Best For Me: Chapters 36-40

Previously: Chapters 31-35 [X. NSFW]

Chapter 36: The One with the Agreement
Chapter 37: The One with Fred
Chapter 38: The One where Ashley Meets the Parents
Chapter 39: The One where Ashley Cooks
Chapter 40: The One with the Scare

Rating for this set of chapters: A. Some emotional trauma.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Six

Spencer bit her lip and reached out to Ashley. It was all she could do. She knew that anything she could say would not be enough. It was not enough to tell the other girl that she knew how much it hurt. It was not enough to say that it was okay. It was not enough to say that it was going to be okay. So, she just reached out.

But Ashley did not take her hand. Instead, she played with her nails and Spencer ended up letting her palm softly rest on the other girl’s bent knee. “Ash…”

“There’s nothing you can say, Spencer. Nothing is going to change what I did or what it means. Seven long years hasn’t changed what I did or who I am.”

“Oh, Ash, you don’t need to be anyone but who you are.”

“How can you say that?” Ashley’s head flew up. “After what I did? After what I just told you?”

“What you just told me, Ash, was that in a time of great need, when you had nowhere else to turn, you made a mistake. And that it had some unfortunate consequences. And that it was just that Ash, a mistake. We all make them.” Spencer’s voice was soft. She drew her own knees up to her chest and rested her chin on one of them. Tracing a pattern on Ashley’s knee she spoke up again, “It doesn’t make you a bad person forever, Ashley.”

The brunette snorted in response. “Now you’re being stupid.”

“Ashley… God, I can see how this hurts, how it’s not going to stop, but you cannot beat yourself up over this forever.”

“Want to bet?” Ashley grimaced and looked down. “Spencer, I don’t want to hurt you.”

And then Spencer knew what it was really all about. This wasn’t just about Ashley’s past, although God knew that the girl was clearly cut to ribbons by it. It was also about her future, about their future. Spencer trod very, very carefully.

“Ashley, even though the hurt is still very fresh, you have changed, you know. In seven years.” She ignored the other girl’s derisive noise. “Would you do it again?”

“God, no!” the brunette exploded, “How could you thin-”

“I don’t!” Spencer cut in. “And I never did but you had to say it to yourself. That it was a mistake. That you learned from it and would never do it again because that’s what we do with mistakes, Ashley, we learn from them.” Spencer sighed. “You think what you did was bad. Fine, it was. But I know you, Ashley, and as much as you might not believe me I know why you did what you did. One of those dark things we all promise ourselves we’d never do and then we do in a fit of pain. But you are you now, and you are wonderful.”

“I can’t believe that, Spencer. I try so hard to be a better person than who I was…”

“And that’s why you think you’re using me.” Spencer finished the sentence for her.

Ashley nodded. “How can I not think that? If I do better with you, it will somehow make it all okay. Well, it won’t, I know that. But still I keep hoping, trying, and if that isn’t using you…”

“Ashley, you can’t use someone by doing right by them. What you’re doing isn’t using me. It’s being the best person you can. And it’s a damn sight better person than most people,” Spencer said emphatically.

“I’m still… me. I’m still the person who did that. I’m still… Spencer, how can you not hate me? How can you not be worried I’ll do the same to you? Or worse?”

Spencer took a deep breath. “Why are you worried that you will?”

It was a dangerous question, one that would potentially break the carefully erected walls that they both stood behind. In truth, what Ashley had said had made her head spin, and her stomach turn. How could it not? Was she repulsed? Not exactly. Shocked? Of course. It was horrible, and Spencer knew it. But she also knew that it was eating Ashley from the inside out. And while her head had been on auto-pilot for the last ten minutes, talking of mistakes and basically going with time old platitudes, she’d done some deep inner feeling.

Was she scared? Was she afraid that Ashley would do this to her? She thought about herself, what she would do if she had to watch her family, or Elly, or even Gray, dying. For Elly, there was no doubt: she would simply crumble. Spencer half-suspected she’d just curl up and die herself. But family, or Gray? Or Ashley? Now, there was a thought.

There were so many avenues here. Could she admit how she felt about Ashley? Was that going to change things? The direct answer was both yes and no. It wouldn’t change what had happened tonight. Spencer already knew the answer to that one growing in her. She wanted Ashley in her life. She needed Ashley in her life. She couldn’t take the next step and admit what that meant. For Spencer, what Ashley had done was in the past. But she knew that it was very real and in the present for Ashley. And that if they were to stay friends, or be more than friends, either way, it would always be a shadow on the wall. In truth, Spencer only really cared about one thing: that Ashley cared about her for herself, and not as some salve for her own guilt. She knew that the girl would always be trying to make up for her past but, if the feelings were genuine, then Spencer could handle that and probably a lot more.

But now the question was out. She was challenging Ashley and that wasn’t fair. She was challenging her to say the exact thing that Spencer wouldn’t admit to herself, and on this night, when the brunette had already gone so far. Spencer could have hit herself when she realised it.

“Spencer.” Ashley’s voice was quiet and the blonde girl suddenly became aware that they had both been silent for a rather long time. “Can… can you go?”

“Ash…”

“No, hear me out. Thank you. Thank you for listening to me tonight, and for coming over here and hauling my ass out of the doldrums. Thank you for caring. I mean that. But, I think I need to be alone now, for real.”

“Oh Ash, I…”

“Please. I promise, any questions, anything you need, I can give you, but just not now. I’m sorry.”

Spencer leaned forwards and placed a gentle kiss on her friend’s forehead. “I don’t need anything from you, Ash. I already have you and that’s enough. I’ll go.”

She got off the couch and was surprised to find Ashley following her. And even more surprised when she was pulled into a fierce hug. Wrapping her arms around the musician, she let the feeling of the small frame melt into her.

“Ashley, promise me something?”

“What?”

“Promise me you’ll see me soon. Please. Believe me, I’m not leaving your life. And I won’t let you just leave mine, I need to know -” She was cut off by a gentle finger on her lips.

“As much as I might talk big in my massive crying fits, Spence, I’m not leaving your life.” Ashley sighed. “I couldn’t if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I just need some time alone right now.”

“I get that.” Although she didn’t really. Spencer knew that Ashley had spent the last two-and-a-half weeks alone but, if that was what she said she needed, Spencer would give it to her. “Promise me I’ll see you soon. Not a few weeks again.”

“I promise. Friday, you can cook me dinner.”

Spencer grinned at Ashley’s cheekiness. “Friday. I’ll make lasagna.”

“Friday.”

And Spencer left, with a heart that was light and heavy all at the same time. She wouldn’t have thought that was possible, but it was.

The door closed, and Ashley sighed. It was so much. Too much. It was still spinning through her head like the coloured whirlwind she remembered on her childhood top, the first present she could remember her father buying her.

There had been a haze for the last two weeks. Her fall back into alcoholic splendour was momentary and over. She was back on the wagon. Her rehab counsellor would be proud. Well, would have been if she hadn’t fallen off in the first place. Her visit to Lisa’s gravestone, heart heavy and mind black, had been just another visit, one she made periodically. This time, she had had same purpose but a new tune. She hadn’t been back since she’d met Spencer. It had been months. Had she forgotten? No, she hadn’t, because she never could. But she’d let herself drift on the happiness for a while, until it was too much. Ashley was very good at that: building card houses until they collapsed in and became surprisingly heavy in their rubble, crushing her. And now this. Well… it could be worse. And yet, she had no idea how to feel about all of this. She was empty. Aching, echoing void of empty.

