Deborah jerks awake. Again.
It’s the same dream once more, and her body practically hums with it. Flashes of white sheets. The press of skin on skin. The slick warmth of a mouth. His mouth, she corrects. Curling pleasure and the slight, prickling pain of stubble against her inner thighs.
Except that it never stays that way.
Every time, without fail, she’s there and then not. Floating up and out of her body until suddenly she’s the one leaning forward, pleasure on the tip of her tongue, hers to give. And it’s her and not her tangled in the sheets all at once. A blonde wig askew and red hair strewn across the pillow. Her back arching off the bed, and her lips on wet heat, eyes glancing up to meet—
Deborah’s thoughts skid to a halt as she cuts off that line of thinking with a hard shake of her head, attempting to dislodge the images that won’t seem to fade even in the harsh light of wakefulness.
She grabs for the little bottle of CBD oil Josefina gave her and tries to calm her racing heart as she waits for the tincture to kick in.
For a few long minutes, she lets herself hate the FedEx man. (She still doesn’t know his name—a fact that delights Ava in ways Deborah can’t even begin to fathom.) For all his flaws, Marty never did this to her. Never awakened something in her she can’t seem to find a way to turn back off. Never left her wanting more, even if she’d let herself fall back into bed with him too many times to count, turned on more by screwing him over than by screwing him.
Dropping her head back down to the pillow, Deborah blinks up at the roof of the bus and tries to let the barely-there vibration of the tires rolling along the asphalt of the interstate lull her to sleep. She ignores the dull ache between her thighs that’s become a nightly visitor, leaving her ill-rested and on edge each morning. A voice in the back of her head that sound suspiciously like Ava (and isn’t that a reason to finally try therapy again) chimes in to remind her that there are ways to deal with such problems without trawling through every seedy bar the South has to offer.
Deborah clenches her jaw and resolutely ignores such thoughts. Perhaps she should have considered doing something about this before checking out of the hotel, but she’d assumed it was a Memphis-related problem, not something she’d bring with her like an unwanted souvenir.
And, locking door or no, her stomach roils at the mere idea of doing that with her entire staff separated from her by the thinnest of barriers.
No. Just because Ava lacked such compunctions, letting the whole goddam tour bus echo with the sounds of her pleasure for several impossibly long nights, doesn’t mean that Deborah will ever sink to such levels.
As she falls back into a fitful sleep, Deborah adds Ava to the list of people she lets herself loathe.
Deborah practically jumps at Ava’s chipper face waiting right outside her bedroom door. “What are you doing?”
“Lovely to see you, too, sunshine,” Ava chirps back, and it’s nearly enough for Deborah to miss the asshole who’d stormed into her living room and told Deborah she’d take a shit on the front lawn on her way out. “Damien said there was more of that perfume you like at the Neiman Marcus at Lennon Mall.”
“Lenox Square,” Damien yells from the front of the bus.
Ava rolls her eyes. “That one. I thought you might wanna hit the sales racks. Even Phil’s getting off the bus to stretch his legs for a bit.”
“That’s very…” Deborah trails off as Ava’s words land. She’s never really considered an empty bus to be such a treasure trove of possibilities, but suddenly…
“If you wanna hang back, I can chill here on the bus with you. Sneak in a little extra writing time, huh? Get that set all polished and ready for LA, baby!”
The possibilities collapse like dominoes in front of her. Deborah forces the corners of her mouth into something like a smile. “No, no. Your wardrobe could still use a few additions. Don’t think I didn’t notice that the only shoes you had with you when we checked out were those unisex monstrosities.”
And so Deborah finds herself in another city in another mall on another day in an endless string of them.
“Now look at how nice these look,” Deborah says, grabbing a random pair of heels from the shelf in front of her to distract from just how distant she’s been all day. (Drifting by in a fugue-like state, she’d nearly agreed to subsidize the purchase of another pair of high-waisted jeans whose hemline didn’t even reach Ava’s ankles.)
“Deborah,” Ava whines. “Just because you’d be a femme if you were gay doesn’t mean we all are.”
“It’s not like you’re some big butch.”
A furrow appears between Ava’s eyebrows, and her posture shifts. The easiness of before vanishes in an instant. “You don’t have to say it like it’s a bad thing. I thought maybe you’d—whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
Deborah can feel her own spine stiffening in response. “What?”
