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Camomile and Chlorine

Chapter Text

With the closing of the car door behind her, Cordelia feels like she can breathe again.

The early afternoon air is heavy and humid, and sweat prickles against her hairline, but already the dead weight that she’d dragged out here with her feels to have been lifted from her shoulders. Or, at least, left in the boot of her car with the gym bag that rarely sees any use. With her suitcase in hand, Cordelia unchains the gate leading up to Auntie Myrtle’s country house and takes the gravel path up to the porch. Of all of Myrtle’s properties, this is the most modest, and by far Cordelia’s favourite.

The house has a quaint, antiquated charm to it, with its period features and original fixtures, but what it lacks in outside grandeur it more than makes up for in location. Its nearest neighbour is so far through the woodland that the land itself is barely visible through the trees, never mind the property, but then that’s exactly what she’d counted on in coming here.

Solitude.

Peace and quiet.

A break in the clockwork that her life has fallen into, of late, before it becomes a break in her spirit.

Before she can become philosophical on the topic, Cordelia unlocks the front door and lets herself inside. The house is degrees cooler, and Cordelia leaves her case by the door with a relieved sigh at no longer having to bear its weight. Making for the kitchen, she notes that the décor has changed very little since she was last here – some several years ago, now – but to bring the house back to modernity, as well as a few new pieces of art. There’d been a time when she would come every summer break, and spend the rest of the year looking forward to it. Somehow, it’s always felt more like home than the house she grew up in.

Taking a glass from the cupboard, Cordelia opens the refrigerator door on her way to the sink. Empty, but for a few jars of preservatives and a half-eaten bar of expensive sea salt dark chocolate, folded up in its own wrapper and tucked away behind the empty butter container. Cordelia pulls a face when she sees it. She picks up a jar of jam, checks the use-by date, and then replaces it. She’ll need to go grocery shopping if she’s expecting to eat tonight.

The lack of food comes as no surprise. Myrtle is halfway across the world and due home no time soon. Cordelia thinks she’ll miss her larger than life presence, being here all alone, but that’s not to say that she’s not looking forward to having the place to herself.

It’s been too long since she’s had only herself for company, and she’s missed it.

She’s almost forgotten how to cope with herself when she’s alone.

At the sink, Cordelia makes herself a glass of water and downs half of it where she stands, leaning her belly against the counter and blindly staring through the window into Myrtle’s trimmed back garden. All around her, the house is quiet and still. A clock ticks from a sitting room, over-load and constant. Cordelia sets her glass down on the counter and leans forward on tip toes to crack open the kitchen window.

A gust of warm air blows inside, sweet with the scent of recently trimmed grass and the peonies growing in the window boxes directly below. Cordelia breathes it in with the birdsong and bug noises, and—

Her brow furrows.

Music, so quiet that it takes several seconds of holding her breath for Cordelia to be certain that she’s hearing it at all, hangs in the air with the heat and the humidity. She doesn’t recognise the track, exactly, but it’s familiar enough to confuse her. The longer she stands by the sink listening, the more certain she becomes that it couldn’t be coming from anywhere but Myrtle’s back yard.

Trepidatious, she unlocks the back door with her own set of keys and steps back out into the heat.

Cordelia follows the sound of the music like a lure, leading her through neatly trimmed hedges and recently pruned trees. Myrtle isn’t known for her gardening skills, but she keeps her houses and land in impeccable shape, and so the thriving flower beds don’t surprise Cordelia a lick – even with Myrtle having been gone from the property for so long.

The music grows louder around the side of the house, where its followed by the faint splashing of water.

The pool, Cordelia thinks, keeping her footfalls quiet as she climbs the steps to the patio.

Somebody must be using it, although surely not Myrtle herself?

The answer to who reveals itself as Cordelia rounds a hedgerow, bringing the pool into full view. There, swimming with her back to Cordelia and singing faintly out of key to the music, is an unfamiliar woman in the water. Cordelia’s gaze, unblinking, tracks long, damp blonde hair down the soft, cream-pink skin of her back.

Her bare back.

Cordelia gasps too loudly and forcibly diverts her gaze, turning her body away and raising a hand to shield her eyes at the side of her face. At once, the raspy singing coming from beneath the woman’s breath stops and a surprised splash signals the swimmer’s awareness.

“What the f—”

Gargling water suggests that she’s completely submerged, followed by a gasping cough as she resurfaces.

Cordelia’s eyes scan the far end of Myrtle’s garden, wide and startled.

“Can I help you?” she calls, not looking at the pool. Her cheeks feel hot with embarrassment. “What are you doing here?”

“What am I— I— what are you doin’ here?”

She sounds shrill, offended.

Cordelia gawps.

“I live here,” she cries. “I’m staying here while my Aunt Myrtle is abroad. She said nothing about there being a naked stranger in the pool.”

As she says it, water splashes again. The distinct sound of somebody rising up the steps, dragging the water with them, alerts her of the swimmer’s presence on the opposite side of the pool. Cordelia hears a towel forcefully unrolled in the air and relaxes, marginally.

“Oh, shit, you must be Cordelia?” Her accent is faintly twanged, voice rough like a cat’s tongue. “I didn’t think you’d be here ‘til next week, otherwise I wouldn’t be— well, you know.”

Cordelia swallows tightly, nodding.

“That doesn’t really explain why you were in the pool.”

Naked.

She’d been naked.

Cordelia squeezes her eyes shut. Pull yourself together. She’s acting like she’s never seen a naked woman before.

“I live nearby. Your Aunt Myrtle lets me use the pool in exchange for tendin’ her garden sometimes. It’s kind of an informal arrangement.” Fabric sounds indicate that she’s dressing, and Cordelia’s shoulders visibly untense. The music cuts off abruptly. An informal arrangement? That sounds plausible. Auntie Myrtle is nothing if not an opportunist. “My name’s Misty, by the way, Misty Day. My place is just up the road there.”

Cordelia near jumps out of her skin when a hand touches her shoulder. She hadn’t heard Misty’s approach.

Big, blue eyes and a wobbly smile pop into her view. Misty is nearly a head taller than Cordelia without her shoes on, and wearing a dress that looks like several other garments sewn together. Her hair hangs limp and wet over her shoulders, already beginning to curl at the tips.

“You can look now,” Misty tells her, and Cordelia lowers the hand from her face. “I’m decent.”

Cordelia wets her lips and nods.

Face to face with her, now, she isn’t sure what to say.

As though realising that Cordelia isn’t about to speak, Misty blurts out, “I swear, I don’t usually do this.”

“You mean the breaking in part, or the getting naked while doing it?”

Misty opens her mouth to defend herself, until she realises that Cordelia is joking. Cordelia looks a little flushed and surprised by herself, too. She holds a hand up as though to touch Misty, but it never lands. Her head shakes, white teeth nip at her lower lip – demure, bashful, already apologetic. Misty’s bright eyes feel like scorching sunlight when they move over her.

“I really didn’t think you’d be here until next week,” Misty says. “Thought I’d get in as much pool time as I could, before then.”

“I was supposed to get here next week, I brought it forward.” Cordelia knits her fingers together for lack of anything better to do with her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Misty’s brow quirks. “For what?”

“Uh— I mean, you were enjoying yourself.”

“Mhm.”

“I cut it short.”

“Kinda.”

“Well… you can still use the pool. I don’t mind.”

Misty perks up at that. “For real?”

“Yes. Yeah, honestly, you’re welcome to it. I won’t be doing much swimming anyway.”

“Hm, that’s a shame.” Cordelia blinks, surprised, and Misty’s eyes turn wide. “I just mean— well, swimming is good for your health, you know? Body and your brain.” When Cordelia’s frown only deepens, Misty visibly cringes. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to overstep or imply anything—”

“Ah.” Cordelia huffs a breath of wry and mirthless laughter. “Auntie Myrtle told you why I was coming? Seems appropriate information to share with your neighbour.”

Misty’s hair fans over her shoulders with how vigorously she shakes her head. She touches a firm hand to Cordelia’s arm and then removes it, thinking better.

“No, no, not really,” she says, so obviously trying to placate her that the wrinkles in Cordelia’s brow soften. “She might have mentioned you needed a break, is all, but nothing more than that. She didn’t say, I didn’t ask— it’s not my place. You know, I’m just going to stop talking, actually, before I put my other foot in my mouth.”

Cordelia deflates with a small breath.

“No, I’m sorry, it’s okay. I’m just being defensive.” She bites her lip again, a nervous habit she’s rarely aware of until she draws blood. “I just, I spent a lot of time here when I was younger. It’s always made me feel safe, at home. I guess I just wanted to get back to that for a little while.”

Misty holds her hands up, smiling. She has a kind of easy-going nature to her that soothes Cordelia’s rough edges, eases her raised hackles, like a pot of camomile tea sitting warm in her belly. It’s such a surprising trait to find in a stranger that, for lack of a better reaction, Cordelia’s body naturally relaxes.

“You don’t need to explain yourself to me at all, but I get it,” Misty says, smiling like she means it. The sunlight turns the hair at the crown of her head golden, a halo of light. Cordelia blinks up at her, dazed. “I should really be getting off, though, I got things that I’ve been putting off all morning.”

Like that, the camomile haze that had tranquillised Cordelia wears off.

She straightens, nodding. “Oh, sure, of course.”

Misty draws her shoulder bag closer to her collarbones and begins her barefooted retreat.

Cordelia does not point out her missing footwear, not for lack of curiosity.

“It was real nice meeting you, though,” Misty calls over her shoulder. The sun has dried enough of her hair that the curls are beginning to wind tightly through each strand already, shortening its length and giving it enough volume that Cordelia might be a little envious, were it not so untameable looking.  

“Likewise,” she agrees. “And I was serious about the pool. Really, stop by whenever you like, it’s no trouble.”

“Yeah?” Misty stops and pivots in place, turning a bright smile on Cordelia. “Well, alright. Thank you. And, sorry again. About, you know.”

She gestures to her own body, head dipping, although its Cordelia’s cheeks that flame pink and hot like she’s caught the sun. She clears her throat, waving off Misty’s concern, and Misty does not insist. She begins walking backwards, a hand raised in a wave, before she turns properly around again.

“See you round, Cordelia.”

Cordelia is still standing by the pool once Misty has slipped out of sight. She hears the faint ring of the garden gate closing, iron rattling against iron, and then nothing more. In the following silence, the crickets take up their mantle and begin singing, again, filling the hot air like the static from a poorly tuned radio. Sweat sinks into the fabric of Cordelia’s blouse beneath both armpits.

Misty’s wet footprints have already dried on the pool’s patio. The sun has erased all trace of her ever having been here, but for the strange feeling in Cordelia’s stomach that she’s left behind. The air around her tastes sweet like honey. Cordelia presses a hand to her belly and then scoffs, dropping it.

She’d come out here to get away from the madness that her life had been steadily spiralling into, not to find more. Though, as she walks back inside, the sunlight hot and pressing against the top of her scalp, there’s a smile against Cordelia’s lips – something small and just a little giddy.

It lingers with her throughout her day.

 


 

Cordelia spends the remainder of the week at home, for that’s how she’s thought of Myrtle’s country house since she was a girl.

She restocks the cupboards and the fridge, and dusts rooms that Myrtle’s housekeeper has already well taken care of in her absence. She waters plants, and she scoops stray leaves from the pool, and she lounges too late in the sun. She eats dinner from a tray on her thighs in front of the television screen, watching movies that she’s seen before. She picks up books and reads their first chapter, if she can make it that far, before replacing them again. By the approach of the weekend, Cordelia feels boredom like an infestation in her bones, burrowing deep to the marrow.

Life feels stagnant. The air around her begins to stale on her tongue.

It’s what she’d asked for, in coming out here, in removing herself from her life and the people who know her, and it’s with no small reluctance that Cordelia admits to herself that she’s beginning to regret her decision. The admittance sits like a pit in her stomach for another day, until an accident sees her dropping a glass of pineapple juice in the middle of the kitchen, glass shattering across the tile flooring like snowflakes.

The shock of the spill breaks her inertia.

Cordelia cleans the mess, changes her clothes, and grabs her car keys.

She’s ten minutes into her journey before she realises where she’s going, and relief settles in her belly like warm tea. The garden centre comes into view shortly after, and Cordelia takes a right at the appropriate turning, finding herself a spot in the parking lot near to the back, where the spaces come in clusters and she’s less likely to have somebody park beside her. She hasn’t been here in years, but aside from a little remodelling and refurnishing, the garden centre looks the same as it had when she was a girl.

Amongst the aisles of patio furniture and potted plants, Cordelia walks off her cabin fever.

By the time she’s rounded the succulent aisle for the second time, she stops to breathe. Relaxes. Her tunnel vision abates, and the world returns to her tactile and loud, ready for her to experience it and not just observe. The glass separating her from the rest of the world opens – a window, not a wall.

The garden centre smells like fresh water and soil. Cordelia caresses a rubbery succulent between finger and thumb, admiring the purple in the tips of its blue leaves. In the next aisle over, a conversation about ceramic pots can be heard between two elderly men; Cordelia bites her tongue to keep from adding her input between the shelves of bagged compost separating them.

“Ma’am, can I help you with anyth— Cordelia?”

Cordelia turns sharply.

Confirming her identity, Misty’s face brightens with a grin. She touches Cordelia’s elbow like it’s nothing, and Cordelia feels the weight of herself, corporeal and present.

“I thought it was you,” Misty continues, like they’re old friends. Cordelia blinks in response. “You lookin’ to buy, or just browsing?”

“Hm?”

“The plants,” Misty prompts, tilting her head toward the shelf that Cordelia had been staring at, unseeing, for the past however long. Her cheeks flush quickly pink. “They’re behaving, I hope? You were frowning at them like they’d just cussed your mama.”

“I was just looking,” Cordelia hedges, shaking her head. “They’ve been perfectly polite.”

“Well, good, ‘cause I raised them better than that.”

Cordelia frowns, and then realises what Misty is wearing. The garden centre’s standard uniform has been updated in the years since Cordelia was last here, but the colours are the same, and the nametag on the pocket of Misty’s overalls is unmistakable. She works here. Taking this new piece of information between both hands, Cordelia observes her again with fresh eyes.

“You look different with your hair tied back,” she says without thinking.

Misty’s smile twitches but does not waver.

“Do you need a hand with anything? I’m obligated to ask, but just tell me so and I’ll leave you alone to glare at my flowers some more.”

Her eyes twinkle beneath the harsh fluorescents, and Cordelia scoffs quietly in her throat.

“Thank you, I’m fine. I’m not really looking for anything in particular, I just needed to get out of the house. Change of scenery, that’s all.”

Misty hums. “So, you came here?”

Her arching eyebrow makes Cordelia’s palms sweat.

“That’s right.” Her teeth nip at her bottom lip; Misty does not miss her nervous habit. Cordelia feels the urge to explain herself bubble up inside her throat, quick like rising bile, but represses it. She does not need to reveal herself, to expose herself; she doesn’t owe it to anybody to make sense, especially not Auntie Myrtle’s eccentric neighbour. Instead, she changes the subject: “You work here, then?”

Misty takes the redirection in her stride, nodding.

“Part time, but it pays my bills.”

“I’m not keeping you from anything, am I?”

“Nah, you’re good. I was about to take my break, anyway.” She hesitates, studying Cordelia in a way that makes her skin prickle wherever Misty’s blue eyes wander. The hint of a pink tongue pokes between her teeth, brow furrowing. “Do you wanna get some lunch with me? It’s a bit of a stretch to say that there’s a café here, but it sells sandwiches and the coffee’s decent.”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, are you sure? I don’t want to impose—”

“Of course, I’m sure,” Misty laughs, looking at Cordelia like she’s maybe the strangest thing she’s seen all day. “I wouldn’t have asked, otherwise. Come on, I’ll make sure we get a good table.”

Cordelia follows her swaying ponytail through the store.

As promised, the garden centre’s eatery is a cosy nook between some small potted trees at the heart of the building, designed to seat as many people as the small space can comfortably occupy. Misty’s lunch break has hit directly at 12pm, too early for the regular lunch rush, giving them a queue-less walk past the refrigerated foods.

“The tuna salad is real good,” Misty says, choosing a sandwich for herself and then picking up an apple to go with it. “Oh, and there’s tea, as well, if you’d prefer it.”

Cordelia picks up a tuna salad sandwich without question.

“Coffee is fine, if that’s what you’re having.”

Misty nods her ascent.

There’s no line to pay for their food, and Cordelia is glad when Misty does not linger to chat with her co-worker at the checkout. They find a table in the corner, where there’s a little more space to move, and the seats surrounding them are as of yet unoccupied.

Misty takes a seat with a heavy sigh, and tears into her sandwich packaging.

“Busy day?” Cordelia asks, following suit, albeit at half the pace.

“Exact opposite,” Misty groans. “But that’s worse. If we were busy, time would go faster. Suppose I shouldn’t be wishing away my life, though.”

“No, I understand.” Cordelia carefully tears and unfolds her cardboard sandwich box out so that it’s completely flat against the table, leaving half of a sandwich triangle on top of it as she takes the other between both hands. Misty observes her without comment. “How long have you worked here for?”

“About three years, now. I know it’s not exactly a career, but I spend all day talkin’ to plants and playing in the mud, instead of being stuck in some cubicle behind a computer screen.” She flashes Cordelia a charming grin above her sandwich. “So, I can’t complain.”

Misty takes a large bite from her sandwich, and conversation pauses while Cordelia does the same – first from one corner of the bread, and then from the other. Misty proves to be a quick eater, wasting no time on her sandwich or the cup of coffee. By the time Cordelia has finished half of her lunch, Misty has partly reclined in her chair, taking thoughtful bites from her apple.

“How are you finding being back?” she asks conversationally.

Cordelia brushes breadcrumbs from the corner of her mouth and swallows.

“It’s fine.” The response sounds dismissive when she says it, like she’s had it sitting in the back of her throat in preparation for a question that she doesn’t want to answer. There’s no meaning to the words, and even less truth. Cordelia decides she doesn’t like the aftertaste they leave behind in her mouth. “Actually, it’s less exciting than I remember it being. Auntie Myrtle used to tutor me, when I was younger, but she did so much more than that. Eventually, I came to stay with her every summer, and it’d just be the two of us here together. She’d let me stay up late and eat whatever I wanted.” The corners of her eyes wrinkle with her smile. “She would nurture my rebellious side, looking back.”

Misty’s hum sounds like laughter, soft but not condescending.

“She could have done a better job,” Cordelia agrees, and Misty’s grin widens.

“How long’s it been since you were last here?”

“I’d say… God, over ten years, now. Before I was married.”

Cordelia nips her bottom lip in thought, pinching the tender skin between her teeth. Contrary to her performance in front of Misty, Cordelia remembers clearly the last time that she had visited Myrtle here, consumed by doubts and hysterical. It had been a week before her wedding and it had all felt real, finally, with every last touch in place but the vows that she couldn’t write. Over-thinking had driven her mad, had almost brought down every foundation in her life with a sledgehammer, and then Auntie Myrtle had told her not to go through with it.

If Cordelia had thought she was stubborn in the face of her mother’s disapproval, she’d learned nothing about herself until she was confronted with Myrtle’s.

Blinking, Cordelia returns to the table. Misty sits opposite her, studying her hands.

“It’s hard to remember exactly.”

Misty takes a crisp bite from her apple, chewing loudly. Her lips shine wet with the juice.

“Are you thinkin’ of staying long?” she asks, once she’s swallowed the food in her mouth.

Cordelia sighs again. “I hadn’t really thought of it.”

Misty appears surprised by her admission. “You don’t have anything that needs your attention back home?”

The question is innocent and blunt, that Cordelia does not answer immediately.

“No, actually, nothing back home.”

She worries that she’s lowered the mood, turned their table sombre and morose with her own personal baggage, but Misty’s smile is soft and sure. She takes another wet bite from the apple and shrugs, accepting Cordelia at her word.

“Well, if you ever get bored, you know where to find me.”

She winks when she says it, and Cordelia feels grateful and small.

 


 

Cordelia wakes up late, the following morning.

She takes her robe and her bare feet downstairs to make coffee, bleary eyed and barely conscious. Sunlight streams in through the open kitchen blinds, yellow and warm, enticing her outside when her coffee is done brewing. It’s still early enough that the morning air is warm but not swelteringly hot, and a breeze tugs at Cordelia’s robe until she has to tuck an arm around her middle to keep it from opening.  

A loud splashing noise disrupts the morning.

Cordelia turns her head in the direction of the patio, nursing the cup of coffee beneath her chin and frowning. When she begins to walk in the same direction, it’s with one thought in mind, and a smile draws at her lips as the pool comes into view.

Misty is wearing a bathing suit, today.

The stark white of it makes her skin look peachy in contrast, not quite alabaster stone. Hair has been drawn back into a messy bun on the top of her head, odd strands loose from the tangle and clinging wet to her throat where the water has caught them.

When she spots Cordelia standing above her, Misty stops swimming to tread water in place, and grins.

“Good morning,” Cordelia greets her.

“Thought I’d take you up on your offer,” Misty tells her, swimming forward so that she can hold onto the edge of the pool. She folds her arms on top of the patio, shoulders hunching out of the pool. They glisten wet and pink from the pool water and the sun. Misty’s gaze travels the length of Cordelia’s body, while Cordelia finger combs her bedhead, self-conscious. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Her blue eyes sparkle as though she already knows the answer.

That camomile warmth fills Cordelia’s belly again, and makes her smile.

“No, I don’t mind at all.”

Chapter Text

Cordelia is eye-level with a measuring scale when she hears the distinct metallic rattle of the garden gate.

While she does not lift her focus from the task at hand – carefully separating 80g of brown muscovado sugar from the bag – a smile turns at her lips. There’s only one person that it could logically be, appearing in her Auntie Myrtle’s garden uninvited in the middle of the day, unless Cordelia is about to be robbed and murdered, but she’s feeling far too optimistic for that to be right. She watches the digits on the electric scale climb to 77g, 78g, 79g… 82g.

“Fuck.”

Lowering the bag of sugar, she takes a deliberate pinch from the top of the pile, letting it fall through her fingers like fine grains of sand until, finally, the she meets her target. Satisfied, she straightens her spine and dusts the sugar from her fingers. When she lifts her gaze to the kitchen window, it’s to find Misty approaching from between the flower beds, a basket in one hand. Her gait is slow and distracted, and she dips occasionally to check on the plants as she passes. It’s been a while since she’s done any proper work on the garden, but Cordelia has kept it watered while she’s been here, and Misty seems satisfied enough with its condition that she does not linger long.

When Misty next looks up, she catches Cordelia’s gaze through the window and smiles.

Cordelia waves her inside.

She’s mixing together two types of sugar with softened butter when Misty lets herself in through the door, kicking her sandals off outside on the step. Cordelia’s lips quirk when she notices; for all she’s told Misty that she’s more than welcome to wear her shoes indoors, Misty has downright refused her. Although, Cordelia has not insisted. Wherever Misty trails, specks of mud and soil aren’t far behind.

“Hi,” Misty says brightly, placing her basket down on the counter. She watches Cordelia with interest. “What’s this?”

“I’m baking.”

“No shit.”

“Cookies,” Cordelia scoffs, and nods to the basket. “What’s that?”

“Eggs. I hope you like omelettes, ‘cause the girls have been busy.”

Misty crosses her arms and leans back against the island counters, folding one ankle over the other. Her shoulders deflate with a soft sigh, and Cordelia notices the pink in her cheeks and a sheen to her brow. Misty’s body sinks into the counters like this is the first time she’s relaxed all day, and Cordelia can believe it. Without stopping her mixing motion, she says, “I have coffee in the cupboard there, but you’ll need to make a fresh pot.”

Misty pushes herself away from the counter with a groan, unfolding all her limbs. “I’m on it.”

While she fixes their coffee, Cordelia adds two teaspoons of vanilla extract to her mixing bowl, and then beats in an egg (one of her own, as one quick glance into the basket that Misty had brought with her reveals a cluster of shit- and feather-speckled eggs that sends an offended wince through each bone in her body as soon as she sees them). She brings the remaining ingredients together in the bowl until she’s pleased with the mixture’s consistency, and then goes in search for the chocolate chips that she could have sworn she’d kept close to hand.

Catching her search, Misty puts the two mugs of coffee down on the counter and then spins around.

“Lookin’ for these?” she asks, holding the bag up for Cordelia to see.

“Oh, yes— can you measure out 200g, please?”

“You’re joking, right?”

Confused, Cordelia opens her mouth to protest as Misty tears into the packet and forgoes the measuring scale, but ends up just watching in horror as Misty dumps the entire 340g bag of chocolate chips into her mixing bowl. Her mixing motion stills as she turns, gaping, to see Misty’s face.

“You’re supposed to measure those out, you know? There are instructions.”

Misty looks at her like she’s mad, and so, with effort, Cordelia gives the argument up. She folds the mixture up into itself, trying her best to make it stretch over the new abundance of chocolate chips, while Misty slurps at the coffee that’s yet too hot to drink from behind her.

“Do you do this kinda thing often?” Misty asks, blowing against her steaming mug.

“Hm?”

“The baking.”

“Oh, sometimes. I find it relaxing.”

“Relaxing?” Misty scoffs. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I love experimenting with food. But baking?”

