When Debbie meets Lou when she's twenty-five, it's because she's young and stupid.
Lou is this elusive, wild thing--platinum blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, a Cheshire grin and flirtatious smirk. She's tall, intimidating, has this mirth that you only see in the movies, and it drives Debbie insane. She's almost untouchable, and Oceans crave the impossible. So, being the impulsive woman that she is, Debbie saunters over. She can feel Danny's gaze behind her, watching as she makes her way towards her mark.
"You got a name?"
Lou's head snaps up at the question, her lip curling further into that teasing smirk. "Do you?"
Debbie shivers at the slight accent underlying that husky rasp. "Debbie."
"Mm," Lou hums, "Debbie."
Debbie hates the way the name rolls off her tongue, the way Lou eyes her up and down, raking her soul and reaping what she can.
"Lou," the woman replies, holding out a ring-studded hand out. Debbie grips it tightly, swallowing down the nerves. She keeps her eyes on Lou's as her fingers reach up for Lou's watch, remembering how Rusty had showed her to do it, to be careful and to make sure not to let Lou feel--
"Oh," Lou chuckles suddenly, glancing down lazily to where Debbie's fingers are primed over the latch of her watch. "If you wanted a closer look, all you had to do is ask, sweetheart." Debbie flushes and attempts to reel backwards, but Lou's fingers latch onto her wrist gently. And then, Lou's eyes flit over her shoulder to Danny, and for a moment, Debbie realizes that the look in Lou's eyes isn't wariness, but recognition.
"I didn't know all Oceans had an affinity for criminality," Lou chuckles lowly, letting go of Debbie's wrist. "Your brother too shy to say hi, now?"
"What?" Debbie asks, flustered as she turns around to see Danny hiding his grin behind the back of his hand. "Oh, that bastard…"
"Brothers," Lou laughs as she reaches for her beer and takes a swig. "I get it. Got one of my own, too. Annoying little shit, but I love him."
At that moment, Danny relieves Debbie of the tension as he walks over, offering his hand to shake. "Lou-Bear, it's been awhile."
"I hate that name," Lou mutters as she swats his hand away with a grin. "Is she the best you can do? You're not going soft, are you?"
"Hey," Debbie interrupts with a cold glare. "I was doing just fine until you caught me."
Lou just arches her brow, amused. "Of course, honey. That's exactly what you should say when they're questioning you, too."
"Take it easy on her," Danny admonishes, wrapping an arm around Debbie's shoulder. "I brought her here to learn from you."
"To think that I was once one of the greatest con-women in the east coast," Lou snorts, taking another swig of her beer. "Now I'm supposed to be your little sister's glorified baby-sitter?" Debbie scowls at that, ready to raise her hands, but Lou takes another smouldering look at her and smirks once more. Neither of them see the knowing look passing over Danny's eyes as Debbie tries (and fails, miserably) to look offended.
"You're like the same age as me," Debbie mutters, rolling her eyes. "I hardly think you're at Danny or even my father's calibre."
"Not even close," Lou says with a wink, biting her lip flirtatiously. "I'm even better, honey."
"Now now," Danny warns carefully, tightening his grip around Debbie's back. "I think we can agree to disagree there."
Lou ignores him, her eyes set only on Debbie as she takes another drink. "Always need your brother to protect you, huh princess?"
"I can take care of myself," Debbie mutters quietly, shoving Danny's hand off her shoulder. "I'm an Ocean."
"Yeah," Lou says nonchalantly as she grabs another beer from behind the bar and extends it to Debbie. "But don't you want to be more?"
For the first time in her life, Debbie eyes the bottle, then Lou, and realizes that maybe Lou has a point.
* * *
"If you don't want to work with her, we can call it off."
Debbie looks up from where she's packing her bag to see Danny leaning against the frame of her bedroom door, concerned. Debbie just shrugs and continues packing. Danny sighs and walks into the room, gently placing his hand on her arm to stop her controlled movements.
"Deborah," Danny says quietly. "If you want me to tell her to fuck off, I will. I've known Lou a long time."
"How come I've never met her?" Debbie asks, turning around and crossing her arms. "Have you run jobs with her before?"
"Many," Danny says, smirking half-heartedly. "Since she was a kid--maybe seventeen? Works hard, gets shit done."
Debbie doesn't know what to say to that. When she was seventeen she was focused on school and fitting in, not about living up to her last name. Danny sits down on the edge of her bed, taking one of her stuffed animals into his hands and looking over at the multi-coloured dog fondly.
"I remember when I bought this for you. What did you name it again? Mr. Darcy? God, to think you even read that book and enjoyed it--"
"Pride and Prejudice is a literary masterpiece," Debbie argues, glaring at her brother. "Sorry that I was the only educated one in our family."
Danny just rolls his eyes and reaches out to mess her hair up with a tousle. "Yeah, you and Lou would get along great. She's also a total nerd."
"Ugh," Debbie exclaims, ignoring the information about Lou as she reaches over, pushing him off. "You're a moron, Danny."
"But you love me," Danny says, flashing his signature grin. "Don't ya, sis?"
"Listen," Danny says, his voice taking a serious note. "About Lou. She's good. A bit cocky, but it's a front really. She's loyal."
Debbie eyes him carefully before she sits down on the bed. "Danny, what's this really about? What am I doing with Lou?"
Danny shrugs, almost sadly. "I won't always be there, Debs. I mean, the shit we do, it's bound to catch up with us one day."
"You going to die on me anytime soon?" Debbie asks, arching her brow. Danny chuckles, shaking his head.
"Not yet, but I'm serious. Lou's good, and honestly, if you two got to know each other, you'd hit it off."
"So you're trying to set me up with her then," Debbie concludes, giving her brother the side-eye. "I like girls, Dan, but she's not my type."
"No," Danny sighs as he rubs the back of his head. "I just… if I can trust anyone to be your partner, it's Lou."
Debbie contemplates the heavy weight beneath Danny's words for a moment. It's not that she didn't like Lou. It's just that her first impression of Lou was intimidating, to say the least. Lou was confident, and it wasn't like Debbie wasn't confident. She was, but Lou, she exuded confidence and experience. Even though they were roughly the same age, based on Danny's description of her, Debbie recognized Lou as someone who might be a good partner. Maybe Danny was right. Maybe the arrogance and charm was all a front, and Lou was really a soft puppy on the inside.
A soft puppy? Yeah right.
Debbie won't kid herself that much.
"Besides," Danny says with a shrug, drawing her attention back. "I think Lou could use a friend like you."
He doesn't say more, but something in his tone of voice makes Debbie feel uneasy.
"Okay," she says, ignoring the curiosity burning in her gut. "I'll do it."
* * *
It's not that Lou takes her under her wing, not really.
They're equal partners through and through, but they recognize each other's strengths. Debbie is smart, Lou is meticulous in execution. There's something about that Bowie-esque style and the alluring charm which works with men, women, and everyone in between. Lou is calm and suave, but can be wiry and dangerous if need be. They start with small cons, rigging bingos in community halls, making a grand a week. They live in the back of Lou's beat-up Chevy, riding along the road until they reach their next mark. It gets old quickly, and Debbie grows antsy for more.
It's been a year; Debbie craves more.
"You think you can handle more?" Lou asks her between a pull of her cig, leaning against the railing of Debbie's motel balcony. Debbie looks to the small briefcase of cash and shrugs. When Debbie doesn't reply, Lou turns around, extinguishing the cigarette with the heel of her boot.
"I want to be like Danny," Debbie admits quietly, shrugging. Lou snorts.
"He fucked up," Debbie growls, crossing her arms as she glares at Lou. "But I won't. I'm better than he was, Lou."
"You got caught trying to steal my watch the first time we met, Ocean. Don't blame me if I don't have faith in you," Lou chuckles with a wink as she saunters past Debbie for the mini-bar. She reaches inside, settling a small weight in the place of the whiskey bottle. Debbie watches as Lou uncaps the lid and downs half the bottle before flopping ungracefully on the bed. Debbie watches, growing more frustrated as Lou looks away.
"I can't believe that Danny thought you would be a great mentor," she stresses the word sarcastically, earning another snort from Lou. "You're nothing but a drunken, cowardly mess of a woman who would rather sleep in her car than to reach for something more." If Lou's hurt by her cutting words, she definitely doesn't show it. Instead, Lou just takes another swig of the bitter liquid and looks to her watch.
"Do you want to do something big?" Lou asks, arching her brow. "Then let's do something big, princess."
Debbie blinks as Lou swings her legs off the bed, finishing the bottle with one last gulp before tossing it in the garbage. She grabs another bottle from the fridge on the way to her jacket. She pulls the leather over her shoulder, depositing the small bottle of Absolut in her pocket before turning to face Debbie with an arched brow, that playful smirk returning to her face. Debbie is confused, but she doesn't let it show.
"Fine," Debbie says, trying not to let her voice crack. "What do you want to do?"
Lou reaches into her leather pants to pick out a flyer before tossing it over to Debbie, who fails to catch it.
"You're going to need to work on your hands if you're gonna move up in this world," Lou laughs as she slips on her aviators and reaches for her car keys. "Now come on, we have a long trip ahead of us, and I have a lot to explain to you. Grab your shit and let's move, Ocean."
Debbie looks to the pamphlet, eyes widening. "You want to go to Atlantic City?"
Lou laughs again, zipping up her leather jacket as she winks in Debbie's direction.
"Danny fucked Vegas, so I guess he didn't leave us much option, did he?"
Debbie flinches at the thought of her brother, but as she fumbles with the paper in her hands, she realizes that Lou is right.
"Yeah, I guess he didn't."
* * *
"All you have to do is deal the cards," Lou explains as she turns the car onto the freeway. "I'll take care of the rest."
"Don't they have security measures in place, you know to detect people like… you?" Debbie asks, looking over the set of meticulously crafted notes Lou had written out for her. She hates to admit it, as she stares at Lou's beautiful cursive print, that Lou is more than she could have ever imagined. She regrets what she'd said days ago, but she knows that she's too stubborn to admit it. Besides, Lou's ego could use the hit.
"People like me?" Lou repeats, smirking. "Do elaborate, Ocean."
Debbie rolls her eyes. "Card-counters, Lou."
"I prefer statistical geniuses."
"Arrogance gets you caught," Debbie warns, "besides, I'd hardly count you as a genius."
"You've never seen my academic history," Lou laughs, switching lanes. "I'm sure if I'd been in the right place, I would be working for NASA right now." There's a moment, a tense pause as Debbie digests the words when she hears the slight remorseful twinge in her partner's voice.
But then, Lou continues, her eyes glazing slightly as her gaze stays glued to the empty highway in front of her. "I loved science and math as a kid. I stayed after school to talk to all my teachers, eager to learn from them. I would spend most of my time holed up in the library, reading and learning. Taught myself string theory and quantum physics. Do you know how complex black holes are? I mean human life is so insignificant when compared to the vastness of the universe. I mean, when you think about multiple universes, it gets even more whacky."
