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Ava is a bad person.

 

Which she knows. And it’s really about self-awareness, right? That’s what Holly—her therapist in L.A., who smokes weed and says things like radical vulnerability—would say. Holly would probably also say that Ava is not, in fact, a bad person, and that speaking about herself in absolutes does not lead to growth. But therapy is about small steps, anyway.

 

And Holly doesn’t know about her increasingly overwhelming crush on a woman 40 years older than her, who is also her boss. More to the point, she doesn’t know about Ava’s unhinged email about said boss, which contained just about every damning thing she’s learned so far, along with a series of words that should never be used to describe a woman. Even if Deborah had been kind of acting like a cunt at the time.

 

Well—until she’d showed up at Ava’s dad’s funeral, obviously, and made her mom laugh, and held her hand, and pretty much made up for everything. Except maybe the slap (because literally, what the fuck). So Ava’s one point ahead now, fuckup-wise. And because she’s conflict-avoidant (which Holly says is because she’s an only child who had to be the peacemaker in her family), and is also stewing in her extremely problematic feelings about Deborah, she can’t do anything except sit and smile and wait for shit to hit the fucking fan.

 

-

 

On the road, Deborah is different. She seems happier than she has been, sure, but she’s also more distant, constantly focused on the next set, the next bit. When she workshops with Ava she’s more critical than usual, shooting down ideas before Ava has a chance to finish them (there’s a ton of comedic potential in NFTs, so honestly it’s her loss). Everything has to be perfect, because the jokes are new and honest and a little terrifying, and even Deborah can’t pretend to be impervious to nerves all the time. Also, they both need people to see that it’s good.

 

Deborah’s energy level hasn’t changed, though. They’re in a new city every night, and it’s a blur of names and faces and some memorably horrifying crowd warmers. Ava’s had enough P.J. experiences that she’s kind of over it, which is a terrible thing to say and, as she tells Deborah seriously, shows how easy it is to start taking privilege for granted. She becomes semi-friends with the pilot, Pete (god, she wishes someone around here watched the Bachelor, or at least someone who thinks she’s funny because Marcus sure doesn’t). Pete is chill and they do crossword puzzles together during downtime. He’s in charge of sports and what Ava calls “old people stuff,” she does music and pop culture. They usually need Deborah for wordplay, but Deborah takes so much delight in telling Ava she’s incompetent that she gives up asking and just does old Mondays and Tuesdays.

 

In some ways it’s good to be so busy that Ava isn’t constantly thinking about her dad; other times she feels horrifically guilty for not constantly thinking about him, for going on a national fucking comedy tour the day after his funeral. That’s definitely how her mom wants her to feel. And she’s lonely, even more than she was before. Kiki’s in Vegas with Luna, Marcus stayed behind to keep the business alive and be passive aggressive, and Deborah isn’t hanging out with her unless they’re actually working. Plus, there’s all her self hatred about the email. It’s enough to make a girl go out and hook up with a stranger who won’t kill themselves in the morning.

 

Except that there’s the crush. It feels so stupid to call it that, like she’s thirteen years old with the hots for teacher. But she doesn’t know what else it could be, this weird combination of liking Deborah and desperately wanting her validation and also wanting to eat her out for about eight hours straight.

 

There’s so much to unpack.

 

The first dream might’ve been because of Carol. The second and third are definitely not. And the thing about being on the road with Deborah—constantly at her side, sleeping in the room next to her every night—is that it doesn’t exactly give Ava a chance to get over it. Kind of the opposite, actually.

 

-

 

Boston. The show still needs work—there’s an uncomfortable amount of silence, especially during the overdose parts—but from watching faces in the audience, Ava knows it’s starting to take hold. Deborah’s delivery is incredible, as always, just the right amount of tension before every punch line.

 

Still, it must be hard, and as Deborah exits the stage Ava can actually see her preparing to chew Ava out, like a rubber band about to snap. Something about the lighting, or maybe the acoustics. Ava has become her favorite target for post-show criticism. But then someone’s gliding between them, a human shield of awkwardness and hero worship.

 

“Hi,” the girl says breathlessly. “I just wanted to say how much I love your work. Especially, like, what you’re doing now. It’s really cool.”

 

Deborah gives her the fan smile, wide and artificially bright. “Thank you,” she says.

 

“Can I, um. Get your autograph?”

 

Deborah holds the smile as she signs and gives the girl back her poster. “Thanks for coming out tonight,” she says, and as she watches the girl walk away she turns to Ava and goes, “one down, 300 million to go.”

 

“I think you’re forgetting your viral Twitter moment,” Ava tells her, because the whole 1.69 debacle was basically ready-made for internet fame. “That gives you at least 100 million already.”

 

“I don’t want them to like it because I’m rich and good at degrading men, I want them to like it because it’s funny and I’m rich and good at degrading men.”

 

“You’re really doing something here, you know?” says Ava, more seriously. “I think you’re amazing.”

 

Something pained flashes across Deborah’s face, almost hostile. Ava thinks she still must be having a hard time laying herself bare like this, one secret after another wrapped in humor and gifted to the masses. Presenting her truth when she has let them have the lies for so long.