Cordelia lifts her head, smirking. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s just too… there are just too many rules. It’s temperamental. I swear, all you’d have to do is speak badly of that mixture there, and you could have done everything else perfect, but your cookies would turn to shit.” Cordelia guffaws, but Misty looks deadpan serious. “I have to say a little prayer before I bake bread, or else it spoils no matter what I do.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Cordelia tells her, and they share a grin. “There’s nothing temperamental about it, as long as you follow the instructions correctly.” Misty makes a dismissive noise that only broadens Cordelia’s smile; it doesn’t surprise her a lick that this is where Misty’s skills fall short. “It’s like… being in a lab and mixing chemicals, or putting together a potion. Add too much of something and it might just explode in your face.”

“Potion of make cookie,” Misty mutters against the rim of her mug.

Cordelia snorts beneath her breath.

“Okay, I think this is ready.”

She brings the mixing bowl to the island counter, where two greased baking trays are waiting. Misty watches with her coffee held between both hands as Cordelia spoons the mixture out into even, careful balls, spacing them out across the baking trays until she’s scraping the sides of the bowl. Once done, Cordelia takes the trays to her pre-lit oven and tucks them inside with a pair of floral oven gloves. She lets out a satisfied breath as the door closes on them, and then reaches for her coffee. As soon as she takes her first sip, Misty lowers her empty mug to the sink, and then begins to fill it with hot water and the used baking equipment covering the counters.

Cordelia disengages from her coffee with a blunt hum.

“Leave that, I’ll do them.”

Misty shrugs her off.

“Share your cookies and we’re even,” she says, and Cordelia sinks back against the counters with a fond smile.

“I would have shared them, anyway... Thank you.”

 

 

By the time the cookies are ready to eat, afternoon has begun its reluctant stretch into evening, and the humidity in the air is beginning to abate.

Cordelia and Misty take a seat in the garden on Myrtle’s wicker bench set, where they pick at the cookies and the platter of cold foods that Cordelia served them to stave off their hunger until dinnertime. The garden buzzes with life around them, from the insect chatter to the birdsong in the surrounding woodland, occasionally fluttering overhead. A honeybee hovers too near to Misty’s glass of lemonade, before changing both its mind and direction, and leaving their table in peace.

Appetite satisfied, Cordelia tilts her head back to catch the late sunlight on her face and closes her eyes. The sun burns pink and hot against her eyelids. She feels like a housecat stretching across the kitchen floor towards a beam of light coming in through a window, or a flower gently twisting through the tallgrass, desperate to feel the sunshine on its face.

Her moment of peaceful solitude feels endless, that Cordelia almost forgets that she’s not alone.

When she blinks her eyes open again, it’s to find Misty watching her, expression soft and fond. She looks away when Cordelia holds her gaze, something of a smile turning at her lips, and Cordelia feels warmth flush her body all over.

“Would you like to stay for dinner?” she asks.

Misty tucks her legs up onto the bench, crossing them like a kid.

“I shouldn’t, I’ve got food that needs eating tonight.”

Cordelia nods in understanding.

“How long have you known Auntie Myrtle?”

She isn’t sure where the question comes from, and detects surprise in Misty’s expression before it softens again. Cordelia is curious, though. She struggles to picture the two of them interacting within the same space, or the things that they might talk about, or what Auntie Myrtle might think of Misty and vice versa. They each have their eccentricities, but they spread in such wildly opposite directions, like roots from an old tree, that Cordelia cannot reconcile how they might interweave together.

“I’ve known of her for years,” Misty answers, eventually.

“My place is fairly run down, but that’s nothing compared to when I first got it. There’s no way I’d have afforded something that wasn’t, at the time, but I mean it was a mess. My budget went on fixing the place up, getting it up to standard, so I started growing a lot of my own food. It was hard, at first, but I’ve always had a green thumb, and by the time I was on my feet my garden was thriving. Then I got the chickens, too, and by that point I was turning out more food than I could eat before it would spoil.

“Now, there wasn’t really enough to take it to any kind of market, and I wasn’t even about to look into what kind of permits I’d need to get for something like that, so I took it to my neighbours, instead. Figured it’s better someone eat it while it’s good, before it goes in my compost bin. I got to know the whole area real quick, anyway, and then Myrtle—”

Here, she scoffs and shakes her head.

Cordelia repositions herself, tucking her legs up on the bench beside her, watching Misty with interest.

“I always loved this garden, but she had some bon rien hick working here for her who cut the lawn and whatnot. Had half the plants in drainless pots so that their roots were rotting.” She rolls her eyes. “I told Myrtle I’d fix it for her one day— it just annoyed me to see those plants dying for no good reason, you know? They were screaming out for help and nobody was listening. But, I guess I got carried away. She fired the gardener sometime after.”

Cordelia’s smile wilts, brow wrinkling with a frown.

“Does she pay you for that?” she blurts, only for Misty to wave off her concern. “It sounds like you do a lot of work for her out here, you should be compensated for that. Don’t let Myrtle take advantage of you just because she’s old.”

Misty snorts loudly.

“Nah, I’ve told her not to bother. She does her bits for me, too, and I prefer it this way.” Her smile turns decidedly conspiratorial. “And if I even mention that there’s a type of plant or tree or flower that I want to grow, it appears in her garden like magic— and I take cuttings home like you wouldn’t believe.”

Cordelia hums, doubtful.

Before she can further voice her concern, however, Misty says, “So, is she your aunt on your mom’s side or your pa’s? I don’t mean any offence by this, but I’m not exactly seeing the family resemblance between the two of you.”

Her gaze roams Cordelia’s face as though some defining feature tying her to Myrtle will jump out, caught unawares by their conversation.

“Oh, Auntie Myrtle and I aren’t actually related.”

Misty blinks.

“My mother hired her to tutor me when I was a child. She’s been the only consistent parental figure that I’ve ever had in my life, really.”

“Damn,” Misty breathes, and Cordelia shrugs. “Families, hey?”

There’s a story there— Cordelia can see it in the way that Misty averts her gaze, like she’s hiding it, like she’s avoiding being seen. Cordelia does not press her. Across from her, Misty leans back with a sigh and unfolds one leg, letting it dangle down to the ground while she kicks it back and forth, the calloused skin of her big toe occasionally scraping the stone. The sky above them burns orange-pink with the hint of approaching sunset; it turns Misty’s skin warm and soft, pale as she is that she tends to reflect whatever bold colours she stands too close to, like peach fuzz.

Cordelia admires the way Misty’s hair falls around her shoulders when she tilts her head up.

“Moon’s out,” Misty says, nodding to the sky. Cordelia averts her gaze to the slanting crescent moon above them, pale and silvery where the sky begins to deepen its blue. Misty mirrors its smile. “I should probably start walking back.”

“Take some cookies with you? I’ll only stuff my face if you don’t.”

Misty lowers her gaze to Cordelia’s face. Her smile comes easy and bright – though, Cordelia’s known it no other way.

“That’s the point of baking cookies, isn’t it? You get to stuff your face afterward.”

“I just like to bake,” Cordelia shrugs, “I don’t really care about eating them.”

Misty hums, pensive. “Weirdo.”

Cordelia’s laugh is mock-offended. She watches as Misty stands to find her sandals – left on the step to the kitchen door, still – and then begins to stack the plates and platters that they’d eaten from earlier. Setting her feet back on the ground, Cordelia leans forward so as to tie the handkerchief on which the cookies had been sitting together at the corners. Once she’s satisfied with the makeshift pouch’s security, she sets it in front of the seat Misty had vacated, ready for her to take with her on her walk home.

“Do you need your basket back?” she asks, just remembering the eggs that Misty had brought her.

Misty’s sandals scrape across the ground with her return.

“Nah, keep it.” She takes the pouch of cookies with a grateful, if amused, smile. “I’m in work for the next few days, so I won’t see you for a little while, unless you stop by again.”

Cordelia places her hands in her lap, shrugging delicately.

“My schedule is wide open, you’re welcome here whenever.”

“I might pop ‘round, if you’re in,” Misty agrees.

Cordelia snorts. “Where else would I be?”

“Alright, party girl,” (Cordelia has to bite her lip to keep from laughing again), “I’ll probably see you next week.”

Misty waves herself off as she leaves, her footsteps bouncing down the garden path the same way her hair bounces around her shoulders. Cordelia listens for the sound of the iron gate closing behind her, and then sighs. She turns back to the table, to the plates and glasses that she has yet to take inside, and when she looks back up again the sky seems to have turned perceptively dimmer. The evening air moves, tepid, around her like high tide crawling up a sand bank. The sun disappears behind a pink cloud.

Shivering, Cordelia wonders how the temperature managed to drop so quickly in so short a space of time, and takes herself inside.

 


 

Days later, Cordelia’s phone rings twice while she’s bathing.

She surfaces from the bathwater with a gasp, pushing suds out of her eyes and squeezing her palms along the top of her scalp to wring the excess water out. When she can see clearly again, she peers over the edge of the bathtub to where her phone is vibrating in the pile of clothing she’d left on the floor. She twists her neck until she can comfortably read the caller I.D., and then groans. She can’t ignore it. Flailing one arm over the edge of the tub, she twists her fingers into a towel in the hopes of quickly drying them, before snatching up her phone.

“Hello?”

Holy fuck, she’s alive. Do you have any idea how hard it’s been to get through to you for the past three weeks? I was about to send your mom flowers.

Cordelia sighs. “Hi, Coco.”

That’s it?

“I’m sorry?”

For what, sweetheart? Disappearing off the face of the planet without telling anyone where you’re going?

“I did tell—”

We both know when I say ‘anyone’, I mean ‘me’ specifically.” Cordelia grunts in agreement, sinking further down into the water. “So, why are you in the butt fuck middle of nowhere, when we should be out hitting up strip clubs and getting wasted? I saved up my vacation days at work for this, I was ready to ruin your liver, and then you went and disappeared on me. I had to find out from your mother’s housekeeper where you’d gone, and you know she gives me the creeps.

Guilt trickles into Cordelia’s belly like a leaky faucet— persistently, no matter how hard she tries to stop it. She draws her bottom lip into her mouth and makes a kind of hedging noise. That Coco holds the silence is no surprise; she wants an answer, this time, not just the grunted platitudes that Cordelia has taken to using during these concerned phone conversations with her family and friends.

“I just wasn’t feeling up to it,” she says. “I had to get away.”

She hears Coco’s breathing on the other end of the line, quiet and concerned.

We didn’t need to go to any strip clubs,” she says, just a little pathetically, that Cordelia’s lips turn up ever so slightly in the corners. “We could have just drunk wine and eaten ice cream on my sofa, like the good old days.

“I know, I just— I wanted some time alone. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I was going, I thought for sure you’d try to talk me out of it if I did, and knowing you, you’d succeed.” She sighs, continuing in a frustrated whisper, “I really just had to get out of that house.”

You won it, babe, fair and square.”

“Yeah. It’s not that, it’s… Memories, you know?”

Coco makes a quiet noise of understanding.

It’s just… I watched this divorce kick your ass for a year because that asshole couldn’t face how much of a goddamn idiot he’d been to lose you. He put you through hell, and you just sucked it up and took it. You could have cleaned his bank accounts out, with the kind of lawyer you could have afforded, and I know that’s not the point but anybody else—” She cuts herself off with an abrupt sigh. “You’re the strongest woman I know, you know that?

“Jesus, Coco—”

Don’t interrupt me, I’m serious. You’re the most gracious, patient, kind— loyal friend that I have. You’ve stood by me through all my weird shit, and I told you I’d do the same for you.

“And you have. You more than have. I don’t know how I’d have gotten through this last year without you, you know that.”

I know, I know, I just… Are you okay?

“Of course, I am. I’m relaxing, I’m… Everything is fine, here. It’s quiet.”

I miss you. It’s weird that I haven’t seen your face in so long.

“It is,” Cordelia agrees. “And I miss you, too, but this is something that I just need to do.”

Really?

Cordelia snorts quietly. “Yes.”

If you want to come back but you don’t want to stay at your place, you know that you’re more than welcome at ours, don’t you? I don’t even care for how long, either. Hell, I can move you into my guest bedroom tomorrow, if you want, Mal won’t mind.

“Only because she’s too nice to say no to you.”

I have her wrapped around my finger, don’t you worry about that.

Laughter bubbles up from Cordelia’s sternum before she can stop herself. “You’d walk into moving traffic if she asked you to.”

She would never!

“True. But, no, thank you. I don’t want to move into your guest bedroom. I’m just going to spend a little while longer out here, until I feel like I’m ready to take it all back on again, and then... I’m going to have to start looking for work, and I need to do something with the house; I can’t stand the thought of sleeping beneath that roof for one more night. I’ll be back when I’m ready.”

“Okay,” Coco says, reluctant, but she does not push. “I love you. Call me if you need anything, okay? You’re not so far away that I can’t drive up to get you if you change your mind, or if you just want a little company. We can do girls night in your Aunt Myrtle’s freaky basement. I still can’t get over how Sex Dungeon that place is.

“I love you, Coco,” Cordelia says with effort, pushing out that thought as soon as Coco plants it inside her brain. “Please don’t worry about me. I’ll let you know when I’m coming back, and we can have a proper catch up, alright? Coffee on me.”

Change that coffee to martinis and you have yourself a date.

“Done, easy.”

Okay. Stay safe, alright?

Cordelia hangs up with promised agreement and a quiet goodbye, and lets her phone slip back down to the pile of clothes on the bathroom floor. The distinct thud of its landing brings minor satisfaction. Cordelia sinks down in the tub until the bathwater almost reaches her nose, then surfaces just a little. She feels— good, actually, for having heard Coco’s voice. Still, reluctance pulls at her heels at the thought of having to face real life, already, that Cordelia remains in the bathtub until the water cools to lukewarm.

 


 

Cordelia dangles her feet in the pool.

Her trouser legs have been rolled up above the knees to keep them dry. She leans back on her hands, kicking her feet back and forth through the water, while a wide-rimmed sun hat protects her scalp and face from the heat. Directly in front of her, Misty is showing off her underwater handstand skills, both legs starfishing out of the water until she loses her balance and tumbles into a roll. When she surfaces again, pushing water from her face, Cordelia applauds.

Misty bows awkwardly in the water. “Thank you, thank you, I am a professional.”

Cordelia snorts and leans back on her hands again, while Misty slips onto her back, floating calmly through the water. She closes her eyes and lets the ripples take her, like she’s nothing but a fallen leaf with no cares in the world. For a moment, Cordelia envies her. Today, Misty’s swimsuit is a modest two-piece that covers most of her midriff in forest green and a bright floral pattern.

It’s pretty.

She’s pretty, Cordelia thinks, and the thought makes her smile.

“You’re really not gonna come in and join me?” Misty asks without opening her eyes, as though she can feel Cordelia’s gaze on her. She uses her hands to push her body further toward the centre of the pool, where the water is deeper. “It’s so relaxing in here, and I feel weird swimming with you watching.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, it’s like you’re supervising me or something.”

Cordelia hums a laugh.

Sighing, Misty opens her eyes and straightens. The change in position has her briefly dipping further beneath the water, until it touches the tip of her nose, before she rights herself again. Cordelia stops kicking her legs as Misty approaches, one hand gripping the edge of the pool by Cordelia’s thigh, the other coming to bracelet around her ankle. Cordelia’s eyebrows rise in warning.

“I could just pull you in.”

From the mischievous smile on her face, Cordelia almost thinks she will, and braces herself for impact.

Misty’s hand teases along her ankle, coarse fingers tickling up her calf and then back down to the sole of her foot, where she circles the heel. Cordelia twitches but does not jerk away. A warm flush starts in her belly and moves steadily upward, crawling across her chest and into her cheeks. She feels marginally grateful for the sun hat, and the shade that it provides, that she hopes somewhat obscures her blush.

“Please, don’t do that,” she says, plaintive and smiling, and Misty releases her without another word.

Instead, she moves fully to the edge of the pool by Cordelia’s side, and hauls herself up with little effort. Misty sits with a soft grunt and a wet noise against the patio as her backside lands hard. Water soaks into Cordelia’s trousers where their thighs touch. Misty kicks her legs into the pool the way that Cordelia has been doing while she’s been sitting here, and leans back on her hands to properly match her relaxed posture. When she turns to face Cordelia, they share a small smile.

“Can you swim?”

Cordelia nods her head. “I can swim, I just don’t feel like it.”

“Okay.”

Misty leans forward to wring the water from her hair, then tosses it over both shoulders where it continues to drip down her back.

“I don’t feel like anything, lately.”

Cordelia holds her breath in the resulting silence. She hadn’t meant to let that slip out. Her panicked gaze lifts to Misty’s face, where Misty is already watching her, where she’s facing her and open and accepting. The compassion on her face startles Cordelia, but it shouldn’t. Misty’s gaze grasps onto Cordelia’s like fingers entwining together, locking their eyes. There’s no judgement behind her stare, no expectation or pity, but a level of understanding that feels like a warm arm wrapping around Cordelia’s shoulders and soft breath in her ear saying, I got you.

Cordelia is the first to break their gaze.

The pool water has steadied since Misty’s exit, and Cordelia kicks her feet out now to create some ripples – proof of her existence within the world.

Beside her, Misty shuffles closer until she can comfortably rest her cheek against Cordelia’s shoulder. Cordelia stills, not awkwardly, but the way a cat falling asleep in her lap would make her incapable of moving until it rolled off her again— as though she’s just been entrusted with something infinitely precious, something she must handle with care. She folds her hands together across her thighs and closes her eyes, letting Misty’s presence calm her. The heat from her skin sinks into Cordelia’s muscles and relaxes them one by one.

Cordelia turns her head until the tip of her nose brushes against Misty’s damp hair.

She’d never have thought the scent of chlorine could relax her until that moment.

Chapter Text

“How long were you married?”

Cordelia looks up from the flower bed in surprise.

When she comes face to face with a probing gaze, she wonders for just how long Misty has been watching her.

They have been working together at the bottom of Myrtle’s garden for the most part of the afternoon, adding colour back into an area of otherwise neglected soil, and keeping each other’s company with companionable quiet. Cordelia has been quite happily occupied with her own thoughts, that she hadn’t noticed Misty’s silence growing pensive. Now, Misty’s gaze is unfaltering as she pats soil in around the roots of a flower.

Sun sticks the back of Cordelia’s blouse to her skin. She sits back on her heels, using her wrist to brush a strand of hair from her forehead. Her hands are wet with sweat inside of the gardening gloves.

“Excuse me?”

Misty wets her chapped lips but does not look away; the sun shines in her messy hair like gold dust.

“Well, you said you were married,” she says, not shying away from her gaze even as Cordelia’s wide eyes border on frantic. “But you don’t wear a ring, and you’ve been out here alone for weeks. You’ve never once actually mentioned your spouse.” She chews on her bottom lip, studying Cordelia’s face. “Should I not have asked? You don’t need to tell me anything, I’m just being nosy. I don’t have any other friends like you.”

Cordelia’s stomach warms at the word friends. She likes to think that they are, of course, but to have it explicitly confirmed from Misty’s own lips makes her certain. Still, a wrinkle of nerves in her belly, and she turns her gaze back to the neat row of flowers that they have been rehoming.  

“Eight and a half years, if you include the year it took for us to finalise the divorce.”

Misty whistles, surprised. “A whole ass year? Jesus. Is that normal?”

“Mhm, and I’ve never mentioned him because my ex-husband is an asshole.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Cordelia shrugs. “He’s not my problem anymore.”

It’s a relief to say those words and mean them.

Misty hums, contemplative, and they continue to garden in quiet, until dehydration begins to press a headache into Cordelia’s frontal lobe. She crawls backwards away from the flower bed, dirt clinging to her knees; the grass has left its imprint behind in her skin, rippling in each and every direction like a choppy sea. She pulls the gardening gloves off and wipes her sweaty palms against her shorts.

“I need a drink,” she says, rolling back onto her heels and standing. “Can I get you some water?”

Misty looks up with a smile, sun catching her eyes.

“Yes, please.”

Cordelia dusts the loose soil from her legs before retreating to the kitchen. Her entire body sighs once she’s out of the sun, the sweat beginning to cool against her skin now that it’s finally been given the chance. She pours herself a glass of water and downs the lot where she stands, until she separates from the empty glass gasping for air. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, she recalibrates. She gives the sweat clinging to the back of her neck a chance to cool and dry. When she feels marginally more stable on her own two feet, Cordelia grabs another glass, and fills them both with water before taking them outside.

She finds Misty where she’d left her, now sprawled out on her back across the lawn with her yellow hair fanning out around her shoulders. Cordelia admires her as she approaches— the ethereal likeness she has to an oil painting, the way Cordelia sees her out here sometimes and expects she’ll disappear as soon as she touches fingers to her creamy skin.

“It’s a wonder you don’t burn,” she says, lowering herself to the grass. “What factor sunscreen do you use?”

“A good one,” Misty winks. She sits up to relieve Cordelia of a glass, and drinks until she’s had her fill. A slip of water remains on her upper lip, before her ringed knuckles wipe it away. “I think we should call it a day. These little guys won’t want watering until the sun’s down, anyway.”

Cordelia hums in agreement, crossing her legs.

“What’s your garden like?”

Misty turns to her with a surprised, if pleased, smile. “Interested, are ya?”

“I am,” Cordelia shrugs. “You’re obviously good with plants, and you grow your own produce. Do you have a lot of land?”

“Nothing like this place, and the chickens take up the most of it.”

“Hm.”

Misty watches her face for a moment, the way she does sometimes when she’s about to offer something to Cordelia – a proposition, an invitation – but she isn’t sure if Cordelia will accept. Cordelia has yet to refuse her a thing.

“You’re welcome ‘round any time,” she says, finally. “I gotta warn you, though, it’s not much to look at.”

A smile settles on Cordelia’s lips, small and pleased. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Misty’s laughter rasps out of her throat, thick like wood smoke.

“Alright. Well, if you head out of your garden gate, the back lane will take you straight to it in that direction,” she points a finger over the treeline that obscures the rest of the world from Myrtle’s garden. Cordelia follows her finger, nodding. Dropping her hand, Misty picks a crust of dirt from Cordelia’s knee, but ends up leaving more behind. “Just keep walking until you come across some cardboard-lookin’ rundown shack of a house, and you’ll find me.”

Cordelia laughs without meaning to, but Misty is grinning, pleasure pouring from her like sweat.

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

Cordelia holds the cold glass to her throat, tipping her head back. Summer feels infinite on days like these. She likes to think, if she stays out here long enough, she might just forget that there’s a whole world out there that expects her return. She likes to think, sometimes, that it will forget about her, too. Slanting her head, she watches Misty sip from her glass of water, the way her throat moves when she swallows, blue veins barely visible through alabaster skin.

Fondness settles in her belly – that camomile warmth that Misty evokes in her whenever they sit side by side, like this, close beneath the summer sun. She’s so glad to have met her. Cordelia can’t imagine how she would have coped out here in total isolation, without the natural, patient kindness that Misty showers her with like it’s nothing.

Lowering her glass, Misty meets her stare. A smile wobbles self-consciously against her lips.

“What— do I have dirt on my face, or somethin’?”

Cordelia’s smile broadens.

Yes, actually.” She raises a hand to smudge the streak of dirt from Misty’s cheek. Her skin turns pink beneath the pad of Cordelia’s thumb, her lips parted like she’s about to speak but has misplaced her words. “There, that’s a little better.” Cordelia sits back with a sigh, stretching her legs out in front of her. “Are you working this weekend?”

Misty clears her throat. “Nope.”

“Then I might walk down to see you, stretch my legs a bit.” She turns back to Misty, hesitant. “If you don’t have other plans, of course?”

“No, totally free.” She recovers her smile. “You should stop by for some lunch, I’ll make us something nice and we can sit outside with it. I’ll introduce you to the girls.”

Her eyebrows wiggle as she bumps their shoulders together, causing Cordelia to laugh.

“I’d like that.”

“Ditto,” Misty agrees, and finishes off her water in one swallow.

 


 

Cordelia realises her mistake twenty minutes into her walk to Misty’s place, with the hot summer sun bearing down on her sunhat like a ball of hellfire.

In seeing Misty come and go so often, as easily as she pleases, Cordelia had assumed that her place must be a short walk away. Closer, at least, than what Cordelia is painfully realising that it really is. Her legs ache, her back is slick with sweat— if she’d have chosen to wear anything other than the cotton shirt that hangs off her body like something out of an old romance novel, it would be wet through and stuck to her skin. Even the loose skirt, swaying against her knees, feels akin to a thermal blanket.

Summer shows her no mercy.

The wide-brimmed hat is her only reprieve, and which Cordelia pulls from her head to occasionally fan warm air into her face along the way.

The lane that she’s taking is dirt-worn and imprecise, with the occasional smattering of stones along its edges to distinguish it from the rest of the surrounding woodland. Cordelia imagines it’s something worn into the ground through constant use, something that the people who use it have marked out for themselves, invisible to any official road map. The trees either side create a green canopy that filters out direct sunlight, but the air feels wet with humidity; every other breath of Cordelia’s sticks to the inside of her throat.

By the time a stepping stone footpath diverges from the lane between hedgerows that look greener than the surrounding woodland, Cordelia is ready to collapse. An honest to god road can be seen through the nearby trees, and Cordelia doesn’t think she’s ever been so thankful for a sign of civilisation before in her life. A gate marks the entrance of Misty’s property, wooden and rustic, and easily unlatched by Cordelia’s sweaty fingers. Just outside of the fenced front garden, a dusty truck shines rust red in the sun.