Debbie feels her cheeks heat up as she listen to Lou dive into a passionate rant about space and wormholes. It's so unlike Lou, but then she remembers Danny telling her that Lou was a nerd, too, and she gets it. Lou's face softens into an expression of solemn nostalgia as she trails off, noticing Debbie's spacey expression. She just smirks half-heartedly in the other woman's direction, pulling Debbie back to the present.
"Sorry," Lou says, a somewhat sheepish tone which has Debbie's eyes raising to the ceiling. "Didn't mean to bore you."
"No," Debbie quickly corrects her, "I wasn't bored… it was just… unexpected."
Lou snorts at that, laughing as she turns her attention back to the road. "Did you expect me to be as dumb as your brother?"
"Hey," Debbie grumbles, looking away. "Danny's strengths were in… other things."
Lou can't resist grinning again. "Getting himself thrown in prison--yes, a wonderful trait."
"Why didn't you?" Debbie asks suddenly, ignoring Lou's jab. "Continue your passion, I mean. You sound like you know a lot."
Lou winces slightly at that and Debbie almost feels guilty. "Sorry, you don't have to--"
"There's not a lot of time for learning when you're the prodigal daughter of one of the world's most renowned criminals," Lou sighs as she grips the steering wheel tighter. "Besides, science and math don't really fit in to the world of thievery and murder, or not to the extent you'd hope."
"Murder?" Debbie echoes, brows raising. "Wait… have you…"
Lou doesn't reply, and instead she looks out the window with a hardened gaze. "Just read the instructions, Debbie. We're almost there."
Debbie swallows nervously as she looks down at the paper. An unspoken tension raises between them, and Debbie hates how she can see Lou subtly lift the small bottle of Absolut to her lips and down a sip, before hiding it away in the inside pocket of her jacket. She wants to press further, to ask Lou to man the fuck up and answer the question, because Ocean's had one rule: no killing, not even the orchestration of death.
But then, after a beat, Lou speaks.
"In the world I grew up in," Lou whispers quietly, "I did what I had to, to survive. Morality doesn't exist among the desperate."
"Killing is never the answer," Debbie admonishes with a low growl. "Ocean's--"
"Don't kill," Lou says with a soft sigh, glancing over to Debbie with a half-hearted smile. "Why do you think I like your family, even if half of you have shit for brains? Recognizing that death extends beyond the victim is rare. We rob people, Debbie. We're hardly innocent, but we could be worse. Far, far worse." Another longing gaze takes over Lou's eyes, hidden behind the shade of her glasses as she turns back to the road.
"Besides," Lou sighs as she sighs, "you can't change the past. You can only learn from it."
"And you?" Debbie asks nervously, almost afraid of the answer. "What have you learned from your past?" Lou pulls off onto the exit, slowing the car down as she winds up to the main road. The entire time, Debbie watches her, waiting for any kind of response, but Lou's silence is telling.
But then, as Lou rolls the car to a stop at the light, she barely whispers, "too much."
Debbie doesn't need to watch Lou to know she's gulping down another sip of vodka.
* * *
They share a motel room just a few miles out from their marked casino.
Usually, Lou asks for separate ones, but since there was some birdwatching convention, the place was near sold out.
"I don't bite," Debbie jokes as they settle into the small room with two twin beds. "And I don't snore… I think."
Lou looks less than convinced as she puts her suitcase on the side, running a hand through her hair as she sighs. Debbie rolls her eyes at how Lou looks up and checks for cameras or other security issues, before she flops down on one of the twin beds, tugging her boots off and neatly placing them at the foot of the bed. Debbie doesn't make a comment when Lou takes out a long-sleeved shirt and some sweats, before heading to the bathroom. She knows that Lou's more reserved, so it only makes sense that she's a little shy when it comes to changing in front of others.
When she returns, Lou reaches into the mini-bar for a whiskey before plopping down on her bed.
"Goodnight, I guess?" Debbie asks, arching her brow. Lou just grunts something similar, and Debbie can only grin fondly.
But that night, when Debbie is startled awake from bloodcurdling screaming--followed by panting and hushed breaths--Debbie realizes that maybe she misread Lou's disappointment in the lack of separate rooms as a personal preference. Debbie pretends to be asleep as she hears Lou rustle around the room before the door opens and closes. When she's sure Lou's gone, Debbie sits up, swallowing thickly at the revelation.
Lou comes back early that morning with donuts and coffee, looking far worse for wear, but Debbie doesn't say a word.
"Good sleep?" Lou asks, but the question is loaded as she looks to Debbie with a burning gaze, daring her to ask something.
But Debbie doesn't fall prey to the bait, not again. So instead, she takes a donut and chews thoughtfully.
"Yeah," she mumbles through a mouthful of an old-fashioned glaze, "nothing better than bed bugs and broken coils."
There's a momentary pause, before Lou just flashes her a smirk and takes a bite of her own donut.
"Sure as hell beats the car, though, doesn't it?" Lou asks, winking. Debbie rolls her eyes as she sips at her coffee.
"Without a doubt," Debbie says, setting the cup down. "Now let's talk about tonight."
* * *
The heist goes off with minimal problems.
Of course, Debbie had to practically learn how to deal blackjack overnight, so she had a rocky start. But Lou's calm voice in her ear prevented her from losing her grip. She also had to thank the partially-drunk patrons for being too oblivious to notice her small mistakes. And when she'd unbuttoned the top button on her collared shirt to display just the right amount of teasing cleavage, the men (and some women) were goners.
"Drunks and heathens," Lou mutters into her ear as she finishes up on a roulette wheel. "This place is their feeding ground."
"How primitive," Debbie grumbles under her breath as she deals another hand. "When are you getting here?"
"Soon," Lou replies, tipping her glass nonchalantly in the other woman's direction from across the casino hall. "Let me work my magic."
And what magic that is.
Lou is suave as she flirts her way to the top tier table, showcasing her skills without giving herself away. Debbie can hardly believe Lou's ability to conduct card-counting while under the influence of alcohol and the gaze of a million different security cameras. She's watched by some of the security, but none dare approach her as she counter-balances her wins and losses. She has one arm loosely wrapped around a nameless brunette sitting on her lap, whispering to her in a low voice to entice the other men into garnering her attention. Only one of them seems put off by the blatant flirting going on between the two women. He's old enough to be their great grandfather, and Debbie wants to throttle him.
But, honestly, when Lou nips at the brunette's bare shoulder, Debbie grimaces alongside him.
That makes two of us who are uncomfortable, Debbie thinks to herself as the woman's hands teasingly play with Lou's collar. Debbie keeps calm, but there's an unreasonable amount of jealousy which rises in her gut, bubbling up her throat and making her tongue twist in her mouth.
"What should I bet?" Lou mumbles, her face practically in the woman's tits by now. "All-in?"
Debbie raises her brow. Lou had only been playing bigger bets, but never all-in. She tries to make eye-contact with Lou, but the other woman finds her whiskey-sour and drains it confidently, ignoring Debbie's concerned expression. Lou flicks her fingers at a passing waiter, who takes her glass and promises to return with another one. The remaining players gasp slightly after a delayed pause (probably due to the alcohol impairment, no doubt). They're intimidated, but also still vested in winning Lou's interest for the night. The brunette on her lap plays with the jangly necklace dipping into Lou's neckline, playing with the jewels before leaning in to place a teasing bite on her exposed pulse point.
Two of the more drunken patrons wolf-whistle, and Lou only basks in it as she grins in their direction.
"All-in it is, then."
You better be fucking right, Debbie thinks to herself as she watches the waiter return with another whiskey-sour and an extra shot for the brunette. If you lose this because you were too drunk to count properly, I'm personally going to kill you. When Lou sets the glass down and pierces her with an electric blue gaze, Debbie swallows nervously. Lou gestures lazily to the cards in Debbie's hands, smirking. Debbie has to once again resist rolling her eyes as the others begrudgingly put in their chips, not wanting to be ousted by Lou.
"Well then," Lou chuckles as she fingers the rim of her glass. "What's the hold up?"
"Sorry," Debbie says, though with a bite that only Lou hears. "Just wanted to make sure you wanted to risk it all."
"What's life without a little risk sometimes, darling?" Lou asks drearily, glancing back to the brunette. "Right, Justice?"
"It's Justine," the brunette giggles annoyingly. "But for you, I'd be anything."
Debbie almost vomits in her mouth as she shakes her head and reaches for the cards. "Alright, here we go then."
But then, Debbie reveals the cards and the whole room goes quiet.
"Royal Flush," Debbie announces with awe, not even bothering to hold back the shock in her voice. "You win."
Lou just smirks proudly before reaching out to gather some of the chips. She hands a small stack to Justine.
"I don't think I can carry all these over to the cash-out," Lou hums flirtatiously, "mind helping me out, sweetheart?"
Justine just smiles and nods, holding the small stack of chips (probably ten grand, by the looks of it) before Lou snatches up the rest neatly. She bids farewell to the disappointed (and now broke) table of gentlemen still in utter shock at Lou's win, before she saunters back to the cash-out.
Meanwhile, Debbie just looks at the cards, wondering what the fuck just happened.
* * *
"Five-hundred thousand dollars," Debbie gasps as she finishes recounting the cash. "That's half a million, Lou."
Lou sits on the windowsill of their hotel room, overlooking the boardwalk as she smokes a Marlboro. In her free hand is a tumbler of scotch, neat, with a single orange peel. At her realization, Lou turns her head and winks in her direction. "Good to know you can do math, Ocean."
"Shut up," Debbie chuckles airily, still shaking that they'd pulled off a heist so big with only the two of them. Lou takes a final drag of the cigarette before stumping it in the ashtray. She walks over to where Debbie is sitting in front of the suitcase, before she reaches under the bed for a small briefcase. Debbie eyes it curiously, cocking her head as she looks up to Lou with a burning question she somehow cannot voice.
"Did you honestly think that we were only robbing those rich fuckers on the table?" Lou asks as she opens the briefcase to reveal an assortment of wallets, watches, and various expensive items. "Sometimes, the distraction is the main event." Debbie frowns, reaching forward for a watch.
"Did you honestly think Justine was just some dumb brunette?" Lou laughs as she leans back on the bed. "Her real name's Tess. She's, well she was Danny's person, but then the whole prison thing happened. Would've have thought you recognized her under the wig and make-up."
"I never met her," Debbie says quietly, feeling left out. "Danny mentioned her a few times, but I never got a change to actually meet her."
"You'd like her," Lou says as she sets the briefcase aside and takes a swig. "Got that whole morality thing you love so much."
Debbie gives her a pointed look. "Is it really too much to want to be a nice criminal, Lou?"
