There isn’t much to do in college towns except drink and window shop for things no one would ever actually buy. Some of their stops while touring are like this. Towns with their little plazas and shopping areas that almost always follow the same formula. One or two decent restaurants, one coffee shop that doesn’t suck, and approximately 15 shops varying in vintage or antique, or hobby shops run by rich white ladies trying to fill their days with something to do, telling themselves they’re doing something productive even though they rarely sell a single thing.
Ava enjoys strolling through these places with Deborah, though the occasional ventures into the antique shops very rarely result in good finds. Deborah has an eye for these things, and she won’t buy just anything. They’ve gone hours just walking in and out of shops, coming out empty handed and Ava could find a lot to complain about, but somehow, she can’t. Especially now that they’ve started....well, they’ve started something. Ill-defined as it may be, it’s something. It’s an unexpected kiss in the bathroom of some dive bar after post-show drinks, and more kissing paired with heavy petting against Deborah’s hotel room door before she shoos Ava off for the night. It’s Deborah’s labored breathing and Ava’s hands up her shirt as things go way too far for the ugly greenroom they’re in before Deborah pushes her back and suggests they stop. It’s moment after moment of kissing, and touching, and stopping short of tearing each other’s clothes off because they both know there needs to be more first.
Ava wants there to be more. She wants them to have a meal together, to spend an evening together that leads to something they both know is coming. She wants to take Deborah on a date, in public–she wants to hold her hand and to kiss her, and laugh with her. She’s thinking exactly this one night in some snowy little town as they check into their hotel. She waits for them to have their keys, and in the elevator she makes her move.
“So, do you want to go out with me tonight? On a date?”
Deborah looks over at her like she’s just confessed to being the Zodiac killer, her mouth open, key card gripped tightly in her hand as she stares back.
Ava shrugs and leans against the back wall, the elevator dinging past another floor.
“I want to take you out. I want to have a really loaded and suggestive conversation over the most expensive food we can find here, openly flirt with you, and then walk you to your door.”
“And then what happens?” Deborah asks, a tiny glint of humor in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” Ava shrugs again, coy as hell. “I guess we’ll see when we get there. What do you think? Meet you downstairs in an hour?”
The elevator stops just then and Deborah turns to her to casually say, “Yeah, okay.”
Smiling, Ava follows her out, trailing just a few steps behind her and watching her find her door from her own some three rooms down, waiting for the smile she usually gets before they part ways for however long until they next see each other.
Sure enough, Deborah looks over her shoulder and says, “If the food’s expensive enough maybe you’ll get lucky.”
Ava remains standing there, long after Deborah has gone inside her suite, until her legs remember how to do their thing and she’s able to get her door open. She’s inside all of five seconds before she’s googling nearby spots and eventually settles on a decently rated, somewhat expensive generic Italian restaurant that also serves burgers for some reason. She’s happy, and excited, so much so that she doesn’t even mind the cold. In fact, she’s starting to think they’ll make a cute pair, the too of them in their big winter coats, walking down some adorable Hallmark channel movie town. The hallmark channel movie town that so happens to have been invaded by some sort of convention. In the short time they have been up in their rooms, the hotel lobby and bar has packed and Ava has to squeeze past more than a few groups when she makes it back downstairs, but the distraction is short lived, as her date arrives, right on time.
It’s expected that Deborah will show Ava up, that’s not even a question. Even in her best peacoat and cleanest jeans, Ava knew Deborah would show up looking some ridiculous level of glam, but she isn’t expecting the actual vision that greets her in the lobby. There are scandalously high heels, a long military style jacket with a scarf poking out at the collar - some type of animal print, because of course, and an updo that will for sure give Ava a clear view of that gorgeous neck all through dinner.
Ava glances down at her outfit and sighs, looking back up in time for Deborah to reach her.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Ava asks, gesturing at her as she leans and guides her by the arm until they’ve cleared off some of the crowd.
“You going to be able to walk on snowy, slippery sidewalks in those shoes?”
“Please. We’re not walking. I got us a car.”
“Deborah!” Ava says almost whining. “This was my thing! Don’t one-up me!”
“Excuse me, there’s a new dress under this coat–because I was told this was a date–do you want to see it, or should I go change?”