Misty’s house sits small and humble in the centre of her lot, surrounded with lush vegetation. There’s a kind of organised chaos to the placement of flowers and plants, where Misty has so obviously crammed what she can into what little space her land has to offer, and yet the plants seem to thrive alongside one another all the same. Not one flower appears sun-starved or dehydrated, and there’s not a brown or dying leaf in sight.

Really, Cordelia should have expected nothing less.

She makes her way up to the front of the house. It is single storey and squat, with a modest porch dotted with potted plants spilling more green leaves and sprouting multicoloured flowers. Cordelia admires them as she wraps her knuckles against the door.

Misty does not answer on the first knock, or the second.

Before Cordelia tries for a third time, she panics that Misty has forgotten their tentative plans. Had Misty actually invited her this weekend, or had Cordelia just presumed? Perhaps she’s been called into work at the last minute, and she and Misty have yet to exchange any kind of contact number or address for one another. Cordelia worries her bottom lip.

She’s ready to take her self-conscious self back home, when she spots the same stepping stone path that she’d taken leading around the side of the house and into the back yard.

Inspired, Cordelia leaves the porch to follow it.

She hears the chickens before she sees them. Large clusters of birds have always left her with a vague sense of unease, yet as she rounds the house, the garden reveals itself with a wide open enclosure built with obviously repurposed wooden posts and wire mesh fences. The chickens squawk and cluck, scattering across the grass at the sound of her footsteps, that Cordelia feels glad of the fence separating them from her.

Heavy footsteps draw Cordelia’s attention next, and her wrinkled brow softens at the sight of Misty stomping the mud from her old boots. Her outfit is a mismatch of hard and soft – a wide brimmed brown hat covering her yellow hair, and a burgundy dress that hangs like shredded cloth around her thighs.

“Goddamn gator shit,” Misty mumbles beneath her breath, then turns her attention to the potted plant in her hands. “There, you’re looking better already, aren’t you, Miss Tulipa? I think we’ll put you right here with the asters and the daffodils so you’re not lonely, and when you’re strong enough we can get you out of that p— oh, sweet lord, Cordelia!”

Cordelia bites her bottom lip, one hand raised in a little wave, while Misty presses a palm to her chest.

“Jesus, you scared me.”

“I’m sorry, I knocked but—”

Misty bats her apology away like a fly. “Nah, don’t worry, just got all caught up in my head.”

She looks down to the plant pot in her hands and blushes.

“Ahem. Let me just get her settled and I’ll make us some tea— coffee?”

“Tea’s fine.”

Cordelia uses Misty’s moment of distraction to turn her attention to the rest of the garden. As expected, the chicken pen takes up the majority of the space. A few small, curved white sheets of corrugated metal create tunnels dotted around their enclosure, providing shelter from the elements, and a coop that looks as though it’s seen better days leans against the wall of the house, large enough to comfortably squeeze each hen inside.

The stepping stone footpath curves around the mesh fence and through what’s left of the garden, providing indistinct aisles through the flower beds and the larger plants whose leaves spill out onto it. An entire fence panel has been hooked up with wooden mesh, allowing fragrant wisteria to climb along the tops. Its purple flowers hang like curtains, secluding Misty’s garden with a sense of ethereal mystery— a recurring theme, Cordelia thinks, where her new friend is concerned.

Something of a shed leans awkwardly at the bottom of the garden, large enough perhaps for all of the gardening gear that Misty would need to keep the small plot, if not a lawnmower. Beside it, a vegetable patch, carefully separated from the rest of the garden. All in all, it’s perfectly Misty – vibrant, an abundance of life, if not in the form of the flora itself then from the bees and butterflies that buzz and flutter through the petals.

Footsteps along the path have Cordelia swivelling around to watch Misty disappear inside through the open back door. She spies her briefly through the kitchen window, washing her hands and filling a kettle with fresh water, before she disappears again. More potted plants line the windowsill inside, green leaves spilling against the glass. Cordelia smiles when she sees them.

“Here— sorry for the wait,” Misty says when she remerges from indoors, two mismatched mugs in her hands. Cordelia releases the sunflower she’d been admiring with delicate fingers. After a brief hesitation, Misty quickly hands her the mug that doesn’t have a chip in its rim. “Would you like to sit inside for a moment?”

“Sure,” Cordelia agrees, following after her. The steam from her tea billows honey sweetness into her face. “Could I get a glass of water, too, please? The walk really tired me out.”

“Of course! Sit down anywhere.”

It takes a moment for Cordelia’s eyes to adjust to the dimness of Misty’s cramped kitchen.

She moves partially blindly towards a circular table with three chairs tucked in around it, and helps herself to a space so that she’s not in the way. Misty’s house smells like her, Cordelia thinks, like warm leaves and sunshine. The kitchen feels degrees cooler, even if Misty keeps the back door open, meandering around her kitchen with the focus of a honeybee. She brings Cordelia her water and then opens up the fridge door, leaning against it with a noise of contemplation.

“How about I make us some sandwiches?” Misty spins around to see Cordelia’s face. “I’ll do you a proper gumbo, one day, but for now I have ham salad.”

“Sounds good,” Cordelia grins.

Above the table, a hanging basket spills ivy like a chandelier.

“I like your house,” Cordelia says, distracted by a row of succulents on top of the fridge. Plant life seems to be tucked into every sunny corner; it’s obvious from the lack of space outdoors that Misty has moved her garden in. “It’s very green.”

“You should see my bedroom.”

“Hm?”

“Nothing. Onions okay?” Misty peeks over her shoulder as she lays out the ingredients for their sandwich. All but the packaged ham looks fresh out of her vegetable patch, and Cordelia doesn’t doubt that that’s the case. “No food allergies I should know about?”

“Absolutely, and no. I’ll eat anything you put in front of me, don’t worry.”

Misty snorts. “A woman after my own heart.”

 

They take the sandwiches outside once they’re ready, Misty carrying them on a tray with a tartan blanket tucked beneath one arm.

Cordelia carries their tea, trailing behind her while Misty leads them past the chattering chickens and out of her garden gate. Surprised, but not reluctant, Cordelia closes the gate behind her with a nudge from her elbow, and peers over Misty’s shoulder into the surrounding woodland. While not nearly as vibrant as her garden, Misty traverses the woods like they’re just as familiar, and Cordelia supposes they would be.

“Don’t worry,” Misty says when she finally picks a spot – a small clearing between the trees, still in perfect view of her little house and with enough shade that they’re unlikely to bake. “I wander through here all the time, and I’ve never seen a gator this far from the swamp.”

Cordelia hums, doubtful.

The blanket is rolled out and the tray given centre place, while Misty sits in one corner with crossed legs. Cordelia takes the space opposite her, curling her legs up beside her and then smoothing out the wrinkles that sitting like this creates in her skirt. Dry grass pokes in clumps beneath the blanket, and it takes her a moment to get comfortable while Misty picks up a sandwich and takes a loud, crunchy bite.

Settling, Cordelia follows suit, and they eat in companionable quiet.

Above them, the midday sun slants in the sky, the beginning of its slow descent toward the horizon. Its blazing heat is just caught by the surrounding canopy, offering Cordelia a slight reprieve, now that she’s able to sit in it as oppose to being subject to an accidental hike. Misty is the first to finish her food, and nurses her tea until it cools.

“Don’t force yourself to finish if you’re full,” she says when she notices Cordelia struggling.

“Sorry,” Cordelia cringes, dusting sandwich crust from her mouth. “It’s good, I just never have an appetite when it’s this hot.”

Misty smirks and waves her plate over, demolishing the leftovers so quickly that Cordelia almost apologises for not leaving more. When she sees the look on Cordelia’s face, Misty ducks her head, abashed, and has to take a quick swallow of her tea before she chokes.

“I don’t like seeing food go to waste,” she says, an endearing flush pinking her cheeks, while Cordelia leans back on her hands and smiles. “Do you want more tea, or some water?”

Cordelia shakes her head. “I’m fine. It’s nice out here.”

Misty hums in agreement.

“I didn’t realise how far out you were, actually. You need a bicycle or something.”

“I’d love one, actually. With a little basket on the front?”

“I can picture that perfectly.”

Raspy laughter tumbles out of Misty’s mouth, careless like falling leaves.

“You are really isolated out here, though,” Cordelia muses, tilting her head. Sunlight slants against her chin where the wide-brimmed hat is no longer obscuring it, warming her chest and throat. “Is Auntie Myrtle your closest neighbour?”

“Probably, unless you’re counting the birds and the bees. I like it, though.” Misty scratches her nose with a shrug. “I mean, I drive, so I’m not completely stranded out here, but it is nice. Don’t get me wrong, though, the first year here I almost went stir-crazy, I was so lonely. I had six siblings, and more cousins, and we all grew up on top of one another. I’d never even had my own room, back then, never mind a whole house to myself.”

Cordelia’s teeth pinch against the inside of her cheek.

Reluctantly, she probes, “Had?”

Misty blinks, and that warm, open look that Cordelia has only ever seen on her face… recedes, like those flowers that close their petals at night.

It does not suit her.

“They’re no longer in my life,” Misty says, recovering, her tone a solemn rasp that turns Cordelia’s insides about the wrong way. Then she takes a sharp breath and forces a smile. “Family is what you make of it, I’ve always believed that. You gotta wander a ways before you find your tribe, sometimes.”

“Misty, I’m sorry.”

Misty shakes her head. Her smile softens, but she can’t correct the solemn drooping of her expression— something that seems to frustrate her, if her next sigh is anything to go by. Cordelia pushes herself onto her knees, flopping back down on the tartan blanket again when she’s a little closer to Misty’s side, within easy reaching distance of the ringed hand that she takes in one of her own. Her palm feels sweaty against Misty’s callouses.

“I shouldn’t have asked,” she says, while Misty’s wide blue eyes regard her. She looks years younger, suddenly, and far more fragile than Cordelia would think her capable of being. She squeezes her fingers against Misty’s; she hadn’t noticed, until then, how much larger Misty’s hands are compared to her own. She has strong hands, capable hands. Cordelia likes them. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t,” Misty says, like a reflex. It’s so obviously untrue that her cheeks turn pink. “You couldn’t have known, I mean. And really, I’m fine. It’s not you, and I’ve made my peace with it.”

Cordelia squeezes her hand again.

She isn’t sure how truthful Misty is being, and her tongue prickles with the urge to question, to prod, to pull more from her than what Misty is willing to give. She wants to know. She wants to learn just about everything about her, if she’s being honest with herself, and the self-revelation comes as no small surprise. Misty is unlike anyone she’s ever met, she rationalises with herself, and how unlikely it is that she’d met her at all— she’s an enigma, Cordelia decides, and Cordelia has always been studious to a fault.

Still, she bites her tongue.

Misty has shown her nothing but kindness, patience, and friendship. Cordelia would be remiss to offer her any less in return.

“Okay,” she says, smile gentling her face. Misty releases a breath, relieved, when she sees it. Her own smile is soft and a little watery, and Cordelia has to repress the urge to touch her cheek. Misty’s tactile nature is rubbing off on her. “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I think I understand what you mean about family being what you make of it. I’ve already mentioned Auntie Myrtle— well. I wouldn’t be who I am without her. She’s been more of a mother to me than my own flesh and blood.”

Misty turns their hands over, her fingers sliding between Cordelia’s and intertwining them together.

“You deserve better than that,” Misty says, with such quiet conviction that Cordelia gapes.

“You do, too.”

Her sentiment seems pale in comparison to Misty’s, but while Cordelia frowns at herself, Misty only smiles.

“It’s alright, I found good friends. Even if we are so different from one another, they get me. They accept me for who I am, and for what I believe in, which is more than I can say for the people I was born to. You know, I never got a second to myself while I was growing up, couldn’t even take a piss in peace, but I never felt so completely included within or loved by any kind of community until I met my people.” Misty wets her lips, tentative. “I hope you have someone like that back home.”

“Oh,” Cordelia smiles. “I do.”

Misty hums, pleased with her answer.

Hoping to lighten the mood, Cordelia changes the subject.

“Now, I know you told me the other day that you were going to introduce me to the girls,” she says, hesitant. “I assumed you meant the chickens, but right now I’m hoping your friends are hiding from us back at your place.”

“Why, Cordelia, are you saying you don’t want to meet my chickens?”

Cordelia clears her throat. “I never said that.”

“My girls are southern belles, I’ll have you know. You should be so honoured to make their acquaintance.”

Cordelia tips her head back, grimacing.

“I don’t have to go inside their pen, do I?”

Misty snorts and unclasps their hands.

“No, you can stand a respectable distance away with a big bah-bin on your face.”

Cordelia opens and then closes her mouth. “I’m not sure I want to know what that is.”

Misty stands first, grinning, and then helps Cordelia to her feet. She shakes the picnic blanket out while Cordelia gathers their empty cups and plates up on the tray, and then leads the way home. Cordelia makes sure to lock the gate as it closes behind her. From their enclosure, the chickens flutter around in the shade, clucking at one another like a gaggle of parents in a school yard. Cordelia eyes them warily.

“At least they can’t fly,” she says, as they take the tray and blanket indoors.

“Actually,” Misty says, tucking the blanket away on a dining room chair, and demolishing the thin layer of confidence steeling Cordelia’s nerves, “they can, just not all that well. I’ve had a few escapees wreak havoc in my garden, before, but usually only if they’re upset about something or other.” She lifts her head up and blinks, surprised by the look on Cordelia’s face. “You don’t like birds?”

“I used to have a recurring nightmare that one would peck my eyes out,” Cordelia says, swallowing. “One or two is fine, but they make me nervous in groups. Kind of like teenage boys. They get rowdy when they’re together.”

Misty’s smile wobbles.

“They won’t hurt you, I promise.”

She grabs a handful of feed from a cupboard, luring Cordelia outside with a tilt of her head. Despite her screaming sense of self preservation, Cordelia follows her back outside into the garden, where Misty begins to unlatch the little gate leading into the chicken pen. She lets herself in first, a few of the braver hens clucking around her feet like worshippers before a benevolent God. Their yellow beaks peck at the crusted dirt on her boots, while others scatter underfoot, but Misty is careful not to trod on a single toe as she meanders herself to the far end of the pen.

Cordelia puts her hands on the fence, watching as Misty splits the feed between both hands and crouches. The chickens automatically gravitate towards her palms. When Misty next lifts her gaze to Cordelia, her smile is warm and encouraging.

“Do you trust me?” she asks, and Cordelia flounders.

“Yes.”

“Come here, come and say hi.”

Cordelia hesitates only a second.

She can’t quite believe what she’s doing, until the gate is opened and quietly locked shut behind her. She nears Misty as though she expects the chickens to turn in a flutter at any moment, but while a few twitch and turn and walk around Misty, uncertain of the stranger in their garden, the promise of food calms them.

Once she’s close enough, Cordelia crouches by Misty’s side and holds her breath.

“Open your hand,” Misty says.

Cordelia does as instructed, while Misty pours what’s left of the feed into her palm, and the chickens swarm her. A wave of panic has Cordelia almost tumbling backwards onto her ass, but Misty catches her by the shoulder.

“Easy,” she says, voice quiet and calm. “You’re doing great. I think they like you.”

“They like the food that just so happens to be in my hand, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Misty agrees with a grin.

Her fingers brush over a few of the hens with care, stroking their rust-coloured feathers, and Cordelia cannot help but watch her. There’s something decidedly soothing about seeing Misty with animals – with the plants, too – the care with which she treats them, the love that she so obviously holds for them. They couldn’t be in safer hands. Cordelia often feels the same, when she’s with her.

She’s distracted by Misty enough that when a rowdy hen clucks at another, a brief spat occurring in their struggle for food, Cordelia dumps the chicken feed on the ground in a panic. Without anything of interest to hand, the chickens move on from her and peck at the dirt and dry grass, instead, swarming together to clean the area of food.

“Sorry,” Cordelia whispers, scared to raise her voice any louder, but Misty shrugs it off with a lazy smile.

When she stands, Cordelia follows her lead, and they exit the pen together.

“That wasn’t so bad, right?” Misty asks, resting her hands on the fence.

Cordelia makes an indecisive noise, but she’s smiling. It only grows when Misty removes her hat to shake out her hair and scratch at her scalp before replacing it. She’s flushed in the cheeks from the afternoon heat, and the rosy glow suits her otherwise pale skin. It sets off the pink in her lips.

“No, it wasn’t so bad.” Cordelia holds a breath in her lungs, scraping her teeth against her lower lip. “For what this is worth, and that might not be a lot, considering,” she begins, tentative, uncertain if she should, “I think you’re an extraordinary person, Misty. I know we don’t really know each other very well just yet, but I already know that nobody’s life could be better off without you in it. If your family couldn’t see that, then that’s on them, not you.”

Misty’s lips part with an audible breath.

There’s a sheen to her eyes that Cordelia’s never seen before. It pulls her tight in the chest.

“Thank you for saying that,” Misty whispers, finally.

“I meant it.”

“I know you did.” She smiles, but it disappears into an expression of apprehension. “My family, they— had certain views and expectations of me. All of us, really. They’re very religious and, ah… homophobic, which caused a few problems ‘tween them and me.”

That word cringes out of her, and she struggles to meet Cordelia’s gaze. Frowning, Cordelia opens her mouth to tell her that those views don’t reflect back on Misty herself, when she understands what she’s saying. Something like a metal rod striking against a rock vibrates through Cordelia’s spine. Her teeth feel loose in her gums.

“Oh. Oh, Misty.” She does reach for her, then, if only because Misty’s own generous affections have made her brave. She wraps her fingers around Misty’s larger hand, all of her rings pressing into Cordelia’s palm with enough force to leave an impression behind. “I’m so sorry.”

Misty lifts her head with a heavy breath.

This time, there’s more strength to her wry smile.

“Don’t be. Really. I’m better off without people like that in my life, even if we share blood.”

Cordelia’s head nods in quiet agreement, but the expression on Misty’s face stalls her voice. She looks— Misty looks nervous for what Cordelia thinks is the first time since she’s known her. Even stumbling upon her stark naked in Auntie Myrtle’s pool hadn’t brought this wide-eyed, gut-wrenching fear to Misty’s face. That earlier flush has all but disappeared from her cheeks.

After a second, and with startling horror, Cordelia realises that Misty is afraid of her.

Of her reaction, at least, and her stomach squelches hard.

She’ll have to fix that.

“Hey,” she begins, “I don’t tolerate people like that in my life, either. Not even a little bit.”

Misty’s wrinkled brow softens marginally.

“Why don’t you come by tomorrow?” Cordelia offers.

“Ah, I’m workin’.” Misty snaps her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Only a half day, though.”

“Then come by later, I can make us some dinner?”

“You don’t have to go to any trouble for me—”

“I’d like to,” Cordelia quickly interrupts. “I’m sick of cooking for one person, anyway, so you’ll be doing me a favour.”

Misty huffs as though to say, I don’t believe that, but Cordelia’s sincere expression quiets her.

“Alright. Okay, fine, I’d like that.” Her smile returns, and every muscle in Cordelia’s body relaxes. “I’ll need to shower before I come over, but… say, six? Do you want me to bring anything?”

“No, and six is perfect. Do I— do you have any allergies?”

Misty snorts.

“I dare you to find something my stomach cannot digest.”

“I… don’t think I want to take you up on that challenge.”

“Scared of losing?”

“Yes,” Cordelia scoffs, and Misty tips her head back to laugh.

The sound of her raspy bellow settles over Cordelia like a blanket, and everything feels right in the world again.

Chapter Text

Cordelia wakes with her nerve endings on fire.

She’s sprawled on her back with the bedsheet twisted somewhere around her foot and hip, one bare leg bent halfway down the bed in search of cooler air. Her silky night dress feels wet against her chest and back, and grates against her over-sensitive skin, abrasive, despite how gentle the texture is. Cordelia opens her eyes with a raspy groan. Her cheeks and chest are flushed, her pebbled nipples visible through the night dress.

Her body undulates against the mattress, unrolling her muscles from sleep, and sends a pleasant tingle through her lower abdomen. She presses her thighs together, sleepily chasing the pleasure that had wound through her dreams – all distant, indistinct shapes now that she’s woken – and gasps quietly when she realises that she’s wet.

Cordelia can’t remember the last time she had a sex dream.

She blinks up at the ceiling, chest heaving with heavy, panting breaths, slack-jawed and spent.

Jesus, but she feels good.

A breathy, embarrassed laugh pants out of her, and she captures her bottom lip between her teeth. Cordelia presses a hand to her belly, but she shouldn’t. She isn’t even sure what time it is, or how late she’s slept in, and she has things that she wants to do – she has a whole plan for her day that does not involve this, and yet.

If she was home, Cordelia would reach for the vibrator in her bedside cabinet, but in her rush to get out she’d never packed it.

Instead, she uses the next best thing.

The hand on her belly slides south, fingers twisting in her nightdress to pull it up over her thighs. When she meets with the elasticated hem of her underwear, Cordelia slips her hand inside and sighs. Her entire body feels to sink into the mattress, the pillow consuming her head as her neck tips right back. Her pulse throbs between her legs, uncomfortably strong. Her skin feels over-warm and taught wherever the mattress, or her nightdress, or the bedsheet, touches her.

Swallowing thickly, Cordelia continues her descent, where moisture already clings to her underwear in a heady mixture of sweat and arousal. The tip of a single finger brushes indirectly against her clit, and—

Images from her dreams burst to the forefront of Cordelia’s mind.

They play like damaged film on a reel, unsteadily, the scenes clipping into one another without much rhythm or sense. Hands on her hips, lips between her thighs. Cordelia takes the phantom sensation and uses it; she’s too far gone, already, and has no patience for teasing herself. The sooner she achieves her orgasm, the quicker she can make a start to her day. With this mentality, her touches become stronger, precise. Her fingers trail briefly to the source of her arousal, lubricating the tips until they return to the pearl of nerves between her legs.

A quiet groan sighs out from between her lips, escaping like smoke from beneath a closed door. Her legs shift in the bed, knees bending heavenward, hips gently gyrating into the mattress. Cordelia bites the inside of her cheek and chases the images from her dreams, again, the hazy memories that aren’t quite memories. Teeth against her thighs, kisses pressed into her pubic mound like secrets. Fingers entering her— pressing, curling.

Breath shudders past her lips; the peak of Cordelia’s climax burns in her heels.

She wracks her brain for more.

A raspy chuckle between her legs, sensation buzzing through her nerve endings like a live wire. Both of Cordelia’s hands tangling into wild, blonde hair and pulling.

Cordelia gasps loudly.

Her orgasm blooms like a flower in a time-lapse, warmth coursing through her veins, body shuddering.

Blue eyes peeking up from between her legs; a smiling, pink mouth over-satisfied and wet with evidence of her arousal.

Cordelia falls back to the bed with a whimper.

For a horrified moment she lies there panting as the fractured memories from her dreams jigsaw themselves together. Cordelia is stunned by the picture they create once stitched into completion. Her body blushes painfully, stomach squeezing. She tears her hand from between her legs and holds it a distance away, unable to look at the arousal that clings to her fingers, or think about just how damp and cold her underwear feels against her burning skin.

It doesn’t mean anything, of course, but the idea of having a sex dream about a friend – about Misty – makes Cordelia’s entire body feel wrong.

She wants to crawl out of her skin and dispose of it like it’s evidence of a crime.

Her stomach feels tight with nausea.

Gulping air, Cordelia forces herself to calm down, to think rationally. It had only been a dream. Cordelia has had plenty stranger, more disconcerting dreams in her life, and none of them truly reflect her actions in the waking world. Hell, she’s had sex dreams before – of celebrities, or old classmates, of complete strangers in the street. This is her subconscious mind’s way of processing Misty’s sexuality, she decides, although the explanation sits heavy on her chest and uncertain.

She’s never had a dream like that about Coco, and the two of them are much closer, have known each other for years longer.

It means nothing.

When the stickiness against her fingers has all but dried, Cordelia moves her body from the bed, sluggish and spent.

She showers in water cool enough to make her shiver, and puts the entire ordeal as far from her mind as she possibly can as she begins her day.

 

At least, she attempts to.

She tries.

Cordelia’s thoughts haunt her – white sheets and chains dragging through the darkened corridors of her mind, stirring up sensations that make her hot and uncomfortable, that make her jump at the slightest of breezes against her over-sensitive skin. Her brain scatters. Her hands forget how to work. She drops utensils while she’s eating and cleaning up breakfast, and brushes her teeth so brusquely that she hurts her gums. She feels jittery like she’s drank three cups of coffee already, nervous as though she expects divine retribution to attack her at any moment for the crime of her intrusive thoughts.

Whenever her mind strays to Misty, however innocent the initial thought, her body reacts violently. Her stomach turns. Her heart sputters and hiccups inside her chest. She feels dread pull at her ankles like quicksand, panic like the walls in every room are slowly moving closer. The jittery cinema in her mind replays her conversation with Misty from the night before, the revelation, and Cordelia’s stomach plummets.

She doesn’t understand her reaction.

Cordelia isn’t homophobic, or at least, she’s never thought of herself as being so.

She’s best friends with Coco, for Christ’s sake, and she’s never felt anything but happiness and sometimes a little envy towards her and Mallory. Their PDAs have never made her cringe, and Cordelia has never been fond of seeing that from anybody, regardless of the people or gender identities involved. So, why this mounting dread whenever she thinks of Misty’s sexuality? Why this wish to go back in time and prevent the conversation that revealed it from ever happening? Why doesn’t she want it to be so?