"Sounds like a juxtaposition to me," Lou counters, settling down on the bed. "Oxymoron. A just criminal? Doesn't work."
When Debbie doesn't reply, Lou just sighs and waves to the briefcase. "Look in that sleeve."
Debbie hesitates a moment, but when Lou looks at her, deadpan, she relents. Reaching inside, she pulls out a piece of paper with some names and faces on them. She frowns, realizing that the men on the paper are the same men who were sitting on the table at the end of the heist.
"Robert Sheers is a corporate scumbag who donates half his proceedings to gay conversion camps in the deep south," Lou says as she sets her glass down so she can tuck her gangly legs underneath her. "Damian Rockwell has engaged in human trafficking and dog-fighting. Leslie Burkes is trying to buy out a senator to defund Planned Parenthood and to make abortions illegal. Do you want me to continue?" Debbie swallows, looking over the list. She recognizes the first one, Robert, as the one who had been passing dirty looks in Lou's direction the whole night.
"How did you know they were there?" Debbie asks, looking up to Lou. "Anyone could've played at that table."
"A good con-woman doesn't reveal her secrets," Lou shrugs, "but if you should know, I did my research."
Debbie waits a moment, before her lips curl up into a warm smile. "So you do have a moral compass, after all."
Lou blushes at that, and the sight of Lou being flustered ignites a deeper fire within Debbie. "I wouldn't call it a compass. It's more like a tacky tourist using the North Star to navigate their way back home." The answer isn't what Debbie expects, but at the same time, it isn't surprising.
"You put yourself down too much," Debbie says as she sets the sheet aside so she can crawl up the bed next to Lou. "You're a good person, Lou." Debbie hates the flash of uncertainty and disbelief which washes over Lou's soft blue eyes, but before she can voice her disagreement, Lou sighs and takes another drink. Debbie just looks away, knowing the moment is gone. She pulls her knees up to her chest and eyes the stolen goods.
"You did good," Lou says after some time, "for a major heist. You did good, Ocean. Danny'd be proud of you."
There's something almost longing in Lou's voice, and Debbie glances over to see Lou staring out the window with an almost lost gaze.
"He was right to choose you to be my partner," Debbie admits quietly. "You're more than what you are on the surface."
Lou snorts at that, laughing as she looks back to Debbie, the mirth returning to her eyes. "You think so, princess?"
Debbie rolls her eyes fondly. "Don't make me regret complimenting you, Lou."
"I quite like it," Lou hums as she takes another sip of her drink. "Tell me more, Ocean."
"You're an idiot."
"A sexy idiot," Lou corrects, "I'll take it."
Debbie can't help herself as she smiles, her head naturally leaning down to place itself on Lou's albeit slightly boney shoulder. Growing up with Danny, she'd grown accustomed to being touched and touching others. Their family was big on physical affection, on hugs and hair-tousles. Her father always swooped her on her shoulders when she was little, and her mother would always kiss the top of her head. Touching was natural.
But clearly it wasn't natural to Lou, if the tensing of her muscles was anything to go by.
"What are you doing?" Lou asks, wariness creeping into her tone as Debbie quickly removes her head. "I don't fuck my partners."
"Wow," Debbie mutters as she reels back, slightly hurt. "Crass much? I didn't want to fuck you, I just was tired."
"Yeah, well, I don't like touching. I don't do that," Lou growls the words defensively as she practically leaps off the bed and takes her place by the window sill. Debbie frowns, but doesn't push. She's seen Lou cocky and arrogant, cool and suave, but never so agitated and… afraid?
"Got it," Debbie just says instead, her voice cracking. "Loud and clear, Lou. I won't touch you."
But then, just when Debbie expects Lou to lash out, she watches as the taller woman's shoulders slump instead.
"Sorry," Lou mumbles, still not turning around from where her back is facing Debbie. "I just… I'm a loner, okay? This is new to me."
"Mentoring delinquents?" Debbie asks, glad to break the tension when Lou chuckles slightly. "Good to know Danny had great judgement."
"I'm adaptive," Lou says with another shrug, confidence returning back to her voice. "Fits my profession."
They both fall into another lapse of silence before Lou clears her throat and slowly makes her way back over to the bed. She lowers herself down on the corner, still maintaining a distance. Debbie waits patiently, lets Lou take her own time to adjust. After some time, Lou looks to her glass.
"I go by Lou Miller," Lou says quietly, and Debbie's heart stutters in her chest. "But that's not my real name."
Debbie waits, not wanting to interrupt the rare moment of Lou shedding some light on her past. Lou takes a deep breath before she turns, still not making eye-contact with Debbie as she fingers the rim of the glass. Debbie can see that Lou's hands are shaking, and it terrifies her.
"My birth name was Lena Sokolov," Lou says as she finally looks up, blue eyes piercing Debbie's own. "My father is--"
"Viktor Sokolov," Debbie gasps. "Your father is the face of one of the worlds' most dangerous terrorist organizations." Lou winces, but doesn't react as Debbie reflexively pulls away, pressing herself up against the backboard of the bed. "He's not just some criminal, Lou. He's a terrorist. He's tortured and killed people--innocent people! I mean, the guy is on every international wanted list. He's not just bad news, he's--"
"I know," Lou mumbles as she looks to her lap. Debbie just shakes her head, still in shock.
"He's a genocidal psychopath," Debbie continues to ramble nervously. "He's bombed cities and towns just for the hell of it--"
"I know," Lou grits out, "Come on Debbie, that's enough."
But Debbie can't stop as she continues to rake her mind through the various textbooks she remembers from school. "The reports would always talk about how he raped so many women, fathered so many children, but if they didn't live up to his standards he would just murder them."
"I know!" Lou practically roars, standing from where she'd been sitting, fire in her eyes. "I don't need a history lesson, Deborah."
Debbie startles, her eyes widening as she finally realizes just who Lou is.
"You're her, aren't you?" Debbie asks, wide-eyed and afraid. "You're child that survived. The one that went missing."
Lou turns back to the fridge, her hands shaking violently as she ditches the glass and grabs the whole bottle of scotch instead. Debbie watches, numb, as Lou takes a long gulp before wiping her mouth. She notices the shaking reduce to trembling, and it all makes sense now.
"You said you had a brother," Debbie breaks the silence and hates the way Lou tenses. "No one ever mentioned a brother…"
"Because no one knew," Lou says, still not looking at Debbie. "After Father saw what he could do with me, he thought he'd be able to create another one. He…" Lou cuts herself off, closing her eyes and tensing her shoulders even tighter as she takes another drink of the bitter liquid.
"He raped my mother until she became pregnant again," Lou continues quietly, her hand gripping the neck of the bottle tighter as she looks away. "Made me watch as he did it because he wanted me to know what true power looked like. He locked her in a cell, made sure she was fit enough to carry the child, but she died during childbirth. My brother survived, but he was weak. Premature and riddled with health issues."
Lou takes a long sip of the drink before she slumps down on the bed. "Before Father came down to kill him, I snuck out and took him to a nearby hospital, told them his name was Harold Miller and that his mother was dead. They didn't ask questions, or rather, I didn't let them. I held him one last time, just to remember his face, and then I left him there and never looked back." Lou's voice is strained as she drinks again.
"I told Father that he died," Lou says, "and that I burned his body alongside Mother's. But he knew I was lying."
The silence which falls over them is suffocating, and Debbie can't help herself as she asks, "then what happened?"
Lou doesn't reply. Instead, she just takes another drink before standing up, albeit on wobbly feet. Debbie wants to move, but she's frozen to her spot, staring at Lou's hunched back as she reaches for her jacket and slips it on. Lou takes another sip of the scotch before setting the bottle down. She slips on her boots and zips up the jacket, heading for the door. Debbie doesn't stop her, but is shocked when Lou pauses briefly.
"You did good today," Lou says softly, her eyes trained on the floor. "We'll leave by tomorrow afternoon, to not raise suspicions."
"Lou," Debbie croaks her name, tears welling in her eyes. "I--"
"Goodnight Debbie," Lou whispers as she opens the door before leaving without another word.
But it's not a goodnight, not when Debbie lays awake with the lights on, contemplating their conversation.
It's not even a good morning, when Lou walks in the next day still drunk and haggard, and Debbie is lost for words.
Debbie drives them back up the coast towards New York, stopping twice to let Lou hurl her guts out on the highway. Their car ride is silent and heavy with tension. Lou keeps drinking despite working off her lingering drunkenness or hangover, or maybe a mix of both. Debbie doesn't have the gall to tell her to stop, because she finally understands. If she'd seen what Lou's seen, she'd be at the bottom of a bottle, too.
Danny had once told her the truth is overrated, that sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
In that moment, as she looks to Lou's glazed expression, Debbie wishes she'd listened to him more.
* * *
Things are frosty for awhile before they finally go back to their old ways.
A few months later, Lou and Debbie rent a small two-bedroom apartment with their savings. It's nothing fancy; Lou always said that saving is more rewarding that cons, and that one day it will come in handy. Debbie hardly minds; she'd live under a tarp if it meant staying with Lou.
Her feelings for Lou have changed drastically since their post-heist discussion. Underneath that tough exterior, Lou is a genuine person who has a good heart--Danny was right about that. Lou cared more than she let on, or dared anyone except Debbie to see. It was slow, but it was progress. Debbie was the perfect counter to Lou's harder, calloused side. They worked well together, not only as partners but as best friends.
She learns little things about Lou, the more time they spend together.
First, Lou's an excellent cook. Though she'd be caught dead before anyone noticed, Lou loved watching cooking shows and experimenting. Debbie would come home to wonderful smells from the kitchen, paired with Lou in a goofy "kiss the chef" apron. And she would, with confirmed consent, place a soft kiss on Lou's cheek before taking a bite of whatever her partner had diligently cooked up for her, and moan with delight.
Second, Lou loves libraries. When they weren't planning cons or running errands, Lou would take them into a quiet corner and pour over the greats--Dickens, Austen, Orwell, the list went on. Debbie would read along with her, but her attention wouldn't be on those words, but on the rapt interest and sheer focus in Lou's eyes as she delved into the books without a care in the world. If it were any other person, Debbie would have teased them, but when she sees the way Lou tucks her knees to her chest and flips the pages with a gentle hum, she knows Lou needs this.
Third, Lou has a soft spot for kids. When they're strolling through a park one day, a little boy falls down and scrapes his knee. Lou's there before his baby-sitter can reach, whispering soft words and gently rubbing his back. Debbie, one who had never even considered having little buggers before, is mesmerized as Lou procures a coin from behind his ears, causing the boy to light up with a laugh so infectious even Lou chimes along. When the baby-sitter can't thank her enough, Lou just rubs her shoulder and offers her a crisp fifty, and tells her to treat them both.
