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We've Got the Whole World at Our Feet

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  Ava blew out a breath as she leaned against the back of the bench seat in the rear of her mother’s car.  Looking up through the rear windshield as the street lights flashed past.  “How much longer?”  

  “We’re almost home, just relax.”  Randy Sharpe turned in the seat so he could look at his daughter.  “I know you are upset about the move, but-”  

  Closing her eyes Ava shook her head.  “It’s fine.”  

  “I talked to Nathaniel about taking you out tomorrow to meet some of his friends.”  Without looking Ava knew her mother was watching her through the rear-view mirror.  

  Huffing Ava opened her eyes, but didn’t look up.  “I’m sure that’s exactly what Nate wants to do.  Drag his cousin around and introduce her to all of his friends.”  She pulled her beanie over her eyes.  “No thanks.”  

  “Ava.”  She could her the disappointment in her mother’s tone.  “I know the situation isn’t ideal, but we need to make the best of it.”  

  Rubbing the bridge of her nose Ava sighed.  “I know and I will.  I really just don’t want to spend the rest of summer break following Nate around like a lost puppy.  I’m sure once school starts up, I will be able to make my own friends.”  

  Her dad cleared his throat.  “If you could keep things low-key here, you have a chance to start your senior year fresh.”  

  “Randy . ”  There was a warning in her mom’s tone.  

  Ava set  her jaw to prevent herself from saying anything.  She didn’t see a point in having the same argument over and over again, much less in the car where she wouldn’t be able to create some distance when needed.  Her attention was drawn away from the tense silence that fell over the car by a nudge against her hand.  Rolling her head to the left she regarded the dog stretched out on the seat next to her by peering  under the rolled brim of her hat .  He nudged her hand a couple more time until her palm was resting on his muzzle.  

  Making eye contact with the corgi caused his nub of a tail to start to wag.  Sighing Ava ran her hand up his head and started scratching between his ears.  In response he crawled closer and rested his head on her thigh.  Even if she wanted to Ava was unable to stop the smile that his actions triggered.  After a few minutes her mom angled the car into a driveway and Ava immediately open the door needing to be out of that environment as soon as possible, pushing her beanie back to the top of her head in the process.  The sound of paws hitting concrete behind her let Ava know the tri colored dog was right on her heels.  After making sure he was clear she closed the door and moved to the rear of the car waiting for the latch to release the trunk.  

  She heard it pop and immediately opened the lid to retrieve her suitcase.  The garage door was opening and the blonde made note that half of the square footage was taken up by stacked boxes while the other half housed her father’s convertible Mustang.  She made sure to walk carefully around the flannel covered car.  Looking back towards her mom’s car Ava noted the dog lingering outside.  She whistled to get his attention.  “Come on, Nick.”  

  The dog’s head popped up and looked in her direction, but he didn’t move to follow just continuing to sniff a shrub outside the garage.  

  Rolling her eyes Ava jerked her head towards the door.  “Come on, let’s do dinner then we can go for a walk.”  In response he yawned then reluctantly followed her into the house.  Walking through the mudroom and kitchen she dropped her suitcase off at the foot of the stairs before returning to the kitchen.  Looking around the unfamiliar space she took in the room for the first time.  “Mom, where’s Nick’s stuff?”  The corgi walked past her and continued deeper into the house.  

  “Laundry room.”  Pam walked into the kitchen as she spoke and hung her keys next to the door.  

  Raising her brows Ava held her hands out.  “Laundry room?”  

  “Right.”  Pam gestured over her shoulder.  “This way.  Want me to give you a tour?”  

  Moving past her mom to find the food and dishes, Ava shook her head.  “Maybe later.  I want to get him fed and walked first.”  

  “Honey, it’s late.”  Ava grabbed what she needed off the top of the washing machine and took it into the kitchen with her.  “You should probably just stay in for the night.”  

  Filling one of the dishes with water Ava sat it on the floor and whistled.  “It was a long  flight,  I really want to stretch and get some fresh air.  I’m sure he needs it too.”  When the first piece of food hit the bottom of the stainless-steel dish the corgi sprinted around the corner, back into the kitchen.  He spun in a few circles as the blonde sat the dish on the floor next to the water.  

  Relenting Pam nodded.  “While he’s eating at least let me show you where your room is?”  

  As she stood Ava wiped her hands on her jeans.  “Sure.”  

  Moving through the house her mom went ahead and pointed out the various rooms when they walked past.  Ava noted that most of their boxes had been unpacked and had already been put away.   I guess this is home for now.   She followed her mom upstairs, pausing to grab her suitcase.  

  “The bathroom is at the top of the stairs.  Our bedroom is to the left.”  Pausing Pam nodded to the second door at the top of the stairs.  “We’re putting Danny in that room, and Carly took the bedroom in the front.”  

  Ava walked to the last door and pushed it open.  Her boxes were still stacked in one corner of the room.  Her bed was in the middle and even though it was unmade there was bedding still folded and sitting in the middle of the mattress.  It put her in the mind of a prison movie.   Don’t be  dramatic, it’s  not that bad.     

  She could sense her mom’s presence behind her.  “What do you think?”  

  “It’s fine.”  taking the hat off her head she tossed it onto the dresser and sat on the edge of the bed looking around at the beige walls.  

  Pam sat down next to her.  “We can paint once you get settled in.”  

  “Yeah, maybe.”  Her mom wrapped her arm around her shoulders.  “How far is school?”  

  Pam thought for a moment.  “About 2 miles, I think.  Why?”  

  “I’ll probably go early so I can see if I can get my schedule before try outs.”  She shrugged.  “Maybe see if there’s someone that can show me around the school and see what kinds  extracurricular activities they offer.”  From downstairs a single bark rang through the house.  Standing up Ava started towards the door with her mom in tow.  “Where is Carly?”  

  “She made a few new friends and I think they went to get pizza.”  As they descended the stairs the corgi appeared at the landing.  “She should be home in an hour or two.”  

  “We won’t be gone long.”  Ava reached for the knob to the front door.  

  “Ava, take the leash.  I’m not sure what the laws are here, but I’m pretty sure you need to have him leashed.”  Turning the blonde saw her mom holding a leash towards her.  Taking it from her Ava slipped it around her shoulders and walked out the door with the short dog right on her heels.  “Ava!”  

  She held up and hand and kept walking.  “Thanks, mom.”  Arriving at the sidewalk she looked up and down the street to determine which way she wanted to go.  Finally, she turned to the left and started walking.  All of the houses along the street seemed very nice, but that wasn’t too surprising. Of course, her dad would find one of the better neighborhoods in Star City before moving them to the other side of the country.  

  Nick trotted just ahead of her with his nose in the air.  Ava could hear him sniffing as they went along.  She knew she would need to make the best of the situation, and it was only one more year then she’d be on her way to college.  Honestly, that was the part that upset her the most.  She’d have to spend her Senior year at a new school.  

  “What’s wrong with your dog?”  A voice came from somewhere to her left.  

  Turning her head Ava saw  a dark-haired  girl sitting on the stairs of one of the nicer looking houses on the street.  “Excuse me?”  As she spoke Ava snapped her fingers to get Nick’s attention, and he came back and sat next to her.  

  “Your dog.”  The girl jutted her chin towards the corgi.  “What happened to his legs?”  

  Ava looked down at him then back to the girl.  “Nothing?  He’s a corgi.”  

  “Huh, so he’s supposed to look like that?”  Standing up the girl walked closer and Ava could see she was wearing mostly black.  

  She was trying to figure out if this girl was serious or just messing with her.  “Yes.  They were bred as herding dogs in Wales.”  

  The girl laughed.  “Wasn’t looking for a history lesson.”  The brunette seemed to be sizing her up.  “You move into the house on the  corner .”  

  “Yeah.”  She automatically held out her hand.  “I’m Ava.”  

  The girl looked at her hand and then back up raising an eyebrow at her.  “Cool.”  

  Ava slowly dropped her hand as the dark-haired girl walked back towards the house leaving Ava standing on the sidewalk.  Looking down at the dog at her feet Ava shrugged.  “Well, that was weird.”  As Nick tilted his head at her, she smiled.  “No weirder than talking to your dog, huh?”  She started an easy jog continuing down the street away from her new home.  

~~~  

  Walking back into the house, Ava heard several voices in the kitchen.  She held the door open until Nick ran into the house.  Closing the door, she looked at the stairs considering just retreating to her room when she heard her sisters voice yell for her.  “Aves!  Come meet my new friends.”  

  Groaning she looked at the dog who was panting and wagging at her.  Deciding to at least say hello Ava walked into the kitchen to see her mom, sister, and three other people she didn’t know.  “Hey.”  

  Carly walked around the island and wrapped her up in a hug.  “It’s about time you got here.”  She then turned back to the others in the room.  “This is Oliver, Laurel, and Kendra.”  Carly turned back towards her.  “And this is my sister, Ava.”  Dropping to her knees Carly patted her thighs calling Nick over.  “And this little guy is her dog, Snickerdoodle.”  

  “Oh my God, he’s adorable.”  The girl Carly had identified as Laurel joined her in petting the dog almost immediately.  

  The man just remained leaning against the island.  He had a buzz cut and kept a closely cropped beard, which was really more like a long five o’clock shadow.  He did have a warm smile as he offered her a nod in greeting.  “Nice to meet you, Ava.”  

  “Oh no.”  The brunette that had been petting Nick stood up.  “I’m so sorry.  It really is nice to finally meet you.”  When she held her hand out Ava noted the slight flush on her cheeks.  “Carly has told us a lot about you.”  

  “I totally understand, Nick is irresistible.”  She moved to the fridge to grab something to drink.  “Anyone need anything?”  When the group declined and Kendra joined the other two girls lavishing attention on the corgi, Ava decided to try to keep the small talk going.  “So, do you all go to Star City?”  

  Oliver shook his head.  “Laurel and I graduated two years ago so, we are going to SCU.”  

  “I’ll be a Senior with you and Carly.”  Kendra was rubbing the dogs exposed belly.  “So, are you guys twins or something?”  

  Carly grunted.  “Or something.”  Their mother laughed before leaving the room.  “I failed the fourth grade so now I’m in the same grade as my kid sister.”  

  Rolling her eyes Ava shook her head.  “You know, you make it sound so much worse when you say it like that.”  She twisted the lid off the bottle of water she pulled from the fridge and took a drink.  

  Carly’s eyes darted around the room and she craned her neck so she could see down the hallway.  “Okay, now that mom is gone.  Oliver is having an end of the summer party on Saturday.  You should come.”  

   Suspicious , Ava studied her sister’s face.  “Why would you want me to go?”  

  “Okay, consider.  I might need a ride home?”  Ava scoffed, but before she could say anything else Carly kept talking.  “There will be a lot of people there.  Including some high schoolers.  Oliver’s sister, Thea, is a Junior and it’s kind of her party too.”  

  Laurel nodded.  “For sure.  I know my sister and her friends are coming too.”  She waggled her eyebrows at the blonde.  “Come on, you can meet some people before you start your senior year.  It’ll be great.”  

  Oliver’s baritone cut in.  “You might as well say yes.  Once Laurel gets started, she won’t take no for an answer.”  Ava took note of the unspoken connection between Laurel and Oliver.  “She’s going to make an amazing DA someday.”  

  The brunette shot him a challenging look.  “Don’t start, Ollie.”  

  He held up his hands in surrender.  “See what I mean?”  

  Ava rubbed the back of her neck.  “Fine, but you owe me.”  

  “ Yesss !  You’re the best, Aves.”  

~~~  

  Ava walked into her room and looked at her unmade bed.  Moving the folded bedding on top of her dresser she grabbed the fitted sheet and started making the bed so she could all it a night.  As she was tucking in the first corner Carly walked in and grinned at her widely.  “Thank you so much, Aves!”  

  “Yeah, yeah.”  She continued working on getting her bed made and Carly started to help by tucking a corner on her side.  “I meant it though you really do owe me, and please don’t get completely trashed.  I don’t want to have to explain that to mom and dad.”  

  Once the fitted sheet was tucked in Carly jumped onto the bed stomach first.  “Speaking of dad, how was the drive from the airport.”  

  Ava dropped her voice an octave or two.  “Now Ava, you have the opportunity for a fresh start, so you should try to stay low-key.  Or something to that affect.”  Grabbing the flat sheet, Ava just unfolded it and draped it on the foot of the bed.  

  “I mean, everyone that I’ve met seems pretty cool, but dad may have a point.”  Ava shot her sister a pointed look.  “Aves, I love you to pieces, but you shouldn’t make things any harder than they need to be.  Come to the party, meet some people, make a friend or two and skate through this year.  Then get to college and experiment all you want.”  Carly waggled her eyebrows at Ava.  

   A wave of heat ran through Ava’s body.  “Get out.”  She tried to keep her tone even as she gritted her teeth.  

  The smile fell from Carly’s face.  “Ava, I didn’t mean-”  

  The blonde cut her sister off.  “I’m serious, just get out.”  She ran her hands over her face.  “I’m tired and I have a full day planned tomorrow.”  

  Retreating Carly looked over her shoulder as she walked out of the room.  “I’m sorry.”  

  Once her sister was gone Ava walked over to close the door, but before she could Nick waddled into the room without even acknowledging her and jumped onto the bed.  “Are you serious?”  

  He rolled onto his back and wiggled on her clean sheets.  When he stopped his head was facing her upside down, and gravity pulled at his jowls so it looked like he was grinning at her.  Sighing she dropped onto the bed next to him.  “You’re lucky you’re cute.”  

~~~  

  Bouncing down the stairs Ava looked at the home screen of her phone noting the time.  As she walked into the kitchen her dad looked up briefly from the newspaper and gave her a once over.  She could practically feel his disapproval over her choice of sweatpants and an old tee shirt for the day, but for what she had planned it made sense.  “Good morning.”  She was still  resistant  to being the one starting the fight.  

  He mumbled something that sounded like ‘Morning’ into his coffee cup and lifted the paper up again.  

  Pam came around the corner.  “Wow, I’m not used to having my morning child home yet.”  Her mother gave her a warm smile as she walked towards the refrigerator.  “Did you want me to make you something for breakfast?  I already fed Snickers.”  

  It felt like her dad’s eyes were burning into the back of her head.  “No, I’m going to go ahead and head out.  Check out the area before I head to the school.”  

  “Did you want me to pick you up?  I can take a half day.”  Pam turned back towards Ava.  

  The blonde wrinkled her nose.  “No, that won’t be  necessary .  It’s not that far, I Googled it.  Besides you just started this job, I don’t want you to start missing work so soon and get in trouble.”  

  “Alright, but if you need anything call me.”  Pam kissed her forehead and gave her a quick hug.  

  As she walked past her dad he nodded.  “Stay out of trouble.”  

  “Right.”  Sighing she grabbed her backpack as she walked out the door.  As she walked towards the school, she had noted there was a small area with a few shops.  A local coffee place was the one thing she had definitely decided to check out.  

  Ava realized that it was a shorter walk than she had expected as she slipped inside and approached the counter.  She recognized the girl in black right away.  A quick glance at her name tag and Ava smiled.  “Good morning, Nora.”  

  “Oh good, you teach history AND you can read.”  The dark-haired woman looked over at what Ava assumed was her manager before refocusing on Ava.  “What can we prepare for you this morning?”  

  The level of cheerfulness Nora had tried to inject into the question almost made Ava laugh out loud at her.  “Can I get and iced flat white and an egg white bagel, please?”  

  Nora punched the order into the register and took her money without any further pleasantries.  Ava stepped aside so the man that walked in after her could place his order.  She got lost in her thoughts as she waited.  “Ava!”  Looking up she saw a man place her order on the counter and walk away to work on the next one.  

  She stole a quick glance at Nora standing at the register on her way out.   Well, she knows my name at least.   She gave Nora a small nod, but got an eye roll in return.   Oh yeah, making friends already.   Ava took off her backpack and sat at one of the tables on the patio to eat before walking the rest of the way to the school.  

  After finishing up she made sure to pick up after herself before moving on.  Once she arrived at the school, she walked into the office to sign in.  She was greeted right away by a pleasant woman.  “Good morning, how can I help you?”  

  “Good morning, I’m Ava Sharpe.  I’ve been in touch with the principal about picking up my schedule this morning?”  

  The woman’s smile widened.  “I’m Ms. Gideon!  It’s nice to meet you, Ava.  Things are a bit chaotic this morning.”  

  “Oh.”  She shuffled her feet slightly.  “I can come back another time.”  

  “No, no.  I have your schedule and the list of extracurricular activities.”  The older woman handed a couple pieces of paper over.  “So, we do have new student orientation is a couple of weeks, but it’s going to be mostly freshman.  If you are open to being a Guinea pig, I have a new student ambassador that could use...practice.  He is here, I could have him show you around.  What do you think?”  

  Looking over the list of extracurriculars she nodded.  “Yeah, I’d be happy too if it helps and isn’t too much trouble.”  

  “Great, give me a minute.”  The principal walked over to an office door and opened it to reveal a tall, lanky kid wearing glasses stapling some handouts together.  “Gary, let me introduce you to Ava Sharpe.”  

  He jumped to his feet following Gideon into the main office where Ava stood waiting.  He was grinning widely as he walked in.  He thrust his hand towards her.  “Hi, I’m Gary Green!”  

  When she took his  hand,  he gave her and enthusiastic shake.  “Ava Sharpe.”  

  ~~~  

  As they wrapped up the tour back at the main office Ava felt somewhat thankful.  Gary seemed very nice, but the level of detail he went into during the tour was more than she needed to know.  Not to mention he didn’t stop talking for the entire hour they had walked around the building.  “What are you thinking about for extracurriculars?  I’m in the GSA and we can always use more members...no matter your orientation...”  He raised an eyebrow as though to ask without vocalizing.  

  She gave him a curt nod.  “I’ll think about it.”  

  “Oh, cool.”  He rocked on the balls of his feet.  “So, this is the end of the tour.  Thoughts?”  His brows knitted in concern.  

  Ava gave him a smile as she struggled to find the right words that would encourage him without being overly complimentary.  “You were very thorough, Gary.”  

  He gave a little fist pump in celebration.  “Yes!”  

  She glanced at the time.  “What’s the quickest way to the practice field?”  

  “Oh, are you trying out today?”  Ava smiled and nodded.  “I’ll take you!”  

  As she followed him out of the building, Ava started to feel the knots forming in her stomach.   Stay loose, stay loose.   As they approached the field Ava saw a group of boys gathered on one end-zone of the football field and a group of girls near the bleachers.  

  As she approached one of the girls, a short attractive blonde caught her eye and flagged her over.  “Hey, are you new?”  

  Ava strolled over with one strap of her backpack over her shoulder.  “Yes.”  

  As she smiled Ava noticed the dimple on her chin and brush of freckles across her nose.  “I’m Sara.”  Sara studied her for a moment.  “Are you trying out?”  

  “Yeah.”  As she spoke, Ava adjusted the strap on her shoulder.  

  “Cool.”  She pulled out a list of names.  “Did you sign up?  What’s your name?”  

  “Oh, you think...”  From somewhere behind her Ava heard a man yelling out names.  

  “SHARPE!”  

  Ava shrugged her shoulders at Sara and turned to run backwards onto the field towards the sound of the man’s voice.  “Sorry, I  gotta  go.”  The look on the cheerleader’s face was priceless and Ava savored it for an extra minute before turning around and fully sprinting towards the group in the end-zone.  

  “A. SHARPE!”  The man yelled again looking across the group gathered in front of him.  

  “Here!  I’m here.”  Ava arrived and dropped her backpack onto the turf as all eyes turned towards her.  

  “Uh.”  The coach looked at the clipboard and then back up at her and scratched his head.  

  Exhaling slowly Ava looked at all the boys staring at her and then she looked towards the bleachers at the cheerleaders who were watching as well.   Here we go again.     

Chapter Text

  The coach looked from the clipboard to Ava and back again.  “I think you signed up for the wrong sport.” 

  Ava hummed and then shook her head.  “No, I sent you my stats from last year and the letter of recommendation from my coach back home.”  He continued to stare at his clipboard.  “You are Coach Hunter, right?”  The coach looked up and nodded.  “Look, I already contacted the district, there’s nothing in the rules that say I can’t play.  You have my physical and permission slip, just let me try out.  It’s not like you have to put on the roster if I can’t perform.  I just want a chance to show you what I can do.” 

  Sighing the coach scratched his head and scanned at his clipboard once again.  “Quarterback?” 

  A few grumbles came from the team as it became clear that the coach was considering it, but one of the guys stepped forward from the group.  “Let her try out, coach.”  Ava watched as he put his hands on his hips.  “If she does well, it’s my position.”  He turned to give her a respectful nod.  “And if she can out throw me then she deserves it.” 

  Reluctantly the coach nodded.  “Okay.”  He turned to Ava and nodded again.  “Yeah, we’ll give you a shot.” 

  Ava took a deep breath as the coach walked away and continued through roll call.  The quarterback that came to her aide walked over to her.  “Sharpe, right?”  She bobbed her head.  “Jefferson Jackson, but my friends called me Jax.” 

  “Ava!!”  Nate pushed through the crowd with wide eyes.  “Does your dad know you’re here?” 

  She chuckled and shook her head.  “Hell no, he doesn’t care.  Mom signed the slip.”  Looking across at the bleachers again she saw what she assumed was the cheer coach gathering the team together.  The girl that had greeted her was still watching from the sideline and gave Ava a nod before turning her attention to the cheer coach.  Ava’s eyes were drawn higher in the bleachers as she spotted Carly and Laurel leaning against the railing. 

  Jax looked from Nate to Ava and back again.  “You know her?” 

  As the two spoke Ava grabbed her bag and pulled her cleats, changing out her shoes before putting her bag with everyone else’s gear.  Returning to the field she started to stretch out. 

  Nate laughed and pushed Jax’s shoulder.  “You best bring your ‘A’ game, man.  I’ve seen her play.”  He then pointed at her and smiled.  “That’s my cousin.” 

  Coach Hunter blew his whistle drawing everyone’s attention.  “Alright, guys, let’s see who’s been keeping up with their training this summer!”  Ava quickly grabbed her ponytail holder and pulled her hair back. 

~~~ 

  After sprints and calisthenic workouts Ava was still feeling strong.  Ava grabbed the bottom hem of her shirt and bent slightly so she could use it to wipe the sweat that had collected on her brow.  As she stood up straight, she could have sworn she saw the same cheerleader quickly turn away from her.  Ava clasped her hands on top of her head and sucked in a couple breaths as her attention returned to Coach Hunter pulling the potential linemen out to work with Bennett and the blocking sled.  “Jackson, you’re with Heywood.  Faucett, you’re with Casebolt.  Sharpe, you’ll work with Mazza.”  She heard the potential wide receiver groan at the pairing.  “Get to the sideline and grab a helmet.” 

  As she ran to the sideline, Ava saw the receiver she was paired with talking to one of the linemen and glancing over at her as they spoke.  “And there it is.”  She rolled her neck from side to side and adjusted her ponytail lower before sliding the helmet on and secured the strap under her chin.  Having been through earning her place at her old school for the last three years, she was already prepared for resistance.  She was just curious as to how it was going to go down this time.  It wasn’t long before she figured it out as Mazza managed to drop every pass she threw. 

  She could hear shouting from the bleachers.  Following the sound, she could see Carly waving her arms and yelling as she gestured at the receiver.  Ava put her hands on her hips and looked up at the sky trying to shake her growing frustration.  Running her palms down her sweats she held up her hand calling for the ball.  Once she had it in her hands again Mazza took off to run his route.  As she released the ball with a perfect spiral, Ava watched as he let the pass bounce off his chest and fall to the turf.  She felt her face flush and heard her heart pounding in her ears.  Grabbing the bottom two snaps she pulled down releasing the chin strap so she could push the helmet up as she approached the receiver.  “What is your problem?!” 

  Nate quickly swooped in front of her, effectively blocking her path.  “Hey, hey.  Maybe take a breath? Before you say something, you might regret?” 

  “If that dumb bastard is going to drop every damn pass I throw to him.  It’s not going to matter what the hell I say.”  She could see Mazza smirking at her over Nate’s shoulder. 

  Nate grabbed her facemask and pulled her helmet back into place.  “I trust Coach Hunter.  He’ll see through that asshole’s bullshit.”  He bumped the brow of his helmet against hers.  “Okay?  You good?”  He shot her a warm smile as he waited for her to respond. 

  Swallowing she nodded.  “Yeah, I’m good.” 

  He then slapped the side of her helmet.  “Good.”  After he put the ball in her hands he moved back to his position. 

  Two more dropped throws later and Ava heard the coach’s whistle again.  She turned and looked towards the sound ready to be sent off the field and back home.  “Okay, let’s change it up.  Mazza, you’re with Faucett.  Casebolt with Jackson.  Heywood, you’re with Sharpe.” 

  As he ran over Nate shot her a thumbs up.  “We got this.”  Running through the same drills Nate was able to catch every single pass she threw.  Out of the corner of her eye she could see the coach taking notes as he looked over the entire field. 

  The whistle blew again pulling her attention back to the coach.  “Let’s try something.  Jackson, Heywood receive from Sharpe.  Casebolt, Mazza cover them.  Faucett snap to Sharpe.”  As the players shifted the head coach moved to the next group of players directing them to different positions. 

  “Hey.”  Ava approached the guy she was able to identify as Faucett based on the group interactions. 

  He shuffled his feet.  “I uh...”  He trailed off then held his palms up.  “I have a girlfriend.” 

  Her brows furrowed beneath the helmet.  “Um, congratulations?”  Ava handed him the ball as Nate and Jax lined up on either side of her.  After Ava handed him the ball she suddenly realized what his issue was.  “Just-” She took a breath fighting back her irritation. “A shotgun snap would be fine, I don’t need to be under center.” 

  His head perked up.  “What?” 

  “Shotgun snap?  Where I stand back there and you snap it to me?”  She struggled to keep the condescension she felt from sneaking into her tone. 

  He huffed at her.  “I know what it is, but I’m surprised that you do.” 

  Ava fought to keep her frustration in check.  “Seriously.”  Ava just shook her head in disbelief.  She started to reconsider her choice to even try out. 

  Jax looked over and shook his head.  “Dude!  Be cool, she’s trying to accommodate you and you’re kind of being a dick.” 

  Ava just shrugged her shoulders.  “Jax, thank you, but it’s fine.  I’ve dealt with assholes before.”  She focused her attention back on Faucett.  “You don’t have to like me.  Just do your job and snap the ball.”  She looked at the other two boys across from her.  “I think what you are forgetting is while trying to sabotage me is, this is your try out too, and you’re looking a hell of a lot worse than I do right now.”  Without another word she stepped into position and called for the ball. 

  After about half a dozen successful snaps Coach Hunter blew his whistle again drawing their groups attention.  “Jackson, trade off with Sharpe.” 

  As he traded positions with her, Jax gave her a worried look.  “How’s your receiving?” 

  “If you can get the ball to me, I’ll catch it.”  As she lined up, she stole a glance at the bleachers to see her sister and Laurel still watching intently.  Hearing Jax call for the snap Ava sprinted forward using a quick burst of speed she easily shook Mazza and looked of her shoulder just in time to see Jax releasing the ball.  The ball dropped right at chest level and she pulled it and quickly secured it before coming to a stop and throwing it back to Faucett who was still standing in at center. 

  True to form after half a dozen reps the coach shuffled them around again.  Keeping Ava in the receiver position and having Jax take center so Faucett could take a turn at quarterback.  Ava was quick to note that of the six reps, he only threw it to her once and two of his passes to Nate were intercepted by Casebolt. 

  With two short blasts of the whistle the coach called everyone to the fifty-yard line.  Walking over with the group Ava popped the snaps of her chin strap and pulled the helmet off and wiped the glaze of sweat from her brow.  A familiar burn had just started to settle in her muscles and she knew she’d need to stretch out soon to minimize fatigue that would certainly settle in by morning if she didn’t. 

  “Coach Bennett and I will be reviewing our notes and notifying everyone Saturday morning on their positions.”  He looked across the gathered group.  “Unfortunately, I do not have places for everyone so there will be cuts.  Thank you to everyone who came out this afternoon.”  When he turned towards the other coach the players filed to the sideline returning the helmets and footballs to the equipment manager. 

  After dropping off her helmet Ava started towards the bleachers, scooping up her backpack as she walked by.  “Sharpe!”  Turning Ava looked back at the coach as he gestured for her to approach.  Jogging over she watched as Coach Bennett joined Hunter.  The two men exchanged a look before Coach Hunter addressed her.  “Your stats for last year were outstanding.” 

  She nodded respectfully.  “Yes, sir.  I can put in the work.” 

  “I can see that.”  He looked at his clipboard again, avoiding eye contact.  “I do have concerns.  Mainly, your safety on the field and how the locker room situation would be handled.” 

  “I understand, sir.  I can take a hit and I can change in the women’s restroom.”  The fact that they were even having this conversation was encouraging. 

  The coach nodded.  “But my major concern is for the team dynamic.” 

  Thinking about the players that had made an effort to throw her off her game Ava nodded and held out her hand to the coach almost resigned to the fact that she wouldn't be on the team.  “Thank you for letting me try out.”  He reluctantly took her hand in a firm handshake.  “I do believe I could be an asset to your team.”  She injected as much determination into her tone as she could and forced him to meet her eyes. 

  Coach Hunter released her hand and looked to Bennett.  “We’ll be in touch, Ms. Sharpe.” 

  She bobbed her head in acknowledgement before turning towards the bleachers to catch up with her sister.  Before she got too far Nate appeared on her right.  “So-” He gestured towards the coaches.  “Did coach go ahead and put you on the team?” 

  Rolling her eyes Ava shook her head at him.  “No.”  She scratched her brow with her free hand.  “I don’t think it’s going to happen, Nate.”  He shot a skeptical look her direction.  “I’m serious.  It’s a big adjustment for any team.”  She licked her lips.  “Maybe, if I wasn’t a senior it might be different.” 

  “Don’t give up yet.”  He draped an arm across her shoulders as they continued moving towards Carly.  “For what it’s worth, I think you did great.” 

  “Thanks, Nate.”  Ava approached her sister with Nate still with her.  Carly and Laurel walked onto the field, meeting them on the other side of the fence at the sideline.  Ava gave her sister a wary look.  “What are you doing here?” 

  Carly blew out a breath and shook her head.  “I knew you’d be here and I wanted to see how it went.”   Beside her, Laurel clear her throat.  “And apologize for being an asshole last night, again.” 

  Her stomach dropped as she realized Carly probably told Laurel about what happened, which meant it was likely that Carly told Laurel more about Ava than she wanted anyone to know yet.  Ava looked from her sister to Laurel and back again. 

  Getting the message Nate dropped his arm from Ava’s shoulders and gave Laurel one of his million dollar, smiles.  “Hey, Laurel.  Didn’t expect to see you here.” 

  It was clear he was acting as a distraction for Laurel so Ava could engage her sister more directly.  “What the hell, Carly?”  She dropped her voice and leaned across the railing.  “What did you tell her?” 

  “Whoa, Aves, I didn’t.”  Carly shook her head rapidly.  “I wouldn’t do that.” 

  Pulling the shoulder straps of her backpack on Ava met Carly’s eyes.  “Promise?” 

  “Yeah, of course.”  She held her palms up.  “I just said that we had a disagreement, not what it was about.” 

  Ava scratched the back of her neck and the knot in her stomach started to loosen.  “I should get home and shower.” 

  “Hey!”  Turning Ava saw the cheerleader from earlier strolling up behind her. 

  Laurel leaned over the railing.  “What do you want, kid?” 

  Looking up the freckled girl flipped Laurel off.  “I wasn’t talking to you, Laurel.” 

  Laughing Laurel gestured to the girl.  “This is my sister, Sara.” 

  “Ugh, I am perfectly capable of introducing myself.”  Rolling her eyes Sara turned her attention back to Ava. 

  “Hey, I’m Ava.”  Pausing Ava felt her pulse pick up.  “Uh, Carly’s sister.” 

  “Oh yeah!”  Sara narrowed her eyes at Nate for a moment, Ava could see her processing something.  Suddenly she snapped her fingers and smiled.  “Nate’s cousin.”  He nodded as Ava looked at the ground afraid that she had been staring.  “You just got into town last night, right?” 

  Looking up again Ava smiled as she pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear.  “Yeah.” 

  “Okay, so, I was thinking usually after practice a few of us get together at Waverider’s.”  She thrust her thumb over her shoulder.  “I thought maybe you might want to join us later?”  Ava noticed the way her eyebrows raised as she asked the question. 

  Nate perked up.  “Absolutely!  You should definitely come.  You can meet the rest of the group.” 

  “Um, I don’t know.”  She looked over at Carly who was grinning mischievously in her direction.  “I haven’t even started unpacking yet.” 

  The older Sharpe quickly ducked under the railing and wrapped an arm around her younger sibling.  “Absolutely, we’re just going to run to the house and get cleaned up and we’ll meet you there.” 

  “Great!  We’ll see you soon.”  Sara waved then returned to the group of girls as the Sharpe’s started to walk away.  Ava swore she saw Sara look back as she walked away, but after a few minutes decided that was just wishful thinking. 

  Nate glanced as his watch.  “I’m going to head home, but I’ll see you later!”  He high fived Ava and Carly before jogging away from them. 

  As soon as everyone was out of earshot Carly laughed as she steered Ava towards the parking lot.  “Oh my God, Ava.  That was NOT subtle.” 

  Hooking her thumbs around the shoulder straps Ava looked at her sister.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  She could feel the warmth on her face as her cheeks flushed.  Carly just continued to laugh and pushed Ava’s shoulder playfully.  “Just shut up.” 

  As they approached Carly’s car, she did manage to get serious.  “I can ask Laurel and see if Sara-” 

  Ava shook her head vehemently.  “Don’t you dare!” 

  “I mean, that way you would know if you even have a chance.”  Ava could tell the older girl was still grinning at her. 

  "Football player and cheerleader is a little cliche anyway."  Anxious for a change in subject Ava spoke up again.  “Okay, two things.  First, what is Waveriders?”  Ava stole a quick glance at her sister. 

  “Pizza joint.”  She dropped her arm from Ava’s shoulders as they separated to walk around her car.  “Is the second thing about me talking to Laurel?” 

  Tugging the rear door open Ava took off her backpack and tossed it onto the seat.  “No, just.”  She leaned on the roof of the car and shot her sister an imploring look.  “Can you please not make me regret going?” 

  “Cleats off before you get in my car.”  Opening the driver’s door Carly dropped onto the seat and slid the key into the ignition.  “I’ll be cool.  I mean, in all fairness these are my classmates too.” 

  Ava sighed and quickly swapped out her cleats for slides that she had stashed in her pack before closing the rear door and finally climbing into the passenger seat.  She leaned her head against the glass of the door and closed her eyes tightly.  If Carly had noticed her reaction to the cheerleader then maybe Sara had too.  “Do you think she noticed?” 

  Ava could feel Carly’s eyes on her.  “No, not at all.” 

  She worried her bottom lip and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Good.” 

  “So, you really do like her.”  Her sister’s voice was completely serious, no teasing in it at all. 

  “I don’t even know her.”  She half shrugged in an attempt to play it off.  “She’s attractive, but I think maybe you were right.  I should just focus on getting through this year and wait until I get out of the house before I try to pursue anything more than friendships.”  Ava looked across the center console giving her sister a lopsided grin.  “At least there’s a Gay Straight Alliance here, but I don’t know if I’m ready to come out.  And the chances of Sara even being interested are slim to none.” 

  “Aves...”  Carly’s tone softened significantly. 

  “Listen, I really just don’t need the stress, honestly.”  Running her hand through her hair Ava took a deep, focusing breath.  “Plus, I forgot how hard getting on the team was and this time Dad is-” She shook her head and her eyes darted to the dashboard in front of her.  “being such a prick.  At least I had him fighting for me back home.” 

  Carly hummed and Ava knew she was trying to decide what she wanted to say.  “Well, for what it’s worth, you still have mom and I.  If we need to get involved, we will.”  Out of the corner of her eye Ava saw a wide grin play across Carly’s face.  “And if we really need back up, we’ll call Aunt Dot.” 

~~~ 

  Sara kicked her feet up on the dash and leaned back into the seat.  “Okay, but what if she makes the team?” 

  Laurel reached over and pushed her feet down.  “Keep your dirty feet off my dash.” 

  The blonde made a face at her sister.  “Are you even listening to me?” 

  “Yes, of course.”  Laurel kept her focus on the road ahead.  “I don’t know, Sara.  Carly said they let her play at her old school, but I just don’t know about Star City.” 

  Sara smirked as she turned her body towards Laurel.  “Did you see the boys swirming when she ran over there?  I’ll bet Coach Hunter puts her on the roster just to light a fire under their asses.” 

  “Okay, but how about you focus on  your  Senior year?”  Sara gave Laurel a mock salute.  “Sara, I’m serious.” 

  “I’ve got my priorities, don’t worry.”  Laurel shot her a look over her shoulder.  “I do.  There’s cheer practice, pep rallies, home coming-” 

  “Sara!”  Sara could practically feel the disapproving look her sister shot her. 

  “Kidding, Laurel.”  Sara chuckled as she mocked brushing dust off her shoulder.  “I have the SAT scheduled for the 27th.  Plus, I already have a rough draft of my application essay.” 

  The brunette narrowed her eyes at Sara briefly before nodding knowingly.  “Ray?” 

  Sara grabbed her chest feigning injury.  “Laurel!  I’m hurt, you don’t think I would just take it upon myself to get ahead?”  Sara waited a whole thirty seconds before laughing.  “For sure, Ray.” 

  “Mmhmm.”  Laurel kept her eyes on the road ahead.  “Are you going to let me take a look at your essay before I head back to campus?” 

  “For sure.”  Sara unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over the car seat to grab her bag from the back seat.  “I just want to do a second draft first.” 

  A small laugh escaped from Laurel.  “Second draft?  Who are you?” 

  Sara quickly dropped back into her seat and pulled off the tee shirt she had been wearing.  “Shut up.”  She threw the shirt at Laurel before she pulled a black tank top out of her bag and pulled it on.  “I really do give a shit, Laurel.”  Buckling her seat belt again she looked at her sister.  “I may not be as focused as you, but I do care.” 

  “I know you do.”  Turning into the Waverider’s parking lot, Laurel shifted the car into park.  “So, does mom.” 

  “Oof, how did you manage to completely turn this conversation around?”  Dropping her bag on the floorboard of the passenger seat Sara reached for the handle of the car door. 

  “Sara, wait.”  Laurel caught her arm and pulled her back.  “You know she just pushes because she wants what’s best for you.” 

  Sara tilted her head.  “Do I?” 