Cordelia jams her fingers into her temples, sitting alone at the dining room table with nothing but a too-loud ticking clock for company.

She likes Misty. She doesn’t want anything to change between them.

Why would it?

Cordelia’s thoughts return to her dream, and her body’s reaction is instant and damning.

Her chest flushes, her cheeks blush, the pulse between her thighs rockets.

Fuck.”

Setting her jaw, Cordelia pushes up from the table and marches to her bedroom. She can’t accept that— that a part of her had wanted to dream of Misty like that, that not only her subconscious mind had entertained those kinds of thoughts. It doesn’t make sense. She’s too old to be questioning her sexuality, by now, she’d already had this completely figured out.

She stops when she reaches the bedroom, and goes in search of the laptop that she has not turned on even once since her arrival. Planting herself cross legged on the bed, Cordelia waits for it to start up and then opens an incognito window in her browser. She types in the name of the only porn site she’s ever visited – drunk, lonely; the entire ordeal had been unsatisfactory and weird – and scans the video thumbnails until something sticks out.

MILF SEDUCES HOT COLLEGE STUDENT

The title makes Cordelia cringe, even as she clicks into the video.

Adjusting her volume before the picture even begins, Cordelia pulls her knees up to her chest and reluctantly watches as a woman wearing an ill-fitting pinstripe suit enters the scene – a standard looking home office. Cordelia skips the video ahead by thirty seconds, until a much younger looking woman in cut-off jeans and a crop top is perched against the other’s desk. She’s bottle blonde and pretty. A hand is placed deliberately on her leg just above the knee while the pair peer at something on a computer screen, and then steadily climbs higher.

Cordelia closes her eyes, swallowing thickly, before skipping ahead until the video is halfway through.

When the buffering stops, Cordelia nearly jumps out of her skin at the loud moan that bursts out from the speakers. The women are still in the office, although both are now completely nude. The younger perched precariously on the desk while the older has her face buried between her thighs, eliciting noisy moans and a string of expletives that make Cordelia blush.

She forces herself to watch.

The younger of the two is completely visible, her modest breasts heaving and shuddering on her chest. Her skin is tan and perfect, not a single blemish or mole. Her pubic hair is neat and trim. When the camera zooms in on her vagina, it’s about as inoffensive as a vagina can be.

Still, Cordelia cringes at the entire thing.

She examines the slow buzz of arousal that had followed her from sleep throughout her entire morning routine, but struggles to find it. A quick check of her breasts reveals that her nipples aren’t even erect, anymore. Her pulse is steady and regular. Cordelia feels her body deflate with a sigh, and then smirks at herself, feeling foolish that one inconsequential dream could make her doubt her sexuality.

She’s never even kissed a woman before – not properly, not past her and Coco’s drunken kisses, but they’ve always been platonic and closed-mouthed, and were limited to their college days. If Coco had meant anything more by them, she’d not said anything at the time or since, and she’s certainly not known for holding her tongue.

Why does she react so violently to the thought of Misty being attracted to women, then?

Cordelia examines the thought, and finds no satisfaction in her conclusion.

Maybe she is homophobic, as much as she doesn’t want to be. Coco had been out to her before they became friends, and Mallory by extension – introduced to her through Coco as they began dating, and Cordelia doesn’t have any other umbrella-term gay friends in her immediate social circle to test her theory with. Misty had done nothing to make Cordelia think she wasn’t straight, and so Cordelia had just assumed, because why wouldn’t she? Does that, in and of itself, make her homophobic? Is she just a product of a heteronormative, patriarchal society that would have her believe that anything outside of a strict, narrow definition of “normal” was wrong and taboo?

Is that why her stomach feels like it’s full of bees?

Is it something Cordelia will need to work on every single day to unlearn?

Determination brings a frown to her face.

She will – every single day of her life, if required.

On the laptop screen, the video continues to play, obscene noises filtering out of the speakers. Cordelia thinks it all just looks a little ridiculous, if she’s honest. She brings a finger to the touchpad to exit the entire thing, when a sharp buzz from her phone on the bedside table sends a shock of surprise through her body. Cordelia’s reaction at being caught watching something like this sends an awful thrill through her stomach, and she slams the laptop screen closed with a too-loud snap.

Sighing loudly, she pushes it away and grabs her phone.

Coco’s name lights up the screen. Cordelia clears her throat before answering.

“Hello?”

Hey, baby girl, I have a two-hour drive and Mal’s in work. What’s new with you? Does your Aunt Myrtle still have that dishy gardener?

Cordelia chokes on her next breath.

Oh, come on, you’re officially single now, you might as well have some fun.

“That’s not really my first priority, if I’m honest, but no. She fired him.”

Boo.”

Cordelia tucks her laptop beneath her arm as she stands. She has to get out of the bedroom.

“Why such a long drive?”

Oh, it’s a work thing. We’re catering a wedding here next month and so I’m doing reconnaissance. Do you have some time to talk, or am I ruining your vacay?

There’s a smile in her voice when she asks, and it encourages Cordelia’s smirk.

She reaches the kitchen and sets her laptop down on a counter, turning on the coffee machine as she passes.

“Nope, you have my complete, undivided attention. How are you doing?”

As Coco launches herself into conversation, Cordelia pours her coffee into a mug and takes a seat at the dining table.

For the first time since waking up that morning, her body relaxes.

 

 

 

Cordelia decides to make a fairly simple pasta dish for dinner.

She’s not a natural cook, although she’s had plenty practice, and Hank has always had a bland palette that had limited what she could make for the two of them. She has a stack of cookbooks back home that she supposes she’ll get a real chance to utilise, now, but the prospect of cooking meals for one has not yet appealed to her enough to actually dig them out.

While the pasta bakes, Cordelia spruces up her appearance and changes into an outfit that is a little more appropriate to receive guests in— not that Misty would mind, she’s sure. She uncorks a bottle of red and leaves it to air. Misty should be here in thirty minutes, if not sooner, and a jitter of nerves fills Cordelia’s belly that she promptly ignores.

She won’t make this awkward. It isn’t awkward. She enjoys Misty’s company.

Cordelia tidies the kitchen while she waits for Misty’s arrival, cleaning the pots in the sink and then drying and putting them away. She sets the table, nothing overly complicated, and lights a candle at its centre. After second thought, she blows the candle out again and tucks it away in a cupboard, blushing.

Sunlight lingers in the garden, orange and warm, unprepared to surrender the day. Cordelia pours herself a generous amount of wine and takes a sip while she leans against the kitchen sink, staring out of the window. A tiny smile graces her lips when she sees the recently planted rows of flowers where she and Misty had worked together. The memory fills her with warmth.

Cordelia hears Misty’s approach before she sees her.

She always closes Myrtle’s iron garden gate with a little too much exuberance, that the sound of it rings out through the house like a church bell. Cordelia wonders if she does it on purpose, to announce her presence, or if she’s just that heavy handed.

When she comes into view, it’s to reveal a knee-length lavender dress and a denim waistcoat. There’s a pair of sandals on her feet that aren’t coated in dirt, and the sight makes Cordelia smirk. She looks nice. Misty always looks good. Cordelia can’t imagine anyone else who could pull off that casual bohemian style as well as Misty does without even trying. When Misty spots her through the window, Cordelia waves her inside.

“Wine?” she asks, once Misty appears at the garden door.

She unbuckles her sandals and removes them before stepping inside. Out of habit, Cordelia presumes.

“Please.” Misty removes the hat from her head, setting it down on the counter top and shaking out her hair. “It smells amazing in here, what are you making?”

She peers into the oven as she asks, until Cordelia approaches with a glass of wine for her to take.

“Fettuccine alfredo bake.”

“Fancy.”

“Cheesy pasta,” Cordelia elaborates with a grin.

“Well, that sounds even better.”

They make light conversation while Cordelia waits for the pasta to finish, and it’s with increasing relief that she notes the complete lack of tension between them. Cordelia isn’t sure what she’d expected, exactly, but if her frazzled state of mind earlier in the day was anything to go by, she’s only thankful that she hasn’t burned Myrtle’s kitchen down in trying to make dinner.

“How was work?” Cordelia asks, while Misty sips wine and glances around the kitchen. “Has it picked up any?”

“Nah, Sunday’s always slow.” Misty crosses her free arm around her middle, leaning back against the island counters at a slouch so that they’re almost eye-to-eye. Cordelia naturally gravitates nearer, taking the counter on the opposite side and mirroring her position. “I expect it’ll pick up during the week. People always go crazy for new patio furniture or garden equipment around this time of year.”

Cordelia hums in agreement.

“So, what have you been up to?” Misty asks, so casually that Cordelia actually opens her mouth to answer, and then blushes when she remembers what her morning had consisted of, exactly.

“I— I’ve been cleaning, cooking.” She clears her throat. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

She’s saved from further questioning when the oven timer begins to beep, and quickly sets her wine glass down to turn it off. The pasta smells even better as she’s removing it, hot air billowing into her face and sinking into the oven mitts guarding her hands. She sets the tray down on a cooling wrack and pulls their dishes closer for serving.

“Where are we eating?” Misty asks.

“Just through there— the dining room, it’s all set.”

Misty nods and takes both of their glasses through ready.

A moment later, Cordelia follows with their plates.

“Mmf, this is so good,” Misty says around her first mouthful. She seems to catch herself, embarrassed, and quickly swallows the food in her mouth. “Sorry. It’s delicious. Do you cook like this all the time?”

Cordelia shrugs her shoulders.

“It’s cheese and pasta, you can’t really go wrong with it.” Still, her smile is gracious and just a little proud. “I did the majority of the cooking while Hank and I— my ex, that is, while we were still married. I’ve never been anything special, but I make do. How about you – you said you like to experiment with food, right? I want to see what that looks like.”

Misty laughs, low and raspy, and the skin at the back of Cordelia’s neck prickles.

“I promised you gumbo, didn’t I? I never break a promise.”

Cordelia hums around a mouthful of food.

“We grew up eating whatever was put on our plates, and… when I was on my own, I had to get real creative. I know it might not seem like a lot to most people, but I’m thankful for what I have now.” She takes a quick sip from her wine glass. “I’m thankful for this, too. It’s been so long since I’ve shared dinner with anyone.”

Her smile is full of excitement, that Cordelia does not doubt her a lick.

“For me, too. I’m glad you’re here.”

 

Like this, they make it through dinner. Conversation flows about as well as the wine.

Once they’ve finished the first bottle, Cordelia takes their empty plates to the kitchen. Misty follows lazily behind her, trailing her fingers along the walls, admiring Myrtle’s eclectic collection of paintings that line them. She’d lost the denim waistcoat after her second glass of wine, when a rosy flush had begun to sink into her chest. It takes Cordelia a moment to fumble the cork out of the second bottle, narrating her effort beneath her breath until it pops. Victorious, she fills her glass with a generous amount, and then turns to Misty.

As an afterthought, she gasps, “Wait— are you working tomorrow?”

Misty shakes her head, holding her glass up for Cordelia to fill – she does, admiring the flush in Misty’s cheeks, and almost spills it. The brief lapse in her concentration sends them both into fits of giggles, Misty with a hand against her upper arm, while Cordelia tries to muffle her laughter with the back of her wrist. She sets the bottle away at a safe distance, as though its sheer proximity could make her any clumsier.

“You’re drunk,” Misty accuses her once her giggles have subsided.

“I am not,” Cordelia gasps, automatic, but her expression quickly falls. “I am, just a little bit.”

Misty guffaws loudly.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had a drink, okay? My tolerance has suffered.”

Humming doubtfully, Misty pulls herself up to sit on a kitchen counter. This time, as Cordelia mirrors her, she’s the one with her back to the island. It takes her a good moment longer than Misty to pull herself up onto it, and she has to put her wine glass down before she spills it. Misty watches her, smiling, all the while. Once she’s seated, Cordelia takes her wine back into her hand with a sigh. She looks at Misty, perched on the kitchen counter with all the confidence and grace of a house cat, and decides that she likes her there.

Misty looks good anywhere, regardless, Cordelia thinks. Misty takes a sip from her glass and then examines the burgundy liquid inside.

“I don’t remember the last time I drank wine this good,” she confesses.

“I don’t remember the last time I drank wine,” Cordelia adds. “Coco prefers gin.”

“Who’s Coco?”

The way she says the name makes Cordelia grin.

“My best friend. My platonic soulmate, if you ask her. She never lets me drink wine if we’re out together, says I just can’t handle more than two glasses.” She lifts the glass in her hand up beneath the light, and frowns into it as though she anticipates its betrayal. This is her third— or maybe it’s the fourth, by now; they all seem to blend in together. “I have no idea what she means.”

Misty’s laughter is soft and quiet. “I think I see her point.”

“Hey!”

They laugh again, and to Cordelia’s inebriated ears it sounds like a perfect harmonisation. Distracted, she sends her mind back to the first moment she set eyes on Misty, and the raspy singing she’d heard beneath her breath. She wonders what Misty sounds like when she’s trying, and if she’ll ever get to hear her properly for herself.

As if having read her mind, Misty says, “You know what we need? Music.”

Her gaze swivels around the kitchen, frowning, until she spots Cordelia’s laptop within reach.

“Oh, hell yeah—” She makes to grab for it, and then remembers herself. “Uh, do you mind?”

Cordelia waves a hand, granting Misty all that she pleases, while she tips her head back for another mouthful of wine. It’s beginning to sit heavy in her belly, now. She shouldn’t have another glass. In fact, a cold glass of water would probably be the more sensible option. Lowering her wine, she draws her bottom lip into her mouth and sucks the stain from it.

“Alright,” Misty says, as the laptop begins its delayed start up, “let me just find somethi—”

An obscene moan bursts from the speakers, muffled but perfectly, terribly audible.

Cordelia’s head snaps around to Misty, brow wrinkling, when more awful sounds follow after the first. She’s about to ask Misty what the hell that noise is, when she remembers what she’d last used her laptop for, and all the colour drains from her face. Cordelia has never sobered so quickly in her life. She falls from the island counter so quickly that she almost drops her wine glass, but by some bizarre gift of her newfound sobriety, she manages to set the glass down without spilling a drop on the counter by Misty’s side.

“What in the goddamn,” Misty starts to say, perplexed, until Cordelia removes the laptop from her knees.

She closes the screen again, shutting off the sounds of the porn video, and hugs it to her chest.

She stares wide-eyed and terrified at Misty.

“I swear, that wasn’t me,” Misty says, the words stumbling out of her mouth on tipsy legs. “I have no idea how that got on there, I was just—”

“I know.” Cordelia’s voice whines out of her, barely louder than a whisper. Dread turns her body cold. “It was me.”

While Misty processes that, Cordelia closes her eyes and backs up until she hits the island counter.

“Oh my god,” she says, as though just now processing what has happened. “Oh my god, oh my god. I’m so sorry. Oh my god, I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have seen that. I really wish you hadn’t seen that.”

Misty’s feet slap quietly against the kitchen floor as she drops off the counter.

“Cordelia, it’s fine.”

“No, it’s not. Oh my god.”

“Really, I don’t—”

“I am so sorry, I’m so sorry—”

Cordelia gasps when strong hands take her by the shoulders, opening her eyes. Misty is standing directly before her, a concerned and slightly flushed look on her face. She’s hunched slightly so that they’re face to face, all the better to see the mortification turning in Cordelia’s eyes. She wants to lie down belly-first on the kitchen floor.

“Please, stop apologising,” Misty tells her. “Honestly, it’s okay. It’s perfectly normal.”

“No, no it’s not.” Cordelia shakes her head, while Misty tries to console her. “It’s not normal, it’s not. I’m straight. I don’t even know why I was— oh my god, Misty, I’m so sorry.”

Misty shakes her head like she isn’t sure what to say to that. “Don’t be, it’s nothing I ain’t seen before.”

“Oh god.” Cordelia lowers her forehead to the edge of the laptop, wanting to hide there. “I’m so embarrassed.”

That draws a quiet snort from Misty.

When Cordelia lifts her head to see her, incredulous, Misty is gnawing on her bottom lip as though she’s trying not to laugh. It’s like lighter fuel to Cordelia’s already raging blush. Whining, she turns from Misty’s arms and heads for the garden door, which she opens and promptly steps out of. The sun is no longer visible in the sky; the last of the light clings pink to the horizon. Cordelia gulps at the cool air like she’s drowning.

“Cordelia?” Misty asks, appearing in the doorway. “Where are you going?”

“I’m so embarrassed.”

She walks the garden, pacing, until Misty’s approaching figure blocks her path.

“So, you came out here?”

“Ah-huh.”

“Alright.” Misty rubs a hand against her own neck, watching her. “I mean, it took me by surprise, too.”

Cordelia makes a low whimpering noise at the base of her throat.

“Hey, these things happen. It’s fine. Also, not the first time I’ve found my friends’ porn, so…” She clears her throat, noting the mounting distress on Cordelia’s face, and steps closer. “Hey. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but it’s really alright. I do embarrassing things all the time, I mean it, and it’s way worse stuff than this. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word orchid correctly until I’d already worked a year at my current job, can you imagine how embarrassing that is? Do you know how many of those things we sell?”

Cordelia sniffs, chewing the inside of her cheek.

In a meek voice, she takes Misty’s bait, asking, “How did you pronounce it?”

“Aw-chid.”

A bubble of laughter hiccups out of Cordelia’s lips, followed quickly by another.

“Aw-chid,” Misty repeats, shaking her head. “Took my manager pulling me to one side all, hey, girl, you know that’s not how you say that word, don’cha? until I had any idea that I’d been saying it wrong my entire life up until that point. It’s a C H, Cordelia. How in the fuck else am I supposed to pronounce it?”

Belly laughter escapes Cordelia’s lips despite her best efforts to contain it, and Misty grins, proud of herself.

“Come on,” she says, holding her hand out for Cordelia to take. “Let’s go back inside. Get some water, maybe?”

After a brief hesitation, Cordelia takes her hand, solemnly nodding.

When Misty goes to pull her toward the house, however, Cordelia stops her with a tug against her fingers.

“Wait— our feet.”

Misty looks down to follow her gaze, and it takes her a moment to notice the dirt clinging to their bare feet, so natural is it to see on her own that she hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. Cordelia tilts one foot back, balance wavering, to see the underside of her foot. She frowns at what she finds there.

“We should go wash this off, first, come on.”

She steps past Misty, using their joined hands to lead her indoors.

“Uh, don’t you wanna use the hose?” Misty asks. “We’re trailing dirt all through here.”

“It’s not wet, it’s fine.” Cordelia deposits the laptop in the kitchen as they pass through, locking the kitchen door behind them, and then guides Misty up the stairs. “All the soap is up here, anyway.”

Misty follows quietly, after that.

They reach the master bathroom, where an extravagant tub sits centre stage. Cordelia notes Misty’s gaping mouth as she takes it in, but does not comment. She untangles her fingers from Misty’s so that she can climb into the tub, sitting on the rim, and pulls her skirt up ever so slightly higher before twisting both faucets on. Cordelia reaches for her favourite bottled soap. When she realises that Misty hasn’t yet joined her, Cordelia turns to see her and pats the space on the rim of the tub beside her until she does.

“Is that okay?” Cordelia asks as the water sloshes towards their feet. “Not too hot?”

“No, perfect.”

Cordelia nods, squeezing soap into one hand before passing the bottle to Misty. They work it into a lather against their feet, until the dirt is completely removed and the water begins to run clear down the drain, again. Misty wiggles her toes through a patch of lingering suds, and turns to Cordelia with a grin, saying, “I like this tub. It’s so fancy.” She cranes her neck to see the room. “This whole house is…”

“You should see the basement,” Cordelia hiccups. She moves one foot directly beneath the running water, letting the pressure of it massage her skin. “I love this bathtub. When I was little, I’d run the water up so high it was almost spilling over the edge, and I’d duck my head under and hold my breath for as long as I could.” She turns to Misty with a smirk. “I used to pretend I was a mermaid.”

Laughter bubbles out of Misty’s mouth. She turns back to the water with a small smile.

“My tub’s tiny— nothing like this. I can’t even lie down properly without my legs sticking out. God, if I had this in my house, I’d never be out of it.”

Cordelia studies her face, lips pursed in thought. “We should get in.”

“What?” Misty asks, and laughs again, shaking her head. “Oh, sure. Let’s have a bath.”

Nodding in complete agreement, Cordelia leans over the tub to plug the drain, and stands to unbutton her shirt. The water quickly begins to pool in the bottom, swirling around their heels. Beside her, gaping, Misty clutches the edge of the tub as though she’s about to fall out of it.

“What are you doing?” she asks, alarmed.

Her gaze swims around the room as though she isn’t sure where to look.

“I’m getting in,” Cordelia sniffs.

She tosses her shirt aside and then unclasps her skirt, almost tripping over her own feet in her effort to remove it without getting it wet. Misty stares at her like she’s mad, face beet pink, but Cordelia does not remove more of her clothing once she’s down to her underwear. She squeezes a generous amount of bubbles beneath the torrent of water and helps them along by stirring them in with one foot. When Misty simply continues to sit there, watching Cordelia as though waiting for a signal to get out, Cordelia turns to her, perplexed.

“Aren’t you getting in, too?”

Misty’s mouth opens and closes. “With you?”

“There’s enough room.”

Misty examines the bathtub. The faucets have been placed in the centre, leaving both curved ends free.

Perfect for two bodies to lie opposite one another.

“I— uh, is that okay?”

Cordelia snorts, shrugging. “If you want it to be. You don’t have to.”

Misty must decide that she does, as seconds later she stands to rid herself of her dress, pulling it up and over her head. Her underwear is mis-matched and not particularly fancy, and Cordelia grins at her as she lowers herself into the water against one end of the bathtub. Watching her lead, Misty soon mirrors her, her long legs spreading right out to Cordelia’s end even with her knees bent up out of the mounting bubbles.

A nervous expression pinches at Misty’s face. Cordelia smiles when she catches her eye, and Misty subtly relaxes. For a moment, neither of them speak. Water pours into the tub in a torrent, until Cordelia deems it full enough and turns it off. She sinks back against the slanted edge with a deep sigh.

Toying with the bubbles, Misty asks, “Feeling better?”

The hot water finds them both flushed from their chests up. Cordelia nods without speaking.

“Is this weird?”

Misty blinks, looking around the tub as though she’s searching for the answer.

“No,” she decides, finally, and Cordelia accepts her at her word.

The room falls quiet, after that, but its peaceful and not oppressive. Cordelia adjusts her position ever so slightly, and feels the little hairs on Misty’s legs tickling against her own. They’re so light that Cordelia wouldn’t have even known they were there, could she not feel them now, with their bodies fitted snugly around one another. When Cordelia shifts her feet again, Misty pulls one between her hands with a sigh that’s all mock-impatience.

She’s smirking a little at the look of surprise on Cordelia’s face, but when she begins to press and push her thumbs into the sole of Cordelia’s foot, that surprise sinks quickly into relief. Her head presses back against the rim of the tub with a pleased hum, eyes closing.

“I’ve never shared a bath with anybody before,” Cordelia admits, unprompted. She does not open her eyes to see Misty’s face, and the massage does not stop. “Hank and I had a walk-in shower. I never used to like sharing that, though. I’d always end up pushed against a cold wall while he got the spray. He thought it was funny whenever I complained about that.”

Misty makes a quiet, disgruntled noise.

She swaps Cordelia’s foot for the other, repeating the massage without prompt.

“Sounds like a real asshole.”

Cordelia smirks. “You have no idea.”

The conversation settles in the humid, rose-tinted air, and the bathroom falls quiet again aside from the occasional sound of rippling water. Misty settles Cordelia’s foot back down on the bottom of the tub once she’s done with her massage, and Cordelia hums her quiet thanks, not quite able to speak or open her eyes. She dozes, and only realises she is when Misty prods at her leg.

“Sleepy?” she asks, and Cordelia hums her ascent. “Alright, here we go.”

Misty pulls the plug, and water gargles out.

The sound rouses Cordelia to wakefulness. She sits up while Misty stands, water and suds dripping from her alabaster body like she’s something out of a romance novel. The dim bathroom lighting softens Misty’s angles, accentuating the curve of her breasts and the subtle definition of muscle in her legs. Cordelia watches, struck dumb, as Misty steps out of the tub and onto the bath mat. When she turns around and offers both her hands, it takes Cordelia a moment to realise that she means to help her out.

She takes Misty’s hands in both her own, and feels the full strength in her arms when Misty all but pulls her to her feet.

They wrap themselves in matching towels – white and fluffy, and which smell like Myrtle’s jasmine fabric softener. Misty squeezes the water out of the ends of her hair, and then begins to dress. Cordelia just wraps the towel around her middle, keeping it in place by tucking it beneath her armpits. She wants the next set of clothing that she puts on to be her pyjamas.

Once she’s back in her dress, Misty tosses her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Her underwear creates damp patches against the otherwise dry fabric, turning the lavender ever so vaguely darker, and drawing Cordelia’s eye.

“Thanks for dinner— and the bath.”

Cordelia waves a drunken hand, too tired to be bashful.

“I should get home before it’s too late.”

That wakes her. Cordelia’s placid expression wrinkles with a frown. “But you walked here.”

“Yeah,” Misty nods, not seeing her point.

“It’s late.”

Misty scoffs a little, but Cordelia only folds her arms, not budging.

“It’s fine, I’m fully capable of walking home alone.”

“Like hell you are. It’s dangerous.”

“Who do you think I’m gonna run into out there? There’s nothing but crickets and trees.”