Ava holds her hands up then.
“You’re absolutely right, who am I, a fashion disaster, to judge? You look beautiful.”
She smiles, baring all teeth, and then leans in to chastely kiss Deborah’s cheek, and if there’s A Moment that gets Ava all goosebumpy, well, then that’s just a sign of a good start.
“Shall we?” She asks, holding her hand out. Deborah smiles when she takes it, and Ava’s tummy flutters as she leads her outside where their car is waiting in a long line of other cars, most dropping off guests.
The drive to the restaurant is mostly silent as Deborah sends some last minute emails, and makes a call to Marcus. Ava watches as the newly arrived out of towners mill about with rowdy college students until she can’t tell them apart. Stopped at a red light, she sees two guys around her age stumble out of a restaurant, one of them dragging the drunker of the two out and Ava winces, thanking her lucky stars that her time around the college crowd was limited.
Deborah is still talking on the phone when they arrive at their destination. Ava catches the end of a sentence as she rounds the car and mouths a thank you to their driver.
“Marcus, I trust you! You don't have to convince me, I’m sure it’s lucrative enough if it’s got you drooling over it. You get a meeting on the calendar, and I will be there. Okay? How are the babies?”
Ava smiles at the mention of Barry and Cara, keeping enough distance so as to allow Deborah some privacy to finish her call. It’s cold though, and so Ava begins to pace, the snow crunching under her boots. She shivers and is surprised to feel Deborah’s hand slide across her shoulders and down her arm, which she squeezes affectionately as she listens to whatever Marcus is saying.
Looking up at her, Ava smiles and finds herself losing her breath a little at the stark blue of Deborah’s eyes, and the way they are centered solely on her. She cant’ help it. She leans into her, bracing Deborah’s hips as she nuzzles her ear, the one that doesn’t have a phone pressed to it. If she cared enough, she could hear what Marcus is seeing, but currently she’s distracted by Deborah’s perfume, the softness of her skin. It’s all entirely too fucking intimate, and Ava is giddy with how happy she feels. There are a ton of people milling around them, some who recognize Deborah–they turn their heads and stare as they pass–and yet, it’s very much just the two of them standing on the sidewalk together. It’s all very Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr of them. It would surprise Deborah to know Ava went through a Cary grant phase in high school, and she’ll enjoy telling her about it later, but she’ll keep that to herself for now. They technically haven’t even started their first date, a first date Ava is supposed to be orchestrating, and she’s already smitten. This was definitely a good idea.
“Alright Marcus,” Deborah says, finally. “Okay, talk to you tomorrow.”
Ava stands back a little as Deborah slips her phone inside her purse with a sigh.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” Ava replies easily. “Next time he cuts into my time I get to grope you while he does it, though.”
Deborah rolls her eyes, but Ava can tell she’s fighting a smile.
“Jesus…can we go inside now? Or do you want to stand out here and be inappropriate a little longer before we eat?”
“If I answer that honestly you’ll judge me, so let’s just go inside.”
As it turns out, the pictures online do not do Gino’s Restaurant justice. The second they step inside, the fragrant smell of delicious food greets them, making Ava’s tummy grumble. The decor is homey and tasteful, and the music and lightning is exactly what Ava was hoping for. And the dress? Well, the reveal shouldn’t be as dramatically effective as it is. Ava doesn’t recall the last time a long sleeve black dress made her this excited. Then again, this black dress is on Deborah Vance, and it’s fitted. It’s fitted and Deborah’s shoulders are fully exposed, and Ava catches herself staring more than a handful of times before they even order. Deborah doesn’t seem to mind.
The banter is easy, gets easier after a glass of wine, flirtier after the second. They laugh and eat from each other’s plates, and when Ava gets up to go to the bathroom, she feels Deborah watch her go. It’s exciting, this new chapter they seem to be embarking on tonight. It feels promising.
“This was a good choice,” Deborah says as they wait for the check once their plates have been cleared and they’re at the bottom of their wine bottle. Her cheeks are blushed, and she looks happy. Ava can't believe she can take credit for that.
“Yeah,” she replies. “It was.”
The check arrives and Deborah automatically reaches for it, but Ava stops her, pulling it right from under her hand.
