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three million feathers

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It wasn’t all at once, this slow, gradual icing out. It wasn’t as if one day Deborah confided in Marcus and the next, she didn’t. No, nothing with Deborah has ever been quite so straightforward.

A part of Marcus longs to say it started with Ava. Another entitled white girl strolling in to take something that she hasn’t worked for. But it’s not true—not exactly. It started before Ava and after Ava all at once. Because there were those weeks during what Marcus thinks of as the “Early Ava Days” back when he’d become Deborah’s closest confidante once more, privy to all of her private bitching about Ava’s presumptions and the ridiculous things she did that would have cut both Marcus’s and Deborah’s careers off at the knees before they’d even started.

But business is business, and Marcus would never forgive himself for letting the pleasure of these moments of renewed intimacy keep him from a job well done.

After years of threatening to do it, Marty was finally cutting Deborah loose, and that cushy Vegas residency was about to be yanked out from under her. The blow to her ego would be devastating, but, Marcus knew, it was nothing compared to what the deluge of free time would do to her. So QVC. New lines. New brands. New contracts. All Deborah needed to do was show up, remind Marcus and their potential partners (and herself) that she was still committed to the Deborah Vance brand, and he’d be able to stabilize her income and ensure she didn’t go flailing with nothing to grab hold of.

Instead, somehow, somewhere along the way, he became the villain. The foil to that brash, bold woman who’d stormed into Deborah’s life and forced her to open up and listen.

Marcus wants to hate Ava for it.

He can’t.

Because every so often, when he catches glimpses of Ava pulling late nights down in the archives, when he hears Deborah cackling at something she’s said, when he notices the way she listens—really listens—to the silences, hearing in them all those things Deborah will never admit to wanting, he thinks he sees a little of himself in Ava. Or at least, he sees the 18-year-old wearing two, layered puka shell necklaces who’d walked right up to his idol and told her point blank that her merchandise lines and promotional strategies weren’t doing any of the work they should be doing.

He’d earned Deborah a fortune and helped her make a name for herself; Ava’s promising her catharsis and empowerment on a silver platter. He’d gotten himself a summer gig that had morphed into a lifelong career; Ava, apparently, has gotten Deborah’s trust. He tries not to compare the two, but late at night, he can’t quite help himself.

Wilson helps. Until he doesn’t. Until he decides, like so many before him, that Marcus’s devotion to his job—no, his career, dammit—and to Deborah, even at her worst, aren’t worth working through. Marcus’s mother drops hints about getting back together that are about as subtle as the professional wrestlers she watches, but he can’t even muddle his way through figuring out how he’s feeling about it, let alone get a grasp on how to fix it (or if he even wants to fix it). He wants Wilson back in his life. Wants the dinners out and the hurried breakfasts in his kitchen. Wants the solidity of Wilson’s muscled frame curled up around him at night and the hot press of his mouth against Marcus’s own—a reminder that he’s still flesh and bone, that his wants are more than Deborah’s. But he doesn’t want any of it at the expense of this life he’s carved out for himself in an industry that’s only ever used people like him—chewed them up and spit them out without ever giving them the titles and pay and recognition they deserve.

So Marcus stands there, alone with the promotion he’s more than earned, watching the man who helped remind him that he deserved it walk away.

And Deborah struts across the stage, alone on the biggest night of her career, knowing that the woman who pushed her to risk it all isn’t waiting in the wings.

For a moment, Marcus lets himself believe that this is how his life and Deborah’s will thunder their way back into synchrony. A breakup running parallel to a falling out that seems at least as devastating. The man Deborah hated gone right along with the woman who’d taken Marcus’s place.

But up in the spotlight, Deborah swallows hard, her heels—the stilettos, of course—clicking across the stage, and starts in on the new, unpolished, unpracticed material. (Really, she’s less doing and more bombing, and fuck, he’s going to have to deal with the aftermath of those reviews.)

Then, mere days later, Deborah’s calling him up, ordering him to get the private jet ready to show up at the funeral of a man she’s never met for a woman who no longer works for her. Marcus tries not to think back to his grandmother’s funeral a few years back. Deborah had sent flowers—a tasteful arrangement that he hopes Josefina hadn’t picked out in her stead—and given him time off and ensured that all his favorite comfort foods—the ones everyone else on staff was sure he’d never deign to eat—were stocked for him. But she didn’t fly to Maryland, didn’t attend the funeral, or even offer; she had a rule, after all.

Marcus swallows down the bitterness and arranges her flight (and their return flight), then spends frantic days trying to find anyone who will take a chance on Deborah’s new, impromptu tour, as if these venues don’t book their headliners months, if not years, in advance. The bad press helps not at all, but, at Deborah’s insistence, he lines up dive bars and shitty clubs that she would have turned her nose up at not two months ago. He signs contracts for $800 for a weekend’s worth of shows and glances longingly at his email inbox and the lucrative, six-figure deals corporate retreats are still willing to offer to the woman who’s decided she wants nothing to do with them anymore.