“You don’t know that! I can’t let you walk home alone at this time. I’ll go with you.”

“What?” Misty cries. “And then have to walk all the way back yourself? No way, that makes no sense. I’ll be alright.”

“Misty, please. If anything happened to you, I’d never forgive either of us.” She draws her bottom lip into her mouth. “Why don’t you just stay here? There’s plenty of room.”

Misty rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling.

“Fine. I’m staying with you, though. I won’t be able to sleep in an unfamiliar bed on my own.”

“That’s fine,” Cordelia shrugs, trying not to look too happy with herself. “Whatever you want.”

Misty scoffs, seeing right through her.

“There’s a spare toothbrush in there,” Cordelia tells her, reaching for her own, and together they complete their nightly rituals.

Cordelia leads the way to her bedroom once they’re finished.

It’s not quite as big as the master suite, but Cordelia knows it’s nothing to sniff at. Misty certainly does not take its grandeur for granted, as she walks the room as though she means to examine each fixture and fitting. When Cordelia presents her with a nightdress and a pair of her own underwear, fumbling and pink in the cheeks, Misty takes them from her with thanks. She turns her back to Cordelia to change, and Cordelia quickly does the same, stumbling only once as she pulls off her wet underwear and slips into a pair of silky pyjamas. Listening to the sound of rustling fabric just over her shoulder, Cordelia’s fingers fumble the buttons in her pyjama shirt.

She’s the first to crawl beneath the sheets, taking her preferred side of the bed, although Misty does not need an invitation. She helps herself to the remaining spot as though they’ve practiced this time and time again, and turns to face Cordelia as the lamp is turned off and Cordelia settles down into her pillow.

“Comfortable?” Cordelia asks her.

She stretches a leg out until her toes meet with Misty’s shin, as though to check that the rest of her is there, in her bed. With her. Misty nods her head, and curls closer. It feels like the most natural thing in the world for Cordelia to gravitate towards her body heat, and Misty certainly does not dissuade her.

“Here, turn around,” she says, a hand finding Cordelia’s hip beneath the covers. “Let me be the big spoon.”

Laughing, Cordelia indulges her, and soon finds herself with one of Misty’s arms flung across her waist. She feels warm and soft against Cordelia’s back – familiar and yet new, exciting. Her heartbeat hiccups, but there’s too much alcohol still in her system for Cordelia to feel any kind of apprehension.

“Can I ask you something?” Misty asks, warm breath against Cordelia’s ear.

“Sure.”

“Am I the reason you were watching lesbian porn?”

Shock jolts through Cordelia’s body like she’s gripped a live wire. Her wide-open eyes stare dead ahead, the bedroom wallpaper gradually revealing itself to her as her vision adjusts to the darkness. She considers lying, or simply not answering at all. Misty is so patient, so gentle with her, she probably wouldn’t mind – she’d find it in her heart to forgive Cordelia, she’s sure.

Instead—

“Yes.”

Misty laughs behind her, her entire body shaking the bed and Cordelia right along with it.

Cordelia feels red hot in the face.

“Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” Misty chuckles, calming down with a loud breath. The arm around Cordelia’s waist tightens, and she finds herself burrowing back against her. Misty’s breasts feel so soft against her back, so different to what she’s familiar with, but nice. “It’s not real, though, you know? Porn, I mean. It’s just to get the audience off— in this case, a mostly straight, male audience. It’s different, in real life. Better.”

Cordelia’s mouth feels too dry when she swallows.

“Good to know.”

She lies awake a while longer, thinking on that, as Misty’s breathing evens out and the arm around Cordelia’s waist slackens with sleep.

Chapter Text

Cordelia has missed this feeling.

It’s been so long since she’s woken up in another person’s arms, that she had almost forgotten the intimate luxury of it, of allowing herself to be so effortlessly vulnerable beside another person who is unconsciously doing the same. Properly, she means, not like after the nights she’s spent sandwiched between Coco and Mallory, their consoling arms around her, taking turns to nurse her hiccupping sobs into stillness, until Cordelia awoke the next day with an emotional hangover to rival anything that alcohol could do to her body.

That’s not like this, and this is— it’s waking with an arm hung so casually around her middle that Cordelia can almost believe they’ve done this a thousand times before. It’s gentle breath tickling the back of her neck, and warmth like a furnace plush against her spine. She’s sweaty, but too comfortable to do much more about it than stretch one leg outside of the bedsheets, where the air is marginally cooler. Morning light fills the room, grey and quiet like it has not yet fully roused from sleep. Cordelia hears birdsong through the cracked-open window.

For several minutes, she lies like this, in the quiet, in the stillness of her own steadily beating heart, and the one that complements it pressed against her back. Misty is an easy sleeping companion. Her body moulds itself around Cordelia’s sharp edges and makes them both soft.

At length, Misty wakes with a reluctant grunt.

She’s been having pleasant dreams, and is not yet ready to give them up.

The arm around Cordelia’s waist briefly tightens, the legs behind her own stretch way down the mattress and then shake until they fall limp again. The tip of Misty’s nose nuzzles against the hair at the back of Cordelia’s neck, then the knots at the top of her spine. Warmth settles low in Cordelia’s belly, makes her sigh and close her eyes, sinking back into Misty’s loose embrace.

She’s on the precipice of sleep when Misty whispers against her skin, “Are you awake?”

Cordelia hums quietly.

Beneath the bedsheets, Misty’s hand curls around her belly. Cordelia feels each press of her ringed fingers when she breathes deeply in, and that warm feeling trickles ever lower, until it becomes a familiar thrum at the apex of her thighs. The pressing of Misty’s thumb does not deter the sensation, the soft way that she brushes it back and forth against Cordelia’s silky pyjamas, so close to the hem of her shirt that she could just as easily slip it underneath and press bare skin to bare skin, if she were so inclined. Cordelia arches her back into her touch.

“Are you ready to wake up?” Misty murmurs again, her voice barely audible, lips humming against the skin at Cordelia’s neck.

“Uhnhn,” Cordelia groans, shaking her head.

Misty settles back against her with a smile.

 

When Cordelia next rouses, it’s almost an hour later.

She can’t remember what had woken her, until another quiet groan grumbles against the back of her neck. She blinks her eyes open, and the room reveals itself in hazy morning light.

Behind her, pressed flush to her spine, Misty takes a loud breath in and then pushes herself up onto one elbow, gingerly leaning over Cordelia to see her face. Cordelia does not disguise her wakefulness. She turns slightly into her so that she can see Misty’s looming face – soft with sleep, eyes wide and sheening, like she’s not quite yet blinked the dreams out of them. Stray curls spill across Cordelia’s chest, messy and tangled, tickling her skin wherever they touch. Cordelia doesn’t think anybody has ever looked so happy to see her face first thing in the morning.

Misty smells like bubble bath, like rose water and sleep.

“Mornin’.”

The sound rumbles out of her throat, gravelly until she clears it, like a car engine that’s been sitting idle for too long.

“Good morning,” Cordelia greets her, her own voice weak and stumbling to catch up with the rest of her conscious body.

Misty looks tired, still, and at the same time wide awake.

She looks like stepping out onto dewy grass at six in the morning in the chill of mid-spring, while everybody else in the world sleeps but for you and the birds.  

Cordelia wants to kiss her.

“Breakfast?” Misty asks, perking up, while Cordelia turns to stone. The mattress shifts with Misty’s movement, and she smiles in a way that makes evident she’s not yet realised – or else recognised – the dawning alarm in Cordelia’s eyes. “I’m gonna go use your bathroom, and then I’ll put some coffee on, okay? Don’t rush to get out of bed.”

She takes the warmth with her when she leaves.

Cordelia listens to her in the other room after the door has closed, the toilet flushing, the faucet running, teeth brushing. Misty does not disturb her as she emerges, but pads quietly out of the room and down the stairs, leaving the door ever so slightly ajar behind her. Cordelia does not hear her again after that. She lies on her back, struck dumb, too tired to examine the feelings in her belly. She’s just too tired, period.

That’s probably all it is.

She finds Misty downstairs, once she’s brave enough to face her, staving off the morning chill with a silky bed robe tied loosely around her waist. Cooking smells emanate from the kitchen, watering Cordelia’s mouth. She stops short when she reaches the doorway into the kitchen, where Misty is standing at the stove, wearing her night dress and little else. On Cordelia, the night dress reaches the tops of her knees, practically modest in comparison, but on Misty it barely comes to mid-thigh. Cordelia tries not to stare. Misty is making eggs and toast, from what she can gather, and it smells good.

“I hope this is okay,” Misty says when she spots her. “Coffee’s ready, it just needs pouring.”

Cordelia gathers two mugs with a nod, thankful for the guidance.

“Did you sleep alright?” she asks, because Misty is her guest, still. She steals glances out of the corner of her eye while she pours their coffee, keeping the vague shape of Misty close to her peripheral, as though if she were to lose track of her, then she might just cease to exist in the unlikely space that is Auntie Myrtle’s kitchen before 9am. Misty’s bare legs draw her attention again; she shivers when she remembers what they had felt like, twined around her own.

“I slept perfectly.” Misty lifts her head to grin at her. “Your bed’s so comfy. How’s your head?”

“Oh, fine, thank you. It doesn’t hurt. Are you—?”

“All good,” Misty confirms. “Sit down, I’ll bring this over.”

Cordelia does as she’s told.

Once she’s seated in the dining room, Misty places a plate down in front of her along with a pair of utensils. She takes the seat by Cordelia’s side, thanking her for the coffee before she begins to eat. Cordelia watches her. If Misty feels any kind of way about their transgressions the night before, she does not let it show. Cordelia worries that she’s read her wrong this entire time – that Misty is actually a master at disguising her feelings and inner thoughts, and Cordelia has misinterpreted the veneer of it as docile affection. The thought turns her stomach.

“Everything okay?” Misty asks, peeking up from her plate.

Cordelia shakes herself, cheeks hot. She forces herself to pick up a slice of toast, but does not yet take a bite.

“Yes, sorry. Thank you.” She eyes Misty warily. “I’m sorry about last night. I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much.”

“Why would you have?”

Cordelia considers the question. “I— I don’t know. I was a little drunk.”

“I know.”

“I made you take a bath with me.”

Misty snorts, shaking her head. “You didn’t make me do anything. And I liked it, it was funny.”

Cordelia presses her lips together, unconvinced.

“Are you alright?”

“Mhm, of course,” Cordelia nods, and she almost convinces herself. “I’m just fine.”

Misty nods her head, that’s that, and they finish breakfast without further conversation.

 

Later, Misty insists on washing their dishes, while Cordelia dries and puts them away.

They work in quiet unison, with Misty humming beneath her breath and Cordelia trying to not observe her too obviously. She can’t help it. Misty is an enigmatic person; she attracts Cordelia the same way that the sun attracts flowers. Through all the weeds and the tall grass obscuring her life, Misty is a shining beacon of light and warmth and peace that Cordelia strives towards, having spent so long without. Being with her is effortless. She feels more like herself when they’re together, the version of herself who laughs freely, who’s good company, who— who shares a platonic bubble bath in her underwear while wine-drunk and giddy.

She wonders if it’s only because of their differences that Cordelia is so taken with her. Misty, who is free and passionate and bold, and all of those other characteristics that Cordelia sees like black holes within her own personality. Misty who is brash and young and beautiful, who embraces her quirks as well as she does her charms— is that all it is, then? She’s regretting the years that she’s wasted in a doomed marriage, and wants a little of Misty’s vitality to rub off on herself?

Cordelia thinks it must be more than that, although what exactly she isn’t sure.

Is it not that she covets Misty herself, but rather what she represents?

And maybe, Cordelia resigns, maybe there’s still alcohol in her system from the night before, and she’ll never get a grasp on the strange feeling that settles in her belly whenever Misty holds her gaze for a second too long, or reaches for her whenever she laughs too hard, or smiles at Cordelia as radiantly as a rising sun. Maybe she isn’t meant to understand it, and maybe one day she’ll just stop questioning it altogether.

Before she can give herself a migraine, Misty bumps her hand with a wet plate, and Cordelia takes it with quiet thanks.

She tucks her thoughts away as though it’s as easy as filing paperwork.

“I should really get back home,” Misty says once she’s finished the dishes, draining the sink. “Gotta feed the kids.”

Cordelia isn’t sure if she means the chickens or the plants.

On second thought, she knows it to be both.

“Okay.” She puts the last mug away and dries her hands on the towel. “Do you need to use the shower?”

“Nah, I’ll just get dirty again, and we only bathed last night.” Misty points towards the staircase, adding, “I’ll just go grab my things.”

Cordelia unlocks the kitchen door while she waits for her, standing against the counter with one arm crossed around her middle, the other bent with fingers pressing against her mouth. Her eyes scatter across the kitchen until they land on her laptop, right where she’d left it on the kitchen counter. Her stomach gives a mortified cringe, but she puts it out of her thoughts, as Misty comes stomping down the staircase shortly after.

When she reappears, she’s wearing her lavender dress and the denim waistcoat again, hat in hand.

“Thanks for dinner,” she says, lingering by the back door, like she can’t decide if she really wants to leave. “And— for letting me stay, and breakfast.”

“I should be thanking you for that last one.”

Misty leans against the doorjamb, smiling.

“You’ve done enough,” she promises, and steps outside to put on her sandals.

Cordelia stands in the doorway while Misty takes her leave.

At the sound of the garden gate rumbling closed, she tucks herself back inside and closes the door.

 


 

Cordelia doesn’t see Misty the next day, or the day after that.

She takes herself into town when boredom eats like termites through her patience.

A break from the house, from herself, and from her tangled thoughts of Misty, is exactly what she needs. She window shops; she tries on clothes, she takes herself for coffee and sits in the outdoor shade and people watches, and reminds herself that there’s a big wide world out there, that in comparison her problems are minor – they’re trivial, at best. She picks up groceries, finally, and by the time Cordelia returns home, she’s feeling a little more like the functioning adult that she’s capable of being.

As the sun slips behind the canopy surrounding Auntie Myrtle’s property, Cordelia lingers at the kitchen sink, staring aimlessly into the garden.

Only when she realises what she’s looking for – rather, who – does she force herself away, frustrated.

 


 

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the sky opens and drenches the parched earth in two weeks’ worth of rain.

Cordelia wakes up to cloud cover, cold for the first time since her arrival.

The break in the weather sets off her morning routine. The plants no longer needs watering, and there’s little use in her tending to the garden before the weather improves. She takes her morning coffee back to bed with her, and browses the backlog of emails that she’s received since she left the city. It feels very much like a reverse rain day; instead of using the bleak weather as an excuse to laze around the house as she’d usually prefer, Cordelia keeps herself busy with house work.

By the end of the day, the weather hasn’t let up a bit, but Auntie Myrtle’s house looks and feels as though a professional house keeper has been tending the place.

Cordelia goes to bed that night, exhausted, and dreams of the sun.

 

The rain lets up, finally, by Friday afternoon.

The scorched earth soaks the moisture up like a sponge, preparing for what will likely be another several weeks without a drop, if the weather forecast is anything to go by. Myrtle’s garden has not suffered greatly, but Cordelia tidies it up where the rain has washed earth and leaves into places it shouldn’t have, and battered the flowers that had just acclimatised to the scorched soil. The pool remains safe beneath its cover, but even that has gathered stray leaves atop it, which Cordelia uses the net to scrape away.

Cordelia is tidying away the garden equipment when the rattling of the iron gate startles her.

She twists too quickly on the spot, and loses balance.

In her effort to dodge the broom that she’s about to plough head first into, Cordelia windmills her arms backwards, and promptly – gracelessly – slides ass-over-teakettle onto her back with a loud squeal. Her body meets the wet earth with a slick squelching noise and a dull grunt as all the breath is knocked loose from her lungs. Mud soaks cold and damp into her clothes and hair, drenching her within seconds. The shock of her own clumsiness keeps Cordelia down, stunned but uninjured, her palms slick with mud where she’d tried to find purchase in the ground all too late.

Wet, stomping footsteps hurry to her side.

Misty appears in a ray of golden sunlight, her blue eyes as wide and concerned as Cordelia has ever seen them. 

“Cordelia!” she cries, reaching her. “Are you alright?”

Cordelia looks up at her, the sun through dappled cloud cover creating a halo effect around her golden hair, and winces before she laughs.

She’s flat on her back in the mud, looking up into Misty’s concerned face, and suddenly she can’t stop laughing. Cordelia laughs until there are tears in her eyes, until Misty’s concern fades to bewildered amusement, until she’s scoffing and grinning down at her and shaking her head as though to ask Cordelia, what am I gonna do with you?

(Cordelia can think of too many answers to that question, and it quickly sobers her.)

The last of her chuckles tumble from her mouth, careless, before they subside altogether.

Cordelia’s body relaxes in the dirt.

“Hi.”

Misty bites at her bottom lip, like she’s trying not to laugh, and shakes her head.

Hi.” She plants her hands on her hips, gaze softening. “You have the prettiest laugh I’ve ever heard, you know that?” she says, looking at Cordelia as though she’s trying to figure out why that is, before concern bleeds into her expression. Cordelia feels her tender gaze everywhere as Misty searches her body for damage. “Are you hurt? Here, let me help you up.”

Cordelia tries to avoid her, not wanting to spread her muck, but Misty only shakes her hands impatiently for Cordelia to take them, and so she does. Misty hauls her up until she’s steadily back on both feet, again. The strength in her arms is not missed on Cordelia, who flushes before she can stop herself, and clears her throat.

“Thank you, I’m alright.” She wipes her hands down against her soiled trousers, cringing, and then notices Misty’s own are covered much the same. “Sorry about that.”

Misty’s face blooms with a bright smile, more dazzling than the Louisiana sunshine.

“I’m the one who startled you, why are you apologising to me?”

She laughs before Cordelia can answer, shaking her head of blonde curls.

Today, Misty is clad in a pair of denim overalls that she appears to have tailored herself into shorts, and rain boots that are already coated in mud. It’s the first Cordelia has seen of her since the weather turned, and only now that they’re face to face again does she realise how much she’s missed her. Cordelia’s chest aches a little when she acknowledges that.

“Would you like to come inside?” Cordelia asks, gingerly pealing mud-wet hair away from her throat.

Misty eyes her dubiously. “Would you like me to hose you down, first?”

She’s only half joking, Cordelia thinks, even as she puffs a laugh between her pouting lips and slips past her. Misty follows her up the garden path to the kitchen door, where Cordelia hesitates. She doesn’t want to trail mud through the house. Leaning against the wall for support, she begins removing her shoes.

“I won’t be a moment,” she tells Misty, rolling her trousers halfway up her calves so as to keep them from trailing or dripping along the floor. “Make yourself a drink, if you like, I’m just going to shower.”

Misty waves her off.

She’s already removed her own boots outside, and now moves around Myrtle’s kitchen as though she’s never been more comfortable in her present surroundings. She knows exactly where to find the glasses, and that Cordelia keeps lemonade in the fridge. Her familiarity touches a tender place inside of Cordelia, somewhere deep in her chest, where all of her warmth seems to emanate from – that camomile and honey soft spot that Cordelia had nearly forgotten herself capable of concealing.

 She shuffles out of the room without a word.

 

When Cordelia returns, it’s with a clean outfit and damp hair.

She finds Misty outdoors at the wicker bench set, her legs crossed up on the seat with her. There’s a closed book on the table in front of her, something that Cordelia has tried to read twice now and must have forgotten to put away, but Misty appears to have lost interest. Instead, she’s turned her attention to Myrtle’s garden. Her head lolls back around to find Cordelia when she makes a noise at the door. She gestures to a glass that’s been left on the table, probably warm by now, but Cordelia thanks her for it, regardless.

She takes the bench opposite Misty, finger-combing her hair where it sits uncomfortably against her throat.

“You must’ve been busy,” Misty notes, gaze returning to the yard. “The rain near washed my garden away. Almost brought the girls inside, I was so worried they were gonna drown in all that muck.”

Cordelia smiles at the thought. “You wouldn’t have let that happen.”

Misty hums quiet agreement.

“Do you have to be back early today?”

“Suppose not,” Misty shrugs, a question in her expression, but Cordelia only nods. Leaning forward, Misty picks the book up and studies its blurb with a frown. It’s a flowery romance novel, light reading, and Cordelia feels herself blush when presented with it under Misty’s scrutiny. “Are you reading this?”

“I’ve been trying to,” she admits. “Whenever I open it, I get halfway down a page and realise I’ve not taken anything in. I just keep getting lost.”

Misty sets the book down again with a look of intrigue.

“What do you do for fun, usually?” she asks.

Cordelia feels herself buckle beneath the weight of that question. Fun? Has Misty not yet realised that she isn’t? She nips at the skin on the inside of her cheeks, sitting back against the wicker bench until it creaks a little, and hedges. Misty waits patiently for her response.

“I mean, I like to garden. I used to love reading.” She eyes the book on the table with mild disdain, as though it’s responsible for her lack of focus. Finally, Cordelia sighs. “I don’t know. I used to have a much busier schedule, and then— well, I had a house to keep, dinner to make, laundry to take care of. That kept me busy.”

Misty’s lips pinch to one side, clearly dissatisfied with her answer.

“What about before that?”

Cordelia blinks. “I don’t really know…”

“Did you work?”

“Yes, I used to teach.” It’s like remembering a past life, now, like she’s talking about somebody else. “I used to love that, actually, but it’s been so long. I can’t imagine doing it again, but I suppose I’ll probably have to, now.” She shakes her head, and when she looks up again, Misty is watching her fondly. “What is it?”

“Nothin’. I can just imagine that, is all.” Her smile broadens when she adds, in a teasing lilt, “Miss Cordelia.”

Cordelia snorts quietly.

“Why did you quit?”

The question hangs in the air.

Cordelia feels it in her guts like a knot. She feels it like it’s taking something away from her all over again. Misty’s expression turns hesitant in Cordelia’s silence, but she does not retract her question. She waits, patiently, gently, her brow softening as though to say, you don’t need to answer that. Cordelia wants to. Misty has exposed herself to her – her vulnerabilities, her scars – and Cordelia finds herself wanting to do the same. She wants to know Misty, and she wants to be known by her in return.

“Oh, it just made sense at the time.”

She wants to, but it’s not easy.

Misty’s smile turns gentle and encouraging, and Cordelia takes a steadying breath.

“Hank and I decided to start a family,” she says, and the words wobble out on a breath that barely rises above a whisper. Misty’s shoulders deflate, her body sinking into itself. Cordelia sees her own failure in the grief in Misty’s gaze. “When it didn’t happen immediately… I cut down on my hours, at first, began substituting, but it became difficult to balance everything. We’d thought it would be easy. I’d always been so diligent with my birth control; I never missed a single pill.” She scoffs. “The amount of money I wasted there…”

“Cordelia,” Misty says, plaintive, pleading.

She looks like she wants to crawl over the table and wrap herself around Cordelia the way she had while they were sleeping side by side, legs entwined.

Cordelia thinks she wants her to.

“It’s alright.” She clears her throat, hoping to restore a little strength to her voice. “It’s probably for the best, anyway. There’s nothing tying me to him, now.”

She tries to laugh, and a fat tear spills over her eyelid, rolling conspicuously down her cheek. Embarrassed, Cordelia turns her face away and catches it with her fingers. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, attempting to pull herself together before her next breath becomes a sob. She startles, then, when warm arms are suddenly around her, enveloping her shoulders. Misty climbs onto the seat by her side, all elbows and knees, pulling Cordelia in to her throat – the subtle scent of perspiration and rich, warm earth.

“I’m sorry,” Cordelia gasps. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

“Don’t be, it’s okay.”

Misty tucks her damp hair behind her ear and continues to tease her fingers through it, mindful of her rings. Cordelia’s breath shudders out of her; she closes her eyes and sinks into Misty’s embrace, letting herself be held. She should fight this, probably. It feels too good, too right – like something that she’s not supposed to indulge in, like something that doesn’t belong to her. If she were in any clearer state of mind—

Misty coos against the shell of her ear, rocking her body, bringing Cordelia with her. “It’s alright,” she hums, and presses her lips to the crown of Cordelia’s head. Cordelia feels her like firelight against her skin, sinking into her, making her warm.

When she can breathe easy again, Cordelia scrubs her fingers against her eyes and sits back, one of Misty’s arms loose around her shoulders. The sun peeks out from behind the smattering of cloud cover, and shines in the damp grass of Auntie Myrtle’s yard. A shifting cloud brings its light ever higher, until it eventually reaches the wicker bench set. Cordelia watches the light climb up Misty’s pale arms, along the short, blonde hairs that cover them. The warmth of it sinks into her skin and makes her sigh.

“It’s been years,” Cordelia whispers, not wanting to disturb the moment, but Misty does not leave her. She sits comfortably, casually against Cordelia’s side as though they do this all the time, as though it’s only natural for their bare legs to twist together whenever they sit side by side like this, as though she needs it as much as Cordelia does. “I thought I’d already processed all of this grief. I’m not sure where that came from.”

A noise like a rumbling engine – like a jaguar’s purr – curls out of Misty’s throat.

“Maybe it’s not one of those things that you can just process and then lock away for good. You might have closure, but that doesn’t mean it stops hurting.” She tucks a strand of loose hair back behind Cordelia’s ear, then touches her cheek with the soft pad of her thumb. Cordelia presses herself into the hold until Misty drops her hand again. “You might never get done with it, but that doesn’t mean you’re not making any progress. You don’t get a linear timeline to grieve, no one decides when it starts and stops.”  