"You're good with them," Debbie tells her when they get back to their apartment. "Kids, I mean. I couldn't handle the little devils."
Lou just shrugs, not really making an effort to maintain eye-contact. "I wouldn't know. Wasn't really the best kid, growing up."
Debbie doesn't press further. She's learned her lesson from last time, of not poking her nose where it doesn't belong.
"I was a terror," Debbie offers instead, shrugging off her coat onto one of the chairs. "I ate my mother's flowers and stole our neighbour's cat."
That brings a chuckle out of Lou, the sweetest sound Debbie's sure she's ever heard. "I don't see the difference now, Deborah."
"Hey," Debbie says as she arches her brow. "Derek Jeter Junior loves me."
"Oh I'm sure that's totally it," Lou smiles as she sprawls onto the couch, looking towards an empty tuna tin near the door. "Not that you feed him more than he needs, or anything." Debbie takes a seat next to her, grumbling as Lou continues to smirk knowingly in her direction.
Debbie gasps, admonished she'd suggest such a thing. "He's not fat, Lou."
"Mrs. Jenkins literally asked me today if male cats could get pregnant."
Debbie rolls her eyes as Lou bursts into another laugh before procuring her flask from her inside jacket pocket. Debbie watches as Lou takes a long drink before leaning her head back and closing her eyes. It hits her then, that if Lou were to be any animal, she'd be a cat. Slow to warm up to you, but once you've earned their trust, they're loyal and unguarded. Lou has grown from not wanting to be touched to sitting closer to Debbie. Somedays, if Lou's a bit more tipsy, she'll allow Debbie to play with her fingers, and on even bolder days, she'll loosely wrap her arm around Debbie's shoulders and pull her close enough for the Ocean to smell the nicotine and spicy cologne off her clothes.
"I'm glad you tried to steal my watch," Lou says after some time, gazing over at her fondly. Debbie just sighs and inches closer, gaging Lou's reaction. When Lou grunts and extends her arm out, Debbie burrows into her side, hiding her smile in the lapel of Lou's worn leather jacket.
"I'm glad Danny made me embarrass myself in front of him," Debbie mumbles into the fabric. "I'm… I'm glad I have you, Lou."
There's a hitch in Lou's breath before the hand around her shoulder squeezes ever so slightly.
"I'm glad I have you too, Debs."
* * *
They get more touchy-feely as the time passes.
Debbie still asks Lou for consent before touching her, but Lou doesn't say no as often as she once used to. Lou, on the other hand, will sprawl on the couch like an overgrown human-feline hybrid, stretching out her gangly limbs and gazing at Debbie with this fond, almost shy expression. It's uncharacteristic, at first, to see a specimen as impenetrable as Lou to appear so innocent and pure, excited at the prospect of being touched in such a loving way. She's touch-starved by every sense of the word, and it only draws Debbie into her even further than before.
It's the little things, like how Lou will inch her way closer, so their shoulders touch, before tapping on Debbie's knuckles until the other woman fondly rolls her eyes and wraps her arms around Lou's gangly form. And Lou, for all of her confidence and swagger, burrows like a small child seeking comfort. Debbie will hold her tight against her chest while they're watching TV, her fingers gently untangling the knots in Lou's hair.
Some nights, she'll press a kiss to Lou's forehead, and she swears she'll hear Lou purr against her in joy.
On those nights, Debbie just falls harder and deeper in love.
Tonight, Lou is sprawled atop her, head on her chest and arms around her waist. Debbie smiles down at her. "You're heavy, you know."
Lou makes some sort of grunting noise before she mutters, "don't see you moving me off."
"Don't think I could, Rocky. I'm not as strong as you, remember?"
"Mm," Lou mumbles as she nuzzles deeper into Debbie's chest. "I'd move… but you're comfy."
Debbie smiles at the quiet yawn which parts Lou's lips. "You're adorable."
"I could beat the shit out of you."
Debbie just laughs at that, leaning down to kiss Lou's forehead lovingly.
"You could," Debbie agrees as Lou's arms tighten around her waist. "But it doesn't make you being adorable any less true."
Lou looks up to Debbie, her eyes flitting down to her lips. Debbie's breath hitches as she notices where Lou is looking and she gulps nervously, instinctually leaning forward as Lou adjusts herself on the couch. One of Debbie's hands gently cups Lou's cheek, her thumb grazing over her the sharp angles of Lou's jawline. There's a slight haze in Lou's eyes, there always is considering Lou's always drinking some concoction.
"What are we doing?" Debbie asks as Lou licks her lips. "Lou?"
"I want to kiss you," Lou says, but there is a hesitance to her voice. Debbie swallows again, nodding.
This time, Lou is the one to swallow thickly as she looks to Debbie's eyes now. "But I don't want to fuck this up."
"Who says you will?" Debbie asks, leaning forward just the slightest bit. "Risk it, Lou."
"You're not a con," Lou tells her adamantly, her tone biting. "You're more than that, Debbie."
Debbie just looks back to Lou's lips, leaning forward so they're just brushing--just barely.
"Prove it, Miller."
When their lips connect, Debbie's breath is stolen from her lips. Lou is similarly affected, if the small gasp she emits is anything to go by. Lou slots between Debbie's thighs and grinds down ever-so-slightly, but enough for Debbie to feel it everywhere. Lou's free hand is on the other side of Debbie's head, holding her weight up as she kisses her deeper. Debbie parts her lips and changes the angle, allowing their tongues to meet. For all of her confidence and swagger, Lou is tender and gentle as she kisses, as if she's scared of breaking Debbie into tiny slivers.
Debbie reaches up and tangles her hands in Lou's hair, pulling their lips apart for a moment so she can stare in those blue eyes.
Blue eyes, for the first time Debbie's ever seen them, are clear as the sky.
"I want you," Debbie whispers as she wraps one of her legs over Lou's hip. "I need you, Lou."
Lou is hesitant at first before she leans down to press a soft, sweet kiss on Debbie's lips. It starts out slow, and Debbie's sure that it was meant to slow down the moment, but soon enough they're lost in the moment and Debbie's shirt is cascaded to the far end of the couch while Lou's nimble fingers pry open her jeans button and slide her zipper down. Debbie gasps into Lou's lips as those slender digits slide into her pants, tapping over the wet fabric of her panties. The motion makes both of them shudder and pause, Lou's head burying itself into her neck.
"Fuck," Lou mutters into her skin as she lightly sweeps a line to the fabric covering Debbie's clit. "You're soaked, Deb."
Debbie hisses at the words, grinding her hips upwards as Lou kisses down her neck. "All for you, baby."
Lou looks into her eyes once again, searching for any sign of hesitance. "You're sure?"
Debbie nods, smiling as tears well in her eyes. "You have no idea how long I've waited for this, Lou."
Lou swallows nervously and offers her a soft smile. "Well, we can't have that anymore, can we?"
Before Debbie can bite out a teasing remark, Lou's fingers slip under her panties and her calloused index finger paints gentle circles around her clit. Debbie bucks upwards at the first touch as Lou's head returns to place bite after bite into Debbie's neck and chest. Lou works her up slowly, drawing out her arousal like she's always known Debbie's body. Eventually, Debbie grows impatient, and Lou kisses her lips in acknowledgement. Two fingers slowly enter, allowing Debbie's body to adjust to the girth before she seats herself inside fully.
"Fuck," Debbie huffs out between breaths, "fuck, that's… wow…"
"Good?" Lou hums into her neck, smirking. Debbie nods, clenching lightly at Lou's hair.
"Good," Lou murmurs as she leans back to reattach their lips. "Hold onto me, baby."
But Debbie doesn't just hold on to Lou as those fingers start a steady, strong rhythm.
No, Debbie clutches onto Lou like a lifeline until she's riding the waves of pleasure to her well-waited orgasm. It's quicker than she'd expected, but it's just as satisfying as all of the imagined scenarios she's worked herself up to. Lou carries her through it, ever stalwart and loyal. She doesn't tease about the short period of time it took to get to the climax. Instead, Lou whispers sweet nothings through the aftershocks. Debbie closes her eyes, allowing herself to focus on the sultry drawl of Lou's voice, the thickened accent in the light of the situation and the lust.
The moment is peaceful, it's a well-needed respite.
And it's quickly shattered the moment Debbie reaches for the hem of Lou's shirt.
"Wait," Lou says quickly, reeling backwards fast enough to give Debbie whiplash. "I… I don't think…"
"Lou," Debbie whispers quietly. "I want to see you."
"No," Lou blurts out, arms defensively wrapping around her waist as she inches backwards nervously. "I… I can't."
"Hey," Debbie hums as she reaches out and takes Lou's cheeks into her palms. "It's okay. We don't have to do anything if you're not ready."
"It's not that," Lou says, avoiding Debbie's gaze. "It's… just…"
"Lou," Debbie says, drawing Lou's eyes back to her own eyes. "It's okay. We can just sleep, if you want. It's okay if you don't."
Lou still looks seconds from darting away from her like an animal from a flame, and Debbie's heart is threatening to beat out of her chest. She has no idea what has caused the panic to suddenly appear in those crystal blue eyes, but she wants it to go away as soon as possible. Lou just maneuvers her way off Debbie's lap before heading to the kitchen. She hears rummaging, but then Lou returns with a glass of bourbon.
Debbie eyes the glass, and then Lou, as half it is downed in one generous sip. Lou almost sighs in relief as she slumps back down on the couch. Debbie hates that it's the opposite end, as if Lou is erecting an invisible wall between the two of them. As much as she is burning to ask questions, she doesn't ask them because this is a delicate moment and she doesn't want to trigger Lou with anything she's unprepared for.
"Sorry," Lou says after awhile, fingering the rim. "I just… I don't think I can… do that."
"That's okay," Debbie assures her as she reaches over for her shirt and slips it back on. "It's okay if you're never ready too, Lou."
"You can't give that up for me," Lou snorts, shaking her head. "Besides, I'm not someone you should be chasing, Debs."
"We're still partners, right?" Debbie asks, ignoring Lou's statement. Lou looks over at her, that hazy gaze returning to her eyes.
"Always," Lou says, smiling half-heartedly as she nods. "You're my ride or die, Deb."
"Then we're good," Debbie says, but she knows it's far from the truth. Lou knows it, too, but won't voice it. "This never happened, Lou."
"Debbie," Lou says quietly, "you don't have to do that."
More than anything, that is what hurts Debbie the most. She looks to Lou, feeling stupid that she'd expected Lou to fight back, to tell her that she never wants to forget this night, even if it didn't end in the way they'd both initially wanted. Instead, she finds Lou staring at her pleadingly.
"We're good," Debbie repeats, voice hoarse as she offers a fake smile she's sure Lou reads right through. "It's okay, Lou."
But it isn't.
It really, honestly, fucking, isn't.