  Laurel turned off the ignition and retrieved the keys.  “Sara-” 

  “Laurel, it’s fine.”  Sara cut her sister off by opening the door and slipping out of the car. 

~~~ 

  As soon as Ava opened the door to the house, she heard the distinct sound of Nick’s paws running across the hardwood floor.  She kicked off her slides next to the door before running up the stairs to her room.  As she dropped her bag on the bed Ava groaned looking at the numerous boxes stacked in her room.  She heard a small whine behind her and Ava started to reconsider going out for pizza. 

  In the hallway she could hear Carly moving towards her room.  “Hey, Carly.”  Ava pushed her door open and spotted her sister.  “I need to do too much tonight by the time I take Nick for a walk and get cleaned up it’s going to be pretty late.  Why don’t you just go ahead and go?”  Ava leaned against her doorframe.  “I really would like to get some of these boxes unpacked.” 

  “You’re sure?”  Carly looked a little disappointed.  “It would be good to meet some new people before school starts up.” 

  She shrugged her shoulders.  “I have like a month before school starts.  Besides I already said I am going to that party on Saturday.” 

  “Alright, Aves.”  With that Carly slipped into her room and Ava returned to hers. 

  Closing the door most of the way she stepped over the small dog that had chosen to lay in the middle of the floor.  Unzipping her bag Ava pulled out her cleats first and inspected them, noting all of the wear on the toe cap and sidewalls.  If by some small miracle she made the team she would need to get a new pair.  She sat them in the bottom of her closet then returned to her bag grabbing her sneakers and dropping them on the floor, knowing she would need them to take Nick for his walk.  The last item she pulled out was her schedule and the list of extracurricular activities, and she sat that on her desk in the corner of her room. 

  Behind her, Ava heard the dog jump on the bed and whine.  “Hang on, buddy.  I just want to get this stuff put away.”  In response he nosed her backpack onto the floor.  “Fine, come on.”  He bolted off the bed and out her door as she bent over and grabbed her shoes.  Following him down the stairs, Ava paused in the entryway and slipped her shoes on.  She grabbed the leash and hung it across her shoulders before opening the front door. 

  He trotted down the stairs and started sniffing the shrub in front of the house immediately.  Following him down the stairs she waited until he returned to her side.  She walked in the same direction she had gone the previous night.  As she approached Nora’s house, she turned her head slightly to see if the girl was nearby. 

  “Are you stalking me?”  Nora was sitting on the porch as Ava approached. 

  “Not at all.”  Ava studied the other woman for a moment.  “Are you always so approachable?” 

  A genuine smile formed on Nora’s lips.  “Trust me, it’s safer this way.  My friendships usually end in one of two ways.  Most likely we would hang out until you make new friends that are more popular than me.”  The smile slowly faded.  “Or you find out who my dad is and run for the hills.” 

  “So, you’d rather just scare everyone away before they even get a chance to know you?”  The dark-haired woman nodded.  “Wow, that’s bleak.” 

  Nora hummed then jerked her head in the opposite direction.  “There’s a dog park that way.  If you want to socialize with other dog people.” 

  Ava narrowed her eyes at Nora.  “That- that was oddly helpful?” 

  “Or I just want you to go away.”  With that Nora got up and walked into her house. 

  Shaking her head Ava looked down at Nick who was just wagging his nub of a tail and looking at the door Nora had disappeared through.  “Come on.  I’m not sure about her.” 

Chapter Text

  Sara dropped into the booth across from Ray, Nate, and Jax.  Reaching across the table she closed the binder in front of Ray.  He looked up instantly.  “We only have three weeks to prep, Sara.”  He flipped the binder back open. 

  Rolling her eyes, she leaned back and shook her head.  “Ray, we still have three weeks to prep.”  She shot him a smirk as he looked up at her.  “See it’s all in how you say it.”  She raised her eyebrows as her smirk widened.  “We have more than enough time to sit here with our friends, relax, and have a slice of pizza.”  She closed his binder again and slid it towards Nate, who in turn moved it to Jax and out of Ray’s immediate reach. 

  Kendra appeared next to her and bumped Sara’s shoulder, encouraging her to move further into the booth.  “Scoot in.”  As Kendra settled in next to Sara the waitress dropped off their pizza. 

  As she slid in Sara turned her body so her back was against the wall.  “So, how did try outs go for everyone?”  She looked across the group gauging their immediate reactions to the question. 

  Nate looked to Jax and nodded.  “I think it went fairly well.”  Before Jax could say anything, Nate grabbed a slice of pizza and shoved a large bite into his mouth. 

  Jax looked back at Nate and shook his head.  “Man, did you know your cousin was going to try out for my position?” 

  Chewing the too large bite Nate shook his head and held up a finger.  Once he was able to swallow, he shook his head again.  “I had no idea, I swear.  I didn’t even know for sure that she was in town yet.” 

  “I might not have vouched for her if I knew she was actually good.”  Jax grabbed a slice and dropped it on the plate in front of him. 

  Nate laughed around the food stuffed in his mouth.  “Yeah, you would have.”  He paused to swallow before continuing.  “You’re a great guy and not afraid of a little competition.” 

  Sara snatched the parmesan cheese before Jax could reach it and quirked a challenging eyebrow at him as she dusted the piece of pizza on her plate.  “He’s right, you know.” 

  Laurel pushed in next to Kendra, crowding Sara a bit further into the corner.  “I ordered another pizza.” 

  Sara narrowed her eyes at her sister.  “What kind of pizza?”  Sara watched as a mischievous grin crossed her sister’s lips.  “Gross, Laurel, pineapple on pizza is disgusting.” 

  “Then don’t eat it.”  Laurel reached over and swiped a pepperoni off Sara’s pizza.  “More for me.”  She popped the pepperoni in her mouth and looked around the table.  “How was everyone’s day?” 

  As the group started to answer all at once Sara looked up as the door to the pizzeria swung open and Carly made her way over to the table.  She grabbed a chair and drug it to the end of the booth sitting near Laurel.  Sara’s eyes darted back towards the door briefly before returning to the growing group. 

  Nate grabbed a second slice and looked at Carly.  “Did Ava punk out?” 

  Carly shrugged her shoulders and sighed.  “We both knew she would.” 

  Smiling Nate nodded.  “She’s unpacking, isn’t she?”  All he got was a single nod in response.  “She’s coming Saturday though, right?”  Sara’s eyes followed the conversation between the cousins. 

  “She promised.”  Carly shifted to the side as their waitress greeted her and served the pizza Laurel had ordered.  “Plus, she said she’d be my designated driver so, she  has  to.” 

  As she tried to listen to the continuing conversation Sara felt an elbow bump her knee.  Shifting her attention to Kendra, Sara grabbed her drink and took a sip. 

  Kendra kept her voice low.  “Spill it Lance, did I make the squad?” 

  Sara slowly turned her head from side to side.  “Nope, I’m not saying a word.  You’ll find out Saturday just like everyone else.” 

  “Come on, Sara.”  Kendra shot her an imploring look.  “Isn’t this supposed to be one of the advantages of having your best friend as the captain?” 

  Sara continued to shake her head.  “Absolutely not.  Coach Lynch will kill me if she finds out that I told you that you’re on the squad.” 

  Rolling her eyes Kendra started to protest.  “Sara-” Sara watched as Kendra stopped and thought about what she had said.  Suddenly, her face practically split in tow with a smile as she threw her arms around Sara. 

  Wrapping her arms around Kendra’s shoulders Sara laughed.  “Just keep it to yourself until Saturday.”  Kendra quickly nodded agreeing to stay quiet.  When they broke apart Sara noticed all eyes were on them.  “Sooooo, I wish you the best of luck, but like I said your try out was pretty great.”  Sara knew she was a terrible liar, but thankfully everyone at the table played along anyway. 

  Sara caught Ray forcing a smile to leave his face as he turned to Nate.  “Bro, are we still meeting for coffee in the morning?” 

  “Absolutely.”  Sara didn’t miss Nate’s knowing grin as he bumped Ray’s shoulder with his own.  “Dude, just ask her out.” 

  Ray’s eyes shot up and he looked around the table.  “What?” 

  Sara smirked at Ray across the table and tossed her straw wrapper at him.  “Summer is almost over, Ray.”  She raised her brows at him.  “You should invite her to the party Saturday.” 

  His brow furrowed and he looked at his hands clasped on the table.  “She wouldn’t want to come.”  He then looked up meeting Sara’s eyes and she could see the shimmer of hope reflected there.  “Would she?” 

  “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”  Nate nudged Ray as he spoke. 

  Laurel’s attention shifted to Ray and she smiled.  “Raymond Palmer, do you have a crush?”  Sara watched as her best friend avoided eye contact with her sister.  “Who is she?  Want me to ask for you?” 

  His eyes suddenly shot up and he rapidly shook his head.  “No, no please don’t.” 

  Laughing Sara shot her sister a look.  “Laurel Lance, saving the world one shy teenager at a time.”  She then turned her attention back to Ray.  “They’re right though.  You should ask her to the party on Saturday.  Worst case she says no, and really what do you lose?” 

~~~ 

  It was a crisp February afternoon as Ava and her friend Amber walked out of the school building and quickly bounced down the stairs towards the parking lot.  Amber looked over at her and smiled.  “What time are you and Kevin going to show up at the party tonight?”  

  Tucking a lone textbook under her arm Ava shrugged a zipped up her coat to guard against the chilled air.  “I’m not sure yet.  I guess it will depend on how quickly  w e can get away from his family.”  

  “ Mmhmm .”  Amber shot her a knowing look.  “So, when are you two going to, you know?”  Her friend then raised her eyebrows suggestively.  

  Ava forced a laugh at her friend, but her stomach twisted uncomfortably knowing that she was lying to one of her oldest friends.  “Like I would tell you anyway.”  

  The other girl thrust a finger in her direction.  “You better tell me!  I tell you everything, Aves!”  

  Walking between cars Ava approaches a familiar sedan.  “And not only is most of that information unsolicited, but also unwanted.”  

  “Pfft, you know you love to live vicariously through me.”  Amber quirks an eyebrow at her as they reach the car.  

  “She really doesn’t.”  A familiar weight landed on Ava’s shoulders a s  she instinctively leaned into the familiar form next to her without even thinking about it.  “You are crazy if you think everyone wants to know about your sex life, Amber.  It’s bad enough that I have to listen to it, stop torturing Ava too.”  

  Amber rolled her eyes and crossed her arms across her chest.  “Shut up, Leah.  No one cares what you think.”  She then nodded towards Ava.  “I’ll see you tonight.”  Amber’s focus then shifted to Leah.  “Come on, let’s get home before mom sends out a search party.”  Amber quickly turned on her heel and started walking towards Leah’s car on the other side of the parking lot.  

  Ava could feel Leah start to shift away, but not before leaning close to Ava’s ear and whispering.  “I’ll see you tonight, babe.”  

  Shuddering Ava pulled away as Leah’s lips ghosted the shell of her ear.  “Get out of here.”  She gave Leah a  gentle   push  as she walked away.  Leaning on the sedan Ava held her textbook close and watched the duo leave.  Sighing she looked at the asphalt of the parking lot as the knot in her stomach twisted tighter.  

  A gruff voice spoke up behind to her.  “Aves, you two need to be more careful.”  

  Startled from her thoughts Ava’s head snapped up.  Looking across the trunk of the car she saw the source of the sound.  “I know, Kevin.”  

  He unlocked the car and motioned for her to get inside with him before they continued the conversation further.  As she sat on the car and placed the textbook in her lap, Ava gave him an apologetic look.  “I’m so sorry.”  

  Kevin buckled his seatbelt and moved to put the key in the ignition, but paused before starting the car.  Ava noted that he kept his eyes forward as he spoke.  “It’s fine, but just keep in mind if you get caught then people will probably figure me out as well.”  His knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel.  “I can’t come out now, Aves.  The bullying and threats before we started ‘dating’ was  awful .”  

  “I know.  I’m sorry.  I’ll talk to her.”  Ava nodded remembering the bruises littering her friend s arm s  from being shoved into lockers in the hallway daily.  He shot her a look, raising his eyebrows.   Sighing she sat the textbook on the seat between them.   “Again.”  

  Ava woke up early the next morning, but instead of immediately going downstairs she opted to stay in her room and try to empty a couple more boxes.  Opening a box labeled books she started to fill her book shelf until she got to her yearbooks.  Shaking her head, she sat the box on her desk abandoning that task for the time being. 

  Sitting on the edge of her bed she looked around her room trying to decide what to do for the next forty-five minutes.  Refusing to go downstairs until she was sure her dad had left for work for the day.  When she arrived in Star City Ava hadn’t realized how different it was going to be living under the same roof with him again.   Not different, difficult.    She ran her hands over her face allowing them to come to a rest on the back of her neck as the events from six months ago started to replay in her memory. 

  There was a soft knock on her door and while she was slightly concerned that it might be her father behind it, even though she genuinely knew it wasn’t.  “It’s open.”  She didn’t bother to look up as the door opened and someone walked into the room.  The end of her bed dipped as someone sat down without saying a word. 

  “How’d tryouts go?”  Ava felt her mom’s hand on her back. 

  Squeezing the tense muscles in her neck Ava shook her head.  “I don’t know.” 

  “Your Uncle Hank called.”  Releasing her grip on her neck, Ava looked over at her mom.  “He said you looked good out on the field, but that maybe some of the boys were giving you a hard time.” 

  She swallowed before she responded trying to decide the best wording to use so her mom wouldn’t be too concerned.  “It’s nothing that I haven’t dealt with before.” 

  Ava felt her mom’s hand drop onto the bed behind her.  “I know.”  There was a comfortable quiet moment.  “Ava, I know I haven’t been the most supportive, but I was really just caught off guard and I just didn’t know how to respond.” 

  Ava turned her head away and studied her hands clasped in front of her.  Ava knew that the conversation had shifted from try outs to a conversation that was very overdue.  “That’s not how I wanted you to find out, mom.”  She blew out a breath and shook her head.  “I wanted to tell you, just on my own terms.  When I was ready.” 

  “I know, honey.”  The genuine concern in her mother’s tone triggered tears Ava thought she was done crying.  “I’ve been going to meetings.  There’s a local chapter of PFLAG.”  Tears clouding her vision Ava looked back to her mother wanting to see her face.  “They’ve been really great, and may have clued me in on how poorly I’ve handled your coming out.”  Ava noted that her mom seemed to be nervous.  “So, I was thinking.”  Her expression seemed thoughtful.  “When you are ready, why don’t you come out to me.”  Pam shrugged her shoulders as her brows knitted together.  “It’s not a do-over as much as an opportunity for you to tell me when you are ready, if you want.” 

  Ava quickly swiped at her cheeks to catch the tears that had made their way down her cheeks.  “You’re serious?”  The older woman nodded.  Ava knew it won’t undo the hurtful words that still echoed in her mind from time to time, but it could be therapeutic for both of them.  “Maybe, but what about dad?” 

  Pam gently shook her head.  “I have been trying to get him to go to a meeting or even just talk to me.”  Sighing she held out her hand to Ava, who took it.  “He’s struggling.  The two of you were so close, and I think that’s why he is taking it hard.”  Her mom gave her hand a gentle squeeze.  “But let’s focus on you right now.”  As her mother shifted closer Ava allowed herself to be pulled into a hug, her guard dropping as she rested her cheek on her mother’s shoulder.  “Let’s do dinner tonight, just you and I.  We can catch up about your summer, okay?” 

  Pulling back from her mother’s embrace as she was release Ava nodded.  “Yeah, we can do that.” 

  She watched as her mother stood and moved towards the door, but paused in the doorway.  “Do you need anything right now, breakfast?” 

  As she managed to regain her composure Ava ran her hands down the front of her jeans and shook her head.  “Not right now, no.” 

  “I’m heading into the office, call me if you need anything.”  Pam paused a moment longer.  “Your dad already left so, until Carly rolls out of bed you have the run of the house.  I’ll pick you up around six for dinner.” 

  “Sounds great.”  Ava watched as her mother disappeared from view and left the door opened just slightly.  Standing up Ava walked to the few boxes that she hadn’t been able to unpack yet.  Staring at the boxes she put her hands on her hips and wrinkled her nose.  She needed to burn off some of the static energy that was lingering in her muscles.  Coming to a decision she walked silently down the hallway and made her way to the stairs.  As soon as she started down the steps, she heard the familiar clicking of nails on hardwood.  By the time she got to the bottom of the stairs Nick was already waiting for her, his whole backend wagging from side to side.  “Alright, let’s go for a walk.” 

  Grabbing the leash, she decided that a longer walk was in order when they stepped outside.  Once she got to the sidewalk Ava looked left and then right, trying to decide if she wanted to attempt to find the dog park or just do some general exploring.  Coming to a decision she opted to head back towards school and hit the coffee shop again. 

  As they walked Nick stayed at her side, but his nose stayed close to the ground snuffling the entire time they were walking along.  As they continued along Ava draped the leash over her shoulders trusting the dog not to bolt away from her.  She had been working with him for a long time to get him to this point, but it was clear all he really wanted to do was make her happy.  At every intersection when she’d stop, he would immediately sit.  Because he was so well-behaved Ava allowed herself to get lost in her thoughts.  Her mind drifted to the guys at tryouts and their behavior yesterday. 

  Her thoughts moved to how frustrated she had become and how she had lashed out.  There was no excuse for how she had lost her composure, and it certainly wasn’t something that typically happened.  However, no one here would be aware of that with the exception of Nate.  The first thing she needed to accept was that she was starting over in a new place.  It would be natural for anyone to be skeptical of her abilities, and she would have the same uphill battle she fought back home all over again.  All of that was of course pending Coach Hunter even giving her a spot on the team, which was looking less and less likely. 

  Beyond football then there was school itself.  She had always been a good student so she wasn’t worried about that, as much as what her new teachers would be like.  She wasn’t ignorant to the fact that a teacher could mean the difference between just passing and making the Principal’s Roll. 

  Drifting back into reality she noticed she had arrived at the coffee shop and quickly leashed Nick and lead him to a nearby table.  “Alright, I’ll be right back.”  Walking into the coffee shop she made sure she was able to see the corgi at all times.  The line was much longer this time and she stood at the back of the line. Out of the corner of her eye she watched as Nick pawed at the ground and then circled a couple of times before flopping down. 

  Keeping her eyes on Nick, Ava was jolted out of her thoughts by someone shouting her name.  She snapped her head towards the sound and saw Nora standing by the pick-up counter setting down three different cups.  Her brow furrowed, Ava didn’t budge.  She just looked over at the brunette questioningly.  “Ava.”  Nora looked at the cups she had just sat down and gestured for her to come over. 

  Moving out of line Ava walked over and looked from the cups to Nora.  “I didn’t order yet.” 

  “Mmhmm, iced flat white.”  She slid the first cup towards Ava.  “As well as puppuccino and a water for your friend outside.”  She moved the remaining cups over to Ava without saying another word. 

  Ava’s brows remained knitted together as she watched Nora’s expression carefully.  “Why though?  I thought you didn’t want to make friends.” 

  The barista inclined her head towards a table in the back of the shop.  Ava immediately recognized Mazza and Faucett sitting with two girls she didn’t know.  “Well, they’ve been running their mouths non-stop since they came in, and let’s just say that you giving them a rough time makes me happy.” 

  Turning her head back to Nora, Ava sighed.  “Fuck, non-stop?” 

  Nora bobbed her head, a smile growing across her face.  “It’s been a wonderful morning, Sharpe.  And I have you to thank.”  She pushed the drinks closer towards Ava. 

  “Great.”  Ava lowered her head not wanting to be spotted, even though Nora had just shouted her name not once, but twice in order to get her attention.  “I should at least pay for this.  I don’t want you to get into trouble.” 

  Nora gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Yeah, don’t worry about that.  I’m Nora Darhk.” 

  “Darhk Roast.”  Ava said the name of the coffee shop as she acknowledged Nora’s connection to the shop.  “Your parents own the place?” 

  Nora gave a half-shrug and looked around the shop.  “Just mom.  She won’t let dad have anything to do with this place, but that’s a story for a different day.”  As if sensing her discomfort Nora tilted her head towards the occupied table.  “Screw them, they’ve been assholes since grade school.  They’re only pissed because they’re scared that they are going to get cut from the team.” 

  Ava glanced at the table and saw their heads quickly turn away as if they hadn’t been watching Ava and Nora talk.  “If you say so.” 

  An exaggerated sigh came from the other side of the counter pulling Ava’s attention back to Nora.  “Fine, I get off in a couple of hours.  I’ll swing by your place around eleven and show you where the dog park is.” 

  Ava narrowed her eyes at the other girl.  “Why?” 

  Nora smirked at the blonde.  “Because you look like someone kicked your puppy, and that dog is already at a disadvantage with those stumpy legs.” 

  Ava nodded and started to gather the cups in front of her.  “Thank you for this.  Can I get you lunch later?” 

  “Maybe.”  Nora looked towards the cashier and the other barista behind the counter making drinks as quickly as he could.  “There a cute café on the way to the park, we’ll need to grab something to take with us.  Cause you know.”  See motioned towards the door.  “We’ll have the dog.  I need to get back to work, but I’ll see you later.” 

  “Sounds great.”  Ava carefully gathered all three cups and walked carefully towards the exit.  She was about to turn around to use her back to bump the door open when she saw Nate run up and grab the handle from the outside. 

  “Hey, Ava!”  He snagged one of the cups from her hands as she walked past.  “Let me help you with that.  I thought I saw Nick chilling in the shade over there.” 

  As she stepped out of the shop, she noticed that Nate wasn’t alone as she caught sight of Sara and another boy.  “Yeah, we uh, were just out exploring and thought we would stop in to grab something.” 

  Sara grabbed the door from Nate.  “You ditched us last night.”  The cheerleader shot Ava an accusing look. 

  Ava refrained from rolling her eyes.  “Carly was the one that committed to going, I never said I would.”  Her tone took on an a-matter-of-fact tone as she spoke. 

  Ava could feel Sara sizing her up.  “That’s fair.”  She then turned to the third member of their party.  “This is my best friend, Ray.  Ray, this is Ava Sharpe quarterback extraordinaire.” 

  The tallest member of the group nodded and gave her a cheery smile.  “Ava!  I’ve heard so much about you.”  Out of the corner of her eye Ava could see Sara turning her head from side to side.  “And by that, I mean, I’ve heard nothing at all?”  His voice raised an octave at the end as if he was asking a question instead of making a statement. 

  Nate pinched the bridge of his nose as he handed the cup he had taken from Ava to Sara.  “I’ve got your drink captain.  Why don’t the two of you go grab a seat and I’ll try to get this guy together.”  With that Nate grabbed Ray’s shoulders and guided him into the coffee shop. 

  Ava tilted her head towards the table she had left Nick at.  “I’m over here.” 

  “Right.”  As they walked Sara looked at the cup in her hand.  “What is this?  It looks like a cup of just whipped cream?”  She lifted an eyebrow at Ava and shot her a half smile.  “I mean that’s cool, if you are into that kind of thing.” 

  Ava’s eyes grew wide at the implication and her face flushed with warmth.  She prayed that Sara didn’t notice.  “Nora called it a puppuccino.  It’s for him.”  Ava sat the water and her drink down on the table and took the third back from Sara.   She is not flirting with you.  Leave the straight girls alone.   Sitting down Ava popped the lid off the cup and held it towards Nick who immediately shoved his nose into it. 

  Sara sat across from Ava and just watched her for a moment.  “I meant to ask you yesterday, do you take dance lessons or something?” 

  Looking up Ava caught Sara’s eyes, they were the purest shade of blue she had ever seen and there was an intensity in them that was trying to pull her in.  “Uh.”  She looked at Nick again before she answered.  “I used to, why?” 

  “HA, I knew it!”  Out of the corner of her eye Ava saw Sara stretch out, leaning against the back of the seat.  “Your footwork when you drop back after the snap.” 

  Ava glanced back up, but she avoided looking directly into the other girls eyes this time.  “What about it?” 

  Sara shrugged.  “I don’t know, there’s just a certain fluidity to the movement.  It just reminded me of dance.”  The corner of her mouth quirked up.  “Honestly, it seemed a little more ballroom, and I’m more Hip Hop, myself.” 

  As Nick snorted into the cup, Ava realized that it was empty.  She turned her attention back to the dog for a moment withdrawing the puppuccino cup and setting the water down for him.  “So, you cheer-” 

  “Because there’s no dance team.”  Sara finished Ava’s sentence before she could.  “I travel for competitions, but mostly over the summer.” 

  “I never really got that far into it.”  Ava glanced at the door hoping Nate would appear, but knowing how long the line was she held out very little hope for that. 

  “Coach Lynch, actually has a studio in town.”  Sara leaned in conspiratorially.  “Between you and I, I think she uses the position to scout for talent.” 

  Ava pulled her drink closer and nodded.  “I mean, that does makes sense.” 

  Sara tilted her head curiously.  “So, where have you been the last two months?” 

  Clearing her throat Ava’s eyes darted to the door again.  Her mind went into overdrive trying to decide what she would be willing to share with this stranger.  She had just opened her mouth to speak when Sara swore while craning her neck to look over Ava’s shoulder.  “What is it?”  Ava turned to follow her gaze towards the parking lot as a motorcycle drove up. 

  The smaller blonde blew out a breath and when she turned back Ava could practically see the wheels turning in her head.  “I know we just met, but just roll with me here. Okay?” 

  Unsure of what other options she had Ava just nodded.  “Okay.” 

  The man riding the motorcycle leaned it over onto the kickstand as he dismounted and lifted his sunglasses to rest on the top of his head.  “Morning, love.” 

  “Hey, John.”  Sara mocked glancing at a watch she wasn’t wearing.  “It’s awfully early for you to be up and around, isn’t it?” 

  He hummed and scrunched his face up slightly as he approached and grabbed one of the unoccupied chairs and spun it around so he was sitting on it backwards.  He rested his arms across the backrest.  “Or I haven’t been to bed yet so, it’s still late.”  Ava picked up on his British accent right away.  “Haven’t seen you around much, Lance.  I’m starting to think you are avoiding me.” 

  Shaking her head Sara waved a dismissive hand.  “Not at all.  I’ve just been busy with competitions and gearing up for school to start back up.” 

  His eyes shifted from Ava to Sara and back again.  “I wasn’t sure if you’d like to stop by sometime.”  Ava watched as he shot what she assumed was supposed to be a charming smile at Sara. 

  “Sorry, John.”  Ava had been keeping a close eye on the blonde man so, she almost jerked away when Sara reached across the table and clasped their hands together.  “I’m actually seeing someone.” 

  Ava could feel her muscle's tense up as her eyes darted to meet Saras.  The other girl’s look was a plea to just roll with the situation.  Forcing herself to relax a degree Ava laced her fingers with Saras as she controlled her breathing. 

  The man turned his attention to Ava, finally.  “Ah, I see.”  He gave her a nod.  “John Constantine.” 

  Ava offered him a quick smile.  “Ava Sharpe.” 

  He looked back to Sara and stood up.  “So, this is a coffee date?”  Sara quickly nodded.  “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”  His attention shifted back to Ava.  “My apologies, Sharpie.  Enjoy, Lance.” 

  Ava looked down at their hands as Sara’s thumb rubbed soothingly against hers.  Too many emotions were running through her mind for her to be able to sort them in any way.  It felt so easy to hold Sara’s hand, but also so wrong as she quickly looked around to see what prying eyes were around.  When John was out of sight Sara grip loosened slightly, but she didn’t completely release Ava’s hand. 

  “Thank you.”  Ava looked to Sara again.  “I should probably explain.”  Sara’s mouth opened with what Ava assumed would be the offered explanation, but before she could say a word the door to the coffee shop flew open.  Ray and Nate were practically tripping over each other as they walked out speaking to one another jovially. 

  Ava seized the opportunity to snatch her hand back and quickly grab Nick’s leash.  “I have to go.”  It was a blatant lie and Ava was sure Sara could see right through her.  “I...”  Struggling to find any more words Ava grabbed her iced coffee and walked away.  Cursing herself the entire time. 

Chapter Text

   Sara looked back towards Ava only to see her retreating back.  “Ava, wait!”  Sagging back into the chair she sighed in surrender.  She looked towards the café and waited for Nate and Ray to join her.  While she waited, Sara replayed the interaction over in her mind, trying to figure out what had set the other girl off.  Ava had seemed a little tense Sara took her hand, but she had also been the one to tangle their fingers together unprompted.  

  Sara knew she had run her thumb across Ava’s without thinking much of it.  That’s what really seemed to sell John on their non-relationship.  She had been a little surprised at how soft Ava’s hands were.  Moving past that random thought Sara recalled Ava being more concerned about what was going on around them, but it wasn’t until Nate and Ray came out of the café that Ava had actually pulled back and left her sitting without the ability to even explain herself.  

  Nate dropped into the seat Ava had previously been occupying.  “Did Ava leave already?”  He pushed her coffee across the table towards her.  

  The more she thought about it, the more annoyed Sara got.  “Apparently.”  Sara narrowed her eyes and looked in the direction Ava had gone.  “I’m not sure how to word this without sounding like an ass, but Nate is your cousin homophobic?”  

  The smile fell from Nate’s face.  “Sara, what did you do?”  He followed her eyes looking in the same direction.  

  Rolling her eyes Sara crossed her arms across her chest.  “Nothing!”  Nate shot her a skeptical look.  “Alright, so John showed up and I’ve already told him multiple times that it was a one-time thing, but he keeps inviting me over again.  So, I decided that next time he asked I would tell him that I was dating whomever I was with at the time.”  Sara shrugged her shoulders.  “I might have told him that Ava and I were dating.”  

  Nate tilted his head back and ran his hands over his face.  “Really, Sara?  Really?”  

  “He’s persistent.”  Out of the corner of her eye Sara could see Ray shaking his head.  “What?  She seemed okay until he left and then she just bolted.”  

  Nate held his hands out.  “I don’t know Sara.  I do know that Uncle Randy is super conservative, but I’ve never actually talked to her about anything like that before.”  He scratched his head.  “Hell, I don’t think so, but maybe.”  

  “That’s disappointing.”  Sara shook her head.  “Anyway!  How’d it go?  You both seemed pretty positive when you came out of there.”  

  Ray was grinning ear to  ear  as he nodded.  “It went great!”  

  Leaning towards Ray, Sara smiled and nodded.  “Tell me everything.”  All thoughts of the other girl left her mind as she focused on Ray.  

  Nate’s smile returned, but not as wide as it had been previously.  “It went, okay.”  

  Sara’s brow furrowed at the mixed messages.  “So, great or okay?”  She looked from Ray to Nate.  When neither responded she locked Ray down with a look.  “Did you ask Nora out?”  

  “Well, I-” Ray seemed to be struggling with his words. And his face scrunched up slightly.  “Not exactly?”  

  Looking back to Nate, Sara raised her eyebrows questioningly.  “So, tell me.”  

  Nate clapped Ray on the back.  “Well, he actually managed to speak to her.”  Nate chuckled before continuing.  “With actual words instead of just grunts.”  

  “Hey!”  Ray looked over at Nate a slight look of hurt crossing his features.  “Bro?”  

  “Aw, bro, you did great.”  Nate threw his arm over  Ray’s shoulders  in a half hug.  

  Smiling Sara watched their exchange before clearing her throat.  “So, you didn’t ask her to the party, but you did manage to talk to her?”  Ray’s head bobbed in the affirmative.  “Ok, so while this is one for the win column, we only have the rest of today and tomorrow morning for you to get the nerve to ask her to the party.”  

  “Do I though?”  Ray continued to smile at his friends.  “We could just savor the win and wait for the next party.”  

  Groaning Sara shook her head.  “Ray, no.  This is the end of summer party.  We’re going into our senior year, Carpe Diem, buddy.”  

  His ever-present smile faltered.  “I can’t go back in there now, Sara.  It’ll look desperate.”  

  She hummed in agreement as she took a drink.  “That’s why we’ll accidentally bump into her tonight.”  Sara could practically hear him getting nervous already.  “We’ll just be walking down her street, just causally past her house. So, when she’s outside it’s just a coincidental meeting and you ask her to go to the party.”  Knowing her friend well enough Sara stopped his protest as his mouth started to open.  “Just an invite to the party.  Baby steps, Raymond.  You don’t have to ask her to be your girlfriend on day one.”  

  Nate bumped his shoulder.  “That’s right.”  He then nodded to Sara.  “She’s absolutely right.”  

  Ray chuckled, and his brows knitted together.  “That’s not stalker- ish ?”  

  Sara waved a dismissive hand at his question.  “No!  Or course not.”  She pointed her thumbs towards herself.  “Relationship expert.”  

  Turning his head towards Sara, Nate sucked in a breath through his teeth.  “Eh, that’s a bit of a stretch, Sara.”  

  “How many relationships have you been in, Nathaniel?”  Sara immediately shot back.  

  “Um, excuse me, Sara.”  She turned to Ray as he held up a finger.  “I think it’s more quality over quantity.”  

~~~  

   As they pulled off the road to the crowded house Kevin turned off the car’s engine and looked across the car to Ava.  “Are we sure we want to be here?”  

  The first thing Ava noticed was the key still hanging in the ignition of the car.  “We don’t have to stay long, but we really should make an appearance.”  Sensing his nervous energy Ava grabbed Kevin’s hand.  “What’s going on?  You’ve been off all day.”  

  His shoulders slumped as he grabbed the steering wheel with his free hand.  “Something just feels off, Aves.”  

  Concerned she gave his hand a gentle squeeze in an attempt to draw him out of his head.  “Hey, talk to me.  What feels off?”  

  He rested his forehead on his knuckles that gripped the steering wheel.  After a minute or two he turned his head so she could his eyes.  Even in the evening darkness Ava could see how scared he was, his eyes rimmed in red.  “I should have told you sooner.”  

  Her heart started to pound in her chest and she licked her lips.  “Should have told me what?”  

  Kevin closed his  eyes,  Ava could tell he was purposefully breaking their eye contact.  “I’ve been getting letters in my locker at school.”  Shaking her hand off his he opened the glovebox.  

  As the door fell open Ava looked down and saw a stack of notes collected there.  She grabbed the first one and unfolded it, skimming quickly over the poorly written words.  Swallowing Ava looked back to her friend.  “Is this a death threat?”   

  Ava noticed as a shiver ran through his form.  “I think so.”  His tone wavered and he clearly sounded scared.  

  Ava snatched another one of the notes and unfolded it.  The handwriting was different, but the message was pretty much the same.  She reached for another and one word seemed to consistently appear, faggot.  “You need to report this.”  

  He opened his eyes and shook his head.  “I’ve tried to before.”  Leaning back, Kevin released the steering wheel and hugged himself.  “That’s when they started shoving me into lockers.  They stopped when we started ‘dating’.”  He stressed the word dating as he spoke.  “I think they figured out that this isn’t real.”  

  Ava blew out her cheeks.  “Well, I mean-” Pausing she rubbed her temples trying to figure out what to do, but before she could say another word the passenger door flew open and a hand wrapped around her bicep and pulled her from the vehicle.  Immediately Ava took a subtle defensive stance, the tension in her muscles from the conversation in the car had her wired on a hair trigger.  

  Amber’s voice rang out causing her to relax a degree.  “Oh my God, come up for  air  you two.”  

  As her friend released her arm Ava made an attempt to shake off some of the tightness.  “ Amber , you scared the shit out of me.”  

  Taking half a step back Amber held her hands up.  “Whoa, relax lovebirds.”  She then jerked her head towards the crowded house.  “Most of us are in the backyard.  Tim has a fire going.”  She batted her lashes at them.  “It’s a lot more romantic than sitting in a car.”  She paused, tilted her head slightly towards the sky and wrinkled her nose.  “Well, at least the front seat.”  

  Rolling her eyes Ava shook her head and turned back to the car bracing her arms on the roof.  She leaned in the open door and dropped her voice so only Kevin would hear.  “If we leave now it won’t go over well.”  She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring look.  “Half an hour, forty-five minutes tops.”  

  He pulled the keys from the ignition and opened his door.  “Okay.”  

  They met in front of the car, Ava grabbed his hand and laced their fingers together.  She then returned her attention to Amber.  “We can’t stay very long.  I have a meeting in the morning for an internship this summer.”  

  Amber cackled at her.  “Ava, you are going to intern at your family's company.  I’m pretty sure it’s not going to matter if you are late.”  

  “Obviously, you haven’t met her grandfather.”  Ava noted that his voice was completely steady and strong again.  “I’d rather not be held accountable to Robert Carver for Ava being late.”  

  As the trio got closer to the backyard and the growing sounds of the crowd Ava felt Kevin’s grip on her hand tighten.  A small turn of her head and Ava could see his chest rise and fall will rapid breaths.  Ava pulled her arm around her shoulders as she slid her arm around his torso.  Ava could sense him relax slightly.  Amber had always touted the title of Ava’s best friend, but the truth was she and Kevin were thick as thieves.  So, when he officially came out to her instead of the ridicule Ava was sure he had been expecting, she took the opportunity to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone.  

  Kevin was the first person she told about her attraction to women.  That was also the first time she said it out loud and really allowed herself to hear and feel it.  So, the small intimate moments the shared, like hand holding and walking together like this wasn’t at all faked.  

  “They’re here!”  Ava recognized Leah’s voice immediately as well as the slight slur that was present.  When the slightly inebriated girl approached Ava heard Kevin swear under his breath.  She hugged both Kevin and Ava at the same time.  She shifted so that Kevin was standing between them, but her hand grasped  Ava’s  elbow behind his back.  

~~~  

  Lying on her back Ava stared at the ceiling in her bedroom tossing a football into the air and catching it as it fell towards her.  Beside her Ava could hear Nick snoring steadily.  Gripping the ball, she studied the laces as she thought back to the coffee shop.  In what seemed like less than two days she managed to piss off half the school and nearly out herself.  Even worse, school hadn’t even started yet.  

  On a brighter note, it felt like maybe she had made a friend in the process of pissing everyone else off.  Nora seemed way more interesting than the two boys were anyway, and she wasn’t feeling great about making the team as it was.  Tucking the ball under her arm Ava closed her eyes tried to let her mind drift to last season, last fall before everything turned to shit.  Instead her  treacherous  brain conjured images of a certain blonde breaking.  Continuing down that  line  of thinking Ava shifted back to the café and her fingers twitched as thought about Sara grabbing her hand across the table.  Maybe Sara wasn’t as straight as Ava thought she was.  

  Ava opened her eye’s lazily as the door to her room was pushed open.  “Did you forget how to knock?”  She watched as her sister tumbled towards the bed and flopped across the foot of the mattress causing the whole bed to shake.  

  Jostled from his slumber Nick huffed and lifted his head.  The Corgi regarded the intruder before flopping onto his side.  Ava heard a small groan, but she wasn’t sure if it came from the dog or her sister.  

  Ava sat up on her elbows and pushed the unmoving body with her foot.  “Hey!”  When she received no response, she pushed a little harder.  “If you’re going back to sleep you should go back to your room.”  There was a muffled sound of some kind, but since Carly’s face was pressed into the mattress Ava had trouble actually hearing what she was trying to say.  “I’m going to need you to use your words.”  

  Carly turned her head to face Ava and blinked a few times before speaking again.  “Coffee.”  Ava could clearly see the impression of Carly’s pillow pressed on the side of her face.  

  Moving up so her back was resting on the headboard Ava shook her head.  “I know this may come as a surprise to you, but there’s no coffee in my room.”  

  “Aves, by the time I get all the way downstairs I will have used up all of the energy I needed to make the coffee.”  The whine that came through in Carly’s voice was pathetic, but the combination of the whine and the puppy dog look that crossed her features was enough to prompt Ava to her feet.  “Plus, your coffee always turns out better than mine.”  As Ava walked towards the door Carly tilted her head to follow her movements.  “I think it’s because you make it with love, Aves.”  

  Ava barely managed to snort back a laugh.  “Are you hung over?  I thought the party was tomorrow night?”  

  Carly rolled onto her back, grunting as the ball Ava left on the bed dug into her shoulder.  “Did you know that Oliver’s family has a mansion?”  Unsure of how that information was relevant Ava wanted for her sister to continue.  “His mom and dad went out of town early so Laurel and I went over to help set up for the party.”  

  Shaking her head Ava started walking again.  “You do realize you are going to need to buckle down in a couple of weeks, right?”  

  Carly looked up at the ceiling and blew air through her lips, the noise it created caused Nick to bolt upright and look around for the source.  “I might not be as smart as you, but I’m not an idiot.  There’s just so much going on right now.”  Ava turned back in time to see Carly tilt her head to the side, studying her.  “How the hell are you keeping it together?”  

  Running a hand through her hair Ava shook her head.  “Just barely.”  Ava could see the unasked questions on Carly’s face.  “What is it?”  

  Carly rolled onto her side and tucked her arm under her head.  “Have you talked to her?”  

  Ava kind of knew that was going to be the inquiry, but she had hoped she was wrong.  Trying to figure out an answer she decided to buy herself more time.  “Who?”  Carly frowned and rolled her eyes.  “Leah?”  Nodding once Carly indicated that Ava had guessed correctly.  “I’m going to go make that coffee for you.”  

  “Ava.”  Her sister’s apologetic tone was enough to hold Ava in place.  “When you are ready to talk, I’m here.  I mean, I really can’t possibly know what you are going through, but I’m a pretty decent listener.”  

  The sincerity in Carly’s eyes was enough to tell Ava that she meant every word.  Growing up they had been close, but as the sisters started their Freshman year of high school they started to drift apart.  The crowds they hung out with changed, and their approaches to life in general were different.  Carly preferred to seize the moment, while Ava wanted a plan in place before moving forward.  “Pretty decent, huh?”  

  Nick stood up and stretched wandering towards the edge of the bed.  He yawned then flopped over so his back was pressed against Carly’s.   

  Sending  Ava  a warm smile Carly reached behind her and scratched between Nick’s ears.  “Yeah, but that’s best I can offer unfortunately.”  There was a comfortable lull in the conversation before Carly spoke again.  “So, if you don’t make the football team tomorrow and the coach gives some bullshit excuse?  You were definitely the best quarterback that tried out, even setting my biases aside.”  Carly cleared her throat.  “I’d much rather see that Jackson guy in those tight white pants.”  She then waggled her brows at Ava.  “What are you going to do?”  

  To anyone else this would seem like a fairly basic question, but Ava knew Carly well enough to know that she was fishing for information.  “I don’t know how much fight I have left in me, if that’s what you’re asking.”  It was, and Ava knew that.  “As much as I want to play, I’ll figure something else out.”  Seeing the disappointment on Carly’s expression, Ava retreated.  “Coffee.  I’ll see  you  downstairs in a few.”  Ava completely bypassed her sister’s commentary on the uniform.  