A smile wobbles at Cordelia’s lips, too weak to stick.

“How very wise,” she says, and then sniffs, sobers. “Thank you.”

Misty shrugs, expression softening. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, you did,” Cordelia insists, finding Misty’s hands with her own.

She twines their fingers together, until all of Misty’s rings press near-uncomfortably between her knuckles, and holds her gaze with a kind of quiet intensity that Misty cannot shy away from. That warm feeling spreads through Cordelia’s belly, again. She feels contained by it, held. She feels secure, even with her guts spread out on the table for the pickings.

Cordelia knows, then, that she could lay her life out bare for the taking, and Misty would only lay right down beside her.

She’s only ever found that level of companionship once before in her life, and knows well not to take it for granted.

“You did.”

Chapter Text

This is how she’s meant to spend her summers, Cordelia thinks.

Reclined belly-first on a blanket in the middle of Auntie Myrtle’s garden, with a book in front of her face, and Misty napping by her side. It’s mid-afternoon, bordering on late, and the sun is a-slant in the pink sky.

Cordelia is exactly seven chapters into her novel, and while she’s not quite consuming it as ferociously as she typically might, and has had to spread even this measly progress through numerous days, that she’s made it this far at all feels like no small feat given her previous inability to make it past a few pages at a time.

Turning a page in her book, Cordelia steals a glance to her side, where Misty is sprawled on her back with her eyes closed. Cordelia can’t tell if she’s properly asleep, or just dozing; her breaths come slow and even, her eyelids occasionally twitching, blonde eyelashes curving against her cheeks. As though she can feel Cordelia’s gaze on her, Misty confirms her suspicions and opens her eyes, drowsy blue meeting Cordelia’s inquisitive brown.

A lazy smile turns at Misty’s lips.

“How’s your book?”

Cordelia closes it to answer, resting her head in one hand. “It’s good.”

“Aren’t you in a hurry to see how it ends?”

“I’ve read this one before,” Cordelia admits. “I like to take it slow, now, and appreciate everything I’d miss if I breezed through it. You find something new each time, this way.”

Misty hums and turns onto her side so that they’re facing one another.

“Tell me about it.”

She blinks up at Cordelia, and Cordelia takes a moment to appreciate her complete and unwavering attention.

“It’s long,” she warns her. “We’d be here until the sun went down.”

Misty hums in quiet agreement, eyes twinkling, as big and blue as the far reaches of the clear sky above them.

“I’d like that.”

Cordelia muffles a rumble of laughter, but acquiesces.

While she retells the plot of the story, going into scant detail (a part of her hopes Misty will want to read it after her, when she’s done), Misty remains quiet and attentive by her side. She hums and ahs at appropriate times, and smiles gently – so softly – when Cordelia recounts her favourite passages, and how they make her feel.

“You didn’t say how it ends,” Misty points out, when Cordelia falls quiet again.

“I know.” Cordelia smiles at her, at the slowly growing frown on Misty’s face. “It hasn’t, yet. Why are you in such a rush to get there?”

Misty scoffs but shrugs her shoulders.

“It’s unfinished. I want to know what happens to them.”

Cordelia hums, “Maybe you’ll just have to read it, then.”

That earns her a groan and a light nudge from Misty’s foot, which makes her laugh.

Once she’s finished pouting, Misty rolls onto her back again, craning her neck against the blanket. Her hair fans out around her like sunshine, and Cordelia represses the urge to card her fingers through it. She wonders if it’s as soft as it looks – most likely, she thinks, smirking, her fingers will snag on every tangle. Misty is a wild thing; she belongs to the tall grass and the earth, to the lush green of mid-summer, but Cordelia likes that about her. 

She likes that about her very much. 

Wetting her lips, she curls ever so slightly closer.

Feeling the blanket move, Misty returns her attention to Cordelia’s face, and they stare quietly at one another while Cordelia gathers her thoughts. This new height difference has Cordelia peering down at her, head held up by one elbow, Misty as relaxed as she’s ever possibly been on the blanket before her. Cordelia thinks she’s the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen, and wonders how Misty will react if she tells her. She wonders how Misty would react if she were to press a hand to her cheek, the rosy glow caught beneath her high cheekbones. She wonders what Misty would do if Cordelia were to kiss her.

Below her, Misty’s smile is small and placid. She lifts a hand to toy with the ends of Cordelia’s hair, winding a strand around her finger.

Cordelia’s breath catches.

“Misty,” she starts, and a shrill ringing from the house – so distant that Cordelia could easily ignore it – interrupts her.

The noise rouses Misty.

She releases Cordelia’s hair to sit up and stretch.

Cordelia follows her, biting her tongue. Her words clog like taffy in her throat, unspoken, her heart a hummingbird inside of her chest. She wants to speak, but isn’t sure how to start now that she’s lost momentum. From the house, her phone continues to ring, punctuating the quiet summer air with its shrill tone. The birds stop singing.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Misty asks, looking at her curiously.

Cordelia swallows down everything she’d almost said, and nods.

She leaves Misty in the garden, and is already cursing herself by the time she reaches her phone. A quick glance at the screen confirms that it’s Mallory calling, which gives Cordelia pause. She likes her well enough, of course, and she’s easily the best of all the partners Coco has ever introduced her to, but Cordelia can’t remember a time where she’d ever rang her directly and completely out of the blue before.

A sense of impending dread pulls at the bottom of Cordelia’s belly.

She answers the call with a tentative, “Hi, Mallory.”

Mallory’s shaking voice saps the room of all warmth.

It’s Coco. She’s in the hospital. Cordelia, I don’t know what to do, can you get here?

 

Misty stands abruptly when Cordelia emerges from the house.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to go,” Cordelia tells her, voice strained. She stands above the blanket and fumbles with her phone between both hands, not sure what to do with herself. Impulse is telling her to run, but Cordelia swallows it down, ignores it. She needs to stay level headed right now. She needs to not panic. “Something’s happened to Coco. Mallory said she’s in the hospital; she said she was choking on something, that she wasn’t breathing— I couldn’t understand her exactly, but I need to go.”

Misty takes this in, nodding, and starts pulling on her shoes.

“Do you know which hospital she’s at?”

Cordelia sniffs, nodding.

“Alright, then I’ll drive you, give me your keys.”

 

Cordelia frets for the entire journey.

Beside her, occasionally sending her concerned glances, Misty drives with a level of calm assuredness that Cordelia attempts to draw from. Her jittery hands pick at her nail beds, tormenting her skin until it turns red and raw. Finally, she pleats her fingers together and hides her hands between her knees to keep from fidgeting.

“We’re not far off now,” Misty says, noticing.

Cordelia nods her head, sick with dread. With her hands out of the picture, she drums a foot against the bottom of the car, and scrapes her teeth against her bottom lip. She almost jumps out of her skin when her phone rings, the volume set right up in her panic of missing it. Cordelia fumbles for her purse before answering.

“Mallory? How is she?”

Misty’s attention flits between Cordelia and the road.

She’s awake. The doctor said that she’s going to be fine, they’re just giving her a final check-up and then I think they’ll discharge her— god, Cordelia, I’m sorry, I just panicked and I didn’t know who to call, I couldn’t get through to her mom, and if something were to have happened to her and no one was here, I—”   

“Hey, it’s okay. It’s alright. I’m glad you called me, and we’re almost here, now, anyway.”

Mallory releases a quiet sigh.

Her voice is still wobbling as though on the verge of tears; Cordelia’s chest aches in sympathy.

You are? Oh, god, you’ve come all this way, I’m—

“Don’t you dare say you’re sorry again,” Cordelia tells her, gently, and Mallory sniffs.

The line is quiet for all but a beat.

I’m glad you’re coming,” she finally admits. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I— I just panicked.

Cordelia lifts her head when Misty takes a turn, slowing to a crawl.

“That’s alright, it’s a scary situation, you reacted normally. We’re pulling into the parking lot, okay? I’ll be with you in a minute. Tell her I’m here, won’t you?”

Mallory agrees, confirming Coco’s room number, and terminates the call.

Misty stops the car outside the front doors.

“Go find her,” she tells Cordelia. “I’ll find a parking spot.”

“Thank you,” Cordelia breathes, unbuckling her seatbelt. “Come find us once you’ve parked?”

Misty agrees with a nod.

 

Mallory meets Cordelia outside of Coco’s room.

Cordelia opens her arms to receive her and, without preamble, Mallory folds herself into the embrace. Her entire body shakes with her sigh. Squeezing her arms around her, Cordelia rocks them once and then pulls back, holding Mallory at arms’ length. There are mascara stains around her eyes and pink splotches on her cheeks.

“Are you alright?” Cordelia asks her.

Mallory nods her head, sniffing. “She’s just through here – she’ll be discharged soon, they’ve just done some checks on her, I don’t really know what. I don’t think they’re happy that I stayed, but she insisted.”

“Of course, she needed you,” Cordelia says, and follows her into the room.

At its centre, in a bed that swallows her, Coco lies propped up against the pillows. She’s dressed for work, and the sight of her pantsuit against the paper-thin hospital bedding creates a note of discord in Cordelia’s belly. It’s wrong, seeing her like this, with a level of vulnerability enveloping her that Coco does not often allow the world to see. Her hair is loose and her face a little pink; when she sees Cordelia at the door, she holds out both arms and makes a quiet, whining noise until Cordelia joins her on the bed and hugs her. They embrace fiercely, Coco tucking her face into Cordelia’s neck.

“Who knew all it would take to get you back home was a near death experience?”

Cordelia pulls back with a frown, but whatever barb she’d typically have prepared dies in her throat.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asks, instead, pressing a palm to Coco’s forehead, pushing her hair away from her face. Coco puts up with her fussing with meek exasperation. “We’re going to have a serious talk about chewing your food properly, after this.”

“So funny… I’m fine, just a little embarrassed.” She turns her gaze to Mallory, expression softening. “I feel terrible for scaring everyone.”

“You should,” Cordelia agrees, combing her fingers through Coco’s hair. Mallory takes a seat on the bed beside her with a sniffly laugh. “We’re supposed to go out together in style fifty years from now, remember? Choking on a blueberry muffin doesn’t have quite the same appeal.”

“You know I live for the drama.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you didn’t, every now and then.”

Coco scoffs, but it turns into a scattered coughing fit. Cordelia rubs her back, fretting, until it subsides. Sinking back against the hospital pillows, Coco blinks the moisture from her eyes and sighs. Cordelia notes the tight grip she and Mallory have on each other’s hands, and eases back on the bed a little, giving them room.

“The doctors have given me the all clear, anyway,” Coco says. “I’m just waiting for them to discharge me and we’re out of here. Where are you staying tonight?”

Cordelia blinks, not realising the time until her craning neck brings a wall clock into view.

“Oh, there’s still time for us to drive back, don’t worry about it.”

“Us?” Coco asks, frowning, and then her attention moves to the open doorway.

Cordelia follows her gaze, only to find Misty hesitating with a hand raised as though to knock. She hesitates upon finding herself at the centre of attention. After a beat, Misty clears her throat, dropping her hand, and peers a little awkwardly down at the grass stained shorts and open-toe sandals that she’s wearing. Cordelia herself feels significantly underdressed in her summer dress and flip flops, compared to the pantsuit that Coco is wearing, and Mallory’s much more tailored dress.

“Hi, sorry to interrupt, it took me a while to find an empty spot,” Misty explains, leaning against the doorjamb. She nips at her bottom lip, reading the room. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” Cordelia answers, and stands, gesturing for Misty to enter. When she’s close enough, Cordelia touches a hand to her arm, and lets the contact bolster her. The ground feels steady beneath her feet again. “Misty, this is Coco and Mallory,” she introduces them respectively, “and this is Misty Day, she’s Auntie Myrtle’s neighbour. We were together when my phone rang; Misty drove us out here.”

Misty shrugs, pressing her lips together in a polite smile.

Her hand settles against Cordelia’s bicep, so naturally that Cordelia is certain that Misty is barely aware of the gesture, but for the way that she rubs her thumb against her bare skin – soothing, always soothing her, as though she just can’t help herself. Cordelia follows the motion with her gaze and feels her cheeks turn warm.

Does she always touch me like this?

When did it become so natural that she stopped taking note of it?

From the cot, Coco makes a deceptively nonchalant noise of acknowledgement. Cordelia’s attention snaps towards her, guilty, but Coco’s gaze is focused upon the places where she and Misty are still holding one another. When she meets Cordelia’s gaze, next, it’s with arched eyebrows and an expression that’s bordering between confused and beseeching. Cordelia drops her hand as though she’s been caught and takes a full step away from Misty.

Misty tucks her hands together, taking the move in stride.  

“Pleasure to meet you both,” she says with a little wave, so polite that Cordelia has to bite her bottom lip to keep from smiling. “I’m glad you’re alright. Cordelia was awful worried when she took your call.”

“I’m still so sorry about that,” Mallory starts, but Coco quiets her with a gentle hand to her cheek. The way they look at each other makes Cordelia feel as though she’s invisible, sometimes— in a pleasant way, usually, and sometimes just a little enviously. When Coco turns to them, inviting them back into the world again, her expression has softened. There’s a mischievous glint in her eyes, but Cordelia thinks she’s maybe going to be just kind enough not to exercise it to Misty’s face.

“Likewise,” Coco says, looking at Misty appraisingly. Cordelia twists her hands together. “I’m glad she had you to drive her. She’s usually so good under pressure, but she can’t keep from fidgeting when she’s nervous.”

Pointedly, Cordelia tucks her hands out of sight.

Misty agrees with a laugh, and Coco’s smile turns decidedly awful.

Shit.

“Would you like me to flag down a doctor?” Cordelia offers. “Or— get you a drink?”

Coco shakes her head, expression unchanging. “Nope, you can stay right here. This is the first time I’ve seen your face in weeks, I almost couldn’t recognise you.”

Cordelia scoffs good-naturedly.

“We might be here a while before the doctor comes back,” Mallory points out, rising from the bed. She looks knowingly between the three other people in the room. Naturally, Cordelia thinks, Mallory has read Coco absolutely right and has taken her side. Cordelia almost wants to grasp for her dress as she walks past. “I’ll get us all some coffee, yeah? How do you take yours, Misty?”

“Oh, let me help you carry them,” Misty says, and Cordelia really does almost grab for her, then. Turning to her, Misty asks, “Would you prefer decaf?”

No, Cordelia thinks. Don’t leave me.

Instead, she nods dumbly, and watches as they exit the room.

Coco is smiling at her when she next turns around.

“You bitch,” she says. Her grin is shark-like. “When were you going to tell me?”

Cordelia clears her throat. “Tell you what?”

“Oh, Dee, don’t. I’m embarrassed that you’d even try to play ignorant with me.” She stares at Cordelia expectantly. “Have you fucked her yet?”

For one mortifying moment, Cordelia’s entire body is swallowed by shock.

She emerges from the sensation, gasping like a fish.

What? No!”

“Well, you don’t have to worry, you look like you’re in capable hands…”

“Coco!” Cordelia’s head whips around to the door, as though she expects Misty to be standing in the threshold, witnessing all. She feels only minor relief that it’s vacant. In a strained whisper, she continues, turning back to Coco’s bed, “Did you hit your head when you lost consciousness? What on earth are you talking about?”

“Uh, the tall glass of hippy water that just walked out of the room. Hello?”

“Misty? No.” Cordelia shakes her head, grasping for words. “That’s not— you’re way off. Way off.”

She tries to laugh, but it comes out all breath and desperation.

“Are you sure?” Coco asks, watching her. “You’re rattled. Are you lying to me?”

“No, I’m not lying to you. Jesus, Coco, you know that I’ve never,” she gestures vaguely with both hands, “with a woman before.”

“Well, yeah, and neither had I until I did. It’s totally normal for this to happen later in life, you know?”

“Oh, my god…”

“I’m just saying,” Coco presses, adjusting herself in the bed. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. I’ve been telling you for so long that you needed to have some fun, and isn’t now the best time for it? She’s not exactly who I had in mind, but hey, anyone has to be a marked improvement on your last.”

Cordelia pinches the bridge of her nose, pressing her eyelids shut.

“Please, stop. This entire conversation is ridiculous. Misty and I— we’re friends. I haven’t even known her for that long, and the idea of it going any further is absolutely outside of any realm of possibility, so you can just— drop it.” She removes her hand from her face. Coco is watching her quietly, and Cordelia can as good as see the cogs turning in her brain. “Where is this even coming from?”

Coco’s eyes turn wide. She gestures toward Cordelia.

“The moment she walked in the room, you started making moon eyes at her, what was I to think?” While Cordelia begins to protest, Coco continues, talking over her, “I don’t know why you’re getting so worked up about it. It’s not a big deal, Cords, you know you don’t need to be embarrassed about anything like this with me.”

“I know,” Cordelia says, slowly. “I’m not embarrassed, because there’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about.”

She holds her arms out wide, then lets them fall back against her thighs.

“You’re grasping. There’s nothing there.”

She’s privately congratulating herself on her delivery, when Coco’s next question wrenches the breath from her lungs.

“Do you want there to be?”

Cordelia stares at her, gaping. Coco’s expression falls into gentle sympathy.

“Come here.” She pats the bed beside her leg. “Come, sit down a moment.”

Swallowing her protests, and her pride, Cordelia acquiesces. She lands heavily on the bed, and Coco immediately tucks an arm around her waist, drawing her nearer. Cordelia can already feel her cheeks flaming with what she’s sure is an impressive blush, and struggles to meet Coco’s eyes, even as her friend rubs her hand against her back in soothing motions.

“Oh, babe. What have you gotten yourself into?”

Cordelia shakes her head, briefly closing her eyes. “I don’t know.”

She releases a long breath, then finally manages to face Coco.

“I don’t know,” Cordelia repeats in a whisper. She presses a hand to her mouth until she can speak again. “You can’t mention anything to her, she has no idea. I don’t properly understand it myself, I mean, it’s absurd. At my age.” Cordelia recognises the protest on Coco’s face, and is thankful when she does not interrupt. “I really think that I’m just… confused. So much has happened recently, and Misty is so nice.” She frowns – nice doesn’t even scratch the surface of how she’d describe Misty, but getting into that right now will not help her case. “I really like her, as a friend. As a person. I think somewhere in all of that, and everything that’s happened this year, my brain is creating these feelings where there aren’t any and it’s mixing everything up the wrong way.”

Coco nods her head, processing this. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”

“What else could it be?” Cordelia asks her. “No, I’m sure. I’m probably just lonely and it’s manifesting in unexpected ways.”

Coco looks doubtful, but does not outright call her out on it, for which Cordelia is infinitely grateful.

“Anyway,” she says, frowning, nudging Coco with her shoulder. “The only reason we’re here is because you almost died today. Quit shifting the focus onto me; I should be the one comforting you, shouldn’t I?” Coco scoffs, but Cordelia’s expression softens. She feels the full gravity of the situation on her shoulders, then. “I can’t believe that almost happened, and I wouldn’t even have been by your side if it did.”

“Hey,” Coco says, frowning, rubbing her back some more. “I’m still very much alive, thank you, and very impressed by how quickly you managed to get yourself here. Your best friend status is intact.”

Cordelia’s smile is weak and a little watery. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Definitely. I just want to go home.” Coco wets her lips. “Are you? Okay, I mean. This all looks like it’s done a number on you.”

“Yeah,” Cordelia sniffs. “I’m fine. I will be. This will probably all blow over soon, anyway, and I can get back to normal.”

Coco hums, unconvinced.

“You forget that I’ve known you for almost twenty years. You’re good at doing this to yourself.”

“Doing what?” Cordelia asks.

“Ignoring what’s right in front of your eyes.” Coco takes her hand, as Cordelia opens her mouth to defend herself. The words stop short before they even leave her throat. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. Please don’t think that I’m doing this just because it’s some weird, bisexual agenda fantasy that I have to see you come to terms with wanting to bone a woman.”

Cordelia scoffs, looking away, but Coco pulls her back with a tug on her hand.

“It’s not about that.”

“What is it about, then?”

Cordelia regrets the question immediately. She isn’t sure that she’s ready to confront this.

“It’s about the way you punish yourself like you don’t think you deserve nice things. Your mom really did a number on you, and I know we’ve talked about this before, and you know I’m more than happy to stand up to that bitch for you even if I do think her capable of cold-blooded murder.” Coco pauses for dramatic effect. “But, I also don’t really believe that that will help you. This is one of those things you need to do for yourself.”

“Do what?” Cordelia asks, shaking her head. “What should I do?”

Coco leans closer.

“Whatever will make you happy. And that doesn’t always manifest itself in ways that you’re familiar with, sometimes it’s… surprising, and new, and a little scary.” Cordelia swallows thickly, but Coco only smiles at her, soft and sympathetic. “If you say there’s nothing there, then I will take your word for it, okay? I trust your judgement. But please don’t push this out if there’s something genuine to it.”

She squeezes her fingers around Cordelia’s, grounding her, while Cordelia blinks the sudden sheen of moisture from her eyes. She draws her lips together, teeth scraping against the tender spot on the inside of her cheek, and nods her head. Satisfied, Coco releases her hand and relaxes against the pillows again.

“I can’t believe you’re giving me life advice from a hospital bed,” she says, finally. “How much do I owe you for your time, Dr. Vanderbilt?”  

Coco nudges their shoulders with a grin.

“That one was a freebie, babe, but our next session might cost you. That’s when we get into all the yummy stuff like our childhood trauma.”

Cordelia laughs without meaning to, just as Mallory and Misty re-enter the room.

“You’d never believe how big this place is,” Misty says immediately, frowning. She strides towards the bed and hands a takeout cup to Cordelia, keeping one back for herself. “And the signs are all wrong. It’s like they want you to go ‘round in circles until you get lost.”

Mallory takes Coco’s other side of the bed with an amused, barely repressed smile.

“Everything okay?” she asks Coco, who curls into her and nods her head, and the entire world disappears as they lock eyes again.  

Cordelia stands from the bed, leaving them to it. She retakes her position by Misty’s side just as a short woman with a nametag and a white jacket enters the room. She looks marginally surprised to see that the room’s occupants have doubled since she was last here, but recovers with a quick greeting to the newcomers, and then clears her throat until she gains Coco’s attention.

Holding up a chart, the doctor says, “Let’s get you out of here before it’s dark, shall we?”

Coco agrees with a too-loud, appreciative groan.

 

Cordelia and Misty step outside of the room while Coco is discharged.

The corridor feels stark and busy beneath its fluorescent lighting, with a smattering of people passing – some in more of a hurry than others. Cordelia leans against an empty wall and hugs her takeout coffee between both hands, holding it just beneath her chin. Stepping closer, Misty leans against the same wall with her shoulder, and studies the pensive look on her face.

“Is everything alright?” she asks, finally, and Cordelia nods her head.

“Just thinking.”

“Anything exciting?” Misty asks, waggling her eyebrows, and Cordelia smiles despite herself.

“I doubt you’d think so, no. Would you— I’d understand if you’d prefer to get back, but would you like to have dinner here? With Coco and Mallory, too, I mean. It’s been so long since I’ve spent time with them that hasn’t included me crying into a tub of French Vanilla. We can eat out, or maybe even back at theirs, I’m not sure. It’s really okay if you’d prefer to get home, though, I’ve kept you out almost all day.”

“I don’t mind,” Misty smiles. “I’m hungry; food sounds good.”

Coco and Mallory appear from the door, hand in hand.

“Was that you inviting yourself to dinner that I just heard?” Coco asks, and Misty blanches, turning on her heel to face them. Coco rolls her eyes when she spots her expression. “Relax, sweetheart, of course you can. Actually, do you mind if we do something lowkey? I kind of just want to put on a pair of sweatpants and take off my makeup.”

“We can order Chinese,” Mallory suggests. “If that’s alright with Misty?”

“I will eat just about anything right now,” Misty says, making her smile.

“That settles it.” Mallory turns sharply to Coco. “And if you don’t think I’m going to supervise every bite that you take—”

“Oh, my God,” Coco cries, dragging her along by the hand.

Cordelia watches them go with a smile.

When she turns to Misty, they share a grin, and Misty tips her head in their direction for them to follow.

Cordelia just about resists the urge to take her hand.

 


 

By the time they pull up outside of Misty’s house, it’s dark out.

Cordelia cuts the car engine but neither of them make to release their seatbelts.

It’s quiet, but with Misty’s window rolled down a crack, they can hear the cicadas singing from the surrounding woodland. Cordelia thinks she could just close her eyes and get lost in it. She’s never been one to linger late outdoors, in the middle of the night, listening to the bugs and the night animals. Now, though, and especially in present company, she can’t think of anything more relaxing.

“I like your friends,” Misty says, disrupting the silence.

Cordelia turns to her with a small smile. “Coco’s a lot.”

Misty laughs out loud, not disagreeing, but also looking no worse for wear for their impromptu visit.

When she settles down again, leaning back against the head rest, Misty casts her little house a long look through the window. Cordelia watches her expression change, the way her brow wrinkles, rosebud lips disappearing between her teeth. When Misty next turns to face her, there’s an expectant look in her eyes.

“I should let you go,” she murmurs, looking at Cordelia as though it’s the last thing on Earth that she wants to do. She opens her mouth to speak again, takes a breath, and for one terrifying, exhilarating, moment, Cordelia thinks that Misty is going to invite her inside. Instead, a wavering look of doubt on Misty’s face, followed quickly by a small smile. “Thanks for driving me back.”

