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A Time to Learn

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Connie didn't have much experience with friendship. Not the kind of friendship Elle seemed to insist on, the kind where they didn't tally favours and insults, trading them like they were a commodity.

This wasn't how a friendship worked, in Connie's experience. It wasn't how a relationship worked, whether that was friendship, romance, or anything else. Even her marriage had been a trade deal of sorts, always keeping tabs on who owed how much and what they could do for each other. Always with an eye to how their marriage could advance their careers, each of them holding escape plans in case the deal went sour. Connie had made her escape first, before he could kill Connie's career as well as his own, because that was the way it was supposed to work.

With Elle, there was no balance sheet. No trades. What happened at work stayed there. They could have a blazing row over a patient or a new clinic, and ten minutes later, Elle would be inviting her out for tapas as if nothing that had happened before affected them.

It was one of the most frightening, freeing things that had ever happened to Connie, this friendship that she didn't understand.

And that was why she was wide-awake in a bed at dawn, feeling as though her lungs were had seized up and her heart might pound of out of chest. The intellectual part of her brain knew this was, if not an actual panic attack, then the precursor to one. That clinical part of her brain was noting the symptoms, running the differential diagnosis, and creating a treatment plan as if she would actually use it on herself.

The rest of her was paralysed by fear because in the bed next to her was Elle, and this time they weren't sleeping fully-clothed and uncomfortable on a road trip.

No, Elle had one arm across Connie's waist. Her head was turned away, but Connie could feel every soft inch of Elle's body where it pressed against hers. Elle's thick hair was warming her shoulder.

Connie didn't have any experience with this kind of friendship, but she was sure that having sex with your unexpected best friend changed things.

And she was equally sure it didn't usually change things for the better.

The only thing Connie couldn't work out was why she was still there. Her usual tactic after an ill-advised one-night stand was to engineer a swift exit and pretend it had never happened. If it was a one-night stand with a co-worker, she knew a dozen ways to make sure it was the other person who regretted the incident. Sometimes the entire incident ended up working out as a net positive despite the awkwardness, with favours owed and her legend around Holby enhanced even further.

For the first time in her life, Connie didn't want that. And if that wasn't how this was going to play out, she didn't know what to do.

What was supposed to happen after you had sex with your best friend?

It had seemed like such a great idea last night, with the tequila making her feel warm and fuzzy and Elle's lips soft and coaxing against hers. Connie didn't really know how they'd started kissing. Elle had invited her over after a long shift and there had been pizza and beer, which weren't Connie's usual thing, but with Elle it had been fun, even if Elle had laughed when Connie insisted on a plate, knife, and fork. Somehow, they'd decided that tequila shots were needed and then...

And then Elle had been sitting close and looking at her with so much warmth and laughter in her eyes. Connie didn't know who moved first. It had all felt so good and right, so keeping track hadn't been important.

It was important now, because Connie didn't know what she was supposed to do next. The only thing she knew was that sneaking out and pretending it hadn't happened wouldn't work this time.

Well, it would work if she was prepared to lose this amazing friendship, but that was the crux of her entire panic: she didn't want to lose Elle. She liked Elle. She liked the time they spent together, the laughter and long talks, Elle's ability to shake off work and make Connie do the same.

She more than liked it. Evenings with Elle had become the best part of her week. The thought of not having that...Connie's stomach did something uncomfortable and ugly at that.

She looked down at Elle again, at the smooth expanse of dark skin disappearing under the sheets, and she remembered the taste of it. The way Elle's belly had moved against her lips when Elle laughed. The way Elle had almost looked surprised when she came and the joy in her eyes when her own lips and fingers had brought Connie her over the edge afterwards.

If she was being really honest, that was why Connie hadn't left yet. Why she'd stayed through the night and why she hadn't run after the first kiss, when they'd paused to catch their breaths and their eyes had met. Nothing had been planned or deliberate, but it had been inevitable as soon as she realised it was possible.

Elle sighed softly, and Connie tensed.

After a long, breathless moment, Elle stirred. She lifted her head and turned. Her hair fell away from her face and...and she was smiling.

Connie blinked, confused. Elle's smile was crooked, showing the gap between her front teeth, but she looked happy. Pleased.

Was there a hint of smugness there?

"You're still here," Elle said.

Connie nodded.

"I wondered if you would be."

Connie felt her eyebrow rise. "Oh?"

Elle's smile widened. "You have a reputation. I wasn't sure if I was another notch on your bedpost or if you'd actually stay."

That stung a little, but it was rooted in truth, and Connie couldn't pretend it wasn't. She lifted one shoulder and tried to put on her best clinical dispassionate mask, but it felt foreign and uncomfortable. "I thought you deserved better than that."

"You're right, I do," Elle said, but there was no anger or accusation in her voice. "I'm glad you recognised that."

"I can go now, if you want me to." Connie started to move, to sit up and slide out of bed, with no idea whether she would actually do it or not. "It's not a problem--"

Elle's hand on her wrist stopped her, holding her in place even though the touch was gentle and soft as a feather. "Please don't."

Connie felt her lips trying to form a smile. "Why?"

"You know why." Elle's voice was quiet, but there was steel in it that Connie couldn't ignore.

It was true, even though the idea scared the hell out of Connie and she'd been trying to hide from it ever since she woke up. It was the same reason she'd kissed Elle. The tequila had been an excuse: one beer and two shots had never made Connie fuzzy enough not to know exactly what she was doing.

"You don't have to be scared," Elle said, and her smile was so warm and inviting, Connie couldn't help returning it. "This doesn't have to be difficult. I like you, you like me, the sex was great, and we're good together."

Connie's eyebrow rose again.

Elle grinned. "We are. What happens on the ward, stays on the ward."

"And what happens off the ward?"

"Stays wherever you want it to." Elle's hand was gentle when she reached up and cupped Connie's jaw, rubbing a thumb over her cheek. Connie leaned into it without conscious direction. "How about we start with breakfast and see what happens next, all right?"

Connie searched Elle's face, looking for the first sign of a deal forming, but there was nothing there. Only honesty and hope in beautiful brown eyes. Two things Connie had never seen in the eyes of someone she was in bed with before.

"I can make French toast," Connie offered.

"Connie Beauchamp, you know the way to a woman's heart."

Before Connie could think of a response, Elle lifted herself and their lips met in a kiss that loosened something in Connie's soul that had been out of kilter for too long. She rolled onto Elle and kissed her, smiling when Elle laughed against her lips, and they forgot all about French toast for a long time.

Connie didn’t have much experience with this kind of relationship, but maybe with Elle, it was time to learn.