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Tell Me I'm Here

Chapter Text

Therese knows better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, but then again… she really doesn’t want to be here.

She was out til 2:00 last night, working her first shift at a new job uptown. It’s her second bartending job, but this new place is a lot higher class than the dive bar where she worked through undergrad. Lots of rich Wall Street guys. Lots of assholes. That may be why she’s particularly irritated to be out at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. This weekend gig is at a holiday market in the West Village. Which means more rich assholes.

Therese savors the coffee she bought on the way over, hot and full of very necessary caffeine. She looks around at the sleepily awakening market. It would be one thing if Therese was renting out one of the booths (selling her photographs? she gets embarrassed just imagining it) but in fact she’s working for the market itself, the information booth. Richard’s father has a stand in the food court and got him the job, and Richard got her the job, but Richard called in sick this morning. So, it’s just her in the booth, stuck under the assessing and endlessly dissatisfied eye of her supervisor, Mrs. Hendrickson. Mrs. Hendrickson wears horn-rimmed glasses and a poodle skirt; she is that particularly irritating brand of hipster who dresses like it’s the 1950s.

Even worse, when Therese showed up fifteen minutes ago, Mrs. Hendrickson presented her with a Santa hat.

“All the market staff wear them,” she announced, her tone and glare suggesting that this hat was a hill she would die on.

Oddly enough for a hipster, Mrs. Hendrickson gives Therese major “War on Christmas” and “Fox New” vibes. So now Therese is wearing a Santa hat, and questioning all her life choices. At least it’s $15 an hour. With what she makes today, she’ll be able to pay the repair bill for her camera, which has been sitting in the shop waiting for her for four days. Therese feels naked without it.

It’s just a six-hour shift, she tells herself grimly. You can survive a six-hour shift, go home, get some sleep, eat something, and be ready for the bar at 6:00.

The market opens right at 7:30, and soon the patrons start trickling in. It’s mostly Lululemon moms and older couples, everybody searching for that perfect artisan knife set, that bespoke pocket watch, that handmade piece of jewelry—all ethically sourced and overpriced and a surefire way to show your loved one that you went above and beyond Amazon this year.

Therese, fully aware that she is being a snob, reminds herself that she plans to buy Richard’s gift here. He’s a hobby painter and there’s a booth that sells watercolors and handmade brushes. Therese gets a 20% discount for working here, and she knows the gift will be a hit. She’s just not quite sure why she cares about that.

It’s not that Richard isn’t nice. All her boyfriends have been nice. Unlike a lot of the other girls she grew up with, she’s got a good eye for closet abusers and controlling assholes. But after six months of dating Richard and hearing from all and sundry how nice he is, she’s beginning to wonder if not being an overt jerk is too low a bar to have set herself. Dannie certainly seems to think so, a fact he made clear in their most recent conversation.

“When are you gonna dump that guy? Sure, he’s cute, but man is he boring. Let me find you someone with a personality at least.”

“All the guys you know are gay.”

“I know several bisexuals and I’ll bet you cash money they give better head than Richard. No one gives head like a queer. It’s our greatest talent.”

Just remembering brings a smirk to Therese’s lips. It would be hard to be worse at giving head than Richard, but still… her smirk fades to a frown. He is nice. And it’s not like anyone else is interviewing for the job of boyfriend. Therese wishes that didn’t matter to her. Wishes that she could just be single, but she’s living alone for the first time in her life and it’s… lonely. No, that’s not a good enough reason to be in a relationship. But is it a good enough reason to avoid the monumental awkwardness of breaking up with someone?

Over the loudspeaker, Mrs. Hendrickson’ performatively cheery voice reminds the shoppers about the reusable bag policy, calls out a few specific sellers (who paid extra for the advertisement), and directs all patrons with questions to the information booth in the center of the market. Therese shakes herself out of her morose thoughts, stands up straighter, and tries to look as if she’ll have information, should anyone need it.

And that’s when she sees her.

There’s a booth about ten feet away, a ceramics maker whose shelves of teapots, cups, and dishware caught Therese’s eye on the way in this morning, everything beautifully minimalist. But it’s not the ceramics that have her attention now. No, it’s the woman who stands before the shelves, gazing at the maker’s wares with an expression that Therese instantly recognizes: the expression of one who is looking, but not seeing. Whose thoughts are a thousand miles away.

Therese, on the other hand, is looking and seeing. She feels like she has never seen anything so clearly in her life. The woman is… she is absolutely breathtaking. Tall, and statuesque. Slender but not petite; something stately and powerful in her shoulders, in her long legs, in the hand that brushes back a sweep of her blonde hair. She’s dressed like a movie star: a large, expensive-looking handbag on one arm; black jeans and black riding boots; a white blouse unbuttoned at the throat to reveal the glitter of jewelry; and a thigh-length, camel-colored wool coat that would look unattractively boxy on so many women. On her, it simply compounds the impression of someone powerful and elegant and refined. Therese can’t stop staring.

The woman looks up, as if sensing eyes on her. Their gazes lock. Even at the distance, Therese can tell her eyes are pale, maybe blue? Her expression doesn’t change, even as their stare holds for two, three seconds, and then—

“Excuse me?”

Therese startles, turning toward a woman with a toddler in her arms, who stands before her looking harried.

“Where’s the bathroom, honey?” she asks.

Therese points toward one of the exit signs. “If you go out that door and make a right, you can’t miss it.”

“Thank you,” she says, smiling gratefully, and walks off.

Therese’s eyes flash back toward the ceramics booth—but she’s gone. Amidst the maze of booths, it’s easy for someone to disappear, and yet Therese looks all around, hoping for another glimpse. But no, she’s nowhere to be seen. Something happens in Therese’s chest, a weight settling there, sinking down into her stomach. She can’t understand her own reaction, her disappointment, her sudden… anxiousness, as if in the woman she saw something she had been looking for all morning, and now—

“Ms. Belivet?”

The sharp voice startles her, and there is Mrs. Hendrickson, looking at her disapprovingly and then nodding toward the short line of customers that seem to have appeared out of nowhere in front of the information booth. The last thing Therese needs is for her other shifts at the market to get cut. She blinks, shoving away thoughts of the woman, and turns toward the surly-looking man in the front of the line.

After that, things pick up. There seems to be no end of patrons, wanting to know where the ATM is, where the bathroom is, how to find this booth, or that booth. A half hour goes by in a blink, and just as the line has finally shrunk away, Therese turns to replenish the stack of pamphlets on the counter—and knocks her coffee onto the ground.

“Shit,” she hisses, dropping down behind the counter in a panic. Luckily the cup was almost empty. She grabs paper towels from under the counter, rushing to mop up the spill before Mrs. Hendrickson gets back. Damn it, she wanted the rest of that coffee! But at least she hasn’t dropped it on anything important. She quickly has the mess cleaned up, stands to dump the soiled towels in the garbage, faces forward again.

“I wonder if you might help me with something.”

Therese goes stock still. It’s her. She’s standing before the booth with a vague smile, slightly distracted. She lays a pair of buttery leather gloves on the counter, looking at Therese expectantly.

“I’m looking for a booth a friend of mine told me about,” says the woman. “A—oh, what do they call it? A maker, yes. Handmade dolls. Here’s the card my friend gave me.”

She holds out a business card to Therese, who takes it after a beat of startled silence, and looks at the name.

“Oh,” she says. “Bright Betsy. Yes, she’s very popular. But I’m afraid she sold out her stock yesterday. She’s not here this morning.”

A look of defeat fills the woman’s eyes (gray, her eyes are gray, pale as moonstone).

“Oh,” she says. “Left it too long.”

Her disappointment is so deep, almost reproachful, and Therese is desperate to help. “Well, there are other toymakers here,” she says, grabbing one of the market pamphlets. “All kinds, actually—”

“Right,” says the woman, looking away, rifling through her purse. She pulls out, of all things, a vape pen, and says, “The doll was supposed to be for my daughter. What sort of doll did you want when you were four?”

It’s not clear if she’s actually asking, or just thinking out loud. Therese says, “Me? I never… Not many, to be honest.” The woman seems about to take a drag from her pen, and wincing Therese tells her, “I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to smoke inside the market.”

For the first time, the woman looks into her eyes. She seems startled. She glances down at the pen in her hand, as if she didn’t even realize she had it, and puts it away, muttering, “Oh. Of all the—” she stops herself, and looks at Therese regretfully, “Forgive me. Shopping makes me nervous.”

How could anything make this woman nervous? She’s like a goddess. The market should pay her to stand here and smoke and attract customers.  

“That’s all right,” Therese tells her. “Working here makes me nervous.”

A short laugh. It goes through Therese like a lightning bolt, and nervously she smiles back. The woman says, “You’re very kind. I know how silly it is, shopping the weekend before Christmas.”

“Oh,” Therese releases her own short laugh. “I haven’t done any of my own shopping yet.”

“Haven’t you?” asks the woman, looking almost relieved—as if hearing that she isn’t alone in this matter is enough to squash her guilt over missing the dollmaker. She looks at Therese keenly, her head tilting a little. Therese realizes that this is the moment when she is supposed to say more, but all she can think about is that she actually has hardly anyone to shop for besides Richard, and she can’t say that without sounding pathetic, and anyway— “What did you want, when you were little? If not a doll?”

Therese is inexplicably delighted that the woman heard what she said (she had thought she wasn’t even listening) and with a sudden smile she admits, “A train set.”

The woman’s brows lift in surprise. “Really? Do children even play with trainsets anymore? That seems like an… I don’t know, sort of old-fashioned toy?”

“Did you ever hear of the brand Brio?” asks Therese. A frowning look. “They make train track pieces, so you can build your own tracks, and they make trains to go with it.”

A light of recognition. “Oh, yes! With the little magnets to keep the cars together?”

“Yes. I loved those, growing up. And there’s a maker here who creates her own. The tracks aren’t all that special, of course, but she sells beautiful hand-painted cars and figurines to go with the trains. I can show you on the map where the booth is, if you like?”

“Yes, please!”

Therese’s heart flutters with excitement that she can’t understand. Quickly she opens up the pamphlet, laying it out in front of the woman so she can see the map and the little You Are Here circle in front of the Information booth. Together they lean over the map, and Therese points out the train maker’s booth, not far away. To be honest, she’s surprised she can even speak to give directions. The woman emits a delicious perfume like none Therese has smelled before, warm and spicy, and the woman’s hands, laid on the counter, are tipped with coral nail polish. It’s a color Therese would never pick for herself, and yet on the woman’s long fingers, it looks so elegant.

“Well,” she says, standing up again and looking at Therese with a vibrant smile. “That’s that. Sold. Do you mind if I take this map with me?”

Her smile is so…fucking… beautiful.

The fine eyebrows lift in curiosity, and, mortified, Therese realizes that she hasn’t answered the question.

“Oh!” she exclaims. “Yes! Here.”

They exchange the pamphlet. The woman’s smile has become a full-fledged grin, so arresting that Therese thinks her heart is about to jump out of her chest. The woman asks, with a commiserating twinkle in her eye, “It’s a rotten job, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Therese says without thinking; the brows lift in delight at her honestly and she’s quick to add, “I mean, it’s not so bad. When it’s slow I just sit back here and read.”

“Oh?” she asks, genuinely interested. “What are you reading?”

“Uh—right now? Toni Morrison.”

“Which one?”

Sula.”

“That’s refreshing.”

“What is?”

“Oh, just—” the woman breaks off with a little chuckle. She seems almost embarrassed. “Young people, reading, I guess.”

Therese just looks at her; Therese is twenty-five. The woman can’t be that much older than she is. Yet there is something about her, a kind of weariness under her beauty. Therese recognizes it; has seen it in the mirror on cold mornings when everything seems to be interminably the same.

Therese watches as the woman puts the pamphlet away in her purse (Louis Vuitton) and snaps it shut. Whatever slight embarrassment she showed before disappears.

“Thank you,” she says brightly, definitively, their time almost up. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas,” Therese echoes, and already the woman is turning away, and Therese stares after her, thinking irrationally, Don’t go! Tell me your name! Tell me I’ll see your again!

As if she hears her, the woman pauses. Looks back at her. Now there is a little smirk on her lips, so provocative it stops the breath in Therese’s lungs, and she gestures at her own head, whispering conspiratorially, “I like the hat.”

Her eyes flit up and down, an appraisal that Therese feels in every point of her body. Then she is moving away, like a ship at full sail, like a cloud over the ocean, like a dream that drifts off upon waking—but suffuses the waking world.

It’s only twenty, thirty seconds later that Therese notices the woman’s leather gloves, forgotten on the counter.

Chapter Text

Carol has been sitting in their usual booth at The McKinley for the past half hour. Usually she’s the one who’s late, but Abby sent her a text fifteen minutes ago, bemoaning New York City cab drivers. Carol doesn’t mind. There’s something deeply peaceful about sitting in a familiar bar, in a secluded booth, sipping your favorite drink. They make a good martini here, and after the day she’s had, this one is particularly necessary.

Harge has Rindy tonight. He showed up to get her an hour early and then insisted that they feed her lunch together. As irritated as she was by his impromptu plans (how comfortably he assumed her availability to him), Carol knows that it’s important for the three of them to spend time together. To try to give Rindy something familiar, now and again. If there’s one thing Carol regrets about this divorce, it’s the rupture that they’re causing in their daughter’s life. More than once she’s thought bitterly that it would have been better for them to divorce three years ago, when Rindy was still a baby. At least then she wouldn’t find it strange or upsetting, being shuffled between two households every few days.

Carol takes a swallow of her drink, relishing the bite of the gin. It’s not like she can’t stand to be around Harge. Their marriage was civil, if not passionate. Early on, they enjoyed each other’s company. Even now, their separation hasn’t been particularly acrimonious, even if he didn't want it. There’s just something... presumptuous about him. How he lets himself into the house instead of knocking. How he brings in the mail as if it’s his own. This afternoon he noticed a leak in the tap, and got under the sink himself to try to fix it, as if she isn’t perfectly capable of wielding a wrench.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was when they told Rindy it was time to go. When Rindy begged Carol to come along to Harge’s parents’ house for the yearly Aird Family Christmas Party™.  At first Rindy just wheedled her about it, but as Carol kept saying no, and as Carol’s voice eventually took on that firm and chastising note that Rindy knows is final, their daughter devolved into a full-on tantrum. It would be one thing if it was simply a fit of temper. But Rindy’s tears were real. Huge and rolling and heartbroken as she sobbed and begged Carol to come with them. Eventually, Harge had to scoop her up and take her out of the house. His accusing look was not lost on Carol.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m here!”

Carol snaps out of her thoughts, looking up with a smile to find Abby slipping into the booth across from her. As usual, her friend is the very picture of lesbian chic, vest and blouse unbuttoned at the top; shirtsleeves rolled up; clean undercut and eyeliner on point. She reaches for the martini that’s waiting for her, and takes a healthy drink.

“God, that’s good!” she says blissfully. “You won’t believe the day I’ve had. But first—did you get the doll?”

Carol scowls. “No. Bright—Betty, or whatever she’s called, sold out and her booth was closed today.”

At that, Abby flashes a rakish grin. “Well, then, it’s a good thing Aunt Abby got there yesterday.”

“You didn’t!” Carol cries, indignant.

“Look, I’m the one who took Rindy to the holiday market last weekend and I’m the one who saw her lose her shit over those dolls. It just makes sense that it come from me!”

“You could have told me! I felt awful.”

“I figured if you got her one, too, she’d be doubly delighted. This way at least she gets one. You should be thanking me!”

Carol rolls her eyes. “For proving yet again that you’d make a better mother than me? Thanks, Abby.”

At that, Abby’s grin evaporates. Her brows draw together in surprise and concern. “What? Carol, come on, you can’t be serious.”

Carol says nothing, staring down into her martini. She grabs the toothpick out of it and bites the olive off the end, eyes still averted. There’s a moment of awkward silence, until—

“What did he do this time?”

Abby’s voice is hard, the way it always gets when they talk about Harge. Carol sighs.

“It’s not him,” she says. “It’s Rindy. He picked her up to take to his parents’ this afternoon, and she had a total meltdown. She was devastated, Abby. Begging me to come with them. I felt so awful. I feel—”

Her voice cuts off, too tight, too raw. Tears gather hot in her eyes and in mortification she realizes she might actually start crying in public. Then Abby’s hand is covering hers on the tabletop, and she looks up to find her friend gazing at her gently.

“Carol,” she says. “I know this is hard. I know nothing can stop it from being hard. But you and I both grew up in households with women who didn’t love their husbands. You don’t want that for Rindy. You don’t want her thinking that that’s the best a woman can hope for.”

“And thinking that divorce is the natural conclusion to marriage?” Carol counters. “Is that any better?”

A pause. Abby says, “It’s better that she knows her mommy refuses to live an unhappy life.”

Carol takes a deep breath and lets it out. They’ve had this talk before. Many times. Abby is right; she knows Abby is right. That doesn’t make it any easier when her daughter is sobbing.

Abby gives her hand an encouraging squeeze.

“Now,” she says, in that definitive way that means they are changing the subject and not going to wallow anymore. “We know you didn’t get the doll, but did you check out the other booths I told you about? What about the furniture maker? Sure, he’s got nothing on you, but I thought you might be interested. And what about the ceramics booth? Your dear old friend would love a new dining set. Oh, you probably just came straight home, didn’t you?”

An exaggerated roll of her eyes. Carol scoffs, laughs wetly, but her tears are already going away. The ceramics dining set is carefully wrapped and sitting in the trunk of her car. The furniture maker with his wicker chairs was… diverting. Whenever Carol looks at furniture, all she sees is the scrapes and injuries of time—not because she’s critical, but because those are the pieces that a furniture restorer cares about. Wicker furniture isn’t particularly fun to restore.

She tells Abby, “I didn’t come straight home. I looked around for about an hour. It turns out there was another toymaker. I got Rindy the most beautiful trainset; wait til you see it. I would never have thought to buy it for her, but you know how she loves those old Lincoln Logs of Harge’s? The trains were beautiful, and the tracks are hand-carved and she can build her own courses. She’s going love it.”

“Hold on a second,” Abby exclaims, taking another drink from her glass. “Are you telling me that you, Carol Ross, browsed a holiday market?” Carol scoffs again, more laughter than tears this time, and Abby goes on, “You hate browsing! You hate shopping, period. And Christmas shopping most of all.”

“All right, all right! Before you start asking about body snatchers, I wouldn’t say I browsed. There was a woman at the information booth who told me about the toymaker. I went straight to that booth, picked out some things, and left. And you know, I’m glad I did. That place is a zoo. I can’t believe you didn’t lose Rindy in the crowd.”

“That’s why I chain her to me by the ankle, hon. Kids should always be leashed.”

They laugh. As if on cue, the waiter Jack appears, taking their empty glasses.

“Can I bring you another?” he asks.

“Yes, please,” Carol says. “That’s one of the best martinis I’ve ever had. Is Phil bartending?”

“Not tonight, Ms. Ross. We have a new bartender. I’ll pass along your compliments. And can I bring you anything else?”

“Just our usual, I think?”

“Two chicken Cesar salads, coming right up.”

“Thanks, Jack.”

As he slips away, Abby pops a nicotine gum. She’s been trying to quit. So has Carol, hence the vaping pen, which she hates.

“So, a trainset,” says Abby approvingly. “Glad they tipped you off to that booth. I only met one staff person there last week, and she looked like she had a stick shoved right up her ass. Total Scrooge.”

Carol grins, thoughts drifting back to the girl at the information booth. No, not a girl, Carol admonishes herself. She was young, sure, but she was definitely not a girl. Carol doesn’t often flirt with people in public (she prefers dark corners in bars, small gatherings, anonymity) but there was just something about that Santa hat. That shoulder length dark hair. Those big green eyes that blinked at her so… owlishly.

Abby snaps her fingers in front of Carol’s face.

“Earth to Carol? Where did you just go?”

“What? Oh, nowhere. Sorry. I’m just gonna run to the restroom, okay? Be right back.”

She slips out of the booth, making her way around the restaurant toward the restrooms on the other side. Her route takes her past the bar. It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, and the stools are packed with well-dressed men and women of wide backgrounds but common income. Carol grew up with money. Carol married money. But Carol still grows uneasy, sometimes, at the performances that wealth entails. The best restaurants. The best clothes. The best cars. Carol knows how seamlessly she fits into this world, reared as she was to emulate its most desirable characteristics. But in recent years it has all come to represent for her the constraint, the unwelcome expectations, of her marriage to Harge. Harge wanted her to be a socialite, to sit on boards, to host charities. It annoyed him that she spent so much time in her workshop. It annoyed him that she has calluses on her hands. He would have preferred she limit her exertions to spin class.

She is bitterly ruminating over this, eyes flitting across the assembled crowd as she walks, when one of the bartenders who has been mixing something in a rapid, agile dance, suddenly looks up.

Carol stops short, stunned.

It’s the woman from the holiday market, that slight, pale creature who spoke of Brio trains and Toni Morrison and gave to her, in just a few seconds of conversation, the day’s only true bright spot.

She doesn’t see Carol. She’s working, she’s busy. She pours out a drink and passes it across the bar to a patron, picking up whatever tip he’s left her. She takes another order, shouted at her over the din, and nods before setting to work. She is solemn, focused, not wasting time with coquettish smiles or small talk. Her hands move rapidly, pouring and tipping and shaking out the next cocktail with practiced ease.

Carol knows that she should leave her alone. There’s nothing worse than an entitled customer who distracts the staff. And yet, almost without realizing it, she walks over to the bar. As is typical in her experience, people make way. She finds a spot at the counter and waits her turn, watching, fascinated. The young woman is wearing black slacks and a white button down with an impeccably knotted necktie. Her hair is pinned back, and her makeup is subtle, smoky. At the information booth she was fresh-faced, makeup free, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with the market logo printed across it. And, of course, there was the Santa hat. Carol takes in her face, exquisitely proportioned; her strong jawline and aquiline nose. Her top lip is a little thin, the bottom one pouty and full. Carol thinks of her smile at the booth, brief, brilliant. She wants to see her smile again. A realization that amazes her, startles her, almost makes her step back from the bar and slip away. What is she doing? Honestly, what is she—

“Good evening, what can I—”

They both freeze. Somehow, Carol wasn’t expecting the girl (no, woman) to get to her so quickly. And clearly she wasn’t expecting to see Carol. Something bright flares between them, recognition, yes, but also—something else. Something Carol cannot name.

Carol recovers first. Smiles dryly and asks, “Moonlighting?”

The young bartender blinks. Her eyes are so large! She looks almost—panicked, and for a moment Carol thinks that this was a huge misstep, an imposition, a terrible lapse in manners—

“You left your gloves,” the bartender blurts.

Carol frowns, confused.

“Excuse me?”

Another startled blink. Color floods her cheeks, before she leans closer over the bar and repeats. “Your gloves. The leather ones? You left them at the information booth.”

Carol frowns a moment longer, and then her own eyes widen in realization. Christ, she hadn’t even noticed.

“Did I really?” she asks.

“Yes. They’re in the lost and found. I’m sorry, I didn’t have your name, and I couldn’t go look for you. I asked my boss if I could announce it over the loudspeaker, but she wouldn’t let me.”

“Oh,” Carol says, amazed at how far she seemed willing to go to return a pair of gloves. “That’s all right. Thank you for—” she hesitates, not sure what to say. Finishes helplessly, “Thank you.”

They stare at each other for a moment, and Carol finds her eyes slipping toward the woman’s jaw again. Then down the slim line of her throat. The tie looks very tight, almost strangling. Carol has a sudden, irrational image of herself, loosening the knot, slipping the fabric from her collar—  

“Can I get you anything?”

Damn it, focus!

“Sorry, what?”

The woman swallows. Says, “A drink? Can I get you a drink?”

“I—” Jesus, what will it look like if she doesn’t order something? “I—yes.”

“What would you like?”

Think, damn you, what would you like?

“Can I just have a—a water?”

Oh for fuck’s sake.

“A water?” she repeats.  

“Yes, I—I’m at a booth with my friend. I was just going to the ladies but I… got… thirsty. For water.”

There’s a beat of silence, and then something changes in the young woman’s face. Her startled expression gives way to something softer. Almost… gentle. The sight of it spears Carol with sensations she can’t name. They stare at each other for another half beat, before the woman reaches for a glass, scooping ice into it, filling it from the bar gun.

“One water,” she says. “Coming right up.”

Carol watches her closely. Knows that as soon as the glass is full, as soon as the glass is set before her, the beautiful bartender will have to move on to the next customer. She feels a sudden desperation, to stop it from happening. But what can she possibly do?

Suddenly, from down the bar, a young man who Carol recognizes as one of the barbacks calls out, “Say, Therese, have you got olives?”

Therese… Not Theresa. The ‘z’ sound is intoxicating, and so is the way that Therese’s eyes cut away from her, the way she tops off the glass without looking, the way she grabs a jar of olives and slides it down the bar, calling, “Here you go.”

She turns to Carol again. Eyes lock again as she sets the glass of water in front of her. Carol fumbles for a tip, and Therese, realizing, laughs softly and waves a hand at her.

“On the house,” she drawls.

And then, to Carol’s complete and utter distraction, she winks at her.

Winks, and turns to her next, demanding customer.

Chapter Text

I winked at her.

Those words have been cycling through Therese’s mind for hours.

I fucking… winked at her.

Even now, as she gets off the subway and climbs the stairs toward the street, she still can’t believe it. Therese Belivet does not wink. She’s never winked at anyone! She doesn’t even flirt. Fuck, is that what she was doing? Was she… flirting, with a woman?

Not a woman. That woman. That incomparably beautiful woman…

At the front of the station, Richard is waiting for her.

“Terry,” he calls out, and waves.

Therese blinks dazedly. She had somehow forgotten he would be meeting her, even though he often does, on the nights she works late. Even though it means coming from his apartment in Staten Island, he'll park himself in a local dive and wait. He doesn’t like her walking the six blocks to her apartment building by herself. It’s a student neighborhood, full of late-night shops and locals who know her and little in the way of dangerous spots, but he still insists. She supposes it’s chivalry.

He kisses her as soon as they meet, a quick peck on the lips before he takes her hand and they start walking.

“How was it?” he asks.

It was Richard’s friend, Phil, who helped her get the bartending job, just like it was Richard’s father who helped her get the market job. Richard is someone who likes to be helpful, who likes to use his connections to help the people he cares about. And Richard cares about her.

“It was busy,” she says. “But I’m getting a handle on it. The barback was better tonight than last night. The tips were good.”

“Saturday night at the swankiest bar in town? The tips better be good!” he says, and grins.

He has a nice face. Handsome. Sweet and earnest. His hand holding hers is big and just a little clammy.

“I thought you were sick,” she says.

At that, he cuts her a sheepish look, grinning in that boyish way he does that always gets him out of trouble with his mother.

“Yeah, about that,” he says. “You know you were working last night, and I didn’t have anything to do, so Phil and I went to Flannery’s. We went a little overboard.”

Something hot goes through her. “You missed your shift because you were hungover?” she asks.

Starting around 9 o’clock that morning, the holiday market had practically exploded with patrons. The information booth was so busy, she hardly had time to catch her breath, let alone keep an eye out for the beautiful stranger who’d forgotten her gloves. She could have used Richard’s help today.

But no sooner has her irritation surged than she realizes: if Richard had not called in sick, he would have been there when the woman came to the booth. He might have been the one to help her, instead of Therese. No matter what, he would have spoiled it—whatever it was.

“Oh, come on, Terry,” Richard is saying. “I’m sorry, but you know how it is. Work is murder, and I just needed to unwind. You’re not really mad at me, are you?”

Was she mad at him? No, it was hard to be mad at Richard. Irritated with him, definitely. Exasperated, yes. But really, truly angry? Therese thought her feelings would have to be a lot stronger, for that.

“It’s fine,” she says. “I’m sorry work has been rough.”

He proceeds to tell her all about the week he’s had. He’s an assistant manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Brooklyn. He offered to get her a job there, too, but Therese has been tending bar since she turned twenty-one, and it suits her schedule better, especially during the semesters. She can work til 2, sleep til 8, and spend the mornings and afternoons on her studies. Come Fall she’ll have a teaching assistantship in her master’s program. It won’t pay as well as bartending but between it and her scholarship she’ll be able to focus on completing her thesis project. It’ll be tight, financially—which is part of why she’s trying to save up as much money as possible now, working straight through the Christmas holiday.

Therese reminds herself of how lucky she was to get into this program. It has a small acceptance rate, and really high job placements with average yearly incomes triple what her mom ever pulled in. She’ll be secure. The fact that she doesn’t love it, that it wakes no particular joy in her, that it feeds no kernel of ambition—well, who says work has to do that? Plenty of people (hell, probably most people) work jobs they don’t care about, because that’s what you do. That’s how you live. You work your job and then you find other things to give you joy. Hobbies. Family. Friends.

Therese remembers her camera and determines to go pick it up tomorrow after her shift. Maybe she’ll spend the afternoon photographing her neighborhood. Prove to herself that she has joy in her life. Doesn’t she? She has friends, after all. She has Richard. That’s better than some of her counselors expected for her when she was living in residential care.

And Richard… well, he may not be the most exciting person, but he treats her well. He wants them to go to Paris for Spring Break, which would make it the first school break ever that Therese didn’t spend working. Paris… She’s always wanted to go to Paris, always wanted to travel, from the time she was a kid. She imagines the photographs she could take there, the museums they could visit, the beauty to be seen and created. It’s an incomparable opportunity, and she knows that if she declines on account of money, Richard will make up the difference for her. He’s hardly rich but his family helps him out. She could accept his help, and not have to worry about eating into her savings. It seems like a perfect situation.

But the thought of letting him help her like that makes her queasy.

They reach her apartment building and Therese realizes that she hasn’t been listening to Richard at all for the last five minutes. All her nodding, all her questioning sounds and ‘mmhms’ of agreement have perfectly concealed from him that she has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s soon apparent that this doesn’t matter. As she keys in the code for her building, and the door opens with a buzz, she turns to say goodnight to him and finds him standing close. He’s much taller than her. The woman at the market was tall, too. He smiles down at her in his boyish way. The woman’s smile was like a brilliant star, arcing across the sky.

“Can I come up?” Richard asks, gently, sweetly, like he has no expectations, only hopes. A perfect gentleman.

“It’s so late, Richard,” she tells him. “I’ve got to be at the market again tomorrow at 7:00.”

He frowns. “I thought you weren’t there again til Monday?”

“Mrs. Hendrickson gave me the extra shift.”

“You work too hard, Terry. It’s the Christmas break! I want to spend time together.”

He puts his hands on her hips, meaning clear.

“I know,” she says. “And we will, I promise. After Christmas there’ll be another week before the semester starts, and I won’t have any of these side jobs. We can spend time together then.”

He looks disappointed. Therese can’t exactly blame him. It’s clear in everything Richard does that he’s crazy about her, and they haven’t had a date, just the two of them, in three weeks. They haven’t had sex in a month. He never pressures her, not overtly. And yet she can always feel it—his frustration. His longing. Whenever they so much as kiss, his mouth is hard against hers, his tongue aggressive. He’ll push his hips into hers so she can feel his erection. When they do have sex, it’s perfunctory. They’ll make out on his bed or hers. He’ll take off her clothes and massage her breasts and pull on her nipples, always just a little too rough. Then, he’ll go down on her for a couple of minutes, before reaching for a condom and, well… at least he finishes quick, in missionary. 

He never makes her come, and she never fakes it. Afterwards, he sleeps. Most of the time it’s not so bad.

But tonight Therese’s mind is spinning with the image of the woman at the market. With the image of her at the bar. She had traded in her camel coat for a maroon blazer, worn over a slinky black t-shirt that exposed the top of her chest. There was nothing scandalous about it, not even a hint of cleavage. And yet just that spread of pale skin, the dip in her throat, the cut of her collarbones, had affected Therese more than the most amorous of Richard’s advances.

Fuck, what is going on? She’s never so much as looked at women before. And it’s not like she doesn’t have gay friends. Dannie is a polyamorous fairy child who has introduced her to scores of queer women, several of whom have made passes at her. She always brushes it off, always laughs. It just isn’t her.

But this woman… This woman whose name she doesn’t even know—

Richard says, “I understand, Terry. I know how hard you’re working. But look, Mom wants you to come for Christmas. You will, won’t you?”

Something in her stomach drops. Richard comes from a big, happy, loud family, so different from anything Therese ever experienced herself. They’re always so nice to her, so welcoming. His mother especially is kind, clearly wants to take her under her wing. It always leaves Therese feeling guilty. Mrs. Semco is eyeing a daughter-in-law, and in recent weeks Therese has begun to dread that the trip to Paris is a pretense for a much grander gesture…

“Of course I’ll come,” she says, smiling tightly. “It’s late. I need to get to bed.”

“All right.”

He wraps his arms around her and kisses her. It’s one of his less amorous kisses, more sweet than demanding. His lips are cold and firm. When it’s over she says goodnight and leaves him on the stoop, walking up the stairs toward her third story apartment.

Inside, it’s dark and cold. She turns on the hall light and turns up the thermostat a couple of degrees, trying not to worry about the electric bill. She changes into her pajamas, pulling on a hoodie and thick socks, and climbs under the covers with her laptop. It’s late, she’s tired, but she hasn’t had a chance to even think about her photography all week. She spends about an hour on a few pictures, toying with color saturation and idly blending three images of Central Park into a kind of collage/triptych that ends up looking empty and cold. Dannie says she should take more pictures of people. But people always leave Therese Belivet a little confused, a little lost. There’s something invasive about photographing the lives of strangers. Or maybe it’s just that her own desire, to not have her life invaded, bleeds into the work she does.

Or maybe it’s that she hasn’t found people she wants to photograph yet. She thinks of the woman, imagines photographing her—at the market, at the bar, in Central Park, in her own apartment, in her bed—

Fuck, stop.

She snaps the laptop shut in frustration, sticking it under the bed and rolling over. She pulls the covers up to her chin, huddling into a ball to try to get warm. The digital clock on her bed stand reads 3:16. She has to be up in just a couple of hours. She’s exhausted, eyes gritty and burning. Most nights she’s out as soon as her head hits the pillow.

But most nights are ordinary. Boring. Most nights sit on the cusp of another ordinary, boring day. Tonight, however, Therese’s thoughts keep drifting to the holiday market. To the information booth, with its lost and found box under the counter. Inside that box is a pair of gray leather gloves, that she held in her hands, supple and soft and expensive. The woman knows now, where her gloves ended up. Will she come for them? Or will she be too busy? The woman was in one of the ritziest bars in town—perhaps it’s nothing to her, to lose a pair of expensive gloves.

Therese closes her eyes, and imagines that she is holding the gloves in her hands. She imagines that she is wearing the gloves, slipping her fingers into the warm, wool-lined interior. The woman’s hands were bigger than hers, and yet in Therese’s drifting thoughts, the gloves fit her perfectly…

Chapter Text

On the mornings when Rindy is with Harge, Carol tells herself that she should sleep in. It’s only been a couple of years since Rindy started really sleeping through the night, and even now she’s a fussy sleeper. She gets nightmares. She wakes up at 5:00, and can’t settle down again. There have been days in the past four years, when Carol thought it was truly possible to die from exhaustion.

And so, isn’t this the benefit of joint custody? That she gets more time off? Time to herself? Time to sleep?

Yet the house is so empty, without Rindy in it. Quiet, and too big. The two stories and five bedrooms feel like a travesty when it’s just her. Harge keeps insisting that they hang on to the house. He says their neighborhood in Jersey is only going to appreciate in value, and besides, Rindy should have the stability of a home she recognizes. Carol doesn’t disagree, but she envies Harge the two-bedroom condo he’s renting in Manhattan. She misses Manhattan from her Columbia days. Always secretly hoped she'd end up there again...

She tosses in bed for a restless hour, then finally gets up at 7:00, pulling on her bathrobe and heading downstairs to the kitchen. It’s Sunday, and she gave the staff the week off. Harge is annoyed with her because she paid them for the week anyway. He claims that people will take advantage of her generosity.

Carol brews herself a French press and wonders if it really is generosity. They have a housekeeper named Florence and a part-time nanny for Rindy and a father/son gardening team. All four of these people have been with them for years, have watched the marriage collapse, watched the divorce proceed, watched the new custody arrangement play out. And if that custody arrangement was ever contested, if Carol ever found herself fighting with Harge over Rindy, well—it’d be better to have the staff on her side, just in case.

Is that why she paid them for the week? The thought didn’t occur to her at the time, but maybe what drove her wasn’t generosity at all, but strategy. God, she’s just like her mother. Using money to solve her problems. Looking at everything from a mercenary angle.

In disgust Carol grabs the cream from the fridge and pours some into her mug, then the coffee. She looks out the back windows at the garden, toward the workshop Harge had built for her in their second year of marriage. Back then he saw her work as a charming hobby. It wasn’t until she started taking commissions that he began to really insist on them starting a family, perhaps thinking she’d give it up. Well, Rindy came along, bringing all the joy and chaos that children do—and Carol did not give up her workshop.

She takes her coffee up to the bedroom. She changes into jeans and a long-sleeved men’s thermal. It gets cold in the shop so she adds a beanie and sweatshirt. Ten minutes later she’s stepping into the familiar smells of paint and lacquer, wood and fabric, sawdust and glue. The shop is about fifteen by fifteen feet, one side occupied with upcoming projects: a cabinet with a cracked drawer; two dining chairs with scratched up legs and frayed cushion seats; a dresser with rusted hardware and peeling finish. The pieces are heirlooms, old, expensive. Some have been living rich lives in family homes; others have been languishing in storage. The end table she’s working on right now is a hundred years old, made from a gorgeous, dark mahogany that has been brutalized by its time in a drafty attic. But when Carol is done restoring it, it will shine with new life.

If only it were quite that easy to restore herself. Almost a year since Harge moved out, six month since he agreed to the divorce, days since she found the guts to tell him she would not be going to his parents’ for Christmas—and yet, she’s still waiting for the part where she suddenly feels free. Still waiting for the rush of relief that’s supposed to come from leaving a bad marriage. Instead, she feels constantly restless, constantly distracted. She worries about Rindy. She worries about the house. She worries about herself, and what she’ll do now. She always hated all the social expectations associated with marriage to a wealthy venture capitalist, but if nothing else, they gave her something to do. And now?

“You need to keep busy,” Abby told her last night. “And not just in your workshop. Harge spent the past ten years keeping you to himself, keeping you isolated from everyone he didn’t know. Now, it’s like you don’t know how to be around other people. Well, I’m not gonna stand for that shit anymore. Either find a book club or something or I swear I’m gonna sign us up for pilates. Don’t test me.”

Carol sighs. In the choice between a book club or pilates, she’s not sure what sounds worse. It’s so much easier, to slip into her workshop. To be among her things. To stick her earbuds in and float away on work and music and solitude—even if it is lonely.

She takes a large drink of the coffee, relishing the imported beans, and sets her mug down on the nearest surface. She takes out her phone and sets up a playlist that Abby added to her phone last night, cheekily entitled “God is a Woman.” The first song is Cardi B’s WAP. Carol rolls her eyes, amused in spite of herself. It’s not actually a bad song to work to.

And so, she does work. She works for two hours—three, running through Abby’s playlist twice. Eventually it gets warm in the workshop. She strips off the sweatshirt and beanie, rolls up her sleeves, wipes her wrist against her brow, slick from exertion. Sometimes the work is quiet, delicate. Sometimes it takes real elbow grease. Either way, it’s satisfying. Her progress, however slow, gives her a much-needed sense of accomplishment, and she predicts she can have this piece completed before Christmas. If she does, she’ll be ahead of schedule, and maybe have time for her own projects. She glances toward the back of the shop, where a few original pieces have stood untouched for the past couple of months. Her eyes glom onto the top of the hope chest with its lattice of half-completed surface carvings. The chisel and mallet rest atop it, and atop them, a pair of work gloves.

It feels a little bit like electrocution, the sight of those gloves, and the memory of other gloves they inspire. To her startlement she realizes she hasn’t thought of the bartender—Therese—once all morning. After their brief, strange conversation at the bar, Carol carried her glass of ice water back to the booth in a kind of daze. Abby was confused as to what she was doing with it, and Carol gave some bumbling excuse about not wanting to bother Jack when she was right at the bar anyway. Abby gave her a narrow-eyed look, as if she suspected this was a lie, but she didn’t push it. The conversation between them continued. Only then did Carol realize she hadn’t gone to the restroom after all. Therese had completely flustered her.

And now? Is she flustered now? Does the thought of the young woman in her shirt and tie, with her smoky eyeliner and dark lipstick, fluster her? If that’s what is happening, Carol has no precedent for her own feelings. The girl gave her straight vibes, even with her wide-eyed staring. And Therese is clearly much younger than Carol, who has always found it distasteful, when older men and women go after younger models. She herself has only had affairs with women her own age or older. Women of firmly established sexuality, either lesbian or bi. Women of means, with clear intentions. Flirts. Carol herself is a flirt, in the right context. She even flirted with Therese, complimenting that silly hat. But Therese’s reaction, startled, blushing, was so unlike the reaction of the women Carol usually flirts with. She is definitely straight.

Yet she’d mentioned the gloves. She’d been preoccupied by them. And she’d smiled at her in that gentle way when Carol made of a fool of herself, and laughed and waved off the ridiculous tip for a glass of ice water. And she’d winked.

She’d winked at Carol.

Did that mean anything? People winked all the time, didn’t they? A friendly wink, here or there, was no declaration of intent. And young people were so much freer in some ways. Maybe it was just the style, to wink at people you didn’t know?

So why is Carol’s stomach fluttering? Why does she feel suddenly restless? Why does she stand up and step away from the end table and push a hand through her hair, that old, nervous gesture? On impulse, Carol digs out her phone and looks up the holiday market. Yes, it’s open today. Will Therese be there? Is it worth it to go, if she isn’t? Carol will lose two hours just getting in and out of the city.

Then again, she does love those gloves…

A little over an hour later, Carol is passing her keys off to a valet, and turning toward the market doors like an explorer who surveys some foreign land from the height of a mountain. She takes a deep breath, steeling herself, and heads inside.

It’s almost one in the afternoon, much busier than it was yesterday morning, crowds packed in, Christmas music blaring over loud speakers. For a moment, Carol regrets coming, the din almost painful. But she tells herself she can be in and out quickly, and pushes her way through the throng, toward the information booth.

As soon as she arrives, her stomach sinks. There are two people working the booth, an older man and a young woman—but the young woman is not Therese. Defeated, annoyed with herself for caring, Carol gets in line. It takes about ten minutes to reach the front of the booth, where she’s greeted by the older man, his Santa hat tipped sideways.

“Merry Christmas, Ma’am!” he says. “How can I help you?”

“I lost my gloves here, yesterday. A pair of gray leather gloves. An employee of yours said they were in the lost and found.”

“Well, all right then, let me just look!”

He crouches down behind the counter, and must be rifling through the box. She hears his voice, muffled, calling to her, “Gray, you said?”

“Yes.”

“Not black?”

Carol barely manages to stifle a sound of irritation. She knows where this is headed. “No, gray. Leather. Gucci.”

The man stands up again, looking remorseful, “I’m so sorry, Ma’am, I don’t see them.”

Carol just stares at him for a moment. You have got to be fucking kidding me. She’s come all the way into the city under loose pretenses of retrieving her gloves, and now not even the gloves are here?

“You’re sure?” she asks, inane.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. You said an employee told you we had them?”

“Yes, a—a young woman. Therese?”

At that, his eyes light up. “Oh, Terry? Sure, sure! She just ran to the food court to get us some coffees. In fact she should be—oh, hey! Terry!”

He’s looking over her shoulder. Carol’s heart leaps, and she whirls around. There, not ten feet away, stands Therese. She’s carrying a tray of Styrofoam cups, and her eyes are wide and surprised as they lock with Carol’s. The sight of her is… startling, in a way Carol was not prepared for. Gone is the eyeliner, the dark lipstick, the shirt and tie. Her hair is loose and she’s wearing her holiday market t-shirt under a green cardigan, jewel-toned, like her eyes. What may be half a moment, or long seconds later, she unsticks her feet and moves toward them again. Carol notices with a flare of concern that there are circles under her eyes. She’s slightly pale. She looks… exhausted. And yet still, somehow, arrestingly beautiful.

Then she is standing in front of her, looking up at her, saying, “You came for the gloves?”

“I—yes—I—they’re not in the—”

“I put them in the cashbox,” says Therese. “They looked so expensive. Here hold, on.”

She brushes past, and Carol catches a hint of something from her hair, product, maybe, or shampoo—something intoxicating. She watches as Therese goes back into the booth, setting down the tray of coffees and reaching under the counter for a metal cash box. She unlocks it, lifts out the tray of bills, and underneath lie Carol’s gloves. Therese hands them to her. Their fingers brush.

“I’m sorry if you thought they weren’t here,” Therese says awkwardly. “I was planning to tell Gareth where they were before leaving. I didn’t know if you’d be back for them.”

“It was very kind of you, to keep such a good eye on them.”

The young woman’s face pinks, her eyes darting away for a moment, then lifting again. She's several inches shorter than Carol. There’s something… pleasing about that. For a moment they just stand there, the counter between them, eyes locked. This is what Carol came for—to retrieve her gloves. She’s got no reason to stay, and Therese is working. It’s time to say goodbye. And yet—

“I just wanted to say thank you, really.”

“Of course,” says Therese.

“And… maybe I could buy you a coffee or something, to thank you?”

At the same moment, their eyes drop to the tray of Styrofoam cups. When they look at each other again, something twinkles in Therese’s eyes, amusement, and Carol finds herself grinning ruefully, rubbing the back of her neck in a self-conscious gesture that seems to draw Therese’s attention. “All right, not coffee. But… Do you get a lunch hour? Let me take you to lunch. It’s the least I could do.”

Therese’s eyes get somehow bigger. There’s a faint flush on her cheeks as she says nervously. “Well, yes, I… Of course, but you really don’t have to—”

“I’m free today,” says Carol, watching her carefully. “Have you had your lunch hour yet?”

Therese blinks at her several times, opens her mouth as if trying to figure out how to answer, when suddenly—

“Terry’s shift is just about to end, actually,” says Gareth, who Carol had completely forgotten. Both he and the other young woman are watching them with curious looks. Gareth says. “She was just sweet enough to get us coffee first. But you’re off now, right, Terry?”

Therese says vaguely, “Oh, in a—in another fifteen minutes, yes, but—”

“You should go,” says the other young woman. “I got here early, didn’t I? No need for you to stay.”

“Yeah, go on, Terry,” Gareth says.

Therese looks at her again, and suddenly it occurs to Carol that she’s put her in a terribly awkward position. Therese doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her. Perhaps Therese has plans for after work? And now some strange woman with ridiculously expensive gloves is just assuming she wants to have lunch? What the fuck is she—

“All right,” says Therese.

She turns her back, reaching for a coat that’s hung on one of the posts of the booth. She shrugs it on, and Carol watches her, as fascinated as if she were a woodland fairy. The coat is military style, hooded and worn in and comfortable looking. Next, she grabs a messenger bag, slinging it over her shoulders. This, too, has the look of something well-loved, corners shiny, metal buckles tarnished. She comes out from behind the booth and stands before Carol, and if she looked nervous and uncomfortable before, now there’s something thoughtful in her expression—almost appraising.

“Where would you like to go?” she asks.

Chapter Text

They end up across the street, in a restaurant that the woman claims to know well. It’s called Scotty’s, and Therese’s first impression is that it’s way outside her budget. As they’re walking in the woman asks, “Have you eaten yet today?”

And Therese, surprised by the question, says, “No.”

“I thought not. Let’s fix that.”

She thought not? Why did she think not? Why did it occur to her at all whether Therese has eaten?

Before Therese can parse the full extent of her own bafflement, the waiter seats them in a booth, and presents their menus. One glance at the specials on the front page, prices tellingly absent, confirms for Therese that she’ll have to leave her camera in the shop an extra day. This meal alone will eat a day’s earnings at the holiday market. Yet somehow, Therese doesn’t care, is happy to do it, is amazed to find herself in this place with this woman, who has barely sat down before she’s unwrapping her scarf and telling the waiter—

“I’ll have a martini with an olive. And the spinach salad with dressing on the side.”

“Of course, Mrs. Aird,” says the waiter.

Mrs. Aird, thinks Therese, her stomach twisting. She’s married.

Then she realizes that both the waiter and Mrs. Aird are looking at her, waiting for her to say something. In a panic she looks down at her menu again, but it may as well be written in Greek. When she looks up, Mrs. Aird is regarding her in a frank, curious way, clearly wondering what she’ll do. Therese wonders irrationally if this is how she handles all her lunch dates—ordering as soon as she sits down just to see how her guest reacts.

Therese says, “I’ll have the same.”

“The drink or the meal?”

“Um, all of it,” says Therese.

He walks off, their menus in hand, and now it is just Therese and—

“Mrs. Aird?” she says questioningly.

A smirk curves the woman’s mouth, makes of it an elegant, sinful shape. “I come here often enough,” she says. “The staff know me. But I’m not Mrs. Aird, anymore. I’m at the tail end of a divorce, actually.”

“Oh,” Therese blinks. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” interrupts not-Mrs. Aird. “It’s amicable. Or, as amicable as these things get. My maiden name is Ross. Isn’t that funny? Apparently now I’m divorced I’m a maiden again.”

Therese isn’t quite sure how to respond, so she asks, “And your first name?”

The woman regards her for half a beat, as if trying to decide whether or not to bestow this precious token. And in that moment Therese knows it will be precious—that whatever this woman’s name is, it’s a name worth shouting from the rooftops.

“Carol,” she says, and Therese imagines her holding a cigarette, blowing a plume of smoke in the air, saying, ‘Yes, it is an old-fashioned name, isn’t it? A classic. Like me.’

“Carol,” Therese repeats, turning it over in her mouth, tasting it.

Carol says, “And you’re Therese, right? Or do you prefer to be called Terry?”

Therese must make a face, because Carol’s smile is wide and delighted; she laughs softly, a musical sound.

“No, not Terry. You had it right with Therese. Therese Belivet.”

A lifted brow. “What kind of name is Belivet?” she asks curiously.

“It’s Czech.”

Carol Ross nods, then says, slowly and grandly, “Therese Belivet.” The name sounds elegant in her mouth, exotic, almost, and with a sincere smile she adds, “It’s lovely.”

And all Therese can think is, This woman’s name is Carol Ross. This woman thinks my name is lovely. When Carol Ross says my name, it becomes lovely. Like magic.

They look at each other in silence. A beat. Two. It’s too long to look at someone without speaking, and yet Therese is tongue-tied. Carol has taken off her sleek wool coat and underneath she’s wearing a light gray blazer over a coral pink shell. Her hair is tousled from the December wind and yet it somehow only makes her more glamorous. Therese is uncomfortably conscious of the holiday logo on her t-shirt, of her faded jeans, of her sneakers. And she is equally conscious that three, five, seven seconds later, they still aren’t talking.

“Did you—” Therese stumbles. “Did you end up finding the train maker?”

A pleased smile graces those full lips; Therese has the impression that the silence didn’t bother Carol at all, but now she says easily, “I did. You’re a star for telling me about him. Rindy is going to love it!”

“Rindy is your daughter?”

“Yes!” Carol beams, takes out her phone and opens it. A moment later she’s showing Therese a picture of a little girl, blonde as Carol, with the same catlike eyes, though brown instead of pale.

“Oh, she looks like you!” Therese says. She has known a lot of children in her life; grew up with far too many of them. Carol Ross’s daughter is cherubically adorable.

“Do you think so?” Carol asks, regarding the picture herself, smiling in a soft, fond way. Therese wonders what it must be like, to be a person who makes Carol smile like that. Then Carol is putting the phone away, looking at her again. “It was really nice of you, to help me. And to take an interest in my gloves.”

Something in the phrasing makes Therese blush, and she’s desperately relieved when their waiter returns, bearing two martinis.

“Cheers,” Carol says.

“Cheers,” Therese echoes, and the glasses clink together.

Therese has never particularly liked gin, and the martini is as old-fashioned as the name Carol. It fits Carol, of course; it has a sort of classic Hollywood grandeur, just like Carol. Yes, that’s what Carol reminds her of: a 1920s starlet, a woman out of another time, too exquisite to be in this booth with her, to be talking to her, to be looking at her over the rim of the martini glass with another of those amused smiles.

“Do you like martinis?” Carol asks.

“Oh, sure,” Therese lies.

A smirk. “But it wouldn’t be your first choice, would it? What do you normally prefer?”

“The martini is fine, I swear! I mean… usually I just have beer or wine. Or… I do like an old-fashioned, actually.”

Dannie always teases her for this, calls her Don Draper. Carol, too, gives her a teasing look. “An old-fashioned. How decadent. We’ll try that, next time. I’m sorry. Did I rush you, ordering? I was just thinking how hungry you must be.”

“It’s all right. I—I like salads. I like—spinach salads.”

The smirk of amusement deepens. She has the sense that Carol is thinking things that she will not share, and yet while any other circumstance like this would leave Therese mortified, fearing judgement and scorn, there’s nothing unpleasant in Carol’s look.

“Well, you’re the bartender. How is it, do you think?”

Therese takes another sip of the martini, considering. After a moment she says, “It could use a little more vermouth.”

Carol grins. “I thought the same thing. How long have you been working at The McKinley? I told Jack you made the best martini I’d ever had.”

“Oh, I—I just started, actually. On Friday. I used to bartend in Queens.”

“And you work nights, I see. And then you were at the market early this morning, weren’t you? You must be exhausted.”

Therese finds this just as surprising as Carol assuming that she hadn’t eaten today. She’s not used to people observing her, and yet whereas she expects it to be deeply unpleasant, instead she just feels… touched.

“Yeah,” Therese gives a rueful laugh. “I’m sure I look exhausted.”

Carol sips her martini, says casually, “You look just fine. You’re very pretty, in fact.”

Therese’s stomach swoops. Her heart clamors. Is this something that strangers say to each other? What does it mean that Carol has said this to her? Should she say something back? Say, for example, ‘You are magnificent.’ Because she is. She is gorgeously, breathtakingly magnificent.

But then Carol asks, “Do you normally work two jobs?”

Swallowing nervously, Therese recovers. “No, this is just a holiday thing.”

“And are you liking it? The McKinley?”

“It’s fine,” she says. “Bartending is good money.”

“You live in the city?”

“Yes.”

A wry look. “I suppose you’ve got roommates.”

This time, Therese smiles, “No, actually, I live alone.”

Carol’s brows hike up. “Really? I didn’t know anyone could afford that in this city.”

You could afford that, Therese thinks, eyes flitting to the expensive watch on her wrist, to the Gucci gloves on the table, to the designer handbag (a different one than she had yesterday). She explains, “It's rent-controlled. Student housing.”

Carol’s expression slackens. For a moment she looks almost panicked, and then, in a slightly strained voice, “I’m sorry, how old are you?”

Therese breaks out in a grin. “I didn’t start undergrad until I was twenty one, and now I’m in my first years of a Masters at NYU. I’m twenty-five.”

Instantly, Carol’s expression relaxes. Amused, Therese asks her dryly, “How old are you?”

To her shock and delight, Carol looks flustered. She smiles, but it’s self-deprecating, cheeks pink. “Oh, I’m—I’m thirty-five. I’m sorry, I just—I thought for a second you might be some seventeen-year-old college Freshman.”

Therese lifts an eyebrow at her. “Why would that matter?”

The color in Carol’s cheeks only deepens. She takes a swallow of her drink, eyes averted, mumbling, “Oh, it—it doesn’t. I guess it doesn’t.”

It does, Therese thinks, her heart pounding. It matters to you how old I am.

“What are you studying?” Carol asks, clearly eager to change the subject.

“Oh, I—it’s the Accounting program. In the Stern School of Business.”

Carol’s flustered expression disappears, replaced by a furrowed brow. “Really?”

Therese’s body tightens, the same defensive impulse that rises in her whenever people react like this. “Yes, really. Why?”

“Oh, I just—I don’t know. I guess I was imagining an English program or… fine arts. I didn’t know accountants read Toni Morrison.”

Therese, still a little wary, says, “I think all kinds of people read Toni Morrison.”

Carol winces. “You’re right. Yes, I’m sorry, forgive me. You’re absolutely right. I don’t know why I reacted that way.”

She looks embarrassed. She’s focusing on her drink again, eyes averted, and the sight of it pierces Therese with unhappiness. She can’t stand for Carol to look so uncomfortable.

“It’s all right,” Therese says. “I didn’t mean to sound so… defensive. People are always surprised and I guess I—well… Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like accounting is some kind of passion for me. But I’m good at math and… well, I grew up in the foster system. I want to get a good job, one that’ll pay me enough to live. I don’t care about being rich or anything but… I just want some… security. Does that make sense?”

Carol looks at her with a new intensity, her pale eyes unfathomably bright, her lips barely parted. Therese freezes. She doesn’t know if anyone has ever looked at her with such careful attention.

Carol says, “I think it makes perfect sense.” Then, after a long pause, their eyes still locked, she asks, “You grew up in foster care?”

Fuck. Therese thinks. Fuck, why did you tell her that? Fuck.

People get so… strange when they find out. Startled, embarrassed, pitying. They start painting pictures in their heads of how damaged you must be, start imagining all kinds of traumas you must have gone through, and whether they’re right or wrong—Therese hates to think of them imagining it. Labeling her.

Only, to her surprise, there’s no pity in Carol’s expression. There’s no crass curiosity, either. There’s none of the discomfort or suspicion that shows up in so many people’s faces. She looks at Therese, and the look in her eyes both invites confidence, and promises respect. As if she’s saying, ‘You can tell me if you like. It’s all right if you don’t want to. I only want to know you, Therese.’

And does she? Does this remarkable, beautiful, fascinating woman really have any interest in knowing Therese Belivet? 

Therese says haltingly, “Oh… just from the time I was nine.” More silence, Carol’s look is calm, quiet, making space. Therese finds herself explaining. “I was in and out of foster homes and residential centers. My mom didn't hurt me or anything, but our house wasn’t always… safe… and she just couldn’t take care of me. She’d show up from time to time and talk about me coming to live with her again, but it never worked out. By the time I was sixteen I knew I didn’t want to be adopted. I started living independently at eighteen and aged out of the system at twenty. In New York foster kids get free tuition at any state school, but I wanted to save some money first. So I worked for a couple of years and then went to CUNY Brooklyn for undergrad, and then I got a full ride to NYU for grad school.” Carol is just staring at her. Meekly she finishes, “So here I am.”

A beat of silence. And then, the waiter appears. Therese almost jumps at the plate being laid in front of her, at the waiter’s voice saying, “And here are your meals.”

She takes the opportunity to look away from Carol, and down at her salad. It actually looks delicious, covered in crumbled feta and candied cranberries, thin slices of hard-boiled egg and a sweet-smelling vinaigrette on the side. The waiter has deposited a basket of bread as well and, desperate for something to do, Therese grabs a steaming roll, buttering it nervously.

That’s when Carol speaks.

“What a strange girl you are.”

Startled, Therese looks up at her again. This is the last thing she expected, and she’s not sure what to make of it. Is Carol insulting her? Is she—

“Why?” Therese asks, baffled.

But there’s no insult or mockery in Carol’s face, only a gentle amazement. “You talk about your life as if what you’ve done is run-of-the-mill. Ordinary and uninteresting. But your accomplishments are incredible. You are clearly… incredible.” 

Therese’s eyes widen, taken aback. She’s had a few teachers who have said this sort of thing, but it always felt… forced. Condescending. As if they found her remarkable simply because her circumstances had lead them to assume she would be unremarkable, even disappointing. But there is no condescension in Carol’s eyes, in Carol’s voice, in her words and her small, genuine smile.

Still, Therese is embarrassed. She looks away again, quickly dressing her salad and brandishing her fork. She glances up nervously, says, “I’m starved.”

Once again Carol’s smile is amused, but also gentle. She lifts her own fork, and says dryly, “Bon Appetit.”

Chapter Text

Carol is in trouble.

She is in serious trouble.

It’s been four days since her impromptu lunch with Therese Belivet, and she has not stopped thinking about her. Tonight is Christmas Eve. Rindy is back from Harge’s and in that state of pre-Christmas excitement that borders on hysteria. Abby is going to be over for dinner any minute and the scalloped potatoes are still in the second oven. There are presents to be wrapped from Santa and a load of laundry in the washing machine and the kitchen looks like a warzone—but all Carol can think about is Therese Belivet.

She’s gonna burn the fucking turkey if she’s not careful.

Their lunch was so… peculiar. It seems a strange word to use and yet it’s also the only word she can think of. Every moment brought something new and unexpected. Moments of humor and sweetness. Awkward missteps. Intimate revelations. Surges of undefinable hope and also—crushing disappointment.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” Carol had asked her.

A slight frown creased that lovely brow. “Oh. I think I’ll probably be with my boyfriend’s family.”

Her boyfriend. Her boyfriend.

It took all of Carol’s considerable training as a socialite not to show how stunned and, frankly, devastated she was. And what right did she have to be stunned or devastated? Hadn’t she thought from the beginning the girl must be straight? And if there’s one thing Carol does not do, has never done, it’s chase straight girls. On the rare occasion that she’s found herself attracted to a straight woman, learning about the boyfriend or husband has shut that down faster than an express train.

Carol, not wanting to give herself away, had asked lightly, “Oh, is that right? How nice. What’s his name?”

But Therese was still frowning, and looked almost uncomfortable. “Uh,” she said, “Richard. His name is Richard.”

What a dumb fucking name.

The sound of the doorbell pierces her thoughts. Rindy shouts, “I’ll get it!” and runs for the front door. She knows perfectly well she’s not supposed to open that door—

But it sounds like Abby has already let herself in. Carol hears Rindy’s squeal of delight as she no doubt throws herself into her aunt’s arms.

“There you are!” Abby cries.

A minute later she comes into the kitchen (Rindy riding piggy back) and surveys the damage.

“Jesus, Carol. Did a bomb go off?”

Jesus, Mommy!” Rindy cries.

“Now you’ve done it.”

Abby sets Rindy down with a wink, tells her, “Go get that bag of presents out of the foyer and take it to the tree. I don’t know if you’ll be able to lift it, munchkin, it’s so heavy!”

Rindy darts off. Abby grabs one of the aprons hanging by the refrigerator. “All right,” she says, stern as a general. “Where do you need me?”

Now that Abby’s here Carol actually has some hope she’ll be able to finish dinner without ruining it. Abby is a pain in the ass but she knows how to get things done, and in Carol’s current state of helpless distraction, that’s exactly what she needs. Together, they seize control of the kitchen, working side by side with the fluidity that only a very old friendship affords. In the living room Rindy shouts a play-by-play of every package she sets under the tree, from descriptions of the wrapping paper to size to weight.

“Christ, Abby, how many presents did you get her?” Carol asks.

“She’s my heir, Carol, don’t judge me.”

“Between Christmas Eve with you and Christmas morning with me and Christmas afternoon with Harge she’s going to be the most spoiled child in America. God, I want a cigarette!”

Abby, who is slicing apple for the salad, flicks her a sidelong glance. “You all right there, Champ?”

“I’m sorry, yes, I’m fine. I’m just…” Carol trails off, staring at the thermometer she’s just jammed into the turkey, but somehow unable to read the temperature. “I’m just a little… distracted.”

There’s momentary silence. Finally Carol gets a read on the thermometer. They’re approaching the fine line between perfectly cooked and dried out. Give it another ten minutes.

When she turns back around, Abby is watching her shrewdly. Carol notices for the first time how lovely Abby looks tonight, her makeup perfectly accentuating her deep brown eyes and her mouth and her cheekbones. Even in an apron she looks good, her shirt unbuttoned to expose the top of her chest and collarbones. Not for the first time Carol finds herself wondering, Why couldn’t you have just stayed in love with Abby? She’s hot, she’s your best friend, you adore each other. Wouldn’t that have been so much easier than…

“Hey, nitwit, what are you staring at?” Abby asks her.

Carol lets out a shuddering sigh. She had her chance with Abby, and much as she may wish otherwise, she couldn’t make it stick. Not in that way. No matter how much Abby wanted it to. And now, she’s burning up with thoughts of Therese, and wishes she could tell Abby about it, but she can’t shake the feeling that it’s unfair, somehow. It’s not like she thinks Abby is pining over her (the woman dates regularly; gets laid even more regularly) but Carol has never quite been able to shake the guilt of breaking her best friend’s heart. Even if it was five years ago.

“I’m sorry,” she says, wiping a hand across her forehead, moving to the second oven to take out the potatoes and set them on the counter to rest.

And then, all of the sudden, Abby says, “You met someone.”

Carol whirls toward her, eyes wide and startled, mouth hanging open. Abby is tossing the apples into the salad and smirking in that cat-got-the-cream way of hers.

“Well?” she asks. “Who is it? Man? Woman? Somebody I know?”

“No,” says Carol.

“All right…” Abby draws out the word, watching her. “Then… who?”

Carol shakes herself. She turns down the oven temperature and tosses in a tray of Pillsbury crescent biscuits. “No one,” she says. “I haven’t met anyone, not like that. Not like—a date. She’s—”

“I knew it!”

Abby.”

“Sorry. Go on. Who is this ‘she’ you’re not dating?”

“I met her at the holiday market. We had lunch this week, just—a friendly lunch, and…”

“What do you do, Carol?” Therese had asked her.

“Oh, I—well, actually, I run my own business. Not a formal business, I guess, it’s sort of just… something I’m doing on the side, though I do like it. I just—”

“Carol,” Therese had interrupted her with a little laugh, so rich and beautiful that for a moment Carol had been stunned into silence. Then she said, “Just tell me! You’re not a secret axe murderer are you?”

Carol had laughed. “Funny you should say that, I do use the occasional hatchet in my line of work.” Therese’s eyes had widened, and Carol told her, “I’m a furniture restorer.”

At that, Therese looked instantly, beautifully surprised, intrigued, impressed. “Really?”

Carol was so used to the people in her circles responding with a kind of vague indifference. Treating her work as an eccentric hobby. Changing the subject to a piece of furniture they themselves had just bought, expensive, new, artisan. In the face of Therese’s genuine interest, she had hardly known how to respond.

“So?” Abby’s voice snaps her back into the present. “What’s the problem?”

Carol clears her throat. Puts on her oven mitts and prepares to take out the turkey, saying over her shoulder, “She’s straight.”

Abby doesn’t answer right away. Carol lifts the turkey from the oven and sets it down on the island, feeling the burn in her biceps from the weight of it. It’s really too big for three people. But Carol’s favorite thing about roasting a turkey is the days of turkey sandwiches afterwards.

Abby asks, “How do you know?”

A scoff. “She has a boyfriend.”

When Carol looks up, Abby is giving her a disapproving look. “That’s a little bi-phobic, don’t you think?”

“Not if she actually is straight.”

“So this lunch with her—it wasn’t a date?”

“No. It was casual, spur of the moment. She helped me find my gloves and I asked if I could buy her lunch to thank her.”

Abby’s eyebrows shoot up. That bone structure really is well-suited to exaggerated expressions.

“Hold on,” she says, and braces her hands on the kitchen island, leaning forward. “Let me make sure I understand this. You met some random woman at a market. She finds your gloves or whatever. Pleasantries exchanged, classic Carol flirtations abound—let me guess, did you rub the back of your neck?”

“I—”

“And then, out of nowhere, you just ask if you can buy her lunch. And she says yes?”

Carol nods sheepishly. Abby throws a tea towel at her.

“Carol!” she exclaims, exasperated. “In what universe would anyone not interpret that as you asking them on a date?”

“But I wasn’t!” Carol defends herself. “I was just—I just wanted to get to know her! And anyway, why would she have told me she had a boyfriend if she thought we were on a date? Why would she have gone on a date with me if she has a boyfriend?”

Abby shrugs. “Maybe you were sending mixed signals. Maybe he’s not a very good boyfriend. Anyway, tell me how you left it with her.”

Again, Carol’s thoughts flit back to their meal. They had finished the salads and the drinks, and the waiter had just placed the check on the table. Therese, wide eyed, said, “Should we have—got separate checks?”

Carol had frowned at her. “What? Of course not. I told you, my treat.”

“Oh,” and she had blushed, busying herself with looking around at the restaurant.

Carol got out her credit card and placed it in the check holder, watching Therese surreptitiously the whole time. Thoroughly distracted by the fall of her fine dark hair and the bow of her full bottom lip and the almost doll-like perfection of her facial structure. Yet if a doll evoked childhood, Therese looked nothing like a child to her. Young though she was, she exuded for Carol an almost world-weary maturity. She was someone who had worked hard and suffered disappointment, who had goals for herself and was pursuing them, who had stamina and determination and grit, but who—despite all her obvious accomplishments, carried a quiet sadness in her. And this, Carol recognized all too well.

“So,” Carol had said, handing off the check holder to the waiter. “The week of Christmas is always pure chaos. I’m sure you’ll be very busy with your—boyfriend—but maybe we could hang out some time? After the holidays have settled down, I mean. Next week?”

Therese had looked at her again. She looked almost stunned. The irritating revelation of the boyfriend, Richard, was only a few minutes old. Carol wondered in dread if Therese had told her about him to put her off—and if now she was in a panic because it hadn’t worked. Then—

“Would you like to?” Therese asked. And there wasn’t panic in her voice at all, more like— startled excitement.

Carol had grinned at her. “Of course I would. I mean, I asked, didn’t I? Here, let’s exchange numbers. Maybe we could hang out this weekend?”

“I’d like that,” said Therese.

And Carol had practically glowed as they handed each other their phones.

To Abby, Carol says, “We’re supposed to hang out this weekend.”

Abby squeals.

Just hang out. We’ll probably end up getting coffee or something. Don’t make a big deal out of this, Abby, please.”

“Don’t make a big deal out of it!? Carol. When was the last time you showed any interest in getting to know someone?”

“You make me sound like a hermit! I get out! I meet people.”

“And I know you,” Abby retorts. “This look on your face right now? I haven’t seen it since you and I were together, and that was five years ago.”

Carol blanches, instantly flustered and embarrassed, as she always is when Abby brings up their affair. Not because she is ashamed of the affair, but because she is ashamed to have hurt Abby. Abby, who gives her a droll look.

“You have got to stop being terrified every time I mention the fact that we’ve seen each other naked, Carol. Jesus.”

“I’m sorry, I—I just—don’t want it to be awkward.”

“You make it awkward when you act like this,” Abby rejoins.

There’s a moment of silence. Carol checks the rolls in the oven. Abby grabs something from the fridge. When they face each other again, their eyes meet, and slowly the tension bleeds away, replaced by that specific tenderness that is theirs, and always will be.

Then Abby smiles, impish and gleeful. “Is she pretty?”

Carol’s eyes roll heavenward. “Fuck, Abby, she’s… She’s gorgeous.”

“Let me guess—brunette? Or maybe blonde?”

“Dark hair. And green eyes.”

Damn.”

“She’s almost a foot shorter than I am. And her eyes, I just… God.”

“You always liked being taller,” Abby muses. “It’s that big dick energy of yours.”

“There’s something else—”

“Has she got nipple piercings?”

“What!? Abby, how the fuck would I know?”

“Sorry, sorry, you were saying?”

Carol hesitates, eyes cutting away, embarrassed. Then, in a low voice, “She’s… younger than me.”

Abby’s eyes glitter fiendishly. “How young?”

Carol pictures that angelic face, and those wise eyes.

“Twenty-five.”

Abby hoots. “You cradle robber!”

“What’s a cradle robber?” Rindy asks, appearing beside the kitchen island with a suspicious stain of chocolate on her chin.

“Rindy Aird, what have you been eating?” Carol demands, glad for an immediate excuse to change the subject. Rindy’s eyes go buggy. “It better not be any of those M&Ms from the crystal jar. Rindy, you know we’re about to have dinner!”

“Momma, it was just one!”

No child in the history of the universe has simply eaten one M&M. Carol sighs. Abby says, “Well, you better not eat anymore, because girls who are too full on sugar before dinner don’t get dessert, and I’m pretty sure I saw a Milk Bar Peppermint Bark Cake in the fridge. Carol, isn’t that Rindy’s favorite cake?”

“It sure is,” Carol says. “But I don’t think she’ll have any room in her stomach for it now.”

“No, I will!” Rindy cries. “No more M&Ms, I promise!”  

She races off. Abby and Carol grin at each other. Then Abby’s grin turns conspiratorial and sneaky. She says, “So… twenty-five. Sure you know what you’re doing?”

At that, Carol breathes out a sigh of defeat and longing and quiet, aching hope.

“I don’t,” she admits, and then looks at Abby sweetly and fondly and reminds her, “I never did.”

Chapter Text

Therese spends almost all of Christmas Day at Richard’s parents’ house, surrounded by his brothers and their wives and a brood of nieces and nephews. There are presents under the tree for her, and a stocking on the mantle. It’s full of peppermint bark and homemade fudge and toothbrushes and Pilot Precision pens, which she is inordinately pleased about. The gifts are a book of poetry by Robert Frost, a thick wool sweater, and a hat Mrs. Semco knit her—tartan style with red and black and yellow stripes, and a pom-pom on the top. Therese is embarrassed to have received so many gifts, feels guilty about only bringing a 2 lb box of chocolates for the family, though they seem delighted by it.

Richard tells her, “Don’t worry. I got my mom a gift card to Jo-Ann Fabrics and I put your name on it. She’s gonna love it.”

“Oh,” Therese says. “Well, tell me how much it was; I’ll pay you for half.”

“You don’t have to do that, Terry. Anyway, you taking pictures is really the best present she could ask for. She’ll be so excited to see what you get.”

This appeases her, somewhat (she'll just stick a twenty in his wallet later) because she was able to pick up her camera two days ago, and if she's busy documenting the Semco Family Christmas it's easier to avoid conversation. It’s her impulse to focus on the decorations, the Christmas tree, the dinner table—but she knows that what people really want on Christmas is pictures of family. So, she girds herself, and focuses on the children and the couples and Richard’s parents. Whenever they catch her at it they insist on posing, which she wishes they wouldn’t. The candid photos are so much better. That’s probably why the pictures of the kids are coming out best—they’re too focused on their toys and each other to pay attention to Richard’s quiet girlfriend.

It’s while she's looking through some of her recent shots that Therese feels her phone vibrate in her pocket. She takes it out, clicking on the text notification—and her heart stutters.

It’s from Carol.

/ Hope you’re having a great Christmas so far! Let me know if you still want to hang out this weekend! /

Therese looks up, glances around, makes sure no one is watching her, and then slips out of the living room. She hurries to Richard’s old bedroom, slipping inside and closing the door after her. She sits on the bed and stares at her screen for long seconds. Finally, she types something out. Erases it. Starts again.

/ Merry Christmas! Did Rindy open the trainset? Yes I’m free on Sunday. /

She almost makes a suggestion, almost says, ‘Want to get lunch?’ or, ‘How about coffee?’ but doesn’t have the guts, too shy, nervous.

Moments later, Carol’s next text scuppers her:

/ Sunday would be perfect! What would you like to do? /

Therese swallows anxiously. Another text comes through:

/ Rindy LOVED the trains. She’s playing with them now. They’re currently being hijacked by a troupe of Calico Critters. 😊 /

Therese smiles, ridiculously pleased that her suggestion was a hit. But ten seconds pass, thirty, and Therese knows that the next move is hers. With trembling fingers, she types out the first thing that comes to her, hitting send before she can second guess herself.

/ I’d love to see the furniture you’re working on /

Her pulse hammers with nerves. Her mouth is dry. She stares down at her phone and with every second that passes, grows more and more anxious. They hit the minute mark. Then two. In horror Therese wonders if she has overstepped somehow, if Carol will just never answer her.

At minute 3, her phone vibrates again.

/ Sorry, Rindy’s dad will be here in half an hour and she does NOT want to get dressed. Will have to go in a sec. /

Therese doesn’t answer, heart pounding. Ten, fifteen seconds go by.

/ My workshop is at my house, if you don’t mind coming to Jersey. I don’t promise it’ll be particularly interesting. /

Therese lets out a breath, answering quickly:

/ I don’t mind. 1:00? /

Almost a minute passes before Carol answers:

/ Sorry, I think we’ve reached the meltdown stage of Christmas morning. I’ve got to run but yes, 1 is perfect. I can pick you up at the station near my house. I can’t remember what it’s called. I’ll text you. Merry Christmas, Darling! /

Darling…

Darling…

For a moment Therese just stares down at the phone, before she has the wherewithal to answer.

/ Merry Christmas! /

She stares at the messages for several moments, reading them over, lingering over Carol’s complete sentences and utter lack of typos or text speak. Jesus, even her texting is elegant. Therese’s thoughts flash back to their parting words outside Scotty’s, to watching Carol pull on her gloves and wrap her scarf around her neck.

“My car is in valet parking,” she’d said. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”

Therese said, “Oh, no, it’s all right. The subway is just around the corner.”

Carol had looked at her quizzically. “Are you sure?”

Therese was sure. For some reason, she feared that getting in a car with Carol would stretch her limits. In the car there would be no table separating them. In the car Carol’s smell would suffuse everything. In the car she would have nothing to do but look at that profile and—

Carol, accepting her refusal, suddenly laughed.

“What is it?” Therese asked her.

“Oh, it’s just—I’m realizing I don’t know how people say goodbye anymore. Hug? Handshake? Air kiss?”

Therese released her own shy chuckle, and meant to say, ‘We can shake hands.’ What came out instead was, “A hug is fine.”

Maybe Therese’s expression mirrored the sudden shock she felt, realizing what she had said, because something sharpened in Carol’s pale gray eyes—just before the older woman stepped tentatively toward her—and folded her in her arms.

It was quick. It was ordinary. And yet for Therese, it shook the foundations of the earth. For a moment, her nose was pressed into Carol’s shoulder. For a moment, she felt the brush of Carol’s hair and the warm strength of Carol’s arms. She smelled Carol—not just her perfume, but something underneath all that. Something human and rich. They pulled apart, Therese’s nose just… grazing… Carol’s jaw, a brush of softness that seemed somehow to go through her like a javelin. And then, eyes averted from each other, they were saying goodbye and going their separate ways and now—

Now, all Therese can think about is that moment of closeness. That rich, womanly smell. That whisper of skin. Day after tomorrow is Sunday. Day after tomorrow she’ll go to Carol’s house and Carol will show Therese her workshop, her furniture, her tools. Perhaps they’ll stand close to each other at some point, lean together over some project. Perhaps Carol will take Therese’s hand and place it on some damaged piece of furniture and say something like, ‘Feel that? That’s what we’re going to fix.’ And perhaps Carol won’t let go of her hand. Perhaps Carol won’t move away. Instead she’ll move closer. Pull Therese into her arms, against her body, against that smell, and Therese will—

There’s a sudden knock on the door. Therese jumps, realizing that she is still seated on Richard’s bed. And then the door creaks open, and Richard comes in.

“Terry?” he says, frowning in confusion. “Are you all right?”

Therese pockets her phone, says quickly, “Oh, yes, I—I just needed a minute. You know. Some quiet?”

He gives her a sympathetic grin. “Yeah, I know we can get pretty loud. Christmas dinner isn’t for a couple of hours. Do you want to go for a walk?”

He comes and sits down next to her, slipping an arm around her waist. Against her will Therese imagines that it is Carol who has sat down beside her. Carol who is drawing her against her side. Carol nuzzling behind her ear—but Richard hasn’t shaved today, and the scratch of stubble shatters her illusions.

“Or we could stay in here for a while,” he says.

Therese pulls away from his nuzzling and looks into his face. Looks at him seriously, her eyes moving across his features. So often when they’re together, it’s like she’s in another world, almost unaware of him. Now, she tries to focus, to see him. His bluish eyes and his boyish smile. His broad shoulders and his close cut brown hair. There’s something very… masculine about Richard. A man’s man. And when Therese met him she found that appealing. She thought, this is the sort of boyfriend every girl wants.

“Terry?” Richard asks, his smile crooked, baffled. “What is it?”

Therese kisses him. And not just a perfunctory peck, either. She really kisses him, with more authority than she’s ever shown before, pushing her tongue into his mouth and sliding her hands up into his hair. He reacts at once, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her into his lap. Through her spears the thought of herself—straddling Carol. Carol’s long hands, gripping her waist, tugging her close. She shoves the thought aside, kissing him harder. He meets her tongue with his—but it’s too much, too aggressive. She pulls back, kissing his ear and his neck, thinking of that brush of her nose against Carol’s jaw—

Within moments she can feel his erection, pushing up between her legs, and his hands have slid under her sweater, reaching for her breasts, and Therese feels confused, and aroused, and uncomfortable, and she just wants to—

“Oh, Terry,” he moans. “Baby, you feel so good.”

He pushes up under her bra, palm squeezing her breast while his other hand slips down to cup her ass and rock her into him. Therese tries to grind against him, chasing sensation, wanting sensation. She’s turned on. She’s wet. If she can just get him to hold still, maybe she can—

But then he reaches for the button on her jeans. She knows that in a few seconds he’ll have squeezed his hand between her legs and he’ll start rubbing her. He always does it too hard; his fingers are always too dry. She tried to show him, in the beginning, but he just never seemed to get it. And Therese doesn’t want him to touch her like that. Just the thought of it makes her feel suddenly squeamish.