Cordelia shakes her head. “Thank you for taking me. I wasn’t really in any fit state to be driving.”

Misty shrugs her shoulders as though to say, it’s nothing, but it is. To Cordelia, it is.

“Goodnight,” Misty says, finally, and slips out of Cordelia’s car.

Cordelia watches her until she’s out of sight, tucked safely behind her front door. A light comes on in Misty’s front window, and then a slightly dimmer one in the room directly opposite. Cordelia imagines Misty moving around inside, preparing to get ready for bed. She starts the car engine, and drives quietly home alone.

Chapter Text

Misty is already in the pool by the time Cordelia takes her morning coffee outdoors to enjoy in the sun.

She hasn’t seen her all week, and assumes that Misty’s work has picked up, much as she’d anticipated. Lowering herself to the pool’s edge, Cordelia sits with her feet in the water, while Misty completes a lap. She’s slept in too late, or rather spent too long awake during the night, tossing and turning, switching pillows as though they were responsible for her restlessness. Blowing across the rim of her mug, she watches Misty swim, her steady breaststroke that barely disrupts the water, the way her legs tuck and then stretch all the way out like a frog’s, long and lean and pale beneath the rippling surface of the pool.

In the mid-morning haze of her sleep-deprived brain, Cordelia imagines Misty is in a river, somewhere, pale beneath the sun, gliding through the riverweeds and drooping willow trees. The fantasy multiplies, and Cordelia is joining her in the water, the pair of them nude and completely oblivious to anything outside of their summer tryst. She imagines them lying on their backs, afloat above the murky depths, safe from the gators and the snakes.

Splashing from the pool disrupts the vision – a pebble hitting the surface of a still lake, causing ripples – and Cordelia blinks herself awake.

Her lap completed, Misty ducks beneath the surface of the water, emerging again when she’s scant feet away from where Cordelia is sitting. She squeezes water from the end of her nose and blinks it from her eyelashes, smiling up at Cordelia as she comes to lean with one arm against the edge of the pool.

“Mornin’.”

Her voice is raspy and warm, like sun-dappled tree bark.

“Hi,” Cordelia says, tucking a yawn behind one hand. “You’re here early.”

“You slept in,” Misty counters, and Cordelia nods her head, touché. “Late night?”

“I guess.”

“You look sleepy.” She hooks both hands over the edge of the pool, treading water with her legs, and peering up at Cordelia curiously. Misty has a way of studying her as though every slight shift in her expression is a revelation, is a secret whispered into Misty’s ear without Cordelia even having moved her lips. She wonders what Misty divines from her expression that makes her smile so sweetly up at her, like that. Cordelia tilts her head to one side, blonde hair spilling over her shoulder, and she smiles right back. “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”

“This is breakfast,” Cordelia mumbles into her mug.

Misty scoffs, offended, and promptly rises out of the water.

She lands by Cordelia’s side, wet and noisy, and squeezes excess water from her hair. Cordelia tucks her robe a little tighter around her middle – she’s not even bothered to dress, yet, and becomes immediately aware of how revealing her nightwear is with Misty sitting half naked by her side, her alabaster body dripping with pool water.

“Let me dry out and I’ll make you some eggs.”

“Mm,” Cordelia shakes her head, “I just ran out. It’s fine, though, don’t worry about it.”

Misty’s wrinkling brow confirms that she’s doing the exact opposite.

“Do you wanna go out with me?”  

Cordelia blinks. Her brain skips like a scratch in a record.

When she can speak again, all Cordelia can manage is a stuttered, “Like, breakfast?”

“Well, yeah,” Misty snorts. “I think it counts as brunch, technically, but we can get whatever you want.”

Flushed, Cordelia turns to face the water, watching the surface of the pool calm now that Misty is no longer gliding through it. She mulls the idea over.

“Sure, I’d like that.”

“Perfect,” Misty grins, standing. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.”

“What about you?” Cordelia asks, making the regretful decision of looking directly up at Misty’s bare torso. She is slender in her build, but there’s obvious strength beneath her alabaster skin; subtly defined muscles ripple beneath the surface of all that porcelain exterior. She’s stronger than she looks. Cordelia swallows thickly, clears her throat. “Do you want to take a shower before we go? Or… borrow a towel, or something?”

Misty bats her concern away with a smile. “The sun’ll dry me just fine.”

 

Forty minutes later, Cordelia is turning into a surprisingly quiet parking lot.

“Are you sure they’re open?” she asks, leaning into the steering wheel to get a better view of the front door. She can make out the notice with the diner’s opening hours printed upon it, if not the text itself. Cordelia is unfamiliar with the establishment; it’s a little further out of town than she’s used to travelling, and certainly nowhere that Auntie Myrtle has taken her, and likely never would.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Misty says, unbuckling her seatbelt. “I know it looks… quaint, but the food is good and the people are nice. Family-run, you know? Not like one of those chains.”

Cordelia hums, unconvinced, and they exit the car together.

The sun is sweltering, that even the brief walk from the car to the diner’s front entrance leaves Cordelia infinitely grateful to step inside, directly beneath the frigid blast of the A.C. Misty holds the door open for her until she’s cleared it completely, and then navigates them between rows of largely empty tables, until she reaches a booth in the far corner. Misty slips in to the bench furthest away, her back to the wall, giving Cordelia the privacy of the bench directly opposite.

Cordelia tucks herself into it with a grateful smile.

No sooner have they seated themselves, than a robust woman with a rumpled pad and pencil in hand pulls up to their table. Her smile is almost as wide as her face, and not for lack of trying.

“Good mornin’, sugar,” she beams at Misty, who returns her smile tenfold. “Been a while since I’ve seen you in here. What can I get you both?”

“Hi, Mrs. Jackson,” Misty greets her back, her smile warm and familiar. Cordelia drinks in the happiness on her face, bright as sunshine, and is unable to keep a smile from wobbling at her own lips. “Can my friend and I get two cups of coffee and—” Misty turns to her abruptly, and Cordelia quickly neutralises her expression, “I’m thinking pancakes and bacon, what about you?”

“Yes,” Cordelia quickly agrees. “That sounds good.”

“Two plates, then,” Misty says, while Mrs. Jackson jots the order down. “How’s Jim? I don’t see him back there.”

“Oh, I sent him home early. Doctor said to stay off his foot, but would he listen?” Her tone suggests not. “You’ll probably find him down at Tony’s, for all the good that place’ll do him, but he ain’t for taking my advice. You know he’s as stubborn as a mule, God bless his heart.”

From the window into the kitchen, a young man calls across the diner, “Hi, Misty.”

He waves his spatula like a flag, while Mrs. Jackson winces fondly.

“Hi, Kurt,” Misty calls back, grinning.

“I’ll bring your food right out, chicken,” Mrs. Jackson tells her before departing.

Cordelia watches her go, biting her bottom lip. This is another piece of Misty’s puzzle – another brushstroke against the canvas of her life – and Cordelia wants to take it, wants to piece it all together with her hands and learn it, wants to know it as intrinsically as she knows her own. When she turns her gaze back to Misty, she must do a poor job of hiding her curiosity, for Misty smiles as though she’s heard her thoughts.

“I used to come here all the time – about as often as I could afford,” she explains. “I’d buy the cheapest thing off the menu just to get out of the sun or rain for a while.”

She bites her lip in a way that suggests there’s more for her to say, but she’s not yet convinced if she should share it. Cordelia leans into the table, nods her head, imploring her to continue.

“Way, way before I moved into my own place,” Misty begins, and Cordelia relaxes enough to listen without overthinking how easily Misty puts her trust in her, “I was staying at this shelter for vulnerable women. I didn’t like it much, but at the time I’d ran out of friends whose couches I could sleep on, and this was before I’d really landed on my feet. I was getting my GED, at the time, and Mrs. Jackson is the only reason I scraped a pass in math. She said it was all backwards to how she’d learned it, back in her day, but she sat with me and we went through the textbooks together as late as the diner stayed open, until one of us understood what we were trying to do.”

Cordelia smiles gently. “She sounds like an extraordinarily kind woman.”

“Extraordinarily patient, too,” Misty grins, and then her expression falters. Cordelia is quickly learning to recognise her embarrassment, and the reaction she has to it – the spike of anxiety in her own belly, that wants her hands to reach across whatever space is between them and take Misty’s in her own. Her inherent need to comfort, uncurling like a dozing dragon from the depths of her subconscious. “I never dropped out of high school,” Misty says, as though she feels the need to explain herself. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but I never went to begin with. Mama home-schooled us, for the most part, but… I have nothing to compare it to, but picking up those textbooks all those years later, I can tell she didn’t do half of what she should’a. Either that, or I just wasn’t learnin’ it right.”

“And yet you got your GED, regardless,” Cordelia points out. “That’s nothing to sniff at.”

Misty’s smile turns small, a wobbly mixture of embarrassment and pride. “Yeah. Guess you’re right. Sorry, once I open my mouth sometimes I just can’t stop. I bet it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what you’ve done, though, huh?”

Cordelia blinks, contemplating that.

“Well, in terms of years, I suppose not, but you can’t judge a person’s intelligence by their level of higher education…” She shrugs her shoulders gently. “I know plenty of book-smart people, the smartest people I’ll probably ever meet, who wouldn’t last a day if they were made to forage for themselves through the swamps and woods.”

Misty smirks in agreement. “True. You don’t have to say that, though. I think it’s cool that you’re a teacher.”

Was,” Cordelia points out, and bites her lip. “You do?”

“Mm, teachers, librarians, anyone who reads for fun… I don’t know, that shit’s sexy.”

Cordelia almost chokes on her next breath.

Did Misty just call her sexy?

Had she meant to?

From the startled, quickly reddening look on Misty’s face, Cordelia can only infer that she’d let the remark slip entirely by accident, and immediately regretted its implications. Their wide, startled eyes hold each other’s gaze for a second too long, and then promptly look everywhere but. Thankfully, Mrs. Jackson appears shortly after with their order, and Misty thanks her with a bout of nervous laughter that sends the older woman from their table with a curious glance back over her shoulder.

“This smells good,” Cordelia says, nudging at the tension in the air, testing its potency.

She pulls her plate ever so slightly closer towards her body, while Misty drenches her stack of pancakes in syrup. Cordelia watches her, waiting, until Misty only continues to pour, and her expression turns from amused to vaguely concerned. Finally, once her bacon is swimming, Misty lowers the jug and appears surprised to find Cordelia’s unwavering attention on her.

“Syrup?” she asks, and makes to pour it out for her.

Cordelia intercepts the jug before it can reach her plate.

“Thank you, I’ve got it.”

Misty lets it go with a smile.

“Do you like to read?” Cordelia asks, and peeks tentatively up to see Misty’s face. Her blush has abated, at last.

Misty shrugs while chewing through a too-large mouthful of pancake.

Once her mouth is clear, she says, “I like it fine, but I have a hard time sitting still long enough to finish a book. I have too much to do, usually, that when I do get a spare moment I feel guilty if I’m just… curled up reading somewhere, when I could be doing something more productive. Besides,” and she lifts her gaze, now, smiling at Cordelia with her shining, blue eyes, “when I do get a spare morning or afternoon, I come to see you. I’d rather do that than stay home reading.”

Cordelia hums, smiling, and cuts carefully into her pancake tower.

It’s more food than she’ll be able to finish, but she’s just hungry enough to attempt it, anyway.

“You sit with me while I read,” she points out. “Does that not become boring?”

Misty shakes her head.

“I never get bored. It’s… peaceful?”

Cordelia’s smile broadens. “For me, too.”

She pops her first mouthful past her lips and sighs as the syrup sinks into her tongue, sugar spreading like wildfire across her taste buds. She hums quietly to herself. Directly opposite, and watching her expression closely, Misty grins and says, “It’s good, isn’t it?” She promptly fills her own mouth with another forkful, and Cordelia tries not to choke at the sight of Misty’s bulging cheeks struggling to accommodate her appetite.

 

Misty is the first to finish.

The lunchtime rush has drawn a small crowd to the diner; they sit in their twosomes and foursomes, and in one corner two tables have been pushed together to make room for seven, while a couple of solitary figures sit at opposite ends of the bar like bookends, tucking into their lunch. The diner is not so busy as to run Mrs. Jackson ragged; as she passes their table, it’s with pleasantries and a refill for both of their cups.

While Cordelia sits nursing her coffee, Misty helps herself to her leftovers.

Cordelia hides her smile behind the rim of her mug, watching her.

“I don’t know where you put it all.”

“I keep myself busy,” Misty shrugs, her sole attention on Cordelia’s plate until she’s scraped every last morsel of food from its surface. She settles back against the booth with a loud sigh, once she’s finished, as though she’s fed herself into exhaustion. Her drooping eyelids allude to as much. She takes a generous mouthful from her refilled coffee mug, as though to restore her depleted energy, and relaxes.

“Did you have plans for today?” Cordelia asks, rubbing her blunt thumb nail against the rim of her mug.  

“I’m not working,” Misty says, leaning back against the booth. She tilts her head to one side, observing Cordelia, her blonde hair spilling over her shoulder like something out of a painting. “My schedule is as free as the day is long. Did you have somethin’ in mind?”

She blinks her blue eyes up at Cordelia, and Cordelia feels giddiness like a butterfly inside her chest, like a moth bumbling against a lit bulb, all nervous fluttering and tender anxiety.

Jesus, she thinks. Pull yourself together.

“No, nothing in particular. I just don’t feel like going home yet.”

Misty’s smile comes easily, a hint of teeth between her pink lips. From over her shoulder, the afternoon sun slants through the window, lighting up Misty’s yellow hair like spun gold. Cordelia wonders how anyone could ever stand to refuse her a thing – how anybody could bring themselves to wilfully cause her harm, how they could justify it within themselves, within the world at large. Even the thought upsets her.

“We don’t have to go back yet,” Misty says. “We can go into town, if you like, or somewhere outdoors?” She drums a finger against her bottom lip. “It’s been a while since I’ve just wandered around aimlessly without any kind of goal in mind, I’m not even sure really what to suggest.”

“That all sounds good,” Cordelia says. “Anything you want.”

“That doesn’t help,” Misty snorts, but then her eyes narrow, lips pursing, as though she’s just had a thought. A hum rumbles around inside her throat, her mouth turning up at the corners. Her eyes rove quickly over Cordelia, who sits wide-eyed in the face of her judgement, and uncertain. Once her gaze returns to Cordelia’s face, her cheeks are already a little flushed. “Okay, Miss Indecisive, I know where I’ll take you.”

Cordelia swallows audibly.

“I’m not sure how to interpret the look on your face right now,” she says, only for Misty’s smile to broaden.

“Oh?”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it wicked. Where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” Misty sings, slipping the purse out of her pocket, and Cordelia bites her cheek to keep from pressing.

The breakfast bill covered, they leave the table with a sizeable tip, and step back out into the heat.

 


 

“This was a good idea,” Cordelia says, an hour later.

She’s lying on her back across a shag rug in the centre of Auntie Myrtle’s back sitting room. The sun has begun its slow descent in the afternoon sky, and peeks orange and warm through the open curtains, filling the room with heady summer heat. From the corner, a record player croons out a Fleetwood Mac album – carefully selected by Misty’s own hand, and which Cordelia is convinced she already owns, and will not be taking home with her. With her eyes closed, the music transports her elsewhere.

Before Cordelia’s mind can travel too far, Misty plonks her head down in her lap, startling her eyes open again.

“I told you,” she says, stretching her body out like a cat.

“You did,” Cordelia agrees, and sinks a hand into Misty’s hair without thinking.

The way Misty cranes her neck back, and practically purrs at the attention, makes Cordelia smile.

For minutes, they simply lie there listening to the music. Every time Cordelia thinks that Misty has dozed off, and stops the gentle scratching of her blunt nails against Misty’s scalp, the other woman shifts subtly in her lap, and her petting continues. The next time that it happens, Cordelia can’t stop a bubble of laughter from escaping her lips. She pushes herself up ever so carefully onto one elbow, so as to better see Misty’s smirking face.

“You’re a bony pillow,” Misty huffs, and Cordelia’s smile broadens.

“Sorry.”

Misty grunts, dismissing the apology.

Her eyelids are closed, her mousy blonde eyelashes appearing darker than they really are against her pale cheeks. Cordelia watches her own hand tease through Misty’s curls, drawing them away from her temple, winding a strand like a corkscrew around one finger until it all unravels again. She feels not unlike she has an abnormally large house cat napping across her lap. At the end of the rug, Misty’s legs stretch completely out, toes curling at the ends of her bare feet, and then relax again.

Watching her face, Cordelia says, “When did you first know you were attracted to women?” Misty’s body shifts subtly against her thighs, but she does not tense or open her eyes, and so Cordelia does not immediately apologise for the question. Her hand stops stroking in Misty’s hair, and instead just settles there, fingers plunged into her curls but unmoving. “You don’t need to answer,” she quickly adds. “And please tell me if that’s not an appropriate question to ask, I’m just… curious, I guess.”

Misty’s eyes flutter open. She tilts her head to the side, better to see Cordelia, and smiles.

“It’s fine, I don’t mind.” She blinks up at Cordelia, and Cordelia does not shy away from her gaze. “I kind of always had an inkling that I was different. I didn’t know what to call it, or what I was really feeling, though, until I was about… eleven or twelve years old, maybe. My older brothers and their friends would use the word gay as an insult, and I never thought too much about what they meant by it exactly. It was as interchangeable as the word stupid or couillon, but I remember the first time I heard the word lesbian.”

Her lips press tightly together, and she turns her gaze up to the light fixture in the centre of Myrtle’s ceiling.

“I couldn’t explain it at the time, but it rubbed me some type of way, when I learned what that word meant, and put that together with the disgust that it was said with.” Her shoulders shrug and then relax against Cordelia’s legs. Without thinking, Cordelia resumes the gentle stroking through her hair, and Misty releases a quiet sigh. “I’d had little crushes on girls before that, looking back. Never really knew to tell them apart from friendship, but I don’t think I ever properly thought about it all until then. That feeling I got, when I understood how… gross my family thought it was, for anyone to choose to be like that, to be a lesbian. It took me so long to be able to say that word out loud, never mind take it for myself.”

Misty’s head tilts back around to see Cordelia’s face.

“That’s what they thought, though – that it was a choice. That I’d done it on purpose.” She smiles, not altogether happily. “After everything came out, I always wanted to go back and argue that with them. How could they think anyone would choose to be like this, when it costs them their families, sometimes more?” She scoffs, and Cordelia frowns. It’s not pity that sinks into her gut, hot like a blazing fire, but anger. She thinks she’d like to have that argument, too. “Then again,” Misty sighs, a wrinkle appearing through her forehead, “maybe they do have a point. I wouldn’t change a damn thing about it, now, even if I could.”

“How old were you, when you told them?”

Misty looks at her funny – surprised, almost confused.

“I never told them,” she says, and her smile now is small with regret. “I was terrified of them finding out. I knew better than to let on that I was any different than they were, but they found me with another girl. Just kissing, completely innocent, but… obviously, it wasn’t. I was seventeen, it was just before my eighteenth birthday. I thought my daddy was gonna kill me.”

Cordelia winces right down to her stomach, and can’t keep it from her face.

“You were so young.”

Misty shrugs, casual and a little sad. “I grew up quickly.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier,” Cordelia says, so gently that Misty’s smile falls from her face.

“No, I know. It wasn’t easy at all.”

She holds Cordelia’s gaze, the two of them unspeaking, occasionally blinking, comfortable in their quiet. Cordelia’s hand curls through her mass of blonde curls, all the while, until Misty relaxes enough to close her eyes again. From the record player, one song ends and another begins, and in the brief lapse between the two all that can be heard is the scratching of the needle against the vinyl.

“I don’t know how you manage to be so full of kindness, still, after everything you’ve been through.” Cordelia wets her lips, musing. “After Hank— I was so angry, I wanted to set the entire world on fire. Him and all of his belongings, at the very least. That’s partly why I came out here, if I’m being honest. That anger was… everything that was left of me, it felt like. It burned me up and then it burned out, just like that, when the divorce was finalised and it was all over. It felt like nothing had been left. Nothing that I wanted to be left with, anyway.”

Misty tilts her head into her hand when it stops moving.

“Oh, I never said that I didn’t go through something that,” she says, and Cordelia can’t tell if she’s annoyed or amused. “It felt like a storm had just blown through my brain, through my entire life, and everything was destroyed. I was so angry, and I was heartbroken, and sometimes I was just numb. I was a mess. Everything was a mess.”

“I’m sorry,” Cordelia breathes. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like. I shouldn’t compare our situations.”

Misty’s eyes open again, and she smiles gently when she meets Cordelia’s gaze.

“Hurt is hurt,” she says. “Damage is damage. Someone’s always going to have it worse, but that doesn’t make your situation any better just for knowing that. The best you can do is tell yourself that it’s not always going to be that shitty, and hope that you’re not lying. Then you pick yourself up and… make better decisions in the future, I guess?”  

“Right,” Cordelia agrees. “That’s sometimes easier said than done.”

Misty hums a laugh and the warmth returns to her smile.

“Don’t listen to me, though. I’m nothing but a fool; I’m in no mind to be giving advice, none that you should follow, anyway.”

Cordelia’s brow wrinkles. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true,” Misty says, staring up at her adoringly. “I’m a bigger fool than you give me credit for.”

She looks at Cordelia with such yearning, then, that it steals the breath from both their lungs, renders them stupid, and strangles their quiet conversation. A ringing in Cordelia’s ears, or else the heat behind her cheeks, encourages her to look away, but Cordelia is stuck. She’s caught on the plaintive longing in Misty’s eyes, and what it might mean. What she thinks it means.

And then, just like that, Misty shakes herself.

Cordelia blinks, and the draw from Misty’s gaze is gone.

She’s nothing but a sleepy housecat again, smiling up at her, curling up in Cordelia’s lap. Placid as a summer’s afternoon.

“Listen,” Misty says, and settles against Cordelia’s thighs. Her eyes close, every wrinkle in her brow relaxing. Beneath her breath, she hums in time to the lyrics crooning from the record player, and Cordelia watches her, enraptured. “This song was her anthem. Doesn’t it just— penetrate your soul, and tell the truth about everything you’ve ever felt in your whole life?”

Finally, Cordelia relaxes back against the shag rug, and closes her eyes. Misty’s voice carries above the music, quiet and raspy, like a coil of incense through the warm air.

 

All your life you've never seen

A woman taken by the wind

Would you stay if she promised you heaven?

Will you ever win?

Will you ever win?

 

When fingers curl through Misty’s hair, again, she quiets her singing and hums with contentment. Cordelia can hear her smile in the noise.

She can’t remember a time when she felt so at peace with herself, and wonders how much of that is a direct reaction to Misty’s presence by her side. Cordelia is not so lacking in self-awareness that she can ignore the correlation between her own happiness and her friendship with Misty. Misty Day, she thinks, smiling privately, who is as enigmatic and enticing as her namesake.

Cordelia adores her. She adores the very bones of her.

Chapter Text

“Tell me what you want,” Misty says.

Cordelia eyes her warily.

“What do you mean?”

Instead of answering immediately, Misty rolls one arm out into something of a lazy shrug, a gesture towards the world at large. They’re sharing a seat in Myrtle’s backyard, on the wicker bench set that overlooks the lawn with all of its dozing flowers, scant space between them where their legs have curled up onto the cushion. Above them, twilight sinks purple and peaceful into the sunset, and the crickets and cicadas make their night time music in the trees. Misty studies Cordelia’s face before speaking again.

“In life,” she says. “What do you want out of life?”

Cordelia releases an amused breath. Misty’s expression does not change, but for the small smile that turns up at the corners of her mouth.

“That’s a rather large question,” Cordelia tells her, and Misty nods her agreement. “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know,” Misty says without breaking eye contact, but Cordelia has an inkling that she’s not being entirely truthful. She does not call Misty out on it, exactly, but arches her eyebrows until Misty blinks and clears her throat. “Curiosity, then. Won’t you indulge me?”

Oh¸ Cordelia thinks, always.

“I want what everybody wants,” she answers, then. At Misty’s probing nod, she elaborates, “Happiness. Stability. Comfort.”

“I meant, specifically.”

Cordelia narrows her eyes, roaming Misty’s expression for any tell as to why she wants to know. Finding nothing, Cordelia turns that roving gaze inward, and asks herself again – what is it that she wants for this life of hers?

“I used to think that I knew, but I’m not sure how to answer that question anymore.” Misty rests her head against the back of the bench, angling her body inward, watching Cordelia without expectation. Cordelia mirrors her. In the space between them, their hands rest mere inches from one another; Cordelia eyes the distance with intrigue, but does not cross it. “I suppose, I want something to change. For the better, this time. I want to change, but I’m not sure how exactly.”

“Wings and horns?” Misty offers with a smirk.

Cordelia rolls her eyes at her, smiling.

“I don’t want to be the person I was for the last ten years. I don’t think that I am, really, I don’t think that I still could be, after everything that’s happened. Everything changed around me, so quickly, and I think it started to change me, too, but it’s not finished yet. I’m not—” She gestures with one hand, as though to grasp the words from the air, but doesn’t know how to describe it without embarrassing herself. Her life had transformed around her whether she wanted it to or not, and Cordelia is still stuck in the chrysalis. “I’m not ready yet.”

She turns to Misty with a frown. “Does that make sense?”

Large blue eyes meet her gaze, and Cordelia swallows audibly.

