Earl had finally seen her crack, tapped into the pain beneath the bravado, and the sound of that little girl's name rolling regretfully off his lips gnawed at the last vestiges of Grace's composure. She ducked her head, trying to conceal the tears, and pursed her lips in a futile bid to repress a sob. Earl wasn't supposed to see her like this – defeated, vulnerable, lost – and yet when the embrace came, she didn't have the energy to fight it. He wrapped his arms around her and she pressed her cheek against the fabric of his T-shirt, musty with the lingering scent of tobacco. She was about to ask whether Angels took time out for laundry day, but the quip stuck in her throat and she found herself choking out an apology instead.
"I'm sorry," she whispered brokenly, and the arms around her tightened reassuringly.
"I know, child."
Grace felt Earl's hand weave through her hair and drew in a shuddering breath, his words ringing in her ears. Child. Is that how he saw her at this moment? Helpless and fragile? Dwarfed by his imposing frame and humbled by the bigger picture? A victim? Her quiet sobs died down, and before she really registered what she was doing, she was pushing Earl away; the heels of her palms driving into his chest as she forcefully shrugged her way out of his grasp. It was a display of strength designed to convince him that she was anything but a victim, and she regarded him with a renewed spark of defiance.
"You know, as much as I appreciate you lending me a wing, Earl, what I'd really like are some goddamn answers."
"Well, ask away, Grace," Earl said lightly and, as usual, his faint undertone of amusement left her feeling indignant.
"I wanna know, when Murphy was lying there with a bullet embedded in his skull, bleeding out all over that sidewalk, did you swoop down and save his soul?" Grace demanded, eyeing him intently, "Were you the light at the end of his tunnel, Earl? Because it must have been pretty dark down there."
"He asked to be saved, Grace," Earl said simply, even though he knew the response was only going to exacerbate her ire.
"And what do you think I did, Earl, when that bastard was raping me?" Grace choked out, her voice strangled with a mixture of anguish and resentment, "You don't think I sent up a prayer or two; begged for someone to give me a break? But your boss sure as shit didn't help me out back then!"
"What Father Murphy did to you and those other children is a sin of the most heinous kind, Grace, but he did feel remorse. You saw that for yourself."
"Yeah, when I had a gun pointed to his head," Grace retorted sarcastically. "The snivelling piece of shit spent all night telling me how sorry he was and then recanted his confession as soon as I took him in."
"He was scared, Grace."
"Well, yeah, I gathered that from the stain he left on my chair," she countered, glaring at Earl unrepentantly.
Earl shook his head reprovingly. "And did it ever occur to you that your quest for vengeance gave Father Murphy what he'd always wanted? The opportunity to atone for his sins? To ask for your forgiveness?"
"Well I sure as hell wasn't offering him absolution, Earl. That admission meant jack shit to me - I didn't need the validation, OK? I lived it firsthand. And you think seeing him stuttering out an apology somehow makes it all better? That it negates what he did to me?"
"Of course not, Grace."
"It never occurred to you that he was just, you know, going through the motions to save his sorry ass?" Grace demanded, reaching for a cigarette and lighting it with trembling hands, "Because you know what I think, Earl? I think if he was truly sorry, he wouldn't have kept coming back for more. Over and over and over again."
"He was seeking solace in his beliefs, Grace; trying to put things right the best way he knew how. His fate lies with God now."
"So you're going to stand in my kitchen and defend him? And I'm the bad guy for not playing nice with the pedophile?"
"I am NOT defending him, Grace," Earl bellowed, and Grace was momentarily taken aback by the vehemence in his usually placid tone. "There is no defence for what that man did to you."
"But you think he paid his penance?"
"I'm not here to judge, Grace."
Grace snorted incredulously, "Well, you could've fooled me."
"Father Murphy's chosen faith was Catholicism. I had no influence over his decision."