 

“Come back to the hotel,” Ava suggests, because any sign of vulnerability from Deborah makes her want to, as the kids say, simp. Also she wants an excuse to avoid her mother. “We’ll watch Law & Order and get room service.”

 

“Not tonight.”

 

“You can’t work all the time.”

 

“I’m meeting an old friend,” Deborah says. She’s using the same tone she does for dinner reservations with Marty.

 

“Oh.” Ava’s jaw is tight; she wonders who it is and decides she doesn’t want to know. “Gotcha. See you tomorrow then! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

 

She is so, so fucked.

 

-

 

Denver. Ava slept for like three hours last night and feels like she might collapse.

 

“Ouch,” says Deborah when she sees her. “Coke? Ecstasy?”

 

Ava shakes her head mournfully. “TikTok.”

 

“Go get yourself a coffee, you look terrible.”

 

“Love you too,” Ava says dryly, and immediately wants to throw herself off a cliff. Deborah infuses an unholy amount of judgment into a single raised eyebrow. “Uh—two lattes, coming up.”

 

“Don’t get me that weird milk you like,” Deborah yells after her.

 

“Fine, but all the cool kids are doing it,” Ava yells back.

 

Later, when they’re working, Deborah says: “what is TikTok, anyway?”

 

“Oh my god. Deborah.”

 

“Is that the one that’s stealing all our data for China?”

 

“As opposed to everything else, which is stealing our data for the U.S.? It’s so fucked up that they were going to ban it. Anyway—that doesn’t matter, because it’s incredible. I could write you a full show just about TikTok.”

 

“You’re forgetting our target audience again,” Deborah tells her, which is what she says when she thinks she’s too old for something but doesn’t want to mention her age. “And aren’t you supposed to be finishing the birth control thing?”

 

“Will you just watch a couple? There’s this dog that can speak English, and it’s actually been getting pretty existential recently.”

 

“What the hell do you mean it speaks English—”

 

Three hours later, there’s a knock at the door. “Deborah, ready to go?”

 

Deborah glances at the clock. “Shit.”

 

“Not to say I told you so, but…”

 

“You’re supposed to be helping me, not sabotaging me.”

 

“Sorry,” says Ava, slightly alarmed at Deborah’s vehemence. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal; Deborah’s ready for the night, and the distraction’s better for her than obsessing is (she’s now fascinated by the concept of content houses). They’d been laughing hard enough to piss themselves a second ago. But Ava digs into her backpack and retrieves a creased piece of paper. “Here, I finished the birth control stuff this morning.”

 

“Oh,” Deborah says. She looks tired. Ava wants to kiss her. “Fine. Where’s the car?”

 

The car is outside. On the ride over, Ava keeps catching Deborah watching her when she thinks she’s not looking. And she doesn’t know why, except that it’s not for the reason she wishes it was.

 

-

 

Austin. The show goes better tonight; the audience loves some of the new material, and Ava is finally able to resist the temptation to go I pitched that whenever Deborah uses her ideas. Deborah has her game face on, working the crowd like a pro, wearing six inch heels that hurt just to look at.

 

When she walks offstage, though, it fades. She slips off her heels and groans, rubbing at a muscle in her shoulder. “We’re going back to the hotel,” she says, shoving the shoes into Ava’s chest.

 

“Okay,” says Ava cautiously. “You good?”

 

“Fine,” Deborah says, harsh enough that Ava winces. She doesn’t know why she keeps expecting Deborah to open up to her again. She’d thought something would change with them, after Boston, after seeing the presence of Deborah Vance (TM) reduced to a real, human person in Ava’s childhood bedroom, surrounded by embarrassing polaroids and Entertainment Weekly posters. After Deborah said with you, I hope and Ava’s chest hurt like someone had split her sternum open.

 

Apparently, a present and some funeral bonding isn’t enough to get her back in the inner circle. It makes her feel kind of deranged, the way Deborah goes hot and cold. It was the same way with Ruby at the end; Ava would think they were completely fine and then Ruby would avoid her for days. It was the same way in a lot of her friendships, actually, so maybe there’s just something wrong with her. But she doesn’t get it, because sometimes Deborah and her will be laughing their asses off and Ava is convinced Deborah likes her, convinced almost that there’s something more there, and then Deborah just shuts down and tells Ava to go away. It sucks.

 

As it turns out, though, Deborah doesn’t want to go to bed tonight. She wants to go in the hot tub, and she wants Ava to come with her. “We’ll work there,” she says, which means they absolutely will not. Ava puts on the bikini that makes her ass look good and tells herself it’ll be fine, and it is until Deborah takes off her robe and is wearing some plunging one piece that makes Ava’s mouth go dry. Ava is suddenly reduced to a single brain cell, with a single thought, which is pretty much just: MILF.

 

“They’re real,” says Deborah, and Ava wrenches her gaze up as her cheeks flame red. “Only part left.”

 

Ava thinks about that spontaneous combustion movie she’d watched the night before and desperately wishes it was real. “Cool, yeah, um—zoned out, sorry. I’m just gonna—” and she drops her towel and practically dives into the hot tub, studying the jet mechanisms intently.