“I said this was on me. Just. Let me treat you. Okay?”
They hold each other’s gaze then, something playful and sincere at the same time. Warm and familiar, with just the slightest bit of heat.
Deborah nods, pushes her chair back.
“I’ll just go touch up my lipstick, and then, do you want to go for a nightcap?”
Ava’s chest flutters.
“Yeah. Nightcap sounds great.”
“Great,” Deborah says before getting up.
Ava definitely watches Deborah’s ass until she’s out of view, and then proceeds to place her card inside the check holder, which is picked up promptly by their waiter. She picks up her glass and downs what’s left of her wine, sighing happily as she leans back and picks up her phone for the first time tonight to idly scroll through Instagram, not really looking, her mind elsewhere.
“Ava? Is that you?”
Ava sets her phone down on the table and sits up, turning her head slowly.
“Holy shit, Phoebe?!”
“Oh, my god, it is you!”
Ava jumps up and is immediately pulled into a warm hug that she can’t help but fall into, the instant familiarity embracing her.
“What are you doing here?” She asks when they separate.
Phoebe’s brown eyes smile back at her the way they always did.
“I’m here for an Academic Conference thing. I’m staying at The Carlton, that hotel up the street.”
“Yeah, I’m staying there, too. Holy shit, what a fucking surprise, dude! How are you?”
“I’m good! I’m great, actually. Busy, but good. And you? What are you doing here? God, it’s been forever.”
“I know, uh, you know, same. Busy, but good. Great. I’m actually working. Sort of,” She laughs. “You know Deborah vance?”
“The comic? Yeah, of course.”
“I’m her writing partner. We’re doing a little college tour to test some material for a new show we’re working on together.”
She’s never felt more proud to tell someone what she does for a living.
“What?” Phoebe smacks Ava’s shoulder playfully. “You fucking rockstar. That’s amazing! I knew you’d do something cool like that.”
Ava laughs, blushing a little.
“Thanks. Yeah, it’s been great. Deb’s great–oh, here she is.”
Deborah approaches them, a curious look on her face as she takes the pair in.
“Deborah, this is my friend, Phoebe–we uh, we–went to college together. Phoebe, this is Deborah.”
Phoebe snorts and extends her hand, which Deborah promptly shakes.
“I went to college, she hung out and smoked pot for two years, got bored and moved to LA. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Lovely to meet you,” Deborah says.
Suddenly Ava can’t help but feel keenly aware of the fact that someone she once had a lot of sex with is meeting someone she’d like to be having a lot of sex with, and for some reason, that’s making her feel a lot like when she’d fall asleep in the middle of sunday service and have inappropriate dreams abot her catechism teacher, only to wake up to her mother’s disgruntled face hovering above her.
“Ava has told me a bit about you,” Deborah adds, directing her gaze at Ava. “I think. Is this the same Phoebe?”
“Uh, yeah, yeah, same Phoebe,” Ava replies, suddenly flushed as Deborah and Phoebe exchange pleasantries, and Phoebe says something that makes Deborah laugh, really laugh, and this in turn makes Ava chuckle herself.
Ava watches Deborah’s eyes crinkle at the corners and it takes her a moment to realize they are now talking about the show.
“I’d love to come! We’re in meetings back to back for the next couple of days, but I think I can sneak off for a bit.”
“Well, great! I’ll put you on the guest list.”
“Thank you so much. I would love to buy you both a drink, but I don’t want to cut into your night.”
Ava notes the way Phoebe takes them in, trying to discern the situation, choosing her words carefully so as to not make any assumptions. Deborah doesn’t seem to have any interest in confirming or denying anything, in fact she’s looking at Ava almost challengingly, which is curious, but Ava doesn’t dwell on it.
“Yeah, we were just heading out,” Ava says as Deborah grabs and slips her coat on. “But let’s get together and catch up if you get a second tomorrow in between your nerd-con meetings or whatever. Maybe grab a coffee–please tell me you’re not still off caffeine.”
“No, I came to my senses years ago.”
“Oh, thank god. The mood swings alone should have triggered our break-up.”
“Oh, you want to talk about mood swings? Ms. Can’t -find-her-vape-for-five-minutes-and-has-a-breakdown?”