She pulls back from kissing his neck, and grabs his wrist, stopping him. He looks into her eyes, his pupils blown. He’s breathing hard, clearly excited.

“We—we can’t,” she says. “Not with your—family out there.”

He looks at her pleadingly. “Oh, Terry, come on, please. I’ll be quick.”

She has no doubt of that. And maybe another day she’d just give in. Jerk him off or even give him a blow job just so he doesn’t think she’s a total prude. But today—today she just can’t do it.

She climbs off his lap. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I—shouldn’t have let it get that far.”

“Um, yeah,” he says, irritated. He gestures down at himself. “What am I supposed to do with this, huh?”

Therese adjusts her mangled bra under her shirt. She rebuttons her jeans.

“I’m sorry.”

He sighs again. Says a few seconds later, “It’s all right, okay. I just—I need a minute. Why don’t you go back out and I’ll—be right there.”

Therese nods, jumps at the opportunity, shutting the door behind her. In the hallway, she stands still for a minute, stunned at herself.

What the hell is going on with her? She feels warm, aching, needy—and not for Richard. She was thinking of Carol. She can’t stop thinking of Carol. She was halfway to fucking Richard with Carol’s smell and softness suffusing her thoughts. This isn’t the kind of person she is. She doesn’t—

Suddenly her phone vibrates. She grabs it out of her pocket, swiping it open—it’s Dannie.

/ Xmas sucks. Gonna get drnk with Phil n watch zombie movies. U in? /

Therese stares at the message for several seconds, then answers:

/ When? /

He answers:

/ NOW, binch. /

/ At Richard’s family for dinner Can come after? /

/ Fine but will probly be wasted. DONT BRING RICHARD!!! /

Therese snorts, grins, and puts her phone away. Suddenly she can’t think of anything better than getting drunk with Dannie and Phil—and forgetting everything else.

Chapter Text

All right, Ross, now remember what we talked about. She is straight. She has a boyfriend. You are just hanging out. You are hanging out because you are pathetic and need friends other than Abby. That is ALL this is. Two friends. Hanging out.

Some version of this lecture has been cycling through Carol’s mind all morning. But as she stands in the parking lot outside the train station, Carol finds that no amount of stern self-talk can quite overwhelm that other voice in her head, that nervous, eager, hopeful voice that says, Maybe she’s bi. Maybe she hates her boyfriend. Maybe she likes you, too…

No! her wiser voice snaps back. Stop it. You are two friends, two platonic friends. And you are hanging out.

“Riiiiight,” Abby had said last night on the phone. “Let me guess: Netflix and chill?”

“What the fuck is that?” Carol retorted.

Abby made a disgusted sound and hung up.

Carol sighs, adjusts the collar of her coat, crosses her arms and then starts rifling through her purse, searching for the vape pen. She takes a deep drag, irritated by the mint flavor. Yes, of course, technically it tastes ‘good’, but at this moment Carol absolutely craves the foul acridity of a real cigarette. She takes another pull, stuffs the pen back in her purse, and looks up just in time to see Therese emerge from the station.

They see each other at once, and Therese’s sweet face breaks out in a smile that is so genuine, so unselfconscious, that Carol can’t help smiling back at her, heart leaping with joy. As Therese moves swiftly toward her, Carol has to try very hard not to check her out. It’s a near thing, because Therese is dressed a little differently than she’s seen before. Dark wash jeans and ankle boots; a knee-length coat with a slim silhouette; unbuttoned, it reveals a green mock neck sweater underneath. She looks… delicious.

Stop it!

“Hello,” Therese greets her, still with that beaming smile. “It’s nice of you to pick me up. I could have got an Uber.”

“Nonsense!” Carol says, and nods them toward the parking lot. “I thought we could grab coffee on the way back. Rindy was begging me for a hot cocoa.”

“Rindy’s at the house?” asks Therese, walking beside her.

Something tightens in Carol’s chest and it’s a half beat before she answers, “Yes, I… hope that’s okay?”

Therese looks at her quickly, brow furrowed in confusion. “Of course it’s okay. What kind of an asshole would I be if it wasn’t okay for your daughter to be in your own house? No, I just meant—I’ll get to meet her.”

Carol has to fight not to gasp from relief. What would she have done if Therese responded differently? Carol has plenty of acquaintances who are, in their own words, ‘Not kid people.’  Which is perfectly fine until they start turning up their noses at the merest mention of children, as if it offends them that any adult would bring a child into their orbit. If Therese was like that—

“She’s a character,” Carol says, trying to get back on track. “We’re taking our lives into our hands giving her sugar, but it’s still the holidays, so…”

In the drive-thru, Therese orders a peppermint mocha with whipped cream, and Carol is so charmed by it that she gets the same thing, and a peppermint hot chocolate for Rindy, and a cappuccino for Rindy’s nanny, Vanessa. She’s just reaching into her wallet when suddenly Therese leans over her, passing her credit card to the barista. Carol goes stock still, lungs compressing as she pulls in the smell of Therese’s body—and tries to hold it there. When Therese pulls back, she’s flushed, as if realizing it was unusual to lean over her like that. But she’s also smiling.

She says, “My treat.”

“Darling, you don’t have to do that—”

“Too late,” Therese smirks, reaching into her purse again and pulling out a five dollar bill. She hesitates, then offers it to Carol. “Will you put that in the tip jar, please?”

Carol pauses, but can’t resist, eyebrow hiking up as she asks, “You don’t just want to climb over me this time?”

Therese’s instant blush feels like a victory. Carol laughs and waves the five dollar bill aside. “Let me get the tip, at least.”

A few minutes later, Therese has the tray of coffees on her lap, and they are on their way. It’s only a ten minute drive to Carol’s house, and as they go she finds herself wishing that it was longer. That it would never end. Because despite her nervousness, and Therese’s blush, and the residual palpitations that Therese’s nearness have caused her—the conversation flows easily between them. They talk about their Christmases. They talk about the coming year. Therese explains a little bit about her master’s program and how she got into bartending, through her best friend, Dannie. Therese tells her about Dannie and Carol tells Therese about Abby and they agree that their best friends would like each other, which feels in the moment like saying, ‘My best friend would like you. And that’s the most important test, isn’t it?’

It’s just as they’re turning down the country road three blocks from Carol’s that she spots the farmhouse on the corner—there’s a small crowd gathered and the farm stand looks to be open.

“Oh, hold on!” Carol exclaims, parking them along the road.

“What is it?” Therese asks.

“The woman who owns this farm makes the most fucking delicious jam, and she promised she’d have more this weekend. I’ve just got to try and grab one before they’re all sold out. Hang on, I’ll be right back!”

She leaves Therese in the car, jogging up the drive. It’s a brisk morning, and the smells of hot cocoa and cider and homemade donuts fill the plot where fifteen or twenty patrons have congregated. To Carol’s glee, there are two jars of the chipotle raspberry jam left, and she seizes both. The farmer, Mrs. Gleese, knows Carol, and they make friendly small talk as she pays.

“You going to grab a cider while you’re here, honey?” Mrs. Gleese asks.

“Oh, I just bought coffee,” Carol laments.

“Well, get some donuts at least. They’re fresh out of the fryer and damn good.”

Carol laughs. “I will! Merry Christmas.”

So she stops at the donut stand, ordering a half-dozen. It’s while she waits for Mrs. Gleese’s teenage son to finish packaging them that she glances back toward the car—and realizes that Therese has stepped out. Therese is standing next to the car and pointing a camera at her. Surprised, Carol glances away. Is Therese taking a picture of her? Or just of the farm? Carol didn’t even know she had a camera on her. Slowly, self-consciously, Carol adjusts the collar of her coat. She sweeps a hand through her hair, glancing Therese’s way again, wondering—

“Here you go, Ma’am,” says the teenager.

He holds out her package of donuts. She can feels when she takes it from him that they’re still warm. She puts a tip in the jar and thanks him, and turns back toward the street. Therese appears to have gotten into the car again. She rejoins her, and there’s no sign of a camera.

“Did they have what you wanted?” Therese asks.

Carol gives her a sidelong glance and starts up the car. “They did.”

<><><> 

Rindy is shy at first, but when Carol tells her that Therese brought her a peppermint hot chocolate, she immediately starts to thaw. Vanessa bids them goodbye, gratefully grasping her cappuccino, and they gather in the breakfast nook to have their drinks and donuts. Therese quickly becomes the focus of Rindy’s attention. At first this makes Carol anxious, but Therese responds to the smattering of questions with poise, treating Rindy seriously, respectfully, and with a sly humor that soon has the four-year-old in thrall.

“I don’t like any donuts but these donuts,” Rindy declares, “The cimamim ones are the best kind.”

“Cinnamon, sweetheart,” corrects Carol.

Rindy ignores her, asking Therese, “Don’t you think the cimamim ones are the best?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” says Therese thoughtfully, regarding her donut. “Have you ever had a broccoli donut?”

Rindy’s eyes widen, then narrow. “What? Noooo!”

“You haven’t?” Therese tsks, glancing at Carol with a twinkle in her eyes, and says, “I quite like them.”

“Oh yes,” Carol agrees. “They’re almost as good as green bean donuts.”

Rindy looks scandalized. “That’s disgusting!” she cries.

“Oh, I suppose you prefer hamburger donuts, is that it?” Therese asks.

“Noooo!”

“What about fish stick donuts?” asks Carol.

Rindy looks back and forth between them, suspicious, before all at once the lightbulbs go on in her big brown eyes, and she says deviously, “I know what Trez likes—toothpaste donuts!”

Therese makes a sound of mock indignation, and Rindy is in fits. The game soon devolves into chaos, with everyone trying to one up everyone else’s donut flavors, until the donuts are eaten and the hot chocolate has stained Rindy’s mouth and chin, at which point she asks to play Go Fish.

“Oh, munchkin,” Carol says, “I don’t know that Therese wants to—”

“I love Go Fish,” Therese interrupts.

“See!?” Rindy cries, and gets down from her chair, racing off.

Carol, feeling a little flushed and nervous, tells Therese, “You don’t have to play with her. Usually at this point I let her watch one of her shows just before her afternoon nap.”

Therese smiles, a smile so gentle and bewitching that Carol feels momentarily stunned by it.

“It’s fine,” she murmurs. “I haven’t played with children in a while. It’s good to know I haven’t completely lost my touch.”

Carol smiles back, with a little shake of the head. “No… I’d say you’re a hit.”

Now they are both smiling, and their eyes are locked, and something warm and sweet seems to gather between them.

Then Therese asks, with a smile that cannot be described as anything but coy, “Will I still get to see your workshop?”

If it’s the last thing I fucking do, Carol thinks.

“Yes, of course. After she goes down, we can—”

“Found it!” shouts Rindy, charging back into the kitchen with the deck of Go Fish cards clasped in both hands.  

Forty minutes later, Therese and Carol have let Rindy win two rounds, and taken one each themselves, before Carol announces that it’s naptime. Rindy looks sharply at Therese.

“Will you be here after naptime?”

For the first time, Therese looks a little thrown by the child, her eyes wide as she glances at Carol and back and Rindy. “Well, I… I don’t know, actually, I—”

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner,” Carol says, eyes focused on the cards that she’s shuffling. When Therese doesn’t immediately respond, she takes the risk of looking up at her. Those green eyes are incredible. Carol shrugs. “Only if you want, of course.” Therese’s mouth opens and closes, and Carol, not wanting to pressure her, says, “Either way, Ms. Rindy, it’s time for that nap. So say goodbye to Therese just in case she can’t stay for dinner.”

It takes about twenty minutes to get Rindy settled down, and when Carol comes back into the kitchen Therese is still seated in the breakfast nook, looking out the window toward the spacious backyard and the workshop. She hears Carol approach, and then they are looking at each other again. It’s quiet. For the first time, an awkwardness settles between them, before Carol gets up the nerve to ask, “Want to see the workshop?”

Therese’s smile is beatific. “Yes. Yes, I would.”

Carol leads her out the back, walking the path to the workshop and unlocking the door. She stands aside so Therese can enter ahead of her, and feels—inexplicably nervous. She watches Therese, her slim, small body, as she moves into the shop and stands, looking around. Carol closes the door after them, and then she, too, stands motionless. Watching. Therese looks toward the dining chairs Carol has been working on, and Carol gets a perfect view of her profile. Then she looks the other way, toward projects that haven’t started yet. She turns around, regarding Carol with an expression of delight.

“This is your work?” she asks.

Carol nods. Therese’s smile broadens.

“Will you show me?”

Heart in her throat, Carol shows her. She explains to her what the tools are: her various scrapers and putty knives and power sanders; the different sponges and cloths and chemicals she uses. She shows off her work bench with its assortment of hammers and clamps. Her safety equipment. At each step Therese has questions—why does one project call for the carbide scraper rather than the contour scraper? Why the orbital sander? What are the painter’s pyramids for? What is tack cloth?

Carol is taken aback by her curiosity. When they look at the chairs themselves and Carol explains the process she’s taking them through, Therese’s brow furrows in thoughtful concentration. She nods and smiles and seems genuinely interested. It’s so… unusual. Whereas on those occasions that Carol has explained her work to others in brief, perfunctory sentences, Therese makes her want to expand, to detail, to explain.

“Where did you learn all this?” Therese asks, eyes sweeping over the tools and the furniture, fingers testing the plane of one chair’s leg, searching for the scratches that Carol has already repaired. Carol notices that Therese’s nose is a little red, the cold of the workshop getting to her, and yet she hasn’t said a word about it.

“Oh,” Carol laughs, brief, self-deprecating. “I took a class in college. Just an introductory class. I had a crush on another student, if you’ll believe it, and she was taking the class, so I followed her into it.”

Carol doesn’t even realize what she has revealed until the words are out, until she senses the subtle tightening of Therese’s body besides her. Dread pools in Carol’s stomach, but—

“You learned all this from a class?” Therese asks, looking directly at her.

“Oh, no. Honestly? I’m self-taught. The class gave me some foundation but the rest of it was reading and YouTube videos and… trial and error.”

Therese looks at the chairs again. She murmurs, “That’s incredible.”

A moment of silence. Carol watches Therese’s fingers, still sliding across the piece of furniture, and she’s just about to ask her—

The sound of a phone going off startles them. Therese stands up, reaches into her pocket muttering, “Sorry,” and looks at the caller. She must choose not to take it for a moment later the phone is in her pocket again. But now she is standing up, and looking toward the back of the shop.

“What’s that?” she asks, already walking toward the hope chest.

“Oh,” Carol stands up, too, embarrassed, shoving her hands into her back pockets. “Oh, that’s just…”

Therese has already reached it, is kneeling and running a hand across the half-finished detailing on the surface. She looks back, looks up at Carol, who is now standing behind her. Her eyes are wide.

“Carol, are you—did you carve this?”

Carol is grateful for the chill in the shop; her blush can easily be passed off as a reaction to the cold. “It’s just a—side project,” she says.

Therese is gazing at the carvings in obvious fascination. It’s a woodland scene. Trees, and mountains and a creek. The beginnings of a few small animals. The first rough outline of what will eventually be a cabin.

“It’s gorgeous,” Therese says, “Is it based on something? A real place?”

“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest,” Carol says. “So… I suppose it’s based on that.”

Therese looks at her in surprise. “Really? I just assumed that you were a New Yorker, through and through.”

Carol laughs again, “Oh, I am. I came here for boarding school. Then I stayed on to go to college at Barnard. I haven’t lived out West since I was fifteen.”

“Do you ever go back?” Therese asks.

Carol shakes her head, “No, I… don’t really have contact with any family out there. Some day I hope to take Rindy but…” she trails off. Watches as Therese uses one finger to etch the branches of a tree. Carol asks, “Did you grow up in the city?”

Therese shakes her head, “No. Syracuse. I’m like you, I… came here for school.” Then, quietly, almost dreamily, she says of the hope chest, “It’s so beautiful, Carol. I don’t think I could ever make something this beautiful.”

Carol frowns, and squats down next to her. Without thinking she asks, “But you’re a photographer, aren’t you? Was that you, taking my photograph?”

Therese looks at her again, startled, eyes wide. “I’m sorry, I should have asked.”

“Oh, don’t apologize,” Carol insists.

Therese glances embarrassedly away, says, “I’ve just been trying to… Well, I have a friend who told me I should be more interested in humans.”

Carol can’t help her dry chuckle. Humans. What a dangerous subject to be interested in. She asks, “And how’s that going?”

She’s completely unprepared for the way Therese looks at her again. Looks right into her eyes and says with the faintest smile, “It’s going well, actually.”

Carol’s heart stutters. What does she mean? Does she mean me? Is she interested in me?

Carol murmurs, “I’m glad,” and watches Therese return her eyes to the hope chest, fingers exploring again, almost as if she were stroking the keys of a piano.

Carol says, “So I was right about you, then?” A perplexed look. “You are an artist.” Therese scoffs, but Carol grins at her. “Oh, come on. If an accountant can read Toni Morrison then an account can also certainly be an artist.”

“It’s just something I do. Something I’ve always done.” Suddenly her face changes, grows more pensive, but also—melancholy. She says, “I used to want to be a photographer, actually. When I was fourteen I took a class in school and my foster parents got me a camera. I fell in love with it. But it’s no way to make a living, and so… well…”

She trails off, still staring at the hope chest. Her words flood Carol with an aching sadness, imbued with longing to go back and meet fourteen-year-old Therese and give her everything she needs, to make her dreams come true. But that child is years beyond her reach, and in this moment Therese seems beyond her reach, too, quiet, and thoughtful, and lost in memories.

Carol can think of only one way to bring her back. She asks, “Will you show me your work?”

With a slow blink, Therese returns. “Sure,” she says, eyes still averted, her shyness so… compelling. “But I mean, I’m not… I’m not any kind of artist, you know. I’ve never sold anything or even shown a picture to someone who could buy one. I don’t even have a decent camera—”

Suddenly, her cellphone rings again. Therese mutters a curse, pulls it out. Carol sees the incoming caller ID: Richard. But once more, Therese silences it and puts the phone away. She looks anxious. 

Carol ignores the call, ignores the interruption it posed, and taps a gentle finger on Therese’s knee. Startled, Therese looks at her, and Carol’s voice is low and soft and full of a deeper feeling than she can name, “If you create art, then you’re an artist. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t dismiss yourself. All you can do is keep working. Use what feels right. Throw away the rest.”

Therese regards her thoughtfully, seems to really think about what she’s said, before murmuring, “I suppose…”

Carol smiles at her, and Therese smiles back. Therese says, “I’ve got most of my stuff at home, on my laptop.”

Carol’s smile widens. She flicks an eyebrow, half-teasing, and shrugs. “Invite me round.”

Please, her thoughts whisper. Invite me round. Invite me in. Bring me to your home and show me your photographs. I promise to hold them for the precious thing that they are...

Therese stares at her, in a way that makes Carol think that somehow she heard those thoughts. Heard that promise. Her eyes are so… so green. And she’s closer than Carol realized. Close enough to touch her knee. To hear her little indrawn breath. To see the emotion in her eyes as they flit from Carol’s eyes to Carol’s lips, her own parting as if to—

The fucking phone rings again.

Therese leaps up, stepping away, muttering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, just let me… just let me take this.”

Chapter Text

I would have kissed her, Therese thinks. We were so close. She was looking right at me and I—would have kissed her.

Fingers trembling, she digs the phone out of her pocket again. Richard, again. He called her this morning. He called her last night. And now apparently he is going to just keep fucking calling until she—

Therese puts the phone to her ear, snaps, “Hello?”

“Terry?”

“Hi,” she says, trying very hard to control the thing in her voice that wants to scream. “What’s up?”

A beat of silence. An incredulous, “What’s up?”

Therese swallows. “Yeah, I—I’m sorry I keep missing you. Did you need something?”

Another silence. Behind her, Therese can feel Carol’s presence. Therese walks back toward the door into the shop, trying to put distance between them. To put distance between Carol and Richard. She doesn’t want Richard anywhere near Carol.

Richard says, “Are you kidding me right now?”

“No, I’m not kidding you. I’m asking you. What’s up?”

An angry scoff. “Therese, you bailed on Christmas the second dinner was over. You said you’d call me that night and then you didn’t. We were supposed to spend yesterday together and you bailed on that, too. And now, I’ve been calling you all morning and you’re ignoring my calls. What the fuck is going on?”

“Nothing is going on,” says Therese rigidly.

“Where are you? I’m at your apartment and you’re not here.”

At that, something cold goes through her, a sudden fury. What, so now he’s showing up uninvited it? Checking up on her? Who the fuck does he—

“I’m in Jersey,” she says. “I’m spending the day with a friend.”

“Who do you know in Jersey?”

Therese grinds her teeth. “I’m really not liking this Spanish inquisition, Richard.”

“If you’re cheating on me with some guy, you’d better tell me right now, or I swear—”

“I’m not cheating on you, Richard,” she hisses into the phone. “My friend, Carol, lives in Jersey and I’m at her house and I didn’t know you needed to keep tabs on me or who my friends are!”

At the mention of Carol’s name, Richard goes silent. After a moment he says gruffly, “Oh.”

Therese says nothing.

A beat later, “I’ve never heard you mention a friend named Carol.”

“Again, I didn’t realize you expected me to give you a book report on everyone I hang out with.”

He sighs, chastened, “Okay, Christ, I’m sorry, all right? You haven’t been answering my calls and I just… I just got a little paranoid, okay? Especially after Christmas. You just took off—”

“I took off to hang out with Dannie. I never promised to spend all of Christmas with you, Richard.”

“I know.” Now he sounds sulky. “I just… I miss you, okay?”

Therese blows a breath out through her nostrils. For some reason, this puppy dog confession makes her angrier than anything, but she knows that she can’t exactly scream at him for wanting to see her. Was it just a couple of days ago that she was thinking she didn’t feel strongly enough to get angry at him? Well, so much for that. She sets her jaw, counts to ten, marshals an adolescence full of mandatory therapy to keep her temper in check.

“Can I see you tonight?” he asks.

She has never been so annoyed to have a night off from work. Everything in her wants to say no. And yet what comes out is, “Fine. I’ll come to yours at 6, okay?”

Again, he sounds sulky, wounded, only grudgingly appeased, “Okay.”

“Goodbye, Richard.”    

She hangs up.

She stands for a moment with her back to the workshop. She looks out through the window in the door, toward the house. Carol’s house. Carol’s… palace of a New Jersey house. She takes a deep breath and pockets her phone and turns around, saying, “I’m… sorry about that.”

Carol is standing at her workbench, back turned. After a moment she faces Therese. She’s smiling in a tight way, and there’s something cold in her eyes.

“Sorted everything out?” she asks.

Therese hesitates. When they were looking at the hope chest together, when Carol said those things to her, asked to see her work, called her an artist—it felt as if something sweet and intimate and green was blooming between them. It felt like being seen for the first time in her life, seen and respected and held up to the sun, so that the tiny saplings that were inside her might catch the warmth, and grow.

But now, all that warmth has evaporated, and the space between them could host a glacier. Therese has a sinking feeling of shame.

She says, “Yeah, he just… He worries, sometimes, you know? If I don’t pick up he thinks—”

“That you’re cheating on him?” asks Carol flatly. When Therese only looks at her, the older woman’s tight smile takes on a razor edge. “Well, now he knows you were with me, I’m sure he realizes he has nothing to worry about.”

The feeling of shame intensifies. Therese doesn’t know what to do with it, how to—explain.

Carol speaks before she can, “I guess you’d better get back the city, hadn’t you? I’m afraid I can’t drive you to the station this time, with Rindy here.”

“Oh,” Therese’s stomach drops. It’s only 3 o’clock in the afternoon. She could stay another hour, even two, and still have time to meet Richard at 6:00. But Carol’s statement squashes that possibility. “Oh,” she repeats, “It’s… it’s okay. Like I said, I can… I can get an Uber.”

Carol is moving some things around on her bench, not looking at her. She says, “Okay. I’ll walk you out.”

And then she is striding past Therese, opening the shop door, and Therese has no choice but to quit the beautiful magic of this space.

Just a couple minutes later, Carol stands with her on the porch as they wait for her driver. It’s quiet between them, that glacial distance only seeming to grow. Therese, feeling miserable, bucks up enough courage to ask, “Do you want to get coffee… later this week?”

Carol, who has been avoiding looking at her, now looks at her with an expression that’s witheringly empty.

“Don’t you have school starting?”

“Oh—not… not until next week.”

“Hmm. I suppose between your job and your classes, you probably don’t have much time for coming out here.”

For a moment Therese doesn’t know what to say. She can feel that the ground between them has shifted, that the warmth between them has banked—but is Carol saying she never wants to see her again? The thought is so terrifying Therese feels instantly ill.

“You could—” she hesitates. Suddenly, reextending the invitation to her apartment feels wrong. She says, “I know you’re a regular at The McKinley. I work every night this week. I owe you that old-fashioned.”

She lets the rest of it hang, too embarrassed and afraid to suggest a proper plan, and have it rejected. Carol regards her seriously for a moment, and then they both hear the sound of the Uber, pulling into the long driveway. Therese’s body tightens, as if she can see a timer counting down its last seconds, and afterwards—afterwards will be a world without Carol.

“Here we are,” Carol says, with false brightness. “Thanks again for coming out, and for the coffees.”

“You—you’re welcome.”

“I hope the new semester starts well.”

No no no!

“Carol.”

Something in Therese’s voice, some deep and searching note, must puncture Carol’s newly grown and icy carapace, because the older woman looks at her, really looks at her, looks into her eyes as she hasn’t done in several minutes. That is when Therese sees it—not emptiness, coldness, indifference. Hurt. Therese has hurt her, and Therese isn’t entirely sure how, and Therese has no idea what could fix it.

“I—” Therese says. The Uber has pulled up next to them. Out of time. In a last ditch effort, a Hail Mary pass, a wild shot in the dark, Therese tells her, “I really loved your workshop.”

The hurt in Carol’s eyes takes on a deeper hue, complemented by something that looks very much to Therese like longing. But Carol only gives a little nod of acknowledgment. Carol opens the car door for her. Moments later, the door shuts, the sound definitive, and awful.

<><><> 

From the minute she shows up at Richard’s, she knows it isn’t going to go well. He’s still sulky, and he wants to know who Carol is. Therese, exhausted and frustrated and aching inside, gives him a bare bones account, hoping that will be the end of it. But—

“Wait a second,” Richard says. “You’re telling me this lady is some—rich Jersey housewife and she just… wanted to hang out with you?”

Something about this, about the unspoken accusation in his words, rankles her.

“We had lunch,” she says wearily. “It was spontaneous. We got along.”

“You got along?” he repeats. “What the fuck, Terry. You don’t even know her!”

“Isn’t that what a new friendship is? You meet someone, and get to know them?”

When she looks at him his face is full of incredulity and scorn. He demands, “What would possibly make you want to hang out with some Jersey WASP?”

Therese scowls. “I just like her is all. I’m fond anyone I can really talk to.”

He crosses his arm with a scoff of laughter. Says suspiciously, “I don’t know about this. It sounds super shady. You don’t know what this woman wants from you.”

These words hit a nerve she didn’t even know was exposed. Rage floods through her. She had been poking in the fridge but now she slams it shut and whirls on him. “Because that’s the only reason a woman like that would want to hang out with me, right? Because I’m just a white trash foster kid from Syracuse. The only reason someone with any class would lower themselves to spend time with me is cause they want something.”

Richard’s eyes widen. “What? Terry, no, that’s not what I’m saying, I—”

“Yes you are!”

“I’m just saying, people like that. They—you know. They use you. Then they get tired of you and throw you away. It’s not about you, Terry, it’s about them!”

Therese’s skin is burning, her eyes are burning, she hates him in this moment but even more she hates that he might be right. What would Carol want with her? Why would Carol, rich, elegant, sophisticated Carol, show interest in a fucking bartender? What if it’s all just some game? What if Carol is just using her for something? And if so… then what is the ‘something’? What does Carol really want with her?

“Carol isn’t like that,” Therese retorts, voice weak.

He puts his hands on his hips, looking at her condescendingly.

“She’s not!”

“I don’t care,” he snaps. “I don’t care about it. I care about you and me! What is going on with you? I asked you a month ago to come to Paris with me for Spring Break, and you still haven’t answered me. We’ve barely seen each other for weeks. We never have sex. And then you meet some—whoever she is—and you start acting like some schoolgirl with a crush!”

“Shut up, Richard.”

You’re the one who’s—”

“You know what, I’ve gotta go.” 

Richard balks. “What!? You just got here!”

She walks out of the kitchen, aware of him following her, watching her. She grabs her coat and shrugs it on.

“Oh come on!” Richard cries. “Don’t be like this. Look, I’m sorry—”

She ignores him. She grabs her bag and heads for his door. She’s just reaching for the doorknob when she feels a frisson of unease, sensing something about to happen—and then he’s behind her, grabbing her elbow—

What goes through Therese in that moment is a shrieking, irrational panic. Her vision turns white. She flails away from him, nearly screaming, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”

“Whoa!” Richard cries, stepping back with hands held up. “Whoa, Terry, I’m sorry! Jesus, what the fuck?”

But Therese is breathing so hard she’s afraid she’s going to hyperventilate. She knows what happens next. Sees it happen to her mom. Grabbed from behind. Thrown again the wall. A hard slap. A punch. A kick. Tried to avoid it—never wanted it to happen to her—but couldn’t stop it stop them stop—

Breathe, Therese tells herself. Breathe. You’re okay. Richard isn’t them. You don’t need him to pay your bills. You don’t need him at all. You’re okay. He’s never hurt you.

Thank God, Richard has stepped back a few feet, hands still held up and eyes wide. If she could so much as smell him right now, the strong masculine smell of him, she thinks she might lose it completely. As it is, some of her momentary terror begins to clear with his distance.  

Swallowing hard, she fumbles for the door. “I have to go, Richard.”

This time he doesn’t try to stop her. He just watches, amazed, as Therese slips out.  

On the street, fingers trembling, she reaches for her phone. She wants to call Carol. It’s an instant, almost overwhelming urge. She wants to call Carol, to hear Carol’s voice—that musical, beautiful voice that feels like silk in her ears. But then she remembers why she can’t call Carol, and that’s when tears start leaking from her eyes. She walks swiftly toward the subway, and calls Dannie.

He answers on the second ring. “Yo, Belivet! What’s up? I guess the Christmas hangover didn’t kill you? Speak for yourself!”

Therese swallows hard, wipes her tears away, squeaks, “Can you… can you meet me somewhere?”

There’s a beat of silence. Dannie’s playfulness evaporates, replaced by a calm, “Yes. Where?”

Forty minutes later, they’re in a booth at The Drake, the bar where Therese used to work. Therese is cradling a pint of beer and Dannie is drinking from his. He’s sitting next to her in the booth. He knows better than to touch her at moments like this, but he also knows that sometimes what she needs is a bulwark between her and the outer world. Tucked in the corner of the booth, it’s comforting to know that his body blocks her from view.

Dannie mutters, “I should go over there and punch him.”

Therese sighs. Takes a drink. “Come on, that’s not fair.”

“Not fair? You’ve told him before you don’t like anyone coming up behind you. And no guy should need to be told not to grab his girlfriend.”

“You and I both know that just cause we grew up like that doesn’t mean we get to assume everyone around us is an abuser. And Richard is like, the least likely guy I can imagine to actually hurt me. He was upset. He didn’t grab me hard. He was just trying to keep me from—”

“I don’t fucking care,” Dannie mutters.

They go silent, but after a few tense moments, it relaxes. Their silence is calm, familiar. Safe. It’s been that way with Dannie from the beginning, from that first Freshman Composition class where they met. She can’t explain what it was, but she recognized him. Or, maybe, recognized where he came from, what he’d been through. And he recognized her right back. The foster thing. They’ve told each other things they never told anyone else.

Therese knows about Dannie’s dad, who started beating him when he was just four. It took the system ten years to figure out what was going on and take him from that house. But Dannie’s foster parents weren’t much better. Religious. They had the same objection to Dannie that his father had, and by sixteen he was on the streets, avoiding CPS and making his own way. His first year at CUNY Brooklyn, he was homeless. Therese helped him get on his feet.

She’s always thought she was lucky, compared to Dannie. None of her mom’s boyfriends ever hurt her. Yeah, she had to watch what they did to her mom, and yeah, her mom always put the boyfriends first—but Therese knows the system well enough to understand how much worse things could have been for her. As for the revolving door of foster homes and residential care centers, the worst she ever experienced was a foster dad with roaming eyes and a group of girls in residential who followed her down an alley and beat her up. Needless to say, no single placement ever worked out.

Dannie finishes off his first pint, and looks at her. He’s wearing eyeliner tonight, and he dyed his hair a purplish pink on Christmas day. His nails are painted bright blue. He’s always been so beautiful.

“How you feelin’?” he asks.

Therese nods. “Better. It wasn’t nearly as bad as other times it’s happened. I came out of it pretty quick. It just… took me by surprise.”

He smiles. “These things always do.”

“I think I scared the shit out of Richard.”

“Good.”

She rolls her eyes. “Please don’t hold this against him, Dannie.”

“No promises.”

She smiles. Dannie signals the bartender for a second round.

“So, what else?” he asks. “Come on, let’s shake it off. What have you been up to since Christmas?”

Therese’s eyes widen. She hides in her glass of beer, drinking down the last half in one slow gulp as she tries to think how to answer him. But when she puts down the pint, he’s looking at her with a quirked eyebrow, lips beginning to curve with one of his cheeky little grins.

“Uh-oh,” he says.

“What?”

“Um, I’m sorry, did you just pound that beer?”

“No.”

“Excuse me, but I asked what else was going on and you immediately went frat boy on me. Also, you’re blushing. Don’t bullshit me, Belivet, something is up.” Therese sighs. He grins brighter, asking in delight, “Do you have a secret?”

“Oh, fuck off, Dannie,” she says without bite.

He starts laughing. “You do! Therese Belivet has a secret. This is fucking awesome. You never keep secrets from me. What happened?”

Thankfully, the bartender shows up with their beers. But though Therese hopes this will distract Dannie for a minute, she’s wrong. He doesn’t even pick up his glass, just looking at her with a cocked eyebrow. Therese isn’t really sure why she hasn’t told Dannie about Carol. Maybe because, if she tells him, it’ll make the whole thing… real.

“It’s just,” she palms the pint of beer between both hands, gazing down into the foam. “I just sort of… I met someone.”

Dannie presses his hands down into the table like he’s gonna vault into a handstand.

“Excuse you, what!?”

Therese blushes scarlet. “I… I—look you’ve got to promise not to freak out.”

“I reject that condition.”

“It’s just—I don’t really know what it is or… what it means. And it’s not—like, nothing has happened. We’ve just hung out a couple of times and anyway, I think I blew it today. Like, seriously blew it, Dannie, and I—”

For some reason, saying it out loud like this brings the full force of the day down on her like an anvil. Suddenly, her eyes are burning with tears. Dannie, always hyper-attuned to the subtlest changes in the air, immediately calms down. He puts a gentle hand under the table, on her knee, and squeezes.

“Look, it’s okay, Therese. You can tell me anything. I promise I won’t freak out.”

Therese swallows, trying to marshal her tears. Then, still gazing into her glass, she whispers, “I met a woman.”

Beside her, Dannie is quiet. She dares to look at him, and though he is affecting calm quite impressively, she can see the excited glitter in his eyes.

“Okay…” he says, clearly trying to stay calm.

“It was at the holiday market,” Therese explains. “She needed help finding a gift for her daughter and… well, I ran into her later at The McKinley. And, well, it’s a long story, but she came back to the market the next day and we… had lunch.”

Beside her, Dannie’s knees have started bouncing with excitement. He sees her droll look and forces himself to stop, putting on a solemn face and nodding wisely.

“Very well. Continue.”

“Her name is Carol.”

“Jesus, is she sixty?”

“She’s thirty five.”

“All right, cool, cool cool cool cool cool.”

“Dannie.”

“I am being perfectly calm!” he exclaims. “My best friend has just informed me that she’s hot for a cougar and I have not screamed or jumped up and down or anything!”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“So what else. Come on, tell me everything!”

Despite the pain she has felt since leaving Carol, there’s something about Dannie’s vibrating excitement that wakes a tiny flame of excitement in her, too. She has felt so confused these past few days, so anxious, so frustrated with herself and with these new, unfamiliar feelings. But Dannie is not scandalized, nor judgmental, nor even skeptical—only deeply curious and delighted. So, with a flutter of nerves but also pleasure, Therese begins to tell him. And soon, she is telling him everything. Everything from seeing Carol across the market to standing with her outside her house as the Uber drove up. Like her, he grows more serious as she describes her final minutes with Carol. But though Therese is convinced she has behaved badly, there's no judgement rolling of him. Only thoughtfulness.

He says, “You know she wouldn’t have acted like that if she didn’t like you.”

Therese shakes her head. “No, I think she was… put off. You know, this young kid in her house having a fight with her boyfriend. She must have realized that I’m—too immature for her, or something.”

Dannie snorts. “Sweetheart, you are the farthest thing in the world from immature. But you are a babe in the woods, so let me be your voice of experience: she was upset because you thought telling Richard that you were with a woman would automatically prove that you couldn’t be having an affair.”

Therese blinks. Dannie, perfectly at ease in his assessment, takes a drink of beer. Therese stares at him.

“What?” she says.

“It was a classic straight girl move, Therese. No, don’t be like that. I’m not dissing straight girls and I’m not, like, labeling you or anything. I’m just saying this woman is clearly queer and you did something that made her think you are clearly straight. And she’s upset about it, because she likes you.”

Therese swallows hard, gazes into her pint as if it holds the secrets of the universe. Then, in a soft, tremulous voice, she asks, “Why would she like me?”

“Don’t even.”

“Dannie, you should see her. She’s—she’s like some fucking movie star from the 1930s!”

“Cool story, Audrey Hepburn.”

“Ugh!”

“Therese, dollface, you are simultaneously gorgeous and adorable. You’re smart as fuck and you take pictures on your off time. This combination would drive any women to distraction. Like, you are total lesbian catnip. Own it.”

“I—I don’t—”

“Own it, bitch.”

Therese is silent for several moments, ruminating. Then, in a timid voice, “You really think she likes me?”

He rolls his eyes. “Nah, I think she bought you lunch to ‘thank you.’” He puts it in air quotes, and laughs. “Seriously, props to her. The woman has moves. You gotta respect it.”

To Therese’s embarrassment, she finds tears coming to her eyes again. Is Dannie right? Does Carol like her? Because if so—

“It doesn’t matter,” Therese squeaks. “I ruined it. You said so yourself.”

“I fucking did not.”

“I made her think I’m just some clueless straight girl who’s not interested in her!”

“No epic romance is complete without miscommunication, separation, and pining. Now’s the point in the plot where you prove to her she’s wrong about you. It’s your ‘get the girl’ moment. Meet her at the airport. Catch her at the altar. Show up at the restaurant.”

Therese looks at him blankly. He rolls his eyes again. “Call her!”

Therese blanches. “I can’t.” Dannie gives her one of his flat, unimpressed looks, but she tells him again, “I can’t, I—I’m too embarrassed. I’m too… I’d be so nervous I’d just end up word vomiting on her. I want to see her again, not scare her away.”

He considers this magnanimously, and then nods. “All right. No phone call. You’re texting her.”

Before she can stop him, he’s snatched her phone right off the table. She makes a grab at it, but he angles away. Not for the first time Therese regrets giving him her screen lock code, because a second later he’s in her contacts and bringing up Carol.

“Dannie, don’t!”

“I’m not gonna send it, all right? I’m not that extra. I’m just gonna write it for you, and if you don’t like it you can change it or toss it or whatever. Okay?” 

Therese’s hands are sweating, but after a moment she nods. He starts texting, narrating as he goes, “‘Hi, Carol. Thanks for inviting me over today. I loved your workshop and I’m sorry I had to leave early. Maybe next time you can come to my place. If I don’t see you, Happy New Year!’”

He hands her the phone. She reads the message slowly, and then gives her a skeptical look. “This is surprisingly… not embarrassing.”

He sniffs, takes a drink, says, “I can be subtle, bitch.”

“Do you really think I should send it?”

“If you want to see her again, yeah. You gotta make the first move, babe.”

Therese swallows nervously, staring at the message, thumb hovering over the Send. She could delete the message, and in a way it would be like deleting Carol—putting an end to whatever this is. Squashing out not just the possibility, but all the confusion and fluttering unease of the past few days. That would certainly be easier. Not to mention more ethical, given Richard… But the thought that she might never see Carol again—never look into those mist-gray eyes, never see that curving smile, never hear that voice with its warmth and richness and humor—

Therese breathes in, breathes out, and hits Send. 

Chapter Text

Carol is morosely studying a takeout container of Pad Thai when her phone rings. It’s Abby.

“Put your Spanx on, baby, because we are going out!”

Carol snorts. “I don’t wear Spanx, Abby, and neither do you. As I recall your stomach is flat as a board.”

“And don’t you fucking forget it. But I’m serious, Carol. It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m single. You’re single. Rindy is with Harge and we are going to go out and get drunk and make fools of ourselves. Like grownups.”

“I’ve never liked New Years,” Carol mutters, stabbing at the noodles in the container.

“That’s because you were married to Harge for ten years. Now, you’re free. And to celebrate that freedom it is very important that you start the New Year as you mean to go on—by looking hot and having fun and hanging out with me. So let’s go. I’ll be at the bar in an hour.”

“How do you expect me to get into the city on New Year’s Eve? I’ll never find parking.”

“So get a Lyft.”

“Can you imagine the price gouging?”

“I don’t care, Carol, you’re coming. You can sleep at my place tonight if you’re that worried about it. In fact if I have my way you’ll get the place to yourself because I haven’t had sex in three weeks and it’s time.”

Three weeks, Carol nearly scoffs. Try going eight months.

She puts down the Pad Thai and says wearily, “All right. Which bar?”

“Well, I was thinking Cubbyhole, given my priorities, but then I remembered that I’ve had plenty of luck at The McKinley lately, so…”

“Abby, no.”

“Carol—”

“I can’t go there, Abby, all right? I refuse.”

“She texted you.”

“And I haven’t responded.”

“Because you’re a bitter old hag who wants to die alone. Get over yourself. We’re going to The McKinley and if Therese is there you’re going to make up. Or make out. Whichever comes first. Plus, I need to suss her out. See if she’s worth all of this angst you’ve been nursing.”

“Abby,” Carol growls.

“See you in an hour!”

And with that singsong declaration, Abby hangs up.

Carol sits for a minute at the breakfast bar, staring balefully at her phone. Almost without meaning to, she opens her messenger app and finds the thread with Therese. She rereads the message four, five times. She’s got it memorized. At first she didn’t answer because she was angry and hurt. And then she didn’t answer because she didn’t know what to say. And then she didn’t answer because it had been two days and it felt like her chance was past. Now, it’s Thursday. Four days since she saw Therese. Four days since Therese left to go unruffle her boyfriend’s feathers. Four days since Carol chose not to answer her text.

Not that she hasn’t wanted to. God, she’s probably typed and deleted ten different messages, all ranging from dignified to thirsty versions of, when can I see you again? But she hasn’t been able to send them.

Maybe Abby is right, and she’s a bitter hag—but she doesn’t think that’s it. No, in ways it would be easier to think that she is just punishing Therese, shutting her out, cutting her off. Yes, this would be easier, because in this version she doesn’t have to admit to herself what she really feels: fear. Fear of being hurt. Hurt again. And not by the recriminations and arrogance and dismissal of her husband, this time, but by someone who she already suspects may have far more impact on her than he ever did. Someone whose green eyes and soft smile have haunted her these past few days. Someone who she desperately wants to trust—but who has the power to wound not only her pride… but her heart.  

Trying to shove these thoughts aside, Carol drags herself out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and into her bedroom. She turns on the closet light and assesses her options, as haughty and unimpressed as a governess in a Victorian novel. In irritation she reminds herself, it’s not as if she’ll even get to talk to Therese, if she's there. She’ll be working. Busy. This whole thing is so…

A text comes through. From Abby.

/ You’re coming. /

Defeated, Carol starts pawing through her clothes.

<><><>

A $200 Lyft ride later, and Carol stands on the street in front of The McKinley. She can already see that it’s packed. The streets are busy, too. It’s 10 o’clock and the revelries are in full swing. Why the fuck did she agree to do this?

Inside, she avoids looking toward the bar itself, and instead scans the crowds. Remarkably, she sees Abby at once. Somehow her friend has managed to commandeer a standing table, and there are three other women with her, none of whom Carol recognizes. Steeling herself, Carol joins them, and Abby shouts with joy at the sight of her, grabbing her into a hug and then introducing her to her new friends. Carol doesn’t catch any of their names, but she does gather that they work in the New York offices of the Human Rights Campaign, which Carol supposes is kind of sexy. Two are lawyers. One is an accountant.

An accountant.

Carol’s eyes flick toward the bar. It’s no use. The crowd is so thick, she can’t see any of the bartenders.

“And what do you do, Carol?” one of the lawyers asks.

Carol hesitates, and Abby swoops in. “She’s a furniture restorer.”

All their eyes widen in surprise. “Really?” the accountant asks.

“Uh… yes.”

“That’s so cool!” says one of the lawyers, a redhead.

“It is so cool,” Abby agrees, her lips quirked in a devious smile. “Carol is very cool. And very talented. And you should see what all that furniture restoring has done for her biceps.”

Carol gives her a murderous look. The three women laugh, and then Abby is leading them all in conversation, so Carol has no choice but to stop glowering. The women are interesting, certainly—their work is interesting. They’re funny and good-looking. Within ten minutes the conversation has spanned politics, a recent show at the MOMA, and an off-Broadway production of The Children’s Hour. Carol realizes in a flood of regret that she has been a complete hermit this past year. No wonder Abby keeps harassing her to get out. The blonde lawyer, who Carol has finally figured out is named Jess, tells her about a new Brazilian restaurant in Queens that is apparently to die for, that she has to try, and Carol finds herself thinking, Yes, I should go to that restaurant. I should go to museums and plays. I should start living my life, now that Harge is gone.

And as for Jess… it’s quickly apparent from her coquettish glances that she wouldn’t mind checking out that Brazilian restaurant again… together. In the face of her unambiguous appreciation, Carol takes a risk—holds her stare. Jess stares back and possibility sparks between them. She’s a beautiful woman, curvy and long-legged and wearing a very flattering little black dress that shows off muscular calves. The other two women have a different vibe—not a ‘couple’ vibe, but a friends-with-benefits vibe, and they’ve clearly got their eye on Abby. But Jess is up for grabs. And Carol hasn’t had sex in—

“Excuse me.”

Carol looks in surprise to find that one of their regular servers, Jack, is standing next to them. He smiles brightly, and sets a drink down on the table in front of her. Carol’s eyes widen. It’s a martini.

“I didn’t order this,” she says.

“It’s on the house,” Jack replies. “Compliments of our bartender, Therese.”

Carol’s eyes widen. Abby hoots with glee.

“Therese?” asks the redheaded lawyer. “Is that the hottie with the green eyes?”

Jack looks suddenly flustered, but the accountant spares him by exclaiming, “I hit on her an hour ago and got nothing!”

“I didn’t think she looked old enough to be a bartender,” says Jess.

“Looks like she’s old enough to have game,” Abby replies. “Oh, Jack?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Does Therese get a break?”

“Abby—” Carol tries.

“She must, right?”

“Yes, she gets a break. I’m not sure exactly when—” 

“Tell her to come join us, for her break,” says Abby.

“I’ll—yes.” Jack looks slightly perplexed by whatever is going on. “I’ll tell her.”

He turns to go, but something flares in Carol. Suddenly, she lifts her drink, and says, “Jack?”

He faces her again.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

Carol swallows, holding out the martini. He looks even more confused, and across the table she can feel Abby glaring daggers at her.

“Will you take this back, please? And will you… tell Therese that…” She swallows, fights her instincts, marshals her courage. “Tell her that I’d prefer an old-fashioned?”

Still confused, Jack accepts the drink. “Of course, Ma’am,” he says. “One old-fashioned, coming up.”

And he’s gone. Carol faces her party again, and finds all four women looking at her. Jess seems suspicious. The redhead and the accountant, intrigued. Abby cocks an eyebrow at her, and it’s all far too much attention to have on her when she is currently trying to fight off a wave of panic. What is she doing? What is Therese doing? What are they doing?

“Sorry, everyone,” she says, in her most performatively at ease voice. “What were we talking about?”

“Do you know her from somewhere? The bartender?” asks the redhead.

Carol clears her throat. “Yes. She’s a friend of mine.”

“She’s cute as fuck,” says the accountant, grinning. “Are you two dating, or—?”

“No,” says Carol quickly. “No, she’s just a friend.”

Abby scoffs, rolls her eyes. The redhead says, “Seems like she wants to be more than friends.”

Before Carol can deflect, Jess remarks in a cool voice, “Personally, I try not to fuck around with bartenders.”

Startled, Carol looks at her in a surge of anger. “What the fuck is wrong with being a bartender?” she snaps.

An awkward silence hits the table, Jess clearly taken aback, eyebrows hiking skyward. For a moment no one says anything, and then Jess clears her throat.

“Well,” she says, looking expectantly at her friends. “I’m hiding a joint in this dress, and it’s not doing anyone any good in there. Let’s hit the alley, yeah?” She turns her haughty stare back on Carol for a moment, then looks at Abby. “You’re welcome to come.”

Abby looks like she’s caught between annoyance and hilarity. She clears her throat and answers, “You ladies go on.”

With that, the HRC trio slips away. Carol wishes now that she had hung on to that martini, because she’s dying for a drink. She braces her elbows on the table, leaning forward and snatching Abby’s whiskey for a swallow.

Abby says, “You know you probably just cost me a threesome.”

“Go after them,” Carol retorts. “Maybe you can level up to an orgy.” 

Their eyes meet, and Abby gives a pensive frown. “That seems like way too much work,” she says at last.

Carol can’t help snorting with laughter. She offers Abby a chastened grin, “I’m sorry. I was rude.”

She was rude!” Abby defers. “You can’t talk about bartenders like that. It’s bad karma.”

“I know you wanted to have a good time tonight.” 

Abby gives her a fond look, reaching over to squeeze her hand—and snatch back her drink. “I’m with you, aren’t I?” she asks. “New Year’s resolution achieved.”

“There’ve got to be other women in this bar who would succumb to your charms,” Carol says. “I’ll wingman you.”

“You’re a terrible wingman,” Abby grouses. “You steal all my thunder. That face of yours is a liability.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“You are the definition of statuesque.”

“Ugh, shut up.”

And then, suddenly, someone has placed a tumbler in front of her. Within, the amber liquid is garnished with orange peel and a cocktail cherry and Carol goes still as a statue. What feels like eons later, she finds the courage to look up at the person standing beside her.

“Hello,” says Therese Belivet.

Carol swallows the sudden dryness in her throat. “Hello.”

Therese’s eyes, those vibrant green eyes, hold her in thrall, calm and serious and assessing as the first time they met. She’s wearing the shirt and tie again, her hair tied back, her lips dark. For the first time ever, Carol notices a little scar above her eye, not an inch long, half obscured by her dark eyebrow. Where did it come from? Carol wonders. Where did you come from?

 “So,” Abby’s voice breaks through their staring. “You’re Therese.”

Slowly, as if unsticking herself from quicksand, Therese pulls her eyes away from Carol and looks at Abby. Her smile is a little nervous, but determined. “Yes, hello. You must be Abby.”

Abby’s brows lift, impressed. “I am indeed. Nice of you to drop by. And to bring presents.”

Therese smiles, polite but shy. Carol watches her in fascinated silence, until those green eyes are on her again. Therese glances down at the drink. She asks, “Are you going to tell me if that’s any good?”

“I never knew you to drink an old-fashioned,” says Abby.

Carol clears her throat, tries to snap herself out of this bizarre fog that has descended on her. She tells Abby, “It’s been awhile. Let’s see.”

She picks up the drink, taking a sip. The flavors are instantly familiar, yet somehow completely new, and completely delicious. She drinks again. Perhaps she never had a good old-fashioned before. This drink is smooth and rich, sweet and silky, with herbal and bitter undertones that slide across Carol’s tongue, down her throat, warming her belly. Or perhaps that warmth is just Therese, watching her drink.

Finally, with a coolness she doesn’t feel, Carol says, “That’s a very good old-fashioned.”

Therese glows with pleasure.

Abby asks, “Can I try?”

Carol sips the drink again, tells her drolly, “Get your own.”

At that, Therese frowns. “Oh, I’m sorry. I should have brought you one as well.”

“What you should have done is brought one for yourself,” Abby replies, finishing off the rest of her whiskey. “I thought you were going to take your break with us?”

Therese glances between Abby and Carol. Carol watches her over the rim of the drink, curious. Therese says, “I know, Jack told me. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to take my breaks on the floor. It’s a bar policy.”

Looking put out, Abby says, “Well, that sucks. Here I was hoping to learn all about you. And I know Carol was hoping to hang out with you tonight.” 

Carol throws her a scathing glance. Therese’s cheeks pink, and it is so fucking adorable that Carol thinks she may be about to lose her mind. Then Therese is looking at her again, and there’s no avoiding the nervousness in her eyes.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay. I do have a break, in about an hour. I didn’t know if you would still be here—”

“She will be,” Abby interjects.

This time Carol kicks her under the table. Abby’s momentary distraction gives the chance to look at Therese again, to hold her stare, to think of all the reasons why she should demur—

“Text me,” she says instead, her voice calm and forcedly indifferent. “I’ll come meet you.”

Therese’s eyes shine; her face softens, the embarrassment and uncertainty melting into hope.

“All right,” she says, so quiet that Carol can barely hear her over the din of the bar.

“It was nice to meet you, Therese,” chimes Abby.

Therese smiles shyly. “You, too.” Then, with a glance at her empty glass. “I’ll have Jack bring you another whiskey. On the house.”

Then, with one last look at Carol, heavy and heavenly, she slips away. Carol watches her go, watches her disappear into the crowd, and wishes she could follow. 

Chapter Text

Therese can’t remember the last time she was this nervous. Even when she took the train out to Carol’s house, she wasn’t this nervous. Even when she sat across from her at Scotty’s and learned her name for the first time, she wasn’t this nervous. But now, clutching the Styrofoam container for her shift meal in one hand, and her phone in the other, she almost doesn’t breathe as she waits for Carol’s response to her text:

/ Break just started. Meet me behind the bar? /

She agonized over sending this for the last half hour. Did it sound shady? Weird? Would Carol come? Carol had been so… aloof at the table, those gray eyes assessing Therese but offering no  warmth. Abby’s interjections hinted at something different, but Carol was a closed book. And since Carol never responded to her last text, perhaps she won’t respond to this one either. Maybe she’s already left the bar. Therese has had to wait ages for her break, after all, and now it’s already 11:40…

Steeling herself, Therese goes out the back door onto the makeshift patio space behind the bar. There’s a table and a heating lamp that the owner set up so staff could take smoke breaks without freezing their asses off. A true kindness. And Jack left a pack of cigarettes out and told her to help herself. Generally Therese only smokes with other people, but anxious as she is right now, she might just chain smoke the whole pack.

She’s just set her things down on the table when someone clears their throat. She whirls around, feeling the sharp panic she always does when she realizes someone is behind her—

But it’s Carol. Carol is here.

For a moment all she can do is stare at her. In the bar, she barely had time to take Carol in, overwhelmed by the press of bodies around them. Now, in this quiet and solitude, she’s acutely conscious of the woman’s appearance. Carol wears her camel coat, but the buttons are open, revealing a russet-colored cowl dress that falls just above her knees. The neckline is… distracting. It exposes the top of her chest and her throat, accentuated by a double layer gold necklace. Her neck is long, and fair, and beautiful, and Therese is momentarily—

“What?” Carol asks. She looks just slightly cautious, almost defensive.

“Nothing,” Therese says quickly. “I’m glad you were still here! Do you want to come sit down? I’ve got half an hour.”

Carol doesn’t answer at first, but she does walk over to the table and, a moment after Therese, sit. She looks around at the makeshift space, remarking, “I didn’t even know this was back here.”

“It’s for staff,” Therese explains.

Carol gives her a thoughtful onceover. “But it’s all right that I’m here?”

Therese smiles slowly, unable to conceal her pleasure—frankly, her relief—at being with Carol again. “Yes,” she says. “It’s all right that you’re here.” They look at each other for a long moment, Carol’s pale eyes deep. Suddenly intimidated, Therese focuses on opening up the Styrofoam container. “Are you hungry?”

Inside, there’s a club sandwich, cut into four pieces, and a heaping of fries on the side.

“I can’t eat your dinner,” Carol scoffs.

“Oh, no!” Therese insists. “I usually just ask for a half. I thought you might like some. Here.”

She pushes the container toward Carol, so that it is exactly between them. After a moment, Carol finally grabs one of the squares of sandwich, but not before glancing at the pack of cigarettes on the table. She drawls, “To be honest I’m more tempted by those.”

Therese grins. “Are you trying to quit?”

“‘Trying’ being the operative word. I’ve cut back, at least.”

“Well, it is New Year’s. At the risk of being a bad influence, I don’t mind having one with you, after we eat.”

Then, for the first time, Carol smiles. It’s small, rueful, but so lovely, and all of her is so lovely, and Therese doesn’t know how it’s possible to miss someone so much who she’s only just met, but she has. Missed her.

Carol takes a bite of the sandwich, and suddenly her coolness disappears with a widening of the eyes, with a low groan that sends heat swirling through Therese’s belly—

“Jesus,” Carol says. “This tastes amazing.”

Therese swallows against the dryness in her throat. She takes a quick bite of her own sandwich and grins. She chews and swallows and says, “Our chef calls it his Thanksgiving Dinner Club. He uses oven-roasted turkey instead of the deli kind. And he makes this cranberry-based mayonnaise. And the sandwich bread is homemade brioche. It’s good, isn’t it? I’ve asked for it like four times since I started working here.”

Why the fuck are you talking so much about a sandwich?

But Carol doesn’t seem put off. Instead, she groans around another mouthful. “It’s divine.”

This, talking with her mouth full, is the least elegant thing that Carol has ever done. Therese is instantly charmed. She thinks with a flare of hope, Maybe it will all be all right? Maybe we can pick up where we left off? Maybe everything that went wrong can be forgotten?

They eat in silence for a few more bites; Carol eats like she’s starving, and Therese remembers their first date, when Carol surmised that she hadn’t eaten yet that day. Therese likes to think that asking for a full sandwich instead of a half was born of her own intuition. She is so irrationally delighted to be offering food that Carol likes, and wonders if that’s foolish. But, in the end, she doesn’t care. Instead, she eats, picking at the fries and happy when Carol does, too. It gives her the courage to buck up and ask—

“How has your week been?”

Carol, halfway through the last bite of her sandwich quarter, looks at her quickly. Her eyes flit away a moment later. She says, “Oh… busy, actually.”

Therese nods, hoping she’ll say more, but instead they both reach for another quarter of sandwich. A few more bites. Therese ventures, “Did you finish the dining chairs?”

To her immense relief, Carol smiles again, and it’s not cool, or aloof, but pleased. “Yes,” she says, and her eyes are shining. “I’m actually really happy with how they turned out. I’m not much of a seamstress but the cushions look brand new. I’ve already sent photos to the owner and she’s ecstatic.”

“Can you show me?” asks Therese. Carol pauses, and she adds, “The pictures, I mean.”

Carol places down her sandwich without answering—but then pulls out her phone, opening it up. She starts to pass the phone across the table to Therese, but at the last moment she stops. With a soft, self-deprecating chuckle, she scoots her chair around so that they are side by side. Therese has to fight very hard not to vibrate with happiness. Carol shows her the photographs. The chairs do indeed look brand new, all the wear and damage that she pointed out to Therese in her workshop is beautifully repaired. The seat back of the first chair, which used to have a fracture in the lattice, looks like nothing ever happened to it. She’s talented, and Therese is proud of her.

“They look beautiful!” she says.

Carol demurs, putting her phone away. But there’s a touch of pink in her cheeks. “I imagine you would have taken much nicer pictures. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that, by the way. I still expect to see your photography some time.”

Therese could lift right out of her chair. Carol still wants to see her photographs. Carol still wants to see her. This—whatever it is—isn’t over.

“Are the owners coming to pick them up?” Therese asks.

“No, actually, I did a number of pieces for them. An end table and a dresser. I’m driving it all out to them tomorrow afternoon. They live outside Buffalo.”

Therese frowns. “That’s a long drive.”

“Yes, but I don’t mind. Rindy is with Harge through the end of the weekend, and that house feels so empty without her. It’s just as well I travel for a couple of days. I might stay away three nights, to be honest—take the scenic route. See the country. Western New York is a bit barren in winter but even so.”

Therese says nothing. Three nights away is nothing—it’s less time than has passed since she went to Carol’s house. And yet for some reason, the prospect of her going away, being out of town, is… distressing.

She says, “That sounds lovely,” and reaches for her sandwich again.

She keeps her eyes on the table, eating with concentration, and yet she is soon aware that Carol is watching her. Looking for further distraction, she reaches into her bag, pulling out a bottle of water. She uncaps it and drinks thirstily, but with her head tipped back there’s no way to pretend she doesn’t see Carol’s eyes on her. And Carol’s eyes are on her—they’re on her face, and then her hand holding the bottle, and then her neck, swallowing…

Therese asks, “Are you thirsty?”

Carol blinks. She starts to say no, but Therese holds out the bottle. “Here.”

With a little huff that Therese can’t interpret, Carol takes the bottle, and drinks. When she hands it back to Therese, their fingers touch—just as they did when Therese handed her her gloves at the holiday market. And, just as then, Therese feels a tingling at the point of contact.

Their eyes meet. Before she can stop herself, Therese says, “I’m sorry about… the way I left, on Sunday. I’m sorry if it was awkward.”

But Carol, breaking eye contact, makes a sharp, dismissive gesture. “It’s nothing, Dearest.”

The aloofness is back. The indifference is back. Feeling stung, Therese is very tempted to say, ‘But I didn’t have to leave, did I? I could have stayed hours longer. You made me leave.’

Eyes still averted, Carol says in a brisk tone, “I hope you sorted things out with Richard?”

Richard, thinks Therese miserably. “Oh, I… yes.”

“That’s good,” Carol nods. “When you’re young, you know, these little spats are rather common. Nothing to worry about.”

Therese finds this incredibly condescending, and retorts, “Are you saying that thirty-five-year-olds don’t get into spats with their boyfriends? Or husbands?” Carol falters, and Therese realizes too late how unkind this was—this gesture at a divorce that she knows nothing about. And yet she feels that Carol has been unkind, too, and so she asks in a fit of daring, “Is that why you never responded to my text? Because of Richard?” 

Carol sighs. “I’m sorry about that. I got so busy and then I… well, and I figured you must be busy, too. Did school start up for you this week?”

Therese grinds her jaw at the deflection, especially since she has already told Carol— “No. Next week.”

“Will it be a busy term?”

With a sigh, Therese looks down at the table. What right has she got to feel this way? Carol doesn’t owe her anything. They hardly know each other. And yet…

“Yes,” she says flatly. “It always is.”

There’s a momentary silence, and when she looks up she’s surprised to find Carol watching her again—not in that cold or distant way, but with a sudden warmth and—God, is that tenderness? In her eyes? Is that the word for the gentle way Carol looks at her? All Therese knows is that the sight of it has her heart hammering.

Carol’s voice is just as gentle. “You must be so exhausted,” she says.

Something about the words, about the tone, about the way Carol is looking at her, makes Therese suddenly terrified that she is going to cry. She had no idea until now how badly she needs this—this kindness, from Carol. This interest. This regard. She feels starved for it, and pathetic in her starvation, and maybe that’s why she is the one who deflects this time, chuckling shortly and waving a hand—

“Oh, it’s fine. I—it’s because I work full time, you know, and—that’s my choice. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got it down to a science. The—the balancing of it all. I’m fine.”

But you’re not fine are you? Therese thinks, aware that Carol has not stopped looking at her. You are exhausted. And you’re lonely. And you don’t understand Richard and he doesn’t understand you, and the only time in the past two weeks when you have felt truly happy… has been when you’re with Carol.

Carol, who says now, “So I guess that means you don’t get time to party on New Year’s Eve?”

It’s said wryly. Her humor punctures the tension, and Therese looks up again at her, grinning. “No,” she laughs. “No, I’m not much for partying, anyway. Unlike you. You clearly came to party.”

Carol throws back her head, her laughter rich and intoxicating and her eyes bright as stars when she looks at Therese. “Jesus, no. Abby made me come out.”

“Oh, she made you, did she?” Therese teases. “And I suppose I made you drink that old-fashioned, didn’t I?”

Carol eyes are still twinkling. Her smile becomes smaller, almost sly. Almost provocative. She says in a low drawl, “I suppose I did have my own reasons… for coming tonight.”

She means you! Therese thinks, her heart galloping, her stomach in knots. Right? She must mean you!

Therese says quietly, “I’m glad.”

And then they are just looking at each other. Looking at each other for so long that Therese thinks she may shake out of her skin.

Until suddenly, Carol seems to flinch. She looks away. She asks, “Where is Richard tonight?”

God damn it.

“Oh,” Therese flounders. “I think he’s at some other party. To be honest I haven’t talked to him much the past couple of days. We’ve both been really busy.”

And I’ve been avoiding him.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says Carol.

There’s something wooden in her voice. She suddenly reaches for the pack of cigarettes. She draws one out and Therese watches her light it, and thinks that no one in the world has ever looked so good lighting a cigarette, or taking that first, slow drag.

“Give me one,” Therese says.

Carol hesitates, then concedes, holding out the pack. She says dryly, “I feel like I’m corrupting you.”

Therese draws one out, but before she can pick up the lighter, Carol has it in hand—is leaning forward, is lighting the tip. For a moment, their heads are bent together, and Therese catches the warm, spicy smell of her. They sit back.

“Corrupting me?” Therese asks.

“Young people shouldn’t smoke,” says Carol archly. “The younger you start the harder it is to quit.”

Therese says, “You seem very preoccupied by how old I am.”

Carol takes a drag. She makes a slightly exasperated, slightly amused little huffing sound. “Do I? Well, I’ll be honest, I don’t have many friends your age.” She pauses, considers, and adds, “I don’t have many friends at all, actually. Not real ones. There’s Abby, of course, and a couple of women from Harge’s circles that I don’t mind. But generally speaking I… I guess I’m not a very social animal.”

Carol is once again avoiding looking at her, and there’s something borderline anxious in her face—and in the way she smokes.

Therese replies, “I’m not either, actually.”

A quick look from Carol. A long silence between them. And then, a confession: “Harge and I never spent New Years together. He always had business functions, parties—people to entertain. Sometimes I was there, with him, but… we weren’t really together. Most times, I found a way to stay home—especially after Rindy was born. I preferred that. When you’re with someone you don’t love, parties and holidays carry a special… well, loneliness, I guess.”

Therese thinks of Christmas at Richard’s, of how eager she was to get away. And this unexpected piece of news—that Carol did not love Harge, maybe never loved him? It fills her with sadness and curiosity, and, guiltily, hope.

She says, “I always spend New Year’s alone… at work. In crowds. Nobody sees a bartender on a busy night. It’s a kind of invisibility.”

Carol considers this. She pulls in a drag, and blows it out, never breaking eye contact. She asks, “And do you find it lonely, too?”

Therese shrugs, feigning indifference. “Well… it’s better than spending the holiday with someone you don’t love, isn’t it?”

A sad smile from Carol. “Yes, I suppose it is. But rather than the lesser of two evils, it would be nice to actually… enjoy New Year’s.”

Therese takes a drag and exhales. Her impulses fight like gladiators, pushing her forward and pulling her back, until in a surge she beats down caution, and says, “I’m enjoying this. Being with you… doesn’t feel lonely.”

Carol swallows. Carol’s eyes blaze. Therese wonders with a surge of panic if Carol is angry at her—if that is what the intense, unblinking stare means. And Therese wants to ask her, wants to ask if she’s done something wrong, when suddenly—

“Ten! Nine! Eight!”

The sound of the shouting reaches them all the way behind the bar. Crowds of revelers united in this age old tradition.

“Seven! Six! Five!”

Therese looks at Carol. Carol looks at her. They don’t smoke. They don’t speak.

“Four! Three! Two! One!”

And then, as thunderous as Therese’s beating heart:

“Happy New Year!”

From every direction there seem to pour the sounds of celebration—cars honking their horns; people shouting; noisemakers and music and, in the far distance, the fireworks erupting in Central Park. Everywhere, people are laughing and singing and drinking and kissing the ones they love, the ones they don’t love, the ones they’ve just met—and as Therese stares into those bewitching gray eyes, she knows that she has never wanted anything more, in her entire life, than to kiss Carol Ross.

And then Carol says, “I suppose you wish Richard was here.”

The words hit Therese like a sledgehammer. There is nothing Carol could have possibly said to hurt her more, to confuse her more, to leave her more suddenly disappointed and—humiliated. By some miracle she manages to control her facial expression, to take another drag of her cigarette and then stub it out in the tray.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” she says.

Carol’s voice is hesitant, regretful. “Therese…”

It’s barely audible over the continuing din of midnight celebrations. Therese pretends she doesn’t hear. She stands up, closing the Styrofoam container and its remnants of food. She sticks the water bottle in her bag and slings it over her shoulder and does it all without looking at Carol. Carol, who is standing up, too.

“I’ll talk to you later,” says Therese.

And Carol reaches for her arm and says, “Wait—”

And Therese, in a sudden fury of emotion, looks up into her face and demands angrily, “Why do you keep asking about Richard!?”

She expects Carol to deflect again, to play it off. She’s unprepared for how Carol just stares at her. Not blinking. Not denying it. But her silence is unbearable.

“Why?” Therese says. “You keep bringing him up. You keep asking about him. Why do you—”

“To remind myself.”

Carol’s answer is calm, but hard. Her eyes are flinty. Therese blinks in surprise and confusion. They are standing maybe a foot apart, and looking up into her face, her gorgeous face with its intense seriousness, has adrenaline running through her.

“To remind yourself of what?” she asks, still angry.

Carol’s jaw clenches. She runs an anxious hand across her abdomen; uses the other to adjust the collar of her dress.

“Tell me!” Therese snaps.

“That you have one—”

“What?”

“That you have a boyfriend,” Carol snaps right back at her. Therese stares. Carol says sharply, “I keep bringing him up to remind myself that you have a boyfriend, Therese. That you are not single. That you are not available. Do you understand? Do you get it?”

Therese can hardly breathe, the low vibration of Carol’s voice rattling through her. Carol looks at her, and there’s a dare in her look, a challenge, and Therese is startled, and confused by her own feelings, and nervous and she wants wants wants—

“Carol—”

“Hey, Therese!”

The sound of the voice is like a gunshot. She jumps. Carol steps back from her. How had she not realized how close Carol was standing to her? She looks toward the back door of the bar, and finds Jack standing there, looking at her curiously.

She swallows. Answers, “Yeah?”

He pauses, looking between her and Carol. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” Therese answers immediately. “Everything’s fine.”

“Okay… um… Tommy says your break is up.”

Therese looks sharply down at her watch, startled to realize she’s five minutes past her allotted half hour. She curses under her breath, looking up at Carol. Their eyes lock. Carol looks frozen.

“I—” Therese stumbles. “I—have to go back—”

“Fine,” says Carol, averting her eyes. She’s still got the cigarette in her hand but she drops it and grinds it out under one impressive heel. Her cheeks are flaming. She mutters, “Me, too.”

And before Therese can say another word, she’s walking off. Walking away. Hands in her pockets and shoulders erect. It’s all Therese can do not to shout at her to come back. 

Chapter Text

Carol storms back into the bar like a hurricane, looking for Abby. The crowds are still raucously celebrating the midnight ball drop, and there’s confetti on everything. Someone nearby blows hard into a kazoo, and Carol grimaces. She scans the bar, finding that her and Abby’s table has been taken over by some other group. There’s no sign of Abby. She snatches her phone out of her purse, meaning to call her, and there it is—a text message. She must have been too preoccupied with Therese to notice it. It’s from Abby.  

/ Hey. Ran into the HRC girls again. Looks like you didn’t burn all my good will. Heading out with them. You can use my apartment tonight. To sleep. Or… whatever 😉 /

Ordinarily this text would have pulled an amused laugh from her. This time, she feels rage flood through her. Not at Abby. Not even at Therese. At herself. At her own complete… and utter… foolishness.

What the hell did she think would happen? What the hell did she think Therese would do? Take her in her arms? Tell her that she wanted her, too? No, because when faced with the natural next step of their obvious attraction, Therese did what most girls with boyfriends do—retreat. And why shouldn’t she? She has history with Richard. Love, probably. Why give all of that up for a woman she’s just met? A bit of attraction was one thing. But Carol has overplayed her hand. Now Therese is gone. And it’s Carol’s own damn fault.

She leaves the restaurant again, wishing she had stolen that pack of cigarettes off the table. Right now she’s ready to smoke her own weight. She walks out onto the street, where the revelers are still singing and dancing. Where the sound of fireworks out in Central Park continues. She stands on the curb, searching for a cab. But of course everything is chaos. Three, four taxis pass by without stopping for her raised hand. She tries Uber, but the fares and the wait times are horrifying, and she’s too angry to give in. Fuck it. Abby’s apartment isn’t more than forty minutes away on foot. She’ll walk.

It’s just as she starts marching down the road, vibrating with tension and anger and a deep, stomach-clenching disappointment, that her phone rings. Probably Abby checking on her. She doesn’t want to ruin her night so she lets it go to voicemail. But it starts ringing again immediately afterwards. Cursing through her teeth Carol snatches it out of her pocket and brings it to her ear without even looking at the ID.

“Yeah?” she demands.

There’s a beat of silence on the other end. Followed by—

“Hello?”

Carol stops still on the sidewalk. She would recognize that voice anywhere.

“Carol?” Therese asks, sounding fragile, sounding… desperate.

Hang up, Carol thinks.

But instead—

“Therese?”

“Yes, I—” even in the surrounding noise, Carol hears the sound of her swallowing. “I—where did you go?”

What the fuck…?

“I’m—I’m leaving. What are you—aren’t you back at the bar?”

“Yes, but—I told—I told Tommy that I was—that I was sick. Where are you?”

Carol turns slowly, looking back toward the bar. She’s only gotten about twenty or thirty feet down the sidewalk. As she watches, the crowd parts, and Therese appears. Standing on the curb, phone to her ear, looking left and right. Carol is frozen, watching her, not speaking.

“Carol?” Therese repeats.

Therese is still wearing her coat; she has her messenger bag. When Therese turns and looks in her direction, going still, they are staring right at each other. For a moment, neither of them speaks, or moves. Then, Therese is walking toward her.

Carol has an irrational impulse to turn and run, but her feet are rooted, her heart hammering. Therese is walking toward her. Practically jogging. She gets closer and closer and the closer she gets the clearer Carol can see her face, and her face is pale, and full of anxiety, but her eyes when she gets within ten feet—her eyes flame.

She finally stops at three feet. She’s breathing hard, looking into Carol’s face, the phone still held to her ear. Carol’s is still held to hers. They realize it at the same moment and hang up, looking away from each other, awkward.

Therese speaks first.

“Where are you going?”

Carol swallows, daring to look at her. Finally she admits, “Abby hooked up with someone. Some ones, actually. She said I could stay at her place tonight. I do that sometimes, when it’s late. It’s too crazy to try to get back to Jersey right now. I was trying to find a cab, but everything is—so I just—thought I’d walk.”

Stop rambling!

She frowns at Therese. “You—you left your shift?”

Therese nods sharply. “Yes,” she says, looking straight at Carol. “I didn’t think we were done talking.”

“But won’t you get in trouble?”

To her surprise, the young woman gives an indifferent shrug. Great, Carol thinks. She’s gonna get herself fired over you.

They stare at each other. Seconds pass. Then, suddenly, Therese steps out to the curb, holding her hand aloft for an incoming cab. Carol is sure it will go right past them. But, to her shock—it pulls over.

The driver lowers the window, calling out, “Where to, hon?”

Therese looks at Carol. There’s steel and determination in her voice. “Where to?”

<><><> 

They’re silent in the car.

The driver is listening to a hip hop station and the low base notes rumble through Carol’s body, almost as percussive as her own beating heart. Next to her, Therese stares straight ahead. Her hands are clasped in her lap. Carol can sense her nervousness, and thinks again that this is an incredibly bad idea. Carol taps her foot nervously, looking out the window at the busy streets. Her own fingers start pulling at loose threads in the seat upholstery.

Suddenly, Therese’s hand covers hers, stilling her movements. Carol turns, expecting her to be staring ahead as before—but no. The beautiful girl is looking directly at her. There’s a small smile on her face.

“Don’t damage the driver’s car,” she reproves, in a voice so low Carol is shocked she can hear it.

Together, they look at Therese’s hand on top of hers, and Carol—she can’t help herself. She moves her pinkie finger, hooking it over Therese’s. Therese turns her hand over slowly, and then their fingers are tangling together. It’s a sensation more delicious, more erotic, than Carol has experienced in—possibly years? It makes her feel flushed and shivery and desperate. Therese’s palm presses into her palm, and Carol thinks of their bodies pressing together. Wants their bodies to press together. Wants to feel the whole of Therese, skin to skin.

They both look out their separate windows, as if the sensation is too much to heap eye contact on top of it. But they don’t stop holding hands. Even in the glacial traffic, it’s less than twenty minutes before the taxi driver pulls up outside Abby’s building. Carol pays him before Therese can beat her to it, and they get out together, Therese looking up at the stately building with wide eyes.

“Hi, Chuck,” Carol says to the doorman as they approach.

“Crashing at Ms. Gerhard’s, Ms. Ross?” Chuck asks with a smile.

“Yes, thank you. This is my friend, Therese Belivet.”

“Good evening, Ms. Belivet,” says Chuck. “Happy New Year!”

Therese, looking shy, says, “Hello.”

They walk into the palatial foyer, heading for the elevators. Once they’re inside, once the doors have closed and the car is flying up toward the ninth floor, Therese looks at her cautiously. She asks, “What does Abby do, exactly?”

Despite the tension thrumming between them, Carol finds it in herself to laugh. “She’s in publishing, actually. Pretty high up the chain at Random House.”

Therese asks, “She’s all right… with me being here?”

Carol is reminded of her own, similar question at The McKinley, when she joined Therese at the staff table behind the bar. Therese had answered her with such a gentle smile on her face. Carol returns that kindness. She smiles at Therese, and into her smile she feeds all the helpless tenderness and longing that she feels.

“Yes. It’s all right.”

The elevator reaches its destination. Carol leads her down the hall to Abby’s apartment, heart hammering, fingers almost shaking as she gets out her key and lets them in. The kitchen light is on, but it’s dark otherwise. Carol switches on the hall light and lets Therese walk in ahead of her.

“Can I take your coat?” she asks.

Therese hesitates, and in her nervousness Carol can’t help but feel unnerved by it. But then Therese seems to recover. She takes off her messenger bag and pulls off her coat, handing both to Carol, who gratefully hangs them in the closet. She hangs her own coat, too.

Now, standing before each other again, they are momentarily frozen. Therese’s eyes are so wide, and though she looks a little frightened and pale, there is still that sharp determination in her eyes. But what, exactly, is she determined to do? Carol feels unmoored. Incapable of making language, or decisions—good ones, anyway. All she can focus on is the sight of that tie, cinched too tight around Therese’s delicate throat.

When in doubt, fall back on your training.

“Can I get you a drink?” Carol asks, in her ‘consummate host’ voice. “Would you like to sit down? The living room is just through there.”

But Therese doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move. Just looks at her. Carol swallows, eyes stinging, certain now that Therese is regretting coming here. 

“Do you want to leave?” she asks softly.

Therese blinks, startled. “What? No.”

Carol blinks right back, “Oh, I—”

“Tell me what you meant… about me having a boyfriend.”

At those words, Carol’s emotions whip from anxiety to irritation. She’s already given quite enough away tonight. Therese can’t expect her to just keep… humiliating herself.

She walks past Therese toward the living room, muttering as she goes, “You know what I meant.”

Therese follows her, answers her, “You meant that you’re interested in me. Romantically. Is that right?”

Carol looks back at her. The living room is dark, only half-lit by the kitchen. Therese is watching her closely. Almost… suspiciously—and it irks her.

She scoffs, “What else would I have meant?”

Therese shrugs. She crosses her arms protectively. “I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t mean it at all. Maybe you’d had too much to drink.”

“I’m not drunk, Therese. Jesus!” Carol exclaims.

“I just can’t understand it,” Therese retorts, her eyes large and watchful. “I can’t understand what someone like you… would want with someone like… me.”

Those words slip through all of Carol’s exasperation. Now she is confused, disbelieving. She looks at Therese and realizes in some shock that the girl is trembling. That her eyes are damp.