Grabbing her guitar, she sat getting comfortable with the light weight on her knee. She tuned and closed her eyes.

Her fingers picked up the chords, dancing across the strings, and she sang…

When I feel the tightness on my skin
And let the irritation
Just a little
Seep on in
I cannot sleep for all the dreams you keep invading.

When I know the truth that lies within,
Let the irritation
Creep a little
Down and in,
I will not dream for all the sleep I’m saving

Tied into your knots I was the last one to be saved by you
Taking time in to my hands and letting it wash on
Through and through
Tied into your knots I couldn’t see for all the haze that you
Brought here with me, in this time
Through and through.

When I know there’s no way to begin
Chinese water torture
Just a little
Drip on in
I will be the honesty you never thought would flow

When I know there’s only one way in
Darkness crawling
Just a little
Come on in
I will be the love you couldn’t know.

Tied into your knots I was the last one to be saved by you
Taking time in to my hands and letting it wash on
Through and through
Tied into your knots I couldn’t see for all the haze that you
Brought here with me, in this time
Through and through.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Spencer checked the oven and shook her head at her own actions. The lasagne was fine, just fine, as were the garlic bread, the salad, the drinks, and, well, everything was fine. And Spencer really had to stop fretting and checking on everything. Ashley had said she’d be there, and the actual time of dinner was sort of a standard thing. She would be there at seven so Spencer could just stop fretting. So, why couldn’t she?

Elly was bouncing in and out of the kitchen, looking expectantly at her mother. Mr Ruffles had assumed his usual position of dangling upside-down from Elly’s grasp by his back leg. The moment that she had heard that Ashley was coming over for dinner, the little girl had been so excited that she’d actually wriggled and she hadn’t stopped being excited since. Spencer grinned. At least it would be good for Ashley: her daughter was a past master at unconditional love and that was pretty much what the musician needed right now.

She went to check the lasagne again and had to pull herself away, frustrated. There was more than one reason for the frustrated rhythm in her head. There was the whole issue of unsettled questions. There was the fact that it had only been three days and she still missed Ashley. Spencer had stuck to their deal, giving Ashley her alone time. She’d avoided calling and she’d avoided seeing her. She had sent one text message, just so the brunette wouldn’t forget that someone cared, and had breathed a sigh of relief when a reply had come almost instantaneously: Ashley was doing okay. And now she would be here any minute and Spencer had to stop feeling like a giddy schoolgirl.

She looked down at Elly, who was in full flight of gid, and smiled. They were quite a pair, she and her daughter. There was a knock at the door and Spencer’s head flew up. Elly must have noted the move because her little eyes widened and she ran to the door, practically tripping up on the way. Apparently, she remembered her stranger danger training when she got there because, hand on the doorknob, she turned to Spencer for permission. Spencer nodded.

And there she was, the woman herself. Ashley grinned from the doorstep and then let out an ‘oof’ when Elly barrelled into her, full tilt. She swung the little girl up into her arms and tickled her to the response of a torrent of giggles. Spencer watched from the edge of the kitchen, her heart spinning around at the sight of the two of them. Her two girls? Oh God, she really couldn’t go there right now.

“Hey,” she heard the brunette say softly.

“Hey there,” she smiled. “Just in time. You hungry?”

“Yeah, I am, actually,” Ashley smiled back. She kissed Elly on the forehead and put her down, watching her spin away, running around like a mad chicken. “What’s up with her?” she asked with a burst of laughter.

“She’s just excited that you’re here. She missed you,” Spencer confessed. “So did I.”

“Well, I’m here.” Ashley perched herself on a stool at the breakfast bar. “And I promise to curb the length of my absences in the future.”

“Good. Cos you know Mr Ruffles was starting to collect some ammunition to come find you.”

“Oh, God! Thank God I came around when I did. Don’t want Mr Ruffles to be upset with me. He looks feisty.” Ashley grinned again.

“He is feisty.” Spencer busied herself putting dinner on the table. “And he has a mean glare on him.” She put the lasagne on the table and turned to Ashley. “Do you mind grabbing Elly for me?”

“Not a problem.” The brunette set off.

And so they had what Spencer considered to be a family dinner. It was perfect and that scared her more than anything. It didn’t escape her notice that Ashley was eating slowly, or that Spencer was mirroring her moves. There would be talking after dinner. And that could lead to emotions and the possibility of someone saying something that someone else didn’t want to hear. It was the longest Spencer had ever managed to draw out lasagne.

The tidying-up afterwards was neatly companionable and Spencer knew they were both straining to find non-controversial topics to discuss.

“Okay, I can see why Elly wears a bib for lasagne,” Ashley laughed, drying off a plate.

“Yup. Fred makes her messy.”

“Fred?”

“Fred the lasagne,” Spencer said seriously, but there was laughter dancing in her eyes.

“You named your lasagne??” Ashley asked incredulously. “All of them? Do you have to think up a new name every time you bake one?”

“Oh no. That would be way too much work. They’re all Fred. Fred the lasagne.” Spencer nodded sagely. “One must be sure about these things.”

“Okay, Mr Miyagi. You’re officially weird, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Spencer chuckled. “You love it.”

“I do.”

And that stopped them both, because it was more of a confession than either of them had managed at that point and it was too obvious to mistake. They finished the dishes in silence, with only the soap bubbles making noises, crackling softly like the wind in the leaves.

Elly proved to be a great distraction. Chutes and Ladders kept them safely occupied until the little girl’s bed time. Mr Ruffles won, repeatedly. Ashley said it was because he was such a sneaky little elephant. Elly said it was because he got more ladders than chutes. Spencer said it was because he cheated, for which she received much tickling from her daughter.

After Elly was safely bundled into bed, stories read and the remnants of Fred washed away by the bath, Spencer realised that she had come to the end of her ability to avoid the hard talk with Ashley. Besides, they both knew they needed to talk. It was just a matter of who was going to start.

Emerging from the hall, Spencer made her way to the couch where Ashley was taking great interest in the edge of the coffee table. Sitting on the seat next to her, the blonde pulled her legs up into a cross-legged pattern and watched her friend.

“We have to talk, don’t we?” Ashley asked. If Spencer wasn’t mistaken, there was an edginess in her voice.

“We don’t HAVE to,” Spencer let her off the hook a little, “but we probably should.” But not completely.

“When did things get so complicated between us?” Ashley asked ruefully.

“I can think of several occasions that might have fuelled the complication fire,” Spencer admitted. “But I think they were always complicated, Ash, ever since we met.”

“Yeah.” The brunette fingered the edge of the coffee table with renewed interest. “Spence…”

“Ashley, if this is too uncomfortable -”

“No!” She shook her head emphatically. “It’s not. It’s just that I know we have to talk and I want to get it out of the way. Because I like just hanging with you and the sooner we get all the difficult stuff out of the way, the sooner we can just hang.”

“I get that.” Oh, did Spencer ever get it.

“I just don’t know where to start.”

“How about with, are you okay?” Spencer touched Ashley’s knee, emphasising her point.

Ashley stopped being quite so fascinated with the wooden surface in front of her and turned to Spencer. “I am. I really am.” She stopped to consider her next words. “I mean, I’m still upset, and it still hurts. But I don’t think that ever stops. And yet, I’m okay. I feel like I can keep going.”