 

“That bathing suit is farther up your ass than Marcus,” Deborah remarks.

 

Ava snort-laughs nervously. “This is full coverage in 2021. I think there’s like, a direct correlation between the cost of living and how much of your ass it’s acceptable to expose.” She could swear Deborah’s checking her out, but even if it’s not her imagination it might be a judgment thing. She really has to tell Deborah to stop projecting her own shit onto the women around her. Although they’re still in the early stages there; Ava can only fight one battle at a time, and this week it’s stop putting moral judgments on food.

 

Deborah settles herself on the other side, sinking into the water with a groan. She’s massaging the knot in her shoulder again. “I can’t believe I used to do all this and then party half the night afterward,” she says.

 

“The word you’re looking for is drugs.”

 

“I didn’t even need them. The excitement, the high of a good night…it was the best feeling I’d ever had.” Deborah looks at Ava’s face and relents, smirking. “But yeah, the drugs helped.”

 

“Well, if we’re not going that route tonight…” Ava watches Deborah wince and makes an unbelievably bad decision. “Want a massage?”

 

Deborah stops stretching and eyes her warily.  “I don’t think that’s in your job description.”

 

“Oh my god. Does my job description actually apply now? Does this mean I don’t have to go antiquing anymore?”

 

“For the last time, it was a nineteenth century Tiffany lamp.”

 

“It looked like they took a church’s reject pile of stained glass and stuck it over a lightbulb.”

 

“All this time,” Deborah says, “and you still manage to have no taste.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. But I do have giant hands.” Ava wiggles them for effect. “So do you want my help or not?”

 

Deborah bites her lip, and there’s an uncomfortable pause. “Yes,” she says finally.

 

Fuck. It’s possible Ava didn’t think this through. “Okay,” she says, very, very calm. “C’mere. Where does it hurt besides your shoulder?”

 

Deborah makes her that was a stupid question sound. “Everywhere. I’ve been sleeping on hotel mattresses for weeks.”

 

Privately, Ava thinks Deborah needs to spend a few nights in a Motel 6 before she goes around insulting the Hilton’s mattress quality. “Elitist.”

 

“Hypocrite.”

 

Deborah maneuvers herself so she’s sitting between Ava’s legs, and Ava suddenly feels the way she did when she went on a date with a woman for the first time, like she’s taking an exam on acting normal and can’t remember how to do it. She’s hyperaware of her breathing, the curve of Deborah’s hips between her thighs. Sometimes liking women is so goddamn stressful.

 

She starts with Deborah’s neck, working her fingers down, digging into the base. She’s pretty good at this, or at least she’d like to think so, and when she presses her thumb right into the center of a knot Deborah lets out a groan and leans back against her. “Oh, right there,” she murmurs.

 

And fuck, Ava had forgotten how obscene massages sound, because Deborah keeps saying shit like that, and making these uncontrolled noises that have Ava reevaluating whether people who say they’ve had hands-free orgasms might not be lying after all. The whole thing feels like it could be a porn scene intro, except less male gaze-y and with shorter nails, and it’s impossible not to imagine staying in this position, kissing Deborah’s neck, letting the utilitarian touches turn into something more.

 

The first step is knowing you have a fucked up sense of intimacy. The next step—Ava doesn’t know what the next step is. It’s probably not sex in a hot tub.

 

By the time she stops, Deborah is boneless in her arms and Ava’s so turned on it’s almost painful. She doesn’t know how long it’s been, only that her hands are sore and the hotel has that distinctive stillness of the very early morning. “I might have to be done,” she says reluctantly.

 

Deborah makes an inarticulate sound of disapproval, reaching for Ava. Her movements are sluggish, sleepy. “Come back here. I’ll never say another word about your freak hands again.”

 

“You like my freak hands,” says Ava, and okay, this is flirting now, right? They’re definitely flirting.

 

“They have some perks, I’ll admit.”

 

“Gotta give you a reason to keep me around,” Ava says, which is meant to be flirty but in hindsight mostly sounds insecure.

 

“Mm.”

 

“This is where you’re supposed to say Ava please, I keep you around for your mind-blowing comedic talent.”

 

“You are very good at hauling around the soda machine.”

 

“I drop my entire life for you and this is what I get,” Ava scoffs, mock-hurt.

 

Deborah stiffens, seeming to accept that the massage is over, and moves to the seat next to Ava. Tension has reappeared in the lines of her body. Ava misses her already. “How’s your mom doing?”

 

Well. There’s a way to kill the mood. “She’s fine. I mean—not fine, but you know. Calls me like three times a day.”

 

“About what?”

 

“I don’t know, stupid shit. She needs something else to worry about constantly now, so she picked my life.”

 

Deborah studies her. “And what about you?”

 

Ava puts her hand in front of a jet and watches the water stream around it. “It’s like you said, I guess. I’m okay for a while and then it’s like—Jimmy Buffett comes on, or I see some stupid dad appreciation post on Facebook, and then I’m sobbing in a fucking bathroom. I just…miss him.”

 

“Yeah,” Deborah says quietly.

 

“I should’ve told him to come to Vegas.”