"Well, maybe you should've tried to convert him to Buddhism, then, because he'd be coming back as a cockroach right about now. And then I could give him his just deserts without facing a murder rap." Seeing the Angel's amused expression, she hastened to add, "I know, I know. And then karma would come back round to bite me on the ass."
"And that's a pretty bony butt you've got there, Grace."
"I'm pretty sure you shouldn't be ogling my ass, Earl," Grace retorted, heaving a weary sigh. "You expect me to have faith, but how can I? How can I sleep at night knowing that bastard might still have a shot at Heaven, when there are hundreds of people out there who wish he was burning in hell? You think he's paid his dues through kissing God's ass? Well, I think that's bullshit," she seethed, sinking against the kitchen counter and burying her face in her hands.
"Grace, I understand why you're angry, and maybe one day you'll get the answers you need. But I can't give them to you right now."
Grace shook her head, rubbing her eyes and staring at Earl with a bleak expression.
"OK, so maybe you can tell me what the hell it is that I did wrong, Earl? Because, the way I see it, salvation isn't supposed to come hand in hand with a migraine. Your boss decides to stage Leon Cooley's death while he's safely locked up inside a prison cell, puts me on probation for something I didn't even do, and I'm left sharing a last chance Angel with a pedophile and a murderer. I mean, should I be getting a complex here?"
The corners of Earl's mouth began to twitch slightly. "Grace – "
"I mean, sure, I drink, I smoke, I sleep around," Grace interjected, shrugging non-committally, "I don't get down on my knees and grovel. But, Jesus, Earl, I'm out there trying to catch the bad guys, I'm not one of them."
"I know, Grace."
"Do you?" Grace demanded in an exasperated tone, "Because right now, you're doing a pretty good imitation of someone who doesn't have a goddamn clue." She expelled an elongated breath, relieved to see that the Angel's understanding expression was becoming markedly more agitated.
"You know, I'm pretty good at figuring out what makes people tick. It's one of the reasons why I became a cop in the first place, but you?" Grace snorted, "I don't get how your mind works, Earl. How can you waltz in here and bust my ass for not being a model citizen when you fall at the feet of a God who doesn't lift a finger to help me get these scumbags off the streets? I'm on the front line out there, working my ass off to try and right some bastard's wrongs, and you just sit back, put your feet up and let me – and Ham, and Butch, and Bobby - deal with the fallout." She took a lengthy drag on her cigarette, "So tell me, Earl, what's the point of having a last chance Angel who doesn't open his wise-ass mouth when it really counts?"
Earl regarded her unflinchingly, "So what do you suggest, Grace, that I start interfering with people's free will? Because I'm pretty sure you wouldn't like that much, either."
Grace levelled an accusatory stare in the Angel's direction, "I grew up with Ross. I thought I understood him. Man, I stood there and let him light my cigarette. But you –" she blinked rapidly, her fingers drumming against the kitchen counter in agitation – "you let me tell that bastard to leave the country, when you knew he was going to pay that little girl one more visit before he went." She bit her lip, taking a moment to regain her composure, "Your God is all-seeing and all-knowing, right? But he gives me nothing, Earl. No warnings, no clues."
"Well, maybe you should listen to your friend, Grace, and start paying more attention," Earl stated pointedly.
"Is that what this is about?" Grace asked, picking up the decorative box Earl had left on her kitchen counter, "Your little gift from Baltimore? Another piece in the puzzle that I'm never going to figure out?" She turned it over in her hands, and then slammed it onto her sideboard. "I work for the Oklahoma City Police Department, Earl, not the freakin' NSA. If you speak to me in riddles, it's gonna fall on deaf ears."
"I find that's usually the case where you're concerned, Grace."
Grace let out a groan of frustration. "Oh… just… go to hell."
Earl chuckled, his eyes shining with mirth. "The last time I checked, I was a regular Angel, Grace, not a fallen one."