---

It only makes sense that ten days in, it all goes to shit in the middle of nowhere, and of course it’s about Ava. Of fucking course.

And here’s the thing. Marcus loves a diva as much as any gay man of a certain persuasion. He loves the glitz and the glamour and the drama and the headiness of being a part of it all. But at no point did he ever suggest—to the universe or the God he’s not so sure he believes in anymore—that he would like to be trapped on the lowest quality tour bus available with a royally pissed off diva, a sulking bisexual, a cranky bus driver, and Damien, who has now, humiliatingly, helped strap Marcus into a bulldog harness and patted his shoulder while he was violently ill in the alleyway behind the club. Marcus thinks Gordon Ramsey could make a fortune on a Hell’s Tour Bus season with them.

Marcus has never missed Josefina quite so much as he does right now. Damien is a decent friend and surprisingly good at his job for someone who keeps the late-night after-work hours he does, but this kind of gossip has never been his forte. He’s too obvious when sent to listen in, too liable to hyperbolize when reporting back, and too prone to stage-worthy gasps when overhearing decent intel. Josefina, though, has mastered the art of the drive-by. Clad in a wardrobe of muted grays and blacks, she’s learned to fade into the background—the household “help” that too many of Deborah’s guests see them (or rather, don’t) as—and report back with descriptions so detailed Marcus thinks it’s a wonder the CIA hasn’t poached her. (To her undeserved credit, Ava also caught more than most. She just never realized the full significance and dropped details oh so casually with a, “Some dude this,” or a, “The mayor chick that.”)

This time, it’s all on Marcus. Damien, bless him, is trying, but Marcus knows the bulk of the work of figuring out what’s going on and how to fix it will fall on his shoulders. But what’s new?

Unlike the Early Ava Days, Deborah does not confide in Marcus this time around. She’s bottled up tighter than ever, snapping out demands and keeping herself locked away whenever possible. It’s just as well; Marcus’s days are filled with angry calls to Jimmy conducted in harsh whispers. Deborah may have threatened to disembowel him, but Marcus is the one who’s been sent in to supervise the cleanup and keep hold of the knife.

For reasons unknown, Ava is still on the tour bus. She skulks around and folds her body into window seats and takes up space that could be better used. Deborah glares balefully at her and sneers when she opens her mouth and never once asks her to leave.

Marcus knows they’ve had it out, had been the one to smooth it over with the owners of some new age shop in Arizona. He’d handed over money and apologies, and they’d “gifted” him some healing crystal that he conveniently left behind. But on the bus, bitter silence reigns.

At least until the night when Marcus runs out of melatonin. He sits awake in a shitty motel room in some small town, waiting for his body to kick in and start making it from scratch again. As he pulls out his phone, he can hear his mom’s voice echoing in his brain, going on and on about the segment she saw on the local news about blue light and how it ruins your sleep cycle. Properly chastised, even from afar, he drops his phone back down on the nightstand. Which means he’s wide awake and undistracted when a set of feet tiptoe past his doorway, one foot catching the creaky floorboard, then pausing outside of Deborah’s room across the way.

The knock is barely there, and Marcus drains his water glass to press it to his door in the hopes of hearing better.

“Deb.” Ava’s voice is rough—with disuse or tears, he isn’t sure.

He doesn’t hear anything more for a long while.

“Deb, I know you’re awake.”

Nothing.

“Please.” Ava’s voice cracks over the word.

Listening to Ava beg and plead for the barest scraps of Deborah’s attention leaves Marcus feeling dirty, and he hates himself for feeling the slightest twang of emotional resonance with her.

He’d have chalked it up to a one-time thing, the result of drugs or drinking or sleep deprivation, had it not happened for the next three nights.

All day long Ava acts disaffected and whiny, and by night she stands in front of Deborah’s door and whispers tearful apologies, pleading requests for another chance at a job Marcus was once so sure she didn’t give a single fuck about.

It confuses the hell out of him, and he passes along only the roughest outlines of what’s happening to Damien. Somehow anything more feels like a violation—of Ava and Deborah both.

The idea of saying anything to either of them about it is unthinkable.

At least until the fourth night.

Because, for the first time, Deborah responds. It’s little more than a quiet insult, but she sounds wrecked. And when Ava leaves, padding her way back down the hallway in bare feet—gross—he hears Deborah crying. No, sobbing. Sobbing over some crappy employee who barely lasted half a year.

He’s moving on autopilot as he slides his feet into slippers and grabs his roomkey before slipping out into the hallway. He takes a deep breath and knocks on Deborah’s door. “It’s me,” he says after a moment.

“Not now, Marcus.”