  As soon as Ava got to the bottom of the stairs Nick was on her heels.  Walking into the kitchen Ava quickly got the coffee pot started and leaned against the countertop staring at the floor.  It only took her a second to make a decision as she started to gather supplies.  Ava wasn’t a particularly avid cook, but she knew her way around the kitchen.  Focusing on working through the recipe she had thrown together years ago, she barely heard her sister walk into the kitchen.  

  “Holy shit, Ava.”  As the batter hit the pan Carly leaned over and inhaled sharply.  “Are you making snickerdoodle pancakes?!”  Ava swore she could hear her sister’s eyes roll into the back of her head.  “Oh my God, did I mention I missed you this summer.”  

  A sharp knock on the door drew Ava’s attention away from the pan for a moment.  Nick tore off towards the front door, barking aggressively the entire way.  Glancing at the clock on the stove Ava discerned who was at the  door.   “No, but you could prove it by answering the door.  I’m pretty sure that’s going to be Nora.”  

  As Carly backed out of the room, she gave Ava a mischievous look.  “Nora, huh?”  

  Ava waved the spatula in her hand at Carly.  “Stop, she’s a friend.”  Pausing Ava thought for a minute.  “I think.  Can you just let her in?”  It didn’t take long for Carly to disappear from her sight.  Ava listened closely, but she didn’t need to wonder who it was for too long as Nick trotted back into the kitchen followed by Carly and then Nora.  Walking through the kitchen Ava caught Nora looking around the house.  “Hey, sorry.  Nora, this is my sister Carly.  Carly, Nora.”  

  Nora nodded a greeting to Carly then focused her attention on Nick who had sat down at her feet staring up at her.  “So, brunch then?”  When Ava looked over Nora nodded to the pan she was using to cook.  

  “I was just throwing something together for her.”  Ava waved the spatula towards her sister.  “I think she’s still hung over.  I did make enough if you wanted to eat  here,  we can.”  

  Nora hummed and looked over at  Carly.   “Running with the Queens and the Lances can do that to you.”  Ava picked up on an undertone to Nora’s statement.  

  Carly just chuckled and rested her head on the cool granite countertop.  “How did you-?”  

  “My mom owns the coffee place near the school.  You’ve all been in and out all summer.”  Nora refocused her attention to Ava.  “We can eat here if you want.  It might be easier than at the park anyway.”  

  Carly lifted her head.  “Oh yeah, Laurel loves that place.  You have to try these pancakes, they are awesome.”  As if sensing an awkward silence approaching Carly kept talking.  “Where are you two off to today?”  

  After flipping the pancakes Ava looked over her shoulder.  “Nora was telling me about a dog park nearby so, we’re going to go check it out.”  

  As Ava finished up cooking the conversation stayed light, mostly focus around the weather and the upcoming school year.  After they ate Ava dropped the dishes in the sink and pointed to Carly.  “The dishes are yours.”  

  Carly waved Ava away.  “I got it.  You go ahead and head out.”  

  Ava turned to Nora.  “Ready?”  As soon as Nora nodded Ava whistled and headed back to the front door with Nick in tow.  Snatching the leash as she opened the door.  He hopped down the stairs to the sidewalk and waited until the two girls joined him.  

  Nora headed in the opposite direction of her house, towards the park.  “This way.”  

  Ava was able to pace herself with Nora easily by adjusting her stride.  “Thank you for this.”  Glancing over at Nora Ava noticed that the other girl had remained focused on the path ahead.  

  “Here’s the deal, Sharpe.”  Nora’s voice had an edge to it that Ava couldn’t quite place.  Not anger or fear just an edge.  “I’m going to save you from hearing all the rumors.  My dad is Damien Dahrk.”  Nora looked over at her and Ava tried to read her expression, but she hadn’t interacted with her enough to establish a baseline of any kind.  “The fact that you aren’t reacting to that tells me you aren’t from anywhere nearby.”  

  Ava moved her gaze to the dog, making sure he was staying close.  “California, Fresno to be more specific.”  

  “Yeah, that makes sense.  So, my dad is a bit of a prick.”  Ava could tell by Nora’s tone that might have been an understatement.  “The long and the short of it is, he ripped a bunch of people off, the Queens included.”  

  “Oh.”  Ava raised her eyebrows as she started to realize the undertone back at the house wasn’t so much anger as embarrassment.  

  “I think mom might have suspected something was going on so she started keeping her finances completely separate from his.”  Nora continued to lead the way to the park.  “Detective Lance was the one to finally bring him in along with a task force from the FBI.”  Nora rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck.  “Before you ask, yes, Laurel and Sara’s dad.  So, needless to say, interacting with most people at school tends to be a bit awkward.”  

  Ava slowed her pace slightly allowing Nora a bit of space.  “I can imagine.”  The more she thought about it the more Ava realized Nora’s dad was one of the reasons she was actually in Star City.  Her grandfather’s company, Carver Security Systems, had been getting a lot of references in Star City recently.  The uptick in business had prompted them to open an office here which, her mother had been appointed Director of.  

  “So, you’ll have to forgive me for being a little guarded, but typically people don’t stick around one they found out who I am.”  The other girl shrugged her shoulders.  “Or you can just go now.”  

  When they had left the house, Ava had spotted a car had kept its distance, but had definitely been following them.  “We all have our secrets, Nora.  His indiscretions shouldn’t be your problem.”  She kept subtly looking back at the car as they arrived at the park.  Nick was spinning in circles waiting for her to open the fenced in area, so he could run with the other dogs.  Once they were all inside the fence Ava noticed the car parking in the lot.  

  Nate jumped out of the car and waved.  “Hey, Ava!”  

  She recognized the other two people that got out of the car with him immediately.  Her brow furrowed as she tried to figure out why they had followed her to the dog park.  She looked over at Nora.  “So, I’m new, but do they always travel in threes?”  

  Nora shook her head as she laughed.  “No, it’s usually more actually.”  

  Ava and Nora met them at the fence.  “Hey, Nate.”  Out of the corner of her eye Ava noticed Sara tense up and cross her arms over her chest.  “What’s going on?”  Ava started to think that Sara was trying to intimidate Nora.  

  “We were driving past and saw you, and I just wanted to see if you were coming to  Oliver’s  party tomorrow night?”  His smile never left his face.  

  Ava nodded and mirrored Sara’s stance.  “Yeah, I’m driving Carly.”  

  Ray turned to Nora a nervous smile on his face.  “Nora, are you going to come?”  

  Nora immediately shook her head.  “No.  No one would want me there.”  

  Ava picked up on the light flush on Ray’s cheeks.  “Well, I want you to go.”  He took a deep breath.  “Maybe, you would want to go with me?”  

Chapter Text

  Sara hung back as Nate and Ray engaged Ava and Nora in conversation about the upcoming party.  She made sure allow her eyes to drift from person to person as they spoke, but she wasn’t actually listening to what was being said.  She was too caught up in her own thoughts to process anything that was discussed.  Sara crossed her arms across her chest as she made an attempt to appear indifferent towards Ava during  

  Sara kept Ava in her peripheral vision the entire time, trying to figure out a way to confirm her suspicions about the taller girl’s stance on the LGBT community.  Subtly wasn’t Sara’s strong point, but she did know enough that a confrontation in the middle of a park probably wasn’t the best idea either.  Sara noticed Ava move to cross her arms over her chest, mimicking to Sara’s own posture.  That was the moment Sara had, had enough and was about to question Ava.  Now fully engaged in the ongoing conversation Sara heard Ray stuttering. 

  “Well, I mean...not with me, with me.”  There was a definite pink tint to his cheeks as he struggled to find words.  “Unless you want to.” 

   Shit.   Sara was there to support Ray, instead she was borderline obsessing about some dumb new girl’s issue with her.  Called to action Sara stepped forward, dropped her arms to her sides before moving next to Ray and placing a supportive hand on his shoulder.  “I believe what my friend here is trying to say is, we would like you to be there Nora.”  Sara half shrugged before continuing.  “I get it if you don’t want to, but at least think about it.”  Sara refocused her attention on Ray, squeezing his shoulder for encouragement. 

  “Right.”  Ray’s head bobbed.  “And... uh, if you need a ride you can call me.” 

  Nora looked to Ava then back to Ray.  “If I do come, I’ll just catch a ride with the Sharpe’s.  They just live down the street, it’d be easier.” 

  “Sure...”  Sara could only watch as Ray shuffled his feet and looked at the ground.  “That makes sense.” 

  Sara leaned back so she could look at Nate behind Ray’s back.  Once she caught Nate’s eyes, she mouthed the words ‘Save him’.  Nate just shrugged in response and Sara rolled her eyes and sighed.  She was about to speak up again when she heard two dogs across the park start to bark at each other.  Her attention was drawn to the interruption.  There was a flash of movement before Sara noticed in some strange feat of super speed Ava’s stumpy dog had managed to get to the other side of the park and bark at the other two animals until their aggressive posture relaxed.  Once the barking halted Ava’s dog turned and Sara could have sworn, he was strutting back towards them.  She looked at the tall blonde briefly.  “We should get going.”  Sara then bumped Ray with her shoulder to get him moving. 

  Guiding Ray away from the fence Sara shook her head as Nate spoke up.  “Bro, that was a train wreck.  I thought you were ready?” 

  Ray groaned and ran his hands over his face.  “I know.  I thought I was, too.” 

  “Okay, but consider this.  You did actually ask her to the party.”  As they arrived at the car Sara turned and leaned against the hood.  “Plus, she didn’t say no.  All in all, while a little painful to watch.  I wouldn’t call this a loss by any means.” 

  Sara heard Ray suck in a breath.  “You’re right.  Besides, what’s done is done.  So, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens tomorrow.”  She could hear his tone relax as he spoke. 

  “Great, now that’s done.”  Sara opened the front passenger door and dropped into the seat.  “Nate, can you run me home so I can grab my gear?” 

  “Yeah, sure Captain.”  Nate climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car.  “I didn’t think you had class today.” 

  Smiling Sara buckled her seat belt.  “I don’t, but I got Lynch to give me some studio time so, I’m going to meet Kendra and a couple others to go over some routines.” 

  Ray leaned over the front seat.  “Sara, the squad hasn’t even been announced yet.” 

  “I know that.”  She leaned back so she could see his face.  “I invited everyone that tried out.  Only a few girls actually committed to coming though.”  Sara shrugged.  “Which Coach Lynch is completely aware of.  I really just want to run through something new and see if it works or not.”  She shifted her gaze to Nate.  “What are the two of you getting into this afternoon?” 

  “We’re going to go watch The Great Raid!”  Nate glanced over at Sara and smiled before returning his eyes to the road.  “It’s based on a rescue by the 6th Ranger Battalion in 1945 during World War II.” 

  While Nate’s enthusiasm could be infectious Sara attempted to remain focused on what she wanted to accomplish later that afternoon.  “That sounds right up your alley.  So, do we want to get everyone together tonight?” 

  Sara saw Nate look into the rearview mirror briefly.  “I’m thinking maybe just wait till tomorrow?  I want to see if Galahad back there has anything in his closet that would be potential-party date appropriate.” 

  Sara groaned as Nate turned into her driveway.  “Shit, what is she doing home.”  The blonde looked at the time on the radio in the dashboard.  “She should still have another week of classes.” 

  “Maybe she’s sick in bed?”  Ray offered in a hopeful tone. 

  She twisted one of the rings on her fingers and sighed.  “Maybe.” 

  “We could come in with you?”  As he spoke Nate turned to reach for the keys to turn off the ignition. 

  “No, no.  You guys go before you miss your movie.  I can handle my mother.”  She gave them a forced smile.  “I just don’t want too.”  Sara exited the car and gave her friends a wave before bounding up the stairs.  When she reached the front door, she fished her house keys out of her pocket, but before she was able to slide the key into the lock the door swung open to reveal her mom.  “Oh hey, mom.  I didn’t think you’d be home.” 

  “I was just headed back to work.”  Sara noticed her mother’s shoulders square off as she stood a little straighter.  “Where have you been?” 

  “I met Ray and Nate for coffee and then we headed to the park for a little while.”  Sara brushed past her mother to get into the house. 

  The door closed, it was quite a slam, but almost.  “Sara, you need to be studying.”  Behind her Sara could hear the older woman following her closely, but she just kept moving forward to her room.  “You could use the extra time to prepare for the SAT.”  Sara’s hand clenched into fists at her sides.  “You’re not-” 

  “Laurel?!”  Sara spun on her heel to face her mother.  “No kidding?  I know what I’m capable of, mother.  I can handle this.” 

  Dinah let out an exasperated sigh.  “Can you?”  Sara watched as she rubbed her forehead.  “What are you going to do after graduation?”  The older woman’s tone softened.  “I can appreciate that you really do have some talent, but honey there are so many talented dancers out there that never make it.  You really should pursuit a career.” 

  Sara glared at her mother.  “Ever heard of professional dancers?  Choreographers?  This  is  a career.” 

  Dinah threw her hands in the air.  “Sara, a  real  career.  Something that you can use to pay your bills and then in your free time you can go to try outs or whatever and see where it takes you.” 

  “So, you want me to plan to fail?”  Sara lifted her brows at her mother.  “I won’t do that.”  She then set jaw before resuming her journey to her room. 

  “I just want what’s best for you.”  Her mother’s final words rung in her head as Sara closed the door and started to gather a change of clothes for the studio.  Her bag was ready, but she didn’t leave immediately. Instead Sara sat on the edge of her bed listening for her mother to leave. 

~~~ 

   Tim’s parties were always large and eventually got out of hand.  They had arrived early enough that it was still very tame.  Walking through the crowd Ava greeted her classmates as they walked past.  Her eyes were constantly sweeping the crowd like her grandfather had taught her.  It seemed so silly and unnecessary at the time, but now that she was aware of an actual threat it was a tool she would gratefully take advantage of.  

  Amber’s voice cut through the crowd and she grabbed Kevin’s hand, pulling his arm from Ava’s shoulder.  “Hey, let’s go grab a drink inside.”  

  He looked back at Ava as he was being drug into the house.  “I think I have a choice here, do I?”  

  Giggling Amber shook her head just before opening the door.  “Absolutely not.”  

  Moving to join them Ava made it two steps forward before her progress was halted by a hand wrapped around her wrist tugging her backwards.  “Aves, wait.”  Her voice was unsteady as she spoke.  

  Ava faced Leah while still scanning the crowd to see if anyone was giving them any additional attention.  “Hey, what’s going on?”  Ava could tell the other girl was already drunk.  

  “I know I said I wanted you to be a secret.  Us to be a secret until we figured everything out.”  Ava felt her stomach clench as Leah continued.  “That it was okay for you and Kevin to pretend.”  Leah did drop the volume of her voice dramatically as she spoke.  “But I don’t think I want that anymore.”  

  “Oh, we shouldn’t talk about this here.”  Ava stopped casually scanning the crowd as her eyes darted from face to face.  

  “No, it’s okay.”  Ava turned her full attention to Leah.  “No one cares.”  The drunk girl gave her a lop-sided grin.  

  Closing her eyes briefly Ava felt the color draining from her face.  “What did you do?”  

  “No, no, don’t worry.  It’s okay.”  When she met Leah’s glossy eyes again Ava felt Leah’s hands on her cheeks.  “Amber said no one would care.”  

  Ava’s stomach lurched as she looked to the door of the house Kevin and Amber had disappeared through.  “Fuck.  When did you tell her?”  

  “A half hour ago, maybe I don’t know.”  Ava started to pull away knowing she needed to get into the house right away.  To get Kevin out before anything happened.  Leah’s grip tightened slightly.  “Ava, she’s my sister.  Don’t be mad, I had to tell her.”  

  Trying to remain as level-headed as she could Ava placed her hands over Leah’s and as gently as possible removed them from her face.  “I’m not mad.  I just need to talk to her and make sure Kevin is okay.”  

  “Good thinking.”  Leah wagged her finger at Ava.  “ Cause  you guys are probably going to break up, huh?”  

  “Right.”  Extracting herself from the older girl Ava moved quickly towards the door.  Taking the deck stairs two at a time she covered a lot of ground quickly.  Reaching for the knob so many scenarios ran through her mind and none of them ended well.  

~~~  

   Opening the front door Ava stepped into her house just behind Nick who immediately ran over to the closest register vent and flopped down on top of it.  Ava turned her attention to Nora, who was still standing on the porch.  “I’m having dinner with mom in a couple hours, but you’re welcome to hang out for a while if you want.”  Ava gestured towards the stairs with a thumb over her shoulder. 

  Nora clasped her hands in front of her and leaned against the railing of the porch.  “Should I go to this party?”  There wasn’t any sarcasm or even an edge to her words. 

  Stepping back out onto the porch Ava closed the door behind her.  It was the first time Nora had seemed to let her guard down and Ava didn’t want to spook her.  “I don’t know.”  Ava scrunched up her nose.  “I have to go, but it would be nice to know more than my sister and cousin there.”  She knew she was about to toe a line, not knowing if they really were at that point but Ava decided it was worth the risk to find out.  “And I really think Ray would be disappointed if you didn’t show up.” 

  “You really think so?”  Ava detected a hint of hope in her voice. 

  Ava nodded.  “Yeah, I do.  Did you see him blush when he asked you to go with him?” 

  Nora looked at her hands.  “I didn’t notice.” 

  Ava shrugged.  “Well, he did.”  She waited to see if Nora would respond.  When she didn’t, Ava wanted to test a theory.  “Tell me about him?” 

  Nora’s eyes shot up.  “About Ray?”  Ava just smiled in response.  “He’s just this big, sweet nerd.” 

  Ava’s smile didn’t faulter.  “You like him.” 

  Nora rolled her eyes at Ava and shook her head.  “So what?” 

  Ava held her palms up.  “Nothing.  I just think maybe you should go to the party.”  Sensing her hesitation Ava kept talking.  “I’ll drive you home the second you feel uncomfortable.”  She flinched involuntarily at the memory of the last time she had spoken similar words. 

  “Are you okay?”  Nora expression held a look of concern as she spoke. 

  Ava rubbed her temple.  “Yeah, I... headache.  Maybe I should just lay down for a while.”  It was a weak excuse and Ava knew it. 

  Nora sat up.  “Sure.”  Ava watched as Nora paused at the top of the stairs.  “If I decided to go, what time should I be ready?” 

  “I’ll pick you up at 8?”  Ava responded knowing that Nora would definitely be going. 

~~~ 

  Ava stared at the menu as she sat across from her mother in the booth.  “Have you eaten here before?” 

  The older Sharpe nodded in response as she lowered her menu.  “A couple of times.  It’s close enough to the office I’ve met a couple of clients that wanted a little more discretion here for lunch.”  She turned her menu towards Ava and pointed to one of specials at the top of the page.  “This dish is really good.” 

  Closing the menu Ava sat it on the table, sliding it to the edge towards the waiter.  “That’s fine.”  After taking their orders the waiter grabbed the menus and slipped to the back.  “So, how was work?” 

  “Busy.”  Pam took a sip from her water glass.  “So, how was your summer?  We didn’t get a chance to talk very much.” 

  “It was okay.”  Ava shifted in her seat wondering how long it would take for her mom to cut to whatever it was that she had really brought her out to dinner for. 

  “How was the internship this year?  Grandpa Carver said you did really well.”  Pam was watching her expectantly. 

  Ava opened and closed her mouth a couple of times before she was finally able to decide how she wanted to respond.  “I suppose I did a great job of filing and fetching coffee, yeah.  Hard to mess that up.” 

  Pam sighed and folded her napkin in her lap.  “Once you are a little older you can do more.” 

  “That’s not true.”  Ava licked her lips and leaned forward.  “Last year, he taught me real self-defense techniques.  He taught me how to scan a crowd for a threat.”  She tried to keep her voice down, but it was growing increasingly difficult.  “This year he wouldn’t even let me out of the fucking office.” 

  “Ava!”  Her mom’s mouth pressed into a thin line.  “Watch your mouth.” 

  Ava leaned away from the table and looked skyward.  “Sorry.”  She sighed and rubbed her hands on her jeans under the table.  “I just don’t want to be treated any different than before.” 

  Her mother sighed and nodded.  “I know, sweetie.  But you have to understand that he’s worried, we’re worried.”  Several minutes of silence passed before Pam spoke up again.  “Did you talk to any of them?” 

  Ava nodded.  “Kevin and I talked a lot.” 

  “Amber?”  Ava could feel her mother studying her face. 

  “No.”  Ava made an attempt to keep her expression neutral.  If she was being honest, she knew she wasn’t that great at it.  “I did speak to Leah.” 

  “Oh?”  Ava fought back a smirk seeing that her mother was shit at staying neutral too.  “How’d that go?” 

  Ava turned her attention to the silverware in front of her.  “I got what I needed.”  She paused and pushed the fork aside.  “Closure.” 

  Pam sighed and Ava knew she was trying to be understanding, but that was clearly a sigh of relief.  “High School relationships are rarely strong enough to stand the test of time.  It’s probably for the best.” 

  That was a far cry from the ‘it’s just a phase’ speech Ava had gotten from her before.  Maybe she really was trying to be better.  “That’s what I keep hearing.” 

  The waiter brought out her mother’s salad and sat it in front of her.  “So, when will you hear about the football team?” 

  “Sometime tomorrow.”  She watched her mother pushing the food around her plate with her fork.  “Go ahead and eat.” 

  Pam speared a piece of lettuce.  “Your Uncle Hank seems to think Coach Hunter will put you on the roster.”  Ava just nodded her head.  “What do you plan to do if he doesn’t?” 

  Ava’s brow furrowed.  “I don’t know.”  For the first time since she could remember, she didn’t have a plan.  When she looked up again Ava expected her mom to be upset with her, but instead she looked sad.  “I’ll figure something out.” 

~~~ 

  Ava was woken by Nick barking and jumping off her bed.  “What the hell?”  She pulled a pillow over her face and turned onto her side in an attempt to go back to sleep.  More barking rendered that pointless.  Removing the pillow from her face she whistled and patted to bed next to her.  “Come on.  I’m not ready to get up yet.”  The only response she got was the door swinging wide open as he bumped it on his way out. 

  Swearing under her breath she sat up and looked over at the clock, 9:30a.  She had slept significantly later than normal, but she still wasn’t ready to get up.  A figure in her doorway drew her attention.  “Your dog!”  That was all the disheveled Carly said before heading downstairs. 

  Replacing the pillow over her head Ava was about to drift off when her mother’s voice shouted up the stairs.  “Ava, phone!” 

  Grunting she pushed the pillow aside trying to figure out who would be calling her.  Her eyes snapped open as she bolted upright.  She was in motion as soon as her feet hit the floor.  Her mom was waiting at the base of the stairs holding out the cordless handheld towards her.  She cleared her throat and made an attempt to smooth down her hair.  Her mother was grinning at her as she took the phone.  “Hello?”  She was relieved that her voice sounded remotely normal when she spoke. 

  “Good morning, Ms. Sharpe.”  The distinct British accent came through the receiver.  “It’s Coach Hunter.” 

  Ava felt her mother’s eyes watching her carefully and Carly’s head poked around the corner from the kitchen.  “Good morning Coach Hunter.”  Carly’s eye opened wider, and Ava had to turn away before she laughed at her ridiculous appearance. 

  “I’m calling to offer you a position on the team.”  Ava dropped to sit on the last step of the staircase.  “If you’d like to play for Star City East High then quarterbacks and centers are required to report Monday morning at 7:45 for practice.”  Ava was having trouble finding her voice to respond.  She had already all, but given up after the talk they had after try-outs.  “What do you say, Ava, are you ready to be a Mustang?” 

  “Yes, sir.”  She didn’t allow her voice to betray her level of excitement.  “You won’t regret this.”  Ava’s mother was smiling at her proudly and Carly came running into the room and hugged her mom as they waited for her to finish the phone call. 

  “Just bring your ‘A’ game.  Oh, and your cleats and mouthguard.”  His tone was upbeat.  “Congratulations and I’ll see you Monday morning.” 

  “Thank you, sir.”  Ava hung up the phone and looked at her mom and sister.  “I need new cleats.” 

  Ava was swept up in hugs from her sister as well as her mom and for a moment everything felt like it was back to normal, finally.  “Let me call Dot and see if Nate made it.  We can all go shopping together tomorrow afternoon.”  Pam pulled back from the hug to look at both of the girls.  “Just make sure you are home by noon.” 

  Confused Ava looked to Carly, who spoke up quickly.  “Of course, mom, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience the Lance's by staying too late.” 

  “Great!”  Pam took the phone back from Ava when she held it out.  “I’m going to start breakfast.” 

  As her mom disappeared into the kitchen Ava turned to Carly.  “What the hell was that?” 

  Carly shrugged her shoulders.  “I might have told her we were staying over at Laurel’s tonight.  That way you don’t have to worry about hauling my drunk ass through the house.” 

~~~ 

  Sara took another drink from her cup and grimaced slightly at the burn on the back of her throat.  It was only eight-thirty and she was already feeling the effects of the alcohol she had partaken of.  She leaned against Ray, resting her head on his shoulder.  “Don’t let me do anything stupid tonight.” 

  He looked over at her and took the cup from her hand and sat it on the coffee table, just out of her reach.  “Okay.”  She opened her mouth to protest, but Ray was suddenly distracted.  “She came.” 

  Sara followed Ray’s line of sight and saw Nora walking through the crowded room.  She was about to smile and encourage Ray to go talk to her when she saw Ava standing next to her.  With her judgement only slightly impaired Sara decided that if she got the chance to confront the tall blonde without making a huge scene she would.  “Talk to her, Raymond!” 

  Ray got up and started towards Nora, but paused and looked back at Sara.  “Are you coming?” 

  She shook her head slowly.  “Just go say hi.”  When he didn’t move Sara stood and walked over to him.  She straightened out his collar and looked him in the eyes.  “You can do this Ray, you’ve known Nora for years.  Just pretend you’re ordering coffee and make a little small talk to start with.” 

  Ray’s eyes were wide, but Sara could tell he had calmed down a little bit as they spoke.  “Right.  Hi.  How are you today.  I can do that.”  He took a deep breath.  Sara could tell he was feeling just brave enough as he walked away. 

  Her smile only slipped when she saw Ava break away and head towards the kitchen.  This was all a little too easy.  She grabbed the cup Ray had taken from her and finished off her drink before heading towards the kitchen right behind Ava.  She closed the distance quickly and grabbed her shoulder.  “Hey.” 

  “Oh, hey.”  Ava appeared to be looking around the room.  “Have you seen my sister?  I know she came earlier with Laurel.” 

  Instead of answering Sara poked her finger into Ava’s sternum.  “What’s your problem, Sharpe?” 

  A look of shock crossed Ava’s features, and she looked down at Sara’s finger pressed against her.  “Excuse me?” 

  “Do you have a problem with me because I’m Bi?”  Sara narrowed her eyes at Ava as she took half step back and shook her head.  “We were getting along just fine then I grabbed your hand and poof you took off.” 

  Ava lifted her hands, still shaking her head.  “I don’t know what you are thinking, but I seriously think you have the wrong idea.” 

  Pressing forward Sara invaded Ava’s space even further.  “I’m thinking that I need to educate your homophobic ass.” 

  Ava’s posture stiffened and she clenched her jaw.  “You’re drunk.  You have no idea what you are talking about.” 

  “You-” Sara was cut off by a cheery voice. 

  “Ava, you’re finally here.”  Carly appeared and wrapped her arms around Ava.  “I’m so happy for you!”  Carly looked from Sara to Ava and back again as her smile spread.  “Did she tell you she made the football team yet?” 

  “No.”  Sara leveled a glare at Ava so she would know that their conversation wasn’t over. 

  Carly took in a dramatic breath.  “Oh my God.  You were telling her and I interrupted.”  Frowning Carly focused on Ava.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to interrupt.” 

  “Damn Carly, are you already drunk?”  Sara bit the inside of her cheek trying to hold her tongue. 

  “Lil bit.”  Carly looked back to Sara.  “Aves, I didn’t mean to interrupt you telling your girlfriend about making the team.” 

  Sara looked up at Ava whose face bleached out.  “What?” 

  “That guy in the kitchen told us.”  Carly jerked her thumb over her shoulder.  “I’m just so damn proud of you, Aves.  You’ve only been in town a couple days and you’re already brave enough to come out of that damn closet even after-” 

  “Carly, shut your mouth.”  Sara watched as Ava clamped her hand over Carly’s mouth. 

  Everything the older girl said sank in and all Sara could do was stare at the sisters and blink before the only words she could think to say tumbled out.  “I... I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.” 

Chapter Text

   Everything is fine, everything will be fine.   Ava thought if she just kept repeating it over and over maybe, just maybe it would be true.  Walking into the house Ava swept the living room searching for Kevin or Amber.  The fact that Amber had insinuated that Kevin and Ava were dating when she pulled Ava from the car, even though Leah just confirmed Amber already knew otherwise had Ava on edge.  Something was going on and she needed to find Kevin and get him away from the party as soon as possible.  

  The music inside the house was much louder than it had been outside, but Ava was still able to just make out the sounds of a commotion of some sort a couple of rooms away.  Heading in the direction of the sound she pushed through crowd as her heart pounded in her chest.    She was just about to move into what she knew was the dining room from previous parties in the home Ava was stopped by two boys blocking her path.  She knew them from the defensive line and they had always been nice to her.  “Hey, guys.  I’m just trying to get through.”  She fought to keep her voice even as she spoke.  

  The taller of the two shook his head and sighed.  “Sorry, Ava.”  He stole a look over his shoulder.  “I can’t let you go past.”  

  “Yeah,  Steve  actually you can.”  He looked at the floor as his shoulders sagged and shook his head.  “Please, just move.”  

  The other boy stepped forward; his lips set in a firm line.  “Back off, liar.”  

  As he spoke Ava could feel her skin crawl as her hands balled into fists.  She set her gaze on the second boy, knowing he was her real obstacle.  “Move.”  She put every bit of force that she could muster behind her words.  

  His lip curled up as he snarled at her.  “Make me, bitch.”  

  He was almost twice her size, but Ava knew something was going on.  Now that she was aware of the threats against her friend, she knew if she did  nothing  she would regret it for the rest of her life.  Dropping her shoulder, Ava kept her head up as she charged at her team mate.  Her left shoulder slammed into his  torso,  she heard his breath leave him with a hiss at impact.  She attempted to lift up slightly so he would be pushed upwards as well as backwards.  Fortunately, her momentum was able to generate enough force to get him off his feet so he lost his footing and landed flat on his back.  Ava wished she had enough time to celebrate the perfectly executed tackled.  She peeked over at the other boy as she regained her footing and moved past them.  

  Entering the dining room Ava saw Kevin curled up on the floor as Tim, the host of the party, swung his leg back.  Ignoring anything or anyone else in the room she lunged forward and hooked her arms under his armpits.  Her grip secured Ava jerked her shoulders back as hard as she could pulling him to the floor with her as he both lost his balance.  

  Caught off guard Tim flailed, dislodging her hold as she took an elbow to the face.  Recoiling she rolled away from him to create some distance before he landed another hit.  Her head spinning Ava shifted onto her hands and knees from her prone position.  She tried to shake off the blow.  The distinct taste of iron hit her tongue as she ran it over her lower lip.  Her head throbbed, distracting her from the growing commotion around her.  Leaning forward she touched her forehead to the floor of the dining room, hoping to ground herself enough to stop the spinning.  

  “Bitch!”  The single word prefaced sharp pain to her abdomen.  

  Her breath was crushed from her lungs and the force of whatever she had been struck by rolled her onto her back.  Ava was fairly certain she had heard a crack, but right now all she could do was try to force air back into her lungs.  There was a burning ache as she tried to pull in air.  The deeper she tried to breath the more intense the ache.  

  “Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?  That’s Ava!”  Even in her current state she recognized Tim’s voice.  

  “She tackled me, man!”  The linebacker barked back.  

  She could hear what she assumed was Tim groaning.  “Just get them out of here.”  She felt light as she was lifted off the floor.  “You’re such a fucking idiot.”  

  Ava started to struggle against the hold around her shoulders, still disoriented she feared it was the linebacker.  “Stop.”  Recognizing Steve’s voice, she complied.  “I called Carly.”  

  She had to force her legs to work as Steve practically carried her out of the house.  Now that she was upright and moving, the pounding in her head increased and the ache in her abdomen was agonizing.  Even with all of that going on she had one concern.  “Kevin?”  

  “Brandon has him, they’re right behind us.”  There was a quiet moment between them.  “Why’d you have to come in like that?”  

  Closing her eyes against the spinning, Ava’s brow furrowed  before she barked a response back at him .  “Why’d you have to just stand by while Kevin was  being assaulted ?”  The boy holding her up remained quiet.  “You did what you thought you had to, and so did I.”  She wanted to shake off his help and leave of her own volition, but she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to remain on her feet.  

  “Oh my God!”  Ava winced as she felt Leah’s hands caress her cheeks.  "What happened?!"

~~~ 

  “Carly, shut your mouth.”  Taking a deep breath Ava clamped her hand down on her sister’s mouth to halt the word vomit that was spewing like a projectile.  Her head started to throb from a physical injury that didn’t exist anymore as her current location sank in.  A high school party, surrounded by a lot of strangers. 

  Sara’s voice was uneasy as she spoke up.  “I... I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.”  Ava looked back to the cheerleader.  She seemed to be genuinely remorseful.  “I never would have-” 

  “But you did.”  Ava’s attention returned to her sister.  “If I move my hand can you manage to be quiet for just a few minutes?  Please?”  Instead of a nod or any other acknowledgement the older girl started talking into the palm of her head.  “You are not instilling any confidence in me right now.”  Carly just continued to mumble as if Ava’s hand wasn’t there.  Ava knew she really only had two choices in this situation she could run away again or she could just face it.  And she was already tired of running and hiding, exhausted in fact.  Ava lowered her hand and waited. 

  “I knew it, I knew you liked her.”  Carly turned towards Sara.  “I told her I’d ask Laurel if you were into girls after try outs, but-” 

  Ava felt her face flush.  “For crying out loud, shut up!”  Ava steered her sister away from Sara.  “Could you please excuse us?” First things first, damage control.  Once they were out of earshot Ava pulled Carly in front of her.  “Who did you tell?”  Ava stole a look back at Sara who was smirking at her from across the room. 

  Carly blinked back at Ava and her mouth fell open for a moment before she finally managed to speak.  “What?  I didn’t tell anyone.”  She looked towards the kitchen.  “John was telling everyone that Sara said you guys were seeing each other.  I just said that I was happy you finally put yourself out there.” 

  Ava ran her hand across her brow.  “Everyone?”  She looked into Carly’s glassy eyes.  “Who is everyone?” 

  “Ava.”  Carly grabbed Ava’s cheeks and her face screwed up.  “Are you mad at me?  Did I do something screw up again?” 

  “No, just...”  Ava covered her sister’s hands with her own, pulling them off her face as gently as possible.  “Just go and enjoy the party, I guess.  And slow down.” 

  Carly’s eyes opened wider.  “Oh my God, we’re sleeping over at the Lance’s.”  She raised her eyebrows and dropped her voice to a whisper.  “Your girlfriend will be there.”  Carly gave Ava a couple of exaggerated nudges in her side. 

  Sighing Ava stole a look at Sara before responding.  “She’s not my girlfriend.”  Taking a deep breath Ava closed her eyes.  “We’ve only been on one date.  It’s a little early for labels, don’t you think?” 

  Carly was practically bouncing at the confirmation.  “Still!  This is great!”  Carly turned on her heel heading back towards the kitchen. 

  As soon as she was out of sight Ava turned her attention back to Sara who was still standing where Ava had left her.  Walking towards the cheerleader Ava made what she thought would be the worst decision of her life.  “So, I’m not a homophobe.” 

  The smirk was quickly replaced by a wince.  “Yeah, got that.” 

  Looking around the sparsely populated room Ava grabbed Sara’s hand and started walking towards a set of french doors that lead to the back yard.  “Come on.  Let’s chat.”  Sara’s grip tightened on her hand as the cheerleader allowed herself to be led outside.  Stepping out on the back-patio Ava managed to stifle a gasp as she took in the grounds in. 

  Sara picked up her pace and walked past Ava.  “Impressive, right?” 

  “Yeah, it’s something.”  She looked over the perfectly manicured lawn lit up by several strings of lights.  She felt Sara tug her to the left.  “Wha-” 

  Looking in the direction she was being pulled, Ava spotted a crystal-clear pool.  “Come on, no one’s at the pool yet.” 

  It only took a split second for Ava to realize the color of the water matched Sara’s eyes.   Stop .  Approaching the edge Sara toed off her shoes and rolled her shorts up slightly.  As she sat on the edge of the pool and dangled her legs into the water Sara patted the spot next to her, to indicate for Ava to join her.  After a moment of consideration Ava kicked off her shoes and socks, sitting next to the cheerleader.  As she slid her legs into the pool, she was surprised to find it wasn’t too cold.  Based on everything else surrounding her she assumed it must be heated. 

  “So, what are we talking about?”  Sara stretched backwards and placed her palms on the deck behind her.  “What an asshole I am for judging you before asking questions?” 

  Chuckling Ava shook her head.  “No, I think you already know all that.  So, I don’t really think we need to discuss that.” 

  Flinching slightly Sara nodded.  “True.” 

  “No.”  Ava gripped the side of the pool and looked into the water.  “Here’s the deal.”  Ava swallowed, trying to gather all the courage she could muster.  “I’m going to dump you before school starts.” 

  Ava could feel Sara’s eyes on her.  “What?” 

  She looked over her shoulder at the cheerleader.  “I said, I’m dumping you before school starts.” 

  Sitting up a curious look passed over Sara’s features.  “Yeah, I heard you, but I don’t get it.” 

  Ava shrugged her shoulders and kicked her legs.  “You’re trying to shake your ex-boyfriend-” 

  Sara held up her hand, cutting Ava off.  “Not ex-boyfriend.” 

  “Okay, your ‘not ex-boyfriend'.”  Ava shot a smile at Sara when she rolled her eyes.  Ava’s gaze returned to the water as she got serious again.  “I need my dad to accept this isn’t a just phase.  As a bonus, in the meantime we might be able to double with those two idiots so they can get their shit together.”  Ava nodded towards Ray and Nora who had just stepped past the french doors onto the patio. 

  Sara looked in the direction Ava had indicated.  “She likes him, doesn’t she?” 

  In response Ava just shook her head.  “I’m not saying a word.  She’s the closest thing that I have to a friend and unlike my sister I can keep my mouth shut.” 

  There was a moment of silence between them.  “So, back at the coffee shop, you took off.” 

  Ava cleared her throat.  “I did.”  She ran her tongue over her bottom lip before continuing.  “Can we leave it at, I wasn’t ready to come out?” 

  Groaning Sara ran her hand through her hair.  “I fucked that up, didn’t I?” 

  “You did have some help, but yeah...” Ava held up her hand with her index finger close to her thumb.  “Just a little bit.” 

  “Why though?”  Ava could feel Sara’s eyes on her. 

  Facing Sara, Ava’s brow furrowed.  “Why what?” 

  “Why help me?  Why worry about them?”  Sara raised her legs out of the water before dropping them down again.  “Your dad is your dad.  I don’t know your story, yet, but dating me isn’t going to change his mind about anything.” 

  Ava heard the emphasis the other girl had put on the yet.  “Honestly?”  Kept her eyes on Ava.  “I’m here for the school year.  After graduation I’ll head back to California for an internship, and if my first choice takes me, college will be on the West coast as well.  So, the chances of making any real, lasting relationships is pretty slim.” 

  Sara whistled and shook her head.  “Wow.  That’s...pretty bleak.” 

  “Doesn’t make it any less true.”  Taking a moment, Ava looked towards the heavens into the starry sky.  “I could be wrong, but if I’m right then maybe, just maybe I can at least help.”  Sara burst into laughter beside her.  “What’s so funny?” 

  “I know you’ve met Laurel, but the two of you should hang out.”  The smile left Sara’s face and she narrowed her eyes at Ava.  “Wait, do you eat pineapple on your pizza?” 

  “I’m not answering that.”  Ava vigorously shook her head.  “I feel like this is a trick question and I’m not going there.”  Ava heard someone running towards them, but before she had a chance to react there was the clapping sound of a body hitting the water before a wave slammed into both girls soaking them completely.  Ava’s mouth dropped open and she attempted to shake water from her hands.  Looking at the focus of the splash she saw Nate bob out of the water. 

  “I swear, Nathaniel, I’m going to hurt you!”  Springing from her seated position Sara drove in after Nate. 

  Ava sighed and slid the ponytail holder off her wrist, quickly pulling her hair back.  She watched as Sara caught Nate and drug him under.  Standing she shifted away from the edge, trying to avoid the splash zone as Nate tried to escape Sara’s wrath. 

  “Hey, Ava!”  Looking towards the sound of the voice Ava saw Jax approaching.  He offered her a warm smile.  “Nate said I’d be seeing you Monday morning.  Congratulations.” 