“That’s good.”

“I, I want to be a part of your life, Spence.”

“You already are, you know. And it’s a little hard to inveigle your way out of that without seeming rude,” the blonde teased, poking Ashley in the knee.

“I know. I don’t want to, though. It’s just…”

“Yeah?” Spencer asked, the knot in her stomach tightening with worry. She hated ‘just’.

“I’m not sure I can be anything more than your friend at the moment.” There, it was out.

“It’s okay, Ash, I don’t really think I’m in the position to be anything more than your friend, either.” Spencer leaned back. “As much as I know we’re good in a lot of ways, none of the complications in my life have gone away either.”

“We were a little naïve the other night, Spencer.”

“That it would be simple being ‘just friends’?” Spencer understood. The same thoughts had been running through her head. And whatever they decided to do, she knew that in her head they would never be just friends again.

“It’s still the best thing for us to do. I think that if I’m going to do this right, I have to not push myself.” The coffee table suddenly held great interest again for the brunette. Spencer put her hand back on Ashley’s knee, drawing her attention back.

“It’s okay. We’re all good, Ash. I promise.”

“Really?”

“Of course.” She smiled. “Come here, you dork.” She pulled the musician over and into a strong hug. She squeezed her eyes shut at the feel of the embrace being returned.

“Thank you,” Spencer heard her companion whisper in her ear.

And she couldn’t help whisper back, “No. Thank you.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Ashley, will you have lunch with my parents on Sunday?” Spencer watched the brunette stop her colouring-in with Elly and look up. There was horror etched onto her face. “Oh, for God’s sake, it’s not like I asked you to have lunch with Lizzie Borden and her axe!” Spencer laughed.

“Uh.. um..” Ashley was cute when she was tongue-tied. “Me?” she managed to croak out.

“No, your left shoe. Yes, you.”

“Uh, why?” Ashley’s brow creased and Spencer resisted the urge to reach across and smooth across the lines with her thumb.

“Well, because I’d love them to meet you. And because I’d love you to come. And because my Dad invited you.”

“Your Dad knows about me?” Ashley looked even more afraid.

“Uh, yes. Why? Shouldn’t he?” It was Spencer’s turn to look confused.

“Well… I just… Uh…”

“Ashley, you have dinner here half the nights of the week. You spend most weekends with me and Elly. You’ve come to a good number of my antenatal visits and you’re my best friend. Why would my parents NOT know of you?”

“I guess that’s a good point,” Ashley conceded. “I’ve just never thought of myself as parent-meeting material.”

Spencer shook her head. Ashley’s uncertainties had been a little more pronounced over the last few months. Though she was still the same supportive friend she’d always been, Spencer had been able to discern more softness and more fear in her friend. It was nothing that Ashley said or did per se, but Spencer could tell that the brunette was careful with her words, like she didn’t want to put a foot wrong. Except, of course, when it came to defending Spencer, when she came out like a tiger on fire. Spencer shook her head.

It, of course, had been Ashley who had been there for her for the last two months. Over halfway through her pregnancy, Gray had drifted slowly back to his usual, no-show self. Spencer should have expected it but it would have been easier if he didn’t occasionally pop up and make an effort, or at least an effort to reassure her that he intended to make an effort. Said effort rarely materialised. He’d missed her last scan, although he’d given her due warning. It was a pity because the twenty-week scan was the one where you really saw the baby. Spencer secretly hadn’t minded. She was so over Gray it wasn’t funny. Watching the fascination and tears in Ashley’s eyes at the sight had made Spencer send up a prayer of thanks that her ex-husband was a workaholic. Gray had been in Phoenix, and Ashley had been there by her side and that was exactly how things should have been.

Spencer had to admit that she was arranging things so that Ashley could be around. She made most of her visits on Wednesdays, so that they would be at the hospital when Ashley was. Ashley had even come to one of Elly’s check-ups. Elly had been overjoyed at that, and had solemnly introduced the musician to her paediatrician. And all of this was raising some uncomfortable questions in Spencer. Could she do this alone?

Gray wasn’t around; Ashley was. Spencer knew instinctively that the girl would never let her down and she knew that it wasn’t just because Ashley was trying to make up for her own guilt: it was because she cared; it was because she was a good person, despite the brunette’s protests to the contrary. So was Spencer just jumping from one safe haven to another? She’d always assumed she could do this on her own, only now she didn’t want to.

“Isn’t your mother going to hate me?” Ashley’s question brought her out of her swirling, slightly disturbing thoughts.

“What? No.” Spencer shook her head. “My mother will love you.”

“Okay. I’m… Why again?”

“Ashley, are you panicking?” Spencer leaned on her elbows and looked at her friend with a penetrating gaze.

“No. Well. Maybe.” At least Ashley had the sense to look sheepish.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to come. They just said they’d like to meet you and we’re going over on Sunday. I thought having Elly there might help. Besides, I’m half-expecting Gray to turn up and I’d love some back-up.” Spencer sat down on the stool she had been straddling and bit her lip.

“Wait. Isn’t that all the more reason for me not to be there?”

“No.” Spencer didn’t really expect Gray to turn up. She was just being an idiot and appealing to Ashley’s caring side. It was a low thing to do because Spencer knew that, if Ashley thought Spencer really needed her there, there would be no question of the brunette not coming. The blonde backed down. “Oh, he probably won’t be there. He’s in Phoenix so much these days, he should own shares in United.”

“He’s there a lot, isn’t he?” Ashley said, handing the green crayon to Elly. She picked up the purple herself. “I used to eat the purple ones. I had a hope they’d taste like grape.”

“I always went for pink. Strawberry.” Spencer grinned. “Will you come?”

“Yes,” grumbled the brunette, “you know I will.”

“Thank you.” Spencer jumped off her stool and leaned down to kiss Ashley on the temple. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”

“Uh-huh,” said Ashley, totally unconvinced.

* * *

It dawned on Spencer about thirty minutes before they got to her parents’ house that Ashley really was panicking. She was also dressed in the most conservative clothes that Spencer had ever seen her in: neat slacks and a plain shirt. Spencer raised an eyebrow.

“Ash, we’re going to my parents house, not court.”

Ashley looked down. “Too much?”

“No, you look nice. You always look nice. You just don’t look much like you.” Spencer laughed. Ashley let out a puff of air as Elly came running out and threw herself into the musician’s arms.

“You ready, pumpkin?” Spencer signed to her daughter. Elly nodded excitedly and held up Mr Ruffles. The elephant eyed Ashley from his upside-down position and they shared a moment. “I guess we’re all set to go.” Spencer looked at Ashley and the brunette nodded.

“All ready,” she added weakly.

“Let’s went, then,” Spencer smiled. She leaned over and whispered in Ashley’s ear as they walked out the front door. “Don’t worry, I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

Ashley’s nerves were evident for the whole drive. She fidgeted and Spencer curbed her urge to giggle. She knew that things would be okay when Ashley actually got to her parents’ house. Paula Carlin could be a little scary at times but she was always gracious with guests and Spencer’s father was a darling. It would be fine as long as Ashley didn’t march in the house declaring, ‘Hi, I’m Ashley. I’m here to turn your daughter into a raving lesbian. Can we use the couch?’