 

“Ava.” Deborah pushes a piece of Ava’s hair behind her ear, almost helplessly. “Would it have helped?”

 

Ava swallows hard, fighting back the tears that are threatening to appear, and rests her head on Deborah’s shoulder. Deborah is very warm. And very nice, sometimes, which makes everything worse, because every time Deborah does something like this, all Ava feels is guilt.

 

-

 

Minneapolis. “Come on,” Deborah tells her as they bundle into the car. “We have a business dinner and you’re coming. Marcus is going to murder me if I miss this one.”

 

“What—Deborah, I can’t come like this.” Deborah is wearing some fitted pantsuit that gives her huge girlboss energy; Ava is in jeans and a Fiona Apple t-shirt.

 

“Calm down, we’ll stop at the hotel. You can wear that black dress from the casino opening in April.”

 

It’s so weird that Deborah knows the contents of her wardrobe so well. Also kind of sweet.

 

Ava changes as fast as she can—she wouldn’t put it past Deborah to leave without her, if she takes too long—and emerges from the bathroom feeling marginally more prepared to eat sushi and pretend she cares about shapewear. Deborah looks her up and down, eyes lingering, and Ava’s definitely blushing this time. Then Deborah squints. “What have you done with your face?”

 

Ava touches her cheek reflexively. “Uh. Put on makeup?”

 

Deborah sighs. “Ava,” she says, “you’re beautiful, but you do not know how to apply eyeshadow. Sit here.”

 

Ava sits on autopilot; she wonders if getting compliments from Deborah will ever stop feeling like getting hit in the head with a frying pan, even when they’re backhanded. Probably not. Deborah disappears into the bathroom and reemerges with the contents of Ava’s makeup bag, which suddenly feel embarrassing in a way they never have before. Ava closes her eyes.

 

“You were wearing makeup at DJ’s birthday,” says Deborah thoughtfully, rifling through the bag.

 

“Kiki,” Ava says, and would say more if she hadn’t opened her eyes and found Deborah’s face right in front of hers. Fuck, Deborah looks good in red.

 

“So is it a lesbian thing? Or just your protest against the shackles of patriarchy?”

 

Deborah.

 

“I’m trying to learn about the community. To connect better with my fans.”

 

“First of all, I’m bi. Second, I could literally sue you.”

 

“You won’t,” Deborah says, a little too sharply. Then she leans down with the makeup brush. “Close.”

 

Ava, obligingly, closes her eyes. It’s a strangely vulnerable position, and it reminds her more of Deborah’s knife flashing in the kitchen than that lesbian awakening makeup picture. Even if that’s the obvious comparison here. Deborah’s hand is braced on Ava’s thigh, and the brush is gentle on her eyelids, and her heart is beating way too fast. She is so telling Kiki about this.

 

“Speaking of—how is the girlfriend?” Deborah asks.

 

“Ex-girlfriend.”

 

“You pose naked for all your ex-girlfriends?”

 

Yes. “No. And I assume she’s fine, I haven’t talked to her in months. We hung out when I was back in L.A., but—” The brush slips, almost stabbing Ava in the eye. “Ow. I already apologized for going, Deborah!”

 

“That was an accident.”

 

“You forget I watched your whole routine about catfights. With the eyelash curler?”

 

“Stop being dramatic, I’m almost done.” Deborah reaches into the bag again and pulls out the dark red lipstick Ava got because a hot Sephora employee told her she’d look sexy with it. She’s worn it exactly once.

 

“Okay, miss Scorpio. You were the one all worried about being late.”

 

“I wasn’t going to let you embarrass me.”

 

“Nice,” says Ava, but can’t say anymore because Deborah is putting lipstick on her and she might die. With her eyes open, she can see exactly how intently Deborah’s staring at her, the way Deborah’s biting her lip in concentration.

 

Deborah traces her index finger around the corner of Ava’s mouth to wipe off the excess, and there’s—a moment. Maybe it’s just that Ava wants it to be a moment. Because Deborah’s finger is about an inch from her mouth and they’re both breathing shallowly, and there’s that distinctive feeling of sexual tension in the air, and for a second Ava is one hundred percent sure that Deborah is going to kiss her.

 

Deborah pulls her finger away. “Let’s go,” she says. “We’re going to be late.”

 

-

 

San Francisco. Ava is antsy all day; she can’t stop checking her phone, and she forgets to clean up the new material before Deborah’s ready for a run through. She knows Deborah’s suspicious, because Ava’s a terrible liar and doesn’t usually miss deadlines, but she works twice as fast to make up for it and reminds herself she just has to keep it together until tonight.

 

After the show, she casually suggests they try a restaurant she’s heard about, which Deborah agrees to without much argument. Ava’s almost vibrating with the stress of pulling this off, and when they arrive she exhales in a slow stream of relief.

 

“You’re acting weird,” Deborah says, staring at her.

 

“I’m just—tired. And PMS-ing. And hungover.” 

 

“Are you taking another job?”

 

Ava stumbles back in surprise. “What? No.”

 

“You haven’t checked your phone this much since you sent that nude.”

 

“Deborah, I told you I wasn’t looking for anything. I want to be here. Let’s just go inside, okay?”