Grace rolled her eyes. "What, you've got a license for sarcasm now?" She studied him wryly, and then closed the distance between them, pinning him with those penetrating brown eyes of hers.
"You know, you still haven't given me a straight answer, Earl. What has Father Patrick Satan Murphy ever done to warrant you rushing to his side in his time of need? This is the Priest who drove a twelve-year-old girl to put a shotgun in her mouth and blow her brains out. And if there are more guys like Ross Ford out there, then who knows how long that bastard's twisted legacy is going to live on? Maybe you should ask yourself why your non-interventionist bullshit doesn't extend to him? Or does the dog collar guarantee you special treatment, even if you're a first-rate asshole?"
"That's not how it works, Grace."
"Then how does it work?" Grace asked, turning her palms up in a gesture of clueless irritation, and Earl inwardly steeled himself when it became evident that she was gearing up for another rant.
"Was your boss there for Amy Williams when she needed a shoulder to cry on? Or did he just peek over her shoulder, take a glance at her journal and move on? Did he watch from the pulpit while Murphy was pinning me down, or was he too busy… I don't know… conjuring up another tornado?"
"Well, I don't know, either, Grace. Maybe you should bring Mother Nature in for questioning and see if she has an alibi before you allocate all the blame to God."
Grace's eyes narrowed perceptibly. "How about you, Earl?" she demanded, poking him squarely in the chest, "Were you around back then? You knew about Hannah. Did you know about me, and Amy, and Ross?"
"Grace, I can't be everywhere all the time, you know that," he reminded her, neglecting to add that Grace seemed to require a lot more attention than his other charges.
"Yeah, well I think it's time for you to check out again, Earl. It's been a long day." Grace reached for her long-forgotten beer bottle, "And you're not exactly helping me wind down."
"Just go," she ordered, contemplating the merits of throwing something at him, but eventually adding as an afterthought, "Please."
Earl hesitated for a moment, and then nodded sorrowfully, unable to stave off a pang of despair. He'd seen so much raw pain during that fleeting moment where Grace had sobbed quietly in his arms, but that wilfully stubborn streak of hers protested loudly at prolonged moments of weakness and it wasn't long before her defence mechanism kicked in. She still didn't trust him enough to let him catch her when she fell, probably because he didn't have the power to prevent the fall in the first place, and although she drove him to distraction with her constant barrage of questions and seemed to delight in disrespecting him, there was no denying that Grace held a special place in his heart. Most of his charges had lost the last vestiges of their spirit, but Grace – she had enough spirit to fuel a rocket launcher. It was just a question of getting her to channel it in the right direction, although that big heart of hers did most of the hard work for him. The self-destructive lifestyle had to stop, because she deserved better, but if Earl was honest with himself, he wasn't entirely sure how much he wanted Grace Hanadarko to change.
Casting one last agonised glance in his charge's direction, he allowed his wings to make their usual spectacular début, leaving the darkened room suffused in an ethereal glow. It rapidly faded, and Grace was left in the murky gloom that had descended on her apartment prior to Earl's arrival. She sank listlessly onto the cold kitchen floor, feeling the sticky remnants of the milk Gus had lapped up that morning against her bare thigh, and hugged her knees to her chest, burying her head in the crook of her arms.
Grace had been listening to the rhythmic ticking of the clock for what seemed like an eternity, nursing a steady stream of beer in abject silence until Gus' half-hearted bark snapped her out of an almost trance-like state. Someone was knocking at her door. Loudly.
She couldn't face Ham right now. She was too exhausted to cultivate the air of nonchalance that she'd somehow managed to maintain when marching into her office and announcing in front of everyone that the soiled suspect cuffed to her side had raped her while she was still in grade school. It was one of the hardest things she'd ever done, and the devastated, shell-shocked expression on Ham's face had made her heart pound erratically. She couldn't take that extreme of emotion from her partner right now; she'd seen the pity, and the anger, and something else she didn't want to identify because the intensity of it all scared the crap out of her, but it was his unfaltering eye contact that disconcerted her more than anything. Butch and Bobby had awkwardly offered her their heartfelt condolences, but they hadn't been able to hold her gaze, and she knew it meant something that Ham had sought her out at a time when everyone else – bar Rhetta – was discreetly avoiding her.