After a mostly uneventful drive of Spencer stifling her slightly amused glances and murmurings, they arrived. She was getting Elly out of the back seat when she noticed that Ashley was still firmly buckled into the passenger seat.

“You know, I think my parents were planning on having lunch inside,” the blonde grinned teasingly.

“Huh?”

“Well, we could bring lunch out here to you, but it might be hard to find a place for the tablecloth.” Spencer nodded at the dashboard and then set Elly on the driveway. Ashley smiled ruefully and got out of the car. “My parents really aren’t that scary, you know.”

“I know, I know,” Ashley grimaced. “It’s not your parents, it’s any parents. I’m not a parent person. Mine sucked.”

“Well, come meet some that didn’t. Well, most of the time.” Spencer squeezed Ashley’s arm and locked the car. To Ashley’s huge gratification, Elly took her hand and walked her to the door. Spencer loved the tender moment and she knew that even though her daughter didn’t realise it, she’d probably just defused half the tension out of the musician.

A knock on the door was soon answered by Arthur Carlin who greeted his daughter and grand-daughter with warm affection and their guest with equal friendliness. His manner put Ashley at ease and she could see immediately why Spencer adored her father. Spencer was also thankful that her mother was on her best guest behaviour. Honestly, despite Ashley’s worries, Spencer had known she would be.

“Ashley, Spencer tells us you work at the hospital,” Paula asked with interest.

“Yes, Callaghan Memorial. I work there part-time.”

“A therapist, I believe?” Paula replied, passing the potatoes across the table.

“I’m a music therapist. I do some group work and I work with some of the individual paediatric patients. It’s only part-time, but I love it.”

“That must be amazing,” Arthur cut in.

“It is,” Ashley replied softly, and Spencer loved the way that the brunette’s eyes and face lit up when she was talking about her job. “I wish I could do more of it, but there just isn’t the funding in the system. Not to mention some of the things I’d love to do in the community.”

“It’s wonderful that you’re so passionate,” Paula enthused with genuine interest. “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

“Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” Ashley grinned. “I teach a few classes, including one at the community centre. I do the occasional gig and some back-up guitar work for a studio I know.”

“Spencer played clarinet for a few years.” Arthur smiled fondly at his daughter.

“Dad,” Spencer groaned, “for a few years at school.”

“You never told me that!” Ashley exclaimed to her friend. “You’ll have to play for me.”

“No! Definitively no!” Spencer stated. “I sound like a dying weasel. No-one needs to hear that.” She was met with a chorus of protests but she held firm. Ashley had that look in her eye, though, and Spencer suspected it wasn’t the last she’d heard on the issue.

Lunch continued much the same, with pleasant conversation and good food. Spencer was happy to see Ashley relax by degrees as she realised that the blonde’s parents weren’t about to eat her alive. As Spencer helped her mother clear the table, she watched Elly drag the brunette off with Arthur in tow to show her friend all her favorite play places.

“Your friend is lovely, Spencer,” her mother smiled. “You should have brought her around earlier.”

“I would have,” Spencer admitted, “but things have been so damn busy.”

“Language, honey,” Paula said automatically. “You two have been spending a lot of time together lately.” Spencer knew her mother would never suspect anything, so she took the question at face value.

“Yeah. She’s been wonderful. She’s even come to most of my ante-nate visits with me.”

“Oh, sweetheart, shouldn’t Gray be coming to those?” Paula asked, loading dishes into the dishwasher.

“Yes,” Spencer replied bitterly. “He should. But since he’s shown up for one visit and none of my scans, I really couldn’t give a toss what he does now.”

“Oh, honey, I’m sure he’s just busy.”

“Mom, can we not talk about Gray today? We’re having a lovely lunch and you know we’re just going to end up arguing if we keep going. I’d like to stay friendly for Ashley’s sake,” Spencer warned.

“I know, I know.” Paula held her hands up, “I’m just not giving up hope.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Mom, because I hate to see you disappointed and you’re going to be.” Spencer blew the hair off her forehead. “How’s Glen?” She knew that talking about her brothers always distracted her mother.

“Oh he’s…”

Spencer let her mother drone on. She actually didn’t really care about Glen. She got all the news anyway, and they caught up every now and then. Spencer had always gotten along better with Clay, anyway. But the trick had worked, and at least they were off the topic of less-than-present ex-husbands.

* * *

Spencer collapsed on her couch and patted her swollen abdomen.

“I’m so much more tired this pregnancy that I was with Elly,” she groaned to Ashley who was hanging up her coat.

“Are you okay?” the brunette asked with worry. “I should have driven back from your parents.”

“No, no, it’s fine. Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, actually. Your dad is a sweetheart and your mother isn’t nearly as scary as I thought she’d be.”

“I told you she wasn’t a dragon.” Spencer stuck her tongue out. “She loved you.”

“Mmm.” Ashley was amused. “Until she finds out all my deep dark secrets.”

“Well, it won’t be from me,” the blonde promised. She moved her finger across her left breast. “Cross my heart. Coffee?”

“Yes, but I’ll make it.” Ashley got up and ignored Spencer’s protests.

Setting down Spencer’s herbal tea and her own caffeine hit, she curled up in the corner of the easy chair. “If you’re tired now, how are you going to be in ten weeks?”

“Very pregnant,” Spencer laughed. “I’ll be okay.”

“Well, what are you going to do around here?” Ashley pushed. “Spencer, I’m serious. I’m worried. How are you going to wash Elly and cook and clean and do all that stuff?”

“I’ll be fine, Ashley! I’m not crippled, I’m pregnant!”

“Yeah, well, I’m still worried,” Ashley replied obstinately.

“Okay, you’re worried. We’re still talking about this another day, when I’m not exhausted.”

“See, that’s just my point. I thi-”

“Ash. SHHHH. Or I’ll make you,” Spencer warned, although she had no idea how she was going to follow through on that.

“Oh really? And how were you planning on doing that?”

Dammit, foiled again! “Oh, I’ll think of something, don’t you worry,” Spencer stalled.

“Will it involve sitting there and not moving?” the brunette teased. She got a pillow thrown at her in response.

A pillow fight might have ensued except that Elly and Mr Ruffles chose that time to appear, holding a copy of Finding Nemo and looking hopeful. So they all settled on the couch for an evening of movies. Ashley even managed to dig up some popcorn.

All-in-all, Spencer decided, it had been a mighty fine day. And she couldn’t help smiling. Just having Ashley in her life seemed to make everything just that little bit brighter.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Nine

“Spencer, I swear I’ll be there,” Gray promised urgently.

“Gray, I don’t actually believe in your promises any more,” Spencer growled. “So you can save some breath and just leave that bit of the sentence out.”

“Spencer, so help me, I know I’ve been busy, but part of that has been so that I can clear my schedule as much as possible, so that I can be there for the birth and for the weeks after. I swear, I’ve just been piling on so much work lately so that I can be free.”

Spencer wasn’t convinced. On the other hand, she could hardly say, “No, you cannot come the birth of your own child. Just drop off the support checks in the mail box.”

“Okay, okay. But, so help me, Gray -”

“Spencer, I’ll be there. I have the whole weekend free! My secretary has post-it notes all over it in her agenda. I swear to God, I’ll be there.” He sounded so genuine. Spencer knew he meant it that he wanted to be there. Whether or not he’d actually show was another deal.