 

“You’ve told me a lot of things,” Deborah says, reaching for the door. “I’ve accepted that not all of them are going to be true.”

 

Ava is so fucking confused. She tries to say something, but Deborah’s already opening the door and—

 

“Surprise!” everyone shouts, just on cue, picture-perfect. The whole crowd is here, the entirety of Deborah’s circle that could make the trip up, because it’s two days before Deborah’s birthday and Ava called them all and booked their flights and wanted everything to be perfect. Kiki is almost jumping in excitement.

 

There’s something beautiful but also profoundly sad in the way Deborah’s expression changes. Ava watches as her anger disappears, replaced by that spark that makes people gravitate toward her, makes her the life of every party. It’s not even that she’s faking; it’s that she takes all the feelings that have no place here and shoves them in a box and smiles until it’s safe to take them out again. And it’s so goddamn easy for her.

 

Ava spends the whole party trying not to think about the fact that Deborah’s mad at her and failing. She hangs out with Kiki (who loses her shit when she finds out who did Ava’s makeup), avoids Jimmy, and has an uncomfortable conversation with Kayla about polyamory that she escapes as soon as possible. Mostly she gets drunk. The mules are really good, and DJ convinces her to do shots at one point, which seems like a great way to stop obsessing. Also fucking Marty is here, even though she never wanted to invite him, and he’s dancing with Deborah. Which might be contributing to Ava’s desire to drink herself into oblivion.

 

Everyone rolls out around one a.m., hugging Deborah and congratulating Ava on managing to keep the party a surprise. Ava laughs and thanks them and prepares to confront Deborah once they’re all gone, except then Kayla corners her and chatters until Ava has to straight up tell her to leave, and by that point Deborah’s already taken a cab back.

 

It’s a twenty minute walk to the hotel, and the cold air sobers her up enough to be stressed again. But also annoyed, because she hasn’t lied to Deborah and she doesn’t deserve this passive aggressive bullshit, especially not after throwing her a party. She ends up pounding on Deborah’s door loud enough to echo through the hallway.

 

Deborah throws the door open. She’s still in her pantsuit, but her makeup is gone and her eyes are red like she’s been crying. “What do you want?”

 

“What is going on with you?” Ava demands. She’s drunker than she should be, to have this conversation.

 

“You know,” Deborah says, “maybe I’m just an unfeeling cunt who destroys every relationship she has.”

 

The wording is very, very familiar. Ava freezes. “What?”

 

“Or maybe it’s that I get off on showing people how much power I have over them. That’s why I left you in the desert, right? Why I blackmailed Marty?”

 

“Fuck,” says Ava. “Deborah. Stop.” And suddenly it makes sense: the weird looks, the one-offs, how Deborah seems annoyed every time Ava makes her laugh now. It all makes sense.

 

“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?”

 

“I was high and angry and I’m an idiot, I’m so sorry, I know I’m an idiot—”

 

“I don’t know why you bothered sticking around. What I paid those assholes will probably fund your salary for ten years, if you want to go crawling back to them.”

 

“That’s not—I didn’t mean it, I don’t even remember writing it. I’ve been wanting to say something for so long but I just…didn’t want to fuck this up.”

 

“Right, because you needed a glowing reference for your next gig.”

 

Ava whirls on her. “Because I care about you!”

 

Deborah snorts. “Don’t bother. You can pack your bags tonight—I think I can do this without you by now, don’t you?”

 

It ’s the least scary thing in the world, because no one can disappoint you.

 

“No,” Ava says.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“This is what you do, Deborah. You get scared and start sabotaging your relationships, and now you’re pushing me away again because you’re terrified I might actually be able to hurt you.”

 

“God. It would be so easy for you, wouldn’t it, to pretend this is all me. Everyone else has problems, but you, you’re just perfect.”

 

“Yeah, I’m a model fucking citizen.” Ava is fuming now, voice rising. “I make mistakes, okay, just like everyone else in your life you hold to an impossible standard.”

 

“This isn’t some little accident, Ava. You didn’t let the dogs eat chocolate, or crash my car—”

 

That’s your idea of a little accident—”

 

“You sold every bit of dirt you had on me and didn’t even have the decency to admit it, because you are a selfish, opportunistic screw up who’s just as alone as I am.”

 

“Fuck you,” Ava spits. “Why let me stay then? Couldn’t find anyone else who’d put up with you?”

 

“I told you. You’re too good.” Deborah makes it sound like a mockery this time.

 

“No.” Ava shakes her head. “It’s more than that.”

 

And Deborah just—slumps, utterly defeated. She’s exhausted, Ava’s exhausted, everyone’s exhausted. This is what they do, her and Deborah; the thing that makes them get each other so well they can finish each other’s jokes is also the thing that lets them hurt each other like this. They can’t play nice and they can’t stay apart and Ava doesn’t know what’s left.

 

“Maybe,” says Deborah, “I wasn’t ready to let you go.”

 

Ava kisses her.

 

It’s messy in the way that sudden, reckless kisses are, and when Ava pulls back she fully expects Deborah to yell at her and promptly throw her out on the curb. Instead Deborah pulls her in again, biting at her lower lip, hand wrapping around the back of her neck. Ava’s spent so long imagining this moment and it turns out she has no clue what she’s supposed to do now; she thinks she might be dreaming except this is better than any fantasy she’s come up with.