“I hoped you’d learned something from your on-stage temper tantrum!” Ava snaps, eyes darting around the store. “Look, I know I’m on thin fucking ice or whatever with the lawsuit, but that was…fuck, Deborah, that was humiliating.”
“I am aware,” Deborah says through gritted teeth. “I was there when they kicked me off the ship and loaded me onto a dinghy in the middle of the Atlantic.”
Ava bites the inside of her cheek and looks up at Deborah through her eyelashes. “I meant for me.”
It catches Deborah by surprise, leaving her reeling for long enough that Ava disappears. And goddammit, she might be more with it than Nina, but Ava’s got years of practice at hiding in these stores under her belt.
Deborah finds her a few minutes later flicking through a rack of silk ties. “How was that humiliating for you?” she demands.
“Everyone knew I worked for you. And suddenly it was like, oh here’s this sad sack who could only get a job working for someone who hates her.”
It lances straight through Deborah—just as cutting as the look Susan had given her when she realized Deborah had no memory of DJ’s first bender-concussion combo (a deadly duo that had raised Deborah’s blood pressure several points over the years). “I don’t hate you.”
“Fine,” Ava huffs, throwing out her arms. “People like me.”
“I don’t hate lesbians. Or—or bisexuals, Ava. They hate me!”
“Oh my god. You really still think that, don’t you? All those fucking jokes at our expense, and you still think we’re the problem.”
“If you’re so convinced I’m this awful, why did you keep working with me, hmm? Or I guess it’s just a paycheck to you, like you said in your email.” She swallows down the sting of pain, pushing harder and harder until another memory bubbles up in its place. “I suppose that little couple on the cruise was the same, right?” She sneers and tries to find solace in landing a blow of her own. “All your little morals go right out the window as soon as there’s something on the table for you.”
Ava winces. “Okay. Fine. You got me. I wanted sex. Is that really so bad?”
“You tell me.”
“Whatever, it was fucked up. But sometimes…I don’t know, sometimes you just…compromise when you want something badly enough.” Ava swallows hard enough that her throat bobs. “That’s how much writing this show with you means.”
“As much as a threesome?” Deborah lifts her eyebrows. “Aren’t I honored?”
“It means more than that, you asshole,” Ava spits out, voice rising enough to draw a few stares.
“Then why go all this time without saying a word about how much you think I hate you?” Deborah shoots back. “You’ve never hesitated before.”
Ava pulls her lower lip between her teeth. “I don’t think you’d like the answer.”
A million and one horrible hypotheticals come crashing down all around Deborah, and suddenly this department store is too small by a factor of ten.
Ava’s gaze softens in an instant. “Hey, hey, nothing like that.”
Ava’s hand lands on Deborah’s shoulder, her touch warm and grounding, and Deborah’s right back in the pool at the Four Seasons again, her body unreasonably warm given the amount of air conditioning they have blasting into this mall. “Then—then why?”
Ava shrugs. “I guess I thought the jokes were a cover for something else, that’s all. I was wrong. Obviously. It is what it is.”
She disappears in a swish of fabric and disappointment, and Deborah’s left alone, confused and annoyed in equal measure.
After several minutes of aimless wandering through the clearance section, she spots Ava off in the distance, chatting with one of the employees. Good. Inject a bit of fashion sense into that wardrobe.
“Deborah,” Ava greets her, formal and distant, like they weren’t just sniping at each other in a mall department store in the way only families and couples really can.
“Ah! Your…” The woman looks back and forth between them, and Deborah’s almost amused by the obvious failure to categorize them into something neat.
“She’s the defendant in our lawsuit,” Deborah helpfully supplies.
Ava glares balefully. “And until the case is decided, she’s playing the role of sugar mama.”
“I see.” (She most certainly does not see.)
“Well, what do you have?” Deborah asks.
Ava holds Deborah’s gaze. “A suit.” Her eyes bore into Deborah’s, daring her to say anything.
“Alright then. Let’s see it.”
“Right, uh, right this way.” They’re ushered into a quiet fitting room, and Ava closes the door on Deborah’s face without another word.