“Gray, you do know that just because I’m due on a Saturday doesn’t actually mean I’ll give birth on a weekend? Babies don’t have agendas in the womb. You can’t fax it a request asking it to please only come out when convenient.”

“I know that. I’ve cleared the week before and after. No important meetings, no Phoenix, and I’ll be there.”

Spencer sighed. She guessed that she probably couldn’t ask for more. “Fine, Gray, just whatever.” She was tempted to ask him not to let her down again, but she didn’t feel like she had the emotion in her to make that request. Besides, he’d just go and do it. How had she stayed married to him for so long? God help the woman who got him next. Spencer hoped that she was a workaholic too.

Hanging up, she bit her lip. It felt wrong having Gray at the birth. Ashley had been the one who’d been here for her for the previous thirty weeks. She’d been the support that Spencer had needed, and she’d given it willingly and unquestionably. And unasked. The brunette had definitely not gone out of Spencer’s life. She still had her moments of deep sadness, but the blonde was actually happy about that. It was more real than the endlessly happy Ashley she’d first known. It gave her a third dimension and Spencer would have found it fake if the black times hadn’t been there. But at least she was now letting Spencer in on them and they took them day-by-day.

Spencer sighed and put a hand on her back. Looking down at her swollen abdomen, she wondered if she was having twins, either that or she was having one very large baby. Her back hurt already. She sat down on the couch and put her feet up. She’d have to get up again pretty soon, before Ashley got back with Elly. If the brunette found her on the couch they’d have that argument again. It was the one and only issue on which they argued and it seemed to be a regular occurance of late. The quarrel always started when Spencer insisted she was doing just fine and then Ashley insisted that Spencer needed to just give in and take it easy. The musician would offer, once again, to come stay until after the baby was born and Spencer was settled with the kids. Spencer was always sorely tempted to say yes, just to have Ashley around all the time, and hence insisted on saying no. Absolutely not. She would have felt horrible accepting, like she was using her friend. And also it wasn’t for help that Spencer wanted Ashley around.

She put her hand over her eyes and closed them just for a second. She would open them any minute, before her daughter and her best friend came in from the community centre. Really, she would.

It was to the delicious smell of cooking that Spencer finally awoke. She was still on the couch, but someone had gently covered her with a throw rug. Elly was sitting against the couch watching cartoons with the sound off and the closed captions on. Mr Ruffles was delicately tucked under one of Spencer’s arms. He looked very comfortable. The blonde could hear someone rustling around the kitchen.

Spencer stretched and sat up. The movement caught Elly’s attention and she smiled at her mother. Her heart doing a familiar little flip, Spencer leaned down and kissed her daughter gently on the top of her head. She tucked Mr Ruffles back under Elly’s arm and left her to watch her cartoons. Padding across the floor, she rounded the corner of the kitchen to find Ashley at the stove.

“Hey, you’re awake!” Ashley grinned.

“Yeah,” Spencer yawned. “I’m sorry, I was just resting my eyes for a moment and, you know.” She peered over the brunette’s arm at the pot. “What are we having?”

“Pasta,” Ashley said.

“Pasta?”

“Yeah. I’m not the world’s greatest cook. I do great burnt. Burnt toast, burnt eggs. You name it, I can burn it,” the brunette admitted, stirring the sauce as it simmered.

“Burnt pasta?” Spencer enquired.

“No, actually. My olive and tomato pasta is edible. I also do a passable stir-fry. Other than that, I microwave like a champion and could run rings around you with a can opener.” She grinned.

“Well then, Madame Chef, I can’t wait to try this pasta.” Spencer smiled and leaned gently into Ashley. It was an unconscious move but it felt so comfortable. She yawned again.

“You can go back and nap if you like,” Ashley offered.

“Naah, I’m all good. Just waking-up yawns,” Spencer promised.

“So, when are you gonna let me help you out?” the brunette interjected. Spencer groaned at her persistence.

“Ashley, you already help. You take Elly to art class. You’re cooking. You do tons of stuff for me already. Way too much. You’re the best and I’m never going to be able to thank you enough.”

“You don’t have to thank me. You feed me most nights. Besides, I like doing that stuff. It’s not just that, Spence. What if something happens and you’re all alone? What if you go into labour?”

Spencer grimaced. “I hope not, I’m only six-and-a-half months pregnant.”

“I mean in a few weeks. You know you can always be premature. I worry about you.” Ashley frowned. Clearly, she wasn’t going to give up.

“Then, I’ll call you. Or my parents. Or Gray!” Ashley snorted derisively. Granted, calling Gray was unlikely, but Spencer still stuck to her point, crossing her arms.

“I’m sorry. I just worry about you, okay? And if you don’t want me around, I understand,” the brunette offered as an easy way out.

“Ashley, you know that’s not true. I love having you around. I just can’t possibly ask you to do that, not on top of everything else you do for us.”

“Who’s asking?” the musician exclaimed. “I’m offering. You’re not asking. Besides, I’ll sleep better if I know you’re in the next room and not a few suburbs away.”

“Are you going to give up?” Spencer asked.

“Nope.” She sounded emphatic.

“Okay.”

“Really?” Ashley asked incredulously. “Wait. No, Really?”

Spencer laughed. “Yes. But not yet.”

“Huh?” Ashley gave her a suspicious look.

“In a month, all right? I really am fine now, and I refuse to put you out when we really don’t need it. But if in a month you’re still worried and you still wanna come stay a while, we’d love to have you.” Spencer hated herself for making it sound like they were doing Ashley a favour but, if she hadn’t, her own brain would never have let her say yes. Besides, it wasn’t such a bad idea having someone else around in case of emergencies. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but not such a bad idea anyway.

“I’ll still be worried. But, okay, in a month,” Ashley said grudgingly.

Dinner turned out to be quite a success. Spencer wasn’t sure how Elly would take to some of the more exotic ingredients in the pasta sauce, but the little girl devoured it. And it was delicious. Being pasta, she took some cleaning up afterwards, and Spencer was glad that she’d vetoed Mr Ruffles’ presence at the table or they probably would have had a repeat of the washing machine debacle of July.

Spencer bathed Elly and got her ready for bed. She returned to ask Ashley if she wanted to read the bedtime story and found that the brunette had done all the washing up. Growling at her, she sent the musician off to read the story. Everything was so tidy and clean that she had nothing to do, so she made her way back to the couch.

Ashley joined her a half-hour later and stretched in a comfortable manner.

“Man, that elephant is hilarious,” she mused.

“Mr Ruffles?” Spencer enquired.

“Mmm.”

“Yeah, I’m fond of the little guy,” Spencer admitted.

They collapsed slowly together in a nice companionable silence. After a while, Ashley broke it. “Spence?”

“Mmm?”

“There’s something I want to ask you to do with me.”

Spencer regarded her with carefully guarded curiosity. “What is it?” she asked.

“Will you come see Lisa’s grave with me?” Ashley’s voice was timid, and Spencer felt for her keenly when she heard the tone.

“Of course,” she whispered, taking the brunette’s hand in hers, squeezing and holding on to it. “Any time.”

“Thanks,” Ashley whispered.

“Anytime,” Spencer reiterated. “Anytime.”

* * * * *

Chapter 40

Spencer knew immediately who it was when the brunette skidded into the cubicle. Her face was white with worry and she looked like she’d run a mile. She probably had.