“I get really bad cramps!”
“Sure,” Phoebe says with a laugh.
They exchange numbers while Deborah calls their car, and after quick goodbyes, Ava and Deborah make their way towards the exit. There's a tense vibe to Deborah as Ava holds the door open for her, exiting behind her, and she makes a conscious effort to keep her hands to herself. Deborah is silent, and scrolling idly on her phone as they wait.
Frowning, Ava asks, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Deborah says, giving her a tight-lipped smile before pointing at the street. “Our guy’s here.”
It’s painful for Ava, sitting in a car with Deborah and feeling like she shouldn’t speak. Deborah has a natural gift for letting the room know when she’s not in the mood for conversation without saying a single word. It must come from years of practice, but Ava’s not quite gotten used to the chill in the air, at least, she’s not used to it anymore. She tries to make small talk about the food. She suggests stopping somewhere for dessert, and gets promptly shut down, politely, but it doesn't make Ava any less anxious about the whole thing. She wants to ask her what’s wrong, though she knows she won’t get any sort of honest answer, so she waits patiently for the ride to be over. She’ll wait until they’re alone to finally pry the words out of her.
The lobby is still loud and crowded when they get back to the hotel. It’s only 9 o’clock and they ride up the elevator with four or five conference attendees who seem to be having a way better time than they are.
Ava follows Deborah to her door and thinks for a second she’ll actually wait until they’re inside, except Deborah turns around and stops short of opening the door. Ava can feel it, can practically smell the chilly dismissal coming, but what she gets instead is unexpected to say the least.
“Do you still want to get that nightcap?” Deborah asks, and if Ava didn’t know any better she’d think there was doubt behind that question. As if there was anywhere else Ava would rather be.
“Yeah, I would love to get that nightcap.”
Deborah’s hotel suite is lit dimly when they step inside. It’s one of the less glamorous suites they’ve seen, but it’s still pretty nice, with big windows that look over the town and the woodland beyond it. Ava watches as Deborah shrugs off her coat before draping it over the couch, and it’s only now that Ava notices the tiny string of buttons lining Deborah’s spine, all the way down to the base of her back, and she has to will herself to take a breath, because, right. She’s supposed to be cool, chill date-Ava right now. Sure they’ve both had some wine, and in the past it’s taken a lot less than that to get them tangled up and groping each other, but she wants this to be right. So, she waits for Deborah to offer her a drink from the fully stocked not-so-mini bar by the window, where Ava proceeds to join her once she’s got a nice, cold gin and tonic in her hand.
“Are you,” Ava starts, and stops to rephrase. “Are we okay? You seem a little, I don’t know, upset.”
Deborah shakes her head, inhales sharply.
“I’m fine. We’re fine. I think. Right?”
Ava wants to ask if this has to do with Phoebe, but something tells her Deborah doesn’t want her to ask, doesn’t want to make it a thing when it so clearly isn’t. She can also sense a different kind of tension is back, the good kind. Can tell in the way Deborah’s eyes keep dropping to her lips. So Ava takes a step forward, then another, and she sets her glass down on the bar behind them. When Deborah does the same, Ava leans forward, tilting her chin up a little as she hesitates for a moment until Deborah meets her halfway.
It’s tentative, this kiss, unlike the ones in the past–present, and very much aware of itself, the weight of their entire relationship behind it, and Ava waits for the sigh out of Deborah’s lips to slant her mouth and deepen it just a fraction. Ava’s arms encircle Deborah’s waist and she draws her closer, loving how it feels to have her arch into her, their bodies pressing together, Deborah’s hand comes up to brace the side of Ava’s neck, letting out the softest of moans. At this, Ava exhales hotly through her nose and lets a hand glide up Deborah’s side until her thumb hits the swell of her breast. She pauses there, delivers a few more open mouthed kisses and then trails her lips down Deborah’s jawline as she cups her breast firmly. She kisses Deborah’s pulsepoint, latches onto it with teeth and tongue–not hard enough to leave a mark, just enough to hear Deborah moan again.