Not that she'd ever had any reason to question Ham's loyalty - he'd stood by her when she revealed the shameful truth about the origin of the scar on her shoulder, after all, so she shouldn't have expected any less of him this time around. Still, the kiss she'd instigated before leaving had been a means of proving to him that she was still intact, that she wasn't damaged, that she didn't have to be handled with caution; and a means of proving to herself that Ham still wanted her. Now he was probably here to demonstrate just how much, but she couldn't handle all that baggage tonight. His passion would exhaust her and she was already bone-tired, and if he assaulted her with a rare of glimpse of tenderness it would probably make her fall apart, and she couldn't do that - not when he knew the reason why.
Still, the knocking continued unabated, and when she heard Rhetta anxiously calling her name, she instinctively looked to the heavens in exaggerated relief. She fumbled along the kitchen wall to find the light switch and then made her way towards the door, inwardly steeling herself before opening it. Rhetta's clenched fist was poised to begin another round of rapping, and her face was a picture of concern.
"Are you OK? Why are you squinting at me like that? Were you sleeping? Oh, no, I just woke you up, didn't I? I'm so sorry!" the brunette exclaimed in quick succession, and Grace couldn't help but smile, feeling some of the numbness in her limbs start to subside.
"Geez, what is this, the Spanish Inquisition? No, man, you didn't wake me up, I was just…" she gestured aimlessly around the room, and it didn't take Rhetta long to clock the haphazard pile of beer bottles.
"Freezing your ass off on the kitchen floor? Drowning your sorrows? Grace, you should've called me! I know I've been busting your ass about the whole Murphy situation, but it's only because I've been so worried about you. Seriously, you have no idea how much sleep I haven't had. I wanted to give you some space to process everything that happened today, but that whole worrying thing?" Rhetta regarded her friend with a tender, but sheepish smile; "I still haven't managed to get it under control."
Grace studied the woman who had stood by her side since they first met in grade school; the woman who had such unwavering belief in her that she was willing to accept the fantastical as though it was the mundane. Rhetta probably knew her better than she knew herself, and although that should have terrified her, it didn't, because she knew it worked both ways. The surge of gratitude at having someone in her life who didn't want her to change to fit in with their own agenda was overwhelming, and Grace hastily closed the distance between them, burying her head in the crook of Rhetta's neck and inhaling the perfume that was as familiar to her as her own. She squeezed her eyes shut, absorbing the comforting sensation of Rhetta's hand moving lightly across the planes of her back. They held each other tightly for several moments, rocking back and forth, until Rhetta clasped Grace's forearm and manoeuvred her towards the couch.
A lump formed in the brunette's throat when she took the time to really study her friend's melancholy expression. Cupping Grace's chin in her hand, she traced the outline of the tear tracks that had left her cheeks conspicuously blotchy.
"You've been crying?"
Grace ducked her head, and nodded barely perceptibly. Rhetta sank down besides her, as usual leaving barely an iota of space between them. Drawing strength from her friend's proximity, Grace finally found the courage to voice something she'd been too afraid to ask Earl. "Do you think I'm a bad person?" she ventured with uncharacteristic meekness, although her tone quickly became more self-assured, "And I want the honest answer, Rhetta, not some diplomatic line of bullshit."
"What? No, Grace!" Rhetta exclaimed emphatically, "Why would you even think that?"
Grace shrugged, a sardonic smile twisting her features, "Oh, I don't know, maybe because I share a Last Chance Angel with two sacks of shit and I have to wonder what the hell it is that we're supposed to have in common?"