“Are you serious?” Carol asks.

Therese just looks at her. Carol would give anything in this moment to know what she’s thinking, what she’s really thinking, what could possibly lead her to doubt any person’s interest in her, desire for her.

“Have you seen yourself?”

She means it to be humorous, to lighten the mood, but Therese’s answering grimace makes her realize it was the wrong move.

Therese says, “I… I know that I’m pretty. I know that. And plenty of people proposition me after a night at the bar. But you… you’re not like that. I can tell you’re not like that. I didn’t think you were, anyway. So I’m just… trying to understand.” 

Carol feels suddenly sick, suddenly horrified. But not at Therese, or even at herself. No, what horrifies her is that someone, somewhere, has made Therese believe that she is nothing but a mark—a notch on the bedpost. A girl to be seduced, and discarded. If Carol could find that person—those people—who have made her feel this way about herself, she would break their legs. And she’s got the tools for that.

Cautiously, Carol steps toward her. To her relief, Therese does not step back, but she does eye her in an uncertain way that makes Carol ache.

“I just—” Therese swallows. “I just don’t want us to misunderstand each other, all right? If this is going to happen then… I want to know what it means.”

The broken pieces of Carol’s heart break again. Is this what Therese is trying to do? Steel herself for a one-time fuck?  

“Therese,” Carol says softly, seriously, demanding the girl’s absolute attention. “I would never use you like that. And I would never let you allow yourself to be used like that.”

At that, Therese’s large eyes seem to grow even larger, wetter, though she doesn’t cry.

Carol says, “If all I wanted was a one night stand, I wouldn’t care about you having a boyfriend, would I? If I didn’t feel… more for you, I would have handled all of this differently. But I do feel more. I care about you. And you have a boyfriend. It matters. You matter.” When Therese just looks at her, face caught in an expression that marries fear and hope, Carol releases a soft, self-deprecating laugh. “I thought it was obvious to you! I thought… my feelings were obvious. I feel like I’ve been making a fool of myself over you, every time we’re together.” Therese looks startled. Carol laughs again, nervously. She breathes in and breathes out. She says, “So why don’t we start this over. Why don’t you tell me what you want?”

Therese swallows, her arms still crossed. But then, with her eyes down, she steps tentatively forward. It puts them within two feet of each other. Carol holds her breath. A moment passes, and then, with another step, they are face to face. When Therese looks up at Carol, Carol can see the gold and hazel threads in her eyes. 

“I can’t stop thinking about you,” Therese whispers.

Carol lets out her breath, slow, shaky.

“The past two weeks… all I’ve done is think about you. When I’m with you I’m happy and nervous and when I’m not with you I’m—” She breaks off. She flushes, as if she has given away more than she meant to. She says anxiously, “I’ve never… with a woman. I’ve never even wanted to. I wouldn’t know how, I’d—disappoint you, I know I would, and you’re so—”

Carol can’t stand it. She pulls Therese to her. Pulls her close against her body. Almost sings when Therese’s arms uncross and wrap around her, tight. Carol holds the side of her head, cradling her under her chin. She’s so warm. She’s so soft. She’s small and yet she feels like a kingdom, a mighty space to be honored and protected and adored.

“Shhh,” Carol soothes her. “Darling, don’t… don’t worry about that, all right? You don’t have to worry about that.”

Therese’s arms tighten around her, and Carol sighs in relief. She has imagined holding Therese so many times, imagined the joy of this woman in her arms. Her imagination didn’t even come close. This is enough, she realizes in amazement. Just to hold her like this is enough.

And they do hold each other, tight and quiet and blissful. But after a few moments of this silent paradise of closeness, Therese’s face moves. She starts… nuzzling, against Carol’s throat. The sensation makes gooseflesh erupt all over Carol, makes her freeze. Therese doesn’t freeze. Therese tips her head back, nosing under Carol’s chin. Her hands, which had been flat against Carol’s shoulder blades, slide down her back. Land on her waist. Fingers, pressing in.  

“Carol,” she moans.

The sound vibrates against Carol’s pulse point, that tender spot behind her ear where she applies her perfume. And now Therese is touching that spot, and mouthing at that spot, and breathing her in with unmistakable desire. Carol slides a hand up, reaching for the elastic band that holds Therese’s hair back. She pulls it loose, and runs her fingers through the fine and silky strands. Therese moans again, another vibration. Carol takes a handful of her hair and gently pulls her head back, enough that they can look at each other. The hunger in Therese’s eyes is stunning. The part of her full lips is intoxicating. The flush on her cheekbones makes Carol want to raise a flush across her whole body.

She has a boyfriend, Carol’s traitorous thoughts remind her. She has a boyfriend, and she’s never done this before. Control yourself. You’ll scare her off.

And would it? Would it frighten Therese to know what Carol is thinking in this moment? The visions going through her head? She sees herself… taking control of Therese’s body. Taking off her clothes and kissing every inch of skin she reveals. Putting her mouth all over her, biting her, sucking her, licking her. Tasting her. In Carol’s feverish imagination, she doesn’t stop after one orgasm, oh no. This beautiful creature in her arms deserves far more than that. By the time Carol is satisfied, the Therese in her wild thoughts is shaking, panting, drenched in sweat and cum and so exhausted from what Carol has given her that she can’t think, can’t speak, can only revel in the pleasure she so clearly, richly deserves.

Carol is so preoccupied with trying to stop herself from completely losing it that she is entirely unprepared—when Therese lifts up, and kisses her.

Their mouths melt together, instantly. A deep, slow kiss. Therese’s hands tighten on her waist. Therese whimpers, and Carol can’t resist. One hand still in her hair, the other looped around her back, Carol turns her toward the nearest wall. She’s careful. Gentle. She holds her against the wall and kisses her deeper, savoring the softness of her, the warmth, trying to go slow—

But it’s Therese who coaxes Carol’s lips apart, whose tongue slides into her mouth to stroke against her own. Shivers race down Carol’s spine, and find a home between her legs. The ache is immediate, almost overwhelming. Therese licks into her again and she actually whines with pleasure, pushing Therese harder into the wall, control fracturing with every little sound and breath passing between their lips.

Boyfriend boyfriend boyfriend…

Therese reaches for her face, weaving her hands into her hair, kissing her breathlessly. Carol can’t stand it. She reaches for the tie around her throat. Tugs it loose and flings it aside. Finds the buttons at the top of her shirt, forcing herself to be careful so she doesn’t hurt her—but then those buttons are undone and Therese’s neck is exposed and her collarbones are exposed and the top of her chest is exposed. Even as Carol starts pulling the shirt out of her slacks, she dives forward. Finds the join between her neck and shoulder and sucks, hard.

Therese cries out, body pushing into hers, hips rocking forward. Carol gets under her shirt, finds the smooth, delicious skin of her waist and hips and stomach. She’s not sure which of them is more affected by this contact, because even as she groans at the sensation, Therese shudders and gasps, “Please. Please—Carol, I—”

Carol kisses her again. Tongue in her mouth. Tasting her. God, she tastes so good. Carol wasn’t ready for this. Wasn’t ready for her to taste so fucking good—

Don’t get carried away. Don’t let yourself get carried —

“Take me to bed,” Therese’s gasping whimper pierces her like an arrow. Therese moaning into her mouth is the most devastating of pleasures. “Please,” she says. “I—want you to—please.”

Oh, fuck, this is torture. It’s torture but—

“Wait,” Carol wrenches her mouth away. Therese is clearly startled, looks up at her with wide, confused eyes. “I-I-I—” Carol can’t even make words. Too distracted by the pressure of Therese’s pelvis against her own, a warmth she can feel through the layers of their clothes. “Therese I—I think we should—”

She breaks off and the look on Therese’s face is suddenly anxious. The girl asks in a weak voice, “Did I—did I do something wrong?” 

“Oh, Jesus,” Carol sighs, and pushes her face into Therese’s shoulder. Holds it there. Holds perfectly still, grappling for self-control.

After a moment of frozen uncertainty, Therese runs a tentative hand up her spine, cupping the back of her neck. Even that little bit of contact nearly makes Carol break. Therese’s skin smells so… well, like her. And Carol didn’t realize until this moment how addicted she had already become to that smell, to just the faintest trace of that smell. Now, having her nose buried in the source, she can’t think straight. But she has to. She must.

She pulls back again. Therese looks a little less worried, but still confused. Her mouth is swollen and red, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright. She’s so fucking beautiful it’s unbearable.

“Therese, I—” Carol swallows hard. “I… believe me. You have no idea how much I… There’s nothing I want more right now than to take you to bed. I—I’ve wanted that almost since the first time I saw you, but… Well, I guess there is one thing I want more.” Off Therese’s frowning look, Carol steels herself, and says, “I want you to be free.”

Therese blinks a few times. Then realization hits. Her eyes widen. “Carol, I’m going to break up with him. I don’t love him. I never did. I swear—”

“I believe you.”

“And I—God, I have the right to do what I want, don’t I? He doesn’t own me—”

“It’s not about that.”

“Then what is it about?” Therese retorts.

“It’s about—”

Carol breaks off. Swallows again. She looks down, to where their bodies are pressed together. She can’t meet her eyes; it’s too much, too vulnerable. She doesn’t know how to explain to her, what she’s afraid of. That they’ll do this… and then, Therese will go back to him. 

“I just… I want you to be sure,” she whispers. “I want you to take the time… to talk to him and… to just be sure.”

The answering silence is deafening. Carol’s heart beats painfully. Any moment now Therese is going to push her away. She’ll be angry—offended—hurt. Any moment now she’ll—

Carol almost jumps at the sensation of Therese’s finger, touching her under the chin. Lifting her head. She expects to see recrimination. Instead, she is met with one of the gentlest, most tender looks she has had the privilege to experience. Therese’s eyes are warm and serious.

Softly she asks, “Is that what you need, Carol?”

Carol didn’t expect this. She was determined to insist on whatever Therese needed. On caring for her and making sure that she did not move too fast. Her own need, her own insecurity, she never intended to verbalize. And yet Therese’s question has turned the tables. Carol is so unprepared that she can’t seem to answer. But Therese, still with that sweet gentleness in her face, doesn’t make her answer.

“All right,” she says. She takes a deep breath, clearly trying to bring herself under control. The sight of this makes Carol’s blood burn. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow. While you’re in Buffalo. And when you come back, it’ll be done. Does that sound okay?”

Carol can’t do anything but nod, mute with shock.

Therese gives her a sweet smile, and then relaxes her hold around Carol’s body, clearly intending them to separate. Instead, Carol grabs her close, holds her tight. With a sigh of relief, Therese holds her back, just as tightly.

“Thank you,” Carol whispers, her heart in her throat.

Therese strokes her hair and presses her face into her neck and hums with pleasure. Then she says in a soft, reluctant voice, “I should probably go home. For the sake of your virtue.”

Carol blurts a laugh, pulling back to look at her in delight. Therese laughs, too, and for a moment they are both giggling. Full of happiness. But then Carol shakes her head, growing serious again.

“No, I… I don’t want you out this late. Look, you can stay here. Usually I sleep in Abby’s guest room but you can have it, and I’ll take Abby’s bed.”

Therese looks across the living room toward the two bedroom doors on the other side of the apartment. Then, she starts gnawing at her bottom lip. It’s somehow simultaneously adorable and provocative and Carol is at her wits end. When Therese looks at her again she seems shy and… cautious.

“Can I… can’t I sleep with you?” She quickly adds, “Just sleep. I don’t like unfamiliar places. They make me… anxious, and I feel like… being here with you but not being with you… I just—I wouldn’t like it.” Carol hesitates, and Therese adds. “I can be good, I promise.”

Carol scoffs, “Maybe you can.” 

A delighted smile. A blush of joy. But Therese says earnestly. “I just want to be close to you, tonight. That’s enough for me, Carol. I just… I think I… need that. Please?”

These are the magic words. I will give you whatever the fuck you want, she thinks fiercely. I will lasso the goddamn moon for you, Therese Belivet.  

She takes Therese’s face in her hands and kisses her once, very gently. Therese makes a soft sound, aching and beautiful. When Carol pulls back, she is already nodding. “Yes,” she says. “Yes I… I think I need that, too.”

Chapter Text

Therese wakes in a cocoon of warmth, one of Carol’s arms cushioning her head. Carol’s nose is pressed into the back of her neck, and her other arm is looped around her waist, cradling her against the front of her body. Normally Therese hates for anyone to be behind her. It frightens her, makes her jumpy and restless. But this… this is the most comforting, beautiful thing she has felt in—well, maybe ever. She had no idea that it could feel so safe. To be close to someone. Held by someone. She had no idea…

There’s bright sunlight coming in through the window, and Therese has no idea how late it is, but she doesn’t care. She lies still, reveling in Carol’s slow and steady breaths against her back. She never wants to move. She feels sleepy but rested, and so content.

Her thoughts drift back to the previous night. They went into Abby’s room to rummage for pajamas. At first she told Carol she could just sleep in her clothes, but the older woman gave her a look that put paid to that. Then Therese had said, fighting to hide her smile, “I don’t want to take Abby’s things. I can sleep in my underwear.”

Carol, who had turned toward the closet, chuckled in a way so low and sultry that Therese’s skin prickled.

“You do that and I’m sleeping naked just to get back at you.”

Well.

In the end Carol found her a pair of boxers and an over-sized Brittney Griner t-shirt. She showed Therese where the bathroom was. Therese wrestled her insecurity over wearing Abby’s things, and changed. But when she went back to the guest room—

Carol was turning down the duvet. And Carol had changed, too. Gone was that gorgeous dress. She’d replaced it with a low-slung pair of sweatpants, and a fitted white tank top.

Therese’s brain short-circuited. The tank-top was a little too short for Carol’s long torso. Therese could see her sharp hipbones, and the bottom of her belly. She could see her arms, lean, and deliciously toned. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and Carol’s nipples were hard, her breasts full. Therese (who up until two weeks ago had only ever noticed a woman’s breasts in the context of bemoaning her own, small chest) felt her mouth go dry.

Carol, finishing with the duvet, stood up and looked at her. Therese could not imagine that her own pajamas would be anywhere near so distracting, but a moment later she was blushing crimson, as Carol’s eyes tracked up her bare legs.

How they managed to go to sleep is a bit of a miracle. Therese thinks no two women in history ever exercised more restraint. But she had been determined. Carol was strong and commanding and refined—but Carol was also a woman whose pale gray eyes spoke of past hurts and present doubts. It was clear to Therese that Carol was insecure about her, worried that she would go back to Richard (how anyone could go back to Richard after kissing Carol was unfathomable), and if breaking up with him before they did… anything… would restore her confidence, well. Therese would have called him right then and there if she didn’t suspect he was already passed out drunk somewhere.

First order of business, she tells herself. Go to Richard’s. Break up with him.

But then, Carol’s face starts rubbing against her, and Carol’s hips shift, and Carol’s arm gathers her somehow closer.

Second order of business, Therese amends.

Carol is clearly waking up. She makes a little humming sound that vibrates against Therese’s neck, creating shockwaves of gooseflesh. Therese’s shirt has ridden up in the night, exposing her stomach and the small of her back, and Carol’s hand is caught in the shirt, making a loose fist under her breast. Now, Carol’s fingers relax—and trail down.

The minute those fingers find her stomach, Therese sighs.

Carol mumbles something. Her thumb strokes Therese’s hip bone, and Therese shivers.

“Ticklish,” she explains, trying to cover up the fact that she has zero chill.

Carol chuckles. It’s low, sleep-rough. It destroys her.

“Sleep well?” Carol purrs. Nevermind. That destroys her.

Therese swallows, nods. She reaches down to slide her fingers between Carol’s, so that both their hands are pressed against her belly.

“Yes,” she whispers. “Y-you?”

A growling affirmation. “Like the dead. You’re perfect for my insomnia.”

Therese frowns, half turning her head. “You have insomnia?”

Carol nods against her. “Off and on, for years… but not last night.”

Carol shifts again, one knee pressing between Therese’s, Therese’s foot hooking over her ankle. Carol starts nuzzling at her again, a sound of happiness and bliss.

“You feel so good,” she whispers.

Therese flushes with pleasure. She can’t think of anything more wonderful than to feel good to Carol. To fit like this, with Carol.

“I wish you weren’t going to Buffalo,” she admits.

Carol sighs her agreement. “I know. But I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Therese frowns. “I thought you were going to take a few days?”

A soft laugh of amusement. Carol kisses her shoulder.

“That was before, wasn’t it, Darling?”

Therese grins with joy. She draws their clasped hands up to her lips, kissing Carol’s knuckles once, twice, three times. Carol hums happily. She says, “You could always come with me… You know, impromptu road trip?”

“God, I wish. But even if I wanted to tell Tommy I really was sick and bail on work and…” she stops herself, embarrassed to admit that she can’t afford it. She says instead, “Well, the job is still new. I can’t burn bridges.”

“I understand,” Carol assures her. She slips her hand loose from Therese’s and runs it gently up and down her arm. “Like I said, I’ll be back tomorrow. We can road trip another time.”

Another time, thinks Therese. She wants another time, with me.

For a moment they lie in silence. It must be late morning already, but Therese can’t even be fucked to find her phone, too relaxed, too happy.

Carol asks after a bit, “What time do you start work tomorrow?”

“I always work the night shift. 6:00 to 1:00.” Therese says. Carol says nothing. It occurs to Therese why she asked—she wants to see her. But Carol might not even get back into town until after six, and so… “Phil works the day shift. He owes me a favor. I could try to switch with him for tomorrow?”

Carol kisses her shoulder again. Her hand slips around her waist once more, open palm pressed to her ribs. “Really?” she asks, with unmistakable hope.

“Yes,” Therese nods.

“I was just thinking that… well, maybe I could come to your place. See those photographs?”

Her fingers start drawing gentle patterns, just beneath Therese’s breast. It is… distracting. Therese shifts restlessly, her bottom pressing back into Carol’s pelvis.

“Yeah,” she says. “I… I’d like that.”

A long pause, edged now with glimmering tension. Carol’s thumb skims the underside of her breast, and Therese’s nipples go hard in an instant.

“Would you?” Carol murmurs.

Therese knows better, but she can’t help herself. She shifts her hips again. Carol’s knee between hers slips forward, lifts up, her thigh pressing between Therese’s legs—where she is suddenly warm and aching.

“I—I—yes. I would.”

Carol nudges under her hair. Lips trail down her neck, followed by a graze of teeth and a hint of wetness from her tongue. Therese chokes down a whimper. Carol said she wanted to wait. Carol asked her to wait. She—she can’t—

Carol’s voice is low in her ear, “What else would you like?”

The thigh between her legs starts rocking gently, rubbing her right where she needs it, pleasure blooming outward from the point of contact.

“Th-that—” Therese groans. “That feels good.”

“Yeah?” Carol asks.

Her hand slides up, and suddenly she is cupping Therese’s breast, squeezing gently. Therese shudders, and when Carol’s thumb circles her nipple, she gasps.

“Oh! Oh… y-yes. Yes, that feels good.”

Therese shuts her eyes. Presses her head back against Carol’s shoulder. Starts gently rocking her hips in counterpoint to Carol’s rocking. She revels in Carol’s mouth, gently biting her shoulder. Glories in Carol’s hand, massaging her with the perfect firmness. It’s as if a dam has broken. She floods with wetness, sticky and warm, and Carol’s thigh is grinding perfectly into her clit. Nothing Richard has ever done to her has lit her up the way this is lighting her up, making her pant, making her need

Carol shifts again; she puts her hand on Therese’s hip. With her other arm, the one that has been under her head, she reaches around her to grasp her other breast. To take her nipple between finger and thumb, gently tweaking. Now Therese feels completely surrounded by her, held by her, owned by her. Carol licks up the side of her throat, whispering into her ear, “God, you’re perfect. So gorgeous. Is this okay, Angel?”

Therese has never been one for pet names, but something about this makes her glow. And then gasp, as Carol’s knee nudges particularly hard. Therese’s hand flies up, fingers sliding into Carol’s hair and pulling her face tight against her. Carol answers by biting her, sucking and groaning. They find a rhythm, a push and pull that is urgent but steady. With one hand on her breast and the other grasping her hip, Carol moves her, controlling her pace. Carol murmurs in her ear and sucks and kisses her neck and her shoulder and Carol toys with her nipple and grips her hip and it—it—

“C-carol,” she whimpers. “I—I—I’m close.”

Carol groans, and that sound almost pushes her over. Everything is ratcheting inside her, the pleasure in her clit growing sharp and urgent. Carol doesn’t stop.

Therese whines, shudders, reminds her, “You—you said y-y-you wanted to wait.”

Only then does she realize that Carol is panting for breath. Only then does she feel it—the hardness of Carol’s nipples against her back; the focus of Carol’s pelvis, pushing into her ass. The arousal, writ in every movement and sound from Carol’s body. This realization brings her right to the cusp, has her gasping out in desperation, “Carol—I’m—if you don’t stop I’m—”

“Do you want me to stop?” Carol gasps in her ear, growls in her ear, movements unceasing, “Or do you want me to make you come?”

Therese sobs, but now she can’t hold back, rocking her own hips harder, chasing sensation, even as she makes one last attempt— “I d-d-don’t want you to—to regret—”

Instantly, Carol’s hand is sliding down, wedging between her own thigh, and Therese’s cunt. She doesn’t go under her boxers, but she cups her there. Squeezes—and it’s all over. Therese convulses with pleasure, sex pulsing, body flushing hot and erupting with shivers of bliss. Carol doesn’t stop, just keeps rocking and squeezing. It’s so good. It’s feel so good—and it’s so different from anything that has ever made her come before. So different from touching herself. So different from Richard.

She rides the wave of it for what feels like a short eternity, head pressed back against Carol’s shoulder and Carol mouthing at her neck and Carol’s breaths hot against her skin. Every muscle in Therese’s body is taut with consuming pleasure. When it finally starts to fade, when it shifts from crashing waves to the lazy surf of aftershocks, she goes limp.

Carol relaxes her hand, slides it out from between her legs, and buries her face against Therese’s hair. They are both breathing hard, and Therese is damp with sweat. Carol brushes a lock of hair behind her ear and kisses her jaw, before settling down behind her. They lie together, quiet, panting, and Therese has rarely felt such a deep, bone-melting contentment. With Richard, the end of sex is always a restless experience for her, wondering how soon she has to wait before she can get up. But this… she feels like she could fall asleep again, just drift off in Carol’s warm embrace, and it would be perfect—as perfect as the echoes of pleasure still fluttering outward from her sex.

The startling trill of a phone makes them both jump. Carol grumbles, shifts momentarily away from her. She must grab her phone, for after a moment she snorts a laugh, then spoons up against her again.

“What is it?” Therese mumbles.

“Abby,” Carol says. “She’s on her way home.”

Therese tightens with alarm. “Oh—do we—I should—should I go?”

“Darling, relax,” Carol soothes, stroking her hip. “She’s coming from Queens. We have a little time.”

“Oh,” Therese allows herself to melt back against Carol’s back. “In that case…”

“Mmhm,” Carol says, peppering kisses down her neck—and then licking up the length of it. Therese whimpers. Carol’s voice is full of humor and arousal. “You taste good.”

“You’re a troublemaker,” Therese replies.

A throaty chuckle. “Therese, I woke up with your ass in my lap. I think I’ve shown remarkable restraint.”

Therese says cautiously, “I—I know you wanted to wait—until—”

“Shh. It’s all right. It was… perfect. You were perfect.” But then her body tenses. Her voice is suddenly unsure. “That is—was it all right with you?”

Therese flips around in her arms, takes her face in her hands, and kisses her.

They get lost in it. Long, slow minutes of kissing, of holding each other close, of touching each other and stroking each other and moaning into each other’s mouths. It doesn’t escalate. Part of Therese is disappointed. Part of her is relieved. She wants badly to touch Carol, to feel her, to taste her—and she’s terrified that she’ll do it wrong. Or, that even if she does it ‘right’ Carol will be disappointed. Therese has never felt this before, this almost overwhelming desire to make another person feel good. And every little sound that Carol makes, every soft moan and murmur and sigh, only deepens that desire. Soon, she thinks. Soon.

Eventually they do get up. For sanity’s sake, they agree to shower separately, and Therese goes into the bathroom with her bundle of work clothes and an extra towel. In the shower, she feels the places that Carol has touched this morning. Her lips. Her shoulder and neck. Her ear and her breasts and hips. She even touches herself between her legs, startled by the slick mess she discovers. Her body sings with pleasure, with remembered pleasure, with anticipation. Carol will be back tomorrow. Carol will come to her apartment tomorrow. And that means…

She finishes up in the shower, and shuts off the water. As soon as she steps out, she hears it: the sound of voices. She doesn’t know what they’re saying, but a bright eruption of laughter goes through her like an arrow. Carol’s laughter, happy. In a rush of nervousness Therese realizes that Abby must be back. She dresses quickly, and then regards the pajamas she borrowed. She grabs the boxers, deciding that she’ll take them home and wash them before returning them. Then she sees the sticky wet spot in the crotch, and blushes with embarrassment. Maybe she’ll buy Abby a new pair, instead.

Tying back her damp hair, Therese takes a deep breath, and leaves the bathroom.

She finds them in the kitchen. Abby is seated at the breakfast table and Carol is pouring herself a cup of coffee. They both look up at her entry. Carol’s smile is warm and adoring; Abby’s is devious.

“Why, good morning,” she drawls. Then she picks something up off the table, holding it up. Therese’s eyes widen, recognizing her necktie. “This yours?”

“Uh,” Therese glances nervously at Carol, then steps forward to accept the tie from Abby’s outstretched hand. “Yeah. Thanks.” 

“To be honest I expected to find a whole trail of clothes when I got back,” says Abby.

Therese blushes. Carol scoffs. “You’re one to talk! How many times have I found your G-strings just lying around?”

“I don’t wear G-strings.”

“Exactly.”

Abby grins, shrugging. Therese notes a fairly stark hickey on Abby’s exposed collarbone, and realizes she never checked her own neck for marks. But Carol distracts her, asking—

“Coffee, Sweetheart?”

Another endearment, as overpowering as one of Carol’s kisses. Therese glows with pleasure, and nods. Soon she has a mug of steaming coffee in her hands, that she sips gratefully. She casts a surreptitious glance at the microwave clock. Turns out it’s only 10. Still—

“I should—” she clears her throat nervously. “I should probably get going?”

Carol, drinking from her cup of coffee, watches her over the rim. There is nothing deliberately provocative about it, and yet it makes Therese’s blood sing. After a moment Carol says, “Abby is driving me home. We can drop you.”

“It would be my honor,” says Abby, theatrical, smirking, “to drive you to your inevitably awkward goodbye.”

Carol rolls her eyes. “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.”

“At least I got laid last night,” Abby says, and then looks at Therese with a hiked eyebrow. “Carol says she didn’t get laid last night. Is that true?”

“Abby!” Carol cries.

“I’m just asking! God knows you’d lie to my face, but this one,” she peruses Therese, thoughtful. “She’s got one of those angelically honest faces.” She asks Therese, “Is it for real or just a costume?”

“I—I don’t think I’m angelically honest.”

“Just angelic then. Mkay.”

“Ignore her,” Carol tells Therese, with an apologetic grimace. “She thinks that picking up strangers in bars makes her some kind of lesbian hero.”

This time, Therese grins, some of her nerves dissipating with her amusement. Carol grins back, and for a moment they just look at each other, grinning foolishly, full of warmth—

“Oh, Jesus,” Abby sighs, and stands up. She drains the last of her mug of coffee and hip checks Carol to get to the sink. “I don’t usually take my coffee with sugar but you two are adorable. Now, I’m just gonna grab a quick shower and then we can go. Try to behave while I’m gone.”

Therese says again, “Oh, no, I’m just gonna—the subway.”

“Nonsense!” Abby exclaims. “I’m already driving Carol, and you live down by NYU, right? It’s not out of my way.”

Therese hedges, glances at Carol, who’s frowning. After a moment she says, “Well, yes, but… I’ve got to go to Staten Island this morning.”

“Staten Island!” Abby cries. “Why the fuck would you go to Staten Island?”

Therese throws Carol another look, and says, “I need to talk to someone who lives out there. And I want to get it over with as soon as possible.”

Immediately, the look of confusion on Carol’s face melts away, replaced by a soft happiness, by eyes wide and adoring, by color high on her cheekbones and a shy smile on her lips. Therese’s stomach flutters, and she smiles back, and for a moment they just stare at each other, all their feelings laid bare. Abby, still obviously perplexed, looks back and forth between them suspiciously. Then, she shrugs.

“All right, then. I’ll drive you to Staten Island. Feel free to keep eye-fucking each other. I’ll be right back.”

Chapter Text

As they pull onto the nearest freeway entrance out of Staten Island, Carol finds herself wishing that Therese had taken the subway. If Therese had taken the subway, they could at least have had a proper goodbye, a private goodbye. But Carol could hardly hop out of the car with her in front of Richard’s apartment. And she suspected that Therese would be too shy to kiss her in front of Abby. So they had to make do with a long stare, and promises to talk later, and Therese bashfully murmuring, “Bye,” as she left the car.

After waking up as they did, holding her as she did, touching her and kissing her and making her come in a beautiful, overwhelming rush—well, this goodbye feels completely unsatisfying. And happy as Carol is, she can’t shake the tiny voice in her head that thinks, Maybe this is it. Maybe she’ll change her mind. Maybe I’ll never see her again…

“Jesus,” Abby says, merging them into traffic. “You’re not going off to war, Carol. You’ll see her tomorrow.”

Carol grumbles, noncommittal, then suddenly remembers—

“What did you say to Therese? While I was in the bathroom?”

After Abby had her shower, Carol had popped in for a quick one herself. When she came out again less than five minutes later, Abby was smirking and Therese was pink to the roots of her hair.

Now, Abby gives a vague shrug.

“Abigail.”

“I just, you know… gave her the talk.”

“What!?”

“I was very cool about it. Not at all terrifying or threatening. You know, just a friendly, ‘What are your intentions?’”

“Abby, for fuck’s sake! Are you trying to scare her off!?”

“Even if I was, it didn’t work. That kid’s a stone cold killer. She looked me dead in the eye, and you know what she said?” Carol’s heart stutters; she stares at Abby in mute terror, and Abby smirks. “She said, ‘To treat her exactly as she deserves.’”

Carol blinks. It takes a moment for the words to sink in. And then, they do. Suddenly she has to look away from Abby, determined to hide the blush that she can feel, in her neck and cheeks. With it comes a warmth so much deeper than blood flow, a warmth of the soul, a happiness that completely overwhelms her. She thinks this might just be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said about her.

She can hear the smirk in Abby’s voice, “Ya all right over there? Don’t swoon in my car.”

Carol clears her throat; hopes her blush has mostly dissipated. Facing forward again she says primly, “You’re still an asshole.”

“I was looking out for you! And don’t worry, I looked out for her, too. It’s clear as day she’s totally smitten with you, and totally terrified to fuck it up. I told her not to worry. That the two of you would figure it out together.”

Carol looks at her, surprised. “Really? You said that?”

“Mmhmm. Also, I told her not to bother watching porn; that if she wanted to learn how to please a woman, she should check out fanfiction.”  

Carol’s jaw drops. She stares at Abby unblinking for a good five seconds.

“You’re joking, right?”

Abby shrugs again, her lips spread in a devious smile. “It’s good advice.”

“Fanfiction!?”

“That girl has fluff and smut written on her forehead.”

“Abby, do you know what kind of weird ass sub genres exist in fanfiction!?”

“Don’t judge. To each their own.”

“I’m gonna kill you.”

“Carol,” Abby sighs, growing marginally more serious. “Look. I realize you and I are dinosaurs, but I’d like you to cast back in your memory to that day, long, long, long ago, when you realized you wanted to touch a girl for the first time. Do you remember that? Do you remember how fucking terrifying it was?”

Almost against her will, Carol’s mind takes her to those days. Fourteen years old. Debbie Gallagher on the soccer team. A drop of sweat running down her neck that Carol, gangly and pimply and with braces, could not stop staring at.

Abby lets her scowl in her seat for almost a minute before she makes an exasperated sound and Carol admits grudgingly, “Yes. I remember.”

“Exactly. Therese may be older than we were, but this has got to be scary as fuck for her. What I wouldn’t have given to have some older lesbian offer me pointers.”

“Emphasis on the ‘older.’”

“And so that’s what I did. Believe me, all that blushing is not a sign of weak character. She’s gonna be in research mode until she sees you again.”

Carol wants to remain irritated, but at Abby’s words, she is suddenly besieged by images of Therese ‘in research mode.’ She pictures that full, succulent bottom lip caught between her teeth. Pictures those big green eyes wide but focused. Pictures the bloom high on those cheeks…

It is all so provocative that for a moment she can’t even think.

Then, recovering, she mutters, “You’re still dead to me.”

Abby scoffs. “Now I know you didn’t get laid. You’re so grumpy!”

“I’m not grumpy, I just—I don’t want her to worry about… performing for me. That part of it. For now I just want her to… to feel…”

Carol trails off. There’s a beat of silence. Then, slightly incredulous, Abby asks, “Jesus, are you already in love with her?”

“What!?” Carol cries. “No! It’s way too soon for that.”

“Should I order the U-Haul?”

“I hate you.”

“Seriously. All these feelings and you haven’t even made her come yet? Shit.”

Carol flashes back to this morning. Feels the weight of Therese’s breast in her hands. Feels the heat and dampness leaking through her pajamas. The gasp and shudder that went through her, so exquisite, so beautiful—

Unable to contain her smug smirk, Carol retorts, “I said we didn’t have sex. I definitely made her come.”

Abby’s head snaps toward her so fast it’s a wonder she doesn’t get whiplash. Carol just keeps smirking, gazing straight ahead, as her best friend battles between watching the road and staring at her.

“Um… how are those two things different?”

“Oh, when I fuck her for real, she’ll know the difference.”

A blurt of laughter.

“Carol, you dog! Tell me everything!”

“No.”

“You gotta give me something!”

Carol hesitates, but there’s something about Abby’s vibrant excitement, and about her own latent arousal and pride, that finally prompts her to admit, “Let’s just say… a little grinding goes a long way.”

Now Abby’s laugh is gleeful. Carol can’t help it. She laughs, too, and both of them are laughing, and even though it has been five years, for the first time Carol allows herself to believe that the fall out of their failed affair really is over. That Abby is truly, unequivocally happy for her.

Their laughter peters out. Abby wipes away a tear, and swats her on the arm. “Damn, Carol. Well done. That is not as easy to do as fanfiction makes it sound!” 

<><><> 

Carol doesn’t like driving alone. Halfway to Buffalo, she keeps thinking how much better it would be if Therese had come with her. And not only because Carol has a very nice room waiting for her at the Curtiss Hotel, and nowhere to be in the morning. She imagines sleeping late, curled around Therese’s body as she was this morning. Imagines room service and showering together and taking their time on the drive home.

She can see it all so clearly, and that only makes the reality more dispiriting. She and Therese agreed that Therese would call her tonight on her break, around 9 o’clock. But all day Carol has to fight the impulse to call her from the road. Why didn’t she at least ask Therese to text her and let her know how things went with Richard? Not knowing is torture, and gives fertile ground to worry. Her darkest thoughts jump to partner violence statistics, while her averagely dark thoughts imagine Richard persuading Therese to stay together.

Just call her, her mind whispers.

But Carol can’t. She doesn’t want to seem clingy, or mistrustful. She doesn’t want to be like Richard, who hounded Therese with phone calls like he owned her. No, they agreed to talk this evening, and Carol’s going to keep her word. Even if it’s making this drive feel interminable.

She reaches her client’s house just east of Buffalo at 7:30. It’s all she can do not to rush through it as fast as possible. This is a family who will doubtless refer other clients to her. She needs to grease the wheels. But their friendly chit chat, the gushing over her work—she can barely pay attention, so anxious to get to the hotel and call Therese. Luckily, her client seems sensitive to the fact that she’s been driving all day, and urges her to go get some sleep before her drive home. Recommends her a restaurant for breakfast. Gratefully, Carol says goodbye, and she’s back on the road in no time, continuing into the city proper. 

She’s checked in by 8:30, tossing her carry-on and coat onto the bed, and just about to call Therese when her phone rings. It’s Harge.

“Hello?” greets Carol uncertainly.

“Mommy!”

Carol breathes a sigh of relief. Just Rindy’s bedtime call. 

“Hello, my Darling,” she cries, sitting down on the bed.

“Mommy, Daddy let me stay up late last night! I wanted to stay up all the way to midnight but I guess I fell asleep. But Daddy gave me fuzzy apple juice cuz that’s what people have on New Year’s, and it made my nose itch. Then, today, Daddy had to work and Vanessa came and got me and we went to the movies! It was the one about—”

Carol listens as Rindy takes her through the entire plot of some movie about animals, oohing and gasping at the appropriate times, and wondering privately why Harge was working, and wishing with a sudden tightness in her throat that she was with Rindy now, holding her as she tells her stories. Sharing custody has given her a lot more freedom, but it has also been the most painful part of the divorce, by far.

Then Rindy cries, “Mommy, I get to see you tomorrow!”

“Not til Monday, sweet pea,” Carol corrects. “I’m going to come pick you up in two days.”

“No, Mommy, that’s not what Daddy said,” Rindy argues. “He said tomorrow.”

Carol feels a sudden frisson of unease. “Baby, where is your daddy? Why don’t you let me talk to him for a minute?”

Harge must have been right there, because suddenly his brusque voice is on the phone. “Carol. Yes, I have to bring Rindy back to you tomorrow. I know you’re dropping off some chairs or something but if I can have her to you by noon, that would be best.”

Carol is momentarily too stunned to react, and then, a wave of irritation goes through her. “No, Harge, that wouldn’t be best. You have Rindy through Monday. You can’t change plans at the last minute like this.”

“Carol, don’t be difficult. Something has come up with work and Vanessa is off tomorrow. I need you to take her.”

“No, Harge.”

Now his anger is palpable. “Jesus, Carol, I thought you’d want her!”

Carol imagines Rindy nearby, listening in, and in a fury she hisses at him, “Don’t talk like that in front of her!

He huffs, “Fine, hold on.”

He must be walking out of the room, and Carol tells him, “Of course I want her, but I can’t tomorrow. I won’t be home in time, for one, and I have plans once I’m back.”

“What, with Abby!? I’m sure you can change them!”

Carol sets her teeth, her body vibrating with rage. In the past, she would have caved. Let him bully her. Let her own guilt about the divorce and what it’s done to Rindy stop her from sticking up for herself. But meeting Therese has made her realize—Harge has no claim on her anymore, no right to demand she change her life for him. And if he’s ever really going to learn that, it has to start now.

“It’s none of your goddamn business who my plans are with and no, I can’t change them.”

Harge falls silent. Carol knows it isn’t a silence of acquiescence, but of calculation. She can practically see his brow furrowing as he thinks through his next plan of attack.

“So what do you suggest I do?” he asks at last, voice cold and accusatory, as if this whole thing is her fault.

Carol fights like hell against the impulse to scream at him. Finally, breathing in through her nose, she says, “What about your mother?”

“She can’t tomorrow; she’s at the club all day for a benefit.”

Carol breathes out. “What about Cy and Jeanette? They’re always saying they’d love to have her.”

Another pause, Harge obviously thinking about it. “Will you call her?” he asks.

Carol digs her palm into her forehead, and in as calm a voice as she can manage, replies, “Harge, you said you wanted joint custody. That means that you have to share these responsibilities. I am away for work. You have Jeanette’s number so you can call her. I’m not your secretary.”

He sneers, “Don’t be condescending, Carol.”

That’s the last she can take.

“Don’t behave like a useless child, Harge! You’re her father. Be a father!”

He hangs up on her.

“Fuck!” Carol snaps, and throws her phone down on the bed. “Fuck!”

She digs into her purse for the pack of cigarettes she bought on her way out of town. She’s just resolved to go downstairs to smoke when her phone starts to ring again. She looks angrily at the caller ID—

It’s Therese.

Carol freezes, staring. Adrenaline has flooded her body; her eyes are hot with the tears she’s trying to control. She doesn’t want to talk to Therese when she’s like this—doesn’t want her to hear the anger and pain in her voice. She should reject the call. Take a shower to calm down. Call her after.

Carol picks up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Carol?”

“Yes—hi.”

“Hi.”

There’s a beat of silence, an awkward hesitation from both of them, and then Therese says again, low and bashful, “Hi.”

Something about this, the sweetness of this, makes Carol’s body unclench. She releases a soft chuckle, feeling gentleness return to her body. She puts her feet up on the bed and sits back against the headboard. She wipes a hand down her face, rubbing away the few tears that had leaked out. She murmurs, “How are you?”

“Oh, I… I’m fine. Sorry, I started my break a little earlier than I expected. Is this a bad time?”

“No,” says Carol definitively. “No, this is perfect.”

Another silence, but this time it doesn’t feel awkward, but rather, shy, and pleased.

“How was your drive?”

“Long. I wished you were with me.”

She can practically see Therese’s smile, revels the girl’s soft voice saying, “Me, too. I kept wanting to call you to see how you were, but I didn’t want to bother you while you were driving.”

Carol nearly laughs at the irony, but is prevented when she notices for the first time that Therese’s voice is rough. She sounds exhausted. Worriedly, Carol asks her, “Are you okay? Did you—?”

She can’t bring herself to say the words, afraid to seem desperate, but in the end it’s not necessary because Therese tells her, “Yes. I talked to him this morning. It took almost an hour to get it through to him that I was serious. He… wasn’t happy.”

Carol remembers when she finally told Harge that she wanted more than a separation, but a divorce. His blustering and yelling and refusals. The whole thing was awful. She tells Therese, “I’m sorry, Sweetheart. These things are awful. Was he—was he terrible to you?”

Harge’s insults. Harge’s accusations.

Therese sighs. “Yes, a little. He guessed right away that you were the reason. He accused me of having an affair with you, which I guess I couldn’t really deny.”

Carol feels a hit of guilt. Of personal responsibility—

“But I didn’t care about that,” Therese replies. “He’s cheated on me, too, it turns out. He’s always going out to bars while I’m working and apparently I never put out enough, so there have been quite a few one night stands.”

Anger surges through Carol, anger and dread at the thought of Therese exposed to this kind of intentionally hurtful revelation. But it also doesn’t escape her notice (or fail to produce a vindictive pleasure) that Therese and Richard have apparently not been having much sex.

Therese sighs again, wearily. She says, “I went to the clinic right afterwards to get checked. I rushed my results so I should know by tomorrow if I’m clean. I just… want to be sure, before we see each other.”

Those words make something completely different surge through Carol. Worry, yes, of course (if Richard has exposed her to something, Carol will kill him), but also… a rather embarrassing and incongruous shiver of arousal. Therese wants to be sure. Sure for them. Sure, so that they can—

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Carol tells her gently. “Everything will be fine. Just so you know, I…” she clears her throat. “It’s been a long time for me, and… I got checked afterwards. So… you don’t have to worry about that.”

Carol dreads what Therese will think of this—worries if she’ll think it’s strange for a married woman to get tested after sex with her husband, and thus surmise that Harge isn’t the last person she had sex with. No, that honor goes to some woman in a bar whose name Carol never learned and whose face she barely remembers. Just thinking of it washes her with shame, with fear that she will have to explain, but—

“I wasn’t worried,” says Therese, quietly. “I just… wish I was with you right now. Richard said some really awful things.”

“Whatever he said, he’s wrong,” says Carol, with bite. Then, calming down. “Tell me what he said.”

There’s a long silence. Therese’s self-consciousness and uncertainty are obvious when she finally answers, “He says you’ll get tired of me. That I’ll be begging him in a couple of weeks to take me back.”

Carol grinds her jaw, curses Richard up and down in her head. But with Therese, she is soft and gentle. “But we’ve discussed this already, haven’t we, Darling? Are you still worried about it? Worried that you’re just a passing diversion to me?”

She hears Therese swallow, before at last she admits with laudable courage, “A little, I think…”

Carol can’t help it; she laughs softly, full of self-deprecation. Therese asks, “What?”

“Oh, it’s just… I’ve been worried that you won’t want me. That you’ll regret leaving Richard or that this is just a… novelty for you.”

Now Therese laughs, a throaty chuckle that wakes up Carol’s senses.

“You’re definitely a novelty,” Therese tells her. “But not one I would ever regret.”

Carol leans her head back on the headboard; closes her eyes. She breathes in slowly and lets it out. “Me, neither,” she says. And then, with all the sincerity that she feels— “You’re not a diversion, Therese.”

She wants to say, ‘You’re so much more than that.’ But she can’t quite bring herself to do it. Therese asks, “Can you still come over tomorrow?”

Carol says, “You talked to Phil?”

“Yeah. He switched shifts with me. I’ll be done at 6 and home by 6:30.”

“Should I come over at 7? 8?”

“Come at 7,” Therese replies, with just a hint of very pleasing urgency in her voice. Apparently Carol isn’t the only one who can’t stand this waiting game. “And… well, if you want to you could… spend the night.”

Carol nearly pumps her fist in the air. Instead, she answers very calmly, “I’d like that.”

“Okay,” Therese’s voice is full of her smile. What Carol wouldn’t give to touch her right now, to kiss that perfect bottom lip. Therese says shyly, “I… miss you. Is that weird?”

“No,” Carol swiftly assures her. “I don’t think it’s weird. I feel the same way.”

Therese hesitates, and then, “I can’t stop thinking about you,” she whispers, an ache in her voice. “I can’t stop thinking about last night and… this morning.”

Carol swallows. The arousal she has been managing to keep at bay surges through her in a rush. She rubs the back of her neck. Slides her hand down, to the base of her own throat, remembering when she loosed the tie from around Therese’s neck. She closes her eyes again, picturing Therese on the phone. Is she out behind the bar again? Sitting at the table as they did last night?

“Is that so?” Carol drawls

“I—” Therese breathes in and lets it out slowly. “I’ve never… like that… before.”

Carol’s mouth goes dry. Almost unconsciously, her hand moves from her throat, down between her breasts, trailing across her own stomach. She asks in her lowest voice, “Was it all right?”

“Yes,” Therese murmurs, sounding like silk, like sin, like the most delicious thing Carol has ever heard. “It was perfect. You were perfect.”

Carol can’t help herself. Her hand has slid down to the waistband of her trousers. She toys absently with the button, and asks, “What was perfect about it? How did it make you feel?”

“Good,” Therese answers, a slight roughness in her voice. “And… nervous. But also—so safe.”

That makes such a bloom of happiness erupt in Carol’s heart that for a moment she forgets her arousal, eyes pricking with tears of joy and tenderness and determination that Therese will always feel that way. And then—

“I just wish that…”

Therese cuts off again. Carol swallows, and asks tentatively, “What do you wish?”

A long pause, Therese clearly weighing her options. When she speaks, her voice slides through Carol’s veins with a liquidity as warm and overwhelming as the most potent drug:

“I wish I could have returned the favor.”

Carol barely chokes off a whimper. The button on her slacks comes free. She slips underneath, cups herself over her underwear, remembering what it was like to touch Therese through her boxers. The heat. The dampness. Carol squeezes, just as she squeezed Therese, and this time she can’t prevent a soft, breathless sigh.

“Carol?” Therese asks, all gravel.

Carol’s voice is tremulous, “Yes?”

“I have to go back to work in a minute.”

No. Don’t go. Talk to me.

“But… I was wondering if maybe you could… do something for me.”

Carol forces her hand to still. She says, “Anything.”

A long silence. Therese is clearly steeling herself, until—

“Will you touch yourself for me?”

Carol moans. Her hand slips inside her underwear and down to where she is already wet and silky. Her back arches off the headboard, her head pressing back against it, her body simmering with need.

“Will you?” Therese asks her again, and if she sounded shy and uncertain before, now there is just the faintest charge of authority in her voice, as intoxicating across hundreds of miles of distance as the taste of her mouth and the feel of her body and the way she whimpers and sighs—

“Yes,” Carol groans. “God, yes.”

She can hear the smile in Therese’s voice, pleased, a little smug. “Good. I’m going to think about that. Think about how gorgeous you are. I probably won’t be able to focus on a single drink I make. All my customers will be furious with me. Because I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“Jesus, Therese,” Carol whimpers. She can’t help herself. Her fingers slide inside. She clenches, burning all over.  

“Carol?” Therese draws out her name like the most decadent note in an expensive wine.

Carol’s fingers have started to move. She gasps, “Yes?”

Therese tells her, “Don’t stop… I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And the call ends. Carol groans helplessly, and keeps going.

Chapter Text

Therese gets home at 6:34, and practically runs up the stairs to her apartment, body charged with nervousness and anticipation.

She’s in the shower by 6:37. She’s out of the shower by 6:40. Thank God her hair is short enough and fine enough that she’s got it dried in less than five minutes. Naked, she hurries into her bedroom, throws open her closet, and stops short in a sudden panic of uncertainty.

What the fuck do you wear for something like this? What the fuck do you wear when you want to blow a woman’s mind but also just want to be naked with her as quickly as possible? Should she greet Carol in her bathrobe, nothing underneath? Should she go all out? Dress and makeup and lingerie?

Well, that will be tough. The closest thing she’s got to lingerie is a pair of lacy black boyshorts. She’s got a black bra but it’s been in the wash too many times, old and a little frayed along the band. Damn it.

Then Therese remembers the sight of Carol, braless, her hard nipples practically visible through the thin material of the white tank top.

Inspiration.

No bra. She finds a slinky gray blue button down in the back of the closet—silk, one of her rare indulgences. She shrugs it on but buttons only to the middle of her chest, observing the expanse of pale skin she’s left exposed. Yeah, okay, this could work. Sexy and smart but not too dressy. Jeans to go with it. But nice jeans, a gray wash, and clean, thank God. Now. Shoes?

Therese looks helplessly at her shoe basket, all sneakers and loafers for work and one pair of funeral heels.

Okay, fuck shoes.

Therese finishes dressing and appraises herself skeptically. She’ll never be as elegant as Carol, never capture her statuesque grandeur, her goddess-like perfection, but… she looks good. And if the way Carol kissed her two nights ago, touched her yesterday morning, moaned for her on the phone last night, are any indication, then Carol definitely finds her attractive. Wants her.

Therese flushes hot, looking at the clock. 6:53. Is Carol a punctual person? Always late? Therese hasn’t seen her enough times to know, and that thought produces a frisson of anxiety. There are so many things she doesn’t know about Carol. Little details that she can’t wait to figure out (favorite color, favorite food, favorite movie); important truths she longs to discover (childhood dreams; first love; secret fears).

And of course, the other things. Like how she looks naked. How she moves, naked. How she tastes. What she likes…

Her thoughts travel back to yesterday morning. Breaking up with Richard was more awkward than painful. Finding out he had been cheating on her impacted her much less than he seemed to hope it would. Maybe it was her muted, indifferent reaction that lead him to lash out with the only comment that did hurt her—

“Well, I hope she likes fucking a dead fish, Therese, because you’re probably the most frigid girl I’ve ever met!”

That was her cue to leave, and as she’d taken the elevator downstairs, stunned by Richard’s vitriol, she was embarrassed to feel tears gathering in her eyes. Not because of him. She didn’t give a shit whether he had been bored by their sex life. No, what bothered her was the dread that he might be right—that Carol would find her boring. That she would be too timid, too uninformed, too uninteresting to really please a woman like Carol. Suddenly, thinking about how Carol had touched her that morning, and how she had failed to reciprocate, filled her with regret. Had Carol been disappointed by her inaction? Offended, even? Did Carol think she was selfish and unimaginative?

And when they had sex for real—would Therese only compound those impressions? Stepping out onto the street, hurrying toward the nearest subway station, Therese had felt miserable with doubt.

Listening to Carol touch herself last night was a much-needed ego boost. Not only because it was one of the hottest fucking things she’d ever heard, but because it was Therese’s idea. Therese asked her to touch herself, Therese coaxed her to keep going, Therese proved that she had an imagination and cared about Carol’s pleasure and wanted her to feel good. Every soft, needy sound Carol made was reassurance, was promise, was hope.

But even so… it hasn’t squashed the fear of disappointing her. Therese has only had sex with three people, and while the first two weren’t nearly as bad as Richard, they also failed to produce any deeper emotion in her. And she never really felt like she knew what she was doing. Wondered if she was too shy and inexperienced. Carol is clearly the opposite of shy and inexperienced. She’s a woman whose mere presence oozes good sex. How can Therese possibly compare to the no doubt long list of exciting lovers she has had?

Just relax, Therese tells herself nervously. You’ll figure it out together. Carol will be patient with you. Gentle. She’ll show you—

The buzzing at the door makes her jump. She rushes to the intercom, pressing the button.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.” Carol’s voice is breezily casual. A beat of silence. Then, “Wanna buzz me in?”

“Oh, yes! Third floor, apartment—”

“I remember,” Carol says dryly.

Flushing, Therese hits the building buzzer. She paces up and down her short hallway, calculating how long it will take Carol to reach her door. She checks the kitchen and the living room, both as clean as they were when she left this morning. Suddenly it occurs to her—will Carol have eaten? Should she have gotten food? Does she even have anything to drink in her fridge?

When Carol knocks, Therese stands for a long moment staring at the door. She doesn’t want to seem pathetically eager. She takes two deep breaths. Then a third for good measure. She walks slowly and calmly to the door, and opens it.

The Carol Ross who stands before her is the Carol Ross from her fucking dreams. Tall and lean and oozing confidence. Black cigarette pants and a fitted gray t-shirt. Hair in loose blonde waves and makeup pristine, with tasteful gold studs in her ears. But the real pièce de resistance is her blue velvet blazer. So few women could pull this off, but Carol makes it look effortless. And the way her slow, perusing gaze snatches the air from Therese’s lungs—that is effortless, too.

“Hey, slow poke,” she drawls.

Therese says softly, helplessly, “Hey…”

Carol is holding a leather overnight bag in one hand, her other hand tucked in her pocket, and she’s smirking now, looking very pleased.

Therese snaps out of it enough to say, “Here, let me take your bag?”

Carol allows it, and with this task in hand Therese turns to carry it into the living room. Carol follows her, past her tiny kitchen on the left and past her bathroom and bedroom doors on the right. Therese places the bag on the couch, and when she turns around, her heart catches in her throat. Carol has stopped in the hallway. She’s gazing at the pictures on the wall. Therese’s pictures. Including the one Therese took of her, at the farm.

Frozen, Therese watches as Carol takes it in. She stands with both hands resting on one hip, head tilted and observing, serious, respectful.

Therese steps nervously closer, says meekly, “It’s not very good, I was rushed. I mean, I can do better.”

But Carol, still looking at the photograph of the farm, murmurs, “It’s perfect.”

That single word transports Therese from dread to joy. Warmth floods through her, eyes cutting away as she blushes. When she looks back, Carol’s eyes have shifted to her, and she’s smiling so warmly. She looks so… proud. Therese doesn’t know if anyone has ever looked at her that way.

“You’re very talented,” says Carol. “I like the composition, the way you’re using contrast. Do you normally work in black and white?”

Of course Carol has intelligent things to say about her work. Therese beams. “Not always. But there was something about that shot. I thought you looked like a 1950s movie star. I wanted to capture that aesthetic.”

Color appears high on Carol’s cheekbones as she looks at the photo again. “Well,” she says, “you captured that aesthetic.” Then she looks at Therese, smiling slowly and running her eyes from her socked feet, up her torso (stalling on the open buttons of her shirt) and then to her face. The hunger in her eyes is muted, controlled—but it’s there. “You’ve got a bit of a 1950s aesthetics yourself, Ms. Belivet.”

Therese rolls her eyes bashfully. “Please don’t call me Audrey Hepburn.”

“Hmm,” Carol shakes her head. “No, not quite. More like a young Jean Simmons. Do you know her?”

“I—not really.”

Carol nods. “She was gorgeous.” Another beat. “Almost as gorgeous as you, Therese.”

Therese breathes in deeply and lets it out. Her eyes are locked with Carol’s; she couldn’t look away, even if she wanted to. Something has shifted between them, a ratcheting of tension, a thickening in the air as of storm clouds and heat. It occurs to Therese—she’s only known this woman for a couple of weeks. It shouldn’t feel like she’s been waiting her whole life to touch her. And yet it does feel that way. It’s like she’s known Carol for years, but never had permission to get close. Until now. And now she can practically taste the weight and warmth of Carol’s parted lips, and she can hear her own heart beating with anticipation, and the silk shirt against her bare breasts is like a teasing premonition of Carol’s mouth—

“Therese,” Carol murmurs. Her eyes are blazing. Her body is tight as a spring. She asks, “Do you still want this?”

The question might have been confusing, but Therese knows intuitively what it means. Not an assertion of hesitation—but a desire to show Therese that nothing will happen that she isn’t ready for. The kindness of this is almost overwhelming. It makes her feel instantly, utterly safe, as she never felt with Richard, as she never could have felt with Richard. Because Richard isn’t Carol. And Carol is what she wants.

Therese moves toward her without answering. Her movement is the answer. Carol’s eyes flash; she steps forward, and then their bodies are sliding together. Therese crosses her arms behind Carol’s neck, pulling her down, and Carol smooths her hands onto Therese’s hips, pulling her in, and when they kiss, it’s as if Therese has finally found a home.

And God… Carol is such a good kisser. Therese nearly giggles at the adolescent thought, but it’s true! Carol’s mouth is warm and soft, the pressure is perfect, the hunger is consuming—it gives permission, to Therese’s hunger. So Therese kisses her back, and parts her lips and moans with delight as Carol’s tongue flicks against her own. That little dart of velvet wetness spears her with need. She tightens her arms, pushing herself up against Carol. Carol’s hands slide down from her hips, onto her ass, and squeeze.

Therese mumbles against her mouth, “Can we…?”

And Carol nods into their kiss, “Yes—please—” and starts guiding them backwards, toward Therese’s room. She must have taken note of exactly where it is, for soon they are in the door frame, and then they are pressed against the door, and their kisses are deepening, quickening, their breaths heavy and urgent as Carol’s hands suddenly squeeze again, and lift.

And fuck if it isn’t the hottest thing Therese has ever felt. She remembers the sight of Carol’s biceps in that tank top. The sculpted muscle of her shoulders and back. All of her lean and strong, and she proves it now, as Therese’s legs lock around her waist and Carol carries her, effortless, into the dark bedroom. Therese has the wherewithal to swat the light switch, and the bedside light comes on in a soft glow. Therese was always relieved when Richard left the lights off. But tonight—she wants to see Carol, tonight.

Carol lowers her onto the bed as carefully as if she was made from glass, and then slides on top of her, still kissing. The weight of her is incredible. Therese pushes at the shoulders of the blazer, and Carol helps her by shrugging it off. She hears the sound of Carol kicking off her shoes, and Therese reaches for her gray t-shirt, wanting to strip it from her. Suddenly Carol’s hands are on hers, moving them away, pressing them gently onto the bed. Therese whimpers. Carol smiles into her mouth.

“Patience,” she murmurs. Therese whines, but Carol keeps smiling, keeps gently holding her down. “I want to take my time with you, Sweetheart.”

Therese huffs with impatience. “Can you take your time while naked?” she asks.

Watching the lust darken Carol’s eyes is one of the most satisfying things Therese has ever experienced. When she reaches for Carol’s t-shirt this time, Carol doesn’t stop her—helps her slip it off over her head; starts pulling at the buttons of Therese’s shirt as Therese finds the zipper on Carol’s pants. She’s got it all the way down when Carol pulls the sides of her shirt apart—only to stop still and look at her with wide eyes.  

“Jesus,” Carol moans.

Therese shivers; feels her nipples harden under Carol’s gaze. When Richard stared at her breasts, there was something slack jawed and gross about it. But Carol’s eyes are running over her with a kind of dreamy awe, as if Therese’s body has enchanted her. Therese takes the opportunity for her own perusal, nearly swooning at the spread of Carol’s bare stomach, of her breasts contained in a simple maroon bralette, of her sharp collarbones and her long, exquisite neck. She’s so… feminine, and Therese finds herself reacting to it as she never could have imagined, wanting to touch, wanting to feel. When their eyes inevitably meet again, Carol’s shine with something so much deeper, so much more incredible, than mere arousal.

Then Carol bends forward, and murmurs into her mouth, “I’ve wanted this so much…”

A shiver goes through Therese. “Really?” she asks, still amazed that a woman like Carol would want—

Carol’s chuckle is low, sinful. “Yes. Really.”

Therese draws Carol’s head back so can look into her eyes. “Since when?” she asks. She knows she’s fishing, but she can’t care. She wants to know everything, and the thought of Carol being consumed with this desire makes her feel a little less embarrassed by her own desperate feelings.

Carol grins at her. “Hard to say. You snuck up out of nowhere, didn’t you? But definitely since you winked at me at the bar.”

Now Therese nearly preens with delight. She remembers Carol’s slightly flustered behavior as she asked for a glass of water. But Therese could never have guessed that this goddess of a woman would react to her so strongly. Therese kisses her sweetly, and admits, “When I looked up and saw you standing there I—God, I forgot how to make words. You were so beautiful, Carol, and I—I’d never reacted to anyone that way, before.” 

“What way?” Carol asks, eyes keen. She’s fishing, too.

“I wanted you,” Therese says. Carol’s lips part; her pupils dilate. “I didn’t even understand what was happening to me but from the moment I saw you, I wanted to touch you, to kiss you. I wanted you.”

Carol’s eyes glow. Her hand drifts down Therese’s torso, teasing the skin between her breasts. Therese shivers.

“I want you now,” Carol says, pushing aside a few pieces of Therese’s hair, looking into her eyes with seriousness and desire. “Can I touch you?”

Therese swallows, shivers, wants to say yes but feels suddenly that she can’t go on until she tells her—

“I haven’t—” she breaks off. Carol frowns in concern and Therese blurts, “I’m—a little—”

At that the concern melts into tenderness. “It’s all right, Sweetheart,” Carol tells her. “I know this is new for you. We don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for. We can go as slow as you need.”

Therese’s eyes widen at her misunderstanding. She insists, “No, I don’t want to go slow!”

Carol’s brows hike upwards, and realizing what she’s said, Therese blushes crimson. She closes her eyes for a moment, trying to get herself under control, aware of the little rumbling chuckle of amusement from Carol. She opens her eyes again, breathes in and lets it out slowly. “What I mean is… I’m not nervous to be with you. It’s just been a really long time since anyone…” Carol frowns again, confused, and Therese squeaks, “since I was able to… to come. With someone. And yesterday, with you. It was… it was so good, Carol, it was—it was perfect. And I think I’m just… just afraid that…”

As soon as she says it, as soon as she sees Carol’s slow blink, Therese feels a flush of humiliation. Fuck, what is wrong with her? She’s not making any sense. Of course Carol will be able to make her come. Carol barely touched her yesterday and it made her come harder than she has in months. So how can she explain that this feels different? That being naked with her, touching her, being touched by her with nothing between them, makes her worry—what if yesterday was a fluke? What if this time Therese can’t relax, can’t let go, can’t—

Then Carol says, “You didn’t come with Richard?”

Therese’s eyes cut away. She’s suddenly terrified she’s going to cry. She shakes her head, mumbles, “No, he… never, with him.” 

When she gets no response she chances a look at Carol again, and sees an expression cross her face that she can’t read. It soon vanishes, becoming a look, not of distaste or discomfort, but of sweetness and warmth. Therese nearly gasps with relief. Carol kisses her gently.

“Okay,” she murmurs. “That’s okay, Sweetheart. Can I ask your something?”

“Yes…”

“Have you found it difficult, in other situations? When you touch yourself, is it hard for you to come like that?”

Therese blushes, but Carol is so matter-of-fact and unembarrassed, that it’s impossible not to respond honestly, “No, I can always come like that. I mean, almost always, anyway. Unless I’m too tired.”

“I see,” hums Carol, her voice taking on a note that pierces through Therese’s embarrassment—that slides down her body and settles between her legs. A note of pleasure, of curiosity, of promise. “And are you tired now?” Carol asks.

The heat between her legs only intensifies, becomes an even stronger ache of need.

“No,” she says. 

Carol smiles. Slow and feline. “Well, then… I suppose yesterday could have been beginner’s luck. So do you mind… if I try again?”

Therese whimpers, overcome.

“No, I—I don’t mind.”

“Mmhmm,” Carol murmurs, brushing their lips together. Therese can feel the shape of her smile, gentle, and confident, and hungry. “In that case…”

And then she presses closer. Presses deeper. Therese’s mouth opens to her, and as Carol’s tongue slides across her own it’s like some barrier Therese hadn’t even known she was erecting comes down with a crash. She lifts up, kissing her back, nodding as she reaches for Carol’s loose pants and starts to push them down, over her hips, over her ass. She only gets about halfway down her thighs when Carol breaks their kiss, dipping her head to start mouthing at her neck. Therese shivers, arching, and Carol slides further down. She kisses between her breasts, kisses across her ribs, kisses her belly—all slow and perusing, like she wants to memorize her. Therese’s stomach flexes under her searching mouth, hips churning as Carol’s hand follows the path of her kisses. Nails pricks her skin. It’s torturously slow, tortuously indulgent.

“Please,” she whimpers. “Please.”

Carol moans against her belly button, says, “Don’t want to—to rush you.”

Rush any less and you’ll kill me, Therese thinks, weaving her hands into Carol’s hair. She pulls her back up. Kisses her hard. Drags her tongue up her jaw to the tender spot behind her ear. She nibbles her there, where her perfume is an intoxicating bloom, and goosebumps erupt under her lips. She follows their trail to Carol’s throat, and bites. Carol shudders, and her hips push forward, into the cradle of her thighs. Therese jerks at the pressure, moans with relief. She digs her fingers into Carol’s ass, and Carol rocks into her. Suddenly they are both panting for breath, but then Therese realizes that Carol still has most of her clothes on.

Fuck that.

She wraps her arms around Carol’s shoulders. She wraps her legs around Carol’s hips. Then, with all the strength in her small body, she rolls them over.

Carol squeaks in surprise. Suddenly Therese is sat astride her thighs, looking down at the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen. Carol grabs at her hips, holding her steady, and Therese bends to her this time, sliding her tongue into her mouth for a slow, deep kiss that seems to go on for ages.  

When she pulls back, Carol’s eyes are practically black, her lips swollen. Therese inches down the bed, reaching for Carol’s pants that are still caught around her thighs. She takes note of a pair of high waisted maroon panties, perfectly matched to the bralette. She drags the pants down her legs and rises so that she can finish pulling them off. Then, standing beside the bed, she pushes her jeans down as well, socks, too, so that she is naked except for the lacy boyshorts. Where Carol’s eyes fasten, instantly.

“You…” Carol murmurs, and Therese is frozen waiting for her pronouncement. Their eyes meet again. Carol sits up, reaching for her. “Come here.”

Therese obeys. Crawls into her lap. Carol drags their mouths back together and Therese begs her, “Please. Please, Carol, just—just fuck me.”

In a flash, she’s on her back, Carol surging over her, grabbing her arms, holding them above her head. Suddenly Carol’s mouth is on her chest again, sliding down, licking, biting her way to Therese’s breast. She licks once over a hard peak, and Therese whines and pleads, and finally Carol takes her nipple in her mouth, sucking. A sob shakes Therese’s body, sensation traveling like a lightning bolt to the throbbing mess between her legs. She locks her thighs against Carol’s hips again, thrusting forward in an effort to get closer. Carol finds her way to her other nipple, moaning against her as she releases her arms to grab her hips and drag her closer. The pressure hits Therese exactly where she needs it, and her head tips back. Her back arches; her body lifts up into Carol’s, wanting to be as close to her as possible, to be absorbed into her, a capillary action that will fuse them together.

Carol’s voice comes to her, a growling question, “What do you like?”

Therese drags her back up to her mouth, kissing her hard as their lower bodies push together, find a rhythm, rocking, rocking.

“Anything,” Therese gasps. She grabs at the band of Carol’s bralette, and Carol helps her to drag it over her head. She hardly has a moment to glimpse Carol’s full breasts before they are pressing down into hers, a warm and tantalizing weight that makes both women sigh. Therese urges her, “You—you can do anything, please—”

But Carol, sliding down again, sucking her nipples again, is apparently determined to kill her with consideration.

“Fingers?” she asks.

Therese shudders, nodding.

“Can I go inside you?”

“Yes, fuck—yes—”

Carol wrestles Therese’s boyshorts down her thighs; abandons her breasts to start moving closer and closer to where Therese has become a river of need.

“… Can I go down on you?” 

Just the thought sends heat lancing through her. Therese nods desperately, lifting her hips, and thank God Carol seems to understand this as permission. Because now Carol has gotten her underwear off, and Carol is kneeling between her legs, parting them, looking up long enough to send her an absolutely devious grin, and then Carol is—

Fuck!” Therese gasps, hands scrabbling. “Oh, fuck, fuck…”

She hears Carol’s sound of delight, feels the silky slide of that tongue against her, feels the gentle probing, the exploration, the long slow licks that make sweat bead on every inch of Therese’s shuddering body.

“Baby,” Carol groans. “You taste incredible.”

Therese presses the back of her wrist against her mouth; bites her hand and sobs. She always thought maybe she didn’t like oral sex. Her reactions to it were always so flat; either it felt ticklish or it felt irritating or it felt like… nothing at all. But now, Carol puts her thighs over her shoulders and takes her into her mouth to lick and suck and somehow it’s gentle and ferocious at the same time. And it feels so. fucking. good.

“Carol,” she whimpers. “Carol, God—fuck—”

Carol experiments. Carol plays. Carol darts her tongue inside her and chuckles throatily at Therese’s answering gasp. She slides up from her opening, sucking at her lips on the way, reaching her clit with slow, testing strokes. Circles the tip til Therese almost screams. A moment later Carol has covered her with her mouth, suckling. If Therese was wet before, it’s like this suction has released a dam. Therese feels the wetness gathering on her inner thighs, gathering in Carol’s mouth, making everything slippery and warm and so good so good so good…

Carol uses gentle fingers to pull back the hood of her clit—tongues at the sensitive nerves and Therese shouts, fisting the sheets. Carol moans at her reaction, and the vibration of it is devastating. In a burst of shock and almost panic Therese’s realizes—she’s about to come. It’s only been a couple of minutes and already she’s—she’s—

“Carol—Carol, wait!”

Carol instantly pulls back. In the same breath, she’s crawling back up her body, reaching for her face, eyes full of worry and tenderness and—

“I’m sorry—God, are you okay? Did I—”

Therese grabs her before she can keep talking. She kisses her, breathless and overwhelmed. To her relief, Carol only hesitates a moment before relaxing into the kiss, kissing her back, deeply. In the past, Therese always avoided kissing anyone after they’d gone down at her. But Carol’s mouth is hot and slick and her tongue tastes rich and Therese isn’t ashamed.

“I’m okay,” she gasps. “I’m okay, I just—I just need—”

She doesn’t know how to say the words so instead she reaches for Carol’s hand. Takes and draws it down between her legs. Instantly, the latent concern in Carol’s eyes melts into understanding, fingers dipping into her wetness.

“Yes,” Therese gasps. “Yes, that. I want that. Please.” 

Carol dips lower, toys with her opening and then slips a single finger inside. Therese whines with need, and grabs her again, kisses her again. She can’t help it. She just wants to keep kissing her—forever. Carol cradles her jaw with her free hand and kisses her back. She drags her finger out and comes back with two, the fullness taking Therese’s breath away.

“Like that?” Carol asks.

“Yes—yes!”

Carol groans and nods and reaches deep, and then her fingers are moving, stroking, hooking against the front of her cunt where she is so swollen and sensitive that the merest pressure makes sweat break out across her skin. Therese wraps her arms around Carol’s shoulders, holding her close. Yes, this is what she needs. Carol close, like this. Carol covering her body. To be surrounded by her warmth. Surrounded by her rich and spicy and intoxicating smell. To be full with her fingers and full with her closeness and it’s—it’s—

Don’t stop—”

Carol answers by rotating her wrist, laying her thumb against the cherry redness of Therese’s clit, that she starts to rub. Her fingers stroke and her thumb rubs and the combination makes Therese thrash beneath her.

“Does it feel good?” Carol purrs. Therese can only nod, her eyes squeezing shut, her head tipping back as a deep ache of pleasure starts to bloom outward. “Do you want more?”

She whimpers, and then a third finger is joining the first two, and the thumb on her clit presses a little harder, rubs a little faster. Her thighs start to shake. Her head starts to spin. There’s a sudden moment of crystalline stillness, like standing on the edge of a cliff looking out at eternity—and then she tips forward, and flies.

Chapter Text

Carol watches, awed, as Therese shakes apart in her arms. She can feel it happening, can feel the tension in Therese’s lithe, delicious body, can feel the pulsing of her sex around her fingers, wet and silky and dripping down her wrist. She wants to taste her again—wants to drink down the flavor of her orgasm, to swallow her whole and make her come again. God, she’ll never get enough. She’s already addicted to her, to every flexing inch of her. Her face like this is a picture of ecstasy and release, lips parted as she cries out, flush spreading from her chest, up her throat, to the height of her cheekbones.

By the time she starts coming down, Carol can feel her own wetness on her inner thighs. She’s practically clenching with want. Abby told her once about making love to a woman and getting so caught up that she came when the woman came, just from watching her. Carol thought this was bullshit. Now, she’s not so sure. She’s breathing almost as hard as Therese, and her thighs are trembling in a way they normally only do after she’s come, and deep inside she can feel the pulse of her own pleasure, like a heartbeat. Jesus Christ if Therese so much as looked at her cunt right now, she’s convinced she’d go off like a rocket.

“Carol,” Therese whimpers, sounding both exhausted and elated, her gorgeous green eyes fluttering open, hazy with pleasure. “Oh, God… Carol.”

Carol grins, a full on, shit-eating grin of pride and delight. She lifts her thumb away from Therese’s clit and holds her fingers still. She doesn’t want to overstimulate her, but she’s not ready to pull out yet, either. She wants to feel this for as long as possible. She bends to press gentle kisses to Therese’s face—her eyebrow, and her temple, and the corner of her mouth and tip of her nose. That last one makes Therese giggle, the purest sound. Therese’s hands, which had collapsed limp at her sides a moment ago, lift to Carol’s face and draw her down into a deep, breathless kiss. When they pull apart, all Carol can do is stare at her.

Therese giggles again. “What?” she asks, but she doesn’t sound embarrassed.

Carol shakes her head. She blurts a little laugh and says in amazement, “What? You, Angel. You’re what.”

Therese glows, dimples on display, eyes alight.

“I’m pretty sure you’re what,” Therese tells her. Carol beams, and Therese giggles again.

Then, still smiling, she trails a hand down to Carol’s hand, and helps her gently to pull out. The little clench of her inner muscles, the way her eyelids flutter at the sensation, is almost enough to have Carol diving down between her legs again—but she decides to give her a break. A moment later she’s rewarded for her patience when Therese’s back arches—a long, catlike stretch that has their skin sticking warmly together. Therese groans, and there’s a pop as she rotates her neck, and they both laugh.

“Was that good?” Carol asks her.

A snort of laughter. Undignified but so delightful, and Carol can’t… stop… grinning.

Therese looks into her eyes with unrestrained adoration, saying simply, “Yes. That was good.”

And they both erupt with laughter, because good is far too tame a word for this. Carol feels almost jittery, consumed with joy over what they’ve shared, how different it feels, from anything in her past. She’s had plenty of sex, after all. Before she married Harge she slept with more than her share of women and men. During her marriage, she and Harge both had affairs, brief dalliances that they neither hid from each other nor asked each other to divulge (Abby was the only such affair that troubled their already troubled marriage, because Abby was something different).

It didn’t escape her notice, of course, that none of those affairs were with men, to whom she became less and less attracted as she got older. Sexuality being a moving target, and all that. Really, having the outlet of sex with women is probably one of the only reasons she and Harge stayed together as long as they did. Carol has always loved sex with women. Loved the softness of them, the curves of them; loved the way they taste and how they move. She has always taken satisfaction in knowing that she is good at sex, and always taken pride in her refusal to sleep with people who are selfish or inconsiderate in bed. And so, at the age of thirty-five, she can boast that she has had quite a lot of very good sex in her life.

But this… this…

Carol’s laughter fades to a smile that she can feel pouring out of her like music. Gazing down into Therese’s dilated eyes, seeing her dimpled smile and the sweetness of her face, Carol feels something happen in her chest. A sudden, almost bruising ache. But not of pain. No, what she feels is almost overwhelmingly wonderful.

“Carol?” Therese asks.

It’s only then Carol realizes that her stare has gone a little distant. But Therese doesn’t seem upset by it, only quizzical. She focuses on her again, and chuckles, suddenly nervous that the depths of her feelings are clear in her eyes. And it’s far too soon to be saying something ridiculous like I lo

“What are you thinking about?” Therese asks her.

Therese’s hands have slid around her again, and her fingers are trailing gently up and down her spine. Carol has shifted a little to the side, and now their legs are twined together. Carol’s heart thumps hard at the question. Not wanting to give too much away, she leans in again—deeply gratified by Therese’s soft intake of breath, just before they kiss.

“What am I thinking…” Carol mumbles against her mouth. “I’m thinking… how good you feel. How gorgeous you are. How delicious you taste.” Therese breathes in, fingers pressing against her back. “I’m thinking… I’m not done. Want to touch you again. Taste you again. See if my luck can hold out another, oh… two, three times.”

Therese’s pelvis pushes into hers, and Carol grins against her searching lips, and without further ado starts to meander her way down again. Over breasts and ribs and belly, toward the heavy and intoxicating fragrance that calls to her like a—

But suddenly, Therese’s hands are in her hair. Therese is drawing her back up again, in a manner that brooks no refusal. Surprised, Carol looks up to make sure she’s okay—and is totally unprepared for the devilish little smirk that greets her.

“I don’t think so,” Therese says.

Carol blinks.

“You’ve had your fun,” says Therese archly. “Don’t you think I deserve a turn?”

Carol blinks… again. A shiver travels through her limbs. Her lips part and after a moment she hears herself stammering like a fool, “I—I didn’t—I wasn’t sure you—”

Therese’s low hum interrupts her. Therese’s fingers trail down, finding the edge of her underwear and slipping underneath, touching the bare skin of her ass.

“I’ve been doing some research,” says Therese.

Carol, despite her arousal, rolls her eyes, “I’m gonna kill Abby.”

Therese laughs, “Don’t! She was right. It was really helpful. I’d never read fanfiction before.” Therese lifts up to kiss her under her chin, a gesture of reassurance. Carol feels her frown melt away. When Therese scrapes her teeth town her throat, Carol’s heart starts beating like a drum. “Honestly,” Therese tells her, voice lowering, “I learned a lot.” Her voice holds dark promise, and Carol is suddenly too overcome to give more than a vague sound of inquiry. “I was so nervous all day, about this. Touching you, like this. Worrying if I’d do it right, you know?”

Carol doesn’t know, because Carol thinks that if Therese’s fingers get any closer to where she is pulsing and aching with need, then Therese will discover very quickly what it’s like to do it right.

“But then,” Therese goes on, conversational, lips still trailing along her throat and jaw, “I read some things and I realized that… touching you—it can’t be all that different from touching myself, can it? And I’ve done that, you know. I did that last night.”

Carol whimpers, head tilting back to give her more access. “You—you did?”

“Oh, yeah. As soon as I got home from work. After hearing you on the phone? Imagining you like that? How could I not?”

“Oh, Jesus…”

Now Therese is using both hands—to push Carol’s underwear down her hips. In sudden desperation, Carol helps her, both of them dragging the offensive garment down her thighs, past her knees, til Carol manages to kick them the rest of the way off and reach for Therese’s hand at the same time that Therese is reaching for her and—oh—God—

“Fuck,” Therese gasps, and her eyes are wide, and her lips are parted, and she is slipping delicately between Carol’s legs, an electric shock in every fingertip. “Oh, Carol…”

Carol’s only response is a weak sip of air, her hips canting forward as Therese’s touch goes from whisper soft to solid pressure. Carol has had sex with virgins before, and found that they either freeze, or do a lot of exploring; trying things out, wandering here or there, learning the lay of the land, as it were. It’s hot, of course it’s hot, to be on the receiving end of that first-time curiosity—but it also takes a lot of patience, especially when you’re turned on and just want to be touched the way you like.

Which is why it startles a yelp from her throat when Therese drags her fingers through her once, finds her clit with unerring accuracy, and starts to stroke. Her touch is precise, firm—and yet somehow gentle, her big green eyes gazing up into Carol’s with an expression of amazement.

“You’re so wet,” she whispers.

Carol blurts a laugh, overwhelmed, overcome, her spine bending as she rocks forward.

“I—I—just made you come on my fingers for the first time. Of course I’m wet, Jesus, fuck, Therese—”

Therese’s eyes sparkle. “You liked it that much?”

“God, can’t you tell?”