“Oh my God, Spencer, are you okay?” Ashley reached the bed in double-time, a few nurses popping in through the curtains looking dismayed and frazzled.

“Miss, Miss, you can’t just -” one of them uttered, but Ashley ignored them, grasping Spencer’s hand in hers and looking frightened.

“Are you okay? I got your message. I was -”

“Ash, Ash, calm down,” Spencer interrupted, a little bemused. “I’m fine. They just won’t let me drive home is all.”

“Of course they won’t. They’re not crazy. Why are they letting you go? Should they be letting you go? You should stay a night. I’ll talk to a doctor. Stay here. No, wait, I’ll…” Ashley turned to leave and got about two steps into the journey.

“Ash, for God’s sake!” Spencer cut in with a stunned look and a laugh. “Calm down for a second. You’re sending my blood pressure through the roof.”

That did it. Nothing like a little white medical lie to get Ashley Davies to stop in her tracks apparently.

“Oh God!”

But clearly it wasn’t enough to completely stop her fretting.

“Ashley, shh! Seriously, you’re gonna get kicked out. Come here.” Spencer reached out her hand and the brunette came back, threading her fingers through Spencer’s and sitting on the side of the bed. That earned her a glare from the nurse who roughly said “Shh!” and pulled the curtains shut.

Spencer, pale and interesting, leaned back on the pillows and enjoyed the feel of Ashley’s hand in hers. She should have known she’d get this response from her friend. Ashley was a worrier anyway but, when it came to Spencer, there didn’t seem to be any ceiling to limit her fretting. The hospital had made it clear, however, that they wouldn’t let her drive home and there was no way in hell she was calling her parents, so Ashley was the obvious next choice. Besides, Spencer would admit to feeling vaguely fragile and she was never very good at being sick. She had a tendency to go all soppy and want looking after. Her dad had always been her favourite person to have around and she normally craved him when she was unwell. Today, however, the only person she’d secretly wanted was the brunette now sitting in front of her. So Spencer had given into herself and called.

Ashley reached out a slender hand and brushed a tendril from Spencer’s damp forehead.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You really don’t look it.”

“The doctors said I was a bit anaemic,” Spencer admitted. “I need more iron and I was tired, so I fainted a little. They’ve done all the right tests and, other than that, me and Bub are healthy. I promise. I’m okay.”

“You’re doing too much, Spence. That’s why you’re tired,” Ashley retorted obstinately.

“You sound like my Dad,” Spencer laughed.

“Well, I like your Dad. He’s an all right guy, so I’m down with sounding like him.”

“So long as you don’t start making Dad jokes, I’ll be fine,” Spencer smiled weakly. “But, really, I’m okay.”

Ashley frowned. “You’re thirty-three weeks pregnant, Spencer, less than two months to go. How about you just start taking it a bit easier?”

Spencer bit her lip. She had been feeling tired lately. And tired meant less eating. Less eating probably didn’t help with the anaemia or the tiredness. But things were stressful at the moment. She was desperately trying to balance everything in her life and get ready for her new baby and things were just hard. She could ask for help. Both her parents and Ashley would jump at the opportunity, but Spencer was stubborn. She had let Ashley help her enough, depended on her enough, that she already felt like a weakling. If she asked any more she wasn’t sure she could live with herself. And she didn’t want to think about what asking might mean.

Besides, there were things she would never ask Ashley for help with, like her finances. She wasn’t completely broke, but she was on a very, very tight budget and it mostly depended on Gray coming through with money for Elly. To his credit, he’d never yet been late and he’d told her straight out, no mixed agenda, that the money would be immediately doubled when the new baby arrived. Spencer had to hand it to him: he might not be the most emotionally available ex-husband, but, when it came down to practical matters, he was all substance. She still wished that he’d see Elly more, though; money wasn’t a substitute for a father. In honour of all the above, she’d taken on a few extra shifts at work because extra money was going to help with the baby. And that probably hadn’t helped with the tiredness, either.

She also had a sneaking suspicion that her boss was going to send her on maternity leave a little earlier than planned. That probably had something to do with the fainting spell she’d pulled in the office earlier that day. So, now she’d been poked, prodded and generally peered at in an emergency room all afternoon, until Ashley had rushed in like she’d been murdered.

Spencer sighed and looked at Ashley. She really should start taking it easier, but the stubbornness inside her fought back. “I’m fine, Ashley. I have two days off now. I promise I’ll have recovered in full by Friday and I’ll be back to my old self.”

“You’re going to keep working, aren’t you?” Ashley said quietly. There was a kind of serene tone to her voice that Spencer found new and intriguing.

“Yes, I don’t really have much choice.”

“There’s ways around things,” Ashley said vaguely.

“Around the electricity bill?” Spencer laughed. “Does it involve witchcraft or voodoo? Wait, can we make a copy of the bill and stick pins in it? Hey, maybe that works.” The humourous deflection did not work.

“I mean it, Spencer, I’m worried.”

“You’re always worried about me, Ash. It seems to be your base state. But you have to trust me, I’m fine. And I really do have to go to work because, well, I have to.”

“Will you take it easier at home then?” Ashley pushed.

“Can we go home?” Spencer interjected. “I’m getting a little sick of this hospital gown.” She indicated the white backless gown she was wearing. She found it uncomfortable that the whole world could see her ass in her underwear.

Ashley looked at her, eyes narrowing slightly. “I’ll drive you home.”

“Thank you,” Spencer sighed dramatically. She sat up, ready to get up and get changed, when she found Ashley’s hand on her shoulder.

“On one condition,” the brunette said smugly.

“What?” the blonde replied incredulously. “No, no conditions. Sorry, I’ll call a cab.”

“Hospital won’t let you,” Ashley shook her head knowingly. There was a determined twinkle in her eye and Spencer narrowed her gaze.

“What?”

“I get to move in. Now.”

A-ha! So that was it.

“You’re coming to stay in three weeks anyway, Ash,” the blonde pointed out.

“And I’m worried about you now,” the musician countered.

“Can we talk about this at home?” Spencer begged. “Please?”

“Nope,” said Ashley, never one to let go of the advantage. “Promise me or we’re not leaving.”

“I can’t ask you to do this, Ashley. It’s too much.”

“Who’s asking? I’m offering, if you recall. We’ve had this conversation. Besides, I’m beyond offering. Now I’m blackmailing so just accept and we can go.” She grinned cheekily.

“Blackmail,” Spencer said flatly. She crossed her arms and bit her lip. “What if I say no?”

“Uh. I don’t drive you home, and I call your parents.” Ashley grinned harder.

“You wouldn’t!” Spencer looked horrified.

“Oh, I would.” And Spencer believed her. She really, truly, honestly would, the minx.

“Oh my God, you really would!” Spencer’s eyes widened.

“Yes, I would. And I’m sure you’d love to hear that conversation with your mother.” Ashley pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. She pulled away just slightly from Spencer who now had a wild look in her eyes. “Hello, Mrs. Carlin. Your daughter just collapsed and is in hospital. No, really, don’t speed all the way here.” She dodged Spencer’s slap on the arm and looked at her, an incredibly mischievous look in her eye. “Yes, I think you should call the funeral home.”

Spencer’s mouth opened with a gasp. “Ashley, shut up! You didn’t even dial and this isn’t funny.”