  “Yeah, you too.”  She returned he smile while trying to wring out the bottom of her shirt. 

  He looked from her to the pool and back again.  “Are you not swimming?” 

  She looked down at her drenched outfit.  “I didn’t know it was an option so I didn’t bring a change of clothes, but I got soaked anyway.” 

  “Nate?”  She just shrugged her shoulders in response.  “Yeah, he’s something else, but I guess you already know that.” 

  “Yep.  I think he might already be regretting it though.”  Jax watched as Sara jumped and put all of her weight on Nate’s shoulders, forcing him under again. 

  “Well, you’re already drenched.  Might as well join it.”  After kicking off his shoes Jax dove in. 

  Ava pulled her Razr out of her pocket, thankful to see that it was still dry.  Sitting on one of the poolside chairs she watched the friends splashing each other relentlessly.  Nora and Ray walked towards her, but Ray broke off to join the others in the pool.  “Hey.”  Ava slid over to make room for Nora to join her.  “How’d it go?” 

  Nora looked towards the pool then rolled her eyes as she looked to Ava.  “I’m not sure how much longer I can discuss the weather.” 

  Chuckling Ava kept her attention on the pool.  “He’ll get there.” 

  Nora coughed lightly.  “So, you and Lance?” 

  Surprised word had already gotten around Ava refocused one Nora.  “Uh, yeah.” 

  There was a slightly awkward pause in conversation.  “So, you’re...”  Nora raised her eyebrows to ask the question she didn’t want to vocalized. 

  “A lesbian?”  Ava filled in the blank for her.  “Yeah.”  There was another pause and Ava decided to seize the opportunity to toss something back at Nora and break the tension all at once.  “Typically, people don’t stick around when they find out who I am.  So, you can just go now if you want.” 

  “Oh.”  Nora laughed and shook her head.  “Is that how it is?” 

  Even though her expression for the most part stayed neutral Ava could hear the amusement in her tone.  “Yeah, it is.” 

  “Well, I guess we all have our secrets.”  Nora tossed back in a mocking tone.  After they shared a laugh Nora seemed to get lost in thought.  “So, I mean you like girls... do you think I’m attractive?” 

  “Oh, for fucks sake.”  Shaking her head Ava made sure her phone was secure and well out of the splash zone.  “This conversation.”  Ava gestured between herself and Nora.  “Is not happening.”  Turning around she dropped into the pool to join the others. 

~~~ 

  Sara stretched out on the lawn, staring up at the stars.  Her wet clothes clung to her uncomfortably, and the buzz from the alcohol she had consumed had already begun to wane as several hours had passed since she had tried to pick a fight with the girl that was now apparently dating, fake dating she corrected herself internally.  It had been a strange turn of events.  She tucked her hands behind her head, content to spend the rest of the night right there. 

  “Here.”  A towel fell to covered her face as she heard Laurel. 

  Removing the towel Sara looked up at Laurel who was now blocking her view.  “What do you want?” 

  “Come on, time to go.”  Laurel started to walk back towards the house. 

  Groaning Sara rolled onto her stomach.  “Mom isn’t home and dad’s working!  We don’t have a curfew tonight.” 

  “Everyone who hasn’t passed out is leaving, Sara.”  Laurel didn’t break her stride as she sniped back.  “I’m leaving in ten minutes, with or without you.”  As she got to the threshold, Laurel tossed one last statement back at Sara.  “The Sharpe’s are already on their way to the house.” 

  Pushing off the ground Sara scrambled to her feet.  “Wait, what?”  Once she found her footing Sara snatched the towel off the ground and sprinted after her sister.  She quickly caught up and followed Laurel through the house.  “They’re coming to our house?” 

  Laurel nodded.  “Mmhmm.  After Ava drops Nora off they are staying with us.” 

  “That doesn’t make any sense.”  Sara followed Laurel out the front door towards her car.  “They’ll practically be home when they drop Nora.  Why then turn around and come back this way to our house?” 

  “Did you see Carly?”  Sara shrugged and nodded.  “She asked if they could stay over just in case, she got too drunk so Ava wouldn’t have to sneak her through the house.  Since neither mom nor dad would be home, I thought it would be fine.”  Laurel shot her a suspicious look.  “I’m kind of surprised your girlfriend wouldn’t share that information with you.”  Laurel pulled the driver’s door open. 

  “She’s not my girlfriend, Laurel!  We just started seeing each other.”  Sara wrapped the towel around her shoulders to ward off the chilling night air before opening the passenger door.  “Did Carly tell her?  Maybe that’s why she didn’t mention it?”  Climbing into the car Sara sank into the seat trying to figure out why Ava hadn’t said anything earlier. 

  Laurel got into the driver’s seat and started the car.  “Maybe.”  Sara could tell by Laurels overall demeanor she was still skeptical.  “Or maybe you didn’t want me to know you were dating.”  She turned down the driveway heading towards the main road. 

  Sara wasn’t quite sure how she managed it, but she choked on air as she processed what Laurel was implying.  “I wouldn’t... we’ve been out on like one coffee date.  I wouldn’t...”  At least that much was mostly true. 

  Laurel arched a brow at Sara and made a left towards their home.  “You seem nervous.” 

  “I’m not nervous.”  Sara’s face scrunched up.  “I would just rather not discuss my sex life with my sister...existent or otherwise.” 

  Dropping her scrutiny Laurel laughed.  “I’m not mom.  I’m not judging you, but she’s also sleeping on the couch.” 

  “Oh my God, Laurel, stop.”  Sara leaned back against the head rest.  “Of course, she’ll sleep on the couch.”  She rolled her head to the side towards Laurel and grinned mischievously.  “But then where will Carly sleep?” 

~~~ 

  Sara bounced down the stairs and pulled the door open.  “Hey.”  Reacting quickly, she helped Ava support the stumbling brunette who was leaning heavily on Ava.  “She really can’t hold her liquor.” 

  Ava just grunted in response as Sara led them to the living room.  As soon as they were within range Sara released Carly, allowing Ava to guide her into a sitting position on the couch.  “Thanks.”  Ava knelt in front of Carly and pulled her shoes off.  “I appreciate you and Laurel letting us stay.” 

  Sara checked the stairs for her sister before she spoke.  “Laurel was wondering why I didn’t know you were crashing here tonight.”    Sara attempted to look causal as she leaned her shoulder against the doorway that separated the living room from the entry. 

  Ava lifted Carly’s legs onto the couch and shrugged her shoulders.  “I just figured you already knew.”  She nodded towards her sisters already passed out form.  “She didn’t tell me until this morning.”  Standing up Ava looked around the living room.  “I’m going to grab my bag.”  Ava looked at her wrinkled clothes.  “Is there somewhere I can change?” 

  “Sure.  You can change in my room.  The bathroom down here barely has room for the toilet and sink.”  She pointed to a door in the hallway to indicate the location of the referenced bathroom. 

  “Cool.”  Ava approached her and Sara froze for a minute as she paused before the corners of Ava’s mouth turned up slightly.  “Can I?” 

  Sara gritted her teeth as she realized Ava was trying to get past her to go back out to the car.  “Of course.”  Jumping out of the way Sara moved to the hallway closet.  “I’ll grab her a blanket or something.”  Once Ava was outside Sara pressed her eyes closed.  “Damn, real smooth Lance.”  She grabbed a pillow and blanket from the closet and returned to the living room.  She draped the blanket over Carly and looked up just in time to see Ava walking back into the house.  “My rooms this way.”  Moving up the stairs Sara could hear Ava following closely behind her. 

  Sara’s bedroom door was propped open from her quick exit to open the front door, letting Ava and Carly in.  Walking into her room and looked at all the clutter on the floor and started kicking a few things under her bed.  “Don’t worry about that.” 

  Turning to face Ava, Sara could feel her face flush slightly in embarrassment.  “I wasn’t expecting company.” 

  “Don’t worry about it.”  Ava stood in the middle of her room and raised her eyebrows after a few minutes.  “Were you going to stay here while I-” 

  “No, no... I’ll be right outside the door.”  The flush on her cheeks deepened as she moved towards the exit.  She closed the door behind her and smacked the palm of her hand against her forehead.  “Idiot.”  After a few minutes the door opened and Ava stepped into the hallway.  “Are you tired?” 

  “Not especially.”  Sara swallowed as Ava slung her bag over her shoulder.  “Are you?”  Sara just shook her head in response.  “What’d you have in mind?” 

  Brushing past Ava, she walked back into her room.  “Come with me?”  Ava shifted in the hallway looking a little uneasy.  Rolling her eyes Sara pulled the bag from Ava’s shoulder and pulled her into the room.  “I just want to show you something.”  Satisfied that the taller girl was going to follow her, Sara walked over to her window and opened it.  She turned back to Ava.  “Come on.”  She then stepped out onto the roof. 

  Ava was at the window in a flash.  “What are you doing?” 

  Sara held out her hand towards Ava.  “Come on, we can talk out here without bothering anyone.”  Sara held out her arms and looked skyward.  “It’s safe, I do it all the time.  Come on, Sharpe!”  Reluctantly Ava takes the offered hand and follows Sara onto the roof.  Sara watches Ava’s face as she looks up at the stars and a soft smile overtakes her expression.   Damn it .  If the pounding in her chest is any indicator Sara knows she is going to need to keep her guard up if she’s going to survive her senior year.  Swallowing Sara licks her lips.  “What do you think?” 

  Ava looks at her and Sara can swear those steel blue eyes were staring directly into her soul.  “It’s beautiful.”  For a moment Sara’s mind slips thinking maybe the other girl was talking about her and not the view.

Chapter Text

  Breaking eye contact Ava’s gaze returned to the night sky.  “So, what possessed you to climb out onto your roof for the first time?”  She sought out familiar constellations while she waited for Sara’s answer. 

  Ava heard Sara hum.  Looking over Ava could see Sara was lost in thought as she considered her response.  She leaned back into her room and grabbed a blanket.  “Laurel and Ollie might have dared me to the first time.”  After spreading the blanket on top of the shingles Sara plopped down and stretched her legs out in front of her.  “Actually, no, it wasn’t a dare.  They just said I couldn’t go to a scary movie with the because I’d be too scared.  I proved them wrong by climbing out here and yelling at them as they left.”  Ava heard Sara chuckle at the memory.  “They still went without me, and Laurel yelled at me.”  Sara shrugged her shoulders.  “After they left, I came back and relaxed under the stars.”  Sara patted the spot on the blanket next to her.  “It’s not super comfortable, but it works.” 

  Ava sat down next to Sara, but instead of stretching out in a similar position, she pulled her legs into her chest and rested her cheek on her knees turning her head towards Sara.  Something about the way she was positioned seemed off.  It would normally be a very relaxed pose, and yet Sara still seemed tense.  “Are you okay?” 

  Sara shot her what she assumed was supposed to be a charming smile, but it came across a bit forced.  “Yeah, I’m great.”  There was a moment of silence.  “We may have a problem though.” 

  Kicking into problem-solving mode Ava prepared herself.  “What’s that?” 

  Sara’s face scrunched up slightly as she spoke.  “I may have told Ray and Nate that I lied to John about dating you back at the coffee shop.” 

  The taller blonde shook off Saras concern.  “It’s fine I can handle Nate.  I’ll just tell him you didn’t want to out me.” 

  Wincing Sara continued.  “Also, I might have asked him if you were homophobic.” 

  “Well, I’ll...”  Ava blew out a breath as she tried to process this new information.  “Okay, you know what, we’ll just move forward.”  She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach at the lack of a plan, but it was becoming more and more common as of late.  “Nate has a habit of seeing the positive side of things so, maybe he won’t question it and just be happy for us.” 

  A neutral expression settled on Sara’s face.  “I don’t think Ray was paying a whole lot of attention to me at the time so, we should be good there.” 

  The only sound was a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of a nearby tree.  “You really thought I was homophobic?”  Ava succeeded at hiding the pain that thought caused her, from being reflected in her voice. 

  “I didn’t know, but the way you took off as soon as John was gone.”  Her shoulders sagged slightly.  “Look, I’ve been told I tend to act before I really stop to think.  For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” 

  Thinking back Ava knew that it was a pretty large leap in her opinion, but she could see were Sara might have gotten that impression.  “It’s okay, but maybe you should talk things out a little more before jumping to that type of conclusion.”  She wasn’t sure how her next question would be received, but she was curious about Sara.  “When did you know?”  Sara’s eyebrows furrowed as she tilted her head slightly.  “That you liked girls.” 

  “Ah.”  Sara reclined onto her elbows, crossing her ankles in front of her. “That’s an easy one.  Freshman year.”  A small smile appeared on her lips at the memory, and Ava had to consciously look away when she felt like she was staring.  “Spanish One with Senorita Oritz.  You’ll see what I mean once school starts.”  Ava picked at the hem of her shorts knowing what was coming next.  “What about you?” 

  Ava quickly ran her tongue over her bottom lip.  “The summer between Freshman and Sophomore year.”  She swallowed the non-existent obstruction in her throat.  “My best friend’s sister.” 

  “Wow, Sharpe, crushing on your best friend’s sister?”  Sara’s voice had a lilting tone to it.  Ava shifted uncomfortably and moved so her chin was resting on her knees as she looked forward.  “Wait.”  A familiar tightening feeling started in her chest.  “It wasn’t just a crush, was it?” 

  “Depends on who you ask, I suppose.”  Ava clasp her hands in front of her shins.  “It definitely started as a crush though.” 

  Out of the corner of her eye Ava noticed Sara’s foot start to shake.  “Well, I am talking to you so, I guess I’m asking you.  But, if you’d rather not talk about it then we can always change the subject.”  There was something in Saras tone that drew Ava’s gaze back to her face.  The first thing she noticed was the smirk plastered on Sara’s face.  “But I would like to point out that you started it.” 

  Chuckling Ava released her hands and blew out a breath.  “That’s fair.”  Considering her options, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.  “Tell me about all the fun things to do in Star City.” 

  Sara’s head fell backwards.  “Okay, okay, but I will get you to talk eventually.”  Ava watched as Sara lowered her arms until she was flat on her back and looking up into the night sky.  “Let’s see, there’s the usual stuff movies, mall, waterpark.  Personally, I spend extra time at the studio over the summer, but that will probably taper off with practice starting on Monday.  What else?”  Sara tucked her arms under her head.  As she stretched out Sara’s shirt rode up exposing a sliver of skin, drawing Ava’s attention.  “Oh!  The guys and I usually hit Air & Paint before classes start.” 

  The sudden exclamation drew Ava’s attention away from Sara’s midriff before she got caught looking.  “Air & Paint?”  Ava scanned Sara’s face.  “What’s that?” 

  Her eyes widened and she turned her head to meet Ava’s eyes.  “It’s perfect!  You and Nora should come with us!”  Before Ava could question her, Sara prattled on.  “It could be boys versus girls.  I’d be our team captain of course...” 

  Finally finding her voice Ava spoke up.  “Whoa.  What are we talking about now?” 

  Sara’s mouth snapped closed for a moment as she raised her eyebrows.  “Paintball.” 

  “I don’t think-” Ava’s protest was cut off when headlights turned into the driveway. 

  “Ugh.”  Sara craned her neck from her lying position.  “Is it really that late already?” 

  From her seated position Ava could just see over the edge of the roofline as an older man got out of the car that pulled up.  “Baby girl, why are you still up?”  He never looked up as he closed the car door behind him. 

  Glancing back to Sara, Ava noted the slight pink flush to her cheeks.  “Hey dad, we weren’t tired and I guess we just lost track of time.” 

  Ava could clearly pick up on the subtle authoritative tone in his voice.  It was something her Grandfather had taught her to pick up on when talking to people in positions of power.  She knew when it was present that the individual should be respected. “We?” 

  “Yeah, remember Laurel talked to you about the Sharpe’s staying over tonight?”  Ava knew that she was bluffing since Sara herself had no idea Ava was staying tonight. 

  Heavy footfalls ascended the porch stairs below them.  “Carly and-” 

  “Ava.”  Sara piped up as if she knew he was going to struggle.  “Carly’s on the couch and Ava’s up here with me.” 

  There was the jiggle of keys.  “Alright, back inside girls.  I can’t have you going home completely exhausted in the morning.”  Ava heard him pull the door open.  “Good night, I’ll see you in the morning.” 

  The door closed and Ava looked back to Sara who was flat on her back again.  “So, that was my dad.”  Sara hopped onto her feet and started to gather the blanket.  “Come on, it’s really late.”  Standing Ava followed her lead and they wound up back inside Sara’s room.  “Oh my God, I have the best idea.” 

  Ava watched as Sara walked over to her closet and after a few minutes of digging pulled out a sleeping bag.  She narrowed her eyes at the cheerleader.  “What are you up to?” 

  Sara shook out the sleeping bag.  “Take my bed, I’ll crash on the floor.”  Ava was about to protest when Sara giggled.  “Laurel was giving me crap earlier and I’d love to see her face in the morning when we both come downstairs.” 

  Ava rested her hands on her hips.  “I kind of feel like this is another one of those situations where you are acting before you think.” 

  “It’ll be hilarious.”  Sara waved a dismissive hand.  “You’ll see.” 

  Rubbing her eyes Ava reluctantly nodded.  “I feel like I’m going to regret this, but okay.”  She held up her index finger.  “One condition, I’m not kicking you out of you bed.  I’ll take the sleeping bag.”  Sara’s mouth opened, but Ava spoke over her.  “I take the sleeping bag or I’m going downstairs.” 

  Rolling her eyes Sara relented.  “Fine.” 

~~~ 

  “ What happened?”  Ava attempted to pull away when Leah ran her thumb over Ava’s bleeding lip, but her hands were still on Ava’s cheeks keeping her in place.  

  Despite the pain she managed to push both Leah and Steve off and remain standing.  “What happened is, people fucking care Leah!”  She tried to pull in a deep breath to continue her tirade, but the unexpected jolt of pain from her abdomen caused her knees to buckle.  As she stumbled forward Leah caught her keeping her upright, but the pressure of the other girl’s body against her caused Ava to gasp for breath only to increase the ache in her torso.  

  Battling the burning in her chest and the spinning from the injury to her head, Ava’s forehead fell forward to rest on Leah’s shoulder.  “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.  Amber said everything would be fine.  She said she’d take care of it.”  

  To help steady herself Ava’s hands gripped Leah’s waist as her vision started to darken and blur at the edges.  She wanted to continue to berate Leah to make her see why she was wrong, but everything just hurt so bad.  She had taken hits in games before, this however was on a whole different level.  She could hear Leah’s apologies continue in her ear; the sound was muffled almost as if she was underwater listening.  Ava wanted to push the drunk girl away when she felt lips press against her neck, and then again just below her ear while the apologies persisted.  

  She was barely aware of the headlights that landed on the group in the front lawn.  She lifted her head as she heard a car door open then slam shut.  Ava looked towards the sound, but she had to close her eyes as she recoiled at the bright light.  “Ava, what the hell happened?”  She had been expecting to hear her sisters voice, but instead she immediately recognized her father’s deep timber.  

  She found that keeping her breaths shallow kept the torso pain to a minimum.  She opened her mouth to tell him everything, but before she could find any words Kevin cut her off.  “I was mouthing off and some guys jumped me.  Ava was trying to help.”  

  Ava wasn’t thinking about the position she was in until she felt her father’s hands on her face turning her head until he could see directly into her eyes.  “Looks like you may have a concussion, sweetheart.”  She followed his eyes as he stepped back and saw her hands resting on Leah’s waist.  As he looked back up, she was sure Leah’s lipstick would have rubbed off onto her neck.  “We should get you to the hospital and make sure you’re okay.”  He glanced over to where she assumed Kevin was standing.  “You too.  You can call your mom on the way.”  She could tell he was still worried, but there was something else, another layer to his words.  

  Steve and Brandon helped Kevin into the front passenger seat while Leah and Randy assisted Ava into the back seat.  Without hesitating Leah climbed in after Ava and grabbed her hand.  “What are you doing?”  Ava put as much strength behind her words as she could.  

  She met her dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror.  “Leah, keep her talking and awake.”  That’s when she finally pinpointed it, what had changed in his tone, disappointment maybe disapproval.  

  “Yes, sir.”  Her voice had taken a lighter tone as though she was happy to have something to do, a purpose to serve.  

  Leah babbled on and on in Ava’s ear, but she kept her eyes firmly locked on the rearview mirror.  Every time she met her dad’s eyes he would quickly look away.  Based on that interaction Ava knew that not only did he figure out what was going on between the two girls, but he had already  sussed  out everything.  All of the movie nights, the times she stayed out later than normal, and the sleepovers with ‘Amber’.  Her heart felt heavy seeing how he was reacting to this new knowledge.  She was vaguely aware of Kevin talking to his mother on the phone during the drive.  

~~~ 

  Sara bolted upright when something woke her from sleep.  Looking around her room she heard what could only be described as a whimper.  Leaning over the edge of the bed she saw Ava curled into the fetal position.  Having heard bad things about walking someone from a nightmare Sara debated her options.  On second thought she remembered that it was sleepwalkers you weren’t supposed to walk up.  She cleared the sleep from her throat before trying to wake the other girl.  “Ava.”  She watched as the muscles in Ava’s jaw clenched then released.  “Ava!”  Even though she was louder this time Ava still didn’t wake up. 

  Reaching over Sara had to nudge Ava’s shoulder a couple of times before she finally reacted.  Her eyes snapped open and she rapidly scanned her surroundings until her gaze landed on Sara.  Exhaling she fell back onto the pillow.  “Sorry.”  Ava brushed her hands over her face as she started to settle back into the sleeping bag. 

  Pulling her pillow from the center of the bed Sara tucked it under her head so she could stay focused on her guest.  “Want to talk about it?” 

  Ava swallowed loudly.  “Just a bad dream.” 

  Her head rested comfortably on her pillow Sara watched as Ava shifted so they were facing each other.  “I’m a pretty decent listener if you do want to talk.”  She knew it was a little presumptuous since they really just met and it hadn’t even been 24 hours since the truce had been called. 

  Ava looked up at her and shook her head.  “I really don’t.  Thanks though.”  Sara looked on as Ava sat up and pushed out of the sleeping bag.  “I should head down to check on Carly.  We need to head home before too long.” 

  “Cool.”  Sitting up again Sara grabbed a ponytail holder off her nightstand and quickly pulled her hair up.  “Let’s go see what I can scrounge up for food.”  Hopping off the side of her bed she held her hand out and helped Ava to her feet.  Before Ava could pull away Sara adjusted her grip so she could intertwine their fingers. 

  Ava quirked an eyebrow at Sara.  “You’re really going all in on this?” 

  “She thinks she can tell me what to do.”  Sara bobbed her head up and down as she tugged Ava towards the door.  “Keep your eyes on Laurel, it’ll be worth it.” 

  Sara felt Ava fall into step behind her as they got to the top of the staircase.  “How do you even know if she’s awake yet?” 

  “It’s after ten.  She’s awake.”  Continuing down the stairs Sara suddenly stopped on the last step as a thought struck her.  She turned to face the other girl frowning at herself.  “Hold on, I’m an idiot.  You just had a nightmare and here I am dragging you down to parade you in front of my sister.  Because I’m apparently a child and don’t want to be told what to do.”  She immediately released Ava’s hand.  “Why am I such a dumbass around you?”  Sara pinched the bridge of her nose and descended the final step creating some distance between them.  “You know what, I’ll figure the John situation out.  We should just call this thing off right now.” 

  “Wow.”  Staring at the floor Sara couldn’t bring herself to look at Ava.  She could tell by the burning sensation that her ears were turning red.  “You really need to take a breath.”  When she heard Ava chuckle Sara was finally able to look up again.  “So, I have a theory.  I know when you figured out that you liked girls, but have you actually asked one out?” 

  Sara snorted and crossed her arms over her chest.  “Well, no.”  Narrowing her eyes at Ava she bit her lower lip.  “What are you getting at Sharpe?” 

  “I don’t think your nerves have anything to do with me personally.  I think you’ve just never actually dated a girl and you’re scared.”  Ava arch an eyebrow at Sara as the corners of her mouth turned up. 

  All of her previous hesitations melted away at the obvious challenge and Sara held up her hands.  “Oh, is that what you think?”  Ava just nodded at her in response.  “Okay, next weekend you work on Nora.  We’ll paintball in the morning and then you and I will get dinner, dragging Nora and Ray along to get that going.” 

  The taller blonde sucked air through her teeth and tilted her head.  “I’m not sure that counts.  That’s more of a double situation and we’re just pretending.” 

  Walking backwards towards the kitchen Sara smirked back at Ava.  “You just said that was the reason I was nervous around you so, what difference does it make?  Or are you just trying to get me alone?” 

  Ava followed Sara into the kitchen.  “You’re right.” 

  As they walked in together, Sara looked over to Laurel sitting in the breakfast nook and shot her a smug grin.  “Morning, Laurel.  How’d you sleep?” 

~~~ 

  Seven-fifteen Monday morning Ava sat on the bench at the sideline finishing lacing up her new cleats.  She had just started to stretch out when she heard the Coaches Hunter and Bennett approaching.  After she completed her stretch Ava hopped to her feet and approached the coaches.  “Good Morning.”  She held her hand towards each of them individually.  “Thank you for giving me a chance.” 

  “You’ve more than a chance, Sharpe.  You’re on the team.”  Coach Hunter pulled out his clipboard.  “I can’t wait to see you put these numbers up here and prove that I didn’t make a mistake.” 

  Nodding she watched as Jax, Faucett, and two other guys she hadn’t met before showed up.  The first half hour of practice was just for quarterback and centers.  That time was spent going over the playbook.  As the rest of the team arrived, they moved into the official stretches and then to calisthenics.  At some point a couple hours into practice Ava noticed Sara appear on the sidelines with Coach Lynch. 

  Everything seemed to be going well until the team was being divided up to run drills.  Faucett stepped up next to Ava as she was taking a drink and leaned in.  “Don’t think you’re special.”  He jutted his chin towards the sideline.  “She has a thing for quarterbacks, it was just your turn.”  Setting her water down she gritted her teeth knowing he was just trying to get under her skin.  He licked his lips and lifted one shoulder.  “Good news is she puts out, I’d assume that should work out for you too.” 

  Ava’s hands curled into fists and she closed her eyes exhaling slowly.  “You should probably shut the fuck up.” 

  “Take it easy, Sharpe.”  He started backing away feigning innocence.  “I thought you knew.” 

  It took every ounce of self-control not to knock him on his ass right there.  She knew she needed to keep her temper in check, but she also knew she couldn’t let him get away with talking about Sara like that.  It was demeaning and just wrong.  Clasping her hands-on top of her head she watched as he rejoined his small clique.  A hand landed on her shoulder without thinking she shook it off. 

  “Aves, are you okay?”  She glanced over at Nate.  “You seem tense.” 

  Sighing she nodded towards Faucett.  “Who the hell does he think he is?” 

  Nate looked in the direction she had indicated.  “Who, Mike?”  She shrugged and wrinkled his nose.  “He’s just an asshole.  Don’t let him bother you.”  He gave a dismissive shrug.  “Seriously Aves, nobody likes him.  He’s not worth your time.” 

  She quickly formulated a plan as she got her head back into the game.  The rest of practice passed without incident.  Ava sat on the bench changing out her sneakers.  As she looked up, she saw Faucett walking past with his two cronies.  “Hey, Mike.”  He stopped and turned to look at her.  As soon as her shoes were laced up, she approached him.  “I’m going to need you to keep your mouth shut about Sara.  Whatever happened between the two of you is between you.  No one else needs to know.” 

  He laughed and looked at his buddies.  “Didn’t realize you were so sensitive, Sharpe.  It’s just a little locker room talk.”  His expression turned serious and he leaned into her space.  “If you can’t handle it maybe you need to pick another sport.” 

  Instead of letting him get at her again she just smiled at him and slung her backpack over her shoulder.  “Look, just because you can’t keep a girlfriend doesn’t mean you have to take it out on me.”  The energy shift was palpable.  “Maybe if you could figure out how to treat a lady you would be happier and not such an asshole.” 

  The two guys that had been walking with him started laughing, but he glared at them to shut them up.    “I know how to treat a lady.”  His nostrils flared and she knew she had pushed the right buttons. 

  “Is there a problem?”  Jax and Nate both stepped up flanking her. 

  Ava saw him tense up when her back up arrived.  “She’s talking a lot of shit for no reason.  Not very conducive to the team dynamic.” 

  One of the Centers she just met stepped up next to her.  “Dude, you’re the only one not conducive to the team.”  His face screwed up.  “Nobody wants to hear your bullshit.  It’s degrading and that’s not who the Mustang’s are.” 

  Ava knew she took a gamble by hoping the team would stand with her, but even in the short time she had spent with the team she got the feeling that the majority of them were really good guys.  Turns out it was a chance worth taking as she watched Faucett’s retreating form.  “Thanks guys.”  She turned to face her team mates. 

  “Thank you for standing up to that jerk, it’s been a long time coming.”  The center shook his head.  “I’m Joe by the way.  If he gives you any more grief let me know.” 

  “I appreciate that.”  Ava finally felt like things just might fall into place after all. 

  Nate whooped and high fived Jax and Joe.  “Come on, Waverider’s awaits!” 

  Ava hiked her backpack up on her shoulder and shook her head.  “Ah, I really need to get home.” 

  Jax frowned at her.  “You’re about to swipe my starting position, you should at least hang out with us.” 

  She was about to protest when she felt a presence walk up on her right side as hand slid into hers.  “Come on, babe.  Let’s get going before all the good tables are taken.” 

  Before Ava could react, Sara was already dragging her to the opposite sideline.  After their talk on the rooftop Ava could sense Sara’s confidence had been off somehow.  When she mentioned paintball and knowing Sara was into competitive dance Ava had a feeling that all she had to do was give Sara some sort of a challenge and she would raise to it.  Easily matching her pace Ava fell into step beside Sara.  “Babe?” 

  The charming smile Ava knew was trying to come out a couple nights previously finally made an appearance.  “Go big or go home, Sharpe.” 

Chapter Text

   Ava flinched and squeezed her eyes closed as the car pulled under the large overhang to the Emergency Department; the bright lights causing the pain in her head to increase.  A hand landed on her knee and fingers gently  brushed  against her  skin  to draw her attention.  Cracking her eyes open she saw Kevin leaning between the seats looking back at her, his eyes full of concern.  

  Leah’s voice seemed not to stop for a single second during the trip.  Ava really wasn’t able to decipher everything that she said, but she knew it was primarily apologies and promises.  She wanted nothing more than to tell the girl that was pressed against her side to shut up so she could try to sort out her thoughts, but Ava knew she was just doing what her father had asked.  

  The  car  door swung open causing her to turn her head and  she saw  the outline of her father filling the opening.  “Come on, sweetheart."  She felt his hand on her shoulder.  The overall tone of his  voice was still supportive, but she did notice that some of the warmth from before had left it.  

   She twisted  her body  to exit the car and winced at the flash of pain that radiated from her core .   She pressed her lips together to suppress a groan.  Ava felt her split open again, the metallic taste of copper against her tongue a tell-tale sign.  She brought her right hand up and brushed it against her upper lip, wiping away some of the drying blood from her nose.  She could only imagine what she must have looked like as she finally completed turning her body.  Her legs cleared the door opening and she grabbed her fathers’ forearm for additional support.  

  She dropped to the ground and for a moment her knees threatened to give out before she was able to steady herself.  Keeping her hand on her father to pull from his strength.  “How’s your head?”  She held no doubts that he  had felt her stagger and his arm slid across her shoulders  to  encourage her to lean against him.  

  “Hurts.”  She allowed herself to be led into the waiting room.  She could hear Leah and Kevin following closely behind them.  

  The nurse behind the admissions desk looked up as they entered.  He immediately hopped to his feet and waved them over.  He looked directly at Ava.  “Let’s get you to a room.”  His attention turned  briefly  to Randy.  “I’ll have someone get you  the  paperwork to fill out.”  

  Randy nodded.  “I’ll park the car and be right back in.”  He gave Ava’s shoulder a gentle squeeze as she braced herself against the desk.  

  The nurse started to help her towards a room, but Ava resisted, turning her attention to her friend.  “Kev?”  She was still squinting under the bright lights, but she could see the gash above his eye that had stopped  bleeding.  

  “Go on, I’m okay.”  She could tell he was standing completely under his own power.  “Mom is on her way.”  

  “Can I...?”  Leah was wringing her hands and swallowed as she gestured  towards the back, asking if she could follow.  

  Ava considered telling her no.  She could see how worried the other girl was,  and she relented.  “Yeah.”  

  Everything after that started to get a little fuzzy, but she was sure she heard the nurse asking questions as her vitals were checked.  Ava was only vaguely aware that she was answering those questions without hesitation.  Leah had located a chair in the corner  of the small exam room  and sat down out of the way.  After a few minutes a doctor joined them taking and reviewing the chart the nurse had been filling out.  

  She handed the chart back to the nurse.  “Ava, I’m Doctor Rapp.  Can you tell me what happened?”  

  “Of course.”  Ava paused as she tried to remember  the details of the party , but the intensity of the pain behind her eyes just seemed to increase.  “Uh...”  She furrowed her brows and looked to the doctor who gave her a warm smile.  

  “It’s okay.  Don’t worry about that right now.”  She exchanged a look with the nurse causing him to make a note on the chart.  “Can you tell me your full name?”  

  “Ava  Josslyn  Sharpe.”  She shifted uncomfortably on the exam table.  

  The doctor glanced at the nurse.  “Where else are you hurting, Ava?”  

  “It hurts when I  take deep breaths .”  She indicated her left-side specifically.  

  The doctor stepped forward and looked towards the potentially injured area.  “May I?”  Ava gave a single nod and the doctor grabbed the hem of her tee shirt carefully raising it.  Ava heard Leah hiss from behind her and the doctor made a small disapproving noise before turning to the nurse.  “Let’s go ahead and get a chest and head CT.”  

  The doctor had just turned her attention back to Ava as   the door swung open and a frantic Pam Sharpe burst into the room  walking immediately over to Ava .  “What happened?!”  

  Before Ava was able to speak up the Doctor touched her mother’s arm drawing her attention.  “Mrs. Sharpe?”  Pam quickly nodded.  “I believe Ava may have a mild concussion so, we want to get a CT of her head to confirm.  I also suspect she may have a fractured rib so we want to take a look at that as well.”  

  “What?”  Pam looked over her shoulder at her daughter and then back to the doctor, still nodding.  “Yeah, whatever you need to do.”  Ava could hear her mother's voice waver as she spoke .  

  The doctor cleared her throat and returned her attention to the clipboard.  “I just have a few additional questions before we can continue with the tests.”  She looked past Pam to Ava.  “Are you sexually active?”  

  Pam’s voice piped up before Ava could respond.  “What?  No!”  Ava felt her mother’s eyes on her as her shoulders sagged and she dropped her head.  “Ava?”  

  Ava avoided her mother’s gaze, looking at the doctor and giving her a single nod to the affirmative.  She could feel her cheeks flush as her mom shifted and crossed her arms, but didn’t say a word.   In her peripheral vision Ava noticed Leah shift uncomfortably.  

  Doctor Rapp made a note on the paperwork as she kept her professional demeanor.  “Any chance you are pregnant?”  

  Ava groaned and clasped her hands in front of her.  “No.”  

  The doctor gave Ava a concerned look.  “You’re sure?  Sometimes contraception can fail.”  

  She didn’t think it was possible, but the pounding in her head actually intensified.  “I’m absolutely sure.”  Ava knew the doctor was used to dealing with  difficult patients  and with her mother in the room thought there  was a good chance she could be lying .  

  The doctor took a deep breath and lowered the clipboard.  “We should do a blood test to be certain.  The radiation could harm an unborn child.”  

  Ava looked up as her mother opened her mouth to agree to the test.  That was the final straw, Ava snapped.  “I’m not fucking pregnant.”  Ava felt angry and embarrassed by this whole exchange and she was ready for it to be over.  She looked over to Leah and gave her a withering look as she shrugged her shoulders.  She felt backed into a corner, unsure of what to do next.  “I’m gay.”  Leah’s eyes grew wide and she  slouched into the chair .  The room suddenly felt like it was closing in on Ava  as she realized what she had just blurted out .  

  After her proclamation Ava heard her mother laugh nervously.  “Uh, no.  No, you aren’t.  You’re dating Kevin.”  Pam’s eyes shifted between Leah and Ava,  suddenly  becoming aware of  the exchange  that had  occurred in the room without her knowledge.  

   There was shouting outside of the exam room drew  all of  their attention  to the door .  "Now what?”  The doctor moved to the door. “Excuse us one moment.”  Her tone was warm, but there was definitely an edge to it as she  opened  the door and motioned for the nurse to follow.  

  The door was slightly ajar as the two medical professionals hurried out of the room.  Ava closed her eyes and shivered against the chilly air as voices filtered through.  She had initially assumed that there was a drunken scuffle outside of the room based upon the lateness of the evening.  Th at  was until her father’s voice rang out above the rest.  “Keep your kid the fuck away!”  Ava’s eyes snapped open and she looked to Leah.  

  “My kid?”  Ava didn’t immediately recognize the second male voice.  

  “Dad?”  Leah’s voice was barely a whisper as she got to her feet and walked  past Pam and  towards the door.  

   Leah’s dad’s voice seemed to thunder through the open door. “I don’t want your dyke daughter anywhere near my girl.”  Ava knew that words were powerful, but she never expected any could cut her so deep.  The voices  drew  closer as a few more joined in.  “Leah!  Get out here now!”  

  Ava watched as the other girl touched the handle of the door, but remained still.  “What am I supposed to do?”  The older girl looked back to Ava like she had the answers.  

  Ava shook her head in defeat ashe wished she could travel back two hours and change the course of the evening.  It hurt to think, but she couldn’t stop trying to figure out how this whole night could either be ignored or fixed.  “I don’t know.”  

  Pam spoke up as soon as Ava got quiet. “Go home, Leah.”  When she looked over at her mother Ava feared she’d see the same disapproving look her father gave her.  Instead Pam avoided looking at her at all as she pushed the door open.  “Go on.”  

  Leah looked from Ava to Pam and then back again.  She swallowed and seemed to come to a decision.  She walked over to Ava and grabbed her hands, giving them a gentle squeeze.  “I’ll call you tomorrow.”  

  Ava managed a small smile.  “Yeah, okay.”  They both knew  beyond a shadow of a doubt that  wasn’t going to happen.  

 ~~~ 

  After she heard the door down the hall close, Sara walked around Ava’s room looking at the books neatly organized on her bookshelf.  Behind her she sensed the door opening, but when she turned there was no one there.  She leaned forward and tried to look past the door and down the hallway to see if maybe Ava was standing just out of sight.  She jumped back slightly as something jumped on the bed in front of her.  She thankfully had managed to prevent herself from yelling in surprise as the corgi looked up at her panting, making his face look like he was grinning at her mischievously. 

  She slowly exhaled as she reached across the bed and scratched between his ears.  “You scared the crap out of me!”  In response he flopped over on his side exposing his tummy.  She heard the water in the shower turn on and after scratching Nick for a few seconds she moved back to the bookshelf.  An open moving box on Ava’s desk pulled her attention and she peeked inside.  Sara spotted a couple of yearbooks from Ava’s previous school and pulled the oldest one out.  Since it was from two years ago Sara flipped to the Freshman section and quickly found the S’s.  A younger Ava smiled widely at the camera and Sara couldn’t help, but smile herself. 

  She flipped towards the back of the book and looked at the candid’s.  It was mostly Juniors and Seniors, but Sara was able to consistently find Ava with another girl and a guy.  Flipping back to the Freshman section she was able to find their names.   Amber and Kevin.   She didn’t take the time to read through all of the signatures that covered the inside of the front and the back of the book.  She grabbed the last two books and sat of the edge of Ava’s bed absently scratching Nick’s exposed tummy as she flipped through the books looking for Ava. 

  Opening last year’s book, the first thing that immediately jumped out at her was the lack of signatures in the book.  She looked at the front and back, there wasn’t even an obligatory ‘Have a nice summer’ in someone’s too sloppy handwriting.  She did find a picture of Ava that looked like it was after a football game with Kevin and Amber, but there was another girl leaning in also.  The eye black under Ava’s eyes was smudged and she looked like she was genuinely laughing as she held up her helmet.  Sara wanted to see  that  smile in person.   Maybe even be the one to cause it .   Sara tried to shake that thought away. 

  A voice broke through her thoughts.  “Oh my God, Aves!”  Sara’s head snapped around to see who had interrupted her daydreaming. “Whoa, Sara?” 

  “Hey Carly!”  She sat the open book aside and stood up.  “We’re going to Waveriders, but Ava wanted to grab a shower first.”  She kept her tone light.  “Did you want to join us?”  She felt a little bit like she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t have. 