 

She kicks the door closed behind her and walks forward, kissing Deborah hungrily until they hit the edge of the bed and topple onto it. Somewhere along the way Deborah’s unzipped her dress. Ava pulls off Deborah’s shirt and presses her leg into her and Deborah’s making these incredible noises, so insanely hot, and Ava rocks against her and sucks hard at her neck until Deborah pushes her away. (Right. No marks.)

 

Somehow the rest of their clothes end up on the floor—of course Deborah would be wearing nice, lacy underwear while Ava’s have fucking polka dots—and then Deborah’s naked underneath her. Ava leans back to look, taking her time, because she’s about to have sex with her extremely hot boss and there’s no way she’s forgetting about any of this. And because she’s pretty sure Deborah’s exclusively slept with men until now, which means Ava is going to rock her fucking world, but also that she might be freaking out. Ava has a distinct memory of her own freak out sophomore year, which involved a hot brunette and an extended panic attack.

 

“Have you ever…done this before?”

 

“No,” Deborah says sweetly. “I’m a virgin.”

 

Ava gets the message. “Okay, just—are you sure?”

 

“Would you be here if I wasn’t?”

 

“I’m gonna need you to be, like, two percent less ambiguous. It’s the whole enthusiastic consent thing.”

 

Deborah is staring at Ava’s lips in a very distracting way. “Yes,” she says firmly, and grabs Ava’s ass.

 

Which is pretty enthusiastic. So Ava decides to shut up and sleep with her boss, who she might be a little (a lot) in love with, and who might actually like her too, even if she is a fuckup.

 

-

 

San Francisco, again. Ava wakes up naked with her arm splayed over Deborah Vance’s stomach and four missed calls. “Shit,” she says cheerfully.

 

Deborah jerks awake, and Ava watches as the panic descends over her face. She looks at Ava, pinches her fingers to the bridge of her nose, takes a deep breath, and looks at Ava again. “No.”

 

“Good morning to you, too.”

 

“This was a terrible idea.”

 

“You’re right. We should probably do it again to make sure, though.”

 

“Ava, I’m serious. You’re my employee and about thirty years too young, not to mention a woman.

 

Ava hasn’t woken up enough for anxiety yet. She is drunk on sleep deprivation and orgasm chemicals. “D,” she says, “you are harshing my vibe right now. Do you want me to go down on you again or not?”

 

“Be mature for once,” Deborah hisses at her. The part of Ava that wrote that fucking tweet immediately comes up with three age difference jokes. “This could ruin you.”

 

By this point, Ava has woken up enough to recognize how stressed Deborah is. “Stop treating me like—” she should not have started that way— “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

 

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

 

“Fine, then stop acting like I don’t know what I’m doing and you do. This isn’t even the most scandalous sexual experience I’ve had.”

 

“Cute,” Deborah says, in a voice that could shatter glass.

 

Ava winces. “Look,” she says. “We’ll figure it out.”

 

“Now you sound like a teenage boy that just impregnated me.”

 

Ava sits up and puts a hand on Deborah’s shoulder. “Your body, your choice,” she says earnestly, and Deborah snorts despite herself before sobering again.

 

“Ava,” she says. “You should leave.”

 

“Right.” Ava’s stomach twists. She shouldn’t have expected anything else, but she did anyway, and it hurts.

 

Deborah grabs for her hand. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”

 

“I know.”

 

No one. Do you understand?”

 

Ava snatches her hand back, chest aching. “Yeah, I get the fucking message.”

 

“Ava—”

 

“See you around, “ Ava says. Part of her wants to be petty and tell Deborah she’s bad in bed or something, which unfortunately would be an obvious lie, so instead she’s going to be chill and easy and prove just how mature she can be. Because—even though she knows it’s probably a lost cause—she can’t stop herself from hoping that Deborah will care enough to come back.

 

-

 

New York. Deborah kills.

 

Ava has decided to be, in true Gone Girl style, cool girl. She has not said a single word about anything sapphic or sexual. She has pushed all her useless feelings behind a locked door and she feels great. “Let’s go party,” she says when Deborah finishes. “You deserve it.”

 

“Bathroom first,” says Deborah, leading Ava inside and locking the door. Ava doesn’t fully believe what’s happening until Deborah has her pressed up against the door with a hand up her shirt; apparently success turns her on, which should surprise absolutely no one, and it’s enough to mess with her impulse control.

 

It takes ten minutes for someone to come looking for Deborah. Ava’s already come once and is trying to get away with giving Deborah a hickey.

 

“Later,” Deborah murmurs, and Ava bites her shoulder and withdraws reluctantly. She still has to actually pee.

 

The party is surprisingly fun—the D.J.’s talented for once, so everyone’s dancing, and there’s a giant chocolate fountain in the corner—but the best part is still when Deborah taps Ava on the shoulder and tilts her head toward the door. She keeps her hand splayed over Ava’s thigh during the ride back and Ava has to resist the urge to straddle her right there in the backseat. She is intensely, ridiculously happy.