A fiendish smile from the little minx, who’s now using just the tip of her middle finger to circle Carol clit’s, soft as a whisper, devastating as a tsunami. Carol, still half on her side, needs more, needs closer, needs—just a little more control. She lifts up and slides on top of Therese. She straddles her thighs, keeps her hips elevated enough that Therese can still touch her. She sets her forearms on either side of Therese’s head and seizes her mouth in a kiss of bruising force, their tongues wrestling, wet and starved. In this position she can rock forward into Therese’s finger, and it’s good, it’s so good, but it—

“Talk to me,” Therese says against her mouth. “Tell me what you like.”

Carol whines, gasps, closes her eyes and manages to eke out, “A little—a little—harder.”

Therese’s reaction is instant, the pressure from her skimming finger deepening in a way that makes Carol light up.

“Move your—move—up and down—up and down,” Carol gasps. And Therese obeys, and it’s perfect, just what she wants, just what she needs. “Yeah,” she says, “Yeah—”

“Like that?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Fuck, Carol, you’re so beautiful.”

The words cause a sharp throb to ripple through Carol’s body, just a hairsbreadth shy of orgasm. She’s rocking consistently now, riding the pressure of Therese’s touch, so close—

“Can I go inside you?”

A sob cracks in Carol’s throat. She’s close enough as it is, thinks penetration might be enough to kill her, but she wants it. She wants it so much. She opens her eyes, trying to focus on the beautiful woman gazing raptly up at her. She nods, and Therese’s eyes glitter—just before her fingers move away from her clit, and slip down. Moments later, two of those fingers have found her entrance and are pressing into her. No shyness. No hesitation. One moment she’s empty and the next she’s full.

“Yes,” Carol gasps. “Oh, that’s good, that’s good—”

Therese starts to move her fingers, crooking them in a slow, ‘come here’ gesture that feels like an earthquake inside. Where the fuck did she learn to do that? Carol grips desperately at the pillow on either side of Therese’s head, hears her beautiful young lover say in that maddeningly conversational voice, “I read that some women like it when you move like this, and others like it when you move like this—” suddenly her fingers stop stroking and instead zero in on the front wall of Carol’s cunt, massaging that tender, helpless spot inside her that makes her flood with wetness, makes her cry out with Therese’s teasing question whispered in her ear— “Which do you prefer?”

Oh, fuck she wasn’t ready for this. She wasn’t ready for Therese to play with her like this. She imagined something so much more reserved, something she herself would direct, slow and careful and learning together, and pleasurable, of course, but that wouldn’t be the point. The point would be building Therese’s confidence.

Well, apparently, she doesn’t need help in that regard, for suddenly her other hand is slipping down between them, finding Carol’s abandoned clit. And then she is stroking her and rubbing her everywhere at once, and she is sucking on Carol’s neck like a vampire, and she is moaning against her, a vibration that travels down Carol’s whole body until—

She hits a spot, a perfect spot, a perfect complement between the fingers that are inside and the fingers that are outside and—

“There!” Carol gasps, sweat beading across her body as she tenses. “Oh, right there, God, don’t stop, please, please, baby, don’t stop—”

Therese’s teeth set against her collarbone. Therese bites. And just like that, Carol is coming.

There’s no metaphor that does it justice. It’s a detonation. It’s a flood. It’s a crashing wave that travels her entire body, it’s lightning that cracks pleasure from the depths of her sex to the top of her skull. It’s overwhelming and yet somehow easy. Deep and sweet, an entire chemistry lesson in dopamine and oxytocin and endorphins and as it starts to fade Carol finds herself laughing, helplessly laughing, because holy fuck Therese has broken her brain.

Therese, who is kissing and mouthing at what Carol suspects will be a pretty intense hickey on her collarbone, now hums with amusement, her fingers going still.

“That’s a fun sound,” Therese says drolly.

Carol laughs harder. She realizes that her head had tipped back in the moment of crisis, and now she tips it forward again, looks into Therese’s glowing eyes and bends to kiss her. Therese’s hands slip from between her legs, grabbing her hips and holding her tight as their mouths press and lick and melt together.

There are things Carol could say. Exultations. Profanities. Questions about what the fuck kind of fanfiction Abby recommended that taught Therese how to do that—but language fades away with Therese’s kiss. What starts like a kind of joyful battle shifts by degrees to something deeper, slower, but no less passionate. More passionate, in fact, because every slip of Therese’s tongue against hers makes her heart thump with pleasure and joy and gratitude. She never wants this to end, never wants to stop kissing her, touching her, moaning and hearing her moan. And from the way Therese kisses her back, Carol thinks that she feels exactly the same.

<><><> 

It’s sometime later, while they are lying in a tangle of sweaty limbs (Therese has come again, Carol licking her into a violent conflagration), and the apartment is quiet around them and all they can hear are each other’s slow, even breaths—that Carol remembers.

“Shit!” she exclaims.

She’s as careful as she can be, extricating herself from Therese’s arms. Therese, her eyes heavy and sated, frowns in confusion as Carol gets up from the bed. She hurries to the living room, conscious of the chill air on her naked skin, calling back toward Therese, “I nearly forgot! Hold on!”

She unzips her bag, finds the item in question tucked inside, and with heart hammering from excitement, returns to the bedroom. She holds the gift behind her back, looking at Therese with a slow smirk.

“I got you something.”

Therese’s eyes widen. She sits up, the sheet pooled around her waist, and with her breasts exposed and her hair a wild mess, God—she looks incredible.

“What?” she says. “What do you mean you got me something?”

“In Buffalo. There was a shop next to the place where I got breakfast. I couldn’t resist. Close your eyes.”

Therese hesitates—she looks slightly uncertain, her bottom lip pulled between her teeth. But at last, she closes her eyes. At Carol’s prompting, she holds out her hands. Carol approaches her slowly, nervously, and after taking a deep breath, places the box in her hands. Therese’s eyes blink open, looking down. She goes perfectly still. She doesn’t make a sound.

Carol swallows, coaxes her, “Open it.”

Therese still hasn’t looked at her, but now with slow fingers she tears the plastic seal, and then opens the box. Inside there is a mess of cables, bubble wrap, and instructions. Therese finds the relevant item at once, carefully wedging it out, and then unwrapping it. A beautiful Canon camera. She holds it between her hands, and looks up for the first time. Her face is incredulous.

“Oh, Carol…” she says, and looks at it again. Turns it over. Touches the lens and the buttons and the frame with a carefulness that is almost worshipful.

“It’s professional level,” Carol says, voice trembling a little, still not quite sure of Therese’s reaction. “The salesperson told me all sorts of things about it that I can’t remember now, but apparently she sold the same model to a photojournalist a week ago and I… well, you said you didn’t have a decent camera.”

“Carol, it… it’s too much. It must have been so expensive! You didn’t have to…”

Therese trails off, still looking down, hands still exploring the camera in amazement. She sounds overwhelmed, almost anxious. Carol drops down onto the bed beside her, coaxing her to meet her eyes.

“Darling, listen to me,” she says. Therese hesitates, before finally obeying. Her big green eyes are bigger than ever. There’s a flush on her cheeks. Carol cradles her face. “I wanted to, all right? I know that it’s important to you to take care of yourself and pay your own way, but do this for me, will you? It’s a gift. Just a gift. I want you to have it.”

In answer, Therese leans forward, kissing her with a softness and tenderness that makes Carol’s blood sing. When she pulls back, for the first time, a smile spreads across her face. Not just a smile but a grin, of vibrant excitement. A child on Christmas morning.

“Carol, it’s… it’s incredible. Thank you, I can’t—you’re amazing.” She kisses her again. “You’re so amazing.”

Her words light Carol up. They carefully set the box and the camera aside on Therese’s end table, and then Carol draws her down, into her arms. They lie on their sides, facing each other, Therese’s slim and naked thigh draped over her hip as they kiss. Carol is tempted to deepen it, tempted to let them get carried away again, but there’s something so sweet and happy in the way Therese touches her, and Carol doesn’t want it to end. She runs her fingers up and down Therese’s smooth back, glorying in the softness of her skin, and in the quiet between them.

After a while, sounding sleepy and content, Therese murmurs, “Do you have Rindy tomorrow?”

Carol toys with the ends of her dark hair, says, “No. Not til Monday.”

There’s a beat of silence, before Carol asks in return, “Do you work?”

Therese’s eyes are closed, but she smiles. “At 6:00. But I’m free til then.”

Carol feels a little flutter of excitement, but also nerves. Ask her! she berates herself. Stop acting like a pubescent middle schooler and just ask her if she’d like to—

“Maybe I’ll take the camera out for a spin,” Therese murmurs. “Maybe Central Park?”

“Winter in Central Park?” Carol murmurs back. “It sounds heavenly. The perfect setting for a photographer.” Then, marshaling her courage. “Could I tag along?”

Therese’s eyes open, staring directly into hers, and there’s an amused smile on her lips, and a crinkle in her nose as she asks, “Wanna help me scout locations?”

Carol crinkles her nose right back. “I doubt I’ll be much use as anything but a rabid admirer.”

“Rabid,” Therese drawls. “How promising.”

She leans forward, taking Carol’s bottom nip between her teeth, nibbling. Carol lets her, nerves on fire, and after a moment she gets a slightly sharper nip. It makes her breath catch, and when Therese’s tongue replaces her teeth, soothing the bite with a few slow, teasing licks, Carol feels herself tremble with aching pleasure.

But she tries to keep her cool. She says, “Who knows? Play your cards right and you might even get breakfast out of it. There’s a great café down there. Waffles the size of dinner plates. I’ll take you.”

“Hmm. Rabid and generous.”

“Think you could get used to it?” 

To her surprise, Therese pulls back to look at her again, and the sultry little smile is replaced by something infinitely more sweet.

“Get used to you?” she asks. “Never.”

Carol melts. Damn it. Felled by a cheesy line from a beautiful girl. Abby would be so disappointed in her.

Perhaps unnerved by Carol’s silence, Therese says, “I don’t expect you to spend the whole day with me. You probably—”

“I would love to spend the day with you,” Carol interrupts. Therese’s eyes shine with happiness. Carol draws her closer, kisses her, says, “I want as much time as you can give me. I know you… I know school starts again this week. Who knows when I’ll see you again?”

She means it to be light, a joke, but as the words escape it suddenly occurs to her that this is actually true. Therese works full time. Will be in school full time. Carol lives in Jersey. Getting to each other’s homes takes an hour, easy. These are not insignificant obstacles. When Therese pulls back to look at her again, the small frown between her brows suggests that all this is occurring to her for the first time, too.

“I have Thursday off from work,” she says. “My last class ends at 2:00.”

Carol hesitates, admits, “I have Rindy.” Therese’s frown deepens, and Carol is quick to add, “You’re more than welcome to come to the house after class. Rindy would love to see you again. You could stay for dinner and… well, I could drive you back into the city the next morning.”

Therese considers. “My first class is at 8:00 on Fridays. We’d have to leave your house really early. I can just get an Uber to the train.”

“I don’t mind. I’m up by six most mornings anyway.”

Therese makes a horrified face. “Jesus, why?”

Carol laughs. She kisses Therese’s eyebrow, the little scar above her eyebrow. She runs her hands up and down her back. “God, you sound like Abby. It’s not by choice. Rindy is a bit of a fussy sleeper, worse since Harge moved out. When you’re used to your baby waking you up before dawn, it’s hard to get into the habit of sleeping in.”

Therese makes a little sound of concern, asking, “Has it been hard on her? The divorce?”

Carol pauses. She doesn’t generally like to talk about the divorce, or its impact on Rindy. She avoids the conversation with everyone, except Abby. And so she fully expects Therese’s question to lance her with defensiveness, to make her close off and change the subject. So she’s surprised, and a little unnerved, when no such impulse grabs her. There’s something so genuine and concerned about Therese’s eyes right now. It’s like when Carol showed her her workshop for the first time. So many others had treated the furniture restoration as an eccentricity. Therese treated it as a window into Carol herself.

Perhaps it’s this, knowing that Therese’s interest is genuine and respectful, that makes her feel safe enough to say, “Yes. It has been hard on her. It’s been hard on everyone, in different ways. I feel guilty sometimes, because I'm the only one who's gotten any joy out of it.”

“Why does that make you feel guilty?” Therese asks.

“Oh, just… you know, Harge. He didn’t fight me on it, but he didn’t want it, either. He thinks it’s my fault for not trying harder. You know, therapy, that sort of thing. He doesn’t understand that by the time I finally asked for the divorce, it was far too late for therapy. Too late to try to make up for the past with sudden drastic measures. My mind was made up. We split custody of Rindy but when she’s with him all she wants is me and when she’s with me all she wants is for Harge to move home. He blames me for that, too.”

“But you must know that’s not fair,” Therese tells her, her lovely little face so earnest.

“I do, Darling, yes. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty. Especially when Harge and Rindy’s lives have fallen apart over it—and I feel like I’m finally getting mine back.”

Therese says nothing for several moments, pensive. One of her hands has slid up and is toying with a piece of Carol’s hair. She drags a finger down Carol’s jaw, searching her face for Carol knows not what. Then, with eyes just slightly averted, she says softly, “My mother had lots of boyfriends, while I was growing up.”

Something clenches in Carol’s chest. She has wanted to ask Therese more about her childhood, about her past, but felt like it wasn’t her place.

“Those boyfriends were… not good people. They were abusive, controlling. Most of them hit her. But she never left any of them. She stayed with them and begged them to stay, right up until the moment they left her for good.” Therese swallows. She’s still touching Carol’s hair, still not meeting her eyes. She asks, “Was Harge… did he ever...?”

“No, Angel,” Carol says gently. “He was controlling, yes, but it never got him what he wanted. Which is probably a big part of why our marriage failed. I wasn’t what he wanted me to be. But he never laid a hand on me, or Rindy.”

Therese gives a short nod, though there remains a little bit of tension in her jaw. She says, “I realize then, that what happened to my mom… it doesn’t really compare. But I guess… I always wished she’d had the strength not to be with those men. I always wished she knew how to get away from them. For most of my life I thought that no relationship could be good, because relationships were just about people hurting each other and refusing to leave. Rindy may not understand it, now. But I think someday, she’ll realize—you wanted to be happy. And that was more important than keeping Harge happy. I think someday she’ll understand, Carol. And she’ll be grateful to you.”

Carol is too stunned to speak, her eyes burning with sudden tears. She thinks of her own mother, who stayed with the same man right up until the day she died. Stayed with him through alcoholism and gambling binges and affairs, and hated him with a vengeance that Carol still thinks sometimes she can taste in her memories. She realizes suddenly that she, too, spent most of her life thinking that no relationship could be any better than that. Perhaps it’s why she stayed with Harge so long…

A tear leaks out from the corner of her eye. Therese brushes it away, without fuss. Their eyes meet, and something deep and powerful and important passes between them.

“I think I’m in trouble,” Carol whispers.

Therese’s cheeks flush pink. Her eyes dart nervously away, a shy smile curving her lips. When she looks back again, Carol’s heart is in her throat.

“Me, too."

Chapter Text

Therese’s last class on Thursday ends at 2:00. She rushes home, packs an overnight bag, and is on her way within half an hour. She takes the train out to Jersey, and then an Uber to Carol’s house (Rindy is napping). Stood before the grandeur of the giant front door with its lion head knocker, she is momentarily intimidated. The last time she was here, she left under painful circumstances. She still remembers the misery she felt, standing out here with Carol, neither of them talking, as they waited for Therese’s ride to pick her up.

But this is different, Therese tells herself. It’s different because now she knows. And you know. And you’ve missed her more this week than you’ve got any right to, so stop panicking and get in there!

She breathes in deep, and knocks.

It’s about five seconds before she hears the sound of feet inside the house, measured steps, and then the door opens carefully. Stood before her is Carol—with Rindy in her arms. The child has her head resting on Carol’s shoulder, some kind of stuffed animal clutched in her arms. Carol is gently rubbing her back.

“She just woke up,” Carol explains, voice low and soothing.

When Therese imagined this reunion, she pictured Carol flinging open the door. Eyes locking in an instant. Throwing themselves at each other in desperation to erase four days apart. But seeing Carol like this, her daughter in her arms, her face soft and her smile sweet—Therese feels no regret. Just a kind of amazing gratitude, that she gets to see this.

“Hi, Rindy,” Therese says, quiet and gentle, not wanting to startle her when she’s just woken up. “Do you remember me?”

Rindy gives her a pensive look. Carol says, “Come in, Sweetheart, come in.”

Every time Carol uses a pet name with her, Therese thinks she’s going to die of happiness. She walks into the foyer, setting down her bag and pulling off her coat at Carol’s urging, all while Rindy continues to watch her. Carol kisses her daughter’s head, murmurs something to her that Therese can’t hear. Rindy’s eyes light up, though she remains snuggled into her mother.  

After a moment she asks in a sleep-scratchy voice, “Do you want to watch Thomas?”

Therese repeats curiously, “Thomas?”

“Thomas the Tank Engine,” Carol explains, eyes twinkling. “Someone has been very interested in trains since Christmas.”

Therese’s heart melts.

A few minutes later, Rindy is curled up on the couch, Therese sat beside her, and the first episode of the children’s show is on. Carol, who has just run a hand through Rindy’s hair, looks at Therese. “I’ve just got to get some things prepped for dinner?”  

“It’s fine,” Therese smiles. “I’ve got her.”

For the first fifteen minutes or so, Rindy is quiet, blinking slowly, still waking up. But then she starts to get her energy back, occasional remarks about the show soon segueing into a full-blown play-by-play for Therese’s benefit, complete with character assassinations and plot theories that would have Therese in stitches if she weren’t trying so hard to be a very serious audience.

After the first episode Rindy asks tentatively for another. Therese hits play, and they settle in again.

But soon after:

“Trez?” asks Rindy.

“Yes?” Therese asks.

A long pause. “Do you like apple juice?”

Therese schools her expression. “Yes, I like apple juice.”

“Do you like… animal crackers?”

“I do like animal crackers.”

“Do you think…” another pause, “maybe… we could have some animal crackers?”

“With apple juice?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, I don’t know. But what do you say I go find your mommy and ask her, huh?”

“Okay!”

In the kitchen, Carol is wearing an apron and chopping up vegetables. There’s an Instant Pot on the counter, clearly waiting to be filled. She looks up immediately at Therese’s entry, and the two of them just stare for a moment. Therese realizes with a shock that she’s been here for almost forty five minutes, and she hasn’t even touched Carol yet.

“Um… Rindy wanted to know if she could have some apple juice and animal crackers.”

Carol, who has been staring at her with an expression best described as hungry, blinks.

“Oh,” she says. “Uh—yeah, of course. Here, let me just—”

“Carol,” says Therese.

“Yeah?”

Carol’s cheeks are pink, her eyes bright. It charges Therese with confidence.

“Come here,” she says.

A moment later, and she’s in Carol’s arms. A moment later, and Carol is kissing her. She whimpers softly, pressing close. Carol takes her by the hips, turning her and holding her against the kitchen island. Therese weaves her fingers into the thick gold of Carol’s hair, kissing her harder.

“Missed you,” she mumbles against her lips.

Carol nods, slides her tongue inside, a warm and silky caress before she mutters, “Me, too. Me, too.”

Therese grins against her, pushing her hips forward, into Carol’s pelvis. “Kept hoping you would show up at the bar with Abby.”

Carol groans, “I had Rindy all week. I wanted to, believe me.”

“It’s okay,” Therese soothes her. “I’m here now.”

“Yes, you are,” Carol hums, kiss growing deeper, mouth hungrier, devouring. Therese sips for breath, overwhelmed by the intensity of Carol’s kisses, and the surge of her own desire. Carol says, “You’re here. And you feel… incredible.”

Therese is just about to stumble through something that amounts to, ‘Ditto,’ when Carol’s hands slide down her hips, hook behind her thighs, and lift her. Suddenly, Therese is sat upon the kitchen island, stunned and aroused. Carol, standing between her open legs, starts kissing her jaw, her throat, her collarbones.

Therese gasps, a sharp sound of pleasure and nerves. “Carol,” she hisses, “Rindy is—she’s expecting—animal crackers. She might come in.”

“She’s fine,” Carol mutters, nuzzling into Therese’s neck, kissing, and then sucking.

“No—no marks,” Therese gasps. “I’ve got class tomorrow.”  

A grumble, but Carol relents, returning to her mouth to kiss her, deep and needy. “I’ve wanted you all week,” Carol tells her, arms holding her close. Therese throws caution to the wind, wrapping her legs around Carol’s hips and locking them behind her. Carol growls with pleasure, licks into her mouth. “Wanted to taste you.” Therese shudders. “Couldn’t stop thinking about how good you taste.”

Fuck, Carol.”

“Yes, my thoughts exactly.”

“What’re you gonna do if Rindy comes in here?”

“What’re you gonna do if I make you come without touching you again?”

“You are a menace. You are menacing me.”

A rich, delighted laugh from Carol. Another deep kiss. But then, slowly, she relents. Their lips part, both of them leaning back enough to look at each other, to find identical grins on each other’s faces. Therese feels like she’s glowing from the inside. They stare at each other for several moments, lost in the pleasure of nearness, after four days apart.

“Hi,” Carol says, as if they are greeting each other for the first time.

Therese runs her hands down Carol’s arms, tangling their fingers together as she blushes and says it back, “Hi…”

“Did you bring your camera?” asks Carol.

“I did. Why?”

“There’s a lot of pretty country around here, and Rindy needs to spend some time outside. Once I get all this in the Instant Pot, I thought maybe we could bundle up and take a walk. You could take some pictures.” She pauses, eyes cutting shyly away. “I liked watching you work, last week…”

Therese’s glow only deepens inside her. She gazes happily at Carol, thinking of the Sunday they spent together last weekend. It was… God, it was one of the best days of Therese’s life. After making love late into the previous night, they slept past ten. Carol was adorably baffled at herself for not waking up sooner. Therese distracted her with a hand between her legs, slow, exploratory touches that soon had Carol’s sleep-rumpled body rolling and twitching and gasping for more, til she came with such a shout that Therese felt it ringing inside for days.

After that, waffles. And then, a long meander in Central Park, that ended with them popping into a café to warm up and get coffee, before finally catching a cab back to Therese’s apartment. The whole time, Therese had her camera, which has turned out to be a miracle of a machine, and not just because it takes the most perfect pictures Therese has ever seen—but because now she has a whole slew of photos of Carol.

Therese murmurs, “I’d like that… so long as I can take pictures of you.”

Carol rolls her eyes, though she looks pleased. “I suppose I can accept that condition, you little paparazzo.”

“Nice use of the singular paparazzi.”

“I’m very highly educated.”

“In various useful fields.”

Carol looks momentarily confused, but Therese waggles her eyebrows, and she blushes. Therese is certain then that they are thinking of the same thing: their return to her apartment Sunday afternoon. Tearing through the front door in a flurry of hands and kisses and clothes abandoned in the hallway…

It’s in the midst of these very pleasant memories that they hear the unmistakable slap of little feet running toward the kitchen, Rindy shouting, “Mommy!”

Carol steps back. Therese hops off the kitchen island. They’ve barely put two feet between them when Rindy charges in.

“The episode is over! Can I have animal crackers? Trez likes animal crackers, she said so.”

As close calls go, it’s a doozy.

Twenty minutes later, after a juice box and a handful of animal crackers, they’re swaddled in winter gear, and trudging down the sidewalk toward a nearby park. Carol tries to hold Rindy’s hand at first, but the little girl declares that she wants to walk with Therese, and that’s how Therese finds herself clutching a little mittened hand and listening raptly to an impassioned description of the best parts of the park.

Once they arrive, Rindy tears off toward the playground, Carol calling after her, “Stay where I can see you, sweet pea.”

Both hands now free, Therese immediately brandishes the camera.

It turns out that Rindy Aird is just as photogenic as her mother. She runs and jumps and laughs and plays and she may be the cutest thing Therese has ever seen. With Carol beside her, it’s impossible not to show her every snap she takes, and Carol’s eyes shine. It’s clear how happy she is, not just at Therese’s joy in the camera, but at her reaction to Rindy. This makes Therese shy and pleased. She has always gotten along with children, but rarely felt the draw to them that she feels toward Rindy. Is it simply because she’s Carol’s daughter? Therese doesn’t know, and doesn’t overanalyze it. She watches as Rindy starts gathering up some icy snow on the ground, packing it into a snowball with a very serious look of concentration. Therese snaps the picture. She shows it to Carol.

“You’ve got an incredible eye,” Carol says.

Therese chuckles. “Well, if you just take as many pictures as possible, you’re bound to hit on some good shots.”

A scoff. “Don’t undersell yourself, Therese. You concentrate on every picture you take, I see you do it. In ten minutes you’ve taken better pictures of Rindy than I have all year. You’re really talented.” A pause, a lowering of her voice. “And I’m not just saying that to get into your pants.”

Therese looks at her, grinning with her tongue between her teeth. “It would be an unnecessary effort. You’re getting into my pants anyway.”

Carol’s eyes glitter, her surprise and pleasure manifesting in a naughty smile.

“Good to know. But stop deflecting. You’re good, Therese. Have you ever thought of, I don’t know, taking it up more seriously?”

Therese frowns. She feels suddenly caught between the deep pleasure of Carol’s admiration, and an anxious uncertainty about where this is going.

“I don’t know what you mean. It’s a hobby. I take it seriously as a hobby. I’m not gonna drop out of school to become a photographer.”

“I don’t mean that, I just mean…” Carol trails off. She’s watching Rindy explore the jungle gym, and there’s a pensive look on her face that Therese knows isn’t for her daughter. Finally, she looks at Therese again. “There are all kinds of local programs. Community classes. Photography clubs. Contests. I wonder if you’ve ever considered that sort of thing.”

Therese, still frowning, thinks for a moment. She finds Carol’s brilliant focus a little intimidating, so she looks down at her camera on the pretense of scanning through her most recent shots. She marvels again at the sharp clarity of the images.

“I don’t know when I’d have time, Carol. Between work and school and… When I was with Richard he always complained about how little time we got together. I never did anything about it because I didn’t care about him enough to do anything about it. And now… with you…” Therese hesitates. She doesn’t want to say too much, give too much away. After all, she and Carol haven’t spoken about what they are, and while she’s certain Carol cares about her, she doesn’t want to overstep. She says timidly, “If I tried to add anything else to my schedule, I don’t think I’d ever have time to see you. I don’t want you to resent me for being busy.”

Carol takes a step toward her, murmuring, “Sweetheart…”

Therese looks up at her, meeting her eye. She didn’t plan to have this conversation today but maybe there won’t be a better time. She steels herself and tells her, “Carol, I’m in grad school for another year and a half, and next year I’ll have a teaching assistantship. I’m busy all the time. Even coming out here today meant I had to double up on getting my work done yesterday. There will be days I can’t afford to do that. There will be weeks we may only see each other once. I just want you to… I want you to know I understand if it’s not… well… the sort of thing you’re—”

“Therese,” Carol interrupts her rambling, gentle but firm. “Just take a breath, okay?”

Therese feels an unexpected and very unwelcome heat gathering in her eyes. She’s surprised when Carol takes the camera out of her hands, placing it in her purse and placing her purse on the ground before she puts her hands on Therese’s hips. Therese’s eyes widen. She glances nervously toward Rindy, afraid of what the child will think. Carol doesn’t move any closer to her, doesn’t hug her or kiss her, but even this much contact, in such a public space—it’s more than she expected. It means something.

“Listen to me,” Carol tells her, looking completely unaffected by the statement her actions make. “You’re not the only one whose responsibilities will get in the way of us seeing each other. I’m working with a complicated custody schedule, trying to grow a business, and raising a daughter. I’m not going to lie and say that the prospect of only seeing you once a week doesn’t bother me. But what you should take from that, Darling, isn’t that you’re disappointing me. What you should take from it is that I want you.”

Therese’s heart leaps into her throat. She stares up at Carol, overwhelmed by the riot of joy and hope going on inside her, incapable of saying or doing anything because she is so happy she can’t think straight.

“Look,” Carol continues. “We’ve known each other for less than a month. We’ve been…” she hesitates, looking uncertain for the first time. “We’ve been… whatever we are…”

Even moments ago, Therese would have quailed at the risk of offering any definition, but suddenly she hears herself say, “Together.” It jumps off her tongue, easy as breathing. Carol’s instant look of relief gives her the courage to add, “We’ve been together… for less than a week.”

“Exactly,” Carol says, a dusting of color on her cheeks that Therese reminds herself could just be the cold. Carol clears her throat, going on, “So you see it won’t… it won’t hurt us to take things slow, will it?”

I don’t want to take things slow, thinks Therese rebelliously. I want to be around you all the time. I want to fall asleep with you and wake up with you every day.

She keeps this to herself, answering simply, “No, it won’t.”

“Now,” says Carol, with a no-nonsense authority that Therese finds distractingly attractive. “What I propose is that we keep lines of communication open. Seeing each other will be an adjustment, for both of us. And not just because of your school or where I live. Jesus, I mean,” she blurts a little laugh that sounds slightly self-conscious. She looks down at the ground. “I haven’t even… you know, we haven’t even talked about how you’re feeling… about… about being with a woman.”

She keeps her eyes averted. Her hands shift restlessly before digging into her pockets. Therese thinks she is the most adorable woman in the world, and she smiles.

“No, we haven’t,” she says. “But let’s settle that right here and now. I’m feeling great about it.”

Carol, still looking down, smirks in a very pretty way, finally meeting her eyes again. “I’m glad,” she says. “But even so, it may be something that we have to talk about. How it feels, to be in the world like this.” She gives Therese a serious look. “You can talk to me, all right? Don’t be afraid of scaring me off. I want you to—I want us to… to talk to each other.”

This is one of those bewitching times when Therese is struck by the fascinating contradiction of Carol. On the one hand, she is all ease and confidence, full of authority and head-held-high sophistication.

But underneath the well-placed words and the commanding tone, Therese does not mistake the note of vulnerability in Carol’s face and posture and voice. Her micro-expressions speak of bygone hurts and lingering fears. Her words have the careful measure of one who has been disappointed in this area, before. Therese wonders about it. Even with only ten years between them, she knows they are from different generations. She knows that even that much time has made a significant difference in how queer people are received in the world.

Therese makes a note to ask her about it more, and soon. For now, she glances toward Rindy (happily preoccupied in her play), and then reaches for Carol’s hand, tugging it out of her pocket so that she can lace her fingers with hers, and squeeze.

“All right,” she says. “I promise to talk to you.”

Carol looks down at their hands, unmistakably pleased. She says after a moment, “I want to kiss you right now, but…”

Therese grins. She squeezes her hand again and lets go. “Best not risk it,” she says.

As if to champion their self-control, Rindy shouts, “Mommy, I want to do the swings! Come push!”

Carol blows a breath out through her nostrils, clearly still preoccupied with wanting that kiss.

“She wants to do the swings, Carol,” Therese teases. “Better hurry up. I need some photos of mother and daughter.” 

<><><> 

Therese will always think of that afternoon and evening as perfect. Being close to Carol, getting to know Rindy better, having dinner with them both—it’s just… perfect. And knowing that Rindy will be in bed soon, and then she’ll have Carol to herself? Well. That’s the most perfect thing of all.

But all that perfection goes to the dogs when, just as soon as Carol comes downstairs from putting Rindy to sleep, just as they are looking at each other across the expanse of the living room, eyes alight with anticipation—someone knocks on the door.

Knocks, and without waiting for an answer, comes inside.

Even without Carol’s reaction, Therese would know that this is Hargess Aird. He’s wearing an expensive suit, hair slicked back. He’s got some kind of toolbelt carried awkwardly in one hand, and he exudes in just three seconds the arrogant, presumptuous air of so many men Therese has waited on at The McKinley. Standing in the living room, Therese is not in his immediate line of sight. That honor goes to Carol, who has just come down the stairs from Rindy’s room, and who exclaims with fire in her eyes—

“Harge, Jesus! What are you doing here?”

Harge comes to a standstill, glaring up at her, brandishing the tool belt. “What do you mean what am I doing here? I texted you yesterday that I was coming to fix the sink.”

Carol gives him an incredulous look, and then says in a carefully measured tone that nonetheless fails to conceal her exasperation, “And I texted you back that I fixed the sink last week.”

Harge scoffs. He fishes out his phone and scrolls through it, before eventually, clearly finding the message in question. Rather than being cowed, he only scoffs again, pocketing the phone. “Well, I didn’t see it. I’m sorry, Carol, but you could have called.”

I could have called?” Carol retorts. “You could have called before just coming over here and walking inside without asking! You scared me.”

“Carol, it’s my house, too, I have a right to be here.”

“No, you don’t. We agreed I would keep the house and you would keep the apartment. Do you see me just barging in there whenever I feel like it?”

“I don’t know why you have to treat me like a damn pariah—I’m only trying to help.”

Carol’s nostrils flare. She looks angrier than Therese has ever seen her, and Therese wishes suddenly that she could disappear into the floor. That feeling only compounds when Carol glances past her ex, catching Therese’s eyes in what Therese interprets as an attempt to wordlessly apologize. The problem is, Harge sees it, and turns. Suddenly, Therese is on the receiving end of a disbelieving, slack-jawed stare; when he closes his mouth, it’s with the definitiveness of one who has made a very unflattering determination.

“I didn’t realize you had company,” he says, voice artic, eyes on Therese.

“Well, I do,” answers Carol.

A few moments of silence pass, and Therese fights like hell to hold the older man’s stare. Ordinarily she would drop her gaze, slip away, employ any number of survival strategies she’s learned when in the face of aggressive, posturing men. But Therese will be damned if she does that now. Therese knows a pissing contest when she sees one, and however chauvinistic it might be, where Carol’s concerned—she’s not gonna lose.

“And who are you, exactly?” he demands.

Carol snaps at him, “Harge, don’t be rude.”

“I’m Therese Belivet,” Therese replies, still looking him straight in the eye.

“And how do you know my wife?”

Carol, looking like she wants to murder him, says, “We met at the holiday market. Not that it’s any of your business.”

Harge looks at Carol, then back at Therese, and then back at Carol. “Kinda young, isn’t she?”

“Harge, go home,” Carol growls.

He sneers at her, says, “You know, all these years of you fucking women behind my back, you at least had the decency not to bring them around our daughter!”

The shock strikes Carol’s face like a blow; her eyes widen. She goes pale with disbelief. Taking advantage of her stunned silence, Harge whirls on Therese. “And you. Did you know the divorce isn’t finalized yet? Whatever she’s said to you, she’s still my wife.”

“Harge!” Carol cries.

It’s obvious that she can’t think what else to say. It’s obvious that he has delivered the perfect blow to dismantle her. But Therese is not dismantled. Fury rises in her, fury at his vitriol and cruelty. She doesn’t bat an eyelash, just informs him, calm and cold, “Maybe you’re still married, Sir. But she’s definitely not yours anymore.”

This time his eyes widen, so startled that when he opens his mouth, no words escape. Carol, too, seems not to have expected this from her. The difference is that Therese’s words appear to puncture Carol's shock, and something new enters her eyes—a glitter of pride. Charged with its power, Therese holds her head high, and doesn’t break Harge’s disbelieving stare.

When he finally recovers his voice, he turns on Carol, blurting a laugh of contempt. “First Abby, now this. I guess you like them bold, huh Carol?”

Carol has her voice back, too, hissing at him, “Harge, if you don’t leave right now—”

“I’m going!” he snaps, but points a finger at her. “This conversation isn’t over! I’m Rindy’s father, and I don’t want her meeting every fuck you bring home!”

“Get out!” Carol snarls.

He does, storming toward the door with a last furious look at Therese. It’s a look so potent with disgust that she feels as nauseated as if he’d breathed on her. These are the moments when Therese can sense a panic attack lurking at her periphery, amorphous and sinister, ready to strike. As Carol follows behind him, as if to prevent him from doubling back, Therese watches their progress hawkishly. She’s unable to shake a burgeoning unease. It’s so easy to imagine—Harge spinning around, swinging out, striking hard. Therese finds herself wanting to shout at Carol, ‘Don’t get too close to him. He’s not safe!’

Because he’s not safe. Therese can tell. He may never have hit Carol before, and perhaps he never will hit a woman at all, but he reeks of entitlement, and Therese has seen this script play out so many times.

Moments later, and he’s out the door. Carol shuts it firmly behind him, locking the deadbolt, and then a heavy duty barrel bolt at the top of the door, which Therese is relieved to realize will stop Harge, even if he has a key. When all this is in place, Carol stands a moment with her back turned, hands braced upon the door. Therese feels a new thread of anxiety—anxiety of a different sort, fear that Carol will want her to leave—

Then, Carol turns around. Her expression is still shocked, is mortified and even ashamed. Suddenly, she is striding toward Therese in furious determination. Therese’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t flinch—and a moment later, Carol is pulling her into her arms.

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Carol whispers against her. “I’m so sorry, Therese.”

For the first time in five minutes, Therese breathes a sigh of relief. She wraps her own arms around Carol’s waist, letting herself be tugged closer.

“I—I—I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Carol says. Her voice is shaking. “He’s never acted like that before. He can be an asshole, but—are you all right? I’m so sorry, did he—”

“Carol,” Therese soothes her, hands running up and down her back, unnerved by the hard tension in her body. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I had to meet him eventually.”

“But not like that!” Carol exclaims, pulling back to look into her face with eyes that are full of distress and damp with tears. She looks almost panicked, and she’s still pale. “I would never have let it happen like that. Fuck, I should have known when he didn’t text me back that he never saw the message. I should have anticipated this. I’m so sorry—”

“Carol!” Therese interrupts again, gently but firmly. “Carol, listen to me. You’re about to start hyperventilating. Can you just breathe for me, please?”

“I—I—”

“No, no talking. Breathe.”

Carol gives her a slightly exasperated look, but then she obeys, breathing exaggeratedly in, and letting it out. Therese gives her an encouraging nod, and Carol seems to realize that she needs this after all. She repeats the pattern, three, four times, her body slowly relaxing, though there’s a tremor in the hands that rise to cup Therese’s face. Her tears overflow, and she pulls Therese to her again, wrapping her close.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers again. She sounds calmer now, but still so upset. “Darling, the way he treated you—I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Are you all right? I know that men… sometimes… and with your mother—”

She seems not to know how to broach the subject, and yet that she has this insight at all takes Therese by surprise. She wasn’t expecting it, nor was she expecting the strange combination of gratitude and anxiousness she feels as a result. That Carol cares enough to mention it fills her with joy. But that Carol recognizes the need makes her feel vulnerable, exposed. She swallows and presses her face under Carol’s chin.

“Thank you,” she says. “But I’m fine. I promise I’m fine..”

“If he ever talks to you like that again I swear to God I’ll punch him in the throat.”

Therese blurts a nervous laugh, releasing some of her own tension. When Carol pulls back to give her a look that says she is dead fucking serious, Therese smiles. “My hero,” she smiles. “But I can’t have you bruising those beautiful hands.”

Carol laughs, too, but Therese thinks it sounds a little watery, and the tension hasn’t bled from her body completely. Therese says, “I need to know if you’re okay, Carol. He was so…aggressive. It must have frightened you.”

Carol scoffs, wiping her eyes. “Believe me, Darling, Harge doesn’t scare me. I was more afraid that—that—the things he said—he might have scared you off.”

“Carol,” Therese is gentle but reproving. “I’m a lot tougher than that. Your asshole ex isn’t a reflection on you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Carol nods, as if she wants to believe it but still isn’t sure. She trails her hands down Therese’s arms, and locks their fingers together. She stares and their linked hands for a moment, clearly building up to something.

“Therese, I—I need you to know something.”

Therese frowns, nods. “Okay.”

“I need you to know that I—I’m not going to cheat on you.”

Therese blinks. This was… not what she expected. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her, and yet when Carol chances a look into her eyes, she is radiating shame. “I had affairs while I was married,” she says. “Harge and I both did. You could almost call it an open marriage, except for the part where we never tacitly agreed to it. We just… let it happen, and I let it happen, but—you have to know. That’s not… that’s not what I want with you, Darling. I don’t want you to think that I would just—”

“Carol,” Therese is losing track of how many times she’s had to interrupt her. This time, when Carol meets her eyes, she looks almost afraid. It breaks Therese’s heart. “Please listen to me. I trust you. I know that whatever happened with Harge is different from this, just like what happened between me and Richard was different from this.”

She remembers Christmas Day, when she almost fucked Richard in his childhood room. That felt like cheating—like cheating on Carol, who her body and heart had already decided was hers.

“I trust you,” she says again. “Nobody is scaring me away.”

The way Carol looks at her—the way her fear dissolves, becoming within moments a radiant bloom of hope and longing—it makes Therese feels breathless with joy. When Carol finally, slowly smiles, it’s beatific, sweet and hopeful and moved. And then, with all those feelings in her face, Carol leans down, and kisses her.

Chapter Text

She means it to be a simple kiss. An affirmation and apology, a reassertion of what they have. She’s unprepared for the soft give of Therese’s mouth, or the little hungry sound she makes. It shoots down Carol’s spine like quicksilver, makes all the pain and fear of the past few minutes transform into a completely different, but no less consuming, tension. She presses a little harder, lips parting, hands finding a home on Therese’s lower back. Therese tips her head up, opens her mouth, and Carol slips inside, letting their tongues glide together. It’s slow, it’s gentle—then it’s hungry.

I need her, Carol thinks. She feels the answering hunger in Therese’s mouth, notices her breaths coming a little faster. I need her now.

Their bodies mold together, their kisses evolve in moments from deep, to frantic.

“Want you,” Carol gasps, hands sliding down to her ass, squeezing. “Come upstairs with me. Please?”

Therese makes a soft, aching sound of assent, and then Carol is drawing her toward the stairs. They hurry, but they’re quiet. Carol points out Rindy’s door at the end of the hall, before leading Therese into her own bedroom. She notices how Therese’s eyes shoot toward the King-sized bed with interest, before reaching for Carol again, and kissing her, hard.

Carol moves them toward the bed, coaxing Therese to sit on the edge. A moment later, she’s lowering her onto her back. Therese goes easily, malleable, wanting. She scoots further back, and Carol shadows her movements until they are sprawled across the mattress, mouths devouring.  

Need her skin, Carol thinks desperately. Need to touch her.

She starts to push up the hem of Therese’s sweater, waiting only until it’s bunched up under her breasts before she slips down, mouthing over her stomach and ribs, licking and sucking. Therese gasps, arches. Carol slides her hands under the cups of her bra to grasp her breasts, teasing her nipples between her fingers, overwhelmed by their small, warm weight. 

“Fuck,” Carol whispers. “Fuck, you feel so good.”

Therese winds her fingers in her hair, clenching and gasping when Carol pulls down the waistband of her jeans enough to bite her hipbone. Then Carol is dragging down her zipper, and then dragging down her jeans, following their progress, kissing her exposed thighs and knees and calves—and then she is tossing the jeans aside, flowing back up her body.

“Wanna taste you,” she mumbles, nosing up toward Therese’s underwear, drawn to the heady scent of her desire, drawn to the memory of her taste—

And then, all at once, she’s on her back.

Carol blinks, startled. She’s gazing up into a face of angelic perfection, into eyes slightly crinkled, to lips turned in a soft, adoring smile. Therese bends to her, kisses her and lick the bow of her top lip, before whispering, “I wanna taste you, too.”

Carol nearly chokes on surprise and arousal. When Therese pulls back, her eyes gleam with intent, just before she starts quickly, methodically, stripping the clothes off Carol’s body. Palpitations erupt in Carol’s heart, her skin lighting up like a field of firecrackers, her sex clenching in anticipation. It would be easiest to say that her reaction is purely lust, brought on by the intoxicating nearness of a woman whose reserved sexiness keeps lowkey blowing her mind.

But it’s more than that.

The way Therese looks at her, the sweet dimples, the happy confidence, the memory of how she stood up to Harge—all this makes Carol feel shivery in a way she hasn’t in… maybe ever?

Whatever it means, it steals all the language from her brain. Her tongue feels like it weighs ten pounds, and if she’s not careful she’ll start drooling. How could she not? When Therese is reaching for the button fly of her slacks, tugging them down, bending to kiss the join between her thigh and pelvis? How could she not, when Therese’s little murmuring moans vibrate against her tender flesh, and send a pulse straight between her legs? Therese casts her slacks aside. She kisses Carol’s ankle, and then her knee, trailing up her thigh, nuzzling and nibbling and kissing as she gets closer—

Carol shivers, an intoxicating blend of physical sensations, arousal, and… nerves.

“You don’t—” she shifts restlessly. “You know you don’t… have to do that.”

Therese chuckles against her. Carol’s hips twitch. 

“I really, really do,” Therese tells her, without even a shadow of uncertainty. She pauses with her mouth just above Carol’s panties, looking up the length of her body to meet her eyes. And her eyes are ferocious. “Do you want me to?” she asks.

Carol swallows, says, “I just don’t want you to—to—feel… pressured. If you’re not ready.”

Therese answers by nudging her nose against the thin material of what Carol thinks must be completely soaking underwear. Therese breathes her in—actually fucking breathes her in—and moans. Carol whimpers.

Therese says, “I’ve been reading about this.”

“You—I—what?”

Great job, Ross. Top rate word making. Jesus.

“You know,” Therese replies, still nuzzling her, fingers now sliding up and down her thighs.

Realization strikes. Carol drops her head back with a groan. “I’m gonna kill Abby.”

A delighted chuckle. “You said that last time,” Therese replies, and darts her tongue against the sodden crotch of Carol’s panties; darts, and then presses, and the pressure alone makes Carol shiver. “As I recall, it all worked out well for you.”

Carol clenches the sheets, hips churning, wanting more—but Therese pulls back. Therese looks at her with an imperious little smirk. “What’s your problem with fanfiction, Carol?”

Carol huffs in exasperation. “I—I—nothing. I don’t have a problem with it. I just think it can give women… unrealistic ideas.”

A cocked eyebrow, a look on There’s face that says, ‘Do tell?’

Carol huffs again. She’s so wet she’s afraid she’s going to slip right off the bed. If Therese doesn’t touch her soon she’s going to—

“It’s unrealistic!” she blurts. “Women don’t—they don’t taste like honey. They don’t taste like fruit. They don’t taste like… like… nectar of the gods! They taste like women, and it’s awesome.”

Therese says dryly, “I think you may be missing the point of a well-timed metaphor.” 

Carol rolls her eyes. Therese crawls back up to her, kissing her mouth with a slow heat that, after a few moments, starts to distract her from her anxiety. Therese puts a hand between her legs, cupping her. Carol sighs with pleasure, pressing up into her touch. Therese says, “Tell me more… about how women taste.”

She times her question with the increased focus of her fingers, which have found Carol’s clit through her underwear, and started rubbing. Carol throbs, grabbing her hips and squeezing as she cants toward her. This she can handle. Therese touching her like this is already familiar. No risk of disappointing her. No risk of losing complete control of her body under Therese’s tongue.

But—

“Tell me,” Therese whispers, licking the seam of Carol’s lips, and then nibbling her chin.

Carol pants, says, “It… it’s different. There are—there are variables.”

“Like what?”

“Like—like—how aroused you are. Where you are in your cycle. When you showered last—I don’t mean cleanliness, though I guess—hygiene—” Therese rubs harder, cutting her off with a gasp before she struggles back toward coherence. “Hygiene matters, of course, but tasting a woman at the end of the day—when she’s rich and warm and—” Carol moans; Therese moans. Carol closes her eyes and whimpers, “It’s good. And it matters—where you’re licking her. Her clit. Her lips. Inside. It—it changes.”

Therese has started breathing a little harder, and however overwhelmed Carol feels from this conversation, it’s obvious that Therese fares no better, the weight of her kisses deep and coaxing, like she wants to pull the words out of Carol and into her own body. She sucks on the ball of her shoulder, trails over to her ear and whispers against it, “Keep going—”

And then starts crawling down again.

“Every—every—” Carol stumbles for a moment, because Therese’s hands are reaching for her underwear, and Therese’s mouth is on her stomach,  “ —woman tastes different. And the same. You—God, Therese, you taste better than anyone.” Therese hmms in pleasure; drags Carol’s underwear off; slips her knees apart and settles between them, on her stomach. “Want to taste you now,” Carol gasps, “Want to—”

“Later,” Therese promises, and bends her head, and licks. 

It sends a shockwave through Carol’s body, down to her toes and up to the top of her head. It’s far less tentative than she was expecting. Not the, ‘Can I do this?’ glancing flicker she was prepared for. Therese’s tongue is wet and warm and it holds still for a moment, like a sponge trying to soak up the flavor. And she moans. Carol feels the vibration from her lips. Therese licks again, slowly, across the top of her vulva, against the hardness of her clit. Carol shivers; Carol watches her. Therese does this a few times, and then pulls back to look up the length of Carol’s body. Their eyes lock.

“Do you want to know how you taste?” Therese whispers.

Carol whines, belly flexing. Therese wraps her arms around her thighs, holding her still, and says, “Delicious. You taste delicious, Carol.”

She bends down, probes a little lower; Carol tenses, thinking that if there’s any flavor that will turn Therese off, it’s this, the full, heavy flavor at her core. But Therese dips her tongue inside her, gentle and exploratory, and hums. She drags her tongue across her opening, once, twice, ending with a dart against Carol’s clit, which shoots through her like lightning.

“You’re so wet,” Therese murmurs, and looks up at her again. “Is it okay?”

Carol swallows hard, nods. Her vision is a little blurry. She doesn’t think she’s ever reacted like this to being touched. It’s almost frightening. Therese runs her tongue in a wide circle over her clit, and Carol spasms.

“Is my tongue wet enough?”

Carol blinks in total bafflement, looking down at her again. “Is it—what?”

Therese pinks. “I read a story where a woman’s tongue was dry and it didn’t feel good. So I just meant—”

Carol huffs a laugh. She reaches down to Therese’s face, cupping her cheek with one hand and sliding the other into her hair. Therese watches her closely, and it occurs to Carol that as game as Therese clearly is for this experience, perhaps she needs a little encouragement after all.

“It’s wet enough,” Carol says dryly. Therese’s blush deepens, and this, her shyness, gives Carol back a modicum of control. “It feels good, Sweetheart,” she says. “Really good. The—the circles—those were good.”

Therese’s eyes flash with purpose. “Like this?” she asks, and then she is gliding her tongue in wide circles again, all around Carol’s clit, tighter and tighter on each rotation, so that in the end she is flicking delicately at the hardest, most sensitive part of her. It pulls a shudder through Carol’s body, makes her clench Therese’s hair in both hands.

“Yeah,” she gasps. “Yeah, that—that’s good.”

What follows then is a floating universe of pleasure, pulled across minutes like taffy, sticky and sweet and overwhelming. Carol manages to give instruction in the beginning, but as Therese finds a confident rhythm, as her exploratory strokes transform to focused attention, Carol loses the ability to speak. Or at least, to speak coherently. She is fuzzily aware of herself making sounds, and occasional words, of praise, of exultation, of need. When Therese seals her lips around her clit for the first time, gently suckling, the noise Carol makes is halfway between a whimper and a sob. When Therese takes her advice and drags her tongue up and down in fluttering strokes, Carol curses like a sailor. Everything Therese does shows her inexperience, shows her learning as she goes, shows how messy and novel it is—and also how transcendent. And it’s amazing. Amazing for its imperfection. Amazing for its newness. Amazing, because it’s Therese.

At some point, Therese lifts her mouth away. Carol blinks her eyes open, disoriented, and looks down to find Therese watching her. Her lips are red, swollen, wet. Her eyes are on fire. A moment later, Carol feels the tips of her fingers, circling her entrance. There’s a question in Therese’s eyes. Carol nods, almost frantic, and Therese’s slides two fingers into her. She lowers her mouth again, and Carol gasps, startled by the instant intensity, by the sharpening pleasure in her cunt and in her clit. Carol grabs at the bedcovers under her, tilting her hips toward that perfect, hungry, devouring mouth.

“Faster,” Carol gasps. “Your—your tongue—f-faster.”

Therese obeys at once, tongue fluttering rapidly up and down, fingers pressing deep and stroking in a way that makes Carol thrash.

“Oh, fuck. Yes—yes—like that. Oh, Jesus, that feels so good, just like that, don’t stop—”

And she may be babbling, but she doesn’t care, because Therese is licking faster, harder, and Therese is moaning against her, little sounds of unbearable delight. And she doesn’t tire, and she doesn’t stop, and Carol can feel her release now, a pulsing flood that moves toward her, that spreads through her pelvis in widening gyres, that finds its locus in that spot that Therese keeps licking, licking and sucking, right where she needs it, right there—oh… fuck!

She’s hit by a storm surge. It tears through her in pounding waves, and Carol sobs for breath. Her hips thrust forward into Therese’s mouth, toward that exquisite pleasure. Therese’s free hand grips her thigh and holds her down, and Therese’s fingers inside rub and stroke. And her mouth doesn’t relent. Carol’s eyes roll back, spine bowing as she keens. It feels so good; Carol can’t remember the last time it felt this good, so intense, but so easy, so all-consuming and—safe.

It only lasts a few seconds, but to Carol it feels like ages of bliss, and even after the crest has passed and Therese at her urging has pulled her mouth away—even then the aftershocks keep her thrumming along, nerves tingling, body alight. Therese’s fingers inside her stop thrusting, but the pads rub gently against swollen flesh, so gently, until with a totally unexpected jolt, Carol comes again, choking out Therese’s name as her sex clenches four, five times.

“Good girl,” Therese murmurs.

Carol shudders from head to toe—and then falls limp. With eyes closed, she floats through the endorphin cloud of her release, and is only dimly aware of Therese pulling out of her. A few moments later, she feels a weight along her side, and turns her head toward Therese, who is there to greet her. Their lips meet, slow and worshipful, and Carol can taste herself. Carol parts her lips, and Therese licks softly inside, sharing her flavor until Carol almost swoons.

“You’re incredible,” Therese whispers.

Carol chuckles hoarsely, finally finding the strength to open her eyes and look into the bright green eyes of her lover, full of warmth and awe.  

“I think it’s the other way around, Darling,” she murmurs.

Therese grins at her, a naughty grin, and says, “You see? No harm in a little fanfiction.”

Carol blurts a laugh. She rolls toward Therese, and tastes her smile.

<><><> 

Carol is dead asleep when something starts to pull at her awareness, dragging her through layers of warmth and comfort and Therese’s body curled around her back—

“Mommy?”

She blinks a few times, trying to reorient herself in the just-woke-up fog. Rindy’s little face appears before her, her daughter standing by her side of the bed looking at her curiously. All at once Carol is wide awake, and thanking the gay gods that she and Therese had the wherewithal to put on pajamas before falling asleep.

“Hey, baby,” Carol says, lifting up so she can reach for Rindy’s face, stroking her hair out of her eyes. “You okay?”

Rindy is still frowning, and even in the darkness Carol can see that she is looking over Carol’s shoulder, toward the other shape in the bed.

“Are you and Trez having a sleepover?” she asks.

Carol swallows. When Harge showed up earlier, when he saw Therese and realized what her presence meant, he knew exactly what to say to fill Carol with guilt. But Therese responded so courageously to him, was so unintimidated, and so it was easy to brush aside any problem he saw with her having a date over to their house. Now, once again, Carol feels a twinge of shame and regret. She has been so wrapped up in the joy of Therese—she hasn’t thought much about whether or not it was a good idea for her daughter to realize she is dating someone.

But she refuses to lie to her.

“Yeah, honey. We’re just having a sleepover. Remember how I said at dinner we were driving Therese into the city in the morning?”

“Oh,” Rindy says. She chews on her bottom lip, eyes switching back and forth between Carol’s face and Therese behind her; she’s clearly working something out. At last she asks, “Can I be in the sleepover, too?”

Carol hesitates. Rindy often climbs into bed with her in the early morning, and ordinarily Carol would already be lifting her up. But now—

Suddenly, she feels Therese moving behind her, and looking over her shoulder at Rindy’s small figure by the bed.

“Hey, Rindy,” Therese says. Her voice is quiet and calm. “Did you have a bad dream?”

Rindy shrugs, watching Therese with those same big, serious eyes, before all at once she seems to make a decision and asks, “Can I sleep with you and Mommy?”

Carol tenses, wondering how Therese will react, but the woman behind her doesn’t flinch. “Of course,” she says. “Come on in.”

Carol, amazed and overwhelmed, sees the bright look of relief in Rindy’s eyes, and feels her own relief go through her in a wave. Soon, Rindy is scrambling up into the bed, Carol helping her, and then she snuggles up into Carol’s arms. She’s got one of her stuffies with her, and the lion’s fuzzy head tickles Carol’s nose.

“There we go,” Carol says, scooting Rindy right into the nook of her body, and conscious of Therese snuggled up behind her, a sandwich of warmth that makes her feel both unbearably happy, and slightly nervous. She glances at the digital clock on the bed stand. 2:47 a.m. They’ve still got a few more hours of sleep before they’ll have to get up, but she’s wide awake now, hyper conscious of the step she’s just taken. And what Harge would no doubt think of it.

Luckily, Rindy tends to fall asleep easily in Carol’s bed, and tonight is no exception. Within five minutes her daughter’s breathing is deep and even. But Carol can feel that Therese is still awake.

Therese murmurs, “I can go sleep in one of the spare rooms if you like.”

Careful not to disturb Rindy, Carol cranes her neck around enough to catch a glimpse of Therese’s face. “Don’t you dare,” she says, just as quiet. “I… want you here.” 

She turns back around, gazing into the sleep-flushed, doll-like beauty of her daughter’s face; she strokes the apple curve of one cheek, and behind her, she feels Therese. Rather than backing off, Therese has molded more completely against her back, and starts running a soothing hand up and down Carol’s arm. Carol thinks of the hours before they fell asleep. It took her awhile to recover from what Therese did to her, and even then she felt sleepy and weak. It was that sleepiness that infused her, when she rolled Therese beneath her. The love they made then was slow, and deep, Therese gasping into her mouth as she filled her with three fingers, stroking in and out like a gentle tide. The first orgasm rolled over her; the second followed close behind. For the third, Carol slid between her legs and licked her and sucked her, til her slim body locked up for one searing moment, and then collapsed in tremors of bliss…

“Are you all right?” Therese asks.

Carol comes back to herself with a blink; feels the heat in her cheeks. She looks down at Rindy again, and remembering, heaves a sigh. Finally she admits, “I’m not sure I thought this through. She’s going to have so many questions tomorrow… Harge was a monster, but he may not have been entirely wrong about… this part of it.”

Carol is worried how Therese will take this, but her hand keeps gently stroking. She says after a little while, “Maybe I shouldn’t spend the night, when Rindy is here? At least at first?”

It’s a reasonable compromise, but Carol hates it. “And put another limitation on when we can see each other?” she demands.

Therese says nothing, and her silence proves she feels just as unhappy about it. Carol reaches around for her, weaving their fingers together and bringing her hand to her lips. She kisses her wrist, her fingers—remembers the feeling of those fingers inside her. Remembers the feeling of returning the favor, of how free and uninhibited Therese was, coming apart under her touch.

“We’ll figure it out,” Therese assures her.

Carol says, “We didn’t even talk about when I’ll get to see you again.”

She finds herself dreading the answer, and is incredibly relieved when Therese answers, “I have Monday off.”

Carol’s body relaxes. “Harge has her that night. I could come to you?”

Therese nuzzles closer, kissing the back of her neck. “I’d like that. I’m going to write down my schedule for you. I mean, even if we can’t spend the night together, there will be days we might be able to get together for a little bit. You know, if you’re coming into the city anyway.”

Carol determines to find many excuses to come into the city.

“That sounds perfect,” she says. She turns Therese’s hand over, kissing the center of her palm. “You’re perfect,” she adds.

Therese releases a little sigh of peace, burying her nose against Carol’s shoulder. She says, “Don’t worry about Rindy. Or Harge. It’ll be all right.”

“Of course, Darling,” Carol agrees. And wishes with everything in her soul for it to be true.

Chapter Text

Therese is packing up her bag, looking forward to grabbing lunch, when Professor Bernstein calls her up to his desk. She’s getting an A in his class, got an A on the paper he just handed back, and yet an adolescence spent under the suspicious eye of adult guardians has left a toll on her, and her heart thumps with anxiety as she approaches the desk. He is shoving papers into his briefcase. There’s a mustard stain on his tie. He looks up at her over his glasses.

“Fine work, Ms. Belivet,” he says. “Very fine work. Integrate my suggestions and you can send it out for publication.”

Therese is careful not to show the weight of her relief, but she does smile. “Thank you.”

“You saw the link I posted about the Summer Institute in Amsterdam, right?” Therese nods. He looks at her pointedly. “And are you planning to apply? Based on that paper and your course load this term, I gathered you were leaning toward the international concentration?”

Therese says hesitantly, “I—I’ve been thinking about it, yes.”

“Well, then, the program is three weeks. Amsterdam is an amazing city—everyone should go at least once. Obviously I will write you a letter of recommendation, and so will Prof. Smith, I’m sure. Applications are due February 17th. That’s just a week away.” Therese nods again, aware that her eyes are wide. He gives her another assessing look, and then snaps his briefcase shut. “Well then,” he says. “Have a good day, Ms. Belivet.” 

Therese mumbles her own goodbyes, and waits until he’s vanished through the door to straggle out herself. She walks for a few minutes, exiting the building and heading in the direction of a Halal cart two blocks over. Last weekend’s snow storm has left the streets covered in ice and slush, and she’s walking against the wind, which strikes her exposed face like a thousand needles. She reaches into her bag for the beanie she stole from Dannie over Christmas, and pulls it on before taking out her phone. She deliberates for several moments, questions herself, before shooting off a text:

/ Bernstein said he would write me a rec for the institute /

/ The one in Amsterdam /

/ I think I told you about it?/

She stares at the screen for a moment, nearly kicking herself for the awkward words, and then shoves the phone back in her pocket. The Halal cart looms before her, and her stomach growls. She orders the chicken shawarma with extra hot sauce, stamping her feet and rubbing her hands together in an effort to stay warm. She needs to stop forgetting her gloves, it’s fucking freezing.

She’s just outside the library, scarfing food as she goes, when her phone buzzes in her pocket. It takes her a minute to get it out, and then she can practically hear Carol’s voice in the words she reads.

/ I remember. That’s wonderful, Darling! I’m so proud of you. /

Therese takes advantage of a group of undergrads coming out of the library, slipping in before the door closes and striding toward the elevator with shawarma in one hand, phone in the other.

/ You’re going to apply, right? /

Therese rides the elevator up to the fourth floor, relieved to find her usual spot behind the BJ-AP section is free. She waits until all her things are situated to respond to Carol’s text.

/ It’s expensive /

Carol’s answer comes a minute later.

/ Don’t worry about that right now, Therese. Just apply. See what happens. /

/ It’s really competitive anyway so I might not get it in /

Carol sends her a gif of Moira Rose looking dismissive, and Therese blurts a laugh. Someone at a nearby desk glares at her. She sinks deeper into her chair, still smiling, wishing suddenly that she was with Carol now. She can’t think of anything better on a cold February day than to be wrapped in Carol’s arms, devoured by Carol’s kiss…

/ Are you coming to the bar tonight? /

About thirty seconds later:

/ I’ve got that Parent Council meeting at Rindy’s school tonight. It should be done by eight. I don’t think I’ll have the energy for the bar after listening to parents squabble for two hours. But I thought I’d drive into the city after? Spend the night at your place? We’d have the morning together… /

Therese feels a flutter of joy that entirely outweighs the disappointment of not seeing Carol until the middle of the night.

/ Yes, please. Use your key.  /

Carol’s response comes a few seconds later:

/ Miss you. /

Therese’s stomach swoops with pleasure—and then a moment later, tears prick her eyes. Her and Carol’s schedules have been at complete cross-purposes this week. They haven’t seen each other in eight days. Most weeks they manage to see each other at least twice, and that never feels like enough. This week has been almost unbearable, and knowing that Carol feels it, too, makes her both relieved, and longing.

/ miss you, too. see you later /

Therese sets down her phone, heaving a sigh. She reminds herself that in the six weeks they’ve been together, they’ve done well. And Spring Break is less than a month away. She’s already agreed to let Carol whisk her off for three nights to Abby’s beach house in South Carolina. It’ll be her first vacation in… ever? Three whole nights with Carol. Four whole days. With this very encouraging thought, she opens her laptop, and sets to work.

<><><> 

“I’m just sayin’, you could spare one evening a month for your oldest and dearest friend. Just cause I’m not giving you orgasms doesn’t mean I’m not important.”

“Dannie,” Therese sighs.

“And look, if you needed me to give you orgasms, I could do it. I could do the shit out of that. I’m not saying I’d like it, but for you, to keep this friendship alive? Done.”

“You are ridiculous.”

“Except I’m pretty sure Carol would track me down and castrate me. If she’s as butch as you make her sound, anyway. Which I wouldn’t know. Cause I haven’t met her!”

The McKinley is quiet, even for a Wednesday night, otherwise Therese is pretty sure Tommy would have already shooed Dannie off the bar stool. As it is, he’s been hanging out for the past forty-five minutes, commanding Therese’s attention whenever she’s free of customers. She likes having him here, despite the current guilt tripping. And she can hardly blame him for that. They haven’t hung out in three weeks, and that only happened because Carol had to cancel last minute when Rindy got the flu.

“Look, Dannie, I’m really sorry. I know I’ve been a shit friend lately. I just—”

“Oh, I know what you just,” he interrupts. “You ‘just’ got your membership card to the Carol’s Pussy Club and you are getting your money’s worth.”

Therese raises an imperious eyebrow at him. “Yeah, I am.” She leans toward him on the bar, lowering her voice, “‘Cause you know what, Dannie? She is as butch as I make her sound and she lets me fuck her on every surface available and no one in their right mind would pass that up. Sue me.”

“Ha!” Dannie cries, his indignant performance evaporating as he grins, tipping his beer at her. “Now this is what I’m talking about. Don’t hold back, T—tell me all about how Carol has turned you into a top, you ho.”

One of the patrons down the bar calls out, “Hello—yeah—another round over here!”

Therese gives Dannie a look, and just before she goes tells him pointedly, “I think the accurate phrase is ‘power bottom.’ I’ll be right back.”

His delighted cackle follows her down the bar to the small group of—lawyers? Therese is guessing lawyers—who seem a little miffed at having had to wait five seconds for her time. Two Negronis, a mojito, and a double shot of Redbreast later, and Therese is slipping a miserly tip off the bar and turning back toward Dannie.

But Dannie is not alone.

Dannie is chatting with Abby Gerhard.

The first thing Therese feels is a bolt of panic. The second thing she feels is shame for panicking. The third thing she feels is panic again, because Dannie and Abby are talking to each other, and they’ve both got huge grins on their faces, and when she rejoins them, those grins land squarely on her.

“Therese!” says Abby. “Good to see you again! I hardly recognized you with your tie on.”

Therese blushes, stumbles, “Hi, Abby.”

“So you weren’t bullshitting me!” Dannie cries, pointing between Therese and Abby with his beer. “You’re really Carol’s bestie.”

“The one and only. Though my primacy has been usurped of late.”

“Yeah, join the club,” Dannie agrees.

Therese clears her throat, trying to get her bearings. “I didn’t realize you were here,” she says. “Can I get you something? A martini?”

Abby takes a seat next to Dannie. “Sure.”

Happy for something to do, Therese grabs a martini glass from the freezer and takes down the vermouth and gin. She’s aware of Dannie and Abby watching her as she portions the liquor into the mixing glass with ice, and starts to stir.

Abby tells Dannie in a conversational tone, “You know, Carol just raves about Therese’s martinis. Best she’s ever tasted.”

Dannie snorts a laugh. “Yeah, I think Therese has similar sentiments about Carol.”

Therese throws him a glare. Abby’s teeth gleam with her smile. “I like him,” she tells Therese, and then, looking at Dannie, “I like you. I think I’m gonna invite you to my party.”

“No shit?” Dannie says. “Will all the lesbians tolerate me? I’m told I’m very extra.”

Therese strains the liquor into the martini glass, passing it across the bar. Abby says, “I have an eclectic friend group, I’ll have you know. But there’s a price of admission.”

“Go on.”

I make sure Carol shows up. You make sure Therese shows up.”  

“You strike a hard bargain,” says Dannie. “This one is busier than God. But I have a plan.”

“Do tell.”

“We use each other’s friends as bait.”

“Genius,” Abby agrees, nodding sagely. “What do you say, Therese? Can I lure you to my party with promises of Carol all dolled up?”

“You don’t have to lure me, Abby, I’d be happy to come to your party,” Therese replies, waving aside the credit card that Abby tries to pass her.

“You’re comping her!?” Dannie exclaims. “I never get free drinks.”

Therese gives him a droll look. “I’m still trying to win her over.”

Abby’s smile is delighted, and Therese feels a twinge of pride, like she’s just scored a point in a very intense tennis match. “When is the party?” she asks.

“It’s my birthday party,” Abby replies. “The 27th. That’s a Saturday.”

Therese frowns. She always works on Saturdays. Abby’s eyes narrow, as if anticipating her reluctant apologies. Therese thinks better of it, says with wide eyes, “I’ll try to get the night off.”

Abby’s nod is satisfied. “Good. And you,” she looks at Dannie. “If you can get her there by seven, I’ll even let you bring a date.”

Dannie scoffs, “Are you kidding? And lose my chance to score a sugar daddy? I bet your eclectic friend group is teaming with rich queens.”

“You’re not wrong. Though the richest ones are unfortunately straight.”

“Careful,” Therese advises. “You’re inviting a monster into your house. He’s been known to turn straight people gay by osmosis.”

Abby throws back her head and laughs, and Therese smothers her own pleased smile. Another point. 

“Honey, if Carol’s constant, well-fucked smiling is any indication, I’m not sure you were ever really straight.”

“To the queers!” Dannie cries, lifting his bottle.

“To the queers!” Abby echoes.

Therese feels like she’s just born witness to the origin story of a criminal partnership. Dannie and Abby take to each other with gusto. The hour crawls past nine and a fresh crowd comes into the bar, and though Therese is suddenly much busier, it’s clear Dannie no longer needs the entertainment. She checks in on them when she can, and though it makes her a little nervous to think of the stories Dannie might be telling, there’s also a warm feeling in her stomach. She and Carol come from such different worlds, from such different backgrounds. The fact that they can’t see each other often means that they have yet to really interact with each other’s friend groups—something that Therese has secretly dreaded, fearful of how she’ll be perceived by New York elites. But seeing Abby and Dannie get on so well, seeing how unpretentious Abby is, and how comfortably Dannie responds to her in turn, gives Therese hope.

They hang out until just after eleven, when Abby reluctantly announces that she has work in the morning. Dannie, too, decides to call it a night, and after they’ve gone the rest of Therese’s shift goes by in occasional busy spurts and dull lags. She thinks about a project that’s due this weekend. She thinks about Bernstein’s offer to write her a letter of recommendation. He’s a bit of a giant in the academic field of accounting, so it’s a significant boon. If she wants to go.

If she can afford to go.

With airfare and housing and the price of the institute itself, the costs would be upwards of $5,000. That’s almost three months of net wages, a third of what Therese has managed to put away in her savings over the past five years. And she’s never touched her savings. She’s horded it like a dragon in a lair, always on guard for the day disaster strikes, and she’ll need it most. How can she justify taking out that much money to go to Amsterdam?

Then again, how can she not? It’s an incredible opportunity, not just to learn, but to make connections. And while the actual work part of it would be as boring as the rest of her graduate program, she’d have time to explore the city on her off hours. God, the photographs she could take! Just thinking about it gives her a thrill of excitement.

Maybe she can apply for a grant? If she can find time to apply for a grant…

She’s serving some banker his third Johnnie Walker Blue, daydreaming about the streets of Amsterdam, when an errant thought captures her completely:

Carol, in Amsterdam. Carol, with her.

It’s a ridiculous whim. Carol can’t just abandon Rindy for that long, Harge would blow a gasket. And Carol has her own work, after all. Besides, why would she want to come along on a trip when Therese would be so busy for most of it? It wouldn’t be fair.

But Carol… in Amsterdam. Eating at restaurants and cafes. Walking the streets hand-in-hand. Making love every night and waking up together every morning… Therese finds herself carried away by the perfect, consuming thoughts. 

At 12:30, just before her shift ends, Therese checks her phone. There’s a text from Carol from 10 o’clock, saying she’s going to bed and to please be safe on the subway. Therese’s blood warms. She thinks about Carol, asleep in her bed. She gave her a key early on, when they realized that this strategy would allow them to still sleep together and wake up together, even if they only had time in the morning for breakfast. It helps, because on nights when Carol has Rindy, Therese doesn’t spend the night. They’re giving it another month before they explain things to Rindy, and Carol insists that she’ll have to talk to Harge about it first.

This makes Therese uneasy. She understands where Carol is coming from. Harge is Rindy’s father and he ought to at least be informed about who is in his daughter’s life. But Therese doesn’t trust him. Carol seems adamant that he is a good person and a good father, but when Therese thinks of the way he was in the foyer that night—the anger, the arrogance, the contempt with which he looked at Therese… It was all so troublingly familiar.

That said, there’s been no blow up since. Carol worried at first that she hadn’t heard the end of things, but apparently Harge hasn’t brought it up again, and though he’s been colder with her these past six weeks, he’s also refrained from any outright accusations. The divorce is nearly final, their lawyers just have to finish some paperwork related to the division of assets. Carol insists everything will be fine. 

She finally leaves the bar at 1:30, and the subway ride has her back in front of her building at 1:49. Inside her apartment, Carol has left the kitchen light on for her. Therese takes off her shoes and coat, shuts off the light, and uses her phone to light the way to the bedroom. She can see Carol’s form, wrapped in blankets and curled on her side in the bed. Therese’s double mattress has nothing on Carol’s California King, but there is an undeniable pleasure to the two of them having to crowd close for warmth. They tend to wake up entangled (though that’s true at Carol’s house, too). Right now, nothing sounds better, and Therese, exhausted, can’t wait to fall asleep with Carol next to her.

She strips out of her clothes, trying to be as quiet and careful as possible as she gets her pajamas out of the dresser, pulls them on, and then slips into bed. But years of having a daughter wake her up in the night have conditioned Carol to sense the change, and she shifts in bed.

“Therese?” she asks, sleep rough.

Therese whispers, “Hi. Go back to sleep.”

“C’mere,” Carol says.

Pleased, Therese crawls into her arms, warm and safe and gathering her immediately close.

“Was gonna stay up,” Carol says. Her eyes are closed. She’s still mostly asleep. “Was gonna… jump you.”

Therese snorts with amusement. “You can jump me in the morning.”

“Mkay,” Carol mumbles. Her body starts to relax, but then— “Wait,” she says. Her eyes blink open, as if she has just remembered something. Therese looks at her expectantly, taking in the perfect planes of her face as she clearly struggles toward coherence. After a moment she says, “Kiss me.”

Therese chuckles again, bending to place a gentle kiss on Carol’s mouth. Carol hums against her, and the kiss deepens, though it is still gentle and unassuming. Sounding just a little more awake, Carol says, “Found that thing in your drawer.”

Therese is momentarily confused—and then she remembers.

Her face goes beet red.

“Oh,” she says.

“Oh,” Carol repeats, mouth curving in a lazy smile, eyes slipping shut again as she wraps an arm around Therese’s waist and scooches her closer. Their bodies align; their legs hook together. “Didn’t know you… wanted that.”

Still blushing up a storm, Therese tries for cool. And fails.

“I mean, I don’t—it’s not like—it was just something that—you know, I just thought—”

Carol’s low chuckle interrupts her rambling.

“Your first class is at 9:00, right?”

“Uh—um—yeah.”

“Okay.” Carol’s hand starts trailing up and down her back, a gesture clearly meant to soothe, to relax. “Let’s go to sleep. I know you’re tired.”

Well now she’s not! Now she feels fluttery and warm and aroused, and full of visions that she had only barely started to entertain.

But Carol is slipping off to sleep again, and her slow, even breaths are a compelling sedative. The past week has been brutal, and sometimes Therese feels like the four or five hours of sleep she gets a night might as well be nothing. Part of her wants to wake Carol up, to make love to her now, to let the desire Carol has sparked sweep them away. But she’s just… so… tired.

<><><> 

She wakes to a flooding sensation, to something warm and wet between her legs, to pleasure spooling out into the farthest reaches of her body. At first she thinks she’s dreaming, a delicious dream, but then she feels silky hair trailing over her thighs, and she hears a low humming sound of delight. Even as she crawls toward wakefulness, she keeps her eyes closed. Doesn’t want anything to intrude on this, this perfect feeling. She becomes aware that she’s naked from the waist down, that her shirt is pushed up over her stomach. Carol’s tongue flutters against her, sending a pulse of need through her clit and into the aching center of her body.

“Carol,” she sighs. “Carol…”

“Mmm,” Carol groans, hands sliding up her torso, under her shirt. Fingers plucking at her nipples til her back arches off the bed. “Did I wake you?”

It’s such a shit-eating thing to say that Therese would laugh—except then Carol’s tongue plunges inside her, and those fingers tweak her nipples a little harder, and lust burns through her like a forest fire.

“Oh God,” she gasps. “Oh God, please—”

“Relax,” Carol says, tongue moving against her in slow, tender licks. “Wanna make you come…”

Therese shivers, arching again. One of the hands stays playing with her nipples. The other slips out from under her shirt. Therese senses it reaching for something on the bedside table. Confused, she looks—and then whimpers with need. 

“Do you want to?” Carol asks, flicking her tongue against her in a pattern so rapid and sweet that Therese jolts. Carol looks up at her with those cat eyes deviously gleaming, and adds, “Only if you want to.”

Therese nods almost violently, even as she rambles, “I—I—I’ve never—”

“Shhh,” Carol soothes. “I thought not. Where did you buy this one?”

“Um—uh—a place on West 4th. It looked… it looked good.”

Carol laughs throatily. Carol kisses her between her legs, sucking, messy, and it drags a cry from Therese’s throat. Therese watches, panting, as Carol drags fingers through her sex, then uses her slick to lubricate the dildo.

Therese picked it because it wasn’t intimidating. Not too large. Not too realistic. In her continuing forays into fanfiction, she has encountered whole subgenres about women with cocks. This in itself is pretty arousing, but the writers tend to imagine these cocks as thick as anacondas, and this—this is not arousing, to Therese. The first time she had sex with Richard, she was barely wet, and he was bigger than anyone she’d been with before. It hurt, and even later when she learned how to prepare for sex with him, she always winced in the beginning.

It made her confused and frustrated with herself. Weren’t women supposed to want boyfriends with big dicks? Wasn’t that ethos constantly being shoved down girls’ throats? No pun intended. Well, Therese hadn’t liked it, and so when she saw this dildo, made of a soft and pliable silicone, no thicker than three fingers—it looked perfect. She imagined Carol using it on her, and nearly melted right there in the store.

But that is nothing to how she feels now, as Carol looks up at her from between her legs; as Carol slips the toy down, teasing it against her entrance. Carol’s gray eyes are stormy with lust, her mouth wet and swollen, tongue licking her bottom lip.

“Are you sure?” Carol asks.

In answer, Therese lifts her hips forward, beseeching, and Carol slides inside.

Therese’s eyes roll back. Afraid of accidentally tearing Carol’s hair out, she grabs the sheets instead, desperate for something to hold on to. It’s so different. It’s different from being with a man. It’s different from Carol’s fingers. It’s different, and it’s good, so good, better than good—

Carol starts to move, slow, easy strokes that spear Therese with pleasure and want. She moves her hips, rocking into the rhythm Carol has set, nearly screaming when Carol bows her head and takes her in her mouth again.

“Oh fuck,” Therese gasps. “Oh fuck.”

Carol lifts her mouth long enough to ask, “Is it okay?”

“Yes, yes, don’t stop—please, don’t stop!”

Another rakish chuckle, and then Carol is licking her in earnest, stroking in and out, angling the toy so it rubs against the front wall of Therese’s cunt. The combination is earth-shattering. She feels as if her body has simultaneously dissolved, and bloomed with new life. She can hear a wet squelching sound—it would embarrass her if she weren’t so turned on, and the way Carol keeps moaning against her, the way Carol’s hips churn against the mattress as she seeks some relief—well, how can you be embarrassed when something feels this good? Therese gives herself over to it. Lets herself feel it, all of it.

Eight days was too long, she thinks blearily. Too long without her. Can’t do that again. Need her need her need—

“Carol,” she gasps. “Carol, c-c’mere.”

Instantly, Carol is flowing up her body, covering her, taking her mouth in a hungry kiss. Therese kisses her back, almost frantically, needing it like this. In the past six weeks she has learned that she can’t always come from oral sex. At first this embarrassed her, distressed her—but Carol wasn’t fussed at all. Carol told her that different women needed different things, and there was no hard, fast rule. What mattered was that it felt good. What mattered was that Therese got what she needed. And Therese has realized that most of the time, what she needs, what she wants, is Carol inside her. That deep, intimate connection. That feeling of safety that comes with Carol covering her body, rubbing her clit, fucking her inside.

Carol keeps moving the toy, in and out, deep and slow. Therese wants her closer. She lifts her thigh against Carol’s center and her lover makes a soft sound of gratitude, grinding down. She’s only wearing panties, and Therese can feel how wet she is. She makes sure that every lift of her hips toward the toy also lifts her thigh against Carol, and it goes like this, slow at first and then, after a few minutes, faster, urgent.