  “Yeah, maybe.”  The older girl craned her neck to see what Sara had been looking at.  Sara was sure she saw Carly’s eyes widen slightly as she caught sight of the picture, but she quickly trained her features back to neutral.  She nodded to the yearbook.  “That was the last game of the season.  The starting quarterback, Tim, was injured early in the first quarter.  So, Ava pretty much played the entire game.”  Sara noticed Carly’s nose scrunched up as she said the quarterbacks name.  “It was a rivalry game.”  The corner of Carly’s mouth lifted briefly at the memory.  “We won for the first time in four years.” 

  Sara noted that the water had stopped running in the bathroom.  “So, that must be why she looks so happy.” 

  “Yeah, she really was.  Of course, that was before everything went to hell.”  Carly shook her head and sighed.  She spun the book around so she could get a better look at the page.  “That bitch, Leah.”  She tapped her finger on the so far unidentified girl in the picture. 

  “Wait.”  Sara hadn’t realized she was the one that had spoken until Carly looked up at her with a questioning look in her eyes.  “I’m guessing that’s her best friend’s sister?” 

  She nodded.  “Yeah, Amber’s sister.”  Carly’s finger hovered over the picture of the girl standing closer to Ava. 

  “She’s told me a little.”  Sara closed it and picked both books up and put them back in the box on the desk.  “Not much though, and I’d rather she be the one to tell me when...”  Sara paused as she closed the flaps of the box remembering their arrangement.  “or if she wants to.” 

  Carly nodded.  “Yeah, of course.  Everything was so out in the open back home.”  The older girl sighed and ran a hand through her hair. 

  Nick jumped to his feet and launched himself off the bed sprinting into the hallway.  A thirty seconds later Ava poked her head around the corner, peering into the room with a towel still wrapped around her shoulders.  She looked between Sara and Carly.  “I feel like I should be worried about whatever is happening in here.” 

  The brunette laughed.  “Nope, just offering to give you guys a ride to Waveriders.” 

  “Uh-huh.”  Ava stepped into the room with Nick trailing behind her.  “I don’t believe that for a second.” 

  Carly jutted her chin towards the door.  “Let’s get out of here before dad gets home.” 

  Sara noticed that the sisters shared a look that she couldn’t read. 

~~~ 

  Dropping onto the bench Ava slid all the way against the wall to make room for Sara to sit next to her.  Carly had just dropped them off and told Ava to call when she was ready to come home.  Grabbing the menu standing up between the napkin holder and a nearly empty ketchup bottle she looked around the restaurant taking in the sparse décor.  It was clearly a hang-out that catered to the local community as the color scheme matched the schools red and white.  Across from her Ray looked up from a binder he had been flipping through. 

  Sara snatched the binder from Ray as she plopped down next to Ava.  “Ray, stop.  It’s time to come up for air and visit with friends.” 

  Ava tilted her head so she could read the label on the spine of the binder.  “SAT prep?”  Ray nodded and stretched across the table to reclaim the binder, but Sara twisted towards Ava so it was out of his reach.  As the cheerleader moved her thigh pressed against Ava’s.  Her breath caught in her throat, but she recovered quickly.  “When do you test?” 

  Sara rolled her eyes and continued to hold the binder up.  “August 27th.”  She shot Ray a petulant look.  “We have plenty of time.” 

  “It might seem like that now, but we still have all of our normal end of summer activities.  You have cheer and dance practice; it’s going to be here before you know it.”  He held his hand out. 

  Ava managed to ignore their contact and sat the menu down.  “He’s right, you do know that?” 

  The cheerleader placed a hand on her chest dramatically and turned to look at Ava.  “Oh God, are you a nerd too?”  Ava watched as she handed the binder back to Ray still clutching her chest in mock distress.  “I thought I’d found myself a respectable jock.” 

  The door to the restaurant opened drawing Ava’s attention away from the table.  Mike Faucett walked in with the girl she had seen him with at Darhk Roast.  A hand waved in front of her face drawing her back to the table.  “I’m sorry, what?” 

  Ava noticed Sara glancing over to see what had distracted her.  “Tuning me out already, Sharpe?”  before she repeated herself.  “I was just asking if you had any plans this weekend.” 

  Completely dialed back into the conversation Ava shook her head.  “I don’t think so.  Should I?” 

  Sara raised her brows and smirked at Ava.  “You should take me out to dinner.” 

  Ray cleared his throat and sat the binder aside.  “Sara, we have paintball on Saturday.” 

  “Hmmm, that’s right.”  Sara seemed to be lost in thought.  “Well, if we had another person, we could change up the teams this year.”  The shorter blonde looked at Ava. 

  Ava knew she was supposed to take the not so subtle prompt and offer up Nora as a suggestion, but instead she just shrugged her shoulders.  “Yeah, that’s too bad.” 

  Sara narrowed her eyes at Ava.  “Oh wait, you’ve been hanging out with Nora, right?  Maybe she would want to come.” 

  Ray had been in the middle of taking a drink from his water glass, and started choking as soon as Nora’s name was mentioned.  “Sara...”  Ava detected a hint of warning in his voice. 

  “I don’t know.”  Ava causally lifted the menu up to hide her grin from Ray.  “I could ask and see if she’d be interested.” 

  Sara nodded and smiled.  “Great!  It could be boys versus girls.  Since they already have a nerd on their team you can be our nerd, babe.”  Ava wasn’t normally a fan of nicknames, but every time ‘babe’ left Sara’s mouth Ava felt her heart beat a little faster.  It wasn't until this moment that Ava realized just how blue her eyes were. 

  A huff from the other side of the table reminded Ava that they weren’t alone.  He swallowed before before continuing.  “No offense.”  He held his hands up towards Ava.  “But it’s our senior year do we really want to change things by adding more people to the roster now?” 

  Nate appeared with a soda and sat down next to Ray.  “What are we changing?”  He nodded a greeting to both Sara and Ava as he addressed Ray. 

  The dark-haired man gestured to Sara.  “Sara suggested that we add Ava and Nora to the paintball game Saturday, and I just thought maybe we should keep it to the Legends.”  The small grin on his face suggested that he was confident Nate would take his side on the matter. 

  Ava could see a spark of recognition in Nate’s eyes as he looked at Sara.  “Well, buddy, I think Sara's idea is awesome!” 

  Ray’s head snapped to look at Nate.  “Awesome?” 

  Nate nodded confidently.  “For sure!  The four of us have gotten predictable.  Adding a couple of wildcards in the mix will help shake things up this year.”  Nate smacked his hands together.  “We’ll go out with a bang.” 

  Ava could practically feel Ray’s nerves pouring across the table.  “Then on Sunday, those that need to can get together and prep for the SAT.”  She nodded to the binder sitting in front of Ray. 

  The smile fell from Sara’s face, melting into a look of betrayal.  “Wait, what?” 

  Ava turned her attention back to Sara.  “It’s better to study in several smaller sessions than to try and cram everything all at once.”  She could sense that some of the tension seemed to leave Ray with her suggestion. 

  “Great, now that’s settled.”  Nate leaned back in the booth and stretched his left arm across the back of the seat.  “You two.”  He gestured between Sara and Ava.  “How long has this been a thing?” 

  Ava didn’t miss a beat.  “Not long.  We talked briefly after try outs and I gave her my number.”  She glanced to Sara to make sure she was paying attention.  “We talked on the phone and I told her I wasn’t really out to the majority of my family.  Just that I kind of wanted to stay under the radar, but John and Carly trashed that.” 

  “I knew it!”  Nate turned and poked a finger in Ray’s chest.  “I told you!”  He had a pleased smile plastered on his face when he turned back towards them.  “I saw the way you two were looking at each other during try outs.”  He kept nodding as he spoke.  “Trying to throw me off by asking if she was homophobic.”  He wagged his finger at Sara.  “Nice try, Lance.” 

    Remembering that Carly had called her out for flirting with the cheerleader also, Ava felt her cheeks flush and hoped that Sara hadn’t noticed.  Trying to play it off she turned to Sara.  “Homophobic?  Really?” 

  Sara laughed and shrugged.  “I had just outed you to John Constantine and you took off.  What can I say, I just panicked.” 

  Ava was surprised at how easy the back and forth flowed between her and Sara.  The conversation started shift predominately to the three friends working on finalizing their weekend plans.  Her input not really necessary any longer Ava’s gaze drifted to her left as she checked out of the discussion again.  Sitting on the other side of the restaurant Faucett waved at her.  At first it seemed to be a friendly gesture until his eyes drifted to Sara then back to Ava.  He raised his eyebrows at her suggestively then shot her a smug grin. 

  She tried her best to remain calm, but Ava the muscles in her back tensed causing her to sit up a little straighter.  Sara’s knee bumped against hers under the table.  Ava looked over and met Sara’s eyes.  “Are you okay?” 

  The genuine concern in Sara’s expression caught her off guard.  “Yeah, I’m good.”  It struck her as odd that someone she just met would already look at her  like that .  She decided she was trying to read into it too much as she tuned back into the table.  She nodded absently and forced a smile.  “Sorry, I was just got a little caught up in my head.”  It wasn’t until Sara grabbed her hand and laced their fingers together that Ava was able to start to relax. 

Chapter Text

  Ava jogged into the Darhk’s café just after six thirty Tuesday morning.  As she approached the counter an older woman appeared from the back, her arms loaded down with boxes.  “Good Morning!  I’ll be right with you.” 

  “I’ve got it.”  Nora strolled to the register and looked from the clock to Ava.  “The usual?” 

  Ava glanced at the other woman, afraid of getting Nora in trouble.  “No, I’m on my way to practice.  I had a little extra time.”  She turned her attention back to Nora.  “I need a favor.” 

  Nora’s eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms.  “A favor?” 

  “Are you busy Saturday?”  She wasn’t sure her plan would work, but she needed to at least try. 

  The brunette held out her arms gesturing to her surroundings.  “Probably.” 

  The older woman sat the boxes on the counter and walked over to stand by Nora’s side.  “What’s going on?”  She rested her hands on her hips, while giving Nora a curious look.  “I’m Ruve by the way, Nora’s mom.” 

  Turning her attention to the older woman Ava offered her a warm smile.  “Hi, it’s nice to meet you Mrs. Darhk.  I’m Ava-” 

  Ruve cut Ava off before she could say anything else.  “The same Ava that took Nora to a party over the weekend?” 

  Ava’s eyes darted to Nora wondering if she had gotten in trouble.  “Yes?” 

  “Okay.”  Ruve looked from Ava to Nora.  “So, what’s going on Saturday?” 

  “Sara invited me to join their annual paintball thing, but I need to find someone to join us to balance out the teams.”  Ava gestured to Nora.  “I haven’t really met a lot of people since I moved here, I wanted to see if Nora would be willing to join us?” 

  Looking back to Ava, Ruve seemed to think for a moment before turning to Nora.  “I can cover your shift.”  She wiped her hands on her apron before turning her attention back to the first box, tearing it open.  “You really should do something fun with the rest of your summer, Nor.” 

  Sighing Nora shook her head.  “Paintball?  That’s not really my thing.” 

  “Are you trying to tell me that pelting other people with little balls of paint isn’t appealing to you at all?”  Out of the corner of her eye Ava caught the smile Ruve shot her. 

  The corner of Nora’s mouth quirked up slightly.  “Alright, I’ll pick you up this time.” 

  “That sounds great.”  Ava was going to say more, but her phone started to ring.  Pulling it out of her pocket she looked at the number and took a couple of steps backwards towards the door.  “I have to go, but we’ll work out the details.”  Walking out of the café she flipped her phone open and held it to her ear.  “Kevin?  It’s like five in the morning there, are you okay?” 

~~~ 

  It was Thursday afternoon and Sara stood with Coach Lynch and Kendra discussing the new routine.   Until her attention was pulled to the other side of the field where she saw Coach Bennett issuing equipment to the football team.  Scanning across the players Sara smiled at Ava as she looked up after tightening the straps of her shoulder pads under her arms.  Ava returned the smile before turning her attention back to the assistant coach as he lifted the cups and checked the fit. 

  “Sara, thoughts?”  Sara’s attention was jolted back to the conversation she had mentally checked out of.  Kendra raised her brows and tilted her head to the clipboard she was holding. 

  “Right.”  Trying to recover she took the clipboard and ran her finger over the routine.  “I think this is good.” 

  “Of course, it’s good Lance.  We’re talking about how to go about assigning locker decorations this year.”  Kendra looked up at the sky in thought.  “We could do volunteers or draw numbers or...” 

  The coach cleared her throat and started to walk towards the field house.  “I’ll let you figure this out.”  She gestured to one of the underclassmen.  “Help me with the uniforms.” 

  Sara shrugged her shoulders as the coach walked away leaving the rest of the squad behind.  “Can’t we just do the same thing as last year?  Random numbers?” 

  One of the Juniors stepped forward.  “I don’t think so.”  She looked towards the field and wrinkled her nose.  “I don’t want to get stuck with her locker.”  Sara felt her face start to heat up.  “I mean, honestly do you?”  The girl lowered her voice.  “I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea about me ‘cause, you know.” 

  Surprised Sara looked to Kendra who gave her a wary look.  It seemed that even though several days had passed word hadn’t gotten to the other girl that they were dating.  “No, I don’t know.”  She rested her hands on her hips as she took a step to close the distance between them.  “What  do  you mean, Rachel?  Because I’d be more than happy to support  any  member of our team.  That is what we are here to do, lead cheers.” 

  “Calm down, Lance.”  The Junior took a step backwards in an attempt to maintain her personal space.  “Listen, I know you’re Bi or whatever, and I don’t have a problem with that.”  She looked around at the rest of the squad for support.  “I just don’t want her to think that I’m interested in her.”  No one moved to her defense. 

  Sara stilled.  “So, first off you are assuming that Ava’s interested in girls.” 

  Rachel shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “She signed up for the GSA and she plays football.” 

  Rubbing the bridge of her nose Sara sighed.  “It’s a Gay Straight Alliance and Tiffany plays softball, so what?”  She paused to let that information sink in.  “Secondly, you have no issue with decorating any of the guys lockers and running the risk of them thinking you are interested in them?” 

  Rolling her eyes Rachel huffed.  “Well, no.” 

  “Great news, Rachel.”  Sara managed a genuine smile to throw at the girl.  “I can guarantee that she is absolutely not interested in you.”  The other girl opened her mouth to protest, but Sara held up her hand to stop her.  “Enough.”  Taking a deep breath, Sara sorted her thoughts before addressing the entire squad.  She easily slid back into the role of captain after getting her bearings back.  “We have pictures coming up on Tuesday the 16th.  We need to tighten everything back up.  Everyone returning from last year knows what are expectations are.  New JV members will be paired up a Varsity mentor.” 

  The rest of practice was uneventful as they worked through some basics with the new members and started work on the new routine.  At the end of the session Sara and Kendra assisted Coach Lynch with distributing the uniforms and going over the dress code expectations.  As they wrapped up Sara noticed that the football team were already done and Ava was standing with Carter, Jax, and Nate. 

  After she excused herself Sara made her way over to the small group with Kendra in tow.  “Hey!”  The four football players turned as they approached.  “Are we going to Waveriders tonight?”  She strode right up to Ava and wrapped her arm around her waist. 

  Sara realized she had taken Ava off-guard by the look of surprise on her face, but instead of pulling away she seemed to lean into the contact.  “I can’t tonight.  Mom wants me home for dinner tonight.”  Ava’s brow then furrowed and she dropped her voice angling her body so they could step away from the rest of the group.  “Are you okay?” 

  “Yeah, I’m fine.”  Blowing out her breath Sara managed a smile.  “It was just a frustrating practice.” 

  Ava gave her a sympathetic grunt and tucked a strand of hair that had escaped her high pony tail behind her ear.  “It’s not much, but I have something for you.” 

  “Oh?  I didn’t know presents were a part of the deal.”  Sara brought out her signature smirk as she forced the drama with Rachel to the back of her mind. 

  Ava hummed and tilted her head from side to side.  “It’s not a present per se.”  She pulled a red mesh garment out of her bag and handed off to Sara. “Here.” 

  Taking it from Ava she quirked an eyebrow.  “What’s this?”  Instead of just unraveling the cloth she looked up at the taller blonde and held it up as if to ask for an explanation. 

  “Well, take a look and see.”  Ava smiled as she jutted her chin toward Sara. 

  Sighing Sara rolled her eyes and shook it out.  Holding it up she saw that it was a red football jersey emblazoned with the number 12.  Grinning Sara nodded and looked up at Ava.  “Yours?”  Ava gave a single nod 

  Sara noticed the way Ava bit her bottom lip as if she was unsure about presenting the jersey to her.  “Our first scrimmage is an away game so, I thought...”  As she trailed off, Ava shrugged and gave Sara a lopsided smile.  “Is it dumb?” 

  “Not at all.”  Sara carefully folded it over then placed it into her bag along with her Cheer Uniforms.  “It’s sweet.” 

  “Awww.”  Sara and Ava both looked over at the same time to see Nate giving them a dopey grin.  “You guys, I’m totally on board for this ship.”  He waved his finger between them, still grinning. 

  “Shut up, Nate.”  Sara watched Ava punched him in the chest. 

  Chuckling he held up his hands.  “Easy there, Aves.  I’m your ride home.  Without me you are lugging all of that gear home.” 

  After slinging her bag over her shoulder Sara bent over and grabbed Ava’s helmet.  “Come on, babe.  I have Laurel’s car so, I’m your ride now.”  With her free hand she grabbed Ava’s wrist and started to tug her towards the parking lot.  “Let’s go, Kendra.” 

  “Aw, come on!”  Nate rubbed his chest where Ava had made contact.  “I’m kidding!” 

  In her peripheral vision Sara saw Ava shrug a shoulder at him.  “Sorry Nate, she’s cuter than you.”  She then grabbed the large duffle bag off the ground and started to follow. 

  Pouting Nate looked to Jax as he ran a hand through his hair.  “I’m cute.” 

  Laughing Jax gathered up his gear and started following them towards the lot.  “Oh, I am definitely not getting involved in this.” 

  When they got to Laurel’s car Sara popped the trunk tossing her bag and Ava’s helmet inside.  The taller blonde then lifted the large duffle and shifted it to the far left, making sure to leave room for Kendra.  Once everything was loaded Sara moved to the driver’s door.  “I’ll drop you at home.”  After directing that statement to Ava Sara turned to Kendra.  “Then we’ll head to Waveriders?” 

  “Sounds great.”  Kendra opened the rear passenger door, leaving the front seat for Ava. 

  Once everyone was seated and buckled in Sara started the car and turned to Ava who was taking a drink from her water bottle.  “So, when do I get to see you in those tight, white pants?”  As Ava choked on a mouthful of water Sara couldn’t help, but laugh. 

  Kendra groaned in the backseat.  “Jesus, Sara.” 

  Still coughing Ava shook her head finally clearing her lungs.  “Tuesday, picture day.” 

  Focused on backing out of the parking spot Sara glanced over her shoulder to make sure it was still clear behind her.  “So, do you smile for the football picture or do you have one of those hardcore angry faces?”  Sara scrunched her brow and set her lips into a firm line, mocking what she had deemed to be a mean look in her head. 

  Sara felt her heartrate pick up as she heard a genuine laugh from the tall blonde.  She was certain this was the first time she had heard Ava laugh and even though it was at her expense Sara knew she wanted to hear it over and over again.  “Is that your angry face?”  Ava used her fingers to make air quotes as she said angry face.  “Because I have to be honest, it’s more adorable then angry.” 

  “You wouldn’t have said that earlier.”  Kendra spoke up as she leaned forward.  “What the hell was Rachel’s problem?”  Sara felt the energy in the car shift almost immediately. 

  She gritted her teeth and gripped the steering wheel tighter.  “I don’t know, but hopefully she’ll get over it.”  Sara struggled to keep herself from looking over to check on Ava, knowing that her emotions had a tendency to show on her face. 

  “I just can’t believe she didn’t know you guys were dating.”  The brunette leaned back, settling into the bench seat.  “She does now, that’s for sure.” 

  Sara could feel Ava’s eyes boring into her.  “Whose Rachel?” 

  “A Junior.  She’s on the Varsity Squad with us.”  Kendra was looking out the driver’s side window as she explained.  “She’s kind of a snob.  Sara had to set her straight earlier.” 

  “She was just running her mouth.”  Taking a breath Sara stole a quick glance to the taller blonde.  “It’s fine.  I handled it.”  It was a short drive to Ava’s house and Sara pulled into the driveway before the conversation could continue. 

  Once they stopped Sara and Ava both got out of the car and walked to the back as Kendra shifted to the front passenger seat.  When Sara open the trunk, as she looked over at Ava Sara realized that it would have been at this point that they would kiss if they were really dating.  She wasn’t sure why that thought crossed her mind as Ava grabbed the handles of the duffle.  Sara noted that Ava refrained from actually pulling the bag out.  “What did she say?” 

  Sara looked at Ava’s profile while she looked at the duffle bag, avoiding looking Sara in the face.  “It’s really not a big deal.  We were talking about decorating lockers for game days.  Normally we just draw random numbers so there isn’t any favoritism, but Rachel was concerned.”  Sara stopped thinking that she had said enough and waved her hand dismissively. 

  “What was she concerned about?” Ava’s gaze remained down as she pressed for more information. 

  Shaking her head Sara put her hand on the lid of the trunk.  “That if she decorated your locker, you’d get the wrong idea about her intentions.” 

  Finally Ava looked up, her expression unreadable.  “So, that little performance on the field was just so you could make your friend comfortable?”  Surprised at the coldness of Ava’s tone Sara just gaped at her.  “Okay, um...I was thinking.  My Uncle Hank always has a large cookout on Labor Day, this will be the first year we’ll be able to go.  That’d probably be a good place to stage the break up.  Nothing huge to cause a major scene, just something low-key to end this.” 

  “No, Ava wait.”  Sara started backpedaling.  “There wasn’t a performance.”  She started to realize that the taller blonde was throwing up walls she didn’t know she had broken through. 

  Ava pulled the duffle out a grabbed her helmet with her free hand.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  Ava brushed past Sara bumping her shoulder into Sara’s. 

  Closing the trunk Sara retrieved the keys and chased Ava onto the porch.  “Will you just give me a minute?”  Opening the front door the taller blonde stepped inside.  Without a second thought Sara caught the door preventing it from closing and followed pulling it closed behind her.  “Ava, come on.  It’s not like that at all.” 

  Ava dropped the duffle on the floor of the foyer.  “Then what’s it like, Sara?  Please enlighten me.”  The familiar clicking of nails against the flooring echoed through the house as Nick entered from the dining room on the right side of the house.  Ava sat her helmet on top of the bag as she knelt to scratch the dogs head. 

  “Okay, so first off Rachel isn’t a friend.”  Sara leveled her gaze at Ava, making sure to project as much of her feelings as she could.  “I told her it didn’t matter who’s attracted to whom.  We’re supposed to be supporting the team.  The whole team.”  Taking a second she tried to calm her breathing and stepped closer into Ava’s space.  Ava stood up as Sara approached.  “As far as the field goes.”  Taking a deep breath Sara decides to be bold.  “I like you, Ava.”  Sara started to reach for Ava’s hand. 

  The sound of someone clearing their throat snapped her attention to the left.  A man was standing in an open doorway looking at them.  Sara felt Ava take a step away from her as the man turned and walked back into what she assumed was an office. 

  Sara knew the moment had passed, but she turned back to Ava and opened her mouth to speak.  Before she could actually say anything, Ava cut her off.  “You should go.” 

~~~ 

  Walking down the hallway with Carly on her left Ava could feel everyone’s eyes on her.  She had spent the last week at home trying to take it easy.  Carly had been bringing her assignments home to her so she wouldn’t fall behind.  Now as she walked through the hallways, she wished she would have listened to the doctor and taken an extra couple of days she had offered to write her off for.  

  “Hey, you okay?”  Carly gave Ava a concerned look as they continued towards their first period class, which they miraculously shared.  

  “Just peachy.”  As she spoke Ava held out her hand to take the single textbook and notebook from her sister.  

  Handing the materials over Carly frowned.  “Listen, mom is just a call away if you need to get out of here.  I’ll call her myself if I need to.”  

  All of her morning classes pretty much went as expected.  The stares and whispers were unnerving and as her lunch hour approached a feeling of dread started to settle in the pit of her stomach as she realized she normally sat with Amber, Leah, and their friends.  

  As the teacher dismissed her final class before lunch Ava hung back, letting everyone else clear out first.  She continued to take her time dropping her books at her locker then made her way towards the lunchroom knowing she wouldn’t be able to avoid it forever.  She squared off her shoulders and turned the corner entering the large room.  There was a moment that the voices tapered off when she was noticed.  She glanced to her normal table long enough to see that all the usual people were there.  

  It wasn’t until she turned back to join the line to get food that Ava was met with the sneer of the linebacker that had delivered the kick.  Every ounce of her being struggled to remain steadfast.  Not wanting to let him see that she was affected by his mere presence.  Her hands curled into tight fists at her sides.  Tension settled in her chest and she wasn’t sure if the pain was physical or just in her head, but knowing that she did have a fractured rib she turned on her heel and started walking to the nurse’s office.  

  The noise of the lunch room had just started to fade into the background when she heard rapidly approaching footsteps.  Turning quickly, she instinctively raised her hands in preparation to defend herself.  “Aves?”  

  Lowering her  fists  she shook her head and moved to walk away.  “No.”  

  “Ava.”  Leah  started to  move closer , but paused when another student walked past them in the hall .   Ava noted the way Leah remained silent until the third party was out of sight.   “This is such a mess.”  

  Scoffing Ava shook her head.  “You’re telling me.”  They hadn’t spoken since the hospital, but Ava wasn’t sure she really had anything to say to the other girl now that they were face to face.  

  Sighing Leah looked at the floor.  “How are you?”  

  Now, a headache was starting to set in.  “Actually, I’ve never been better.”  She made sure to lay the sarcasm on thick enough that it would be unmistakable.  “How do you think I am?  I’m a fucking social pariah with a fractured rib and my best friend is in a rehab facility because he tried to kill himself.”  She rubbed her temple trying to ease some of the growing discomfort.  “And why did all of this happen?  Because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut, but somehow you come away unscathed.”  

  “That’s not fair!”  Leah interjected.  “Look, just meet me after school?  The usual place.”  

  Ava snorted.  “No.  I know it was wrong to sneak around like we did.  So, this whole situation is just as much my fault as it is yours.”  She looked skyward as if the answers were waiting for her on the ceiling.  “We both know this thing between us was going to end once you left for college.”  

  Leah’s face paled.  “You don’t know that.”  

  “Yeah, I do.”  Ava squinted through the increasing  pain  in her head as she continued.  “ You should go.”  

~~~ 

  Ava stood trying to remain impassive as Sara’s expression fell.  “If that’s what you want.”  She moved to the door reaching for the handle.  “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

  Frozen in place Ava couldn’t do anything other than watch as Sara walked out.  As soon as the door closed, she ran her hands over her face.   What are you doing?   The corgi walked over to the door and pawed at it before looking back at Ava and whining. 

  Ava looked to the open doorway of her of her father’s office.  She swore under her breath as she opened the door and stepped onto the porch.  “Sara, wait.”  The cheerleader had made it to the bottom step, but stopped and turned to face her.  When Ava did say anything else Sara arched an expectant brow at her.  Nick slipped out the door before Ava closed it and bounced down the stairs, heading for the side yard.  Ava followed his lead, but instead of following him into the side yard she stopped next to Sara.  “I’m sorry.” 

  When Ava met Sara’s eyes she expected her to be angry with her, but instead her expression was filled with concern.  “Are you okay?” 

  Ava’s thoughts drifted to her conversation with Kevin earlier in the week and considering lying, but something about Sara wouldn’t let her.  “No.” 

  Sara nodded towards the house.  “Your dad?” 

  Ava shook her head.  “No.”  Crossing her arms across her chest she struggled with what she wanted to say next. 

  Sara inhaled deeply and glanced over her shoulder towards the car.  “Okay, tell me what you need?  Discussion or distraction?” 

  Shifting her weight Ava didn’t take long to consider her options.  “Distraction.” 

  Sara nodded and gave her a warm smile.  “Okay, bring the dog.  We’ll drop Kendra at Waveriders.” 

  “What about my mom?”  The stress of expectations started to weigh on her shoulders. 

  Sara made a move towards the car.  “She can come too, if you want.  I’m just not sure how much help that’ll be in distracting you.”  Sara’s smile slowly faded.  “It’s your call if you want to come, and I don’t know what’s bothering you.  However, I think you need to let go a little.”  The cheerleader waited for a minute while Ava chewed the inside of her cheek considering her options.  “Call your mom and let her know you’ll be home later.” 

  “Okay.”  Ava finally conceded. 

  Sara’s face lit up.  “Okay?” 

  “Yeah.” 

Chapter Text

  Sara tapped the steering wheel nervously as she waited for Ava to move to the front seat Kendra had just vacated.  She wasn’t sure what she was thinking when she offered to distract Ava, but she could tell by the way the other girl had looked at her before kicking Sara out of her home that something was bothering her.  Had it been any one of her other friends Sara knew she wouldn’t have stepped out of the house.  The  tone she had taken was so cold and it threw Sara completely off.  It also served to remind her that while she felt strongly about Ava, they had really only known each other for a very short amount of time.  

  She wasn’t sure what to expect when she heard the door open and Ava asked her to wait.  She certainly hadn’t expected the apology that followed.  Between Ava’s reaction to the Rachel situation and the man Sara assumed was her father Sara felt like she received refer confirmation that she had already suspected.  It wasn’t just a new job that had brought the Sharpe’s to Star City.  Sara could clearly see the pain behind her steel blue eyes.  She had always heard that the eyes were a window to the soul and It wasn’t until that very moment that she realized how true  it  really was.  

  She had fully expected Ava to give her a brush off of an answer when she asked if she was okay, and it felt for a moment like she would.  So, when she actually said no Sara took the risk to press further thinking that just maybe the quarterback would take a chance and open up to her.  As soon as her arms crossed her chest Sara knew that wasn’t in the cards.  She immediately jumped to her go to question with anyone she cared about ‘discussion or distraction’.  Sara knew that when people around her were hurting they typically needed one or the other.  

  Which brought about her next problem, how the hell to distract Ava Sharpe.  Sara knew everyone in her group to be able to tailor fit their activity for maximum distraction.  Ray?  A science museum of any kind fit the bill.  Nate?  GameWorks was always a safe bet.  Kendra?  Nothing a rom com and pizza couldn’t fix.  Jax?  A trip to the auto parts store to discuss  potential  new upgrades to his car.  

  She glanced in the rearview mirror at the corgi that sat in the middle of the bench seat, his head was tilted slightly to one side as he watched Ava walking around the car to the passenger's side.  Sara couldn’t help but smile as his tongue lolled out the side of his mouth as he panted.  The dog park was too obvious , but it was a safe bet .   At least it was until the sky started to darken with threatening clouds.   Okay, so m aybe something that’s common ground  and indoors .   Ava slid into the passenger seat through the door Kendra left open when she exited.    

  Once Ava was settled in Sara mind raced through every conversation she had with the quarterback.  A smile slowly crossed her face as she shifted  her   sister’s  car into drive hoping she had the right idea.   Sara checked her mirrors before pulling out onto the street continuing to their destination.  Keeping her eyes locked on the road ahead.  “I need to stop and fill up the tank first, I promised Laurel.”  

  The taller blonde’s hands were folded in her lap as she looked out the passenger window.  “That’s fine.”  Sara heard the other girl sigh.  “You don’t have to do this.  You can just take us back to the house.”  

  Sara stole a glance to her right hoping to get some sort of read on Ava, but she was turned far enough away the cheerleader barely had a view of her profile.  Facing forward again she let a small disapproving noise leave her throat.  “That wouldn’t be very distracting, now would it.”  A few minutes of shared silence stretched between them as Sara waited, hoping that Ava might say something.  She turned into the gas station and looked at Ava as she shifted into park  after  maneuvering  in front of one of the pumps .  “Favorite junk food?”  

  That seemed to draw the quarterback’s attention finally.  Sara noted the way her nose scrunched up slightly.  “What?”  

  She tilted her head towards the gas station.  “Come on, Aves.”  Sara paused as she realized that she used the nickname she had only heard Ava’s sister use and it felt like maybe she overstepped.  When Ava didn’t make a move to correct her, Sara continued.  “Chips, donuts, cookies, chocolate?”  Sara narrowed her eyes at Ava.  “What’s your weakness?”  

  There was a flash of something in her eyes, but Ava quickly looked away  before Sara could get a read on her .  “I don’t know.”  

  Sighing Sara opened the car door.  “Okay, I guess if you won’t tell me I’ll just have to grab a bunch of crap.”  Before the taller blonde could respond Sara was already out the door and headed in to make her selections.  It only took her a few minutes to make her selections and wait in line to pay.  While she waited for her turn, Sara spotted a cookie wrapped in clear plastic next to the register.  Sara smiled to herself as she added it to her pile.  

  After filling the gas tank and tucking her loot in the backseat Sara continued their journey to their destination, but her confidence in her choice started to waver.  She eased the car into the familiar parking lot and grabbed an open spot towards the back.  “So, where are we exactly?”  

  Turning the engine off Sara couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her features.  “If this is a terrible idea just say so and we can go, but this is Coach Lynch’s dance studio.”  She nodded towards the building.  “So, there’s a small group of tumblers that I started helping learn some hip hop over the summer.  I thought maybe we could check in on them?”  

  Ava shifted and looked a little uneasy as she glanced into the backseat.  “What about Nick?”  

  “He’s coming in too.”  Sara lifted her brows and smiled even wider.  “They’ll be thrilled.”  She waited a heartbeat to let Ava think.  “Trust me?”  

  The quarterback scoffed and shook her head.  “Last time I trusted you, I wound up on a rooftop.”  

  Sara nodded encouragingly.  “And that turned out great!   Soooooo ...?”  When she didn’t say no Sara jumped at the opportunity.  She quickly exited the vehicle and grabbed her bag from the trunk first.  As she slammed the lid closed, she heard the passenger door open.  Knowing Ava was going along with her plan she grabbed the junk food and tucked it into her bag and quickly zipped it up.  Nick was staring at her expectantly.  She gestured for him to get out but he just turned to look over his shoulder and she heard a barely audible whine.  Following his gaze, she saw that he was focused on Ava.  

  Ava whistled and he was immediately on his feet and bolted out the open door to join her side.  The taller blonde was focused on the corgi as he ran around the car to stand at her side.  “With me, got it?”  

  Sara watched in awe as he sat down to next feet and snorted, responding to her verbally.  “That is amazing.  How the hell did you do that?”  

  “So much training.  One of my mom’s clients is a trainer.”  When Sara started towards the studio Ava followed and Nick fell into step beside her.  “Long story short while I was following mom in the field, I met him and saw his techniques.  So, when I finally wore dad down enough to get a dog, I knew it was going to be a lot of work.”  Ava shrugged non- chalantly .  “We worked with the trainer and I just kept working with him.”  Sara noted Ava fond smile at the dog as they reached the entry.  “It helps that he’s such a smart boy, but it’s a lot of providing structure and at least with him positive reinforcement.”  

  Sara tugged the door open and stepped inside to the open lobby.  The familiar sounds of the studio filled her with joy as she looked straight ahead into the open glass windows of studios three and four.  The retractable wall between the two large spaces had been pulled back to create one larger room better suited for tumbling.  A few adults hovered around the windows smiling and pointing.  She glanced at the clock on the wall, it was almost four twenty-five and class let out at four thirty.  

  “Ms. Lance.”  Coach Lynch’s voice drifted from the office to her right.  “I wasn’t expecting to see you until tomorrow morning.”  She walked around her desk and joined them in the lobby.  She caught sight of Ava as she moved closer.  “Ah, Ms. Sharpe.”  Then her eyes dropped to the floor as Nick sat next to Ava.  “And this is?”  Her eyes drifted back up as she spoke.  

  “Coach Lynch.”  Ava stepped forward and extended her hand to the Coach.  “We haven’t formally met, but obviously you know who I am.  This is Nick, my dog.”  Sara thought she could detect some underlying nerves in her voice.  “Sara said it’d be okay if he was here, but we can go.”  

  The coach chuckled and took Ava’s hand.  “First off, I’m pretty sure anyone involved in Mustangs athletics knows you by now.  I’m pretty sure Rip-” The Coach winced and quickly shifted gears.  “Coach Hunter, sought everyone’s advice before putting you on his roster.  I think it would have been a damn shame if he passed up the chance to utilize your skillset.”  Sara noticed a subtle change as Ava stood a little straighter.  “Second, he seems like a perfect gentleman.”  The coach looked back to the corgi who had remained seated throughout their exchange.  “So, what brings you ladies in?”  

  Sara jutted her chin towards the windows.  “I wanted to check in on the kids.”  She wasn’t expected the Coach to actually be in the studio this evening so she was a little surprised.  “And I was wondering if studio one and a half is open?”  She smiled at the coach sweetly.  The building technically held 5 separate studios, but one and a half was a fourteen foot by 2twenty foot space that was only used for either private sessions or was sometimes set up as a conference room during the height of competition season.  

  Coach Lynch’s hands rose to rest on her hips as she eyes darted between the two girls.  “Why?”  The older woman didn’t even bother to try to hide the suspicion in her tone.  

  Sara’s mind raced to think of an excuse to occupy the space that didn’t involve revealing that it seemed Ava’s dad was an asshole and she didn’t want Laurel or her dad around, they knew her too well and she didn’t want to put the other girl in an awkward situation.  “ i  just-” There was a crack of  thunder that  cut her off.  

  “I’m sorry, Coach.  It’s my fault.  I was on my way to the dog park to run Nick.”  Sara looked over to Ava when she spoke up.  “I didn’t know the storm was coming.  Sara saw us walking and when I told her he needed to run off some energy she didn’t think you’d mind if there was an unoccupied space available.”  

  Sara fought against the smirk that threatened to cross her lips.  The excuse Ava had offered was seamless and she just knew that if they were ever really a couple, they could be a force to be reckoned with.  The coach still seemed skeptical as she turned her attention back to Sara.  “I mean, look at him Coach.”  She gestured to the dog.  “What was I supposed to do?”  For his part once all the attention fell to him, the corgi stopped panting and tilted his head slightly to the left.  The tip of his tongue was still peeking out of his mouth.  