"Grace, God obviously put you together for a reason, but it isn't because you're a sack of shit, OK?" Rhetta observed wryly, giving her friend a companionable nudge, "I mean, who knows? Maybe he was doing you a favour. Maybe he wanted you to find Murphy. Maybe he wanted you to get some closure."
"I was going to kill him, Rhetta. You think God would've sanctioned that?"
"Well, no - and neither would I - but I can more than understand the compulsion, Grace," Rhetta informed her, gently squeezing her hand, "The thought of you throwing your life away at the expense of that bastard makes me sick to my stomach, but you didn't do it - and plenty of other people would have."
"I kept him rolled up in that rug all day," Grace confessed, gesturing to the worn carpet that she'd now unfurled over her living room floor, "And then I tied him to a chair and - "
"Do I really want to hear this?" Rhetta interjected, looking somewhat pained, and then promptly threw caution to the wind, "No, I do. I do."
"I shot him with a water gun. I think he was expecting bullets. Hell, I was expecting bullets."
Rhetta tried desperately hard not to laugh. "Did you take pictures?" she demanded conspiratorially, "We could put them on the dartboard at Louie's."
"Shit, no. Why didn't I think of that?" Grace lamented, and then threw her friend a weary grin, "Hell, it might even improve Ham's aim."
They dissolved into laughter, but it didn't take long for Grace to sober up again. "You know, he offered to shoot himself to save me the trouble."
"You must've really put the fear of God into him, then."
"Well, yeah. He pissed his pants. And we're not talking figuratively."
"I know," Rhetta said wryly, "I had the privilege of analysing his pyjama bottoms. You want to tell me why there were traces of raw meat around his groin? Or is he just a sloppy eater who likes his steak rare?"
Grace's eyes began to twinkle. "I served Gus dinner on his lap. I thought he was gonna shit a brick."
Rhetta snorted, shaking her head disbelievingly, and then reached out to pat the bulldog convalescing on the corner of her friend's couch. "Atta boy, Gus."
"It looks like his taste still hasn't progressed beyond pre-pubescent kids, though. I thought I'd mix it up a little, you know, keep him entertained, but I guess I must've lost all of my allure when I hit 11, because I did a whole song and dance number for him and he didn't even twitch. Not even when I was lying across his lap." Grace's vengeful smile rapidly faded. "He used to love that."
Rhetta leant sideways, resting her head against Grace's shoulder, and arched up to place a kiss on her cheek. "You know, I was terrified that you were going to do something stupid, but you'd have to be a Saint not to want him to suffer for what he put you through, Grace. I mean, if I was here, I probably would've joined in – minus the lap dance, of course," she joked, eliciting a snort from her friend, "I just – I can't imagine how hard it must've been for you to keep your cool like that."
"Well, Ross sure as hell didn't," Grace observed sadly, regarding her friend with guilt-ridden eyes, "I told him to run, Rhetta. I let him walk out that door and straight into that little girl's bedroom. He was…" she trailed off, her eyes welling with tears, "he was giving her that bath because of me. If I had just booked his sorry ass - "
"Grace, there is no way I'm letting you shoulder the burden for that, OK?" Rhetta demanded, gripping her friend's shoulders and forcing her to re-assume eye contact, "None of us knew. None of us. I grew up with Ross, too - I would've been picking out his wedding present in a couple of weeks. His fiancée wanted to marry him because she thought he was a good man; because she thought that he'd make a good father."
"And she wound up inviting a monster into her home instead. I mean, how could he do that, Rhetta? You live through something like that and you keep on running, as far away as possible, you don't go out and find a kid and put them through the same shit that you had to endure. I mean he knew – he knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that. He felt the fear and the pain and the helplessness. So how could he look that little girl in the eye and do that to her?" she demanded in a strangled tone, swallowing audibly.
Rhetta's eyes welled with tears in the face of her friend's palpable anguish. "I don't know, Grace, but I do think it's part of the reason why Ross just couldn't live with himself anymore."