Ava drags her lips back up Deborah’s neck to claim her mouth again, with more intent this time as she licks into Deborah’s mouth and they both moan into it, and it’s happening, it’s actually happening. Until it’s not. Until Deborah is pulling away slowly, and it takes Ava a second to hear her through the Deborah-induced fog her brain is in.
“Wait, wait. Stop, Ava–” Deborah pants, hand firmly on Ava’s shoulder as she pulls back.
“What is it?” Ava asks, her voice all-concern immediately at the look on Deborah’s face. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Deborah says, offering a reassuring smile as she touches Ava’s cheek. But it can’t be fine, because she’s stepping back and out of Ava’s embrace. “I just, uh–I think we should stop.”
She turns away from Ava, picks up her drink again and knocks it back in one gulp.
“Deborah,” Ava says her name carefully. She doesn’t want this to sound like an accusation or like she’s demanding anything.
“Deborah, talk to me, come on.”
Deborah turns with a hand on her chest, which is still heaving some and Ava is trying very hard not to think about why because that’s clearly not where this night is going anymore.
“I think I need some time,” Deborah says. “To think about this. Because it’s a big line to cross, and I think we need to be sure it’s not going to be a mistake.”
Ava jerks back as if she’s been slapped.
“Uh, okay. That’s fine, if you want to think about it, but I think we crossed that line when you felt me up in that club in Idaho that one time. Remember?”
Deborah rolls her eyes.
“I’m serious, Ava. Can you pretend to be mature for one minute? I know that’s a foreign concept to you, but–”
“Okay, what the fuck. What is happening right now?”
“I just need to think about this, okay? And I can't do it with you here, so can you please go?”
“Deb,” Ava says gently. “Come on, don’t do this. Don’t shut down on me, just talk to me. Is this too fast for you? Is it too much too soon? We can go as slow as you want. We can get into sweats and put on SVU, I’m sure there’s a marathon somewhere, right?”
“No, I want to be alone.”
Ava stops then, waits for an explanation she knows won’t come, and finally shakes her head, drops her hands at her sides and moves toward the exit.
“Fine,” she says, stopping at the door one last time. “Okay, no, hang on. I don’t know what’s going on, or what you’re thinking but you can’t keep doing this. You can’t just shut me out whenever you’re having some new emotion you can’t process properly. You have to talk to me. I mean, Jesus, Deb, talk about foreign concepts–Luna has better communication skills than you do!”
And that’s absolutely the wrong thing to say. She knows it, and she almost regrets it, until Deborah looks at her and snaps, “Ava, just fuck off!”
And that hurts. Probably more than the silence. Just the easy way Deborah feels she can just dismiss her after everything.
Maybe she’ll feel differently in the morning. Maybe they both will. But right now, Ava doesn't’ hate herself enough to sit through this, so she exhales a small bitter laugh, makes sure Deborah is looking her in the eye as she reaches for the door and says, “Just like old times.”
The door slams behind her and she’s fuming. She wants to punch something, she wants to cry–she wants a drink. She heads straight for the elevator and down to the crowded lobby. She can see the bar from there, too crowded for her mood, and she sighs, heading for the hotel exit instead. Maybe a walk in the cold will distract her until she finds some hole in the wall she can wallow in. She doesn’t get very far though.
She turns in time to see Phoebe catch up to her. For a second Ava is thrust back into some old happy memory and that makes her smile back.
“I’m not stalking you, I swear–” Phoebe stops and frowns. “You okay?”
“Yeah!” Ava says, feigned enthusiasm on full blast. “Yeah, I'm fine. Just felt like a drink.”
“Hmm,” Phoebe says, with a look that says ‘I don’t believe you’ .
Ava remembers that look all too well.
“Well, if you’d like some company–do you mind if I join you?”
“That would be really nice, actually.”
Ava is actually grateful for the company. She isn’t sure what sitting alone at bar could possibly do to help her mood right now, and they always knew how to kill time with aimless conversation, she and Phoebe, so she doesn’t think twice about it when she agrees to it, she’s so desperate for a distraction from her feelings and her frustration with Deborah. She’s so desperate in fact, that she didn’t notice Deborah had followed. She doesn’t see Deborah watch her from the lobby, does not see her expression soften, and then harden as she watches her and Phoebe walk away together.