  “For the record my studio is not your personally hang out space, Lance.”  Rolling her eyes as she spoke the coach nodded.  “Go on.” Her attention shifted to the football player.  “I hope to see you on the field in a couple of weeks.”  

~~~  

  Laughing Ava dropped onto the floor in the middle of the studio space with Nick in tow, his nub of a tail still thrashing back and forth.  They had observed the students Sara had wanted to see through the glass.  Ava was a little surprised to see the five to seven-year-olds in the studio practicing.  She stole a look at Sara’s profile as she watched the kids putting everything into their passes.  Although she was surprised at how young the kids were, the swell of pride in Sara’s face through her even further off.  Once the class was dismissed, the kids poured into the lobby.  Ava could practically feel Nick buzzing with energy as he spotted the kids.  

  When the kids respectfully approached and asked to pet him Ava of course allowed it and released him from the strict command.  Almost immediately he rolled over to request belly rubs.  That was when she was bombarded with questions.  About Nick, what her name was, how she knew Sara.  After about fifteen minutes the trio was able to extract themselves to the safety of the much smaller, empty studio.  Sara closed the door and dropped her bag onto the floor near where Ava sat.  

  Ava moved to lay on her back and Nick immediately ran over snuffing in her ear.  Groaning she raised her shoulder to block him as pushed his snout away.  “Not my ear.”  He then jumped to his paws and sprinted a couple of laps around the room.  

  The cheerleader sat next to her, careful to stick towards the middle as the dog continued to run the perimeter.  “That was quick thinking.”  

  Ava bent her knees and looked over at Sara.  “Sometimes you have to make snap decisions.”  She pulled the hem of her shirt down, making sure her midriff was covered.  “I like to think I’m good at it.”  

  Sara started digging through her bag and tossed something at her.  “Here.”  

  The quarterback easily snatched the projectile out of the air.  She recognized the item as a cookie and turned it over in her hand.  Her eyes darted from the cookie to Sara.  “How did you-?”  

  “Laurel told me his name was Snickerdoodle.”  Sara was already in the process of digging in her bag again, maybe to avoid looking at Ava directly.  “I can’t vouch for the quality, but it looked good.”  

  Ava unwrapped it, broke off a piece, and popped it in her mouth.  It wasn’t the best she’d every had (Aunt Dot still held the title of best in her opinion), but the cinnamon sugary goodness was at least soft and chewy.  Breaking off a second piece she held it out towards Sara.  “It’s good, try it.”  

  Sara looked up, a bag of chip in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.  She paused for a second then leaned forward and Ava could feel Sara’s lips brush the tips of her fingers as she took the bite.  Sara hummed and nodded.  Ava inhaled sharply at the contact, but the other girl didn’t seem to notice.  “Not bad, but have you had Nate’s moms?”  

  As she withdrew her quickly hand and cleared her throat, Ava hoped the flush of  heat  she felt on her cheeks wasn’t obvious.  “Aunt Dot’s are the best.”  She was shocked that her voice didn’t waver when she spoke.  

  Sara tipped the now open chip bag towards her.  “Salt and vinegar?”  

  “No, thank you.”  Just the thought of the tangy, acidic flavor made her brow furrow.  

  “Suit yourself.”  Sara grabbed a chip and popped it in her mouth.  

  As if on cue the moment he heard the crunch of the chip and noted that it was Sara with the food Nick strutted over and sat directly in front of her.  Ava looked at him and  tsk’d .  Knowing he had been caught he laid down, but looked up at Sara with what could only be described as a puppy dog look.  

  Sara laughed.  “No way, buddy.  You’re going to get us both in trouble.”  Giving up Nick stood took a step closer towards Ava and flopped down so side back was pressed against her side with a huff.  

  Ava ran her free hand between his ears absently.  “Your kids are adorable.”  

  “They aren’t really mine , I mean I’m not even a coach here .   I just volunteer to help ever now and then. ”  Still smiling Sara looked up with that.  “They are pretty great though.  You seemed a little overwhelmed there, Sharpe.”  

  “When you mentioned it, I guess I just wasn’t expecting them to be that young.”  The dog grunted in approval as he stretched his legs out.  

  “How old were you when you started?”  Ava could tell there was genuine curiosity behind the question.  

  She turned her head to look up at the ceiling.  “Three.”  She already knew what the next question would be and decided to answer it before Sara asked.  “I stopped the year before last.  It was just too much to  try and  juggle Junior Year, Football, and all my other after school activities.”  

  “Okay.”  Ava could tell there was something else Sara wanted to ask so, she waited hoping she would just ask.  After a few seconds Sara took a deep breath.  “You don’t have to answer this, but why football over dance?”  

  Ava continued to scratch Nick’s head.  “I just worked so hard to make the team.  To earn my spot there.”  She swallowed as some unpleasant memories started to find their way into her head again.  “I didn’t want to give it up.”  Pushing those triggering thoughts aside she instead thought about a cold November evening before things got so complicated.  “Plus, the rush when you take the field.  There’s nothing like it.”  She pushed away all the negative thoughts.  “You get it, Friday night lights.”  

  Sara nodded.  “I do.”  Ava heard her eating a couple more chips.  “Do you miss it though?”  

  Ava rocked her head to the side so she could see Sara again.  “Sometimes.”  

  “Great.”  Sara sat the chips down, hopped to her feet, and wiped her hands on her shorts.  She then held her hand out to Ava.  Ava’s brow furrowed as she looked up at Sara.  “Come on.”  Sara waved her hand urging Ava to take it.  “I promised a distraction.”  Sara’s eyebrow arched as she smirked down at Ava.  Ava simply shook her head in response.  “Come on Aves, I’ll teach you to  Toprock .”   Ava registered that as the second time she had used that nickname now, and it seemed so natural as it flowed off Sara’s tongue.   Sara  pulled her out of her thoughts as she  dropped her hand and took a step back  to create some distance  and immediately transitioned into a step out.  

   Sitting the partially eaten cookie aside  Ava sat up on her elbows and watched as Sara executed a kick step before another step out then rolled   into a back flip.  Instead of just landing on her feet she dropped to the ground into a baby freeze and followed it with a kip up.  On ce she was  her feet again ,  she sidled back over to Ava and held her hand out again.  She looked at the offered hand and shook her head.  “Show off.”  

  Grunting Sara frowned and shook her hand at Ava.  “COME ON!”  

  Sensing her frustration Ava sighed and contemplated giving in.  “Another time?”  She mocked covering Nick’s ears.  “Maybe when we don’t have a third wheel?”  

  Sara’s smirk slowly returned.  “Ava Sharpe, are  you  asking me out on a date?”  There was a teasing lilt to her tone, but Ava couldn’t hide her smile at the way the other girl drug out the first ‘A’ in her name.  

  After a second her smile faded as she registered what Sara had actually said.  The warm fuzzy feeling of being surrounded by something familiar had been replaced by alarm klaxons.  As she sat upright Ava felt Nick shift and try to follow her movements so that he could still be pressed against her.   We should go.   At least that’s what she meant to say as she stood up.  The way Sara’s smirk shifted to a soft smile made Ava realize that wasn’t what actually came out of her traitorous mouth.  “What would you say if I did?”  Her own words sounded confident as they echoed in her ears.   No, no, no what are you doing.  

  Sara seemed to be contemplating something as she bit her lower lip and closed the distance between them.  “You could ask and find out.”  The teasing tone had disappeared from her voice.  

  Heart pounding in her ears Ava realized she had two choices in this moment.  She could in fact ask Sara out on a date; she was starting to recognize that she was very curious what those salt and vinegar chips would taste like.  Or she could run, run as fast as her legs could carry her and never look back.  Maybe she could talk her grandparents into letting her move in with  them.    How the hell did I get here?   Her mind raced from practice to handing off her jersey in the middle of the field.  Then almost shutting Sara out completely back at the house after her dad had interrupted.  Now, now they were standing barely inches apart and it felt like everything rested on her shoulders.  

  “Or not.”  The change to Sara’s smile was almost  imperceivable , but Ava caught it.  It seemed forced now.  She lost complete sight of it when Sara ducked her head and started to turn away.  “My dad makes dinner on Thursday; I should head home.”  

  She knew she took too much time overthinking the situation.  There was a growing feeling of guilt in the pit of her stomach.  She had unwittingly made Sara feel unwanted.  She thought about catching Sara wrist, stopping her and explaining everything.  EVERYTHING.  Instead, her right hand landed on Sara’s cheek gently guiding her back, so that Ava could see her expression.  “Sara...”  Anything else she wanted to say got caught in her throat when she was adrift in a sea of blue.  Ava wasn’t sure what she was waiting for until Sara’s eyes darted down to her lips as if she was wondering the same thing.  She leaned in slowly to allow Sara to pull away if she wanted to.  

  Instead of backing off Sara raised up to meet her partway pressing their lips together.  Ava swore she felt Sara’s lips turn up into smile before running her hand through Ava’s hair and pulling her closer.  Ava wrapped her left arm around Sara’s waist pressing her palm against the small of her back.  Her eyes closed and Sara’s head tilt into her palm deepening the kiss.  A combination of acidic tang and sweetness from Sara’s chips and lip gloss invaded her taste buds.  Sara’s free hand slid up Ava’s left side, Ava was able to control the natural flinch at the contact to her previously injured rib to just a shudder.  

  Puffs of warm breath skated across her cheek while a slightly smaller frame was pressed against her.  Her mind raced as the guilt she had felt in her belly turned  into a nervous ball of energy that seemed to be growing out of control.  Sara’s tongue brushed against Ava’s lip causing her to pull back just enough to break the kiss finally.  “Holy shit.”  Sara’s voice was soft as she spoke.  Swallowing Ava opened her eyes to find Sara looking back at her.  “Are you okay?”  

  Snorting she shook her head, but refused to give up the closeness.  “Yeah, yeah I am.”  

  Sara took a deep breath as she looked at the door.  “That wasn’t quite the distraction I had in mind, but that was nice.”  

  Ava watched Sara’s profile as the nervous energy began to tighten and move to her chest thinking that one impulsive kiss had ruined the potential of a perfectly good friendship.  “Nice?”  

  Nick jumped up from his spot on the floor and ran over to the door letting loose of a single woof.  Within less than a second the handle was turning and Sara took a quick step back releasing Ava as the door swung open and Coach Lynch framed the door.  “Alright time to head out ladies.”  The coach tapped her watch before she walked away leaving the door wide open.  

  Ava watched as Sara turned and grabbed her bag quickly zipping it up.  Following her lead Ava grabbed what was left of the snickerdoodle and tucked it into her pocket.  She started to feel awkward as she thought Sara probably regretted the kiss and would just want to forget about it.  Even worse Sara would want to forget it and she was still buzzing with anxious energy.   This was a mistake.  It meant nothing to her and you’re over here pining away.  

  “Hey.”  Pulled from her thoughts Ava looked up as Sara stepped in front of her.  “Where’d you go?”  

  “I … uh …"  Ava rubbed the back of her neck trying to figure out what to say.  

  Sara smiled and took Ava’s hand pulling her towards the exit.  “Yeah, me too.  That wasn’t nice.  That was incredible.”  As they entered the lobby with Nick in tow Sara continued.  “If you want to go  home  I’ll take you there, but I’d really like it if you’d join us for dinner.”  

Chapter Text

  Sara strode through the front door and immediately dropped her bag on the floor.   She was fighting back her nerves fearing she had pushed Ava too hard and too fast.   “Dad!”  She pulled the door closed behind her as she walked towards the living room.  

  Laurel ’s head popped up over the back of the couch as she  looked up from her book and nodded towards the kitchen.  “He’s in there.”   Her head  tilted curiously as she observed Sara.  “What’s going on?”  

  Sara looked from the front door then the kitchen  needing  to confirm  that the space was only occupied by Laurel and herself .  She  climb ed over the back of the couch, landing next to her sister.   Laurel shot her an annoyed look as Sara jostled her.   “I need your advice.”  S ara  leaned in  conspiratorially .  Laurel closed the book and set it aside, giving Sara her full attention.  “Okay, so Ava and I kissed.”  

  Laurel rolled her eyes and started to reach for her book.  “So?  You’ve been dating for two weeks.”  She arched a  disapproving  brow at Sara.  “Not to mention she spent the night  after  I   told you-”  

  Sara cut her off.  “Laurel, no.”  She looked to the kitchen door, weighing her options.  She really needed to talk to someone and she couldn’t think of anyone she trusted more than her sister.  “We were faking it.”  Laurel scoffed.  “I just had her stay in my room to mess with you, she slept on the floor.”  

   Sara waited for Laurel to say something as she studied her face .  “Are you sure you aren’t messing with me now?”  

  Sara nodded.  “I swear, I’m not.”  She chewed the inside of her cheek and paused for that to sink in before she continued.  “We’ve been spending a lot of time together-”  

  Laurel held her hand up to stop her and Sara could tell she was processing.  “Why exactly were, you fake dating?”  Laurel  wrinkled her nose, still skeptical .  

  Sara huffed and looked at the ceiling.  “John.  I might have told him we were on a date so he’d back off.”  After she said his name, she met Laurel’s eyes.  She could tell by the way her expression softened that Laurel understood.  “Anyway, we kissed and she then didn’t talk to me at all on the way back to her house.  I think maybe I fucked up, but I think I really like her so I’m hoping that I didn’t?”  

  “You’re kidding me, right?”  Laurel pulled her legs up on the couch tucking them under her body.  “Did you really believe you were faking it?”  

  Sara stared at her sister trying to figure out where her question was coming from, she knew it was all just pretend.  “What do you mean, of course we were faking.”  

  Laurel laughed and grabbed her book.  “Sure, Jan.”  She flipped the book open and held it up, in front of her face as if she were already done with the conversation.  

   Sara grabbed the binding of the book and pulled it away from the brunette’s face.   “Laurel, help, please.”  S he  was fully prepared to beg for her older sister’s advice at this point.  

  Laurel tugged the book from Sara’s grip.  “What happened after you kissed?”  Laurel sighed and dropped the book into her lap.  

  Sara ran her hands over her face.  “Coach Lynch kicked us out.”  

  Laurel’s brow furrowed.  “Coach Lynch?”  

  Sara nodded rapidly.  “Yeah, we were at the dance studio, but that’s not important.”  

  Laurel sighed.  “Okay, keep going.”  

  “I invited her over for dinner, but she said she needed to get home.”  The memory of the drive back to Ava’s house was still fresh in her mind.  “She hasn’t said two words to me since and I don’t know what that means.”  

  Shaking her head, the brunette gave Sara a reassuring smile.  “Take a breath.  You’re overthinking.”  Setting her book on the side table Laurel touched Sara’s shoulder, and Sara drew strength from the contact.  “Let me run you through a hypothetical.  You move to a new  city,  you don’t really know anyone.  The next thing you know, you meet this really stupid, but cute blonde.”  

  “Laurel.”  Sara groaned , not really needing the insult that proceeded the compliment.  

  Ignoring her, Laurel just continued.  “You try this dumb fake dating scheme to help her with her ex whatever.”  She had used air quotes when she said fake dating.  “Maybe because you really like her and want to help.  You start spending more time together, one thing leads to another, you kiss.”  Laurel paused and Sara relaxed into the couch seriously considering Laurel’s observations.  “That’s a lot, Sara.”  Laurel’s brows raised at her.  “Don’t you think maybe she’s just processing?  And probably not feeling particularly chatty.”  The brunette gave Sara’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “Don’t freak out, kid.  Just talk to her, okay?”  

  Sara shook her head.  “I think we just got caught up in a moment.  She said she doesn’t want a relationship.  She’s planning on going back to the west coast after graduation.”  

  “Yeah, and you told mom you’d consider going pre-med.”  Laurel challenged.  Sara rolled her eyes and started to protest, but Laurel cut her off.  “When, Sara?  When did she say she didn’t want a relationship?  In the car on your way to her house?  Yesterday?  Last week?  The week before?  How often do *you* change your mind?”  

  Sara’s attention was drawn to the kitchen doorway as Quentin appeared.  He walked into the living room and slung a dishtowel over his shoulder.  “You’re home just in time.  Dinner’s almost ready.” He motioned towards the kitchen.  “Chicken cacciatore tonight.”  

  “Sounds great.”  She made an attempt to force a smile, still preoccupied with the Ava situation.  

  Quentin studied her expression.  “Everything okay?”  

  Sara nodded.  “Yeah, I’m fine.  I’ll set the table.”  

  She could tell he was still suspicious, but instead of pushing further he turned his attention to the elder of the two girls.  “Laurel, help me finish up in the kitchen?”  

  Laurel moved off the couch to follow their dad into the kitchen, she mouthed ‘Talk to her’ at Sara as she walked past the youngest Lance.  

  Once the table was set and dinner was served the Lances’ passed the food across the table.  Sara was still wrapped up in trying to dissect the events of the day.  “So, how was your day, Sara?”  The sound of her name caused Sara to jerk her head up to reengage with the conversation.  “Where’d you head to after practice?”  Her attention was on her dad since he had asked, but she did notice Laurel take a bite and look directly at her raising her brows.  

  The truth was her safest bet, just maybe omit the details.  “Oh, I stopped by the studio for a few minutes.”  

  “ Mmhmm .”  Sara could feel his eyes scrutinizing  her.   “Who was with you?”  Sara glanced to Laurel who just shrugged.  “I saw you at the gas station, but I didn’t recognize the girl in the car with you.”  

  She sat up a little straighter.  “That was Ava.”  Hoping to end the questioning she took a bite of her dinner.  

  “Ava from the roof?”  Sara nodded and Quentin hummed in approval.  He pointed his fork towards his youngest daughter.  “So, is she on the squad with you?”  

  Sara took a moment to swallow before responding.  “She’s a quarterback actually.”  

  Quentin’s brow furrowed.  “Football team?”  

  Sara smiled and nodded.  “Yeah, Coach Hunter put her on the team.”  

  “Huh, I didn’t figure Rip had it in him.”  Quentin nodded.  “You think she’ll start?”  

  Sara lifted a shoulder in response.  “She’s pretty good, but so is Jax.”  

  He seemed lost in thoughts for a moment.  “Jackson is a good kid.  If he gets the position, it sounds like she’ll keep him on his toes so he can keep it.”  He then looked to Laurel briefly before turning back to Sara.  “That’ll get a new dynamic on the field, huh?”  He moved his focus to his plate.  “Better than that Faucett kid, never did care for him.”  

  Sara shifted uneasily in her chair.  “That’s for sure.”  

  His attention then turned back to her.  “So, baby girl, how’s the audition tape coming along.”  

  “Not great.”  Sara gave him a single shoulder shrug.  “I pretty much have the chorography down, but I want to add something more to it.”  

  He gave her a reassuring smile.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”  

  “Hey, I think Carly mentioned that Ava took dance.”  Laurel shot her a mischievous grin.  “Maybe you could ask her to take a fresh look at your routine.”  

  “Fresh set of eyes.”  Quentin looked between his daughters.  “That’s not a bad idea, Laurel.”  

  Sara needed a distraction as she took another bite of the chicken.  “This is delicious.”   

  Laurel narrowed her eyes at Sara then smirked in her father’s direction.  “It really is your specialty.  Everything else is questionable.”  

   He grabbed his chest.   “Hey, come on.”  Quentin looked at Laurel in mock hurt.  

  “You’re right, you do make a mean pizza.”  Laurel quirked a brow at him.  “I mean you can dial that number better than anyone I know.”  

  Quentin raised his brows and grabbed the edge of Laurel’s plate  pull ing it away from her.  “ Just f or that ,  you’re done.”  

  The banter between her sister and dad continued allowing Sara to just savor the back and forth.  After dinner Laurel helped Sara clear the table.  Sara sat the dishes in the sink as her sister stepped up next to her.  “So, do you have any idea what you’ll say to her?”  Craning her neck Sara waited until she saw Quentin sit down and turn the television on.  

  Sara hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter.  “No idea.”  Her stomach twisted up in knots as she thought about running into Ava in the morning at practice.  

  The brunette turned on the water to let the sink start to fill up.  “It’s really very simple, Sara.”  Laurel changed the tone of her voice to mock Sara in a cartoony fashion.  “Hey, Ava, I really like you.   How about we stop pretending like we’re pretending?”  

  Sara rolled her eyes and tipped her head back to rest on the wall cabinet behind her.  “It’s not that easy.”  

  “Why not?”  Laurel tilted her head at Sara, it reminded her of a curious puppy.  “You like her?”  Sara nodded in response.  “She likes you?”  

  “Maybe.”  Sara blew out a breath.  “She did initiate the kiss, I think.”  What had seemed so clear earlier felt cloudy as her mind raced to try and run back through everything.  

  “Get it together.”  Laurel laughed and dried her hands.  “Sara, just ask her out on a real date.  A real chance to get to know each other.  It’s just date, not a marriage proposal.”  

  Much to Sara’s chagrin Dinah Lance choose that moment to walk into the kitchen.  “Marriage proposal?”  She stopped and dropped keys on the counter before looking from Laurel to Sara.  

  Sara dropped back onto the floor.  “Hey, mom.”  

  Her mother gave her a disapproving look.  “How many times have I told you not to sit on the kitchen counter, Sara?”  

  She rolled her eyes at her mother.  “And how was  your  day?”  

  The older Lance sighed.  “Can we not do this tonight?”  Dinah shifted her attention to Laurel.  “Whose proposing?”  

  Quentin walked into the kitchen and embraced his wife.  “Hey, honey.”  As usual he was oblivious to the tension building between Dinah and Sara.  

  “No one’s proposing.”  Laurel turned the water off and leaned against the counter.  Sara shook her head at Laurel, her lips tight.  “Sara and I were just discussing a hypothetical situation.”  

  “Speaking of which.”  Sara turned to Laurel.  “Can you finish up the dishes?  I need to make a call.”  

~~~  

  Ava slipped into the darkened entryway followed by Nick who sprinted past her into the kitchen.  Her football gear was still exactly where she had left it.  She looked towards her father’s office, but the lights were out now.  She slowly exhaled as she debated heading upstairs to avoid any further awkwardness or into the kitchen to see whom was still up.  

  Nick decided for her when he ran back into the entry and looked toward the kitchen before barking at her.  It was well past his normal dinner time and she knew he wasn’t going to let it go until he had his dinner.  She tried to move through the house as quietly as possible, her thoughts drifted back from the declined dinner invitation, the dance studio, and finally back to the entryway almost confrontation with her father.  

  She walked through the kitchen to fill Nick’s food dish.  She made sure he had plenty of water before she started to head back towards the stairs to head up to her room.  She had to decide if she wanted to take a chance at something real with Sara.  There was obliviously something more there than just wanting to help her dodge John, the kiss had shown her that much.  The question in her mind was how to proceed.  It would probably be best to tell her everything, but that would leave Ava exposed to ridicule.  Everything was moving so fast.   Too fast .  

  “Who was that?”  Her father’s deep voice cut through her thoughts and instantly halted her progress.  

  She looked up to see him seated in the great room watching tv with a drink in his hand.  “Sara Lance, she just gave me a ride home.”  

  “I thought Nate going to bring you home.”  He sipped his drink without bothering to look away from the show he was watching.  

  Ava took half a step towards the stairway.  “He got caught up with some friends and she offered to give me a ride.”  

  “You seemed pretty cozy.”  He sat his glass on the side table and turned to look at her.  “Ava, can you please at least  try  not to create problems here too?  You have a chance at a fresh start.”  

  She clenched her teeth and shot him a look that she hoped held even a small glimmer of the anger that she felt towards him at that moment.  “I wasn’t the one that caused problems.”  her hands clenched into fists at her sides.  

  “No?”  He snorted and turned towards the television as he muttered something under his breath.  

  She took a breath in an attempt to remain composed.  “Where’s mom?”  

  He took a drink, but didn’t look at her.  “She got a call from a client after dinner.”  His gaze remained forward staring blankly at the screen.  “Before you ask, I have no idea when she’ll be home.”  

  Without saying another word, Ava resumed her journey to her room.  Once she made it, she closed the door and slowly backed away to drop onto her bed.  She wasn’t sure how long she had sat staring at the door when her phone rang.  She looked at the screen and saw Sara’s name.  She sat the phone face down on the bed next to her and closed her eyes.  

~~~  

  Sara pulled the chest protector over her head and pointed at Nate.  “This year you two are going down.”  She then shifted her eyes to Jax and shrugged her shoulders.  “Sorry, you are going to just be a casualty for being stuck on the wrong team.”  

  The boys laughed as they geared up, but Jax was the one to speak up first.  “Sara, are you sure you want to do this?  You have no idea if either of them  have  e ver e ven paintballed before.”  

  Sara glanced over her shoulder to where Nora and Ava stood chatting as they inspected the gear Sara had given them.  “I’ll take my chances.”  

  Nate loaded the hopper with paintballs.  “Jax, do you know where my cousin was this summer?”  He shook his head.  “Interning with my grandpa,  at his security firm .  If anyone is in trouble, it’s us.  Between Sara and Ava alone, and if Nora can just hold a paintball gun.”  He looked over Sara’s shoulder at her team mates.  “We’re screwed.”  

  Sara shot finger guns at the boys and backed away.  “See you on the course fellas.”  Turning on her heel Sara approached her team.  “Alright ladies.  I’m thinking once we hit the  field  we stick together so we can watch  each others  backs.”  She kept her tone light, but it was purely for Nora’s benefit.  Sara hadn’t spoken to Ava since she had dropped her off Thursday night.  She had tried to call late Thursday night, but there was no answer.  So, when Ava had managed to dodge Sara at practice the day before she knew it was completely intentional.  Since Nora had driven Ava to the field this morning, this was their first real interaction since the kiss.  

  Ava hummed and shook her head.  “If we scatter, we can cover more ground and they won’t have the opportunity to take us all out at once.”  

  Sara studied the taller blonde wondering if she just wanted to oppose her plan.  “Trust me, they won’t get the drop on us.  I’ve been playing with these guys since grade school.”  

  Nora sighed and looked at the weapon in her hand.  “How did I let you talk me into this?”  

  The taller blonde turned her attention to Nora.  “Pelting  people  with little balls of paint.”  

  “Ah!”  The brunette nodded rapidly as though she had just had an epiphany.  “That’s right.”  

  Sara checked her weapon to make sure she had loaded the hopper.  “Of course, that’s only beneficial if the person you want to pelt isn’t on your team.”    

  “Okay.”  Nora took half a step away from Sara and Ava.  Clearly, she had started to sense the building tension.  “So, do we have a plan?”  Sara looked to Ava and raised her brows.  “No?”  

  Sara watched as Ava fastened her chest protector.  “Apparently, we stick together.”  She raised her brows at Sara as she conceded to follow her plan.  “This is your lead.  Just tell me where you want me.”  

  “Alright.”  Sara nodded.  “Follow me, I’ll get you an idea of how the course is laid out.”  

~~~  

  Ava followed Nora as she strutted the trio off the course grinning ear to ear.  “Best idea ever, Ava.”  She looked over her shoulder at Sara.  “I appreciate the sacrifice play, Lance.”  

  Ava could feel Sara’s eyes burning into the back of her head.  “You’re welcome, but it really wasn’t a sacrifice play.”  

  “For the tenth time, I didn’t push you.”  She didn’t bother to look at the cheerleader.  “You stepped into their ambush and I was trying to push you out of the line of fire.”  

  They had made it back to the parking lot and Sara walked ahead peeling off her gear that still had paint clinging to it.  “Out of the line of fire?”  Ava watched as she shook her head and popped the trunk of Laurel’s car.  “I hope you’re never a body guard, because the entire concept of  out  of the line of fire is lost on you.”  

  She clenched her jaw as she watched Sara toss her gear into the trunk.  “If you would have listened to me in the first place then maybe you would have been in the game until the end.”  Ava had already returned her borrowed gear and was ready to just put this whole morning behind her.  “Can-” She rubbed the bridge of her nose.  “Can we just move on?  We won.”  

  Nora smirked at Ava and Sara, either not picking up on or just ignoring the tension building between them.  “Yeah, we did.  Thanks to my mad skills.”  The brunette kept walking past her car towards where the guys were attempting to wipe the paint from their gear.  

  Ava watched Nora go, but hung back.  She knew there was an overdue talk she needed to have with Sara.  The trunk of the car slammed shut causing Ava to flinch at the sound.  “Sara-”  

  “No.”  Sara leaned against the trunk and shook her head.  “You know, the entire time I’ve been on this course never once have I been taken out.”  Ava opened her mouth, but Sara didn’t let her speak.  “Never even once.  Then you show up...”  Sara stopped speaking, but Ava could tell she wanted to say more.  She held herself back, maybe to spare Ava’s feelings.  

  Ava needed to know what she was thinking so she prompted.  “And then what?”  She paused to wait for an answer.  

  Sara slid her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.  “Confuse the hell out of me.”  Ava watched her nodded towards the course.  “My focus is shot whenever you’re around.  For a minute there, I thought that maybe something was actually happening between us, but then you spent the last two days actively avoiding me.”  

  Ava ran her hands over her face.  “I know, I’m sorry.”  Ava sighed and looked around the lot to see who was still within earshot.  “There are some things I need to tell you.  Give me a chance to explain?”  

  For a moment Ava feared that Sara would turn her down, and she would have every right to do so.  “Yeah, let’s stick with the plan for dinner and we can take it from there.”  Sara pushed off the trunk of the car and turned towards the rest of the group.  “Alright, are you guys ready to pay up?  Lunch?”  Ava trailed behind her.  

  Jax rubbed a welt on his forearm.  “I already took you out, Lance.”  

  “Rude.”  Ava watched as Sara shook her head as she hit his shoulder playfully.  “And that my friend is  why you are usually on my team.”  

  As she approached Nora, Ava felt her nerves starting to build up.  She kept her voice low so that the brunette was the only one that would be able to hear her.  “So, Sara and I were thinking that maybe later you and Ray might join us for dinner.”  

  Nora shook her head.  “Sorry, Sharpe.  I already have plans.”  She gestured over Ava’s shoulder.  “With Ray.  So, it’ll be you and Sara, which feels like it might be a bit overdue.”  

  Ava wasn’t able to stifle a groan.  “That obvious?”  Nora just inclined her chin in response.  “Things are just a little weird right now.”  

  Nora snickered as she nodded.  “No kidding.  You could almost cut the tension with a knife.  Your fault or Lance’s?”  Ava simply huffed at the question.  “Good thing you’ll have tonight to get it sorted.  

  Ava took a shot at changing the subject.  “So, you and Ray?”  

  Nora rolled her eyes.  “As if that wasn’t what you two had planned from the start.”  

  “I’m kind of surprised he finally found the courage to ask you out.”  Ava refrained from looking over at the tallest guy of the group.   

  “He didn’t.”  Nora shrugged non chalantly .  

  “No?”  Nora shook her head and Ava gave her an impressed look.  “Good for you, Nora.”  

~~~  

  Ava watched Sara’s jaw flex as she gritted her teeth.  “So, I got freaked out and I really am sorry.”  Sara continued to look forward, keeping her focus on the road ahead.  “The...”  Ava considered what to call the relationship between her and Leah.  “Thing I had with my friend’s sister back home kind of blew up in my face and I guess it’s made me a little cautious.”  

  Sara stole a quick glance at Ava.  “You call kissing me at the dance studio cautious?”  

  “No!  No, that was a mistake.”  Ava instantly felt regret for her choice of words.  

  “Mistake?”  She saw Sara press her lips into a thin line.  “Good to know.”  

  “No, Sara.”  She rubbed her temples as she leaned forward against the seatbelt.  “That’s not what I meant.”  

  Ava heard a  frustrated  chuckle from the cheerleader.  “So, what are you trying to say?”  

  The car stopped moving and Ava felt it shift into park.  She looked up again to find Sara looking right at her, as if to demand answers.  Ava managed to avoid making direct eye contact.  “Leah and I were sneaking around.  Everyone at school thought I was dating my best friend Kevin.”  

  “What?”  Sara’s voice no longer held the malice it had moments ago.  “Why?”  

  Ava kept her hands on her head as if to shield herself from judgement.  “Let’s just say that my old school wasn’t as accepting as Star City seems to be.”  She wiped her hands down the thighs of her jeans.  “Kevin was getting death threats because people thought he was gay.  So, we started to tell people we were dating to get them to back off.”  She looked up long enough to see that they were parked in front of a restaurant.  “Leah and I had just really begun, and neither of us were really ready to come out so it worked out.”  Ava’s vision started to blur at the edges.  “Until she changed her mind.”  Her breath caught in her throat as the memories started to flood back.  

  Sara’s hand landed on top of hers causing Ava to look up.  “What happened?”  Her tone was now soft and encouraging.  

  “Six months ago-” Ava swiped at her eyes with her free hand.  “We went to a party.  Leah told her sister, Amber, someone who was supposed to be one of my best friends about us.”  She halted the story to finally look at Sara to gauge her response.  “I’ve barely been here two weeks and I already feel like you know me better than most people back home.”  

  “You are just getting to the point where you are comfortable with being yourself.”  Ava started to pull her hand away from Sara, but her progress was halted when Sara’s fingers curled around her hand.  “Is that why you were avoiding me?  Too much, too soon?”  

  She wasn’t sure what she had expected to see, but the only thing she saw in Sara’s eyes was concern.  “I know that I should have called you back that night, but I needed some time to think.”  

  “I get that.”  Sara’s grip relaxed.  “Listen, you can talk to me.  I know you really don’t know me yet, but the only way you will is if we talk.”  Sara leaned over and brushed a tear from her cheek.  “And if we need to end the charade we can.”  

Chapter Text

  Ava managed to stay in the nurse’s office for the remainder of lunch.  The nurse had wanted her to go home for the rest of the day, but she had refused.  She needed to stay and finish out the day even if it meant another run in with Leah or any of the other assholes from the party.  She refused to allow herself to be controlled by just the possibility of a threat.  

  As she walked to her final class someone fell into step next to her.  She kept her eyes forward, afraid of who it might be.  “Hey.”  Steve’s voice drew her attention, she turned to steal a brief glance at him.  “How’s Kevin doing?”  He had called a couple of times and spoke to Carly to check on her.  

  “He’s doing okay.”    She looked forward again, hoping he would leave.  

  His pace didn’t falter as he remained at her side.  “I’m sorry, I knew Tim and some of the others were giving him a hard time, but I didn’t know what they had in mind.”  Out of the corner of her eye she caught him shake his head.  “I never thought they’d go that far.”  

  At her limit Ava spun on her heel to face him.  “Don’t.”  She poked a finger on his chest.  “Don’t make excuses and don’t apologize to me.  If you’re really sorry, you’ll call him and ask how he’s doing.”  

  The impact of her action caused him to take half a step back.  “I tried.”  He practically yelled as he looked at the floor.  His voice dropped back to its normal volume.  “He won’t take my calls.”  

  She paused and looked around the crowded hallway.  “Can you blame him?”  

  “No.”  He nodded to encourage her to start walking again.  “Come on, you’ll be late for class.”  She reluctantly started to walk with him.  “Could you  let him know that I asked?  See  if he’ll talk to me ?  

  An internal debate began as Ava continued through the hallway.  Should she  actually help  him?  On one hand he was there, and as far as she knew he had done nothing to help until after she stepped in.  On the other hand, Carly told her that he was the one that called.  Plus, he had helped  her  and Kevin get out of the house.  When they reached the doorway of her last class, she came to a decision.  “I’ll tell you what, once I think he’s feeling up to it I’ll tell him you asked about him.  However, I’m not going to ask him to get in touch with you.  That will be up to him.”  

  He nodded and gave her a grateful smile.  “Thank you.”  He looked at the floor.  “I tried to get the guys to lay off after the party, but I’m afraid I just made it worse.”  He took a couple of steps backwards.  “You should sit with Brandon and I tomorrow at lunch.”  

~~~  

  The final bell  rang and the hallways had emptied out quickly, students were either headed to their after school activities or just vacating the school grounds to be with friends.  Ava was supposed to wait in the hallway outside of her last class for Carly, but she inexplicably  found herself standing in front of the door to the computer lab.  She knew on the other side of that door Leah would be waiting.  Her last class was a free period so instead of just taking a study hall she had  made arrangements  with the Computer Science teacher to have time for independent study.  

  She hadn’t consciously made the decision to go to the classroom.  It had to be more muscle memory than anything else.  Every day after class since the close of football season this is where she had come.  Up until a few days ago it felt like the only place she could let her guard down and just be herself.  She jumped as a hand touched her shoulder.  “Aves?”  

  She continued to stare at the door, not needing to look to know it was her sister.  “Everything is so fucked up now.”  

  The touch on her shoulder shifted as Carly stepped into her side and slid her arm across Ava’s shoulders.  “I know.”  Ava felt Carly’s head rest on her shoulder.  “What do you want to do now?”  

  She took a step away from the door.  “Let’s go home.”  

~~~  

  “I get that.”  Sara relaxed her grip on Ava’s hand feeling sure that she wouldn’t try to pull away again.  “Listen, you can talk to me.  I know you really don’t know me yet, but the only way you will is if we talk.”  She noticed a tear on Ava’s cheek and leaned in to brush it away.  After the offending tear had been removed, Sara let her palm of her hand rest on Ava’s cheek not wanting to break their connection.  She could tell something sinister happened at that party, but it was clear that Ava wasn’t ready to talk about it.  “And if we need to end the charade we can.”   Sara glanced through the windshield at the restaurant.  She knew what she wanted to do, but didn’t want to assume anything for Ava.  Especially without knowing the whole story.  “If the other side of this is friendship, I understand, but I think I’d like to try for something more.”  The temptation to climb over the center console, straddle Ava’s lap, and kiss her pain away rose in Sara’s chest.  

  Ava’s eyes rose to finally meet hers.  “You’re serious?”  Sara could clearly see the lingering pain hidden in her eyes.  Ava sniffled and seemed so unsure.  “Why?”  It was such a juxtaposition of the confident leader Sara had seen Ava be on the football field.  

  Sara smiled and shrugged.  “I don’t actually know how to put it into words.  There’s just something about you that I want to be around all the time.  That said, it’s your call.”  Ava seemed less tense as Sara laced their fingers together.  “I know something bad happened at your old school.  So, I’m not going to push you one way or another.”  

  After a few seconds Ava’s breathing evened out.  “What about dinner?”  

  She tilted her head towards the restaurant.  “This set up was for Palmer, but we can still go in if you want to.”  She paused for dramatic effect before offering up an alternative option.  “If you aren’t feeling up to it, Mom and Dad aren’t home.  Laurel has been spending more time on campus with Oliver lately.”  She could see the wheels turning in Ava’s head.  “Just to be clear, I’m asking you back to my house without an agenda of any kind.  We can just hit Blockbuster and grab Big Belly Burger on the way.”  

  Ava offered her a small smile.  “Okay.”  

  “Yeah?”  As soon as Ava nodded in response, Sara faced forward so she would be able to back out of the restaurant.  Sara had to completely severe their physical connection in order to do so.  As she shifted the car reverse something started to nag at the back of her mind that she just couldn’t shake.  “This might be not be the right time, but are you safe at home?  I just-your dad the other day-” She struggled to find the right words so that it didn’t sound like she was making accusations.  

  “I’m okay.”  Ava averted her eyes, actively avoiding Sara’s.  “He wouldn’t hit me or anything like that.”  

  “Right.”  She slid the car into drive after they turned onto the street.  She rested her hand, palm facing up on her own thigh.  A moment passed in silence, before Ava’s hand slipped back into Sara’s.  On instinct alone Sara ran the pad of her thumb across Ava’s knuckles.  “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe.”  Sara cringed as soon as she spoke, fearing that she was pushing too hard.  Maybe she was her father’s daughter after all.  

  There was a few more seconds of quiet.  “We used to be close, but he-disapproves.”  

  Sara started to regret that she was driving the car during this conversation, but maybe that was what Ava had wanted.  This way Sara’s attention wouldn’t be solely on her.  “Yeah, I picked up on that.”  

  “This summer, when I was with my grandparents, he had wanted to send me to a conversion therapy camp instead.”  Sara could feel the color drain from her face, but she kept her focus on driving.  “Mom talked to Grandma about it and she refused to let it happen.  That’s one of the reasons I stayed back in California.”  

  “And your mom?”  Sara couldn’t stop her mind from drifting to her chaotic relationship with her mom.  “How has she reacted?”  Sara knew better than anyone that having the support of at least one parent was important.  

  “I think she’s coming around?”  Sara caught a quick glimpse of her profile.  “I didn’t exactly get to tell them.  It’s complicated.”  

  “Amber?”  Sara took a guess and Ava hummed in response.  “And you are planning on going back to the West Coast for college?”  Sara didn’t wait for a response this time.  “Then why not just stay with your grandparents?  You wouldn’t have to deal with your dad’s crap.  Don’t get me wrong I’m glad you’re her-”  

  “I couldn’t stay.”  Ava’s voice rose over hers as she cut Sara off.  “They fractured my rib and gave me a concussion.”  A wave of nausea hit Sara and she turned slightly so she could scan Ava’s profile, hoping for any sign that she might have been joking.  “At the party, our so-called friends planned on roughing Kevin up.”  Ava had turned completely away from her, looking out the passenger window.  “I got in the way of those plans.”  She gestured towards her head.  “My memories from that night still aren’t entirely clear, but I do know I wound up in the Emergency Room with my mom, dad, and Leah.  That’s how they found out.”  

  Sara’s grip tightened, her knuckles turning white on the steering wheel.  “Aves.”  She wasn’t sure what she wanted to say or how to even begin to respond, but she knew she wanted to say something.  

  The taller blonde didn’t acknowledge that she had even spoken.  “I missed some school and while I was recovering the bastards didn’t let up.  Kevin OD’d.  Fortunately, his mom found him before it was too late.”  It was as if a dam had broken and information just kept spilling out.  Sara had to refrain from jerking the wheel too hard into the video rental parking lot.  She gave Ava’s hand a supportive squeeze as she took the first open spot she could find.  “My family wouldn’t let me stay at that school even if I wanted to.”  

  It was a little awkward shifting the car into park with her left hand, but she refused to let go of Ava’s now that she knew what had happened.  “Did you?  Do you?”  Sara realized that wasn’t quite a cohesive question and added, “Want to go back there, I mean.”  

  Ava sighed and chewed on her lip.  “I don’t know.”  Sara  waited,  she could sense the other girl was still rounding up her thoughts.  “I’ve always had everything planned out, but all that changed overnight.  I didn’t want to leave him behind.  His mom couldn’t afford to move, but she was looking into open enrollment to at least move him to a different school.”  Sara was having trouble following Ava’s train of  thought, but  didn’t say anything knowing she wasn’t done.  “Kevin said they were starting to lean towards an online school right before I came here.”  After she spoke Ava’s head dropped to look at their hands clasped together.  There was an energy shift, as though she snapped back into reality.  “Can we-?”  She looked up and made eye contact with Sara.  “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.  At least not right now.  Can we just pick a movie?”  

  She could see hurt reflected Ava’s eyes at the not so distant memory.  “Yeah, of course.”  Her thoughts drifted back to the yearbook she had seen in Ava’s room.  Two of the three people who were clearly important to her had betrayed and abandoned her.  The last was potentially still being subjected to the abuse they had endured not even a year ago.  She reluctantly let go of Ava’s hand after her grip had loosened first.  Following Ava’s lead Sara exited the car and tucked her keys in her pocket as they approached the entrance.  “What kind of movie are you in the mood for?”  