"God, if anyone hurt Clay, I'd just… I'd…"
"I know. Hey, I know." Rhetta wrapped her arms around her friend, pulling her close, and Grace willingly sank into her warm embrace, swiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her nightshirt. For the second time that night, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to fight back the onslaught of tears, but they spilled over against her will, soaking the fabric of Rhetta's shirt, and it was only when she heard a muffled sniff and felt a dampness against the crown of her head that she realised Rhetta was crying, too.
"The woman, the one who said she saw me at J.K.'s?" Grace ventured, pulling back slightly and using her thumb to tenderly chase away the moisture on Rhetta's cheeks, "She was an old friend of my sister's. She said she couldn't stand seeing me being hailed a hero when she knew I was responsible for Mary Frances dying that day."
"OK, that's just… wow." Rhetta's eyes clouded with compassion when she saw Grace inwardly struggling with the validity of the accusation. "Grace, she's just looking for someone to blame. And she should be pointing her finger firmly at McVeigh, not at you. You know that."
"But that's why she said she saw me drinking," Grace continued, unappeased by Rhetta's reassurances, "Because she knew that was the real reason why I couldn't baby-sit Clay the day before. My sister died because I was too hungover to do her a favour. And you know the first thing I did when I got there this afternoon? I ordered a beer, Rhetta. I ordered a beer and I sat there in front of that woman feeling too ashamed to drink it. She made me feel like a piece of shit."
"OK, are you absolutely sure that you're a lapsed Catholic, Grace?" Rhetta deadpanned, "Because that guilt complex is really doing a number on you right now."
Grace regarded her with an inscrutable expression, and then finally started to laugh, and Rhetta inwardly breathed a sigh of relief when, for the first time that night, Grace's smile seemed to reach her eyes. She patted her beleaguered friend on the knee and then reached for the cordless phone, prompting Grace to regard her quizzically.
"What are you doing?"
"Calling Ronnie. You and me, we're having a sleepover tonight," Rhetta informed her with a playful nudge.
"What, you're gonna paint my toenails and braid my hair? Rhetta, man, you don't have to stay. I'm fine. Really."
"No, you're not," Rhetta said matter-of-factly, smoothing back her friend's untamed tresses and affectionately tweaking her nose. "You're the strongest person I know Grace, but right now, you are definitely not fine and, as your best friend, I'm contractually obliged to hover annoyingly by your side until you're feeling better, or until you forcibly evict me, whichever happens to come first."
Grace raised an eyebrow, and then regarded Rhetta wryly. "You wanna drink?"
Grace nodded, giving her friend's shoulder a squeeze before she made her way into the kitchen and opened her fridge, which was completely bare save for a six-pack of Bud. She capped the bottles while Rhetta engaged in a clipped exchange with Ronnie, and frowned when her friend abruptly hung up, staring at the phone with a murderous expression on her face.
"Don't tell me he's got you on a ball and chain with a curfew now?"
"I'd like to see him try," Rhetta retorted with an incredulous snort. "No, he's just trying to cut down on the amount of money we're spending after hours, that's all. He thought I was drowning my sorrows with you at Louie's and, I quote, "pissing our money up the wall.""
"Well, shit, Rhetta. Remember that when he wants to renew his season ticket for the Sooners."
"Oh, that's a necessity, not a luxury," Rhetta called over her shoulder as she headed towards the bathroom.
Shortly afterwards, an indignant squawk echoed throughout the apartment, and Grace started to snigger.
"Grace, there is an old man staring at me through the window with a shit-eating grin on his face," Rhetta yelled, feigning panic, "And I'm getting the horrible impression that he's waiting for me to flash at him."
"Yeah, I usually take a shower around this time," Grace affirmed with an unrepentant grin, "Just let your hair down, undo a couple of buttons, wave at him and you'll make his night."