 

They go to Deborah’s room, obviously. Ava calls the front desk as Deborah undresses (the last time Ava ripped her clothes off and left them on the floor, they were so creased she made Ava take them to a dry cleaner).

 

“Alright,” she says, hanging up. “They’re bringing us up a bottle of champagne, and then we’re on strict do not disturb until eight a.m. tomorrow.”

 

“Good girl,” Deborah says, approving, and stops when she sees Ava’s face. “Oh god. I already have to tell you it enough out there just to get you to do your job.”

 

Ava is blushing furiously. “If you think about it, you’re shaming a natural reaction to my neglected childhood, so—”

 

“For a writer, you’re awfully predictable.”

 

“Tropes exist for a reason,” Ava tells her loftily, and then sneaks a hand down her pants. “Could someone predictable do this?”

 

“Yes,” says Deborah, and then, with an evil smile: “you’re so good for me, aren’t you?”

 

“Jesus fuck,” Ava says in dismay. “That’s just unfair.”

 

But really, what’s unfair is that this thing with Deborah—this secretive, confusing, probably toxic thing—has already ruined her for anyone else. She’s too far gone. And she could say a thousand things to intellectualize it: subconscious masochism, mommy issues, a ready-made queer fantasy—but the truth is, she just wants Deborah, and she thinks they could be kind of good for each other. If they don’t tear each other apart first.

 

-

 

L.A. It’s their last stop, and there’s a bittersweet sense of conclusion that looms over the whole event. Ava gets to take Deborah out to her favorite spots, where they sip espresso cocktails and order obscenely expensive avocado toast (please don’t, Deborah says when Ava tries to pay, you’ll have to sell the townhouse, and Ava retorts whose fault is that, remembering too late that she’s declared she’s not a millennial). It’s weird to be in what’s always felt like her city and not have a home to stay in. What’s weirder is that she’s not even sure she considers L.A. home anymore. As much as she’s missed the mountains and celebrity spottings and hell, even the traffic, she just feels so disconnected. She thinks, longingly, of Deborah’s ridiculous Cheesecake Factory house, and wonders what’s wrong with her.

 

Afterward, she makes Deborah take pictures in front of her Walk of Fame star. “This is humiliating,” Deborah says.

 

“Okay but like, it’s obvious we’re using the selfie stick ironically.”

 

“You said that about doing finger guns.”

 

“Now a silly one!” says Ava, holding up her middle finger at the pavement. Deborah gives up.

 

They drive to the venue, where Deborah is pulled away for hair and makeup and Ava is left to wait outside. She’s a little angsty tonight, and she thinks (angstily) about how she’ll kind of always be waiting for Deborah, and how maybe people have a point about power dynamics in relationships, even if Deborah herself hasn’t made Ava feel that way. When the team leaves, giving Deborah her standard pre-show five minutes alone, she slips through the door.

 

“Hey,” she says.

 

Deborah smiles at her, a real smile: the kind that’s worth risking a few wrinkles. “Hi.”

 

“Just came to say break a leg.” Ava feels embarrassingly close to tears. This is the culmination of her hard work, but mostly it’s the culmination of her hard work with Deborah, of this idea they’ve built and made reality. This is theirs, and she knows, without needing to be told, that when it’s over they will be too.

 

Deborah looks at her. “Ava,” she says quietly, and she stands to pull Ava into a hug. Ava blinks furiously.

 

“Go make history or whatever,” she says, a little unsteady.

 

Deborah steps back, cupping her cheek, and Ava leans her face into Deborah’s hand and wishes things could be different.

 

The show goes…well, it goes exactly how Ava visualized it, all those months ago. It’s real and painful and hilarious and just incredible, and the audience loves every second. Ava’s so full of pride she might burst. It’s almost enough to make her forget everything else, because holy shit—they actually fucking did it.

 

Afterward, there’s a huge party at some Hollywood club. They take two cars; Ava has to pick up the dry cleaning on the way, because it’s her fault they had to send it out in the first place. So she has to meet Deborah there, and when she arrives there’s a two-block line and a bouncer that’s eying her suspiciously. Deborah’s probably in there having the time of her life, forgetting all about Ava.

 

“Oh my god,” someone says. It’s Taylor, because of course it’s Taylor, surrounded by a group of girls that are presumably all directing blockbusters by this point. “Ava?”

 

Ava shifts uncomfortably in her Docs, wishing she wasn’t carrying a giant bundle of dry cleaning. All this time on the road and these girls still manage to pull at every insecurity she has.“Oh, hey!”

 

“Are you like, back in L.A.?”

 

“Just for the night,” says Ava.

 

“Oh, okay. We didn’t know if you were back for a job or something. I know they’re hard to find these days.”

 

“Nope.”

 

There’s an uncomfortable silence. “Well…” Taylor clearly wishes she hadn’t started this conversation. They’re still far enough from the door that they’ll be out here for another half hour. “Sorry you got here so late. The line’s pretty long.”

 

Bitch, Ava thinks, smiling tightly. “No worries, I’m actually waiting for someone.”

 

With perfect sitcom timing, Deborah emerges from behind her. “Ava—there you are. Come through the back, everyone wants to meet you.”