Ashley grinned and shoved the phone back in her pocket. “Oh, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” She leaned forward on her hands, her face inches away from Spencer’s. “I’m coming to stay. This week. And you’re taking it easy. Understood?”

There was something very attractive about this new, take-charge Ashley. It did things to Spencer that weren’t entirely in the friendship sphere.

“If I say you can come stay, will you get off my back?”

“I don’t know, that hospital gown is mighty sexy,” Ashley teased. “And I seem to be getting my way, so I’m sure there are tons of other things I can blackmail you over and…” She took in the look on Spencer’s face. “Yes, of course I will, blockhead. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“I am fine, Ash,” said the broken record of Spencer.

“I want to be around to ensure that,” Ashley pushed. “Please.”

“Fine. You want to come stay now, come stay now.” Spencer threw her hands up in defeat. “Now can we PLEASE go? I hate hospitals.”

“Once the doctor says so.” Ashley planted a kiss on Spencer’s forehead.

* * *

“Ashley, I’m not a complete invalid and I refuse to spend the next seven weeks on the couch,” Spencer pointed out obstinately.

“Maybe not the next seven weeks,” Ashley replied, grabbing another pillow and handing it to the blonde, “but the next two days, you are. You only got out of hospital three hours ago.”

“Ugh.” Spencer fell back against the pillows. “You’re going to be impossible, aren’t you?”

Ashley sat down next to her and put one lean, calloused hand over Spencer’s. Their hands lay together, skin on skin, over the swollen, tight skin of the blonde’s pregnant abdomen. Ashley’s face gave a little jump. Spencer grinned and pulled her hand out from underneath. Placing her hand on top of Ashley’s, she moved it slightly and pressed down gently. Ashley jumped again and stared at her hand in wonder.

“Oh my God, was that?” she asked in awe.

“Bub. Yup, he’s a kicker.” Spencer grinned. The look on Ashley’s face was precious, and it was spreading warmth through the blonde faster than a shot of whisky.

“He?”

“Okay, I don’t know it’s a he. But I think it is. I’m guessing,” Spencer admitted. She grinned again when Ashley jumped some more.

“Jesus, he kicks a lot,” she breathed in amazement. “Does that feel funny?”

“You get used to it pretty quick. Elly didn’t kick that much, not nearly as much as this one. You should have seen her face the other day when she felt it. Priceless. Kind of like yours now.”

Ashley blushed a beautiful shade of pink and looked down. “I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

“I’m glad I can share it with you,” Spencer whispered.

“Thank you for sharing,” Ashley whispered back.

And they shared the moment, their hands gently warming each others on Spencer’s belly, and their gazes penetrating each other, close and together. They didn’t have to be together to feel this and neither of them had to admit it. Without any words spoken, or decisions made, they both just knew that they would be near each other for a long time. In whatever capacity they chose, they had forged a place for each other in lives that were now spinning in orbit. And Spencer felt more complete than she ever had before in her life. She’d finally found her sun.

* * *

Ashley grudgingly gave up on grumbling about Spencer going to work on Friday. The blonde had significantly more colour in her cheeks and was determined to go. Spencer was glad for the reprieve but, by about two in the afternoon, she was wondering if perhaps she shouldn’t have been the one to give in. She was exhausted and she was sure her face was drawn and tight. By the time that five o’clock finally rolled around, Spencer was glad she could make it to the car.

Spencer knew that Ashley would notice how tired she was the second she walked in the door. And the look on the brunette’s face made Spencer realise just how well she could read her friend.

“Couch,” Ashley said. It wasn’t a question or a statement, but more of a command. Spencer thought briefly about arguing for the sake of arguing and then acquiesced, collapsing and groaning. She felt a soft hand stroke her head and opened her eyes.

“Hey you,” she signed to Elly, who was looking down with concerned eyes.

“Mommy, are you okay?” Elly signed back.

“Just tired, honey, just tired. What shall we have for dinner?” She struggled into a sitting position and found Ashley standing a few feet away from the end of the couch, arms crossed and with a thoughtful look.

“I’ve got dinner under control,” Ashley replied.

“Oh, Ash, you didn’t have to. Seriously,” Spencer said earnestly. “I’m jus-”

“Exhausted?” Ashley cut in. She bit her lip and then her face softened. “Sorry, I just worry. Look, I was back early from my class. And I convinced Muppet here to try my stir-fry, so dinner is taken care of. It’s not like you haven’t fed me enough, Spence.”

“Thank you.” The blonde had no idea what else to say.

She fell back onto the couch and let the relaxation seep into her bones and muscles. She’d never been this tired with Elly but, then, she’d had a lot more time off with Elly. And Gray had been significantly more attentive during her first pregnancy. Of course, Spencer had also kicked him out of the house for this pregnancy, but the fact was that she hadn’t been quite so stressed with Elly.

After a while, the giggles and sounds from the kitchen became too enticing to ignore and Spencer hauled herself up off the couch. She perched on a stool at the breakfast bar and watched her two favourite girls cook.

“Can I help?” she enquired.

“I think we’ve got it under control,” Ashley grinned. She finger-spelled ‘carrots’ to Elly who very solemnly got them out of the fridge. Spencer grinned back. Ashley’s signing was getting better and better. When she didn’t know a word, she spelled it with such fluency that it came across perfectly. Spencer shook her head. She still couldn’t get over how much Ashley had done to become a part of Elly’s life, too. Watching her little girl giggle, helping the brunette, made her heart soar.

Elly and Ashley finished dinner while Spencer became guardian to Mr Ruffles, he who held disdain for all things cooking. He also didn’t want to end up in the washing machine again. That hadn’t been fun for anyone, least of all Mr Ruffles. He sat on the breakfast bar with grace while they ate and kept a close eye on the family before him.

After dinner, he helped with the washing up, which was to say that he commanded all things from his seated position. Spencer was bidden to sit next to him despite very vocal protests from her. It was more Elly’s doing that Ashley’s; Elly was rarely that firm on things, so when she told her mother in no uncertain terms to sit down, Spencer sat. It was also the first time that she’d ever seen Elly pitch in with the cleaning up. So now Ashley was teaching her daughter good habits.

Spencer wondered if there was a position available for sexy lesbian saints. But that would probably make her untouchable and Spencer had occasionally let her thoughts wander to touching.

“Spence?”

Snapping herself out of her daydream, Spencer looked at Ashley who was leaning on the bench in front of her. “Huh?”

“Earth to Spencer?” Ashley laughed. “Are you reading us?”

“Oh God, you really are a dork!” Spencer giggled. “And you sound more like my Dad every day.”

“Christ!” Ashley ran a hand through her dark curls. “Okay, I’ll have to do something about that. What I was saying, however, was, do you want to watch a dvd? I’ll do Elly’s bath and put her to bed if you choose the movie and get comfortable.”

“My job doesn’t sound that strenuous,” Spencer teased.

“Yeah, but I know we have to keep you to little things or it won’t get done.”

That earned Ashley a playful slap on the arm.

Once Elly was bundled up in bed, Spencer found herself neatly bundled up on the couch with a blanket half-thrown across her and her head on Ashley’s shoulder. Halfway through the movie, she’d shifted so that her head was lying in the brunette’s lap and a hand was absentmindedly stroking her head. Spencer wasn’t paying a hell of a lot of attention to the film. She was sleepy and the stroking was so nice that it was sending her off into a world of butterflies and warm places.