"OK, I take it back," Rhetta said, appearing in the doorway and looking torn between amusement and disgust. "You are a bad person. You're a very, very bad person."
"Well, it's the closest I'll ever get to community service," Grace joked self-deprecatingly, prompting a peal of laughter. "Come on, Rhetta, he's a sweet, harmless old guy who probably can't even get it up anymore. Where's the harm in giving him a few cheap thrills?"
"That's what Viagra's for, Grace."
"Well, I sure ain't paying for his prescription."
Rhetta burst into laughter, and Grace regarded her affectionately, stifling a yawn as she lifted the beer bottle to her lips.
"Well, loan me a nightshirt and we'll go to bed."
"Well, shit," Grace said, feigning umbrage, "What kind of sleepover is this? No movie, no pizza, no makeover. And you expect me to find a nightshirt that can accommodate those?" She gestured to her friend's ample bosom, prompting Rhetta to slap her lightly on the forearm.
"I'm sure with all the guys that have passed through here, you must have acquired a pretty impressive collection. Or you could always go ask your boyfriend next door."
"That was low, man."
They grinned at each other, and Rhetta tugged on Grace's hand, pulling her towards the bedroom. "You'd better tell Gus that he's being evicted because I don't want him climbing on top of me in the middle of the night and cutting off my oxygen supply."
"Why, is that Ronnie's idea of foreplay?" Grace teased, prompting Rhetta to shake her head despairingly through her laughter.
"I'm not even gonna grace that with a response."
"Well, don't worry, Gus hasn't staked a claim yet. The bed's never empty for long enough," Grace joked, and their laughter intensified.
"Well, I hope you washed the sheets. I mean, Ham's a great guy, but I don't think I want to become that intimately acquainted with him."
"Rhetta, you're killing me, man. Here," Grace tossed her a nightshirt from her closet. "I'm just gonna go wash up."
"Grace Hanadarko, you'd better not give that old man a heart attack!"
Grace glanced over her shoulder, wiggling her eyebrows up and down suggestively.
"But - think of your conscience!" Rhetta yelled after her retreating form, shaking her head in befuddled amusement.
Five minutes later, Grace returned to her room, picking up a pillow and throwing it playfully at her friend, who was already reclining against the headboard. "I think he'll live to see another day," she declared facetiously, "But you're gonna have to loan me some Clorox so I can wash my kitchen floor. I thought I was gonna have to break out the Turps to get all that sticky shit off my legs."
Rhetta chuckled, throwing the pillow back and hitting Grace squarely in the jaw. "You're incorrigible."
Grace regarded her with mock antipathy, rubbing her cheek. "Rhetta, I'm too tired to take you on right now, but tomorrow, you're gonna pay for that."
"Well, you'd better hope that I'm still here come morning, then," Rhetta retorted flippantly, turning to face her friend as she clambered into bed, and poking her gently in the ribs. "Just remember, Hanadarko, I have a killer aim. You may be a dab hand at catching grapes in that sweet little mouth of yours, but without my precision and timing, you'd be nothing."
Grace hovered over her friend, her eyes gleaming impishly. "Bullshit. What about that time at the shooting range, huh? There I was, clapping you on the back for hitting the sucker squarely in the chest, and you tell me you were aiming for his head."
This time, it was Rhetta who stuck her tongue out, and Grace laughed, resting her head against her friend's shoulder and curling against her side. They were quiet for a moment, and Rhetta began absent-mindedly playing with Grace's hair, her other hand resting atop the arm that was looped around her waist.
"Can I ask you something?"
Grace grunted half-heartedly.
"Have you ever considered that maybe God sees the good in you, Grace? That he wants you onside because he thinks you could really make a difference in this world? I mean, you do already, every day, but maybe he has this grand master plan where you're front and centre, fighting the good fight, you know?" Rhetta frowned when Grace's hand blindly reached up to grope around her face, finally settling on her forehead. "OK, what are you doing?"
