserve any better, so she goes back to her trite little ‘thought poems’ and turns in twenty jokes a day about TikTok and dodging voicemails. Some of them sound funnier in a British accent, but even when they do it just reminds Ava of how hard she sold out Deborah to those pretentious English assholes who thought they could edgelord feminism into an early grave, and that sick feeling settles in her stomach again.

But the direct deposits keep hitting her account (not checks here either, Deborah, Jesus) and it’s enough to pay the mortgage and keep the matcha lattes flowing. It helps that her dad even had good life insurance, so Ava’s mom says not to send money home every month anymore. This time Ava sets that amount aside in an honest-to-God savings account, used to living without it every month, and all too aware that her next disaster is only ever one bad idea away from leaving her unemployed and homeless.

It says something about the level of existential dread Ava’s living with that the sight of Kayla waiting outside the elevators doesn’t even register as a bad omen at first. Ava simply smiles and takes a last bite of her Eggslut breakfast before dropping the wrapper in the nearest trash can.

“A-dawg! You made it!”

“Yeah, I totally mastered the whole timekeeping thing in Vegas and it hasn’t worn off yet. Does Jimmy need something? Do we have a meeting?” Ava doesn’t really need to talk to them much since the whole email snafu got resolved, so the sudden presence of Kayla is enough to put her teeth on edge.

Kayla looks at Ava like she’s the one who showed up unexpectedly. “No, duh. He’s upstairs for the other meeting.”

“Well it can’t be one writers go to, because I didn’t get an email,” Ava replies, because if there’s one thing she does with sickening regularity now, it’s checking that particular app. Just never the Sent items. “Tell him I said hi, I guess?”

“Ava!” Jimmy looks out of place in the CBS hallway, shorter somehow, and sort of lopsided

without his omnipresent headset. “Hey, look at you on time; way to go.”

“Yeah, I just did this whole bit with Kayla. Is this about the January 6th jokes? Because they all got passed by Legal and S&P, I swear. You didn’t have to come down here; I’m a big girl now.”

“No, you’re good, you’re good. They love you here.” Jimmy turns back and waves at a gaggle of suits along the corridor, and there’s a flash of blonde in their midst as they all shake hands and chat the usual fake Hollywood bullshit at each other. Ava doesn’t look again, knowing it can’t be the blonde she’s always looking out for in improbable places. “We’re actually here for another client. I don’t think it’s been made off-ish just yet, but James is stepping back for a few weeks, heading back across the pond.”

“He’s being deported?” Ava tries not to hope, but working with the man has been even worse than she imagined.

“No, nooooo. Just a visa thing. Or he’s in another movie. I honest-to-God don’t know at this point, but you’ve made such a good impression around here that I was the first call when they realized they need a stand-in host.”

“Really?” Ava hasn’t exactly been bringing her A-game, and she certainly doesn’t have a relationship with any of the roster of dudes who usually fill in for late night slots. “I mean, you’re not asking me to go out there, are you? Because I don’t think CBS is ready for my jokes unfiltered.”

“God, no! Perish the thought.” Jimmy says, steering her back down the hall toward the writers’ room. “But let’s just say I had their perfect solution, and I might be doing you a solid at the same time. I understand you still haven’t heard from you-know-who?”

“You’d know better than me.”

Ava feels her hackles rising. This is the last thing she wants to talk about at work, before a day of trying to concentrate in a room that smelled of the full-frontal college flashback combo of weed, unwashed man, stale burritos and cheap body spray trying to mask all of the above and making it so much worse. It’s like a dorm threw up a locker room and hosted an AV Club meeting all in one space.

“Well, CBS know they have some making up to do,” Jimmy says. “So they’re definite about going with a woman.”

“Wait, I actually get to write late-night for a woman?” Ava stops in her tracks. “That’s… I mean I know we have Sam Bee now and Lilly Singh just wrapped her show a hot minute ago, but this is Big Three late night.”

“You’re damn straight. They can get just about anyone, but the ball’s in my court. Now who do you think from our agency is the perfect fit?” Jimmy looks more energized than she’s ever seen him, even more so than that week Kayla was getting extra shots in his coffee without telling him. They continue walking down the corridor together.