* * *
Despite the unspoken incident, over their time spent together, Debbie's confidence grows as a function of Lou's encouragement.
Her job plans become more detailed, and soon enough, even Lou is taken aback by her ability to conjure up these ideas. Their roles switch, with Debbie taking the lead and Lou being her right-hand woman. They run a real-estate con in three states which garners them enough money to last them a life-time, but Debbie is addicted to the feeling of taking, of winning. She's making a name for herself, something beyond Ocean.
Lou is proud of her, but as the months bleed into years, Debbie notices her getting more tired.
Lou doesn't second-guess her, nor does she ask Debbie to reconsider. She's still as steadfast and stalwart as she's always been--loyal, as Danny had once said--but she's less involved than she used to be. Debbie notices the bottles in their cabinet starting to accumulate more and at a faster rate than ever before. Debbie tries not to dwell on the fact that she can't remember a time when Lou was fully sober, without a drop of potent liquid in her system. She knows if she thinks about it, she'll hate the answer, and if she hates the answer, her momentum will falter.
Lou is okay. Debbie is okay.
And for Debbie, that's all that matters for now.
(But it shouldn't be, and deep down, it isn't).
* * *
Of all the years they've spent together, April is always an especially hard month for both of them.
Lou is always more distant, choosing to spend her time drinking and holing herself up in her room all day. Debbie doesn't push, despite the lines between friends and something more blurring with each day that passes. Whatever menial conversation Debbie tries to start is met with a cold front and one-worded answers. Debbie also notices the growing bags under Lou's eyes, the quiet exhaustion in those baby blue eyes.
"You okay?" Debbie asks one day, unable to skirt around this discomfort any longer. "I know you're the brooding type, but you're more broody than usual, Lou." If she's heard her, Lou doesn't show it. Debbie waits patiently, twirling her fork in her carbonara as she waits for some reply.
But Lou is silent, the only response she gives is the slow bobbing of her throat as she downs the rest of her wine.
Debbie swallows, the pain palpable as she takes in the way Lou's entire body seems to hunch over like she's carrying a ton of bricks on her shoulders--Atlas, holding the Heavens on his back on the edge of Earth. Debbie takes a breath and takes a bite, but her food has no taste.
"I'll be back," Lou says quietly as she stands, slowly pushing her chair in. "Don't wait up for me."
Debbie hardly gets a word in before Lou's out the door without a second glance.
She looks to Lou's untouched plate and closes her eyes tiredly. Eventually, she musters up the courage to clean up. She does the dishes in silence, her mind worrying over her partner as she keeps picturing those hazy blue eyes looking at nowhere in particular. After she's done, she sits on the couch, playing re-runs of Jeopardy as she waits for Lou to come back. But even she tires out, and soon enough she falls asleep.
Until at four in the morning, Lou comes back and startles her awake.
"Mm," Debbie mumbles as she blinks the sleep from her eyes. "Lou?"
"Debbie?" Lou asks, almost shocked to see Debbie on the couch. "What are you doing up?"
"Was worried," Debbie slurs sleepily, nodding off on the couch again. "Didn't know… where you were…"
"Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Come on," Lou hums softly as she walks over and gently reaches under Debbie's legs to hoist her up. Naturally, Debbie's head lolls into the comforting strength of Lou's chest. Lou just cradles her closer as she walks up the steps determinedly. Lou enters Debbie's room and sets her down on the mattress, pulling back the blankets and adjusting her pillow so Debbie can comfortably snuggle into the sheets.
"Lou?" Debbie asks as she reaches out to hold Lou's wrist. "Will you… stay?"
Lou tenses but Debbie's too tired to be aware of the weight of her words. "Debbie?"
"Stay," Debbie murmurs, already sliding back into unconsciousness. "Stay, Lou."
Parts of Debbie wishes she was more awake, that she had remembered more, because the next morning she wakes up alone, and Lou is nowhere to be seen once again. Debbie stumbles out of the bed and after using the bathroom, shuffles into the hallway to see Lou's door open. She is about to head for the stairs when she notices a pair of pants on the floor near the bedroom door. Realizing that Lou must be down in the basement doing the laundry, she walks over and picks up the discarded pants before padding into Lou's room to set them on her chair.
Lou is cleaner one between the two of them, so when she sees that Lou's bed is undone and messy, she's concerned.
She enters the room and slowly starts doing Lou's bed. She tucks the sheets in the way Lou likes it, before draping the comforter over top. She's about to leave when she notices one of Lou's drawers open slightly. Frowning, Debbie pulls it open slowly, her jaw dropping at the various orange pill bottles organized in neat rows inside the drawer. Debbie pulls one out and inspects the label, her heart thumping harder.
"Oxycodone," she mutters, before reaching in and grabbing another bottle. "Codeine? Morphine? Lou… what the hell?"
Painkillers. Every assortment under the sun was there in that drawer. Debbie sets it all back properly, gulping as she nervously makes her way back to the door. Why did Lou need so many different types of painkillers? How much pain was she in? Was it chronic, or something more? More importantly, was she mixing the drugs with the alcohol? Of all the times she's seen Lou drink, she struggles to remember if she had pills, too.
"What are you doing?"
Debbie looks up at the accusation in Lou's voice as she stands in the doorway, arms crossed and eyes piercing through her.
"Your pants were on the ground," Debbie says, unable to keep her voice from trembling in fear. "Lou, I swear I wasn't snooping--"
"I'm not mad," Lou says, almost confusedly. "Wait, did you think I was mad?"
Debbie doesn't reply, and she kicks herself at the way Lou's face falls. "Oh," Lou whispers, "you're scared of me."
"No," Debbie blurts out, tears welling in her eyes. "It's just, you've been more distant this month, Lou. I'm just worried."
Lou doesn't seem to buy it, even if it is partially the truth. Debbie winces when Lou takes a step back, rubbing her neck as she looks away. Debbie wants to move, to stumble forward and comfort Lou, to erase the pain which clearly festers within this shell of a woman, but she can't.
"Sorry," Lou mumbles softly, "I didn't mean to make you feel that way."
"I just want you to be okay," Debbie whispers softly, "please, Lou. You'd tell me if something was wrong, right?"
But it's a question fallen on deaf ears when Lou just nods aimlessly--and Debbie hates that she knows it, but it's the truth.
Part of her wonders if Lou could ever be okay.
* * *
A few years later, when they're casing a joint on Broadway, they meet Tammy.
She's a great fence, a bit too bubbly and eccentric, but she balances out their dynamic. Lou is wary at first, slow to trust, but eventually she gives the younger woman the benefit of the doubt. Debbie falls for her like she'd once fallen for Lou, before the truth spilled out and destroyed the barely-holding bridges between them. Tammy is sweet and soft, doting and caring, not callous and cold like Lou. It's refreshing and nice.
And unlike Lou, what she feels for Tammy is reciprocal.
They go on a date after their first major job together, a few hundred thousand split between them. It's sweet and Debbie finds Tammy endearing. She's got a different sense of humour, and her smile is bright enough to light up the whole room. When Debbie tells Lou about it, the blonde is indifferent at first, but when Debbie makes inferences that it might be more than just something casual, Lou reluctantly agrees to getting to know Tammy better. They plan an outing to the local bowling alley (Debbie's idea, since she didn't like bars as much as Lou did), where Debbie cons the owner into giving them free drinks and food, while Tammy robs the office when he's distracted by Lou's charm.
"Strike!" Debbie whoops as she glides her way back over from the lane with a smirk. "Eat that, Miller."
Lou only rolls her eyes and drinks more of her beer. "It's all about angles, Debbie. Not luck."
"Oh yeah, Ms. Angles? Let's see you get a spare when you've got Gap-Tooth Sandy over there." Lou snorts and eases her way up, taking one last long swig before she grabs a ten-pound bowling ball and steps up to the lane. Debbie sprawls onto the couch next to Tammy, resting her head on the shorter woman's shoulder as they both watch Lou wind her arm back before throwing her wrist forward, snapping it to the side.
Debbie and Tammy's jaws both drop as the ball spins, teetering on the edge of the gutter, before it hits one bowling pin and sends the other one tumbling down. Lou places her hands on her hips and turns around, a shit-eating grin curling her lips as she glances up at the scoreboard.
"I'm sorry, Debbie, is that another win for me?"
Before Debbie can even reply, fanfare breaks out and the three of them turn to see a less-than-enthused employee walking over with a ribbon and a piece of paper. Lou arches her brow, amused as the employee tiredly holds his hand out and informs her that she's the record scorer.
Debbie has to hold back her laughter as Lou is forced into taking a picture and signing a fake name on the record book, before the employee says she's won a free "bowl-again" coupon valid for a whole year. Lou takes it, unsure of what to do as she looks to Tammy and Debbie for guidance. Tammy does a lot more poorly than Debbie in holding back her laughter, because by the time the employee is gone, she's snorting.
"Lou Miller, esteemed lesbian and even more esteemed con-woman," Tammy teases, "the proud record-holder of Rainbow Lanes."
"I'll shove a rainbow up your lane," Lou grumbles, but she doesn't let go of the ribbon. "Alright then, should we get out of here?"
"Yeah," Debbie sighs happily as she leans into Tammy. "This was fun. We should hang out more, like this."
"I'm glad our delinquency lead to friendship," Tammy seconds with a chuckle. "You're not half bad, Lou."
Lou arches her brow in Tammy's direction before smirking. "I guess I can tolerate you, Tim-Tam."
"Tim-Tam?" Tammy guffaws. "I've never been called that before."
"Consider it a compliment," Lou says with a smile, "Tim-Tams are an Australian staple. Best biscuits you'd ever eat."
"As someone who actually enjoys Vegemite and Marmite, I'm not sure if I believe you."
Lou grunts as they make their way over to the counter to return their shoes. "You bloody Americans have no idea how to eat it, that's why."
"I don't want to eat it," Tammy says with a gag, "I don't have fond memories of the last time you made me try it."
"I mean, if you want to smear it on there like Nutella, then it's not my fault you puked your guts up on the subway."
"I prefer honest."
"An honest criminal?" Tammy snorts as she hands her shoes back. "Not sure I've ever heard of one."
"Alright," Debbie sighs as she pulls Tammy into her arms and presses a kiss to her forehead. "Let's get something to eat, I'm starved."
Debbie barely catches the flash of sadness in Lou's gaze when Tammy kisses her on the lips. Debbie pulls away, dreamy and lost in Tammy's brown eyes as she inches closer to her girlfriend. Tammy's hand places itself on Debbie's stomach, her head naturally lolling to her shoulder.
"You wanna come, Lou?" Tammy asks, pecking Debbie's neck. Lou watches their interaction with a guarded expression, before smiling.
"Nah," Lou says, waving them off. "I'll catch up with you later. I gotta jet, anyways."