The jarring noise of the doorbell pulled her out of her almost-sleep. She jerked off Ashley’s lap and blinked in confusion at the front door.

“Who’s that?” Ashley asked.

“I don’t know,” Spencer replied, with a shake of her head. “I’ll get it.”

“No, you stay there. It takes me less effort to get up.” The brunette headed for the door, with Spencer poking her tongue out at the retreating back. She could only see Ashley’s back as the door swung open, but the voice there was unmistakable.

“Oh.” It was Gray. “Is Spencer in?”

Ashley opened the door wordlessly to Spencer’s slightly ruffled form on the couch. Spencer ran a hand quickly through her mussed locks.

“Gray, what are you doing here?” She checked her watch. It was nine in the evening. Her ex-husband stepped through the door and Ashley closed it behind him, one of her eyebrows neatly arching in a perfect form of a query.

“I, uh, came to see you.” He glanced at Ashley with a half look of annoyance, and half of curiosity. “But, if you have a guest…”

“Ashley’s not a guest,” Spencer countered. “It’s a little late. Was there something in particular?”

“No, actually, I just hadn’t seen you or Elly in a while. Too long, actually. And I thought I’d come say hi.”

“Oh. Well, it was nice of you to drop by but now probably isn’t the greatest time.” Spencer could have rolled her eyes at his stupidity, but she refrained. “Elly’s asleep, and I’m, well, tired. Plus, we’re in the middle of a movie.” She indicated to the frozen scene on the television.

“Sure, I won’t stay long. Maybe just a coffee?” he asked hopefully.

Spencer sighed. It was probably more dramatic than it needed to be. Sounding like a bit of a martyr, she shrugged. “Sure, a coffee. But Elly’s asleep.”

Gray’s response was just to shrug. He sat in the armchair, much to Ashley’s obvious disgust, and Spencer sat more upright. She put her hands on the edge of the couch to get up and the brunette stopped her. “Don’t, Spence. I’ll make the coffee.”

She headed for the kitchen and Spencer did not miss the look of surprise and slight anger on Gray’s face. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable with Ashley’s familiarity in the house. Spencer frankly didn’t give a flying donut and ignored his attitude.

“How are you?” she asked tiredly. She also didn’t give a damn about that, but her mother had brought her up to be polite.

“Working hard,” Gray replied, as if she wouldn’t have known that. “Project’s going along well. We’re…”

Spencer let him drift off into talking about his work. She wasn’t even remotely interested, but it did mean that she didn’t have to make the effort to talk; however, he cut off suddenly.

“So, you guys hang out a lot?” He indicated towards Ashley, who was very deliberately stirring just a little too much sugar into Gray’s coffee.

“You could say that,” Spencer countered. “She lives here.”

“She what?” The way Gray put it, it was as though Spencer had told him that Ashley was her madame and they’d opened up a brothel in the house. His voice dripped with pure horror. “Spencer, you don’t need that kind of hassle right now. I know you take in strays but don’t you think, with the baby coming -”

Ashley slammed his coffee down in front of him and put Spencer’s down with a more gentle thud. She smiled sweetly at the intruder and then turned to Spencer.

“I’ll be in the other room, okay? Call me if you need me.”

Spencer for her part was horrified. How dare he?

“How dare you?” she spat out at Gray. “Who the hell do you think you are? Ashley, don’t go anywhere.” That stopped the brunette in her tracks and turned her around. Spencer continued, “Ashley offered to move in to help me out, Gray, because what you don’t know, after you waltz in here, having been totally uninvolved for three months, is that I’m not exactly on top of this game. I’m tired and sick and you don’t know any of this crap, so how dare you come into my house and insult my friends!” She ran a hand across her forehead and sighed tiredly. “Get out, Gray.”

He looked at her, his mouth open slightly, like a goldfish hoping for that last bit of food to float down. “Spencer, I’m sorry, please, let me…”

Ashley wasn’t paying any attention to what he was saying. Her focus was on Spencer’s very drawn face and the fact that the ass who had made her look like that was still jabbering on. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, you idiot,” she let fly, “can’t you see how tired she is?”

Gray’s attention flew up.

“Ash, it’s okay,” Spencer said softly. She was touched by the brunette’s concern and the fact that she had flown to her defence, but she really didn’t want this to go any further.

“It’s not okay, Spencer. You’re tired and you want him to go.” She turned to Gray. “You should go. Come back another day when she’s not so exhausted.” Marching to the door, she opened it.

Gray, dumbfounded, stood up. He looked at Spencer mutely but with pleading eyes. She gave in a little.

“She’s right, Gray. I’m exhausted. Please, just not tonight. Come by this weekend and I’ll fill you in on everything that’s been happening. You can catch up with Elly and -”

“Um,” he interrupted with a guilty look, “I’m in Phoenix this weekend.”

Ashley rolled her eyes and kept standing by the open door.

“I don’t care,” Spencer said tiredly. “Next week, whenever. Just call first, okay?”

“Okay, I will. Next week, I promise.”

He moved out to the doorstep and looked at Ashley. It was clear he had no idea what to say to the girl.

“Goodnight, Gray,” Spencer said softly from inside.

“Goodnight, Spencer,” he returned. He looked at Ashley. “Uh. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” the brunette said gruffly and then shut the door in his face.

“Ashley!” Spencer exclaimed, but she was holding back laughter. She shouldn’t be. It was probably how she should have reacted to Gray months ago but something about the musician’s actions made her want to giggle. “Oh God, you…” She dissolved into laughter.

Ashley smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry. He was getting on my nerves.”

“I know. I’m sorry. He had no right to imply that about you. He just doesn’t know you and he jumped to conclusions.”

“I don’t care about that,” Ashley dismissed with a flick of the hand. “He was bugging you and you shouldn’t be bugged right now.”

“I know.” Spence leaned back and sighed again. “I hate that he’s so in and out.”

Ashley sat down next to the blonde girl and put an arm around her shoulders. “He needs to be there for you, Spence. You need him to be.”

“I know.” Spencer sounded so tired it hurt. “I’ll talk to him next week.”

“I’m sorry I flew off the handle. I had no right.” Ashley leaned her head on Spencer’s shoulder. The blonde picked up her hand and tangled their fingers together, giving her friend a comforting squeeze.

“You had every right. I don’t need him, you know. I mean, if he wants to be there, that’s okay, but…”

“He’s Elly and this baby’s father. You need him. They need him,” Ashley disagreed. “I will always be here for whatever you need. But he needs to be a part of your lives.”

“I know that. You know that. How the hell can we make him see that?” Spencer asked through gritted teeth.

“I don’t know, babe. I don’t know.” Ashley squeezed Spencer’s hand, and together they sat on the couch, unwilling to move.

* * * * *

Next up: Chapters 41-45 [A]

One Comment

  1. Serenity6982
    Posted 1 April 2009 at 2.48am | Permalink

    i like the dynamic of ashley and spencer’s relationship so much. It is so clear that ash cares so much about spencer. how she is young and hot and single and could get anybody, but she found the one in a beautiful single mother who feels like damaged goods. And ashley is showing her what life is like when you are truly in love with someone. even though i know how this ends, i think spencer is just using those “complications” that r stopping them from being together as a wall because she is scared. And i wanted to reiterate that you have so many die hard fans, and they should start leaving some love so they don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

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