“Oh man, this could be epic.” Ava decides to hell with it, she can afford to get a little giddy. Maybe her cursed luck is finally goddamned turning. “No wait, let me guess. I want to say Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, but they’d be way more likely at NBC taking over from Seth. There’s no way Ellen jumps from daytime to late night, her staff couldn’t take the strain. Now if they were smart they’d go for someone like Ilana Glazer, or fuck, Hannah Gadsby would fucking slay in that chair.”

“Okay there, Central Casting. Maybe slow down a little. What did they put in your matcha latte this morning?” Jimmy is glaring at the ugly room they’ve stopped in. He’s right to, the writers’ room is an absolute pit. “No, they got someone so good, I can’t even tell you. Well, I probably should tell you before you implode.”

“So who is it? You’re killing me here, J-meister.”

“Wait for it… think legend. Think diva. Think big, big laughs.”

“They’re not getting Oprah out of retirement are they? ‘Cause she’s amazing, but not really a comedian?”

“Okay, you suck at guessing. I actually can’t believe you’re being this dense when I already dropped a huge clue… It’s none other than Deborah Vance!” Jimmy says it like he’s waiting

for Ava to burst into spontaneous applause.

Instead, she shakes her head like there’s water in her ears. “Sorry, what?”

“There’s that Ava Daniels sense of humor!” Jimmy gives her a playful smack on the arm. “You and Deborah worked so well together for a while, now this platform is going to absolutely relaunch her. She’s fresh off her tour, the buzz is still real.”

“And you really think she’s going to keep me around?” Ava feels all the optimism of a few moments before wither and die in the funk of the room. It might have windows behind the assortment of obscure movie posters and comedy club flyers that litter the walls, but they sure as hell haven’t been opened in a while. “Deborah gets to go from almost to finally being a female host of late night, and you think she’s going to do it with the millstone of her latest fuck-up around her neck?”

There’s a commotion behind them, probably the rest of the writing frat returning, but Ava is up on her high horse now, dammit. “I mean that is just great. I manage to get enough of a job to keep my head above water and restart my career, and you drive the Mack truck that is Deborah Vance right into me, Jimmy. Come on!”

“Well, technically you’re the one who fucked up.” Enter Deborah Vance, aka the flash of blonde from upstairs. Ava should have taken the warning for what it was. “And I’ve never actually hit you with a vehicle, Mack truck or otherwise. Near misses don’t count.”

“Deborah.”

“Ava.”

“So what’s the deal? You let them leave me on staff just long enough for you to fire me? Because you regret not doing it in person last time?”

“Oh, you’re for sure fired,” Deborah comes right back. “I already told the suits I write my own

monologues, and the chimpanzees who no doubt inhabit this zoo enclosure can handle the detail work on cryptocurrency or Senate Republicans each day.”

“Great. No need for me to waste any more of my day. I already wasted a perfectly good breakfast.”

“Yeah, leaving half the egg on your face will do that.” Deborah flicks manicured nails in the

direction of her own cheek with a little sneer, clearly enjoying her cheap shot.

It takes all of Ava’s willpower not to reach up and wipe her cheek, where sure enough she can now feel the smear of yellow yolk tightening on her skin. She’s going to ride it out, make it look intentional.

“I like to leave a little something for later. Good luck with your new show. Believe it or not, I really wanted this for you, Dee. You deserve it.”

“What have I--”

Ava interrupts her. “I’m gonna go tweet something about the declining standards of late night comedy and see if getting cancelled twice means you get a comeback. Nice muu-muu, by the way.” Jimmy tries to get in her way but thinks better of it as Ava barrels toward the door.

“I wouldn’t bet on it, not with that logic,” Deborah calls after her. “And it’s a caftan!”

Ava’s ears are ringing as she stomps her way through the maze of a building, all the way to the crappiest parking level where the lights barely work and the ceiling is just a patchwork of leaks holding up the cement with thoughts and prayers. Of course her parking isn’t validated, and of course the security attendant doesn’t take cards, so by the time Ava finally fishes out enough change and rolls her cute little Chrysler (okay, it’s never been cute but it runs), she’s halfway to homicidal. Or a really good cry.