“You feel so good,” she gasps. “Carol, you feel so good.”

Carol nods desperately. “So do you. Darling, so do you, fuck—what—what do you need? I don’t think I can—reach.”

Ordinarily, Therese would need some kind of attention to her clit. But then she looks into Carol’s face, sees the way her eyes have turned glassy, feels the focus of her grinding, and knows that they’re both close. The heat between her own legs seems to sharpen, gathering all at once toward release. She feels herself, tightening on the toy, throbbing against it. She makes a choking sound of bliss as her thighs start to tremble.

“I’m gonna come,” she gasps. Carol’s moan is full of excitement, full of relief. “I’m gonna come, fuck, Carol—come with me. Please, come with me, I—”

Carol buries her face against her shoulder. Carol’s back bows, shudders, and then she’s crying out, muffling it against the bed. Therese has no such recourse. She shouts, eyes slamming shut, heedless of the neighbors who can probably hear her. Somehow, impossibly, Carol keeps stroking, even as she shakes apart with her own consuming pleasure.

By the time they start to relax, Therese feels like her retinas have detached; everything is blurry, and her heart is pounding in her chest as she floats in a sea of endorphins as potent as red wine. She melts into the bed, and Carol melts, too. The toy is still inside, and Carol’s hand holds it there, but she doesn’t thrust. Intermittently Therese feels herself fluttering against it, and Carol, too, is fluttering, her body a sweaty heap that trembles with aftershocks.

“Jesus Christ,” Carol pants.

She manages to shift a little to the side, so that Therese isn’t bearing all her weight, and then together they reach down to pull the dildo out. It drops off the side of the bed in their distraction, and Therese giggles drunkenly.

“Jesus Christ,” Carol repeats.

Therese revels in the feel of Carol’s warm breath against her neck. After a little while, she rolls her body, inelegantly climbing on top of Carol and burrowing into her, knees bent on either side of her, arms wrapping under her arms, face in her neck. Carol’s strokes her back and laughs. This is a fairly common position for them, a post-coital effort at closeness and comfort that Carol finds adorable.

“My little koala bear,” she coos.

Therese nods against her, unembarrassed, and Carol laughs again. She runs her hands across her, over her thighs and knees and shoulders and spine. She kisses the side of her head and Therese sighs with contentment.

“We’re never going eight days again,” Therese mumbles. “I forbid it.”

“It has been rather awful, hasn’t it?” Carol agrees.

“I hated it. I was so busy and stressed and I thought if I tried to see you on top of it I would just be more stressed, but I was wrong. Not seeing you was way worse.”

“We’re still figuring this out, Sweetheart,” Carol reassures her.

“I know,” Therese sighs. “I just… I don’t want to go that long again.”

Carol answers simply, “Then we won’t.”

Therese thinks again of Amsterdam. Three weeks out of the country. Three weeks apart. Unless Carol came with her…

But she doesn’t mention it. She’s too shy to mention it.

She shifts in Carol’s arms, lifting her head enough to look at the clock on the end table. Fuck. It’s already 7:45.

“I have to get up,” she grumbles.

She sits up fully, still straddling Carol’s hips. She drags a hand through her hair and stretches her back, and looks down at the beauty watching her. In her ridden-up tank top, hair a golden bramble, mouth still swollen, Carol is a vision of sex. But the way Carol looks at her, tender and sweet—that is a different kind of vision. Something Therese wants in her life, every day.

Carol reaches up to cup her cheek. She runs a thumb under Therese’s eye.

“You look tired, Angel,” she says. Therese pouts, and Carol grins. “Beautiful,” she amends, “Always beautiful. But tired.”

“I feel like my professors have upped their game this term,” Therese explains. “The workload is heavier than last Fall. And Tommy keeps trying to tap me for longer shifts.”

Carol frowns. She runs her hands up and down Therese’s thighs. “I wish you didn’t have to work so hard.”

Therese shrugs. That’s just the way it is. Reluctantly, she climbs off Carol’s body, standing for a moment in the pale light of her bedroom, trying to get her bearings. Carol rolls onto her side, and watches as Therese surveys her closet before deciding, as usual, to pick an outfit after she showers. She’s heading towards her door when she stops, remembering.

“Oh, by the way. Your BFF came to visit me last night.”

Carol’s eyes widen. She sits up. “Oh, God, what did she do?”

Therese laughs. “Nothing outrageous. She wants us to come to her birthday party.”

Carol’s shoulders relax. “Oh. Well. It’s on a Saturday. Do you think you can get the night off?”

“I’m going to try,” Therese promises. Carol gives her a soft look of gratitude, and Therese shrugs shyly. “It sounds like Abby has some pretty high end friends.” When Carol’s brow furrows, clearly unsure where she’s going with this observation, Therese smirks at her. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll score a rich socialite.”

Carol squawks with indignation. She throws Therese’s pillow at her. Therese laughs, dancing out of the way, and through the door—but at the last minute, she peeks inside again, giving Carol a long, sultry onceover.

“Wanna shower with me?” she asks.

Carol practically leaps from the bed.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Carol, it’s Fred.”

“Fred. Hi. Sorry, I’m just walking into a meeting—”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. I just wanted to give you a heads up. We messengered the papers to Harge for final signatures on Monday and haven’t heard back yet.”

Carol stands holding open the door into the café, but at these words she lets it go, stepping back onto the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, believe me. People always struggle with this part of it, the finality of it. I sent his lawyer an email and hopefully he’ll get back to me by end of day. I just wanted to mention it to you in case you see Harge. When did you talk to him last?”

“Uh, this morning,” Carol digs through her purse for her vape pen. “He came to pick up Rindy. It didn’t come up.”

“Okay, I just wanted to be sure. Look, don’t worry about it. It’s all in the game. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back.”

Carol sighs. She drags on her pen and looks through the window into the café. Maurice, a dapper African American man in his early sixties, is sitting at a little table by the window. He sees her and lifts his espresso cup in greeting. She waves back, says distractedly to Fred, “Okay, thank you. Look, I’ve got to go.”

“No problem! Talk soon!”

Fred hangs up. Carol puts away her pen. Her thoughts are suddenly running riot, and this was the last thing she needed right now. What the hell is Harge doing? Everything is finally wrapped up (the house, the money, the custody) and he decides to start being coy about the papers? Fuck.

She tries to massage away a burgeoning headache in her forehead. She takes a deep breath, forcing herself to center, to put it aside, to focus on what she’s here for. Then, head held high, she walks into the café, all smiles.

Maurice stands at her approach, pulling out her chair for her, ever the gentlemen. He’s even ordered her a cappuccino, the dear man.

“Carol,” he says, deep voice rumbling. “You’re looking well.”

They air kiss and Carol smiles brightly. “You, too, Maurice.”

“It’s ages since I saw you.” He waggles a finger at her. “I suppose the divorce is nearly over, and now you’re running free, sewing your wild oats.”  

Carol scoffs, but it’s fond. Maurice is an old friend, and her first client. An exquisitely elegant gay man who survived the horrors of the AIDS crisis, he has a seriousness and melancholy about him that sparks affinity in Carol. She, too, was serious and melancholy, when they met. Five years ago she helped him locate a restoration specialist for a French armoire. Ever since then he’s come to her with all his restoration needs. He was one of the first people she told when she decided to leave Harge, and he is one of the only members of those wealthy circles that she actually enjoys spending time with.

“‘Nearly over’ is the operative phrase,” she tells him drolly. “Not over yet. And I’ve just learned he’s holding back the papers, for some reason.”

Maurice frowns with concern, and then makes a little disgusted sound that queer people have perfected over centuries. “What a boorish man he’s always been.”

Carol sighs. “Yes, well, I think sometimes I never saw the full extent of his boorishness—not til I asked for the divorce. We’ve kept things mostly civil this past year, but there have been moments.”

He gives her a kind smile. “Are you very worried about it?”

Carol makes a dismissive gesture. “Oh, no. It’s all power games with him, but he’s got no leverage over me anymore. Even if he wanted to try for full custody, he’d never get it—and I don’t think he’d dare. He hasn’t got the temperament or skill set to be a full-time parent.”

Maurice chuckles, and some of his concern seems to fade, then shift—into something more pensive and insightful. Carol realizes that he is not just looking at her, but taking her in, assessing her. Suddenly he asks, “Tell me, dear, did leaving Harge take ten years off your age? Even with all this stress—you look radiant.”

Startled, Carol blushes, looking away and reaching for her cappuccino. He’s on the scent at once. “Something has happened! Tell me.”

His tone is stern, but also gentle, inviting. He looks at her in that clever way he has, of seeing through any pretensions a person might erect. Carol’s blush deepens as she takes a sip of her coffee, and when he doesn’t relent, she rolls her eyes in mock-exasperation. “Fine. You’ve caught me out. I’m seeing someone.”

His grin is wide and happy. “I thought that must be it. Who is she?”

“How do you know it’s a woman?”

He gives her a flat look. “Am I wrong?”

Carol laughs. “No, you’re not wrong. Her name is Therese.”

“Therese,” he rolls the French pronunciation over his tongue, clearly approving. “And are you very happy?”

Carol blushes again, but she can’t deny it. “I am. She… You would like her, Maurice.”

“Let me guess—beauty, intellect, charm?”

“In spades.”  

“And perhaps… a little bit of shyness, to complement your more… aggressive energy?”

Carol blurts a laugh, and Maurice’s eyes twinkle victoriously. In a low voice Carol tells him, “She’s aggressive when she needs to be.”

This time he laughs, a deep baritone rumble of amusement and pleasure. He asks, “Does she live in Jersey?”

“No, she’s in Manhattan. That’s the hardest part, honestly—she’s getting her Master’s degree and she works full time, and we live in different cities. We don’t see each other nearly as much as I’d like.”

This seems to interest him. “Really?”

Carol hesitates. “Yes. Why?”

He waves a hand, says, “Nevermind for now. But know that this turn of events makes me even happier about the news I have. And even more hopeful about your response.”

“Oh?”

“Well, you must have guessed I have a motive for wanting to get coffee.”  

With raised eyebrows, Carol teases him, “You mean this wasn’t all for the pleasure of my company?”

“I think you’ll find that the pleasure of your company is a driving factor in what I have to say. I’m sorry, I’m being mysterious. Let me get straight to it, Carol. I’m finally opening my store.”

Carol’s jaw drops. Maurice has been talking about this for as long as she’s known him.

“You’re kidding me!”

He beams, an almost boyish light in his normally solemn eyes. “Not at all. You may perhaps have heard me mention before, a woman who married my father after my mother died. A certain white woman who, forgive me, I think the kids these days would call a Karen?”

Carol snorts with laughter. Maurice is so austere; this reference, coming from him, is a delight. She schools her expression, eyes still twinkling, and nods. “Yes, from what you’ve told me about her, she did seem the type.”

“Well, though I am not so unrefined as to rejoice in any other human being’s misfortune, the fact is that she died over Christmas.”

“Oh, Maurice—I. God, I realize condolences aren’t the thing, but—I’m sorry, I guess?”

He chuckles, and sips from his espresso cup, pinky finger lifting in one of those rare outward displays of what a queen he is. 

“Yes, well. I haven’t spoken to her since my father died. I might not even have heard about it except for the will. She of course tried to write me out of everything, but Papa left me the mansion in Connecticut. Along with everything inside. I just got back from seeing it with my estate managers. Carol—” For the first time real emotion seizes his face, his big dark eyes watering as he confesses, “It was better than I could have dreamed. I haven’t been out there, you know, in fifteen years, and I thought she might have sold it all out from under me. It turns out, however, she was a bit of hoarder. All the pieces I remember are still there. The colonial four poster beds and the Civil War era dining table and the Bernhardt living room set. Not to mention the art. I can finally do it, Carol. I have an inventory now that could stock a showroom three times over, and I’m done waiting. Henry says sixty three isn’t too old, so I’m taking him at his word. I’m opening my store.”

Carol finds her own eyes brimming with tears (not least because the mention of Henry, Maurice’s fifty-year-old partner of three decades, fills her with unanticipated hope that she, too, might find love that lives that long. Might have found it already). She brushes the tears away, clasps one of his hands that is resting on the table. “Maurice, I’m so happy for you. Have you found a spot yet?”

“I have,” he nods, all business. “A shopfront in Bed-Stuy. I signed the papers on Tuesday, though I don’t anticipate we’ll open before May. There’s lots of work to do to get ready. As I’m sure you can imagine, my stepmother didn’t take care of things very well, so most of the pieces need restoration. Which is part of why I wanted to talk to you.”  

“Maurice, I’d be delighted to help. And I can give you references for other restorers, for anything I can’t handle in time.”

“I’m sure your references would be impeccable. But the fact is, dear, that I’m greedy. I want you to do all of it.”

Carol startles, frowns. She says slowly, “Maurice. That’s… I mean, that’s really flattering, but it sounds like you’re talking dozens of pieces. Something like that would take me months.”

“Not if you had a team of assistants. And not if you come to work for me full time.”

This time Carol can’t conceal her frank confusion. He takes another sip from his espresso cup. There’s a tiny little smirk at the corner of his mouth, a hint at the youthful troublemaker that exists under the trappings of the sophisticated man. Carol flounders for a moment, trying to figure out when a casual afternoon coffee with an old friend took such a totally unexpected turn.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “You want a full time furniture restorer? Or you want to hire me full time for a short term project?”

“Neither,” he says crisply. “I want to hire you full time, permanently, to oversee the restoration of my father’s pieces, and all the future work I bring in, and I want you to manage my store and turn it into the epicenter of antiques shopping in New York.”

Carol keeps staring at him, totally baffled. Not only that, but her heart has started to pound with an emotion she can’t quite define. Is it fear? Is it excitement? He can’t be serious.

“Maurice, I…”

“I realize this is a dramatic offer to make without warning. Henry says I can be a little theatrical when I’m excited. But you see, my dear, it simply can’t work any other way. Now,” he lifts a hand, cutting her off just as she’s opening her mouth to object, “before you start insisting upon your unfitness for the role, let me remind you that I am a very intelligent man and don’t do anything without extensive research. You are, in fact, quite fit for the role. You have a business management degree from Columbia, and while you were with Harge you chaired the boards of several very successful charities. I’ve taken the liberty of speaking to people who have worked with you, and they all describe you as a professional, brilliant woman, and a born leader. Now, I know other people equally qualified to help me run a business, but none of them are experts in furniture. In my research I have found several candidates who fit both those bills, but none of them are actual restorers. None of them have your artistic eye. You are my unicorn, Carol. I can’t take no for an answer.”

He pauses now to finish his espresso, and signal the waiter for another. Carol watches him in stunned silence, completely lost for how to respond. She got into furniture restoration out of love for the work. She hasn’t had a full time job since before Rindy was born. Bed-Stuy is over an hour away from the house in Jersey…

It’s also significantly closer to Therese…

No, God, stop, you can’t make a decision like this based on where your girlfriend lives. Just stop. Focus!

“Maurice, I…” Carol struggles for a moment, caught between terror and gratitude. “Maurice, it’s an incredible offer. I hope you realize I need to… well, think about it a little, and—”

“Of course,” he makes a gesture of acquiescence.

“And, you know… I got into this because I loved the work. Running a business—I wouldn’t even have time to do the actual restoring. You’d have to hire someone else.”

“I’m not looking to take your passion from you, Carol. How many hours a week would you say you spend on your restoration projects right now?”

“Right now?” she repeats, considering. “Fifteen? Twenty.”

“All right, then. I’m going to send you an offer letter, salary, benefits, etc. In that letter I’ll specify that fifteen hours in a forty hour week will be reserved for actual restoration. We’ll figure the rest of it out accordingly. How does that sound?”

“It—it—sounds… generous.”

He smiles dryly. “Well. I’m a generous man. You’ll have the details by Monday. Take a week to think it over. Now, no more business. You've barely touched your cappuccino. Or told me when you started letting women give you hickeys.”

Carol’s hand snaps to her collarbone. Fuck, her scarf has slipped down!

“Uh, I—”

Maurice’s eyes twinkle. “Tell me more about her.”

<><><> 

“Carol, this is fucking nuts.”

“I know.”

“But you’re gonna say yes, right?”

“I—I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

Abby gives her a disbelieving stare. Carol shrugs, uncertain. They’re seated in their usual booth at The McKinley. Abby’s got a martini, but Carol has discovered that she is now distinctly partial to old fashioneds. She’s turning the tumbler in a slow circle on the table, imagining the care with which Therese made it for her; imagining that by touching it, she is in some way touching Therese—who she misses terribly today.

When Abby speaks again, her tone is gentler than normal, “What’s holding you back?”

Carol stares down at her drink, frowning. “It would be a major adjustment for Rindy, me working full time again. The commute alone, on top of an 8 hour workday? That’s ten hours apart every day. I’m not sure I can do that to her on top of everything else that’s been happening.”

Abby nods seriously, thinking. She points out, “You could move into the city.”

Carol sighs, “Harge thinks we should hang on to the house.”

You get the house in the divorce. Harge can suck my dick.”

Carol blurts a laugh, some of her anxiety dissipating. She takes a sip of the old fashioned, the silky, rich flavor sliding down her throat as warm as one of Therese’s kisses. Goddamn, that girl can mix a drink. 

“But seriously,” Abby says. “Let’s be practical. Maurice says he won’t open til May, which means Rindy can finish out preschool with her normal class. And then, she’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall. So she’ll be adjusting to more changes anyway. Vanessa lives in Harlem, so it’s not like her commute would be any longer. She could still nanny. And this way, Rindy would actually be closer to Harge, which is good for her, if not for you.”

Abby pauses her unimpeachably logical assessment, takes a sip of her martini, and then—

“Not to mention… you’d be closer to Therese.”

Carol sighs. “I can’t make a decision like this because of Therese.”

“Maybe not, but there’s nothing wrong with her figuring in the calculations. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be infinitely happier if you lived closer to her.”

Carol imagines an apartment on Madison Avenue, near Therese’s apartment. Therese could come stay at her place after work. And then, down the line, if they stay together…

“Of course I’d be happier,” Carol mutters. “But Therese’s schedule is incredibly busy, and for all I know she appreciates the distance between us—it stops her feeling guilty that we can’t see each other more.” Abby gives her a disparaging look. Carol makes a defensive sound. “I don’t want to put any expectations on her! She’s always so tired and stressed. I think this could just make it worse.”

I think that she’s completely smitten with you and would love being close just as much as you would. Honestly, the fact you two haven’t U-hauled yet is a miracle.”

“It’s too soon for that. I’m not going to be a lesbian stereotype.”

Abby rolls her eyes. “Whatever.”

“You know, maybe for once we could talk about your love life instead of mine. When’s the last time I got to mock you for being sweet on someone. This friendship is imbalanced.”

Abby, eyes on her drink, scoffs theatrically. “My love life is perfectly fine, thank you.”

“So you are seeing someone?”

A flick of the wrist. “I’m always seeing someone.”

But Carol notices that Abby is still looking at her drink, eyes deliberately averted. All Carol’s senses go on high alert. She narrows her eyes, and after awhile Abby dares to look up at her. “What?” she demands.

Carol’s jaw drops. “You are! You are seeing someone!”

“What? No! Seriously, Carol, it’s nothing—”

“What’s nothing?” Carol zeroes in like a hawk. “There’s something or you wouldn’t be calling it nothing.”

“Ugh, shut up.”

“I’m getting this out of you.”

“Look, it’s not a big deal. I met a woman a couple of weeks ago at a bar, we spent the night together. And we’ve seen each other a couple of times since. It’s casual. Just sex.”

“Tell that to your face. You are straight up blushing, Abby. This is the best night of my life.”

“I hate you.”

But Carol just cackles, utterly delighted to have the tables turned for once. And, deep down, full of a warm glowing hope. Abby dates and hooks up quite a bit, but she never gets flustered over those women. In fact, the last woman who flustered her was probably Carol herself. The idea of her cool, acerbic, no fucks best friend suddenly liking someone new? It’s absolutely fantastic.

“What’s her name? Is she coming to the party tomorrow?”

Abby, who is pink in the cheeks and burying her face in her martini, mutters, “I don’t know. I—don’t know.”

“But you invited her?”

“I mean… yeah. Just—just off-hand, you know, I told her not to worry about it. It’s not a big deal. Anyway, now I’m hoping she doesn’t come, just to avoid you making some kind of scene!”

Carol swallows her retort. She can tell that Abby is veering toward anxiety (further proof that this woman, whoever she is, isn’t nothing), and she doesn’t want her to spin out, so she takes a sip of her drink and shrugs.

“Okay. Fine. Let me know if you decide you want to talk about it.”

Abby eyes her suspiciously, says on a cautious note, “Okay…”

Just then, Carol’s phone chirps. She swipes it on—it’s a text message from Fred.

/ FYI, just heard back from Harge's lawyer. They want to review things one more time before he signs. We’ll take this up again next week. /

Carol grinds her jaw. Of-fucking-course he’s dragging things out at the 11th hour.

“What’s up?” Abby asks.

“Nothing,” she mutters. “Just Harge, being a dick about the divorce.”

“Has he still not signed?”

“No. He wants his lawyers to look again.”

Abby narrows her eyes. “You don’t think he’s gonna pull something last minute, do you?”

“Honest to God, Abby, where that man is concerned, I have no idea. After he met Therese I was geared up for a full on war. But he’s never so much as mentioned her. And he agreed to split assets down the middle, no fuss. And now, he’s pulling this shit. I think he just wants to make me nervous. I mean, what’s the worst he can say to me? ‘It’s over?’”

Abby shrugs. “He’s probably just jealous that you’re moving on.”

Carol nods, still frowning down at her phone. Suddenly Abby says, “Speaking of. Cute bartender incoming.”

Carol’s head snaps up to find Abby looking over her shoulder. When Carol turns, Therese is striding toward them. There’s an instant lift in Carol’s heart. Therese wears her typical work uniform, hair tied back and eye makeup a little smokier than normal. When their eyes meet, she smiles in that sweet, shy way of hers, and then comes to stand by the table.

“Evening ladies,” she says, a hint of flirtation in her drawl. “Are the drinks to your satisfaction?”

“Delicious as usual,” Abby smiles, lifting her glass and draining it. “I was just about to order another, but if you’re about to go on break I’ll wait til you’re back.”

“Don’t do that, Abby, the new bartender is good.”

“Not as good as you, though. I want the perfect martini and you’re the only one who can give it to me.”

“Down, girl,” says Carol.

Therese grins, and then looks at Carol directly. “I was gonna go outside for a bit?”

“Go on,” Abby says, before Carol can even ask. “I’ll hold things down until you get back. But first, Therese—” she levels her with a stern look. “You’re still coming tomorrow right?”

Therese rolls her eyes. Carol doesn’t think Therese would have dared to roll her eyes at Abby when they first met. A lot has changed in two months, and where Therese is concerned, it’s all been for the better.

“Yes, Abby,” she says. “I told you. The new bartender is covering for me. So you should give her a chance. And a generous tip.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Carol is already up out of the booth, and together they walk toward the back of the bar, and the exit onto the patio. They’ve hung out here a few times since New Year’s Eve, and though their original confrontation behind the bar was… fraught, Carol always looks at the little patio with a deep fondness. She holds the door open for Therese, who slips out ahead of her.

But the minute Carol follows, the minute the door closes after them, she finds herself pressed up against it. She oofs, and then Therese’s hands are in her hair, and Therese’s mouth is on her mouth, and she’s groaning and dragging her closer. In the frigid air of late February, Carol’s body fills with warmth. The warmth of Therese. She kisses her back with the hunger of three days apart and doesn’t give a damn if anyone sees them.

When they finally break for air, Carol is grinning.

“Well hello, Ms. Belivet.”

Therese smirks at her; starts peppering kisses along her jaw and chin.

“Hi. I’m happy to see you.”

“I can tell.”

“Are you happy to see me?”

Carol chuckles, pulling her into another kiss. “I’m always happy to see you, Darling.”

Therese smiles against her mouth, and for a few more moments they lean against the door, kissing—until at last even Therese’s body isn’t enough to override the cold. Carol takes her hands between her own, rubbing them together.

“Let’s go stand by the heater, okay?”

They share a cigarette, talking about their weeks, and Carol continues to marvel at how much pleasure she gets just from being around Therese. Just from hearing her describe the most innocuous things—a project in class; a particularly snobby customer; a restaurant she wants to try next time they have an evening together. Sometimes Carol is afraid that when she’s with Therese, listening to Therese, she must look like a completely besotted dope. Which, frankly, she is. But to be fair, there are times she catches Therese gazing at her, and she looks a little besotted herself. Much to Carol’s joy.

They’ve been chatting for about fifteen minutes when Therese’s eyes widen.

“Oh, shit, I forgot to ask you—you saw your friend Maurice today, right? Does he have a new project for you?”

Carol hesitates. She doesn’t know why. All day she’s wanted to tell Therese about her meeting with Maurice. Even as she described it to Abby she kept thinking, I wish Therese was here. I wish I could tell her.

But now, to her own confusion, the words choke inside her. She clears her throat, and smiles, “Oh, it was lovely. Yes, he has some things he wants to work on with me. He’s going to send me more information on Monday.”

Therese beams at her, and the pride glowing in her eyes makes Carol feel distinctly guilty. Though she’s not exactly sure what she’s guilty of. She’s not lying, after all. She won’t know the particulars of Maurice’s offer until next week, and why trouble Therese about it when there’s still so much to learn? Nothing wrong with saving this conversation til Monday, is there? 

“I’m proud of you, love,” Therese tells her, drawing close so she can slip their fingers together.

Carol blushes with pleasure. Therese has only started using pet names in the past couple of weeks, and each one makes Carol feel like she’s won a million dollars. And this particular endearment, ‘love’, always hits harder than anything else. Because they haven’t said ‘I love you’ to each other; haven’t even come close. But surely Therese wouldn’t call her ‘love’ if she didn’t at least think that maybe, one day…

Carol bends down to her. They kiss softly, sweetly, and when they pull apart a few moments later there’s a look in Therese’s eyes, a look she gets sometimes, slightly dazed, like she’s waking from a dream to find the dream is real life.

“Can you spend the night?” she murmurs.

Carol nods; their faces are close enough that it makes their noses brush together. “I can.”

Therese smiles, kissing her again. She says, “I thought maybe we could sleep in tomorrow. I don’t have to be back here til eleven.”

This was how Therese got the evening off for Abby’s party; she took a day shift off the new bartender. Carol wishes she could have just taken the day altogether, as a day never goes by that she doesn’t either have work or school. But Carol doesn’t comment, just brushes their noses together again, smiling.

“Sleeping in,” she says. “How decadent.”

Therese grins into her kiss. “Yeah. Maybe I’ll even make you pancakes for breakfast.”

“Can I lick the syrup off your fingers?”

“You can lick the syrup off anything you want.”

Carol groans, suddenly burning with lust at the image this evokes. She pulls Therese to her, kissing her hard and deep, and Therese’s little chuckle of amusement turns to a whimper as soon as their tongues slide together. As soon as Carol grabs a handful of her ass.

“And—tomorrow night?” Therese asks, a little breathless. “I can stay over, right?”

Abby has volunteered Carol to host her birthday party—she said it was the perfect scheme to make sure Therese would show up. With Rindy at Harge’s, it means Therese can spend the night in Jersey, something that happens rarely. Just thinking it makes Carol pull her even closer, knee slipping between her thighs, hands roaming and grabbing at her like a helpless frat boy.

“You’d better stay over.”

Two nights in a row. It’s unheard of. It’s sublime. It’s—

Exactly what she’ll have more of, if she takes Maurice’s offer. If she sells the house and moves into the city.

If she takes Rindy away from her childhood home…

Carol breaks their kiss, hoping Therese will interpret her little sigh as a sign of arousal, and not of guilt welling up in her again. She presses her forehead to Therese’s, closing her eyes—as much to gain the extra closeness, as to hide the riotous feelings moving through her. But Therese, wise, perceptive Therese, must sense it anyway, for her hands start stroking up and down Carol’s arms, soothingly.

“Hey,” she murmurs. “You all right?”

Carol nods against her. Says, “Yeah. I just… I hate being apart so much.”

Therese’s hands pause for a significant beat, and then start stroking again. “I know. Me, too.”

That almost makes Carol cave. Almost makes her reveal the whole thing. But before she can—

“I think we’ve done a really good job though, you know?” Therese says. “We still see each other. We talk every day. Maybe it’s not perfect but… I for one am pretty happy.” She hesitates. Then asks in a voice that is trying to be casual, and failing, “I mean, you seem happy, too… right?”

Carol pulls back to smile at her, to rub the crease between those lovely eyebrows with her thumb, until it melts away.

“I am, Dearest,” she promises. “I’m very happy.”

Therese smiles, pleased and relieved, color dusting her cheeks just before she moves forward, wrapping her arms around Carol’s body. Carol holds her close, glorying in how perfectly she fits.

Oh Therese, she thinks helplessly. If you only knew how happy I really am. And how much more I want…

Chapter Text

Therese knows she isn’t playing fair, but Carol almost made her late for work today. An innocent kiss goodbye in her apartment morphed into a far less innocent grope against her door, til Carol’s hand was up her shirt and Carol’s thigh was between her legs and they might have gone on like that, rutting like animals, if Therese hadn’t glimpsed the clock on the microwave and yanked away in a panic. Carol looked very pleased with herself as Therese rushed to fix her hair, and Therese had to run for the train, wet and horny and irritated.

Therefore, she thinks a little payback is in order.

She bought the dress on consignment last Tuesday after class. She’d had a brief conversation with Abby at the bar the previous night, when she asked about the dress code for the party.

“I wouldn’t say formalwear,” Abby had mused. “But people do tend to get all dolled up. Imagine you’re on the red carpet for an indie release.”

Therese’s eyes had widened, dread pooling in her stomach, because she had no idea what this meant. Abby gave her a droll look and said, “Just wear a sexy dress, okay?”

And so Therese went shopping. And when she saw it on the rack, this plum-colored dress with a neckline that plunges almost to her belly button, any reserves of modesty she possessed were crushed by the image of Carol, seeing her in it.  

Therese and Dannie take the train out to Jersey together. It’s eight o’clock and the party is in full swing by the time they arrive. They let themselves in and hang up their coats, at which point Dannie does a double take.

“Jesus, T,” he says. “Did you guys have a fight? Are you trying to kill her?”

Therese blushes and grins. She asks shyly, “Is it too much?”

He grins back at her. “It’s A+, doll. You look fantastic.”

Pleased, shy, Therese glances around at the room. There are a lot more people than she was expecting, and music is playing in the living room, and there are flowers and streamers everywhere that, by virtue of their silver and gold color palette, actually look sophisticated. The guests are all drinking and laughing and well-dressed.

“Damn,” says Dannie. “There are some fucking gorgeous men here.”

Therese hasn’t noticed, too busy looking out for Carol, who she can’t see anywhere.

“Let’s go to the kitchen,” she suggests.

No dice there, either. But they do get a drink from a bartender who’s set up shop behind Carol’s kitchen island. A bartender to whom Dannie takes an instant liking, muscle queen that he is. 

“I’m gonna keep looking for Carol,” Therese says.

“Sure, sure,” Dannie allows, still smiling at the bartender. “Catch you later.”

Therese makes a circuit of the living room. She sees a few people look at her, notice her, and tries not to feel nervous under their appraising stares. She belongs here, she tells herself. Yes, sure, everyone here is probably rich, but Abby invited her. And Carol doesn’t care that she’s not from money. And probably no one can tell that it’s a consignment store dress. As soon as she finds Carol, she’ll feel better.

Though, the fact is, Carol did seem a little off last night. Preoccupied. It carried over into their morning together. Goodbye shenanigans aside, they haven’t talked much today. They slept late (Carol, it turned out, didn’t fall asleep until just before Therese got home), and woke up slowly. Therese is at the point in the term where she feels like she will never feel rested again. Exhaustion clouds every moment; only her time with Carol makes her feel truly awake. Carol, too, seemed exhausted when they finally crawled out of bed. As if no amount of sleep was enough. Still, it was incomparably delicious, to wake up like that. No rush. Just them. They showered together, too, and because they were both so drowsy, it was quiet and gentle and decadent. Their pancake breakfast included quite a lot of syrupy kisses, dreamlike in their perfection.

But through it all, Carol wore distraction like a coat.

Therese has tried not to worry about it. God knows there are times she is so caught up in school she barely knows how to make conversation. And yet, she can’t shake the feeling that Carol is keeping something from her. And when Therese has that thought, voices start murmuring in her head, saying things like, she thinks you’re too young and why would she trust you with anything? and it’s not like you can help her, if something’s wrong.

Still making her circuit of the house, still looking for Carol, Therese fights those voices back. She’s not entirely successful.

She gets all the way back into the foyer, near the staircase, before she hears it: the unmistakable combination of Abby and Carol, laughing. She freezes at the foot of the steps, aware that the sound is coming from upstairs.

Something goes through her in that moment that she has never experienced in her life.

Though she and Carol haven’t talked about it explicitly, Therese knows now that at one point Carol had at the very least slept with Abby, and maybe even been in a relationship with her. Their friendship has never given Therese the slightest inclination that they’re still romantic, and yet… that laugh.

What if this is what has Carol distracted? What if something has changed between them?

Therese heads up the stairs, her stomach in knots, her heart pounding. She can hear their voices now; knows they’re in the hallway leading to Carol’s bedroom. What will Therese do if she finds them—

But when Therese reaches the landing, and turns, she sees the two women standing with a man, observing the hallway wall. The wall where Carol has hung some of Therese’s photographs.

“Do you see how brilliantly she uses light?” Carol is saying. “The way the ice just lights up around Rindy’s shoes. I was sure that she had manipulated the photo somehow, but she showed me how she did it.”

“It’s very striking,” says the man, nodding pensively and leaning closer to the wall to peer at something. “The composition is expert as well. You say she’s never been formally trained?”

“No, not formally.”

“Hmm.”

“I like this one best,” Abby remarks.

“Oh, that’s my favorite!” Carol gushes. “We saw them playing in Central Park. You know it’s always men at those chess tables, but these women were so beautiful and serious and—Therese asked if she could photograph their hands while they played, and they said yes. There’s something so hypnotizing about the result.”

“She’s making fascinating use of shadow,” observes the man. “It would all seem too dark if the sun wasn’t coming in at that angle. Remarkable.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask her if she’d be interested in doing some author photos,” says Abby. “She’s got such an eye for people—I feel like she’d make all my authors look brilliant.”

“Apparently she didn’t used to photograph people at all,” says Carol.

“Really?”

“I know. I’ve never had such perfect photos of Rindy in my life.”

“You really must introduce me when she arrives,” says the man.

At that moment, their words ringing in Therese’s confused ears, Abby happens to glance over.

“Speak of the devil!” she exclaims.

Instantly, three pairs of eyes are upon Therese. The man’s look is focused, curious. Abby’s is full of delight. But Carol—

Carol’s expression shifts in an instant from joy at the sight of her, to stunned amazement. She tracks Therese from top to toe, eyes absorbing the dress with a look that Therese can only describe as—feral. Therese has been looking forward to this moment, but it is utterly eclipsed by her own feelings. And not just the confused, flattered surprise of hearing them talk about her work. No, that practically goes by the wayside, supplanted by the far more urgent realization—that Carol is a wearing a three-piece suit.

Therese gapes at her.

The suit is a smoky gray, not much darker than Carol’s eyes. The vest and the black blouse underneath are unbuttoned to the middle of her breasts, sexy and provocative and somehow classy at the same time. Her silhouette is long and lean as a tiger; her hair is curly gold, half up, half down; her makeup is subtle and natural, pale lip and defined eyes and creamy skin. She looks so fucking gorgeous that Therese can’t breathe.

All at once, Abby is hurrying forward, clasping her in a warm hug.

“You came!” she cries. “I’m so glad. Is Dannie with you? I’ve got a love connection in mind. Come here, come here. I want to introduce you to a friend.”

Therese, who hasn’t even gotten a word in, finds herself led toward Carol and the man. Carol is still looking at her with that expression of devouring hunger. Therese has to pull her eyes away, or she’ll never be able to function. She wants to bite Carol’s exposed collarbones. She wants to slide her hands inside Carol’s trim blazer and pull their bodies together. She wants to—

“Therese,” Abby is saying. “This is Ivor Harkevy. Harkevy, this is Therese.”

“How do you do?” says the man, who Therese just now realizes has a vaguely European accent. He looks to be in his late forties, a slim-figured man with a small mustache, and his smile as he shakes hands is genuine and interested. “I’ve just been admiring your work.”

“Oh,” says Therese, both flattered and mortified.

“You’re very good,” he informs her, gesturing at the five framed photographs on the wall. “Carol says you only do it for a hobby?”

“I—yes,” Therese says, glancing at Carol, who has the faintest smirk on her lips, and whose eyes glow with pride. “When I can find time, that is.”

“They’re incredibly strong pieces.”

Even after overhearing their conversation, Therese isn’t prepared for his praise. She doesn’t know what to say. Carol interjects, “Harkevy is a professor of photography, visiting at Columbia. He’s normally at the Humboldt University, in Berlin.”

“Really?” says Therese. “I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin.”

“Well, I’m returning there at the end of the semester,” Harkevy says. He gives her an appraising look, seems to consider something, and then, “Would you send me your portfolio? I lead a seminar in the months of July and August. Carol says you’ll be in Europe anyway?”

“I—uh—” Therese gives Carol a startled look. “Well, not necessarily. I’ve applied for a program in Amsterdam. I haven’t heard back yet.”

“She’ll get in,” replies Carol fluidly. “She undersells herself, but she’s quite brilliant.”

“When is the program?” asks Harkevy.

Therese, whose thoughts are spinning, clears her throat and says, “The last three weeks in June.”

“Well, then,” he says. “My seminar starts July 12th. And Amsterdam is barely a jog from Berlin. Send me your portfolio. There’s an application process, of course.”

“Of course,” says Therese. “That’s… incredibly generous of you to consider me.”

She feels a twinge of guilt, saying it, because such a trip would be impossible. Even if she could afford not to work the whole summer, she could never afford to live in Europe for three months. Still, that he thinks she’s good enough to apply is incredibly flattering—

“Lots of photographers are over-schooled,” Harkevy is telling her. “They’re so mired in theory and technique that they never achieve anything original. I’m always looking for fresh eyes.”

From her periphery, Therese can see that Abby and Carol are grinning. Harkevy, too, wears a little smile. Therese, afraid that her shock has made her look cold and disinterested, forces herself to smile back, and laughs a little. “Well, in any case—I’d love to hear about your work.”

“Of course!” he agrees. “You’ve got a drink, I see, but I’m all out! What say we head downstairs, ladies?”

Therese is deeply relieved when this change takes the attention off of her. Abby loops an arm through hers and leads them back toward the stairs, and though Therese is rather desperate to touch Carol, just the sensation of her following right behind them is enough to make her think she’d better not risk it.

They head down to rejoin the partygoers, and soon they’re all swept up in the revelry and good food and good drink. Dannie has moved on from his bartender and is chatting happily with a group by the fireplace, who call Abby over. Therese gets introduced all around, and despite her fears that they will judge her and Dannie for not belonging in this crowd, everyone is lovely and warm and inviting. When she introduces Dannie to Carol, he appraises her like a boxer sizing up his target, then grins in a way that says she’s passed the test. This, too, is a relief. The party has been on for about an hour, and everybody is just a little bit drunk. Therese doesn’t like to be drunk, but she figures there’s no harm in catching up a little. The first beer goes down easy, and some of the nerves she’s been feeling since she went upstairs start to dissipate.

That is, until she feels Carol’s hand, gentle on the small of her back, and Carol’s lips, brushing her ear as she bends to murmur, “Can I get you something else to drink?”

Therese turns enough to look into her eyes. Their gazes lock, heat sliding between them. Carol licks her bottom lip like she’s parched, and Therese says softly. “Sure.”

Carol’s smile is catlike and pleased. “What’ll you have?”

Therese pauses, still looking at her, still consumed with the fit of that suit and the exposed breadth of Carol’s creamy chest.

“Surprise me,” she says.

Carol’s eyes glitter, and she slips away.

Within moments, Therese finds herself speaking to Harkevy again, and that ultimately is what gets her back under control—because their conversation is instantly, seriously focused on their shared passion. He wants to know everything about her history as a photographer—her influences, what she’s studied, how she picks her subjects. And Therese, in turn, is utterly fascinated by his career. He has traveled all over the world. He has taught, he has practiced, he has mentored. His students have gone on to brilliant careers in everything from photojournalism to fashion photography. Therese is rapt. When Carol returns with a glass of champagne for her, bright and refreshing, Therese is too wrapped up to do more than thank her, and refocus on the story Harkevy is telling about photographing the ruins of Chernobyl in 1997. 

This, of course, captures the attention of others at the party, and Therese finds herself part of a small knot of people, Dannie and Abby included, hanging on Harkevy’s every word. When a hand slips around Therese’s waist, and she feels Carol’s body behind hers, she smiles and leans back into her, but doesn’t stop listening. Carol, too, seems taken with the story.

“Aren’t you afraid of your exposure?” someone asks.

Harkevy shrugs. “We took precautions. It was worth the risk.”

“Is that the freakiest place you’ve ever been?” asks Dannie.

A chuckle from the older man. “One of them, surely.”

Abby swats his arm. “Shame on you, H, you make all our lives look boring by comparison! And it’s my birthday! I’m supposed to feel fantastic on my birthday!”

There’s laughter from the crowd, and then someone says, “Well, you look fantastic, anyway.” 

It sounds like a throwaway comment, the sort of thing friends tell other friends, and indeed, no one else in the group seems to give it particular mind. But Therese’s attention focuses sharp as an arrow when she sees—to her amazement—that Abby is blushing.

Therese’s eyes flash toward the woman who spoke. A tall woman, with straight blonde hair and an outrageous amount of necklaces and rings and bracelets, is staring at Abby Gerhard. Therese hasn’t met her yet, but it’s absolutely obvious from Abby’s flustered expression, and the strange woman’s answering smirk, that they know each other. And that it was not a throwaway comment.

The group naturally starts breaking apart. Dannie and Harkevy are chatting now, and Abby is heading toward the kitchen, and the woman, her eyes a glittering blue, follows after her. Therese, still leaning back against Carol, asks, “Who is that?”

Carol’s answer is low and rich and sinful. “Her name is Lou. From what I can tell, she’s the first woman who has actually caught Abby off guard in five years.”

Therese cranes her neck around to find Carol grinning like a fiend. “Really?”

“Uh-huh. She says they’ve only slept together a couple of times, but I’m pretty sure Abby is smitten.”

Therese faces forward again, watching just as Abby and the woman, Lou, disappear into the kitchen. Lou has placed a hand on the small of Abby’s back, a seemingly casual gesture that nevertheless breathes with intimacy.

“I think the feeling might be mutual,” Therese remarks.

Carol’s hand, still resting on her waist, slips further around. Her thumb toys with the endpoint of Therese’s neckline, a dramatic ‘V.’ Carol murmurs, “Yes, well, if she’s got any sense, it’s very mutual. No one who can get Abby’s attention should be foolish enough to let her go.”

Therese frowns. She can hear something in Carol’s voice—something serious and wistful. Therese asks cautiously, “What about you, Carol? Did you let her go?”

A deep sigh. Suddenly Therese has the sense that Carol is not just standing behind her, but hiding. And yet after a moment she says, her voice low and pained, “I did. I didn’t love her, not the way she deserves to be loved. Not the way she loved me, back then. I’ve felt guilty about it for years. I almost couldn’t bring myself to tell her about you, because I felt guilty.”

Though Therese can hear the pain and regret in Carol’s voice, secretly, she’s relieved. Carol doesn’t pine for Abby. Their past relationship isn’t a threat to Therese and Carol. But Therese pushes aside her own selfish feelings, laying a hand over Carol’s where it rests against her. She squeezes gently.

“Imagine if you had stayed with her, even though you didn’t love her? Imagine what that would have been like, for both of you? The way I see it, that would have been something to feel guilty about. What you two have now is beautiful and right. It wouldn’t be possible, if you hadn’t accepted your feelings.”

Carol says nothing for a long moment. Then, her arm slips further around Therese’s waist; she holds her more firmly against her, and murmurs, “Thank you, Dearest.”

Therese feels a warmth in her cheeks, shyly pleased by the deep sincerity in Carol’s voice. All around them are people chatting and laughing and having a lovely time, but in this moment it feels to Therese like she and Carol are on a separate planet—their own world. And in that privacy, that intimate space, she thinks of Carol and Abby, and Abby loving Carol, and Carol not loving Abby, and Carol not loving Harge, and she wonders… who has Carol loved? And is it possible that Carol might love—

“Earth to Therese!” Dannie’s voice snaps her back into the present. She finds him and Harkevy smiling at her.

“What?” Therese asks.

“H here says you’re moving to Berlin or some shit?”

Behind her, Therese feels Carol’s warm chuckle, but she rolls her eyes and sighs at her best friend (and winces internally—she hates the thought of disappointing Harkevy by not applying to the seminar). To Dannie she says, “You are such a drama queen.”

Harkevy laughs richly. “It’s my fault, Therese, my fault. I was trying to persuade Mr. McElroy to come visit me in Berlin. He’s never been out of the country!”

Therese and Dannie exchange a look, a look that says, ‘Rich people, ammirite?’

Therese tells Harkevy with a shrug, “Neither have I.”

Harkevy looks scandalized. “Carol,” he exclaims. “What kind of a cougar are you? Why have you not whisked her away somewhere yet?”

“I’m working on it,” Carol drawls. “This little genius has a very full schedule.”

Therese blushes, wanting suddenly to hide. Luckily Dannie takes the attention off her, saying to Carol, “Look, I’m free if she’s not. I am totally open to having a sugar mama.”

Carol laughs and Harkevy laughs and Therese gives Dannie a ‘Get your own’ glare, to which he responds with a wide grins, holding up his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Down girl, just kidding. I know better than to stand between you and what you want.”

“Damn straight,” Therese tells him.

“Apparently not,” he shoots back.

Therese scoffs in exasperation, made worse by the knowledge that Carol is still laughing, totally entertained. And then suddenly someone in the kitchen calls out to the living room—

“Hey! We’re doing flaming shots in here! Abby’s gonna do one! Come on, come on!”

People immediately start filing toward the kitchen.

“Jesus Christ,” Carol says. “She’s gonna burn my house down.”

“I’m not missing this,” Dannie declares, heading over with the rest of the crowd, and Harkevy beside him.

Therese is just about to follow, when Carol’s arm tightens around her.

“Not so fast, Darling,” Carol murmurs.

Her body behind Therese’s is rooted like a tree, and as the crowd around them dissipates, Therese finds herself as close to alone with Carol as she’s been all night. Therese thinks of Carol’s distance and distraction this morning and last night. She doesn’t seem distracted, now. Carol noses at her throat and shivers flood through her, just like Carol’s voice rumbles through her, “I haven’t even had a chance to compliment this dress.”

Suddenly, the tension that has existed, banked, between them since they saw each other in the hall, flares like a meteor. Therese feels her nipples tighten; feels warmth spreading through her limbs and down into the heavy center of her body.

“Do you—” she struggles to get words out. “Do you… like it?”

Another rumbling sound from Carol. “You look very fine.”

How does Carol make such an old-fashioned phrase sound like the sexiest thing Therese has ever heard? Therese chokes down a whimper, pressing back into Carol’s body, senses alight in the arousing condition of being able to feel Carol, but not see her.

In the kitchen, they hear the crowd whoop like college kids. Carol’s lips caress her ear.

“I really… need to fuck you.”

Therese fights hard to stay standing. She chuckles, but only to mask how completely overcome she is.

“Shall I remind you that you’re the host of this party?”

“There’s, like, thirty people here,” Carol retorts. “We can slip away without being noticed. Come upstairs with me.”

Therese flushes, scandalized. “Carol, no!”

“Why not?” Carol’s voice is a purr. Her finger finds Therese’s neckline, trailing down, touching the curve of her breast.

“B-because,” Therese stammers. “They’d—they’d hear us.”

Carol says nothing for a moment, clearly considering. Therese thinks this will be the end of it, but then, “What about the workshop?”

<><><> 

It’s cold in the shop, and even the arousal thrumming through her isn’t enough to overcome it, given the dress she’s wearing. Carol has her pressed up against the door, which is icy against her bare back, and as they kiss Therese fears that she’s going to start shivering for the wrong reason. This may not have been a good idea.

But Carol’s lips are so soft and warm. And Carol’s kiss is so eager. And one of Carol’s arms is wrapped around her, and one of her hands has slid inside Therese’s dress to cup her breast and toy with her nipple, and she feels so good, so good, it just—

“Carol,” Therese finally interrupts their kiss. They’ve left the lights off in the shop, but when Carol pulls back to look at her, she can see the dazed hunger in her eyes. It’s almost enough to make Therese dive back in, but—

“Are you okay?” Carol asks. “Is this okay?”

Her question is so sweet, so genuine. Even freezing, Therese melts. “No, this is good, you feel good, I just—” When Carol continues to look at her, concern deepening in her eyes, Therese admits, “I’m just kind of… cold.”

Carol blinks. She looks down at Therese’s body, at her bare legs and exposed arms, and mortification seizes her face. “Oh, Christ! I’m so sorry! I didn’t think. Darling, you must be freezing!”

Therese tries to demur, “No, no, I’m just a little cold, I—”

“Come here,” Carol interrupts, and pulls her away from the door. Therese finds herself led deeper into the shop, to Carol’s workbench. Carol bends over and comes back with a heavy blanket that she lays on the bench. She urges Therese up onto it, about as high as a kitchen counter, and then Carol is taking off her blazer and putting it over Therese’s shoulders.

“Oh, Carol, you don’t have to—”

“Hush,” Carol tells her, and does something else in the shadows that results in a red glow from a space heater about five feet away. It’s powerful; Therese feels its heat almost at once, but Carol isn’t satisfied. She moves in close, wrapping Therese’s legs around her and rubbing her thighs to warm them. “How’s that?” she asks. “Any warmer?”

There’s such tenderness in her voice and in her eyes, such consideration in the way she fusses over her, that Therese feels her heart bloom with a totally unanticipated ache. Feels her eyes prick with heat. Through her go a thousand memories of foster parents and residential homes and even her own mother—who never treated her as gently and thoughtfully as Carol is doing now. And it’s so much, it’s too much. She feels like she might break from everything that’s going through her.

“Carol,” she whispers.

Carol looks into her eyes, her own serious and concerned and then—confused. Does she see the sheen of tears? Does she sense the agony of emotion beating inside Therese?

“Therese?” she asks.

Say it, Therese thinks desperately. Just say it.

But what if Carol doesn’t feel it back? Or what if Carol isn’t ready to hear it? Their relationship is still so new, their time together still so limited; how well do they know each other, really? Just because Therese feels like Carol is in her blood, just because she thinks of her all the time, wants her all the time, daydreams a future, spread before them like a sunrise—does any of that mean more than that the sex is really good and Carol is really hot and she’s never enjoyed another person this much? Infatuation. It could just be infatuation, right? And if she says something too soon, something… serious—couldn't that ruin everything?

Tell her, Therese’s heart retorts. You know what you feel. Tell her.

“Angel, what is it?” Carol asks.

Therese can’t. She wants to, but she can’t, and so instead she crosses her ankles behind Carol’s back, pulling her closer and taking her mouth again. “Kiss me,” she whispers.

Carol does. But it’s not the passionate fever that Therese was expecting, was in some ways relying on, to mask her near slip. No, Carol takes her face between her hands and kisses her—so gently. So slowly. It feels like a mere extension of the tenderness she has already been showing, and Therese’s skin erupts with gooseflesh. Carol’s tongue slips into her mouth, and it’s not a devouring. It’s a caress, sweet and body-melting and good. Therese whimpers. She reaches between them, for the hem of her dress. Carol’s hands join her, pushing it up, over her knees, over her thighs, creating a bloom of fabric around her waist just before Carol’s fingers slip under her panties.

Their lips don’t separate, but they make twin sounds of relief, breathed into each other’s mouths at the first contact. Carol’s fingers move gently, carefully, mapping out the terrain, testing the wet silkiness between Therese’s legs. Suddenly, warmth is the least of Therese’s worries. Carol’s jacket is wrapped around her, full of Carol’s scent, and Carol’s body is close to hers. Carol’s fingers, firm and knowing, slip against the entrance to her body. She makes a questioning sound, and all Therese can do is nod and gasp.

Carol slips inside; two fingers, easy but tight, hooking forward and holding still, the perfect pressure. Therese sighs with bliss. Her eyes roll back and her neck arches. Carol’s lips touch her neck, trailing all over her, as if she only wants to feel what her skin is like. As if she has no object at all, but to touch Therese as slow and deep as possible.

Therese thought she was overcome before. But when Carol starts to slide gently in and out of her, she thinks for a delirious moment that she might die. Nothing has ever felt like this, so warm and close, like being submerged in an ocean of pleasure. She puts her hands in Carol’s hair, toying with the blonde strands. Sometimes, when they have sex, it’s so intense and passionate that she worries she’ll pull Carol’s hair out. But there’s no risk of that now, because what’s happening between them is a different level from passion. It’s a different level from anything they’ve done before—feels like something entirely new. Something she fears to name.

And then, Carol starts talking.

“God, you’re beautiful,” that silken voice murmurs in her ear. Therese whimpers, rocking her hips forward. “When I saw you tonight, I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe you really exist—that you really look like this. That you’re really mine.”

The fingers inside rub slow, hungry circles. Therese sobs Carol’s name, says in a delirium, “Yours… yours…”

“Love touching you like this,” Carol tells her, voice strained, breaths heavy. That word, that galvanizing word, makes flame lick through Therese’s body. “Love how you feel. Love thinking about you when we’re apart and knowing I’m the only one who—”

“Yes,” Therese gasps, reaching for her face, bringing their mouths together again. “You. Just you, Carol—only you.”

Carol groans, growls, starts to thrust just a little harder—but not faster. No, she maintains a pace that is achingly intimate, that refuses to be rushed. The heel of her hand brushes against Therese's clit with every thrust, and it’s not enough, it’s not enough of what she needs, but somehow it’s still taking her there. Lifting her like a breeze lifts a ribbon, tossing her in sensation.

“Feels so good,” Therese groans.

You feel good,” Carol tells her. “So good inside, so tight, that’s it, sweetheart, let it feel good.”

Therese tries to lift her hips toward the steady pace of Carol’s fingers, but in the end she feels weak with pleasure, helpless and shivery as it builds between her hips, as it spreads like vines down her thighs and up her belly. Carol wraps her free arm around her, holding her close as she moves. Suddenly their eyes lock. Therese’s breaths have started to come more rapidly, little sips of air, as the intensity of Carol’s stare makes it all ratchet inside her.

“Like that?” Carol asks. Therese nods, unable to speak, her body starting to tremble. “Are you going to come for me?”

Another desperate nod. Now Carol’s hand is pressing flush against her clit, grinding. A sound of need breaks in Therese’s throat, and she wants to close her eyes, wants to let the bliss wash over her, but she can’t stop looking at Carol. It’s too much, too intense, too good. It’s pleasure and it’s safety and it’s home, home, like she’s never had, never in her life—

Tell her, Therese thinks. Tell her.

“Carol, I—I—”

But then, she loses all ability to speak. Orgasm rushes through her, devastatingly powerful. She shakes apart, dropping her head forward onto Carol’s shoulder and sobbing. Carol doesn’t stop; she rubs and grinds and holds her close, murmuring in her ear the whole time, words, like, “perfect” and “gorgeous” and “so wet.”

The sound of her voice, the feel of her breath, the strength of her thrusting hand, are all enough to transport Therese into a dream world of ecstasy. Even after the peak has passed and the aftershocks are fading, she can’t do anything but press into Carol’s warmth and want more more more. More of pleasure, yes, but mostly—more of Carol, who slips her hand free and uses both arms to gather Therese as close as possible.

Only then does Therese realize that Carol’s blazer has slipped off her shoulder, pooling behind her. But between the space heater and Carol’s arms and the flush of her orgasm, Therese isn’t the least cold. Indeed, she can feel the fine sheen of sweat across her skin, and revels in it. It is proof, that this is real. It tells her that she is safe, that she is here. And Therese never wants to be anywhere else.

When they pull apart to look at each other, Therese is surprised to see something new in Carol’s eyes. Still that intensity from before, that awe, that delight. But also, something that makes Therese’s heart clench in her chest. Something that looks familiar, and terrifying, and—

“What?” Therese whispers, her voice hoarse, her body trembling for another reason. “What is it?”

“I—” Carol hesitates. Therese can hardly breathe. And then—

“I’m going to move into the city.”  

Chapter Text

“Remind me again why we’re doing this?” grouses Carol, as they walk the fluorescently lit aisles the Tuesday after Abby’s party.

“To take your mind off things,” replies Abby, pausing to select an item off the shelf. She turns the package this way and that, considering, and then shows it to Carol. “What do you think of this one?”

Carol clears her throat. “For you, or for her?”  

Abby frowns. “What difference does it make?”

“Uh, you’ve done anal before. Apparently she hasn’t. So it makes a lot of difference.”

Abby considers the plug in her hands as seriously as if it were a life insurance policy, and then puts it back. “Good point. I’ll find something smaller.”

Carol rolls her eyes, half amused, half exasperated. Abby gives her a hawk-eyed look. “What’s up with you today? Is it just talking to Harge?”

“No, I can handle Harge,” Carol mutters. “I’m not worried about that.”

Abby’s look doesn’t soften, and Carol avoids it, because of course they both know she’s lying. Harge’s lawyers have apparently ‘reviewed the papers’ again, but now he wants to meet her for lunch. His text was brief, cold—unnerving. He has Rindy through tomorrow morning, when Vanessa is supposed to pick her up and bring her out to Jersey. Carol knows he can’t just keep Rindy from her, but knowing that he’s currently in possession of the divorce papers and their child makes her feel like a hostage negotiator with no leverage.

And yet, despite all that, it’s not actually Harge that has her in this mood, not really. Abby must sense it, because suddenly she raises her eyebrows in surprise and asks, “Is it Therese?”

Carol heaves a sigh and keeps walking, the brightly colored array of dildos and vibrators making her long for a dark corner somewhere, and a cigarette. Abby follows her. “It is. Carol don’t be like this. What happened? You both seemed so happy on Saturday night! And I know you fucked her in your workshop; you’re not that sneaky.”

“We are happy,” Carol retorts, scowling and defensive. “She makes me happier than I’ve ever been!”

“Okay, so… what’s the problem?”

They’ve wandered into the BDSM section, and the influx of black leather, if not the materials themselves, gives her senses a rest from all the color. Carol comes to a stop beside the wall of floggers, and, sighing, looks at the ground. Abby is uncharacteristically patient as Carol works up the courage to—

“I accepted Maurice’s offer. And I told Therese on Saturday night. About moving into the city.”

Abby is silent for a moment, before at last she asks, “And did… Therese respond badly?”

At that, Carol can’t help a soft smile. She thinks of Therese, sitting on the workbench, legs still wrapped around her, skin still flushed and damp from one of the most beautiful orgasms Carol had even seen. Her young lover’s eyes had widened, before her lips split in a huge grin, and she asked in a voice that pitched high with delight, “Really?”

To Abby, Carol murmurs, “No, nothing like that. She was really excited.”

Abby makes an exasperated sound. “Well then, Jesus, Carol, what’s the problem?”

Carol swallows. There’s suddenly a lump in her throat and she’s angry at herself. Why the hell would she cry about this? It’s so fucking irrational!

“She… she told me yesterday that she’s just signed a lease for another year at her apartment. Through the end of her graduate program.” This time Abby says nothing, and in her silence Carol finds the strength to finally admit what’s been roiling inside her ever since. “I… I was thinking of… asking her to move in with me. I didn’t do it on Saturday because I was a chicken shit and… maybe that made her think that I didn’t want that at all. Maybe that’s why she renewed her lease. Or maybe that’s something she doesn’t want—you know, maybe she was trying to signal she doesn’t want it, by…”

Aware she’s rambling, Carol trails off. She’s lucky that Therese told her about the lease renewal over text—she didn’t have to worry about controlling her expression, only her words, which were of course supportive and enthusiastic and completely absent any of her real feelings.

Abby still says nothing and Carol flushes with humiliation.

“You think it’s too soon. Of course you do; it is too soon. I’m being such a fucking lesbian about this, I—”

“I don’t think it’s too soon.”

Carol gives her a cautious look. “You don’t?”

Abby rolls her eyes. “Carol, I’ve been teasing the two of you about U-Hauling from the beginning. Is it quick? Sure. But sometimes you know, and the two of you… I think you know.” She pauses, then says carefully, “I do think you maybe want to tell her you’re in love with her first.”

Carol flinches in startlement, about to deny, on instinct. But she can’t. She hasn’t told Abby that she’s in love with Therese. Hasn’t even really told herself that she is, the inkling of it always pushed to the back of her mind with murmurs of caution and restraint. And yet now, having Abby throw it at her feet like this, she realizes—

She’s in love with Therese Belivet.

She’s totally, completely in love with her.

It doesn’t matter that it’s only been two months. That they don’t get to see each other as often as they want. That they’re ten years apart in age and from completely different worlds and completely different backgrounds. It doesn’t matter, because Carol is in love with her.

But right on the back of this elating realization—comes a wash of fear.

Carol looks at the ground again. “I can’t tell her that.”

Abby scoffs. “Why the fuck not?”

“It could scare her away.”

“You are a nitwit. That girl is obsessed with you.”

“Well, that’s not the same as love, is it?” Carol hits back. “She’s having good sex for the first time in her life! That could confuse anybody. I don’t want her rushing into something. She’s barely even out. Honestly, I don’t even know if she thinks of herself as out.”

“Honestly, Carol, like that part of it matters! And if you’re saying you think she’s just infatuated with you, you’re wrong.”

“How would you know?”

“Because of Dannie.”

Carol blanches, totally taken off guard. She stares at her for a moment, and then— “What?”

Abby gives her an imperious look. “You’ve forgotten one of the cardinal rules of the romantic genre, Carol. The best friends always know the score. Dannie and I exchanged numbers at the party. I’m trying to hook him up with H. Don’t look at me like that, they would be adorable together, and Harkevy thinks he’s cute. Anyway! Dannie says that Therese is 100% in love with you.”

Carol feels her heart rabbiting out of her chest. Her voice is as weak as her limbs when she asks, “Did… did Therese… tell him that?”

“No,” Abby admits. “Which is part of why Dannie is so sure. He’s known her for longer than anyone and he knows what she’s like in a relationship. He’s never seen her like this, and it’s not just about sex. If it was, would she be the way she is with Rindy? Would she have cared so much about the hell Harge has put you through? Would she take every chance she gets to meet you, even if it’s just for coffee or lunch? She loves you, Carol. And maybe she is young, and maybe she is a baby queer, but it doesn’t matter. She’s a plucky little thing, and I like her. She’s good for you. So I’m not gonna let you sabotage yourself because you’re terrified of loving someone.”

Carol has stood stunned before this monologue, but the last bit pricks her with annoyance—and anxiety.

“What makes you think I’m terrified of loving someone?”

At that, Abby’s expression finally gentles, becomes unusually vulnerable. “Because I am, Carol… And I know all the signs.”

Then they are both quiet. Quiet, with eyes averted. Carol thinks, Am I the reason, Abby? Am I the reason you’re afraid to love this woman, Lou? And what is my reason, for being so afraid? Is it Harge? That whole… collapse? Or is it something deeper and older in me, that says I could never deserve someone like Therese…

At this perfectly inopportune moment, a store clerk arrives.

“Hi, ladies,” chirps the twenty-something. “How’re we doing? Can I help you find anything?”

Carol has to fight not to growl at them to go away, but Abby recovers herself with typical aplomb, responding cheerfully, “Sure can. My friend here is looking to buy a new harness.”

Carol’s head snaps up.

“Of course!” says the clerk. “Follow me!”

They lead the way, and when Abby follows, Carol is forced to fall into step, muttering at her friend, “We’re here for you, not me.”

“We can do both. It’s time to help you level up your game so you can confess your love.”

“My game does not need leveling up,” Carol retorts. “I made her come three times on Saturday.”

“Lou came four times last night.”

“Show off.”

And then, they are standing before a display of every kind of harness imaginable.

“Any idea what kind you’re looking for?” asks the clerk, gesturing. “My girlfriend really likes the Rodeoh brand; we’ve got the brief and the bikini cuts. And then of course your classic buckle ups here. Vegan options on those, in case you don’t like the real leather. Any thoughts on color? Material? I wouldn’t recommend those; they don’t offer great control.”

Carol ignores them altogether. Despite having no intention of making a purchase today, her eyes have landed on a harness that makes heat curl in her belly. She pictures herself wearing it for Therese. She pictures Therese wearing it for her. Most of all she thinks of being able to fuck Therese while she wears it—maybe from behind; oh Christ, that would be so hot, Therese’s ass is amazing… 

Suddenly, Abby snatches the harness off the rack. “This one?” she asks gleefully.

Carol grabs it from her, blushing. “So? What do you care?”

“That’s a great brand,” says the sales clerk. “And super sexy if you’re into lace.”

“Are you into lace, Carol?” drawls Abby.

“Don’t you have a butt plug to buy?”

“I’m reconsidering,” says Abby blandly. She turns to the clerk. “Where are your anal beads?”

<><><> 

She’s just climbing out of the cab outside Portale, sex shop purchase shoved into the bottom of her large purse, when her phone starts ringing. By the time she gets it out of her pocket, she’s worried it will go to voicemail, but at the last second she’s got it at her ear, saying, “Hello?”

“Carol?”

It’s Therese. Carol feels a simultaneous hit of elation, and terror.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi.”

Carol’s heart melts. There’s something about the way that Therese says hi to her, so soft and sweet and like she’s been wanting to talk to her for hours—like she’s so grateful, to be able to talk. Or maybe Carol is projecting?

“I wanted to catch you before your lunch. You know, just… tell you that everything will be all right.”

Carol’s heart melts again. “Thank you, Sweetheart. I’m sure you’re right.”

“And also, I,” Therese hesitates, clears her throat. “I wondered if I could see you tonight?”

Carol frowns. “I thought you had to work?”

“I did. But Phil is trying to get next Friday off so he can go to an exhibition game for some baseball team I can’t remember. He asked me to switch. I know Harge has Rindy and I know Abby has a date with Lou, so I just thought…”

Carol doesn’t immediately answer, because she’s too overcome with the joyful prospect of being together tonight, seeing her again after only a couple of days—

“If you can’t it’s all right,” Therese hurries to amend. “I’m sure Dannie would—”

“Darling, of course I want to see you. When’s a good time? I’ve got to go tour the shop with Maurice at 3:00 but I should be done by 5:00.”

“Come over then,” says Therese, an unmistakable note of relief and happiness in her voice. “I’ll just be home studying today. I was thinking I might order Thai in for dinner. Does that sound good?”

“That sounds… incredible.”

And it does. A night in with Therese. Good food and maybe a movie on the couch. Snuggling and kissing and making love, and maybe, if Carol can work up the courage…

“Great,” says Therese, and Carol can hear the dimpled smile. There’s a beat of silence, and then, “Well, I… I know I should let you go. Don’t worry, okay? You’re way tougher than Harge. It’s going to be fine.”

Carol chuckles, says softly, “Thank you. Thank you for calling me, I—I really needed it, Sweetheart.”

“Carol, I—” Whatever Therese was going to say, she stops short, going quiet for a long moment. Carol hears her take a deep breath, and then continue, “I’ll see you soon, all right? Bye.”

“Bye,” Carol echoes, and the call ends.

Standing on the sidewalk, Carol feels suddenly charged with courage, charged with determination. Fuck Harge and whatever game he’s playing. Fuck his obfuscation and call-dodging. He’s not going to rattle her. She turns toward the restaurant, and lets herself inside.

Harge always was one to show up for appointments ten minutes early, and sure enough, he’s already seated in one of Portale’s booths. Carol points him out to the host, who leads her over to his table. He looks up at her approach, his face a blank mask, serious. He puts his phone aside. Carol takes a seat, accepting a menu from the host and managing a tight smile when he fills her water glass. Harge hasn’t touched his water, or ordered anything.

“Your server will be with you shortly,” says the host. “May I get some drinks started while you wait?”

“Scotch, neat,” says Harge.

“Nothing for me,” Carol replies.

“Have a drink, Carol,” Harge retorts, impatient.

Carol grinds her teeth. So, he’s in a bossy mood. “Nothing for me,” she repeats.

The host goes away, and now they are staring across the table at each other. Carol tries to remember what he was like when they first met. They were even younger than Therese and Dannie. They were rich kids from rich families, and they made a good couple. Everyone said so. She thought he was sexy in a classic, masculine way. He thought she was always the most beautiful woman in the room. They got along well but they didn’t… see each other, perhaps, is the best way to describe it. Or, at least, Harge never saw her. The real her. Perhaps she never wanted him to.

But with Therese…

With Therese, she wants to be seen.

“Thank you for coming into the city for this,” says Harge, over formal.

“I’m not sure what this is,” Carol replies. “You’re ignoring my calls. You’re refusing to sign the divorce papers. We’ve been through everything a dozen times, Harge, I can’t understand why at the eleventh hour you’re acting like—”

“Let me get straight to the point,” he interrupts, still cold and professional, like they’re in a board meeting. “I’ve delayed signing the papers because something unexpected has happened at work. Our investors are looking to expand. We’re opening a Boston office and I’ve been tapped to run it.”

Carol stares at him in blank silence. This was… absolutely the last thing she expected him to say. He watches her impassively, and when it becomes clear that he is waiting for some response, she asks, “Excuse me, what?”

“There’s been talk about the new office for over a year, but I just got the greenlight to run it last week. This happened to correspond with when the final papers came in, so you can see how it… changes things.”

Carol’s body tenses. “How does it change things?”

“That depends on you.”

Carol’s nostrils flare. “Would you please stop whatever this is and just tell me what it is you want to say?”

There’s the briefest flash of a smirk on Harge’s mouth, as if he takes pleasure in her exasperation, and then he’s back to cool and calm. He says, “Well, in the interest of our daughter’s well-being, I’m hoping that you’ll consider moving to Boston as well. I’m sure we could find you a house with a proper workshop for your… business. I don’t anticipate a problem with selling the house here, market being what it is. There are excellent schools for Rindy and if we each set up a household within a few blocks from each other, that would certainly reduce her—”

“Harge, I can’t move to Boston.”

Carol’s interruption has less impact than she’s expecting. No temper tantrum. No surprise, even. He gives a calm nod, and the waiter arrives with his scotch.

“Good afternoon,” she says. “Welcome to Portale. The specials today are…”

As she rattles off the list, Carol and Harge don’t break eye contact. When a few moments later they place their orders (cup of soup for Carol, steak sandwich for Harge), they don’t break eye contact. When the waiter walks away, they still do not break eye contact.

“I thought you might say that,” Harge remarks at last. “I think it’s imperative that you reconsider.”

“Imperative why?”

“For the sake of our daughter.”

“You are making the choice to leave, Harge. You can’t ask me to upend my life for you. That part of us is over.”

“So you’d rather, what?” he retorts. “Have her spend half the year in the city, half the year in Boston? Shuttle her back and forth? Make her split her time between two schools?”

“I don’t want that at all,” Carol says. “Obviously if you insist on doing this then—”

“It’s done,” he replies.

“—then we will have to come up with a custody schedule that suits Rindy’s needs above all. That doesn’t disrupt her school year.”

Again that cold smirk from Harge. “Ah, so you want her to spend summers with one of us, and the school year with the other.”

“If that’s what’s best for her.”

“And who do you think should get majority custody?”

Carol stares at him for a long moment. She can feel him building up to his big move, something no doubt intended to devastate her. He did this when they were married, too. Everything a succession of feints and parries.

“I would hope we can make that decision together,” she says at last.

Harge says, “I’m not giving up my daughter for three quarters of the year because you are too stubborn to move to Boston. If you can’t put your selfishness aside for Rindy’s sake, then I intend to move for full custody.”

Again they do not blink, they do not bend. Carol can feel a kind of storm surging in her breast, an anger that crawls across her skin and urges her to erupt, to lash out—but she senses that this is what Harge wants.

‘You’re way tougher than Harge,’ Therese told her.

Carol draws strength from that.

“I would hate to see this turn into a custody battle,” she tells him calmly. “And I fail to see how you think such a battle would turn out the way you want it. I have been Rindy’s primary caregiver her entire life.”

“Yes, because you’ve never had a real job,” he claps back.

It takes everything in Carol not to unleash on him, not to snarl and accuse and scream—and in her weighty efforts to refrain, Harge has the silence he needs to carry on:

“The fact is, Carol, that I have the economic means to care for our daughter. I have steady employment, which you do not. In addition, I have family in Boston. You have no one in New York but Abby, and Abby herself is hardly the best influence on our daughter.”

“Excuse me?” Carol’s voice is low and icy.

“She’s promiscuous,” he sniffs. “Out at bars all night. A new woman every other day. If we go to court, I can demonstrate clearly that you surround yourself with unsavory people, who have a deleterious effect on you. Or are you forgetting that I know you go for co-ed bartenders these days? How do you think the courts will feel about you traipsing around the city with Abby? About you fucking college students? How do you think they’ll feel about you bringing those women around our daughter? Letting our daughter sleep in the same bed as those women?”

Harge’s voice is still low, but in it there now seethes a rage and contempt that Carol has never heard from him before. She stares at him, stunned by the range of her own emotions—bafflement, hurt, fury. Disgust. It occurs to her that Rindy must have told him about the sleepover with Therese months ago. But rather than raise it then, he has horded it as a weapon. Something to use when the time arrived, which apparently is now.

Carol gives herself several seconds to breathe. She can see from Harge’s face that he was expecting more of a reaction. She flashes on a conversation with Therese, a couple of weeks ago. They were lying in bed, talking about Therese’s childhood—about the men who would abuse and browbeat her mother. Carol had held Therese close to her, stroking her hair as she recalled bouts of physical and emotional abuse that Therese’s mother could never escape, and from which Therese herself cowered.

Therese said, “The thing about abusers is… it’s a survival game. You spend all your time trying to give them what they want so they don’t hurt you. And sometimes it works, and they leave you alone. But part of how they control you is by being unpredictable. By taking you totally off guard and then telling you it’s your fault.”

Carol stares at her husband, this man who has dictated her life for ten years, who has made her feel small and insignificant and trapped. Well, not anymore.

“First of all, Harge,” says Carol calmly. “I am not some deadbeat who can’t take care of our daughter financially. Aside from my inheritance and earnings from the restorations, I’ve accepted a job running a furniture store for Maurice Washington.”

Harge blinks.

“Secondly,” says Carol. “Your threats to paint me as some promiscuous pervert won’t stand up to the facts. I’m not ‘bringing women around our daughter.’ I am dating one woman, monogamously, and—”

“Like that’ll last,” Harge interrupts viciously. “You’ve never been monogamous in your life.”

Carol sets her jaw, barely stops herself from exploding in a rant that would probably get her thrown out of the restaurant. Still, her look is scathing as she informs him, “If you’re determined to go that route, Harge, I’ll remind you that you had as many affairs during our marriage as I did.”

“I never fucked coeds,” he sneers. 

“Thirdly,” Carol says. “Therese isn’t a coed. She’s a graduate student in the Stern School of Business who’s at the top of her class even though she works full time—”

“At a bar!”

“And that’s another thing,” Carol retorts. “How do you know that Therese is a bartender? Rindy wouldn’t have told you that, so what have you done? Spied on me? How do you think that’s going to look in the courts, Harge? How do you think any of this is going to look? Because I’ll tell you what it looks like to me. It looks like a man who’s angry that his ex is with a woman; it looks like a man who doesn’t want his ex to move on with her life; it looks like a man who’s trying to blackmail his wife into moving to Boston to make his life easier.”

Harge sputters, eyes wide and startled, mouth hanging open like a fish as Carol stands to her feet.

“What are you doing?” he snaps, looking around at the other diners; his embarrassment is obvious. “Carol, for God’s sake, be reasonable and sit down. There’s no need for histrionics.”

“You’re right,” Carol says. She pulls her coat off the back of the chair, watching him coldly. “There is no need. We can work this out amicably, Harge. Or it can be a fight.”

“You’d put Rindy through that?” he demands.

Carol breathes out through her nostrils. This is just like him. God, why did she never realize that this has always been just like him? This is what he does. He makes decisions, decisions with consequences, and then he tells her that the consequences are her fault. Carol shakes her head, amazed at herself, almost laughing at the ridiculousness of it.

“What’s so funny?” he hisses.

Carol ignores the question. She shakes her head again, sweeping on her coat. “You know,” she says, slowly, pensively, “there was a time… I would have done anything. I would have let you bully me, Harge. I would have done what you asked just because of Rindy—because I wanted everything to be easy for her. Easier than it was for me.”

A lump rises in Carol’s throat. She chokes it down, reaching for her purse and avoiding his eyes so he won’t see the brightness of her emotion. “I’ve always dreaded what a divorce would do to her, how it might hurt her, and I let you hold that over me. But no more, do you understand? I’m no good to her, to either of us, if I let you dictate my life—it I don’t pursue what I want.”

She takes out her wallet, reaching in for a twenty dollar bill that she tosses on the table. Tears banished, she meets his eyes again. He looks even more startled than before. “I’m not living against my own grain anymore, Harge. You want a custody battle? You want to take this to court and fight over her and make a mess of her life? Fine.”

“Carol, if you think I’m bluffing, I’m not,” he hisses at her. “I am fully prepared to fight like hell for this. You were the one who wanted the divorce. You didn’t want to fight for us. You didn’t want counseling. You just gave up! And I let you, I didn’t fight you. But this is my daughter we’re talking about, I for one will fight for her. And if I have to get ugly with you to do it, I think you’ll find I’ve got more ammunition in my pocket than you seem to think!”

Carol looks at him in silence. She thinks about the man he was when they met, the young man, foolish, but kinder than this, more hopeful than this. She thinks of the man who held his daughter for the first time, tears streaming down his face. The love he had for Rindy glowed out of him. Of course he’s going to fight for Rindy. Carol will, too. But she never thought they would have to fight each other.

“We might not have ever been really happy, Harge—but we were never ugly,” she says. And then, earnestly, appealing to the man she knows is there, “For God’s sake… let’s not start now.”

Harge grinds his jaw, eyes lit with fury. But for once, he says nothing. It’s a rare enough occurrence, Carol knows better than to waste it. She turns on her heel, marching toward the door with her bag over one arm. She makes it outside, into the brisk air of the March afternoon—and she keeps walking. She’s afraid of what will happen if she stops walking. She is charged now with a completely disorientating combination of courage, and terror. Proud of herself for standing up to him. Horrified by what he might do.

She digs through her purse again, finds her vape pen, and ignores it in disgust. She pops into a bodega to buy cigarettes, hands shaking the entire time. The man at the counter asks her gently, “You okay, Ma’am?”

“Yes,” she says, offering him a tremulous smile as she pays, “Yes, thank you.”

On the street, she starts walking again, lighting the cigarette as she goes and dragging on it hungrily. The rush of nicotine is a harsh relief, and also a release—her tears start to gather. Her stomach clenches with equal parts rage and dread. How could he accept a job in Boston without talking to her? How could he think he can just… dictate her life like this? And Therese—has he been spying on Therese? What would that even mean?

“Fuck, Harge,” Carol growls. “If you hurt her I swear to God I’ll kill you.”

She thinks of calling Therese. Wants to hear her voice, to be soothed by the sound of her breathing. But she has something else to do first.

Carol takes out her phone, and dials Fred.

Chapter Text

“Oh God… Oh fuck… Carol, Carol, please—”

Therese feels delirious. Drunk. High. She’s on her knees, fists clenching the sheets, and Carol is behind her, inside her. She has draped herself over Therese’s body, one hand braced on the bed while the other fucks into her with deep, relentless pressure. She drags her mouth all over Therese’s back, her shoulders. She finds the corded muscle at the base of her neck and bites. Therese shudders, whimpering and desperate.

“More,” she gasps helplessly. “More… more…”

Carol’s hand pauses, fingers shifting and tucking together, and then she slides in with four, a burn that makes Therese’s eyes roll back.

This is… not how she expected the night to go.

Carol called her at 5:00. Her voice was choked, but she was clearly trying to hold it together. She told Therese of her aborted lunch with Harge, and canceling the meeting with Maurice for an impromptu strategy session with Fred in his offices downtown. Then, sounding timid and guilty, she’d said, “I’ve got to go back to the house to get some things for Fred. I—I’m so sorry, Dearest; I don’t think I can see you tonight.”

Therese, an overthinker by nature, didn’t need to overthink this. “Can I come to you?” she asked.

Carol made a heartbreaking sound. “I—I don’t think I’ll be very good company—”

“I don’t need you to be good company,” Therese replied. She knew that her tone was brusque—that her rage at Harge was bleeding through, and she forced herself to go on gently. “I want to be with you. I don’t want you to be alone.”