Debbie knows, from the slight flaring of Lou's nostril, that she's lying. But before she can question it, Lou grabs at her jacket and makes her way over to the door, offering one more jovial wave before she saunters out towards her Norton Commando. Tammy sighs in her arms, gripping tighter. Debbie tears her gaze away from where Lou rips out of the parking lot and zooms onto the main road, kicking up dust in her wake.
"Hey," Tammy whispers, low and seductive. "Want to get out of here?"
Debbie looks down to her, pushing thoughts of Lou out of her mind as she nods.
"Yeah, let's go."
* * *
Debbie and Tammy date for about three months Debbie brings her home.
She and Lou had moved to an apartment in Queen's, and Lou had been kind enough (or maybe drunk enough, Debbie isn't sure anymore) to give them the place while she went out. Something had changed in the last few months, and Lou's drinking had increased tenfold, but Debbie doesn't know what it is. Lou had never showed an interest in Debbie besides the night they never speak of, and that too, Debbie isn't sure if it was love or lust driving the other woman's actions. But with Tammy wedging herself between them, Debbie can't help but wonder if Lou felt abandoned.
Regardless, there's nothing Debbie can do unless Lou tells her something is the matter.
And Lou is a like a brick wall when it comes to anything even remotely related to feelings.
"This is quaint," Tammy says as she observes the smattering of political and new wave French art, littered amongst the random band posters on the walls. "It's like Banksy had a baby with Roger Waters." Debbie laughs at that, pulling a shy smile from Tammy's lips as they settle on the couch. Tammy takes the glass of wine Debbie hands her and takes a slow, tentative sip. She savours the taste and smirks over at Debbie.
"So, you and Lou?" Tammy cuts right to the chase, blunt but still gentle. "How long have you guys been a… whatever it is you are?"
"Partners," Debbie says, before clarifying, "not romantically. Just business. I don't think Lou's into that."
"You?" Tammy asks, arching her brow. Debbie flushes, shaking her head.
"Romance," Debbie corrects, "Lou's not the easiest person to talk to sometimes."
"But you're into her," Tammy contemplates, "aren't you?"
Debbie swallows and sets her own wine glass down. "I'm into you."
"You can be into multiple people, Debbie. Don't make this so high school. I'm not a home-wrecker," Tammy says, setting her glass down. "I don't mind casual sex, and I actually like you a lot, but I don't want to be a rift in your relationship, or potential relationship." Debbie looks at her, scratching at her head as she struggles to piece together what Tammy is implying. She takes a sip of her wine before setting it back down.
"I don't think anything will ever happen between me and Lou," Debbie admits quietly. Tammy digests her words and nods.
"I'd hope not," Tammy says, piquing Debbie's attention. "Not that Lou isn't a nice person. But Debbie… she's… you know…"
Debbie feels her insides churn protectively. "She's what, Tammy?"
Tammy just rolls her eyes, ignoring the scathing tone of Debbie's voice. "She's an alcoholic, Debbie. Any relationship with her would be toxic. Hell, even your friendship, partnership--whatever the hell you call it--is toxic. In all our months together, I've never seen her sober."
"You don't know what she's been through," Debbie grits out, leaning back defensively. "You're walking a thin line, Tammy."
"Just like you do with Lou?" Tammy asks back, arching her brow. "She's a mess, Debbie. Honestly, you could do so much better."
"Fuck you," Debbie growls, tears stinging in her eyes. "Lou's been through hell to get where she is now--"
"And that gives her an excuse to be an asshole?" Tammy counters. "We all have tragedies, Deb. Besides, she clearly doesn't like me."
At that, Debbie growls again, her hands clenching to fists at her side. "I'm beginning to not like you, Tammy."
"Debbie," Tammy sighs as she stands up, brushing her skirt. "I didn't come here for a fight. I like you. I like Lou, despite her faults. I just think that maybe you should consider talking to her about her drinking problem. It's not just for the heists, but for her sake too. Self-medication is not the answer, and if that's what she's telling you, then you're just reinforcing her bad habits. She needs to clean up or she'll ruin both of you."
"Stop," Debbie says, unable to stop the tears from sliding down her cheeks. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
Tammy is about to open her mouth when the lock on the door clicks and Lou stumbles inside. Both Debbie and Tammy turn around to see Lou slump against one of the dressers before falling over with a pained groan. Tammy is the first one to reach her, nose turning up at the smell.
"Jesus," Tammy nearly gags as Lou turns over to reveal the vomit-stained shirt she's wearing. "You smell like a bar bathroom, Lou."
But when Debbie walks over, it's not the vomit she notices, but the black eye and busted lip. "What happened?"
"Don' worry," Lou slurs as she nods off, "just had… a… little disagreement."
Lou tries to stumble to her feet, but slips again. "Whoops," Lou giggles drunkenly. "Too fast."
"Easy," Debbie sighs, ignoring the pointed look from Tammy as the two of them hoist the gangly Australian to her feet. "Come on now, Lou. Let's get you into the shower." Lou just nods along, even though Debbie is sure that she's not heard a single word she's just said. It's terrifying, though Debbie won't admit it, the way Lou lurches and sways, completely gone to the world even though she's still barely conscious.
Lou's been drunk before, but she was always in control, nothing like this.
Never like this.
"Come on," Tammy says softly, reaching for the hem of Lou's shirt. "Let's get this off and washed, love."
Lou flinches at Tammy's touch, trying and failing to scramble away. Debbie's heart plunges when she sees the look of pure terror take over Lou's eyes. Even Tammy reels back, shocked at the response as Lou struggles to crawl away from the both of them, her shoulders trembling.
"Don't touch me," Lou snarls at them both, hands scrabbling against the floorboards. "Don't…"
"Lou," Debbie says as she kneels before her skittish partner. "It's me, baby. It's Debbie. You're safe. We're trying to help you, sweetheart."
The haze which had settled over Lou's field of vision clears at the sound of Debbie's voice, and despite her inebriation, Lou nods hesitantly. Tammy senses the need for privacy and quickly tells Debbie she'll set the bath up if she can get Lou undressed. Debbie silently thanks her as she nods before turning her attention back to her partner. Debbie hums a gentle tune, one of Lou's favourites--Stevie Nicks' Wild Heart--as she gently reaches again for the hem of Lou's shirt. She works slowly, making sure to keep her eyes on Lou's the entire time to maintain consent.
But when the shirt leaves Lou's frame, Debbie can't stop the gasp which escapes her lips.
A valley of scars and burn marks are scattered across Lou's chest, faded but no less painful. Debbie's heart is beating in her throat as Lou's head hangs in shame and embarrassment, her arms curling around her stomach where the marks are more prominent. Debbie forces herself to bury the burning questions as she helps Lou to her feet, trying not to let the ragged patches of Lou's skin threaten to overwhelm her. She helps Lou with her pants, unbuckling the belt and sliding the buttery leather free from the loopholes. Lou struggles to step out of her jeans, but eventually she's down to just her bra and boxer briefs. Her entire body is laden in scars, too many scars, and Debbie has to hold back her anger at whoever hurt Lou. It all makes sense--the drinking, the aversion to touch, the slow trust--Lou has seen more pain than anyone ever should have to.
"I got it ready for you, all that you need to do is--oh!"
Debbie looks up to see Tammy's horrified expression as she rakes her eyes over Lou, muttering a soft, "holy shit" under her breath.
"Tammy," Debbie snaps protectively, pulling Lou's barely conscious form closer to her chest. "The bath?"
"Yeah, yeah, come on. It's not too hot."
When they seat Lou in the bathtub and hose her down like some kind of farm animal, none of them speak. It's only later, when Lou finally passes out as Debbie finishes rinsing her hair, does Tammy give Debbie a sympathetic look. The two of them practically carry Lou over to the mattress before settling her in. Tammy goes downstairs to fetch a glass of water and an aspirin, before setting them down on the bedside drawer.
"She needs help," Tammy tells her, placing a bucket beside Lou on the ground. "Real help, Debbie. These jobs, they're not good for her."
"You don't know what she needs," Debbie says, still defensive, her mind replaying those images over and over again. "She's--"
"She's not fine," Tammy urges as she pulls Debbie out of the room. "Look at her, Debbie! She's the poster child for the system."
"Tamara," Debbie growls, shoving Tammy aside. "That's enough. Don't you dare say another word about her, I swear…"
"You're just reinforcing it," Tammy says with a shake of her head. "You're doing more harm than good, Debbie."
"Get out," Debbie all but snarls, her cheeks dampening with tears when Tammy doesn't move. "I said get out, goddammit!"
Tammy takes another breath before she sighs and takes a step back. Debbie watches, teary-eyed as Tammy descends the steps before gathering her jacket and making her way out the door. Debbie stares at the door long after Tammy's gone, the words echoing in her head non-stop.
When she returns to the room to see Lou vomiting into the bucket, a small part of her wonders if Tammy was right.
* * *
The pattern continues for a few months, and then a few years.
Some days, Lou wouldn't even return home at all. On the days she was home and able to run jobs, it was back to the low-rate ones because Lou was too drunk to handle anything above rigging bingos and robbing department stores. Debbie notices it more after Tammy's pointed it out, and she realizes that all the momentum and success she's built up is slowly slipping, and soon enough, they're back at square one.
Tammy breaks up with her after three years together, saying that she's tired of the cons and wants more.
Truth be told, Debbie isn't even mad, because she gets it. She understands because she's been feeling the same. She wants that adrenalin back from when they stole half a million dollars from eight old white men in a casino in Atlantic City with nothing but Lou's quick brains and Debbie's dealing skills. She wants to go back to swindling rich homeowners into investing into non-existent show homes while Lou emptied their pockets. She wants to go back to when conning made her happy, when Lou wasn't a wreck, to when she was in love and whole and complete.
But maybe she never was happy or whole or complete.
And maybe Lou was never not a wreck.
Tammy eventually introduces her to Theodore Berkin, an accountant at some tech company with a Ken-Doll smile and a collection of argyle sweaters to make her grandmother roll in her grave. But Teddy is sweet, and Debbie can see that even though they've only dated a few months, that he's head-over-heels in love with Tammy, and she can't help but be happy. Like Tammy, she always wanted more, but not in love.
Weeks later, Tammy says she's leaving their crew. Lou doesn't seem to have a reaction, other than giving her a short, but sweet hug. Debbie watches as Tammy whispers something in Lou's ear before rubbing her arm, but Lou doesn't really react other than a shrug and a nod. The Australian retreats to the kitchen to give Tammy and Debbie some time alone, and Debbie ignores the pit in her stomach as Tammy eyes her.
"You deserve better," Tammy tells her, repeating the words she'd said years ago. "You're not her keeper. Remember that, Debbie."
"Tammy," Debbie sighs, rubbing her forehead. "She needs me. She's got nobody else."