Deborah lets out a huff and sinks down into one of the plush chairs, pulling out her phone to kill the time while she waits. If it’s anything like last time, it’ll be a small eternity before she can coax Ava out to stand in front of the lighted, tri-fold mirror.
It comes as something of a surprise when the door swings open with no prompting, and Deborah’s gaze catches on the clean lines of a navy blazer over a crisp white button-up with a pale pink tie—maybe a dusty rose, she thinks—that shouldn’t work with Ava’s coloring but somehow does. The navy pants taper at the ankles, just a flash of bare skin visible between the hem and a pair of polished brogues.
Deborah blinks up at Ava. Her gaze sweeps back up and down the length of the outfit, at the way Ava holds herself in it—shoulders back, head high, one thumb casually looped into her pocket. The fitting room suddenly feels much too warm.
Deborah realizes she’s yet to say a word. “You look…” Her voice comes out sounding humiliatingly breathless, and she clears her throat. “It works.”
Looking utterly self-assured, Ava smirks, and something deep inside Deborah thrills at it, a jolt of heat shocking her back into herself.
“Go,” Deborah says, flicking a hand through the air and forcing herself to look away. “We need to get back to the bus. If you’re getting it, you may as well hurry.”
Ava hums as she turns on her heel and heads for the door. “Maybe I wasn’t wrong after all…” The words float back in the air, utterly incomprehensible. Deborah can’t even think about them—not when that fucking ache is back between her thighs, sweat prickling at the back of her neck and desire pulsing white-hot through her veins.
Check out is something of a blur, and Deborah barely recalls handing over her credit card. When they make it out the door, Deborah turns to Ava. “Why don’t you and Marcus and Damien go enjoy a little time to yourselves? I have a few things I need to take care of.”
“I can come with you.”
“No!” Deborah’s voice cracks over the word, and she clears her throat. “It’s fine.”
“Well, I wanna put my bags back on the bus anyway. I may as well just—”
“Fifteen fucking minutes to myself! Is that so hard to ask?”
Ava blinks back at her. Deborah feels like she’s teetering on the razor’s edge, just barely clinging to the edge of sanity. Because surely—surely—it would be fucking lunacy to have developed anything like an attraction to her 20-something, female writing partner who she is actively suing. Christ.
Ava finds Deborah’s fingers with her own, and Deborah feels like she’s about to jump out of her skin. “Hey, I know what you’re going through, alright?”
Deborah lets out a bark of laughter. “I sincerely doubt it.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not quite the same, but, you know.”
Deborah does not know. “Ava.” She pulls her hand out from Ava’s. “Go. Enjoy your day. Buy some hideous belt to ruin your new suit with.”
Ava’s lips quirk up into a smile, and Deborah’s heart beats a little faster. God, the universe has always known how to play a cruel fucking joke on her.
Of course, it’s at that moment that Damien spots them, and any remaining tendril of hope for a few minutes alone shrivels up and dies.
“I have your perfume here. Let me just call Marcus and Phil, and I can have us on the road in five.”
“Oh, hey, you know, I think Deborah and I were gonna take a little time to ourselves to do some writing. Why don’t you guys have some time off to enjoy yourselves?”
Damien narrows his eyes and looks between them.
“We were not taking time to ourselves,” Deborah says, refusing to look at Ava. “We can write just fine while the bus is moving.”
By that evening, after a full afternoon of ignoring Ava’s none-too-subtle attempts at getting Deborah to talk about whatever the hell she thinks she saw, Deborah has convinced herself that this is all a fluke. An odd bodily response to a combination of stress and decent sex and too-close proximity to a very small number of people, only one of whom could even theoretically be attracted to her.
Fifteen—no, make it thirty minutes alone, and she could have it out of her system for good.
Of course it’s just Deborah’s luck that no one will give it to her. She could scream, would throw things had she not made another promise to stop doing that, too. Besides, she hasn’t spent the better part of seven decades on this planet being sexually frustrated only to have it break her now.