“Sure,” Misty agrees. “That makes sense.”

“Do you ever feel like you’re floating?” At the small frown between Misty’s brows, Cordelia sighs and tries again. “Like you’re just drifting through life, doing everything that’s expected of you, just going through the motions. Like nothing you’re doing is actually impacting anything in any way?”

Misty’s frown deepens. “You’re not like that. You impact plenty, I’ve seen it.”

Cordelia arches her eyebrows at her, doubtful.

“I mean it. With Myrtle, your friends— me. You make a difference.”

“I doubt that very much, sometimes.”

“You make a difference to my life every time I see you,” Misty insists. “I’ve never really been the type of person who has lots of friends, but the few that I do have, I keep close.” She closes the distance between their hands, covering Cordelia’s over the knuckles and squeezing. Her rings feel pleasantly cool against Cordelia’s skin. “And they keep me sane.”

When Cordelia falls quiet, Misty keeps the silence just as easily.

Their hands remain held until they turn warm, dewy like before the first hint of sunlight in the morning sky.

“How did you meet them?” Cordelia asks finally, and Misty’s smile softens her entire face.

“College. Theirs, not mine, obviously.” Her eye roll is entirely self-deprecating, that Cordelia turns her hand around in Misty’s, and links their fingers together, instead. She squeezes her hand in warning, and Misty grins. “Zoe and Queenie lost their student accommodation last minute, and ended up living with Nan, but then two of Nan’s friends dropped out over somethin’ or nothin’. Zoe roped in Maddie, and then when they couldn’t fill the other room, they advertised it online. Being so far from campus, it was affordable if not very glamorous. I saw the ad, and the rest, as they say…”

She trails off with a shrug, while Cordelia pours over this new information internally.

“So many people. That sounds chaotic,” she says, and Misty scoffs her agreement.

“You don’t know the half of it. Maddie and I would brawl every other week, and I’m talkin’ full on brawl, none of that scratching and hair pulling shit.” She shakes her head, expression bordering on amazed and incredulous. “I’ve never known anyone to activate my fight or flight response like she would, just for fun, but look at us now. I mean, we still argue, but it’s been years since we’ve drawn blood.”

Cordelia snorts trying to repress a laugh, and they devolve into giggles at the sound.

When their evening hysteria passes, Misty turns to Cordelia with a look so tender it stops her breath.

The last of the light reflects in Misty’s eyes, blue like the sky before dusk.

“You mean a lot to me, you know?” she says, and Cordelia does, she really does. “I miss having a full house, sometimes. Not always.” Her lips wobble with amusement, not enough to scare away that soft, glassy look in her eyes. “It means a lot that I can come by here, some days, and spend time with you. You make a difference.”

Cordelia squeezes her hand again.

Without hesitation, she says, “You make a difference, too.”

Misty’s smile lights her face, and Cordelia feels herself warm all over, like sinking into a blanket. She feels Misty like coming home after a long vacation, and falling asleep in her own bed – familiarity, comfort, relief. Cordelia shifts herself closer on the bench, Misty’s legs moving to accommodate her, until she’s near enough to rest her cheek on Misty’s shoulder. Blonde curls spill into her eyes, and so Cordelia closes them. Misty smells like summer; she smells like sunshine and chlorine, and falling asleep in the grass.

“What do you want in life?” Cordelia asks her, then, while Misty’s cheek settles against the crown of her head.

“Oh, you know,” Misty says. “What most lesbians want. Financial security and a hot wife.”

Cordelia laughs loudly, until Misty can’t hold back her own rumbling amusement.

“Seriously?” Cordelia presses, sobering.

Misty blows out a loud breath and shakes her head.

“Psh, who knows the answer to that? S’long as I have food in my belly, and a roof above my head, and my record collection, I mean… what more could I ask for?”

“That is such a cop out,” Cordelia scoffs, and Misty laughs again.

When she next opens her eyes, the sky has turned a deeper blue, and a billion stars twinkle down upon them. Cordelia searches for constellations between the dots, while Misty’s even breathing moves the shoulder beneath her cheek. Finally, Misty takes a deeper breath in and holds it there, as though she’s about to say something. Cordelia prepares herself to hear it.

“Cordelia?”

Cordelia doesn’t think she’s ever heard her so tentative before.

“Yes?”

When Misty doesn’t answer immediately, Cordelia lifts her head to better see her face. Misty’s gaze is lost out in the dark of the garden, in the shadows that cloak the flowerbeds in slumber. When she turns to face Cordelia, Cordelia thinks she’s brought some of those shadows back with her; her pupils are blown wide, letting in the last of the light, swarming the blue in her irises like incoming tide. Misty smiles like she means to assuage the concern on Cordelia’s face, but it’s a wobbly thing, like it’s too heavy for her lips to hold up.

“I—” She stops, wets her lips. “I was wondering if…”

Cordelia nods her head, leaning perceptively closer.

“If you—”

Misty’s gaze falls to her mouth. Cordelia knows, because she blushes immediately, and diverts her gaze. Her hand in Cordelia’s feels damp with perspiration.

“Yes?” Cordelia presses.

Misty opens her mouth, and promptly closes it. She smiles as though in apology, this time, and her shoulders deflate.

“I was wondering if you were free this Friday,” she says, and something pulls at the bottom of Cordelia’s belly, something she isn’t sure she can name. “My friends have… specifically invited you out with us, actually, into town. I’ve been telling them it’s probably not your scene, but they won’t let it go. You don’t have to agree to come, I just wanted to mention it to stop them from giving me grief, I guess.”

Misty shrugs her shoulders easily, and Cordelia feels the night heavy above her head.

“It sounds like you’d rather I didn’t come,” she says, only a hint of an amused smile playing at her lips, because it does.

“What? No, that’s not true.” Misty shakes her head. “I’d love for you to come, I just— well, honestly, I didn’t think you’d want to. You don’t cross me as the kinda gal who spends her time in dive bars. And, besides, we always end up in a girl bar at the end of the night, and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Why would I be?” Cordelia asks, and Misty gapes at her, unable to answer. “It’s okay, Misty, it was nice of them to invite me.”

Misty’s face falls.

“N-no, that’s not— Cordelia.” She bites her bottom lip, frowning, and then tugs the hand that she’s still holding into her lap. “I’m sorry, that came out all wrong. I really would love it if you came. Having all my favourite people in the same room?” She bounces her shoulder against Cordelia’s. “Sounds like the best time. But if you think Coco’s a lot, you haven’t met my friends, and— well. They have several years’ worth of embarrassing stories about me that I’d rather you never be told.”

Cordelia smiles at the thought. “Then I’ll be sure to ask for them, specifically.”

Misty scoffs and rolls her eyes, but when she turns back to Cordelia, her expression is tentative excitement.

“Does that mean you’re saying yes?” she asks.

Cordelia considers her. “If you’re sure you want me there.”

“I do,” Misty insists, and ducks her head, embarrassed. “I guess I just got caught up on keeping you all to myself, but this’ll be fun.” She shakes the hand that she’s holding, but Cordelia’s ears are still ringing, burning heat climbing up the back of her neck. Misty’s excitement keeps her from noticing. “They want to meet at eight, so if I pick you up at half seven?”

Cordelia nods her head. “Okay. Yes, sounds good.”

“Perfect.”

Misty settles back against the wicker bench with a sigh.

After a moment, Cordelia’s head returns to her shoulders.

 


 

“What do you think?”

“I thought you said you were going to a bar, not a fucking nunnery. What the hell happened to your clothes?”

Cordelia pans her phone back around to her face, giving Coco a clear view of her unimpressed frown.

“She said not to bother dressing up too fancy, it’s only her and her friends.” Cordelia casts a reproachful look to the bed, where she has three separate outfits strewn across the covers. Coco had rejected each one with more vitriol than the last. “This is ridiculous. I’m just going to pull out some jeans and a nice shirt.”

“You are not,” Coco all but cries. “My god, you are so lucky Myrtle doesn’t live closer. Take me to your wardrobe.”

Cordelia acquiesces with a sigh, turning on the light in her walk-in closet.

She holds her phone just-so, giving Coco a better view, while she picks and plucks at a few items on the hangers. As she passes one particular floral blouse (Coco makes a retching noise as it’s displayed across her screen, and Cordelia dutifully abandons it), Coco says, “Wait. What’s that there? To your left.”

Cordelia follows her directions until her fingers stop at the shoulder of a black dress.

“Oh, no. Absolutely not, I haven’t even seen this thing in years. It probably doesn’t fit me anymore.”

“You haven’t changed dress size in seventeen years. What’s your problem?”

Cordelia flounders. “It’s not that kind of night.”

“You’re going out drinking with a bunch of twenty-something year olds,” Coco scoffs, “of course it’s that kind of night. Let me see it.”

Reluctantly, Cordelia pulls the dress from the rail. She hangs it over the closet door and takes a step back, until Coco is given the perfect view. The dress is short and sleek, and hanging from Cordelia’s wardrobe door, it only appears all the less appropriate for a night out with Misty. She can’t pinpoint the exact reason behind her reluctance, but Cordelia’s gut hurts at the thought of Misty seeing her in something like this.

“It’s hot,” Coco says. “Please tell me you packed your thigh high suede boots?”

“Of course— they were my first priority when escaping to my Auntie’s house out in the sticks.”

“Less sass, thank you, and show me what we’re working with. I can’t believe I have to do everything around here.”

 

Several minutes later, and a further two arguments, Cordelia has a complete outfit laid out across her bed.

“It’s perfect,” Coco tells her.

“I can’t wear this.”

“Why? You’re gonna look so good.”

“For who? And before you answer that, please stop and think. I’m going to be surrounded by twenty-something year olds, they’re already going to think I’m the crypt keeper. I don’t need to embarrass myself any further.”

“Oh, honey, you have seriously underestimated how lesbians perceive older women.”

Cordelia chokes. “They’re not all gay!”

“Semantics,” Coco huffs, batting a hand.  

“I don’t know, Co, this looks like way too much. What if they’re in sneakers and t-shirts? I’ll look like their mother.”

“I’d say cool aunt, at worst, but hey! Don’t worry about that. They’re going into town, they’re taking you to a gay bar. You know the drill.”

Cordelia nods her head with a sigh. “Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to come.”

“Well, now you’re the one who’s being ridiculous. You’ve got your outfit ready, and everything.”

Cordelia deadpans her phone. “I hate you.”

“You hate that I’m right,” Coco amends, and Cordelia does not correct her. “Trust me, baby, this is just the right amount of too much, and if Misty doesn’t push you up against a wall and pop your sapphic cherry the second that she sees you, I’ll revoke her gay card myself.”

“Oh, my god,” Cordelia whispers, mostly to herself. “I’m hanging up. Thank you for your help, I am terminating the call.”

“I love you, I want all the deets as soon as you’re over the hangover.”

“Give Mallory my love, and my unending sympathies.”

Cordelia ends the video call with the screen still frozen on Coco’s outraged expression, and grins.

Left alone with her thoughts, however, her smile soon falls as she spots the outfit waiting for her on the bed. It’s not like she’s never worn something like this before, and it’s certainly not as though she doesn’t feel good in it, either. Cordelia isn’t sure how to explain it. She’s shared a bath half-naked with Misty before, and felt not so much as a lick of self-consciousness, but this. This is different. This is intentional sexy, and the thought of Misty perceiving her as such makes Cordelia’s teeth vibrate in her gums.  

She tosses her phone to the bed with a groan.

What the hell am I getting myself into?

 


 

Friday evening arrives with a pink-purple sky and butterflies in Cordelia’s belly.

The doorbell to Auntie Myrtle’s house rings at just gone half seven.

It’s the first time that Misty has ever called upon Cordelia in this way, instead of just appearing in the back garden having wandered in from the woods like some kind of inquisitive animal, and it sets her heartbeat racing. Cordelia gathers the last of her necessities into a little black purse, and takes the staircase too quickly for the size of the heels that she’s wearing. She turns the porch light on before answering the door.

“Hi,” Cordelia says, breathless, as it opens. “Sorry, I was upstairs.”

Misty’s kohl-smudged gaze drops immediately to Cordelia’s outfit.

“Hi,” she says, and gapes.

Cordelia feels her gaze against her bare legs, feels it roving up the little black dress that hugs every curve in her body, and her hair with its heat-pressed waves that curl beach-ready over her shoulders. Cordelia knows that she looks unlike herself – the self that has become accustomed to grass stained shorts, and summer dresses, and sweating out in the garden with dirt beneath her fingernails – but she cannot deny that she looks good.

Misty’s wide-eyed observation proves as much.

“You look amazing,” she says, and then grins widely as she meets Cordelia’s gaze. “Are you ready to go?”

“Thank you, yes. I’ll just lock up.”

Misty starts the engine of her rust-red truck while Cordelia ambles quickly into the passenger’s seat, fastening her seatbelt. As soon as it’s clicked into place, she tugs it snugly against her chest, and turns to Misty. She’s in red, tonight, a deep crimson that makes her pale skin look ivory instead of the alabaster that she turns under direct sunlight. The dress stops at mid-thigh, higher when she’s sitting, and hugs her body in a way that her typical summer dresses do not. The only feature that brings it back to Misty, is the asymmetric fringe that cuts through the dress from shoulder to hip, and then again along the hemline.

When she catches Cordelia looking, Misty turns her smile upon her, and Cordelia blushes.

“I like your dress,” she says, turning quickly to look out of the windscreen. “I didn’t think you’d be driving tonight.”

Misty spares her a quick glance as she pulls out onto the road.

“I’ll pick it up from the bar tomorrow, don’t worry. We can get a cab back.”

Cordelia nods her head, appeased.

The journey into town stretches before them on roads barely lit, revealed only by the beam from Misty’s headlights. Inside the truck remains quiet but for its rumbling engine and the music that Misty plays, rasping static from the old sound system. Cordelia smiles when she recognises the track. The last time she’d heard it, she’d had Misty’s head in her lap and her hand in her hair, the two of them lying across the floor of Auntie Myrtle’s sitting room. Remembering it, now, sets her heartrate off rhythm.

“Zoe texted me just as I pulled in to yours. They’re there, already, but Queenie’s running a little late.” Her gaze flickers from the dashboard to the rear-view mirror. “She was working today.”

Cordelia nods again, and Misty turns to her with a wry smile.

“Nervous?”

Cordelia scoffs, but shrugs her shoulders.

“Why do I feel like you’re bringing me home to meet your family?”

Misty laughs at the idea, but her cheeks turn the faintest pink. Cordelia chooses not to comment on it.

 

Finally, they pull into a dimly lit parking lot, and Misty cuts the engine.

Cordelia releases her seatbelt and peers out of the window at the back of a bar; she can see seating areas, a few of which are already taken, and a lively smoking shelter where a group of young adults have converged, the ends of their cigarettes glowing orange in the shadows. Cordelia swallows tightly at the sight.

“All good?” Misty asks.

Cordelia nods her agreement. “All good.”

From the footwell, Misty pulls up a pair of chunky heels and quickly begins exchanging them for the backless sandals that she’d driven in. Footwear secured, she exits the truck, and Cordelia follows quickly after her. The evening air is tepid, the occasional breeze blowing cool against Cordelia’s bare arms. Misty pulls a black suede shawl from her truck and arranges it in the crook of her elbows, before locking the vehicle and securing her keys in the purse that hangs over one shoulder by a thin strap.

“Don’t be nervous,” Misty tells her, linking their arms. “I’ve warned them to be on their best behaviour.”

She draws Cordelia into her warmth, and the perfume that barely masks the scent of summer from her skin.

Cordelia’s stomach flipflops uselessly.

The bar is not unforgivably crowded, but it’s not quiet, either.

Misty unloops their arms so that they can walk single file further inside, past the bulk of bodies that gather nearest to the bar, and into a second, barely quieter room that has tables and places to sit. It’s dimly lit, and Cordelia almost falls down a step as they cross the threshold; her hand grasps Misty’s elbow with a gasp, and Misty pauses again until she’s settled.

“Easy,” she says above the music, smirking, “you’ve not even had a drink, yet.”

Cordelia, blushing, clears her throat.

She’s about to suggest that she rectify that before they find Misty’s friends, when an excitable hand grasps her bicep. “Oh, there they are! I see ‘em, come on.” Misty shoulders her way between two crowded tables, aiming for a booth in the corner. Trailing behind her, Cordelia apologises to everybody they elbow on the way past. As they come into view, the rowdy table naturally quiets, and several eyes fall upon her.

Cordelia braces herself for impact.

“Hey ladies,” Misty grins on approach. “This is Cordelia, Cordelia— Zoe, Madison, and Nan.” She points them out respectively, earning small waves and a far-too-obvious once-over from Madison. Misty ushers Cordelia into the booth once their greetings have been made, and Zoe nudges around to give her better space. “I’m gonna go get us some drinks, what are y’all having?”

She takes their orders with a nod, then turns to Cordelia.

“Surprise me,” Cordelia tells her, smiling.

Misty’s eyes twinkle. “You asked for it.”

Cordelia watches her red dress disappear through the crowd, a small smile playing at her lips.

She’s brought back to the table by a hand against her elbow, and finds three pairs of eyes following her, some more openly inquisitive than others.

“I can’t believe you actually exist,” Zoe says, hand retreating from Cordelia’s arm. She smiles with a level of kindness that belies her youthful face, as though she can tell that Cordelia is out of her element, and is doing all she can to rectify that. Cordelia appreciates the sentiment. “We all thought she was bullshitting some fancy friend that she’d made from the city, so she wouldn’t have to come out with us.”

Cordelia’s lips quirk. “She didn’t tell you how we met?”

“No, she did, we just didn’t believe her.”

“No shit,” Madison scoffs. When the others turn to her, surprised, she gestures towards Cordelia with a hand and rolls her eyes. Cordelia feels the old skin of her teaching years itching into place, her back straightening, smile disarming, and forces herself not to allow the transformation to complete. Madison reminds her of a particular brand of student, one that requires more care than she’ll accept. Really, it’s none of Cordelia’s business, and she reminds herself as much. “You bitches are so gullible. She looks like she’s walked right out of Swampy’s dream diary.”

Madison stands abruptly from the booth.

“I need a cigarette, watch my drink.”

She slips through the bar like a ribbon caught in the wind, disappearing through the crowds.

“Ignore her,” Nan tells Cordelia, leaning into the table. “She can’t handle not being the centre of attention.”

Zoe frowns but does not disagree.

“It’s fine,” Cordelia shrugs. “I’ve dealt with worse. What did she mean, though, about Misty?”

From across the booth, Nan giggles, and Zoe reprimands her with her eyes.

“Nothing, honestly. Misty just… has a type, that’s all. But,” and her eyes turn wide and apologetic, “not that that’s relevant, of course. We won’t make it awkward. And, if Madison says anything like that in front of her, Misty will kick her ass, so…”

She trails off, swallowing. Nan watches her with a shaking head.

“Smooth, Zoe.”

“Ugh.”

Cordelia’s teeth punish the fleshy skin from the inside of her cheek. Misty has a type. A type that, according to her close friends, Cordelia fits at least partially into. Her mind races. Inside her chest, Cordelia’s heart lurches like she’s on the steady incline of a rollercoaster, waiting for it to reach its precipice and plunge over the edge. She isn’t sure if it’s excitement or dread, that pulls at the bottom of her belly, like the floor falling out from beneath her feet.

Cordelia picks at a bar mat on the table.

“Misty likes blondes?” she asks, trying to sound casual, and the others look at her with expressions that border between amusement and sympathy.

“Not exactly,” Zoe says, gently.

“Misty likes older women that will let her tell them what to do.”

“Nan!”

“What? You can’t deny it.”

“I just wouldn’t have said it.” Zoe turns to Cordelia. “I’m so sorry. Really, ignore us. We’ve already had a bit to drink.”

Misty reappears at the table with a tray in hand.

Her smile promptly falls when she notices the atmosphere, and the blush covering Cordelia’s cheeks.

“What did I miss?”

“Nothing,” Nan and Zoe say immediately.

Cordelia shakes her head, smile frozen in place.

“Alright, weirdos.” Misty puts the tray down on the table, frowning. “Where’s Maddie?”

“Outside.”

Misty nods her head and begins to hand out their drinks. When it comes to Cordelia, she sets a glass of pink gin and tonic down in front of her with a smile, and catches her eye. Cordelia had expected something a little more outrageous – toxic colours, paper umbrella, the works. Seeing what Misty has picked for her, instead, fills her with warmth.

“I remembered you said you liked it,” Misty says, and Cordelia bites her lip to keep from grinning too widely.

“Thank you, I do.”

The table falls into easy conversation with Misty’s return.

Cordelia finds herself relaxing against the booth, sipping her drink between bouts of easy laughter. She’s certain that the alcohol has more than a little to do with it, but Misty’s presence by her side makes Cordelia feel, sometimes, like she can face just about anything with her support. It helps that Misty’s friends are so welcoming – that they include Cordelia in their conversations, and explain the private jokes that would otherwise go over her head.

By the time Madison returns, it’s with Queenie and another tray of drinks in tow, and conversation is derailed by their more sardonic sense of humour.

Cordelia insists on purchasing the next round, and by that time she’s feeling as comfortable as she would if she were out with her own friends.

She can understand quickly why Misty is friends with these girls. Nan’s astute observations disarm her; more than once, she makes a point in conversation that makes Cordelia re-evaluate her own opinion on the topic at hand. Zoe’s inquisitive kindness reminds Cordelia too much of her teaching years – why she’d loved that job so much. With Queenie, Cordelia finds herself sitting back and enjoying the way she and the girls banter. She has a foul mouth, and a big heart, and she knows exactly what to say to make Cordelia almost snort her drink from laughing too hard. And Madison—

Well.

Cordelia can understand why she and Misty would clash. Why anybody would, if she’s being honest.

After her third drink, however, the veneer of resentment and self-importance becomes too much work for her to keep in place, and Madison is soft and snarky beneath it.

They’re good people. Cordelia thinks they must be, for Misty to love them so much.

Momentarily lost in her thoughts, Cordelia feels herself drawn physically out of her own head by a warm touch just above her knee. She looks, first, down to the hand that has settled against her lower thigh – the familiar rings that adorn the fingers, the spidery tendons that peek through the pale skin. Strong hands, with calluses on the palms. When she lifts her gaze to Misty’s face, it’s to find her watching Cordelia, smiling.

“How you holdin’ up?” Misty asks, and Cordelia angles her body towards her, separating them from the rest of the table. Conversation continues around them, the two of them unawares. “Doing okay?”

“Doing just fine,” Cordelia agrees.

Her gaze falls to the warm flush climbing steadily up Misty’s chest – a mistake that costs her several seconds, before she’s able to follow its ascent up into Misty’s cheeks, into her dazed blue eyes. Misty smiles like she’d been waiting for her, and then Cordelia feels herself blush. At the table, somebody laughs too loudly at a joke that goes over her head, but Cordelia barely registers the sound.

“We can get out of here whenever you’re ready,” Misty tells her. She still has not moved her hand from Cordelia’s leg. “I won’t be offended if you want to retreat before everyone gets messy drunk.”

Cordelia hums a laugh, barely audible over the music, but for how closely she and Misty are sitting.

“I’m good.” She places her hand over Misty’s, and catches the surprise in her expression, as though she had forgotten that she’d left it there. Brushing her thumb against Misty’s knuckles, Cordelia tilts her head ever closer to keep from having to shout, and says, “I like being out with your friends. You light up, when you’re with them. I can tell that you’re enjoying it.”

Misty’s smile sends a hot shiver through Cordelia’s belly. She leans in, until it’s just the two of them, caught in the plume of Misty’s perfume and her enigmatic eyes.

“I light up when I’m with you, too.”

Cordelia is still processing that when, in unison, the table begins to stand.

Before Cordelia can ask what’s happening, she’s being ushered down the booth, her bare legs squeaking against the leather. She grasps for her purse on reflex. It’s only once she’s standing, light-headed, that she realises she’s a little tipsy and has completely lost track of time. Bracing herself, Cordelia tucks her body into Misty’s side and asks, “Where are we going?”

Misty draws her shawl around herself like a blanket, shrugging.

Violet’s,” Madison answers, instead. “The only girl bar this side of town that’s worth being seen in.” She slides an arm around Zoe’s belly and leans into her as she teeters precariously in her heels. Her eyes follow Misty and Cordelia sceptically. “Are you two coming with, or getting a room already? Because if you’re gonna be like this for the whole night, I’m going to need some stronger liqueur.”

“We’re coming,” Misty answers immediately, her tone a warning.

After a beat, she turns quickly to Cordelia. The frown falls from her expression, replaced by raised brows and a tip of her head in Cordelia’s direction, confirmation seeking. In a tipsy haze, the whole world is camomile softness in Cordelia’s belly, and Misty’s face is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.

“Yes, we’re coming,” she tells them.  

“A preview of what’s to co—”

Madison retches at the fist that Misty taps into her stomach.

“You deserved that,” Queenie tells her, unimpressed, while Nan directs them through the bar.

Cordelia presses a hand to her mouth to muffle her laughter.

On the street, the air is cool and fresh. She gulps it in like she hadn’t realised how warm she’d been, indoors. Cordelia is vaguely aware of the girls moving ahead of them, leading the way through the lively streets, as she and Misty dawdle behind. A breeze blows gooseflesh across her bare arms, making her shiver.

When Misty wraps her arm and shawl around her shoulders, however, Cordelia barely feels the cold.