 

The girls are suddenly far more interested in Ava. Deborah’s gotten bigger with their demographic this year; apparently Ava’s not the only 25 year old coastal elite who appreciates rawness.

 

“Deborah Vance?” says Bitch #2 (Ava’s forgotten her name). “It is so nice to meet you, I absolutely loved your bit about—”

 

Deborah waves a hand. “I’d love to stay and chat,” she says, not even trying to seem like she means it, “but Ava and I have some important people to talk to. I hope your wait isn’t too long.”

 

Ava lets herself be pulled toward the back entrance. “That was the hottest thing you’ve ever done,” she says.

 

“You’re easy.”

 

“Only for you, baby,” Ava gives her an exaggerated leer.

 

“Wow.”

 

“Yeah, no, that was bad. But seriously, Deborah.”

 

Deborah shrugs slightly. “They didn’t deserve my time.”

 

“But I do,” Ava says, beaming. It’s only half a question.

 

“You,” says Deborah, smiling at her and leaning in, “have my dry cleaning.” And she kisses Ava on the cheek, snags her newly ironed outfit, and disappears through the door.

 

Ava tries to have a good time that night, she really does. But she feels like someone in one of those anxiety medication commercials, with a giant stormcloud following her around everywhere. She’s in a packed L.A. club with tons of cool, successful people who could make her career, and she can’t stop thinking about the sound Deborah makes when she comes and the fact that she might never hear it again.

 

Still, she mingles. Based on people’s reactions, she’s salvaged some of her reputation by helping write Deborah back into mainstream relevance again, which is nice to see. There’s no shop talk, just booze and friendly conversation, but a couple of them go if you’re ever back in L.A… and Ava actually believes it.

 

She’s exhausted by the time they get back, and she’s not shitfaced but she’s drunk enough to indulge in self-pity. She sits on the bed and puts on HGTV and pulls her knees to her chest.

 

There’s a knock on the door.

 

It’s Deborah, coming to her room for once. “Come in,” Ava says, trying to pretend she’s fine, and Deborah comes in and sits on the bed and definitely sees right through her.

 

“So,” Deborah says, because apparently they’re doing this right now.

 

“So.”

 

“We’re going back to Vegas tomorrow, and there will be more people…around.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“It will be impossible to hide, Ava. It’ll get out somehow, and it’ll take over both of our careers. It’ll be the only thing people talk about.”

 

“Deborah,” Ava says. “I know all of this. You don’t have to—I know it was a tour thing.”

 

“The age gap alone—this isn’t even May-December. Anywhere you ended up, people would say I got you there.”

 

“I get it, okay? You can’t be fucking your employee.”

 

“No, I can’t,” says Deborah. Ava braces herself. “I think you should start looking for new opportunities.”

 

Ava blinks. “Huh?”

 

“You were always going to outgrow me,” Deborah says with this sad little smile that breaks Ava’s heart. “And you’re right, I can’t be fucking my employee. So don’t be my employee.”

 

“Holy shit,” says Ava.

 

“I’ll stay out of the search process, so there can’t be any suspicion if it comes out eventually—you’ve gotten enough respect back that you can do fine without me.”

 

Eventually. She’s serious, Ava realizes. This is what she wants. “You have issues, lady,” she says, eyes bright. “The second I don’t want to leave, you’re gonna make me.”

 

“That’s sort of the point.”

 

“Oh.” Ava remembers, suddenly, the other piece of that interview Deborah gave at the beginning of all this. You make each other better.

 

“You always want me to be honest,” says Deborah. “So here it is: I can’t imagine my life without you in it. Is that unambiguous enough for you?”

 

Ava’s kind of crying at this point. “That’s—yeah, that’ll work.”

 

“Good. Now pack your bags and get out,” says Deborah, but she’s smiling, and Ava’s smiling, and they’re both a fucking mess. Ava feels the way she does when she laughs hard enough to hurt.

 

“Hey Deborah?”

 

“What now?”

 

“I don’t think you’re a hack,” says Ava, sniffling. “But I do think you might be a little gay.”

 

Deborah lets out this belly laugh that makes Ava ache with happiness. “Just don’t write any tweets about me.”

 

Ava waits for her own reaction to this, for the familiar, stomach-twisting bitterness of the memory, but it doesn’t come; without realizing, she’s reached that threshold where painful humiliation fades into the past, and now there’s only a lingering sense of guilt and regret. It happened, and it sucked, and it brought her here. “Don’t burn my house down if I leave you for Mariska Hargitay.”

 

“God,” Deborah says, “I’m going to miss you.”

 

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

 

“I didn’t realize it would feel so much like a goodbye.”

 

“You’ll still have me,” Ava says. She doesn’t say for as long as you want me, because that’s fucking pathetic. She does think it, though.

 

Deborah kisses her, slow and honest. “Want to get high and watch the Bachelor?”

 

“Yeah,” says Ava. “I really, really do.”

 

-

 

Ava is a bad person can sometimes act in impulsive, hurtful ways that she regrets later. But she’s working on it. And based on how things are going for her, karma-wise, she thinks she might be doing okay.