And just as she’s pulling out of the lot, she gets cut up by a shiny blue Maybach, similar to but not the same as the one that almost put her into a gate post back in Las Vegas. The universe is determined to have fun at Ava’s expense today. And that fun apparently comes in the shape of Deborah Vance, who clambers out of the driver’s seat with rage in her eyes and the wind in her sails.

“Are you chicken?” Deborah demands as Ava rolls down her window.

“Am I what?”

“Chicken. Scared. Just like you ran away when the new material got real. Or blew everything up just as the tour got started. You’re fine when it’s theory, just spitballing jokes on my couch. But when the crunch is really on, all I ever see is the back of you, running away.”

Ava has had it. She isn’t running. She shoves the door open, almost knocking

Deborah over in the process. They must look insane, blocking the CBS parking lot exit like this, but Ava is ready for her screaming match.

“First of all, I didn’t run, I was pushed. I didn’t ask for my dad to get sick again, for him to die just to inconvenience you. I was needed elsewhere. You might be able to cut your family out of your life, but some of us don’t have that luxury.”

“Oh, please. It’s not luxury; it’s called having a spine.” Deborah scoffs as she says it, and damn if she doesn’t look good. Ava didn’t allow herself to drink it in before, but even in one of her signature silky caftans, Deborah looks absolutely goddamn radiant. It’s the high of winning, of being wanted, of finally getting what she deserves perhaps, but Ava is really, painfully fucking into it.

Great. Another level of embarrassment to layer in with the others. She’s a tiramisu of goddamn cringe lately.

“Well, this has been… nuts, but I should really get going. There’s still time to retrain as a clown if I sign up before the end of the day.”

“I can see you in clown college,” Deborah replies. “But judging from that Axe body spray cave we both saw up there, I’m going to need you, Ava Daniels. There’s no way I can get a gang like that on my wavelength fast enough, and that’s assuming they’d even want to try.”

“Are you asking for my help?”

“I’m saying you owe me. Big time, you little asshole.” Deborah’s eyes might be obscured by her Tom Ford sunglasses, but Ava can feel the piercing look behind them all the same. The TSA’s most invasive scanners have nothing on that look. “Have twenty jokes ready for tomorrow, and we’ll take it from there.”

“You don’t have to do this, you know.” Ava isn’t sure why the about-turn, but she’s pretty sure she doesn’t deserve it. “If this is just about not getting another round of bad press from that stupid British show, I won’t say anything. I swear…”

“The publicity from that put the tour back on the map. Probably landed me this gig in the end.” If it costs Deborah anything to admit that, she isn’t showing it. “You need the job, I need a functioning pair of ovaries in the room so I’m not stuck making baseball jokes and talking about tits all day. And trust me, I really don’t care about baseball.”

Ava shrugs. She couldn’t turn Deborah down even if she wanted to. Something already has Ava feeling about ten pounds lighter. “Does this mean that you… you know…”

“Forgive you?” Deborah gives that snorting little laugh that she hates anyone witnessing. “Absolutely not. But I’m no longer in the habit of blowing up professional opportunities just because someone who shares a sense of humor with me decided to wreck my life. I know, I thought it sounded familiar too.”

Ouch. There’s no defense to that.

“Tomorrow, then? But not before 10, okay? I know you Boomers are all about early mornings, but we’re on LA time now. We can start on your stuff and leave the room to do the rest of the week for James?”

“Sure, I’ll bring them in on some stuff,” Deborah replies. “But this is all about that first night, you know that. We need a monologue that kills.”

“Slays,” Ava corrects automatically. “But okay, agreed. Are they giving you some kind of office?”

“I’ll send for you at 10. Once I know where the hell said office is.”

A few months ago Ava would have made a crack about not being a servant to summon. Right now everything feels far too fragile, and so she nods instead. A car emerges behind hers and beeps its horn before she can think of anything else to screw it up. With an awkward little wave, Ava gets back in her car.

“Holy shit,” she whispers into the steering wheel. “What the hell just happened?”

Beep beep.

Ava pulls out into traffic, narrowly missing a Prius and heading for home.