“Vanessa is bringing Rindy home in the morning, and then she’s got a doctor’s appointment. I won’t be able to drive you into the city for class.”

“I’ll take the train,” Therese said. And then, without hesitation, “Or I’ll skip.”

“Oh, no, Therese, you don’t—”

“I can skip one class, Carol; I’m acing everything.”

“I—I—”

Therese took a deep breath. “Carol… if you need space tonight, if you don’t want to see me, I understand. But if it’s not that, then please. Let me come to you.”

This had apparently been the framing Carol needed, for she put up no more fight. An hour and a half later, Therese was letting herself into Carol’s house. She found her in the kitchen, drinking from a tumbler of brandy. Her eyes were red. Therese went to her, held her and kissed her, and Carol kissed her back.

Therese had not meant it to escalate. The kiss was only supposed to be a gesture of comfort. She had ideas about taking them to the living room, sitting them down on the couch. Watching a movie and ordering take out. A night to relax, to be together, to show Carol that she was safe and cared for.

But apparently Carol had needed something different. Their warm embrace, their chaste kiss, deepened, and then escalated, and then there was a fire burning between them, a fire that couldn’t be stopped. If some corner of Therese’s brain thought she should stop it—thought that she should make sure Carol was okay before covering over everything with sex—well, Carol didn’t give her the chance. Carol boosted her up onto the kitchen island, laid her back and stripped off her pants and underwear and went down on her until she was thrashing and delirious.

Soon afterwards, they had stumbled out of the kitchen, Carol directing her body with the ease of an orchestra conductor. They went up the stairs, the rest of Therese’s clothes leaving a trail behind. They landed on the bed in a tangle, where Carol’s need only surged, raging through Therese’s body.

And now—and now—

Carol growls in her ear, “God, you’re so tight. Does it feel good? Tell me.”

“Y-y-yes—fuck, yes, don’t stop!”

“Oh, I won’t stop,” Carol tells her, voice dripping with sin.

Their bodies are sticky, sliding against each other. She can feel Carol’s breasts, her hard nipples dragging across her back. The fingers inside are focusing on Therese’s G-spot, a myth she had doubted until Carol proved her wrong. Every hard press feels like a lightning strike, body-melting in its intensity.

This position is electrifying, but Therese knows herself, knows that her body has a deep-rooted fear of being attacked from behind, and the only way to mitigate that fear is to maintain a connection with Carol throughout. Carol knows this, too. It’s why she is lying over her back. Why she keeps kissing her wherever she can. But Therese wants her voice, wants her to keep talking to her.

“It—it—” she struggles to speak, “—feels so good, Carol.” A particularly deep thrust has her panting for breath. “Feels so good.”

“Good,” Carol purrs. “I like having you like this. Like covering you, feeling you everywhere. I got us something today, Darling. Do you want to hear about it?”

All Therese can do is nod, a sharp jerk of assent. Carol chuckles, says, “I got us a harness.”

Therese shivers, her cunt clenching hard, so close to orgasm that she feels weak with it. “Oh, Christ,” she whimpers.

Carol hums. “That’s right. Imagine what that will be like. Me, wearing that toy for you? Fucking into you nice and deep like you like it? Hands free, roaming all over you.”  

A fresh wave of heat goes through Therese. She is drenched in sweat, trembling, so close but she needs—

She tries to reach between her own legs, to finish herself off. Carol grabs her hand, pulling it away. “No,” she says firmly. “None of that.”

“God, please, please,” Therese chokes out the words, desperate.

Carol’s answer is a chuckle, filthy. “You don’t need that yet, baby. You might not need that at all.”

Therese whines with objection, begs, “No, I—I do, please Carol, touch me—”

She tries to put Carol’s hand where she needs it, but Carol answers by grasping her wrist and pinning it to the bed, her voice in her ear an amused rasp, “You mean you haven’t had enough of that yet, Angel? After everything I did with my mouth? Licking you? Sucking you? I don’t even know how many times you came. Don’t you think your little clit has had enough for one night?”

Therese sobs. Her thighs are trembling uncontrollably now. Braced on her elbows, she can barely keep herself from falling forward into the pillows. There’s no mystery to why Carol is being like this. She has a dominant streak anyway, and of course her lunch with Harge is making her want to exercise control, to feel powerful and strong. What Therese doesn’t expect—is her own completely helpless reaction. The almost terrifying pleasure that she feels. The need, for more of it, more of Carol’s control, Carol’s aggression, Carol’s words.

“Please,” Therese gasps. “Please.”

“Please what, Angel?” Carol asks. She starts rubbing in firm circles inside. She sucks on Therese’s shoulder, hard enough to leave a mark.

“Keep—keep—” Therese swallows hard. She’s too far gone to feel embarrassment, to feel shame. “Keep—talking.”

“Ohhhh,” Carol says. “Is that what you like? You like it when I talk to you?”

“Y-yes. Yes!”

“You like when I tell you how good you feel like this? How wet you are for me? I don’t think you’ve ever been this wet, Darling. You’re dripping all over my bed. Such a messy girl.”

“Yes, I—yes!”

“Have you ever squirted before, Therese? Come so hard you can’t control it?”

Therese pitches forward, face in the pillow, trembling wildly.

Ruthless, Carol slips her arm around her waist, pulling her back up again.

“Answer me,” she says, steel wrapped in silk.

“No,” Therese sobs. “I—I’ve never… done that.”

“I’ve thought before that you might,” says Carol, tone almost conversational. “Sometimes when I’m touching you like this, from behind like this, your G-spot gets so swollen, so full. And then, remember that time you made me stop because you thought you had to pee?”

Therese does remember. She’d hurried out of bed, embarrassed, aroused, and used the bathroom. When she came back to Carol, her lover was smirking at her in a knowing way, had grabbed her and pulled her back into her arms.

“You could have done it that time,” Carol tells her. “It takes determination, you see? Lots of foreplay… lots of patience. Lots of encouragement.”

Therese wonders blearily—is this why Carol went down on her for forty five minutes? First on the counter, and then here in bed? Is this why Carol has been fucking her with her fingers for so long? Has Carol been moving her toward this? Ordinarily the thought would charge her with anxiety, with fear of disappointing. But Carol has done her work well. She’s too overcome, too desperate, for anxiety. And she just wants—

“I’ve never—” she gasps again, unable to finish her sentence. “I’ve never—”

“Shhh,” Carol croons, and then before Therese can prepare, she’s slipping the fingers of her other hand between her legs, finding her swollen and overstimulated clit, rubbing it in slippery circles.

Therese shouts in surprise. One of her hands flies back, grabbing Carol’s thigh, while she uses the other arm to desperately hold herself up. Carol’s fingers inside her are moving with a new focus.

“It takes precision,” Carol whispers in her ear. “It takes time.”

“Please—” Therese chokes out.

Because she can feel it, suddenly she can feel it, that swelling sensation, like her bladder is full, like she needs to pee. A tingling pleasure starts in her clit and deep in her cunt. Something in her flutters with panic, tells her, you need the bathroom, you have to stop her, you—you—

“Oh, God,” Carol groans. “You’re clenching so hard. You sure you’re not already coming, baby?”

“I—I—”

“It’s happening isn’t it? You’re close?”

Therese nods, almost laughs—she feels like she’s been close for hours. Carol licks a stripe up her neck, to her ear.

“Relax, honey. You’re safe with me. All you have to do is let it happen. Let me make it happen.” 

“Carol,” she shudders, “Carol—Carol, oh, fuck, Carol—”

Somehow, it takes her by surprise. One moment she is gasping for air, and the next—she’s coming. A detonation. She buries her face in the pillow, unable to control her choked scream of pleasure and release. She feels the flood of her orgasm, wet and dripping down her thighs. Behind her, Carol makes a sound that is almost animal, overcome. The fingers inside her keep rubbing, until after what feels like eons, she can’t take anymore. She grabs at Carol’s hand, sobs, “Wait, wait—” and collapses forward onto the bed.

Carol goes with her, covering her body. She carefully extracts herself from between Therese’s legs, and then starts running her hands all over her, leaving streaks of wetness behind, kissing all over her back and her neck and between her shoulder blades. She’s gentle but intense, possessive, moaning Therese’s name and whispering to her all the things she needs to hear (beautiful, perfect, delicious, good)—except that one phrase that Therese needs most of all.

“Carol,” Therese is panting for breath, her thighs shaking. “Carol, need—need—”

“Tell me, Angel, tell me.”

“Need to—to see you, baby, please. Need to kiss you.”

She isn’t sure how Carol does it, but a moment later she feels herself rolled onto her back—and away from a considerable wet spot. Carol is leaning over her, her eyes bright with wonder and adoration and—and—that thing that Therese wants so bad. Therese lifts up to kiss her, as if her kiss can draw the words from both their mouths, puncture that last barrier between them. But after the day that Carol has had, the stress and the fear, Therese worries that saying it would be too much. Would overwhelm Carol, or make her feel like she has to say it back when she’s not ready. And so Therese retreats. Again.

But not entirely.

“Carol,” she whispers, breaths still coming heavy, body still shivering. “Carol, come here.”

Carol comes readily, hand in her hair and cradling the back of her neck as they kiss. Her mouth tastes so good, and her body feels so good. Therese somehow finds the strength to wrap her arms around her shoulders, to lift her shaking thighs and wrap them around her waist. Carol moans into her mouth, and Therese has to tell her, has to be brave—

“Love your body,” she gasps, breaking their kiss to nuzzle into her, to lick and suck her throat like a starving person. “Love the way you feel inside me. Love when you touch me.” She sets her teeth against Carol’s collarbone, not too hard, but still possessive, and Carol whimpers. Therese can feel the slight rocking of her hips, can feel the need in her. “Love touching you,” she says, arms and legs grasping her close. “Wanna touch you now.”

Immediately, like a switch flipping, she feels tension enter Carol’s body. Carol pulls slightly back from her, but with her eyes averted, and says in a voice that is clearly trying to sound casual, “Oh, Darling, no. That was just for you.”

Carol pulls back further, sitting up. She runs a hand through her hair, still in that trying-to-seem-casual way, but after a moment of Therese silently watching her, she chances a moment of eye contact, then darts away. She releases an anxious laugh.

“Honestly, Therese, I’m so exhausted after today. It’s all right. We don’t both have to have a turn every time.”

Therese continues to gaze up at her, thinking but not talking. Debating what to do. Part of her is hurt. Part of her understands. In the past, all of her would have demurred, would have accepted and subsided. But something is different now.

Suddenly Carol shifts, as if to climb off of her. Therese puts her hands on her thighs, holding her in place. Startled, Carol looks down into her eyes, and though she has avoided that contact for the past minute, now it’s as if they’re locked together. Therese sees it instantly: the hurt and the fear in Carol. The lostness in Carol. Therese, still weak from the impact of her own pleasure, feels a new charge of energy—which is the energy of protectiveness. She’s not content to be pushed aside.

Hands still on Carol’s thighs, Therese asks softly, “Do you feel safe? With me, I mean?”

Carol’s eyes widen. Her mouth opens and closes, but nothing comes out. Undeterred, Therese puts her hands on Carol’s hips and uses this leverage to sit up. Carol makes a surprised sound, but has no choice but to move with Therese’s body. Therese directs her, moves her, until after a moment Carol’s legs are wrapped around her and Carol is sitting in her lap and Therese is holding her close, looking up into her eyes. Carol’s eyes are so big, so startled, but also—aroused. Encouraged, Therese starts to run her hands up and down her back, soothing strokes.

“I want you to feel safe with me,” she murmurs. Carol makes a soft sound in her throat, like a precursor to tears. Her eyes are watery but she doesn’t cry, just gazes down at Therese. “I know that you’re hurting,” Therese tells her. “Don’t hide from me. Let me comfort you.”

Another of those sounds, louder now, overcome. Carol looks frightened, but also, so needy, so desperate for what Therese offers, and Therese’s heart pounds like a drum, realizing how important this moment is. She lifts up, kissing Carol under her chin.

“You can tell me, okay? Don’t be afraid. Just tell me.”

Another long silence, tense with the unsaid, and then—

“I’m—I’m—” Carol struggles to speak. “I’m… so… I’m so… afraid, Therese.”

The last words end on a choked sob. Therese nods against her, kissing her shoulder with all the tenderness she feels. “I know, baby.”

“Fred—Fred says he—Fred says Harge will never get what he wants. He says the courts will never give him full custody but… but they’ll probably split her between us. She’d be gone… six months out of the year. She’d be—I would— She’s so young—how could we do that to her? How can we disrupt her life like that?”  

Therese wraps her arms around her, tugging her closer, and with a sound of relief Carol holds her back. Her body is so strong, so long—arms and legs wrapping around Therese’s smaller form. Therese wishes suddenly that she was big—big and tall and broad, so she could cover Carol completely.

“Should I—” Carol swallows hard, whimpers. “What should I do? Should I—should I move to Boston?”

Therese’s stomach plummets. Everything in her want to scream ‘No!’ But she realizes that her answer would be selfish. She takes a moment, trying to wrestle through her own panicked feelings toward something that will actually help Carol—Carol who is trembling with sobs, pressing into her body, seeking closeness and comfort as her tears drip onto Therese’s shoulder.

“I think…” Therese says at last. “I think it’s too soon to be thinking about that. When are you meeting with Fred again?”

“F-Friday. He says we’ll know more then.”

“Okay,” Therese nods. “Then for now, there’s no use letting yourself spin out with what-ifs. Rindy will be here in the morning, and I promise, Carol, you’ll feel so much better when you can hold her again.”

“What if—what if he doesn’t let Vanessa bring her home? What if he—”

“That’s not going to happen. Think how that would look at a custody hearing? Believe me, I was in the system for years. The courts do not like people who think they can just ignore custody agreements.”

“Oh, Sweetheart,” Carol makes a squeaky sobbing sound. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even—I didn’t even think how… how it might make you feel, all this stuff about custody and—and—”

Therese pulls back, a hand in Carol’s hair so she can gently pull her back as well; so they can look into each other’s eyes.

“I’m fine,” she says firmly. “I’m all right, Carol. I just want to take care of you.”

More tears spill down Carol’s cheeks. Suddenly Carol releases a soggy laugh, trying to wipe the tears away.

“Jesus, I must look—”

“Wonderful,” Therese interrupts. “You look wonderful. You always look wonderful, okay? You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, and the kindest, and the sweetest, and the smartest, and everything is going to be work out. All right?” 

Carol looks at her for a moment, and then laughs again, half-embarrassed, half-adoring. “Who taught you to be such a sweet talker?” she asks.  

Therese grins up at her, relieved to see some of the most vibrant distress leaving Carol’s eyes.

“It’s easy with you,” Therese says. Carol rolls her eyes, but with humor. “It’s true!” Therese insists, laughing.

Carol responds by taking her face in her hands, and kissing her. They both moan, soft sounds of relief and pleasure, their bodies seeming somehow to press even closer than before, as if by trying hard enough, they could meld together completely. And Therese wants that. She wants to feel every point of Carol’s body on every point of hers, to trade not just breath between their kissing mouths, but the very essence of themselves. She wants—she wants—

The kiss deepens, slow but somehow urgent at the same time, and Carol in her arms has started to shift, hips twitching against her, restless.

“Therese,” she whimpers. “I—will you—touch me?”

Therese whimpers right back. She licks into Carol’s mouth, just to make her shiver, and pulls away to look into her eyes. “You want that?” she asks gently. “You’re sure?”

The last thing she wants is for Carol to do something she’s not ready for—especially if she’s only doing it because she thinks it’s what Therese wants.

But then Carol is reaching for one of Therese’s wrists, and drawing her hand down between them. Their eyes are locked; Therese dares not look away. She finds her way by touch alone, sneaking into what little space exists between their grinding hips. Carol lifts up just enough that Therese can find the slippery warmth of her opening. She circles her carefully, reveling in the way Carol’s eyes slip closed.

“Oh… Angel…”

“What do you need?” Therese asks. “Do you want me inside you?” Carol nods, head tipped back, lips parting with pleasure. Therese is in no mood to tease her. She glides two fingers inside; she’s so wet it happens easily, and a shudder travels through Carol in response. “Fuck,” Therese whimpers, feeling the silky musculature of Carol’s cunt, gripping her fingers. “Fuck you’re so… tight.”

Carol’s hands grasp at her restlessly. Carol’s hips start pushing into hers, no definitive rhythm. She is clearly overcome, a combination of emotion and exhaustion and desire, and Therese knows that she will have to take care of her. Which she is very happy to do.

The angle is hard on her wrist, but she doesn’t care. Instead of trying to thrust in the limited space, she starts crooking her fingers in a constant, rocking, come hither motion that she knows Carol likes. With every movement, Carol’s clit grinds into the heel of her hand.

“Oh!” Carol gasps, fingers gripping Therese’s shoulders. “Oh… oh…”

“Relax,” Therese soothes her. “I’ve got you.”

Carol somehow manages to open her eyes, to look into Therese’s face again.

“I know,” she gasps. “I know you do.”

Her eyes are a little red from crying. There are dried tears on her face. She’s flushed with arousal, and she smells of day-old perfume and warmth and sweat, a combination so intoxicating that Therese’s body tingles from sensory overload. How is this possible? How did this happen? What did she do in her life, what good and righteous thing, that earned her this woman in her arms? Whatever it was, Therese isn’t letting go. She moves inside her, she wraps her close, she reaches for her kiss and hears the desperate sounds she makes, that mean please please please I’m close don’t stop

And Therese doesn’t stop.

Chapter Text

“This is all good news, Carol, believe me.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

“Okay, well you look like I just told you we’re going to lose.”

Carol sighs. She massages her forehead, where a tension headache has gathered in the past hour. They’re sitting in Fred’s office, and he has just finished laying out the facts. The custody hearing is set for three weeks, expedited because of Harge’s impending move. The judge has a track record of dismissing petty cases, or ruling against parents who demonstrate a vendetta. Equally important, Harge’s lawyer has indicated that he won’t bring up past affairs in the hearing (not surprising, since Carol has plenty of evidence to throw back at him). All in all, this bodes well. And yet…

“What’s our best case scenario, Fred?” Carol asks.

Fred, who is turning a pen in his fingers, looks at her thoughtfully for a moment. Then, setting the pen on the desk, he leans forward, hands clasped. “Look, I’ve never minced words with you. And I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass. Both you and Harge are good parents to Rindy. In our best case scenario, the judge will give you the school year, and Harge the summers. You’ll also alternate holidays. In our worst case scenario, that’s flipped—you have her in the summers, Harge has her for the rest of the time.”

Carol swallows a lump, eyes burning. Summers without Rindy sounds dismal enough, but the prospect of being away from her nine months out of the year—

“Remember,” says Fred, “Harge has zero case for full custody. If he tries to frame you as some kind of sexual deviant for dating a younger woman—that won’t play. Neither will going after Therese. We have plenty of evidence that she’s good with Rindy and Rindy loves her.”

At that, Carol smiles for the first time in the past hour. She thinks of Wednesday morning, when Vanessa brought Rindy home from Harge’s. Carol had scooped her up and hugged her for probably a full minute, before her daughter finally got impatient and demanded to be set down. Carol, fighting to hide her tears, had relented—and was so relieved when Therese appeared in the foyer.

“Trez!” Rindy cried, running to her. “You’re here!”

“I sure am,” Therese answered.

Carol, still rubbing her tears away, had watched as Rindy started pulling on the cuff of Therese’s sweatshirt, saying, “Isn’t this Mommy’s?”

“It is,” Therese nodded, then waggled her eyebrows. “I think I’m gonna steal it!”

Rindy looked sharply at Carol, wanting to see her reaction, and when Carol couldn’t withhold an amused grin, Rindy started giggling. “Mommy, Trez is gonna steal your sweatshirt!”

“Oh, not if I steal it back!” Carol had answered.

“Quick!” Therese cried, grabbing Rindy’s hand, “Run!”

Later, after Carol had showered and it was nearly time to leave for Rindy’s doctor’s appointment, she found the two of them in the kitchen, eating cereal and discussing Rindy’s classmates. They didn’t see Carol, and Carol had snuck out her phone, and taken a video of them. They were so… adorable. So relaxed with each other. Full of giggling and conversation and it was clear that Rindy was as taken with Therese as Carol is.  

She hadn’t taken the video with any agenda in mind—only wanted to capture this beautiful moment between the two girls she loved most in the world. But then Fred had asked her if she had any evidence of Rindy and Therese interacting in a positive way. When she sent him the video, he was ecstatic.

/ Ha! / his answering text read.

/ I’d like to see Jerry Rix argue that Therese is a bad influence after we show this in court! /

This made Carol glad, and also anxious. She doesn’t like the idea of Therese being brought into the case. Fred says there’s always a chance Rix will want her to testify, and Carol can’t bear putting her through that. It’s not fair to her. And it’s so much to ask. Especially with what Therese has experienced in family court throughout her life.

Fred regains her attention with a deep breath, pulled in and let out as he leans forward across the desk and looks at her kindly.

“Carol, remember something, all right? None of this in on you. You didn’t do this.”

“It doesn’t matter, though, does it, Fred?” Carol asks. “In the end, Rindy is the one who will suffer.”

“Kids are resilient, Carol. And she’s got two loving parents, even if one of them is a selfish jerk.”

Carol snorts a laugh. Fred so rarely lets his feelings run wild like this, and it’s gratifying. He smiles at her, and asks, “What does the rest of your day look like?”

“Oh… I’ve got Rindy through the weekend. Therese is coming over tomorrow night. I wanted to ask if you… well, do you think it’s all right? Her spending the night I mean? She’s worried that it might give Harge ammunition or—”

“Carol, this isn’t the 1950s,” Fred replies. “Judges don’t expect women to be nuns. You’re in a committed relationship with Therese. It’s perfectly normal for her to spend the night.”

“It’s just…” Carol hems for a moment, sighs again, says, “When Harge first met Therese, he said something… I mean, he was being a complete ass about it, but it made me realize that if he was dating someone, I probably wouldn’t have wanted him to introduce her to Rindy either, not without talking to me about it first. I didn’t give him that courtesy.”

Fred considers, once again turning the pen in his hand. “It’s a fair point,” he concedes. “But the cat’s out of the bag, and I genuinely do not think it will hurt your case. And, if you’ll permit a personal note, I think it’s good for you. She obviously brings you a lot of happiness, Carol. You glow when you talk about her. With all the stress you’re under, I think you should grab that happiness and not let go.”

Carol blinks, surprised. After a moment she smiles drolly. “I always knew there was a reason I liked you, Fred.”

He scoffs, but looks pleased. And then, with true sincerity, “Carol, I represent a lot of divorcing people, and most of them are parents. Half the time they’re selfish and oblivious and just want to win. Maybe Harge is trying to get even with you; I don’t know. But from the beginning it’s been clear that you have only want what’s best for Rindy. On the rare occasion that I get to represent someone I really believe in, you bet your ass I’m gonna do my best work.”

Carol stares at him. Heat gathers in her eyes; a lump settles in her throat. Fred, clearly sensing it and wanting to spare her any embarrassment, makes himself busy stacking some papers. “Now,” he says. “It’s the weekend. So why don’t you go be with your daughter and Therese and try to leave the worrying to me for a couple of days. All right?”

Carol clears her throat, blinking away the tears. “All right,” she says.

He gives her a stern looks, “Promise?”

This time she laughs. “Yes, Fred. I promise. Thank you.”

<><><> 

It’s while she’s getting her car that Carol’s phone rings. She checks the caller ID, and smiles, picking up.

“Harkevy,” she says. “This is a pleasant surprise.”

Harkevy’s laugh is warm. “I know, I know, I never call. Married to my work and all that. But you’d be proud of me, Carol—I’m hosting a dinner. I called to see if you and Therese could come.”

“Look at you, taking your nose off the grindstone! We’d love to come. When is it?”

“Well, it’s a bit last minute,” he says, tentative. “Tomorrow night?”

Carol deflates, “Oh, H., I’m so sorry—”

“Is Therese working?” he asks.

“No, remarkably she has a Saturday night off. But I’ve got Rindy this weekend, and I—”

Harkevy interrupts, sounding buoyed, “Oh, bring her! No, you must bring her, please. My sister is in town, you see—that’s what the dinner is for, and she brought her two sons. Four and seven. This whole thing will be much more interesting for them if it’s not just a bunch of adults standing around. They’re dear boys, I promise.”

Carol hesitates. After the week she’s had, she’s been looking forward to having Therese and Rindy to herself. But then again, Rindy loves meeting other children, and Carol would love an opportunity to put Therese back in Harkevy’s orbit. She’s convinced that he can have a positive impact on her. Even if she never takes photography beyond a side hustle, H would be a great mentor for her…

“What the hell,” Carol smiles. “I’ve just got to check with Therese about it. I assume Abby is going?”

“Yes, and her paramour. This Lou has her quite enthralled, it seems.”

“Ha!” Carol cackles with glee. “Excellent.”

“Also, uh,” Harkevy pauses, clears his throat. “If you think of it—that is, if Therese happens to see him, she could always—” He clears his throat again. Carol’s eyebrows shoot skyward. Harkevy is a giant among men. He never sounds nervous. “Well, tell her that she is welcome to invite her friend. Mr. McElroy.”

Carol’s surprise morphs into a slow, fiendish grin. “Why, Ivor,” she drawls. “Are you feeling a little enthralled yourself?”

He scoffs. “Nothing of the sort. But… Dannie… is a charming young man, and I promised to show him some of my Chernobyl photographs.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“Carol, honestly!”

But Carol just laughs, picturing her friend’s pale complexion flushed with embarrassment.

“All right, all right, I won’t tease you,” she says. “We’ll see if Dannie can come.”

“Good,” says Harkevy, sounding very pleased.

Just then the valet appears with her car, stepping out to hand her the keys. Carol passes him a tip, smiling gratefully, and asks Harkevy, “What should we bring?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing, I’m having the whole thing catered.”

“Wine, at least?”

“If you must. No, actually—tell Therese to bring her portfolio.”

Carol, having just slipped into her seat, pauses to frown. “Her portfolio,” she says. “Hasn’t she sent it to you yet?”

“No, not yet. It’s not a surprise, Carol, she’s a busy woman and probably hasn’t had the time.”

Carol, still frowning as she switches her phone over to the Bluetooth in her car, says easily, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.”

Except Carol was with Therese, Wednesday morning, when she got the text from Harkevy reminding her to send him her work. When Carol asked if she had a portfolio handy Therese had admitted that she has a private Wix page where she has assembled her best work. Carol was surprised, not least because Therese had never let her see the page before. At Carol’s urging, she promised to give both Carol and Harkevy access that evening. Carol got the link. But apparently Harkevy has not.

“Carol?” Harkevy asks. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, sorry—I’m just getting onto the road. Look, H, I’ve got to go, but I’ll text you about dinner, all right?”

“Very good,” he says. “See you tomorrow, I hope!”

Once they’ve hung up, Carol tells herself that Therese must be nervous about showing the photos to Harkevy—which is hardly surprising. Therese has spent years cultivating this talent (and it is a talent, as well as a gift) with no expectation that it would ever go anywhere. Her commitment to her education, to gaining financial independence, has been paramount.

Not for the first time, Carol feels a flood of sadness for her young lover. She knows that Therese doesn’t love her studies. It’s not that Therese has ever said as much out right—but it’s clear in everything she does. She’s an incredibly intelligent young woman and she has the skill and aptitude to make a great accountant. But she has no passion for it. This wouldn’t be so bad (after all, so many people take jobs they don’t love) but Therese is always so exhausted. Between school and work she barely has time to sleep, and it bothers Carol, in a deep, protective way.

Why should someone as intelligent and special and good as Therese have to grind herself to dust on something she doesn’t even love? Why can’t she pursue what she cares about? Carol can admit to herself, this is part of why she showed Harkevy Therese’s photographs at the party. She hoped, secretly, that it might be a way to open up new doors for Therese. To show her that she has options in her life. The class in Berlin would connect her to all the right people. It would give her choices…

But not if she doesn’t try.

Carol glances at the clock in the car. It’s 11:55. Therese will be out of class, probably headed to the library. Without pausing to overthink, Carol orders her car to make the call.

It rings about three times before Therese picks up. She sounds out of breath, and she’s obviously outside, wind whipping through the phone line.

“Carol, hi!” she says. “I’m so glad you called. Did you see Fred? How did it go?”

Carol’s chest warms with affection to know that Therese has been thinking of her.

“It went well, Sweetheart. I just left his office and saw what time it is. I thought maybe you’d want to get lunch? Do you have time?”

Suddenly, Therese sneezes, incredibly loud and violent for coming from such a small person. Carol frowns with concern, and Therese says, “Yeah. I’m meeting my study group at Stumptown in an hour. Could you meet me there? It’s the one on W 8th and MacDougal.”

“Yes, I can be there.” She hears Therese sniffle and cough and her frown deepens, but Therese says goodbye and hops off the phone before she can say anything.

It takes her fifteen minutes to get there and park, and by the time she gets inside Therese is already set up at a table. Carol sees a sandwich and a cappuccino waiting for her, and Therese smiling warmly, and her heart melts. She makes a beeline for her, bending to kiss her before she takes a seat.

“You’re such a darling. I’m dying for some caffeine.”

“They make a good cappuccino here.”

“But how are their peppermint mochas?”

Therese’s ears pink, and it’s utterly charming—except that as Carol looks at her, she feels a swell of worry. Therese’s nose is red, but her face is pale. There are dark circles under her eyes—darker than her usual end-of-the-week, tired eyes.

“Sweetheart,” Carol says. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Therese waves a hand. “I’m fine. I think I have a little bit of a cold, but it’s okay.”

“You look really tired.”

Therese snorts, “You and your sweettalk.”

But Carol won’t be put off, “How much sleep did you get last night?”

Therese sighs. She wipes a hand across her forehead and says, “Four hours. But study group is over at 3:00 and I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours before heading to the bar. It’s fine. I’m used to it.”

That only makes Carol feel worse, more worried, almost irritated. Why does Therese do this to herself? There has to be another way. Making herself ill to meet her deadlines is going to backfire, and—

“Please, Carol,” says Therese, beseechingly. “Tell me about your meeting with Fred? I really want to know, I’ve been so worried about it.”

As far as Carol is concerned, the topic of how Therese is feeling is not settled, but she demurs for the moment. She describes the meeting with Fred, erring on the optimistic so that Therese won’t worry. It doesn’t escape her, as she starts eating, that Therese barely picks at her own sandwich, but Therese is nonetheless focused on their conversation, asking questions, adding her own perspective. She senses Carol’s own, more muted feelings, and encourages her, assures her it will be all right. Carol, distracted by Therese’s intermittent coughing, can’t take much comfort from it. The fact that Therese is clearly ill has her on edge.

Therese asks, “Can we still see each other tomorrow?”

“If you’re still sick I’m sticking you in a bed with some chicken soup and you’re not getting out until you’re well.”

Therese rolls her eyes. “I really don’t feel bad. But if you’re worried about me being sick around Rindy—”

“I’m not worried about that. Although—” she hesitates, not sure if she should even bring it up at this point. She doesn’t want to lie to her. Therese cocks her head questioningly, and she says, “Well—Harkevy called me. He’s invited us all to a dinner party at his place tomorrow night.”

At the mention of Harkevy, Therese seems to draw into herself. She looks down at her sandwich, taking another small bite, looking embarrassed.

Carol says gently, “You didn’t send him your portfolio.”

Therese fidgets in her chair. “No, not yet. I…”

“Are you nervous about it?”

“Yes, of course, but… it’s not that.”

She’s silent for several moments. Carol wants to give her time to process whatever she’s feeling, so she takes a sip of her cappuccino, waiting.

Finally—

“Carol, I… I can’t apply for his class. I can’t give him the impression that I would actually accept if I got in.”

Carol stares at her. This—this was not what she expected. In confusion she puts the cappuccino downs, says, “But why wouldn’t you—” 

“I’ll barely be able to make Amsterdam work, if it happens,” Therese interrupts, and Carol can’t tell if the color in her cheeks is embarrassment—or the flush of illness. Either way, she looks small and frail. “If I try to take the summer off, Tommy will fire me. And I was depending on working this summer, too. Without that I… I just can’t afford it. It’s not practical.”

She still hasn’t raised her eyes, and now she’s twisting a corner of her napkin, and she coughs dryly into her fist and clears her throat. Carol watches her for several moments. Therese’s words make sense, given her priorities, and yet they fill Carol with disappointment and sadness—and… It takes her a moment to recognize the third feeling. Anger. The third feeling is anger, annoyance, frustration—with Therese. And it’s irrational, she tells herself. It’s not fair. Therese can hardly help it that she doesn’t have a fortune at her disposal. But did it never occur to her that she might ask—

“What if I helped you?”

Therese’s eyes snap up to hers so fast its startling. They’re bright, maybe even feverish, and instantly guarded.

“What?” she says. “No.”

Her cold tone takes Carol by surprise. She blinks at her, then presses, “Hear me out. I know you want to pay your own way, to be independent. But this is an incredible opportunity for you, Dearest, and there’s nothing in the world that I’d like more than to help you.”

Therese sets her jaw. Something hard glitters in her eyes.

“No. I don’t want it.”

The irritation that Carol is already feeling spikes. She gives Therese an exasperated look.

“I’m not some stranger offering you money. I’m your girlfriend, and since it’s not a burden on me to help you—since it would make me happy to help you, I don’t see why you can’t at least consider it before blowing me off.”

Therese continues to look at her, expression masked. After a moment she sighs and says, “Carol, even if you did help me—I told you. I’d lose my job. And if I was gone all summer I’d have to give up my apartment. Those places have a waiting list a mile long. I’ll never find another place that I can afford. Not unless I want to share a one bedroom with three other twenty-somethings. I can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

Carol blurts, “Then move in with me.”

Oh.

Shit.

Therese’s eyes widen. And Carol’s eyes widen. Her stomach drops and then roils with nausea as she realizes what she has said, and the way she’s said, and what the fuck is—

“Did you just ask me to move in with you to save on rent?” Therese asks.

Her voice is harder than Carol has ever heard it. Her eyes are blazing. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Therese, no—I. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m handling this all so badly. I—it’s not about the money. That’s not why I’d want it, I just… I—” Therese keeps staring at her, unimpressed, and Carol says. “Haven’t I made it obvious that I—that I’m crazy about you? And if you lived with me, you could—well for one, you wouldn’t have to work when you’re sick. You wouldn’t have to worry about the money so much, and I—”

“What, so you’d pay all the bills?” Therese demands. “And I’d be—what? Your kept woman?”

The acid in her tone is like a slap. Carol stares at her, shocked by the cruelty of this reaction.

“What?” she says. “Of course not, I—”

“I’ve told you what I grew up with,” Therese interrupts, face pinched and angry. “What my mom was like. What her boyfriends were like. I’m not repeating that mistake.”

Carol blanches, stunned and hurt and then, suddenly, furious. She leans forward, and demands, “Are you actually going to fucking sit there and compare me to your mothers’ abusive boyfriends?”

For the first time, Therese’s hard expression cracks. She flinches, then retorts, “I’m not comparing you to them. I’m comparing myself to her. I made a promise to myself, Carol—I swore I would never be dependent on anyone else. I’m not breaking that rule.”

“You’re not an island, Therese—no one can be dependent on themselves alone.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to take your money.”

“I cannot believe you are being like this.”

“I can’t believe you don’t understand what you’re asking me to do.”

“Do? You mean pursue something you care about? Reach for your passion instead of just settling into a career that we both know you can barely stand? Is that the horrible thing I’m asking you to do?”

Therese reaches for her glass of water, and drinks. Her hand is trembling; her eyes flash with anger. “I realize you’ve just had your dream job handed to you and can’t imagine people having to settle for anything less than perfection,” she says coldly, “but I’m not like you.”

“Therese, for fuck’s sake—”

“I don’t need to be saved from a life of drudgery. Do you have any idea how condescending you’re being right now?”

“Therese, I—

“My study group will be here in the next ten minutes,” she interrupts, eyes averted, cheeks flushed. “I need to find us a bigger table.”

For some reason, this dismissal makes Carol’s hostility vanish, replaced by a sick feeling. She says in a low tone of entreaty, “Therese, I’m sorry, but please—”

“I think we should talk about this later.” Therese interrupts, still not looking at her. “I think you should go.”

Carol just sits there for several moments. Stares at her. Wills her to look at her again. Wills herself to say the thing that will undo this mess. But then Therese coughs. Sneezes. She wipes her nose with her napkin, and Carol feels a fresh surge of impatience. She stands up.

“You’re sick, Therese,” she tells her angrily. “Go home. Go to bed.”

“I don’t need a mother, Carol, I’ve taken care of myself perfectly well for years.”

“Clearly.”

“Clearly.”

Carol scoffs, picking up her purse.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says.

But Therese doesn’t answer, and in a sickly combination of anger and defeat, Carol walks away.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Therese texts Carol to tell her that Tommy is making her take an emergency shift—she won’t be able to come to Carol’s tonight.

Carol tries to call her, but in a panic Therese sends it to voicemail. She can’t talk to her, can’t argue with her, can’t bear to—

Carol texts her.

/ You shouldn’t be at work at all. /

The momentary guilt Therese was feeling evaporates, replaced by a surge of anger. The reprimand in Carol’s words feels like a physical blow, and tears spring to Therese’s eyes. Tears of frustration, of pain, of hurt.

/ That’s none of your business / she shoots back, and the tightness in her chest blooms into a coughing fit that has her doubled over for excruciating minutes. By the time she gets herself under control, she feels weak and shivery.

It’s another ten minutes before Carol responds.

/ Good to know /

And then… nothing.

Miserable, Therese tries to study. She has a paper due and needs to finish it before work tonight.

Because she wasn’t lying about that part. Tommy was borderline snippy with her, saying two people had called out sick (something is going around) and he needed her to do this and if she didn’t she could kiss any future requests for time off goodbye—including her hold on Spring break, when she’s supposed to go away with Carol…

Therese shakes that thought away.

At least now she won’t have to see Harkevy. Won’t have to explain to him that flattered as she is, not everyone is a rich world-renown photographer, and she’s too fucking poor to spend the summer in Europe like a goddamn trust fund baby. And if Carol can’t see that, if Carol can’t understand why it’s impossible, well…

Therese spends her afternoon in a fugue of intermittent crying jags, cough syrup and Tylenol, and trying to work. None of it goes well. More than anger, now, she feels infused with a deep and paralyzing terror.

Is Carol done with her? Is Carol going to break up with her? Has Carol finally realized that she is just a child, a waste of her time? Hasn’t Therese feared, from the beginning, that this is what would happen in the end? She’s never been good enough for Carol, and if Carol has just been waiting for her to become some kind of socialite protégé, or worse, a little housewife to be managed and taken under Carol’s wing—well, then this could never have worked. Never. Because that’s not who Therese is.

Some part of her knows she’s being irrational. Unfair. And yet… all these thoughts, these feelings, storm through her as she stands under the spray of her shower later that afternoon. She wills the hot water and steam to soothe her aching sinuses, clear the tightness in her chest, relax the tension in her shoulders which she thinks is less about being sick, and more about the restless, miserable night she had. Missing Carol. Angry at Carol. Angry at herself.

By the time she climbs out of the shower, bone tired and feeling like a drowned rat, she glances at the clock to find it’s been half an hour. No wonder the water was starting to cool. She completely lost track of time, and has to leave for the bar in twenty minutes.

There’s one moment, as she walks into her bedroom and turns angrily toward her closet, that a wave of dizziness goes through her. She grabs the wall, fighting the part of her that thinks falling onto the floor is a great idea. She closes her eyes and waits for the room to stop spinning, and then gets caught in a coughing fit that feels like it lasts hours. Her lungs and chest burn. Her eyes are gritty and sore. She stands up straight and wipes her wrist across her sweaty brow.

Pull it together, she thinks angrily. You’ve been way sicker than this before. Just pull it together.

She dresses for work. She takes another slug of cough medicine and painkillers. On the way out she makes herself stop in the kitchen. She’s hardly eaten anything today and though she has no appetite she can tell that her body is hungry. She grabs two individual cups of apple sauce and drinks them like Jell-O shots in the elevator. On the curb outside her building, she happens to see a taxi, and on a whim she decides that she doesn’t have the energy for the subway, today. She can treat herself to a cab for once.

And it’s a good choice. The cab is one of those well-maintained ones. It’s warm inside but not sweltering, and the driver is quiet; she plays classical music. The whole thing ends up being very soothing, and the drugs kick in about fifteen minutes later. By the time Therese is walking into The McKinley, she feels much, much better.

Good thing, too, because the place is already full and Tommy glowers at her when she walks into the staff room to deposit her coat and bag.

“You’re late,” he accuses.

“It is,” Therese glances at her watch, “5:59. I’m not late.”

“Whatever,” he says, turning his eyes back on a clipboard and scribbling with a pen. “Ted is your barback tonight. Don’t let him fuck things up.”

Therese rolls her eyes, heading out onto the floor.

It’s actually a relief, that things are busy. It gives her no time to think about Carol, to wonder if she went to Harkevy’s party, to wonder when they’ll see each other again or talk to each other again. No, with so many rich and entitled patrons orderings margaritas and cosmos and mint juleps, she gets lost in the muscle memory of it, the simple satisfaction of mixing one drink and then moving on to the next. Ted is not nearly as shit at the job as when Therese started, and they work well together, talking very little but anticipating each other’s needs. It helps that the customers aren’t as rude as usual. That will change as the night rolls on, as people get drunker, as people come in drunk.

She flashes on a memory. One of her mother’s boyfriends, stumbling into the house shitfaced and angry. How her mom tried to distract him with the dinner she’d cooked, but he screamed at her that he hated chicken and why couldn’t she make him a goddamn steak once in a while!?

The hitting started soon afterwards. Therese hid in the closet with her hands over her ears.

“Hey, honey, can I get an IPA?” somebody asks.

Therese snaps out of her thoughts so sharply that she can see the startled look on his face. She blinks rapidly and nods. “What kind?”

His expression melts into something suggestive, lip curving as he looks her up and down. “Surprise me, baby.”

Therese ignores his flirting and draws him the shittiest IPA they have. Her mothers’ boyfriends all drank Pabst and Budweiser and Miller High Life. Sometimes just the smell of those beers will make her feel lightheaded and sick.

Carol isn’t like them, she finds herself thinking, out of the blue, totally unwelcome. Carol isn’t cruel. Carol isn’t abusive. Carol isn’t controlling.

But—

Are you sure? another voice is her head shoots back. You hardly know her. And think about what you’re like with her. Think about how desperate you are, the second she touches you. The things you let her do to you in bed—the way you let her control your body. How weak you are for her.

Therese flinches away from these thoughts, tells herself it’s not true, it’s not fair, Carol has never—

You’d do anything for Carol, that traitorous voice hisses at her. Just like your mother. She was so pathetic over those boyfriends. Don’t you remember hearing them have sex? How loud she was? Admit it, you always hated her for that. Thought she was a slut. A weak, pathetic slut. Well, what makes you any better?  

Therese swallows hard, head momentarily spinning.

No, she tells herself. No, no, it’s not the same, it’s not—

“Excuse me?”

Blinking fuzzily, Therese forces herself to look at the person in front of her—an attractive brunette is standing at the bar, smiling. “Hi,” she says.

Therese returns the smile, hoping it is warm and polite but fearing it looks like a grimace.

“What can I get you?” she asks.

“White wine? Anything you think is good. Just not too expensive; I’m pacing myself!”

Therese’s smile is a little more genuine this time. 

“We have a really nice Pinot Gris. Won’t break the bank.”

“Sounds perfect.”

Therese turns to get the glass and the bottle. When she faces forward again, she’s surprised to find the woman still staring at her, focused and intent. Usually people ignore her while they’re waiting for their drinks, but not this woman.

“You’re Phil’s friend, aren’t you?” she asks.

Therese hesitates, surprised. “Uh, yeah. You know Phil?”

“Yeah, we took some classes together at Baruch College a couple of years back. He invites me to all his ragers. I think I saw you there once. In October?”

Therese, head still a little cottony, aware of a pain in her temples that feels deep and pulsing, casts back in her memory until—

“Oh, yeah. The Halloween party.”

“That’s the one!”

“Did we meet? I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

The woman shakes her head, but her smile is sly. “No. Would have liked to, though.”

The words take Therese off guard. For a split second she’s not quite sure what they mean, and then it hits her: she’s flirting.

The woman seems to realize that Therese has caught on, because her smile broadens, and she extends a hand across the bar.

“My name’s Gen.”

After a beat of silence, Therese shakes hands, passing the glass of wine to her. “Nice to meet you.”

“I hope it’s okay, me saying hi to you like this. I… haven’t seen you since that party. I noticed you.”

Suddenly another patron is knocking his knuckles on the bar top to get Therese’s attention. With a brief, apologetic smile for the woman (Gen?) Therese turns to take his order, and after him come three more, and for a few minutes Therese is flitting up and down the bar. But her admirer does not leave. Therese is constantly conscious of her, seeing her out of the corner of her eye. She drinks her wine and watches Therese work and Therese is… flattered.

The moment she realizes this, on comes a new realization: maybe someday she and Carol won’t be together any more. Maybe someday Therese will sleep with a different woman. Maybe someday she’ll fall in love with a different woman. Maybe these beautiful months with Carol were never meant to be more than a blip in time, and Therese will end up with someone like Gen…

Someone your own age, her thoughts supply. Someone your own class. Someone you couldn’t possibly become obsessed with, desperate for, pathetic…

The sadness and despair that go through Therese in that moment are so acute that her head spins.

When her work brings her back to that side of the bar, Gen is waiting, and in the momentary reprieve of Therese pouring beers for a group of lawyers, their eyes catch. Gen’s smile is slow and flirty and amused.

“Have I made you nervous?” she asks, looking delighted by the idea.

Therese, aware that her face is hot and not entirely sure why, makes an incoherent sound. “Oh… no, it's just—I,” she swallows a sudden lump in her throat, and says, “I have a girlfriend.”

Because she does, right? This fight with Carol… it’s not the end is it? It can’t be the end…

Maybe it should be, sneers that voice.

Shut up.

Gen looks at her with a pensive nod, says after a moment, “Sorry, you just… don’t seem so sure about that.”

Therese blinks. “No, I really do have a girlfriend. I’m sorry.”

Gen takes it in stride, gesturing breezily. “No need to apologize. I mean, it’s not like it’s a shock. You’re totally gorgeous.”

Flustered, Therese overpours a pint of Guinness. She course-corrects, and gives Gen a tight smile. “That’s—thank you. That’s very flattering.”

But I don’t want you to think I’m gorgeous, thinks Therese miserably. I don’t want anyone to think I’m gorgeous but Carol. I don’t care if it’s pathetic, I only want Carol.

Well, then maybe you shouldn’t have been such a bitch to her this morning.

A sudden tightness in her chest makes Therese turn her head away, into her elbow. She coughs hard—and then harder. There’s a burn in her lungs, tight and painful, and for a second she can’t breathe. She turns her back completely, fighting to get herself under control. It’s probably only a few seconds, but it feels like hours of gasping. By the time she’s got it under control, by the time she can turn around again, she can feel a film of sweat on her forehead and chest and the small of her back. She feels jittery and when she looks at Gen again, her vision clouds.

Then centers.

Gen is looking at her cautiously.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Therese says, breathing carefully. “I, uh—wrong pipe, I think.”

Gen looks unconvinced. She says, “You know, gorgeous notwithstanding, you don’t look so good. You’re really pale.”

“Yeah, no, sorry—I’m fine. Sorry, I’ve got to—”

“Therese!”

It’s Tommy, barking at her. She squints blearily at him. He’s generally an easy going guy, but tonight he’s scowling and stressed and irritable. The last thing Therese needs.

“Break,” he tells her.

Therese frowns, glancing down at her watch. “It’s not even eight.”

“Yeah, well, my whole schedule is fucked up because of people calling out,” he says. “I need you to get it over with before we’re really slammed. Heater’s on the fritz outside, by the way.”

And he walks off.

Therese looks at Gen, who is still watching her with a thoughtful, concerned expression. Therese smiles tightly, says, “Um… I, uh—guess I gotta go. Maybe I’ll run into you at Phil’s next party.”

This time Gen smiles a little.

“And here I was hoping you’d take your break with me,” she says.

Therese chuckles nervously, clears her throat, “I—I think I’m gonna… I think I’m just gonna go rest in the staff room this time, but, uh—thank you.”

Gen gives a little shrug, totally classy in defeat. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

I don’t want you to try, Therese thinks. I want Carol. Fuck, I feel like shit and I just… want… Carol.

Luckily, Gen doesn’t keep her, and with a sigh of relief that turns into another round of coughing, Therese leaves the bar, going back into the kitchens and toward the break room. It’s loud in the kitchen, and hot, and humid. Therese’s head is splitting and she think that maybe she’ll go outside anyway, even without the heater working. The crisp March air sounds like the most beautiful relief right now. She just wants to grab her bag first. And her phone—maybe… maybe Carol will have texted her?

It’s with that weak hope in mind that Therese walks into the backroom—and right into the presence of Hargess Aird.

At first, she doesn’t recognize him. A middle-aged man in an expensive suit. A handsome, tailored man who clearly belongs at the bar, not in the staff room. A man who sits at the table with one leg crossed over the other, turning a tumbler of something on the tabletop. He looks up at her the minute she enters.

“Ms. Belivet,” he says, voice calm. “Nice to see you again.”

Therese stares at him. Now that she realizes it’s him, her mind feels stuck. It doesn’t make sense.

“Mr. Aird, you’re—not allowed back here,” she says.

“Not ordinarily, no,” he agrees. “But I requested an audience with you, and Mr. Tucker was kind enough to oblige.”

Therese frowns in confusion. Tommy knows about this? But why would he—

“There’s no need to look concerned,” says Harge, still in that calm voice. “I’m not here to make any trouble for you. I just want to have a conversation. One that I think will be to your benefit.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Therese replies.

He stares at her unblinking for a long moment. He turns the tumbler of—whiskey?—and takes a sip, then sets it down again.

“Five minutes?” he requests. He really does sound so calm, so unthreatening. “Please, just five minutes of your time, and then I’ll be on my way.”

This time the voice in Therese’s head tells her, No. Not five minutes. Not one minute. Walk out of the room, find Jack, or Todd, or—

But then her eyes land on the chair across from Harge at the table. And she is suddenly so… so… tired. The thought of not sitting down makes her feel weak. Worse than that, the thought of turning her back on him to walk out of the breakroom makes her feel… scared. Don’t turn your back on him, the voice whispers in her head. Keep him in direct eyesight.

Slowly, Therese makes her way to the chair, and sits down. Hargess Aird smiles approvingly.

“Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate it. I promise not to take up much of your time. I just thought it would be a good idea for you and I to talk. About Carol.”

Therese swallows. Her throat burns and her eyes burn. “I don’t see why we need to talk about Carol.”

“Well, the fact is, Ms. Belivet, if I had less respect for you, I would agree.”

Therese looks at him in a moment of blank silence. “Respect for me?” she repeats.

“Yes. You see I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re an intelligent young woman. Savvy. Ambitious. Given your background, the success you’ve already gained is quite impressive, and nobody achieves that without determination and grit. I myself grew up comfortably, but my father was poor before he made his money in real estate. White trash, you might have called him. Pulled himself up by his bootstraps. I predict not a very different story from yours.”

“Did you just call me white trash?” asks Therese.

A short laugh. “No, no. I apologize. I meant nothing of the sort. What I meant is that I respect people who come from nothing, and make something of themselves. Carol and I, you know—born with silver spoons and all that. Carol especially. And sometimes I think her decisions reflect a certain… naivete about the rest of the world.”

“For someone who apparently respects me, you don’t seem to respect her at all.”

For the first time Harge’s affable exterior shows a crack of annoyance. “Not at all. I do respect Carol. I love her, in fact.” Therese says nothing, and he reads this for the challenge it is, looking at her with a serious, urgent expression. “I love her. I’ve loved her for over ten years. Please remember, Ms. Belivet, you’ve been in her life for a couple of months. You don’t know her like I do.”

“Maybe you don’t know her like I do,” Therese replies.

His eyes narrow. “And what do you think you know about my wife?”

Therese stares at him for long moments, reading the hostility in him. This is how it happens. They start off calm and reasonable. And then, when you start to annoy them, it changes…

“I think Carol is strong, and intelligent and kind,” says Therese. “I think she is full of love and generosity. I think she loves her daughter. If you’ve come here because you’re hoping to use me somehow to take Rindy from her—”

“That’s not my aim at all,” he interrupts. “The fact is, I agree with you. Carol is a wonderful mother. I don’t want her and Rindy to be separated any more than she does.”

“Then don’t move to Boston.”

Flared nostrils. His eyes are glittering now. He goes on as if she hasn’t spoken, “At the end of the day, I think there’s really only one thing keeping Carol in New York. And that’s you.” 

Therese has an irrational desire to laugh. But before she can react at all—

“She’s clearly infatuated with you. And I’m not blaming her for that. I’ve always known that Carol was… bisexual. You are a young and beautiful woman. No person in their thirties doesn’t entertain the occasional fantasy about a… young lover.”

Therese feels bile rise in the back of her throat. Harge says, “I’m sure for you, it’s all very flattering. Carol being what she is. Carol looking… as she does. The trouble is, Ms. Belivet, I can’t quite square the idea that your feelings for her are as genuine as her feelings for you.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve spoken to some of your ex-boyfriends. Including a Mr. Semco? They all say that you have only ever expressed an interest in men. Of course I understand that young people are very… fluid about their sexuality these days, but I can’t help but wonder if in the end Carol’s gender simply means less to you then her… generosity.”

Confused, Therese blinks a few times, trying to clear the burning in her eyes. She can feel that roughness in her throat again, foretelling a coughing jag. She really doesn’t want to cough in front of him. Doesn’t want to be vulnerable in front of him. He’s staring at her, and there’s a look in his eyes that makes her feel dissected, as if he is peeling off her clothes—not in a sexual way, but the way a surgeon peels back flesh and bone, looking for the problem underneath.

He reaches into the pocket of his coat, removing a piece of paper. He slips it across the table, so that it lies folded next to her fingers.

It’s a check.

“Once you have your accounting agree, I’m sure you’ll end up in a very lucrative position. You won’t need Carol’s money, and I imagine at that point you’ll move on from your relationship with her. But for now, obviously, I can appreciate the appeal of someone who can cover your expenses.”

“Mr. Aird, I—”

“And if you were simply some common gold digger, that might be the end of the story. Except I also happen to think you have a core of conscience in you, Ms. Belivet. You must realize that if you can get what you need, without putting Carol through any heartache… that is the preferable outcome. I’m willing to assist you in that. You can finish out your grad program in comfort. Carol can move on with her life. Rindy can have both her parents in the same city.”

At first Therese doesn’t think this is really happening. She thinks she must be misunderstanding him—that he can’t possibly mean to insult her or Carol in this way. But as he stares at her, his sincerity is plain. Therese finds herself staring back in pure incredulity. She’s not even mad. She’s too stunned and confused to be mad. Should she be mad? Everything feels very… fuzzy.

“I can’t be bribed, Mr. Aird,” says Therese. “If you love Carol as you say you do, you would never stoop to something like this.”

His mouth presses in a cold smile. “You are a foster brat from Syracuse whose mother couldn’t take care of her. All your foster placements failed. You’ve never had a long term relationship. You’ve never even had a family—not a real one. Forgive me, Ms. Belivet, but I don’t think you know anything about what love is. I think you’re using Carol. And because I love her, I can’t let that happen. What I’m offering here can do you some good. If you’d rather, I can drag you into court and prove to the judge just how unfit you are to be around my daughter.”

Therese feels as if she’s been punched in the stomach—no in the chest, which aches and burns and where her lungs sit heavy as rocks. She has a sudden vision of herself, pulled onto a witness stand. All her past laid bare before a judge. The girl who couldn’t get along with other kids. The girl who hid rather than help when men hit her mother. The girl who has put everything on hold, even relationships, even people, for the single-minded goal of her education and financial future. A person like that—a person as cold as that, as pragmatic and solitary as that—is such a person suited to be around a child? Around Carol?

Somewhere in Therese’s blurry thoughts, she can sense that there’s something wrong with this narrative. That Harge has it wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

But those other voices… are clearer and sharper and deep inside her like fishhooks. Not just the voice of her thoughts but the voices of men she hasn’t seen in years. The voice of her mother. The voice of foster siblings and residential workers.

Stop sulking.

Get out of that closet.

You’re being selfish, Therese.

No, there’s no milk, why are you always asking for milk!?

Don’t you know I need this? Don’t you know I need him?

Tell that brat to be quiet!

Get out get out get out!!!

Therese stumbles to her feet, the chair almost falling over behind her. Hargess Aird looks taken aback, but Therese can’t meet his eyes.

“I need to go,” she says.

“Ms. Belivet—”

“It’s been five minutes.”

“Be reasonable.”

Therese backs away from him. He stands up, and he’s looking at her as if she’s lost her mind, and he’s tall. He’s so much taller than her, and broader than she realized, a big man, capable of hurting her.

This time he sounds surprised, even concerned, “Ms. Belivet, hold on. Are you all right?”

Therese shakes her head, just keeps backing up. “I—I—it’s been five minutes.”

“You don’t look well.”

Whatever she looks like, it’s clearly taken him off guard. Maybe if she runs for it now. There’s a few feet between them. She has an advantage.

She spins on her heel, nearly hitting the wall.

“Ms. Belivet, wait,” he says.

Therese stumbles toward the door, but she can tell he’s behind her. He’s behind her he’s behind her. He’s going to grab her they always grab her that’s how it starts they grab her they grab her—

Therese feels him, so close. And her vision goes white.

Chapter Text

Harkevy’s apartment in Queens is as classy as the man himself, pre-furnished but with his touch on everything—art on the walls and shelves, mementos of his travels, books everywhere. At the moment his dining room table is packed with about eight guests, most of them known to Carol, and H has catered in from a Moroccan restaurant. They’re all eating bastilla with their hands, and the wine is flowing, and it really is a lovely, lovely party.

But Carol feels detached from all of it.

She can’t stop thinking about Therese. About Therese’s text that morning. About their fight, yesterday. About the horrible, horrible possibility that Carol has ruined it…

It doesn’t help that Rindy was so disappointed when she found out that Therese wasn’t coming over after all, and has been in a sulk ever since. And it doesn’t help that somehow Dannie got invited to this party after all (Carol suspects Abby made that happen) and Carol has noticed him glancing at her more than once. What has Therese said to him? What must he think of her?

What does Carol think of herself? She’s still angry at Therese—angry at her stubbornness and pride, angry at her for working while she’s sick. Angry and hurt that Therese could so much as hint at a similarity between Carol and those boyfriends who tormented her mother…

Is that what Therese thinks of her? That she—what? wants to buy her?

“Mommy?”

Carol snaps out of her thoughts, looking at her daughter, who is poking at her meal with a fork (she was not impressed by the adults eating with their hands).

“This looks funny.”

“Sweet pea, you haven’t even tried it. It’s all chicken and couscous. You like both those things.”

Rindy looks skeptical. Across the table, one of Harkevy’s nephews, Leon, grins at Rindy. “It tastes better with your hands!” he cries, and scoops some up, and shoves it in his mouth with exaggerated enthusiasm. Rindy’s lips twitch, clearly in spite of herself.

“Yeah!” exclaims the other nephew, Jonas, from down the table. He grabs a flaky bit of the crust and uses it to shovel some into his mouth. “You can pretend you’re a pirate!”

“Brilliant,” says Dannie, and stuffs his face, grunting and ‘argh’ing raucously. The boys laugh with glee. Harkevy watches Dannie with an amused, fond expression.

Rindy looks up at Carol, who smiles and nods. “Try it, Darling. You’ll like it.”

The boys model for Rindy again, and after a moment of uncertainty, she very daintily picks up a bit of the food and puts it in her mouth. Carol watches her sidelong, taking her own bites of the bastilla and moaning appreciatively. She can tell intellectually that it’s delicious, but the flavor barely registers. She has an intuition that if Therese were here, Rindy wouldn’t hesitate to eat the food.

But after another careful taste, Rindy gives her an amazed look. “It’s got cimmanim!”

“I know,” Carol nods encouragingly.

After that Rindy starts eating more confidently.

“There you go!” Dannie says, “Pirates, all around!”

This time when he and Leon and Jonas start growling over their mouthfuls, Rindy tentatively joins in, and soon the whole table is growling and snarling and laughing. For the first time that night, Carol’s smile is genuine, and Rindy’s pouting transforms to joy.

Nevertheless, after a few bites, she turns to Carol and says sadly, “I wish Trez was here. She’d make good pirate noises, huh?”

Carol smiles gently. “She would, baby. But we’ll see her again soon, I promise.”

Does she promise? Can she promise?

“Yeah, where is T?” asks Dannie. “I thought she’d be here.”

Taken by surprise, Carol hesitates. She had just assumed that Therese told Dannie about their fight, but—

“Oh, uh. She had to work,” Carol says. “Last minute.”

Dannie nods, but the way he’s looking at her proves he doesn’t believe for a second that that’s all of it. Carol refocuses on her plate.

“That girl works too hard,” observes Abby.

“All Americans work too hard!” declares Harkevy’s sister, Freja.

“I’m not sure Germans have a leg to stand on, in that department,” says someone else at the table, and there’s more laughter.

Dannie says, “Therese has always been a workaholic. But I gotta say, ever since you two started knocking boots, she clearly spends a lot more time on fun than she used to.”

Carol blushes, pleased and distressed at the same moment. She wants to be that for Therese. Wants to be the joy and the fun in her life. Dreads that it will all be different now.

Harkevy says in confusion, “‘Knocking boots’?” 

Dannie grins at him, looking amused but also charmed. Freja says something in German, clearly translating, and H’s ears pink in a way that Carol has never seen before.

“Oh,” he says, and clears his throat, and takes a sip of wine, avoiding Dannie’s look. “Oh, yes, of course.”

Carol’s own morose thoughts take a breather as she smiles at Harkevy, whose obvious attraction to Dannie looks like it might be reciprocated. Indeed, love does seem to be in the air tonight. Lou and Abby showed up together, holding hands and grinning, and while Carol is used to seeing her best friend in cheerful spirits, there’s a new bounce in her step. And also, a kind of softness. More than once Carol has caught her and Lou looking at each other like they’re the only people in the world.

It makes Carol long for Therese even more.

Harkevy, clearly hoping to move on from his embarrassment, addresses Carol, “I am sorry that Therese had to work tonight. I don’t suppose she sent along her portfolio with you, did she?”

Carol feels a fresh hit of misery. She smiles at H in a strained way. “She didn't, I’m afraid. She’s a bit… uh—I think she’s a little uncertain about it.”

Harkevy frowns in concern. “Oh, I’m sorry—I never meant to make her uncomfortable.”

“I don’t think it’s that,” Carol hastens to assure him. “I think she just… You know, I think she doesn’t feel able, right now, to… to commit to spending that much time abroad. The, um—the expense of it, that is.”

Dannie’s eyes lock onto them like laser beams. Harkevy’s eyebrows lift in surprise. “Oh,” he says, and then, “I can certainly understand that. But she must realize that we could work together to find her funding, don’t you think?”

Carol clears her throat. “Uh… No, I don’t think that occurred to her. There’s the issue of her having a job here, you see, and a rent-controlled apartment she doesn’t want to lose and it’s all very… um… complicated.” Harkevy keeps nodding, pensive, and Carol isn’t sure why but she adds, “I offered to help her myself, but she doesn’t… want that.”

She regrets the words immediately, for Dannie asks, “You offered to pay for it?”

Carol meets his stare across the table. She can’t quite read his expression. Can’t tell if the way he’s looking at her is surprised, doubtful… or accusing. Whatever it is, it causes her an unexpected flare of irritation that she only shoves down with the benefit of years of high society training in ‘polite’ behavior.

“I did,” Carol says.

“Well, but taking such a gift from a lover is one thing,” interjects Harkevy. “Institutional funding is another. If you will mention it to her, Carol, I’d be more than happy to have a conversation with her. Explain her options. So long as you don’t think it would upset her.”

“Thank you, H,” Carol smiles at him, but there’s no way that her darker feelings aren’t apparent. There’s no way she can keep sitting here talking about it without tears coming to her eyes. She has to escape. She looks up at the table, asking, “Does anyone need more wine? I’m going to pop into the kitchen for that red I brought.”

A few people say yes, though Carol hardly notices. She’s up and leaving the table and conscious that H and Dannie are watching her.

In the kitchen, Carol grabs the bottle and opens it over the sink. But instead of carrying it out to the table again, she sets it down, then just stands there for a moment, hands braced on the counter, shoulders tight. She’s inclined to think it would make a difference to Therese, if the time in Berlin could be funded, but there are so many other variables at play. And how is Carol supposed to bring it up again? It would be heaping disaster on disaster!

“Hey.”

Carol whirls around, startled. Dannie has followed her into the kitchen. He’s looking at her with that same expression he wore at the table, and Carol feels her hackles rise.

“Hi,” she says, voice clipped.

Dannie considers her for a moment, then takes a cautious step forward. “Look,” he says, “I just… when you say that you offered to help Therese pay for Berlin, what exactly did you—”

“Dannie, I—” Carol blows out an impatient breath, not wanting to take it out on him. “I realize that you probably just want to help, but honestly, I—I don’t think Therese would be comfortable with us talking about it.”

Dannie shrugs, hands going into his pockets. “Yeah, well, tough shit.”

Carol balks. “Excuse me?”

“I didn’t stutter. I said tough shit. Clearly something has gone down with Therese and from the way you’ve been acting I have a feeling you have no idea what to do about it. So drop the act and just tell me what happened. You’ve known her two months. I’ve known her five years. I’m a bit of an expert, okay?”

Carol hesitates—she doesn’t want to talk to him about it. She doesn’t want to expose their dirty laundry to Therese’s best friend. Doesn’t want to lower herself in his eyes—

“Carol, Jesus,” Dannie says, “I’m rooting for you two, okay? Just let me help.”  

It’s those words—that assertion of support, that finally makes a dent in Carol’s armor. Dannie doesn’t have an ounce of artifice in him. He breathes sincerity, even if it is cloaked in a tremendous amount of sass. So she believes him. And right now, she’s desperate for an ally.

“We fought,” she says. He raises his eyebrows, and Carol clears her throat. She tells him the rest of it, quickly and without embellishment.

She expects passionate reactions from him—questions, asides, or at the very least a range of eyerolls and exasperated sounds. Which is why it unnerves her, somewhat, how quiet he is. Quiet, and watchful, and clearly thinking. When she has told it all he stays quiet for several moments.

And then—

“What are your intentions with Therese?” he asks.

Carol’s eyebrows hike heavenward.

“Excuse me?”

“Look, I wanna level with you about some shit,” he says. “But I need some assurances first, all right? I need to know if you’re for real.”

“For real?” Carol repeats, incredulous.

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “Are you for real about Therese? Because so far it’s all been meet cutes and great sex, but now you’ve had a fight. You’ve seen her when she’s stubborn and nasty. Sounds like you were a little nasty yourself. So what’s your deal? Are you in it for the long hall, or what?”

“Jesus Christ, Dannie!” Carol exclaims, tears of frustration springing to her eyes. “I am clearly a lot less transparent than I think I am because from where I’m standing I think it should be completely fucking obvious what my deal is! My deal is her, okay? She’s my deal. And I’m not going to say something to you that I haven’t even said to her yet but I think you know what I’m talking about and I am dead fucking serious, do you hear me? So if this is your version of the hurt her and I’ll kill you speech, bring it on, because I’m not going anywhere.”

Carol realizes that her tone might be a touch more intense than the situation warrants but you know what? She doesn’t fucking care. And from the look on Dannie’s face, from the way his lip quirks and his eyes sharpen with vindication—she thinks she may have said exactly the right thing. He gives a nod. He take a breath.

“Okay,” he says. “Good. That’s settled. Now. How much has Therese told you, about the money stuff, growing up?”

Carol, feeling jittery and overwhelmed, sighs. She rubs a hand across his forehead and makes a helpless gesture. “I know that her mother stayed with abusive boyfriends because they paid her bills. I know that Therese has always been absolutely determined to pay her own way—to not be dependent on anyone else. I guess you’re going to say that by offering to help her I broke some cardinal rule?”

“Actually, I was going to ask if she ever mentioned the bribes.”

Carol falters, confused. “The bribes?” she repeats.

“Yeah,” says Dannie. Then, apparently realizing that Carol doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he blows out a breath and says, “Look… It’s not just about her wanting independence. She grew up with men who used money for power, but not just with her mom. One of her mom’s boyfriends used to give Therese money every time he beat up her mom. She would try to walk away from him and he would grab her arm and shove dollar bills in her pockets.”

Carol’s eyes widen. A wave of nausea goes through her.

“It’s part of why she’s so afraid of being attacked from behind,” Dannie says. “He always grabbed her from behind. Another one of the boyfriends—he’d hold her lunch money over her. If she gave him a kiss goodbye in the mornings she could have her lunch money. If she didn’t, she went hungry. He used to stand behind her while she got ready in the bathroom.”

Carol just stares at him, completely floored. Therese has never mentioned any of this—

Dannie goes on, his expression grim, “See, Therese would tell you she was lucky, because the boyfriends never hit her the way they hit her mom. But watching it happen to her mom was just as bad, because she couldn’t stop it. Not to mention her mom resented her for not having to take the same punishment. She always told Therese it would be her turn one day. Young as eight, nine, her mom was telling her about how sex and money went together, how people use money to get sex from you, to get you to do what they want. She told her that eventually she’d have to learn how to please men in bed. Shit like that.”

Carol’s eyes burn with tears, horrified and stunned. When Dannie is silent she asks in a weak voice, “Do you think that… that’s what she’s expecting from me? Do you think she’s afraid I’ll use money against her?”

“I think Therese trusts you more than she trusts anyone,” Dannie replies.

Carol is unprepared for this. Dannie sounds so confident. Not a hint of doubt, and in confusion she asks, “Then… then why did she—”

“Because it’s not about you, Carol,” Dannie says patiently. “It’s not about you reminding her of the boyfriends or her thinking you’re trying to buy her. The fact is, money is always going to trigger Therese. Always. She can’t help it.”

He pauses, considering something, and adds, “When I found out you bought her that camera, I couldn’t believe it. I thought she’d flip. It’s exactly the sort of thing that if Richard had done or any of those other guys had done… Well, the fact she took a gift like that from you? It means something, Carol.”

Carol wishes she had known back then the risk she was taking with that gift. But Dannie’s words give her hope.

“Honestly,” he says, “I kind of wanna smack her right now, because I think she should have been more honest with you about what the money thing means to her. But she’s Therese and, you know, you gotta let her do things in her own time. What matters is what you do next.”

What I do next, Carol thinks. What do I do next? Show up at The McKinley? Beg her forgiveness? Never mention money again?

Carol tries to think what to say, but at that moment a cell phone rings. Dannie reaches into his pocket, fishing the phone out and then looking at the caller ID with a frown.

“That’s weird,” he says, and puts it to his ear. “Jack, hey. I thought you were working to—”

Dannie’s voice cuts off. Carol looks at him curiously, and a moment later his eyes lock with hers, the color draining from his face.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

Carol feels an inexplicable frisson of dread.

“What the fuck do you mean she was—who is he?”

Carol asks, “What’s wrong?”

Dannie’s face turns to stone. “What hospital? Yeah, I’m coming right now. Okay.”

He hangs up, still staring at Carol, whose stomach plummets at his next words:

“It’s Therese.”

<><><> 

When Rindy was two, she slipped on wet concrete and fell on her face. The impact split a line from her bottom lip down her chin—the scar is still there, and not just physical. For months afterwards Carol was beset with visions. All the blood. Rindy’s screaming cries. The panicked ride to the hospital and meeting with doctors and having to put Rindy under so they could stitch her up properly. Carol had never in her life experienced fear like that. Even knowing that her daughter’s injury wasn’t life threatening, she had been plagued by guilt and terror, and prayed to God that she never had to go through such a thing again.

Apparently God wasn’t listening. Because this feeling, right now? It’s just as bad as when Rindy hurt herself. It’s worse, in fact. Because Rindy’s life was never in danger. But Therese—

The second Abby pulls up outside the hospital, Carol and Dannie practically leap from the car, racing toward the waiting room and any news they can find. Jack’s phone call to Dannie only gave them a few terrifying details: 

Therese fainted.

Harge was at the bar.

Therese is in the hospital.

And Harge was there. Harge—was there.

That fact, that incomprehensible and horrifying fact, has Carol’s body on fire with emotions so overwhelming she can’t speak. She can barely breathe. What was he doing there? What did he do to Therese? What happened to—

And yet somehow when they finally get inside the lobby, Carol is completely unprepared for the sight of Harge, springing up from a chair where he’d been planted, his face ashen.

“Carol—” he starts.

“What did you do?”

“Carol, listen to me—”

“What the fuck did you do!?”

“I didn’t do anything!” he cries, backing away from her, hands up. Dannie has ignored him completely, springing toward the front desk to search for news. “Fuck, Carol, I swear to God I didn’t do anything, I—I helped her! She fainted, she just fainted and I called 9-1-1 and—”

“Belivet,” Dannie is saying to the nurse at the front desk. “Therese Belivet. She was brought in like half an hour ago.”

“And who are you?” asks the nurse.

“I’m her brother,” he says, just as Carol joins him. “This is her girlfriend. Please will you just—”

“Hold on,” the nurse interrupts sternly. “Give me a moment.”

Harge interjects, “Carol, I was right behind the ambulance, I saw them take her in, I saw doctors working on her before they made me leave.”

Working on her? A sob catches in Carol’s throat. Oh, Christ, what does that mean?

“Okay, Ms. Belivet is currently being assessed in one of our triage rooms,” says the nurse. “I can have the doctor come speak to you as soon as we have an update.”

“Is she still unconscious?” asks Dannie, “Is she—”

“Honey, I don’t know any more than you right now. Why don’t you all take a seat and we’ll talk soon, okay?”

The nurse turns toward her next task, dismissal obvious. Dannie, who looks as pale and panicked as Carol feels, finally directs his attention on Harge. Like a loosed harpoon, he approaches him so fast that for a split second Carol thinks he’s going to hit him. But he doesn’t. Just gets right up in his face and snarls—

“What the fuck were you doing there? What did you do to her?”

“I didn’t do anything to her!” cries Harge, “We were talking. We were having a perfectly calm conversation and then she stood up and walked away. I got up and called after her and—”

“Did you touch her!?” Dannie snaps.

“No!” Harge hisses. “For fuck’s sake, I didn’t lay a finger on her! She got up and she was unsteady on her feet. I called after her and she collapsed. I called 911 and stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, and then—”

“Why didn’t you call me?” demands Carol, furious. “Why didn’t you call me when it happened?”

“I—I—”

“You said you were talking—what the hell were you talking about?”

“Just—I—”

“You know what, I don’t care!” Carol walks away from him, finding a chair and sinking into it. Her hands are shaking, and she’s so angry and scared she thinks she’s going to burst in to tears. “Just—just go home, Harge.”

“Carol—”

“Seriously, dude,” Dannie’s voice is cold and livid. “You may have fifty pounds on me but I will fucking clock you.”

Harge makes a sound of exasperation, and then sighs.

“Will you let me know if she’s all right?” he asks.

“Go away, Harge.”

Carol refuses to look at him, but about ten seconds later Dannie comes to sit next to her, muttering, “He’s gone. T will tell us what happened. She’s gonna be fine.”

Carol doesn’t answer. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees, forehead braced in her steepled fingers.

“If I found out he touched her I’ll kill him,” Dannie growls.

Carol swallows hard. “I—he’s never touched anyone like that before. I—I hope—”

Dannie interrupts angrily, “Even if it’s like he said—that she fainted—if he… if he scared her—she—she gets panic attacks, and she—” 

Carol, hearing that Dannie is on the verge of panic, puts a hand on his knee to brace him. “Dannie,” she whispers, covering her eyes with her free palm. “Just… just wait. We’ll… know more soon.”

There’s a moment’s silence, and then he puts his hand on top of hers. They grip each other tight.

“She’s my only family,” he whispers. “She’s… she’s all I’ve got.”

Carol squeezes his hand, squeezes her eyes shut, tries to breathe and hope and believe—

“Not anymore,” she tells him.   

<><><> 

The next half hour passes in a fugue. Abby joins them in the lobby and berates the nurse until she goes off to find an update. Abby paces and Dannie bounces his knee and Carol, who hasn’t moved an inch, fights down a wave of self-loathing and recrimination.

She knew Therese was sick.

She knew, and what did she do about it? Nothing. When Therese told her she had taken a shift, sick as she was—Carol should have put her foot down. Who cares if Therese thought it was none of her business? She should have made it her business, should have gone to her apartment, should have told her off. Clearly Therese isn’t used to anyone taking care of her but Dannie, and Dannie isn’t her girlfriend. Carol is. And things are going to be different from now on, Carol tells herself. She doesn’t give a fuck whether Therese likes it or not. They’ll work through that part together. But this killing herself over school bullshit is done. She’s going to start sleeping and eating right and drinking water and—and—

She’s going to be okay. She has to be okay. Nothing in the world will ever make sense again, if she isn’t okay.

“Mr. Belivet?” a man’s voice asks.

Carol looks up in time to see Dannie blinking at a white-coated doctor. The doctor, seeing his confusion, says, “You’re Ms. Belivet’s brother, right?”

“What? Oh—yeah!”

Carol springs up. “Are you her doctor? Where is she? Is she okay?”

The doctor holds up a hand, but his expression is gentle. “I’m Dr. Stearns. I just got finished assessing Ms. Belivet in trauma. She’s got a fever of 103 and she’s severely dehydrated. Based on her breath sounds I think she may have pneumonia. She’s getting a chest x-ray now and after that, a CT.”

Carol’s chest seizes, “A CT? Why? What is she—”

“There’s a bruise on her forehead which is consistent with a fall. The man who called the paramedics said she fainted, so we just want to make sure everything’s okay. But she was awake and responsive in the trauma bay, so I’m hopeful that—”

“She’s awake?” Carol’s voice is a squeak of equal parts relief and terror. “Is she—is she all right?”

Carol realizes it’s an inane thing to say and yet she keeps thinking of Therese waking up, disoriented, afraid—

“She’s quite sick,” the doctor replies. “That said, she’s young and from her medical records, healthy. We’re going to admit her for observation. Assuming the CT is fine and she responds well to meds, we’ll hopefully see improvement over the next couple of days and be able to send her home.”

“Can we see her?” asks Dannie.

He hedges, “I’m afraid visiting hours are over, she—”

“I’m staying the night,” interrupts Carol.

She feeds every ounce of wealthy elite authority she has into her voice, staring the doctor down. If he has any impulse to argue, it dies at her expression.

“We still have to admit her,” he says. “I’ll have the nurse tell you what room she’s in.”

Chapter Text

Therese’s memories of the ambulance, the emergency room, the doctors—are all fuzzy. She knows she fainted, but only because the paramedics told her that when she came to. She knows that she was transported to a hospital, and she vaguely remembers being wheeled around to different rooms, mentions of a head CT and a chest X-ray, a kind-looking doctor who told her, “You’re very sick, young lady, but we’re going to take care of you.”

She remembers herself mumbling, “Where’s Carol?”

And then, she must have passed out. She’s so tired. Her body feels weak in a way she’s never experienced before, like there are lead weights holding her down, and the heaviest of these is in her chest. When she opens her eyes again there are overhead lights flashing and she seems to be moving and—

“Hey, honey,” a woman in scrubs leans over her. “How you doing? We’re just moving you up to your room okay?”

“I’m… the… x-rays?” Therese asks, voice hoarse.

“Dr. Stearns is looking at all your results right now. He’s gonna come update you in your room.”

“I need—need to call…” Therese trails off. She’s having trouble keeping her eyes open, keeping her thoughts straight.

“Your family is here already,” the nurse tells her.

Therese blinks confusedly. No, that can’t be right. Therese doesn’t have a family. She never kept in touch with any of her foster parents, and she hasn’t talked to her mother in almost ten years, and she never knew her dad or anyone else because she doesn’t have a—

“Family?” she repeats.

“Your brother,” the nurse says. “And your girlfriend. They’re in the lobby with some other friends of yours. I’m gonna go let them know as soon as you’re settled, okay?”

Therese stares up at her for a moment. Finally, voice trembling, she whispers, “C-Carol is here?”

“Is that your girlfriend?”

Therese nods weakly.  

“Then, yeah, she’s here. I haven’t talked to her yet but from what I hear she’s pretty desperate to see you.”

But we fought, thinks Therese. We fought and I was terrible to her and I thought I ruined it and—and—

Therese bursts into tears. The nurse coos at her, “Oh, honey, it’s okay.”

“I was mean to her,” Therese blubbers. “I was mean to her and I ignored her call and she—and she—"

“Sweetie, you are sick as hell and it’s making you super emotional, okay, so I want you to just lie back and try to relax.”