"She survived before," Tammy says, looking over to where Lou is sitting at the table with a beer. "Doesn't mean she has to do it again, but it just means that maybe she shouldn't be surviving--but living instead. There's a great in-patient place near Teddy's work. It's quiet. Discrete."
Debbie goes to argue when Tammy slips something into Debbie's pants' pocket with a grim smile. "Take care of yourself, Debbie."
"Gonna miss you Tam," Debbie hums as she wraps Tammy in her arms. "I'm sorry we didn't work out."
"It wasn't because of you," Tammy sighs as she rubs Debbie's back. "We just want different things, Debbie. That's okay."
"I don't even think I know what I want," Debbie chuckles in a watery voice. "Never did, I think."
Tammy pulls away before she looks back over to where Lou is staring at them, a glazed look in her eyes as she observes them.
"I think you do," Tammy whispers, not looking at Debbie. "But maybe you're too scared to admit it, right now."
* * *
Two years later, when she's forty, Debbie gets her first taste of a mid-life crisis.
Danny and his crew had just pulled off the heist of the century, walking away with more money than they'd ever need. Meanwhile, Debbie is sitting at the dining table, counting out the bills from their latest bingo game with a frustrated growl. Lou's out, like always, doing God knows what God knows where--while she's left sorting out the finances. It feels stupidly domestic, and Debbie has never, ever wanted to a housewife.
"Wow, sis, hitting it big aren't you?" Danny tells her as he walks through their front door with a swing in his step and smirk on his face. "If you're tough on money, I can lend some to you--no interest." Debbie glares at him, letting him know silently that he should knock it off immediately.
"Jesus," Danny whistles lowly, settling in the chair beside her. "What's gotten into you, Deb?"
Just then, the front door unlocks and Lou saunters in, hair dishevelled and sporting a bruise on her jaw which Debbie isn't sure is from a hickey or a punch to the face--but she honestly doesn't care which one it is at this point. Lou's a big girl, and she figures her own shit out. Danny, however, stands up in concern, making his way over to Lou in three confident steps. Lou startles, her fists clenching naturally before lowering.
"Danny?" Lou asks, a slight slur to her voice as she looks at him. "Shit, you've gotten old. What's up, man?"
"Are you drunk?" Danny asks, taken aback. "Lou, it's like two in the afternoon."
"Never too early to start," Lou chuckles, before frowning as she looks to her watch. "Or to end? I have no fucking clue anymore."
"What the hell are you doing?" Danny asks, reaching out to grab Lou's shoulders. "This is fucking crazy."
"Hey," Lou backs up, slamming into the wall as she tenses. "Don't fucking touch me, Danny."
"Or what?" Danny asks, throwing his hands up in the air. "You're wasted, Lou. Look at yourself, this is pathetic!"
"Danny," Debbie sighs from the kitchen table, rubbing at her forehead tiredly. "Stop."
But Danny's not finished, and Debbie isn't quick enough to reach Lou's side as Danny's hands shove Lou back into the wall, an elbow pinned against her throat. Lou scrabbles at his arm, gasping as Danny presses her harder. Debbie scrambles over to Lou, concerned and afraid.
"Hey!" Debbie shouts as she shoves at Danny's shoulder. "Dan, stop. Let her go, she's not done anything to me."
"You piece of shit," Danny snarls in Lou's face, shoving her harder into the wall. "You promised me you'd take care of her, you promised me you would keep her safe and happy." Debbie's eyes tear as Lou stops fighting, recognition settling in her eyes as she goes limp in Danny's arms.
And then, tears replace the recognition as Lou's eyes flit over to Debbie's heartbroken gaze.
When Danny lets her go and steps back, Lou crumples to her knees, slumped against the wall. Tears slide down Lou's cheeks as she looks to the floor, unable to hold her head up. Danny steps back, still protective in front of Debbie, but even the man looks distraught as Lou's shoulders start to shake. Debbie's chest cracks open at the sight of the indomitable Lou, laying slumped against their wall and sobbing relentlessly.
"I'm sorry," Lou gasps as she looks up to them both pleadingly. "I'll be better, please… please… don't leave me."
Lou's voice breaks on the word before she repeats it again desperately. "Please don't leave… I swear… I'll stop… I'll stop…"
Debbie and Danny stand there, watching as Lou repeats herself until she collapses from exhaustion against the wall. Danny just takes a seat, running a hand through his hair as he looks over at Lou's prone body before glancing back up at a tear-stained Debbie with a sad sigh. Debbie takes a seat beside her brother, relishing in the comfort of Danny's arms around her shoulder as he brings her into his chest for a hug.
"I don't know what to do," Debbie whispers softly. "I can't… I can't do this anymore, Danny."
Danny just swallows, nodding as he looks to Lou with a solemn expression before turning to look at her with a sad smile.
"Maybe you should come stay with me," Danny suggests. "Just until you're back on your feet."
"And Lou?" Debbie asks, looking back to her best friend. "What will happen to her?"
"I know a good rehab place," Danny says as he hoists them back up. "We'll get her cleaned up. She'll be okay."
"We're not doing anything without discussing it with Lou first. Help me get her up," Debbie sighs as Danny looks over at Lou, crestfallen. He nods before reaching over and gently hoisting Lou's limp body in his arms. Lou is a few inches taller than her brother, but in his arms, she looks tiny. They both set Lou on her mattress, tucking up the sheets and placing a glass of water at Lou's bedside. Debbie takes a breath before she turns around, Danny at her side. They both exit the room, and once the door slides shut behind them, Debbie breaks down into tears, sobbing.
"I love her," Debbie admits as she burrows into Danny's arms. "I love her, Danny."
"I know," Danny whispers as he rubs her back, "but she's not okay, Deb."
No, Debbie finally admits as she looks over Danny's shoulder to Lou's bedroom door.
Lou wasn't ever okay.
* * *
The next morning, Debbie walks into the kitchen to the sight of Lou dumping bottles of alcohol down the drain.
"What are you doing?" Debbie asks, concerned. "Lou--"
"I have to face it," Lou says, though her fingers tremble as she finishes dumping the last bottle. "I can't rely on it anymore."
"Lou," Debbie sighs as she enters the kitchen. "Going cold turkey isn't the best option. Tammy knows a great in-patient place."
Lou tenses at the mention of her ex-girlfriend, and Debbie doesn't miss the way Lou's fingers dig into the countertop. "Tell her thanks, but I don't need that. I can live without it. I've survived being my father's daughter before alcohol alone and I can do it again. I'm strong." Lou's voice quivers, but she says the words as confidently as someone who's never been sober in more than a decade. Debbie closes her eyes sadly.
"Maybe," Debbie says as she inches closer, "maybe you shouldn't have to do it alone."
Lou doesn't reply to that, her eyes trained on the sink. Debbie just swallows thickly before she turns around.
"I'm going to stay with Danny for a bit," Debbie whispers, unable to face Lou and see her reaction. "I think I could use the fresh air."
When Lou doesn't reply, Debbie turns around to see Lou still staring at the sink with a glazed expression.
"Yeah, I heard you. It's fine," Lou murmurs as she rubs at her eyes. "I'm okay, Deb."
"You're not, Lou, and that's okay--"
"Jesus fucking Christ!" Lou snarls as she whips around. "Enough with the it's okay not to be okay bullshit, Debbie."
Debbie's eyes narrow into a glare. "Don't you dare yell at me, Lou. We all have shit, but it doesn't give you an excuse to be an asshole."
"I'm an asshole?!" Lou asks, scoffing. "You don't know anything about me, Debbie!"
"Maybe that's the problem!" Debbie screams back, unable to hold the words back. "I know nothing about you, Lou!"
Lou takes a deep breath, tears once again rising to glaze those blue eyes. Debbie's breath hitches as she chokes on a sob, slumping down into dining table chair as she holds her head in her hands. Lou stays frozen in her spot, before she takes a trembling step forward before she takes a seat next to Debbie. The two of them sit for a moment in a weighted silence, with Lou rubbing her neck and Debbie staring at lines in the table.
"I couldn't sleep," Lou says quietly, looking down the table. "That's how it started."
Debbie looks up to see Lou's shoulders hunched defeatedly, her fingers picking at the wood of the table. She wants to tell Lou to stop, but at the same time she can't. She deserves an explanation, at least that's how she feels. So she waits, and Lou takes a deep breath, starting again.
"I did things when I was young," Lou says distantly, tears sliding down her cheeks slowly. "Hurt people, stole from them. I killed a few."
Debbie's chest aches as Lou shuts her eyes and reaches up to weave her hands in her hair tightly. Again, Debbie waits patiently.
"My father developed this… program. It worked on his soldiers, but he wanted to know if he could start earlier," Lou continues to speak, unable to hold back now. "Father was big into Pavlov and Skinner. Developed this conditioning program. If the tone played, it was like I blacked out."
Lou's voice breaks and she falters, but she pushes through with a shake of her head. "Father was so proud. He realized he'd created the perfect super soldier. I was excellent in academics. I was athletic and strong. I could drive by the time I was in grade school. I was skinny, underfed, this gangly thing that could fit into tight spaces and small corners. I could con anyone, could commit any crime, and no one would ever know."
"What…," Debbie trails off as Lou's tears fall faster now. Lou just shrugs helplessly.
"He wanted to teach me how to manage pain--every variation of pain--and to let it motivate me," Lou growls, her voice growing grittier as Debbie recognizes the shadow passing over Lou's gaze. "That… fucker tortured me, stripped me naked and chained me to a wall while his henchman whipped me, stabbed me, burned me, starved me. God, they fucking raped me. Made me watch as they killed people in front of me. Women, children, people who were in the wrong place in the wrong time. He tried to condition me to not feel pain or empathy, but I still did."
Debbie's stomach flips at the description of events as Lou tugs at her hair more violently than before. "Oh Lou…"
"I tried to save a few of them," Lou says softly, sinking deeper into the memory. "But I couldn't. And I was punished for it."
There's a pause before Lou takes a breath and glances over to Debbie with a half-hearted shrug. "After Harry was born, I ran away."
"How old were you?" Debbie asks, voice hoarse from disuse. "Lou?"
"I escaped when I was fourteen," Lou says as she turns her attention back to the table. "But everything else? Since I was born."
Tears slide down both of their cheeks as Lou shrugs sadly, glancing over to the empty bottles. "I started drinking when I was fifteen. I'd saved up enough to buy myself a plane ticket to New York. Roamed the streets a bit, did some shady shit, and bummed whatever I could to survive. A homeless lady offered me some bourbon on a cold day and that night I slept better than I ever had before in my life. The pain was just… gone."
Debbie tries to imagine a scrawny, blonde-haired teenager who did what she had to do to survive in a cruel world, and her heart breaks again.
"I drink because I can't be sober Debbie," Lou explains quietly, folding her hands together. "When I don't drink, it all comes back, and I can't. I look at my hands and all I see is blood. I look around me and all I see is all the people I've hurt. I look in the mirror, and all I see is him."