Instead, Deborah spends the next day and a half trying to figure out when she and Ava became quite so friendly with one another. She vaguely recalls a few pats on the leg or arm now and then, but she has no memory of when their nearness became a given, when Marcus began seating himself across from her to cede the seat beside her to Ava, when Damien started walking at an angle to stay in front of them on sidewalks too narrow to allow three people across. Worst of all are the times Ava throws herself into Deborah’s bed while they’re writing late at night. She props her head on Deborah’s pillows, curling herself into asymmetrical shapes opposite Deborah on this too-small bed. And every fucking time, Deborah finds herself sinking into it—into the way the smiles and laughter come so easily, like they’ve spent all day putting in the hard, tedious work just to save the best punchlines to whisper into this little space between their bodies.
It only makes sense that Ava becomes a recurring presence in Deborah’s dreams when she’s a recurring presence in her bed. Nothing more than synapses firing to adjust to new patterns. Nothing notable. Nothing meaningful.
On the second night, Ava drops her voice to a whisper that sends a shiver down Deborah’s spine. “Hey, if you, um, wanna talk… Just know that I’m here, okay?”
Deborah’s mouth draws tight. “I don’t know what you think you know, but—”
“I don’t know anything. I’m just here to listen. If you want.”
Ava looks up at her, eyes wide and hopeful.
“Next time we have a moment alone, hmm?” Which should be in approximately four months and, given that Ava has the attention span of a goldfish, should drop off the radar well before then.
“Got it.” Ava shoots finger guns at Deborah and pushes herself up to a seated position. As she stretches her arms over her head, her top lifts up with her, revealing a strip of smooth skin. Deborah drifts back to cradling Ava in her arms in the water, feeling the warmth of her skin, the weight of her trust, the way her body had shuddered, muscles twitching, every time she laughed.
She forces her gaze away from Ava and off to the side of the room as Ava stands and gathers her things.
Deborah only hums, already preparing herself for another night of unsettling dreams.
Deborah, as it turns out, was not adequately prepared.
In the morning, she can barely look at Ava without feeling her cheeks flush with heat, and she nearly takes Damien’s head off for asking a question she knows she’d already answered.
At lunch, Deborah sends them all off without her, insisting she has a headache, and no one seems sad to see the back of her after a hellish morning.
After waiting several minutes to see if anyone might come rushing back onto the bus for a forgotten phone or wallet or fucking chapstick, Deborah slips into her room and locks the door. A rush of shame washes over her, and she swallows it down, tries to remind herself that there’s no shame in being kind to herself.
She carefully slips off her pants, draping them over the chair so they won’t wrinkle, before sliding under the sheets. Her eyes flutter closed as her hand comes up to cup at her breasts, teasing herself through layers of fabric. A sigh escapes into the quiet of the bus.
As her hands drift down, she tries to think back to that night in Memphis—remembers strong, slightly calloused hands sliding up and down the length of her bare thighs, the press of lips along her neck, the naked appreciation in his eyes. She slips one finger inside of herself, then two, wishing she had lube but unwilling to postpone this another minute. She thinks back to the fullness then—squeezes her eyes shut and tries to will herself over the hurdle from pleasant to pleasurable, from being kind to herself to being good to herself.
She grasps for memories, but they desert her, leaving her with nothing but flashes from those damn dreams. In her mind, there are long fingers thrusting into her instead; her own hand curls not into the sheets but around a pale pink tie; an all too familiar voice whispers into the space between their bodies, “I’ve got you,” as those long fingers crook forward. Deborah clenches around her own hand with a strangled whimper.
As she eases herself into a rhythm, a loud clatter sounds from the front of the bus, and Deborah practically throws herself out of bed in the rush to find her robe.
She’s got 9-1 dialed on her phone when Ava calls out, “Deborah?”
A low growl rumbles in the back of Deborah’s throat as she throws open the door. “What could you possibly need?”
“Got us both some takeout. Don’t worry, I figured out your code.” Ava shoots an ostentatious wink at Deborah that makes her blood boil even as her treacherous body shivers at the possibilities an empty bus with just the two of them on it holds.
“What code?” Deborah forces herself to ask, her measured tone barely covering the tremor of frustration laced through every syllable.
“Yesterday you said we’d talk when we had time alone. Then you found us time alone.” Ava says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, then brandishes her phone. “Plus, you sent me a weird little square with a question mark, and I know how to read between the lines.”
“You mean the message from hours ago? The message with photos of Barry and Cara you specifically asked for despite knowing that your brick of a phone is incapable of receiving them?” Deborah could strangle Ava. Maybe with that fucking tie. Her chest flushes at the thought of it. “And besides, why in the hell would a question mark mean come back with takeout?”