~~~  

  The credits rolled up the screen, and Ava watched as Sara hopped off the couch and over to the DVD player and popped the disc out.  “Okay, so Swamp Thang wasn’t too bad.”  She quickly produced a second dvd case.  Now, get ready for Swamp Thaang!”  

  Ava stretched on the side of the couch that she had claimed.  “What?”  

  She held up the case and retrieved the disc.  “It’s the sequel.”  Ava squinted at the name on the box.  “Instead of calling it Swamp Thang two, they added another ‘a’.”  Sara waggled her brows and pointed at the extra a.  “Eh? Pretty clever, right?”  

  Ava groaned as the title screen appeared on the screen.  “They made more than one?  Sara, that was awful.”  She wasn’t sure what she had expected when she told Sara to just pick something out at the video store, but a terrible ‘scary movie’ about teenaged camp counselors being murdered by a swamp monster wasn’t anywhere near the top of that list.  

  “Oh, come on Aves, this is awful in all the right ways.”  Sara plopped on the couch next to her and started the movie.  “You know you love it.”    

  “That makes no sense.”  The picture on the television changed from black into a night sky then slowly panned down to reveal a murky lake with fog rolling across the surface.  “How can something be awful in the right way?”  She watched as Sara sat the remote control on the coffee table and shrugged.  “There’s no right way to be awful.”  

  She reached out to swipe the remote control when she thought Sara wasn’t paying attention, but Sara snatched it right before she got to it.  “Nuh-uh.  No, we’re watching this.”  Laughing, Sara pointed at Ava with her freehand.  “You just need give up and admit how much you loved the first movie.”  

  “I really didn’t.”  Ava narrowed her eyes at Sara.  “Give it.”  She lunged towards Sara and easily caught her wrist.  Sara tried to break free by leaning back and twisting her arm away from Ava.  Instead of breaking Ava’s grip all Sara managed to do was pull Ava down with her.  Ava lost her balance and fell forward.  She let go of Sara so she could catch herself before she landed on top of her.  Sara was still laughing, the hand that held the controller was extended above her head as far as she could get it from Ava.  

  Sara’s free hand pressed against  Ava’s  chest to push her back.  “No, not until you admit how much you love Swamp Thang!”  

  Ava chuckled and leaned forward, taking a swipe at Sara’s extended arm.  “Never.”  The fact that she had shared her deepest trauma with Sara felt so far removed from what was currently happening.  Maybe she did enjoy the occasional cheesy horror flick, but she wasn’t about to tell Sara that.  It wasn’t until her hair fell over her shoulders and skimmed across Sara’s cheeks that she realized the position she was in.  Once she took note that she was braced above Sara she froze.  Sara blinked, a question in her eyes.  It took a few seconds for it to click for her, she stopped laughing and swallowed.  “Do you typically kiss on the first date?”  

  When Sara didn’t respond Ava started to pull back, but Sara’s hand clenched into a fist around her shirt to prevent her retreat.  “Wait.  Is this a date?  Like a real date.”  

  Ava looked at the hand that held her in place, then back up to Sara’s face.  Beyond the seemingly instant attraction to her this was the second time Sara had helped to distract her from everything going on at home.  Besides that, Sara knew about the party.  She knew Ava’s secret and she didn’t care.  She didn’t see Ava as damaged.  She didn’t make her feel less than, and Ava wanted to know more about her.  “I’d like to think that it is.  If that’s okay with-”  

  Ava heard the thud of the remote as it hit the floor.  “ C’mere .”  Now that she had a free hand Sara pushed Ava’s hair behind her ear as she leaned forward stopping just short of pressing her lips to Ava’s.  Her eyes darted from Ava’s lips and then up to her eyes.  

  Ava didn’t hesitate, she dipped her head to press their lips together in a soft kiss.  Once the connection was established, she bent her elbows to lower herself so Sara could sink back into the cushions of the couch.  Ava still held most of her weight up, Sara’s waist was contorted at an awkward angle under her.  She held her hips up far enough so that Sara could maneuver herself into a more comfortable position.  Sara turned and swung her legs onto the couch.  Ava canted her head to deepen their kiss.  

  The sound of a car door slamming shut made Ava’s head snap up.  Sara groaned.  “That’s either mom and dad or Laurel.”  As Sara sat up and pushed herself back to her ‘side’ of the couch.  Ava sat back against the arm of the couch, opposite Sara.  They faced each other from opposite sides of the couch.  There was the jingle of keys before the sound of the lock clicking open rang through the room.  The door opened and two figures stumbled into the hallway.  Sara craned her neck to look over the back of the couch.  “Damn it, Laurel, you scared the crap out of me.”  

  “Why?”  The brunette laughed as she walked into the living room.  “Did you think I was a swamp monster?”  

  Ava followed her gaze to see the swamp creature standing menacingly over the counselors that had just been making out.  Ava managed to prevent herself from laughing out loud when Laurel leaned against the back of the couch, unwittingly mimicking the scene playing out on the television.  

  Sara smirked at her sister.  “Can you blame me?  The resemblance is uncanny.”  

  Oliver snickered and shook his head.  “I did hear this was based on a true story.”  Laurel’s head snapped to the side to shoot him a warning glare.  He held up his hands.  “Sorry.”    

  Laurel smiled at Ava.  “Hey, Ava.”  She straightened up and turned her attention back to Sara.  “So, what have the two of you been up to?”  She could tell there was something being communicated between the sisters that didn’t require words.  

  Oliver sat in the recliner.  “This is the second movie, right?”  His eyes remained fixed on the television when he spoke.  

  Laurel walked towards the stairs leaving the trio behind.  “Don’t get too comfortable, Ollie, we’re not staying.”  From the top of the stairs Ava heard Laurel stop.  “Sara, can I borrow you for a minute?”  

  Sara’s eyes rolled as she got up and circled around the back of the couch, headed for the stairs.  “Coming.”  

  Left alone in the room with Oliver, Ava focused on the teens getting murdered on screen.  “So, you and Sara?”  He looked over his shoulder towards her.  

  “As long as she’ll have me.”  Ava nodded as she spoke.  

  Oliver turned back towards the television.  “Have you met Quentin or Dinah yet?”  

  “Mr. Lance, in passing.”  She found it a little odd that Oliver was so causal about addressing Sara and Laurel’s parents.  

  “Quentin is a great guy, but Dinah is hard on the girls.”  He seemed to be uncertain if he should continue.  “Especially Sara.”  

  Ava felt uneasy having this conversation without Sara present.  “Why are you telling me all this?”  

  “Just, be prepared.”  He looked at her pointedly.  “No one is good enough for her girls.”  

  “Not even you?”  Ava challenged.  

  “Not even me.”  He smiled at her and shook his head.  “I’m not trying to scare you off.  This isn’t some stupid ‘if you hurt her, they’ll never find the body’ talk.  Sara really likes you and I don’t want to see you bail because Dinah is a bit much.”  

  Ava was unsure how to respond to him.  “Thank you?”  

  He laughed and gave her a charming smile.  “She gives you a very subtle push, don’t give into it if you care about her.  You’ll see what I mean.”  

~~~  

  It had been nearly a week since the first date, Sara stood on the sideline going over some basic cheers with the new freshman along with the other mentors.  There were still three weeks till the first official game, but it was only a week and a half until the first scrimmage.  “Great, run through it again from the top.”  The freshman  were  struggling and nervous, but she just continued to encourage and push them forward.  On the opposite sideline she caught Ava’s eye.  It was their first practice in full gear and while the practice jersey seemed a little over sized, she still looked good.  

  Ava turned her head to the side to focus on Coach Hunter standing beside her.  Sara’s attention lingered on the coach and quarterback as they appeared to be discussing the play that was happening on the field.  She turned her focus back to her squad as they hit the section of the  routine  they had been having difficulty with.  “You’re getting it ladies, keep going!”  She hated to call anyone out specifically, but Sara could see one specific girl wasn’t keeping up, and her frustration was showing on her expression.  She made a note next to the girls’ name.  She frowned when she realized Rachel was the one who was supposed to be working with her.  

  When she looked up again all eyes were focused on the field.  Following the stares, Sara saw Ava as she donned her helmet and jogged to over to Jax and tapped his shoulder sending him to the sideline.  Once he was jogging towards the coach Ava gestured for the offense to circle up around her.  After a few seconds they returned to their positions only with Ava under center this time.  Part of her wanted to get the squad back to work, but she needed to see how the play would go even if it was just practice.  

  The center, Joe, snapped the ball and Ava dropped back.  The offensive line started to break down almost immediately and Sara sucked in a breath when a linebacker broke through and lunged at the quarterback.  Ava sidestepped the tackle with an unexpected burst of speed.  Her head was still pointed downfield.  The next thing Sara knew the ball was in the air.  It fell onto the field just ahead of Nate’s outstretched hands.  

  A whistle blew, Nate retrieved the ball and the lines were reset to go again.  “Run it again!  Tighten up the o-line!”  Coach Hunter shouted from the sideline.  He looked at the players on the bench as if debating a substitute for the next play.  

  She clapped her hands to get the attention of her squad back.  “Alright, let’s try something different this time.  Mona, why don’t you come over here with me and we’ll run through something new together.”  

  “Me?”  Mona pointed at herself and looked around at the others.  

  Sara could see her smile when she nodded.  “Yeah, get over here.”  She whistled towards the Varsity squad while she waited for Mona.  “Kendra!  Let me borrow you for a few.”  

  The rest of practice had gone without a hitch and Mona had started to catch up with the rest of the freshman.  “Hey, baby girl!”  

  Sara looked up to see her dad standing in the bleachers.  She felt her cheeks heat up slightly at the nickname.  “Hey, Dad!”  She waved at him, then refocused on wrapping up practice with Coach Lynch.  It wasn’t common for him to drop by practice, but every now and then he would pick her up so they could spend some extra time together.  These were her favorite days, even if she’d never admit it out loud.  A few minutes had passed before Sara looked back to see her father standing toe to toe with another man.  She easily read the expression on his face.  Nate’s dad stepped in, pushing the other man away.  It took Sara a minute to recall Ava’s dad.

Chapter Text

  Quentin leaned on the rail of the bleachers and watched as Sara led her squad.  He felt himself beam with pride knowing that his girls were going to accomplish everything they set out to do.  He straightened up as he heard approaching footsteps.  He looked towards the sound to find two men walking towards him.  “Hank!  I’m glad to see you.  Dinah has been on my case to see what you want us to bring to the cookout this year.”  

  Hank smiled and extended his hand to Quentin.  “I’m pretty sure that if Dinah doesn’t bring her potato salad Dot will be disappointed.”  Hank gestured to the man standing next to him.  “This is my brother in law, Randy.  Dot’s sister’s husband.”  

  After releasing Hank’s firm handshake Quentin offered his hand to the other man.  “Quentin Lance.”  It seemed a little odd that Hank had been so specific in his introduction, but he didn’t think too much of it.  

  “Randy Sharpe.”  He took Quentin’s hand, his grip was looser than Quentin had expected.  

  Once he got past Randy’s handshake Quentin registered the name and his smile grew.  “Sharpe?”  Randy nodded.  He gestured over his shoulder, “Ava’s dad?”  Quentin noted that he shifted away slightly before he nodded to the affirmative.  “Sara’s my daughter.”  

  “Sara?”  He seemed to think about it.  Quentin pointed her out on the field and the color drained from Randy’s face.  “The cheerleader?”  Quentin sensed a change in his energy, suddenly on the defense.  “Look, I’m not dealing with this bullshit again.”  He looked out over the field.  “I told her to just lay low this year.”  

  Quentin inadvertently slipped into work mode and tried to calm the aggravated man down.  “Whoa, there buddy.  Just take a breath.”  He followed Randy’s gaze towards Ava whose back was towards them.  

  “Take a breath?”  Randy turned back to Quentin.  “How am I supposed to ‘take a breath’ when my kid won’t stop dating girls.  I tried to raise her with some morals, but she keeps pushing.”  

  Confused, Quentin looked to Hank who just shook his head.  “You need to calm down, friend.  If the worst thing your teenage daughter does is date girls, you’re doing a pretty good job in my opinion.”  He offered an encouraging smile to Randy.  

  “You’re kidding, right?”  His nose wrinkled in disgust.  “With that kind of message in your home maybe it was your sick kid that-”  

  His voice rose to cut off the other man’s statement.  “Be very careful with what you say next.”  Quentin’s jaw clenched and he poked his index finger into Randy’s chest.  “In fact, I would suggest you keep your mouth shut about how I raise my girls.”  

  Randy didn’t back down.  “I won’t.  Not when it affects a behavior I’m trying to correct in my kid.  I have a lot to say, and maybe you should listen so you can start rising your girls right.”  

     Quentin’s hands clenched into fists and readied himself to take a swing at the man in front of him.  H ank put his hand on Randy’s shoulder and pushed him back.  “Knock it off, you two.  Remember where we are.”  

  Quentin to looked up and caught Sara’s eye, he could tell she had seen the exchange.  He took a step back and ran his hands over his suit jacket composing himself before he caused even more of a scene then he already had.  “There’s nothing to ‘correct’, there’s nothing wrong with your-” Quentin stopped, he couldn’t make himself associate the two together in a family way.  “Ava.  There’s nothing wrong with her.”  He shook his head.  “If I hear anything about that girl getting hurt, I won’t hesitate.”  

  “You won’t hesitate to what?”  Randy narrowed his eyes and puffed out his chest.  “Are you threatening me?”  

  “Not a threat, a promise, asshole.”  Now it started to make sense why Hank had introduced Randy the way that he did, create as much distance in the relation as possible.  He focused his attention on Hank.  “We’ll talk later, Heywood.”  Quentin moved down the stairs double time needing to be as far from his negative energy as possible.  Sara met him at the last step.  He smiled as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a one-armed hug.  “Are you ready to go?”  

  “Yeah.”  He could see the concern in her eyes.  

  He couldn’t stop himself from squeezing her a little tighter.  “You know I love you, right?  No matter what?”  

  “Of course.”  She pushed her shoulder into him.  “Is everything okay?”  

  Quentin kissed the top of her head and steered her towards the parking lot.  “I hope so.”  He knew there were ignorant people out there, he dealt with them almost daily, but he never imagined it would ever be so close to home.  “Your mom’s working late again tonight, I thought we could grab some lunch before going home.”  

  “Dad.”  It was a statement and a question rolled into one.  

  He nodded knowing she wouldn’t let it go.  “Let’s get out of here, yeah?”  

~~~  

  Ava struggled to keep her focus after the botched throw.  It felt like it had been years since she had been on the field, managing the offensive line, and trying to keep an eye on the defenders that closed in on her as the pocket collapsed.  From the sideline Coach Hunter was calling all the plays, and she was perfectly fine with that.  She was still feeling out her  teammate's  strengths and weakness’.  

  Finally, after several snaps she thankfully started to find a familiar rhythm.  She felt relief as she let everything go.  Every stray thought that threatened to cloud her judgement simply fell away.  No Leah, no Amber, no California drama.  Just her, the field, and learning a new team, new plays.  

  Once practice wrapped up Nate grabbed her attention.  “Hey!”  He thrust his thumb over his shoulder.  “So, dad said you’re coming home with us.”  

  Ava looked over his shoulder to see her Uncle Hank with his phone pressed to his ear.  He was clearly having an animated conversation with someone, but he managed a smile when he noticed that she was looking.  “That’s weird.”  

  “Right?”  Nate shrugged and nodded in agreement.  “Let’s grab our gear and go.”  

  Ava looked to the far sideline as she carried her gear towards her uncle.  She scanned the dwindling crowd for a familiar smile.  “Did you see Sara leave?”  

  Nate sat his helmet on the crown of his head to make it easier to juggle the rest of his equipment.  “Nuh uh.”  

  “She left earlier with her dad.”  Uncle Hank held the phone away from his mouth.  He almost immediately went back to the conversation as the cousins followed him.  She missed the majority of what was being said as his voice dropped to a whisper.  She was certain, however, that she heard him say butthead more than once.  

  Just before practice she remembered Sara mentioning something about getting together after.  “I thought the group planned to do a last-minute cram session for the SAT?  Weren’t we supposed to head to Waveriders?”  

  “Yeah, but that was before he showed up.”  Nate seemed lost in thought for a second.  “When we get back to the  house  I’ll give Ray and Jax a call while you get a hold of Sara.  Maybe we can just have them come over.  I doubt mom will mind and it’ll probably be easier for us to focus anyway.”  

  The ride to the Heywood’s was full of idle conversation, mostly Hank trying to give Nate pointers about his game.  “Dad, you were on the offensive line, my position is completely different.”  

  “I know that, Nathaniel.”  Hank glanced up in the rearview mirror, once he noticed he had her attention he winked.  “You still have to get open, otherwise it’s your quarterback taking the hits for you.  You’re still protecting your cousin or Jefferson.”  When he winked at her Ava got an unsettling feeling in the pit of her stomach.  Uncle Hank had always been nice to her, but the smile and now the wink was out character.  She looked to Nate to see if he caught it, but he just stared out the window as if he could escape his dad’s unwelcomed advice.  

~~~  

  “Dad.”  Sara slid into the booth of the diner across from him.  He had been silent the entire drive to the diner, and she could tell he was trying to keep something from her.  “What happened back there?”  

  He cleared his throat and pushed his menu away.  “I’m sorry, honey.”  She watched as he rubbed his forehead.  “I should have kept myself in check.  I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”  She knew from experience that it took a lot to push him to the point that he lost his temper.  She really wanted to know what Ava’s dad had said to set him off.  He leaned back in the booth.  “So, what’s new?”  She tapped the menu in front of her wondering if he believed he was getting away with that flimsy response.  “I know you and Mike broke up a while ago.  Seeing anyone new?”  He arched a brow at her to encourage her to answer.  

  She studied his face carefully.  “Maybe.”  

  An older woman wearing a white apron sat a cup of coffee in front of him.  “Always good to see you, Detective Lance.  The usual?”  

  He nodded and looked at the mug a grateful grin on his face.  “That’d be great, Marie.  Thanks.”  

  The older woman turned to Sara.  “What about you, kiddo?”  

  “Just a water, at least until I figure out what the old man is up to.”  Sara intended to wait until the waitress was out of earshot before continuing with their conversation.  

  Just as she walked behind the counter Quentin spoke up.  “Marie, make it two.”  

  Marie acknowledged him as she pulled the homemade apple pie out of a glass case.  “Dessert first?”  Sara snorted.  “You’re not getting off that easy.  You do realize I’m not ten anymore, right?  I can’t be bought into silence with pie.”  

  He fired right back at her.  “Ice cream too?”  

  She watched his face turn serious and knew they were getting close to discussing what happened between back at the school.  The banter between them could go on all night, but she really needed to cut to the chase.  “So, I’m guessing you figured out that Ava and I are dating?”  

  “I wasn’t entirely sure until you just confirmed it.”  Quentin nodded as he spoke.  “I wanted to talk to you about her.”  He leaned forward so he wouldn’t have to speak too loudly.  “There’s no easy way to say this.”  Several scenarios ran through her head all at once.  The one at the forefront of her mind was his disapproval of Ava.  “I don’t want you to go to her place.”  She shook her head immediately, but before she could say anything he continued to talk.  “I know I don’t normally interfere with your relationships, but I just don’t trust that guy.”  

  Sara’s brow furrowed.  This wasn’t the direction she had expected the conversation to lead.  “Ava’s dad?”  

  “Yes.”  He took a drink of his coffee.  She knew by the way his jaw set there was no room for negotiation.  “And I want to talk to her.”  

  Sara shook her head again.  “Dad, you’ve never asked to talk to anyone I’m dating before.”  She thought about the moment she shared with Ava on the couch.  That confirmed that not going to Ava’s place wasn’t a deal breaker, but she really wanted to know what Ava’s dad had said to trigger his unusual behavior.  

  “I know.”  He took a deep breath.  “And I’m not asking now, Sara.  Invite her over for dinner sometime next week.”  

  She crossed her arms and eyed him suspiciously.  “Why?”  

  “Because I’m your dad and I asked you too?”  She narrowed her eyes further causing Quentin to sigh.  “I don’t suppose you’ll just accept that I’m curious about her?”  Sara shook her head.  “So, I just met Randy and he’s not someone who instills trust.”  He sighed.  “He made it very clear that he doesn’t approve of her lifestyle and that worries me.”  

  “I know, but I don’t know how interrogating her at dinner helps anything.”  The memory that Ava had shared of him wanting to send her to conversion therapy flashed in her mind.  “Dad, I like her a lot and I don’t want you to push her away.  It’s going to be bad enough if she meets mom.”  

  “I’m not going to push her away.”  No one knew her better than he did, and it could be unnerving at times.   “So, then tell me what you know.”  

  She kept her arms crossed and leaned against the back of the booth.  She was stuck, Ava had confided in her.  She didn’t want to betray that trust, but she knew her dad could help.  She chewed the inside of her cheek.  Finally, she sighed and shook her head.  “I can’t.  I’ll invite her to dinner, but what she decides to share is up to her. ”  Disappointment clearly shown on his face.  “She’s been through a lot and she’s just starting to open up to me and I won’t betray that.”  

  He swiped his hand across his face and looked away from her.  “Sara, you know you can trust me.”  

  “I do, but I’m sorry.”  His use of her given name hit hard, but she made up her mind.  “I promise if I think she’s in trouble, I will tell you immediately.”  She could tell he was about to fight her, but she cut him off before he was able to.  “I’m not a child anymore, dad.  This time I need  you  to trust  me .”  

  Marie turned the corner and sat down the two slices of pie in front of them.  As if she could sense the growing tension between them, she quickly refilled his coffee and left without saying a word.  

  His whole body was tense at first, but eventually his shoulders dropped.  “I do trust you.  Just don’t get overwhelmed.  This is your senior  year,  and you already have a lot on your plate.”  He grabbed his fork and used it to steal the first bite of her pie.  “Remember, I’ll always be here to help.”  

  “Hey!”  She gave him a dirty look, but it quickly transformed into a smile.  “Thank you.”  

  “Just, stop growing up so fast.”  He was smiling, but she could see the  concern in  his eyes.  

~~~  

  Ava followed Nate and her uncle into the house.  As soon as she closed the door behind her a voice called out from the kitchen.  “Sandwiches are ready!”  

  “Yes!”  Nate dropped everything he had been carrying in the hallway then turned to Ava.  “Mom makes the best sandwiches.”  

  Hank lead the way into the kitchen and walked around the island to kiss his wife.  “I have to run back into the office.”  Ava noticed the look they exchanged when he grabbed one of the sandwiches and circled around the island.  He gave Ava’s shoulder a gentle squeeze of encouragement as he walked past her.  

  Aunt Dot shouted after  him.   “Be home for dinner.”  She then focused on Nate who was already stuffing a sandwich in his mouth.  “Slow down, and you better pick up after yourself once you’re done, Nathaniel.”  

  “Yeah, Yeah.”  Nate nodded.  “Can Ray, Jax and Sara come over later?  We have the SAT tomorrow morning we want to get one last study group before we go into battle.”  After he asked Nate took another bite, not waiting for a response.  

  The older woman smiled and nodded.  “Of course, it’s been a while since you had everyone over.  I’ll make snacks.”  

  Ava noticed that her aunt’s smile felt forced.  She sat down at the island, her thoughts focused on any reason why she would be at her aunt and uncles house instead of her own home.  When she couldn’t shake the idea that something had happened to her  grandparents,  she decided it would be best to be direct about it.  “What’s going on?  Are Grandpa and Grandma okay?”  

  Nate swallowed the huge bite he had in his mouth and followed Ava’s eyes to his mom.  “What?”  

  “They’re fine.”  She pushed a plate towards Ava.  “Here, you must be hungry.  Uncle Hank said you were practicing in full-” She made a gesture with her hand as she struggled to find the right word.  “uniform?”  

  Not the grandparents, but she didn’t deny that there was something.  “So, what is going on?”  She looked at the plate then back up to her aunt.  “Is mom okay?”  For the most part her mother spent much of her time in the office, but that didn’t mean she was free from danger.  She was the head of a security firm after all.  

  Her aunt turned to Nate.  “Nathaniel, why don’t you give us a minute and take your things upstairs?”  

   Shit.   There was no confirmation that her mom was okay.  That had to mean something.  Ava mentally ran through her mom’s schedule for the day.  She had made it a habit to sneak a peek at her mom’s laptop before she went to bed.  Mostly so she’d have an idea when her mom would be home in the evening.  Nothing had struck her as out of the ordinary.  

  He huffed and shoved the rest of his sandwich in his mouth.  He turned to Ava and spoke around the food in his mouth.  “I’ll call everyone and let them know we’re meeting here.”  He grabbed another sandwich as he left the room.  

  Once he was once the older woman sat down next to Ava.  “Your Uncle Hank took Randy...”  She closed her eyes and shook her head.  “Your dad to the field this afternoon.”  

  “What?”  Ava pushed away from the island.  “I didn’t see him there.”  

  “He met Sara’s dad.”  The unsettling feeling in her stomach intensified.  “Ava, I’m not asking you to share anything with me, but when your Uncle told me what your dad said.”  Her aunt shook her head.  “Let’s just say I wasn’t comfortable with you going home without anyone else there.”  

  Ava’s mind raced. Sara had left with her dad before Ava was done with practice.  “What’d he  say ?”  Less than an hour ago everything was fine.  Less than an hour ago it felt like she was starting over, finally moving forward.  Now, everything was in flux again.  

  The older woman slowly exhaled.  “It’s not important.”  Ava could practically feel the sympathy that came from her aunt and she didn’t want it.  

    Ava jumped to her feet.  “It is!”  She felt nauseous and tears threaten to well up in her eyes.  Her resolve snapped.  “Don’t you get it?!”  This was so much worse than the almost incident at the house.  This was Sara’s dad.  He could forbid her from seeing Ava before anything between them really began.  Worse yet it all felt dependent on what her dad said to him.  It wouldn’t surprise her if that’s exactly what was going to happen.  “I don’t know when he started to hate me, but I just want to live my fucking life without him screwing it up.”  

  “Ava.”  Her aunt’s voice was too calm, she was clearly trying to talk Ava down.  She reached out to touch Ava’s arm.  

  Ava took a step back, rejecting the contact.  “Don’t.”  

  “I’m going to talk to your mom.”  Her arm dropped, no longer reaching for Ava.  “We’ll see what we can figure out.”  

  “Just forget it.”  Ava looked at the floor when she felt the first tear leave her eyes.  “There’s nothing to figure out.”  She scratched the back of her neck.  “I give up, he wins.  I don’t know what he said to Mr. Lance, but Sara left without saying a word to me.  I can read between the lines, it’s just a matter of time before she breaks it off.”  

  “We’ve known the Lances’ for years.  I’m sure that’s not the case, sweetheart.”  Ava could sense her move closer, but she remained respectful of Ava’s space.  

  Ava didn’t look up.  “I appreciate you saying that, but I know better.  I’ve been through this before.”  She shook her head.  “I should have just listened to them and kept my head down for the next eight months.”  She sniffed and wiped her hands over her face.  “That’s exactly what I’m going to do from here out.”  Once she felt like she was composed enough, she faced her aunt again.  

  “You’ve been through this before?”  It was impossible to miss the frown on Dot’s face.  “Who told you to keep your head down?”  

  She dodged both questions, she needed time to process.  “If I’m going to be here for a while, can I take a shower?”  

  Ava knew her aunt wanted to keep pushing, but after a few seconds she backed down.  “Of course.  Do you remember where the guest bedroom and bath are?”  Ava nodded.  “Go on.  I’ll make sure Nathaniel doesn’t eat everything in the house.  Just come back down when you are ready.”  

  Ava started to walk to the foyer to grab her bag and head upstairs but paused in the doorway.  “I need to get home to take care of Nick.”  She kept her back to the older woman as she spoke, afraid her resolve would break before she was safely tucked away in a private space.  

  “Try not to worry.  I’ll make some calls and see what I can do. You just go shower and try to relax.”  The older woman encouraged her to go.  

~~~  

  Ava’s eyes snapped open and darted around the unfamiliar surroundings.  It didn’t take her long to orientate herself, she remembered happened and where she was.  After the shower she had stretched out on the guest bed to try and focus her thoughts before going back downstairs.  She must have fallen asleep.  A small woof drew her attention to her left.  She turned her head and saw just the tips of Nick’s ears peaking over the edge of the bed.  She rolled over far enough to scratch the top of his head.  

  She sat up and got out of bed.  She glanced at the clock to see she had dozed off for a couple of hours.  She popped into the bathroom to quickly adjust her hair before she descended the stairs.  Nick was on her heels as she followed the sound of voices to the kitchen.  She turned the corner to see Carly sitting at the island talking to Aunt Dot.  As she walked in Carly looked up and smiled.  “Hey.”  Her attention drifted to the corgi.  “You woke her up, didn’t you?”  Her tone was accusatory, but still playful.  

  Nick just sat down next to Ava and started to pant.  It gave him the appearance grinning at them proudly.  “When did you get here?”  Ava stifled a yawn, still emotionally exhausted and feeling guilty for snapping at her aunt.  

  “Probably about an hour ago.”  That was when Ava noticed the island was covered with various platters of food, mostly finger foods.  Carly was chewing a piece of celery.  

  Ava leaned her hip against the island trying to shake the sick feeling that lingered from earlier.  From her new angle she could see Nick’s food and water dishes in the far corner of the kitchen.  Before she could question their presence, the older woman held up a tray of vegetables towards Ava.  “Could you run this downstairs for me?”  

  Ava took it.  “About earlier, I’m really sor-”  

  “It’s alright, sweetheart.”  Dot interrupted. “I talked to your mom, and she will be here later.  Then the four of us are going to sit down and get this situation sorted.”  

  She didn’t really know the proper response to that.  What was there that needed to be sorted out?  Eventually she settled on just saying,  Okay .  As if on auto-pilot Ava started towards the stairs to the finished basement, and Carly joined her carrying a tray fruit.  As they walked through the foyer Ava spotted a suitcase that she knew wasn’t there when she arrived.  She couldn’t help over analyzing the last several minutes.  She could only come up with one reason for Nick’s presence, his food dishes, and the suitcase being there.  She ignored the implication, needing to focus on anything else.  

  Ava heard four distinct voices drift up the stairwell.  She paused at the foot of the stairs when she heard Sara’s laugh.  She felt that had two choices.  She could retreat upstairs, or she could just put on a brave face and keep moving forward.  She took a deep breath before she found the courage to walk into the room.  The friends were gathered around a large coffee table in the middle of the space.  

  Ray sat in a chair pulled to the head of the coffee table, he held several index cards.  “Sara, can you just be serious for a second?  We are less than 24 hours away from testing.”  

  Nate sat on the sectional.  Ava noted that he was as close as he could get to Ray without sharing the chair.  Jax was also on the couch a cushion separating them.  Sara sat on the opposite side from Ray, her back to the door.  “I’m aware.  Contrary to popular belief I can do math.”  

  Carly walked past her.  “Who needs snacks?”  

  “Oh, thank God you’re back.”  Jax was the first one on his feet.  “I’ve honestly never been happier to see a vegetable tray in my life.  I needed the break, Ray’s relentless tonight.”  

  Nate started to stack some of the books that littered the coffee table to make room for the food.  “Hey Aves, drop that right here.”  

  She wasn’t sure what she expected when Sara finally turned around, but it wasn’t the ear to ear grin she was greeted with.  “Well, there you are.  I figured since you weren’t taking the test this session you just sent Carly to sit in for you.”  

  Ava sat the tray down where Nate had indicated.  Carly sat the fruit down and dropped onto the couch next to Nate.  “My sister?  Miss the opportunity to study?”  She shook her head.  “Never.”  

  This seemed so normal the jokes, the studying, the gathering of friends.  But Ava knew everything was far from normal.  Her surroundings started to spin, and Ava had to close her eyes to remain upright.  She was breathing, but it felt like she wasn’t getting air.  She took a risk and opened her eyes.  She had hoped her balance would remain intact.  “Excuse me for a minute.”  It had been a while since she had been in the basement, but she knew the layout by memory.  She closed the door behind her and leaned against the tiled wall.  The coolness of the surface bled through the thin material of her tee shirt.  

  There was a light tap on the door.  “Ava, are you okay?  Can I come in?”  

  Ava could hear the words, but she couldn’t figure out who had spoken.  She couldn’t even make herself respond  right  away.  “I... I don’t know.”  

  The next thing she knew the door opened far enough for someone to slip in.  Then there was a hand wrapped around hers.  “Hey.”  

  She felt a little nauseous, but she somehow managed to keep it together.   “Sara?”  She had fully expected to see her sister, but instead the cheerleader stood in front of her.  

  Sara gave her hand a gentle squeeze.  “What’s going on?  I haven’t seen someone lose the color in their face that fast since I told mom I wasn’t going pre-med.”  The shorter blonde smiled at her own joke.  

   “You’re still talking to me?”  Ava watched as Sara’s brows came together.  “But, my dad.”  

  “Is an ass?”  Sara shrugged.  “Yeah, that’s been established for a while now.”  

  Ava shook her head.  “But you left without saying anything.”  

  “Yeah, I had to.”  Sara snorted.  “My dad was about to fight yours.  I had to get them  separated  before they embarrassed themselves.”  

  “Oh God.”  Ava slowly sank to the floor.  “So, this is it then?”  

  Sara dropped onto her knees, so she was kneeling in front of  Ava.   “What?  No, of course not.”  Ava could feel her study her face.  “Is that why you’re so upset?”  

  Ava tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling unable to look at Sara when she shared her suspicions.  “I think he’s kicking me out of the house.”  

Chapter Text

  “Shit.”  Sara spun on her heel until she sat next to Ava on the bathroom floor.  “Are you sure?” 

  Sara watched as Ava swallowed.  “Nick’s here.  There’s a suitcase in the hallway.” 

  “Oh.”  Sara looked at Ava’s hand as she laced their fingers together.  “So, what do you want to do now?” 

  Sara heard Ava groan and turned her head just in time to see her squeeze her eyes closed.  “Why do you do that?” 

  She couldn’t stop herself from imagining the smiling girl she saw in the yearbook picture.  “Do what?” 

  “Why do you always defer to what I want?”  Sara opened her mouth to say something, but for once she couldn’t seem to find the right words and quickly closed her mouth again.  They sat in silence for a few minutes before Ava spoke up again.  “Please just tell me something about you.” 

  Sara leaned against the wall and stretched her legs in front of her.  She didn’t know what Ava wanted her to say.  She felt like she already knew so much about the other girl but didn’t really have anything to share that would even compare.  “My mom was the first person I told that I’m bisexual.”  Sara stared straight ahead.  “I told myself it was because I wanted to piss her off.”  Sara smiled to herself.  “In reality, I was just scared.” 

  She tilted her head slightly towards Ava catching her eyes.  “Scared?” 

  Sara nodded.  “I was too scared to tell Laurel, dad, or even any of my friends.”  She took a deep breath.  “You see, I was already a disappointment to her, so it was easy.” 

  “Sara, I’m sure that’s not true.” 

  “It’s okay.”  Sara just shrugged.  “It went exactly how I expected.  Mom proceeded to tell me how I was making my life so much harder than it needed to be, blah, blah blah.” 

  Ava hummed and leaned so she could rest her head on Sara’s shoulder.  “Skipped right over it’s just a phase?”   

  “Yep.”  Sara thought back to that day and the amount of panic she felt just before she talked to her mom.  “She did not disappoint.”  She snorted at the memory.  “She told me that dad wouldn’t accept me.” 

  “What?  That doesn’t make any sense.  Your dad seems like he’s fine.”  The confusion in Ava’s voice was apparent. 

  “It made sense at the time.  It took me three months before I finally got the courage to tell him.”  She remembered every detail about that day.  She had decided early in the day to tell him.  That was a mistake, it left her the entire day to simmer on it and she nearly lost her nerve.  “It was just the two of us and I just blurted it out.” 

  The weight of Ava’s head on her shoulder shifted.  “What’d he say?” 

  Sara shook her head.  “He was really quiet for a while and I thought for sure he was going to throw me out.”  Sara cringed at the words as they slipped out.  “I’m sorry.” 

  Ava ignored her statement and apology.  “What happened?” 

  “He started telling me a story from when he was still walking a beat with his partner.  Apparently, his partner asked him what he would do if Laurel or I told him we were gay.”  Sara remembered how stoic his expression had been and how she just wanted him to yell at her and end the suspense.  “He told his partner that it didn’t matter, we were still his kids and he would still love us.”  She looked at the ground, this part would probably be hard for Ava to hear and she started to kick herself for deciding to share this story.  “He looked me right in the eyes and said Sara, you’re still my daughter and I still love you.  Nothing’s going to change that.” 

  Sara felt Ava’s shoulder tremble against hers.  “What am I going to do?” 

  As soon as she heard the break in Ava’s voice Sara dropped her hand and wrapped her arms around Ava’s shoulders, pulling her into an awkward side hug.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.  That wasn’t the best choice in stories to share.” 

  After a brief pause Ava spoke.  “No, I get it.  It’s personal and important to you.”  Her voice was steadier than it had been a moment ago. 

  Sara took a deep breath as her mind raced, taking in everything that had happened.  “You’re going to be okay.  You have to know that.”  Sara loosen her hold when she felt Ava pull away from her.  Sara couldn’t move a muscle when Ava turned so that her knees landed on either side of Sara’s thighs.  Sara had to look up at the taller girl that straddled her lap.  “What’re you-” 

  Ava’s palms pressed flat on the tile wall on either side of Sara’s shoulders.  Her lips crashed against Sara’s, effectively cutting off any further conversation.  Ava’s forehead brushed against Sara’s as she broke the contact.  “Shhhh, I don’t want to talk anymore.”  She didn’t withdraw very far and her lips barely grazed Sara’s as she spoke. 

  The press of Ava’s body against hers in addition to the softness of her lips was enough to convince Sara that she was done talking too.  There was an uneasy voice screaming at her in the back of her mind.  It warned her to slow things down, but she didn’t want to.  Instead of heeding the warning, she ran her palms over Ava’s denim clad thighs.  Ava gasped into the kiss as Sara reached the curve of her ass and lifted to pull her closer.  Ava’s hands left the wall and found the back of Sara’s head, she tilted her head and deepened the kiss.  Sara was completely caught up in the moment until she warm skin against the indent of her waist, and then a tug at the hem of her shirt snapped her back into the reality of the situation.  She pulled back as she grabbed Ava’s hands to halt her progress.  “Wait.” 

  “I’m sorry.”  Ava jerked away from Sara and quickly scrambled to her feet.  Sara could see the panic in her expression as she tried to recover.  “I just-I thought that-” 

  Sara rose to her feet as quickly as she could.  “Just wait.”  She swore she could physically see Ava spiraling out of control.  By the time Sara was able to catch her wrist Ava’s hand was already on the knob of the door.  “You’re feeling a lot right now and I don’t want you to do anything you might regret later.” 

  Ava shook her hand off.  “I already do!”  Sara heard the change in her tone coupled with her narrowed eyes.  Ava took another step away from Sara.  “Maybe if I didn’t meet you, I would still be living in my house.”  She opened the door and stormed down the hallway.  Sara was frozen in place, unable to react right away.  She knew Ava was just angry in general and lashing out.  However, that didn’t make her words sting any less. 

  Even though she was unable to move she at least found her tongue.  “Ava, come on.”  Sara saw Ava pass through the room the others were in without saying a word.  It wasn’t until she disappeared up the stairwell that Sara moved to pursue. 

  She halted when Carly blocked her path.  “What the hell happened?”  The brunette’s tone was accusatory as she took in Sara’s appearance. 

  Sara shook her head in disbelief.  “This isn’t on me, but you already know that.” 

  Carly looked to the stairs and then back to Sara.  “From where I’m standing it sure looks like it is.”  The brunette nodded toward the stairway.  “She was just fine a minute ago.” 

  Sara closed the distance between them and dropped her voice as she tried to prevent the guys in the room from hearing too much.  “No, no she wasn’t, and you know why.”  Behind her Sara heard Ray clear his throat.  She kept her attention fixed on Carly when she spoke.  “I’m going to go.”  She finally looked to her friends.  Ray and Jax were clearly confused, but the expression on Nate’s face told her that he at least had an inkling about the situation.  She gathered her books and notes.  “Nate, you’re still picking me up?” 

  “You got it, Captain.”  He shot her a mock salute. 

  Once she said her good-byes, she slowly climbed the stairs.  She wanted to make sure that there was plenty of space between her and Ava.  At the top of the stairs she crossed through the foyer taking note that the aforementioned suitcase was now missing.  She paused to look at the staircase that lead to the second floor. 

  “She’s going through a lot.”  Sara jumped at the sound.  She turned her head to see Nate’s mom join her in the foyer. 

  “I know.”  Sara looked at her notebook, debating about leaving a note for Ava.  She swallowed.  “Are you going to let her stay here?” 

  “If it comes to that, absolutely.”  Mrs. Heywood crossed her arms over her chest. 

  “Okay.”  Sara spun one of the rings on her fingers absently.  “Will you ask her to call me when she’s ready?  Let her know that I get that she’s angry, but that I don’t plan on going anywhere.” 

  The older woman gave her a single nod.  “When she’s ready to hear it, I will.” 