“Please,” he adds, a veritable pantomime of Ava’s ghostly midnight ritual.

Deborah’s door finally cracks open. Her face is freshly washed, but her eyes are still rimmed with red. “What is it?”

“We need to talk.”

“It can wai—”

“About Ava. And you.”

Her mouth tightens, but she opens the door enough to let him inside. “I don’t know what you think you know, but—”

“I don’t think I know anything.”

Deborah blinks up at him.

“For the first time since I started working for you, I don’t have a clue about you.”

After a long moment, she huffs out a breath and perches on the edge of her bed. “And you thought the solution was to barge into my room at midnight and what? Ask to braid my hair and talk about boys?”

“Neither of us have enough hair to braid, and I think you know I’m here to talk about Ava, not boys.”

Deborah’s eyes go wide, and suddenly he hears the inadvertent parallelism.

“No, I mean…” But she’s looking at him like he’s seen right through to the truth of it, and he can only drop down to the bed next to her, wincing at the loud creak of springs that have seen better days. “Oh.” A million and one interactions that had always felt off in some way slot themselves into place.

“It’s not…” Deborah waves a hand through the air, but no more words come. Her jaw is clenched, her mouth drawn taut, and even still, she looks absolutely terrified.

Marcus leans back a little, propping himself on his hands. “Do you remember what you said to me when you found me with… God, what was his name? The poolboy.”

Deborah hums, a flicker of a smile playing about her lips. “Justin.”

“Do you remember what you told me?”

“Probably told you both to stop fucking and get back to work.”

“That first,” Marcus says with a little huff of laughter. “But I was terrified. And after he’d gone running back to the pool, you pulled me aside and patted me on the back and just said, ‘Finally got there, did ya?’” It doesn’t sound as kind or supportive as it felt then when he says it aloud, and he clears his throat. “It was… Look, Bush was president, and all I’d grown up hearing about gay men was AIDS, and there you were. Proud of me for it.”

“You were a good kid. You deserved to be happy. Still do.”

Marcus sits up straight, holds her gaze, and risks his life. “So do you.”

“It’s not—”

He ducks his head and lifts his hands in the air. “I’m not saying with Ava. God, I’m really, really not. I’m not even saying with women.” A beat. “But I’m not not saying it either.”

All the air shudders out of Deborah, and it’s so achingly familiar that he longs to put an arm around her. It doesn’t matter that he was doing this twenty years ago and fifty years earlier than she might be.

“I can’t,” Deborah whispers.

This isn’t them. Even at their best this still wasn’t them. But he scoots a little closer and holds out an arm, waits for Deborah to rest her head on his chest before he drops his hand down to cradle her side. “You can. Look at you. You’ve never let the world tell you what to do.”

She shakes her head, whisps of her hair tickling the underside of his chin. “I can’t have wasted this many years. Decades.”

Oh. “It—it’s never too late.” He runs his hand up and down her arm. “But you’re gonna have to stop pretending you can’t remember all the letters in LGBTQ now.” It earns him a little snort of laughter, and he lets his head drop down to rest on hers. “You’ll be just fine.” He shrugs, jostling them both a little. “You’re Deborah Vance.”

“Damn straight,” she murmurs.

---

Nothing changes right away. At least not in any obvious ways. Except that Deborah is a little nicer to Marcus, even when she can see that he’s talking to Jimmy. And she acknowledges Ava—just to tell her to get her shit and join them all for lunch, where Deborah steadfastly ignores her—but Ava brightens for the entire day. Lord, it’s absolutely going to be Ava, and Marcus is going to have to live with the knowledge that he was an integral part of making it happen.

Deborah doesn’t come running to Marcus for LGBTQ literature and guides to coming out, but he does overhear her carefully—as if testing the words—dropping the phrase “the queer community” in an interview. Her gaze finds his, and he gives her a single nod. And that’s that.

A few days later, Damien comes sprinting over to inform Marcus that he overheard Ava and Deborah having a heated conversation in the alleyway behind what is, perhaps, the dingiest comedy club they’ve visited thus far. (To Deborah’s credit, she’s handling it like a champ, and skeptical as Marcus had been after the 2,500th debacle, the new material is finally starting to come together. It’s not the Deborah Vance he’d been enamored with at 18, but he thinks maybe now she’s ready to show the world the Deborah Vance who’d whispered scared little truths into his shoulder in a quiet motel room.) Ava and Deborah had, of course, noticed Damien right away, so he has no more information except that they’re apparently talking again. Marcus has suspicions about the details, but he keeps them to himself for the time being.

The following night, Marcus steps out into the alley to return Jimmy’s call before Deborah’s set and finds her entwined with Ava, absolutely lost to the world around them. He adds reviewing and revising Ava’s contract to his mental to-do list as he slips back inside.

After a moment’s hesitation, he sends Deborah a one-line text: “Finally got there, did ya?”