Ava shrugs, already setting up two Styrofoam boxes on the table. When she looks up at Deborah, though, her eyes go wide. Deborah can feel the proof of everything she’d been doing and thinking written all over her body like damning evidence, and all the shame from before comes rushing back up with a vengeance, nearly choking her. “Oh shit,” Ava gasps.
“I can exp—”
“You really are sick! Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Deborah opens, then closes her mouth.
“You’re so flushed. Do you have a fever?” Ava starts scrounging around her backpack. “Do we have a thermometer anywhere on this bus? That seems like really basic first aid thing. Oh! Marcus’s bag. Let me check Marcus’s bag. He’ll definitely have—”
“Don’t check Marcus’s bag.” Deborah waves her hand through the air, then promptly stuffs it into her pocket at the memory of where it’s been. “I’m fine. Just…tired.”
“Oh, yeah, okay. I’ll, uh, put your lunch in the fridge. You should sleep. I promise, I’ll be so quiet, you won’t even know I’m here!”
Deborah manages a grim smile and bites back a groan. “Fantastic.”
By that night, Deborah is done with waiting and propriety and caution. It doesn’t matter that tomorrow night they’ll be staying in a nice hotel for a one-night substitute headlining gig. What matters is that Deborah’s door is locked and that she managed to steal five minutes alone in a CVS to pick up a bottle of lube she’d hidden in a bag stuffed full of random, unnecessary purchases. What matters is that Marcus sleeps all the way up on the sofa in the front of the bus and that Damien wears ear plugs to bed and that Ava, well, that if Ava knows what’s good for her, she’ll chalk any errant sounds up to her imagination unless she wants to have a long, hard talk about some of the cursing and moaning that kept Deborah up all those nights.
Deborah’s body is too strung out to relax while she waits for everyone else to fall asleep, and the minutes seem to creep by as she counts down the number of days until they’re in LA to pitch this new show. LA, she decides, is a perfect place for another one-night stand if need be. Just enough to remind her subconscious that other people are easy to come by and that fixating on the warm body that happens to spend too much time in her bed isn’t the answer.
Not that such thoughts help when she finally decides it’s late enough that even Phil will be asleep up in Weed’s old seat, replaced by one of the temps they’ve hired to drive the night shift until they make it back to LA.
The rough, manly hands of her intended fantasies soon give way to thoughts of long but surprisingly delicate fingers dancing their way up her body. Stubble fades away to reveal smooth skin and the tickle of hair brushing along her collarbone. The solid, muscled torso softens, edges curving into the same body she’d looked down at in the pool with a look of unadulterated wonder until she’d forced herself away.
Deborah swallows down the shame that creeps up her throat and forces her eyes open again.
She takes a deep breath in through her nose. It’s just her. Her alone in this bed making herself feel good.
For the first time since the teenage days of learning the contours of her own body, Deborah watches her hand’s progress, watches as her lube-slicked fingers circle around her entrance before finally sinking into wet heat. Her gaze lingers as she builds to a rhythm, hips rocking up to meet her hand with every slow thrust.
But then she’s picturing Ava right there in bed beside her like she has been so many nights, and her breath catches in her throat.
Deborah can practically feel the phantom touch of Ava’s hand, curling around her forearm. Can hear her whispered encouragements, her pleas to Deborah to make it good, to take what she needs for herself. It sends a surge of want so overwhelming through her that she bites down on a pillow to keep from crying out with the force of it.
Deborah’s thumb presses down on her clit as her body hurtles closer and closer to what she needs. Her wrist aches and the muscles in her forearm are seizing up, and the same impulsive instinct that sent her roaring down her driveway after Ava that first day they met nearly has her dragging Ava out of her bunk to come finish what some subconscious manifestation of her has started.
Good sense (or, more likely, an instinct toward self-preservation) wins out in the end, keeping Deborah firmly in her own bed.
But when Deborah finally comes, pulsing around her fingers and panting into her pillow, it’s with Ava’s name on her lips and Ava’s pleased face seared into the backs of her eyelids.
All of which, she decides, is a problem for another day.
Tonight, she just needs to sleep.