“Will you tell her I’m sorry I was mean to her? Will you tell her, please?”

“I don’t think she cares about any of that right now, honey, but yeah, I’ll tell her.”

Tears are still running down her cheeks and after a moment her chest hitches with a sob that transforms into wracking painful coughs, and it’s hard to breathe and her head is killing her and she wants Carol so badly. The nurse says something else to her, but as Therese’s coughing fit finally subsides, so does she—into sleep.

<><><> 

Therese wakes to the sound of voices.

“Well, she’s got that little bump you saw, but no, the CT was completely clear with no sign of concussion. I’m more concerned about the pneumonia. We’ve already started her on penicillin and IV fluids. The canula is giving her extra oxygen.”

“What about her fever?”

Carol! Carol’s voice!

“It’s still 101, so that’s a concern, but we think we can get it down and really the most important thing over the next couple of days is treating her lungs. She needs lots of sleep and lots of fluids while we observe her for complications.”

“And do you—do you think complications are—are likely?”

“I never like to rule things out. I’m going to treat this thing aggressively, but as I told you in the waiting room, she’s young and she’s healthy. We’ll take good care of her.”

Therese forces her eyes open, which is far more difficult than it should be. The room is dim but there’s light coming from a hallway and in its path stand two figures: Dr. Stearns, and Carol. She can’t see Carol’s face in the shadows and that feels unbearable.

It takes her several tries before she can croak out a pathetic, “Carol?”

Instantly, the two figures look at her, and then Carol is rushing to her bedside, and Carol is bending over her and cradling her face and Carol’s eyes are full of tears and Carol is so beautiful, she’s so fucking beautiful, how is it possible for someone to be so beautiful?

“Hi, baby,” Carol’s voice is a gentle murmur.

Therese whimpers, “You—you came.”

Carol’s fingers stroke her brow, stroke under her eyes to wipe away tears she didn’t even know she was shedding. Carol chuckles grimly.

“Good luck to anyone who tried to stop me,” she says.

“I’m sorry I was mean to you.”

“Hush, Sweetheart. Everything is all right. I’m gonna stay right here with you, okay?”

Those words fill Therese with such relief that for the first time she feels like she can really breathe. And with that comes a fresh wave of exhaustion, til it’s hard to keep her eyes open. But she has to tell her—

“Harge came to the bar.”

Something darkens in Carol’s eyes; her mouth tightens. Then, she seems to forcedly relax her expression, shhing her and saying gently, “Don’t worry about that right now, okay? I just want you to rest.”

“He thought I was using you for your money,” Therese mumbles.

Again, the tightness in Carol’s face, a flash of rage that somehow, incongruously, makes Therese feel safe.

“I would never,” Therese tells her, eyes starting to droop. “I would never.”

The fingers stroking her cheek feel so nice, so soft and cool, and Carol soothes her, murmuring, “I know, Angel. I know. Just rest, all right? I’m right here.”

Therese wants to stay awake. She wants to talk to her, to touch her, to be touched by her. But she’s so, so tired, and without even realizing it, she slips off to sleep, Carol’s hand still cradling her face.

<><><> 

The next time Therese wakes up, there’s light coming from a window. She blinks fuzzily, looking around the room. Beyond the door, she can hear the ruckus of a busy hospital, but her room is quiet, and when she looks to her bedside—

Carol is sitting in an armchair, asleep. Her legs are tucked up against her, her head leaned back, her hair in disarray. She looks rumpled and pale and exhausted, and Therese’s heart clutches in her chest. Which has the undesired effect of making her start to cough.

Instantly, Carol is awake, unfolding from the chair and standing up. Therese coughs hard into the pillow, closing her eyes against the pain of aching muscles and burning lungs, and when Carol’s hand starts to sift through her hair, she almost weeps from the relief of something that feels good.

“You’re okay, Angel,” Carol tells her softly. “Just breathe. It’ll pass.”

It does pass, finally, and then Carol is offering her a drink of blessedly cool water, that she sucks down greedily, relieved. She lays back, exhausted, and looks up into Carol’s face, which is full of worry and tenderness. They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Therese pats the side of her bed, wanting her closer. After a pass of uncertainty, Carol perches there, careful of the IV. Therese reaches for her hand.

“What time is it?” she asks, voice a rasp.

Carol glances at her wristwatch, and chuckles, “3:00.” Therese’s eyes widen, and Carol smiles at her. “You slept the day away, Darling. You’ve only woken once since last night—this morning, when your fever broke. We had to change your gown. Do you remember?”

Therese blinks in confusion, says, “No, I—”

“It’s all right,” Carol reassures her. “It’s good! Rest is what your body needs. The doctor came in about an hour ago and said your oxygen levels are looking better, and the fever breaking was a really good sign. He says it’s good you came to the hospital,” Carol’s expression darkens for a moment. “Though I can’t say I’m pleased it was necessary.”

Therese’s stomach drops; she feels a surge of humiliation. She looks down at their touching hands—terrified that Carol will draw away from her.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry I let myself get so sick.”

“What?” Carol’s voice is startled, and then suddenly she is leaning closer. She is taking Therese’s face in her hands and tipping it up and Therese sees her through a prism of tears. “Oh, Darling, no, no! That’s not what I meant. Oh, Sweetheart, you don’t have to be sorry for anything. I meant Harge. I meant—him, coming to the bar, and… and it—it must have upset you, it must have set everything off.”

There is nothing but sincerity in Carol’s face. Therese thinks of the voice that haunted her in the bar last night, those cruel voices that told her she had ruined everything. She asks meekly, “So you’re not… you’re not mad at me?”

“Oh, baby,” Carol says. She leans forward, kissing Therese’s forehead, her temple, her cheek, and though Therese feels weak as a newborn she reaches out to her, so relieved when Carol folds her in her arms. “No, I’m not mad at you. I’m so, so glad you’re all right. I was… God I was terrified. When Dannie got the call, I was…”

She trails off. Therese buries her nose in Carol’s neck, breathing in the smell of her that is so warm and perfect and safe. And for several seconds they stay like that, taking a comfort that both of them obviously need. But finally, Carol urges her to lay back again. Then Carol is fussing with her covers, and stroking her hair and her face, and altogether looking adorably concerned. Therese smiles at her, overcome with love and relief. Then she frowns.

“Wait, Dannie got the call? What call?”

“We were both at Harkevy’s for that dinner. Jack called him.”

“Jack?” repeats Therese, realizing she has almost no idea what happened to her last night.

“Yes, Sweetheart, Jack was working last night. He came by to visit this morning while you were asleep, him and Dannie. Apparently you were in the staff room with Harge, and you fainted. Harge called the ambulance, and then went into the bar to get help. After the ambulance took you away, Jack called Dannie.”

Therese, whose mind still feels fuzzy and thick, struggles to process this. Then she notices that Carol’s expression has changed, has darkened.  

“What is it?” asks Therese.

But Carol shakes her head, “Nothing, Darling. I want you to just rest, okay?”

As exhausted as Therese feels, she knows she can’t sleep anymore right now, and Carol’s obvious anxiety concerns her. She shakes her head, says, “No, no—I’m awake. Please, tell me. What is it?”

Carol looks conflicted, but finally she says, “I don’t want to upset you. If you’re not up to talking about it, it’s all right. I just… I want to make sure…” Carol takes a deep breath, Therese is startled to see something near to terror in her eyes. “Harge said he never touched you, Darling. Is that… is that true?”

Therese’s heart breaks to realize what Carol must have been feeling, must have been dreading. This time it’s Therese who reaches up to stroke her face. She shakes her head.

“No, Carol. No, he didn’t touch me.”

Carol releases a short, soft sob of relief.

“Okay,” she says, sounding shaky. “Okay, I… I’m glad, Sweetheart, I’m—I’m so glad. Was it,” she swallows hard. “Was he—are you okay? You said he—you said he accused you of—”

She breaks off, clearly too overcome to continue. Therese considers. Her memories of after she fainted are hazy at best, but she recalls very well the conversation with Harge. Grimly she admits, “He didn’t hurt me. He did… scare me, though. When I got up to leave the room he stood up and I… I turned around and my fever must have been so high because for a second I was positive he was going to—to grab me and—”

“Oh, Therese,” Carol whispers. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, I—”

“Hey,” Therese interrupts her, stern. “It’s not your fault, all right? His behavior is not your fault.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Carol retorts, acid in her voice. “I think he’s too smart to go near you again, but I don’t care—I want you to put out a restraining order, I want you to—”

“Carol, he didn’t come there to hurt me. He didn’t even come there to threaten me.”

“Then what?” Carol asks. “What did he do? What did he want?”

Therese swallows. Even with the safety of Carol’s nearness, her memories of Harge and what happened still cause fear to spark in her. And for some reason, she’s afraid to tell Carol the truth. Afraid of how it will hurt her and anger her. Afraid, too, in a secret, ashamed part of herself, that it will change how Carol looks at her. That maybe… Carol will think Harge is right—that Therese is just a gold digger…

But she also knows that she can’t hold it back. Carol deserves to know.

“He… he wanted to… pay me. To leave you.”

Carol’s expression is utterly stunned. Stunned, and horrified, and then—furious.

“That fucking—”

“Carol,” Therese takes her hands again. “Carol, it’s okay. I’m okay.”

“You almost weren’t,” Carol retorts angrily. “You fainted—you could have seriously injured yourself! You’ve got a bruise on your forehead from where you fell! He could have—”

“But that isn’t entirely his fault,” Therese interrupts. Carol looks startled, confused that Therese would defend him, but the thing is—she’s not defending him. She takes a deep breath, relieved when she only coughs a little bit. She needs all her strength for this. “You were right,” she tells her. Another confused look. “About how sick I was. About needing to rest. I should never have gone to work last night; I should have listened to you.”

“Therese—”

“No, please, let me explain. I’ve always taken care of myself, okay? Even when I was a kid I took care of myself, because I couldn’t trust anyone else to do it. And as I got older I thought I didn’t need anyone else, because I was fine on my own. I did well in school. I worked hard. I had a whole future mapped out and I was going to do it alone. And when you—when you offered to help me—” she breaks off, suddenly ashamed. But then Carol is squeezing her hand, a ‘go on’ gesture that gives her the courage to say, “All I could think was that I didn’t want to need anyone. To be dependent on anyone. Because what if I was—what if I became dependent on you and then you… and then you… left?”

Therese looks down at their clasped hands, a little too overwhelmed by the intense emotion in those beautiful gray eyes. Quietly, in a voice thick with shame, she tells her, “I pushed you away. I ignored what you had to say and I… I was unkind to you. But last night, when the nurse told me you were in the hospital—God, Carol, I was so relieved. Because I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted you with me. I wanted to… to know that you were there.”

She chances a look up at Carol again, and Carol’s lips are parted and her eyes are wide and she looks at Therese with such tenderness, that Therese thinks maybe she will finally have the courage to tell her—

But before she can, Carol says, “I was wrong, too.”

Therese blinks in surprise. She wasn’t expecting this. She thought—

“I was so focused on wanting to help you that I dismissed what you were saying to me in the moment. Even if it’s true that you need to learn to trust me—I didn’t have to react that way. You’ve always been honest about wanting to be financially independent, and why. And then not only did I argue with you but I—” now it’s Carol who looks ashamed, whose fingers linked with Therese’s squeeze harder, as if girding herself, “I asked you to move in with me in the… in the worst possible way.”

Therese thinks back to their argument on Friday, to the shock of Carol’s invitation, and then the anger at what had precipitated it. It had seemed, in the moment, like a joke, or like an effort at controlling her—something to be dismissed, distrusted. Now, suddenly, for the first time Therese realizes that maybe Carol—

“Did you mean it?” Therese whispers. Carol frowns, clearly unsure what she means. Therese swallows her nerves. “When you asked me to move in with you, did you… was it just some… spur of the moment way to try to help me with money? Or did you—”

“I meant it,” Carol interrupts. Therese’s heart starts galloping, and Carol takes a deep breath, as if to calm herself. She says, “I think… I think we should wait to talk about that until you’re well, Dearest, but… Yes. I meant it.”

Therese just stares at her for long moments, and the anxiety grows in Carol’s eyes. “What?” she asks, sounding nervous and even a tad defensive.

“You,” Therese swallows hard. “You really want that? With me?”

Instantly Carol’s expression softens, takes on an aching gentleness that is simultaneously infused with pain. “It surprises you that much?” she asks.

That Carol wants to live with her? Wants a life like that, with her? It’s like a dream, a fantasy—distant and not to be touched. Too perfect for someone like her…

“A little,” Therese admits.

Carol takes a deep breath and lets it out. There’s a fire in her eyes now, an urgency that makes gooseflesh erupt across Therese’s body.

“I think,” Carol says slowly, “that I’ve… done this all out of order, Dearest.”

Therese swallows, “Out of order?”

“Yes,” Carol nods. She runs a thumb across the top of Therese’s hand, a gentle gesture, but also, slightly nervous. There’s a look on her face, now. A different kind of look, and sharpness of emotion: longing and tenderness and fear and hope and—

“Therese,” Carol whispers.

And Therese can feel her chest tightening. It’s not the pneumonia. Her eyes widen; her breaths come slightly heavier. She’s filled in this moment with an overwhelming need, and the silence between them is immense, is complete, is just theirs as Carol looks at her, beseeching, lips parting to speak—

And before she can stop herself, Therese gasps, “I love you.”

Carol’s eyes go wide as saucers. Her jaw drops open, and for a moment she looks frozen with shock. Therese feels shocked, too—shocked, and slightly terrified, because what if this isn’t what Carol meant and what if she was going to say something else and what if Therese is—

“You do?” Carol asks. Her voice is a tremulous whisper. Her eyes are full of tears again, her bottom lip trembling, her face writ with hope and happiness.

Instantly, Therese can breathe again.

“Yes,” she says. “I do.”

And then Carol, with the tiniest squeak in her voice, says, “I love you, too.”

Even guessing that she would say it, even knowing that it was probably what she felt, hearing the words overwhelms Therese. Suddenly she, too, has tears in her eyes, of joy and relief and love, so much love, that feels in this moment like it might explode from her heart. How is it possible to feel such love?

Carol pulls her into her arms. She goes willingly, face pressed to her neck, where she feels her swallow with emotion. They wrap each other close, and in this moment Therese can’t remember what it was ever like to be sick. She thinks of the first time she saw Carol across the holiday market, statuesque and gorgeous. She thinks of their first date at Scotty’s, all the shyness and interest and uncertainty between them. She thinks of their first kiss, that tender press that morphed into passion, a passion that has never banked. Even then, Therese knew. And everything since—every touch, every smile, every moment, has carried them to this, this inevitable conclusion, this perfect, perfect moment.

When they pull back, they’re both smiling, silly, helpless smiles of joy. But as they look at each other something new enters Carol’s eyes, something warm and needy, and Carol’s eyes dart to her lips. Therese’s heart hammers, and then Carol is leaning toward her, Carol is going to kiss her, and in a sudden panic Therese cries, “No, wait!”

Carol rears back, stunned, “What—what is it? Are you okay? What—”

“Carol, you can’t kiss me,” Therese tells her. “I’m sick.”

Carol blinks. Carol’s mouth opens and closes in disbelief, and fire enters her eyes and she exclaims, “What?” 

Therese isn’t exactly surprised by this reaction, but she does find it rather adorably dramatic. She gives a little shake of her head.

“I’m sick, Carol. The last thing we need right now is for you to get pneumonia because you—”

“You just told me you love me for the first time,” Carol’s indignation cracks like a whip. “I just told you I love you for the first time! Are you seriously not going to let me kiss you right now!?’

Therese can’t help it. Her smile edges into a grin. She lays her head back in the pillow and gives a little shake of her head. She says as sweet and appeasing as she can, “I don’t want you to get sick.”

Carol’s scoff is almost comical. She looks downright offended. Therese can’t help a giggle of amusement.

“I’ll be better soon. You can kiss me then.”

Carol continues to look at her like she thinks she must be joking, and then at last she deflates. “Fine,” she says, still sounding peeved. “Frankly, it’s just as well, because if I kiss you we won’t come up for air for minutes and with your lungs you’d probably die.”

Therese snorts a laugh, looking at her in adoration. Unable to stop herself—not needing to stop herself!—she says again, “I love you, Carol.”

Instantly, Carol’s pique melts away. She takes Therese’s hand, and holds it to her chest. She seems about to say something, and then suddenly changes her mind. She reaches behind her—grabs her purse off the armchair where she was sleeping. In confusion Therese watches as she takes a little bottle out of her purse. It’s hand sanitizer. Flummoxed, Therese sees a little smirk curve Carol’s mouth, just before Carol squirts hand sanitizer into Therese’s palm, proceeding to thoroughly clean her hand. When she’s done, she puts the little bottle away, looks at Therese archly, and brings Therese’s hand to her lips.

The first kiss is an exaggerated smack, a tease that makes Therese giggle with joy. But then, something changes. The next kiss is gentle. Carol’s eyes turn gentle. Carol turns her hand and kisses her palm.

“I love you,” Carol tells her. Therese’s heart stutters again, belly swooping as Carol kisses her fingertips. “I love you,” she says, and kisses the inside of her wrist. “I love you.” And kisses the back of her hand. “I love you, I love you.”

And that—well, Therese thinks that may very well be worth the pneumonia.

Chapter Text

Therese stays in the hospital for another two nights, before the doctor agrees to release her into a family member’s care. At first Carol is nervous, dreading that Therese will buck against the idea of not being able to take care of herself. But to her surprise, Therese looks at her and says, “Could I come stay with you?”

Carol nearly weeps with relief. She smiles at Therese, and Therese smiles back, and Carol thinks in that moment that their love is mirroring each other, growing exponentially—incapable of being harmed.

So, Therese comes out to Jersey, where Carol sets her up in the master bedroom. She is soon joined by a very efficient nurse—Rindy, whom Vanessa brings home Wednesday afternoon. Carol hasn’t spoken to Harge since Saturday night, has been afraid to speak to him, afraid of the poison that will come out of her if she does. But having Rindy home fills her with relief, soon compounded by a heart-melting joy, as her daughter insists on helping to take care of Therese.

“I’ll bring the soup, Mommy!” she cries.

Carol says, “How about you carry Therese’s glass of water, sweet pea?”

Appeased, Rindy heads up the stairs slowly and carefully, water clasped between her little hands. In the bedroom they find Therese awake. She looks tired and thin, but better even than she did last night, the dark circles under her eyes dissipating. When she sees Rindy, her face floods with love.

“Why, hello,” she says, voice just a little raspy.

“Mommy made you soup and I brought the water!” says Rindy, placing the glass carefully on the nightstand and then standing next to the bed.

“Thank you,” says Therese, leveraging herself up so she can sit against the headboard and accept the bowl of soup that Carol hands her, just before Carol herself sits next to her on the bed, running a gentle hand down her leg.

“Rindy wanted to help,” Carol tells her.

Therese blows into the bowl of soup, and says with a smile, “Well, with you here to take care of me, I’m sure I’ll be better in no time.”

Rindy beams, and Carol gestures with her chin at the bowl of soup. Therese rolls her eyes affectionately, and takes a spoonful into her mouth.

“Is it good?” asks Rindy urgently.

“Chicken noodle,” says Therese. “My favorite.”

“When I’m sick Mommy gives me soup and grape Peady.”

Therese glances at Carol. “Peady?”

“Pedialyte,” Carol explains.

“Do you want some Peady, Trez?” asks Rindy.

Therese smiles into her next spoonful of soup, drawling, “Not if it’s grape flavored.”

Carol grins, leaning forward to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. Therese has decreed that these are acceptable, but nothing on the lips until she’s no longer contagious. Carol would mutiny, except she’s been a little preoccupied the past couple of days with making sure Therese gets well. Her cough has been very bad, and though Carol knows that Therese is getting better, each fit fills her with irrational terror. She feels as though she has looked down a dark tunnel into a world without Therese, and she never wants to see that place again.

Rindy declares that the best medicine, aside from medicine, is Disney movies, so that’s how they all end up in the bed, watching Moana. Therese eats half her soup, a feat, and half an hour into the movie she’s out cold, breathing raspy but consistent.

Rindy, realizing that she has nodded off, stage whispers at Carol, “Trez is sick, huh, Mommy?”

Carol runs fingers through her daughter’s hair. “Yes, baby, but she’s going to be fine.”

“Is she going to stay here til she’s better?”

“Yes, she is.”

Rindy seems to get caught up in the movie again, but about two minutes later she remarks, “I think Trez should stay here forever.”

Tears spring to Carol’s eyes. She goes on stroking Rindy’s hair, and says after a moment, “Me, too.”

<><><> 

Over the next few days, Therese has visitors. Dannie and Abby, of course, but on the following Monday morning they’re both surprised when Jack asks to stop by. He shows up looking antsy, and though Carol has known him for years he avoids eye contact when he comes into the house. Shortly after she’s brought him to Therese, he shifts from foot to foot and says in a low, nervous voice, “Um, Carol… Could I, uh, have a second alone with Therese?”

This baffles them both, but Carol is no jail warden, and so she gives them the room. Half an hour later, Jack comes back down the stairs, looking much lighter. He smiles at her, though it’s bashful. “Sorry about that. Uh, I’ll let myself out. Therese was asking for you.”

Carol goes back upstairs to find Therese sat against the headboard, holding something in her hands. When Carol gets close enough, Therese holds it out to her.

It’s a check from Harge’s bank account, made out to Therese. In the amount of $50,000.

For a moment they are both dead silent. Carol’s heart is hammering, her blood boiling, her eyes suddenly hot and tight and she doesn’t know if it’s from tears or fury.

“Jack found it in the breakroom,” Therese explains. “He says sorry for being weird. He didn’t know what it meant and he didn’t want to put me in an awkward position with you. I told him what happened.”

What happened. What happened is that Harge proved himself a hundred times more despicable than Carol could have imagined. What happened is that Harge insulted Therese in the most vile way possible. Carol is so angry she can’t speak, she just goes on staring at the check.

After a minute Therese says, “I guess the owner fired Tommy. Jack says it’s a good thing cuz if he ever sees him again he’s going to beat him up. I told him he’d have to get in line behind Dannie. Who’d have thought I’d have so many men turning to violence to protect me, for once?”

Carol looks up sharply at those words. There’s humor in Therese’s eyes, but it’s clear that she is insecure, is trying to bring Carol back. Carol breathes in deeply and lets it out. She drops the check onto the bedside table and sits next to Therese, taking her hands and kissing each of her palms.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

Therese smiles gently at her. “I’m fine, Carol. I’m relieved Jack was the one who found it. I don’t know that everyone who works there would have responded as… charitably as him. I’m just glad he believed me when I explained what happened.”

Carol frowns. “Why wouldn’t he believe you?”

Therese drops her eyes, shrugging a little. “People… don’t believe you, about stuff like this.”

Carol considers her for a long moment. She worries that the full impact of what Harge did hasn’t hit Therese yet—that she’s blocking it out or otherwise not acknowledging the role his actions played that night. But Carol hesitates to bring up negative thoughts when Therese is still recovering. So, after a moment, she kicks off her shoes and crawls into bed. Therese meets her eyes again, her own filling with relief as she scoots over and allows Carol to lie alongside her, arm around Therese’s back, bringing their upper bodies together.

“I believe you,” Carol tells her. “I’ll always believe you.”

Therese gnaws on her lip, and Carol suspects that she does it to hide a tremble of emotion.

“Thank you,” Therese whispers.

Carol strokes a soothing hand up and down her spine. She’s held her quite a lot since they came back to Jersey, has had ample opportunity to touch her, but never in this position, which feels infinitely more intimate.

“I love you,” Carol tells her.

Therese’s smile is bashful and pleased. “I love you, too.”

Their faces are close together, and Carol’s eyes drop down to Therese’s mouth, soft and full and so… delicious. Carol feels a shiver run down her spine, and she strokes Therese’s back, and hears Therese sigh, low and aching. It spears her with want, with need, but she—

“Dr. Stearns says I’m not contagious anymore,” Therese murmurs.

Carol looks up into her eyes. She breathes in unsteadily, her hand pressing between Therese’s shoulder blades.

“Oh?” she says, and her voice sounds rough to her own ears. Therese nods. Therese licks her bottom lip and it’s so unintentionally provocative that Carol thinks she’s going to die with wanting her. “How do you feel?” she asks softly.

“Tired,” Therese admits, which causes Carol to frown, until—“But happy.”

Carol’s heart gallops with joy. 

“I’m so happy, Carol,” Therese whispers. “And I want…” Now it’s Therese, looking at Carol’s mouth. Therese raises a hand to cup Carol’s jaw, a thumb brushing the corner of her mouth. “I want you to kiss me. Will you kiss me?”

Carol shivers inside, tightening an arm around her, and says roughly, “Yes.”

And then, she does it.

Their mouths practically melt together, a slow, deep press that sinks them both in sensation. Carol thinks of the first time they kissed, when she tried so hard to be gentle, to be careful, and Therese with one flick of her tongue demolished her self-control. This time, there’s no self-control to begin with. Therese’s lips part almost instantly, and Carol dips her tongue inside, swallowing her soft whimper of pleasure, tangling their tongues in a kiss of deep, hungry intimacy.

Therese is sick, she reminds herself sternly. We can’t get carried away.

But within moments, they’re lost in it, in each other. Therese weaves both hands into her hair, as if to prevent her from pulling back even an inch, and Carol slips a thigh over her hip, bringing their pelvises into warm contact. It’s been over a week since Carol kissed her, really kissed her, and she feels like a starving person finally unleashed on a banquet. She sucks and licks and swallows and devours, every sound Therese makes only stoking her hunger. Carol slides a hand down, so that she can slip it up the back of Therese’s shirt, and revels in the silky smoothness of her skin.

She wants to take Therese’s clothes off. She wants to touch her everywhere, all over her delicious body, to feel her rise and ripple and clench in her hand, to taste her and touch her and show her in every way that this love is no ordinary thing. It is fierce and it is consuming and it will fight dragons to keep Therese safe.

“Carol,” Therese whimpers. The sound of her voice makes Carol flood with want. “Carol, touch me. I want you to touch me.”

With a growl, Carol pushes her onto her back, crawls on top of her, reaches for the hem of her shirt meaning to sweep it off—

Which is when Therese begins to cough.

Carol didn’t know it was possible to go from consuming lust to paralyzing dread in the space of two seconds, but as Therese’s body begins to seize with coughs, her own body seizes with terror. She climbs off of her at once, helping her to sit up. Therese shudders convulsively, covering her mouth with a white knuckled fist as she heaves and gasps, nearly gagging.

“You’re all right,” Carol tells her, fighting to keep the panic out of her own voice, to speak in a low and soothing tone, “You’re all right, Sweetheart. It’ll pass. Just try to breathe, okay? Just breathe.”

It probably takes less than thirty seconds for the worst to pass, but it feels like hours. By the time Therese can finally get past the coughing to take hungry breaths of air, she’s shivering from exertion, eyes leaking tears.

“I’m sorry,” Therese whimpers, when she can finally speak again. “I’m sorry.”

“Shhh,” Carol tells her. “You’re okay. Just keep breathing, baby. Do you want some water?”

Therese nods, and Carol reaches for the cup on the bedside table, guiding the straw to Therese’s lips. Therese drinks, coughs hard, once, and then drinks some more. Finally she pulls back—and goes practically limp. Carol helps her lay back down, and Therese’s tears are not from coughing, this time. Her bottom lip is trembling and her eyes are squeezed shut.

“I’m sorry,” she says again, miserable. “I—I—”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Carol tells her, fighting to control the anger in her voice, anger at herself, at her own recklessness. “It’s my fault—I got carried away.”

Therese sobs, tells her, “No, no, it—I wanted you. I want you Carol, so much, I just—I just—”

Carol hushes her. She helps Therese to turn over onto her other side, and then plasters herself against her back, cradling her close and stroking the hair from her sweaty brow. She holds her and soothes her, hands running gently up and down her arm as her body calms. The fit has clearly exhausted her, and yet Carol can hear her crying softly. It breaks her heart.

“I love you,” Carol whispers. “Everything is okay. You’re still healing, Angel. You need to give yourself time to heal.”

“I hate this,” Therese tells her, though her tears are finally subsiding. “I… I hate feeling weak like this. I finally tell you that I love you—I finally get to hear you say you love me, and I don’t even get to show you how much I—”

“Darling, there is plenty of time for that, once you’re well.”

Therese makes a sound that reminds Carol of Rindy on the verge of a tantrum. “I don’t want to wait.”

It nearly makes Carol laugh, the sheer indignation in Therese’s voice undeniably adorable. But then Therese says, “I… I want to be close to you. I need to be close to you.”

There’s such pain in her voice, and once again Carol thinks that the trauma of the week’s events has left wounds that Therese has not yet acknowledged. She answers by gathering her closer, against the front of her body.

“We are close, Darling,” she whispers.

There’s a moment of silence, and then Therese asks in a weak, uncertain voice, “Can we… can we take our clothes off?”

“Therese, I—”

“Please, I just… I want to feel you. I just want to feel you.”

Carol, knowing that Therese is too exhausted to try for more, and that she herself is too worried to go there, either, acquiesces. She helps Therese out of her clothes, which are damp with sweat, and then takes her own clothes off, as well, before pulling her against herself again. The feeling of their naked skin sliding together is unlike anything she has ever experienced before, and for a moment she feels stunned by it.

Nakedness has always been about sex. Never, with any of her previous lovers, did they take off their clothes just so that they could share the intimacy and comfort of bare skin. Not even Abby. And it is… it is one of the most beautiful, exquisite, perfect things that Carol has ever experienced. She can feel every part of Therese’s body. Their legs are tangled together. Therese’s bottom is cradled against her pelvis. Therese’s beautiful back is fitted to her front, the notches of her spine like a breadcrumb trail to perfection. And when Carol lowers her face, pressing her forehead to Therese’s smooth shoulder, the sound her young lover makes has nothing to do with lust. It is pure, sweet relief. Carol feels it, too. Like she has been wandering in a desert, and the oasis that seemed a mere mirage has become reality. A safe place, where no one can hurt them.

And it’s in this warm silence that Therese suddenly whispers, “Why would he do that?”

Carol frowns. She goes on running her fingers gently up and down Therese’s arm. “What, Angel?”

Another beat of silence, then, “Harge… Why would he…”

She trails off again, and Carol feels her heart start pounding, begs herself to know what to say, the right thing to say, the thing that will—

“Dannie told me he… talked to you. About what it was like growing up.”

“He did,” Carol says tentatively. “I… I meant to bring it up once you were feeling better. Are you—is that okay? I don’t want you to feel like—”

“I’m glad he told you,” Therese murmurs. “He’s right, I… I should have told you myself.”

Carol frowns. “It’s your life, Darling. It’s your past. I’m glad I know but I wasn’t… entitled to the information. I mean, it’s not as if I’ve told you everything about my past—my parents…”

Therese tips her head back a little, and their eyes meet.

“Was it… bad, with them?”

Carol considers. She nuzzles against Therese’s jaw, just needing to be close to her, and says after a moment, “Honestly, it was… cold. Distant. But under everything there ran this feeling of… deep, banked anger. My father was hardly home, and my mother hated him. Everything she did, everything she said, was infused with this hatred she had for him. I knew he was a bad father and husband, but he was my dad, and I loved him. This made her resent me. By the time I went away to school I think we all knew that I wouldn’t be coming back. Now, we send each other cards on our birthdays and Christmas. It’s all very… sterile.”

Therese reaches for her hand, lacing their fingers together against her hip and squeezing. After a moment she says quietly, “My mom resented me, too. I never even knew my dad.”

Carol kisses her gently behind her ear. “I know, love. It was his loss.”

“A few years ago I went through about a month long spell where I was having this dream that I was in my mom’s house again, and my dad came home. He saw that someone had beat up my mom and he started screaming at me that it was my fault—that I didn’t love her, that I was using her.”

Carol fights not to tighten her grip on Therese’s hand, not to show the emotion that goes through her.

“That sounds awful, Sweetheart. You said it stopped, though? Why, do you think?”

“I got my acceptance to CUNY Brooklyn,” Therese replies. Her voice sounds raspy, tired. Carol thinks she probably needs to sleep, but knows better than to stop this conversation now that it’s finally happening. Therese says, “I told myself that I would do everything I could to succeed in school. To get a good job. To surround myself with… good people. I told myself I would never go back to that house or anything that happened there. I would free myself from it. And after that the… nightmares stopped.”

If there was ever an argument for willpower, Carol thinks Therese is its poster child. Therese, who manifested the life she wanted, who literally made her nightmares go away through the power of her ambition. And yet—

“When Harge showed up,” Therese whispers, “it… it felt a little bit like that nightmare. And I was… I was scared.”

Carol, tears in her eyes, wraps her arm around her again, holding her near. She wants to apologize—for Harge, for bringing Harge into Therese’s life. But that would be self-serving, and from the way Therese wriggles back into her, seeming to want to be as close as possible, Carol thinks that holding her is the best thing she can do right now. Even so, she can feel the emotion surging in Therese’s body, can hear the soggy sound of her tears as she tries to control herself. Carol wishes she wouldn’t. Wishes she would let go.

Therese asks that terrible question again, “Why did he do that?” her voice is soft and broken. “Why did he…think I was like that? Why do men always think I’m like that? Is something wrong with me? Do I—do I give off this impression that I just want money from people and—”

No,” Carol’s voice is hard, and firm. “No, Therese, you don’t. You want to know why he did that, why all of them did that? It’s not because you’re like that. It’s because they are. What they did, what Harge did, was never about you. It was always about him.”

“I—I—” Therese is crying openly now—not loud or hard, but with a heartbreaking little squeak in her voice. “I’ve always been so afraid that—that they would turn out to be right about me. All of them.”

Carol shakes her head against her. “They could not be more wrong about you, Darling. They don’t deserve to breathe the same air as you, do you hear me?”

Therese sniffles, seems to hesitate. Carol can feel the uncertainty in her, the way she seems to be building up to something, and so Carol just holds her, quiet and waiting.  

“If—if you got an apartment, in the city…” she starts at last. “I—I wouldn’t be able to pay my share, Carol. I wouldn’t be able to afford to, and…”

She trails off. Carol kisses Therese’s shoulder. She kisses her neck and her jaw, where her tears have run down, salty and warm. She kisses her all over, and then, with her heart in her throat, she asks, “Do you want to live with me, Therese?”

Her answer is immediate. “Yes. Yes, Carol, I… I want that so much. I don’t want to live apart. These past few days, being with you, even sick—I don’t want to go back to being on my own. I want to be with you.”

Carol swallows down a sob of relief. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and says, “That’s what I want, too.” 

“But I don’t want to—to be—I don’t want to leech off you. That’s what Harge thinks I’m doing, and I don’t want to—”

“You could never be a leech,” Carol interrupts sternly. “Harge was the leech, Therese, he always was. He sucked up my time, my energy, my life, and he always wanted more. You—you bring me so much joy, Angel. You make me so happy and… and the money… We’ll talk about it, okay? We’ll figure out what you can afford to contribute, and we’ll budget for that. I may end up paying more, but you’re still in school. It’s normal for one partner to contribute less financially, when they’re in school.”

Therese pauses, then asks softly, uncertainly, “Is it?”

Yes,” Carol tells her. “Absolutely.”

“So you wouldn’t… you wouldn’t resent me?”

Her voice is as tentative and vulnerable as Carol has ever heard. But also, there’s hope in it, and Carol’s hope surges, too.

“No, I wouldn’t resent you. The opposite, in fact. For you to trust me that much—to trust me to not hold it over you, to trust me to—” she has to swallow to keep herself under control— “to take care of you, and know that it wouldn’t make us unequal, to know that you would take care of me, too—well. That would make me the happiest I’ve ever been, I think. I don’t want to make you my little… kept woman, Therese. I’ll never insult you like that. Maybe it’ll be hard, maybe we’ll have set backs, but… I want to try. Will you try with me?”

Another pause. Carol’s heart is in her throat. And then, Therese is rolling over in her arms. Pressing close again. Wrapping her arms around her neck and kissing her. It’s not the frantic hungry kiss from before, but it’s firm, and sweet and it means—everything.

“I love you, Carol,” Therese says into their kiss. “I love you.”

Carol moans softly, pulling back so she can look into Therese’s eyes, which are red and a little swollen from crying, but so, so beautiful.

“I love you, too,” she tells her. Then, with a flutter of nerves— “Would you move in with me?”

Therese’s smile is bright and happy. She takes Carol’s face in her hands, thumbs smoothing over her cheekbones as she looks at her, looks all over her face, as if trying to memorize her. Memorize this. Carol is doing the same thing.

“Yes,” Therese whispers. “Yes, I would.”

Chapter Text

Therese couldn’t have anticipated that a good cry and a little naked spooning would do as much for her health as penicillin and bed rest, but, dubious science aside, she feels much better over the next couple of days. Her breathing relaxes. Her coughing fits are brief and far less painful. Her head clears, and sleep leaves her feeling rested. By the end of the mid week, she really feels like herself again.  

This presents new problems.

Now that the worst is over, she has the mental energy to think about things like her schoolwork. She grows restless, finally demanding that Carol let Dannie pick up her laptop for her so she can get some work done over the spring break. Carol is very unimpressed by this idea, reminding her that she was hospitalized less than two weeks ago. Therese retorts that she is doing much better and doesn’t want to fail her classes. Carol proceeds to reread her, aloud and theatrically, the emails from her four professors assuring her that she can have all the extensions she wants and to focus on getting well.

Mutinous, Therese insists she can’t just lay around in bed all day, and Carol replies that oh yes she fucking can, and the whole thing is a bit of a battle of wills that lasts a whole day.

In the end, they settle on a compromise: one hour of work, three hours of rest. It’s not ideal, but Therese caves pretty quickly when Carol makes the offer in between tiny kisses to her throat and sweet murmurings about how she wants her to get well as soon as possible so they can spend more… quality time together.

This is another of Therese’s new problems. Since their aborted make-out session, Carol has limited any kind of physical affection to snuggling and handholding and little pecks. These are sweet and beautiful, of course—all the more so because they’re accompanied by a plethora of I love you’s. But as Therese’s health improves, bringing a clear head and more energy, these signs of love feel less and less adequate.

She tries a couple of times to escalate things. A deeper kiss, lips soft and parted. A flick of the tongue. A hand straying closer to Carol’s breast, her ass. A soft, wanting sound, sure to ratchet Carol’s arousal… But Carol always stops it. Pulls back with a loving, apologetic smile. Murmurs to her that they just have to wait a little longer. Let’s not rush things. There’s plenty of time.

For the first couple of days, Therese accepts this with limited grumbling; she knows Carol is right, knows that she’s still sick and doesn’t want a repeat of that horrible coughing fit. But this sanguine response doesn’t last, because Monday comes and Tuesday comes and Therese is spending less and less time in bed. They go for walks together (short ones, sure) and Therese does fine. They eat together in the kitchen and watch movies in the living room and Therese does work at the kitchen table—and not once does she faint from oxygen deprivation.

Yet when the night comes, all cool sheets and silky pajamas and gathering each other close under the covers, Therese’s last lagging symptoms disappear, replaced by an ever-deepening desire. By some inexplicable alchemy, finally telling Carol that she loves her has made Carol ten times more beautiful, more alluring, more delicious, than she was before. Therese is hungry for her, wants to be naked with her again—and not stop there. She longs for the warmth and authority of Carol’s hands, moving across her body. Longs for Carol’s devouring mouth, her tongue that pours liquid heat into Therese’s veins.

When Therese denied a kiss that day in the hospital, she never would have guessed that in just a few days Carol would be the one withholding intimacy. But as the days go by this grows more and more… frustrating. Something has to change. Otherwise, Therese can’t be held responsible for her actions.

Things come to a head on Thursday. Carol has to spend the day in the city, going over plans for the new shop with Maurice. She’s reluctant to go, especially because Rindy is at home and won’t be heading back to Harge’s until 2:00. Carol doesn’t want Therese to have to babysit, but Therese assures her up and down that she’s perfectly capable of holding down the house. Secretly, Therese predicts this is the perfect way to show Carol how much better she’s doing. Carol finally agrees, but not without giving Rindy a very stern talk about being good for Therese. Rindy solemnly agrees.

As soon as Carol leaves the house, Rindy and Therese decide that the best possible usage of their time is baking cookies. This includes quite a lot of sampling and giggling and putting flour on each other’s noses. Next, they curl up with their cookies and milk and watch How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Rindy explaining that while her favorite character is Toothless, her second favorite is Valka, because Valka lives with the dragons and Rindy wants to live with the dragons, too. Therese hums and nods and readily agrees with all her assessments, particularly about Valka, who has a hypnotizing voice. After the movie they have a lunch of PB&Js, and then Rindy goes down for her nap. Therese uses the time to clean up the kitchen and other parts of the house, feeling a little guilty that Carol has had to take care of everything these past couple of weeks. Even if she claims not to mind.

By the time Vanessa comes by just after 2:00, the house is spotless. Therese stands on the porch waving goodbye to Rindy as the car pulls away. Then, in the quiet of the foyer, she takes a deep breath. No coughing. She expects to be tired, to need a nap herself, but instead she feels energized. She plops herself onto the couch prepared to do some reading for her international trade law course, smiling to herself as she remembers Rindy’s version of a knock knock joke:

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”

“Fish!”

“Fish who?”

“Fish don’t knock on doors!”

They had both cracked up, and Therese had realized with a little shot of excitement and anxiety that after just a couple of months, it’s not just Carol she’s in love with. Rindy has become a kind of magic in her life, a spot of sweetness and joy that she never wants to lose. Therese’s own upbringing left her disinclined toward motherhood, and maybe what she is to Rindy, what she is becoming to Rindy, isn’t motherhood per se, but… it’s close, isn’t it? Or, it could be close. It could be perfect, the three of them…

And as for Harge, well. Therese isn’t sure what will happen there. The court case got moved back an extra week and Fred thinks that Harge’s silence since the events at The McKinley is an indication of panic. Harge has unintentionally handed them an arsenal, and though Therese doesn’t love the prospect of Fred asking her to testify at the hearing about what happened, she’ll do it. She’ll do it for Carol.

Not that Carol has asked her to. In fact, Carol has only mentioned the impending court date a couple of times, and when she has the terror that showed on her face three weeks ago is utterly absent. Now she speaks of it with flint-eyed determination that wasn’t there before. She oozes confidence and courage.

“That fucking coward is not taking anything from us,” she said last night.

It was impressive, inspiring. Sexy.

Fuck, it was really, really sexy.

Therese, realizing that she has read through this paragraph twice, and retained none of it, leans her head back on the couch cushions. She feels suddenly flushed, and has a split second moment of anxiety, thinking maybe her fever is back. But it’s not that kind of fever.

Therese rubs the back of her neck and glances toward the staircase. That’s where she said goodbye to Carol, this morning. Therese stood on the second step, Carol on the landing, and so for once Therese was leaning down. They had kissed, and instead of the typical peck, it was slow and sweet. Encouraged by Carol’s soft sigh, Therese had nipped gently at her bottom lip. Carol, pulling back, gave her a look.

“You better behave,” she murmured, silk and gravel in her voice.

“Why would I want to do that?” Therese returned, batting her lashes, pleased at the little flare of Carol’s nostrils. So, Therese wasn’t the only one who missed this. Relieved, she moved in again, for one more kiss—

But Carol had avoided this, had instead dipped her own head—and kissed the notch in Therese’s throat. The barest brush, quick, gentle, but it went through Therese like a warm, shimmering liquid. When Carol pulled back, her eyes were devious.

“I said… behave.”

And then, she was gone.

Now, Therese runs her fingers down her throat, thumbs her suprasternal notch and imagines Carol’s touch flicking there. Seeing Carol’s desire had made her own almost unbearable, but cookies and Rindy had distracted her. Now, however… her skin feels warm, slightly damp, electric. Her phone is sitting next to her on the couch and she reaches for it, opening a text to Carol.

/ When are you coming home? /

Carol’s answer comes less than a minute later.

/ Are you okay? /

Therese feels instantly guilty; she can read the worry in Carol’s text, and after what they’ve been through, it feels cruel to cause her any anxiety. So Therese is quick to clarify.

/ I miss you /

There’s no immediate response. Therese stares down at the text, gnawing on her bottom lip. She feels herself blushing, but in the end, she still has the courage—

/ I want you /

Just typing the words, just thinking the words, makes an ache bloom between her legs, makes her nipples feel hard and sensitive.

Carol texts her back. Succinct.

/ Oh? / 

Something about this response, about imagining Carol’s arch look, the little smirk on her gorgeous mouth, the fire in her eyes—Therese’s hand slips down, to the waistband of her sweats, and then, underneath.

The moment she touches herself, she shivers. With her free hand, she texts Carol.

/ I miss your body. I miss your mouth. /   

Therese touches the silkiness between her legs, a little startled by how much there is, how good it feels. She imagines Carol touching her there, imagines the hunger in Carol’s eyes, how ravenous she gets, when she finds the evidence of Therese’s desire. Therese drags it up to her clit and circles gently, arching. She’s so sensitive, like a live wire of sensation, and she can’t stop herself texting Carol again.

/ I’m wet for you /

She keeps circling, soft, careful pressure. If she goes any harder she knows she’ll come right away, and she doesn’t want that. Wants it to last. She’s just dipped down for more of her wetness when a text comes through.

/ Show me /

Therese’s heart starts to hammer; she actually gulps. What does Carol mean? Does she want her to take a picture? A picture of what? Therese doesn’t think she has the guts to send a photo of her pussy, but—

She runs two fingers between her legs. Presses deep inside herself and pulls them out, wet and glistening. She takes a photo of her fingers and, blushing with embarrassment and arousal, sends it to Carol.

Carol’s answer comes quickly.

/ You’re being very naughty, Ms. Belivet. I thought I told you to behave? /

Therese whimpers, fingers returning to her clit, rubbing slightly firmer. It feels so good she’s almost dizzy from it. She makes a needy sound; her cunt is aching, she wants to go inside but she needs the precise pressure on her clit, and there aren’t enough hands. She needs Carol, wants Carol, wants—

She texts her, then has to erase it because of the typos, starting over.

/ come home please i need you /

She rubs faster, nerves singing with pleasure. She pictures Carol between her legs, fingers hooked inside her, smiling at her in that wicked way she does.

/ I’m working, Angel. It would be VERY unprofessional to come home now. /

This is not what Therese wants to hear, and in a surge of inspiration she texts back—

/ please i’ll do anything /

The answer comes almost thirty seconds later.

/ Anything? /

/ yes /

The phone starts to ring. With a gasp of relief Therese answers it, sets it on speaker, uses her free hand to press inside herself.

“Carol,” she whines.

A low, dark chuckle. “Oh, my. Is someone in a state?”

“It’s your fault,” Therese tells her.

Another chuckle, dry. “Oh, is it?”

“You, you—” Therese hits upon a sensitive spot, pants for breath and says, “You keep making me wait. I can’t wait anymore, Carol.”

“And here after that text I thought I would find you in an obedient mood,” Carol muses. “You said you would do anything, yet now you’re blaming me for all your troubles. Did I tell you to touch yourself while I was an hour away?”

“I—I—”

“Did I put you in this position, Sweetheart? Or did you do it to yourself, you greedy thing?”

Therese shudders; Carol’s chastising, teasing tone spikes through her. She has a sudden image of Carol in spectacles, brandishing a pointer stick like a lecturer in one of her classrooms, berating her for poor work. Therese never thought she had a teacher kink but the unexpected fantasy makes her so wet she can hear the sound of her fingers, sliding in and out.

“I’m—I’m sorry. It’s my fault, I know it’s my fault but—please, Carol, I miss you so much.”

Carol says blandly, “I won’t be able to get away until five.”

Therese makes a rebellious sound—decides to try a different tactic.

“Don’t you want me?”

Carol’s silence is heavy and electric.

“I’m so wet, Carol. Don’t you miss me, too? Don’t you want to touch me?” Carol makes a soft sound, low, and Therese feels the thrill of impending victory. “I’m still wearing my clothes. Don’t you want to take my clothes off? I’ll come so hard for you, baby. You know I will.”

“Therese,” Carol growls, a warning.

But Therese is too far gone to be cautious.

“We still haven’t used that thing you bought us, remember? The harness.”

This time she can hear Carol’s exhale. Therese hooks her fingers against the front of her cunt and strokes her clit, nearly choking from the pleasure that builds and throbs between her legs. 

“Don’t you want to fuck me like that?” she gasps. “Don’t you want me to—”

“That’s enough.”

Carol’s interruption is stern, almost harsh, but full of so much lust that Therese knows she isn’t angry. And the sound of her lust, of her desire, is so powerful that Therese’s fingers stop everything. That’s Carol power over her. To command her. To control her. But instead of frightening her, it makes her feel exquisitely, overwhelmingly free.

For a few moments there is nothing but the sound of their heavy breathing. And then—

“Now,” Carol says, sounding calm, no-nonsense, indifferent, “you may be feeling very irresponsible right now, but I had to step away from an important conversation to deal with you, and I don’t appreciate being distracted from my work. And as for you, didn’t you say you had some reading to finish today?”

Therese makes a soft, fretful sound, but answers obediently. “Yes.”

“Well, then. Listen to me, Ms. Belivet, because I will not repeat myself.”

Carol pauses, letting the significance of her warning hang. Therese’s breath is caught in her chest, her skin shimmering, her sex heavy and hot with need.

“You are not allowed to come.”

Therese squeaks in helpless objection, hips arching toward her own fingers—

“If you do,” Carol says, “you won’t get anything from me tonight, do you understand? Not even a kiss. And don’t think you can fool me, because I’ll know if you’ve disobeyed.”

“Carol, please—”

“Frankly, after your little display this afternoon, you’ll probably have to be punished either way.”

The words lance through her, and with a gasp of panic she pulls her fingers away from herself, body seizing as it teeters on the edge. She puts all her concentration into not coming. She knows that if she so much as clenches her inner muscles, she’ll go off. It takes several moments for her to regain control, panting for breath, and as she does—

“Did you come?” asks Carol, voice rough and dangerous.

“N-n-no,” Therese whimpers. “No, I—I stopped myself.”

“Good girl.”

Therese shudders at the praise.

“Will you be good for me?” Carol asks.

Therese takes slow, deep breaths, trying to calm down. “I—yes. I’ll be good.”

“Good,” says Carol. “I thought I’d get us take out on the way home. How does Greek sound?”

Therese can’t even remember what food is right now, but she knows that Carol is expecting an answer. “Uh—uh, yeah. That sounds good. Should I—should I look at the menu and text you or—”

Carol’s chuckle is dark and sinful and the sound only makes Therese wetter. She wants to feel that chuckle in her mouth, on her tongue. She wants to feel Carol everywhere. But then—

“Oh, no need, Ms. Belivet. Tonight, you’ll take what I give you.”

And then, she hangs up.

Chapter Text

Carol very deliberately refuses to rush home. She finishes the last meeting with Maurice at 5:00, and orders take-out from the Greek place near her house, knowing it’ll take her an hour to get there. The New York traffic is grueling, and while ordinarily Carol would use the commute to relax and appreciate the solitude, right now she has somewhere much better to be.

The fact is she’s a little… nervous. Not only because this will be the first time they’ve slept together since admitting they’re in love, but because their phone call, Therese’s texts, the sound of Therese over the line, has filled her with a hunger that is slightly terrifying. Not just the hunger to make love to her, which would be perfectly natural after everything they’ve been through, but the hunger to…

Carol swallows hard, gripping nervously at the steering wheel.

The hunger to take her. To consume her. To… control her.

That word makes Carol’s anxiety leap inside her. Control is a risky subject, where Therese is concerned. After a childhood of powerlessness, an adolescence spent under the thumb of the state, an adulthood driven by the need to determine her own future—wouldn’t giving up control to Carol be a trigger for Therese? Especially given these recent traumas?

And yet, on the phone… the way she responded to Carol, to the thread of steel in Carol’s voice, to being told what to do, what not to do. There was no anxiety in Therese on the phone, only desperation. Need. Lust. And the sound of it made Carol’s own lust surge, made her feel for a moment like she was the one who would fly apart.

But is it safe? Is it right? Carol has no desire to regulate Therese in their day-to-day lives and Therese knows that now, doesn’t she? Carol’s had enough of unequal relationships, of being with someone who was insecure and weak. She doesn’t want that with Therese. More importantly, she doesn’t want Therese to think she wants that. The fact that Therese has always responded so… exquisitely—to being dominated during sex isn’t a license to ignore her anxieties around control. And the line between what they do in bed, and what they do outside of it, seems tenuous. What if they play this game, and it’s too much? What if Carol is too much? What if she goes too far, scares her, overwhelms her—makes her want to leave?

By the time she pulls into her driveway, Carol has convinced herself that she went too far on the phone. That this is a bad idea. Stepping out of the car and grabbing her purse and the bag of take-out, she heads for the house determined to apologize for her behavior.

But when she steps inside, Therese is waiting for her in the foyer.

Carol remembers suddenly the first time they saw each other, Therese in that silly Santa hat and holiday market t-shirt. Wide-eyed and startlingly pretty. Because Therese is beautiful no matter what she wears. Even in a hospital gown, even feverish and runny-nosed, Therese was beautiful. The past two weeks, in pajamas with hair pulled back, and no make-up, she has been constantly, distractingly beautiful. And so the way she looks in this moment—it’s not that she’s more beautiful than usual, it’s just that—

She’s wearing a dress. A simple dress, green, like her eyes. The skirt only falls to her knees, and below that her slim, pale legs are naked, and her feet are bare. She’s wearing polish on her toes, a coral kind, from Carol’s drawer. Her dress is sleeveless; her arms and chest are exposed, and her collarbones are delectable. Her neck, more so. When Carol looks into her face, she sees at once the pale lip gloss and delicate mascara, eyeliner smoky like she wears it at work. Her hair is down, styled, perfect.

Carol looks into her eyes, and almost drowns. She can see the excitement, the longing. Therese has dressed up, has dolled up; Therese wants to please. Just the thought makes a heavy ache pulse between Carol’s legs, her mouth going momentarily dry, her desire for this almost overpowering her—

But not quite. No, she won’t let herself be overpowered yet. Not until…

Carol puts her things down on the sideboard, and walks directly up to Therese. Therese breathes in quickly, sharp excitement, but Carol keeps all dominance out of her expression. The game they played on the phone—she puts it aside for now and cups a hand to Therese’s cheek, infinitely tender.

“How do you feel?” she asks.

Therese blinks, the shift in tone not lost on her. She, too, seems to step out of their play for a moment, her smile soft and calm as she lays a hand over Carol’s on her cheek.

“I feel good,” she says.

“How are your lungs?”

Her smile brightens. Her eyes glow with love. “Good. No coughing today.”

Carol nods and swallows. Those questions were the easy part. But this other thing, this game, is a different matter, and she’s afraid that if she—

“I want this, Carol.”

Therese’s voice, her words, cut through Carol’s hesitation. Carol is struck again at Therese’s insight, at her ability to read Carol’s anxieties and cut to the quick of them. Still, Carol is hesitant as she asks her, “What do you want, exactly?”

This makes Therese blush, but her eyes are fearless as she answers, “I want you to be in charge.”

Carol swallows. Just those words make her shivery with desire.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

There is no doubt in Therese’s face. Rather, she looks far more at ease than Carol feels, and, after a moment of thought, Carol asks, “Can you tell me why?”

Therese tilts her head to the side, pondering. Then she says quietly, “Because it makes me feel safe.”

Carol’s heart seems to blossom inside her, become too large and full for her chest to contain. In her silence, Therese goes on—

“At first I was a little scared of it. I was even ashamed, at one point, that I could want that. I thought it made me weak. I even thought it made me like my mom.”

Carol swallows. This is what she has feared.

“But…” Therese is smiling again, so sweet and calm. “When you’re in control, in bed, I never feel that way. I just feel… loved. Because I know you’d never hurt me and because it means I don’t have to worry about someone hurting me. I can just… relax, and feel good. Let you make me feel good.”

Carol swallows. For a moment, just a moment, she’s afraid she’s going to burst into tears. What Therese has said is so beautiful. It erases the shame Carol had felt, for wanting her like that. It makes her think that wanting her like that, that being with her in that way, can be as pure and beautiful as Therese herself.

But Carol, still slightly little uncertain, asks, “Do you know how you want this to be, between us?”

Therese ponders. After a moment she says, “I’ve read about… all kinds of things.”

Fanfiction rears its head again. Fucking Abby.

“The usual things don’t really… appeal to me, though.”

“The usual things?” Carol asks, already setting up a file box in her mind for, ‘Things to never do to Therese and if anyone else does, kill them.’  

Therese shrugs, glancing aside. “I guess… anything that might make me think of violence.” Carol’s eyes widen, almost panicking at the thought. For the first time Therese sounds a little meek and uncertain. “You know, like… being tied up or—or—spanked or flogged or—”

“We won’t do any of that,” Carol says firmly, almost sharply, and in a seeming contradiction her tone appears to remove all Therese’s brief anxieties. Her young lover looks at her again, calm and grateful. Carol asks gently, “So we should leave out punishment, I assume?”

At that, Therese breathes in sharply, before, to Carol’s surprise, she shakes her head. “I… I realize it may seem like a contradiction but… so long as it’s not violent I… I think I’d… like it.”

Carol swallows. She feels like all the moisture in her body has pooled between her thighs, and she asks in a low voice, “Do you?” Therese nods. And then, “What else do you think you would like?”

Instantly, Therese’s pupils dilate, the excitement from earlier returning to her face, making her lips part and her jaw slacken, as if the thoughts in her mind are more erotic than she can articulate. Just that look on her face makes Carol’s own arousal spread through her like vines.

Therese says, “I like when you tell me what to do.”

A low growl starts in the back of Carol’s throat. She manages to limit it to a murmured, “Hmm.”

“I like when you…” Therese’s cheeks are flaming, “when you told me I was naughty and… and then you told me I was good.”

Carol’s fingers flex at her sides. When she speaks, her voice is rough, “And you want more of that?”

Therese nods. Carol takes a long, careful couple of seconds to work on maintaining her composure, but Therese must interpret her silence as further hesitation, because she asks, “Would you feel better about it if I had a safe word?”

She nearly grabs her. Nearly picks her up and throws her over her shoulder and carts her off to bed. Instead, she lifts an arrogant eyebrow, letting the game creep in again.

“Are you hoping you’ll need one?” she asks.

Therese blushes, but there’s no denying the anticipation in her eyes. Carol asks, her voice edging once again toward that commanding and stern quality she used on the phone, “What sorts of safe words have you read about?”

Therese licks her lips. “Green for good. Yellow for slow down. Red for stop.”

“Good girl,” Carol tells her. Therese shivers at the praise. “Shall we use those?” A hungry nod. “All right then.”

Like donning a coat, Carol wreathes herself in authority. Now that she knows what Therese wants, now that she knows Therese feels safe, confidence and hunger flood her veins. She can tell Therese what to do, oh, fuck yes, she can do that. She’ll tell her, and she’ll make her, and she’ll blow her damn mind.

Thus inspired, Carol returns to the bag of take-out on the sideboard and, picking it up, throws Therese an arch look, eyebrow raised. “Well then,” she says. “Don’t just stand there, Angel. It’s dinner time. Come along.”

She sees a flash of surprise on Therese’s face, but doesn’t linger. She goes straight for the kitchen, glad Therese can’t see her sharp grin of satisfaction. She doesn’t look back, doesn’t check to make sure Therese is following. Carol knows she will. At the kitchen island, Carol starts unpacking the take-out containers. After a moment she becomes aware of Therese’s figure in the doorway, and then—

“I—” Therese’s voice is soft, nervous. “I… set the table for us. And I—I poured some wine. That white you like?”

“Well, aren’t you a dear,” Carol replies, not looking at her. “Why don’t you bring me the plates and I’ll dish up here, all right?”

Therese goes at once. Comes back quickly with two dinner plates. As Carol begins to serve out the food, Therese stays standing beside her. Close to her. Clearly Therese hoped they would go straight to bed. That they haven’t appears to have left her a little untethered. Carol can smell the sweet, freshly-showered warmth of her, intoxicating, but Carol deliberately does not look at her, ignoring Therese’s soulful eyes fixed on her face.

That is, until, with tentative daring, Therese reaches for her, one little finger catching in the beltloop of Carol’s trousers, giving it the smallest, most unambiguous tug.

Carol stops what she’s doing. She turns her gaze upon Therese, brows lifting imperiously.  

“Yes?”

Therese swallows. Her pupils are blown. She struggles for a moment to maintain eye contact and then looks shyly down at her own finger, still caught in Carol’s beltloop.

“I—I—”

“You’ve interrupted me again. Is this to become a habit, Therese?” Those big green eyes widen. Carol says, “Answer me.”

“I—I’m sorry, I just… I just wondered if—”

“Wondered what?”

Therese swallows. Her cheeks are flushed. Carol glances down and sees with a new hit of arousal that she’s not wearing a bra, and her pebbled nipples show through the fine fabric of the dress.

“I just… wondered if… if I could kiss you hello?”

Carol says nothing at first, gazing coolly down at her.

Therese adds, with just a hint of a wheedle in her voice, “We… we always kiss hello.”

Oh-ho! this is going to be fun. Her sweet, demure Therese, begging with her whole body to be topped into incoherence, is still a manipulative mastermind.

But Carol isn’t about to lose her control.

Whip fast, she has a hand in Therese’s hair, tugging her forward. She takes her mouth in a fierce and bruising kiss, swallowing her sound of surprise—turning it into a hungry moan. Carol kisses her hard, tongue in her mouth to taste the sweetness that is hers alone. She maneuvers Therese so her back is against the island and holds her face in her hands, devouring her. Therese can barely keep up. Her hands fist in Carol’s shirt as she whimpers and sighs and kisses her back, until, as abruptly as she started, Carol pulls away.

Therese whimpers at her withdrawal, tries to reach for her again. Carol grabs her by both wrists, pinning them to the island behind her, and Therese’s whimper turns to a gasp. Their eyes lock.

“I thought you were going to behave?” Carol says.

“I—I am—”

“You’re trying to distract me again. I brought us dinner. Aren’t you hungry?”

At that, something mutinous enters Therese’s eyes. “Not for Greek food,” she says.

Carol’s jaw works; her eyes narrow.

“I see you do want to be punished.”

Therese releases a little whine of objection. “No, no, I—I just—I’ve missed you so much and you feel so good and I just—I just want to touch you, please? Please Carol, let me touch you? I’ll be so good, I—”

“I was very clear on the phone. You’ll take what I give you.”

More of that rebellion in Therese’s eyes. Carol is this close to boosting her up on the island and making her scream. Instead, she lets go of her wrists, steps aside, and picks up both their plates.

“Come and eat, Therese,” she orders. 

<><><> 

Their meal is torture. Carol makes sure of it. She eats slowly and forces Therese to maintain conversation, asking vapid questions about the weather and the food and the landscapers across the street, and no question is settled until Therese gives her an answer. Therese manages this, but barely. Her cheeks are flushed, her mouth swollen from their kisses. Her eyes have a glassy look, and she keeps forgetting to eat until Carol reminds her.

These reminders are stern and commanding. They make Therese blush, make her fidget in her seat and reach for her wine and drink nervously. Carol keeps an eye on that wine. She likes the idea of Therese being relaxed, but she doesn’t want her drunk. She stops her from refilling the glass when it’s empty—an act that only seems to arouse Therese more. It’s incredible. Carol has seen her this worked up before, but only in the middle of sex. Having her like this now, when they’ve barely touched, is one of the headiest, most electrifying experiences of Carol’s life.

After dinner, Carol makes a show of carrying the dishes to the sink. Therese trails behind her. Carol turns on the faucet and says over her shoulder, “Go upstairs to our room. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Therese hesitates, and Carol sends her a look. “Go on.”

Looking reluctant, almost forlorn, Therese obeys, and Carol listens to her walk up the stairs. Once she’s gone, Carol takes her time with the dishes—much longer than they warrant. She puts away the leftovers and wipes down the counters and pauses in the downstairs bathroom to check her hair and make-up. The woman who stares back at her is a little startling. Flushed cheeks, lofty posture, eyes burning with lust and power. Suddenly Carol realizes that her own arousal might rival Therese’s—that she is wet and burning up at the prospect of carrying this game on. There’s a fever in her blood, a fever of possessiveness that makes her suddenly concerned whether she has the self-control to pull this night off responsibly. She considers taking matters into her own hands, rubbing herself to a quick orgasm, just to take the edge off.

But in the end, her desire for Therese wins out.

She goes upstairs to find her young lover standing in the middle of the bedroom like she’s lost. Her body tightens at the sight of Carol. Carol gives her a slow, unambiguous appraisal. Then, still refusing to rush, she goes to her nightstand. She takes off her jewelry—earrings and necklace and watch. She breezes into the adjoining bathroom—and brushes her teeth. She emerges to find Therese still standing where she was before, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, something a little wild and desperate in her expression. It makes Carol’s nerves sing.

But rather than go to her, she walks to the armchair in the corner of the room. She sits, crossing her legs and laying her hands on the armrests, affecting her most domineering pose. Therese, watching her avidly, only breathes harder.

Carol says, “You look very pretty tonight, Angel.”

Therese’s face floods with relief. She preens, glancing shyly down at herself and then back up at Carol. “Do you think so?”

“I do. That dress is lovely. But I think I’d like you to take it off now. Take everything off.” Therese reaches immediately, eagerly, for the zipper in the side of her dress, at which Carol adds a sharp amendment, “Slowly, Therese. You misbehaved today. Show me that you mean to make it up to me.”

Therese, clearly realizing the score, resumes lowering the zipper at a much slower pace. And this time, she keeps her eyes on Carol. Stares straight at her as she reaches down for the hem of her dress. Watches her as she begins to inch the skirt up over her knees, her thighs, her hips. When her underwear come into view, Carol’s mouth goes dry. Her panties are sheer, almost see-through, and black. Against her pale skin, they look deliciously provocative. Carol watches Therese continue lifting the dress, exposing her flat stomach, her rib cage, and then she is sweeping it over her head. Her small, perfect breasts come into view, nipples hard and blushed. Therese casts the dress aside and runs a hand through her tousled hair, eyes on Carol once more. 

They watch each other for a long moment, and Carol knows that if she has power over Therese, Therese has the same power over her—and Therese knows it. When she reaches for the edges of her panties, there’s something downright wicked in her eyes. She toys with them. Inches them down, but not all the way. Carol’s breath catches and a tiny smirk edges the corner of Therese’s mouth. Ah, so—the little mastermind is back.

“Planning to top from the bottom, Darling?” Carol asks, but there’s a hard warning in her eyes.

Therese’s smirk vanishes. “No, love,” she says, sweet and innocent.

Carol chuckles darkly. “Take those off. Come here.”

The panties drop around Therese’s ankles. She toes them aside, and moves slowly forward, until she is standing right in front of Carol, looking at her with a soft pleading in her eyes. Carol uncrosses her legs, placing her feet on either side of Therese’s, and runs her hands slowly from Therese’s calves, up her slim legs. She’s shaved, and the smoothness of her skin is unbearably pleasurable. Carol leans forward, mouthing at one of her hip bones, glorifying in the little shudder that goes through her. Carol can smell her arousal, so close, and Carol can see that she’s shaved in other places, too. She trails her lips across to her other hip bone, feeling the brush of her neatly trimmed pubic hair. Then she grips her thighs tight, and sinks her teeth in.

Therese gasps, hands landing on Carol’s shoulders, squeezing.

“Ah-ah-ah,” Carol reproves, leaning back and removing her hands. “None of that. Be good.”

Therese whines, but obediently drops her hands at her sides. Carol bites her again, hard, feeling her flex and shiver. Carol uses just the tip of her tongue to trace her belly button, and then drags it up, up, to the curve of her breast. She ignores her nipples, mouthing at her. Doing this slowly, teasing her, is delicious, but it’s also torture. She slings an arm around her waist and pulls her down, so that with a soft sound Therese finds herself straddling her in the armchair. Their eyes meet again.

“You were very naughty on the phone, earlier,” Carol tells her, and Therese’s eyes are wide and black with lust. “But… also, very lovely to listen to. I wondered what you were doing. Why don’t you show me?”

Somehow, Therese’s eyes get wider, the flush on her cheeks brightening as she realizes what Carol means.

“Go on,” Carol tells her. “Show me.”

Another moment’s pause, but then one of Therese’s hands is moving, slowly and shyly, until it reaches the apex of her thighs. Carol watches her part the lips of her sex, and the cherry redness of her clit, wet and swollen, makes Carol ravenous. Then, with her middle finger, Therese starts to slowly, carefully touch herself.

She whimpers, head tipping back in pleasure. She uses two fingers next, stroking her clit in wide ovals that soon have her panting.

“Good girl,” Carol coos, and Therese moans. “Keep going.”

Therese does, and very soon her fingers start to move a little firmer, a little faster. Therese’s hips start to rock forward, her thighs clenching as she lifts into the movements of her hand, developing a rhythm. Her eyes droop closed, and to hear her labored breathing, and to know it’s not from illness, makes Carol’s belly flutter with equal parts arousal and joy. A fine film of sweat gathers on Therese as she keeps moving, rubbing, rocking, her sounds constant now, a litany of whimpers and sighs that mean one thing.

“Are you close?” Carol asks her. Therese nods sharply, rubbing faster. “Are you going to come?” Another sharp nod, a thrust of her hips into her own hand, a strangled sound in her throat and then—

“Stop,” Carol orders.

Therese’s fingers still; Carol thinks it’s as much surprise as the order itself. Her eyes open, wide and startled and begging. Carol grins at her.

“Look at you, following orders. That’s very good, Sweetheart. I’m so proud of you.”

Therese looks gratified by the praise, but helpless with need. She places her hands on her thighs, digging her fingers in as she tries to hold herself together. There’s a purple bruise on her hipbone, where Carol bit her, and it looks perfect, like a mark of ownership. Carol might not stand for that kind of possessiveness in her everyday life, but right now—Therese in her lap, Therese covered in her touch, Therese branded by her teeth? It’s the most delicious thing Carol can imagine.

Well, almost. There’s another claim Carol wants to stake.  

Carol parts her own legs a little further, forcing Therese’s legs to widen, and then, before Therese can possibly prepare for it, Carol puts a hand between her thighs. She’s a river of arousal, so wet and slippery that Carol barely has to wait before pressing two fingers to her entrance, and sliding in.

Therese shudders, eyes slamming shut as her sex clenches down on Carol’s fingers, her face writ with equal parts agonized pleasure, and relief. She forces her eyes open, looking at Carol desperately. She’s so hot and tight inside, running with moisture. Carol holds her fingers still, and tells her firmly, “Again.”

Therese swallows, and then, tentatively, reaches her hand back between her legs, finding her clit. The minute she starts to rub, her eyes roll back.

“Oh, Darling,” Carol croons at her. “Look at you. So beautiful. So pretty when you touch you clit and make yourself feel good. That’s right, keep going. But don’t come.”

“Carol,” Therese gasps, stroking herself in the same quick circles as before.

Carol begins to gently crook her fingers against the front wall of Therese’s cunt, feeling the way she flutters and ripples around her. They move together, and in less than two minutes Carol can tells she’s right on the edge again.

She repeats her warning, “Don’t come.”

With a sharp cry, Therese yanks her fingers away, her whole body shuddering from the nearness of her climax, and her eyes are huge. She’s panting now, damp all over with sweat, and soaking between her legs. Carol will need to get her trousers dry cleaned, she thinks, and doesn’t give a shit.

“Good girl,” she praises her. “You listen so well, don’t you?”

“Please, Carol, please—”

“Now, now. No pouting. I told you, didn’t I? I told you you would have to be punished.”

Therese shudders again. Carol, fingers still inside, feels her ripple and clench, not an orgasm, but something damn close. Carol leans forward without warning and takes one of her rock hard nipples into her mouth, sucking hungrily as Therese keens. The poor girl’s hands fly to Carol’s head, clenching in her hair, a pleasurable spark of pain. Carol pulls back, and eyes her reprovingly.

“Hands down,” she reminds.

Reluctantly, Therese obeys, and Carol looks at her with a wicked grin.

“You’re doing so well, Sweetheart. You stopped yourself both times. Now. I want you to go again. And this time, I don’t want you to stop until I tell you to. But you are not allowed to come without permission.”

Therese looks overwhelmed. “Carol, I—I can’t. I won’t—I won’t be able to—”

“You certainly will,” Carol replies. “And if you disobey, there will be consequences.”

Therese groans helplessly, resisting, eyes beseeching her. Carol looks at her seriously and asks, in a voice just slightly gentler, “What color are you, baby?”

Therese swallows hard, blinking in an almost drugged way. But then she takes a deep breath, and lets it out. “Green,” she whispers.

Reassured, and seeing a little bit of relief in Therese’s eyes as she remembers that she still has some control, that this is only a game, that she is safe—Carol gives her a sinful smile.

“Then do as you’re told,” she chides her. 

Therese whines again, a fever in her eyes, before finally slipping her hand back between her legs. She starts slow, clearly trying to figure out a way to keep herself from losing it too quickly. Carol counters this by beginning to fuck her a little harder, zeroing in on that rough spot on her front wall that makes Therese so weak. And sure enough, Therese trembles violently.

“Carol,” she gasps.

“Don’t stop,” Carol orders her. “I told you not to stop.”

Therese obeys, and this time if her head is telling her to be careful and slow, her body clearly has lost the thread, too overwhelmed with pleasure to resist. She twitches her hips into Carol’s hand; strokes her clit in the firm circles she used before. Hardly any time passes before she starts to look a little panicked.

“C-Carol,” she whispers. “Carol I’m—I’m close.”

Carol ignores her, thrusting into her at the same pace, the same pressure, watching Therese’s fingers move against herself until—

“Carol—p-please—I—”

“Don’t stop,” Carol warns.

Therese sobs, keeps going, rocking her pelvis into Carol’s hand, til with a sudden gasp she begs her, “Carol, I’m gonna come. I’m gonna come, please let me come please please—”

Carol stills her fingers, orders, “Stop.”

With a wail of anguish, Therese does, shivering helplessly as she pulls her fingers from between her legs. Only this time, she doesn’t have the same control as before, because she grabs Carol’s face in her hands and before Carol resist, Therese is bending to her, and kissing her, ravenous.

Carol doesn’t have the will to stop her. She slips her fingers from between her legs and grabs her back, pulling her hard against her chest. Her sticky fingers press into the small of her back, her other hand gripping the back of her neck, and their kiss is like a hurricane, out of their control. They swallow each other’s cries, lick into each other’s mouths, let their tongues duel for control. Therese is whining and whimpering ceaselessly now, and Carol is gasping for breath, and it’s so intense she can’t stand it.

She plants her feet on the ground, and slides both arms under Therese’s ass. Rocking forward, she’s on her feet, carrying her lover across the room as Therese’s legs and arms wrap around her like she’ll never let go. They hit the bed in a tangle, their kiss never ceasing, their hands running all over each other in desperation for more more more—

“You’re being naughty again,” Carol growls into her mouth.

Therese bites Carol’s lip, grabs her hair, growling back, “Fuck me. Carol, fuck me, please!” 

As power play goes, Carol thinks she may be losing the plot. But this has been too incredible to give up the game completely. Forcing herself to pull it together, she wrenches her mouth away from Therese’s. She disentangles herself from Therese’s arms, and with a feeling like lightning in her veins she stands up from the bed. Therese, naked, panting, spread out before her, looks up into her eyes in startlement. Carol points at her.

“Don’t you dare move,” she orders. And walks away. 

Chapter Text

It turns out hardly being able to draw breath can be pretty sexy when it’s not associated with pneumonia. Lying on the bed, gasping for air and damp all over with sweat, Therese feels almost as weak as she did in the hospital. But for entirely different reasons. Her thighs are sticky and slick and trembling. Her nipples ache for Carol’s mouth. Her body is lit up and shivering—but Carol is walking away from her.

For a moment, she’s terrified that Carol’s punishment is going to be to leave her here, unsatisfied. Then she realizes that Carol hasn’t left the room, but gone into her massive walk-in closet. Still confused (her brain might not be running on all cylinders right now), Therese tries to get her breathing under control, tries to get her body to stop shaking. But it’s hopeless. She’s read about orgasm denial, edging, but this—it’s a thousand times more horrible (and incredible) than she could have imagined. She feels debauched, out of control, frantic. Her desire for Carol is as all-consuming as the need for oxygen. Every moment, minute, that passes, is torture—torture that she never wants to end.

But then Carol walks back into the room, and Therese’s brain short-circuits entirely. She has a totally absurd memory of a cartoon character, jaw dropping to the floor, heart leaping out of its chest, eyes bugging out and tongue rolling across the floor—

Because Carol fucking Ross is wearing a strap-on. 

And not just any strap-on. The harness isn’t made from leather like Therese was expecting, but is rather what looks like black boyshort underwear—with lacy trim and garter snaps. Fucking snaps, attached to thigh high stockings, also black, and Carol is wearing a lacy front snap bra (black) that accentuates the luscious curves of her creamy breasts. From the harness juts a toy Therese hasn’t seen before, but even at the distance she can tell it’s smooth and hard, and while it may be a little bigger than the one they’ve used before, it’s not so big it frightens her. Quite the opposite. Therese looks at it, and starts salivating.

Fuck,” she gasps, up on her elbows now, staring at the juncture of Carol’s thighs as she adds, “…me… Carol…. Oh my God.”

Therese doesn’t know how it’s possible. By rights the thing should look ridiculous. Whenever she saw her boyfriends’ erections, she thought they looked ridiculous, was embarrassed by them, looked away. But this is… this is so far from ridiculous. Therese has never wanted a cock inside her so badly in her life, and the fact that it is Carol’s cock, Carol’s body, Carol—

“Eyes up, Ms. Belivet,” Carol says.

Therese is powerless to disobey, and the look on Carol’s face is almost as arousing as the harness. Her lover looks wickedly pleased by whatever slack-jawed expression is on Therese’s face. Her blonde hair is tousled, cheeks pink, eyes burning. She struts toward the bed with the kind of head-held-high elegance that first blew Therese’s mind in the holiday market, months ago. She looks at Therese like she’s going to eat her alive, and Therese (who still hasn’t fucking come) is very happy to let her.

“Carol,” she whispers again.

“What am I to do with you?” Carol asks, tsking thoughtfully, moving toward the bed. Therese’s heart gallops. “One moment, you’re testing me, disobeying. The next, you’re so good—so beautiful. When you touched yourself? When you got yourself so close, but still stopped? Perfect. Such a perfect girl.” Therese whimpers, the praise flowing over her like water in a drought. Until Carol’s eyes harden. “But then… you disobey again. Kiss me without permission. Tell me to fuck you. Try to get me to do what you want, what you need. As if you’re in charge.” 

Therese swallows. She wants to deny, to beg, but she has a feeling it won’t go over well. Instead, she looks down at the toy between Carol’s legs, and back up to Carol’s face, and the plaintiveness in her eyes is not an act—she is fucking desperate. Carol’s lip curves at the corner, like she can tell. Carol’s eyes glitter. Carol comes to the foot of the bed and then—like a lioness stalking her prey, crawls forward. Crawls toward her. Slides up her body slow like molasses, letting the toy drag across Therese’s skin, until she’s bending to her mouth again. Therese sighs with relief. Carol’s kiss is so deep, so warm, so soft. Carol’s tongue in her mouth is a darting flame, flashing heat down into her pelvis. Therese tangles her legs with Carol’s, feeling the stockings, the garter snaps. Drunk on the unexpected, exquisite gentleness of Carol’s touch and kiss.

That is, until Carol hooks one of Therese’s legs over her hip, reaches between them, and slides the toy inside in one firm, delicious thrust.

Therese keens. Her back arches off the bed and her head tosses back, eyes squeezing shut at the incredible fullness. Carol doesn’t give her time to adjust. She starts thrusting into her, not too fast, but firm and relentless, and Carol is biting at her throat, and Carol’s hands are reaching for Therese’s hands, taking them and pinning them above her head. Their fingers weave together, Carol’s hips snapping into hers.

“Oh, honey,” Carol groans. “Fuck, you feel incredible.”

“Feels so good,” Therese gasps, delirious, “Oh fuck—shit—Carol—you feel so good!”

Almost at once, Therese wants her to go faster, harder, but Carol is implacable, her pace unchanging as she licks at the dip in Therese’s throat—just as she did on the staircase, this morning. She lifts her head to Therese’s ear. Bites the lobe. Whispers to her, “Can you behave? Can you be good?”

“Yes—yes! Please, I’ll be good!”

“And you won’t disobey? No matter what I tell you? No matter how many times I make you wait?”

“No, I won’t disobey. I promise, I—fuck, I swear—fuck—”

Carol, still holding her down by her hands, starts thrusting faster.

“You’ll be patient?” she croons.

“Yes—yes—oh, God, yes!” 

“My sweet girl. My good girl.”

Those words spike through her, make her shiver and arch. The few minutes since her near orgasm have given her back a fraction of control, but then Carol shifts her hips so that their pelvises are locked together, and the sudden pressure on Therese’s clit takes her right to the edge again.