"Checking to see whether you're running a temperature. You're obviously delusional."
Rhetta slapped Grace's hand away. "No, I'm serious, Grace."
"Well, the asshole's got a lot of explaining to do if he expects me to be at his beck and call. And if Earl's lame-ass attempts to describe how things work up there are anything to go by, then that's not going to happen anytime soon."
Rhetta frowned thoughtfully. "But I look at you, and I just… I don't see a bad person, Grace. Not at all. I think God sent Earl to you because he knows what's inside your heart; he knows how much you care about everyone around you; and he thinks you deserve a second chance. Maybe he just wants you to fulfil your potential, that's all?"
"So how do you explain Murphy, Rhetta?" Grace demanded, shifting slightly so she could study her friend's expression, "You think he deserved a second chance, too, when his idea of 'fulfilling his potential' was fiddling as many kids as possible before he got caught?"
"No! God, no. I just… I don't know, Grace. I just can't accept that God has some kind of vendetta against you when there are people out there who're far more deserving of his wrath, you know?"
Grace smiled sardonically. "Not according to Johnny and Paige. I'm pretty sure they're convinced that I'm the spawn of Satan."
Rhetta rolled her eyes. "Grace, they don't think you're the spawn of Satan. They just don't understand you. And a part of that is because you don't let them."
"OK, is this the part where I tear up that contract and kick you out on your ass?"
"OK, fine, I'll shut up," Rhetta said, heaving an exaggerated sigh of defeat.
They glanced at each other, and promptly burst into laughter. When her chuckles died down, Grace snuggled into the crook of her friend's shoulder, giving her a gentle squeeze. "I love you, man," she murmured sleepily, and Rhetta's lips curled into a soft smile.
"I love you, too." She shifted slightly, intending to place a kiss on Grace's cheek, but Grace tilted her head upwards and Rhetta involuntarily ended up hitting her squarely on the mouth instead. She froze for a moment, thoroughly unprepared for the jolt of awareness that suddenly ensued. The contact lasted for barely a second, but suddenly her lips were tingling, her heart was racing, and she was acutely aware of every spot where Grace's body was sandwiched against her own.
"Shit, Rhetta, you look like you just got your first kiss," Grace cajoled, regarding her friend with an expression that was a mixture of amusement and something else that Rhetta couldn't even begin to define.
Rhetta tried to think of a witty retort, but the power of speech momentarily eluded her. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again, and found it hard to swallow when Grace's eyes seemed to both darken and soften simultaneously.
She closed her eyes and fought to keep her composure when Grace reached out to delicately sweep a strand of hair away from her face, but they flew open again when she felt her friend's lips level against her forehead with infinite tenderness.
"Grace – "
"I'm not gonna do anything to screw us up, Rhetta. I can't lose you, OK?"
Rhetta wasn't prepared for the note of desperation in her friend's tone, or the intensity of her declaration, and it caused the awkwardness to dissipate almost immediately.
"You're not going to lose me, Grace," she vowed, pulling her close and threading her hand through Grace's unkempt hair. Suddenly, the inexplicable pang of longing was outweighed by the warmth and the familiarity, and she rested her cheek on top of Grace's head, "I promise. Now, just go to sleep."
Earl watched from his vantage point as Grace obligingly closed her eyes, her breathing quickly evening out. The brunette, however, remained wide-awake, and Earl's heart ached when he saw the conflict of emotions swirling in her pretty brown eyes. They faded into obscurity, though, when Grace let out a loud and indelicate snore, and Earl chuckled to himself as he watched Rhetta desperately trying to contain her laughter. The affection emanating from Grace's friend was unmistakable, and Earl finally decided to retire for the night, safe in the knowledge that, even when he wasn't around to steer his headstrong charge in the right direction, she had someone in her life who was capable of taking over the reins; someone who cared enough to weather the journey.