Lou's voice cracks on the word as she hangs her head again. "That's why I drink, so I can't see it anymore."
Debbie swallows at the quiet admission, her throat caught on the pit lodging her airways. Lou scoffs, wiping at her tears uselessly.
"The sad thing is that I thought I was better," Lou croaks as she shakes her head in disgust. "I thought that I was moving through it but each year has become more suffocating and all I can see is him. Even when I was drunk, I could see him. I still hear him, Debbie. I hear him and it terrifies me because what if I become him? I look exactly like him and I was his greatest creation. He controlled me, and he still fucking controls me."
Lou sighs sadly, slumping back in the chair as she looks up to the ceiling. "I'm just so tired, Deb. I'm tired."
When Lou's glazed eyes look over at Debbie, the unspoken words leave Debbie feeling more worried than before. "Lou--"
"I won't," Lou just chuckles sadly, "I've tried it, multiple times. I never have the guts to do it. God knows why; nothing is keeping me here."
Debbie's lungs constrict as the air is sucked from them violently. "Lou, you don't mean that."
"I'm a disappointment," Lou growls, gritting her teeth as she rips the words from the shadows of her mind. "I'm a fuck-up. A drunk. A selfish coward. The only thing I've ever been good at is being a criminal and fuck, what does that say about me when he is a phenomenal one?" Lou just shakes her head and stands, rubbing at her forehead as she wipes away the remaining stray tears with a heavy sigh and a tired swallow.
"You should probably go to Danny's," Lou says after the small lapse of silence passes between them. "You don't deserve this, Debbie."
"You're pushing me away," Debbie says as she stands, "I want to be there for you, Lou, but you don't want help. What else can I do?"
Lou goes to say something, but thinks better of it when she looks back up to Debbie's pleading gaze. "I… I don't know, Deb."
"I hope you figure it out, because I can't make that decision for you," Debbie says softly. "I just want you to be happy, Lou."
Lou gives her a half-hearted smile as she shrugs again, eyes tearing up as she whispers, "I don't know if I can, Deb."
* * *
Lou's sobriety lasts a total of four hours.
Debbie isn't disappointed or mad when she catches Lou sneaking a bottle of Jack into her bedroom. Debbie just cooks something up and leaves it in the fridge before she grabs the bag she'd packed and hails a cab to Danny's place. The entire ride, she forces herself to not think about Lou. You're not her keeper, she hears Tammy's voice in her ear. And fuck, she isn't her keeper, but Lou is the love of her life, and no matter how bad it gets, she should be there. That's how it should be, but Lou's not the only one who's tired. Debbie's given up everything, lost everything.
All for Lou.
And the sad thing is, she'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.
* * *
Days later, when Debbie returns to the loft, they don't talk about Lou's rare sober confessional.
In fact, Lou and Debbie don't talk at all.
Debbie has burning questions, especially when Lou pulls out the scotch from the cabinet before dumping more than a shots' worth into her coffee before slumping down at the dining table. Debbie slides her plate of eggs over, but Lou just waves her off with a half-hearted smile.
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'm still a bit queasy from last night."
Debbie can't help it as she eyes the coffee cop. "Funny. I'd have thought drinking scotch at 9am would be worse."
If the words cut deep, Lou doesn't show it. Instead, she just shrugs and takes another sip. "Makes it go down easier."
Okay, so maybe they're going to talk about it. Or at least, Debbie is going to talk about it.
"When was the last time you were sober--properly sober, and not attempt at sobriety a few days ago?" Debbie asks, trying to keep the accusation out of her voice, but from the way Lou flinches, she knows she's failed. Oh well, I've already dug my grave. Clearing her throat, Debbie continues to say, "I know I sound angry, but I'm not mad, I'm just concerned, Lou. You can't use alcohol to cope with your trauma."
"I know what I'm doing," Lou replies bitingly as she glares at Debbie. "I don't need to be coddled, Deborah."
"Coddled?" Debbie asks, arching her brow. "Lou, you're a grown-ass woman with a drinking problem. I'm not coddling you."
"I don't have a drinking problem," Lou growls, cupping her mug tighter. "Back off, Debbie. I'm serious."
But this has been building between them, something quiet and unresolved, something tense and heavy. It's something they've already danced around but this time Debbie is airing it out because she can't stop it. It's like word vomit, and she hates how Lou curls in on herself defensively.
"You can't even drink coffee normally, Lou. Look at yourself," Debbie urges, her voice cracking. "It's also been affecting the jobs."
At that, Lou's eyes go from guarded to infuriated. "The jobs?"
"Yes," Debbie says as she builds on seeded pain, "you've put our assess at risk fair too many times because you can't go without a fucking drink for five fucking minutes. That last real-estate one we did, Tammy had to take your spot because you were too drunk to function! God, we could have been caught, Lou. It would have been prison for all three of us all because you fucked the entire thing to hell with your immaturity." She doesn't want to say it, she never did, but Debbie's tired of Lou not giving a fuck. She's tired of feeling like dead weight and she wants better.
No, she deserves better.
"Immaturity?" Lou practically roars the word as she stands up. "Fucking, hell, Deb, if you wanted me out so bad you should have said it!"
"You're good at what you do," Debbie spits out, "but you're a drunk, Lou. A fucking drunk. Tammy was right all those years ago."
At that, Lou flinches even harder than before and Debbie hates the way the uncertainty flashes in Lou's eyes. "Tammy?"
"Yeah," Debbie says, her voice quieter now. "She said that you… you're an alcoholic. I didn't believe her, but now…"
It hurts, it fucking hurts more than Debbie could ever say, to watch as all those walls she'd spent stripping down start building themselves back up as Lou moves backwards, step by step until she hits the wall of their kitchen. She looks like a startled animal, cornered and afraid. And Debbie moves forward, aware but unable to stop, that she's feeding into every insecurity she knows Lou believes in the shadows of her mind.
"I don't think you're what I need anymore," Debbie says softly, gulping. "When I was younger, more naive, maybe, but now… now it's toxic."
It's the final blow. Debbie knows it is, because that's when she watches the life literally get sucked out of Lou's eyes.
And what a broken "oh" it is.
Lou just looks to the side like some lost puppy, her fingers picking at her nails as she tries to focus on something to hold her steady through the panic which Debbie knows is threatening to tide her over. Debbie wants to move forward, to comfort her, but she's stuck. It's the worst feeling to admit that she feels better than she has in the last seventeen and a half years, because this is something she's always kept a secret, but now it's free. Lou is her best friend, but Debbie knows that even she can't follow Lou's path of self-destruction anymore. She wants--no, needs--more.
"So… now what?" Lou asks, not able to look up. "Are we… is this…"
It kills Debbie on the inside as she remembers the first time she met Lou, full of confidence and swagger, only to find out it was all a front for the woman she sees in front of her right now. Lou is a good three inches taller than her, even more in heeled boots, but right now, Debbie's sure she's never seen Lou look so small. She's sliding down to the ground, clutching her knees to her chest as she closes her eyes, hanging her head.
"Lou…," Debbie says quietly, "You need real help. And I can't give that to you."
Lou doesn't speak, not even when Debbie kneels before her, fingers itching to reach out and comfort her. And then, the softest confession:
Lou looks up and whispers, "I love you, Deborah."
Debbie's heart snaps in two as she shakes her head. "You can't do this to me. You can't say that when I need to leave just to get me to stay."
Lou reels back as if she's been slapped as Debbie stands back up. "I'm not your crutch, Lou. I can't be your crutch anymore."
"Is that all you thought you were to me?" Lou asks, heartbroken. "Debbie, you're not… it's not… fuck… I love you, honestly, I do…"
Debbie smiles sadly, moving further away from Lou, unable to tear her gaze away from Lou. "I did love you, Lou."
"But not anymore," Lou finishes dejectedly, glancing down sadly. "I… I'm sorry, Deb."
"Yeah," Debbie says as she brushes off her coat, trying to keep her guilt at bay. "So am I, Lou."
She reaches into her pocket to hand a business card to Lou. The Australian gazes over the small text on the card before looking up at Debbie, tears pooling in those blue eyes. Debbie offers her a half-hearted shrug before she heads for the door, forcing herself to not turn around.
"Wait," Lou pleads desperately as she stumbles to her feet. "Wait, just wait. Debbie!"
Debbie stops for a moment, turning her head over her shoulder to Lou staring at her with a solemn expression.
"We're still partners, right?" Lou asks, and despite the natural ease of the question, it holds something deeper, something more.
Debbie remembers their one and only night together, when she had been the one to ask the question to Lou. Debbie just nods sadly.
"Always," she repeats Lou's answer from that day softly as she opens the front door, "you're my ride or die, Lou."
The last thing Debbie sees that day is Lou's smile, untainted by pain or loss, and it's damned good last sight to have.
* * *
Eight months later, Debbie gives her testimony in an orange jumpsuit, framed for insurance fraud by one Claude Becker.
Part of her is glad that Lou never met the man, because she knows that they'd never have gotten along. Where Lou was loyal and strong, despite her flaws, Claude was a spineless coward only looking out for himself and no one else. He'd handed her to the dogs without a second glance, and she knows that without a doubt in her mind, Lou would have fought tooth and nail to prevent Debbie from going to prison, even if it meant she sacrificed herself in the process. So yeah, Debbie is grateful that Lou never knew Claude Becker, never knew what he did to hurt her.
"Guilty," the judge announces when the jury is called back in. "You've been sentenced to ten years with chance of parole."
Debbie doesn't cry. Doesn't weep as she had done in her testimonial or during her meeting with the lawyers. She doesn't burrow into Danny's shoulder when he'd practically bludgeoned his way past her guards to wrap her in a protective hold, muttering about how he'll make this right.
Instead, Debbie's eyes stay glued on that familiar platinum-blonde bob and those ice blue eyes at the back of the courtroom.
She's not sure how Lou found her, or found out about any of this, but she can see the fierce protection in Lou's gaze. She looks better, alive but still tired, and Debbie knows it must look awful for the audience, but she can't help smile at the minuscule amount of mirth in Lou's eyes.
In that moment, the courtroom doesn't exist, it's only the two of them, and Debbie's never felt happier in her life.
Lou sends her a sad wink as Debbie feels herself hoisted up from her seat and through to the back doors. The last image she sees is that blonde mop exiting through the massive wooden doors and back into the courthouse. Debbie sighs as she's sent to the backroom to change into her orange jumpsuit. Just as she's about to fold her suit jacket, a small piece of paper drops down. Frowning, Debbie reaches down and picks it up.
Unfolding it, Debbie tears up and smiles harder at the familiar cursive print.
Stay out of trouble. I'll be waiting for you when you're out.
I love you, Jailbird.