~~~ 

  Ava leaned her shoulder against the wall at the top of the stairs and listened to her aunt and Sara talking in the entryway below.  Nick sat at her feet, looking up at her as her heart pounded in her chest.  She didn’t know why she made such a strong move on Sara, and then when she tried to slow things down Ava had pushed her away.  Yet, she still wanted Ava to call her. 

  Once she heard the door close Ava drug the suitcase, she assumed Carly had packed, into the guestroom with the corgi at her heels.  She sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the luggage.  She had an internal debate about unpacking it, knowing that if she did this all became very real.  She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she heard a knock on the door before it clicked open. 

  “Hey.”  She didn’t even bother to react when Carly walked in.  Her sister sat on the bed next to her.  “Mom’s here, now.  She wanted me to come up and get you.”  Ava still didn’t say anything, just continued to stare forward.  “What’s going on?  Mom called, she told me to bring Nick and some of your stuff here.  Then that thing with Sara.” 

  Ava sighed and rubbed her forehead at the mention of Sara’s name.  “I don’t know the details, but as far as I can tell Uncle Hank took Dad to the field during practice this afternoon.  He and Sara’s dad got into some sort of disagreement.” 

  Carly’s brow furrowed.  “Uncle Hank?” 

  “No, Dad.”  Ava looked at the floor.  “And whatever he said to Mr. Lance worried Uncle Hank enough that he brought me here instead of letting me go home.” 

  “I see.”  Her sister leaned back and scratched between Nick’s ears, at some point he must have found his way onto the bed and curled up behind Ava.  “And Sara?  She didn’t try to take advantage of the situation, did she?” 

  She shot her sister a questioning look.  “What does that even mean?”  Ava remembered what Mike had said about Sara and quarterbacks.  She immediately shook her head and waved her hand to dismiss the question.  She felt like she KNEW Sara, she didn’t need to hear any more stupid rumors.  “She was trying to help, and I ran away.  No, worse.  I pushed her away.” 

  They sat in silence for a minute.  “We should go see mom.” 

  “I don’t want to.”  Ava bowed her head.  “I think I’d rather not know.” 

  Carly stood up and moved to the door.  “I’ll be right there with you.” 

  Ava reluctantly followed her sister downstairs to meet their mother and aunt in the kitchen.  It was clear that they were having a rather heated discussion before the girls had arrived.  Ava’s mom took a breath when they arrived as she turned away from Dot.  “Ava, honey, I’m so sorry it took me so long to get here.” 

  Ava bobbed her head but kept herself from making eye contact with her mom.  “S’okay.  You had to work.  I get it.” 

  She could sense her mother look to her aunt and then back again.  “We’ve been talking and we think that it would be best for you to stay here for a little while.” 

  “I figured.”  Ava slid her hands into her pockets to keep herself from fidgeting too much. 

  “Why?”  Ava looked to her sister when she spoke up. 

  “Well, because I need to get things sorted out with your father.  Make sure that he isn’t going to do anything stupid.”  The older woman rubbed that back of her neck.  “Like picking a fight with a Star City detective or just being an overall jerk to you kids.” 

  Carly snorted.  “Fuck that.  He can move out.” 

  “Carly!”  Pam tried to reprimand her for her language. 

  “No, mom, he’s the asshole here.  HE can move out.”  She rested her hands on her hips. 

  Ava looked up in time to catch the flash of a smile on her aunt’s face.  “I need to give him a chance to make this work.” 

  “Pamela, you don’t need to do shit for him.”  It was clear Dot was done biting her tongue.  “You’ve already given him more than enough chances.” 

  Carly threw her arms in the air.  “He’s the whole reason we moved here in the first place.” 

  Ava’s head swiveled to her sister.  “What?” 

  Her sister raised her brows as she looked at their mother.  “Are you going to tell her, or should I?” 

  “What are you talking about?”  Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother tense and stand up straighter. 

  Carly paused before turning to Ava.  “I don’t know why she won’t just tell you, but I walked in on dad and his assistant right after school ended.  That’s why we had to move so fast, not because of the shit with Leah and Amber.”  Carly turned back to Pam.  “But you had no problem letting her believe that it was her fault somehow.” 

  Ava swallowed the lump that formed in her throat then looked to her mother.  “Is that true?” 

  Her mom started to rub her temples.  “You and your father were always so close, and I hoped he would get his stuff sorted out.  Then at least he could have a relationship with one of his kids.”  Ava’s stomach twisted into a knot. 

  “You know Danny’s never coming home as long as he’s still here, right?”  Carly was focused on their mother as she spoke.  “I don’t know why you bothered to set that room up for him.”  It was apparent that Carly was far from done admonishing their mother. 

  “That is enough.”  There was an air of authority to her mom’s voice when she spoke this time. 

  “Is it?  It wasn’t enough that he pushed Danny away.  Now he’s pushing Ava away too.”  Carly glanced to Ava, checking in.  “Let this go and you’ll be stuck with just me because I’m too stubborn to let his ass get to me.”  Her voice rose steadily as she spoke. 

  Dot stepped between them.  “Okay, that’s enough from both of you.  Why don’t we just stop and take a minute to breathe because this isn’t getting us anywhere.”  Then she looked to Ava.  “Are you okay?” 

  Ava slowly shook her head side to side.  “No.”  She couldn’t help but feel betrayed.  Two of the people she was supposed to be closest to had failed to share some very important information with her.  “Neither one of you had the courage to tell me the truth.  You both chose to let me believe that the move was my fault.” 

  Her mom looked at her and shook her head.  “Ava, honey, your grandfather already wanted me to head the company here.  So, the job offer was on the table and I didn’t want you back in that school.”  She sighed and closed her eyes.  “I may have let you believe that was the only reason, but I didn’t think knowing about his indiscretion would help.” 

  Ava wrapped her arms around herself and looked to her aunt.  “I can stay?” 

  “Of course.”  Dot nodded.  “For as long as you want.”  She looked to the other Sharpe women.  “Why don’t you go ahead and head upstairs?  I’m not sure anything else productive is going to happen tonight.” 

  “I’m going to take Nick out.”  She could tell Carly was about to volunteer to join her, but she cut her off before she had a chance to say anything.  “I need some air.” 

  Ava decided to focus completely on Nick.  She followed in whatever direction he chose to lead her in, the less she had to think the less she would have to feel.  They were about a block away from the house when she heard the rapid approach of footsteps.  She turned her head and expected to see either her mother or her sister, but instead Nate approached.  “Hey!”  He matched her pace when he caught up to her.  He was tossing a football back and forth between his hands. 

  She swallowed and looked forward again.  “What’s up?” 

  He shrugged his shoulders.  “Nothing.  I just thought maybe you’d like some company.” 

  Ava shook her head.  “I’m good.” 

  “Got it.”  He stuck by her side.  “So, if you’re cool with it, I’m going to walk with you anyway because I’ve never had a sibling.  Therefore, I’ve not been blessed with the chance to be an annoying tag along.” 

  Ava cleared her throat, wanting to be sure she didn’t allow any sign of weakness to show.  “I don’t want to talk about it.” 

  Nate shot her a lop-sided grin.  “Thank God, as I understand it, me doing all the talking is a big part of being annoying.”  After a few minutes when she didn’t respond he continued.  “Our scrimmage next week is against Southridge.  Last year their defensive line was pretty weak so you should have plenty of time to get comfortable in the pocket.  At least as long as they didn’t get a miracle transfer.” 

  “Fine, I’ll bite.”  She knew exactly what he was doing, but she couldn’t stop herself from feeling appreciative towards him.  “So, who’s our rival anyway?” 

  He spun on his heel dramatically.  “You don’t know?!”  He grasped his chest to feign surprise.  “The Danville Demons of course.” 

  She snorted.  “Mustangs versus Demons?” 

  He nodded.  “It’s a tale as old as time.”  He walked backwards so he didn’t fall behind.  “Unfortunately, they haven’t had an actual decent game against us in years.  We’ll probably blow them out of the water again this year with Jax or you at quarterback.” 

  Ava shook her head.  “I don’t know about that.” 

  The smile dropped from his face.  “You’re still going to play, right?” 

  “I haven’t decided.”  She looked to the leash looped around her wrist. 

  Nate fell back into step next to her.  “I can’t say I understand what you’re going through.  Just think about this, how does you giving up anything that you enjoy help?” 

  Ava gave it some serious thought as they shared a comfortable silence for the remainder of the walk. 

~~~ 

  Ava stood up and looked to the sideline to catch Coach Hunter’s signal.  As she barked the call to the line in front of her she caught the late arrival of a few seniors that had taken the SAT.  Kendra, Jax, Nate, and Sara were among them.  Jax and Nate talked to the coach was she called for the snap. 

  Just as the play called for, she faked a hand-off and fell back into the pocket looking down field for one of the receivers to get open.  It didn’t take long for Mazza to break away, and she didn’t stop to think for a second.  She launched the ball and it dropped directly into his outstretched arms. 

  Unlike his behavior during try-outs he tucked the ball away and sped down field, cutting the defenders to avoid being tackled.  She was impressed that when he put forth effort, he was actually good. 

  As predicted Coach Hunter blew his whistle and waved her in.  As she ran past Jax he held his hand up and high-fived her.  As soon as she left the field she peeled off her helmet and stood near the coach, hoping she would get another chance to get back on the field before practice was over. 

  She tried to focus on the field in front of her, but her attention kept getting drawn to the opposite sideline where Sara was quickly pulling her hair up into a high ponytail.  The cheerleader was laughing as she spoke to Kendra.  Her smile slowly faded when she caught Ava’s eye.  It wasn’t that she seemed upset with Ava, but more like she was concerned for her. 

  Up until this point she hadn’t really taken the time to stop and really think about what had gone down between the two of them the previous night with everything that had happened after Sara left.  Sara gave her a small wave before turning her attention to the squad that had gathered behind her.  She was still lost in her head when something smacked against her shoulder.  Ava turned to see Nate holding out a water bottle towards her.  “Here, you look dehydrated.” 

~~~ 

  Sara’s eyes swept over her squad as they wrapped up.  “Next week, I want all of you to come with some fresh ideas.”  Coach Lynch spoke next to her.  “This year, I want the juniors and seniors to step up and take the reins.  Sara, you and Rachel put your ideas together and come up with a routine for the Prep Rally in a couple of weeks.” 

   Great, something else to add to  my  to do list.   Sara managed to force a smile at Rachel.  “Fantastic, we can start on Monday.” 

  Rachel nodded in agreement.  “Sounds great.  Let’s meet up before the rest of the squad.  Say nine in the morning?” 

  “Sure, that sounds great.”  Sara noticed that Nate and Ava had lingered on bleachers after the rest of the team had departed.  “I’ll see you then.”  She moved to join them.  As soon as Nate noticed her approach, said something to Ava then jogged toward the parking lot.  Sara stopped, not sure if Ava would be ready to talk.  She hadn’t called yet. 

  Ava turned toward her an expectant look on her face. Sara could tell that Ava knew she was hesitant to close the rest of the distance between them.  Instead she met Sara at the railing.  “So, how’d the test go?”  The taller girl leaned forward propping herself on the metal rail as she spoke. 

  “Average, if I’m lucky.”  Sara shrugged as she looked up at Ava.  “I can always retest.” 

  Ava gestured over her shoulder towards the parking lot.  “Nate wanted to see if you wanted to catch a ride home with us.”  Sara considered the offer, but Ava’s voice cut through her thoughts before she was able to decide.  “I’m sorry about last night.” 

  “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”  Sara tilted her head to the side and offered a gentle smile.  “Well, maybe for the whole ‘wish I never met you’ thing.”  She hoped Ava would receive the tease as it was intended.  “That kind of hurt, but I get that you have a lot going on right now.” 

  “Yeah.”  Ava winced and Sara saw her knuckles turn white as her grip tightened.  “I’m staying with the Heywood’s.” 

  Even though Nate had already mentioned it when he picked her up Sara still felt angry for her.  “I’m so sorry.”  She motioned for Ava to join her.  “I’m assuming Nate is going to meet us at the car.” 

  Once Ava met her on the grass, they started to make their way to the parking lot.  Ava cleared her throat.  “It’s not an excuse for my behavior, but I just needed to feel something and I-misjudged the situation.” 

  Sara thought back to the previous night, and she couldn’t stop her smile from widening.  It didn’t end well, but if she disregarded the last part it wasn’t a terrible memory.  “You didn’t.”  She chuckled nervously.  “I was into it.”  She quickly corrected herself.  “AM into it-you.  I’m into you.”  She rolled her eyes at herself.  “The timing wasn’t ideal.” 

  Ava brushed her hand against Sara’s, subtly asking for permission.  Sara took her hand and laced their fingers together.  “I take it we’re okay?” 

  “Of course.”  Sara’s brow furrowed as they continued.  “Just-” She sucked in a deep breath.  “I can create distractions when needed, but I don’t want to BE a distraction.”  She looked to Ava’s profile to gauge her reaction.  “I hope that makes sense.” 

  “I get it.”  Ava’s head dropped. 

  They were about to pass through the chain link fence that separated the field from the parking lot.  “Hold on a second.”  Seeing her reaction Sara slid in front of Ava, effectively blocking her path.  She used her free hand to cup Ava’s cheek and tilted her head up enough so she could meet her eyes.  “I’m not upset.  It’s just the everything between us is new and I think the only way this is going to work is if we’re open and honest with each other.” 

  Ava snorted and looked up, avoiding Sara’s gaze.  “That’s refreshing.” 

  Sara could sense there was something more there.  “Hey.”  Sara bounced onto the balls of her feet to catch Ava’s attention.  “It is, and it goes both ways.” 

  It felt like for the first time that day Ava actually saw her.  “You’re pretty amazing, Ms. Lance.” 

  She pressed a quick peck on Ava’s cheek and smirked at her.  “I know.” 

~~~ 

  Sara laid on the couch with her knees bent over the arm, kicking absently as she stared at the ceiling.  Outside she could hear rhythmic pounding of rain against the windows.  The events from the bathroom Friday night and after practice yesterday ran through her mind over and over.  She wondered if she should have handled anything differently. 

  As if on cue Laurel walked around the opposite side of the couch and plopped down.  “How’d the test go?” 

  “Fine, I guess.”  Sara blinked a couple of times before she looked up at Laurel.  “Aren’t you supposed to be in a dorm right now?” 

  Laurel hummed and leaned over Sara.  “I’m picking up some more jeans.  What’s going on with you?”  She gestured to the position Sara was lying in.  “Shouldn’t you be out with friends or your girlfriend?” 

  Sara grabbed a throw pillow and smashed it against Laurel’s face, pushing her away.  “Go back to campus.” 

  “That bad?”  Laurel wrestled the pillow from Sara’s hands. 

  “Kind of a shit show.  Can I get your opinion?”  She ran her hands through her hair after Laurel nodded to the affirmative.  “So, dad met Ava’s sperm donor.” 

  Laurel recoiled.  “Gross, Sara.” 

  Sara held up her hand to stop Laurel.  “They almost fought at the school during practice Friday.”  Laurel’s eyes widened.  “Long story short, I think her dad kicked her out of the house.  We were talking Friday night and-” Sara groaned and looked up again.  “No judgement?” 

  Laurel tilted her head.  “No, no judgement.” 

  “Things were getting a little intense between us.”  Sara cleared her throat.  “And I might have stopped her.”  She could feel her cheeks heat up with the admission.  “She got freaked out and bailed.  I didn’t want her to do anything she might regret later.  I don’t want to fuck this up in typical Sara fashion.”  

  Laurel pursed her lips and nodded.  “Shit show, got it.”  Laurel tapped Sara’s forehead.  “For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing.” 

  “Great.”  Sara batted her hand away.  “We talked after practice yesterday, and I think I cleared the air with her, but dad basically  told  me to invite her for dinner.  With everything she has going on, I don’t want too.”  She chewed the inside of her cheek.  “I don’t want mom or dad to stress her out any more than she already is.” 

  Laurel smirked at her.  “Aw, look at you growing up and acting all mature.” 

  Sara rolled her eyes at her sister.  “Fuck off.” 

  Laurel let the smirk fall.  “Look, Sara, you and I both know Dad just wants to make sure she’s safe.  So, is she?” 

  Sara thought for a moment before answering.  “I think so, she’s staying with the Heywood’s.” 

  “Well, there you go.  Tell him that.”  Laurel looked at her like it was the simplest answer in the world.  “I don’t know if you are aware of this, but you really have that man wrapped around your finger.” 

  Sara huffed and was about to respond, but a knock on the door cut her off.  She glanced at Laurel and raised her brows, asking if she was expecting anyone. 

  “Don’t get up, I’ve got it.”  Laurel chided as she stood. 

  Sara started to kick her legs again and closed her eyes.  She heard Laurel open the door and greet someone, but she couldn’t make out the words.  After a couple of seconds she could sense a presence standing over her.  She opened her eyes to see Laurel leaning over the back of the couch.  “What?” 

  “Door’s for you.”  She left the couch and started towards the stairs.  “We can talk more later, if you want.” 

  Sara groaned as she got up and made her way to the front door.  She swung the door open.  “Ava?”  She quickly assessed the other girl’s appearance.  “You’re soaked.” 

  “Yeah, I was out for a run and got caught.”  She seemed completely unfazed by the rain that had clearly soaked completely through her clothes.  “When I noticed how close I was, I thought I’d see if you were home.” 

  “Come on in.”  Sara took a step back to invite her in. 

  “I shouldn’t.”  Sara noticed her shift her weight from on foot to the other.  “I just wanted to apologize again.  I really took some time last night and thought about what you said about being treated like a distraction.  I just feel really shitty that I made you feel that way.” 

  “It’s okay.  It’s not the first time.”  Sara didn’t move, still holding the door wide open for Ava to come in.  “Get in here and at least wait for the rain to let up.  I’m about to watch some Buffy reruns.” 

  Ava held her position for a couple more seconds before she shook her head.  “I really can’t.  I promised Aunt Dot that I’d help with dinner.  Another time.” 

Chapter Text

  “I really can’t.  I promised Aunt Dot that I’d help with dinner.  Another time?”   Ava wished she could take her words back as soon as they fell from her lips.  Then as if on cue there was a flash of lightning behind her followed almost immediately by the rumble of thunder.  She had paid enough attention in her science classes to know that meant the storm was right over them.  

  In front of her Sara tilted her head so she could look up at the sky beyond the porch.  “You should really watch a weather report before going for a run.”  The shorter blonde’s gaze returned to Ava.  “Come on, stay.  I can’t with good conscious let you go back out into that storm.  Call Mrs. Heywood and let her know you’re here.  If it’s a big deal they can come and pick you up, but I think she’ll be more upset if you go back out it this storm.”  

  Ava glanced over her shoulder at the dark clouds of storm before she finally conceded and entered the Lance home.  “Thank you.”  She paused in the foyer not wanting to track water through the house.  

  She heard the door close, followed by rapid footsteps as Sara brushed past her.  She disappeared into a door off the hallway the Ava had recalled being the half bath.  “I’ll have to run upstairs.”  Sara’s arm extended from the room towards her as she held out a hand towel.  “This is all we have down here.”  

  “Hey Ava!”  Ava’s gaze was drawn up from the towel to the top of the stairs to catch Laurel’s approach.  As she stepped off the final stair tread, the older Lance sibling held something towards her.  “Here, these are Ollie’s so they’ll probably be a little large on you, but they should fit better than anything Booster could offer.”  Ava noted the bath towel on top of a dry tee shirt, sweatpants, and a hoodie.  

  Ava’s brow furrowed as she thought about Laurel’s statement for a moment.  “Booster?”  She gave Laurel a questioning look.  

  “No!”  Sara’s arm dropped and her head shot out of the bathroom.  “Come on, Laurel!”  Ava noted that her tone seemed to fall somewhere between annoyed and a desperate plea.  

  Laurel didn’t miss a beat as she responded to Ava.  “Nickname.”  There was a slight pause before she elaborated further.  “She hit her growth spurt a little late.”  She spoke without even acknowledging her sister’s mortified groan.  Laurel raised a shoulder as she continued.  “Booster seat.”  Laurel gave that trademark Lance smirk as she finished her explanation.  

  Ava couldn’t completely stifle the snort that escaped her.  A hum of disapproval drew her attention to the look of faux betrayal Sara shot in Laurel’s direction.  Seizing the moment, she quickly took the offering from Laurel.  “Thank you.”  Once the dry clothes were secured in her hands she slipped past Sara into the bathroom to get dry and change.  As she emptied her pockets, she flipped her cell phone open and dialed her aunts' number.  

  “Ava?”  Dot answered on the second ring.  Her tone was concerned, but at the same time didn’t read as worried.  

    “Hey, I went for a run and got caught in the storm.”  She paused a beat to see if the older woman would say anything, when she didn’t Ava continued.  “I was close to the  Lances’  so I stopped to wait it out.  I can head back as soon as the weather lets up to help with dinner.”  

  “That’s fine.  Don’t worry about dinner.”  There was a sense of relief in her voice.  “So, you just happened to be near the Lances?”  She picked up on the accusation, but before she could try to mount a defense Dot had already moved on.  “If it gets to be too late or Quentin and Pam want you out of their way just call and we’ll come pick you up.”  

  “I will, I promise.”  After they exchanged a few more pleasantries Ava closed the phone and sat it on the vanity top.  She took a moment to consider if she should just ask if Laurel could give her a ride home now.   Not home, to the Heywood’s.   She decided not to waste any additional time on that line of  thought, and  stripped out of her wet clothes'.  After toweling off, she changed into the dry garments Laurel had loaned her.  The thick material of the sweatpants felt soft and warm, it forced her into awareness of just how cold she had gotten after being soaked by the storm.  For the final touch she pulled the hoodie over her head.  She fought the urge to flip the hood up and just hide in the oversized warmth it provided.  It wasn’t until she had gathered up her soaked outfit that she caught that the word Mustangs was emblazoned down the leg of the borrowed pants.  

  As soon as she stepped out of the bathroom Sara met her with a plastic  grocery  bag.  “Here, we’ll just leave those by the door for now.”  She then jerked a thumb over her shoulder.  “Come on, I have the next episode ready to go.”  

  After she dropped the bag on a chair that sat next to the door as instructed, Ava followed Sara into the living room.  “Fair warning, I know the show, but I haven’t seen all of the episodes.”  

  Sara grinned.  “Season six?”  Ava shook her head.  “You are in for a treat, Sharpe.  I’m on episode 7.”  Sara’s eyes took on a distant look for a moment before she looked to the ceiling.  “I mean, I could start over?”  Ava saw it as an offer to allow her to interfere with Sara’s life yet again.  “I do have all them on DVD if you want-”  

  “No.”  She shook her head and held up her hands.  “I don’t want to disrupt your  rewatch .”  

  Ava watched as Sara grabbed the remote and let out a sigh of relief.  “Thank goodness.  This is honestly one of my favorite episodes and it’s taken a while to get here.”  Sara flopped on the couch and turned on the television.  As soon as the screen lit up, she looked back to Ava expectantly before tapping the cushion next to her.  “Sit down, get comfortable.  Because, let’s be honest that storm isn’t letting up any time soon.”  

  Ava joined Sara on the couch as she started the episode.  Her back stayed ramrod straight as she maintained some distance between them.  It wasn’t until Sara had settled in and focused on the tv that Ava turned slightly to study the other girl.  Her gaze lingered on Sara’s profile a little longer than it should have, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away.  After the way she behaved she knew Sara had every reason to never speak to her again.  The worse part being Ava hadn’t even known how appalling her behavior had been until Sara called her out on it.  Yes, she had a lot going on, but she had not right to treat the other girl the way she had.  Ava had been so caught up in her thoughts that it wasn’t until Sara Michelle Gellar started to sing that she shifted her focus on the screen in front of her.  “Wait, is she singing?”  

  Sara nodded.  “Mmhmm.  This is the best.”  Her eyes remained forward as her hand brushed against Ava’s.  As soon as they touched Sara’s attention shifted from the screen to her face.  “You cold?”  Before Ava said anything, Sara jumped off the couch and disappeared into the hallway.  She returned with a blanket and sat next to Ava so she could cover their both of their legs with it.  Now that she was right next to Ava, Sara must have noticed her rigid posture.  “Relax, how often do you see the slayer singing as she sends demons back to hell?”  

  At the request Ava finally allowed her posture to soften a bit.  By the time she was turned her attention back to the show Buffy was walking through a book shop of some sort.  She recognized the red head and goofy boy from what she had already seen, but there were several other characters that she didn’t recognize.  “Wow, the Scooby Gang has grown.”  Sara shot her a quick smile and hummed in agreement.  At least that was a reference she could throw out, because truth be known she hadn’t seen a single episode past the first season.  

  Sara’s hand found hers under the blanket, but she forced herself to stay focused on the show.  “I know, they kept picking up people as they went along.”  

  Ava watched as Willow, the nerdy redhead, and one of the girls that she didn’t recognize left the bookstore.  They seemed to be close as they started strolling through the park.  Then two boys walked past them, and Willow made some comment about them checking the girl out.  ‘ Oh My God, I’m cured.  I want the boys .’   Then Willow followed up with something about not being butch.  “Wait, who is that?”  Ava pointed at the screen.  

  “Tara?”  A song cued up and the girl was clearly singing to Willow.  Sara stole a glance at Ava as if she were checking to see if she was being serious.  “Willow’s girlfriend?”  

  Ava’s eyes grew wide as she processed the fact that a lesbian relationship had been represented on television and she somehow had no idea that it had even happened.  “Willow has a girlfriend?”  

  “Yeah, Willow had-” Sara stopped herself from continuing.  “has a girlfriend.”  She paused the show.  “Wait, what’s the last episode you saw?”  

  “I watched the first season.”  Ava offered a pathetic smile along with the admission.  

  “Nope.”  Sara shook her head and waved the remote towards the television.  “We shouldn’t watch this.”  

  “Come on.”  Ava rolled her eyes and made a move to snatch the remote from Sara, but she was able to toss the remote from hand to the other and hold it out of Ava’s reach.  Ava groaned and sat back down.  “I don’t want to interrupt your show.  Besides they seem happy and they’re an actual couple.  How often does that happen?”  

  Sara rolled her eyes.  “Okay, but that’s my point.”  Sara shrugged her shoulders then restarted the episode.  “How often  does  that happen?”  

   They watched to rest of the episode in silence, Ava had so many questions as it progressed but didn’t want to interrupt again.  As the episode ended Ava leaned back into the couch and shook her head.  “So, Willow cast a spell on her to forget?”  

  “Yeah.”  Sara stopped the playback.  “Ironically, they were fighting about her overuse of magic.  So, when she used magic to make Tara forget it’s a pretty big deal.”  

  “They breakup?”  Sara gave her a sad smile.  “But do they figure things out, right?  They get back together?”  

  She noticed Sara’s neck bob as she swallowed.  “Did you want to keep watching?”  That wasn’t an answer and it left a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.  Which after a moment felt a little ridiculous to worry about a couple on television with everything going on in her life.  Ava opened her mouth to answer, but the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs pulled her attention before she had a chance to respond.  

  Laurel strode into the living room.  “Heads up you two, mom and dad are home.”  Ava caught the pointed look she shot towards Sara.  

  Sara had just hopped off the couch when the door swung open.  “Sara, baby girl, give us a hand with the groceries.”  Ava rose to follow her lead as a man soaked by the storm stepped into the house and held out several grocery bags.  “Take these to the kitchen and I’ll bring the rest in.”  Sara moved to help, as he looked up and caught Ava’s eyes.  “I didn’t know you had company.”  He offered her a warm smile as Sara took a few of the bags.  

  Without missing a beat Ava looked to Sara.  “I got caught in the storm and she offered to let me wait it out here.  I hope that’s okay?”  

  “Of course.”  He stood a little straighter and shook some of the water from his jacket.  

  A second figure backed in beside him as she shook out the umbrella she was holding.  “It’s absolutely pouring out there.”  The woman then lowered the umbrella and closed it before turning into the house to lean it against one of the corners of the entryway near the door.  She looked up as she unzipped her jacket.  “Oh, hello.”   Her attention landed on Ava.  “I didn’t know you invited someone over.”  The woman’s voice was friendly enough, but Ava could tell from her tight-lipped smile that it wasn’t entirely honest.  

  Ava had to swallow before she spoke under the older woman’s scrutiny.  “Hi Mrs. Lance, I’m Ava.”  She started to understand what Oliver had meant when he warned her about Dinah.  

  “Mom, relax.”  Ava could hear Laurel’s approach from behind her, but she couldn’t move.  The woman’s intensity held her in place.  

  When Laurel spoke Ava could see the woman’s face shift to a genuine smile, Dinah looked beyond Ava and Sara into the living room.  “Laurel, I didn’t think you would be able to make it home for dinner tonight.”  

  “I didn’t think so either, but I needed to grab a few things anyway.  So, I just figured why not stick around and get a good meal.”  She quickly walked into the foyer and grabbed the remaining bags from Quentin.  “Hey, dad.”  She gave him a quick peck on the cheek before she turned to her mom.  “Come on, let’s get dinner started.”  She touched her mother’s shoulder to steer her towards the kitchen.  

  Quentin ran a hand through his hair absently as Laurel and Dinah left.  “I’m going to grab the rest of the groceries.”  He looked up to Ava.  “Would you care to stay for dinner?”  

  Dinah’s forced smile popped into her head, and she knew she wasn’t ready for that interaction yet.  “Maybe another time.  I should probably go.”  After everything that had already gone down Ava just wasn’t prepared for a dinner with a woman that had deemed Oliver Queen unworthy of her eldest daughter.  

  “Let me get these to the kitchen.  I’ll get Laurel’s keys and take you.”  Sara was walking backwards away from them as she spoke.  

  “Eh.  I’ll drive you.”  Quentin crossed his arms across his chest.  “Sara, I don’t want you driving in this storm.”  

  She shook her head, while still moving towards the kitchen.  “Oh no you don’t.  I’m a better driver than you and you know it.”  

  Quentin chuckled to himself as Sara disappeared into the kitchen.  “She’s right about my driving.”  His focus was now solely on Ava.  She could tell he really didn’t want Sara to drive her home.  “Do you live nearby?”  

  She didn’t normally feel nervous around adults, but something about this conversation seemed so much more importance to her.  It didn’t take her long to  conclude  that this was the first time that she was talking to one of her girlfriends’ parents that could  be  aware that they were seeing each other.  “I’m actually staying with the  Heywoods  for the time being.”  

  He hummed in response and she noticed that the tension in his shoulders seemed to relax and his expression softened.  It didn’t seem like he felt sorry for her, but maybe more apologetic towards her.  Which just made her wonder even more what had happened between the two fathers.  “Your aunt and uncle are great folks.”  Ava nodded and looked in the direction that Sara had disappeared.   

  “They really are.”  Ava nodded in agreement as she looked back to Quentin.  She shifted her weight from one foot to the other feeling way more awkward as it started to sink in that her father had picked a fight with this man and she still only had a vague idea about what happened between them to cause it.  

  “I should get the rest of the groceries.”  He half turned towards the door before he stopped and reached into to his pocket.  “Here.”  He held out a card towards her.  She looked it over as she accepted it from him, his work business card.  “If you ever need anything, you can call me, any time.”  

  She looked at it before she tucked it into her pocket as he disappeared out the front door.  Now her imagination started to get the best of her.  At a minimum this interaction confirmed that whatever terrible thing her father had said, it was most likely about her.  Before she could go too far down that rabbit hole of thought Sara reappeared holding up a set of keys.  

  “Let’s go!”  Ava was barely able to grab the plastic bag with her wet running clothes before Sara snagged her free hand and pulled her onto the porch.  “I’ll unlock the car, as soon as the engine starts come on down.”  She released Ava’s hand and ran down the stairs towards the late model sedan at the end of the driveway.  

  After a moment Ava followed her down the stairs and joined her in the car.  The car was quiet as Sara backed out of the driveway.  “So, you dance and love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  What’s the future look like for Sara Lance?  Music videos or demon slayer?”  

  Sara snorted at the question as she glanced at Ava briefly.  “I have to choose?” Once Sara’s eyes returned to the road Ava saw her smile slowly fade.  “I’ve been working on my audition tape, but it’s not going great.  So, Ray has been helping me with an application essay.”  

  Ava did some quick math in her head.  “Where are you thinking about going to school?  Juilliard starts taking applications soon.  They only accept 24 students a year, you should submit as soon as possible.”  

  “Juilliard?” Sara chuckled.  

  Ava kept her eyes forward.  “Yeah, you can start submitting applications September 1 st .  Deadline for applications, essays, and pre-screening is December 1 st .  Live callbacks in February.”  

  “Ava, Juilliard isn’t really for me.”  Sara cleared her throat.  “But you seem familiar with the process.”  

  "Yeah, I guess.”  She could feel it every time Sara looked in her direction.  “My instructor sent me a few reminders last year.”  

   “Your instructor recommended that you apply to Juilliard?”  Sara arched a brow.  “That’s pretty intense.  I was thinking more along the lines of Metropolis Performing Arts Academy.”  

  “That’s a great school.”  Ava looked over at Sara.  “I could  take a look  at your solo if you want.  I started work on mine before I decided it wasn’t for me.   Obviously,  our styles are different, but I’d be happy to try and help.”  

  Sara pulled the sedan up to the front of the Heywood’s house and shifted it into park.  “Yeah, I’d appreciate it.  As long as it’s not too much trouble.”  

 “Not at all.”  Ava smiled at the other girl as she picked up the bag from the floor.  “Set up some studio time and let me know.”  She gestured to the house.  “Right now, all I really have going on is football.  Just schedule around practice and I should be good.”  Sara nodded, but then there was an awkward moment of silence before Ava exited the car.  “I’ll see you soon.”  

~~~    

   Ava exited the bus with her gear bag slung over her shoulder.  It had been over a week and she was still staying with the Heywoods.  She hadn’t held a real conversation with anyone in her immediate family since the night her father’s true colors had been revealed.  She had spoken with Carly and her mom, but it was just check in’s nothing of any actual substance.  

  She was slowly starting to find what could be a new normal, helping her aunt with meals and Nate with his chores.  She did miss being within walking distance of  Darhk  Roast and the dog park, but she had managed to talk Nate into leaving for practice early enough to stop by for coffee in the mornings.  That had initially been dependent on her picking up the bill.  Although now that she wasn’t staying with her mom and dad, she wasn’t sure where her spending cash was going to come from.  She had started to consider getting a part time job, but she knew it would be difficult to juggle sports, school, and a job.  

  She had to put those thoughts aside and she picked up her pace to catch up with Coach Hunter.  He  led  the team across the parking lot.  When he caught sight of her, he waved her up to join him.  “Welcome to Southridge, home of the Sharks.”  He continued across the field.  “There’s a field house where the cheerleaders get ready.  It’s across from the locker room we’re going to use.  Once you get geared up Coach Bennett will be outside of the locker room and we’ll meet up on the field.”  He shot her a smile.  “You were right about that not being an issue.”  

  Ava simply shrugged a shoulder at him.  “Been there, done that.”  She stayed with the rest of the team until it was time for her to break off with the cheerleaders.  She followed closely behind Sara and the rest of the squad into the field house.  She didn’t waste any time changing quickly without paying attention to the other girls in the room.  She pulled on her jersey and made her way towards the door, but a hand caught her wrist halting her progress.  

  Surprised she looked over her shoulder to see Sara holding her helmet.  “You’re probably going to need this.”  Ava closed her eyes and shook her head.  Her nerves were starting to get the best of her, and Sara saw right through it.  “Hey, you’ll be great.”  

  “I know.”  She took her helmet and nodded.  “I’m just nervous, first game with a new team.  New opponents.”  She slowly exhaled.  “But if I’m being completely honest, I’m less concerned with the team than the new crowd.  Some people just aren’t all that receptive.”  

  “You let us worry about the crowd, your job is to focus on the field.”  Sara released her wrist and backed away.  “See you after the game.”  

~~~  

  It didn’t take long for Sara to understand what Ava meant by worrying about the crowd.  As soon as the team took the field, she could see the wave of whispers that ran through the home section bleachers.  At this point she was sure there was enough talk around Star City that Ava’s presence on the team wasn’t a surprise, but it was obviously new information to most of Southridge.  

  After kick-off everything seemed to settle down with Jax taking the field.  The first quarter both teams seemed evenly matched, but Star City managed to score 7 unanswered points on a pass to Nate.  At the start of the second quarter Jefferson ran in a quarterback sneak for 6 more points, but the kicker missed the extra point.  As the quarter progressed the Southridge team began to slow down.  With less than two minutes left in the half Sara saw the offensive line gear up to take the field out of the corner of her eye.  This time Jax remained on the bench and Ava pulled on her helmet.  

  Sara continued to lead the cheer for the defense to hold the Sharks from getting a first down.  Once the ball was back in the Mustangs possession the offense line took the field with Ava under center.  The energy from the crowd was all over the place, but that quickly shifted to excitement when the team rolled down the field and scored on a pass to Carter.  

  The rest of the game was more of the same with Mike even getting some play in the fourth quarter.  The final score wound up at 41-0.  Sara noted that Jax and Ava wound up with an equal amount of play time.  It wasn’t the most exciting game in the world, but it was encouraging for how the rest of the season could go.  

  After the game Sara pretty much stuck with her squad, at least until they disembarked the bus back in Star City.  The cheer squad said their goodbyes and Sara leaned against the brick school building to wait for the football team to wrap up.  After a few minutes as predicted Ava made her way over to where Sara stood.  “Not a bad debut.”  

  “Eh, maybe.”  The athlete just shrugged.  “I think we were lucky that Jax wore them out for us.”  

  “Take the compliment, Sharpe.”  Sara wrinkled her nose.  “Also, can you  not refer  to you and Mike as ‘us’?”  

  “Gross.”  Ava mock gagged at the suggestion.  “Not Mike, us.  Like the rest of the team on the field with me, us.”  

  Sara laughed and looked at the ground briefly before looking back up at Ava.  “So, what are you doing now superstar?”  

  “I’m not sure.”  Ava gestured over her shoulder.  “Nate’s my ride.”  

  “ Waverider’s ?  I’m meeting a few girls from the squad to celebrate.”  Sara noticed that ever since the incident at the Heywood's Ava was very careful about maintaining some sort of distance between them.  She could tell that Ava still felt guilty about what happened.  She didn’t want to push, but she also wanted to reassure Ava that they were okay.  Someone had once told Sara that her ‘love language’ was physical touch.  At the time felt absurd to consider that you expressed love in one of five specific ways, but now as she fought the urge to reach out and grab Ava’s hand it made some sense.  “If Nate doesn’t want to go then I can always drop you off after.”  

  “I don’t know.”  Ava held up her cell.  “Mom sent me a text on the way back.  Carly told her about the win and that I got to play.”  Sara saw her chew the inside of her bottom lip.   “She wants to talk to me later.”  Sara caught her eyes as she heard the worried tone in her voice.  “Like really talk.”  

  “Oh.”  Unwilling to resist any long Sara pushed off the wall and stepped closer to Ava.  Initially she just brushed the back of Ava’s hand with her fingertips.  She was a little disappointed when Ava took a step back to maintain her space.  “Ava?”  She struggled not to grab her hand and pull her closer.  Instead she gestured over her shoulder.  “Come on.”  Once she was sure Ava would follow, she ducked around the corner of the building away from any prying eyes.  

  As Ava came around the corner, she spoke Sara’s name in an exhale of breath.  “Sara.”  Ava’s head dropped.  “Everything just feels so complicated.  I’m supposed to be starting my senior year with the same people I’ve spent most of my life with.  Preparing to start college.  Instead I’m trying to figure out where to live.  What am I going to do?”  

  “Well, since you are stuck with me...”  Ava’s head shot up and her mouth opened.  Sara gave her a warm smile.  “I know what you meant.”  Normally she would be the first to admit that she was out of her depth, but that wasn’t going to help.  “I think the first thing you should do is come with me and have some pizza.”  She held out her hand towards Ava.  “Just be a quarterback that won a game 41 to nothing.  Most of the team will probably be there too.”  She wiggled her fingers to encourage Ava to take her hand.  “Come on.  Victory date, my treat.”  Once Ava finally took her hand Sara led her towards the parking lot.