“I won’t come!” Therese gasps, half talking to herself, ordering herself, begging herself. “I won’t c-come—until—”

“Until I say so?” purrs Carol. 

“Yes—Yes! I promise!”

Suddenly Carol lets go of her hands, grabs her hips, and rolls them. Suddenly Carol is on her back and Therese is straddling her, riding her, the cock so deep inside she feels faint. She looks down at Carol, lost in a delirium of pleasure as Carol thumbs at her nipples, traces down to her hips and holds them tight.

“Show me, Sweetheart,” she tells her. “Show me how you move.”

Therese starts to rock, faster, harder. The toy is rubbing against her front wall, and her clit is pulsing with the need for stimulation.

“C-can I—” Therese swallows hard, asks nervously, “Can I touch myself?”

Carol gives her a long, considering look. Then, while Therese watches in ever rising need, Carol reaches over to the side of the bed, to the end table, opening the top drawer. She reaches in, and pulls something out. Something small and shiny and—

Therese moans helplessly.

“Color?” Carol asks, brandishing the little bullet vibrator, staring deeply into her eyes.

Therese shifts her hips against the toy, feels it pressing inside her. She lifts her hips and brings them down again, choking on a sound of bliss.

“Green,” she gasps. “Green, Carol, green—”

Carol pushes a button; the buzzing sound floods the air between them, floods Therese’s brain, and without waiting another moment, Carol moves it between her legs, pressing the vibration right against her clit.

“Fuck!” Therese sobs, eyes slamming shut at the intense rush of pleasure. “Fuck, oh, fuck—”

Carol starts lifting her hips under her, pushing into her, pushing against her. The vibration feels like a train car, blasting through her. Therese grabs desperately at Carol’s shoulders and starts moving faster, using the strength in her thighs to lift up and down, up and down, don’t stop, please, please—

“Yes, baby,” Carol groans. “Yes, keep going.”

“Ffffu—fuck—”

“Open your eyes. Look at me.”

Therese hardly has the strength to do it, but she does. She opens her eyes and stares straight down into burning gray fire, Carol’s face a picture of amazement and lust and—

“I love you,” Carol tells her fiercely, hips lifting sharply, the vibrator sealed against her, unrelenting. “You perfect girl, I love you—”

“C-carol I lo—I love—oh, God, I’m gonna come!”

She’s certain Carol will deny her, tease her again, torment her with more—

“Come for me,” Carol gasps.

Those words, the permission in those words, shoots through her like a firecracker. Therese shouts, relief transforming to ecstasy as she teeters on the brink—and then crashes over the side. She’s aware of her hands, seizing on Carol’s shoulders. She’s aware of her hips, pumping frantically. And she’s aware of pleasure, so much pleasure, erupting between her legs, surging through her body, devastating her self-control as she wails. It blooms outward, clit throbbing against the toy, pussy clenching around Carol’s cock, body a supernova of release that goes on and on and on until—

“Oh, God, I can’t—please—”

But Carol doesn’t stop. Carol shifts the position of the vibrator, just slightly, but holds it firm again. Therese squeaks, hand reaching for Carol’s wrist, meaning to pull her away—except Carol’s hand grabs her wrist, first; grabs it, and pushes it aside. Therese’s eyes fly open, staring desperately down at Carol, whose teeth are bared.

“It’s too much—” Therese gasps, the buzzing vibration overwhelming her. “Carol, it’s too much!”

“No it’s not,” Carol tells her. Carol sits up, one arm around her waist, still holding the toy in place. “It’s not too much. And you’ll take what I give you.”

Therese shouts, back arching, body screaming from the overstimulation, the intensity, it—it has to stop—it—she can’t—

“Carol!” she sobs, begging her.

“Take what I give you,” Carol repeats, low and gravelly, and that sound in her voice, that look in her eyes, shoots straight down to where the toy is tormenting her.

Too much too much and then—then—not enough. Oh fuck. The sensations whip toward pleasure so fast she’s dizzy with it, discomfort and overstimulation opening up into need, once more. She can feel another orgasm, deep in her cunt, and she starts rocking her hips again, hard and desperate, Carol’s arm around her waist guiding her movements.

“That’s it,” Carol growls.

This time, when Therese comes it’s silent—like a lightning strike is silent, electricity zipping up and down her body, striking at the point of her clit, holding her locked in a spasm of pleasure so intense she can’t even breathe. Then, thunder comes with a boom. She starts shaking and gasping, little squeaking sounds, overwhelmed—

And Carol still doesn’t stop.  

Doesn’t stop, and the third orgasm strikes some five minutes later, and then, after that, a fourth, Carol torturing it out of her, making her struggle and beg and finally admit, blushing with embarrassment and elation, “Green, green, fuck, green!”

Finally, to Therese’s weeping relief, Carol pulls the vibrator away after she’s come. Lays back and pulls Therese down with her, collapsed into her arms and shaking, shaking, undone and not done, she’ll never be done, never be satisfied. It’s overwhelming. It’s delicious. Tears are streaming from her eyes, her body is slick with sweat, her muscles tremble beyond her control. Carol, hands gripping her ass, tugs her close and brings her lips to her ear—

“That’s it, baby,” she rumbles. “You were so good for me.”

Keening helplessly, Therese comes again, Carol’s praise sending a shockwave through her cunt. She whimpers and thrashes and whines, pulsing around the toy in a helpless conflagration of pleasure, and before she can think twice about it she sets her teeth against Carol’s shoulder, biting to keep from screaming. Carol shudders beneath her, an ecstatic sound breaking from her throat. When Therese finally starts to come down, finally starts to relax around the burning thickness of the toy, she lifts her mouth away to find in some shock that there are indents from her teeth. Murmuring apologies, she licks the mark, cooing and moaning as Carol’s answering moan rumbles under her lips. She feels dizzy, delirious. She feels… so good.

“Carol,” she mumbles drunkenly, kissing her neck, licking her neck, her collarbones, her shoulders. “Carol, I love you, I love you—”

Kissing the top of her chest. Kissing her sternum. Kissing the edges of her breasts where the lacy black bra encloses them, and isn’t that ridiculous, that Carol is still wearing a bra?

“Take this off,” Therese says, overcoming the weakness in her limbs to reach for the front clasp of the bra, mumbling again, “Take this off.”

No sooner have the cups loosened than Therese is nosing them aside, stroking her face against the creamy softness of Carol’s breasts. Carol’s hands are in her hair now, sifting gently, but when Therese runs her tongue around a nipple, those hands tighten. Under her, Carol’s body ripples, and the toy still buried in Therese presses deeper. Moaning, Therese goes to her other nipple, licks it and draws it into her mouth, sucking.

“Oh, God,” Carol gasps.

The need in her voice—it makes Therese frantic. With a soft choking sound, she lifts herself off the toy, feels her sex clench and flutter at the withdrawal, wetness leaking down her thighs, but she doesn’t give herself time to get distracted by it. She nips sharply at Carol’s nipple, glories in her gasp of surprise, and then, kneeling beside her, she starts to tug at the harness.

“Therese,” Carol moans, “Honey, what are you—aren’t you—tired?”

Therese ignores her. She has just now remembered the garter snaps, which, mind-meltingly sexy as they may be, are in her way right now. She undoes them as carefully as she can stand, and then yanks at the harness again, pulling it down Carol’s thighs, her calves, over her feet—she tosses it aside.

“Therese, baby—” Carol sounds a little anxious. Sounds like she wants this, but hasn’t quite overcome the habit of worrying about Therese. “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”

Therese nearly laughs. She pushes Carol’s thighs apart, lying between them and wrapping her arms around them. Holding her open. Looking up the length of her flexing body til their eyes are locked. Carol’s chest heaves with gasping excitement, her eyes on fire, desperate, needy—hesitant.

“I want you to come in my mouth,” Therese tells her, and bends her head, and licks.

Jesus Christ she tastes so good. She feels so good—she sounds so good, crying out at the sensation of Therese’s tongue, sweeping messily through her. It’s been so long since Therese tasted her like this—she didn’t go down on her the last time they had sex, and so she predicts it’s been—what? Three weeks? Unacceptable. Un-fucking-acceptable—to be denied this taste, this smell, this feeling. Carol is so wet it’s obscene, her flavor flooding Therese’s mouth as she undulates beneath her. Her clit is hard and swollen, a rosy pearl that responds beautifully to every dart of Therese’s tongue. The thighs on either side of Therese’s head are trembling, Carol’s pelvis tipping hungrily toward her, and Carol’s voice—

“Oh, fuck, Therese. Oh, God, Angel, missed this so much, oh—”

Therese moans, and the vibration makes Carol spasm against her, hands dropping down to grip at her hair. Therese loves it—loves the signs of Carol’s desperation, the way she moves, the way she gasps, how warm and wet she is. Therese probes gently at her opening, just the tip of her tongue circling slowly as Carol flutters against her, like her cunt is begging for penetration.

Therese may have thoroughly enjoyed having Carol tease and deny her, but she’s in no mood to do the same to Carol. Therese pushes her tongue as deep inside her as she can, using her thumb to rub the hardness of her clit. Carol whimpers, back arching off the bed, head tipping back as she rolls her hips against Therese’s touch. Therese, still a little weak from her own pleasure, barely has the strength to hold her down—but she’s determined. She licks deeper, strokes firmer, feels the rising storm in Carol’s body.

One of Carol’s hands leaves her hair, and Therese looks up to find her plucking at her own nipple, neck long and exquisite as she swallows hard, eyes squeezed shut. Therese wants to tell her how beautiful she is. Wants to tell her how much she loves her. Wants to tell her, look at me—but she can’t stand the thought of pulling her mouth away. So she doesn’t. She keeps going, mouth focused, eyes trained on the deliciousness that is Carol, until—

“Yes, like that—Jesus, fuck just like that—I’m gonna, oh, honey, I’m—I’m gonna come—” Therese growls with lust; Carol gasps sharp and desperate. Carol’s legs start shaking hard and her pelvis ruts forward and then, “Oh, fuck, I’m coming—I’m coming!”

And she does. She comes hard, her body a crashing wave. Therese holds her down and greedily devours the torrent of her orgasm, licking and swallowing and moaning as she crests and dives. The feel of her skin, hot and damp and shivering, is transcendent, and Therese never wants this to end. Never wants to not have this in her life, this incomparable sweetness and beauty and pleasure. She goes for as long as she can, as long as Carol can stand it, goes until Carol is begging her to stop, hands in her hair, tugging desperately. And only then does Therese lift her mouth and her thumb away, and let herself be dragged up, into Carol’s arms.

Their mouths melt together, sharing flavor, sharing sounds, licking and moaning and gasping for breath. Carol’s hands move all over her, like she wants to touch her everywhere. Therese knows the feeling. For a few moments there’s something frantic between them, the desperation of touch, of scratching nails, of passion brought to a fever pitch. By the time they finally start to calm down, Therese can feel the marks that Carol has left on her back, and the knowledge fills her with glee.

Glee, and then, blissful satiation. She lets her body go limp on top of Carol’s, and Carol’s arms drape around her, both of them breathing hard. At last they become quiet and peaceful, letting their bodies cool in the intimacy of the afterglow.

It’s a long time before Carol says, her voice slightly hoarse, “Was that all right?”

Therese can’t help it. She snorts a laugh. She lifts her head and looks down at Carol, grinning. Carol starts to grin, too, and for a moment they just look at each other in silly happiness.

“That was perfect,” Therese says. “You were perfect.”

Carol makes a low sound in her throat, fingers trailing up and down Therese’s spine.

You were perfect, Sweetheart. You were such a good girl for me.”

This time Therese blushes, hiding her face in Carol’s neck, and Carol laughs her brightest, most arresting laugh of delight.

“I was seriously starting to worry that we would never have sex again,” Therese admits, voice muffled because she’s smooshed her face against Carol. “I was getting desperate.”

“Clearly,” Carol drawls. Therese swats her thigh in reprimand and Carol laughs again. “Believe me, you weren’t the only one. I’ve been feeling pretty desperate myself.”

At that, Therese lifts her head, looking at her, hearing again that old voice in her mind that whispers—never… not good enough… pathetic. But Therese speaks over it, asking Carol quietly, “You have?”

Carol gives her an incredulous look. “You really don’t know?”

To which Therese offers a little shrug, embarrassed at herself for needing this. “It helps… to be told.”

Understanding fills Carol’s eyes. She lifts up to kiss her again. The kiss is slow, and sweet, and tender. Into it Carol tells her, “I am so in love with you, Therese Belivet. I want you, always. I am more attracted to you than anyone I’ve ever met. I am happier with you than I’ve ever been. You are the love of my life. And I’m going to prove it to you, every day.”

Therese feels the hot tears spring to her eyes. She feels something take root in her soul; feels wounds still raw and bleeding stitch closed. The voice is still there—Carol cannot make it go away. Only Therese can do that. Therese, and time. But as Carol kisses her, she pictures that voice as a tiny, wretched monster, shrinking back, recoiling as if from a very bright light. And Carol is the light. Carol’s kiss is the light, and Carol’s body is the light, and when they pull back to look at each other again, Carol’s smile is the light, too.

And all Therese can think to say, her heart in her throat and her joy overwhelming, is, “Same.”  

Chapter Text

Therese’s primary interest, as they apartment shop in Brooklyn, turns out to be the quality of the nearby schools. Carol looks on in amusement as her lover grills the realtor on school rankings and programming and teacher-to-student ratios. In the second apartment they look at, after learning that the nearest elementary school doesn’t have a music program, Therese turns to Carol indignantly.

“That won’t work; Rindy wants to learn violin.”

Rindy may want that,” returns Carol dryly. “I’m not sure we do.”

“I think we’d better look somewhere else.”

“Whatever you say, Dearest.”

So they do. They spend all morning looking, and by the time they’ve walked into the fifth apartment, and Therese has sniffed reproachfully at the size of what would be Rindy’s bedroom, Carol is growing weary. She sneaks them away from the realtor, into the master bedroom, and gives her a look.

“You haven’t liked any of these place!”

“What? That’s not true. I liked the third apartment.”

“The third apartment was a two bedroom. It doesn’t have anything we can use as a dark room.”

“Carol, don’t worry about that, the schools were really good, it’s near Maurice’s store, and—”

“We are not making this decision based entirely on Rindy’s school. Or my work. Darling, this will be your home, too. Why don’t we look in Manhattan?”

At this, Therese frowns. “Carol, I’ll only be at NYU for another year. It doesn’t make sense for us to live in Manhattan just for that.”

Carol sighs. Therese’s pragmatism is adorable, but also a little exasperating. She steps closer to her, putting her hands on her shoulders and then running them down her arms to take her hands. Their fingers tangle together. Therese gazes up at her solemnly. She looks a little tense, like she’s girding herself for an argument.

Carol says, “What if I told you that I want to live in Manhattan?”

Therese is clearly surprised. “You do? Why?”

Carol shrugs. “Because you like it there. And because I like it there. It’s where I lived when I first came to New York, and while I was at Columbia. I only moved to New Jersey because it was what Harge wanted for us. But once you graduate it’s likely you’ll get a job at one of the big firms out there. Also, it’s where Abby lives. And it has the schools I like.” At that she breaks off, something cold in her stomach. “I mean… assuming my daughter is going to live with me during the school year—”

Therese’s hands on hers tighten in the same moment Carol feels her own anxiety spike. “Don’t,” Therese says. “Don’t go there. No judge is going to give Harge full custody. I don’t care what dirt he thinks he can dig up on us. It’s not going to happen.”

Carol nods, embarrassed that she can believe a thing on one hand and yet dread is so spectacularly on the other. The court date is definitively set for tomorrow, and Therese is supposed to give testimony on Tuesday. Her, and some other choice witnesses, but all Carol really cares about is that Therese will have to relive what happened. The good news, she supposes, is that neither she nor Harge is pursuing testimony from Rindy—but the judge may want it, anyway. Just the thought makes Carol feel sick, with loathing for Harge and also loathing for herself, that it ever got to this. That anything has had to get to this. Fred insists that they have a very good case, and he may be right. None of it changes the fact that this is never what Carol wanted, for the people she loves. She didn’t even want this for Harge, furious as she still is with him. Despicable though his actions were, she knows that he loves Rindy, and that Rindy adores him. It’s all such a terrible, terrible mess…

Therese’s thumbs, gently rubbing against hers, bring her back to herself. She looks into her eyes, and sees something regretful. “I’m sorry,” Therese says. “We’re supposed to be taking our minds off things and now I’m being difficult and stubborn.”

Hearing her chide herself, especially given there wouldn’t anything for Therese to take her mind off of if it weren’t for Carol, makes Carol miserable.

“Sweetheart, you have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one who—”

“Stop,” Therese interrupts her. “I don’t want to hear a word about this being your fault. It’s not your fault, or mine, do you hear me? Don’t let him put that guilt on you. You don’t deserve it.”

Therese’s stern tone, and even sterner look, is enough to cut through Carol’s melancholy. Not only does it offer her the reassurance that she needs—but Therese is just so fucking cute like this.

And then she gets even cuter, saying briskly, “I’m done house hunting. Let’s do something else. Isn’t there some movie you wanted to see? Let’s do that.”

Carol feels a surge of love for the sweet, earnest girl looking up at her. She wraps her arms around her waist, pulling her in and smiling down into her upturned face, those big eyes crinkling at the corners from the pleasure of their closeness.  

“How about Godzilla vs. King Kong?” Carol proposes dryly.

Therese smirks up at her. “If you like. Though I thought there was some Michelle Pfeiffer movie coming out.”

“Not for another couple of weeks,” Carol replies. “Believe me, we’ll be there opening night.”

With a snort of amusement, Therese says laughingly, “I would not have taken you for a Michelle Pfeiffer fan.”

“Well, she was fundamental to my queer awakening, Sweetheart, so you owe her your allegiance.” 

“Noted. You know, I look nothing like her. Should I be concerned that your teenage crushes were all blondes? Reese Witherspoon. Abbie Cornish.”

“Believe me,” Carol says. “That phase is well and truly over. I’m much more interested in brunettes these days.”

Therese’s eyes twinkle. She lifts up to brush her mouth against Carol’s bottom lip, a tease.

“Anyone I’d know?” she murmurs, dragging her lips down Carol’s jaw. Nosing behind her ear.

Carol breathes in sharply as gooseflesh travels down her body. God, Carol loves her when she’s in this mood. Confident, and playful, and so fucking sexy.

She says, “Oh you know… Natalie Portman. Mila Kunis. Kiera Knightley.”

“Excellent choices, all,” Therese approves, and now she is kissing Carol’s neck, little flickering kisses that make arousal swoop in Carol’s belly.

“What about you, Dearest? Any Hollywood crushes I should know about?”

Therese makes a thoughtful sound. She reaches Carol’s shoulder, nipping at her through the lightweight fabric of her button down shirt.

“Charlize Theron is hot.”

Carol grins, her hands on Therese’s hips squeezing gently. “Have you seen Atomic Blonde?”

“Of-fucking-course I’ve seen Atomic Blonde. How I still thought I was straight after seeing Atomic Blonde is a goddamn mystery.” 

Carol blurts a laugh. She weaves a hand into Therese’s hair, tugging her head back so they can look into each other’s eyes again, so she can see the mischievous twinkle in those green depths; so that she can revel in how bright and healthy and happy Therese looks.

“Excuse me, ladies.”

They both look up in surprise to find the realtor standing in the doorway, looking slightly awkward. They step apart, but Carol keeps the fingers of one hand tangled with Therese’s.

The realtor asks cheerfully, gesturing around at the apartment. “What do you think?”

Carol looks at Therese, and Therese looks back. “We’ll have to think about it,” Carol says.  

<><><> 

But they don’t go to the movies. Instead, they go to Therese’s apartment. Therese is returning to classes in the morning, and they’ve agreed to spend their weekend at her place so she can get things in order before the school week. Carol feels glum at the prospect of them returning to their old scheduling woes—at least for as long as it takes them to find a place and move in together. The past two weeks have been incredibly stressful, but also so… beautiful, love and intimacy growing with the closeness they’ve shared.

And somehow the sex is even better than it was before.

Case in point—they barely got through the door before Therese started kissing her with intent, pulling at her clothes, guiding her toward the bedroom. Her young lover has been pretty voracious since Thursday, and Carol has reaped the benefits. Now, lying in Therese’s bed, Carol cannot stop moaning, shivering, lifting into the pleasure Therese gives her. She’s on her back and Therese is propped up against her side. Therese’s mouth is on her breast, laving her nipple in slow, catlike strokes, and Therese’s hand is between her legs, pumping the weight of a toy into her. It’s thick and hard and it feels so good, and Carol’s breathing is shallow; she can barely keep her eyes open, swept up in the sweetness and intensity of their lovemaking.

When Therese releases her nipple with a pop, Carol mewls, but then her lover’s lips are at her ear, murmuring silkily, “Does it feel good?”

“Uh-huh,” Carol nods, hands clenched in the sheets beneath her.

“Good,” Therese croons. “What do you need?”

“I—I—”

“Touch yourself,” Therese suggests, giving the toy a slightly harder thrust. “I want to watch you.”

Carol breathes in sharply at the idea, opens her eyes with great effort and looks at Therese. Therese, who smiles at her, bending to kiss her, to flick her tongue against her parted lips. Carol slips a hand between her thighs. She’s hard and sensitive and her fingers feel amazing, the perfect complement to Therese’s slow, firm thrusting.

“Maybe I should wear the strap-on next time,” Therese muses.

Carol makes a choking sound, rubbing a little harder. But after a moment she looks at Therese again, smiling breathlessly, “I think we’ll have to get you a different one, Darling.”

Therese frowns. “Why?”

“The one I wore isn’t adjustable. And you’re smaller than me.”

Therese considers this, looking a little sulky, until something bright and wicked enters her eyes. She leans close to Carol again. Sucks her bottom lip into her mouth and lets it go with a little bite that makes Carol gasp.

“You like me small,” Therese observes.

Carol arches her back, frowns in confusion, “W-what?”

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed,” Therese replies, angling her thrust a little different, so that now it presses against Carol’s G-spot on every entry, like a bell ringing with pleasure. “You like being taller than me. Standing over me. Picking me up and carrying me around and fucking me.”

Carol groans, head tipping back as the pleasure starts to intensify between her legs. Therese takes advantage of her new position to start mouthing and licking at her bared throat, teeth scraping against the tendons.

“I like it, too,” Therese murmurs. “How tall you are. How strong you are. It makes me so wet.”

“T-Therese,” Carol gasps, fingers circling urgently, thighs starting to shake.

“I love it when you top me like that,” Therese murmurs, and sucks hard on her collarbone, hard enough Carol knows there will be a mark, something hidden under the neckline of the shirt she’ll wear to court. A talisman. “But,” Therese adds, drawing back and licking at her handiwork. “I gotta say… when the tables are turned—when you’re spread out like this for me and just… taking it. God, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”  

The words feel so illicit, so dirty, so—freeing. Then all at once Therese’s thrusts are speeding up. Not gradually, but instantly, hard, commanding. Carol chokes on a cry. She starts rubbing her fingers harder, faster, trying to keep up. It feels so good; she’s so close—

“Oh, baby, yes.”   

“That’s it,” Therese tells her. “Let go.”

It’s as if her body has just been waiting for permission. Her back bows, one leg kicking out as release rolls over her like an avalanche. Therese keeps going, every thrust a lance of sensation between her trembling thighs, and Therese’s teeth are on her shoulder, biting down as Carol seizes and gasps. Awash in the sweetness of it, she takes everything she can, before at last her fingers still, and Therese’s fingers still, and she relaxes, moaning, into the mattress.

They lay quiet for some time, Carol with her eyes closed, breathing shallow. She revels in the tenderness of Therese’s mouth, trailing across her shoulders and neck and chest, little kisses like gifts of tenderness. When Carol finally has the energy to open her eyes again, she looks blinkingly up into her lover’s face, her lover’s bright, angelic smile. Those green eyes. God, Carol is lost.

It’s in this exquisite aftermath that all their peace is ruptured by the very unwelcome trilling of Carol’s phone.

“Fuck,” Carol mutters.

Therese groans, putting her face in her neck. “Don’t answer it.”

“Hold on.”

Carol’s arm flails out toward the bedside table, reaching for her phone. If it’s Maurice or Abby she’ll ignore it, of course, but if it’s Rindy, then—

It’s not Rindy.

“It’s Fred,” Carol says, surprised and instantly anxious.

Therese’s head pops up again, a little frown creasing her brow. “You’d better get it.”

Carol answers.

“Fred? Don’t tell me you’re working on a Sunday afternoon.”

He laughs—that’s a good sign, right? He wouldn’t be laughing if the world was about to end, would he?

“I’ll tell you what, Carol, I wouldn’t for just anyone, but you are worth the exception.”

“What’s going on?”

“I just got a very strange call from Jerry Rix.”

Harge’s lawyer. Carol’s stomach plummets. She sits up and Therese moves enough to let her, and then they are both sitting against the headboard. Carol puts the phone on speaker.

“What did he want?”

“He wants to meet with us first thing in the morning. He and Harge.”

Carol looks at Therese, whose face must mirror her confusion and uncertainty.

“We’re due in court at 1:00.”

“I know.”

“So what is this about?”

“He wouldn’t say. He was being cagy, even for him. But I think we should do it, Carol.”

As tense as her own body has become, Carol is even more attuned to the tension in Therese. There’s fear in her eyes, and Carol knows that right now she’s battling every instinct that tells her any unexpected move is a pretense to violence. Carol cups a hand to her cheek and looks into her eyes, willing her without words to breathe. After a moment the worst of the panic retreats from Therese’s eyes, but she still looks worried.

“Carol?” Fred asks.

“And what if it’s just some eleventh hour manipulation?” Carol asks. “An attempt to rattle us before the hearing? Or drop some new bomb? Harge is used to getting what he wants at the drop of a hat. I don’t want to pander to him.”

“Ordinarily I would agree,” says Fred. “Except Rix wasn’t quite himself on the call, Carol. He gives the most arrogant lawyers I’ve ever met a run for their money, but he didn’t sound arrogant this time. Or confident, for that matter. He sounded rattled and unhappy. Whatever they have to say, I think we may want to hear it.”

Carol considers in silence for a few moments, weighing the possibility that this is all a power play against the possibility that this could, somehow, mean less trauma for Therese and for Rindy and for Carol herself.

“Where do they want to meet?” she asks.

“Home turf. My office at nine.”

At that, Carol looks to Therese, lifting a brow in query. For a moment, Therese is silent, gnawing on her bottom lip. Finally, she gives a short nod. That’s all Carol needs.

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

<><><> 

Jerry Rix gets to Harge’s office first, followed by the court stenographer. Harge is the last to arrive, unusual for him, and he pauses in the doorway, as if startled to see so many eyes on him. Carol meets his stare for one hard moment, and then he looks away, adjusting his tie and going to join his lawyer on the other side of the table. Carol observes him, his hair slicked back, his suit pristine—his face tight and slightly pale. She isn’t expecting that. It gives her a modicum of confidence. Tense and anxious and angry as she is, she knows that she at least looks well-rested.

That’s Therese’s doing. After Fred’s phone call they took a shower and ordered take-out and watched Schitt’s Creek until after nine, at which Therese shut off the tv, turned to look at her, long and serious—and then proceeded to make love to her for more than two hours. Carol’s thighs are still sore from trembling. She doesn’t even know how many times she came, her lover never satisfied, each reprieve full of kissing and touching and tenderness, before Therese would descend on her again. Insatiable. Either Carol fell asleep or blacked out. Either way, she slept straight through to 7:30. It was both blisteringly hot—and unspeakably beautiful.

“Now,” says Jerry Rix briskly, snapping her back into the present. By rights Fred should begin the conversation, as this is his office, but Rix is used to dominating every conversation. What a perfect lawyer for Harge. “We appreciate you agreeing to meet us this morning,” he continues, looking over his glasses at Fred (a tight smile) and then Carol (a grimace). “There are just a few things we’d like to discuss before this afternoon.”

“You’ve had almost three weeks to schedule a meeting, Jerry,” says Fred, his tone calm and professional but nonetheless faintly chastising. “What can possibly have happened at the last minute to—”

Jerry speaks over him, “We’ve reviewed your witness list and your… evidence.” He pauses, and then, as if he just can’t help himself, blurts out, “Look, I don’t see how you plan to make this bribing allegation stick. Neither Mr. Tucker nor Mr. Semco ever saw Mr. Aird bribe Ms. Belivet. As for the check itself—it’s entirely possible Ms. Ross has one of her husband’s checkbooks.” Carol’s eyes flash toward Harge, stunned, incensed, but he is staring down at his hands. Rix says, “Given all that, this really comes down to Ms. Belivet’s word against Mr. Aird’s, and I don’t see why you would assume that she’ll come out on top.”

Carol barely stops herself from leaping across the table. “That’s absurd.”

And Fred says, “Is this your plan, Jerry? Paint Ms. Belivet as a liar?”

“Just hold your horses, Fred—”

“Because if this is the way you want to go, believe me—”

“—she’s a twenty-something bartender who’s clearly enamored of Ms. Ross—”

“—we can get just as nasty with you as you seem to want to get with us, and—” 

“—and if we want to we can prove—”

“Jerry!”

Harge’s voice, deep, imposing, cuts through the other two men like a knife. Everyone looks at him, and he looks around at the table, and the look at his face—Carol has never seen it before.

“May I speak?” he asks. And he sounds calm, but… vulnerable. His words create a vacuous silence, and then he is half-turning to Jerry, telling him, “I won’t deny that I wrote that check—”

Jerry whirls on the stenographer, “This is off the record, honey.”

“It might as well be on the record,” Harge replies.

Silence again. Carol can only stare at him. For a moment he avoids her stare, and then, suddenly, he looks directly at her. Quietly he asks, “Is Therese all right?”

Carol blinks, not sure if she’s hearing him correctly. Up from her memories of that terrible night in the hospital, she recalls him asking her to let him know if Therese was all right. She ignored him, of course, never let him know anything. And yet, now—

“She’s recovered,” Carol says, slow and cautious. “You traumatized her, Harge.”

Jerry Rix barks out, “Hold on, can we just take a break—”

“No, Jerry,” snaps Harge. “We’re not taking a break.” He looks at Carol again, and suddenly she knows what that foreign look on his face is: regret. And shame. He says, “I never meant her to get hurt, Carol. I realize that may mean nothing to you now but… I really did think she was just using you for your money.”

Carol’s jaw works, her nostrils flare, her anger nearly overpowering her—the insult of it. Not just to Therese but to Carol herself. And he—

“I went too far,” says Harge. “And I genuinely… regret it.”

More silence. The sound of the stenographer’s typing pauses. The two lawyers glance at each other uncertainly, but Carol ignores them. She stares at Harge. She gives him nothing, no warmth, no forgiveness, only cold, watchful silence.  

“We asked for this meeting for a reason,” says Harge, casting a look at Rix that proves they have already argued about this. The older lawyer is scowling down at his notepad. Harge says, “I’ve spoken to the Board, and they’ve agreed to make my position in Boston a two-year stint. Long enough to get the office up and running and…” He pauses, grimaces. “Long enough to get my head on straight. In the meantime… I think that Carol should have full custody of Rindy.”

Carol’s heart seizes in her chest. Beside her, she feels Fred’s body tighten in surprise.

Harge continues. “It’s not what I want, but I… I feel it in my bones that this is… this is what’s right for my daughter.” He swallows down a slight hoarseness, eyes on the table, before they suddenly snap to Carol’s again. “Now I want visits with her, Carol. Regular visits. I can come down on weekends if I have to and… I’d still like to have her for the vacation at my parent’s house in July. If you can agree to that, then… Jerry has the papers drawn up already. We can present them to the judge this afternoon.”

For a moment Carol can’t speak, utterly baffled and amazed and—suspicious. Doubtful. It can’t be this easy. After everything, it can’t possibly be this easy for her. Or him.

Coldly she asks, “Is this because you don’t want us to smear you on the record?”

His nostrils flare, some of the old, arrogant Harge showing for a moment, before he lets out his breath.

“If I thought it was what’s best for Rindy, I’d let you smear me in front of the whole world,” he says. “If I had realized how wrong I was to assume you would come to Boston with me, I would never have agreed to take the position. But that was my error, and what’s done is done.” A clearing of the throat. His eyes are down and his mouth still pinched, as if what he has to say is eating him alive. “I’ve realized, since… since that night, the—the mess we’re about to make of our daughter’s life. You saw it, Carol, and I couldn’t. I was too angry. But I see it now and I see that I’m… responsible. I need to make it right. I want to make it right.” He stops again. Jaw clenching, again. As if he cannot bear anymore humility, any more humiliation, he asks, “Will you grant me visitation?”

It occurs to Carol for the first time what Fred has already suggested but which she has been unable to believe: able as they are to prove that Harge practically stalked Therese, spied on Carol, bribed her lover—it’s possible a judge would strip him of any access to Rindy, grant sole custody to Carol and cut her father out. Perhaps this offer is more an effort to avoid that consequence, than to make amends for his actions.

But Carol, looking at him… she’s suddenly reminded of what sincerity looks like, on his face. She has a flashing memory of him, the evening she showed him the positive pregnancy test. The way his face lit up. His wide, boyish grin, delighted and amazed. He got up from the table and came to kneel in front of her. He pushed up her shirt and rubbed his five o’clock shadow against her flat belly, all while she laughed and stroked the hair off his forehead. When he looked up at her, there were tears in his eyes…  

“All right,” says Carol, her voice steady despite the emotion rising inside her, a combination of relief and sorrow, of joy and regret, over all their marriage meant and failed to mean. She continues, “Visitation. Including the week in Florida, and…” A moment of hesitation, of questioning herself. But in the end, it feels right. “She can spend July and August in Boston, as well.”

Harge’s eyes widen, stunned. It’s obvious he didn’t even think she would agree to visitation.

Carol asks Rix, “Can you adjust the papers to reflect that?”

Rix looks at her as if he thinks this whole thing is a scheme she concocted through black magic and feminine wiles. “Yes,” he grumbles.

Carol looks at Harge again, and his voice is soft and genuine as he tells her, “Thank you.”

He is not the young and optimistic man she married. He is not the one she tried to love. He has not repaired the damage of his actions, and Carol does not forgive him. Not yet. Maybe not ever, for all of it. But in his expression she sees something she never expected:

A chance to make it right.

Chapter Text

Therese stares at the email for a long time, her heart hammering. She can’t decide what she’s feeling. Something… strong. Something that makes her feel a little confused and strange. She generally tries not to check her phone when she’s out with Dannie. But he went to the bathroom and Therese has felt restless ever since she and Carol parted ways forty five minutes ago. Dannie’s offer to get breakfast together before her 9:30 class seemed like a great way to stop herself from pacing the apartment in near panic.

But now he’s in the restroom and Carol is about to go into her meeting with Harge and the waiter hasn’t brought the meal yet, so it was instinct that drove her to get out her phone and check her messages. Only she wasn’t expecting this message. Wasn’t expecting it, and doesn’t know how to react.

“What’d I miss?” Dannie asks, slipping back into the booth. Therese looks up at him, and his eyes immediately widen in concern. “T, what’s up?”

She doesn’t know what to say, so she just passes him the phone. He reads the email slowly, glances at her, and then reads it again.

“Well, shit,” he says at last.

“Yeah,” Therese murmurs, and looks out the window.

For a moment neither of them says anything, before at last, cautious, Dannie asks, “Are you okay?”

Is she okay? She’s been waiting to hear about the Amsterdam program for months. Waiting, and worrying. Worrying what it will mean, for her professional life. For her and Carol.

“I’m not… sure,” she finally admits, still looking out the window. Spring has officially sprung, and there’s bright sunshine spilling over the sidewalks, and pedestrians strolling by with their dogs on leashes, tank tops and shorts, sunglasses. It’s a day for going out. For taking pictures. She imagines her and Carol, strolling together through Central Park, hand-in-hand. She remembers her fantasy, of strolling along the streets of Amsterdam with her…

“Look,” Dannie says, “It’s their fucking loss, okay? It says right here there were only ten slots and like, four hundred people applied. I seriously doubt whoever got it was any more qualified than you are. It’s just… one of those fucking things, right?”

“Right,” says Therese absently, conscious of the furrow in her own brow.

The waiter appears, setting plates of French toast in front of them. Something she and Dannie always get together. Piled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. It smells delicious.   

“Dollface, come on. Say something. You’re not gonna hari-kari on me right here, are you?”

At that, Therese’s gaze snaps toward him again, and she can feel the burning in her eyes, tears gathering. Dannie looks suddenly panicked.

“T—” he says.

“I’m so—” Therese stops, swallows hard, “I’m so… so relieved.”

 Dannie’s eyes widen again, and then crinkle in surprise.

“Really?”

“Yeah!” Therese exclaims, and then blurts a laugh that is almost a sob, and rubs her eyes and says breathlessly, “I didn’t even—I didn’t even realize until right now how much I’ve been… dreading this! I applied because my professors wanted me to. I thought it was the right thing, you know, the next step? Leveling up or something. It would look so good on my resume, but… besides the fact it was in Amsterdam, it was never something I wanted for me, you know? I wanted Amsterdam. I wanted to travel and take pictures and—and—be with Carol.” She releases another short sob, all her emotions bubbling up. “But Carol can’t go to Amsterdam with me and I don’t want to go do something I don’t even care about if it means being away from her for three fucking weeks! And now I don’t have to make that decision. I don’t have to fight myself over what I want versus what I think I should do and… Jesus, Dannie!” She laughs again, and Dannie laughs, his beautiful smile as wide as his face and his hand slipping across the table to grab hers. She grabs him back, and shakes her head in disbelief. “I’m so fucking relieved!”

“Fuck, T,” Dannie laughs again. “When’s the last time you said that many words to me in one go? I thought for sure you would be pissed.”

“Well, I am pissed!” Therese scoffs, feeling gleeful. “Those fuckers should have definitely given me a spot.”

“Damn fucking right.”

“They probably admitted a bunch of rich assholes who had the inside connection.”

“Fucking fuckers.”

“And I would have been amazing in that program!”

“Hell yeah!”

Therese erupts with giggles, the two of them winding each other up with louder and louder exclamations, until she concludes again, “But now I don’t have to go!”

Dannie lifts his glass of orange juice, “Cheers to that!” he cries, and Therese lifts her glass, and they clink, grinning widely at each other.

Therese feels giddy, elated. She wants to tell Carol and feels guilty because who knows what Carol is going through right now, but even so—

“Hold on a sec,” Dannie is suddenly frowning again, glass still held aloft. “Does this mean you don’t want to do the Berlin thing, either?”

Therese barks a laugh. She grabs her fork and starts tucking into her French toast. “You mean the two month program I can’t possibly afford?”

“I thought Harkevy was gonna hook you up with funding or something?”

Therese takes her first delicious mouthful of French toast, too delighted by the sweetness blooming across her tongue to be bothered about this other subject matter. She shrugs, says with her mouth full, “He can secure me a stipend but it’s actually really small. It wouldn’t be enough for rent or flights or anything. Plus the tuition for the seminar itself isn’t cheap, and the program includes a lot of trips, including three stints in Paris, Prague, and Rome.”

“What if Carol helped you?”

Therese shrugs, taking another bite. Dannie gives her a look.

“Are we on this again?” he demands. “You refusing to take help because you’re too proud to—”

“Dannie, I’ve priced it out. With all the travel and living expenses, and even including the stipend, it would cost almost $10,000. I like Harkevy—he’s a sweetheart, but I don’t think he has a realistic understanding of what poor means. And Carol may be comfortable, but she’s not ‘drop-ten-grand-at-the-drop-of-a-hat’ comfortable.”

“She wants to live in fucking Manhattan,” Dannie grouses. “I think she’s more comfortable than you realize. And she said she wanted to help. Why the fuck wouldn’t you give that chance?”

Therese just shrugs again, still riding the high of her relief about Amsterdam, and not about to let the photography seminar bring her down. But then Dannie takes her hand again, and she meets his eyes.

“T,” he says, more serious than usual. “Tell me the truth.”

Therese swallows her mouthful. She sighs. She looks out the window at the passing pedestrians again, and finally, looks back.

“Listen,” she says, and her voice is serious, too. “I’m not saying I’m not terrified that something will go wrong at the custody hearing, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure we’re going to win. Which means that chances are, Harge is going to get Rindy for the summers. Carol’s never been away from her before—not like that, not that long. She acts like it’ll be okay but I know it won’t. She’ll be lonely, and sad, and honestly, probably a little lost without Rindy around. And I’m supposed to, what? Ditch her for two months? She can’t come with me. She’s got a job now. The shop is opening in like three weeks.”

“So you’re gonna give up the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Dannie, “because you don’t want Carol to be alone?”  

“I’m going to give up one opportunity,” Therese returns, “because I love Carol.”

Dannie says nothing for a moment, like maybe he’s trying to figure out how to change her mind, and then he releases an aggrieved sigh. “Damn, Belivet. You really are whipped.”

Therese throws a straw wrapper at him. Dannie bats it aside, but he still looks glum, poking at his French toast. Therese narrows her eyes in suspicion.

“What’s got you so excited to see me leave the country?”

“What?” Dannie looks instantly guilty. “Nothing! I just believe in you, is all, and I want you to go after your dreams and see the world and shit and maybe, you know, invite me to crash with you for a long weekend or something.”

Therese’s brows shoot up. “You selfish bitch!” she laughs. “You don’t care about me following my dreams! You just want to go to Europe.”

“That is not true!” Dannie cries. Then, with a wince, “I mean, it’s true that I want to go to Europe—but I’m not trying to ride your coattails! I was excited about this for you. I wanted to see it happen. And anyway, if I want to go to Europe I can get myself there just fine. You may not want to take advantage of your sugar mama, but I don’t have your scruples.”

“Huh?”

Finally, his moping evaporates, replaced by a Cheshire grin. “Let’s just say Harkevy is a sweetheart, and he’s invited me to Berlin, like, six times. If I wanna go, he’d let me stay with him.”

Therese’s jaw drops. “You and Harkevy?”

How did she not know this was happening?

Dannie shrugs, his grin slightly bashful now. “Look, it’s not you and Carol’s big love affair of the century, but… I like him and we have fun together. And he’s really good in bed. Like, surprisingly good for a guy in his forties; I don’t even think he uses Viagra.”

“Yuck, Dannie, gross,” Therese winces. “I don’t want to think about you like that.”

“Whatever, prude.”

Therese scoffs, and feels a secret thrill down in her belly. She is far from a prude. Just thinking about how not-prudish she and Carol have been over the past few days has her smirking. And the memories of last night, how Carol gave herself to her so unabashedly, coming over and over—

“Yuck!” Dannie cries. “Gross!”

“What!?” Therese exclaims, defensive.

“I can see it on your face—you’re memory fucking Carol, right here in front of God and all our breakfast. Knock it off.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Baby Queer.”

“Damn right I am.”

<><><> 

Therese can barely concentrate in class. Luckily her professor is thrilled to see her present and recovered and her classmates are similarly relieved, so no one seems to notice or care that she’s a little less on the ball with her participation than normal. Fuck it, she’s acing the class anyway. And it’s really hard to care about modeling corporate transactions when all she wants to do is check her phone to see if she’s heard from Carol. It’s 10:15 and she’s still got half an hour before she’ll know anything about how the meeting with the lawyers went.

Was it an ambush? Or an olive branch?

If Harge hurts Carol again, Therese will kill him. Or at the very least, obliterate him in court tomorrow. As terrifying as that prospect has been to her, the more she thinks about what Harge has put them through, the more she realizes how little they have deserved his actions, the more prepared she is to go to fucking war—

“Therese?”

Her eyes snap toward her professor, who is smiling kindly.

“What do you think?”

Therese, who has managed to process the conversation around her even with her thoughts on other, more important things, offers an opinion that, if not as deft and elegant as she normally attempts, at least seems to satisfy the class. Murmurs and nods of agreement all around. The professor shifts their conversation toward a case study in their textbook. Therese scans the page in front of her; she read it all yesterday, knows the material, but doesn’t want to get caught flat-footed. She forces herself to engage more in the following discussion, if for no other reason than that it stops her spinning out with worries about Carol.

After class the professor holds her back to see how she’s feeling and if she has any questions. Therese barely keeps from tapping her foot with impatience. By the time he finally lets her go, she feels like a tuning fork, violently vibrating. She dashes from the classroom, out into the mild Spring day, and yanks her phone out of her pocket.

A voicemail from Carol.

Hi, baby.  

She sounds tired, but not traumatized.

I know you’re in class but I just wanted to let you know that everything is okay. I can tell you more later, but short version is you’re not going to have to testify after all.

A quick laugh, emotional and relieved and Therese’s chest tightens with hope.

We get full custody. Harge gets visitation.

Her voice breaks.

We win, Therese.

Standing on the sidewalk, Therese feels her eyes well with tears, her own happiness and relief and pure joy for Carol overwhelming her. She listens as Carol clears her throat, clearly wrestling for control.

Look, I’ve got to head into a debrief with Fred but I should be done by 11:00. Call me, would you? I want to hear your voice. I love you.

Therese spends the next fifteen minutes pacing in front of a Starbucks and debating whether to buy a pack of cigarettes because she’s nervous as fuck but Carol will kill her if she finds out she smoked, something she hasn’t done since she was hospitalized. At 11:05 Therese calls Carol.

She picks up on the first ring.

“Angel…”

Her voice is a sigh of happiness, and Therese starts smiling so wide her face hurts. “It’s done?” she asks.

“Well, not done exactly; we still have to talk to the judge at 1:00. But we came to an agreement. Harge will visit her two weekends a month, and she’ll spend two months in Boston during the summer. The rest of the time, she’s with us.”

“Full custody,” says Therese.

“Full custody,” Carol agrees.

Still grinning helplessly, Therese cradles the phone to her ear. “Carol, I’m so… so glad.”

A little laugh from Carol. “I know. I—I think I’m in shock, to be honest. I’ve been texting with Abby and I don’t know how it’s possibly to literally hear her screaming from across Manhattan, but let’s just say, she’s pleased.” Therese beams, giggling and almost bouncing where she stands, so delighted she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Carol says, “All I want is for this day to be over so I can be with you and Rindy, but Abby is insisting that we come to hers for dinner tonight, to celebrate.”

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Therese says firmly.

“I know, but Rindy has been asking when she gets to see her again and, in a way I guess… I guess there’s nothing wrong with celebrating. Abby wants you to invite Dannie, and I think she’s going to ask Harkevy and Maurice to come, too. And Lou, of course—I swear, I am this close to getting her to admit that woman is her girlfriend. I might need to get her tipsy but we’re on the verge.”

Therese laughs. She hasn’t even met Lou, yet, but from what Carol says, she thinks she’ll like her. And like her for Abby. “This dinner sounds like a party,” she says. 

“So long as nobody says a word about custody to Rindy, of course,” Carol says. “Harge and I plan to explain it to her together.” At that, she grows more solemn. “I’m really not sure how she’s going to feel about it.” 

Therese wishes in this moment that she could gather Carol into her arms. Instead, she makes her voice as low and soothing as she can. “It will be hard. But Rindy has two parents who love her. Not having to shuffle constantly between homes will be good for her. And you are an amazing mother, Carol. She’s going to be okay.”

After a pause, Carol lets out a breath, “Thank you, Darling. I—thank you.”

Therese smiles, and then, hoping to distract her from morose thoughts, “You’ve got a couple of hours to kill. What are you going to do?”

Carol snorts, “Fuck if I know. There’s a mall near here. I may just engage in some retail therapy to keep myself from completely losing it.”

“You should do whatever you want,” Therese tells her fiercely. “Buy yourself a goddamn diamond if you want one. You deserve it.”

This meets with silence on the other end. Therese frowns, checking to make sure the call hasn’t disconnected—and then Carol’s voice comes through, low and calm:

“I think I’ll save the diamond for another occasion.”

Goosebumps erupt across Therese’s skin, her body stopping in its tracks as she tries, blinking rapidly, to figure out if she heard what she thought she just heard and if it meant what she thought it meant and—

“Did I lose you?” asks Carol. And Therese can’t be sure, but she thinks there’s just the tiniest hint of vulnerability in her voice.

“No,” Therese tells her. “You could never.”

<><><> 

They take the elevator up to Abby’s apartment together, Rindy stood between them and holding a hand each, swinging their arms as she chats about her friend Connor and his new puppy and aren’t puppies so cute and she thinks they should get a puppy someday, like, tomorrow, maybe?

“My, how sudden,” says Carol drily.

“I’ll take care of it, Mommy, I promise!” Rindy says.

“That’s quite a lot of work for such a little girl.”

“But puppies are little too! It’s perfect!”

“I think you should tell your Aunt Abby to get a puppy. Then you can come visit it here. How about that?”

Therese chokes on a laugh, eyes shooting to Carol’s whose own eyes shine fiendishly. Oh, she and Abby will be at war over this.

Rindy says, “Okay. But just until I get a puppy of my own!”

“Of course, Sweetheart.”

They exit the elevator, strolling down the hall to Abby’s apartment. Therese can’t help remembering the first time she took this walk with Carol. New Year’s, in the middle of the night, both of them quiet and tense and Therese herself so nervous she thought she might throw up. Full of fear and full of desire and full of hope.

Carol knocks on the door and then glances over at her, something tender in her eyes that shows Therese she is thinking of the same thing.

“Memories?” she drawls.

Therese blushes a little, and then the door opens, Abby grinning at them and Rindy running into her arms.

“There she is!” Abby cries, scooping her up. “And how are you, Ms. Nerinda?”

“Aunt Abby, Mommy says you’ll buy me a puppy.”

“Oh, did she now?”

“No, she did not,” says Carol.

“How about, instead of a puppy, you help me get that very sugary fruit punch out of the fridge and you can have as much as you want!?”

They tear off together. Carol sighs. “Abby doesn’t play fair.”

Therese smirks, reaching over to take Carol’s hand and give it a squeeze. Carol smiles back at her, but then frowns.

“Darling, are you sure you’re up for this?”

Therese rolls her eyes, “Carol, I told you, I’m fine.”

“I know, I just—”

“And not, like, I’m fine but secretly miserable and headed toward a breakdown. I’m really, truly relieved.”

Carol keeps frowning. When Therese told her about the email from the Amsterdam program, she looked stricken, all her triumph from the day blinking out in her immediate concern for Therese. It’s why Therese almost didn’t tell her, tonight. But after a good long talk that somehow managed to skirt any mention of Harkevy’s photography program (she’d like to save that for another time), Carol finally seemed to believe her—though apparently, she still has her doubts. Therese steps up close to her, rising on her tip toes to give her a chaste kiss, a wide and sincere smile.

“I’m okay. All right? I promise.”

At last Carol takes a deep breath and lets it out, her smile more genuine, her eyes warm with tenderness. She seems just about to say something, when—

“So this is the famous Therese!”

A woman has approached whom Therese recognizes from Abby’s birthday party. Tall and lanky, with platinum blonde hair that half-obscures her bright blue eyes, she is one of the chicest people Therese has ever seen. She’s chewing gum and grinning, hand stretched out. Therese likes her immediately.

“And you must be Lou?”

“Guilty as charged,” she replies, and her Australian accent is sexy as hell. “Honey, I’ve been wanting to meet you for ages. I’m so glad you’re doing okay—Abby was so worried about you.”

Therese’s eyes widen in surprise. She knows that Abby likes her, of course, but Carol’s best friend is such an acerbic and smirky creature, it’s hard sometimes to know what that really means. While she was in the hospital, Abby visited twice, all bluster and jokes about the hot nurses, and when Therese got back to Carol’s, she stopped by several times, usually with food and more jokes. Therese had assumed it was a normal routine, that Abby was always over at Carol’s house. But—

Whatever expression is on Therese’s face, it makes Lou’s grin widen into something dazzling and playful. “Don’t tell me she’s fooled you with that brash New Yorker act. Abby is a stone cold softy on the inside.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her!” Carol exclaims. “She’s always half-convinced Abby only tolerates her.”

A bright laugh from Lou. “I don’t think that woman tolerates anyone she doesn’t like. I had to work my ass off to get her tolerate me.”

“And what a fine ass it is,” declares Abby, rejoining them. Lou loops an arm over her shoulders and they look at each other with smiles so bright and easy that Therese’s heart sings with joy.

“Don’t tell me you abandoned my daughter with a jug of fruit juice,” Carol moans.

“Relax, Harkevy’s got her. Apparently Therese here taught her how to take pictures with a smartphone and she was very eager to educate H.”

Therese glows with pride. She’s been nervous to see Harkevy tonight, not wanting to break it to him that the summer in Europe isn’t happening, but the idea of him being “taught” to take photos by Rindy Aird is so delightful it squashes all her fears.  

Abby ushers them into the living room, where Dannie is already planted in front of the coffee table with its spread of charcuterie. Soon Therese has a glass of wine in one hand and Carol’s knee resting under the other as they sit on the couch and listen to Lou regale them with stories about Melbourne. Not fifteen minutes later, Maurice and his partner Henry arrive—more people in Carol’s life whom Therese hasn’t met, and who turn out to be just as kind and warm and interesting as she suspected.

And Therese likes these people. She likes them. She likes the way that some of them have known each other for years, and some of them have just met, and yet they are all as comfortable as family. She likes how Lou makes Abby laugh and she likes how Dannie looks at Harkevy, like maybe he’s a little sweeter on him than he let on. She likes how Rindy proceeds to give them all a lesson on smartphone photography, eight adults following her lead with utmost seriousness. She likes the life she can imagine, with these people around her.

And most of all, she likes Carol’s wide and happy smile, the brilliant twinkle in her eyes, the perfection of her face and body and every gesture. How she laughs. How she moves. How easy she is to love.

In time food arrives care of the local Greek restaurant, because Abby says she couldn’t be fucked to cook. At the sight of the food, Therese feels her cheeks pink, remembering the last time she had Greek food. She glances at Carol, and Carol gives her a wicked look, then leans in to kiss her cheek—and nip at her earlobe.

“You don’t mind Greek again so soon, do you, Dearest?” she asks.

Therese chuckles. “Not at all. I barely tasted it, last time.”

“Is that so?” Carol murmurs.

Therese gives her a look, then leans closer to graze their noses together, to murmur against her parted lips, “I had other tastes on my mind.”

Carol’s pupils dilate, but—

“Hey!” Abby barks from the table, where she is laying out plates. “Enough with the hanky panky! Come eat!”

It’s later, when they have all gorged themselves on the food and are sitting around the table drinking coffee and enjoying conversation, that Maurice on Therese’s left side leans toward her.

“And how are you, Ms. Belivet?” he asks.

This brand of gentile friendliness makes Therese laugh, pleased. “I’m wonderful, Mr. Washington, and how are you?”

His eyes twinkle. “Delighted to have finally made your acquaintance. You have quite bewitched our dear Carol.”

Together they look into the living room, where Carol is setting up a movie for Rindy.

“It was a mutual bewitching,” she says.

He laughs, and the rich deepness of it makes Therese feel a totally unaccountable sensation of safety. Often men with deep voices make her nervous, the little girl in her reacting to embedded memories of the hyper-masculine boyfriends who shouted and threatened in her mother’s home. But it is impossible to feel threatened by Maurice, because Maurice exudes the gentle calm of a deep and lazy river.

“Then you are well-suited to each other,” he says approvingly. “Which, I admit, turns out very well for me! I’ve already benefited from it once; I intend to do so again!”

Therese smiles in confusion, “Benefited? How?”

He chuckles, a rumbly sound in his chest. “When I asked Carol to manage the shop, I knew I’d be committing her to an unpleasant commute, living out in Jersey as she does. But with you living in the city—I felt as though you lifted that obstacle away.”

Therese grins. “Oh, I see. Very mercenary of you, Maurice.”

“Yes, I am a scoundrel.” 

“What’s this?” asks Carol, joining them again. She slips into the chair on Therese’s other side, and Therese’s pushes her own chair back so they can all see each other. Carol’s hand linking with hers under the table is a simple, sweet pleasure. “What makes Maurice a scoundrel?”

“Taking advantage of you wanting to be closer to me,” Therese grins, “when he offered you the job.”

Carol snorts with laughter, “Yes, that was definitely in your favor, you scheming queen.”

A barrel laugh. He says, “Yes, I am full of schemes. And I have a new one, in fact. I was honestly not sure how it would go over, but with this recent resolution of—” he glances toward Rindy; lowers his voice, “—of the custody issue, and with this news I hear that Harkevy means to sweep you off to Berlin, Ms. Belivet—well, I am surer than ever that my scheme will work.”

Some of the pleasure goes out of Therese, replaced by confusion and a tick of anxiety. Beside her, Carol looks confused. “Maurice, what are you talking about?”

The older man’s eyes glitter mischievously; he seems almost bursting with the thing he wants to say, and then—

“Simply this, my dear. Half the pieces from my father’s estate are already earmarked for sale to collectors across the continent. We are set to need fresh stock as early as September. Henry and I are going to travel the States acquiring new pieces. But you, my dear—” he pauses theatrically, and then the beat drops: “I want to send you to Europe.”

Chapter Text

They decide to spend the night at Therese’s, turning the sofa into a bed for Rindy, which she would be much more excited about it she weren’t completely cashed out by the time they get home, just after 10:00. The original plan was for Carol to take Rindy back to Jersey, and Therese to spend the night alone, since she has class in the morning, but after Maurice’s revelations, it seems imperative that they not part ways tonight.

Carol feels a little… untethered, if she’s honest with herself. The information from Maurice was shock enough, a totally unexpected scheme that he has apparently been plotting for two weeks. But more than the prospect of spending half the summer in Europe, it’s Therese’s reaction that has Carol feeling nervous and unsure of herself.

It’s not that Therese reacted badly. She listened to the whole plot with no overt signs of displeasure or refusal. Carol was so busy cutting glances at her that she hardly understood half of what Maurice said. But the gist of it is pretty clear: Maurice has contacts all over Germany, and others in Prague and Paris. He wants her to tour the shops and estates of over two dozen contacts and build a pipeline. As he knows very well (and as Carol does, too) the New York City elite will lap up the opportunity to purchase pieces from Europe. With the funding he’s secured from the sale of his father’s estate, as well as a couple of San Francisco investors, Carol will have carte blanche to select a whole catalogue of pieces.

And, she’ll be with Therese.

But Therese was quiet on the car ride home, and Therese is quiet now, as she pulls a blanket over Rindy and makes sure Rindy’s lion is carefully tucked under her arm. She’s quiet as she walks into the bedroom, Carol in her wake, and starts taking off her clothes, getting ready for bed. No doubt aware that Carol is watching her, she throws her a slightly amused smile. But her eyes are  solemn.

“Angel,” Carol murmurs. “Talk to me.”

Therese sighs, pushing her hair out of her eyes. She’s down to her underwear and Carol thinks she looks very small in this moment, small and worried. As Carol watches she discards her bra and takes an oversized t-shirt out of her dresser, pulling it over her head. It dwarfs her, skimming the top of her thighs, adorable. She goes to the bed and sits, eyes averted for a moment, before at last she looks at Carol.

“I was planning to tell you,” she says, “that I had decided not to go to Europe.”

Carol says nothing for several moments, considering. And then, “Because of the expense?”

Notably, Maurice’s scheme meant that he would be paying for Carol to keep an apartment in Berlin, as well funding her trips to Paris, Prague, and Rome—all of which would benefit Therese’s budget by association. If expense was Therese’s reason for giving up the program, there’s no excuse now. But Therese gives a little shrug, bottom lip between her teeth, eyes cast aside again. “Partly,” she admits. “But also because… I didn’t want you to be alone, if Harge had Rindy.”

Carol is momentarily stunned. Then, something melts inside her, warmth spreading through her limbs. That Therese would have given up Europe for that, for her—she doesn’t know if anyone has ever done something like that for her. Probably not. It is one of the purest, most selfless acts Carol can imagine. So of course Therese would have done it. Carol can just imagine the argument they might have had, as she tried in vain to change Therese’s mind. Happily, an argument they don’t have to have.

Except… Therese doesn’t look like someone who no longer has to make a sacrifice for the woman she loves. Therese’s little brow is furrowing, her thoughts clearly at war. Carol doesn’t want to bully it out of her, but the sight makes her feel restless. Needing something to do, she starts to take off her own clothes, stripping down efficiently and conscious after a moment of Therese watching her, not lustfully, but with a supreme focus, as if her eyes can’t help themselves. Carol finds the pair of sweatpants she left here this morning, and another of Therese’s sleepshirts. The front is screen printed with a fading portrait of Ms. Piggy. Therese’s eyes land on it, and suddenly she is giggling.

Carol’s lips split with her own grin, pleased and relieved to hear Therese laugh.

“What?” Carol asks. “You don’t find this sexy? You don’t want to be my little Kermie?”

Therese laughs harder, plopping down on her back on the bed, a hand covering her face. Carol goes to her, laying down beside her and dancing fingers up her ribs. Therese yelps, grabbing her hand before she can continue, and then they are looking at each other, and smiling at each other, fingers laced. The look on Therese’s face is so sweet, so pure. The love Carol feels for her is like a physical ache, welling up in her throat, pricking the backs of her eyes. They gaze at each other for a long time, Therese’s free hand rising to trace Carol’s brow, her jaw, her lips—like she’s memorizing her.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Carol murmurs at last, as gentle as she can.

Therese keeps tracing, her eyes following the path of her finger.

“Can it really be this easy?” she whispers.

Carol frowns, confused, but before she can ask Therese what she means, Therese has a question of her own. “Do you know why I wanted to get into that institute in Amsterdam?”

Carol hesitates. “I… because it was such an incredible career opportunity?”

Therese smiles a little. “Yeah, I know that’s what was supposed to be the reason, but, really… it was this fantasy I had. Of being in Amsterdam. With you.”

The warmth already glowing in Carol’s chest expands, so sweet it aches. Traveling with Therese. A vacation, with Therese. Their planned getaway to South Carolina had to be canceled when Therese got sick, and they haven’t discussed rescheduling. They will reschedule, of course, but to be in Europe together…

Quietly, Carol tells her, “We can go to Amsterdam. We can go anywhere you want, Angel.”

“But that’s just it,” Therese’s eyes lock with hers. “I feel like… I feel like all I did was get a job in a holiday market. All I did was help a gorgeous woman find her gloves. And now I’m…” She swallows, eyes cutting away again. She looks so anxious, so small. Carol wants to gather her close, protect her, shy all her demons away. Therese says, “I never had anything growing up, Carol, don’t you understand? I never had anything. I left foster care with the clothes on my back and two hundred dollars in my pocket. And now I have… famous photographers inviting me to attend their symposiums and I’ve got… I’ve got rich furniture barons paying my way through Europe and—and I’ve got you.”

That last word breaks in Therese’s throat. Her eyes are still down but Carol can see the sheen of tears.

“You do have me, Darling,” Carol whispers. She brushes an errant tear from the apple of Therese’s cheek, and combs her fingers through her fine dark hair.

Therese swallows. Her voice is as small as a child hiding in a closet. “I’m afraid it’s all going to disappear…”

Carol considers. She asks, “Are you talking about grand trips to Europe, or something else? Because I don’t take you for someone who needs the lap of luxury to be happy.”

Therese admits softly, “I’m not talking about Europe.”

Then, very gently, Carol puts a finger under Therese’s chin, lifting her head to look at her. “Are you talking about me?” she asks. After a moment Therese gives the faintest approximation of a nod. Carol leans forward, and their lips touch, soft. “You have me,” Carol tells her again, whispering but urgent. “You have me, Therese. For as long as you want me. I’m yours. We can travel the world, or we can stay right here. We can move to Manhattan or we can move to the middle of nowhere. I don’t care what we do, so long as we’re together. So if something about this is making you uncomfortable, then we won’t go.”

Therese’s eyes widen in surprise. Carol wonders what can have surprised her so much, until, “You’d do that? You’d say no, to Maurice? Just because I…”

She trails off. Carol says simply, “Yes. If you don’t want to go, we won’t go.”

Therese swallows. There are clearly quite a lot of thoughts running through her, but Carol doesn’t press. She lets her process on her own, and finally Therese asks, her voice a little timid, but hopeful, “Do… do you want to go?”   

Carol pictures the two of them, traveling the continent. She pictures schnitzel in Berlin and cafes in Paris, sight-seeing in Rome and strolling the Karlov Most in Prague. Carol will hunt furniture and Therese will hunt for better and better photographs, and at the end of the day they’ll come together, and tell each other all they’ve learned.

“It sounds like a grand adventure, my dear,” she admits.

From Therese’s expression, she knows her young lover is thinking the same thing, is imagining it, one of those fantasies she thought she’d never have. Then a little frown creases her eyebrows. “People told me I’d never do anything. I’d never go anywhere…”

Carol releases a breath through her nostrils. She thinks she will never stop being angry—at the parents who failed a young Therese, at the men who made her feel worthless and weak, at the social workers who neglected her, at the boyfriends like Richard who couldn’t see her for what she really is.

“If only you knew how special you are, Dearest.”

At that, Therese pinks, and scoffs, no doubt trying to hide her embarrassment. “I’m not special, Carol, I’m—”

“You fucking well are,” she interrupts coolly. Therese gives her a shy look. “You’re special to everyone who knows you. You’re special to me. You came into my life out of nowhere, just—just flung out of space, and you’ve changed me. You’ve changed everything. You will always be so incredibly special, Therese.”

For a moment neither of them says anything, eyes locked, the air heavy between them. And then, slowly, an impish little smile curves Therese’s lips.

“Flung out of space?” she repeats.

Carol blushes, realizing she’s being teased. “Well—you are!”

“Does that mean I’m an alien, or—?”

“Oh, you!” Carol cries.

She climbs on top of her, kissing her, and Therese is laughing into her kiss, laughing and wrapping her arms around her. Carol presses into the cradle of her hips, and keeps kissing her, so they are as close as they can be. And before long Therese’s laughter has stopped, and she is kissing her back, deeply, beautifully.

“Carol,” she sighs, like her name itself is a balm that soothes away all cares. “Carol,” she repeats, and then, low and sweet, “Make love to me.”

Carol groans in the back of her throat. The groan turns to a growl. “With pleasure.”

Slipping the oversized t-shirt up over Therese’s head takes but a moment, yet Carol makes it last. She kisses her slowly and delicately, all over—the crooks of her elbows and the curve of her ribs; the dip of her belly and the tops of her thighs. She drags her underwear down her legs and kisses her knees and calves and ankles, and when Therese’s socks are off she gives her big toe a nip. Therese squeals with laughter—and then claps a hand over her mouth, eyes widening.

“Fuck,” she says. “Rindy.”

“She’s fine, Dearest,” Carol answers, wandering her way up again, with more nibbling bites.

“Are you sure?” Therese asks. “Maybe I’d better go check?”

She makes as if to get up, but Carol places a hand on her sternum, gently holding her in place.

“Ah-ah-ah,” she cautions, letting a low edge of command into her voice that makes Therese’s throat bob. “None of that. You stay right where you are. I’ll check on her.”

Therese’s eyes are wide for a different reason now, and it fills Carol with pleasure and excitement. She leaves her on the bed and goes to the living room. In the outlet nearest to the couch Therese has plugged in a nightlight that she bought for just such a potentiality as Rindy spending the night, and the sight of it, shedding soft, warm light through the otherwise dark room, makes Carol’s heart swell. She confirms that Rindy is still dead asleep; in fact, she hasn’t moved an inch since they left the room. She’s safe. She’s well. And not just right this moment. They’ll explain the custody arrangement to her and she’ll still have her daddy and she’ll have Therese now, too, and everything will be okay. For the first time, Carol really lets herself believe it. And buoyed by that belief, she slips back toward the bedroom.

Therese is still lying on her back, exactly as Carol left her.

“What an obedient girl you are,” Carol hums (Therese’s answering whimper is exquisite), and gently shuts and locks the bedroom door—just in case.

She can feel Therese’s eyes on her, but is careful not to return the look as she pulls off her sweatpants and the ridiculous Ms. Piggy shirt. Once she is naked she stands a moment, tipping her head back and combing fingers through her hair. The posture makes her breasts jut forward, and the little catch of breath from the bed assures her that Therese has noticed. This proof, of Therese’s regard, of Therese’s arousal, spears Carol with her own intoxicating want. Carol knows that she is beautiful, knows that her body is beautiful, but she was never vain enough to flaunt it with her other lovers. Never brave enough, either. But Therese makes her want to flaunt, to show off—to please.

When she looks at her again, Therese’s eyes are running all over her with unambiguous admiration. She’s got one arm lifted and bent behind her head as a pillow, and one of her knees is bent. The sight of her slim, nymph-like body in such a provocative pose makes Carol salivate. What she wants in that moment is almost overpowering.

“Where is your camera, Angel?” she asks.

Therese’s eyes widen. For a moment they hold each other’s stare, Carol’s real question clear in her eyes, Therese’s answer momentarily withheld—and then, Therese looks toward the desk across the room. Her camera is resting upon it. Carol goes to it, taking it from its case and turning it on. She’s no wizard where the thing is concerned, but Therese has showed her the basics of how it works. She carries it back to Therese, and stands at the side of the bed. Therese watches her, her chest rising and falling with her breaths.

“Color?” Carol murmurs, voice gentle—she’s not in the mood to be stern with her tonight.

“Green,” Therese whispers, eyes big and pupils dilated.

Carol shivers with pleasure, but keeps her tone relaxed. “You’re very beautiful, Therese,” she tells her.

There’s a moment of silence, and then Therese whispers, “Thank you.”

“I’m wondering something.”

Another pause, then, “Oh?”

“I’m wondering… why I don’t have more pictures of you.”

She lifts the camera, looking at her through the lens—her smooth torso flecked with freckles; her small firm breasts, nipples hard; the points of her hips and the lines of her thighs. She’s pure art, and Carol clicks the shutter. Therese has been holding her breath, and at the sound she lets it out, shakily.

“You have lots of pictures of me on your phone,” Therese observes.

Carol looks at her over the camera, smirking. “Not pictures like this.”

This time she focuses on Therese’s lower body, from the neat tuft of her pubic hair to her little feet, toes curled in the blanket. She clicks the shutter again.

Therese makes a thoughtful sound. “I don’t have naked photos of you, either.”

Carol zooms in to photograph the curve of her arm, the shadow along her side, the hard tip of her areola, blushed and perfect.

“Would you like to?” she asks.

Therese moans. “God, Carol. If you let me, I would fucking worship you with that camera.”

Her intensity makes Carol flood with heat. She zooms out, taking another photo of her entire body. She lowers the camera, but only long enough to climb onto the bed, and straddle Therese’s thighs. Therese blushes shyly, pressing the side of her face into the bed as Carol photographs her again. Carol turns the camera around to show her the picture.

“Have a look at yourself,” she says.

Therese looks, and then looks away, giggling in pleased embarrassment, a giggle that makes Carol laugh with bright happiness. “Beautiful,” she tells her.

Therese pulls herself together enough to look up at her again, still with that embarrassed smile. She puts her hands on Carol’s thighs and takes a deep breath, letting it out. “Okay,” she says. “What’s next?”

“Would mademoiselle be so kind as to lift both arms above her head?” Carol asks dryly.

Therese obeys, fingers curling over the edge of the mattress. The position lifts her breasts, flexes her biceps, makes her look—fuck, incredible. Carol clicks the shutter three times. Under her, Therese’s thighs tighten and relax, her hips churning. Her body is flushed with arousal.

“I should make you touch yourself,” Carol muses, photographing her throat, her mouth, that lip caught between her teeth. “I could take your photo, while you come. Wouldn’t that be delicious?”

Whining, wanting, Therese grips the mattress tighter, pulse beating in her throat as she squeezes her eyes shut.

“Look into the camera, Angel,” Carol orders.

Those eyes blink open, looking directly at her. The fierceness of her, in this moment, is electric. Her eyes a brilliant green, heavy-lidded, full of lust. Carol takes the picture—and then sets the camera down on the end table. Still straddling Therese’s thighs, she runs her hands all the way up, from her belly, over her breasts, up her straining arms. She unwinds her fingers from the mattress, and Therese eagerly follows her lead. Soon those hands in Carol’s hair, and they are kissing, deeply.

“You were right about Rindy, of course,” Carol muses.

Therese makes a frowny sound into their kiss. “Huh? What?”

“Just that… she’s asleep on the other side of this wall. And we know how thin these walls are.”

Therese blushes, Carol grins, both of them remembering a night in February when Therese’s neighbor started banging on the wall, apparently of the opinion that they should have stopped after the third screaming orgasm.

“Which means,” Carol growls, “you have to be quiet.”

Therese takes a deep breath and lets it out, shivering. Carol grins at her, and bends to kiss her again. Gently, sweetly. Only this time, she slips a hand between her legs.

Therese barely chokes off a cry. She’s so wet and silky between her legs, it makes Carol want to cry out, too. Instead, she dips her finger, gathering the wetness and dragging it up to her clit. She circles delicately, gliding effortless across the swollen tip of her. Therese shudders, neck arching as she fights to stay silent. The sight of her like this is exquisite, wracked with helpless pleasure and yet trying so hard for control—a mind-meltingly sexy contradiction.

Carol thinks of last night, of how relentless Therese was, making love to her over and over. More than once Carol tried to return the favor, but Therese would have none of it, her hunger to give apparently insatiable. Carol felt consumed by her, taken apart piece by piece, til she begged, til she sobbed. It was a thrill like she had never experienced before, a complete dissolution of all cares, all modesty, as she turned her body over to Therese’s body, knowing it was safe.

But now, Therese is the one who shivers and twists, hips lifting toward the pressure of a single circling finger. Carol feels a heady sense of power, knowing all she can accomplish with just the slightest touch to this small and needy part of Therese. She considers going down on her. Considers sliding inside her. But the look on Therese’s face—brows scrunched together and cheeks red and lip caught in her teeth—makes her want to take her time. To go slow and easy, like this. She dips down for a little more wetness, and returns to her gentle circles.

“Oh!” Therese gasps.

“Quiet,” Carol croons, reveling in the tremble of her lover’s limbs, the way her throat moves as she swallows, an almost convulsive gesture. Carol puts her other hand on her throat, lightly, to feel the sensation of her aborted cries. Therese’s eyes snap open, staring at her desperately. “Quiet,” Carol repeats, low and warning.

Therese nods, whimpers almost soundlessly. To Carol’s surprise, she puts her hand on top of Carol’s hand, the hand against her throat, and presses. Carol frowns, slightly unnerved. She doesn’t think she could ever choke Therese, but—

“Hold me,” Therese whispers, her eyes glassy with arousal. “Not—not too tight, just—just—hold me, here.”

Carol thinks she understands. It’s a sign of Carol’s control; it’s a way for Therese to give Carol her trust, and, thus given, melt even deeper into feeling safe. Carol tightens her grasp on Therese’s neck, nowhere near to squeezing, but only firm. Therese nods that she likes it, and Carol focuses on her clit again, circling a little quicker. Therese shudders, makes a choking sound. Carol can feel it, under her hand. It’s intoxicating.

“Such a good girl,” Carol murmurs, running her eyes all over Therese’s body, glorying in how the praise makes Therese start to gasp. “So beautiful… So perfect.”

“C-Carol,” Therese whispers, urgently, her eyes widening.

Carol presses a little firmer, a little faster, feeling the tension ratchet in her lover. One of Therese’s hands is clutching the sheets again. With the other she grabs Carol’s hip, nails digging in, a wordless warning. Close. So close. Carol looks into her eyes, puts all the desire and adoration she feels into her gaze, and tells her, “No teasing, tonight, Sweetheart. Come when you’re ready.”

The look of relief on Therese’s face transforms, almost instantly, to bliss. Her eyes roll back; her body lifts off the bed, neck arching into Carol’s hand. Her hips start jerking out of her control, til it’s all Carol can do to keep constant pressure on her clit. Carol can feel the scream of pleasure in Therese’s throat, barely contained, and it’s Carol who groans louder than she should. Incensed. Overwhelmed.

When at last Therese glides over the roughest waves, Carol moves her finger, but uses her entire hand to cup the swollen wetness of her sex, hot and throbbing against her. Therese pants for breath, her eyes still squeezed shut as she struggles to control her sounds.

“Good?” Carol asks her.

Her eyes flutter open, and she offers a lazy, sated smile, almost goofy. It makes Carol grin. She slips the hand on Therese’s throat around, to cradle the back of her head and lift her up into her kiss. Therese’s kiss is slow and drunken, her body warm, damp, and boneless. Whole minutes pass before she gets her voice back.

“God,” she whispers, sounding hoarse and thoroughly fucked. “God, Carol, that was…”

She licks her lips. Her eyes are still hazy and as Carol watches, she forces herself to focus. One of the delicious things about Therese is all the different ways she comes—screaming and shaking, silent and locked up in pleasure, fast and intense or slow and melting. Sometimes she’s instantly ready for more. Other times, she barely has enough energy for a few more kisses before she drifts off to sleep. Carol is fully expecting this to be one of those times. Which is why it surprises her when Therese arches up into her, eyes turning fiery.

“Go inside?” she whispers.

Carol groans with excitement, immediately slipping down to test her response. Two fingers glide into her without a hint of resistance, and Therese’s sigh turns to a groan of need.

“Yes,” she gasps. “Yes, like that.”

Carol starts thrusting slowly, fingertips pressing against the sensitive spots inside.

“Like that?”

“Yes, yes,” Therese mutters, eyes slipping shut again as she starts to lift toward the rhythm Carol is setting.

She’s so hot, so wet, so overwhelmingly sexy, her movements focused as she chases pleasure. After such an intense clitoral orgasm, Carol hesitates to touch her there again, so she asks, “What else? What do you need?”

In answer, Therese’s hand moves down. Carol thinks she’s going to touch herself—but no. She reaches for Carol, slipping down into the heat between her thighs. Carol shudders, her own fingers pressing harder inside Therese at the first heavenly touch.

“Oh, God,” she sighs.

“Here,” Therese mumbles, “Like this.”

It’s tricky with Carol’s fingers inside her, but Therese moves them onto their sides, giving her enough room to enter her, to grind her heel into Carol’s clit. A wave of warmth blooms outward from her touch, and Carol starts stroking her again, deeper, harder. She puts her thigh over Therese’s, opening herself, and Therese slides deep. Carol makes a sharp sound, pleasure gathering inside.

“Shh,” Therese warns her, lips pulled into a cheeky grin. “Don’t forget Rindy.”

“Fuck,” Carol mumbles. “Fuck, it feels so good.”

“Yeah?” Therese always sounds so delighted when she realizes that she is giving Carol pleasure, like a kid who’s been given free reign in an ice cream store. “What about this?” she asks, and pulls out long enough to push back in, three fingers now. Carol clenches, and Therese growls. She bends to Carol’s shoulder, sucking and nibbling at her, licking a wide swathe up her neck to whisper in her ear. “You feel amazing.”

Carol answers by diving for her mouth, licking inside, aggressive and hungry. Therese doesn’t give quarter, kissing her back just as fierce, her fingers starting to pump harder. Carol answers her rhythm, hoping she can hang on long enough to get Therese there, first. But the pressing against her clit, the rubbing against her G-spot, are a devastating combination. Carol can feel her orgasm rush toward her, inexorable.

“Oh, honey.” Her free hand slides into Therese’s hair, holding her tight. “Honey, I’m so close.”

Therese whimpers. Her hips start twitching forward in little desperate jerky motions.

“Me, too. Fuck, me, too. Stay with me, love. Look at me.”

Carol forces her eyes open, forces herself to keep them open, locked with Therese’s, which are growing glassier by the moment, her cunt starting to flutter. It’s like a spark of electricity, and their bodies intertwined make a feedback loop, the current charging through Therese, and into Carol—who barely chokes down a sobbing cry as the impact hits. They try, they do try, to keep eye contact. But is it really necessary, when she can see Therese’s eyes in her soul? When it is just as intimate, just as powerful, to bury her face against Therese’s neck and feel Therese’s face pressed to her own, both of them muffling their cries against each other’s skin? Carol can feel herself coming, and she can feel Therese coming, and who knows which is which? Does it matter? It’s divine. It’s ecstatic. Huddled close and thrashing, skin on skin through every pulse of release, they may as well have folded into one being.

Only minutes later, when their bodies are finally starting to cool, when they have wrapped each other close and their breathing has returned to normal, does Carol lift her face from it’s gorgeous burrow. This time, when Therese pulls back to look at her, she has tears in her eyes. But Carol doesn’t need to know why, doesn’t have to worry, because there are tears in her eyes, too.

“My angel,” she whispers, cupping that gorgeous jaw.

“Carol,” Therese whispers back. “I love you. I love you so much. Will you come to Europe with me?”

Carol starts smiling so deep she’s afraid she’ll hurt her own face, and in this fresh surge of happiness she can’t help teasing, “Will you come to Europe with me?”

Therese’s own smile breaks across her face. “I’ll go anywhere with you, Carol Ross. Anywhere and everywhere, if you’ll have me.”

This time it’s Carol whose eyes prick with tears, overwhelmed by this perfect woman in her arms. But her answer is simple enough:

“Well,” she says. “That’s that. Sold.”